EPISODE: 209

TITLE: The Race

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: When a legend arrives in Matavai Bay, the island is swept by racing fever, all except David who is still haunted by his torture at the hands of the Devil.

SPOILERS: Primarily Virtual Season Episodes "They Comfort Me" and "Cross Purposes"

NOTES: This story is part of the Zell-Whimsey Virtual Second Season of the show, picking up where the final episode left off. David and Mauriri have rekindled their partnership, leaving Isabelle at a cross road.

RATING: PG. (That's right. No warnings, no violence for the second story in a row from me. This can't last forever and heaven help David when it changes. g)

THE RACE

By Susan Zell

            David Grief spun in the sand, the sky swirling above him, as well as the beaming face of a small boy, whose delighted laughter rang out along the beach. David's joy paralleled the youngster's. It was a glorious day.

            As he lowered the child back down to the ground, he was greeted with cries of  "Again! Again!" He obliged him without complaint, despite the fact that his left arm was twinging, but it was an ache that had been a constant thing the last few months. He had almost grown used to it. Besides he was too happy just now to let such a small thing interfere with this very fine day.

            Though one complaint did emerge from behind him up on the dune.

"Enough, David. Don't let the child wear you out. You still need to take it easy. You haven't fully recovered yet." Mauriri had been watching his friend with an observant eye ever since David had been rescued from The Devil, or at least the man who had earned that hideous moniker. It had been a slow recovery for the man, longer than usual, which only testified that David's ordeal had taken him to the brink of death and despair. It had touched him both physically and spiritually. He had only been a shell of a man when they had found him. David would not have lasted much longer.

So Mauriri could not contest the sheer joy that now filled David's face as he played with the children. His friend seemed to take complete delight in the simplest things over the last few weeks.

However he did offer up one last warning to the spinning duo. "All that whirling will only make Tevaki too dizzy to eat his lunch."

            "You worry too much, Mo."

            "And you don't worry enough. You won't have to clean up the mess afterwards."

            David snorted but ceased his inane spinning, tucking the laughing child under his right arm and carting him back to his father. Immediately there was a tugging at his billowing green shirt and he glanced down to see Tahnee, Mauriri's young daughter, looking up at him with wide pleading eyes.

            "Now me!"

            David glanced at Mauriri with an apologetic look. "I can't deny that face."

            Mauriri sighed but didn't stop the grin from breaking out over his face. He grabbed the first child out from his partner's arm, freeing him for round two. "Go. I have no will power over that face either. Just don't overdo it. Or your arm will find its way back into that sling."

            Tahnee squealed as David grabbed her in a ticklish spot and then picked her up into the air. David had missed this beyond measure. For a man that was a confirmed bachelor, he loved Mauriri's children as if they were his very own. It suddenly distressed the islander that he had kept David from sharing in his family. The pain of that separation would have devastated Mauriri; the pain would have been just as acute in David.

            So he allowed them to play even though his wife and Isabelle had already called them for lunch. He carted the one child back to the women as a mercy offering. His wife Lianni only frowned at him and shook her head at his pathetic attempt to hold sway over his rambunctious children and long lost partner.

            Only soft laughter emerged from Isabelle who was delivering plates to the table. "They're really like having extra children in the house, aren't they?" she asked of Lianni, bobbing her chin toward Mauriri and David.

            "Worse," Lianni said.

            "I heard that," Mauriri complained, depositing his squirming son into a chair and praying that he stayed there. The child was preoccupied with what David was doing with Tahnee, and knowing beyond a doubt he was missing out on all the fun.

            "Incorrigible. All of them."  Lianni kissed her husband fondly despite the jab. It was his turn to frown.

            "We're not that bad."

            "Of course not. I was only jesting."

             But the sweet way she said it and the look the two women exchanged only made Mauriri doubt her. Resigned that he would not win this battle, he disappeared inside to gather more supplies.

            "It's so wonderful to have things back the way they were," Lianni observed in a contented way as she bustled her way around the table.

            There was only the slightest hesitation in Isabelle and then she nodded dolefully. She knew that Lianni meant her statement in a pleasant way, but it didn't hold back the crushing disappointment that immediately flashed through Isabelle. Yes, things were back they way the were before she had come along. Yes, David and Mauriri were content because life had picked up again where it had left off for them before Jenny Duvall's interference. But where does that leave me, Isabelle thought with woeful contemplation. Every time she saw David and Mauriri discussing the business of the Rattler, it cut through her like a knife.

David had quietly arranged to bring Mauriri back on board as a full partner once again just a few weeks past. He had bought her out and then had bluntly indicated that she was free to go about her other business ventures; as if he had no indication of the blow he had dealt her.

Isabelle had known her time with David on board the ship was limited. Or at least a part of her believed that fact, but another part of her denied such a finite venture. Unbeknownst to her, it had planned a life for her on the sea. One that included just her and David and a beautiful ship called the Rattler. It had had all the earmarks of a beautiful partnership and a prosperous life. And now it was gone. Just like that.

Lianni sighed with contentment as she watched her children play so joyously with David. "It's as if my family is whole again."

Isabelle's eyes turned toward David and the pain twinged again. Why? Why was she so bothered by this small turn of events that had been expected from the moment she had offered to help David? Had she somehow imagined more to their relationship? Something even she had not been aware of consciously? Otherwise, why else would she not be able to smother the burning resentment she continued to feel? She was happy for David and Mauriri. She was! This had been only business and she had learned what she needed. It was time to let go and take what she had learned along her merry way to fortune and fair trade. She had gathered more than enough knowledge to give her a head start in the merchant business.

            Lianni, whose bubbling contentment was almost overwhelming to Isabelle, handed a pile of plates to her. Isabelle smiled thinly back at her happy friend and went about setting the table methodically. She almost didn't feel the gentle hand upon her shoulder.

            "What troubles you so, Isabelle? Is it David?"

            "What?" She straightened, startled. "What? No. No." She shook her head.

            "He'll be fine now," Lianni assured the young woman. "He's finally whole."

            Isabelle cocked her head. "What do you mean?" Her gaze drifted once more to David, trying to see just what it was that Lianni saw there.

            "His missing piece has returned. He is truly healing."

            "You mean his shoulder?"

            Lianni smiled. "I mean his inside. His --." She spoke a word Isabelle didn't recognize. Lianni concentrated harder, searching for the right word. Then she brightened. "His soul. You see he wasn't healing, even after you found him. There was so much…fear in him. It was unnatural. I have never seen him afraid, not as long as I have known him." Her voice had dropped, and her whisper sent chills through Isabelle.

            Isabelle's heart was racing. The Devil. That creature that walked like a man did haunt David. Isabelle had seen that fear first hand in the seaman. She had misunderstood it at first, believing it was more his lack of faith in her scruples. But later she had come to understand that David feared this man named The Devil, feared that he would take all that David held close, herself included. She didn't like what she saw in David's eyes when he spoke of that madman, because it didn't belong there.

            But thankfully today she didn't see it in David and it was the first time in a very long while, all throughout his recovery. And with that simple thought, Isabelle's resentment flittered away as if it had never been. David needed this. He needed to return to a time when demons and devils were merely myths and legends. He needed his old life back to allow him to reclaim his footing on solid ground once more. Mauriri represented that.  Isabelle understood that simple fact. David knew it, at least unconsciously. She was sure of it. These last few weeks after she had bowed out of the partnership seemed to have set David on his path to healing. There was color in his cheeks and the weight that had eluded him these past few months was returning. Or maybe it was just Lianni's fine cooking.

            There was a glisten in Isabelle's eyes as she turned to her friend. "He is getting better, isn't he?"

            "Yes." She regarded Isabelle. "You have seen to that. This is a good thing."

            "Me?"

            Lianni nodded. "You made this possible."

            Isabelle scowled. She had just been berating herself for what had happened and now she was being credited for it. She merely shrugged. "It was David's decision to bring Mauriri back."

            "That's not what I meant."

            Before Isabelle could comment further, Lianni disappeared inside to help her husband bring out the food. 

            Sighing, she returned to observing David play with Tahnee. His joyous laughter rang out along the beach. A small smile flickered across her face as well. No matter how else she looked at it, this was the best thing for David and that was enough, even for her.

Moments later, everyone converged on the little table set in the sand. Food was piled high and seats were taken. David ran up to the table with Tahnee bouncing on his hip, his face dotted with a thin sheen of perspiration. Tevaki was about to get up and waylay David for a ride, but Mauriri ever watchful kept him in his chair with a stern, "After we eat."

            Tevaki pouted until David, set between the two children, leaned down to say, "Eat well for your mother and I will be your pony for the afternoon."

            "Mine too!" shouted Tahnee.

David only laughed and tousled her hair. "Of course. But you must take turns. And you must eat well."

            "We will," came the chorus. They dug into their meal with relish and zeal.

            Lianni beamed. "Oh, David, how I have missed you."

            "He always could get the children to eat," Mauriri mused.

            "It's not hard. Promise them fun and they're much more cooperative."

            "I do promise them fun, but I'm merely the father while you…well, let's just say absence makes the heart grow fonder and now they'll pretty much do anything you say."

            David's wide grin only attested to the fact that he loved it. He hadn't had this much attention in months and he wasn't about to let go of any of it.  "It feels good," he commented to his friend honestly as he sat back in the chair, relaxing tired, aching muscles, nothing that he would complain about because his heart and soul felt so good.

            Isabelle took note of David's flushed appearance. Despite the fact that he looked tired, he grinned wildly and there was a light in his eyes that hadn't sparked there for a very long time. Lianni was right. Over just the last few weeks, his recovery had been a dramatic thing to behold. He wasn't quite up to his old self, but he had taken leaps and bounds in days where before he had struggled to get through months with little improvement. She could chalk it up to the natural healing process, that the start was always more arduous but eventually things improved faster toward the end of a convalescence. But Isabelle had the feeling it was more the reinsertion of Mauriri into David's life. Every thing was as it had been before. The scales were balanced.

            "I had no idea," Isabelle remarked with good humor, "that you were so good with children, David."

            "Does that shock you?" He shifted in his seat to regard her, his grin still infectiously huge.

            "Absolutely. I know now you'd make a good father."

            This made David sit up a bit straighter in surprise. "And does that interest you?"

            "Only so much as I know now to steer clear of you."

            For a moment he was surprised, but then he eyed her audaciously. "Hypocrite," he called her. "I've seen you fawn over these kids too. You like them as much as I do."

            "Oh don't get me wrong. I like children and they like me for some strange reason," she gave a small shrug, "but they aren't in my future."

            Lianni regarded her from the head of the table. "Never?" To her it seemed so unnatural to forgo what nature intended. Women were created to bear life. And she had always thought that Isabelle and David would make beautiful children together.

            Isabelle smiled and leaned forward, elbows resting on the table. "Perhaps someday." She purposely kept her attention riveted on Lianni, though Lianni did not have the control of her friend and her eyes darted just for an instant to David. They darted back a second later and met again with Isabelle's. "Right now," Isabelle insisted, "I have far too much work to do and so much I still have to accomplish that children would just get in the way."

            Lianni just lifted an eyebrow. "Well, first you'd have to find a husband regardless."

            "Ahh, and there's the rub. No good material for miles."

            Lianni understood that Isabelle wasn't someone to marry a Polynesian man and settle here for a simple life. "Perhaps back in England," she suggested.

            "No, a man like that would take too long to train."

            "Train?" Mauriri interjected.

            David shot glances back and forth between the two women, looking a bit dismayed that they were overlooking him on this front, but there was a part of him that was relieved also. As it stood, it wasn't sounding particularly appealing.

            "Yes, train. You know, in the fine art of South Sea customs and trading. It would be a cultural shock and only interrupt my business activities for far too long."

            Mauriri scowled and crossed his arms. "You sound far too practical. Life isn't all commerce, Isabelle."

            She shot him a look. "It should be. Or you spend all your days working hard and being penniless." She dared either of them to make a retort to the contrary.

            But David was strangely quiet. He had seen first hand what good business sense could accomplish and what damage frivolity could exact. With a bodacious smile, he instead diverted the conversation away from him. He bobbed his head out to the bay. "That schooner. She's new to the area."

            Everyone turned to gaze out on the new arrival. It had rounded the far inlet and was heading directly for Matavai Bay.

            "And she's not built for the open ocean," Mauriri commented, shading his eyes against the reflecting water.  "But she has a beautiful line. See her mainsail." He let out a low whistle. "I bet she catches the wind like a seabird."

            "She's not built for commerce, that's for sure," David agreed with a low whistle of his own.

            Isabelle's lips quirked into a grin and she looked back at Lianni. "You'd think she was some gorgeous woman walking down the beach."

            Lianni nodded in sympathy. "That is the only kind of beauty my husband has an eye for."

            "You should consider yourself lucky." Her eyes flashed to the other incorrigible seaman at the table. The same couldn't be said for David.

            "She's heading for the bay," said Mauriri obliviously.

            "That she is." The excitement in David's voice was unmistakable.

            "She's flying a British flag too."

            "I wonder what she's doing here."

            "Lavinia will know in a few hours. Every sailor who makes port goes there. We can stop in the bar later on and find out."

            "Sounds like a plan."

            Isabelle sighed and glanced askance at Lianni. "Isn't that always the plan?"

            Lianni laughed. "I'd say so."

***

            Lavinia's taphouse was packed. It was a Saturday night and the locals were there as well as all the sailors from the ships in the bay. Liquor was passing over the bar so quickly that the barmaids were having a hard time keeping up.

            David, Isabelle and Mauriri entered and couldn't find a table so they opted for space at the crowded bar, which was fine for them since they were after information as well as beer. They waited patiently as Lavinia was at the far end serving a bunch of rowdy seamen. She glanced over at them and smiled before once again pouring the drinks. She'd be with her friends in a moment.

            Glancing around the bar, Mauriri observed, "This is the busiest she's been in weeks."

            "She's well-stocked. You brought in a shipment for her just last month," Isabelle said. It had been one of the last business transactions she had arranged before leaving.

            "I haven't seen this many boats in the harbor at one time," David noted. "I wonder what's bringing them in."

            "Fair weather," mused Mauriri.

            "Good trading most likely," responded Isabelle with a trace of ire. "Word spreads like wildfire when the bounty is plentiful." Figures business would pick up just as she was out of the merchant trade.

            "Neither," announced Lavinia, setting three beers down in front of them. "It's boat racing." Now that she had their attention, she continued. "The sleek one out front. She's the Resolute.  She's won the America's Cup twice over."

            "The America's Cup?" asked Isabelle, her curiosity now perked.

            "Only the most prestigious trophy in the world," replied David. "The Resolute." His tone held nothing but awe. "But I'm surprised to see her here. What's here for the likes of her?"   

            Lavinia leaned across the bar. "Maybe it's just promotional. She certainly is garnering a lot of attention. That's her captain over there." She inclined her head toward a red bearded gentleman of about fifty years old who was amidst a large group of people all hanging on his every word.

            "James Fallon," breathed David.

            "You know him?" asked Isabelle.

            "I know of him," he clarified. "Any sailor in Europe worth his salt knows the name and all the stories that go with him." He shook his head. "I wonder what he's doing way out here."

            "Why don't you go and ask him?" coaxed Mauriri.

            "Yeah, that's like going up and asking Captain Ahab if he's interested in a white whale."

            "Oh for Pete's sake," muttered Isabelle and strode over to Fallon and his table.

Mauriri watched David's eyes widen and his hand reach out to stop Isabelle but she was too quick. He admired her boldness, though for the life of him he could never understand the way she thought. But then David laughed and regarded Mauriri.

            "She hates to be kept in the dark."

            "What is it you say about cats and curiosity?" Mauriri responded.

            "She's gotta be nearing nine lives by now."

            "You and she both."

            David raised an eyebrow at his friend but wisely refrained from commenting, because Mauriri was right on that point. He rotated his sore shoulder anxiously and watched Isabelle approach a legend.

            Captain James Fallon looked up at the striking woman approaching his table. He rose to welcome her. "Hello."

            "Captain James Fallon," she boldly greeted him. "I've heard much about you."

            "All untrue, I swear." His voice was deep but smooth like fine aged whiskey from an oak cask.

            "I certainly hope not," she replied with a wide smile. "I hear tell you're a marvel upon the sea."

            Fallon had the good graces to look modest. "I'm just a lucky seaman who enjoys a bit of speed upon the waves." He offered her his seat and garnered another from a nearby table.

            "Then what brings you to Matavai?" Isabelle inquired as she sat down at the table that was occupied by all seasoned seamen. Some of them stared wide-eyed at her audacious approach to what was clearly a male oriented discussion.

            Fallon though had no such prejudice and relished a bit of female companionship, particularly one who knew his reputation. "A bit of promotion, I fear. It seems my agent believes that there is a corner of the world that does not know of my notoriety."

            "Somehow I doubt that." Isabelle waved over David and Mauriri. "I seems that most every sailor here has heard of your name, Mr. Fallon."

            "And how do you know of me?"

            "She's a sailor," David answered him, approaching the legendary sea captain. "Just like the rest of us."

            Isabelle half turned to stare at David. Was that a compliment? Her heart was pounding inside her chest at his simple words.

            "Not quite like the rest of us," noted Fallon, his eyes taking in Isabelle's sleek form. But then he directed his attention to David.

Isabelle offered a genuine smile and gestured to her friends. "May I introduce David Grief and Mauriri Lepau, owners of the Rattler?"

Fallon nodded. He had seen the ship in the bay and admired her. "She's a sleek little vessel. How does she fair in the open sea?"

"She's not built for racing but she can punch the head of any gale," David said proudly, shaking the hand of the man of whom he had only read stories. He indicated the islander beside him. "This is my partner Mauriri. And you've met Isabelle Reed."

Fallon greeted Mauriri and then nodded warmly at Isabelle. "A pleasure. Do you sail, Miss Reed?"

