Running Before The Wind

Summary: David is faced with making sure the Rattler outruns danger when smugglers seek revenge for interference in their plans - while also handling a turning point in his relationship with Isabelle.

Note: This is a sequel to my first TOTSS fanfic "Forever Haunted by the Past".

**********

If and when Isabelle Reed deigned to show her pretty face, he intended to give her royal what for! Eight long, dull, worrisome hours he'd been sitting on this beach, waiting for her to emerge from the island jungle that crowded so close to the breaking waves - well, not sitting, precisely.

Pacing.

Striding.

Stalking.

On the verge of charging into the jungle to search for the tardy woman, at least a dozen times, maybe more. The only thing that held him back was that he had no idea which direction to start a search for the beautiful woman.

David Grief's dark green eyes restlessly scanned the tree line yet again, his long lean body tense and alert, brow creased in a dark scowl as he found no sign of her return to relieve his concern.

They'd anchored the Rattler in this quiet cove two days ago so that Isabelle could set out with the guide who was to take her inland. This island was far enough from Matavai, a good forty-eight hour sail, so that it had been unwarranted to sail back to their own port while Isabelle conducted the planned two-day negotiations here. So David had simply settled in to use the time for some minor repairs and maintenance on his ship, staying put in this sheltered paradise.

He kept telling himself that her negotiations were probably just taking longer than she'd anticipated. After all, this was a first meeting with the local chief on this island. It might be taking her longer than she'd planned, despite the initial contact's favorable outcome.

But David had a bad feeling about this.

Isabelle valued punctuality. If she was going to be late, she usually managed to send word. And eight hours was pretty late, even for David Grief's more relaxed outlook on timeliness.

Make that nine hours now, he calculated with a grunt as he checked the sun's position on the horizon again. This realization did nothing to ease his concern.

He cursed under his breath, wishing once more that he'd gone with her instead of just allowing that now increasingly suspicious-seeming native to lead his partner away from the ribbon of sand and into the jungle. But Isabelle had been adamant that he not accompany her to the village. Of course, she was right that he'd be no help, not speaking the language here, and not being knowledgeable enough about the item she wanted to trade.

He tried to remember everything the lovely brunette had told him about this new opportunity. It wasn't

nearly enough. He should have paid more attention, asked for more detail.

Isabelle had learned from a seaman passing through Matavai that there was a tribe here raising horses. She was hoping to establish a trading relationship that would benefit her livery business if the stock proved to be good enough. It had taken her a month, she'd told David with a satisfied gleam in her beautiful wide green eyes, to accomplish the primary stages of making contact.

The initial gifts she'd sent via a fishing boat had gained her the desired approval for this actual meeting. The chief had been pleased, and had sent one of his men back with the fishermen, for the purpose of returning with the Rattler and guiding the traders directly to his village to meet with him. Never one to miss an opportunity, the canny woman had also managed to arrange a trade run for the Rattler to a nearby island at the same time, so that the trip would pay off whether the island horses were any good or not.

David couldn't help grinning as he recalled the sparkle in her eyes and her ear-to-ear heart-stopping smile over this chance to check out a new herd of horses.

Isabelle loved riding and caring for horses even more than she loved making a profitable trade agreement! And she would trade almost anything - with the exception of her pride and joy, her horse Dante - if it meant a profit. Well, he amended to himself with admiration for the changes she'd made in her life since he'd first met her, she would trade anything legal.

Running Matavai's only livery enabled the slender woman to meet all sorts of people passing through Tahiti, and she skillfully gathered all sorts of useful information from her clients. Then she parlayed that knowledge, with a keen eye and ruthless ambition, into deals that had quickly earned her a reputation on the islands as an expert negotiator and a clever, reliable trader.

When Isabelle had gone honest, she'd done it wholeheartedly. She made very few errors in judgment, and had a knack for learning from her mistakes. After living all her life on the wrong side of the law, now she would not deal with shoddy goods or suspect origins, wanting Reed Enterprises to stand for quality and trustworthiness. Her only exception had been to invest in the Rattler and David Grief when he'd nearly run himself aground, ruining his reputation and almost losing his business as well when he'd fallen hook, line, and sinker for the wrong woman at the wrong time.

Isabelle had taken quite a risk on him when no one else would, not even his best friend.

She kept insisting it was purely a business decision, paying the arrears on the Rattler so that she could become a partner in the sleek vessel and convince David to teach her the shipping trade.

But it was David who had benefited the most. He'd been lost and floundering, and he knew it.

Being obligated to pay Isabelle back had pulled him from his limbo and given him something to strive for again, a goal that was attainable. She hadn't wasted any time in taking over administrative details of running and managing the Rattler, and it hadn't been long until David had been back at sea at the helm of his ship, carrying cargo and doing trades.

People who had stopped trusting the handsome sea captain had given their business to the new partnership. The clients had been reluctant and doubtful at first, but as the months had passed it had become almost as accepted to talk to David again about booking shipments on the Rattler as it was to talk to his beautiful partner. And now that things were mending between David and his former partner - another benefit that Isabelle had indirectly provided, since David and Mo had begun to reconcile while searching for the missing beauty not long ago - he was noticing an appreciable increase in warmth from the citizens of the islands. Yes, with Mauriri Lepau back on board in the partnership, confidence in the Rattler's owners was bringing in as much business as they could handle.

Mauriri.

He wished Mo were here now.

Even after yesterday's rainstorm, his best friend would have been able to track Isabelle to the "nearby" village where she was supposed to be staying.

But the nearby village couldn't really be that near.

David and his crew, consisting only of Tah-mey and Ru on this run, had seen no sign of campfires, and heard no sound of children or hunters or gatherers. It was nearly impossible to anchor at an island and not have curious Polynesian island children appear to investigate the Rattler and the visiting sailors. This cove was a perfect place for natives to have gathered, sheltered from the South Seas by the way the land nearly closed her off from the open ocean at the mouth of the cove.

It was odd that they hadn't seen a single native since that guide left with Isabelle. In fact, it was almost as odd as Isabelle being late.

Isabelle valued punctuality too much to be this late!

David was pulled from his revolving train of thought by the sight of Isabelle emerging from the jungle. She came out onto the narrow ribbon of sand about fifty yards down from the longboat, paused as she looked the other way first, then turned to the left and saw the Rattler's beached long boat.

David's initial relief, and his almost instant glowering intention to yell at her, faded abruptly as he took in her appearance and saw her stumble toward the water's edge and the long boat. What had happened to her?! She looked like she'd been in a war!

Her long dark hair was an unruly, wild tangle of curls and bits of twig and leaf. Her jodhpurs were torn, bloody, filthy, as was her blue blouse. Both sleeves were torn off – she'd used the material to bandage her left thigh, right calf, and right wrist. There was blood at the tattered shirt's right shoulder, and he could see more blood staining her white undergarment where her shirt was open, on her left side.

Her eyes, fastened on the longboat, were dazed and unaware of her surroundings. Her left eye was actually swollen shut, black and blue. Her lower lip had been broken open, now as puffy as her right cheek where a vividly colored bruise marked her face from cheek-bone to jaw. She was limping painfully, her movements erratic and obviously only instinctive, he realized as he started to race toward her.

She hadn't seen David, honing in only on the longboat she was seeking.

He couldn't reach her soon enough to stop the tumble he could see about to happen, and had to watch her fall. She struggled doggedly back to her feet, weaving, then gave a hoarse yelp of alarm as David entered her limited range of vision. She stopped, swaying unsteadily, and raised her left hand defensively, brandishing a knife he hadn't noticed until she took a wild swing at him with it.

"Whoa! Isabelle, it's me, David!" he slowed hastily, holding his hands out wide and watching her in concern as her good eye blinked him into focus.

The knife dropped to the sand.

"Daffid!" she moaned in relief, "Geh the Raller duh thea!" she managed to croak through her parched and abused lips. "Thuggers!"

David was ever afterwards amazed that he somehow understood her so instantly. "Smugglers?" he repeated sharply as he scooped her into his arms. She flinched, and he understood why as he felt the warm wetness against his arm that could only be fresh blood from her back.

But she answered determinedly, "Yeth, Thuggers! Trah - nah a rill trahd. Trah -"

"TRAP?!" he realized, nodding, already striding toward the boat with his precious burden safely in his arms. Smugglers had baited this trap with the pretense of trade. "Do they know where we are?" he asked her keenly, assessing the extent of her injuries as best he could without stopping.

"Nah, woo'n tell," she ground out, voice weaker, "Woo'n tell, Daffid."

"Good girl," he praised warmly as her one eye looked up at him anxiously, her left hand catching at his shirt. "It's all right, Isabelle," he assured her as he gently settled her into the floor of the longboat. Then he straightened and hollered, "UP ANCHOR! PREPARE TO SAIL!" at the top of his lungs.

Tah-mey and Ru waved to acknowledge hearing their captain's orders, then began the few necessary preparations as David launched the long boat off the beach with a mighty heave. He hopped in, set the oars into the oarlocks, and stroked for the Rattler with long, deep pulls.

All the while, he kept his eyes on Isabelle, who had either passed out or fallen asleep.

She looked nearly as bad as she had at that prison, when he and Mauriri had gone to rescue her. It had nearly broken his heart to see how they'd tortured her then, and it was doing the same thing now. She was so fragile - and she'd only been back on her feet after her last injuries for such a brief time! She didn't deserve this! Why couldn't she get a break?!

Smugglers.

A trap.

Why? Why set them up like this? Who?

He threw his broad shoulders and back into every pull on the oars as he thought back. Someone with a grudge against Isabelle? No, not just Isabelle; care had been taken to see that the Rattler would be here, too. They'd sent that native guide to Matavai in order to be sure David and the Rattler brought Isabelle here. Why? Hmmm, smugglers . . .

Of course! It had to be Pitcairn and Sommers, the crew of smugglers crazy old McCoy had believed were harboring a former prison commander amongst their crew. Mo, Isabelle and David had intervened in one of their smuggling operations, effectively beating up the criminals' shore landing party before finding out the man they sought was not a member of the crew after all.

Blast! If it was Pitcairn and Sommers, his Rattler would be facing a good, fast ship! The smugglers' ship might even be the equal of his Rattler!

Good thing David had insisted on doing that trade run before they came to this island instead of after, as originally planned, demanding that they deliver the cargo first by leaving Matavai earlier than scheduled. Isabelle had finally yielded after a first class row with him, though she'd scoffed at his concern over leaving her alone on the island. He'd reasoned that it would be better for the Rattler to stay there, for her own safety, in case the negotiations went bad.

"Why should the negotiations turn nasty?" she had fumed at his persistence.

"No reason," he'd retorted, "But with you there's always the probability of trouble!"

