Stormy Persuasion Page 28

“Don’t bother. Nothing short of finding the trinkets on someone else is going to get me out of this. Quiet!” Nathan cautioned, standing up and gripping the bars again when he heard footsteps. “Someone’s coming.”

“Or just passing by on their way to the galley,” Corky said with a snort. “You’d think they’d put a brig in the bowels of the bleedin’ ship, not close enough to the galley that we can smell food cooking.”

Nathan didn’t reply when he saw the captain was paying them a visit. Malory glanced around to locate where the key was hung before he continued down the hall. Nathan almost laughed. Where could he go if he could reach the key? But he couldn’t. Even with a shoe to give him an extra foot’s extension, he couldn’t stretch to the front of the little hallway. But the captain’s not knowing where the key was hung proved this room wasn’t used often. Nathan wouldn’t be surprised if Malory had had to get directions to it.

James stopped in front of the cell. His expression wasn’t indicative of his mood, but his words were. “I’m disappointed in you.”

“The feeling is bleedin’ well mutual. Anyone could have put that ring under my bed and you know it. Obviously the thief did. The real one. Yet here I sit, framed for something I didn’t do. A smuggler does not a thief make—not that I’m confessing to either charge.”

“Let’s be clear, Tremayne. It doesn’t matter to me what you used to do, only what you’ve been doing since you boarded my ship. All that remains now is for you to fess up to where you’ve hidden the rest of the jewelry.”

“So you’ve already searched everyone on board?”

“And the point of that would be? What was taken was from four separate jewelry boxes, and some of it quite bulky—necklaces and tiaras that don’t bend, far too much bulk to conceal on a person.”

“I’ve never stolen anything in my life, but if I did, I sure as hell wouldn’t be dumb enough to hide it on a ship that hasn’t sighted land yet. I would have waited until an escape was within view.”

“But you’re a carpenter, dear boy.”

“So?”

“So who better to fashion a hiding place? You could have built a cubbyhole in any wall, floor, or ceiling and concealed it from view. A simple task for a carpenter of your skill. I’m going to be quite annoyed if I have to rip my ship apart to find your cubbyhole. Exceedingly so.”

“I would be, too.”

James actually laughed at that reply. “Yes, I suppose you would be—if you were telling the truth. Unfortunately, my family has been robbed, so I’m not inclined to believe the number one suspect just now. Proof, on the other hand, speaks for itself. I’ll give you some time to think about your current situation, but not too long. I expect to see land tomorrow north of our destination, so we could be in Bridgeport late tomorrow night. Volunteer the location so the jewelry can be recovered and I might be able to calm my family down enough to let you go.”

Nathan snorted. “We both know that’s not happening if I’m guilty, but since I’m not, I can’t very well tell you where the stash is, now can I?”

James shrugged. “Who knows what my family’s sentiments will be once the jewels are recovered. But right now I know exactly what they are, and it’s just your blood they want.”

“You mean your brother does.”

“Well, yes, that goes without saying. You managed to inveigle his daughter’s trust. If you went a step further and bedded her just to get her on your side for this bit of pilfering, I’d kill you m’self. Did you?”

“You think I would say so after that statement?”

“I suppose not.”

“Why don’t you just ask her?”

“Oh, we did. But the darling chit has a way with words that can boggle the mind. If she gave a definitive answer, I’d have to say it only seemed so.”

Corky joined Nathan at the bars. “If you’d stop barking up the wrong tree, Cap’n, you might open your eyes to other motives. Grudges, revenge, even jealousy, or just simple anger. I’ve seen a man break a priceless heirloom in a rage. Deliberately. And cry like a baby afterwards. And wouldn’t take much to toss a sack of baubles over the rail, now would it? They’d be gone in an instant. Too late to regret doing it. You see my point?”

“You’re talking about a fortune, a bloody king’s ransom. No one in their right mind—”

“Exactly. Who’s in their right mind when they’re enraged, eh?”

