Armand was in good spirits. They had dodged several bullets so far: going the wrong direction at sea, being picked up by a slave ship, being arrested, and then meeting a governor who should have been more than happy to lock them up again. Despite all these events, he and the others were still free. Now they were on their way to a proper ship and a new life, one he had never thought he’d experience in this prison.
He was disappointed that Lance had chosen a different path but not surprised. The American had been correct in that he was better suited to an office than violence.
Mei. Now there was a surprise. He watched her out of the corner of his eye as they strode down the road towards town. She was a journalist and probably hadn’t ever been in a fight until coming to prison. Yet she’d adapted impressively well. He’d known others who had faltered and fallen when confronted with pain and blood and death. Yet she carried on. Her fighting spirit was strong. He found that he was quite satisfied to be part of a crew with her, confident that she was someone trustworthy and dependable, both rare and valuable traits.
They had descended about halfway down the mountain, chatting and marvelling at their new course in life, when an errant seagull winged overhead. A liquid bomb fell through the air, and a white blob splattered the back of Cheeto’s head.
He frowned and looked behind, thinking someone had tapped him on the skull.
Armand, Mei, and Lia, the three walking behind him, all schooled their faces to reveal nothing.
Well, Lia tried. That lasted about two seconds before she exploded into girlish laughter.
Mei bit her lips and tried to fight her own amusement, looking away and trying to feign a blank look, but it was no use. It was obvious that she wanted to laugh too.
Cheeto scowled at them. “What?” Tsking, he shook his head and looked forward again, ignoring them.
Lia howled and clutched her sides.
Cheeto whirled, the teen gangster angry now. “What is it? Why you laughing?”
Lia pointed and laughed, her voice as pretty as a bird’s.
Cheeto flushed and cursed them in Spanish.
Lia patted him on the shoulder in a friendly way, then plucked a couple of leaves off of an overhanging branch as they walked. Like a good sister, she grabbed the confused boy’s head and wiped the bird poo off his head.
When Cheeto saw it, he turned red and glowered at the ground, but didn’t protest, allowing her to work.
She wiped him clean, using a few more leaves to get the job done, showing no hesitation and not grossed out at all, just practical. She tossed the leaves off the road and wiped her hands on her skirt. Smiling at him and nodding, she said, “I am good.”
Mei tapped her shoulder. Pointing to herself, she said, “I am good.” Pointing to Lia, “You are good.” Pointing at Cheeto, “He is good. I. You. He.”
Lia repeated her words. “I. You. He. He is good.” Unfortunately, as she said it, she pointed to the wrong people. Mei tried again, and she understood on the second try. “I am good. You are good. He is good.”
“Right!” Mei grinned, giving her a one-armed hug.
Lia looked happy.
Cheeto ran a hand over the back of his shaved head and lightened his expression a few degrees, still embarrassed. “Thank you.”
Lia tilted her head. “Thank you?”
They taught her the meaning by using sign language and exchanging an item. Lia caught on quickly and learned how to reply, “You are welcome.” By that time, Cheeto had recovered and everyone was cheerful once more. The group had a relieved energy to be free and on a new path, so far safely out of chains.
Armand stretched in the sun and felt free in a way that he hadn’t even on the deserted island. That had been removed from civilization, a temporary reprieve during which he’d fully expected to be made a regular prison once more. But today, he walked the road like a free man again. And it felt superbe.
They reached Philipsburg proper. A clerk at the governor’s mansion had given them a pass, and Mei flashed it each time a group of soldiers or marines saw the men in their prison uniforms and tried to take issue with them.
“I think we need to get you boys some new clothes,” she decided. She reached into her pockets and gathered all the coins she’d stashed there on St. Vincent. “Uh, I have no idea what any of this is worth. Is this a lot or just spare change? I tried to take all the bigger and heavier ones.” She held her hand out to the others, confused.
