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Want. His exhaustion had boiled him down to his basest instincts. He wanted her lips, her touch, her esteem, her mind.

Inside her. Beside her. With her. Impossible, he reminded himself.

Perhaps it was a blessing that he couldn’t cross paths with himself, lest he be tempted to shoot himself before making the deal with Ironwood.

“What man can resist the temptation of riches waiting to be found?” he said, running his thumb along the carved edge of a dark wooden desk. “Or woman, for that matter?” he added, thinking of Sophia.

“Maybe,” Etta said slowly, turning to sort through the papers on the desk.

“You disagree?”

“No, not really,” she said. “I’m sure that was motivation for most of them, especially the ones who came later on. But the first travelers didn’t know what they would find, did they? That takes a lot of courage, to charge into the unknown.”

“Or blackmail and fear,” he said pointedly.

She laughed. “I don’t think that was it…at least, I hope it wasn’t. These were people who overcame the impossible; they figured out a way to break every law of science. They opened up whole worlds within their own. Maybe they saw themselves as explorers, or scholars. Or maybe they saw it as a kind of calling to find out what lay ahead and make adjustments.” The force behind her words increased as she spoke, driving her point forward. “Maybe Alice was right—they made too many changes, and everything got out of hand.”

“A calling?” He couldn’t keep the sardonic note out of his voice.

“Sure,” she said. “You don’t believe in that?”

“I believe in choosing your purpose and a direction to head—not that there is a path out there just waiting for me to stumble onto it.”

“So you wouldn’t consider sailing your calling?” Etta asked.

“No. It was the only opportunity that was presented to me, and I saw how I could make something of myself with hard work.”

Nicholas couldn’t quite believe that he’d managed to distill that cloudy feeling into simple truth.

“I enjoy it,” he continued, shifting under her scrutiny. “I love the challenge that the sea presents at every turn. It’s allowed me to see more of the world than I ever dared to imagine, and it feeds my desire to see more. And I happen to be damned good at it. But it does not change the fact that the occupation was chosen for me by another. And it was not a divine hand.”

Had Hall been of a more business-minded nature, he might have placed Nicholas with a tradesman as an apprentice, and reaped the rewards of his skills until Nicholas had saved enough to purchase his own freedom. Instead, his freedom had been a fact, not an agonizing question; not something that needed to be contemplated. The Halls loathed the institution of slavery not only for what it did to the slaves themselves, but for the way it seemed to pollute the souls of those who participated in it.

As a captain, Nicholas would have the means to support himself, plus the ability to prove his own merit in the eyes of the world. As the owner of a company, with wealth beyond imagination, he could make his mark on the world.

Tell her, he thought, fists squeezing at his side. Tell her the truth, you sodding bastard.

“I always thought having a natural talent for something was a sign that it was what you were meant to be doing,” Etta said. “That’s what got me into trouble in the first place.”

“Do you consider the violin to be your calling?” he asked. “Will you see it through after all, then?”

Etta’s hand froze over a small, glossy wooden box she’d dug out from beneath a pile of ledgers. “I think…I’m not even sure it’s possible at this point. My life is so different now. I don’t think I could ever go back to the way it was. But…maybe there’s also something else for me—something I couldn’t even imagine before.”

Or that I’d want to.

“Rest assured,” he said, when he managed to find his voice, “there will always be a position for you on my ship.”

Her face brightened with her clever, beautiful smile. “Will you let me climb up into the rigging? Reef the sails?”

A burst of thunder rolled through him. “Absolutely not.”

She laughed again. “As if you could stop me.”

In spite of all of the voices in his head demanding that he be reasonable, that he listen to his own damned advice and not make more of this than it could be, he reached over to smooth the hair away from her face.

And holy God, when she looked at him the way she did now…he felt like he’d stepped into the blue-white heart of a flame. The dark centers of her bright eyes expanded as her teeth caught the corner of her lip, and he had the extraordinarily unhelpful thought that if anyone should be biting those lips, it should be him.

Nicholas fought his scowl and stepped back, feeling as if he were surfacing from underwater. “What…what precisely are we meant to be doing?”

“I don’t know,” Etta said, with a cheeky little smile. “You’re so handsome that sometimes I completely lose my train of thought.”

He turned to assess the room, struggling to suppress his own grin.

“There’s a desk over there. There might be something useful inside to tell us where we are,” he said. “I’ll have a look through the chest.”

She nodded, turning back to the piles with new urgency. The heavy wood-and-iron chest was unlocked, but save for some sachets of lavender still releasing their fragrance, there were only a few blankets tucked inside. Nicholas turned at the sharp thunk behind him, and watched as Etta fought with the stubborn bottom drawer of the desk.