"Me?!" she'd squawked, furious and outraged. "You've drawn just as much trouble as me! This is only a simple introductory visit!"

She'd been right that it shouldn't have been a problem, everything had seemed open and above board. Isabelle had been so excited about the possibility of finding good horseflesh in the South Seas instead of having to ship in her best mounts from a mainland so far away. David knew she'd really only been humoring him when she'd grudgingly given in to his demand to meet the trade schedule first; neither of them truly expected any trouble with the natives here after the reports from the fishermen about the peaceful society.

But now he was thankful he'd persisted long enough to make Isabelle agree to do the cargo run first. The Rattler would be faster with her currently empty hold, giving them a better chance of outrunning Pitcairn and Sommers' ship.

Taking the Rattler to safety would need every skill David could muster, and even then without perfect winds their chances would not be good.

If he was right that it was the infamous smugglers behind Isabelle's condition, David would be hard pressed to get her to safety. These merciless villains were still free because of their uncanny ability to use the islands, the currents and the winds to their advantage, and David didn't doubt that the rumors of their participation in piracy as well as smuggling were based in truth. These men were dangerous - deadly dangerous.

But even if Pitcairn and Sommers weren't the instigators of this trap, it was clear that whoever it had been would be merciless. If they could treat Isabelle like this, then David and his crew would have to be fast and lucky to avoid the same fate.

The young sea captain tied up his longboat at the Rattler's starboard ropes, then carefully gathered Isabelle up from the bottom of the boat. She made no sound or movement as he placed her limp body over his shoulder. Okay, she was unconscious, then, not sleeping, as he'd hoped against hope. As carefully as he could, he clambered up the ropes and over the rail with his helpless partner.

Tah-mey and Ru kept at their work, though their eyes followed the tall Yankee captain who carried the brunette below. Since they'd all been expecting Isabelle for so long today, the ship had basically been ready to set sail for hours already. And when the boss yelled "Up anchor" from shore, it was never for frivolous reasons. Both sailors knew there must be danger nearby.

So by the time David reappeared several minutes later and joined them in the swift final preparations that remained, all he needed to do was take the helm as the sails rose and filled, and the Rattler began to turn toward the narrow passage that exited from the cove to the sea beyond.

David forced himself to focus all his thoughts on the Rattler and her progress onto the open sea, rather than the woman now lying down in their cabin below. Taking time to care for Isabelle's injuries at this point wouldn't do any good if the Rattler was caught in this cove. His double-masted schooner's only chance was at sea. Once there, she stood a better chance of out-sailing anything their foes could bring against them. So he had to get his ship to the open water. Only then could David afford to stop and tend his injured partner.

***

Forty minutes of hard work later, David was confident that they'd gotten away without being spotted by the smugglers. Or at least they'd left the island behind without seeing any sign of another ship. The course was set for Matavai, and everything was going smoothly.

Tah-mey took over at the helm, his long dark hair flying in the wind as he nodded his understanding of Captain Grief's crisp orders. It wasn't complicated: keep the Rattler running before the wind.

Knowing he'd need plenty of clean, fresh water, David picked up one of the smaller casks of water on his way down to the cabin he and Mauriri had been sharing with Isabelle on their voyages.

Isabelle still lay where he'd left her, on his bunk. He'd already checked briefly to be sure she had no life-threatening wounds when he first brought her down.

Now he started at her head and worked his way down her limp body, periodically pausing to replace the water in the basin and lay cool cloths on her forehead. So far she wasn't showing sign of fever, for which he was grateful since it had been very unsettling while she'd been under the influence of a fever the last time she'd been injured; the insightful brunette had thought he was just a hallucination and had said things she'd never have revealed if she'd been in her right mind.

David still hadn't decided what to make of the revelations that situation had given him about Isabelle's motivations, and her perceptions of him. One of the most puzzling things was her view of David as her "knight in shining armor"; by silent agreement neither man mentioned it when Isabelle was present, since she apparently either thought she'd imagined it or didn't remember it at all. But if she was out of hearing Mo never let an opportunity pass to get in a dig at his partner. Irksome as it the incessant teasing was, David appreciated the fact that Mo tactfully refrained from coming right out and asking about the status of his relationship with this beautiful woman. Of course, David's awareness of the open amusement of the happily married Tahitian as he observed them didn't help him resolve his confusion about Isabelle.

But such deliberations were for another time; she needed his impartial care now.

He sponged away the dirt and blood from her face, finding the actual places where blows had split her fair skin. None of it was deep enough to require stitches, he was relieved to realize. They'd certainly beaten her thoroughly, though, and he marveled as he remembered her pained but triumphant "Woo'n tell". She was amazing! The abrasions on her wrists were testimony to her struggle to free herself from her captors. The right wrist was much more torn than the left, but not as badly as David had feared when he'd first seen the crusted blood on the bandage she'd made from part of a sleeve.

David had to dampen Isabelle's shirt and camisole where blood had dried the material to her flesh, removing them gradually to keep from reopening the wounds. She had bruises from the beating, but they'd apparently also used a knife on the delicately built woman, either during the torture or while trying to prevent her escape. It was a knife wound on her shoulder, fortunately a surface bleeder, not a deep slice. The slash along her ribs had been a close call, though. From its angle across her abdomen, she must have jumped back just in time. At least he could tell she'd been able to fight back, if he was judging the implications of her bruised and battered knuckles correctly.

He shook his head, remembering again how he and Mo had laughed when Isabelle had recognized the black birders who'd nearly gotten her killed after their raid on the native village where she'd been in trade talks when the slavers attacked. She'd really laid into those guys when she'd seen them at Lavinia's, whaling them but good! Wherever she had learned to fight, she'd mastered the basic skills wonderfully. Mo had been only half-joking when he'd laughed that they'd best be careful never to get on her bad side.

A smile curved David's mouth as he considered the fact that she was probably going to be even madder at him now than she'd been at those black birders back then. When she woke up and realized what he'd done she was probably going to spit nails, but there really wasn't any other way to cleanse and bandage her wounds that the method he was using.

At the prison, and afterwards on the Rattler, Isabelle had been conscious and able to maintain some modesty while he and Mo had tended her injuries. And when they'd found her at the bottom of that ravine only a little over a month ago, there'd been no need to disrobe her to tend the wounds incurred in her fall. But this time, with her being unconscious and unable to help at all, there was no choice but to pretty much strip her of her clothing in order to properly care for her.

He couldn't restrain an appreciative grin as he cleansed away the grime she'd accumulated on her body in the last two days, and applied salve and bandages to the cuts she'd suffered. He was careful not to take any liberties, and even restricted his gaze and hands from lingering on the gentle curves and porcelain flesh any longer than strictly necessary… although that took serious effort on his part. Despite her current battered condition, she really was a very beautiful woman. But his appreciative grin vanished when he gently turned her over to work on her back next. Even before he'd eased the material free of her skin he knew what he would find.

Isabelle had been lashed again.

David had to stop and step away from her, pacing back and forth in the small cabin and cursing tightly to vent his rage. He'd hardly ever known anyone who really deserved to be whipped. Isabelle Reed was NOT one of those rare exceptions who did deserve to be beaten so severely - and she never had been, not even when he'd first met her and she'd been an admitted thief.

After he and Mo had found her in that inhuman prison, they'd witnessed the damage done when her tormentors had tortured her to force her to tell them where her boyfriend had hidden money he'd stolen. She'd been so frail, so frighteningly weak . . . but still fiery-spirited.

Now the plucky young lady would have scars on her scars.

David drew a deep breath and returned to Isabelle's side, but still found his hands trembling as he cleaned the raw stripes and carefully dabbed salve on the still-open gashes. She would be in severe pain again for quite a while with these.

As he worked his way down her body, he took small comfort in noting that at least the lash had only fallen on her back this time. The smugglers had not been as thoroughly vicious as the prison warden and his cohorts, who had lashed Isabelle even to her softly rounded backside.

David eased off her riding boots and tossed them aside, leaving her white cotton drawers on as he worked the riding pants down off her long slender legs. He was glad the undergarment was clean and undamaged - the only article of clothing still completely intact. It was proof that she hadn't been raped, at least. No bones were broken, either, to his relief. She'd been spared that much, as well.

Although the knife wound in her lower left thigh looked bad, once he had removed her makeshift bandaging and cleaned it up he could see that it was mostly just agitated from too much use when she should have been off it. He carefully re-bandaged her thigh, noting something else to be thankful for as he caught a glimpse of the other scar on her leg, higher up near the lace edge of her undergarment.

This was the same leg she'd injured when she'd been thrown off Dante and into the ravine. She hadn't yet regained full strength from that ordeal, still limping when she was tired. But seeing it now for the first time since he'd sent her off with Mo to put her under a doctor's care, he could tell that the wound from the previous incident had been healing nicely. Of course, with the new injury on her left leg and this other knife cut on her right calf, she would have a lot more trouble getting around for a while. But even these injuries to her legs would not need stitches.

Yes, mere rest would take care of healing her this time. She would have pain, and more scars, but none of the damage was permanent.

Finished tending all the visible wounds now, David eased Isabelle to her side, on her uninjured shoulder, and discreetly covered her, in case one of the other men needed to come talk to him. He would wait to put clean clothes onto her after he'd changed these bandages tomorrow, letting the open sea air work its magic on the smaller abrasions and scrapes that marred her creamy skin. This light blanket would do until then.

David searched for Isabelle's hair brush, and began the arduous task of clearing her hair of twigs, leaves, tangles, and as much loose dirt as it was possible to brush out. He worked diligently at the difficult task, only pausing to continue placing the cool cloths on her brow.

He loved Isabelle's wondrous mane of hair; long, dark, luxuriously thick, her springy curls delighted David, just as her luminous eyes bewitched him and her smile stole his breath. She always kept her hair brushed free of tangles. Odd that she didn't seem at all vain, he reflected as he worked on the soft mass that spread over her shoulders and across the pillow.

Oh, Isabelle knew she was beautiful, and was quite capable of using her beauty to her own advantage. But she didn't cater to her beauty, seeming rather to disdain it at times. She maintained her cleanliness and femininity, but didn't let how she looked affect her life's pursuits. She never seemed to mind being windblown, or doing honest work that raised a sweat. She was too full of zest for life to let such minor details bother her or keep her from her goals - or from helping a friend, either.

She really was a remarkable woman.

He felt her stir, and watched alertly as he continued to work at brushing out her hair. She tensed and caught her breath as pain returned with consciousness. Then she held very still, evaluating her condition and her whereabouts. She recognized the Rattler's cabin, and felt David's hands in her hair. "Thafe?" she croaked, then coughed, brow puckering in pain.

