Trust and Honour, part 2 of 5
by The Stowaway
Fandom: PoTC Rating: NC-17 Pairing: Jack/Will/Elizabeth/James Full Header
Over breakfast next morning, they discussed plans for the day. Elizabeth had more business to attend to with Jenkinson, she said, ruefully.
“But today should be the last of it, I expect,” she said. “After this, I hope I shall be quite at liberty. I am sorry to leave you to Will’s tender mercies, James.” And she laughed at her husband’s indignant snort.
“Waste no worry on me, Elizabeth,” James smiled, “I am easily entertained.” He turned to Will. “How is the fishing hereabouts?”
“It’s not too bad, truly,” Will replied. “There is a spot a short way upstream, a riffle just below the falls, that gives good sport. But, if you are of a mind for something a bit more strenuous, there is a cave I have long wished to visit, up in the hills above the Latham place.”
“Oh Will, not that dreadful cave!” Elizabeth cried.
“But, my dear, it is the perfect opportunity,” He turned to James. “That is, if you are willing to join me. Elizabeth detests caves and does not wish me to go into this one alone.”
“I have had quite enough of caves to last me the rest of my life, I thank you. And of course I don’t wish you to go alone. Caves are dangerous.” she shuddered.
“Well, now you have piqued my interest,” James said. “I will go with you, Turner, to keep you out of mischief.” This with a raised eyebrow in Elizabeth’s direction.
“I expect you two will have a wonderful time, poking about that nasty place.” She shook her head. “Suddenly, spending the morning going over accounts with the steward sounds almost inviting.”
An hour later, Will and James rode up the hill road through dappled sunshine. The horses were fresh and climbed jauntily, pricking their ears at the birds that flew across the road before them. There was a light, cooling breeze that drove off the clouds of flies that would otherwise plague men and beasts alike.
They had with them, for their expedition, a number of things: lanterns, a coil of stout rope, provisions for lunch, and a torch that Will had insisted upon bringing. He grinned mischievously and refused to answer when James asked him why they would need it when they had the lanterns. James, amused by his schoolboy demeanor, did not press him.
Will was in high spirits at the prospect of seeing the cave at last. He snapped his fingers at Elizabeth’s trepidation. “It is not as if the place is likely to be used by smugglers or pirates,” he laughed, “not this high up. That would be completely impractical. If it were, you may be sure I would have no interest in exploring it; the Isla de Muerta was more than enough of that sort of cave for me, I thank you.”
“Smugglers don’t operate up here, then?” James asked.
“Well, if they do, no word has come to Somerset,” Will replied. “I have never heard of a raid on any plantation, have you?”
“No,” James shook his head, “the scum seem to work oftenest near the shore; stealing the puncheons and hogsheads as they are brought down to be shipped.”
“And not even then, any longer,” said Will, with a grin, “thanks to the tireless efforts of the Navy. You must have put them quite out of business by now, James.”
“Not entirely, not yet. The larger gangs have been wiped out, to be sure. All that’s left are a few stragglers; annoying enough, in their way. But we will soon lay them by the heels.”
Will, looking at the grim expression on his friend’s face, did not doubt it. “When that day comes, you will have the eternal gratitude of the planters and the waggoners. Their profits have suffered for years under the smugglers’ depredations. Time was, armed guards were needed on every cart that rolled down this road. And now, trouble is rare.”
James glanced at him, curiously. “You say ‘their’ profits, Will, as if you were not one of them.”
“And so I am not,” Will shrugged. “Oh, the Governor tolerates me well enough as a son-on-law, I grant you. He is a kind and generous man, and for that I am grateful. But he made it clear long ago that he wished me to have no part in the management of what will become my children’s inheritance. Truly,” he shrugged again, “it matters not.”
James, watching the somber expression on the proud, young face beside him as Will rode in unwonted silence, staring straight ahead, thought that it did indeed matter. He smiled to himself. Stubborn as a mule, the boy was; a fit match for Elizabeth. He cleared his throat. “When was it that Governor Swann told you this, if you don’t mind my asking? At the time of your marriage?”
“The day before. We met with his solicitor. There was all the paperwork about Elizabeth’s income and her mother’s fortune, which she was to inherit when she came of age, to be gone through. Afterward, he took me aside and explained that it was just to satisfy the legal forms – that, as Elizabeth’s husband, I had a right to that much - but in practice nothing would change. He and Elizabeth would go on as before; managing the estate and his business interests without my help.”
“Ah, but things have changed, haven’t they?” James replied.
“How do you mean?” Will frowned.
“You have changed a great deal since then, Will. The Governor is a cautious man, where his daughter is concerned; it is natural that he would hesitate to let an inexperienced hand take control of any part of his fortune; her inheritance and that of her descendants. It is the same caution that led him to establish the trust for your children on the day Sarah-Ann was born. Think about it; when you married Elizabeth you were (forgive me) a rather callow boy, a journeyman blacksmith, working for poor drunken Brown. Since that day, you have gained your master rank and taken over the business when Mr. Brown died. Today you have two journeymen and two apprentices,”
“Three apprentices,” Will interjected.
