by Regina Riley
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Gabriella glanced about the tavern with a look of dismay. If asked, only a few months prior, she would have never imagined herself in a place such as this.
Drunkards swayed and swooned, spilling both their booze and filthy words every chance afforded. The din of accordions and hand drums filled the room with the staccato rhythm of intoxication. The place stunk of sweat and alcohol and … other things. No, this wasn’t the kind of place a young woman of her raising expected to find herself.
Then again, neither was the Merry Widow.
But, truth be told, she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
Just beside her, in the low light of a private booth, sat Gabriella’s mentor and captain, Rose Madigan. Hunched over a pint of ale, the captain hissed in clipped whispers and angry huffs as she argued with a Spaniard twice her size.
To the captain’s left sat Jax, the first mate and security officer, and twice the size of anyone else in the tavern. The rest of the crew waited aboard the Widow, guarding the tethered airship and her precious secrets.
Well, one precious secret.
Precious and handsome and wonderful and magical and-
Gabriella cringed as her captain struck the tabletop with a balled fist.
“You’re being unreasonable,” the captain said.
“It’s just not the type of work for you,” the Spaniard said, rolling his R’s far to hard for Gabriella’s taste.
“Why not? My ship is sound and my crew is fit. I can get your cargo there in half the time a sea bound vessel can manage.”
“I appreciate the speed of your airship, and your crew might be fit for many things, but not this delivery.”
“Because both you and your crew are … how should I put this?” He paused to finger his moustache before he finished with, “Delicate?”
The captain pushed back from the table and stared at him. “Don’t you mean female?”
The man had nothing to say to that.
Of course, he wasn’t the man they were supposed to meet. The crew of the Widow came into this God forsaken port to meet with a different potential client. Someone who needed something transported somewhere with the utmost of discretion, and was willing to pay handsomely for it. (The devil, it seemed, was in the details, and the details weren’t divulged to the likes of Gabriella Upstairs.) Yet when they arrived the client turned out to be a no show, and now they were left with slim pickings among the less than savory jobs left.
And they were so very unsavory.
Rum running and arms dealing. Opium and stolen goods. Slaves to be transported from one port to the next. The thought of dealing with these cretins left Gabriella squirming. In days past, the path of the Widow had been respectable; a cargo ship that ran legitimate transportation routes for (mostly) decent people. But here lately, things had changed. Circumstances left the crew a little desperate. A little hungry. And as a result, a little piratical.
After all, when one was wanted by the law, one had to work outside of it to get things done. And what needed to be done took money. And money came from work. And work was what they were here for to find. Hopefully.
“Senior Hectares,” the captain said, her voice taking on an edge of softness. “Don’t concern yourself with the delicate nature of my girls. They can take care of themselves. And they can take care of your cargo. I promise that.”
Hectares ran a finger over his moustache as he grinned, most lewdly. “I am sure I have quite a few things your ladies can take care of for me. But my shipment isn’t one of them.”
Jax growled, and the captain put a hand on her arm to silence her.
“See?” Hectares asked, then laughed aloud. “You cannot even handle a little bawdy talk. Delicate. Far too delicate.”
“Maybe Jax will show you how delicate you are?” Jax asked, her rough accent dancing on Gabriella’s ears.
“Are you threatening me?”
“Yes. You hard of hearing?”
“Jax …” the captain warned.
Jax growled again, but said nothing more.
The Spaniard shrugged. “Makes no difference either way. I don’t like mouthy women.” He turned an eye on Gabriella, giving her such a lecherous glare it made her skin crawl. “But you. I like you. So young and so quiet. Perhaps you would be interested in giving me a port to unload my personal cargo? Yes?” He reached out to touch Gabriella, but she recoiled before he could make contact.
“Hands off,” the captain said.
Hectares grinned wider. “Why? There is good money in hands on. Maybe you should do the work you were surely made for?”
“And maybe Jax will teach you some manners,” Jax said.
“There is nothing you can teach me,” Hectares said.
“Really?” Jax grinned just as wide as the Spaniard. “Because I think you are as stupid as your moustache makes you look.”
“Stupid?” Hectares asked as he touched his moustache again. “This is the moustache of a great lover.”
“Is it?” Jax leaned across the table and asked in a low voice. “Does he know you’ve stolen it from him?”
Hectares stood back from the table, his chair falling to the floorboards with a loud clatter. The tavern went silent. Music, conversation, everything came to a stop.
Every ear turned to the mounting tension. Every eye to the building battle.
“You dare mock me?” Hectares asked.
“Jax,” the captain said. “Please, just let it go.”
Jax shrugged the captain off and stood, slow and steady, squaring off at the shoulders and shifting her hips into a wide stance. A fighter’s stance. “Jax never dares. She only does.”
Hectares sneered. “I won’t have a puta like you speak of my beautiful moustache in such a manner.”
The captain covered her face, hung her head and sank into her chair with a groan.
