Two ships are sailing, the wind is wailing
An ocean awaits
Captured, this moment inspires us
To unlock the latches that bind us
Oh, and we will leave behind these fallen tears
For two will sail tonight
And here, here in this humble ship
I will make my home
('Albatross', Sarah Blasko)
– Epilogue –
Cannibal Cove, in spite of its name, was not threatening in appearance. Perhaps under the cover of darkness, there would be reason to fear the shadowy figures that slipped out from among the trees, but under the drowsy midday heat, all was stillness. The only disturbance was the sound of trickling water, where Crocodile Creek threaded its way out of the mountains and dense forest, winding down a steep channel of rock to finally join the sea. There was the pungent smell of dead crabs baking under the hot sun. No stretch of shade to provide any relief as the sands curved in a wide arc, finally culminating in great masses of black rock rising up sharply against the horizon, concealing the cove from any prying eyes.
The peace was disturbed by a solitary stray figure in white picking her way down the cove barefoot, tasselled skirts blowing out behind her. She held a hand over her eyes and squinted against the glare of sunlight. The bright heat warmed her back, dry seaweed cracking beneath her feet. The wind was fresh, blowing strong and steadily in bursts of energy and calm. The bright blue line of the sky occasionally broken by scudding clouds of the kind she never saw brooding over London – brilliant and white and billowing, casting moving shadows on the sea below.
The last few days had done wonders. It was no corseted model of feminine delicacy that trod with such firm and sure steps across the sands, careless of whether or not she was observed. She was freckled from brow to shoulder, a ruddy glow of colour in her cheeks. Dull brown hair was streaked with threads of bright gold, twisted in a heavy braid around the uplifted head, the bright red feathers adding a rakish gypsy touch to the ensemble. The disdainful curve of her mouth had softened, and even something of a smile lingered in the upturned corner where the kiss had once been. Seven years of isolation in herself had made Wendy proud, but the lively, expressive sweetness of childhood was revealing itself more and more by the day, and her imagination that had formerly been concealed behind the cold and haughty set of her features now appeared through the glimmers and brightness in her eyes.
There had been feasting and revelry for two days. Peter seemed to have forgotten what they were even celebrating as he threw himself into the heart and soul of the festivities, the brilliant force of his nature stirring everyone around him into a frenzy of irrepressible mirth. Looking at him, so lively and joyful, the glow of youth shining through his features, it was hard to believe that this very same boy had killed a man. But it was another instance of the darker side of Neverland that had been shielded from her childish eyes. Wendy knew him well enough by now not be to be too saddened at his frequently forgetting her existence. He would chance a passing remark her way, occasionally throw her name carelessly into his stories of how he had defeated Hook, but more often than not, she was a momentary diversion to be picked up and discarded at will. Having his attention was like being under the welcoming beam of the sun, and when he withdrew it, the clouds rolled over once more. She would no longer depend on him for her happiness. Both the Lost Boys and the Indians had taken her in as one of their own, lavishing her with kindness and gifts, and she knew she could have stayed with them as long as she wanted.
And yet… the peace she had experienced over the last couple of days had abandoned her, to be replaced with a low, anxious excitement thrumming beneath the skin, the expectancy of something about to happen. She had lain awake all night, breathless and fevered while Neverland slept, her imagination disturbed by the desire for action and images of a dangerous smiling face. Keeping a silent vigil, watching over the children in peaceful slumber, Wendy realised how separate she was from them now, how changed. The dreams that stirred deep in her body and soul had no place among such innocence. Welcoming as they were, that was not where she belonged. She had given up that vision long ago, and there was no use in chasing shadows. And though it galled her to admit it, Hook had seen the truth in his unique, discerning way. So motherhood doesn't fill you with the same delight as it once did? The children could be endearing, affectionate and playful, but just as often were loud, tiresome and violent towards one another. Wendy was fond of them, felt protective towards them – but she did not love them. To spend too long in their company was a strain on her nerves and her patience. Terrible as it was to acknowledge – hadn't she always been led to believe that the supreme purpose of a woman was to be a mother? – Wendy knew in her heart that it was not what she wanted. At least not now. Perhaps not ever. She was twenty years old. Her own life had barely begun – was she supposed to sacrifice it altogether in the interests of raising another? To bury her dreams and lock the drawer as her own parents had done?
She thought of her mother – whom she loved and idealized – Mother, with her silk-gloved hands crossed over the lap of her gown, a diamond broach fastened on the lace collar, shining tender eyes looking steadily out, so perfectly able to fill the domestic sphere assigned for her, with no doubts or hesitation –
Did she too harbor lonely desires in that serene quiet, never to be fulfilled? If so, not a word of complaint had ever slipped from her lips. She had been the perfect wife and mother, fulfilling every duty with impeccable courtesy. She would expect nothing less of her own child.
And this was what awaited her. Whether in Neverland among the eternally motherless children, or in London in the wake of an inevitable marriage. To be a woman in this world meant never to have a life of one's own. Thus far in Bloomsbury she had lived according to the expectations of others, yet in doing so, had disappointed herself. For years, she had carried that lingering sense that she was less than what she should be. It was only in these last days had she started to feel at last, truly herself. Perhaps that was why, even though two days had already passed, she still had not asked Peter to take her back to London. She knew that she would have to do it soon; that she could not remain in this stasis forever. Her place was not here – the last couple of days among the Lost Boys had shown her that – so to resume her former life was the only choice she had. It is over, she told herself sternly. You have had your escape, your moment of temporary release. Now you must return to reality and all that it entails.
The lofty ambitions that stirred her soul had no place in the real world. Besides, with whom would she share her visions? Aunt Millicent would never accept the possibility of a writer in the family, and her parents were too easily swayed by her strong opinions. Her brothers were at school. She had no real friends, only acquaintances.
Yet it was not loneliness that Wendy feared – her imagination had always been a worthy companion, more tolerable by far than the people that surrounded her – no, it was that feeling of inactivity she dreaded, that stifling, useless apathy. To have no labour, no task of any meaning to occupy her idle hours save to be decorative and pleasant to those who addressed her. To be confined to the household, with only wifely duties to satisfy her soul and all it yearned for… no, it was unendurable! She did not want her life to stand still, but to be moving, always moving.
