The sight of the Black Pearl emerging from the mist was so evocative, Elizabeth caught her breath. That day, long ago now, when both the ship and Will Turner had crossed her path for the first time, was branded forever in her memory. The same day she’d first hung the cursed Aztec gold about her neck, binding her fate, unknowingly, to Jack’s. Such a tangled path they had trod together, each entwined with the other – and with this ship.
Its sails were blacker than she remembered, the ragged patchwork replaced by sleek new canvas; Jack Sparrow must have stumbled upon prosperous times. Typical of him to invest his wealth in his precious ship. His own clothes seemed not to have changed, and she found herself glad of that consistency as she tugged his coat tight against the cold sea-spray.
Jack himself sat at the prow, hunched over and tight-lipped. She watched him brazenly, daring him to turn his eye upon her and deny there was anything wrong. But he didn’t. The scream she’d heard aboard Martha’s ship was fresh in her mind and she was more certain than ever that it had been torn from Jack’s throat. She planned to discover the truth of that – and of why the woman now had Jack’s treasured compass – just as soon as they were aboard the Pearl and under sail.
The men pulled hard on the oars, needing no incentive to flee the ghostly ship, even though its crew made no effort to follow. And it wasn’t long before she was climbing the rough ladder up the side of the hull and stood, once more, upon the familiar deck of the Pearl. Despite everything, she couldn’t keep from smiling. In a strange way it felt like returning home.
A bizarre thought, given that home was Port Royal and her dear Will. And housemaids, and official functions, and tea with the Admiral’s wife and… She felt a little breathless, as if her stays were too tight. The sensation passed when she brushed a hand over her stomach and remembered she was dressed only in her nightgown – and Jack’s coat.
Disturbed by the implications, she quickly distracted herself by seeking him out. One thing she’d learned in all her dealings with pirates was to ensure that you knew exactly what they knew – rare, in Jack Sparrow’s case, and therefore all the more necessary.
The crew were scurrying all around, Gibbs yelling orders, and sails running out and flapping in the wind as the ship heaved to. Of Jack, however, there was no sign. Elizabeth made her way through the ordered chaos and up to the quarterdeck, where Gibbs had the helm. “Where’s the captain?” she shouted over the noise. “Where’s Jack?”
Gibbs cut her a troubled look. “In his cabin.”
Unheard of, in such circumstances. “One of us should make sure he’s well,” she shouted back.
“Aye.” Gibbs made no move to leave; if anything, his grip on the wheel tightened.
She puffed out an irritated sigh. “Very well, I’ll go. But you owe me a favour, Mr Gibbs.”
“That I do, Miss Swann,” he smiled. Then, “Pardon me, Mrs Turner.”
Her lips pursed. Little more than two years had passed, and yet Mrs Turner seemed a very different creature to Miss Swann. And she supposed Gibbs must see that change in her. Miss Swann – the freedom-loving, sword-wielding Miss Swann – was long gone; Mrs Turner was a woman of propriety, to be accorded dull respect and never, ever offered a bottle of rum.
She made no answer, save a curt nod, and headed for Jack’s cabin. If nothing else, she supposed he might at least have something warmer than her sodden nightgown to wear. Something more appropriate for Mrs Turner… A corset, perhaps.
Carefully, she made her way across the bustling deck toward Jack’s cabin, the door of which was firmly closed. But Jack Sparrow was hardly one to stand on ceremony, and neither was she – at least, not where he was concerned – so she didn’t waste time knocking. Instead, she turned the handle and pushed open the door.
Her breath caught in surprise. Jack was hunched over the chart table, gnawing on a chunk of hard tack as though his life depended on it, rum dripping from his chin, the half-empty bottle clutched between rigid fingers. He hadn’t noticed her at all. After a moment watching this bizarre spectacle she said, “Why, thank you Jack, I am a little peckish.”
He started, wiping a hand across his chin as if caught red handed. “What do you want?”
“To see if— Gibbs asked me to see if you were well.” She eyed his meagre feast. “Not suffering a lack of appetite, at least.”
He grunted sourly. “No, not that.” Slumping back in the chair, he closed his eyes with such weariness that her irritation evaporated. “We’ll make landfall this evening. Tarpaulin Cove, lovely little place up in the northern colonies. There’s an Inn and so forth, where you can stay until young William comes to claim you. You’ll be quite safe, there’s naught there but pirates.”
