stormy persuasion Page 35

Then he suddenly said, “I woke up this morning with a crick in my neck that isn’t going away. Come over here and see if you can work it out.”

Her eyes flared wide. She straightened and turned slowly to find him sitting at his desk now. She asked carefully, “What about your promise to my uncle?”

“I’m not breaking it. Your uncle said I can’t touch you, but he didn’t prohibit you from touching me.”

Her stomach fluttered at the thought, but she was worried about getting that close to him, worried that she couldn’t do what he’d asked without touching him the way she wanted to touch him. Her breathing quickened before she even reached him. When she stood behind him, staring down at his wide shoulders, she felt a rush a warmth and desire for him. She had to pretend it wasn’t him she was touching. She closed her eyes and tried that, taking care to keep her fingers on his shirt.

“I can barely feel you.” He rose from the chair, turned toward her, and starting unbuttoning his shirt.

Judith groaned to herself yet couldn’t take her eyes off him, and when he removed his shirt and hung it over the back of the chair, her gaze roamed from his muscular chest down to his belt buckle.

“Now, try it again.” When she looked up, she saw a half grin on his face. He was enjoying this!

Judith took a deep breath, deciding to make him as uncomfortable as she was in this intimate situation he’d concocted. She put her fingers on the soft skin of his neck and rhythmically moved them up and down, and then lower to the tops of his shoulders. His hair brushing against the backs of her hands was so sensual she almost gasped at the sensation! While she might have started out stroking him, soon she was kneading his shoulders, deeply massaging them, then lightening her touch to a caress. She heard him groan and then sigh. Soon she was lost in her ministrations, which were clearly giving him pleasure, lost in thoughts of what could happen next. . . . She leaned forward and asked, “Can you feel me now?”

“This wasn’t—” Nathan shot out of the chair. “Leave. Now!”

Judith ran out of there, straight to her own cabin, and stayed there until the flush left her cheeks and her hands stopped trembling. Contradictory man! She hoped his sore neck got worse—no, she didn’t. Or did he even have a sore neck? He’d sounded a little smug when he’d told her she could touch him. Had it just been a ploy that had backfired on him? That thought had her feeling a little smug now. But she didn’t return to his cabin before dinner—with her family.

That could have turned out much worse than it did, but the Andersons were actually neutral where Nathan was concerned, even though Judith was their brother Boyd’s sister-in-law and Georgina’s niece. Judith had seen to that by assuring them she didn’t mind helping with the “cause.”

But Nathan’s cabin wasn’t exactly designed for guests. His table only sat four and was so filled with the food that arrived that no one tried to eat at the table. And the discussion had already begun.

Thomas and his brother Drew were leaning against one wall as they ate. Warren, James, and Judith used three of the chairs, while Nathan remained behind his desk.

“You can’t just turn yourself over to them,” Thomas was saying to James. “When we get there, we must find out where they’re holding Jacqueline before they know we’re there.”

“Dock elsewhere?” Drew suggested.

“That won’t be necessary,” Warren put in. “Catherine is the only one who will recognize any of us, but she won’t know this ship.”

“Enter the town disguised then?” Thomas said.

Warren nodded. “Long enough to find one of them that we can question.”

“When Jack might not even be there?” James said.

“What are you thinking?” Warren asked.

“They are directing me there just for further instructions. That doesn’t mean that’s where they are going.”

“And what’s the point of that?” Thomas asked.

“To get me on a different ship—alone.”

“Don’t do it, James,” Thomas warned. “You can’t just give them the only leverage we have. You.”

“I still think if you can figure out who Catherine’s father is, then we can ascertain how to foil him,” Drew insisted. “Think, man. Who wants revenge against you so badly they’d go to this much trouble to get it?”

“We already ruled him out, and it’s pointless speculating. I stepped on too many toes in my day, yours included. I can’t honestly count the number of enemies I have on this side of the world.”

“Yet most of them think Hawke is dead,” Warren reminded James. “That alone narrows it down.”

“Who’s Hawke?” Nathan asked.

Silence greeted that question, but a few Andersons glanced at James to see if he would answer—or lay into Warren for mentioning that name. But James stared at Nathan for a long moment before he said, “It was a name I used to go by when I sailed these waters years ago.”

“When you were a pirate?” Nathan persisted.

Worse silence. Tense silence. Judith groaned to herself, almost blurting out that she didn’t tell Nathan that. But James actually laughed. “Like you were a smuggler?”

Nathan snorted. “Touché.”

“But I am the black sheep of my family,” James continued. “And for a time I felt compelled to protect them from my antics by using a false name. Couldn’t give them more reasons to disown me, you understand, when they already had so many.”

Nathan tipped his head to that vague reply. “Then might I point out that you’re overlooking the obvious? If you’re going to sneak around St. Kitts, grab Catherine while you’re at it. Then you have a more palatable exchange.”

There was full agreement with that idea. But James also pointed out, “That’s if her ship is even there. They might merely have someone planted there to direct me elsewhere. But we have contingencies now, so we are at least prepared for numerous outcomes.”

Chapter Forty-Five

Catherine was stewing. it wasn’t the first time she’d felt frustrated on his ship. She wanted him. It would have been nice to add the bonus of a passionate interlude to the real reason she’d convinced her father to send her along on this venture. With such a lengthy voyage to England and back, she’d been so sure she could seduce the captain. But she’d found out too late that he despised her father, and because of it, he could barely tolerate her presence on his ship. She should have known that, but her father never told her anything!

“I thought these men were yours, but they don’t seem to like you,” Andrew said as he joined her on the deck.

