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Astray: Wavesongs, #1

Astray: Wavesongs, #1

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Astray: Wavesongs, #1

Length:
386 pages
3 hours
Publisher:
Released:
May 1, 2018
ISBN:
9789198468403
Format:
Book

Description

Nick Andrews has grown up in poverty in a tiny village. All his life he’s been told that he’s useless. After getting one scolding too many he decides to go far away, off to sea. But his experience as a farmhand has done little to prepare him for the hardships of a sailor’s life.

When his ship is attacked by pirates, Nick’s life is miraculously spared by the notorious pirate captain, Christopher Hart—a man in charge of a crew feared for their brutality. Nick is forced to join the pirates, and he dreads finding out for what reason the captain has saved him.

But Hart is nothing like his reputation suggests, and Nick soon finds himself entangled in a relationship that could endanger both their lives. Unless Nick can help Hart on his quest to find a long lost treasure, their forbidden love may tear his new life apart.

Warning: This book ends with a cliffhanger, and it does not have a happy ending. The series as a whole will have a HEA ending.

Content note: This book contains dark themes and depictions of torture and murder.

Publisher:
Released:
May 1, 2018
ISBN:
9789198468403
Format:
Book

About the author


Book Preview

Astray - Elvira Bell

Inc.

One

Lizzie Wheeler pulls her knees up to her chest. Her feet are still damp with river-water and if Nick wanted, he could have looked up her petticoat.

But he doesn’t want to.

You’re not the only one Jenny’s nagging, says Lizzie. She pets his head like he’s one of the squeaky kittens her old cat keeps giving birth to, despite the fact that no one wants them. Always has this or that to say of me. You won’t believe how mean she can be, though I lived there before she did.

Nick has no trouble believing. Like it’s my fault, he says, and in a way he knows that it is his fault. Jenny never asked for him to be born, and neither did Jamie. He really is just like the kittens.

She’s a wicked one, your sister. Lizzie gives him a smile. She has so many smiles inside her and she hands them out carelessly, like they don’t mean anything. Nick knows she has other ones, too—real ones. Smiles that only ever show themselves when she’s unaware. I don’t know what our Jack was thinking, marrying her. Mum says she thinks too much of herself and nothing of others.

Jenny worries, he says, feeling the need to defend his sister. She wants what’s best for everyone, is all.

I don’t know. Lizzie slides down next to him, petticoat pooling around her thighs and over the hem of her shift. Wool and linen brush against his outstretched hand. Don’t seem too important to her what’s going to happen to you.

Nick ignores the fingertips tickling his leg. Not important to anyone, am I? Jenny ain’t the only one.

Like that’s true. Without warning, she lands on top of him. Will Jackson used to pounce on him like this whenever he wanted a fight. But Lizzie is a girl and fights are not what girls want. You’re important to me. You know that.

He kisses her then, because that is what the look in her eyes is telling him to do. With other girls it’s soft, childish almost. They are mist but Lizzie is lightning, and she kisses with noise, tongue and crooked teeth. Her hands roam under his shirt and all Nick can think of is his sister’s parting words when he met her up by the cottage earlier. What good have you ever done, Nick?

You can do it, if you like. Lizzie straddles him, breathing raggedly. No worries. I’ll sort it out if anything should… you know. She’s eager. Lizzie is always eager.

Nick pushes her away. Not today. Sorry. I should go back and help Jamie. I promised.

Within seconds, Lizzie is back on her feet and brushing strands of grass from the coarse linen of her stays. I said I can sort it out.

We shouldn’t, he says. Kissing is one thing. He can do kissing. Send your mum my best, will you?

Lizzie braids her hair—pouting, like a child who thinks that the world should revolve around her. But then she gives him a hint of a smile. A real one. Oh, Nick Andrews, you’d get what you deserve if she ever found out what you’re doing with her daughter. Better leave her unknowing, don’t you think?

They’re all unknowing. Nick watches her leave, with her cap back on and her hair in order. He will meet Lizzie Wheeler in secret again tomorrow and the day after, and many more days to come, because she is the one person who is on his side.

Late again.

