There might well have been no ship on the high seas faster than the Pearl, but Elizabeth doubted that Martha Danvers’ ship sailed at all, at least not upon the oceans.
They’d made sail as fast as Gibbs could harangue the crew, and given they were – once more – in search of their captain, they moved admirably fast. But not fast enough for Elizabeth’s taste, striding impatiently up and down the quarterdeck, peering intently into the tar-black night as though her naked eye might glimpse him.
Of course there was no sign. If Jack Sparrow wished not to be found…
She shivered, cold despite the weight of her tangling skirts. All her certainties were lost now, she was drifting alone without heading or compass. For so long Will had been her north star, but the sky was dark tonight and she felt the pull of another’s tide. Strong, dangerous, irresistible. Her blood burned with it, had done these three years. Only her conviction of his indifference had enabled her to ignore his draw; had made it necessary to ignore it. But now…
In another man you’d have called it honour.
She felt his reproach with a keen edge. He was an honourable man, yet in all her dealings with Captain Jack Sparrow she had never treated him as such. She’d championed him to others, disparaged him to his face. Rejected his advances as lewd games and never imagined they held a deeper meaning; never imagined him capable of true honour. Or love. She had underestimated him at every turn and now he faced death, or worse, because—
“Sail, ho!” Marty sang from the yardarm. “Port side, crossing the bow!”
Elizabeth dashed to the rail, her heart ablaze at the sight of the ghostly light ahead. They’d found it. Or it had found them…
“Douse the lamps!” Gibbs barked, and in a matter of moments the Black Pearl was one with the inky sea, the starless night. He joined Elizabeth on the quarterdeck, barely visible in the darkness. “Not sure as our canon will make much of a dent in her, Miss.”
“No,” she agreed. “This is not a fight that can be won with sword and pistol, Mr. Gibbs. Catch her, stop her if you can. I must go aboard.”
The white flare of his rounded eyes glinted briefly. “Yourself, Elizabeth?”
“If my life is part of this devilish bargain Jack has struck, then I must be there to undo the deal.” She folded her arms. “There will be no argument.”
He puffed out an unhappy breath, but said, “Aye, Miss, if you insist. Though Jack will keelhaul me himself if any harm befall you.”
“He’s too good a man for that, Mr. Gibbs. As well you know. But I cannot vouch for myself, if you don’t get me to that ship in good time…”
A soft laugh met her answer. “Both as pig-headed as the other. What’s a man to do, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea?”
“Start swimming, Mr. Gibbs,” she said with a fierce grin. “Start swimming.”
It took no more than half an hour to catch the ghostly ship; the Pearl ran fast and free, and Martha’s ship seemed to be wallowing in the water as though her captain was below with the rum instead of at the helm. So much the better.
Elizabeth regretted not having had the opportunity to find more suitable clothing as she climbed down into the longboat, but she could not bring herself to borrow from Jack and the mere idea of wearing anything once inhabited by the likes of Ragetti made her itch…
Nevertheless, she’d purloined a sword and pistol and strung a belt about her corseted waist, from which her weapons hung. She’d be able to defend herself, at least. Although whether either would have any effect on Martha Danvers was a matter of doubt.
The longboat pushed off, her self appointed guardians – Ragetti and Pintell – at the oars. Elizabeth sat at the prow, willing them fast across the short distance of choppy sea, scouting the side of Martha’s ship for a ladder. She found one at the same moment she began to hear a strange keening over the waves; mournful, suffering, an incantation of destruction. It made her blood run cold.
Behind her she could hear Ragetti muttering to himself, but to their credit her oarsmen kept rowing. The slap of water against the hull of Martha’s ship masked the eerie song as they drew closer. Elizabeth stood up, wobbling the boat a little, as she reached out and seized a slimy rung. Keeping hold of it, she turned back to the others.
“Stay close, if you can. And be ready.”
“Let ‘im go with you,” Pintel suggested, nodding at his friend. “Ain’t seemly for a young lass to be takin’ on a whole ship full o’phantoms.”
“I think you’d be a better choice,” Ragetti objected. “What with me only havin’ the one eye an’ all.”
“But that makes you less vulnerable, don’t it?” Pintel countered. “A stabbin’ to the eye would put me out good and proper, but for you…”
Elizabeth left them to their bickering, seized the ladder in both hands and began to climb. As she got closer to the deck the sound of the sloshing seas dropped away, replaced by the unearthly chant. Her skin crawled at the sound, part loathing, part dread of what she might find – of what they might have already done to Jack.
She paused at the top of the ladder, little more than her eyes visible, peering across the deck. The familiar dank chill was upon her in a moment, the misty ship indistinct about the edges. But the whispering crew were silent, stood in an ordered line by the opposite rail. The fog shifted about them, though no breeze blew, and their hollow eyes were all fixed in one direction.
Elizabeth feared her thumping heart might give her away when she took in the scene before the mainmast. Martha Danvers was on her knees, gaunt and deathly, her hair in ragged tatters and her head flung back, mouth wide. Opposite her knelt Jack, head slumped forward. Emaciated, white as milk. Near to death; she knew it instinctively.
