A/N: Romance/angst, a slash pairing of Norrington and Beckett. Warnings for occasional cursing, some sexuality, and character death. The usual disclaimers apply.
It was funny, Norrington reflected, how little he had expected it. The way his life had suddenly become a tempest of fear and loathing and desire, the way his entire world now seemed to revolve around one person, the way he was utterly under a spell that had been wrought by eyes and hands and a single arrogant smile. And it had been so abrupt, so unexpected, so insane he could barely believe it had happened to him...he had laid eyes on Lord Cutler Beckett, and his heart was no longer his own.
He was in love with the man, and that was the truth of it. Completely at the mercy of the cultured voice, the coldly amused eyes, the maddeningly sensual cupid's bow mouth. Beckett had become his god; he had given him back his commission and promoted him to admiral, he had returned all the property Norrington had left behind in his drunken rush for Tortuga, and he was in the process of arranging a suitable marriage to a remarkably beautiful woman. The marriage, however, was solely for appearances, because both he and Beckett knew full well where Norrington's heart truly lay.
It was only then, in the still of the night as their harsh breathing slowed, that Norrington thought he really understood himself and what he wanted. It was those brief moments of pleasure and abandon, however fleeting, that made his otherwise hellish life worth living. His work for the East India Trading Company, the nightmarish interaction with Davy Jones and his unnatural crew, his meaningless pretense to court this woman – everything seemed to fade away when he was with Beckett, when they loved each other in the purest of ways. It was those moments that restored Norrington's soul.
He never had been absolutely certain of Beckett's feelings for him, and he was finding it increasingly difficult to be certain of anything as of recently. The other man had been acting differently; he was more reserved, yet now his words were tinged with open sexuality, as though he spoke for Norrington alone to hear. He worried that Beckett was getting reckless, and that he would reveal Norrington's most closely guarded secret.
Norrington turned slowly, in an effort to not disturb his bedfellow, but he was not at all surprised to find Beckett already awake. Half-closed green eyes regarded him lazily and with silent curiosity. Norrington wondered how Beckett always seemed to know when something was bothering him.
"Hello," he said softly, running a hand down the pale neck and into the curve of one shoulder. "That was..." He paused to search for an appropriate adjective and failed miserably. "Nice."
Beckett rose on one elbow, and one corner of his mouth gave a little curl. "Nice?" The lilt of his voice, the way his tongue skimmed his teeth when he finished speaking...Norrington fought back a shudder. "Come now. You forget how well I know you, and how well I know your propensity to be...vocal. Surely you can come up with something better than 'nice'."
Norrington closed his eyes. Not only did he insist on speaking inappropriately during their lovemaking, but he moaned quite loudly. "Sorry," he muttered, and traced the contours of Beckett's face. "Do you never sleep?"
"Why should I sleep, James?" Fingertips brushed Norrington's cheek, then his lips. "I'd rather watch you. You sleep so soundly. What do you dream about?"
If it had been a few weeks ago, Norrington would have smiled and answered immediately and honestly, and said that the only thing he ever dreamt about was the man lying next to him. But things were different now, and he was afraid to be honest. Afraid to be vulnerable.
"The future," he whispered, and he couldn't meet the green eyes that appraised him.
The cool hand brushed Norrington's dark hair back from his forehead, and followed the curve of one eyebrow. "Am I in your future?" The question was deceptively light.
The time when Norrington could have responded with impunity had passed. Now he needed to weigh his words, to think whether he wanted to lay his heart open before Beckett and provide him with all manner of weapons with which to destroy it. Sometimes caution was necessary, sometimes it was not. Norrington had never been able to decide when to be cautious and when to be blunt.
He sighed. "No," he said softly. "You'll tire of me before then, won't you." He didn't bother to give it the inflection of a question, but let it lie as a statement.
Beckett's eyes had darkened; they were now the grey of thunderstorms. "I wasn't aware you had any right to speak for me," he said acidly. "You presume the contents of my head, James."
"Won't you tire of me?" Norrington asked with barely concealed hopelessness.
