Authors: Johanna Lindsey
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Judith Malory knelt in front of the window in the bedroom she shared with her cousinJacqueline, both staring at the ruined house behind the Duke of Wrighton’s mansionand formal gardens. Although Judith was the older of the two young women by a fewmonths, Jack, as her father had named her just to annoy his American brothers-in-law,had always been the leader—actually, instigator was more like it. Jack said that shewas going to be a rake, just like her father, James Malory. Jack said she was goingto be a pirate, just like her father. Jack said she was going to be a superlativepugilist. . . . The list went on. Judith had once asked her why she didn’t have anygoals to be like her mother, and Jack had promptly replied, “Butthatwouldn’t be exciting.”
Judith disagreed. She wanted to be a wife and a mother, in that order. And it wasno longer a faraway goal. She and Jacqueline were both turning eighteen this year.She’d had her birthday last week, and Jacqueline would have hers in a couple months.So they were both going to have their first Season come summer, but Jacqueline’s debutwas going to take place in America instead of London, and Judith didn’t think shecould bear not being able to share this occasion with her best friend. But Judithstill had a couple of weeks to figure out how she could change this disagreeable arrangement.
The daughters of the two younger Malory brothers, James and Anthony, the girls hadbeen inseparable for as long as they could remember. And every time their mothersbrought them to visit their cousins Brandon and Cheryl at the duke’s ancestral estatein Hampshire, they’d spend hours at this window hoping to see a light glowing eerilyin the ruins again. The night they’d first seen it had been so exciting, they couldn’thelp themselves.
They’d only seen the light on two other occasions since then. But by the time they’dgrabbed lanterns and run across the extensive lawn to reach the old, abandoned houseon the neighboring property, the light had been gone.
They’d had to tell their cousin Brandon Malory about it, of course. He was a yearyounger than they were, but it was his home they were visiting, after all. The Dukeof Wrighton’s title and estate had passed to him through his mother, Kelsey, who hadmarried the girls’ cousin Derek. His parents had elected to move into it when Brandonwas born, so he would grow up aware of his stature and consequence. Luckily, beinga duke hadn’t spoiled him rotten.
But Brandon had never actually seen the light himself, so he wasn’t the least bitinterested in the vigil tonight or any other night. He was currently on the otherside of the room engrossed in teaching Judith’s younger sister, Jaime, to play whist.Besides, having just turned seventeen, Brandon looked more like a man than a boy,and not surprisingly, he was now much more interested in girls than ghosts.
“Am I old enoughnowto be told the Secret?” Brandon’s younger sister, Cheryl, asked from the open doorwayto her cousins’ room.
Jaime Malory leapt up from the little card table and ran over to Cheryl, grabbingher hand and pulling her forward before turning to her older sister, Judith. “Sheis. I was her age when you told me.”
But it was Jacqueline who answered, scoffing at her younger cousin, “That was justlast year, puss. And unlike you, Cheryl actually lives here. Tell her, Brand. She’syour sister. She’d have to promise never to go investigating on her own and you’dhave to make sure she keeps the promise.”
“Investigate?” Cheryl looked at her two older cousins, who’d been refusing for yearsto tell her their secret. “How can I make a promise if I don’t know what I’m promising?”
“This is no time for logic, puss,” Judith said, concurring with Jacqueline. “Promisefirst. Jaime had to, and she doesn’t even live here. But you do, and without the promise,we’d end up worrying about you. You don’t want that, d’you?”
Cheryl gave that a moment’s thought before she shook her head. “I promise.”
Judith nudged Jacqueline to do the honors, and Jack didn’t disappoint, saying baldly,“You’ve got a ghost for a neighbor. He lives next door.”
Cheryl burst into giggles but stopped when she noticed Judy and Jack weren’t laughing.Wide-eyed, she asked, “Really? You’ve seen it?”
“About five years ago, we did,” Judith said.
“Judy even spoke to it,” Jacqueline added.
“But Jack saw the light first, from this very window. So we just had to go have alook. We’d always thought that old house must be haunted. And we were right!”
Cheryl walked forward slowly and joined them at the window to take a quick peek atthe old eyesore her parents had complained about more’n once. She let out a relievedbreath when she didn’t see any light. She wasn’t nearly as brave as her cousins were.But in the moonlight she could see a clear outline of the large, old manor house thathad fallen to ruin long before any of them were born, a big, dark, scary outline.With a shudder, she turned and hurried over to her brother for protection.
“You didn’t actually go inside that house, did you?” Cheryl asked.
“Of course we did,” Jack said.
“But we’ve all been warned not to!”
“Only because it’s dangerous with so many broken floorboards, crumbling walls, anda lot of the roof caved in. And cobwebs. There’s cobwebs everywhere. It took Judyand me forever to get them out of our hair that night.”
Eyes flaring a little wider, Cheryl said, “I can’t believe you actually went inside,and at night.”
“Well, how else were we to find out who was trespassing? We didn’t know it was a ghostyet.”
“You should have just told my father you saw the light,” Cheryl said.
“But that’s no fun,” Jack pointed out.
“Fun? You don’t need to pretend to be so courageous just because your fathers are.”When the two older girls started laughing, Cheryl said, “So you’re just pulling myleg? I should have known!”
Jacqueline grinned at her. “D’you really think we’d keep the Secret from you all theseyears just to pull your leg? You wanted to know and now we’re finally telling you.It was incredibly exciting.”
“And only a little frightening,” Judith added.
“And foolhardy,” Cheryl insisted.
Jack snorted. “If we let things like that stop us, we’d have no fun a’tall. And wehad weapons. I grabbed a shovel from the garden.”
“And I took my scissors along,” Judith added.
Cheryl had always wished she was as brave as these two. Now she was glad she wasn’t.They’d thought they’d find a vagrant, but they’d found a ghost instead. It was a wondertheir hair hadn’t turned white that night, but Judy’s gold hair was still streakedwith copper, not gray, and Jack was still as blond as her father was.
“We couldn’t tell where the light was coming from when we stepped inside the housethat night,” Jack was saying. “So we split up.”
“I found him first,” Judy said, continuing the story. “I’m not even sure which roomhe was in. I didn’t notice the light until I opened a door. And there he was, floatingin the middle of the room. And none too pleased to see me. I promptly told him hewas trespassing. He told me I was the trespasser, that the house was his. I told himghosts can’t own houses. He just stretched his arm out, pointing behind me, and toldme to get out. He was a bit harsh. He seemed to growl at me so I did turn about toleave.”
“And that’s when I arrived,” Jack said. “Only to see his back as he floated away.I asked him to wait, but he didn’t. He just bellowed, ‘Get out, both of you!’—so loudit shook the rafters, or what’s left of them. We did, ran right out of there. Butwe were only halfway back to the mansion when we realized he couldn’t really hurtus. And we were missing the opportunity to help him move on. So we went back and searchedevery room, but he’d already faded away.”
“You wanted to help him?” Cheryl asked incredulously.
“Well, Judy did.”
Cheryl stared at the slightly older of the two cousins. “Why?”
Judith shrugged evasively, saying, “He was a handsome young man. Must’ve been onlytwenty or so when he died. And he seemed so sad when I first spotted him, before henoticed me and got belligerent and protective of his crumbling ruin of a house.”
“And because she fell in love with a ghost that night,” Jack added with a snicker.
Judith gasped. “I did not!”
“You did!” Jack teased.
“I’d just like to know what caused him to become a ghost. It must have been somethingquite tragic and frightening, if his hair turned white before he died.”
“White hair?” Cheryl said with owlish eyes. “Then he must be old.”
“Don’t be silly, puss,” Jacqueline admonished. “My sister-in-law Danny has white hair,doesn’t she? And she was as young as we are now when she met Jeremy.”
“True,” Cheryl allowed, then asked Judith, “Was he really handsome then?”
“Very, and tall, and with lovely dark green eyes that glowed like emeralds—and don’tyou dare go looking for him without us,” Judy added, sounding almost jealous.
Cheryl huffed, “I’m not daring or curious like you two. I have no desire to meet aghost, thank you very much.”
“Good, because he seems to have magical powers, too, or haven’t you noticed that theroof’s been repaired?”
Cheryl gasped. “By a ghost?”
“No, I didn’t notice. My room’s on the other side of the house.”
“I noticed,” Brandon spoke up. “And I’ve never seen workers there to account for it,but the roof has definitely been repaired recently.”
“I hope you didn’t point that out to your father?” Jacqueline said.
“No, if I did, I’d have to tell him the Secret, and I’m not breaking the promise.”
Jacqueline beamed at him. “I knew we could count on you, Brand.”
“Besides, Father grumbles anytime someone mentions that old place. He’s annoyed thathe can’t get rid of it. He’s tried to buy it so he could tear it down, but the lastowner of record was a woman named Mildred Winstock, and she merely inherited it, shenever lived in it. And no wonder, with a ghost in residence. It’s actually been emptysince my great-great-grandfather’s day, which would explain its crumbling condition.But then I told you why he built it and who he gave it to.”
“Who?” Cheryl asked.
“That’s not for your young ears,” Brandon replied.
“His mistress?” Cheryl guessed.
Judith rolled her eyes at her precocious cousin and changed the subject. “It’s amazingthis place didn’t fall to ruin, too, being empty for five generations as well.”
“Not quite empty,” Brandon replied. “The ducal estate has paid to maintain a minimalstaff here to keep that from happening. But Father could find no record of who MissWinstock left the ruin to when she died, so we’re stuck with it mucking up our backyard.”
Derek had planted trees and thick shrubbery along the property line, though, to blockthe crumbling, old house from view so people could enjoy the ducal gardens withouthaving to look at that eyesore. But the trees didn’t block the view of the old housefrom the upper floors of the ducal mansion.
Judith sighed as she moved away from the window. “All right, Cousins, time for Judyand me to get to bed, so you probably should, too. We return to London in the morning.”
As soon as their cousins left the room, Jacqueline said, “What did you expect? Theyhaven’t seen the ghost like we have.”
Judith sighed. “Oh, Cheryl’s lack of an adventurous nature doesn’t surprise me. Derekand Kelsey keep her too sheltered here, while you and I’ve grown up in London.”
“Ah, so that sigh was because we didn’t see the light on this visit? We can go searchthrough the ruin tonight if you’d like.”
“No, the ghost only revealed himself to us once. I’m quite sure he hides now whenwe invade his domain. More’s the pity,” Judith said with another sigh.
Jacqueline threw a pillow at her. “Stop mooning over a ghost. Youdorealize he’s not the marrying sort?”
Judith burst out laughing. “Yes, I’ve had no trouble figuring that out.”
“Good, because it’d be quite difficult to get a kiss out of him, much less a nicetumble.”
Judith raised a brow. “Tumble? I thought you scratched being a rake off your listlast year?”
“Bite your tongue. I’m just going to take a leaf from our cousin Amy’s book and nottake no for an answer—when I find the chap for me. And when I do, heaven help him.The man won’t know what hit him,” Jacqueline added with a roguish grin.
“Just don’t find him too soon. And donotfind him in America.”
There it was again, Jacqueline’s voyage looming in front of them. The first time Jacquelinehad sailed off to America with her parents, Judith had been distraught and inconsolablethe entire two months of Jack’s absence. The girls had sworn then never to be more’na carriage ride away from each other ever again, so Judy got to go along the secondtime Jack visited America. But the girls hadn’t known at the time about the promiseJames Malory had made to the Anderson brothers when Jack was born. Her American uncleshad agreed that Jacqueline could be raised exclusively in England as long as she hadher come-out in America, becausetheyhoped she’d marry an American. At least be given the chance to.
When asked why he would agree to something so out of character for him, James hadsaid, “It kept me from having to kill them, which would have made George quite annoyedwith me.”
True, they were George’s brothers, after all, and James hadn’t actually been joking,either, about killing them. George was Jacqueline’s mother, Georgina to be exact,but James insisted on calling his wife George because he knew her brothers would hateit, but truth be known, even her five older brothers called her that now on occasion.But that promise James had made had kept an unspoken truce in effect all these yearswith his five American brothers-in-law. Which had been needed, considering they’donce tried to hang James Malory.
“I’m not going to marry until you do,” Jacqueline assured her cousin, “so don’tyoube in a hurry to either. We don’t need to be following the pack and getting marriedour first Season, even if our mothers are expecting us to. This year is for fun, nextyear can be for marriage.”
“That’s not going to stop you from sailing off without me,” Judith said forlornly.
“No, but we still have a couple of weeks to come up with a solution. We’ll talk toour parents as soon as we get back to London. It’syourparents that have to be convinced. My father would be glad to have you along, butwhen Uncle Tony said no, Father had to side with him. Brothers, you know, and thosetwo in particular, always stick together. But if I tell them that I won’t go to Americaif you can’t come with me, they’ll see reason. And whydidyour father say no? It’s not as if he’s looking forward to your come-out. He’s beena veritable ogre with it approaching.”
Judith giggled. “My father is never an ogre. A bit terse and snappish lately, yes,but—you’re right, he’d be quite happy if I never marry.”
“Exactly, so he should have jumped at the chance to send you off with me, prolongingthe inevitable.”
“But is marriage inevitable, with fathers like ours?”
Jacqueline laughed. “You’re thinking of Cousin Regina’s being raised by the four Maloryelders after their sister Melissa died, and how none of them could agree on a mangood enough for their niece, and she had to go through numerous Seasons because ofit. Poor Reggie. But, remember, back then, the Malory brothers didn’t have wives whocould put their feet down as they do now. D’you really thinkourmothers won’t do exactly that when love shows up for us? Wait a minute, that’s it,isn’t it? It was Aunt Roslynn who said you couldn’t go and Uncle Tony just agreedwith her to keep the peace?”
Judith winced as she nodded. “She’ssobeen looking forward to my come-out here, much more’n I am. She’s even got her hopesset on one man in particular she thinks will be perfect for me.”
“Lord Cullen, the son of one of her Scottish friends,” Judith replied.
“Have you met him?”
“I haven’t seen him since we were children, but she has. She’s assured me he’s rich,handsome, a great catch by all accounts.”
“I suppose he lives in Scotland?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Thenhewon’t do! What’s your mother thinking, to pair you with a man who’ll take you awayfrom us?”
Judith laughed. “Probably that she’ll buy us a house in London to live in.”
Jack snorted. “We don’t take chances like that, especially with Scots, who can bestubborn. Wait a minute, ishewhy she won’t bend?”
“Sheisworried he’ll get snatched up by someone else if I’m not here at the start of theSeason. So, yes, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the real reason she’s refusingto let me delay my debut for a trip to America.”
Jacqueline rolled her eyes. “You silly. We just haven’t tackled this together yet.We’re much stronger when we do. Mark my words, you’ll be sailing with me. I neverhad the slightest doubt.”
Judith lay in bed with her eyes wide-open. Jacqueline had promptly fallen asleep, butJudith remained awake because she’d realized she might be married the next time shevisited her cousins in Hampshire. Not to Ian Cullen, but to a man she simply couldn’tresist. Although she and Jacqueline didn’t want to fall in love right away, certainlynot this year, Judith had seen what had happened to her older Malory cousins. Lovehad a way of interfering with the best-laid plans. And as soon as she married, she’dprobably forget about her ghost.
That was a sad thought. Whimsically, she didn’t want to forget such an exciting encounteror never see her ghost again. Which was when she got it in her mind that the ghostmight reveal himself to her if she entered his house alone, andthatthought wouldn’t let her sleep.
She finally gave in to temptation, donned a hooded cloak and slippers, headed downstairsto find a lantern, then ran across the back lawn. But when she reached the dark, oldhouse and tried to get in the front door as she’d done before, she found it locked.Not stuck, actually locked. Had Derek done that? But why, when many of the windowswere missing their glass and were easy enough to slip through?
She set her lantern on the floor inside one window and climbed through. She’d seenno light from outside, but still headed straight for the room where she’d found theghost before. Boards creaked under her feet. If he was in there, he’d hear her coming—anddisappear again.
She thought to call out, “Don’t hide from me. I know you’re here. Reveal yourself.”
Of course he didn’t. She chided herself for thinking a ghost would do her bidding.She’d surprised him last time. And she’d foolishly lost the element of surprise thistime. Nonetheless, she was determined to check that room again before she gave upand went back to bed.
She opened the door. It didn’t squeak this time. Had it been oiled? She held her lanternhigh to light the room. It looked different. A lot different. The cobwebs were gone.The old sofa was no longer dusty. And a cot was in the corner of the room with a pillowand a crumpled blanket. Was someone other than the ghost staying here? A real trespassernow? Even the windows in this room were covered with blankets, so the light of herlantern wouldn’t be seen from outside—and was why they hadn’t seen the ghost’s lightin so long. He was probably furious that some vagrant had moved into his house andhe’d been unable to scare him away.
But the vagrant wasn’t here now. Maybe the ghost still was. She was about to tellher invisible friend that she could help with his vagrant problem when a hand slippedover her mouth and an arm around her waist. She was surprised enough to drop her lantern.It didn’t break, but it did roll across the floor—and extinguish itself. No! Utterblackness and a very real man with his hands on her.
She was about to faint when he whispered by her ear, “You picked a lousy place todo your trysting, wench. Is your lover in the house, too? Is that who you were talkingto? Just shake or nod your head.”
She did both.
He made a sound of frustration. “If I let go of your mouth so you can answer, I don’twant to hear any screaming. Scream and I’ll gag you and tie you up and leave you torot in the cellar. Do we have an understanding?”
Being bound and gagged didn’t frighten her so much and was even preferable to anythingelse he might do to her. Jack would find her in the morning because she would guessexactly where she’d disappeared to. So she nodded. He removed his hand from her mouth,but his arm still held her tightly to him so she couldn’t run. Screaming was stillan option. . . .
“So how soon before the other half of this tryst shows up?”
“I wasn’t meeting anyone,” she assured him without thinking. Why hadn’t she said “Anyminute now” instead?! Then he’d leave—or would he?
“Then why are you here and how did you get in? I locked the bleedin’ door.”
“Youdid? But what was the point of that when some of the windows are open?”
“Because a locked door makes a statement. It clearly says you aren’t welcome.”
She humphed. “Neither are you. Don’t you know this place is haunted?”
“Is it? I’m just passing by. If there are any ghosts here, they haven’t made an appearanceyet.”
“Passing by when you keep a cot here?” she snorted. “You’re lying. And you weren’there a moment ago. Did you come out of the wall? Is there a hidden room connectedto this one?”
He laughed, but it sounded forced. She had a feeling she’d guessed accurately. Andwhy hadn’t she and Jack thought of that before? Even the ducal mansion had hiddenrooms and passageways.
But he placed his chin on her shoulder. “Quite the imagination you have, darlin’.How about you answer the questions instead? What are you doing here in the middleof the night if you’re not meeting a lover?”
“I came to visit the resident ghost.”
“That nonsense again?” he scoffed. “There are no such things.”
It would besonice if her ghost would show up to prove him wrong right then. The vagrant wouldbe distracted long enough for her to escape and bring Derek back to get rid of him.But then she realized the room was too dark for her to see the ghost even if he didshow up. Frustrated that this trespasser was ruining her last chance to see the ghostagain, she just wanted to go back to bed. She tried to pull away from him but he tightenedhis hold on her.
“Stop wiggling, or I’m going to think you want some attention of a different sort.Do you, darlin’? I’ll be happy to oblige.” She sucked in her breath and stood perfectlystill. “Now that’s disappointing.” He actually did sound it. “You smell good. Youfeel good. I was hoping to find out if you taste good, too.”
She stiffened. “I’m ugly as sin, with boils and warts.”
He chuckled. “Now why don’t I believe that?”
“Relight the lantern and you’ll see.”
“No, the dark suits us. I’ll call your warts and boils and raise you a lusty appetite.I think I’m going to win this hand.”
Despite the warning, and warning it was, she still wasn’t expecting to be flippedaround so fast and kissed before she could stop it from happening. She didn’t gag.His breath actually smelled of brandy. And for a first kiss it might not have beenso bad if she’d wanted to explore it. But she didn’t. Her hand swung wildly in thedark but she got lucky with her aim. It cracked against his cheek and got her released.
He merely laughed. “What? It was just one quick kiss I stole. Nothing for you to getviolent over.”
“I’m leaving now, and you will, too, if you know what’s good for you.”
A sigh. “Yes, I’ve already figured that out. But let me get you out of here safely.I don’t want it on my conscience if you fall through the floor and break your neck.”
“No! Wait!” she cried as he picked her up in his arms. “I know this house better thanyou do!”
“I doubt that,” he muttered, and carried her out of the room and across the main roomto the nearest window, which he shoved her through. “Say nothing about seeing me hereand I’ll be gone before morning.”
“I didn’tseeyou. You made sure of that.”
And she still couldn’t. A little moonlight was on the porch, but he stepped away fromthe window as soon as he released her, disappearing into the blackness inside thehouse. She didn’t wait for a response if he’d even heard her, just ran all the wayback to the ducal mansion and up to her room.
She almost woke Jacqueline to tell her about her little misadventure but decided itcould wait until morning. It still nagged at her, how a poor vagrant could affordFrench brandy. The tariff on it was so high, only the rich could afford it. That waswhy it was the prime cargo of smugglers. . . .
“Why doyoulook likeI’min trouble?” Boyd Anderson wondered aloud as he entered the dining room to join hissister, Georgina, for lunch.
His voice was teasing, his grin engaging, but he was quite serious given the frownhe saw on her face. Brother and sister both had identical dark brown eyes, but hisbrown hair was shades lighter than hers. She was dressed today to receive companyin a pretty coral gown, but she wore her hair down, as she often did when she onlyexpected to entertain family.
Boyd was the youngest of Georgina’s five brothers, and the only one who lived permanentlyin London. It had been his decision, and a good one since he was the third Andersonto marry into the Malory clan. His wife, Katey, was Anthony Malory’s illegitimatedaughter, a daughter that Anthony hadn’t even known he had until Boyd began to pursueher. Newly discovered as Katey was, the Malorys, and there were many of them, wouldhave been quite up in arms if Boyd had tried to sail off to America with her despiteher having been raised there.
Georgina tried to give Boyd a reassuring smile, but didn’t quite manage it. “Sit.”She pointed at the chair across from her. “I’ve asked the cook to prepare your favoritedish. It wasn’t easy to find white clams.”
“Bribery? Never mind, don’t answer that. It’s Jacqueline’s trip, isn’t it? What’swrong? Did something happen with the boys?”
“No, they’re happy to stay at school. They’re not interested in their sister’s come-out.”
“I thought you were in agreement that she could go?”
“I am. I know you and our brothers only want the best for Jack. And this momentoustrip has kept the peace in my family—even if it was forced down our throats.”
Boyd winced. “Must you put it like that?”
“Yes, I must, since it’s true.”
He sighed. “I know we were rather emphatic when we insisted she have her come-outin America—”
“—and, yes, I know we’re all more often in England these days than in Connecticutas we were back then. But there’s another more important reason for her to go to Americafor her come-out.” He paused to glance at the door before he added in a near whisper,“Your husband is absent from the house, I hope? I wouldn’t want him walking in onthis conversation.”
“Yes, James has gone to the dock to make sure all the provisions have been deliveredfor the trip. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he drags Tony to Knighton’s first.”
“Damn, I wish they’d let me know when they do that. I do so enjoy watching fightsof that caliber.”
“You wouldn’t today. James is rather annoyed, so it’s bound to be brutal.”
“All the better! No, wait. Why isheannoyed? Because you’re upset—with someone?”
“I’m not upset with anyone, just worried. It’s Jack who’s having the bloody fit.”
“About the trip?”
“In a roundabout manner.”
“But I thought she wanted to go.”
“Oh, she did, but she thought that Judy would get to go with her. But that’s not happening.And now Jack refuses to go without her.”
Boyd laughed. “Now, why doesn’t that surprise me? They’ve always been inseparable,those two. Everyone knows it. So why can’t Judy go?”
“Her mother won’t allow it. Roslynn has been preparing for the Season here for months,has been looking forward to it even more than our daughters are. She already knowswho will be hosting what parties and balls, has promises of invitations for them all.She already knows who the most eligibles are, including a Scotsman she favors forJudy because he is the son of a close friend of hers. She’s leaving nothing to chanceand thinks that Judy might miss a significant event if she sails with us.”
Boyd cast his eyes toward the ceiling. “But they will be back in time for the Seasonhere, might only miss a week or two of it. They’ll still have the rest of the summerhere. Thatiswhy we’re leaving now, in the spring.”
“But missing the beginning is what’s turned Judith’s mother stubborn, and she canbe very stubborn. And I even understand her reasoning, since the very beginning ofa Seasoniswhen attractions first spark, pairings get made, courting starts. To arrive evena week late can make a world of difference, with all the best catches already taken.Of course she’s most concerned about that Scotsman. She doesn’t want another girlto snare Lord Cullen. So she’s making sure Judy will be here when he is, right atthe start of the Season.”
“Do you really think that will matter for the two prettiest debutantes this year?”
“It won’t matter for Jack. She’ll go after who she wants as soon as she claps eyeson him, consequences be damned, this side of the ocean or the other.”
“For God’s sake, Georgie, you’re talking about your daughter, not one of the Maloryrakes.”
She raised a brow at him, a habit she’d gotten into soon after marrying James Malory.“You’re surprised she’d take after her father?”
“Too much after him, obviously,” Boyd mumbled, adding the complaint “And that should’vebeen nipped in the bud.”
She chuckled at him. “There’s no nipping an influence that strong. But that’s besidethe point. Unlike Jack, who occasionally acts before she thinks, Judith is too kindheartedand considerate of others to even come close to stepping on toes. And Roslynn knowsthat about her daughter. Which is why she won’t budge on Judy’s not missing the firstball of the Season here. I’m afraid if we can’t change Roslynn’s mind, we won’t besailing. Jack has simplyandfuriously declined to have a Season without her best friend beside her.”
“Damnit, Georgie, we’re three days away from sailing. It’s too late to cancel. Kateyhas been looking forward to the trip.”
“D’you think I like this situation? We’re already packed.The Maiden Georgehas been brought up from her dock in the south and a full crew hired. She’s anchoredin the Thames as we speak. We’ve been browbeating and cajoling Roslynn for months,and now we’re down to the last few days and she’s still saying no.”
“But our brothers are all on their way to Bridgeport. And Amy will be there soon tooversee the preparations. She sailed with Warren last week. They will all think somethinghorrible has happened if we don’t show up as expected!”
“James would sail anyway to let them know what’s happened, if it comes to that. Theywon’t be left to worry. I’m sorry, Boyd. I know you and our brothers have been lookingforward to this. I just don’t want all of you to be angry if James doesn’t keep hispromise. It’snothis fault.”
Boyd gave Georgina a pointed look. “Since when does Jack rule the roost? I’ll gether on the ship myself if you and James are reluctant to insist.”
“You’re missing the point, Boyd. Thereisno point to this trip if my daughter spends the entire time miserable. None of usexpected Roslynn’s opposition. We’ve all tried to change her mind. But she won’t budge.She’s a Scot, you know, and she’s lost her temper more’n once, with all of us tryingto change her mind.”
“Then don’t count on Jack’s ever marrying,” Boyd said flatly.
Georgina shot to her feet. “Excuse me? You take that back, Boyd Anderson!”
He rose as well, his brow as furrowed as hers. “I will not. I told you there is anothereven more important reason for Jack to have her come-out in America. You know she’sgoing to have a much better chance of finding love with a man who isn’t familiar withyour husband’s reputation. The young men here are going to be scared to death to approachher because of him.”
Georgina dropped back into her chair but was still bristling on her husband’s behalf.“Jack isn’t worried about that happening and neither are we.”
“Then you’re deluding yourselves, because it’s human nature. There isn’t a man whoknows him, or who has even merely heard the rumors about him, that would risk havingJames Malory for a father-in-law—that’sifJames doesn’t kill him before they get to the altar.”
Georgina gasped, even sputtered before she said furiously, “I now agree with Jack.In fact, I’m not going either. I wouldn’t be able to bear weeks at sea with someoneas pigheaded as you!”
Boyd lost his own temper, snarling on the way out of the room, “I won’t let my niecethrow away a golden opportunity just becauseyoudon’t know when to put your foot down!”
“How dare you!” Georgina yelled, and threw a plate at him.
The plate missed and shattered in the hall. The front door opened before Boyd reachedit, and Jacqueline remarked wide-eyed, “Is she breaking dishes on you again?”
Boyd snorted and took Jack’s arm to lead her back out of the house. “She never didhave good aim.” And then sternly: “Do you know how much trouble you’re causing?”
Jack grinned cheekily, not the least bit repentant. “It’s all part of my plan.”
“To drive us crazy?”
“To get Judy on the ship with us.”
“I’ve a better idea. Come on, we’re going to find a certain Scotsman and arrange alittle accident for him.”
“I’m definitely in the mood to, but I suppose we can try to reason with him first.”
“Reason with a Scotsman?” Jack started laughing.
Boyd tsked. “Just tell me he’s in town. I don’t want to kill a horse riding to Scotlandand back in three days.”
“He is here on business, actually. Arrived a few days ago and has been calling onJudy each day. I’ve had a devil of a time making sure she’s not home to receive him,hoping he’ll get the hint and just go away. But Aunt Ros guessed what I’ve been upto after Judy found the nerve to tell her that she’ll have no Season a’tall if shecan’t have one on each side of the ocean.”
“Did that work?”
“No, not yet, but it has to eventually. For now, Aunt Ros is sure Judy will come aroundonce our ship sails without her. She is calling me a bad influence, though,” Jackended with a grin, rather proud to be called that.
“So Judy hasn’t even met Lord Cullen to know whether she would like him or not?”
“Not since he was a boy. He, on the other hand, has seen her in recent years and isquite besotted. But she’s in no hurry to find out what the man is like. She’s supposedto be meeting him right now in the park. Roslynn was taking her. But Judy’s goingto pretend to be sick.”
