What was she missing here, then? If he hated the Ironwoods so much he was practically spitting as he talked about them, why agree to work for them? And if he could travel anywhere, to any time, why stay in one so openly hostile to him?
Based on what Jack had told her, Nicholas and Chase had been raised by Hall from the time they were boys, and Nicholas had said he’d been sailing from that age. So when had he done his traveling?
I don’t travel, I don’t obey Ironwood, I live my life free from all that.
And why had he stopped?
Etta could feel him pulling back, retreating not only into his mind, but instinctively stepping back in the direction of the captain’s cabin.
“Knowing what they’re like…you still won’t bring me back home?” she asked. “Do you know where the passage is that Sophia brought me through? Is it in Nassau?”
“This ship sailed out of Nassau, so it’s a likely conclusion to draw, but…” He shook his head. “I was never given a list of the passages and their locations. What year are you from, precisely?”
She told him, and it was worth it alone for the expression of complete wonder that transformed his face.
“I was told there wasn’t a passage that opened beyond the Second World War. That is the commonly held belief. Of course, I do know there are many ancient passages that are uncharted, their destinations unknown. Perhaps yours is one of them. What family do you belong to?”
“Linden,” she said. “According to Sophia.”
She’d caught him by surprise again. “Linden? Are you certain?”
“She could be lying, I guess, but she did mention my mom, Rose.” Etta stole a glance at his face. “Do you recognize the name?”
He blew out a long breath from his nose, unable to look at her face. “Who in our small world hasn’t heard of Rose Linden? She’s the only traveler to successfully outwit Ironwood. Stole something of his and disappeared without a trace. My God, what are you then, ransom? Why wouldn’t he have just taken her if he found the two of you? Is she still alive?”
Etta nodded, latching onto this small piece of information. “What else do you know about her? Anything?”
“Only that she left a broken heart in her wake—Augustus Ironwood, Cyrus’s son and heir, spent years searching for her. Went nearly mad with it.” Nicholas shook his head, and when he spoke again, there was a blaze of promise in his words. “I’ll ensure that you get back to your time. If you are bait, or if he intends to use you to threaten Rose, then we’ll leave at our first opportunity and search for the passage ourselves.”
Disappointment sliced through her. If. She hated that word now. If and only if she was in true danger, he’d help her. Of course he wasn’t going to turn around out of pity—in the first place, he didn’t know where to bring her; in the second, he was earning good money for this job. But…as stupid and small as it made her feel, she had hoped. She’d read something in his hesitation.
Her stomach gave a firm, desperate little twist.
“You said someone was killed,” he began. “Who was it?”
The first words that floated to her lips were a lie; she hated herself for it, for wanting to give in to the easy simplicity of a fake story, rather than peel off the bandage and bleed every messy feeling and thought about the violin all over again. But she liked this honesty between them—it felt like something real and solid, strong enough to tie herself to, when there were so many lies and secrets trying to pull her in every direction at once.
“You’ve been through a trial,” he said quietly when she’d finished explaining. “I’m sorry for it. I was about to ask if you’d like me to find the violin that Mr. Goode mentioned—if it might be a comfort to you.”
She felt sick at the thought, shaking her head. “The opposite. I can’t…I can barely stand the thought of playing right now. Not until I get her back.”
He opened his mouth to say something, then promptly shut it, shaking his head.
“What?” Etta asked.
“You mean to save your instructor? Alice?” he asked. “Change the past?”
“I know how it looks, but she was innocent—she didn’t deserve to die, and not—not because of me.”
He let out a heavy sigh, with a kind of pity that turned her stomach again. Etta lifted her hand off the rail as the wind kicked up and the ship tipped down to the right. The soles of her shoes were too soft, too slippery, and she felt one foot slide out from under her—
An arm banded around her waist, pulling her feet back to the deck and to the solid, warm anchor of Nicholas. Her face was pressed against his shoulder, her fingernails digging into, twisting, the back of his jacket. All she could hear was her own breath grating against the silence; all she could feel was the jackhammer beat of a heart hidden beneath layers of fabric and warmth.
Etta stepped back, trying to think of some way to break her awareness of the hand pressed firmly to the small of her back. He beat her to it.
“Careful,” he breathed out, glancing down at the polished black leather of his shoes. “I’ve only the one pair left.”
“Still at it?”
Etta couldn’t say which of them was more startled at the sound of Chase’s voice.
“Next watch starts soon; best to get the lady back to her cabin.” He stood a short distance away from them at the edge of the hatch, arms crossed over his chest. It was too dark to make out his expression, but he didn’t move until Nicholas took a generous step away from her, his hands suddenly clasped together in a knot behind his back.