Eleanor stood in front of her mirror and studied her reflection critically. Her hair was in place, her clothes were simple but flattering to her figure, her cheeks were subtly rouged, and the scarf draped around her neck added a hopefully debonair flare to the ensemble. She looked good, but as she continued to scan herself in the mirror, she once again became possessed with an urge to tear off everything she had put on and start building an outfit again from scratch. Good was fine for a normal day, good was acceptable for meetings with the consortium and greeting the captains of newly ported ships, but she was having lunch with Max, and good was not enough for that.
Tearing her eyes away from her reflection, Eleanor began undoing the scarf she had only a minute before finished tying as she walked back towards her closet.
A minute later a knock sounded on the door, interrupting Eleanor’s perusal of her clothes.
“Who is it?” Eleanor called out impatiently.
“Come in,” Eleanor replied, tossing the scarf in her hand onto the growing pile of rejected clothes on her bed before turning around to face the opening door.
“Everything is ready,” Eme said as she stepped into the room and then closed the door behind her.
“So early?” Eleanor asked, surprised.
“Not so early,” Eme replied, her eyes skirting over to Eleanor’s bed and the pile of discarded outfits on it. “It’s only minutes til noon. The cook was concerned you’d be cross things hadn’t been finished sooner.”
“Then I suppose this will have to do,” Eleanor sighed, looking down at herself.
She smoothed her hands over her fabric of her skirt and then walked over to the bed and picked up the scarf she had just tossed aside.
“Allow me,” Eme said as Eleanor draped the scarf over her neck once again and began to fold it.
“It’s fine. I can manage on my own.”
“No doubt,” Eme replied watching Eleanor keenly. “It would be easier with some help.”
“I…” Eleanor began.
When she started to speak it had been her intention to issue another protest, she as she looked at Eme, she thought better of it. Eme had made the offer of her own volition and though Eleanor did not like being fussed over, she thought it would be poor manners to turn down the considerate offer.
“Very well. Thank you,” Eleanor continued a moment later, dropping her hands to her side in invitation for Eme to step forward and help her with the scarf.
“You’re nervous,” Eme commented as she began to secure the scarf.
Eleanor’s eyes dropped down to consider Eme’s expression, but the woman was looking down, her eyes focused on her fingers as they moved deftly, tying the scarf.
“You’re mistaken,” Eleanor replied stiffly.
“Of course,” Eme breathed out, her tone leaving no doubt in Eleanor’s mind that the woman didn’t believe her in the slightest.
“It’s a luncheon, not tea with the Royal Navy. I have nothing to be nervous about,” Eleanor said in response to Eme’s unspoken scepticism.
“If you say so. But, though I am new here, I am not deaf or blind,” Eme murmured, stepping back now that she was finished with Eleanor’s scarf.
Eleanor was quiet for a few moments as she studied the woman in front of her. They had only known each other for a couple of weeks, but within minutes of meeting the former slave, Eleanor had known that she was in the presence of a remarkable woman. The lot they had been dealt in life was very different, but despite that they were similar in many ways. They were both strong, stubborn, forthright, and unwilling to capitulate to the expectations of others. They were both observant and intelligent as well, and presently Eleanor could see that intelligence at work in Eme’s dark eyes.
“What have your eyes and ears gleaned?” Eleanor asked, holding Eme’s eyes for a second longer before stepping back. “To convince you that I am in such a sorry state?” she continued, turning her attention back to the mirror and her reflection once more.
“That this is not meeting with a potential business partner,” Eme replied as Eleanor lifted her hands to her hair, patting at blonde strands that were already perfectly secure. “You care about the woman.”
“I do not disagree with your assessment. Max is a dear friend,” Eleanor responded without looking away from her mirror.
“From the way your eyes follow her night after night, I would not have used that word to describe what she was to you, or what you seek to make her again,” Eme commented, remaining still and calm, even when Eleanor turned sharply and lanced her with her pale eyes.
They gazed at each other for a few moments, the silence between them tense, until Eleanor finally sighed and looked away.
“Fair enough,” the blonde breathed out as she stepped back from the mirror and nervously smoothed her hands over her skirt again. “It was never a secret. Nothing is on this island. Not for long anyway,” she continued, finally looking up to meet Eme’s eyes again. “Do you think she’ll find me tolerable?” Eleanor asked, glancing down at herself uncertainly before looking back over at Eme.
