Even as the carriage clattered along the rutted roads of inner Jamaica, Beth began to wonder if she had made the right decision. She had no idea what to expect from her visit to the Coke villa, nor did she really feel experienced enough to pull off an initiation of the lady Coke. She was not, after all, Amalynn. Her experiences were with a single woman and all of two men, to none of whom she had had more than a passing commitment.
Wrapped in the gentle costumery of a lady of the night, the corset barely tightened around her already small waist, she settled back into the seat and decided that her fate had been set long ago and this was one more step along the way to whatever Heaven had in store for her.
The torches and candles of the city faded away and night took over. Tree limbs slapped the sides of the carriage and scratched by as they rode further and further away from Kingston. Her heart beat a little faster. Amalynn had been right. This was Daniel walking into the lion's den after all. Coke was supposed to be at the House of Pleasures tonight anyway, with Marbry and a few of his cronies, so she was supposed to be safe. On the other hand, she worried that Lofn, Amalynn, or perhaps the messenger may suffer for her interception of the Lady's request.
"The Lady." Beth stared out the window. She was a Lady herself. It galled her to think that the only thing that separated her from the Lady Coke's life was Marbry and Coke. And yet she knew that she would never have been happy being "just" a lady of the court. There was more to life than fawning over prospective men, looking for a proper husband, bearing children and running a household.
There was, after all, the life of a pirate.
A pair of torches became visible in the distance. The road bore straight down a gentle hill to the seaside where the Coke villa awaited her. They clattered through the front gate and into a round forward courtyard with a simple fountain in the middle. Her heart nearly wept at the sight of the house; it was so much like her own home had been before Marbry's men had burned it down. The few inlaid torches, the simple colors, the terraced upper floor with its outer balcony. The Spanish had known how to build, and the English had kept their wisdom intact when they had acquired the Island. This alone could explain the undying enmity between the two nations; neither could admit that the other had a reason to exist at all.
She supposed the same thing was true among men. The houses of Harcourt and Coke had long suffered from strained relations. The conflict arose from an ancient rivalry over a woman, but that was generations in the past. She could not imagine that both houses would still bear malice toward one another because of the indiscretion of a past ancestor. She did not even know the details. She imagined it was completely irrelevant. This enmity was about money. And now it had become revenge.
The carriage stopped in front of one of the doors. A servant, a Negro wearing a white coat and gloves, opened the door to the carriage and asked her to step out. She did so. "How should I address you?" the servant asked.
"Courtney will do fine," Beth said, giving the name she had chosen. It meant "One born of the court," although she did not expect the Lady Jessica Coke to get it at first, if ever.
"Very well, Mistress Courtney." He led her into the villa.
The entrance to the Coke house was appointed with beautiful tapestries on two walls. As she was led into the main greeting room behind, she spied fine furniture surrounding a rough and locally hewn table, stained black as night. The servant led her up creaking, wooden stairs set into a narrow stone and adobe passageway to the second story. Down a hallway lit with paltry candles, he paused at a door. Thus far, he was the only person she had seen. She had imagined that the duke would have many servants, bustling about, but the house was quiet, the sounds of the Jamaican forest filling the vacant spaces. The servant knocked on the door. "My Lady Speer?" he called. That he used Lady Coke's maiden name surprised Beth, but then that was how she had identified herself to Spike when she had been captured. "There's a Mistress Courtney here to see you."
"Show her in, Anselmo, and then leave us. We are not to be disturbed."
"Yes, my lady." He opened the door. Beth stepped in, shivering with anticipation. She nearly jumped when the door closed behind her.
Jessica Speer Coke sat at a desk with her back to Beth. Beth could see a stylus in her hand and an inkwell on the table. She spent several more minutes writing, then stood up and turned around. "So, Courtney..." She saw Beth's face and stopped in mid-sentence as her eyes grew wide. "You!"
Beth crossed the room to silence her before she could cry out for the servants and guards, but Jessica surprised her utterly by throwing herself into Beth's arms and kissing her! Startled, Beth grabbed Jessica and held onto her.
Jessica pulled away. "Oh, sweet God, you... Do you know what you have done to me?"
Beth blinked. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"You... on that ship! I... I couldn't get you out of my mind! I had never met someone like you! You were so strong, and so civilized all the same. All that time that you held me and the men, you were so completely in control and such a woman you were. Not like the leering men and whimpering women of court, Captain Beth. I... I have dreamed about you every night since then." Her words tumbled out of her so quickly Beth could hardly keep up with them. "That was why I called on Lofn. If my husband could be dishonest, so could I. But after meeting you, I wanted a woman's touch, a civilized, strong woman. By God, Beth, I think I'm an invert. I'm so glad--" She stopped. "How did you know?"
