"Ship," he roared. "It's a ship, not a boat."
She decided to try to placate him. "I meant to say ship."
"Do you have any more of these things?"
"They're called parasols," she replied. "And yes, I do have three more."
"Give them to me. Now."
"What are you going to do with them?"
She rushed over to her trunk when he took a threatening step toward her. "I can't imagine why you would need my parasols," she whispered.
"I'm throwing them in the ocean. With any luck they'll cripple a couple of sharks."
"You cannot throw my parasols in the ocean. They match my gowns, Nathan. They were made just for… it would be a sin to waste… you can't." She ended her tirade in a near wail.
"The hell I can't."
He wasn't shouting at her any longer. She should have been happy over that minor blessing, but she wasn't. He was still being too mean-hearted to suit her. "Explain why you want to destroy my parasols," she demanded. "Then I might give them to you."
She located the third parasol in the bottom of the trunk, but when she straightened and turned to confront him again she clutched all three against her bosom.
"The parasols are a menace, that's why."
She looked incredulous. "How could they be a menace?"
She was looking at him as though she thought he'd lost his mind. He shook his head. "The first parasol crippled my men, Sara," he began.
"It only crippled Ivan," she corrected.
"Which is why you made the damn soup that crippled the rest of my crew," he countered.
He had a valid point there, she had to admit, but she thought it was terribly unkind of him to bring up the topic of her soup again.
"The second parasol crippled my ship," he continued. "Haven't you noticed we aren't gliding across the waters now? We had to drop anchor in order to see to the repairs. We're easy prey for anyone sailing past. That's why your other damned parasols are all going into the ocean."
"Nathan, I didn't mean to cause these mishaps. You're acting as though I did everything on purpose."
She reacted as though he'd just slapped her backside. "No," she cried out. "God, you're insulting."
He wanted to shake some sense into her. She started crying.
"Quit that weeping," he demanded.
Not only did she continue to cry, but she threw herself into his arms. Hell, he'd been the one to make her weep in the first place, he thought, and she certainly should have been upset with him just a little, shouldn't she?
Nathan didn't know what to make of her. Her parasols littered the floor around his feet, and she was clinging to him as she sobbed wet tears all over his shirt. He put his arms around her and held her close even as he tried to understand why in God's name he wanted to comfort her.
The woman had damn near destroyed his ship.
He kissed her.
She tucked her face in the side of his neck and quit crying. "Do the men know I broke the ship?"
"You didn't break it," he muttered. God, she sounded pitiful.
"But do the men think I—"
"Sara, we can fix the damage in a couple of days," he said. It was a lie, for it would take them close to a week to see to the repairs, but he'd softened the truth just a little to ease her worry.
He decided then that he had lost his mind. His wife had caused nothing but chaos since the moment she'd boarded his ship. He kissed the top of her head and began to rub her backside.
She leaned against him. "Nathan?"
"Does my staff know I caused this mishap?"
He rolled his eyes heavenward. Her staff, indeed. "Yes, they know."
"Did you tell them?"
He closed his eyes. There had been such censure in her voice. She thought he was being disloyal to her, he surmised. "No, I didn't tell them. They saw the parasol, Sara."
"I wanted them to respect me."
"Oh, they respect you all right," he announced. His voice had lost its angry bite.
She heard the smile in his voice and felt a quick rush of hope until he added, "They're waiting for you to bring on the plague next."
She thought he was teasing her. "They don't believe that nonsense," she replied.
"Oh, yes, they do," he told her. "They're making wagers, Sara. Some think it will be boils first, then the plague. Others believe—"
She pushed away from him. "You're serious, aren't you?"
He nodded. "They think you're cursed, wife."
"How can you smile at me when you say such sinful things?"
He shrugged. "The men are superstitious, Sara."
"Is it because I'm a woman?" she asked. "I've heard that seamen think it's bad luck to have a woman on board, but I didn't credit such foolishness."
"No, it isn't because you're a woman," he answered. "They're used to having a woman on board. My sister Jade used to be mistress of this ship."
"You aren't like Jade," he told her. "They were quick to notice."
She couldn't get him to elaborate. A sudden thought changed her direction. "Nathan, I'll help with the repairs," she said. "Yes, that's it. The men will realize I didn't deliberately—"
"God save us all," he interrupted.
"Then how am I going to win their confidence again?"
"I don't understand this obsession with winning the men over," he returned. "It makes absolutely no sense."
"I'm their mistress. I must have their respect if I'm going to direct them."
He let out a loud sigh, then shook his head. "Direct yourself to bed, wife, and stay there until I come back."
"Don't question me. Just stay inside this cabin."
She nodded agreement. "I won't leave this cabin save for going to visit with Nora, all right?"
"I didn't say—"
"Please? It's going to be a long afternoon, Nathan. You might be too busy to come home for hours yet. You didn't come to bed at all last night. I tried to wait up for you, but I was very weary."
He smiled because she'd called their cabin home. Then he nodded. "You'll wait up for me tonight," he ordered. "No matter what the time."
"Are you going to want to shout at me again?"
"All right, then," she promised. "I'll wait up for you."
"Damn it, Sara," he countered. "I wasn't asking. I was telling."
He grabbed her and squeezed her shoulders. It was actually more of a caress. She pushed his hands away and wrapped her arms around his waist again.
"Nathan?" she whispered.
Her voice sounded shaky to him. His hands dropped to his sides. He thought she might be afraid he'd hurt her. He was about to explain that no matter how much she provoked him he would never, ever raise a hand against her. But Sara suddenly leaned up on tiptoes and kissed him. He was so surprised by the show of affection he didn't know how to respond.
"I was very upset with you when you left the cabin so quickly after we had… been so intimate."
"Do you mean after we made love?" he asked, smiling over the shyness in her voice.
