Principal To Ruin a Rogue
To Ruin a Rogue Book 4 in The Scandalous Adventure at Seas Series Heather C. Myers Contents Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Did you like To Ruin a Rogue? Stay up to date! Acknowledgments Also by Heather C. Myers Also by Heather C. Myers Also by Heather C. Myers Also by Heather C. Myers Also by Heather C. Myers Also by Heather C. Myers Also by Heather C. Myers This one’s for the girls Dream, do, and be Chapter 1 Bachelorette parties are kind of like a rite of passage for a woman who is either ridiculously mature or ridiculously ignorant and just a bit crazy. Think about it: one man for the rest of her life. Do you realize—I mean really realize—what that means? Say goodbye to date nights and hot sex and independence and hello to ball scratching, boring, typical “love making” (what is that anyway? “Love making?”), and a total lack of privacy. Have you seen Sex and the City when Miranda and Steve start getting serious and he’s in the bathroom and just leaves the door open while he’s—you know. Um, ew. Gross. Wasn’t he taught any manners? Say goodbye to spontaneity and romance, and hello to burping and farting. And this is all before children! Children who, by the way, take away your freedom and point out every flaw you possess and a few you didn’t even know about. And they always seem to bitch about something. No, thank you. I plan to keep my hot sex, independence, all-I-care-about-is-me outlook on life, thank you very much. But I also realize that not everyone is going to adhere to my poignant take on how a woman should live her life. Take my friend Becky, the reason why I and four of our friends are out on Sunset Boulevard, dressed to the nines, ready to have the ni; ght of our lives. Sadly, it’s not because one of us has an epic birthday that needs celebrating (we’re all twenty-three and twenty-four, and in case you care, I’m part of the former crowd rather than the latter) or a graduation (we’ve all graduated our respective colleges with bachelor’s degrees) or a breakup (though Lulu and her boyfriend Andy have recently decided to take some time to think about their future, whatever that means). No. We’re celebrating Becky’s passage into matrimony. Yes, we’re celebrating all the facets I have just gone over in brutal detail. Okay, okay, I know there are good things about marriage. I’m not a total Debbie Downer. I just don’t get—especially with something like a bachelorette party the night before the Big Day—why people sign away their lives to someone else. It’s kind of like that Amish ritual. You know, the one where they send their sixteen-year-olds out into the real world to go live life and when it’s over, they can either choose to stay in mainstream society or go back and live in their community. Obviously, I assumed that they would choose to live life here where they can do what they want and have sex before marriage and wear boots and go to a club, but did you know that a huge percentage of them go back to live as Amish? Did you know that? It blows my mind! Anyway, so brides-to-be go out and live their last moments of freedom with their best friends and strippers and whatever the hell they want to eat without worrying about the weight they could possibly gain and all the illicit dancing they will participate in. You would think that said freedom would deter them from matrimony in the first place, but the crazy thing is, I’ve actually heard that something like a bachelorette party actually promotes marriage. None of us—Becky, Lulu, Elle, June, Kylie, and I—have actually gone through it ourselves. Yet. Becky is the first of us to take that step and in some weird, twisted way, I can’t help but admire her for it. Not about the marriage thing, but about taking a step into something unknown. I mean, none of us can give her any advice, can reassure her moments before she walks down the aisle, can tell her that it’s worth it, because we’ve never done it. She’s doing this alone. We’re behind her one hundred percent (okay, maybe I’m behind her, like, sixty percent, but still—that’s more than anyone expected) but she doesn’t have a model she can look to for advice, reassurance, and guidance. Even her parents split up when she was eight. Maybe that’s why I’m not giving her much shit for marrying Tom. Although if she’s going to marry anybody, Tom would definitely be my choice for her. I mean, he has dark eyes and dark hair and an olive complexion and all these tattoos, but he’s the least like his stereotype of anyone I know. Even Becky matches her blonde hair with her bubbly, optimistic outlook on life. At least Becky wasn’t against a bachelorette party. You know, I may actually agree to get married with the stipulation that I get a bachelorette party. As I’ve already said, we’re dressed like rock stars—not groupies, but actual, legit rock stars—and we’re on our way to Le Marche, the newest nightclub Elle got us into since she’s an event coordinator and was the woman in charge when it opened last month. So now, we don’t even have to wait in line. Wicked awesome, right? I keep trying to talk Becky into getting just a little bit drunk, but she doesn’t drink and won’t even make an exception for her bachelorette party, and even though she has good reason not to, I can’t help but feeling partially annoyed. If anyone has a good reason not to drink, it’s me, but I allow myself to get shitfaced every once in a while. Okay, back in college, it was every weekend, but I got over that. And if there’s a special occasion to get shit-faced, it’s now, to commemorate and celebrate and mourn Becky’s last night of freedom. But Becky is as stubborn as she is happy, so she won’t budge. I will, however, guarantee you that she’ll dance. Which is just as well. Lulu called in a favor with her cousin and we drove up Sunset in style—in a black stretch limo—listening to my party mix and standing up through the sunroof, waving at people on the streets. I think Reese flashed someone because June dared her to, but I can’t be sure… As we expect, Le Marche is crazy-busy so we have the limo pull up to the corner to let us out. Since we don’t have to wait in line, we decide that we also don’t want to wait in the ridiculous amount of traffic that’s piled up in front of the entrance. We can walk a ways—we look smoking hot so why not show that off just a bit? After thanking and tipping our very sweet limo driver Barney, we start chatting amongst ourselves, each of us brimming with obvious excitement. We don’t even walk two steps before a car driving past us honks once, twice, and four steps later, we get whistled at. I don’t want to brag about my group of friends, but seriously, if you look up stone-cold foxes in the dictionary, you’d find our picture instead of an actual definition. And the fact that we’ve gone out of our way to look even better? Well, if I’m being honest, looking at my friends, they’re so gorgeous that it hurts a little bit. Maybe that was a bit much. And I’m not that arrogant. Maybe this is just some ridiculous defense mechanism because, as much as I hate the institution of marriage, I think I’m more than a little bitter that I’m also losing my best friend. I mean, Becky and I are still going to hang out and be close and all that, but it’s going to be different. As much as she assures me that things won’t change between us, I know they will. How can they not? She’s going to be married. She won’t be crashing at my place any time soon, and we won’t be able to go dancing every weekend or take spontaneous trips to San Diego just because. She has to be responsible now. She has to consider Tom’s feelings because their lives are so intertwined. The thought that there’s going to be a shift in our friendship causes my heart to ache just a little bit. If anyone was going to get married first out of our group, it would be Becky. She’s gorgeous in that girl-next-door kind of way and she has this naïve optimism that endears her not only to men, but everyone. I should have better prepared myself for this—she’s been with Tom since she was twenty and he was twenty-two, and now she’s half a year into being twenty-four and getting married to the guy. My best friend. Married. And looking at her now, I don’t see one iota of fear in her eyes. Maybe I’m jealous. I’ve never been as sure about anything—least of all men—in my life. But when she talks or looks at Tom, she’s fearless. She just knows. I want that. I want that certainty, especially about another person, a man. But I’m not sure I can trust anyone as fiercely as Becky trusts Tom. “Hey, look,” June says, her light Texan accent lacing her words. She stops, so we stop and look at what she’s pointing at. “Is that really a psychic? At this time of night?” “June, it’s rude to point,” Lulu tells her. They have this sort of sisterly relationship. June is only six months younger than Lulu is, but ever since she joined our group a couple of years ago while we were all in college, Lulu has made it her responsibility to watch out for June. Becky may be naively optimistic, but June is just plain naïve—cities tend to take advantage of small-town girls, and even though LA isn’t as bad as New York or—God forbid—San Francisco, it can get pretty bad here. And Lulu has always been the mother hen of our group, since she’s the oldest. Immediately, June snaps her arm down to her side. “She’s right, though,” Kylie says, looking at the faint glowing sign. You never would have seen the small building, packed between another nightclub and a comedy club. But there it is, a small building with an even smaller door, neon lights advertising that a psychic is indeed inside. “A psychic, here?” “Weird,” Becky murmurs, then she gets a mischievous grin on her face. “What do you say, you guys? Should I see if Tom and I are going to last?” I know she’s serious about going to see the psychic, though her reasoning is shit. She knows she and Tom are going to last and doesn’t care one way or another if a psychic agrees with her. “Guys, there’s not even a window,” I point out. “How do you know the psychic thing is legit? What if it’s a gang of rapists just waiting for a group of hot chicks to come inside so they can gang-rape us and murder us and whatnot?” “Someone has been watching too much Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” June drawls, and okay, maybe she’s right, but still. The building gives me the creeps. My point is ignored and I can’t help but follow my group of friends to what feels like our imminent demise. Or maybe I’m just being overly dramatic. Before we even reach the door, it opens. This causes me to jump, and Becky chuckles at my reaction. I want to admonish her, but my eyes are searching through the blackness, willing there to be someone there, because it’s just not possible that doors open on their own. This isn’t a crappy horror film. And after what feels like hours, when in reality it’s probably just seconds, a very short woman with a shawl around her shoulders that also happens to shelter carrot-red hair that is currently piled on top of her head and thin-rimmed circular glasses Harry Potter style pokes her head out, regarding us with a look that says she knew we were there and that our arrival at her business at ten o’clock at night isn’t all that weird. “Hello, ladies,” she says in a leathery but comforting voice. “I see you all look lovely. Celebrating something, perhaps? An engagement?” All my friends suddenly buy into the legitimacy of the woman after she says this even though it’s not even hard to deduce that—Becky’s the only one of us who’s wearing a wedding ring and normally, married woman don’t go out clubbing with her single friends. “Would you like to come in?” she asks in that perpetually slow voice of hers. “Guys, don’t we have to—” I try to talk my friends out of this bad idea—there’s dancing to be done—but Becky interrupts us. “Yes, absolutely!” she says with her normal bout of enthusiasm. “If it’s not too much trouble.” “None at all, my dear,” the so-called psychic says, turning around and heading into the room. Becky doesn’t even hesitate and starts to follow her, as does everyone else, so I really have no choice but to go in too. Before I even turn around to close the door, it shuts itself, and I jump. “It is my job, after all.” She chuckles as though she’s made some kind of joke. “Oh, those Santa Ana winds are strong, aren’t they? Now, come, come.” She waves us past the small lobby and into where I’m assuming she does her actual business. “You do want your fortunes read, don’t you?” I open my mouth and get a death glare from Becky, as though she knows I’m going to respond with a variant of “Fuck that.” This, of