“Then let’s meet him instead. We can use his infatuation to good purpose, tell himhe’ll be doing Judy a favor if he cooperates and claims he’s had an accident thatwill prevent him from joining the Season for a few weeks. As long as he agrees toassure Roslynn of it, so she’ll no longer have a reason to object to Judy’s comingwith us, I won’t actually have to break any bones.”
Jacqueline grinned. “You realize you sound like my father?”
“Bite your tongue, Jack.”
“Have you thought of something yet? We’re down to two days before we sail, and now neitherJack nor George intends to join us thanks to your wife’s intransigence,” James saidas he landed a hard jab to Anthony’s chin that moved his brother back a step.
Word had spread fast in the neighborhood when the Malory brothers were seen goinginto Knighton’s Hall together. The seats around the ring were already filled as ifthis fight had been scheduled. A crowd was at the door fighting to get in. Knightonhad thrown up his hands and stopped trying to prevent access. Anthony, the youngestMalory brother, had been coming to Knighton’s for most of his life for exercise inthe ring, but his fights weren’t very exciting since he never lost—unless his brotherJames stepped into the ring with him. No one ever knew which brother would win, andthus bets were flying about the hall today.
Anthony’s black brows narrowed on his brother. “No, and you can stop taking your frustrationout on me.”
“But who better?” James said drily, and another hard right landed. “What about now?”
“Blister it, James, it ain’t my bloody fault.”
“Of course it is, dear boy. You are the only one capable of talking your wife around.Lost your touch? Good God, you have, haven’t you?”
Anthony got in a solid punch to James’s midsection for that slur, followed by an uppercut.Neither one moved James Malory, who had been likened to a brick wall more’n once bymen who had tried to defeat him, his brothers included. But Anthony was knocked offhis feet with James’s next blow, deciding the matter of his giving up this round.Bloody hell. James won too easily whenhewas annoyed. But Anthony was saved from having to concede when his driver climbedup on the side of the ring and waved for his attention. Seeing the man as well, Jamesstepped back.
Anthony got up to fetch the note his man was waving at him, reading it as he returnedto James in the middle of the ring. He snorted before he told James, “Judy suggestsI save my face a bruising today and come home to pack. Apparently, Ros has given in.”
James started to laugh at the good news, which was how Anthony caught him off guardwith a punch that landed his older brother on his arse. But James’s own annoyancewas completely gone now with the unexpected news, so he merely raised a golden browfrom his position on the floor to inquire, “Then what was that for?”
“Because now I’m no doubt in the doghouse,” Anthony grumbled, though he offered Jamesa hand up. “I don’t know who changed her mind or how they did it, but I know I’llend up catching her anger for it.”
“Then it’s just as well you’ll be sailing with us and your wife will be staying home.She will have more’n enough time to calm down before we return.”
Both men knew that Roslynn wouldn’t sail with them because of her seasickness. Sheand Anthony’s younger daughter, Jaime, suffered from the same malady, so even if Roslynnwas willing to endure the discomfort for Judy’s sake, she wouldn’t subject Jaime toit again. Nor would she leave Jaime at home alone for the two months they expectedto be gone.
But James noted that his remark didn’t seem to ease his brother’s concern. “Come on,old man, don’t tell me London’s most notorious rake can’t redirect a lady’s angerinto passion of another sort,” James said as he leaned forward to take his brother’sproffered hand.
Anthony abruptly withdrew it. “It’s against my code of honor to hit a man when he’sdown, but Icouldmake an exception just for you.”
James chuckled as he rose to his feet. “I’ll pass on that favor. Don’t want Judy tothink her message didn’t get to you in good time.”
• • •
In the middle of the Atlantic,The Nereuswas making good headway toward Bridgeport, Connecticut. While the Andersons’ familybusiness, Skylark Shipping, had many ships in its fleet, each sibling also had oneof his or her own, andThe Nereuswas owned and captained by Warren, the second-oldest Anderson brother and Amy Malory’sadoring husband. The couple spent half of the year at sea, along with their children,Eric, and the twins, Glorianna and Stuart, and of course the children’s tutors. Theother half of the year they spent in their house in London so their children couldget to know their large family.
Amy was basking in the spring sun on deck, despite the wind’s being nippy. As theonly woman in the Anderson family who had experienced a successful social Season inLondon, she’d been asked by the Anderson brothers to plan the social events for Jacqueline’stwo-week visit to Bridgeport. Of course, Drew Anderson’s wife, Gabby, had had a Londonsocial debut, but it had been cut short and turned into a scandalous disaster by Drew,so she couldn’t offer much advice about come-out parties. Amy wasn’t simply relyingon her own experience. She had conferred with her cousin Regina, the Malory family’sexpert in social events.
Amy had to get the Anderson family home ready for these events. She had to plan themenus and send out the invitations. Warren would help her with the invitations sincehe knew whom to include. Although Amy had been to Bridgeport with him dozens of timesover the years and had met many of the Andersons’ friends and acquaintances, she couldn’tbe expected to remember them all. Yet everything had to be perfect before Jacquelineand her parents arrived.
Her own children were more excited about this trip than she was, since they were goingto get to attend each event. In England they’d have to wait until they were eighteento be included among the adults, but in America rules like that didn’t apply. Amywas too frazzled to be excited. So many things to do, so many lists to make.
With so much on her mind, she almost didn’t notice the feeling that started to intrude,and then she did, doubling over from it, as if she’d received a blow to her stomach.Warren, approaching her from behind, noticed and was instantly alarmed.
He put his hands gently on her back. “What sort of pain is it, sweetheart?”
“Then . . . ?”
“Something—bad—is going to happen.”
Warren immediately looked up at the sky for an approaching storm that might cripplethem, but not a dark cloud was in sight. “When?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know!”
He sighed. “If you’re going to have these feelings, I really wish you could interpretthem more specifically.”
“You always say that. And it never helps because I can’t. We have to go back, Warren.”
He tsked, helped her straighten, and turned her around so he could hold her in hisarms. “You’re not thinking clearly. We’d miss half the family that are already headingthis way. Even James and Georgie will have departed with Jack long before we couldget back.”
“I wish there was a faster way to travel,” she growled in frustration against hiswide chest.
He chuckled. “That’s never going to happen, but we don’t sail with cannons anymore—”
“You still acquired a full cargo that’s weighing us down.”
“Of course I did, that’s my job. And despite the cargo, we’re making damn good time.Another week, give or take a day or so, and we’ll be in Bridgeport.”
“If the wind holds,” she mumbled.
“Naturally. But you know, no matter what your feeling portends, you can lessen theblow and make sure it isn’t devastating. Do it now. Say something to relieve yourmind, sweetheart. Make a bet. You know you always win.”
She glanced up at him and gave him a loving smile for the reminder. “I bet nothingis going to happen that my family can’t handle.”
“Are you sure you want to be that vague?”
“I wasn’t vague. That covers everyone in my family, everyone in your family, all wives,husbands, and children.”
The holding cell, one of many, was the only one currently in use. The cell wasn’t ina jail or a prison, although it certainly felt as if it were to the men detained there.Underground, no windows, the prisoners would have no light at all if a single lanternweren’t kept burning day and night. That light was for the guard, not the prisoners.
The revenue base had been built toward the end of the last century when the Crowngot more aggressive in patrolling her southern waters, mainly along the Cornish coast.The base had started out as no more than a dock and a barracks halfway between Dorsetand Devon. As it had expanded over the years, a community had grown up around it.Shops, a stable, taverns, but the main business was still the apprehension of smugglers,and they were dealt with severely. Sent to the colonies in Australia or hanged. Oneor the other with trials that were a mockery.
Nathan Tremayne had wished more than once that he’d been born in the last century,before the revenue men got organized. Then, smuggled cargoes could be unloaded righton the docks of a village with everyone helping. Even the local nabobs would turna blind eye on the illegal activities as long as they got their case of brandy ortea. It had been a simple way to get around exorbitant taxes, and the long expanseof rocky Cornish coastline made that section of England ideal for bringing in rum,brandy, tea, and even tobacco to otherwise law-abiding citizens at reasonable prices.With so few revenue men patrolling back then, the smugglers faced little risk. Notso anymore.
These days the few smugglers still operating were running out of places to hide theircargoes. Even the tunnels built into the cliffs were slowly being discovered and watchedby the revenuers. Smugglers had resorted to storing their cargoes farther inland,away from the revenuers, before their cargoes could be distributed. But the goodsstill had to be unloaded onto shore for transport—or loaded back onto a ship if asmuggler suspected his hiding place had been discovered by a meddlesome wench whowould likely inform the authorities. That’s how Nathan had been caught last week.His crew had gotten away, scattering like rats in a sewer. He and his ship hadn’t.
It had been a setup. The revenuers had been lying in wait. He just couldn’t proveit unless he could escape. But that wasn’t happening from a cellblock such as this.Chained hand and foot with the chains spiked to the wall behind him, he could barelystand or reach the man chained next to him. Four in the cell were in a similar position.He didn’t know them, didn’t bother to talk to them. An old man had been left unbound.His task was to pass out the tin bowls of gruel to the rest of them. If he was awake.If waking him didn’t get him angry. Nathan had already missed a few meals becauseof that old man’s temper.
Nathan was asleep when they came for him, unchaining him from the wall, dragging himout of there. The last man to be removed from the cell had gone out screaming abouthis innocence and hadn’t returned. Nathan didn’t say a word, but a slow-burning angerwas inside him. He’d had other choices, other kinds of work, other goals, too. Hemight have stuck to that path if his father, Jory, hadn’t died. But one thing hadled to another, a long chain of events, and now here he was about to be hung or sentoff to prison for life.
The two guards dragging him didn’t even give him an opportunity to walk. That wouldhave been too slow for them, with the chains still on his ankles, and they weren’tremoving those. He couldn’t even shield his eyes from the daylight that blinded himwhen they got aboveground.
He was taken into a large office and shoved directly into a hardback chair in frontof a desk. The fancy room had more the look of a parlor with expensive furnishings,indicating that the man behind the desk was important. The man who, Nathan guessed,was maybe five years older than he was, which would put him around thirty, wore aspotless uniform with gleaming buttons, and had curious blue eyes. He had the lookof an aristocrat. A common practice was for second sons to work for the governmentin some capacity.
The guards were dismissed before the man said, “I’m Arnold Burdis, Commander Burdisto be exact.”
Nathan was surprised he’d been left completely alone with the officer. Did they thinka week of nothing but gruel in a bricked and barred hole had made him weak? The officemight be in the middle of a base crawling with revenuers, but still, it wouldn’t taketoo much effort for Nathan to overpower this man.
He’d immediately spotted the old dueling pistol on the desk, which was there for obviousreasons. Nathan eyed it for a few moments, debating his chances of getting to it beforethe commander did. The likelihood that it had only one bullet in it decided the matterbecause he would need at least two, one for the commander and one for the chain betweenhis feet in order to escape. Unless he wanted to take the commander hostage . . .
“Would you like a brandy?”
The man was pouring one for himself, and two glasses were actually on the desk infront of him. “One of my own bottles?” Nathan asked.
Burdis’s mouth quirked up slightly. “A sense of humor despite your dire straits, hownovel.”
The commander poured the brandy for him anyway and slid the glass across the desk.The rattle of his chains as he raised it to his lips screamed of those dire straits,but sarcasm wasn’t humor. And he only took a sip to wet his dry mouth. If the manintended to get him drunk to loosen his tongue, he would be disappointed.
“You are quite the catch, Tremayne. But it was just a matter of time. You were gettingsloppy, or was it too bold for your own good?”
“Were you really? Dare I take credit?”
“For dogged persistence, if you like. I prefer to blame a wench.”
Burdis actually chuckled. “Don’t we all from time to time. But my informant wasn’twearing skirts.”
“Care to share his name?” Nathan tossed out the question, then held his breath.
But the man wasn’t simply conversing with him or distracted enough to reflexivelyreply to a quick question. He was cordial for a reason; Nathan just couldn’t imaginewhat it was. But he was beginning to think he was being toyed with. A nabob’s perversepleasure, for whatever reason, and he wanted no more of it.
“Do I even get a trial?” he demanded.
The commander swirled his brandy and sniffed it before he looked up curiously andasked, “Do you have a defense?”
“I’ll think of something.”
A tsk. “You’re far too glib for your situation. Admirable, I suppose, but unnecessary.Has it not occurred to you that I hold your life in my hands? I would think you wouldwant to rein in that sarcasm, at least until you find out why I’ve summoned you.”
A carrot? It almost sounded as if he wasn’t going to be hanged today. But it raisedhis suspicion again. If this wasn’t his trial, the commander his judge and jury, thenwhat the hell was it? And he’d been caught red-handed. He had no defense and theyboth knew it.
He sat back. “By all means, continue.”
“I am successful in this job because I make a point of finding out all there is toknow about my quarries, and you are something of an anomaly.”
“There’s nothing peculiar about me, Commander.”
“On the contrary. I know you’ve been involved in other lines of work. Lawful ones.Quite a few actually, and you mastered each one, which is an amazing feat for someoneyour age. Couldn’t make up your mind what to do with your life?”
Nathan shrugged. “My father died and left me his ship and crew. That made up my mindfor me.”
Burdis smiled. “So you think smuggling is in your blood? I beg to differ. I alreadyknow about you, Tremayne, more than I expected to learn. Privilege of rank, accessto old records.”
“Then you probably know more’n I do.”
“Possibly, but I doubt it. Moved quite far down the proverbial social ladder, haven’tyou? Did all the women in your family marry badly, or just your mother?”
Every chain rattled as Nathan stood up and leaned across the desk to snarl, “Do youhave a death wish?”
The commander immediately reached for his pistol, cocked it, and pointed it at Nathan’schest. “Sit down, before I call the guards.”
“Do you really think one bullet would stop me before I break your neck?”
Burdis let out a nervous chuckle. “Yes, you’re a strapping behemoth, I get the point.But you have an earl in your bloodline, so it was a logical question.”
“But none of your bleedin’ business.”
“Quite right. And I meant no offense. I just found it a fascinating tidbit, who yourancestors are, a bit far back in the tree, but still . . . D’you even realize thatyou could be sitting in a chair like mine, instead of the one you’re in? It boggledmy mind when I realized it. Why did you never take advantage of who you are?”
“Because that isn’t who I am. And you ask too many questions of a man you’ve alreadycaught.”
“Curiosity is my bane, I readily admit it. Nowdosit down, before I change my mind about you and send you back to your cell.”
There was that carrot again, alluding to a different outcome to his capture than theobvious one. Nathan drained the brandy in front of him before he dropped back in hischair. He could handle at least one glass without losing his wits. Bleedin’ nabob.Nathan still suspected he was being toyed with, and now he guessed why. His lordlyancestor probably ranked higher than the commander’s did. Why else would the man wantto sit there and gloat?
“Are you going to tell me who your informant was?” Nathan asked once more.
“He was just a lackey, but can’t you guess who he works for? I have it on good authoritythat you’ve been searching for the man yourself. He must have thought you were gettingtoo close to finding him.”
Nathan stiffened. “Hammett Grigg?”
“Yes, I thought that might be clue enough for you. The same man suspected of killingyour father.”
“Not just suspected. There was a witness.”
“An old grudge finally settled between the two men, was the way I heard it.”
“My father was unarmed. It was murder.”
“And is that what you had in mind for Grigg?”
“I want to kill him, yes, but in a fair fight—with my bare hands.”
Burdis actually laughed. “Look at yourself, man. D’you really think that would bea fair fight? I’ve nothing against revenge. I feel the need for it m’self occasionally.But I’ll have Mr. Grigg caught and hung long before you can get your hands on him.He is my next quarry, after all.”
“And I’ll be dead before you catch him.”
Burdis refilled Nathan’s glass before he replied, “You misunderstand why I’ve broughtyou before me. I’m going to give you the opportunity to thank me one day.”
The commander opened a drawer to retrieve a clean, unfolded piece of paper that heset in front of him. He tapped it. “This is a full pardon already signed, an opportunityfor you to start over with a clean slate. But it’s conditional, of course.”
Nathan’s eyes narrowed. “Is this some joke?”
“Not a’tall. This document will remain with me until you fulfill the terms, but it’sa legitimate offer.”
“You want me to catch Grigg for you without killing him? You really think I couldresist the temptation if I get my hands on him?”
“Forget about Grigg! I told you,assureyou, I’ll see him hanged for you.”
For the first time, Arnold Burdis didn’t look or sound so cordial. Nathan was donewith second-guessing him, other than to say, “You sound angry.”
“I am. My man guarding your ship was killed, left floating in the water where yourPearlshould have been.”
“You’ve lost my ship!?”
“I didn’tloseit,” Burdis growled. “It was stolen, and, no, not by Hammett Grigg. We caught oneof the thieves. Nicked as they were sailing away, he fell into the water and was recovered.We gave chase, of course, probably would have caught them, too, if we’d known theirdirection. We searched up and down the coast, while they did the unthinkable, sailingstraight out to sea and beyond.”
“Who were they?”
“They’re not Englishmen, but they’ve been stealing English ships for some ten yearsnow, just so sporadically, and never from the same harbors, that no one linked thethefts. At first they were just taking the vessels offshore and sinking them, butthen they decided to have their revenge and make a profit at it.”
“It’s a couple of Americans who bear a grudge against us for the last war we had withtheir country, which orphaned them. They were just children at the time, which iswhy they only got around to getting some payback a decade ago.” A folded note wastossed at Nathan. “Those are the particulars I got out of their man. My superiorsdon’t give a rat’s ass about this crime ring targeting our harbors. They only wantyou and your ilk. But I don’t like having my toes stepped on, and these thieves didthat when they killed one of my men and stolemyprize right off my docks.”
Nathan raised a brow.Hisprize? “Tell me you’re not asking me to bring my ship back to you.”
“No, if you can recoverThe Pearl, she’s yours again, but good luck with that. They refit them with new paint, newnames, then auction them off to their unsuspecting countrymen, who actually thinkthey are legitimate shipbuilders. And they’ve gotten away with this for years. Butyou’re going to end it. It won’t be easy getting the Yanks to do you any favors, butyou’ll need to figure out a way to get the authorities over there to work with youin closing down that operation. That’s my condition. I want a letter from an Americanofficial stating that the thieves have been arrested and put out of business.”
“That’s all?” Nathan rejoined drily.
The commander’s eyes narrowed with the warning. “Don’t even think of running awayonce I give you your freedom for this task. As I mentioned, I found out more’n I expectedto about you, including that you have guardianship of your two remaining relatives.I would hate to see your nieces end up paying for their uncle’s crimes. So do youagree to my terms?”
“For my freedom, did you even need to ask?”
In Grosvenor Square, at the home of Edward and Charlotte Malory, most of the extensiveMalory family in England and a few close friends were gathered for a send-off partyfor Jack and Judy, who would be sailing in the morning for America. The crew was alreadyaboardThe Maiden George, the trunks had already been delivered. It only remained for the seven members ofthe family bound for America to row out to the ship at dawn, too early to expect good-byesat the dock, thus the party tonight.
Glancing about the room, Judith was looking for Brandon so she could ask him whathad happened with the vagrant. She’d told him that she suspected the vagrant was asmuggler, and Brandon had assured her he and his father would send the man packing.But it appeared her cousins from Hampshire weren’t going to make it tonight. She wasn’tsurprised, when she and Jacqueline had visited them so recently and they had alreadygiven Jack their good wishes for the trip.
Derek had even told Judith, “I bet your mum will change her mind, so I’m going towish you a wonderful voyage, too.”
“I wishAmywere saying that,” Judith had replied, and she hadn’t been joking.
Derek had laughed. “Yes, that would guarantee your sailing to America, wouldn’t it?”
It would indeed. Amy never lost a wager. Judith realized she should have asked Amyto bet on it before she’d sailed with Warren. Maybe Amy had andthat’swhy Judith was going now.
Jacqueline came up beside her and said in an annoyed tone, “Heshouldn’t be here when he’s not a close friend of the family and only your motherknows him.”
Judith followed her cousin’s gaze and saw Roslynn fussing over Lord Cullen. “But nowwe all know him, and besides, my mother is right. It was quite thoughtful and gallantof him to come here tonight to wish me well on my voyage when he must be in pain fromhis injury.”
“He’s here because he’s got his heart set on you and your mother’s got her heart seton himforyou. Tell me your heart’s not getting set here, too, when you and I swore not tomarry this year.”
Judith grinned and teased, “Now that I’ve met him again after all these years, I haveto admit he turned out rather handsome, don’t you think?”
“If you like dark red hair and pretty blue eyes. Flirt all you want, just no fallingin love yet.”
“Stop fretting. I’m not eager to get back here because of him when we haven’t evenleft yet.”
In a corner of the room, Boyd joined James and Anthony, who were looking at the Scotsman,too. Anthony was saying, “Ros should’ve confessed what she was up to, trying to matchhim with Judy. But I’m not complaining when he managed to bring peace to the familyby getting himself laid up. But if it weren’t so obvious that my baby ain’t interestedin him, I bloody well would.”
“Noticed that,” James agreed.
“He’s head over heels for her, though,” Boyd put in.
“And how would you know anything about it, Yank?” Anthony asked.
“Because as a last resort, Jack and I tracked him down and asked him to feign an injuryto help Judy convince her mother to let her go to America.”
“That splint on his leg is wrapped up rather tight for a fake,” James remarked.
“It’s not a fake,” Boyd said with a grin. “The man is as clumsy as an ox. He got soexcited by the scheme he really did fall off his horse and break his leg.”
James rolled his eyes.
Anthony said, “I see I’m going to have to have a word or two with Roslynn, after all.What the deuce could she be thinking, matchmaking our daughter with such a bungler?”
“It was a brilliant plan, though, you have to admit,” James said. “The broken-limbpart. You should have thought of it, Tony.”
“I didn’t even know abouthim, so how could I?”
“Just remember you owe me one, both of you, the next time you lay into me,” Boyd saidbefore quickly walking off.
“Did he just goad you?” Anthony said with an incredulous laugh. “And with a smirk,too!”
James shrugged. “He should know by now that I have a faulty memory when I find itconvenient. And my memory will definitely be faulty when it comes to being beholdento an Anderson—wife excluded, of course.”
Lord Cullen didn’t stay long, shouldn’t have come at all when his doctor had orderedhim to stay off his feet for three months. After Judith thanked him again for comingand wished him a swift recovery, Jacqueline steered her toward their mothers.
“D’you feel the excitement?” Jack asked. “We’re going to have a grand time, you know.I feel it, I’m bubbling with it.”
“You’re bubbling with triumph, not excitement. Note the difference.”
“Pooh, whatever it is, let’s go share some of it with your mother. She might havegiven in when she learned the Scot won’t be here for the start of the Season either,but she’s still not happy about it or what she termed our ‘collective tantrum.’ Andif she’s not happy, then Uncle Tony won’t be getting a nice good-bye from her tonight,and he’ll be in a rotten mood the whole trip.”
Judith blushed at that statement as Jacqueline dragged her across the room to theirmothers. Despite how brazen Jack could be at times and how used to it Judith was,she believed some things just shouldn’t be mentioned or even alluded to, and whattheir parents did behind closed doors was definitely one of those things.
Both girls walked up to Roslynn and put an arm around her waist. Judith was now astall as her mother at five feet four inches and had the same sun-gold hair streakedwith copper, but her father’s exotic cobalt-blue eyes, a stunning combination, orso her family liked to remind her. But Judith’s features also resembled her mother’s.She had a heart-shaped face and finely molded cheekbones, a small, tapered nose, eventhe same generous full lips. Jacqueline, on the other hand, looked nothing like hermother. She didn’t inherit Georgina’s diminutive height. She was taller at five feetsix inches and had James Malory’s blond hair and green eyes, but her features wereuniquely her own: a pert nose, high cheekbones, a stubborn chin, and a mouth far toosensual for a woman.
Her lips were turned up now in a smile meant to melt hearts. Few people were immuneto it, and Roslynn wasn’t one of them, but she still admonished her niece, “None ofthat now. You won’t be cajoling me out of this snit.”
“Are you sure?” Jacqueline asked. “I haven’t heard your Scot’s brogue yet to proveyou’re in a snit. But Judy won’t take my word for it, so a little reassurance fromyou before we sail is in order.” Then, in one of her more serious tones: “Don’t makeher suffer because there’s been a little dent—”
Georgina cut in with a gasp. “Jacqueline Malory! Not another word!”
Jacqueline merely met her mother’s eyes with a steady look that offered no apology.She was protective of family, always had been, and most particularly of Judith. Itwasn’t the first time she had stepped up to be Judy’s champion, and Roslynn lovedher all the more for it.
“It’s all right, George,” Roslynn said, and then to Jack, “You’ve made your point,sweetheart. And I wasn’t going to let my darling leave without my best wishes.” Roslynnleaned her head toward Judith’s. “You can have fun. In fact, I want you to enjoy everyminute of your trip.” But her tone turned stern when she added, “But don’t you darecome back in love. You will wait and fall in love here. And that’s the last I’m goingto say about it.” But Roslynn ended that with a smile.
Jack still leaned forward around Roslynn and said to Judith, “You didn’t tell her?”
“Tell me what?” Roslynn asked.
Jacqueline chuckled. “We’re not getting married this year. Next year maybe, or eventhe year after that. We’re in no hurry to. Really we aren’t.”
“It’s true, Mother,” Judith confirmed. “The fun is going to be in the trying, notthe doing.”
As the girls moved off to circulate about the room, Roslynn remarked to Georgina,“That was no doubt word for word fromyourdaughter.”
“I quite agree,” Georgina said.
“But they can’t be that naive. When it happens, it’s going to happen, and there’snot a bloody thing they can do to stop it.”
“I know, but still, I wish Jack had let her father know that was her intention. Jameshas been masking it very well, but he’s been a powder keg since the beginning of thisyear, with the thought of Jack getting married by the end of it. He’s not going todeal gracefully with her falling in love, you know.”
“You think Tony is? He used to only visit Knighton’s Hall a few times a week, butit’s been daily for several months now. He wants to stop time from advancing but hecan’t, and he’s extremely frustrated because of it. Truth be told, that’s why I didn’twant to delay Judith’s Season here and hoped she would favor young Cullen before iteven began. The sooner Judy gets married, the sooner my family can get back to normal—untilJaime comes of age.”
Georgina laughed. “Youreallyshould have owned up to that sooner, m’dear.”
“Prob’ly.” Roslynn sighed. “I swear, our husbands were never meant to have daughters.Sons and more sons would’ve been fine, but daughters! It was just asking for trouble.I fear for their suitors, I really do. Our men don’t have the temperament to juststand back and let nature take its course.”
Judith tried to mask her smile when she and Jack moved away from their mothers. Shewas starting to feel some of the excitement that had infected Jacqueline. And hercousin was so proud of having been right, she might as well have been crowing withit. To keep her from bragging with an “I told you so,” which would have annoyed Judithbecause she’d heard it so often, she put a finger to Jacqueline’s mouth when she startedto open it.
“Don’t say it. Let me. You were right—as usual. My mother is not angry at me for theway this turned out, so the burden is gone and now I can fully enjoy the trip.”
“I wasn’t going to mentionthat,” Jacqueline replied, and turned Judith around to face the parlor’s double doors.“Who’s that and why does he look familiar?”
Judith saw the man then, a stranger, elegantly clad if not quite in an English style.He wasn’t wearing a greatcoat, but a cloak edged with black ermine. The frock coatunderneath it was a bit too full skirted to be fashionable. And was that a sword pokingout from under the cloak? He appeared to be a foreigner, but Jacqueline was right,he did look familiar. And they weren’t the only ones who thought so.
Their uncle Edward put his finger on it, taking a step forward to say in his typicallyjovial tone, “Another long-lost relative? Come in!”
Everyone more or less turned in unison to see whom Edward was talking about. The youngman at the door seemed embarrassed now that he was the center of attention, and perhapsa little overwhelmed, with so many people in the room. Even though Judith doubtedthat the tall, handsome young man was related to them, she didn’t think her unclehad been joking. But then, when did her uncle ever joke about family?
And the stranger didn’t dispute her uncle’s conclusion. In fact he appeared ratheramazed when he replied, “How did you know?”
Judith’s cousin Regina stepped forward, grinning. Jack’s brother, Jeremy, steppedforward, grinning. Anthony just stepped forward. They all resembled the stranger withtheir exotically slanted, cobalt-blue eyes and raven-black hair.
“Another Malory,” James stated the obvious in his drollest tone.
The young man looked directly at James and, not seeming the least bit intimidatedby him as most men were, said, “No, sir, I am not a Malory. I am Count Andrássy Benedek,of Hungary.”
“Are you now? A blood relation nonetheless. Tell us, which Stephanoff you are descendedfrom?”
“Our grandmother Anastasia’s grandmother?” Anthony remarked. “You don’t sound toosure.”
“I obtained the information from my great-grandfather’s journal, which is only a memorynow.”
Anthony began to laugh. “Another journal?” At Andrássy’s curious look, he added, “Wefound one, too, some ten years back, written by my grandmother Anastasia Stephanoff.Prior to that, it was only rumored that Gypsy blood ran in our family.”
Andrássy nodded. “I had never heard of this Stephanoff ancestor. I don’t believe mylate father was aware of her either. Gypsy bands pass through Hungary, never stayinglong. I have never met one myself. So for me, there was no rumor or other clue untilI found the journal. Ironically, I might never have known of it, or had a chance toread it, if my stepsister hadn’t found it in our attic while she was hiding thereduring one of her tantrums, but that is some unpleasantness I don’t need to burdenyou with.”
“Another time, perhaps,” Edward said as he stepped forward to lead Andrássy into theroom. “What happened to your ancestor’s journal? Why don’t you have it anymore?”
