stormy persuasion Page 21

Anthony rolled his eyes.

That’s when Jacqueline bounded up to them. Out of breath, she hooked her arm through Judith’s to drag her away, yelling back, “Time to change for dinner!”

It wasn’t, not quite, but no one protested since Jack obviously needed a bath after her exertions. But as soon as they were out of hearing, Jack asked, “Did I rescue you? Do say I did!”

“Possibly. At least, father didn’t get around yet to forbidding me to speak to Nathan again.”

“As much as he’ll try to, you can’t let him whittle down your options, Judy. I’m sure to be in the same boat someday, so we have to stick together on this.”

“I know.”

But Judith did suddenly realize, much too late, that in trying to explain to Anthony why she might be interested in Nathan other than romantically, she’d broken the Bargain with him. Well, not exactly, not if Jack didn’t hear that he owned the ruin and put two and two together to conclude that Nathan was their ex-ghost. But she should probably warn Nathan—the devil she would. The way he’d warned her he was married?

Still incensed over that, it wasn’t a good time to hear Jack say, “I’m so thrilled for you. He’s incredible looking, isn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“And daring. Chasing after a stolen ship is going to be dangerous.”

“Yes.”

“Feel free to volunteer more’n yeses.”

“He’s going to inform the authorities, so he’ll have help. It might not be dangerous a’tall.”

“Or he might not come back alive.”

“Jack!”

“Worried about him already? That smacks of a little more’n smitten,” Jack teased.

“No, and, no, in fact, he’s got some explaining to do,” Judith retorted. “My conversation with him was cut short when our fathers arrived on deck, so I’m going to meet Nathan after dinner to finish it.”

“Explaining about what?”

“I’ll tell you afterwards. Don’t want you going after him with your rapier in hand.”

Jacqueline raised a brow. “Sounds like you’ve already thought of doing that yourself. You’re actually angry with him, aren’t you?”

“A little. Very well, a lot. But don’t try to drag it out of me when it could just be a complete misunderstanding. I don’t want you getting the wrong impression based on an assumption.”

“Like you have?” Jack guessed. “Goodness, if you’re touchy about the slightest things, you are smitten. Confess that at least.”

Judith didn’t, but not answering at all convinced Jack she was right, so at least she didn’t get in a huff about not being told everything immediately.

And at least Nathan wasn’t mentioned that night at dinner, either. But Boyd was responsible for that. Finally making an appearance, the Yank was back in good health and therefore fair game for James and Anthony. Boyd wasn’t just James’s brother-in-law, he was also Anthony’s son-in-law, so of all the Andersons, he was doubly entrenched in the family. Which didn’t stop them one little bit from ribbing him mercilessly throughout the dinner about his seasickness.

“If you need another week in bed, Yank, be assured we’ll get along without you,” James said. “Won’t even notice your absence.”

Boyd’s malady used to cause him acute embarrassment, shipowner that he was. But he was so used to being the butt of the Malorys’ jokes that he took them in stride these days, following the example of his brother Warren, who also came under the gun from these two and either laughed along with them or ignored them. It tended to work.

But James gave ground tonight for another reason. Andrássy was flirting with Jacqueline a little too openly, complimenting her on everything from her hair, her dress—Nettie had won the battle tonight—to her fencing skill. Jack was amused by it. James wasn’t. While the ladies might have thought Andrássy had been quite brave to want to defend the family during the stowaway incident, even if he had misjudged the situation, James wasn’t going to overlook that Andrássy’s interference had given the stowaway the opportunity to escape.

Judith knew that her uncle had had doubts about Andrássy before, but after Andrássy had cost him the answers he wanted, even if unintentionally, any chance of James’s warming to their newest cousin had probably been lost.

But Judith didn’t spend much time thinking about it, not with her rendezvous with Nathan fast approaching. She didn’t even yet wonder why his being married was a worse crime in her mind than his smuggling was. But a while later, she would climb up to the crow’s nest to find out what he had to say about it.

Chapter Twenty-Six

Judith dressed for this excursion in her ship’s togs, even braided her hair to make sure it didn’t get in her way during the climb. She’d also left her shoes in her cabin, thinking bare feet would allow for better purchase on the rope rungs. But when she stood by the rope ladder and put her hand on it, she couldn’t take that first step. She didn’t have to look up to find out how high that crow’s nest was. Were the answers she wanted really worth such a daunting climb? The ladder wasn’t even steady! It was swaying so much it moved right out of her loose grip.

She stepped back, changing her mind, only to see Nathan drop down to the deck next to her, which explained why the ladder had been swaying.

“Didn’t actually think you’d take me up on my suggestion of a tryst in the crow’s nest, darlin’.”

She was relieved he was on deck instead. “Now that you’re here we—”

“Come on.” He took her hands and placed them on the ladder and moved in so close behind her that she had nowhere to go but up. “I have the watch tonight and I can’t do my job from down here.”

She glanced back. “Then why did you come down?”

“Did you really think I’d let you make this climb alone?”

Actually, she’d expected to have to climb up herself and had assumed he wouldn’t even know she was there until she arrived up top. But he must have been watching for her.

He added, “And miss a chance to be your hero and catch you if you should fall—into my arms?”

He’d just added a teasing note to his gallantry. She wondered if he was embarrassed to show her he had this chivalrous side. But she started climbing. She wasn’t the least bit nervous now, not with him behind her. And he didn’t touch her again, probably afraid it might startle her into slipping—until they reached the nest and she felt his hand on her derriere, giving her a push to get her over the edge.