But in the meantime, the warmth of the sun on her skin was agreeable, the sound of the waves soothing in their regularity, and she would not feel guilty for wishing to draw out the experience just a little longer. In spite of her dissatisfaction with her way of life in London, it was not Wendy's natural state to be melancholy, and just being at liberty among these scenes of nature was enough to restore her high spirits. Light-hearted and careless as a child, she capered along the shore, laughing at the delicious shock of cold as she ventured into the sea, hopelessly trying to keep pace with the tide. The water surged and eddied, rushing into the furrows of sand between her feet. She watched as the sun drew swirling reflections in the wet sand, the glittering light catching off –
Wendy looked closer, amazement catching in her throat.
It cannot be…
Sudden tears stung her eyes as she bent down and picked up the tiny object, wiping away the sand that covered its hard casing. The acorn she had thought she would never see again. Wendy pressed the keepsake to her heart, filled with both painful and longing memories. Hardly daring to breathe, she opened the locket and her eyes fell on the gold brightness of fairy dust encased within.
With a sudden rush, she realised that she could fly again. That she had happy thoughts once more. After long years of harbouring only misery and regret, slowly wasting away in bitterness, these past few days had brought her to life. The wild exhilaration of adventure, the joy of knowing what it was to rely on herself, breathing the fresh air and feeling herself at last, truly free –
(And deeper still, held close in her heart, the memory of a hidden place, caresses on her skin in the dark, gazing into eyes of the deepest and most soulful blue…)
She held the key to her return in her hand. Yes, she could go home.
The question was, did she want to? She felt restless and excited; her heart beat strangely and her hands trembled. She had the lingering, unshakeable sense that there was something unfinished, as though she knew that she was waiting for something. It trembled in the very air, through the soles of her feet, in the hush of the tides. Was she really ready to renounce all this? She had finally started to live again. What was the meaning of any of it, if she merely turned her back once more, resigning herself to that silly, frivolous butterfly existence when she knew there was so much more out there?
Her fingers tightened around the acorn. She could pretend she had never seen it, fling it back into the sea and no one would be any the wiser.
But no. A decision had to be made. Her footsteps left prints in the sand as she wandered distractedly up and down the narrow strip of beach. This would be her last time walking these shores, for she would never set foot in Neverland again. A part of her would linger, certainly; the child running barefoot through the forest, crouching behind the trees as she watched the fairies dance, or placing a cautious toe in the aquamarine waters that bordered the Mermaid's Lagoon. And later memories of a girl – still not quite a woman – standing on the deck of a ship, feeling the morning sun upon her face and shoulders, breathing in the freshness of sea air for the first time in years. Swiftly come and gone, those fleeting memories, ephemeral as the lights flickering inside the walls of a castle, falling on the bodies of two entwined figures in a stolen moment. The time had not been wasted, for she had known herself to be happy, and there was nothing to regret. Her only fear now lay in looking forward, though she rationally told herself that all women must submit to such a lot, and indeed, many did so far more stoically and gracefully than herself. And had she not in these last few days experienced more than many had the opportunity to feel in a lifetime? It still did not ease the ache of longing in her heart, though she must turn with all her strength to face the life ahead of her, and see that she could not strive and make the best of it. Her future might not be a happy one, but she determined to keep misery at bay as much as she could. It was not necessarily a great comfort, though the waves surging against the pebbled shore brought their own kind of calm, and the sparkle of the sea against the sky in the distance suggested that things as yet unimagined lay over the horizon, and not to despair.
Her roaming feet had brought her almost to the end of the cove. The uneven wall of stone rose threateningly above her. Even under the bright midday sun, there was a hint of danger in the sea; mountains of green ice at a distance, crashing in great white plumes against the surf-worn boulders. Wendy made her way closer with a sense of fascination, skirts gathered in her hand as she began to climb over the slippery tumble of rocks. The sea surged in eddying channels, a rush of white foam settling salt spray in her hair. She blinked through the haze, standing on a smooth ledge, and when her vision cleared, she saw a ship lying at anchor, almost fully concealed by the rugged wall of rock on the edge of the cove.
Wendy felt no surprise on seeing the Jolly Roger. In her heart, she knew she had secretly come here expecting or hoping for this very outcome. Through the rippling of the distinctive black flag, she could discern a tall, dark figure standing on the deck. The sunlight caught the silver in his ear. His arm hung over the side of the ship, a glint of cold steel peering beneath the lace at his sleeve.
Wendy felt her heart banging in her side. A hand went to her braided hair, as she felt self-conscious suddenly. Then her mouth came down at the side with determination. She made her way forward, knowing full well he had seen her long before she had been aware of the ship's presence.
If she had surprised him with her boldness, the captain made no sign of it. He waited until she had drawn close enough that the shadow of the vessel's domed side fell across her, then observed calmly, "You must have taken leave of your senses to come back here."
"Perhaps," agreed Wendy, lifting her head to meet his inquiring look as he gazed down at her from the distance of the deck. "But I might say the same about you. I wonder that you've not put a thousand miles between yourself and Peter by now."
"Oh, I intend to. And if that infernal crocodile hadn't rendered my ship nigh unseaworthy, we would have made off sooner." He continued to watch her, indolent and amused, while Wendy's fingers began to thread nervously through her tasselled skirts. He had not lost the ability to make her feel utterly disarmed in his presence.
"Are you simply planning to stand there? Or are you coming aboard?"
The rope ladder tumbled over the side of the ship, disturbing a couple of gulls that took off with a wailing cry, wheeling and circling overhead. Wendy looked contemplatively at the ladder a moment as it swayed slightly in the breeze. Was she afraid? No, only this feeling of breathless expectancy that set the pulse dancing in her neck and wrists. She caught the rope in both hands, tossing her straying curls of hair over her shoulder, and set about the ascent without hesitation.
