Chapter Thirteen: Prelude to Temptation
Elizabeth felt sick; her head throbbed in time to her pulse, her eyes felt as if they'd been coated in sand, and her mouth was as dry as cotton. Adding to her misery was the sound of Graciela's voice as she scolded the young woman and demanded explanations. They were alone together in the captain's cabin, and the wooden walls seemed to reflect and treble both the volume and sheer agonizing tone of the pirate's words.
"You could have been killed!," Graciela raged. Elizabeth stood in the center of the room, head down, shoulders slumping... the maid presented such a picture of abject dejection that if the pirate had not been so filled with rage, she might have allowed compassion to override her emotional outburst. But it was sheer fury that welled and bubbled up, coloring her world in vivid scarlet hues, and Graciela was determined not to rest until she'd pried the full story out of the girl's lips.
"Why were you thinking?," Graciela asked, pacing the room. "You don't even know how to shoot a flintlock properly! And what in the hell are you doing dressed in that ridiculous costume, querida? What were you doing away from the ship? Don't you know you could've been raped, robbed, killed or all three?!"
Elizabeth mumbled, "Miguel thought it was all right."
Graciela rolled her eyes and fought to keep from grabbing the tall girl and shaking her like a ragdoll. "I don't give a good goddamn what Miguel thinks! You should have known better! Believe me, Lizzybet, I'll deal with that pendejo of a first mate of mine when I see him; right now, I'm not yet finished with you!"
The fires of rebellion had been smoldering in Elizabeth's breast for some time; now they burst forth in glorious flame. Green eyes sizzling, the maid opened her lips and spat, "You think of me as a prisoner, a helpless doll you can force to do your bidding! Well, Miguel sees something more... he sees me as a woman who can think, make decisions; aye, even become part of your crew! I'm not a brainless fool, nor am I a coward, madame. I admit that my former existence has left me somewhat ill-prepared for the life I have been thrust into, but I intend to do what I can - what I must - to survive. And any man of your crew would say the same! You scold me as if I were a child... what would you do to one of your men who had so disobeyed?"
Graciela couldn't believe her ears... or her eyes. Anger heightened Elizabeth's color, made her emerald orbs deepen and glow. She was incredibly beautiful and the pirate could not suppress a flood of lust that was well-nigh overwhelming. But, she could not allow this... this... child!... to be insubordinate. As for joining her crew... the very thought was laughable. "You?," Graciela chuckled. "Querida, you are a pampered, spoiled child. The life of a pirate is hard and dangerous. You wouldn't last a fortnight!"
Elizabeth sucked in a breath. "You have not answered my question, madame," she gritted. Her head felt as if were going to explode and she desperately wanted this interview to be over... but not until she'd won her place and whatever degree of respect she could garner.
Graciela sobered. Her pale eyes gleamed in the faint rays of sunlight that still gleamed through the leaded glass windows. "If any of my men so disobeyed me," she said, utterly serious, "I would have him lashed."
Elizabeth swallowed. She'd heard tales of the severe punishments meted out to sailing men, both piratical and Naval. The dreaded cat-o'-nine-tails made of braided hempen robe, each of its appendages weighted by a lead ball, the better to rend and tear flesh from bone... she felt faint and dizzy just thinking about such devices.
But this was a new Elizabeth that Graciela faced - one who had accepted her fate and was determined to do what she must in order to make a place for herself among this fearsome band. The frightened, witless child who had attempted suicide was gone; in her place was a woman forged of tribulation and trial, who had at last discovered a measure of the steel within her soul. She had literally nowhere to go but forward, and her destiny lay somewhere on the shimmering Caribbean seas.
Elizabeth tilted her chin; looking down at Graciela, she said in measured tones, "Then you must do the same to me. Treat me as if I were your crewman, for that I am, madame. Will you, nil you... I belong here."
"What!!?" Graciela couldn't believe what she was hearing. "You want to be lashed? Are you insane, querida? No, you're still drunk as a country earl." The dark-haired pirate sighed. "Go to bed. I can see there's no reasoning with you this night."
