“Time to retire, Miss Spencer,” said Nicholas. “I’ll escort you to your cabin.”
He didn’t take her arm or offer a hand. Nicholas kept a careful distance after that, his hands still hidden behind his back.
Now she understood how the Ardent’s crew had felt as they were led down into the belly of the ship, unsure of when—or even if—they’d be allowed to take in the sun, the stars, the sky. She hadn’t appreciated the conversation for the small slice of freedom it was. Between Sophia and the crew, would the two of them ever be able to speak openly again before they reached New York?
His thoughts mirrored hers, apparently.
“Ten days to Long Island,” said Nicholas. “Perhaps fewer if the wind is in our favor. I’m glad we had the chance to speak now, as I doubt Miss Ironwood will let you out of her sight once her stomach settles.”
Etta paused outside her door, and he paused at the captain’s cabin, just across the way.
“Can I ask you one thing?” Etta whispered.
He nodded, his eyes shining with the light from a nearby lantern. She took in a deep breath, inhaling the scent of salt and wax, and considered her words.
“If you can travel anywhere…to any time, for the most part,” she began, “why do you stay here? In an era where there are men like Wren, who treat you that way?”
“You presume I have a choice,” he said. “Good night, Miss Spencer. Rest well.”
With that he disappeared into his cabin, shutting the door firmly behind him.
SOMEWHERE AT THE END OF A long line of hazy gray days, Nicholas woke at the first touch of shell-pink morning light, the devil’s own hammers at work inside his skull. Bloody rum. Bloody dead captain hiding the bloody bottle in a place Nicholas could bloody well find in a moment he needed to numb his nerves. Good ideas had in the dark, he thought with a groan, were generally best left there.
The call of sighted land was repeated as he rubbed his face. His legs were the last part of him to realize that sleep was over, prickling painfully as he shifted. He swore as his knees connected with solid wood—his berth.
He slid along the berth’s padding until he was sitting with his back against solid wood, his legs mostly stretched out in front of him. Above him, the ship’s replacement bell sounded, signaling the morning watch. Nicholas swallowed to ease the dryness of his mouth and stared up at the low ceiling overhead, listening to the footsteps and calls above him on the deck.
Land meant their ten-day voyage back to the colonies was over. In a matter of hours, he would come face-to-face with the man who’d attempted to destroy him.
He unfolded his long legs, stretching, and clenched his teeth against the cold air swirling around him. He dressed quickly, and had nearly finished shaving when Jack brought in his coffee and porridge. Chase appeared just as the boy was on his way out, filling the doorway with his broad shoulders and a storm cloud of anxiety.
“It’s an hour to Oyster Bay,” he said, shutting the door behind him. “Tell me once and for all that you’re certain about this madness.”
Rather than risk bringing the young ladies into New York Harbor on a captured British merchantman, Nicholas had made preparations with Ironwood to bring them ashore near Oyster Bay, off of Long Island Sound, where they would be met by a carriage. Nicholas remembered enough of this conflict’s future to know that, by this day, the twenty-first of September, the British would already be in control of the city and its harbor. Wren had been right about this: if caught with a captured British ship, he and his prize crew would be tried as pirates, and—worse yet—traitors.
“I’m certain,” Nicholas said, straightening his jacket. “Do you foresee any problems bringing the Ardent into New London without me?”
“I think we’ll manage the feat, but however will I keep a dry eye knowing you’re gone?” Chase said dryly.
It had been his sole condition—that the Ardent, its captured cargo, and his crew be kept well out of the way of trouble, and brought directly to the Lowes in Connecticut. Cyrus Ironwood, however, had demanded that Nicholas escort the girls into Manhattan, where he had taken up temporary residence. He had refused to meet them out on Long Island, or even in Connecticut, where they might have avoided the British altogether. As always, the sun rose and set on Ironwood’s expectations, and any complications in bringing Sophia and Etta to him would be up to Nicholas to solve.
They had less than a day now to meet Cyrus Ironwood’s firm arrival deadline; there simply wasn’t time for complications, not with so much pay at stake.
“Will you see to it that our two passengers are ready to depart?” Nicholas asked. “I’d like to make one last inspection of the ship and crew.”
“Miss Etta Spencer has been up for nearly two hours,” Chase said with a chuckle. “Said she sensed we were close and was too eager to sleep. Sensed it! Personally, I think she saw one last opportunity for some freedom from her sister.”
As Nicholas suspected, Sophia had taken a turn for the better and was alert enough to terrorize her “sister” with her constant, domineering presence for the rest of the voyage. Nicholas had given up counting the number of times he had come across Etta hiding somewhere in the galley or forecastle, playing a game of cards with Jack and the other boys, only to have Sophia swoop down in a swirl of silk and linen and snatch her away. In all of ten days, he’d managed to steal only four words. It left his stomach sour and his mind ill at ease.