“Three, then, to keep up with the work. Turner blades are prized far and wide. You are a respected tradesman, a good husband and father. And, despite a slight,” James coughed, “lapse into, er, privateering last year, a good and steady citizen. You have proven yourself a man to make any father-in-law proud.”
Will shook his head. “Not the Governor.”
“Indeed, you are mistaken; for he has told me so himself,” James smiled.
“He has? Then why has he said nothing to me?”
“Has he not? Are you sure there has been no hint dropped, no sign of a change of heart? It may not be easy for him to acknowledge that he was, if not mistaken in you, then overcautious. Elizabeth gets her stubbornness from him, you know.” James smiled. “Perhaps, then, it is for you to speak first,” he suggested, “Until you do, how can he know you are willing to assume extra responsibility? He may believe you to be so wrapped up in your own affairs by this time that you care not for his. He may be unwilling to risk a snub.”
Will frowned thoughtfully, but did not speak.
James continued, “You know he intends to return to England at the end of next year, do you not?”
“I am tolerably sure he would welcome your help in setting his West Indian holdings in order. He would not want to leave Elizabeth in sole charge; it’s too great a burden on one person and distracts her from the children. Ask him, Will. You may be pleasantly surprised at his answer.”
“On the strength of your advice, James, I shall do so,” Will replied, with a faintly skeptical smile, “but I shan’t build any hopes on the outcome just yet.”
“Fair enough,” said James, “that’s all I ask, that you give it a chance. Now, where’s this cave of yours? Surely we should be nearly there.”
Will grinned, more than willing to be done with serious subjects. “The trail leaves the road just around that next bend. We ford the river and then it’s barely a half mile to the entrance. Come on, hurry!”
They had not gone very far up the trail before they began to hear sound of falling water. It grew louder by degrees until they passed out of the underbrush into an open glade on the bank of the river. To their left the ground fell away sharply and the rushing water fumed and foamed over boulders in a deep-cut channel, the line of which was rapidly hidden by the dense forest. To their right lay a boiling pool at the foot of a considerable fall that churned the water into milky jade. Ferns, damply emerald in the sunlight, danced in the spray at the upstream edge of the pool and grew up the mossy cliff wall beside the tumbling water.
James would have drawn rein to admire the scene, but Will forged ahead, guiding his horse into the ford just below the outflow of the pool and calling over his shoulder, “Come on! We can eat lunch here on our way back, if you wish.”
Once across the river, the trees thinned and the trail became rockier, climbing steeply toward the cliff that loomed above the forest. Soon they emerged into sunlight at the foot of a talus slope. Will dismounted and began unpacking their gear. “We leave the horses here,” he said. “The cave mouth is just at the top of this rock pile.”
James stared up at the cliff, shading his eyes with his hand. He could make out a dark cleft in the rock face. Then he surveyed the steep incline that led thence, which seemed to be composed of loose rocks and boulders, ranging from gravel to waggon-sized. “This looks to be a treacherous climb. How do you propose getting to the top without bringing the whole thing down on us?”
“Oh, there’s a path over that way,” Will pointed to the right, where the talus curved back toward the cliff base. “Here, put these on.” And he held out a pair of rough shoes, such as the stable boys wore for dirty work. “The floor of the cave is muddy, they tell me. Don’t want to ruin your riding boots.” The schoolboy grin was back.
“Will Turner,” asked James, beginning to be suspicious, “what are you not telling me?”
“Upon my honour, nothing so very bad,” Will declared, hand over his heart, face the very image of guileless innocence. “It’s a surprise. Well, go on,” he waggled the shoes, impatiently, “take your boots off.”
James removed his boots and donned the borrowed shoes; curious now to see this “not so very bad” surprise of Will’s. “I shall likely regret this,” he sighed, “but I promised your wife I would keep you out of mischief, and I must attempt to do so. Lead on.”
Will slung the rope over his shoulder and picked up the torch. Clipping one lantern to his belt, he gave the other to James, and led the way up the path to the cave mouth.
The opening, once they reached it after a short scramble, was larger than it had looked from below – a fact James found reassuring. It was about 8 feet in height and nearly 6 feet wide. Looking inside, he saw a smooth floored passage, leading slightly downward and to the left. A thick, pungent odor drifted outward, making him back away hastily. He glared at Will.
“Bats,” he said, disgustedly, “A multitude of them, by the smell. Is this your ‘surprise’?”
“In a manner of speaking,” grinned Will. He took the lantern from James and set about lighting it. “Have you ever been inside a bat cave?”
“Nor I, but I’ve spoken to men who have. It’s a wondrous sight,” Will went on, “if you can get past the smell, of course.”