Beckett's mouth compressed into a fine line. Norrington, who was well versed by now in the intricacies of the man's body language, understood that he was furious. "Shouldn't you know?" Beckett got out of bed. "You wish to make excursions into my mind and tell me what I'm thinking, don't you? Well then, Admiral, why don't you inform me of whether I'll tire of you or not?" He picked up his dressing gown, slid it on and left the room.
Norrington cursed himself. Reaching across the bed, he laid one hand on the cooling place on the sheet where Beckett had been and pressed his face into the pillow to smell the fading scent of the man. Stray rays of sunlight were beginning to perforate the curtains. It was time to get up and put on the mask.
Catherine Montgomery was indeed a beautiful woman, one so beautiful it would be unfair to mention her other worthy characteristics as well. She had a figure that made men's knees weak, a lithe, catlike grace, and long curls of chestnut hair. She was spirited and fiery, with a temper to rival an untamed stallion, though this temper was slow to kindle. She had been well educated; she had a brain as sharp as a razor's edge, and excelled in fencing as well as horsemanship. Her dark eyes never betrayed her thoughts. In short, she reminded him of Elizabeth.
But where Elizabeth had been bold with words, Catherine wielded her sentences like swords. Where Elizabeth would speak her mind, Catherine would cut you with her opinion. Where Elizabeth would reject your love, Catherine would tear your heart in two so you could never love again. This extremity of mood and passion was perhaps the only thing that kept Norrington coming back to her – she was a woman worth courting, even if he could not love her.
"You're troubled," she said to him as they watched the dusk encroach upon the vast expanse of glittering water in the Port Royal harbour. "What is it that occupies your mind and takes you far from where we stand?"
Norrington pushed thoughts of Beckett from his mind. "Merely my work," he replied, turning to her and leaning back against the railing. "And you."
One corner of her mouth twitched slightly. "You hardly ever think of me."
"But it would taste a lie to say I never do," he answered. He was far from playing the part of besotted lover to perfection, but Catherine was not the sort of woman to sway with pretty words. She knew as well as he did that he did not love her. "You are a fine woman."
"You are not the first to say this," she said, looking out over the sea, which was a deep, burnished golden now, and the sky violet. "Many men have asked me for my hand, James. Why do you suppose I would give it to you?"
"Because we are alike." He studied her intently for a moment. "It would be a mutually beneficial agreement. You would receive an upstanding, wealthy husband and an allowance guaranteed to stand you in good stead for the rest of your life should anything happen to me. And I, in turn, will be repaid with a beautiful, intelligent wife."
"I notice your terms do not include the presence of my body in your bed," Catherine noted dryly. "Am I to assume that you do not require it?"
Norrington could not deny that he enjoyed her company, nor could he deny that he found no fault in her face or form. And despite feelings that might have indicated to the contrary, he was not altogether certain that he did not wish to experience said form. He mulled over what she had said. "I would call it a gift rather than an obligation," he said softly. "If you wish to grant me your virtue, I would gladly accept it."
She smiled. "You're a curious man, James. You do not have the typical desires of men." His jaw clenched, and he looked away. "But you must not worry." She rested one hand lightly on his shoulder. "If you will have me, I will gladly enter into this mutually beneficial agreement."
He looked at her, startled. Finally, he allowed himself to smile, the first real smile that had crossed his lips in what seemed like years. "Thank you, Catherine." He took the hand she had rested on his shoulder and pressed it between both of his.
Her fingers tightened on his, and he felt a surprising flood of warmth through his body. "You ask so little," she said quietly, "and yet you choose to give so much." She touched his face in what seemed like wonderment. "If you would grant it, James, I would ask one more thing of you."
Norrington squared his shoulders and inclined his head. "What would you have?"
"Your confidence," she told him. "I would know the demons that torment you."
He shivered, but it was not cold. "What demons?"
"I see them in your eyes, James." Her fingertips lingered on his cheekbone. "These eyes are haunted. They betray you. I will not."
He stared at her for a long, long time, their gazes locked and unwavering, and slowly he nodded. "Very well. You shall be both my friend and my wife."