"Not so much lately." It pained her a bit not to be introduced as a partner or even a business associate. But she shoved such things in the box where she was keeping them. And she knew she had best hold onto the key for there was only more disappointment heading that way.  "I run the local stable but recently I've been dabbling in the import/export business." She braved a smile and remarked to Fallon, "Are you surprised to see a woman in the shipping business?" she added.

"Not at all. My wife travels often with me and is a fine able seaman."

That wasn't quite the same thing, noted Isabelle silently. "Does she race with you?"

"No. The stress of such things is a bit much for her sensibilities. Though she claims watching the race from shore does little to ease her mind either."

            "Racing is dangerous?" This took her a bit by surprise.

            "At times. Racing brings stresses full bear onto your vessel. Rigging breaks, sails rip; a miscalculation could bring you crashing into a vessel beside you. Any number of things. But so far, most things of the catastrophic nature has bypassed me."

            Isabelle noticed the captain rap his knuckle on the wood table. Seamen were horribly superstitious, even if they claimed otherwise which would account for most of the ill stares from the seamen around her. She was treading dangerously in old traditions.   

            Fallon nodded at a square faced man with a grizzled grey beard sitting opposite him. "Take Captain Sippet here of the Alarm.  Three years ago, his vessel ran up on the stern of the Infinite when she stopped near dead in the water in front of him."

            "Aye, I was close behind her. Too close. When she lost her wind, we couldn't veer the Alarm away in time. It took me out of racing for near a year." The bitterness in his voice was tinged with the desire to show what his ship could do now. He had the yearning to win any race and test his mettle against the Resolute. It would obviously remove any black marks on his racing career.

            A tall thin man half rose and shook David and Mauriri's hand as well before resuming his seat at the table. "I'm Captain Jean Mele of the Volante.  Have you ever tested your Rattler against something other than nature, gentlemen?"

            David smiled but it was Isabelle who responded quickly. "Against pirates, and far too often at that."

            "Pirates!"  Sippet exclaimed. "Remarkable. I gather she escaped them else you would not be standing here today."

            "Do pirates even have vessels built for speed?" Mele remarked dryly. Obviously he didn't find them much of a threat.

            "Have you ever tried to outrun a cannon ball?" countered Isabelle with a bit of fire sparking in her eyes. "She's got speed where it counts. Care to--?"

            David was suddenly uncomfortable and interrupted abruptly. "It's all part of business and one isn't really thinking about winning a race so much as saving one's skin. But yes, she's fast, though not as fast as any of your vessels, I'm sure."

            Isabelle looked up quickly at David. What was the man doing? Stick up for the Rattler! But David wasn't following her lead at all. In fact, he seemed to be stepping aside. It was unlike him.

            Even Mauriri cast a side glance at him. The islander leaned down near to Capt. Mele. "The Rattler would give any of your ships a run for the money. And she'd make you work for it as well."

            Suddenly eyes were sparking all over the table. David almost groaned. What the hell were Isabelle and Mauriri doing? They're picking a goddamn fight, that's what? And for no reason. No reason at all! Didn't the man just say that racing was dangerous? What was Mo thinking about? Not his family obviously.

            "Care to put some money on that?" said Sippet, his sly grin just barely visible through the wiry, thick beard.

            "Yes!" said Mauriri and Isabelle at once.

            "No!" stated David firmly, arms crossed and glaring at his friends.

            "You're outvoted," Fallon noted.

            David frowned. "Miss Reed is no longer a partner." He hadn't wanted to make that point, knowing how it would hurt Isabelle, but she had forced his hand. Yet it still affected him when that pain seeped into her face and damn it, into her eyes. She stiffened ever so slightly and a small intake of breath was all that was noticeable and barely that. Only David saw it and it hurt him to know he put it there.

            Isabelle only inclined her head. "Of course, you're right. Silly of me. Old habits die hard. You're letting a good opportunity go, I say though." She got up from the table and smiled at the seated men. "Good day, gentlemen. It was a distinct pleasure to meet you. I'll leave you to your business."

            The men all rose from the table at her departure, adding hasty farewells for they were eager to get back to the discussion of a race. David stared after Isabelle, torn between going after her and desperate not to let Mauriri involve the Rattler in something in which they have no business.

            He was two steps away from the table when he heard his old partner say, "How much money are we talking about, gentlemen?"

            David quickly stepped back. "It doesn't matter. We won't be racing. But we appreciate the fact that you think the Rattler is worthy enough to race."

            "She'd beat them," Mauriri hissed sharply in his ear.

            "Or they'd beat us and we'd be out who knows how much money! Certainly enough to miss a payment." David was getting agitated with Mauriri's recklessness. Wasn't it Mo who wanted them to be more responsible?

            Mauriri sighed and held up his hands in defeat as he noticed David was just a bit too exasperated over this. He'd let it go for now. They could discuss it more in private. He smiled at the men around the table. "We'll have an answer for you at a later date. Gentlemen." He pulled David along with him as he departed the table and veered his friend toward the bar. Maybe a beer would sooth David's bluster. Mauriri's good nature wasn't dampened by his friend's mood swing. "It's just a race, David. I think it would be good fun."

            "Fun? I heard things like 'dangerous' and 'catastrophic'. What did you and Isabelle hear? That it would be a lark?"

            "You used to take chances with a lot less at stake."

            "Well, that was before."

            Mauriri pursed his lips thoughtfully. This change in David was quite marked, but he couldn't be sure if it was his run in with the Devil or the Devil's daughter, Jenny Duvall that was the root cause. Maybe both. It worried Mauriri. There was a cautiousness to David suddenly that seemed to overshadow the man's usual out-going and adventurous nature.

            Sure, Mauriri wanted David to be more responsible, but not to the extreme. David's free spirit was something that gave him in an edge in his work. It helped him in business and it helped him escape precarious situations. But this hesitancy was new and excessive. It could be a hindrance more than a blessing.

            Mauriri wanted to see some of the old spark back in David.  It was true he was healing, but there seemed to be a part of him that was still lost.

            "You know, David, there is nothing wrong with a little competitiveness. This isn't something to be ….cautious of." God help him, he almost said afraid.

            David's mouth thinned. "I thought being cautious was a good thing. A smart thing." Mauriri's constant waffling on this matter was irritating David. Besides, the Devil was still out there, on Matavai even. This wasn't the time to be thinking about frivolities.

            Mauriri knew he was walking on dangerous footing, so he tried to choose his words carefully. "I'm glad you're thinking ahead, David. It's a fine thing. But you also need to relax a little, and the way to heal is to relax and forget about business ventures for a bit. We can always be extra careful when we race so nothing bad does happen."

            David grunted. "You don't win that way."

            Mauriri laughed loudly and slapped his friend's good shoulder. "That's the spirit."

            "We're still not racing."

            "We'll talk about it later."

            "I forgot how annoying you can be for a partner."

            "Just as annoying as Isabelle would have been on this matter. She was just as eager to race."

            At the mention of her name, David frowned. "I should go look for her."

            "Oh she's fine. Come on, we need to go get some supplies for the ship. And I want to look at her sails, make sure there are no holes."

            "We're not racing," David insisted. He knew what Mauriri was up to. They didn't have any pressing business at the moment, none that warranted such scrutiny of the vessel. The eager islander was getting her ready to sail for competition.

            Mauriri just rolled his eyes and steered David out of the bar. He wasn't sure what to do. His fist instinct was to argue with his friend, but maybe it wasn't time. It was too soon. Something like this would be stressful. And he didn't need that. David needed more time to adjust to mundane every day things.

            And so Mauriri decided to let the race go.

****

            The next morning the little bell rang on the door and Claire glanced up to see Isabelle enter the newspaper office. Her expression immediately brightened at seeing her friend. It seemed like forever since they had spoken. Claire realized that having the room at Lavinia's had permitted her constant access to her friends. Now, she was so isolated. Staying with Mrs. Russell had certainly changed her social habits. She missed everyone terribly. Even the one person that still stabbed her so deeply in the heart, Jack McGonnigal, but that was to be expected. Mrs. Russell had said that it would take time for that ache to pass and Claire held to that belief desperately. She had to. The alternative seemed dismal.

            "Isabelle!" Claire came around from the press and enthusiastically embraced her dear friend, hardly mindful of her ink smeared fingers.

            Isabelle laughed and then held her friend at arm's length. "I hope you didn't get any of that ink on my shirt."

            Mortification immediately filled Claire. "Oh, I'm so sorry!" She darted behind Isabelle to see the damage she may have done. "I've been trying so hard not to get any on me, but here I do even worse and get some on you!"

            Obviously not concerned, Isabelle turned to keep Claire facing her. "I was just teasing. Here, let me look at you." She grasped her friend's arms to keep her still. "You look good." Isabelle's gaze traveled over the completely colonial attire that Claire was wearing. It was much too stifling for the current weather and the beads of sweat that dotted Claire's brow was a testament to that. Not to mention that the outfit wasn't conducive to working on a newspaper. It was much too binding at the arms and shoulders.  The heavy rubber apron only made poor Claire appear more overwhelmed.

            Claire stared worriedly at Isabelle as her friend scrutinized her appearance. She shifted anxiously on her feet, but thankfully Isabelle only smiled at her and put an arm around her shoulders as she lead Claire toward two chairs.

"Lord, I have missed you, Claire!" she declared.

            "I know! It seems like ages."

            "What have you been doing? You're not hiding from me, are you?"

            "What? No! Of course not! It's just that I've been awfully busy. Mrs. Russell has planned so many functions. If it isn't a sewing circle with the ladies of the church, it's tea with the Bradfords. "

            Most likely on purpose, mused Isabelle. Mrs. Russell was doing a fine job of making sure Claire had no time for past acquaintances.

            "I've hardly had time to put the paper together. This has been my first day here almost all week. And now I've got a special request for a flyer and I'm trying to get that done as well."

            "Well, you certainly sound busy. You can't be complaining about the new revenue coming in."

            "Oh no! Definitely not, though the money isn't such a critical issue now as it was while I was at Lavinia's. Mrs. Russell doesn't ask for boarding funds."

            "So you're saving money then?"

            "Oh I wouldn't go that far. I've been spending most of it on new supplies for the printing press. It's so antiquated. This is the first chance I've had to make improvements."

            Relieved, Isabelle nodded. "Does Mrs. Russell approve?"

            Claire was silent and then diverted the conversation elsewhere. "Oh, enough about me. How is the new foal?"

Isabelle didn't miss the hint. Most likely Mrs. Russell was hoping that Claire was saving her money for a return ticket to England, though Isabelle felt that Claire was making a mistake in all this. Isabelle certainly didn't want Claire to return to England. For the first time she had found a true friend and the thought of losing her weighed heavily on Isabelle's mind. Still she played along, at least for now. There was no real indication that this was the case.

"The colt is doing beautifully. You should come see it. It's a bundle of energy and amazed by its surroundings. It thinks sand is the most wonderful thing in the world."

Claire appeared wistful for a moment. "I'd like to. As soon as I can get away from my duties…my duties here at the paper, I mean," she amended quickly.

But Isabelle understood. Mrs. Russell was seeing to it that Claire had no time for hanging out with her old friends. It made her bristle that Claire was so easily manipulated by the woman. Didn't Claire see what this woman was doing? But then again, she mused, perhaps this was what Claire wanted.

"You are happy, aren't you?" she asked her friend.

"Of course. Things are going wonderfully. I have a little slice of home here finally. Why wouldn't I be happy?"

Isabelle scrutinized Claire carefully, looking for signs of factiousness and despair, but she could find none that was discernable. Either Claire was hiding such things well or she truly enjoyed this return to a life she knew. Perhaps its absence was not realized until she was immersed in it again. Internally, Isabelle shrugged. If that were not the case, Claire wouldn't be able to hide it for long; Isabelle was sure of it.

            "No reason," she finally replied. "So what is this flyer you are working on?" Isabelle was as always interested in any news involving the island. Perhaps Lieutenant Morlay was issuing another grievance; or perhaps there was to be a celebration due to the arrival of the visitors; or better yet, a lowering of the market taxes. Prices had been fluctuating rapidly with the influx of more and more merchants. Her funds, with only the stable as income, would appreciate some relief.

            Claire rose and procured a sample sheet from a nearby drying table. "The typeface and size aren't exact yet, but the information is the same." She displayed her newest creative work. A parade of sleek sailing vessels marched across the top of the page while below in broad huge letters declared:

Notice of Race

for

Racing Enthusiasts

Matavai International Yacht Race

Sponsored by TITCHMARSH EXPORTS

Test your mettle against the RESOLUTE,

Captained by the dauntless CAPTAIN JAMES FALLON.

Purse: ₤1000

            Isabelle was stunned. She snatched the paper sheet from Claire's hands. "Is this on the level? One thousand pounds?"

            Claire chuckle. "I hope so. Mr. Titchmarsh paid me a nice sum to have that printed up. One hundred copies."

            "One hundred copies?" Isabelle repeated in disbelief. That was an exorbitant amount.

            "He intends to plaster them around as many islands as possible to bring in contestants. His registration fee is at the bottom there." Her ink black finger pointed to some small lettering. "He's charging fifty dollars a vessel."

            "You mean anybody can enter?"

            Claire shrugged her slender shoulders. "I suppose. I don't know much about these things, but I can see no restrictions on the type of vessel. The more that enter, the fatter Titchmarsh's pockets grow. He only needs twenty vessels to enter and he's made his money back. We have ten racers at the bar already who were all willing. Ten more and he will have all he needs. I suspect we'll have plenty of takers. Most likely David and Mauriri have already signed up."

            Suddenly Isabelle frowned. "I doubt that."

            Claire's head titled. "What makes you say that?"

            "David was adamant about not racing. He went so far as shutting…well, let's just say that he won't hazard the Rattler on such foolishness no matter what." Isabelle couldn't help the sad expression that flitted across her features for just a second. She could only pray that Claire had missed it.

            "That doesn't sound like David," Claire pondered.

            Isabelle regarded her friend and realized that was actually the crux of the matter. "It doesn't, does it?"

            "I would have thought he'd have put forth the idea of a race before Titchmarsh. You know how men are, all competitive."

            "Mauriri and I suggested such a race to Captain Fallon," she said softly. "Only David stopped it from going any farther. It was totally unlike him." Isabelle's mind was turning over reasons for such odd behavior. She had rarely seen such hesitation in the man. It was suddenly more distressing than the way he had brusquely dismissed her as a partner in order to stop the race. Perhaps he hadn't meant to hurt her so, but perhaps it was just another horrible nightmare left over from his kidnapping. Suddenly her personal pain was less, replaced with only more worry for David.

            Damn this Devil of a man who could so influence as strong a force as David. What had this man said or done that haunted David so completely? The David of old would have jumped at the chance to challenge these men with their fancy boats. Why was he suddenly balking? Had the Devil broken his spirit that much? Isabelle didn't think it possible.  It frightened her to think such a thing. It was disturbing to see how this one man had changed David so completely. And the Devil was a man! No matter his appellation. He was only a man. They should stop calling him the Devil. Because it gave him power he didn't deserve. Power over David.

            "What do you think is wrong with David? He doesn't seem like himself." Concern was plainly displayed on Claire's face.

            "He's just trying hard to make things right with Mauriri, I'm sure," Isabelle speculated though in her heart she knew it was somehow more than that. But that wasn't for Claire to know. For where Isabelle trusted her friend's good intentions, there was some level of control that Mrs. Russell was exhibiting over her, and Isabelle instinctively shied from confiding too much, at least for now. Especially with her connection with the Titchmarshs.

            It pained Isabelle to feel that the only two friends she had in the world were suddenly affected by outside influences: David by this Devil and Claire by Mrs. Russell. But at least with Claire it was her own choice. Claire was looking for a good life with good prospects. Love was a beautiful thing, but it wouldn't keep one warm on a cold night. Obviously, some of Isabelle's good business sense had rubbed off on her friend. Besides, if Jack wasn't smart enough to see a good thing when he had it that was his loss. He was an idiot. The whole world was open to Claire now and he had made damn sure he wasn't a part of it. Good for Claire for embracing change and looking out for her own interests, even if that path might lead her away from Matavai.

            "I wonder if Jack will be interested in the race," Claire said so softly Isabelle barely understood what her words.

            "He's a fool if he is. The Malahini isn't his boat. It will be Henri Seraut's decision not his. Besides the Malahini isn't made for racing. She's a work horse through and through."

            "Oh."

            "Why do you care?" Isabelle inquired sharply, annoyed that Claire was even thinking about that low-minded Jack McGonnigal, especially after Isabelle had just complimented her silently for forgetting him.

            Claire turned away to pick up a sheaf of papers from her desk.  She crossed the room and put them away in a drawer. "I don't. I was just wondering. With all the racing fever around here, I was just curious who was caught up in it. That's all."

            "What about Gilles Bradford? Surely he and Henri have another boat that could race."

            Claire shrugged, happy that Isabelle asking about Gilles had diverted the conversation from Jack.  She hadn't meant to mention his name. "It hasn't come up yet in conversation. All this happened just today. I'll tell him at supper this evening."

            "You're dining with him again?"

            Claire hesitated and then nodded. "We have supper often. It's becoming a bit of a custom between us. The evenings are fun and entertaining. We spend a number of them either with his family, or with Mrs. Russell playing pallor games. Just yesterday it was a night of learning new music. He's always a perfect gentlemen."

            "You don't get many of those around here. Enjoy it."

            "I do," Claire emphasized though not without a bit of tension in her face. "We have a great deal in common," she tried to explain.

            "I'm sure you do."

            "How about you and Henri Seraut? Have you spoken to him lately?"

            Isabelle cocked her head, amused at Claire's boldness on that topic. "Not lately. Though I wouldn't be surprised to find an invitation to dinner waiting for me at the stables."

            Claire laughed. "Optimistic, are we?"

