EPISODE: 206

TITLE: The Winds of Chance

AUTHOR: Susan Zell

SOURCE: Tales of the South Seas

DISCLAIMER: Property of Village Roadshow Pictures Television, Gaumont Television Network and South Pacific Pictures. No profit is made by this venture.

SUMMARY: A church social in Matavia brings out the best and the worst in people, including a new attachment for Isabelle, much to the dismay of David Grief.

SPOILERS: "A Meal Shared" by Mary Whimsey. See the Virtual Season Episode 205.

NOTES: This story is a part of the virtual second season of the show created by Mary Whimsey and myself. Mauriri has washed his hands of his old partner, and David now owes his ship and his life to the one person who could change his life for the better, Isabelle Reed.

RATING: PG. Drama, Humor.

COMMENTS: This is light fare for me. A dance, I mean really. No sword fights, no pirates here for a change. What has become of me?!?  g Well, at the behest of my good friend and writing partner, Mary Whimsey, I have broken my normal writing habit and have tried to pen something more sedate but hopefully still as enjoyable a story as ever. As always, my thanks to Mary for her support and her encouragement as well as her nudging and editing. The story is what it is because of her.

            The last of the Rattler's shipment was carted off across the wharf and David Grief sat wearily on a barrel, wiping his sweat drenched face with the loose sleeve of his shirt.

            It was far too hot for this, he thought. Even Isabelle Reed, his partner, looked wilted in the heat though she hadn't been laboring with the heavy loads as the men had been doing. But she was out in the hot sun also, fastidiously checking off the crates as they departed, the mark of conscientious merchant.

            Finally she dropped the clipboard to her side and sought out David. Spying him, she came over and plopped down beside him.

            "That's it then?" he asked her.

            "That's it," she announced, completely spent. "Fifty-two crates of fine bottled port, thirty-two barrels of whiskey, and sixty-five bundles of tobacco." It was tiresome to even rattle it off.

            David stretched out worn out muscles, his breath hitching slightly as his nagging shoulder twinged. Luckily Isabelle was too exhausted to notice. "Anything else on the agenda?" he asked quickly.

            Isabelle cast him a knowing grin. "No, you're free. In fact, we have a whole two weeks before our next run. Whatever will you do to pass the time?" Her teasing grin had a pretty good idea.

            "Oh, you know, the usual. Carousing, gambling, drinking."

            "So, Lavinia has opened your tab back up then?"

            David's good humor faded into annoyance. "No. I was speaking metaphorically." He turned to Isabelle hopefully. "That is unless you're willing to spot me a few quid."

            "That's no way to pay off your debt on the boat, David."

            "You sound like my mother," he huffed, slipping off the barrel's edge.

            Isabelle scowled. "Gee, thanks. But you know I'm right. However, if you feel the need to spend what you've saved over the last few months, then go ahead. I'm sure the cost of just one drink won't put you too far behind."

            David stared at her like she was a trap door spider, just waiting to spring. "That's right," he responded warily. "It would be just one drink."

            She nodded her head slowly in an understanding sort of way. "And then that small withdrawal to play a few rounds of cards certainly won't deplete the surplus either, will it? Pretty soon you'll be right back where you started. Broke."

            "Oh be quiet," he growled. Isabelle knew him too well. "You know a man can't be all work and no play. If it was up to you we'd work all the bloody time, sunrise to sunrise."

            She grinned broadly. "It would certainly keep you out of trouble."

            He leaned down on the edge of the barrel till they were nose-to-nose, brown muscular arms on either side of her, a condescending smirk across his face. "Isabelle, you couldn't keep me out of trouble even if you were my mother."

            Her head cocked. "Your poor dear mother having to put up with the likes of such a disobedient rogue. I bet you were disciplined often as a lad," she snided.

            David straightened with a grunt. "Not by my mother."

            "Then your father."

            The seaman's face drew a deep scowl as his mind drifted away to a distant memory somewhere. "Now there was a man that didn't follow the plea of spare the rod and spoil the child."

            Isabelle's eyes widened slightly. This was a side of David that she had never heard him speak of, not to anyone. He rarely mentioned his mother and only once did he ever speak of his father and it was in the same disgusted tone he used now. She was unsure what to say, afraid to spoil the moment. David was a man that coveted his past. Rarely did he share such things with his friends.

            "To tell the truth, my supervisor at the cannery was a follower of that doctrine as well," she offered quietly. Perhaps a simple sharing would be enough to smooth out the moment. "When it was discovered I stole a fish --"

            David's attention drew back to her immediately. "You stole a fish?"

            "Yes. It was for a good cause," she insisted.

            "Stealing? A good cause?"

            "A friend of mine was ill. She needed the food."

            That took David aback for a moment. He wasn't shocked that Isabelle had stolen a fish. After all, when he had first met her she had been a prisoner in a chain gang. Scrupulous she was not. But he wasn't prepared for the concept that Isabelle had stolen something for the sake of someone else. Selflessness was not always a concept he easily associated with Isabelle despite the fact that he had witnessed glimpses of it for himself. He refused to count her baling him out of debt since it was obvious she had only done so to gain knowledge over the merchant industry. She had never hid the fact that she wanted to be a part of it from the first day he had met her.

            Though his curiosity wanted to know more about the friend and Isabelle's life in a fish cannery, he opted instead to continue on the topic that had both brought them to this rather shuttered side of their lives. He had a feeling to go in any other direction would only cause her to close up again.

            "Who turned you in? About the fish, I mean."

            "Freddie Higginsbottom, the little lout." She nearly spat out the name.

            David snickered. "Higginsbottom?"

            Isabelle suddenly grinned devilishly up at David and confided, "I used to call him Bigginsbottom because of his unusually large--"

            There was an abrupt cough from behind them. Both Isabelle and David jumped. Mr. Titchmarsh stood behind them, rather red faced. He was one of the prominent merchantmen on the island and the one who had hired them for this particular haul. His wife was on his arm, doled out in neck-clutching cotton and lace with a parasol shading her flushed and disapproving expression.

            David inclined his head. "Good day. How nice to see you, Mr. Titchmarsh. And you're out and about as well, Mrs. Titchmarsh. What a treat."

            Mr. Titchmarsh kept his affront plastered to his face, eyes continuing to glare at Isabelle Reed who seemed very much nonplussed by what she had almost blurted out in front of his wife. The shameful female pirate had the gall to merely smile at him.

"You'll be very pleased to hear that your shipment arrived on time, Mr. Titchmarsh," Isabelle announced. "And it is already unloaded and stowed in your warehouse. Mr. Gibbons, your foreman, was kind enough to let us in."

            "I trust he supervised the entire transfer," Mr. Titchmarsh replied haughtily.

            Isabelle only nodded agreeably and took great pleasure in gesturing to a rather inebriated looking individual lounging in the shade of a coconut tree.

            The anger on Mr. Titchmarsh's face was delightful, and the shout that bellowed from his throat startled wharf rats and sailors alike. "Mr. Gibbons!" He stalked off toward his lazing employee while Isabelle called after him, holding up the clipboard.

            "If you would like to check my records of our transaction, please let me know."

            David shook his head at her glee, but was unable to keep a straight face himself as he observed Mrs. Titchmarsh follow her husband, glaring left and right at the unsavory men stationed at every turn.

            "You're decidedly evil, Isabelle," he noted as an aside. "You enjoyed that."

            "Absolutely." Her grin was wide and infectious. "They are a pair of sanctimonious fools."

            "Then why on earth did you take their commission?"

            "David, it's better to siphon some of their undeserved money away and use it for my own good. Or at least for the good of others, like buying you a drink at Lavinia's."

            Now David brightened. "Really?"

            "Really." She grabbed his elbow and together they headed for the bar.

            "You're practically like a Robin Hood," he claimed.

            She sniffed in mock disappointment. "Robin Hood? An outlaw? Why not a saint?"

            David laughed loudly. "A saint would never call someone Bigginsbottom because of a huge--" He bent and whispered in her ear.

            Isabelle let out an exclaimed cry. "It was because of his ass! He had a big ass!" she persisted, laughing in mild embarrassment, well used to the rowdy ways of sailors by now. "David, you're incorrigible!"

            "Yes, so my mother admitted time and time again right after Father tanned my hide." He actually winked at Isabelle.

            "Deservedly so, I say!"

They strolled through the market, both feeling good for the first time in a long while. Climbing the steps of the boardwalk, they entered the cool dim light of the bar's interior, which was a welcome change from the stifling heat of the sun.

            The bar was crowded despite the time of day, everyone was hiding from the terrible heat and there was no better place than in Lavinia's. It was dark, shaded, and open with the deck doors spread wide to allow the slightest breeze off the bay entrance.

            Isabelle spied a table in the back and separated from David to grab it while he went for drinks. Lavinia greeted him with a broad smile.

            "David! You're back!"

            The seaman wedged himself between the drinkers at the bar. "I am and I'm dying of thirst, Lavinia."

            The tall, delicately boned woman tilted her head and procured him a glass of water from below. "I have just the thing."

            David regarded the offered beverage and then looked back at the barkeep with a sardonic grin, an eyebrow raised accordingly. "That's not what I had in mind."

            Lavinia glanced toward Isabelle who was busy warding off two sailors from her table. Eventually, confident that Isabelle could handle the confrontation, she returned her gaze to David. "Who's buying?"

            "You cut me, Lavinia. You really do!" he responded in mock affront.

            "I'm sure."

            "All I need is two beers. How much is that going to put you out? I'm good for it."

            "Well, if I know you, two beers turns to four beers, and then four beers turns to eight beers, and so on and so on. You see my dilemma."

            David let out a heavy sigh. "You're not going to give me a break, are you?"

            "Not really. But if Isabelle has some cash, then I'll pour you some pints."

            "You're a hard woman, Lavinia."

            "And you're a penniless seaman. Think of it this way. I'm helping you save your hard earned money."

            "You're all heart." She just grinned at him with perfect white teeth. Sighing, he conceded, "Yes, Isabelle will be buying the round."

            "Excellent. Two beers coming right up." Her beautiful smile was infectious and he returned it, noting the deep chocolate of her eyes.

            He missed her. He missed the comfort of her serene little home. His world always seemed right when he was at port in her harbor. She was a safe haven and he longed for such simplicity again in his life. Somehow things had gotten very complicated lately and he hated it at times.

            Lavinia found David's sudden intense gaze uncomfortable. It had been awhile since a man had looked at her that way. It puzzled her that the look was coming from David in particular. Was life with Isabelle so bad that the barkeep was looking good again? Her feelings were decidedly mixed on the topic.

            She drew away from his soft green eyes and busied herself with getting his drink.

***

            Michael Fairfax entered the bar and as soon as his eyes adjusted swept the place with a disgusted gaze. It was backwater, just as he had expected, but he had been in worse. And the woman behind the counter was striking so it couldn't be all bad.

            He strode his large broad frame through the patrons, taking in all the various seedy characters with his sharp blue eyes. Leaning on the bar's mahogany surface he leered at the barmaid. "Aren't you a pretty one?" His ringed finger was tapping harshly into the wood.

            Lavinia regarded her new customer with an air of skilled tolerance. "So's my bar and I'd like to keep it that way if you don't mind." A bob of her head indicated the damage done to the bar's top by the sharp edged ring.

            The man offered a surprised exclamation but didn't lift his ring from the wood. "Well, it's just wood, you can buff it out before the manager sees it, I'm sure. You just pour me a pint, love, and I'll mind the wood."

            Lavinia crossed her arms. "I'm the manager here and I'll get you the tools and you can buff it out yourself."

            This time Fairfax's surprise was genuine. "You own this bar?"

            "That's right."

            "How did that happen?"

            "Long story. It's obvious you haven't spent much time in the islands."

            "What makes you say that?" There was a touch of resentment in his tone even though it was the truth. It was just irritating that it was so apparent.

            Lavinia poured the beer for him and set the glass in front of him. "Things aren't so stifling around here as say on the mainland."

            "It's not stifling; it's natural," he replied stiffly. Then his eyes narrowed at Lavinia in a predatory manner. "Unless of course, you're of another sort."

            "Sorry, it's not that kind of place. Skulk around the waterfront warehouses, I'm sure you'll find your type."

            "Why you--!"  

            "Michael! Michael Fairfax! Holy smoke!" David approached the man from the other side of the room. "I can't believe it! What the hell are you doing here?"

            Stunned, Lavinia watched as the two men embraced as obvious long time friends.

            Fairfax reared back and regarded David. "Look at you! A sailor! Sun bleached hair and tanned skin. I hardly recognize you."

            "And you haven't changed one bit, you old bludger."

            "Nothing ever changes back home, you should know that!"

            David spied Lavinia eyeing them and he put an arm around Fairfax and introduced him to her. "Lavinia, this is my good friend, Michael Fairfax. We grew up together in Queensland." He regarded Fairfax. "My God, how long ago was that?"

            "Fifteen years, I think. A damn long time."

            "I just can't get over it. What are you doing here?"

            "Looking for you."

            "Me?" David's good humor fell away abruptly. "What's happened?"

            Fairfax smirked. "Nothing. Nothing! I was just in the area and decided to come look you up."

"I'm in the South Seas, Michael. No one just stops in around here. What is it? You suddenly decided to give up ranching and become a sailor like me?
            "Hell no. I'm a wrangler through and through. You alone are the crazy one that wanted to be a buccaneer."

David let out a howl of laughter. "That's right! What did we used to call each other? Buccaneer and Buckaroo?"

"The two bucks that was us. Damn, those were good times."

"Good times," agreed David. "Wild, unruly and completely out of control." David wiped tears of laughter from his eyes.

"Brisbane is still reeling from our last birthday bash."

David winced. "I don't think I remember that."

"You wouldn't. I think I carried your insensible carcass all the way back to the station."

The two fell into laughter again.

Lavinia frowned. It took at moment for her to remember that a ranch in Australia was called a station. She watched the men in silence. She still couldn't get over the fact that David was friends with this man. But they had been apart for years, the two men, so maybe things had changed, like it had changed for Steven DeGuerre, hers and Mauriri's old childhood friend. She would have never suspected that someone like Steven could ever have become the cold calculated man she had almost fallen in love with. The memory of that time left a sour taste in her mouth.

"David?" Isabelle had come up, tired of sitting at the table alone.

"Oh Isabelle! This is my old friend Michael Fairfax."

"Hello," she responded politely.

Fairfax racked Isabelle with a favorable eye. "I have to say that there are some incredible looking women on this island." He elbowed David roguishly. "You landed a fine one."

David just smiled at him. "Isabelle is my current partner in the merchant business." He rather enjoyed the slack jawed expression on Fairfax's face.

"Are you kidding me?"

David shook his head.

"Do you find that surprising?" Isabelle asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Hell yes." He turned to David as if sharing some private joke. "You old dog you."

"Look, why don't we grab a table and you can tell me of life back home. How's Rebecca and her family? How's Harrison? Did he stay in Queensland? Is the old mercantile still standing?"

"Slow down! Let me grab my drink." He reached back over the bar.

Lavinia stopped him. "Are you going to pay for that?" She didn't like the dark look that burned in Fairfax's eyes but David stepped in.

"We'll cover it on our tab." He cast his head back over his shoulder. "All right, Isabelle?"
            Isabelle nodded.

Fairfax smirked at Lavinia and took up his beer. By the time they had all retreated to their table, Lavinia was breathing easier. Perhaps she was just misreading this man. Yes, he was a bigot, but not necessarily malicious. She turned her thoughts to the plans for the rest of the day. Market shopping, a visit with Colin. Suddenly her demeanor brightened. It was odd how such a simple thing as visiting with a friend could suddenly lift her spirits.

***

Reverend Colin Trent was busy readying the church for tomorrow's service. There always seemed so much to do, rearranging the hymnals, editing his sermon, keeping the pews polished and the floor scrubbed.

So when Mrs. Titchmarsh, Mrs. Berns and Mrs. Augustine entered he couldn't help but feel just a twinge of disappointment at the interruption. Still he met them with his best endearing smile.

"Ladies. What can I do for you?"

The very proper women, all wives of dignitaries, missionaries, or merchants gathered around the reverend like a gaggle of geese around an ear of corn. Colin tried not gulp. There were rare times when these women wanted just a moment of his good graces. There were always strings attached.

Mrs. Titchmarsh stepped to the forefront, using her large brimmed hat to fan herself in the midday heat, her dark curls wending their way from their tight bun and sticking to her flushed face. "We are interested in having a church social," she announced with much fervor.

  That took Colin by surprise. In fact, he was delighted. "That's wonderful, Mrs. Titchmarsh. I think it's a grand idea."

"We'd like to have it in the assembly hall, if you don't mind," spoke Mrs. Augustine. Her portly frame was draped in lots of cotton material. Freckles spotted her fair nose and flushed cheeks.

"Splendid inspiration," admitted Colin. The thought of a public dance seemed like a wonderful way to chase away some of the shadows that had been lingering around Matavia since Jenny Duval. He admitted as much to the ladies.

Mrs. Berns sniffed disdainfully. "It will strictly be a formal affair for church members only and visiting Europeans to the island. We want it to be very dignified."

The way she said the word made it sound as if it was what separated the poor from the rich. Colin was unable to keep the disappointment from his face.

"Oh, I see."

"Is there a problem?" Mrs. Augustine asked.

"It's just that I had hoped that it would be a more…diverse…event."

"Diverse?" Mrs. Titchmarsh shook her head.

"Open to the entire island."

"Reverend, really." She gave a laugh. "They're practically savages."

"My parishioners include more than just Englanders, Mrs. Titchmarsh," Colin pointed out quietly. He didn't want to stir up these women's ire. Their husbands were powerful men and their voices could easily carry back to the Bishop. But he felt it was necessary to make the distinction. It was the right thing to do.

"Yes," admitted Mrs. Berns with a frown. "It is a fact of which we are very much aware, Reverend."

"God's word must apply to everyone, ladies."

Mrs. Berns had her own answer. "How can it apply to heathens when they refuse to fully recognize God's word above their own foolish beliefs?"

"It is not merely a matter of the Polynesians accepting Christianity," Colin pointed out. "They must do so willingly. It is not something that should be forced upon them."

"That is your opinion, Reverend." Mrs. Titchmarsh placed her hat on her head, a sign that the discussion had come to an end.

"Yes," echoed Mrs. Augustine. "They cling to such idiocy. A shark god. How ludicrous!"

"How would you feel if someone told you that you had to stop believing in your God and insisted you believe in…well…a shark god?"

"Don't be preposterous! No civilized person would believe in a shark god." Mrs. Titchmarsh's laughter again rang clear.

The sound of it crawled up Colin's spine. "Nonetheless, if it is to be a church affair than all those who are church members must be included."

Mrs. Titchmarsh finally conceded, almost as if it were here own inspiration. "Yes, it is a very good idea to invite the locals.  What they need is to see a superior culture event.  But they must be dressed appropriately."

Colin sighed. It hurt to think that such stipulations would exclude the people he wanted there the most, like Lavinia.

"Do we have permission to use the assembly hall or not?" asked Mrs. Berns.

Colin looked at each women in the eye but saw no remorse building there. Finally, he sighed. Despite how misguided and obstinate they were they were still his flock. It would take much more than just one little talk to change centuries of belief. And Colin was prepared to give them as many talks as was necessary to change some of the perceptions of his own people.

"The assembly hall is yours, ladies," he told them.

            Delight spread quickly through the women.

"Excellent," declared Mrs. Titchmarsh. "Next Saturday then. Six o'clock."

"We fully expect your assistance and guidance in this endeavor, Reverend."

He inclined his head. "Of course." At least this way he could spend additional time in convincing them that a more open invitation would be beneficial to their souls.

The ladies departed but unfortunately it did not take Colin's sense of frustration with it. He found such closed mindedness very disturbing in his parishioners and most white people in general. Folks like David Grief and Isabelle Reed who accepted and embraced diverse cultures, were few and far between in these islands. Colin wished more people would be as receptive as his friends.

***

            "So Michael, what brings you here to this side of paradise?" David asked.

            "A naval ship," the man replied with a glint in his eye, eliciting a groan from his friend.

            Isabelle took the opportunity to comment. "I saw the vessel in the harbor. How did you manage to book passage on it?" It took a special man to garner such an act of kindness out of the militia.

            Fairfax shrugged nonchalantly. "The captain owed me a favor."

            "A naval captain owing you a favor?" David's disbelief was plain. "You're a bloody horseman, a cowboy. What on earth did you do for the navy?"

            "Being a cattleman one needs grazing land. I cut down logs to clear some and the navy was interested in taking the lumber off my hands at a very fair price."