Armand took a look. “Ah, this is not just spare change. These ones here are doubloons. We should be able to buy clothes with this. Maybe a few other things, especially if we buy used and not new.”
“Maybe we could get some food, too?” Cheeto piped up, putting a hand on his stomach.
Lia raised her hand. “I am hungry!”
Mei laughed. “Let’s go shopping.”
They wandered the main streets and asked locals for a good shop that sold cheap, used clothes. A woman carrying a box of candles pointed them in a direction, and they soon arrived at Jan’s Algemene Goederen, which they understood to mean General Goods.
Clothing was neatly folded on shelves and racks. The store also sold pouches, belts, lanterns, knives, matches, rope, shoes, dishes and utensils, canned and bulk dry or salted food, as well as many other items. Most of it was cheap and much used, but the place was clean, seemingly looked after with pride by the polite man behind the counter and the woman who could be seen through a door to the backroom, cleaning laundry in a steel tub. Both looked up and smiled.
“Welkom!” The man beamed. “How can we help you?”
Armand saw a section of leather goods and weapons. He nudged Mei and indicated the area with a nod. “Look. You should get a scabbard, so you don’t have to carry your sword all the time. And holsters for the pistols. Then you don’t have to stuff them in your pants, oui?”
“Yes!” She made a beeline for those items and rummaged through them.
Armand and the other males riffled through various stacks of clothing, looking for something serviceable to replace their prisoner uniforms.
Lia, it being her first time in a store, rushed in all directions, her hands touching everything, checking it all out and exclaiming over and over in her native tongue.
In the end, the men had new clothes, simple pants and shirts, two pairs of each. The women had bought underwear, something Mei had been thrilled to discover, “At last!” and which Lia had found puzzling but intriguing.
Mei had gotten Lia a holster for her bowie knife while picking up a scabbard for herself, letting her sword hang at her waist. Her pistols were now in holsters, one in the small of her back, the other in front.
Mei stared at a much smaller pile of coins in her hand. “And now we’re poor. Are we going to be able to buy food with this?”
“Oui,” Armand assured her. “There should be enough for a simple meal for all of us.”
Their first stop, however, was the docks. They thought it best to check in sooner rather than later, lest the ship depart and leave them behind. They had no idea what its schedule was.
The Flying Dutchman was moored and taking on cargo.
Armand was vaguely familiar with the idea of the Dutchman from books and movies. The Flying Dutchman was the legend of a ghost ship, a man-of-war unable to enter any port, doomed to sail the seas forever. When other ships came across it, the ghostly sailors of the Dutchman would beg to have messages carried to loved ones, many of whom would have been long dead as the legend carried across the centuries.
Exactly why the Dutchman was so cursed was unknown. Some speculated that the ship was loaded with fabulous wealth and that the crew were criminals, being punished for the sins of piracy and bloody murder, destined to roam alone until they repented and made up for their misdeeds. Others said that the crew had been the victims of a horrible sickness that the ship could not shake, and that they stayed away of their own accord, lest they make others sick.
All agreed sightings of the vessel were the worst of omens, a bringer of grave misfortune. The ship was described as gloomy and dark and was renowned for its speed. No captain in his right mind would dare tangle with it, only drop sail immediately and politely listen should any of the ghost crew wish to communicate.
This Flying Dutchman was nothing like that. It was a disappointment.
It was no man-of-war like the ship-of-the-line they’d seen in the harbour. It was only an old merchantman, built more for cargo than violence. There were a mere eight cannons per broadside. From the heavy barnacle growth around the waterline, it would be about as fast as a bathtub, even in high winds.
A dozen men were loading the ship from piles of barrels and goods on the pier. They appeared in no real hurry. Two men stood on deck, arguing. One was thin and short, the other tall and fat, with his hands on his hips. From their uniforms, they were officers.
Armand hailed them. “Bon— Er, hello!” Best not speak French when those were the enemy at the moment. “Is the captain aboard?”
