“I really hate that I ruined dinner,” she said quietly. “But I’m never going to be sorry about what I did. He was out of line and wrong.”
His lips twitched. “Alas, that meal was doomed from the moment they laid out the plates. And rest assured, you are among company that deals in considerable physical violence. A good effort is always appreciated.”
“I’ve never slapped anyone before,” she admitted.
“How did you find the experience?”
“It would have been more satisfying if he’d gone flying out of his seat like I imagined,” she said. “I wanted to do it the whole night, but…I’m worried that what I did is going to cause more problems for you.”
Nicholas looked at her in what Etta thought might be utter amazement. Too late, it hit her that this also wasn’t something a young woman in this time would say.
She rushed on, explaining, “He was trying so hard to bait you. I don’t know what the next level of that is, but whatever it is, I’m worried he’ll find another way of taking it out on you.”
“Well, he certainly won’t be taking it out on you,” Nicholas said, his voice harsh. “Not if he values his skin. I’d take entirely too much pleasure from personally stripping it with the cat-o’-nine-tails.”
The violence in the words was a promise.
“Are you sure you can’t just…maroon him on a remote island with a bottle of rum?” Etta asked, only half kidding. “Make him walk the plank straight into a shark’s mouth?”
“Maroon him? Walk the plank?” To her surprise, he actually laughed. It felt like a reward to hear it. “Why, Miss Spencer, I believe there’s a pirate’s heart in you. I wish Captain Hall had stayed, if only so he could have told you some of his stories over dinner.”
“Too bad,” she agreed, relieved that a small bit of the tension had finally eased. “Do you know any good ones?”
“I’m not as good in the telling as he is,” Nicholas said. “Perhaps you’d be interested in hearing the charming tale of pirates who disemboweled and cut out the heart of a British officer, soaked it in spirits, and ate it?”
Her jaw dropped. “Spirits? As in, alcohol? Was that supposed to make it taste better?”
“I’d imagine few things could improve the experience,” he said. “But anything is possible with enough rum and courage, I suppose.”
This exchange was so beyond the stilted, polite dinner conversation that it felt almost like a trap. Etta remembered Sophia’s warnings, but it was such a relief to talk to someone who wasn’t trying to outthink her, or lord information over her. She relaxed her hold on the railing and laughed.
“How do you stand it?” she heard herself ask.
He turned to her, brows raised. “I’m not sure I know what you’re asking.”
“The rules…” She crossed her arms over her chest, letting the rise and fall of the ship anchor her to the moment. A part of her knew this was a dangerous train of thought to bring up with him, but another part of her, the one still a little clouded from the wine, didn’t seem to care. “There are so many of them, aren’t there? Rules on what we are and aren’t allowed to talk about. Where we can talk. There’s probably even a rule that says we’re not supposed to be talking without someone else here, isn’t there?”
“Believe me, pirate, we’ve already traveled so far past what’s deemed appropriate that I’m not sure we’ll ever manage to find our way back.”
“I don’t have a problem with that if you don’t,” she said hopefully. If this got back to Sophia, what were the chances she’d be locked in her cabin and fed only scraps of salted beef slipped beneath the door?
Nicholas’s interest only seemed to sharpen. “And what would your sister say about that?”
Oh—damn. She scrambled for an explanation, feeling the heat wash up her throat the longer it took. “I wasn’t raised the way Sophia was.…I’m still learning what’s expected of me. And clearly not doing the best job.”
He seemed confused by this. “Not raised the way…you mean to say…”
What could she possibly that would make sense here, worked through an eighteenth-century filter? “This family…I didn’t know that Sophia even existed, that any of them did, until they came and took me. They interrupted my life, and now I have to play by their rules and do whatever they ask, and it doesn’t matter what I want or how I feel. It’s not my choice.”
Nicholas turned again, resting his arms against the railing; he had locked his thoughts away so deeply inside of his mind that Etta couldn’t begin to guess at them. His expression gave nothing away as he said, “So you would rather return to Nassau than continue to New York?”
Nassau! That was the second time it had been mentioned. So not Nassau County in New York, which meant…the Bahamas. “Is that an option? Can you bring me back?”
“No,” he said flatly, extinguishing that tiny flare of hope. “My payment depends on delivering you to New York.”
“Unless you’re in fear for your life—”
“What if I am?” she interrupted. “If it were up to me, I’d take one of those small boats and row myself back to shore.”
“Don’t be a fool.” His whole body went rigid beside hers. “Aside from the fact that it would take you days before you spotted land, you wouldn’t know the first thing about navigation, nor would you have enough water or food to sustain you.”