But what caused her to suck in a shocked breath was the woman who stood between them. Tall – impossibly tall – her skin was the colour of seaweed, her long hair swaying like kelp in a tide pool. Her eyes were flat and dead, black from lid to lid, and her teeth… Elizabeth shuddered. Shark’s teeth lined her wide mouth, pressing forward like a ravenous creature of the deep. Her hands were raised, webbed fingers spread, and the dreadful keening came from her deadly mouth.
What she was, Elizabeth could not guess, but that she had power was evident. Panic tearing at the edges of her mind, Elizabeth forced herself to climb higher, creeping over the rail to crouch low upon the deck. She could see now that some kind of intricate pattern had been scratched into the planks around both Jack and Martha; circles and sharp points, linking one to the other. And as she sang, the creature was waving her hands over the two with breathless excitement.
Had she never seen cursed pirates or Aztec gold, never watched the Kraken claim the Pearl for the depths, nor never travelled to world’s end and back, she might have considered this a macabre charade. But she had seen things no laws of nature could explain, and so it was obvious to her that this monster – this she-devil – was casting some form of enchantment.
It was equally obvious that she must be stopped, and stopped now.
Casting a frantic prayer skyward, Elizabeth drew her sword, rose to her feet and strode forward. “Stop!” she commanded, imitating Gibbs as best she could. “I will not allow this!”
The creature fell silent, her dead black eyes lowering to fix like death upon Elizabeth. Her wicked mouth stretched into a snarl. “What are you?” Her voice was a rasp, bone on bone.
“I’m Elizabeth Turn— Elizabeth. And I won’t allow you to take this man’s life.”
Martha’s face whipped around, starved and furious. “He has traded it freely! As was demanded. You have no power here Elizabeth Swann.”
“I will not let you take him,” she insisted, levelling her sword at the creature. “Let him go.”
Olive lips parted in a deadly smile. “You are the one…” she hissed, ignoring the sword and moving closer. “You are his agony.”
“What?” She flicked a glance at Jack, who was still slumped over. Unconscious, she prayed.
“So much yearning,” the creature hissed, her tongue tasting the air like a snake’s. “So much pain.”
Elizabeth stepped back. “What are you? What do you want here?”
“Want? Everything, nothing. All that lies between. I am Lusca; keeper of the sea’s unquiet souls. And I was summoned here.” Her flat gaze switched to Martha. “I was summoned to barter a deal, to trade one soul for another. What is it that you want?”
Defiant, she said, “Captain Jack Sparrow.”
From the corner of her eye she detected movement. Then, a rasping voice said, “Elizabeth?”
She broke from the dead-eyed gaze of the sea-witch and found Jack staring at her in astonishment. “What the bloody hell are you doing here?”
“I’ve come to save you.”
He waved a hand at her. “Not good. Not safe…”
“Oh, be quiet Jack.” Her gaze shifted back to the witch. “I wish to make a new bargain.”
Lusca laughed, a sound like the howling of a storm. “You have nothing for which I wish to trade.” Her hand lashed out, grabbing Jack by his hair and hauling him to his feet. He swayed there, his starved body almost unable to stand, and his eyes fixed on Elizabeth with a desperate plea. Go…
“This one has a soul ripe for harvest, a fair exchange for the other.” The witch’s gaze slid to the cadaverous form of Martha Danvers. “The exchange demands a soul of equal…value.”
Elizabeth’s gaze darted to the woman, her sickly face hanging with suffering. She drew back, half in horror, half in pity. “What value?”
“A soul in torment.” Lusca’s smile was a sharp baring of teeth. “So much torment in the sea; but none so painful as a love unreturned. A love cast upon the waves and washed ashore, unclaimed. Such love turns to hate.” Her eyes slid again to Martha, a husk of herself shrivelled upon the deck. “And hate sings to me...”
“You did this to her?” Elizabeth felt a stab of pity; Martha Danvers had been no more than a girl. “You made her like this.”
“I?” Lusca hissed. “No. Her love, twisting to hate as she starved, did this.”
“But you kept her alive,” Elizabeth countered. “Made her into a monster…”
“I gave her a chance. A chance to avenge herself, a chance to reclaim her life.” She yanked Jack’s head hard to one side. “A soul in equal torment, given freely; her vengeance and salvation.”
Elizabeth blinked, two words leaping out as though aflame. “What do you mean, ‘given freely’?”
Lusca bared her vicious teeth. “A soul in such torment has no desire for life.”
“No.” Her gaze flew to Jack’s face, but he was limp in Lusca’s grip, eyes closed. “Jack would never— He’d never give up his own…” A horrible realization dawned and her blade switched suddenly to Martha. “You.” Her voice was hard. “Not just bait, was I? Leverage too.”
Martha’s hate-filled eyes narrowed. “Tis only right,” she spat, “that he should wreck his soul upon your shores. I starved for the love of him, without him knowin’ nor carin’, only fitting he do the same for you.”
“So this was the bargain,” she breathed, guts tight with the pain of it. “His agreement to this…this…exchange, in return for my life?”