course, deters me. For now. “You,” the psychic says, flitting her lime-green eyes—yes, I thought that lime-green eyes was something that could only be found in Tim Burton’s Wonderland, but apparently they actually exist in reality—in my direction and raises her bony hand, extending her even bonier finger at me. “Why don’t you go first?” She indicates the low but very plush-looking chair located across the glass table as she takes a seat in what is obviously deemed as her chair. “Sit.” “Oh, really, I’m not sure I should—” I begin, but once again I’m interrupted, this time by Becky. She nudges me and says in a low murmur, “Go on, Isla. She must have something to say about your future. Aren’t you even just a little bit curious?” I’m about to say no, but I censor myself yet again. I’m not big on planning for the future. I prefer living in the moment. My mom says I like to avoid being a legitimate adult, but I think it’s more of not wanting to take for granted that I’m right here, right now. But Becky’s giving me her patented doe eyes so I heave a heavy sigh and take a seat in front of this woman—whose name she has yet to offer, by the way—and look at her imploringly. “My name is Shaki,” she says, her lips curling up and her eyes teasing me, as if to say she knows exactly what I’ve been thinking. I swallow and hope my eyes don’t give my surprise away. It’s obviously a lucky guess. “May I have your hand?” I’m surprised that she actually touches my hand. The psychics Becky has dragged me to before her have never touched her hand. Maybe this one… Well, let’s see now, shall we? It’s a long time before she says anything. I almost forget that it’s me she’s talking to until a muscle in my palm involuntarily twitches and I feel her surprisingly soft hands touching my outstretched one. Is it weird that I feel self-conscious right now? I mean, how long does this woman really need to look at my palm before she gets the gist of it? It’s not that special and, in my opinion, it looks like everyone else’s. Finally, she drops my hand and I slowly place it back in my lap. “Isla Barnes, you were not born for this time.” Her words come out crisp and firm, and they cause my entire body to spring out in goosebumps. How in God’s name did she know my full name? “W-what?” I ask, and okay, I did stutter, but you probably would have done the same thing. “You were not born for this time.” “Is that it?” I ask after another moment, waiting for more, but getting a steady gaze and even steadier bout of silence. This woman, Shaki, is unnerving, to say the least. “That is it.” “What a rip-off,” I mutter, standing up. I turn to Becky and don’t even bother to keep my voice low. “You better not pay for mine, Becky. She said one sentence to me. I told you this is bullshit.” I hear Shaki murmur something under her breath. I can’t understand what it is, but the tone sounds familiar. “Did you just curse me?” I ask, appalled at the notion. She has that same steady smile on her face, as though nothing in the world could bother her. Bitch. “It does not matter,” she says. “You do not believe in it anyway.” “Whatever,” I mutter. I look back at Becky. “I’m going outside—I need some air.” Becky looks like she’s about to argue, to plead with me to stay, but seriously, I need to get out of there or else I’m going to ruin the night. Once the cool air hits me, I feel my shoulders relax. But that all goes to shit because a pair of headlights come right at me and suddenly, my entire world goes black. Chapter 2 My head hurts, and I know it’s not a hangover because I didn’t even get to drink last night. Wait a second, then why don’t I remember last night? Did I drink? Oh God, did someone slip something into my drink and—and— I place my hands on my body underneath an interesting albeit pretty tasteless and very old set of covers, and breathe a sigh of relief when I feel that my dress is still on and, after a quick check, dry. There doesn’t seem to be any gross bodily fluids that I’m not aware of coming out of any particular orifice, staining my expensive dress or these shitty sheets. Then, if I didn’t get raped or assaulted, why can’t I remember last night? And where I am? I know I’m not in my apartment or any of my friends’ apartments because while we have different (and some of us may even have eccentric) tastes, none of us would tolerate covers like these. Okay, focus Isla. Before you work yourself up over covers you don’t recognize and want to burn from your memory at the sheer hideousness of them, try to remember the events. I close my eyes for good measure, hoping it’ll help. I remember that Becky was quote unquote celebrating her upcoming nuptials with a bachelorette party. June was there, and Lulu, Reese, and obviously Becky. I was there. Elle was there but she really didn’t talk, did she? Not that she normally does—she is the smart one, after all. Okay, c’mon Isla. Focus. You were at Becky’s bachelorette party and you were in a limo and ke$ha was playing and then—then—then Becky had the limo pull to the corner because we didn’t want to have to deal with all that traffic. Then June saw—oh, what did she see? I know it was weird, like it didn’t belong… The psychic! That bitch put a fucking spell on me! I knew she did! Maybe it was a memory spell. Maybe that’s why I can’t remember anything after her foreboding words. What did she say? That I was born for the wrong time or some crap like that? What does that even mean anyway? Although…although if this really is her doing—if this really is a memory curse or whatever—then not only is she a legit spell-caster, but she’s also a legit psychic. And it still doesn’t explain where I am. Maybe I can call Becky. Yes, Becky didn’t drink last night—and even though I don’t remember last night—Becky’s pretty stubborn about drinking. I lean over the side of the bed towards the nightstand where, interestingly enough, there’s no lamp. In fact, the only light coming in the—what I now realize is a—small, cramped room is coming from a circle-shaped window, carved out of the wooden wall. Seriously, the room I’m in has no wallpaper or paint or anything. It’s wood. And the window looks like it came from two hundred years ago at least. Just where the hell am I? Okay, maybe it’s time to go down a dark place. Just because I’m comfortable with sex and my sexuality and am not a virgin and don’t believe that people should wait until they’re married to have sex, I’m also not the type of girl to go home with guys I barely know. Yes, sex is fun and pleasurable and definitely a necessity, and I don’t have to be in a serious relationship to sleep with someone (though it’s definitely good to be monogamous). And even if I did get drunk last night, I know without a doubt that my friends wouldn’t let me leave with a stranger. And judging by this room, I’m definitely somewhere strange. What was I doing before—? Oh, the cell phone. Not on the nightstand, not under the covers or the bed or in the nightstand drawer. Not on the wooden floor. Not on the circular windowsill. Not on my person. Okay, this is starting to scare me. I never go anywhere without my cell phone. Especially not some strange room. Where am I? Why can’t I remember last night? And where is my cell phone? Is Becky playing some trick on me? But no, Becky’s too nice to pull something like that, and plus she has a wedding she needs to worry about— Shit! Becky’s wedding! I’m supposed to be there right now as her maid of honor, making up some signal with her just in case she gets cold feet and needs some sort of distraction so she can make a run for it. Not tangled up in ugly sheets. She’s going to kill me! At that moment, the door opens, and instantly, I thank God. Maybe whoever is about to enter will be able to help me out, tell me where I am and how I got here. Tell me where my cell phone is and maybe even offer to call me a cab. God, I hope I’m not late for Becky’s wedding. She may be the sweetest person I know, but I have no doubt if I’m late, she’ll skin me alive. I watch as the man enters, and I’m stricken at many things. First and foremost, he’s probably the most beautiful man I’ve ever laid eyes upon—and I don’t say that word loosely. He’s six foot five at least, with smooth, tan skin—natural too, I can tell—and he has incredibly broad shoulders with arms that remind me of rolling hills. Because his shirt—is it a shirt? Oh, what’s that word that’s associated with Shakespeare and Ever After? Tunic. I think tunic is more appropriate. Anyway, his tunic falls loosely on him, but the cut is low, revealing a tan, firm, flat chest and Lord only knows what’s hidden underneath the dirty white cloth. Blue—I think they’re blue, but they, too, are really dirty—pants (again, I think it’s the wrong word but I can’t seem to find the correct one)—cover his strong, long legs, up until they are forced to hide underneath his bright brown and very worn-looking boots with drastic flaps. His face is sharp and angled, the epitome of masculine, his warm, chocolate-colored eyes housing what appears to be a familiar saucy sparkle. His cheekbones are high and defined, as is his jawline, and his lips look decidedly chapped but just as kissable, and his dark hair is short, falling in his face messily, with streaks of gold probably brought out by the sun. From his clothes, he kind of reminds me of Johnny Depp in that pirate movie, except this guy is way more buff and tall and good-looking and, oh my God, I think I’d forgive myself if he’s the guy I went home with and I don’t think any of my friends would blame me. But seriously, another reason why I’m so stricken is due to how dirty he is. Why is he so dirty? I can respect a blue-collared guy, no problem, but could he, at least, shower before coming back up here? I glance down at myself to ensure that his dirtiness hasn’t rubbed off on me—in case we did end up doing the horizontal tango—but no, I’m just as clean as I had been last night. Except I can feel my skin crawl at just the thought of those vile sheets touching my bare skin… And speaking of his clothes, why do they look like they’ve come out of the historical section of Jerry Bruckheimer’s mind? Surely this man has a three-piece suit or a t-shirt and some boxers somewhere? Why does he look— Not that he looks bad, mind you, but— “I’ve never had one as forward as you.” And then he spoke, and it’s like the world stopped. Okay, maybe I’m being a tad dramatic, but he has this rich baritone and it’s slightly mumbly and is that an English accent I detect? And I know I look pretty good, but why are those eyes of his looking at me like I look at chocolate whenever Mother Nature decides it’s time to play? “Excuse me?” I reply, because I really can’t think of anything else to say. “Sure, they’ve tried to follow me and seduce me and sit in my lap and the like,” he continues on, slowly taking a step towards me and then another. I feel my body respond by taking a step back. And then another. He smiles when he realizes this, and for a pirate, he has some pretty straight, white teeth. Thank God his parents invested in braces. But—is that a silver tooth where his canine should be? Ew. I didn’t like it on Johnny Depp and I don’t like it on this guy—although, if I’m being honest, he does have a rather disarming smile. “But never has one surprised me in my room. And never has one actually backed away from me. I like it, though. I, myself, have been particularly drawn to the chase.” He suddenly stops and then raises his brows so they disappear under his unruly dark locks, looking at me expectantly. “How much, then?” he asks, placing his hands on his hips and Jesus, those hands are double my own in size. I wonder if what they say about hands and feet is true…? “Excuse me?” I say again. “How much for what?” Suddenly, a thought crosses my mind. “Oh, is this some kind of hotel or something?” Maybe it’s one of those period motels that are so popular on the east coast and that’s why everything looks out of place. Or maybe I’m the one out of place. That would explain a lot. “Ho—what?” he asks me, his face scrunching up—quite adorably, I may add—and if I’m being honest, he seems genuinely perplexed at the word hotel. Maybe this guy is one of those paid actors who inhabit period places and can’t break character? Ohhhhhhh… But still, why would I come here? And where’s my g-d cell phone? “For the night, of course,” he says, shaking his confusion off. “How much for the night? I have had better-looking ones, although you are a sight for sore eyes, if I do say so myself. I’ve been at sea for an awfully long time. Gettin’ pretty desperate. You’ll do, I suppose. The sun is sliding down as we speak, and I believe