The captain was shaking his head. Corky gave him a look of contempt and sat back down. Nathan hadn’t thought of motives yet, but he did now.

“My friend’s suggestions are a little far-fetched, but here’s one that isn’t. There was a stowaway who didn’t have time to do any obvious damage, but was picked up by a ship that was on our arse. That was planned, and being so, one or more of the crew could have been in league with them all along. Just because there hasn’t been another sighting of that ship doesn’t mean it’s not still following us.”

“To hurt me or my family?”

“No, for what you just admitted is a king’s ransom. That stowaway could have put the jewels in a crate that could float and lowered it over the side and then signaled that ship to look for it. The jewelry could very well be on that ship. That’s what they were after all along.”

“Or you could be the one in league with them and could have done exactly that,” James said as he walked away.

“This nonsense is going to cost me my ship, damnit!” Nathan growled after him. “No bleedin’ baubles would be worth that to me!”

He waited for a reply but there was none, which had him furiously shaking the bars again. Still not even a little rattle from them. He and Corky weren’t getting out of that cell. His ship was going to end up sold. He was going to see the inside of a prison despite his pardon. Even if the Malorys didn’t have an enemy out there on the high seas, they had one now aboard their ship.

Chapter Thirty-Five

“You can’t fool me,” Jacqueline said as she joined Judith at the rail. “Didn’t touch your food last night or this morning. Haven’t even remarked on the land you’re staring at. You’re still heartbroken, aren’t you?”

Am I? Judith wondered. Is that what I’m feeling? She was still somewhat in shock and utterly disillusioned, and she’d cried herself to sleep last night. Her eyes were quite red from it. But then not even a full day had passed since Nathan had been apprehended as a jewel thief.

“I’m not saying I am, but will it ever go away?” Judith replied.

“Course it will.”

“How do you know? You’ve never felt heartbroken.”

“Because it stands to reason, don’t it? Half the world would be in tears if it doesn’t.”

“I highly doubt half the world—”

“A quarter then, but if you want specifics, didn’t your sister fancy herself in love with young Lord Gilbert last winter? She certainly cried for several hours over him. And not two days later she was happy as a lark singing the praises of Lord Thomas instead.”

“Jaime was barely sixteen. She’s allowed to float in and out of love until she figures out what it really is—which she hasn’t done yet. She’s too young—”

“So have you figured it out?”

“I just feel so betrayed. He led me to believe we were friends, then he robbed me, us, all of us.”

“Friends and lovers?”

“Jack!”

But while Judith’s cheeks had turned pink with a blush, Jacqueline was rarely embarrassed by any subject and wasn’t dropping this one. “You wouldn’t make love without telling me about it, would you? I don’t think I could forgive you for keeping that a secret from me.”

“I—wouldn’t.”

It wasn’t a lie, it wasn’t! She’d tell Jack eventually. She just couldn’t bear to yet when the mere thought of just how close she’d gotten to Nathan made this pain even worse. It was clouding her mind and squeezing at her heart.

So she was completely broadsided when Jack said, “But you didn’t tell me he was our ghost.”

Judith actually groaned. Jack wasn’t going to forgive her, ever, for the secrets she’d kept from her.

“You guessed?”

“Not a’tall,” Jack replied in a tone that sounded hurt. “The hair so blond it looks white didn’t give it away. Others have hair that color. But after you excused yourself from dinner last night, I heard my mother whisper to my father that at least he’s not Derek’s neighbor after all, and wasn’t that the worst crime, his impersonating gentry? So I asked what she meant by that and she explained. Suddenly your immediate fascination with Nathan Tremayne made sense.”

“He asked me to keep that secret and now I know why, because it was just another lie. He doesn’t own that house. He was just hiding smuggled goods there. I told you about my suspicions when we were visiting Derek and his family.”

“So he’s the smuggler you saw the night before we left Hampshire?”

