Forever Haunted By the Past

Summary: Events from the past always have an effect on the present, but does that mean the past must forever haunt the Rattler's partners?

**********

The man sitting at the table in the corner of Lavinia's bar wasn't at all remarkable. He was average height and build, clothed in nondescript, dusty travel-worn clothes. His thinning gray hair wasn't too shaggy or long, or too short or neat. He had no unusual features, and hadn't spoken other than to order his drink, which he nursed quietly without interacting with any of Lavinia's other patrons. He showed no particular interest in anyone else, and no one showed any particular interest in him. He was just another nameless face in the crowd, one of many in a port city where strangers were common and too numerous to pay much attention to as long as they caused no trouble.

And that was just how he wanted it.

The success of his task required that he be unseen. Hiding in plain sight was his preferred modus operandi, the means by which he had survived the last twenty-one years. He'd been here in Matavai for three weeks, patiently observing his prey, sometimes at Lavinia's, now and then on the waterfront, even occasionally at the church. He'd been seen walking all over the island, casually wandering in and out of town, drifting here and there... All the time he had been learning what he needed to know in order to get what he wanted.

It had been profitable enough. He'd gleaned the knowledge to accomplish his purposes, and had put his plans into action during a long night's work. Now it was time to watch those plans bear fruit. Tonight he would have what he had come for, and no one would ever know the reasons behind what was shortly going to happen.

His prey was clever, but everyone had habits that could be used against them, once discovered. A patient professional could always find a way to clear his path of obstacles.

He need only wait now until dusk...

**********

David Grief was headed back to the Rattler after his usual time playing cards at Lavinia's. It was a quiet night, not too hot, nice breeze. The tall young Captain was feeling restless. On a night like this one, he and Mauriri used to wander along the coast, fishing poles in hand to do a bit of night fishing... and just to talk.

But it looked like those days were long gone. His best friend still wouldn't talk with him, other than the most cursory of greetings and mere polite chitchat if they happened to cross paths in the company of others. If they chanced to meet without others present, Mo was just as likely to pointedly turn his back, or flat out cross a street, to avoid speaking to David.

In the four months since David had betrayed Mauriri by using their partnership funds to try to help the woman with whom he'd been in love, Mo had shown no sign of forgiving his rash actions or being willing to restore their friendship. Of course, Mo wasn't the only one who was giving the handsome adventurer the cold shoulder. Many of Tahiti's citizens were also shunning him after his association with and defense of a woman who had turned out to be a pirate and a murderess. It wasn't the sailors, who were well aware of their own frailties and rarely shunned one another, but the "solid" members of the island community, both Polynesian and European, that were treating him as if he'd been Jenny's willing accomplice in her crimes against them all.

David had never sought the company of these "established" islanders, and didn't really desire it now. But he'd at least had a semblance their respect before, and it was difficult to experience the derision and suspicion that followed him now, instead. If he'd had the option, he would have pulled up stakes and left Matavai rather than enduring the daily heartache of facing the double slam that hit him like a sucker punch each morning when he awakened. Knowing he was no longer welcome at Mauriri's home and that he'd also lost the trust of the community he'd lived in these past six years was nearly more painful than anything David had ever lived through before.

But he did not have the option of leaving.

Isabelle Reed, blast her manipulative heart, had seen to that!

She'd bought out the debt on the ship he and Mauriri had been partners in, the Rattler. And until he paid Isabelle back, he was trapped by the honor he still inexplicably retained, despite his reputation in Tahiti these days.

David sighed and glanced toward her livery as he passed the street where her primary business was located. The only livery owner in Matavai, she'd been doing well - amazingly well! - so why did she want to bother learning the shipping trade as well? Granted, she had a natural head for business, and she was exceptionally talented at working a deal. She'd been booking plenty of business for the Rattler, nothing with huge profits yet, but enough that David was saving a little more each trip to pay her off.

Partners with a woman!

And Isabelle Reed, of all people! Business was the last thing he thought of when he saw Isabelle Reed!

She was -

He stopped in mid step as a glimmer of light caught his eye. That was odd.

Isabelle's lights were usually out long before now. The slender firebrand kept early hours, rising before sunrise to care for her horses and begin the day's chores before the heat grew overbearing, and turning in early at night unless she had a formal social activity scheduled.

But there was nothing happening in Matavai's social scene tonight. Everyone always knew when there were social gatherings on the island, even if they hadn't been invited, so David was sure nothing was happening tonight. Even if something had been scheduled, Isabelle didn't attend the society parties as most of the other European women did; her reputation wasn't much better than David's besmirched image, after her introduction to the islands as a prisoner condemned for murder. Even though her innocence had been proven, it wasn't likely that she would find acceptance among the "worthy" citizens of European Tahiti any time soon. And she wasn't with Claire; the pretty young newspaper owner had been at Lavinia's, helping out because two of the regular servers hadn't shown up.

David glanced up at the moon, which was barely to be seen as clouds moved across it. Why was there a light on in Isabelle's flat above the livery stable at this hour?

As he looked back at the shadowed building at the end of the street, the gleam shifted to the office. His seaman's eyes narrowed as he noticed the erratic movement of the light. What in the world? Why wasn't she using the regular lighting? It looked as if she was searching -

No sooner did the thought occur to him than he was sprinting down the street toward the livery stable, suddenly realizing that someone had broken into Isabelle's place.

He mounted the outside steps three at a time and twisted so that he was in position to shoulder right on through the door at the top without stopping. Never breaking stride, he aimed straight for the lantern that pinpointed the intruder's location. With a flying tackle, he took the fellow down.

Too late, it crossed his mind that it just might be Isabelle for some unfathomable reason. But fortunately, the body he hit didn't have the soft curves of a slender woman. It was definitely a masculine person who went down under David's assault without putting up a fight. The air whooshed out of the fellow as he hit the floor with the young captain atop him. David heard the thud of the man's head striking the floor, and suspected before he raised his head to look... yeah, the bloke was out cold. David did a quick check. Good. Not dead. He didn't need that kind of trouble at the moment.

Scrambling to his feet, David took the time to grab the fallen lantern the intruder had been using - hmmm. A quick look in the wavering lantern light was enough to know he hadn't noticed this man around town - then headed for the doorway that led from the livery's front office to Isabelle's private living quarters, where he'd first noticed the light moving.

He hadn't been beyond the inner office door since the day he and Mauriri had helped Isabelle clean it out after she won the place from its former owner in a card game at Lavinia's. He had to slow as he entered, to avoid falling over the furniture. "Isabelle?" he called anxiously.

No answer.

The place was almost as much of a disaster as it had been when she'd moved in - except without the actual filth and stench, of course. The intruder had done a thorough job of searching for something. The room was in total disarray.

She didn't have a lot of furniture yet. The same cane divan and chair that the last owner had used were still her largest pieces, though she'd apparently cushioned them with some pretty blue material that was now slashed to pieces, the stuffing pulled out and scattered asunder. Two small end tables were tilted over, as were the larger cane pieces and the bookcases the resourceful brunette had found somewhere - the last owner had certainly never had reason for bookcases!

But Isabelle was building a home here, and it seemed that books and plants were part of her idea of home. She'd often paid David and Mauriri to bring back books for her from one port or another where she'd somehow learned about their availability. He shook his head at the way her precious books were tumbled haphazardly around the floor, pages bent and torn. And her potted plants were dumped, the dirt pawed through, roots exposed, probably damaged beyond repair by the intruder's search for – well, whatever it was he was looking for.

His always-alert partner couldn't possibly have slept through all of this!

Grimly, David picked his way toward the back, where he knew he'd find a kitchen before he could reach the bedroom at the rear. He tried not to step on too many books, but was worried at the continued silence from his never-silent partner. If Isabelle was badly hurt, he was going to kill that man in the office! She'd already been through enough pain for ten lifetimes!

The kitchen was in much the same condition as the sitting room. The intruder had emptied her pantry, tearing open flour and sugar sacks, upending her vegetable bin and dumping her spices. The stranger had even broken open a case of wine, smashing the bottles as well as the crate that rested beneath a window sill that now held tilted and spilled window boxes of sadly ruined herbs. What the devil could he have been searching for?

David paused in the next doorway, hesitating for one second before moving on into her bedroom, almost afraid of what he'd find there. At first glance, his concern seemed justified. The mattress was off the bed frame, ripped open like the cushions in the sitting room, the insides torn out and strewn around the room. Bureau drawers and wardrobe were ransacked, clothing tossed around into careless heaps on the floor...

Well, the man hadn't been after any jewelry the beautiful former thief might have. He'd pulled Isabelle's few shiny trinkets out, but left them disdainfully tossed aside. David knew a couple of them were genuine pieces that were worth plenty of cash. She'd had more than one admirer since they'd first met, and at least two of the men had been well enough off to court her with expensive gifts. But the intruder hadn't cared about the lovely jewels, so it had to be something else he was after.

And there was no sign of Isabelle.

Torn between relief and dismay, David checked beneath the remains of the mattress, and carefully moved the piles of blankets and clothing... no open window, no back door, ...

Checking everywhere big enough to hide the lovely brunette, he worked his way back to the front of the building. He'd still found no sign of her when he reached the intruder's side again.

