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With as much dignity as she could muster, Etta pointed to the bunk. “It’s just over there. Tell him I’m sorry I kept it so long.”

The whole time she’d been using it as a security blanket, it hadn’t even occurred to her that he might not have another one.

Idiot. She was embarrassed by her own rudeness.

The boy scampered and plucked the jacket up, all scrawny limbs and big ears. She turned back to her work, trying to disentangle the brush without ripping out any more of her hair. The creak of the door hinges never came.

“Don’t ye have any pomatum, miss?” he blurted out. “Looks painful the way ’tis.” Then, going white in the face with fear, added, “Apologies—”

“No, it’s all right,” Etta said, thinking quickly. “I don’t have any…pomatum. Or water. Could you possibly get them for me?”

Nicholas had said to use the boys if they needed anything.…Etta wasn’t sure what the expected behavior was here, but the boy didn’t seem troubled or even wary of the request. In fact, he bounced into action. “S’all right, miss, I’ll be back. I’ll give the jacket to another boy to brush, and bring some fresh water for ye. Me mum taught me how to do her hair right and proper, like a lady—” He caught himself on the next breath, steadying himself so he stood straight, thin shoulders back. Looking at him now, Etta guessed he couldn’t be more than twelve, maybe thirteen. “If you be needing the help, miss?”

She did need help, all right—both the kind he was offering and the kind she had just realized he could provide. Sophia had warned her not to be too familiar with anyone on the ship—anyone in this era, really—but now she had a justified excuse for keeping him around, wringing what information she needed out of him. Etta pressed her lips together to keep from smiling, hiding the excitement rippling through her. “I’m Etta Spencer—what’s your name?”

“Jack, Miss Spencer.” He gave a little bow.

True to his word, he did return—with a pitcher of warm water, a rag, and a canister of something that smelled wonderfully spicy and sent a cramp of hunger through her empty stomach.

Jack was serious about his business; when Etta tried to help him rinse and towel her hair off, he gave her a stern look. She bit her lip to keep from smiling and let him go about his work stoically, applying the spicy mixture—the pomatum, she guessed. A few minutes into being groomed like a delicate lapdog, Etta put her plan into play.

“Jack, are you a member of the prize crew? Or one of the Ardent’s boys?”

He puffed out his chest as he announced, “Prize crew, miss, and one of the best at that. Captain Hall keeps us all trained right and proper.”

Perfect. Exactly what she’d hoped for. “Could you tell me about the men?”

Jack pulled back, giving her an incredulous look. “Well…they drool and snore and fart like any other man, I promise ye.”

She bit her lip to keep from laughing. “No, I mean…how about their names? Where they come from? What they do when they’re not working. I’ve always been so curious about that.”

Always, as in, the last ten minutes.

Still Jack hesitated, brow creased, as if he were puzzling out the propriety of it all. Etta brushed aside the guilt and gave the boy the most manipulative smile of her life, adding, “I’m only asking because I trust your opinion above everyone else’s.”

Jack seemed to enjoy this.

“All right. Suppose we’d best start with Mr. Carter,” Jack said, finally.

Yes, Etta thought, let’s.

“He’s a right fine seaman, and I like him fine. Kind. Teaches me letters when he isn’t barking at the other men, which he don’t have to do, understand? Reads to me sometimes when I brings him in his breakfast. Reads so much, I don’t see how he don’t get bored with all them words.” Jack made a face. “He’s the prize master. He’ll bring the ship into the prize courts and get our earnings. I know he don’t like turtle soup much. Always makes a face when I serve it to him. He’s from…well, I don’t rightly know. Captain Hall raised him, though. Is that what you meant, miss?”

Etta nodded. “Exactly what I meant.”

Jack went through the roster of the prize crew, noting how much he liked each man, which ones burped most often after he served them, which ones snored, the ones who had perished in horrifically brutal ways during the boarding. It shifted naturally into chatting about the work above, his excitement during the boarding, how some of the boys from this ship, the Ardent, had agreed to work for Mr. Carter but they didn’t much like Jack yet. She was so distracted by his torrent of words, she missed the fact that he was guiding the brush through her hair easily now, top to bottom, top to bottom, until it felt silky and only a bit damp to the touch.

“How d’ye like it fashioned?” he asked her, gesturing to her hair.

“I’ll just braid it,” Etta began. “Thank you for your help—”

“I can do that, miss,” Jack said.

“You can?”

“A sailor who can’t braid s’no sailor t’all,” he proclaimed. “Learnt to marry and braid the lines and ropes first thing.”

“Marry them?” Etta asked, glancing up at him under a curtain of her hair. He’d been appalled by her sitting on the floor, but it was the only way for him to stand over her to do his work.