Nicholas didn’t come right out and say it, but she had a feeling these “qualities” directly related to the color of his skin.
“You really didn’t wish to leave Nassau?” he said quietly, apparently coming to some conclusion of his own.
“No, I didn’t.” The understatement of this particular century. Etta blew out a sigh, pulling the length of her braid over her shoulder. The wind had picked up, as promised, and was whipping the loose strands around in a flurry.
“I’m sure the unfortunate travel companion doesn’t help matters.”
“Companion,” she said with a dry laugh. He was avoiding her name.
Nicholas closed his eyes for a beat, and when they opened he had clearly made a decision. “Sophia Ironwood would gladly cut the limbs from my body, pickle them, and throw them in a trough for the pigs. She would rather perish than admit we come from the same stock, let alone that we have anything in common beyond a mutual distaste for each other.”
The words caught her across the face like a spray of seawater, a cold slap of realization.
We come from the same stock.
She stepped back, studying his profile, and he refused to meet her gaze.
Of course. Of course—why hadn’t she seen that possibility before?
I have seen the rotten edges of his soul.
I know him for the deceitful swine he is.
Would Sophia have said something so virulent about someone she barely knew? And he’d mentioned Ironwood—Sophia’s “grandfather”—any number of times, with more knowledge behind the word than a casual business acquaintance. Sophia knew him because he was one of them.
But…he was here, taking each shift in the wind and water as if he’d been born on a ship. If he’d been sailing since he was a child, then when—?
Etta took another full step back away from him, stunned.
“She truly told you nothing,” Nicholas said, his voice flat. “I cannot say I’m surprised.”
“You…” Etta struggled to bring her fractured thoughts back in line. “You weren’t going to tell me either, were you? Do you have any idea what I’ve been through? How much better I would have felt at that dinner table, knowing I had a real ally? God, no wonder you kept stepping in when I messed up. You had to.”
“Of course I stepped in to assist you,” Nicholas said, seeming almost confused. “It is against our laws—and against better judgment—to allow our secret to be revealed. You should know this well by now.”
And just like that, she knew that her plan would never work. Even if she could win the rest of the crew over, they wouldn’t go against his wishes. She wasn’t going to be able to grind his resistance down with reason or charm—not that she was all that certain she even had anything resembling charm. Nicholas wasn’t just a hired acquaintance orbiting around the periphery of the Ironwood family’s galaxy; he was part of their system. He was one of them.
“Your training—” he began.
“What training?” she cried, letting her temper fly again. “I didn’t even know I could time travel until Sophia pushed me through a…through a passage, or whatever you call it!”
“Pushed you?” He spun back toward her, eyes flashing. “You mean to tell me you’ve never traveled before now?”
“Try: never traveled, never heard the name Ironwood, and possibly never going back to my home. They aren’t even my family—they killed someone I loved to get to me!”
He swore viciously under his breath, turning his back on her for a moment. “You didn’t even know you possessed the ability? Your traveler’s sickness must have been unbearable. No wonder no one on the crew saw you—you must have been unconscious for days.”
No—she couldn’t get distracted, not about this.
“Don’t act like you weren’t in on this,” Etta said. “You and Sophia—”
“No!” he said sharply, drawing her toward him, walking them both backward. She realized, as the world suddenly took shape around her again, that Wren and Chase had left the cabin, and were now moving steadily toward the hatch to the lower deck. “Don’t put me in league with her. Ironwood’s request said nothing of this. I assumed he was calling you and Sophia back to assign you to some task. I don’t make a habit of abductions, Miss Spencer.”
“You mean, aside from stealing other people’s ships and holding their crews hostage?”
His brows rose, and he actually looked like he might smile. That settled her, but only somewhat.
“His letter didn’t explain anything else?” she asked. “Nothing about why he wants to see me?”
“No. I was to intercept the Ardent and bring you and Sophia to New York City by September twenty-first. Christ,” he muttered, rubbing the back of his neck. “The first time I traveled, I attacked an automobile with an umbrella and nearly pissed myself in terror. So when I say you are taking this well, I hope you’ll believe me.”
Etta couldn’t begin to picture him looking frightened.
“I wish you’d told me,” she said quietly. “You are an Ironwood, aren’t you? Sophia mentioned other families, but…”
“I wish I could say I wasn’t,” he said, disgust curling his upper lip. “I don’t associate with them, not anymore. This is purely a matter of business to me. I don’t travel, I don’t obey Ironwood, I live my life free from all that. And when the transaction is complete, they’ll be cut out of my life for as long as I can keep it.”