"Lofn never received your letter. When it arrived at her house, one of my spies nicked it." Beth smiled. "I confess that I just wanted a way into the house."
A realization of sorts crept into Jessica's face. "Is this how your predecessor got into the Harcourt house?"
"Hardly," Beth said. She pulled Jessica back to her roughly. "And I am not here to attack you, or this house, Jessica. I came only... I don't know why I came. I wanted to see you again, too. It was after meeting you that I couldn't stop thinking the same thoughts you had about being inverted." She touched her mouth to Jessica's soft lips, and Jessica's body melted against hers. Jessica's mouth opened and her little tongue darted out, fencing against Beth's with enthusiasm. Beth could feel her insides melting with desire.
"Have you... have you ever done this before?" Jessica asked.
"Only with one other woman, and then only twice," Beth admitted. "Like you, I made use of Lofn's services. There is a girl there, Amalynn; I think she is the one you would have gotten if I had not caught your letter. You should visit her if you have the chance."
"I want you!" Jessica gasped.
Beth's sex began to weep with joy... and frustration. "I want you, too, Jessica, but you are married and I come from a different world. You will have to find someone who is available to you more often than I could ever possibly be." Her hands strayed along Jessica's back, finding the ties that held her clothing together. "Lofn will always have someone for you."
"Then I want you for this night," Jessica replied, her own hands digging for the ties to Beth's clothing, tearing off the vest and scrabbling at the buttons that held her blouse closed. "You do not look like a pirate with this on."
"A pirate is a criminal, Jessica. To survive, we must be able to hide in plain sight. I wear what I must to hide."
"As must an... invert." Beth was fumbling with Jessica's clothes, and Jessica stood back. "Let me." She eased out of her clothes, down to the underkirtle. She slowed, and Beth suspected she was being deliberately teasing in taking off the last of her coverings rather than shy. Jessica, all black hair and black eyes in a face as pale as moonlight, glanced up at Beth with desire as she slid a hand into the kirtle and parted it over the shoulders, pushing it down over her large breasts. Beth's lips pursed by themselves with desire to taste those rounded melons that Jessica offered her. The kirtle dropped down to the floor and Jessica, naked, stepped out. She was truly beautiful; only Elaine Harcourt, Beth's sister-in-law, could outshine Jessica Speer.
"Now let me watch you," Jessica said.
Beth eased out of the corset and dress, dropping each onto the floor in a heap. Underneath the floor-length dress she wore only a tiny slip and her sensible, worn boots. She dropped the slip quickly and stood, taking a deep breath.
The two women eyed each other, four feet apart. Beth could feel Jessica's eyes upon her, the hungry look that Beth received from every landed man who cared to look upon her. She was suddenly grateful that her ship was full of inverts, herself included, because it meant that they kept to their own interests. Only occasionally did those interests cross over, and with that thought she hoped that Patrick wouldn't be too sad to lose her. On the other hand, she thought, she still appreciated his friendship and maybe she could keep that as well.
"Oh, to have everything the world offers me," she sighed, smiling, as she closed the distance between herself and Jessica, took the other woman, now trembling, into her arms, and kissed her. Jessica voiced a sigh as Beth's lips pressed to hers, their bodies held together, their breasts crushed together. Beth could feel a warmth in her body, the points of her breasts and the lips of her vulva at the center of that warmth, building with her need.
"The bed," Jessica sighed.
"Let me take these boots off."
"No!" Jessica whispered. "No, leave them on. Let me remember that, for all of your beauty, you are a pirate and must be prepared to run at any moment. Just, do not run out on me too soon."
"I won't," Beth promised. "I won't." She released Jessica, and the other woman spun away to part the netting and rest on the poster bed. Her voluptuous form rolled on the bed like the waves upon the ocean. The shape of her buttocks and the smooth lines of her calves taunted Beth, making her wet with her own desire. It was almost more than she could bear.
She parted the netting and joined Jessica. As she climbed onto the bed, the other woman took her behind the head with one hand and guided their mouths together, hungry lips opening and tongues sliding one against the other, a prelude to the action of their bodies, hot and wet with the sweat of summer. Jessica's legs wrapped around one of hers and pressed tight, as if to hold her in place, trap her.
