Eva sprang from her cot before the abbey bell’s metallic echo faded. Living in the back alleys of New Orleans, sleeping in doorways, listening to drunks retch in the street, avoiding toe-nibbling rats and feral dogs, all forced her to learn how to jerk awake at the slightest sound, the tiniest movement. Things were different now, in so much as while she no longer crept in the shadows, she was still hiding. The nuns at the Ursuline Convent had lifted her from that horrid life almost ten years ago, taught Eva how to be a healer. Sent her on a mission to the Jamaican abbey. The bell’s sharp ring sounded again. No time for shoes. Jamaican weather made them less of a necessity than in New Orleans this time of year. The air was thick and hot, even at night. She dragged her hair away from her face and her fingers brushed the ragged scar on her cheek. She threw an open-sided tunic over her robes then drew up the hood, thankful for the way it kept her marred face in shadow. An urgent fist thudded on the entry door. Did they not possess a shred of patience? Her heartbeat quickened. The back of her neck tingled, as it always did when danger approached. She shook it off.
Those who knocked at this hour were desperate for her help in particular. As the abbey’s healer, visitors asked for her most often. When people arrived during these hours, it was normally due to childbirth. She lit a lantern and ran to the abbey entrance, bare feet flying across the cool stone floor. Eva gripped the handle and tugged open the thick wooden door and just managed to step back fast enough to protect her toes before a massive figure swooped up the steps to the threshold. A determined boy shadowed him, casting worried glances at the child in the man’s arms. “I need Sister Eva.” His voice was low and tight like twine stretched too tightly between two posts. His bulk spanned the doorway. She tilted up her head and lifted the lantern.
Intense gray eyes glittered in the light. Short, black stubble covered his chin and jaws, along with several small scars, including one angling up from his eyebrow to his forehead. Blade marks. The kind of scars which indicated this man was a fighting man, of some sort. The dark brooding aura said, brigand, a pirate or privateer, which explained the tingle on the back of her neck earlier. Long ago she learned to listen to those types of signals. Still…something about him seemed almost familiar. Did she dream about this scene? Or was it a strange déjà vu? Rubbing the sleep from her eyes she hoped it cleared the fog as well. Even scarred, he had a handsome face in a rugged, roughly cut way. Near-black curls poked free of the crumpled collar of his coat, which had been apparently thrown on in haste.
He had the aura of a man of power and order; making the turned collar seem out of place. Her fingers itched to flip it back and straighten it. Although her perusal took less than two seconds, he made an impatient sound, and she found her voice. “I am Eva.” She directed her attention to the child. A young girl, maybe ten or eleven years of age. Flushed face, long nearly black hair stuck to her cheeks and neck, she was fevered, always a bad sign, no matter the climate. He tilted his head, more to indicate himself than in deference to her position. “I’m Drago Viteri Gamponetti. I require your help.
You are a healer, yes?” He required help, not needed it or asked for it. Required it, an order expecting compliance. Military? Dark eyes glowered at her. She gripped the door tighter and glanced at the limp body in his arms. Had he arrived in time for her to save the child? Fevers were never easy to banish. What would he do to her if she couldn’t? “Come in.” Her voice almost didn’t tremble. Where was sister Beatrice? The elder nun always rose at the bell also to help. Even if she couldn’t treat the sick, she was a helpful assistant. Eva almost smacked a palm to her forehead.
Of course. The older nun had complained about an ache in her knees and asked for a sleeping draught. Looked like she was on her own. He shifted the girl impatiently, then shouldered his way past her, into the foyer without waiting for her to invite him inside. He kicked the door shut behind him hard enough to rattle the leaded window frame, making her jump like a skittish rabbit. The man’s impatient expression bordered on disgust. “This child needs immediate consideration. She’s caught a fever and it’s lingering.” His voice was clipped, dark eyebrows lowered. “Theer are red patches on her arms, as well.
You are a healer, are you not?” His accent suggested Spanish heritage, although it was likely Italian. It was most certainly was not French. She bristled at his tone. “Yes, I–” “Then heal her.” His voice rumbled like an approaching storm. He lifted the girl higher, almost as if to dump her into Eva’s arms. The muscles in his cheek jumped and, if his large hands hadn’t been otherwise occupied, he could have used them to grip her shoulders and shake her into submission. And looked as if he’d like to do just that. Choosing flight, Eva turned on her heel. “This way.