“And in payment of his debt,” Martha hissed. “He stole my life…”
“He didn’t know,” Elizabeth retorted. “How could he know? You stole aboard his ship, you—”
“He made me love him!” Martha shrieked. “He deceived me, lied to me! Abandoned me.” She hunched in on herself, rocking, sniffling. “I loved him. I loved him… And I hate him. I hate him, hate him…”
Heart pounding, Elizabeth backed away, shocked at so much untamed emotion. Her gaze slid back to Lusca, whose eyes were closed, mouth stretched into a gruesome ecstasy. “Can you not feel the power of it…?”
And in that moment, Elizabeth felt hate too. Hate for this monstrous creature, feeding off the misery of others – tormenting Martha in death, condemning Jack to the same fate. With a grunt of fury, she swung her sword up and—
Lusca opened her eyes, fixed, black as death, on Elizabeth. “I hear you sing to me too, Elizabeth Swann.”
Her arm started to shake. “I…”
Abruptly, Lusca released Jack and he collapsed to the deck. The impact roused him, though, and he pushed himself weakly to his hands and knees. “If you harm her,” he rasped, “the deal is broken. Her life…”
Lusca whipped around, hair flying like snakes about her head. “I permitted you her life once,” she spat. “That she returned is not my concern. The deal is made; your life is mine.” Her finger jabbed at Jack, and though she didn’t touch him he arched back in agony. Elizabeth recognised the scream that tore from his throat; she’d heard it once before, aboard this ship. And she could not bear to hear it again.
“Stop!” She leaped forward, into the patterns carved upon the deck, sword hacking down at the witch’s arm. It stopped as though she’d struck iron, the impact shaking her teeth. When she looked, she saw that Lusca had seized the blade, her shark-eyed stare deadly.
“And so you forfeit your life, girl.” She yanked the sword from Elizabeth’s hand and flung it to the deck.
“Then so be it,” Elizabeth spat back. “I would rather die than…” God have mercy, but it was the truth. Her chin jutted. “I would rather die here, than live in a world without him.”
Lusca’s unnatural face shifted, head cocking curiously to one side. Her lips folded over her teeth and back, as if in thought.
“No…” The pitiful shriek was Martha’s. “She lies! She left him to die, as he did me!”
“It’s no lie.” Elizabeth said, with more calm than she felt. “I sailed to the end of the earth to save him from death; I would do so again, before I took another breath.”
“She deceived him, lied to him,” Martha wailed, struggling to grasp at the witch’s skirts. “She has no love for him. He knows it; he feels the burn of betrayal, keen as I do. It is a fair exchange. I beg of you…”
Lusca took a predatory step forward, Martha still clinging about her feet. Her flat stare was cold as the ocean deep. “His soul is tormented, bitter to the tongue. His longing remains un-sated, his heart burns with the agony of a love repulsed and trust betrayed. He is ripe for death. The bargain holds; the woman’s life for his.”
“No…” A love repulsed? Trust betrayed? “No, you’re wrong.”
Lusca’s cold fingers siezed Elizabeth’s face. “Can you see into his soul, mortal?”
She shook her head, stiff with fright, coiled with rage. “No. But I can see into mine.”
Those dead eyes narrowed and her hand fell away. “Irrelevant.”
Elizabeth ignored her; if they were to die here, then so be it. But there was something she must do first. Darting beneath Lusca’s reach, she dropped to her knees at Jack’s side, hauling him over onto his back. He looked dreadful; the very life sucked out of him. She put a hand to his hollow face; his skin was cold, papery to the touch. Her throat knotted, a hard lump of anguish settled in her chest. “Jack?” Let him hear me… “Please, Jack…”
His eyes opened, mere slits. “Go…”
“Shhh… Just listen.”
Trembling fingers pressed over his lips. “Will you just listen?” A slight frown touched his eyes, that was all. “I tried not to, I tried to ignore it. I didn’t want to—” Her words were tripping over themselves, her heart racing fit to burst. And Lusca was watching her with malevolent eyes; there was no time for fine words, even had she possessed them. Turning back to Jack her gaze fell on his compass, once more hanging from his belt. With shaking fingers she reached out, the black leather and silver cool beneath her touch. Its weight was so familiar now, her constant companion these two years past, that it brought with it an instinctive comfort. If she could not tell him, then she would show him. Holding the compass where he could see it, heart thumping, she raised the lid. The needle spun, stopping swiftly and surely where she’d known it would. Lifting her eyes, she met his astounded gaze. “It’s always been you, Jack Sparrow.”
He said nothing, but his eyes grew wide. As beautiful as a starlit night.
“I wanted you to know,” she said, closing the compass with a soft snap. “I couldn’t bear it that you thought I— You’re a good man, Jack. An honourable man. If I’d felt less, I might have told you more. And I wish—”
A skeletal hand seized her hair, yanking her hard away from him. “Lies!” Martha spat, flinging Elizabeth hard upon the deck and standing over her, a short knife in her ravaged hand. “You will not steal this from me now. Fifteen years I’ve waited; I will have his life!” With a scream, she lunged forward. Elizabeth rolled sideways, heard the knife stab into the deck next to her ear, Martha’s weight pinning her down. She struggled, kicking and pushing, grabbing onto Martha’s thin arms as she raised the knife again, its point mere inches from Elizabeth’s face.
