There was a peculiar expression on his face, as if he had seen a flash of verdant green run up the garrison wall and then shatter into the sky. His first thought as he turned his head to look over his shoulder was that perhaps a mirror caught the sun in front of him and some fool had set off a small flash of gunpowder. There were plenty of zealous if inexperienced new recruits running about. One of them could easily bring the entire garrison down. It was all very sloppy in Cortez’s eyes. Too many Noblemen and not enough soldiers in charge with real experience. And he would never align himself to that.
“Cortez!” Capitán DeSoto shoved the broom handle in his face. “Sweep the stairs.”
Cortez’s expression said what his mouth would not.
The Capitan might as well have asked him to shovel horse manure or count rocks. Which he had been ordered to do on one occasion after a small infraction the first month he was enlisted. Cortez counted to slightly over five thousand before DeSoto was merciful enough to end the punishment. He found the counting pacified his natural tendencies for swiftly lashing out, and from that day chose counting his actions or his steps to ease unavoidable and otherwise intolerable tasks.
“Do as you are ordered and sweep the stairs.” The Capitán kicked at the dirt with his heel. “And- you are not to leave this garrison today. Stay out of sight.”
“Si Capitán. What of my previous orders- if I am confined to the garrison?”
“Those orders no longer stand. Today.” DeSoto looked apprehensively at Cortez, wanting to tell him Ambassador Trenton called for his arrest and threatened international diplomacy if swift action was not taken. What was worse is that he knew Cortez knew, yet he would never formally breathe the accusation. Therefore there was only one course of action: Keep the soldier out of sight, and he might be able to protect him for longer.
Cortez grabbed the broom in one hand and gave the appropriate salute with the other. Felipe had been right. Trenton was set on having him shot, without fair trial and without explanation. It had not been in Cortez’s mind he had done anything improper. The opposite! Do the right thing. Keep yourself out of trouble by telling the truth.
Maybe he had not been the best observer in this affair. He admitted it was a mistake to follow those men down the corridor, to let himself be taken in by the company of Salazar at the Inn. Certainly flattered his ego even if he disagreed with the man’s methods.
He spent the entire morning sweeping. Exactly as ordered. Capitán DeSoto said nothing about how quickly he would need to go about it. It was a leisurely walk, one suited to thinking. A few steps forward, around several men walking the path, his hands mechanically shifting back and forth then several steps forward again. Had Marcos been given the task every step in the armory would have been shining by now.
Fifteen. He noted fifteen buttons on Trenton’s coat in the cemetery and one blinding white ribbon around his arm in the Bourbon fashion of mourning.
She hadn’t worn a ribbon. Had she? No. He shook his head. She had worn impressively bright red stockings.
He nimbly glided the broom through the crevices between the stone walkway. It reminded him of the way her hair felt under his fingertips last night.
And that pistol she kept! She had a rare fire in her actions.
There were words - not his own, he conceded he was no poet - but words that came from the heart and given by muses to other men and he mindlessly began humming lyrics low and soft behind his lips.
‘De qué le sirve tu incendio el llanto que solicitas,
¿si el agua en llama se enciende en cenizas?
Pero sea fuego el llanto contra el Vesubio que abrigas,
y que un fuego con otro medesina.’
“Here! You.” The reins were thrown at his face.
What was it about people throwing things at him today?
“Look at the rabble they are bringing to the Armada,” the soldier mockingly frowned. He could not be more than a Corporal and certainly not in a position to order Cortez.
His companion nodded and laughed in agreement.
“Do not stand there. My horse needs water. Make sure this noble beast has a good rest. Now go on,” he smoothed down the mane of the dark Andalusian. “...Boy.”
Cortez straightened. “ Señor, I am not -,”
“Not what?” he spun around and pulled a shining blade from his side.
“Come on,” the other soldier interjected. “You have time for play later.”
The man lunged twice in succession at Cortez. If he meant to be playful, the intent was lost. Cortez had already formed in his mind the exact moves he would use to take the man down. The only thing stopping him was the remembrance of a promise he gave and challenging a marine, even with such a blatant insult would likely only result in him sweeping. Again. Or worse. DeSoto was clever with his punishments.
Cortez took the reins of the horse and walked away. He had plans. “Yes. Rest. And tonight, you and I shall be partners?” The horse bowed his head in response.