“Very safe,” she said dryly. “And with not a penny to my name.”
Jack waved the complaint away with a lethargic hand. “I’m fairly flush in the pockets, I’ll give you what you need.”
She frowned, moving closer. In the light of the single lamp she could see he still looked wan; if anything, more so. There was a lassitude about him she’d never seen before, a weakness. “And what about you? If you’re not returning to the Caribbean then where are you going?”
His lips curved in a weary smile. “Does it concern you?” He opened his eyes as he spoke, and she saw that the question was genuine.
“You know it does.” She’d not intended to be so frank and found herself unable to meet his eye.
After a pause, Jack said, “Caribbean’s full of the navy these days, love. The Bahamas…that’s better. Perhaps I’ll send the Pearl there a while, for the winter at least.”
“And can you not take me there too?” she asked. “From Nassau I can take a ship to Port Royal, if you’ll not make the journey yourself.”
Jack sighed and lifted the rum half-heartedly to his lips. “Too far,” he said, eyes sliding shut. “You’d best be on land tonight anyway, and stay there a while. Won’t take long.”
Her eyes narrowed. “What won’t? What aren’t you telling me?”
“Always so curious,” he murmured, somewhere between affection and sleep. “Trust me for once in your life, Elizabeth. Just trust me…”
With that the rum bottle dropped from his limp fingers, spinning lazily on the table. Carefully she righted it, brow creased as she watched him sleep again. Truly, he looked very ill. More than exhausted; there was something hollow about his features. She glanced once at the door, debating her options.
If he was right and they’d be making port in a few hours, the state of Jack Sparrow’s health was hardly her concern at all. Except, as she well knew, it was. Otherwise, why would she have thought about him daily these past two years? Why would she have taken the compass from its hiding place each night and held it in her hands, never daring to open it for fear of where it might point? Why did she so often dream of the sea, or of the wind in her hair? Why did she scramble to the dangerous cliff edge and stand, eyes closed and face to the wind, imagining herself at the prow of a ship – of the Pearl?
Jack Sparrow had a claim on her heart more powerful than she dared admit to anyone but herself. Like it or not, his health was her concern, even if it was to be another two years – or more – before they met again. Especially so.
Therefore, pushing up the long sleeves of his coat, she moved resolutely around the table. His head lolled backward in the chair, legs stretched out, and one arm sprawled across the desk. It would not be a difficult task to assess any wound he might have been hiding, so as to tell Gibbs and ensure the stubborn fool was taken care of once she disembarked.
She moved carefully, lest she wake him, cautiously tugging his shirt from beneath a swathe of sash and the two belts he always wore about his waist. Jack didn’t stir, something that both alarmed and reassured her.
The tension of the moment – clearly – was making her heart race as she lifted his shirt to study the skin beneath. Her tongue caught lightly between her teeth at the sight of firm muscle, bronzed like his face, and distinctly undamaged. At least on the outside.
But it would be wise, she thought, to explore a little deeper – in case of an unseen injury. Her father’s stableman had died four summers earlier from a horse’s hoof to the gut that had left no exterior mark, and yet had apparently ruptured something within. It was proper, then, that she should press lightly with her fingers to check for any—
Oh dear Lord… His skin was smooth, flesh unyielding and healthy beneath her fingertips. No sign, then, of the cause of his previous pain. He was certainly rather more slender than Will, but that was no doubt the effect of a hard life rather than any cause for alarm. He seemed, as he insisted, perfectly well. Perhaps he was simply exhausted?
He should rest, she thought, yet her fingers lingered against the heat of his skin. Looking at him now, through a married woman’s eyes, she found her thoughts turning in directions the innocent Miss Swann would have found shockingly explicit. And yet she couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like to—
She snatched her hand away, yanked his shirt quickly down, and drewback. Mrs Turner might have the advantage of experience over Miss Swann, but the effect seemed only to confuse her already bewildered heart with sordid, worldly desire.
Cursing her wicked flaw, she turned away and stalked to the door. Yet her body yearned for the heat of him, a rising chorus of desire, and the only thing likely to slake her hunger was the one thing she was forbidden to touch.
And that only made her want it all the more.