“From the way her eyes follow you night after night, I think she will and has always found you more than tolerable,” Eme replied, a small, sly smile touching her lips.
“She’s …” Eleanor began eagerly, before consciously calming her tone. “You’ve seen her watching me?”
Eme nodded before saying, “She tries not to. But her eyes find you again and again, watching with … I think the word is, pining.”
Upon hearing Eme’s words, Eleanor’s lips curved up the slightest bit, but only for a moment.
“I pray that is the word,” she murmured softly before turning her head towards her closed bedroom door. “I should go,” she declared assertively though her hands once again nervously ran over the front of her skirt. “I’m not sure about this blouse, it …”
Eme walked to the door and opened it as Eleanor began to fret again, then she turned and looked at the blonde pointedly, waiting for her to move.
“Okay,” Eleanor said decisively, taking a step towards the door. “Thank you,” she added a few seconds later as she walked past Eme into the hallway. “Truly,” Eleanor continued when Eme finished pulling in her bedroom door. “Thank you,” she repeated meaningfully.
A small smile touched Eme’s lips and then she nodded her head at Eleanor before starting down the hallway.
When Max made her appearance on the terrace at a quarter past noon, Eleanor rose quickly from the seat she had been anxiously perched on, and went to greet her, chivalrously taking Max’s hand and kissing the back of it before leading Max to the table.
“I hope you’re hungry,” Eleanor said a bit sheepishly once she had retaken her seat. “I may have gone a little overboard. I rarely take time to eat a proper midday meal, and as so I left it up to Mrs. McKenzie to compile the menu. Consequently … well, please do not feel obligated to try and eat everything. She has embraced English excess, and should we try to consume every morsel presented I fear it would be the end of us. Gastromortus,” Eleanor pronounced dramatically, drawing a smile to Max’s lips.
“You did not need to go to such trouble for Max,” Max murmured a moment later, though her lips remained curved up in a gentle smile as she looked at Eleanor.
“I may not have needed to, but I wanted to,” Eleanor said earnestly. “I think this may be the first proper meal we’ve shared together, and as such I wished for it to be memorable.”
“If Max must be rolled ‘ome afterwards, she is sure it will be,” Max replied, still smiling gently.
“I won’t let it come to that,” Eleanor assured her gallantly. “I could have a litter fashioned in no time at all. Duncan and McGuire could carry you home like a queen, a contemporary Cleopatra.”
“And what would you be doing during all this, my Marc Antony?” Max asked, cheekily.
Tales of people such as Marc Antony and Cleopatra, King Arthur, Joan of Arc, and Henry VIII, had been unknown to Max for most of her life. Such information had no relevance to her daily existence, and even if she had known to be interested in such things, there was nobody who could have, or would have, taught her. Then she had met Eleanor, who, after they had thoroughly exhausted themselves making love, liked to gather Max up in her arms and talk to her about the people she had learned about in books, and from Mr. Scott’s lessons, and like a sponge, Max had absorbed her words, clinging onto every one, as eager for knowledge as she was for the sound of Eleanor’s voice.
“Walking dutifully at the side, holding palms leaves to keep you cool,” Eleanor replied, a small smile touching her lips as a rush of warmth shivered through her at Max’s use of the word “my” in relation to her.
“You should ‘ave Mendes ‘elp Duncan and McGuire with the litter, then you could join Max inside.”
“That’s a much better plan,” Eleanor agreed with a smile as Eme appeared on the terrace with the first part of the first course of their meal. “I … Stewart’s supposed to be serving,” Eleanor said, her response to Max interrupted as she turned to address Eme.
Eme came to a stop by Eleanor’s side of the table and then carefully placed a dish of oyster sauce before the blonde. As she did, she used her close proximity to Eleanor to whisper, “I’ll be more discreet. In every way.”
Eme then straightened up and made her way over to Max’s side of the table where she addressed Eleanor in a conversational tone, saying, “I could fetch him if you’d prefer.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Eleanor replied, locking eyes with Eme thankfully. “I have every confidence in your abilities.”
Eme nodded and then, under Eleanor’s watchful eyes, made her way off the terrace as quietly as she had entered.
“A new purchase?” Max asked, arching an eyebrow when Eleanor’s gaze fell upon her again.