Armando Salazar waited in the Ambassador’s private box on the second story of the theater. The building was small if one compared it to the constructions still continuing in Madrid and Seville. He had arrived early and the vantage allowed him a perfect view of everyone arriving in the audience below. And he had his intentions set on one.
Being in the company of Lord Trenton and his daughter under the gaze of so many might give the city more gossip. With the death of Peter still unresolved no one dared speak out, less they found themselves at the steps of Judgement at the hands of a criminal entity capable of slipping through the Alcalde’s markers. If someone was brave enough to murder the Ambadador’s son in broad daylight, how safe were the rest of the citizens of Cadiz? Salazar’s eyes ran over the crowd below.
Don Pedro sat in the second row oblivious to the eyes scrutinizing him from the balcony.
The man was purposely conspicuous. He was there to enjoy himself. His broad shoulders, the high dark wig, the burnt orange velvet coat that was lined in enough silver threads to pay the entire Armada’s salary for a year made him a King in the eyes of some of the Nobles around him. His ambiance extended like an unrefuted torch against the waves of silver light and pale silks surrounding him.
The first person to greet Salazar was the befuddled Doctor who acknowledged the tall figure with a short wave of his hand and an urgency to sit down on the first chair he could find. He was quickly followed by the exuberant Lord Trenton, all smiles and courtesy, with no trace in his voice that tragedy had only the previous week befallen him. They each took their appointed seat. Evalianna stood quietly and waited to be addressed. It was a formal custom and she had been trained so well it was habit. She ran her fingers over the gifted brooch pinned neatly on the right front corner of her dress bodice.
Salazar noticed immediately and drew back.
“I thought - you might like if I wore your gift tonight,” Her eyes resolutely met his. This was the moment. Cortez might be correct about Don Pedro, but she was going to give Salazar one last chance and prove Cortez wrong in his assessment of Salazar’s motives and with a single gesture claim victory against his harsh rebuke. Her heart was beating violently as she waited for his words.
“Lovely,” he said and waved his hand. Until he realized the gift of her joyful hope was the piece he had given in secret and one that would be recognized by any number of men in the theater below. Men such as Don Pedro. He might have panicked had he not already thought of words to encourage its removal. “Yet, it does not suit you here in this luxurious place. It is too plain and humble for such a,” he paused for a long while and Evalianna held her breath. “Lovely face.”
But damned if Cortez was not correct. Salazar could not find the most simple words to compliment her. She bit her lip and tore the pin off, daring herself to throw it over the balcony rail to the crowd below. What a spectacle that would have been, hurling a piece of jewelry off the balcony. She doubted if one more scandal to the family would make a difference. Everyone below her knew the circumstances of her brother’s death. She imagined the whispers behind painted silk fans were directed at her father - and more so herself. Sitting there with Armando Salazar as if he was courting her. No, Cortez had been right, and Evalianna found her heart fully detached from the handsome man sitting next to her. She quietly dropped the pin to the floor and kicked it under her seat.
Don Pedro was proving himself a cultured and accomplished Spaniard. He had a unique display to perform when visiting any theater. Before the players would begin to assemble, he would rush on stage and recite several baudy lines he had recently heard or read from a questionable source. Or grab the nearest stringed instrument and pretend to play. In truth he could play the viola impeccably and would do so for hours to the grievance of the actors if the audience showed enough delight.
Tonight he ran to the stage, made a short soliloquy and descended the stairs forming an impromptu parade back to his seat while bowing to the pearl-drenched woman and rouged lipped men who all attempted to covertly trail their fingers along his lace cuffs. Once seated, Don Pedro smuggly leaned over his right shoulder to address the equally finely dressed man studiously waiting in the seat next to him. “Well Magda, what are your thoughts?”
“I have seen this play before,” he vaguely smiled.
“Yes, but not with this company of actors! Forget Madrid. Here you will see on stage a passion they cannot freely express under the confines of religious interpretation.” Don Pedro’s eyes shot to the box of Ambassador Trenton then immediately back to the stage. His companion saw the glance.
“What is there you so eagerly look for?” Magda inquired.
“That,” he gestured with a quick nod of his head, “Is the English Ambassador.”
Magda recognized the dark haired man waiting in the balcony assigned to Lord Trenton. “Ah. I have heard there are two suspects. Soldiers.”
Don Pedro chuckled. “Making your own allies so quickly?”
