stormy persuasion Page 36
He gave her a weak smile. “It’s actually Andrew, but there’s no time to explain. You know I’m not part of this,” he whispered urgently. “But I might be able to help you escape.”
“I’ve thought of nothing other than escape—when I’m not thinking of ways to kill him. But how? He keeps me tied at night, the door locked in the day.”
He nodded toward the two windows. “Use a blanket to break those, as quietly as you can. I will knock three times on the door to let you know when we are nearing the harbor at St. Kitts. That’s when you must do it and quickly, while the captain is distracted by docking the ship and the noise in the harbor. But you must eat in the meantime, or you won’t have the strength to do this.”
“Catherine said nearly the same thing, just without mentioning escape, so how can I trust you?”
“I’m only going to give you the signal, Jack. The rest is up to you. But once you escape, I would advise you to hide and stay hidden until these people give up and go away.”
“And if they don’t leave?”
“Do you really think they will stay and face your father without you in hand?”
She grinned for the first time. “No, that wouldn’t be very smart of them.”
Two days later, they reached St. Kitts late in the morning. Andrew had given his signal to Jacqueline, but since he was not allowed to debark and the captain’s cabin was locked, he had no way of knowing yet if she had successfully escaped. The captain went ashore to arrange for a go-between. The exchange wouldn’t happen here. They just wanted to make sure that James Malory wasn’t going to arrive with a flotilla of ships before he was directed to the next and final location. But by the time the captain returned and gave the order to sail again, Jacqueline had been gone for several hours. They might even have sailed without knowing that if the captain hadn’t gone straight to his cabin when he got back.
Of course he was in a panic when he saw that Jacqueline had escaped. He began to send his men to search the docks nearby. Catherine approached him quickly. “Call them back,” she warned. “There’s no time to waste here now that your hostage is gone and her father could arrive at any moment.”
“He won’t. I sank every ship in their harbor.”
“You underestimate him if you don’t think Malory would have found another ship within hours. We need to report to my father right away. The fortune I am bringing him will lessen the blow of your failure—or I could lie for you.”
She coyly put a hand on his arm. “I can tell him she jumped ship and drowned. That there was nothing you could do. You will of course assure him that you will leave immediately to obtain another Malory to use as a hostage instead. His wife, perhaps, while she’s still in America. Or you can return here to try and catch Malory yourself while he’s looking for his daughter, though I do assure you that isn’t likely to go well—for you. But in either case, I insist you return me to my father now. You can’t risk losing the fortune I went to great risk to get for him, by allowing me to be discovered here.”
Andrew was close enough to have heard most of that and note how annoyed Catherine was when the captain didn’t answer her either way. But they did pull up anchor and depart in haste. Andrew looked longingly at the shore as they left, wondering if he should dare to jump overboard. But Catherine would probably send the ship back for him. He knew too much now. And Jack couldn’t come out of hiding until they’d gone. So he didn’t jump and just hoped he wasn’t making an even bigger mistake than he’d made when he’d succumbed to Catherine’s wiles.
Their final destination was only a few hours away. The tiny island was overgrown with plants and tall palms. It didn’t look inhabited, yet two other ships were anchored there in the aqua waters. The only building that could be seen from the ship was the top of an ancient, crumbling fort. There was no dock. They rowed ashore and started climbing a steep, sandy hill. At the top, a small village of huts was spread out in a clearing in the jungle. Inside the fort, near the huts, was a new building, a big one, which is where they headed.
Catherine was obviously happy and excited to be home, particularly since she’d succeeded in her own task, and she ran ahead of them to crow to her father about it. The captain, having failed in his task, looked distinctly worried, which infected Andrew to the point that his feet stopped moving.
He called after the captain, “I’ll just wait on your ship, if it’s all the same to you.”
The man turned. “You aren’t my guest, you’re hers, and she would have left you in St. Kitts if she was done with you. Come along.”
“But—is her father actually dangerous?”
The captain took Andrew’s arm to get him moving again. “Yes. But if you still have her protection, then you have nothing to worry about. Just try not to draw his attention to yourself, and if you can’t, address him respectfully as Captain Lacross.”
They entered a big, open room that contained large, long tables and resembled a medieval great hall. The balcony in the back had rooms off it upstairs and below. But this main room was where men were gathered. Catherine was hugging an older man who had stood up at one of the long tables.
But then she turned and pointed an accusing finger at Andrew. “Daddy, he helped Malory’s daughter escape!” Then she pointed at the handsome captain. “And your captain took no steps to prevent it!”
Drew knew St. Kitts well; his father-in-law lived here. But most of Drew’s brothers knew it, too, since the well-populated island had long been on Skylark’s trade route. The plan was for all the Andersons to debark immediately to begin scouring the town and asking questions. It wasn’t necessary. Jack was standing on the dock waiting on them, wearing her soaking-wet ball gown and barefoot.
James didn’t wait for the ship to be tied off nor the ramp to be dropped, he simply jumped to the dock and gathered Jack into his arms. And ushered her onto the ship the moment the ramp was dropped. They still didn’t know what they had to deal with. He wanted her out of harm’s way before they did.
Jack was passed around; everyone needed a hug, and now they were all damp from her gown.
Judith got hers last and didn’t want to let Jack go, whispering, “I was so frightened for you, Jack!”
“I was fine,” Jack replied with a short laugh. “Enraged, but fine.”
“Were you simply let go, or did you escape?” James wanted to know.
“I broke a window and jumped into the water just as they were docking.”
“But you’re still dripping. Did this only just happen? Are they still here looking for you?” The gleam of battle had entered James’s green eyes. He was only waiting on her answer before he charged off to find her abductors.