She managed the climb with ease, stopping only briefly to pause for breath, and jumped lightly from the rope ladder and landed aboard as though she had done this many times before. But in fact this was the first time she had boarded the ship as anything other than a prisoner. The realisation was a strange one, and it brought with it a rush of exhilaration and happiness, for it seemed as though she belonged and had somehow earned her place here among these men, who were scarred and battle-hardened and unafraid of hard toil. She was a different creature to the cold, stiff girl that had come here only a handful of days before. Wendy shuddered to think what might have become of her had the captain never come to the window.
The sun streamed brightly onto the deck, the wooden boards newly-polished. She could hear the wash of white foam against the stern. The air was fresher up here, brisker, the keen smell of salt stinging the senses. Mr Smee was on hands and knees scrubbing the floor of the deck, but rose to greet her, wiping his hands on his stained apron as he came forward. His face had reddened slightly behind the beard.
"I meant t'thank ye, Miss. Nasty business that with the mermaids. Would've made an end of me if ye hadn't -"
Wendy smiled. "Think nothing of it."
The rest of the crew paid her little mind, other than a few curious glances. But there was an air of excitement pervading the deck, the expectation of new waters about to be chartered and realms to be discovered. She wondered how long they too had felt imprisoned here, bound by the venomous whims of their captain. Perhaps Cecco would have had more luck in stirring up a mutiny than Hook was willing to admit. But thinking of Cecco brought back too many painful memories. She had not liked him, so that was not the reason why the image of his body brought with it rising tears and an aching head, and she drearily wondered whether it was the fate of all women to be so weakened by such sights while men could look upon a corpse and shrug their shoulders at the necessity of the deed and move on without sentiment. Perhaps, she thought with a sigh, London truly was where she belonged and anything otherwise was merely self-delusion.
She found the captain gazing out to sea, leaning against the side of the deck with an aristocrat's confident grace. He was dressed in a loose white shirt, a touch of lace at the open collar and billowing sleeves. His black hair fell loose and curling over his shoulders. He had been smoking, for the faint scent of tobacco clung to his hair and garments, spicy and aromatic.
And, because he did not seem inclined to speak, she broke the silence. "I've been among the Indians."
"I can see that. You look utterly ridiculous in those clothes. I rather think I preferred you roaming my decks in scraps of pirate garb and your hair over your face." His gaze moved over her in that old, lingering manner and Wendy felt a rush of shivering heat. She should have known that the awakening of her body and soul in the Black Castle had not been the end of something, but only the beginning. The mocking disdain in his face when he spoke of Charles Quiller-Couch had been a clear warning that she should not expect such pleasures from her marital life should she choose to the pursue the course of a dutiful engagement. And in truth, looking at the captain, she could never imagine wanting anyone else so deeply or intensely that her entire body trembled with the force of it. She could still recall the feel of him under her hands, the tensing of his muscled shoulders, the taut power in his lean frame, the languid slide of his hips against hers… and, most stirringly of all, the sensation of him coming utterly undone. All those elaborate courtesies and smooth irony stripped away, rendering him raw and fierce with need –
Hold on to those memories. She would have need of them in the long years to come. I have been alive, she thought. Nothing and no one can take that from me. Yet it did not ease of the pain of what she had to say.
"I came to say goodbye."
"Did you?" His refined, courteous tones betrayed nothing.
"You know I can't stay here. I have to go back."
"Back to London?" he said, and her cheeks burned with humiliation at the faintest hint of scorn in his voice.
"I must." Wendy knew it was true, but she was no longer sure why. "In spite of everything I might have said, it doesn't alter the fact that it is still my world, my life. There are people expecting me. My family are there, my –"
"Fiancé?" Hook responded sneeringly, with a derisive curl of the lip.
"He's not my fiancé," she said in a low voice. Hurriedly, she went on, "What could I expect if remained here? Every moment since I arrived, there has been nothing but violence and danger –"
"You didn't seem to mind not so long ago. Are you so easily daunted, Wendy Darling?"
She felt her blood rise at the provocation. So, he thought her a coward. Or worse. And sudden humiliation and anguish flushed through her that he must consider her a mere child at play, that all this had been little more than a game to her, a silly escapade that once over could be happily forgotten as she returned the safety and comfort of her normal life. Did he truly believe that all this had meant nothing to her, that all those things she had yearned for and discovered could be so easily cast aside?
Hook had turned away, resting an arm idly against the polished lip of the deck, his gaze falling indifferently on the far horizon, where freedom glimmered, waiting expectantly. "Then again, perhaps it is for the best. After all, you do have a remarkable instinct for trouble."
He fell into a brooding silence. Wendy looked out across the vast expanse of water to where the cliffs rose high, obsidian stone glittering in the midday sun. The keening wind beat about her hair and shoulders, stirring the waves into white-tipped crests. The air was all alive, trembling and rippling in visible folds, the scent of it sharp and unforgettable, carrying the trace of salt and gun-smoke and fresh forests. It was not the world, but enchantment, and she wanted it all. To feel the sea-air on her skin and watch the world spread out below her. She wanted to breathe life in – to embrace it – rejoice in it. She wondered when it was that civilization had first intruded on happiness, when simply to love and know freedom had no longer been enough.
And what of the humdrum world of London, with its smoke and its noise and its endless swarms of people, all lost in loneliness? That was not her home, nor ever had been. She wondered how she could have borne it these long years; the suffocating cloak of grey air, the roar of omnibuses and coarse shouts amid the smog-filled streets – or worse still, the idle, frivolous chatter of drawing room gossip, the whalebone confines of a pearl-studded corset pressing against her lungs and the bright, ornate, unbearably empty rooms. Let others be burdened with the trivialities, the mundanity and superficial nature of society. Such worldly things did not touch her soul. No, it was passion, excitement and certain danger that she thrilled to. This place, Neverland, it was a part of her. How could she leave it? Something inside her had never forgotten. She felt a sudden, convulsive pain in her chest. I cannot do this… I must be mad to let him go… Her heart was being torn in two. How was she ready to make such a choice? She would never be ready to turn her back on him. She would give up all her former life if he asked it of her. The realisation was a terrifying one, but worse still was the knowledge that he would never ask. I won't take the decision away from you. Not when there is something so infinitely delightful in watching your struggles.