David left her side to fetch a glass of water, returning to see her trying to sit up.

"Wait, Isabelle," he cautioned. "You need to hold onto the blanket."

Her blue-green eyes darkened in trepidation. She raised one hand and moved it over her torso. Her one still-open thick-lashed eye widened in confirmed realization of her unclothed state, and she blushed a deep rose pink.

David blinked. Now that he hadn't expected.

Isabelle had been quite blatant in teasing David right from the first moment their eyes had met, with looks, words, kisses, her sensual touch… And now she wouldn't meet his eyes as he gently slid an arm beneath her shoulders and raised her to drink from the glass he held to her swollen lips? What was this all about?!

Still, with consideration – which, oddly, merely seemed to fluster her more – he tactfully ignored the blush that deepened as some of the water dribbled down onto her creamy skin. He was careful to honor her unexpected modesty by not sitting her any straighter, so that the thin blanket stayed in place over her breasts. And he avoided making any further comments, not at all sure how to respond to this side of his friend and partner.

Isabelle, blushing?! He'd seen her flush in anger, but never blush.

He focused on the water glass and helping her to sip from it. "That's right, easy does it. I know your face hurts, but it looks and feels worse than it is," he said lightly. "Which I say with the assurance of plenty of personal experience," he added with a boyish grin, inviting her to be amused at his own past experiences with the aftermath of being in fights.

He was relieved when his comment drew an answering twinkle from her good eye.

His girl was still in there, all right, despite her uncharacteristic response to finding herself partially disrobed. Isabelle didn't seem to think she was hallucinating this time, either. She'd asked about their safety, so she was aware of the situation and where she was.

Oh, he hadn't answered her anxious question! "And yes, we're safe, thanks to you, Isabelle. We're on our way home, no sign of pursuit, watch being kept up on deck. All's well." He kept his voice relaxed, his smile natural as he reassured her that he'd taken all the necessary steps to see that they were safe from the smugglers.

David patiently held her and the glass until she had swallowed as much water as she wanted. "Atta girl!" he praised, easing her back down on the bunk so she was facing the cabin this time instead of the bulkhead. He adjusted the blanket for her, deftly and unobtrusively, as he added, "You shouldn't try to talk too much yet, Isabelle. I have some experience with that, too. Why don't you close your eyes and try to sleep as soon as I'm done with your hair. Sleep's the best thing for you right now."

Setting aside the glass, he squatted down to her eye level and smiled. "I'll be right here. Only a little more to finish with your hair. You just grunt if you need anything, okay?"

She nodded carefully. Though her various wounds still throbbed, it was a manageable, steady pain. She knew from past experience that such aches wouldn't keep her from resting.

"Good. Shall I leave the lantern on for you when I'm done brushing your hair?"

Another slow nod.

"Okay, will do." David straightened up again, moved to the head of the bed, and went back to work untangling her long tresses. He was careful to be gentle as he worked out the last tangles. Then David took a few extra minutes to thoroughly run the brush through the thick tresses one more time to be sure he hadn't missed anything.

Isabelle lay perfectly still through his ministrations, tension emanating from her slender frame almost from the moment he resumed brushing out her long dark curls. He was puzzled by her strange tautness, but let it pass without comment. Now was not the time to ask her questions she shouldn't answer yet in her exhausted condition.

He put her hairbrush away, then crossed the cabin to Mo's bunk, deliberately yawning and stretching lazily as soon as she could see him, knowing she was watching his every move now that he was in her line of vision again. The lanky sailor sprawled out on Mo's berth, folded his arms over his chest, and closed his eyes. He seemed to fall asleep almost immediately.

Isabelle watched him in the flickering lantern light.

He was right, of course, she did need sleep in the worst way. But her mental efforts to distract herself from the unexpected and strangely tingling sensations engendered by David's gentle ministrations with her brush had led her to the consideration of questions and worries that now filled her mind. How long had she been unconscious? Had they sighted the smugglers and outrun them? Or were the smugglers still back there, coming up on them as night began to fall? David didn't know who they were; she hadn't had the chance to tell him. He didn't know that those two wouldn't quit. They wanted revenge. They were devils, and would do whatever they possibly could to overtake the Rattler. Were they really safe? Was it possible?

David lay there across the cabin, totally relaxed and by all appearances fast asleep. And when he had tended her so gently just now, his movements had been unhurried. If there was one thing she could be certain of, it was that David would never rest so easily if his ship were in danger. He would be up on the deck, at the helm, not down here, sleeping as if he hadn't a care in the world.

He must have found a way to evade the smugglers. Perhaps he'd taken the Rattler toward Queensland instead of back to Matavai. Or to one of the small islands where they could hide until it was safe - no, she could still feel the now-familiar movement of the Rattler under sail at sea. They weren't at anchor in some sheltered hidden bay. They were on the way home.

Whatever had happened, David was obviously confident that there was no longer a threat to his ship or his crew. "All's well," he had said simply, confidently.

She trusted David. They must be safe.

Slowly, Isabelle let the tension go. Her good eye closed gradually, and stayed closed. The furrow of pain and anxiety on her brow smoothed as she fell asleep, and her breathing softened.

Across the cabin, David opened his eyes enough to see under his lashes.

Good, it worked. Isabelle had been reassured, and was safely asleep.

Quietly, he swung his legs off the bunk and got to his feet.

If he was right about the suspected identity of these smugglers Isabelle had tangled with, the Rattler might face a challenge yet. Those men knew David's home port, and the routes available to get there. If they were really determined and wanted the Rattler, Isabelle, and David badly enough to mount a pursuit or to take certain risks in order to prevent their prey's escape, there were a couple ways they could cut David off from making safe port.

David rarely pushed his sleek schooner to her limits. But he didn't want to take any chances that Isabelle or his crew might fall into the hands of these ruthless smugglers. So tonight he would use all his skill to make his ship fly toward home and safety.

He should really have been topside sooner, but it had been necessary to see that Isabelle was cared for and reassured first and foremost this time. Making her believe he was completely at ease was the only way he knew to reassure the canny woman. So he'd taken the time, trusting Tah-mey to keep the Rattler moving as speedily as possible while he tended to Isabelle.

But now his sailors would have to be relieved. There was a long distance to go until they'd be safe. David quickly climbed the rungs to the open deck. Night had fallen, but the winds were holding, he noted automotically.

Tah-mey and Ru were still alert, still keeping the Rattler running before the wind as he'd ordered before descending to Isabelle's side. David Grief issued his new commands quietly, well aware of how easily sound carried to his cabin. The two men nodded respectfully as their captain took the helm, and moved quickly and efficiently to carry out his orders to add more sail.

The ocean was cooperating, the wind was good, and they had a clear shot toward Matavai under a clear, starry sky.

Perfect. This was definitely going to work.

He'd taken every step he could think of to stay ahead of the smugglers. Now, as the night stretched ahead of them, there was time to think about how he could keep Isabelle from worrying when she woke up tomorrow. David pushed aside the question of why it should matter whether his pesky female partner fretted or not. No time to go introspective here. Plans to be made came first, analysis of his odd emotions could wait indefinitely… at least for now.

***

David had nearly waited too long.

When the tall, lean skipper of the schooner slipped down the ladder at sunrise to sneak back into the cabin, intending to pretend he'd been sleeping across from her the whole night, he found Isabelle already up. Her back was to the hatchway as she tried to struggle into a clean blouse.

His green eyes quickly scanned the cabin, and noted the empty water pitcher and the basin of now-used water with the cloths beside it that showed that she'd checked and re-bandaged her various injuries before donning the fresh camisole and jodhpurs she'd already managed to wriggle into. Based on the difficulty she was having now, it must've been a painful and time-consuming process for the persistent woman, and she'd probably been up and at it for at least an hour already.

David quietly cleared his throat. "May I help, Isabelle?" he asked, careful to withhold both concern and amusement from his tone.

She glanced over her shoulder, startled. She'd been so focused on her task that she hadn't even noticed his arrival. Her acceptance was as polite as his offer of assistance. "Yes, thank you."

David advanced into the cabin and took the garment from her, assisting her by shifting it so she could slide her arms into the sleeves with a minimum of movement. Since she already had the camisole on, she was able to turn to face him without immodesty once he'd eased the blue blouse onto her shoulders.

David gathered her heavy hair and lifted it free of the collar, then settled the silky tresses over the material. Careful to keep his eyes on her face, not her hands as she worked at buttoning her shirt, he smiled, "There you are, perfectly presentable again."

Isabelle looked at him suspiciously. He was being awfully nice to her. "Thank you."

"You're welcome." David glanced toward the sideboard. "Would you like more water?" He indicated the empty pitcher.

She cautiously shook her head no, unaware that her care in making the simple movement revealed to her keen-eyed observer just how much pain she still endured. "Not yet. Why does the Rattler feel funny?" she frowned, changing the subject.

The tall dark-haired man's brows rose in surprise, then he smiled approvingly. "You noticed? That's very good, Isabelle! You're turning into a good sailor!" His pleased green eyes scanned her with satisfaction. Much of the swelling around her face had gone down, leaving only the vivid bruising and small lines of red where her skin had been split and was now healing. "You're looking much better. And I can understand you today," he added with a twinkle and a bit of a teasing note in his deep voice.

Her lips turned upward in pleasure at his compliments, despite the slight twinge of pain it caused her lower lip. He wasn't to know that she'd already checked out her appearance in the Rattler's tiny mirror. She was feeling much better, thankful that the swelling had gone down and she could speak more clearly again. But she didn't allow him to distract her from her original question. "So why does she feel funny?" she repeated as her stiff fingers finished buttoning her blouse.

David knelt down before her, startling her, and began to deftly tie the jodhpur laces still dangling unfastened at her calves, wondering what it had cost Isabelle to get the riding pants up without help. "I guess you've not been aboard before when she's running flat out before the wind," he said lightly. "She's light as a feather." He finished the second legging lace and stayed where he was, looking up at her with a quirked brow. "This okay? Not too tight or too loose?"

"It feels fine," she nodded, trying not to gape at the sight of David Grief at her feet.

He straightened up and startled the slim brunette all over again by placing his hands on her hips and lifting her back up onto his bunk, so that she was perched there with her legs dangling over the edge. He met her questioning blue-green eyes and grinned with more of his usual mischief, holding her gaze as he knelt before her again, this time reaching for her boots. "What? You weren't planning on going up onto the deck without footwear, were you?"

Isabelle eyed him suspiciously, unable to conceal a flinch as David eased the first boot up over her foot and toward her injured calf. "You're not going to argue with me about it?" she asked, steeling herself against the pain.

"Me? Argue with you?" his grin widened as he gently worked the boot over her bandaged calf. "Would it do any good?"