Their eyes turned to the sea, they watched night cast its smothering blanket of darkness over the Jamaica coast, and when both had clad their faces once again in the bland, polite façades that society deemed appropriate, they ventured forth, arm in arm, to the feeding frenzy of the aristocracy, to nourish the gossips with the news of their very recent engagement.
The dinner parties, the balls and all the other pomp and ceremony surrounding a noble marriage swirled around Norrington like a blur. He was proper and correct, granting his fiancée much leeway in terms of planning and organizing, but his heart was not in it. Every day he thought a little more about the man he really loved; every day another fragment of who he was died inside him.
This particular gathering was to be at the governor's house, although Swann himself would not be present. The governor was currently in England, accompanied by Beckett's highly capable right-hand man Mercer, who would no doubt see to it that a suitable report was given to the Queen. Thinking of Beckett made Norrington breathless as he ascended the steps; he had to turn aside and pause in order to compose himself.
Catherine laid a gloved hand on his arm. "James," she said gently.
"I'm fine." He turned to her, his face calm and smooth, his feathers unruffled. She did look lovely. He smiled and offered her his arm. "Shall we?"
They swept into the hall, as picture-perfect as any couple could be, and a mob of society women instantly descended on Catherine, cooing over her dress and her hair. The accompanying mob of society men gathered around Norrington, shaking his hand and clapping him on the back, and before he knew what was happening they were on opposite sides of the room and he could barely see her.
A jowly ex-Navy type caught Norrington's hand in his. His face was so red it was a wonder he hadn't exploded. "I say, old chap, you've made a bloody wonderful match! A real prize, that one!"
Norrington forced his face to relax into a smile. "I know."
"A fine woman!" The man shook Norrington's hand violently, and Norrington noticed the empty wine glass clutched in his other hand. Which explained the complexion and the behaviour. "A fine, fine woman!" He chortled, then choked, and two young lieutenants rushed up to escort him away.
Norrington took the glass of wine offered him by the butler and retreated to the balcony, breathing in the cool night air of the Caribbean. He had left England as a child, and he remembered little of the country the older Port Royal residents spoke of with wistful yearning. The England of his memory was cold and wet and grey, and Norrington, after the blue skies and hot sun of Jamaica, didn't think he could ever go back.
He glanced into the ballroom, where the pretty boys in ridiculous outfits and toothless old men alike were leering at the fashionable, alabaster-skinned young ladies. Norrington found the whole thing frankly disgusting. He lifted one hand self-consciously to the white wig he had donned, and spat a curse under his breath.
From the corner of his eye, he saw the crowd part, and he knew that only one person had that kind of presence, the kind of sheer power that made people of all classes and persuasions instinctively make way before him, and do anything his humour demanded that they do. It could only be Beckett.
Norrington hadn't seen him over the crowd, but he wouldn't have been able to in any case, not unless the man had entered the hall on a horse. At five foot five, Beckett was considerably small in stature, but he had never allowed his lack of height to stand in his way. What Lord Cutler Beckett wanted, Lord Cutler Beckett got.
"Lord Beckett," Norrington said without turning around. "I hope you didn't have to postpone important business in order to be here tonight."
"I would never attend a social function if it clashed with important business, Admiral." The tone was one of a teacher chiding an errant schoolboy. "I assure you that I took no pains to be here."
Norrington took a sip of the wine, hoping to hide his sudden feeling of dizziness. "I see," he said pointlessly, and scrutinized the horizon.
"It does have a certain allure, doesn't it?" Beckett was now standing beside him, hands clasped behind his back, his eyes focused on the same thing. "It's not difficult to understand why Captain Jack Sparrow loved the ocean so much. It's the freedom, you see, that he craved. Staying beyond society's rules, the strict little regulations we are all forced to live by." Norrington swallowed, and Beckett continued, even more quietly, "There are all times when we wish to free ourselves from those restrictions, is that not so? To do as we please, to act without thinking, to love whom we wish?"
"I –" Norrington stopped. The internal battle was too much. He wanted so badly to be open about his feelings, to just come out and say what he was constantly thinking, but he was still so afraid. "Have you seen my fiancée?" he asked abruptly.
