Stormy Persuasion Page 15

“Couldn’t stay away?”

She swung around with a gasp. Nathan was sitting on the floor between two crates, one of which still had her coat draped over it. He was leaning back against the bulkhead, holding a plate in one hand and a fork in the other.

She slowly walked over to him, noting that at least he had his shirt back on, and yet her heartbeat still accelerated. “I thought you’d gone.”

“Only long enough to fetch some dinner. Damn fancy grub for a ship, too. Definitely not what we were served on the short trip from Hampshire to London.”

“There probably wasn’t an actual cook aboard yet. The one we have now isn’t a seaman. My aunt and uncle sail with their own servants, most of whom boarded in London.”

“All the luxuries of home, eh? But now I’m never going to be happy with my own cook again.”

She smiled at his grumbling tone. “You actually have one? I thought smugglers only make short jaunts across the Channel and back, hardly long enough at sea to warrant needing a cook aboard.”

“I wouldn’t know. But I’ll take your word for it, since you seem to know more about smuggling than I do. But have a seat. You can watch me eat while you tell me about my life.”

Sarcasm, and quite blatant, too. Yet his tone was friendly, his lips even turned up in a grin. So he was merely teasing her again?

“I came for my coat,” she said, though she sat down on top of it again anyway.

“I was going to return it to you.”

She raised a brow. “How, without giving away that I was down here?”

“You don’t think I could have found you alone?”

“Not when I’m with Jack most of the day and we’re with our family in the evenings, so, no, I don’t think so.”

He chuckled. “I have a bed in the carpenter’s storeroom. Well, at the risk of stirring up a hornet’s nest, I’ll mention it’s just a cot.” He waited, but she wasn’t going to address the cot issue again and merely snorted at his assumption that she would. So he continued, “But I’ve claimed it as my own for a little privacy. You’re welcome to visit any night you feel like—”

“Stop it. You might find this all very amusing, but you should recall, you still have a noose hanging over your head.”

“Breaking a bargain? Really? Thought you nobles had more honor than that.”

“It was a silly bargain—”

“But it was struck—even sealed. Ah, there’s that blush I remember so well.”

“You are insufferable.”

“No, I just have a lot on my plate, including you. And if your word is as wishy-washy as a mood, then it’s not reliable, is it?”

“I’m keeping it, but only for the duration of the voyage as we agreed.”

“That wasn’t the stipulation.”

“That was a foregone conclusion,” she stressed, not giving in on that point. “But don’t worry, you’ll have time to disappear after we dock.”

“Think you’ll want me to by then?”

The question implied they were going to get much more intimately acquainted. His tone had even dropped to a husky timbre! It jarred her and brought all sorts of questions to mind that she should be asking herself, not him. She was too attracted to this man and out of her depth to deal with it. It had held her back from doing what she should have done the moment she realized who he was. It had impelled her to strike the Bargain. But she couldn’t let that last question stand.

“You and I won’t—”

His short laugh cut her off. “I merely meant, by the time we dock you’ll be convinced that I’m innocent and not the blackguard you wrongly think I am.”

Was she using her suspicion as an excuse to keep herself from giving in to this attraction? No, he was just good at stirring up doubt.

She reminded him pertly, “Our bargain was for the truth. Do you even know how to tell it?”

“Course I do, darlin’. But d’you know how to recognize it when you hear it?” Yet he didn’t wait for an answer, not that there was one when his tactics were so evasive. Instead, he got back to the subject he didn’t get to finish that morning. “So tell me how a woman gets a nickname like Jack?”

“Because it’s not a nickname. It’s the name her father gave her at birth.”

“Really?

“Of course the fact that her maternal uncles, who James doesn’t like the least little bit, were all present at the birthing might have influenced his decision a tad, but he couldn’t be swayed to change it.”

“He’s that stubborn?”

Judith smiled. “Depends on who you ask, but in this case, he was absolutely inflexible. However, Jack’s mother, George, made sure—”

“Good God, another woman with a man’s name?”

“No, Georgina is her real name. James just calls her George. Always has, always will. But she made sure Jacqueline appeared on her daughter’s birth record. Nonetheless, among the family the name Jack had already stuck.”

“I’m guessing that explains the odd name of this ship, The Maiden George?”

“Yes, James’s original ship was named The Maiden Anne, but he sold her when he retired from the sea. This one he had built when Jack’s mother wanted to take Jack to Connecticut to see where she was born. An unnecessary expense, really, when George and her brothers own Skylark Shipping, which is a very large fleet of American merchant ships, and at least one of them is docked in England at any given time. But as I mentioned, my uncle doesn’t exactly like his five Anderson brothers-in-law. He refuses to sail on their vessels short of a dire emergency. And now it’s my turn to ask a question.”

He stood up abruptly at the noise suddenly coming from the animals down at the end of the hold. She looked in that direction, too. Probably just a rat scurrying past them, or a cat on the prowl for one. But Nathan set his plate down on the other crate and went to investigate anyway.

Not exactly adhering to the Bargain of tit for tat with questions, she noted with some annoyance, which she would point out when he came back. But he didn’t come back. . . .

Chapter Nineteen

Nathan didn’t expect to find anything in the back of the hold. He just didn’t want to lose his advantage in this bout of verbal sparring with Judith, which would have happened if she started interrogating him again so soon. He preferred to keep her distracted from the facts as long as possible, or at least until he could better ascertain her reaction to them.