The crow’s nest was shaped like a big tub. Some nests were just flat platforms, some were mere rounded frames, and others were rounded and made of solid wood with planked sides such as this one.

“I’d already volunteered for the watch tonight, or I wouldn’t have put you through the ordeal of climbing that ladder,” he said as he followed her over the rim.

She stood up and gasped softly at the view. “Oh, my.”

The full moon tonight looked so much bigger from up here and was incredibly beautiful. Not long over the horizon, it was still quite huge. Seen from this unobstructed vantage point, with its wavy reflection off the water, it was breathtaking, even highly romantic. She got her mind off that thought rather quickly and turned to Nathan.

But he was still gazing at the moon. “This is why I took the watch when it’s not one of my duties.”

“What if there had been too many clouds tonight instead?”

He looked at her before he said, “That’s the chance you take to see something this beautiful.”

She felt warmth in her cheeks, and inside her, too. She couldn’t let him distract her with flattery, if that’s what his comment was. “I believe you have something to tell me?”

“That I’m not married? I’m not and I’ve no plans to be. I’m not sure how you came to that conclusion from what I said earlier.”

“Because not alone anymore doesn’t imply family, it implies recent acquisition of family, which tends to mean getting oneself a spouse.”

“Not always and not in my case. My sister and her husband died last year in a carriage accident. They had two young daughters that his family didn’t want, so I have the care of them now.”

For once he wasn’t evading answers, but she certainly hadn’t expected this one, or to be so relieved that he wasn’t married that she was almost giddy from it. “How old are your nieces?”

“Clarissa is seven, Abbie is nine. They’re all I have left now in the way of family, and I intend to give them a proper home as soon as I can. But in the meantime, I found a nice couple to look after them. You might even know them.” He explained where the girls were, ending with “Ironic, isn’t it, that they’re currently living in a house your uncle owns?”

“Uncle James only bought that property so he would have a place to store his ship away from the crowded docks of London. But, no, I don’t know his caretakers. And why didn’t you mention your nieces earlier?”

“My responsibilities are not your concern. Besides, you were painting me only one color—black.”

Reminded of that, she retorted, “I haven’t seen any shades of gray yet. In fact, I find it irresponsible that you didn’t give up smuggling when you became your nieces’ guardian.”

She was prompting him to deny it, but he didn’t. He looked away toward the moon. And she immediately regretted sounding so condemning when she didn’t know all the particulars.

He might have good reasons for not abandoning what he’d been doing prior to becoming the girls’ guardian. Other obligations or debts, or perhaps he simply couldn’t afford to quit yet if he’d been putting all of his money into materials for that ruined house. Or he could simply be addicted to the excitement and danger of smuggling, knowing it would mean prison or worse if he was caught. And she shouldn’t be angry any longer now that he’d told her he wasn’t married. If it was true. Good God, was she ever going to just believe him without wondering if he was lying to her?

“I’m not going to apologize—” she started.

“Course not. Nabobs never do.”

“You think that excuses you?”

He glanced her way in confusion. “What?”

“It’s been established that you’re gentry. If you think that puts you above the law—”

His laugh was genuine. “Third son of a third son and so far back, no one remembers the lord who used to be in our family. No, I’m not gentry, darlin’, and don’t wish to be. Call me a blackguard all you want, but don’t call me a nabob.”

“Actually, you don’t have a choice when it comes to family.”

He snorted. “If you don’t know who your ancestors are, if you can’t name them, then it don’t matter.”

“It’s a matter of record—somewhere. You just haven’t looked.”

“Maybe because it’s not something I need or want to know.”

Frustrated by his attitude, she remarked on the obvious. “You seem to have a distinct animosity toward the nobility. Why is that?”

“That, darlin’, is none of your business.”

“This is how you hold up your end of our Bargain?”

“My opinions and sentiments aren’t part of our Bargain.”

“Well, if you’re going to skirt the rules, you might as well know I let it slip to my family that you own the manor house. Not that we met there. And Jack doesn’t know yet, so she hasn’t made the connection between you and our ghost . . . and the smuggler who accosted me.”

“But if it’s mentioned to her, she will?”

Judith winced. “Probably.”

“You don’t keep secrets very well, do you?”

He didn’t sound angry, merely disappointed, making her feel awful now. And chilled. She’d cooled off enough from the climb to feel the chill, so she sat down in the crow’s nest to get out of the wind. Over the rim of the nest she could still see most of the moon. And Nathan’s silhouette in front of it.

“I didn’t do it deliberately. Why does it matter if my father, aunt, and uncle know you own the ruined house?”

With the moon behind him now and so bright, she couldn’t see his face when he turned to her. He sat down next to her before he said, “I don’t want your family seeing me as an equal whether I am or not. I don’t make friends with aristocrats.”

“It must be extremely difficult, your having to deal with me, then, isn’t it?”

“Oh, no. You, darlin’, are about as big an exception as there can be.”

Mollified—well, much more than that actually, after what he’d just said—she felt a sense of anticipation rise within her. They were sitting so close, not actually touching, but she could feel heat radiating from him. It made her a little breathless, a little nervous, too, to be up here alone with him. He was so unpredictable.

To distract herself and him, she said, “Tell me more about your nieces. What are they like?”

She saw a shadow of a smile as he said, “Clarissa is exuberant and affectionate. She took after my sister and me with light blond hair. Abbie’s hair is a darker blond and she’s more the proper little lady. But both girls love ribbons and are always asking me to bring them some. Turn around for a moment.”

She wasn’t sure why she did as he asked, possibly because she was enjoying hearing him talk about his nieces. But it was her own ribbon he was after. She could tell it was gone as her braid started to unravel.