This is the greeting he receives from old Jane, his father’s aunt. She’s ancient and toothless and as mean as they come. Tiny, bent, and too scrawny for any clothing to fit her properly, Aunt Jane sees and hears everything. She knows Nick was supposed to help Jamie mend the roof, but now Nick is late and Jamie has done the work all by himself.

Sorry, Jamie, Nick says. I forgot. Won’t happen again.

He can’t tell what expression his brother is wearing because the room is too dark. In the summertime sunlight streams into the kitchen, but it is too cold out to have the shutters open now.

Maybe Jamie is about to respond, but Aunt Jane, as always, has a quicker tongue. Oh, we’ll believe that when we see it, won’t we! Good for nothing you are, always sneaking out when you’re needed. Leaving Jamie to do everything.

The door opens and Nick’s mother comes in from tending to the animals, smelling of hay, mud, and manure. There is a heaviness to her, though her hair is still as thick and fair as Nick’s own. A tiredness.

Came at last, then? she says.

Should’ve raised him better, Anne, I always said so. Aunt Jane again. He’s not a child no more. He can’t be doing as he pleases.

Jamie finally speaks. His voice is deep like their father’s, but where Father was strong, Jamie is weak. It doesn’t matter to me, Aunt Jane. It doesn’t.

Another whiff of the shed as Nick’s mother walks past him. She places a loaf of bread on the table, the milk jug, and a tiny piece of butter. Come and eat now.

It is not a pleasant meal. Nick is used to the bread being stale and the butter tasting sour and he doesn’t mind, because he’s never had any better. But Aunt Jane continues to criticize him and his mother is sitting so close that he can see the disappointment in her eyes.

Jamie needs the food better than all of us, Jane says. Jamie’s been working hard… unlike others.

That’s enough now, Jane. His mother’s voice is usually gentle, but not now. If Jamie says it doesn’t matter, then it doesn’t. She sighs and gives Nick a look. Still, you should think more about us. About this family. It’s bad to be thinking only of yourself, Nick.

Nick snaps, fed up with the way everyone piles on him. Been talking to Jenny, have you? You can’t be rid of me quick enough, the lot of you.

Calm down, Jamie says, and it’s more of a child’s plea than a man taking charge in his own home.

Aunt Jane clicks her tongue. Nick has never understood if she does that when she’s pleased with something, or when she’s disapproving. Maybe it’s both. There it is. I’ve said it, Anne, haven’t I? Just like his father, he is. Jim was like that, always talking back… oh, he was ill-tempered, he was. Never listened to no one.

Don’t speak like that ‘bout Dad, Nick mutters. But secretly, he thinks Aunt Jane’s words are the highest praise he can get.

Later that night, he comes back from taking a piss and hears voices trailing from the gate. Jamie is out and Mary Carter is with him, curly-haired Mary Carter from the village. She is without the tail of snotty little brothers crying for attention—not her mother’s child-minder for once. Old enough now to be a mum herself, and doesn’t Nick know that he’s the one standing in her way.

Shouldn’t be out so late, Mary. Jamie’s mild voice fits in here—it’s tender, not weak. It’ll get people talking.

Mary’s got something cradled in her arms. She hands it to Jamie, and Nick’s nostrils are filled with the pungent smell of raw coney meat. He couldn’t smell it from where he’s standing, but he knows the contents of that bundle well enough to have his head play tricks on him.

Our Willie got lucky today, Mary says. Four of them, fine ones, too, and they’ll need eating before they turn bad. This one was the largest; I asked to bring it to your mother, and Mum didn’t mind.

Tell her thanks, Jamie says, holding the bundle to his chest. It’s almost as if they have passed a sleeping babe between them. You should go back now. They’ll need you.

Nick expects Jamie to offer her company on the way back and is surprised when he doesn’t.

Take care, Jamie. Is Mary thinking about that missing offer, too?

And you.

She leaves. Nick should be going back inside but he can’t help watching Jamie. His brother’s eyes follow Mary until she is well down the hill past where he can see her. He’s still holding that wrapped-up rabbit like it was the most precious thing. Nick feels a pang of guilt, for taking up space in the cottage. For eating and sleeping and standing in the way of Mary Carter moving in.

Shouldn’t be listening in on people, brother. Jamie comes towards him, coney dangling from his hand now. We got us some meat for tomorrow. Thank Willie Carter for it.