The tall man, with a belly that stretched his uniform tight, turned an exasperated look their way and snapped in a rude tone. “What the devil do you want?”
Mei called up to him. “The governor sent us. We’re to join your crew.”
The captain frowned deeply and stepped over to the rail to get a closer look at them. “You?” he scoffed with heavy disdain. Doing a double-take, he sneered in Lia’s direction. “Is that a Carib? The men can come aboard. But I’m not taking sluts on my ship. Rot op!.” Go away! He waved them away.
Mei remained firm. “We’ve been given permission to join your crew, captain. All of us.”
His irritation turned to anger. “Back to the brothel with ya. I want nothing to do with you.” He turned away.
A touch of mockery in her tone, she replied. “Shall we go back to Governor Koopman and give him those exact words then?”
Fuming, the man spun and glared at them. But he didn’t seem to have the courage to defy the orders outright. He snapped his fingers at the junior officer behind him. “Send a runner to the Governor’s mansion. Ask for clarification. I want to know who these pannenkoeken are.” Pancakes. “And insist to the governor that he must have been mistaken if he thinks any woman belongs aboard a proper ship unless she’s in chains for transport. Go!”
“Shall we wait for an answer then?” Armand asked.
The captain threw one last glance and barked at them as he walked away. “We sail tomorrow morning, an hour after dawn. The men can board then, ready to work. Until then, go find your own bunk and food.”
“He’s very unpleasant,” Andon remarked, though not loudly enough for anyone nearby to hear.
Armand looked at the others. “Shall we find some food? A place to stay until the morning?”
A passing dockworker overheard him and paused, a wheelbarrow of chain in front of him. The man wore a blue bandana and had scars on his face and arms, a shark tattoo on one forearm. “If yer lookin’ for grub and a drink and a place to spend the night, try that pier there.” He pointed. “The Wandering Sinn. Tis a ship. Friendly to our kind, if ya know what I mean.” He winked and moved on.
Shrugging, they wound across the docks until they found what they were looking for.
It was a four-deck frigate, one at least a decade out of its prime, the wood heavily weatherworn and all the sails furled tight, both wood and canvas gray with age. It was tied to the pier with heavy lines. From the heavy growth of seaweed on the hull, waving in the water, the ship had been here for some time. The portholes had been thrown open, but instead of cannon in the square holes, there were lanterns. A large, black bird sat in solitary vigil in the crowsnest high overhead.
“Huh. Look at that!” Cheeto pointed.
A beaten sign hung from the railing next to the sturdy gangplank. It had the ship’s name in white, with a warning in bright red letters below.
The Wandering Sinn
“Goblins?” Cheeto scratched his head.
Andon pointed to a green rag doll, female, with a black pirate hat sewn on the head. It hung next to the sign. “Maybe that’s supposed to be a goblin pirate? Must be an inside joke.”
Two men stood guard at the foot of the gangplank. One was shorter than Mei but with muscles even bigger than Juan’s. The sides of his head were shaved, but he sported a green mohawk with long spikes. He leaned on a boarding pike, looking half asleep, but brightened immediately when he saw them.
He spoke rapidly and seemed very friendly. “Hey there! Haven’t seen you before. Or have I? If I did when I was drunk, then I apologize. Welcome to the Wandering Sinn!” He reached out and started shaking hands and gave them no time to speak in return. “I’m Relic. You know, the famous Relic Punch?” He jabbed twice at Lia, making her flinch but laughing to show he meant no harm.
The tall, thin black man standing on the other side of the gangplank seemed much more serious. His long-sleeved shirt and pants were both dull black. A pair of silvery scimitars hung at his sides. Arms crossed, he rolled his prominent eyes. “You know what relic means, don’t you? It means your punch is old, antiquated, probably weak and falling apart. Hmm. In that case, I suppose it’s an accurate name. A faded thing of the past, much like yourself.”
“Ha! Don’t make me use it on you.” The stockier man jerked a thumb in the other’s direction. “This is my best bud, Kill Bitch.”
