Luna used all her might to bite back the tears in her eyes. One minute, this dashing man with his blue eyes and dark blonde hair seemed mesmerized, even a gentleman despite his attire marking him as a very obvious man of business who spent a great deal of time in the open air working, if his fit form and tanned skin were any indication. And he knew the steps to the song too, a dance for nobles to court each other. She had felt an inexplicable trust for those brief moments. But he was like all the others.
Was she any good? Of course she was. She had perfected the innocent virgin routine her first night at El Barco a year before. Men fell all over their feet in her wake like silly puppies drooling for a scrap of her attention. She had gotten used to taking men, sometimes several a night just to dull the pain, to try to forget, and was an expert at extracting tips with just a bat of her eyes and a wanton caress of her hand. But for a few blissful moments, the mysterious man had caught her off guard and treated her like a lady. She had been silly to think him different. He wanted to bed her and leave her, just like every other man.
Only once she reached her dingy room, alone, did she succumb to the tears. Those few beautiful moments, looking into his handsome face, she had allowed herself to pretend, to dream, that life would not end with her here as an old, sagging whore. It had been a year since she had run from her dreadful past, a past she could not conjure to mind without going mad, and this mysterious man who wanted nothing more than a dance had seemed like a soothing reprieve from her daily hell. What a blessing to have a moment to pretend like a man was wooing her, not paying to flip her skirts up.
But he too was like all the others. His hot assessment of her figure, his finger dropping coins between her breasts… And yet still, he had not required she bare herself in public. A small kindness. Would he stay true to his word and come tonight? She almost didn’t want to see him again. Humiliation washed over her at her naivety. What a lesson about the world. It put some of her father’s behaviors in perspective. He had been the kindest gentlemen, doting on her mother, yet she had more than once spied a woman, young, her hair and clothes disheveled, leave his apartments in the wee hours of the morning, her cheeks and lips pink from exertion.
As a girl, Luna had not known what to make of it. Having now perfected the art of bed sport, she knew that the girl had been there for her father’s pleasure and nothing more. This strange dance partner in the square was likely the same, perhaps even married. He would be kind, even considerate in bed, but he would still be in bed with her one moment and gone the next without a backward glance.
Her heart skipped a beat as she stood and walked to Carlota’s looking glass. Her hair was in disarray and Jesus’ hand had left an obvious handprint. She took a wash rag and dunked it into the water basin to begin cleaning up for the night. If the strange man did come, she still wanted to look to rights. Perhaps she was just inflicting pain upon her own wounded heart, but she couldn’t stop thinking about him.
After washing, she let down her hair and dragged a brush through it until it was shining, then gave it a twist over one shoulder so the natural curls formed a voluptuous ringlet dangling past her breasts. Something told her that this man with the blue eyes and worn tricorn hat was a gentle sort. The gentle ones were her favorites, the ones who acted as though they made love. The rough ones frightened her, grabbing and slapping and pinning her down, as if paying a wench meant a man had a free pass to rape with impunity. She supposed they had nothing to fear. No one cared about prostitutes.
When her portion of the room was in order, her body freshened, she left the room and wandered back down into the tavern hall growing boisterous as evening set in and the thunderstorm now raging outside pushed men indoors. One of them leered at her, pinching her arse as she went. It had only taken a matter of days to learn how to flirt without feeling, an art that was necessary to survive, and she cast the man a playful smile.
“No, no, Ricardo,” she wagged her finger, caressing his cheek as she went. “Tonight I’m already bought and paid for.”
Ricardo, a disgusting man and a regular that she had been grateful to avoid, made no attempt to hide his hand readjusting his breeches. “Just a quick one, wench. I’ve sampled the others but not yet you.”
She let her words drip from her tongue like sugary rum. “You’ll just have to be a good niño and go without. I have a customer willing to pay my worth in reals, and I plan to be ready for him.”
“As soon as he’s done with you, it’s my turn,” he replied, squeezing her arse until she sashayed out of arm’s length.
“I’m his for the entire night,” she smiled sweetly. She came around behind him and slid her hand down his chest, leaning over him, until her fingertips glided over the bulge in his breeches and her mouth was beside his ear. She let a single breath caress his lobe and massaged the hardness in his trousers. He moaned. “Look for me tomorrow eve, señor, and I’ll soothe your obvious pain away. I might be the infamous virgin, but my hands are expert,” she whispered, then withdrew and flounced away while he sat speechless. Yes. A hand job. There was no way in hell she was letting his retched cock between her legs.
She managed to dodge the others lining the benches and occupying the seats in various niches until she arrived at a stack of casks filled with ale. She leaned against the wall and surveyed the room once again. It was lit by an iron chandelier hanging from the center held up by ship rigging. Around the perimeter of the room, the floor was raised with dividing walls around each table and a curtain draped alongside each booth should a customer want more privacy.
After a full inspection, her client for the night was still not here and the sun had already set. He wasn’t coming. Thanks to the thunderstorm thudding against the walls, it was already dark. Jesus would force her to get to work again soon. She shuddered, a wash of guilt rolling over her. Her parents would be mortified to know what she had become. She could never atone for a sin of this magnitude when she reached her judgement day.
She watched Carlota serve a jug of rum to a table of men, idly twisting a thread from her skirt, when suddenly the door opened. She held her breath as her mystery man entered, and pushed away from the casks to stand upright. He was sopping wet. The storm outside must be raging, though it was growing harder to hear over the din of men, music, and drinks.
She sucked in a lungful. He was just as beautiful as he had been that afternoon, his long coat with regal frogs down the front unfastened to reveal a slim waist, his shirt plastered to him, wet, and long legs encased in boots up to the knees. He took off his hat, poured the water off, and tucked it under his arm like a gentleman to reveal a fashionably disheveled ponytail, his jaw cut, his nose regal, and were those hoops of gold in each of his ears? His piercing sapphire eyes scanned the hazy room. They landed on her as if they knew her exact location. It caused a shiver to race through her blood.
He didn’t smile, but nodded to acknowledge her, then strode down the steps where he leaned down to pat a man on the back with matching scars on either side of his face, his skin mottled by pustule scarring, a remnant of the skin affliction plaguing all boys and girls on the verge of adulthood. The man whispered close to his friend’s ear, what, she couldn’t tell, but the scarred man nodded. She found it curious. As he rose back to standing height, she noticed the man with the scars shoot his eyes across the room to another whose hands were upon the breasts of one of her fellow girls. Had she not been watching closely, she would have missed him return the eye contact and give the barest hint of a nod, before shooting his gaze to a table where another man was sopping up stew with his bread. But she had always had a keen eye, like a falcon, her father had always said. The subtle exchanges continued and she found herself fascinated by it.
This blonde man was powerful, she realized. He had men spread throughout El Barco and perhaps Santiago. She shuddered. Perhaps it was a grand mistake lying with him all night long. What if his men were going to rob them all blind? Set fire to the building, perhaps kill them all? And yet still, his eyes fell back on her as he made his way across the room until he stood before her.
Her heart was thumping in her throat and she was certain he would see the pulse in her neck. He gazed down at her, a mere breath away, and gently took her hand. Her eyes fluttered shut for a moment, imagining him as a prince rescuer, hoping above hopes he might kiss her hand, when she suddenly felt three more silver pieces meet her palm. She swallowed and looked at his fingers encircled with gold and jeweled rings. Of course he only wanted to complete his payment. So he could be serviced.