            "I thought my father held that contract." The seaman's voice dropped a few octaves. Haunted eyes were hidden behind his dark eyelashes.

            Fairfax sat back and rolled his mug between his palms. "He did. But men grow old. He hasn't been able to meet those obligations. Someone had to fill the void. It was good business sense."   David's face was unreadable which only made Fairfax more uncomfortable. "I would have thought you'd rather have a friend than a stranger take that contract. I didn't push him out of it on purpose, David."

            Isabelle sat very quietly between the two men, her eyes riveted to David. How odd it was to have been speaking just recently of these ghosts from their pasts only to have one rear its head with such force hours later. She could feel David's tension emanating from his squared shoulders, but she didn't know what to say in order to ease the situation. They were treading on dangerous ground, but even Isabelle had to admit to some curiosity about David's past.

            Finally David nodded. "I know you wouldn't, Michael. How bad off is he?"

            Fairfax's face saddened. "His health hasn't been the best, but he still can chew my ear off."

            "I'm surprised he didn't skin you alive for taking that contract." There was just the barest of smiles creasing David's lips.

            "Oh, he tried but I can still ride like the wind." Michael downed his beer and set the mug besides David's that sat untouched. The two men shared a quiet bout of silence. Fairfax scanned the crowd and then his face brightened even more. He lifted a hand and waved over a young man in a crisp, clean naval uniform.

            "Alan!"

            A fair faced man with sea green eyes approached them, scanning the two strangers at the table with questioning appraisal. But he immediately smiled at Isabelle, his face erupting in a warm glow that bespoke of youth and fancy.

            Fairfax rose, his arm slipping around the shoulders of the newcomer. "Alan, this is my good friend David Grief. The man I came here to see. David, this Lt. Alan Derby. This man," he gestured at David slyly, "could tell you tales of sailing the ocean blue that would make your toes curl." Then he turned his attention and that of his friend to Isabelle. "And this is David's partner, Isabelle Reed."

            Lt. Derby's green eyes were alert and intrigued. "A distinct pleasure." He cocked his head. "Partner? You sail together?"

            David grinned and grabbed a chair from another table. They all sat down. "Isabelle is a fine sailor and getting more and more able every day."

            Isabelle practically beamed at David's praise. She had waited a long time to hear it out loud. "Being on the ship has certainly made me appreciate the hard work and the sheer majesty of the open ocean."

            "Well, I have to say that I find it rather … exhilarating to find a woman who finds the sea as alluring as us sailors."

            Isabelle couldn't help but smile at the compliment. 

"Look," said Fairfax, bringing the conversation back to the business at hand, "despite owning all of God's green acres in that valley, eventually your father just ran out of lumber. He's better off just sticking to cattle and letting someone else take on the navy's needs."

            "My father would rather die than let someone else have something he covets." David's face hardened as he voiced his opinion.

            Isabelle's alarm bells rang clear at that statement. It held a world of explanation about the rift between David and his father. But she still didn't feel it her place to eek more out of David at the moment, not about this.

            "Be that as it may," Fairfax continued. "Time isn't letting him play ruler of the roost any longer."

            "I gather he still hasn't changed his mind about passing the torch." David got a far away look in his eye.

            "You should know him better than that. He'd die before admitting he made a mistake about that."

            "What about Simmons?"

            Fairfax laughed. "Simmons? Your father would rather have a wallaby run that ranch than let a lowly foreman like Simmons take it. And in my opinion, the wallaby would do a better job"

            "Simmons is a good man."

            "Simmons is a weak fool. Too good natured and soft of heart."

            "You're a hard judge of character, Michael."

            "I call them as I see them. So does your father."

            "Well, he was wrong about me," David responded tersely.

            Fairfax eased back. "Yes, that he was. Look at you. A prosperous merchant seaman who owns his own boat."

            "Well, actually it is Isabelle--"

            "Who handles the merchant side of the partnership," Isabelle interrupted. "I wanted to learn the business and maybe go into it myself, so I decided to learn from the best." She laid a hand on David's as it rested atop the table.

David glanced quickly at Isabelle who shook her head ever so slightly.

            Sensing another bout of honesty coming from her partner, Isabelle decided to keep control of the conversation. "We'll have to have you come on board. Thanks to this morning's work, we have some nice bottles of port sitting in the pantry."

            "We do?"

            Isabelle smiled at David. "Of course, we do. Transporting such delicate cargo across rough seas does take its toll. A few of the bottles were bound to break. I rescued them before that happened."

            "It was a clear day's sail."

Her left eyebrow rose, daring him to make an issue of her devious action.

            "Who's being incorrigible now?" he pointed out, a trace of humor coloring his tone.

            "Where do you think that bottle of Napoleon Brandy came from?"

            "You stole that too?" He remembered it well and had thoroughly enjoyed it despite the fact that it could have been poison for all he knew. After all, Isabelle had been accused of murdering her lover at the time.

            "Not stole, procured," she deliberated.

            "Ahh, a woman after my own heart," announced the Lieutenant. "Full of initiative and inspiration."

            Isabelle stole a surprised glance his way, grateful for the support.

            "Well, I guess that's settled then," David said. "Dinner on the Rattler. I'll send a boat ashore for you at seven."

            "Sounds good."

Fairfax rose. "Well, I have a few things I need to take care of before dinner, so I'll take my leave now."

            "All right." David reached out a hand to clasp his friend and draw him into a warm embrace. "It's been both a shock and a pleasure seeing you."

            "As it should be!" Fairfax laughed. "We have a lot more to catch up on. What wild tales we have to tell each other."

            "Well, I'll certainly enjoy hearing them," admitted Isabelle.

            The Lieutenant grinned. "I have a feeling you could related a wild tale or two yourself."

            "You have no idea," she remarked.

            The two men departed leaving Isabelle and David remaining at the table nursing warm beers. She patted his shoulder. "Let me get us some fresh ones."          

            He grabbed her hand and held it, capturing her attention. "Thank you," he told her, but the look in his eyes indicated that it wasn't for the prospect of more beer. It was for something else.

            "You're welcome. Just remember the boat is still technically yours. The Rattler accepts only you despite who holds her paper."

            "The boat is yours too, you know."

            "That boat hates me." She laughed tossing her head back in a swirl of dark curls. "But the good thing is she adores you. So I'm perfectly safe."

            She disappeared into the crowd at the bar and David leaned back, contemplating how fate had brought back his past. Michael's presence in these islands was akin to seeing a penguin in, well, the South Seas. It was unnatural and would only happen if it were cautiously orchestrated. So why was he here? It didn't bode well and the tight grip on his gut resurrected the same acidic feeling he had had every day while he had lived under his father's roof.

            He was so caught up in his brooding that he didn't notice Colin take the seat opposite him until the Reverend waved a hand in front of his face.

            "David?"

            "Colin! Hello. What brings you to my humble table?" David straightened in his chair.

            "Well, actually I need to speak with Isabelle."

            "She's only gone for beer. She should be back in a moment."

            Colin noted all the glasses on the table and assumed that they all belonged to David and Isabelle. "Your venture must have been very profitable."

            David shrugged. "My cut went straight to the Rattler's bills. Thankfully, Isabelle is being generous and taking pity on me."

            "She does that a lot," Colin noted.

            David thought about that fact for a moment, surprised to find it the curious truth. "I'm grateful someone does."

Isabelle returned with two frothy mugs of beer. "Colin! What a nice surprise. How are you?"

            "Just fine. Thank you. David has been telling me that business is good for you both."

            "It's true. I wonder how long it will last. David says these things are completely unpredictable."

            "Ride the warm trade winds while you can," the seaman offered after gulping down a long draught of the yeasty beer.

            "Can I get you anything, Colin?" Isabelle asked gesturing back to the bar.

            "Oh no! I just came to inquire whether I could borrow the phonograph you received for your birthday."

            "Of course. You only need to ask."
            "In the mood to listen to some music?" asked David.

            "Actually the ladies of the parish want to put on a church social, a dance."

            Isabelle's face lit with humor. "How interesting," she commented.

            Colin continued. "I thought it would make the festivities more … lively if we could present some modern music as well as some traditional."

            David couldn't keep his broad grin from forming. "How refreshing to find someone of the church trying to liven up a party."

            A pink flush crept up into Colin's face. "Well, um, you know what I mean."

            "Of course, we do," Isabelle assured the Reverend. "I think it's a great idea. Lord knows this town needs to liven up a bit."

            "I would think the exact opposite would be in order," muttered David, "Matavia needs some peace and quiet after the last few months."

            Isabelle smirked at him. "Ahh, they only need a break from you, David."

She leaned in close, so close that David could count her individual eyelashes. He never noticed how long and dark they were over her smoky eyes.

"I think," she purred through pursed lips, "a party is exactly what Matavia Bay needs. I know a party did wonders for me." Her hand dropped to gently touch the pendant at her breast.

            "I do like the way you put things," he responded softly, thinking back to the night he had left the gift for her. It was one of the happier memories of late. He cherished it.

            Colin coughed politely to cover his mild embarrassment and change the subject. "Yes, well, unfortunately it is destined to be a more sedate affair since it is being hosted by the wives of the local missionaries and dignitaries."

            "A stuffy event, in other words boring. No offense, Colin," David said with a sardonic grimace.

            "None taken. I'm afraid I'm forced to agree with you. The ladies do not want to open the dance up to those outside the church. And the islanders that are part of the congregation must all dress European."

            Isabelle knew without a doubt that she was excluded from such social events. Not only because she didn't attend church services but because of her rather scandalous life style, past and present. The high-minded ladies wouldn't tolerate her presence. This morning's incident with Mr. and Mrs. Titchmarsh cemented that fact. "How narrow-minded of them," snided Isabelle.

            "I agree," echoed David. "You'd think after all this time, their views would become a little more open."

            "I wish there was someway to make them see," lamented the Reverend. He felt genuinely helpless, torn between his mission from the church and his love of the island people.

            Isabelle rose and leaned over to squeeze Colin's shoulder. "You'll figure something out. In the meantime, the phonograph is yours." She grinned and gave a cheery wave as she departed.

            David stood also, offering the Reverend a warm smile.

"You're invited to the dance, David, as well as Claire."

            "The joy of fitting into the proper mold," he replied. "Lucky us."

            Lavinia's voice carried to the kitchen as she placed a meal order. David's humor fell away. "It's a shame that Lavinia won't be invited."

            "Yes. It is wrong."

            David then brightened, more for Colin's sake than anything else. "You never know, my friend, folks could see the error of their ways someday soon."

            Colin sighed. "I'd rather put my money on Lavinia rousting those drunk sailors."

            David turned to watch the determined Polynesian woman grab a drunk by the ear and drag him to the door. "A wise bet, Colin. I'll bring over the phonograph to the church later this week."

            "Thank you, David." He paused. "I don't suppose you know how to run the thing?"

            "Um, no, but I know a person who does." There was a mischievous glint in David's eye.

            Colin wondered if he should be worried. Then he shrugged such silliness aside. He had far more dangerous predators stalking him, like Mrs. Titchmarsh and her party planning.

***

            Claire darted into the stables. Paiku was rolling out a wheelbarrow full of manure from one of the stalls.

            "Isabelle?" Claire inquired.

            Paiku nodded toward the office.

            Claire climbed the steps to Isabelle's rooms above. The door was open so she peeked inside, gently knocking on the door. "Hello. Isabelle, are you in here?"

            "In the bedroom," came a muffled voice from the back.

            Claire entered and waited patiently. She studied the small main room. Isabelle had decorated it fairly spartan, but there were still elements that Claire found fascinating. Isabelle was well traveled, even before David, and there were little mementos from her various excursions littered about the room. Most of them served a purpose in one form or another, like a paperweight, a letter opener, etc., but there were a few that she couldn't for the life of her determine their purpose.

            She picked up a wooden box that was ornately etched but didn't seem to open anywhere. Though when she jostled it, something shifted ever so slightly within. She briefly wondered what was inside, a lover's trinket perhaps.

            She loved the thought that Isabelle might have garnered the artifacts for sentimental reasons. Like a past love perhaps. Or something of her childhood. Claire was always disappointed that there were no photographs of Isabelle as a young girl, impetuous and determined. Isabelle rarely spoke of her youth and for Claire that seemed so very unnatural, but she also suspected that there were dark times there as well as perhaps happy moments. Claire didn't really want to bring them to the surface if Isabelle wasn't ready to speak of them.

            The bedroom door opened and Isabelle exited, dressed in her riding clothes. She had made the transformation from seaman to horsewoman. Trim tan jodhpurs, high black boots and a white blouse, rolled up at the sleeves, completed the look.

            "Care to go for a ride, Claire?" Isabelle asked as she fixed her small silver spurs to her boot heels.

            "Unfortunately, I still have a paper to bed, but perhaps later this week if that's alright."

            Isabelle shrugged.

            "Colin told me about the dance as he was heading back to the church," Claire announced with a delighted girlish expression. "I think it's a wonderful idea!"

            Isabelle nodded. "I do to." She cast her head askew slightly to smile over at Claire. "Nothing like a party to raise one's spirits."

            Claire enjoyed a warm rush of pleasure knowing that Isabelle had enjoyed their surprise birthday party. "Do you know what you'll be wearing? I was thinking about wearing that little pale pink frock, the one with the ribbons at the hem. I think it makes my skin look a bit more rosy."

            Isabelle straightened and regarded her friend, sighing ever so slightly at her innocence. "I don't think I'll be attending Saturday night."

            This took Claire aback. "But why? I thought you enjoyed parties and David will be there."

            "They're okay, but you do realize that this is not just any dance. It's a church function."
            Claire just looked at her oddly for a moment and then she realized what was the problem. She waved a dismissive hand in the air. "Oh I don't think Colin would mind if you came. He'd love to have you. It doesn't matter you don't attend services every week."

            "It's not Colin I'm thinking about."

            "Then who?" Claire was completely puzzled as to what would concern Isabelle. This wasn't like her.

            "Let's just say that someone like me would cause quite a stir at the social."

            "Of course, you would. You'd be the belle of the ball; David would be speechless. I can see you in that beautiful red silk dress, your hair pinned up and curls draping your face--"

            "My wicked reputation staring Mrs. Titchmarsh in the face," Isabelle added, letting her spurred foot drop back heavily to the floor. "I can just see her expression now. And wearing sinful red to boot." She laughed. "Oh yes, that would make a fine impression."

            Claire's mouth dropped a bit. "Are you saying that you're not permitted to attend because… because…"

            "Because I live on a boat with a single man, because I spent time in jail for murder, because I don't adhere to the rigid rules of society, and I make my way openly in a man's world. Yes, I can pretty much be assured that I'm not invited to this social gathering."

            "This isn't England."

            "It's reality, Claire. It doesn't bother me."

            "Well, it should! It bothers me!"

            "You're sweet and a good friend, but it doesn't change facts about me. Besides, what a bore that party will be."

            Claire grabbed her hand and held it tightly. "You just must come to the dance."

            Isabelle regarded her firm hand and then glanced back up at her friend and attempted to reassure her. "I think two parties would be too much for me. I'd rather have the memory of my birthday party than mar it with the memory of a scandal for Colin. The last thing he needs is for me to cause a stir and have it get back to the Bishop."

            "Oh what does the Bishop care if you attend the party? You're a lost soul and Colin has brought you into the fold. What's wrong with that?"
            Isabelle chuckled at her friend's rationalization, leaning down to her whisper, "Because it would be a lie."

            "Well, just a small one. What would it matter?"

            "Because then I might actually have to be civil to those old bitties." A mischievous glint sparked in Isabelle's eye. "And I can't do that." She shook her head firmly. "No, I can't do that." Laughing, she swept up Claire's arm and steered her down to the stables with her. "It would take all the fun out of my life."

            Claire could barely contain her sigh of disappointment.

***

            David whistled as he strolled through the open market. The smells and the sounds were enough to lift anyone's spirits and he always felt better when he walked out this way. And when he was in a good mood odd thoughts started entering his head.

            The idea of a dance was growing on him. Isabelle was right. The little town needed to heal and a party was a good step towards that process. The little shindig they had thrown for Isabelle had been a pleasant evening, and even with the overshadowing pallor of Mo's animosity towards him, the party had gone off without a hitch. David couldn't help but think that maybe Mo had taken the first step in forgiving him. He had allowed David some time with the children; there had been conversation and laughter. It had been a good night, now that he reflected back on it.

            David steered toward Starfish Cove. The gentle lapping of the surf on the sand eventually called to him and soon he had removed his shoes and rolled up his pants. He strolled through the lapping waves, enjoying the refreshing feel of the cool water and rough sand on his feet.

            He loved these islands. There was a peace and sanctuary that existed here. It was something the outside world shouldn't be allowed to spoil. The islanders had an openness and a curiosity that had allowed the Europeans a foothold. But it wasn't enough to co-exist with these people. Europeans always felt it necessary to force their ways on anyone they came into contact with. It was pathetic, as if the Europeans knew best. It was true that they had better medicines and better building materials, but they didn't have the better religion, nor did they have the better way of life. David knew that first hand.

The life he had carved out for himself here had been his salvation. It was a good life, one that replaced a life full of strife and anger. He wouldn't trade it for the world. Such thoughts brought back this afternoon's surprise. Michael Fairfax. He could hardly believe that his childhood friend had shown up in Matavia. It seemed almost surreal, and despite the fun and raucous memories it had stirred for the two of them, it also stirred something dark and ugly. Something that he had hoped never to address again.

Perhaps it was fitting. After all, ever since that mess with Jenny Duvall thoughts of his father had been flitting around his memories. If Mauriri were here, he would have told him that it had been a sign, a warning, of things to come.

Of course he had never told Mo abut his father or his past in general, so Mo wouldn't have been able to advise his old friend that the past was rushing headlong to greet him. Mo's foresight at times had assisted them on numerous adventures. But David had kept his past hidden from everyone, even Mo, ashamed of the past mistakes and the dark family secrets. It was those secrets that had propelled him to trust Jenny, something Mo didn't know and therefore couldn't understand.

He wished he could talk to his old friend about all this. Such a coincidence as his past seeking him out seemed unbelievable, but there it was right in front of him. How could he deny it? It wasn't often that David believed in these things, but for the first time it seemed almost impossible to deny. He truly wished he could talk to Mo right about now.

He heard a voice shout his name and he pulled out of his deep thoughts to see Jack McGonnigal lift a hand in greeting. The sailor was sitting in the sand mending a net.  That was the second time today David had been caught unawares due to his brooding.

David broke into a grin at the sight of his friend. "Jack. How are you?"

"Not bad. What brings you out this way?"

            "I'm here to extend an invitation."

            Jack raised his eyebrows. "Work?" The lowly sailor was always on the look out for work. He crewed mainly for Captain Lodge, David's old captain, but there were times when the merchant runs waned and Jack lately didn't like to be idle. David suspected that idleness led to drunkenness, something Jack was determined to avoid for the sake of one fair haired young woman.

            "Not this time, Jack, though Isabelle has a run arranged for us in about two months that I'll need extra hands for. You up for it?"

            "Absolutely! Captain Lodge is in port then for maintenance. How long?"

            "Five days at the most."

            "Perfect."

            "Good. But what I'm really here for is to invite you to a party that Colin's parish is having next Saturday night."

            Jack's good mood deflated. The thought of being in public practically made him sweat. "I think I'll pass."

            David was not surprised, but thankfully he had been prepared for it. "Yes, well, Colin has borrowed Isabelle's phonograph and he needs help in running it for the evening. You showed such aptitude for it that I think you are the man for the job."

            "Job? You mean I'll get paid for it?"

            David hesitated. That wasn't exactly what he had meant but if it meant getting Jack to that party, then so be it. The money was for a good cause, if not for beer, then it should go to a friend. "It won't be much." David did a quick calculation in his head and threw out of figure.

            Jack didn't hesitate at all. "That would be fine."

            David suspected that the sailor was down on his luck. Business hadn't been exactly booming for everyone in the shipping business. Matavia lately seemed inundated with young men seeking adventure on the high seas. Merchant ships could take their pick of cheap labor.

            "It should be the easiest job you've ever had, changing out a few discs on a player. Enjoy the respite while you can. Once you're on board the Rattler, you'll find that Isabelle is a taskmaster. "

            "I don't mind hard work."

            "I know you don't. And you'll have a good time at the party. Claire is coming."

            Jack brightened once again. "Claire will be there?"

            David smiled. "Yes. I wouldn't be surprised if you could sneak in a waltz or two with her."

            The sailor abruptly paled. David could see vibrations course through the netting that the man held in his hands as they trembled slightly.