“Are they guilty?” He asked abruptly.
“The King’s men are always guilty of something. But you wish to discuss such things tonight? I have other plans for you. Other people for you to make acquaintance with.” He impatiently tapped the arm of his chair with his long fingers. “Did you know? There is a rumor. Buried deep in the earth below us are the ruins of a Roman theater. Buried by a volcano. Do you suppose such a thing exists?”
“If it does Don Pedro, there is nothing new.” Magda kept his eyes forward watching the distortion of the curtains as the players backstage moved to their opening positions.
“Yes. Nothing new. Like this play. The prophecy of a Prince, and the disaster he will bring to his country.” He paused to stare at Magda and placed his hand on the other man’s knee. “And the death of the King.”
The death of a King .
Neither would say which King they wished deceased. The curtain was rushed away and the players contorted their voices and bodies on stage while the men below kept their faces in eager glances to those around, searching to lock eyes with figures who held power.
Magda looked down. It was Don Pedro's cane he felt. He tapped it once discretely at Madga's waist, and then trailed the top of the cane between his legs and followed the contour of his body.
“Are you in need of something?” Magda asked, smiling.
"Si, I am. And soon," came the silky reply.
The Spanish theater was designed to provide relief of soul, entertainment to the weary and the imposition of morality the King wished all his subjects to emulate: A lesson aggressively provided to the pupil under the guise of entertainment; an escape to another realm to be applied in their own. Whether the people followed those rules was evident by the number of Confessors available to the citizens. One priest for every five people, and all ready to hear the exploits at any time of day.
'Tis a dream that I in sadness
Here am bound, the scorn of fate;
'Twas a dream that once a state
I enjoyed of light and gladness.
What is life? 'Tis but a madness.
What is life? A thing that seems,
A mirage that falsely gleams,
Phantom joy, delusive rest,
Since is life a dream at best,
And dreams themselves are merely the dreams of dreams
“Y los sueños, sueños son"
“What time is it?” Evalianna leaned forward and ran her fingers back and forth mindlessly on the carved polished wood under her hand. She had cast her eyes all evening between stage and the crowd below but it had become a blur of colors, pleated shapes moving side to side in a dance, and her head was aching. The only thing she could focus on was Salazar. And he, she noticed, spent the evening with his jaw set and his eyes in constant furrow, glaring down at the figure of Don Pedro.
“Father. I need to go home.” Evalianna tapped her fan frantically on her knee.
She clutched at the silver pomander hanging from her neck, letting the warmth from her hand bring to life the scents hidden inside. She brought it carefully to her nose to inhale a calming mixture of sandalwood and rose.
“What time is it?” She repeated loudly.
“My girl that is the fourth time you have asked!” The annoyance in her father’s voice an immediate dismissal of her feelings.
Doctor Barton drew out his pocket watch. “It is just half past eight.” He noticed she was tapping her foot in rapid succession just outside her skirt and the pallor that washed over her face. “Are you feeling well?”
“The play, it is not entirely over. I will have you stay,” her father said.
Evalianna forcefully bit down on her lip and leaned slightly over the balcony again. She could not look down.
“Please Father. I do not feel well.” She was beginning to panic. Half past eight. Had he not shown last night before then? Or after? She couldn’t remember the exact time. “Father. I need to leave. Now!”
Salazar pulled back from his observations, his target was removing himself from the row of seats and making his way outside. “Lord Trenton, I will see her home.”
“Oh? You will?” The statement had caught him off guard but he was pleased to hear it. “I see. Yes!”
Evalianna’s eyes shot open. “Father. I will be alright on my own.”
“Nonsense girl. Let the man take you home. It is dangerous. You’re completely pale. Doctor Barton - give her a sip of your wine before she leaves.”
“No..no thank you father I’d -.”
Trenton grabbed the glass from Barton’s hand and presented it to Evalianna. “One sip, if you wish to go home.”
Her eyes shifted between Barton and Salazar as she took the glass in her hands. She was grateful Salazar had the decency to look away. One sip and she pressed her lips together to force the liquid down.
“Good.” Trenton leaned in to whisper. “Be polite daughter. And for Heaven’s sake smile. I doubt he’ll ravage you in the carriage.”