David picked up the loop of rope he'd given to Isabelle for practicing sailing knots. She'd apparently been working on her assignment, because it was on her desk beside a list of the knots David had been teaching her to tie. He had to admit that she'd been faithful in diligently working to master each task he was throwing at her. She was really serious about learning everything she could about being a good sailor and a good ship trader, from the ground up.

He tied up the still-unconscious intruder, and searched his pockets. Nothing to identify the man, or to give a hint as to what he'd been searching for here.

David descended to the stables, lantern in hand, and entered cautiously. On the off chance that she'd simply gone out for an evening visit, he didn't want to alarm whoever Isabelle had on duty here tonight until she returned. But none of the lovely stable mistress's workers were present to keep watch, which proved her absence hadn't been planned. Grimly, he checked the tack room and each stall. Tack, feed, horses, hay, tools… Everything was in place except Dante.

Isabelle's favorite horse was gone. All of Dante's tack was missing, too.

What the devil was going on here?!

David checked the coral at the back. Not that Isabelle would leave one of her precious horses out at night, but just to cover all the bases.

No, Dante wasn't here, and there was no sign of the big chestnut's coming or going.

David frowned.

In the stillness of the night he could hear the ocean waves lapping on the shore... the insects... a few night birds... some drunken sailors singing by a bonfire near the beach... faint music from the piano at Lavinia's... the soft breeze rustling the trees around the coral.

But no welcome sound of hooves clop-clopping toward the livery.

Where could she be? She wouldn't be riding at this time of night.

Maybe earlier in the evening she might have gone riding. David knew that on days when business had been brisk it wasn't uncommon for Isabelle to take Dante for an easy lope at sunset. But that had been hours ago.

And she wouldn't take Dante anywhere local to visit and leave her prize possession standing in the chilling night air, not this late into the night. Nor would she have gone off overnight without arranging for one of the native boys to stay here to keep an eye on her other horses. So she must have expected to be here herself to watch over the stable and her precious horses.

David hesitated a moment more, then strode purposefully away from the coral. The intruder was trussed up tight, going nowhere. He could just lay there and wait until David chose to return and deal with him. There was only one choice about what to do now.

This was no time for pride.

Something was seriously wrong here, and Isabelle was in trouble. He could feel it! She needed the best help he could provide.

**********

Mauriri Lepau saw David coming. He rose from his porch and watched with stern coldness as his former best friend neared. The first thing he noticed was the lack of hesitation in David's long stride. There was such purpose in his step that it surprised Mauriri.

He felt a sudden pang as he realized that it had been a long time since David had approached him without a diffident step and guiltily lowered eyes.

The Tahitian frowned thoughtfully to himself, not pleased as he caught his own thought that David didn't look sorry enough.

Lianni had been fussing at him for "punishing" David. Was he really so bent on making David pay for his indiscretion that it could bother him to see the man come toward him and actually meet his eyes without flinching for a change?

Mauriri pushed the thought aside as David stopped on the sand in front of the porch. Looking up at the native islander standing so imperiously above him, the Rattler's captain said bluntly, "I caught a strange man ransacking Isabelle's place. There's no sign of either Isabelle or Dante."

His former partner understood the implications instantly: Isabelle, who had kept Mauriri's family from financial ruin as much as she'd saved David when she paid the Rattler's past due note, was in trouble. He nodded gravely without asking further questions. "I'll let Lianni know I'm leaving," he replied flatly, turning away without inviting David to follow.

A few words to his wife were all that were necessary. She quickly helped him gather rope, a bag of medical provisions, canteens, lanterns and weapons, saying softly, "You do realize that David has put aside his own pain to come to you like this?"

His petite wife would insist on saying it aloud!

He gave her a glare, but she wasn't cowed. "Yes, it had occurred to me," he grunted, annoyed. "And do you realize that he's putting another woman ahead of everything else - again?!"

Lianni gave him a reproachful look. "It's Isabelle, Mauriri. She saved your life, and our ship."

Her broad-shouldered husband growled at her. She knew he hated how she persisted in continuing to refer to the Rattler as belonging to them, as if his partnership with David was still intact. She just wouldn't let it drop!

Lianni ignored his warning, and continued softly, "You know, and David knows, that her best chance is your tracking skill. David is putting her safety first, above the risk of you refusing him, above knowing you're going to make being along with him difficult as he searches for her. Now you just behave yourself, Mauriri Lepua! Get over this, help find Isabelle and be friends again with David!"

He'd heard enough of her scolding. He was already painfully recalling how ready David always was to sacrifice himself for his friends. It was a good trait. There was no getting around it, no matter how hard he tried to remind himself that David had been willing to sacrifice the Lepau family's security, too, not just himself - and without consulting with his partner first!

He grumpily kissed the demure cheek his delicate wife offered, and headed out the door.

Lianni watched him join David on the beach, handing a coil of rope, a lantern, one of the canteens, and a gun to the slightly younger man who had waited silently and respectfully on the sand.

So much had changed, she thought sadly. Once David would have come bounding through that door right on Mauriri's heels, scooping her into a giant bear hug as Mo got ready to go, or sneaking into the other room to check on Tevaki and Tahnee as they slept - and probably waking them in the process! But tonight David hadn't even stepped onto the porch, knowing he was not welcome.

Then a small smile played about her lips as she watched the two of them turn, wordlessly, shoulder to shoulder, without any consultation, toward Isabelle Reed's favorite place to go riding in the evenings. Their long-legged strides were evenly matched, perfectly in step with one another. Well, at least some things had not changed. They still seemed completely attuned to one another's ways.

If only her stubborn husband would give David a chance! What a difference it would make for David to have Mo helping him get back on his feet in the face of all the other disapproval he was enduring after that horrid fiasco with Jenny!

**********

They needed neither the moon nor the stars to know the way. They'd traveled this direction together many times in the past, but never before in this increasingly awkward silence that engulfed them tonight.

Mauriri glanced over at the tall man hiking along so quietly beside him through the darkness. There was barely enough moonlight to see his profile, let alone his expression. But there was certainly none of the self-doubt that had characterized David's movements around his former partner for the last several months.

Mo found himself glad to see this, and was displeased with himself for his weakness. He hadn't realized until now, as he noted the familiar confident stride, how much David Grief's very physical posture had been affected by their falling out. He hadn't seen David acting so sure about anything since before Jenny's death. Even when Mo had stood on the beach and watched his former partner on the Rattler over these past few months, it had been easy to see that David's movements lacked his previous smooth precision. Now that he thought about it, Mo realized the subtle change had proven David was suffering appropriately, so Mo didn't want to see David moving so comfortably again now.

Nonetheless, the Tahitian found himself grinning ruefully in the darkness. Naturally it was a woman who had brought out David's better tendencies again! But Lianni was right; this time at least it was for a woman who was worthy. As angry and disappointed as he was in David, Mauriri had to admit to himself that Isabelle Reed was good for David. She kept his former friend on his toes, making him work hard -

Well, of course, to be perfectly honest, Isabelle wasn't really forcing David to do anything. Reluctant though he'd been lately to think any kind thoughts of the daredevil who had been his partner for the last few years, he couldn't deny that David Grief had never shirked paying his debts. He'd willingly work long and hard to repay the independent young lady for her timely investment in the Rattler.

Of course, that timely investment wouldn't have been necessary if David hadn't been playing fast and loose with their joint business account.

No, Mauriri sternly told himself, no matter what Lianni and Lavinia and the others might say, he must not allow himself to forget what David had done. David had proven he couldn't be trusted with the livelihood of others, and Mo's family's security depended on his ability to maintain a regular income and to build savings for their future.

Mauriri pushed aside the thought that he hadn't had a steady job or income since breaking off his partnership with the young Captain now striding through the night at his side. Mo was a good, strong worker with sought-after knowledge of the islands, native languages, and the ocean. He knew he had the respect of every captain who sailed the South Seas. He'd find the right thing sooner or later. But he would not be aligned with David Grief again. That much he had decided.

He pulled his mind back to the issue at hand. If Isabelle wasn't at her favorite riding field, where would they look next? Gruffly, he posed the question to David.

David had already been thinking about it, and answered promptly, "There are two other places where she's mentioned riding lately. All three are pretty close together. It won't take us long to move from one to another if we can't find any sign of her at this first one." He glanced briefly over at Mauriri, having avoided doing so earlier, trying to keep his focus on Isabelle instead of on regrets. "All three areas abut the jungle."

Mo nodded. He'd known all along that this was why David had come for him. If Dante's trail led into the jungle, David didn't have the skill to track the stallion. He'd need an expert to follow the trail, especially in the dark. "Won't be long till we're at her field," he noted flatly.

They fell silent, continuing to tramp through the night toward Isabelle's preferred riding ground. It lay within sight of the ocean, a long, wide field popular for its wildflowers and its view.

Neither man spoke again. There was just nothing left to talk about. They both knew what had to be done.

**********

Isabelle impatiently wiped away her tears and struggled back to her feet yet again. She leaned heavily on the thick branch she'd groped for moments before, and glared up at the slope she was trying to conquer.

Three times she had nearly made it up the side of the ravine, only to tumble back down without reaching the elusive top.

She could feel the warmth of freshly flowing blood, and knew the wound on her outer thigh had broken open again. She was losing far too much blood. This wasn't going to work. She hadn't been able to climb out in the fading light of dusk; her chances had worsened since darkness had completely fallen, and the odds against her success increased exponentially with each successive failed attempt. She was getting weaker with every effort.