James looked unconvinced. “You intend to subject yourself to that miasma?”
“Oh, I expect one gets used to it, don’t you think? Here, you carry the lantern, but keep the shutters closed at first; we will have the light from the entrance to guide us for a way and we don’t want to alarm the bats.”
“No, indeed, that would never do.” James noted that his sarcasm was quite wasted on his companion. He sighed again. “Well, if it must be done, then let us get it over with.”
Will led the way into the passage. The stench enveloped them, catching in the throat and making breathing difficult. After perhaps a dozen yards, when the light behind them was faded almost away, they began to hear, over their own footfalls, a faint high-pitched squeaking. James partially opened a shutter on the lantern, enough for them to see the floor, which continued smooth and free of obstacles, and allow them to proceed. A few yards more and the squeaking had grown in volume, accompanied by a peculiar rustling susurration. The walls and roof of the passage opened out and they were in the cave. The air was full of noise, as the inhabitants reacted to their presence.
“Open the lantern,” Will whispered, “let us see.”
James obliged. He cast the beam of the lantern to the left and right, where it glittered off the damp walls and the fantastical spikes of limestone jutting up from the floor amidst great heaps of droppings. The far wall of the cave was lost in shadow; the place was huge. And ever the agitated sound from the bats grew louder.
“Look up!” Will said. And both men gasped.
Thousands, tens of thousands of tiny bodies clung to every inch of the roof and of the pendant forms, like icicles of stone, that covered it. As the light played across them, they stirred restlessly, opening and closing their leathery wings and clambering over each other. The noise increased.
Forgetting for a moment his discomfort, James gazed in awe at the astonishing sight. Beside him he heard Will cough and smiled to himself. Not quite so blithe about the fetid air now, boy?, he thought. But Will was undaunted. Taking a spill from his pocket, he lit it at the lantern.
“Watch this,” he said, and held the tiny flame to the torch.
It sputtered and burnt blue for a moment before catching and flaring up, sending a blaze of light into that dank place. Billows of smoke rose to the roof of the cave. Will raised it high as a storm of bats took flight. In an instant, the cave was full of wings, swooping and darting.
Will took a few steps forward into the cave, carrying the fire away from the passage entrance. Before James could move, he was enveloped in a river of escaping bats. They poured past him in a never-ending stream, passing so close that he felt the tiny cold wind as each slipped by, like the breath of ghosts. And yet, of all that swift multitude, not a single one touched him with so much as a wing-tip. Curious, he held up his arm and the stream parted around it without a check.
Finally, the outpouring slowed and then stopped as the last of the bats left the cave. From across the cave, Will was grinning at him, his eyes shining in the flaring torchlight.
“Well?” he asked.
“That was…” James shook his head, at a loss. “It was a wonder,” he said at last. “Not a single one touched me. How do they manage to avoid collision?”
Will shrugged. “It’s a mystery. Come on! The passage continues over here, let’s follow it.”
They followed the tunnel for some distance. It grew smaller, until they were walking stooped over. It opened out into a second cave, smaller than the first but free of bats. The rock shone with moisture and they heard the plink of a slow drip somewhere. Beyond this cave was a short passage that ended in a sheer drop into blackness. They could hear running water at the bottom. After lowering the lantern at the end of the rope, they saw that they had come to an underground river. It flowed swift and black, about fifty feet below them, lapping at the base of the rock wall, with no foothold visible. Even Will was obliged to concede that going forward was impossible and, accordingly, they turned back.
The return journey was without incident and they passed through the bat cave, to which none of the inhabitants had as yet returned, and out into the sunlight. They moved away from the cave mouth and drew a welcome lungful of untainted air. Will doused the torch and James extinguished the lantern.
Will looked his companion up and down. James was liberally smeared with the slimy ‘mud’ from the cave and had bat droppings here and there as well. “Look at yourself. Disgraceful,” he laughed.
“You are hardly in a better state, I assure you,” James replied indignantly.
“Oh, agreed,” Will chuckled, “a pretty pair, we are. Let’s ride down to the river to get cleaned up before we eat.”
As they made their way down to where the horses were tethered James looked at his feet with distaste. “I doubt the stink will ever leave these shoes, Will,” he said.
“Very likely not,” Will agreed. “We will abandon them here.”
They rode barefoot back down the trail to the waterfall glade. The day was hot and the pool inviting. After tending the horses, they took off their coats and stood on the bank. James was beginning to remove his shirt when Will shoved him from behind and he went into the pool fully dressed, with a terrific splash. He surfaced to find Will in the water beside him, likewise still clothed, laughing.
“What the devil are you about?” he demanded.
“Being practical!” Will said, raising his voice to be heard over the falls. “We need to rinse out our clothing in any case. May as well kill two birds with one stone.”