The woman’s features were contorted, with pain and hatred. Her breath fetid, her eyes wild. Murderous. Elizabeth’s hands slipped on her slick flesh, the knife inched closer, Martha’s lips curving into a deadly smile as the point of the blade—
Was stopped by a firm hand.
“Now then, ladies, I’ll not have you fighting over me, savvy?”
As one, Elizabeth and Martha turned their heads to see a very healthy Jack Sparrow crouched beside them, his hand tight on Martha’s wrist and a familiar cock-sure smirk upon his lips. But Elizabeth’s elated smile was shattered by Martha’s hideous scream of denial. In a frenzy, she leaped at him, blade glinting in a slice of moonlight.
But he was too fast, too strong for her. With a deft twist of his arm he had the knife in his hand, sending her sprawling at Lusca’s feet. He flashed a smiled at Elizabeth and offered her his hand; she swore the touch of him burned as she closed her fingers about his and allowed him to pull her to her feet. “Jack, how…?”
The smile slipped for a moment, revealing something powerful beneath. “Seems the deal is off, love. I’m no longer sufficiently…” The look in his intense eyes melted her and set her aflame all at once. “…tormented. As it were.”
There was so much to be said, yet no words were sufficient as he pierced her with that gaze. She offered a smile instead, one he returned with disarming honesty.
“Later,” he promised, his fingers trailing over the back of her hand. She nodded, though her heart quailed. There was ruin, as well as salvation, in that promise.
“The bargain will not hold!” Lusca’s angry hiss startled them both, and they turned to see her standing, arms raised, in the centre of the mysterious pattern carved into the deck. “The covenant is not valid.”
“No!” Martha begged, clinging to her skirts. “Please, you cannot send me back there! I cannot bear it, I cannot wait for another—”
Jack stepped forward. “Mollie?” His voice was warm and she turned to him, rage and grief still burning her soulless eyes. “Do you see this?” He lifted his arm and his sleeve fell back, revealing the lace tied about his wrist.
She started, visibly. “I see it,” she said in a small voice, at odds with her deformed features.
“You gave it to me that night,” he said softly. “You remember? I said I’d wear it for you, eh? And I still am, Mollie. All these years.” He took another step closer. “I thought you drowned, or I’d have come for you. I’d not have left you on that bit of rock, had I known. I swear it.”
Her brow drew down. “I waited so long, and the pain was so hard… I longed for you, Jack.”
“I know, love.” Yet another step closer, holding out a hand to her. “I’ve come now, see?”
Elizabeth watched in astonishment as the starved creature that had once been Martha Danvers rose unsteadily to her feet, reaching out a wasted hand to Jack’s. “You’re warm,” she said, her cadaverous mouth stretching into a smile that almost looked human.
Jack said nothing, but his other hand reached up and brushed her stringy hair from her face. “You were always a beauty, Mollie Danvers,” he said, with so much real affection Elizabeth felt her heart twist. And then, slowly, he leaned down and kissed her forehead. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “For taking so long to find you.”
And in that moment she was transformed. No longer the emaciated waif, or the cold-eyed woman Elizabeth had first seen. She was a smiling, rosy-cheeked girl with eyes full of mischief, raven black hair shining in sunlight. “You’re here,” she smiled, reaching up to touch his face. “Will I sleep in your arms tonight?”
“Aye, love.” He reached forward, gathered her close, and…
She was gone, mist in the air. For a moment Jack stood there, poised on the cusp of her embrace, as if the moment were too painful or exquisite to relinquish. And then his eyes opened, fixing with a deadly look on the sea-witch. “I appear to have inadvertently deprived you of another tormented soul,” he said, without a trace of humour. “What do you say we call it quits, eh?”
Lusca eyed them both, her shark-eyes unreadable. “There will be other bargains, Captain Sparrow.” Her gaze roved to Elizabeth, and back to Jack. “Many things are sent to torment a man; do not imagine your soul to be safe.”
“That maybe so. But, nevertheless, you’ll always remember this as the day you almost—”
In the blink of an eye, she was gone.
Elizabeth glanced around cautiously, eyeing the ghostly crew. “Jack,” she said, edging closer to him, “I think we should—”
And then she was falling. The ship – the whole ship – had disappeared and she was falling through the night.
Before she could even scream, she hit the icy, black ocean and was swallowed whole.
The shock of the cold stole her breath. But she kicked hard for the surface, despite her skirts tangling about her legs. It was difficult though, the weight of her dress pulling her under as she coughed and spluttered. She could see nothing in the darkness, and the cold and panic made it difficult to think – to breathe.
Her arms were flailing, her head barely making it above water. The witch’s final triumph would be her drowning, she thought.
But then a strong arm grabbed her, pulling her up. “Stop flailing!” Jack’s voice was blessedly warm against her ear as he pulled her back against his chest. “You’ll drown us both.”
“I’m not flailing!” she spluttered. “And you try swimming in these skirts…”
He was breathing hard, but still managed a short laugh. “I know a couple of His Majesty’s finest who’d like to, but my tastes run in different directions. No matter what Gibbs may think.”
She supposed she ought to be outraged, but instead she found herself smiling. Not least at the sensation of his arm wrapped around her chest, keeping her afloat. “You’re incorrigible.”