There was a fair wind, and the Pearl flew before it as was her want. Gibbs had set a man to watch for pursuit, but so far the horizon was free of both sails and unnatural fog.
The pale northern sky was clearing as the day drew on, clouds scattering before an onshore breeze to reveal a weak sun low in the sky. There’d be little warmth in the day, but at least the squall they’d endured the past two nights had blown itself out. Perhaps the haunted ship had taken the foul weather with it, back to the grave.
He glanced quickly over his shoulder, but there was no sign of it. As far as rescues went – and in company with Jack Sparrow he’d attempted more than his fair share – it had been unduly easy. Not a single man lost, not a single shot fired.
Were he a suspicious man, he might take to questioning his luck. But he’d been at sea long enough not to do that; a pirate took his luck where he found it, no questions asked. Besides, he could already see the faint strip of land upon the horizon and it seemed they’d soon be free of Jack’s latest scrape.
Talking of which… Or, more properly, whom, the woman had appeared on deck again. Her colour was up, an odd look upon her pretty face as she walked to the rail and gazed out toward land. Whatever havey-cavey business was betwixt her and Captain Jack, Gibbs didn’t want to know; such matters were not his concern. But women aboard were ill-omened, especially women by the name of ‘Turner’, and he’d be glad to make port and be rid of her.
Of Jack there was still no sign, and that was ill-omened too. The last time he’d appeared so vexed he’d soon after been swallowed whole by the Kraken. Gibbs fixed a glare on the woman’s back; she’d been involved with that business too.
As if she could feel his gaze upon her – probable, given the uncanny abilities of the female species – Miss Swann turned her head. She smiled slightly, a beguiling smile for all that, and began to walk toward him. Jack’s coat still hung from her narrow shoulders, and Gibbs wondered that she hadn’t returned it yet. Once she was near enough to hear, he said, “How fairs the captain?”
“Asleep.” Her tone was cool, distant. “And hungry, it seems.”
“Aye,” Gibbs replied, “not even Captain Jack Sparrow can live on rum alone, whatever he may think.”
The comment drew a listless smile to her lips. “Captain Sparrow always did have an over inflated opinion of his own abilities.”
He shot her a sharp look. “Not so much as you might believe, Miss.” Elizabeth Swann – Mrs Turner – was a little too high in the instep for his taste, though she quickened the captain’s blood right enough. And knocked what little sense he had from his head. Nevertheless, Gibbs didn’t think it right for her to talk ill of the man who’d just risked himself – and his crew – to sail to her rescue.
“I’m sorry,” Elizabeth said, as if reading his mind. “I didn’t mean to— He’s a good man, I know that. And a good captain.”
When he isn’t dangling after the likes of you, Gibbs might have added. Instead he just nodded toward the broadening horizon. “We’ll make port afore sunset.”
“And there I’m to be marooned,” she said with a regretful sigh.
“Is that so?”
“Jack says I can send word to Will from there, although I think I’d rather find passage on a ship heading south. I’m disinclined to sit about waiting when I could be at sea.”
“A sentiment I can identify with me self, Miss.” He stole a look along the length of her youthful body, something he wouldn’t dare do in the captain’s presence. “It strikes me,” he said, returning his attention to the business of steering, “that you’ll be mighty under provisioned, either waiting at Tarpaulin Cove or seeking passage south, in naught but your unmentionables.”
She laughed at that, and Gibbs got a glimpse – perhaps – of what vexed Jack Sparrow. There was a freedom to this lass, in her unguarded moments, that could set a fire in a man’s heart. “What do you suggest, Mr Gibbs?” A sudden, roguish twinkle lit her eye. “Perhaps I should purloin some of Jack’s clothes while he sleeps?”
‘Twas a thought that raised his eyebrows, an expression that seemed to amuse her further, for despite her blush she laughed again. And then hurriedly sobered.
To fill the sudden silence, Gibbs said, “As it happens, Miss, we came across a trunk full o’women’s dresses not two months ago, upon a French galleon. We’ve yet to find a market, so to speak, and I’m sure the captain wouldn’t mind if you borrowed a gown or two.”
Oddly, her grateful smile did little to hide her obvious disappointment. “Paris fashions,” she said, as though struck by a fit of the blue-devils, “how delightful.”