Beth, too, found it hard to resist the passion the other woman exuded. When she propped herself up on one arm and looked down, Jessica smiled at her with a wry, delighted grin that begged for more attention. "Touch me, Beth," she whispered, arching her back just enough to press her bosom into the air. Beth caressed one nipple delicately with the back of her hand. Jessica moaned. Beth stroked around the large mound of flesh, then took to scratching with her ragged nails. Jessica's gasps made her smile. She liked being the one in control, the one leading the charge. It was just like this on the Ladder.
She pinched Jessica's nipple and the black-haired woman squealed between protest and lust. Beth tried again, and Jessica's moans grew. Beth played with Jessica's breasts, squeezing them, stroking them, twisting the nipple delicately. Jessica suddenly crashed against the bed. "Enough, enough!"
"Did I hurt you?"
"You were going to!" Jessica protested.
"Good!" Beth said, pouncing on the other woman. She held Jessica down, her hands on the other woman's wrists, her legs over the other's things. "By Jesu, you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in my life." Even as she said it, images of her sister-in-law, Elaine, hovered in her imagination just out of reach, much as Elaine had to be in life. "And I am going to make you want me."
"I already want you," Jessica whispered.
"Want me more," Beth said, lowering her head and kissing Jessica's neck. She opened her mouth and pressed her teeth to the soft skin of the other woman's throat, then slowly closed it. Jessica whimpered like an animal in fear of her life. Beth reached just the point where she might hurt Jessica, then let go. Without raising her head, she trailed down to one breast, taking the teased nipple into her mouth and caressing it, playing her tongue along the hardened nipple. Jessica had beautiful breasts, comfortably sized and with a slight droop that made Beth want to kiss them all the more.
Jessica writhed as Beth made love to her belly, kissing her way to encircle the roundness of it, kissing her navel, then nipping softly at the hair that bordered her sex. "Oh, Beth..." Jessica sighed, opening her legs as Beth pressed her lips to the lips of Jessica's vulva.
Jessica's sex was as different from Amalynn's as any she could imagine. Where Amalynn had had tiny inner lips, Jessica's were large. Amalynn's pearl had been tiny, Jessica's was obvious. The smell and taste were different, too, less sweet, more tangy, but still wonderful in their own way.
Beth pressed her tongue inwards, and Jessica's sex flowered to full openness. Beth licked those large lips, letting her tongue dance inside the most private part of another woman's body. Jessica's belly heaved with each deep breath she took even before Beth touched her pearl. When she finally did, it seemed as if Jessica would explode like a keg of powder put to the match. She trembled in anticipation of each touch of Beth's mouth, and as Beth put her full attention to Jessica's pearl the black-haired woman grabbed a pillow and pulled it over her face, screaming into it obscenities that would make a pirate blush.
But both of them were hardly through. Beth continued to lick Jessica's pearl, although lightly at first, and the other woman rocked port and starboard with her body's pleasures. Beth loved the sounds she made, the feel of her quivering need against her mouth, the sight of her breasts bobbing back and forth with every heaving breath Jessica tore out of the air.
When finally she relented, Jessica had reached climax three times. She lay in the bed, her hands splayed on the covers flexing uncontrollably, her body shaking with past exertion. "Oh, Beth, oh, Beth," Jessica said. One unsteady hand reached up to caress the other's cheek. "I think I love you."
Beth felt a strange tremor roll through her. "I... I don't..." She'd never heard anyone say that to her before. Not any of the men who she'd slept with in the past. Not Amalynn. "Really?"
Jessica smiled. "I... maybe. All I know is that you made me feel things that I have never felt before." She touched Beth's breasts, which hung like heavy fruit from the girl's kneeling form. "And I want you to do it again."
Without warning, the door to the bedroom slammed open. "Well, well. So this is the reason you have refused me my rightful visits." The Duke of Coke strode in, two men with him, all of them armed with pistols. "So you're dallying with someone else. Stay where you are!" he shouted as Beth glanced around, looking for an escape. "You aren't leaving." He pointed to the window and gestured toward one of his men. "Close that." To the other he said, "Watch her." He reached into the bed and pulled Beth out by her hair.
Beth snarled and scratched at him, but he pressed the pistol up to her neck. "Ah, ah, Lady Harcourt. I wouldn't do that. Or do you prefer Bloody Beth?" He smiled and tossed her away, sending her sprawling across the wooden floor.
"Silence you monster!" the Duke shouted. "Making a cuckold of me with this criminal, and a laughingstock if it should ever be heard that I was cuckolded by a woman. You are supposed to be my wife!"
"And you are supposed to be my husband! Instead, the day I get here I find you fucking one of the servant girls! You spend your days playing cards and your nights up at Lofn's!"