Beckett showed no outward signs of displeasure at the no doubt unwelcome change in topic, but Norrington could sense the tension in the other man's frame, and now he deeply regretted having asked the question. "Yes," Beckett replied coolly. "She is a fine woman."
"She will be a fine wife," Norrington said, forcing the stiffness from his voice, "and a fine mother to our children."
Beckett's head jerked, and Norrington knew he had surprised him. "Do you plan on having children by her, then?" he queried, but there was a tremor in the cool voice that Beckett could not seem to hide. "Pardon me, Admiral, if I don't see how that's possible."
"Why wouldn't it be possible?" Norrington turned to look the man full on in the face and was relieved when his legs continued to hold his weight. "As you so rightly pointed out, she is a fine woman. It would be a pleasure to...put her in the family way, as they say." He arched one eyebrow only the slightest bit; any more auxiliary movements and Norrington thought he would crack. "If you'll excuse me, my lord, I would be amiss if I did not check on Catherine."
Beckett grasped his wrist, and the touch of his fingers seared Norrington's flesh even through his sleeve. "James," he said softly – Beckett never raised his voice; the angrier he got, the more quietly he spoke – and seized Norrington's hand, his thumb moving in slow circles over the skin. "James, you and I both know you don't fancy women. There's no need for this masquerade, this charade of courtship and proper affection. I introduced her to you, I proposed the idea of an alliance between the two of you –"
"Alliance?" Norrington stared at Beckett. "Is that how you refer to my upcoming marriage, my lord, as an alliance? I assure you that it is far more than that. It is a coming together of souls that will culminate in the joining of bodies and the creation of life." He drew his hand from Beckett's, and the other man made no attempt to restrain him. "Now, if you'll excuse me –"
Beckett took a step back, and Norrington watched the cold, polite mask form like a shield until the fortress that was Beckett was impermeable once more. "Of course," he said civilly, gave a short bow and strode off into the ballroom. Norrington watched until the throng had enveloped him, and then he made it his business to single Catherine out from among the crowd. She wanted his confidence? She was about to have it.
"Those are my demons," he finished quietly, leaning on the railing. He couldn't meet her eyes, instead choosing to stare unblinkingly at the horizon, hoping the glimmer in his eyes could be mistaken for the effects of the salty night breeze.
At first Catherine did not speak, but then she gave a great sigh and he felt her arms encircle his waist. "Oh, James." Norrington bit his lip. He laid a hand atop hers where they met over his chest. "I'm sorry I cannot be what you desire."
He turned to face her, and gently took hold of her shoulders. "I still want this marriage," he said. "I want you for my wife."
"And I you for my husband." She touched his face. "I will still marry you, James, if you will still have me."
"I will," he said, and embraced her. Her body seemed so fragile; he could feel her heart beating against his like butterfly wings. "I'm sorry I cannot love you in all the ways a man should, Catherine. But I will be a good husband to you." If it takes every ounce of will I have left.
"Surely you're not still going to go through with this marriage." Norrington barely looked up as Beckett, unannounced, entered his office. "You cannot possibly delude yourself into thinking that this union will be anything but a mockery."
"Why should it be a mockery?" Norrington checked the inventory of the Dutchman's latest load of treasure: spices, silks, gold, jewels, ammunition and the highest grade rum available in the western hemisphere. "Catherine is well aware of my persuasions and she has expressed the desire to wed me in spite of them."
Beckett's nostrils flared in a subtle indication of anger. "You told her," he said contemptuously. "Can't you keep secrets in bed, James?"
"You should know," Norrington fired back, finally annoyed enough to snap out of his lethargy. "Tell me something, Cutler – why are you pretending to care? You were so eager to hand me off to a woman in the first place, I suppose my wedding day will be the best day of your life!"
