|Red Sky at Morning
Author: Susan Zell PM
Complete. A devastating storm hits Matavai. But it's an ill wind.....Rated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Romance - Chapters: 2 - Words: 34,862 - Reviews: 3 - Favs: 4 - Updated: 01-31-07 - Published: 01-08-07 - Status: Complete - id: 3331944
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Red Sky at Morning
By Susan Zell
"You have to admit, Claire, it takes a bit of talent to die of hypothermia on a tropical island," said Jack with bitterness as he looked down at the limp woman in his arms. "Just the sort of talent you'd expect me to have."
Jack's teeth were chattering. His trousers were soaking up the water which was getting deeper. He struggled to keep Claire above the water line. It was a losing battle. There was nothing else in the cellar to add to their makeshift island. The water would keep rising even after the rains stop. The tree that blocked the doorway had created a trough for the runoff to flow down into the cellar.
Claire shifted occasionally in his arms. Her eyelids had flickered several times and soft moans, maybe even a word or two had escaped her lips. But she had not woken.
Jack feared that it was a bad sign she had been unconscious so long.
"Please, love, please open your eyes," he pleaded hoarsely. Absently he started to hum. It was an old melody, a half-remember lullaby from his childhood.
Now, Jack, you know she wouldn't open her eyes for you even if she could hear you . She knows what you are. She wants nothing to do with you.
Jack closed his eyes and bit his lip hard enough to draw blood. He mustn't go to sleep. He had to stay awake. He couldn't fall prey to his old fears. They were always there; his ghosts; always at the edge of his consciousness. It was Mollet's voice he heard. The last of his crewmates to die after the shipwreck; it was Mollet who hated him the most for surviving.
She is going to die in your arms and there is nothing you can do about it but sing to her. Why don't you sing to her, Songbird, ease her passing?
"Leave me alone," moaned Jack.
You know I can't do that, lad. I'm always with you, ever since the atoll, ever since you murdered me.
"I didn't. You came after me," said Jack, shaking his head violently. Pain exploded like a firecracker leaving him sick to his stomach. He took a deep breath of the heavy air. "You're not here. It's the knock to the head. It's the fear for Claire. You're not real. You're not here."
If I'm not here why are you afraid to look over here in the shadows? Are you afraid you'll see me? Afraid you will see all of your ghosts waiting for you?
Jack looked into the dark shadows of the cellar. There was no one there of course. Then there was an odd flickering. Was it just the light from the storm? Or were they there; the shipwrecked crew, those who had died leaving him alone to survive.
Sing her a song, Songbird Jack. Sing her a song just like you did for Flynn. And it will do her no more good than it did the old man. She'll die because you couldn't save her. She'll die just like everyone else you have ever loved.
"Shut up, damn you!"
Jack pulled Claire closer. He closed his eyes and rested his chin against her forehead. He could smell the blood that had crusted over her wound. He hurt; his bruised leg throbbed, his head spun. He was exhausted and afraid.
The water was deepening. There was nothing he could do to save Claire.
There was a shimmer of light and then a woman was standing there. He saw her as he first saw her; her dark eyes lively, her thick mahogany hair flowing over her bare shoulders. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
"Vivi," he cried in anguish. "She's dying and I can't help her."
No despair, mon cher. You know I won't have it.Where there is life there is always hope and even when you think life is gone there is still hope when there is love. Hold her tight. The storm will pass.
"Vivi," he whispered again as the light faded.
Claire moaned. Jack raised his head with a jerk. He was clutching the boar's tusk talisman that hung around his neck on a leather strip tightly.
The wind had whipped up a sea that no sailor could survive. The unfortunate ones were those who were torn loose from their anchorages and dashed across the roads on the island on whose steep and rocky shores no rescue was possible. In that manner four ships and seventy men perished, and as they died, a Polynesian woman mourned, "They are the sacrifices for those that survive."
The wind finally dropped in the wee hours of the morning. The rain continued to fall; sheets of water flowed across the saturated ground. Inside the church families huddled together. Most of the children had succumbed to sleep. The adults spoke in hushed voices; worrying about their homes, the possessions of a lifetime they had left behind. Mrs. Russell moved among them with the teapot offering comfort in a practical way. Her thoughts were only of people. She prayed that Lavinia was right and that the Bradford plantation house really was the safest place to ride out a storm.
Though she had been on Tahiti for months, it was not her home. She lived in a house that was not her own. The few possessions she traveled with fit in a trunk and could be easily replaced. The only precious items being the photographs of her husband, her sons and their family; those were in the basket on the front pew.
An hour before dawn Mauriri and several other men left the church. They waded through the streets of the little town. Mauriri stopped at the government building and talked to Morlais and other officials. The building was full of people; few had stayed in their houses to weather the storm. It seemed to Mauriri that there was something instinctual about huddling together during a storm.
Morlais sent his soldiers through the town to look for those who needed help. By the time Mauriri returned to the church the injured were being brought in for care.
His son ran up to him. Mauriri caught Tevaki up in his arms. The little boy squirmed and asked excitedly, "Did it get swept away?"
Lianni was wrapping a strip of linen around a bad cut on a man's leg when Mauriri came in. She saw Tevaki and was thankful that he couldn't understand how horrible the storm had been; that he simply didn't know what the loss of their house would mean to their lives.
Tahnee did appear to understand. When she saw her father come into the church she went to her mother's side. Very still, they waited for him to approach them.
"It is still there," he said quietly. "The porch is gone. The water was up in the house. I guess we will find out how waterproof those chests are when we open them. A lot of people lost a lot more."
Still carrying their son, he laid his hand on his daughter's dark head, and then he reached out to touch his wife's cheek. She kissed his palm. Then she resumed her task.
Gilles Bradford stepped up onto the veranda of the plantation house just as his father walked out the front door.
"Isn't it amazing how beautiful it is after a big blow? Look at that sunrise; I've never seen a more benign sky. Nothing like yesterday," said Tom Bradford. He had a coffee cup in his hand and used it to gesture towards the band of light along the eastern horizon. He turned to look at his oldest son with a faint, puzzled frown. He couldn't remember Gilles ever having gotten out of bed of his volition before sunrise. It could be that girl was having a good effect on him. He seemed to be learning something about responsibility. "Have you been down to look at the boat?"
Gilles nodded. "The beach is a mess. Palm fronds, wood planks, all sorts of things strew all over it. But the boat looks to be all right. At least she is where we left her; right in the middle of the deepest spot. She's a bit low in the water for an empty boat."
"Well, it was a mighty high sea last night. Even in a cove as protected as ours the waves would have been high enough for her to have taken on quite a bit of water. You need to roust your boys out and put them on the bilge pump."
Gilles took the piece of advice with a good grace. He knew what he needed to do of course but his father couldn't help giving advice. Besides he knew what he was talking about. Tom Bradford had grown up on the docks of Liverpool. He'd spent ten years at sea before he settled on Tahiti.