The black man uncrossed his arms and shot Relic a glare. He growled. “My name is not Kill Bitch. Stop telling people that!”
“Hey, not my fault German names sound like gravel in your mouth. Who can pronounce all those consonants at the same time? Sheesh!”
With a long-suffering sigh, the black man turned to them. “Just call me Kell.” He waved them towards the gangplank. “Go ahead and wander in.”
Nodding and murmuring polite greetings, they filed between the men, climbing up onto the deck.
The open deck had been turned into a restaurant patio with wide, round tables and simple stools fashioned from barrels cut in half. The far rail was lined with hanging flowerpots, a small woman darting back and forth amongst the sunny, yellow flowers, watering them. The rear of the ship had a castle stern, essentially a large room, with stairs on either side to an elevated upper deck with the wheel. In the ship’s bow, a raised platform had been constructed and looked to be used as a stage, with canvas curtains hanging in front of it.
Though it was not yet the dinner hour, the place was bustling, most tables crowded with men and a few women, plates of hearty food and tankards in front of them.
The first thing they saw was a small, brown-haired, slight woman in a dress and apron standing next to a table. A cast-iron frying pan hung from her waist. A man twice her size clocked her in the jaw. She staggered backwards but didn’t fall, then turned her head and spit blood.
The man looked back over his shoulder to laugh with his mates.
Steely-eyed, she grimly wiped the blood off with a forearm and grabbed the frying pan. “Oh yeah? I warned ya!” she cried in an Irish brogue. She swung.
The man turned at her words and caught the full force of the frying pan in the face. He flew into the table, knocking food and drinks everywhere, his mates exclaiming and rising from their seats.
The woman slipped a hand into a pocket in her dress, and it came out with brass knuckles around the fingers. “Come on, you lot! You just try it!” When one man reached for her, she kicked him in the balls and slugged him with the brass knuckles, shouting “Cannon punch!” and dropping him.
The rest of the men at the table warily backed away, some looking amused.
She threatened them with the pan, her eyes narrowed. “That’s right. You’d better back down. Sit yer butts back in those chairs.”
The man she’d first hit with the pan shakily stood, frowned, and seemed like he had something more to say.
She didn’t give him the chance. Hanging the pan back at her waist, she reached into the apron’s front pocket and withdrew a wicked knife. “Next one that grabs my ass loses a hand. And gets banned for life! Got it?” She stepped up to him, chest out, and her eyes widened in a maniacal, challenging stare. “And. Don’t. You. Ever. Hit. A. Lady. Again. Understood?”
The man’s eyes widened in return. He nodded fast. “Yes, ma’am. Sorry, ma’am.” He plopped back into his chair. “I am so sorry. I will never do anything like that again.” He pulled out a purse and dumped coins on the table. “B-buy everyone a round?”
She glared. And her face pressed closer and closer to his.
He hurriedly dumped more coins. “At double the price?”
“Good!” She snatched up the coins, whirled away, and the knuckles and knife vanished, along with the money. She saw the newcomers, and a smile bloomed, her anger gone in an instant. Her arms opened wide. “Welcome to the Wandering Sinn!” She beckoned them forward.
Mei leaned to the side and whispered to Armand. “I like her already.”
She urged them into the ship-top restaurant. “Come in, come in! Here’s a table for you. You can all fit. Just squish. Oh gosh, are you a Carib?” Her jaw dropped, and she squeezed Lia’s hands in greeting. “You’re super cute! Do you need another chair? You don’t need another chair. There’s one, two, three…lots of you. Oh, hey! Are you guys musicians?” Her eyes locked onto the cello cases. “That’s great! We have a stage. You can play. As much as you want. It’s ok if you suck, though. We all need practice. If anyone gives you a hard time, you just tell them to talk to me, and I’ll set ‘em straight.”
Armand blinked at her rapid-fire way of speaking and how quickly she bounced from one idea to the next. “And you are?”
