The je_challenge prompts were...
~ Friendly Rival ~
She knew that voice -- or the accent. She turned swiftly to face the man behind her. "Ned!"
Tall and well-knit, fair-haired and handsome as ever, the elegant gentleman grinned, looking her up and down. "I knew it was you -- though how I can't imagine! What on earth?"
Elizabeth laughed in delight. She'd been helping to supervise the offloading of the Pearl's latest haul, and knew quite well the picture she now presented was vastly different from the one he recalled. "Remember how we used to play at pirates when you would come to visit?"
Her old friend's brow wrinkled, and his smile turned from delight to bemusement. His eyes lifted to the great black ship looming nigh them. "Elizabeth... you're a pirate?"
"Privateer, actually," said Jack, coolly, coming up beside her.
Elizabeth said to Jack, "You're the one with the Letter of Marque. I'm merely--"
"A highly esteemed member of the crew, aye. Are you going to introduce me?"
"Of course. Ned, this is Captain Jack Sparrow. Jack, the Honorable Edward Beaufort."
"Not precisely, my dear," said Ned. "I'm afraid father passed two years ago."
"Oh, I'm sorry Ned! He was a fine man."
"Among the finest, no denying that."
"So it is the Right Honorable Viscount Breen, then?" Elizabeth said grandly.
"Indeed." Ned held out his hand. "I am very happy to make your acquaintance, Captain Sparrow. I've heard a great deal about your exploits."
"Have you now?" Jack shook Ned's hand, his lips twitching against a smile.
"Yes. But I'd no idea you shipped female crewmembers. Elizabeth, does your father know about this?"
She laughed. "Well, he doesn't know all of what I do on the Pearl, but he knows I'm with Jack. It's a long story, Ned."
"I imagine it is. I would very much like to hear it. Do you still go into society? I'm having a dinner party tomorrow. I could use a swan and a sparrow to liven up the flock of silly geese that are invited. Business associates and their frumpish wives. Will you have pity and save me from an evening of unrelieved boredom? Although there will be dancing. My aunt insists, and as she is the hostess there's no gainsaying her."
"Your Aunt Eugenia? Is she still with you? And are you not married?"
"No, though Aunt has thrown enough young ladies my way to sink your Black Pearl there. Just not the right young lady. She will be vastly pleased to see you. Say you will come?"
"I'd love to. Only..." She had noticed Jack's frown. "Do you think it would be all right?" Elizabeth asked him. "I thought we were to stay several days."
Jack's expression lightened somewhat. "You'll have to wear a dress, lass. No getting around that."
"I'm still quite capable of dressing properly -- and we've a whole trunk of finery from that French ship we took. There are some beautiful things, and the latest fashions, too. I'm sure I can alter something to fit."
"Took a French ship?" Ned said, quizzically.
"It's what privateers do, if you'll recall," said Jack, pointedly.
"Er... so they do." Ned eyed Elizabeth. "Were you among the boarding party?"
"Yes, I was actually. Jack said I acquitted myself admirably."
"She's a devil with a sword." Jack bared his teeth in a wicked smile, and Elizabeth wondered if it sprang from pride in his protégé or amusement at her friend's rather shocked expression.
"I've no doubt of it," said Ned, raising a brow. "It would seem, however, to be a more dangerous game than that we played as children."
"A little, perhaps," said Elizabeth, placatingly. "But Jack is famed for offering quarter if the victim will only see reason. And mostly they do."
"And those that don't?"
"They come 'round to it, in the end," said Jack. "Mostly."
"I see. Well, between the two of you it seems that my dinner party will be considerably enlivened. I shall send a coach for you. At sunset tomorrow?"
"Yes. We'll be ready." Elizabeth clasped Ned's proffered hand -- but he lifted her fingers to his lips briefly, then ran one of his own over a calloused edge and shook his head with a wry smile. She laughed. "Until tomorrow, Ned."
"Every hour will seem a year, dear heart."
Beside her, Jack sniffed.
"Don't you like him?"
Jack scowled, though she couldn't see. He was doing up the laces on a corset, of all the bloody things. But that dress she'd chosen from the swag wouldn't fit, otherwise. Mighty trim in the waist -- and too short, as well. But she'd got out her sewing things and spent half the day letting the hem down, so that was right, at least.
"I don't even know him, love. But if you like him, he can't be too bad."
"He's not bad at all," she asserted. "We had the greatest fun together, he, Will and I. He was very kind to Will, and he might not have been, you know."
