The Female of the Species

Title: The Female of the Species

By: Liz

Disclaimers: Unfortunately, none of the Lost World characters belong to me.

Author's Notes: This story is dedicated to everyone over at the LW board. Thanks for being so great and welcoming me right into the fold, guys J And special thanks to CalGal for helping me catch up on all TLW eps I missed! Thanks also to my beta, Kate, for reading through this countless times and giving me advice.

****

The Female of the Species

"And after the eggs have hatched, the Parva female kills her mate for her children to feed on," Challenger explained eagerly to Summerlee, Roxton, and Malone. "I'd read about this, of course, but to actually have a chance to observe it here, well, it was absolutely amazing to watch."

The four men had recently returned from an expedition into the jungle on which they had stumbled across the nest of a small prehistoric lizard that Challenger had recognized as an extinct species called the Parva Lizard. Challenger had been ecstatic at the chance to observe the birth of several Parva lizards and the ensuing killing of the male Parva by its mate. He had been talking nonstop about the lizards since the men had returned to the treehouse over half an hour ago. Malone was taking notes in his journal, Summerlee was listening intently, and Roxton was cleaning his Webleys, only half listening to the conversation.

"So they're something like the Black Widow spider or the Praying Mantis?" Ned asked Challenger.

Challenger nodded. "Except in this case the female waits until after her children are born before killing her mate."

"You'd think the males would finally catch on and leave before the eggs hatched," Roxton commented dryly.

"That's absolutely fascinating," Summerlee breathed. "Imagine, the female of the species being the dominant member and killing her own mate. It seems a difficult concept to grasp."

The elevator rose to the main floor of the treehouse and Veronica and Marguerite stepped out of the car, each carrying a basket of fruit in their arms.

Roxton raised an eyebrow in Summerlee's direction. "Would you care to rethink that statement, Professor?" he asked the older man with a smirk.

Ned chuckled and even Challenger had to smile as Marguerite and Veronica came over to join them. "What's so funny?" Marguerite asked, sitting down next to Roxton at the table.

"Challenger was just telling us about a delightful little lizard we came across earlier," Roxton told her. "The female kills her mate and feeds him to the babies when they hatch from their eggs."

Marguerite wrinkled her nose. "You have a strange sense of humor."

Roxton grinned at her. "Just another one of my many fascinating qualities that you find so alluring," he teased her.

Marguerite rolled her eyes. "That must be it. So, did you find anything else on your little field trip? Something different for the dinner menu, perhaps? Salmon? Caviar? Leg of lamb?"

"I'm sorry, my dear," Summerlee spoke up. "But it looks like you'll have to suffer through another night of Bush Chicken Arthur, as Malone calls it."

Marguerite softened looking at Summerlee's apologetic expression. "That was going to be my next choice," she said with a smile.

"A rare plateau delicacy," Ned put in with a grin, as he closed his journal and stood up from the table, heading for his bedroom.

"And that leaves me with enough time for a bath before dinner," Marguerite said with a smile, looking over at Roxton. He raised an eyebrow, grinning, and was about to volunteer to accompany her to the swimming hole when Marguerite turned to Veronica. "Veronica, do you want to come with me?"

Veronica hid her smile at Roxton's disappointed expression and nodded. "I want to clean up a bit myself before dinner," she told the heiress. "If you're quick we should both have time to wash up before dinner."

"Oh, I'll be quick," Marguerite promised as she left the table and retrieved what she would need for her bath from her bedroom.

"I'll bet," Veronica muttered under her breath as she went over to the elevator to wait for Marguerite. Moments later Marguerite emerged from her bedroom and after grabbing her pistol the two women climbed into the elevator and descended to the jungle floor once more.

****

Marguerite finished pulling her clothing back on and began to dry her hair with the towel she had brought with her. "Are you ready to go back yet?" she called to Veronica.

Veronica rolled her eyes in annoyance. "I just got in," she reminded the other woman. "I promise not to take as long as you did, but could you at least give me a few minutes to get clean?"

Marguerite sighed heavily and sat down on the bank of the river. Ten minutes later, she had grown restless and turned to Veronica once more. "Are you done yet?" she asked.

Veronica swam over to the water's edge and climbed onto the bank. "Yes, Marguerite, I'm done," she said, pulling her clothes on.

"Well, it's about time," Marguerite huffed. "I'm starving."

"If you hadn't taken so long for your bath, we would have been back ages ago," Veronica responded, combing her fingers through her wet hair.

"I did not take that long!" Marguerite protested. "In fact, I thought-"

"Shhh!" Veronica cut Marguerite off, pulling her knife from her boot. "Did you hear that?"

Marguerite pulled out her pistol and strained her ears a moment, but she heard nothing. "I think you're imagining things," she told the younger woman. She was about to slide her pistol back into its holster when she heard the sharp crack of a branch. "Or maybe not," she admitted, pulling her pistol once more.

"I think it came from over there," Veronica told her, pointing to an area of undergrowth to their right.

"Apemen?"

"We'll soon find out," Veronica said grimly, cautiously making her way in the direction from which the sound had come.

Marguerite followed behind her, looking around anxiously as she waited for an apeman or a slave trader to come crashing through the bushes at them. But the only sound she heard was a soft whimper coming from the same direction in which the cracking sound had come.

Veronica looked back at Marguerite. "It sounds like someone's crying," she whispered.

Marguerite shrugged. "A slave trader with a captive?"

"I don't know," Veronica admitted as they reached the edge of the trees. "But be ready for anything."

Marguerite nodded and they made their way into the jungle. A few feet later, however, they stopped in their tracks. A woman sat on a large rock looking absolutely miserable. Her expensive looking clothing was ragged and her blonde hair was disheveled. Tearstains and dirt marred her otherwise attractive face as she looked despairingly at the two native men who stood before her.

"All right, step away," Veronica said to the men, holding out her knife. The woman and the two men looked up, startled by the sound of another voice. The two men backed away as Veronica walked over to the woman. "Are you all right?" she asked her. "Did these men hurt you?"

Surprisingly, the woman managed a small smile at Veronica's question. "Oh no, it's nothing like that, I assure you," she said, an English accent coloring her words. "These men are my guides through this dreadful place. However, I've fallen and hurt my ankle and it is growing increasingly difficult to walk. I'm beginning to fear I'll never find what I came here looking for. Or who, I guess I should say."

"Who did you come here looking for?" Marguerite asked, walking over to the rock as well. "And who are you?"

"Oh, I'm sorry, in all the confusion I've forgotten to introduce myself," the woman said. "That was terribly rude of me, I'm afraid. My name is Clarice Kingston."

"I'm Veronica, and this is Marguerite Krux," Veronica responded.

Clarice's face lit up. "Marguerite Krux? Well, this is good luck, then, isn't it? You're a member of the Challenger Expedition, correct?" Marguerite nodded warily. "Well, you're who I was looking for! I've come to take you home."

Marguerite regarded the woman suspiciously. "Forgive my saying so, but you don't look like the type of person who would like to spend a lot of time in a place like this," she said. "Why did you come looking for us?"

"I have a special interest in one of the members of your party, actually," Clarice said.

"And who would that be?" Veronica asked.

"Lord John Roxton," Clarice answered. "He and I have been friends for a long while. I'd been abroad the last few years, however, and only recently learned about the disappearance of the expedition. When I heard about it, I knew I had to do something. I couldn't just sit back and let such a dear old friend rot away on some lost expedition. I knew whatever it took, I would get here, find the expedition, and bring you all home."