"No," she replied promptly, firmly, pushing down into the boot as much as she could bear, to help with getting her riding boot into place. She gritted her teeth, and her knuckles went white as she gripped the bunk rail. "I'm going up. I'm not staying down here all day." She met his calm green eyes with defiance as he finished with the boot and looked up at her.

"Yes, well, that's what I suspected," he agreed mildly, reaching for the second boot. "So all I can do is see to it that you get topside with the least damage, right?"

The slim brunette blinked at his unexpected cooperation, and agreed cautiously. "Right."

David nodded. "Okay, then." The second boot went on much more smoothly, since there was no injured calf in this one's path. He stood up and offered his hand. "Up you go…, if the boots are okay? Is this one too tight? It's already damaged. I could cut it here, relieve the pressure on your wound," he suggested reasonably, leaving the decision, the control, to Isabelle.

Sliding off the bunk, she stood and tested the pressure, then nodded, knowing she would be unable to bear her weight on her injured calf with the boot pressing right against her wound as it was. "Cut it," she agreed regretfully, with a sigh for the wait that would be required before a new pair of boots could come in.

The tall captain knelt yet again, and used the knife from his belt to slit the top of her boot down to where the leather had already been damaged when the smuggler stabbed her. Isabelle sighed in relief. "Oh, that's much better, thank you, David," she said with a genuine smile.

He grinned and clipped the knife back onto his belt. "Good. Now, can you climb?"

Isabelle looked at the ladder visible through the hatchway. She already had serious doubts, knowing how drained she was by all she'd done since forcing herself from the bunk this morning. But she was determined that to finish what she'd begun, and she wouldn't back out now. "I can do it."

David stayed right below her, supporting her every step of the way with most unusual patience. Isabelle slowly made her way up to the sunlight, one rung at a time. She was distracted from the pain by his unflagging hand steadying her increasingly-wobbly balance. By the time she was halfway up, Isabelle was wishing David had argued her out of this. She shouldn't be on her feet yet, and she knew it. Moreover, she was sure David Grief knew it, too.

But then Tah-mey was waiting at the top to lift her the last few feet and set her on the sun-washed deck. He greeted her cheerfully, "Good to see you up and about, Miss Reed."

David joined her on the deck, standing close enough for her to lean on him unobtrusively; he kept one hand at the small of her back and the other under her arm as she thanked Tah-mey and nodded to Ru, who was also smiling his pleasure at seeing her topside.

Ru stepped aside, gesturing behind himself. "We made you a special seat, Miss Reed," he told her, beaming in anticipation of pleasing their lady owner.

Isabelle looked at the carefully piled spare canvas the three men had all ready for her, a padded nest on the deck for her, shaded by artfully tied sailcloth strung into a canopy that could be adjusted with the movement of the ship and sun. Touched, she realized that David had known even before he'd come down that she would never be content to remain below, and had taken the necessary steps to prepare so she could rest on deck as comfortably as in the cabin. She glanced up over her shoulder at him, finding his dark green eyes twinkling. "Thank you, David," she said softly, acknowledging that he'd been in control the whole time after all.

"Our pleasure," he inclined his head graciously, and gallantly offered his arm, as if he were playacting. "Your throne awaits, ma'am."

Isabelle accepted his escort cordially, aware of the delighted grins of their crew at his antics, and their pleasure in having anticipated a way to make her comfortable. David had probably counted on her accepting this mollycoddling for his crew's sake, she realized ruefully, and he'd been right.

But the handsome man so solicitously supporting her to the prepared bower did not lord it over her, as he usually did when he managed to be right. Instead, he leaned closer, and murmured softly, "Thanks, Isabelle. They really wanted to please you. They like you, you know," he grinned, and then added quietly, for her ears alone, "Almost as much as I do."

Startled, Isabelle stumbled.

David steadied her deftly. "Sorry, my fault," he apologized promptly, concerned. "Are you all right?"

Isabelle looked from David's unusually tender gaze to the equally anxious eyes of his crew, and summoned a smile for all three men. "Yes, I 'm all right," she assured them softly, wonderingly.

David still showed no sign of gloating or mockery while he solicitously provided the balance for her weary and painful descent onto the "throne" the men had prepared.

There was no doubting the genuine affection and care all three men were lavishing on the slender brunette as she relaxed onto the pile of sailcloth. Ru brought her a glass of water and a plate with bread and fruit. Tah-mey adjusted the canopy so she could enjoy the morning sun without it blinding her. David disappeared for a moment, returning with the light blanket from down in their cabin, having noticed that the morning breeze was still a little cool.

The sailcloth was a bit rough to the touch, but they'd folded something beneath it that was as soft as her mattress at home, allowing her bruised body to be cushioned. Isabelle was bemused by the way one of the men was always in attendance on her as the day progressed.

Worn out by the exertion of getting up on deck and lulled by the motion of the Rattler, she fell asleep not long after she'd eaten Ru's thoughtfully-prepared breakfast. When she drifted back to wakefulness several hours later it was to find lunch set out beside her. She noticed that the canopy had been adjusted again, too, to protect her from the stronger afternoon sunshine. As soon as David saw that her eyes were open, he turned over the helm to Tah-mey and joined her. He dropped lazily onto the deck beside her and took one of the sandwiches from her plate with a grin and a wink. "Nice nap?" he asked, holding out the plate to offer her the other sandwich.

"Yes, thank you." Isabelle accepted the food, though she took the precaution of checking its contents before taking a bite. She'd seen the kinds of things David and the men ate without thinking twice, but this one seemed to be a fish spread that smelled fine and looked appetizing as well.

David took a hefty bite of his sandwich that finished off half the bread, chewing heartily, eyes twinkling as he watched her take a much daintier bite of her own. "It's okay, Isabelle, Mo taught me this recipe. It's quite edible. Like it?"

She nodded and smiled, finding the smoky flavor of the fish quite tasty. "Yes, it's good."

He studied her as she ate it, nodding approvingly. "You're looking better and better," he told her with satisfaction. "The sleep is doing you a world of good." She even had most of her normal healthy color back. He reached over casually and placed his hand against her forehead. "You were a bit warm earlier, but I don't think you're running a fever now," he noted lightly. He'd been a little worried when his touch hadn't awakened her from her nap and he'd discerned the slightly higher temperature.

Isabelle sipped her water, watching David with curiousity as he finished off most of the rest of his own sandwich with another huge bite. What was going on? No sarcasm, all this consideration for her well-being, the gentleness… He'd rescued her before, and tended her injuries, but he'd always been cross-tempered about it.

"Do you feel up to telling me what happened back there on that island now?" he asked keenly.

She nodded, though her green-blue eyes darkened to near gray as she gathered her thoughts while she swallowed her current bite of her lunch. "It was Pitcairn and Sommers, David. I meant to tell you sooner," she frowned regretfully. His helpfulness this morning, and then getting up into the sunshine and discovering the "throne" and the men's careful planning had totally put it out of her mind!

"Yes, I suspected as much," he agreed lightly. "You said smugglers, and they were the only ones I could think of who might have it in for us."

Isabelle suppressed a shudder. "I don't know what they promised Chief Ra'le for his help in getting us here, but it was all a set-up." She fell silent, shoulders hunched, as she was lost in dark thoughts for a long moment.

David finally reached over and gave her hand a reassuring squeeze, startling her out of whatever unpleasant place her mind had taken her to and bringing her back to the Rattler. She gave him a smile of gratitude, and took another bite of her sandwich.

"On the beach, when you came out of the jungle, you said it hadn't been a real trade, it was just a trap. We had noticed there weren't any natives around. Was there really a village?" He shifted position, half-reclining on the deck as he watched her.

"Yes," she nodded briefly. "But as soon as that native guide walked me into the village, Pitcairn ordered his men to kill them all. It was very short-sighted of them, but they thought they knew all the details they needed. They were already aware that we had a trade run to do, not just this visit, and they thought you'd just dropped me off and gone on to do the drop off on Kali. If they had stopped to ask the guide,…"

David had tensed as soon as she revealed that the smugglers had ordered the death of the natives. "They murdered the entire tribe?" he asked incredulously now as she paused. "Everyone?"

She nodded gravely, the remainder of her sandwich forgotten in her hand again as she quietly related how the smugglers had strategically placed themselves beforehand around the unsuspecting natives. Her stormy eyes flashed as she told him of the wholesale slaughter of the island people, to the last man, woman and child. "I've never seen such brutality and cruelty, David. It was absolute evil."

David nodded grimly. "How many men did they have, Isabelle?" he asked, knowing now where her mind had been a few minutes ago and understanding her fear for the safety of the Rattler and the crew.

"Too many for us, David. Too many for Chief Ra'le and his people. The smugglers were far too well armed. I don't know exactly how many, but there were so many guns, so many of them…" her voice trailed away, her face clouding again. The sudden fear, the cries of mothers and fathers, the wails of the children… and the twisted looks on the faces of the crewmen she had been able to see in the midst of the incredible, horrifying carnage… the smell of death had been a tangible thing.

He reached over and gave her hand another squeeze, pulling her troubled thoughts back to the safety of the Rattler. "They're not going to get away with it, Isabelle," he promised her solemnly. "An atrocity of this magnitude will surely bring the full force of the authorities against them."

The plucky woman nodded. "If I have anything to say about it, which I most definitely will, the authorities will certainly move against them this time," she agreed stoutly, to his obvious amusement. "Oh, shut up!" she glared at him, but couldn't help grinning back when he smirked at her.

"Who, me?" he teased, "I can't get a word in edgewise! And I have no doubt that you'll have plenty to say about this to Morlais or anyone else who'll listen," he added with a chuckle.

Isabelle, comforted by his familiar teasing, took another bite of her sandwich before she continued with her story. "They thought I would just tell them everything," she reflected. "So they're not infallible. They didn't know me well enough. I made them sorry they didn't leave any natives to help them get the information they needed to find you and the Rattler. And they don't know that Mauriri isn't with us; they wanted all of us."

David listened carefully as she explained that it had been easy, "relatively speaking", for her to persist in saying that David and Mo wouldn't be back for several days, until they'd finished the trade run. She had told them she was planning on camping at the beach to be ready for pickup by the Rattler in a couple mornings when the ship was back. She'd also told them she couldn't remember the name of the beach where she was supposed to be picked up. She'd informed them that it was the guide's job to take her back to the beach, since she had no sense of direction. She'd insisted she couldn't remember how to get back to the beach where the Rattler had dropped her off with the guide.

He winced as she grinned when she told him how much she'd enjoyed shoving their mistake back in their faces by repeatedly saying, "If only you hadn't killed my guide - he could have told you!" David restrained himself from pointing out that her sassing had probably made her beatings worse, then was glad he hadn't fussed at her when she freely admitted it. "I know it probably made them rougher with me, but it served them right, and I refuse to be intimidated by such cowards!"

