"Nathan had better finish this quickly. My nerves cannot take such an upset. Nora, you and Matthew have become very close, haven't you?"
"What a time you've chosen to ask me that," Nora said with a little chuckle.
"I just wanted to take our minds off the worry at hand," Sara replied.
"Yes, that might be a good idea. And you're right, Matthew and I have become quite close. He's such a gentle, understanding man. I'd quite forgotten how comforting it is to be able to confide my thoughts and worries in someone who cares about me."
"I care about you, Aunt."
"Yes, dear, I know you do, but it isn't at all the same. You'll understand what I'm saying when you and Nathan become a little closer."
"I fear that day will never come," Sara returned. "Does Matthew confide in you as well?" she asked.
"Oh, yes, often."
"Has he talked about Nathan much?"
"Several times," Nora admitted. "Some things were given in confidence, of course, and so I cannot speak about—"
"Of course you can," Sara interrupted. "I'm your niece, after all, and anything you would tell me wouldn't go any further. You do trust me, don't you, Nora?"
Sara kept up her prodding for another ten minutes or so before Nora finally relented. "Matthew told me all about Nathan's father. Did you ever meet the Earl of Wakersfield?"
Sara shook her head. "It's said that he died when Nathan was just a boy, Nora. I couldn't have been more than a babe. I did hear that he was knighted, though."
"Yes, he was knighted. It was all a sham, though. Matthew told me that the earl actually betrayed his country while he was in service. Yes, that's true, Sara," she added when her niece let out a gasp. "It's a horrifying story, child. Nathan's father was in cahoots with two other infidels, and the three thought they could overturn the government. They called themselves the Tribunal, and as Matthew related the sequence of events to me, they almost pulled off their treacherous scheme. Nathan's father had second thoughts, though. His conscience got him killed before the truth was let out."
Sara was horrified by what she'd just learned. "Poor Nathan," she whispered. "The shame must have been unbearable."
"No, not at all," Nora returned. "You see, no one knows the full truth. It's still believed that the earl was killed in a carriage accident. There hasn't been any scandal. I warn you that if your family got wind of this, they'd use the information to get the prince to overturn your marriage contract."
"Oh, it's too late for that," Sara returned.
"You're being naive if you believe that it's too late, Sara. The circumstances were so unusual, what with the king not feeling at all well."
"He was daft," Sara whispered.
"And you were only four years old," her aunt whispered back.
"Still, we are living as man and wife now. I don't believe the prince regent would dare overturn—"
"He can dare whatever he wants to dare," Nora argued.
"Your worry doesn't signify," Sara interjected. "I'm not going to tell anyone about Nathan's father, so my parents aren't ever going to find out. I won't even let Nathan know that I know, all right? He'll have to confide in me first."
Nora was appeased. "Do you know I also found out how Nathan's back was injured?"
"I believe someone took a whip to him," Sara returned.
"No, it wasn't a whip," Nora countered. "His back was scarred by fire, not a whip. You only have to look to realize that, child."
Sara felt sick to her stomach. "Oh, God, was it deliberate? Did someone burn him on purpose?"
"I believe so, but I can't be certain. I do know a woman was involved. Her name was Ariah. Nathan met her when he was visiting a foreign port in the east."
"How did Nathan meet this woman?"
"I wasn't given the details," Nora admitted. "I do know that this Ariah has rather loose morals. She dallied with Nathan."
Sara let out a little gasp. "Do you mean to say that Nathan was intimate with this harlot?"
Nora reached out and patted Sara's hand. "Nathan was just sowing his oats, dear, before he settled down. There's no need to get yourself all worked up."
"Do you think he loved her?"
"No, of course he didn't love her. He was already pledged to you, Sara. Nathan strikes me as being terribly sensible. He wouldn't have allowed himself to fall in love with the woman. And I'll wager you my inheritance that when Ariah was finished with him he most likely hated her. Matthew told me that the woman used Nathan to manipulate her other lover. Yes, it's true," she added in a rush when Sara looked disbelieving. "According to Matthew, Ariah was a master at her game. For that reason I do believe Nathan was tortured by her command. Thank the Lord, he was able to escape. It was during a small revolution, you see, and those sympathetic to the anarchists aided him when they released the other prisoners. Then Jimbo and Matthew took over Nathan's care."