“It’s not like that,” Eleanor answered stiffly, a wounded look coming into her eyes. “You know I do not agree with the buying and selling of human beings. Eme was one of the captives being held on The Andromache with Scott. Upon his return to Nassau he asked me to do what I could for the others,” Eleanor continued, pausing only when Eme silently slipped back onto the terrace to deliver a platter of fish and vegetables. “Thank you,” Eleanor said softly when she had finished, and a small smile touched Eme’s lips as she nodded at Eleanor before slipping away again.
“Better to be indentured to you, than cutting cane, or breaking rocks at the quarry, oui?” Max asked when she and Eleanor were alone on the terrace once more.
Eleanor was silent for a moment after Max spoke, her eyes searching Max’s face, before she sighed and then looked away.
“Do you ask that to wound me, or do you honestly think so little of me?” Eleanor breathed out, the food that had just been delivered to the table temporarily forgotten.
“Max asks questions based on what she sees.”
“Then you do not see as much as you think you do,” Eleanor responded sadly. “I did purchase Eme and the five other females that were held on The Andromache, but their lives are now their own. Eme is not owned by me, she works for wages under my employ. She can leave this house and my service whenever she chooses, as can the others, as did Mr. Scott. I am no one’s master,” Eleanor continued unable to keep the hurt Max’s insinuations had caused her out of her voice. “My skin may be white Max, but I thought you’d know by now that I’m no devil.”
Silence reigned on the terrace in the seconds that followed the last of Eleanor’s words until Max broke it by quietly saying her name.
“Yes?” Eleanor asked tiredly, looking up and over at her.
“I’m sorry,” Max said, purposefully holding Eleanor’s eyes so that she could see the truth of her words in them, even though shame made her want to avert her gaze. “Max’s words were unfair,” she continued, sighing softly. “I am … not as I was before,” breathed out, looking away from Eleanor. “Max is ‘ard these days, even when she does not wish to be. She ‘as learned to expect the worst and ‘ope for nothing. She is quick to doubt. I did not mean to ‘urt you,” she went on, eyes trained on the top of the finely arranged table. “I know your ‘eart is kind.”
Eleanor released a shaky breath and nodded her head, acknowledging Max’s words while taking a moment to compose herself.
“I understand,” Eleanor exhaled a few seconds later, wishing desperately that she’d arranged for them to share a smaller table so that she could have reached out and taken Max’s hand. “I know I’ve given you reason to doubt my intentions in the past,” she continued shakily. “It will take time for you to trust me, to trust in me again, and I accept that,” she pronounced softly, her hand twitching with a desire to touch that she could not satisfy from where she was seated. “I…”
Eleanor paused and then stood, before determinedly taking hold of her chair and dragging it from its proper spot by the end of the table, over to where Max was sitting. She then she took a seat beside the dark-skinned beauty.
“I’m grateful that you’re here, and that you have allowed me this opportunity to try and redeem myself in your eyes,” Eleanor began, taking Max’s hand into her own once she had reseated herself. “I may not look like much, but my feelings are not so delicate that they cannot endure a knock or two. It’s okay.”
Max’s hand squeezed at Eleanor’s tightly as the last of her words fell from her lips, and then she swayed to the side, into Eleanor’s personal space and leaned into the blonde until her forehead gently made contact with Eleanor’s.
“Max is still sorry,” Max breathed out, holding the intimate position, taking comfort in the closeness of Eleanor.
“It’s still okay,” Eleanor murmured, shifting just enough to place a chaste kiss to the corner of Max’s mouth.
Max’s lips curved up when Eleanor drew back slightly, and the sight of her smile automatically brought one to Eleanor’s lips.
They stayed like that for a few moments, gazing at each other peacefully, forehead to forehead, their lips curved up gently as they held each other’s eyes, the tender moment only ending when Eleanor detected movement in her periphery and pulled back from Max, her head turning towards the doors that led from the house to the terrace.
“What is it?” Max asked following Eleanor’s gaze.
“I hope you’re not thirsty,” Eleanor said, chewing on her bottom lip for a second before she looked back over at Max. “I think Eme just disappeared inside again with the drinks.”
“She’s like a mouse that one,” Max breathed out.