“Where to, wench?” he whispered as Jesus sauntered by, his arms folded across his barrel-of a chest as he assessed her partner. “I want my money’s worth tonight, for I don’t have long before I set sail again.” Could it be that her boss had also noticed the subtle exchange between his men among the crowd? She wondered. A good owner would be vigilant, and Jesus had likely not become so powerful by being daft.
She took the coins, then took his hand, and summoned a smile worthy of a king’s harlot.
“I see you’re eager, sire,” her eyes dipping down to his cock. “Your man is already saluting me.”
She brought her finger to her mouth where she bit the tip in a look so innocent, Alejandro could see why she had her reputation. His bulge pumped once in response. On second thought, he had paid for her. Why not indulge in a whore this once. This whore.
With that same seductive smile, her eyes devoid of emotion, she led him through the room to the wooden staircase that led up a floor. He couldn’t help noticing that her touch harbored no connection this time, like a dead weight sitting amongst his own fingers.
“Wait!” complained Ricardo who was now well into his cups. “Whatever this man has paid for Luna tonight, I’ll pay more!”
Jesus pushed away from where he stood and walked to the middle of the room as it hushed. “That man paid five silver pieces for the virgin. Are you saying you have more?”
She winced. She hated the nickname.
A few men gave a whistle. It was a steep price to bed a wench. Luna stilled, her grip on the blonde man tightening against her will. He gave her a reassuring squeeze, at which she looked at him, her brow furrowed, obviously wanting to figure him out.
Ricardo fumbled through his coin purse. “Then I’ll pay six!”
Jesus laughed, then turned to Alejandro. “It appears you have some competition.”
“Seven,” Alejandro replied.
“I’ll, I’ll pay eight!” Ricardo countered. There was a collective intake of air throughout the room.
“Nine,” Alejandro said evenly.
The room grew silent. Luna paled. Was she worth that much to this man, that he would outbid any other just so he could have her alone? And he clearly didn’t dress the part of a wealthy man even if his manner was distinguished. No. Roguish. His style was most definitely roguish, with the display of rings on his hand, his perfectly disheveled hair, his clothing slightly worn even if each garment was obviously a fine craft. Had he come by so much money that he could afford to throw nine silver coins away so carelessly?
Ricardo, shaken, fingered the lumps of metal in his purse, considering how much he could part with. “Ten,” he said.
“Fifteen,” Alejandro sighed, almost bored. Muttering broke out, shaking heads, and Ricardo sat back down with defeat.
Jesus was grinning like an egg-sucking cur, but Alejandro didn’t seem phased, his face remaining impassive.
“Can you best that?” Alejandro goaded, a hint of amusement in his voice but his face otherwise focused.
“Fifteen?” Ricardo repeated.
“’Tis pocket change,” Alejandro replied coolly.
Ricardo slouched forward and Alejandro, on the stairs above the room, gazed straight into Jesus’ eyes, pulled out his coin purse, and lightened his load into his hand by ten more pieces, never once allowing his eye contact to waver.
“I suppose you’ll want your payment, cur.”
With a flick of his thumb, he began to toss them one by one over the rail to Jesus who was made to jump like a pup for treats. Laughter ensued until the room was roaring.
With Jesus visibly pissed, Alejandro could not contain his grin. But his woman for the night dared not show a smile, he noticed. In fact, the bidding war had seemed to humiliate her. Though as she felt his gaze upon her, she lifted her chin like an arrogant noble and reached to grab his tunic, her lips parting into a completely phony smile.
“Mmm, señor,” she said, arching her breasts into him, her fingers caressing downward until she gently took him in hand and squeezed. “Fifteen coins must mean you’ll be wanting extra favors.”
He grinned and nipped her lower lip. “You’d better get started selling your wares, then.” He hoisted her up against him so that she straddled his waist, and climbed the rest of the stairs.
Once out of sight, he set her down and took a step back. She pushed the door open and upon his stepping through, she closed it. He looked into her corner of the room, feeling the wind seep through the walls and rattle the slats, noticing the rag of a linen draped between her side and another woman’s belongings. She had little of her own possessions by the look of it, and no extra clothes. Just a pallet, an old blanket spread smoothly across the stuffed mattress, no pillow, and a washbasin, a valuable piece of utility for a whore, he thought.
She turned to him but didn’t look up and with a quick tug, pulled loose the laces on her corset. He watched her, unsure of what to say as she pushed her sleeves from her shoulders. She was going to disrobe. She good and truly thought he had come to bed her and it was not as though he had demonstrated otherwise. How he wished.
Finally he found his voice. “No.”
She looked up now, her laces worked loose so that if he wanted to he would be able to pull her chemise down.
“But you…you paid all that money…”
He shook his head. “No. What’s your name?” he asked gently.
Ah, the type that liked to pretend he was making tender love, she thought. He would learn her name and then whisper loving sweetnesses the whole time, like she was the most precious thing in the world, talk of babes between them, spill his seed, then promise the world the next time he saw her, only to disappear into oblivion and never return. She had been lucky enough to have a few gents like that. They were always attentive, never rough.
That coy smile – fake smile, he told himself – curved her lips again and her dark, sultry eyes fluttered up to his as she reached out and ran her hands up his chest to push his coat from his shoulders. “Whatever you would like it to be. I’m yours for the night, sir, bought and paid for—“
“Stop,” he insisted, catching her wrists. Swallowing hard. He had to admit, her approach was damned appealing. “You don’t have to do this.”
Her brow wrinkled. “But Jesus—”
“Shh,” he placed his finger upon her lips. “Your name.”
She turned away from him now, flipping her hair over her shoulder like a haughty child. “I go by Luna,” she replied.
“Your real name,” he countered, but at this, she shook her head. Fair enough, he thought. It wasn’t as though he went around telling everyone that his name was Alejandro Acosta Iglesias. Let her have her secret for now.
“So tell me, señorita, do you like it here?” he began.
An unmistakable ‘humph’ escaped the woman before she could jump back into character. A small victory, he thought. At least he’d gotten her to acknowledge her true feelings so quickly.
“What’s not to love?” she replied, turning to him once again and gesturing with enthusiasm. “I get a room, board, and all the pricks I want,” she added with her seductive smile. She let her hand migrate up and down his chest, teasing the waistline of his breeches. “So tell me, señor, what is your pleasure tonight?”
Her seduction was effective, he thought, feeling himself respond to her touch now caressing the front of his breeches. Very, very effective. Against his will, he was showing just how pleased he was. He indulged himself completely if only for a moment, absorbing the purely sinful sensation of her palm and fingers cradling his cock. His hand closed upon hers to join the gentle rhythm. Hell, it felt so good.
But no. This was not her. He had seen a glimmer of a girl who sought freedom from her bondage when he spied her dancing in that darkened corner. She did this because this was what men expected. She did this because she thought fifteen pieces of silver meant he wanted to throw his manhood an all-night party. His hand, at one moment encouraging her, pulled her fingers back up to his stomach.
“You were noble born, were you not?” he asked, trying to master his voice.
She stared up at him, her defenses suddenly gone, and she drew her hand away from him. He took in her deep brown eyes, her rich mahogany hair.
He reduced his voice to a whisper. “Señorita—” He perked at a sound on the rickety stairs, that of heavy footfalls, which paused outside of Luna’s door. He calculated it, then looked back at her. The sound had made her face pale.