“I certainly hope so, love.” He paused, treading water. “I take it the Pearl is close by?”
“Yes.” She squinted, trying to penetrate the darkness.
“You’ll not see her,” Jack said, proud as ever. “Not when she’s hiding.”
“It’s not the Pearl I’m looking for.” Gathering what breath she had left, she yelled. “Pintel! Ragetti!”
Jack said nothing, both holding their silence. And then, not far off, a light flared. A lamp. Her heart soared. “Over here!”
“Miss Swann?” came Ragetti’s nervous call.
“Yes! In the water!”
“Move your lousy hides!” Jack barked from behind her. “Over here!”
It seemed to take forever, but slowly the lamp edged closer, the creak of the oars sliding over the pitch black sea. “Captain Sparrow!” Pintel’s astonished face emerged from the darkness, the lantern held high. “As I live an’ breath, Captain, I never thought to see you again.”
“Yes,” Jack agreed, pushing Elizabeth up toward the boat. “Many have made that mistake before.”
Between Jack’s pushing – she tried to pay no attention to where his hands ended up – and Ragetti’s pulling, she slumped herself and her sodden dress into the longboat. Jack came after, weary but lithe as a cat. “Signal the Pearl,” he ordered, catching his breath. As he spoke, Elizabeth felt his eyes on her; in the lamp-lit shadows he was dark and earnest, making no move toward where she sat shivering at the stern of the boat. “Those skirts’ll be the death of you one day, love.”
Her lips tightened; she doubted he was talking literally. “A woman has few options in the manner of her attire, Jack.”
“More than she might suppose,” he answered, not dropping her gaze. “If she dares choose them.”
Elizabeth looked away, unable to hold his gaze. It was easy for him to talk of choices, but her life was more complicated and she had more than her own happiness to consider.
Behind her, Pintel was opening and closing the lantern in what she assumed was some kind of code. From starboard came a response in kind, the uncertain light seeming to hover in the night sky. When Pintel made reply a whole string of lamps lit, and the dark shape of the Pearl emerged a few hundred yards away.
“Beautiful,” Jack whispered, and when she glanced over she saw that he was watching his ship.
The sight made her smile.
By the time they reached the deck of the Pearl, Elizabeth was shivering fit to break the teeth in her head. Jack seemed immune to the cold – just one of many things that made her suspect he already skirted the edges of immortality – but he must have noticed her, because within moments one of the crew had returned with a thick blanket.
“Here,” Jack said, wrapping it about her shoulders. He smiled a little, somewhat uncertain, before moving back. But he didn’t go far and his presence was like a fire at her side, warming her and enticing her closer. She despised herself for craving his heat so badly.
Jack talked briefly with Gibbs, whose wide grin spoke of his pleasure at the captain’s return, and then turned to Elizabeth with an indecipherable look in his eyes. “You’ll want to change,” he said in a low voice. “I have— My cabin would be more suitable than the crew deck.”
She lifted a cool eyebrow. “Indeed.” But her pulse was racing; this game they played had entered dangerous waters. Too much had been said tonight, much more remained unspoken and neither of them could ignore the implications; an accord must be reached. Somehow.
Jack didn’t touch her, just swept an arm in the direction of his cabin and followed her when she started walking. She could feel the eyes of the crew upon them, as if they knew all the sordid details of her heart’s desire. Her heart’s betrayal.
She envied them their clarity, for as she crossed the deck she had no idea how to reconcile her desire for Jack – her love for him – with her solemnly sworn vows of fidelity to her husband.
Temptation dripped like the water from her skirts and she doubted she’d be able to resist its pull as it dragged her down into sin.
They circled each other in his cabin, the night’s confessions hanging heavy between them. Jack pulled the sodden coat from his shoulders and flung it on a chair, gesturing vaguely at a chest in the corner in which he assured her were clean, dry clothes.
For her part, Elizabeth kept the blanket about her shoulders and nodded her thanks. But her eyes were transfixed by the way his shirt clung to his damp body, restored to health after withering before her eyes, and the desire she’d always denied herself stirred hard in the pit of her stomach.
He loved her. Had done these two years at least, possibly more. His arms promised more safety than she’d ever imagined, and his kiss – oh, how she remembered the fire of it, even on the cusp of betrayal – his kiss promised the freedom she yearned for. All she had to do was take it…
Dry clothes bunched in one hand, Jack stopped before the door. “Then I suppose,” he said, eyes hot on hers, “I’ll leave you to change? Alone. In peace. By yourself, as it were.”
She nodded, because it was the right thing to do and because she couldn’t trust her voice to say the word aloud.
A short slump of his shoulders marked his sigh. “We’ll make Port Royal in a week, if this weather holds,” he said, lips tight. “You’ll be back with your— With Will soon enough.”
Another nod, this time her eyes prickling with tears she refused to shed. She owed him some words though, after this night; some explanation. “He’s…” It came out a scratch, shaky in a choking throat. “Will’s such a good man…”
“Aye,” Jack agreed, his own voice rich and thick with feeling. “And a bloody lucky one too.”