“Oh! Right. I’m Hibernia. This is my ship, my inn. Are ya hungry? We got pizza. And fries. You want fries? Got loooots o’ potatoes. Yes, I’m Irish and I love potatoes. So what? Hmm. There are some chickens roasting, should be done in a half-hour maybe. Stew?”
Armand spotted the drinks at the next table. Looking around, he noticed something. “Are all the drinks blue?”
She laughed. “Nope. Well, lots are. I like using curacao and making tropical drinks. We have wine and beer, of course. But I think those are boring. Check these out!” She pointed to a sign hanging on a rope over their heads, a menu.
Dark Blue Lagoon
Dark rum, curaçao, cherimoya
Light Blue Lagoon
White rum, curaçao, cherimoya, coconut
Rum, curaçao, guava, coconut
Tequila, coconut, curaçao, guava
Curaçao, passionfruit, yogurt
Dark rum, sapodilla
Rum, sugar apple
“These sound delicious!” Mei exclaimed.
“Right?” Hibernia put a hand on her hip. “I mean, of course they’re delicious. What else would I serve? Jars of acid? Ha!”
“What’s a cherimoya?” Stasio inquired.
She cheerfully elaborated. “Do you know Caribbean fruits? A lot of people don’t. Cherimoya is also known as the custard apple. It’s regarded as the finest fruit in the world, with hints of pineapple, banana, pear or peach, papaya, strawberry, and apple, depending on the variety. Sapodilla is like a sweet pear. Sugar apple tastes like banana or pineapple and has the texture of custard.”
A tiny black insect crawled across the table in front of Armand and he brushed it away, though he didn’t kill it.
Hibernia saw him. “This place is crawling with ants. Don’t worry; you get used to it. I like ‘em.”
Mei was wise enough to explain their situation and showed the ship owner how much money they had.
Hibernia was more than happy to accommodate them. “Don’t worry! I’ll make sure you’re all stuffed and feeling good by the end of the night. And give you rooms below. All for a reasonable price. I’ll give you a discount. You’ll be able to cover it.” She leaned in. “I’ll make that dumb-dumb who slugged me pay triple the rest of the night anyway. So don’t worry about it.” She winked an oversized wink. The woman was terrible at being subtle, but that only made her more adorable.
A pretty woman with curly, red hair gracefully drifted past, carrying a tray of hamburgers, her posture perfect. She paused next to their table and arched a brow at the brown-haired woman. “Not too much of a discount. We do have expenses.”
“Oh hush,” Hibernia chided.
The redhead sighed. “And this is why we’re always so close to being broke.”
“My first officer,” Hibernia informed them. “Don’t be fooled by her princess attitude. She’s actually super nice.”
“A pleasure to meet you all.” She bowed and then sped on her way.
Soon enough, they were all eating delicious food and downing exotic and powerful cocktails.
Lia bit into everything and drained her drinks at lightspeed, thrilled by the new experiences. “Good. Good!” She exclaimed with every bite and sip. In no time, she was giggling and silly from the alcohol.
Mei, tomato-faced from trying three different blue drinks, was no better.
As more and more people spotted the instrument cases, the cellists, with very little encouragement, happily took up spots on the stage and jolly tunes turned things into a party.
Armand, his belly refreshingly stretched to its limit with seafood pizza, the first real food he’d had in months, reached for another slice—and spotted child-like fingers reaching for the same. His hand froze. Looking down, he saw a little girl with white hair sneaking out from under the table next to him, her hand paused in the act of thieving the food. He raised one brow. “Hello…”
Her eyes were wide as saucers. She slowly blinked once, then both her and the slice of pizza vanished.
“Mercy, you little powder monkey!” The redhead from earlier stamped over, irate. “Stop pinching food. You’ve already had yours, young lady!” She stopped to look under their table, but the little girl was gone. Straightening, she gave Armand an apologetic look. “Sorry.”