Not for the first time, she worried about her favorite mount, Dante.

She had to get up there! It had been hours since she'd last heard his distressed whinny, and she just knew his life was in danger! For him to suddenly bolt, then swerve and unseat her, sending her flying over the edge of this bloody ravine - Well, something had to be seriously wrong with her stallion. Dante had never behaved like this before.

She had no idea how much time she'd lost being unconscious, and then stumbling along the bottom of the ravine searching for a way out. After finding that the gorge dead ended in both directions, she'd resorted to searching for a viable place she could attempt to scale. This place was the most promising slope she'd found before the light faded completely. It was the only chance of getting back up to her horse.

Not to mention getting back to where someone might find her. If she stayed down here, no one would ever be able to locate her. She'd been riding this area for months, and had never suspected this narrow rift lay hidden in the shrubs at the western edge of the field.

There had to be a way to get up this infuriating incline!

Isabelle bent, fighting another wave of dizziness at the movement, to readjust the tourniquet just above the bandages she'd made from her shirt after waking up down here at the bottom of this infernal pit.

The bandages were saturated with blood already, unable to absorb any more; there was little she could do about it, as the only thing she had left to use for fresh bandages was her thin camisole. The night air had grown too chill to remove that as well, not to mention the scandal if she should be found topless out here.

She could, however, still adjust the material from the one sleeve she'd twisted into a belt to use as a tourniquet. She tightened it as much as she could bear, then gave it one more twist for good measure.

She was so thirsty and so light-headed... and hurting so very badly!

Too many tumbles, too many cuts and scratches, too many nasty little insects nipping at her - if only she could rest a bit, gather her waning strength... sit down just for a minute and close her sandpaper filled eyes...

No! Isabelle sternly caught herself, refusing to yield to the urge to lower herself to the nearest level spot on the ground. She was afraid that if she sat down again, she'd fall asleep and never wake again. She was feeling so weak, and it was so hard to stay focused, to think, to plan...

Up. She had to get up this incline! She had to reach the open ground up there and find Dante.

She took firm hold on her makeshift crutch, set her sights on the wavering rim of the ravine, barely visible against the cloudy night sky, and began to climb.

Isabelle pushed back the pain, the thirst, and the exhaustion that threatened to overwhelm her with every movement. Grab that rock, use that branch, put a foot there, brace against this root... up. Had to get up. Place the 'crutch', careful noe... breathe in, breathe out, move the foot forward, lift the leg... get hold of the stub protruding there... lean on that while reaching for this -

Her next step caused a small landslide. Isabelle cried out in despair as she felt the ground shift beneath her already unstable feet. And then she was falling, rolling, slamming into rocks and trees, coughing at the dust, stung by pebbles bouncing off her already-battered body... finally landing in a heap at the bottom of the ravine once again.

But this time, blessed blackness relieved her from the pain and the harshness of reality.

**********

"Did you hear that?" Mauriri called, lifting his lantern and gazing across the field toward where David was keeping pace with him.

David had already twisted in the direction of the faint cry. "Yeah! Over that way!" he shouted, pointing to the furthest end of the grassy lea.

They'd been carefully searching the wide field since arriving here, working from the eastern edge toward the western end with the lit lanterns, staying parallel as they crossed toward the edge furthest from Matavai. David had taken the seaward side, leaving the jungle edge for Mauriri, who would better spot any trail into the jungle that fronted the field there.

They'd been moving slowly to search as thoroughly as they could in the knee-high grass. But now both men burst into a dash toward the shrub-lined end of the field, their long legs eating up the ground. They finally had a probable destination to guide them. That cry hadn't sounded good, and they both recognized the desperation inherent in the muffled sound that had reached them.

As they headed toward the bushes that rimmed the field, they both resumed calling "Isabelle" and working toward one another as they narrowed in on the source of the muffled cry they'd heard, eyes fixed on the ground around them as they searched for further clues to Isabelle's whereabouts.

Mauriri stopped abruptly. "David!" he yelled. "Get over here!"

David pounded across the turf, heart dropping at the urgency in his friend's voice.

He ground to a stop only an arm's length away from where Mo knelt. He'd found Dante! The horse was stretched on the ground, still saddled, holding way too still. David's hazel-green eyes searched quickly. There was no immediate sign of the chestnut stallion's young mistress. "Is he -?"

"No!" Mauriri's voice was strained as he rested his hand gently on the animal's sleek neck. "But look - he's been injured badly. He needs care now or he's not going to make it." The flesh was torn all down Dante's powerful neck, chest and shoulders. There was a lot of blood, only a little of it fresh. He'd been down a long time, for that much blood to have dried on him like this.

David knelt at Dante's side and winced as he scanned the stallion's condition, his broad shoulders hunched at the sight. "What could do this kind of damage, Mo?" He soothingly patted the shallowly breathing horse as it lay weak and unresponsive.

"I don't know. I've never seen anything like this. But I have the materials to make a poultice. You keep looking for Isabelle." Mo opened the bag of medical supplies his wife had packed over two hours ago. "If Dante's in this kind of shape..." He left the thought unfinished, and pointed along the bushes behind himself, back toward the jungle. "He came that way. Follow his tracks, David. I'd bet Dante threw her when this happened, and you'll find her back closer to the jungle." He was already selecting ingredients to mix into a thick salve for the animal.

David nodded grimly. He waited only long enough to gently rub Dante's forehead, as he'd so often seen Isabelle do. "Hang on, boy. Hang on. She won't want to lose you," he said gruffly, and then rose determinedly to his feet. He raised his lantern, and started backtracking Isabelle's magnificent stallion, watching for some sign of the horse's lovely rider, drawing ever closer to the jungle's edge. If it came down to Dante or Isabelle's life, he would call Mo away from the horse. Unless she needed medical care, too, she'd have their heads for not treating Dante as quickly as possible. The native's skills were better used looking after the injured horse unless David lost the trail.

But so far there was no question about David's ability to trace the path of blood spatters and crushed where Dante had barreled along. A blind man couldn't have missed where Dante had careened down the field. David walked to one side of the clear trail, through the knee-high growth, eyes scanning. He held the lantern forward, and kept his gaze a half dozen feet ahead of himself, searching for more sign.

So he was taken off guard when he felt his booted foot snag a line about ankle height off the ground. He'd barely registered it when a trap sprang up from the grass ahead of him. It was a framework covered with tiny sharp spikes that would've caught him full in the chest if he hadn't been holding the lantern ahead of himself. Instead of a torn torso, he was merely knocked to the ground by the impact of the heavy frame with its cruel spikes. The lantern smashed and went out, and he felt glass shards tear into his hand and forearm in several places.

"Ugh!" he grunted, and shook his head to clear it. He groped in the dark to find the lantern, and re-lit it. Only then was he able to see what had hit him, and realized the truth about what had just happened. "Mauriri!" he shouted, surging to his feet and spinning to look back toward his old friend. "Booby traps! Watch out!"

He was relieved to see Mauriri standing up to look back his way. "Booby traps?" Mo called back to confirm David's words. "Are you all right?"

The younger man took a few seconds to wipe away the blood dripping from his hand and arm; only minor scratches, all things considered. "Yeah," David nodded as he answered Mo. "But watch yourself! Trigger wires are on the ground! There may be more!" He turned to track Dante again, taking one final look at the framework with its spikes. No wonder the chestnut was so torn up! This was a trap designed to cripple, or even kill, not to simply detain or delay its target. Someone, most likely that stranger trussed up back at Isabelle's, had wanted to seriously hurt the lady's mount, and he'd probably counted on hurting Isabelle herself, too.

Cautiously, he continued following Dante's erratic trail. It wasn't long until he spotted several more traps, ones that must've been tripped earlier by the stallion. It looked like poor Dante had bolted into a whole slew of the dangerous booby traps. It was a testimony to the beast's great strength that he'd made it as far from the site of his initial injury as he had before falling.

Why would anyone spend the time and effort that making and placing these traps had obviously taken? What was he after? Why Isabelle?

David fought the urge to hurry in his search to locate the first trap that had been tripped, knowing that if one of those traps caught him full on, he'd be no use to Isabelle. She'd most likely been thrown the first time Dante had been struck. She wouldn't have been expecting any trouble from him. The spirited steed was her petted favorite, never giving her the least cause for worry when she rode him. His sudden bolting may have unseated her pretty quickly. Isabelle must have been hurt, or she'd have been at her horse's side, taking care of Dante long before now.

The distance the horse had probably covered in less than two minutes took David nearly twenty to navigate, watching all the while for more traps. He found and carefully released seven more of the nasty spiked frames that Dante hadn't already triggered in his mad dash away from the pain and into the other traps in his path. Someone was going to have to go over this field with a fine toothed comb before it would be safe again, the worried seaman thought grimly. That unknown intruder must've watched Isabelle pretty closely to know where to set these traps. He hadn't placed any back where David and Mo had begun searching, but this smoother area, where Dante would've been at a full canter and his rider would've been relaxed and enjoying the ride, appeared to be saturated with the bloody things.

Now, near the start of the verdant jungle underbrush, David could clearly see where Dante had cantered unsuspectingly around from the left, then suddenly reared when the trap had been sprung into his body. The stallion had swerved toward the bushes, only to have yet another trap snap into him, which had caused him to try to flee back into the field -

And there, at last, were the broken branches in the bushes that revealed where Isabelle had been flung from Dante's broad back. This was what he'd been searching for!