The rugged sea captain shook his head in amazement. "You really are an incredible woman, Isabelle Reed," he said gruffly.

She grinned again. "Yes, I am," she agreed blithely, making him chuckle.

She continued the tale: With no natives left to confirm or refute her story, Pitcairn and Sommers had fallen back on torturing their only remaining prisoner to try to force her to 'remember' the information they needed. They wanted to be prepared, ready and waiting in ambush to take Grief, Lepau, and the Rattler with her crew when the Rattler returned. They needed to know where the Rattler had landed Isabelle, and where they would pick her up. They'd listed the names of the various beaches and coves around the island, trying to prompt her memory as they beat her.

Then she'd seen her chance, and had instantly taken it. Thinking she was cowed into submission, and never suspecting her hidden strength, they'd left only one man guarding her while they prepared to search the island, just to be certain she wasn't lying to them. The fool had been all too easy to tempt into untying her, she smugly told David, and the look on that bully's face when she'd hit him with her small fist had been priceless! Unfortunately, he'd fallen on a chair, breaking it, and the sound had brought others to investigate.

David was half appalled, and half amused at the relish with which she told him about the mad chase around the tent where she'd been imprisoned and beaten. She'd weilded the very same pain-inducing implements used against her by her tormentors, earning her freedom by first using the tools to repel the men attempting to subdue her and then to cut her way out of the tent. She'd even used their own gear to evade them in her flight through the jungle, cutting a false trail to trick her pursuers into going down one path while she fled down another.

Then the difficulty had been finding her way back to the beach. She'd focused on warning David in time for the Rattler to escape from the search that would now be launched full scale.

The very rainstorm David had cursed for making it impossible for him to track her had made Isabelle thankful, since it had effectively erased her trail and kept the smugglers' men from finding her when they'd nearly caught up with her again. It had been a harrowing hike back, hurt, wet from the storm, afraid to take shelter lest her delay cost David and the others their lives, doggedly continuing her efforts to reach her friends. She had gotten herself turned around twice and barely realized it in time to avoid recapture. Once she'd even hidden beneath jungle shrubs while Pitcairn himself walked by only two feet from where she was concealed.

She'd kept moving, she hoped in the right direction, all through the night, trying to remember what David and Mauriri had been teaching her about navigation by the stars. In the morning she'd found herself on the wrong beach, and had to backtrack. That was what had taken her so long to arrive back at the beach where David was waiting for her. She'd been afraid she would arrive too late, that the smugglers would already have found the Rattler before she could warn them.

"I wasn't sure I was going to be able to find you," she admitted gruffly to him now. But she had. She'd outwitted their enemies, and she'd been in time to enable David to get them all safely away.

Finished with her tale, she fell into thought again as David watched her keenly. Pitcairn and Sommers had severely underestimated Isabelle, to her immense satisfaction. Those men wouldn't make that mistake again, and she didn't want to fall back into their hands. The first time had been painful, but if they caught her again they'd be so angry and vengeful that they would show no mercy whatsoever. She wouldn't survive another round.

Isabelle's gaze drifted to her partner, sprawled casually beside her. David seemed so calm, so relaxed, except when she'd been talking about being held prisoner, of course. Surely they were safe, or he wouldn't be lounging on the deck talking idly with her like this.

He was watching her expressive face, and she would have been stunned at how well he understood what she was thinking about. "Want to take a little stroll around the deck?" he asked her with a quirked brow, knowing the physical effort would require all her concentration and take her mind off her concerns about their escape from the smugglers. If he could inject just the right amount of skepticism into his expression as he waited for her answer, she wouldn't resist the challenge to prove she could do it.

As he'd hoped, Isabelle saw David's carefully expressed hint of doubt about her ability to succeed in managing the proposed walk, and instantly determined to make it all the way from stem to stern of the sleek schooner. "I'd love a walk, thank you."

The handsome captain's deliberate smirk told her he didn't think she could do it, but he got to his feet and offered his hand to help her up. She accepted, knowing already that she was going to have to take advantage of whatever strength he would deign to offer. Her back was one throbbing ache, and the wounds on her shoulder and legs weren't much better.

A brandy - a whole bottle of brandy, actually - would have been wonderful, but she'd talked David out of carrying spirits on the Rattler after two of the crew on a long run had managed to get totally drunk and fall overboard, drowning. She'd even overcome the men's objections that it was good for cleansing wounds by stocking a supply of medical disinfectant instead. She been determined to do whatever it took so that it would never be necessary to tell anyone else's wife that the Rattler had lost a sailor overboard because of alcohol.

She flashed David a suspicious look as he kept his hand beneath her arm and began to escort her toward the stern at a slow, relaxed pace. But he kept his face schooled to politeness, and only his twinkling green eyes told her he was deliberately "helping" her. Why wasn't he taunting her? Why was he being so gentle with her? This was the oddest day she'd experienced since meeting David Grief. He wasn't doing anything the way he usually did! It was driving her crazy trying to figure out what he was up to! One minute he was inexplicably tender, the next he was back to teasing and taunting her …

She didn't find any answers to the riddle that was David Grief while on their little jaunt. It took everything she had to stay upright all the way around the deck of the Rattler. By the time they reached their start point again, the slim brunette was so near collapse that he was almost carrying her. She was glad to sink shakily back onto the piled canvas, not arguing at all when David gently tucked the blanket around her again and readjusted the canopy to darken her little nest. Isabelle sighed wearily, drank the glass of water Ru handed her, and closed her eyes for a few minutes.

The wily sea captain straightened up from kneeling beside her, and gave Tah-mey and Ru a thumbs up signal. The two Tahitians grinned widely and enthusiastically nodded. It was working! David's uncharacteristic behavior and their unusual pampering of the Rattler's lady partner were keeping her mind busy and tiring her body out enough to keep her from really paying attention to where she was and what the men were doing.

So far they had succeeded in keeping Isabelle from realizing the danger they were all still in, which meant she was able to rest easy instead of hindering her recovery by worrying. The challenge of carrying out their little conspiracy was also maintaining the men's spirits as they kept the Rattler running before the wind. Could they keep Isabelle in the dark about the danger all the way home?

Tah-mey returned the helm to Captain Grief, and rejoined Ru in monitoring the extra sails they'd raised. It was a good thing that David and Mauriri had kept Isabelle so busy learning to mend and set the spare canvas that they stored in the lockers, or they wouldn't have had enough to fully rig the Rattler's masts as David had commanded. It took a fine skipper and alert hands to keep so much sail up and flying tightly. So far it had gone as smoothly as the butter the Europeans favored so highly. But there was still a good distance to go, with several locations between here and Matavai where the pirate smugglers could still manage to cut them off from their port and safety.

If their foes suspected that David Grief would risk his schooner by running full out like this, the other ship would surely be making every possible effort to be at one or the other of those places up ahead. David had shared Isabelle's story with his crew, and all three men realized full well that Pitcairn and Sommers could not afford to let Isabelle Reed reach safety. She was a witness against them in the massacre of an entire peaceful, albeit susceptible to bribes, island people.

David and his crew were all hoping that the other ship's masters would underestimate David as they had underestimated Isabelle, and not use all speed to reach those intercept places. But they couldn't count on it. So while their injured lady slept, they went back to cleaning and priming weapons, and making what preparations they could for the possibility of being boarded, as well as keeping a close eye and hand on the extra sets of sails raised to catch and use the winds of the South Seas.

***

The sky was turning the vibrant colors of sunset all around them, but the night breezes were still warm enough to enjoy. Tah-mey and Ru squatted on the deck, chatting carelessly about their families on Tahiti as they shared the evening meal with Isabelle after her long sleep. The ingenious canopy, which could also have its flaps lowered on all sides to create an outhouse for Isabelle's use, had been adjusted for the changed position of the sun, and she hadn't been able to see David at the helm this time when she awakened. But she could hear him occasionally as he called out an order which one or the other of the sailors jumped up to obey. They would carry out the required task and return to talk with her again, their sun-bronzed faces smiling and pleased in her interest in talking with them.

Isabelle knew the two Tahitians were honoring her by sharing these stories about their private lives, and that they were doing it in an effort to make her recovery easier for her. She'd worked with both native men while David, and now Mo as well, taught her the basics of sailing, and never before had they opened up like this to her, a woman - and a European one, at that. Usually they treated her with a mild deference, even when she'd been scouring out the hold right alongside them – which was quite the grossest job Isabelle had ever done in her entire life. It had increased her respect for the work of a sailor tenfold.

She had no idea that David had suggested the two men should talk to her like this tonight as part of their ongoing campaign to keep her distracted. He'd discovered some time ago how much she loved to learn about the islanders and their lives, so different from anything she'd known as a child, or even now, as an adult. Often, after a trade in some island port, David found Isabelle talking with the natives there, fascinated by their cultures.

At first, Tah-mey and Ru had been doubtful that their ordinary tales would hold her attention as well as their Captain had predicted. She was a strange young woman; unlike other European women on Tahiti who would never have gotten so dirty or worked side-by-side with island men, she not only put up with everything her male partners asked of her but seemed to enjoy learning the things Mo and David had decreed she should learn. So they shrugged and tentatively followed David's instructions to talk to her. It had been a pleasant surprise to find that Isabelle was genuinely interested in all kinds of little details about their island lives. Spurred on by her intrigued questions, the two men were dredging up everything they could think of to keep her mind occupied.

When the sky darkened all around them and the stars became visible, David gave the wheel to Ru, and crossed the deck to take Isabelle back down to the cabin. He squatted down lightly on his heels alongside her, leering boyishly at her as he asked, "Ready to go back to bed, partner?" with a wiggle of his brows that made her grin back. "Think you can handle the ladder going down as well as you handled it coming up this morning?"

Isabelle made a face at him. "Yes, I can!"

He held out his hand, "Okay then, up you come!"

She put her small hand into his and let him lift her to her feet. David steadied her, and watched alertly as she found her balance. "Still pretty sore, eh?" he asked sympathetically, keenly noting that she was moving her whole body with caution. Unfortunately, he also saw that she was far more cognizant of her surroundings than she had been earlier in the day. Her eyes were much clearer now, nearly back to her usual sharp perceptiveness. It was time to change tactics if he was going to keep her from noticing the way they were sailing before he got her safely down below deck where she couldn't see what was happening aboard the Rattler.

The young brunette nodded gingerly. "A little."

"Don't you wish we had that brandy now?" he mocked condescendingly as she started to look around, deliberately adopting a tone sure to get a rise out of her. He was right; she reacted instantly, her green eyes snapping back to his.