She shook her head. “Hardly.” She’d seen the shadow in Will’s eyes, knew he suspected the motive for her lonely cliff-top walks; knew he sensed her longing…
“He has you, Elizabeth. I’d say that was enough good fortune for any man.”
His words twisted her heart; guilt for Will, sorrow for him. “I do— I meant what I said on that ship, Jack. I swear it.”
“And yet,” he said with a candid smile, “that only makes it worse.”
“I’ll sleep with the crew.” He nodded toward the bunk in his cabin. “It’s yours till we reach Jamaica. I’ll need me charts though, from time to time.”
He lifted a hand to stop her. “Enough, love. It is how it is. I’ll not— If wishes were horses, beggars would ride, eh?”
There were only a few yards between them, yet it felt like an ocean. The unguarded look in his eyes, intent and serious, cut to her very soul. And she wanted, more than anything, to ease the sadness she saw there, to ease the sadness mirrored in her own heart – the grief of a love suppressed. A love twisted into anger, betrayal, and heartache.
The blanket scratched against the skin of her shoulders, her whole body yearning for the soft touch of his hands. A touch she’d craved since that first meeting, sea-soaked and thrilling, when he’d saved her life and threatened it in the space of a heartbeat; excited her in ways a lady was not meant to be excited, and left her aching for more. For him, though she’d given it the name ‘freedom’, or ‘adventure’.
It had always been him.
He turned the handle on the door and she knew that, if he left, this would be how it ended. A love unconsummated, untried. And her heart would shrivel like a spinster’s for the sake of a passion denied. For the sake of a world that would see her imprisoned within her corsets and the walls of her home.
A world Jack Sparrow rejected by his mere existence, with his whole defiant soul. A defiance that spoke to her own heart, to her desperate need to live, if only for a night. Or a week. At least she would have felt the fire, allowed it to rage fierce and bright. Even a love lost was better than a love denied; a fire doused was warmer than an unlit grate.
The door opened, a soft creak among all the creaks of the Pearl under sail. The blanket fell from her shoulders. He was leaving… “Jack.”
Slowly he turned, surprised at what he saw, but saying nothing.
His head cocked, curious. “What is it you want, Mrs. Turner?”
The taunt was fair play, she supposed, all things considered. Chin lifted, defiant against a cacophony of doubt, she said, “You.”
For an instant he was motionless, and she thrilled at the knowledge she could still surprise him. Then, cautiously, he glanced over his shoulder and out onto the deck, before carefully pushing the door shut again. “If this is a tease,” he said in a low, heated voice, “then you had best be careful.”
Her tongue ran over suddenly dry lips, blood racing heatedly to her cheeks. “I’m not teasing you, Jack.”
Not moving from the door, he dropped the clothes he was holding and said, “A moment ago you were speaking of Will.”
She closed her eyes, unable to swallow the bitterness of her betrayal. God forgive me. God forgive me this weakness.
His slow steps crossed the cabin and when she opened her eyes he was right before her, vivid as a painting. He made no move to touch her, though his eyes roved the length of her with a desire so blatant she felt her knees weaken. “Tell me what this is, Elizabeth.”
“It’s us,” she said, drawing his gaze to hers. “It’s sinful, deceitful, treacherous...”
“Inevitable?” A finger, long and elegant, traced the edge of her bodice across the rise and fall of her chest. His heated touch on her cool skin was almost enough to undo her. “Inescapable.”
He smiled at that, a lascivious curl of his lips. “Urgent.”
And then his mouth was on hers, harder, more demanding than she remembered. Claiming her. She fractured beneath his touch, years of banked desire set free. Her fingers tangled in his wet hair, pulling him closer, her kiss wild. Abandoned. Wicked.
Forgive me, Will...
His arm circled her cinched waist, a hand hot against her neck as his kiss met her frenzied pitch. And then both arms were around her, his mouth pulling free of hers and dropping to her collarbone. She felt hot breath, the nip of teeth, the warmth of his lips. Her knees threatened to buckle, she wanted him to scoop her up and land her on the bed, she wanted to be consumed by his fire, she wanted—
“Bugger it…” His voice was suddenly a frustrated growl against her neck, hands busy behind her back. “Ah!”
She felt something give; her dress. He was unhooking her dress. She dragged his mouth back to hers, seeking reassurance in his kiss. Jack Sparrow was undressing her…and she was letting him, wanting it more than she’d ever wanted a man’s touch.
His lips slid away from hers as the last hooks undid, and for a moment there was a lull as his forehead came to rest against hers. “Can’t find you beneath all this frill and fancy,” he breathed, slowly slipping the dress from her shoulders. “Can’t feel you.”
It fell to the floor at her feet, a pool of sea-drenched decorum, and its weight lifted like a yoke from her shoulders. She kissed him again, more gently now, a silent thank you for her liberation.
“Better,” he murmured against her lips. “But not quite…”
He pulled away, that devilish glint of gold making her heart flutter. His hands roved the length of her, burning when he brushed the thin linen of her shift, all that stood between him and her trembling legs. But it was a momentary touch; his attention was on the corset that bound her waist. “Not good,” he said, running his fingers over the harsh stays and laces. “Not good at all.”