“It is no problem. An adorable child.” He loved children. He wished he’d been smarter about his life. He should have been at home, in the real world, spoiling his grandchildren. The thought gave him an unpleasant pain in the chest.
The redhead’s voice grew increasingly louder, so it could be heard across the deck. “An adorable child who is going to have her bottom smacked!” She spun and glared.
A mop of white hair jumped in fright, directly in the redheaded woman’s line of sight, then bolted towards the stairs to the lower decks, cheese trailing from her lips.
Sometime later, he got up to find the toilet. It was at the head of the ship, as usual. Fortunately, someone had built walls for at least visual privacy.
Deciding to check the ship out, he saw the ship’s castle and wandered into the room, where it looked like the kitchen was set up. Several chefs were hard at work preparing dishes. A skeleton hung from one wall.
Going down to the next deck, he discovered a quieter lounge area with wicker couches and chairs filled with ratty old cushions. Bookcases had been built on the inside wall of the hull between portholes. Every single one was stacked with notebooks until not a sliver of space remained.
A woman with shoulder-length, crimson hair sat at a square writing table. An open crate half-filled with bottles of ink and spare pens lay at her feet. The table and the floor around her were littered with maps, lists, stray pages, and open notebooks. She looked frazzled and in need of a bath, her burgundy shirt sweaty.
Fingers stained with black ink, her hand raced over the page, dipping into the inkwell in the corner of the table with astonishing regularity as she poured words onto one page after another. As he came closer, she looked up and blinked, seemingly dazed, as if mentally returning from another world.
He noticed that the notebook she was writing in was the same as the hundreds of volumes on the shelves. He was astonished. “Did you write all of these, mademoiselle?”
She wavered in her seat. “I’m so tired…”
“You…do look like it.”
“My hands hurt.” She wrang her fingers together.
“This is an incredible amount of literature. You must be very prolific.”
Her body sagged. “I’m so tired…”
He paused. “Yes, you said.”
“I need a break. Must have a break. Leave a B for break!” she suddenly screeched.
“Um…” He wasn’t sure what to say. She seemed a little addled. Probably overworked.
“Help me,” she pleaded. “I think I’m addicted to writing. I can’t stop. There’s just so much story to tell!”
“I’m sure a small break wouldn’t hurt,” he attempted to assure her.
“You don’t understand,” she whined. “The voices. In my head. They’re telling me what to do. So many of them!” She leaned forward and whispered. “They’re talking to me from beyond the grave.”
“Riiight.” He cleared his throat. He should go. “Very nice to meet you, Miss…”
“Testicles!” she shouted.
He leapt back in shock. “Miss Testicles?”
“Sorry. Sorry,” she apologized. “Did I say that out loud?” She whimpered and shook her head. “I need to take a break. I need fresh air. I know. I’ll go for a run!” She pulled off her black leather boots, then her striped black-and-red socks, and tossed them in a corner. Barefoot, she stood. “Yes, I’ll run!”
Laughing unsteadily, she started sprinting up and down the length of the ship. Until she got a splinter, tripped and fell, then curled up into a ball and wept, blubbering about the need for proper footwear and how much her hands hurt. She seemed to mention that last part quite often.
Armand was beginning to wonder if everyone on this ship was crazy.
Cheeto was having a fine time. This pizza was dope. The music wasn’t exactly his kind of thing, but it was lively. He was surrounded by people and living free. Best of all—there were girls here!
There’s been no girls on the island, just the other guys. This was much better.
In addition to the ship owner, who seemed odd but very friendly, and the prim-and-proper one who was pretty, but too serious for his taste, there were other staff, too.
One, in particular, had caught his eye. It had a lot to do with her rosy cheeks, hourglass figure, and the two white whales worth of cleavage that were barely contained by the low-cut blouse she wore. The cut dipped down right between the heavenly orbs, leaving very little to the imagination.
Most male eyes tracked her across the room as she laughed and flirted and served drinks as skillfully as the next barroom wench. Cheeto couldn’t keep his eyes off of her either.