“Practical, my eye,” said James, trying not to laugh at Will’s impish expression, “You just couldn’t resist the temptation to push me – admit it.”
“Well, there is that,” Will granted. He laughed again. “You should have seen your face as you went in!”
They swam for a while and then spread their clothes on the bushes to dry, lying on the bank in the dappled sunlight meanwhile. Presently, they dressed and ate their lunch. They spoke of the wonderful behaviour of the bats and of the cave, itself.
“Where does that river go?” Will asked, “I mean, I know it must run to the sea, but where does it come out?”
“Who knows?” James replied. “It may well enter the ocean from an underwater cave. There is no way to tell.”
“I wonder if it’s possible to find out. Taking a boat to it would be out of the question, I suppose.”
James regarded him with alarm. “Surely you would not attempt it?”
“No, no,” Will laughed, “I am not as mad as all that. But perhaps one could drop a number of small casks into the stream. One or more might survive the journey and appear floating off shore.”
“Or get smashed to splinters against the rocks in some underground sluiceway, more likely.”
Will sighed. “You are probably right. But still, it would be grand to know.”
Shortly afterward, they put their boots on and headed home. They beguiled the time with talk of swords. Will had an idea for a new type of guard and they cheerfully argued its merits and thrashed out the details of the design all the way down the mountain.
It was late afternoon. Elizabeth sat reading in the library. She looked up as James entered the room. “Did you have a pleasant ride? But where is Will?”
“We did indeed; it’s beautiful country up there. And the cave is fascinating, although I don’t expect you wish to hear about that,” James replied, seating himself. “Will is still down at the stables. It seems one of the horses has turned up lame and the groom wanted his opinion. He asked me to tell you he won’t be long; no need to put dinner back.”
“Well, until then,” Elizabeth put down her book and rose, “will you walk with me, James?”
She took his proffered arm and they strolled slowly down toward the mill. After a time, she sighed. James looked a question and she smiled.
“Oh, nothing, really. It’s just so good to be home again.”
“Home?” he asked, knowing how she had longed for her visit to England; her visit ‘home’.
“Yes, indeed. Odd, isn’t it? Jamaica is more home to me now than England could ever be, James. England was not what I remembered.”
“Had it changed so much, then?”
“Say rather that I have changed, I think. I have lived too long in the New World to be comfortable in the Old. I went back looking for ‘fresh woods and pastures new’, but what I found was smaller and more confined than I expected. Life there is a staid and unvarying round; and they are content in that – rather smugly so, it seemed to me.”
The thought of Elizabeth, headstrong and outspoken as she was, attempting to ‘fit in’ to Society, was, he had to admit, an amusing and incongruous one. But still, it was her heritage. “What about your daughters, Elizabeth? Have you considered the effect on their fortunes if they remain out here? How will they contract suitable marriages?”
She laughed, without mirth. “Suitable in whose eyes, James? Society’s? I don’t think I measure suitability in quite the same way. Society, you may be sure, lost no opportunity to remind me that I had put a foot badly wrong in that regard, myself. Marrying out of one’s class, and for love, of all vulgar reasons, is not done, you know.” She was silent for a moment. “Sarah-Ann and Eliza may choose for themselves, when the time comes. If they wish to live in England, I will not hinder them – and my cousins would be delighted to offer them a home and to marry them off ‘suitably’. But Will and I will stay here, and I hope my girls will, as well.”
Reaching the bridge above the mill-pond, they turned and headed back.
“And what of you, James,” she asked. “What will you do when you retire, full of years and honours, as they say? Will you go home to England?”
“Why yes,” he replied, after a short pause, “when that day comes, of course I shall go home.”
She regarded him steadily. “Why?”
“What do you mean, ‘why’?”
“I mean why go to live in England? What will you do there? Take your place amongst the landed gentry; ride to hounds, tend your garden, bore your neighbors with nautical tales?”
“Well,” he hesitated, “I hardly think that’s an entirely accurate description, but essentially, yes. Get myself a snug little property somewhere and settle down.”
“You would be content to give up the sea? To devote your days to horses and hounds, to tenants’ disputes and rights of way and the proper maintenance of hedgerows and how many acres to put under wheat this year? Visits from the Vicar about the church restoration fund, dinner with county families?” She shook her head. “To become a country squire?”
“I’m sorry, James. I shan’t tease you any more. Pay me no mind. See, there’s Will, come to look for us.”
Dinner that evening was quiet, with little conversation, but comfortable.
Will told as much as Elizabeth wished to hear of their cave expedition; grinning boyishly at her shudders and turning now and again to James for corroboration. James seemed a little abstracted, glancing thoughtfully at Elizabeth, when her eyes were turned elsewhere. She was aware of his scrutiny but chose to ignore it. She had hoped to make him think and she appeared to have succeeded.
After dinner, at Will’s request, she read to them from ‘Robinson Crusoe’ until bedtime.