Willie wouldn’t have thought to hand it to us, Nick says.

No.

She’s a kind girl.

Jamie sighs. Better get some sleep now. There’s work to be done tomorrow.

It has been many years since Nick could call Will Jackson a friend. As children they were close, constantly chasing each other or playing pranks on their sisters. Now, they are nothing.

There is a narrow dirt road running between the two rows of houses in Ashley. Nick works at the Briggs’ farm, helping out in the cowhouse every other day, and he hates that road almost as much as he hates Jack Briggs. Walking through the village means whispers and stares. Bored and bitter women will twist any little thing into slander. They are his sister, multiplied ten and twenty times, and they collectively agree that he should swallow his pride and go look for work and shelter elsewhere. That it is a shame for Anne Andrews to have a wastrel as her youngest, after what happened to her husband. Their own sons are scattered around the neighboring villages, slaving for a place to sleep, treated worse than dogs. Or, if they are eldest of the lot, they’re busy finding a girl to court and marry.

Just like Will.

Nick crosses paths with him on that hateful road. Will is heading to the place that Nick has just left because he is to marry Agnes Briggs, Jack’s younger sister. The wedding has been the favored topic of conversation amongst the village women for months. Will is handsome, Agnes is the prettiest girl around, and there is constant guessing over the sex and hair color of their firstborn. Aunt Jane, always knowledgeable of life outside the cottage, claims to be sure that the first child will be a boy.

Nick. Will grins. Finished for today, then?

Didn’t expect to meet you here. Which is a foolish thing to say because where else would Will be, other than on his way over to Agnes?

Jack’s treating you right, I hope? Will says it like it’s a joke. Like he doesn’t know what everyone knows—that Jack Briggs doesn’t care for tardiness, and that he drinks. That he gets a certain look in his eyes, right before he lands a punch.

Good old Jack. Nick tries to smile. He’s not sure if he manages more than a grimace. Well, tell Agnes I said hello. Not far to go now, is it?

A month. Will’s eyes squint and shine every time he smiles, and he smiles often. Mostly when he talks of Agnes. It’s a long wait, I tell you.

Nick doesn’t know what to say to that.

Better go, Will says, already glancing towards the farm where Agnes waits.

Me, too.

Nick continues up the road. He knows that Will Jackson has nothing in common with him, and that’s what drove them apart. There is a set of rules for boys and a vastly different one for men. Will is following the path to manhood. Will is making his parents proud.

Nick, to his mother, is disappointment, worry, and ache.

The cottage is too small for Jenny’s visits but still she comes often. Slipping out of her new home, the crowded Wheeler household where her weeping children are just two out of many. Here, on the same kitchen floor where Jamie, Jenny and Nick were all born, Molly and little Annie can play without having to fight over the space with their cousins.

He’s a useless clot, Jenny says. They’re drinking goat’s milk, because that is what they have. Nick often regrets that he’s ever accepted the cow’s milk that Agnes Briggs and her mother have sometimes offered to him after long workdays down by the farm. After tasting that there is a tang in the milk he gets at home that wasn’t there before.

I don’t know why I bother with him, his sister continues. She can go on about her husband, Lizzie’s older brother, for hours. He lets them roam free to do what they want. All of them, like we’re not family and it doesn’t shame us when people start talking.

Girls need a firm hand, says Aunt Jane. They’re a bad bunch, the Wheelers. Aren’t they, Anne? Even in my day… What did you go marrying one of them for?

Jenny glares. Didn’t have much of a choice, did I?

Molly toddles up to Jamie, who is sitting in his usual chair. He scoops her up and places her on his lap. She giggles as she starts playing with his beard.

You just mark my words, Jane says, your girls are going to turn rotten, too. It runs in the blood, things like that. Nothing to be done about it.

Jenny’s youngest, Annie, is all by herself on the floor. Her eyes are watching Aunt Jane as she speaks.

Well, it’s just the way it is, snaps Jenny, and Annie starts to cry. Nick’s mother picks her up and cradles her in her arms, shielding her from her mother’s harsh words. At least I’ve done my part, haven’t I? Jenny turns to Nick, just like he knew she would. You should save your nagging for him instead.

Jamie stands up, holding Molly to his chest. Want to go look at the ducklings, poppet?

