Stormy Persuasion Page 18

“Caught him by surprise, you could say. But you heard him. We’re even now.”

She almost said, “Don’t count on it,” but she didn’t want him to turn leery of talking to her because of her father. That might happen anyway now, but she wasn’t going to help it along.

Then he added, “Go now while they’re distracted. Stay low.”

“You should leave as well.”

“Not a chance. People have to pay to watch fights of this caliber. Besides, don’t take it wrong, darlin’, but I want to see your old man lose.”

That infuriated her, enough to make her hiss, “You won’t see it today. Mark my words, my uncle is going to let him win that bout.”

“Why would he do a fool thing like that?” Nathan sounded surprised.

“Because those two are very close. It might not always seem like it, but they are. And because it will soothe ruffled feathers, even put my father in a good mood—which might help him to forget about you for the duration of the voyage. Just don’t expect my uncle to do you that favor after we dock and you’re no longer working for him.”

Chapter Twenty-Two

“I prob��ly should have mentioned this sooner, but someone’s caught my eye,” Judith told her cousin.

They were sitting in the middle of the double bed in Jacqueline’s cabin, both cross-legged, cards in hand, more cards on the blanket between them. Jack was barefoot and wearing her ship togs, which she would probably wear every day until they docked. Judith still preferred not to wear them and even more so after seeing Nathan’s reaction to them. She was outfitted in a simple, blue day dress with short-capped sleeves.

They often played whist by themselves, despite its being a four-person game. They merely skirted the rules with each of them playing an extra hand. It was not as exciting with only one player to worry about instead of three, but it passed the time for them, and Judith found it more fun than a game of chess, which Jack always won.

But Jacqueline didn’t even glance up at Judith after her statement, which Judith found rather disappointing because it had taken her several days to get up the nerve to make it. But she was still tense. Normally she’d be bubbling with excitement when she shared something like this, but she was too worried that she’d inadvertently reveal too much.

“In London?” Jack asked as she picked up her extra hand to play a card from it.

“No, on board.”

That got Jack’s immediate attention and a laugh. “Good God, not Andrássy! I know he’s quite handsome, but he’s our cousin.”

Judith found the mistake amusing enough to point out, “Too distant to count, actually. What would you add to it, that he’s our fifth cousin, sixth, tenth, when they usually stop adding numbers after second? But no, it’s not Andrássy.”

“Who then? There’s no one else aboard except common sailors—oh, no, you don’t!” Jack made a sound that was half gasp, half snort. “It’s a good thing you mentioned it so we can nip this in the bud right now. Your parents will never let you go to a man who doesn’t have at least some prospects!”

Judith rolled her eyes. “Are you forgetting what happened when I turned eighteen? Half my inheritance from my mother was turned over to me, more money than any one family could ever need. Prospects, I believe, won’t be an issue.”

“That’s beside the bloody point and you know it,” Jack was quick to stress.

“You’re being a snob.”

“I am not! Just realistic. Of course if you intend to elope instead of getting permission, then I won’t say another word.”

Judith started laughing, couldn’t help it. This was not how she’d expected this conversation to go. But at least her tension was gone for the moment, thanks to Jacqueline’s overprotective nature.

“You are getting so far ahead of yourself, Jack. I didn’t say I’ve found my future husband. I’m just highly intrigued by this man and want to get to know him better, perhaps find a few moments alone with him when we could speak freely. And he’s not just a common sailor, he’s a carpenter.” And my ghost, she wanted to add, but instead mentioned what Nathan had told James about his stolen ship.

Jack grinned, which brought forth her dimples. “Alone with him, eh? Are you sure you won’t be too nervous to say a word, let alone have a conversation? You’ve never been alone with a man who isn’t a relative.”

“I think I can manage. And we’re on a ship. It’s not as if he can hie off with me or one of your father’s sailors or servants wouldn’t be within shouting distance.”

Jack chuckled. “Point taken. And he does sound quite interesting. His name?”

“Nathan Tremayne.”

Jack raised a golden brow so like her father’s habit. “I even like the sound of it.” But then she speculated aloud, “Judith Tremayne. Judy Tre—”

“I told you I’m not—”

“Yes, yes. And we’re not getting married for at least a year. Doesn’t mean you can’t take that long to get to know this chap. Besides, options are good things to have, and you’ll want lots before the time comes to choose a husband.” Then Jack scooted off the bed, scattering their cards and pulling Judith with her.

“Where are we going?”

Jack tossed her some shoes, but didn’t bother getting a pair for herself. “I have to meet this young man of yours for myself. Let’s go find him.”

Judith wasn’t about to protest when she hadn’t actually seen Nathan for two days. And she’d looked for him each time she came on deck. But short of sneaking around and looking for him, which she had decided she was never going to do again, she hadn’t been able to find him and had concluded that his job was keeping him busy elsewhere.

They found him in the first place Jacqueline looked, in the carpenter’s storeroom. Jack knew exactly where it was, but then she’d explored every inch of this ship the last time they’d sailed on it. And learned every aspect of running it, too. Of course, she hadn’t given up yet on her goal of being a pirate back then. She’d even tried to teach Judith everything she was learning, but Judith, not sharing the same interest, had only listened with half an ear.

The room was smaller than their cabins, but big enough for one man to work in. Materials weren’t stored here, but in the hold. Only a long workbench and a wide assortment of tools were kept in the room. And the narrow cot Nathan had mentioned, replete with rumpled bedding to show he’d been using it.