            "No, it's just that Henri Seraut is a very persistent individual."

            "He knows a good thing when he sees it. Unlike some people."

            There was no mistaking where Claire's point was. "David has other things on his mind," Isabelle told her.

            "Then he's a fool too."

            "All men are, Claire."

            "He was certainly a fool to let you go—as a partner, I mean. You were the one who kept him on his feet after that woman. He would have lost the Rattler for sure without you. Some gratitude."

            The resentment that Isabelle had suppressed suddenly came rushing forward again. She tried desperately to clamp it down. They had been through all this before. Besides, she had other ideas on how to make David show some common sense. Her brain fairly raced with possibilities. This race could be her chance to have Mauriri and David see just how far she had come with the merchant business. That she wasn't solely a woman hoping to cash in on some lucrative money making venture, but instead had embraced the merchant life with zeal and passion, and had the brains for it as well.

            Suddenly the thought of giving up the sea was painful. It felt all wrong. Sure, she could take the knowledge and move on, find a boat of her own to finance, but there seemed to be a part of that scenario that was missing. It didn't fire her senses as the Rattler had done. Could it be that the ship had finally gotten under her skin as well? Her skin flushed warmly at the thought of it. Surely it wasn't because of David's presence on board.

            But it was hard to deny that fact as well. They had had fun during their time. There was no discounting that. She had never felt more alive than she had these past few months. Her joy had been unsurpassed; her excitement at it's highest. Money had come in regularly. There had been only a few bobbles, but nothing that some quick thinking and fancy financing hadn't taken care of efficiently on her part.

            David must have seen her skill in that regard. She had kept them afloat and in the black practically the entire time.

            Perhaps if she could somehow demonstrate this to David and Mauriri, then they would see that she had something vital to offer them in terms of business aptitude. The race was a perfect way to demonstrate to them how savvy her thinking was in terms of putting money in their pockets.

            Mauriri didn't seem adverse to the idea of a race, maybe if she could get him on her side, together they could make David see business logic if nothing else. This race was easy money if they had the right help. And she knew just where to get some. The race was two weeks away

            It could work.

            Yeah, right, she muttered to herself. Mauriri and herself didn't quite see eye to eye on boat business. But that wasn't going to stop her from trying. Besides, the sweet taste of revenge against Titchmarsh was far too tempting to let such a chance slip by without even an effort.

            First however, she had to do some research and ask a few questions. There was no sense going into the race if they weren't going to win. She had best not mention her plans to Claire about the Titchmarshs. If there was one thing Isabelle opposed in regards to Claire's new direction was her association with the resident evil on Matavai. Obviously it wasn't of her own choice, or probably even Mrs. Russell's; it was mainly the circles they were now immersed in unfortunately, which was why Isabelle steadfastly refused to become a part of it all though it would have certainly helped her social standing at her initial arrival. Still, she was going to have to talk to Claire about such things. Right after she talked to Mauriri about the race.

            They weren't due back for a bit, since they were out on a run she had arranged weeks before, but that merely gave her plenty of time to develop a keen strategy, one even David couldn't disagree with.

****

The fair weather continued for the next week and it made for wonderful sailing. Mauriri was relishing being back at sea. The air smelled cleaner and the wind was a comforting caress against his skin.

David and he had been busy from the onset. He marveled at how prosperous and business minded David had become during his absence. It certainly kept funds at a relatively comfortable level. Enough so that he saw no reason not to risk a little on a race.

He had been wondering all week how to broach the touchy subject with his friend. Surely David understood that the race wasn't nearly the dangerous escapade the sailors had painted in the bar. It was just a race, a friendly match of skill and wit. Two things that David and he had in ample supply.

The islander sighed as he watched his friend steer the ship through the bright day. David looked happy and robust. He was thoroughly enjoying himself on such a gorgeous sea. Well, Mauriri thought, no time like the present. His jaw set with determination; it was time to try again. This time he decided to try another strategy. He'd discuss their prosperity and then ease into the concept of racing the Rattler.

David saw him coming and shook his head. "The answer is still no."

Mauriri scowled and sat down opposite his friend anyway. "Little do you know. I came over to compliment you on how well you've grown business wise. We've never had so much work, and prosperous work at that. I always knew you had it in you."

"Little do you know then. These are the last of Isabelle's contracts. She had them set up months in advance. Her head for business puts me to shame. She's the one you should thank. Come next month, we'll be back to foraging them for ourselves."

"Isabelle? Really?" But Mauriri should have known. Isabelle's drive and determination to be wealthy was a driving force that the entire island had had exposure to ever since she arrived in Matavai. "Well, she's very good at it."

"Yes, she is. I'll tell you right now, I'm not looking forward to sniffing out contracts again. It's my least favorite part of the business."

"Which is why you always left it to me."

"Which you were very happy about, especially after I tried my hand at it a few times."

"Yes, heaven knows how much soap one person can use."

David smirked. "And bad smelling soap at that." He would never live that blunder down

"Still, I can't say I ever enjoyed it myself. Being who I am, I wasn't always welcome in most ports. Not as a business man anyway."

"Well, that's where I come in. For those few times, you can't garner work for us."

"Few times?" Mauriri snorted. It was damn frustrating to fight prejudice at every port. He wouldn't be surprised if even men like Jack McGonnigal were fighting such things on board the Malahini. After all he was a lowly seaman suddenly elevated to a captain. Still having Gilles Bradford or Henri Seraut standing behind him bought the right respect. But what did David and he have? There were times when even David's stature did little to sway a contract to their favor. In some cases, it hindered it as easily as his own island heritage.

"Isabelle did a lot of the hard work that comes with running a merchant business," David waxed. "It freed me up to spend more time on board ship, fixing what was broken, and keeping the Rattler in good condition. You have to admit, she looks damn good."

Mauriri grinned widely. "That she does." His hand ran lovingly across her polished wood. "You kept her in fine form."

They were silent for a while, enjoying the gentle rise and fall of the bow, the creak of the rigging, and the tautness in the sails which made them fly over the waves.

David's mind shifted to Isabelle. He missed her presence on the ship. Every time someone emerged from the hold, he half expected to see Isabelle's dark hair catch the wind and flutter like a flag on the mast, her tanned face turn to him in either a scowl of irritation over something small, or a wide, bright grin after a successful run. He missed their conversations.

He swore he was going to cut Tah-mey long black hair one of these days just to make sure he didn't think it was Isabelle one more time.

His heart ached however when he thought about what happened earlier in the week at Lavinia's. The more he thought about it, the more he knew it had been cruel to slap her down like that. He had sought her out, but had been unable to find her before they had shipped out on their next run. He made a promise to himself he would apologize to her when he got back and maybe try to explain what happened. But he knew there was no easy reason. It had been fear, pure and simple. And that wasn't easy to admit, especially to Isabelle, much less to himself. He wished there was some way to make it up to her.

David suddenly turned his attention to Mauriri. "You said you hate acquiring contracts as much as I do, right?"

Mauriri brought his sea gaze back to the ship. "What? Yeah, I suppose. It's not the part of the job I came back for, that's for sure. Too much politics."

"Then what would you say about allowing Isabelle to do it instead? She has a head for it and seems to enjoy it."

Mauriri regarded his friend. Was he having doubts about bringing him back as a partner? But then he dismissed such a thing. That wasn't David.

"I don't think so. She's not exactly the most scrupulous."

"There hasn't been a single incident the whole time she's been with me," David insisted in an attempt to prove her worth to his partner. "She's been completely upfront and honest in every transaction."

"We'd have to pay her." That was something Mauriri wasn't keen about either.

"Of course! She'd take a percentage of any contract she could get for us."

"Almost like a partner," Mauriri pointed out.

David sobered. "Yeah, I guess that's what she'd be like. Is that a problem?" he asked hesitatingly.

"I'm not sure. I need some time to think about it."

"Sure. Sure, I was just thinking out loud anyway," David replied quickly. "You know, trying to make our lives easier." He grinned at his friend to reassure him.

"Our lives would never be easy with Isabelle around."

"Nah, they'd be a hell of a lot more exciting. Something to think about."

"Yeah, something to think about," he muttered.

David nodded and dropped the subject. He had made a blunder. It had been too soon to put forth something like that to Mauriri. It looked like guilt, or heaven help him, love. He pursed his lips. It wasn't either of those things, was it?

****

            Isabelle's guess about Henri Seraut was extremely accurate. Two days later and she found a dinner invitation tacked to her office door. Never one to turn down a fine meal, she of course accepted. Besides, she was in need of some information. What better way than to get it straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak.

Isabelle studied her roast pork on her plate. The meal was prepared the traditional English way with fresh apples and it was far better cooked than most restaurants in England. Her gaze rose to the man sitting opposite her.

            "Your cook is quite remarkable. I haven't had roast pork this good in quite some time. Reminds me of home." Her tone didn't indicate that it was a good thing.

            Henri Seraut offered a confident smile, missing her point entirely. "He was the best in London, or so he tells me."

            "How on earth did you convince him to come way out here?"

            "I didn't. I simply took advantage of the situation. He was working for a British club in Shanghai.  He got into difficulties with the local authorities, something about running up a very high bill in one of the brothels.  I paid his bill and brought him here.  Money can be very persuasive. Besides to be rich in paradise is like to be a god among sheep. Even with my small sum, I may well be one of the richest men on this island. And so now is my cook."

            Isabelle offered a smile at his unique brand of humor. She knew she should be impressed by his wealth, and a few months ago she definitely would have, and called herself lucky. But it just didn't seem to have the same luster of late. Henri wasn't being a braggart; sadly it was just fact.

            "I hope you don't consider me to be one of the sheep," she remarked, taking a bit of the pork and savoring the delicate fruity flavor. The glaze was made of sweet golden apples and herbs. She wasn't serious about her sheep comment but she was interested in finding out how Henri would react to it.

            "Absolutely not. You are akin to one of your spirited mares. Strictly a pleasure." His expression held nothing but sincerity. "By the way that colt of yours is looking splendid. He's bred from your stallion is he not?"

            "Dante. Yes. The first foal. The first colt." Her heart swelled with pride. "He's a bit skittish of people still, but he's his sire's son through and through."

            "He's has fabulous bloodlines. Best I've seen in Europe, much less in the South Seas."

            "I paid a pretty penny for him too. And pulled a few strings to get him here."

            "Worth all the effort I say."

            "The colt will be weaned in a few months and ready for sale if you're interested. Five thousand pounds."

            Seraut let out a low whistle and then laughed. "You are a hard business woman, Isabelle."

            "Fine quality deserves a fine price."

            "You learn too quick." He lifted his glass of rich dark red wine. "But acquiring such a prize is something I shall definitely consider." His dark eyes settled on her with a determined gaze.

            Suddenly Isabelle wasn't sure if he was talking about the colt or about her. With Henri it was most likely both. He was a man who enjoyed surrounding himself with fine things.

            "Does acquiring such prizes mean that you will also be trying for the Titchmarsh Cup?" she asked, lifting her own glass up till only her eyes danced above its rim.

            Henri didn't drop his attention from her. "Ahh, the boat race. It's all the island can talk about. It certainly is a tempting proposition. The Resolute is a ship of legend. She will be talked about for years to come in the annals of history."

            "So will you be setting your sails against his like most of the sailors in the area?"

            Seraut cocked his head. "The Malahini isn't made for such a thing, nor is she mine to do with as I please."

            "Surely you have another boat you can enter."

            "None that would have a chance against the Resolute." He laughed. "Are you trying to encourage me to race?"

            "No," Isabelle said. "I'm just curious as to the competition." She enjoyed the stunned look on Henri's face.

            "You're racing? With whom?"

            She took a long sip of wine and said nothing.

            "My God! The Rattler! You're racing with Grief, aren't you?"

            "Would that matter to you?"

            "You are a brash woman, Isabelle," he exclaimed. "But that only makes you even more pleasing to me." He let out a raucous laugh. "The racing community will be in an uproar over having a woman in the race."

            "Titchmarsh will be screaming." The satisfaction on her face would not be denied.

            Henri sat back in the chair, studying the woman across from him. All was becoming more and more clear. He shook his head. "Titchmarsh isn't someone to play games with, Isabelle. You do not want Titchmarsh set against you, trust me."

            "Titchmarsh doesn't frighten me. I've seen and handled worse devils than him."

            "That may be so, but do tread lightly, my dear. I can only look after you so far in the merchant business. I do have my own contracts to worry about."

            "I appreciate your concern, Henri. But I know what I'm doing when it comes to Titchmarsh."

            Henri sat up straight and leaned over the table to clink his glass to hers. "Then best of luck to you, Isabelle Reed. And may you take the Rattler to victory." His smile was broad and sincere. "You will have no competition from me. I know better than to risk my hard earned money on such a gamble."

            She lifted her wine in a small salute and drained the glass. It's not like she was actually going to race, but she didn't mind if the island thought otherwise. It would still infuriate Titchmarsh, even if only for a short time before the truth came out. A woman participating in his race. Anything to raise the heart rate of that priggish bore.

No, she was destined to watch the race from the sidelines this time. As much as it saddened her she was still pleased for if her plan worked, Mauriri would profit, David's confidence would be restored, and she would be, well, with any luck she might be a part of the sea again, even if remotely. If David and Mauriri don't want her as a partner, perhaps someone else might be interested enough in hiring her skills as a consultant. The race was a perfect way to advertise her skills to merchants from all over the area.

****

            Isabelle was anxiously waiting for the Rattler when she docked in Matavai Harbor, a worn, worried flyer clutched in her hand. She paced the sand relentlessly waiting for the ship to drop anchor. She was relieved when she finally saw the dingy set into the water and head for shore. Oddly enough only Mauriri and Tah-mey and a few of the regular crew were aboard it.

            Where was David?

            She frowned but she held her worry in check until the small boat scraped onto the sandy shoreline and the crew disembarked. Forgotten suddenly was the reason she had come to greet them.

            "Where is David?" she demanded.

            Mauriri regarded her, swinging his duffel up onto his shoulder. He saw the concern on her face and did his best to assuage them. "He's fine, Isabelle. He was sleeping when we came in and I thought he could use the extra rest. It was an easy run but still tiring."

            She sagged visibly, relieved. "It's nice to see him sleeping again. Is he dreaming still?"

            "Not as much, at least as far as I can tell. He doesn't seem as agitated either."

            Isabelle nodded. Her gaze drew away from the Rattler and regarded Mauriri. "That's good."

            "He slept a significant part of the trip. I was almost tempted to call him a lazy goat."

            "But you didn't."

            "Of course I didn't." Her maternal concern over David was amusing. Obviously both of them had grown attached to the other. Both of them seemed to talk mainly about the other in conversation, though probably neither realized it.

            With a gentle sigh, she asked, "How was the run? Any problems with the authorities?"

            "It went incredibly well. Smooth as silk actually." Mauriri couldn't bring himself to compliment her hand in setting up the transaction, though he knew in his heart she deserved most of the credit.

            "Good. I'm glad. He could use some easy ones for a change."

            "So could we all."

            "Which brings me to the next topic."

            "What's that?"

            She brought the flyer up and unraveled it as best she could. "Something a bit more fun as well as easy."

            "A race?" Mauriri's eyes lit up as he read the print.

            "It's official. Fallon was more than eager to oblige."

            "Well, why not. It's what he came here for most likely. More notoriety."

            "Do you think David would go for it? It would be a lot of fun and some easy money."

            "Well, I don't know about that, but it would be good for everyone to relax a bit and enjoy doing something other than working for a living. How much to register?"

            "Only fifty dollars. But look at the purse."

            Mauriri let out a low whistle. "Not bad. That's almost as much as we'd earn in three runs."

            "Tempting, isn't it?"

            Mauriri glanced up at Isabelle's eager expression. "But not to David."

            Isabelle expelled her breath in a huff. "Well, why not? What's the matter with him?"

            "He's being practical."

            "It's unlike him."

            Mauriri smiled at her.

            "Well, it's true," she said softly. "He's different lately."

            "He's been through a great deal, Isabelle. It will take time."

            "I know that. But there's more to it than that. That devil fellow, he's the cause of all this." There was such bitterness to her tone. Mauriri recognized it because he used it himself whenever he spoke of the same subject.

            "Yes. In part," agreed Mauriri. "But there something else too. He's lost a bit of his confidence in himself. I think because of me."

            Isabelle regarded him. "You?"

            The islander shrugged. "I don't know. But maybe my lack of trust in him caused him to lose that trust in himself."

            Isabelle was silent. She had often wondered the same thing. But then she shook her head. "It goes deeper than that, Mauriri."

            "It's almost as if he's forgotten how to enjoy life again. He's constantly on edge."

            "Who can blame him with what's happened to him of late?" Isabelle responded. "A lesser man would have given up the ghost a long time ago."

            "Perhaps if we just keep showing him the way. Be happy and take on some fun in our lives. He'll play along. God, wouldn't that be a laugh if David became the responsible one and we two the reckless ones?"

            "I have been called many things in my life, Mauriri, but reckless isn't one of them."

            "Which is why you were accused of murder at one time," he pointed out.

            "That's just bad luck, the wrong time in the wrong place. Given my druthers, I wouldn't have gotten into that situation."

            "No, I suppose not. David always sought out trouble. It's in his blood. Or at least was."

            "It still is, and eventually he'll come around to our way of thinking."

            "Devilment and mischief?"

            "No, peace and a bit of fun."

            "No business?"

            "Business always," she asserted with a grin. "But if you can mix a bit of fun in with it, so much the better. If you win you'll have three months head start on the payment. Sounds like just plain good business sense."

            "Only if we win."

            "Oh ye of little faith."

            Mauriri eyed her curiously, surprised at her statement. "No cheating."

            Isabelle huffed as she veered off the path and headed back to town. "I'll talk to David about the race. Just be prepared to back me up!"

