Etta’s palms were pressed flat against the table, and she was breathing hard in an obvious attempt to master her…anger? She was angry? On his behalf?
If Wren had spared her a glance, he might have thought twice before adding, “I suppose you owe your faculties to…your father, perhaps? Forgive me if I’ve made incorrect assumptions about your parentage.”
“You have not, Mr. Wren,” Nicholas said, wondering why he had ever resisted the urge to lodge his fork in the man’s eye. “To your point, though, I suppose we are all born with deficits. In your case, in manners.”
He understood this now for what it really was—punishment, for having made the other man feel like a fool. First with the seizure of the Ardent, and tonight, revealing his lies. This knowledge in itself was enough to settle him somewhat; the pettiness of it stripped some of the pain as these old wounds were sliced open.
Wren swayed in his seat, the full effect of the claret seeming to strike him all at once. His words became slippery at the edges, slurred slightly, as his eyes gleamed, giving his anger a darker edge. “What was it that Voltaire supposedly said? Your race is a species of men, as different from ours as a breed of bulldogs is to terriers?”
“Mr. Wren!” Etta began, scarlet in the face.
“Having actually read the Voltaire in question, I can confirm the quote is, as different from ours as the breed of spaniels is from that of greyhounds,” Nicholas said coldly. “Interesting, though, that in the end we’re all just dogs.”
“Perhaps,” Wren said, leaning forward in his seat. “But not all of us are mutts without pedigree.”
Etta stood at the same moment as Chase, only she was the one close enough to land a slap on the officer’s face. The crack of flesh on flesh stunned Nicholas, who’d leapt up to restrain his friend from lunging across the table.
“And these are the actions of a lady?” Wren sputtered.
“Aye,” Chase said approvingly. “And a damn fine one at that.”
“Can you actually hear the words coming out of your mouth?” she demanded, pieces of her hair falling out of its braid as she threw an arm out toward the door. “You need to leave the table—right now.”
Wren’s eyes narrowed at her tone. Nicholas didn’t like the way the man was looking her over, as if preparing to strike. Strike her.
Nicholas’s fingers pressed against the knife he’d set on his plate.
“I beg your pardon, madam,” Wren said, “if I’ve caused you any offense.”
“You know I’m not the one you offended!” she said, trembling with anger. “I think it’s time for you to leave.”
Wren folded his hands together and rested them on his chest. “I haven’t eaten my pudding yet.”
“Oh my God, you are despicable!” Etta snarled.
“Careful, madam, blasphemy is still a sin—”
Even if Nicholas had been the gambling sort, he never would have wagered a single coin on her next words being “Then I guess I’ll see you in hell!”
The look of outrage on her face would have sent even Nicholas flying to the other end of the ship; he wondered, not for the first time, when she was from. What era had produced such a fearsome, magnificent temper? But Wren stayed precisely where he was, the smug arse, and it was Etta who left the room in a whirl of skirts.
Chase craned his neck around. “That one, I like.”
Nicholas waited, but didn’t hear the telltale slam of a second door…meaning, she hadn’t gone back into her cabin. “That one is up on the deck. Alone.”
He implicitly trusted his crew, but no lady of this era was allowed to wander in these circumstances unescorted, and there were plenty of ways for her to be injured, never mind tossed overboard in a swell. Moreover, he was a little frightened that she had set out to find another grappling hook.
He stood, turning back to his friend. “See to it that Mr. Wren is returned to the hold. And, sir,” he said, returning his gaze to the weasel, who was contently eating beside a shocked Goode, “you will not be dining with us for the duration of our journey. Call my character into question as you like, but if it reaches my ears that you’ve attempted to besmirch Miss Spencer and her reputation, you will find yourself without a tongue to enjoy your future meals.”
It was a relief to be free from the warm, muggy air inside the cabin; what with the wine, and the upset in his stomach, he’d felt like he was being slowly drawn into an unwilling sleep. The dark autumn air brushed his skin sweetly, a balm to the heat trapped beneath it.
She’d walked only a short distance along the starboard side on the quarterdeck, and was standing at the rail. The wind pressed back against her gown, molding it further to her shape. The full moon cast her in ivory light, stretching its hand out over the water in a trail leading to the horizon. If not for her pose, the arms crossed over her chest as she surveyed the dark sea churning around her, she might have been one of the great masters’ statues, brought to life.
And in a thousand different ways, she was just as entirely out of his reach.
DAMN, DAMN, DAMN…
Etta scrubbed the cold, salty water from her eyes and cheeks with one hand, and clawed at the front of the dress with the other. She couldn’t dislodge the ball of panic that had settled just under her ribs; the stays were squeezing so tightly that her spine ached each time she took a shallow breath. Worse, though, was the throbbing sting in the palm of her right hand. An unwelcome reminder of how badly she’d blown dinner.