"Oh no," Jack insisted, shaking his head. "I couldn't … I mean that isn't possible …"

            David reassured the man, thinking he was referring to the fact that he wasn't a churchgoer. "I don't think Colin would care."

            Jack stood quickly, gathering the net and heading for his depilated shack. "I'll have to think about it," he mumbled.

            "Think about what?" David was confused by this sudden turnabout. What had gotten into the man?

            "I'm not sure I'm the right man for this job." He was almost to the driftwood door of his hovel.

            David stopped him, grabbing his arm. "Jack! You're the perfect man for the job. What's gotten into you?"

            "Nothing," he muttered not looking David in the eye. "I'm just not good in public, you know that."

            "You were a perfect gentleman at Isabelle's party," he pointed out.

            "That was different. I was among friends."

            That statement pleased David. It was nice to know that Cannibal Jack had been drawn out enough from his shell to count the rest of them as his friends. It was a major step for him. But it was time for the next big hurdle. David wasn't about to concede. He wracked his brain for a reason why this simple conversation had spun about. What had they been discussing when the blood drained from Jack's face? Claire? No, dancing with Claire.

            Suddenly, it became very clear to David. Jack couldn't dance. David recalled how obstinate Jack had been at Isabelle's party when Claire had attempted to coax Jack to dance with her. He had been evasive then too.

            "Jack," he said softly. "You can't dance, can you?"

            The young seaman couldn't look David in the eye. There was nothing but shame and melancholy there. "No. I can't. And Claire would ask me. She'd expect it. I couldn't hurt her feelings. I don't want to hurt her feelings."

            "I'm sure if you told her, she wouldn't be offended."

            Jack shook his head. "You don't understand. A woman such as Claire needs to dance. It's in her nature, her very blood. She dances like an angel with wings, light and ethereal. She practically floats. I would just weigh her down like an iron anchor about her neck." Jack's sad eyes raised to David's. "Don't you see? I can't allow that."

            David was practically speechless for a moment. He was stunned at Jack's words. The man certainly didn't need liquor to wax poetic. "Jack, you could learn to dance."

            An expression of dejection spread over Jack's face. "I may be many things, David: a sailor, a drunk, a cannibal, but a dancer I am not."

            "Have you ever tried?" insisted David.

"Many times."

"I mean when you were sober."

            Jack thought hard for a moment. "Well, not that I can remember."

            "Then you should give it another try."

            A scowl was planted on Jack's face. "Where am I going to learn to dance in a week? Those stuffy European missionary women? Don't be daft."

            "What about Isabelle?"

            A red flush was creeping up from beneath Jack's shirt to fully engulf him. "No. I just wouldn't feel right. I don't need this kind of worry, David. I really don't." His hand rubbed his mouth roughly, knowing that a good belt of whiskey would calm his nerves.

            "Not even for Claire."

            Jack's mouth drew into a hard line. It took him a moment to answer. "Not even for Claire."

            David sighed. "Okay, look. How about if I teach you to dance? Privately. No one around."

            Jack backpedaled a bit. "I'm not sure…"

            "No one will ever know, Jack. And if you don't want to use your new skills to dance with Claire at the party, then that's your prerogative. But at least you'll know how to if at any point you find you want to dance with Claire."

            "How much is it going to cost me?"

            Jack was not a man who accepted charity easily. He always worried about money. David couldn't blame him. He was in the same pickle of late. "Two beers and a whiskey. Payable whenever."

            "Done," said Jack and shook David's hand. A deal was struck.

***

            Isabelle struggled under the load of three baskets laden with fresh fruits and vegetables. She was still eyeing the uru, also known as maiore, a local delicacy, and one she had a terrific recipe for, but with the baskets so full she doubted she could manage.

            Disaster loomed when a herd of children recently out of school swept past her, bumping her and dislodging her load. To her delight, strong arms steadied both her and the baskets.

            "David!" She thought she recognized the gallant touch.

            "No. Sorry." Lt. Derby stood there, his tanned, youthful face beaming down at her as he gathered the baskets in his own hands.

            "Oh, well, thank you. Your assistance is a godsend! I almost lost tonight's dinner."

            "Then I'm lucky I was nearby! I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to a home cooked meal."

            "Even if the home is on another boat?"

            "My dear, Miss Reed, any meal will taste delicious so long as it is not mauled by a navy cook."

            Isabelle picked up the last of the wayward fruits. "Military food has to be tried to be believed. They rate only slightly better than prison food."

            "How on earth would a woman of your distinction know anything about that?"

            Isabelle laughed. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you. Here, hold this." She deposited the runaway fruits back into the baskets he was holding, and then turned her attention back to the market. She purchased the uru and came back to the Lieutenant. "Could I trouble you to carry that back to the dinghy?"

            The Lieutenant's smile was bright enough to put the sparkling sun reflecting off the shore to shame. "It would be a pleasure."

            Along the wooden boardwalk, the activity at the docks was always constant as more and more ships arrived to load or unload. The harbor was quite full for a change, the massive naval vessel in its center crowding the others. As the two walked down to the docks, all eyes turned to look at them. The Lieutenant's crisp uniform certainly drew attention. Isabelle felt a trifle important suddenly as stuffy Europeans nodded their heads and acknowledged her. It thrilled her to be counted as an equal, even if it was only because of the man beside her. It had been a long while since she had commanded respect from the people on this island. The last time was with Roger Addison, and as always, it had been only because of the company she was keeping, not because people's views about her past had changed.

            "So how long have you been in the navy, Lieutenant?" she asked abruptly to distract her thoughts.

            "Eight years."

            "A career man then."

            "I suppose so. I like the navy. It's broadened my horizons. I found I love the sea."

            "Ahh, I can empathize with that. I wasn't so sea worthy in the beginning but I'm beginning to love the sea as much as David. It wasn't something I thought I was capable of."

            "How long did it take?"

            She laughed. "I'm still learning. But I used to think boats were just a means to move cargo and to get from one place to the other, but I'm beginning to see it is more than that. That the journey is everything and the ship is your lifeline. To lose your ship is to loose everything."

            "Spoken like a true sailor!" The Lieutenant informed her proudly. "I've learned that long ago. The sea is a hard mistress and your ship your only protection."

            "Though David's boat doesn't quite like me."

            The Lieutenant regarded her. "Is that so?"

            "Well, it's not like she's trying to do me in or anything, but I think she just likes David more."

            "A ship can have only one true master."

            "Wonderful," Isabelle said dejectedly.

            "But she can learn to accept more. Remember without a crew, she cannot move and be free upon the sea. You are as vital to her as her sails."

            Isabelle contemplated that for a moment. "That's right. Without me she'd never leave the harbor. I'm the one who arranges her itinerary." She looked over at Lt. Derby. "So tell me why she resents me."

            "What is she doing exactly?"

            Isabelle started laughing. "I can't believe I'm discussing this with you as if the ship is alive. It's just a boat."

            The Lieutenant smirked. "I'm beginning to see your problem. The boat is still just an object to you. A material thing to own."

            "But it is, at its heart."

            "No, at its heart, she is a living breathing entity that holds your survival in her hands. You have to accept her as that and treat her as such. Until you do, she will not respond to you the way you want her to."

            "You make it sound as if the boat is alive."

            "It is. Any sailor will confess that to you easily."

            They had reached the shoreline and the dinghy. Isabelle gazed at the Rattler in the distance, still visible between all the other ships. The boat was so distinct and sleek compared to most of them. Or was it because she was partial to it now? Was that the beginning of a true bond? "David reminds me of that fact all the time," she admitted.

            "David Grief would know about that, wouldn't he?" the Lieutenant said, seeing where her attention had strayed.

            "It may be the only thing he's capable of knowing," Isabelle jested with a small laugh.

            Lieutenant Derby placed her baskets in the bow of the boat. "Do you need me to row you out to the Rattler?"

            Isabelle regarded the tall Lieutenant before her. It was certainly tempting. Alan Derby was an interesting man and his good looks made such a concept very appealing, but then she declined. "It's not that far, and who knows, maybe the ship will be impressed if I do it myself."

            Lt. Derby grinned. "As disappointed as I am, I think you're very wise to try and make amends with your ship. Give her time, she'll come about."

            "You sound like David," she scoffed as she settled in the stern of the dinghy and took up her oars.

            "I certainly hope not," he told her with an intriguing look in his eyes. With a quick muscular shove, he pushed the little boat out into the surf.

            Isabelle watched him for a moment and couldn't help the smile that emerged. She believed this man was flirting with her and she liked it. Shoving her oars in the water she drew back on them. "I look forward to continuing our discussion tonight over dinner," she called out.

            "As do I," he responded with a small courteous bow.

***

            "Colin?" Lavinia peered into the open door of the church.

            The reverend's fair head popped up from between the pews. "Lavinia!"

            The island woman stepped into the coolness of the church, grateful to be out of the hot sun. If it was one thing Europeans understood is the way to keep air cool. The sheer size of the church's ceiling allowed the air to continually move.

            "What brings you here?"

            She held up a jar. "You asked for some of my grandmother's spice mixture."

            "Oh that's right! Thank you so much for bringing it. I had completely forgotten."

            She set the jar on a sideboard. "You look harried."

            "You have no idea." He pushed up his glasses and slicked back his hair.

            "You mean the church social."

            Colin looked surprised. "You know about it?"

            "Word tends to travel rather quickly on an island."

            "I see. Yes, of course. Of course, it would. Perfectly logical."

            "Is there something wrong, Colin?" She came over to him.

            "No, of course not. No."

            "I gather Mrs. Titchmarsh and company have been rather demanding."

            Colin sighed wearily, dropping himself on a wooden pew. "I don't understand why people can't be more trusting. I am very capable of putting on a dance."

            Lavinia sat down on the pew beside. "Are you?"

            "Yes, indeed. I was on the committee of many a dance organization at the seminary. Sometimes I even managed a theme."

            That brought a laugh from the woman beside him. She could almost imagine a young Colin fastidiously arranging music and guest lists and punch bowls.

            "I was quite good," he insisted.

            "Of that, I have no doubt."

            "Well, Mrs. Titchmarsh believes apparently that I am quite incompetent."

            Lavinia tried to reassure him. "It's not that. She's just…just…"

            "Intolerant," he finished. Leaning back, he rubbed his eyes.

            She was quick to pick up where his bitterness lay. "You mean about Polynesians. All I can say is that I'm glad I'm not going to the dance."

            He brought his attention to Lavinia. Her perception was uncanny. It always was, about a great many things. "You know about that?"

            "The rules were set a long time ago, Colin, and not by you. I'm well aware of them and my place. I just hope that maybe it won't be this way forever."

            "I'm doing my very best to make sure of that." He moved closer, hoping to be of some comfort to her. "It just takes some people longer to come around."

            "Some people never come around." A group of children ran past outside, their laughter echoing within the walls of the church; it was a wonderful sound that offered hope. She nodded toward them. "Just remember, sometimes it's more important to lay the seeds so that those who come afterward learn something more than what came before or what is at present," she told him softly.

            Regarding her with wondrous eyes, he straightened. "You are an incredibly wise person, Lavinia."

            "And you are a wonderful person for noticing."

            A silence grew between them. Emotions surged up, ones they weren't ready to admit to yet. Finally, Colin did the decent thing and stood up, gathering the jar of spices. "I'll go put this in the pantry."

            Lavinia nodded, still trapped within her own thoughts. She watched the sensitive Reverend depart, amazed by his never ceasing faith in both his devotion and in the future. She allowed a smile. Maybe in time, the winds would blow a new way of thinking in from the sea. Thanks to Colin, she almost believed in it for the first time.

***

            The setting sun set the sea ablaze with orange and yellow, leaving plenty of light to guide the dinghy to the Rattler as she rested in the placid water. The wind was nil and left the surface of the water like stained glass.

            David's boat didn't looked much bigger even close up, Fairfax decided as he reached for the ladder while Tah-mey steadied the dinghy. Even after David and Isabelle Reed greeted him and the Lieutenant aboard and gave them a tour of the ship, he still wasn't convinced. He wondered how a man could make a decent living doing such a thing. In comparison, a boat wasn't like property. It was cramped and small, unlike acres and acres of pristine grazing land. Property made a man; and it offered wealth and security. Even if a portion of it was burned or damaged, if you had enough land, the loss still wouldn't break you. The rest of your assets could carry you through. But a boat, especially one of this size, was miniscule when compared to the ocean it sailed upon. One storm and your small patch of land would be gone and you'd be adrift, penniless and worth nothing, perhaps even dead.

            No, David's choice to become a sailor had been a poor one. He had been a fool to throw away his father's land just to live on the sea in this small piece of driftwood. He didn't even seem happy to be a sailor. Every once in a while, Fairfax could see uncertainty and melancholy pass over his friend's expression. It was not the expression of a man who was satisfied with his decisions in life. Most likely, seeing his old friend from back home had made David realize what a mistake he had made. But it was too late now.

            He poured another glass of wine for himself. Isabelle had set their "table" on the deck of the boat. There didn't seem to be any place big enough below deck for proper dining. The food had been good surprisingly. Miss Reed could certainly cook. No wonder David kept her around. But as a partner? It was unbelievable. Still, his friend was a sucker for a pretty face. Always had been. He let women rule him; they'd put tears in their eyes, bat their eyelashes, and he'd run to their rescue and offer them all his worldly goods. What a fool. He briefly wondered what this woman had over him. What story had she concocted to draw him into her web of deceit?

            But what did he care? This was David's choice for a way of life, unprofitable and uncertain though it was. From the tall tales David was spinning about the sea, it was a wonder he was still alive much less wealthy.  They spent most of the evening swapping stories, with Lt. Derby and Isabelle listening politely. Eventually though, conversation lulled and small matters were discussed in their stead.

            David said, "There's going to be a dance next Saturday night if you're still in town. You and the Lieutenant are welcome to attend. It will be held at the church's assembly hall."

            "So much for a good time then, eh?" jested Fairfax. "I expect your preacher will keep the liquor under wraps."

            David shrugged. "I've been to drier parties."

            "Yes, and they were all boring."

            "Well, I think it sounds delightful." Lt. Derby turned to Isabelle. "Will you be there?"

            Isabelle couldn't help but smile at the young man's hopeful demeanor and then at David's frown as he looked from the young navy lieutenant to her and back again. "No, I'm afraid not, but my phonograph will be supplying the entertainment."

            "You have a phonograph?" Lt. Derby sounded thrilled, as if it was Christmas Day.

            "Yes, and I have discs to go with it. They were a gift from my brother."

            "Remarkable," he exclaimed.

            David merely grunted and turned again to Fairfax. Inevitably, the discussion returned to the past.

            "You know," commented Fairfax, "your father hasn't changed much since you've left. In fact, he's gotten more bullheaded than ever."

            "It doesn't surprise me," admitted David, shifting ever so slightly on the deck. His hand strayed to toy with a bit of rigging by his knee.

            "Remember Merrill Dugan who ran the mercantile in town? He and your father came to blows."

            Still David didn't seem surprised. "Over what?"

            Fairfax shook his head. "I believe it was over the cost of grain that year."

            "Certainly something to pummel a man for," David commented sadly.

            "That's your father for you."

            "Does he ever mention me?" David asked abruptly in a low voice.

            Isabelle quickly ceased her quiet discussion with the Lieutenant and looked over at her partner, alarm bells ringing.

            Fairfax sighed as if he had been expecting this question for quite some time. "No. But then again, I try to steer clear of the old man as much as possible. I've got my own ranch to run nowadays."

            David nodded, his tone unaltered. "That's great. I'm happy for you, Michael. To some folks, land is everything."

            "Land is everything."

            "You haven't changed."

            "And neither have you. You're still living on dreams and star shine."

            "He's done a fine job of building a life out here," piped up Isabelle, not liking the way the conversation was heading suddenly. She didn't like the way David's face was darkening, like a storm building out at sea.

            Fairfax turned to her, his hard blue eyes piercing her with resentment for interrupting. "Has he ever told you what he gave up for this … this boat?" The derision in his voice was plain.

            "Michael," David warned sternly. "That's enough."

            Lt. Derby coughed as a means of polite interruption. "I thought this was supposed to be an enjoyable evening. Let's not waste it with memories and conversation better left to another time and place."

            Fairfax glanced at the three people around him and saw that he was outvoted. He shrugged. "Fine. I didn't come out here to make trouble."

            "What did you come out here for, Michael?" David asked bluntly. "It's a hell of a long way to travel just to reminisce."

            Fairfax stared at David. "I came out for business reasons, one of which might interest you. But we'll leave that for another time and place. One more private." He glared at Isabelle.

            "I'm all for discussing business," Isabelle stated matter-of-factly.

            "It's business that doesn't concern you."

            Now David bristled. "We're partners, Michael. The sooner you accept that fact the better. We both have a voice in business matters. There are no secrets between us."

            "Then you're a fool," Fairfax pointed out. "But this is family business and unless she's your wife, then she has no right to butt in."

            "What's the matter with you, Michael? What have you got against Isabelle?"

            "She's female, David, and you above all should know that you and women don't mix. You loose your head over them every time. Your father knows it and I know it. The only one who constantly remains blind to that fact is you."

            "That's enough, Michael."

            "Fine." Fairfax stood. "I'll say goodnight then. When you're ready to discuss business, I'll be at the bar." He regarded the Lieutenant. "You coming."

            Lt. Derby hesitated but then nodded at Isabelle and David. "Thank you for your hospitality."

            "You're welcome," replied Isabelle, surprised to find she was a little disappointed that the navy man was leaving, since he had been nothing but polite.

            Tah-mey rowed them back to shore, leaving a very agitated David at the stern of the ship. His grip on the rigging was so tight that Isabelle could see the white of skin in the dim light.

            Isabelle came and sat quietly behind him for a while and together they watched the sun sink into the sea, but neither really saw the beauty of it, their thoughts centered on other more personal things: for David, his past; for Isabelle, the man in front of her commanded her attention. Eventually, when she felt he had been alone long enough with his own brooding thoughts, she commented in a low voice, just loud enough to be heard over the creak of the ship, "The appearance of family always brings back the past, ugly stuff first, things you've buried for a long while. But after it all bubbles to the surface, the rest of it can still be enjoyable."

            "Are you sticking up for him?" David snapped.

            "For Michael? No, personally I don't think much of him. But if you count him as a friend, then I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt." She regarded him directly. "Should I?"

            David shrugged, letting out a weary breath. "I don't know. It's been years since I've seen him. We were just kids then with our whole lives ahead of us. He wanted to stay in Queensland and I wanted to travel. We rarely saw eye to eye on anything, except beer, poker and horseback riding. It seemed enough back then."

            "Youth has a way of bridging wide barriers."

            "We were good friends. He stuck by me against my father. I appreciated that."

            "What do you think he wants to talk to you about now?"

            "I don't know. I'm not sure I want to know."

            Isabelle rose to stand beside him at the rail, her slender hand resting just below his on the rigging rope, staring at the same spot on the ocean, the open sea, where freedom and tranquility beckoned. She could feel that tug at her heart as strong as David all of a sudden. Above all, she cherished it for it brought the two of them closer.

Then she laughed and David looked down at her, puzzled, curious at her sudden humor.

            "I bet you're sorry you invited him to the dance," she admitted.

            David finally grinned. "Yes, that was a blunder."

            "One that can only be made so brilliantly by yourself. It's your trademark after all."

            "Wonderful," muttered David.

***

It was a quiet morning on Matavia, both islanders and sailors late to rise. The sun shone with its usual brilliance. Surprisingly, Jack was out and about, but solely because he had promised to help Claire gather chairs for the social, but he didn't regret it. In fact, he was delighted for the chance to be near her, even if it was just manual labor that brought them together.

He couldn't get the vision of that startling kiss they had shared on the steps the night of Isabelle's birthday out of his head. It was burned into his brain and its continuous replay made him short of breath every time. He still couldn't fathom why she had been so bold. Not that he regretted it. He just hadn't expected it of her, not with him. He had always seen her in such a perfect light, one born from the rigors of proper English society. In his wildest dreams he hadn't imagined Claire ever giving him more than a chaste sisterly kiss on the cheek.

Okay, that wasn't really the truth. Often he had imagined it. He just hadn't believed it would ever come true. It was gift from her. He knew that. And it was because of that one kiss burning in his memory that Jack had agreed to the dancing lessons and to attend the social with the possibility of even dancing with her.

She had wanted to dance with him at Isabelle's party and he had said no, out of fear, out of embarrassment. He wasn't able to tell her why, that he didn't know how to dance. Now suddenly David had presented him with an opportunity to give her a gift back. He would learn how to dance and take her onto the floor and twirl her about till her own breath left her body.