Marguerite's eyes narrowed as she listened to the other woman talk about Roxton. Veronica, noticing Marguerite's expression, spoke up quickly. "We can bring you back to the treehouse with us," she told Clarice. "That's where the other members of the expedition are. Challenger or Summerlee should be able to help with your ankle while you catch up with Roxton."

"Yes, that sounds like a plan," Marguerite said briskly. "Well, we should get back then. We're already late for dinner."

Clarice's face broke into a smile. "That would be wonderful, thank you," she said gratefully. She turned to the two men and spoke to them in their native tongue. A moment later the two men formed a seat with their hands and lifted her up between them. "I'm afraid this is very uncivilized," she said apologetically. "But it's the fastest way for me to move around. Lead the way."

The five quickly made their way through the jungle and back to the treehouse. When they reached the elevator the natives gently set Clarice down in the elevator and stepped back. "They're not going to come up with us," Clarice explained, leaning against Veronica for support. "They will return in two days to lead us back to my campsite so we can collect my things and equipment and plan our journey home." She nodded to the two men and they silently walked off into the jungle without a backward glance.

Veronica hit the lever on the elevator and the three women rode up to the first level of the treehouse. On the lower level Veronica helped Clarice out so the other woman could "freshen up" a bit and Marguerite continued on to the main level without them.

"We were beginning to worry," Ned said when Marguerite stepped off the elevator. "Is everything all right?"

"Everything's fine," Marguerite said. "We just ran into an old friend out there."

"Not a raptor or apemen, I hope," Challenger said.

"Maybe the next time you want to take a bath, I should come with you," Roxton suggested with a grin. "You'll be safe then - I won't let you out of my sight."

"Nothing like that," Marguerite said, refusing to answer Roxton. "Apparently, she's an old friend of yours, John," she told him, her tone sharp.

"She?" Ned questioned.

Roxton looked puzzled. "Marguerite?"

The elevator rose behind her and she stepped aside as Veronica stepped off the elevator supporting a limping Clarice. Roxton's jaw dropped. "Clarice?"

She smiled warmly at him. "Hello, John," she said softly. "It's been a long time."

Though Marguerite would be loath to admit it out loud, she was rather pleased to see that Roxton looked anything but happy to see Clarice. In fact, he looked almost upset by her presence, she mused to herself.

After a moment of awkward silence, Summerlee cleared his throat. "Roxton, aren't you going to introduce us all?" he asked politely.

Roxton jumped slightly. "Oh, um, yes, of course," he said, sounding flustered. "Clarice Kingston, these are Ned Malone, Professor George Challenger, Professor Arthur Summerlee, and I believe you've already met Marguerite and Veronica."

"It's a pleasure, my dear," Summerlee said pleasantly. The other men smiled and greeted her as well.

"This is Clarice Kingston," Roxton continued, looking uncomfortable. "She is, uh, she was my brother William's fiancée."

Marguerite gasped softly. She couldn't help it. This woman had been engaged to John's brother? That certainly explained the dismayed expression on his face.

"John and I go back a rather long time," Clarice spoke up. "I was very close to John and his family. The loss of William was hard on us all, but we got through it together."

Marguerite looked from Roxton to Clarice, narrowing her eyes. She didn't like this woman or her tone, and she certainly didn't like how her presence was obviously making Roxton feel. What was Clarice talking about, anyway? Acting like William's death had been an event that had bonded her to the Roxton family forever. Marguerite knew from the little that John talked about it that the loss of William had all but destroyed him and his family. Very close, indeed, she thought suspiciously.

"Well, we were about to eat dinner, Clarice," Ned spoke up. "But you look exhausted. Perhaps you'd like to rest first. We can always save you some dinner for later."

"That would be lovely," Clarice said graciously. "I am rather tired."

"It's settled, then," Ned said, coming over and gently taking Clarice's elbow, steering her toward his bedroom. "And you're more than welcome to use my bedroom while you're here."

Veronica walked on the other side of Clarice, supporting her. "Absolutely," Veronica said. "And if there's anything you need, please just let one of us know."

"Oh, but I, uh-" Clarice began, looking over at Roxton who still stood mutely in the middle of the kitchen.

"I insist," Ned said smoothly. "You're our guest. Now, you just get some rest and later we can all catch up on how you came to be on the plateau."

"But my ankle," she began.

"Summerlee, Challenger, could you come with us and look at Clarice's ankle?" Veronica asked. "She injured it earlier, but I thought the two of you would be able to help her with it."

"Oh, certainly," Summerlee said. "It would be our pleasure. Come along, George. Let's see if we can't have this lovely lady back on her own two feet again."

The four explorers bustled Clarice out of the main room and into Ned's bedroom, leaving Roxton and Marguerite alone in the kitchen. *Remind me to thank them all later,* Marguerite thought to herself with a small smile. *Especially Ned.* She knew Ned and Roxton had something of a brotherly relationship between them, and that Ned had done what he had done because he'd been looking out for his 'older brother,' so to speak. He had also obviously sensed Roxton's extreme discomfort and had done what he could to give the older man some time to collect himself in the face of this new development.

Marguerite walked over to Roxton's side and touched his arm softly. "John, are you okay?" she asked him gently.

Roxton shook himself out of his daze and looked at her. "I, yeah, I guess I'll be fine," he told her. "I just certainly wasn't expecting Clarice of all people to show up on the plateau."

"This place has a habit of bringing back people we never thought we'd see again," Marguerite said wryly and was rewarded with a shaky smile from Roxton. "Seriously, John, are you all right?" she asked him, the worry plain in her voice. "What's the real story with Clarice? That woman makes you uncomfortable, I can tell. What's wrong?"

Roxton smiled, touched by Marguerite's concern for him, and was about to answer when Ned walked back into the room. "Marguerite, Clarice would like to see you," he said. "She said she wouldn't be able to sleep until she was able to thank you and Veronica again for finding her and bringing her here safely."

"I'll bet," Marguerite murmured to herself.

She looked up at Roxton to see if he was going to answer her question, but he just nodded to her. "You better go on," he told her. "That woman is used to getting what she wants, and if she says she won't sleep until she talks to you, she means it."

Marguerite sighed. "Fine, but this conversation is not over," she told him.

Roxton gave her his familiar slow grin. "You can count on that," he told her with a wink. Marguerite tried to look annoyed, but she couldn't keep an answering smile from stealing across her face before she turned and walked into Ned's bedroom.

Once they were alone in the room, Ned turned to Roxton. "Okay, talk," he said.

"About what?" Roxton asked, trying to make his expression confused.

"You know what I mean," Ned said. "What is it about Clarice that has you so tense? Something about her doesn't ring true - call it reporter's instinct," he said in answer to Roxton's questioning look. "But she's not telling us everything. Why are you upset she's here? Is she really William's former fiancée, or was she a closer 'friend' than either of you is letting on? And if that's the case, let me know now, because I want to be halfway to the Zanga village when Marguerite finds out," Ned joked, trying to bring Roxton out of his strained state.

Roxton didn't even smile. "She really was William's fiancée," he answered in a somber voice. "But before that, for a time anyway, I thought she was going to be mine."

Ned gaped at him. "What do you mean?" he finally asked.

The other explorers re-entered the room then, and Roxton subtly shook his head. "Not now, Malone," he told him in a quiet voice. "I'll tell you the rest some other time. For now, however, just know that that woman is not to be trusted, no matter what she says or does."

Ned was burning with curiosity, but he knew that he wouldn't get anymore of the story of out Roxton than he already had at the moment. He'd just have to wait until they were able to talk again without the others around if he wanted to know the real story about Clarice.