David quickly forced his way through the thick brambles. "Whoa!" he exclaimed as he found himself teetering on the edge of a chasm that yawned into darkness too far below to see its bottom. He regained his balance, and then stared down into the inky depths. Isabelle must have fallen down into that.

This was not good.

David backed out of the brush, and looked back toward Mauriri. "Mo!" he yelled. "There's a ravine back here!"

Mo looked up from applying the thick poultice to the stallion's torn flesh. He grimaced. He should've remembered that gorge sooner. "Dead ends, both ways! She never got out of that on her own!" he called back. "You'll have to go down and find her, David! Call me when you locate her, and I'll help you get her out."

David nodded, and took the coil of rope from about his shoulders. The bushes were pretty sturdy. He checked and confirmed that he could use one of the thicker trunk-like centers to anchor the rope. Once he'd anchored the rope, he quickly repelled down the steep slope, careful of the already-broken lantern as he descended and trying not to start too many loose stones rolling, in case she was right below him, unconscious. He didn't want to add to her injuries by landing on top of her.

But when he let go of the rope, feet safely on terra firma once again, Isabelle wasn't there. His relief that she mustn't be hurt too badly if she'd been mobile enough to move from where she'd fallen was short-lived, though. As soon as shone the lantern around he found blood. Lots of blood. Way too much blood.

When he held the lantern lower, he could see her boot prints. He didn't have to be Mo to tell that she had been disoriented, turning around, unsure which way to go, unsteady on her feet, limping when she moved away. She'd gone to the left first, but he could see where her boot prints returned again, and continued the other direction. Obviously she'd been searching for a way out of the ravine.

But she'd lost so much blood!

David followed her tracks.

**********

Isabelle opened her eyes and groaned as the pain hit her like a sledgehammer again, body throbbing in various places three times for every beat of her heart. She tensed and tried to sit up, but found that she could barely lift her head.

This was it, then. She couldn't even muster the strength to sit up! Tears of frustration welled in her eyes. She'd occasionally pondered the possibility of dying… Lost at sea, maybe, or killed on one of the crazy adventures that she seemed to stumble into so often. But she'd never imagined dying like this, thrown from her favorite horse.

And now she was hallucinating as well, she decided bitterly. There was a gleam of light dancing along the bottom of the ravine. She closed her eyes again, refusing to give in to seeing things at this stage in the game.

Blast it all! And she'd just learned to tie that bloody cat's-paw knot that David had insisted she master for getting freight out of the hold! All that practice for nothing! She could've been reading a good book instead!

She had the worst luck in the world.

Couldn't she have her knight in shining armor, just one more time?

Oh, yes, she reminded herself, a tiny smile playing about her lips at the memories the thought evoked. She'd been given a shining knight many times already... The first time had been when he helped her escape transport to the prison. The second had been when he'd actually come into the prison to rescue her, much to her total amazement. The third time, he'd legally cleared her name and he'd given her a chance for a new life. The fourth time, he'd saved her from drowning in a bamboo cage at the hands of an irate chief. The fifth time it had been a horse-hating tribal witch doctor he'd rescued her from in the nick of time. In between, he'd found time to restore to her a family she believed lost to her long ago -

William! Oh, William was going to be so devastated when she simply disappeared like this. He'd never know what had happened to her. She'd never get to see her new little niece or nephew.

And who would look after her knight in shining armor's wounded heart now?

No, she couldn't give up. She had to stay alive.

David needed her.

He might not know he needed her, and he certainly wouldn't admit it even if he did suspect it, but then, it was only important that Isabelle know. It wasn't as if she expected him to ever truly be her knight in shining armor, beyond in her imagination. He'd already told her, and shown her, that he could never love her. His physical attraction to her was still there, they still flirted a little, but David Grief wasn't really interested in her any longer.

However, he did need her.

And now that she'd found someone she could truly love, she had no intention of not being there for him and giving him whatever he needed, even if he never loved her back. She couldn't give up.

She opened her eyes again. Hmmm. The dancing light was closer. And there was a fuzzy form with it – a nicely familiar fuzzy form. "David?"

"Isabelle!"

Wow! The blurry form she was hallucinating even sounded like David Grief! And it ran like David Grief, coming toward her with such speed that she had to blink to keep it in the little focus it had. She fought to stay awake as the darkness pulled at her consciousness. She wanted to see what the nebulous hallucination would do, whether it would continue to be like David.

"Isabelle, can you hear me?" it asked her as it reached her side and knelt over her, scanning her crumpled body with endearing concern.

"Yes."

"Good. Here... drink this." The hallucination unslung the canteen on the strap over its broad shoulders, and its strong arm slid under her upper back, helping her to an inclined position.

It hurt to feel the canteen against her dusty, parched lips, and more water dribbled out of her mouth than she managed to swallow. "Sorry," she murmured, not taking her eyes off the hallucination's concerned dark green eyes as it tenderly mopped the spillage from her chin with a colorful handkerchief it drew from a pocket.

"That's okay. Here, try a little more," it responded patiently.

She tried, just to please it. It was so like her knight... Mmm. The water felt quite wet and cool for something she was imagining. Her hallucination kept giving her small sips until she was able to swallow more easily. This make-believe water actually seemed to be refreshing her! Why hadn't she felt this much better when she'd hallucinated like this in the prison?

"Okay, how about I take a look at this leg now?" it suggested, setting aside the miraculous canteen.

The strong arm gently lowered her back to the ground, and eased her body to a less contorted position that brought her instant relief from some of the throbbing pain.

Isabelle smiled weakly at her hallucination. "Thank you. But my leg isn't too good. You're not going to be able to make that feel any better," she advised it kindly, wanting to forewarn it so that it wouldn't be too upset or disappointed when it saw what she already knew. She didn't want to see her illusion upset any more than she would want her knight himself to feel responsible for not being able to help.

The apparition gave her a curious look, but said simply, "Well, let's just see about that." It moved its focus from her face to her leg. A moment later it exclaimed with approval, "Hey, you used the clove hitch on your bandage! Good work, Isabelle."

Her green eyes widened incredulously. "You know about that?"

It gave her a sharp look. "I taught it to you, didn't I?"

Isabelle blinked, brow creasing. "You did?" No, she had learned the knot from David, not the illusion now bending over her bruised body.

"Isabelle, don't you recognize me?" it asked worriedly.

"Of course I do," she replied simply. Its quick relief changed back to concern as she added, "But the wounds are real, and you aren't."

"I'm not real?" it repeated slowly and carefully, the gorgeous dark green eyes keenly studying her.

"Nope."

"Then what am I?"

"A dream... a hallucination..." she shrugged, then winced at the pain the movement engendered, and grimaced. "Ouch."

"No, Isabelle, I'm David. I came looking for you. I'm real," it said earnestly, placing a gentle hand on her forehead and frowning when it found her surprisingly feverish, considering the alarming pallor it could detect in the steady lantern light.

"You're only saying that because you know it's what I want to hear," she sighed, "But thank you just the same. I think I've lost too much blood. I don't think even my knight in shining armor could help me any more."

"Your knight in shining armor?" it repeated her phrase, puzzled.

"Yes, my David. He always saves me, but I don't think even he could help me this time. I've been bleeding all over the place," she explained, brow furrowing a little. "There couldn't be much blood left inside me. It's all over the ravine." She waved one hand a bit listlessly at their surroundings.

"Yeah, you did lose a lot of blood," it agreed. "But Mo's up above, taking care of Dante. He's going to help me get you out of here. You're going to be fine, Isabelle."

She gave him another small smile. "Yeah, right." She chuckled faintly, wryly.

It sighed. Obviously, she didn't believe him. "Okay, look, I'm going to take off the tourniquet now and fix you up. It's probably going to hurt like the dickens. But don't swat me, okay?"

"Okay," she agreed quietly. She didn't bother to explain that she didn't have the energy to waste in a fruitless effort to swat a hallucination. It was so hard to hold the world still... it kept wanting to spin around.

Its hands were gentle as they undid the knot she'd used on her tourniquet.

When the blood spurted again, it muttered an alarmed curse under its breath and quickly retied the rolled shirt about her thigh. "Okay, we're going to need to cauterize this, Isabelle. I'm going to gather some wood and get Mo. Don't try to move." Its warm eyes studied her worriedly again, waiting for a response.

She summoned another tiny smile. "Like I could go anywhere?" she retorted lightly.

It stood up and picked up the lantern - ah! The dancing light! The hallucination moved away to gather

wood for a fire. She watched the light bobbing, then heard its voice, so like her knight's, call loudly for Mauriri Lepau. Much to her bemusement, she actually heard a reply.

Then there was a rattling of falling stones, and a shadow moved off the slope and along the ravine as a second hallucination joined the first one that was returning to her side. She looked at the blurry-but-recognizable Polynesian man who came and knelt at her side, checking her wounds, and then she raised a brow at her knight. "You see? I told you," she smugly addressed the imagined knight.

"What?" It looked over at her from where it was building a fire a couple feet away.