"How bad do things look, Tom?"
Both men turned to see Rachel Bradford standing in the doorway. She was leaning heavily on her two walking sticks.
"Rachel, what are you doing out of bed?" demanded Bradford.
"I thought I was doing myself more harm lying there wondering how much damage was done than if I came and saw for myself."
Gilles went to his step-mother and offered her his arm. Through the doorway he saw her ever vigilant maid dragging her chaise lounge from where it had been stowed for the duration of the storm. She brought it out to it's accustom place on the veranda while Bradford answered his wife's original question.
"It's not too bad. I think we missed the worst of it. Once the boys have checked all of the stock I'll have them clean your garden up for you."
"We've weathered another storm, Mother," said Gilles, helping her to sit on the chaise.
"Yes, God has been generous to us once more. I keep thinking about Anne and Claire in town and wondering how they made out."
Gilles's handsome face darkened. He had given a great deal of thought to Claire during the night. He heartily wished that he had insisted she come home with him.
"Matavai might have taken a more direct hit," mused Bradford. He was the veteran of many storms on Tahiti. It always surprised him how random the damage could be.
"Father, I'm going to roust out my men and set them to the pump," said Gilles, already moving in the direction of the worker's cottages where two of the Malahini crewmen had spent the night. "Then I think I'll ride into town."
"Good idea. I'd like to know how the warehouse stood the storm."
The family warehouse had been the least of Gilles's concerns.
Lavinia's pace was quick at first but as the bay came into view, she slowed. Her heart which had been pounding in her ears a moment ago seemed suddenly to cease entirely. The view before her was nothing she recognized. What had once been home and familiar was now reduced to kindling and rubble
Everywhere there was damage. She couldn't stop the tears as she clung to Colin. And she knew that her tears weren't just for herself but for everyone on the island who was experiencing loss. From the town to the bay, it was everywhere. Little vessels bobbed wildly before being dragged and dashed to pieces. The bay was littered with shattered hulls and torn masts. She tried not to think of the men who might be on those boats.
The wharf was gone; shapes that were once beautiful ships dotted the shore in tangle unrecognizable heaps. People were walking through the wreckage in a dazed shuffle. Some were huddled on the ground sobbing at their loss.
Lavinia wanted to join them. Of her beloved taproom a great section had collapsed. She could look directly inside now where the storm surge had washed all the tables and chairs into a jumbled mess against a still standing inner wall.
She entered through the gaping hole in the building and stepped into chaos. Her breath escaped her and she must have swayed because she felt pressure on her arm to steady her. Colin was beside her though she hadn't noticed his presence. There were no words between them. Nothing could accurately express the grief and horror of the moment.
Mauriri moved past them and went further into the back toward the kitchen and the upstairs. Amazingly the upper floor was intact and the beams still holding. There were cracks and a few holes but that could be reinforced.
"Kitchen is pretty good," Mauriri called out. "A mess but usable." He emerged, wading through some of the standing water still ebbing through the building. His gaze moved upward, and he cautiously approached the stairs.
"Do you think it's safe?" Colin called out, seeing where the islander's interest lay.
"The foundation is still solid and the beams are intact. Most of the damage was on the first floor from the waves. We're lucky the pilings were buried pretty deep. Even with all the sand gone, they held."
His eyes met Lavinia's, whose dark orbs were silent and like stone. She's trying not to hope, he thought. He called out to her and finally her eyes actually focused on him instead of on the damage. "It looks bad but it's salvageable. We'll work together. We'll fix this.
Her face muscles shuddered as she held in a wave of emotion. But then it settled. She gave a sharp nod. "As long as we don't have to start from scratch, I should be happy." And she should be. So many more had lost everything. Lives had been lost as well as property.
Colin's arm came across her shoulders. "No matter what, we'll meet it together. Just something else we need to fix up. Just like Vivi's house." His soft eyes regarded her. "Sometimes I think you just married me for carpentry work."
Her lips quirked a fraction. Drawing in a deep breath, she tried to join in to their enthusiasm. "You love being a carpenter."
"Only following in my Lord's footsteps." He squeezed her tenderly. "So long as we are all safe, we can bear the rest of this burden."
She nodded her dark head against his chest. "I know. I know." Her voice was strained; almost a sob.
"What is it, my heart?" asked Colin gently. His hand stroked her thick hair. "This isn't like you."
"You mean I ought to all ready have a broom in my hand?" she said, leaning back to look at him.
Colin nodded. It was true that the devastation was horrible and it was perfectly understandable that Lavinia was heart-broken. And yet Colin had never known her to response to any crisis by doing anything but taking action.
"I'm being terribly selfish. The bar has been a touchstone in my life. The bar was how we survived, Vivi and me." She shook her head and swiped at the tears that spilled down her cheeks. "How you and I survive. So much lost. But--"
Colin waited in silence. He knew that in her own time she would tell him.
Lavinia took a deep breath. "The house. Vivi's house. Our home. I'm afraid to go and look at it. Afraid that it has been destroyed. We have been so happy there."
Colin took both of her hands in his and lifted them to his mouth. He kissed them and said, "As long as we have each other nothing can destroy our happiness. Come. We will go and look at the house now. Together."
Mauriri took the moment of their interlude to climb the stairs and inspect the upper section of the taproom. Most of rooms appeared fine. The wind and rain had come in through the windows but the damage was minimal. He trod carefully around some of the holes where trees had crashed through, or the wind had pulled up the roof but otherwise the upstairs had weathered the storm.
The big thing would be to check the structure and beams carefully to ensure it was safe. If it was then they wouldn't have to tear it down to start again, a prospect he could not bear to tell Lavinia. It looked promising so far.
From this vantage point he looked out over the sea and his mind immediately thought of David and Isabelle. Were they safe? He couldn't rejoice until he knew all his friends had survived
David and Isabelle were racing for home. There was still a good breeze blowing and David was filling the Rattler's canvas with all of it. The last time they had even matched this speed was during the race. He looked forward and saw Isabelle standing in the bow; she faced the wind head on. Her beautiful hair blew in wild streamers behind her.
David could not suppress a wide grin. It had taken a hurricane to break down all the barriers between them but they had finally met each other on equal terms. And what a meeting it was.
Isabelle thrilled to the spray on her face and the bright blue sky broken with huge white puffy clouds, the non-threatening kind. She knew that David was watching her. She could feel his gaze and what it contained; affection and desire. Her body quivered in response. She couldn't find words for what she felt but she knew it was good.
She felt something else as well. There was a sense of foreboding that she could not shake. She was desperate to get back to Matavai. They were still a few hours out and the peak of the island's hills still had not emerged on the horizon. She willed the ship to fly faster.
David stepped up behind her. Tah-mey was at the helm now. Taking a break, David rolled his aching shoulder. Between fighting the storm and running the bilge pump for hours it had awakened the sharp pain in his old injury. It would pass, but it was best not to push it. Besides, he had the perfect excuse for being beside Isabelle. He buried his face in her dancing hair. His lips sought her soft skin.