I want you before it comes back up.” “What?” I snap, suddenly realizing his implications. “Are you—?” I cut myself off, still in disbelief before forcing myself to continue. I don’t think I’ve ever been as furious as to be thrown speechless. “Are you insinuating that I am some kind of prostitute?” “What else would you be?” he asks in that slurred, mumbly voice of his, wiggling his thick, dark eyebrows at me suggestively. “Granted, your accent and proper use of grammar have thrown me just a bit, but I will also admit that such surprises leave me wanting you even more. I’ve never had a proper prostitute before.” And before I can stop myself, I slap him. Okay, normally, I’m against violence of any type, even when a guy says something totally and incredibly insulting, which would thus mean that he deserves the slap (as illustrated here), I still don’t think the girl should slap him. I think she should look at him with wide, sad eyes for a long moment, then turn around and walk away, because I find that that works way better. But I didn’t even stop and process my thoughts; my rage just took over and I couldn’t help but slapping him. Not that I’m justifying my actions or anything, but come on, he totally deserved it. He looks surprised and maybe even a bit hurt—not morally of course, but that my slap actually injured him—and he rubs it gently with his long, callused fingers. Then his eyes flash at me and all playfulness is gone. Instead, he looks nothing short of pissed. Um, excuse me? What right does he have to be pissed at me? “That was uncalled for,” he says in a dark tone, and okay, I won’t actually confess this out loud, but his sudden change in demeanor is kind of scary. Kind of. “You called me a prostitute,” I say. “I am not a prostitute. I have no idea how things work around here, but what you just did was totally unprofessional, even if it does go with whatever century we’re in, okay, buddy? I’m sorry I slapped you. Actually, well, I’m a little sorry I did. But you have no right barging into my room without knocking and saying that you want to do me without any sort of introductions first—not that I would. You realize how dirty you are, right? And I’m not that kind of girl anyway—and then you have the audacity to get mad at me for standing up for myself?” “What do you expect me to take you for when you’re wearing something so…” He lets his voice trail off and his eyes trail down at, what I’m just remembering, is my scantily clad body. I actually huff as I cross my arms over my chest. “Oh my God, are you kidding me?” I ask, looking out that small window and praying to whatever God is up there that he doesn’t notice my blush. “Listen, buddy—” “What is ‘buddy’?” he interrupts, throwing his hands out. “I don’t understand your choice of diction, young lady, and I should warn you right now, that that word had better not be an insult or you will regret it. Once I find out what it means.” But I continue on as if I don’t even hear him. “Obviously, you don’t directly understand the fact that women have been fighting for years to be equal to men, but let me fill you in on something—women have come a long way since the Victorian age where showing ankle could cause a scandal, okay? I can wear whatever the hell I want, whether that’s revealing or unrevealing, and it is one of the greatest insults for a woman who is confident with her looks and her body to be labeled as a slut or a whore or, in your case, a prostitute. This is the twenty-first century, or have you forgotten that?” The man looks at me for a long, long time. Or for what feels like a long, long time. I swallow, wondering if maybe, just maybe, I’ve gone too far. He blinks once, twice, and then his lips slowly curl up and his eyes get mischievous and sparkly. “What have you been drinking, darling?” he asks me, taking a step towards me. “Excuse me?” I ask, pushing my brows up and giving him an expectant look. “Surely you are jesting with me,” he says and then laughs, a sound that is rich and clear and the least bit slurred. “Surely you must be drinking. This is the twenty-first century, is it?” He throws his head back and starts to laugh. Maybe if I didn’t have the sneaking suspicion that he’s laughing at me, I may have found the sound contagious. Intoxicating, even. But I don’t, because I do think he’s laughing at me. “Obviously,” I say. I wait, but he keeps laughing. “I don’t understand what you think is so funny.” The man continues to laugh and laugh and laugh and I’m seriously on the brink of telling him to shut the fuck up when his laughter dies down and he’s looking at me again with those brown eyes of his. It feels like forever, and in that time, I try and read his eyes, but for whatever reason, I can’t. It’s like the meaning behind them is blocked and all I have to look at is the superficial front—the playfulness—he wants to portray. “You’re really serious, aren’t you?” he asks me. He pushes his lips together and ever so slightly tilts his head to the side. “I’ve heard of people like you. Believing they’re somebody they’re not. Paranoid. Think everyone’s out to get them. But I’ve never heard of people like you believing your actual environment is different from the truth.” “What are you talking about?” I’m getting frustrated at this point. “People like me?” “You know…” He raises his brow again. “Believe you’re somebody else. Sometimes it’s someone famous or royal or important, sometimes it’s just an entirely different personality—” “Do you mean schizophrenics?” I ask. “You really think I’m schizophrenic? Do you even know what it means to be schizophrenic, or are you just being politically incorrect because you’re kind of a jerk?” “All right, I know jerk and I know that that is an insult, missy—” “Don’t call me missy,” I snap. “And what do you expect? You called me schizophrenic just because I said it’s the twenty-first century. Hello. I know you’re supposed to remain in character and, you know what, I’m impressed by your tenacity, but let’s cut the bullshit for a few seconds so we can get a few things clear. Number one—I don’t care what little resort we’re in and what century we’re supposed to be in here, but reality says it’s the twenty-first, okay? Number two—I am not a prostitute, and even if I was, you probably couldn’t afford me to begin with.” I bristle and place my hands on my hips, locking eyes with him in hopes that he understands just how serious I am. “Now that that’s all covered, I’d like to check out, I’d like my cell phone, and I won’t report this if you pay for a cab to take me home.” Again, that stare. That stare that I want to know the meaning behind but it’s likely that I won’t. “Darling, there’s something you should know,” he says. “I’m not sure what you’ve been drinking or where you think you are, but if you’re truly not schitzo-what it was you just said, you need to be aware that it is in fact, not, the twenty-first century. Rather, it is the eighteenth century. More specifically, the year is 1713.” Chapter 3 I laugh in a crazy, unhinged sort of way, and I watch as his brown eyes widen slightly. For the first time, the pirate looks as though he's afraid of me, of what I may do depending on my mental facilities. "Are you shitting me?" I ask, once I've settled down and my stomach feels as though I've done a thousand sit-ups at one time. "Shitti"—The pirate stops mid-sentence and gives me a flat look. "What does that mean, exactly? Does not sound pleasant, to be honest. I don't think I'd like to shit anyone, quite frankly." He stops and places his fingerprint on the tip of his chin. He studies me for a long moment, and I can't seem to muster up the energy to care right now because if there's even a chance that he's right about the century we're in, I have no idea how to get back home. And to be honest, I'm starting to feel…scared. "For a young woman, your language is coarse and unbecoming. Who taught you how to swear that way? You say you're not a prostitute, but you swear like you grew up at sea or in a whorehouse." Now, his eyes narrow and he looks at me in such a way, I feel as though he can look straight through me to my very core. And that's the last place I want him or anyone to see because I'm not even comfortable looking there myself. "Who are you? And where are you from?" "I've already told you where I'm from," I say, and though the fact that I'm annoyed is reflected in my tone, I lose my sarcasm. "It's not my fault you don't believe me." "You don't believe me when I tell you where I'm from, either," he points out, pushing up his eyebrows, which, for some reason, only enhances the sharpness of his cheekbones. God, the man is beautiful, and it's impossible not to stare. It doesn't even matter he's covered in dirt. "So it appears we're at a stalemate." I pause and let his words sink in, because, despite the fact that they're slurred, they also make sense. We both don't believe each other, which means we're closed off to the possibility that one of us is telling the truth. This will get us nowhere. I take a breath, release it slowly. I close my eyes and force my wall of protection to weaken slightly. One of us has to give in, and the faster that happens, the faster we can figure out what's going on and where to go from here. "Okay," I say, forcing my eyes to look into his. It's not as hard as I'm making it out to be, but the fact that I'm the one giving in is what causes such difficulty. "My name is Isla Barnes. I'm from Southern California, which is a place in the Americas. My birthday is April fourteenth, and I'm twenty-four years old. I'm from the twenty-first century. I graduated from UCLA, which is a university, with a communications degree. Which definitely won't help me if I really have traveled back in time to 1713." Even saying it out loud doesn't help me wrap my head around it. I sound like a deranged lunatic. I run my fingers through my hair, trying to stop my hand from shaking. I need to keep my cool, keep my focus. I try to figure out how he's taking my admission, if he believes what I said. If he, too, thinks I'm insane. His face, however, is like a mask, indecipherable but pretty to look at, and I can't tell what he's thinking. His eyes continue to penetrate my very being, and he looks at me blatantly, without shame, as though he either doesn't realize how rude it is to stare the way he's staring or he doesn't care. "My name is Matt Scott," he says finally, and I release a breath I don't realize I'm holding deep inside me. I thank my lucky stars he has yet to go off about what a loon I really am. "Captain Matt Scott of the ship you're currently standing aboard, the Crimson Wave." I bite my tongue to keep from mentioning that the name of his ship sounded like a pun for a woman on her period. I don't think he'd appreciate it, and I need him to want to help me get home in whatever way he can. "I'm two and thirty, sailing to Port Royal in order to prevent my sister from getting lynched." My eyes widen voluntarily and I feel my interest nerves have been stirred. "Your sister?" I ask, crossing my arms over my chest. His eyes immediately snap to my emphasized cleavage and I scowl at him. "A gentleman would offer a lady something to cover herself with." "Aye," he agrees with a nod, "a gentleman would." I give him what I hope is a death glare, but he doesn't even flinch. Instead, he smirks and shrugs, almost as though he's trying to say he can't help it. I open my mouth, ready to go off on him, when I stop. Maybe if I'm nice to him, it may help in getting what I want. I hate that I have to play dumb games and act like a damsel in distress, but if it helps me get covered and get home, I'll do it, regardless of the blow to my pride. "Please," I add and give him my best attempt at puppy eyes. "I'm a little bit cold." He looks as though he's buying it and my insides start doing a victory dance like I'm a running back and I just scored an epic touchdown. However, his eyes narrow and he clenches his jaw, and as I watch it pop, I'm transfixed by the decidedly masculine gesture. "I know you're playing with me," he says as he turns to his coat rack, "but I can't have you catching a cold and dying on my account." He grabs a long blue coat and tosses it to me, and I bite my bottom lip to keep the smirk from breaking out onto my face. It worked. I slide my arms through the sleeves and am surprised when I find that it does not smell bad at all, like I expected it to. In fact, it smells of the ocean—the crisp salt that touches the air when the wind picks it up—and a soft hint of smoke, implying that he, or someone close to him, smokes. Smoking doesn’t bother me, especially if the smoker is good-looking, but