stormy persuasion Page 30

Around the shed on this upper level was a walkway, ending at an office on the other side. The windowed office looked down on the main area, which was indeed much lower. A light in the office revealed two more guards sitting at a table. A ship was below them in the center of the shed, but the large area was too dark for Nathan to tell anything other than that the ship was the same size as The Pearl. If it was in a trench, he could probably sail it out at high tide once the two enormous barnlike doors of the shed had been opened.

“Do we take out the other guards?” Charlie asked.

“That might lead to shots being fired, which I would as soon avoid. I just need to board the ship to confirm it’s mine, and I think we can do that without their noticing. Come on.”

Two sets of stairs led down to the work area, one by the office, one by the front door. Nathan led the way down and hurried up the long ramp to the ship.

“Hide here and keep an eye on that office,” he told Charlie as they reached the main deck. “Let me know if the guards come out of it.”

It took Nathan only a few moments to find what he was looking for: the concealed compartment he’d built in the deck below the wheel. He had to resist the urge to laugh aloud when he found all his money still in it. Bostwick hadn’t found it. Nathan’s initials carved in the hold probably hadn’t been noticed either, but the compartment was all the proof he needed that the ship was his.

Once the two were outside again and back over the fence, Corky came running toward them. “Well?”

“They were nice enough to remove The Pearl’s barnacles for us.”

Corky gave a hoot of laughter before he held up his bare foot. “I had to give up my boot to get that dog interested in something other than you.”

Nathan patted his shirt where he’d stuffed his smuggling profits. “We’ll get new clothes in the morning.”

Charlie spoke up, “I’d like to sign on for your crew, but I still don’t see how you’re gonna get your ship back. There’s no way the authorities will believe a Brit who’s accusing an American of stealing ships.”

“Who is Bostwick’s biggest competitor?” Nathan asked.

“That would be Cornelius Allan. Why?”

Nathan grinned. “Because he’ll believe me.”

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Thomas, Georgina’s third-oldest brother, was waiting on the docks for them, having just received word that The Maiden George had been sighted. Jack was waving at him from the deck, but she laughed when she saw how many carriages and wagons were pulling up behind him.

“I wonder if my uncle expects more Malorys than we have on board?”

“Isn’t he the most practical of the Andersons?” Judith replied. “Easier to dismiss carriages than to find more if they’re needed. And I can’t wait to set my feet on land again!”

“Don’t pretend you didn’t enjoy the trip—most of it, anyway.”

Judith didn’t reply. She’d asked Jacqueline not to mention Nathan to her again. It was bad enough that everyone else was talking about him this morning, speculating about his escape. She didn’t report it, but one of the crew did when the family was sharing a quick breakfast before James maneuvered the ship to the docks. Of course more than a few eyes had turned to her at the news. She had been able to say honestly that she hadn’t done it and just kept to herself that she would have let him out of the brig if someone else hadn’t had the same idea and beat her to it.

With Silver snug in Judith’s arms, she and Jacqueline were the first down the ramp. Georgina’s three other brothers arrived at the docks before the rest of the family debarked. Georgina introduced Catherine and Andrássy to them, briefly mentioning Andrássy’s connection to the Malorys.

Andrássy was quick to assure the Andersons, “My sister and I will not impose on you. We will be continuing our journey immediately.”

Georgina protested, but surprisingly, so did Catherine. “Actually, I would like to accept their invitation to enjoy some of the festivities. Please agree, Andrássy. It’s been so long since I’ve been to a ball.”

For a moment, Andrássy glared angrily at his stepsister for putting him on the spot like that, but gentleman that he was, he politely said, “Very well. We can stay for a few days.”

A while later, Judith and Jacqueline were seated in a comfortable open carriage, riding with their parents to the Andersons’ redbrick mansion not far from town. Four of the Anderson brothers on horseback, two on each side, escorted them so they could continue speaking with Georgina on the way.

James, glancing to either side at the in-laws he least favored, remarked, “Why does it feel like I’m riding to the gallows, George?”

“Location, m’dear,” Georgina answered with a grin. “Will you ever forgive them for wanting to hang you here?”

“Course not,” James mumbled.

“Thought you’d need reinforcements, James?” Drew said on their left, looking at Anthony.

“My brother wouldn’t let his daughter come alone,” James replied.

“Well, we’re delighted to see her again. You, on the other hand . . .” Drew laughed and rode ahead.

“Can I kill just a few of them while we’re here, George?” James asked his wife. “I’ll be gentle.”

Georgina tsked. “That sort of killing is never gentle. And you promised you’d behave.”

“No, I promised to suffer in silence.”

“Well, no one expects you to do that. But you knew they’d get in a few licks, being on the home front, as it were. Don’t begrudge them that when you and Tony are unrelenting when they visit us in London.”

When they pulled up to the Anderson mansion, Amy ran out to greet them. “Was it a smooth trip? Everyone in good health?”

James raised a brow. “You expected otherwise, puss?”

Amy blushed, confessing, “Well, I did think something might go wrong, but you know what a worrier I am.”

“Something did go wrong,” Anthony put in. “The ladies were all robbed of their jewelry, every last bauble.”

“That’s all?” Amy looked relieved, but quickly amended, “Well, it could have been worse.”

A few of them rolled their eyes at Amy.

James said, “I do need to return to town, and now’s a good time while the ladies get settled. I’d like to hire a few local carpenters to pry open parts of The Maiden George to see if the jewels are hidden somewhere on the ship. Several searches produced no results.”

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Anthony asked, giving James a pointed look. “We also need to inform the local authorities that we caught the thieves, but they escaped from the ship last night. They’ll be easy to find with their British accents and lack of money, as long as the search starts immediately.”

