Heroes: An Epilogue to Fire In The Sky
Summary: Roxton and Marguerite discuss the individuals who inspired them and changed their lives.
Disclaimer: "The Lost World" belongs to the Estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the television show on which this fanfiction is based is the property of Coote/Hayes, The Over the Hill Gang, New Line Television, et al. Copyright for these characters belongs to them, not to this ficscribbler.
Spoilers: General details throughout the series, but specifically: Season 3, Episode 6 "Fire In The Sky" (and) Season 2, Episode 18 "Survivors"
Darkness had settled over the jungle several hours ago. The daylight predators had sought out their dens or nests and bedded down to rest, the land quieting deceptively even as the nighttime hunters began to emerge from their lairs in search of sustenance. The sun had set long enough ago that the day's oppressive heat had eased, but the moon had yet to rise, leaving the unwary vulnerable to attack.
The group of weary travelers had too much experience to take the relative silence for granted. They were still a long way from home. Their camp had been chosen for the best possible defense against whatever carnivorous creatures might populate this part of the plateau, and when they'd spread their blankets and lay down around their campfire, each of them tucked at least one weapon close at hand. Moreover, one person paced the perimeter just outside the circle of light cast by the crackling flames, standing guard over the others as they succumbed to well-earned slumber.
Once they were all asleep, Lord John Roxton paused and leaned against a handy tree trunk, the stock of his rifle braced against his leg, his fingers resting lightly against the firing mechanism. The world-renowned hunter had been in danger so often over so many years that it was second nature to be ready to react if a threat should appear; his subconscious remained on the alert even while he allowed his thoughts to wander to the events of the past few days.
This latest adventure had been filled with the usual peculiar happenings that cropped up on the Plateau: a rescue mission undertaken in hostile territory; Norsemen with their queen held captive to blackmail their princess into marriage; the unnerving discovery that plesiosaurs didn't only live in the saltwater of the Inland Sea, but could be found far up a fresh water river; an encounter with an old acquaintance-turned-enemy who was trying to take over the world; and to top it all off, the sight of that meteor striking the upraised barrel of gunpowder that Rice had been threatening him with, well, that had been bizarre, to say the least. All in all, it had been a draining week, both physically and emotionally.
He'd told his concerned friends that he was fine. And he was, basically, particularly now that it was over. But he'd been wholly unprepared to hear the name Pierson Rice again, let alone to suddenly come face to face with the darkest days of his past.
It had been a shock – still was a shock, truth be told – to discover his geographic proximity to the man he'd once idolized as the epitome of manhood. For years after Roxton had realized how hideously mistaken his admiration was, he'd devoted meticulous attention to ensuring that there was as much physical distance as possible between himself and Pierson Rice. When Rice led a safari in Africa, his former protégé undertook a hunt in the American wild west. If Rice organized a party to explore the vast Asian tropics, Roxton ventured to South America's jungles. The older man's propensity for boastfully publicizing his every move had made it easy to know where not to be. Roxton hadn't relaxed his vigilance until a decade ago when he'd finally heard that the man had disappeared on a venture into the Peruvian wilderness.
The discovery this week that Rice was here, had been here on this same remote South American plateau on which Roxton had been trapped these past few years, was the last thing he expected when his attention had been caught by those bright flashes of light while he was fixing the leaking pipes at the treehouse.
He'd stepped out to the balcony to write down the Morse mirror message from their three housemates, momentarily leaving the repairs to the shower incomplete – and then utterly forgot everything else in the morass of memories stirred by the name in the decoded message. The news that their friends were headed into the Hagan section of the plateau had been concerning enough – Veronica had warned him not to trespass there while hunting, lest he run afoul of the community's fierce protectiveness of their territory and dislike of strangers. She so rarely disregarded her own rules that he'd instantly known he'd follow the trio to provide backup, which of course meant subjecting Marguerite to a long and difficult trek to catch up to their friends – a challenge in and of itself, since she was bound to resist.
But had truly stunned him was the fact that Challenger, Malone and Veronica were taking this risk in order to help Pierson Rice, of all people! He'd been so shocked at the despised name that it was only now, four long days after George's remarkable mirror message, as he reviewed that moment when he'd stumbled numbly from the balcony back into the treehouse, that he remembered how Marguerite had come looking for him.
Before this week, if anyone had told him that he'd be in the presence of a practically-naked Marguerite Krux without stealing at least one kiss, he'd have thought that person was insane. Yet that was exactly what had happened. The hunter's lips quirked upward as he deliberately rebuilt the memory of the way his annoyed housemate had marched into view. She'd been dripping wet and as naked as the day of her birth – well, except for a towel she clutched semi-securely around herself. Gripping the ends at her breast to hold the material closed, she'd imperiously demanded an explanation for his inexplicable failure to fix the hot water. He had a vague recollection of a complaint about not being able to finish rinsing shampoo from her hair. Her skin had still been glistening wet, hadn't it? If only he'd paid closer attention!
Ordinarily, Roxton wouldn't have passed up such an opportunity to ogle and tease the beautiful woman with whom he'd flirted for nearly three years. They'd been alone at the treehouse. It would've been the perfect chance to pursue a more intimate relationship with the elusive Miss Krux, if he'd been in his right mind. It was even possible that it was what Marguerite had in mind when she'd come searching for him without bothering to dry off or even slip on a robe first – an intriguing thought indeed!
