stormy persuasion Page 31

It didn’t? Judith thought. Well, maybe not for someone as skilled with a needle as Catherine was. Catherine and Andrássy were still at odds, too. He might have relented on staying a few more days before they continued their journey, but he obviously wasn’t pleased about it. They’d even been seen arguing in whispers.

The girls followed Catherine inside. Servants were rushing around, getting the house ready for the ball, with Amy in the hall calling out orders. She looked frazzled, but she wanted everything to be perfect for her first ball.

Catherine excused herself to go upstairs. Amy joined the girls and with a nod toward Catherine said, “I have a funny feeling about that woman.”

Jack laughed. “Many people do. Judy is the only one who really likes her.”

“That’s not true,” Judith said in Catherine’s defense. “Your mother does, too.”

Jack snorted. “My mother is too gracious to show what she really thinks.”

“I saw her talking with a young man in town yesterday,” Amy mentioned. “A bit too familiarly for a first meeting. Does she have friends in Bridgeport?”

“That isn’t likely,” Judith replied. “She hasn’t been in America since she was a child.”

Jack snickered, guessing, “Maybe she found herself a beau our first day here while the rest of us were settling in. You know she could be more worldly and experienced with men than we thought.”

• • •

Upstairs, Andrássy slipped quietly into Catherine’s room. He didn’t expect to find her packing. “Going somewhere, Sister, without telling me? I thought you weren’t ready to leave Bridgeport yet.”

She swung around in surprise. “We’re both leaving tomorrow as agreed. There’s no reason to wait until the last minute to pack.”

His eyes narrowed in anger. “You’re lying. You’re planning to sneak off without me.”

He grabbed her and tried to kiss her, but she shoved him back. “Stop it! I warned you there’d be no more of that when you began the role I hired you for. And you’ve played that role superbly, but it ends tomorrow when we go our separate ways. Nothing has changed from the original plan, Andy.”

“You already changed that plan by sticking around when we were supposed to leave as soon as we docked. So you could sneak off without giving me my cut?”

She tsked and tossed him a small bag. “Satisfied now?”

He opened the bag, saw the jewelry on top, and stuck it in his pocket. But it still made no sense that she was risking everything by delaying their departure.

Then his eyes widened. “You’re not going to carry out your friend’s lunatic plan, are you? It failed once and you can’t risk it again, not here with so much family around. Your father will be happy enough with the fortune in jewels you stole for him. You assured me he would be.”

“I know my father. He won’t be happy unless he gets everything!”

“I won’t let you do it!”

“If you say or do anything to stop me, I’ll tell the Malorys who you really are and that it was your idea to steal the jewels, that you forced me to help you!”

“They’ll never believe you. They love me, consider me one of their own. I’ve played my role well.”

“Oh, they’ll believe me all right. I got the jewels off the ship by sewing them into the hems of my dresses, but I also sewed a few into your clothes, and I won’t tell you which items in your extensive wardrobe are currently serving as jewel cases. But I will tell the Malorys if you insist on ruining this evening for me.” Then Catherine added more sweetly, “I’ve so been looking forward to my first American ball.”

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Nettie finished preparing Judith for the ball, then hurried off to help Jacqueline with her hair, too. Judith remained sitting at the vanity in her room, staring in the mirror at the necklace around her neck. Nettie had helped her put it on, but had left the matching bracelet and rings for Judith to don herself. She had borrowed the jewelry from Amy, but it didn’t matter who owned it. She had a feeling that anytime she ever put on jewelry again, she would be reminded of Nathan.

She gasped when she suddenly saw his reflection in her mirror standing right behind her as if the thought had conjured him. She touched the glass, but it wasn’t her imagination. He was there. She knocked over her velvet-padded stool, she stood up so fast, in time to see him angrily toss a handful of gold coins behind him on her bed.

She had no idea if he’d used the door or one of the open windows to get in here, but if he was discovered . . . “You shouldn’t be here.”

“I couldn’t leave the country without setting the record straight. I didn’t steal your jewelry. I don’t need anything from you Malorys.”

He’d risked getting caught to tell her that? She could have pointed out that his having money could merely mean he’d already sold some of the jewelry. It proved nothing, and yet she didn’t need proof. She’d known, deep down, that he couldn’t be guilty, at least not of stealing from her.

Still incredulous that he was even there and looking so angry, she asked hesitantly, “Have you been hiding in Bridgeport all this time?”

“No, I’ve been busy getting my ship back.”

“So you really own one?”

She shouldn’t have said that! He sounded even angrier when he replied, “The Pearl is real and I’ve almost finished putting a crew together for her. She’s anchored just a few miles east of here.”

“And after you have a full crew?”

“I’ll be heading home to Hampshire.”

“So you really own that house?”

“Did you only pretend to believe me?”

She winced at his tone, as sharp as it was. Everything she said seemed to make him angrier, but she couldn’t help it, she was so nervous—for him. Her father was just down the hall, could stop by at any moment to collect her to go downstairs. She should warn Nathan to leave, but she didn’t want him to leave! How could she have a single clear thought with him standing so close to her?

She searched desperately for a subject that wouldn’t strike a nerve with him. “Are you looking forward to seeing your nieces again?”

His expression softened slightly. “Of course.”

She tried to further lighten his mood. “Did you remember to get them some ribbons?”

It didn’t work. He was suddenly glowering at her, what was on his mind finding voice. “How could you believe I stole from you?”