Jack shook his head in wishful frustration, again so caught up in the image that he had lost where he was going. He doubled back and found Claire looking for him.

"There you are. What happened?"

"Sorry," he confessed. "I was daydreaming."

            "A dangerous thing for a sailor," she told him with grin.

            "True enough," he responded, his own shy smile emerging.

            She placed a gentle hand on his arm and steered him in the right direction. Just that simple act caught Jack's breath.

            "I'm so glad you're coming to the party, Jack. It's going to be so exciting."

            "Someone needed to run the phonograph."

            "Well, they couldn't have found a better man for the job."

            "I like music. It's lyrical even without words, how all those different instruments still can sound like a single thought."

            "Like order within chaos."

            "Yes. Exactly." He regarded her with surprise.

            "I used to study music when I was a child. My mother thought it would be extremely practical in my later life." She laughed as if that held a private humor for her.

            "Do you play an instrument?"

            "The piano. A little bit. I'm afraid I'm not very good at it. I only wanted to read books at that age."

            "I read quite a bit when I was just a lad too."

            "What did you read?"

            Claire was always so inquisitive, so interested. It didn't matter who was speaking or what the topic generally was. She always came across as someone who sincerely was interested in whatever it was one was discussing. It made Jack feel important, like there was something interesting about him. Something he hadn't felt in many, many years.

            "Anything I could get my hands on really," he admitted. "Books opened up a world to me that I had never known existed. I wanted to see it all."

            "Me too! Travel books fired my blood the most, I think. Tales of exotic places. I swore to myself, I'd see them some day."

            "You made good on your promises."

            Claire nodded, beaming with pleasure at his compliment. "Is that where your poetry came from? From those books?"

            Jack's head slipped down a little, embarrassed. His poetry only escaped him when he was drunk, or at least usually. Of late it was emerging even when he was sober. He attributed it to the woman standing beside him. How could her beauty both inside and out not inspire someone? "My poetry brought you here on a fool's errand," he reminded her softly.

            "Perhaps. But it also was powerful enough to make an introverted young woman travel to a place of wonder and imagination. I don't count the experience as a loss." She smiled at Jack. "I have discovered my true self here, Jackson McGonnigal and I wouldn't trade that for the world. Perhaps I should be thankful for your hand in it, fraudulent as it may have been at first." Jack's wide-eyed expression delighted her. She released his arm and opened the door to the assembly hall. "After you, sir."

            It took a moment but Jack finally stumbled inside with his load of chairs. He always seemed to be fumbling around Claire, physically and verbally, never making the right move or finding his voice at the perfect moment. It seemed as if she were always one step ahead of him and he was rushing to catch up. He would have felt more at ease if he were doing the chasing with about four glasses of stiff whiskey added for the nerve. He was grateful for the cool air inside the hall. It dried the sweat that peppered his skin, sweat he doubted came from the exertion of carrying the chairs.

            "Set them over here, Jack."

            He complied and then went about arranging them. There were lots of chairs yet to bring over, but Claire also needed some boxes moved out of the hall and into some temporary place till after the dance. She struggled with the boxes that were stacked higher and heavier than she thought. They came tumbling down. Claire cried out as the top one slid off and brought her to the ground.

Jack raced over. "Claire!" He threw the box aside and leaned over to see if she was hurt.

The main door slammed open and two figures darted in. In a flash they had hold of Jack and had pinned his arms back.

The gruff voice of one snarled in his ear. "That's enough of that kind of behavior, sailor scum."

"Wait," Jack shouted, but a fist from the other slammed into his stomach, doubling him over.

Claire gained her feet swiftly. "No! What are you doing? He was trying to help me!" She squinted in the dim light at the two strangers.

"Are you sure, ma'am?" asked one, a tall slender fair-haired man, dressed in a naval uniform. The other man was stockier but yet still definitely Australian by his accent. She didn't recognize them. They must be new to the island.

"Yes, I'm sure," she said angrily. "Now release him this minute."

The sandy haired man complied immediately and stepped back, apologizing to Jack. The other man still kept hold of Jack's arm and glared hotly at Claire.

"It's a dangerous thing, ma'am, to be fraternizing with the likes of him in a dark hall."

Claire had her ire up and it flared even further at the man's disdainful comment. "And it's a more dangerous thing to assume improprieties when there are none. This man is more of a gentlemen than the two of you put together." She stood proudly before them.

"We thought we were coming to your rescue," confessed the man in uniform. He seemed a man of manners, and Claire's anger was fast fading toward him.

"Well, as you can see I am perfectly fine."

The fair haired man nodded. "Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Lieutenant Alan Derby of the HMS Victory."

"The naval vessel anchored in the harbor," Claire declared. She had watched the ship arrive and had tried twice to interview its captain to no avail.

"The very same. My companion is Michael Fairfax."

She turned to the other man who was still bristling at the inconvenience of the matter. "You're David's friend." She couldn't keep the surprise out of her voice at the discovery. She had expected someone different, less … abrasive.

Fairfax's eyes narrowed at her. "You seem to be remarkably well informed around here. And just who might you be?"

"I'm Claire Devon. I own and operate the local newspaper here on the island." She extended a hand.

Fairfax took it. "My apologies also then." He turned toward Jack who was still trying to catch his breath, half hunched over. "No hard feelings, eh?"

Jack shook his head. "Easy mistake, I guess," he muttered, massaging his ribs.

"And you are?" asked Fairfax.

"Jackson McGonnigal," announced Claire with some pride. Jack's jaw merely tightened but he said nothing.

"You're the one they call Cannibal Jack?" Lt. Derby said slowly.

"Now there's a colorful moniker," remarked Fairfax with a scowl of distaste.

"I've heard of you," Lt. Derby responded. "You're the man who was shipwrecked and ate his own crew to survive." A faint look of repulsion was spreading over the lieutenant's face.

Fairfax took a step back in horror. He glanced back at Claire. "And this is the man that you want helping you with your work? You best be careful, Miss Devon."

Claire's anger was now as high as she had ever felt it. "Perhaps you'd be wise to do the same. Jack is kind man, a victim of circumstance. How dare you presume to judge him on only embellished stories and hearsay! You have no idea what this man has been through!"

Lt. Derby inclined his head. "Again, my apologies. But his reputation is somewhat renowned in these islands."

"It's not to me you should be apologizing to," she snapped.

Claire couldn't seem to get her anger under control. This was the first time she had to defend Jack in public against his crimes. It was very frustrating. How dare these men get up on their high horses when they didn't know the circumstances or what it might have been like for Jack, trapped and alone and starving with no hope of rescue in time.

Lt. Derby nodded his defeat and turned to Jack. "If the lady vouches for your good intentions, then how can I deny them? I apologize for striking you."

Jack gave a curt nod and dropped the hand that was bracing his stomach, straightening somewhat. He turned expectantly to the other man, waiting for an apology from his direction also.

But none was forthcoming from Michael Fairfax. "Good day to both of you then." He turned on his heel and departed the hall with the lieutenant following afterward.

Claire dusted herself off roughly as she came over to Jack, her concern evident. "I can't believe the gall of those men. Are you all right?"

The barest of grins emerged on Jack's worn face. He liked her fussing over him. "Of course. The man certainly doesn't hit like a sailor. Lavinia hits harder than he does."

Claire let out a relieved sigh and then shook her head. She still couldn't understand why Jack didn't stick up for himself regarding those men. "They were solely judging you based on preconceived notions."

Jack inclined his head. "Um, you had preconceived notions toward me as well at one time."

Claire's fair skin flushed pink. She regarded him shyly. "Yes, I suppose I did."

"You were just less physical about it." He grinned at her, placing a hand on his tender ribs. "It takes time for people to adjust to such a thing as cannibalism. It's a common thing in the islands but for Europeans it is still a aberration."

"Yes, but it's not like you did it because you liked it!"

"How do you know?"

"Don't tease me, Jackson McGonnigal!"

The sailor quickly sobered seeing she wasn't in the mood for levity. "I'm sorry, Claire, but it is a reaction you have to get used to if you continue to associate with the likes of me."

"But you shouldn't have to tolerate such … intolerance from anyone. It appears to be running rampant of late on this island." Claire thought back to her conversation with Isabelle about the party. What was wrong with everyone?

Jack seemed to read her thoughts. "Most people don't stay around to learn that there's more to me than an odd dining habit."

"I did," she pointed out.

Jack smiled. "Yes, you did." He adjusted a small bit of lace at her neckline, letting his calloused fingers rub against her collarbone for the briefest of instants. Then he ceased. Her eyes were as large and shimmering as twin moons reflected in a still sea. He cleared his throat to break the spell. "We still have a lot of chairs to gather."

            "Yes, we do," she said softly. Then she gave a small shiver and collected herself. "There's still so much to do before Saturday. "Do you think you can manage to lift these boxes?" Her hand brushed very lightly against his side where the navy lieutenant had struck him. It wasn't painful but her touch caused a slight breathlessness.

            He shook his head. "I'm fine. Really."

            "I'm glad."

            He hefted the heavy boxes, watching her as she assisted him as best she could. He thought about having her holding him while they were dancing and his heart beat faster. For the first time he was looking forward to tonight's dancing lesson.

***

            Isabelle and David climbed the tall stairs to the main office of Titchmarsh Exports, both a little leery as to why the man wanted to see them. Isabelle had brought along the records from the last run, just in case there was any question to the cargo, but David had a darker premonition, one he didn't think had anything to do with the last job or a future one.

            The office was cleanly kept as they entered. A man of distinction rarely let dust settle unnecessarily. And Mr. Titchmarsh was definitely not one to allow that. But as their vision adjusted to the gloom, David's gut twisted with rage as he saw Michael Fairfax standing just to the side of Mr. Titchmarsh. He felt Isabelle stiffen beside him.

            "Afternoon, Grief. Miss Reed," Mr. Titchmarsh welcomed. "Take a seat please."

            Both David and Isabelle were too stunned to do anything but comply. The minute he sat down, David immediately wanted to stand.

            Mr. Titchmarsh crossed his legs and leaned back in his leather chair. "I wanted to tell you in person rather than have a messenger sent round, even though this is business and I have every right to ensure the safely of my cargo."

            "Get to the point, Mr. Titchmarsh," growled David, his eyes unwavering from Fairfax's smug expression.

            "Mr. Fairfax here has offered me a very intriguing proposition which would better serve my interests at this time."
            "You're reneging on our contract," stated Isabelle in an agitated snarl.

            "Hardly," Mr. Titchmarsh noted. "Our contract clearly gives me an out if I feel that my cargo is in jeopardy. I have the right to seek other services."

            "Jeopardy? How do you justify that? Your cargo has been safely transported via the Rattler."

            "Yes, but you have an unerring ability to draw trouble. Need I remind you of the pirate attack on your vessel only a few months ago."

            David was bristling now. "Every vessel on the sea runs the risk of being pirated. That is not viable jeopardy and you know it."

            "Unless he can find a way to ensure that it won't happen," Fairfax stated.

            "How the hell can he do that?" David snapped. He still didn't understand Fairfax's presence in this room, but he knew damn sure he wasn't going to like it.

            "The naval vessel in the harbor has agreed to transport my cargo."

            "What?" exclaimed Isabelle.

            "Mr. Fairfax has used his pull with the captain of the Victory to convince them to store my cargo and transport it back to Australia. And as you know, there isn't a pirate alive that would risk going up against a vessel of His Majesty's fleet. I think I can confidently say that my cargo would not be in jeopardy. Can you make the same claim, Miss Reed?"

            "You know damn well, I can't."

            "Well then, I will break our contract and sign here with Mr. Fairfax. Thank you for your time."

            Isabelle was red-faced and desperately trying to remain civil, for all the good it would do them. "Mr. Titchmarsh. We were counting on that money to make the next payment on the Rattler. We've already allocated funds elsewhere banking on that cargo. If you do this, we could lose our ship."

            "Terribly sorry, Miss Reed, but perhaps this lesson will caution you into making more sound financial decisions."

            "How dare you! This coming from the man who hires a drunk for a foreman and has a bigoted wife with delusions of grandeur."

            "You impudent vixen!"

            David laid a cautionary hand on her shoulder but didn't say anything to stop her. Instead he leaned on the desk, his attention solely directed at Michael Fairfax. "You've overstepped your bounds, Michael. I don't know why you chose to take this route but I won't forget it. Trust me."

            "I'm counting on it."

            Isabelle rose to her feet and grabbed David's arm. "Let's get out of here."

            The two stormed out of the office. Isabelle's booted feet fell so heavily that the stairs actually shook on the way down.

            "That sniveling, slack-jawed, sorry excuse for a son of a bitch …that miserable, rotting baboon!"

            "You referring to Fairfax or Titchmarsh?"

            "Both of them! Damn it! I'll string them up by their guts! He had no right to backstab us. What the hell is he trying to prove?"

            "We'll find out soon enough. It's me he's after. Michael has a hand to play. He's bound to show me his cards eventually." The trouble was David wasn't sure he was ready. The obvious thing was his past. Michael had his eye on something and he thought David was the key to getting it.

            "I swear they won't relish getting the upper hand from me," Isabelle retorted. "I promise them that."

            David almost smiled. He loved watching Isabelle get her dander up. It was refreshing and exhilarating, if not a tad dangerous. There was no telling what the lady would do for revenge. He'd have to watch her closely, something he looked forward to doing, no doubt about it.

***

"Are you sure we're alone?"

            "Quite alone, Jack. Trust me." David shut the warehouse door. He had shoved all thoughts of this morning's backstabbing from his old friend to the back of his mind, concentrating instead on a true friend. Jack needed his help and what better way to brush aside disturbing memories of the past than to play matchmaker for Jack and Claire.

He had made a deal with old man Jenkins for an hour each night in this secluded warehouse. It was set far enough out of the way so no one would be suspicious of the odd sounds coming from it late at night. He had had to trade some fine port for this arrangement but at least it was legal. He'd have to confess to Isabelle about it eventually, but for right now, Jack's secret would be safe.

            "How are we going to do this? We have no music," griped Jack, nervous beyond measure.

            "I can hum a little for now and maybe once you have the steps down, we'll borrow the phonograph for some actual practice. Right now, it's just the basics." David lit the various lamps about the warehouse, bringing the illumination factor up marginally.

            Jack stood in the center of a large empty space, shifting anxiously from foot to foot. Old man Jenkins didn't store very much this time of the year and David's voice echoed about the space. Jack was sure they could be seen and heard all the way into town.

            "Are you sure no one will be able to hear us in here?" he asked.

            "There's no one out here but some wharf rats and a few inebriated drunks who will most likely believe we're about as real as a pink elephant. Now stop worrying. This is going to work out just fine."

            "I think you lit too many lamps."

            "Jack, just relax." David walked over to him. "It's just the two of us."

            "I need a drink."

            "After." David stood in front of Jack. "Okay, first things first. You're the man and I'm the woman."

            Immediately, sweat broke out on Jack's forehead. "This isn't going to work."

            "Shh. Yes, it is. You approach Claire." David noticed the panic in Jack increase tenfold so he quickly amended. "You approach the woman you want to dance with and you say, 'May I have the pleasure of this dance?'"

            Jack just stood there.

            David coughed and then gestured that Jack should repeat what he said.

            Jack shuffled back and forth on his feet. "I thought this was a dancing lesson."

            "It is. But there's an art to it after all. At this type of affair, you just don't stomp up to a woman and drag her to the dance floor."

            "I know that!"

            "Then act like it and show me."

            Jack huffed and then took a deeper breath. "May I have this dance?"

            David smiled. "I would be charmed."

            The swift onset of embarrassment once again overwhelmed Jack. "I can't do this! It isn't going to work."

            "It won't if you keep acting like an jug-headed horse. Now just play along."

            "I can't."

            David sighed and eased back. "Jack, men aspire to many things. Wealth, notoriety, a sailor, but there is no nobler a cause than to aspire to the love a woman. If you could dance beside such a beautiful creature, even for a brief moment, wouldn't all the work and embarrassment be worth the time spent? Even if nothing more ever came of it, wouldn't such an act set your soul to rest?"

            Jack straightened. He thought of Claire, of her sun spun hair and her fair smooth face, lightly dusted with powder that only brought a rosy glow to her cheeks, dressed in unearthly white, a long gown gliding about her ankles. He was at her side and she smiled at him.

Holding onto that memory and drawing a deep breath, he regarded David. "What's next?"

"Good man. You offer your hand and then lead her to the dance floor."

Jack swallowed down any apprehension and did as David said. David took Jack's hand lightly and the two men found a spot in the center of the warehouse.

David nodded and then placed his left hand on Jack's right shoulder. He bobbed his head to his right hand still holding Jack's left. "These hands stay together. The woman places her left hand on your shoulder and your right hand goes at her waist."

Jack balked at placing his hand at David's waist. "What? How?"

David grabbed Jack's hand and set it just above his hip. "There." He winced as Jack fingers tightened, squeezing a ticklish spot. Suppressing a yelp, David reached down and took Jack's hand firmly, lifting it. "Lightly, Jack. Very lightly. Your touch should be hardly discernable. Feather light."

Jack tried again and only very slightly rested his hand against David. "Like that?"

"Fine. Now you lead. On the count of three, you step forward with your left foot. Ready?"

"No."

David just laughed. "Come on now, watch what I do. One two three, one, two, ow, three. Jack! Move your foot in an L motion. Like this. One, two, three. One, two, damn, three. Watch my feet."

"Sorry."

"Again, one, two, three, one…. No, this way. You're supposed to lead."

"Where?"

"Anywhere. So long as there is no one in your way."

"And what if there is."

"Then you go around them. She'll follow you anywhere. Just be bold and lead her about the floor. Now again."

The two men tried once more and shuffled about the warehouse floor, their booted feet clumping around the wooden planks. Jack shifted a bit too quickly in one direction and didn't take David with him. As they moved in different directions the men jerked to a stop only because their other hands were still clasped together.

"You have to lead, Jack! You have to let me know where you want to go, otherwise I can't follow you."

"How the hell am I supposed to do that?"

David took his hand and again placed it at his waist. "You use this hand to guide her."

"You said that hand was to be feather light." Jack was getting exasperated.

"Yes, but it must also be strong enough to nudge her into the right direction. She'll feel it, believe me, and she'll follow you."

"This makes no sense."

"It will. Now one more time. One, two, three, one…"

Jack stumbled along after him.

It was going to be a long night, David thought.

***

Late evening at Lavinia's bar was always lively. Drunken voices were raised in song; cards shuffled; hard earned cash changed hands over the course of hours; the harsh sound of glass thumped onto wooden tables. It was sheer music to Lavinia's ears. To her it was the sound of prosperity.

It was nearing closing time which was always an annoyance, since most of the stragglers preferred to stay in the bar than head for home, either to a nagging wife, a dirty hovel, or a lonely bunk. Lavinia may not like doing it, but it didn't mean she couldn't. Strangely, it was the one thing that Claire dreaded. She could serve drinks, swat offenders, and handle money, but she still didn't relish muscling a drunken sailor out the door. For some reason, most of the sailors seemed to listen to Lavinia. Maybe it was the air of authority that rang in her voice as she chastised them. Or most likely they understood that annoying the owner of the bar was a very unwise thing. Still it was a chore. It made Lavinia feel more like a mother at times than a barkeep.

 She was surprised to see Cannibal Jack walk in. Of late, he had been retiring early. Captain Lodge kept him busy enough to warrant a good night's sleep. Despite the fact that she had lost one of her very best customers, she still respected Jack's decision to go sober or at least try to avoid unnecessary drunkenness. So why was he here this near to closing?

He looked tired and thirsty. Maybe a shipment had come in late and they had just finished unloading it. Odd though, she hadn't noticed the Malahini leave port and then return within the last week.

"Beer," he demanded as he leaned wearily on the bar.

Lavinia raised an eyebrow and procured a foaming mug for him. "What on earth have you been up to?"

Suddenly, Jack's skin flushed bright pink. "What? What makes you say that?"

Lavinia regarded him with some surprise. "Because you look like you just ran from one end of the island and back again. And I know you're not a runner."

"I was … um … helping…um… David with something."

"David?"

"Yes." Jack realized he had made a blunder. Such a thing was easily corroborated between Isabelle and Lavinia.

"I see."

"We just had to move some stuff for the party," he quickly amended to throw Lavinia off the trail.

"Oh, the church social." Lavinia's regal face fell slightly. "Yes, I imagine there's lots of work to be done to make the hall European." She couldn't help the bitterness that nested in her tone of voice. She had thought she was above such pettiness.