"Nathan has certainly had a time of it, hasn't he?" Sara whispered. Her voice shook with emotion. "He must have been very young when that horrid woman betrayed him. I believe he loved her, too, Nora."
"I believe he didn't," Nora countered.
Sara let out a weary sigh. "It would be nice if it was just a dalliance," she said. "And if they did share the same bed, well, he wasn't really being unfaithful to me, because we hadn't started our married life together. You know, it's all beginning to make sense to me now."
"What is beginning to make sense?"
"I hadn't confided this to you before, but I have noticed that Nathan seems to be very concerned with protecting his feelings. Now I think I understand why. He doesn't trust women. I cannot fault him. If your fingers are burned once, you won't put your hand near the fire again, will you?"
"It was a long time ago," Nora replied. "Nathan is a grown man now, Sara, and surely he has sorted all this out in his mind."
Sara shook her head. "How else can you explain his attitude? Nathan doesn't like it at all when I tell him I love him. He stiffens up on me and goes all cold. And he's never once told me he cares for me. He just might still hate all women—except me, of course."
Nora smiled. "Except you?"
"I believe he does love me, Nora. He's just having difficulty knowing that he does."
"Give him time, dear. Men take so much longer to figure things out. It's because they're such stubborn beasts, you see."
Sara was in wholehearted agreement with that remark. "If I ever chance to meet this Ariah woman, I'll—"
"You've a good chance of meeting up with her," Nora interjected. "She has been living in London for the past year or so. Matthew says she's looking for yet another sponsor."
"Does Nathan know she's in England?"
"I would imagine so," Nora countered.
The noise became too loud for the two of them to continue the discussion. While Nora fretted about the battle Sara worried over the information her aunt had just shared with her.
Another twenty or thirty minutes passed. Then a chilling silence filled the ship. "If I could just see what's happening, I wouldn't be so worried," Nora whispered.
Sara thought that was a fine idea. "I'll just sneak up to the cabin level and see if everything is all right."
Nora was vehemently against that suggestion. The hatch opened in the middle of their argument and the two women fell silent. They both began to pray that it was Matthew coming down to collect them. Yet when no one called down to them they drew the terrifying conclusion that the enemy had indeed taken over the ship. Sara motioned to Nora to squeeze herself into the corner behind a large crate, then turned and blew out the candle. She worked her way over to the side of the steps to wait for her chance to fell the villains.
God, she was scared. That didn't stop her, though. Her first consideration was Nathan. If the enemy really was on board, was her husband dead or alive? She pictured him lying in a pool of blood, then forced herself to block the horrid thought. She wouldn't be any help to her husband if she let her imagination get the better of her.
A bit of light shone down when the hatch was fully opened. It was no thicker than a straight pin, but still enough for Sara to see two men wearing brightly colored scarves on their heads coming down the stairs.
The first pirate missed the weak rung in the steps. The second one didn't. He let out a low blasphemy when he fell through the narrow opening. The man ended up wedged between the slats. His feet dangled below him, and his arms were pinned to his sides.
What the hell? the first man muttered when he turned around. "You got yourself trapped, don't you?" he added with a snicker. He was reaching out to pull the board free but came to a sudden stop when he felt a quick breeze brush his face.
The enemy was in the process of turning around again when Sara slammed the butt of her pistol into the back of his skull. She was apologizing when he crumpled to the ground.
He didn't cry out. She did. Then she noticed that he was still breathing, and she immediately calmed down, relieved to see that he wasn't dead.
Sara lifted the hem of her dress and daintily jumped over the fallen man. She hurried up the steps to confront her second victim. The ugly man was squinting up at her with the most astonished look on his face. If he hadn't been staring directly at her, she might have been able to hit him, too. She didn't have the heart for such treachery, though, for the villain was already pinned down and at her mercy, so she ended up tearing a piece of fabric from her petticoat and stuffing the thing into his mouth to keep him from crying out for help. Nora came to her assistance then and helped her tie up the man from arms to feet.