"Do you think everyone's okay?"
He paused in his nuzzling and rested his chin on her shoulder, casting his eyes toward the horizon. "Yes. Mauriri will see to his family. Colin and Lavinia have their faith." He wrapped his arms around her. "Structures on the other hand probably not so much."
He spoke with confidence. Buildings could be replaced. People, those one loved, were all that mattered. Mauriri had weathered hundreds of storms. He knew how to take care of their friends, their family.
"I almost feel cowardly for running away."
David pulled back. There was a puzzled look on his handsome face. "Is that what you think we did?"
Isabelle let her head fall. "No. Of course not." She looked back toward him. "We saved our ship." A small smile played over her lips. "We found each other." Her hand grasped his and squeezed. "All good things."
David leaned forward and captured her lips with his own. "Yes, definitely." Then he pulled back and studied her. There was more bothering Isabelle. It disconcerted him; it challenged his confidence about what they would find when they got home. "But…?"
She shrugged. Using both hands she gathered her thick hair and twisted it into a knot. David reached out to touch her cheek.
She took a shuddering breath. "Something--something bad happened. I know it. I can feel it. Maybe if we had stayed…"
"You're guessing," he said quickly, anxious to dispel her fears. "Worrying for nothing. We'll be home soon and you'll see for yourself." He tugged at her arm. "I'm hungry. Let's find something to eat."
She grinned wolfishly but there was no teasing light in her sea-green eyes. "You're always hungry of late." Her head tilted. "In a while."
David regarded her a moment more, wishing he could reassure her. But he knew this was Isabelle. Something things she demanded she do herself. He nodded. "I'll be in the galley….alone." He dropped his hand to the cheek of her ass. "Just so you know." Then he departed down below with a grin on his face.
Isabelle retuned his smile for a small while and then it faded as she looked toward the horizon again. David hadn't said anything about Claire. Was it an omen? She shuddered. Claire would be safe with the Bradfords, she was sure of that.
So why did she feel so ill when she thought about it.
Walking hand in hand Colin and Lavinia walked past the ruin of the taphouse. They turned the corner and looked at their house.
"I always believed that it was an enchanted cottage," said Colin simply.
Lavinia whispered prayers of thanksgiving in all the languages she knew.
Later Mauriri speculated that the tap house had taken the brunt of the storm, protecting the one-story dwelling behind it. The thatched roof was a bit ruffled but inside everything was dry and ready to welcome them home.
The Rattler made exceptionally good time in the wake of the storm. With Tah-mey manning the sails they slid toward the bay of Matavai. Standing in the bow Isabelle spied a figure on the rocks near an outcrop at its point frantically waving at them, a colored cloth in his hands. She ran the length of the boat and shouted to David at the helm.
"I see him," David shouted back. "He's waving us off."
"Why?" asked Isabelle, her stomach congealing into a cold, solid mass.
"Wrecks in the bay perhaps. Anyone caught there during the storm would be at the bottom."
"Or maybe the surge caused the depth to change," Tah-mey offered.
"We'll anchor off the point," David replied spinning the wheel. "Tah, you'll have to stay with the boat."
As they came about Isabelle saw beyond the flag bearer to the shore itself. She grabbed David's arm. "Look!"
In horror they saw the wharf dashed to pieces and worse, the collapsed portion of Lavinia's taphouse.
David had gone pale. He had expected damaged buildings, roofs missing, perhaps even some of the smaller houses along the shore washed away. He was not expecting the bar, the place he thought of as home for most of his time on Tahiti to be destroyed. Looking at it all he could think of was Lavinia. "I'm sure she wasn't in there." His voice was a whisper.
"I hope you're right."
There were people on the beach already removing ruble but they were too distant to recognize. They would have to wait even longer to determine their friends' fates. Isabelle's stomach knotted even further. The waiting was already horrible. Now it was beyond agonizing.
The road between the Bradford Plantation and Matavai was an obstacle course of fallen trees. Most of the road set well above the sea but the low spots were flooded. Gilles pressed his horse forward through the water, a sense of dread growing in his heart as he got closer to the town.
When he rounded the last bend he reined up and sat gap-mouthed at the devastation. It was as it the little town had been picked up and thrown down again. He looked first for the newspaper office. It was still standing amid other battered buildings on the short main street.
"Claire wasn't there. She was at the church," he said to himself.
All he could see from his vantage point atop his horse was the roof of the church. The cross was gone but the roof looked to be largely intact. He was about to sigh in relief when his gaze traveled to the end of the main street and caught sight of the taphouse.
"Dear God. Lavinia!"
In a childhood of happy memories, some of the gayest were of the spending time with his reprobate grandfather and aunt in the bar.
Gilles slid from the saddle and pulled the reins over the horse's head. Slowly he led the horse through the debris in the street. He watched carefully for stray nails and glass that would injure the horse's feet. There were deep puddles of water.
There were people in the street. Business owners were assessing the damage. Friends called out to him asking how they had fared out his way. Gilles answered distractedly. He was uncertain where to go first. He wanted to find Claire and be sure that Lavinia was safe. He should check on his cousin, Henri Seraut's well-being. He had so many friends in the little town he cared about.
When he came abreast of the newspaper office he decided to go in. Claire might be there, checking the damage. He left the tired horse standing in the street and stepped up onto the boardwalk.
The door of the office was hanging by one hinge. Some of the boards used to protect the window had come loose. Inside the floor was wet and damp sheets of paper stuck to the floor.
Gilles walked through to the windowless room where the press was. It was dry in there. There was a neat stack of printed papers in a wooden box beside the press. Gilles frowned at the press. Several inky pieces of machinery were on the floor.
The water had risen slowly all night. Now they were being lifted off their makeshift island and floated in the dirty water. Jack struggled to keep Claire's head out of the water.
He thought it was daylight, the narrow space between the tree trunk and the cellar door was light. It had stopped raining, of that he was sure but the water kept flowing in. He had shouted himself hoarse. No one had heard him.
He looked down at Claire, his tears mixing with the grime and blood on her lovely face. Several times he thought she was about to wake up. Now with the water so high and so sign of rescue he thought it would be better if she didn't wake. He didn't want her to die afraid.
There was a noise, a new but familiar sound.
It took Jack a moment to recognize footsteps. There was someone walking on the floor above him. He had to get their attention. He reached out trying to find something solid in the pile beneath them. He brought up a piece of metal, some spare part for the press. With his waning strength he lifted it and knocked as hard as he could against the floor above him.
David and Isabelle climbed into the long boat leaving Tah-mey on the Rattler. She was anchored off the point of rocks in water too deep to leave her with no one on board. They struggled against the outgoing tide to get to the beach. Isabelle could see that David was straining at the oars. She thought of his weakened shoulder and considered offering to help. But the look of grim determination on his handsome face kept her silent.