"I said you were just a hallucination, and this proves it," she replied, moving her arm with difficulty to indicate the newcomer. "If you were really real, there's no way Mo would be with you. Mo hasn't been in the same place together with my knight in shining armor in months, let alone actually working together with him!" she pointed out with triumphant logic. "You're just figments of my imagination."

The native hallucination gave her a piercing look with its dark eyes, then exchanged a look of mingled concern and amusement with the knight. "We're together to look for you," it said gently, "because you're our partner." As the knight had done, the Polynesian placed a hand on her forehead, then raised its brows in alarm at the knight.

"No, you're together because I want you that way," Isabelle corrected reasonably. "I want my David to tell Mo what really happened with Jenny and have his best friend back. I want my Mo to realize he's been an idiot and come back to the Rattler."

They exchanged another look, briefer, more strained. Then they wordlessly went back to work.

The knight balanced its knife on the edge of a rock so that the blade was in the flames of the fire now growing after its expert coaxing, then left the fire and knife to return to Isabelle's side.

The companion used its own knife to cut away the material of Isabelle's jodhpurs from the area where her thigh had been gashed by the dead branch when she fell so long ago now. It reached behind it for a bag she hadn't noticed before, and began to take out smaller bags that she recognized as the kind the native Polynesians used to store powders and herbs.

With increasing wistfulness, she watched them as they dealt with her injuries in smooth tandem with one another. The knight washed her cuts with a cloth dampened in water from its apparently-inexhaustible canteen, and the companion applied powders and salves to the cleansed wounds. They passed one another the necessary supplies without needing to be asked, with the ease of long practice patching up their crew and each other after sea battles, bar fights, or misadventures.

A tear slipped down her ashen cheek, and the knight flinched at the sight. "I'm sorry we're hurting you, Isabelle," it apologized huskily, now beginning to unbutton its shirt, much to her instant fascination.

She shook her head a little, her fevered eyes clinging to its hands as they finished the opening the buttons and pulled the shirt loose from the trousers. "No... No pain. Well," she conceded honestly, "perhaps there is a little pain. But that's to be expected, isn't it? I just wish this was real, that it was the way it used to be between my David and my Mo. They need each other. They used to be like this, knowing how to work together without exchanging a word, as you two are doing now."

The two apparitions exchanged another strained look, but said nothing. She openly admired the knight's now-bared torso as she continued, "This whole thing is so stupid. If my David would just tell the real Mo about that girl and his father -" she paused, brow creasing a little as the knight tensed, but it didn't say anything so she continued sadly. "If he could only explain to Mo, then Mo would understand that my David had no choice but to try to help Jenny, just like he had to help me. My David will always be a knight in shining armor; he'll never be able to bypass a woman in trouble."

The knight's companion smothered a grin. That was the second time Isabelle had called David her knight in shining armor. One reference might've been misunderstood, but not two!

Isabelle noticed that her knight was pointedly ignoring the companion's amusement. Were its ears reddening? It was hard to tell in the faint, flickering light. But they probably were; her real David's certainly would've if she'd been so indiscreet as to say these things in front of Mo.

Isabelle smiled a little, fondly, eyes starting to drift closed. Her apparition was as adorable as her David. Then she blinked hard, refocusing. "Sorry. Didn't mean to fade out. Don't let me fall asleep, okay?" she asked anxiously, looking anxiously up into the native illusion's dark eyes.

"Why not?" the companion asked, accepting the shirt from the knight and draping it around Isabelle's slender shoulders while the knight lifted her chilled body to receive the warm cloth.

"David needs me. I can't let myself die, whether all my blood is gone or not. Without Mo, David needs someone to give him balance," she explained simply, and frowned, puzzled when that made the companion smirk. "Until Mo forgives him, he can't forgive himself," she added sternly in reproof for that smug look the companion was aiming at the knight. "You're acting just like my real Mo! He's been so nasty to my David! I don't like it, so you'd better stop it right now!"

Startled and somewhat chagrined at the lady's indignant rebuke, the companion wiped its face of the offensive emotion she'd seen.

"That's better." Isabelle sighed and shifted a little, trying to find a position that didn't hurt. "You're my hallucination, so you'd better behave yourself the way I want!" she admonished, wincing at her futile search for comfort.

Both hallucinations quickly smothered unwise grins at the familiar imperious tone, neither of them wanting to rile Isabelle any further in her weakened condition.

She sighed again, giving up the quest to find a less painful position. "It's all so stupid. They're so lucky to have friends like each other," she muttered, the wistful tone back in her husky voice again.

Her wide green eyes looked up at her knight, and then shifted to its companion, the same wistful sadness evident in their depths – but changed abruptly into battle-ready fire. "And while the mess with Jenny was my David's fault, the mess now is all Mo's fault!" she declared fiercely, with a sudden strength that startled both men. "If I was lucky enough to have a friend like that, and my friend had something so painful in his past that he couldn't even bring himself to talk about it, I wouldn't hold it against him! I'd just try to be there for him! Why isn't Mo doing that for my David?!"

As if the outburst had drained her of her limited pool of remaining strength, her lashes dropped over her eyes as she finished speaking, and her whole body went terrifyingly limp.

Both men caught their breath in alarm, and Mo reached for her wrist. An anxious moment later, he met David's dark green eyes and gave him a reassuring nod. She was still alive; she'd fainted, not surprising in the circumstances.

They took advantage of the time to carefully apply bandages to the more serious of her injuries. By then, the knife blade was ready, and David held her still while Mauriri cauterized the puncture wound where the vein in her thigh had been severed. Even unconscious, her body jerked in response to the searing heat the Polynesian steeled himself and applied with David's knife.

Neither of them commented on what she'd said to them. But they were both painfully aware that her observation about their ability to work together was accurate. Even estranged as they were, they didn't need to discuss the next steps as they made a litter for Isabelle and fastened her securely into it.

David needed no words to know that he'd remain below in the ravine with Isabelle while Mo clambered back up the rope he'd left dangling from above, and Mo needed no words to know that David would man the pulley to hoist the litter up as Mo guided it from above. And after David joined Mo in the field, and they'd picked up the litter to carry the injured woman back to Matavai, they both noticed that they stepped out on the same foot without consultation.

It was disturbing just how alike they were thinking. But neither of them commented about it.

David let Mauriri take the head of the litter, and followed his pace without question. He had a great deal to mull over. How had Isabelle known that the situation with his father was so painful that he couldn't bring himself to talk about it, even to Mo? He'd barely hinted at it to her, that time they'd been chasing Jenny . . . not even a full sentence, as far as he could recall. Yet she'd been uncannily accurate in her assessment. That single situation had been the final straw that broke the camel's back, representing the entire sorry relationship and family history David couldn't bear to let into the light of day, the final incident in a long series of miserable events between himself and his father. The pain of it was still raw, would always be an open, oozing sore that he could barely think of, let alone talk about. How had she known this?

And that stuff about him needing her - well, okay, it was true that he'd been on a one way trip straight to hell after Jenny's death and Mauriri's violent reaction to his discovery of what David had done. David had tried to bury himself in a bottle, drinking himself to oblivion in perfect misery. He'd been at a loss as to how to go on, unable to mentally or emotionally with Jenny's manipulations or what to do about having damaged his friendship and his business partnership, not to mention the damage he'd done to his reputation in general.

When Isabelle had obligated him to sail the Rattler again to meet his financial obligations to her, it had been a godsend. It had given David clear direction about what to do next, something to focus on and live for, despite his initial desire to strangle her for intervening, and for her mere presence on his ship.

She'd always said that it was purely business... until just now… or she'd excused it as a mere act of friendship. Now it seemed there was more to it than "just business" or being a friend.

That "knight in shining armor" bit, inappropriate as it might be deemed considering his current status on Tahiti, made it pretty clear exactly how Isabelle really did look at him. A woman didn't call a business partner or a mere friend her "knight in shining armor"; that kind of term was reserved for a hero or a lover.

Either way, the possibility was... uncomfortably intriguing.

Moreover, her ramblings had revealed that she wasn't as tough and self-sufficient as she'd seemed since he'd first met her. There was a deep vulnerability to her that he'd suspected but ignored, he admitted to himself as they hiked steadily back toward Matavai. He'd always avoided contemplating what might lie beneath the surface of semi-antagonistic camaraderie and oft-flirtatious banter between him and Isabelle – especially after the debacle with Jenny.

He'd always known she wasn't the sort he could enjoy a light dalliance with, much as he was attracted to her. Isabelle Reid deserved to be romanced, courted, cherished and adored. If any man was crazy enough to actually want to tie himself to such an unpredictable firebrand, he'd better be willing to treat her right. She deserved no less than the best. Certainly she deserved far better than David believed he had proven himself to be.

If Isabelle really was romantically interested in her partner, as her words had implied tonight, then why was she pretending that she was only pursuing business with a friend? Why had she stopped being as blatant about her attraction to him as she'd been the first couple months he'd known her?

David shook his head as he remembered how aggressive this beautiful woman had been with him in the early days of their acquaintance. He blew out a careful breath, still marveling that he'd retained his sanity in the face of her coming to him that night on the Rattler – where in the world had he come up with the strength to tell her no when she'd offered herself to him?! And then there'd been that time he'd been shot and had awakened to find her warm silky flesh pressed close to his own inexplicably naked skin -

No, he couldn't think about that! David gritted his teeth and resolutely searched for thoughts that would be less inflammatory. Isabelle had presented him with plenty of intriguing tidbits during the conversation with the two men who she'd obviously believed were not really present. For instance, there'd been that vulnerably lonely tone when she'd talked about having a friend like Mo...

