Summary: The final battle for the future of the Plateau has begun; the Protector and the Chosen One are determined to win once and for all, but at what price?
Disclaimer & Author Note: See Part I.
The Final Battle, Part II
Wherein there is a battle for Marguerite's future…
When Marguerite didn't respond to Roxton's heartfelt declaration, Challenger shifted restlessly beside them. "More! Tell her more!" he hissed. "Assure her that you are alive and well!"
"Maybe louder?" Ned suggested. "And give her more details about the future you envision."
"Yeah," Veronica agreed, although no one – including herself – was sure which advice she was endorsing.
The hunter scowled. Obviously he was going to need some privacy for this. "Hold on, my love," he whispered, and tried to rise. He'd forgotten his still battered condition, though, and when his strength failed him, he lifted his head and sent his friends a look of appeal.
Ned released Veronica so he could bend down and lend a hand. Challenger rose, too, stiffly, and together they helped John stand with Marguerite still cradled in his arms. Once the nobleman was steady on his feet, he shook the other men off and limped slowly away with his precious armful. "Give us some time," he said gruffly when he heard footsteps following along behind him. He glanced over his shoulder at their anxious friends and forced himself to speak patiently. "I appreciate your suggestions, but I have a lot to say to her, and interruptions won't help. Make her something warm to eat. Maybe some tea."
Ned's lips curved upward. "Don't you mean coffee?" He wrapped an arm around Veronica's waist again, and they watched Roxton approach the bend on the balcony with his burden, each step a visible effort… but determination in every step as well.
Veronica took another step after him. "Do you want me to…?" she gestured with the Trion.
"No, I think she needs something else right now," Roxton replied. "I'll call you, though, if… if…" No, he couldn't fail, wouldn't even think it.
"Right," she nodded. "I'll be in the kitchen." She watched him limp out of sight, then turned her anxious gaze to Challenger and Ned.
The journalist smiled reassuringly. "If anyone can reach her, it'll be Roxton. Come on, let's see what's in the cupboard."
"Something warm sounds good to me, too. I'm getting too old for all this folderol," Challenger grumbled, turning toward his lab. "Call me when dinner's ready… or when Marguerite wakes up. I'm going to take some readings, record the residual energy levels…"
Veronica sighed and cast another troubled look after Roxton as Ned tugged her toward the kitchen. Time for some positive thinking, as the hunter had suggested. When Marguerite awoke, not if she awoke but when, she would need healthy physical sustenance. "I don't have much in the pantry right now. I was going to hunt tomorrow. Do you think she might eat some raptor broth?"
The blond American grimaced. "Not even on her best days. But she always likes a nice omelet."
"That's a good idea. We still have enough eggs to do that."
Out on the balcony, Lord Roxton found Marguerite's favorite place to curl up with a book or her sewing, and carefully lowered himself onto the cushioned bamboo seat, mindful of his damaged body as he gently eased her onto his lap. He cradled her head on his less-injured shoulder and cupped her cheek with one hand. She was so cold!
According to Veronica, Marguerite thought all three men were dead. His first order of business, then, was to assure her that their family was intact. "Come on, darling, come back to me," he coaxed softly, resting his chin against the top her head for a moment, then brushing his lips against her dark hair before he continued. "Hordred failed to separate us by killing me, and George and Neddy-boy are home, too. Poor George is looking a bit the worse for wear – actually, we all are. But all three of us are alive. George and Ned had already rescued me before you two women worked your magic. We were in pretty bad shape, some fairly serious injuries, until we were bathed in that light. It helped us, healed the worst of our wounds. Challenger talked about the unexpected healing properties all the way home, only to find that Veronica was using the Trion on you. He'll probably spend days having her heal injured animals so he can test its strengths and weaknesses… I don't care how it works. I'm just thankful it was able to keep you breathing long enough for us to get home again."
He brushed his lips over the top of her head again, steadying his voice before he continued, "You can't leave us, my love. We're all home safe and sound again because of you and Veronica. She says you saved the world, not just the plateau. But it won't mean anything to me unless you come back too. I need you here with me." He watched her hopefully for a long moment before he coaxed quietly, "Marguerite?"
When she still lay unresponsive in his arms, he pressed a gentle kiss to her forehead and went on talking to her, clinging to his flickering belief that she would respond any second now. "I'll let Ned or George tell you how they managed to elude Hordred's men, since I wasn't there to see it. Neddy-boy says it was due to Challenger's quick thinking, but for once George is playing down his own brilliance. Actually, you'll be able to read all about it for yourself in Ned's newest journal if you'll just open those beautiful eyes of yours and decide to stay with us. Suffice it to say, I was delighted when the two of them showed up at the bluff where I was being held."