But the concept hadn't even crossed his mind back then. Lost in painful memories, instead of seizing the moment and kissing her as he would've done at any other time, he'd confided the whole sordid tale to his lovely companion. He'd told her about his idiotic youthful devotion to Pierson Rice, the desperate rifle shot he'd attempted under Rice's goading, his bewilderment and then his belated disgust with the egotistical monster who'd expected him to be excited and proud – proud! – about the accuracy of the shot that killed the wild beast attacking his brother, not merely regardless of the fact that the same shot had taken William's life, but actually because of it! Rice had made no secret of the fact that he considered it a double coup for his young protégé's marksmanship to earn him both a fine trophy and the family title.
Roxton shifted uncomfortably, once again staving off the despairing memory of his older brother dying in his arms. He deliberately looked towards the camp, where his gaze instinctively settled on the dark-haired woman currently curled on her side on the far side of the fire from where he'd paused in the undergrowth.
He couldn't help but smile admiringly at the sight of her slender form as he acknowledged to himself that he'd much rather think about Marguerite than to dwell on a fraud like Rice.
Fraud… that was a word he'd once associated with the mercurial dark-haired beauty, back before he'd come to know her better. He'd always suspected there was more to her, but it had taken a while to figure out that instead of her behavior concealing a baser character of which he should be wary, she was actually hiding her better nature. He still hadn't found a reason to explain her doing such a thing, but one of these days he'd figure out why she deliberately cultivated a reputation so at odds with who she really was.
She might choose to seem selfish and shallow much of the time, but Marguerite had proven herself to be an amazingly sympathetic listener in this instance, as she had on several memorable earlier instances. He smiled wryly as he remembered her indignation on behalf of the younger, terribly naïve boy he'd once been, and her quick, tender defense of his actions, her firm reminder that his brother's death had been an accident, not a premeditated act for which he should hold himself to blame. Unlike so many people in the days after the tragedy, Marguerite refused to even consider whether it had been a genuine catastrophe or whether he'd merely jumped at the chance to take William's rightful place as heir to the Roxton title and estates. Although she'd once accused him of being his brother's killer, it had only been to drive him away so she could protect herself from his probing questions. She'd apologized for her words later that very same day, and made it clear that he bore no guilt in her eyes.
It was a measure of Marguerite's true character that despite the many times since then that he'd provoked her wrath or indignation by riding roughshod over her feelings, unfairly attacking her motives, or outright insulting her, she'd never again thrown William's death in his face. Instead, every time the fiasco in Kenya had come up again, she'd staunchly insisted that he was innocent of treachery.
Why hadn't he noticed it before now?
This latest time, her unequivocal belief in him had been balm to his aching soul. Roxton couldn't help but smile again as he considered her quiet support once she'd realized that he had no intention of ignoring the message from their fellow explorers. Rice had wronged him in the past, but it wasn't in John Roxton's nature to turn his back on any man that might be in danger, not even a blowhard like Pierson Rice. Nor could he allow his housemates to venture into Hagan territory without backing them up. It had been easy enough to see that Marguerite hadn't liked the idea of endangering themselves to offer assistance to such a man, but she hadn't argued with him once he'd declared that he was going.
Surprising him yet again, although he wasn't sure why, since he'd learned that she was intensely loyal to her friends despite what she might say – or the disagreeable tone with which she might say it – she'd simply set about making preparations for their upriver trip to join their friends. She'd been at his side every step of the way, without any dawdling or complaining, despite the nerve-wracking journey to reach the Hagan village in the shortest time possible. She'd kept up with him on their double-paced hike to the Zanga village to borrow the canoe that enabled faster travel than crossing land; she'd done her fair share of the upriver paddling; she'd made no complaints about their unfortunate dip in the river after their startling run-in with the plesiosaurus overturned the canoe; she hadn't protested when he'd initiated their risky ambush of the Hagan patrol; she'd boldly acted as rearguard for his brash march through the Hagan city and right up to Rice's front door.
In fact, Marguerite's behavior was the single most peculiar facet of the whole Rice-Hagan debacle. Throughout their travel, right on through their confrontation, capture and taunting by Rice, and until the conclusion of his final altercation with the power-hungry madman under the meteor-lit sky, he'd known that the ingenious and formidable Marguerite Krux was backing him, one hundred and ten percent.
Now that there was time to think about it, Marguerite had been unusually open about her allegiance to him these past few days. It was this puzzling fact that held his attention now.
From the first time he'd met her, the mysterious and mercenary widow had used her beauty to gain an advantage whenever they'd been threatened. He'd been witness as she plied her wiles against numerous men with whom they'd crossed paths in this Lost World, from the cold-blooded ones like Tribune to the respectable types like Winston Churchill himself, sometimes with such subtlety that her victims never knew what hit them, sometimes with utter brazenness while she waited for the right moment to strike. Her vamping almost always resulted in notable success. The fact that she so often separated herself from the group and used her beauty as she did annoyed the daylights out of him. In his not-inconsiderable experience, it was much safer for a group to act as a single unit than for its members to individually tackle a situation, so he'd frequently taken her to task for the risks she undertook.
