Revenge of the Corsairs – Elizabeth Ellen Carter

THE SOLİD DROP of black paint sat in the middle of the shallow tin tray, impervious to the water around it. The pigment held its perfect globular form for a moment then the artist dabbed her brush. Tendrils of black broke away, coloring the water a deep grey. The artist applied broad strokes from that same brush, running it again and again on the thick woven watercolor paper, turning the pristine, white linen stock a soft slate. She stopped, then looked up and examined the scene beyond her easel. She painted what she saw – dark and thick voluminous clouds in a lowering sky. So many shades of black and grey built layer upon layer. This was no ordinary storm. Even the most casual observer would feel its electrical charge. The ocean rose up to meet it, the horizon obscured by hues of purple, emerald and indigo; the artist skillfully adding depth to the sea and the rising swell. She shivered and wrapped her shawl more tightly around her shoulders. Could she stay here much longer? Perhaps she should seek shelter – but where? The storm would be here soon and nowhere was safe. Helplessness battered her like the rising gusts of wind. Laura Cappleman breathed deep, trying to find her courage. She could do it, she could do it.

Tears pricked the insides of her eyelids. The maelstrom seemed unending, and she was helpless to do anything but allow it to vent its full fury around her. Slam! “There you are!” Laura jumped and clapped a hand over her mouth to stop an involuntary scream. SHE RAİSED A HAND to her eyes to shade them from the glare now streaming through the open pavilion door. “Sophia,” Laura answered, her voice rough from not speaking. “You’re back…” She was only marginally aware of her cousin’s hug and mimicked the greeting hesitantly, as though it were a foreign custom. “A new painting?” Sophia inquired. “Oh, it’s too dark for me to see, let me open those shutters. Besides, it’s such a beautiful day.” “I wish you wouldn’t.

” But it was too late; the little cottage filled with sunlight. “Oh my!” Sophia exclaimed, seemingly enraptured by the view. “This is a perfect studio! You can see right down to the valley into the harbor. And the light! With the shutters open you could follow the sun and paint all day. I’m so pleased you accepted Elias’ offer to stay here at his estate.” Laura forced a smile onto her face should her cousin turn around to see her. They shared family, not that one could tell from looks alone. Their fathers had been cousins, but Sophia’s mother had been Spanish and she carried her exotic looks – black hair, brown eyes, and olive skin. Laura imagined the sight she presented in contrast – skin pale despite the Mediterranean sun, fair hair haphazardly knotted at the nape of her neck, loose strands everywhere. She was a mess, her apron over an old day dress stained with ink.

Why didn’t Elias tell her they were having guests? Oh, that’s right, he had. And she had forgotten. She never used to be so absentminded, but lately nothing she ever did was right. She would lose things, only for them to turn up later exactly where they were supposed to be. Other things would be discovered in the wrong place. And worse, where once she saw affection – even love – in Elias’ eyes, all she saw now was concern and pity. Little wonder she shut herself up here in the dim light and let storms brew and rage in her head. Laura dropped a hand to her now flat stomach. These days, she didn’t even trust herself with her own child. After closing her eyes once more, she opened them to find Sophia regarding her kindly.

“Let’s go to the house; lunch should be ready,” her cousin said. “Morwena and Jonathan have brought a parcel for you from England; it came in just a couple of days ago. And Kit and I arrived this morning.” Laura shook herself loose from the bleakest of her thoughts, lest Sophia discover the truth of them. She forced brightness into her voice. “Oh, of course, I should ask. How does everyone fare on Catallus?” Her cousin’s eyes lit with pride. “You should see the work done on the vineyard. Kit returned from his last voyage with some large oak barrels. The men have restored a second barn and a second reservoir just to serve the winery.

They’re hopeful for their first vintage.” Sophia continued talking about people she had met and of her own work excavating more of the mosaic floor from the ruins of the old Roman villa that once dominated the little island owned by her husband. Laura listened politely and forced a smile on her face, waiting for the moment to interject when there was a lull in the conversation. “You go on ahead, I need to freshen up.” Sophia hesitated, regarding her a moment, then nodded. “Take all the time you need.” Take all the time you need. Laura hid a grimace as Sophia turned away. It was a refrain she’d heard over many, many months and now hated it. Those well-meaning platitudes, those kind remarks, the looks of pity cast her way.

It had been like that ever since the rescue all those months ago from the casbah of Al-Min on the Tunisian coast. Through the door of her little studio, a summer house set apart from Elias’ villa, Laura watched Sophia make her way along the path up to the main building. It wasn’t fair that she suffered still while Sophia did not. They had both been concubines in Selim Omar’s harem. But Sophia seemed to have been able to shake off her experience. Then again, Sophia hadn’t fallen pregnant. Laura took her time, cleaning her brushes and tidying away her paint set, fully conscious of the fact she was putting off the inevitable. Ee, stop yer mitherin’, lassie. The broad Yorkshire accent of her grandfather came to her. He never put up with Laura feeling sorry for herself.

She put her unfinished painting and easel in a corner, out of the way. Grandpa had been a gruff, old bear – particularly to her brother, Samuel – but she used to be able to wrap him around her little finger. She smiled softly at the memory. She poured water from a nearby ewer into a washbowl, picked up jasmine-scented soap and sniffed it. It seemed like such an indulgence to use it. Once she had cared about such things – fine dresses, pretty jewels, grand parties. She’d purchased The Lady’s Journal on the very morning of each new edition. One inch of ankle exposed here, the latest trim of ribbon there… few had applied themselves as diligently to latest mode of the bon ton as she. Laura drew a breath and opened the old cupboard. She picked out a day dress in soft violet.

Hopelessly out of fashion, most likely. It had been nearly three years since she was last in England. It seemed a lifetime ago. A knock on the door pulled her from her musings. “Miss Laura? Mister Elias sent me to help you dress.” She bade the girl enter. Gina was younger than she but wore confidence like a mantle. Laura dressed herself as stiffly as an automaton while she watched Gina move about the room as though she owned it. Back home, the girl would be described as “healthy” with her glossy, dark hair and curvaceous figure which she relished in showing off, particularly those ample breasts barely confined in the bodice of her dress. Laura fleetingly wondered whether Gina was still breastfeeding the child.

My child. It was something she could have done herself, should have done; now it had been months since she had felt the heavy weight of milk in her breasts. The birth had been difficult and it had taken weeks before she could even bring herself to look at the boy. It was another month after that before she could think of him by name – Benjamin. Even now, the bonds between them were new and fragile. Oh, how she had wanted to forget. If he remained the child, it could not be her child, and she could not be its mother. Then she could forget how the misbegotten creature came into being. Gina, smiling, brushed out Laura’s hair and rolled it into a simple chignon. She was surprised at the girl’s cheerful attitude toward her.

Just a couple of weeks ago, she accused Gina of going through her possessions and demanded her dismissal. And since nothing was missing, Elias had refused. Oh, how she’d grown angry. Laura had yelled at him, even as he remained calm and logical. “You will wear some jewelry, yes?” Gina asked. Laura was about to shake her head, as she always did at the question, but what better way now to convince Sophia and their friends that she was fully recovered – physically, emotionally, spiritually – than by taking care of her appearance? If clothes maketh the man, perhaps they would maketh the woman as well – at least just long enough to survive the ordeal of a house full of people for the whole weekend. And no one would know she was dying inside just a little more each day

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