stormy persuasion Page 20

“He used to sail regularly?”

“When he was young, yes, for about ten years. But as I was saying, Artie and Henry retired from the sea with him and became his butlers.”

“Two butlers? Is that normal?”

“Not at all normal. But my uncle James isn’t a conformist. Artie and Henry were going to draw straws to see who’d be first mate this trip, then decided to just share this job, too. Now—”

Nathan interrupted with the guess “The captain used to be a pirate, didn’t he?”

She gasped. “How—did you arrive at such a ridiculous notion?”

“Something I heard Artie say about blasting things out of the water in their day. And you just admitted your cousin aspired to be like her father.”

“I said nothing of the sort! Do not put words in my mouth.”

She couldn’t believe he’d guessed so accurately, but that was one thing about her family that was kept strictly in the family and was going to remain that way. James’s days of being Captain Hawke, gentleman pirate, as cousin Regina liked to refer to his former profession, were long since over. He’d even faked Hawke’s death when he finally returned to England to make peace with his brothers, though that run-in with the pirate Lacross a while back had let a few of his old cronies know he was still quite alive and well. But Nathan wasn’t going to be told any of that.

She demanded, “So you think of pirates instead of the military? Yes, of course, a smuggler would.”

“Keep your voice down.”

“Then don’t make statements designed to enrage me. If you want to know about my uncle, ask him yourself—if you dare be that bold. But first, you’re going to answer me. Why were you sad the night we first met?”

He sighed. “I wasn’t. Disappointed, yes, and if I’m admitting things, a little angry, too. My maternal grandmother had just passed on. I didn’t know her well, hadn’t even seen her since I was a tyke. She lived alone in London, I lived with my parents in Cornwall. My father and she didn’t get along, and she wanted nothing more to do with us after my mother died. So I was surprised when her solicitor tracked me down to hand me a deed to that property.”

“Are you saying you actually do own the manor?”

“I told you that when you were a child. If I had been there this other night when you intruded yet again, I would have done the same thing—simply told you to get out, that you were trespassing.”

“I’m to believe this now? You had your chance to make the claim of ownership when I asked before. You didn’t because it’s obviously not true.”

“It’s a bleedin’ wreck of a house.”

“One that comes with a lot of land. My cousin Derek would even pay you a fortune for it, so you’d never have to work again.”

“Maybe I don’t want to sell it.”

“Maybe because you don’t really own it!”

He suddenly raised a brow at her. “Why so angry, darlin’? Because you found another trespasser in that house, or because you didn’t find me when you hoped you would? Are you angry that I’m not your ghost?”

She almost sputtered, but took a quick, deep breath instead. She wasn’t even sure why she’d just gotten so angry. Merely because he hadn’t confirmed sooner that he was related to Mildred Winstock, who was an aristocrat by birth?

But he wasn’t waiting for her to answer him. He continued with a shrug, “It’s nothing to be proud of or boast about that I own a house that’s falling apart.”

“You didn’t know it was a ruin until that night, did you?” she guessed.

He barked a short, bitter laugh before he said, “No, I actually went there to take up residence. It was just after the fight I had with my father, which I’ve already mentioned to you.”

“Which led to your leaving Cornwall, yes, but you never said what that fight was about.”

“I’d rather not talk about that. It’s painful enough that I never saw my father again before he died.”

Was that true, or was he just being evasive again? She glanced at him to check the expression on his face and got distracted by how handsome he was. He wasn’t wearing a bandanna now, and with the sun shining brightly, his hair looked pure white again as the wind blew it every which way, including across his face, which he didn’t seem to even notice.

Something in his expression was angry, but mixed with melancholy, too, which compelled her to finally say, “I’m sorry.”

“So am I. At the time, I was angry enough to break ties with him and live on my own, but only because I thought my grandmother had left me the means to do so. What a joke that turned out to be.”

“Surely not intentional.”

“No, I doubt she ever stepped foot in that house herself and didn’t realize she was leaving me nothing but a shambles. It had belonged to my grandmother’s grandmother, but according to my mum, my grandmother had been born in London, raised in London, and never left London. It was probably just a nice excuse for why my grandmother never came to visit us in Cornwall, instead of telling me the truth, that the old bird hated my father.”

Judith was inclined to believe him, which warned her she probably shouldn’t. He might be making all this up to elicit her sympathy. He hadn’t admitted to owning the house the first time they’d spoken on the ship. And he hadn’t mentioned it in any of their earlier conversations. Then she realized she could confirm whether what he’d just told her about the house was true.

“What was your grandmother’s name?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Actually, it does. I know who the last owner of record was. If you don’t, then—”

He glanced at her sharply and demanded, “Are you this suspicious with everyone?”

“Just smugglers,” she said without inflection. “And I notice you’re not offering up a name.”

He snorted. “Mildred Winstock. And now you can tell me how you know my grandmother.”

She was surprised how relieved she was to have proof that he was telling her the truth. Now their earlier encounters in Hampshire were beginning to make sense to her. His owning the house explained the lock on the door and his claiming to know the house better than she did, even the cot that he’d added. Only his telling her not to say she’d seen him there was odd. And his accosting her. That wasn’t how a property owner behaved. Or that he didn’t want the lantern lit again so she could see who he was. So try as she might to exonerate him in her mind, she still couldn’t, not when so many clues pointed to illegal activities.

“I didn’t know your grandmother,” she explained. “My cousin Derek tracked down the identity of the last owner of record so he could buy the house.”

“Why?”