I start to understand that having the smoke linger would get annoying. Luckily, the ocean scent calms it down so it’s not overwhelming and makes what would be a strong odor into a pleasant one. I button up the jacket as best as I can so my goods are not on display the way they once were, and I’m pleased when I see Matt Scott stare at my face and not my chest. However, even when he’s staring at my face, there’s something deeper there, something more. Which I don’t want, because I’d rather be rough and together than emotional and broken. I’m not sure why I feel this way, to be honest. My parents have been married for fifty-two years and counting, and they are the definition of a perfect couple. They still hold hands, my mom still rolls her eyes at my dad’s antics, and my dad still smiles to himself when he watches my mom leave like he can’t believe she’s with him, like he just won the lottery. They’ve had their tiffs, but they always worked through it. It was clear these two were meant for each other, and I’m sure that if they had a child other than me, that child would come away with a healthy viewpoint on monogamy, commitment, and relationships in general. I don’t have that. When I see my mom and dad and how perfect they are for each other, I cringe inside. I worry that something like that will never work out for me. They got their storybook ending, but the rarity of actually acquiring that is nearly impossible, so why even try? Why go through the hurt and the pain of fighting and arguing and hurting when it’s easier to just be responsible for yourself? When I date, I do so monogamously. I understand why it’s important to only sleep with one person at a time, and I value my body and my sexual abilities where I make sure any potential partner is clear that we date monogamously or we don’t date at all. I also make sure everyone is clear that monogamy does not mean that we’re serious about each other. I don’t get offended by texts in the middle of the night asking me what I’m doing. I run when someone needs a date to a wedding five months from now. It’s messed up, yes, but it works for me. "Let's get back to your sister," I say, shaking my head to rid myself of the thoughts of my parents. I can't think about them now or else I'll start to miss them. If I start to miss them, I'll get sad. If I get sad, I'll have a break down, reality will hit, and the pirate in front of me will dump me off at the nearest port and never look back due to my emotional antics. I have to keep myself together if I'm going to survive this. "She's going to get lynched?" Matt furrows his brows, pushing them together so a vertical wrinkle pops between them. It's almost as if he knows I was thinking about something serious, and he's confused as to why that would be. Why would I choose to occupy my mind with something that isn't pleasurable? Either that, or he's still trying to get a read on me and won't let any facial inflection, any change in breath, any wrinkle on my face, escape his attention. The thought itself is a little unnerving, truth be told, because I don't know Matt well enough to know what type of person he is. I suppose the fact that he's trying so hard to understand me is why I feel so unnerved. I'm not used to being under so much scrutiny. Truth be told, guys think I'm cute and that's it. They don't pay attention to much else, which is fine by me, because I don't have to reciprocate that attention in any way, shape, or form. "That's a blunt way to put it," he says, and I feel myself turn red because he's right. "You're right." My admission makes his brows shoot up now, so high they hide behind his brown bangs. My face turns an even darker shade of red, which I didn't believe was possible, because I don't have a lot of shame and embarrassment issues. I am who I am, and that's that. But somehow, he brings out my vulnerabilities and throws them out in the open so he can see them up close and personal. It unnerves me to no end, and I hate it because I've never had to deal with it before. "I'm sorry." "What?" he asks, and now he's grinning, and I want to slap that beautiful smile off his smug face. "Did you just apologize to me? I don't know you at all, and my gut feeling tells me you're not the type of girl who apologizes if she can help it." "First of all," I say, "I'm a woman, not a girl. Secondly, I was rude about it and being rude for no reason deserves an apology. So I'm sorry. Again." His grin widens, and I can't help but notice the way I react in response to it. The way my heart flutters. The way my breath catches in my throat. I clench my teeth together and force myself to look away because if I don't, I'll stare, and that would be worse than having to apologize. I let him gloat; I was rude about his sister, and I feel bad about it, so if he wants to rub it in, I don't have a problem with it because I deserve it. "She's going to hang," he finally says in response to my question, "due to her affiliation with me. She's an easy target, really. Owns a brothel. Female businesswomen who don't take the path most traveled are targeted for anything, really. But because of her affiliation with me, her lascivious business, and the fact that she houses people of ill repute, including pirates, she was charged for her numerous crimes and sentenced to hang." I blink. "Your sister sounds like a badass," I say before I can stop myself. "A badass," he says, testing the word out in his mouth. He's confused, which makes him look boyish and adorable. "Is that a good thing?" "It's a great thing," I assure him. “Being a badass means she's fully capable of taking care of herself. She doesn't need a man to take care of her." "She has a man," he tells me, his eyes darkening ever so slightly. "Billy." "You don't like him." My eyes widen and I smile because finally—finally—I've read him well enough to be able to make a comment rather then ask a question. Well, it's been a few hours at best, but I feel better only because he's been able to read me since the minute he first laid eyes on me. "Why don't you like him? Because he stole your sister away?" I smile, teasing him. He doesn't smile in return. If anything, he looks perplexed. I'm not sure what to make of his reaction. "No one could steal Sarah away if they tried," he corrects, his voice reminiscing but firm. "I don't like Billy because Billy doesn't like me." He put his hands on his chest, his fingers sprawled out like the legs of a spider. "And before you ask, darling, Billy doesn't like me because I'm a pirate and he's protective of her. I told you, Sarah is set to hang because of her relationship with me. Not because of her business or her brashness. But because of me. And Billy doesn't like me for it." "How is that your fault?" I ask, crossing my arms over my chest. I know by doing this, my cleavage is pushed up and exposed, but Matt keeps his eyes on my face. To be honest, I'm impressed. "Well, I did make the choice to become full pirate," he says, and he smirks to himself, as though he has an inside joke with himself. His eyes are sparkling, and I can tell he doesn't regret his choice, not in the slightest. "In a way, I am responsible for public perception of my family. Luckily for me, I only have my sister." "Luckily?" I give him a doubtful look. If he and his sister are the last people in his family, then it's not lucky. It's sad. I'm an only child of two only children. I have no siblings and I have no cousins. I know what it's like to be lonely. Interestingly enough, I'm afraid to have kids almost as much as I want them. I know I don't need a relationship to have a child, but the utter dependence they would have on me scares me. I can't figure out what I want and what I don't, and until I'm sure one way or another, I try not to think about it at all. Suddenly, I think about Matt having kids, if he wants to, if he doesn't, if it's a smart decision regardless if his desire. He's a pirate after all, and from what I remember from tenth grade history, pirates don't live very long—maybe a year or two at most. Matt seems like he's been around for a while, which is a miracle unto itself. Does that mean he's parent material? I don't know. Not that it matters, I suppose. It's not my business if he wants to have kids or not. He looks at me again with narrowed brown eyes, and tilts his head to the side. I don't know why, but my eyes are drawn to his cheekbones and I can't help it notice how defined they are. I've always had a soft spot for sharp cheeks and jawbones, and Matt has both. "Do you have any siblings?" he asks me. I shake my head. "It's just me and my parents," I reply quickly. I don't know why I'm uncomfortable with his line of questioning. It's only fair, considering I've been asking him similar questions about his life. But that's only because I find his life so historical and fascinating. There's really nothing special about me. Even my hobbies are boring. Binge-watching Netflix isn't as sexy as it sounds. "Just you," Matt repeats. "No husbands, fiancés, lovers to speak of back in your home?" "Well…" I let my voice trail off. It's not his business who I sleep with and who don't. In fact, I know that in this time, it's not proper for young women to sleep around. Especially with men they don't know and aren't engaged to. Not that I sleep around. I've been with a handful of guys in monogamous, no strings attached arrangements. Okay, the specific number is three and they've all lasted anywhere from six to eighteen months. It's more than just sex, but less than an actual relationship, because I actually care about the guys and they care about me, but not enough to commit. It's worked well for all parties involved and I'm proud to say jealousy and love never factored into any arrangement. The only reason we broke it off was because of switching schools, new priorities, or we grew out of each other. I'm still friendly with them, for the most part. Would I go back with them? No. The sex was good, but not that good. Anyway, my thoughts are rambling because I hate to admit that I actually care what Matt thinks of me and I think I'm worried that he's going to brand me a slut because I have had sex before with more than one guy who I definitely had no intention of marrying. To be honest, it pisses me off because I used to not care what anyone thought. I was proud I wasn't one of those women who needed a relationship to be happy. I had myself and good sex, and I was happy. Now, I feel my face on fire because I suddenly doubt everything. The past three years have been a lie; I've been living a lie and now that I'm privy to that information, I can honestly say I'm ashamed of myself. My thoughts. The fact that meaningless sex and dates to pass the time, dates so I wouldn't be lonely, were excuses upsets me. Because I wasn't happy. Not completely. I know that other women live that way and are happy—more power to them. But as I look at Matt, I'm hit with the feeling that there's more out there than that. I'm not sure I want to risk it and find out what that is just yet. But I'm open to the possibility of it being out there. And me maybe wanting to explore it at some point. The question remains, however: do I tell Matt the truth? Do I lie and pretend to be the perfect virgin girl (which there is nothing wrong with, of course)? I clear my throat and risk looking up at him. "I don't have any current lovers, no," I tell him. I look him dead in the eye, but I can feel my heart beat straight out of my chest. This isn't any of his business. It's not. And yet, somehow, for some reason, I feel like I owe him this explanation. Like I want to tell him I'm single. Like I don't want to lie to him about my past. This is new for me because I never talk about my past. Pasts don't matter, not with the type of relationships I was in and wanted to be in. Now, everything's changed. I can't believe it and it sounds corny but there's something about Matt that's changed the way I look at life, that's changed how I want to do things, and I can't quite put my finger on it nor can I analyze it here and now. The thing about my past is before, I didn't care. My past is my past, there's nothing I can do to change it so there's no point in being ashamed of it, no regrets, and all that. And I still feel that way, to a point. But now, looking at Matt, telling him about my past, I feel a twinge of embarrassment light my skin up a ghastly shade of red and I realize I am ashamed of my past to some degree. I am. "Not married, either," I add, though I don't know why (or maybe I do, but it's too early for me to admit it). "Totally and completely single." "Single?" Matt asks, raising a brow. "It means I don't