He told her how Challenger and Ned had staged his rescue, outsmarting the dozen guards left watching over the Chosen One's mate. "It must have been before Hordred issued his orders to kill me, because none of them had done more than…" he hesitated, and decided he shouldn't mention how they'd tortured him with numerous cuts from their knives and swords, with painful blows from fists and feet, and with taunts that they'd be killing him just as soon as they didn't need the Chosen One any longer. He'd been furious at their duplicity and manipulation of his lady when they'd revealed that they were only waiting to end his life because they didn't know if she could sense his demise and turn on them. And when they laughed and told him that as soon she'd helped them get rid of the Protector, Hordred would order the death of Marguerite as well as himself, he'd been frantic with worry for her safety. Up until then he'd at least had the hope that she might survive the day.
How he'd prayed that she wouldn't fall for their lies! How he'd wished he'd discussed this scenario with her instead of avoiding the topic! He'd been tormented by the slim chance that she would give in to them in a misguided effort to save his life, although he'd staunchly told his captors that his lady would never betray Veronica. That bit of bold defiance had earned him a couple of particularly harsh torture sessions, one that might have precipitously ended his life regardless of Hordred's orders, if not for the timely intervention of Ned and George.
No, he shouldn't tell her any of that. Not now.
Instead he told her how the three of them had tended one another's wounds, rushing through the first aid to prevent the blood from drawing raptors. He joked about their frustration and impatience over the fact that their injuries were serious enough to delay their rapid return to the treehouse. They'd barely been en route when Veronica's energy burst had appeared, spreading so quickly that they'd no sooner recognized it than it had engulfed them. He related their awe at how the aura had bathed them with fresh strength, healing the worst of the damage they'd each sustained that day. He chuckled as he told her how Challenger had tried to collect a sample for future study, but had quickly, if reluctantly, given up the effort when reminded that the men needed to hurry home. He didn't reveal that although they'd each been partially healed, they were still hurting enough that it had been an arduous journey.
His voice sank to a hesitant whisper when he shared their trepidation upon nearing the treehouse and finding the signs that a terrible battle had been waged here – the blood and the myriad of broken weapons littering Veronica's garden, the trampled jungle undergrowth surrounding the treehouse, the burn marks on tree trunks and other foliage where flaming arrows had rebounded off the invisible barrier, the dozens upon dozens of ash piles they'd found as they neared the perimeter. They'd been filled with anxiety as they finally rode the elevator up toward the stillness above where there was no sign of either woman keeping watch for them. "Oh, my love, I couldn't have born it if I hadn't found you here!" he groaned. "If you would only wake up and talk to me, we could count this a good day."
All the while he spoke he caressed her, stroking her arms, her back, her side, his fingers tracing then entwining with hers. He scattered light kisses over her face between phrases, and, when he ran out of things to tell her, finally kissed her lips. She wasn't responding to his assurances that the men were safely home. What if she really was beyond hearing him? What if he really was too late? "Marguerite," he pleaded. "Come on, Darling. Open those beautiful eyes. Tell me to quit disturbing your rest. Marry me so we can spend the rest of our lives together."
Had her breath just caught? Was that a bit of pink stealing into her pale cheeks? He couldn't be certain with only the fading light of dusk to see by. But it was the first hint he'd seen of any response at all. What had he said that was different? Marry me, so we can spend the rest of our lives together. Was that it? Could it be that simple, just talking about what he'd been so hesitant to mention for fear of driving her away?
Had he ever said the word "marriage" aloud to her before? No, he didn't think he had. He'd pictured them as husband and wife when he'd talked to her about their future, but he hadn't actually proposed yet. He hadn't wanted to press her for more of a commitment when it had taken being at death's door to get her to admit she loved him. Even tonight he'd hesitated, full of doubt that there was anything he could say that would give her a reason to believe, to hope, in a future with him.
The past year had been fraught with one nerve-wracking incident after another. Ever since the revelation of Marguerite's true reason for financing Challenger's expedition and the subsequent loss of the Ouroboros and her chance to obtain her birth certificate, they'd been plunged into successive crisis situations that threatened to tear apart the family they'd built here. They'd suspected this for a while now, but thanks to the things Hordred's men had said while taunting him, he now knew that the dark line had orchestrated events in her life. They'd thrown everything from demon possession to ex-wives and revelations about her true identity at her in an effort to force the Chosen One into believing that her only hope for the future was to turn to their side. Hordred had deliberately played on her fears that her family and the love she'd found here couldn't last. It was no wonder Marguerite believed she'd lost him the moment she'd sided with the Protector. They'd done quite a job on her.
The only thing they hadn't counted on was that Marguerite Krux might act selflessly.
She deserved so much better than what life had given her, than what had been allowed her by the forces manipulating her, and he'd meant to change that for her by fulfilling all her dreams and giving her a secure future filled with his loving her.
But to give her that future, he needed to help her visualize that future with him, a future that she couldn't envision for herself. He had to give her the hope that such happiness could really be hers despite everything life had taught her to believe about herself, and despite the exploitation of her insecurity by the dark line.