Had she really never experienced such a friend? The longing in her voice and the deep sadness in her thick-lashed eyes had stunned him.

Still, maybe that was all the better for her. Maybe not having had a close friend wasn't so bad. To lose such a friend was not a good thing, no, not a good thing at all. At least Isabelle had been spared this particular kind of pain, David reflected grimly.

Well, whatever she really felt, one thing was perfectly clear, he decided as he realized Matavai was coming into view and he'd been lost in thought the whole way back. Isabelle Reed was genuinely loyal to him and wanted the best for him. At the very least, he could be certain now that Isabelle was his true friend, not just working some angle that hadn't yet occurred to him to consider. She wasn't trying to get something from their relationship now, as she had when their paths had first crossed. And she wasn't trying to manipulate him into being or doing something she wanted; she was sincerely trying to give of herself to him.

He could and would honor the spunky woman for that.

And, he purposed grimly as he spotted the livery, he'd see to it that Isabelle's intruder paid for doing this to her.

He wasn't surprised that Mauriri carried the litter right past the livery, continuing on to the docks. She had lost too much blood before they found her. And the doctoring they'd given her on the floor of the ravine had only been stop-gap measures; Isabelle needed professional care and proper nursing, and the doctor was on the other side of the island, with the governor.

Together, gently, the two men settled the litter into the Rattler's long boat and rowed out to the Rattler. Tah-mey was on night watch, and the stocky native sailor helped them lift the litter and it's precious cargo to the deck. Only once the first mate had gone to wake the other two sailors who were already on board for the planned trade trip tomorrow did David face Mauriri.

"You take the Rattler out, Mo. You're a better helmsman than I am, and the sooner she gets to the doctor, the better," he said to the startled Polynesian. "I'll get Dante back to the stable and take care of the livery, and I'll let Lianni know what's happening."

Mauriri nodded slowly. All the way back with the unconscious woman he'd been thinking how right Isabelle had been about how well he knew David Grief, and how close they had been... before Jenny.

But he hadn't suspected that David would turn the Rattler over to his control like this. Perhaps he should have, for it fit in with David's desire to do whatever it took to see to Isabelle's safety. After all, Mo really was the better helmsman, and would make better time, cutting closer around the island at faster speeds than David could safely manage.

"Maybe, if you wouldn't mind, you could make the cargo run after you get Isabelle to the doctor," David went on, a little more hesitantly this time. "Isabelle worked hard to set up this run, and she'll worry about it when she wakes up. If you leave from the other port once she's with the doctor, the Rattler could make the run on time. You could keep my share of the profits . . . make up for losing time with Lianni and the kids, or any other job you might've had lined up for the next couple days."

It made sense, Mauriri had to admit grudgingly to himself, unused to David being quite so practical minded. "If you ride across the island, you could meet the Rattler, and then do the cargo run yourself." Mo cautiously suggested the alternative, giving David the chance to change his mind.

"Well, that would leave you to handle Isabelle's business and Dante, and to do the reports on that intruder for Morlais," the younger man quietly pointed out. "That wouldn't pay you any money. And I couldn't ask you to do that, Mo. I've taken enough bread from your children's mouths already." David met Mauriri's eyes only briefly as he made the sad admission, flushed with shame at the necessity of explaining these details of his reasoning to his former partner.

Mauriri was caught off guard again, partly because he hadn't even thought about these things while the usually irresponsible David had, and partly because of the sympathetic pain he felt on David's behalf. Regret for having caused that pain rose up unexpectedly. He shoved it away in irritation. Why was this bothering him? David should be ashamed of himself! David had cost the Lepau family the bread right out of their mouths! Or at least, he would have, if Isabelle hadn't stepped in and paid their creditors.

Isabelle.

Remembering the seriousness of her condition made Mo look down at the litter, set carefully where it was shielded from most of the cool night air. David could be dealt with later. The important thing right now was to take their partner to the doctor so she could receive proper care.

So Mauriri nodded. "I'll get Isabelle to the doctor, and I'll take care of the cargo run while you handle things here in Matavai, David." Reluctantly, to be fair, he added gruffly, "Thanks for offering me your share of the profits. It'll come in handy."

David nodded and turned away to take the long boat back to shore, then hesitated. "Is there anything you'd like me to pass along to Lianni... or the kids?" He tried to sound indifferent, but could hear the lonely yearning in his own voice. Funny, it reminded him of Isabelle's tone when she'd talked about the friendship he and Mauriri had lost.

Mo hadn't wanted him to spend any time with his family since the break in their relationship. He'd even frowned on David talking to Tevaki or Tahnee if he happened to cross paths with the children on the beach or in town. David had been sensitive to that, and had tried to honor Mo's wishes. Hinting that he'd be willing to pass along a message now had probably been bad form.

Mauriri noticed that the uncertain slump was back in David's posture, and felt a pang about the obvious cause. David apparently missed his adopted family as much as Lianni and the children missed him. He hesitated only a moment before he said quietly, "I was supposed to take Tahnee and Tevaki fishing tomorrow morning. Would you mind doing that with them, so they aren't disappointed?"

David's head lifted, and he met Mauriri's dark rueful eyes in abject wonder. Then his green eyes lit with gratitude, pleasure, and... hope? "Sure! Sure, I'll take them fishing, Mauriri. And I'll take care that they don't go too far into the surf, don't worry," he promised heartily, grinning from ear to ear.

The tall Polynesian sighed. Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound. "And would you chop some wood for Lianni? I was supposed to do it first thing in the morning. She wants to bake some bread before it gets too hot tomorrow."

David nodded promptly, shoulders straightening. "I'll take care of it as soon as I've made sure Dante is back at the stable," he promised eagerly. "Anything else?"

"Well," Mo couldn't help responding with a smile tugging at his lips, "You might drop by Colin's and give him a hand with the roof shingles. I was supposed to that day after tomorrow."

"No problem," was the prompt reply, and David's alert eyes gleamed with laughter as he realized Mo was enjoying this. But he'd have done far more than these few tasks if it meant a chance to be restored to Mo's good graces.

Hmm. Maybe, Mo thought, he should keep making suggestions. In this mood, David was likely to agree to do absolutely anything and everything Mo might ask of him!

Tah-mey, Gibbon, and Ru appeared on deck, and waited expectantly for orders. They studied the former partners with interest. No one had seen them this close together - unless they were throwing punches at each other - for months. Could this be a reconciliation?

But their arrival put an end to Mauriri's amusement at David's willingness to comply with anything he wanted, and the husky Polynesian turned to issue his orders to prepare the Rattler for sailing.

Nonetheless, Mo was aware that David's step was buoyant as he swung over the side and down into the longboat. And he couldn't help being glad to know he was the cause of David's lightheartedness. He'd forgotten how much he enjoyed teasing David, and David's boyishly good-natured responses.

Mauriri tore his thoughts from his former partner - this really didn't change anything, he sternly reminded himself. David still had plenty to make up for. But there was work to do now. The moon had not yet begun to set. If they got underway now, risky as it was to leave the harbor in the darkness, they could be sailing into the harbor on the other side of Tahiti by dawn.

The sooner they were on the open ocean, the sooner Isabelle was under a doctor's care, the better Mo would feel about her chances of recovery. "Raise the anchor!" he called, resisting looking over to where David was now rowing back to shore beneath the waning moonlight.

**********

A week later, David breezed into the room where Isabelle lay propped up on a mound of fluffy pillows in the huge four-posted bed. "Well, good morning, Partner. You're looking much better!" he cheerfully greeted the still-pale brunette. "Have you recovered from that long wagon trip home?" he asked her, scanning her with seeming casualness that masked his true concern.

She should have stayed with the doctor for another week, but she'd been pining for her own home and her horses, fretting under the constant "care" of the strangers on the other side of the island. The doctor had conceded that she'd probably relax and heal faster in more familiar surroundings now that her condition had been stabilized, so he reluctantly released her.

David had worked like a madman, along with Claire, Lavinia, Lianni, and Colin, to clean up her flat in time for her return late last night, repairing and replacing things so that she wouldn't see how damaged her home had been by the intruder. None of them wanted her to know how bad it had been, at least not until she was much stronger than her current fragile state.

Isabelle looked up from the book she'd been reading, and smiled, closing the tome and laying it on the mattress beside her. "Yes, thank you. Jack took very good care of me yesterday," she assured him, still amazed by the goose-down mattress the sailor had managed to procure for the wagon bed to make her journey across the island as comfortable as possible. "And Claire was here all morning, fussing over me and telling me all the news. Lavinia came right after Claire left, and brought me a perfectly delicious lunch which Claire was obviously never near," her green eyes sparkled with good humor at his chuckle. "And you just missed Colin. He brought me the most beautiful flower, David, look..." she motioned to the nightstand beside her, where a blue pot holding a lovely flowering plant bearing delicate peach-colored blossoms sat in the sunshine that streamed through the window.

David was glad to see the wonder in her thick-lashed eyes and the soft pink that stole into her cheeks as she spoke of these things. She was discovering that she had more friends than she'd suspected. "It's lovely, Isabelle," he assured her softly.

She met his eyes and asked hopefully, "Good news?"