She was hesitant to tell Nathan the truth, but he had to realize what an eyesore his property was, sitting next to a grand ducal mansion. So she said in a roundabout way, “He wants to give it a proper burial.”

“It’s still standing.”

“Barely.”

“I know better’n anyone the condition it’s in, but I’m not selling it just so your lordly cousin can tear it down. It’s the only thing I have left from my mother’s side.”

She tried to sound cheerful for him as she suggested, “Then repair it.”

“I intend to.”

“Really?”

“Why do you sound surprised? It’s the only reason I mastered carpentry.”

Her eyes widened. Derek would probably donate whatever Nathan needed, anything that would improve the view from the back of his home. “You’ve had five years to get started. If it’s a matter of materials—”

“It was, but not anymore. I’ve been stockpiling what’s needed, stashing materials in that hidden room so no one would run off with them when I’m not there. I just wasn’t in a hurry to get started with the repairs until recently. I did some work on the roof, I just haven’t tiled it yet. I could redo it all in cheap slate, but slate doesn’t belong on a house like that.”

“You want to match the clay tiles that are currently on it?”

He nodded. “What’s left of them. Just didn’t realize how expensive clay is. And didn’t expect this trip to add to the delay.”

“What changed recently to prompt you to start repairing the house?”

“I’m not alone anymore.”

Her eyes flared. “You have a wife!?”

He burst out laughing. It drew a few eyes their way, Georgina’s and Jack’s in particular. Jack even slipped up because of it, giving Andrássy his first chance to take the offensive. Jack’s sound of exasperation could be heard across the deck.

Nathan noticed, too, and said uncomfortably, “I should leave.”

“What you should have done was tell me you’re married prior to kissing me,” Judith said furiously. “I despise unfaithful husbands!”

He raised a surprised brow at her, but only briefly. He was still glancing about the deck to gauge the damage done from the attention she’d drawn to them. But he said, “That’s a bit heated for an assumption, darlin’. Jealous?”

“Not in the least!”

“Then stop yelling at me and look away,” he warned, but then suddenly hissed, “Bleedin’ hell. Meet me up in the crow’s nest tonight and I’ll explain why you’re mistaken. But I’m not staying for this.”

This was James and Anthony. They had just appeared on the quarterdeck and were standing with Georgina now, one on each side of her. But neither was watching the fencing match. They were looking directly at Judith and Nathan instead.

Chapter Twenty-Five

Nathan did abandon ship, as it were, returning belowdecks again. Judith couldn’t do the same, not if she wanted to put out the fire before it started. If anyone was going to tear Nathan apart for being married, it would be her, not her father. So she pulled up a bright smile, waved at her father, and joined him on the quarterdeck. And did a good job of hiding her fury.

Her father didn’t. He was scowling even as he put an arm around her shoulders. “What were you doing with that chap?”

“Debating whether to toss him overboard.”

“I’ll kill him if he insulted you.”

She rolled her eyes. “You say that about every man I talk to. But I was joking, so there’s no need for you to kill anyone this trip. He was just shocked by Jack’s display of fencing skill. I was merely explaining why and how she came by it.”

“None of his bloody business.”

“I thought we agreed you weren’t going to hate every man I meet. Mother even assured me you wouldn’t.”

That was pulling out the trump card, and it seemed to work. Anthony relaxed a little, even chuckled. But Georgina, having heard them, remarked, “Quite a handsome fellow, this one, isn’t he?”

“And you noticed this why, George?” James asked.

Georgina laughed. “Am I to pretend to be blind?”

Judith jumped in, “Handsome, but sorely lacking in manners. Still, he’s rather interesting.”

Anthony looked over Georgina’s head to say to his brother, “Blister it, James, did you tell everyone about his unusual mission?”

“Only you, old boy,” James said, then proceeded to tell his wife about it.

Anthony peered down at Judith and demanded, “Just how did you find out?”

She didn’t deny it. “You think his commission to track down ship-stealing thieves is the only thing interesting about him? Yes, I’ve spoken to him before today, which was when I found out he owns that big old house behind the Wrighton estate. You know the story of it, don’t you?”

“Don’t believe so.”

“I do,” Georgina put in. “It was built for the old duke’s mistress, wasn’t it, and given to her to lure—er, that is, it was a bribe?”

“Incentive, yes,” Judith concurred. “She was gentry and a widow, but the duke wanted her closer to him than London, where he’d met and fallen in love with her. Derek found all that out when he tried to buy the property. Mr. Tremayne is the woman’s great-great-grandson.”

“So he’s gentry?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Anthony insisted in a mumble.

“Course it does,” Georgina said, giving Judith a wink. “A dashing captain and a landowner of note, perhaps you should let this one run its course, Tony.”

To which Anthony snarled, “James, kindly ask George to butt out.”

James merely laughed. Judith took a moment to glance up at the crow’s nest, so high in the rigging. Several rope ladders were attached to it, but still, she was not going to climb up there tonight. In fact, she didn’t care if she ever saw Nathan Tremayne again. But she wanted that to be her decision, not her father’s.

So before he warned her off, she told him, “I’m just bored and he’s interesting, it’s no more’n that. I’m not like Jack, who manages to find dozens of ways to have fun on a ship—steering it, climbing rigging, even fencing.”

“Have I been ignoring you, poppet?” Anthony asked in concern.

She smiled. “No, of course not, and you don’t need to entertain me. You don’t often have Katey to yourself like you do now while Boyd is indisposed. I do understand.”

“Doesn’t mean you can’t join us when Jack isn’t by your side.”

She giggled, reminding him, “And how often do you think that is?”