have ties to anyone," I explain quickly. "Your turn: are you married? Do you have a girlfriend or a lover or a wife somewhere?" His lips turn up and his brown eyes twinkled in amusement. "No," he says. I'm not sure what's so funny, why he's looking at me that way, but he is, and it kind of bugs. Even if he looks cute doing so. "I'm single, as you say." I don't know why, but his admission makes me happy. My whole body warms the way a towel tossed in the drier feels after a hot shower on a cold day. The old me would have flirted with him incessantly. I would have made a suggestion about us fooling around and then brushed that into a relationship that doesn't include strings, dates, or calls. I would have told myself I was happy and cool and modern—the very essence of an independent woman who knew what she wanted, went after it, and didn't care what anyone thought. But something stops me from turning him into another notch, another night, another meaningless encounter that is enjoyable at the time but forgettable overall. Even I know Matt is different. Even I know I want him to be different. I just don't know why. For a moment, the two of us stare at each other. Something is happening here. Something is going on between us. I can't put my finger on it, but I can feel a surge of electricity pass between us and I know, I know, he feels it too. "Right," he says after he clears his throat. He blinks, as if in a daze, and looks around his room. "Well, it seems to me that we need to figure out your current situation. You say you are from the future, and as daft as it makes me, I find I believe you." His eyes narrow slightly but not because he's suspicious of me. If anything, it looks as though he's trying to study me. Then, he shakes his head and his eyes move again. "You can stay here, if you like. I recommend it, actually. People aren't as friendly as I am." He flashes me a quick grin and I can't help but feel myself return it. Matt has this knack for making me smile despite myself. It's so weird, to smile for no reason. It's like my conscious doesn't realize I'm happy but my soul does, so it shows me what I'm feeling with little gestures like this. "What do you need from me?" I ask, and I hope I sound sincere in my question. I don't know why I trust Matt—probably because if he wanted to take and kill me, he already would have done so—but I do. And it's important to me to show him that I appreciate what he's doing. Matt's lips curl into a small grin. "What’re you offering?" he asks, quirking his brow. I burst out laughing; I can't help myself. Matt's too funny, too adorable, and this warmth is spreading over my cheeks and I realize—am I blushing? I never blush! But the way he looks, the way his eyes make me feel when they look at me the way they do, how can I not? Honestly, it's like I have no control over my body anymore and it both thrills and scares me because I've never felt this way about someone before. "We'll figure it out," he assures me. "For now, why don't you change into more comfortable clothing? There is no way you can go gallivanting around in that"—his eyes drop to my chest and while I'm completely covered thanks to the trench coat he's lent me (at least, I think it's a trench coat, judging by the boxy cut and the fact that it reaches past my calves but before my ankles), I still feel as though he has this superpower that allows him to see through any material I use to cover myself up—"because it won't matter what I say about you. A beautiful woman has the power of persuasion, more than she probably realizes. I have some clothes I can lend you. They'll be big on you but they'll cover you up. I'll make an announcement to my crew that they are not to touch you or make you feel uncomfortable in any way. From there, we'll get you fed and figure out your place on our ship." His grin returns. "Welcome, Miss Isla Barnes of the future, to your temporary, swashbuckling home!" I feel my cheeks turn pink and the weirdest thing is that I actually do feel welcomed here. Maybe it won't be so bad after all. I mean, it's only temporary. Chapter 4 The fact that Port Royal is a real place and not some terribly-named Hollywood-created historical plot device surprises me. However, Matt points it out to me from his position at the helm of his ship, and through the early morning fog that seems to have taken the small coastal city hostage, I can make out a huge fort protecting it—Fort Charles, from what Matt tells me. Even more surprising is the history the tiny city seems to be rich with. Matt Scott is a natural Wikipedia, telling me how Port Royal used to be under Spain’s control until the English invaded thirty years ago and took over the island. In fact, Port Royal used to be the capital of Jamaica, up until a devastating earthquake wiped out the majority of the town, including all but one fort—Fort Charles. Now, the city is in rebuilding mode, but I still don’t understand why people would risk their lives living here when there are so many natural disasters that threaten the place: earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes. Yeah, it’s great living by the beach, but not if there’s a chance the ocean is going to suck me down and never let me go. Which brings up another point. “You’re a well-known pirate,” I say to Matt, still standing next to him at the helm of the ship. I’m thankful for the clothes he’s lent me because the early morning mist is freezing. I’m also thankful I decided to wear a bra with my bachelorette dress or else I’m positive my nipples would be pressed against the material of the tunic, like flashlights in the dark. My arms are crossed loosely over my chest, and I’m still wrapped up in the jacket he lent me. He hasn’t asked for it back and I don’t intend to return it yet. It keeps me warm without overheating me and I find I’m particularly drawn to its lingering scent. He looks over at me with his chocolate-brown eyes, and I can see him stare at me as though he doesn’t trust the next words that will come out of my mouth. I get the feeling that he’s trying to read me, trying to figure me out, as though I’m some incomprehensible text that needs thorough analyzing. It makes me uncomfortable because I have no idea what he sees when he looks at me, and that scares me. But what scares me even more is the fact that before, I didn’t care what people thought of me. For some reason, my thoughts are temporarily consumed with what Matt thinks until I call myself a dumbass and force myself to think of something else. “Yes,” he finally agrees, nodding his head once and looking back at the horizon. At Port Royal. His shoulders are square and broad, and his eyes are sharp with determination and focus. This is a much different Matt Scott than the one whose bed I woke up in. His height still baffles me. I have to crane my head back to look at him fully, but the ache is pleasurable considering height has always been a huge turn-on for me. I don't mind it all that much. His eyes are dark, almost black, to the point where I can't tell the difference between his pupils and his irises. They have this glint of ambition in them, and that, too, is attractive to me, so I force myself to look away and continue to study him from the corner of my eye. His nostrils are flared, ready for a battle, and his lips are pressed together, clenching his teeth, popping his jaw. His posture is rigid, tense, and I can feel the determination radiating from him in waves. I force my weight evenly to my feet so I don't get swept away in him. “Aren’t you worried that by coming to Port Royal, you’ll be arrested for piracy and hanged?” I ask. It’s what all those pirate movies have taught me about Port Royal, and I’m worried that I’ll be hanged for even being associated with pirate captain Matt Scott. "Worrying about death is nonsensical," he tells me, his eyes looking at me in his periphery. Other than that, he doesn't move, still rooted to his position at the helm of the ship. "I'm going to die no matter what I do, whether it's in the arms of the woman I love or in battle with a rival crew or at the hangman's noose. It's not going to change how I live my life. My sister is someone I wouldn't hesitate in dying for. Should I get arrested trying to save her or saving her, then I've done my job. I'll die knowing she's safe." His words surprise me—everything from the woman he loves to dying for his sister. Suddenly, those pirate movies disappear from my mind and I blink. When I open my eyes again, I see Matt in a new light and I'm not sure how I feel about it. "So," I say, and my voice is tentative for some reason. All of a sudden, I have all of these questions dancing on the tip of my tongue, ready to be asked about what it means to be a pirate really, and I'm worried that I'll be bothering him with them. Yes, he knows I'm new to this time so this culture is completely different for me, but he may not be amused by my ignorance mixed with my enthusiasm for learning new things. "Woman you love. That means pirates can fall in love?" Now, he does face me, and I can't fault him for the exasperated look on his face. Oddly enough, the look doesn't detract from his beauty. In fact, the way his mouth is shaped emphasizes how sharp his cheekbones are, and I feel my mouth go dry when I notice this. I've never been around someone this beautiful and I have no idea what to do with myself; it's shameful. It's freaking embarrassing and I hate myself for it, but even though I'm aware of it, I can't figure out how to change it. "I'm a living, breathing human being," he points out, making sure to enunciate each word slowly so I won't mishear him. Like I'm some kind of idiot. "Therefore, I have capabilities of possessing feelings for others. Is that so difficult to believe?" He looks genuinely curious now, and I can't help but feel triumphant that he's the one asking me something. “I just didn’t expect,” I begin, but stop. For some reason, I feel my face turning red, and I’m not quite sure why that is. I have nothing to be embarrassed about. “What I mean to say is.” I pause, forcing myself to look him in the eye. “Where I’m from, pirates have a reputation where they’re committed to the sea.” He continues to look perplexed. “Well, yes,” he says with a nod. “That’s true.” “Yes,” I say. “They’re only committed to the sea.” He’s quiet, taking it in. “Ah,” he says, nodding his head once. “Yes, we don’t have the typical relationships one would find in storybooks.” He crosses his arms over his chest then cocks his head to the side, and there’s that look on his face, the one that really sees me, and I get goosebumps under his intensity. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t feel. Quite the contrary. Many times, we care too much and we don’t know how to show it. Loving and leaving is not something we actively pursue, but under the circumstances, it is all we know; it is all we have. Women don’t want to commit to a pirate as much as a pirate wants to commit to a stationary woman who would prefer to settle down and raise a family. However, there are women who are special. The kind worth giving it all up for.” “Let me guess,” I say with a knowing smirk. “They’re the kind of women who would never ask.” “Precisely,” he says, and he’s smiling too, which makes it all the more difficult to breathe. “But not for the reason you’re thinking. Women like that won’t ask because they don’t expect there to be a choice made without a discussion. Because they know how important it is to us—our life at sea—they’ll wait for us to bring it up. And trust me when I say, if she’s that type of girl, we always bring it up. Always. A discussion is had, points and opinions are noted, and a compromise is agreed upon. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it does not, but it’s always discussed. No choice is made without a discussion, without each party being heard.” I swallow. This whole thing doesn’t make sense to me. Matt Scott doesn’t make sense to me, because he’s nothing I could ever expect, and it’s making me feel things I can’t decipher. “And you?” I force myself to say, but my voice cracks. It’s raw and scratchy, like jagged edges of uncut diamonds in my throat. “You know this from personal experience?” He smiles—I’m not sure why—and shakes his head. I watch as his hair dances with each movement of his head, like the feathers on a bird’s wings. “No,” he says, “I cannot say I have personal experience in the matter.” "Ah." I nod my head and hear my heart punch my chest over and over again. I can hear each hit echo in my ears, like it's one of those terrible sound effects from the 1950s superhero television shows that's turned up full blast, and I worry that Matt can hear it. Because if he can, he'll know. He'll know that I actually care whether he has personal experience with it or not, and if he knows I care… I just don't like caring. It complicates things. It's why I maintained the type of meaningless relationships I did back during my time. Keeping them at an arm's length meant I would never get hurt. I know there's more out there, but that more requires a vulnerability I don't think I’m ready to give. Even so, I find myself comforted by the fact that he hasn't had personal experience with intimate relationships because I haven't had personal experience with intimate relationships, either. I don't know why it means so much to me—because I shouldn't care and a part of me worries that this newfound caring is going to bite me in the ass later down the road—but it does. "Have you?" he asks, and suddenly the spotlight is thrust onto me, and I'm blinded by the light, paralyzed by the scrutiny. I swallow to moisten my throat so my voice doesn't come out like a teenage boy's, and glance out at the water. The ocean gives me something to look at, something to focus on, and the waves gently lapping into the side of the ship has a soothing effect on me in a way I didn't expect. I feel centered, calm, like everything is going to be okay. To trust Matt with my past and hope he doesn't judge me for it. "No," I say, shaking my head. A couple of stray locks of hair follow my head as it moves back and forth. Matt pauses and tilts his head. He does this a lot, I notice, especially when he picks up new information that possibly goes against the grain, against his expectations. "Can I be frank with you, Isla?" he asks, catching me off guard with the question. I nod because I don't trust my voice to speak right now, especially considering how he speaks my name. It's said like a promise, dark and husky, filled with unspoken pleasures too inappropriate to put into words. A shudder of delight goes through me, and I realize that I would let him say or do whatever he wanted if only he said my name more often. "You are unlike any other girl I have ever met before," he says, and I can't be sure, but I swear there's an admiring glint in his brown eyes. "And that's saying something." "Perhaps that's because I'm a woman and not a girl," I point out again, proud that my wits haven't left me entirely. "Perhaps," he allows, keeping his eyes focused on me. My breath catches in my throat and it's hard for me to breathe—again—which drives me crazy because I hate being so out of control. "We need to discuss what's going to happen," he says suddenly, and I blink, broken out of my trance and brought back to present day, present time. "We briefly touched upon it a few hours ago when I gave you a change of clothes to wear, but considering you're from the future"—I appreciate the fact that he doesn't say this with any condescension. He says it like it’s a fact, like he believes me—"it seems you need a more permanent place to rest your head, a residence of sorts." He stops, waits. I realize that though he hasn't asked me a question, he's still waiting for an answer, so I nod. "Yeah," I tell him. "Truth be told, I have no idea how I got here or how to get back." "Do you want to go back?" The question surprises me because I think it's obvious. "Of course," I say. "Of course I do. That's my home. I have no idea where I am here. I don't know anyone. It's much more dangerous. I have few to no civil rights here. I have no money. No home. No friends or family. No clothes. No way to support myself. “I'm with a wanted pirate, which means if you get caught, your captors might think I'm with you, that I'm a pirate too, and hang me. They're probably not going to believe I'm from the future, and quite honestly, I can't say I blame them. I have no idea why you believe me. I don't know what's healthy to drink, what's edible. I don’t know if I ever want to get married and if I don't get married, I can't have sex. But you guys don't have condoms so even having sex is a scary thing because, you know, STDs. “And women are property here, you can beat up women here. I know movies have romanticized pirates and the seventeen hundreds, but I've never been the type of girl who actually wants to travel through time." I stop to catch my breath and chance a glance at Matt. His gaze is like fire and I can feel my cheeks heat up because of it. "So no, I don't want to stay in this time. I want to go home." Matt continues to stare at me, taking me in, taking my words in. When I feel like I'm about to explode in silence, he nods his head. "There's a lot to sort through with what you said," he says. "But I get, from the gist of it, you want to go home for all of the reasons you listed, correct?" I nod, breathing deeply and slowly, trying to regulate my heart. He presses his lips together and I can tell he's thinking of what to say next. I have no idea how I'm able to read him already, but then again, I have no idea how he's able to read me. We've barely known each other for a few hours at best and already feel as though I know him, I'm comfortable with him. I didn't even feel that way about some of my girlfriends when I first met them so it boggles my mind that I feel this way about some smelly pirate. "May I counter your points with my experience?" he asks, and I appreciate the patience—however strained—I can detect in his tone. When I nod, he clears his throat and places his hands behind his back. Before I know it, he begins pacing up and down the ship and starts speaking like a college professor during a lecture. "First, I'm not sure how dangerous it is where you're from. Here, as long as you keep your wits about you and you have a survivalist mentality, you'll be fine. I'll teach you all you need to know about life aboard a ship—a pirate ship. I'll train you how to keep inventory, how to cook and clean, what to eat and drink and what to avoid, what to wear and when. I'll teach you the pirate code and who it applies to and why. I'll teach you tricks on deceit, on manipulation, on getting what you want, and on avoiding detection. If you give me your attention and you soak in my words, I will teach you everything you need to know about what it's like to live here. You need not worry about that. Trust me. "As a member of this crew, you are afforded the same rights as anyone else regardless of your sex, regardless where you're from. You are not property. You have choices here, on my ship. Should you want to marry and have children, that is completely up to you. I can't promise you how your husband will treat you—if he'll exercise rights over you—but I guarantee you that will not happen while you are under my care. "Sex is fun with the right person, dangerous with the wrong one. I'm sure that's the same where you're from as well. I'm not sure what a condom is and what STDs are, but they sound intimidating and I'm not sure I'd like them anyway." His eyes burn through mine and he continues to hold my attention simply with the intensity of his gaze. No wonder he's a pirate captain. "I'm not going to lie to you, Isla. Life on board a pirate ship isn't easy. But if you trust me, I promise you, it's not as bad as you think. I'll be with you each step of the way." He stops, swallows. "So. What say you?" I pause, letting his words sink in. I have no idea what I'm doing and I have no idea what I want except my safety and to go home. But something inside is pulling me in Matt's direction and it's not something I can so easily fight. And then, I say something, something that surprises even me. "I trust you," I say, and I mean it. Chapter 5 The Brawling Widows is a bar—tavern is what they call it here—that reminds me of every Irish pub I’ve ever been to. It has plenty of seating, the entire place is filled with lights and noises, a couple of pirates are fighting off in the corner and no one is throwing them out, and—this is something I’ve never seen before—prostitutes are sitting in laps and rubbing their breasts—enhanced by extremely tightened corsets—into said men’s faces. There are a few waitresses around, but they’re called wenches here, which doesn’t sound very complimentary, but I bite my tongue and refrain from speaking on it because the place is so loud no one can hear me anyway. Matt leads us to a back corner of the bar, his footing sure, as though he’s been here before and has a usual spot he likes to sit. The crew, once inside, disperses based on what they want, whether it’s women, fighting, booze, or some mixture of their options. I stay with Matt because I don’t want anything here; I don’t even want the alcohol because I don’t trust it, and from what I remember in eighth grade history, their alcohol is way stronger than it is back at home. Like, ridiculously strong. Like, black-out-can’t-remember-my-own-name kind of strong. I like my alcohol, but only when it’s so cleverly disguised by a fruity concoction that I can’t even tell it’s there. There is no way I’m going to indulge here and now with that type of alcohol. Especially with the number of creeps in this place. Seriously. I’m dressed like any female pirate would be—tunic, pantaloons, boots, big hat that makes me look both fashionable and mysterious—but the men still leer like I’m prancing around in the dress I had on when I first got here. A shiver runs down my spine, and I pretend not to notice the unwanted attention. If they smell a whiff of fear, they’ll pounce, and while I know Matt likes looking at me, I’m not sure what kind of code is upheld among the men here. I don’t want to risk Matt fighting for me on my account or giving me up to any man who claims me or is willing to pay for me. I wish I had paid more attention in Mr. Jarrett’s World History class, but I can’t help it if he was distracting. Matt stops at a corner table and everyone—the four remaining crew members, Matt, and myself—takes a seat. There are a couple of wooden chairs left over, but judging by the prostitutes who have narrowed in on us—and by us, I mean Matt and a couple of the better-looking men—I doubt the seats will be empty for long. My hypothesis is correct, and when they saunter over, I notice Matt and the men do nothing to push them away. The women—prostitutes—occupy laps and legs, flip their hair and flash what may be charming smiles, though their teeth don’t gleam, aren’t straight, and a couple are missing. Hair is curled and pinned, dresses are cut low, cleavage is pressed high—so high their nipples creep up over the cut of the dress on a couple of them—not that they care. I pretend like this is a totally normal occurrence, like I’m not bothered by this whatsoever, but, in truth, I am. I thought I was a young woman with an open mind who didn’t really care about much, especially when it came to guys and other girls and relationships. I thought the messy stuff didn’t bug me, because I was at the point where I didn’t care about messy stuff. I realize, however, I’m wrong. One hundred percent wrong. This does bother me, and, quite frankly, I’m disappointed that this loose behavior seems to work on Matt. Suddenly, I’m hit with an epiphany, so hard and fast it reminds me of being taken down by a wave in the ocean. Was this how I used to be with guys? Obviously, my family invested in good dental care and I never wore anything that low cut. But I would sit in laps and I would smile and laugh at jokes that weren’t funny and ignore bad body odor and dumb my IQ down to get attention and approval. It’s a game I’m good at, and I used to be proud of that fact. Now, I’m ashamed. I don’t want to be that girl anymore. I don’t want to be part of meaningless sex and friends with benefits but without the friendship. I don’t want to get a text in the middle of the night or groped at a party and laugh it off like a joke. I want more than that. I can’t fault the girls for seeing a catch and going after it. I can’t fault them for wearing revealing clothes—why be ashamed of something you’re born with? Why hide it, like it’s your fault men sexualize your ass or breasts or your ankles?