Her heart and her mind were telling her two different things. Rationally, she knew what must be done. Perhaps if she had been born a boy, things would have been different. She could have rolled up her sleeves, thrown herself in with a hearty laugh, and washed up on the shores of England years later having merely run away to sea during a wild and rebellious youth. But women did not do these things. They had reputations to consider, and the door of society once closed was closed forever. This has been a dream – a beautiful dream – but now I must wake up and return to reality. She thought of the expensive town house in Bloomsbury, all of those things that were known and familiar. The household objects, the little day-to-day rituals. She had a place there. People who would miss her. She felt a pang at the thought of John and Michael. And Mother, dear Mother whom she could never bear to disappoint. They all had such expectations of her. It was the right, the sensible thing to do.
Then why is my heart telling me I am wrong?
On the one hand lay duty and obligation, on the other…?
She felt a longing to open her arms wide, to be possessed by that wild, mad exhilaration that would envelop her like the eye of a storm. Perhaps this was the greatest mistake she would ever make. Yet was it not better to regret the deed rather than merely the empty longing of it? Even if it came to grief, at least she would have the satisfaction of having known the experience rather than suffered the dull agony of forever wondering. Her mind was drawn inevitably back to the Black Castle, when she had cast aside all lingering doubts and thrown herself into the passion that awaited. Would she go back and change what had followed then? Not for the world. I would far rather regret the things I do – foolhardy, rash and reckless though they might be – than the things I could only wish I had possessed the courage to do.
Wendy glanced down and realized she was gripping the side of the deck with white-knuckled hands. Her body was seized by a tightness – in her hands, in her throat –
The captain sighed, seeming to stir himself from his own private reverie. "You'd better step down before we start to move."
"Then you are leaving?"
Wendy was silent for a moment. The warmth of the deck under her bare feet was pleasant, the caressing breeze stirring her errant tendrils of hair about her shoulders. She lifted her head to the bright sky and felt the heat of the sun on her face. She had the overwhelming sense that this was contentment, this was life as it should be lived, that everything one needed was aboard this ship.
She turned to him, keeping her voice deliberately light. "What direction are you headed?"
"Wherever the winds take us. Perhaps south to the West Indies, stopping to make port at Jamaica; perhaps swept north, over the edges of the world into new and undiscovered oceans waiting to be chartered. But I'll not take you back to London, if that's what you're thinking. I do have a reputation to maintain. I only capture maids; I don't return them afterwards."
"I'm not exactly a maid," she told him. "And I have no intention of going to London."
The captain's hand clenched with a sudden, violent convulsion. He flashed one of those piercing looks on her, the force of which almost unsteadied her. A glimmer of something hard and bright and real. He was stripped down to the bone, raw with emotion. She wondered how long he had been alone, how long since anyone had tried to penetrate that wall of ice and discover the man beneath. Then he appeared to master himself slightly as he drew a breath, never taking his eyes from her all the while. His voice was carefully casual. "There's no peace, no familiar ties, no comfort in the life I'm intending to lead. You'll have no security from one day to the next. You would be expected to work as hard as any of my men, whether it be labouring on the ship or putting that mind of yours to good use. I told you that piracy is a hard existence, one that offers up far more dangers than rewards, and I imagine it's doubly so if you're accustomed to the soft living of the city."
Wendy laughed. "I'm not one to be cossetted, if that's what you mean. I can handle myself perfectly well without your pandering to my needs. "
"Will you still be so certain when my moods threaten to blacken me, when I give you gifts of stolen goods, or when I kill the man that provokes me to violence?"
"I'm willing to take that chance, if you are."
"Careful, dear girl. I'm almost beginning to believe you might love me."
"I do love you," she said, and wondered why she had agonised over this declaration for so long. Of all the risks she had taken, all the times she had recklessly chanced her life and flung herself into danger, nothing had daunted her as much as the prospect of saying those three simple words. And, as with all fears when they were confronted, she felt a lightness within her, as though some great burden had been lifted. The weight of secrecy that had been a constant trouble and torment now gone, scattered to the four winds.
Her declaration had silenced him momentarily. His eyes were cold as a frozen sea as they narrowed on her closely, as though his gaze could prise out all her innermost thoughts. His hand made a half-motion towards her, when an impulse seemed to hold him still. His voice was low; a disinterested observer would never have guessed the weight of emotion that lay beneath.
"And what of Pan?"
"I have said my goodbyes to Peter. He'll neither care nor remember before long. He can move on from the past; I think it's time I did the same." If she sounded callous, it was only because she could not put into words how much Peter had meant to her – not only Peter, but all that he had embodied. It was her own childhood she was saying farewell to. All of those former dreams and longings faded to the distant recesses of memory, to be dwelt on with an odd, nostalgic tenderness in those rare private moments. But she also knew the reason she had clung so fiercely to the past – she had believed that she had no future. How much easier it had been to look back when the prospect of looking forward had filled her only with dread. But now, life had opened in a myriad of endless possibilities, new dreams unfolding in her vision, unbounded save only by the limits of her own imagination.
Hook did smile then, slow and triumphant, and she knew why. He had won at last. Could she begrudge him his moment of victory in the face of all he had sacrificed for her sake? "I have given you fair warning. But no, I can see you are in earnest. You have that damned stubborn look on your face."
"My life is my own, and I am determined to start living it."
"Very well; come with me and you'll find stories enough to your heart's content, you may be certain of that."
Wendy only smiled, for this thought had occurred to her already. Her smile brought forth an awakening gleam in those ice-blue irises and his features hardened with intent. That one look stole her breath. The surrounding world seemed to recede into a howling void. All her complacency fled as the captain took a step forward, placing an arm either side of her, trapping her against the side of the ship. Her heart had frozen, thunder and lightning crashing distantly in her ears – then he was gone, only a breath of air whispering against her parted lips.