Jack noticed and raised his head to look at her. "You won't be missing much. Mrs. Titchmarsh has made it a living hell for everyone. It won't be any fun, trust me."

Lavinia chuckled. "Leave it to her to suck dry the life of a party even before it's begun."

"She has a way of doing that."

Lavinia patted his large calloused hand and smiled gratefully. "Enjoy your drink, Jack, while I go roust some of the locals."

She left him to his beer and started shuffling some of the more complacent fellows out first.

"Bar's closing, fellows. Come back tomorrow."

The majority of drunks left easily enough. The only ones soon remaining were the ones crowding the poker table. There was a great deal of money in the pot, money no one was willing to leave uncontested.

"Last hand," Lavinia told them, ignoring the fact that she had told them that a few minutes earlier.

"Don't tell us to hurry, lady," snarled a voice. "We have a lot of cash on the table. Most of it mine."

It was Michael Fairfax. Inwardly, Lavinia groaned.

"You were all warned. Now play the hand and let me close up."

"We'll leave when we're ready and not before."

Lavinia sighed. She really wasn't in the mood for this tonight. "This is the last hand and the money goes to the lucky winner."

"I play the last hand when some of my money is back in my pocket." Fairfax's voice was hard.

Lavinia's ire bristled. "Then go finish playing in the street. The bar is closed."

Fairfax slammed his cards on the table and stood abruptly, towering over the slender Lavinia. If it was meant to cower her, he was sadly mistaken. But it didn't stop Jack from coming to Lavinia's defense nonetheless.

He slid in between the two of them. Fairfax stepped back with a scowl of disgust on his face. "This doesn't concern you."

"You heard the lady. The bar is closed." With a jerk of head Jack indicated the door. "You can come back tomorrow."

"And you can go to hell!" Fairfax stepped back close to Jack. "I won't take orders from a man who eats people to save his own skin. You're no better than a savage like her." He pointed at Lavinia.

"I don't care what you think, Fairfax. That's not the issue. Closing this bar and letting decent folk get to bed is. Now play the hand and leave."

The rest of the men sitting at the table were regulars at the bar and realized that Fairfax was about to start something serious that could ruin things for them at the only taproom in town. He was a stranger and only a temporary visitor to the islands. The rest of them would have to remain and deal with the consequences.

"Sit down and show your cards, Fairfax," one of them grumbled.

"Yeah, my wife is goin' tan my ass anyway unless I win back some of my own money."

Fairfax glared at the players. They were cowards, all of them. He tolerated cowards as much as he tolerated people like those that stood before him, thinking they were worthy enough to call themselves equals. But he also realized that these men would not back him up if he decided to make an issue of things. Angrily he flipped the cards over, as did the rest of the men. Fairfax had a losing hand. He cursed angrily as he watched his money pocketed by a grizzled old man who would only most likely spend it on more beer and a night with a savage.

Lavinia was standing at the door as the men filed out. She nodded her head graciously to the men who had helped put an end to the game. She was grateful to them. There were times when owning the only liquor source for some miles was definitely an advantage.

Fairfax exited last. Jack hadn't left his side, wary of the man causing trouble. Fairfax brushed hard up against Jack and hissed low with beer sodden breath, "If I ever see you with Miss Devon again, I'll make you sorry. I swear it. You stick to the savage." He gestured at Lavinia. "At least with her you have something in common."

He shoved past Jack and exited the door, glaring at Lavinia as she locked her establishment up with a great deal of relief. She turned to Jack. "Thank you. Usually I don't have that much difficulty."

"Fairfax is trouble."

She snorted and began gathering wayward glasses on a tray. "He's a braggart and a blowhard. Nothing I haven't seen breeze through this port before. Most Europeans have an arrogant attitude when they arrive and they usually have it when they leave." The gentle clinking of glasses echoed in the peace and quiet of the bar. "I just find it hard to understand why David would have anything to do with that man." She shook her head. "What did he say to you?"

Jack shook his head. "Nothing. Like you said, he's a braggart and a blowhard. Goodnight, Lavinia."

She stared curiously after him as he made for the door. "Goodnight, Jack."

***

The Rattler sat in still water in Matavia Bay while her crew scrubbed, mended, and scrapped her decks, sails and hull. She reveled in it, enjoying the tender care they lavished upon her.

David assisted Isabelle into the dinghy, trying hard not to limp. His feet were killing him from where Jack continually stomped on them. "Don't forget to badger Titchmarsh about next month's run to Queensland."

"Bold, aren't we? He's not going to hire us again. Fairfax saw to that. Besides Titchmarsh doesn't much care for me."

"Titchmarsh doesn't care for either of us. But it doesn't mean that he won't use our services next time. Michael can only use the naval vessel as long as they tolerate it, most likely only a time or two. Believe me; lumber sales only go so far. Eventually, the military won't play Michael's game for long. One trip, maybe two and then we have to be there to pick up the pieces. Regardless of what Titchmarsh thinks of us, remind him we can get the job done and that we have more experience."

"Yes, but it sticks in his craw that I'm a woman."

"It sticks in everyone's craw that you're an independent woman," he clarified.

"Including yours?"

David gave her that endearing smile that told her that he was sincere. "I've learned long ago that a woman can do a man's job, most of the time even better than a man. Now go along and make me lots of money."

Her expression turned briefly to one of surprise. She was stunned that David had come to that truth all on his own. However did that happen? She leaned toward him over the oars, her mouth quirking into a grin. "That's the only reason you love me, isn't it?"

David stared at her, his green eyes narrowing so they crinkled at the corners. "Of course."

Isabelle saw something in them that was different than usual, but she couldn't place it. She fumbled for the oars, finding it difficult to draw her eyes away from his. "I'll be back soon."

"Just don't pick up any strays while you're in town this time."

Now Isabelle's eyes narrowed. What an odd thing for him to say? But before she could respond, David shoved the dinghy out to the open water. She started rowing for shore, but David's words remained in her mind. Did he mean the Lieutenant? Was David jealous? What a fascinating concept. The Lieutenant was a nice enough man, but there was certainly nothing serious between them. Yet, David seemed irritated by him. She couldn't help but smile. Well, it was about time he reacted to her as something other than his partner. It would do him good to know that other men desired her. Maybe it would get him off his ass and make a move. Yeah, right, she scoffed to herself. This was David she was talking about. Still, it was something she'd have to ponder at bit more.

David went back to work though every once in a while his eyes strayed to the small boat growing smaller in the distance. Eventually when Isabelle's figure disappeared into the crowded marketplace, he gave up and returned to his charts, rubbing the sore spot on the top of his left foot absently.

A few minutes later the Rattler swayed in the water as someone came alongside and drew themselves up over the gunwale. It couldn't be Isabelle returning already, but David's heart beat a bit faster at the thought that it might be. Disappointment flared instead when Michael Fairfax came on board the ship.

"I thought she'd never leave," Fairfax muttered. "I grew tired of waiting for you at the bar, David. I've come to talk business. Something that concerns just the two of us."

Disappointment slipped into bitterness. It wasn't anything David wanted to deal with right now but it was best to get it out of the way, once and for all. David had a feeling that whatever it was that Michael Fairfax wanted to discuss, it was something that David had better listen to, just out of self-preservation if nothing else.

"All right. Let's talk."

He didn't make any pretense of bringing out refreshments; it wasn't a social call. Not any more.

Fairfax grabbed hold of the rigging and eased himself down on top of the cabin, hooking his heel on the edge. "You know your father is in ill-health."

"So you've said."

Ignoring David's disbelieving tone, Fairfax continued. "His last will and testament hasn't changed, has it, David? Once he's gone, the land will go up for auction and it will go to the highest bidder."

"Meaning you."

"Possibly. But it might not. I want to be assured it does."

"What do you want me to do?"

"Talk to your father. Convince him to sell the land to me."

David gave a hollow laugh. "My father wouldn't listen to anything I have to say, especially about the land, and you know it."

"Perhaps not now, but if you come home, the prodigal son returning home, begging forgiveness..."

A well of fury bubbled up in David. "I have nothing to be forgiven for. It's my father's own stubbornness that put him in this position, not mine."

Fairfax slammed the flat of his hand down on the cabin. "Damn it, David! What's the difference? Two maybe three years away from your little paradise. Just long enough for you to make amends, your father to pass on, and for you to get the paperwork in order to sell the land to me. That's all I'm asking."

"Two or three years and I'll lose every shipping contract I've worked all this time to secure."

            "You're going to lose the land!" Fairfax snarled.

"No. You are. I lost that land a long time ago and I have no regrets."

Fairfax stood, anger making his face flush a bright red. "You're a fool, David. I'll get the land, one way or another. I'd prefer we did this the civilized way."

"Civilized?" David repeated incredulously. "You're as conniving a son of a bitch as ever I've known, Michael. You've already undercut my father with the timber contract. You stepped over Isabelle and I to get Titchmarsh's cargo. You get any more civilized and it'll be barbaric!"

"I just want you to see the light of reason. I want you to go home and take care of the family business. I spent a great deal of money to come out here to try and arrange that."

"Then you've wasted it on a fool's errand. I'll not go home, especially not to convince my father to sell to you."

"You're an idiot if you think your father will ever see the light of day about his decision. He'll never do with it what you want him to."

"Then my father deserves to lose the land due to his own pigheadedness."

Fairfax was getting exasperated with David's noncompliance. "I'd pay you well for the ranch, David. Enough money to pay off Reed and get the Rattler back in your own name." At David's stunned expression, Fairfax smiled malevolently. "Yes, I know the truth about your arrangement. Really, David, I would have thought you'd have learned your lesson about women. They're always at the heart of your misery. Sell me the land and your ship can be yours again. The one woman that will never let you down."

 David's gut was clenched so hard inside it was almost interfering with his breathing. Michael wasn't a sailor and it burned David to think that the man was trying to use such analogies just to sway him. To Michael, the Rattler was only a working boat and nothing more. He was a hypocrite. All David wanted to do was throw this man off the Rattler and pray that a large shark was lurking under the hull. Michael Fairfax was a different man than the friend of his wild youth. Or maybe his friend had always been like this and David had just refused to see it. He always tended to be too forgiving in nature. Obviously, a trait he had gotten from his mother. It certainly wasn't something of his father's. Pride swelled in him concerning his benevolent nature, regardless of what either his father or Michael thought of him, at least he had that.

"You've changed, David," Fairfax assured him.

"I think you have that backwards. You're the one who has changed. Now get off my ship."

"You're soft, David. You always were. You'll never be anything except a penniless bum. Your father was right about that." Fairfax returned to the side of the ship and settled unsteadily into the dinghy as David untied the rope. David gave him a good hard shove away from the Rattler.

For the first time in a long while, David felt as if he had cast off the burden of his past. He hadn't caved in to please others. He had faced those demons with a modicum of dignity. It felt good, very good.

***

The solid heels of Mrs. Titchmarsh's high-laced shoes rang across the church's wooden floor. It was not a pleasant sound nor did it belong in the sanctity of a church. At least that was Colin's opinion, for it heralded a most vile harpy. Immediately he begged forgiveness from a high a higher source for his judgmental attitude.

"Reverend Trent!"

Heaven help him, even her voice made him shudder.

            "Reverend, I have a few matters to discuss with you. Where are you?"

            Colin came out of the back, wiping his hands on a towel. "Mrs. Titchmarsh, how nice to see you." He hoped it came out sincere.

            Her white-gloved hands casually brushed across a pedestal. Lifting them to her view, the specks of dust that dotted her fingers made her frown. Resentment welled inside of Colin.

            "I have another list of items I would like to add to the social. It would help with the atmosphere." She held up a long piece of paper.

Colin almost wept as he took it from her. It was the second list in as many days. As much as he enjoyed planning the social, the constant additions to Mrs. Titchmarsh's list were getting on his nerves. Most of the items were almost impossible to get on the island. But telling her that would be like speaking to a dense coconut tree. "I'll see what I can do." When he failed, he could at least take solace in the fact that Mrs. Titchmarsh's disappointment would be at least a modicum of what his disappointment was in her behavior.

            "You'll work miracles, I'm sure. That is your job, isn't it?" The woman's mocking tone was like nails on a chalkboard.

            There was a loud thunk from the other room and then Lavinia's voice cursed in Polynesian. Mrs. Titchmarsh's mouth dropped open. Before Colin could say anything, Lavinia walked in carrying the cracked halves of a wooden vase.

            "Colin, I'm afraid I broke this." She nodded at Mrs. Titchmarsh. "Hello."

            Mrs. Titchmarsh merely stared stiffly at her.

            Colin intervened. "Mrs. Titchmarsh, I'm sure you know Miss Lavinia Tumuto."

            "Yes, I do." She barely offered Lavinia a perceptible nod. She then regarded Colin again almost immediately. "So nice to see you finding her suitable work here at the church."

            Lavinia's dark eyes smoldered, as did Colin's but he kept his senses.
            "Lavinia has very kindly offered to help with the social. She's doing a great deal in getting us ready."

            "I see." Mrs. Titchmarsh turned her back on Lavinia and faced Colin, as if the young woman wasn't relevant at all. "You added another lamb to your flock. Excellent work."

            Lavinia stepped back into the other woman's view. "Afraid not, Mrs. Titchmarsh. I'm doing it out of the goodness of my heart, not for the redemption of my soul."

            The older woman's jaw line twitched radically. "A pity," she ground out. The woman could scarcely believe this slip of island girl was endeavoring to discuss such matters of the church with her. How dare she! She endeavored to ignore the rude native woman.

            "Only if my soul was in jeopardy, which it isn't," Lavinia pointed out, making sure her point got across despite the fact that Mrs. Titchmarsh was attempting to disregard her. "My gods keep me very well protected and at peace. Redemption is solely for those in need."

            "You're a very arrogant child," snapped Mrs. Titchmarsh. Would the woman's impertinent behavior never end?

            "I like to think of myself as confident, that there is room for all kinds of beliefs and religions. No one way is the best."

            "That's ludicrous. Isn't it, Reverend?"

            Colin gritted his teeth. "As a matter of fact, I think Lavinia raises an interesting point. It is amazing the similarities that exist among the various religions of the world." He hoped that putting the discussion on a philosophical ground rather than on a moral ground would help alleviate the situation. To no avail though.

            "Pure rubbish. I'm surprised at you, Reverend." She spun on him. "Perhaps the Bishop would like to hear about such thoughts coming from the man he placed in charge of converting the locals."

            "You make it sound like a military operation," commented Lavinia. Mrs. Titchmarsh merely smiled.

            Colin interceded. "I'm here to offer our beliefs to those who wish to embrace them, not to force them upon people content in their own ideals. There is no sin in not coming over to our faith."

            Mrs. Titchmarsh's face grew beet red. It angered her because Mrs. Tumuto clearly had no desire to see the wisdom of Christianity. She blatantly flaunted her indifference to it and continued to preach her own ridiculous beliefs to their Reverend. It was utterly sinful the way she dressed and sashayed in the sanctity of the church.

Mrs. Titchmarsh stepped up to Colin, narrowing the distance between them and lowering her voice though Lavinia could still hear her loud and clear.

            "Be careful in this venture, Reverend." Her eyes darted to Lavinia. "If you wish to use the locals for menial labor that is fine, but take care not to entertain other impious ideas."

            The woman's meaning was crystal. Colin colored at the implications, not because of the impropriety of it, but because it was the truth. "I'll take that under consideration, Mrs. Titchmarsh. But thankfully the Bishop was wise enough to place me in charge of the mission. Perhaps for a reason. You need to have faith in his decisions and in mine."

            "I have faith, Reverend. I'm just not so accommodating as some people I know." With that she stomped out of the church.

            Colin breathed a sigh of relief.

            "You shouldn't risk yourself that way, Colin," Lavinia commented. "She is a very powerful woman."

            "Who is very blind to the ways of God and his mercies. It's my job to help her see those frailties."

            "Not by protecting me. That will only lead to your dismissal from this missionary post. I don't want that, Colin. Not because of me."

            Colin approached her and slid his hand across her cheek. "If there is one worthy mission in this world, it is too lose oneself in the wonders of other cultures and learn from them. Not dismiss them out of fear and ignorance. It only makes one stronger. You have shown me that. "

            Lavinia took his hand. "You are not what I expected, Colin Trent."

            "What do you mean?"

            "When I heard that there was to be a missionary posted here, I could only imagine what a hard nosed man they would send to try and convert us. You aren't that at all."

            "I'll take that as a compliment."

            "It was meant as such."

            "I'm glad." He tore his gaze away from her, about to be lost in the coffee warmth of her eyes. He fumbled with Mrs. Titchmarsh's list. "Now let's see what other absurdities she has stuck us with."

***

It was a very late night as Mauriri Lepau walked home. He had been helping his cousin build an additional living section to their abode. With four children now to care for in the family space was at a premium. Mauriri didn't mind. He had been doing a lot of manual labor of late. The physical tasks seemed to keep his mind occupied. Lately it had been a harder and harder feat to keep his mind from straying to David and the Rattler. He was running out of things to build. This last one had come only after weeks of inactivity where his thoughts had often betrayed him. He considered his cousin's request a blessing, but now it was close to being completed and again he was left to wonder what else he could do.

He had to consider a new livelihood soon. The possibility of crewing on another ship was always viable but not something he wanted to do.  It felt wrong; it wasn't like the way he felt when he sailed the Rattler with David. He knew it would never be the same no matter how long he worked. Crewing on a different vessel just wasn't the same as sailing her.

The Rattler was the ship of his dreams, the dreams of both David and himself. She may not have been very spry when they had first acquired her but hard work and lot of love and care had transformed her into a ship that could punch ahead of any gale. She had weathered a great deal and had always brought the two men safely home into the arms of the people who loved them. She never once complained; she always tried her best to keep her crew safe; she never once sank beneath the waves and left others to mourn. The Rattler would never permit that. She had watched over David and him with nothing but love and devotion. Tah-mey called her his wife. David considered her an angel. And Mauriri found her to be endowed with a strong spirit of a fierce warrior. There was a bond there that Mauriri found very difficult to break.

A noise attracted his attention for a moment as he passed by the first row of warehouses on the way into town. His home waited for him on the other side of Matavia, but he paused for a moment, listening. Perhaps there were smugglers at work tonight. A small part of Mauriri's heart beat faster at the thought of some derring-do. Giving a good thrashing to no account thieves harkened him back to the numerous times he and David had rousted similar crooks. He knew he shouldn't relish such moments but he did. He couldn't lie to himself as easily as he could lie to his friends.

He slipped into the shadows and made for the last warehouse on the row. A small flicker of lamplight shone through a window, indicating there was someone inside. When there was a painful cry, Mauriri moved faster, angling for a window set near the door. He skulked quietly over to the edge of it and peered in.

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust. The dim light inside was not bright enough from that distance. There were also some equipment and boxes impairing his view. He craned his neck about looking for a good angle to see who was in there.

What waltzed into view stunned him.

Cannibal Jack and David Grief had their arms about each other and were attempting … to dance. Only it was the most terrible dancing Mauriri had ever seen. His daughter could dance better than those two. A loud laugh escaped him and he spun back against the wood wall, praying that neither man heard him. Their hushed voices carried to him. They had stopped moving about.

Mauriri considered running back into the jungle but he knew he would be seen so he stayed where he was and waited. Then he heard David's voice again humming a soft waltz. Then their booted footsteps started again as they resumed dancing. Mauriri eased back around the corner.

David was trying to teach Jack to dance. Mauriri watched in fascination. It was long past midnight and David had secluded the lesson to this quiet warehouse. Jack's stumbling attempts attested to why. Mauriri tried to assemble all the facts in order to understand what the hell was going on in Matavia.

The church social was in just a few days.

Suddenly it all made perfect sense.

David's act of kindness startled Mauriri. He had forgotten just how deep David's sense of friendship and loyalty could run. That was David. He continually went out of his way in order to help someone out of a jam or a friend to achieve a small victory.

Mauriri's smile faded. His friend just couldn't admit when he gave that loyalty in error. That was what happened with Jenny Duvall. It didn't surprise Mauriri that David had stuck by her; it was his nature. But even when Jenny's criminal and murderous past was exposed, David still stuck by her, blindly, endangering everyone else in his obsession. Was it love or was it that he truly saw something that everyone else didn't? David had believed that Jenny could be good if only someone gave her a chance. His belief in that was what had driven him to the levels he had gone.

Mauriri had been on the receiving end of that loyalty many times and he had counted on it. He missed it now.

Jack cursed suddenly as David let out a strained yelp of pain. As often as Jack was assaulting David's feet, David was still patient and understanding, explaining what went wrong and then trying it again.