Elizabeth put down the hairbrush and began plaiting her hair. Will watched her from the bed, smiling slightly when her eyes met his in the mirror.
“You’re up to something, aren’t you?” he asked.
She laughed a little; bit her lip. “You know me too well.” She fastened her braid with a bit of ribbon and slipped into his arms, stretching and then relaxing against him as he held her tight.
“I ought to, by this time,” he smiled. “It’s a matter of self-preservation. Forewarned, and all, you know.”
“Poor darling,” she murmured, lips moving lazily but with intent across his chest. “Is it so terrible?”
“You’ve no idea,” he said, and yelped when she slapped him on the arm. “No fair hitting, madam. I claim a forfeit.” He tipped her chin up and kissed her. “Now. Tell me.”
After a moment, she said. “It’s James.”
“I gathered as much. What about James?”
“He’s unhappy, Will. Oh, he hides it well, but it’s there to glimpse. He still thinks he wants ‘marriage to a fine woman’. You should have seen his face when Sarah-Ann proposed to him. Just for an instant, all the regrets were in his eyes.” She sighed. “That wish is just a habit he can’t break.”
“And why should he not wish for such a thing, love?”
“Oh, Will, don’t be obtuse! After what you told me about him and Jack, how can you think it? They are matelots in all but name. You said so yourself.”
Will shifted uneasily. “That is between them. It is hardly any business of ours.”
“If Jack is captured and James is forced to hang him it will become our business pretty quickly, husband.”
“After all this time,” Will chuckled, “they seem to have the cat and mouse game perfected. We needn’t worry about that, I think.”
“That is where you are wrong,” Elizabeth said, “The rules have changed. Father sent me a note today; the latest dispatches from London include general orders specifically commanding the capture of the Black Pearl and the hanging of her crew.”
“General orders?” Will whistled softly. “Once those are published, James will be helpless to protect Jack. Grim news. But how do you think you will be able to help?”
“One step at a time,” she replied, “James must somehow be brought to look at this problem clearly. He must realize that his old dreams are no longer what he really wants.”
“Again, how do you think to accomplish this, Elizabeth?”
“I want to go to him tonight.”
“What?” Will’s arms tightened reflexively, possessively. She could feel his body tense with shock. He started to speak; hesitated. The flat ‘No’ she half expected didn’t come. Instead he asked, very softly, as if he dreaded to hear the answer, “Why?”
“James doesn’t want a woman of his own,” she said, “not any longer. He will never believe that unless he is shown.”
“This seems a rather shocking method of proving it to him, don’t you think? Unless…” and he paused, “that is not your whole reason for proposing it.” Another pause; a deep breath. “Once, long ago, we spoke of the possibility of you having …adventures.”
“…is one, yes,” she finished for him. “And true to my word, I will neither lie to you nor deceive you. James’s need and my own wishes run in harness, although I will take good care that the latter is not so clear to him as the former. I wish to free him, not entangle him. Do I have your approval?”
“How can I say yes, Elizabeth? You are my wife!”
“And you are my husband. That will not change, my dear.”
“But… you and James….”
“Well, what about you and Jack; and all the months you were with him?” she asked. “And that night aboard the Pearl, Will; you had both Jack and James.”
“That’s different,” Will said, uncomfortably.
“Why, because I ask permission first?”
He winced but remained silent.
“I’m sorry,” she said, with quick contrition, “That was unkind.”
“No,” he replied, “I am being a fool.” He stopped. She waited him out. At last: “I love you. I trust you. Now go, before I change my mind.”
“Not just yet,” she murmured. Shoving at his shoulder, she rolled him unresisting onto his back and knelt astride his waist. Running her hands into his hair she bent to touch his mouth with hers, smiling into the kiss as his hands slid their way up her thighs to grip her hips, easing her back and down, onto him. “First things first.”
An hour later, as Will slept, she crept out of his arms and made her way to James’s room. Inching the door open, she listened. Nothing to be heard but deep, even breathing; good. Her feet made no sound on the cool wood of the floor as she crossed to stand for a moment beside the bed. James lay on his side, facing her; dark hair mussed on the pillow. He looked much younger in sleep; the cares of the day removed for a time. Almost of itself, her hand came up to brush a lock of hair from his forehead, but stopped. No; better to wake him another way, she thought. Lifting a corner of the sheet, she lightly slipped into the bed beside him; legs sliding along his, shoulder barely touching his chest.
And he moved. His arms went round her and she turned to him as he drew her close; he threw one leg over hers, wrapping himself around her. Her face was pressed to the hollow of his throat, his cheek against her hair and he mumbled something; a drowsy, contented sound. If it was a name he spoke in his sleep, it was not hers. So much the better, she thought.