Elizabeth took a step forward. Wisps of red-gold hair hung around her face and her eyes were hooded. "What must I do to become a crewman and not just a plaything?," she asked. "If I give you what you want... if I willingly come to your bed... will you then give me a place on this ship?"
Graciela was again astonished. She stared up at Elizabeth, nearly numb with shock. "You... you... I cannot believe this!," she muttered.
Elizabeth steeled herself. Although she found Graciela to be one of the most mesmerizing, charming and beautiful women she'd ever known, the thought of performing some unknown sexual act with her was terrifying. She wasn't entirely sure what men and women did together, much less two women. And a part of her still considered such unions as sins worthy of hellfire and eternal damnation. Still... she had made her decision. She must remain on the Quartier, and to do that she needed not only Graciela's permission, but her help as well.
"Do you not find me worthy of bedding?," Elizabeth asked shyly. She tried to give the smaller woman a bold look but wasn't sure she succeeded in doing anything but appearing ridiculous. Flirting was, alas, not one of the skills she'd been interested in learning when she was at Court. "You kissed me once and would have gone further, I think, had we not been interrupted."
Graciela rubbed her eyes with one knuckle and wondered wildly if Harry Wagstaff hadn't succeeded in killing her after all. "You don't know what you're saying," she replied shakily. "You've had too much to drink. Get to bed, Lizzybet. We'll talk more in the morning."
Elizabeth jerked the hat off her head and with both hands, pulled the pins from her hair, letting the red-gold glory cascade over her shoulders and down her back until it hung nearly to her knees. Moistening her lips with her tongue, she said in what she hoped was a seductive tone, "Keep me here on the Quartier. Let me learn what I must to be one of you - a pirate. Give me a modicum of freedom. In return, I will work hard and be loyal." She swallowed. "And I'll go willingly to your bed as well."
Graciela's ice blue eyes narrowed. "You're a virgin, querida," she said dismissively. "You haven't the slightest idea what you're asking for."
"Oh?" Steeling herself, Elizabeth shrugged off the smoke-gray velvet vest she wore and began unbuttoning her shirt. "I know very well what goes where, madame. I'm not totally naive, you know," she replied in her best devil-may-care imitation.
Graciela was, frankly, nonplused. She enjoyed the chase, breaking down her victim's defenses with her fatal charm before ravishing them unmercifully and leaving them begging for more. Even the more experienced women she'd taken had succumbed, nearly swooning, to her masterful blend of suave charisma and sheer animal magnetism.
Now here was this chit of a girl who had tried to commit suicide not too long ago because of the pirate's most delicate and smoothly executed seduction... who'd rather die than submit to Graciela's embraces... this same maiden was now brazenly asking to be bedded as calmly as if this were an ordinary business transaction! Lizzybet, who was fiddling with the buttons of her shirt in a way that seemed highly suggestive, was bargaining her maidenhead and the rest of her considerable charms in return for a chance to die either at the end of a rope on Execution Dock or by cannonshot, cutlass stroke or any of the dozen other ways pirates usually came to a bad end.
What had caused this complete turnaround in the girl's attitude? Graciela was at a loss and didn't know how to respond. For the first time in a long time, she found herself in a position that made her feel uncomfortable in the extreme and worst of all, embarrassed by her own appetites. She didn't like this feeling, not at all, and this caused her already uncertain temper to fray.
"Suppose you tell me 'what goes where,' little girl?," the pirate snapped with a sneer. "I doubt you're even old enough to have hair in the proper places, much less have any knowledge about what I do to women in the bedchamber. Or did the Countess train you in more than the usual lady-in-waiting's role?"
Elizabeth felt a flush creeping up her cheeks and stared down at her fingers as they fumbled with her shirt buttons. She was still feeling angry and hurt, especially after Graciela's cutting remark. "I've hair enough," she retorted, refusing to look into the pirate's face. "And as to what perverted pleasures you may practice, I admit my ignorance, especially since I was - unlike you! - raised as a lady."