Apparently David had taken on the role of matchmaker in hopes of getting Claire and Jack together. A crazy plan but one with merit. One had to be blind not to see the growing attraction these last few months between the two of them. Despite Mauriri's ill ease about David during Isabelle's birthday party, he had taken the time to watch the way Claire and Jack had interacted.

Mauriri's smile returned. David's incredible willingness to be a friend was one of the man's endearing traits. It was that trait that Mauriri had recognized first when the two men had become partners and it wasn't long before their partnership had manifested into a strong friendship. Mauriri had come to count on that loyalty many times over the course of their acquaintance.

He looked again at David and Jack. Despite all the damage wrought by that wicked creature, Jenny Duvall hadn't been able to shatter that part of David.

A sense of relief swept through Mauriri.

David was teaching Jack a basic box step very common to the waltz, but Jack was still having problems with leading. David couldn't anticipate Jack's move and they crashed together. Jack's head was down, watching his feet and when he jerked his head up as they collided, his forehead slammed into David's nose. David's scream of pain rang clear.

"Sorry! Sorry," Jack insisted as David stepped away from him, cradling his near broken proboscis.

"You're not leading properly, Jack. Stop watching your feet."

"I'm trying but your big feet keep getting in the way."

"Well won't she be lucky then. Since Claire's feet are much smaller, maybe she won't be in as much danger from your heavy clomping, but somehow I doubt it." David's shoes showed a great deal of dust from where Jack had been stepping on them. He grabbed the lanky seaman's hands and pulled him close once again. "Now hold onto me like you mean it and waltz me around the damn dance floor!"

That did it. Mauriri let out a howl of laughter. He clamped a hand over his mouth as quick as he could but he knew he had given himself away. Without caring who heard, he ran for the safety of the trees.

The door behind him swung open and he could hear voices. Hopefully he was already embraced by the darkness and neither man could see past the light from the door.

"I heard something!" Jack insisted.

"It could have been anything," David tried to assure him. "Besides what does it matter? What's anyone going to say?"

"What could they say?" Jack repeated with incredulity "I could be the laughing stock of every vessel from here to the mainland!"

"You worry too much, my friend."

"And you don't worry enough!"

"Let's go back inside, all right? You're not leaving here tonight till you figure out how to lead."

Jack glared. "Tyrant."

"Worrywart."

"Woman."

David raised an eyebrow and commented wryly, "So are you if you don't learn to lead."

"Oh shut up."

The two men went back inside and Mauriri sagged against the tree he was hiding behind, letting his laughter bubble out of him finally. Lord, it had been a miracle he had held it in. He hadn't laughed like that in months. It had felt good, a release. Especially since it had involved David. Suddenly, his anger toward him seemed tiresome. Maybe the man had suffered enough, maybe they all had. It was good to see David giving of himself to his friends again, instead of wallowing in self-pity over someone who didn't deserve a speck of decency.

David's humming started again and Mauriri shook his head, fighting hard against a grin; in the end he failed and didn't care. Turning for home, he took the long way around, leaving David to his dancing lessons.

***

Claire found Isabelle in the corral exercising one of her horses, a sleek roan which she was lunging. The gelding practically danced on the end of the rope as it circled her. Isabelle held one end of the lead rope, and in her other she held a carriage whip, which she dangled just behind the horse to encourage him along.

Claire came up to the railing and folded her arms along the top rail. She loved to watch Isabelle with her horses. She exuded such confidence and her charges responded to her with a natural trust.

Her friend finally took notice of her and called out. "Good morning, Claire. What brings you here?"

"I came to convince you to come to the dance."

"We already discussed this."

"Yes, but I think it is wrong! They have no right to say who can or can't come to a dance."

Isabelle sighed lightly at her innocence. "Of course, they can. They are powerful and influential people."

"And extremely bigoted."

"Well, yes, they are that as well."

"They are all jerks."

"Claire!" Isabelle laughed at her friend's outburst. It was so unlike her but then again, it was. She cared so much for justice; it was what drove her to be a journalist, but she was so very naive in the harsh ways of the world.

The horse tossed its head, causing the rope to tug in her hand. She adjusted her grip and settled the animal with soft clucking noises.

"Well, it's the truth," Claire insisted.

"Yes, I suppose it is."

Isabelle lowered her whip and opened her arms, signaling the horse that its exercise was at an end. The roan trotted to a halt and approached her, nickering softly. Taking hold of its halter, she approached Claire, determination set in her visage.

"You will never change people overnight. Colin has been trying to do so for years. It's a difficult and arduous fight."

"But Mrs. Titchmarsh is a hypocrite."

"No argument there, but what can be done about it?" There was a defeatist tone present as she shoved the muzzle of the horse away as it pulled at her sleeve for attention.

"Come to the party."

Isabelle rolled her eyes. "Really, Claire."

"Why not? Wouldn't you love to get back at them? After all, Mr. Titchmarsh had no right to give up your contract to that weasel Fairfax!"

"That was business. It had nothing to do with the church social."

Claire leaned forward conspiratively. "Didn't it?"

"Claire…"

"I wouldn't be surprised. She has always been against you from the start."

"That's her right."

"No, it isn't. Not when it's at the expense of good people. You're good people, Isabelle."

"I know that, Claire. If it is one thing you needn't be worried about is that fact."

Claire nodded. She did understand that, but she wanted more. "I want everyone to know that," she insisted.

"That's a very long list," replied Isabelle with a laugh. She began walking back to the stable, her mount following placidly after. Claire came along as well. "I'm content that you know it," Isabelle told her young friend.

"I'll be satisfied just to get Mrs. Titchmarsh and the other church ladies to know it."

"I think it would be easier to get the rest of the world to like me instead."

"Just come to the party."

"Why?" Isabelle was getting exasperated with Claire's persistence on the subject. It really didn't affect her not to attend this dance. It would be a bore with little likelihood of conducting any sort of business.

"To shock the heck out of Mrs. Titchmarsh." Claire grinned widely.

Isabelle instead was shocked. Claire was most surprising this morning. She paused. "Why, Claire? Why do you care?"

"Because you're my friend. And it pains me to see these women hurt you so."

Brushing a stray strand from her face, Isabelle sighed, at a loss for words about to disagree but Claire didn't give her a chance.

"Sometimes I can see it in your face when they put on their airs and brush you aside. Don't tell me that they don't hurt you. You wouldn't be human otherwise."

Isabelle abruptly started walking once more. Her slender shoulders gave a small shrug.

Claire kept pace with her. "I want you to come. If not for them, then for me."

Isabelle walked silently a few steps. Finally, she nodded. She didn't say anything. She just nodded. Her throat was tight. It was hard for her to accept such unabashed friendship. She had rarely known it, and the few times she did, like at the cannery, it had pained her and she swore she wouldn't risk it again. But Claire made it very difficult to keep that promise. She glanced at the gentle woman and smiled.

Claire smiled back. She didn't say anything further but laid a gentle hand on her friend's arm before turning back toward the bay and her newspaper.

***

David sat at the bar, nursing a beer. The noise around him was not a comfort, not like it should be. He loved smoky taprooms, filled with sailors and merchants talking of the day's business, but today it soured in his ears. A part of him had been so happy to see someone from his past, someone who had no idea of what had transpired in his life these last few months. It seemed like a second chance, even with all the extra baggage it might have carried.

But now it was apparent that no part of his life was home to him. Not then, not now. He sighed wearily, rubbing his large hands roughly through his hair.

Lavinia spied the sullen sailor and came over, bringing a bottle of strong malt whiskey with her. She set it on the table in front of him along with two glasses.

He raised his head, his eyes immediately brightening at the company. "Taking pity on a poor fool?"

Her teeth flashed in the dim light as she took a seat. "It's better to commiserate with a friend than to do so alone."

David's hand snaked across the wooden tabletop to brush her fingers as she poured the whiskey. "I can always count on you to remain my friend, no matter what."

"Of course. No matter what." She nudged a glass of the rich, amber liquid toward him.

"Why is that, I wonder?"

"I know when to throw a friend away and when to keep one."

"You're a hell of a lot smarter than I am then." He threw back the whiskey and hissed softly through its burn.

"We both know that time and changing priorities affect people."

"You're talking about Michael Fairfax."

"And Steven DeGuerre. People change, sometimes for the worst."

"I forgot that you've been in this boat before." DeGuerre was still a hard memory for all of them.

"A little." She smiled around her glass as she took a sip. The whiskey smoldered on her tongue.

"I should have known you'd understand."

"We've shared a lot of things." Her gaze dropped to the table. David's hand was lying very close to hers. She fought the impulse to reach out and touch him. It would be far too easy for David to misread the situation, especially in the state he was in.

"How did things change so much?" he murmured.

Lavinia wasn't sure if he was talking about their relationship or his friendship with Fairfax. She opted to believe it was the latter. It was a safer topic regardless.

"People lose touch. The world is a big place and we can't be everywhere. We can't protect the ones we love from everything. You can only help those that are near to you, which is why I covet my friends here as much as possible. To lose even one from my fold would hurt me beyond measure."

"You sound like Colin."

"A little, I suppose. The principle's the same. Michael and Steven changed because no one was around to show them that what they were doing was wrong. No one cared enough to step in and tell it to them straight. I'd like to think if Steven had stayed with Mauriri and I, we could have helped him at that turning point. If we had kept him safe then he'd still be with us now, like in the old days. But too much time had passed, too much ocean between us, and he was in too deep to be saved."

"I would have never taken you to be bothered by guilt."

"Not guilt, regret. I know better than to take on the burdens of the world. I realize that not everything is meant for me to change. The sooner you learn that particular lesson, David, the better off you'll be."

He smirked wryly. "You are one hell of a barkeep--and a friend."

"Of course." She reached out and patted his hand for the first time. "You've got good friends all around you, David. Don't forsake them for one that doesn't want to be saved." Leaning down, she kissed him on the cheek and then returned to the bar, leaving the dark bottle of whiskey on the table.

Her advice was sound. He only wished he had listened to it long before now. It would have saved him a great deal of heartache with Jenny Duvall. He swore he was going to listen to it today. Michael Fairfax was no longer his friend. Regardless of the path Michael was on, David would stand by his true friends, not his past. That would no longer have a hold on him. There were people here in Matavia that needed him far more.

***

            "Bloody hell! Ow!"

            David leaned over his knees and shifted from one foot to another, easing the sharp pains arching through them. He brushed at the top of his shoes with his hand to wipe away the sand and dust that covered them, massaging the tops of his feet while doing so.

            "Let's just forget this, David. It's the last night before the dance and I still don't get it. I never will."

            "Never say never, Jack. I'm not giving up yet, and I'm the one taking the beating here. I just can't figure out what the problem is."

            "I'm dense, that's all. All the years of liquor have caught up with me. I guess I should be happy I can figure out the phonograph and be done with it."

            "Knock it off, Jack. You're almost there. Just a little more patience and perseverance and success will be yours."

            "There will be other dances. Why rush for this one?"

            "Do you really believe Claire will just sit on the sidelines? Do you know what it's going to feel like to watch her in the arms of other men?" David shook his head. "It's not a good thing, trust me."

            "Well, I won't have much choice about it, will I?"

Jack's frustration was plain, but David just couldn't figure out what he was overlooking in terms of the lesson. He had covered everything that was important, but Jack just couldn't grasp the concept of leading. The man wasn't naturally aggressive and if left to him, he'd probably be happy to leave the decision making to Claire. But that couldn't be the case here. Not with the waltz.

David straightened, shaking out the last cramp in his foot. "Okay, one more time." He put his hands in the proper position and was pleased when Jack conceded and followed suit.

"It won't be any different this time around," Jack moaned.

"With that attitude, it won't be."

"You're a man of great patience, David. And even if this doesn't work out, I just want you to know I really appreciate all the time and effort you've put into it."

"I'm not quitting till you get this right. One way or another you're going to learn to dance."

They shuffled about the floor for the hundredth time. Every once in a while, it almost seemed as if they were close to success. But then they faltered. Jack stumbled and landed heavily again on David's right foot.

The man could barely suppress his cry of agony.

"I'm sorry! I'm really sorry!"

"Like hell," David growled. He stepped back and drew in a deep breath, trying to calm himself. "Geez, I'm not even Claire, Jack. There's no need to be so hesitant."

"David, I really don't think I could dance with her. There are times I think I shouldn't even by talking to her, much less touching her."

Jack was acting like he was a man lost at sea with no hope of rescue. "Rubbish," chided David in hopes of sparking some residual fire in Jack. "That's Fairfax talking and he's a fool. You have a chance with Claire. She has a chance with you."

Jack snorted.

"Damn it, Jack, if you don't even have faith that this relationship is going to get off the ground, then what are we doing here?"

"I don't know," Jack snapped back.

            David rubbed his sweaty face harshly. "Claire is a wonderful woman. She's a worthy prize of any man."

            "You make her sound as if she's a ship to be plundered for salvage," Jack groused.

            David was about to be irritated by Jack's negativity, but then he got an idea. "Not plundered, but sailed. Think of your dancing partner like a ship, Jack." He grabbed Jack's hand in his and raised it up to its position. "This is the mast." He shook their arms to demonstrate. Then he grabbed up Jack's other hand and placed it at his waist. "And this is the rudder with which you steer her."

            Jack's eyes were wide and taking in all that David was saying. This he understood. He raised his head to stare at David. "Then what am I, her captain?"

            "You're the wind that's going to take her on her maiden voyage across the sea. You make her slip through the waves of people; you steer her through the reefs and shoals. If you don't, she'll wreck. It's all up to you, Jack."

            Jack nodded, his face determined.

            "Now, again." The waltz started, David's deep throated humming giving them the tempo. This time Jack took command, and using his left hand to aim the ship, he set sail. The right hand at David's waist maneuvered the two of them around the boxes set about the dance floor to represent other couples. But now Jack saw them as only dangerous reefs that would harm his ship. They slipped through with ease. Suddenly they were whirling around the dance floor in a dizzying waltz.

            David was stunned and pleased all at the same time. He didn't say anything because he didn't want to break Jack's concentration. He had found the trigger and now that Jack understood, there was no stopping the seaman.

            David felt a thrill of success for both of them. The big test was yet to come but that was another day. Tonight Jack was a sailor again and he had found his ship and she had been christened Claire.

Long may she sail.

***

            Colin couldn't have prayed for a better night for the first Matavia Bay Church Social. The wind was light, the air was warm but not stifling, the moon was rising above them, bright and full, casting a radiance about all those that were slowly filing toward the assembly hall.

            The attendees were well dressed and despite Colin's reservations about the whole affair, even he had to admit that everyone looked quite wonderful. It had been a long while since he had seen folks dressed to the nines. He was just grateful that the air was not hot and muggy otherwise even his own nice shirt and jacket would have been itchy and unbearable.

            He greeted his parishioners at the door to the assembly hall. Most people he knew but there were a few that were obviously guests of his congregation, like the officers from the HMS Victory. A number of them were here including the Lieutenant that had been with David and Isabelle. He also noted David's friend, Michael Fairfax, arriving with Mr. and Mrs. Titchmarsh.

            But his heart truly leapt when some of the islanders arrived. It was good to see the mixing of cultures, though it pained him to see them dressed as formally as their European counterpoints. The stiff and multi-layered material was a new thing to many of them. Their discomfort was evident, but they all had smiles for him as he greeted them.

            Claire and Isabelle came together, arm in arm down the path. They both looked stunning; their hair piled atop their heads with curls hanging down around Isabelle's face, while Claire's hair was swirled atop her head with gentle strands curved around her cheekbones. Their dresses were long and elegant. Claire in a soft pastel pink and Isabelle in a red silk dress, which was as bright as his own flushed face. Claire looked as if she was the happiest woman in the world. After all, she was in her element once again. An affair such as this hearkened back to a previous life she had left behind. How could she not be thrilled to experience a taste of it once more?

            Isabelle on the other hand looked mischievous and determined. She was quite courageous to attend, knowing how she would be received by many of the Europeans present in the hall. But Colin would not deny her. In fact, he almost wished for more party crashers, just so that Mrs. Titchmarsh and her following would know that their attitude was unwelcome and an insult to the work he was trying to accomplish here.

            He smiled warmly at the two lovely ladies. "You both look stunning," he offered.

            Claire swirled around, making her skirt flutter about her. "We do, don't we? It's going to be such a fun evening," she declared.

            Isabelle nodded. "It's certainly going to be eventful." She regarded Colin with an impish glint.

            Colin leaned in close. "Good luck," he confided with a gentle wink.

            "Can you forgive me?" she asked of him.

             "I think I should be the one asking forgiveness for the narrow mindedness of some of my parishioners."

            Isabelle kissed him gently on the cheek. "Nonsense. This evening we will enjoy ourselves and damn the likes of Mrs. Titchmarsh."

            "Still, my duty should be to talk you out of it. Instead, I'm dying to see what happens" Colin laughed. "What a terrible reverend I have become."

            "You're far too hard on yourself. But go ahead, if it will clear your conscience. Try and talk me out of it." Isabelle was grinning from ear to ear.

            "Isabelle, perhaps you shouldn't be here," he tried with no resolve whatsoever and with an unrepentant grin to match.

            Isabelle laughed and patted his arm. "You're absolutely right, but here I am, and here I will stay. Lovely party, Reverend. I can't wait to bring down the house."

            The two women strolled past him and into the assembly hall.

            Colin watched them go. "It will certainly be a lively party if nothing else," he mused with a grin.

            The interior of the hall was lit with lanterns and their glow cast a very soft light everywhere. Chairs lined the sides of the hall with a large buffet table on the far end. The middle was left open for dancing. Music was already filling the air and Claire looked around immediately for its source.

            She found Jack sorting through the various discs; he still hadn't noted her entrance. Her grip tightened on Isabelle's arm.

            "There he is," she whispered.

            Isabelle tracked her gaze to the sidelines and saw Jack. "Why don't you go say hello."

            "I think I will." She darted off into the crowd but then came right back. "You'll be all right, won't you?"

            Isabelle laughed at her friend's concern. "I'll be fine. Go. Go."

            Claire studied her for a second and then smiled. "Okay. I'll be over there if you need me."

            "I'll call you if I get into trouble," Isabelle assured her, shooing her young friend away. In truth, she really didn't want Claire about when the church ladies discovered her presence. It was bound to be ugly and Claire shouldn't be involved.

            She wondered briefly what David would think of her decision to come. Titchmarsh was a commodity they couldn't really afford to alienate, but principle was at stake here. Or at least she thought it was. Mrs. Titchmarsh had gone too far with her demands and her narrow mindedness. There came a point when even money had to take a backseat to principles. David would be shocked at that thought, especially that it came from her, and that brought a wide smile to her face.

Claire maneuvered through the small crowd, her concentration on the solitary figure behind the table that had yet to take notice of her. Occasionally he would glance up as if searching for her, but never did he look in the right direction.

The last small crowd parted and she suddenly stood at the small table set with the discs that William had purchased for Isabelle's phonograph. The device was set further back against the wall on a sturdy table, well away from the other tables and crowds. Colin's forethought most likely. This way there was little chance of anyone bumping into it and perhaps damaging it.

Then Jack's attention alighted on her and she nearly gasped at the rise of excitement that coursed through her blood. His eyes went wide and his mouth formed a small "o". He always did whenever he was surprised. She loved that about him.

"C-Claire," he finally managed to say. "You look…you look…great."

Her grin spread wider at his compliment. "It's just an old dress touched up with some new ribbons and lace."

Jack shifted nervously, brushing his hand down his seaman coat, the same coat he had worn to Isabelle's birthday. It was his only good one. Would Claire notice it? Would she care?

She only smiled gently at him. Her eyes closed and she rocked back and forth in time with the music that was coming out of the phonograph. "I love this piece."

"It's one of my favorites," Jack responded softly, watching her as she weaved a spell about him. She was lovely. What had he called her before? Ethereal? Yes, that was what she was. She didn't move like normal folk; she floated. How could he ever hope to match steps with her, even now with a bit of practice beneath his belt? The lessons from David couldn't possibly be enough to impress her and avoid a horribly embarrassing moment.

His gut set to clenching, like it did whenever he thought about publicly waltzing with her. He had to have been mad, positively insane to think he could do this.

Suddenly David appeared out of the crowd and Jack's panic calmed a bit.

"Claire, beautiful as always."

"David! Thank you." Immediately she was excited and took his red-sleeved arm. She always fancied that particularly shaded shirt, and it was almost exactly the same shade of red as Isabelle's dress. What a couple they would make on the dance floor! "Isabelle's here," she informed him.

"She came?" This took David completely by surprise.