“That was a few hours ago. I swam behind the other ships moored here. I had hoped one would be a Skylark vessel, but it appeared not. And I was hesitant to cross the dock looking like this, which could have gained too much notice, and someone might have led them in whatever direction I took. So I just stayed in the water, hiding behind the last ship down at the end of the pier. I was still floating there when I saw them just sail off without me about an hour ago.”
“Uncle James, please,” Judith interceded. “If they are gone, can I at least get Jack into some dry clothes before we hear what happened?”
James nodded. “Of course. Bring her to Tremayne’s cabin when you are done.”
“Tremayne?” Jack asked as Judith led her below to her cabin.
“This is his ship and not really designed for passengers, but he showed up in the nick of time and agreed to assist in your rescue. They’d disabled The Maiden George.”
“Yes, I know, I heard all about it,” Jack said with disgust. Judith tossed a pair of breeches and a shirt on the cot for her. “Oh, thank God, I was afraid you were going to hand me one of your dainty dresses.”
Judith laughed as Jack stripped out of the wet gown and petticoats. It seemed like forever since Judith had been able to laugh. “How on earth did you swim in that? Your legs didn’t get tangled?”
“I tied the skirt up first, sort of like swaddling, and just dropped it before I climbed out of the water. It left me tired though . . . well, my limbs are. You can’t imagine how exhausting it is to try to stay afloat in one place for over an hour.”
Such mundane subjects when Judith had so many questions she was nearly bursting with them. But she didn’t want Jack to have to repeat herself, so she held her tongue.
But Jack wanted to know, “So you’ve forgiven him?”
“It doesn’t matter, when he hasn’t forgiven me.”
Jack winced for her. “Well, don’t fret it. He’ll come to his senses if you want him to.”
“Oh?” Judith managed a grin. “Wishful thinking will do it, will it?”
“Not a’tall! But a nudge or two will, so we’ll figure something out—after we get home. I do want to go home, Judy. I don’t like this part of the world anymore.”
Judith nodded as she hurried Jack to Nathan’s cabin. Kidnapping, sunk ships—heartache. Judith would just as soon go home, too.
The only one sitting was Nathan, behind his desk. He glanced at Judith as she arrived, even stared at her for a long moment before he gave Jack a slight smile in greeting. But then he just stared pensively at a long-tipped pen he was winding through his fingers, as if he had no interest in this reunion.
He’d told Judith before they’d arrived that he was releasing her from her duties because he knew she’d want to spend every moment with Jack as soon as they got her back. Magnanimous of him, but she didn’t want to be released! She’d hoped they’d have enough time together for her to breach his defenses. She’d been so encouraged every time he laughed or smiled at her. But then that stiffness would sneak back into his demeanor, the obvious anger just under the surface, and she was afraid whatever they’d had between them was truly gone. She couldn’t even blame him when she’d accused him of stealing as quickly as her family had. How did you forgive someone for thinking the worst of you?
“Did they hurt you?” James asked carefully as he approached Jack.
“No, just my pride. I was captured too easily.”
James smiled as he hugged her to him fiercely. “Do you know what he has against me? Why he did this?”
“The captain who took me? He doesn’t even know you, he works for someone else. Never even gave me his name, so I gave him one. Bastard. You can refer to him like that. I certainly did.”
Quite a few smiled over Jack’s disparagement. James wasn’t one of them. “Why were you kept in the captain’s cabin?”
Jack blushed. “How did you—?”
“It’s the only cabin on a ship that would have a window big enough for you to escape from.”
“He pretended I had a choice, there or his brig. When I chose the brig, he just laughed. He didn’t want his prize to suffer deprivation. But nothing untoward happened—other than me trying to kill him. And then Andrássy—well, it’s actually Andrew—he helped me escape. It was his idea to go out the window and he gave me a signal when the time was right for it.”
“So it appears he told the truth then,” James said.
“He left us a letter of confession. He admitted he’s no relation to us, that Catherine hired him to pretend to be one just to get them on The Maiden George so they could steal the jewelry.”
“They did it?” Jack asked in surprise.
A few embarrassed eyes went to Nathan. His expression was no longer pensive or detached. His eyes moved over the room and ended on Judith. His anger was definitely back.
But James and Jack weren’t watching this byplay, and Jack said to her father, “I knew this wouldn’t surprise you, that they were impostors. You didn’t trust them from the start.”
“No, but the theft wasn’t enough for Catherine. Andrew suspected she was going to abduct you, too. Instead of warning us before it happened, he foolishly thought he could stop it.”
“He did try, actually, but he got knocked out. I didn’t even know they’d taken him, too, until he was allowed to see me one time on the ship, which was when he assured me he’d help me escape. I really wish Catherine would get blamed for that, but she probably won’t be. She and Bastard are quite chummy. Very chummy, if you get my drift.”
Judith gave Jack an odd look. That had been said quite scathingly. But then Jack hugged her father again and added, “I just want to go home.”
Nathan stood up. “I’ll begin departure.”
But James stopped him. “I need to go ashore first, Captain Tremayne. I won’t be long.”
Drew followed James out of the cabin. “You think some of them might still be here?”
“If they are, they’d be the proverbial needle and would take too long to ferret out in a town this size. However, first instinct is usually the accurate one, so come along and take me to your Skylark office here. I want to arrange for someone you trust to find out if our mutual nemesis is still in prison and send me word. I would like him crossed off the list, or not, before I return to settle this.”
“I hope you will include me in your numbers when you do.”
“Itching for a fight, Yank?”
“I don’t like how this played out. None of us do. Lacross or not, they stepped over the line when they took our Jack.”