Once they had hit the beach they worked together to pull the long boat out of the surf. Without a word hurried down the path towards the bay. The devastation around them was horrible to behold. Areas that Isabelle had walked often she now barely recognized. Home were gone, water ebbed where it had no right to be. Her booted feet splashed through the remnants of the ocean that still swirled in the road and in the ditches that lined it. They had to go around huge downed trees. They literally had to climb and weave their way through the worst of it. Their panic grew worse and worse.
They carried on in silence, knowing that words now would be meaningless and trivial. It was only important that they move as quickly as possible. The debris continued to grow worse and so did Isabelle's patience. It erupted in curses as it became increasingly more and more precarious. Limbs grabbed her hair and were hampering her progress. Her fear and guilt was increasing. She felt as if she were going to go mad if she didn't see her friends' faces at this very moment.
She started at David's hand. She spun to him and the understanding expression on his face calmed her.
"We're almost there," he assured her.
Drawing in a deep breath, she relaxed as best she could and helped David move a particularly hefty palm tree frond aside.
It took far longer than expected to get to the entrance to the bay. But her heart leaped to her throat at the horrific site that greeted them.
"Oh God," David said. His reassurance of just a few moments ago fled.
Isabelle's hand snaked over to David's. Their hands clasped each other's tightly for support.
Splashing through the pools left by the receding tide they came to Mauriri's house. David swallowed hard when he saw that the porch where he had shared so many wonderful meals was gone.
"They're fine." Isabelle's voice suddenly steadied. Despite the destruction before them, she suddenly believed that her friends had weathered the storm. But she repeated her mantra again. "They're fine, David."
He turned to her and sought the strength that Isabelle seemed to have found. She gave it to him gladly.
In an instant, he calmed. "You're right."
He took her hand and they walked on towards the town itself. The site of the ruin of the tap house from the ship did not prepare them for what they saw as the came closer.
David felt his breath catch in his throat.
"Lavinia would not have stayed there," insisted Isabelle at the sight of his stricken face. "She and Colin would have gone to the church or someplace else off the beach."
David nodded. But he didn't voice the fear that if the tap house had fared so poorly then how had the church and other places. "Let's check here and then we'll head inland."
Isabelle nodded and together they made for what was left of the tap house. Isabelle couldn't help her gasp at the sight of the fallen wall and the roof.
Gilles had turned on his heel and was about to leave the newspaper office to search for Claire at the church. He paused and looked back.
"What was that?" he mumbled, frowning at the empty room.
He heard it again; a heavy knocking. He looked down at the floor. "Hello!" He shouted as loud as he could. The knocking went on faster than before.
"Dear God, someone is in the cellar," he cried. "Claire!"
Gilles ran out of the building and around the corner; where he stopped dead with horror.
An uprooted tree had fallen against the building. It's thickly branched top filled the entire cellar-way. Water was flowing freely along the trunk into the cellar.
Gilles ran forward. He pulled furiously at the branches. The wood was as strong as iron. "Claire!"
"She's here. She's hurt," came back a hoarse voice Gilles thought might be Cannibal Jack. For a moment Gilles stood straddling the fallen tree with his mouth open in fear and his eyes blinking with panic. Then he straightened and shouted at a man in the street.
Never in Gilles Bradford's life had he worked so quickly and with such clarity. He sent a man for a rope and another to find axes. When the rope was brought he tied it around the horse using his jacket to protect the horse's chest. A half a dozen men helped him and the horse pull the tree back from the doorway.
They slashed at the smaller branches with the axes, creating a space large enough for a man to squeeze through.
In the cellar Jack pushed off his makeshift island and pulled Claire with him towards the doorway.
He could see sunlight and then it was blocked as Gilles appeared.
"Jack? Where is she?"
"She's here," said Jack weakly as with the last of his strength he lifted Claire towards the light. "Take her."
Gilles grabbed Claire's limp form from Jack and pulled her from the cellar. With the help of the other he brought her up to level ground. They way her head lolled on her shoulders in such a boneless manner made his gut twist in horrible manner. He had never before felt such utter dread in his life. He never wanted to feel this way again. It was awful.
"Claire! Speak to me. Can you hear me?" She was breathing but her skin was cold. He was desperate for her to open her eyes and look at him with those beautiful orbs. Suddenly it dawned on him that she might never do so again. And it gutted him clean from stem to stern. Tears formed in his eyes out of sheer fright. His voice grew loud and panicked. "Claire!"
He turned to ask Jack what happened. To his surprise, Jack wasn't there. "Where is Jack?" he shouted to the other men standing over him looking at Claire. A young islander peered into the hole.
"I don't see anyone else."
"What! But he was right there. There's someone else in there," shouted Gilles still cradling Claire's head against his shoulder. "Good God, man, go help him!"
The islander and two others scrambled into the cellar. Their splashing could be heard as they searched the flooded floor.
"I've got him!" someone yelled. "He's limp as a boned fish!"
"Is he dead?" someone else asked.
Gilles's stomach turned over. Jack was a man he knew, he liked. He'd just spoken to him. He'd saved Claire. He couldn't be dead. "Bring him up here! Hurry!" He grabbed another man's arm. "Go find a doctor! Hurry!"
"Everyone's a mess. The doc's needed everywhere. I don't know where to look."
"Then find someone else capable!" bellowed Gilles.
"Here. I know what to do." A seaman pushed his way forward and grabbed Jack's limp body. "Roll him over on his stomach." The man than pushed forward on Jack's shoulders again and again. "Come on, mate. Spit it out."
Gilles tuned his attention back to the limp form in still in his arms. "Claire. Wake up, Claire."
Agonizing seconds went by and finally Jack's body shuddered and then he coughed violently, water spewing from his mouth.
"Good, lad. That's it. Get it out of your lungs." The seaman held onto Jack's shoulders as he struggled for breath.
Jack raised his head. A single word fell from his lips. "C-c-claire." He saw her still body before him. Jack's fingers were like claws as he dug into the ground trying to crawl toward her. Someone grabbed his arms and helped raised him to a sitting position.
Gilles brushed the damp strands from Claire's pale cheek. Her eyelids flickered and opened. Gilles leaned closer. "Claire. Oh thank God! Keep your eyes opened for me."
Claire was swimming in a heavy sea. She'd been trying for hours to reach the shore, the shore that was a voice, calling to her. If she could get to the shore, to him, she would be safe. Every time she got closer, every time she could almost make out the voice, a wave would over take her and draw her deeper into the wet darkness.
She felt herself rising now and there was light. She had to make it to the light, to the voice.
She choked out a single syllable, trying to say his name.
It was a struggle. Everything was so blurry and spinning beyond measure. She could only listen to a single voice, a different voice, and she called out his name.
"Yes, it's me, my love! I found you! You're safe in my arms now."
Tear welled in her eyes, she was shivering and confused. She pressed herself against his shoulder; Gilles held her tightly.