"Such is a man's right," he replied, smugly. "You have no place to speak." He gestured to Beth. "Ciro, tie that one up. That chair over there. And make sure she's secure. I don't want the scourge of the Caribbee' to get loose." He chuckled. "Marbry will want to talk to you before we make you disappear forever."
Beth offered only token resistance to the man who hauled her toward one of the heavy chairs and began to tie her to it. She was not about to throw her life away, and she could not outrun or outfight three men armed with guns. She grunted in pain as he tied her wrists together; he had made the ropes so tight that she would lose circulation in her hands if she moved them at all. She was surprised, but only mildly, that he did nothing to her, considering her nakedness.
"Leave us." The two men dutifully left the room, leaving the three of them alone: Beth restrained, Jessica cowering on the bed, a sheet drawn up over her naked body, and Edric, Duke of Coke, holding a gun on the two of them. He walked over to Beth and examined the knots holding her. "Adequate," he pronounced. Beth turned her head away, trying not to look at him as he ran his hands along her chest. "You're quite lovely, Elizabeth."
"And you're a bastard, bankrolling the man who killed my father!"
"What?" Jessica gasped from the bed.
"Your husband paid Marbry and his men to have my father and me killed and our household burned to the ground!" She spat at him, but he deftly dodged. "The Duke of Harcourt, murdered by your mercenaries."
"You have it wrong, Beth. Marbry killed your family for the money. When he couldn't find it, he found in me a willing bankroller. I can't say I was upset to hear of your father's demise, but I was not the cause of it. Now you, back from the grave to avenge his death. But, you're a pirate now, Bloody Beth. No one will miss you when you're gone-- except perhaps your fleas." He turned his back on her and walked over to Jessica. "And you, you bitch. How dare you refuse me for all these months while you pine for this unwashed criminal?"
He reached into the bed and grabbed Jessica by the ankle. She screamed, until he grabbed her and clamped one hand over her mouth. "Silence," he hissed. "You're about to do your wifely duty." He threw her onto the bed and began to unbuckle his breeches. They fell to the floor and he kicked them off. Jessica watched, fear in her eyes.
He descended on her, the full weight of his body holding her down to the bed. Beth turned her head away, but she could not ignore the screams of "No!" as Edric took his wife violently. She could not drown out the creaking of the bed, the sobs of the woman she had just made love to, or the groan of satisfaction as he released his lust into his unwilling wife.
Beth heard Jessica's contempt. "You bastard."
A slap, followed by the thud of a body against the floor. She finally turned to see Edric kneeling on the bed, his shirt covering his buttocks. "You will show me the proper respect as your husband, dear lady. I bought you. Your family would be on the streets starving if it weren't for me."
"And to think that I once thought of you as a good man." Jessica's trembling voice shot through Beth painfully. She heard the voice of a broken woman.
Edric paused to pull his breeches back up and belt them on. "Now then. I suppose I'll have to take you to the basement. One of my men is already on his way back to Lofn's to tell Marbry of your capture. It should not be too long now." He opened the door and addressed one of the men waiting outside. "Two men, now. Take the piratess down to the basement and have her locked up. In the cellar." He grinned darkly. "Facing the wall. Oh, and check her boots for knives and lockpicks. In fact, take them off of her."
Minutes later, Beth was hauled into a small room behind a locked door. The room was apportioned to be some sort of wine cellar, but it was clear that it was also meant to be a prison. They pulled her to a wall and thrust her arms into steel shackles, which were locked tight. Her naked body faced the cold, wooden wall that lined the cellar. Its rough bark was no less cruel to her skin than the memory of Jessica's sobbing voice. It was cold down here. She wondered how long she would have to live and if Spike could ever mount some kind of rescue.
She waited. Then, a rattle at the door told her that Marbry had finally come. But instead, she heard one set of footsteps and one voice. "So, Elizabeth Harcourt," the Duke of Coke rumbled, his voice like gravel. "I have been looking forward to your final day." She could feel the heat of his body close to her skin.
"I hope you rot in Hell!" she snarled.
"For what I am about to do, surely." His hands touched her hips, and with horror she realized that he wasn't through with his night of ravishment.
"You can't," she begged. His touch made her swoon with disgust.
"But I can," he said. "You are helpless, Lady Harcourt, and after we have tortured the coordinates out of you, you will probably be dead as well." His groin, still clothed, pressed against her buttocks. She lurched back, trying to hurt him. His slap against her skin made her groan.
"I hate you," she said. "Hate you to the ground."
"Good," he growled. She heard the unbuckling of his belt, and the rustle of cloth as his breeches fell to the floor. "With your tastes, I bet you've never known the true touch of a man."
