Stormy Persuasion Page 17

“I warned you’d take it wrong. But Cornwall has everything every other shire has, including nabobs, so don’t paint everyone who resides there with your suspicions.”

“Point taken.”

“Really?” he said in surprise. “You can actually be reasonable about something?”

“I favor logic, and that was a logical statement about a region.”

He snorted. “I’ve given you lots of logic—”

“No, you haven’t, not on matters that pertain to you personally. So did you learn carpentry before or after you took to the seas?”

“It’s my turn.”

“What? Oh, very well, ask away. I have no secrets to hide other than you.”

“I rather like being your secret.”

Why did that bring on a blush? Just because his tone dropped to a sensual level didn’t mean he intended it to. Or it could mean he did. The man could be trying to deliberately discompose her. Or was he getting as caught up in this attraction as she was? The thought made her feel almost giddy. If he wasn’t a criminal—but he was, and she had to keep that firmly in mind.

“Was that a question?” she asked.

He chuckled. “How big is your family?”

“Immediate? Both parents are hale and hearty. My sister, Jaime, is two years younger than I and doesn’t take well to sailing, so she stayed home with my mother. My half sister, Katey, is much older and is aboard with her husband, Boyd.”

“I meant the lot of you.”

She suspected he didn’t, but she answered anyway. “Don’t think I’ve ever counted the number. My father is the youngest of four brothers. They’ve all got wives and children, even a few grandchildren, so if I had to guess offhand, there’s more’n thirty of us.”

It sounded as if he choked back a laugh. She was not going to glance his way to be sure. Keeping her eyes off him was working—somewhat. At least she’d stopped wondering if he was going to kiss her—oh, God, now she couldn’t think of anything else. It had been thrilling, if a little overwhelming, but the feelings it had stirred in her had been too nice not to want to experience them again.

“—most of my life,” he was saying.

“What?”

“Your previous question.”

“But what did you just say?”

“Where did your mind wander off to?”

The humor in his tone made her wonder if he already knew, which made her blush even more. “Would you just start over, please?”

“When you ask so nicely, of course. I said that I was a sailor first, that I sailed with my father most of my life.”

“Except for the three years you worked as a carpenter. You mentioned that to my uncle. Where and why did you learn that trade if you already had a job with your father?”

“No cheating, darlin’. That’s three questions in a row you’re asking.”

She huffed, “I wouldn’t have to if you would elaborate, instead of giving me terse answers that only lead to a dozen more questions.”

He chuckled. “So you adhere to logic and exaggeration, oh, and let’s not forget stubbornness. I’m starting a list.”

“And you adhere to evasion. D’you really think that isn’t obvious?”

“You know, I’m having a hard time keeping my hands off you.”

She sucked in her breath, her eyes flying to his. His expression said that he wasn’t just trying to distract her. Blatant desire, poignant and sensual. It struck a chord, lit a flame. . . .

“Just thought you should know,” he added, then looking away, asked, “Where did you grow up?”

Judith needed a moment to come back to earth. Actually, longer. As if he had touched her, her ni**les still tingled from hardening, her pulse was still racing. She would like to think she would have stopped him from kissing her just then, but she knew she wouldn’t have. Why didn’t he!?

Oh, God, the man was more dangerous than she’d thought—to her senses. She jumped off the crate to put some distance between them. She was going to have to be more cautious of his tactics.

“London,” she said, and said no more. Still watching him, she noticed when his mouth tightened just a little, but enough to guess he didn’t like short answers either. “Annoying, isn’t it, lack of elaboration?”

“I’ll survive.”

She snorted at his glib answer. “Well, since I’m usually more thorough, I’ll add, I was born and raised in London, as well as tutored there. In fact, I rarely left the city except to visit family in other parts of England, such as Hampshire, where I first met you.”

“And at least twice to America.”

She smiled. “Before I comment on that, I require another answer from you. Why did you learn carpentry if you already were working with your father?”

He glanced at her again and laughed heartily. She liked the way humor disarmed him so thoroughly, his face, his mouth, his eyes, all revealed it. It said that he was getting used to her and wasn’t the least bit afraid that she might land him in jail. Confidence that he could change her mind about him, or actual innocence? There was the rub. If she had that answer by now, then she wouldn’t be here—or she would, just for a different reason.

He addressed her last question. “I had a row with my father that led to my leaving Cornwall for good when I was twenty. I ended up settling in Southampton, which is where I took up carpentry.”

She repaid him in kind. “My first trip to America was with Jack, too, to visit her mother’s hometown of Bridgeport. This trip is for her come-out there before we have another in London. It’s unusual to have two, of course, but her American uncles insisted. If you don’t know what a come-out entails—”

“I do. It’s what you nabobs do to get yourselves a husband. So you’re going on the marriage mart, are you? Somehow, I didn’t expect you’d need to.”

Had he just given her a compliment, but in a derogatory tone? “I don’t need to. I’ve lost count of how many men have already petitioned my father for permission to court me this summer.”

“So you’ve got a host of eager suitors waiting for you to return to England?”

“No, as it happens, my father threw all those hopeful gentlemen out of the house. He didn’t appreciate the reminder that I was approaching a marriageable age.”

“Good for him.”

She raised a brow. “Really? Why would you side with him about that?”

“Because women don’t need to get married as soon as they can.”

“You’re talking about someone you know personally, aren’t you?” she guessed.

He nodded. “My sister. She should have waited for a better man who could have made her happy instead of accepting the first offer to come her way. It didn’t turn out well.”