” She hurried to the first empty chamber and gestured to the pallet. “Put her here and let me examine her.” She placed the lantern on a squat table near the bed. The man settled the lifeless child, careful to avoid any jerky movements. The scent of the sea, tobacco, and leather surrounded her as he looked over her shoulder while she pulled away the blanket. She glanced toward the corridor. It would have helped if one of the other sisters had been awakened by the bell. She was the only healer in the abbey, and since Beatrice attended her most times, it gave the others a convenient reason to roll over and go back to sleep. Breathe. Releasing a quivering breath, she pressed her palm on the girl’s cheek and resisted the urge to spin and run for Sister Beatrice’s help just to split this man’s focus.
Thick-lashed eyes flicked around the foyer and back to her. She liked to believe she had a stronger constitution than most women, but something about him, beyond his brusque manner, raised the gooseflesh on her arms, and she had an uneasy feeling this man brought darkness with him. You’re not a superstitious ninny. Her responsibility as a healer forced her attention back to the child, who let out a soft whimper. Gamponetti whispered in her ear, his warm breath heating her neck, and making her heart stammer. “When I returned home, I was told she’d been out in the sun, and bade her come inside, which she did, but perhaps she stayed out too long?” The hopeful tone that should have accompanied the words was missing, in its place one more commanding. He stood too close. Heat from his body radiated from him; waves of it crashed into her back. She released a slow breath to calm her pulse and ran her hands over the girl’s cheeks and arms. Both were on fire.
“Did she complain of pain elsewhere–her ears, stomach, or head? Was she bitten by a spider? A jellyfish? Did she brush up against a vine with fine, thin thorns?” Fever caused by a sting or a bite was easier to treat than one generated by a more serious sickness. “She didn’t complain about anything to me.” The man straightened and shot a thunderous look to the boy hovering nearby. “Julian, did she say anything to you?” “No, captain, she didn’t say she felt poorly or was bit.” Peering at the girl, the boy grasped her limp hand. “When she returned from fishing with Manuel, she had big pink patches on her arms. She said they burned.” He pushed up her sleeve to expose the angry spots. Captain. Perhaps the man was indeed military.
He certainly carried himself like a commander, shoulders back, chin up, legs braced. A ship’s commander. Focus! The child needed help. “They look like burns,” she murmured. What caused red blotches besides heat? Too much sun, as the captain had suggested, but the redness wouldn’t move beyond the exposed area, confirming the girl had a fever. She turned her attention to the youth. “What day did she go fishing?” Julian looked to be about eleven or twelve, he could be a powder boy on one of the British vessels gathering in Negril Bay. He flipped his fingers, counting. “Four days ago.” Following the storm.
Jamaica had an odd, highly toxic tree–the Manchineel tree. Stepping on the fruit had caused her problems in the past. Some of the fruit’s juice had seeped through the hole in her shoe and burned her foot. After a rain, water dripping off the fruit and leaves can burn the skin as well. That explained the burns, but not the fever. “Has she eaten normally? Has her food stayed down?” “Yes,” both answered. Eva reached for a nearby pitcher which thankfully forced the captain to step away. Thanks to the early morning rain, they’d been able to collect a nice amount of fresh rainwater. Otherwise, if they wanted drinkable water they had to trek the three miles to the caves, where an underground spring flowed into a small cavern pool in the side of the bluffs. The cave water was crisp and cold, a blessing in this tropical climate of smothering heat and humid air.
Hoping to rouse the child, Eva dampened a cloth and placed it on her forehead. Pale eyelids twitched and she moaned softly. “What’s her name?” “Jacqueline. She’s my twin sister.” The small Adam’s apple in his throat bobbed up and down. He darted worried glances between Eva and Jacqueline. Both males breathing down her neck made it impossible to focus. “Leave me a moment if you please, so I may examine her for any wounds or stings.” The man and boy departed immediately and Eva pushed up the girl’s skirts and examined her legs, unfastened her dress and peeled it away from her heated body, checked her belly and back. Nothing.