“Puta?” Jax asked. She snapped her big fingers and pointed at the man. “That’s it. Now I know what your moustache reminds me of.”
The Spaniard’s eyes went wide as he jawed the air in a moment of speechlessness.
“Gabriella,” the captain whispered. “Have you been practicing the fighting moves Jax showed you?”
Gabriella nodded, just as shocked as the Spaniard into silence.
“Good,” the captain said. “Try to stay out of the way, but keep your training in mind. You might need it.”
All too soon, the Spaniard found his voice. “I never in all my days-”
“And you probably never will!” Jax shouted. “Because a real woman would never touch a man with a thing like that taking refuge under his very nose.”
“I will have you know my moustache has won the heart of many a woman.”
“Really? And how much did you have to pay these hearts to spend an evening with a greasy strip of fuzz you claim is a moustache?” The tall blonde ran her fingers along her own upper lip in a slow, mocking swipe as she said, “Jax has but a few whiskers on her lip, but still has a manlier moustache than your ugly face ever will!”
The Spaniard, obviously tired of talking, grabbed the edge of the table and tossed it to one side, sending mugs flying away in a shimmering cascade of frothy ale. His intention must have been to lunge forward and take her by surprise. But Jax was far to fast for a trick like that. She sprang forward just as Hectares flipped the table, grabbing him up by the shoulders and knocking both of them to the ground.
They rolled and tussled for a few moments, curses and shouts rising from the pair as they fought. After a bit of this, Jax gained purchase on the big Spaniard and flung him across the tavern as if he weighed little more than Gabriella.
Gabriella, meanwhile, took refuge in the next booth, watching the fight with delight. Moments like this made her feel so alive. She could be at home, trussed up in some froufrou dress, waiting for a man to tell her what to say or think or do. But no, she was here, watching Jax deal out a lesson in manners. This was why she signed onto the Widow, and this was why she stayed. Well, this and him. That precious and handsome and wonderful and magical secret that was Atom Loquacious.
The fight raged across the tavern, under tables and over chairs, until Jax had the big Spaniard pinned against one wall. There, she grabbed his lapels in her meaty fists, hauled him to his feet and proceeded to head butt the man. A loud crack echoed across the tavern accompanied by a chorus of sympathetic moans. Hectares staggered a few steps, then fell backward against the wall, slid down and ended up flat on his rump.
Jax turned her anger on the watching crowd. “Anyone else here thinks Jax is so delicate?”
Every head shook in dissent. No. No one else thought she was delicate. No sir.
“That is as it should be,” Jax said.
Behind her, the Spaniard got to his unsteady feet. His moustache was caked with blood as a steady stream poured down his chin and onto his fine clothes. He made a series of ungraceful snorts and hocks before he spat a wad of crimson onto the wooden floorboards.
Jax turned to face him. “Ready for another round?”
Bloody nosed and black eyed, Hectares lifted trembling finger at her. “You had a bit of luck. Now your luck is through. I held back because my upbringing forbids I bring harm to a lady. But you …” he paused to spit on the ground between them. “You are no lady! And I will hold back no more. You will now feel the full fury of Juan Julio Grenada Hectares!”
“Shut your moustache hole!” Jax shouted, then hauled off and belted the man full across the mouth.
Juan Julio Grenada Hectares spun, in a most amusing pirouette, before crumpling to the ground like a discarded handkerchief. Gabriella couldn’t help herself. Upon seeing her fellow crewmember flatten such a pompous ass of a man, she started applauding. It didn’t take long before others joined in, and soon the tavern was filled with the sharp sounds of clapping and catcalls and hoots and hollers. Jax tipped an imaginary hat to the crowd and crossed the room to rejoin her captain.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Jax said, her smile belying her contrition.
“Think nothing of it,” the captain said. “But it is best if we get out before someone else decides to anger you.” She stood and motioned Gabriella to the door.
Once outside, Gabriella remembered what they went in for in the first place. “We didn’t get the job. What will we do for money now, sir?”
“Oh don’t you worry,” the captain said. “We got work. Plenty of it. We’ve had six offers for immediate cargo runs. And five more fellows left me contact information for future endeavors.”
“I don’t understand.”
The captain waggled her eyebrows. “Why would anyone trust a bunch of women with their cargo if we can’t defend ourselves?”
“But we can defend our …” Gabriella smiled as she understood. “Then this was your plan all along?”
Jax nodded. “Is good to get in some practice on a real target. I have grown stiff from too much lying about. Idleness is not good for Jax.”
“Idleness is not good for anyone,” the captain said. “Save for maybe Click.”
“The only thing he idols is you. Sir.”
The women laughed as they made their way back to the ship and the rest of the crew awaiting the good news.
A Lesson in Manners post created for ...and a bottle o'rum event by Regina Riley author of Pistons and Pistols © 2011. All rights reserved.
by Regina Riley
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by Regina Riley