"Oh, is that the lay of the land!," Graciela spat. She began stalking around the small cabin and despite herself, Elizabeth was almost mesmerized by the petite woman's pantherine grace. "You think yourself better than me, eh? Because you're a lady and me nothing but a filthy, perverted sea beggar! Well, my lady," she continued sarcastically, "for your information, I've bed better than you in my day. Why I wanted to waste my time with a milk-faced, puling, whinging, crying weakling like yourself, I've no idea. I must have been out of my wits."
"You still are!," Elizabeth said forcefully. She ceased trying to unbutton her shirt and turned to face Graciela. "I may have cried and yes, I may have been weak, but that girl is gone, as dead as if she'd never existed. I've been sold by my own family, abused by those who thought themselves my betters, and suffered the ignominy of being captured by a lustful pirate with the worst reputation on the high seas. Is it any wonder that I feared for my life and soul? Can you blame me for my sorrow and melancholy? But I've tasted death once, in a moment of cowardice... that was enough of a lesson. I want to live, madame. Live! If I must whore myself - yes, I said whore, why mince words? - in order to make my way in this pirate's world of yours, so be it!"
"I can buy all the whores I want," Graciela said. "From sixpence to golden doubloon, from the lowliest whiskey-raddled street slut to the finest concubine dressed in silks and perfumed in every hole."
"I've no doubt of that," Elizabeth replied coolly. "My own price is neither so high nor so low."
"Nay, you're the costliest of the lot! What do you want, querida? To be wooed with gifts, flattered with compliments, lain down on a bed of rose petals while violins play sweet music? Do you want me to write poetry? Sing like a minstrel? Get down on my bended knees and beg for one touch of your lily white hand? Faugh! As you've pointed out, Lizzybet, I'm no lady. Nor am I a court gallant. I'm a pirate and I take what I want!"
"You will never take me!," Elizabeth replied furiously. "I'm no ship you can board and rape to the waterline! Either we have a bargain or... or..."
"Or what? You'll fling yourself ass and baggage over the railing again?" Graciela gave the girl a cruel smile.
Elizabeth ignored this stinging sally. "Agree to take me on the Quartier as a crewman and you may have whatever you want from me. That is my bargain."
"And if I choose not to agree? What then, querida? Threats? Hysterics? Ladylike vapors?"
Elizabeth's green eyes glittered strangely. She'd had
enough of trying to persuade this arrogant, stubborn woman. Actions spoke louder
than words, and she screwed her courage to the tightest, hoping her next step
would be the final argument. "Perhaps. Perhaps not. But before you refuse me
entirely, madame, it may be best that you take a look at the merchandise I'm
She grabbed both halves of her shirtfront and ripped the garment open. Her breasts bounced free of their constraints and shuddered with the fury of her breathing. Those alabaster globes, tipped with rosy nipples, drew Graciela's eyes like a lodestone. The pirate sucked in a breath and raised her hands, as if her fingers itched to mold and caress Elizabeth's softly rounded flesh.
Elizabeth noted Graciela's response. Yanking the remains of her shirt off her body and flinging it to the floor, she put her hands on her hips and stood as tall as she could, fighting down embarrassment. Her shoulders were peppered with freckles; those delicate tan spots stood out clearly on her creamy skin and swept down to cover her collarbone and chest to a point just above her breasts, where they stopped. Those sunspots were also on her back; they arched down to cover both shoulderblades and tapered into an unbroken line that marched straight down her spine, ending at the top of her buttocks. Other than this, her skin was unblemished and had the color and sheen of fresh ivory.
Graciela stared. Her mouth watered. She blinked.
Elizabeth had no idea what a picture she presented, standing there bare to the waist, her magnificent red-gold mane rippling down her back and over her shoulders, her emerald eyes snapping, the rest of her body covered in boy's breeches and a pair of boots. She looked like a queen, an amazon ruler of some far-away exotic land, lacking only a splendid crown and other jewels to make the illusion complete.
But she did have eyes and intelligence, and the look of open lust on Graciela's face made her feel triumphant rather than embarrassed.
The flintlock and cutlass were the next to go, dropped unceremoniously to the floor. Unwinding the sash from her waist, Elizabeth cooed, "Do the treasures I've uncovered spark your interest?" She was beginning to enjoy her first taste of the power a truly beautiful woman wields over her admirer. "Shall I go further?"
