"So Far Away"
In three days they would be home. Gently, she reached up from behind him to massage his shoulders, being careful of his recent wound.
Captain Grief, now at the wheel of the Rattler, leaned his head back, his face close to hers, and smiled. "Nice." he whispered, enjoying their contact. There was a time when Isabelle's touch caused Grief excessive suspicion. He would wonder if she was genuinely interested, truly desired him, or if she *wanted* something else, possibly tips on trading and selling. But now her fingers created sensations far more enjoyable than wariness.
Last night. His cabin. Paradise. Grief didn't know if it was his worship for this woman that amplified his passions, the way he saw their coupling, or if she had somehow tapped into buried emotions - his true wants and needs - feelings Grief never knew he possessed.
Mauriri would laugh about that. David Grief, the confirmed bachelor, feeling something so strong for one single female, a woman they had both originally thought nothing but trouble, that he was beginning to doubt an appreciation of single-man status. Grief told Isabelle he could never give up the sea for her and she understood but last night, when they were together, in the aftermath, when they were speaking softly to one another, sweet words of devotion, he *could* have given it up. All of it. She only needed ask and he would have agreed to sell the Rattler, did whatever it was she wanted of him … and would later have regretted it profoundly. 'But you didn't and she didn't. *She* wouldn't. All is well.' he pondered, content. Grief reached to his shoulder and caressed her hand.
Isabelle bowed her head and softly kissed his cheek, "Eyes on the ocean, Captain." she ordered, "I want to get home in one piece."
He chuckled and did as he was told. There was a comfortable silence between them.
Softly running her fingertips through the back of his sun lightened hair, Isabelle was glad Grief could not see her troubled expression. She hid it from him because he appeared so deeply happy right now and she could not bear to be the cause of further worry on his part. Isabelle was afraid. She was going back to Matavai but the reasons for her initial departure remained. What was she going to do once she returned?
Yes, she loved the island and its people, adored the scenery and customs. And now, Isabelle was thoroughly in love with David Grief, and yearned to be anywhere he chose to live. 'It should be enough.' she told herself repeatedly. Yet, what was she going to do while he was away on one of those extended sea voyages he and Mauriri often undertook? Could she be happy, sitting around waiting for him? David would let her go with him, Isabelle knew, but he and Mauriri shared something together - with the Rattler - that was beyond her understanding. She would not interfere or stand in the way of such a friendship. The ship was their brotherly bond.
Grief reminded Isabelle during the calm, in aftermath of their love making last night, that she was in charge of their finances and would keep busy booking appointments for he and Mauriri. She laughed at his version of 'sweet talk' but understood he was assuring his loved one that she had a bigger part in his life, other than occupying his bed. Yet Isabelle wasn't as content as she allowed him to believe. In the past she was able to schedule pick ups and deliveries, watch the Rattler's books AND run her own business.
'A challenge is what you need.' Isabelle thought. Perhaps she could help Reverend Trent with the church or maybe Clare with her newspaper … or even Lavinia … Well no, maybe not Lavinia. Somehow, Isabelle could not picture herself in Lavinia's company - especially now - for any more time than it was necessary to say, "How are you?" She and David were parted but Lavinia had never really forgiven Isabelle's flirting, in those early days, when she knew Grief belonged to another. It would seem a slap in the face to the lovely tavern owner if Isabelle were to ask a favor now.
The idea of starting up a new stable touched Isabelle's mind briefly but she dismissed it. Although she received a very generous stipend from Lord Wilke, for her services as a governess and riding instructor, it was hardly enough to get another business going. And realistically, what bank would aid her now? Besides all that, thinking of the stable reminded Isabelle of what she had lost. Dante. She missed him terribly and prayed that whoever got her favorite gelding would be a kind master.
His hand reached up to touch hers as it rested near his neck. Grief looked up at Isabelle, catching a quick glimmer of despair before she was able to bring up a cheerful mask. "Are you happy?" he asked, seriously.
She smiled, squeezing his hand, then leaned down to peck David softly on the lips. "More than ever before, my love." she whispered -- and silently wished it were true.
"Where is everyone?" Isabelle ask as they dropped anchor in Matavai harbor, then released the longboat. Rowing to shore she said, "I thought at least Mauriri would be here to greet us." Isabelle felt a bit nervous. She knew there were some on Matavai who did not care for her, they had listened to too many rumors, but she never thought their dislike would reflect on the courtesy always shown Captain Grief. There was always someone about to greet him when he came to shore …
As if on cue, Cannibal Jack walked slowly down the beach and waved his acknowledgement. He then helped Grief pull the boat onto the beach. "Good trip?" he asked, unaware it seemed of what had been going on for the last two weeks. He knew, of course. There wasn't much that got past Jack.
"Yes." Grief answered, briefly shaking his hand. "The wind was at our back. We made good time." He then looked about and scowled slightly. "Seen Mauriri?"