She made a half hearted attempt to reach the fastenings at her back but he stilled her hands. “It deserves a worser fate,” he said mischievously, “for imprisoning you so, Lizzy.”
His answer was a flash of silver. “You won’t remember,” he said, sliding the gleaming blade beneath the first of the laces and cutting it loose. “But this is how we first met, love.”
Another lace freed; the corset loosened a fraction.
“Upon the dock of Port Royal.” Another cut. “A fateful beginning,” he said, two laces cut at once this time, with an increasing urgency. “Or perhaps…” Three gone, the knife moving inexorably higher. “A foretelling of fate’s design.”
“Do you believe in such signs then?” she asked, with what little breath was left to her.
He cut the final laces. “Always.”
And suddenly she could breath, deep and free, as he ripped the corset away and cast it aside.
“There you are,” he said in a low, seductive tone. “Now I can feel you…”
She had no mind for speaking, so grabbed him and pulled him into another demanding kiss. He was right, freed of the corset’s restraint she could feel him, hard against her. Feel his hands on her back, on her waist, rising to brush the side of her breast in a way that made her head spin.
And then, somehow, his hand had found its way beneath her shift and she gasped against his mouth. She felt him smile; “Pirate,” he whispered. And she wondered to where – or when – his mind had travelled, but then his hand slid up from her thigh to her hip and her thoughts scattered.
At every moment she expected him to sweep her into his arms, to take her to his bed. She longed for it wantonly, opened herself to his kiss with an abandon she’d never known before. Eager for a deeper touch, to feel him where he had no right to be, and where she wanted him so desperately.
But no. Though his kiss ravaged her, his hands maintained a slow meander about her body – despite her best efforts to encourage him toward the bed.
“I knew this is how you’d be,” he rasped against her cheek. “On fire. Fair consumed by it.”
“Stop talking,” she managed to scratch out, seizing his face in her hands and kissing him deep, pressing herself to the length of him like a dockside floozy. Short of begging, she had no idea how to express herself more clearly.
She heard his chuckle as a rumble in his chest, but he caught her hint and started moving her backward with a need that matched her own. One hand searing against her bare flesh, his other fiddled with the buckles and belts about his waist, even as he pressed her backward until—
No bed, but the hard wall of the cabin. Her heart thundered at the glorious debauchery of it all, so different from Will.
Jack’s belt hit the floor with a thud and her roving hand found warm flesh beneath his shirt; his turn to gasp as she raked her nails lightly over the muscles of his back. And then he retaliated; no soft gasp but an involuntary cry as his adept fingers slid to that place between her legs that no man – not even Will – had ever touched, and claimed it as his own.
She was no longer herself. She was undone, cast upon the sea like ashes, made anew by his touch. Words slipped from her lips, shameless now. And he answered with fervent whispers as his expert touch drove her to the end of the world and left her poised there, on the cusp of the fall.
When he stopped, she almost sobbed, a fist coming up to beat weakly on his chest. He caught it, turned it over and kissed her wrist, long and slow, his eyes black with desire and fixed on hers. “And now it begins,” he said with a hungry smile.
And at last she was in his arms, across the room, and upon the bed. She couldn’t keep still, her whole body screaming for his touch as she squirmed, eyes closed, and waited for him to join her. Boots thumped to the floor; she almost moaned aloud in anticipation. There was a muttered curse, and the sound of him stumbling, and then he was there, stretched out next to her. His hands, wonderfully, on her body again. Although not quite where she wished. Impatiently she pushed his fingers lower, but he resisted with a quiet laugh.
“The art,” he whispered, “is in the anticipation.”
This time she did groan aloud, in utter frustration. “Jack…”
Her eyes opened in time to see the impact of his name; a shooting star in the night of his eyes. Briefly, he touched her face, a gesture of tenderness amid the frenzy, and then the devilish smile returned. “Come here,” he said, bending to kiss her. And somehow he was moving, rolling her up and on top of him. She sat up in surprise and he grinned. “You’ll enjoy it like this, love.”
She felt her eyes widen. “Like this?”
There was a self-satisfied gleam in his eye, but he didn’t comment on her astonishment. Instead, he lifted her a little, eyes settling into earnestness as she felt the press of him beneath her. “Elizabeth…”
And then she moved, they gasped together, and oh…
She went soaring, free as the wind, free as the Pearl flying across the wide ocean. It was glorious. Eyes closed, head flung back, her world reduced to sensation; the familiar slow build, desperately intense, his hands vital on her slick skin and hers clutched in his damp shirt. And the power… Her sheer power was like nothing she’d ever tasted; it ran like fire in her veins, setting her alight.
Her name was a rasp of desire on his lips, his fingers on her hips a plea to go faster. With a laugh of joy she stopped still, made him curse, and revelled in her control – over him, over herself. Over her destiny.
This was life on her own terms, the very thing she craved. This was living, this was freedom!
Release spread like the horizon before her, glittering in starlight as she began to move again, closer now. Reaching for it with gasping breaths and screaming muscles, needing it like life itself.