There was a hard shudder of movement, and suddenly around her all was action. Cries, men running to and fro, the flapping of ropes in the strong wind. Hook was calling out orders as he strode back and forth across the deck, master of his domain. The great wheel spun, its spokes glittering in the afternoon sunlight. Below, the waters met and surged in a frothing of surf and foam, the spray rising thirty feet into the air before streaming out behind in a furious channel of white as the ship cut through the sea. The great wall of black rock was receding as they started to move away, out into the open waters.
Wendy leaned her elbows on the side of the deck, watching the majestic departure. Above, the sky scudded with white clouds was of a pure and a brighter blue than she had ever seen. And below lay the great, tumultuous motion of the sea, a light immensely luminous aquamarine that reflected darker shadows beneath its surface. The sails whipped and billowed in a clanking of chains that anchored the ropes in place, high winds stirring the surge that raised the frigate high, its ploughing progress parting the waves in great crests that stretched out immeasurably, far back to the shingled shore.
Neverland was disappearing, yet for the first time, she could leave it behind without grief. There was such a lightness in her heart and body that it almost seemed she truly had taken flight. A sudden thought struck her, and slowly, Wendy drew out the acorn on its chain, holding it out in the palm of her hand. Carefully, she opened the locket, watching as the golden stream of fairy dust was released into the air, stirred and eddied around in the breeze before disappearing in a glittering trail into the far beyond. Some other girl would have need of it now; another lost child leaning out of a window, longing for something beyond the mundanity of ordinary life. Peter would appear to her, offering a hand, a dream, an adventure. Her own childhood was over, and she would no longer stand in the way of others experiencing all the excitement and joy of Neverland. So she pocketed the empty locket, yet resolving always to keep it close and dear to her heart.
There was not a trace of regret in her eyes when the captain returned with a lightness of step and vigour that seemed to be youth reanimated within him. "Here," he said, and slid the cold barrel of a pistol into her hand. "If I am to make you a member of my crew, you will need this. You might not use it today, nor tomorrow, but one day you will."
"Are you not afraid I'll use it on you?" she asked archly.
"The thought had crossed my mind. But a man risks his life to know that he is alive. And that, my dear girl, is the allure of piracy, simply put."
Wendy tucked the pistol into the waistband of her skirt, the new and unfamiliar weight one she would have to get used to. She had seen enough to know that he had not lied about the dangers that awaited. Every time he ventured abroad, the captain was armed to the teeth; cutlasses and rifles and pistols, and this from a man who had defied death. Beneath the languid, careless exterior, he was ever tense and expectant, ready for an assault at any moment. And equally prepared to be the aggressor and take his enemies by surprise.
"And so you truly have turned your back on Peter," she said wonderingly.
"For the time, though do not expect such acts of mercy to be commonplace. The first thing you need to learn is that a pirate deals in death, makes it his art. It might be riches and adventure that impel us, but murder is always a viable means to an end. The only difference between Pan and I is that I understand this game has consequences. I'll not kill a man unnecessarily, but neither will I held be held back by sentiment." There was a cold light in his eyes and his mouth thinned with derision. "Have I appalled you? No, but you have shown yourself be fairly ruthless, though only against me, it seems."
"I sought only to protect myself."
Hook smiled, a cunning, callous thing. "And are you in danger now?"
Was she? Certainly not from him. He had not lied to her, nor forced her to do anything against her will. For all the darkness that lay within him, the merciless pragmatism, the contemptuous disregard for compassion, she could not truly say that she feared him. Be that as it may, she thought, I will not give up my conscience for you, James Hook.
A hand under her chin. Cool fingers lingered on her jaw as he looked earnestly into her face. "I will not hurt you," he said quietly. "But I will hurt those that would."
Wendy did not doubt him. She had loved blindly and naively before – she would not do so again. The lesson had been a painful one, but once learnt, could never be forgotten. It would not be easy – but then, where was the satisfaction without the struggle? Weren't all the best things worth fighting for? Her morals would clash against his, undoubtedly. She would defy him, betray him, scheme against him… and sometimes perhaps even acknowledge when there was sense in the things he said and did. She was confident enough in her power to believe that her will was more than a match for his. Had she not challenged him ever since she had come aboard his ship? And still he wanted her. Twice she had tried to kill him, and twice now he had saved her life. This man who had given up his life's ambition of revenge simply because it did not please her.
His would never be a face that showed tenderness naturally, formed of sharp bones and forbidding lines, an expression of complacency set on his haughty features. The nose was thin, with curved nostrils, his eyes gleaming and narrow. And yet in those blue depths stirred a longing for understanding, for the recognition of a kindred soul in a lost world. It was that strange likeness which bound her to him. She had not come here to save him or redeem him. She had fallen in love with him as he was, and she was here simply because she wanted to be here, to take life into her own hands. Unknown to herself, the old look of superiority had returned to her calm face, the set of her strong jaw firm and decisive. "Here is where I can find my freedom."
"I wouldn't count on it. I intend to take you to my cabin for the next twenty-four hours and have my way with you."
He snaked an arm around her waist, drawing her irresistibly towards him. Wendy braced her hands against his shoulders, feeling the tendons rigid as steel in his neck. She could feel his passion, like a rising dark tide, and shivered in anticipation. Her heart beating wildly, she held his gaze, silently willing him to kiss her. The chill touch of silver at her jaw, tilting her head up, closer, closer, yet still he would not give her what she wanted. Instead, his hand fell to her waist, fingers entwining in her skirts, gathering the material between her legs. A sigh escaped her, and Wendy realised how tightly she was gripping the watered silk at his throat. His eyes had darkened, turned challenging, stormy, dangerous. Piercing cold on her burning cheek, turning her head to the side as his lips found the curve of her throat. Her eyes fluttered shut with something close to delirium. Was this torture? Punishment? Or seduction of the most exquisite kind? Her mind fled back to the darkness of the Black Castle, recalling how slowly he had drawn out each sensation, awakening feelings within her she had not known she possessed. The heat of his mouth melting into her skin. His fingers were stroking a slow rhythm that set her breathing ragged, clutching his upper arms as she sought to draw him closer to her. She needed the heat of his body, the strength, the hardness. The pleasure that bordered on pain –
With a suddenness that both startled and thrilled her, the captain had backed her up until she felt her spine collide sharply with the mast, the breath forced from her body in a rush (just like that very first night he had kissed her under the howling elements and wild black rain). He caught her questing hands, pinning them above her head, and she saw the red flicker of a smile when her wrists writhed half-heartedly in that enchaining hold. The helplessness still made her shiver slightly, the idea of surrendering all control, but she had made that decision to let go – to step into the blue. And she was not alone. She saw through the languid cavalier exterior, right through the ice to the flame that burned within. His mouth covered hers before a word of protest could escape. Possessing, claiming, marking her as his. Wild and furious, the beating of his heart against her own. Overpowering as a fierce undertow, one she willingly surrendered to, allowing herself to drown in the dark, evocative waters. She felt her body sink into his hold, submitting without resistance as he kissed her slowly. "I want…"
Hook pressed his forehead down, pale eyes locked on hers but lips too distant to kiss, as he whispered, "Tell me, my darling. Tell me what you want."