"He's at Lavinia's. Said to tell you two to stop by when you get a chance." Jack lifted a hand and politely helped Isabelle to step foot on the sand, "Glad you're here." he said lowly, catching Isabelle's eye. There was no true show of emotion, no sign of expression at all really. He was merely Cannibal Jack telling it as it is.
Isabelle, appreciating the man's sincerity, smiled and nodded. "Thank you, Jack."
He averted his gaze and quietly parted company.
Grief took her hand in his as they walked to Lavinia's, sensing Isabelle's unease. How would their friends react to a woman - someone they considered a friend - who had left them, without one word, for parts unknown? Should she expect a genial greeting and appreciative slaps on the back or anger and disappointment? Grief had been here long enough to know the answer but Isabelle, it seemed, was still learning.
When they walked inside, nearly all the usual suspected were gathered together. Sailors were drinking and flirting with native women, a couple of intense card games were taking place and the mood was, for mid week, relatively calm.
"Where *is* Mauriri?" Isabelle wondered aloud, unable to spot the handsome Polynesian.
'And Lavinia.' Grief also wondered, noting she was not near the bar.
"Isabelle!" a call came from behind. Clare ran to where the couple stood and threw her arms around the slender brunette woman as if she had been gone for months instead of a couple weeks, "When I learned you had left I was so disappointed …" she nearly cried and pulled back from Isabelle, "Who, I thought, was going to give me riding lessons now?"
Stunned but, nevertheless please by Clare's consideration, Isabelle smiled sadly. "I'm afraid the riding lessons are going to be postponed indefinitely. It's hard to teach riding when you have no horses." she reminded.
Biting her bottom lip, the blond nodded her apology. She then directed her attention to another, "David, good to see you too." Clare reached passed Isabelle and touched his arm, "When Mauriri returned he told us of your run in with that awful O'Finney character." She glance fleetingly at his shoulder, at the wound that was hidden underneath his shirt, "Are you all right?"
"Nothing Isabelle couldn't fix." Grief replied, jovially. Then, "Do you know where Mauriri is?"
"Oh," Clare looked about, nonchalantly. "He's probably helping Lavinia with something in the back. Why don't you go get a table and I'll check around …"
"David! Isabelle!" Mauriri suddenly appeared at the entrance of the tavern, "Come here, quickly!" His expression shown an urgency not to be ignored.
"Has someone been hurt?" Grief asked but there was no reply as Mauriri turned about and sprinted away from them.
The couple looked at one another, worried, and followed their friend to a distance not far from Lavinia's.
They never saw Clare smile and look down at her own feet.
The sun was just beginning to set and their shadows were long and eerie as they raced down a path traveled many times before. It wasn't long before Isabelle and Grief realized where Mauriri was leading them. A familiar area -- the sight of Isabelle's greatest nightmare and also her furthermost passion.
"Why … why are we going to the stables? What has happened?" Isabelle called but Mauriri kept running, ignoring her.
Soon they arrived and Isabelle could only stare, unable to say anything. Her mouth dropped open. The stable, one of her finest accomplishments, was in the process of being rebuilt. Old, dead wood had been hauled away and new boards replaced the burnt. "I don't understand." she said.
Grief looked from the stable to Mauriri, "A cable came, I take it?" he asked.
The Polynesian nodded, a roguish gleam in his eyes. He turned to Isabelle and explained, "Lord Wilke learned about what happened here, how the stable burned and you were not able to get funding for Reed Enterprises. He decided to help you."
"You told him?" Isabelle asked, appearing mortified, looking at Grief. "David, how could you? I can't possibly accept …"
"This is business, Isabelle." Grief interrupted, "Wilke is *loaning* you the money and he expects to get some fine horseflesh once breeding starts. He's allowed you some cash for purchases and is relying on your expertise. He'll be looking you up very soon."
"But …" Isabelle appeared unsure.
"He's not a fool. Wilke *is* a good businessman. And on the human side," Grief admitted, "Lord and Lady Wilke are grateful for everything you've done for them -- for their family. Wilke has faith in you and knows you will be a success, as you were before." Grief leaned in a little closer and spoke quietly, "I believe in you too." Then, "Besides, his interest rate is far lower than what you would ever receive from a mainland bank."
Isabelle's expression appeared exhausted but a glimmer began to ignite her green eyes as the possibilities swirled through her mind, "It's going to take so much time." Her fear did battle with ambition, "I don't even have horses yet to call my own yet and ..."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that." Mauriri mimed the couple to step further into the yard. The scent of straw and freshly pulled hay was magnificent.
Both Grief and Isabelle were stopped short when they saw both Lavinia and Reverend Trent, dressed in working clothes, stepping from behind a tall partition. They had been talking and laughing and didn't even realize the others were present until Mauriri cleared his throat.