“I didn’t actually see him that night. But when I saw him on the ship and recognized him as our ex-ghost, something he said made me realize he was the man who had been at the ruined house behaving so suspiciously. I accused him of being a smuggler. He denied it, of course, and promised a full explanation if I’d hold off saying anything about it.”

“It’s not exactly a high crime,” Jack pointed out. “Some people even consider smugglers folk heroes, you know. I mean, how would you feel if you couldn’t afford a cup of tea anymore when you’ve been drinking it all your life?”

“I know. And that’s the only reason I held my tongue.”

Jack snorted. “I suppose how handsome he is had nothing to do with it. Or that you’ve fancied yourself in love with his ghost all these years?”

“Only his handsomeness—maybe.”

“There’s no maybe about that. He was fascinating to you back then and still is. Of course you could lay claim that he compromised you whether he did or not—if you want him for a husband. That might be the only way to keep him out of prison—if you want him for a husband.”

“You’re repeating yourself.”

“Some things bear repeating. Prison can ruin a man. The time to save him would be now.”

Already suffering from heartache and now overwhelmed by guilt, Judith suddenly burst out, “We did make love.”

“I know.”

Judith gasped. “No, you didn’t!”

“I bloody well did,” Jack retorted. “Think I didn’t notice that silly grin you couldn’t keep off your lips yesterday morning? Think I haven’t seen that countless times on the women in our family? Even my mother, for Pete’s sake, gets that look after she and my father—”

“I get the point.”

“I’ll wait until you get over your heartbreak to insist that you share every detail, but not a minute longer. I can’t believe you kept any of this from me. Me!”

Judith winced. “I know. He tricked me into keeping silent. I was trying to get at the truth, and agreeing to his terms seemed to be the only way I could. But I realize now all I did was give him time to make up an elaborate tale I would believe.”

“One you wanted to believe, you mean.”

“Well, yes. And time to convince me he could be trusted. That’s the worst of it. I can’t believe I trusted him!”

“Good God, don’t cry again! Forget I said a word. We’re not saving that blighter. Prison’s too good for him!”

Jacqueline said no more, just put her arm around Judith’s waist and squeezed. The wind quickly dried her tears. She continued to gaze at the coastline, which she figured was in one of the states north of Connecticut. She didn’t care. She’d lost interest in this trip, lost her appetite, too, as Jack had pointed out. All she could focus on was the abysmal pain that was overwhelming her.

She had thought about confronting Nathan. This morning she’d even gone down to the corridor that led to the improvised brig. She didn’t go any farther than that because she had started crying again. It was too soon to talk to him without screaming or crying, and what could he say to her to explain why he’d stolen from her? She wouldn’t believe him anyway, could never believe him again, he’d lied to her about so much.

She couldn’t stop thinking of him, though. The image of Nathan and the kitten asleep together in her cabin, so adorable, so—innocent—was stuck in her mind. Of course, even murderers could love their pets. His affection for a kitten did not make him innocent of anything. But it had been so heartwarming, seeing him like that. It had made her draw conclusions she wished she could now forget.

Her uncle James had said it wasn’t plausible that Nathan was gentry and a thief. He should also have pointed out that Nathan’s being a smuggler and a thief wasn’t plausible either. Why would a thief smuggle when smuggling wasn’t nearly as profitable as stealing? He couldn’t be both. But he certainly wasn’t adept at thievery when he’d carelessly left evidence behind. Was this his first attempt at it? Or had he been coerced into it, his nieces threatened . . .

She groaned to herself, aware that she was searching for reasons for him to be innocent because the thought of his going to prison made her sick to her stomach. No matter what he’d done, that single thought filled her with dread, as if she were the one facing such a dire future. Is that why she felt so miserable? Maybe it wasn’t heartbreak she was experiencing, just gut-wrenching compassion for a friend. A supposed friend. No, he wasn’t a bloody friend, damnit.

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