Knowing that they’d be eating hard biscuits and turtle soup every night if he let one of the prize crew take control of the galley, Nicholas had reluctantly agreed to let the Ardent’s cook stay in his position after meeting him. The man had all but shackled himself to the stove, stoic and grim, as he offered up a pastry as proof of his skill. He kept his appearance well enough, with a trim dark beard and hair queued neatly. More importantly, “Cook” had tolerated his presence on the ship, having clearly lived through any number of boardings in his time.
“It’s made from salted beef that Cook hangs over the side of the ship, until it freshens,” Goode explained. “The stew is merely beef, potatoes, onions, and a little pepper if he has it.”
Henrietta—no, Etta—no, Miss Spencer—favored Jack, one of the cabin boys, with a small smile as he sprang forward to spoon the stew into her bowl.
They watched as she took a careful bite, compressing her lips at the taste, swallowing hard. She managed to choke out a single word: “Delicious.”
“There’s a good girl,” Chase said with a chuckle.
As fair-haired as an angel and as big as a bear, his friend, the first mate for the remainder of their journey, was a study in contradictions. An open, round face, perpetually tinged with pink, displayed his irrepressible good nature. He had been one of the few to sneakily thumb away his tears of relief when Miss Spencer had awoken. Moments later, he’d been back at work, assisting the others in patching the hull and singing bawdy songs in the highest register he could manage. And tonight, following the dinner’s conclusion and the final watch, he’d be in his hammock, darning his and the crew’s stockings with exquisite care.
On the deck, however, Chase was as formidable as a mountain; there was no quarter for shirking duties or disrespect, not without fear of the cat-o’-nine-tails or a fist sailing toward your soft parts. Usually, a good pint or glass of wine was enough to put Chase in high spirits, but Nicholas was almost relieved that the other man looked as surly as he himself felt. Maybe he wasn’t the only one exhausted by this whole ordeal.
Wren smiled fondly at Etta—Miss Spencer—and gestured to his bowl, still full from the first serving. “I don’t like it much myself. The curse of having a refined palate, I suppose. But, I swear to you, I would have eaten this every day rather than starve on the island with the others—”
Bloody hell, would there be no mercy from this?
By some unfortunate act of God, Wren was another surviving officer of the Ardent, which unfortunately granted him the privilege of attending meals in the captain’s cabin, outside of where he and the other men were being kept in the hold.
Nicholas took a steadying breath of the savory, salty smell of the lobscouse and allowed Jack to refill his bowl when he emptied it. The boy’s hands shook slightly from nerves. This was his first voyage, and Nicholas remembered the feeling well.
“You’re doing a fine job,” he murmured to the boy. “Well done.”
Jack straightened up, setting his shoulders back. He struggled to keep the smile off his face as he moved to serve Chase. When he arrived at Wren’s side, the man broke off his story only long enough to give the boy the full brunt of his condescension.
“Have you gone deaf as well? I said I wasn’t fond of it.” Wren glanced at Nicholas. “Your charity knows no limit. Employing half-wits and simpletons?”
A growl curled in Chase’s throat at the same moment that the spoon in Jack’s hand “slipped” from his fingers and landed with a wet thump in Wren’s lap.
Nicholas’s body tensed as the other man raised his hand. The impertinence would be dealt with, but not like this—for, whatever weaknesses other men might accuse him of, Nicholas would never condone striking a child, even to discipline him. “Mr. Wren—”
He wasn’t quite sure how she moved as quickly as she did in those heavy skirts, but Etta was suddenly standing over Wren, settling a hand on his shoulder.
“Oh no,” Etta said loudly. “How clumsy, Jack! You’d better apologize.”
Chase yanked Jack out of Wren’s reach as the man glanced at Etta, distracted for a moment from his anger.
“Sorry,” Jack mumbled. Chase gave him a little shake and the boy added, “Sir.”
“It’s all right, isn’t it? Accidents happen,” Etta continued soothingly, picking up Wren’s displaced napkin. “There you go—”
She turned slightly as she reclaimed her seat, meeting Nicholas’s gaze evenly. Well. That was a masterful manipulation of the moment. He tilted his head in acknowledgment. Well played.
Etta tilted hers right back, cocking an eyebrow as if to ask, And where were you? He bit back an unwelcome grin at the challenge.
“The bugger did it on purpose,” Wren insisted.
Etta continued, “Now, what were you saying about the island and food…?”
As Wren was, mystifyingly, an officer, he was granted a measure of respect by the able-bodied seamen of both crews, including the ship’s boys. There were standards of how a captured crew was to be treated, and the truth was, Jack would need to be disciplined for his actions. There was no way to avoid it without stepping on the exasperating decorum of it all, but Miss Spencer…
He turned to find Chase watching her with brows raised. She’d blown out the flame before the fire could catch.
Now, however, Miss Spencer seemed to devour each of Wren’s words like bites of a second supper. Ironwood had trained her well. Nicholas would need to watch her to ensure that he himself wasn’t being played—or perhaps the better strategy was to stop watching her altogether.