She eventually swung by their table, placed a hand on his shoulder and smiled as if just for him. “Hi. Can I get you anything else?” She then looked around at the group.
The warmth of her palm and the delicacy of her fingers sent a thrilling shiver through his body. It took a second to find his voice. “N-no, thank you.”
The others at the table said the same.
“I haven’t seen any of you before,” she stated. “Are you new in Philipsburg?” She seemed to be speaking mainly to Cheeto and leaned against him like she was tired from all the serving, which she probably was.
He cleared his throat, feeling a flush of embarrassment at the female contact and his physical reaction to it. “Yes, we’re new. Came in today.” He felt a sudden need to impress her. “You hear about the jaguar?”
Her red lips formed an O. “That was you?”
He grinned, some of his bravado coming back. “Hell, yeah, it was. She’s at the governor’s place right now. Cuz we’re gonna be sailin’ tomorrow.”
“Oh? Are you on a merchant ship? You don’t look like navy.”
“Nah.” He acted smug. “We’re gonna be privateers. Pirates!”
“Pirates! How dashing.” She pressed her body against his. “You’re not going to rape and pillage, are you?” She gave him a stern look.
“Psh. Naw. But we gonna loot, baby. Find us some treasure.”
“Yeah?” She turned her body towards him, giving him a face full of cleavage. With a pouty face, she spoke. “Are you going to bring me back a present?”
“Definitely!” His eyes bugged out of his head at the plush pillows so close he could bury his face in them if he dared. But, thinking back to that woman who had spit blood and kicked the crap out of two guys twice her size, he was not about to be that forward with this girl.
She laughed, and her flirtatious act fell away, though she still leaned into him. “I’m just kidding. You don’t have to do that.”
“I will!” he promised.
She looked at him more seriously, their eyes meeting. “What’s your name?”
“People call me Cheeto.”
Her plucked eyebrows rose. “Is that your real name?”
“No,” he admitted. He hung his head for a second with indecision but couldn’t help but confess the truth, even though it was embarrassing. “Real name’s Mateo. Mateo García.”
“That’s such a handsome name!” she exclaimed, her eyes shining. “Mateo. I like it. You should go by that instead of Cheeto.”
“Well…I guess if you want to call me Mateo, that’s fine,” he allowed. She was being very friendly. More friendly than she had been with others, or was he just dreaming, seeing what he wanted to in her actions? It was tough to tell. But he found himself liking her. “What’s your name?”
“Marla.” She sighed. “I know, it’s so boring.”
“No, it’s not! It’s…uh…we both have names starting with M. We match. That’s cool.”
“True. M&M. What’s that they say about M&Ms?” She bent and suggestively whispered into his ear alone. “They melt in your mouth, not in your hand?”
Her breath soft on his ear, his heart took off. He was left speechless.
She laughed heartily. Running her hand along his shoulders and neck, she gave him a sultry look before spinning off and returning to her duties.
Cheeto felt like he was king of the world. He turned his attention back to the table.
Everyone was silent and staring at him.
His inflated pride tripped and stumbled. “What? What are you looking at?”
A slow grin stretched over Mei’s lips. “Mateo. You playboy.”
He felt his face heat up.
Armand grinned. “Mateo. Mm. It is much sexier, oui?”
“She thinks so!” Juan stated, elbowing Cheeto from the side.
“Oh…shut up.” Cheeto hunched over his food and downed his drink. His brain was too blown away by Marla and her beauty to think straight, let alone make a decent comeback.
The others laughed and teased him, but it was all in good fun.
Lia looked down at her breasts and hefted them as if she could make them bigger.
He snuck glances Marla’s way. She didn’t look back because she was so busy, but he hoped she was thinking of him. He promised himself that, no matter what happened, he’d come back often to get to know her better.
Then he remembered that they might be shipping off for weeks or months, and that gave him a sour feeling. They hadn’t even left yet, and already his heart yearned to return.