"Well, John, your friend is sleeping peacefully," Summerlee said, trying to keep his tone casual. "Perhaps we should all get to our dinner. I'm sure it's ice cold by now, but we'll just have to suffer through together."

"Summerlee's right," Marguerite said, walking over to Ned and Roxton and steering them towards the table. "Let's go, you two, before the wonderful dinner that Summerlee worked so hard on gets any colder."

The six explorers sat down to a very quiet dinner. Though the others tried to keep the conversation up and include Roxton, the hunter was clearly a million miles away from them all. He merely pushed his dinner around on his plate and kept shooting glances at Ned's bedroom. When Marguerite laid a gentle hand on his arm, he was so startled that he dropped his fork to the floor.

"That's it," Roxton muttered to himself, standing up from the table. "I have to know what that woman is up to."

As if on cue, Clarice appeared in the doorway to Ned's bedroom. "I think a short nap was just what I needed," she said brightly, leaning against the doorway. "And my ankle feels so much better, thanks to the two of you," she said to Challenger and Summerlee. "I don't know how I can ever thank you."

"Oh, you're quite welcome, Miss Kingston," Challenger said. "We're just glad to be able to help."

"Please, call me Clarice," she said with a smile. "And though my ankle feels much better, I'm afraid I'm not ready to walk on it just yet," she said, a troubled expression clouding her face momentarily. "John, do you think you would be able to assist me in getting to the table?" she asked demurely.

Marguerite fought the urge to roll her eyes. *The next thing you know, she'll be batting her eyelashes and giggling,* she thought to herself.

Looking incredibly uneasy, Roxton made his way across to where Clarice stood and hesitantly looped his arm around her waist. "Do you think you can make it now?" he asked, not really looking her in the eye.

She sighed heavily. "I think I may have aggravated it earlier when I was walking to the bedroom. Do you think you could carry me to the table? Don't worry, I'm still just as light as you remember, I'm sure," she added with a coy smile.

*If she doesn't stop, I'm going to carry her right out of here, * Marguerite thought to herself disgustedly. Still, she was comforted by the fact that Roxton didn't seem the slightest bit taken in by her flirting. In fact, it seemed to make him even more uncomfortable around the woman.

Setting his jaw, Roxton leaned down and easily scooped Clarice up in his arms. "Oh, doesn't this bring back memories?" she asked with a giggle, wrapping her arms around Roxton's neck.

Struggling to stay calm, Marguerite stood from the table. "Let me go and fix you a plate, Clarice," she said tightly. "You must be starving."

"Oh, thank you so much, Marguerite," Clarice said sweetly. "You're all so very kind."

"Here, I'll help you with that, Marguerite," Roxton said, practically dumping Clarice onto a kitchen chair in his haste to get her out of his arms.

"Let me get you a chair to put that ankle up on," Ned cut in smoothly before Clarice could object to Roxton leaving her side.

He pulled a chair over and Veronica helped Clarice raise her leg and rest it on the chair in front of her while Roxton hurried into the kitchen area where Marguerite was fixing Clarice a plate.

"Marguerite, I'm sorry," Roxton said quietly, coming up behind Marguerite and laying a hand on her shoulder.

"Why, Lord John Roxton, whatever for?" Marguerite asked sarcastically.

Roxton sighed. "Marguerite, please, this is already hard enough as it is. I'd prefer not to have you angry with me as well."

Marguerite turned to face him, her irritation disappearing the moment she saw his worried face. "I'm sorry, John," she said softly. "I know this is hard on you. I just really hated watching that woman throw herself at you," she admitted.

She blushed, realizing what she had said, and Roxton smiled gently at her. "Don't worry about her," he said in a low voice as he reached up to cup the side of her face in his hand. "For some reason, I seem to prefer women who put up something of a fight. Must be the masochistic side of me," he added, his eyes twinkling merrily at her.

Veronica saw the momentary flash of rage in Clarice's eyes as she watched the couple in the kitchen. They were too far away for anyone at the table to hear their words, but the feelings between the two were obvious. Veronica cleared her throat loudly. "So, Clarice," she said in a louder than normal voice. "What exactly are you doing on the plateau, anyway?"

Roxton and Marguerite jumped slightly as Veronica's voice broke them out of their daze and they hurriedly returned to the table. Marguerite placed a plate of food in front of Clarice and then took her seat once more. "Yes, and how did you get here?" Ned asked. He, too, had seen the look in Clarice's eyes as she had stared at Roxton and Marguerite, and he was eager to turn her attention away from the couple as soon as possible.

"Thank you, Marguerite," Clarice said, smiling a slightly forced smile in the heiress's direction. "Well, as I told Marguerite and Veronica earlier, I'd been out of England for several years. It was only when I returned that I learned that your expedition had been declared missing. I knew I couldn't let someone who I was as close to as John disappear without a trace like that. I decided the moment I heard the news that I would find the expedition and bring you all home.

"I immediately took a boat to South America, and then a smaller one into the Amazon. Once there, I was able to find several men who had connections to other men who knew the river well. Others knew men who swore they'd seen your expedition when you had first started out years ago. Eventually, these men and their connections led me to the right men and they got me to the plateau. Once here, I was able to use my connections to befriend a local native tribe who agreed to help me for a fee.

"Most of my supplies that we will need to get home are, unfortunately, still in their camp, which is about two days hike from here. They gave me two of their best trackers, who led me through the jungle. Earlier today when we were running from a giant lizard beast, I caught my foot on a loose rock and fell. We were able to elude the beast by hiding in a cave, but my poor ankle hasn't been the same since. It was only through the greatest amount of luck that Marguerite and Veronica discovered me earlier today," she said with a bright smile. "With my two guides carrying me, they brought me here to all of you, and you know the rest from there."

"Not exactly," Roxton said. "What happened to these native guides of yours?"

"Well, they had other business to take care of," Clarice said. "And my poor ankle made travel very difficult as it was. They promised to return in two days to lead us back to the camp so we can get my supplies and plan our departure. Hopefully in two days my ankle will have healed enough for me to be able to travel much more swiftly than I have been the past few hours."

"Well, we're delighted to have you here," Summerlee said genially. "And I'm sure you'll do your best to get us back to London safe and sound."

"That is my dearest hope," Clarice said, answering Summerlee's question but focusing her sweet smile on Roxton.

"Well," Ned spoke up. "It's been a long day, and I know I'm exhausted. I think it's time for all of us to be getting to bed."

"That sounds like a lovely idea," Clarice said. She turned to Roxton and opened her mouth, but Ned spoke quickly, cutting her off.

"Roxton and Marguerite, it's your turn to go down and check the fence and do the patrol around the base of the treehouse before bed," Ned said, looking at the two meaningfully.

Marguerite caught on immediately and smiled at Ned. "You're right, Ned," she said. "Thank you for reminding us. Come on, John, we'd better get down there. The quicker we do this, the quicker I can get some sleep."

"And Ned and I can help you to his room so you can go to bed," Veronica said, standing by Clarice's chair.

Clarice looked flustered as Roxton and Marguerite rose from the table and headed for the elevator. "Goodnight, John," she called in a soft voice.

Roxton barely looked at her as he climbed into the elevator with Marguerite. "Goodnight, Clarice," he responded.

"Goodnight, Clarice," Marguerite called, forcing her voice to sound cheerful as the elevator descended. "It was lovely meeting you."