Beckett, if it were possible, had paled. "I am warning you, James Norrington – do not presume to know what I think! If you had any sort of brains in your head you'd understand that the last thing on this earth that I wish for is your bloody marriage!" He took a deep breath, and Norrington noticed with something near awe that he was trembling. "Every night I wish I'd never met you," Beckett continued somewhat less emotionally, "because if I hadn't met you I wouldn't give a damn about your bloody wedding and you'd be just another brick in the wall –"
"Instead of another notch on your bedpost," Norrington finished without pausing to think about the consequences of his statement.
Beckett glowered at him and slammed his hand down on the desk so hard the bottle of ink overturned. Norrington watched the black liquid soak slowly into the papers on his desk, obscuring where he had so recently signed his name in the same ink.
"James," Beckett said, and now his voice was deadly soft, the quietest Norrington had ever been conscious to hear it. "I want you to shut your mouth for all of a minute and let me explain something to you." Beckett didn't wait for acknowledgement; he knew his order would be followed without question. "I know you may find this impossible to believe, but I do care about you. You are not, and I repeat, not another notch in my bedpost. You are not another meaningless fuck, do you understand? You're the reason I breathe."
Norrington's mouth opened, then closed. He started to say something and stopped, then stopped starting to say things and started. "I –"
"You what?" Beckett, both hands braced on the desk, leaned forward. He might have leapt right into his lap, so much did Norrington notice the invasion of space. "You what, James?"
Norrington shook his head wordlessly. He didn't dare to speak for fear of the words that would fall from his lips. If he said anything, he knew, he would say everything. And as much as Beckett had surprised him in the last thirty seconds alone, Norrington was still unsure about his feelings. All he wanted was three little words. If he heard those three little words, he would fall to his knees and promise forever. He would cancel the wedding instantly. If only Beckett would say he loved him.
Beckett caught him by the shoulders and hoisted him bodily from the chair. Norrington had no idea how that was even possible considering the height difference of nine inches, but before he knew it he was standing, Beckett was kneeling on his desk and kissing him so hard he thought the other man was going to suck his soul out through his mouth.
Norrington was at once overcome with desire. He pulled his lover closer, their chests together and their hearts pounding in time, and kissed him back until he thought he would die. Beckett tore his mouth from Norrington's own. "Aren't you worried someone will come in?" he asked mockingly even as he was undoing the buttons of Norrington's coat.
"If you had asked me at any other time –" Norrington trailed off as Beckett pushed the wig off his head so roughly it fell out the window behind his chair, and then his attention was summoned once more as the smaller man tore his shirt in the haste to get it off. "Cutler, believe it or not, I'm actually going to have to wear these clothes again."
Beckett stopped what he was doing and pinned Norrington with a pair of cloudy grey-green knives. "Are you going to insist on speaking all the way through this?"
Norrington's knees turned to water, and he fell back into the chair. "No," he said weakly.
"Pity." Beckett shrugged off his own jacket and tossed it casually to the floor. Still in a shirt and his breeches, he eased himself onto Norrington's lap. Norrington himself wore only said breeches, and they were not nearly enough to disguise his need. "Because if you in fact were going to talk, I was going to propose giving your mouth something else to do."
Norrington moaned, and Beckett ran his hands down Norrington's chest, leaned in to inhale against his neck. "Ah, James..." He grazed Norrington's shoulder with his sandpapery chin, but immediately assuaged the hurt with a gentle kiss. "So beautiful..."
Roughly, Norrington pushed Beckett away and rose to his feet. He knew he was trembling in a most undignified way, but all thoughts of dignity and propriety had been shot to hell the moment Beckett had entered Norrington's life. The word 'proper' was now a distant notion and decidedly not a commandment he lived by.
"Stop your flattery," he said, moving to stand in front of the window and folding his arms. Half of Port Royal probably had a good view of his chest now, but Norrington didn't care. He needed the fresh air, otherwise he was going to do something incredibly stupid...like fall in love with Beckett all over again. Why wouldn't the man just say it?
"More games?" Beckett said softly, and laid gentle hands on Norrington's waist. "Why are you still playing with me, James? Isn't it time to put all our cards on the table?"
Try as he might, Norrington could not relax. "If I didn't feel the way I did, I'd have gotten myself out of this mess a long time ago," he mumbled without rancour.