She pressed a kiss to his throat; moved upward, tongue and lips tasting and teasing, toward his jaw. She felt him hardening against her hip. “Mmmm,” he hummed with pleasure, still three parts asleep, and shifted to bring his mouth down on hers. Opening to him, she met his kiss with careful enthusiasm; lips full of tiny movements, swirling her tongue around his; watching for the moment when he realized it was not a dream.
There it was! His eyes snapped open and he raised his head to look at her face. For a moment he blinked at her with astonishment. “Elizabeth?” And his brows drew down into something very like a scowl. “What. Are you. Doing. Here?” he asked, enunciating carefully.
“Isn’t it obvious, James?” she smiled, smoothing one hand along the now-tense muscles of his back, as the other drifted across his chest, dragging lightly across his nipples before continuing downward.
“It is, rather. Perhaps I should have asked ‘Why are you here’, instead?” he replied, his tone an interesting mixture of distraction and sarcasm. She bent her knee, bringing her leg up between his, her thigh pressing gently upward. “Elizabeth. Stop it.”
“Why?” she asked in her turn, “don’t you like it?” Undulating very gently, she watched his eyelids flutter and he bit back a groan.
“I am not dead, woman,” he growled. “Of course I like it. But that’s hardly the point, is it? What about Will?”
“My husband knows where I am, James, else I would not be here.” She paused and continued demurely, “Or is it that you wish him to join us? Would you like me to ask him?” Her eyes narrowed in amusement as he struggled for words. “I would rather have you all to myself, but that is for you to say.”
“Elizabeth, you devil, I will have a serious answer, if you please!” he demanded. “Why are you here in my bed?”
“Because, my dear friend, it is time – past time – to clear the air between us. I treated you with rather appalling cruelty. No,” she laid her hand against his mouth, “don’t deny it; you know it to be true. And in return you have been kind and generous far beyond my deserts.”
His lips stirred against her palm in the lightest of caresses and his eyes softened but he didn’t speak.
“I regret nothing of those wild days,” she went on, “save the hurt I did you; which cannot be undone.” Her hand crept up at last to brush back the hair that fell over his brow. She drew his head down, whispered against his mouth. “I offer you amends. Will you accept?”
“Elizabeth,” his voice shook, “you need not do this. The simple fact that you would offer is enough.”
“Of course I need not. I do so because I wish to.”
His arms tightened around her. Yet still he hesitated, his eyes searching hers, not quite daring to believe. She nodded. “I want you, James.”
And his mouth came down on hers with the pent up longing of years. She sank into the kiss, moving against his body with a growing urgency, awed by force of him. His hand came up, fumbled with the fastenings of her gown and she moaned in frustration. Too much was between them.
She gripped his arms, whispering, “Wait. Let me go a moment.” Dazedly, he complied. She sat up and pulled her nightgown over her head. “Now yours,” she said, tugging at his nightshirt, which soon joined hers at the foot of the bed. “Much better,” she purred, leaning in to run the flat of her tongue over his nipple, making him gasp and shudder even as he reached for her again.
He lay back and she straddled him, knees pressing into his sides. He fondled her breasts, thumbs grazing the nipples; she moaned and arched her back. Meanwhile, she reached behind to take him in one hand, stroking firmly upward, causing him to buck his hips, nearly unseating her. “Teasing wench,” he growled at her.
She laughed, a little breathlessly. “And if I am? What will you do about it, sirrah?”
Seizing her about the waist, he raised her. “Just this,” he said, and drove upward just as he pulled her down. Her head snapped back as he filled her and she cried out. She braced her hands on his shoulders, arms trembling, as she rode him, rising and sinking slowly, maddeningly. He slipped his hand between their bodies and she jumped as his fingers found what they sought; her sighs becoming whimpers, her movements convulsive, as he stroked her to her climax.
Gasping, she bent down to kiss him and his arms went round her back, clasping her tightly as he rolled them over, still joined, until she lay beneath him. She wrapped her legs around his waist as he grinned at down her.
“My turn,” he said, and began to move. Slowly at first; long, slow strokes meant to last. She gasped as he drove home again, and again. Soon, his control began to slip and he sped up; faster and faster he pounded. At last, spine arched, eyes tight shut, he spilled himself into her with a bitten-off cry. He sank down bonelessly, trembling and she kissed his eyelids and held him close for long minutes. At last, he sighed and, kissing her once again, lifted himself off of her, rolling over onto his back, pulling her into his arms.
He settled her against his side, her head on his chest and her arm wrapped around his ribs. She lay listening to his heart thudding; slowly returning to a normal pace; felt him kiss her hair. Lapped in peace, they drifted.
The hall clock, striking three, roused her from a doze. Time to go. She stirred and his arms tensed for a moment before easing reluctantly to let her sit up. He ran a hand softly up and down her back, undemanding, as if to memorize her skin with his palm. She reached for her nightgown and pulled it on. Turning, she sat facing him, a sleepy smile just curving her lips. He reached up to tie the ribbons at the neck of her gown, fingers deft and gentle. She dipped her chin and placed a kiss on the back of his hand, which turned to cup her face. She put her hand over his, sighed very softly, and swung her feet to the floor. Her voice was low and warm as she leaned over him to whisper, “Jack is a very fortunate man.”