“More of a fox, I’d say,” Eleanor replied lightly, a crooked little smile tugging up the corners of her lips. “She’s clever and I’m grateful for it. Lord knows what stories Stewart would’ve told about what Eme just walked in on if he’d been serving us like he was supposed to.” Stewart was a good lad, Eleanor wouldn’t still have been employing him if he wasn’t, but after a few pints at the tavern his mouth did have a tendency to run. “She was right take over the job from him.”
“Is that what she was whispering to you about earlier?” Max asked.
She had noticed the whispered the exchange between Eleanor and Eme earlier, as well as the silent exchange between their eyes that had followed. Eme was an attractive woman, and though a part of Max knew that it was silly for her to worry about Eleanor’s eye wandering as Eleanor tried to win her back, another part of her, the part of her that now angered and mistrusted easily, had been suspicious of the exchange, had been jealous.
“Yes,” Eleanor murmured. “I think she’s seen how he can get after an hour in the tavern and wanted to make sure the happenings of our meal remained a private affair. Speaking of which,” Eleanor said, focusing her attention on the food that they had not yet touched. “When I very elegantly, very dashingly invited you to lunch … don’t laugh too much I’m very sensitive,” Eleanor added when Max grinned, remembering Eleanor’s rambling invitation from the night before, “I promised you food and I have not yet fulfilled that vow. May I?” she asked, gesturing to Max’s plate.
“By all means,” Max replied handling it over to Eleanor so that she could lay some food upon it.
“And where have you been?” Rackham started up the moment Max entered the brothel.
“What business is it of yours?” Max asked rolling every syllable of her question hard as she cut her eyes at him.
“Might I remind you that we were in the middle of the rather important task of making sure we get fucking paid,” Rackham replied his voice getting louder and archer as his words progressed, “when you decided to pop the fuck out for four fucking hours.”
“Max is not the one who slunk off before we were done last night so that she could get a spanking and a reach around,” Max replied, smiling wickedly as she met his eyes.
“I don’t appreciate you bringing that up in such a public location,” Rackham whispered harshly, leaning down to speak into Max’s ear. “You barged in on a private encounter between consenting adults and it is unfair, and of very low character, for you to just fling it at me whenever you want a cheap thrill.”
“Max does not care,” Max shrugged. “Max does not like you. Max tolerates you,” she declared. “You are a necessary evil like monthly bleeding,” she concluded as she took a seat at the back table where they had spread the books out earlier before she left to meet Eleanor.
“Still can’t play nice eh, you two?” Anne asked, not bothering to look up from her knife as she used it to dig under her nails.
Max narrowed her eyes at Anne and then took a seat in a clearly disgruntled manner.
“I … I need a fucking drink,” Jack declared before wandering off, muttering irritably under his breath.
“He’s mad,” Anne offered helpfully, breaking the silence that had fallen after Jack’s exit.
“Thanks,” Max muttered sarcastically. “Don’t pick at your nails like that,” she continued a second later, reaching out to swat at Anne’s hand.
“Eh, watch it you!” Anne complained, drawing her knife away from Max’s hand before pointing it irritably in her face. “’ands off!”
“You’re going to get an infection and lose a nail,” Max declared, holding Anne’s eyes for a second before she looked away and leaned against the back of the bench, crossing her arms as she settled in to wait for Jack’s return.
“Where’d ya go?” Anne asked, putting her knife away before moving to perch herself on the top of the bench seat Max sat on.
“To Versailles,” Max replied without missing a beat. “The Sun King ‘ad me over for brunch.”
Anne chuckled at that and Max’s demeanor softened.
“Where’d ya go?”
“’ad lunch with Eleanor,” Max breathed out, meeting Anne’s eyes steadily, daring her to say something about it.
“Bout time,” Anne muttered, shaking her head as she glared at Max. “What’d she feed ya?”
“That’s it?” Max asked incredulously. “You go around calling her ‘cunt’ and ‘smug bitch’, and all you have to say about me ‘aving lunch with her is, ‘bout time?’?”
“’lways knew you were gonna crawl back between ‘er legs,” Anne said moodily. “All this bother in the meantime’s just grating on me nerves,” she continued, taking out her knife to play with it again, though she didn’t dig at her nails with it this time. “Maybe now you can stop starin’ at ‘er all the time like … like some kinda ‘orned up owl.”
Max looked over at Anne aghast and Anne shrugged.
