“Nick!” he heard the captain call, but he’d already shrugged out of his jacket and waistcoat and vaulted himself over the rail and into the sea.
THE ICY WATER DRANK HIM DEEP, ROBBING HIM OF THE BREATH he’d taken before the descent. Sunlight broke through the surface of the water, casting a warm glow about the wreckage and bodies sinking slowly to the ocean floor. He suspected the presence of sharks.
Still, there was plenty for the creatures to gorge on before they tasted his flavor. With that less-than-comforting thought, he dove deeper, his muscles afire from the stinging assault of cold water. Just before he sent up a small prayer for assistance, he saw her.
She must have exhausted all of her fight on deck; now the girl was as limp as seaweed caught in a current as she was dragged steadily down. He saw the problem immediately. Her legs and the gown were caught in netting, which in turn had wrapped itself around a heavy piece of the hull. Her arms floated up, as if still straining toward the surface.
Nicholas removed his knife and went to work sawing the net, her gown, anything but her skin. His chest felt tight enough to snap, burning with its need for air. The moment he had her free, he drew his arms around her and propelled them both up, kicking furiously with the last of his strength and sense.
They exploded up through the surface of the water, and he greedily sucked in the first few gulps of briny air. He choked up some of the water he’d swallowed, stomach flipping with an unfamiliar panic. He brought a hand to one of her cheeks, still scissoring his legs to keep them afloat. A frisson of horror went down his spine when he felt the icy quality of her skin.
Hall’s voice boomed above the others, calling down to him, “Nick! Grab the line!”
He caught the rope handily and went to work securing it around them. Despite the slither of dread in his guts, he spoke sternly to the girl.
“You will not die,” he ordered her. “I expressly forbid it. Not on my ship, do you hear me?”
If he lost this girl, he’d lose everything.
“Heave ho, heave ho,” he heard Hall order. “Almost there!”
Nicholas spread his hand out across her back to steady her as they came up level to the bulwark, and he turned to brace his feet against it. None of this made the least bit of sense to him—why had she run out? And this blood…was it even hers?
His shoulders were gripped by the solid force of half a dozen hands, and he and the girl were hauled onto the ship’s deck.
Nicholas rolled just in time to avoid landing on top of her. The back of his skull bounced against the coarse wood with a sharp crack, blacking out his vision for one terrible instant.
“The surgeon’s mate will look after her.” Captain Hall’s face swam in front of his.
“—is the lass dead?” someone asked.
Nicholas was trembling like a flag in a gale. He focused on the steady pattern of drawing in breaths and releasing them. Around him were the anxious, bedraggled faces of the sailors from both crews, all hovering about the girl with morbid interest. The men had forgotten their fighting with this spectacle, true, but his crew had also forgotten they were meant to be securing the other men in the ship’s hold.
A movement distracted him from that thought. His eyes shifted to where a small figure in a navy coat was kneeling beside the girl, hands pressed firmly on her belly. Plain, crisp clothes; dark hair perfectly pulled back and collected at the base of his skull in a queue; a face like a child’s—Nicholas mistrusted anyone who could stay so pristine on a ship, never mind in the midst of battle. It spoke of cowards.
“Easy, Nick,” Hall said, helping him sit up, “it’s only this ship’s surgeon’s mate.”
“Where’s Philips?” he demanded. “Or this ship’s surgeon?”
“Philips went below to tend to the men there. Their surgeon is no longer in possession of the lower half of his body. I believe he is presently indisposed with the business of dying.”
Nicholas shook his head, unwilling to accept that a child would be caring for her. “How long has he been out of strings? A year?”
Captain Hall raised a brow. “About as long as you, I’d wager.”
He didn’t like the liberty with which the surgeon’s mate was cutting her gown and stays open—
“Couldn’t be bothered to take off your shoes and stockings, I see,” the captain continued, storm-gray eyes flashing with amusement. “You took off like the devil’s hounds were on your heels.”
Nicholas glowered at Hall, well aware of his sagging wet stockings and the ruined leather. “I didn’t realize we are now in the habit of letting ladies drown.”
His words were forgotten when Nicholas caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned in time to see the surgeon’s mate raise a fist and bring it down, hard, against her stomach.
“Sir!” Nicholas surged up off the deck, swaying on his feet. “You dare—?”
The girl coughed violently, her back twisting off the deck as she spat out the water in her lungs. Long, pale fingers curled against the deck and she took several panting breaths, eyes squeezed shut. Nicholas’s eyes narrowed at where the surgeon’s mate had placed a steadying hand on her bare shoulder.
No one spoke, not even Captain Hall, who seemed as startled as the rest of them to have her so suddenly returned to them from the land of the dead. Persephone, indeed.
“Ma’am,” Nicholas managed to scratch out, with a curt bow. “Good afternoon.”