The ride to Paraíso Terrestre was an uncomfortable formality, a hollow gesture of both occupants in an attempt to escape a situation each found intolerable. He spoke nothing, not even mention of the clouds blocking the stars, or the cool wind that shifted across the city. The weather would have been an expected conversation for polite company. Both were beyond that and she had no patience reserved for the man sitting stoically across from her.
“Do they know, who killed Peter?” A line appeared between her brows. “Does the Comandante have anyone in mind?”
“He has suspects, yes.” Salazar did not look up but continued to look out the window into the darkness, one arm laying across his lap with his hand resting on the hilt of his sword.
“Oh?” It was a coy tone but one that fooled neither recipient or giver of the expression. “I don’t suppose you could tell me?”
There was no way to avoid an answer, and he still held enough respect to tell her the truth. “There are two men. One, I was sent to watch tonight.” Salazar kept his gaze out the window. The town was darker and behind them now, and they were beginning to climb the hill away from intrigue and chaos.
Evalianna closed her eyes. It was clear who he had been watching. The man with the orange coat.
“I see. Don Pedro.”
He should have been surprised she knew the man by name, but he supposed the Ambassador’s daughter might have had to play hostesses once to the Don of Cadiz.
“Yes. The Alcalde has long suspected him of illegal activities. It is who you know that keeps you out of the jail. Out of the clutches of Justice.”
“And the other?”
He finally turned toward her, his eyes disciplined and guarded. “The other is one your father accused. One who saw Peter last.” The horses halted. “Ah. You have arrived safely. Good Evening Senorita Trenton.” He hastily kissed her hand as the door opened.
“But..” That her father accused! Salazar confirmed it. She wished to remain, to ask him more questions, to probe him for all the information he had on Peter’s death. Instead the footman took her hand and Salazar closed the door with a cursory dismissal. She would receive no more answers from Armando Salazar tonight.
Mr. Ledford greeted her at the door. His eyes frantically darted between her and the courtyard.
“No!” She let out an exhaustive sigh. “Excuse me, Ledford. It’s been a trying evening. I wish to remain undisturbed. Tell Susan I will only need her in the morning.”
“And your father? Shall I be expecting him at the usual hour?”
“My father,” she almost told a lie, anything but the truth of what she was feeling. “My father will be home much later.”
Ledford knew the implication. “Yes Miss. Good Evening.”
Evalianna shot up the stairs and slammed the door shut. The fireplace lit the room and she thought almost nothing of the fact that the vase had been cleared up from the floor, and took it as a sign that Susan must have returned. But, the bed had not been turned down. Nor was there a clean shift laid out and her slippers, which she so desperately wanted to rest her feet in were nowhere to be found.
And no sign of Cortez. She checked the door on the balcony. Locked. The windows were shut. Everything on her desk - just as she left it. Her heart sank.
She changed to her dressing gown and sat at the vanity. Even the water pitcher was completely empty. And she was so thirsty.
He knew the difference of her footsteps as soon as she stepped inside the room. One of the servants earlier in the evening peeked in and a second later inexplicably retreated in the same covert manner. That first invasion he hoped was Evalianna returning and he had almost been caught by the nosy servant. He did not need the clock on her wall to know how late it was becoming. Opportunity - it favored him in those waiting minutes hidden away in her room and surrounded by her things. In the darkness he shifted over to the desk exploring secret compartments that were no longer secret after his first visit. A delicately penned letter she was beginning to write lay folded in the top drawer. Half a name had been scrolled across the top but the words - the words underneath were potent.
‘The world sleeps.
And I wait for you.
Hours course in my veins and become a reminder of my existence, the will to live abiding in the hope of a distant sunrise. Yet sunrise comes and I pray for evening. You neither stay nor go, a fond remembrance clutched to my bosom. Parted from me…’
He told himself to stay calm, and he counted his breaths as her footsteps approached. He remained hidden as she investigated the empty pitcher, as she released a sigh, as she sat down so close to him. He could see her shadow along the floor as she began to brush her hair.
From the corner of her eye she caught a brief rusling movement near her bedpost. It stopped and she continued to brush her hair. She heard it - the sound of something scraping quickly along the floor. Mice again . This time she was too tired and upset to do anything more than take off her shoe and throw it in the direction of the noise.
Cortez emerged from behind the drapes at the corner of her bed. Her hand stopped midair holding her other shoe, and she fixed her gaze on him, fearing he would vanish if she blinked.