Molly nods her head and Jamie takes her outside. Nick is relieved, and jealous of Jamie who can leave without anyone telling him off about it.

We’ve talked about this, his mother says over Annie’s head. Nick knows. Don’t you, son?

He sighs. Loudly.

His mother frowns. I’ve told you many times now that my brother could surely use some help. If the Briggs’ farm isn’t good enough for you. Frimley isn’t that far; you could go there and ask, at least. He’s a good man, my brother. You won’t find no place better.

Nick doesn’t want to become a farmhand in Frimley. Frimley is the same as Ashley, but with different people. His uncle might even hit harder than Jack Briggs does.

Oh, I don’t expect him to be wanting to leave the village, Jenny says. Not with Lizzie running around spreading her legs for him.

Nick’s mother gasps. What sort of talk is that?

Like it’s news to anyone that Lizzie Wheeler lets boys have their way with her. Jenny snorts. Bad blood, it is. Just like Auntie said. Think I don’t know, when I have to live around her?

That’s not true! Is it, Nick? His mother looks at him. Her hand is covering little Annie’s ear, like the girl can understand any of what they’re talking about. Answer me.

He shrugs. Like it matters to you either way what I do.

If your father was here, he’d put some sense into you right away. Is Lizzie with child, Nick? Did you make her with child? Tell me!

I tried my best. He stands up and leaves before they have the time to react. Slams the door behind him. Out in the yard, Jamie is showing Molly how to pet the ducks. Soft-voiced, hunched next to the child, and Nick doesn’t know how his brother can have such gentleness in him when himself and Jenny have none at all.

Jamie calls after him, but Nick doesn’t stop to listen. He avoids the road and instead heads across the fields, running through sprouting grass and muddy ditches. When he reaches the hidden corner by the river he finds Lizzie there. Almost as if she is waiting for him.

I can’t bloody stand it, he says as she strokes his hair. Think they’d even care if I jumped into the river and drowned? All they want is to be rid of me. If I died it’d be the best thing that ever happened to them.

Lizzie shifts, her breasts brushing against him. He knows how the other boys talk about her. It’s not much better over at mine, she says. What good am I to them? It don’t matter if it’s me who’s there or some other girl, as long as there’s someone around to wipe their children’s stinky bums.

Nick throws a rock into the river. It lands with a loud splash by the other shore. I don’t want to go to Frimley. What the hell would I be doing in Frimley? Might as well stay here and be a slave to bloody Jack Briggs for the rest of my days. I ain’t doing that. I ain’t.

You’re too good to be a farmhand, Lizzie says. We’re too good for this place, both of us. We should just go to London. Do as we please. You can do anything in London.

Nick watches the river-water running by. I’ll go much farther away than London, he says. It’s not a new thought—just something that he’s never said out loud before. That’ll show them, won’t it? My dad did it, so why couldn’t I?

Lizzie knows about his father’s past. Everyone in Ashley knows. Would you really?

Why not? They want me gone, so I’ll go. I’ll go for real. And when I come back I’ll be rich, and they’ll all be sorry. You’ll see.

Lizzie’s eyes are as big as a child’s and there’s a stain on her apron that he hasn’t seen before. Always stains and spots on her, like she doesn’t rub hard enough. Or like she doesn’t care. I wish I could go with you.

I’ll come back. I told you. I’ll bring you something from overseas. Something nice. Nick doesn’t want Lizzie Wheeler to be thinking of marriage, but he does want her to think of him as a friend.

You just come back safe and sound, Nick. That’s nice enough for me.

There is only one way to get to London, as far as Nick knows. Though he doesn’t wish to ask Jack Briggs for anything.

Jack is overseeing the breeding when Nick enters the farm gates. The Briggs family have a huge bull in their herd and he’s finally old enough to mate. Jack is always going on about him. Nick feels sorry for the cow trapped under the snorting bull. The whites in her eyes are showing and she is shivering visibly.

Jack spots Nick before he’s halfway there. He says something to the man standing closest to him and strides toward Nick, smiling at him as if his presence is a pleasant surprise.

Came to watch the breeding? he asks, slapping Nick’s shoulder. Look at him, eh? Did you ever see a beast like that?