The child’s long, dark hair clung to her forehead and neck in an untamed, knotted mass. Eva’s stomach twisted. If she couldn’t determine the reason for the fever, she couldn’t attempt to treat it. She learned that much as an apprentice of the Ursuline nuns’ healer. Probing Jacqueline’s throat with her fingers revealed no lumps. She didn’t labor to breathe. Eva pushed her belly looking for anything hard or abnormal. The girl moaned. She caught her breath, shifted her hands to the girl’s left side, pushed again and received the same response. It could be her stomach or bladder caused the illness.
If her appetite had been normal, then it was probably her bladder or young womb. The knot in Eva’s belly tightened further. Not easy things to heal. She gave her shoulder a gentle shake. “Jacqueline? Can you wake up?” The child’s long black lashes fluttered and she mumbled something incoherent. “Mon enfant, can you open your eyes a moment and talk to me?” The girl’s eyelids fluttered. Thank goodness. The young girl opened her eyes. “Are you an angel? Am I in heaven?” She whispered and her fevered eyes widened. Hallucinations, no doubt.
Eva smiled and shook her head. Since she was dressed as a novice nun, she was clothed completely in white. “I’m a healer at the abbey in Port Royal. Tell me where you feel the most pain.” The girl moved her hand to the center of her abdomen. “I spotted blood–” “Where? When?” “When I…relieved myself…it was pink,” Jacqueline’s whisper wavered. The bladder must be the origin of the fever. A tea would help the girl. Thankfully Miss Kalia, the old Obeah healer who lived in a hut in the jungle, had tutored her to use Jamaica’s healing plants. She could treat this ailment.
Miss Kalia. That was the source of the dejà vu earlier. The old woman had approached her while shopping at the market, the first week she arrived in Jamaica. Pointed out different local roots and herbs needed for healing. She still had no idea how the woman knew she was a healer. None of the sisters dared make eye contact. Shortly after their awkward meeting, Kalia started with the premonitions. People who weren’t from the island called the old Obeah woman a white witch, and they were careful not to raise her ire in case she was a black witch, as well. A slight chill skittered across Eva’s shoulders. The woman’s gifts sometimes made her uncomfortable.
Especially the visions. Kalia’s latest premonition had been even more unsettling, and Eva had managed to drive it from her thoughts until now. “A dark-hearted mon wit a sick girl-child ’bout to cross you path. Him be drawn to de light in you. You light–it might can save him, but be warned. Him dark is strong. Him dark desire yearns to draw you into him doomed shadow.” Eva shook the black musings from her mind and yet again returned her focus on Jacqueline. The next step was clear. They must cool her fevered body and should leave for the caves right away.
She paused to send a prayer of thanks for the luminescent full moon and ask God for His protection and healing touch. Just that short moment of intent prayer and meditation soothed her. Unfortunately, a trip to the caves meant a trek through the jungle at night with the “dark man” from Kalia’s premonition. She reached for the door and hesitated. Sister Beatrice could join them. Except…the cart wasn’t very big, and the old mule could barely haul it empty. The path there with two adults and two children would be too taxing for the creature. Eva drew in a lungful of air and released it, searching again for calm. She was a talented healer. It was not arrogance, just a fact.
She could read and write, had an excellent memory, and could remain unruffled in crisis. She could help the child return to good health, but needed ingredients for the tea. She picked up the lantern and opened the door to find the captain pacing the hall like a panther in a cage. He spun toward her, and his coat lifted enough to reveal a dark red, silk lining, a brace of pistols and a long gleaming sword. In two strides he was in front of her. His eyes locked on to hers in the dim light of the lantern. Piercing. Intelligent. Cunning. His shoulders relaxed slightly, which meant he read her expression.
Her countenance. Sensing her confidence. Very calculating indeed. Pirate. Definitely a pirate. So much for actively avoiding the more insidious tendrils of humanity. She met a few pirates in her youth. Some had been ruthless, thirsted for violence. Others, less so. Still, all lived by the same code, the same rules, creating a loosely woven net of frayed order.
Chances were, her novitiate robes alone would do little to protect her among such men. Her value as a healer, however… She raised her chin. “I suspect the sickness can be healed with a special tea, but first we must take her to the caves to cool the fever.” Her voice echoed in the chamber; she spoke a bit louder than she intended. She gestured toward the barn. “If you and Julian go to the stables and hitch the cart to the mule, we can leave right away.” Captain Gamponetti nodded, whirled, and withdrew, taking his shadows with him, the boy once again bobbing at his heels like a juvenile duckling. The tingling on the back of her neck returned.