“If your aim with a pistol is as good as your aim with your shoe senorita, I am glad you put the pistol down!”
“What are you doing here?” As soon as the words left her mouth she felt foolish. They both spent their day anticipating this moment and she still felt embarrassed to admit it.
He frowned, insulted by the question. “I told you - I return to know Salazar’s answer.”
“Um, you,” she looked away. To anything. The cleaned floor, the fireplace, the ceiling, the small porcelain squirrel with its tail lively brushed and standing to a perfected attention on her mantle.
“I was bored waiting. You need better servants. I almost slipped on the vase. Any idea how much sweeping I have done today?” He feigned an ache and rubbed his hand around his forearm. “Sore.” He smiled as a flush of color brightened her cheeks.
“And the fire?” Even if she thought he was impolite with his words, his actions were another matter.
“Si. And the fire. When was the last time your maid came to dust?” He clicked his tongue, walked toward the fireplace and ran his finger along the mantle. “It is the messiest woman’s room I have seen.”
“Señor Cortez, I doubt you have ever seen the inside of a ladies bed chamber.” She stood up and walked over to him.
“Yes I have!” He contested.
“What? A sister? Your mother? I am very tidy!” She turned her head up and folded her hands in front of her as if being scrutinized by a childhood teacher.
An uneasy silence fell between them. His eyes grew cold from her words and he turned his face away. She had not meant to upset him. And what if he wanted to leave. She searched desperately for anything to change the heavy atmosphere her words had created.
“Arma -,” Remembering his rebuke the last time she mentioned the man’s first name she stopped herself. “Señor Salazar said they have suspects. One he confirmed what you said. Don Pedro. And another,” she relaxed her posture and ran her fingers along the same mantle. He was correct. It was dusty. She rubbed her fingers together removing the dirt and softly cleared her throat before continuing. “He said, my father accused. By name.”
“And you think this is me?” He scowled.
This was not the reaction she hoped for. She wanted to see him smile, not frown. She was confirming she believed his words, trusted him. But now she was curious, and that curiosity to know anything about this man directed the conversation.
“Is it?” She turned back toward him. “Have you in your past, killed someone?” The pain in her face as the words passed her lips was not unnoticed by Cortez.
“Why would I have brought your brother here if I had been ordered to kill him?!”
“I’m sorry! I want to make sense of this.” She looked down, embarrassed to meet his eyes. Eyes that hastily flickered with scorching condemnation and refused to move their glare away from her face. Had he even blinked?
Everything was wrong. They had been in her room for hardly five minutes and already she felt every time her mouth opened the wrong words came out. Her body was betraying her, her mind was racing, and the man standing in front of her was shifting his weight back and forth on his feet, as if in some dance within himself to retain control. Now she had half accused him of murdering Peter.
She bit her bottom lip. “May I know, Señor Cortez,” toying with the pomander still around her neck, “Where you were born?”
He raised an eyebrow. “I will not tell you about my past.” It was a lie. He was prepared to tell her part of his past. But not the part she was trying to directly ask about.
“Then you have killed someone.” Her voice softened at his pseudo revelation.
“Si, but it is…complex. I do not suppose you committed murder?” He returned to the familiar relaxed stance, leaning against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest. “You have an enemy? Maybe you have slit their throat hm? Or... How would you go about killing someone Señorita?”
“What a morbid thing to think about!”
“Si.” He nodded his head and turned up the corner of his mouth in a smile. “Maybe that pistol of yours. I fear your accuracy. How well you have trained. How many hours you have held that pistol in your hands.” He sauntered toward her, stopping with only a few inches between them. He was now towering above her and the blaze in his eyes returned.
“You did not murder anyone!”
His stature immediately straightened. “I am a loyal son of Spain. I kill when ordered.”
“But not before. Why say so? Why accuse yourself?”
“I watched a man die.”
“Watching is not the same as committing the crime.”
He laughed and leaned down, taking a small curl of her hair in his hand. “Are you guilty of some horrible crime? Confess to me and…”
“Confess?” She tried to steady her voice.
“Tell me then. What is this horrible thing you think weighs on your soul. Did you steal, Señorita?”
“Have you told a lie?” He grinned not giving her a chance to respond. “Si, to me. Have you not said your prayers well?”
He traced his hand steadily down her sleeve, stopping only for a moment when his fingers touched her the flesh of her elbow, and continued until his hand entwined over hers. She gasped and tried to pull away but he only held her tighter.