"I want you more than I can imagine. More than I ever thought possible –"
She arched into the sudden metallic grip on her thigh as he braced her leg against his hip. Cold and sharp against her bare skin, it drew her into the inviting warmth of his body. Rich scents of tobacco and wine drowning her senses. The press of a leather-booted leg between her own, the exquisite pressure of it, caused his name to escape her lips in a sigh of longing. It was branded on her soul. James. Her trapped hands ached to touch him, twisting within his unrelenting fingers.
The captain paused, drawing back slightly to look at her intently. "Say it again," he commanded quietly. "Give me the satisfaction of hearing those words once more."
Wendy knew at once what he meant. Still somewhat unwilling to let him assume all mastery over her, she toyed briefly with the idea of resisting until she saw the entreating flash in his eyes, of fathomless yearning. Then his leg moved, cool leather sliding between her thighs in an agonisingly slow rhythm. Heat spread across her cheeks and her lower body, and the words left her in a rush –
"I love you."
It was all he needed, releasing her hands from his icy hold and pushing her back harder into the mast. He groaned and buried his face between her breasts, his cold burning lips pressing against the thin barrier of material. Her hands came down to his head, sinking into his mass of dark curls, holding him to her. Pride was still strong enough within Wendy to feel a thrill at the realisation that a word, a mere touch from her could render him wild with need. The steel-sharp edge of his hook pushed the sleeve of her garment aside, baring her shoulder, more bare skin for his seeking lips. "I ache for you," Hook whispered, deep accents hoarse and ragged against her flesh.
Wendy could not deny she felt the same way, but still she cast an anxious glance around the deck. This time, there was no cover of night and storm to hide them. "Your men –"
"The men have gone below. Now we have set a steady course, they will sleep the afternoon away. Hang them all to hell, you are the only thing I care about."
Wendy met his searing blue gaze. "Then take me to your quarters and show me."
Later, much later, as the sun was blazing in a fiery descent over the horizon, Wendy opened her eyes drowsily, content for a moment to lie against the warmth of his chest, secure with the weight of his arm flung possessively across her waist. The porthole window was a glow of red and gold, illuminating the dust motes that danced within the cabin. It was smaller in here, more intimate than the grandeur of his living and dining quarters, yet his taste for finery was still apparent. Polished dark wooden paneling curved around the walls on which rested shelves heavy with books. A miniature dressing table sat beside the bed, while an elegantly carven writing desk dominated the opposite wall. Plush crimson carpet covered the floor, and above, the delicate crystal-wrought chandelier swung over the bed. The creak and surge of the ship was soothing, and she let her fingers trail idly across the silk coverlet, never before so willing to appreciate her own senses.
Beside her the captain lay still, and it seemed impossible to imagine that amid the strength and menace in his muscled form that was evident even in repose, he could be capable of sympathy and affection in loving. Here, he could be selfless in a way that was never shown above decks. Every murmured word, every kiss, every touch a melodic symphony of understanding. In those moments when it seemed his passion was too fierce, his need too violent, his midnight blue gaze would meet hers, silently entreating her trust. And she had given it absolutely. Still some of the old constraints of her former life clung to her, impelling her to wonder whether there was something unseemly in wanting him as deeply and fervently as she did. But when the alternative was to feel nothing at all? The regular sound of his breathing, the wild disorder of his black hair across the pillows… these were things to be treasured. Was love like this for all people, she wondered, and if it were not, what a sad state for the women who would never know there was something better out there, the unique combination of wild exhilaration and utter peace. Wendy tried to reconcile the conflicting feelings within her. Half of her felt as though she were on the edge of a terrifying precipice, yet the other half was as calm as though she drifted in still waters, gently soothed by the ripple of the waves.
And only a few short days ago, she had been cold and alone. It is not living to feel only regret, always looking back. She was tired of only reading the stories of others and not living her own. She wanted to experience everything, to not lose a single moment. With that thought in mind, Wendy rose, wrapping the bedsheet around her, silently appreciating the sight of the captain as he lay sprawled across the bed, and made her way over to the writing desk. The first drawer revealed stacks of paper and calligraphy pens, and she felt a surge of pure satisfaction. Here she could write to her heart's content, and she intended to. Her words a voice for all the disenchanted souls out there, a chance to live a hundred lives and set them all to paper. Every adventure and discovery to be immortalized, because to capture a moment of happiness meant that one would never forget it. Returning to each page like uncorking a bottle of perfume, the memory rising up like a scent that evoked a moment of childhood.
She curiously opened the second drawer, pulling out a leather-bound notebook, smooth with wear, its plain and unremarkable appearance at odds with the rest of the exquisitely furnished cabin. It was the captain's log. Wendy flicked through the pages idly. Notes on the wind direction and sailing conditions… until she turned to the most recent entries.
