stormy persuasion Page 11

“You’ve mistaken me for someone else. But I’m not surprised. First you thought I was a ghost, then you took me for a landowner. Isn’t it more obvious that I’m just a hardworking seaman trying to earn a living?”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’d never forget a face that’s haunted me for five years, and now I recognize your voice, too.”

“From five years ago? I doubt that’s possible.”

“From two weeks ago when you accosted me in that ruined house,” she said hotly. “You’re a criminal and I won’t have you on board endangering my family.”

So it was her, he thought, and not one of the duke’s servants as he’d assumed that night. And maybe she was not quite a lady either, except in title. That was an intriguing thought and even likely, considering how he’d met her, both times, out and about alone at night. And now tonight.

“It seems to me you’re the one guilty of criminal behavior, breaking into houses that don’t belong to you. And more’n once? Tell me, darlin’, does your family know about your late-night rendezvousing?”

She sucked in her breath. “Don’t even go there. You know I spoke the truth about why I was there that night.”

“If I wasn’t there, how would I know? Or wait, were you there to see me again?” He grinned, suddenly beginning to enjoy himself. “Well, me in ghost form, but me nonetheless. And you already admitted you did that at least once.”

She scoffed, “You’re not turning the tables on me here, but nice try. There’s simply no comparison to a smuggler, or is it a thief? Which one are you?”

“And why would I be either of those?”

“Because the facts add up precisely, and there’s a long list of them. You even proved yourself to be a liar that night. You weren’t just passing by, not with your own cot set up in that room.”

“A criminal who carries a cot around with him? Do you realize how unlikely that is?”

“You put a lock on the door.”

“If whoever you are talking about did that, I’d think he did it to keep pesky ghost hunters from waking him in the middle of the night. Didn’t work, did it?”

“You think this is amusing?”

He smiled. “Did I say that?”

“You didn’t have to when it’s written all over your face,” she snapped.

“Well, you have me there, darlin’. But it’s not every day I get accused of criminal activities. I have to admit, I do find a certain humor in that.”

“You were hiding illegal goods there and that put my family at risk! My cousins could have been implicated. No one would believe they couldn’t have known what was going on in their own backyard. The scandal would have touched my entire family!”

Enraged in defense of her family? Well, that at least he could understand. It just didn’t alter that he needed to convince her she’d made a mistake.

So he chuckled. “Will you listen to yourself now? No one in their right mind would blame a duke for anything, much less something illegal.”

“So you admit it? You came out of the hidden room, and I tasted brandy when you kissed me. You were not just a vagrant passing by as you claimed! I don’t doubt you’ve even been using that ruined house to hide smuggled goods for five years, haven’t you?

He was hard-pressed not to laugh. She’d figured everything out and with amazing accuracy. Smart girl. Beauty and intelligence. When was the last time he had come across that combination? But she was merely making charges she hoped to hear him confirm. That wasn’t going to happen. He did need to get her off the scent though. . . .

His voice dropped to a husky timbre, his smile broadened. “You know, darlin’, if you and I had actually shared a kiss, that would be a pleasant memory I’d not soon forget. And now you make me wish it had happened. . . .”

She was staring at his mouth. As he’d hoped, he was distracting her. He just hadn’t counted on his getting distracted, too. The pull was incredibly strong to kiss her again, right there on the deck in the moonlight. Utter madness.

But he was saved from finding out what might have happened next when he heard two of the crew talking, their voices getting louder as they approached. She heard them, too, glancing nervously beyond him.

“Good night, darlin’. I better fade away like a ghost. I’d hate for your family to learn of your predilection for late-night trysts.”

Nathan walked away. The subtle threat plus the doubts he’d tried to put in her mind would hopefully be enough to keep her mouth shut for the time being. He was going to climb the mainmast again, but unable to resist the urge to look back, he merely moved into the mainmast’s shadow. She was halfway to the quarterdeck before she turned to look back as well. Had she thought of more aspersions to cast on him? But he relaxed when he saw she wasn’t looking for him, but for the book she’d dropped. She came back to retrieve it.

A few moments later he lost sight of her when she entered the captain’s cabin, but her image was still in his mind. The woman was too beautiful—but she was trouble. He was going to have to come up with a better way to keep her from voicing her suspicions to other people. But that could wait for tomorrow.

Chapter Fourteen

In the morning, Nathan found corky to discuss his newest problem—Judith Malory. But his friend had been tasked with swabbing the main deck, a chore so menial Corky couldn’t stop grumbling about it long enough to offer any suggestions. Nathan still kept him company while he checked the railings for loose nails. It wasn’t something he would have thought to do so early on the voyage if he hadn’t seen Judith leaning against a rail last night.

“Watch out, Cap’n,” Corky suddenly said behind him. “I think that trouble you were telling me about is coming your way.”

Nathan turned to see Judith marching toward him and Corky quickly getting out of the way. She looked even more beautiful in daylight with the sun on her glorious red-gold hair, wearing a long velvet coat left open over an ice-blue dress trimmed with yellow-dyed lace—and the light of battle in her cobalt-blue eyes.

She’d lost a few hairpins last night, which he’d found on the deck after she’d gone, so he wasn’t surprised to see she’d braided her hair today. Diamond-tipped pins. He’d thought about keeping them as a memento, but dug them out of his pocket now and handed them to her, hoping it would forestall another tirade. It didn’t.

“I do not care for the way you threatened me last night!” she began.

He shrugged. “If you’re going to make outlandish accusations about me, I can make a more realistic one about you—that you seem to have a habit of conducting nighttime trysts with strange men.”

“When you put my family at risk, there is no comparison!” she said furiously. “I demand an explanation.”