Beckett was tracing patterns on Norrington's back. "A fine illustration of the principle that rational self-interest yields mutual benefit."
"I have no choice in these events," Norrington said, his eyes half-closed, "but I'm curious as to what you tell yourself. How do you justify the way you've bound me to you?"
"Then she means nothing to you?" Beckett's tone was casual.
"Catherine?" Norrington asked in disbelief, and untangled himself from Beckett's embrace to turn to face the other man. "Is that what this is about? You know she could never be what you are to me."
"And what am I to you?" Beckett, try as he might to keep his voice level and even, sounded nothing short of passionate. He ran one fingertip along the edge of Norrington's desk in feigned idleness, and glanced up with an emotion very close to fear in his eyes.
Norrington took a deep breath and went for it. "Everything," he said simply. "You're all I've ever wanted. I love you."
Beckett's eyes glittered for a moment with what might have been tears, and then they were burning with a fire beyond the likes of anything Norrington had ever seen before. "And I you," he said fiercely, gripping Norrington's arms with surprising strength. "And I you."
"I would have given you everything without hesitation or the slightest resistance," Norrington told him. "My body, my heart, my soul – you could have had it all from the moment we met if only you'd said you loved me. You were the one playing, Cutler. And what was the point of it? Why all the games?"
"I have never loved before," Beckett said softly. "You were new territory for me, a new world to conquer, strange and...oddly beautiful. I needed to rule you utterly, to be sure you were mine and mine alone." He reached up and brushed Norrington's hair back in a gesture both breathtakingly gentle and sharply intimate. "If you love me, you cannot marry her."
"On the contrary, it is because I love you that I must marry her." Norrington shifted restlessly, then took a seat on the edge of the desk. "If anyone were to find out about us, we would be dishonoured, exiled...possibly worse. I can't let that happen. To the world we must appear to be nothing more than friends."
"Perhaps you can continue the charade, James, but I cannot." Beckett leaned against the wall, his gaze far away. "Every breath I take is a testament to how badly I need you. Every misstep, every time I forget a name I ought to remember or drop a thread of conversation, it all tells how you are on my mind. Every step I take is a step I need you by my side."
"Then you must marry as well," Norrington said. Beckett looked at him in surprise, and he continued, "The pretense must be perfect. We must both wed, have children, appear to love our wives and families in every way a man should. That is how we can hide."
Beckett was silent for some time, and then he nodded. "I found you a wife. You must do the same for me."
"I will," Norrington promised, and then laid a hand on the other man's thigh. "Shall we finish what we started, my lord?"
Beckett gave a devious smile. "Certainly, Admiral."
Find Beckett a wife. Norrington had not the faintest idea where to begin to look for a wife. First of all, he didn't really know many women, and second of all, none of the women he did know – with the exception of his bride-to-be – were good enough for his lover. Which meant that there was only one place to look.
"Catherine," Norrington said one evening, "do you know any other women?"
She laughed. "Sorry to disappoint, James, but you can't take more than one wife."
"No, no, not for me. For Cutler." Norrington poured himself a small brandy and one for her as well. "As a means of protecting him from scrutiny. You know as well as I do that the way I feel for him and he for me cannot become public knowledge."
Catherine sipped her brandy thoughtfully. "What sort of woman would suit him?"
"Someone like you," he said. "Someone beautiful and alive, courageous and intelligent. Do you perhaps have a twin sister?"
She laughed. "No, I have no other siblings. But there is a girl I grew up with who has turned out quite similar to myself. I think she'd suit Lord Beckett very well indeed. And she's also much shorter than I."
Norrington decided that it couldn't hurt to try. "What's her name?" he asked.
Isabella Roberts was indeed beautiful, with silky black hair and dark, shadowed eyes that made all who saw her think at once of hot nights and cool sheets. She was willful, cunning and sharp-tongued – which might prove problematic in the long run – but what worried Norrington most was the fact that she lacked Catherine's correctness. Where Catherine would be cutting but politely so, Isabella would lay her opinion on you with not the slightest consideration of your feelings. All those things aside, she was not to be coerced into marriage. In short, Beckett would have to woo her the way Norrington had had to woo Catherine.