He nodded, pleased to know that he could honestly relieve those shadows that still lingered in her green eyes despite her pleasure in being home and having so many visitors. He plopped himself down uninvited on the chair beside the bed and stretched his long legs out till he could brace his boots against the sideboard of the sturdy bed. "Dante is on his feet," he announced with a satisfied gleam in his bright green eyes. "And he's eating his feed, too!"

Her answering smile made David's heart skip a beat. "That is good news! Thank you, David!" She visibly relaxed, content now that she knew for certain that her favorite stallion was out of danger. "I was so worried about him! How did you manage to heal him?"

David explained about Mauriri making the special poultice for her stallion after they found the wounded animal. "Mo made up more of the stuff than he used, so I just made sure the wounds stayed clean and kept putting more of Mo's medication onto Dante after we got him home."

She nodded, satisfied, and demanded to know the details about how David had managed to transport her favorite horse home, and was very approving of all the steps he had taken, praising him as he detailed the way he and Isabelle's stable boys had transported the severely wounded stallion. She'd worried that their less-experienced ministrations might inadvertently cause further damage, but it appeared David had more skill with horses than she'd realized. He'd taken all the proper precautions in moving Dante, probably expertise learned during the youth he never spoke about. She made sure to express her appreciation for the care he'd taken, even though she expected him to pretend it didn't matter.

David shrugged his broad shoulders and smiled a bit tentatively. "Dante's important to you, so he's important to me too. That's what friends do for one another, right?" he asked, pleased that his words surprised another genuine smile from her. Although she was still too pale for his liking, she was alert and animated, and showed no sign of still being in pain as they continued to talk about her horses and the visitors she'd already had since arriving home last night.

Bracing himself for possible repercussions, he casually asked if she remembered them finding her in the ravine.

She shook her head, replying that Cannibal Jack had given her the basic details he'd known about the rescue during the long ride from the other side of the island. But she didn't really recall much of it. Isabelle looked at David curiously. "Was Mauriri really with you?" Perhaps that would explain why she'd dreamed of the two men working together to help her that night.

David nodded. "He came for you, Isabelle, not for me," he said, knowing that was at least part of what she was curious about. "But this time we did manage not to give each other any black eyes," he added lightly, with a grin meant to assure her the continued estrangement wasn't affecting him beyond what he could handle.

It worked, but Isabelle tensed again with a new topic in mind. "Lieutenant Morlais was here late this morning, too. He told me all about the person who set the traps," she began, a slight frown marring her forehead as she searched his face. "DeLuc..." She shivered.

Her handsome sun-bronzed visitor leaned forward, reaching out to place his hand over hers as it rested on the book that lay at her side. "DeLuc is not going to bother you or William again," he firmly reassured her. "He's already in irons on a prison ship headed for Devil's Island."

Isabelle sighed, and when she looked up from his hand on hers - so much comfort, from such a simple gesture! - David was concerned to see that her eyes were still troubled. "David, I've been thinking about something." She hesitated uncertainly, then finally voiced her query softly, "Do you think we must forever be haunted by the past?"

David gave her question his serious consideration.

DeLuc had been an old cohort of Isabelle and William's father. The old man had believed that Isabelle had possession or access to a lock box he and William Reed, Sr. had once used to hide the proceeds of a plot they'd off pulled together. After over twenty years in prison for the forgery that had netted them those ill-gotten gains, he'd come looking for his former partner and the loot.

Isabelle had been totally mystified when word had come to her on the other side of the island about DeLuc, never having heard of the man.

William, though, had known exactly who DeLuc was when David contacted him about the intruder and his attack on Isabelle.

Their father had turned in the lock box with its ill-gotten gains in return for a lighter sentence for himself, but William Reed, Sr. had not survived even that shorter jail time in the harsh French prison. DeLuc, who had refused to tell where the proceeds were hidden, had survived his longer term, but had never been told that Reed had cut a deal or that he'd died in prison. He'd spent the entire twenty years expecting to find their loot intact and waiting for him. Discovering that his old partner had died long ago and finding that the lock box was not where they'd hidden it, had been a bitter blow.

Then DeLuc had what he considered to be a stroke of luck. The news of the younger William Reed's success in exposing the ruthless Legionnaire General who had hunted him and nearly killed him had made front page news in all the papers in France. From there it had been easy for the sly ex-convict to learn where the brother and sister were now living.

DeLuc had scouted around William's place first, but had reasoned that William couldn't have the proceeds of the long-ago con, or he wouldn't be struggling to make a living.

However, Isabelle Reed was a successful businesswoman of mysterious resources. She'd given her brother his start-up after they'd been reunited. So DeLuc reasoned that she must have the lock box, or at least know where it was. How else could a woman be doing so well, alone, if not by using his hard-earned loot? DeLuc had been sure that he could find his long-awaited booty if he could just get Isabelle out of the way. And if she died in the process, so much the better! Her father should never have taken the box away from where they'd left it!

DeLuc had declared as much to Morlais after David hauled him cursing and ranting into the French officer's presence; the Frenchman had been furious at being caught after all his careful planning, and he'd spouted the entire story to Morlais in an apoplectic rage.

So Isabelle had nearly been killed over something her father had done years in the past when she was a mere child, something she'd never known anything about. She'd been endangered for something she'd never had even a remote possibility of possessing.

David knew the woman watching him now with her uncannily keen fey eyes was also thinking of how his own past had led to his being vulnerable to Jenny, and how he was still suffering the consequences of that past incident in the way he related to others today. She'd asked a question that applied to himself as much as to her. Would he ever be free from the past, or would he forever be haunted by it?

She was still waiting for his reply.

He thought of Mauriri, and the recent promising hints of possible reconciliation when he'd nearly given up. "I have hope, Isabelle. Don't you?" He glanced pointedly at the flowers Colin had brought for her, then grinned as she followed his gaze and her frown eased.

Friends. She, Isabelle Reed, had friends who cared enough to come looking for her when she was missing, and to spend time with her when she was hurt and needed care, and to look after her business interests, too. When she met his eyes again, she was smiling. "Yes, I think perhaps I do, too."

His grin widened and he squeezed her hand, then leaned back lazily in the chair again. "You have to stay off your feet for how much longer now?" he asked casually, though there was a decided twinkle in his bright green eyes.

She made a face, not missing the mischief. "Oh, is that why you have hope? Because you think you get to stay out from under my thumb?" she teased. "I can assure you I'm going to be back on my feet in no time!"

David feigned innocence, spreading his hands in a gesture of denial. "The thought never crossed my mind!" he laughed, pleased to see the sparkle back in her lovely eyes. "Besides, there's nothing to do yet. Mo's not due back with the Rattler for another two days."

Her eyes widened and she caught her breath. "Mauriri has the Rattler?" Jack hadn't mentioned that.

"He took her out on the trade run after he dropped you off at the doctor's last week," he said with a shrug that was belied by the delight in his eyes and the smile that tugged at his lips.

Isabelle had assumed that David had simply put aside the planned trade run in order to take care of all this trouble over DeLuc. She moistened suddenly dry lips. "Your partnership is back on?" If Mauriri was back in the picture, did that mean David no longer needed her? As much as she wanted to see their friendship restored, Isabelle dreaded the thought that it would mean she was on the outside looking in once again, instead of getting to be a vital part of David's life every day.

Before he could respond to the sudden trepidation in her face, a knock on the door frame caught them both by surprise. They were startled to find the object of their conversation leaning on the door jamb.

"Mauriri!" Quickly masking her alarm, Isabelle warmly greeted the tall Tahitian. "Come in! When did you get back? David was just telling me you were doing the trade run."

Mo stepped into the bedroom, giving each of them an easy grin, but addressing the slim brunette ensconced among the pillows. "You did such a good job lining up the trades that I was able to finish ahead of schedule. We also had good winds... and the Rattler was in fine trim. It was nice to do a run with all the paperwork already in place," he added with a mocking grin in David's direction.

David wasn't quite sure how to respond, but Isabelle laughed. "I'm glad you approve," she said, flushing with pleasure at his praise for her organizational skills. "Thank you for taking her out." She glanced back and forth between them. "Who came up with this bright idea?"

"Um, I asked Mo to do the run, so I could stay here and take care of the other stuff," David answered quietly. "I hope that's okay with you, Isabelle. I offered him my share of the profits."

Isabelle nodded. "Sounds quite equitable to me. I'm glad you thought of it, David. It might have hurt future business if we hadn't met the schedule on a couple of those deliveries."

Of course, she probably could have smoothed it over eventually, but still, she was impressed that David had managed to cover the shipping as well as take care of her livery and DeLuc. She gave her attention to Mauriri again as he stopped at the foot of the bed with his arms folded over his chest. "Are you coming back into the partnership?" she asked with her usual bluntness, and knew David had tensed without seeing it.

Mauriri didn't look at David either. He kept his dark eyes locked on her challenging green orbs. "If the offer of a one-third partnership is still open," he agreed simply. Isabelle had talked to him about this before, trying to get the two men back together, urging him to hang onto an interest in the Rattler's shipping trade even if he wouldn't sail with David. Until now he had refused even that.