Jesus, he equated. One look at her told him who was waiting beyond the threshold. With a flick of his fingers, he pulled her corset away so that it fell upon the pallet, tossed down his hat and coat, dragged her into his arms and dropped his mouth to hers. Her mouth parted for him, though he could tell it was from shock and not because of his accomplished skill. Still, there was no mistaking the sweetness of her lips.
In the next second, he popped loose the fastenings on his breeches so that they sagged lazily from his waist and grabbed one of her breasts. He felt her tremble and clench his tunic as if he was her lifeline while his tongue thrust boldly into her mouth, just as the door opened. He looked up to see Jesus, arms folded across his chest, and Luna was utterly breathless at the severance of the kiss.
“Si?” he prompted when Jesus remained there. “What do you want?”
“Just wanted to make sure of your intentions,” Jesus replied. “Fifteen pieces is quite a lot to part with, for any man.”
“Unless you’re wealthy,” Alejandro replied.
“What’s your angle, man?” Jesus said.
“I suppose I want a good, long night of tumbling before I spend three months at sea on my way to Africa. This woman is beautiful and I want her above the others. What other angle do I need?”
Jesus weighed the validity of the answer. If this man were on his way to Africa, it meant he was a slaver, he deduced. The slave trade had indeed made some men extremely wealthy.
“However, getting my money’s worth tonight doesn’t include baring my arse to an audience,” Alejandro continued, his eyes narrowing, needing to get back on the offensive. “I paid for the wench, I want my privacy. Otherwise I’ll be taking my silver back.”
Now that would cause a reaction, he thought. Jesus didn’t strike him as the sort of man accustomed to providing refunds.
Luna stood frozen, still clutching his tunic, his hand still upon her breast and her lips reddening with the euphoria his kiss had caused. Her heart raced as she saw Jesus’ pulse jump in his neck and the tick in his jaw indicating he was resisting saying an entire slew of things. Jesus didn’t like her bed partner, it was clear, and by the way the blonde man’s muscles tensed beneath her fingers, she knew that he felt the same way about Jesus. And, sadly she thought, he was only acting like he wanted to bed her.
Jesus laughed coldly. “I’m afraid that’s impossible,” he remarked, his eyes glancing over his body. “You haven’t even a sword or revolver, which is what you would need to attempt that refund.”
A grin, perhaps with a tint of madness, crept onto her blonde partner’s lips. His hand dropped from her breast and he pivoted to face Jesus, breeches open still, then placed his palms outward at his side, kicked forward a heel, and gave a mockingly courtly bow, nodding his head only briefly.
“That’s never stopped me before, good sir, and with a challenge like that…you had best guard your purse well tonight.”
Luna took a step back at the man’s soft words. No one tested Jesus, which made her confident that between the two of them, her partner would be mad enough to do just that and come out the victor. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but this man was different than the others. And just as suddenly as the confrontation began, the blonde man before her, tall, trim, gold earrings flashing in the dim light, threw an arm about her waist and dragged her against him as if he owned her, his head dipping down to resume kissing her, his other hand hoisting up her skirt so his palm could run across her thigh. She couldn’t help but sigh.
Wisely, after a moment more of blatant contemplation, Jesus backed out of the room, pulling closed the door. As the footsteps receded, Alejandro separated from her, finishing the kiss with a slow and gentle peck, for her mouth was still open with shock. He retracted his hand from her bare leg, then moved silently to the door. When he was satisfied that they were alone again, he turned back to her.
“I apologize,” he said. “Your boss needed to be convinced.”
Convinced of what? she thought, reeling. That he wanted to bed her? Or convinced that he would indeed take back his silver if he set his mind to it? Or perhaps both? He had done a spectacular job of acting on each account. Her mind spun. Lamely, she managed to nod and for some reason, sputter the word, “gracias.”
He grinned a lazy grin that only dimpled one cheek. “My pleasure.”
He moved to her wall and began testing the boards for weaknesses. She furrowed her brow, watching him tug on a loose board. The wood was nearly rotten through and the nails gave way easily, giving them a clear shot of rain-soaked night and people hastening towards home. He put the board back in place, then loosened the board beside it. Then he turned to her and asked words she never expected to hear.
“If you had the chance, just one chance to leave this place, would you seize it?”
The innocent look had returned to her eyes, vulnerable, desperate, and without a moment’s hesitation, she nodded. “Si. I would never look back. Can you promise me thus?”
Just then, Carlota could be heard giggling with a client and the door latch clicked. Alejandro pulled Luna once again into an embrace, dragging her chemise down either shoulder and cupped her neck in one hand, kissing her while his other settled upon a bare breast just as the door swung open again. Her roommate spilled through, dragging a drunken man behind her. She looked at Luna, then her mysterious partner, but this time Alejandro didn’t look up. He continued kissing, and his hand continued massaging her chest, his thumb caressing her nipple, then he slid his hand up and down her arm in a practiced seduction that also spoke of affection. By this time, she had bedded many men, but not once had she been touched with such tenderness. Not once had her blood fired like it did now.
Once the redhead and her rutting mate collapsed into a frenzy behind the curtain, he drew apart from her, but there was no mistaking the connection, so quickly snuffed that afternoon, was raging full force between their gazes once again.
He pulled up her chemise, then let a thumb run the length of the bruise along her jaw. Carlota and her man were making noise, grunting and groaning. What a horrible existence, he thought, not once having considered what it must be like for a whore before this day. Alejandro guided Luna to her pallet and pulled her down beside him. He stretched out on his side, then coaxed her to do the same so that he spooned her. He settled his arm around her waist, her head of scented hair resting upon his other bicep. They lay together for a long while, both trying to tune out the ruckus of fornication opposite them as gusts of moisture whistled through the walls, and remained like that long after Carlota and her prey left the room.
As she dozed in his arms, warm and secure, he whispered into her ear. “Be ready for me at midnight, belleza.”
She fell into deep sleep and he rose, tied his breeches, and grabbed his coat and hat, slipping from the room. The room below was still loud with sailors and adulterers alike, thick with tobacco smoke. As he descended into the commons again, Jesus was waiting at the bottom.
“I thought you wanted her for the whole night. Has she displeased you?”
Alejandro smiled a satisfied smile, knowing his ponytail was mussed and his tunic untucked as he held his coat draped over his arm. By all regards, he looked like a man who had just had amazing intercourse. Resting with the mysterious woman named Luna, feeling her drift asleep and thus, her troubles drifting away, felt good. But when he caught himself thinking about having a woman at his side every day, perchance a wife, he had to remind himself that White Hawk could not offer a wife what she needed. A husband.
“Nay, man,” Alejandro replied. “On the contrary. I wore the wench out. ’Twas indeed worth my silver. Like bedding a virgin, as you say.” He patted Jesus on the back good-naturedly. “I’ll be back soon. Just checking on my cargo. For fifteen coins, you’d best not give her away to anyone while I’m gone.”
He walked out into the night. The roads and cobbles glistened with rainwater. There were few candles lighting windows, and the now cloudless heavens were alight with billions of stars, the storm having passed. Aside from a few people going on their ways, all was quiet except for the sound of wind rustling in nearby foliage and the splashing of waves against the rocky shore beckoning him back to the sea, the only place he was truly in control, in command. He could keep moving, keep running, keep hiding when he was on the water.
Shuffling along the path, he glanced up at the summer constellations. Ah, his love for the sky. It had been the source of so many fights with his father. He sometimes thought he would give anything to go back and honor his father’s wishes to follow his footsteps and become a surgeon, but deep down he knew he would have been miserable. His passion was the science of the sky, not the science of the body. His father had been too stubborn to allow his son to consider any other path, and he had been too immature to handle the topic without flying into a rage.