They arranged the first meeting to be at Norrington's wedding, which was only a few days hence. The actual ceremony passed too swiftly for Norrington to say he really remembered any of it, and both he and his new wife waited with bated breath at the reception to see how Beckett would get along with Isabella.
Catherine had been appointed the one to introduce them. Norrington stood in a corner with Beckett, making small talk. The other man was quiet; if he was nervous, he showed no sign of it. To Norrington's eyes, he was as cool and calm as always.
"There she is," Norrington muttered out of the corner of his mouth as he spied Catherine approaching with Isabella in tow. Beckett acted precisely as though he hadn't heard, and continued some mildly interesting talk about wiping out piracy. As the women neared, Norrington cleared his throat. "Ah, my lovely wife. Catherine, darling –"
"Allow me to congratulate you on your marriage," Beckett said to Catherine, overriding Norrington. He took her hand. "I fear that the match is a somewhat uneven one, but I thoroughly expect that you will reform James as you see fit."
Catherine smiled. "I shall, my lord."
Norrington murmured something appropriate and Catherine stepped back to put Isabella in the spotlight. "May I introduce my friend Isabella Roberts. Isabella, you already know my husband. And this is Lord Cutler Beckett."
Isabella was possibly at her most magnificent, with her hair in a simple style that drew attention to her long, graceful neck. In the red gown, Norrington could not help but think that she looked utterly ravishing, and he wondered what Beckett was thinking.
Beckett himself looked spectacular, dressed immaculately in black velvet with gold trimming. His shirt was the finest woven linen, his leather boots polished to a mirror sheen. And although Beckett was always impeccable in his attire and deportment, Norrington thought he had never seen the man look more refined, more collected, more absolutely charming.
"My lady," Beckett said, and Norrington felt a pang of envy at how those green eyes fixed on the woman as though there were no one but her in the room. "Pardon me if I seem forward, but you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Care to dance?"
Isabella said nothing for a moment, her piercing dark gaze searching him, and then she nodded. "Of course, my lord." He offered her his arm, and they disappeared into the crowd.
Catherine turned to Norrington. "Did you warn him about her?"
"Repeatedly. But I have a feeling all her womanly wiles will fail before him." Norrington, having seen Beckett in action, could not be worried. "Cutler always gets what he wants."
Catherine did not look so sure. "Isabella is not the sort to bend to any man's will."
Norrington gave a rueful smile. "Neither was I."
Isabella was an elegant dancer, Beckett noted, voluptuous on a small scale – she was several inches shorter than he – and with a red pouting mouth that seemed to be setting itself up for a kiss. Her eyes studied him; mockingly, he thought. But that would not last for long. What Lord Cutler Beckett wanted, Lord Cutler Beckett got.
"Are you tired?" he asked her as they spun around the floor in wide, sweeping arcs. This was their third dance, and while he was by no means tired, he wanted to get on with business. Beckett did not like uncertainty.
"Not particularly," she responded, "but I could perhaps use a bit of fresh air."
Arm in arm, they moved from the hot ballroom onto the balcony, and Beckett leaned back against the railing, studying her profile. Isabella, who seemed to be pondering the harbour below, didn't notice his gaze – or pretended not to.
"All men are drawn to the sea, perilous through it may be," he said softly. "And you are as inescapably enchanting, as harsh and changing and untamable as the sea. And beautiful, as moonlight on the waves, as starlight above the horizon."
The breeze pulled a stray curl from her up-do and let it fall against her cheek. "Pretty words, but they mean nothing." Her eyes met his suddenly, measuring and calculating. "You mean nothing to me, my lord."
Norrington had warned him about this. Beckett raised one eyebrow but did not change his expression in any other way. "Can I be blamed for my efforts?" he asked. "I am drawn to you as I have been drawn to no other woman. You are a goddess."
Perhaps it was the light and shadow, but he thought she smiled. "Often men offer desire as an excuse for their sins."
Beckett laid his hand over hers. "I offer simply my desire."