Juan was in a better mood than he’d been in…in a long time. Without even realizing it, his depression and self-hatred had subsided, and he laughed and chatted with the others over good food and drinks, feeling human, feeling like the man he’d once been.
He was leaning against the shore-side railing, mug in hand, talking to a sailor and fellow prisoner, when a figure on the pier caught his attention. He glanced down and saw a female figure in a brown dress, a hood over her face—a face he recognized. Blue Diablo spewed out from between his lips and he coughed.
The sailor chortled. “You ok, goos?” You ok, dude?
“Yeah. Yes. Lo siento.” I’m sorry. “Excuse me.” He put his mug down on a table and rushed off the ship and down the gangplank.
The woman yelped as he grabbed her around the waist and hauled her into the shadow of some crates.
When they were somewhat shielded from the view of others, he rounded on her, tension in his voice. “What are you doing here?”
Brechtje made to pull down her hood, but he stopped her.
“Don’t! You can’t be seen here.” He made a frustrated sigh. “Why would you come here?”
Her eyes pleaded with him before looking embarrassed.“I…I’m sorry. I just wanted to see you again.”
“How did you even find me?”
“I asked around—“
“Oh, you didn’t.” He squeezed her shoulders, panicking. “You’re the governor’s wife! You can’t go all over asking about some strange man you don’t even know. Especially not in this terrible disguise.”
“I do know you.”
“No, you don’t.” He tried to be patient with her. Fans had done this before, many times. “Mrs. Koopman—“
“Mrs. Koopman. I am not the person you think I am. You’ve seen me on TV and in movies. That is acting. I am not my roles.”
“Of course, I know that. I’m not an idiot,” she scolded him. “I’m not some infatuated teenager or emotional crazy person. I’m an experienced woman. I didn’t come here entirely on impulse. I’m here because I need to know if there’s something to what I’m feeling right now. I want to know why I haven’t stopped thinking about you all day.”
“You can’t go chasing after someone you don’t know.”
“Then let me get to know you better.”
He paused, then took a deep breath. His usual negativity was returning. “You don’t want to get to know me better. Trust me. I’m not a good person.”
“That’s not true.”
“I’m a criminal. This is a prison, remember? Where they put bad people?”
She gave him a stern look as if he should have known better. “You were not at fault.”
“Oh yes, I was.”
“I read all the papers. I followed your case. I know—“
She changed tactics. “Please don’t treat me like I’m some crazed fan. OK, I know maybe it looks that way right now. I wish I’d gone about this better. But you can’t tell me that there wasn’t something between us earlier, back in the house. I felt it. A connection.”
She smiled with a sudden surge of happiness, then tried to suppress it and be serious again, though he could tell she’d enjoyed hearing her name on his lips.
He hesitated, then grew tougher. “It doesn’t matter. You’re married. And I’m…a horrible thug who deserves to rot in a cell for the rest of his life. Now go home. Before someone sees you out here.”
She laid a hand on his chest. “Juan Fernandez. I’m not crazy. I felt something, a spark. I feel it now. And I can see it in your eyes too, no matter how macho you’re trying to be right now.”
He looked away, breaking eye contact. When he turned back to her, he couldn’t quite meet her gaze. “I’m not worth your attention.”
“So your experience has shaken you. You’ve lost faith in yourself. I can understand that. But I’m sure there’s more to you than you believe right now. Let me prove it to you. What’s the harm in getting to know each other?”
“Your husband is a governor of a prison colony and will murder me a hundred times over. Literally.”
“Please. I know you’re going to sail away tomorrow; I heard. Let’s just go for a walk. Talk.”
“No.” He gripped her shoulders and firmly pushed her away from him before releasing her. “You need to stay away from me, Brechtje. Before you get hurt. I couldn’t bear to hurt anyone. Not ever again.” Unable to look at her face, he turned away and headed back towards the ship.