The candlelight was doing fascinating things to both the silk of her gown and the color in her cheeks. She struggled to lift her fork to her mouth, clearly in discomfort from the fit of her gown. Perhaps that, too, explained the breathy way she laughed and laughed at Wren’s inane jokes.
Where was the little lioness, he wondered, roaming the decks with her hair down and floating like a cloud around her? The one who’d looked ready and willing to do violence to two men twice her size—with a grappling hook, no less? She’d gone into the cabin wild, burning, and come out as cool and pale as a pearl. If she’d coifed her hair and powdered it, he might have been convinced he was watching someone from his own century.
Beside her, Edward Wren was the pride of bloody England with his beautiful manners and charm. Nicholas had made a dispassionate assessment of him when the Ardent’s first mate was brought up from the hold, and had found him lacking in everything but pretty manners. The look on his face when Hall had introduced Nicholas as the master of the ship…
His fingers closed around the silver knife, gripping it until his breath was steady. Disbelief. Disgust. Worse, even, than Sophia’s open malice.
They’d made their introductions just as Captain Hall and the Challenger were readying to sail. Not a single word had passed between them after the captain left; they’d merely studied one another, Wren taking stock of him the way he would a horse he was considering purchasing. Nicholas returned the favor now.
Dark hair, dark eyes. Heroically bruised and bloodied, naturally. Wren was a great deal shorter than Nicholas, but walked with his chest puffed out and his chin raised, as if he was always on his way to meet the king.
“Watch that one,” Captain Hall had muttered as he returned to the Challenger to continue their hunt. “Both eyes open, Nick. He’ll make as if to cut your throat from the front as another knife slices clean through your back. You won’t see his hands move.”
“A charming image.” Nicholas laughed, but the older man was grave.
“I know his type. More wind than a tempest, and more pride than Lucifer himself.”
Nicholas wished he could have convinced the captain to stay. But Hall, floating on the wave of victory, was already eager for another prize—and, no doubt, to have Nicholas make a quick journey of it back to New London.
Captain Hall had clasped his shoulder and pounded his back, light eyes sparkling as the sunset turned the sky a warm rose. “I know you’re ready for this and more. Finish your business with the family and meet us back in port.”
A pure thrill moved from his scalp down his spine, warming him to the core. I am ready. He wanted his own command the way the dying wanted their next breath; it was just a matter, as always, of money. Of outrunning the ghost in his past that seemed to haunt him at every turn.
Nick! Help me, help me—!
He breathed in deeply through his nose, his fingers twisting in the tablecloth as if caught in a memory of their own.
The past was past. Now he needed to see the young ladies safely delivered into the hands of Cyrus Ironwood, and escape whole and preferably unscathed.
By the time he was finished with that task, finished with that family for once and all, Chase and the others would already have the Ardent in the hands of the Lowes’ agent, who’d then bring her and her cargo to the prize courts for a ruling.
A crucial part of that process was the testimony of the ranking officer of the captured vessel. He couldn’t stab his fork into Wren’s eye—well, he supposed he could. The man only needed his mouth to serve as witness to the courts that the vessel had been fairly won. Did every nicety need to be observed?
His stomach soured again as Miss Spencer gave a pretty little gasp of dismay. Wren, brave Mr. Wren, consoled her by saying, “Do not fret, my dear. I have stitched up more than one wound myself. This was, however, the first time I had ever seen my own entrails.”
Nicholas scoffed. If a man could see his own entrails, he could also see the hand of God swooping down to take him to his eternal reward. There was no living with a wound like that. He had seen enough proof to drive that fact home, even if his guest had not.
Guest. A dark, humorless laugh welled up inside him. Hostage, really, but why use the true term when you could be polite? If there was one thing Nicholas loathed more than almost anything else, it was this. Behaving, even to an enemy, with hollow civility and false flatteries. He preferred to be direct in his dislike, and if that did not make him a gentleman from society’s mold—well, then so be it.
“—the ship was tossed onto the reef by the swells…there was simply nothing we could do other than hold on to her as she was wrecked. Those of us that survived, who made it to the sandbank, crawled ashore. We lived as savages for a week, foraging for food, hunting wild boar, creating shelters from palm leaves and whatever dry wood we could find, searching day and night for water. There was only a single knife between us—a blessing, I think, for we were so out of our minds, we might have killed each other in murderous rage had there been more.”
“A cryin’ pity that would have been,” Chase grumbled, jabbing his spoon into the stew. Nicholas cleared his throat.
Chase’s green eyes slid over to meet his, and he raised his glass. The prize crew was, by Hall’s design, filled with sailors who had known Nicholas for years. Davy Chase had known him the longest.
He and Chase had been brought aboard Captain Hall’s old ship, the Lady Anne, to serve as cabin boys—just weeks before the Lady Anne was torn apart at the seams by a squall. Both they and the captain had been pressed into temporary service in His Majesty’s Navy by the very same ship that rescued them from the waves.