Her glare could have lit a fire. "I knew you would throw that back in my face sooner or later!" she said indignantly. "Have I been complaining?"

"No, you haven't," he acknowledged knowingly. "But I'm sure you've been thinking about it. Maybe next trip out you'll let us put up a bottle or two, hmm?"

"Not if I'm along, you won't!" she retorted, moving stiffly away from his supporting hand.

David held out his hands in a gesture of acquiescence to her obvious move to distance herself.

"Right," he smirked, "You're the tough one, aren't you? Okay, so no liquor on the Rattler. You're the boss, right? At least until I pay you back." He made his tone a bit impatient and sharp.

Her lovely eyes flashed before she turned sharply away and started for the hatchway, and David knew he had succeeded in diverting her from noticing the extra sails and continued speed, though he deeply regretted having to get her riled up to do it. He was simply out of other tactics at the moment.

Setting up her back was the best thing he could come up with to keep her mind away from the way the Rattler was running. He'd been so careful, too, not to make snide comments about how Isabelle had bailed him out with his creditors. Since last month, when he'd learned that she hadn't done it purely for business reasons after all, the topic was just too full of potential danger.

He hadn't wanted to risk bringing up anything that might lead to a discussion of her real motives. He kept shoving away the suspicion that she still had a personal interest in him after all, despite his recent despicable behavior in betraying everyone and everything he valued. All day today, he'd been thinking about that blush this morning, when she'd realized that David had undressed her and tended her. It had to be about more than just David's having seen her body, he was certain of that much.

After all, only days after he'd first met her, she'd suggested sex right down in the Rattler's hold, in exchange for her freedom from Morlais, and had given him kisses that had shaken him to the depths of his soul. She'd offered herself to him another time, too, also on the Rattler, coming to him in the middle of the night. And no matter how often he refused to act on his undeniable attraction to her, she had continued to flirt outrageously with him – though that had begun to ease off not long before his recent series of fiascoes with Jenny.

The woman had once even stripped them both naked and slept with him all night in the middle of the island bush, to give him the necessary body heat to survive being shot. Although she could have cut open her horse and put him inside there to keep him warm, he recalled her joking, she hadn't been the least bit shy about being nude then. She'd actually boldly propositioned him in the morning when he awakened!

These hadn't been the only times sensual tension had flared between them. And today hadn't been the only time he'd seen a fair amount of her creamy flesh, either, since he'd doctored her before now, although with admittedly more modesty available to her than this time.

If she really was still interested in David as more than just a friend, but as a lover instead, why wasn't she still pursuing him? He'd been struggling with these puzzles since that night in the ravine when she'd hinted at hidden feelings for him while feverish from her injuries. What had changed to cause Isabelle to act as if it flustered her, after all that had been between them before now?

Why would she be blushing today, given their interactions of the past? If she was interested, why had it disconcerted her to wake up partially - well, mostly - unclothed in his presence? Why, if she was interested, hadn't she flirted with him this morning? It would've been the perfect opportunity to put herself forward, even though she was wounded.

David's brow was creased as he caught up to her just before she attempted to go down the ladder by herself. "Hold it. Let me go first, just in case," he commanded, irritated that she would really try to do it on her own. She had to be aware of how badly she could be hurt if she fell!

Isabelle swung on him, ready to argue, but stopped suddenly, lips parted without making a sound as her eyes focused behind him. She tensed.

David cursed under his breath, knowing immediately that she'd noticed the sails at last. Drat! And he had been so close to getting her safely below deck!

He watched her eyes take in the extra canvas, then shift to where Ru was standing with both hands tight on the wheel, holding the Rattler steady, eyes on the stars and the sails. Next she sought out Tah-mey, where he was busily adjusting trim, compensating for a slight shift in currents that was tugging to the starboard side. Then she looked at the ocean around them, noting the speed with which the double-masted schooner was sliding over the tops of the South Seas waves.

Her eyes widened, and she swung her face back to David. "You think there's still danger!" she gasped, staggering at the impact of her realization.

The tall captain caught her arms, gently stabilizing her. "Easy, it's going to be fine."

She gripped his sleeves tightly and looked over at the "throne", then at each of the three men again, as it dawned on her what they had really been doing all day. Her gaze returned to David, filled with fear.

"Well, we gave you a few worry-free hours, anyway," he said regretfully. "Honest, Isabelle, it will be okay. We've been making great time. I'm not going to let anyone hurt you again. I promise you, Isabelle, I promise you," he vowed earnestly.

"You can't promise me that," she pointed out matter-of-factly. Seeing his genuine concern, and the import of his words dawning on her through her tension, she managed a smile, albeit a tremulous, strained one. "But I appreciate the thought, David, and all the trouble the three of you have gone to today," she offered her thanks as she pulled her scattered thoughts together and squared her slender shoulders, stepping back from the safety of his supporting hands and facing the danger with her usual courage. "How far are we from Matavai?"

"Another night's sail."

"Like this, you mean?" she asked, glancing up at the heavily over-loaded masts with troubled eyes. "If the masts don't snap, and if the wind holds."

"The Rattler will stand the strain, Isabelle," he assured her, taking one small clenched hand and gently stroking her bruised knuckles. "And the wind will hold. You'll see. Please don't worry."

Isabelle jerked her hand away. She was blushing hotly enough for him to see it in the pale moonlight, he noticed with interest even as she demanded, "Why are you being so nice to me?"

The handsome rogue had the nerve to adopt a patently false wounded look. "I've been nice to you before," he objected with the hope that it would placate her. "Haven't I?"

"Yes," she agreed dryly, "You have, but you and I both know I'm not like Lavinia or Clare or – or any of the other women you're nice to."

He wished he had more light than the starlight and moon provided so he could tell if it was frustration, impatience or regret smoldering in her lovely eyes.

"Besides," she added brusquely, "Aren't you the one who said it's opposites that attract? So why are you being so nice to me?" she repeated suspiciously.

David shrugged. "Hey, I've been known to be wrong before. Just ask Mauriri," he grinned, inviting her to smile and trying to redirect the conversation.

Isabelle met his green eyes steadily, but did not smile. "I'm serious, David."

His grin faded.

He looked down at the deck for a moment before he nodded. The moment he'd been trying not to face for so long was actually here. He either faced it, or risked hurting her again if she really did care for him as he'd begun to suspect and… he had to admit to himself, as he'd also begun to hope. "Let's go down to the cabin, Isabelle."

She let him help her this time, her earlier mood of defiance gone. David preceded her down the ladder, only one step lower, so that she could balance using his shoulders when she needed to do so. Once she made it to the bottom, without waiting for her permission, David turned and lifted her into his arms, carrying her the rest of the way into the cabin and gently seating her on the bunk.

David lit the cabin's oil lantern. He pushed a restless hand through his thick hair, avoiding her eyes as he paced back and forth before the bunk. Isabelle warily watched him and waited. What in the world was he hesitating over?

He finally stopped and slowly met her eyes again, clearly determined and yet also unsure of himself. "Isabelle, this is the last time I ever want to see you hurt. The first time was at the prison. Do you remember what you said when you saw me then?"

She shook her head no, puzzled at the intensity in his warm green eyes and trying to find some connection between that back then and now.

"You kept pleading with me to help you, and said you couldn't believe we came," he reminded her, the anguish in his handsome expressive face at the memory shocking Isabelle. "Like you hadn't really thought Mo and I would do anything to help you." He looked away, biting his lip briefly, then stopped pacing and sat beside her, meeting her inquisitive blue-green eyes. "Then the next time was when those black birders got you into trouble, and the chief was slowly drowning you. If Mo hadn't been there, we'd both probably be dead, because I wouldn't have stood by while they put you under the water in that cage again." His voice was low and grim.

Isabelle's battered hand stole over to cover his clenched fist where it rested on his thigh. "I know," she agreed quietly, remembering how her panic had eased, against all reason, when she'd seen him on the shore. There had been no doubt in her mind that the rugged sea captain would do whatever it took to free her once he knew she was in trouble. The miracle had been that David had come without knowing she needed him. He'd simply been there, like a Knight in Shining Armor in one of the fantasy books she'd read long ago.

David stared at her small hand over his, and went on. "Remember when Mo had those dreams, he was all worried about me dying. But it was you who got hurt, when your stallion knocked you over. You broke your arm, remember?" His voice was raw as he recalled her impatience with his attempts to examine her when she'd only wanted to be finding that dumb horse. "You kept saying you didn't need a doctor."

"Right, I remember." David had splinted it as they dodged the angry natives, fleeing to the beach and the longboat. Later, back on the Rattler, David had been the one to bandage it properly, too, while Mauriri had steered for home. "You were angry with me." Again. She always made David angry, she thought with a sigh.

He winced, her regretful, wistful tone and sigh suddenly making it clear what she'd concluded, and hastened to set the record straight. "No, no; not angry, Isabelle. Actually, I was worried about you, and scared because you cared more about that bloody stallion than about your own safety."

Isabelle's lips parted in surprise. "Oh…" That possibility had never occurred to her.

Ruefully, he continued, "Then the day of Colin's blasted party, you cut your foot on the coral reef. And you didn't tell me." He reluctantly met her eyes, pain in his own as he admitted gruffly, "I felt like such a heel, that you could be hurt like that and not feel able to tell me. You needed my help, and I was busy being such a selfish jerk! I'm sorry, Isabelle. Sorry about that, and sorry I didn't include you in the original meeting with the governor. I was treating you like a competitor, not a friend, trying to beat you to the deal. I never meant to betray your trust. I didn't know how much I valued your trust in me until I realized I'd lost it that day."

She had never seen David so full of regret, not even over his alienation from Mauriri. She couldn't help defending him, trying to lighten the burden of that guilt he bore so heavily on his broad shoulders. "But you made it up to me, David. You included me afterwards and we both did well on the contract." She pointed it out lightly but sincerely, and was rewarded with a grateful look.

But he was still troubled.

"I've been betraying trust a lot lately," he drew in a long ragged breath, still meeting her wide eyes, and from the sadness and sympathy in her expression he knew she understood he was talking about the situation with Jenny now. "I want you to know I'm not going to do it any more. You stuck by me after Jenny, trusted me when no one else did." He braced himself, and wrapped his other hand over hers where it continued to lay comfortingly on his still-clenched fist. "I know you're a strong woman, Isabelle, and you like to handle things yourself as much as you can. But… today… I'm not going to betray the trust you place in me. I'm not going to make it harder on you than necessary. Not with my words, and not by my actions. I'm going to do as much as you'll allow me to do in order to take care of you. You understand? I won't hurt you again, and I won't see anyone else hurt you if it's in my power to protect you."