"Yes! She's about somewhere. You should go find her, dance with her. This is a wonderful piece. Just the right tempo for both of you."

David laughed. "Is that so?"

She gave him a gentle nudge into the crowd. "Absolutely."

David allowed himself to be manhandled but cast his gaze back toward Jack with a knowing smirk. Jack's plaintive expression at his departure only told David that he would have to swing back again to check on the young couple.

Colin stepped outside into the cool night air. Despite the open windows and doors into the assembly hall, it was still stifling amidst the gathering of people. Tilting his head back and closing his eyes he breathed deep of the uplifting island air. It calmed him and gave him the strength to face his congregation once more. He shook off the mild irritation of the party's motives and regarded the distant Matavia Bay and the small little building nestled behind the market square.

The bar would be buzzing on a Saturday night; Lavinia would be bustling to keep up with the sailors' thirsty orders. She was short handed tonight since Claire was here at the dance as well as one of the other waitresses who was a member his congregation. Colin had seen her with her husband just before he came out. They had been mingling with the other Polynesians in a small band away from the other European parishioners.

The young island woman had been dressed in a very modest European dress, high necked and long in skirt, which completely covered up her shapely figure. Shamefully, Colin almost hadn't recognized her as the bright faced person who took such great pleasure in her work at Lavinia's. Suddenly her smile was slightly forced and pleading for attention and praise from people who certainly weren't her better, but demanded they should be. Colin's blood nearly boiled at the memory.

A shadow moved away from a slender coconut tree just a few feet from the hall. Colin recognized the form immediately and his heart beat rapidly against his chest.

Lavinia approached him quietly. Her bright white smile shining out from the darkness into which she practically blended. "Colin. How goes the party?"

Colin glanced back toward the noise and confusion with a touch of embarrassment. "It's going as well as can be expected, I guess."

She looped her arm gently through his as they turned to stare at the assembly hall. "Regardless of Mrs. Titchmarsh and the other ladies, I still think it is a nice idea to have a dance. Tonight is a time for celebration."

"What are we celebrating?"

"Life." After a moment of pondering, she also added, "Love."

This took Colin by surprise. "Love?" What did she mean? His throat constricted a bit as he felt the warmth of her brown skin soak into his pale flesh.

"I have heard that there is love blossoming at this function." There was a secret amusement in her voice.

Colin coughed and then quickly added. "You must mean Jack and Claire."

Lavinia turned to him. "Of course. Whom else did you think I meant?"

Colin coughed again, this time a bit more forcefully as he tried to cover his slip. "Nothing. No one. Though I did see Isabelle inside."

"Isabelle? Really?" Lavinia frowned slightly and then shrugged wistfully. "Leave it to Isabelle to make a stand, even if it is for the wrong reason. I wish I had her brass. What a show it will be inside."

            "Are you sorry you aren't…you weren't--?"

            Lavinia laughed. "I'm sorry I'll miss the performance Isabelle will give, but I have absolutely no regrets about missing the opportunity to pander to the likes of Mrs. Titchmarsh." Though the light in her brown eyes faded a bit as the music and the dancing called to her. Joyous laughter came from inside as well.

            Colin tightened the grip on her arm. "Well, I'm glad you're here. It means a lot to me that you came."

            "I wouldn't miss it. I know what effort you put into this for everyone, not just Mrs. Titchmarsh." She led him to a small wooden bench so they could enjoy the music for a moment as the party continued without them.

"Sometimes I find myself so torn between what I believe is right and what I know is right. How does one find out which is correct?" He sounded so plaintive.

            "Your heart knows the right path, Colin. Trust in it."

            "But what is good for me doesn't always mean it is also good for my flock." His blue eyes regarded her. He felt ashamed at the amount of affection that shone within them, but he couldn't make it stop.

            She regarded him quizzically for a moment, but then appeared to settle on an answer safe for them both. "What better way than to lead by example."

            "I've tried that once before remember."

            "And I remember Tahura made the decision for you. I don't think you would have made the same choice."

            "Sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the good of all," Colin responded in a low voice.

            "Do they?" Lavinia asked, her head held high but her expression gentle. "I         think in your heart you know what you want to do."

            They sat in silence each taking pleasure in the other's company on this beautiful evening. Soon, each would have to go back to their respective duties, Lavinia to her business and Colin to his parishioners, but for right now this quiet moment was theirs alone.

***

            David searched everywhere for Isabelle in the throngs of people but he came up empty. Where the heck was she? Claire wouldn't have lied to him, would she? His keen anticipation made his lack of success in finding her even more frustrating. One would think she'd stand out in all this sea of older women, with her rich dark hair streaked with strands of light, those smoky eyes that could spark at any moment.

            Okay, he mused, these kinds of thoughts weren't going to ease his frustration. Maybe she had stepped out for some air already. Lord, knows he was ready for some fresh air. He hated crowds. Give him the open sea any day.

            He saw a crowd of men, mostly sailors from the naval boat. It was odd their attention wasn't focused on the dance floor or the opposite wall where the single young ladies were standing. Instead, their attention was focused behind them. What on earth had so occupied them?

            Then David caught of glimpse of Isabelle in the middle of the sailors. His expression fluctuated between shock, anger, jealousy and surprise. He tried to relax. It wasn't Isabelle's fault. She couldn't help it that her beauty attracted men, himself included. He had best go rescue her from a very dull conversation about boats and the sea.

Suddenly Isabelle's laughter rang clear about the room.

David stopped short. She was enjoying herself! Now his irritation mounted. He knew that laugh. It was one she had used many times to flatter a man, himself included. His blood neared to boiling, but then he calmed down again. It was a self defense mechanism only. Isabelle flirted with a lot of men. It didn't mean anything. Most of them were just lads, barely old enough to wipe their nose. She was just being polite. A woman like Isabelle could hold them in rapture for hours.

David was about to step away and leave her to her fun. It wasn't often Isabelle had such attention. She deserved it; it only reinforced that she was really a woman in David's eye. She dressed so often as a man that there were times, a few times only, that David forgot she was a beautiful and endowed woman.

The crowd of navy men parted and Isabelle exited with Lieutenant Derby on her arm. In his daze, David collided with a couple on the dance floor.

"Excuse me," he offered distractedly, trying to set them right. He still couldn't tear his gaze away from Isabelle and her companion as they passed. Her red dress was alluring beyond measure, almost enthralling.

"Really Mr. Grief," murmured the gentleman.

"How rude," muttered the woman. "Do try to pay attention where you are going."

It was Mrs. Titchmarsh. David cursed his luck. She was attempting to see what it was that held David's attention. He moved to block her though Isabelle's choice of dress color was going to be hard to miss. He supposed that was her point.

"Terribly sorry, Mrs. Titchmarsh. It was entirely my fault."

"It most certainly was."

"Is that a new dress? It's very striking. It makes your eyes that much bluer."

"Truly?" she squeaked, pleased with the kind words.

"Absolutely. They are as blue as a sky kissed sea."

David noted Isabelle and Lt. Derby move away while Mrs. Titchmarsh reveled in her magnificence. He slipped away, leaving poor Mr. Titchmarsh to get an earful of how he never offers such nice compliments to his own wife.

            David's thoughts were consumed with why was Isabelle still associating with the Lieutenant. Of course, the man was attracted to her, but was the feeling returned? It made David kind of sick inside just to think of it. But why shouldn't she? It wasn't as if there was any claim on her by anyone, least of all by him. She hadn't made a play for him in months. Sure, she had tried while he was with Lavinia and then for a time afterward, but then she had stopped, probably realizing they weren't suited for each other.

            The only reason she had stepped in after Jenny was for her own interests in the merchant business. It had nothing to do with him.

            But David wondered why that usual argument wasn't working suddenly. He felt no better this time. She looked happy. Didn't she deserve happiness?

            But why the Lieutenant, another man of the sea? What could the Lieutenant offer her that he couldn't? He ticked them off his fingers mentally. Prestige. Wealth. A future.

David's face was locked in dejection. He went to sit in misery with Jack.

            Jack changed out another disc and again Claire was pleased with his choice as she stood in front of his table. She hadn't left yet. It was almost as if she was waiting for something.

"Oh what a wonderful song. The melody is perfect."

Jack smiled, content that he had pleased her. "It's actually by a Russian composer." He knew it was time. He should ask her. But his throat was so constricted it hurt.

Someone stepped up behind Claire. "May I have this dance?"

She turned and her smile dissipated to a frown. Michael Fairfax stood behind her. "I'm sorry, I don't--"

"Wonderful," he exclaimed before she could finish.

"She said no." Jack said, but he couldn't reach her because of the table's width. He was boxed in.

Fairfax didn't pay him any mind but grabbed Claire into his arms and took off with her. They bobbled for an instant as Claire struggled to extract herself but she was no match for him without making a scene so she complied for now, her blue eyes filled with remorse as she gazed one last time at Jack before the crowd swallowed them.

Jack's hands nearly crushed the disk in his hands. He couldn't believe it. Misery swelled up in him. He sank down onto the stool near the table and watched the crowd, grateful that he couldn't see the couple.

Mrs. Titchmarsh adjusted her tight, laborious frock as delicately and nonchalantly as she could using her husband as a front. Her gaze swept up and down the rows of attendees, pleased that everyone had followed her rules and adhered to the standards she had set for them.

Every European looked marvelous and sophisticated, a true testament to the superiority of the Western culture. The Polynesians should be taking careful note. They were all bunched together on the far side of the hall. Their dark skins contrasted harshly against their light bland clothing. And not one of them was dancing, at least not properly. Their bodies were swaying and their feet moving but there was no grace and dignity to it. Instead it looked like their own crude rhythms. She huffed, irritated by their lack of manners. Still, she supposed that none of them probably knew the steps even to a basic waltz. Perhaps she could arrange to have some dancing lessons given to them so that the next social would be livelier. They looked like flocking field mice over there. It just didn't look good. Hopefully no one was noticing them much. She could only hope.

A flash of something sinfully red caught her eye and she turned, gazing out into the sea of pinks and whites and blues. Perhaps it had been a passing punch bowl or something. Surely no one would have the audacity to wear such a bright red to her social.

Her mouth gaped open as she spied Isabelle Reed draped in the most aberrant red dress she could imagine. And worse, the men were flocking around her like lovesick calves. It was disgraceful!

She abandoned her husband's side and marched straight over to the woman.

"Miss Reed!" her voice boomed. It had the same affect as her husband's on the wharf.

Isabelle didn't even flinch, though most of the men around her did. She just lazily spun to face the oncoming harpy.

"Mrs. Titchmarsh, what a lovely party this is."

"What on earth do you think you are doing? Look at you! You look like a …"

"Like someone who belongs here with me." Lt. Alan Derby stepped out from behind Isabelle and lightly placed his arm on hers.

Mrs. Titchmarsh's mouth dropped open even farther, looking like a bloated fish gasping for air on a ship's deck. She sputtered and gaped.

"I'm so delighted Miss Reed could attend. I know you don't mind. I certainly don't. And her dress is so very international and striking. It lends a wonderful contrast to this evening's festivities. Isn't that right, Mrs. Titchmarsh?"

The woman glared at Isabelle but then immediately placed a simpering smile on her face and addressed the Lieutenant. "Of course. We're so very glad to have her here. She brings such…such…"

"Color?" offered Isabelle helpfully.

Mrs. Titchmarsh's facial muscles contracted and shook, giving her the appearance that she was caught in a windstorm. Her eyes were wide in embarrassment.

Lt. Derby tightened his grip on Isabelle's arm, his own cheek muscles struggling. Though in his case, a grin was threatening. "Let's waltz, shall we?" He tugged Isabelle onto the dance floor. She came willingly, but did cast her head back to wave goodbye to Mrs. Titchmarsh who stood rooted to the spot, fists clenched at her side and her back rigid.

Oh there was going to be hell to pay someday, Isabelle knew, but she had to admit that this one moment of retribution was delicious and worth the heartache to come. Titchmarsh Exports wasn't the only fish in the sea. Business and profit would be found everywhere so long as one knew where to look. And her eyes were exceedingly keen, far keener than Mo or David's.

David emerged from the throng of people, looking no better than Jack. He slipped behind the main table and sat beside the forlorn man. Both stared out onto the dance floor.

"This isn't what I expected," Jack mumbled.

"Me neither," David replied. Then he frowned and regarded Jack. "What's the matter?"

"Claire was asked to dance."

David nodded. "It was bound to happen. There are way too many single men on this island with that damn naval ship in port." The ire in his voice practically made it a snarl.

Jack was uncomfortable, not sure he should mention that it was David's childhood friend that had whisked Claire away. Surely he couldn't tell David just how arrogant and disagreeable the man was to most of the people on the island. So, he just nodded instead.

"You need to wait for the right moment," David consoled his friend. "The right song. And then you ask her. She won't refuse."

            "I'd rather be facing a storm at sea than this."

            "You and me both."

Isabelle and Lt. Derby waltzed by in a striking pose, her long hair swirling about them; she had a broad smile upon her face.

Jack looked at David for a second and then back to the dance floor. "Wasn't that…?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

            "I don't think you're wise to give me advice on asking a girl to dance," Jack pointed out.

            "Meaning?" David snapped.

            Jack contemplated his options. It wasn't really his business whether Isabelle was dancing with a navy Lieutenant and David was sitting here beside him. Maybe it was possible David didn't care. Though from the sour expression on the man's face, anything but the exact opposite was true. Finally, the seaman shrugged. "Nothing."

            "That's what I thought."

            "Still," Jack mused further, irritating David, "I've never seen Isabelle Reed look more radiant. Mrs. Titchmarsh must be fit to be tied, twice over."

            David nodded, his frown easing at bit. "Well, she won't say anything derogatory so long as Isabelle keeps Lieutenant Derby on her arm. Not even Mrs. Titchmarsh is that foolhardy."

            "Or stupid."

            David smirked. "It will do the community good to see Isabelle drawing the respect of someone of note. She deserves it. She's gotten a bad reputation on these islands, thanks to her past and in part from saving me."

            "Yes, but the navy vessel won't stay in port for long, you know. Eventually, she'll be left alone to face Mrs. Titchmarsh and the rest of the hens."

            "She'll never be alone, not so long as I'm around."

            The last was said with such conviction that Jack regarded his friend and wondered how much of that was just brotherly protection and how much of it was something a bit more substantial. Finally he commented with a wry grin, "As if you're any higher in Mrs. Titchmarsh's book of respectability."

            David chuckled. "Yes, but someday they'll come crawling back to the Rattler. She's the fastest trader in the South Seas. And if it they don't, I don't much give a damn. They can live in their world and Isabelle and I will live in ours."

            "A much healthier and happier life to be sure."

            "Damn straight."

            Suddenly, Fairfax and Claire slipped by in the dance circle and both David and Jack stiffened. David cursed while Jack merely sagged back in his seat, trying vainly not to show too much resentment.

            "Damn it," snarled David, rising to his feet.

            Jack shook his head, not understanding why David would be angry that his childhood friend was dancing with Claire. "Let it go. He has a right to dance with her as much as I."

            "Like hell." David slipped through the tables but cast his head back to Jack. "Put your disc on. You're dancing in about five minutes."

            Jack paled abruptly. "No, no. That's alright."

            But David was already gone on his mission. Jack stood there for a bit, stunned and terrified. Then he spun around and rummaged through the discs frantically. It had been here just a second ago; he had set it aside specifically.          His chest was tight with panic. Then he pushed one disc aside and the one he had selected appeared. His breathing started once more and his tremulous fingers placed the disc on the phonograph. He struggled with setting the needle down but it was difficult. A horrible screech echoed through the ear of the phonograph. Wincing, he cast an apologetic look to everyone and tried again.

            The needle finally dropped onto the disc and the strains of the delicate waltz began. Jack sighed with relief. Now all he needed was Claire.

            David maneuvered quickly through the crowd. He had no idea what he was going to say. He doubted he could get Michael away from Claire without a scene. Michael wouldn't give up without a good reason. Asking to cut in wouldn't work; the man wouldn't be that giving. Timing it, he placed himself in the path of the couple as another waltz began.

Claire greeted him with a very relieved smile. "David!"

Fairfax's expression held only irritation. "Sorry, David, old friend, this one's mine."

"But I'm terribly tired," his dance partner implored.

"Nonsense." Fairfax tightened his grip, not willing to give up his conquest for the evening. "The night is young."

David's anger rose. The man's controlling behavior was unbelievable and now a friend was at the brunt of it. "Michael--"

            "I said no."

            "Mr. Titchmarsh is looking for you." Inspiration saved him from punching Fairfax in the face and ruining Colin's dance.

            "Really?" Now the man was distracted. He looked around for his employer.

            "Yes. It looked important."

            "Well, in that case then --." He paused to pat Claire's cheek before relinquishing her to David. Then he darted off into the crowd.

            Claire fell into David's arms. "Oh, thank you, David!" she gasped.

            He chuckled. "You're welcome. Come on. Let's go get you something to drink." The crowd of dancers thinned enough to make their way easily back to Jack. They found him waiting. A look of sheer relief was upon his face. Unfortunately it quickly changed to nervousness now that it was time to take control. David had brought Claire back to him and the waltz had already started. Utter terror struck at him suddenly.

            "Look who I found," David said.

            "Are you all right?" Jack asked, coming around to the front of the table.

            Claire looked spent, a thin sheen of perspiration on her flushed face. "That man is a barbarian," she muttered, looking where Michael Fairfax disappeared.

             "Perhaps, Claire needs to rest," Jack offered hesitantly.

            David scowled at him, giving a glass of punch to her. "She's fine. I think she might even be up for one more waltz."

            Claire glanced flabbergasted at David who raised an eyebrow at her and then inclined his head ever so slightly toward Jack.

            Claire studied him quizzically a moment, wondering what kind of sadist David was all of a sudden. She was exhausted. But then she followed the incline of his head and her eyes widened.

            Staring at Jack, her weariness fading abruptly, her expression suddenly expectant.

            Jack took a step back and stuttered, "Uh, no I don't…"

            David leaned toward him and whispered in his ear. "The tide is in your favor."

            Jack stopped backing up. He straightened. David was right. He turned to thank the man but David had left, his retreating back disappearing among the various parishioners.

            "Jack?" came a hesitant voice from behind him.

            "Claire." He regarded her again.

            "Is there something you want to ask me?" she said helpfully.

Jack took a deep breath and then bowed awkwardly; unsure suddenly of the proper etiquette he should take with Claire. "Would you dance with me?"

He sighed with relief as she smiled warmly at him and took his outstretched hand. Her eyes were already dancing with delight and surprise. It made her even more radiant.

"I'd be honored to dance with you, sir," she told him.

There wasn't a trace of teasing in her tone. She was serious. Jack found it difficult to draw a breath, but his arms lifted to welcome her into his embrace. She stepped forward eagerly, light and flowing, a perfect fit.

They stood there, Claire looking up expectantly into Jack's face. Jack was waiting for the right beat to start the waltz. Sweat broke out onto his face, knowing that Claire was looking at him oddly.

An overwhelming sense of relief enveloped Jack as he took the first step. Claire came willingly. The sensation was very different from dancing with David. There had always seemed to be substance there, but with Claire it felt like he was holding the southerly winds, warm and gentle, hardly there at all, but reassuring and uplifting all the same.

            David's lessons echoed in his head as they waltzed. Jack led her through every narrow channel, avoided every precarious collision. The moon was so full and the stars were so bright that they shone through the open doors and windows. He kept his hand steady and his touch light as he waltzed her about the dance floor.

Claire looked in his eyes and held on tight, amazed at the careful deliberation Jack took with each step. His concentration was as deep as she had ever seen it while on board ship. There was a confidence in his steps that she had rarely seen. Gone was the shy hesitant man she had known. In its place was a man of determination and strength. She felt safe in his arms; her eyes slipped closed, trusting Jack to steer her through the obstacles. She just relaxed and let the wind take her.

Neither of them saw Michael Fairfax making his way across the floor to intercept. But David did. He stepped neatly in front of the man and brought him to an abrupt halt.

"Michael," he greeted.

The man stared daggers at his old friend unsure why David had approached him. They had pretty much concluded their business. At least for now.

"Excuse me." He made to go around David.

David sidestepped and stopped him again. "I don't think so."

Now Fairfax grew angry. "This is none of your business."

"I believe it is. Those are my friends and they don't need you sticking your nose in their affairs."

"Come on, David, you know as well as I do that Jack McGonnigal is not worthy of a woman like Claire Devon. He's nothing but island scum, a bloody cannibal."

"I'll pretend I didn't hear that because of this party, but you will not interfere with them."