“Shut up. You shouldn’t even be here.”

“Then why am I?”

“Do you really need to ask, after you took that silly moral high ground? I couldn’t trust you not to spill your guts to the Malorys before we sailed.”

He quickly changed the subject from that reminder. “Where are we going?”

“After St. Kitts? To another island, one so small it doesn’t even have a name. You won’t like it though.”

“Why not?”

“Pirates,” Catherine said smugly.

“So that’s who these men are?”

She snorted. “Do they look like pirates to you?”

“Actually . . . ,” he said warily, glancing around the deck.

She chuckled. “That’s just the flamboyance of the Caribbean, nothing more. These aren’t my father’s men.”

“So you hired them?”

“No, but the captain does my father’s bidding. He was tasked with getting Jacqueline. Amassing a fortune in jewels for Father was the only reason he let me go along on this venture. He thinks I’m as incompetent as his other bastards. This was a test for me, one he was sure I’d fail. But I haven’t failed. I even helped with the captain’s mission, so now Father will know I can be an asset to him. He won’t send me away ever again.”

“You barely know the man. Didn’t it take you most of your life to find him? Why do you even want to impress him?”

“He’s my father! The only real family I have left.”

“But since you were not tasked with kidnapping Jacqueline, you could let her go.”

“Don’t be absurd. She—”

“Has the captain’s full attention. You think I haven’t noticed how you look at him—like you used to look at me.”

Her eyes narrowed on him. “They were going to keep you locked up. Don’t make me regret letting you out.”

“I’m only pointing out the obvious. You want him, but you’re not going to get him with a beauty like Jacqueline aboard—kept locked in his cabin. He hasn’t let her out once. Do you even know if she’s all right?”

“Of course she’s all right. She’s his precious cargo,” Catherine said scathingly, turning to glare at the locked door Andrew had mentioned.

“I still don’t understand why you snuck their man aboard The Maiden George when they were following us to Bridgeport anyway. What was the point of that?”

“You ask too many questions,” she mumbled.

“You don’t even know why, do you?” he guessed.

“It was the captain’s doing. I’d already devised a way—you—to get me on that ship that was about to sail with a fortune in jewelry on it. They tried to get to Jacqueline before the Malorys sailed, without success. The captain didn’t want to waste time following the Malorys to America if he could get Jacqueline off that ship a few days out of England.”

“He even had his man drug her, didn’t he? She kept saying how tired she felt the first few days at sea. That smacks of desperation when stealing her off that ship could only have saved a week or two of time.”

She shrugged. “He thought the timing was important. He didn’t say why, so don’t ask me! He’s so closemouthed I don’t even know his damned name.”

Andrew was incredulous. “But he works for your father.”

“My father doesn’t tell anyone anything they don’t need to know, about his men or anything else.”

The captain suddenly left his cabin, slamming the door, looking furious.

“What’s wrong?” Catherine asked.

“She won’t eat. Not once has she touched her food, and we’re four days out. Her belly cries, but she refuses!”

The food was horrible compared to what they’d had aboard The Maiden George, dry, flavorless, half the time burnt, but that wouldn’t be causing Jacqueline’s rebellion. As handsome as this man was, she was amazed he hadn’t cajoled the girl into being reasonable. So captor and prisoner weren’t getting along at all? That eased her jealousy a little, but not enough.

“Let me talk to her,” Catherine suggested. “I’ll get her to cooperate if I can see her—alone.”

“When you led her out to me in that garden? She thinks you’re one of us.”

“Did you tell her that?”

“I’ve told her nothing.”

“Then I can convince her to at least eat.”

He started to deny the request, but then nodded stiffly and extended his arm with a flourish toward the door. She expected Jacqueline to still be wearing her ball gown, but when she entered the cabin, she found the girl wearing one of his long shirts and nothing else! She stared at bare legs from the knees down and saw red. Had they made love?

Jacqueline was standing at the windows that faced behind the ship, not a full bank of them, just two, but with clear, clean glass. Hoping to see her father’s ship appear, no doubt. Back stiff, arms crossed, she turned at the sound of the door’s opening with eyes blazing. And the anger didn’t dissipate at the sight of Catherine.

“What do you want?” Jack demanded.

“My lover isn’t happy with you, Jacqueline.”

“Your what?”

“He didn’t mention our relationship?”

“Are you mad? How can you consort with that bastard? They’re going to kill my father!”

Catherine tsked. “Whatever happens, you won’t be able to help, will you? Not if you’re so weak you can barely stand up because of this childish refusal to eat.”

Jacqueline marched over to the captain’s desk, where a plate of food had been left, untouched. Catherine smiled, anticipating the captain’s gratitude for her success in making Jacqueline behave reasonably. But the girl didn’t lift the plate to eat from it. Catherine ran out of the cabin, but not before the plate came flying after her to break on the deck and make quite a mess.

She smiled to herself, despite the scowl the captain was now giving her. She could not care less if Jacqueline ate before she was delivered. She didn’t need to be in good health when the exchange was made.

Andrew noticed Catherine’s smirk as she sauntered away. He took a chance and approached the captain himself. “That was a mistake, you know. Jack has never liked Catherine. She wouldn’t listen to anything she had to say, but she’ll listen to me. I guarantee if you let me speak to her, she’ll start eating her meals.”

“You have until more food arrives and not a moment more.”

Andrew nodded. Catherine hadn’t bothered to close the door. He peeked around it to make sure Jack wasn’t ready to throw something else before he rushed inside. But she wasn’t happy to see him, either.

“You, too, Andrássy?” Jack snarled.