"I know. A future viscount and a smith's apprentice? It's a wonder he deigned to notice him." Jack gave the laces a firm jerk.
"Oh! Not so tight!"
"You'll never fit that gown." But he loosened the corset, just a bit. "There, that's got it."
Between them, they got the gown on and Jack fastened the line of pearl buttons down the back of it. It did fit. Beautifully.
"How do I look?"
She turned to face him, quite serious about the question, smoothing the heavy burgundy satin with reverent hands. Little fool. She had to know she looked a bloody goddess. His smile twisted. "You'll do."
She gave a slow smirk. "You like it."
He took a deep breath. "I like it. Ned'll like it too, I daresay. Come. Let's get your jewels on, and then I'll finish my own toilette. The coach'll be here soon."
Elizabeth enjoyed herself thoroughly that evening. It had been some time since she and Jack had had the opportunity to socialize with anyone who could be considered gentry and, though a great many of Ned's guests were tradesmen, they proved to be far more interesting and down-to-earth than Ned had implied. They were dressed with elegance, but to a man (and woman) they were agog at the fashionable opulence of Elizabeth and Jack's raiment -- as were Ned and his Aunt Eugenia.
"Elizabeth... and Captain Sparrow! You look... beautiful!" exclaimed Ned in greeting.
Jack bowed thanks, a light in his eye. Elizabeth embraced Ned's aunt. "It is so good to see you again, Lady Beaufort."
The lady returned the embrace, though she frowned and said petulantly, "Ned told me he'd seen you consorting with pirates down at the docks. Is this one of 'em, then?"
"It is. May I present Captain Jack Sparrow to you?"
Jack bowed over the gnarled hand. "The pleasure is mine, m'lady."
"Hmmph," m'lady snorted. "I can see you're a sly, cozening fellow. Come sit by me, then, and regale me with tales of your no doubt wildly exaggerated exploits. Dinner will be half an hour yet."
There was no polite way to deny their hostess -- not that Jack seemed loath to oblige. He escorted her to an elegant settee and soon had not only Aunt Eugenia but also a small crowd of the other guests enthralled, thus giving Ned the opportunity to converse more privately with Elizabeth for a time.
"I meant it, you know," Ned told her. "You look stunning in that dress. You should wear nothing but the finest, most elegant clothing, my dear. That men's gear I saw you in yesterday? Sacrilege!"
Elizabeth laughed. "How very onerous it would be to always dress like this. Do you know, I once fainted, fell from the ramparts at Fort Charles, and nearly drowned because of the tortuous nature of female undergarments? At a most vital moment!"
"Good God! Tell me about it."
She did, as succinctly and briefly as possible, and the story left Ned gaping. When she was through with her narrative, he raised his eyes to where Jack still held his audience enraptured. "I doubt the strangest of the good Captain's tales can hold a candle to that."
"Well, it's his tale as well."
"Yes. He saved your life."
"And you chose Will Turner over James Norrington! I suspected you would want to, but I never thought it would come to pass."
Elizabeth smiled sadly. "Will was everything to me. I know James had a great regard for me, but it was always Will."
Ned took her hand, the fine-boned hand of a lady, now strong and roughened with use, and gave it a sympathetic squeeze. "But now it is Captain Sparrow?"
She looked over at Jack, holding court, and the moment of renewed grief faded like a mist in the sun. She turned to Ned. "I always wanted to meet a pirate. Remember the stories?"
"I do," Ned admitted. "But the reality is a little... off center, shall we say?"
Elizabeth gave a grin of delight. "Oh, Ned! You have no idea!"
Dinner was served at last, and was well worth waiting for, replete as it was with fine victuals served in an elegant setting amongst amusing company. But in the midst of the third course, a message was brought to Jack.
"Damnation!" he said, under his breath.
"Captain Sparrow!" Aunt Eugenia said, with strong disapproval. "You will make me regret insisting upon your companionship at dinner."
"Pardon me French, ma'am. It seems I'll need to bid you adieu. There's been... an incident. Duty calls, an' all that." Jack glanced at Elizabeth, where she sat beside the Viscount. "Just Blackburn and Phillips again. You can stay... if you like."
"I'll see her back to the ship," said Ned. "Nothing too dreadful, I hope?"
"No. Mrs. Turner can tell you. I'll need to be off." He turned to Lady Beaufort. "It's been a rare pleasure, ma'am," he said, bowing with a smirk and a wink.