“It perished in the fire that destroyed my home and all my family heirlooms.”
“How awful,” more than one person said.
“You’re destitute?” Edward asked.
“No, not at all. My father might have distrusted banks, but I never shared that sentiment.I had an inheritance from my mother. May we speak in private?”
“No need, m’boy,” Edward said. “Everyone in this room is a member of our family.”
That rendered the young man speechless, but then all four of the eldest set of Malorybrothers were present: Jason, the third Marquis of Haverston and the oldest, Edward,the second oldest, and James and Anthony. Their wives were present, too, and mostof their children, including their children’s spouses and a few of their older grandchildren.More than twenty Malorys had shown up for Jack and Judy’s send-off, and the youngcount was obviously overwhelmed.
“I had no idea,” Andrássy said, his blue eyes moving slowly about the room, a littleglazed with emotion. “I had hoped I would be able to track down one or two of Maria’sdescendants, but . . . never this many. And you don’t even seem surprised by me.”
Edward chuckled. “You aren’t the first member of this family to show up full grown,my boy, albeit one more distant than we might have expected. And I am sure we areall interested in hearing what you read in the journal about our great-great-grandmotherMaria Stephanoff.”
Anthony handed Andrássy a drink, which he merely held as he spoke. “The journal belongedto my great-grandfather Karl Benedek, Maria’s son. Karl’s father, understandably,didn’t want to speak of his indiscretion with a Gypsy woman, and he didn’t until thenight he thought he was dying. Maria’s caravan was merely passing through and he allowedthem to spend one night on his land. She came to him and offered herself in payment.She was young and pretty, but he still refused her, until she said a son would comeof it. He had no children, even after going through four wives trying to obtain one.He was desperate enough to believe her that night, but come morning he was angry overwhat he guessed was a deception.”
“But it wasn’t a lie?”
“No, it wasn’t. Somehow Maria knew and swore she would bring him the boy when he wasborn. He still didn’t believe she was carrying his child, but just in case, he refusedto let her leave. He kept her a prisoner until exactly nine months later when shegave birth to a son. He let her go, but he kept his son, whom he named Karl. Mariasaid the boy would be able to find her if he ever needed her, no matter where in theworld she was. Such an odd thing to say. My great-great-grandfather never saw heragain and did not tell his son, his only heir, about her until the night he thoughthe was dying.”
“Did he die that night?” James asked curiously.
“No, not for another ten years, and he and Karl never spoke of his strange tale again.But when my great-great-grandfather did die, Karl went in search of his mother, Maria.He found her in England, still traveling with her band of wandering Gypsies. Her granddaughter,Anastasia, had just married an English marquis.”
“Wait,” Jason spoke up with a frown. “That can’t be all that Karl wrote about Anastasia’shusband. Merely that he was a marquis from this country?”
“No, Christopher, Marquis of Haverston, was the name written in the journal. I wentto Haverston first, only to be told the current marquis was in London. I was giventhis address, but I almost didn’t come here tonight since I am only passing throughEngland on my way to America to search for my stepsister Catherine’s real father.I had planned to get her settled and out of my life before I tried to find any descendantsof Maria’s here. I simply couldn’t resist the chance to meet at least one of you beforeI left England.”
James guessed, “I’m beginning to suspect we don’t want to meet your stepsister?”
Andrássy sighed. “No, you don’t.”
“Not to worry, dear boy,” Edward said. “My brother James deals remarkably well withdifficulties that arise in the family, so we’ve learned to leave such things to him,trivial or otherwise.”
By the young count’s expression he had obviously taken offense. “I didn’t come herefor help. I am capable of dealing with my responsibilities and she—”
“Yes, yes, she’s your albatross, we get that,” Anthony said, putting an arm aroundAndrássy’s shoulder. “But you haven’t heard my brother complaining about being yourchampion, have you?”
James raised a golden brow. “Give me a moment,” he said, but was ignored.
Anthony continued, “As luck would have it—ours, yours, who knows—we happen to be sailingfor America in the morning. You’re welcome to join us. No need to say another wordabout your sister if you’d rather not. Think of it as giving us a chance to get toknow you a little better, and vice versa. You might want to consider it fate thatled you here tonight.”
Andrássy didn’t agree, but he didn’t decline, either. And before he decided eitherway, the rest of the family wanted a chance to speak with him. James and Anthony stoodaside, watching how readily the family took to him. Jack and Judy had him cornerednow.
“They’re going to talk his ear off,” Anthony remarked.
“Jack will,” James agreed. “She’s rather good at that. And if she thinks he oughtto come with us, the matter is as good as settled.”
“You don’t doubt he’s one of us, d’you?” Anthony inquired thoughtfully. “You weren’texactly throwing open those beefy arms in welcome.”
“There’s no harm in checking into his background,” James replied. “I’ll ask Jeremyto see what he can find out about him while we’re away. But considering we’re headinginto Anderson territory, it might not hurt to have another Malory relative, howeverremote, on our side.” James paused a moment. “On the other hand, I’m not so sure it’sa good idea to stick him on a ship with us. Once he gets to know us, he might wantto run in the opposite direction.”
“Speak for yourself, old man.”
“Regardless, it’s been known to happen. And on a ship, there’s nowhere to run.”
Anthony chuckled. “Do we need to wake up Knighton tonight? Get rid of all our aggressionbefore we sail? Might work for a week or so.”
“No need. I had a ring installed inThe Maiden George’s hold for us. I do like to plan ahead.”
“You sure you want to do this, Cap’n?” Corky Menadue asked hesitantly as he stood withNathan on the London dock.
Nathan smiled. “Get my ship back? Damned right I do.”
“I meant work your way over to the colonies.”
“I believe they call them states now.”
“But it ain’t like you couldn’t pay for passage instead,” Corky said, and not forthe first time.
Nathan looked down at his first mate. He had inherited Corky when he’d inheritedThe Pearl, but he’d known the older man most of his life. Corky had been Jory Tremayne’s firstmate, and Nathan had pretty much grown up on his father’s ship—until Jory had kickedhim off it. Such impotent rage he’d felt back then, but nothing he’d said or donewould change Jory’s mind. It was for his own protection, Jory insisted, as if Nathancouldn’t protect himself. And he was haunted by the thought that his father mightstill be alive if hehadbeen there the night his father was shot.
“Forget about Grigg! I told you, assure you, I’ll see him hanged for you.”Not if Nathan could find him before Commander Burdis did. But he had a ship to findfirst.
Nathan reminded his old friend, “The other vessels aren’t leaving for another weekand they’re not bound for Connecticut, which is where I need to go. This one is actuallygoing about fifty miles west of my destination. Damned lucky, and about time someluck came my way. Besides, time isn’t on our side even if I wanted to waste the coinon passage, which I don’t.The Pearlwill be sold if we don’t get there soon.”
“I’m just worried about your temper. Last captain you took orders from was your fatherand that was five years ago. D’you even remember how?”
Nathan barked a laugh, but Corky added, “And this captain is some kind of nabob, ifyou can go by the high wage he’s paying us. And I know how you feel about nabobs.”
“You don’t have to come along, you know,” Nathan told his curly-haired friend.
“And what else would I be doing until you come back withThe Pearl?”
After Burdis had released Nathan, he’d found Corky and most of his crew in the hauntthey frequented in Southampton, where Nathan had settled after leaving Cornwall. Atfirst they’d been shocked to see him and then quite rowdy in expressing their reliefthat Nathan was a free man. After he’d been captured by the revenuers, they hadn’texpected to ever see him again. He didn’t begrudge them their escape the night hisship and cargo had been confiscated. In fact, he was fiercely glad they had escapedbecause they wouldn’t have been handed the boon he’d been given. He still couldn’tquite believe he was walking free again.
Burdis turned out to be not such a bad sort—for a nabob. He’d arranged for Nathanto have a bath, a good meal, and his personal belongings returned to him, even hispistol. Then they’d transported him to his home port of Southampton.
After telling his men what had happened and what he had to do now, they’d wanted tosnatch a ship for him that very night. He’d been tempted, but with the commander’sterms still fresh in his mind, he’d had to tell them no, that he needed legitimatepassage.
“If you steal a ship other than your own, our deal is off,” Burdis had said. “No morebreaking laws of any sort for you, Captain Tremayne.”
Too many bleedin’ conditions, but he was going to abide by them since it meant a shotat getting his ship back.
When he’d elected to follow in his father’s footsteps, he’d known it wouldn’t be easy.Still, he’d enjoyed the challenge of smuggling, enjoyed thumbing his nose at the revenuerswhen they gave chase. They never came close to catching him when he was in the Channel.But constantly having to find new places to store his cargoes had taxed his patienceand caused him no end of frustration.
He’d thought he’d finally solved that problem a few months ago when he’d figured outthe perfect hiding place: the abandoned house a little ways inland in Hampshire. Thehouse had an extra advantage as its closest neighbor was the Duke of Wrighton. Norevenuers would dare snoop around there. But he hadn’t counted on the duke’s havingnosy servants. If that wench hadn’t come ghost hunting or meeting up with her lover,which is what he suspected she’d really been doing, he wouldn’t have been forced tomove the cargo so soon and wouldn’t have gotten caught because of it.
After he’d sent word to his crew in Southampton to bring the ship to their usual unloadingcove, so it could be reloaded, one of his crew must have mentioned the plan to someonein Grigg’s crew. Or maybe someone in Grigg’s crew had heard his men talking aboutit. It wouldn’t be the first time the two crews had ended up in the same tavern. Hepreferred to think that than that he had a traitor in his crew. But the ghost-huntingwench was still ultimately to blame.
He hadn’t been joking when he’d told Burdis he blamed a woman for his capture. Heshould have put more effort into securing her silence. A kiss usually softened themup, but not her. He’d gambled that he’d be able to get her feeling friendly and agreeabletoward him, so she’d keep his presence a secret. Maybe he should have lit her lanternso she could see whom she was dealing with. One of his smiles tended to work wonderson wenches, too. But kissing her hadn’t yielded the result he’d hoped for, and hehad ended up insulting her instead. He hadn’t needed to see her to tell she was bristlingfrom it.
“We’ve time for a pint and a quick tumble, Cap’n. You game?”
“Thought I asked you to stop calling me that? I’m not your captain for this trip.”
Nathanwasbored, though, just standing around waiting for wagons to show up. He glanced aroundthe London dock, but the last wagon had left ten minutes ago and no others could beseen heading their way. There would probably be more, though, and he didn’t want torisk a delay in sailing to America by getting fired because he wasn’t there to unloadwagons. Every day mattered withThe Pearlon her way to being altered and sold. It was annoying enough that the ship he’d signedon to in Southampton was making this short detour to London to pick up passengers.
“Come on,” Corky cajoled. “We were told to wait, but no one said we couldn’t do thatwaiting in yonder tavern. Watch from the door for the next wagon if you’ve a mindto, but the rowboat ain’t even back from the ship yet to carry another load. And it’sgoing to be a long voyage. One more wench to see me off is all I’m interested in tonight.”
Nathan snorted. “You just enjoyed the company of a wench three nights ago in Southampton.Were you too drunk to remember?”
“Oh, yeah.” Corky grinned. “But that was then and this is our last night on land.Three weeks at sea is a bleedin’ long time.”
“The voyage could be as quick as two weeks and besides,youdon’t need to be here. You can still head back to Southampton to wait for my return.”
“And leave you without a first mate for the return trip? It’s a shame we heard aboutthis ship too late to get the rest of our boys on her.”
“I wouldn’t have known that her captain was hiring a crew at all if I didn’t stopby to tell Alf and Peggy I’d be gone for a few months.”
Old Alf was the caretaker of a cottage a few miles up the coast from Southampton.Nathan had been steered to the couple when he’d been looking for someone to care forhis nieces while he was away onThe Pearl.It had proven to be a nicer arrangement than he’d first thought, since the cottagehad its own private dock, and Alf let him use it as a berth forThe Pearl.
Alf had been generous in that after his wife, Peggy, had agreed to watch the girlsfor Nathan. He hadn’t even charged Nathan a fee, merely laid down the rule that nocargo was ever to be unloaded there, since he knew what business Nathan had got into.Alf refused to say much about the bigger vessel at his dock, or why she sat empty,and Nathan was in no position to pry when the elderly couple was doing him such abig favor.
“At least you got me on her with you,” Corky said.
“Only because they still needed a carpenter and I bargained to have you included.Alf even hesitated to mention the job, since he knows I no longer practice carpentry.It was his wife, Peggy, who brought it up. Every time I visit the girls, she nagsme to go back to work that won’t land me in prison. The old gal worries about me.”
“She’s fond of your nieces and worries they will be left without a guardian again.And she’s right, you know. Look how close you came to fulfilling her fears this time.Are you sure you even want your ship back?”
“Are you going to nag now, too?”
“Is that pint of ale suddenly sounding like a good idea?” Corky countered.
Nathan chuckled and gave in, steering his friend across the docks. The tavern Corkyhad his eye on stood between a warehouse and a ticket office. Nathan didn’t know Londonat all, had never been there before, and had never heard anything good about it either.But taverns were taverns, and this one looked no different from the ones he’d findat home in Southampton. While Nathan had no interest himself in a woman his last nighton land because he had too much on his mind to spare any thoughts on a wench, a pintof ale would indeed be welcome.
He’d never asked for them, but now he had responsibilities that he didn’t have lastyear when he would have been the one to suggest a quick tumble. Not anymore. Not sincehis sister died and he was the only one left in their family who could care for hertwo children. Not that he hadn’t had an agenda before that happened. He just hadn’tbeen in a hurry to achieve his goals.
His nieces, Clarissa and Abbie, were darling girls. He never expected to get so attachedto them so quickly, but each time he visited, it was getting harder to say good-bye.At seven years of age Clarissa was the younger and the more exuberant of the two.She never failed to throw herself into his arms with a happy squeal when he arrived.Abbie was more reserved at nine years of age. Poor thing was still trying to emulateher father’s snobby family, thinking that’s how she ought to behave. But she was startingto come around. She expressed delight now when she saw him and he’d even felt dampnesson her cheek when she’d hugged him good-bye a few days ago. My God, that had beendifficult, walking away from them this time.
They didn’t deserve to live in poverty just because their parents had passed on. Hehad to do right by them, give them a home, a stable one. One way or another, he wasgoing to provide them with the comfortable life they used to have.
The girls had been raised so differently from him, but then his sister, Angie, hadmarried well. She’d had a fine house in Surrey and her daughters had had a governess,tutors, and fancy dresses. It was too bad it had all come with such disagreeable peoplefor in-laws, the lot of them thinking they were grander than they were just becausethey held a minor title. Nathan hadn’t liked Angie’s husband because it had becomeapparent soon after the wedding that he had only married her because she was descendedfrom an earl. Nathan hadn’t even been able to visit her or her children without sneakingin to do it because his brother-in-law had found out Jory was a smuggler and assumedNathan was one, too.
But everything his nieces had had was gone now, taken back by their father’s familywhen he’d died, killing Angie with him, because he’d been foxed and driving his carriagetoo fast. Nathan hadn’t thought it possible, but he’d come to hate the nobility evenmore than he already did when those heartless snobs turned their backs on their owngranddaughters just because they’d never approved of Angie. All the girls had leftwere the fancy dresses that didn’t even fit them anymore, and an uncle who only hopedto accomplish goals that a sane man would realize were impossible.
He ordered that pint, then another. He was starting to feel the anger that tendedto show up when he thought about his situation too long. Maybe what he should be lookingfor this last night on land was a good fight.
Ale in hand, Nathan turned to glance about the room, looking for someone who mightaccommodate him, but the tavern was so crowded, he didn’t doubt one punch would leadto a full-scale brawl. While it wouldn’t be the first time he’d spent a night in jailfor starting one, he couldn’t afford for that to happen tonight if he wanted to getThe Pearlback.
He started for the door, but turned about when five new customers stepped throughit and he recognized one of them. What the hell? Hammett Grigg’s men in London, ofall places? The last time he’d seen Mr. Olivey, Hammett’s first mate, who was theone he recognized, had been in Southampton five years ago. Grigg and a handful ofhis crew had tracked Nathan down to find out where Jory was holed up. Still furiouswith his father, he’d told them he didn’t know and didn’t care. They’d actually hadhim watched for a while, thinking he could lead them to Jory. But he never saw hisfather again, and Hammett and his men finally found Jory on their own. . . .
Was the Cornish smuggler actually crazy enough to deliver a load of untaxed goodsto the biggest city in the country? Not using London docks, he couldn’t. He had tobe in London for some other reason, maybe to line up new buyers. But if his men werehere on the docks, Grigg might be nearby, too. Could Nathan really get this luckyand find the man before Commander Burdis did?
Well, he’d wanted a fight. Trying to find out Grigg’s whereabouts would definitelyget him one, but he preferred that it take place outside if possible. Or he couldjust wait and follow them when they left. Would he have time for that?
He glanced behind him without turning. The five men were still by the door, lookingabout the room. There were no empty tables they could use. If they didn’t leave, they’dbe coming to the bar where Nathan was standing and that brawl would then be inevitable. . . .
Decision made, Nathan walked to the door and shouldered his way past them. Easy enoughto do when he was taller and brawnier than them. And as expected, they followed himoutside. Five of them against one of him would make them cocky. They just didn’t knowhim well, and he’d like to keep it that way for a few minutes. Cocky men tended tohave loose lips.
“Leaving without paying your respects, boyo?” Mr. Olivey said, grabbing Nathan’s armto stop him. “Thought we wouldn’t recognize you?”
“Wot are ye doing ’ere, eh?” another asked. “Why ain’t ye—? Heard ye got locked up.”
“I heard you helped with that,” Nathan replied. “Where’s your boss? I’d like to thankhim.”
“ ’Ere now, don’t be blaming us ’cause you got careless, boyo.”
“I bet ’e’s plannin’ to wield ’is ’ammer in London. Now the revs got ’is ship, wotelse is there left for ’im?”
The men’s chuckles were cut short when Nathan gripped the man’s throat with one handand pinned him to the tavern wall. “My business here is none of yours, but yours iscertainly mine. I repeat, where’s your boss?”
“You’re in no position to ask,” Olivey said behind him. “Or did you really think youcould take us all on?”
“Let’s find out.” Nathan leapt to the side to position himself so that all five menwere in front of him again.
Five against one might be lousy odds, but he had passion and purpose in his corner,while he guessed they just wanted to have some fun at his expense. He didn’t haveto wait long for the first swing to come his way. He blocked that one and threw oneof his own. Two quick jabs at another had a second staggering back.
Blood pumping, Nathan had no doubt that he could do this, despite the odds, and getthe answer he wanted before he was done. He just needed to leave one of them standingand able to talk.
The next sailor to come at him he knocked to the ground, but the man got back up tooquickly, wiping blood from his mouth. “Should take to the ring, boyo, instead of wastingtime with a hammer. You’d make a fortune.”
Olivey’s comment distracted Nathan a moment too long. Bleedin’ hell. Both his armswere suddenly pulled forcefully behind him and Mr. Olivey stood in front of him laughing.
“Should have run while you had the chance. Should have left well enough alone, too.Hammett was done with your family—until he heard you were looking for him. Look wherethat got you, eh.”
“Go to hell,” Nathan spat out.
But suddenly his arms were freed and he heard the distinctive hollow sound of twoheads cracking together. He didn’t need to look behind him to guess that two of Grigg’smen had just been hurt if not put out of commission. Then he was yanked aside, outof the way, and a strong arm fell over his shoulder. He tried to shrug it off, butthe hold tightened enough to stop him. Bloodstillpumping, he was about to swing at whoever was holding him immobile until he got alook at him.
Tall and dark haired with shoulders as wide as Nathan’s and wearing a fine greatcoat,the man could pass for a nabob except for one glaring fact. A member of the gentrywouldn’t get involved in a street brawl, would he? No, he’d merely yell for the watch.Another man, too, a big, blond brute specimen unlike any Nathan had ever seen waspounding Hammett’s sailors with his fists. Were they just a couple of rakehells outlooking for trouble? Then they could add him to the count before they were done andhe didn’t think he’d walk away from that, could even miss his ship because of it.But right now he needed at least one of Hammett’s sailors conscious so he could question him.
It was all he could do to sound reasonable when he said to the black-haired man, “Letgo so I can help him.” Stop him was more like it.
“Bite your tongue, youngun. That’s not a snarl my brother is wearing, it’s a grin.”Then the man sighed because all five sailors were now sprawled on the ground. To hisbrother he complained, “Really, old boy, you could have dragged it out just alittle.”
The blond bruiser merely gave the black-haired man a bored look before he turned hispiercing green eyes on Nathan. “Need a job? I could use a sparring partner.”
Nathan choked back an impotent snarl. He’d just lost his chance to get answers. Heshould have stopped the bruiser from knocking them all out, but the demolishing hadhappened so fast. And they actually thought they were beinghelpful.
He got out, “No thanks, I have a job.”
The black-haired one who’d held him back let go of him now, saying, “No pearls ofgratitude? Do we need to teach you some manners, youngun?” But then he added, “Behindyou, James.”
What happened next left no room for thought. It did flash though Nathan’s mind thathe had been left for last and was about to get the beating of his life. But he sawone of the sailors staggering to his feet. Nathan yelled, “Wait!”—but the man namedJames turned to the sailor, while the black-haired taller one put his steely arm aroundNathan’s shoulder again.
It was too much. Nathan swung, catching the black-haired man completely off guardand connecting with his chin, taking him down. He doubted he could do the same withthe bruiser who was now staring at Nathan with a raised brow.
Nathan stiffened. He could probably bolt as the sailor was now doing, but he didn’twantthisone following him.
He broadened the distance between himself and the bruiser and, pointing to the fleeingsailor, quickly said, “I need answers that you and your friend are keeping me fromgetting.”
“Then run along and get them. My brother’s going to be in the mood for a fight now,but not to worry—”
Nathan didn’t wait to hear the rest. With a nod, he ducked around the strange twosome’scarriage, which had stopped in front of the tavern, and took off down the dock, chasingdown the sailor. He thought he heard someone laughing behind him, but it was probablyjust someone in the tavern, and he didn’t look back.
The sailor had ducked around a corner onto a wide street. It was dark, but not deserted.A good number of sailors were making their way back to their ships, some drunkenly.Nathan ran down the street, glancing at each man he passed. It took him a few minutesto spot Hammett’s sailor just as the man turned another corner.
Swearing, Nathan reached the spot only to find a narrow alley filled with broken cratesand other garbage. A dog barked to the left. He headed that way. He found the dogbut the sailor was nowhere in sight. He could have entered any number of buildingsthrough their rear doors. A light suddenly appeared in an upstairs window of one ofthem. He tried the door to that building and found it locked. He moved on to the nextbuilding. The door was unlocked and he slipped inside. The corridor he found himselfin was dark—but not so dark he couldn’t see the shadow crouched in it.
Nathan leapt forward and dragged the sailor outside before whoever had lit the lanterncould come down to investigate why the dog was barking. He didn’t stop until theyrounded another corner and he shoved the sailor up against the side of a building.
“I distracted that bruiser so you could get away, but I’ll be finishing you off m’selfif you don’t—”
“Wait!” the man pleaded. “I’ll tell you what I know, just no more punches.”
“Where is Grigg?”
“He ain’t in town yet, but he’ll be here tomorrow for the delivery.”
“Man on the west side, runs a fancy tavern. The cap’n’s been supplying him with brandyoff and on for a year now.”
“Who’s the man? What’s the name of the tavern?” Nathan tightened his grip on the man’sshirt.
“Don’t know. All I know is this is a big delivery, so the captain is coming to townhimself for it. He’s got quite a few establishments here eager for the finer stuffthat he supplies now, those that cater to the gentry. Cuts them a deal they can’trefuse.”
“I need names.”
“I don’t know, I swear! Mr. Olivey does. You should be asking him—”
“He’s not going to be answering anything tonight, but you aren’t telling me anythinguseful either. That better change, and quickly.”
“Itwasthe captain who set you up. He had a man watching your crew in Southampton. You shouldn’tbe so predictable, boyo, always coming back to the same port.”
Nathan ignored the gloating tone for the moment. “Is that how Grigg has managed toavoid me?”
“Aye, he never docks in the same place twice. But since you do, it was easy to seta spy on your crew when they were in Southampton. He was there when you sent yourmen that message that you needed to reload your cargo to move it to a safer spot.He even overheard where they were to meet you with your ship and when.”
“How was that ambush arranged so quickly?”
“Because Captain Grigg was in town that night. He was told about your change in plans.He sent his spy to a revenue ship in the harbor, and the rest you know.”
“What I need to know is where I can find him,boyo. So if he doesn’t have a base, why don’t you tell me where he stores his cargo.”
“I can’t because he doesn’t. D’you really not know how many men work for him? Halfof them just drive the wagons and simply wait for him to beach, unload, and they cartthe goods straight to the buyers. No hiding it like we used to. No giving the revenuersthat patrol the waters a chance to find us. He arranges everything in advance andhas been operating that way for years. There’s nothing more I can tell you.”
“Yes, there is,” Nathan said in a quieter tone. “You can tell me why he killed myfather.”
“Well, your sis—you don’t know?”
Nathan lifted the man a little off his feet to get his point across. “Tell me.”
“I know nothing. Nothing!” The sailor’s jaw was clenched, but he was shaking likea leaf. “I wasn’t working for him back then.”
Nathan pulled the man away from the wall and raised his fist warningly. “The tavern?”he growled. “Last chance to say something useful.”
The sailor’s eyes widened. “There’s an alley behind it, that’s all I ever see of it.The cap’n’s of a mind that the less we know the better. Only Mr. Olivey gets toldwhen, where, and who. But I heard him call the bloke we deliver to Bobby.”
“Don’t know, never asked.”
Nathan smashed his fist into the man’s face. “Too little, too late,” he muttered,but the man couldn’t hear him.
Nathan hurried back to the tavern to rouse Mr. Olivey for more information, but heslowed as he approached. The watch had found Grigg’s defeated crewmen. All four ofthem were still unconscious, didn’t even stir as they were lifted and placed in awagon to be taken to jail. Nathan wasn’t even surprised. The man who had laid wasteto them really was a bruiser.
Nathan was disappointed, but if the sailor he’d questioned could be believed, andhe probably could be, Nathan knew much more now than he had before. And if his newturn of luck held, Grigg wouldn’t be caught by Burdis before Nathan returned to England.
Corky was in the small crowd gathered in front of the tavern, but he was nervouslylooking around for Nathan rather than watching what was going on. Nathan waved todraw his attention.
Corky ran over to him immediately. “We better get back to our post and quickly. Theowners of the ship came by to see how the loading was going and got caught in a fistfight.Someone actually knocked out one of them and he’s furious.”
“That’s—unfortunate,” Nathan said with a sinking feeling. “Did they board?”
“No, not tonight. Where did you take off to?”
He gave Corky the short of it, saying, “Grigg’s men are in town. I had words withone of them.”
“He’s operating out of London? I know he’s cagey, but I didn’t take him for a loony.”
“He only delivers here to a number of buyers, but I got a lead on one of them. It’sthe first clue I’ve had about Grigg’s whereabouts since he killed Jory. And now Iknow where to look for him when we get back to England.”
“Or you could send word about him to your commander friend.”
“Hell no, and he’s not my friend. He’s just a revenuer using me to get himself a promotion.Our goals merely line up—temporarily.”
Corky tsked. “Connections have their uses, particularly if they come with titles.It doesn’t serve your best interests to hate all nabobs just because of your sister’sin-laws.”
“I don’t hate them all. Only the ones I meet. Now it’s late and we sail in the morning.We need some sleep. They can wake us if any more wagons show up.”
“I’d agree, ’cept this one might be for us.”
Corky was talking about an approaching coach, not a wagon. Yet it did stop and thedriver called down, “Are you withThe Maiden George? If so, I have passengers who want to board now.”
Last night, Nathan had thought the couple were an odd pair, as he and Corky rowed themand an inordinate amount of heavy luggage out toThe Maiden George. The man had introduced himself as Count Andrássy Benedek, a relative of the ship’scaptain. The woman’s name hadn’t been mentioned. They spoke English but the man hada foreign accent. And they didn’t seem to like each other. Although the pair had beenwhispering to each other, Nathan had gotten the impression that they were bickeringand didn’t want to be overheard. The woman’s pretty face had looked angry.
Nathan had felt sorry for the bloke, though. A henpecked man if he’d ever seen one,and he looked no older than twenty-five, his own age. Far too young to be stuck witha shrew for a wife, pretty or not, if that’s who she was to him.
But this morning as the dawn sky brightened, Nathan was surprised to see Benedek joininghim at the rail. Escaping the shrew? Nathan might have remarked on it, one man commiseratingwith another, if he didn’t want to avoid drawing attention to himself on this trip.Besides, the man was titled.
Class distinctions didn’t used to mean anything to Nathan. Having an earl for an ancestorprobably accounted for his attitude, not that he’d ever mentioned that to anyone orever would. It was galling that Burdis had found out. In fact, if someone called himgentry these days, he’d probably punch him in the face. He preferred to simply treatall men as equals whether they wanted to be or not, but most nabobs felt differently.
His reticence turned out to be a good decision because the count wasn’t alone forlong. His companion from the night before arrived a few moments later, saying, “Youcan’t ignore me, Andrássy!”
“Can’t I?” Benedek shot back. “Not another word about it, Catherine. I amnotgoing to ask them for any more favors when I only just met them.”
“But one of them could have the insight, could tell me if my father really is alive,or even where he is. You could at least ask.”
“And have them think I’m crazy? The supposed magical abilities of Gypsies is justsuperstitious nonsense and trickery. That’s what Gypsies do. They prey on the hopesand dreams of the gullible. They tell you what you want to hear and get paid for it.None of it is true and I’m not going to insult this branch of my family by mentioningthese notions of yours. My God, do you listen to yourself, spouting such nonsense?”
