Wren told his story in hushed tones, his voice rising and falling with each imagined danger. Having survived his own ordeal at age eleven, living through two days and nights of starvation, thirst, and fear of death from exposure in the rough winter waters, Nicholas found himself growing steadily more impatient. Hall had kept him and Chase alert and distracted by relating stories about his travels as a young man in the West Indies—his favorite dock doxies; a past storm when the water, the masts, the deck, had been lit by strange blue flame; the small hoard of old Spanish bullion he’d all but tripped over, running from the British Regulars through Tortola.
The experience wasn’t something Nicholas spoke of now. It wasn’t something he enjoyed thinking about. His lips had cracked and bled, burning at all hours from the salt water, and there were times even now when he imagined he could still feel the splinters beneath his nails from the section of the bulwark he had clung to. His vision had gone dark at the start of the third day, and panic had choked him, until Captain Hall had swum to his side and held him afloat by force. The rescue had only been the beginning of another nightmare.
Something ugly in Nicholas stirred when the first mate put an all-too-forward hand on Etta’s bare wrist. Something made him want to promptly remove the whole arm from the man’s body.
She is a job.
She is a means to an end.
But she was also not Wren’s.
“Mr. Wren,” he interrupted. The resulting silence cracked over the cabin like a whip. “Perhaps you’d be so good as to clarify one point in your story?”
The other man’s face twisted into a smirk. “Of course. What troubles you?”
Wren’s first mistake had been to assume that those around him had never sailed through the Virgin Islands.
“You mentioned that the island where you ran aground was about two leagues from Tortola, did you not? Just northeast of Peter Island?”
Chase’s chair creaked as he shifted his weight.
Wren’s own smile slipped for a moment, but he said, “Yes, I believe I did.”
“I thought, surely, that you must be referring to Dead Chest Island,” Nicholas began, wondering if he looked half as diabolical as he felt.
“I am,” Wren said, a slight flush creeping over his face. “I wasn’t aware you were familiar with it.”
That much was obvious.
“I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a sailor who hasn’t heard of it, sir,” Nicholas said. “That is the island where Blackbeard set his fifteen sailors ashore with only cutlasses and a bottle of rum between them in retaliation for their mutiny, correct?”
“That is correct,” Chase confirmed happily. “They tried swimming to Peter Island, but drowned. That’s why they call that stretch of sand ‘Deadman’s Beach,’ of course, owing to the bodies that washed ashore.”
Etta leaned forward, unexpected interest sparking in her eyes at this delightfully gruesome detail. “Really?”
“Truly. But that’s the trouble, you see,” Nicholas said, turning back to Wren, whose smile seemed frozen. “Having seen Dead Chest myself, I’m afraid it doesn’t match your description. It’s an outcropping of rocks, with no fresh water, no vegetation, and certainly no wild boars for you to hunt.”
His spoon scraped against the bottom of his bowl. When he dared to look up again, Etta was watching him, biting her bottom lip. Her eyes sparkled with laughter, and he felt a small bundle of warmth tuck away inside of his chest in response.
Wren busied himself with the task of refilling both his and Etta’s glasses with claret. Perhaps it was the awkwardness, or the fact that Wren seemed to be steaming enough to curl a wig, but Etta drank the dark wine in a single gulp, and sang, in a charmingly tipsy way, “Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest! Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!”
Nicholas blinked. Silverware clinked as it was set down on plates. Chairs creaked as the men around her shifted, turning toward her. Etta blanched, looking down at her lap, as if her skirt would offer up some kind of excuse.
“Where did you hear such an extraordinary song?” Wren asked.
The question instantly sobered her, dousing the flush of laughter from her cheeks. She sat up as straight as a mainmast in her seat, pushing her wineglass away, and steeled her expression to try to hide the flash of regret and panic he saw in her eyes. Nicholas wished she would look up, to see how easily mended this was. If Sophia was not here to mop up her spills, he would gladly take on the challenge.
“Perhaps from Captain Hall? He has a charming repertoire of songs,” he suggested.
Chase gave him a narrow look. “That’s not one I’ve heard before. Is there more to it?”
“It was in a book I read with my mother,” she said vaguely. “We used to read adventure stories before bed. I don’t remember the rest. Excuse me for being, ah, so rude.”
“Rude? Nonsense. What a delightful voice you have!” Wren said. “Do you have any other musical ability, Miss Spencer? Perhaps you’ll treat us to a song later on?”
Grateful for that shift in subject, aren’t you, weasel? Nicholas thought.
“I—no, well—” She looked to the ceiling for rescue, more panicked than before. “I play the violin.”
“The violin? That’s most irregular,” Wren said. “I suppose I’m out of touch with the training you ladies receive. Are there many instruments of quality in the West Indies?”