Both of them were aware of David straightening alertly in the chair, but still neither of them looked at him. "Well, since David and I have been saving your third all along, I'd say the offer is still open," she drawled wryly. "But I still expect you two to teach me the South Seas shipping business, and I've no intention of being a silent partner," Isabelle warned crisply, reminding herself in relief that even if Mo came back as a full time partner, they wouldn't be able to pay her back for a good while yet.

"Wouldn't have it any other way," Mauriri acknowledged somberly, one brow rising in surprise at learning that they'd been setting his share aside for him all this time.

Her lovely eyes lit with satisfaction. "Okay, then. David, would you get the manifest from the office? We can go over -"

David cut off her enthusiastic words. "Not today, Isabelle. Doctor's orders, remember?" He unfolded his lanky body from the chair, rising quickly and heading for the door as he continued, "He only let you come home on the condition that you did no business until next week. Guess you'll just have to trust Mo and me to watch out for your interests until then." He called the last words over his shoulder as he made it through the door, brushing past the broad-shouldered Tahitian. "Coming, Mo?"

At Isabelle's irritated huff, Mo smothered an amused grin and deftly turned on his heel to follow David's speedy retreat. "Yeah, I have to go, too. Haven't seen Lianni and the kids yet. It's good to see you looking better, Isabelle. See you later!" He gave her a casual wave over his shoulder.

He found David waiting for him in the front office.

"Sorry for cutting out on you, Mauriri, but it was for Isabelle's own good as well as ours. Once she gets started, she's hard to stop."

Mo grinned at the woeful expression on David's face. "Yes, I have noticed that."

Then they just looked at each other.

Mauriri hesitated, searching the familiar face that watched him with growing resignation as the silence stretched on. The young sea captain's broad shoulders began to bow a little as David accepted that more time would be required before he could really prove himself and be reconciled with Mo. This was but a tiny first step in a probably long and drawn out process to rebuild the trust he'd destroyed so blithely when he'd placed his trust in Jenny Duval ahead of his friendship with Mauriri. He'd betrayed Mo, and it would take time to get past this.

But if the truth were to be told, Mo knew quite well that David would work three times harder than any other man in the Islands to recoup the losses caused by his misplaced faith in Jenny. Even if Isabelle's quick actions hadn't already saved the Rattler from the creditors breathing down their necks, David would never have allowed the Lepau family to suffer; he would've done whatever it took to replace the money he'd given Jenny.

So why was Mo nursing this anger at David? Lianni was right. He was being unreasonable about this.

Isabelle was right, too. It wasn't fair to blame David for something that was apparently too painful for him to talk about, even after Isabelle had introduced the topic. He'd seen David's expression when the feverish woman had mentioned it, and had instantly known she was right about whatever it was that had motivated their friend. However Isabelle had learned of it, the mere thought of this past thing that had contributed to the adventurer's susceptibility to Jenny had put more anguish in David's unguarded face than Mo had ever seen before or ever wanted to see again.

Having admitted this to himself, how could he mend fences with his former best friend after the way he'd behaved for the last months? And could he find it in himself to trust David, when he wasn't really positive it wouldn't happen again? No, don't think like that, he rebuked himself, hearing his wife's voice - and Lavinia's, and Colin's, and Claire's, and Isabelle's, and even Cannibal Jack McGonnigal's stone sober voice! - each and every one of them chastising him for not being willing to give David the benefit of the doubt, not trying to see it from David's point of view.

David had admitted he'd made a mistake. He was trying to make things right. Granted it had been a whopper of an error in judgment ... but then, he was David Grief. David's flights of fancy were one of the things that made friendship with him such an adventure, so much fun - never dull. And after all, he'd taken the same chance on Isabelle that he had taken on Jenny, hadn't he?

Mauriri had heard that quite frequently, too, from the few friends who were still staunchly standing by the beleaguered Rattler captain - particularly from Isabelle herself, who was always quite candid about David's challenge to her to become an honest woman having been the impetus for straightening out her life. David had believed she could be a better person, and given her the chance to prove it.

Isabelle would've been dead long ago if David hadn't chosen to believe, against all odds, that the condemned woman was innocent, and then taken outlandishly risky steps to rescue her from prison. Steps, Mo had to acknowledge ruefully, that he'd taken right alongside David, and which would have cost his family far more than mere temporary income if the two men had been caught.

He sighed as he glanced over at David again. Brothers. The pure and simple truth was that David was like a brother, or even closer, if that were possible.

This awkwardness had to end. And since its continuation was his fault, as Isabelle had so bluntly put it while feverish in the ravine... Mauriri offered tentatively, "The Rattler has been looking good."

David's head swung back up, startled at the sudden end of silence. For a surprised moment, he considered how best to respond to this unexpected re-opening of communication from Mauriri. He decided to go with his first instinct; a light reply, as he would've done months ago before their estrangement. "Yes, Isabelle's been learning the business – er – from the ground up." He ventured a tentative smile with his words.

Mauriri chuckled, having no trouble instantly perceiving David's meaning. "So I've noticed," he nodded as he recalled watching how their lady partner had been kept busy with the lowliest jobs on the ship. Scrubbing the deck, polishing the Rattler's brass, mending sails, oiling the ropes ... Everyone in Matavai had been astonished at the way the slim brunette had submitted to the tasks David had set her to master over the last few months. "So how does she like owning a ship?" Mo asked, tongue in cheek.

David, relieved to see the answering humor, allowed his smile to widen, too. "She seems to like some of it well enough."

When Mo laughed outright this time, David felt the constricting bands about his heart ease. He gave a gleeful chortle of his own at the memory of the latest chore he'd assigned to their new partner. "You'll have to ask her what she thought of scouring the hold, Mo."

The tall Polynesian burst into laughter. "She must've been furious with you!" he gasped out, grasping David's shoulder. "You didn't really make her do it, did you?!"

David nodded his head, reluctant admiration evident in his face and voice, "Yes I did. She wants to learn the business inside out," he grinned. "You should've seen her, Mo, covered in muck! I don't think she's ever been so tired, sore, and filthy before in her life - well -" his amusement died suddenly. "Not since the prison, anyway," he qualified, all humor fading at the memory of her condition then.

Mauriri's hand on David's broad shoulder tightened reassuringly as he sobered, too. She'd been in pretty bad shape when they'd finally found her at that prison. "You were right about her, David. She was worth helping, worth taking the risks we took for her. She's a strong, good woman."

David nodded quietly, appreciating Mo's sympathy, and his instant comprehension of where his thoughts had gone. "Thanks, Mo."

The Polynesian shrugged his own mighty shoulders. "Hey, what are friends for?" he asked lightly, letting his hand drop from David's shoulder now.

The younger man face him, gaze searching Mo's expression. "Are we friends, Mo?" he asked, voice full of painful uncertainty and yearning for what he'd lost.

"Of course," Mo replied gruffly, extending his hand. "Better. Brothers, aren't we?"

David clasped his hand with a glad grip. "Brothers!" he agreed solemnly.

And Mauriri knew that in that one word was a vow that David was never going to break. "Good," he said warmly, clapping David on the shoulder again. "Now let's have a look at your girlfriend's manifest, shall we?" he deliberately let a teasing note creep into his voice.

If looks could have killed, he'd have been dead from David's scowl as the instant denial flashed back, "Isabelle is not my girlfriend!"

Mo laughed, grinning from ear to ear at the old familiar joking. "Right!" he jeered, "That's why her Knight in Shining Armor hauled me out there in the middle of the night looking for her!"

"She's our partner, that's all!" David retorted, turning to the desk to find the manifest in question, face burning as he deliberately ignored that quote from Isabelle's fevered ramblings. "For Pete's sake, don't give her any ideas! She's bloody well impossible already! Yeah, you laugh now, but just you wait," he predicted darkly, glaring at Mauriri over his shoulder as the native Tahitian laughed even more, "Wait'll she starts giving you orders about when to sail and where to sail and what to take and who to hire and how much stuff should be worth and when to be back, and then gives you ten perfectly logical reasons why you should do things her way -"

Mauriri's laughter rang out in the office, and trickled back to Isabelle's bedroom, where her pique at the way they'd abandoned her eased to a smile as she realized the two men were still together in the front room. Could it be - ?

She relaxed against the pillows, her eyes beginning to drift closed in satisfied weariness. It appeared that Mauriri's return wasn't going to be cutting her out of David's life, which was definitely good, but also that there was acceptance not only of a new partner, but an old one as well - and this was infinitely better! Her David was going to be so happy!

In the office, David couldn't help grinning a little in response to Mo's wholehearted laughter at his predictions regarding their partnership with Isabelle. "Okay, okay! You'll see soon enough! Come on, Mo, let's just look at the manifest . . ."

Mauriri obligingly reined in his amusement. After all, he had no doubt that there'd be plenty of opportunity to tease David about Isabelle in the future. He'd always known there was something between these two.

The two men bent over the documents Isabelle had prepared before DeLuc had disrupted her life so painfully. They discussed her plans for the Rattler, going over the upcoming sailing schedule that had been arranged, as well as the trading manifest Mo had just completed. They were both aware that there would still be plenty of details to be worked out between them - and with Isabelle, too - over the next little while. But each man felt better, stronger, for being on the road together again, instead of separately.

As their unsuspecting partner fell into a restful slumber in the rear of the livery's upper floor, the two men in the front room began to argue amicably over which one of them should have the pleasure of choosing the next lesson to be assigned to Isabelle for her ongoing training on the Rattler.

**********