Not that she paid attention. Marguerite either rolled her eyes at his disapproval or pointedly ignored him. On the rare occasions when she bothered to defend her actions, she did so tersely and succinctly. He'd couldn't recall actually admitting it to her, but he always ended up seeing the logic to her reasoning. Over the last several years he'd come to realize that sensuality and deception were simply weapons in her arsenal, a means to protect herself and, by extension, her friends. Once he'd concluded that she wasn't abandoning or betraying the group in order to look after her own interests, he'd even developed a grudging respect for her various skills. He still didn't like it much when she flirted with other men or abandoned her companions whenever there might be an advantage to changing sides… but he'd learned to see it for what it was and to anticipate it whenever they appeared to be outgunned.
However, she hadn't acted as he'd expected this time. No, instead of playing up to Pierson Rice when he'd complimented her beauty and spirit, she'd scornfully rejected the would-be king. There'd been no double-entendre-filled chitchat, no coy glances from beneath her lovely lashes, no purring tone of voice, and no alluring posturing. Instead of employing her usual femme fatale façade, Marguerite immediately, publicly and unequivocally spurned Rice's advances.
Roxton's brow creased as he stared across the campsite at the now-slumbering woman and considered her inexplicable behavior of two days ago. While it had been more than a little gratifying to witness her snub of Rice, her behavior toward their power-mad captor still had him mystified. It made no sense!
Even though his stomach had turned at Rice's flattering remarks to her – not that he disagreed with the man's assessment of Marguerite, but it was sickening to think of Rice laying a hand on her – Roxton had been braced to endure the sight of Marguerite capitalizing on the man's vanity and waltzing away on his arm while plotting a way to benefit the rest of the explorers. But in place of her usual tactics, she'd coolly insulted the bombastic egomaniac and, naturally enough after such an imprudent act, ended up tied back-to-back with her fellow prisoner, perched on a powder keg and subjected to the taunts and abuse of Rice and his henchmen. Her outspoken rebuff of Rice's admittedly-pompous admiration had been a sure-fire guarantee of this outcome.
She must've known that she was sealing her own fate with her disdain of the man who held their lives in his hands. Such a self-destructive act by the wily Marguerite Krux was unthinkable! Yet he'd seen it with his own eyes. It was totally inconsistent with her previous conduct.
Why in the world had she done such a thing?
Suddenly aware that he'd been standing still for far too long, he abruptly resumed his progress around the camp perimeter. While he continued to puzzle over Marguerite's possible motives, he automatically scanned the shadowy underbrush, analyzing the sounds and smells around him for anything other than the foliage that was stirred by the evening breeze. The hunter paused beside a thick palm trunk and listened from that vantage point, but if there was a predator stalking them he was missing it, just as he was missing the motive for Marguerite's weird -
He jumped and blinked. Marguerite was standing right beside him. Suspecting for a moment that his thoughts had conjured a vision of her, he glanced over her shoulder to confirm that she was still safely asleep on her blanket at the fireside. Her blanket was there. She wasn't. It really was Marguerite! Now how had she moved from the fireside to here without his noticing?
Her hand on his forearm drew his attention back to the woman now frowning up at him in the flickering shadows. "Roxton, are you all right?"
"Me? Sure," he nodded, surprised at the question. "What are you doing up? You only slept a few hours last night, and you should be exhausted after the way we walked straight through the night before that."
She shrugged. "You walked all through that night right along with me. And you couldn't have slept any more last night than I did, what with the Hagans celebrating so loudly right outside our guest quarters."
"Yes, but if I wasn't standing first watch I'd be over there by the fire, catching up on that lost sleep. The second watch isn't due for at least another couple hours, and you don't have to be up until the third watch. So why aren't you still over there sleeping with the others?" He didn't bother to ask how she'd joined him so quietly; obviously he was off his game… and she'd never tell him, anyway.
She shrugged again, a smile playing about her lips. "Actually, it's your fault I'm missing my beauty rest, Lord Roxton."
He quirked a brow, amused and intrigued. Honestly, he never knew what she'd say next. "My fault," he repeated. "Okay, this I have to hear. Do tell, Miss Krux; exactly how is it my fault that you're not sound asleep right now?"
She shook her head, tutting at him before she said, in a tone that clearly informed him she thought it was obvious, "When you're on watch, you always circle the campsite."
He waited. She folded her arms and met his gaze without another word. After a long moment of him staring at her and her staring right back in absolute silence, he asked, "That's it? That's all you're going to say?"
Her silver-green eyes twinkled up at him as she teased with a smirk, "No, I just wanted to be certain I had your attention this time, Lord Roxton. Are you sure you're feeling all right? You let me sneak up on you just now. And that's after you toddled around in as absent-minded a circuit as I've ever witnessed, instead of the perfectly thorough pattern you usually maintain when you're on duty. Maybe I should take over this watch for you and let you get some rest. I'd hate us to be dinosaur fodder because you were napping on your feet out here."
It took him a moment to pick the pertinent facts from amongst the extra verbiage with which she'd camouflaged her answer. "That's what woke you? The fact that I walked an irregular path around the campsite?"