He’s big, Nick says, because it’s best to just play along. Especially now that he has a favor to ask.

You’re damn right he’s big. Jack laughs. You won’t find bulls like him nowhere else, lad. Comes from the best stock. We’re lucky to have him.

Where did you get him from then, Mr. Briggs? Nick knows perfectly well where the bull is from. He’s been told many times.

Jack frowns at him. Bought him up in London last year, boy. Don’t you remember nothing? You want the finest stock, you go to London. Bring in some fresh blood.

Are you going there this spring, too?

Nosy today, aren’t you? Jack Briggs ruffles his hair like Nick is his cherished little brother, and not the boy he orders about in the cowhouse all day. It’s not your business what I do or don’t. But I’m in a good mood today, so I’ll tell you. Yes, Nick, I’ll go up to the market in a few weeks time. Now you tell me why you’re so keen on knowing that.

I thought… Nick loathes himself for the pleading tone in his voice. I wanted to ask if I might come with you. If you need any help, that is.

Jack stares at him for a moment. He has blue eyes, just like Agnes, and a bit of stubble covers his cheeks. So… off to London, are you? What you doing there?

I’m going on a ship. Like my dad.

Jack’s smile isn’t kind. Not going away for good, are you?

No.

Another hard slap on the shoulder nearly knocks Nick to the ground. Great. There’s always work ‘round here, remember that.

It’s just for a while, Mr. Briggs.

We’ll talk more about it later. Jack glances over to his precious bull, eager to know how the mating is going. Did you tell your mother? I bet she’ll be pleased for you.

Not yet. Thank you, Mr. Briggs. As he leaves, Nick hears the cow cry out. An ugly noise, coupled with Jack Briggs’ laughter.

He tells his family over supper that night. The coney meat has lasted them until now and they chew gingerly at the final scraps of it. Aunt Jane smacks loudly, sucking the flavor out of the pieces that Nick’s mother has cut for her. For once Nick isn’t annoyed by the sound. Soon he won’t have to hear it at all.

Nick turns to Jamie once he has eaten his fill. I’ve got news, Jamie.

News? What news? Aunt Jane interrupts right away, but he ignores her.

Anything happen? Jamie asks, his voice calm. Surely he is curious, too, but it doesn’t show.

Nick can feel his mother’s eyes on him. I won’t be taking up space in here no more. I’ll be leaving for London in a few weeks—I’ve talked with Mr. Briggs already. You can go and tell Mary. I’m sure she’ll be glad.

London, says his mother.

And then I’ll go on a ship somewhere.

The table falls quiet. It takes a while, but of course Aunt Jane is the first to speak:

I knew this would happen, Anne, I knew it. Just like his father, he is. Just like his father.

His mother looks him in the eye. Think this through, Nick.

It’s only for a year or two, he says, because he can’t stand the tone in her voice. I’ll come back after that, you know, and find work ‘round here. I will.

I told him not to tell you all those stories, she says. It’s no good for children to hear about things they can’t understand. What do you need to go to the other side of the world for? Your father was different from us, Nick. Had his head in the clouds, but he was sensible in the end. If he was here now he’d agree with me, and you know that. He wouldn’t want you to go either.

Nick knows she is lying because she cares, but it’s still a lie. Dad would’ve told me to leave years ago, he says. And if he was different, then I guess I’m different, too.

Jamie stretches his hand out to Nick. He smiles as Nick grasps it. He would’ve been proud. And we’ll make sure you have everything you need for the trip.

Lying on the kitchen floor that night while Jamie snores peacefully, Nick thinks that he might be acting rash and foolish. There’s no telling what will happen in London. Life in the village follows a pattern: births and deaths and work in between. Ashley is a safe place, but it is a place where he’ll always have to bow to others and depend on their kindness to get meat. If he stays, he will never find out if there’s something better out there. Is it really foolish to go try his luck elsewhere?

He hears his mother pacing the floor in the other room. She’s often unable to rest, tortured by the pain in her back and disturbed by Aunt Jane muttering in her sleep. When Jamie marries Mary Carter, his mother and Jane will have to move out of the bed and into the kitchen. Her back will turn even worse then.