—and using their assets to attract attention. They know how to play the game in order to get what they want. It’s strategy, and it used to be the first play in my book. But now, I’m throwing everything out the window. I have no idea what I’ll replace it with, but I know I will. Despite this understanding, however, I can’t say I’m not bugged when the whore—and I use that term because that’s her job, not in a derogatory way—starts playing with Matt’s hair. Matt leans back in his chair and watches her do it, and the way he looks at her makes my insides retch. I can only imagine what my face looks like; I know it’s not pretty, but I continue to watch the scene unfold blatantly with a jealous frown on my face. I can admit it. I’m jealous. It’s not healthy, I know, but it’s what I’m feeling right now, and I hate it. One of the crew—Sova—nudges me with his big arm—the guy is the size of a baby whale and I guarantee he would take that description as a compliment—into my small one and tilts his head down so he can whisper something into my ear. He’s one of the few men without a whore on his lap, even though he’s one of the few pirates who actually saves his treasure and has a nice fortune stowed away somewhere on the island only he knows about. Well, him and Sarah. Sova tells me a lot about the crew as a way to educate me on who’s who, so I don’t come across like a complete idiot. “Why are you frowning?” he asks. I know he tries to whisper, but it comes out rougher than a whisper calls for. Luckily—or unluckily, depending on how you look at it—no one pays us any mind because they are otherwise distracted. “I’m frowning,” I reply, deciding to tell him, because what have I got to lose? And if Sova can keep a secret about his treasure, then I’m positive he’ll keep my secret, if he even remembers it by morning. “Because whores are sitting on everyone.” “Not sitting on me,” Sova points out. His hand cups his mug of ale, and he makes the mug look miniature in his hand. “Not sitting on you.” “Well, yes,” I start to say, but he interrupts me. “You want them to sit on you?” he asks, furrowing one brow and quirking the other. I giggle despite myself. It comes out the same way someone unexpected shows up; it’s a surprise and I have to let them in because they know I’m home. “No,” I say, shaking my head to emphasize my point. “Of course not.” Sova shrugs. "I don't want them sitting on me, either," he says. "Don't know where they've been." I giggle some more and decide I like Sova. If I have to deal with whores canoeing over the better part of the crew, at least I'm not alone. A few hours later, I decide I've had my fill for the night. It doesn't appear as though we're going to discuss more details of Sarah's rescue, not with the amount of drinks ordered and whores that surround the table like flies on shit. Even though I'm curious to see what alcohol from the 1700s tastes like and what sort of effect it has on me, I refrain from trying even the tiniest of sips. I want to stay sober and clear-headed; the men seem focused on their own brand of fun, so I don't expect them to keep an eye out for me. Not even Matt. Not even Sova. Because I can't throw a punch to save my life, I decide it's my responsibility to look after myself. So, I nibble at the food and I drink water and I keep my body tense just in case. I pointedly ignore Matt and the women he's adorning with his attention, and instead, I chat with Sova. When I start to get tired, I decide to head up to my room to sleep. I know I need to be sharp if tomorrow's rescue is to go well, and as such, recharging my batteries is exactly what I need. I quietly excuse myself and bid goodnight to Sova. I glance over at Matt, but he seems terribly occupied by what's in front of him, so I don't say anything to him at all. Which, to be honest, feels weird. I shake my head, internally lecturing myself for the feelings that have cropped up since meeting Matt and how inconvenient they are. When I reach the top of the stairs, I reach into my pocket and pull out the lone key Matt gave me at check-in, and I walk down the long hallway, looking at room numbers and trying to remember which one is mine for tonight. Moaning and grunting and squeaky beds can be heard clearly from my position outside, but no one seems to care how loud their sex is. When I finally get to room 113, I slide the key in the lock and let myself in. Without looking, I reach behind me to close the door when I'm suddenly thrust forward, my head knocking into the wall in front of me. I see stars—big, bright, shiny stars, most gold, some magenta—and my head bursts into a sharp, searing pain. I hear words mumbled by an inarticulate, unfamiliar voice and some pieces merge together; I think some man has followed me upstairs. I smell a strong scent of alcohol from him, so strong I nearly gag, but I can't do much if anything, not after the head injury, and I hope I haven't concussed unknowingly. You need to do something, a voice reminds myself. You'll be done for if you just stand there looking at the stars. It's then that I feel him grabbing at my arm, so I yank it away and try and dash farther in the room. "No, you don't," he says, and it sounds strained, as though speaking three words consecutively requires a lot of effort, and manages to grab me in both of his hands. The force propels us both forward and I'm worried he's going to crush me when a blood-curdling scream rips through my throat. I'm not surprised when he punches me in the back of the head and I see even more stars—these ones white and sea green. I know I need to struggle. I know I need to move. But above all else, my priority is keeping myself conscious just in case I have concussed. I refuse to die with this man—this stranger I haven't even put a face to—on top of me. I'm certain he's ugly and I won't let myself die with an ugly asshole on top of me, trying to rape my corpse. So, I blink hard, opening my eyes wide, trying to focus, trying to get my head on straight. I can't let that happen. I refuse to let that happen. I start to move. Right now, it's just me shifting from side to side. He laughs because it's pathetic. I know it's pathetic, but it's something, I'm doing something, and that's important to me. It also helps my senses get sharp, get focused. I blink again, and now I can make the guy out. Clearly he's big, with beady eyes and crooked teeth. He could have been gentle-looking, like a gentle giant, but he's not. His vicious and cruel. He doesn't care how much smaller I am, doesn't care that he has his full weight on me and how I'm being crushed underneath him. He doesn't care that I'm some woman who doesn't want this. It doesn't matter what I'm wearing and who I'm hanging out with, I don't want this, and he knows that. However, I look up at him and I tell him, "No." I'm not sure how loud my voice is or if he can even hear me, but it doesn't matter because just vocalizing my desire, my choice, is liberating, so I say it again, this time louder. He narrows his eyes at me but doesn't seem too concerned and his big clumsy hands are starting to try and sort out the intricacies of the tunic I'm wearing. I'm not sure why he just doesn't rip it off me because I'm sure he's strong enough to do so, but I take advantage of the fact that he doesn't and let out another blood-curdling scream. This grabs his attention and I can barely lift my lips up into a smirk before he punches me in the face. I see stars once again, but I don't care because I'm moving and I'm screaming and I'm doing something. I'm doing something. I'm fighting for myself and my life and my body and it feels good to have something to fight for. At some point, I start laughing. He stops what he's doing—the tunic is open now, but I have a makeshift bra on so he's clawing at that—and looks at me like I've lost my mind. And I think I have, because how can any person—any woman—be sane in this type of circumstance? He looks unsure, like he's deciding if he should hit me again or keep trying to take off my bra, but at that point, the door to my room is kicked open—or something, I'm not sure how it's opened, but someone bursts through it—and a gunshot goes off. Then, the body of my would-be rapist falls to the side and air suddenly invades my lungs and I can breathe again. I cough because breathing isn't easy, but it's there, and by the time I'm done, I see Matt standing over me with cold eyes, pooling with concern. Matt saved me. Matt saved me. I'm not quite sure how this makes me feel. Grateful. Appreciative. Inside I'm crying and thanking God. Outside, my hands shake, even as Matt helps me up. He's talking to me, but I can't make out what I'm seeing. My eyes are focused on the man's body and I'm hit with the realization that he's not moving. "He's dead," I say. My voice comes out normal but detached. It sounds like me, but it doesn't. "Yes," Matt replies with a nod. Then he's standing in front of me, blocking my view so I can only see him. Just Matt and nothing else. I nod because I'm not sure what else I'm expected to do. Matt takes my hand and I flinch. He immediately releases me and looks at me with obvious concern. "I'm sorry"—I start to say, but he places his finger over my lips and then drops his hands to my shoulders. "I'm sorry," he says. "I should never have let you go upstairs alone, knowing the risk that you'd be followed. You're young, you're beautiful—" Now it's my turn to cut him off. "It doesn't matter how young and how beautiful I am," I say. "It doesn't matter if I were one of the working girls here who get paid to have sex. It's not my responsibility to prevent rape from happening." I clench my jaw and realize he probably has no idea what I'm talking about. He doesn't understand, he's just trying to protect me and he's upset that this happened to me. I am, too. "I'm sorry." "Stop apologizing," he tells me. There's an edge to his tone but I know it doesn't have to do with me. It's his issue. "You did nothing wrong. I should have escorted you. Maybe such a thing isn't necessary where you're from, but I know better. It's different here. I promised you protection if you trusted me and at the first opportunity, I let you down. I promise you that will never happen again. Do you believe me?" I give Matt a look. I know what he's saying, and I appreciate his sincerity. Really, I do. But all I want is to crawl into bed and sleep and forget this whole thing ever happened. I don't want him to make promises. I want him to stay with me and wrap his arms around me and tell me it will be okay. "I'm sorry," Matt says after looking at me. "I'm making this about my feelings and not yours. What can I do for you? How can I make you feel better?" "Sleep," I tell him honestly. I can feel my eyes dropping as I say the word. "I just want to sleep." He nods. "Right," he says. "Come with me. You can have my bed." "But the girls—" He holds up his hand. "My pleasure is not as important as your safety," he tells me and the intensity is too much that my knees go weak and if he hadn’t wrapped his arm around me as quickly as he did and kept me from falling, I would have fallen flat on my face. "Come now," he says into my hair. "Let's get to bed." Chapter 6 On the one hand, I can appreciate the fact that Matt sprang for a room just for me. I get my own privacy. I don’t have to worry about the lecherous looks I sometimes get from particular members of his crew when they think I’m not looking, and no one can accidentally or purposefully touch me in inappropriate places while I sleep. Not that I’ve had any experience with that just yet. As weird as it is to say, I’m lucky Matt insisted I share a room—and a bed—with him while aboard his ship. For some reason, I trust him, and I feel safe with him. The fact that he also let his crew know I am off-limits also helped ease my worry—but only a bit. Men are men, and especially if they’re sex-starved men out at sea for a long duration of time, not even loyalty to their captain will inhibit their desires of the flesh. Somehow, though, Matt has kept me safe, and for that, I truly am grateful. After what happened the night before, I’m wary of being by myself. However, I don’t want to let Matt know that, so when he offers to stay with me, I shoo him away with a grateful smile. I don’t sleep well, and when I cautiously open the door the next morning, the look on Matt’s face shows that he knows I didn’t sleep well. “If you wanted my company,” he says with arrogance he has even early in the morning, “all you had to do was ask.” “And make you give up a night of well-earned debauchery?” I tease, though my heart isn’t in it because today is an important day and I’m tired. “I think not.” His lips curl up at my terrible impression of his accent, and I appreciate the fact that he’s humoring me. “Anyway, do you have the dress?” “Malachite is on his way to retrieve it from my sister’s home,” Matt says, and walks in without any indication he heard me invite him in. “As I said before, the two of you are roughly the same size everywhere except the bust, so I hope everything fits correctly.” “And you know how to dress me in it?” I say, furrowing my brow. I press my lips together, trying to hide my doubt, but one thing that stuck with me while watching any and all