He didn’t see her again until land was broad on the horizon, and when he did she had been transformed – with, apparently, the embarrassed assistance of Ragetti, serving as lady’s maid. The dress she’d chosen was a deep red, full skirted and tight bodiced. Her hair was free of rats tails and her face was sombre enough for a funeral.
He watched as she moved to the rail and looked out, the setting sun glinting pink against her pale skin. Truly, an object of beauty. Though her ivory skin was less stirring than her short-lived, carefree laugh and the twinkle in her eye. Odd that, given the way her—
Gibbs’ thoughts were interrupted by the sight of Jack Sparrow staggering – no other word for it – onto the deck. At first Gibbs assumed he’d been on the cut, but as soon as he saw the man’s face he knew this malady had nothing to do with drink. His skin was sallow, like yellowed parchment, eyes sunken, and he moved with the effort of a man too weak to bear his own weight.
Once he’d gained the deck he stopped, with painful effort straightened his hat, and looked out toward the horizon. His eye, though, was instantly caught by the sight of Miss Swann and even from the quarterdeck Gibbs saw him start, shocked. He made no move toward her though – Gibbs wondered if it were even possible – but his eye didn’t waiver for a moment. Transfixed.
Gibbs glanced hurriedly over his shoulder and found Ragetti close to hand. Without a word he grabbed the man and thrust him at the wheel, before heading for the quarterdeck steps with all haste. But he’d not reached the bottom when Miss Swann turned around; when she saw the captain she gasped out loud.
The horror on her face matched that beating in Gibbs’ chest as she ran across the deck toward Jack. In the end, they both reached him at the same moment.
“Captain…” Gibbs seized his arm; it felt wasted beneath his touch. “What in the name of God…?”
“Is that land?” Jack said, blinking at the horizon. “Can’t seem to make out…”
“What’s happening to you?” Elizabeth asked, grabbing both his shoulders and demanding his attention. “You said you were well.”
“Perfectly…” His head cocked and a mockery of a smile stretched his drawn features. “You’re looking lovely, Elizabeth. A dress is never more becoming than when it’s pilfered, eh?”
“Stop it,” she snapped. “What did you do, Jack? Why did Martha Danvers have your compass? What’s happening to you?”
“Your compass, Jack?” Gibbs flung the woman a furious look. “What the devil is this?”
“A trifle,” Jack said, barely able to lift his hand high enough to bat their concern away. “A token.”
He smiled again, face turning sheet white. “My honour, of course.” And then his eyes rolled and he pitched forward. Gibbs grabbed for him, but Elizabeth was already there, catching him in her arms as he fell. Together they lowered him to the deck, turning him carefully onto his back. He had the look of a starved man; hollow-cheeked and frail.
“Get us to land.” Elizabeth gave the order like a Commodore, though the abject terror on her face belied her poise. “He needs a doctor. He needs— Gibbs, we must get him off the water.”
“You think this is some curse from that ship o’ the damned?”
She shook her head, eyes spitting fire and anger. “A deal,” she said tightly. “He struck a bargain. Don’t ask me for what, but evidently this is the price.”
Gibbs cursed under his breath. “To land, then,” he said grimly, turning away from his stricken captain and beginning to bellow orders.
Jack Sparrow and his bloody bargains would be the death of them all.
Lottie Flanders had kept house at the Alderman for the past twenty years, ten of which alone, after Mr Flanders’s untimely loss at sea during the Great Storm. She ran a tight ship, for all that she was a woman, and her skillet had more than one dent from the head of a stubborn drunkard who thought he could make trouble for her.
It was a respectable establishment, so long as your notion of respectability included an element of the flamboyant. After all, Tarpaulin Cove had its fair share of freebooters, privateers, and even the occasional outright pirate, and such men brought with them a demand for certain services. The Alderman had never been known as a brothel, not as such, but there were three rooms upstairs in which a gentleman – or even a pirate – might entertain a couple of light skirts and not be disturbed. For the right price, of course.
Lottie asked few questions if there was silver in her hand; none at all if it were gold. And that was the only reason she’d allowed the strange, woebegone party into her establishment tonight.
Oh, she knew some of them right enough. Well, one of them at least. Very well. It had been passing five year since she’d last seen Jack Sparrow, but there was no mistaking the man despite his being taken poorly. Too ripe and ready by half that one, but not a bad tumble all the same.