"Ah, they're back." Colin stated with a smile.
Lavinia merely nodded at David then Isabelle.
"They knew about this too?" Isabelle questioned, unsure.
"Not until I told them." Mauriri said, "But they did know about *this* …" He touched Isabelle's shoulder and turned her slowly so she could look into a stall to her left.
"Oh." Isabelle gulped, unable to believe what she was seeing. "It can't be." she whispered. But it was … "*Dante!*" Isabelle whooped and raced into the stall in an upsurge of unguarded emotion. "My darling beauty!" She hugged the horse's neck and petted him as if he were a long lost child.
The horse neighed his approval and if it were possible he would have hugged her in return.
"How did you do that?" Grief asked, genuinely impressed. He too had never thought to see Dante again.
Lavinia came up beside the men, "Mauriri and I talked it over." she said, a satisfied lilt to her tone. "We put some currency together, including money from the church's petty cash box, " she nodded at a beaming Colin (who rationalized by declaring he was helping a potential parishioner), "and a contribution from Clare … and had just enough to put an impressive bid in on Dante before his ship sailed."
"You bought Dante?" Grief asked, still astonished. He then recalled Mauriri mentioning something about a 'business matter' before he and Grief left for Australia. Was Dante on the ship when Mauriri sailed back to Matavai?
"We knew you would get Isabelle to come back," Colin said, "And we also knew how much she loved Dante. Isabelle doesn't feel she is one of us. She may never feel that comfortable … but this is our way of showing her she has family."
Prying herself away from Dante, Isabelle approached and heard what Colin said. "Thank you." she swallowed hard and held him in a tight hug. She then turned to Mauriri, who was smiling down at her like a mischievous big brother, and embraced him as well. In an after thought she smacked an irritated palm against one of his muscular arms, "You sneak!' she said with a weepy laugh.
Isabelle then turned about and looked at Lavinia, meeting the darker woman's eyes with her own. Gently but with sincere appreciation, she slipped her arms around Lavinia and quietly sobbed. Isabelle murmured, "Thank you most of all."
In reply, holding back tears of her own, Lavinia whispered into Isabelle's ear: "You take good care of him."
Isabelle knew she was not speaking of just Dante.
*Three Weeks Later*
A fierce storm struck without warning and Isabelle had just enough time, with the help of a few of her stable boys, to lock up the stalls, stow the oats and hay; clear everything else out of the way before the first torrent of rain fell. Soaked, she then sent her workers home to their families.
David Grief had been there too, the sea being too choppy to sail and, when all was safe, he raced with Isabelle up to her quarters where the two lovers relaxed and enjoyed an intimate hot bath together, splashing and toying with each other's feet like youngster. Afterwards, they dried and wrapped thick blankets around themselves, sitting in front of a roaring blaze in her fireplace. They held one another and drank lovely glasses of wine as they talked.
"Got a letter from the children yesterday." Isabelle said, "Tim is going to be an artist. Lady Wilke has hired one of the best painters in Australia as his instructor."
"And Miranda?" Grief asked.
"She's paying little attention to her riding coach and is leaping barrels."
Grief chuckled, "She reminds me of someone."
Isabelle leaned back in his arms, resting her back against his chest. After a pause she asked, "Is the Tonga trip set for next week?"
"Yeah, I think you have us down for a couple mineral shipments." Grief replied, pressing his mouth against her damp fragrant hair. Then, "Why?"
"Think I'd like to go with you. The Chief owes me a favor and I've been hearing about some above average horseflesh."
"Okay." Grief put his empty wine glass beside him and hugged Isabelle close, "But that's not the type of flesh I'm interested in right now."
Isabelle giggled, "Naughty boy." then she twisted slightly in his embrace, positioning herself so she had easy access to his lips. After a gentle kiss Isabelle lifted a hand and touched David's cheek tenderly. "You have done so much for me …" she said, seriously. " … and I'll never be able to express how grateful I am for what you and everyone here on Matavai …"
Grief raised fingers and put them against her lips. "Are you happy, Isabelle?" he asked, no nonsense. She nodded sincerely, if a little confused, and he could see it reach her eyes. Yes, she was happy. Possibly happier than she had ever been in her life. "Then that is gratitude enough."
They merely looked into each others eyes for a few silent moments.
Isabelle said, "I love you, David."
Grief returned the endearment and added a silent thought that had nothing and everything to do with thankfulness. 'One day,' he swore, 'we're going to take the next step together and when we do ...' The thought trailed when she leaned in close and once again kissed him, this time longer and more heartfelt than ever before. He wondered for a moment if she could read his mind.
Once again the South Seas blazed with their sensual passion and commitment. Slowly, displaying a love deeper than the ocean, the couple fell backward onto the soft carpeting and perfected what was already … perfect.
Outside, the waves crashed.