“Very good, madame. Tip-top idea, really tip-top. Do you not think so, Charles?”
“I think the good Sister is a very wise woman,” came the Bishop’s sly response.
“It is kind of you to say so, Father,” Marie Madeleine said. “And do not let us startle you, as from here out you will never know where any of us could be!”
“I will remember. I will remember.” Suddenly the Bishop’s stern expression shifted and he blinked as if in surprise. “Sister, I just had a thought that I am quite sure was brought on by your ambitious announcement about taking over the ship.”
“But, Father, I did not mean—”
The Bishop waved away her protestations. “Oh, I know you mean no harm, Sister. As I was saying, my thought was that it would be quite nice if you moved your shrine to the Holy Mother on deck, perhaps just above us, in the aft promenade that is nicely sheltered. Perhaps the crew would like to join in your daily devotions.” He bowed to the Commodore and added, “As time and their duties would allow, of course.”
“Of course—of course,” parroted the Commodore.
“Well, certainly I could do that. As long as the weather remains clear,” said Marie Madeleine.
“Thank you, Sister. Consider it a personal favor to me.”
“Very well, then. I feel we have accomplished so much tonight,” the nun said enthusiastically. “Au revoir, monsieurs. Allons-y, mademoiselles,” she concluded, and then herded her group from the room.
Lenobia felt the Bishop’s gaze until the door closed, blocking his view of her.
“Well, then, shall we walk a little?” Without waiting for a response, Marie Madeleine strode purposefully to the short stairwell that led to the deck, where she breathed deeply and encouraged the girls to “walk about—stretch your young legs.”
As Lenobia passed the nun, she asked softly, “What could he possibly want with the Holy Mother?”
“I have no idea,” Marie Madeleine said. “But it certainly cannot hurt the Blessed Virgin to take a turn above deck.” She paused, smiled at Lenobia, and added, “Just as it will not hurt the rest of us.”
“For what you did tonight, Sister, merci beaucoup.”
“You are quite welcome, Lenobia.”
* * *
The Bishop made his excuses and left the Commodore to his port. He retired to his small bedchamber, sat at the single desk, and lit one long, thin candlestick. As his fingers caressed the flame, he thought about the bastard girl.
At first he had been enraged and shocked by her deception. But then as he watched her, his rage and surprise coalesced to form a much deeper emotion.
Charles had forgotten the girl’s beauty, though the many weeks of forced celibacy aboard this accursed ship could have something to do with her effect upon him.
“No,” he spoke to the flame. “It is more than my lack of a bedmate that makes her desirable.”
She was even lovelier than he’d remembered, though she had lost weight. That was a shame, but easily remedied. He liked her softer, rounder, more succulent. He would make sure she ate—whether she wanted to or not.
“No,” he repeated. “There is more to it.” It was those eyes. That hair. The eyes smoldered, like smoke. He could see that they called to him, even though she was trying to deny their pull.
The hair was silver, like metal that had been tested and hardened by fire, and then pounded into something more than it had once been.
“And she is not a true fille à la casquette. She will never be the bride of a French gentleman. She is, in fact, fortunate to have caught my attention. Being my mistress is more, much more than she has to hope for from her future.”
Ridicule and disdain are less offensive than the Bishop’s attention. The memory of her words came to him, but he did not allow himself to become angry.
“She will take convincing. No matter. I like it better if they have some spirit.”
His fingers passed through the flame, over and over, absorbing heat but not burning.
It would be good to make the girl his mistress before they reached New Orleans. Then those pompous Ursulines would have nothing about which to squawk. A virgin girl they might care about—a deflowered bastard who had become the mistress of a Bishop would be out of their care and beyond their reach.
But first he must make her his own, and in order to do that he needed to silence that Virgin-be-damned nun.
His free hand fisted around the ruby cross that hung in the middle of his chest and the flame flickered wildly.
It was only the nun’s protection that was keeping the bastard from being his plaything for the rest of the journey and beyond—only the nun who could draw down the wrath of the church upon him. The other girls were inconsequential. They would not consider standing against him, much less speaking against him to any authority. The Commodore cared for nothing except a smooth voyage and his wine. As long as Charles did not rape her in front of the man, he would probably show only a mild interest, though possibly he might want to use the girl himself.
The Bishop’s hand, the one that had been stroking the flame, closed in a fist. He did not share his possessions.
“Yes, I will have to rid myself of the nun.” Charles smiled and relaxed his hand, allowing it to play through the flame again. “And I have already taken steps to hasten her untimely end. It is such a shame that the habit she wears is so voluminous and so highly flammable. I can sense a terrible accident might befall her…”
Dawn could not come soon enough for Lenobia. Finally, when the sky through her porthole began to blush, Lenobia could wait no longer. She almost sprinted to the door, pausing only because Marie Madeleine’s voice warned, “Have a care, child. Do not remain too long with the horses. Staying out of the Bishop’s sight means you are staying out of his mind as well.”
“I will be careful, Sister,” Lenobia assured her before disappearing into the hallway. She did watch for the sunrise, though her thoughts were already belowdecks, and before the orange disc had fully broken free of the watery horizon, Lenobia was hurrying silently but quickly down the stairs.
Martin was already there, sitting on a bale of hay, facing the direction from which she usually came into the cargo hold. The grays whinnied at her, which made her smile, and then she looked at Martin, and her smile faded.
The first thing she noticed was that he hadn’t brought her a bacon and cheese sandwich. The next thing she noticed was the absence of expression on his face. Even his eyes seemed darker and subdued. Suddenly he was a stranger.
“What do I call you?” His voice was as emotionless as his face.