Jack, just a yard away, heard Claire say Gilles's name. He shuddered violently and struggled to his feet.
David walked towards the bar with such singleness of purpose he didn't response to those who shouted greeting at him and asked how the Rattler had fared in the storm. He had to see them, hear their voices, and then he would know that the world could be righted again.
Isabelle trotted along behind him. She could not match his long strides.
The roof from the tap room was gone. The seaside porch was gone. The water still ebbed around the beautiful mahogany bar. With difficulty David and Isabelle climbed up from the beach.
Suddenly voices could be heard in the kitchen. David immediately called out.
An answering voice shouted back. "David!" He must have been talking to someone else because he repeated it. "David and Isabelle are back!"
He emerged in a rush through the water, splashing up a storm of his own. Abject joy was on his face. It mirrored David and Isabelle's. They caught up to each other in the center of the room amidst great hugging and tears. Lavinia and Colin came behind them equally tearful at seeing their friends out of harm's way.
"We'll rebuild all this, Lavinia." David held her tightly.
"We will all help," Isabelle assured her, gathering the woman next in her arms. "What's most important is that you're all safe."
"Amen," agreed Colin.
David regarded Mauriri. "How did the rest of the island fare? There's so much damage. We couldn't even come into the bay. The Rattler is anchored off the point. She weathered the storm well. I guess our little cove was really sheltered. I didn't realize the storm was bad enough to do so much damage," he said rambling a little in his distress.
The islander's face was still grim though he nodded his relief to his partner. "Good. I knew you and Isabelle would watch over her." He rubbed his face. "It was bad, David. The storm raged for hours. So many homes lost."
"Too many. But not as much as we feared. Lieutenant Morlais came by and was taking tally with his troops. So far the count is seventy-four. There are rescue operations underway for some of the ships foundering out on the reefs. A lot of good sailors lost their lives."
"They are bringing the injured to the church," said Lavinia. She was behind the bar filling a basket with bottles of brandy. Medically it might not be much use but the brandy would warm and comfort many. "Colin and I are headed back over there now."
"Let's go see what we can do to help." David cast a look over at Isabelle. "Can you check the stables on your own?"
Isabelle nodded her dark head. "Yes, I'm not so much worried about the structure as finding out if my horses are safe. I'm going to head inland and check. It won't take me long."
"We'll all meet up later then."
"Come to our home," Lavinia said quickly. "That's still standing. We'll be able to gather up enough for a decent supper. We will all need it after this day."
"Has anyone seen Claire?" Isabelle asked
Colin answered her. "No, I haven't seen her. Mrs. Russell spent the night in the church with us. She said Claire was going to go out to the plantation house with Gilles."
"Yeah, that was her plan when I last saw her," said Isabelle, wondering why this confirmation of what she thought had happened didn't do more to reassure her. The Bradford house was remarkably sturdy. Claire would have been safe there. Still she would swing up that way on her way to where she sequestered her stock.
"How about Jack?" David asked of Mauriri. He had walked behind the bar and was squatting to look under it. Lavinia appeared beside him and pointed at a wooden box. In it were bottles of David's favorite whiskey, nestled in sea grass.
Lavinia had been through many storms. She had protected her stock of bottles and barrels as best she could.
"Colin said Jack took a knock to the head before the Malahini made port yesterday," answered Mauriri, leaning over the bar. He saw his partner smiling broadly at Lavinia.
David looked up at Mauriri. "Before the storm? Is he all right?"
"I think so," said Lavinia, frowning slightly. She had worried about Jack during the night; although he had seemed much better when he left the house. He'd claimed his vision was clear. Jack certainly knew enough about storms to take care of himself during one. "He had seen the same red sky at sunrise you saw and was already talking about a bad storm before the Grace got in."
"Did he stay in the church with you last night?"
Mauriri shook his head in answer to David's question.
"I think he must have gone to the jail," said Colin. "A lot of people did."
Suddenly there came a bustle of people into the remains of the taphouse. Isabelle paled when she saw the still form in Gilles' arms. He was struggling under the weight but refused help in carrying his precious burden.
"Claire!" cried Isabelle.
She rushed forward as Gilles laid Claire on the mahogany bar since it was high enough to keep her out of the water that seemed to be everywhere still.
Claire lay completely still. Her wet clothes clung to her body. Her lovely hair was a mass of snarls. Her young sweet face was streaked with blood and mud.
Lavinia stared at her and felt as if her heart had stopped. They had never resolved their disagreements and yet Lavinia realized she still thought of Claire as her little sister.
"Blankets! We need blankets! She chilled to the bone!"
Isabelle's shrill voice snapped Lavinia to attention and she ran upstairs to find some dry quilts. The rain hadn't gotten into some of the armoires.
Isabelle turned on Gilles, "What happened to her?"
His breath came in gasps as he said, "She was in the cellar under her office. She was trapped there all night with--"
"In the cellar!" screamed Isabelle, her changeable eyes went dark with fury and fear. "She was supposed to be with you in the big house!"
"I know. I know. I did try to convince her to come with me. She said she had to finish her work. She promised she would go to the church in half an hour. She promised," said Gilles in a distracted voice as he continued to hold a cool hand to Claire's bruised forehead in an attempt to rouse her once more.
"You were suppose to --"
"Isabelle," said David firmly, clamping his hands over her narrow shoulders. "Claire is an adult. She knew there was a storm coming. It was up to her to decide when to go to safety."
Isabelle was about to physically attack Gilles. David's words stopped her. It was true. If she, if Claire, expected to be treated like adults, like equals, then they had to take responsibility for themselves.
Lavinia ignored the argument going on in front of the bar. She knew the most important thing to do was to get Claire warm and dry. She started unbuttoning her filthy blouse.
Isabelle shoved Gilles out of the way and helped Lavinia. The men, conscious of Claire's modesty turned their backs. Both women noticed them and thought how silly if was to worry about a woman's modesty at a time like this and yet they were touched for they knew that Claire would care if she were exposed even to their caring eyes.
"She was conscious just for a bit," Gilles explained nervously to the other men. "She said my name."
"Claire," whispered Isabelle, leaning close to her friend's ear, "open your eyes for us. It's Isabelle."
Claire struggled to comply. She missed Isabelle terribly but every time she opened her eyes the world spun in an awful manner and nothing seemed to be in focus. It made her ill. But for Isabelle she would try once more.
Once they had Claire's clothes stripped off of her Isabelle wrapped a quilt tightly around her. Lavinia brought a bowl of clean water and some cloths. She immediately dipped one in and wrung it out to clean the wound on Claire's right temple. Her face was streaked with blood and dirt. She let out a low moan as the water was applied.
Claire was trying very hard to wake up. It was so difficult. All her senses were confused. She concentrated on a smell, the scent of ginger and coconut. Lavinia, thought Claire and she felt warmer.
"Come on, Claire, you have to open your eyes."