She snorted in amused derision. "How in the world would the path you choose to walk possibly wake me from a sound sleep?" she scoffed, as if he'd totally missed her point.
But he wasn't buying it. "Oh come on, Marguerite; you're one of the lightest sleepers I've ever observed," he retorted, having long ago noticed her quick response time on those occasions when their camps had been threatened.
She frowned at him and scolded, "I'm not a light sleeper when it's you standing watch, John." She paused before adding pointedly, "At least, not when you're attention is where it should be."
He stared at her a moment as he realized the implication. If she usually slept better when it was his turn on guard, didn't that mean that she trusted him? Before he could completely process this encouraging thought, she was continuing and her words turned his thoughts in an entirely different direction.
"You're not still worrying about what happened with William, are you?" Her hand settled on his forearm again as she assured him earnestly, "Even Rice knew that you genuinely mourned William and that you didn't cause or use his death to advance your own status. He went out of his way to tell you so, although," her lip curled in distaste at the memory, "he certainly didn't intend to reassure you when he said it."
Hmm. He hadn't thought of Rice's mockery from that viewpoint before. She was right; Rice had indeed acknowledged the fact that John hadn't taken advantage of his brother's accidental death. Of course Rice had criticized this as a failing, not stated it as a positive fact the way Marguerite just had. More important to Roxton than Rice's statements, though, was the idea that this was why she'd risen to join him tonight. When she'd noticed his unusual behavior – something he fully intended to think more about later – she'd thought it was because he was struggling with memories of his brother's death. She'd set aside a chance for much-needed sleep to comfort him.
"I must say, you were absolutely right about that man," she continued, unaware that she was inadvertently revealing her true regard for him. Marguerite shifted gracefully to his left side, where she casually leaned her shoulder against the tree beside him and folded her arms across her chest. "Bombastic, you said when you were describing him to me. That's quite an understatement."
He grimaced. "Yes, although he was even worse now that when I first met him." Appreciatively, he noticed that her change of position brought her closer to him while leaving his right side free. In this new location she could continue to talk with him without hindering his ability to swing the rifle into action if necessary. Practical, subtle, and nicely done, as usual with Marguerite. "I can't believe I ever thought Rice was worth my time."
Curiously, but a little hesitant lest she stir more unpleasant memories, Marguerite ventured, "He didn't strike me as the kind of person you would ever admire, John. What was it about Rice that made you aspire to be like him?"
Now it was his turn to shrug. He'd asked himself the same thing for years. "There's no way I can justify it, other than to say I was young and foolish. The newspaper reports of his exploits and the stories told in the clubs made it sound as if he was a grand hero. His skills as a hunter and explorer were the stuff of legends. He built his reputation with a series of adventures around the world in service of the Empire, followed up by several successful safaris. When William and I had the opportunity to join him in Kenya, I thought I would be meeting the modern day equivalent of a Knight of the Round Table." Roxton smiled derisively at his own culpability. "William saw through him much more quickly than I. It took Rice's behavior after William's death for me to realize there was nothing heroic about the man. The way he sensationalized everything for his own profit and reputation was sickening."
"Ah, so what you truly aspired to be wasn't Pierson Rice, but a Knight of the Round Table?" Amused, she gently nudged his arm with her elbow. "Now why doesn't that surprise me?"
He couldn't help chuckling. "Very funny, Marguerite. It's no more than the truth, though. I'd much rather be a knight in shining armor than be anything like Pierson Rice."
The brunette nodded, still smiling. "Well, you're not the first person to discover that the hero he aspires to be has ended up having feet of clay."
"Yes, you would understand that, wouldn't you?" he replied, absently twisting his family ring as her consoling remark provoked an associated train of thought. "I suppose it was much the same for you with Adrienne."
That wiped away her smile, and she stiffened. "I beg your pardon?"
Her warm tone had dropped into an icy range that instantly alerted him to a misstep. What had he said? Oh no; he hadn't really said that out loud, had he? One look into her frosty gaze told him he had indeed spoken without thinking through the ramifications – not that he hadn't wanted to talk with her about this… eventually… but the moment should have been chosen with more care. Marguerite never liked to speak of her past. The middle of the night after several days of too much intense physical activity and too many emotional pitfalls combined with too little sleep was far from an ideal time to bring up anything like this. Still, now that he'd blundered into it there was little choice but to continue. "I said -"
"I heard what you said," Marguerite interrupted flatly, glaring up at him. "How dare you imply that Adrienne had some kind of flawed character? She was nothing like Pierson Rice. You've never met her; you don't know the first thing about her. She was totally different than that – that – that thing that took on her appearance last year. She was my friend!"
Lord Roxton stepped around to face her as he nodded and held up a placating hand, surprised at the fierceness of her reaction. It was as if she'd never thought about this before! "I'm not saying she wasn't your friend, Marguerite."
Hands on her shapely hips, the fuming woman retorted, "Well, good! Because Adrienne was my best and only friend during a very difficult time in my life, Roxton, and I resent you implying that she had 'feet of clay' like that posturing idiot Rice!"