There’s a muffled sound, and Nick knows that his mother is crying. He hasn’t seen her cry since his father died—tears are for nighttime, for the thoughts that come with darkness. Tonight they are for Nick, her youngest child.

His mother and Aunt Jane spend their evenings mending shirts and knitting stockings in the busy weeks that follow. Even Jenny chips in—sweeter to him than ever before, now that he’s leaving. The old chest that his father once took with him on his travels has been brought into the light and filled with what little clothing he has.

The sea can get rough, says Aunt Jane like she has ever set her foot outside of Surrey. You’d better stay warm, my boy. Warm and dry so you won’t catch a cold.

Nick helps Jamie out as much as he can, and he tends to the animals even though it’s no work for a man. Gets there first, before his mother can worsen her ache with crouching and kneeling. At the Briggs’ farm, he keeps his neck bowed low and his tongue tied. Better stay on Jack’s good side. Better make sure Jack is true to his word.

Lizzie—he doesn’t see a lot of Lizzie now. She might be waiting by the river, Nick doesn’t know, but he’s somehow wary about meeting with her. It’s bad if the whole village is talking, though it might just be Jenny’s wicked tongue. Lizzie’s the one staying and he wants her safe, safe from any rumors about him. Now that he won’t be around to set things straight.

Jack Briggs finally sets the date for his trip. It’s a long week of waiting until Nick wakes up, on the floor where he was born, and knows it’s time. The goat’s milk is fresh, lukewarm, and has no aftertaste at all. His mother even spoils him with a refill.

You be good now, she says. Mr. Briggs is kind to help you out like this.

Nick knows that Jack is never kind. Yes, Mum.

When Jack Briggs shows, he has the cart full of chubby turnips and skinny carrots, along with a cage of whiny piglets. Good morning to you, Mrs. Andrews! I’m sure you’ll find space for that chest down the back there, Nick, or it’ll just have to stay up here with us.

Nick manages to cram the chest next to the piglet cage. He has no desire to sit next to Jack, but there really isn’t any space for him elsewhere.

Take care of yourself now, Nicholas. Aunt Jane startles him by giving him a pat on the cheek. She hasn’t done that since he was small.

Thank you, Aunt. I’ll do that.

Jamie slaps his shoulder. It doesn’t hurt when he does it. We’ll be pleased to have you back here next year or so, he says. Mary and I.

Wish I could’ve been at the wedding, but you’ll want to get that over with as soon as possible, don’t you? Nick says with a laugh. Jamie laughs, too.

Finally, he stands in front of his mother. She embraces him. Nick had forgotten what it’s like to be held by her. Come back, Nick. Just come back here, like he did. That’s all I’m asking.

I will, Mum. Of course I’ll come back.

Two

Jack Briggs cracks his horsewhip over the mare’s bony backside. So, how have you planned this? he asks like he cares.

Dad had a friend, Nick says. Mr. Collins. They were on the same ship. He came to visit once when I was small, and I thought… Maybe he’s still a sailor, and he knows where I can find work.

Maybe he’s dead. Didn’t think of that, lad, now did you?

Nick did think of that. He’s no halfwit, no matter how Jack Briggs might feel. Worth a try.

Oh, sure is. What’ll you do if you can’t find him, though? London’s big. Can’t expect to find someone if you haven’t a clue on where to look.

I thought maybe the harbor. Dad said that the harbor is full of alehouses. And that all the sailors go there as soon as they come ashore.

Jack glances at him. Talked an awful lot, your dad, didn’t he? What was he doing telling you about alehouses?

I wanted to know, Nick says. The whole truth being that he was the only one who ever wanted to listen. His mother didn’t like her husband storytelling away the evenings, while there were newborn chicks and broken shutters to tend to. Jamie and Jenny never showed much interest in the sea and the storms and the sailor’s life. Nick always preferred stories over chickens and his dearest playthings were the little twig ships that his father made for him.

I know of this tavern. It has the best beer in all of London. I’ll take you there, what do you say? I’ll buy you something to eat, too, but you’ll have to pay for sleeping quarters yourself.

No need for that, Mr. Briggs. Nick doesn’t want Jack Briggs to do him more favors.

Jack grabs him by the neck. The grip is lighter than usual. Look at this bloody road, Nick. Look at it.

Nick looks. It’s a long road and it stretches out

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