“What did you say?”
“Whose name was it, James, that you almost cried out, before?” Still smiling, she pressed her mouth to his, and slipped out of the room without another word.
Act III, Thursday:
James was first down, next morning. After Elizabeth left him, he had lain awake for some time, bemused. In the end, he had surprised himself by falling asleep at last, waking after sunrise. He rose and dressed quickly, suddenly restless, and descended the stairs.
It was too early for breakfast, although he could hear activity at the back of the house. He thought of finding his way to the kitchen, cadging some food from the cook (an art he had perfected as a child; shamelessly using his sweet, wistful smile) and escaping the house before the others arose. It was a momentary lapse, swiftly rejected as cowardice. He would not flee, although he had no idea how he would face Elizabeth. Or Will.
He let himself out the front door and stood at the edge of the veranda, hands folded behind him; looking out to sea. As always, the sight soothed him. He found himself thinking of his sloop; tried to remember the last time he had taken her out. It had been too long, he knew. He recalled when he had bought her, years ago, how he had agonized over a name for her. In the end, fearing to wear his heart so plainly on his sleeve, he had called her the Gull, and not the Elizabeth, after all.
Elizabeth. His thoughts returned to the night just past, in confused shame. Just this once, Elizabeth had been his. The dream of years, come true. Lovely Elizabeth; smooth, tender skin, smelling of lavender; her mouth on his, dainty tongue teasing and promising; the silken heat of her, sinuous and gorgeous, gasping and whimpering; riding him, driving him. His chin dropped to his chest and he squeezed his eyes shut, seeing it all again. Beautiful Elizabeth; sweet and perfect and …not Jack. Had she heard? He was certain she had. He groaned softly. Surely, he was the most ungrateful wretch alive; to receive such a gift with another’s name on his lips. He opened his eyes and sighed. If she hated him for it, it would be no more than justice.
Quiet activity in the house at his back informed him that the servants were about at last. He waited until silence fell again and proceeded to the dining room, where he found breakfast laid on the sideboard. He poured himself a cup of coffee and carried it to the window.
A soft step behind him made him turn and, before he was in any way prepared, Will walked into the room.
Their eyes met. Will’s expression was unreadable. James cleared his throat and spoke first. “Will.”
“James,” Will nodded. He moved to the sideboard and began lifting dish covers, inspecting the breakfast offerings, his back to James.
James put down his coffee cup and wiped his hands on his breeches. “Will, I…” He stopped, at a loss.
Will helped himself to some eggs. “Yes?” he asked, glancing over his shoulder. What he saw in the other’s face made him put down his plate and turn. “James.” He smiled. “Stop that.”
“Stop looking at me as if you think I mean to call you out.”
James blinked. “Do you not?”
Will laughed softly, moving to stand close in front of him. “Of course not, man. Did she not tell you? I knew where she was; what she intended and her reasons for it.”
“She did tell me.”
“Well then,” Will said, “why do you look so perplexed?”
“You let her act on those intentions?”
“Let her? How do you propose I should stop her? You, of all men living, should know as well as I how determined a woman my wife can be when she believes herself in the right.”
“But how can you approve?” James asked, confused.
“Because I trust her to deal honestly and honourably with me. And, aside from that,” and here Will’s smile turned rueful. “What right have I to disapprove, James? A little adventure that never happened caused me to forfeit any such right.”
James’s smile matched his. “Well, I did tell you not to bring it home with you, didn’t I?”
“You did,” Will nodded, “but you neglected to tell me how to keep it from a wife who reads one like a book.” He shook his head. “She had the whole story out of me within a week. The whole story, James.”
“Did she, indeed?” said James, “That would explain something she said, ahhhh, last night.” He looked sidelong at Will. “You are certain you don’t mind?”
Will sighed and gripped James’s shoulders and shook him. “Listen to me, man. I trust Elizabeth. All that she does in a good cause is well done – this I must believe. And I trust you. I trust both of you with the happiness of us all. You will not abuse that trust, nor will she. I cannot say it any plainer than that.” And Will pulled him in and kissed him, hard, and let him go. “And that’s for remembrance… because we can no longer say it never happened. Now, come have some breakfast before it all goes cold. I am starving.”
The chink of silverware and the rattle of dish covers masked the sound of Elizabeth’s approach and she stood a moment in the doorway, watching the men fill their plates. She smiled. Dear Will, she thought, has set him at ease. Moving forward, she said, “Is there any left for me?”
“None at all,” Will replied placidly, “Latecomers, Madam Slugabed, get rainwater and stale biscuits.” He returned her kiss absently, intent upon choosing a slice of ham.