****

            It was late in the afternoon and David stared at the sleek little vessel in the bay. The Resolute was a beauty and constructed to ride the wind. Every inch of her was designed to slip through both water and air like a sharp knife through a ripe mango. As much as he loved his own Rattler, there was a part of him that couldn't be sure that he could beat such a well-constructed vessel. His boat hadn't been designed for such things, not intentionally anyway. She was a powerhouse of muscle and wood, built for the long haul and to weather rough seas, unlike her rival that bobbed delicately in the gentle water nearby. He took a bit of pride in that. Visions of the Resolute being smashed to pieces by a typhoon's harsh breath eased the jealousy somewhat.

            "There you are," declared Isabelle striding over to him. She noted where his attention lay and it wasn't a surprise. "You'd love to race him, wouldn't you? Set your sails against his?"

            David shrugged, irritated that he was so transparent to this woman. "Maybe a little, but it doesn't matter. I couldn't win. The Rattler was never designed for racing."

            "Oh, I think she does a fine job, especially when she has pirates on her stern." Isabelle plopped down close in the sand beside him, tossing her shoes aside and digging her feet into the warm granules. It was a delicious luxury.

            "That's a bit different."

            She regarded him. "No, it isn't. As much as it is the ship, the rest is the captain and crew. And there isn't a finer crew than the Rattler's. And I've seen her captain pull miracles out of the air. She responds to you, unequivocally and desperately. That ship would do anything for you." She leaned close and emphasized. "She loves you."

            He laughed. "You're mad, you know that?"

            "Just calling it as I see it."

            "Jealous?" he retorted before he realized what he said and how he meant it, truthfully in his heart.

            Her head cocked to the side for a moment and those beautiful eyes widened almost imperceptibly, but then she smirked and slipped into their normal routine. "Sorry, no. Not in the least. Not of her. She laid claim to your heart long before I ever came on the scene and I always honor prior claims. Well, except when I'm trying to break out of a prison."

            That elicited another laugh from David. "It's nice to know where you draw the line about your scruples."

            "I'm just pleased you acknowledge I have them," she pronounced with a purr of pleasure.

            "You definitely have them-- when you want them."

            She snorted her irritation, but didn't contest the fact.            "There's nothing wrong with thinking creatively now and again."

            "Except when it's against the law."

            "I always worked within its boundaries so long as someone didn't push me out of them. I was never afraid of what would happen, only of what could happen."

            "That's the same thing."

            "No it isn't. The first one I can control. I can make sure certain things go a certain way. And I am very thorough. The latter however is things I can't control. The weather, the Titchmarsh's, Jack McGonnigal." She was frowning now as she thought about Claire's disappointment over Jack's betrayal

            David turned away from her, disappointed that Jack had lost Isabelle's respect and friendship, when all he wanted to do was the best thing for Claire. It was unfair all the way around. He longed to tell Isabelle the truth and smooth over these falsehoods, but his promise to Jack meant that he had to remain less than honest with Isabelle. He didn't like that, not one bit. Irritation welled up in him over such childishness from Jack.

            Eventually David sighed and responded to Isabelle's observation. "But those things will always be there and will affect what you do."

            She regarded David once more and concentrated on the matter at hand. "Sure but with careful planning, some skill and a bit of luck, everything else will go smoothly. And those things I never worry about, because I know my limitations as well as my strengths. So do you."

            David said nothing, but looked out into the bay.

            Isabelle wasn't about to let her ignore him. "Racing has a few variables, but not enough for someone of your skill to worry about. The ship will fare just fine and the bit of money you'd lose is nothing compared to what you'd lose in terms of your confidence and the confidence your crew has in you. Racing isn't about winning a prize; it's about testing your mettle and that of your ship. Stop listening to the logic inside your head and listen to your heart." She poked a finger in his chest. "What does it want you to do?"

            He didn't know what to say.

            She cocked her head at him and then rose to her feet, dusting her trim bottom of the sand in front of him.

            "You want me to race," he stated once she turned around.

            "No, I want you to do what you want to do. Not what you think everyone else wants you do. Tah-mey once told me that you wouldn't win if no one wanted you to win. I think he was saying that we were all being too hard on you and that it was going to change you. It did. We did. Everyone wants to race but you. I find that odd. That's not you, David."

            "Things have changed."

            She knelt down in front of him. "Yes, things have changed. But it was the wrong thing if it was your ability to enjoy life and the sea."

            "It wasn't you, Isabelle."

            "It was all of us, David. You used to be so brash and uncontrollable, sometimes so that my heart was in my throat."

            Her admission of concern for him struck him in his gut. He wasn't aware of it, coming from her. But he lowered his head, uncomfortable with such fondness. "And I paid the price for it," he muttered.

            "Yes, but you also learned from it. But you've gone from one extreme to another. You do your damnedest not to disappoint those you care about, sacrificing your own happiness at times. It's wrong. And for my part in all that, I'm sorry."

            "Well, if we're going to be apologizing, then I apologize for what I said at the bar. I didn't mean it."

            She smiled wanly. "Yes, you did. I was about to push you into something you weren't ready for. I understand that. And it's true. I'm not your partner anymore. And it's a good thing too, because we would have been racing out there already. Democracy is a beautiful thing."

            "Bloody Americans," he muttered. Then green eyes lifted to her smoky ones. "And you don't see a problem in that, with all that has happened of late, you don't see a problem in racing the Rattler? Remember when the rigging was cut?"

            She sighed. "I'm still not sure that was deliberate. Besides this will only be our crew. No one else, hand picked by you and Mauriri. You're not going to run her aground. You aren't going to capsize the boat; and you're not to crash into another vessel. Not you, and not your crew. You have to ask yourself why you don't want to race, David. Because it's all about you and no one else at this point."

            She leaned in close and touched her fingers to his lips to prevent him from saying anything else. She wanted him to think about what she said and how it related to him. His face held that little boy confusion mixed in with the hardness of a man who didn't like what he just heard.

Isabelle smiled softly removed her hand and kissed him on the lips. She couldn't help herself. It wasn't a lingering kiss but it was deep, one that wanted to spark something inside him that he was fighting against. He needed to remember that life was about taking chances and enjoying the rewards. She was.

Leaning back, she sat on her bare heels and regarded him.

It was a moment before he found his voice. "What was that for?" His eyes were opened wide filled with astonishment.

"Me being daring and unafraid. It felt good."

            "What about the consequences?" he remarked. His heart drilled against his breastbone to be so close to her. His lips tingled with the memory of her kiss. His tongue darted out without his consent to lick his lips, as if wanting to taste that essence once again and always. His green eyes remained fixed on her smoky ones, and he prayed they weren't as filled with longing as what he gazed into.

Her lips drew in for a moment so that her own tongue could taste him in private, and then they parted into a smile. "Oh, I'll think I'll be able to handle them." She rose to her feet and sauntered down the path toward town.

            David rubbed his mouth watching her depart. Isabelle always surprised him. But he was a bit annoyed as to her motive. He was sure this had nothing to do with testing one's mettle or being afraid. Because he wasn't.  It was solely about having good common sense. Nothing more. Throwing in a kiss, no matter how delicious, wasn't going to sway his mind on that front. He wasn't afraid to face Fallon; he wasn't afraid to lose the Rattler. Not in a race, so it wasn't about that.

            It wasn't because he'd lose Mauriri as a partner again either, because Mauriri was all for racing. So Isabelle was way off on that front too. It was about being a responsible adult and not some wild rambunctious thirty year old that should know better than to behave like a teenager. David had grown up in the last six months. He understood where he had gone wrong. Nobody had changed him but himself. This was the way he wanted to be, damn it! It was the right way to be!

            Wasn't it?

            Or was it about the Devil's presence still on this island? Even if no one else believed him, he knew the Devil was out there, waiting for the right moment to strike. This time the man's hand would not close around his throat, but around those he cared about. He knew it without a doubt. The Devil knew now how to hurt him where it counts. He'd be foolish to allow him any opportunity. Now was not the time to indulge.

            His eyes drifted again to the bay and the tall sleek vessels coveted within its safe arms. He could feel his heart beat faster just looking at them. It was betraying his sound logic. It was siding with Isabelle and Mauriri despite all his doubts and fears.

            With a grunt of discontent, David stood and marched farther down the beach away from civilization and Isabelle Reed.

****

Mauriri enjoyed being on the Rattler again. There was a peace and solitude to the little ship that seeped into his very soul and made him complete. How he had missed his time aboard her, running his hands down across her lines, listening to her voice in the breezy afternoon wind, feeling the subtle shifting of her rigging.

He loved working with his hands, but despite the fact that he had used them to build a new wing to their house and repair numerous other buildings these long past months, that work could not compare to the simple joys of working on board a ship. It was like making love to a woman. The ship came alive beneath his hands. It was hard work but it was worth every minute of it.

And he had missed David. Mauriri's life on the island had changed drastically upon meeting his friend David. He had been a quiet studious young man, interested in finding the bridge between the modern life of the colonies to the traditional life of his people. He had wanted a great deal for himself as well. He wasn't willing to return from the colonies with an education only to take up a life toiling in the fields like so many islanders. But nor was he accepted as an equal among the whites either because he wasn't one of them, regardless of his education. There had been so much prejudice aimed against him that he had a poor opinion of civilized men.

But then he met David, whose brash young adventurous attitude was infectious. He didn't see Mauriri as strictly a native. He saw him as a kindred spirit who could bring with him the expertise of the various islands and cultures. David didn't offer him a job; he had offered Mauriri a partnership. The man held a vision of what it would take to become prosperous in these waters. He was willing to throw away any preconceptions his society might have instilled in him and embrace Mauriri as a friend and eventually as a brother.

They could not have become closer. He was relieved beyond measure that they had gotten past their differences and become friends once more.

He heard a creak on the deck as Isabelle came over the side.

"Well, how did it go?" he asked her.

Isabelle shrugged. "He's a tough one to crack. You know that. He's not willing to admit that this is about him."

"What do you mean?"

"That he's afraid of messing up and angering us…well, you  more likely."

"Me? Over something like this?"

"Over anything. He's still skittish and he's always second guessing himself. It's not like him."

"It's not just me that's causing all this."


"No," she admitted. "Part of it is he still thinks the Devil is on Matavai."

"And what do you think?"

She shrugged. "Right now, I'm not sure what I think. Most of the things he claims are the hand of the Devil can be explained as sheer accidents."

"It will take a while for him to feel safe again after his ordeal. Maybe all we need to do is give him time. Maybe we're pushing."

"It's time to push. You can't let this drag on or it will be harder later on for him. He needs to trust himself. What better way than in a race where most of the factors you can control."

"Can we?"

"Yes. We're … I mean you're both better seaman than that."

Mauriri noticed her change of phrasing and it surprised him. She was always doing that, excluding herself from the mix. Mauriri was beginning to see David's point about maybe having hurt her regarding the partnership. Or at the least, she had become more acclimated to the idea of being on the Rattler than he had thought.

He was pleased that Isabelle considered David an important task. She had obviously become more attached to him during their time together, and he had to admit that he liked the idea. Isabelle was a strong force to reckon with and David seemed to need that of late.

"So what's the next step?" he asked her, allowing the decision to be hers.

Isabelle smiled at him. "We confront him as a team. And show him our trump card." She held up the flyer. Her wicked grin was practically beaming.

"You put a lot of faith in that one aspect."

"This is the holy grail. Trust me."

Mauriri forced a smile. After all, that was the crux of his problem with Isabelle. It was a very hard thing to accept. Seems like both he and David had trust issues; at one point or another, they would both have to deal with them.

****

            David was still on the beach when Lavinia strolled by. She was carrying a basket full of fruits from the market. The seaman was lying on the sand under the shade of a coconut tree, and for a moment Lavinia wondered if he was having a relapse.

            She called his name as she approached. "Are you all right?"

            "Yes," he groused from his prone position

            "Well, no need to get testy," she remarked. She was about to walk on, but she hesitated. He was using that tone. She knew it all too well. Something was eating at him and it sounded like it had been for quite some time and there were no easy answers forthcoming. For David that was a frustrating thing, not having the solutions to all the problems. Maybe he needed a sounding board.

            She set the basket down and arranged herself beside him on the fallen, half-dried palm fronds. "All right, tell me about it."

            "What?" David regarded her with surprise. He had thought she had moved on.

            "Your dilemma or whatever is whirling around inside that head of yours."

            "Nothing." Then he looked at her as she raised an eyebrow in a bemused fashion. He sighed. "Very funny. I meant nothing that you can fix. It's just my problem."

            "Oh really?"

            "Or so Isabelle claims."

            Ahh, now they were getting somewhere. Isabelle Reed. She should have known. "Is it about you entering the race?"

            That shot David up straight. "What? I haven't the entered the race? Goddamn! If the two of them went behind my back--"

            "Oh calm down, David. It's nothing official, but everyone on the island knows you are going to. Certain people just think you are already in."

            "Like who?"

            "Like Henri Seraut."

            Of course, Henri Seraut, thought David. And who would have told him anything? Isabelle Reed, that's who. He sat up against the tree a little straighter. "Well, little does he know."

            "Aren't you being a little stubborn about all this?"

            David huffed. "Isabelle and Mo are pushing for it. And she's not even a partner anymore!"

            "Isabelle does have that competitive spirit. Even if it doesn't concern her directly."

            "She thinks I lost my nerve."

            "Well, that's not true. Wasn't she there personally when you outran those pirates?"

            "I think she means now, after …" His voice trailed off, but Lavinia knew exactly where David's mind had mired.

            "That has nothing to do with you not wanting to race? Does it?"

            David shrugged and then shook his head. "No."

            "Then why don't you want to race?"

            "Because it's silly and frivolous."

            Lavinia just stared at him stunned. "That's not the David I know. What's the matter with you?"

            "Nothing." He hesitated in saying more. What did he want to say? That the Devil was still out there and the race could be an easy opportunity for him to make his move against Isabelle? If the Devil was out there, and David knew he was, then what better way to get Isabelle then during the race while all eyes were on the battling ships. She'd be vulnerable. He could pluck her from the distracted onlookers and no one would know until it was all over. David knew the Devil or his operatives were on the island. The incident with the horse thieves and the cut rigging confirmed it in his mind. Even though no one else was as certain. David had to remain vigilant since no one else would.

But he told Lavinia none of it. He sighed and only amended, "I just don't want to risk the boat. I almost did once. I'd like to think that I'm a bit smarter now."

            Lavinia studied him carefully, but then smiled, a bit relieved. "Well, it is good business sense. Mauriri should be proud of you."

            "Yeah, you'd think that, wouldn't you? Instead he's as passionate about this race as Isabelle."

            "He's been away from the sea for quite a while, David. It's screaming through his blood right now. You'll have a hard time soothing that. But he is also an intelligent man and he'll abide by good common sense." She stood gathering her basket. "I need to get going."

            "You want me to carry that for you?" He made to rise.

            She waved him aside with a smile. "No. You have something more important to do. Be honest with Mauriri and Isabelle. They'll come around." She headed inland.

            David groaned. Be honest. Tell them that he was afraid of a shadow. No, it was better to continue with his present course. Let them believe it was strictly about being more contentious and business minded. God, how he dreaded this.

****

It took him most of the day to work up the nerve, but eventually he tracked down his two friends outside on the dock watching the boats.

"So are you two going to race or not?" Isabelle demanded, getting straight to the heart of the matter that was concerning her. It was best not to hold her punches with David. He preferred her candor, even though it might hurt.

"Yes?" said Mauriri with a gleam in his eye. He really thought David would come around.

"No," said David simultaneously.

Mauriri looked at his friend in surprise and a tad of disappointment. "Oh why not?"

"Because it's frivolous. There's no reason to race."

"You know you could win! The Rattler could take her! Everyone already believes the Rattler is in the race," insisted Isabelle.

"Thanks to you," he reminded her heatedly.

"I didn't say a word. I can't help it if everyone thinks you're a shoe in. You know she's probably the only ship in the bay that can beat Fallon!" she pointed out.

"That's not the point. It's a risk. Most likely we'll lose money."

"The registration fee isn't all that much, David, while the winner's pot is pretty large. Sounds like good business sense to me," Mauriri pointed out.
           

"Whose side are you on?" groused David.

"Isabelle's actually."

"So that means you race, right?" asked Isabelle, unable to hide her excitement.

"Yes," said Mauriri.

"No," stated David harshly at the same time.  "Damn it!"

Isabelle crossed her arms, bored with David being so stubborn. "Would it sweeten the pot any for you if I said that Titchmarsh Exports is putting up the winner's money?"

Suddenly David was all ears. "What?"

"You heard me."

Mauriri looked between them in confusion. "What does Titchmarsh have to do with this?"

Isabelle regarded him with a sly look to her grey eyes. "A few months back, Titchmarsh yanked a valuable cargo deal from us. It put us behind for quite a while. He did it on a whim, orchestrated by David's old friend from Queensland."

"Oh that brute, the one that waylaid you and Jack the night of the dance. That man couldn't fight worth a damn."

David stared at Mauriri curiously. How would Mauriri know that?

But Isabelle broke in quickly. "That's the one. Now's our chance to get back at him." Her timbre dropped to a hushed, lyrical tone. "Wouldn't it be grand to stand in the bar and collect the winning pot from the bastard himself. How red his face will turn. How delicious would be the taste of victory."

David couldn't help it; he salivated. He took in both his friends. The excitement on both their faces moved him. "You both want this?"

"Yes," they stated.

David sighed, his emotions torn. He wanted to protect his friends, but he had to admit to himself that the thought of embarrassing Titchmarsh was a temptation he couldn't quite overlook. Perhaps he was being foolish.

David regarded Mauriri and Isabelle. "I'll think about it."

His two friends grinned at him, after all, it was a victory no matter how small.

"Take all the time you need," Mauriri told him.

"But don't wait till after the race." Isabelle looped her arm through Mauriri's and headed for the taproom.