There was a shake in Isabelle's voice, as if she were afraid. Isabelle was never afraid, thought Claire. I must open my eyes for Isabelle.
"Isabelle…." Her voice was very weak and hushed as if the slightest effort cost her. Her hand sought her presence without much luck. There was nothing but murky shapes all around her.
Isabelle snatched it before Gilles. "I'm right here, silly. What on earth were you doing?"
"The press broke. I had to finish--"
Isabelle was dumbfounded. "You were doing work in the middle of a typhoon? Are you daft?" But her tone remained soothing and tender as she squeezed her friend's hand tightly.
Oddly enough Claire couldn't remember much about why her head hurt so much. She thought there was something else she should recall but it pained to even contemplate it just now.
"Shhh, just rest." Isabelle soothed her furrowed brow. She wasn't sure if it was pain or confusion or maybe both, but she hated to see Claire in that state.
With Isabelle taking care of Claire, Gilles seemed unsure of what to do next. He turned to the men around him with the hopes of finding his next step. He caught sight of the old sailor who had helped Jack.
"I say, where is Jack?" he asked the man.
Everyone turned to the seaman suddenly.
"Jack was with you?" David asked anxiously.
Gilles felt better now that he had a purpose once again. "Yes, Jack was with Claire in the cellar. Had a devil of a time getting them out. Almost lost both of them. Old …I'm sorry what's your name?"
"Perkins, sir," replied the old man.
"Yes, Perkins. Fine work. Old Perkins here resuscitated poor Jack. I don't think he was well enough to be out and about. We should find him."
"He took off right after you picked up the young lady and carried her here. Scrappy lad."
"Foolish lad." David corrected. "Which direction was he headed?"
"The Malahini is in our cove. Maybe he was going to have a look at her."
"We'll find him," announced David. Both he and Mauriri ran for the door. They passed Mrs. Russell on her way in. She was running; her long skirts gathered up around her knees.
"They said," she said, her face was ashen. "They said Claire was brought here. That she was--"
At the sound of her Godmother's voice Claire tried to sit up. Isabelle held her down, calling out over her shoulder, "She's right here, Mrs. Russell. She's all right."
"Oh, thank God," said the older woman, running across the wet floor. "Oh, my child, my child."
Isabelle made room for Mrs. Russell to bend over Claire.
"I -I'm all right," stammered Claire. "I don't mean to be such a bother. I meant to keep my promise, Gilles."
"Please, my darling, don't worry about anything now," said Gilles.
"Sit her up, Gilles," ordered Isabelle. "Let's get something warm into her."
Lavinia was carrying her basket out the door. Colin ran to catch up with her. Reaching to take the heavy burden from her he said, "I'll go to the church. Why don't you stay here with Claire?"
"There is no need for me to stay with her," she said calmly. She looked over her shoulder at Claire who was sitting up, supported by Gilles. "She's awake. I think she will be all right now. Isabelle knows what to do to warm her up. Mrs. Russell will watch over her."
Colin regarded her gravely. She reached out and held on to his hand tightly. Her dark eyes swept over the ruin of her business. She sighed heavily. "We have enough to contend with."
Far above the destruction the high waves and winds had done to the little town on the beach set Henri Seraut's snug little house in a protective clef of the mountain. He walked out the door dressed in crisp linen trousers, a white cotton shirt and a straw hat. In his hand he carried an ebony cane as if he were going for a walk in a park. Seraut was not stunned and dismayed by the destruction of the town. He'd watched it all from the safety of his house as he drank a bottle of very good Beaujolais. He'd even seen the return of the Rattler and for a moment felt genuine relief.
When Gilles said he was going to take Claire to Lavinia because she would know what to do for her Jack had turned awkwardly on his heel and limped in the other direction. His progress through the detritus of the storm was slow.
The street was chaos. No one paid any attention to him. There were many people battered and limping. The business owners were stepping carefully through the wrecks of their stores intent on saving what they could.
"Jack! Hold up!"
The sailor hesitated but he felt too confused to bother figuring out if they were calling him or not. He didn't turn in their direction until they called out a second time.
David and Mauriri reached Jack just as an attack of dizziness overwhelmed him. David caught him around the shoulders just as he started to slump.
"You're all right?" he asked them as he tried to focus on them.
Incredible, David thought. He's worried about everyone but himself. "We're fine. We all weathered the storm."
"Good." His head bobbed up and down though it seemed more out of exhaustion than a conscious effort to agree with them. His hand grabbed David's arm. "She's safe."
David exchanged a glance with Mauriri. Was he referring to the Malahini or to Claire? David took a chance. He was confident he knew to what Jack was referring. "Yes, Claire is okay. They're taking care of her right now. Isabelle is with her."
Jack's grip tightened and then relaxed. "I almost lost her." His head rested on David's shoulder. God, it hurt. Jack wasn't sure if it was still the knock he took or simple exhaustion.
"Never going to happen. You could never lose her, mate."
Jack laughed weakly and without relevance. "Gilles will take good care of her."
"Isabelle will take good care of her," said David, pulling Jack towards the boardwalk. "You need to sit down. Let me take a look at that leg."
With a groan Jack sank on to the waterlogged boards and stretched his left leg out. David knelt in front of him and pushed the trouser leg up to reveal a spectacular black and blue bruise.
"Jack, what happen?" asked Mauriri as he winced in sympathy. "What were you and Claire doing in the cellar?"
"What?" exclaimed both his friends.
Jack shook his head then thought better of it. He took a deep breath and blew it out between his teeth, it made a whistling sound. "Colin said something to me about going to church with them to wait out the storm but –I don't know, I didn't want to. So the wind is getting up really high and I figure I better find someplace solid. I was headed towards the government building when I see a light in the cellar of Claire's office. I'm thinking she couldn't be in there, that surely she's gone someplace safe with Bradford or the Russell woman. But I think I better check anyway. So I go down the stairs and there she is arms full of bits and pieces of her press. I start yelling at her about getting somewhere safe and she gets high and mighty with me and tells me to mind my own business. And then a great bloody tree comes crashing down knocking Claire out and blocking the doorway. We couldn't get out but the water could get in."
"Oh, my God," said Mauriri his dark eyes wide with understanding. "That cellar is carved out of solid rock. It would have filled up like a bucket."
"You're lucky you didn't both drown."
A faint smile lightened Jack's face. "I'm lucky Gilles Bradford cares enough about Claire to have come looking for her at the first opportunity." His weary gaze wandered over his friends' faces. "I'm glad to see you're both okay and judging by your interest in me your family, Lavinia, Colin and Isabelle must be okay too."
"Jack, what do you think you're doing?" asked Mauriri as he watched Jack struggle to his feet. "You look like you need a week in bed."
Jack forced his tired body to stand straight as he answered, "I'm going to check on my ship."
"Your ship?" exclaimed Mauriri. "Didn't Gilles tell you the Malahini is just fine? She is also moored five miles from here. You don't look like you can walk five feet."