"Yes," she replied. "I was very upset."
"Because a wife likes to hear that she…"
"Satisfied her husband?"
"No," she returned. "Don't mock me, Nathan. Don't make what happened between us so cold and calculated either. It was too beautiful."
He was shaken by her fervent speech, knew she believed what she'd said with all her heart. He found himself inordinately pleased with her. "Yes, it was beautiful," he said. "I wasn't mocking you," he added in a rougher tone. "I was just trying to understand what it is you want from me."
"I want to hear that you…"
She couldn't go on.
"That you're a fine woman?"
She nodded. "I'm at fault, too," she admitted. "I should have given you a few words of praise, too."
He really looked bewildered to her. That did irritate her. "Because a husband needs to hear such words, too."
"Yes, you do."
He decided he'd wasted enough conversation on his confusing wife and bent on one knee to collect the parasols.
"May I please have those back?" she asked. "I'll destroy them myself right away. I don't want my staff to see you throw them overboard. It would be most humiliating."
He reluctantly agreed, though only because he was certain she couldn't do any real damage with the useless things as long as they stayed inside the cabin. Still, just to be on the safe side, he made her give him her promise.
"The parasols won't leave this chamber?"
"You will destroy them?"
He was finally satisfied. He actually began to feel a little more peaceful. By the time he left the cabin he was convinced his wife couldn't possibly wreck anything else.
Besides, he reasoned, what more could she do?
She set his ship on fire.
She'd lulled them into a state of feeling safe again. A full eight days and nights passed without a single mishap taking place. The men were still wary of Sara, but they weren't scowling nearly as often. Some were even whistling every now and again as they saw to their daily tasks. Chester, the doubting Thomas of the crew, was the only one who continued to make the sign of the cross whenever Sara strolled past.
Lady Sara pretended she didn't notice.
Once the sails had been repaired they made good catch-up time. They were just a week or so away from Nora's island home. The weather had been accommodating, though the heat was nearly unbearable in the early afternoons. The nights continued to be just as chilly, however, and thick quilts were still needed to take the shivers away.
All and all, things were looking calm.
Nathan should have realized it wouldn't last. It was late Friday night when he finished giving directions for the watch. He interrupted Jimbo's conversation with Matthew to give them fresh orders for the drill and the firing of the cannons they would practice tomorrow.
The three of them were standing directly in front of the trapdoor that led down to Nathan's cabin. For that reason Jimbo kept his voice low when he said, "The men are beginning to forget this talk about your wife being cursed, boy." He paused to glance behind him, as if that action would assure him that Sara couldn't overhear, then added, "Chester is still telling everyone mischief trails in three. We'd best continue to keep a close watch on Sara until—"
"Jimbo, no one would dare touch the captain's wife," Matthew muttered.
"I wasn't suggesting anyone would," Jimbo countered. "I'm just saying that they could still hurt her feelings. She's a bit tenderhearted."
"Did you know she considers us all part of her staff?" Matthew remarked. He grinned, then stopped himself. "Lady Sara obviously has you in the palm of her hand, if you're so concerned about her feelings." He started to continue on that same topic when the scent of smoke caught his attention. "Am I smelling smoke?" he asked.
Nathan saw the stream of gray smoke seeping up around the edges of the trapdoor before the other two men did. He should have shouted fire to alert the others of the danger. He didn't. He bellowed Sara's name instead. The anguish in his voice was gut-wrenching.
He threw open the hatch. A thick black sheet of smoke billowed up through the opening, blinding the three men. Nathan shouted Sara's name again.
Matthew shouted, "Fire!"
Jimbo went running for the buckets, yelling his own order for seawater on the double, while Matthew tried to keep Nathan from going below by way of the trap.
"You don't know how bad it is," he shouted. "Use the steps, boy, use the—"
Matthew quit his demand when Nathan slipped down through the opening, then turned to run down the steps.
Nathan could barely see inside the cabin, tor the smoke was so thick it blackened his vision. He groped his way over to the bed to find Sara.
She wasn't there. By the time he'd searched the cabin his lungs were burning. He staggered back to the trap again and used the buckets of seawater Jimbo handed down to him to flood the flames out.
The threat was over. The near miss they'd all had made the men shake. Nathan couldn't seem to control his heartbeat. His fear for his wife's safety had all but overwhelmed him. Yet she wasn't even inside the cabin. She hadn't been overcome by smoke. She wasn't dead.
Matthew and Jimbo flanked Nathan. All three men stared at the corner of the room to gauge the damage done.
Several of the planks under the potbellied stove had fallen through the floor to the next level. There was now a gaping, glowing hole in the floorboards. Two of the four walls had been licked black all the way to the ceiling by the scorch of the fire.
The damage to the cabin wasn't what held Nathan mesmerized, though. No, his full attention was riveted on the remains of Sara's parasols. The spokes still glowed inside the two remaining metal fittings of the stove.
"Did she think this was a hearth?" Matthew whispered to Jimbo. He rubbed his jaw while he considered that possibility.
"I'm thinking she did," Jimbo answered.
"If she'd been asleep, the smoke would have killed her," Nathan said, his voice raw.
"Now, boy," Jimbo began, certain that the boy was getting himself all worked up, "Sara's all right, and that's what counts. You're sounding as black as the soot on these walls. You've only yourself to blame," he added with a crisp nod.
Nathan gave him a murderous stare. Jimbo wasn't the least intimidated. "I heard Sara call the trap a chimney. Had myself a good laugh over that comment, too. I thought you set her straight."
"I don't suppose he did," Matthew interjected. Nathan wasn't at all calmed by Jimbo's argument. He sounded as if he was close to weeping when he bellowed, "She set my ship on fire."
"She didn't do it on purpose," Matthew defended.