She ignored his strangeness and the awful feeling it gave her in the pit of her stomach, and spoke to him as if he were asking her which brush to use on the horses, like nothing at all was amiss. “Lenobia is my name, but I like it when you call me cherie.”
“You lie to me, you.” His tone stopped her pretense and she felt the first chill of rejection pass through her body.
“Not on purpose. I did not lie to you on purpose.” Her eyes begged him to understand.
“A lie still a lie,” he said.
“All right. You want to know the truth?”
“Can you tell it?”
She felt as if he had slapped her. “I thought you knew me.”
“I thought I did, too. And I thought you trusted me. Maybe I was wrong twice.”
“I do trust you. The reason I did not tell you I was pretending to be Cecile was because when I was with you, I was the real me. There was no pretense between us. There was just you and me and the horses.” She blinked back her tears and took a few steps toward him. “I would not lie to you, Martin. Yesterday was the first time you called me by her name, called me Cecile. Remember how quickly I left?” He nodded. “It was because I did not know what to do. It was then that I remembered I was supposed to be pretending to be someone else, even with you.” There was a long silence, and then he asked, “Would you have ever told me?”
Lenobia didn’t hesitate. She spoke from her heart to his. “Yes. I would have told you my secret when I told you I loved you.”
His face reanimated and he closed the few feet that separated them. “No, cherie. You cannot love me.”
“Cannot? I already do.”
“It is impossible.” Martin reached out, took her hand, and lifted it gently. Then he raised his own arm until the two were side by side, flesh to flesh. “You see the difference, you?”
“No,” she said softly, gazing down at their arms—their bodies. “All I see is you.”
“Look with your eyes and not your heart. See what others will see!”
“Others? Why do we care what they will see?”
“The world matters, perhaps more than you understand, cherie.”
She met his gaze. “So you care more for what others think than for what we feel, you and I?”
“You do not understand.”
“I understand enough! I understand how I feel when we are together. What more is there to understand?”
“Much, much more.” He dropped her hand and turned, walking quickly to the stall to stand beside one of the watching grays.
She spoke to his back. “I said I would not lie to you. Can you say the same to me?”
“I will not lie to you,” he said, without turning to look at her.
“Do you love me? Tell me the truth, Martin, please.”
“The truth? What difference does the truth make in a world like this?”
“It makes all the difference to me,” she said.
He turned and she saw that his cheeks were wet with silent tears. “I love you, cherie. It feels like it will kill me, but I love you.”
Her heart felt as if it were flying as she moved to his side and slipped her hand within his. “I am no longer betrothed to Thinton de Silegne,” she said, reaching up to brush the tears from his face.
He cupped his hand over hers and pressed it to his cheek. “But they will find someone new for you. Someone who cares more about your beauty than your name.” As he spoke he grimaced as if the words hurt him.
“You! Why can it not be you? I am a bastard—surely a bastard can marry a Creole.”
Martin laughed humorously. “Oui, cherie. A bastard can marry a Creole, if that bastard be black. If she be white, they cannot marry.”
“Then I do not care about being married! I only care about being with you.”
“You are so young,” he said softly.
“So are you. You cannot be twenty yet.”
“I be twenty-one next month, cherie. But inside I am old, and I know even love can not change the world—at least not in time for us.”
“It has to. I am going to make it.”
“You know what they do to you, this world you think love can change? They find out you love me, you give yourself to me, they hang you, or worse. They rape you and then hang you.”
“I will fight them. To be with you I will stand against the world.”
“I don’ want that for you! Cherie, I will not be the cause of harm to come against you!”
Lenobia stepped back, away from his touch. “My maman told me that I must be brave. I must become a girl who was dead so that I could live a life without fear. So I did that terrible thing I did not want to do—I lied and tried to take on the name, the life, of someone else.” As she spoke, it was as if a wise mother were whispering to her, guiding her thoughts and her words. “I was afraid, so afraid, Martin. But I knew I had to be brave for her, and then somehow that changed and I became brave for me. Now I want to be brave for you, for us.”
“That not brave, cherie,” he said, his olive eyes sad, his shoulders slumped. “That just young. You and me—our love belong to a different time, a different place.”
“Then you deny us?”
“My heart cannot, but my mind—he say keep her safe, don’ let the world destroy her.” He took a step toward her, but Lenobia wrapped her arms around herself and stepped back from him. He shook his head sadly. “You should have babies, cherie. Babies that don’ have to pretend to be white. I think you know a little what it like to pretend, don’t you?”
“Here is what I know—that I would rather pretend a thousand times over than deny my love for you. Yes, I am young, but I am old enough to know that one-sided love can never work.” When he said nothing, she wiped the back of her wrist angrily across her face, sweeping away her tears, and continued, “I should leave and not come back and spend the rest of the voyage anywhere but down here.”
“Oui, cherie. You should.”
“Is that what you want?”
“No, fool that I am. It is not what I want.”
“Well, then, we are both fools.” She walked past him and picked up one of the curry brushes. “I am going to groom the grays. Then I will feed them. Then I will return to my quarters and wait until tomorrow’s dawn calls me free. Then I will do the same thing all over again.” She moved into the stall and began brushing the nearest gray.
Still outside the stall, he watched her with olive eyes that she thought looked sad and very, very old. “You are brave, Lenobia. And strong. And good. When you are a woman grown, you will stand against the darkness in the world. I know this when I look into your storm-cloud eyes. But, ma belle, choose battles you can win without losing your heart and your soul.”
“Martin, I stopped being a girl when I stepped into Cecile’s shoes. I am a woman grown. I wish you understood that.”
He sighed and nodded. “You right. I know you a woman, but I not the only one who knows this. Cherie, I heard talk today from the Commodore’s servants. That Bishop, he don’ keep his eyes from you all during dinner.”