An irksome child would have been far preferable to this haughty, spoilt creature that sits aboard my ship. Was there ever a more unlikable specimen of womanhood in existence? Cold and condescending, she never opens her mouth but to utter a criticism or some further unpleasantness on my character. I find myself quite loathing her. Would that these three days were past and my foe was before me! I taste his blood in my pleasanter dreams and his death cries serenade my imaginings like the sweetest of music. Yet in the meantime, I must sit, and wait, bound by the terms of this frustrating wager. Oh, I intend to abide by it. A gentleman's word once given should not be so lightly cast aside. I would not have it said that James Hook is a man entirely without honour. I will tolerate her trying presence, though there is little pleasure in it.
And yet there is, it seems at times, a certain – grandeur about her. That she despises me is quite apparent, yet she appears unable to resist engaging me. Very well, I'll accept your challenge, my beauty. Should you wish to cross your wits with mine, we'll soon see which of us will emerge the victor. What say you? Shall we see what your naïve, persistent, gallant courage can do against a mind black with cunning and ingenuity, a vengeance that knows no bounds, and an experience that stretches lifetimes? And you still claim you do not fear me? Then do your worst, dear girl, and we shall see how it fares against mine.
Some further unrelated notes followed, then several pages later:
Does she not know that defiance and resisting my orders will merely provoke me to greater extremes? I would call it insanity but for the calm way she sets about her counter-attack, meddling in my affairs with methodical diligence. I shall have to watch her more closely. Not an entirely unpleasing thought, as she is lovely, certainly, in a cool, serene way that almost goads me into breaking down that barrier of aggravating stillness. And for all her disparagement of her own sex, there is something exquisitely feminine about her. How it would offend her delicate sensibilities to learn of the licentious thoughts her presence inspires! Yet I am not so weak as to become distracted by such worldly charms. Indeed, she is so cold I hardly imagine the conquest would be worth the effort.
Then, why this restless, persistent craving that burns the blood? It is not sentiment – perish the thought. I have been a wedded man several times – once for curiosity, once to help the girl escape her tyrant of a father, once after aspirations for a title and the last time out of mere boredom. I believe love played little part in any of those ventures. And this time, it is vengeance, a chance to utterly destroy the one thing that Pan ever cared for. There is no other reason why I would consider… but then, why not? Is she not beautiful, utterly within my power, and – dare I believe – not entirely unwilling? And no, it is not mere vanity that prompts such an observation. For all their arts in dissembling, there are few women who can truly hide their evidence of desire – often because it is so rarely aroused. Those little flutters, the exquisite bodily tremors, the following of the eyes and revealing flush of the skin… all those physical betrayals so reminiscent of fear. And so she is a woman, after all! How appallingly inconvenient for her. And what a stroke of fortune for me. That inner struggle is a delight to behold. And I cannot deny there is something deliciously untouchable about her. She possesses a world of knowledge – and no experience. How I shall relish changing that. What a triumph, to have her begging at my feet – not as a prisoner entreating release, but as a woman willing to do anything for my favour. I am quite determined to have her.
There were several paragraphs that followed, scratched out and indecipherable. Then –
And yet she is clever – confoundedly clever. I find myself almost afraid of her. That she dares look at me with that damned composed face, while I know full well her mind is forming schemes against me is enough to drive me to madness. Her body might yield to mine without much resistance – lovely as it might be, it truly is the weakest part of her – but it is no longer enough. It is her soul I want – her proud, stubborn, reckless soul – and I almost believe I would let the world drown to possess it. What last, bitter irony is this! I have come too far now to risk all my carefully-laid plans coming to naught. And yet some treacherous inner demon whispers it would be almost worth it to – but no, by thunder! No woman will be the undoing of me. Nothing will turn me aside from this course. Whatever chance of life I might once have had passed long ago, and revenge is now my sole master. All else is a shadow to me.
By the time she reached the final entry, that slanting, elegant hand had become disordered and at times, close to illegible, seemingly reflecting the state of mind of the writer.
What hold has this woman over me? I – to whom love had never been more than an idle amusement, to be thus brought down, and at such a time of crisis? My traps are laid, the snares all in place for Pan to fall into – and for what? By all the furies of Hell! Better to have cut her throat at once and had done with it before she ever set foot on this wretched island. But I'll not see her harmed – that's the devil of it. In truth, she is safer aboard my ship than anywhere else in Neverland, not that she'll ever know it – nor would she appreciate it even if she did. Blind ingratitude! Is it possible to hate as equally as one loves? Her resistance only hardens my resolve, for I am forced to resort to such stratagems and contrivance, because now to win her, in spite of all obstacles – what a victory it would be! A victory over myself, is the cursed reality of it. She has me conquered, for I see her miseries as though they were my own, and it brings me no joy. My heart – my heart beats for the first time in years, has turned traitor on me. Would that this hook could cut it from my chest and fling its blackened remains into the deeps! What dreadful things emotions are. Why must they insist on hurting one – and torturing me with that cruelest thing of all – hope.
"See something of interest?"
Her heart thudded in shock and she spun round a little guiltily. The captain was lounging against the pillows, stretching out his legs as he watched her lazily. "I see you've not lost your propensity for going through my possessions. Must I hoard all my secrets under lock and key?"
Wendy came over to the bed, laying the journal between them as she sat down beside him, neck arching slightly as his hook toyed with the loose waves of her hair. She sighed with pleasure.
"I was not deliberately prying."
"No?" The hook slid downward, curved metal tugging the silken sheet away from her chest.
"I saw your desk and thought to write something, as you were sleeping."
His jaw suddenly clenched as a shadow passed across his face. "Believe me, when I sleep, you'll know of it. I imagine Smee could regale you a tale or two of his unrewarding watch. Steelier nerves than his would baulk at such a duty. Sometimes I'll sleep as one dead, but there will be nights when you'll have to drag me from the darkest hells, when I curse and damn you and all creation, when I'll not recognise your face and naught but a bottle of brandy will restore my senses and sanity. Many a night I've woken up holding a pistol to my heart, the desire to end it all stilled only by the fear that in death, I would be flung back into that netherworld for eternity. Be under no illusions; leaving this place might diminish the horrors, but the things I saw will haunt me to the end of my days."
