“Shhh, Etta, we’re safe,” he said. “The battle’s ours, pirate. They’ll strike their colors, and it will pass.”
She breathed in the sea salt that always seemed to cling to his skin, no matter how far from the ocean he was. Her mind felt foggy, her face raw, as his hand slipped away from her face and glided down her arm. With an aching tenderness, he laced his fingers through hers and brought them to his other arm, resting upturned in his lap.
He’d rolled the sleeve up, and she felt a shock of hot skin against her fingertips as he pressed her hand there. “Play me something.”
“What?” Etta whispered.
“Something that’ll lift us out of here.”
His fingers unhooked from hers, following that same path up her arm, and then back down it again. The feeling was so distracting, so good, so sweet against her clammy skin. She didn’t choose a piece from her repertoire; Etta gave herself over to the notes that started streaming through her mind, rising from somewhere deep inside of her.
The melody of her heart had no name; it was quick, and light. It rolled with the waves, falling as the breath left his chest, rising as he inhaled. It was the rain sliding down the glass; the fog spreading its fingers over the water. The creaking of a ship’s great body. The secrets whispered by the wind, and the unseen life that moved below.
It was the flame of one last candle.
Nicholas’s arm was a map of hard muscles and delicate sinews, heartbreakingly perfect. She wondered if he could hear her humming the piece against his skin over the droning roars overhead. Maybe. His free hand skimmed up her skin, leaving a trail of sparks in its wake.
With the world blacked out around them, she could catalog all of her other senses, capture this moment in the warm darkness forever. He brushed back the loose hair across her forehead, his breath hitching as she turned her face up. Soft lips found her cheek, the corner of her lips, her jaw, and she knew it had to be the same for him, that they’d never been so aware of another person in their entire lives.
She released his arm, and he drew it up around her, guiding both of them down so they were on their sides, their heads cushioned by the bag, his jacket drawn over them. Etta understood that here, in the darkness, they’d found a place beyond rules; a place that hung somewhere between the past and the future. This was a single moment of possibility.
The clattering of the attack from above faded as he rested his forehead against hers, his thumb lightly stroking a bruise on her cheek. She traced his face—the straight nose, the high, proud cheekbones, the full curve of his lips. His hand caught her there, taking it in his own; he pressed a hard, almost despairing kiss to it.
But when she tilted her face up, half-desperate with longing, her blood racing, Nicholas pulled back; and although Etta could feel him beside her, his heart pounding, his ragged breath, it was as if he had disappeared into the thundering dark.
THE BATTLE EXPLODED AROUND HIM with a ferocity that left him gasping.
Nicholas had kept an eye on the horizon to the west, where steel clouds had begun to swirl as if God himself was stirring the pot. The skies around him were cast in shades of darkness that left his guts coiled in anticipation. He turned, poised to begin the process of readying the ship to weather the storm, and—
The crew was gone.
Every last one of them.
Chase’s name tore out of his throat as he ran toward the bow of the ship, the sound of his footsteps lost to the shrieking winds. The sails snapped and fluttered above him in warning. A movement caught his eye—there was someone on his ship after all. His back was turned, but there was no mistaking the dark curls rising on each brutal breeze, the steady stance, the hands clasped behind his back.
“Julian?” he called. But—by God, how was he alive? Had he survived the fall? They needed to get back to port, back to New York—
The other ship appeared like a ghost, gliding through the misty, shadowed waters around them. He had less than a moment to suck in a shocked breath before she fired a broadside.
Nicholas felt the ship tear apart beneath him as if it were his own skin, his own bones shattered into a thousand jagged fragments.
“Julian!” he screamed as the fire and debris exploded around him, trapping him in a blaze of suffocating fire, a swarm of splinters. And all the while, the cannonade never slowed, never stopped. The intensity burned the hair from his face, left him with nothing but scalding white behind his eyelids. He let out a hoarse cry as he was knocked off his feet; the ship dipped sharply to the right, a terrifying slant that could only mean one thing—she was taking on water, and he would drown. Blind, burned, alone.
And then, the silence.
It was the suddenness of it that finally woke Nicholas from heavy, dream-laced sleep, dragging him up by the scruff of his neck into awareness. Exhaustion clung to his mind like a barnacle, unable to let logic in. Pure, unyielding panic rushed in like a sweeping wave, forcing him to roll away from the soft warmth he’d been curled around. The white tiles—the hundreds of brown, blue, red, black lumps of blankets around him—people—
Nicholas sat straight up, pressing his back into the wall behind him. He scrubbed his fists against his eyes, trying to slow the embarrassing way his heart was pounding in his chest.
You know where you are.
London. Twentieth century. War.
This was a…transportation tunnel. For a…“train.” The Underground.
Nicholas blew out a sigh, wiping the crust of sleep from his eyes. The overhead lights flickered like candle flames dancing in the breeze. He cocked his head, listening to the strange sound they produced—somewhere between a hum and a frantic clicking, like the cicadas in the southern colonies.