He hadn’t decided if he should appeal to her sympathy—if she had any—with some truths he could share? Or admit everything, including that he owned the house in Hampshire and had a pardon waiting for him? Unfortunately, he didn’t think she was likely to believe either. But if he told her too much and did convince her that he was innocent, their bargain would come to an end and he’d lose her company. And he liked her company. Liked teasing her, too. Liked the way her mouth pursed in annoyance. Liked the way her eyes could spark with anger or humor. Definitely liked the way she’d felt in his arms. Bleeding hell, there was nothing about her that he didn’t like—other than her stubborn insistence that he was a smuggler. Why was she so certain? What was he missing?

He was jumped the moment he passed the crate where the man had been crouched in hiding, and it was his own damn fault for having his mind filled with Judith instead of the matter at hand. And it was no scrawny runt either that tackled him to the floor. He was nearly as big as Nathan. In the brief glimpse he’d caught of him, he’d seen a young man with queued-back blond hair and dark eyes, who was barefoot but not poorly clad in a shirt made of fine linen and a fancy gold-link chain at his neck. Nathan didn’t recognize him as a member of the crew, and he doubted one of the servants Judith had mentioned would attack him.

The noise of their hard landing startled the chickens into squawking and set one of the pigs squealing. Nathan was only startled for a moment before instinct kicked in. He rolled, taking the man with him, and got in one solid punch before he was thrust back and the man scrambled to his feet. But he didn’t run. He pulled a dagger from the back of his britches and took a swipe at Nathan just as Nathan got to his feet. He felt the sting of the blade on his chest, but didn’t look down to check the damage. His anger kicked in full force because of it.

He’d never been in a knife fight before and had no weapon on him to counter it. He could have improvised with a hammer or a file, but his toolbox was too far away and he would likely get that dagger in his back if he ran for it. He positioned his arms instead to block the next swipe, but doubting that would be effective, he just tried to stay out of reach instead. But that wasn’t going to be possible for much longer.

Weighing his options, he saw they were sorely lacking. Knock the dagger out of the man’s hand so he could have a fair fight with him, which he knew he could win, or send Judith for help if she hadn’t already run out of there. The second option didn’t appeal to him in the least, and he would be dead before assistance arrived. Then a third option slid across the floor and stopped near his feet. His hammer.

The man spotted it, too, and quickly stepped forward with his dagger extended to move Nathan back from it. There was no time to think, but there was no way he was giving up the opportunity Judith had just given him. He turned his back on the man, dropped to the floor, and, bracing his hands on the floor, kicked backward. He didn’t connect with his attacker, but it startled the man sufficiently to give Nathan the time he needed to grasp the hammer and rise to his feet, swinging it. He connected with the man’s shoulder and the man stepped back. Nathan had the upper hand now and they both knew it.

He took the offensive with some steady swings. Sparks flew when the hammerhead struck the blade, but the blond man held fast to his dagger, although Nathan had him moving backward. He’d soon be out of room to maneuver with the animal pen behind him, but he might not know that yet.

With the advantage his now and not wanting to actually kill the man, Nathan said, “Give it up, man. Better than getting your head bashed in.”

“Bugger off!” the man snarled, but desperation was in his expression, which warned Nathan the man was about to try something, and he did, flipping the dagger in his hand so he was holding it by the tip and raising his arm to throw it. Nathan only had a second to react, and the quickest way to get out of the path of that dagger or to stop it was to dive at the man.

He did, plowing them both into the fence of the animal pen, which broke with their combined weight. They hit the ground, animals scattering and raising a cacophony of panicked noises. But Nathan pressed his broad chest against his attacker’s dagger arm so the man couldn’t move his weapon, if indeed he still held it. Letting go of the hammer, Nathan smashed his fist into the man’s face, once, twice, three times. Twice had been enough to knock him out.

Nathan took a deep breath and sat up. The dagger was still within his assailant’s reach so Nathan shoved it out of the pen before he glanced down at his chest to see if he was wounded. The blade had sliced open his shirt and his skin stung. He’d been scratched, but not seriously enough to draw more than a few drops of blood.

“Are you all right?”

She was still there? He glanced up and saw how upset she looked and assured her, “I’m fine.”

“But he attacked you. Why?!”

“Damned if I know.” He got to his feet and dragged the man out of the pen before he added, “He’s not a member of the crew, obviously.”

She was frowning down at the man. “He’s not a member of my uncle’s kitchen staff either. I know them all.”

“Must be a stowaway then.”

“But stowaways don’t try to kill people once they’ve been discovered.”

She had a point. It was a minor crime that usually only got the culprit some time in the brig or forced labor until the ship reached land. Then most captains would simply let the stowaway go. The man’s aggression didn’t make much sense. He couldn’t have been in the hold since they’d left London. Nathan was sure of that. The animals would have given him away sooner, and sailors who came down here several times a day for provisions would have noticed him. The man had to have been hiding somewhere else and snuck down here when Nathan went to fetch his dinner.

He grabbed a crate and used it to block the broken part of the fence so all the animals didn’t get out before he could repair it.

Judith, watching him, suddenly gasped. “You’re hurt!”

“No, it’s nothing.”

“Let me see.”

She rushed over to him. He rolled his eyes at her, but she was too intent on opening the tear in his shirt wider so she could check his wound. But it gave him time to realize she was a little more concerned than she ought to be about someone she wanted to see in prison. Was she so compassionate that she’d help anyone in need?

She finally brought her eyes back to his. “It’s just a scratch.”

He smiled. “I know. You should have run the other way when the fight started, but I’m glad you didn’t. The hammer tipped the scales in my favor. Clever of you to think of it.”

She blushed. “I got angry that he wasn’t fighting fairly. I did think about hitting him with a plank of lumber first, but I had no confidence that my swing would be effective.”

He laughed at the image that brought up. He seemed to be doing a lot of that around her—yet another reason why he liked her company. “Never thought I would end up grateful for that temper of yours or have to thank you for it, but you definitely have my thanks, darlin’.”

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