He was standing at his bench twisting apart old ropes to make oakum from the fibers, which was typically applied between planks in the hull to keep them from leaking. Judith vaguely recalled Jack’s mentioning the process. His white shirt was tucked in, half-unbuttoned and sweat stained, the sleeves rolled up. The door had been open, but the room was still hot. His hair wasn’t quite long enough to club back, but he’d tied a bandanna across his brow to keep the sweat from his eyes. Some of his shorter locks had escaped it. It made him look roguish, and far too masculine.

Jacqueline, having pulled Judith into the room with her, was definitely caught by surprise, enough to whisper, “You forgot to mention he’s a bloody Corinthian and so handsome it hurts the eyes.”

Judith’s cheeks lit up instantly, but Nathan didn’t appear to have heard the whisper. As he turned toward them, he merely stated, “You must be Jack.”

“Judy mentioned me? Yes, of course she did. And did she tell you that neither she nor I am getting married this year? Shopping, just not buying yet. Keep that in mind, Nate.”

He laughed, that deep rumble Judith had missed hearing. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re a little too outspoken for your age?”

“Wouldn’t matter if they did,” Jack retorted. “Malorys don’t adhere to golden rules, we create our own.”

He glanced at Judith. “Is that so?”

She rolled her eyes. “For some of us.”

Jacqueline nodded toward the rope still in his hand. “That’s something you could do on deck where it’s cooler. Why aren’t you?”

“Maybe I was avoiding meeting up with the two of you,” Nathan replied with a slight grin.

“Why? I don’t bite—without reason.”

“He’s just teasing, Jack. I’m beginning to recognize the signs.”

Jacqueline glanced between them. “Just when did you two get so well acquainted?”

“We’re not,” Judith replied with only a slight blush. “We’ve only spoken a few times.”

Jack nodded and told Judith, “I’m going to find Andrássy and see if he actually knows how to use that sword he carries. Don’t be too long in joining us on deck.” Then Jack actually smiled at Nathan. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Nate.” But she ruined the cordial remark by adding, “Nothing inappropriate happens in this room or I’ll have to gut you—if her father doesn’t beat me to it.”

Jack left as quickly as they’d arrived. Judith peeked around the door to make sure her cousin really was going up to the main deck.

“That was a little too direct,” Nathan said.

Judith turned back to him. “That’s just Jack being Jack. She’s very protective of me, well, of everyone in the family, actually. It’s a Malory trait we all share. But I think she’s annoyed with me now that I didn’t mention you sooner.”

“You weren’t supposed to mention me at all.”

“No, your condition was to refrain from saying we’d met before and I’ve adhered to that. I told her nothing other than what you said to her father. But all that sneaking I was doing behind Jack’s back was far too nerve-racking to continue. As you can see, it’s no longer necessary.”

“Yes, but how did you manage that?”

“By convincing her that I was interested in you.”

He grinned. “That must have been hard to do.”

“Yes, it was,” she gritted out.

He abruptly tossed the rope in his hand on the workbench and reached for her. She gasped, but he was just setting her on the bench. Deliberately disconcerting her again? He must have remembered how easy that was for him to do. It did put her closer to him, right in front of him actually, and he didn’t move away to correct that.

Flustered, she demanded, “Why do you keep setting me down on things?”

“It’s up, actually, and because you’re a half-pint.” But he leaned a little closer to add, “And maybe because I like touching you.”

She blushed and jumped down to put some distance between them, only to feel his hands on her waist again. He put her right back on the bench, he just didn’t let go as quickly this time. His hands lingered on her waist. And those pleasant sensations were showing up again that had nothing to do with anything except him. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, waited . . .

“So you like my touch, do you?”

“No—I—”

“Then maybe you’ll stay put this time?”

She snapped her mouth shut. How bloody high-handed of him! And he did let go of her now, but too late. She was of a mind to leave but didn’t doubt he was persuading her to do just that with his manhandling tactics. Had he hoped her interrogation was done when she didn’t seek him out these last two days? Wanted to assure that it stayed that way? Too bad. She was too stubborn to let him manipulate her like that or to give up on getting at the truth.

She was angry now. Not because he didn’t kiss her just then as she’d thought he was going to do, but because it appeared he was trying to renege on their agreement.

Not having seen him the last two days, she’d had plenty time to dwell on him and had realized that none of her questions to him had been about smuggling. She’d merely questioned him to satisfy her curiosity about his personal life. So she’d accomplished nothing so far other than to nearly get caught hiding in the hold. By her father no less.

“I’ve missed you.”

She blinked. The anger simply drained away and too quickly, making her realize he could be doing it again. Saying things designed to distract her.

And he wasn’t done. “I thought I caught your scent a few times.” Then he laughed at himself. “Kept glancing behind me, expecting to see you. I even opened a few doors I was so sure I could smell you nearby. Just wistfulness on my part, I guess.”

Her brows narrowed suspiciously. “You know I don’t believe a word of that.”

He grinned. “I know.”

He moved farther away, over to the cot to sit down. She was surprised he hadn’t sat next to her again, but guessed the workbench wouldn’t support their combined weight. She caught the wince, though, as he sat, making her wonder if he was still in pain from that fight with her father.

“Everything I say is going to be suspect,” he continued. “Because you don’t know me well enough to know when I’m telling you the truth. If you come over here and sit on my lap, maybe we can change that.”

She snorted to herself. That didn’t sound as if he were in pain. Or he simply knew she wouldn’t be doing anything like that. It didn’t even warrant a reply, it was such an outrageous suggestion.

Instead, she asked, “How bad was the bruising?”

“Black.”

“Still?”

“I think he ruptured my stomach. I can’t keep anything down.”

Her eyes flared, but she quickly realized he had to be teasing. “Nonsense, you’d be dead by now if that was so.” Then she smirked. “Maybe you’re seasick. Now that would be hilarious, wouldn’t it?”

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