It was too far, out of reach. She’d flown too high, her lungs burned with the effort, and she could go no further… Then his skilful fingers touched her just there, just right. And “Oh God…”
She was falling, spinning out of control, crashing against the rocks and into his arms. His sweat-slick chest was salty on her lips as she slumped against him, drifting, drifting down. And he was holding her, his hands lifting her mouth to his; passion yet to be sated, his kiss plunged deep as he rolled her over again, her limbs delightfully heavy. The dissipating heat of her desire roused to his need, arching into him as he thrust in deep uneven strokes. He growled wordlessly against her shoulder at the end, his arms crushing her against him and holding her there above the thundering beat of his heart. Just holding her there…
Slowly, his breathing evened and he raised his head. She looked up at him drowsily, and found him watching her with shocked, shattered eyes.
She felt it too, as if the world had spun off-kilter, and lifted a shaking hand to his face. Dark lashes hooded his eyes for a moment, then he bent to drop kisses like rain across her throat. “My Lizzy,” he murmured against her cooling skin.
With the fading of ecstasy came the pain of truth; awareness of the fragility of all things. Of this moment between them, perfect and rare. She wished it would linger forever…
His hand rested now upon the flat of her stomach and she lifted it in her own, drawing his attention. All manner of straps and rags were tied there, and about his wrist, half hidden by the loose fall of his rumpled shirt.
“I want to see you.”
His eyebrows rose, no guile in his features now. “I’m right here.” He bent to kiss her shoulder, “Lest you forget.”
Elizabeth smiled. “No. I want to see you, not the legendary Captain Jack Sparrow.”
“That’s who I am, love.” And there was just enough apprehension in his voice to give the lie to his words.
She didn’t answer, but instead began to tug at the leather strap he wore across his palm. “Without this,” she said, freeing it and setting it to one side. “And this…” She set to work on another and he let her, watching with an earnest expression as she stripped away his artifice. But he stopped her when it came to Mollie’s lace.
“Leave that,” he said softly. “I’ll wear it a while longer.”
She kissed him for that, then sat up to work on his other arm, running her fingers over the bare skin when she was done. The scars she’d seen before, and he met her questioning gaze with a flat stare. “Those are for another day.” But he knew, as well as she did, that their days would last only as long as the voyage home. The pain was savage, but she chose to ignore it – for now.
“Your shirt,” she said instead, and his eyebrows lifted. “Unless you’d rather I cut it from you with a knife.” Her smile grew arch. “I believe there’s one close to hand.”
“Be careful what you threaten, darling.” And there was enough of a gleam in his eye as he pulled the shirt up over his head that she knew it was but half a joke.
“Better,” Elizabeth decided, tracing her hand across the powder burns, up and over his tanned shoulder. “But not quite…” Her eyes lifted to the bandana about his head.
“This?” He seemed perplexed. “I can’t vouch for what’s beneath.”
“You,” she smiled. “And that’s all I want to see.”
With a low laugh and an almost self-conscious shake of his head, he reached up and untied the scarf. His hair fell forward across his face and he shook it away with a lopsided grin. “Can’t see where I’m bloody going.”
She ignored his words, her eyes and hands fascinated by the man before her now. Bereft of his trappings, he looked no more a legend than any man. Marked by his life, by his losses and loves, he watched her with a frank stare that befitted his bared state. This was Jack Sparrow; she wondered who else had seen him so. It was a rare privilege, and she felt the tragedy of it run deep. With a melancholy smile she pushed his damp hair back from his face, beads and trinkets clicking softly beneath her touch. A sliver of gold—
Her hands froze, the slow beat of her heart quickening. Carefully, she teased free a golden braid that hung stark against his black hair. His eyes slid to her hand, a cautious smile on his lips. “What else did you think I’d do with it?”
“I had no idea you would keep it at all,” she said, lifting her gaze to his.
“You thought me incapable of such feelings, eh?” His hand brushed through her hair now, as if seeking the place from which he’d stolen the lock. “I suppose I gave you little enough reason to believe otherwise.”
“Nor did you, love, don’t forget.” He traced a finger over the golden band she wore upon her left hand. “Quite the opposite, as it happens.”
Guilt closed in from all sides. “I wish I’d made a braver choice.”
“It’s not too late.”
In her heart she knew it was, but that pain was for another day. Lacing her fingers through his, she lifted her chin with a determined smile. “I’m hungry.”
Her smile turned into a laugh. “For food, Captain Sparrow. I assume you have more than hard tack and rum aboard your boat?”
“It’s a ship,” he corrected, smiling as he raked a hand through his tangled mass of hair. “And, as it happens, we stumbled upon a French galleon just last month somewhat well provisioned with delicacies.”
“A feast then!”
Leaning close, his loose hair brushed her face when he kissed her. “You know, the French always eat in bed…”
“The French are a very wise people.”
“Très sage,” he agreed, catching her lip between his teeth and pushing her gently down onto the bed. “They invented mayonnaise you know…”
She made no answer, for at that moment he pressed his mouth against her stomach, his hair falling across her body and tickling her aroused skin. When he lifted his head he threw her a thoroughly dissolute grin, before moving slowly, kiss-by-kiss, in a very, very interesting direction… “Oh mon Dieu!”
All thought of food – of anything – slipped from her mind and she was flying again. Like Icarus, too close to the sun and careless of the danger…
Concluded in Chapter Eight