‘Bad rum’ the man with him had said, by way of an explanation for why the captain could barely stand. And though he had a look of truth about him Lottie knew better than to trust the word of a pirate. And any man who sailed with Jack Sparrow was, for certain, a pirate.
Bad rum? She’d never heard of such a thing.
But ’twas a quiet night and the girl – lady, and more of one than the Alderman had ever seen – had assured her there was no fever involved. Nothing that might spread below decks as it were. Even so, she might have turned the lot of ’em away had the man – Gibbs, so he called himself – not greased her fist good and well. Her purse was heavy now, and consequently her eyes were averted. What the three of them were about up in her best room she didn’t know, nor care to imagine. Nonetheless—
“Excuse me, Mrs Flanders…?”
Her thoughts were disturbed by one of the very men upon whom she’d been musing: Mr Gibbs. He looked right concerned, all but ringing his hands. Her eyes narrowed. “Is the room to your comfort, sir?”
“Aye, it’ll do very well,” he said, distractedly. “I was wondering – no need to worry, mind – if there might be a leech close to hand?”
“A doctor?” She backed up a step and crossed herself for good measure. “You said it was bad rum.”
“Aye, aye. ’Tis no catchin’ fever, I assure you. But Captain Sparrow is—” His face took on a deadly serious expression; as close to grief as she’d ever seen in the roguish face of a pirate. “His care is beyond our wit, Ma’am. If there be a doctor in these whereabouts…?”
Something bit on the back of her neck and Lottie scratched at it absently. “Well, there’s old Mrs Adams, up on Longreach Farm. ’Tis a good hour on horseback, though. She’s no doctor, but she’ll give you a remedy for what ails your captain.” She smiled. “For the right price, of course.”
“Of course.” He paused a moment. “And…what would the price be for the loan of a horse?”
Lottie Flanders’ smile grew broader. “Well, now, why don’t we discuss the urgency of your need, Mr Gibbs?”
The small room was dominated by the largest bed Elizabeth had ever seen. Ridiculously disproportionate. Three years ago she might have wondered what the purpose of such an extravagance might be in such a low establishment, but she was that child no longer. And so it had been with some distaste that she’d helped Gibbs manoeuvre Jack onto the shabby looking blankets, and watched with alarm as he’d curled up as though his belly griped more than he could bear.
In the lamplight she’d seen his waxy skin, the sunken eyes and cheeks, and felt the approach of death as surely as that dreadful moment aboard the deck of the Pearl. Gibbs had sensed it too because he’d muttered something about finding a doctor and dashed out, only to return shortly after to tell her he was taking a horse up to a remote farm and would return – he hoped – with a remedy. Elizabeth doubted there was any earthly remedy, but since she had no better ideas she didn’t try to prevent him from leaving.
Ever since she’d been sitting on the none-too-clean floor, her back to the wall, watching Jack sleep. Or so she thought.
“There’s plenty of room, you know,” he said, startling her. One dark eye peeled open. “Would be more comfortable than the floor, even with those ludicrous skirts and corset.”
She climbed to her feet, silently cursing the ludicrous skirts and corset. “I hardly think that would be appropriate.”
Jack sighed. “Even if I were able, love – which is unlikely – I’m not the sort to ravish another man’s wife.” His smile was a ghost of its usual self. “Unless, of course, she asks.”
“Are you asking?”
She shook her head, smiling, as she moved around the bed to sit on the empty side.
He rolled over so he could see her, eyes vivid black against the pallor of his skin. “I won’t object if you want to make yourself more comfortable by removing said ludicrous skirts and corsets…”
“No, I don’t suppose you would.” With a sigh she lay down, propped up on one elbow. “How about, instead, you tell me what’s happening to you?”
“It’s none of your concern, Mrs Turner.”
“You know it is.”
That frail smile returned, until it was broken by a slash of pain. He gasped, curling tighter for a moment. Once it had passed a shimmer of sweat stood out on his face which was, if it were possible, even paler. She drew closer and clasped his shoulder, shocked by how thin it felt. Wasted. He gave an odd little shudder at her touch and his lips opened – cracked and dry – attempting another smile. “Did you ask after a ship?”
She blinked at him in confusion. “What?”
