Etta straightened and repeated, “The West Indies?”
A horrible suspicion snaked through Nicholas’s mind. Was there a possibility that she didn’t know the location of whatever passage she had come through? But then, wouldn’t that mean…
She’s not here of her own free will.
Anger flashed through him at the thought, and he brought one boot down against the rug, as if to stomp it out.
It does not matter. Your concern is bringing her to the old man.
But he knew the feeling of being caught in the Ironwoods’ net. He knew it very well indeed.
“Ah! If I remember correctly, there’s a violin somewhere around here.…” Goode said, glancing around the cabin. Aside from the shelves of warped book spines, a sturdy desk, and the berth for sleeping, there wasn’t all that much to observe.
“Perhaps Nicholas will be so good as to search for it, so that we might hear you play tomorrow?” Wren said.
“Mister Carter,” Chase bit out.
“Curse my clumsy tongue,” Wren said, raising a glass in a mocking salute.
Nicholas raised his own. “Thankfully, you have a sparkling imagination to make up for it.”
His lips tight, Wren returned his attention to Etta, who was toying with a spoon. “I must say, I’m highly affronted that the captain kept such lovely young ladies from us. Though I suppose I can see why he would want to shield the crew from such radiant beauty.”
Nicholas choked on his next sip of claret. Etta flushed from her cheeks down to the slope of—He returned his eyes back to his plate, gripping his knees beneath the table.
“I meant to ask about that very thing,” Chase said to her. “The others only knew there were passengers because these two gentlemen were moved to the bosun’s and carpenter’s cabins in the bow. They were as startled as the Challenger’s crew to see you.”
“My sister, as you know,” Etta said carefully, “is not well. We were confined to the cabin because of that.”
“Why did you not ask for the surgeon? Both Mr. Farthing and I would have been glad to have been of assistance,” Goode said.
Nicholas registered the girl’s expression. Her silence was telling.
“Likely because a surgeon would try to fix with a saw what water and broth could easily soothe,” he said.
“I resent that implication, sir. There have been advances in medicine, and having studied—”
“I can hardly credit the two of you as sisters,” Chase said, pushing the hair off his forehead. “You’re so markedly different in appearance and accent.”
Nicholas kicked his foot beneath the table. A drunken Chase was a blunt Chase.
“That observation is hardly polite,” Wren said coolly.
“I only meant to ask if they’ve different mothers, is all,” Chase groused. “My apologies, Miss Spencer, if offense was taken.”
“That’s all right,” Etta said weakly.
“And the late captain was your uncle?”
Where the devil are you going with this? Nicholas thought, studying his old friend.
“He was indeed, Mr. Chase,” Mr. Goode said, venturing into the conversation again with a disapproving look. “Related to Miss Sophia’s mother, their father’s first wife. Correct me if I misunderstood his story, Miss Spencer, but I take it to understand your father and his second wife, your mother, had a fine plantation on Nassau before they lately passed away. Miss Sophia was bringing her sister back with her to England.”
“Yes,” Etta said quickly. “That’s exactly right.”
This was beyond belief. Ironwood had actually seen to it that an elaborate history was created to explain the differences between the girls. If he had to guess, the old man had bribed the captain to pose as their uncle, so they would have an escort and protection on this journey, as the rules of the era dictated.
“It’s regrettable,” Wren interrupted to regain Etta’s attention, “that your voyage was so rudely interrupted. Will you be able to get word to the family waiting for you in England that you were forced to alter your destination? My God, what if they think you’ve been lost at sea? Imagine their devastation.”
He was looking at Etta, but clearly speaking to Nicholas.
“Rest assured, sir,” Nicholas said with a patience he did not know he possessed, “they will be able to write to their family once we are in port. They will be well cared for until we can find them safe passage home. There’s bound to be a Royal Navy ship or a British Army encampment near enough to Connecticut willing to assist them.”
“Ah, yes. I long to hear how this little skirmish is shaping up. How long before Washington surrenders? Let’s place our bets, gentlemen.” Wren’s fingers drummed against the table. “Perhaps another month? I’ve heard Howe has his eyes set on New York. That would be a terrible blow to your army’s efforts, would it not? The loss of such a vital port and city?”
“They certainly aren’t my efforts,” Nicholas said, an uneasiness creeping up on him. “I have no investment in this war beyond what ships it brings to the water that we can capture.”
“Really?” Etta asked. “But I thought this crew was American?”
“Well, Americans were Englishmen until a few months ago,” Chase said. “Some on our crew still consider themselves to be. But the Challenger sails under a Letter of Marque from the Continental Congress, and we’re authorized to prey only on British ships, so I suppose that seals our allegiance.”