He frowned, taken aback at the sincerity of her ire. The hunter had become fairly adept at recognizing one of her prevarications, and he'd have bet his last pound that this wasn't one of them. The truth about Adrienne was so obvious to him; how could someone as habitually cynical as Marguerite not see it, too?
"Well? Explain yourself! What on earth would make you say such a thing about someone you don't even know?" she demanded indignantly.
He blinked as he was blindsided by a sudden thought. It seemed farfetched… but was it possible that the suspicion with which Marguerite had regarded her faux-friend last year had been solely because she knew the woman was an imposter? Back then he hadn't found her caustic comments out of character; she often spoke of each of her current friends, their housemates, in the same acerbic way, didn't she? But now he wondered if he hadn't missed something. He was accustomed to Marguerite's distrust of others and had assumed she would've regarded Adrienne with the same reserve she'd exhibited in the last few years, but what if she hadn't habitually held herself aloof from others back when she'd known Adrienne? What if she'd been so perturbed by the fake Adrienne simply because the spirit-copy was unlike the friend she'd completely trusted? And what if she'd never been disillusioned about Adrienne?
She'd been young when they met, probably very much alone, so she'd have valued their friendship all the more. And their separation hadn't been by choice; the other woman had been forcibly removed from her life while they'd been working together to survive. It was entirely possible that Marguerite had never considered Adrienne from the angle Roxton had pondered since meeting the doppelganger last year.
"I'm waiting," Marguerite tersely reminded him, one booted foot tapping impatiently.
"Alright, alright," he answered quickly. "Just let me gather my thoughts a moment, and I'll explain."
Lips tightly compressed, she nodded once. "All right. But this had better be good, Roxton."
The man reputed to be one of the best of the up-and-coming speakers in the House of Lords knew it was imperative to provide clear clarification of his viewpoint. He couldn't voice his opinion of Adrienne by comparing her to Rice, in case Marguerite really hadn't arrived at the same conclusion of the woman for herself. He needed to alter his approach in a manner that allowed him to make his point but left room for some kind of positive interpretation, something that would give Marguerite the opportunity to continue considering the other woman as her friend. He'd have to walk a very fine line here…
"I'm still waiting," Marguerite prompted sternly.
He took a deep breath. "Well, I've thought about this a lot since you and Challenger made it out of that temple alive. You haven't told me all that much about the real Adrienne, but after seeing the spirit-version of her – notice I didn't say meeting her, because I know that thing wasn't really Adrienne and she didn't behave like your friend, but merely looked like her – as I said, from seeing her and then hearing what you said about her, well, it left me with some questions."
She waited stonily, her eyes glittering at him in the moonlight.
"You said she looked exactly as she did twelve years before, when you knew her in Paris. Right?" At her brief nod he continued, "Well, she looked to be roughly the same age you are now. Is that right?" Another curt nod. "If she was about the same age you are now when you met her twelve years ago, that means you would've been about a decade younger than her, in your early twenties at the most, while she'd have been in her late twenties, maybe even her early thirties back when you two met. Right?"
She sighed in exasperation. "Yes, Roxton, that's right," she said through gritted teeth. "What does our age difference have to do with anything? We're both friends with George and with Arthur, and there's far more of an age gap there. Age has nothing to do with the quality of a friendship."
"I agree. I'm just sketching the situation. From what I've gathered about your past, you were pretty much on your own back then," he spoke softly, knowing that he was treading on shaky ground. "It was quite a piece of luck that Adrienne became your friend, don't you think?"
"Yes, that's exactly what I think," she said frostily. "And there's nothing you could possibly say that would make me think otherwise."
There was that unmistakable sincerity again. Well, that pretty well confirmed that she had no idea what he was about to say. No matter how he expressed it now, it was going to hurt her. He cursed his wayward tongue for getting himself into this; the last thing he'd wanted to do was cause her any pain, especially when she'd spent the last several days demonstrating such steadfast friendship for him. Trying to buy a little more time, he said softly, "Bear with me, Marguerite."
"That's all I ever do, is bear with you," she growled beneath her breath, but she waited.
He moved on to the next aspect of the situation that he wanted her to consider. "You told me that the two of you worked in a nightclub together. That environment is nearly as competitive and cut-throat as the Marriage Mart." Roxton smiled, hoping his comparison of the entertainment industry to the aristocrat business of making advantageous marriages would lighten the mood a little, but her frown only deepened. He cleared his throat and continued, discreetly bracing himself for the possibility that she'd take a swing at him for what he had to say next. "Yes. Well, it crossed my mind to wonder why Adrienne would make friends with a competitor, especially one who was younger and prettier."
She rolled her eyes and scoffed, "Don't be ridiculous, Roxton. What you saw last year was visually accurate; she was a very beautiful woman. Adrienne was also a graceful and talented performer, and she charmed everyone she met. Men fell over themselves to win her attention. I was no threat to her."
"You underestimate yourself, Marguerite," he persisted, relieved that she was still listening instead of lashing out at him. "You were a novice back then, but knowing what you now know about performers, considering how fickle male admirers can be, how susceptible men are to a fresh, beautiful newcomer, isn't it likely that Adrienne would have had cause to worry?" Before she could do more than open her mouth to retort, he added, "But if she hitched herself to the rising star of a younger, much greener performer like you must have been, made herself your closest friend, possibly even your mentor…?"