“A ship…” It seemed an effort to talk. “This time of year there should be plenty heading—” Another jab of pain cut him off with a groan.
“Jack, that’s hardly my first priority.”
“Should be…” His breath was ragged. “Need to know you’ll be safe, love.”
She fixed him with a stare. “Then why don’t you take me home, Captain? I believe you have a whole ship at your disposal.”
“Not so much,” he sighed. “Not so much as I might wish.”
Elizabeth’s breath caught. “You traded the Pearl?”
“Not the Pearl…”
“Then what—?” Her heart stopped, jolted to a halt by sudden realisation. “No. Jack, no… Tell me you didn’t trade yourself.”
He held her look for a long time, then shrugged his emaciated shoulders. “I owed her a debt, as it happened. ’Twas my fault she lost her life; only right that I should pay what’s due, eh? My share of her death, for her share of my life.”
“No!” She sat bolt upright. “You’re Captain Jack Sparrow! Since when do you ever pay a debt when you can avoid it?”
“It was the avoiding of it that proved to be the problem, as it happens.”
“Oh, Jack…” Her hand found his and held tight. “Why didn’t you tell me? There must be something else we can trade, something else she wants…”
“No.” He was firm, hard and dark as iron. “The deal is done. Keep out of it, savvy?”
“I won’t accept that. I won’t sit here and watch you die because that…that monster—”
He grabbed her wrist, thin fingers sharp as claws. “She’s no monster,” he hissed. “And what she is, I made her. My fault, Elizabeth. My punishment.”
“But there has to be a way to escape it…”
“To cheat fate?” His smile grew bitter. “You know the impossibility of that. However far a man runs, it’ll always ensnare him in the end, eh love?”
She caught his meaning but ignored it. “So you’re just going to give up? Lie down and die, rather than fight?”
He met her challenge with reproachful eyes. “In another man you’d call it honour.”
She was silent, too honest – too shocked – to voice a denial. He was right; had the same words fallen from Will’s lips… Her eyes dipped, no longer able to hold his gaze.
Jack slumped back onto the dirty pillows, a heavy sigh drifting in the silent room. After a moment, and in a rough voice, he said, “Thirsty.”
On the floor behind her was a bottle of water along with a couple of filthy looking glasses. Elizabeth ignored them as she reached for the bottle, not sure if the content would do him more good than harm. Or if it even made a difference now. Her eyes filled as she handed him the water, watching him lift the bottle in shaking hands to his lips.
This could not be the end. Not for him, of all people. Not for Captain Jack Sparrow.
Turning away, she pressed her face into her hands. Angry, afraid. She could hardly believe that Jack had made some kind of Faustian bargain with a real live devil. Again! But there had to be a way to free him from this, just as there had been when he’d run afoul of Davy Jones. “Jack, we—”
The impact on the back of her head was sudden and violent; a splash of cold water across her neck, then nothing but darkness.
He licked the water from his finger, though the taste did nothing to ease the terrible thirst. There was irony here, he thought, though he was in little humour to find it. And time was pressing.
Elizabeth lay sprawled on the floor, where she’d fallen beneath his blow. Her hair was wet, a streak of blood diluted in the water turning her tresses copper. With effort, he clambered down from the bed, collapsing in a heap by her side. Shaky fingers pushed at her hair, finding the wound; a shallow slash, nothing serious. Relief made him sag, and for a moment weakness and regret held him there, by her side.
The hunger, the thirst, the tearing pain in his belly and the throbbing in his head had stripped him bare. ‘Twas not the first time he’d faced death, but the last time had been a rush of teeth and rage. This time, the slowness of it brought clarity. Like a snake shedding its skin, he’d left behind the artifice of Captain Jack Sparrow; the legend would live on, but here, at the end, the man found himself alone with his regrets.
And she – this woman who’d so tormented his peace – was the greatest of them. When it came to parting, he found himself woefully inadequate to the task. So he lingered at her side, let his fingers tangle with her hair, and let himself feel – for almost the first time – that this is how it should always have been between them.
Had he been a different man – a better man, in her eyes – then perhaps… Regrets, bitter as the cud.