“What could be bothering her so much?”
Her hand was now trembling and he let it go.
“Please, let us talk about something else.” She licked her lips before tightly closing her eyes and forcefully begging her body to behave respectively. There was no opportunity. He pulled at the fabric of her dressing gown with his left hand, bringing her to his chest.
“I think I know. You dishonor your father?” He tilted her head up with the back of his hand. “Evalianna, your thoughts. You think of something you should not.”
“What are you implying?”
“Your face. It is red.” He languidly brushed a hand across her cheek, “I think, you have impure thoughts.”
“That is entirely inappropriate Señor Cortez!”
“Si. Thoughts – about me.”
“I - I have no thoughts.”
“Your lips, Señorita.”
“What about them?” She innocently covered her mouth with her hand.
“I kiss them.”
“You will not.”
“Si. I will.”
His fingers traced her jawline. He was enjoying being in command of her. “But not until you say where Salazar has touched you.”
The name washed across her mind like a distant memory. “Nothing. He hasn’t -”
It would be his eyes that pulled the truth from her. The eyes that pierced through dark lashes down to her own, bright and crisp, and an arrow to her heart.
“I think you lie as well as you swear.”
“Only he did kiss me.”
Cortez pulled back and cocked his head to one side.
“Yes. Just this evening in fact. Right before he left. He - grabbed my arm and swooped me up, and –,”
The thought, the sight in his mind of that man’s face anywhere near her flesh ignited his already rising jealousy. That was enough. He had to touch her. Had to stop her mouth from forming any more lies.
He grabbed her arm and pulled her below him, and without hesitation slammed his lips to hers. She moaned in reply but did not move.
Realizing at that moment he was giving away his control he drew back. “I am - lo siento señorita.”
“No Señor Cortez. Again,” she requested breathlessly.
He did not have the opportunity. Her father had arrived home, announcing himself in the usual disruptive way. Evalianna remained frozen, unsure if her father would go directly to the Library as his custom, or be coherent enough to find Susan and bring her to his bedroom. There were heavy footsteps on the stairs, down the corridor, and finally stopping at her door.
Cortez threw his hand over Evalianna’s mouth to keep her from making any noise. Trenton knocked on the door. Cortez took his hand from her and shook his head. She understood. He would hide himself again.
Evalianna unlatched the door and her father almost fell in on top of her. He stood before her, breathing like an overheated bull, slightly weaving, his cravat missing, and his bald head showing from underneath his hat.
“I see you made it home. Good girl.” His hand landed on her shoulder and he looked directly at it. There was a single red ribbon peeking out from under her dressing gown.
“Red. Hmm. Red. Your mother used to wear red when she.” His voice drifted as he saw movement over her shoulder behind a curtain.
Listening to the drunken Trenton, Cortez’s hand immediately reached for the dagger. One more threat, one more touch to Evalianna and Cortez would strike, damn the consequences.
“I wondered whose horse that was. Well, Armando is a handsome fellow. And frankly, I would not mind if you did, girl.” A disproportionate sigh exited his chest and filled the air around him with the pungent smell of tobacco lodged in his stained mouth.
“Tomorrow I am sending a search for Susan. I could use his help.” He ran his finger along her shoulder and pulled at the red ribbon “I need her.” He let the ribbon go. “Yes...Let him have this.” Clearing his throat he spoke louder intending to address the man behind the curtains. The man he thought was Salazar. “Let it be known your father has no objections to your honor in this matter. I was young once too.” He cupped her chin in his hands and she yanked her head away. “And you do so remind me of your mother.”
She almost spoke. A heated shiver ran up her spine as if knowing Cortez’s eyes were focused on her. The Ambassador did not realize how closely he was playing with death.
There was a shuffle along the stairs outside her room and Trenton immediately turned his attention to it. His mouth was dry. Ledford would certainly have poured a drink for his master by now.
“Good night, girl.” Trenton flumbled out the door and down the hallway.
Evalianna slammed the door shut and fell back. “You should go.”
Cortez was at her side before she had a chance to turn around. He slid his arm around her hips backing her against the door.
Cortez leaned his ear on the door. The corner of his mouth turned up in a smile as she modestly struggled under him. But he kept her pinned there, neatly applying pressure from his chest against hers. “Stop wiggling.”