"Come on, Jack," said David gently. "Lean on me and I'll take you back to the bar. You need a hot meal and a drink."
Looking at David, Jack laughed. "David, if you hadn't been on the Rattler during the storm, are you telling me you wouldn't crawl five miles to be sure she was still afloat if you had to?
Mauriri chuckled. "He's got us there."
"Yeah," said David, joining in the laughter. He gave Jack a light push and caught him when he started to fall backwards. "Sit. I'm going to find you a horse or someone with a wagon going toward Papeete, they can drop you off where you can see your ship."
The island of Moorea and the north edge of Tahiti had been ravaged by the storm. Matavai appeared to have gotten the very worst of it. It would take days to access all the damage and to find the injured and the dead.
Most of the dead were sailors who died trying to save their ships. Their friends wanted decent burials for them. They did not care that Colin was in disgrace in his church. They asked him and he took up his prayer book and followed wherever he was needed.
Lavinia ached to take up a scrub brush and rid the tap room of mud and slime; to reclaim her place. But people had first call on her energy. Working with Lianni and other women of the community she bound up wounds, fixed meals, and helped find shelter for those who lost everything.
By the end of the second day Mrs. Titchmarsh had returned to claim the church. She had ridden out the storm in a small house her husband had built in the interior on property where he raised cotton. She didn't exactly throw out Lavinia and Lianni out but she did make it clear who was in charge of those who still sheltered there and who would oversee restoration of the little church to its former use.
Watching the large woman sitting in the shade, giving orders to those returning the cross to its proper place, Lavinia was very tempted to tell her for exactly what purpose Mr. Titchmarsh had built the little house on the cotton plantation. It was well known to everyone but Mrs. Titchmarsh that he did not travel alone when he went inland.
Lianni slid her hand through the crook of Lavinia's arm and said softly, "Let go and fix dinner for our families." And she called to her children who ran to join them. The Lepaus were staying with Lavinia and Colin until their house was set to rights.
As they rounded the bend that brought the tap house in view Lavinia stopped and gasped with pleasure.
The debris had been cleared around the bar. A tarp had been raised over the remains of the room. David was standing in the street side doorway, his long fingers tapping against the jam impatiently.
"Well, hurry it up," he shouted. "There are thirsty men here waiting for you to open up."
It was decided that the best place for Claire was at the Bradford Plantation where Mrs. Bradford could oversee her care. Claire claimed that she was alright and wanted to help in the work of reclaiming the town. She had a newspaper to get out; people needed news. Lists must be compiled and printed of the lost of life and property. Families must have a way of posting notices. But it was clear to her friends that the blow to the head had been a bad one. Her ears were ringing and she could not stand without becoming so dizzy she passed out. She needed to be still for at least a week.
Mrs. Russell had finally persuaded Claire to stay abed by volunteering to collect the "news" and help Claire's apprentice set the type. She found a surprising but able assistant in this task in the American Mr. Howard. Who, when she responded to his offer of help by staring at him, had exclaimed, "My dear lady, any man who has spent his life in the mines of North American knows machinery. That press will present no challenge to my skills."
Isabelle hated to leave Claire even in Mrs. Bradford's more than adequate care. She had no choice. The town needed her horses to help in the clearing away. She had to go and retrieve them from the interior. Once she had she stayed busy every moment. It was her way to keep from reliving what had happened; from seeing again in her mind Claire's lifeless body in Gilles's arms. She would rather think of the night of the storm; of David. But even that raised a certain unquiet in her mind.
There had been no time to talk since their night of passion. They had seen each other alone only in brief moments. When they did David snaked a possessive arm around her waist and pulled her into an embrace; his mouth hot and hungry on hers.
Without a doubt the nature of their partnership had changed but what that change would mean for the future she had no idea.
Where others had seen devastation Henri Seraut saw opportunity. Building materials were in short supply. He ordered Gilles to take the Malahini to Auckland and fill her with cargo. Gilles, though loath to leave Claire while she was ill, was relieved to be told what to do. And Jack, who hid his own dizziness and winced with every step, wanted nothing more than to be back at sea.
Before they left Gilles was determined to give Claire an opportunity to thank her true rescuer. He was quite sure that she wanted very much to do so. He was equally certain that Jack was being too modest when he said he really didn't do anything but watch that her head was not in the water as it rose.
So it was that Gilles was leading a reluctant Jack up the steep path from the cove where the Malahini was waiting to sail with the tide to the house.
Mrs. Bradford, who for years had been the recipient of tender care from her household staff, was reveling in the opportunity to lavish care on someone else. Claire had been gently bathed. Her hair had been washed and brush over her shoulders in a long honey brown wave. Her head wound had been bandaged and a pretty scarf had been tied over it. She'd been wrapped in a lacy and beribboned dressing gown that Mrs. Bradford considered too young for herself. And finally she lay back against the colorful pillows of a chaise lounge on the veranda of the plantation house.
It was there Jack saw her for the first time since the cellar. She looked young, pale and fragile. And to Jack's eyes --very at home.
Gilles leaned over Claire and kissed her cheek. "I do hope you are feeling better, my dear. I've brought Jack so you can thank him properly."
Claire looked past Gilles's shoulder and saw Jack standing with one foot on the veranda floor and one on the step. He was staring at some fixed point just over her head. He wore a clean shirt striped in blue and white and his right hand was fidgeting with the talisman he wore around his neck.
Gilles turned to Jack saying, "Do have a seat, man. I'm just going in to say good-bye to Mother and my brother Michael. I promise I won't be long. I know we need to catch the tide."
Gilles went into the house leaving Claire and Jack in an uneasy silence.
A suspicious man might have set up such a situation between the woman he intended to marry and the man who had not only saved her life but had once courted her. Suspicion was foreign to Gilles's nature. He honestly believed that Jack was due Claire's thanks.
Jack made no move towards the comfortable rattan chairs grouped near Claire. He made no move at all.
"I-I do want to thank you," said Claire hesitatingly.
Jack glanced at her and then away. "There is no need."
"I'm sure that there is. You see I was so wrapped up with my work I really wasn't paying attention to the weather. I didn't realize how dangerous it had become. The press broke. I had to--" Claire's voice trailed off.
Jack was not listening. His gaze was traveling around the porch, taking in the pots of flowers and the furniture. The porch had been stripped the day before to prepare for the storm. Now it was all back where it belonged. That, thought Jack, is what money and a houseful of servants can do for you.
"Anyway," said Claire with more force. "My memory of exactly what happen isn't very clear but I know you were trying to get me to go somewhere safe and I wasn't very cooperative."
Jack shrugged his shoulders. He looked out at the bay where the Malahini rocked gently at anchor.
With a small gesture of her hand, Claire said, "Jack, won't you sit down? It has been so long since we talked."
He glanced at her again. "We don't have anything to talk about, Miss," he said calmly. "I am thankful that you are going to be all right."