Marguerite's mouth snapped closed, and he was almost sorry to see by her arrested expression that this was a concept she recognized as valid. Blast! He was going to have to be silver-tongued to accomplish any kind of damage control!
"Mightn't you have done the same in her place?" Roxton reasoned it out, careful to phrase it as a course of action worth considering, rather than making accusations against the woman she'd counted as a friend. "For instance, if you were doing well on stage, if you were the reigning Belle of the ball, and a brand new girl with talent comes along and garners attention, you'd see that she's got what it takes to become the next petted favorite. Mightn't you have recognized that younger girl's loneliness and longing for a friend, as well as her natural awe of another woman with a proven popularity among the patrons? Wouldn't it make sense to become her friend so that you could benefit from being associated with someone who was destined to be the new shining star? Wouldn't it be logical to act as her mentor to ensure that you were still in the loop, to make yourself an indispensible part of the package even if it was the new girl that the management or the patrons wanted? Invite the younger girl to become your confidante and friend so that her success was, by extension, your success?"
Her eyes had widened as he quietly voiced his questions. "No… She wouldn't have…" she whispered.
But he could see her analyzing it even as she denied it, and knew she'd reach the same conclusions he'd drawn. The truth was inescapable. There had only been two choices for Adrienne; act as Marguerite's enemy and do her utmost to sabotage her budding career, or become her friend and combine forces to prolong her own success. Adrienne had chosen the latter, and had used the younger girl's talent and loyalty to prepare a transition to a life beyond performing.
Not wanting to let Marguerite linger on this realization, he redirected her thoughts to his conclusion: "If you two hadn't been separated the way you were, if you'd managed to scrape through that double-cross she pulled, the one that caused her to be taken away before your plans were completed… Well, if you could have had more time together, I suspect your friendship wouldn't have lasted."
Marguerite nodded slowly. "You could be right." There was an odd hollow quality to her tone, and she turned her face away when he ducked his head to peer more closely at her through the shadows. But he saw the slight slump of her shoulders and the flash of pained betrayal she quickly banished from her expression.
Determined to be there for her as she'd been for him, even though he was the indirect cause of her distress, he tucked two fingers beneath her chin and turned her face back to him. She avoided his gaze as he thought through a way to make it up to her, something that might give her some reason to re-establish the value of her time with Adrienne if he phrased it correctly. "I'm sorry, Marguerite. I never meant to taint the memory of someone who proved herself a friend to you."
Her gaze flew to his. "But you said –"
He pressed a contrite kiss to her forehead before settling one hand on her shoulder and smiled down at her. "I still think she took advantage of you, and I also think that if you'd had more time with her you would have grown apart. But there's no way Adrienne could've faked the entire friendship. You're too bright to have been fooled for long if Adrienne hadn't genuinely liked you. Also, she told you to get away from Paris, didn't she? She could've simply named you as her accomplice and turned over the stolen property in exchange for leniency, but she didn't. She may have had shaky motives at the start, but she protected you, so she must have cared about you. At least in that respect, she behaved heroically toward you. That's far more than we can say about Rice. He used me to glorify himself and then fed me to the dogs." It was true enough, and it was the best he could offer. Thoughtfully he added, "The bottom line is that our encounters with our past heroes taught us things about ourselves that have played an important part of who we've each become, don't you think?"
Marguerite smiled, but it was more bitter than humorous. "Somehow I think you learned better lessons than I did, John."
"Perhaps." He braced himself with one hand against the rough bark above her head and leaned closer. "After you told me about Adrienne I was sure it was her that started you out on a questionable and dangerous life path. Seduction, subterfuge and thievery may have helped to keep you alive, but they're not the right habits to cultivate if you want to have a better quality of life. However, while I suspected it was Adrienne who taught you quite a few of the tricks I've objected to over the last couple years, I also believe that you wouldn't be the strong woman you are today if she hadn't taken you under her wing, whatever her reasons. What she taught you enabled you to survive, didn't it?"
She considered that for a long moment before she smiled briefly. "Probably."
"Well then, you chose a better hero than I did." He grinned and brushed her long curls back over her shoulder. "Whatever Adrienne's reasons, Marguerite, I'm thankful that she extended a hand of friendship to you. She proved herself of immeasurable value in your life." It was only a little white lie; he'd carefully not said whether he considered that value to be positive or negative, hoping she'd interpret it as positive.
Marguerite was silent a few moments longer as she mulled over everything he'd said. When she looked up again, her smile was warmer. Adrienne might not have been all she'd thought she was, but as John had taken pains to point out, at least there'd been merit in their friendship. She was well aware that he'd gone out of his way to make the uncomfortable revelations more palatable for her. "Thank you," she said softly, eyes shining up at him.
"My pleasure." He pressed another light kiss to her forehead, and decided to change the topic while he was ahead. "Now about Pierson Rice…"
She made a face. "You can't have learned anything of value from that man, John."
"On the contrary, I learned that there were more important things in life than trophies and fame. I also learned how damaging gossip can be, and not to believe everything I read in the papers." He cleared his throat and bent his head a little to look her right in the eye. "But that wasn't what I wanted to discuss."