Max looked away from her huffily in response.
“’ow’d it go?” Anne asked a minute later, nudging Max with the tip of her boot.
“Fine,” Max bit out, pushing at Anne’s leg in an attempt to get her dirty boot away from her. “Anne,” she muttered darkly.
Anne maintained her resistance for a few seconds longer, and then she relented and withdrew her leg.
“Fine?” she questioned as she readjusted her hat. “Sounds borin’.”
“It wasn’t boring,” Max declared, angling her head up to face Anne. “It was … very nice,” Max said softly, her lips curving up in a gentle smile as she thought back on her afternoon.
Anne snorted, amused. “Was she a perfect gentleman, like in one a dem fuckin’ fairy stories?”
“Pretty close,” Max breathed out.
“Did ya fuck?” Anne asked.
“Max is not going to continue talking to you if you keep behaving like an animal,” Max said, pointing a warning finger at Anne. “Then you can ‘elp Jack go over the books. See ‘ow soon you make it to a poker game then.”
“Think it were a fair question considerin’ as that were all the two’a you used ta get up to,” Anne muttered, “but if you’re gonna be a cunt about it then I withdraw the fuckin’ question.”
“We didn’t fuck,” Max muttered in response. “We ‘ad a very good, very large meal. We took a carriage ride in the country,” she added, “and drank wine.”
Anne snickered quietly to herself but didn’t say anything out loud.
“It was romantic,” Max said defiantly, unwilling to allow Anne and her lack of sentimentality to ruin her good mood.
In addition to the wine, Eleanor had also packed away some tarts, and they’d had a lovely, tipsy, crumbly ride through the country that was interspersed with Eleanor reciting as many fragments of poems as she could remember from her days under Mr. Scott’s tutelage.
Eleanor had given her a golden afternoon. She had treated her like a lady, like someone important, and precious. In the shade of her terrace and under the cover of the carriage, Eleanor had given Max a few blessed hours where she had been able to smile, and laugh, and relax, without memories of Hammond and the others coming to the forefront of her mind and making her feel dirty and damaged. After having lived a nightmare, for a little while, Eleanor had managed to envelope her in a dream.
“Fucking’s romantic too,” Anne muttered.
“Sometimes I wonder ‘ow I am able resist you,” Max breathed out sarcastically provoking Anne to stick her tongue out at her in retaliation.
“The raw power of me terrifies you,” Anne breathed out, and Max just stared at her for a moment before she burst out laughing. “Fuck you then, you aren’t so cute,” Anne muttered.
Max continued to laugh for a few more seconds, but then managed to pull herself together.
She rested her head against Anne’s thigh and tilted her head up so that she was looking into Anne’s eyes.
“It is taking all of Max’s willpower not to eat your cunt right now,” she breathed out softly, staring into Anne’s eyes.
“The fuck is this?” Jack asked, returning to the table just in time to hear Max’s words to Anne.
“Scared of the competition?” Max asked, grinning as she turned to face him.
“Not at all. My darling Anne is definitely almost always satisfied with what I have and the use I put it to,” Jack replied, holding his head high as Anne snickered. “You could, you know, agree, my dear.”
“He knows what he’s doin’,” Anne said firmly, and Jack smiled and turned around to look at Max.
“I don’t want to ‘ear about it,” Max said decisively. She knew too much about their sex life already. “Drink up and let’s get to work.”
“I’ll be back,” Anne muttered, slipping off of the back of the bench.
“Oh well, what a surprise,” Jack said, lifting his hands up into the air as Anne disappeared from sight. “We should see her again sometime next week.”
Max laughed and then murmured, “’er timing is impeccable.”
“Right, well, pass us that glass,” Jack said, gesturing at the empty cup by Max’s elbow.
“Get new glasses Jack,” Max sighed tiredly.
“New glasses are all the way over there,” Jack said waving his arm about to indicate a distance too ridiculous to even contemplate, as if the tavern was in the outer reaches of observable space. “We’re over here. It’s fine.”
“I know where your lips have been Jack Rackham and Max is not drinking from anything that tastes of Anne’s ass,” Max said looking him dead in the eyes.
“You,” Jack pronounced, pointing his finger in Max’s face, “Are the devil.”
And with that he stood up and stalked off to get some clean glasses while Max smirked and took a sip from the bottle.