“Oh, unjust,” she laughed, standing on tiptoe to kiss James’s cheek, turning away before she could see the incredulous relief in his eyes. “I am hardly behind the time. Say rather that you two rose abominably early.” She took up a plate, serving herself with fruit, broiled mushrooms, toast and bacon.
When they were seated, she took a sip of her coffee and said, “I am done at last with business, for the time being, thank goodness, and mean to take a holiday. What say you both to a picnic expedition? We could ride up to The Beacon.”
They agreed that this was an excellent notion and Elizabeth sent orders to the kitchen. They were barely finished eating when word came from the stables for Will: The lame horse was still giving concern and would it be convenient for Mr. Turner to look in this morning? Will rolled his eyes humorously as he rose from table. “This won’t take long. Hitchings is a good man, but he is just a little doubtful of his own abilities. I will reassure him.”
Elizabeth looked at James. He was staring into his empty cup with a thoughtful, almost melancholy expression on his face. “James,” she said, softly. At the sound of her voice he jumped very slightly and flushed as he glanced up.
“Come sit with me on the terrace?”
He rose and offered her his arm. “With pleasure,” he said.
“More polite than honest,” she laughed gently, taking it and strolling with him down the veranda steps and around the corner of the house. “Come, admit it, my friend. I have hardly been restful companion these past days, with one thing and another.”
A tiny smile. “Well, now that you mention it…”
“I have not been toying with you, James. I have a reason for what I do, and it is neither light nor frivolous.”
The smile grew. “Dare I ask?”
A gleam of mischief in her look. “You, sir, have faced the cursed undead without flinching. Surely you dare ask.”
He was surprised into a laugh. “Don’t underestimate yourself. I have reason to know that you are nigh as formidable and every bit as unstoppable when you choose to be.”
She chuckled. “Unchivalrous wretch.”
“Indeed. Well, then, what is your reason, Elizabeth?”
They had reached the terrace and she led him to some chairs set in the shade. She pulled two of them round to face each other and indicated that he should sit in one, taking the other herself and folding her hands.
“It seemed to me,” she said, simply, “that you have become too set in your ways. You wanted shaking up.”
“But why now?”
“Because,” she said, quietly, “I have seen a copy of the latest dispatch from Admiralty.”
“Yes, oh,” she replied. “What do you plan to do?”
“I will do my duty,” he said, bleakly.
“Even if that duty includes sinking the Pearl and hanging her crew; hanging Jack?”
“Even so.” He dropped his head into his hands with a groan. “I am a sworn officer of the Royal Navy,” he drew a ragged breath, “and commander of the Jamaica Squadron, such as it is. I must obey orders. Duty and honour (what little is left me) demand no less. I have no choice.”
“But what if you do have a choice?” she asked.
“Good God, Elizabeth, don’t torture me.” He raised his head to glare at her. “What choice have I?”
“Resign your commission.”
“What? Leave the Navy and return home in disgrace? Unthinkable.” He dropped his head again and his hands clenched in his hair.
Elizabeth sat for a moment marshalling her arguments. She drew a deep breath and laid her hand softly on those restless fingers, stilling them. “First,” she said, very gently, “it would not be leaving the Navy. They have already left you.”
James sat very still, barely breathing.
“I can read between lines just as well as anyone, James,” she went on. “They wish you to resign; it’s perfectly clear. Someone, somewhere in headquarters, has decided to end your career. You know how it is done; if they cannot fault your record or subject you to court-martial or discharge for cause, they will make you miserable until you oblige them by leaving. The Navy is not dealing honourably with you. This is a breach of faith that voids your oath of service. Leaving such a master does you no dishonour.”
James sighed. His voice was muffled. “That’s not what they will think at home.”
She tugged lightly on his hair, urging his head up. “Tell me, James. Where is home?”
He looked at her and then away, frowning slightly. “What do you mean?”
She took his hands in hers, leaning forward, forcing him to meet her eyes. “Oh my dear, think! Think of yourself; think for yourself. If the demands of honour were satisfied and your life was your own, to do with as you wished, what would you do? If you could dream anything, do anything; what would it be? Never mind the dreams you were taught to dream; the expectations of family, class, society. What would your heart choose?”
“Elizabeth... I…” he stammered, but she shook her head emphatically.
“No, James, don’t answer me. Think. Listen to your heart. And trust what it tells you.”
he rose and strode to the edge of the terrace, to stand looking toward the
distant ocean; hands clenching and unclenching behind his rigid back.
Elizabeth sat for a moment, watching his struggle. Then she stood and moved
quietly to his side, her gaze likewise on the sea. Wordlessly, he took her
hand and raised it to his lips. They turned to face each other. Elizabeth
smiled and gently brushed a stray lock of hair from James’s forehead. He
kissed her hand again and they turned toward the sea once more.
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