But none of it changed the fact that he loved the stars and always would. The night sky was a better map than any cartographer could produce. Glancing north, he saw Venus shining brightly. Venus, the goddess of love, was presiding over him tonight. Amusing, he thought, thinking about the young woman he had been holding in his arms. True, he had been pretending when he kissed and fondled her, to fool Jesus of course, but there was nothing pretend about the way holding her had felt. It had felt soft, warm, tender, damn good…right. He hadn’t wanted to stop kissing her. He had wanted to let her pleasure him and him her. But selling herself to yet another man – him – would not help her.
“Since when have you cared?” he whispered to himself. “A pretty skirt is a real a dozen, and you’ve had your share. She’s no different.”
But she was, and he knew it. When he saw her, he saw something of himself. A noble fallen from grace, someone masquerading as something she was not just like he masqueraded as a plunderer. For everyone’s protection, no one knew his real name nor would they ever. He looked at Luna and saw that she too had secrets she would never share with anyone, burdens that were almost too heavy for her shoulders to bear. Watching her play the role of a whore after seeing her dance in secret, dream in secret, he knew she was vulnerable.
He was drawn to her. Sometimes, he had read in folklore, the stars crossed in a way that brought two souls who needed one another together. Perhaps Venus was playing a hand and waiting for him to go all in and throw himself to the fates, whatever they may be.
“Shut up,” he told himself. He was being so much of a romantic sop he was making himself want to vomit. No one who could shed blood like White Hawk, the boy pirate, and do so with a smile on his face should succumb to a softening heart. And his soul was so damned by bloodshed and thievery it should be as hard as a stone.
He arrived at his ship, gave a soft whistle, and waited for a rope to be tossed down. He shimmied up and hopped over the rail.
“Cap’n,” José greeted him. “The men have been rounded up, as you ordered. I told them you had secret cargo to pick up and leaving was time-sensitive. What game is up your sleeve?”
“There’s a woman at El Barco,” Alejandro began.
“Si, there are lots of women, though you seem to have found the swan in a gaggle of vultures,” José retorted. “As for me, I got sucked off by a woman who was tolerable in the dark but no beauty in the light.”
Alejandro rolled his eyes and instead invited José into his study at the stern to talk out of earshot of any voices lurking on the pier. Port cities were notorious for spies, willing to sell any information to anyone, and wouldn’t the authorities just love to arrest and hang White Hawk, Negro Raton’s famed protégé.
Once the door was shut, he turned to José. “We’ll be taking her with us.”
José’s eyebrows raised an inch. “So first you bed yourself a whore, which you never do, and then you want to steal her away?”
“Si. I want you and Diego to come to El Barco in exactly one half hour. Bring a rope and go to the back ally. On the second floor, there’s a room that overhangs the path. Toss the rope up to me, I’ll send her down to you and we’ll meet back here at the docks.”
“You’re serious? You want to snatch the woman? To keep as your doxy?”
“Nay,” Alejandro said. “I mean, si…”
José, despite his misgivings, could not help but smile at his normally confident captain tripping on his words.
“Si, snatch her, but nay, not to be my doxy,” Alejandro was able to finally clarify. “She needs to escape. I’ll help her do just that. It means nothing.”
“Si, and by saying it means nothing you have won the highest honor for lying,” his first mate retorted, folding his arms.
“I’m a liar for a living,” Alejandro cracked a smile. “’Tis nice to finally have the honor.”
He went to his cabinet to pull down a clay jug of rum, pouring himself a swallow. He stuck the cork back in the spout and pulled free two extra blades from a drawer, inserting one down his leg and another at his back. Returning to El Barco with a sword might rouse more unwanted suspicion from Luna’s boss, but in the event Jesus caused a problem, he would need to be dispatched quickly. And a thug like Jesus would likely be concealing a blade or two of his own.
“I suppose you’re right,” he conceded. “Her beauty sways me. But make no mistake, the best thing for her would be to get away from her boss so she can start a new life.”
“Aboard the Sea Mistress?” José said, motioning his want for a shot of Alejandro’s fine rum. Alejandro obliged and passed the jug. “What do you know about her?”
Alejandro took back his jug and swigged straight from the container. He swallowed the burn, exhaled, and turned to look out the cabin windows at the moonlight wavering on the harbor while he rested his arm above his head on the window frame. In the distance, he could see the lights of El Barco. He turned back to José and gave a stiff chuckle. “Absolutely nothing.”
“And you would put the crew at risk?”
“How so?” Alejandro questioned. “Tell me how a fair, petite woman, young at that, who clearly cannot escape one man’s clutches, can put an entire crew at risk?”
“Bad luck for one,” José shrugged.
“Women being harbingers of bad luck is a load of toro shite and you know it, so do the men.”
“Don’t get me wrong. I’ll help her escape, for you allowed me my revenge on the governor. But taking her to a new location won’t stop an angry whoremonger from sending out his henchmen to track her down and drag her back to service. And she wouldn’t fare too well at his hands.”
“I’m aware,” Alejandro sighed. “And believe me I’ve been thinking about how preposterous this whole idea sounds. But if she has nowhere else to go…well, no one would find her on the upstanding merchant, Captain Filipe Villanueva’s, Sea Mistress.”
José smiled again, then chuckled, then motioned for the jug back. He pointed at his captain. “You like her. And since you’ve bedded her once, there’s no doubt you plan to do so again and again.”
“She’s been through enough,” Alejandro countered. “I’d not keep her as my doxy. And besides. I’m in no position to make a wife of her. What kind of life would I offer a woman?”
“None,” José said bluntly. “But if stealing her away will piss off that arsehole running El Barco, I say fine. Still, and mark my words on this, Cap’n. Mark them clear as the name on my padre’s grave so there’s no mistake when things fall apart. No good is going to come to the crew, ever, by having the wench onboard.”
“Your words are noted, cur, though I know not how clearly your father’s grave is marked,” Alejandro jested, motioning that José had had quite enough of his rum. “Midnight. Be there with Diego. The El Barco boss is already suspicious of me for paying all that silver. I don’t need you to fail on me and cause me delays.”
“Midnight. Diego and I will be there,” José replied, and took his leave.
Luna was dozing pleasantly when she heard words caress her ear. “Be ready for me at midnight, belleza.” Perhaps she was dreaming it, but the words were balmy, soothing. Just lying in the man’s arms with no expectations was divine. So she had been wrong. He had played a good hand to convince Jesus of his intentions, so he could get to her, to help her. His gaze upon her had been searing hot, but he had surprised her by not requiring pleasure. Of course she would leave with him, hypothetically of course. But reality started to seep into her dream. It would not really happen. Of all the promises a man whispered in bed, none of them kept true to a single one.
Be ready for him at midnight, her conscience repeated as she sank blissfully into her first night of real sleep in a year. Yet no sooner did she drift off, she jerked awake to a draft and a boot nudging her. She looked up, her eyes groggy and unfocused, and saw Jesus’ blurred image. Quickly she snapped upright, realizing her mysterious partner was nowhere in sight.
“Who is he?” Jesus demanded.
“I…I don’t know,” she replied.
“Did you ask his name?”
She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and shook her head, realizing that she had just been the most intimate she had ever been with a man she didn’t even know. “No.”
Jesus kicked her leg to jostle her. She recoiled against the wall.
“Be…because some men like to remain anonymous…perhaps he’s married.”