As Roxton and Marguerite disappeared from sight, Ned and Veronica helped Clarice to her feet and guided her into Ned's bedroom. They said goodnight to Clarice and then returned to the kitchen where they shooed Challenger and Summerlee away from the dirty dinner dishes. "You made dinner, we'll clean it up," Veronica told them. "Go to bed."

The two professors thanked them and headed off to their bedrooms. Ned and Veronica made quick work of the dishes, and when they were done they returned to sit at the table once more. "That was good thinking, sending those two down for 'duty," Veronica said appreciatively to Ned. "I think Roxton really needed to get away from Clarice."

Ned agreed. "She makes him really uncomfortable. I'm not sure why, exactly, but it's obvious."

"The fact that she was William's fiancée can't help matters," Veronica said softly. "Poor Roxton, I feel awful for him."

"I feel bad for Marguerite," Ned told her honestly.

Veronica looked at him in surprise. "Marguerite?"

Ned nodded. "This isn't exactly easy on her, either," he said. "Did you see her face before when Clarice got Roxton to pick her up? She's definitely not enjoying this. It's hard enough on her when some woman from the plateau falls for Roxton, but this woman who shares a past with Roxton suddenly shows up and starts throwing herself at him."

"It's not like he's encouraging it," Veronica reminded him.

Ned nodded. "I know, but still, that doesn't really make it any easier. I remember how I felt when Niko showed up and said he was in love with you and wanted to fight for you."

Veronica smiled. "And how did you feel?"

"Jealous, protective, scared."

"Scared?"

"Scared when I realized that I could lose you. And scared because that's when I realized I was falling head over heels in love with you, and there was nothing I could do about it."

Veronica blushed but she was smiling as she asked, "And how do you feel now?"

Ned leaned forward and cupped her face in his hands. "There's still nothing I can do about it," he said in a low voice, before gently brushing her lips with his own.

"Well that's a good thing, because I don't think there's anything I can do about it, either," Veronica responded. She leaned forward to kiss him again, but stopped as they heard the familiar rumble of the elevator. "Maybe we should give them some privacy," she suggested.

Ned agreed. "Good idea. However, I'm not sure how since I'm supposed to be sleeping out here tonight."

Veronica stood up and took his hand in hers. "I'm sure I could be persuaded to find you somewhere else to sleep tonight. Just to give them some privacy, of course," she said with a grin.

"Of course," Ned agreed, standing up beside Veronica. They walked into Veronica's bedroom, disappearing into the room just as the elevator carrying Roxton and Marguerite stopped in the main room.

The two explorers stepped into the room and headed for the gun rack. Marguerite watched Roxton out of the corner of her eye as they replaced their weapons on the rack. He had been extremely quiet while they had been outside, seemingly lost in his own thoughts. She hadn't pressed him, however, understanding that he would tell her the whole story when he was ready. In the meantime, however, she was still worried about him and the affect Clarice's presence was having on him.

Roxton turned and caught Marguerite looking at him. "Everything all right?" he asked her.

She smiled briefly. "Don't you think I should be the one asking you that question?"

Roxton sighed. "It's just bringing back a lot of memories having Clarice here," he admitted, raking a hand through his hair. "Memories of William. Of our childhood together. Of the trouble we got into with our parents. Holidays together, family times, happier times. Of the safari we were on when-" He cut himself off and took a deep breath. "When he was killed. The expression on his face, the way he looked at me, the shock when he realized what I had done. The accusing look in his eyes as he died," he finished in a quiet voice.

"I'm sorry," Marguerite said softly, touching Roxton's shoulder. "I know it's hard for you, John. But you must remember that what happened to William was an accident, and though it was a horrible thing, it was not your fault." Marguerite's heart broke at the conflicting emotions she saw passing over Roxton's face, and hushing every inner voice that was screaming at her to run away, she gently wrapped her arms around his waist and held him close to her. After a moment Marguerite felt the tenseness leave Roxton's body as he relaxed, sliding his own arms around her.

"John?" Roxton and Marguerite stepped apart at the sound of another voice in the room with them. Clarice stood in the doorway to Ned's bedroom, leaning against the frame for support. "John, I'm glad you're back," she said with a smile, not even sparing Marguerite a glance. "I was wondering if maybe we could talk a little, catch up on old times before we go to bed."

"It's really been a long day, Clarice," Roxton began.

"Please?" she begged. "Just for a little while. It's been such a long time since I've even gotten to see you, much less talk to you. Surely you can spare me just a few minutes?"

Roxton sighed heavily. "Of course I can, Clarice," he said. He turned to Marguerite. "Goodnight, Marguerite," he said softly. "Thank you."

She smiled back at him. "You're welcome," she said sincerely. "Goodnight, John. Goodnight, Clarice."

Roxton watched as she walked to her bedroom until she was out of his sight. Then he turned and walked into Ned's bedroom after a limping Clarice. Clarice was sitting up on Ned's bed with a pillow between her shoulders and the headboard, her ankle propped up on a pillow. She patted the side of the bed invitingly as she looked at Roxton. "Come, sit by me, John," she said with a smile.

Feeling like he was walking into a Raptor's den, Roxton slowly walked over to the bed, perching tensely on the very edge of the mattress. "Well, what did you want to talk about?" he asked, trying to make his tone casual.

"How about how much I've missed you," Clarice said in a low tone, lightly running her fingers down Roxton's arm.

Roxton jerked away from her touch as if he'd been burned. "How about why you're really here, Clarice," he countered.

Clarice pouted. "I told you. I came here to rescue you and bring you back to London. I've missed you, John," she told him softly. "It's been so very lonely. I know you know how that feels. But we don't have to be lonely anymore," she said. She moved so quickly, Roxton didn't have a chance to react before she'd grabbed his face in her hands and was kissing him passionately.

Roxton wrenched himself away from her and stood. "What do you think you're doing?" he demanded.

"Oh, come on, John," Clarice said. "You know what I want, and I'm sure you want it, too."

"You're wrong," Roxton told her evenly. "You were William's fiancée, for God's sake!"

"But before that, I was all yours," Clarice told him with a seductive smile.

"Clarice, no," Roxton told her. "That was a long time ago, we were both a lot younger and a great many things have happened since then."

"Oh, John, please," Clarice scoffed. "Don't try to pull that on me. It's not like you even cared that much about William anyway," she added maliciously. Roxton could only stare at her, stunned. Clarice knew she'd gone too far, and she quickly tried to take back her angry words. "I'm sorry, John, but please, don't act like this." She reached up and grabbed his arm. "Don't act like you don't want me. Don't act like you don't know who I am anymore."

Roxton pulled his arm away from her and looked down at her, shaking his head. "I don't think I ever really did," he said in a low voice. Then he turned on his heel and walked out of the room.

Clarice fell back against her pillows with a grunt of frustration. That had not gone the way she had wanted it to. "There's still time," she murmured aloud to herself. "I've still got another day to bring Lord John Roxton around to my way of thinking. And he will come around, or he will be very, very sorry." Satisfied that she would be able to accomplish this task in the next day, she pulled the covers up around her and drifted off to sleep.

****

The next morning the inhabitants of the treehouse awoke to pouring rain. *How fitting,* Marguerite thought sourly to herself, as she dressed and entered the kitchen to see Clarice sitting at the table chatting cheerfully with Ned and Summerlee.

"She's in amazingly good spirits," Marguerite remarked dryly to Veronica as the younger woman came up behind her.

Veronica rolled her eyes. "She seems intent upon ingratiating herself with everyone in the treehouse. She's been at it for the last hour," she told the heiress. "Fawning all over those two about Ned's writing and Summerlee's "invaluable contributions to the world of botany," she said in a mocking tone. "Challenger finally had enough of her chatter and went down to the lab."