"So it has, you rogue," she replied. "Get on with you now. But come to me when next you visit the island. You may be a rogue, but I've not had such entertainment in an age."
Entertainment. Ha! That's one way to put it.
It was now three in the morning and there was still no sign of Elizabeth. Jack, who was singularly disinclined to seek his bed all by his onesie, stood leaning against the taffrail, eying the quiet dock and mostly empty harbor front with growing disapprobation.
Where the devil is she?
With Ned, obviously. Ned bloody Viscount Breen.
Jack frowned over his dislike of the annoyingly likable Ned. He seemed a good sort, for one of the gentry. Had a great regard for the young missy, that was certain. An old friend. A rich old friend. An unmarried rich old friend. Who would presently be needing an heir.
Jack was usually unperturbed by potential rivals. He had a great deal of confidence in his irresistibility, and, that failing, in his powers of persuasion. But there was something about this whole Viscount Breen affair -- no, not affair, business! -- that had Jack thoroughly thrown off his stride. He'd had an inkling of it when the fellow'd shown up at the dock, being all Epitome of English Manhood and Childhood Bosom Beau. But the whole dinner party experience -- the well-sprung carriage that'd taken them up into the hills, the fine estate with its well-proportioned and meticulously kept mansion, the warmth and conviviality of their welcome, the way old Ned's eyes had lit at the sight of Lizzie -- his Lizzie, dammit! -- had exacerbated Jack's mental discord to the extent that he'd made immediate plans to depart back to the ship as soon as possible, by hook or crook. Which had, of course, occurred, but without the most important element.
Damn Blackburn and his feud with the knife-happy Phillips. Served him right he was laid out in the surgeon's cabin. As for Phillips, now locked in the brig, Jack'd have the skin off his back soon as they'd put to sea again. Give him a couple of days to think about it first, too.
Lizzie wouldn't like that, of course.
Provided she was there to observe -- or retreat to the cabin, as was her usual way when such things had to be done.
Bloody hell. Where is she?
It was nearly four in the morning when Elizabeth finally returned to the Pearl. What a time she had had! But how good it was to be home once more. When she reached the deck, she turned to wave to Ned, who had escorted her right to the foot of the gangplank -- and had demanded a kiss. She'd given him one -- on the cheek. Which he'd accepted with a resigned chuckle.
"You really do love him."
"Yes. How did you guess?"
"You talked of him most of the evening."
"Not only him!"
"Your life with him, then. But I read between the lines. As it were."
She'd given a wry smile. "You were always quick that way."
"Yes. Quick, but never pirate enough for you."
The smile slipped. "Ned. Aunt Eugenia will find you the right lady. Some day."
"Some day." He chucked her under the chin. "Good night, my beautiful pirate."
She'd laughed, and turned away, running lightly up the gangplank.
She walked across the deck, toward the Great Cabin, but something made her look up and she saw Jack, standing by the rail of the quarterdeck. "You're awake!" she called softly, and hurried up the steps. "You've not been abed? Is Blackburn all right?"
"Knifed in the shoulder. Missed the lung, but Phillips'll have to pay. Not that Blackburn was innocent."
"How dreadful. But why are you up? Were you waiting for me?"
Elizabeth frowned at Jack's solemn look. "You were! Were you worried about me? There was no need!"
"You were gone a long while."
"There was dancing -- and a supper at midnight. Just like a ball in London! I wish you had been able to stay."
"Oh, I daresay you had a fine time with Ned."
"Well, yes, to be sure..." Elizabeth stared, suddenly realizing what was amiss. "Jack! You're jealous!"
"You kissed him."
She almost choked. "On the cheek! Jack, he's an old friend. I knew him as a child! Will knew him. But... oh, you cannot think--"
"He's a well set up fellow," Jack said, trying not to pout and failing.
And Elizabeth had to laugh, and kiss him. He held himself stiffly for a moment, then gave in and pulled her close, kissing her back with increasing fervor. She hugged him, running her hands over his back, and into his hair, but finally drew her lips from his and said, "He is well set up, but he is not the man who's stolen my heart, and never will be."
Jack looked at her in the pale gray light of dawn. "He's a handsome phiz, and he's young. And he's rich."
Elizabeth just shook her head, trying not to smile at his absurdity.
Jack's lip quivered, resisting, too. "Hmm. Well. Stolen your heart, eh?"
Not a doubt of it! She grinned. "Pirate!" she said, and kissed him again.
So good to be home.