“He said he was checking his ship. Where is he from?”
She shrugged and shook her head, watching Jesus’ boot in case it should kick her again while Carlota crept into her respective corner of the room. “I’m sorry. I know nothing about him, only that he wished to dance with me.”
Jesus shook his head, his brow angry. “I don’t trust him. There’s something about him…Is he trying to steal you?”
Luna shook her head adamantly. She had always been a poor liar, but her very life might depend on her acting skills right now. “No. He’s wealthy it seems, and he has…interesting preferences in bed.” That much was true. In her experience it was interesting that a man would want to nestle close to a prostitute and nothing more, but she kept that to herself and let the implications hang. Some men did bizarre things in bed, as she well knew. “He hopes I will become a regular visit when he’s in Santiago,” she lied, making this part up completely.
“If he knows what’s best for him, he’ll leave after tonight and never come back. He tried to humiliate me in my own establishment. I might decide to ban him. You belong only to me, wench, and do not forget it.”
The words hung in the air between them. He turned and walked out. Carlota closed the door behind him. Without batting an eye, she rounded on Luna. “It was hilarious seeing Jesus jump for treats. Worth every slap he’s ever given me.”
Luna finally released her suppressed giggle. It had been wonderful to see Jesus so degraded.
“Your man was delicious,” Carlota continued. “Tell me, did his cock take after his height—”
Luna cut Carlota off with a raised hand. But she had indeed felt the man’s cock and it was indeed a lovely size. Whatever his reason for not bedding her, he had clearly wanted her.
“Come, do tell all. He was up here long enough to fuck you silly. I want the details, for the others are jealous. Fifteen silver pieces just for you? Mi Querida, it doesn’t get any closer to a fairytale for a whore than that.”
Luna smiled. Yes, the man had paid fifteen coins just for her. And if she was not mistaken, he had called her belleza. Beautiful. Of course many men had told her sweet things, but with him, she wanted to believe that he meant it. She might never see him again, but in those few hours, she had known there was something unexplainable and special about him. Noting the ringing of the church bell, it was only fifteen minutes until midnight. A whisper snaked through her memory. Be ready for me at midnight. Was he going to come back? He had paid for the night, but waking up to an empty bed with Jesus over her indicated her client had finished.
No sooner did she think it, there were footsteps outside her door, then a gentle knock. Carlota pulled it open and Luna’s rogue with his dangerous earrings and sapphire eyes emerged. His gaze landed on Luna. Carlota tossed back her red tendrils and leaned close to him, allowing her hand to travel to the junction between his legs.
“Back for more, eh? Isn’t Luna the lucky wench tonight.”
The man peeled her hand up by the wrist, giving Carlota a look that showed disinterest before his eyes looked back to Luna sitting upon the bed.
“She is indeed,” he replied, before his eyes snaked back to Carlota. “Do your business elsewhere, wench. I don’t like interruptions.”
A shiver traveled up Luna’s spine. This man was a risk. Mysterious. Serious. And in complete command of many men. And yet a man had never felt as tender to the touch as he had.
Carlota looked at Luna and her eyes shot up, a knowing smile forming on her lips. “If I did not know any better, Luna, I would say you have a suitor.” Then she threw her head back and cackled. “A suitor! Imagine! In our business!”
She kept laughing as she swayed from the room and Luna noted the flash of disgust in her partner’s eyes as he turned his attention to the door to make certain it was closed.
“Are you well?” he finally asked. “I saw Jesus coming down from your room.”
She nodded, but he squatted next to her to inspect her face. His thumb caressed her jaw. There were no new bruises that he could see.
“Did he hurt you again?”
She took a deep breath to steady her voice, but just having the man so close, touching her, sent her pulse humming.
“No. He wants to know who you are, says he doesn’t like you.”
“Trust that the feeling is mutual, wench,” Alejandro smirked, turning her chin so he could look upon her neck. “The man has done nothing to earn my respect. I didn’t like seeing him hit you. When a man beats a woman, he is in truth nothing but a coward.”
His hand dropped from her, satisfied, and he rose. Once again he went to the wall and began to pull back the boards, slowly, quietly. She noticed he had returned without his coat and hat, and his hair, rich and thick, was falling loose from its ponytail so that strands dangled in his face. She peeled her eyes away before he suspected her of gawking, but he was beautiful to look upon.
The bell tower now chimed midnight.
“Extinguish your candles,” he ordered. She hastened to obey.
When the second board was loose, he leaned out over the ally and gestured to someone. Yet no sooner had he done so, the sound of thumping on the stairs ensued once again. He shot her a look, her skin a ghostly hue in the darkness.
Jesus. One sound or sight of that man and she was a dead giveaway.
He replaced the boards so that they stood against the frame. Placing his finger over his lips, his other hand worked the laces of his breeches so that once again they fell open and sagged partway down his rear. He then dragged her down onto the pallet as the footsteps paused in front of the door, pinning her beneath him as he hiked her skirts above her knees and wedged himself between them.
He dropped down upon her so quickly, she let out a gasp, which was soon swallowed in a kiss as his chest pressed to hers. He thrust his tongue into her mouth and swallowed the rest of her breath as well. Fire lit her blood. Raging intensity. Alone, in the dark, his mouth tasting of spice and mint, his stubbly jaw raking against her skin and his hand resting upon her bare thigh, she let out a sigh…or was it a moan? She couldn’t help it. In the span of a few seconds, he had gone from dismantling her wall to dismantling her attire, cradling her neck on his arm, running a hand upon her inner thigh and now nudging his hips against her in a slow, steady rhythm so that his intimate parts rubbed hers through his undergarments.
Her arms snaked around his neck to cradle the back of his head in her hands. When the door opened, by all accounts it looked as though they were in the midst of swiving. Alejandro severed the kiss as abruptly as he had started it and glared up at her boss.
“I’m warning you, señor,” he said. “I’ve paid enough silver for a fortnight of privacy, and if you don’t leave me to my purchase, ’twill not bode well for you.”
Luna watched Jesus fearfully. No one threatened him. His retaliation was never pleasant. But there must have been something about the madness in her client’s eyes or perhaps the softness of his voice. Jesus stepped back.
“There’s something I don’t like about you, sailor. I cannot place my finger on it―”
“Captain,” Alejandro corrected.
Jesus smirked. “Fine then. See to it you’re cleared out and gone at dawn, and then don’t come back, captain.” And he left.
The man jumped up so quickly as Jesus’ footsteps receded it was almost insulting, Luna thought, watching him throw the laces of his breeches together. He went back to the boards, lifting them free, allowing the nighttime breeze to blow in and caress her heated skin. What was he doing? Why was he so obsessed with dismantling her wall? Everything was happening too quickly to understand.
Leaning out the opening, she watched him reach out and catch a rope tossed up to him, which he began to hoist up and drop in a coil. He turned to her. His eyes met hers in the darkness. He offered his hand.
“Come. We leave now,” he stated, the darkness emphasizing the shadows on his face.
She hesitated and regarded the stranger. She knew nothing about him. What did he want with her? Why did he help her? Did he hope to keep her as his doxy? But most importantly, when given all of these unknowns, why did she still feel safer with him?
He gestured again. “We have little time, wench.”
She took a hesitant step forward. “Why do you help me?”
He looked into her eyes. “You deserve better.”
“But why do you see to my betterment? Noble born or not, I’m still a prostitute.”
He stood still, his eyes never leaving hers as he searched for an answer he never found. “I don’t know.”
“At least you are honest,” she replied.