****

The market was bustling for it was early morning and shoppers were out searching for the choicest produce for the evening's meal. Even Colin Trent was there in the crowd hustling for the best goods.

David felt it was always a pleasure to see the Reverend. "Colin!"

Colin looked over his shoulder and waved at his friend and when he turned back a large islander had grabbed the last ripened mango out from under him. With a sigh, he gave up his skirmish and approached his friend.  

"David! How are you? Exciting news about the race! I heard you had entered the race?"

"That was Isabelle." He shrugged. "I don't know. I'm still considering it."

"Oh. I see. Well, how have things been on board of late?"

Colin was of course referring to the return of Mauriri and the departure of Isabelle. David shrugged, still fighting that inner demon, though lately it wasn't as painful, thanks to her manipulation about this blasted race. "It's different and yet the same, I suppose."

"And how is Isabelle? I'm sure she was eager to get back to her neglected stable."

"Not really," he told the reverend. He could lie to himself all he wanted, but he couldn't lie to Colin. "I hurt her, I think. She really wanted to stay with the sea, with the Rattler." With me, he added silently.

"Then why don't you take her back? A partnership doesn't dictate only two."

"I've brought the matter up. Mauriri said he needed to think about it." David's face showed that he didn't have much faith in the outcome. "He and Isabelle have never really seen eye to eye on things."

"He's an intelligent fellow and understands such things as loyalty and friendship."

David regarded his wise friend. "You're right, of course, as always."

"It's my job."

"To be right?"

"No, to show people like you the light."

That brought a smile to David's lips and he breathed a bit easier for the first time today. They continued their pleasant stroll down the market until they ran into Mr. Titchmarsh. By the man's expression, he too had already heard the rumors of David's entry in the race. A swell of pleasure enveloped David watching the uptight citizen bent all out of sorts regarding the rumor. Perhaps that was Isabelle's ploy all along, and he couldn't fault her for it. If she couldn't get him to race, why not tease and annoy Titchmarsh with just the mere thought of it. David actually smiled at her wickedness.

Colin offered a polite greeting while David inclined his head, not interested in making conversation with the bigoted man. He still hadn't forgotten the man's attempt to undermine their business and his wife's attempt to mar Isabelle and Lavinia's social standing.

Anger still burned a hole in his gut on the whole matter. Isabelle was right about one thing; it would feel damn good to punch the wind out of this man's sails. Isabelle was a master at this sort of game and she claimed it was the most glorious feeling outside of lying with a good lover  He was beginning to believe she was right about that.

But Titchmarsh wasn't about to let David go by without a comment about what he had recently heard from the various merchants on the island. Word spread all too quickly here.

"What utter gall you have, Mister Grief, thinking you and your vessel could take on a master like Captain Fallon?"

"I don't believe there is a law that says he can't try his luck, Mr. Titchmarsh," Colin responded quickly to the defense of his friend. He too thought little of the Titchmarshs, but could not voice his true thoughts on the matter.

"I would think you had better things to do than worry about me in the race," David said.

Titchmarsh nodded as if suddenly realizing that indeed he shouldn't be worrying about the likes of David Grief. "To be sure, sir. There isn't a vessel within a thousand miles that could take on the Resolute."

"Well then, your money as good as in the pocket of Captain Fallon." There was an odd smile on David's face that irked Mr. Titchmarsh to no end.

"The race committee will brook none of your shenanigans, Grief. This race is one of decorum and fine standing. I will not have it made a mockery because some with your station wants to have a go at a legend."

"David is an honorable sailor," argued Colin.

"There's nothing wrong with taking on a legend," David offered. "I'm sure he's grateful to have some boats on the sea with him, even if they're all just penniless seamen. It would be a dull race if he were all alone out there. There aren't many qualified racers out in these islands you know."

Titchmarsh scowled but even he couldn't argue with that fact. My God, how he hated David Grief and his inane logic. He was sure it was the fault of associating with that loathsome creature named Isabelle Reed. She gave the man new audacity.

"Enjoy your race, Grief. If the Queen's rules have any say in the matter, you'll receive nothing but a losing position."

"Well, then it isn't it lucky that he has our Lord on his side instead," spoke Colin firmly as he grabbed David's arm and steered him away from Titchmarsh, refusing to allow that despicable man the final word.

David's surprised expression still lingered as they moved on. "Is that true?"

"It is if I say it is."

The seaman smiled softly in disbelief. "I'd never have believed I had friends in such high places."

"That you do David, that you do."

Colin's certainty on that matter seemed to lift the weight of doubt from David's shoulders. What better way to defeat the Devil than with a little help from above. With such backing perhaps he had a chance after all. Even if he wasn't a true believer, he still held some stock in there being a guiding hand. You couldn't be a sailor and not believe in it. Colin's blessing was a good sign.

Suddenly David wanted to race and he wanted Isabelle to be with them when they did. It would steam Titchmarsh to no end and it would be a good opportunity to show Mauriri that Isabelle deserved to be a partner as well.

He clasped Colin on the shoulder. "Thank you!"

"For what?"

"For spreading a little light."

Colin looked surprised but accepted the accolade. "Any time, David."

****

David found both Isabelle and Mauriri at Lavinia's. The prospect of the race had certainly brought the two of them closer. It was unexpected and a joy for David to witness. Perhaps it was a sign that David's little plan just might work.

 Mauriri and Isabelle had never really been close. They both had sought different means to different ends. But both had their hearts in the right place and for some odd reason they both seemed to hold David in high esteem. That was something that still puzzled David. How could he befriend such polar opposites?

Isabelle spied him first. She nudged Mauriri on the arm and together they waved him over. As David garnered a chair, his two friends began speaking at once.

"Whatever you think is all right with both of us."

"We don't want to pressure you."

David shook his head. "Too late for that, but it's good to know you still have my best interests at heart."

They both sighed in relief. Mauriri shoved a glass beer at him that David accepted gratefully.

"Nice day outside," the islander noted a bit too obviously through the wide open windows.

"Absolutely," Isabelle agreed, bobbing her head vigorously. "Just the right amount of sun and wind. A beautiful day."

"Oh for pete's sake," growled David. "Just stop with the pleasantries. I've made my decision."

"You have?" declared Mauriri.

"Already?" Isabelle thought it would take longer than that.

"Uh-huh."

"Well, don't keep us in suspense!" declared Isabelle. "What is it?" Both she and Mauriri leaned forward expectantly.

David kept a straight face and enjoyed when both of his friends expressions fell just a bit in disappointment. Finally he told them.

"We race."

Isabelle practically leapt into his arms with a shout of glee as her arms encircled his neck.

Mauriri slapped him hard on the back. "That's the spirit!"

David just sighed and enjoyed the obvious excitement in his two friends. That alone eased his anxiety. "But," he stated as he extracted himself reluctantly from Isabelle' embrace, "there is a proviso."

Both friends regarded him.

"Isabelle is on board for the race." David kept his attention on Mauriri, trying to read how his partner would take such a request.

Isabelle's eyes widened as did Mauriri's. Both of them sat back, stunned.

"Why?" asked Isabelle. This wasn't what she had been after, not exactly. She had only been interested in getting David to race as a means of fanning away his own fears of self-doubt and to demonstrate her ability in procuring them viable business ventures from which they would profit. That David would ask her to come aboard for the duration of the race was completely unexpected. Her heart was hammering with delight but it still didn't squash her surprise at the turn of events.

"For my own reasons," David said. It served a multitude of reasons in his mind. Isabelle would be under his protection; Mauriri could see Isabelle as an indispensable business partner; and Titchmarsh would be furious. It was a chance for all of them to shine at what they do best, and the Devil couldn't touch them if they stood square against the wind as a unified front.

David stared at Mauriri, wondering his friend's thoughts on all this. The surprise was still etched there as he sat in his chair.

Mauriri studied David. He could not fathom what on earth David was thinking by this arrangement. But he was happy David had somehow found the strength to battle down his demons. If it was because Isabelle's presence could calm them, then who was he to question it. There was a spark of the old David glinting in his friend's eye. He nodded, "You call the shots on this one, partner."

"Good."

Isabelle's stare fluctuated between the two of them. "We'll win. I know it!" Her shining eyes settled on David. Her gratitude knew no bounds at this moment.

David smiled halfheartedly at her enthusiasm. He knew Isabelle's business status in the group would be won or lost on its outcome. It worried him a bit.

But instead he only remarked, "If nothing else, we'll make Titchmarsh eat every nasty word he has ever uttered."

"Here here!" his friends chorused. They all lifted their glasses to their new if only temporary partnership.

It didn't matter to Isabelle. She would be back on board the Rattler and she would be with David as she had been once before. She would show them that her judgment on this was sound. All it needed was a bit of resolve—check; a bit of teamwork—check; and a lot of luck—hmm, she would have to work on that. After all, she wasn't one to solely rely on fickle luck. No, not at all.

She grinned broadly at the two men at the table while her mind raced with probabilities. She had garnered an interesting tidbit of information from Henri Seraut and it was time to see if she could make it pay off for them.

****

David rowed out to the Malahini as she sat out in the bay. She had just come into Matavai yesterday and had promptly unloaded. Now they were in the midst of loading once again. Business was certainly booming for everyone it seemed.

He shouted out to the boat and a bearded face glanced quickly over the side.

"I'm here to see Jack McGonnigal. Is he aboard?"

The grizzled seaman nodded and assisted David up the ladder. "You'll find him at the stern."

Thanking the man, David weaved his way down the ship. The Malahini was larger than the Rattler and the bustle about her this morning only made him long to be heading out to the open sea again. Some of the crew were barely into their high teens. His memory immediately called back all the times he had hustled as a member of this ship's crew. It seemed like forever ago. Had he really ever been that young and fearless?

He spied Jack sanding down a rough patch of wood on the deck. The man's shirt was off and his tanned muscles were drenched in sweat. All his effort and concentration was thrown into the task. David had to call his name twice before the man realized someone was trying to attract his attention.

He muttered an apology and rose to his feet. "David, I didn't hear you?"

"You were busy," David noted. The man was breathing heavy as he reached for his shirt lying nearby to wipe the sweat from his eyes. David gestured to the activity on deck. "You heading out already?"

Jack nodded. "Mr. Seraut expects this shipment of copra to reach New Caledonia by next week. It's best we get a head start." Jack noted his friend's scowl. "Why? Something's come up?"

"Well I suppose you've heard the fuss about the Resolute." He jerked his head toward the dainty vessel out in the harbor.

Jack smirked at bit. "Who hasn't? Not even a turtle in his shell hasn't heard that bit of news."

"Well then, you've heard of the race as well. Titchmarsh is putting up the prize money."

Jack's smile faded quickly. "Yes, I've heard. Mr. Titchmarsh always has time for such frivolities. He meddles in things he has no right to be a part of."

David narrowed his eyes and eased a casual knee over the gunwale. "What say you to taking some of that prize money for ourselves?"

Confusion and suspicion vied for dominance on Jack's tanned face. "What are you talking about?"

"I've entered the Rattler." David was mildly surprised that Jack hadn't heard. He must be the only soul on Matavai who hadn't.

This announcement stunned Jack. "What? Why? Do you think you can beat her?" His eyes darted to the Resolute. "Merciful heaven! That would be a race."

"Then crew with me for it. I need all the best hands I can muster."

Jack balked and the joy swept clear from his face. "No. No, I couldn't. I have duties here. My thanks though."

"I need you, Jack. You know the Rattler's rigging better than anyone. I need men who won't hesitate and know just what she needs and when. That's you."

"I'm honored, David. Truly. But I can't. I have a responsibility to Henri Seraut. To Captain Lodge."

David sighed. He understood Jack's reasoning even if it was counter productive to his own needs. Jack was under probation with Henri Seraut and had only gotten this job at the behest of Lodge himself who carried some weight with merchantmen. But a part of him also knew that Jack was just avoiding issues that he wasn't ready to deal with. Like Claire. It was obvious to him that Jack was throwing himself into hard work in order to forget the misery he was in and the misery he had placed others in.

"I don't see you much in Matavai," he commented after a bit.

"I sleep on board the Malahini mostly now. It's easier that way."

David studied his friend. "And safer," he added perceptively.

Jack cast him a withering look and then shrugged. "I've learned not to tempt fate anymore."

"You can't hide forever, Jack."

The younger seaman rubbed the edge of his jaw as if it still ached. "But I can certainly steer clear of a bad situation. I've no great desire to meet up with folks."

"Folks like Isabelle and Claire."

"They're in their right to be mad. I may not know when to cover my head, but I don't go sticking out my chin either. It's best I just stay out of the way."

"You're thinking it will all pass over?"

"Or not."

"And then what?" David asked. "You'll leave Matavai?"

"Perhaps it would be for the best."

David shook his head. "That's rubbish, Jack. I thought you better than that."

"I disappoint a great deal. You'd think people would catch on eventually," he said bitterly.

"Not you. You've been through hell. I know what that feels like now." David regarded him with haunted eyes. He flashed for a moment on his own private torment. It rose up strong and fierce and David tried to force back into its box.

Jack's own misery waned suddenly as he noticed the drawn look on David's face. He knew that expression; knew why it was there. He had seen that same expression stare back at him every day in a piece of cut glass tacked onto a wooden beam in his ramshackle hut. He could never forget the abominations he had performed when shipwrecked because it echoed in his face every time he looked into the mirror. The body can heal but the soul and the memory seemed permanently imprinted with the horror of the past. It's a hard thing to claw free from.

He didn't know what to say to David. It was obvious the man was still in pain over his abduction. Jack had heard what Mauriri had seen in that hut where he was chained. It had sickened him. This Devil that had held David had tortured him, and the sailor was trying hard to forget what had happened. But he wouldn't be able to. And worse, Jack had no easy solution for David. He wasn't even sure if he was the person to help him. As a friend, Jack always seemed to botch up everything. The responsibility of helping David get through this ordeal was just too heavy for him to bear right now. Surely Mauriri could help him better instead.

David grew uncomfortable in the silence. "You're not leaving Matavai, Jack. Not over this." His voice was stern, almost angry. "That's a coward's way."

Jack almost admitted to being one, but realized in one brief moment of clarity that it would not go over well with David. Not right now.  "Perhaps not," he said instead. "I'll stick around for a while longer. I won't betray Captain Lodge. It's good work and it keeps me busy, enough to forget that craving of rum that rises from time to time."

David relaxed a bit and took Jack by the shoulder. "That's good to hear. My offer still stands, you know. About the rum."

Jack nodded. "You're a good friend, David. Better than I deserve right now. Trust me, if ever the craving gets that bad, you'll be the first to know."

David chuckled and rose to his feet. "I wish you would change your mind about crewing with me for the race, but I understand prior obligations. I'll sorely miss your sure hand at the rigging, but maybe it's for the best. Isabelle will be on board too. It certainly wouldn't go well if the Isabelle started pummeling you during a critical moment."

Jack almost smiled. "No, you'd lose the race for sure. I'll be rooting for you though. I'd love to see Titchmarsh squirm a bit."

"It seems to be the main reason for the Rattler to be in the race. Petty bunch, aren't we?" He smirked.

"Sounds like a good reason to me. Good luck to you."

David took Jack's outstretched hand. "And to you. Fair sailing and a good run." He walked back toward the dingy.

"David?" Jack called out hesitatingly.

The seaman turned around. "Yeah?"

"If you ever…I mean if you need to …" Jack fumbled for words. He wanted to tell David that if the man wanted to talk about what happened to him, he'd be all right with that. But he faltered at the end.  Instead, he just said, "If you ever need help with anything, just let me know."

"Except for the race," David said with a grin.

"Yes, except for that. Anything else though." Jack felt terrible.

"I'll hold you to that," David assured him with a wave. Then he departed over the side of the Malahini and was gone.

Jack felt like he had run the entire length of the island and back. He was emotionally drained. He sank onto the gunwale and leaned forward on his knees. A good friend he was not. David needed help; that was plain. And Jack had failed again as a friend. What good was he? At this rate, he might well alienate everyone on the island. Except for David, he supposed. Nothing ever seemed to rattle that man. He wouldn't leave a friend's side no matter what; he saw the good in everyone.

Jack didn't deserve a friend like him.

He lifted his head and saw David rowing back to shore. He would find a way to help David overcome what happened to him, if he could. It was the right thing to do. He owed David quite a lot.

Somehow he'd find a way. That he swore.

****

            David and Mauriri were squaring away the rest of the ship, preparing for the race. It was only three days away. Supplies were being stored below decks, just enough food and water to last through the race. Most of it dried to reduce weight and give the ship all the extra advantage they could eek out.

            A bellow of a greeting came up from over the side and soon Captain Jim Lodge was on deck, followed by Isabelle.

            "What brings you here, Jim?" David greeted his old captain with a warm handshake. "A word of warning for us?"

            Lodge chuckled. "Actually I'm here to make sure you win."

            Now it was David's turn to laugh. "That's a fairly tall order."

            "Not at all," returned his old captain. "It takes brains and a little know how." Mauriri approached and greeted the former captain of the Malahini.  "Mauriri, it's good to see you on board the Rattler again."

            "It feels good be here. What's this about us winning?"

            "Isabelle discovered a little secret of mine and enlisted my help." He grinned at her while he spoke. "I didn't think you two gents would mind some pointers."

            "Absolutely not!" Mauriri told him, though the astonishment hadn't left his face. Isabelle continued to surprise him. The woman was always thinking. Frightening prospect really.

            "You know we would never turn your advice down," David assured him, his mind wondering what it was that Isabelle had discovered about Lodge. David had known him for years and Isabelle had only known the captain for a few months.

            "Good. I have just the thing to help keep the Rattler in front of her competition."

            "What? You have a miracle in your pocket? Angel's wings perhaps," David laughed.

            "Just as good." He nodded toward the small skiff that had brought him over. "I've brought you a sail. An American sail."