Her fingers gave the slightest twitch beneath his, and she turned her head away from him for a moment. When she turned back she looked careless and laughing, which he knew was not at all how she felt. "An item of such small value," she said lightly. "And in return?"
He looked at her intently. "I would have your heart, should you choose to give it."
Isabella's glance wavered, and her eyes dropped to where his hand rested atop hers. Her breathing hitched, and her voice cracked almost imperceptibly as she asked, "And if I choose not?"
"Then I will take your fury," he whispered, and kissed her. She offered no resistance, leaning against him, her mouth pliant under his.
Kissing a woman was not an altogether unpleasant experience, thought Beckett. The softness of her skin and the supple roundness of her breasts against his chest was unlike the planes of Norrington's long, firm body, and her hair had a sweet scent that Beckett was not used to, but the differences were not without their own strange appeal. It would take some getting used to, but he thought he could manage it.
He drew back, composure perfectly intact, and waited for her to catch her breath. "Do you choose to give your heart, Isabella?"
She gave him a sharp glance, straightened up to her full height and replied haughtily, "I need some time to think about it. I'll get back to you when I have decided. Now if you're quite finished manhandling me, I feel I would like to return to Catherine's company."
Beckett smiled slightly and gave a short bow. "I await your favourable response," he said with almost mock cordiality, and watched as she swept off among the dancing couples. She was his, he was sure of it. Now to find James...
Norrington was unsurprised when Beckett returned alone. "How did it go?"
"Well, if I may say so." The smaller man plucked a glass of wine from the tray of a passing waiter and took a sip. "She'll let me know when she's ready."
"Cutler," Norrington said in frank amazement, "do you mean you proposed to her?"
"In a nutshell." Beckett raised one eyebrow coolly. "Oh, was I supposed to wait a certain number of months and go through a performance of courtship deserving of recognition by the King? Well, you know I'm not versed in these things, so I do hope you'll forgive my ignorance."
Norrington goggled. "You only just met!"
Beckett shrugged, set his glass down on a nearby table and clasped his hands behind his back. "Excuse me, but you didn't give me a step-by-step guide on how to approach a woman with a view towards marriage. I beg your pardon if I didn't do the thing properly."
Norrington kept with Beckett as they descended the wide staircase. "Do you think she'll say yes?"
Beckett gave a peculiar smile. "I'm sure she will."
Norrington decided not to ask, and instead eyed the cobblestones as they strolled slowly through the courtyard. It was night, but the pale moonlight shone down from above, making Beckett's white wig glow. "And what are your plans for the company?"
"I have new orders for the Dutchman and our growing armada," Beckett said, head tilted back to study the stars. "We will attack European shipping." Norrington nodded wordlessly. "Does your conscience bother you, Admiral?" The tone was mocking. "Our efforts secure the sea for British commerce. What serves the company serves England."
"I do not doubt your fervour, Cutler," Norrington said wryly, "and I assure you that my loyalty is to the East India Trading Company and to you." He regarded the empty courtyard. The breeze had died now, the moon behind a cloud; it was dark and still. "You gave me back my life. I will not forget that."
"I know." Beckett stopped walking and turned to him. "I expect that your marriage will change things between us, James. You will have all the responsibilities that come with a wife and a family. You will have children, and you will worry about their education and their future. Your job will take you far from them, and perhaps in time you may wish to reconsider your career. My marriage will give me the same cares."
"Cutler, nothing will change," Norrington said as soon as Beckett had finished. "You are everything and that's the end of that. Whatever family I might have would never come between us."
"Yes, James," Beckett said patiently. "You say this freely now. But there will come a day when we will not have the determination – or perhaps the energy – to pursue this any longer. The price we pay to defy public scrutiny is knowing that what we have must die. Perhaps we can see each other infrequently, make quick rushed love in dark corners, but the way it is between us now...that can never last."
The sheer frustration was too much to bear. Norrington felt he could cry. "Why must it die?" he burst out. "Why must this be wrong? How can love be wrong, Cutler?"
"I do not make the rules, James, I merely abide by them." And now Beckett would not look at him. "And so must you, or face dishonour and ruin us both."