Marguerite smiled. "Where's Roxton? Don't tell me his ego actually had enough stroking, too?"

Veronica shook her head. "He was gone when I got up. He left a note about going hunting. Personally, I think he just wanted to get out of here and away from her for awhile. If you hadn't noticed, she makes him very uncomfortable. I don't really think he's enjoying this, Marguerite. Try not to give him a hard time about it."

Marguerite was stung by Veronica's words and tried to mask her hurt behind a glare. "I don't really see how that's any of your business," she said icily. "However, I'm not blind, I can see how upset this woman makes him."

Veronica softened, remembering what Ned had said the night before about this being difficult for Marguerite as well. "I know, I'm sorry," she said. "There's just something about that woman that I don't like."

"Join the club," Marguerite muttered under her breath as she headed over to the kitchen table.

"Good morning, Marguerite," Clarice said brightly. "Have you any grand plans for one of your last days on this awful plateau?"

Marguerite smiled thinly at Clarice as she sat down at the table. "With the rain out there I don't suppose there's much I can do, other than try to decide what to bring back to London with me when we leave."

"Well maybe I can help you with that," Clarice suggested cheerfully. "I have a feeling you and I have a lot in common - I'd love to have a chance to talk with you woman to woman."

Marguerite forced the smile to remain on her face. "Yes, well, maybe. I don't plan on bringing much back with me, so it should be a job barely big enough for one person."

"That shouldn't take a lot of concentration, which will leave us with plenty of time to get to know all about each other," Clarice said smoothly.

Marguerite was getting irritated - couldn't the woman take a hint? "I'd really prefer to do it on my own, honestly," she responded. "Besides, the less you move around with that ankle, the better."

"Oh, that's not a problem," Clarice said, waving a hand dismissively. "I can just sit on your bed while you pack."

Ned could feel the hostility rising off of Marguerite in waves, and quickly jumped into the conversation as Marguerite opened her mouth again. "It's far too early for Marguerite to even think about packing," he said with a smile. "She's the person who the last minute was invented for. So, Clarice, tell me more about the travelling you've done. I'd love to hear your impressions of America."

Marguerite flashed Ned a grateful look as Clarice began talking about the "fascinating people" she'd met in America. She quickly finished her breakfast and then retreated to her bedroom with a book to pass the rest of the morning.

****

It was late afternoon when Roxton finally returned from his impromptu hunting excursion. Veronica was painting in the corner and Ned was writing in his journal, but Roxton was relieved to see that Clarice was nowhere in sight. After exchanging greetings with them, he asked where everyone else was.

"The last I saw them, Summerlee and Challenger were in the lab arguing about which type of aloe plant is better for curing insect bites and rashes," Ned told him. "And Clarice went to her room to rest."

"But not before asking about a dozen times in the space of a half-hour when we thought you'd be back," Veronica added.

Roxton grimaced. "And where's Marguerite?"

"In her room reading," Veronica told him.

Satisfied that everyone was accounted for, Roxton put his rifle back on the gun rack before heading to his bedroom to get cleaned up from his day out in the jungle.

When he had changed he went to Marguerite's room and knocked softly on the doorframe. "Yes?" she called, not looking up from her book.

"Just me, don't get up," he said with a smile.

She smiled back. "So nice of you to join us," she teased. "Some of us were beginning to worry," she added, jerking a thumb in the direction of Ned's bedroom.

Roxton sighed. "I know, Veronica told me. Mind if I sit down?"

"Go right ahead," she said, sticking a leaf in the book to hold her page and sitting up on her bed. "Find anything interesting out there?" she asked as he sat down next to her on the bed.

"Nothing half as interesting as what's in front of me," he told her.

Marguerite smiled as she placed her book on the nightstand. "You must have really needed to get out of here if you were willing to go out in that weather," she said, deftly changing the subject.

Roxton sighed again. "I guess that much was a little obvious, wasn't it?"

"You're not exactly a master of subtleties, John," she joked. "Of course, I don't blame you. That woman is really beginning to wear on my nerves. This morning she wanted to help me pack to leave the plateau and when I tried several times to nicely let her know that I didn't need or want her help she kept pushing it. I was about ready to scream at her that I didn't want her bloody help, nor did I want to talk to her "woman to woman."

Roxton looked slightly disturbed by this piece of information, but all he said was "she can be a very pushy woman when she wants something. I just wish I could figure out what exactly it is that she wants."

A gentle knock made them both look up to see Summerlee standing in the doorway. "I hope I'm not interrupting anything," he said apologetically, "but Miss Kingston is awake. She wants very much to speak with you alone in Malone's room," she told Roxton. "She said it was quite important."

"I guess I better go see what it's about," Roxton said unenthusiastically as he stood from the bed.

He exited the room, leaving Summerlee and Marguerite alone. "Why the long face, my dear?" Summerlee asked Marguerite.

Marguerite made a face. "I just don't like that woman," she admitted. "And I don't trust her."

Summerlee smiled gently at her. "Don't worry about Miss Kingston. I'm sure everything will work out in the end. Now, Veronica wanted me to remind you that it's your turn to help with dinner tonight."

Marguerite gave a long-suffering sigh as she stood up. "This day just keeps getting better and better," she said sarcastically as she followed Summerlee out into the kitchen.

Roxton cautiously entered Malone's room. "Clarice? Summerlee said you wanted to see me," he said, walking in and sitting on Malone's desk chair.

Clarice smiled up at him from her place on the bed. "John, I just wanted to apologize for what happened last night," she said, her expression contrite. "I know I said some horrible things that I certainly never meant to say, and I feel just awful about it. I'd hate for that to come between us. Can you ever forgive me?"

"Don't worry about it," Roxton said. "It's forgotten."

"Well, not all of it, I hope," Clarice said with a smile.

"What do you mean?" Roxton asked warily.

"Well, just that I meant what I said when I told you I'd missed you. I've missed you terribly these past few years, John," she said. "And I want you in my life again."

"Don't worry, Clarice, we're still friends," Roxton said, deliberately misunderstanding her. "I told you, I forgive you for what you said last night."

"John, I think you know that's not what I mean," Clarice said. "I want you in my life the way you were before I was engaged to William."

Roxton shook his head. "Perhaps I didn't make myself clear enough last night, Clarice, but that's over. That's been over for more than a dozen years now."

"But why, John?"

"Why?" Roxton asked incredulously. "After you throw me over for my older brother and then run off after his death, not to be seen or heard from for 10 years, you want to know why it's over between us?"

"Is there someone else?" Clarice asked, ignoring Roxton's words. "There is, isn't there? I should have known that even out here in this godforsaken jungle you could find a woman to occupy your time. It's not that Veronica, I can tell by the way she and Mr. Malone look at each other. It's Marguerite, isn't it? She'll never be right for you, John, you know that. She'll never understand you the way I do. We still belong together - you know that as well as I do. Why can't you admit it?"

Roxton stood up abruptly. "Because you're wrong, about everything," he said tersely. "I think this conversation is over. I'll see you at dinner, Clarice." And he stalked out of the room without a backward glance.

****

Dinner that evening was extremely tense. Challenger was preoccupied with plans for his triumphant return to London and Roxton, Marguerite, and Clarice were all silent, leaving Summerlee, Ned, and Veronica to fill the silence as best they could. "Do you know when your guides will be back tomorrow, Clarice?" Ned asked as the group finished their dinner.

"I'm not exactly sure, but it should be rather early in the morning," Clarice replied.