historical pieces is how complicated women’s fashion is. To think that a pirate such as Matt is skilled in such things would be surprising to say the least. He grins as though he knows what I’m thinking, and with the way he’s been studying me since I got here, maybe he’s finally figured me out. “I’m familiar in the art of undressing,” he explains. “Certainly dressing is simply the reverse of undressing. It shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out.” His words do nothing to ease my doubts. “How do you like it here?” he asks, and before I realize what’s happening, his fingers are sweeping a stray strand of hair from my face, curling it behind my ear. I swallow, needing to moisten my mouth, my throat. I have to clear my throat to get a handle on my voice, which is kind of embarrassing. “I, uh…” Honestly? I have no idea how to respond. He gives me a small smile. It’s not boyish or charming or mischievous. It’s not calculating or arrogant or smug. “I suppose that’s not an easy question, after everything you’ve been through,” he says, and I give him a weak grin in return. He’s right. His fingers move from behind my ear to my chin, and he uses his fingertips to tilt my face up. There he goes again, his eyes fixed on me, penetrating and paralyzing. I don’t think in my entire time of existing, I’ve ever been seen the way Matt sees me. The thought scares the shit out of me—it has ever since I met him—and I don’t know what to do with myself about it. “You’re either incredibly brave or incredibly stubborn,” he continues, and his eyes drop from mine to my nose, to my mouth, my lips, and he stops and I can see him thinking, I can see his brown irises like they’re words in a book, and I know he wants to kiss me, and I want him to kiss me—really kiss me—because I know, I just know, it will mean more than any other previous kiss did. “What I’ve found is a select group of people are both.” He makes no move to kiss me, but he makes no move to release me, either. I don’t know which option I prefer, and it’s getting hard to hear my own thoughts over how loud my heartbeat is, ringing in my ear like a bell dismissing children from school. Waking me up from my daze. “People like you?” I ask, and my voice comes out low and scratchy. I don’t even know if he can hear me, and if he can, if he’s able to decipher the mumble my words have been wrapped up in. This man is making a fool of me, and I don’t know if I hate it or not. But I hate that. The confusion. The confliction. “People like us,” he corrects, and then he’s gone, like a ghost, like a dream, where I have to blink and try to remember if what transpired between us was real or a figment of my imagination. “I like it here,” I tell him. I’m talking to his back—he’s looking out the small window in my room now, and I can make out his strong back, though the word strong is an understatement because it’s big and beautiful, and I can see his muscles twitch even through the thin material of his tunic—and I don’t know why I’m talking at all, but I need to fill the void his sudden distance and the silence has put in my room. “I’m not used to it, exactly, but I don’t mind it as much as I thought it would.” He cranes his neck so he can look at me, and I’m breathless. God, why am I always breathless when he looks at me? I shake it off and force myself to continue, because if I don’t, we’re going to sit in silence and I’m not sure if it will be awkward or not. “What’s been the biggest obstacle here you had to get used to?” he asks, and the crazy thing about his voice is that it sounds genuine, like he wants to know. “Technology,” I say without thinking. I have to explain, I know I do, but it’s so hard to say what a car is to someone who may not be able to grasp the concept of it. “Vehicles—like carriages, but that run on gas—and computers and phones and…” I let my voice trail off. “Transportation. Everything is motorized. Airplanes—ships, but instead of sailing in the sea, they fly in the air. Communicating with a person across the world with a small, metal box.” I run my fingers through my hair because I know what I’m saying must sound like gibberish. Lulu was always better with words. She could explain what a color is to a child. I chance a glance at Matt, but instead of wrinkling his nose in confusion, his eyes pin me to my spot, eager to hear more. I’m not sure if he actually understands what I’m saying, but the fact that he’s so insistent on educating himself about the future and keeping an open mind about it all, makes me feel good. Special. It’s a feeling I’ve never felt before. Like what I say is so riveting and so important that he can’t help but stop and listen. Like what I say matters. I think it’s the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for me. Which isn’t saying a lot. Well, actually, no. It is. With his encouragement, I tell him about my family and my friends. I tell him about LA and how completely different it is from ports in the Caribbean. I tell him about my life, my education, my job. It’s weird how much I talk—how much he lets me talk—and he doesn’t interrupt, not even to ask questions, not even for clarification. I’m not sure how long I ramble for, but I don’t even feel embarrassed about it, which is even more shocking to me. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut; my opinion isn’t typically valued by members of the opposite sex, so I refuse to waste my breath to tell them in the first place. They aren’t worth my breath. But also—and it’s not something I’m proud of—keeping my mouth shut tends to make guys like me more. I’m pretty and quiet, which equals perfection. But being with Matt, talking to him freely, with no filter, makes me realize how wrong I’ve had it. How wrong the guys I’ve been with are. Malachite drops off the dress and after he leaves, Matt closes the door. He holds the dress carefully, like he’s afraid the rich material will turn to ash in his hands and blow away with the wind. From there, he walks toward me and my breath disappears the way a shadow does in the sunlight. I’m not sure what he's doing, but it silences me without any other effort. I stand perfectly still and wait. His hands come to rest on my hips and pushes them, turning me around so my back faces him once again. He's close to me, so close I can feel his hot breath invade the exposed skin on the back of my neck. The hairs there stand straight up, like they're preparing for battle. A battle they're going to lose, because Matt has this control over me, this undeniable way with my senses, and trying to fight against it would be fighting a losing battle. I can feel his fingers at the back of the corset, lacing it up tight and tighter. I hope my body looks somewhat normal in the corset as he squeezes the breath out of me, because as great as my boobs look, corsets tend to distort a woman's body so it resembles a piece of modern art rather than a seductive masterpiece. More than that, even though I'm standing in a corset and a shift that reaches my ankles, I've never felt more exposed than I do right now, under his penetrating stare, under his dancing fingers. "How does that feel?" His voice is suddenly at my ear, tickling me in a way I’ve never been tickled before. I can't help but react; my shoulders roll forward and my knees all but give out. I let out what I hope is a muffled grunt but almost comes out like a whimper. His voice—that voice that does things to my body that I've never experienced and can't explain—causes my pelvis to throb painfully and my eyes to roll to the back of my head. I can totally picture him saying those words in a completely different context, and I wish, oh I wish… I force myself to nod or I'd stay there like a fish out of water, gap-mouthed and unable to breathe. "That doesn't answer my question," he says, and he steps away from me. Suddenly, I can breathe again, like finally breaking the surface of water after being held underneath it for so long. But it leaves me cold and shaky. He steps forward and I know he knows what affect he's having on me. He almost grins, up until the part where he sees the nasty-colored bruise littering my forehead. I'm sure my neck doesn't look any better, and I get my confirmation when his eyes continue to descend down my throat. "I'm fine," I tell him, though I'm not sure why I feel compelled to reassure him. Surely he knows what happened to me last night isn't his fault—hell, he saved me from a worse fate—and yet when he looks at me, takes in the marks on my skin, I can see the sorrow and the anger so clearly in his brown orbs. I want to hug him but don't. Instead, I offer him a small smile. "Really. I'm fine." "I—" "We don't have to talk about it," I tell him. "If you don't want to talk about it," Matt says, "we don't have to talk about it. I’m concerned about you, Isla. You don't have to pretend you're fine when you're not. You can confide in me and I will be there for you. I’m here for you now." If you constantly tell yourself you're fine or you don't care, you won't care when you should, a voice that sounds suspiciously like Becky's says. And once you don't care, it's a totally different ballgame. You're a different person and you have to fight tooth and nail to get back to you. Be honest with yourself. Choose to trust someone. Choose to trust Matt. He did save you, after all. I clench my teeth and force myself to look at Matt. His eyes are so beautiful that I'm almost sick of looking at them. I used to not be attracted to brown eyes. Everyone and their mother has brown eyes. It's common, and to me, common is boring. But Matt changed all that. Matt's eyes showed me that every pair of brown eyes have layers of depth to them if you choose to look for it. Each pair is unique, like fingerprints. And Matt's eyes make me feel things I've never felt before and I'm afraid I'll never feel again. If I really and truly want to change, if I want things to be different, if I want to be different, I can't sit around and wait for it. I have to change. Me. I have to put those desires into actions. It's going to be hard, and I know I'm going to make mistakes along the way, but I'm determined to get there. So I take a breath and maintain steady eye contact and I decide to trust him. "No," I tell him. My voice comes out small, unlike me. I clear my throat and say it again, this time with force. "No, I'm not okay." Matt says nothing but he nods a couple of times, and I can tell he's sincere in his concern from me. He's sincere in the guilt he clearly feels. I want to reassure him, I do, but I don't have the strength. Not yet, anyway. And when he wraps his arms around me and pulls me to his chest, the tears come. I know from personal experience that I'm not a pretty crier. My face turns red and snot runs down my nose and my eyes get puffy, and I do this weird breathing thing where I gasp and I snort and it's disgusting. So, I try to keep myself under control. I don't want my snot and my tears and my drool on Matt's tunic, but I start to feel my shoulders shudder and I just lose it. I can't help it. There's just something about Matt that makes me lose control. And I have no idea if that's a good thing or a bad thing. Matt doesn't shush me. He doesn't tell me everything is going to be okay. Instead, he cups the back of my head with his hand and starts playing with my hair. He keeps his other hand pressed flat on the small of my back, promising, in his own way, he won't let me go. I know he's feeling guilt as well, even though he shouldn't, even though I've told him I'm fine. But Matt's smarter than the average pirate. He can smell a lie from a mile away and he has this uncanny ability to read me, my body language, and my tone. I've never been this honest with anyone before and this vulnerability makes me feel both uninhibited and fragile, like a petite glass figurine in a child's clumsy hands. One of the reasons I don't commit to men is because I don't know who I am in relationships, and I'm so afraid of losing myself in one and waking up one day as a completely different person. I also have no patience—I'm reactive and confrontational and I'm afraid that if anyone were to find that out about me, they'd leave me without looking back. Those are masculine qualities no man I know wants to deal with, which means I'm a woman they don't want to deal with. I like who I am, and I don't want to lose myself to a man and a relationship. What if I become so different, I can't even recognize myself? What if I'm the type of girl not worth putting up with my flaws—and trust me, I have my moments. Am I destined to be alone all my life? Or is it something I have to consciously choose to change?