Isabelle nodded slowly. "It's because of that girl in you past, isn't it? The one you let your father talk you out of helping?" She spoke carefully, knowing he wouldn't like her mentioning it.

David promptly shook his head, surprised by the allusion until he recalled what she'd said in the ravine last month about how he would never be able to pass up helping a woman in trouble. "No, it's got nothing to do with her. You were right, down in that ravine the last time you were hurt, when you said I should just explain to Mo what had happened. I really should just tell him about it. And you were right, too, that I'll probably never be able to bypass a woman in trouble."

He allowed himself a sheepish grin at his own admission, but froze as he noticed how her expression was sharpening and her posture tensing. A quick review of what he'd said revealed his mistake. Blast! He'd opened up a can of worms for sure! David hurried on, hoping to distract her from what he'd just unwittingly revealed about the time in the ravine. "Only this is you I'm talking about here, not some woman I've never seen before. I don't want you to ever be hurt like that again."

But Isabelle whispered, stricken, "I said that? I mean, to you? Out loud?"

David cursed under his breath, realizing that Isabelle did remember what had happened down in that ravine. She must have thought it only some sort of dream, until now. He'd blown that wide open, hadn't he? But then again, what she'd said about the two of them – or what she'd implied – was the ultimate point he was trying to work up to, wasn't it?

So he plunged on. "Isabelle, much as you don't like to admit you need help, right now you need me. When you're well again and you don't need me to protect you and help you, if you choose to push me away," he shrugged a little awkwardly. "Well, that's your right, and I'll honor it, I swear I will. But," he cocked his head at her and grinned a little boyishly, almost shyly, "I hope you'll have as much trouble getting me out of your system as I've had getting you out of mine, with as little success."

The new reference banished her efforts to remember what else she had told those "hallucinations" - which now appeared to have not been hallucinations after all - after being thrown off Dante into the ravine last month. Isabelle could feel her face flush again as she remembered the time he was now referring to: It had happened back when she'd still hoped to convince him to become her lover, before she'd realized how much more she needed from him that just that. She had been flirting with him, teasing him that he'd never be able to get her out of his system.

He remembered that, after all this time? But what he was saying implied -

He was watching her, still holding onto that lopsided grin, though his dark eyes were nervous.

"So," she said slowly, thoughtfully, a glimmer of hope growing in her heart as it sunk in just what the handsome man sitting beside her was trying to say. "You think there's something, possibly, between us? Even though we're so much alike?"

David let out breath he hadn't been aware he was holding, relieved and encouraged to see that the beautiful woman wasn't laughing in his face. "Well, yeah, I do think there may possibly be something between us. When I'm not wanting to strangle you, that is," he quipped, and saw her lips twitch. "Mauriri noticed it almost as soon as we met you. Called it some kind of weird connection between us, if I recall his words correctly. Lavinia knew it, too, just like she knew she and I weren't looking for the same things. Colin and Clare have also mentioned it, one time or another."

The enumeration of these opinions from their closest friends surprised her. "All of them?" she gaped at him, stunned. They had all realized she loved David?!

What had happened to her ability to con people? She thought she'd been so careful to conceal the unexpected growth of her emotional attachment to Captain Grief.

The longer she'd known this man who had challenged her to become an honest woman, the greater her respect for him and understanding of him, the more she'd realized that the unthinkable was happening. Isabelle Reed was falling in love with a man who wouldn't even take her as a mere lover, barely tolerated her as a friend, and resented her as a partner! But no matter how often she'd told herself it was impossible, even when he'd been head over heels for Jenny Duval, Isabelle had only loved him more and grieved for the pain she'd known was coming into his life via the heartless manipulator.

"Yeah, all of them noticed that I was falling for you," David replied, putting a different spin on it than Isabelle had, applying their friends' words to himself and not her.

Perhaps she'd succeeded in concealing her feelings after all, then. She blinked in astonishment as his next words confirmed that he was talking about the transparency of his feelings for her, not hers for him – and suddenly her heart was pounding and she was holding her breath.

"I was the only one denying it. I think…" he hesitated, then decided he had to commit all the way with this. "I think it's because you're so special. I think I was afraid to let you too close. And then, after Jenny," he shrugged, feeling his ears redden. "Well, by then you were saying you just wanted to be partners, just wanted to learn the business. And I figured you'd realized I wasn't worth your time. I decided I was just lucky you were still my friend."

Isabelle stared over at him in sheer amazement; mind awhirl with the implications of everything he was revealing, "But you've hated having me around!" was all she could think of to say.

"No," he scowled, pushing a hand through his hair again in agitation, positive the beautiful former thief was going to laugh at this. "I hated that I'd made such an idiot of myself over Jenny when you were right there all along, standing beside me through thick and thin…. even shooting her to save my life. I hated," he concluded, "that you probably didn't want me any more because I'd blown it so badly. You even stopped propositioning me, after I betrayed everyone for Jenny. That proved it." She still didn't laugh, to his relief. Maybe he had a chance after all.

Wide-eyed and breathless, she stared at him. "But you're always picking on me!"

"Yeah." How could he answer that? He couldn't just say I think I love you. I think you're the one woman I could spend the rest of my life with, the one woman I could marry, build a house with a white picket fence, and have beautiful curly haired, fey-eyed babies with, you know? No, he couldn't say that. Not today, at least. "You scare the daylights out of me, Isabelle. So I give you a rough time."

She blinked. "I scare you?" she repeated incredulously. "Me?"

"Yeah, you." In for a penny, in for a pound. David squared his shoulders and explained, "You deserve so much more than what I am. You deserve someone who'll treat you like a princess, wrap you in luxury, give you the world on a silver platter. And when you're with me all you get is -" he gestured at her, and at the cabin they were in. "Endangered and battered, and stuck in a little schooner being chased by people who want to kill you."

This time she did laugh. Only it wasn't the derisive laugh he'd been expecting; it was Isabelle's full, rich throaty laughter of good-natured amusement. "But David," she smiled, mirth still gurgling up in her voice and eyes. "That's what I thrive on! I love a challenge, a thrill, and an adventure! You should know that about me by now!"

He digested that for a moment. "So…. maybe you're still interested in being with me?"

Wondering where this would lead, she nodded shyly. "Oh, yes, David."

His brow furrowed. "Then why did you stop - I mean -" he faltered, ears reddening again. Then he noticed she was blushing again, too.

"Well, actually… it's not that I stopped -er- wanting to be with you," she admitted more than a little uncomfortably, then smacked his shoulder for the sudden gleam in his green eyes. Doggedly she continued, voice dropping a little, "I just thought that you really didn't want me. I mean, I couldn't seem to do anything that held your attention. There was Lavinia, who is so much more beautiful, and Mrs. Blanchard came, then Veronica Gray, and you seemed taken with that American who had the weird brothers… and…" Isabelle looked away, voice dropping to a mere whisper of sound. "I have such a horrid past, and… all these scars."

David's jaw dropped and he grunted in shock as he realized what she meant. "You thought I didn't find you attractive any more? Isabelle, that's - that's -" He paused. Actually, he could see where that might have worried her, now that she had brought it up.

She'd gotten along pretty well by using her looks for most of her life: she'd once told him that everybody wanted sex. And she was well aware that David knew about her scars, which most men would not since her clothing hid nearly all of them. She thought those scars made a difference to David, that he no longer needed to resist her because he no longer found her alluring enough to be truly attracted to her, knowing her beauty was marred by those scars. She believed he was willing to flirt with her, but was uninterested in going further… because of her scars.

He knew only one way to reassure her about this. He leaned over and kissed her… once, and again… kissed her without trying to hide the way she affected him.

After a startled moment, her lips opened beneath his and she responded hungrily.

Mindful of her battered condition, David tried to be tender as he drew her close, but even so he felt her flinch when his arms brushed her back in his attempt to embrace her. They reluctantly broke off the heated kissed, both shaken to rediscover the depth of their response to one another. They stared into each other's eyes, bemused.

David recovered first, and gave her his best lopsided grin. "Mo calls you my girlfriend already, so… maybe we should see what happens?" he suggested huskily.

Isabelle smiled slowly. "Maybe we should."

"Good. Then I think you should get some sleep now, and let me get back to tending our ship so we can get home in one piece," he touched her nose lightly.

She frowned. "Oh, no, David, I want to be up on deck with you. I don't want to be alone down here if … " her voice trailed off. "I mean, if … Can't I come back up with you? I won't get in the way, I promise."

It was hard to resist such a look of entreaty, but he shook his head. "Isabelle, if something happens, I need you to be safely below deck, so I don't have to watch you as well as my own back. But I'll come down and check on you every now and then, okay?" he suggested as a compromise.

He watched her struggle to yield her will to his on this, and genuinely appreciated it when she nodded slowly. "Atta girl. Thank you, Isabelle. Do you want some help getting undressed?"

His tongue-in-cheek question had the desired effect of making her eyes light with laughter at his none-too-subtle teasing. "Actually," she admitted honestly, "I don't think I could manage it alone even if you hadn't just kissed me practically into heaven."

David deliberately puffed out his chest and grinned broadly, waggling his dark brows to make her laugh again. "I'll be at your feet forever, partner," he vowed dramatically, and suited action to his words, dropping to the deck in front of the bunk and proceeding to ease off her boots.

He took the time to do a quick check on the wounds on her calf and thigh as he helped her take off the jodhpurs, making sure the wounds on her shapely legs were still clean and healing well. Then he went to the wall cupboard that he and Mo had reserved for her use in their cabin, retrieved her nightgown for her, and helped her out of her blouse. Isabelle loosened her camisole, let it drop to her waist, and held onto the nightgown while he checked her back and shoulder. Although it seemed a bit like a moot point, she appreciated his tact and respect in providing her with the means to maintain a little modesty.

He helped her slip into the nightgown, then tucked her into his bunk with such tender solicitude that it made her eyes fill with tears. Of course, she didn't let them fall, but David saw them. "It's going to be all right, Isabelle, you'll see," he promised, thinking she was frightened again. He smoothed back her long thick hair, smiling reassuringly. "You leave the worrying to me and just rest. I want you to get well soon."

She nodded silently, willing to let him believe that was all it was. It was foolish to get so sentimental just because the handsome captain was being so considerate!

He brushed a warm kiss onto her forehead in a feather-light kiss, turned down the lantern, and, with one last smile, went back topside.

Isabelle lay quietly, feeling the way the Rattler was gliding along, hearing the creaks and splashes and groans of the schooner as she raced on through the night. Incredible that she hadn't caught on sooner. The ship had never felt quite like this before. David and the men had certainly done a fine job of distracting her today.