A convulsive shudder went through him, then he turned still, still as death. There was that bleak, far-away expression on his face that appeared whenever he spoke of those seven years, as his mind went back, gone to a place she could not follow. A tortured, lonely, haunted soul. Wendy saw the ache in his heart and silently vowed that if she could not exorcise the ghosts that possessed him, she would be damned if she didn't try. It was still strange to hear these confessions from a man who had spent so long denying all claims to sentiment. He had fooled the world, and yet...
She took his hand in both of hers and gripped it tightly. "I have faced real monsters since I set foot on this island. I am more than willing to wrestle with phantasms. Your ghosts and spirits cannot hurt me."
For a moment his unseeing eyes remained vacant, terrifying. Then he shook his head, as though by doing so he could cast off the thoughts that tormented him. "Enough of such dreary musings. There will be time enough to dwell in such places. Come above decks and see the last of the sun."
"I have no shoes." Then she smiled slightly for caring about such things. "But then I suppose I'll have to abandon such luxuries for the foreseeable future."
"Not entirely. I'll have you dining on the richest foods and drinking the best wine, give you books as rare as priceless jewels if you wish it." The captain offered her his hand with a show of exquisite courtesy, an ironic smile playing about his lips. "Did I not tell you that villainy and finery could go hand in hand?"
The ship moved as silent and gracefully as a shadow through the dark waters. The deck was streaked in fiery hues from the setting sun that slanted through the sails, an energetic wind casting lashes of spray on the billowing canvas sheets. There were a few men engaged in duties when they emerged; on becoming aware of her presence, they saluted her awkwardly, behaving with an odd sort of gallantry, self-conscious under the eyes of a woman.
"I believe they are afraid of you," observed the captain. "Not that I blame them. I believe their own mothers could not have instilled such a sense of fear in them. How stern you were that first night. I'll never forget the way you looked at me over dinner, as though you had never seen such a low, contemptible creature. Tell me truthfully, did you despise me then as strongly as you made it appear?"
"I was afraid of you and I did not like you. But it was contempt for myself I felt most strongly. That I really was as vain and selfish and useless as I had always feared. I thought you must despise me."
"Oh, I did. But not nearly as much as I wanted you. Whether it was revenge, gratification or anger that drove me blindly onwards, I determined to have you. But I had not counted on the feelings that would follow, that secret, furtive sympathy that fuelled my obsession. You have proven to be my weakness – just as you were Pan's. That alone is the reason while he regales in blissful ignorance, and I am here – sailing away from him."
Wendy rested a soft white hand against his face. "Sometimes there is strength in walking away. If neither of us can find happiness in the worlds we left, then we must create our own."
"So my being here is not merely incidental, a way for you to see the world?"
"I cannot have one without the other. Both are equally essential to my life."
"Life," he whispered, as though the word were something strange and unknown to him. "I had forgotten that such a thing existed."
"If that were true, you would still be in Neverland."
"Aye, hurtling onwards to my own doom. Misery has been my long companion, and death would have been a boon, had you not..." he sighed, and she felt his jaw turn rigid beneath her fingers. "I have lived on revenge and starved my soul for it, a part of me still that dark, dead thing beneath the water. Is it possible, I wonder? That after so many years, you could drown my demons? Strange as it is, I believe you capable of almost anything."
He looked at her and there was something in his glance; the power of it almost frightened her. It was that emotion that had been steadily building between them ever since the night he had appeared at her window. A feeling beyond love, beyond passion. It seemed to lay its fingers on her very soul, causing her to shiver with breathless delight. Wendy still did not fully understand that part of herself he had awoken. It was too vast and dizzying to contemplate. The depth of her feelings towards him was boundless, unrestrained, almost terrifying in its disregard for limits.
She leaned over the edge of the deck, fingers running over the smooth, varnished wood. The black sails whipped and sang overhead, the rigging blowing about in frenzied delight. The wooden boards were warm underfoot from the hours of afternoon sunlight, cooled only by the plumes of salt spray tossed upon the deck. She inhaled the heady scent of tar and leather, and from the kitchens below rose the aroma of cooking, meat stew and vegetables and freshly baked bread, things that were hot and vital and wholesome. This, this was living, this embracing of the present and anticipation for the future, to feel strong in herself and loved, to have a purpose. And all this, she thought, belongs to me, for I have claimed it and made it a part of me, whatever may come.
And the captain, she had claimed him too. Perhaps they had always belonged to one another, both adventurers and fugitives in their own way, seeking to escape the constraints that bound them. She had felt it even when she loathed him, that flicker, an awakening glimmer of kinship, of understanding. Finding another spirit disillusioned with the world, the joys of youth having passed by, bitter at life and trapped in an existence from which it seemed there was no escape. Denying all true feeling, consumed by loneliness, by the conviction that there was no one in the world that understood. She had prided herself on her independence, on her self-enforced solitude, all the while denying the truth that her entire being was crying out to her. That life without a soulmate was tragic and empty. Her hands wanted to reach out, as though to prove he really was there, that this wasn't a dream. But more than anything, she wanted to thank him from rescuing her from the utter stagnation of her soul.
She could feel his gaze on her, eyes deep as the stillness of a tranquil sea. "Is it everything you hoped for?"
"More than I dared allowed myself to imagine," replied Wendy, entranced by the sound of the white billows crashing against the helm of the ship.
"And you have no regrets?"
"Only that I allowed myself to wait for so many years instead of listening to my heart and taking what I wanted."
"As I thought," Hook murmured, voice rich and deep with gratification, "You do have the right temperament for piracy, after all."
"Then allow me to have been right about you also. You are a man of feeling, however you might wish to deny it."
She felt his hand descend, a grip tightening around her waist as he leaned down and whispered darkly in her ear, "Only for you, dear girl. Only for you."
The sunset cast its blood-hued rays far out on the wine dark sea. His arm settled comfortably against her side, her head coming naturally to rest on his shoulder. She could smell the salt spray, feel the force of the wind. Turning her face away from Neverland that lay behind, and facing the unknown shores yet to come, it seemed that she felt the warmth of a southern breeze on her skin, could taste the tang of rum and hot sands. Her heart leapt with the stirring of adventure, breathless and exhilarating, and Wendy smiled as the ship plunged into the blue beyond.