Judith felt her heart sink. Nathan was going to be a fugitive now?

• • •

“These new boots are damned comfortable,” Corky said, not for the first time. “I could get used to togs like this.”

“You do look more presentable than usual,” Nathan said with a grin.

He’d gotten them rooms at the local hotel last night. Hot baths, some decent food, and a few stops this morning for new clothes had them both looking like local businessmen as they waited in Cornelius Allan’s office for the shipbuilder to join them. He was a well-respected citizen, successful businessman, and Henry Bostwick’s main competitor, so Nathan was counting on Mr. Allan’s wanting to believe him when he presented his case against Bostwick.

The middle-aged man looked hopeful when he arrived and said, “My manager just informed me that you claim to have proof that Henry Bostwick is a thief? This better not be a joke, young man, because I haven’t heard such delightful slander in ages.”

“It’s very much the truth,” Nathan assured Mr. Allan. “I confirmed last night that the ship he is refurbishing in his shipyard right now is mine. When his men stole it, a man was killed. But one of his men was also captured. The information gleaned was that Bostwick and his ring of thieves have been stealing ships from English ports for the last decade. It might have started as revenge against the British, but it’s turned too profitable for that to be his only excuse anymore. Understandably, my government wants his operation closed down—and I want my ship back.”

“An interesting story,” Cornelius said. “But you understand why your word alone won’t be good enough? No offense—Treemay, was it?”

“Nathan Tremayne, and none taken.”

“Well, it’s no secret that I detest Henry Bostwick. He’s been a thorn in my side for years. He doesn’t just undercut my prices, he’s ridiculously secretive, enclosing his entire yard the way he did. But he claims to buy the ships he refurbishes, and while I would love to see the records of those purchases, I’ve never found a viable reason to ask him to produce them for inspection.”

Nathan smiled at the older man. “Until now. If he has any records, they are bound to be fake. But he’s gotten away with this for so long, I doubt he even bothers to cover his tracks with records.”

“So why have you come to me with this story?” Allan laughed. “Other than the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

“Because as a respectable member of your community, your support could get this wrapped up quickly, perhaps even today. And I did mention I have the proof you would need to do so. There are two things about my ship that no one knows but me. I carved my initials in the hold when I was a child because my father had just told me his ship would be mine one day and I wanted to put my mark on it. But I didn’t want my father to notice, so I carved them on the backside of one of the beams nearest the hull. Even if Bostwick has had the hold painted, the painter wouldn’t have noticed those initials to sand them down first. I also built a secret compartment on The Pearl that Bostwick hasn’t found.”

“Nor would he, if he merely bought an old ship. But the initials do sound promising.”

“There’s more. I’ve also spoken with some of the local men who’ve worked for Bostwick in the past. A few of them have actually seen some of the ships that were snuck onto his property in the dead of night. They are willing to testify they were British ships, not American ones, and that he passed them off as being newly built when he sold them. That was from just a handful of men. There are probably others in town who will have more to say about his illegal activities. But since the locals also say that Bostwick actually does build a ship every so often, don’t give him a chance to say he bought mine. Simply demand to see the purchase document before he has a chance to say anything. If he doesn’t yet have a falsified document to show you, then he might make the claim that he built my ship. If he does that, you’ll then have him red-handed, because he can’t show you where the ship’s secret compartment is, whereas I can.”

Cornelius Allan grinned with a good deal of relish. “You got me on board when you mentioned local witnesses. But tell me, after all this obvious thought you’ve put into bringing Bostwick to justice—not that I’m complaining, mind you—you appear to be in quite a hurry to see it done. Is there another reason you bear him a grudge?”

Nathan chuckled. “Stealing my ship isn’t enough? No, I’ve just been away from home too long. I’m eager to return with my ship, and with an official document attesting that these thieves have been put out of business.” Of course he couldn’t add, Before the Malorys show up with the law to arrest me, which could be as soon as today.

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Judith and Jacqueline were enjoying an exhilarating ride that morning, ending with a race back to the house. Judith won, but their groom hadn’t been able to keep up, which was why Jacqueline was laughing as they dismounted in front of the house.

“I’m so looking forward to seeing Quintin again tonight,” Jacqueline confided as they handed their reins to the tardy groom.

“First name already?” Judith replied. Jack had met the young man at Amy’s soiree last night.

Jack grinned. “Yes. He’s delightful, charming and funny—and I hope he’ll try to kiss me tonight.”

“On your second meeting?!”

“I’ll wager he does.” Jack grinned widely. “Yanks aren’t as concerned with propriety as Englishmen, and besides, he knows I’m not going to be here for long, so an accelerated courtship is quite in order. You keep that in mind and start enjoying yourself. This is our third day here and I’ve barely seen a smile out of you!”

“I’ve just been distracted.”

“Is that what you want to call it? You need to forget about that bounder who’s going to be in jail soon and get into the spirit of the festivities. Honestly, Judy, you should be excited about meeting Raymond Denison at the ball tonight instead of worrying about a man you’ll probably never see again. Amy confided in me that she’s sure you’ll adore Denison.”

“If she bet on it, I might have to ring her neck.”

Jack rolled her eyes. “She wouldn’t do that.”

Catherine suddenly called out to them, and they turned to see her walking toward them on the road from town. “If you wanted some fresh air, you could have joined us for our ride,” Jack said as Catherine reached them.

“Thank you, but I’m not very good with horses. And I needed to visit the shops in town for some trimmings to spruce up my dress for tonight. I didn’t actually pack a ball gown for this trip, but it doesn’t take much to turn a dress into one.”