“Of course I believe it, when I’ve seen you display the Gypsy gift occasionally. Denyit all you want, but you know it’s true.”
“All I have is the instinct of a tracker and luck. There’s nothing mystical aboutthat, Catherine. And I’ll use those instincts to find your father, if just to be ridof you for good!”
“How dare you! You wouldn’t even know about these relatives of yours if not for me!I found that journal that mentioned them. You owe me!”
“I owe you nothing, although I will honor the obligation my father saddled me withwhen he married your mother!”
“Perfect, luv. You really are a master of improvis—”
Nathan couldn’t hear any more as the pair moved farther down the deck, but the woman’svoice had changed to a purring tone there at the end, as if she really was offeringpraise.
But glad to be alone again at the rail, Nathan raised the spyglass he’d borrowed fromArtie, the crusty, old first mate, for a closer view of the wharf. A longboat hadbeen dispatched for the passengers because there were so many of them. Quite a crowdof well-dressed people were on the dock, waiting for it. But he wasn’t interestedin them.
He trained the eyepiece up and down the wharf as far as he could see. He was meticulous,stopping to peruse faces, making sure he didn’t recognize any. He didn’t expect tosee any of Grigg’s men this soon, but Grigg might show up himself looking for them.And if he spotted the man, he couldn’t say if he would risk losingThe Pearlto get his hands on him now.
Jory had decided to send Nathan away five years ago to protect him. Despite how angryNathan had been because of it, he’d still loved the man. He felt angry to this day,but for a different reason: because he and his father had never made amends and itwas too late to now. But that had been Jory’s decision, too. No communication at allwas to pass between them that could lead Grigg to Nathan, who could then be used againstJory. But settling that score for his father washisdecision. And even with the ship soon to sail, he still had that on his mind.
As Nathan continued to scan the wharf with the spyglass, he found it a bit disconcertingto come across a fellow with a spyglass of his own trained right on Nathan. No onehe recognized, well dressed in a greatcoat, a gentleman by all accounts. The man gesturedto his head, as if tipping a hat to Nathan for having discovered him spying onThe Maiden George.The man was even smiling before he put his spyglass away and got into a rowboat thattook him out to one of the other ships.
Many ships were anchored in the river, unable to dock yet. Southampton’s port wascrowded, too, but nothing like London’s. Weeks could go by before a ship could geta berth in this town, or so he’d been told.
“See anything interesting, Mr. Tremayne?”
Nathan glanced at the sailor who’d come up next to him. He’d said his name was Walter.Nathan knew him in passing from Southampton, but then the whole crew had been hiredout of Southampton.
“No, just someone a little too interested in this ship. He actually had a spyglasstrained on us.”
Walter shrugged. “So? Just looking for someone.”
“I suppose.” Nathan glanced down at the stretch of water between the ship and thedock.
The longboat was halfway back to the ship, and it wasn’t full of passengers afterall, just four men and five ladies, not counting the sailors rowing them. He figureda few of those people could be ladies’ maids and valets. Most of the people he’d seenon the dock must only have been there to see their family or friends off, becausethey were now getting back into carriages.
“There don’t appear to be many passengers,” he said.
“Well, it’s a privately owned ship designed to accommodate family comfortably. Thecaptain had her built to his specifications. All of the main cabins are like roomsin a fancy hotel.”
Nathan knew how lavishly appointed the cabins were. He hadn’t mentioned it to anyone,but he hadn’t been able to resist inspectingThe MaidenGeorgewhen he’d been dockingThe Pearlnext to it for the last year.
“You’ve sailed on her before?” Nathan asked Walter.
“A few times over the last decade, and I’m glad of it. I actually gave up the sea,but I’m always up for a voyage onThe Maiden George. It pays too well to turn it down, and it’s never boring. Did you not wonder whythe purse was so high for this crossing?”
Nathan hedged. “Well, this is my first time across the Atlantic, so I had nothingto compare it to.”
Walter chuckled. “It’s triple the standard, mate. A pity she leaves her berth so rarely,or I’d be rich by now.”
“If she doesn’t get much use, why does the owner even keep her?”
“Because he can.”
“Merely for convenience?” Nathan said. “That isn’t normal, is it?”
“Not even close to normal. But then, neither is the captain. That’s him there, ViscountRyding, just one of many titles in his family.”
Nathan followed Walter’s gaze back to the approaching longboat. Now that the sky hadbrightened and the boat was closer, he could make out the occupants more clearly,but he looked no farther than the large man in the front of the boat. Blond, withbroad shoulders under a greatcoat, he was the bruiser who’d rescued Nathan on a whim.And his dark-haired brother was in the boat, too.
Nathan’s sinking feeling returned. He’d actually hoped when they hadn’t boarded lastnight that the owners weren’t going to sail with their ship. Many didn’t, merely hiredcaptains for them. But it looked as if his luck had just taken a swing for the worse,and now he was going to have to make himself scarce, at least until they got out tosea where it would be less likely that they’d toss him overboard. Up in the riggingwould suffice before they boarded, and he might even stay up there for the durationof the trip down the river.
It didn’t matter which of the two was the captain. They were both nabobs and he’dstruck one of them. And even if he could somehow make it right with them, he was stillgoing to hate working for a lord no matter how long the trip took. The nobility hada whole different way of thinking compared to ordinary men. As different as nightand day. They could take offense at the simplest thing that wouldn’t normally raisea brow. You wouldn’t evenknowyou were insulting them until it was too late.
Then the sun rose over a couple of buildings in the east to cast a beam along thewater. Copper hair lit up like a flame in the sunlight and instantly drew his eyes.The young woman ought to have been wearing a bonnet to hide magnificent hair likethat, but she wasn’t. She was old enough—eighteen, nineteen?—to have her hair doneup fancy, but it was simply tied back at her nape. Because it was so long, the windstill tossed it over her shoulders. Her clothing, though, was clearly that of a younglady, a blue velvet coat tied at the waist, a white fur cape that merely capped hershoulders, ending only halfway down her arms. But it was her beautiful heart-shapedface that tugged at a memory that wouldn’t quite surface in his mind.
“The red-haired wench, she looks familiar.”
He didn’t realize he’d said it aloud until Walter admonished him, “I wouldn’t be callingthat one a wench if you don’t want to end up in the ship’s brig or worse. The cap’n’sa fair man, but he can be a might touchy when it comes to family, and she’s probablya member of his. Never seen him take on passengers who weren’t related to him in oneway or another.”
A whole ship full of nabobs? Corky had been right. Bleedin’ hell. But he assured thesailor, “I meant no disrespect.”
“Was just a friendly warning, mate. You know how that family is. Very,veryprotective of their own.”
“I wouldn’t know. Never heard of the Malorys until I signed on and was told the captain’sname.”
“Really? Thought everyone knew who they are.”
“So they’re famous? Or notorious?”
“A little of both.” Walter laughed as he walked away.
Nathan hightailed it over to the rigging and started climbing, determined to postponehis next meeting with the Malorys for as long as possible.
“Ihope you are no’ going tae prove as stubborn as your cousin,” Nettie MacDonald saidas she entered Judith’s cabin to help her prepare for dinner.
Roslynn had insisted on sending her own maid on the trip to see to both girls’ needs.Nettie was more a member of the family than a servant, so Judith was delighted thatshe was accompanying them. Nettie was the only maid aboard. SinceThe Maiden Georgedidn’t have an abundance of cabins Georgina and Katey, Judith’s older sister, hadelected to just hire maids when they reached Bridgeport, but then they both had husbandswho could help them dress on the ship if they needed assistance.
“Jack is always stubborn,” Judith replied with a grin. “But what’s she being stubbornabout tonight?”
“Wouldna let me touch her hair. Wasna going tae concede on wearing a dress eithertill I put m’foot down. Told her I wouldna be washing those breeches she loves saemuch if she didna at least dress proper for your dinners.”
Jacqueline had also had ship togs made for Judith, not that Judith planned to wearthem if she didn’t need to. She’d rather deal with her skirts whipping about in thewind than feel self-conscious in sailor’s garb. But Judith had already braided herhair for tonight, quite in agreement with Jacqueline that putting her hair up in herusual coiffure on a ship was just asking for it to be blown apart by the wind. However,she moved straight to her little vanity and sat down, just to make Nettie happy, andthe old girl did smile as she unbraided Judith’s hair and started arranging it morefashionably.
Although Judith’s cabin was a decent size, it was still rather cramped with a full-sizebed, a wardrobe, and a comfortable reading chair, a little vanity, even a small, roundtable for two, and her trunks, which had been pushed up against one wall. But shedidn’t plan to spend that much time in her cabin. Today had been an exception. Withmost of the family unpacking and recovering from the party last night as well as theearly-morning departure, she’d spent most of the day reading and resting. And gettingher sea legs, as Jack called the adjustment to the constant motion of the ship.
Judith didn’t mind that at all. In fact, she was exhilarated to be on a ship again.Possibly because she liked sailing even more than Jacqueline did. It was too bad Judith’smother and sister didn’t, or she might have had more opportunities to sail with heruncle over the years.
She was looking forward to joining her family for dinner tonight in her uncle’s muchlarger cabin and seeing their new cousin again—well, she assumed Andrássy and hisstepsister would be invited to dinner. And Nettie made sure Judith looked as if shewere going to a formal dinner at home. Her gown, sheer white over blue silk and embroideredwith lilacs, wasn’t new, but her new wardrobe for the Season hadn’t yet been finishedbecause her mother hadn’t expected her to need it for another month. She’d still broughtall of it along, which was why she had twice as many trunks as Jack did, clothes towear on the ship and for the first few days in Bridgeport, and a full wardrobe thatstill needed a seamstress to put the finishing touches on it.
“There, you look lovely as always, lassie,” Nettie said when she had finished puttingup Judith’s hair. “I’ll get a sailor in here tomorrow to dig out your jewelry box.I’m no’ sure why it’s packed wi’ the unfinished gowns.”
“Because I didn’t think I would need it until we get to America and I don’t, not justfor family dinners, so there’s no need to unpack it.” Judith hurried out of her cabinbefore Nettie disagreed with her.
Closing her door, she jumped in surprise when a woman behind her said much too sharply,“Move out of my way!”
Judith immediately stiffened and turned to see stormy gray eyes pinned on her. Thewoman’s brown hair was bound up tightly, and the angry expression on her face preventedJudith from determining whether she was pretty or plain. The woman was angry becauseher way was blocked for mere moments? Judith couldn’t imagine who she was, and thenshe did. Andrássy’s stepsister, Catherine?
She opened her mouth to introduce herself, but Catherine was too impatient to lether get a word out. “Nearly knocked me over and now you just stand there gawking?I asked you to move!”
She was about to shove Judith aside when Jacqueline yanked her own door open behindthem and snarled into the narrow corridor, “No screeching on the ship! Learn the bloodyrules before you embark or get tossed overboard.” And Jacqueline promptly slammedher door shut again.
Trust Jack to say something outlandish when she was annoyed. The woman’s face turnedred. Judith had to get out of there before she burst out laughing, which would onlymake the situation worse. But poor Andrássy! He hadn’t been joking last night whenhe said they didn’t want to meet his stepsister, and now she knew why.
She squeezed past Catherine and ran upstairs to the deck before she did in fact giggle.She waited there a few minutes for Jacqueline to join her.
“I suppose that was the stepsister?” Jack said as she came up the stairs.
“That red velvet she was wearing doesn’t bespeak a servant from the galley.”
Jack huffed, “If she was heading to her cabin, let’s hope she stays in it permanently.I heard every word. Rudeness like that—”
“Usually has a reason.” Judith put her arm through her cousin’s as they headed upto the quarterdeck. “Her face was pinched. It could have been from pain, rather thana horrible disposition.”
Jacqueline tsked. “You always see the good in people.”
Judith laughed and teased, “And you always try not to!”
“I do not! Besides, more often than not, first impressions are accurate. However,I’ll reserve judgment this once, but only because I know you want me to.”
A few minutes later they entered the captain’s cabin. Accessed from the quarterdeckwith only a few steps in front of the door that led down to it, they didn’t knock.James and Georgina were on the sofa, his arm around her shoulders. Anthony and Kateywere already present and sitting at the long dining table.
The large room resembled a parlor. A long sofa and stuffed chairs with two card tableswere on one side, and a desk long enough to hold the charts was on the other sideby the dining area. An intricately carved partition in one of the back corners closedoff the bed from the rest of the room. The long bank of windows in the back had thedrapes open, revealing the ocean behind the ship and the moon shining down on it.
That was Judith’s favorite place on the ship. She loved to stand and gaze out of thosewindows. During the day the windows offered a wonderful windless view of the ocean,and at night, if the moon wasn’t hidden behind clouds, the view was almost breathtaking.
After giving her father and sister quick kisses in greeting, she moved to the windows.She couldn’t actually see the moon with the wind currently taking them on a southwesterlypath, but its light was reflected on the waves.
Jacqueline had joined her parents on the sofa, and Georgina, glancing at the palegreen gown Jack was wearing, teased her daughter, “I’m surprised you’re not in breechesyet.”
“The Scot wouldn’t let me,” Jack grumbled. “I’ve a mind to bar my door.”
“Nettie means well, so why don’t you try a reasonable approach instead.”
“Reason with a Scot?” Jack said, looking directly at Anthony as she did.
Anthony burst out laughing. “Ros would box your ears for that slander if she werehere.”
“Only if she could catch me.” Jacqueline grinned.
“I really wish Roslynn and Jaime were better sailors so they could have joined us.”Anthony sighed, but his spirits were too high to dwell on it. “But with the Yank indisposedfor a few days, I intend to make the most of this rare situation. After all, how oftendo I have my two eldest daughters to myself?” He raised his glass of brandy high.“Here’s to seasickness!”
“That’s not funny, Father,” Katey said, quick to come to her husband Boyd’s defense.
“I thought it was,” James remarked.
Andrássy arrived a few minutes later. He knocked. James merely called out for himto come in. Their new cousin was formally dressed in black with a short cape witha pearl clasp and snowy cravat under it, and he was still wearing his sword. Evenhis greeting to everyone sounded a little too formal, or perhaps he was merely nervous.
With a smile, Georgina got up to lead him to one of the chairs, inquiring, “Is yoursister coming?”
“No, she feels uncomfortable joining the family for dinner because she is not oneof ‘us’ and doesn’t want to interfere or be a burden. In fact, she insists on repayingyou for your generosity in allowing her to travel with you by working for her passage.Perhaps in the galley or—”
“That’s highly irregular and certainly not necessary,” Georgina said.
“Actually, it is. Catherine can be quite mercurial”—Judith and Jacqueline looked ateach other and rolled their eyes—“and she will be calmer if she keeps busy.”
Was that really Catherine’s idea, Judith wondered, or was it Andrássy’s? If it washis, that might be why his stepsister was so angry tonight. Put her to work like ascullery maid?
Georgina must have had the same thought because she sounded a little annoyed whenshe replied, “She’s not a servant and won’t be treated as one.”
“I tried to tell her exactly that,” Andrássy said. “I just worry if she is too idle—Iwish we had thought to bring material she could work with on the ship. She’s highlyskilled with a needle, even makes all her own clothes, she loves sewing so much. Soif any of you ladies need any clothes repaired, Catherine would be delighted to helpin that regard at least.”
“I could rip a few seams, I suppose,” Georgina replied with a grin.
A few people laughed. Judith held her tongue and shook her head at Jack to keep herfrom mentioning that Judith could use a seamstress. She wasn’t about to saddle herselfwith Catherine’s company before she had a chance to form a better opinion of the youngwoman—if a better one could be had.
But the subject changed with the arrival of Artie and Henry announcing dinner. Theygot stuck in the doorway, both trying to enter at the same time. Which didn’t surpriseanyone other than Andrássy. Those two old sea dogs might be the best of friends, buta stranger wouldn’t figure that out with all their bickering. Part of James’s oldcrew from his ten years on the high seas, they had retired when James did to becomehis butlers, sharing that job and this one, too, both acting as his first mates forthe voyage.
They all moved to the dining table as the many platters were brought in. Andrássywas quick to pull a chair out for Jack and then sit in the one next to her. A littletoo quick? Judith wondered if she was going to have something to tease Jack aboutlater.
Judith wasn’t hungry because she’d already had samples of tonight’s fare when she’dvisited the galley late that afternoon. She noticed that Katey, seated beside her,was also picking at her food, but for a different reason.
“Worried about Boyd?” Judith guessed.
Katey nodded. “I hate seeing him so miserable. You’d think after so many years atsea he would have conquered his seasickness by now.”
“I don’t think it can be conquered.”
“I know.” Katey sighed. “I just wish—you know he used to have his ship’s surgeon makehim sleeping drafts so he could just sleep through it. I offered to do the same forhim, but he refuses because he wants to stay awake and talk to me. Yet he’s usuallytoo sick to say a word! So I end up sleeping too much, like I did today. I’m not goingto be able to sleep tonight now, while that is the only time hedoesmanage to sleep.”
“At least his seasickness only lasts three to four days. But didn’t you bring anybooks to read while you keep him company?”
“I didn’t think to, no.”
“I did and I just finished a very good one. I’ll go fetch it for you in case you dohave a sleepless night.”
“Eat first,” Katey insisted.
Judith grinned. “I did this afternoon.”
Telling her father she’d be right back, Judith slipped out of the captain’s cabin.A few lanterns were lit, but they weren’t needed with the deck currently bathed inmoonlight. She caught sight of the moon in the eastern sky and paused. She wishedit were a full moon, but it was still lovely. After she got the book, she decidedto go to the rail for an unobstructed view of the moon before returning to her family.But as she hurried back upstairs, she dropped her book when she slammed smack intoa ghost. And not just any ghost, but the Ghost.
All she could do was stare at him as light from a lantern on deck illuminated him.Hair as white as she remembered and floating about his shoulders. His eyes a deepergreen than she remembered. And tall. No, taller than she remembered she realized nowthat she was standing next to him, six feet at least. He was too close. She realizedhe’d grabbed her shoulders to keep her from tumbling backward down the stairs. Buthe should have let go of her now that she had steadied herself. Someone might comealong and see them. Someone such as her father.
With that alarming thought, she stepped to the side, away from the stairs, and helet go of her. All she could think to say was “You’re dead.”
“No, I ain’t, why would you say so?”
“You don’t remember?”
“I think I’d remember dying.”
“We met a few years ago in that old ruin in Hampshire, next to the Duke of Wrighton’sestate. I thought you were a ghost when I found you there. What are you doing here?”
It took him a moment to connect the when and the where, but when he did, he laughed.“So that’s why you seem familiar to me. The trespassing child with sunset hair.” Aslow grin appeared as his emerald eyes roamed over her, up, down, and back up. “Nota child anymore, are you?”
The blush came quickly. No, she wasn’t a child anymore, but did he have to look forthe obvious evidence of it? She shouldn’t have left her evening wrap in the cabin.Her ghost was a common sailor. She shouldn’t be talking to a member of the crew forso long, either. Devil that, he was fascinating! She’d wanted to know everything therewas to know about him when she’d thought him a ghost. She still wanted to.
To that end, she held out her hand to him but quickly pulled it back when he merelystared at it. A bit nervous now that he didn’t know how to respond to her formal greeting,she stated, “I’m Judith Malory. My friends and family call me Judy. It would be allright if you do.”
“We aren’t friends.”
“Not yet, but we could be. You can start by telling me your name?”
“And if I don’t?”
“Surly for an ex-ghost, aren’t you? Too unfriendly to be anyone’s friend? Very well.”She nodded. “Pardon me.” She walked over to the railing. She gazed at the waveringreflection of the moon’s light on the pitch-dark ocean. It was so dramatic and beautiful,but now she couldn’t fully appreciate it because she was disappointed, much more thanshe should have been. She almost felt like crying, which was absurd—unless Jack hadbeen right. Had she really fancied herself in love with a ghost? No, that was absurd,too. She’d merely been curious, amazed, and fascinated, thinking he was a ghost, thatthere really were such things. Even after Jack and she were older and admitted hecouldn’treallybe a ghost, it had still been more fun and exciting to think of him that way. Yethere was the proof that he was a real man—flesh and blood and so nicely put together.Not as pale as she remembered. No, now his skin was deeply tanned. From working onships? Who was he? A sailor, obviously. But what had he been doing in that old ruinedhouse in the middle of the night all those years ago? The ghost had told her the housewas his. But how could a sailor afford to own a house?
She was more curious about him than ever. Unanswered questions were going to driveher batty. She shouldn’t have given up so easily on getting some answers. Jack wouldn’thave. Maybe she could ask Uncle James . . .
“Nathan Tremayne,” said a deep voice.
She grinned to herself and glanced at him for a moment. He was so tall and handsomewith his long, white hair blowing in the sea breeze. He was standing several feetfrom her and staring at the moonlight on the ocean, too, so it didn’t actually appearthat he had spoken to her. But he had. Was he as intrigued with her as she was withhim?
“How do you do, Nathan. Or do you prefer Nate?”
“Doesn’t matter. D’you always talk to strange men like this?”
“A stranger to you,” he clarified.
“Not a’tall. We are actually old acquaintances, you and I.”
He chuckled. “Telling each other to get out of a house five years ago doesn’t makeus acquainted. And why were you trespassing that night?”
“My cousin Jack and I were investigating the light we saw in the house. That househas been abandoned for as long as anyone living can remember. No one should have beeninside it. But we could see the light from our room in the ducal mansion.”
“And so you thought you’d found a ghost?”
She blushed again, but they weren’t looking at each other, so she doubted that henoticed. “When we saw you there, it was a reasonable assumption.”
“Not a’tall, just the opposite.” Was that amusement she heard in his tone? She tooka quick peek. It was hard not to. And, yes, he was grinning as he added, “You drewa conclusion that no adult would have come to.”
“Well, I wasn’t grown yet. Thatwasquite a few years ago. And you were holding your lantern so that its light only reachedyour upper body. It looked as if you were floating in the air.”
He laughed again, such a pleasant sound, like a bass rumble. It shook a lock of hairloose over his wide brow. His hair wasn’t pure white as she’d thought. She could seeblond streaks in it.
“Very well. I can see how your imagination could’ve played tricks on you.”
“So why were you there that night and looking so sad?”
“No, not sad, darlin’.” But instead of explaining, he said, “Do you really believein ghosts?”
She looked up and saw his mouth set in a half grin and the arched eyebrow. Was heteasing her? He was! She also noticed his green eyes were gazing at her intently.Quite bold for a common seaman if that’s what he was. Quite bold for any man, actually,when they’d only just met—that first time didn’t count.
In response to his teasing she said, “Jack and I admitted to ourselves a few yearsago that we’d been mistaken that night. But we continued to refer to you as the Ghostbecause it amuses us. It was our special secret that we only shared with our youngercousins. It was much more fun to say we’d found a ghost than the new owner of thehouse. But you can’t be the owner of the house. What were you doing there?”
“Maybe I like secrets as much as you do.”
On the brink of discovery and of clearing up a mystery that had intrigued her foryears, she was more than a little annoyed by his reply. “You really won’t say?”
“You haven’t tried convincing me yet, darlin’. A pretty smile might work. . . .”
Judith went very still. So still she thought she could hear her heart pounding. Shecouldn’t believe what had just become crystal clear to her. Sheknewwho he was. It was that second instance of his calling herdarlin’. She’d been too flustered to pay much attention to it the first time he’d said it,but this time she remembered where she’d heard it before. A mere two weeks ago froma man who she suspected was far more dangerous than a vagrant.
The moment it had struck her that night of how odd it was for a vagrant to be drinkingFrench brandy, she had known he wasn’t what he’d first seemed to be. But that wasn’tall. He claimed to know the abandoned house better than she did, so he’d either beenstaying there a long time or had visited it more than once. His putting a lock ona door that didn’t belong to him. His coming out of a hidden room where he could havebeen storing smuggled or stolen goods. And his warning her to tell no one that she’dseen him there. All of it pointed to his being a criminal of one sort or another.
Of course she’d told Jacqueline about him in the morning, and of course Jack had agreedwith her conclusion and suggested she tell Brandon, who could prevaricate a bit andwarn his father without revealing that Judith had had a run-in with a criminal inthe old ruin. Before they’d left for London, Brandon had told her he’d spoken to hisfather and assured her they’d catch the smuggler red-handed that very day. So whatwas he doing here, onThe Maiden George?
He appeared to be waiting for her to answer him. She did that now, hissing, “You deserveto be in jail! Why aren’t you?”
Nathan was taken aback by the girl’s angry question. He almost laughed at how closeto the mark it was, yet it didn’t make sense. Nonetheless, the instinct for self-preservationkicked in, and quickly.
“You’ve mistaken me for someone else. But I’m not surprised. First you thought I wasa ghost, then you took me for a landowner. Isn’t it more obvious that I’m just a hardworkingseaman trying to earn a living?”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Because I’d never forget a face that’s haunted me for five years, and now I recognizeyour voice, too.”
“From five years ago? I doubt that’s possible.”
“From two weeks ago when you accosted me in that ruined house,” she said hotly. “You’rea criminal and I won’t have you on board endangering my family.”
So it was her, he thought, and not one of the duke’s servants as he’d assumed thatnight. And maybe she was not quite a lady either, except in title. That was an intriguingthought and even likely, considering how he’d met her, both times, out and about aloneat night. And now tonight.
“It seems to me you’re the one guilty of criminal behavior, breaking into houses thatdon’t belong to you. And more’n once? Tell me, darlin’, does your family know aboutyour late-night rendezvousing?”
She sucked in her breath. “Don’tevengo there. You know I spoke the truth about why I was there that night.”
“If I wasn’t there, how would I know? Or wait, were you there to see me again?” Hegrinned, suddenly beginning to enjoy himself. “Well, me in ghost form, but me nonetheless.And you already admitted you did that at least once.”
She scoffed, “You’re not turning the tables on me here, but nice try. There’s simplyno comparison to a smuggler, or is it a thief? Which one are you?”
“And why would I be either of those?”
“Because the facts add up precisely, and there’s a long list of them. You even provedyourself to be a liar that night. You weren’t just passing by, not with your own cotset up in that room.”
“A criminal who carries a cot around with him? Do you realize how unlikely that is?”
“You put a lock on the door.”
“If whoever you are talking about did that, I’d think he did it to keep pesky ghosthunters from waking him in the middle of the night. Didn’t work, did it?”
“You think this is amusing?”
He smiled. “Did I say that?”
“You didn’t have to when it’s written all over your face,” she snapped.
“Well, you have me there, darlin’. But it’s not every day I get accused of criminalactivities. I have to admit, I do find a certain humor in that.”
“You were hiding illegal goods there and that putmyfamily at risk! My cousins could have been implicated. No one would believe theycouldn’t have known what was going on in their own backyard. The scandal would havetouched my entire family!”
Enraged in defense of her family? Well, that at least he could understand. It justdidn’t alter that he needed to convince her she’d made a mistake.
So he chuckled. “Will you listen to yourself now? No one in their right mind wouldblame a duke for anything, much less something illegal.”
“So you admit it? You came out of the hidden room, and I tasted brandy when you kissedme. You werenotjust a vagrant passing by as you claimed! I don’t doubt you’ve even been using thatruined house to hide smuggled goods for five years, haven’t you?
He was hard-pressed not to laugh. She’d figured everything out and with amazing accuracy.Smart girl. Beautyandintelligence. When was the last time he had come across that combination? But shewas merely making charges she hoped to hear him confirm. That wasn’t going to happen.He did need to get her off the scent though. . . .
His voice dropped to a husky timbre, his smile broadened. “You know, darlin’, if youand I had actually shared a kiss, that would be a pleasant memory I’d not soon forget.And now you make me wish it had happened. . . .”
She was staring at his mouth. As he’d hoped, he was distracting her. He just hadn’tcounted on his getting distracted, too. The pull was incredibly strong to kiss heragain, right there on the deck in the moonlight. Utter madness.
But he was saved from finding out what might have happened next when he heard twoof the crew talking, their voices getting louder as they approached. She heard them,too, glancing nervously beyond him.
“Good night, darlin’. I better fade away like a ghost. I’d hate for your family tolearn of your predilection for late-night trysts.”
Nathan walked away. The subtle threat plus the doubts he’d tried to put in her mindwould hopefully be enough to keep her mouth shut for the time being. He was goingto climb the mainmast again, but unable to resist the urge to look back, he merelymoved into the mainmast’s shadow. She was halfway to the quarterdeck before she turnedto look back as well. Had she thought of more aspersions to cast on him? But he relaxedwhen he saw she wasn’t looking for him, but for the book she’d dropped. She came backto retrieve it.
A few moments later he lost sight of her when she entered the captain’s cabin, buther image was still in his mind. The woman was too beautiful—but she was trouble.He was going to have to come up with a better way to keep her from voicing her suspicionsto other people. But that could wait for tomorrow.
In the morning, Nathan found corky to discuss his newest problem—Judith Malory. Buthis friend had been tasked with swabbing the main deck, a chore so menial Corky couldn’tstop grumbling about it long enough to offer any suggestions. Nathan still kept himcompany while he checked the railings for loose nails. It wasn’t something he wouldhave thought to do so early on the voyage if he hadn’t seen Judith leaning againsta rail last night.
“Watch out, Cap’n,” Corky suddenly said behind him. “I think that trouble you weretelling me about is coming your way.”
Nathan turned to see Judith marching toward him and Corky quickly getting out of theway. She looked even more beautiful in daylight with the sun on her glorious red-goldhair, wearing a long velvet coat left open over an ice-blue dress trimmed with yellow-dyedlace—and the light of battle in her cobalt-blue eyes.