            "What's the difference?" David asked, watching as Tah-mey and some of his crew brought the heavy canvas on board.

            Lodge grinned, pleased that he could once again impart his knowledge onto the best crewman he had ever had. "British sails, most of them like the ones on the Resolute, are made of hand-woven flax and flown loose-footed—attached to the boom only at each end—they spill much of the wind from their bottom edges as they belly out, and they're so porous that you can feel a breeze on the lee side of the sailcloth. During races crewmen continually douse them to make the cloth shrink and reduce its porosity, thereby making the sails more efficient, but still some of the wind manages to leak through and they lose time."

            "That's what we use," noted Mauriri, though never had he heard of dousing sails. That was something he was going to file away in his memory for when the Rattler needed extra speed fleeing from pirates or smugglers.

            "Not after today," declared Lodge, patting the cloth of the sail that the crewman had brought over and laid out on the deck. There was a crowd around them.

            "It feels different," said Isabelle, fingering it gently.

            "Yes," said Lodge. "This sail is made of tightly machine-spun cotton duck and will be laced all along the booms, making it taut, nonporous and as flat as a drumhead. So little it will hardly bulge in the wind."

            David stared in amazement at the gift. "Where did you get such a thing?"

            "It was an order and I'm delivering it to a merchant in Australia next month. But I see no reason why you can't borrow it to kick the stuffing out of this race. Titchmarsh has caused me some lost cargo as well. I'd love to see that man taken down a few pegs.  Besides, there's only one ship that will give the Resolute a good run regardless."

            David knew Lodge meant the Rattler. "But you don't think she'll win."

            "She could but she'll need just a touch more of luck."

            "How do you know so much about racing, Jim?" asked Mauriri. The old captain had more tricks up his sleeves than David sometimes.

            "Let's just say that I dabbled once or twice in some interesting business ventures."

            "You raced?" David exclaimed.

            "Just a time or two as Isabelle discovered in the records."

            "Did you win?" asked Mauriri. He thought it an important point.

            "A time or two."           

            "What else can you tell us," David eagerly wanted to know. He was about to pick the man's brain clean. He grinned at Isabelle. She had done well, bringing an expert on board.

            "What do you know of square sails?"

            "Nothing beyond what you taught me when I was crew."

            "Well, here's a final secret. When you use a square sail, attached to a yard and hoisted on the foremast it will help speed the vessel along even when the wind is astern."

            "Meaning we can catch the wind when some of the other vessels can't," Isabelle said.

            "Exactly."

            "The Resolute doesn't use them," noted David, gazing out in the harbor.

            "No, she doesn't." Lodge's grin was wide and he was pleased everyone was being very observant and open about this lesson. It seems you can still teach an old crewman new skills.

            David was staring up at his own ship. "The Rattler will need a few modifications to accommodate them."

            "Easily done though if we rig it between there and there." He pointed near the front.

The Rattler's raked masts were set slightly forward of the usual mast position for a schooner, permitting her to carry a larger mainsail.

            "It's possible," mused David.

            "If we rearrange things a little," thought Mauriri.

            David brought a wide grin to bear on his old captain. "We just might have a chance."

"Then let's get to it!" Lodge ordered.

****

            The morning of the race was filled with blue sky and fast moving clouds. The wind blew gustily and sent the racing fleet of over thirty ships out of the bay at a quick pace. They all veered for the starting point. There was a low fog bank protected by the island's large bay and the ships disappeared into it without hesitation.

The Rattler moved well, taking little water over her bow and driving ahead with none of the pitching to be expected from a 100-foot schooner on the open ocean. But she did roll somewhat as the ocean's sweeping swells moved under her hull, and the motion shortly began to get to Isabelle.

Moving through the thick fog bank, with the swash of the sea and the creak of the masts echoing back at them sounded eerie to her. Thankfully, the fog blew away before a sudden strong breeze, and the ship surged ahead again into a clear sky. For the first time, it began to pitch, so much that her bowsprit was dipping below the waves.

            "Ugh," moaned Isabelle, feeling every roll of the boat in her tetchy stomach. She had been up all night, mired in anticipation. "Why couldn't this have been a calm sea?"

            "Because then there wouldn't be any race without the wind, Isabelle." David eyed his ships sails, keeping a close watch on their direction so he could orient his ship to use the wind to his best advantage. The wind buffeted his hair and shirt and they billowed as bright and full as his ship's sails. He wore his lucky red one to Isabelle's delight.

            He also kept a close eye on the new rigging. It wasn't that he doubted Captain Lodge, but this was a new thing for him. He could feel the difference in the Rattler in the way she moved. He wasn't sure if he would be fast enough to read these differences to use to his advantage in the race.

A schooner with its fore and aft sails, can point up better and sail faster close to the wind than square-rigged vessel can; but when a vessel is running before the wind nothing draws like a square sail. David shouted an order for it to be raised and it bellied out before the wind; the men hauled the braces taut, and all sails were set like a board.

            The little vessel sprang forward. David's heart leapt with it. His vessel was handling beautifully and seemed eager to try her new wings in the hard wind.

            Mauriri cast back a pleased grin at David and Isabelle. He too thought the Rattler was adjusting admirably to her new rigging.

            "She's running well," he shouted to them.

            "Lodge is a miracle worker," David announced.

            "Which is why I brought him in. Consulting the experts is the best way to get ahead," Isabelle pointed out.

            Mauriri was beginning to see why David wanted Isabelle back on the team and not just for the race.  Her keen mind for business and knowing how to get the most out of any situation was a remarkable feat. But there was too much uncertainty in her motives and scruples. After all, they were mainly racing to get back at Titchmarsh. It was not a reason to race, was it? That was a great deal of what the old David used to do. But Mauriri had to admit David was thriving at this challenge despite his earlier protests. She did seem to know what was good for David, but he was still worried about bringing her back as a partner.

The wind abruptly hauled forward of the beam and the square sail thundered and flapped. Rousing out of his reverie, Mauriri shouted for it to be lowered in disappointment. He distributed the men about the deck aft of the foremast for proper balance, and they crouched in readiness to jump to their stations. There was no idle conversation about the chuckle of the water alongside and the creak of the rings on the mast so great was everyone's concentration.

It was almost a full hour before the wind picked up again, one of tense waiting and extreme agitation for the fickleness of the weather. Finally a few smiles of satisfaction were exchanged, however, as the Rattler pointed up so well that she passed some of the yachts to windward. Within a quarter of an hour she had moved through most of the fleet and had only three yachts ahead of her.

Then David frowned as he felt his ship suddenly slow. The breeze showed signs of dying. Then, as the vanguard was passing Bradford House, the little cutter Volante, which the Rattler had just passed, caught a gust in her huge jib and, being lighter and more responsive to the wind, surged ahead of the entire fleet. Isabelle could just make out Captain Mele's tall frame at her wheel.

The breeze did not die, however, it picked up, much to David's relief. Mauriri let out a shout of jubilation as he watched the Rattler's big sails grew taut again, and the little vessel put her shoulder down and go to work. With the water now rushing along her lee bulwark, she overtook the leaders one by one.

To the onlookers crowding the pier near the eastern extremity of the island, the Rattler's performance was nothing less than spectacular. Lavinia grasped at Colin's arm as he stood beside her.

"Look at them go," she exclaimed.

"It's marvelous," he murmured in amazement.

Lodge was near beside himself with pride at the rail. The thrill of the race filling his heart like in the days of his past. The Rattler was performing as well as he had ever hoped. David's sure hand at the helm; Mauriri's sharp eyes to oversee the rigging and crew; while Isabelle kept track of where the other boats were in conjunction to their ship, made for a winning combination. He idly wondered if he should have placed more money in the pool.

Colin had rented a horse-drawn cart to take them to the next vantage point and they all piled in. Lavinia had packed a huge lunch with Lianni. This was their first boat race and they were both thrilled beyond measure, seeing especially that all their friends were manning the Rattler. They only had to root for one that way.

The reverend collected the reins and drove them at a slow steady pace. Going across the island would certainly put them well ahead of the boats. Afterwards, they would all retire back to Matavai Bay and wait in the darkness to see who would cross the finish line first. Lodge told them that with the fickleness of the winds, the race could last anywhere from seven to ten hours. It truly would be a test of endurance.

****

While the other yachts rose and dipped in the gathering whitecaps, tossing spray halfway up their masts, the Rattler seemed to cut straight through the waves.

And three and a half hours from the start, as the boats neared the western tip of the island and were about to enter the open channel, the Rattler moved up past the big leaders and then inched past the spirited little Volante. David jauntily saluted Captain Mele as they passed who only stared at the quick little Rattler with astonishment. With the breeze freshening and a chop building up from the channel, the Rattler moved steadily ahead of most of the fleet.

But there were four vessels still ahead of them, including the Resolute. David wasn't so sure that they could catch them. They had used all of their tricks and still it wasn't enough. He could hear the rigging creak and moan as the wind pulled the ropes tightly against the mast and the cloth of the sails. He could feel his ship straining beneath the wood of the helm beneath his palm and the tremble of the deck under his feet. She was giving all she had. How could he ask her to give more so that she broke apart under the strain? Not for a simple boat race? A life and death venture maybe, but not this.

So when the wind slacked off again, David didn't give the order to draw back the sails but nor did he urge his men or his ship to do more. Mauriri didn't either. And when his friend glanced back at him with a somber face, he knew Mauriri thought the same thing. The race was lost.

Isabelle though didn't understand. "Should we raise the square sail or something? We're slowing down!"

"I know, Isabelle," David said.

"We can't catch them now." Mauriri was staring up at the sky. There was only a modest wind filling the sheets at present.

He He did

"We can't just give up." Her gray eyes turned on David, full of loss and desperation.

"It's not exactly up to us," Mauriri told her gently. Isabelle sometimes liked to believe that sheer willpower could change a situation. He admired her tenaciousness and sought to ease her down gently.

It was at this point four of the leading skippers made a costly mistake.

Off the eastern point of the island was a landmark called the Motu, marking a tall tower of rock, practically an island in itself, jutting up from the reefs, indicating the shoal areas between it and the shore of the main island. Four of the yachtsmen, following local custom, tacked off to go out around the Motu, including the Resolute.

As David steered to follow suit, even though he knew there was little they could do to catch up, Isabelle ran up to him and stayed his hand. "David, wait!"

Confused, David studied the water, searching for something dangerous that perhaps Isabelle had spied, but he saw nothing.

"What's the matter?" Mauriri asked, coming back to them from the bow.

Isabelle was staring intently ahead of them, at the ships making their way around the Motu.

David shrugged at Mauriri. "Isabelle noticed something." He turned to her. "Do you see something? Should I veer off?"

"No," she stated. "But don't follow them." She was pointing after the four lead boats.

"Why not?"

"The rules call out the Motu as a marker. We have to go around," pointed out Mauriri.

"But they don't specifically say on which side we all have to stay." She had that gleam in her eye, which made Mauriri nervous. "Didn't you say that you know this area well? Do you know where the deep water is on the other side of the Motu?"

"Yes, but…"

Isabelle pulled out a pamphlet from her jacket. "This says nothing about which side of the Motu marker we're supposed to take, only that the course itself is 'around Matavai.'"

Before the start of the race, each boat had been issued instruction cards indicating the course and rules of the race. A program of the race had also been printed, for participants and spectators alike. While the program stated that the Motu was a landmark, the instruction cards did not include such a specific direction; they simply mentioned the Motu as one of the marks, without indicating on which side the vessel should leave the rocky tower.

There was, of course, the danger of running aground on one of the shoals between the Motu and the shore. But Mauriri, acting as pilot, knew where the deeper water was located. If they could take the Rattler inside the mark on a shortcut that saved at least two miles, they could have the advantage over the other participants.

David regarded Mauriri, a deep frown crossing his features. "What do you think?"

"I suppose the question is, do we want to win the race or not?" was Mauriri's response.

David was a bit surprised. "Of course I want to win. Do you?" he asked the native man cautiously. In truth he didn't know the answer.

But Mauriri's broad grin was the telling answer.

"Titchmarsh will contest it, you know that," David told him, but his own grin was breaking through. "We'll be disqualified."

"Let him," Isabelle laughed. "I just want to give him a heart attack when we cross the line first."

Her laugh was infectious. It swept through the ship. No one had much love for Titchmarsh and his arrogant ways.

"Let's do it," shouted David. He ordered the sails pulled taut and swung the vessel in toward the island and the shoals.

Mauriri ran for the bow of the boat to steer David on the correct bath. Sparrow and Teh-mey stood by with sounding rigs.

By the time the other more cautious yachts had rounded the outside of the Motu, the Rattler was far ahead of the nearest one. And some of the trailing yachts had caught up with the leaders by following the Rattler on the same shortcut.

The crew of the Rattler cheered. The tension that had been plaguing David was suddenly eased. It was good for the morale this venture. He had never seen the men so relaxed. This was enjoyable for them even though it was hard work.

            "At least we won't be the only ones disqualified," Isabelle remarked lightly looking at the boats that had trailed after them on the inside of the Motu. The valiant little Arrow was dogging them at every step. The captain obviously trusted David and Mauriri implicitly.

****

            "Can you see them?" Lianni asked breathlessly. She had all but run up the hill to the cliff side vantage point. The carriage that had deposited Lavinia, Colin, Lodge and herself was waiting patiently as Colin helped Lavinia with the basket tied behind the seats.

            There were already a small gathering of onlookers and one politely turned and nodded. "They've just come around the horn."

            "Who's in front?" she demanded, then smiled quickly as she realized she sounded just a tad too brusque. To her relief it was a friend that called back, whose voice was rich with exhilaration.

            "I swear I only see the Rattler's sails. She must be leagues ahead of the rest," shouted back Claire who was at the top of the hill, sitting with a crowd of people. She waved excitedly at Mauriri's wife.

            Lianni let out a very undignified whoop of joy as Lodge raced up to her. "They're in front! They're in front!"

            "Who's second?" was Lodge's quick reply though his face beamed with pleasure. But he knew how fickle the winds could be.

            "No one!" declared Lianni. "They're going to win! Isn't it wonderful!"

            Lavinia and Colin joined them, lugging the basket and a nice wool blanket. They had overheard the joyous clamor. "Do you really think they'll win?" the reverend asked Lodge.

            "It's still too early to tell, but she's giving a good show of herself. They should be proud. I bet Captain Fallon is beside himself. He probably thought this would be an easy win."

            "Oh, I can think of someone else who's beside himself," Lavinia commented quietly and inclined her regal head toward another group of figures standing in the crowd atop the hill on the far end.

            The Titchmarshs had planted themselves at the best vantage point with a large table complete with a lace tablecloth and fine china. Around the table sat Gilles Bradford, Henri Seraut and also Mrs. Russell and Claire. Claire's attention was drawn to Lavinia as she approached. She lifted a hesitant hand in greeting and was pleased in some way when the entire group returned it, Lavinia included.

Seraut and Bradford stood and acknowledge the newcomers with formal courtesy.

However, Mr. Titchmarsh was scowling, his prized telescope trained on the far cliff face while he waited with pensive breath for another ship to round the bend. But the minutes were ticking by and not another sail showed forth.

            "It's utterly ridiculous. I heard that the Resolute was unbeatable. What is Captain Fallon playing at here?"

            Mrs. Titchmarsh was also frowning but more at the approaching Lavinia and Lianni. But then her attention returned to her husband. "Perhaps he is playing a game, dear. Sort of letting the horse have a bit of rope before it chokes itself."

            Mr. Titchmarsh grunted. "I suppose Fallon is that good a sailor. But it seems foolhardy. Better to put these upstarts in their place quickly. Let them dog your heels instead. Breaks the morale."

            "You should have joined Captain Fallon's crew, dear. He could have used your wise council. Don't you agree, Mrs. Russell?"

            "Indeed," announced Mr. Titchmarsh for himself.

            "I suppose if he were knowledgeable about such things," responded Mrs. Russell politely, "than Captain Fallon would welcome any assistance."

            "Especially now," added Claire honestly, which only earned her glares from some of the gathered individuals.  Except for Gilles who beamed at her and then leaned toward her.

"I would gather that Captain Fallon is greatly relieved at such an oversight."

Claire hid a chuckle behind a white-gloved hand and tried hard not to allow it to blossom into a full-fledged laugh.

"Mauriri and Grief are doing an incredible job. They have a very good chance of winning it."

"Oh, do you think so?" She cheered for David, Mauriri and Isabelle. How exciting it must be to stand on the deck of the ship as it raced. Claire envied Isabelle immensely. She would have to do a story about it.

"Absolutely," Gilles remarked. "I only wish I could have joined them."

Mr. Titchmarsh cast the two of them a disparaging look. He was sitting right here; he could hear them. What gall, he thought. "I think you give them too much credit."

Gilles regarded the older man. "I would think that you'd be pleased to have a local man win the race. It's good for business."

"Yes, but why did it have to be Grief and his friend. That kind of business I could do without."

            Mrs. Titchmarsh lifted a hand at Colin, keeping her expression especially guarded. "Reverend, do come and join us at our table. There's room for one more."

            Colin found it difficult to force a polite smile. The woman was clearly off her mark if she thought he'd abandon the people he just arrived with to sit with the likes of her. Sometimes the woman's blatant prejudice was almost unbearable. He must have looked like he was going to say something inappropriate because Lavinia's hand briefly brushed his arm. When he glanced at her she had only a warm smile for him.

            Drawing a deep sigh, he shook his head at Mrs. Titchmarsh. "Thank you, Mrs. Titchmarsh. However, I worked hard on this wonderful picnic meal. I simply must have some. Do feel free to come try some yourself though." His hand waved toward the basket on top of the blanket Lavinia was arranging on the ground. He smiled at Claire hoping she would at least come to join them. He was pleased at her wide smile but he also didn't miss the slight touch of Mrs. Russell at her elbow. With a quick glance to her matriarch, Claire's smile faded and she shook her head at Colin apologetically.

