Antonio couldn’t sleep. He got out of bed and pulled on his breeches, stuffing his bare feet into his boots. Quitting the cabin, he swung onto the stairs and climbed. When his head had cleared the hatchway, he froze.
A dark figure with billowing skirts stood hunched over the railing. What was Mariel doing out late at night? His heart pinched seeing her there with her face turned into the wind, and at the same time, he was strangely gratified, guessing sleep might be eluding her, too. He should ignore her, as she’d been ignoring him. Because if he approached her, he would probably make an utter fool of himself, so volatile were his feelings.
But he didn’t turn aside. As the moon draws the tides to shore, she worked her silent pull on him. Aware he was bare-chested, he almost returned to his cabin to put on his shirt. It shouldn’t matter, she was his wife, and she’d have to take him as he was.
And he wanted answers, too.
A few paces from her, he stopped and purposely cleared his throat. He didn’t want to startle her. He wanted to talk to her… to try and understand.
She turned from the railing and gazed at him. Tiny wisps of hair blew around her face, loosened from her chignon by the force of the wind. Her features were barely discernible in the dark night; only an occasional gleam of light flashed from her almond-shaped eyes. And her skirts puffed around her, filled with wind, like the billowing sails.
His heart turned over. He didn’t really want to talk—what he wanted was to take her into his arms and crush her against him. He wanted to bury himself in her sweet embrace. Por Dios, would the torment never end?
Silence stretched between them, sharp as a razor’s edge.
He held his breath.
Mariel ducked her head and looked away, smoothing down her skirts. But the silence must have grated on her because she said, “Antonio, I hope nothing is wrong. The ship seems to be making good progress. There is certainly enough wind tonight.” He thought he glimpsed a wry smile twisting her lips.
“No, nothing is wrong. I wanted to check our course and look over the rigging to be certain we’re making full use of the wind.” He reached out his hand as if to help her with her skirts. Then he thought better and pulled his hand back. “Sí, there is plenty of wind tonight.”
Silence grew between them again.
“It’s late,” he said. “Why—?”
“I couldn’t sleep.”
“You’re not ill, are you?”
“No, I’m quite well… just restless.”
Antonio wondered what she meant. And if she was well, why did she keep pleading illness to avoid him? He wanted to ask her, but he doubted she would give him an honest answer. Instead, he chose a neutral subject. “How is Isabella? She seems well. Is the calmer sea easier than when we came out?”
This time, he saw her smile. “Thank you for asking.” She bent her head. “I believe she’s feeling better. The sea has been smooth, and so far, she hasn’t suffered from the mal de mar, as before.”
Antonio nodded, feeling suddenly childish, standing in the black windy night, exchanging meaningless chitchat with his wife. What had changed her?
This was not the Mariel he knew and loved. He yearned for her old exuberance, her strong-willed stubbornness. He hated this new guarded coolness of hers. When had she learned to hide her feelings? Frustrated, he moved closer, until only a step separated them.
She shrank back.
A sharp pain pierced his heart, but he forged ahead anyway, cornering her against the ship’s rail. She lifted her head and gazed at him. Her gaze was cool and level. Whatever had made her move away, she must be controlling her feelings now.
He gathered her into his arms, savoring the feel of her rounded breasts, through the thin cotton of her shirtwaist dress, pressing against his bare chest. But she stiffened and trembled in his embrace. He held her closer, brushing his lips over her forehead.
He knew his embrace was firm, but he didn’t want her to pull away. Not until he reached her—not until he made her understand what she was doing to him. His need for her raged, searing his soul. His groin tightened, and his manhood stirred. He was desperate to make love to her. And he was trembling, too.
When he finally spoke, his words sounded pathetic, compared to the tumultuous feelings pouring through him. “Mi corazón, do you know why I call you that?”
She lowered her head and didn’t meet his eyes.
“Because that is what you are… my heart. Without you, I’m empty, hollow inside.” He pressed his hand to his chest.
“No, you mustn’t—”
“Why, Mariel? Tell me why.” His voice rose. “You are my beloved wife. I know you welcomed me with a woman’s passion, in Cuba, during the storm. What has happened? Why have you turned away from me?”
His voice was strained from the pain blooming in his heart. “I want you. I desire you as I’ve desired no other woman. I will be gentle. I promise. I will make you soar with the eagles. Mariel…”
She put her hands on his chest and pushed.
His heart squeezed, and he held her tighter. Her struggles reminded him of a bird trapped under a cat’s paw. It was a cruel comparison, but he meant her no harm. He only wanted her to realize what she was throwing away.
She took a deep breath. “Por favor, Antonio, let me go.”
“Not until you tell me why.”
“I’ve told you. If you were a gentleman…” She shot him a sharp glance, damning him with the look in her eyes.
He laughed, but his laughter held no joy. “I’m not a gentleman. Explain to me again.”
“No, I won’t! It’s too humiliating. I’m afraid. I told you before. If you really care for me, you’d try to understand. It should be explanation enough.” She flattened her hands against his chest, pushing again. “Let me go.”
“Por Dios, I’m your husband, damn it! I have every right to hold you in my arms.”
“Sí, and I’m your wife but not because I wished it! My father and you forced this marriage against my will. There, I’ve said it,” she spat at him. “Can’t you leave me in peace?”
He let his arms drop, releasing her. “This isn’t about your fears of the marriage bed. Is it? It’s about Enrique. Isn’t it? You still believe you love him. Don’t you?”