Max holds her chin firmly between thumb and forefinger, her lips pursed before teeth Eleanor knows are clenched with anger. For Max's sake she'd neglected to lay out all the dirty details, but for all her efforts, the woman had gotten the gist of the incident the moment she had spotted Vane swaggering around the bar as if he owned the place. And she had needed no explanation when Eleanor had broken her sullen silence to utter a string of curses. She'd simply taken her rum, laced their fingers together and led her, beaten and bruised, upstairs to bed.

Naturally, of course, Eleanor had gotten a good swing in. A single fist to face connection, she had stunned the bastard and tasted a split second's victory. But then he had recovered, and with his fucking rings wrapped around his fucking filthy, sausage fingers, he had done a real number on her face.

"Max," Eleanor begins, reaching for a dainty hand to stop the woman's work before she can dip the rag back into its bowl for their sixth rinse and repeat. "Max," she tries again, squeezing her wrist when the woman made to shake her grip and continue. Her pinched look of concern has tightened the knot within Eleanor's stomach ten- fold. She knows better than to mistake this display of submission for reality. A storm rages beneath the coolness of her exterior, she's sure.

Though Max is clever enough to understand any efforts to seek revenge are pointless, governed almost entirely by her feelings, this quiet acceptance is a sham for Eleanor's benefit. "For fucks' sakes, Maxine, would you fucking look at me?"

"If you think Max will believe the pain does not mirror the looks of your wounds, you are mistaken," Max mutters, shrugging away from her hold and turning to resume her dabbing of still purpling flesh.

"I'm fine," Eleanor scoffs, clasping hands in her lap and regarding Max with narrowed eyes.

"Yet you hiss." Swiping at the gash in her cheek, Max pauses to allow Eleanor to emphasis her point with an intake of breath through gritted teeth. "Why?" She raises an eyebrow in question, lips quirking as Eleanor ducks her head and resumes her brooding without further comment.

xxx

It's only after Max has seen the cut cleansed for the thousandth time that she tosses the rag aside.

Eleanor's face stings from its assault. Her jaw is hot where Vane's ring has marred the flesh. Max's voice, when she finally speaks, is heavy with the weight of the stewing Eleanor's allowed with her silence.

"When the sea grows rough," She invades her space, breaths her air as she gathers her dress and swings a leg over Eleanor's thigh. For a whore, she smells not of sex, but instead of the balmy air of the beach and something Eleanor cannot quite place. Sweet. Like honey. She tastes it on her tongue when she sighs beneath her weight. The air has thickened like syrup in the scant distance between their breasts, and Eleanor's hands are wrapped in her skirts, clenched as her eyes follow the rise and fall of Max's chest. Their position is familiar, yet the closeness does little to calm the bundle of nerves that plague her.

"You come to Max."

Eleanor stays quiet, waits for the gentle press of a finger beneath her chin to meet dark eyes.

"Max is your harbor."

Her harbor. Her harbor in the mess of an island her father's dumped her with. In the sea of bull shit courtesy of the godforsaken dogs they called men. Pirates. Pirates with shitty business and the British at their tailcoats. Pirates looking for loans on good faith. Pirates spewing empty promises and laying her flat on her ass on her turf, in her bar. Dirty pigs of men with grubby faces and brains rotted through by drink and greed and sex. Men like Noonan and Vane. They were animals. Animals that she, unfortunately, depended upon as a means of survival. And when they delivered, their business was more than enough to override any complaint Miss Guthrie filed for her fucking health.

Problems, of course, are hers only when it suits her father. Her ownership of Nassau is a lie. She may have frightened many a man out of his wits, but men like Vane, sly bastards that they are, know full well Richard Guthrie rules.

"Ow," she reminds her, but the exclamation is soft, more to break the silence than convey discomfort.

"Ma chérie." Max's lips meet her cheek, graze the skin there and move to her ear. She shifts on her lap and Eleanor moves with her, hands moving to grasp her back as she leans back on the bed. "Vane may seep beneath your skin like poison, but he knows nothing of your strength."

"Strength." Releasing the lip she's worried between her teeth, Eleanor's smile is bitter. "What do I know of strength?"

"You know much of strength," Max insists, her hands flitting lower to smooth wrinkles from the shirt at Eleanor's shoulders. Her tone is disapproving, disbelieving. Eleanor finds herself wishing she had but a smidgen of Max's confidence. "You are the rock of Nassau."