He pushed damp hair from her face, letting his fingers caress her fine skin, trace the shape of her cheek, her lips. How he’d longed for their touch, even as she’d bound him to his dreadful fate. How he’d longed for her ever since, every night. Every day. And now he would never know the sweet taste of her again. All he’d take to the grave was the bitterness of betrayal, a sour aftertaste to the glory of that single moment when he’d thought her his.
She stirred suddenly, unexpectedly, beneath his touch. Pulling his fingers away, he made himself stand; made his weak, dying body haul itself upright. “Goodnight, Elizabeth,” he whispered, for he would not say the other word. Resolutely he turned away from her, toward the window; at once his escape and the road to hell.
But he’d do it. For her, he’d do it; she’d denied him a hero’s death once, but, though she’d never know it, he’d have it in the end. For her.
Ignoring his weakness he pushed open the window, climbed to its lip, and let himself fall…
Elizabeth came back to herself with Gibbs’ rough hands tapping at her cheek. Her head throbbed like the devil and her stomach was on the point of brutal revolt. She pushed Gibbs away, rolled onto her knees, and shut her eyes against the violent headache.
“Thank the Lord.” Gibbs was crouching next to her, and although she couldn’t see him she heard panic in his voice. “I thought you a gonna when I saw the blood.”
Blood? Woozily she put her hand to her head, forcing her eyes open enough to see her fingers smeared with red. “He hit me.” The swell of outrage brought her upright, diffusing her nausea and dulling her pain. “He bloody well hit me!”
Gibbs raised an eyebrow at her unaccustomed curse. “You think it was Jack?”
“Who else?” Her glare moved to the bed, then stopped. Fear and anger pulsed equally hard in her chest. “Where is he?”
“When I came back, he was gone. You was lyin’ right there, the window’s open, and Jack’s nowhere to be found. I thought maybe some of those…unnatural beings had come for ’im.”
Elizabeth shook her head, rising. Glass was strewn across the floor; the neck of the broken onion bottle still upon the bed. “He said he was thirsty. I gave him the bottle… He must have hit me over the head when I wasn’t looking.”
“Jack’s never been the most predictable of men, but why in the blazes would he do such a thing, Miss Swann?”
She could think of plenty of reasons, none of which she wanted to voice. So, instead, she said, “I have no idea. And it’s Mrs Turner, not Miss Swann.”
There was a pause before Gibbs, rather pointedly, said, “Aye, Ma’am.”
Sighing, she closed her eyes a moment. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—” She looked at him helplessly. “Gibbs, Jack told me he’d traded his life for that of that… The woman. Martha Danvers. He feels some guilt at her death, so he says, and he’s made a deal with her...” She felt sick again, head spinning. “I’m afraid he might already be— That it’s too late.”
Gibbs scratched at his chin. “Mollie Danvers, did ye say, Miss…er…Mrs Turner?”
“Actually I said Martha Danvers.” Her eyes narrowed. “You’ve heard of her then?”
“Aye, as it happens. ’Twas one night a few weeks after—” He cleared his throat and looked awkward. “After we last left Port Royal.”
After my wedding, she silently added; they understood each other.
“The captain had been dipping rather deep, as was his custom at the time, and came on deck in the mood for… Well, I’ll not say company, but rather an ear to bend. Not knowing what he might say, jug bitten as he was, I thought it best if it were my ear he bent.”
She nodded, but said nothing. Her stomach was rolling over and over, flotsam in the surf, at the thought of Jack being so…vexed by her marriage to Will. She’d always assumed his interest in her to be somewhat shallower than that implied.
“He got to talking about mementos and keepsakes,” Gibbs went on, “and how they could torment a man. An’ how sometimes, he said, the torment was better than the forgetting. I, of course, asked him why that might be so and he showed me a scrap of lace he had tied about his wrist. You might have noticed it, Miss…es.”
“Elizabeth will be fine, Mr Gibbs,” she said, sinking wearily onto the bed. “And, yes, I know the lace you mean.” A dirty scrap of nothing, although she should have guessed that nothing was nothing where Jack Sparrow was concerned.
“Elizabeth, then…” Gibbs smiled slightly, giving her an odd look; it seemed she’d risen in his favour somewhat. “Anyway, he tells me about the reason for wearing the lace – which, if I’m honest, makes him look a trifle unmanly.” He considered it a moment. “Well, that among other things…”
“Jack Sparrow is Jack Sparrow,” she said with a smile. And an ache too, red as a bloody sunset. “The lace belonged to Martha Danvers, I take it?”