He almost laughed. Honest? He had just been bestowed with the highest honor for lying.
A voice from below, barely over a whisper, called up to them. “Cap’n? We’re going to raise suspicion down here and can’t afford to tarry overmuch. Is the wench coming or not?”
So her blonde rescuer was a captain, she thought. That would explain why he held such command over his men in the commons. He lifted his finger across his lips to indicate silence to his man, then turned back to her. “Will you come, señorita?” he asked, rather than giving her another order. “Any life is surely better than this one. I’ll take you wherever you want to go, but if you’re to leave this place, we lose valuable time standing here.”
She gulped and rubbed her arms. A shiver went down her spine.
Alejandro could tell the moment she made up her mind. She dropped to her knees, digging out a cloth sack from beneath her pallet. She then picked up her corset that he had undone earlier that evening and re-laced it, cinching it tightly around her middle. He swallowed. If this were any other moment, he would have indulged a look at her bosom as the lacing lifted it. The burn of her body against his as he pretended to bed her was still coursing through his veins, but saving her arse, and his as well, was more important. And besides, he didn’t bed common whores he reminded himself.
No matter how young and fetching, there was no telling what scourge of the sea had parted a prostitute’s legs. He had seen maladies when apprenticing with his father, that his father had hypothesized were caused by promiscuous intercourse. He couldn’t prove it, but his guess had seemed plausible, and those illnesses could progress to hideous proportions. And yet, when he looked at ‘Luna,’ he knew deep down that she was probably healthy, even picky about her clients. Being a young beauty, she probably had the privilege of selecting her clients from a steady stream of men, rather than taking anything she could get.
He took the rope as she accepted his hand and looped it around her waist and beneath her rear so that she was fashioned in a sling,
“Hold tightly while I lower you,” he whispered. “Go with my men and I’ll be right behind you.”
He offered her no other explanation. She stood at the edge and looked down to see two men, the one with frightening scars on either side of his face and mottled cheeks she had seen downstairs, and another who was tall and so skinny his skin was surely stretched over his bones, with high cheek bones, dark hair and eyes. Her face drained of the color her blonde rescuer had moments before put upon her cheeks.
She crossed herself, striking Alejandro as uncommon for a prostitute. Closing her eyes, she sat on the ledge and allowed the captain to lower her into the air. He got down on one knee with his leg outstretched to brace himself, leaning back, and began to feed more rope through his hands to lower her.
She dangle precariously as he released rope an arm’s length at a time, her knuckles whitening. Looking up, she saw nothing but part of his boot and leg and his powerful forearms. Even in the dark she could tell they were as tan as his face from the sun and rippling with muscle. A man of the sea if she had ever seen one. She had been so shocked and confused those few moments he had held her that she had failed to notice the details. How did one forget to feel and yet feel so strongly at the same time? Somehow he had made her feel just like that.
She whispered a prayer until she felt a man’s hands encircle her waist and the tension on the rope slacken. With a toss, the rest of the rope cascaded down and slapped the cobblestones. The scarred man was helping her untangle herself, but it was obvious he was a cold man. His skinny partner whipped the rope around his arm into a coil, and the scarred man took her by the arm and led her down the alley in the shadows.
They moved at a clipped pace, uttering no sounds, and Luna felt a strange foreboding. The streets were quiet except for the muffled din coming from El Barco in the distance. They traversed the square at a run, lest they be seen in the open, and it was then, stepping on a broken shard of glass, that she realized she wore no shoes. How did one forget to wear shoes, she scolded herself as she yelped.
“Quiet,” Scarred Face scolded her under his breath.
“I’m sorry,” she breathed, recoiling under his scrutiny.
She leaned against a wall, lifting her dirty foot, and pried the shard from her heel. Blood seeped out and filled the miniscule texture of her skin like a tide flooding inlets, but her companions showed no emotion, least of all compassion, and urged her to continue. Still, there was no going back. For these brief moments, Jesus was not looking for her and she was breathing freely.
At the thought of her boss, her hand migrated to the bruise on her jaw. Her companions showed no indication of noticing it. They, by every account, were hardened men. It hit her that perhaps her rescuer, as kind as he had been to her so far, might be just as hardened, if not more so because he commanded these brutes. They appeared to be working men, but there was a coldness, a detachment, that frightened her.
They were now well out of the square and she chanced a look back to see if her rescuer was coming. There was no indication of him. They rounded down steps cut into the cliff towards the docks, the silhouettes of the ships in port creaking like ominous shadows, water lapping at their hulls.
She stopped dead in her tracks, her senses sending warning shivers down her spine. Were they taking her to a ship? Of course they were. Her rescuer was a ship captain. How could she have been so blinded by his charm to overlook this fact? All color from her exertion now drained away and she pulled her arm free from the scarred man with oily curls.
“Who are you?” she demanded, her voice stronger than she felt. “Where do you take me?”
“Quiet, wench,” Scarred Face whispered. “The cap’n will explain. ’Twas his bloody idea.”
He dragged her into a corner, hidden amongst the perpetual overgrowth of tropical plants along the cliff. Trapped, she swore at herself. She had let the blonde man’s pretty face fool her into a false sense of security. She knew absolutely nothing about him. This was a grand mistake. She wrenched herself free from the mottled man and bolted back up the stairs.
“Get back here,” the man snarled, grabbing her about the waist and wrestling with her, but she flailed, kicking her feet in the air and throwing her head back. It connected with his nose. “Stupid woman!” he exclaimed, blood rushing down to his chin.
He dropped her and she slammed into the rocks, yet despite the pain, she scrambled away. No sooner had she bolted back up the stone steps, she collided with the chest of a man clad in black. They were everywhere! She had to get away, beg Jesus for forgiveness so she could keep a roof over her head and food in her stomach. He would beat her for sure, and probably administer other abuses too. He had never tried to bed her like he did with his other whores, but after this, she knew he would be violent. Yet what did this blonde man and his crew have in store for her? Tears blurred her eyes. She felt his two hands clasp her shoulders to steady her. She looked up, seeing the familiar face of her rescuer. She shook her head.
Alejandro cupped her face, running his thumbs through the water across her cheeks, then his eyes shot over her shoulder to José who was rounding the corner with blood pouring down his nose.
“The bitch head-butted me,” he snarled.
One dark look was all it took to stop the scarred man in his tracks, promising something far worse than what the woman had done to him. Again, she felt her feet stuck in place. This captain seemed to have that effect on her, preventing her from making a sensible decision.
“Plea…please let me go,” she stammered, her voice wavering.
The man’s hands dropped from her cheeks at her command. She sidestepped him and began to climb up the stairs like Cinderella racing home after a broken spell, except the blonde man reached out his hand to catch hers as she passed. She stopped and turned to look down at him. He had noticed the spots of blood shining in the moonlight from her foot.
“Luna, wait,” he stated. “You’re injured.”
She looked into his eyes and softened.
“And so am I, Cap’n,” the scarred man remarked.
“What did you do to the wench?” her rescuer replied, never once letting his eyes stray from hers.
“Nothing. She tried to flee so I grabbed her. I would have tossed her over my shoulder too and carried her the rest of the way until she bloodied my nose. Now I’m certain I don’t want her on board.”
“I’m not asking you what you want. She’s not some scallywag for you to rough about. I gave you your wish. Remember the man that disfigured your face?” the blonde man replied softly, allowing his implication to set in, that he had allowed José his revenge against the governor and his family.