"No." Eleanor's eyes are bright. She's painfully aware that tears of frustration threaten to take her. "It's all coming apart." She tears her away from Max's face, looking to the floor as nimble hands cup her cheeks. "This place," She looks up, searching Max's eyes for understanding with furrowed brows, "I can feel it slipping awa-"

"Shh." Hands stroke her face. Softly, lovingly. Max's eyes are dark with an emotion they haven't yet addressed. Eleanor's heart twists in her chest, shoots into her throat as her gaze slides to full lips and back again.

Strength. She hasn't got any strength. She's exhausted, half crushed beneath the pressure with such vast responsibilities and so little control.

But a kiss puts a stop to all thoughts that aren't of Max.

It's forceful. The hand at her face tightens its hold and the lips are strong against her mouth, easing her troubles with their insistence. It lasts but an instant, yet it slaps her like a wave, warms her with something that has little to do with the arousal that pools low in the pit of her belly. Max's heat is contagious. Eleanor feels it at her mouth, within her chest as if she's breathed life into her very being.

"You are so ready to see the worst." A thumb slides across her bottom lip, drags her back to the moment as Max loosens the belt cinched at her waist.

"And why shouldn't I be, with my shit luck?" Indignant despite the feel of cool hands through her shirt, Eleanor's frown deepens as Max snorts her disagreement and continues.

"You cannot see what is right in front of your nose." A finger meets the tip for emphasis and it's Eleanor's turn to disagree, ducking out of Max's hold to resume her analysis of the bed spread. "The world is full of surprises." Max shifts with her, working the buttons along Eleanor's torso and peeling the shirt back from her shoulders.

"If the world intends to grace my simple life with another sack of shit, I want none of these surprises."

"Shh." Another kiss, softer now. Languid. Max takes her time, shrugging out of her sleeves to shove the top half of her dress out of their way as she does so. "Let it surprise you."

And when she breaks away, it's to stand and step out of her dress entirely.

Eleanor's gaze follows its journey to the floor, but she looks past Max's nakedness to focus on her face once more. The expression there is genuine. Open. Drenched with anticipation, her smirk has Eleanor's mouth quirking in amusement despite herself. So she tucks a piece of hair behind her ear and allows herself the luxury of an eyeful, lips pursed in her contemplation of the woman before her.

Max swaggers forward to slip between her legs. Her chest level with Eleanor's face, she throws her arms over bare shoulders, tugging her to the edge of the bed and taking the pins from her hair. "You run too tight a ship." Threading her fingers through curls, Max straddles her lap again, pulling her head back to press a line of kisses to her throat.

Eleanor's eyes flutter shut as Max works, and she speaks through a hum of approval. "Somebody's got to."

"And that someone is you?" She dips lower, her mouth hot over collarbones and between the valley of Eleanor's breasts.

As if anybody else could take the heat and keep the shit show running smoothly. As if the place wouldn't fall apart without her hand in financial affairs. As if Nassau could survive with her father leagues away and out for the count. She'd built it from the ground up. Slaved her days away getting it together.

"It's got to be."

"Then you are strong, non?" Triumphant, Max grins against her chest. "A warrior." Open mouthed kisses draw goosebumps to the surface of pale skin. Max's smile widens as teeth graze a nipple and Eleanor shudders beneath her. "Max's warrior," she adds as an afterthought.

"It's not-" Struggling to find words to convey her worries, Eleanor's distracted by the nails that scratch the length of her torso to settle at her hips. "I'm not," she began again.

"Not what?" Cutting across her, the voice is light, teasing. Not at all like the hand that darts beneath Eleanor's skirt to knead at a milky thigh. "Max's?"

But Eleanor finds it's difficult to form words what with the tracing of patterns into her skin, and when she neglects an intelligible response, the resulting purr hits her below the belt to rock her body with yet another wave of arousal. "Max can make you hers."

Eleanor can feel her heat through the fabric of her skirt, a nuisance now that things have taken a turn for the better. Max has made little effort to remove it, and flushed with arousal, Eleanor wonders if she intends to force her to forgo her issues with more pressing problems that concern only the soaking of bed sheets. A hand slide between her legs and Eleanor clamps her mouth shut firmly on a moan, arching an eyebrow in feigned indifference. She's collected given the circumstances, but her voice is raspy with want, and her words are slow and unsteady despite her efforts. "Is that-Is that so?"

