If—when—word got back to Sophia that, one, she’d gone to dinner, and two, had made a mess of it, Etta would be lucky if the girl let her go to the head unsupervised to relieve herself. Wandering the ship and winning over the crew? Out of the question entirely.
Everything had been fine—or mostly fine—through the first hour. Mr. Wren—no, just Wren, he didn’t deserve any better—had droned on until his dinner grew cold in front of him, sucking up whatever energy she had left. Despite the worldly airs he put on, Etta didn’t think Wren—or Edward, whatever name he’d tried to whisper in her ear—was all that older than herself, or even Nicholas.
She pressed a hand to her mouth. Nicholas.
Every ounce of Etta beat back against the thought, but there was no way around the truth: Sophia had been right. Etta really had no idea what it was like to live during a time where you had no legal or societal protections in place. All she’d learned from that dinner was how very helpless you were to other people’s perceptions.
Nicholas didn’t need her to fight his battles for him. He’d been doing a masterful job of handling Wren, turning each remark back on the other man—proving, without directly stating so, what an absolute idiot he was. He never gave in to the anger that the other man was obviously trying to stir up.
Etta hated the tired resignation she’d seen in his face as Wren had exposed his own ignorance and hatred, the obvious expectation of it. And then Wren had the nerve to look around the table, like he was waiting for the rest of them to agree.
The anger that had flooded her veins was so pure, she thought it must have turned her blood to acid. You could read a hundred books about the attitudes and beliefs of the past, but the impact of witnessing this casual, ignorant cruelty firsthand was like having a bucket of ice upended over your head. It forced Etta to see that the centuries padding this time and hers, along with simple privilege, had protected her from the true ugliness of it. People believed this trash, and they were spreading it around like it was nothing. Like they weren’t even talking about humans.
Etta braced her arms against the rail, looking out over the dark water. The peak of each ruffling wave caught the moonlight, turning them a sparkling silver. A symphony of sounds moved around her. The slap of the water against the ship’s curved sides, the fluttering of the huge sails overhead, the thump of something deep below—a rudder, maybe? She’d found the creaking wood unnerving at first, wondered if there was a chance the ship might just split apart at the seams, but now it reminded her of the way her old prewar apartment settled and resettled into its bones every day.
You messed up.
She couldn’t make mistakes. Not when Alice’s life was at stake.
She laced her fingers together, resting her forehead against them. Was she going to have to apologize for hitting him? Cough up the words from some numb place inside herself, and hope she didn’t throw up in the process? I won’t do it, I won’t, I won’t, I won’t—she squeezed her eyes shut.
“Look at you, a regular Jack Tar.”
She turned at the smoky, deep voice. The sight of Nicholas cutting a path through the dark finally popped the bubble of panic. She counted the steps between them, and he finally stopped to consider her, running a hand over his closely cropped hair. He searched her face as if wondering how to start.
Etta wasn’t the least bit ashamed of studying him back, but she was sure she wouldn’t get much from it. Nicholas seemed to guard his expression so carefully, protecting the privacy of his thoughts.
Etta shifted her eyes away from his face. She’d been right before—it was his only jacket. He wore it now, brushed clean. The fit had swallowed her, but was perfect over his white shirt, emphasizing the broad span of his shoulders. His pants hugged his legs as he crossed that last distance between them. Nicholas was tall, his muscles compact and lean; everything about him seemed efficient, from the way he spoke to the way he moved with steady, easy grace, shifting with the sea.
His presence was larger-than-life, bigger even than his physical body. As he stood beside her, Etta felt as warm as if he’d spread his coat over her again, wrapped her up in it.
“You’ve got steady legs,” he explained finally, turning his eyes up. “You’ll be a seasoned sailor by the time we reach port.”
“I don’t know about that,” Etta said, following his gaze along the large, central mast, to—was that a man, working on the long beam the sail was hung from? Earlier, she’d seen the men climbing up and down the ropes like spiders sharing a web, but none had gone this high—high enough that she couldn’t make out the man’s face. He was a pale blur against a quilt of stars. It was dizzying just to look at him.
“Is he going to be able to get down?” Etta asked, and realized that she was clutching his arm. He went absolutely still at the same moment she did, inhaling softly. The wool was rough against her fingertips, and the sensation lingered even after she let go and stepped back.
“He’ll be fine,” Nicholas said gently. “Most of us have been climbing the rigging since we were boys. The wind’s picking up, so Marsden is reefing the sails—reducing their size to keep the ship stable.”
She nodded, fiddling with the edge of her sleeves, trying to ease some of the tightness there. He’d said it so casually, the way Etta might tell someone she used to climb trees in Central Park.
Nicholas crossed his arms over his chest again, turning his face into the breeze, his eyes shut.