Her aunt seemed to be taking the situation quite well. Sara thought Nora just didn't understand the severity of their circumstance. If men had breached the munitions hold, then others had to be on board, too.
"Look, dear, I've found some rope. Shall I tie up the other gentleman for you?"
Sara nodded. "Yes, that would be a splendid idea. He might wake up at any moment. Do put a rag in his mouth, too. Here, use some of my petticoat. The thing's quite ruined now."
She paused to tear another long strip, then handed it to her aunt. "We wouldn't want him shouting for help, now would we, Nora?"
"We most certainly wouldn't," her aunt agreed.
Sara tried to press one of the pistols into her hands, but her aunt declined the weapon. "You might need both when you save Matthew and Nathan, dear."
"You've certainly placed a burden upon my shoulders," Sara whispered. "I'm not so certain I can save anyone."
"Go along now," Nora ordered. "You have the element of surprise on your side, Sara. I'll wait here until you've finished your task."
Sara would have hugged her aunt farewell, but she was afraid one of the pistols might discharge.
She prayed all the way up to the cabin level. The wardroom area was deserted. Sara was about to look inside her cabin when she heard the sounds of men starting down the steps. She squeezed herself into the triangular corner behind the folded screen and waited.
Jimbo came stumbling down the stairs first. Sara got a good look at her friend by peeking through the seam in the screen. Jimbo had a fair-sized cut in his forehead. Blood trickled down the side of his face. He couldn't wipe the blood away, for his hands were tied behind his back, and he was surrounded by three pirates.
The sight of the injury made Sara forget to be afraid. She was furious.
Sara saw that Jimbo was looking toward the steps. She heard additional footsteps, and then Nathan came into view. Like the shipmate, Nathan had his hands tied behind his back. Sara was so thankful he was still alive, she started shaking. The look on her husband's face made her smile a little, too. He looked downright bored.
She watched him give Jimbo a nod. It was so quick, so fleeting, she knew she would have missed it if she hadn't been watching him so closely. Then Jimbo turned his head just a little toward the screen.
She guessed then that Nathan knew she was hiding there. Sara looked down, saw that the bottom of her dress was half-protruding, and quickly pulled her skirt back.
"Take them inside the cabin," a mean voice ordered.
Nathan was being shoved forward again. He stumbled, turned in what looked like an attempt to keep himself from falling to his knees, and ended up pushing against the corner of the screen. His hands were just a foot or so away.
"Here comes Banger with the grog," another man called out. "We can have us a toast while we see to the killing. Perry, you going to let their captain die first or last?"
While that question was being asked Sara put one of the pistols into Nathan's hands. When he didn't immediately take advantage of the edge she'd given him she gave him a little nudge.
He didn't show any reaction to her prodding. She waited another minute, and when he still didn't fire she remembered his hands were tied.
She recalled the dagger in the sleeve of her gown, too, and immediately went to work cutting through the thick ropes. She accidentally pricked his skin twice. Then Nathan grabbed hold of the blade with his fingers and took over the task.
It seemed that an eternity had passed, yet she knew not even a full minute had actually gone by.
"Where the hell is the captain?" another voice shouted. "I'm wanting my grog."
So they were waiting for their leader before they began their murderous festivities, Sara concluded.
Why was Nathan waiting? His hands were free, but he was acting as though they weren't. He held the knife by the blade, probably so that he would be ready to hurl the thing when the time came. The pistol was in his other hand, pointed to the floor.
He looked ready to do battle, all right, but still he waited. He was squeezing her against the wall. Sara was surprised the hinges to the screen he pressed against hadn't already snapped from his weight.
Nathan was obviously giving her his silent message to stay put.
As if she was in the mood to go anywhere, she thought to herself. Lord, she was getting worried again. Why didn't her husband take over the advantage now? Was he waiting for the number of pirates to double from five to ten before he acted? Sara decided then to give him a little message of her own. She reached around the side of the screen and pinched him in his backside.