Marguerite sighed, easily recognizing the stern tone he often adopted when he intended to take her to task about something. She squared her shoulders and faced him. "What have I done wrong now?"
Brow creased in a deep frown, he scolded, "You ignored everything Adrienne taught you when you told Rice off like you did yesterday. You humiliated him and left him no choice but to kill you! What did you think you were doing?"
"What?" Her jaw dropped in astonished disbelief. "You're always biting my head off for flirting with the maniacs we bump into on this plateau, and now you're annoyed because I didn't?" The brunette threw up her hands in exasperation. "I can't win with you, can I?"
"That's beside the point! You'd have been safe, Marguerite!" he pointed out, voice rising. "You could have had him wrapped around your little finger, just like you've done with every other red-blooded man who's crossed your path – including immortal giants and Tribune, who doesn't even have red blood! But you didn't so much as bat your eyelashes at Rice!"
Incensed, she jabbed a finger into his chest and ground out between clenched teeth, "If you think there's any way on God's green earth that I'd pander to that louse's overinflated ego after what he put you through, then you're a certifiable idiot, John Richard Roxton!"
"I was prepared to see you flirt with him! I was not prepared – and never will be prepared – to watch you throw your life away without doing everything in your considerable power to stay alive, whether your antics make me uncomfortable or not!" He was practically shouting as his own index finger prodded her shoulder for emphasis.
Marguerite stamped her foot and glared up at him, her hands fisted on her hips. "How magnanimous of you! Did it ever occur to you that there may be depths to which even I will not descend, regardless of whether it costs me my life? Kowtowing to Pierson Rice happens to fall into that category!"
"Why should ingratiating yourself to him be any different?" Roxton demanded furiously.
"Because of –" she broke off abruptly and stared up at him, wide-eyed.
"What? Because of what?" he roared.
Her mouth snapped closed, and she crossed her arms and looked down.
"I want an answer, Marguerite Krux," he persisted, grasping her chin and forcing her face up again. To his dismay, her eyes shimmered with unshed tears. His anger melted away. "Marguerite?"
She sniffled and swiped at a droplet that escaped to trickle down her cheek. "You're an oaf, Roxton," she said resentfully. Her gaze flitted away from his toward the camp. "And you're lucky you haven't woken everyone else with all this ridiculous caterwauling."
"Marguerite," he whispered penitently. "I'm sorry." If he could only make her understand! "I didn't mean to yell at you. But I need to know you're going to fight for your life with any and every weapon available to you the next time something like this happens." He tried to smile, but didn't quite make it. "You know how much I value your sense of self-preservation. You sure weren't using it back in the Hagan village."
She met his gaze again, briefly, only long enough to register the genuine concern in his dark eyes before she shifted her focus to the tree beside them. She wiped away another traitorous tear, blinked the others back, and, right as he began to think he wasn't going to get an answer, finally took a steadying breath.
"Maybe… maybe I've found someone else to emulate."
"I beg your pardon?" he said blankly, his hand dropping away from her jaw.
Her head instantly dipped, her expression vanishing into the shadow. "Maybe I did what I did because I aspire to be like my current hero. I've been… s-studying… under his tutelage for a while now, and he doesn't engage in the kinds of artifice Adrienne introduced me to. He... disapproves of dishonesty of any kind. He… he doesn't like it when people dissemble. He wouldn't have played games with Rice. His strategies favor tackling things head on. I aspire to be like him, so I did what he would do."
"He?" he finally managed to gulp.
She scuffed her toe through the fallen leaves as she glanced up at him through her lashes. "He's the most remarkable man I've ever known," she said so quietly that he had to strain to hear her. "Flirting with Rice would have betrayed him. I couldn't do that, no matter what… could I?" She looked away again.
Roxton suspected that if it had been daylight he might have seen a blush spreading across her fair skin.
When he just stared at her without saying a word, she pointed tentatively back toward the campfire and began to edge away. "Um… I'm… I think it's past time to go back to sleep now." She stepped nervously sideways, easing herself from between him and the tree. "Good night, John."
He turned with a furrowed brow and watched her as she tiptoed her way between their friends, who were still sprawled on their blankets with every appearance of being sound asleep. Marguerite reached her bedding and gracefully lay down again with her back turned away from him. Still there was no sign that they'd disturbed the others. It was unlikely that Veronica could have missed their brief altercation, so perhaps the discreet blonde was simply feigning sleep. For that matter, maybe Malone and Challenger were pretending oblivion, too. He wouldn't blame them for wanting to stay out of it. No one wanted to get in the middle of one of his arguments with their feisty companion.
Marguerite seemed perfectly relaxed, but she couldn't possibly have fallen asleep after the heavily intimate discussion they'd just shared – could she? Not that it mattered, because she'd definitely refuse to resume that incredibly intriguing last topic until she was good and ready. He continued to stare across the clearing at her until the sudden swoop of an owl from a nearby branch returned his attention to the task at hand. Instinctively, before he realized what it was, he swung his rifle in the bird's direction and took a step forward. Then he recognized the glowing eyes and relaxed. He took a deep breath, shifted his weapon back to rest position, and resumed his patrol of the camp.
Had she meant what he hoped she'd meant about the identity of this man she now aspired to be like? It certainly seemed as if she'd implied it to be him. Who else could she have meant?