"Perhaps we should make it an early night, then, and all go to bed now," Summerlee suggested. "We'll need to be well rested for our journey to and from Miss Kingston's campsite."

"That's a wonderful idea, Summerlee," Roxton said. "In fact, I think I'm ready for bed right now. Goodnight, everyone."

"I agree," Marguerite said. "I'll see everyone in the morning." She and Roxton rose from the table and retreated to their respective bedrooms. Ned and Summerlee helped Clarice to Ned's bedroom while Veronica and Challenger cleaned up the dinner dishes, before they all headed to bed as well.

****

The next morning Veronica walked into the kitchen and did a double take when she saw that Marguerite was already up and dressed. "You're up early," she observed. "Do you feel all right?"

Marguerite nodded distractedly. "I didn't sleep very well last night," she admitted. Veronica looked slightly worried and Marguerite forced a smile. "It's probably because I don't have any clean clothes to wear back to London. Want to go and wash clothes with me?"

Veronica agreed to accompany Marguerite, and after gathering up all of the dirty clothing they could find and leaving a note for the other members of the treehouse, they headed down to the lake to do their laundry.

When they returned nearly an hour later they found the other occupants of the treehouse, including Clarice, sitting around the kitchen table finishing their breakfast. "Nice to see the rest of you decided not to waste the entire day sleeping," Marguerite said, depositing the load of wet clothing in her arms onto a chair.

"Well, we can't all be early risers like you, my dear," Roxton teased.

"I'm glad you two are back," Challenger said. "We're just about to set out for Clarice's camp. However, her ankle still seems to be too sore for her to make the hike, so she'll need to stay behind. We need to decide who'll be making the journey and who will stay behind with Clarice. Summerlee and I have already volunteered to go with Clarice's guides to the camp."

"Well, I'll go," Marguerite volunteered. "You did say there's a lot there," she said to Clarice. "The more of us that go, the better."

"Oh, Marguerite, I was hoping you would stay here with me," Clarice said, a disappointed expression on her face. "We have so much in common that we can talk about. And we can always share gossip about John," she added with a giggle, sending a flirtatious smile in Roxton's direction.

Marguerite looked slightly uncomfortable, but she agreed to stay behind with Clarice. She wasn't sure why the woman was so intent upon spending time alone with her, but she was very curious to find out the reason.

Ned saw the worried expression on Roxton's face. "You should stay here, too, Roxton," he said. "The rest of us can take care of carrying Clarice's things and the equipment. It would be safer for Marguerite and Clarice if you stayed with them.

Roxton smiled gratefully at Ned. "That's a good idea, Malone," he agreed. "I'll stay behind to protect them."

Veronica looked from Ned to Roxton suspiciously as Marguerite began to protest that she was more than capable of taking care of herself, thank you very much. Ned saw the look on Veronica's face and stood from the table. "I'm going to get some supplies from the kitchen for our journey. Veronica, would you help me?"

Veronica got up and followed him to the kitchen area. "Okay, what's going on?" she hissed. "I saw you and Roxton, you're up to something. What is it?"

"Look, I can't really explain right now except to say that Roxton doesn't really trust Clarice," Ned explained. "So just back me up, okay?"

Seeing the earnest expression on his face, Veronica immediately agreed and headed back to the table while Ned packed food supplies. "Marguerite, it probably would be best if Roxton stayed here," Veronica said, sitting down once more. "You never know when someone like Tribune or the apemen can drop in, and you don't want to be alone if that happens."

Marguerite still looked opposed to the idea, but finally relented when she thought of the unexpected guests that could drop in on the two women while everyone was gone. "I guess it wouldn't hurt to have him stay behind," she agreed. "I can certainly look after myself, but it's easier to have someone else do it for me." Roxton rolled his eyes but said nothing, happy that she had come around.

The next half-hour was spent preparing the other explorers for their journey and waiting for Clarice's guides to show up. Finally, Ned, who was keeping watch, called out, "I think I see them."

Veronica moved to his side and looked down to see the two men who had been with Clarice in the jungle two days earlier. "That's them," she confirmed. "Should we have them come up, Clarice?"

Clarice nodded. "That would probably be best. That way I can explain to them the slight change in plans, and they can help all of you carry your supplies."

Challenger sent the elevator down, and moments later the two guides entered the main room. Clarice spoke a few words to them in their language, and they picked up several backpacks of supplies and returned to the elevator. "All right, they're ready," Clarice told the others cheerfully. "I've told them what's going on, and they promise to have you back here with all of the supplies before nightfall."

Summerlee, Challenger, Ned, and Veronica said goodbye to the other three before climbing onto the elevator with the guides and descending to the ground in the elevator. "Well, now we've nothing to do but wait for them to return," Clarice said brightly.

"I still have to pack," Marguerite said. "But first I need to hang up the laundry that Veronica and I did this morning. It's probably all a million wrinkles by now anyway," she said despairingly.

"I'll help you with that," Roxton volunteered quickly, scooping up a pile of wet clothing and walking towards the elevator.

"And since I can't be any help in that area, I'll stay up here and make us some tea," Clarice said.

"That would be lovely," Marguerite said, scooping the rest of the wet clothing into her arms. "This shouldn't take us very long at all, Clarice," she assured the other woman. "We'll be back by the time the tea is ready."

Roxton and Marguerite called the elevator back up and made their way down to the jungle floor. "Well, if Miss Kingston is right, this should be one of the last times we have to do anything like this," Marguerite said to Roxton as she began hanging up the wet laundry.

"Yes, I suppose so," Roxton said, his tone somewhat wistful as he watched Marguerite hang one of his shirts on the laundry line. "Of course," he said, his tone changing, "that's if Clarice is telling the truth about knowing how to get us all home."

Marguerite turned to face Roxton, one of Malone's shirts draped over her arm. "Is there any reason to believe that she's lying to us? I know that woman upsets you, and I certainly don't trust her, but can you think of a reason she would lie to us about this?"

Roxton sighed. "Clarice and I have a very complicated history," he admitted. "Let's just say I don't completely trust her or her motives right now."

Marguerite was about to ask him just what was so complicated about his history with Clarice when they heard her voice. "Are you two done with that laundry yet?" she called down. "The tea's ready."

"That was fast," Marguerite muttered. "Go on up," she told Roxton. "I'll finish here. Wouldn't want to keep our guest waiting."

Roxton looked uncertain. "Are you sure?" he asked. "Will you be all right down here alone?"

Marguerite smiled in spite of herself. "I have my pistol," she reminded him. "And I'll only be another few minutes, all right? Now go before her nibs gets herself in an uproar."

Roxton smiled. "All right, but be careful. And please hurry," he added, leaning forward to press a gentle kiss against her forehead before climbing into the elevator and heading back up to the treehouse.

Marguerite returned to hanging the laundry with a smile on her face. Ten minutes later she'd finished hanging up the wet clothing and climbed into the elevator. The treehouse was eerily quiet when Marguerite stepped off the elevator. "John? Clarice?" she called. "Where are you?"

She walked into the treehouse and stopped short when she saw something lying on the floor by the kitchen table. Roxton. "Oh, God." She raced to his side and dropped to her knees next to his motionless body. "John, John, can you hear me?" she called as her hands searched his neck for a pulse. She breathed a sigh of relief when she felt his pulse beating steadily beneath his fingers. Her relief was short lived however as she thought of something. "Clarice!" she called. "Clarice, where are you?"

Clarice walked out of Roxton's room, a smile on her face. "Yes, Marguerite? Did you need something?"

"Clarice, something's wrong with John," she told the other woman. "We have to get him to his bed."

