The girl curtsied and swept her way out of the room, pulling the door almost all the way closed. He should go and open it wider to protect Miss Paredes’ reputation, but didn’t bother. He appreciated the privacy for now. He poured himself a cup of coffee. “Would you like a cup?”
“Yes, please,” Miss Paredes said after a brief hesitation.
He added cream to hers, having seen her do so that morning, and set the cup on the small table near her elbow.
“You’re not supposed to serve me,” Miss Paredes protested.
Duilio didn’t laugh at her wry tone. He broke societal rules regularly enough that this tiny slip in etiquette didn’t merit any twinge of insulted propriety on his part. “I don’t mind serving, Miss Paredes, particularly as your hands are occupied. Do you enjoy sewing?”
She regarded him warily, as if she feared a trap. “Yes. It’s calming.”
Well, now he’d learned something. Miss Paredes liked to sew; it wasn’t merely a part of her disguise. He smiled down into his coffee. “I believe there’s a sewing machine down in the workroom. Did you know that?”
“Yes, but once you’ve accidentally sewn through your webbing, you tend to stay away from machines. I prefer to work by hand.”
Duilio cringed. “I see. The next time you need a gown, it might be simpler to have one made up. I didn’t mean for you to spend your hours here mending.”
She pushed the rumpled blue mound on her lap into order and then picked up her own cup. “Mending is honest work, sir.”
He crossed his legs and peered at her lowered features. Their relationship wasn’t a normal one, caused by circumstances to vacillate between that of master and servant . . . and something else. But his remarks about the mending had caused her to revert to servant again, which irritated him. He wanted to talk to her, not just exchange pleasantries….
“I have often wondered about your people’s culture,” he said then, hoping to draw out the woman behind the mask of servility. “It’s a shame tourism isn’t allowed on your islands.”
“Given our history with your people, are you surprised?” she asked tartly.
His people’s relationship with hers had not gotten off on the right foot, a story recorded in Camões’ epic poem. The islands had been discovered on one of Vasco da Gama’s voyages. The sailors, spotting the lovely “sea nymphs” bathing there, decided they were a gift from Venus . . . and took advantage. The poet chose to cast the incident in a heroic light. He wrote of the sereia running away into the woods, depicting their flight as an attempt to further entice the men—as if sailors long at sea required enticement at all. Duilio had always suspected that interpretation of those events; if a sereia wished to attract a man, she could call him, could she not? “That incident was some four hundred years ago, Miss Paredes. I would hope my people are a little more civilized by now.”
“And yet your Camões is still heralded as a great poet. Did any of those sailors bring their so-called sereia brides back to Portugal? Did they attempt to right the wrong perpetrated against those women?” Her dark eyes turned toward the dress in her lap. She fiddled with the fabric, giving him an occasional glimpse of the webbing between her long fingers. “We have our own history of that incident—The Rape of Amado, it’s called.”
“I am not surprised,” he admitted. “What happened afterward is shrouded in mystery. What do your people say?”
“Amado became a prison of sorts,” she told him. “It had once been a game reserve, just for hunting, but along with the dozen or so human men who’d stayed behind, all the sereia who were caught up in that incident were sequestered there by their own people. They weren’t allowed to return to their home islands, as if they were contaminated. For long afterward, any humans who ended up on the islands, whether by shipwreck or capture—or those missionaries your Church kept sending—were transported to Amado and not allowed to leave.”
Duilio sat back in his chair. “That seems very harsh. Is it still sequestered?”
She shook her head. “No. After about two hundred years our rulers lifted the ban on travel. Amado is often called the Portuguese island, though. Its people have the most human blood, their culture is the most like that of Portugal, and a percentage of them are even Christian, which never did spread to the other islands. And thus Amadeans are looked down on by the inhabitants of the other islands who claim pure sereia blood, no matter how untrue that is.”
Her tone had grown sharper as she spoke. She must be Amadean herself, given her irritation. “Miss Paredes, I’ll promise never to speak fondly of Camões again, if you’ll accept my apology for what happened to your ancestors.”
She seemed surprised. “Your prince is the one who should apologize.”
“Unfortunately, that will never happen, Miss Paredes. And I thought we were making such progress. I was hoping to see those islands before I die.”
That statement caused her brows to furrow. She picked one of the pins from her pincushion, possibly planning to stab him with it. “Why?”