            Mrs. Titchmarsh simply snorted but with a great deal of effort kept the smile rigid on her face. "No thank you, Reverend. But suit yourself. Though I dare say the view is much better here."

            "I doubt it," muttered Lodge, eyeing Mrs. Titchmarsh's large frame. With his broad back obscuring their view, his hands outlined very generous portion of the woman's build.

            "Jim," hissed Lavinia.

            "I'm sorry, but that woman is annoying."

            "No argument from me," responded Colin as he sat down amongst them.

            Lavinia just shook her head. "She's no different than a hundred other people on this island."

            "That's the problem," Colin muttered. "She's a leader in the community and she sets a poor example."

            "Only by some people's standards," Lavinia pointed out.

            "My word, why do you of all people stand up for that woman?" asked Lianni. She knew full well how Titchmarsh had treated Lavinia and Isabelle. It was wrong.

            "It will take a good deal more than your preaching, Colin; your indignation, Lianni; and your hand puppets, Jim, to change the likes of her." She gave a subtle shrug of her shoulders in resignation.

            "But perhaps all of those together will help her see the error of her ways," noted Colin. "I believe that even the oldest of dogs can be taught new tricks." He winked at Lavinia and bobbed his head toward the Titchmarshs while Lodge made a little dog puppet out of his hands.

            The four of them all fell into peals of laughter.

            "Dare I speculate that the joke is at my host's expense?" asked Gilles Bradford who had just sauntered over.  His dark eyes were sparkling with mischief as he leaned over Lavinia's hand.

            His answer was a wide smile on each of their faces.  "I'm surprised you aren't racing, Gilles," said Lavinia.

            Gilles shrugged his slender shoulders clad in a bright white shirt.  "I couldn't talk my father into sponsoring a boat and Henri wasn't willing to risk the money against both the Resolute and the Rattler.  But there are other ways to making a race exciting that are somewhat less strenuous."

            "Who did you risk your money on?" asked Lodge curious as to just how much of a gambler the young man was.

            "The Rattler, of course," responded Gilles with a puzzled look.

            "Local pride?" queried Colin.

            "There is that and the fact that should she win the gain will be far greater. Thank you, Lianni," Gilles said as he accepted a skewer of cold grilled shrimp.

            "Longer odds," said Lodge his attention still on the point where the next boat would come into view.

            "Yes, but the real payoff will be the look on Titchmarsh's face if the Rattler manages to hold her lead."

            Lavinia smiled at Gilles.  There was of course no real risk involved for him.  Still she was pleased he had put his faith and his money on the Rattler.  She glanced at the group around the table.  The smile on Claire's face looked a bit strained. "Gilles?" she said with a nod towards those around the distant table.

            Gilles glanced over his shoulder.  "Ah, yes.  Well, I wish you all a good day.  Do come have a look at the Malahini while you're in port, Captain," he said as he walked away. 

            Lavinia noticed that he paused for a moment and whispered something in Claire's ear that made her smile more genuine.

            "Another sail!" came the cry.

            The four of them stood up and trained their gaze seaward. Lodge produced his telescope. "It's the Arrow!"

            There was a round of disgusted groans from the other end of the crowd.

"Impossible!" shouted Titchmarsh.

            "Oh my! The Resolute is three sails behind the Rattler!" squealed Lianni. "Oh they are going to win!"

            "Possibly," admitted Lodge. "But there is more to winning a boat race than being out in front."

            "Like what?"

            "Like having luck on your side." 

****

That luck changed once again. The breeze began to die, and a few of the lighter boats started to come up on the Rattler. Off the curve of shoreline north of the Motu, a strong tide flowed in toward the beach. The Rattler was caught in it, with barely enough breeze to keep from being swept onshore. Mauriri was now at the wheel, giving David a break while they had a chance.

"Damn it," Mauriri cursed and spun the wheel to steer her back into safer water. The Rattler struggled against the pull of the tidal flow. Her limbs trembled with the strain as Mauriri worked her free. They had taken the chance by cutting closer to shore in order to shave some distance, but the winds were not favoring them and slowed just at the wrong time, enabling the tide to grasp them.

Isabelle was at the bow watching the sails critically not watching what the crew was doing.

There was a cracking, splintering sound, and the jib boom curled back over the bowsprit. Isabelle knew what it meant. She raced forward in a desperate panic. She'd be damn if they would lose this race, not over this. They veered starboard as the rigging dipped into the water and pulled the bow about. The deck shifted beneath her feet as a cursing Mauriri turned the Rattler into the wind while the men scrambled out onto the bowsprit.

Shouts echoed after as the men struggled to make right the damage. A loose rope, snapped by the weight flailed around and walloped Isabelle's head. She fell to her knees but was up again quickly, more annoyed than hurt.

            Isabelle flung herself over the bow, reaching desperately for the flapping rigging. Maybe it could be salvaged. Tah-mey too struggled to pull the damaged pieces back on the ship. The men retrieved what they could, while Isabelle came dangerously close to falling in.

Suddenly David was there beside her, a hand at the crazy woman's waist. The sail was still attached and ballooning in the water, acting still like a sail except as a deterrent in this case as the ship was dragged in a crazy arc from the force. He firmly grabbed hold of Isabelle before the woman was dragged in after it.

"Let it go!" he shouted. "Let it go!"

"It's not lost! We can fix it!" Isabelle argued determinedly.

"It's not worth it! Cut the rigging!" David shouted at the rest of the crew, his arms tight around Isabelle as he hauled her back.

At David's orders, Tah-mey jettisoned the jib boom. David and Isabelle tumbled back onto the deck just as the Rattler righted herself. Mauriri quickly brought her back on course and out into deeper water away from the treacherous tidal flow, still in the lead, but by a smaller margin.

Mauriri shouted from the stern, "Are you all right?"

David nodded. Isabelle had a rivulet of blood dripping from a gash on her scalp from where the loose rigging had struck her. It wasn't deep and the woman didn't even seem to notice it, so irate she was with the situation.

"We lost the square sail," she snarled, slapping the wooden deck furiously.

"Well, it's better than losing you, Isabelle," David told with her as he helped her to her feet. His heart still hadn't stopped its panicked pounding. Good God, he had almost lost her! Had the broken rigging been the work of the Devil? Had the man been able to get on board again and play havoc with his ship? With the people he loved? His mind raced with doubts until he felt a hand on his cheek.

"David, I'm fine." Isabelle turned his face toward her. "Look at me."

He covered up his fear and tried to give her a stern look. "What would Claire say about your recklessness?" he whispered harshly in an attempt to redirect her thinking.

"She'd be very cross," she admitted.

"Exactly." David took her firmly by the arm. "Come on. Let's get that cut taken of. Down into the hold with you, you crazy, gutsy crewman." His eyes shined a bit with pride as he realized that Isabelle had become so much a part of this ship, against her wishes even, that she would risk so much to save the ship.

She smiled triumphantly as she strode past the crew who all smiled at her, proud that she had risked life and limb to make sure they stayed out in front. Isabelle felt near to bursting. She really had become a respected part of the crew.

David stopped Tah-mey as the sailor went past and ordered quietly, "Check the rigging. I want to know why it broke."

The man nodded.

Down in the hold, David just shook his head at her. "You shouldn't have taken the chance, Isabelle." His heart had finally begun to slow. For a moment there, he thought the jib was going to take her down to the bottom with it.

"You want to win, don't you?"

"Not at that price. Never at that price." He stared at her with a face that Isabelle rarely saw and still to this day couldn't understand. Why should he care so much? Surely if he did, he wouldn't have cast her partnership aside the way he did.

"I really thought I could save it," she replied quietly.

"Is it that important to you that we win?" He dabbed at her cut with water, being careful in his prodding so he wouldn't hurt her.

"No. But I want to see you…." She broke off and winced slightly as he pressed hard for a moment. "Never mind," she finally said.

"See me what? Why is this about me?"

She laughed almost bitterly. "It's always about you, David. You idiot."

That took him completely by surprise. His hand dropped the cloth down to his side. He was completely stumped by her statement.

"I want to see you happy!" she admitted softly.

"By throwing yourself over the side?" he asked full of incredulity.

"No," she retorted sharply. "That was a miscalculation. I didn't realize the sail would soak up seawater so fast. I – I just didn't want to fail you this time. I didn't want to lose face since I'm the one who came up with this crazy venture. I wouldn't be much of a business woman if that happened, would I? You wouldn't think much of me."

David paused, letting that bit of information wash over him. Now things began to make sense. He placed a clean bandage over the wound and told her to hold it there as he wound another strip around her dark hair.

"This wasn't just your idea," he reminded her quietly. His guilt was back full force.

"Yes, it was."

"Mauriri was just as adamant about it."

"But at my insistence. I'm the one that wouldn't let it go."

"Why was that?"

Isabelle shrugged. "Partly because of Titchmarsh's involvement, I suppose."

"And the other part?" he asked as he tied off the end of the bandage. His hand pulled hers down from holding the dressing. He didn't let go of it. Their fingers squeezed together as if drawing strength from the other's presence.

"Like I said," Isabelle whispered, "I wanted to see you happy."

"I am happy. Are you?"

She forced a little laugh. "Me? Of course, I'm happy. Why wouldn't I be happy? I used you and now I'm finished with you." Her eyes didn't leave his. They kept boring their way into her. Her breath was coming a tad too rapid.

"I never meant –," he began.

She leaped off the cot. "Of course, you didn't," she responded brusquely. The truth was too close to coming out. "I know that. And I'm glad I was able to help. That's what I'm here for. Good Samaritan and all that. That's me."

David smiled a bit at that. "You are. You really are."


            "Well, let's hope Titchmarsh doesn't feel the same way. I want to make him squirm like a worm on a hook. Come on," she said, pulling his arm so he followed her back up on deck. "We have a race to win."

When they emerged Mauriri was desperately trying to keep hold of the lead, which was far too slight now. The Rattler was moving more like her old self without the new rigging but without the sail's extra canvas it would affect her speed that they need now more than ever.

David sought out Tah-mey, anxious to know if his fears were justified. Perhaps it had been a bad decision about entering the race and bringing Isabelle on board.

Tah-mey noticed his captain's arrival on deck and came over immediately. He quickly explained that the boom itself was not at fault; it had easily withstood the light pressure of the wind. But Sparrow and the crew, using a windlass to pull the jib sheet taut, had cranked it too tight. "It was destined to fail after that. Just bad luck. No more."

David nodded, desperate to believe his loyal crewman. It had all the appearances of just an accident, a miscalculation. Lately, he had his doubts about such things, but Tah-mey seemed to be content with that answer. But he would be even more on his guard now. It seemed foolish, since only his usual, long-standing crew was with him. He had hired no one new. So maybe this was only foolishness.

The winds around the island were predictable only in their unpredictability. In the open channel south of the island there was less wind than there had been in the sheltered strait. The Rattler kept moving west along the south shore, but the going was slow, and baffling currents kept taking her off course making David brusque and irritated.

But Isabelle saw she was not the only vessel to suffer, however, nor the one to suffer most. Her stomach twisted as an errant current carried the Arrow onto a rock ledge east of the island's Shark Bay. Another cutter, Alarm, started to her rescue and almost followed her aground. Isabelle thought it incredibly brave of Captain Sippet to try and assist, risking yet another collision and disaster to his vessel. She sent a silent prayer their way.

Two other yachts, Assateague and Volante, tacking close to shore, collided; Volante, the early leader and one of the fastest in the fleet, lost her entire jib boom and, along with Alarm and Arrow, now hopelessly behind the rest of the field, had to retire from the race.

"Are they all right?" David shouted.

Isabelle used the spyglass to determine the fate of their competitors. To her relief, everyone appeared to be safe. Other ships that weren't in the race but had been trailing after them were maneuvering to help the stranded racers.

"They're okay," she assured her partners. "Help is on the way."

            It had been a close call. Currents were erratic and could catch the unsuspected. Without the wind to carry them free, boats were at its mercy as easily as a swimmer. The light wind and demanding sea was affecting most of the racers and it cleared the field as swiftly as a hand swiping across a chessboard.

By now only the yacht Resolute was giving the Rattler any competition. A few others were in sight, but far astern of her. It would come down to the two of them forestalling any other disasters.

David relieved Mauriri at the wheel as the Rattler glided past Mui's Point. At the southern tip of the island, she altered her course to northwest and loosened her sheets for a quartering breeze had begun to look promising. The entire crew held their breath and watched the sails as they gradually filled and caught the passing air stream. The wind held, and the Rattler swept up the island's southwest coast, reopening the gap between her and the other vessels, in particular the Resolute.

Isabelle could see the crew of that ship working furiously to catch the same wind and hopefully use it to their better advantage. She had full faith in David and Mauriri to make the Rattler fly like the spirited ship she was. For the first time, Isabelle was beginning to sense the ship's full power. To any layman, she was but a piece of floating driftwood, but David and Mauriri could make such a trifle dance and soar like a bird on the wing. Without the added terror of pirates, she was actually relaxed and could finally take note of the beauty that shone in this ship. No wonder the men loved her so. And Isabelle was beginning to feel that same elation and pride in being a part of this ship and not just a mere passenger. It broke her heart to realize that this was her final voyage on board the beautiful ship, at least as a member of its crew.

The Rattler rounded the tiny lighthouse marking the tip of the island and was now on the last leg back to Matavai Bay. The crew cheered as the bow of their vessel continued to plow ahead. Her sail framed against the shimmering blue water was a sight to behold.

But then the wind began to die, fading into a fickle breeze that fluctuated in direction and scatted cat's paws across the surface of the sea.

"Damn it!" shouted Mauriri. His hand slammed down on the gunwale and he cast a terse face back to David. Fate's teasing hand was beginning to get annoying.

David blew out his breath, desperately considering their options. The wind was dying for all of them. It was now a matter of who could capture more of it than the other competitors. The smaller vessels would require less than the larger vessels. The Rattler was heavier than the Resolute but she had the better sails thanks to Lodge.

            Mauriri called out orders to Tah-mey and the crew. "Goosewing the foresail and the mainsail!" He looked back at Isabelle who was puzzled by such an order. He explained. "If we get one out to port and the other to starboard, it will present the largest possible surface area to the wind, regardless of how slight it is, every little bit counts now."

            David nodded his approval and spun the helm to angle the vessel's bow where the sails could work the best. The men made short work of Mauriri's order and soon her sails were arranged to catch what wind she could.

The Rattler had taken seven and a half hours to cover the forty-one miles to the Hoe Lighthouse. Now, the shifting wind and against an ebbing tide, she took three hours to complete the last twelve miles of the course, drifting along with her wings spread wide to the faint following wind.

Astern of her one vessel came stubbornly on. The Resolute had gone outside the Motu, but continued her dogged pursuit. Captain Fallon was not giving up. Isabelle could hear the man shouting at his crew as he tried to find a way to eek more speed from his ship and catch the vessel that taunted him throughout this race.

Somehow he must have picked up a shift of wind for the vessel began to draw closer. Isabelle shouted at David and Mauriri, pointing behind them, but there was little they could do. It was sheer luck that Fallon had discovered a salvation. At Shark Bay the Resolute had been all of eight miles astern. But as David and the rest of The Rattler's crew anxiously watched, Resolute steadily closed the gap.

"She's going to catch us," remarked Isabelle solemnly, her hand pulling the annoying bandage from her head. It hung limp in her fingers. She wasn't angry. Even coming in second to a ship and a captain like James Fallon was a remarkable feat. She was just disappointed that Titchmarsh wouldn't get his just deserts at her hands. Above all she wanted to take that race money from his dirty little hands.

There was no answering statement from David. He saw the inevitable as well. Mauriri moved forward to stand with the crew. Silence settled on the Rattler as each man sent a silent prayer to sea gods, saints, and sailors' angels. Perhaps one of them would look their way and guide them to victory. The passage of time crawled to a halt and David and the rest were lost in that netherworld that only knew two ships, two crews and two dreams.

Dusk settled over the island, darkening the green filled cliffs and obscuring the finish line. Only Resolute's outline loomed larger and larger behind them like a great avenging bird, her spread wings red against the setting sun lying on the horizon in the west. But she was still some distance astern at 8:37 pm when the men aboard the Rattler saw a kaleidoscope of light in the sky just ahead of them, followed by the crackle and burst of fireworks, signaling that the Rattler had crossed the finish line.

At first there was stunned silence, men looking at each other in puzzlement, disbelieving what they were seeing. But then the crew went wild. Enthusiastic shouts and dancing on the deck ensued. Mauriri grabbed Sparrow in an exuberant embrace much to the old man's surprise.

Isabelle let out a scream of victory and leapt into David's arms. "We won! We won!"

David was laughing, his grip on the wheel lost in the flurry of excitement that was Isabelle Reed. He spun her around in joyful glee. He had never seen her so happy. They had done it, by hook or by crook or by simple miracle.

"That we did!" he laughed. She turned her face toward him. It was filled with rapt joy. She had never looked more beautiful. In a quick second of thought, his head dipped down and captured her lips in a deep kiss. Her arms wrapped around his shoulders a little tighter, lost in the moment. His lips kept moving over hers, pulling and consuming. It felt like she was drowning in him. Her breath was gone and she couldn't draw another.

Then he slowly pulled back, their faces flushed, their eyes both wide and wondering.

"W-what was that?" Isabelle asked once she got her breath back.

"That was me be daring and unafraid," he told her, the barest of smiles quirking the corner of his mouth.

"Oh," she said quietly. Then her tingling lips broadened into a pleased smile.

The glare from the fireworks made the deck of the little vessel sparkle, casting them in a shimmering glow. Mauriri brought over bottles of port and a box of glasses and proceeded to distribute them out to the men. Isabelle and David separated a tad reluctantly, but not before the islander took note of it with mild curiosity.