“I was shocked by the robberies, and you never did directly deny that you’re a smuggler. You were always so cryptic or evasive whenever I asked. So I didn’t know what to think, but when I calmed down, I realized you couldn’t have done something that awful. But you must admit how bad it looked. It had even occurred to me briefly, as it did to members of my family, that you’d been paying attention to me because you wanted to keep me quiet about my suspicions that you were a smuggler, and so you could gain access to my cabin and help yourself to my jewels.”

“Underestimating your own attractiveness, aren’t you? Let me give you a little advice as you begin your come-out season, darlin’. You are one woman who doesn’t need to worry about ulterior motives in the men you meet. You’re as fickle and pretentious as all those other aristocratic women, but never doubt that you’re beautiful.”

His tone was so scathing she was completely surprised when he grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her up against him. His mouth claimed hers in a deep, angry kiss that conveyed even more depth of feeling than his words had expressed. But Judith didn’t care why Nathan was kissing her so passionately, only that he was. Her heart soared as everything she felt for him was drawn to the surface. But he gave her no chance to reciprocate, no time to even put her arms around him! He simply let go of her and walked away.

“Happy husband-hunting, darlin’,” he tossed over his shoulder before he climbed onto the ledge of one of the windows and actually leapt toward a nearby tree.

Judith ran to the window to make sure he didn’t get injured in that jump. She saw him just before he dropped the last few feet from the tree to the ground and disappeared into the darkness.

Judith moved back into her room and picked up the vanity stool she’d knocked over. She caught her reflection in the mirror and laughed at the silly grin she was wearing. He’d come to find her before he left the country, even climbed a tree for her! He was angry, yes, still hated her family, true, but she didn’t care. At least she still had a chance with him, and if he didn’t find her in England, she’d find him. Finally she had something to look forward to.

Chapter Forty

The receiving line at the ball was long with so many Andersons and Malorys present. Clinton stood at the head of the line with Georgina and Jacqueline next to him so he could introduce his niece to old friends of the family’s. The Willards, who were renowned for hosting their own balls each winter, came through first.

Reverend Teal was next and paused to say to James, “I’m delighted to see you and Georgina are still married.” When James had shown up bruised and battered at the private marriage ceremony that Teal had been asked to perform all those years ago, the reverend had been quite sure that James had been forced to participate, so his remark tonight was genuine.

“We tried to undo that, Reverend,” Warren said on James’s right. “Really we did. Unfortunately, James couldn’t be coerced twice.”

James raised a golden brow at Warren. This Anderson used to have the worse temper of the lot, had tried to hang James. But Warren’s temperament had changed completely when he married Amy, so much so that James couldn’t get a rise out of him no matter how often he’d tried over the years.

“Feeling brave on the home front, are you?” James said drily to his brother-in-law. “If I’d known that’s all it took, I would have visited more often.”

Warren grinned. “Like hell you would have. It’s too bad you didn’t figure out a way to avoid this. We hoped—er, thought you would!”

“The thought of taking on you and your brothers again at the scene of your brief triumph was too much to resist, dear boy, I assure you. Of course, George will insist it be one-on-one this time—not five on one.”

“She won’t allow it and you know it,” Warren rejoined confidently.

“We can wait until she goes to bed.”

But Georgina overheard that and leaned forward to tell her second-oldest brother, “Don’t bait him, Warren. James has promised me that he’ll be on his best behavior tonight.”

“More’s the pity,” James said, waiting only until Georgina turned away to jab Warren with his elbow, hard. “But do take this up again tomorrow, Yank.”

Once the last guest arrived, James and Anthony took to the floor with their daughters to start the ball off. Their dark formalwear was the perfect foil to the girls’ sparkling gowns, Jack in pink silk, Judy in pale blue. Drew and Warren joined Georgina on the side of the floor.

“He actually knows how to dance?”

“Shut up, Drew,” Georgina said without glancing at him, wiping away a tear as she watched her husband and daughter twirling by.

“But you must admit, this is just so not like him,” Warren said on her other side.

“Tonight it is. He’ll do anything for Jack, including adhering to traditions he would otherwise thumb his nose at—including bringing us here.”

“That was writ in blood long ago,” Drew reminded her.

Georgina rolled her eyes. “Remember who you’re talking about, as if something James said on the day of Jack’s birth, when he was so overwhelmed with emotion, would make a jot of difference now—particularly considering who he said it to.”

Drew laughed. “James overwhelmed?”

She tried to swat his shoulder, but Drew was adept at staying out of his sister’s reach when he saw it coming. “It was Jack who wanted to come,” she told them. “She didn’t want to disappoint you, so we came.”

Warren put an arm around her waist and squeezed. “We know how much he loves her, Georgie.”

On the dance floor, Jacqueline was having nearly the same thought as her uncles. “I didn’t expect this, you know.”

James smiled. “Didn’t you?”

“As if I don’t know how much you hate dancing? You could have claimed a sprained foot. I would have backed you up and helped you hobble around.”

“Hobble? Me?” He rolled his eyes before he stressed, “And I don’t sprain feet. But I am exactly where I want to be, m’dear. Besides, now these young bucks know who they have to get past to get to you.”

She beamed a smile at him, whether he was serious or not. Dancing past them, Judith was smiling at her father, too, which made Anthony comment, “Your mood seems remarkably improved, poppet. I hope it’s not because one of these Yanks has caught your eye already.”

She laughed at his less than subtle attempt at slyness. “D’you really think I’d mention it if they did?”

“I promise I won’t kill him.”

He said it with a grin, which she returned. “I know you won’t. But, no, no one here has caught my interest yet.”

“Not even young Denison? Amy was so sure you’d like him.”

Raymond Denison was supposed to be there tonight, but she couldn’t recall having met him yet. “He wasn’t able to come to the soiree last night. Perhaps he couldn’t make it to the ball, either.”