“Aye. In remembrance of her fate. She was a girl he, uh…” Gibbs coughed and raised his eyebrows suggestively. “That he…”
“That would be the word, Miss, aye. Several times. Her father had something Jack coveted and so, through the girl, he got into the house and found the treasure. Then he left, only he’d been so, ah, convincing in his dalliance that Mollie fancied herself in love with him. She begged him to take her along, but he refused. Then, the night he was to sail, she followed him down to the shore, swam out after the long boat, and climbed aboard the Pearl.”
“Swam? In these seas?”
“Luck of the Devil even then, perhaps? Well, she weren’t discovered until they were nigh on a week out of port and by then it were too late to turn back – no doubt as she’d planned it. Jack… Well, she found him less accommodating than she’d been accustomed to, and the lass took to weepin’ and wailin’ all night. You can imagine, none of the company were best pleased. Bad enough to have a woman aboard – begging your pardon – but a heartsick one?” He sighed. “They’d have put her off at the next port, only… There was no next port.”
“Because the Pearl was wrecked.”
“In these very waters. All hands lost, save Jack and ye know the terrible bargain he made for his life, and his ship.”
Elizabeth nodded and blew out a slow breath. “There’s one thing you don’t know, Mr Gibbs.”
“Is there now?”
“Martha Danvers didn’t drown.”
His brow creased. “Jack said all hands—”
“That’s what he believed. But he was wrong. She must have swum to that rock where you found me, because she died there. Starved to death, seventeen days later, all the while waiting for Jack to come to her rescue.”
He met her eye with a grim look. “That’s a heavy debt.”
“And Jack is determined to pay it.”
Gibbs nodded. “I always said that honest streak would be the death of him.” His eyes widened slightly. “Ah, begging your pardon again, Miss.”
Her head sank into her hands. “What are we going to do? Where has he gone? ” It seemed, in every way, hopeless. And inexplicable. And frightening. “Why did he go?”
After a moment, Gibbs said, “The compass, Miss. You said Martha Danvers had it?”
“Yes.” She sat up, a flash of clarity cutting through the fog. “Yes. Jack said… What did he say?”
“He said it were naught but a token.”
“Of his honour.” Her heart was suddenly galloping. “Gibbs – it’s a pledge of his good faith…”
Gibbs’ lips pressed into a hard line. “Of his intention to return to that godforsaken ship.”
“Yes…” She was on her feet now, starting to pace, her shoes crunching on broken glass. “But why would Martha let him leave at all, once she had him? Why would he need to make such a pledge? What did he accomplish by sailing here, only to return to her?”
“Can you not guess, Miss Elizabeth?” Gibbs was watching her with a serious eye; the slightly disapproving look of a parent for an ungrateful child.
Need to know you’ll be safe, love.
“Oh.” Suddenly there was a knot in her chest, hard and staggering. It was difficult to breathe.
“Aye,” Gibbs said softly. “How can it be that you didn’t know?”
She said nothing, felt the colour rise to her cheeks. The awful truth was – the truth she could never speak – was that she had known, she just hadn’t trusted him enough to believe it.
That Jack Sparrow might want her, in a carnal, shameless fashion, she could easily believe. That he would compete like a child with Will for her attention seemed inevitable. But that he could love her? And love her still, when she’d been two years married to another man? Enough to give his life for her? That, she’d thought impossible. And yet…
Oh Lord, how her heart swelled at the idea. Fit to burst. If he really loved her, the way she—
Shaken to the core she turned to Gibbs, eyes wide. “We have to find him.”
“Aye, but where?”
“He’s put to sea. It won’t be the Pearl, something small. The longboat, maybe? All he has to do is get to open water.”
“And Martha Danvers will come for him.”
She swallowed dryly. “We have to get there first, Mr Gibbs.”
“That we do.” He offered her a hand, pulling her to her feet. “’Tis lucky, then, that there’s no ship on the high seas faster than the Black Pearl.”
Elizabeth nodded, but couldn’t find a smile. Her world was shattering, all her certainties upside-down, and the only thing holding her together was her desperate need to find Jack Sparrow.
He couldn’t die without knowing the truth.
Continued in Chapter Six