The man with the scars went silent. Again her senses prickled. She knew not what was passing between them, but it was significant.
“Apologize to the señorita for frightening her and calling her a bitch.” Her rescuer’s words were crisp as he turned his full attention to his man.
The man with the scars remained silent.
“Do it,” Alejandro repeated.
“My apologies, wench.” With that, he disappeared into the night, down towards the ship.
The captain’s eyes turned back to hers. “Let me see your foot.”
“’Tis nothing,” she breathed. “I stepped on some glass.”
He knelt down and lifted her foot as if he might inspect a skittish pup, then gently laid it back down, his hands sliding upon her ankle. She felt a jolt from the contact. Of course she had been handled and touched in all ways imaginable, but the simple act of his hands upon her ankle felt tender.
“I’ll treat it on board the ship. Come.”
“I cannot,” she replied, her hands now working the fabric of her skirts.
His brow furrowed. “Why not?”
She bit her lip. “I…I cannot swim.”
“You’ll have no need.”
“But if the ship should capsize?”
He looked at the worry on her brow. “It won’t, but I’ll not let you drown.”
Emptier words, she could not imagine. How could he, one man, hold back the sea from swallowing her whole should she fall in? He wasn’t Moses, of that, she was completely certain.
“What’s your real name?” he asked.
She didn’t look at him directly. She felt vulnerable and no amount of effort to bolster herself could make her feel otherwise. So she lied again, knowing it sounded like the lie that it was.
Alejandro frowned. He supposed he understood her lie. Their meeting had been whirlwind at best. Why should she trust him? Especially after his man had tried to drag her around like a sack of flour?
“Who are you, sire?” she returned.
He thought on his answer. “Simply a man who asked you to dance.”
“Your name?” she persisted, her voice still gentle.
He couldn’t tell her the Dread Pirate White Hawk, nor could he say Alejandro Acosta Iglesias. “You may call me ‘Captain’ for now…or Filipe.”
“Is Filipe your given name?” she hedged.
He glanced around in the darkness, making sure that despite their wasted time, they were still unfollowed. She was sharp, he credited.
“It’s as much my given name as Luna is yours,” he replied, his words still soft but his intention clear. If she was to be a mystery, so was he. He looked at his ship to see silent shadows on deck milling about. “Now, if you’re to leave this hellhole behind you, we shouldn’t tarry. Perhaps I misunderstood, but I was under the impression you didn’t wish to remain bonded to Jesus, fucking men for a living. Come with me now and you have your freedom. Stay, and you have decided the coward’s path. Which is it?”
He couldn’t believe he had just said those words to a gently bred woman. Those were the words he used when finalizing a new recruit. No matter what the conversation, he always ended his bid with that phrase. Come with me now and you have your freedom. Stay, and you have decided the coward’s path. Of course he only took broken men, men who had nothing left to live for. And there really was no freedom for them. Once they agreed to pirate for him, they were bound to the Sea Mistress for life. Men seeking revenge were the best recruits, for they had useful anger. Almost all of his men were new since Negro Raton had died and named him his successor. All but José. José had joined the crew a handful of months after Alejandro had joined.
His words were effective now. Luna took a hesitant step forward and he felt relieved. Why? Why was he so intrigued with a whore? High born or not, she had clearly fallen and in their world, there was little hope to ever be accepted back into the noble class with the word ‘prostitute’ poisoning one’s pedigree. But maybe that was it. They were both fallen, both tainted by their deeds, both living a complete lie, no one in whom to confide their simple identity. That much was obvious about her and as much as he hated to admit it, he knew it true about himself.
He extended his hand. “My men aren’t known for their manners. I apologize for José and Diego’s roughness.”
She took his hand. He could feel her fingers shaking. She was coming with him, but she was frightened.
“He grabbed me…I became frightened of his…of your intentions.”
“I can understand,” he replied, now walking with her at his side as they descended the remaining steps towards the dock, the swaying silhouettes of the ships now looming large in front of her, the moon and stars making the water ripples shimmer like streamers of silver. Hell, she had reason to wonder why he wanted her. His prick had been at full mast earlier and she had felt it. It didn’t take a scholar to suspect the obvious. That he might want her for his doxy.
As they began to walk onto the dock, she froze, hearing the water slosh beneath them. Her hand turned stone stiff. He turned to her and could see she was terrified, her eyes closed and her breathing shallow and quick, like she was about to suffer an affliction of anxiety.
“You’re truly terrified of the water?” he asked.
She didn’t move, did not even open her eyes, as if by doing so the realness of the bridge would vanish and she would drown on the spot. But she nodded a quick, frantic nod.
“I’ll carry you. Do you trust me?”
She gave the same frantic nod. He withdrew a long knife from within his breeches and placed it between his teeth, then scooped her into his arms. Despite her icy grip, she felt soft and warm against him. Her arms encircled his neck in a death grip that only pressed her breasts tightly against him and made his own chest tingle.
He tipped his head out of the way so that the dagger didn’t slice into her arms or face buried in his shoulder, and walked in steady strides towards the Sea Mistress to the rope hanging down the side. With her clinging to him, he hoisted them both up. Luna, feeling the rope creaking under their weight and hearing the rocking of the ship beside her, opened her eyes to see the man’s neck tilted back, a gleaming dagger between his teeth, his powerful arms dragging them upward. She could feel every one of his muscles hard and tense.
They reached the rail. The man named José was nowhere to be seen. Diego, the tall, skinny one helped lift her over the side. She scrambled away from the edge and turned to see her rescuer, Filipe, swing over the rail on a hand and hop onto the deck as if he had not just carried such a burden as her up a vertical incline.
He slid his dagger back into his breeches. His eyes darted around to take in the ship and its workings. It was then that she noticed men working to ready the ship, a couple more scuttling over the rail from the dock like cockroaches in a dark cellar, all dressed in black carrying their blades in their teeth, dropping the ropes that had tethered the vessel upon the decking in coils like snakes waiting to strike. The flurry of activity hit her in the eerie silence: The crew was going to sail. Now.
“You sail in the dark?” she whispered.
Filipe nodded, taking her hand once again to lead her up the steps towards the cabin below the steering at the stern. “The stars serve as a guide.”
“But there are rocks beneath the surface. How will you avoid them?” she asked, panic rising.
Now he grinned. “I assure you, señorita, this is not my first time at the corrida de toros.”
He noticed his cocky retort lost on her. She was too petrified to notice. “If we hit a rock, ’twill splinter the vessel and we’ll take on water and I will drown.”
She said it calmly, but the storm raging in her eyes showed a tempest. She must have nearly drowned at some point, he deduced. Her fear was not unfounded, but irrational enough that drowning was the likeliest culprit.
“You were right, Cap’n,” José whispered, a laugh working its way up his throat as he walked by and leapt upon the rigging to climb up the mizzen. “The arse won’t find her on the Sea Mistress, for I don’t think the wench is inclined to make this vessel her home.”
“Come, Luna,” Alejandro replied, shooting José a warning glare and guiding her up the companionway to the cabin where he opened the door and ushered her in.
She entered a tidy cabin, a low bed braced to the wall with a blanket cinched around the mattress, a table in the center and a row of shallow cabinets built upon the opposite wall, finely crafted with intricate carvings. Windows wrapped around the cabin looking out into the harbor and the few remaining lights up on the cliff in the sleeping village, El Barco one of them. Albeit small, the chamber was luxurious, the bed clothes finely woven, and everything immaculately clean, making her feel shabby in her dingy dress.