Clarice seemed to think a moment, then shook her head. "No, I think he'll be fine where he is," she said. She raised the pistol in her hand and pointed it at Marguerite. "However, I think you definitely need to be moved."

Marguerite gasped. "What are you doing?"

"What I came here to do," Clarice responded, her eyes hard. "Now stand up and put your pistol on the table."

Marguerite glared at the other woman, but knew there was nothing else she could do at the moment. She stood slowly and removed her pistol from its holster, tossing it onto the kitchen table. "Now, step away from John," Clarice instructed. "Take the chair from the kitchen table and put it in the middle of the room where I can keep my eye on you."

Marguerite did as she was told and sat down as Clarice moved toward the table and picked up Marguerite's gun, sticking it in her belt. It was then that Marguerite realized something. "Your ankle," she observed. "You're not limping at all." Her eyes narrowed. "And I'm willing to bet you never hurt it in the first place."

Clarice shrugged. "I needed a way to be able to stay behind in the treehouse with you while the others were gone. And it helped to have any sympathy it could generate on my side."

"What did you do to John?" Marguerite demanded. "And why were you so hung up on being left alone with me in the treehouse?"

"John's merely taking a little nap right now," Clarice told Marguerite. "It's amazing what some plants will do when you add them to someone's tea." Her lips curved into a cruel smile. "And the reason I wanted to be alone with you was so I could take my revenge on John by killing you. At first I thought it was a little inconvenient that he was staying behind as well, but this way is so much better - he gets to watch you die."

Marguerite closed her eyes and swallowed hard. "Why do you want revenge on John?" she asked when she could find her voice again. "I thought you were such close friends."

"Please," Clarice scoffed. "We were lovers once, but that was before I met William and found out that he would be the next Lord Roxton. You see, I fought my way up from the lower reaches of society," she explained to Marguerite. "William was going to be my ticket out of all of that. I would be wealthy and secure for the rest of my life once I married him. But then his little brother John and his father ganged up on him and got him to go on an African safari with John. And John murdered him."

"It was an accident!" Marguerite protested. "That ape was going to kill William - John was trying to save his life!"

"Were you there?" Clarice demanded. "Do you really know that that's true? Do you know that John didn't murder his brother out of jealousy so he could be the next Lord Roxton? Do you know that for sure?"

"Yes," Marguerite said calmly. "I know John Roxton, and I know he would never do something like that."

Clarice laughed a bitter, harsh laugh. "Of course you believe that," she said derisively. "But you're blind. You love him. You're a fool to do so," she said, her tone scornful, "but so much the better for me. I know he thinks he loves you as well, and now I can take away what he loves right before his eyes."

Marguerite refused to show her fear. Instead, she went on the offensive. "What a pathetic creature you are," she said contemptuously. "The past dozen years of your life directed by the death of a man you didn't even love. You couldn't make it in the world alone, you needed a man to take care of you, and where has it gotten you?"

"Shut up," Clarice commanded coldly.

"You've traveled to the ends of the earth, to a dangerous prehistoric plateau just so you can wreak your petty revenge on a man who felt more suffering at the death of his brother than most people will ever know in their lifetime."

"Shut up!" Clarice cried, raising her gun and aiming it at Marguerite. "Shut up right now!"

Marguerite ignored her and continued. "Well congratulations," she said, clapping mockingly. "You're here and you're going to kill me and torture John. I guess you'll really show the world, huh? I guess you'll really have climbed all the way to the top of the social ladder from the lower reaches you started in."

"Shut up!" Clarice screamed at her, stalking across the room and slapping Marguerite across the face. "Shut up right now, or, or-"

"Or what, you'll kill me?" Marguerite challenged. "You already said you were going to do that anyway. If you're going to do it then just hurry up and do it already so I don't have to listen to your pathetic whining and carrying on about how hard your life is."

"I said shut up!" Clarice screamed, raising the pistol and cracking the butt of it on Marguerite's temple. Marguerite slid out of the chair and fell to the floor, unconscious.

"Clarice." Clarice turned to see Roxton rising to his feet, gripping the edges of the table for support. "Get away from her," he said in a low voice. "It's me you want anyway, isn't it?"

"Still self-centered, aren't you, John?" Clarice asked icily. "Thinking the whole world revolves around you."

"Why are you doing this, Clarice?" Roxton asked. "We're practically family, what are you doing?"

Clarice laughed harshly. "Family? Is that what you think? You ruined my life!" she cried. "When you murdered William on that damned safari, you ended any chance I had for a good life. I was going to be happy, safe, the wife of a lord. I would've always had anything and everything I wanted, I would have been in the highest social circles in London. But you took all that away from me!"

Roxton stared at her in disbelief. "But you were going to marry my brother, be my sister in law. Are you telling me that none of that meant anything to you? You were going to do all of that for the money and social position? I thought you loved William."

Clarice laughed again. "Love? What a fanciful, naïve view you have of the world, John," she said, her tone dripping with scorn. "Love is only for the weak, the easily led. Life is about self-preservation and survival. All of my plans for my future were about to be realized with William, but you ruined that. You ruined everything I worked so hard for. You ruined my life," she repeated. She pointed her gun at Marguerite's prone form. "And now I'm going to ruin yours."

"Clarice, don't, please," Roxton said. "I never wanted to ruin your life. Please, just tell me how I can help you and I'll do it."

Clarice gestured to the sheaf of papers lying on the table. "First off, you can sign that," she told him.

"What is it?" Roxton asked, reaching for the papers.

"It's a legal document that will sign over your entire fortune to me. All of your money, your property, everything. I had it drawn up by a lawyer who owed me a favor before I left London. It can't even begin to make up for what you've done to my life, but it'll be a good start."

"All right, I'll do it," Roxton said without hesitation, picking up the pen on the table and quickly scrawling his signature on the last page of the document. "Now, put the gun away, Clarice," he said. "You can take these papers with you and walk out of here and go back to London. You'll have everything of mine, all right?"

Clarice shook her head. "Not quite," she said, turning back to Marguerite and cocking the hammer on the pistol.

"Clarice, no!" Roxton cried, pulling his own gun from his holster. "Step away from her now, Clarice," he commanded. "You know I won't miss."

Clarice only smiled at him. "I wouldn't do that if I were you, John," she warned him. "You're only hurting yourself." She crouched down and pressed the muzzle of her pistol to Marguerite's temple. "Say goodbye to your lover," she said.

"Stop!" Roxton fired his gun at Clarice, but nothing happened.

"Like I said, you're only hurting yourself," Clarice said, standing and facing Roxton. "I took the bullets out of your gun." She aimed her pistol at Roxton. "But not out of mine."

"No!" Marguerite grabbed Clarice around the legs, knocking the other woman to the floor. She heard the gun go off and Roxton cried out in pain as he fell to the ground. "John!"

She tried to move to his side, but Clarice grabbed her and knocked her to the ground. "I won't let you ruin my plans now," Clarice told her, straddling Marguerite's stomach. "I've come too far." She grabbed Marguerite by the hair and slammed her head against the floor. Then she scrambled off of her to grab her gun, which had been knocked to the floor in the struggle. Marguerite pushed Clarice aside and kicked the gun away under the kitchen table.

Clarice crawled under the table, desperately trying to get her hands on the gun. Finally, her hand closed around the weapon and she stood triumphantly, holding the gun in her hand. "Looks like I win," she said smugly.

"I wouldn't say that," Marguerite said from the edge of the balcony. "Lose something?" she asked, holding up the legal documents Roxton had signed only moments earlier.