Nathan gnashed his teeth in frustration. He wasn’t about to spill his guts to her and tell her about his unusual situation when he didn’t know her and had no reason to trust her with the truth. Beautiful in the extreme, she was still a nabob. And he wasn’t so sure she was going to spread her suspicions around either. If she was, why would she have come looking for him this morning to discuss them again? He just had to come up with a way to ensure her silence, or at least some explanation that she would believe so she could laugh off her damned conclusions. Or maybe another bit of truth would suffice. . . .

“Tremayne!” was suddenly bellowed from the quarterdeck.

Nathan hissed under his breath, “Bleedin’ hell. I knew better than to talk to you when you’ve got relatives crawling all over this ship—including my captain.”

“Why are you even aboard? Escaping a hangman’s noose in England?”

In exasperation he said, “No, chasing down my ship, which was stolen.”

“Yet another lie? Good God, do you ever say anything that’s true?” Then she smirked, “But that was just my uncle’s ‘come here’ voice, not his ‘come here and die’ voice. You’ll hear the latter after I tell him who you really are, Nathan Tremayne.”

He was out of time to talk her around, so he said, “Give me a chance to explain before you do anything we’ll both regret. It’s not what you think.”

He left her with that, and hopefully enough doubt to keep her pretty mouth shut for the time being.

Nathan approached Captain Malory with a good deal of annoyance. The man’s summons couldn’t have come at a worse time, when he still had an ax hanging over his head from the man’s niece. But he didn’t think a few more minutes with Judith would remove that ax. She’d had two weeks to convince herself that her suspicions about him were accurate. He might need just as long to change her mind—if he could. And if he couldn’t? If she spread her tale anyway?

He supposed he could jump the gun on her and make a full confession right now to her uncle—captain to captain. Like hell he would. That would only be a logical path if the man weren’t a lord, too. Damned nabobs were too unpredictable. And he knew nothing about Judith Malory’s uncle other than he was a rich lord with sledgehammers for fists—and he liked to fight. Nathan had definitely gotten that impression the other night.

At least he didn’t think this Malory was the one he needed to avoid. He doubted the captain was going to want retribution for what had happened on the docks, not when he’d let him go after Hammett’s sailor. However, as captain he was king of this ship for the duration, his word law, his dictates followed whether they were fair or not, and if Nathan had just gotten on his bad side because of a woman, Nathan was going to be furious—with himself.

He’d been so stupid last night, letting that pretty face dazzle him. Talking to her as if there could be no consequences for it, and then to forget that entirely after she made her accusations, which could bring even worse consequences. He should have walked away when he had the chance to, before she realized who he was.

It was laughable. This was supposed to be the easy part of this trip. The hard part wasn’t supposed to start until they arrived in Connecticut and he had to convince the law-enforcing Yanks over there to help him, an Englishman, take down their own criminals. At the most he’d be giving them a good laugh over that. At the worst, they could toss him in jail instead for his audacity or run him out of town. But he still had a few weeks before he found out how strongly animosity still ran between the two countries that had gone to war with each other more’n once.

He didn’t look behind him to see if the reason for his latest predicament had scurried off. He could still see her in his mind’s eye, though, softly rounded, exquisite in every detail, lush, sensual lips, far too beautiful for any one woman to be. If he couldn’t talk her around, maybe he could seduce her into keeping silent instead.

The moment the thought occurred to him, he made his decision. That’s how he would handle Judith Malory. He hadn’t felt so good about a decision in ages. So what if she was surrounded by family on this ship and the lot of them were aristocrats. He was used to living dangerously.

When Nathan approached James Malory, he saw him conversing with his first mate. Artie looked contrite, as if he’d just received a tongue-lashing.

“I didn’t know you wanted it set up before we sailed . . . ,” Artie was saying.

The captain’s back was turned toward Nathan, so he didn’t intrude. Malory in a billowing white shirt open at the neck, tight, buff breeches, black, knee-high boots, and hair to his shoulders didn’t look any more like a nabob now than he had the other night. Glancing around, Nathan realized he was the only member of the crew who was properly dressed. Like the captain, the other sailors had all stowed their jackets and were working more comfortably in their shirtsleeves. After all, it wasn’t a military ship where the crew had to button up in uniforms.

Nathan was about to shrug out of his own coat when Malory turned and noticed him. “My brother has a bone to pick with you,” he stated baldly.

Nathan winced. “I was hoping you wouldn’t remember me from the other night.”

“Forget hair like yours? Not bloody likely.”

But the captain was grinning as if from a fond memory, prompting Nathan to ask cautiously, “You aren’t angry that I punched your brother?”

“Not a’tall. Found it highly amusing, actually. Ain’t often Tony gets taken by surprise like that. But he’ll want a rematch, so you might want to avoid him for a few days. As it happens, the project I have for you will see to that nicely. I’m told you’re my carpenter, but how experienced are you?”

Relieved he wasn’t going to be questioned about the fight on the dock or be reprimanded for talking to the captain’s niece, Nathan answered honestly, “Three years, sir. Two to master building and repairing, and then I spent a year branching out to furnishings. Before that I built chimneys. Before that, I tried my hand at painting and roofing.”

“A jack-of-all-trades—for landlubbers? Then what are you doing on The Maiden George?”

“I inherited my father’s ship a few years ago, but she was stolen last week. This group of thieves has been plaguing England for a good decade, but not so often that the authorities could piece together who they were or what they were doing with the ships.”

“That doesn’t answer my question, dear boy, but it does pose another. A captain reduced to ship’s carpenter? Do you like the sea so much that you’ll sail in any capacity?”

“Your destination is exactly where I need to go to get my ship back.”