Graciela was speechless. She'd seen Elizabeth naked before, when she'd rescued the drowning girl, but she'd had little time or inclination to ogle. Now she did so openly, her eyes glued to the tall woman's delicious curves.
The sash flew through the air, landing on the pirate's shoulder. Graciela didn't even flinch.
The boots were a bit of a problem but fortunately, the breeches she wore had very wide legs. Peeling the tan canvas trousers down, she gracefully kicked them away. "Does this meet with your approval?," Elizabeth asked, standing straight again. Although she had been raised to be a modest woman, she had no real inclination to cover herself. Her decision had been made; she would do what was necessary to survive. Casting reservations aside, Elizabeth flicked a stray lock of hair away from her face and settled into an almost pose; hands on hips, one leg slightly bent, her shoulders back and breasts thrust out, the sunlight dappling her skin with shadow and light.
Graciela's eyes strayed down, savoring the vision before her. Elizabeth's body was a symphony in white, red and gold. Full, straining breasts, small waist, flat belly tapering to the fiery vee between her rounded thighs. That tangled thatch of curls was the color of fine rubies and shone like flickering flames, echoed by the wisps of hair beneath her arms. The black boots that hugged her calves did not seem incongruous; instead, the scuffed leather only served to enhance her womanly softness.
Graciela licked her lips and moaned unconsciously.
"Do we have a bargain, madame?," Elizabeth asked. "You may do with me as you wish; I will willingly submit to your desires. However, in return, I expect to become a member of your crew in full standing. I realize I will require some protection until I can adequately defend myself, but I will not remain your helpless prisoner. Do we have a bargain?," she repeated.
Graciela barely heard the girl's words. She was utterly fascinated, completely captivated in a way that made the other women she'd seen and bedded absolutely insignificant. A raging fire seemed to spread throughout her whole body, turning her blood into a torrent of blazing embers, her flesh consumed entirely by heat. She had seen beautiful women; women for whom men fought to the death, courtesans and countesses alike. But somehow, Lizzybet's beauty transcended all mortal boundaries; it was as if she was in the presence of a glorious goddess. Her pulse pounded irregularly; she knew - and the knowledge came from some place deep inside herself - that she must possess Elizabeth or die in the attempt.
Elizabeth was beginning to feel self-conscious. Graciela was staring with round eyes, her mouth slightly open. It was as if she was in a trance. "Do we have a bargain, madame?," she said loudly.
The spell broke with an almost audible snap. Graciela blinked and said hoarsely, "Yes. I agree to everything."
It was Elizabeth's turn to blink. "You will allow me to become a full-fledged crewman on the Quartier?"
"I'll be free to come and go as I please?"
"You'll allow me to learn things, like handling weapons and sailing?"
"You won't make me go back to my family? Or sell me to some whorehouse when you tire of me?"
"Oh, God... no."
Elizabeth stood there, wondering what other concessions she could wring out of the stunned pirate captain, when her concentration was broken by Graciela's husky whisper.
"Come here, woman... I'm about to die for wanting you."
Shyly, almost reluctantly, Elizabeth took a step forward. Now that she'd gotten what she wanted, she wasn't sure how to proceed.
Graciela had no such
Graciela fairly leaped upon her, bearing the girl to the floor of the cabin. "Lizzybet," she groaned. "My beautiful Lizzybet..."
Elizabeth was frightened almost out of her wits. She hadn't known what to expect but this hasty grasping, groping and panting was about as far away from her imagined ideas of romance as was possible. When Graciela's hands descended upon her breasts, and the pirate's fastened her burning lips on Elizabeth's throat, the girl had to bite back a scream.
Graciela was maddened by lust. She hastily tore at her own clothing, ripping her shirt open to expose her small round breasts. "You're so beautiful," she mumbled.
Elizabeth lay there, stiff as a wooden board, as Graciela flicked her tender nipples with her tongue. She squeezed her eyes closed and clenched her jaw tightly as the pirate's knowing fingers explored her virginal territory, roughly caressing her most sensitive places. Graciela lay on top of her, straddling her thigh, moaning, raining kisses upon Elizabeth's face, neck and chest. Elizabeth curled her hands into fists and kept her arms rigidly at her side; hot tears of shame and abject fear ran from beneath her closed eyelids, streaming down her temples and soaking her hair. Her instincts screamed at her to fight, to resist this intruder with all her might, but she could not.