Her knees pulled together as she bit her lip. “What is it!”
It was the sound of breaking glass, a string of vulgarities from the mouth of Ambassador Trenton, and finally a crash from a small piece of furniture. He thought he heard Dr. Barton speak.
Evalianna remained below him, her fists locked around the fabric of his waistcoat and her face buried in his arm trying to escape the sound.
“Go! Go!” her voice muffled against his chest.
“You think,” he huffed and pushed back so to look directly in her eyes. “You think I leave you here? With- ,” the words twisted out of his mouth. “That man? No. You are crazy.”
“You cannot stay. My father, when he is like this.” There was no doubting her father’s agitated state.
“Si. I can. I will.”
“What about your commanding officer? What about -,” she wanted to protest. She needed to protest before her entire body refused to let go of him. “Please. You do not need to take any shit from him for me.”
“Not very good at that,” he laughed.
“At what?” She sheepishly raised her head.
“The vulgarity. You think it makes you stronger to sound like one of the gutter soldiers? I will not have that language cross your lips,” his fingers brushed across her mouth. “No, you are not capable of such language. It is beneath you. Try it again.”
Evalianna parted her lips but no sound escaped. She was tempted to reach out with her tongue and taste the thumb that was still dancing back and forth across her bottom lip.
“And are you one of those – gutter soldiers?”
“No señorita. I am not like them,” he growled and his eyes hardened. “I will prove it.”
He let her go and she stepped back leaving him to stand alone in the middle of the room. “Sleep. You there,” he pointed to her bed and looked around the room, “I will sleep here. Chairs are very comfortable.”
She hesitated. The way he was so certain made her smile.
“I will not leave you,” he said.
Those words from him created an entirely different sensation. One that made those locked knees under her shift.
“Turn around then.” She shivered, hardly knowing if he would obey. Why was she agreeing to his demand? He asked her before to trust, proven his intelligence regarding Salazar’s intentions, he held nothing from her even when the truth was something she wanted desperately to deny. Here she would give him another opportunity to prove what sort of gentleman he was. And with the world around her in chaos, for the first time in many years simply being in his presence she felt - protected - A sensation she had not experienced for so long.
Quickly she dropped her dressing gown, climbed into bed in her chemise, pulled the sheet and blanket up tightly under her neck and lay there, her back toward him.
“It is better that you not go,” she whispered to herself. But he heard.
“Si. You sleep.”
“Good night, Señor Cortez.”
Señor Cortez! He turned and watched as she curled herself down into the covers so far that he could only see a lock of hair trail down her pillow. Enough. Tomorrow. Tomorrow he would tell her his name.
“Good night, Evalianna.”
He removed his coat and hung it on the back of the chair next to her bed. The dagger he placed on the table between them, and he stretched before sitting down. Chairs were more comfortable than his cot at the barracks but still he cleared his throat several times before finding a comfortable position.
And she, eyes watching his shadow cast by the dwindling firelight on the wall opposite as he moved, slipped into a peaceful dream.
It was another humid Summer morning. The bright white of the sun cracked through her shutters and absorbed in the lightly woven silk curtains framing the window. As the sun moved, the long rays crawled along the tile floor and illuminated the soft pale wood of her bed and the cream colored sheets surrounding her outstretched body.
She had not heard the birds. No, that was not what woke her. It was the calm and even breath of the man seated beside her. The man protecting her.
Cortez remained all night, just as he promised and was still asleep on the chair, his arms crossed over his chest. If he heard her wake, he made no effort to reveal it. She hesitated, daring to watch his profile move in the glow. Slouched down, his ankles crossed over in his boots, she moved her eyes upward in a continual admiration of the man. He stirred, shifting his hips slightly making his breeches crease just a little more, though she scolded herself for wanting to see what other movements his shifting may produce. The white linen of his shirt lay haphazardly untucked and his collar open, revealing the true breadth of his shoulders, ones she had spent imagining since his appearance in the cemetery. She followed his smooth dark hair slightly falling around his face, the angle of his brow, the curve of his lips and that slight indent at the corner of his mouth that would turn to a long dimple when he smiled. She imagined reaching out to kiss it. A gentle caress, a willing delight of skin below her lips, the warm sweet intoxication of his scent invading her body in unstoppable waves.
She sat up, quietly swung her legs over the edge of the bed and placed her feet solidly on the cool floor.