She’d lost a few hairpins last night, which he’d found on the deck after she’d gone,so he wasn’t surprised to see she’d braided her hair today. Diamond-tipped pins. He’dthought about keeping them as a memento, but dug them out of his pocket now and handedthem to her, hoping it would forestall another tirade. It didn’t.
“I donotcare for the way you threatened me last night!” she began.
He shrugged. “If you’re going to make outlandish accusations about me, I can makea more realistic one about you—that you seem to have a habit of conducting nighttimetrysts with strange men.”
“When you put my family at risk, there is no comparison!” she said furiously. “I demandan explanation.”
Nathan gnashed his teeth in frustration. He wasn’t about to spill his guts to herand tell her about his unusual situation when he didn’t know her and had no reasonto trust her with the truth. Beautiful in the extreme, she was still a nabob. Andhe wasn’t so sure she was going to spread her suspicions around either. If she was,why would she have come looking for him this morning to discuss them again? He justhad to come up with a way to ensure her silence, or at least some explanation thatshe would believe so she could laugh off her damned conclusions. Or maybe anotherbit of truth would suffice. . . .
“Tremayne!” was suddenly bellowed from the quarterdeck.
Nathan hissed under his breath, “Bleedin’ hell. I knew better than to talk to youwhen you’ve got relatives crawling all over this ship—including my captain.”
“Why are you even aboard? Escaping a hangman’s noose in England?”
In exasperation he said, “No, chasing down my ship, which was stolen.”
“Yet another lie? Good God, do you ever say anything that’s true?” Then she smirked,“But that was just my uncle’s ‘come here’ voice, not his ‘come here and die’ voice.You’ll hear the latter after I tell him who you really are, Nathan Tremayne.”
He was out of time to talk her around, so he said, “Give me a chance to explain beforeyou do anything we’ll both regret. It’s not what you think.”
He left her with that, and hopefully enough doubt to keep her pretty mouth shut forthe time being.
Nathan approached Captain Malory with a good deal of annoyance. The man’s summonscouldn’t have come at a worse time, when he still had an ax hanging over his headfrom the man’s niece. But he didn’t think a few more minutes with Judith would removethat ax. She’d had two weeks to convince herself that her suspicions about him wereaccurate. He might need just as long to change her mind—if he could. And if he couldn’t?If she spread her tale anyway?
He supposed he could jump the gun on her and make a full confession right now to heruncle—captain to captain. Like hell he would. That would only be a logical path ifthe man weren’t a lord, too. Damned nabobs were too unpredictable. And he knew nothingabout Judith Malory’s uncle other than he was a rich lord with sledgehammers for fists—andhe liked to fight. Nathan had definitely gotten that impression the other night.
At least he didn’t think this Malory was the one he needed to avoid. He doubted thecaptain was going to want retribution for what had happened on the docks, not whenhe’d let him go after Hammett’s sailor. However, as captain he was king of this shipfor the duration, his word law, his dictates followed whether they were fair or not,and if Nathan had just gotten on his bad side because of a woman, Nathan was goingto be furious—with himself.
He’d been so stupid last night, letting that pretty face dazzle him. Talking to heras if there could be no consequences for it, and then to forget that entirely aftershe made her accusations, which could bring even worse consequences. He should havewalked away when he had the chance to, before she realized who he was.
It was laughable. This was supposed to be the easy part of this trip. The hard partwasn’t supposed to start until they arrived in Connecticut and he had to convincethe law-enforcing Yanks over there to help him, an Englishman, take down their owncriminals. At the most he’d be giving them a good laugh over that. At the worst, theycould toss him in jail instead for his audacity or run him out of town. But he stillhad a few weeks before he found out how strongly animosity still ran between the twocountries that had gone to war with each other more’n once.
He didn’t look behind him to see if the reason for his latest predicament had scurriedoff. He could still see her in his mind’s eye, though, softly rounded, exquisite inevery detail, lush, sensual lips, far too beautiful for any one woman to be. If hecouldn’t talk her around, maybe he could seduce her into keeping silent instead.
The moment the thought occurred to him, he made his decision. That’s how he wouldhandle Judith Malory. He hadn’t felt so good about a decision in ages. So what ifshe was surrounded by family on this ship and the lot of them were aristocrats. Hewas used to living dangerously.
When Nathan approached James Malory, he saw him conversing with his first mate. Artielooked contrite, as if he’d just received a tongue-lashing.
“I didn’t know you wanted it set up before we sailed . . . ,” Artie was saying.
The captain’s back was turned toward Nathan, so he didn’t intrude. Malory in a billowingwhite shirt open at the neck, tight, buff breeches, black, knee-high boots, and hairto his shoulders didn’t look any more like a nabob now than he had the other night.Glancing around, Nathan realized he was the only member of the crew who was properlydressed. Like the captain, the other sailors had all stowed their jackets and were workingmore comfortably in their shirtsleeves. After all, it wasn’t a military ship wherethe crew had to button up in uniforms.
Nathan was about to shrug out of his own coat when Malory turned and noticed him.“My brother has a bone to pick with you,” he stated baldly.
Nathan winced. “I was hoping you wouldn’t remember me from the other night.”
“Forget hair like yours? Not bloody likely.”
But the captain was grinning as if from a fond memory, prompting Nathan to ask cautiously,“You aren’t angry that I punched your brother?”
“Not a’tall. Found it highly amusing, actually. Ain’t often Tony gets taken by surpriselike that. But he’ll want a rematch, so you might want to avoid him for a few days.As it happens, the project I have for you will see to that nicely. I’m told you’remy carpenter, but how experienced are you?”
Relieved he wasn’t going to be questioned about the fight on the dock or be reprimandedfor talking to the captain’s niece, Nathan answered honestly, “Three years, sir. Twoto master building and repairing, and then I spent a year branching out to furnishings.Before that I built chimneys. Before that, I tried my hand at painting and roofing.”
“A jack-of-all-trades—for landlubbers? Then what are you doing onThe Maiden George?”
“I inherited my father’s ship a few years ago, but she was stolen last week. Thisgroup of thieves has been plaguing England for a good decade, but not so often thatthe authorities could piece together who they were or what they were doing with theships.”
“That doesn’t answer my question, dear boy, but it does pose another. A captain reducedto ship’s carpenter? Do you like the sea so much that you’ll sail in any capacity?”
“Your destination is exactly where I need to go to get my ship back.”
James chuckled. “Ah, there we have it, an ulterior motive. So your thieves are Yanks,are they? I find that particularly priceless, ’deed I do. Can’t wait to mention itto my brother-in-law. But fess up, how did you figure that out?”
“I didn’t. A Commander Burdis captured one of the thieves and he has an ax to grindwith them because they killed one of his men. He agreed to tell me where to find thethieves and my ship if I agreed to put them out of business for him.”
“So you’re actually working for the government?”
“Of course, can’t step on Yank toes without stirring up another war, can we,” Jamessaid drily.
“Something like that was mentioned.”
“Well, a captain you may be, but not on this voyage.”
“I’ll earn my way.”
“You will indeed, and that begins now. My first mate remembered to load the materialsfor it, but now he tells me he forgot to informyouthat I want an exercise ring built in my ship’s hold. Fetch your tools and meet himbelow. He’ll show you where to build it.”
“An exercise ring?”
James had started to turn away but stopped and a frown formed. “Donottell me you don’t know what an exercise ring is.”
Nathan stiffened, ready for battle. The man looked downright menacing when he frowned.But Nathan had to know what he was building in order to build it. The only rings heknew about were for pugilists. Surely that’s not what the captain was talking about.Or was he?
The frown vanished. “Splendid, so you do know.”
“How large do you want it?”
“The size of the tarpaulin will determine the dimensions for the platform. A footoff the floor will suffice. I’ve been assured everything you will need for it is downthere. And, Tremayne, don’t take too long building it. I’m already feeling a needto make use of it.”
“It shouldn’t take more’n a day, Captain Malory.”
“Excellent. Do a good job and you can test it out with me—yes, yes, I know I alreadyoffered you that job and you turned it down, but it sounds now like you might havesome frustration to work off, lost ship and all, so you might want to reconsider.By the by, did you get your answers from that sailor the other night?”
“I suppose I should apologize for interfering in that little contretemps you werein. You didn’t really look like you needed help. I just deplore passing up a spotof exercise when it presents itself so handily. But run along now. You’ve my ringto build.”
Malory didn’t seem to be a bad sort—for a captain. Nathan had told him nothing hedidn’t mind sharing. And the man was right, he could use an outlet for his frustration,just not for the reason he’d stated. But to spar with his captain, at sea, probablywouldn’t be in his best interests. The man obviously didn’t expect to lose, but whatif he did? And ended up angry because of it?
No, the better course would be to avoid any further discourse with the captain altogether,which shouldn’t be too hard. The first mate and the boatswain would be getting theirorders from him. Those two had to deal with James Malory on this trip, Nathan didn’t.Thank God.
As soon as Nathan had stepped up on the quarterdeck, Judith had moved to stand justbelow it, where she could hear what was being said without being seen. But what sheheard just fueled her anger all the more. More and more lies. Did the manevertell the truth? But he was going to have to. His “Give me a chance to explain beforeyou do anything we’ll both regret. It’s not what you think” was the only reason shehadn’t gone over to her uncle with him. Well, there was also the fact that James wasthe only member of her family who would just shrug at the news that a smuggler wason his ship.
It was her father she needed to inform, not his brother. Yet she didn’t go in searchof Anthony either. The smidgen of doubt that Nathan had planted in her mind held herback.
She went to Jacqueline’s cabin instead to see if she was awake yet. Her cousin wouldnever forgive her if she wasn’t the first to know that their ex-ghost had been foundand who hereallywas, but Judith hadn’t had a chance to tell her yet. Last night after retrievingthe book for Katey, her father had engaged her in a game of backgammon, which theyhad still been playing when Jack went off to bed.
But Jacqueline was still sound asleep now, and it only took Judith a moment to realizewhere she wanted to be. With Nathan Tremayne still firmly in her mind, she headedfor where she knew she’d find him. But when she got there, she could hear him talkingto Artie, so she went back on deck. She knew it was inappropriate for a lady to bealone with a member of the crew, and she didn’t want Artie to mention to anyone thatshe’d sought Nathan out.
The moment Artie appeared back on deck, she headed down to the hold again. She peekedinto the cargo deck before she took the last few steps down the stairway. Nathan wasalone now. He was unpacking one of the crates so he didn’t notice her approach. He’dremoved his jacket and had even unfastened the top buttons of his shirt, which wasn’tsurprising because it was warmer in the hold than it was on deck. She couldn’t takeher eyes off him. He looked rather dashing like this. If Jack could see him, she wouldsay he looked like a pirate—no, Judith reminded herself, like a smuggler.
The reminder got her eyes off him for a moment. She looked around the large cargohold, which appeared almost empty because the ship wasn’t carrying any cargo for sale.Provisions were stored along the sides in crates and barrels of various sizes. Towardthe stern, pens contained farm animals that would be brought to the galley as needed.She could hear the clucking of a few chickens in the distance. Nathan was standingnext to a pile of building materials, but otherwise, most of the space was empty,so there was plenty of room for the exercise ring he’d been tasked to build.
“Not exactly what you expected a ship’s carpenter to have to do, is it?”
He stiffened at the sound of her voice, but he didn’t glance up. “Go away, trouble,”he said in a grouchy tone. “We can continue ourdebateafter I’m done working.”
She ignored the unflattering name and the suggestion. “We need to clarify a few matters.And the sooner you accomplish your task, the sooner we can do that. I can help.”
“The devil you can.”
“You need to measure the tarpaulin before you begin building the ring, don’t you?I can help you spread it out.”
He turned to her. “So you were eavesdropping?”
She saw no reason to deny it. “I was just making sure that my uncle didn’t kill you.”
His eyes narrowed. “Spit it out. Are you joking about him or not?”
She shrugged. “That’s a matter of perspective. To me he’s the sweetest man, my bestfriend’s loving father, my father’s closest brother. Really, he’s just a big, cuddlybear.”
“But what about to people who aren’t members of his family?”
“Some people do fear him, I suppose, but I can’t imagine why.”
Nathan grunted. “I can. I saw him make mince of four blokes in a matter of minutesthe night before last. He’s bleedin’ well lethal with his fists.”
“Well, everyone knows that. He and my father are both superlative pugilists. Theyhave been for years. It’s a skill they honed when they were London’s most notoriousrakes.”
“D’you even know what you’re talking about? Fighting and seducing women have nothingto do with each other.”
“Course they do, when you consider how often they were challenged to duels by angryhusbands. But they had no desire to kill a man just because the poor chap had an unfaithfulwife, so they took a lot of those challenges to the ring instead. They still won eitherway.”
Nathan took a step toward her. “I would think such worldly matters would be kept fromtender ears like yours.”
She backed up. Was it the subject matter that had turned his green eyes sensual? Herpulse began to race. She took a deep, steadying breath, but it sounded like a sigheven to her ears. So she blurted out, “It was common knowledge, not a family secret.”
He kept moving toward her. “Does your family have secrets?”
She continued to step back, away from him. “There’s a skeleton or two in most closets,but not as many as I suspect are in yours.”
She thought only briefly about standing her ground. Was he trying to make her nervousabout being alone with him down here? It might not have been the smartest move onher part when the man had his own secrets to hide and she was the only one who knewthem.
She continued to back away from him, but something got in the way. Caught behind herknees, she abruptly sat down on a crate. He took a step back as if he’d just gottenthe results he wanted and said with some amusement, “Stay out of the way if you’restaying.”
He’d done that deliberately!? Her hackles rose immediately as she watched him walkaway. She was about to lambaste him for trying to frighten her when he stopped toadd, “Unless you want that kiss I was thinking about.” He glanced around. “Do you?”
He’d only been going to kiss her? Well, he could have made that clear! “Certainlynot,” she humphed.
He faced her again to say, “Don’t get indignant, darlin’. I was just going to showyou the difference.”
“Between your smuggler’s kiss and mine. Thought it might be a more pleasant way toclear up the confusion for you.”
“I doubt that would indicate anything a’tall.”
He laughed. “He was that good?”
She raised a brow. “That implies you think you’d be better at it?”
He shrugged. “I don’t get complaints, just the opposite. So you might want to thinkabout the offer��instead of worrying that a smuggler might break your pretty neckto keep his secret. Thatdidoccur to you, didn’t it?”
“Is that a not-so-subtle threat?”
“No, I would never threaten you. In fact, I think I’d protect you to my dying breath.”
He’d managed to startle her. “Why?”
“Because only a few things are worth dying for, family, country—and the love of abeautiful woman.”
Why would he even say that!? Merely to plant the seed that something romantic coulddevelop between them if she kept his secret? But he didn’t wait for her to reply.Instead he went about his work, ignoring her, taking the tarpaulin out of its crateand dropping it in the middle of the hold before he began unfolding it.
As she watched him, she saw how efficiently he worked. There wasn’t a single pauseto suggest he didn’t know what he was doing, forcing her to conclude that he had reallylearned carpentry at some point. But had he worked at it for three years as he’d toldJames? When would he have had time to do that if he was smuggling five years ago?Very well, she conceded, maybe he hadn’t been smuggling all that time, but definitelymore recently. He’d admitted he owned his own ship��if what he’d told her uncle wastrue.
She couldn’t take her eyes off him, fascinated by the way his muscles flexed as hestaked out the four corners. He was far too muscular for a common seaman. She couldsee him captaining his own ship, though. Had he built the ship himself? Is that whyhe’d learned carpentry? Then who had taught him to sail it?
Good God, she had so many questions. One just led to another. Yet she still didn’task him any, was even having trouble breathing when he removed his shirt and tossedit aside as he began hammering together the first side of the platform. His chestwas already gleaming with sweat. She was feeling warm, too, so she shrugged out ofher coat and draped it over the crate she was sitting on.
“Besides, I can think of much nicer things to do with your neck,” he suddenly said,as if there had been no break in their conversation. And then: “No blush?”
She took her eyes off his chest and saw that he was looking at her again, had caughther staring at him. That brought on a blush. But had he actually been thinking abouther neck all this time?
“There were more’n two rakes in my family, so there isn’t much that can embarrassme.”
“I seem to be having an easy time of it,” he said with a chuckle.
“You’re deliberately trying to embarrass me, so stop it.”
“Not deliberately, or do you think I’m in the habit of talking to fine ladies likeyourself? Believe me, the women of my acquaintance don’t blush.” He gave her a grin,then turned more serious. “What made you think you’d heard my voice before last night—asidefrom five years ago, which even you know is too long ago to remember something likethat?”
“It wasn’t your voice. It’s what you keep calling me. ‘Darling.’ The smuggler calledme that, too.”
“You think sweet words aren’t commonly used? That I’m really the only man to use thatone?”
“If you’re not a smuggler, what are you?”
“As has already been established, a shipowner and a carpenter. You should let it goat that.”
“When you also said you were just here to earn a living?” she reminded him. “You realizeone lie means everything you say is suspect.”
He chuckled. “You’re very suspicious for someone so young. A fine lady like you, howdo you even know about smugglers and the like?”
“You’d be amazed what some of the members of my family have been involved in.”
“I’m not sharing secrets, you are.”
“Not while I’m working, I’m not.”
She ignored that to ask, “Can you really finish this ring in a day as you told myuncle?”
“Yes, even if I had to cut the lumber, which I don’t. Artie said he got all the materialsfrom a man who builds rings for a living, so it’s already cut to specifications andjust needs to be put together. Are you worried I’ll get on your uncle’s bad side ifI disappoint him?”
“No, when that happens, I doubt it will have anything to do with your carpentry job.”
“It will if you keep distracting me,” he retorted.
She suppressed a grin. “Iwasbeing quiet. You brought up necks.”
He snorted but continued to hammer, even when he asked a few minutes later, “How oftendid your father and your uncle lose those challenges you mentioned?”
“They never did.”
“Never? Even when they get taken by surprise?”
“Who would dare do that?”
He didn’t appear to like her answer, but since he could apparently work and converseat the same time, she continued, taking a different tack. “I have to say, that wasa very good excuse you came up with, instead of admitting that you’re running fromthe law.”
“That you’re chasing a stolen ship. Did you build it yourself?”
“No, I inherited her from my father two years ago.”
“So you’ve been smuggling for only two years?”
She slipped that in hoping to get him to tell the truth while he was distracted byhis work, but it didn’t happen.
He glanced her way. “I’ve told you how wrong you are, yet you do seem to be very curiousabout me, so why don’t we make a deal. I’ll answer your questions over the courseof the voyage if you’ll answer some of mine, and we’ll agree to keep each other’ssecrets.”
“I don’t have any secrets that would land me in jail,” she said pertly.
He shrugged. “Neither do I, but if you don’t want to strike a bargain, so be it.”
“Not so fast, I didn’t say that. Let me be clear, you’re offering to tell me yourlife story, the truthful version, if I agree to keep what you say to myself?”
“You’ll have to do more’n that. You can tell no one that we’ve met before. That willhave to beoursecret.”
“But my cousin Jack—”
She snapped her mouth shut. She wasn’t sure she could keep secrets from Jack and certainlydidn’t want to when they always shared everything. Annoyed, she said, “I seem to begetting the short end of the stick. I’ll have to think of something else you can dofor me to more evenly balance this agreement.”
“Then we have one?”
“We do.” She got up to shake hands on it, but heard her name being called. “I haveto go. Jack’s calling for me.”
“That’s a woman’s voice.”
“Yes, it is, but there’s no time to explain.”
“There’s time for this.”
She was already hurrying to the stairway and wasn’t going to stop to find out whathe meant. So she didn’t see him put down his hammer and reach for her. But suddenlyhe was holding her quite intimately with one of his arms around her waist and theother halfway around her shoulders with his hand behind her neck. She was bent slightlyback as his lips moved softly against hers.
Such a classic pose he had her in, romantic really, yet it did run through her mindthat he was stealing kisses from her again. But this time she knew who was doing it,not some faceless rogue, but an incredibly handsome one. So when she did what sheknew she was supposed to do and tried to push away from him, the merely halfheartedeffort brought her hands sliding up his bare chest to his shoulders. And before shecould try again, the pleasant way his lips were moving over hers caused such scintillatingfeelings to flutter inside her that she didn’t want to pull away from him.
The foray was simply too sensual, the way he parted her lips with his, sucking onher lower lip, nibbling at her upper lip, then running his tongue over both beforeflicking it teasingly at hers. His hold tightened and he deepened the kiss, sendingher pulse thrumming erratically and a wave of heat over her whole body.
Utterly immersed in what he was doing to her, she was surprised when he let her goand she found herself standing there without his help. Her eyes flew open to findhim giving her a curious look she couldn’t fathom.
“Was there a difference?” he asked.
That’swhy he’d kissed her? “You already know there was a difference because you know howbrief that other kiss was and that it ended like this.”
She didn’t slap him as hard as she’d done that night at the old house. Which was probablywhy he laughed. “I guess the bargain is off?”
“No, but Iwillthink of something unpleasant for you to do to keep up your end of the bargain—besidesgiving me the truth.”
“I doubt anything to do with you could be unpleasant, darlin’.”
“Even if I keep you at my beck and call, subject to my whims?”
He grinned. “Sounds like the pot just got sweetened for me.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” she huffed.
“Oh, I am. As long as it doesn’t get me in trouble with the captain, I’m yours tocommand. Would you like to seal our bargain with another kiss?”
She didn’t answer as she marched up the stairs. She’d amused him more than enoughfor one day. When they met again, she’d have the upper hand and she planned to keepit that way.
“She looks lonely and sad,” Judith said to Jacqueline as she gazed at Catherine Benedek,who had just appeared on deck, her brown hair so tightly wound up the wind hadn’tdisturbed it yet.
“And why is that our business?” Jacqueline asked.
They were sitting on one of the steps between decks nibbling on pastries, far to theside so the sailors could navigate to and fro without having to ask them to move outof the way. Judith hadn’t yet quite recovered from lying to Jack when she’d askedwhere Judith had been. And her cheeks had gone up in flames because of it. But Jacquelinehad already grabbed her hand to lead her to the steps, so she hadn’t noticed.
Oh, God, lying to Jack already. Before she’d gone topside, Judith had run to the galleyfor a couple of pastries. She’d needed an excuse for why Jack hadn’t found her ondeck. She’d handed Jack a pastry and said, “I went to the galley for these.” Yet shewas still agonizing.Howwas she going to be able to keep a secret from her dearest friend, when no one knewher better than Jack did?
But the mysterious Catherine Benedek was a useful distraction to get her mind offsecrets and kisses and ex-ghosts, at least briefly. “Aren’t you curious about her?”
“After the way she spoke to you last night outside our cabins, no.”
“I am. Who yells like that for no reason?”
Judith rolled her eyes. “Let’s introduce ourselves.”
“Fine. But if she screeches again, I’m going to toss her over the rail.”
Jacqueline threw the rest of her pastry over the railing and dusted off her handson her breeches as she stood up. She’d already donned her ship garb: baggy pants,a loose shirt, and a pink scarf over her head, which kept her long, blond hair securelybound up. And she didn’t bother with shoes or boots, preferring to go barefoot. She’dhad three sets of work clothes tailored for the voyage and three sets made for Judith,too, even though Judith had told her she wouldn’t wear them. They both loved sailing,but Judith had no desire to help with the actual work of sailing, as Jack did.
“You barely touched that pastry,” Judith said as she dusted crumbs from her hands,too. “Are you feeling all right?”
“I probably should have resisted the fresh milk Nettie brought me last night. I gottoo much sleep because of it and now I feel a bit sluggish, is all.”
“Nettie brought me a glass as well, but it didn’t cause me to oversleep, so I doubtit was the milk. Are you sure you haven’t caught something? Are you feverish?”
Jacqueline swatted Judith’s hand away when she tried to feel her brow. “Stop fussing,Mother. I’m fine.”
Judith tsked. “Aunt George would send you back to bed. I only wanted to see if youhave a fever.”
“I don’t. Now can we get our meeting with the harridan over with?”
They had nearly reached the elegantly clad woman, so Judith whispered, “Be nice,”before she made the introductions.
A warm smile revealed the woman was quite pretty, after all. “I’m Catherine Benedek.It’s a pleasure to meet you under better circumstances.”
“So you aren’t always so disagreeable?” Jacqueline asked baldly.
Taken aback, Catherine assured them, “No, only when I’m in pain, as I was yesterday.I had an excruciating headache. Caused by lack of sleep, I suppose. I was rushingto my cabin for some laudanum to help with it. I do apologize for being terse.”
“You still have an American accent,” Jacqueline noted. “You weren’t in Europe verylong?”
“I was.” That sadness was back in Catherine’s light gray eyes. “But my mother wasAmerican, so—”
“Was?” Jacqueline cut in.
“Yes, she died in the recent fire that took Andrássy’s father, too.”
That would certainly account for Catherine’s sadness, Judith thought. “How awful.I’m sorry for your loss.”
“You are kind. But I suppose I have my mother’s accent. I’m surprised you would recognizeit.”
“Jacqueline’s mother is American, and five of her uncles are, too,” Judith explained.“That’s why we’re sailing to America. We’re having a come-out in Connecticut to pleasethe American side of her family. Then we’ll have another one in England to pleasethe other side. I was only able to get permission to go with her at the last minute.I’m actually quite unprepared. My entire new wardrobe still needs some finishing work,mostly just the hems.”
Catherine’s expression lit up. “So Andrássy told you that I love to sew? I would bedelighted to assist you.”
“It seems like an imposition.”
“On the contrary, you would be doingmea favor by relieving my boredom. Say you will at least consider it.”
Judith grinned. “Of course.”
The smile remained on Catherine’s lips, a little wider now. “How very accommodatingof you to travel for such a reason. I, too, have family in America, though Andrássydoesn’t think my father can still be alive after all these years.”
“But you do?”
“Indeed. He was only assumed dead after his ship went down off the coast of Florida.But there were survivors of the shipwreck who returned to Savannah, which was wherewe lived. My father could have survived, too. Maybe he was injured and was recoveringsomewhere. That could have accounted for his not returning home. He might have comehome much later and found us gone and had no idea where to look for us.”
“Then you don’t think your mother’s marriage to Andrássy’s father was even legal?”Jacqueline asked.
“No, I don’t. God rest her soul, it was stupid and shameful of her to remarry so quickly.I hated her for many years for doing that.”
“Really? Your own mother?”
Judith intervened before Jack turned the woman unpleasant again. “Anger can sometimesbe mistaken for hate. It’s understandable, though, that you would be angry at yourmother for giving up on your father when you thought he could still be alive.”
“Thank you for that.” Catherine smiled at Judith. “Barely a month had passed beforemy mother packed our bags and took us to Europe. She told me that we were only goingto visit an old friend of her mother’s in Austria. But within three months of arrivingthere, she met the count, who was in the city on business, and married him. Threemonths! And then I was forced to live in that archaic country of his where Englishis barely spoken.”
“I’m sorry—we’resorry,” Judith said.
But Jack ruined it by adding, “Sounds exciting to me. A new life in a country thatis so different from your own. Have you no sense of adventure a’tall?”
“Adventure? Are you joking?”
“I guess so,” Jacqueline said drily.
Catherine didn’t seem to notice Jacqueline’s tone and changed the subject. “You twolook nothing like Gypsies, as Andrássy does.”
“You expected us to as far back in our ancestry as Anna Stephanoff was?” Jacquelineasked.
“You do have his eyes though, even the exotic shape.”
“Only a few of us have the black hair and eyes you’re referring to,” Judith said.
“What about the gifts?”
Judith frowned. “What exactly are you—”
Jack interrupted with a laugh. “I think she means fortune-telling and other thingsGypsies are renowned for.”
Catherine suddenly looked quite excited. “Yes, indeed. Do you have any special abilities?Or does anyone in your family? I begged Andrássy to ask, but he doesn’t believe insuch things.”
“Neither do we,” Jacqueline said firmly.
The woman looked so disappointed, Judith took pity on her. “Our family does have morethan its fair share of luck, but no one would call it a Gypsy gift.”
“Yet perhaps it is,” Catherine said quickly. “Can you explain?”
Jack was glaring at her, but Judith continued, “Well, for instance, our uncle Edwardis incredibly good with investments, but only some people call him lucky. Others viewhim as being very knowledgeable about financial matters. Our cousin Regina is rathergood at matchmaking. The men and women she pairs up usually end up quite happy together.My father and Jack’s brother, Jeremy, who take after the Gypsy side in looks, werealways lucky with women, and now they’re lucky with their wives, but again, that’shardly considered a gift. And—”
“—that’s the extent of it,” Jacqueline cut in to finish for Judith. “Now, it’s yourturn to tell us what you expected to hear and why?”
“Is it not obvious? I hoped for some help in finding my father. I plan to start mysearch in Savannah, but as I and my mother were his only ties to that city, it isunlikely he is still there. His trade routes were between there and the Caribbean,where he lived before he met my mother. It’s daunting to think we might have to visitevery port in the Caribbean to find him! I at least hoped for assurance that he’salivesomewhere.”
Jacqueline raised a brow.
Judith saw that Catherine was becoming distraught and quickly said, “I’d trust yourinstincts and start your search in Savannah. It really does seem the most logicalplace to start. No doubt you will find some new information about your father there.If you’ll excuse us, we have some unpacking to do.”
Jack dragged Judy away, mumbling under her breath, “Did we have to listen to her life’sstory?”
“We were being polite, and why did you interrupt me back there?”
“Because you were about to tell her about Amy, which is none of her bloody business.”
Judith tsked. “We were just discussing luck, and Amy’sisphenomenal, you’ll have to admit.”
“Yes, but that’s all it is. Don’t think for a minute that Catherine can be trusted,Judy. I don’t fully trust Andrássy either, for that matter.”