Judith waited a moment for him to continue, but she heard the sound of approaching voices. She gasped. “That’s my father and uncle.”

“Bleedin’ hell, hide.”

Chapter Twenty-One

The timing was horrible on all accounts. Nathan had just opened up, answering questions without asking any of his own. That could have gone much further if they weren’t interrupted. But Judith didn’t need to be told to hide. She was hurrying toward the crates when Nathan’s arm hooked around her waist and she was pretty much deposited on the floor behind one. At least she had room to hide there because none of the supplies were placed close to the hull since it needed to be checked regularly for leaks. It was one of Nathan’s jobs as the ship’s carpenter—when he wasn’t being interrogated by the captain’s niece.

She crouched down behind the crate with a few moments to spare before she could distinguish her father, just entering the hold, saying, “. . . answered too readily, without a single pause. Didn’t have to think about it even once.”

“And your point?” James replied.

“Thought that would convince you the lad is telling the truth.”

“I never called him a liar, Tony. He can be exactly who he says he is and still have an agenda other than the simple one he claims. Telling us nothing but the truth doesn’t mean he hasn’t left out some pertinent details.”

It almost sounded as if they were talking about Nathan, but Judith knew better. They were discussing Andrássy, although Nathan might not guess that. And why hadn’t he left yet? She could still see him standing between the two crates by his tools, his back to the entrance, and less than two feet from her. He was providing her with more concealment, but she could tell from the aggressive set of his wide shoulders that he was tense. Did he expect a confrontation? Or just expect he might have to protect her from one? Decent of him, but she wouldn’t let it come to that.

As if she weren’t anxious enough, she felt dread when it occurred to her why her father and her uncle had come down here. To use the new ring. They wouldn’t be leaving soon, which meant she couldn’t leave either. It also meant they’d hear Jack calling for her when she didn’t see her on deck, and that would be anytime now. She could even imagine her father initiating a search of the ship by everyone on board.

James’s voice had sounded farther away, as if he’d already gotten into the ring. Judith didn’t peek around the crate to find out for sure. But once they started sparring, they might be distracted enough for her to slip out of there. She’d have to crawl most of the way behind the supplies, but that would be easy enough to do in her britches.

“My nephew’s wife has hair like yours,” Anthony said in a deceptively affable tone.

Judith’s eyes flared wide. It sounded as if her father was standing right in front of the crate she was hiding behind! But she knew he was talking to Nathan.

“Be a good chap and tell me you aren’t related to the Hilary family.”

“Never heard of them,” Nathan replied cautiously.

“Good.”

Judith didn’t have to see it to know her father had just punched Nathan in the gut. The sound was unmistakable. But why? And not just once. She winced with each blow that followed. She knew how brutal her father could be when it came to landing punches. Was Nathan even trying to defend himself? She was afraid to look. She couldn’t not look.

Nathan ducked the next blow. He’d maneuvered the fight so Anthony’s back was to her. James was facing her from his position in the ring, but his eyes were on the two men below him and his tone was quite dry when he said, “You’re allowed to fight back, Mr. Tremayne. My brother won’t be satisfied unless you do.”

Nathan blocked a blow to his face and followed it with a right jab that caught Anthony in the chin and snapped his head back slightly. She winced for her father now, yet she wondered if he wasn’t secretly pleased that he wasn’t going to win easily. He loved a good fight. There’s wasn’t a Malory who didn’t know it. But if he appreciated that Nathan wasn’t flat on his back yet, he gave no indication of it. He continued to deliver blow after blow, concentrating on Nathan’s midsection, while Nathan got in two more punches to Anthony’s chin and cheek.

James finally said, “Enough, Tony. I don’t want him damaging his hands on you. He needs them to do his job.”

“Someone else can do his bloody job,” Anthony replied in a snarl.

“Actually, they can’t,” James rejoined. “We only have one carpenter aboard.”

“He’s the one found your hidden miscreant last night?”

“Yes.”

One more punch. “Very well, I’m done. I shall consider us even—Tremayne, is it? Unless you do something to tip the scales again.”

“Your idea of even stinks—my lord.”

Judith groaned to herself at that less than conciliatory answer, but Anthony merely seemed to be amused by it and quipped, “On the contrary, dear boy. You’re still standing, aren’t you?”

James offered magnanimously, “If you need to rest up after your exertions, Tony, I can wait another day to test out this ring.”

“Bite your tongue, old man. That was just a warm-up.” Anthony proved it by joining James in the ring.

Nathan should have left, but instead he sat on the crate that Judith was still hiding behind. She was sitting cross-legged now, facing the hull, her back against the crate. She assumed Nathan was just catching his breath, watching the action in the ring.

So she was surprised a few minutes later to hear him say in a low, if incredulous tone, “How does he do that at his age and after what I just meted out to him?”

He was talking about the punches her father and her uncle were doling out to each other in the ring. She whispered back, “Don’t equate age with skill. My father has had years of conditioning, not to mention frequent matches with his brother like the one you’re watching now.”

Nathan snorted quietly. “I gave you the opportunity to leave—why didn’t you?”

She didn’t answer that and instead asked, “Did he hurt you?”

“What d’you think?”

“How badly?”

“I might survive.”

She started to frown until she recognized the teasing note in his voice. There was something else she wanted to know. “What did you do to provoke his anger?”

“I have to be at fault?”

“I know my father. I can tell when he holds a grudge against someone. Why?”

“I might have knocked him out on the London docks before we sailed.”

She gasped. “How? The only one he ever loses to is my uncle James.”

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