"Why do you do that?" cried Claire shrilly. "Why do you call me miss as if we barely know each other?"
"It is only proper that I show respect for my boss's lady," he responded evenly. He step off the veranda and half-turned towards the path to the beach. "If there is nothing else, miss, I wish you a quick recovery. I've a lot to do on the boat before we sail."
"No, Mr. McGonnigal, there is nothing else. Do forgive me for taking up so much of your valuable time."
Jack nodded in an oddly formal manner. He turned on his heel and walked stiffly away.
Claire watched him with anger mixed with despair. She wanted very much to hate him. But how could one hate the man who had saved one's life? Who was this man who regarded her so coldly? What had happened to the man who had walked on the beach with her those few short weeks of their courtship? The man who had written her the beautiful letters that drew her to Tahiti?
She could not remember what had happened in the cellar. She knew from what Gilles had said that she came very close to dying. What she did remember made no sense. A voice, kind and gentle, full of love for her, calling to her, begging her to come back to him. Jack's voice. Her Jack's voice, not the cold, measured voice of the man walking away from her.
How much of it had she made up out of thin air? Could she trust any of her memories? Had there ever been a moment during those weeks when he had really looked at her with love? Or had she been spinning out a fantasy all by herself and Jack being a man took advantage of her delusions to steal a few kisses that meant nothing to him.
Claire felt inexpressibly tired. She let her head roll to the left and did not raise a hand to swipe her tears away.
"Jack gone already?' asked Gilles as he walked out of the house with his youngest brother following close behind.
"Yes, he said something about the tide."
"Oh, yes, the tide. Sailors live by the tide." He sat on the edge of her chaise. Gently he took her by the shoulders. "You look so tired, my darling. Rest. And promise me that when I return I will find you smiling and well."
He leaned forward and kissed her warmly.
"That promise I will keep."
He smiled broadly, stood and turned to his brother. "Come along, Mike. You can watch us set sail.
For second time in the space of a few minutes Claire watched a man walk away from her. Gilles turned back to wave and smile.
Was this love; what was between she and Gilles? It must be. They were so easy together. A life together for them made perfect sense.
Jack had managed to walk the whole way through the front garden of the house and across the coast road without limping. He got five feet down the steep path, out of sight of the house, and collapsed with his spinning head in his hands.
Gilles would have found him there had Jack not heard him talking to his brother as they crossed the road. He gathered himself up and almost ran down to the beach where the rowboat waited.
They had an easy sail to Auckland. Lani, the mate, knew Jack was in a bad way and spared him much of the work. By the time they returned to Matavai, the Malahini filled to the gunwales with cask of nails and other much needed building supplies, Jack was better.
Claire was able to keep her promise to Gilles. She welcomed him home with a bright smile in her office where she was working.
It took weeks of hard work before Matavai looked like anything but the site of an epic battle. David had worked tirelessly to help clear the bay of the wrecks. He saw little of Isabelle who working equally as hard in the town. When they did meet it was in the bar where they and everyone else they knew were too tired to do much of anything but raise a glass.
Finally life began to feel almost normal. Mauriri's house was livable again. The bar still had a tarp for a roof but it was doing a good business nightly. Claire was printing the newspaper on its regular schedule. Thanks to the skills of Mr. Howard she could hope to get a few more years service out of the old press, which meant she did not need to accept Tom Bradford's offer to buy her a new press and in effect become her partner.
And best of all to David way of thinking he was able to moor the Rattler in her usual place in the bay.
It was late in the afternoon. He was on the boat by himself when he noticed Isabelle rowing a small boat towards the Rattler. He went to the side and leaned over saying, "This is a pleasant surprise."
Isabelle's thick hair was loose. It bounced on her shoulders. She looked up at him with a wide smile and her changeable eyes silvery-green. "I brought you dinner," she said, lifting a basket up to him. "We need to talk.'
With an effort David kept a smile on his face. When spoken by a beautiful woman there were no more terrifying words in the English language.
Isabelle saw the flicker of fear in David's eyes as she climbed on to the ship. She started to whistle as she walked past him towards the cabin. On the roof of the cabin was a thick cushion. She set the basket on it and pulled out their dinner; cold chicken, a loaf of bread, tomatoes and a bottle of red wine.
David watched her with appreciation and apprehension. .With a small sigh of resignation he threw himself on to the cushion beside her.
"Did you see Claire today?" he asked once he had finished eating half the roasted chicken. It was rhetorical question. Isabelle had made time to see Claire everyday since the storm.
"Yes," she nodded. "She was in her office most of the day. She wants to go for a ride tomorrow."
"Well, that's good. It must mean that she is feeling better," said David as he broke a hunk of bread off the loaf.
"I hope so," Isabelle said, glancing towards the town at the edge of the bay.
She looked at him and pulled a face. "I know, I'm hovering over her like a broody hen just like Mrs. Russell."
"It isn't like you to hover," observed David. Dare he hope that what she wanted to talk about was Claire?
Isabelle sighed and swirled the wine in her glass. "I know. But I thought she was dead when I saw Gilles carrying her. Claire's--"
Normally she was so quick with words but Isabelle could not find the words to describe her feelings. She didn't know how to tell David what an important part Claire played in her life.
David reached out and pushed her hair away from her face. He cupped her cheek with his strong hand. "Claire is your friend. You almost lost her. It terrifies you."
She looked at him in surprise. He put it so simply and yet so completely.
"It is a scary thing having friends but oh, so worth the effort," he said, smiling at her. When she returned the smile he leaned forward, kissing her deeply.
After a few very comfortable minutes in his arms, Isabelle said, "Well, that isn't what I came to talk to you about but thank you. What you said was very helpful. I think maybe we will take that ride tomorrow. I'm sure Claire could use a little freedom."
"I'm sure she will enjoy it," said David as he sat up and then slid off the roof to stand on the gently rocking deck. "Well, what did you come to talk about?"
"We need to get back to trading. This altruism is well and good but it doesn't pay the bills. I want you to make a copra run."
Isabelle suppressed her smile at how comical David looked in his relief. She knew exactly what he thought she wanted to talk about. He really should know her better than that. She had no need to have that conversation.
They discussed their business for several minutes while Isabelle packed up the remains of their supper.
Having refilled her wine glass, Isabelle climbed down from the cabin roof and walked towards the bow. David watched her slender figure with satisfaction. The dreaded talk about how sex would change their relationship had not been forthcoming. Isabelle was a woman in a million. She took life just as it came with no need to understand it or plan for the future. David was genuinely thankful to his vague notion of God.
Isabelle leaned against the rail and looked at the western sky. The sun was just sinking below the horizon. The clouds above it turn pink, lavender and mostly red. The sunset reminded her of the sunrise the morning of the storm.
David had come up behind her. He put his hands on the rail on either side of hers. He surrounded her with his warm strength. His face was buried in her wind blown hair. His breath was soft against her neck.
With a slight quiver in her voice, she said, "Red sky at night?"