The boy brightened, whispered something back, and jumped up onto the rail.
“How ’bout a kiss, hey?” Jack shouted down.
Etta laughed and obliged, blowing a kiss. With one last dry look up to a guffawing Chase, Nicholas drew the oars back and began the first long stroke. A good burn coursed through his stiff muscles as he eased into the steady motion. He kept his mouth shut as he rowed, even as Sophia grumbled, “Can’t you go any faster?”
The mist began to burn away as the sun rose higher. Birds called from where they hovered above the water, and he didn’t mind in the slightest when the sweat soaked through his shirt, not when there was fresh, cool air in his lungs. Sophia closed her eyes, drumming her fingers against the sack in her lap impatiently. Etta fixed on a point past Nicholas’s shoulder. He craned his neck and followed her gaze toward the dark outline of the trees lining this deserted stretch of beach.
Nicholas had read Cyrus Ironwood’s description of the meeting spot to Flitch, and they’d worked to match it to the coastal charts and maps. But he didn’t feel confident they’d done a good job until Etta said, “I think I see a light.”
Nicholas saw it now, too. A lantern cast a faint glow into the gloom that clung to the rocky beach, and as they grew closer, the dark form behind it took shape. Nicholas drew the oars in, letting the tide do the bulk of the work, until the bottom of the jolly boat struck sand. He jumped out, splashed into the cold water, and dragged the boat ashore.
Before he could reach in to steady her as she stepped out, to warn her about the strange hollow feeling that crawled up your legs as they settled themselves to the stillness of land, Sophia had jumped out and crumpled on the loose sand.
It was manners, the legacy of the saintly Anne Hall, that made Nicholas reach down and offer her a hand. The expression on Sophia’s face, the flush of embarrassment, made her look like the young woman she was, not the wasp she insisted on being. For a moment, he might have even detected what Julian had once found appealing.
But then he saw her remember who he was.
What he had done.
Her face went as hard as flint, and her fingers curled in the sand as if she might throw a handful of it into his eyes. When she stood again, it was by her own strength.
Etta placed a hand on his shoulder to steady herself as she stepped out of the belly of the boat. Together they watched Sophia stagger toward the waiting coach and driver.
He ought to tell her that there were yet more rules about touching, about the propriety this century demanded.
But…perhaps not yet.
“If you can believe it, that’s actually an improvement in her mood,” Etta whispered. “This morning she threw half of her trunk at me when I came in to wake her up.”
“Ah, the Ironwood charm,” Nicholas said. “I suppose she then made you pick it all up for her as well?”
“Actually, I threw the water from the basin on her to cool her off.” A dark look passed over Etta’s face as they watched the carriage rock with the force of Sophia’s entry. “Should have grabbed the chamber pot instead.”
He barked out a sharp, surprised laugh.
“Thank you for showing that measure of restraint,” he said, still struggling with his smile. “I wish I could say that you’ll have a more welcome reception when you meet Cyrus Ironwood. But be warned—if he scents fear in you, he’ll take particular delight in tearing you to pieces.”
Etta set her shoulders back, starting ahead of him up the hill.
“Well, you’ll have nothing to be afraid of,” she told him, a little smile on her face. “Because I’ll be with you.”
Nicholas shut his eyes, and took in one last breath of the sea-kissed air.
If only that would be enough.
THE SMOKE ROSE TO GREET them miles before they reached the Brooklyn Ferry.
“What is that?” Etta asked Nicholas. “Some kind of battle?”
He seemed just as perplexed as she was, following her gaze out of the window to where black plumes were streaming into the darkening sky.
“That’s your cue,” Etta told Sophia. “Any time you want to elaborate on what that terrifying thing in the distance is, that would be great.”
Sophia studied her fingernails.
“Withholding information endangers all of us,” Nicholas reminded her. “I can’t protect you if I don’t know what’s ahead.”
She dropped her hands back into her lap with a look of exasperation. “Fine. It’s the fire—it’s been burning since this morning. The ‘Great Fire of New York.’ You would know that, if you’d actually paid attention to any of your training.”
“If I’d received any training aside from how not to be killed, how to avoid sharing our secret, and how Julian wanted his cravat tied, I might have been able to retain it,” he fired back.
In the midst of the thunderous charge sparking between them, Etta blinked, trying to remember if she’d ever read or learned about this.
“What caught fire?” she asked. To kick up that much smoke, it would have to be enormous.
“The entire west side of the city,” Sophia said, after another dragging silence. “From what I remember, it broke out this morning—the twenty-first of September. It’s probably burned through the quarter by now.”
Not for the first time, Etta thought about how strange it must be for the Ironwoods to live outside of the normal flow of time, to know everything that came before them and nearly everything that would happen, up to a certain point, after. It must have made it much easier to invest their money, choose their homes, and pick their battles for the benefit of the family. “What started it?”