"Put those down, now," Clarice commanded, pointing her gun at Marguerite.

Marguerite held the documents out over the edge of the balcony. "If you're sure that's what you want me to do," she said. "Of course, the way the wind blows around here, you'll probably never be able to find all of these pages, but I'm sure that won't really matter."

"Put them down, now," Clarice said, "or I'll shoot you."

"Go ahead," Marguerite said. "That's what you were going to do anyway, isn't it?"

"You're what's standing between me and everything I want," Clarice said. She shook her head. "I'm not going to let you come between me and what I deserve any longer."

Marguerite released the papers in her hand and they fell to the jungle floor in a shower of papers. "No!" Clarice screamed, running towards Marguerite. She charged Marguerite, holding her gun like a club, and tried to strike at her as she reached her. Marguerite ducked and stepped aside as Clarice flew at her, and the other woman ran into the railing of the balcony.

And crashed right through.

Marguerite turned away, unable to watch, as Clarice's screams rang in her ears. And then abruptly they stopped. Marguerite peered over the edge and saw Clarice's body lying among the papers of the legal document, her neck twisted at a grotesque angle. "Looks like you got what you deserved after all," she muttered to herself.

She heard a groan and turned to see Roxton struggling to sit up. "John!" She hurried to his side and knelt next to him. "Oh, God, John, are you all right?" she asked, draping his arm across her shoulder.

He nodded. "I'll be fine. She only hit the side of my leg. More of a graze, really. It was hitting my head on the chair on the way down that really hurt," he added with a grimace, gently rubbing his head. "Thank you," he said as Marguerite eased him onto the chair. He groaned and closed his eyes a moment. "I feel like I've been run over by a Raptor. I wish I knew what she'd put in that tea."

Marguerite shrugged. "Something to knock you out, that's all I really know." She pulled a chair up next to him and examined the wound on his leg. "You're right, it passed right through the side of your leg," she told him. "It's not too bad."

"See, what did I tell you?" he asked, grabbing onto her hand and pulling it away from his wound. "What about you?" he asked. "Are you all right?" He examined her bruised, bloodied face in concern. "I'll bet that hurts," he said, tenderly running his fingers over the large bump on her forehead.

She shrugged. "I've had worse."

He smiled fondly for a moment, but sobered quickly. "I'm sorry," he said seriously. "I'm sorry you were dragged into this."

"It's not your fault," Marguerite told him.

"Yes, it is," he nodded. "Even now, so many years later, the people around me that I care about are still being hurt because of what I did to my brother."

"John, no," Marguerite said, reaching up to tenderly cup his face in her hand. "What happened to William was an accident, and in your heart you know that. That ape was going to kill your brother anyway - you did what you did as an attempt to save his life. You did it because you loved him too much to just stand by and do nothing. I know you, and that's the kind of person you are."

Roxton smiled and softly kissed the inside of Marguerite's palm. "Thank you," he whispered.

The moment was broken when they heard yelling coming from below. "Marguerite! Roxton!" Challenger called. "Can you hear us? Roxton? Marguerite?"

Marguerite stood reluctantly. "I better go let them know we're okay." She made her way to the balcony and looked down to see Challenger, Summerlee, Malone, and Veronica standing there.

"Oh, thank heavens," Summerlee said. "Are you two all right?"

Marguerite nodded. "More or less."

"We'll be right up," Veronica said, and the four called down the elevator and climbed in.

The four explorers entered the treehouse and stared at the mess before them. "What happened?" Malone asked. "Are you two all right?"

"Oh, sure," Marguerite said. "Clarice tried to kill us both, knocked us unconscious, and shot Roxton."

"Good lord!" Challenger said. "Let's get the two of you cleaned up and you can tell us the whole story."

"I'll help," Veronica volunteered, following Challenger down to the lab. Moments later they re-emerged and cleaned up Roxton and Marguerite's wounds while the two explained what had happened while the others had been gone.

"So her whole reason for coming here was because she wanted revenge on you because she held you responsible for ruining her life?" Malone asked.

Roxton nodded. "Apparently she didn't even love William," he said, his expression pained. Marguerite reached over and took his hand in hers. "She only wanted the power and money that marriage to him would bring. When he died, she thought she lost that. She tried to restart our relationship right after his death, but I passed it off as her way of dealing with her grief. However, she did try several times while she was here to pick up our relationship again. When I turned her down she figured she would make me sign away my money to her anyway and then make me watch her kill Marguerite."

Marguerite shuddered and Roxton squeezed her hand comfortingly. "Well, thank heavens she wasn't able to realize her plan," Summerlee said.

Marguerite grimaced. "Believe me, Summerlee, I share your sentiments. But what happened to all of you out there with her guides? I don't see any equipment. What happened to the supplies at her campsite?"

Veronica shrugged. "Who knows if there even was a campsite. The guides led us on an extremely convoluted path so it took us awhile to figure out they were leading us in circles. When we finally confronted them, they tried to kill us. There were only two of them, though, so we restrained them pretty easily. They finally admitted to us that Clarice had hired them and promised them a large cut of the Roxton fortune when she came into it. We were suspicious then, to say the least, so we left them and got back here as fast as we could."

"I'm sorry we weren't here," Malone said.

"Oh, nothing we couldn't handle," Marguerite said, her airy tone not entirely covering the strain in her voice from the past few hours.

"I'm sure," Challenger said. "However, the two of you look exhausted; perhaps you should get some rest. Roxton, you should definitely stay off that leg for a little while."

Marguerite agreed readily and headed to her room without another word. Summerlee and Challenger helped Roxton to his room and settled him in his bed while Malone and Veronica headed down to the jungle floor to take care of removing Clarice's body.

****

Several hours later Roxton was dozing off when he heard a sound at his doorway. He looked up and saw Marguerite standing before him. "Can I come in?" she asked.

"Of course," he said, pulling himself into a sitting position on his bed.

She crossed the room and sat on the edge of his bed. "How are you feeling?" she asked.

"I'm not sure," he admitted. "Physically, I hurt of course, but as you said, I've had worse. The rest of it, however…" He trailed off, unsure how to put what he was feeling into words.

"I know," Marguerite said softly, resting a hand on his arm. And looking into her expressive eyes, Roxton believed she really did know what he was feeling.

"I can't believe you'd still want to be around me after everything that's happened," he told her. She looked at him questioningly. "I mean, everything that happened with Clarice was my fault."

"John, that's not true!" she protested.

"Yes, it is," he said. "She was going to kill you because she knew how much you mean to me, how much I care about you. I'm so sorry, Marguerite," he said softly.

Marguerite looked down at her hands a moment, and when she looked at Roxton again he was surprised to see tears in her eyes. "Please, don't," she whispered. "Whatever else you may want to apologize for, please don't apologize for caring. Please don't tell me you're sorry for that."

Roxton quickly gathered Marguerite into his arms. "No, no, that's not what I meant," he whispered against her hair. "I'm sorry that my caring about you put you in danger." He pulled back and held her face in his hands. "But I'm not sorry for caring. I'm not sorry for loving you. I will never be sorry for that."

Marguerite looked at his face, amazed. "Never?" she choked out.

Smiling gently, he shook his head. "Never," he repeated.

Wrapping her arms around his neck, Marguerite rested her head against his shoulder. "Thank you," she whispered, a single tear slipping down her face.

Roxton kissed the top of her head. Then, without releasing Marguerite, he lay back on the bed, Marguerite still wrapped in his arms. And soon they were both asleep, the horrors of the day forgotten in the shelter of their embrace.