"Or what?" Fairfax snorted, unfazed by David's threat.

"Or I will make an issue out of it. My reputation is already shot around here; yours isn't. And I've been in the mood for a good fight. But you, you've made business arrangements with Mr. Titchmarsh and what would they think of their new glory boy if he was involved in a common brawl during a party that Mrs. Titchmarsh arranged. Are you so eager to lose prospective business because of a woman?"

Those words stung Fairfax, but then eased back, smirking slickly. "You're right. No job is worth losing over a woman who doesn't have the sense God gave her. It's her loss not mine."

"Then get out of here. You're spoiling a perfectly good evening."

            His one time friend's face hardened as he regarded him. "One day, you'll learn to mind your own business, David. And it won't be pretty."

            "If and when that happens, at least I'll have loyal friends to stand beside me. Too bad you can't say the same. Not any more."

            Fairfax turned abruptly and left. David watched him until he exited the assembly hall. Only then did he breath a sigh of relief. His attention returned to Jack and Claire. He couldn't help but marvel at Jack's proficiency. David wasn't fool enough to believe that his teaching had brought all that on. No, he was sure it was Claire's inspiration and absolute faith that had allowed Jack to tap into that part of him that was in love with the journalist. David had merely been a guide, a mentor, nothing more but a friend. It felt good to offer up his time for a worthy cause.

            An arm slipped through his. "David, not only are you incorrigible but you're a romantic as well," whispered a soft voice in his ear. "Who'd have thought?"

            Isabelle!

            She looked magnificent up close, practically regal. He couldn't help it, he glanced around for her partner, her dancing partner.

            "He's gone for drinks," she told him.

            His face colored that he was so transparent. "You like him, don't you?"

            Isabelle shrugged. "He's nice. Not so bombastic as your old friend Michael Fairfax. The Lieutenant is just a seaman, gentle at the helm; and he isn't threatened by me as a woman."

"That could describe me," David noted with a mild pout.

Isabelle smiled. "Yes, it could."

There was a silence between them, their eyes soaking in each other, as if daring one of them to make a move and prove the other right or wrong.

            Then Isabelle took pity and let him off the hook. "Dance with me."

            "What?"

            She stretched out her arms, waiting for him to encircle her with his brawn.

            David's mouth went dry just at the sight. His mind leapt immediately to the time that he had danced with Isabelle during her birthday party. His life had stopped for the briefest of instants; he never thought he'd recapture the magic of that moment.

"What about your Lieutenant? He'll be back in a moment."

            Isabelle's head slipped a little to the side. She tsked at him. "A woman should never let a man think he has the upper hand. The winds of chance have a way of changing suddenly."

            David stared at her for a moment and then allowed a grin to emerge. "And they're blowing in my direction?"

            "Full in the face."

            He needed no further encouragement, stepping up to her and gathering her in his arms. Her skin was warm and soft. Once again that feeling of completeness engulfed him. There was no odd shuffling to arrange themselves. They just … fit, as if by design. He barely breathed as he observed her, poised delicately in his arms, hips slipping along with his.

            Isabelle raised hooded eyes to him; she didn't shyly look away like most women in her position. She captured his attention and wouldn't release him. Not yet. She admitted to herself that she relished moments like these. His arms about her were strong and secure, bolstering her resolve and her spirit always, never far and hardly ever judgmental. Not once had he chastised her for coming to the dance and playing merry havoc with their business prospects. She loved him for that.

            David was a remarkable man. Whenever he acted selflessly, it drew her to him like a moth to the flame. She didn't know why, but there was something about that kind of loyalty that tugged at her heart. Whether he knew it or not, he made her love him, and even if she couldn't have him, she blessed every chance the wind blew their way. She wished that she could have this moment locked away forever.

            When the music finally ended, they stayed perfectly still, their arms still encircling the other, their eyes locked, searching for a response that both were afraid to give and to receive.

            Then Isabelle smiled gently and David returned it. Both were a touch sad. He knew Isabelle was just using him to make the Lieutenant jealous. It was her way, wasn't it? He didn't blame her. A part of him cherished the opportunity to hold her lithe body against his, feel the heat that sparked between them. To deny its presence was foolish. It had been there from the day they had first met, but after all this time, through every adventure and shenanigan they had shared, the possibilities grew slimmer. Surely something should have happened between them if it was meant to happen.

            He bent down and made to kiss her on the cheek, but she turned at the last moment, whether conscious or not he couldn't tell. His lips brushed hers. Surprise so engulfed him that his brain wasn't processing what had happened. But she didn't jerk away. She shifted closer, leaning against him, pressing deeper. Their breaths stilled inside their chests as time stopped.

But then the dispersing crowd jostled them apart. Before David could open his eyes and see her reaction, she had turned away and the Lieutenant was beside her.
            "I've got your drink," he stated as if no time had passed at all.

Isabelle looped her arm through his and led him back to the tables. David stared after her, his heart pounding in his chest. How could she act as if nothing had happened?

Had anything happened?

Maybe it was just an accident. Yes, that was most likely the case. They had been caught off guard and she was, what? Embarrassed? He wasn't. Not the way his heart was hammering inside him. But Isabelle seemed so causal about it.

David looked away. The sight of Isabelle and the Lieutenant as a couple actually pained him. Isabelle was just being Isabelle. The Lieutenant offered her so much more than he could, that was obvious. Money, prestige, distinction. He couldn't blame her for being tempted. Besides he had never made it clear that there was anything between them either. Neither had she.

The kiss had been an accident.

But it had certainly felt different. He shook his head. It was giving him a headache thinking about it and he was looking like a fool standing all alone on the dance floor.

***

It was late in the evening and the dance had long ended. David had lingered to help clean up. Despite the pallor of prejudice that hung over the hall, it looked like many enjoyed themselves, even the Islanders who love a party, any sort of party. They were used to such narrow-mindedness and dismissed it far easily than most.

Still, Mrs. Titchmarsh had overshadowed the event. But to see Isabelle put that creature in her place, even at the expense of future business ventures, had been the highlight of the event, thought David. No, that wasn't true. There was one other reason.

The kiss they had shared made him realize that perhaps there was something deeper between the two. And that thought made his whole body react in ways he hadn't felt possible in a very long time. There was a fire again inside him. Hope became suddenly real without the thought of it leaving a hole in his gut.

This is so very different. He was happy. As happy as he had been less than a year ago. Things had gone well, in his favor for the first time. It gave him a new confidence.

David was on his way back to the Rattler. He could pick out her mainsail from here. He hadn't felt this good in a long time. The high he was riding was one unsurpassed.

Walking back through the port, David heard a small shout and then a muffled crash. Immediately his demeanor changed, becoming more alert and aware. He made his way back behind an alley between the warehouse and the waterfront. This was on the way back to Jack's cove. All of a sudden David had a very bad feeling.

More sounds of a struggle reached him and he darted the last bit down into the alley. The sight didn't surprise him in the least.

"You couldn't leave well enough alone, could you, Michael?"

Michael Fairfax's head jerked up. "David!"

"Let him go," David commanded.

Four other men were with Fairfax. They held between them Jack McGonnigal. He was beaten badly, blood pouring from his nose and mouth. David eyed the strangers carefully, sizing them up. They all looked seedy, like they were easily paid to cause trouble. David knew where the money came from. "You didn't even have the courage to take Jack on by yourself. You bloody coward."

Fairfax straightened. "What would you know about that, David? You're the one who abandoned his own family, who ran away from his too strict father."

"This isn't about me. It's about your own petty narrow mindedness. I can't believe I never saw it before now. You're an opportunist, Michael. A scavenger feeding off the weak and less fortunate."

"Don't get involved in this, David."

"Don't be stupid to think that I won't. Now let him go!"

Two of the big men stepped away from Jack, but not because they were complying with his order. They began to position themselves to attack him.

"Yes," replied Fairfax in a bored voice. "I should have known that you wouldn't be able to keep your nose out of trouble. Always defending people who shouldn't mean a thing and aren't worth your time. You're a fool."

"Maybe, but I'm the fool that's going to knock your damn head off."

It was enough to goad Michael to leave Jack alone. Three to one odds. Not the best, but David didn't have a choice. That left two for Jack if he was still capable. It was too late in the night for a passerby and too far from help. He was on his own.

He met Michael's charge. His old friend was a bigger man but David was channeling his anger, all the rage that he held over the years about his father, about the world he left behind. It all came out in a rush.

Fairfax's fist crashed into his cheek and rocked David's head back. But he countered with a backhanded fist and struck the man across the temple. Both men went down on their knees. David tried to get back up and meet the onrush of the other two men. He thought he would have the time. He was wrong.

A two handed blow struck him across the shoulders and his breath rushed out of his lungs so fast it drew spots in his vision. He went down to his hands and knees, dizzy as hell and disoriented. It cleared for just a moment and he noticed a leg beside him. He grabbed it and yanked, bringing one of his foes down to the ground with him.

He stood, turning toward another opponent and met the meaty fist of the third man. It snapped his head to the side, a spray of blood following after as his lip split. He stumbled but managed to keep his feet. He spun around and slammed a punch into the man's unprotected middle. It doubled the man over, just in time to meet David's knee as he brought it up with ferocious force.

The man went flying back, but the man David had tripped grabbed his arms from behind. He struggled but he couldn't break the man's grip. Michael stepped into his field of vision. Hard, angry and wiping blood from the corner of his eye.

"If you don't want your inheritance, then I'll take it. When you're father dies and he has no one to leave it to, I'll be there to pick up the pieces when it transfers to auction."

"You're a gutless bastard," David snarled.

Furious, Fairfax slammed a fist into David's stomach. As his old friend was doubled over, he leaned over to snarl. "But at least I'm not broke and calling a cannibal a friend. Don't think I won't be happy to relate that news to your father."

Rage boiled inside David. He lifted his bloody face upward toward Fairfax and he saw an opening. He pulled back forcing the man holding him to brace him as David lifted both feet and shoved his heels into Fairfax's exposed midsection. Fairfax went flying back. The man holding him lost his balance and fell backwards.

As he landed on the man's chest, David felt the man's grip loosen and he wrenched himself free. He saw Jack still trying to hold his own, but the wounded seaman was losing. David staggered over to grab the upraised arm of the man behind Jack. The look of surprise on the man's face made David smile despite the split lip. David's fist smashed into him and the man went down like a sack of potatoes.

His small victory was short-lived. Someone leaped on him and he crashed into the sand, a heavy weight leaning on him, shoving his face deep into the depths of the sand. He couldn't breath. All that entered were choking, cloying granules. He struggled to right himself but the muscles in his arms seemed like lead weights, darkness was creeping in at the edge of his vision.

Somehow his opponents had regained the upper hand.

***

Mauriri's quiet stroll back from his cousin's house was calming. The moon hung in the night sky casting its glow through the coconut trees and across the water. He took his time. Lianni and the kids were off visiting her family and their house would be silent and lonely. Even though the hour was late, he relished the opportunity to walk and think about his past, his present and his future. For the last few months he had been driving himself to not think of anything because it was too painful, now suddenly he wanted to consider what the next step should be in his life.

   All this time he had been waiting for David to make the first move and apologize but now it didn't seem so important. It was true that he wanted an apology but he also wanted life to right itself once more. Everything of late seemed as if he were on a boat in rough seas, and the vessel was in danger of capsizing, every step precarious. Now he was tired of the rough weather. He wanted the storm to end, to salvage what he could and continue. Was it worth the price to continue to hazard the boat out of pride just to say he didn't flinch first?

Pride was an ugly thing. So was anger. And he was guilty of both.

Of course there was fear involved. Fear that David's recklessness would endanger them all, his family, and the boat. The list was endless. But it was time to admit that the fear didn't just stem from David. That fear was forever there, if it didn't come recklessness, then it came from nature herself or the violent minds of others. Out here on the islands, life changed from idyllic to dangerous with the swiftness of a riptide. It wasn't always David's fault.

Mauriri smiled. Though usually he was at the heart of it.

There was a crash to his left. He almost was tempted to ignore it. A stray animal or a stumbling drunk. But then he veered toward the sound unconsciously as if he was drawn there beyond reason.

The moment he saw the flash of a red shirt, he knew why.

David.

It took only a second to realize what was happening. Jack was near insensible in the meaty grip of a burly seaman. David was down and being whaled upon by Michel Fairfax and another brute.

An anger flared inside of Mauriri. It engulfed him. He immediately stepped forward and grabbed the nearest man. The stranger was lifting a beam of wood to strike David. Mauriri's strong arm blocked it and with a wild shout slammed his forehead into the man. He dropped bonelessly. It had all happened so fast that Michael Fairfax hadn't even realized someone else had joined the fight. Mauriri turned and roundhoused Fairfax smack in the jaw. The man fell off David, crumpling into the sand in a flurry of arms and legs. David stirred but didn't rise.

Mauriri took the opportunity to help Jack. The man holding him dropped Jack to face Mauriri. The startled expression on his face spoke clearly that they hadn't expected to lose this fight. Too bad.

Mauriri strode over to him. This man was a good deal larger than the others, even over Mauriri. The Islander jammed his fist into the man's face. There was little result. Mauriri didn't even see the fist that slammed into his own face. It snapped his head back. Mauriri swung out again, connecting but not quite sure where. It didn't matter. It staggered his opponent and gave Mauriri some breathing room.

The big man came back though far too quickly, but this time Mauriri was ready. He picked up the discarded beam of wood and swung it like a cricket player. The end of the upswing caught the man under the chin and he flew back, crashing into the crates and barrels along the warehouse wall.

Mauriri leaned over his bat and took a look around him. Jack was just gaining his feet, but from the looks of it, he still wasn't sure of his surroundings. David was also standing and had Fairfax by the front of his shirt and was jamming his fist repeatedly into the man's face.

Mauriri nodded. It consoled him that David had chosen to defend Jack from the likes of Fairfax despite their past friendship. David had chosen wisely this time and it spoke well of David. Mauriri looked over the battlefield. Things were back under control; the majority of the attackers were unconscious. And it looked like no one was even the wiser about Mauriri's hand in it all. He preferred it that way. Stepping back into the shadows, Mauriri disappeared, content.

Michael Fairfax shook his head, unsure how he had lost the upper hand. The last thing he remembered was that David was choking on sand.

Now David was snarling in his face.

"You're leaving this island," David snapped. "You're leaving my friends alone and you're leaving my father alone. We're not selling anything to you. I'll make sure of it."

Fairfax spat out some blood and then wiped his mouth. "And how are you going to do that? After your father is gone, the ranch will be left open to anyone that can claim it. Your father would rather let the land go to a stranger than admit he was wrong. You can't change that fact."

"And I'd rather the land be sold to a perfect stranger than let it fall into your hands. Don't think I couldn't arrange that."

"He won't leave you the land and you don't have the money to buy it out from under me," Fairfax leaned in, smirking with blood stained teeth.

David's response was immediate. He hit Fairfax directly into the face. The lights went out and Fairfax dropped. David released the man's shirt and let him slide to the ground, out cold.

"Don't tell me what I can or can't do." He looked around and saw the bodies strewn about. He let out a low whistle and staggered over to Jack, heaving the seaman the rest of the way up to his feet. "Well done, Jack." How the man had gotten himself together and helped finish the fight was beyond him but David was grateful regardless.

"What?" Jack mumbled, his eyes blinking rapidly to clear them.

David laughed and then regretted it as fresh blood welled from his split lip. He touched it gingerly.

Jack regarded him with a crazy lilt of his head. "Wha happed?"

"You saved my neck, you crazy cannibal."

"I did?"

"I don't know how you did it, but I appreciate the assistance."

Jack still didn't know what David was talking about but he nodded nonetheless. It was less confusing that way. "Sure, any time."

Together the two men staggered off into the night.

Mauriri watched them from the shadows, relieved. His friends didn't appear to be too much the worse for wear despite the brawl. It had felt good to have taken action. He had been inactive too long. Sure he had been busy building, but it wasn't nearly as satisfying as righting a wrong or defending the weak against impossible odds. The adrenalin was still surging inside him, suppressing the painful swelling of his left eye. He didn't even feel it when his dark eyes crinkled at the corners while he grinned widely in the darkness.

The light was on at Lavinia's bar. Jack and David sat on stools while Claire, Lavinia and Isabelle gathered some medicinal items, bandages, antiseptic and the like. Isabelle gave a slow whistle at David's large welts and steady bruising.

"You didn't have to come, Isabelle."

"When someone comes banging on my door, claiming that you and Jack have taken down Fairfax and four other mongrels, how could I not."

David cast his eye sideways at Claire who was dabbing at Jack's gashed cheek with her handkerchief. "And what about her?"

"Now David, this is news. It's the most exciting thing to have happened in Matavia since my birthday party." She smirked and then lowered her voice. "Besides, you can't deny that Claire doctoring Jack's wounds isn't as ingenious as your matchmaking at the social."

She was right. No arguing there. David turned his attention back to Isabelle. "So why are you here?"

Isabelle regarded him with a teasing raised eyebrow, daring him to come to his own conclusions. "What do you think?"

Lavinia came back into the room with some of her grandmother's salve. She immediately sat in front of David, unintentionally blocking Isabelle, who frowned but said nothing. This had been Lavinia's duty for many years before she and David had split as a couple. It was instinct, and in truth, Lavinia was more skilled at it, but it didn't hurt Isabelle any less. After all, she was David's partner now and that gave her a certain right too, didn't it?

David's green eyes took some time before straying from Isabelle to Lavinia. But he too didn't question Lavinia's presence. And that hurt Isabelle too. It only told her that her suspicions were right. David still harbored feelings for his past love.

Isabelle saddened yet still smiled at David as he related how Jack had miraculously threw off his attackers and managed to take on David's own opponents. Even though Jack still insisted he must have done it while in a stupor, because he remembered none of it.

"Worse than a hangover," Jack muttered, then winced as Claire dabbed some antiseptic onto his gashed cheek.

"Oh I'm sorry, Jack. But it's so deep. Maybe it needs stitches. Lavinia, does it need stitches? I don't know if I could sew it. Sewing garments is one thing; this is something completely different. Should I get thread? Does it hurt very much?" She was again gazing into Jack's sea blue eyes and searching them for an admission of pain.

But all that was there was the satisfied relief of a man who had angel tending him. What possible pain couldn't he bear? "It hardly hurts at all," he told her in low voice. He loved how she babbled slightly when concerned for him.

His admission eased some of her anxiety and her hand lifted to gently cup his cheek. She thought him very daring for braving the dance even though he had been threatened not to attend. All that to run the phonograph and steal a waltz with her. Her joy made her dizzy.

Isabelle noted Claire's relief and the dark haired woman was just as assured that both men would be fine. So she slipped silently from the room and out into the night. To her surprise she noted a shadow in the corner.

"Mauriri."

"I saw the light on at the bar."

"Seems Jack got jumped by Fairfax and some goons. David and he put them to rights." It was then that the moon broke from cover and illuminated the two of them. In its glow she could see the tell tale swelling of Mauriri's eye. "Nice shiner."

He touched it gingerly. "My cousin was a tad vigorous in his labor today. I caught an elbow. Why aren't you inside?" he asked, trying to divert her attention. Isabelle was too observant for her own good.

"Why aren't you?" she countered. Isabelle didn't believe Mauriri's explanation for a second, but she would keep his secret. Mauriri, a doer of good deeds by moonlight. She loved him for it. "You're a regular Robin Hood."

Mauriri snorted. "Isn't he a brigand? I'm wounded." But he wasn't really.

Isabelle laughed. "You know, I said the same thing when David implied it to me. I'm still trying to determine if it was an insult or not."

"David would never cast insult your way."

"You think?"

"I know." He smiled at her with the kind eyes she had once known from this man. "So, did his matchmaking plan work?" he inquired.

It thrilled Isabelle that Mauriri was once again expressing interest in his friends, particularly where it concerned David. She grinned widely. "Take a look."

The islander peeked around the corner of the door and saw Claire fussing over Jack. The young seaman looked almost stunned and enraptured at the same time. Mauriri eased back. "David hasn't lost his touch, I see." But he was surprised that Isabelle wasn't inside with David. However, he said nothing. Isabelle had her reasons, he supposed.

"Thank you," she whispered. "For helping him."

He graciously inclined his head. "Between us?"

She shrugged. "If that's the way you want it."

"I do."

"Someday--," she began.

"Just not today."

"Soon?" she inquired.

Mauriri shrugged. "I'm thinking about it."

She beamed, slipping a slender arm through his meaty one. "What a wonderful start."

Arm in arm, the two outlaws strolled out to the bay bathed in moonlight.

The end