“You don’t think it was a bit too convenient, him showing up the night before we leaveand ending up on this ship with us? Just because he’s got eyes like yours doesn’tmean he is a relative.”
Judith laughed. “You’re forgetting he knows all about the Stephanoffs.”
“From a journal that he could simply have found somewhere and decided to use the informationin it for some nefarious end.”
Judith laughed again. “You don’t really believe that.”
“All right, maybe not nefarious. And maybe heisrelated by blood. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t up to no good. So just watch whatyou say, to both of them. We don’t need to spill family secrets just because heseemsgenuine.”
Did Jacquelinehaveto mention secrets when Judith had such a big one of her own now?
“Where is Jacqueline?” Andrássy asked Judith when she arrived alone for dinner thatnight in the captain’s cabin.
“She’s coming. She’s just a little off-kilter today. She overslept this morning, thenoverslept again from the nap she took this afternoon.”
Georgina frowned. “She’s not getting sick, is she?”
“She doesn’t have a fever. I checked.”
“Probably just too much excitement over the last few days,” James guessed, and addedfor his wife, “I wouldn’t worry, m’dear.”
“Whatever you do, don’t suggest she go back to bed,” Judith said with a grin. “She’squite annoyed with herself for spending too much time in it today.”
After that remark, only Andrássy still looked concerned. Judith wondered again iftheir new cousin might be a bit smitten by her best friend. But Jacqueline did arrivea few minutes later, eyes bright and wide-awake now, the picture of good health. Vivaciousin her greetings, she arrived only a few minutes before Artie and Henry brought inthe food, so they all took their seats at the table.
Andrássy had, unfortunately, been placed across from the girls, smack between Jamesand Anthony, which didn’t bode well for him. In fact, after what Jacqueline had confidedto her after luncheon, Judith suspected Andrássy was in for quite a grilling. Jackhad gloated that she wasn’t the only one with reservations about Andrássy. She’d overheardtheir fathers discussing the same thing. Of course, it wasJack’sfather who shared her suspicions that Andrássy might not be who he claimed to be.But then when did James Malory ever take anything at face value? It was a throwbackto his wild youth and ten years of raising hell on the high seas to be suspiciousfirst and agreeable later—maybe.
Georgina inadvertently initiated the interrogation of Andrássy with the query “Yoursister didn’t want to join us for dinner again?”
“I didn’t mention it to her.”
Georgina glanced at the empty seat at the table. “Why not?”
Another innocent question. But then Georgina was completely trusting, unlike her husband.So James obviously hadn’t shared his reservations with his wife yet, only with hisbrother.
“As I mentioned last night, Catherine has moods and isn’t always pleasant company,”Andrássy explained.
And he didn’t want to subject his new family to that? Judith felt compelled to say,“I’ve seen her at her worst, but anyone with a severe headache can get snippy, myselfincluded. Jack and I also had a nice conversation with her when she was feeling better.”
“I wouldn’t call it nice,” Jack put in.
“It wasn’t unpleasant,” Judith insisted.
“Matter of opinion,” Jack mumbled for just her ears.
James gave his daughter a quelling look before he said to Andrássy, “So you woulddescribe your stepsister as hot-tempered? Many women are, including my Jack.”
Jacqueline laughed, no doubt taking her father’s comment as a compliment. But Andrássysaid, “I never thought of it that way, merely that she can be moody. A new home, anew father when she wasn’t reconciled to giving up finding her real father—it wasa difficult time when she and her mother came to live with us.”
“What happened to her father?” Katey asked.
Judith stopped listening as the conversation turned to what Catherine had alreadytold her and Jack. She hoped Jacqueline was noting, though, that the pair did prettymuch have the same story, which made it even more believable. Who could make up somethinglike that? But Nathan Tremayne came quickly to mind.Hecould. He seemed to be quite adept at tall tales, making himself sound like a heroinstead of the criminal he actually was.
She wondered if he had finished his job down in the hold. Likely no, since he probablywasn’treallya carpenter. Any man could wield a hammer, but did he actually have the skills tobuild a proper ring? Oh, God, she hoped her uncle and her father didn’t get hurt whenthey used the exercise ring and it fell apart beneath them.
Whydidn’t she just tell her father about the smuggler so Nathan would be spending thevoyage in the brig where he belonged? She should never have agreed to a bargain withhim, when it just gave him more time to get creative with his lies. Yet, if she didn’thave to keep him a secret from Jack, would she be quite this uneasy about it? Andwhy the deuce did she want to come up with an excuse to leave the table so she couldgo down to the hold to check on him?
She glanced across the table at Andrássy, who was saying, “It’s why she ran away sooften when she was a child. She was trying to get back to America where she grew up,so she could look for her father.”
“Instead of traveling all over the world looking for someone who could be long dead,why don’t you just marry her off?” Anthony suggested.
“I would if I thought it would make her happy. But until this matter of her missingfather is settled, I doubt she will ever be happy in a marriage.”
“So you’re actually concerned about her happiness?” James asked.
“Of course.” Andrássy seemed a little insulted to have been asked that. “The tantrumsshe had as a child were understandable. I don’t even mind her temper. As you say,it’s not something unique. Many women have one. It’s merely embarrassing when it eruptsin public. That is all I wanted to warn you about, so you wouldn’t take offense ifyou witness any unpleasantness of that sort. Because of the fire, she has nothingand no one but me to depend on. But she is my burden, not yours.”
“Are you going to rebuild?” Georgina asked.
“Perhaps someday, but my wish is to return to Austria where I was schooled and continuemy studies there. I paint.”
“I dabble. I hope to do better one day. But I can do nothing with my life until Isettle my stepsister’s.”
“A burden like the one you’re shouldering can kill inspiration,” James said thoughtfully.“What I don’t understand is why you would go so far above and beyond when there isn’teven a blood tie between you. Don’t take offense, dear boy, but that smacks of coercionon her part. So I must ask, does she have some hold over you that you haven’t mentioned?”
“James!” Georgina protested.
But Andrássy actually chuckled. “I am glad you feel you can speak so plainly withme. But consider, I am the last of the Benedek line, but not the last of Maria’s line,and yet I would never have known that if Catherine hadn’t found my great-grandfather’sjournal. So when she beseeched me to help her find her missing parent, I couldn’tin good conscience deny her when I was about to embark on a similar search myself.For family.” Andrássy looked around the table, a warm smile on his face. “You Malorysare so much more than I ever could have imagined. You’ve welcomed me without reservation.”Only Jacqueline looked a little guilty over that comment. “But my father made Catherinea member of my immediate family. Despite the turmoil, he never regretted doing thatbecause her mother made him happy.”
“Is it as simple as that? Obligation, responsibility, and a debt you feel you owe?”
“Sounds like something that would rope you in, James,” Georgina said with a pointedlook. “Oh, wait, it already did, or aren’t those the same reasons you agreed to helpGabrielle Brooks?”
He chuckled. “Guilty.”
“Not to mention, ending up in a pirate’s prison because of it.”
No one jumped in to explain that byplay to Andrássy, but then it was a touchy subjectthat the Andersons, wealthy shipbuilders and owners of a large merchant fleet, nowhad ex-pirates in the family on more than one shore. One long since retired (Georgina’shusband, James) and the other turned treasure hunter (Drew’s father-in-law, NathanBrooks), but still, both guilty of wreaking havoc in their day.
Judith steered the conversation back to Andrássy’s efforts to help his stepsister,telling him, “I think what you are doing is admirable. You’ve given Catherine hope,haven’t you?”
“Yes, I believe so, but I fear she has yet to learn patience.”
Jacqueline opened her mouth, but Judy pinched her under the table, knowing that hercousin was about to say that they’d already experienced the woman’s impatience, andthat she’d got it into her head that a Malory with Gypsy gifts could help her morethan Andrássy could—which wasn’t going to happen and didn’t need to be discussed.
Judith said to Andrássy, “It may not be a quick undertaking, but you may find thatit changes her for the better. You might consider pausing your journey in Bridgeportto allow your sister to have a little fun before you continue on.” She stood up then.It was as good an opportunity as she was going to get to slip away before everyoneelse finished eating. “Now if you will all excuse me, I didn’t get as much rest todayas Jack did. I’m rather tired.”
“Of course, poppet,” Anthony said.
But before Judith left, she leaned down and whispered in Jacqueline’s ear, “I gotyour foot out of your mouth. Don’t put it back in as soon as I leave.”
Jack merely snorted.
Only two lanterns were left burning in the hold, both by the exercise ring, but Judithdidn’t find Nathan there. The ring wasn’t finished but the platform was. The tarpaulinhad even been tacked to it, and two of the four posts were secured to the corners.It only needed the other two posts and the ropes strung between them, so Judith figuredhe thought he could finish that quickly in the morning before James came down to inspectit.
Judith was disappointed that Nathan had quit working for the day as this might wellbe her last chance to speak with him alone. She supposed she could ask him for instructionon some nautical matter during the voyage, maybe even get him up in the rigging wheretheycouldspeak without being overheard. But then she’d have to wear those unflattering clothesJack had had made for her, and besides, Jack would say thatshecould teach her anything she wanted to learn about sailing—unless Judith confessedher interest in Nathan. That wouldn’t be giving away the secret, would it? Courseit wouldn’t. Once Jack got a look at the man, it would be blatantly obvious why Judywas interested in him.
She might as well turn in for the night, but she moved over to the ring to examineit first. She thought about climbing up on the platform to make sure its floor wasas sturdy as it should be, but it was a bit too high off the floor for her, so shejust pressed down on it with her palms.
“Couldn’t stay away?”
She swung around with a gasp. Nathan was sitting on the floor between two crates,one of which still had her coat draped over it. He was leaning back against the bulkhead,holding a plate in one hand and a fork in the other.
She slowly walked over to him, noting that at least he had his shirt back on, andyet her heartbeat still accelerated. “I thought you’d gone.”
“Only long enough to fetch some dinner. Damn fancy grub for a ship, too. Definitelynot what we were served on the short trip from Hampshire to London.”
“There probably wasn’t an actual cook aboard yet. The one we have now isn’t a seaman.My aunt and uncle sail with their own servants, most of whom boarded in London.”
“All the luxuries of home, eh? But now I’m never going to be happy with my own cookagain.”
She smiled at his grumbling tone. “You actually have one? I thought smugglers onlymake short jaunts across the Channel and back, hardly long enough at sea to warrantneeding a cook aboard.”
“I wouldn’t know. But I’ll take your word for it, since you seem to know more aboutsmuggling than I do. But have a seat. You can watch me eat while you tell me aboutmy life.”
Sarcasm, and quite blatant, too. Yet his tone was friendly, his lips even turned upin a grin. So he was merely teasing her again?
“I came for my coat,” she said, though she sat down on top of it again anyway.
“I was going to return it to you.”
She raised a brow. “How, without giving away that I was down here?”
“You don’t think I could have found you alone?”
“Not when I’m with Jack most of the day and we’re with our family in the evenings,so, no, I don’t think so.”
He chuckled. “I have a bed in the carpenter’s storeroom. Well, at the risk of stirringup a hornet’s nest, I’ll mention it’s just a cot.” He waited, but she wasn’t goingto address the cot issue again and merely snorted at his assumption that she would.So he continued, “But I’ve claimed it as my own for a little privacy. You’re welcometo visit any night you feel like—”
“Stop it. You might find this all very amusing, but you should recall, you still havea noose hanging over your head.”
“Breaking a bargain? Really? Thought you nobles had more honor than that.”
“It was a silly bargain—”
“But it was struck—even sealed. Ah, there’s that blush I remember so well.”
“You are insufferable.”
“No, I just have a lot on my plate, including you. And if your word is as wishy-washyas a mood, then it’s not reliable, is it?”
“I’m keeping it, but only for the duration of the voyage as we agreed.”
“That wasn’t the stipulation.”
“Thatwas a foregone conclusion,” she stressed, not giving in on that point. “But don’tworry, you’ll have time to disappear after we dock.”
“Think you’ll want me to by then?”
The question implied they were going to get much more intimately acquainted. His tonehad even dropped to a husky timbre! It jarred her and brought all sorts of questionsto mind that she should be asking herself, not him. She wastooattracted to this man and out of her depth to deal with it. It had held her backfrom doing what she should have done the moment she realized who he was. It had impelledher to strike the Bargain. But she couldn’t let that last question stand.
“You and I won’t—”
His short laugh cut her off. “I merely meant, by the time we dock you’ll be convincedthat I’m innocent and not the blackguard you wrongly think I am.”
Wasshe using her suspicion as an excuse to keep herself from giving in to this attraction?No, he was just good at stirring up doubt.
She reminded him pertly, “Our bargain was for the truth. Do you even know how to tellit?”
“Course I do, darlin’. But d’you know how to recognize it when you hear it?” Yet hedidn’t wait for an answer, not that there was one when his tactics were so evasive.Instead, he got back to the subject he didn’t get to finish that morning. “So tellme how a woman gets a nickname like Jack?”
“Because it’s not a nickname. It’s the name her father gave her at birth.”
“Of course the fact that her maternal uncles, who James doesn’t like the least littlebit, were all present at the birthing might have influenced his decision a tad, buthe couldn’t be swayed to change it.”
“He’s that stubborn?”
Judith smiled. “Depends on who you ask, but in this case, he was absolutely inflexible.However, Jack’s mother, George, made sure—”
“Good God, another woman with a man’s name?”
“No, Georgina is her real name. James just calls her George. Always has, always will.But she made sure Jacqueline appeared on her daughter’s birth record. Nonetheless,among the family the name Jack had already stuck.”
“I’m guessing that explains the odd name of this ship,The Maiden George?”
“Yes, James’s original ship was namedThe Maiden Anne, but he sold her when he retired from the sea. This one he had built when Jack’smother wanted to take Jack to Connecticut to see where she was born. An unnecessaryexpense, really, when George and her brothers own Skylark Shipping, which is a verylarge fleet of American merchant ships, and at least one of them is docked in Englandat any given time. But as I mentioned, my uncle doesn’t exactly like his five Andersonbrothers-in-law. He refuses to sail on their vessels short of a dire emergency. Andnow it’s my turn to ask a question.”
He stood up abruptly at the noise suddenly coming from the animals down at the endof the hold. She looked in that direction, too. Probably just a rat scurrying pastthem, or a cat on the prowl for one. But Nathan set his plate down on the other crateand went to investigate anyway.
Not exactly adhering to the Bargain of tit for tat with questions, she noted withsome annoyance, which she would point out when he came back. But he didn’t come back. . . .
Nathan didn’t expect to find anything in the back of the hold. He just didn’t wantto lose his advantage in this bout of verbal sparring with Judith, which would havehappened if she started interrogating him again so soon. He preferred to keep herdistracted from the facts as long as possible, or at least until he could better ascertainher reaction to them.
He hadn’t decided if he should appeal to her sympathy—if she had any—with some truthshe could share? Or admit everything, including that he owned the house in Hampshireand had a pardon waiting for him? Unfortunately, he didn’t think she was likely tobelieve either. But if he told her too much and did convince her that he was innocent,their bargain would come to an end and he’d lose her company. And he liked her company.Liked teasing her, too. Liked the way her mouth pursed in annoyance. Liked the wayher eyes could spark with anger or humor. Definitely liked the way she’d felt in hisarms. Bleeding hell, there was nothing about her that he didn’t like—other than herstubborn insistence that he was a smuggler.Whywas she so certain? What was he missing?
He was jumped the moment he passed the crate where the man had been crouched in hiding,and it was his own damn fault for having his mind filled with Judith instead of thematter at hand. And it was no scrawny runt either that tackled him to the floor. Hewas nearly as big as Nathan. In the brief glimpse he’d caught of him, he’d seen ayoung man with queued-back blond hair and dark eyes, who was barefoot but not poorlyclad in a shirt made of fine linen and a fancy gold-link chain at his neck. Nathandidn’t recognize him as a member of the crew, and he doubted one of the servants Judithhad mentioned would attack him.
The noise of their hard landing startled the chickens into squawking and set one ofthe pigs squealing. Nathan was only startled for a moment before instinct kicked in.He rolled, taking the man with him, and got in one solid punch before he was thrustback and the man scrambled to his feet. But he didn’t run. He pulled a dagger fromthe back of his britches and took a swipe at Nathan just as Nathan got to his feet.He felt the sting of the blade on his chest, but didn’t look down to check the damage.His anger kicked in full force because of it.
He’d never been in a knife fight before and had no weapon on him to counter it. Hecould have improvised with a hammer or a file, but his toolbox was too far away andhe would likely get that dagger in his back if he ran for it. He positioned his armsinstead to block the next swipe, but doubting that would be effective, he just triedto stay out of reach instead. But that wasn’t going to be possible for much longer.
Weighing his options, he saw they were sorely lacking. Knock the dagger out of theman’s hand so he could have a fair fight with him, which he knew he could win, orsend Judith for help if she hadn’t already run out of there. The second option didn’tappeal to him in the least, and he would be dead before assistance arrived. Then athird option slid across the floor and stopped near his feet. His hammer.
The man spotted it, too, and quickly stepped forward with his dagger extended to moveNathan back from it. There was no time to think, but there was no way he was givingup the opportunity Judith had just given him. He turned his back on the man, droppedto the floor, and, bracing his hands on the floor, kicked backward. He didn’t connectwith his attacker, but it startled the man sufficiently to give Nathan the time heneeded to grasp the hammer and rise to his feet, swinging it. He connected with theman’s shoulder and the man stepped back. Nathan had the upper hand now and they bothknew it.
He took the offensive with some steady swings. Sparks flew when the hammerhead struckthe blade, but the blond man held fast to his dagger, although Nathan had him movingbackward. He’d soon be out of room to maneuver with the animal pen behind him, buthe might not know that yet.
With the advantage his now and not wanting to actually kill the man, Nathan said,“Give it up, man. Better than getting your head bashed in.”
“Bugger off!” the man snarled, but desperation was in his expression, which warnedNathan the man was about to try something, and he did, flipping the dagger in hishand so he was holding it by the tip and raising his arm to throw it. Nathan onlyhad a second to react, and the quickest way to get out of the path of that daggeror to stop it was to dive at the man.
He did, plowing them both into the fence of the animal pen, which broke with theircombined weight. They hit the ground, animals scattering and raising a cacophony ofpanicked noises. But Nathan pressed his broad chest against his attacker’s daggerarm so the man couldn’t move his weapon, if indeed he still held it. Letting go ofthe hammer, Nathan smashed his fist into the man’s face, once, twice, three times.Twice had been enough to knock him out.
Nathan took a deep breath and sat up. The dagger was still within his assailant’sreach so Nathan shoved it out of the pen before he glanced down at his chest to seeif he was wounded. The blade had sliced open his shirt and his skin stung. He’d beenscratched, but not seriously enough to draw more than a few drops of blood.
“Are you all right?”
She was still there? He glanced up and saw how upset she looked and assured her, “I’mfine.”
“But he attacked you. Why?!”
“Damned if I know.” He got to his feet and dragged the man out of the pen before headded, “He’s not a member of the crew, obviously.”
She was frowning down at the man. “He’s not a member of my uncle’s kitchen staff either.I know them all.”
“Must be a stowaway then.”
“But stowaways don’t try to kill people once they’ve been discovered.”
She had a point. It was a minor crime that usually only got the culprit some timein the brig or forced labor until the ship reached land. Then most captains wouldsimply let the stowaway go. The man’s aggression didn’t make much sense. He couldn’thave been in the hold since they’d left London. Nathan was sure of that. The animalswould have given him away sooner, and sailors who came down here several times a dayfor provisions would have noticed him. The man had to have been hiding somewhere elseand snuck down here when Nathan went to fetch his dinner.
He grabbed a crate and used it to block the broken part of the fence so all the animalsdidn’t get out before he could repair it.
Judith, watching him, suddenly gasped. “You’re hurt!”
“No, it’s nothing.”
“Let me see.”
She rushed over to him. He rolled his eyes at her, but she was too intent on openingthe tear in his shirt wider so she could check his wound. But it gave him time torealize she was a little more concerned than she ought to be about someone she wantedto see in prison. Was she so compassionate that she’d help anyone in need?
She finally brought her eyes back to his. “It’s just a scratch.”
He smiled. “I know. You should have run the other way when the fight started, butI’m glad you didn’t. The hammer tipped the scales in my favor. Clever of you to thinkof it.”
She blushed. “I got angry that he wasn’t fighting fairly. Ididthink about hitting him with a plank of lumber first, but I had no confidence thatmy swing would be effective.”
He laughed at the image that brought up. He seemed to be doing a lot of that aroundher—yet another reason why he liked her company. “Never thought I would end up gratefulfor that temper of yours or have to thank you for it, but you definitely have my thanks,darlin’.”
He bent down and hefted the unconscious man over his shoulder.
“Where are you taking him?”
“Your uncle needs to be informed about this, so take your coat and go before the commotionstarts. He could order the entire ship searched tonight for more stowaways, and Idoubt you want to be found down here.”
“Quite right. I’m leaving now. No need to wait on me.”
He still paused at the stairway to make sure Judith was safely out of there beforehe went up. The possibility that there was more than one stowaway would explain whythe unconscious man had jumped Nathan instead of just giving himself up. Had he beendistracting Nathan from finding his partner? When Nathan reached the main deck, hedropped his heavy load.
The man didn’t stir even a little, but Nathan couldn’t leave him there alone, so hesimply yelled for the first mate. Only a few sailors were on deck at that time ofnight, but they came forward to investigate, one of them bringing a lantern.
“Cor, you decked one of the cap’n’s London servants?” a sailor guessed. “Cap’ won’tbe pleased.”
“Fetch him and we’ll find out,” Nathan replied.
Artie arrived and peered down at the man. “He don’t belong here. Where’d you findhim, Mr. Tremayne?”
Nathan explained to Artie what had happened, then had to repeat it all when the captainjoined them. If Malory was annoyed that someone would dare board his ship withoutpermission, he hid it well. In fact, the man’s face was without expression of anysort.
“He’s not one of the crew, Cap’n, and from what Mr. Tremayne is telling us, he doesn’tappear to be a typical stowaway, either,” Artie pointed out.
“No, he doesn’t.” James stared down at the man and nudged him with the toe of hisboot to see if he was close to coming round yet, but the man didn’t move. “Did youhave to hit him quite so hard, Mr. Tremayne?”
“I dropped my hammer first” was all Nathan said in his defense.
The slight quirk to the captain’s lips was too brief to tell if it was amusement.“Our conclusion that he’s not on board for the ride begs the question, what is hedoing on my ship?” James said. “And why hasn’t someone fetched water yet so we canbring him to and ascertain that?”
But the moment a sailor ran off for a bucket, Andrássy appeared with sword in hand,yelling, “How dare he endanger my family? I’ll kill him!”
The count looked enraged enough to do just that as he ran down from the quarterdeck.Nathan leapt toward him to stop him.
Looking annoyed, James did, too, shoving Andrássy back. “What the devil d’you thinkyou’re doing?” James demanded ominously. “I need answers, not blood.”
“But—are the women not in danger?” Andrássy asked, lowering his sword.
“Bloody hell,” James snarled. “Just stay out of—”
Nathan turned back and saw that the stowaway must have leapt to his feet, knockeddown the only sailor still next to him, the one who’d just yelled, while they’d beendistracted, and dived over the side of the ship. Nathan only saw the man’s legs beforehe disappeared.
Incredulous, Nathan ran to the rail. “What the devil? Does he think he can swim backto England?”
The others had come to the rail, too. One sailor shouted, “Should we fish him out?”
“How?” the one with the lantern said in frustration as he held it over the rail. “Doyou even see him down there? I don’t.”
Nathan couldn’t spot the man either. Unlike last night when the sky had been clear,tonight a long bank of clouds covered the moon. More men arrived with more lanterns,but the light still didn’t extend far enough for them to spot the stowaway. Nathancould hear the sounds of splashing, which indicated the stowaway was swimming awayfrom the ship. And then he heard something else. . . .
“Oars,” he said to James. “There’s at least one rowboat nearby, so there must be aship, too.”
“Artie!” James started barking orders. “Get every man on deck armed in case this isa sneak attack. You two”—he pointed at the sailors—“get one of our smaller boats inthe water and go after them. If it’s not an attack, I want that bloody stowaway back.Henry, get the man in the crew with the best night vision and send him up in the rigging.I want to know what’s happening down there.”
Nathan ran to the other side of the ship, but hestillcouldn’t see anything in the water. Moving around the ship, he did ascertain thatthe sound of the oars could only be heard on the side of the ship where the man hadjumped. The sound was growing fainter, and finally it could only be heard from thestern.
He was on his way to inform James of that when Walter, the sailor with the best nightvision, who hadn’t needed to climb far to use it, called out, “Behind us, Captain!”
James moved to the stern immediately with the crew following him. Artie handed himhis spyglass, but James didn’t bother to use it. He glanced up at the thick cloudsoverhead instead and swore foully.
But Walter yelled down again: “Just one rowboat, moving swiftly back to the big ship.Our boat isn’t close yet, Captain. Doesn’t look like we can overtake it.”
Then the clouds thinned, just enough for the moon to cast a dim light on the water.James quickly brought up the spyglass and said a moment later, “She’s three mastedand fully rigged—and pulling about to show off her cannon.”
“To fire on us?” someone asked.
“No, she’s not close enough. I’m guessing it’s merely a maneuver to deter us fromattempting to bring their man back for questioning. Artie, call our boat back. I’mnot going to risk their lives if they don’t have a chance of overtaking the otherboat.” Then James swore again as the light faded. “Bloody mysteries, I deplore them.”
The comment hadn’t been directed at any one of them in particular, but members ofthe crew tried to figure out what had just happened.
“Not piracy or they would have fired on us.”
“Only one rowboat, so it wasn’t a sneak raid,” someone else said.
“For that rowboat to be halfway toThe Maiden Georgewhen the man jumped means that a rendezvous had to be arranged for sometime tonight,”Nathan speculated.
“Since I am doubtful of coincidences, I agree,” James said. “But we have been at seaonly two days. What could he have expected to accomplish in so little time?”
“Sabotage,” Artie offered.
“To sink us?” James shook his head. “Too drastic and forfeits innocent lives.”
“Perhaps they don’t care,” Artie said, “But I’ll have the ship searched from top tobottom.”
“If he was here for revenge, he might have been prepared to do the killing tonightand then jump ship.”
“But you caught him first? I suppose that is possible, but my enemies tend to be impatient.The man would have tried to kill me by now if he wanted me dead. I suppose the crewcan be questioned to find out if anyone else has a relentless enemy.”
Nathan did, but Grigg wouldn’t send a man on a suicide mission to kill him even ifhe had discovered Nathan was on this ship, so he didn’t mention it. He suggested somethingnot quite as nefarious instead.
“It could be that the stowaway was retrieving something that ended up on the shipby accident. He might have thought he could find it in a couple of days and maybehe did. He could have been waiting for me to leave the hold where he was hiding, butI found him instead.”
“That possibility isn’t wholly implausible, but it doesn’t explain his immediatelyattacking you instead of trying to talk his way out of the hold. He could have claimedto be a crewman or a servant. No one but the first mates knows everyone aboard myship.”
Which was how the man could have gotten around on the ship without much notice, toeat and do whatever else he was there to do, Nathan thought. But he was done guessingwhen that’s all they could do. It accomplished nothing.
“Do we turn about then, Cap’n?” one of the men asked.
“No, we’re not giving chase, not with my family aboard,” James said. “But I want constantsurveillance of that ship that’s trailing us. If it approaches, I want to know aboutit. And set up shifts of armed crewmen to patrol theThe Maiden Georgetonight.”
“I’m beginning to hate mysteries m’self,” Nathan mumbled.
James nodded and turned to his first mate. “I suspect this will go unsolved for thetime being, but gather the rest of the crew and search the supplies for anything outof the ordinary. And every nook and cranny, for that matter, to make sure this wasn’ta joint undertaking. Give me the results as soon as you’re finished. I’m going backto my cabin.” Then James paused to turn to Nathan again. “Did you finish my ring,Mr. Tremayne?”
“I’ll have it done within the hour, Captain.”
“It can wait until morning. You’ve done enough for one day.”
Nathan nodded. “You said ‘unsolved for the time being.’ Do you think they’ll continueto follow us if they didn’t get what they were after?”
“Oh, I’m quite depending on it.”
Judith couldn’t believe she was going to do this. Again. It was so against her natureto sneak about like this. There had to be another way to talk to Nathan without stirringup any curiosity about it. But she couldn’t think of anything.
She hurried down to the lower level, aware that she had so little time she might aswell not even bother. It was midmorning already. She hadn’t meant to sleep this lateand Jack would be looking for her soon if she didn’t oversleep again, too. She might,though, after coming to Judith’s cabin last night before she retired. Jack had hadto share with her everything that she’d learned from her father about the stowaway,and Judith couldn’t even admit she already knew half of it. Darned secrets . . .
She found Nathan putting his tools away. The exercise ring was finished. And he’dalready repaired the animal pen. A few more minutes and she would have missed him.
He confirmed that, saying, “I was just leaving. Didn’t think you were going to payme a visit—and what the devil are you wearing?”
“Clothes that are easy to put on. My maid let me oversleep and I was too impatientto wait for her to come back. As it is, I don’t have much time to spare.”
The way he was staring at her britches brought on a blush. She’d tucked them intomidcalf-high riding boots, but the britches weren’t thick. Jack liked her clothescomfortable, which usually meant soft. So Judith didn’t tuck in the long, white shirt,allowing it to fully cover her derriere instead, but she did belt it. She had no doubtshe looked ridiculous, but that’s not what his green eyes were saying.
“You’re actually allowed to dress like that?”
“On board ship, yes. I wore breeches the last time I sailed years ago. My mother agreed.Better than a skirt flapping in the wind.”
“For a child, maybe, but you’re a woman now with curves that—”
“Stop looking!” she snapped.