She turned around to him closing the door upon them. Her face flushed with color. He looked at her and almost laughed.
“Surely a prostitute isn’t worried for her reputation, is she?”
She looked down and he felt a twinge of guilt. It would seem she had expected more from him and he had just shown her less by throwing her lack of virtue in her face. But why did he feel guilty? He was going to help the woman, si, but had never planned on forming an attachment.
“Sit there, on the bed, and raise your foot upon the chair. I should like to cleanse your cut.”
He turned from her and dragged his black tunic over his head, revealing his white one underneath. And as she held her breath, he peeled that one away too, exposing a beautiful, tan back littered with what looked like old sword fighting scars. Retrieving a clean shirt, he dropped it over his head, removed daggers from various parts of his body and setting them in a neat row in a velvet-lined case. She watched the disrobing, an intimate act, as if she always watched him disrobe after a long day at work.
Lastly, he pulled his purse out of his pocket and tossed it next to the daggers, removing a handful of coins floating freely in his pocket. He opened the purse strings and one by one, plunked fifteen coins back in, a clink punctuating each one.
She tallied the final count and felt a surge of anger. He had robbed back his fifteen coins?
“So I wasn’t even worth your silver after all,” she remarked. Not the fairytale Carlota had convinced her of, obviously.
He turned over his shoulder and cocked an eyebrow. “On the contrary, woman. You were worth every coin, but he was worth none of them. I don’t line the pockets of arseholes. These would be better spent on a new gown for you.”
His response stayed her anger.
“But how ever did you do it?” she asked as he went to one of his cabinets with a glass pane and opened it.
He pulled down a leather bag and withdrew from it a bottle and a square of cloth. Next he poured fresh water from a decanter into a bowl, removed a cake of soap, and kneeled at her foot propped on the chair as he had requested.
“I don’t disclose my ways, but you can be sure your boss – sorry, former boss, underestimated me. Most men do and quickly regret it.”
She winced as he set to washing the dirt from the gash, and he soon discovered it was indeed a gash, not a nick.
“Nasty cut,” he replied.
“I believe my injury put your men out.”
“I would trust José and Diego with my back, but Diego has no speech and José’s wife was raped while he was made to watch, a punishment to him. It made her go mad and take her own life. I don’t think he’s been a compassionate man since.”
She stilled. “I suppose he wouldn’t be, no. Who would do such a thing?”
Alejandro shrugged as he dabbed her foot. “Governor Eduardo de Santa Maria.”
She froze, listening to his words, shocked. “No…he wouldn’t have done that…”
“Believe me, he would, and did. More than one of my men has a similar story. Diego, for instance had his tongue chopped out at the governor’s command.”
She swallowed. Such horrid crimes. It was impossible that Santa Maria could ever do such a thing. She refused to believe it. Santa Maria had been tasked with keeping peace, watching over the village like a shepherd would watch his flock. Certainly he had had to issue punishments, for what governor hadn’t? But he would have fined a wrongdoer, or maybe put him in the stocks for a couple day. She had never heard of Santa Maria committing such atrocities.
“José, Diego,” he continued while he worked, unknowing of her thoughts, “they’re hard men and have lived hard lives. Neither of them would have hurt you. They lack tact, ’tis all, and probably feared that if you ran away it would appear that they had not followed my orders.”
“You’re that powerful that men would fear you?” she asked.
He glanced up at her. He had power over them, but keeping that loyalty was something he negotiated daily. Should a pirate captain lose his crew’s respect, he could expect mutiny and a desert island for his retirement if not an outright knife to the throat. His power was much more potent amongst other sailors and naval vessels. People feared the Pirate White Hawk. But despite it all, he felt powerless. Trapped. He had not a soul who knew him. And he never would. White Hawk would have to go to the grave as White Hawk. There was no other way for a pirate.
He nodded. “I reward my men generously for their work, and punish swiftly if they cross my orders. Si. That powerful.”
“I shouldn’t cross you then,” she remarked as he reached for the bottle upon the table.
He uncorked the medicine and saturated the little cloth in fluid.
“This will bite, but be still. ’Twill cleanse any particles from your wound and reduce your risk of infections.”
She nodded and sucked in a whoosh of air when he pressed the cloth to her skin. Despite his advice, she flinched. His gentle touch turned vice-like and he held her foot until he had finished wiping out the wound. He then reached in the leather case once again and withdrew a roll of bandaging, pulling yet another small dagger out of his pocket.
The man was armed to the teeth, she thought. Literally, for he placed the dagger once again in his teeth to hold it at the ready while he used both hands to wrap the bandage around her foot and ankle.
“You have the hands of a physician and yet the manners of a pirate,” she remarked, examining both his handiwork and the blade.
He nearly choked on his own saliva and took the knife back in hand. She was astute, even if she had no idea how close to true she had struck. “Si. I…” He cleared his throat. “I used to be my padre’s apprentice. He was a surgeon.”
He cut himself short just as he cut the bandage and worked the end under the folds to hold it in place. Why had he said that? It had just slipped out. Well it was one fact too many about his personal life revealed, one fact more than even his men knew.
“Why did you not continue your studies?” she asked. “Despite acting like a brigand, you have a gentle manner.”
“You didn’t see the look on Jesus’ face when I stole back my coin, woman,” he retorted. “I doubt gentle is the word he calls to mind.”
“You didn’t hurt him…or kill him, did you?”
He looked at her again. “The man struck you for all to see and I doubt it was his first time. How many times has he made you bare your breasts in a public square? Why should you care what befell him?”
She sat in silence and rubbed a shiver that had raised goose flesh along her arms.
“It matters not to me,” she muttered, but it did, and Alejandro could see it.
“Do you care for him?” he persisted, his voice having gone cold. He supposed Jesus was not bad looking, but he was an arse. It made jealousy rise in his chest. How could she care for a man who had beaten her?
She noted his change in tone and looked directly back at him. “I despise him.”
“Then what does it matter if he lives or not?” Alejandro continued, repacking his supplies and carrying the bag back to his cabinet.
He latched the lock and looked back at her, her foot now withdrawn underneath her skirts upon the bed. His bed.
“I’ve seen enough killing, and no matter who, I can’t bear to see more,” was her only response. She looked away from him, still holding her arms. “I just want my nightmare and all those in it to disappear.”
He supposed he could say a number of things, such as, it’s good that you didn’t have to see it then, or perhaps, I assure you, you haven’t seen the killing I’ve seen. But the look of mourning that had consumed her face told him to bite his tongue.
“He lives unscathed except for his pride, and is as angry as ever. His pocket is merely fifteen coins lighter. And he may or may not have been bound to a chair.”
He moved to the door, wondering how heinous the killing she had seen could have been that she should harbor such compassion for a man who had beaten and subjugated her, perhaps even raped her. He silently swore. There was work to do aplenty and his men needed supervising. Thinking of this woman was a distraction.
But the thought left an uneasy churning in the pit of his stomach, a feeling he had tried hard to bury ever since he joined the life of piracy. And now that uneasy feeling flooded his mind. He had killed many people, instead of healing them like his father did. He had strayed so far from a moral path he no longer knew how to be good. But this woman, despite her occupation, was not so jaded as to know that one death, no matter the person, was evil. How many people had he and his crew left behind to mourn their loved ones slain at his hands?
In his sudden wash of shame, he could no longer look at her. He placed his hand on the latch, pausing with his back to her. “Rest, señorita. I’ll make sure you have a meal in the morn.”
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