"Enough," she said. "And they were both gentlemen, unlike you!"
"Pity," he said with his unctuous tones. "Tell me, though, do you like what your fellow inverts on the Ladder enjoy?" His erection prodded between her cheeks. The shame he meant to visit upon her sickened her to the core; if she had had anything in her belly, she would surely have lost it already. "I guess not."
Without grease, he pushed his hard shaft against her anus. If she would not let him in he meant to tear his way into her. He pushed even as Beth clamped down, desperate to keep him out. His hand wrapped around her throat, choking her. His blunt tool pressed against her tender flesh. "Let me in, damn you, you may live long--"
The unmistakable sound of a shot popped through the tiny cellar. The Duke gurgled once, painfully, and fell away from Beth onto the floor. "I killed him. I killed him!" Beth turned to see Jessica standing there, a pistol held in both trembling hands, a final wisp of smoke still curling from the barrel.
"Get me down!" she said. "Please, Jessica?"
The command in her voice startled the young woman, who immediately jumped to obey. In moments she had the latches of the cuffs open and Beth fell to the floor, exhausted and nauseous.
"I can't believe I killed him!" She was hysterical.
"Don't get used to it," Beth growled. "It's not a nice habit to have. Jessica, you can't stay here."
Jessica was still stunned, her body shuddering, her eyes refusing to fix on anything at all. "But where will I go?"
Beth smiled. "Care to be a pirate?" she asked. This was getting to be a habit. "Come on!" She took Jessica's hand and began to lead her out of the room. "Where are my clothes?"
"In my bedroom," Jessica replied. She led Beth back to the bedroom. Her clothes were still in the heap where she'd left them. She pulled them on hurriedly. "We must get out of here!"
"No." The duke's hoarse voice startled both of them.
"You're alive!" Jessica screeched. And indeed, he was standing. Blood soaked his shirt. He stood without his pants, but he was not standing strong.
"Alive," came the croak, "but dying." At the door leading to the stairs the duke stood, his hand holding a trembling pistol. "And you are going to die for your treachery!" He squeezed the pistol even as Beth shoved Jessica out of range.
The bullet tore into her arm, hot pain flashing up her shoulder. She ran for the door and kicked it, smashing it against the Duke's face. He flailed backwards into the other room. Beth followed him. It was some kind of office, probably his. He had fallen onto his back. Beth seized the sharpening knife she spotted on his desk. "Now, Duke, go to Hell." She cut his throat viciously. His blood erupted over her hand as he grasped as his neck.
His death was soon complete and Beth wiped her hand on his shirt.
"Help me, Jessica," she said. "I need to bind this wound, and-- Do you know where he kept his important papers?"
"Down there," Jessica said, pointing at one corner of desk. Beth found a drawer and opened it.
Beth dug out a stack of yellow documents and scrolls. "Here it is! My father's map!" She unrolled it and looked closely. "And the path to the gold is clearly mapped! Without this, Marbry will never be able to beat us to my father's mine!" She grabbed Jessica and kissed her.
Jessica tensed, then relaxed. "My life will never be the same."
"No," Beth agreed. "It will be better!" The sounds of a carriage and the clatter of horses soon had her attention. "Marbry! We must get out of here. Is there a way out the back?"
Jessica nodded. "This way. Past the stables."
"Let's take the horses, then," Beth said. Jessica led her down the stairs and out the back. They crossed the darkened rear court to the stables. In the dark, they took out two horses even as they began to hear shouts from the main house.
"Ride to the beach," Jessica whispered. "Follow me!" She led Beth down a narrow horse trail to the beach. "Where to now?"
"The Harcourt House," Beth replied. "Let's go." At a quick trot they made their way to Beth's house. "My house."
"You really are Elizabeth Harcourt?" Jessica asked.
"Yes. And my brother and his wife are on the Jacob's Ladder. My father named it after him." She told the story that she had come to tell a dozen times in the past six months. It pleased her to tell it, to assert her identity not as Bloody Beth, but as a lady of the court, descended from royalty and nobility. She had the map and the coordinates, and now it seemed that nothing stood between her and realizing her dream of regaining her family and her heritage.
"I never knew he was so... involved."
"Yes," Jessica said. "He was quite loving when we married, but he moved back to Jamaica four months later. He arranged my marriage through letters, and he did save my family from poverty. Maybe it was all a sham."
"I can't answer that, Jessica. All I know is what I saw, the man who drank and whored and beat his slaves, who profited from killing my father and who paid men to kill me."
Jessica nodded. They rode in silence until they reached the Harcourt House and the cove where the Jacob's Ladder awaited them.