He laughed. “There are some things a man just can’t do, darlin’.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Are you deliberately wasting what little time I have before Jackstarts wondering where I am?”
His eyes came back to hers. “Doesn’t work out well, you having me at your beck andcall, does it? Not if you have to arrange it around your cousin.”
She’d already figured that out but did he have to sound so amused about it? “If youhave somewhere else to be, by all means—”
She didn’t get to finish. He actually put his hands on her waist and set her on thecrate next to him. It was a bit high for her to have chosen as a seat, leaving herfeet dangling a few inches off the floor. But then he sat down on it next to her!It wasn’t wide enough for two. Well, it was, but not without their thighs touching.
She might not even have noticed it if she were wearing a skirt and petticoats, butin the thin, black britches, she could feel every bit of his leg against hers andthe warmth coming from it. She could feel the warmth of his upper arm, too, as itpressed against hers, since he wasn’t wearing a jacket. The position was far too intimate,reminding her of how it had felt being pressed to his half-naked body yesterday whenhe’d kissed her. . . .
That pleasant fluttering she’d experienced yesterday showed up to fluster her further.She started to get down until she realized that sitting side by side, she wouldn’thave to look at him and get snared by his handsome face and sensual eyes. If she couldjust ignore that they were touching. If she could not wonder if he had put them inproximity because he wanted to kiss her again. She groaned to herself. She wasnevergoing to get any answers from him if this attraction kept getting in the way.
“Where did you grow up?” she blurted out. There, one simple question he couldn’t possiblyevade.
He did. “Does it matter?”
Staring intently at the exercise ring in front of them, which was well lit with twolanterns hanging on its posts, she demanded, “Is this really how you’re going to adhereto the Bargain?”
“Well, if I say where I was raised, you’re just going to take it wrong.”
“Oh, good grief, you grew up in Cornwall?” she guessed. “Yes, of course. The one placein England well-known for smugglers. Why did I bother to ask?”
“I warned you’d take it wrong. But Cornwall has everything every other shire has,including nabobs, so don’t paint everyone who resides there with your suspicions.”
“Really?” he said in surprise. “You can actually be reasonable about something?”
“I favor logic, and that was a logical statement about a region.”
He snorted. “I’ve given you lots of logic—”
“No, you haven’t, not on matters that pertain to you personally. So did you learncarpentry before or after you took to the seas?”
“It’s my turn.”
“What? Oh, very well, ask away. I have no secrets to hide other thanyou.”
“I rather like being your secret.”
Why did that bring on a blush? Just because his tone dropped to a sensual level didn’tmean he intended it to. Or it could mean he did. The mancouldbe trying to deliberately discompose her. Or was he getting as caught up in thisattraction as she was? The thought made her feel almost giddy. If he wasn’t a criminal—buthe was, and she had to keep that firmly in mind.
“Was that a question?” she asked.
He chuckled. “How big is your family?”
“Immediate? Both parents are hale and hearty. My sister, Jaime, is two years youngerthan I and doesn’t take well to sailing, so she stayed home with my mother. My halfsister, Katey, is much older and is aboard with her husband, Boyd.”
“I meant the lot of you.”
She suspected he didn’t, but she answered anyway. “Don’t think I’ve ever counted thenumber. My father is the youngest of four brothers. They’ve all got wives and children,even a few grandchildren, so if I had to guess offhand, there’s more’n thirty of us.”
It sounded as if he choked back a laugh. She wasnotgoing to glance his way to be sure. Keeping her eyes off him was working—somewhat.At least she’d stopped wondering if he was going to kiss her—oh, God, now she couldn’tthink of anything else. It had been thrilling, if a little overwhelming, but the feelingsit had stirred in her had been too nice not to want to experience them again.
“—most of my life,” he was saying.
“Your previous question.”
“But what did you just say?”
“Wheredidyour mind wander off to?”
The humor in his tone made her wonder if he already knew, which made her blush evenmore. “Would you just start over, please?”
“When you ask so nicely, of course. I said that I was a sailor first, that I sailedwith my father most of my life.”
“Except for the three years you worked as a carpenter. You mentioned that to my uncle.Where and why did you learn that trade if you already had a job with your father?”
“No cheating, darlin’. That’s three questions in a row you’re asking.”
She huffed, “I wouldn’t have to if you would elaborate, instead of giving me terseanswers that only lead to a dozen more questions.”
He chuckled. “So you adhere to logic and exaggeration, oh, and let’s not forget stubbornness.I’m starting a list.”
“And you adhere to evasion. D’you really think that isn’t obvious?”
“You know, I’m having a hard time keeping my hands off you.”
She sucked in her breath, her eyes flying to his. His expression said that he wasn’tjust trying to distract her. Blatant desire, poignant and sensual. It struck a chord,lit a flame. . . .
“Just thought you should know,” he added, then looking away, asked, “Where did yougrow up?”
Judith needed a moment to come back to earth. Actually, longer. As if hehadtouched her, her nipples still tingled from hardening, her pulse was still racing.She would like to think she would have stopped him from kissing her just then, butshe knew she wouldn’t have. Why didn’t he!?
Oh, God, the man was more dangerous than she’d thought—to her senses. She jumped offthe crate to put some distance between them. She was going to have to be more cautiousof his tactics.
“London,” she said, and said no more. Still watching him, she noticed when his mouthtightened just a little, but enough to guess he didn’t like short answers either.“Annoying, isn’t it, lack of elaboration?”
She snorted at his glib answer. “Well, since I’m usually more thorough, I’ll add,I was born and raised in London, as well as tutored there. In fact, I rarely leftthe city except to visit family in other parts of England, such as Hampshire, whereI first met you.”
“And at least twice to America.”
She smiled. “Before I comment on that, I require another answer from you. Why didyou learn carpentry if you already were working with your father?”
He glanced at her again and laughed heartily. She liked the way humor disarmed himso thoroughly, his face, his mouth, his eyes, all revealed it. It said that he wasgetting used to her and wasn’t the least bit afraid that she might land him in jail.Confidence that he could change her mind about him, or actual innocence? There wasthe rub. If she had that answer by now, then she wouldn’t be here—or she would, justfor a different reason.
He addressed her last question. “I had a row with my father that led to my leavingCornwall for good when I was twenty. I ended up settling in Southampton, which iswhere I took up carpentry.”
She repaid him in kind. “My first trip to America was with Jack, too, to visit hermother’s hometown of Bridgeport. This trip is for her come-out there before we haveanother in London. It’s unusual to have two, of course, but her American uncles insisted.If you don’t know what a come-out entails—”
“I do. It’s what you nabobs do to get yourselves a husband. So you’re going on themarriage mart, are you? Somehow, I didn’t expect you’d need to.”
Had he just given her a compliment, but in a derogatory tone? “I don’tneedto. I’ve lost count of how many men have already petitioned my father for permissionto court me this summer.”
“So you’ve got a host of eager suitors waiting for you to return to England?”
“No, as it happens, my father threw all those hopeful gentlemen out of the house.He didn’t appreciate the reminder that I was approaching a marriageable age.”
“Good for him.”
She raised a brow. “Really? Why would you side with him about that?”
“Because women don’t need to get married as soon as they can.”
“You’re talking about someone you know personally, aren’t you?” she guessed.
He nodded. “My sister. She should have waited for a better man who could have madeher happy instead of accepting the first offer to come her way. It didn’t turn outwell.”
Judith waited a moment for him to continue, but she heard the sound of approachingvoices. She gasped. “That’s my father and uncle.”
“Bleedin’ hell, hide.”
The timing was horrible on all accounts. Nathan had just opened up, answering questionswithout asking any of his own. That could have gone much further if they weren’t interrupted.But Judith didn’t need to be told to hide. She was hurrying toward the crates whenNathan’s arm hooked around her waist and she was pretty much deposited on the floorbehind one. At least she had room to hide there because none of the supplies wereplaced close to the hull since it needed to be checked regularly for leaks. It wasone of Nathan’s jobs as the ship’s carpenter—when he wasn’t being interrogated bythe captain’s niece.
She crouched down behind the crate with a few moments to spare before she could distinguishher father, just entering the hold, saying, “. . . answered too readily, without asingle pause. Didn’t have to think about it even once.”
“And your point?” James replied.
“Thought that would convince you the lad is telling the truth.”
“I never called him a liar, Tony. He can be exactly who he says he is and still havean agenda other than the simple one he claims. Telling us nothing but the truth doesn’tmean he hasn’t left out some pertinent details.”
It almost sounded as if they were talking about Nathan, but Judith knew better. Theywere discussing Andrássy, although Nathan might not guess that. And why hadn’t heleft yet? She could still see him standing between the two crates by his tools, hisback to the entrance, and less than two feet from her. He was providing her with moreconcealment, but she could tell from the aggressive set of his wide shoulders thathe was tense. Did he expect a confrontation? Or just expect he might have to protecther from one? Decent of him, but she wouldn’t let it come to that.
As if she weren’t anxious enough, she felt dread when it occurred to her why her fatherand her uncle had come down here. To use the new ring. They wouldn’t be leaving soon,which meant she couldn’t leave either. It also meant they’d hear Jack calling forher when she didn’t see her on deck, and that would be anytime now. She could evenimagine her father initiating a search of the ship by everyone on board.
James’s voice had sounded farther away, as if he’d already gotten into the ring. Judithdidn’t peek around the crate to find out for sure. But once they started sparring,they might be distracted enough for her to slip out of there. She’d have to crawlmost of the way behind the supplies, but that would be easy enough to do in her britches.
“My nephew’s wife has hair like yours,” Anthony said in a deceptively affable tone.
Judith’s eyes flared wide. It sounded as if her father was standing right in frontof the crate she was hiding behind! But she knew he was talking to Nathan.
“Be a good chap and tell me youaren’trelated to the Hilary family.”
“Never heard of them,” Nathan replied cautiously.
Judith didn’t have to see it to know her father had just punched Nathan in the gut.The sound was unmistakable. Butwhy? And not just once. She winced with each blow that followed. She knew how brutalher father could be when it came to landing punches. Was Nathan even trying to defendhimself? She was afraid to look. She couldn’tnotlook.
Nathan ducked the next blow. He’d maneuvered the fight so Anthony’s back was to her.James was facing her from his position in the ring, but his eyes were on the two menbelow him and his tone was quite dry when he said, “You’re allowed to fight back,Mr. Tremayne. My brother won’t be satisfied unless you do.”
Nathan blocked a blow to his face and followed it with a right jab that caught Anthonyin the chin and snapped his head back slightly. She winced for her father now, yetshe wondered if he wasn’t secretly pleased that he wasn’t going to win easily. Heloved a good fight. There’s wasn’t a Malory who didn’t know it. But if he appreciatedthat Nathanwasn’tflat on his back yet, he gave no indication of it. He continued to deliver blow afterblow, concentrating on Nathan’s midsection, while Nathan got in two more punches toAnthony’s chin and cheek.
James finally said, “Enough, Tony. I don’t want him damaging his hands on you. Heneeds them to do his job.”
“Someone else can do his bloody job,” Anthony replied in a snarl.
“Actually, they can’t,” James rejoined. “We only have one carpenter aboard.”
“He’sthe one found your hidden miscreant last night?”
One more punch. “Very well, I’m done. I shall consider us even—Tremayne, is it? Unlessyou do something to tip the scales again.”
“Your idea ofevenstinks—my lord.”
Judith groaned to herself at that less than conciliatory answer, but Anthony merelyseemed to be amused by it and quipped, “On the contrary, dear boy. You’re still standing,aren’t you?”
James offered magnanimously, “If you need to rest up after your exertions, Tony, Ican wait another day to test out this ring.”
“Bite your tongue, old man. That was just a warm-up.” Anthony proved it by joiningJames in the ring.
Nathan should have left, but instead he sat on the crate that Judith was still hidingbehind. She was sitting cross-legged now, facing the hull, her back against the crate.She assumed Nathan was just catching his breath, watching the action in the ring.
So she was surprised a few minutes later to hear him say in a low, if increduloustone, “How does he do that at his age and after what I just meted out to him?”
He was talking about the punches her father and her uncle were doling out to eachother in the ring. She whispered back, “Don’t equate age with skill. My father hashad years of conditioning, not to mention frequent matches with his brother like theone you’re watching now.”
Nathan snorted quietly. “I gave you the opportunity to leave—why didn’t you?”
She didn’t answer that and instead asked, “Did he hurt you?”
“What d’you think?”
“I might survive.”
She started to frown until she recognized the teasing note in his voice. There wassomething else she wanted to know. “What did you do to provoke his anger?”
“I have to be at fault?”
“I know my father. I can tell when he holds a grudge against someone. Why?”
“I might have knocked him out on the London docks before we sailed.”
She gasped. “How? The only one heeverloses to is my uncle James.”
“Caught him by surprise, you could say. But you heard him. We’re even now.”
She almost said, “Don’t count on it,” but she didn’t want him to turn leery of talkingto her because of her father. That might happen anyway now, but she wasn’t going tohelp it along.
Then he added, “Go now while they’re distracted. Stay low.”
“You should leave as well.”
“Not a chance. People have to pay to watch fights of this caliber. Besides, don’ttake it wrong, darlin’, but I want to see your old man lose.”
Thatinfuriated her, enough to make her hiss, “You won’t see it today. Mark my words,my uncle is going tolethim win that bout.”
“Why would he do a fool thing like that?” Nathan sounded surprised.
“Because those two are very close. It might not always seem like it, but they are.And because it will soothe ruffled feathers, even put my father in a good mood—whichmight help him to forget about you for the duration of the voyage. Just don’t expectmy uncle to do you that favor after we dock and you’re no longer working for him.”
“Iprob��ly should have mentioned this sooner, but someone’s caught my eye,” Judithtold her cousin.
They were sitting in the middle of the double bed in Jacqueline’s cabin, both cross-legged,cards in hand, more cards on the blanket between them. Jack was barefoot and wearingher ship togs, which she would probably wear every day until they docked. Judith stillpreferred not to wear them and even more so after seeing Nathan’s reaction to them.She was outfitted in a simple, blue day dress with short-capped sleeves.
They often played whist by themselves, despite its being a four-person game. Theymerely skirted the rules with each of them playing an extra hand. It was not as excitingwith only one player to worry about instead of three, but it passed the time for them,and Judith found it more fun than a game of chess, which Jackalwayswon.
But Jacqueline didn’t even glance up at Judith after her statement, which Judith foundrather disappointing because it had taken her several days to get up the nerve tomake it. But she was still tense. Normally she’d be bubbling with excitement whenshe shared something like this, but she was too worried that she’d inadvertently revealtoo much.
“In London?” Jack asked as she picked up her extra hand to play a card from it.
“No, on board.”
That got Jack’s immediate attention and a laugh. “Good God, not Andrássy! I know he’squite handsome, but he’s our cousin.”
Judith found the mistake amusing enough to point out, “Too distant to count, actually.What would you add to it, that he’s our fifth cousin, sixth, tenth, when they usuallystop adding numbers after second? But no, it’s not Andrássy.”
“Who then? There’s no one else aboard except common sailors—oh, no, you don’t!” Jackmade a sound that was half gasp, half snort. “It’s a good thing you mentioned it sowe can nip this in the budrightnow. Your parents will never let you go to a man who doesn’t have at leastsomeprospects!”
Judith rolled her eyes. “Are you forgetting what happened when I turned eighteen?Half my inheritance from my mother was turned over to me, more money than any onefamily could ever need. Prospects, I believe, won’t be an issue.”
“That’s beside the bloody point and you know it,” Jack was quick to stress.
“You’re being a snob.”
“I am not! Just realistic. Of course if you intend to elope instead of getting permission,then I won’t say another word.”
Judith started laughing, couldn’t help it. This was not how she’d expected this conversationto go. But at least her tension was gone for the moment, thanks to Jacqueline’s overprotectivenature.
“You are gettingsofar ahead of yourself, Jack. I didn’t say I’ve found my future husband. I’m justhighly intrigued by this man and want to get to know him better, perhaps find a fewmoments alone with him when we could speak freely. And he’s not just a common sailor,he’s a carpenter.”And my ghost,she wanted to add, but instead mentioned what Nathan had told James about his stolenship.
Jack grinned, which brought forth her dimples. “Alone with him, eh? Are you sure youwon’t be too nervous to say a word, let alone have a conversation? You’ve never beenalone with a man who isn’t a relative.”
“I think I can manage. And we’re on a ship. It’s not as if he can hie off with meor one of your father’s sailors or servants wouldn’t be within shouting distance.”
Jack chuckled. “Point taken. And he does sound quite interesting. His name?”
Jack raised a golden brow so like her father’s habit. “I even like the sound of it.”But then she speculated aloud, “Judith Tremayne. Judy Tre—”
“Itoldyou I’m not—”
“Yes, yes. Andwe’renot getting married for at least a year. Doesn’t mean you can’t take that long toget to know this chap. Besides, options are good things to have, and you’ll want lotsbefore the time comes to choose a husband.” Then Jack scooted off the bed, scatteringtheir cards and pulling Judith with her.
“Where are we going?”
Jack tossed her some shoes, but didn’t bother getting a pair for herself. “I haveto meet this young man of yours for myself. Let’s go find him.”
Judith wasn’t about to protest when she hadn’t actually seen Nathan for two days.And she’d looked for him each time she came on deck. But short of sneaking aroundand looking for him, which she had decided she was never going to do again, she hadn’tbeen able to find him and had concluded that his job was keeping him busy elsewhere.
They found him in the first place Jacqueline looked, in the carpenter’s storeroom.Jack knew exactly where it was, but then she’d explored every inch of this ship thelast time they’d sailed on it. And learned every aspect of running it, too. Of course,she hadn’t given up yet on her goal of being a pirate back then. She’d even triedto teach Judith everything she was learning, but Judith, not sharing the same interest,had only listened with half an ear.
The room was smaller than their cabins, but big enough for one man to work in. Materialsweren’t stored here, but in the hold. Only a long workbench and a wide assortmentof tools were kept in the room. And the narrow cot Nathan had mentioned, replete withrumpled bedding to show he’d been using it.
He was standing at his bench twisting apart old ropes to make oakum from the fibers,which was typically applied between planks in the hull to keep them from leaking.Judith vaguely recalled Jack’s mentioning the process. His white shirt was tuckedin, half-unbuttoned and sweat stained, the sleeves rolled up. The door had been open,but the room was still hot. His hair wasn’t quite long enough to club back, but he’dtied a bandanna across his brow to keep the sweat from his eyes. Some of his shorterlocks had escaped it. It made him look roguish, and far too masculine.
Jacqueline, having pulled Judith into the room with her, was definitely caught bysurprise, enough to whisper, “You forgot to mention he’s a bloody Corinthian and sohandsome it hurts the eyes.”
Judith’s cheeks lit up instantly, but Nathan didn’t appear to have heard the whisper.As he turned toward them, he merely stated, “You must be Jack.”
“Judy mentioned me? Yes, of course she did. And did she tell you that neither shenor I am getting married this year? Shopping, just not buying yet. Keep that in mind,Nate.”
He laughed, that deep rumble Judith had missed hearing. “Has anyone ever told youthat you’re a little too outspoken for your age?”
“Wouldn’t matter if they did,” Jack retorted. “Malorys don’t adhere to golden rules,we create our own.”
He glanced at Judith. “Is that so?”
She rolled her eyes. “For some of us.”
Jacqueline nodded toward the rope still in his hand. “That’s something you could doon deck where it’s cooler. Why aren’t you?”
“Maybe I was avoiding meeting up with the two of you,” Nathan replied with a slightgrin.
“Why? I don’t bite—without reason.”
“He’s just teasing, Jack. I’m beginning to recognize the signs.”
Jacqueline glanced between them. “Just when did you two get so well acquainted?”
“We’re not,” Judith replied with only a slight blush. “We’ve only spoken a few times.”
Jack nodded and told Judith, “I’m going to find Andrássy and see if he actually knowshow to use that sword he carries. Don’t be too long in joining us on deck.” Then Jackactually smiled at Nathan. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Nate.” But she ruined thecordial remark by adding, “Nothing inappropriate happens in this room or I’ll haveto gut you—if her father doesn’t beat me to it.”
Jack left as quickly as they’d arrived. Judith peeked around the door to make sureher cousin really was going up to the main deck.
“That was a little too direct,” Nathan said.
Judith turned back to him. “That’s just Jack being Jack. She’s very protective ofme, well, of everyone in the family, actually. It’s a Malory trait we all share. ButI think she’s annoyed with me now that I didn’t mention you sooner.”
“You weren’t supposed to mention me at all.”
“No, your condition was to refrain from saying we’d met before and I’ve adhered tothat. I told her nothing other than what you said to her father. But all that sneakingI was doing behind Jack’s back was far too nerve-racking to continue. As you can see,it’s no longer necessary.”
“Yes, but how did you manage that?”
“By convincing her that I was interested in you.”
He grinned. “That must have been hard to do.”
“Yes, it was,” she gritted out.
He abruptly tossed the rope in his hand on the workbench and reached for her. Shegasped, but he was just setting her on the bench. Deliberately disconcerting her again?He must have remembered how easy that was for him to do. It did put her closer tohim, right in front of him actually, and he didn’t move away to correct that.
Flustered, she demanded, “Whydo you keep setting me down on things?”
“It’s up, actually, and because you’re a half-pint.” But he leaned a little closerto add, “And maybe because I like touching you.”
She blushed and jumped down to put some distance between them, only to feel his handson her waist again. He put her right back on the bench, he just didn’t let go as quicklythis time. His hands lingered on her waist. And those pleasant sensations were showingup again that had nothing to do with anything except him. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’tthink, waited . . .
“So you like my touch, do you?”
“Then maybe you’ll stay put this time?”
She snapped her mouth shut. How bloody high-handed of him! And he did let go of hernow, but too late. She was of a mind to leave but didn’t doubt he was persuading herto do just that with his manhandling tactics. Had he hoped her interrogation was donewhen she didn’t seek him out these last two days? Wanted to assure that it stayedthat way? Too bad. She was too stubborn to let him manipulate her like that or togive up on getting at the truth.
She was angry now. Not because he didn’t kiss her just then as she’d thought he wasgoing to do, but because it appeared he was trying to renege on their agreement.
Not having seen him the last two days, she’d had plenty time to dwell on him and hadrealized that none of her questions to him had been about smuggling. She’d merelyquestioned him to satisfy her curiosity about his personal life. So she’d accomplishednothing so far other than to nearly get caught hiding in the hold. By her father noless.
“I’ve missed you.”
She blinked. The anger simply drained away and too quickly, making her realize hecould be doing it again. Saying things designed to distract her.
And he wasn’t done. “I thought I caught your scent a few times.” Then he laughed athimself. “Kept glancing behind me, expecting to see you. I even opened a few doorsI was so sure I could smell you nearby. Just wistfulness on my part, I guess.”
Her brows narrowed suspiciously. “You know I don’t believe a word of that.”
He grinned. “I know.”
He moved farther away, over to the cot to sit down. She was surprised he hadn’t satnext to her again, but guessed the workbench wouldn’t support their combined weight.She caught the wince, though, as he sat, making her wonder if he was still in painfrom that fight with her father.
“Everything I say is going to be suspect,” he continued. “Because you don’t know mewell enough to know when I’m telling you the truth. If you come over here and siton my lap, maybe we can change that.”
She snorted to herself.Thatdidn’t sound as if he were in pain. Or he simply knew she wouldn’t be doing anythinglike that. It didn’t even warrant a reply, it was such an outrageous suggestion.
Instead, she asked, “How bad was the bruising?”
“I think he ruptured my stomach. I can’t keep anything down.”
Her eyes flared, but she quickly realized he had to be teasing. “Nonsense, you’d bedead by now if that was so.” Then she smirked. “Maybe you’re seasick. Nowthatwould be hilarious, wouldn’t it?”
He snorted. “No, just absurd.”
“But you’ve never been at sea this long to know, have you?”
“I was just exaggerating, my way of letting you know what I think of your father.”
A compliment to Anthony’s prowess in the ring, or a slur? It was unusual to see someoneat odds with her father. Her instinct was to defend her parent, but she held her tongue,recalling how rough that fight had been. She supposed Nathan was due a little grouchingabout it, at least until he was fully recovered, even though by the sound of it he’dstarted the animosity in the first place. Of course, she didn’t know what that hadbeen about. Yet.
“Now I’m craning my neck in the opposite direction,” Nathan complained. “At leastcome sit over here.” He patted the spot next to him on the cot.
“On a bed? With you? That’s far beyond the pale of inappropriate and isn’t happening.”
“Close the door first. Who will know?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Stop trying to seduce me.”
He shot off the bed and didn’t stop until he was leaning into her. “But it’s working,isn’t it? If you’re going to admit to anything, darlin’, admit you want me as muchas I want you.”
Oh, God, did she? Is that what these feelings were? No wonder she was so confusedand excited by him by turns. She’d never experienced desire before.
He’d pushed between her legs even though her skirt wasn’t wide enough to allow himto get that close. She didn’t know how he’d done it until she felt his hand on herouter thigh—against her skin. Steadily moving upward and bringing her skirt up withit.
Simple instinct moved her hand to his to stop its ascent. And it worked, he just didn’ttake his hand away, and she would remember later that she didn’t either. She was toodeep in the throes of anticipation. Yet the fear of discovery was present, too, withthe door wide-open, when anyone could pass by and see them. But it didn’t occur toher yet to simply push him away.
His cheek rasped across hers before he bent his head to breathe deeply by her neck.“There it is again.” His lips brushed against her skin as he said the words, causinggooseflesh to spread, leaving a trail of tingling sensations across her shouldersand back. “The smell of ambrosia.”
“Jasmine,” she corrected breathlessly. “And vanilla . . . with a touch of cardamom . . .”
“Then it’s just you, that’s ambrosia.”
He leaned up, was suddenly staring deeply into her eyes. He did that for the longestmoment. Such intensity! As if he were trying to see into her soul. Then he kissedher with such passion it took her breath away.
“I’m going to hate m’self for this moment of gallantry.” His words brushed againsther lips. “But if you don’t leave this second, I’m going to carry you to that bed.That’s a promise, darlin’, not just a warning.”
Sanity returned with a vengeance, crimson embarrassment with it. But he didn’t moveback so she could get down from the bench without sliding against him. She heard thegroan as she did, just before she ran out of there.
She stopped at the end of the corridor near the stairs, and the trembling set in.She put her back against the wall and closed her eyes for a moment. Her cheeks werestill scalding hot. What just happened?! But she knew, because once again she hadn’tgot a chance to ask a single pertinent question. He’d found the perfect way to avoidthat. He was chasing her away with sex. And what would have happened if she didn’tleave? Would he really have made love to her?
Oh, God, she wasn’t even near him now and yet that single thought made her knees goweak.
Nathan left the storeroom before he demolished it. What the bleedin’ hell was wrongwith him to let her go like that? She’d been his for the taking. He’d seen it in hereyes. And a woman always got soft and friendly—and trusting—afterward. Which is exactlywhat he needed. But getting angry at himself for letting her go pointed out just howmuch of a fool she was turning him into.
The saner thought was that he needed to stay far away from her. He’d been managingto do just that, knew very well she was trouble in more ways than one even beforeher father convinced him of it. Yet he still couldn’t get her out of his mind, hadfound himself thinking of her at all times of the day. He did want her. There wasno denying that. He just couldn’t have her, and he needed to keep that fact uppermostin his mind.
They couldnotbe left alone again. Today proved he couldn’t keep his hands off her when they were.The only way to make sure she stopped tempting him like that was to give her the truthsshe wanted so she’d stop seeking him out. So he went up on deck where he expectedto find her. She was there, looking calm and composed. He wasn’t, so he decided notto approach her yet and moved to the stern of the ship and took out the extra spyglassArtie had found for him. The first mate was there, too, doing the same thing.
Yesterday Nathan had seen the captain surveying the ocean with a spyglass as well.But James hadn’t mentioned the ship that had been trailing them the night the stowawayhad escaped, and it hadn’t been sighted since then. He’d surprised Nathan by volunteeringinformation of a different sort, saying, “There’s a Yank aboard named Boyd Andersonwho you might want to have a chat with. Spends a few days seasick every voyage, whichis why you might not have noticed him yet. But he can steer you to the people youneed to discuss your plan with after we arrive. Might save you some time.”
“Appreciate it, Captain.”
“Don’t mention it. Some Yanks do come in handy occasionally—good God, I need to bitemy own tongue.”
And he’d left with that odd statement.
Now, Artie lowered his own spyglass and, noticing Nathan, asked, “You’ve been watchingfor them, too, mate?”
“Curiosity compels me to.”
Artie nodded. “No further sightings. They either got what they were after, gave up—orthey know whereThe Maiden Georgeis heading, so they don’t need to keep us in view.” Then he grumbled, “The day waswhen we would’ve circled behind and boarded them—or blasted them out of the water.”
The first mate snapped his mouth shut and marched off, obviously unwilling to elaborate—orrealizing he shouldn’t have said that. Nathan turned to pursue the subject, but spottedJudith instead. She wasn’t looking his way but was watching the fencing match betweenher cousins on the main deck. Leaning against the rail, her back to it, her arms crossed,her red-gold locks were whisked about her shoulders and back by the wind. She wasso engrossed in the match that she might not even know he’d come on deck. He couldkeep it that way—if his feet didn’t have a will of their own.
He stopped two feet away from her and watched the fencers for a few minutes. It immediatelybecame apparent that Jacqueline Malory wasn’t just amusing herself; she actually knewhow to use that thin rapier in her hand. The lunges and feints, the quick responses,she wasn’t giving Andrássy much of a chance to do anything other than defend himself.
Incredulous, Nathan asked, “Just what sort of tutors did you girls have?”
“Normal for whom? Pirates?”
Judith burst out laughing.