He certainly couldn't think of any other interpretations. She might not be ready to name names or admit it outright, but she'd as good as told him he was the man she believed to be so remarkable. Taken all together, there was no one else that might've felt betrayed if she'd played up to Rice.
She said she'd risked her life rather than "betray" him by flirting with his enemy. Her unusual behavior had been guided by the rules he'd laid out to her in his many lectures. Truth be told, he'd known all along that what really irked him was the fact that he couldn't protect her when she went off on her own like that. He'd have to clarify that with her and apologize for his arbitrary harangues as soon as possible.
Not that he wanted encourage her to unilaterally set out to handle things on her own, but it was only right for him to admit that there was a time and a place for her to "engage in artifice", as she'd phrased it. He'd given her the impression that he understood the use of subterfuge. After all, camouflage was employed by hunters, too. And during the Great War he'd served as an military officer for both the intelligence office in England and field duty at the Front; clever covert action was as essential and effective as open action.
He needed to be much clearer about what he expected of Marguerite. The two of them would have to sit down and talk strategy, work something out so that she wouldn't place herself in jeopardy like that again, even for him. And he'd have to remember that if he raked her over the coals in the future, it should be because she acted without discussing it with him first rather than focusing on her methodology.
She'd always shrugged off his criticism with such apparent disdain that he'd never realized how much she took his words to heart. He'd certainly never have guessed that she aspired to be more like him! Nor would he have guessed that Marguerite's rest would be disturbed by an irregularity in his usual method of standing watch! Speaking of which… He resumed movement through the shadows just beyond the circle of light cast by their campfire.
She trusted him so much that she slept soundly when he was on guard. She noticed when his attention wandered, and she worried about him. He was her hero. A smile slowly spread from ear to ear.
Well, after all, he'd promised himself long ago that he'd become her knight in shining armor. Maybe he was succeeding better than he'd suspected. If he was right, if he really was winning the fair lady's hand and heart, he'd know it soon enough: based on what had happened with Rice, Marguerite wouldn't be flirting with anyone but him.
He smiled contentedly as he quietly patrolled the perimeter of their camp. Maybe there was merit after all in discovering that someone you esteemed wasn't actually so perfect. Disappointment and disillusionment didn't have to be permanent, and what you did with the knowledge gained could change your life for the better. Marguerite's stand on his behalf throughout the recent situation was certainly inspiring to him. His life was immeasurably brighter with her at his side, and he fully intended to do all in his power so that she could say the same of him.
Marguerite, lying on her blanket, listened to Roxton's steady footsteps and finally released the breath she'd been holding while she waited to see if he was going to come after her. He was bound to insist on clarification about the high opinion of him that she'd revealed, which she hadn't in the least intended to do. She didn't want to dwell on the possible repercussions of that bit of indiscretion on her part. It was done now, and she'd know soon enough what he chose to do with the information. From the sound of his patrol, she'd at least succeeded in getting him to air his troubled thoughts enough that he was once again his usual focused self.
His preoccupation hadn't been over the death of his brother, as she'd feared. That had been a relief. He didn't deserve the self-doubt and guilt that he bore for that incident, and she'd gladly have emasculated Rice for his part in laying that burden on Roxton. Of course the actual cause of his anxiety tonight had taken her aback. The nerve of the man, scolding her for not - well, there was no use dwelling on that tonight, either, or she'd never get back to sleep. She refused to brood over her friendship with Adrienne, either. For tonight it was enough have John's remarkable words to cherish… She replayed it in her mind again as she tracked his audible progress. "I was not prepared – and never will be prepared – to watch you throw your life away without doing everything in your considerable power to stay alive, whether your antics make me uncomfortable or not!" he'd declared. And, "…I need to know you're going to fight for your life with any and every weapon available to you the next time something like this happens."
His words shouldn't affect her so should've been accustomed to it by now; she'd known he was willing to give up his own life for her since he'd leaped onto that caiman in the Amazon to stop it from eating her – and that had happened even before they'd been stranded on the Plateau. It hadn't taken her long to learn that the handsome nobleman would instinctively do the same for anyone in need of a champion. That truth about Roxton's basic character, combined with the fact that there'd been far too few genuinely loving relationships in her life, had kept her from realizing that his feelings had evolved far beyond mere instinctive chivalry toward her.
She was still unsure how to deal with it. Her goals had never envisioned anyone like him. Of course, as time had passed there was less and less likelihood that she would attain her objectives. And he really could be the most adorable man. Just when she wanted to slap him, he'd say something out of the blue, like telling her that she was prettier than Adrienne. Malarkey, perhaps, but the sentiment was just as sweet as his insistence that she should do whatever it took to survive.
Without a doubt, the man was wheedling his way into her heart and changing her life. Good or bad, she would never be the same. A faint smile curved her lips. Eternal optimist that he was, he had no idea what he was letting himself in for by wooing her. She should simply enjoy it while it lasted. At least she could get a few decent hours of sleep, knowing Roxton was keeping watch.
With his reassuringly regular movement nearby, Marguerite allowed herself to slip back to a slumber filled with pleasant dreams of her tall, dark handsome hero.