A bargain is a bargain, she told herself. There's no turning back now. Endure it; it'll be over soon enough.
Even in the midst of her need, Graciela realized something was wrong. She propped herself up on her elbows and stared down into Elizabeth's face. "What's wrong, querida?," she panted.
"Do it!," Elizabeth gritted without opening her eyes. "Just finish and get it over with!"
It was both the words and the tone of the girl's voice that made the lust Graciela had felt recede as quickly as it had come, leaving her with an icy, sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.
She knelt back on her heels, between Elizabeth's spread thighs. The girl was holding herself stiffer than a snow-covered corpse and about as inviting. A shiny trail of Graciela's saliva glimmered on her breasts and belly. A deep red mark on the girl's shoulder would turn into a bruise before too long. As she was observing all this, Elizabeth cracked open her eyes and lifted her head.
"What are you waiting for?," she croaked, praying the nightmare was nearly finished. "Just get it over with."
Just get it over with...
Abruptly, Graciela stood. Her hands shook as she thrust her shirt into the waistband of her breeches, not bothering to button it up. She took three quick strides across the cabin, pulled open the wardrobe door, and grabbed a satin dressing gown. Tossing it to Elizabeth, she said, "Put it on."
"What?," Elizabeth said in disbelief, although she caught the dressing gown. "But aren't you..."
"Put it on!," Graciela shouted.
Elizabeth scrambled up from the floor and threw the gown over her shoulders. "What's wrong? Did I do something?"
Graciela was seething with anger, most of it directed towards herself. She'd nearly raped Elizabeth, had come closer to that unforgivable violation than ever before. She knew very well what it was like to be used in that fashion; her father, the great El Tiburon, had done that to her dozens of times. It was only by the grace of God that she'd not ended up pregnant by her own sire's seed.
But he was dead now, his bastard's throat cut by her own blade. The past was gone and this was the present; she'd behaved badly and knew it. Graciela was ashamed of herself, but she'd spent too many years hiding her true emotions to begin revealing them now. Instead, she did the only thing she could, the only action she could possibly take; she turned that fury around and aimed it at the person she'd hurt. Elizabeth.
"No, nothing's wrong," Graciela said with poisonous sweetness. "I just never realized that I was bedding a cold fish instead of a woman."
"W-w-what?," Elizabeth stammered in disbelief.
"Come to think of it, I've swived with dead women that were livelier than you. And warmer. And more inviting. Damn it, woman!" Graciela's voice raised to a shout.
Elizabeth's tears dried up beneath that hurtful onslaught. "You attacked me!," she said vehemently. "What did you think I'd do? I was afraid..."
"Then you've no business wanting to become a pirate! Weak-livered babies who still taste of their mother's milk have no place on this ship!"
"You made a bargain with me, madame!," Elizabeth retorted, some color returning to her face as her choler rose. "If you're unable to keep your side of it, don't blame me!"
"Hah! I'm no man whose member wilts like hot lettuce at the slightest sign of trouble. Frankly, querida, you're just not to my taste." Graciela's cold eyes flicked up and down; her lip curled contemptuously. "I'd prefer bedding a three-penny hag from the lowest crib in port; at least then I'd get some satisfaction for my payment, not just cold slime on my fingers." She raised a hand to her nose and sniffed ostentatiously.
Elizabeth's hand lashed out and caught the side of Graciela's face. The pirate rocked back with the blow; the crack sounded impossibly loud in the confines of the cabin.
Graciela's face bore the crimson imprint of Elizabeth's hand. The pirate gave her a slight bow and said with chilling dignity, "Put some clothes on, girl. Then do as you please. I doubt any man, even the heartiest, would care to sample your frigid charms more than once."
Graciela exited the cabin...
And as her petite, muscular form disappeared down the corridor, Elizabeth gathered the dressing gown around her and burst into tears.
The true hell of it was... her heart felt broken and
she didn't know why.