He glanced back at the table, and at the violin and bow resting atop the pile of charts. He’d found it the night after the fateful dinner, stowed inside a cabinet, and had left it out in the hope…on the off chance she might change her mind and seek it out.
Chase cleared his throat. “Before you make for shore, if I may be so bold, my dear friend—”
“You may not, but you will,” Nicholas replied.
“I know you’ve struggled to find a moment alone, and perhaps I should not have interrupted that first night, but I should hope it’s as obvious to you that the girl has paid special mind to you—”
“She’s a charming creature, and she’s interested in the business of sailing,” Nicholas said quickly. “She has paid special mind to everyone present, yourself included—”
“I’m not finished,” Chase cut him off. “I was not implying anything improper. I wanted to ask if you remembered Hall’s wife, Anne—what he said of her?”
“I only remember what happened when she passed,” he lied. A long year, in which they had chased Hall from tavern to tavern and hadn’t spent a single day on a ship. He’d had no idea a man so large and powerful, who’d fought and survived a thousand battles, could be broken into so many pieces when his lady took ill.
“Liar,” Chase said, not unkindly. “He said he’d never remarry, because he’d never find another lady that fit so neatly at his side. He called her his equal in spirit.”
Nicholas’s hands smoothed over his sleeves, trying to formulate his argument. Anne had been one of the sweetest ladies the world was ever likely to see. She’d cared for both of the boys as if they were her own, and had never questioned the way Hall had brought them home, one at a time, like the strays they were. She was the pearl to the captain’s rough, wild reef.
He couldn’t let his friend finish. Put the hopeful thought into the world. It would grow into something that would only crush him in the end. “She’s not for me.”
“I think she is,” Chase insisted. “Yet you can’t see it.”
“What I see is that there’s no future there, even if the lady were amenable.” The words were sour in his mouth. “What do you expect, for me to marry her? The match is forbidden by law.”
“You’ve never let expectations rule your life before. Why start with something as important as this?”
Nicholas didn’t want to puzzle it out and arrive at the conclusion he’d feared all along. It was better to stand aside from it, not to invest any more precious thought in the matter. Besides, it assumed too much…like the feelings of the lady in question.
“Fine,” Chase said gruffly. “I’ll tell the others that you’ve laid no claim.”
Nicholas’s eyes narrowed. “What the devil do you mean?”
“Half the men worship at her feet; the other half have already proposed marriage, including young Jack, who has sworn to his dear ‘miss’ that he’ll be true if she’ll only wait a few more years for him.”
“Unrepentant rascal.” A rumbling irritation rolled through him as he reached down, running a finger along the violin’s curved body. “Have they been untoward?”
“Not in the least,” Chase laughed. “They like her fine, though—enough to want her to stay.”
And for that reason alone, Nicholas was grateful that this short voyage was at an end.
HIS REMAINING TIME ON THE ARDENT ESCAPED HIM LIKE WIND passing through his fingers. Much sooner than he might have liked, Nicholas found himself surveying the emerald tufts of distant trees along the shoreline. They faded in and out of his sight with the slow rolling fog, giving him the uneasy sense that the pale, misty air was breathing around his shoulders. The scent of damp earth wove itself through the smell of the sea, settling heavy in his lungs.
Etta wore a gown of deep blue, and the color reminded him of midnight, the winter seas, as if it had been meant specifically to draw his eye, to speak to the devil in him. He stood beside Chase on the deck, watching as the crew passed her around to say their farewells. It was near impossible to fight against the pull of her tide, but he forced himself to, turning to face his friend more fully.
“I’ll meet you in port in a week’s time,” he said. “Make sure the agent is fully apprised of the fact that Wren is hostile. Likely he won’t cooperate in dealings with the prize court.”
“Understood,” Chase said, clasping his shoulder. “Send word if you’re delayed.”
“I won’t be,” Nicholas said. His friend’s look told him Chase wasn’t nearly as confident.
The jolly boat, one of the ship’s small rowboats, was lowered; Nicholas would have preferred the stability of a longboat, as well as the help of the additional hands required to man it, but this would suit them fine—it wasn’t so long of a distance for him to row alone, and both had transferred their few possessions to bags he’d sewn from excess sail, rather than haul their trunks.
Once Nicholas was situated, the girls began their careful descent into the jolly boat. Sophia looked ready to spit on him should he try to help, but he did reach up and grip Etta by the waist as she stepped down, bracing his legs against the pitch and bob of the boat. He felt where she had held on to his shoulders long after he sat down and picked up the oars.
Nicholas looked back up to wave a farewell to the crew just as Chase leaned down and whispered something in Jack’s ear.