And he woke.
When his eyes opened he did not look at her; instead he walked to the shutters and opened them with force. A rush of wind pushed the curtains filling the remaining dark corners of her room with sunlight.
He paused a minute, walked back to her side, and knelt down resting on his heels. Yes, now was the moment. He reached out and solemnly took her hand, raising his eyes to hers that were darted back and forth with apprehension.
Then he spoke. Deeply. Evenly. Direct.
“Quiero que recuerdes.”
She looked back at him questioningly.
He took a breath and brought the palm of her hand to his lips, whispering against the delicate flesh:
“ Me llamo Stefano.”
She leaned forward.
He shook his head.
And picked her up, wrapping his arm under her legs and carrying her to the window.
They stayed in front of the opened window both staring quietly at the horizon. The humidity built along her neck, her shoulders, stifling her lungs and making her chemise cling to her body. And after a silence of some time, he let her down and held her there.
The lightest breeze swept through the curtains and enclosed them in the opaque fabric, enveloping them in a bright and soft world. One that was secluded. One of their own.
She instinctively wanted to brush stray hair from her face. Oh how she wished to give herself up entirely to him, locked as they were here, yet she was unwilling to risk moving a single muscle, or twitch of an eye, should it all fall into dust with the wrong gesture.
He saw the struggle in her eyes, the wandering thoughts uncertainty yet safety. He moved her hair out of her face and she flinched back. The palm of his hand touched her cheek as his fingers danced upward into her hair and when he found those locks he grasped them, tilted her head up and with a cautious, tamed movement yielded to his desire and, and he brushed his lips along her neck.
The longer he held her, the more tantalizing his velvet lips remained and so near her own, the more she felt as if she were teetering between a wave of trembling hands and stiff shoulders, wanting to collapse against him, while her pulse rose in her chest and lay against his heart. But he would not let go, and so they continued to stand in this place taking in the presence of each other. She imagined this must be how a gull feels along the wind, or how molten glass feels as it is molded and cooled under an exquisite glassmaker.
She rested her chin on his shoulder, closing her eyes and listening to his steady breath.
He broke away, slightly, and her whole being trembled, fearing he was about to declare their time together complete and he could no longer make excuses and must retreat back to his Capitan.
He did not.
“Remember,” he whispered to her ear.
It was not a question. But an order.
She nodded and he repeated still a second time - remember - , his arms never leaving their hold around her waist.
“I am waiting,” he said.
She paused and drew a breath, a deep confidence welling as she realized what he was beseeching her to do.
The sound of his name slipped past her lips to the air infusing his soul with a passion to take her then, strip her down in front of that window and put the entire world on hold while he caressed every pulsing and blushing inch of her body. Wanting to break his own promise to be patient with her, and forcing him to lay his velvet lips again on hers.
After having taken once more a warm drink of from her lips he pulled back, unlocking his hand from her waist to take hold of that now steady hand of hers.
“Will you allow me to claim your hand? To stay with you?” There was more he wished to say but words did not come. Rather he continued to brush his other hand along her face and gather with his thumb a tear that had broken from the corner of her eye; a tear that bloomed from the joy in her heart. “ I cannot force you to love me but I love you and I will not go. Will you love me?”
She did not hesitate. “I will.”
Such words, an agreement of the Will of Souls, delighted even the Heavens.
Only below them his attention had been sharply interrupted. In the courtyard Edward Trenton had stumbled his way across the ground, yelling orders for Ledford before retreating inside.
“Truly you must leave now,” gentle sobs broke her voice.
His eyes studied the horizon, marking the time and the movement of the clouds, and the commotion beginning to gather in their Paradise. Even Nature wore their hearts and the wind became inundated with tension, no longer brushing quietly along the window but turning sharp against corners and cracking along the trees down the path, as though the angels had caught sight of their secret pledge and interceded to carry it upwards on colossal wings, stirring up humanity and sweeping away the demons laying just beyond the coastline.
“Eva,” his voice darkened. “I have given you my word. Today, you are mine. I know how much you have suffered, these walls you lock yourself in. I will not cut out your heart. And will make you call my name.”
“Stefano..” She meant to say it with a light sarcastic tone.
She smiled and he, Stefano Cortez, held her in his arms, intensely taking another kiss from her. While she gave. And gave again. And let his mouth claim her with fervent elation.