“I like different places,” he said quite truthfully. “I’m curious. I like to travel, see how different people live.”
She regarded him warily. “Why our people? There are plenty of others.”
He argued with himself over whether to tell her the truth or not, and then shrugged. “When I was a boy, my father brought home a book about your islands. It was in French, I recall, and made many unlikely claims, among them the report that your people wear no clothing, or very little. That prompted my initial curiosity.”
Oriana stared at Mr. Ferreira, wondering what type of impression he intended to make with that bald statement. “That alone piqued your interest?”
He flushed, a hint of red creeping cross his cheeks. “I had no intention of offending you, Miss Paredes. I was twelve, I believe. Boys that age, I’m afraid, find nothing more fascinating than the possibility of glimpsing a woman in her natural state. I hope that doesn’t negate my earlier apology. I am somewhat more mature now than I was at twelve.”
Her tone must have been sharper than she’d intended. “I’ll not take it amiss, then, sir. I should tell you, though, that we do wear clothing, although admittedly less than your own people. Our women especially don’t have to put up with this excessive number of layers.” She gestured at her own skirts, hidden under the blue dress.
He inclined his head, as if in acknowledgment of a gift. “I’ll have to look for that book. You might find it amusing.”
She could only imagine how inaccurate a human-written book about the islands would be. His dark brows drew together, and for a moment he didn’t speak. “Mr. Ferreira?” she prompted, uncertain where his thoughts had strayed.
“May I ask a personal question?”
She folded her hands atop the fabric. What could possibly give him pause after admitting having been an imaginative twelve-year-old male at one point? “Of course, sir.”
He gestured toward her hands. “The webbing between your fingers seems very delicate. I wondered if you often injure it. You said you’ve done so when sewing.”
She felt the urge to smile at his hesitation. “It’s tougher than it looks and heals very quickly. I do prick it on occasion, which jars me to my teeth, but it doesn’t hurt that much.”
She licked her lips, working out the words to explain. “Our webbing is what allows us to sense movement in the water—waves or fish or boats. When I injure it, it’s like . . . a loud thunderclap, but not in my ears. In my head.”
“Like a seal’s whiskers,” he said with a slow nod. “How sensitive is it?”
She hadn’t realized the purpose a seal’s whiskers served, but if anyone would know, he would. She held up her hand and spread her fingers wide, which allowed her to sense him. “At this distance I can feel your breathing, your heartbeat. It’s indistinct, but in water it would be far clearer.”
That apparently gave him something to think about, as he sat with his lips pressed together, unmoving.
Oriana suspected she knew what he wanted. Isabel was the only other human who’d ever known her well enough to dare ask. She moved to the front of the couch, hands still in her lap. “Would you like to look at them?”
He regarded her cautiously. “Would you find that offensive?”
She didn’t recall exactly when, but he’d switched to informal address, speaking to her like a friend, tu, rather than just an acquaintance. She did the same. “Will you show me yours in return?”
“It would be a terrible sacrifice,” he said with a sly smile, “but I suppose I could.”
Then he recognized it for a foolish request. She’d seen plenty of human hands in the past two years. But it was a trade she was willing to make. This wasn’t vulgar curiosity or sensationalism on his part. He simply liked to understand.
She leaned forward and held out her left hand—the one without a cut across the palm. The webbing ran up to the last joint on each finger. Their conjoined nature didn’t allow her the dexterousness of a human hand, but she found most tasks doable.
“May I touch your hand?” he asked.
Given his walking into her bath unannounced only a few days before, it was an ironic question. He’d already touched her bare hand, once when he passed her the bathroom keys and then the previous night in the library. This was different, though. She just wasn’t certain how. “Of course,” she managed.
His left hand, ungloved, touched hers. His fingers were warm, sliding under her hand to support it. His thumb rubbed across her palm, distracting her. She spread her fingers wider and let him turn her hand slightly to catch the light on the webbing. The silhouette of his fingers showed through the translucent skin. His heartbeat reverberated through her senses.
He was holding her hand because . . . he wanted to do so.
She swallowed. The sensation of Mr. Ferreira’s skin against hers was surprisingly affecting, making her body warm and her heart beat faster. She wasn’t accustomed to such familiarity; that had to be the source of her reaction.