It seemed that Tah-mey and Ru liked her nearly as much as Lavinia, Colin, Clare, Jack, Mo and Lianni did, for them to go to all this trouble just to keep her from worrying. It was rather overwhelming to suddenly find that she was not only a successful business woman, with a family again for the first time in twenty years in her recently-found brother and his wife - now she even had real friends who thought well of her. Imagine Lavinia and Mo, David's closest friends, suggesting to him that he should be with her! Who would ever have thought, two years ago, that she would have such a potentially good future, instead of ending up in a penal colony!

She didn't mean to fall asleep, intending to stay awake to talk to David again . . . but when he came down to check on her, she was deeply and peacefully asleep.

David smiled, and went back up to work with Tah-mey so Ru could take a break and sleep.

Isabelle was still asleep three hours later when David checked again before having Tah-mey trade places with Ru to catch some sleep before dawn. He wanted both of them to have at least a bit of sleep before they tried the last leg of the trip home. The winds before dawn could be tricky.

***

Isabelle's eyes flew open as she realized the movement of the Rattler had changed.

A firm hand settled on her shoulder as her body tensed. "Shh," came a whisper. "David is sleeping." The shadowy figure had a familiar shape.

"Mauriri?" she whispered, confused.

"Yes, you're safe in port."

That was it; the Rattler wasn't running before the wind any longer!

Her eyes adjusted to the shadowed cabin, and she realized that someone, probably Mo, had covered the portholes to keep the daylight out so David could sleep. Across the cabin, she could see David dozing in Mo's bunk. "Safe?" she whispered as it sunk in what he'd just said.

"Yes, safe. David asked me to look after you if you woke before he did." She could hear the amusement in the big native's softly pitched voice.

Isabelle was glad for the low light, feeling her face heat. David must've been exhausted, but he'd still thought of providing for her before he let himself sleep!

"We never saw the pirates?" she whispered.

"No, not a sign of them, but Morlais took out a small fleet to look for them as soon as David filed his report this morning. They'll get them, don't worry," he assured her. "No one's too happy about the way they treated you, and the news about the massacre really fired up a crowd. Some of the local ship owners contributed their own ships and crews to join the hunt."

"That's good," she sighed, relaxing.

Mo nodded, grinning. "Honestly, you two are magnets for trouble! I let you make one trade run without me, and you have to go messing with the toughest bunch in the neighborhood," he teased softly. "You two definitely need a keeper."

She chuckled appreciatively, hesitated a moment, then whispered, "Mo, may I ask you a question?"

"Sure, Isabelle," he nodded.

"I had a dream - at least, I thought it was a dream, from last month in the ravine. I dreamed that I told you off about not being a good enough friend to David. Was that… real?" she asked uncertainly. "David said something last night that made me wonder."

Mauriri was intrigued. "Must have been an interesting discussion," he was carefully noncommittal, in case he was somehow misunderstanding what she meant.

"Yes, it was an interesting discussion. But I need to know, Mauriri. Did I… I mean," she swallowed, and tried again, "I hope, if it wasn't just a dream, that I didn't offend you."

The tall Tahitian's teeth flashed white in the shadows. "No, Isabelle," he said softly, affectionately, "You didn't offend me. Just talked good common sense to me, honest."

She groaned. "Then it was real! You and David weren't just a dream!"

David's best friend patted her shoulder, a brotherly, kindly gesture. "You didn't say anything you should worry about, Isabelle," he assured her, then spoiled it by adding, "Though I think you gave your Knight in Shining Armor over there quite a bit to think about."

Isabelle groaned again. "Oh, no!" she said faintly. David knew she thought of him as her hero?! Worse still – Mauriri knew it?! His next words confirmed her suspicion of what was in store now.

"Oh, yes. I've been having a lot of fun at his expense over that," Mo confessed humorously without remorse. "David, a knight in shining armor! You sure know how to pick 'em, Isabelle!"

She groaned yet a third time, accepting that she was now going to be subjected to Mo's teasing, too. "Shut up Mauriri. You're going to wake David."

The tall seaman chuckled softly at her attempt to divert his attention. "Oh, no, I don't think so. Tah-mey said David was up for about three days straight. Nothing short of a cannonball in his lap is going to wake David. Or," he added thoughtfully, teasing again, "Maybe you in his lap!"

From the other bunk, David growled sleepily, "Leave Isabelle alone, Mo! You're supposed to be looking after her, not harassing her!"

They both turned their heads toward the other bunk, startled. "Oh, sorry, buddy." Mauriri apologized promptly and sincerely, amazed that their quiet voices had awakened David when he must be so exhausted. David usually slept like a log after a long spell on deck, and this had been a whale of a trip.

Isabelle's small fist shot out and punched Mo's shoulder. "See? All it took was you to wake him up!" she chastised crossly, glad to have a way to change the conversation.

"Hey, you were talking, too!" he protested, rubbing his shoulder ruefully.

"Don't blame Isabelle. You started it," David muttered sleepily. "I heard you."

"Yeah, you started it," Isabelle echoed, delighted that she wasn't the one being ganged up on this time. Maybe this teasing was going to be fun after all.

"Uh-oh," Mo grunted, "I can see this new relationship of yours is going to be a pain."

"Oh shut up," David and Isabelle chorused together.

Mo threw up his hands in surrender. "Okay, okay," he laughed, "I give up! It was my fault!"

The other two nodded, and then David rolled over and went back to sleep.

Mauriri turned toward Isabelle once again. "Do you need anything?" he whispered.

"No, I'm fine, thank you. I'll just stay here with David a while, if that's okay."

"Sure. I'll be up on deck, then. Oh, and David sent a telegram to the doctor; he'll be over on the late sloop tonight to check on you, okay? I'll take you back to your place whenever you're ready, if you want to go before David wakes up again." The tall islander straightened up, and reached over to ruffle her hair with brotherly affection.

"Thank you, Mauriri."

"No, thank you, Isabelle. If you can remember that night last month after all, then you should also be aware that it's thanks to you that David and I mended our friendship. You're good for all of us, you know," he told her fondly, leaning down to add, "I'm glad you decided to settle in Matavai. You're a good friend to have." He whispered the words warmly, his own memory still quite vivid of this seemingly self-sufficient woman's wistful longing when she had spoken of the close friendship he and David shared.

Isabelle swallowed over a sudden lump in her throat. "So are you, Mo."

He inclined his head to her in a grinning bow, teeth flashing in the shadows again, then departed for the upper deck with barely a sound as his bare feet crossed the wood planks.

Isabelle rolled over carefully, mindful of her shoulder and back, to face the wall, and yielded to the happy tears that had filled her eyes at Mo's gentle, sincere words.

A moment later, David's strong arm encircled her as he lay down beside her and drew her slim body back against his lean length. "You okay?" he asked tenderly, kissing the side of her neck lightly.

"Yes," she sniffed, nestling cautiously against him without rolling back over to face him, glad that he and Mo had built generously-sized bunks in their cabin to accommodate their height and their muscular breadth. The bunks were perfect for holding two, if they were cuddled close together the way David was cuddling her now. "Just happy."

"Not going to turn into a watering pot on me, are you?" he drawled lazily, waiting for her to find a position where her injuries weren't further aggravated by his proximity so he could safely relax with one arm draped over her slim waist.

"No," she gave him a soft jab in the ribs for his teasing, making him grin.

"Good, can't stand women who cry over nothing. Mind if I hold you a while?"

"Not at all," she gave one last little sniff, rubbed away a stray tear, and closed her eyes with a contented sigh, having settled into the least painful position she could find. The warmth of David's body was already soothing the pain on her back and the soreness of her abused limbs.

They both drifted off to sleep, spooned comfortably together.

Several hours later Mauriri came down to let them know that Morlais and his cruisers had returned. But Mo took one long look at David with Isabelle curled up in his arms, and decided not to wake them. He could tell them the news later, when they woke up.

They had plenty of time now.

Morlais had found Pitcairn and Sommers, along with their angry and rebellious crew, only about an hour's sail out from Matavai. The men who had been the dreaded scourge of the South Seas had been rowing very unhappily in their long boats, arguing vehemently with one another. When they realized Morlais and his fleet had found them, the sailors were actually glad to be picked up, just to get away from Pitcairn and Sommers.

The waterlogged and weary crew had been headed for a nearby island after their captains had managed to sink their ship while traversing a dangerous passage at unsafe speeds to try to catch up to the Rattler. Morlais had brought the whole bunch back in chains, and told Mauriri in amusement that Pitcairn and Sommers had been at each other's throats the entire trip back to Tahiti.

It seemed that Sommers hadn't been willing to believe Pitcairn when he claimed he'd spotted the Rattler running before the wind with more sail on her than any schooner should have been able to handle. Pitcairn blamed Sommers' insistence on seeing for himself before he would believe it, and the temporary distraction this had caused as they argued over the telescope through which they had caught sight of the Rattler ahead of them, for causing the wreck of their own ship on that reef.

The pirate smugglers had been close, far too close to catching David and Isabelle for Mauriri's peace of mind. It had nearly been a fatal trip for the Matavai-based schooner.

If the Rattler hadn't been in such tip-top shape, thanks to the paces David had been putting Isabelle through as he "taught" her the basics of sailing - If the slender brunette hadn't insisted both men should continue to tutor her in the art of sailing even as she recovered from being tossed into that ravine last month - If they hadn't set her to mending all those sails to keep her from overexerting herself before she was completely healed - If the Rattler weren't such a stalwart vessel - If even one contrary wave or wind had struck the ship and its sails wrong! It just didn't bear thinking of!

No, Mo didn't want to test the masts with such a heavy load of sail running before the wind like that for such a long period of time, ever again! What David had accomplished was little short of miraculous, managing those extra sheets as he had without snapping the masts into pieces. They just couldn't get that lucky more than once!

Mo turned to go back topside, then paused and glanced back at the sleeping couple once more. He looked thoughtfully around the cabin that David and Isabelle had been taking turns using since she'd begun to sail with the Rattler. It had been fine for David and Mauriri to share this cabin during their partnership, and fine for David and Isabelle to share since one of them was always on deck while the other slept. But they'd all realized that with Isabelle's recovery, it would no longer work. Taking turns using the two bunks when all three of them were sailing on the same trade runs would wear thin quickly, not to mention that it could be awkward. They'd agreed to a plan to add a third bunk and a partition here in the Rattler's only cabin so Isabelle could have a modicum of privacy.

But the way things were looking right now, he was pretty sure it wouldn't be necessary to add that third bunk to the Captain's cabin after all. If Mo could drag his feet long enough, they could make an extra payment instead of wasting the money on that unnecessary bunk, and then they'd be that much closer to owning the Rattler free and clear.

***

Note: Not quite the end . . . More like a new beginning.