He glanced at her. “What was funny about that?”
“You’d have to know the particulars,” she replied, still grinning. “So tell me, whenyou were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?”
“Is that a trick question I shouldn’t be falling for?”
“No, but when Jack played that wishing game, she decided she wanted to be a pirate.Of course, she’s outgrown that notion. Thankfully.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yet it appears she mastered one of the skills of the job.”
Judith giggled. “I know.”
“Did you as well?”
“Goodness, no. We shared the same tutors since we live close enough to. We merelyaltered the weeks and subjects, one week at my house for literature, geography, andseveral languages, then the next week at her house for history, mathematics, evena smattering of political science, then my house again, et cetera. We just differedin our personal curriculum. She was interested in fencing, pugilism, and becominga crack shot, all of which her father was happy to teach her. I was interested inneedlepoint and learning to play an assortment of musical instruments. And you?”
“The rudiments of a general education taught at a local church. But I don’t believethat she took up pugilism. There’d be no point, since it’s not something she couldever make use of.”
He caught the smile on Judith’s face, which she wasn’t directing at him since she’dyet to glance his way even once. Then she confided, “I would agree with you if I hadn’tseen her in the ring with her older brother. Jeremy can easily hold his own in a fight.He is like a younger version of my father, but she was still able to beat him. Speedand a few tricks can counter size and brawn.” Then Judith laughed. “Of course thatonly works once. Onto her tricks, Jeremy didn’t let her get away with it twice.”
Jack might be a few inches taller than Judy, but Nathan still couldn’t picture whatshe had just described. But it did make him wonder if Judith might be good at lying,too, or just good at exaggerating. She still wouldn’t look at him. Didn’t trust herself?He started to smirk but ended up groaning to himself. Hehadto stop thinking she was as attracted to him as he was to her. It might even justbe a ruse on her part to get him to confirm her suspicions. And why didn’t he thinkof that sooner?
A pretty older woman appeared on the quarterdeck, elegantly clad in a hooded, greenvelvet cloak that she no doubt wore to protect her coiffure from the wind.
“Your aunt George?”
“Yes,” Judith replied.
Noting the woman’s serene expression as she watched the fencing, he said, “She doesn’tmind her daughter’s antics?”
“D’you really think she could be unaware of the lessons Jack had from her father?Of course she doesn’t mind. She’s proud of all of Jack’s accomplishments, from nevermissing what she aims at with a pistol to her grace in a waltz—speaking of which,do you know how to waltz?”
Startled by the question, he quickly turned to look at her and saw shestillwasn’t looking at him. It was starting to annoy him. “Why would I? If you’re goingto dance, it should be fun.”
“You think waltzing isn’t fun?”
“Course it isn’t, it’s just what you nabobs do to make sure you don’t work up a sweat.I’ve seen it. There’s nothing fun about it.”
“You won’t think so after I teach you how. We’ll have the lesson here on the deck.”
He snorted. “Not bleedin’ likely. You can’t single me out like that.”
“I won’t. I’ll get Jack involved and a few other sailors, so it will merely appearas if we’re just amusing ourselves to counter the boredom of the voyage.”
“Do whatever you like, but you can count me out of nonsense like that.”
“On the contrary, I’m going to call in my beck-and-call card and insist you learnsome manners—at least how to treat a lady. We’re merely going to start with the waltz.”
“Why? Once I’m off this ship, I’ll never be around ladies again, so your lessons willbe pointless. And besides, d’you think I’m not aware that a lady is never left alonewith a man? That she has a chaperone at all times? Maybe it’s you who needs some lessons,darlin’.”
“Our circumstances are—unusual. Or would you rather I ask my questions in front ofan audience?”
“You’re doing a good job of pretending I’m invisible right now, aren’t you? We’retalking and we’re not alone. Keep it that way and I won’t think you’re seeking meout for more—”
“Stop it!” she cut in with a hiss. “The things you say, youknowthey are inappropriate.”
He chuckled. “But it doesn’t appear that we need to be alone for me to say them. Orwould you like me to leave until you have someone else standing here with us? An actualchaperone? Like you’re supposed to have?”
He probably shouldn’t put her on the spot like this. She might be blushing now, butshe was unpredictable, too, and adept at turning the tables on him.
“I wasn’t suggesting the lessons on proper etiquette begin immediately,” she saidstiffly. “In fact, right now you’re going to tell me why you looked so sad the nightI thought you were a ghost.”
“We’re back to that?”
“Yes, we are, and no evasion this time.”
“Answer me,” Judith demanded when Nathan stood there without saying a word.
He said instead, “I wonder what Artie and Henry are arguing about.”
“You’re changing the subject?” she said incredulously. “Really?”
Exasperated, she followed his gaze. “You’ve been on the ship long enough to know thosetwo are always arguing about something. It means nothing. They actually enjoy it.What you may not know is they are not onlyThe Maiden George’s first mates, but Uncle James’s butlers at his house in London. Yes, they sharethat job, too. They’re also best friends, though at times, like now, it appears otherwise.They used to sail with my uncle. When he retired from the sea—”
“He used to sail regularly?”
“When he was young, yes, for about ten years. But as I was saying, Artie and Henryretired from the sea with him and became his butlers.”
“Two butlers? Is that normal?”
“Not at all normal. But my uncle James isn’t a conformist. Artie and Henry were goingto draw straws to see who’d be first mate this trip, then decided to just share thisjob, too. Now—”
Nathan interrupted with the guess “The captain used to be a pirate, didn’t he?”
She gasped. “How—did you arrive at such a ridiculous notion?”
“Something I heard Artie say about blasting things out of the water in their day.And you just admitted your cousin aspired to be like her father.”
“I said nothing of the sort! Donotput words in my mouth.”
She couldn’t believe he’d guessed so accurately, but that was one thing about herfamily that was kept strictly in the family and was going to remain that way. James’sdays of being Captain Hawke, gentleman pirate, as cousin Regina liked to refer tohis former profession, were long since over. He’d even faked Hawke’s death when hefinally returned to England to make peace with his brothers, though that run-in withthe pirate Lacross a while back had let a few of his old cronies know he was stillquite alive and well. But Nathan wasn’t going to be told any of that.
She demanded, “So you think of pirates instead of the military? Yes, of course, asmuggler would.”
“Keep your voice down.”
“Then don’t make statements designed to enrage me. If you want to know about my uncle,ask him yourself—if you dare be that bold. But first, you’re going to answer me. Whywere you sad the night we first met?”
He sighed. “I wasn’t. Disappointed, yes, and if I’m admitting things, a little angry,too. My maternal grandmother had just passed on. I didn’t know her well, hadn’t evenseen her since I was a tyke. She lived alone in London, I lived with my parents inCornwall. My father and she didn’t get along, and she wanted nothing more to do withus after my mother died. So I was surprised when her solicitor tracked me down tohand me a deed to that property.”
“Are you saying you actuallydoown the manor?”
“I told you that when you were a child. If Ihadbeen there this other night when you intruded yet again, I would have done the samething—simply told you to get out, that you were trespassing.”
“I’m to believe thisnow? You had your chance to make the claim of ownership when I asked before. You didn’tbecause it’s obviously not true.”
“It’s a bleedin’ wreck of a house.”
“One that comes with a lot of land. My cousin Derek would even pay you a fortune forit, so you’d never have to work again.”
“Maybe I don’t want to sell it.”
“Maybe because you don’t really own it!”
He suddenly raised a brow at her. “Why so angry, darlin’? Because you found anothertrespasser in that house, or because you didn’t find me when you hoped you would?Are you angry that I’m not your ghost?”
She almost sputtered, but took a quick, deep breath instead. She wasn’t even surewhy she’d just gotten so angry. Merely because he hadn’t confirmed sooner that hewas related to Mildred Winstock, who was an aristocrat by birth?
But he wasn’t waiting for her to answer him. He continued with a shrug, “It’s nothingto be proud of or boast about that I own a house that’s falling apart.”
“You didn’t know it was a ruin until that night, did you?” she guessed.
He barked a short, bitter laugh before he said, “No, I actually went there to takeup residence. It was just after the fight I had with my father, which I’ve alreadymentioned to you.”
“Which led to your leaving Cornwall, yes, but you never said what that fight was about.”
“I’d rather not talk about that. It’s painful enough that I never saw my father againbefore he died.”
Was that true, or was he just being evasive again? She glanced at him to check theexpression on his face and got distracted by how handsome he was. He wasn’t wearinga bandanna now, and with the sun shining brightly, his hair looked pure white againas the wind blew it every which way, including across his face, which he didn’t seemto even notice.
Something in his expression was angry, but mixed with melancholy, too, which compelledher to finally say, “I’m sorry.”
“So am I. At the time, I was angry enough to break ties with him and live on my own,but only because I thought my grandmother had left me the means to do so. What a jokethat turned out to be.”
“Surely not intentional.”
“No, I doubt she ever stepped foot in that house herself and didn’t realize she wasleaving me nothing but a shambles. It had belonged to my grandmother’s grandmother,but according to my mum, my grandmother had been born in London, raised in London,and never left London. It was probably just a nice excuse for why my grandmother nevercame to visit us in Cornwall, instead of telling me the truth, that the old bird hatedmy father.”
Judith was inclined to believe him, which warned her she probably shouldn’t. He mightbe making all this up to elicit her sympathy. He hadn’t admitted to owning the housethe first time they’d spoken on the ship. And he hadn’t mentioned it in any of theirearlier conversations. Then she realized she could confirm whether what he’d justtold her about the house was true.
“What was your grandmother’s name?”
“Actually, it does. I know who the last owner of record was. If you don’t, then—”
He glanced at her sharply and demanded, “Are you this suspicious with everyone?”
“Just smugglers,” she said without inflection. “And I notice you’re not offering upa name.”
He snorted. “Mildred Winstock. And now you can tell me how you know my grandmother.”
She was surprised how relieved she was to have proof that he was telling her the truth.Now their earlier encounters in Hampshire were beginning to make sense to her. Hisowning the house explained the lock on the door and his claiming to know the housebetter than she did, even the cot that he’d added. Only his telling her not to sayshe’d seen him there was odd. And his accosting her. That wasn’t how a property ownerbehaved. Or that he didn’t want the lantern lit again so she could see who he was.So try as she might to exonerate him in her mind, she still couldn’t, not when somany clues pointed to illegal activities.
“I didn’t know your grandmother,” she explained. “My cousin Derek tracked down theidentity of the last owner of record so he could buy the house.”
She was hesitant to tell Nathan the truth, but he had to realize what an eyesore hisproperty was, sitting next to a grand ducal mansion. So she said in a roundabout way,“He wants to give it a proper burial.”
“It’s still standing.”
“I know better’n anyone the condition it’s in, but I’m not selling it just so yourlordly cousin can tear it down. It’s the only thing I have left from my mother’s side.”
She tried to sound cheerful for him as she suggested, “Then repair it.”
“I intend to.”
“Why do you sound surprised? It’s the only reason I mastered carpentry.”
Her eyes widened. Derek would probably donate whatever Nathan needed, anything thatwould improve the view from the back of his home. “You’ve had five years to get started.If it’s a matter of materials—”
“It was, but not anymore. I’ve been stockpiling what’s needed, stashing materialsin that hidden room so no one would run off with them when I’m not there. I just wasn’tin a hurry to get started with the repairs until recently. I did some work on theroof, I just haven’t tiled it yet. I could redo it all in cheap slate, but slate doesn’tbelong on a house like that.”
“You want to match the clay tiles that are currently on it?”
He nodded. “What’s left of them. Just didn’t realize how expensive clay is. And didn’texpect this trip to add to the delay.”
“What changed recently to prompt you to start repairing the house?”
“I’m not alone anymore.”
Her eyes flared. “You have awife!?”
He burst out laughing. It drew a few eyes their way, Georgina’s and Jack’s in particular.Jack even slipped up because of it, giving Andrássy his first chance to take the offensive.Jack’s sound of exasperation could be heard across the deck.
Nathan noticed, too, and said uncomfortably, “I should leave.”
“What youshouldhave done was tell me you’re marriedpriorto kissing me,” Judith said furiously. “Idespiseunfaithful husbands!”
He raised a surprised brow at her, but only briefly. He was still glancing about thedeck to gauge the damage done from the attention she’d drawn to them. But he said,“That’s a bit heated for an assumption, darlin’. Jealous?”
“Not in the least!”
“Then stop yelling at me and look away,” he warned, but then suddenly hissed, “Bleedin’hell. Meet me up in the crow’s nest tonight and I’ll explain why you’re mistaken.But I’m not staying for this.”
Thiswas James and Anthony. They had just appeared on the quarterdeck and were standingwith Georgina now, one on each side of her. But neither was watching the fencing match.They were looking directly at Judith and Nathan instead.
Nathan did abandon ship, as it were, returning belowdecks again. Judith couldn’t dothe same, not if she wanted to put out the fire before it started. If anyone was goingto tear Nathan apart for beingmarried, it would be her, not her father. So she pulled up a bright smile, waved at her father,and joined him on the quarterdeck. And did a good job of hiding her fury.
Her father didn’t. He was scowling even as he put an arm around her shoulders. “Whatwere you doing with that chap?”
“Debating whether to toss him overboard.”
“I’ll kill him if he insulted you.”
She rolled her eyes. “You say that about every man I talk to. But I was joking, sothere’s no need for you to kill anyone this trip. He was just shocked by Jack’s displayof fencing skill. I was merely explaining why and how she came by it.”
“None of his bloody business.”
“I thought we agreed you weren’t going to hate every man I meet. Mother even assuredme you wouldn’t.”
That was pulling out the trump card, and it seemed to work. Anthony relaxed a little,even chuckled. But Georgina, having heard them, remarked, “Quite a handsome fellow,this one, isn’t he?”
“And you noticed this why, George?” James asked.
Georgina laughed. “Am I to pretend to be blind?”
Judith jumped in, “Handsome, but sorely lacking in manners. Still, he’s rather interesting.”
Anthony looked over Georgina’s head to say to his brother, “Blister it, James, didyou telleveryoneabout his unusual mission?”
“Only you, old boy,” James said, then proceeded to tell his wife about it.
Anthony peered down at Judith and demanded, “Just how did you find out?”
She didn’t deny it. “You think his commission to track down ship-stealing thievesis the only thing interesting about him? Yes, I’ve spoken to him before today, whichwas when I found out he owns that big old house behind the Wrighton estate. You knowthe story of it, don’t you?”
“Don’t believe so.”
“I do,” Georgina put in. “It was built for the old duke’s mistress, wasn’t it, andgiven to her to lure—er, that is, it was a bribe?”
“Incentive, yes,” Judith concurred. “She was gentry and a widow, but the duke wantedher closer to him than London, where he’d met and fallen in love with her. Derek foundall that out when he tried to buy the property. Mr. Tremayne is the woman’s great-great-grandson.”
“So he’s gentry?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Anthony insisted in a mumble.
“Course it does,” Georgina said, giving Judith a wink. “A dashing captainanda landowner of note, perhaps you should let this one run its course, Tony.”
To which Anthony snarled, “James, kindly ask George tobutt out.”
James merely laughed. Judith took a moment to glance up at the crow’s nest, so highin the rigging. Several rope ladders were attached to it, but still, she wasnotgoing to climb up there tonight. In fact, she didn’t care if she ever saw NathanTremayne again. But she wanted that to be her decision, not her father’s.
So before he warned her off, she told him, “I’m just bored and he’s interesting, it’sno more’n that. I’m not like Jack, who manages to find dozens of ways to have funon a ship—steering it, climbing rigging, even fencing.”
“Have I been ignoring you, poppet?” Anthony asked in concern.
She smiled. “No, of course not, and you don’t need to entertain me. You don’t oftenhave Katey to yourself like you do now while Boyd is indisposed. I do understand.”
“Doesn’t mean you can’t join us when Jack isn’t by your side.”
She giggled, reminding him, “And how often do you think that is?”
Anthony rolled his eyes.
That’s when Jacqueline bounded up to them. Out of breath, she hooked her arm throughJudith’s to drag her away, yelling back, “Time to change for dinner!”
It wasn’t, not quite, but no one protested since Jack obviously needed a bath afterher exertions. But as soon as they were out of hearing, Jack asked, “Did I rescueyou? Do say I did!”
“Possibly. At least, father didn’t get around yet to forbidding me to speak to Nathanagain.”
“As much as he’ll try to, you can’t let him whittle down your options, Judy. I’m sureto be in the same boat someday, so we have to stick together on this.”
But Judith did suddenly realize, much too late, that in trying to explain to Anthonywhy she might be interested in Nathan other than romantically, she’d broken the Bargainwith him. Well, not exactly, not if Jack didn’t hear that he owned the ruin and puttwo and two together to conclude that Nathan was their ex-ghost. But she should probablywarn Nathan—the devil she would. The way he’d warned her he was married?
Still incensed over that, it wasn’t a good time to hear Jack say, “I’m so thrilledfor you. He’s incredible looking, isn’t he?”
“And daring. Chasing after a stolen ship is going to be dangerous.”
“Feel free to volunteer more’n yeses.”
“He’s going to inform the authorities, so he’ll have help. It might not be dangerousa’tall.”
“Or he might not come back alive.”
“Worried about him already? That smacks of a little more’n smitten,” Jack teased.
“No, and, no, in fact, he’s got some explaining to do,” Judith retorted. “My conversationwith him was cut short when our fathers arrived on deck, so I’m going to meet Nathanafter dinner to finish it.”
“Explaining about what?”
“I’ll tell you afterwards. Don’t want you going after him with your rapier in hand.”
Jacqueline raised a brow. “Sounds like you’ve already thought of doing that yourself.You’re actually angry with him, aren’t you?”
“A little. Very well, a lot. But don’t try to drag it out of me when it could justbe a complete misunderstanding. I don’t want you getting the wrong impression basedon an assumption.”
“Like you have?” Jack guessed. “Goodness, if you’re touchy about the slightest things,youaresmitten. Confess that at least.”
Judith didn’t, but not answering at all convinced Jack she was right, so at leastshe didn’t get in a huff about not being told everything immediately.
And at least Nathan wasn’t mentioned that night at dinner, either. But Boyd was responsiblefor that. Finally making an appearance, the Yank was back in good health and thereforefair game for James and Anthony. Boyd wasn’t just James’s brother-in-law, he was alsoAnthony’s son-in-law, so of all the Andersons, he was doubly entrenched in the family.Which didn’t stop them one little bit from ribbing him mercilessly throughout thedinner about his seasickness.
“If you need another week in bed, Yank, be assured we’ll get along without you,” Jamessaid. “Won’t even notice your absence.”
Boyd’s malady used to cause him acute embarrassment, shipowner that he was. But hewas so used to being the butt of the Malorys’ jokes that he took them in stride thesedays, following the example of his brother Warren, who also came under the gun fromthese two and either laughed along with them or ignored them. It tended to work.
But James gave ground tonight for another reason. Andrássy was flirting with Jacquelinea little too openly, complimenting her on everything from her hair, her dress—Nettiehad won the battle tonight—to her fencing skill. Jack was amused by it. James wasn’t.While the ladies might have thought Andrássy had been quite brave to want to defendthe family during the stowaway incident, even if he had misjudged the situation, Jameswasn’t going to overlook that Andrássy’s interference had given the stowaway the opportunityto escape.
Judith knew that her uncle had had doubts about Andrássy before, but after Andrássyhad cost him the answers he wanted, even if unintentionally, any chance of James’swarming to their newest cousin had probably been lost.
But Judith didn’t spend much time thinking about it, not with her rendezvous withNathan fast approaching. She didn’t even yet wonder why his being married was a worsecrime in her mind than his smuggling was. But a while later, she would climb up tothe crow’s nest to find out what he had to say about it.
Judith dressed for this excursion in her ship’s togs, even braided her hair to makesure it didn’t get in her way during the climb. She’d also left her shoes in her cabin,thinking bare feet would allow for better purchase on the rope rungs. But when shestood by the rope ladder and put her hand on it, she couldn’t take that first step.She didn’t have to look up to find out how high that crow’s nest was. Were the answersshe wanted really worth such a daunting climb? The ladder wasn’t even steady! It wasswaying so much it moved right out of her loose grip.
She stepped back, changing her mind, only to see Nathan drop down to the deck nextto her, which explained why the ladder had been swaying.
“Didn’t actually think you’d take me up on my suggestion of a tryst in the crow’snest, darlin’.”
She was relieved he was on deck instead. “Now that you’re here we—”
“Come on.” He took her hands and placed them on the ladder and moved in so close behindher that she had nowhere to go but up. “I have the watch tonight and I can’t do myjob from down here.”
She glanced back. “Then why did you come down?”
“Did you really think I’d let you make this climb alone?”
Actually, she’d expected to have to climb up herself and had assumed he wouldn’t evenknow she was there until she arrived up top. But he must have been watching for her.
He added, “And miss a chance to be your hero and catch you if you should fall—intomy arms?”
He’d just added a teasing note to his gallantry. She wondered if he was embarrassedto show her he had this chivalrous side. But she started climbing. She wasn’t theleast bit nervous now, not with him behind her. And he didn’t touch her again, probablyafraid it might startle her into slipping—until they reached the nest and she felthis hand on her derriere, giving her a push to get her over the edge.
The crow’s nest was shaped like a big tub. Some nests were just flat platforms, somewere mere rounded frames, and others were rounded and made of solid wood with plankedsides such as this one.
“I’d already volunteered for the watch tonight, or I wouldn’t have put you throughthe ordeal of climbing that ladder,” he said as he followed her over the rim.
She stood up and gasped softly at the view. “Oh, my.”
The full moon tonight looked so much bigger from up here and was incredibly beautiful.Not long over the horizon, it was still quite huge. Seen from this unobstructed vantagepoint, with its wavy reflection off the water, it was breathtaking, even highly romantic.She got her mind off that thought rather quickly and turned to Nathan.
But he was still gazing at the moon. “This is why I took the watch when it’s not oneof my duties.”
“What if there had been too many clouds tonight instead?”
He looked at her before he said, “That’s the chance you take to see something thisbeautiful.”
She felt warmth in her cheeks, and inside her, too. She couldn’t let him distracther with flattery, if that’s what his comment was. “I believe you have something totell me?”
“That I’m not married? I’m not and I’ve no plans to be. I’m not sure how you cameto that conclusion from what I said earlier.”
“Becausenot alone anymoredoesn’t imply family, it implies recent acquisition of family, which tends to meangetting oneself a spouse.”
“Not always and not in my case. My sister and her husband died last year in a carriageaccident. They had two young daughters that his family didn’t want, so I have thecare of them now.”
For once he wasn’t evading answers, but she certainly hadn’t expected this one, orto be so relieved that he wasn’t married that she was almost giddy from it. “How oldare your nieces?”
“Clarissa is seven, Abbie is nine. They’re all I have left now in the way of family,and I intend to give them a proper home as soon as I can. But in the meantime, I founda nice couple to look after them. You might even know them.” He explained where thegirls were, ending with “Ironic, isn’t it, that they’re currently living in a houseyour uncle owns?”
“Uncle James only bought that property so he would have a place to store his shipaway from the crowded docks of London. But, no, I don’t know his caretakers. And whydidn’t you mention your nieces earlier?”
“My responsibilities are not your concern. Besides, you were painting me only onecolor—black.”
Reminded of that, she retorted, “I haven’t seen any shades of gray yet. In fact, Ifind it irresponsible that you didn’t give up smuggling when you became your nieces’guardian.”
She was prompting him to deny it, but he didn’t. He looked away toward the moon. Andshe immediately regretted sounding so condemning when she didn’t knowallthe particulars.
He might have good reasons for not abandoning what he’d been doing prior to becomingthe girls’ guardian. Other obligations or debts, or perhaps he simply couldn’t affordto quit yet if he’d been putting all of his money into materials for that ruined house.Or he could simply be addicted to the excitement and danger of smuggling, knowingit would mean prison or worse if he was caught. And she shouldn’t be angry any longernow that he’d told her he wasn’t married. If it was true. Good God, was she ever goingto just believe him without wondering if he was lying to her?
“I’m not going to apologize—” she started.
“Course not. Nabobs never do.”
“You thinkthatexcuses you?”
He glanced her way in confusion. “What?”
“It’s been established thatyou’regentry. If you think that puts you above the law—”
His laugh was genuine. “Third son of a third son and so far back, no one remembersthe lord who used to be in our family. No, I’m not gentry, darlin’, and don’t wishto be. Call me a blackguard all you want, but don’t call me a nabob.”
“Actually, you don’t have a choice when it comes to family.”
He snorted. “If you don’t know who your ancestors are, if you can’t name them, thenit don’t matter.”
“It’s a matter of record—somewhere. You just haven’t looked.”
“Maybe because it’s not something I need or want to know.”
Frustrated by his attitude, she remarked on the obvious. “You seem to have a distinctanimosity toward the nobility. Why is that?”
“That, darlin’, is none of your business.”
“This is how you hold up your end of our Bargain?”
“My opinions and sentiments aren’t part of our Bargain.”
“Well, if you’re going to skirt the rules, you might as well know I let it slip tomy family that you own the manor house. Not that we met there. And Jack doesn’t knowyet, so she hasn’t made the connection between you and our ghost . . . and the smugglerwho accosted me.”
“But if it’s mentioned to her, she will?”
Judith winced. “Probably.”
“You don’t keep secrets very well, do you?”
He didn’t sound angry, merely disappointed, making her feel awful now. And chilled.She’d cooled off enough from the climb to feel the chill, so she sat down in the crow’snest to get out of the wind. Over the rim of the nest she could still see most ofthe moon. And Nathan’s silhouette in front of it.
“I didn’t do it deliberately. Why does it matter if my father, aunt, and uncle knowyou own the ruined house?”
With the moon behind him now and so bright, she couldn’t see his face when he turnedto her. He sat down next to her before he said, “I don’t want your family seeing meas an equal whether I am or not. I don’t make friends with aristocrats.”
“It must be extremely difficult, your having to deal with me, then, isn’t it?”
“Oh, no.You, darlin’, are about as big an exception as there can be.”
Mollified—well, much more than that actually, after what he’d just said—she felt asense of anticipation rise within her. They were sitting so close, not actually touching,but she could feel heat radiating from him. It made her a little breathless, a littlenervous, too, to be up here alone with him. He was so unpredictable.
To distract herselfandhim, she said, “Tell me more about your nieces. What are they like?”
She saw a shadow of a smile as he said, “Clarissa is exuberant and affectionate. Shetook after my sister and me with light blond hair. Abbie’s hair is a darker blondand she’s more the proper little lady. But both girls love ribbons and are alwaysasking me to bring them some. Turn around for a moment.”
She wasn’t sure why she did as he asked, possibly because she was enjoying hearinghim talk about his nieces. But it was her own ribbon he was after. She could tellit was gone as her braid started to unravel.
“Sometimes the girls like to wear a ribbon on this side of their head.” He leanedforward and kissed the right side of Judith’s head. “Other times they prefer thisside.” He kissed the other side of her head. “But sometimes they wear the ribbon aroundtheir neck, pretending it’s a necklace.”
She gasped softly when she felt his fingers, so lightly, brush across her throat justbefore his lips pressed against the side of her neck and not briefly this time. Thesensation was so delightfully tingly, she closed her eyes and bent her head to theside to give him better access.
“I figured this would be the least likely place that I’d be tempted to kiss you,”he suddenly said, then added with a sigh, “I was wrong.”
Her eyes flared wide, but he was already drawing her across his lap to capture herlips with his. Cradled there, her head resting against his arm, he worked the magicshe’d twice succumbed to—and sparked the desire she now recognized, too. Her own.She’d spent so much time with him, too often staring at his long, magnificent body.That first day in the hold when he’d been half-naked had stirred up primitive urgesin her more strongly than she’d realized. The far too many inappropriate remarks he’dmade that had shocked her came back to her now, playing havoc with her innocence.She slipped an arm around his neck and wrapped her other arm around his back as shemoved her legs so that she was straddling him. She did all this without thinking whilehis tongue parted her lips for a deeper kiss.
He groaned. She barely heard it over the pounding of her heart. His hand was caressingher along her thigh, around her derriere, provoking a rush of warm, delicious sensationsthat she felt too keenly. The material of her britches was so thin, it was as if itweren’t there! It was why she’d felt chilled, which wasn’t the case now, far fromit. But when he cupped her breast, she moaned with pleasure as a wave of almost unbearableheat surged through her. He’d popped a button to get inside her shirt and under herchemise. But she didn’t care. All she could think about was arching into his stronghand, gripping his shoulders even more tightly.
She kissed him with abandon, letting her tongue duel with his as both of his handsnow claimed her breasts, kneading them gently. She almost screamed when he used afinger of each hand to circle her nipples, teasing her with the softest of touchesand making her wild for more. All of her reactions were out of her control. If shehad any thought at all, it was a hope that this night wouldn’t end.
“You are the sweetest kind of trouble I’ve ever met, darlin’.”
His hands moved to her derriere as he started kissing her again, deeper and then moredeeply, and she realized he’d pulled down her britches. The feel of his callused fingerson the softest of her skin had her writhing in his lap, moaning with pleasure as hehardened beneath her.
But some things could still shock her innocent sensibilities, and feeling his fingersmove between her legs did just that. She broke the kiss with a startled gasp and pulledback to gaze into his burning emerald eyes. They couldn’t look away from each other,and Judith felt she finally knew what it meant to be intimate with a man. He leanedforward and kissed her lightly on the lips as he pulled up her britches.
“I won’t apologize for wanting you, but this isn’t the place for it. Too cold andnot soft enough for you. Give me a moment and I’ll help you down the ladder.”
She said nothing, but she had to disagree. With a moon like the one shining down onthem, it was a romantic place for kissing—and everything else they’d done. And irrationally,she felt some regret now for having stopped him.