"My God, we did it!" Mauriri exclaimed. He laid a wondering hand on the Rattler's sails. "Remarkable. Like an angel's flight."

            "It's as close to flying as you can get," David said.

            "That's what it was like. Flying," Isabelle agreed, her gaze catching David's.

            He smiled. "Thanks to you and Lodge. Without his new wings, he'd have never beaten them."

            "And we kept them intact too," Isabelle noted. She exhaled a sigh of relief.

            Mauriri's laughter faded a bit. He hadn't even thought about that. Good thing too. He was too stressed just by the race to even realize it. But then he grinned. "Luck loves us," he declared.

            "About damn time too," David said. It felt good to be a winner for a change. Things were definitely feeling like old times. Of course, now they had to go be disqualified, but in the meantime it felt like victory.

****

            The taphouse was packed. It seemed that everyone on the island was jammed inside its borders. But even that couldn't account for the multitudes. Obviously the news had traveled beyond their little island and people had come from many miles around to watch the spectacle.

            And by God, they had given them all a spectacle to remember, thought Isabelle. The three of them entered side by side, all wearing grins big enough to burst.

            Miraculously the crowd parted to let them enter Lavinia's where the winner's cup and cash would be awarded. The crowds closed in around them as they approached. Wild cheering from the locals echoed around the walls.

            Then suddenly Mr. Titchmarsh was before them. His face was red and flushed. Isabelle had never seen him angrier. It did her heart a world of good to know that she had played a part in this. A sense of self-satisfaction enveloped her. What more could she ask for? Despite what would happen in the next few minutes, they all knew this would be a day that they would all talk about for years to come.

            "Mr. Titchmarsh," David called out to his former employer. "What a wonderful sight to greet us after our win." His smirk was wide and condescending. 

            "You…You….You c-cheated!" Titchmarsh finally got out through his puffed cheeks. "False win! Disqualified!"

            "Says who?" demanded Isabelle. "On what grounds? We crossed the finish line first!"

            "The Motu! You fouled on the Motu!" Titchmarsh stepped forward and pointed an accusing finger at the trio, though he centered on Isabelle since she was more in his direct line of sight.

            Mauriri put a shoulder in front of Titchmarsh and made the man pull up short, though his finger still wagged threateningly. "There was no foul there. The rules state--,"

he began.

            "You were supposed to go outside the Motu!" Titchmarsh interrupted. "You sailed on the wrong side. And worse you dragged good captains along with you on your ludicrous and ill-advised journey. You corrupted them all."

            "Corrupted? That's a strong term to be throwing around," remarked David.

            "You people are criminals!" Titchmarsh stared openly at Isabelle.

            "Mr. Titchmarsh," spoke a voice from the crowd. "Perhaps you might let another voice weigh in on this matter."

            James Fallon emerged from the crowd with his first mate, followed by the captains of the Alarm and the Volante.

            "Ah, a voice of reason," announced Titchmarsh. He leaned in toward David and the others. "Now you will see how you are regarded in the professional world. Captain Fallon will put you in your rightful place."

            Isabelle and Mauriri followed David's show of silence on Titchmarsh's threats. Fallon's opinion was the one that David valued. If the judgment came from him, regardless of the outcome, then David would bow to it, but never to Titchmarsh's pomposity.

            David shook the hands of Captain Sippet and Captain Mele. "Glad to see you're both all right. How do the ships' fair?"

            Mele nodded. "Better than she has a right too. She will be ready to sail within a month's time."

            "Meanwhile, enjoy paradise, eh," remarked Mauriri.

            "Sounds like a wise proposition."

            Captain Sippet slapped Mauriri and David on the back. "Clever blokes you two."

            "It was Isabelle Reed who gave us the edge at the Motu."

            "Amazing. Brilliant move."

            Fallon shook his head at the trio of seaman. "Never in my life have I seen such boldness in a race."

            "Audacity!" shouted Titchmarsh. "Exactly what I meant."

            Fallon frowned at Titchmarsh. "Exactly the opposite, my good man. For the first time, I felt challenged out there. Never have I worked so hard or brainstormed so much while racing. Grief here, and his crew, tested me at every turn. They deserve this win."

            "What? I must protest!" Titchmarsh's cheeks were so puffed out they looked fit to bursting at any moment. Disbelief marked him well. He had thought Captain Fallon of all people would be on his side. "They cheated!"

            "We did not," protested Isabelle. "There was no specific instructions on the exact route we had to take." She held the printed race instructions in her hand. "Where does it state we had to go outside the Motu?"

            "It goes without saying! It's customary!" Titchmarsh declared, knowing that he himself had written up those instructions.

            "Customary? There's never been a race in Matavai. We're setting the standard," Isabelle declared.

            Mauriri regarded Isabelle's tenacity on this matter with a great deal of satisfaction. No wonder she was a remarkable businesswoman. She fought with the passion of a lioness and the intelligence of a spirited mare.

            Fallon took the instructions from Isabelle's hand and scrutinized it carefully. "There is no specific mention of the exact route any of us were to take, Mr. Titchmarsh. I'm afraid I have to declare that they have broken no rule, since the rule did not exist." He smiled at Isabelle as he handed back the pamphlet. "Well played, Miss Reed. Well played indeed."

            Mauriri stared at Fallon. "You mean we won?"

            Fallon nodded. "Yes. I concede."

            David and Mauriri clasped each other's shoulder in disbelief. "We won!" they shouted.

            Isabelle merely stood smugly in front of them, her arms crossed as she confronted her sworn enemy.

            "This is an outrage!" coughed Titchmarsh, flabbergasted that he had lost his argument.

            "Where's our prize money?" demanded Isabelle.

            David laughed and put his arm around Isabelle. "God, I love your one track mind."

            The bar was going wild with exuberant celebration. Soon they were all swept up by the enthusiastic emotion filling the bar and the numerous congratulators. There was hardly any time to consider more than realizing that they had just beat one of the most distinguished racers in history.

            Lodge and the others pushed their way through the throng. David's old captain slapped him so hard on the back he actually stumbled forward.

            "You did it! By God, you did it!" Lodge yelled boisterously.

            David turned around, rotating his shoulder. "We couldn't have done it without you."

            Mauriri swept up his wife in an embrace. "We won! Can you believe it?"

            "Absolutely! I knew you could," she told him, showering his face with kisses.

            "She was cheering for you all the way," Lavinia informed him.

            "And you weren't?" he grinned at her.

            "Of course I was. You just couldn't hear me over Lianni."

            He kissed his wife soundly, riding on cloud nine. It was just sinking in that they had bested some of the best sailors in the world.

            David was still letting it all sink in. It didn't seem quite real to him yet. 

            Lavinia crossed over to him and planted a kiss on his cheek. "It was a fine race." He hugged her briefly before she went back to stand beside Colin.

            "Smashing job, David," remarked the reverend. "Terribly exciting. I can't believe how much praying I did while just watching it."

            "It really was something to see," Lavinia agreed.

            "Thank you," David said, noting for the first time the constant proximity of his two friends. They never seemed to be far from each other these days. It was a surprise and yet it felt comfortable and right.

             "Well, Titchmarsh is fit to be tied." Isabelle slipped into their group. She was beaming and held up a wad of cash and the now infamous Titchmarsh Cup, a small pewter vessel. Isabelle clutched it like it was the Holy Grail itself. 

            "Congratulations," Lavinia said. The race had been a bold move and Isabelle's gamble had paid off. Lavinia had to admit to a bit of satisfaction as well. Titchmarsh deserved to be taken down a few pegs.

            Isabelle dolled out the cash equally to Mauriri and David. "Fair split and there's more than enough to cover any repairs and adjustments."

            Mauriri laughed and immediately handed over the winnings to Lianni. "And enough to buy my wife a new dress."

            David grinned at Isabelle. "Way to go, partner!"

            Her expression as she turned to him was enormous and bright. He swore he could see tears of abject delight in her eyes. It was wonderful to see and terrible all at once.

            "What did you call me?" she whispered.

            David immediately balked. "Well, you know. I mean for the race."

            Immediately, her glow faded. "Oh right, of course." She called back a bit of her smile. "Absolutely." Uncomfortable suddenly, she shrugged. "I need a drink. You need one? I'll get us a round." She shoved the winning trophy into his hand and disappeared abruptly into the crowd.

            David felt sick. If it were up to him, right here and right now, he would fix this matter once and for all. But it wasn't just up to him. He turned to the one other person whose opinion mattered.

            "Mo, I need to talk to you."

****

            David and Mauriri stepped out onto the balcony, accepting the congratulations as they went with just the most cursory of acknowledgements. Finally they found space at the rail near the edge of the deck.

            "What is it, David?"

            "I've been thinking."

            "Uh-oh."

            David frowned though a part of him was grateful Mauriri was in such good spirits. "This money is great and all and it means we won't be behind on the payment this month."

            "By all of two weeks! We would have caught up on the next run. That's always been the way. That's nothing new with the way we do business."

            "Not when Isabelle ran things. We were never behind. Well, maybe only once."

            Mauriri understood now what was eating at David. He sighed. His friend wasn't about to let this matter go. Whatever was eating at him, fear, doubt, even love had its hand in this. There was so much that was wrong with this imminent proposition, but no logic would sway David. When he looked at Isabelle he saw only a friend and a savior. But Mauriri still had ill feelings about some of the methods Isabelle used to get where she was today. He didn't want that for the Rattler. He wanted the books kept clean. He wanted to keep his name clean for the sake of his family. But David's health and well-being was worth more than an argument about it. Such a thing wouldn't be good for either of them. Maybe there was a way to compromise.

"She's got a head for business, that's for sure," Mauriri commented carefully. "I'm glad to see she taught you some good business sense while she was around."

            "She did. Maybe I didn't like working so hard, but she certainly arranged enough solid runs to keep us in the black."

            "That's a first for us isn't it?" Mauriri smiled gently.

            David regarded him and then laughed gently. "Yeah. It is."

            "I guess it's hard to work without a safety net all of sudden."

            "What do you mean by that?"

            He clapped David on the shoulder and regarded him purposefully. "She can still be a business partner, David. If it means that much."

            David was practically speechless. He hadn't expected to be so plain in his intentions or to win the argument so easily. "Really? I thought you'd be…I don't want to force this on you. We could try to manage like we did before."

            Mauriri understood David better than he did himself and offered, "Maybe what we did before wasn't the best way. It's time to consider a better business solution."

            David couldn't help his surprised expression, or his growing smile. "Do you mean that? You wouldn't mind?"

            "Sounds like good sense to me," admitted the islander. "It can't hurt to try it for a bit."

            And this way, he thought, maybe some stress would be off David as well as a little less guilt. And if Isabelle can keep the books and payments in line, he would be a fool to let such a thing slip away from them.

He looked upon it like a trial run. He'd keep careful watch on what she did and how. The minute he suspected anything amiss, he'd be sure to step in, regardless of David's own personal feelings on the matter. By then David would be well on his way to recovery.

            David fumbled for Mauriri's hand and after shaking it, slapped his friend on the arm with a whoop of release. "Thank you, Mo! It means a lot!"

            "Maybe you should tell her."

            "Absolutely!" David craned his neck around looking for the raven-haired woman but he couldn't spot her in the sea of people.

            Mauriri stopped Lavinia as she passed by with a tray of frothy mugs. "Have you seen Isabelle?"

            Lavinia jerked her head toward the door. "She left a few minutes ago. Not sure why with all the excitement here."

            "Thanks," both men chorused as they scrambled out the door.

            "Men," she muttered. "What did they do to annoy that woman this time?"

****

            "She probably headed for the stables."

            "Or maybe she went to see Claire," Mauriri countered. "Perhaps we should split up."

            "No. This is something we should do together. She needs to know both of us are okay with it."

            "She believed we weren't?"

            David shrugged. "This is Isabelle we're talking about. It's always personal."

            "Was it?" Mauriri asked hesitatingly, wondering why David bought her out of the partnership in the first place

            David was quiet for a bit. "No. It wasn't meant to be. I just thought that things would be better if…if…" He struggled to explain it to his friend. "Everything of late felt wrong. Like I was capsizing without any hope of righting myself. I was only trying…"

            "To get an even keel to your life. I know. Things haven't felt the same for me either."

            David exhaled with the fresh air of freedom. It was important that Mauriri understand. He laid a hand on his friend's shoulder. "In my rush to try and fix things between us, I think I forgot about someone else."

            "She'll understand."

            "I acted too hastily. I thought she'd be happy to be rid of me. But I was wrong."

            "Who'd have thought that, huh?" Mauriri placed his own hand on David's other shoulder in a camaraderie show of support.

            David cast a crooked smirk at Mauriri. "I should have known. Beyond her gripping about the boat, she had really come alive as if she had found her own niche suddenly, working with people she actually could trust. And then stupidly I cast her aside. God, how can she ever trust me again?"

            "It's never too late, David. We're a shining example of that."

            The relief in David's face was visible. "Let's hope Isabelle is as forgiving."

            "You underestimate her, my friend. You above all others she constantly forgives."

            "What?"

            "Heaven help me, you are dense, David." He slapped his forehead in exaggerated disbelief. "You undermine her business deal that one time after dinner with the governor; you ignored her advances after you broke up with Lavinia; you yank the partnership out from under her and yet she still forgives you. What do you think it all means?"

            "That I'm irresistible?" David jested coyly. It did sound a bit impossible to believe, but he prayed it was true.

            "Not by a long shot, not to me. But obviously Isabelle sees something good in you. Poor soul."

            With a grin, David nodded. "Thank heaven for that. Let's check the stables first."

****

            It was quiet at the stables and for that Isabelle was grateful. All she could hear was the gentle rustle of hooves in the straw and soft whickers of greeting. She slipped into the colt's stall and greeted his mother with an easy brush of a hand over the velvety muzzle that nudged her pockets.

            She pulled out some sugar cubes and let her have her fill, loving the rhythmic crunching as the mare greedily consumed them. The large brown eyes of the colt stared at Isabelle from beneath his mother's tail, warily watching her every move.

            But he was too curious to remain in hiding for long. He shuffled toward her, tentatively reaching out to sniff what his mother was eating. Isabelle offered the sugary residue on her palms to the little muzzle and sure enough the small tongue reached out to enjoy the new treat. Isabelle reached out quietly with her other hand and brushed her hand down the silky coat. The little gentleman just stood there. It was another small victory for Isabelle.

            You win one; you lose one.

            She wasn't upset. Not really. Everything had worked exactly as she wanted, in some cases better than she expected. She had nothing to lament over. She was just being foolish. The hand had been played and it had been successful. In truth she hadn't expected anything to come of this venture, not for a while at least. The seed was planted and now all that was left was to see what germinated.

            Except that David had thrown her off balance, as he usually does. Why did he have to use the term partner? It had been a simple blunder by David; he hadn't meant to hurt her on purpose. The pain on his face showed that. She tried to reassure him, and she had, but not to herself. So she was here with those that understood her and trusted her.

            Maybe that wasn't entirely a fair statement. Lord knows, David had treated her in all fairness. He had let her participate in the race. No one else would have even considered it. No, she was being foolish. One last pat on the colt's neck and she would head back to the party. But the colt twisted his head out of her reach since she had no more sugar and darted back behind his mother. Stubborn little fellow. But she understood. It took a long time to build up true trust between friends.

            Sighing, she exited the stall and bumped directly into the broad chest of David.

            Rocking back, a tad startled, she exclaimed, "What are you doing here?"

            "I could ask the same as you. I missed you at the celebration."

Suddenly she felt awkward. "I – um –  forgot, I had to check on the foal. This is the longest I've been away."

            "What about the celebration? After all, this was your idea and your victory as well." He had the trophy in his hand and he handed it to her. "This is yours."

            She shook her head and stepped away. "I was on my way back. We can head there now." She was suddenly wary. David's expression was far too odd.

            Suddenly Mauriri was there as well and alarm bells began ringing all over inside Isabelle. She folded her arms defiantly. "Okay, what's going on?"

            "She's quick," Mauriri pointed out with a wry grin.

            "That she is. She'll out think the both of us, you know," David remarked over his shoulder to his friend.

            "You'll find out how quick if you don't tell me what's going on," she pointed out irritably.

            "You know how she works her horses," Mauriri tried again. He still wasn't a hundred percent sold on the idea, but there was no stopping David.

            "Worse for us, I expect." Then David brightened. "But we'll be wealthy."

            "What on earth are you both babbling about?"

            David turned back to her. "We want you as a business manager."

            Isabelle's ire faded and her facial muscles slackened in surprise. "What? Really?" Her eyes darted to both David and then Mauriri.

            Mauriri nodded, knowing that his mistrust of her was something of note between them. He reassured her. "You've more than demonstrated your worth at it. We'd be fools if we didn't at least try it."

            Isabelle's throat was constricting, the emotions she was experiencing too strong to turn easily aside. David was staring at her, expectantly. He held out the trophy to her.

            "Please tell me you will," he said. He looked almost afraid she'd say no.

            "Oh my God, yes!" She hugged him. "Yes, definitely!" The cup found its way into her hands. This time she didn't give it back.

            "What a relief…partner." This time the words fell easily from his lips, no sense of reproach or guilt. It felt wonderful. It felt right.

            Isabelle hugged Mauriri too. "Thank you. I won't disappoint you."

            The brawny islander smiled down at her. "I hope not."

"This has been a very good day." Isabelle affirmed; it was a day full of victories.

            "The best," agreed David. "So what are you going to do with your share of Titchmarsh's money?" He cocked an eyebrow at Isabelle.

            "Well, I could put it towards a new rig and harness, but instead--," she looped her arms through her new partners and steered them out through the stable doors. "Instead, I think I'll start a bar tab. The drinks are on me, boys."

             David and Mauriri's cheers were heard almost all the way into town.

            It was certainly a day for miracles.

The End