Shrugging by way of answer, Max presses more firmly, her chin resting on Eleanor's shoulder as skilled digits work to collect slick heat. Her own hips rolling against Eleanor's leg for good measure, she lets her moans run free as the blonde's hands grasp her back.

And Max's breath hot at her ear, Eleanor falters; her resolve splintering as a thumb finds her clit.

"You hiss." Max's amusement is evident as she dips past folds soaked with unspoken desire. Eleanor's breathy moans of approval have gained strength, but with Max's thighs at her either side of her own, it's nearly impossible to rock her hips to the pumping of her fingers and she buries her face in Max's neck, her exasperation evident in the groan that tears from her throat. "Why?"

But of course Max knows very well why.

"Kiss me," Eleanor demands, and Max complies immediately, scalding her with a kiss that's sloppy with want.

For her part, Eleanor accepts it greedily, tossing her problems aside and gathering Max closer still. Impossibly close, with chests smashed together and Eleanor's nails marking Max's ass in her eagerness.

And Max's hands are back in her hair, her knee between the blonde's legs as lips smack and hips buck. Eleanor's skirt is bunched somewhere around her waist, the skin beneath hot and sticky with perspiration. Her body is burning, her thighs wet as her leg collects evidence of Max's arousal, and the string of moans into her mouth have created another sort of knot in the pit of her stomach; this one hotter, tighter, tightening with every rock of her hips.

Words have failed them. Her mouth sucking firmly at the base of Eleanor's neck, her hands falling to clutch her back for leverage, Max's teasing has ceased altogether. Lazy kisses have grown desperate, more teeth than lips as pants rent the silence. The throbbing between Eleanor's legs has grown unbearable, Max's movement at the apex of her thighs is firm, insistent. It goads Eleanor higher, takes away from the loss of her fingers.

When she forces her eyes open, she catches Max mid moan. Her head thrown back, eyes screwed shut by the force of her pleasure, Eleanor's breath hitches in her throat.

And she can feel Max coiling like a spring in her lap, her breathing uneven, her muscles taut.

"Fuck."

Max smiles, meets her gaze with an expression that Eleanor finds hard to place.

Perhaps it's tender. Tender and wild with a desperation Eleanor feels bubbling in her own stomach. Her heart clenches almost painfully within her chest, and she wonders if Max, with her chest pressed so very close to her own, can feel it banging against her ribcage.

Gentle. Affectionate.

Laced with love.

The revelation comes as Max's legs close to hold her tighter and her own movements grow inconsistent. Max's hand is back between her legs, sinking fingers into wet heat with urgency now. Her eyes close and Eleanor kisses her, a hand sliding up her back to tangle in the hair at the base of her neck. She can hear Max's fingers; feel the muscles of her arm working, and the movements are strong, swift, deep. They catch her in places that leave her mouthing curses, brows furrowed as Max croons encouragement in her ear.

When they fall apart, they do so together.

Eleanor abandons words entirely, arching as best she can to hold the fingers within her. She can feel Max struggling against the force of her own orgasm and holds her in place, kissing her as best she can given the intensity of the pleasure that racks her body. And when she comes, Max swallows her cries and shudders in her lap, ducks her head and lets the last of her own moans fly free against Eleanor's shoulder. Her hips lose some of their strength; slow their rolling as she pants against her and fingers lose their momentum too, but stay in place as they catch their breath; buried deep between Eleanor's legs.

xxx

Tucked against Max's side, Eleanor looks down at the hand she holds. "I've enough worries for a lifetime, you know."

Max shifts against the headboard, twisting strands of golden hair around her fingers as she contemplates her response. "You have enough worries for three lifetimes."

"You know as well as I do that I haven't got much of a choice," Eleanor huffs.

Pressing a kiss to her forehead, Max smoothes Eleanor's furrowed brow with her thumb. "Ne t'inquiète pas. You have treated Nassau like a queen." Still holding Eleanor's hand, she moves it to cover her heart.

Yet again, Eleanor cannot find words to convey her doubts. Settling instead for a noncommittal grunt, she frowns as she ponders her lengthy list of responsibilities once more, but Max continues, her voice soft as she feels for the steady beating of Eleanor's heart. "Where you are weak, Max will be strong."

And with her head cradled in Max's lap, her palm pressed flat against her chest and lips, feather light, at her temple, Eleanor can't help but believe her.