He bent his head and pressed his lips to hers again for another tender kiss, filled with renewed anticipation. Then he breathed softly against her mouth, "I love you, Marguerite. Be mine forever. Marry me. First thing tomorrow morning let's ask the Zanga shaman to marry us. We'll have so much fun together, being married. We'll travel together, and you'll hunt with me and I'll dig pretty rocks from the ground with you, and we'll read books together by firelight. We'll fight and we'll make up and we'll scandalize society with how much in love a husband and wife can be. We'll make beautiful, green-eyed baby girls with long curly dark hair like their mama, and handsome irascible baby boys who'll get into all sorts of mischief like their papa did. We'll raise our children to be not-quite proper young adults. They'll grow up and have babies of their own. We'll grow old and grey together and bounce our grandchildren on our knees between our adventuring. What do you say, my love? Marry me and be Lady Roxton forever?"
Her dark lashes fluttered just a little on her cheeks.
She was hearing him! Why the devil had he shied away from mentioned marriage to her before this? How could he not have realized that she needed to know he wanted that for their future, that he believed they could have it all together no matter where they were?
Encouraged, John continued to paint a word picture of their marriage and subsequent life together. "It'll be the wedding of the year, my love. Ned will be my best man, Veronica will be your maid of honor, and Challenger will give the beautiful bride away. It'll be a bright sunny day, not a cloud in the sky, and we'll bring along the phonograph and play your favorite record as George walks you down the aisle toward me. The Zanga will have flowers wrapped around every post and pole in the village, and you'll be wearing your heart locket and the loveliest dress I've ever seen – not that it'll match your beauty in my eyes."
He could definitely feel a difference in her body temperature, he was sure of it! Heart pounding, he went on elaborating for her: "Jarl and Assai's little girl can be your flower girl, and after our vows we'll honeymoon at Lizard city. Tribune owes us a couple favors, and he's always liked you. He'll treat us like royalty. We'll sleep on a real bed, Marguerite, and spend hours soaking in their Roman baths between making love morning, noon and night." This time there was no doubt; the pulse point at the base of her neck showed an increased heart rate, and there were faint spots of color on both cheekbones. He was reaching her! "When we come home, we'll move my things to your room because it's bigger, and my boots will be right beside yours every night when we go to sleep and every morning we'll wake up in each other's arms. As much as we love one another, it won't be long before you'll be making me into a proud papa as well as a happy husband."
Marguerite's eyes opened briefly before her lashes fluttered down onto her porcelain cheeks again. It was only a second, but it was the first proof of actual consciousness.
Rejoicing, he resolutely continued, "We'll name our first daughter after your friend Adrianne, and our first boy William, you know, after my brother. Neddy-boy and Veronica can be their godparents. And when this treehouse starts getting a little crowded, what with little Roxton and Malone tykes running all over the place, we'll build a second treehouse in that big old tree just west of here, and link them with suspended bridges. Of course, Challenger will have to plan a bigger windmill to power an expanded electric fence, and we'll need to rig a whole new water system to supply both treehouses. But the old boy will love making it all work, almost as much as I'll love living the rest of our lives together."
He kissed her again, and this time her lips parted beneath his. He closed his eyes in relief and deepened the kiss. And when he opened his eyes again, she was staring up at him.
"Roxton?" she breathed. "Are you real?"
She was awake! But she sounded so weak and still looked so pale that he knew she wasn't out of the woods yet. "Yes, my love, I'm real."
"Are we d-dead? Y-you aren't d-damned, you should g-go to heaven, but I c-couldn't…" She paused to draw a hesitant, tremulous breath. "I w-wouldn't b-be with you if we're d-dead…" This wasn't right… How could he be here?
"We're not dead, my love", he assured her, and made a mental note that he'd have to work harder at convincing her that her soul wasn't damned. "We're both very much alive." And he intended to keep it that way, whatever it took to convince her to not to give up.
She lifted a trembling hand to touch his whiskered cheek. "Alive," she repeated wistfully, and her lashes started to droop over her eyes again.
Afraid she was too near to drifting away from him, he lightly shook her to regain her attention. "Absolutely. And you haven't answered my question. Will you marry me?" It worked; she opened her eyes again, groggily, but a trifle more aware than before.
"Are you crazy? P-People try to kill you because of me." Her eyes were frightened, and one hand gripped his arm, albeit both her voice and grip were feeble.
He chuckled and gave her a lopsided grin. "Don't flatter yourself, darling. People were trying to kill me long before I met you."
"The thing is," he added casually, "You're my reason for living. So marry me. We'll fight all the bad guys together. What do you say?"
She studied him for a long moment, doubtfully. "I'm dreaming."
"Nope. You're awake."
She stiffened suddenly, alarmed. "If this is real – Hordred? the Plateau?"
He hugged her tenderly. "Safe. Veronica thinks you fed her enough power to keep it safe for a number of generations, maybe even forever. That means you don't need to worry about our children going through anything like what we've gone through today." He had to convince her that they had a future together, had to ensure that she too could see their prospects for being happy, had to make her want to stay alive…
She was so adorably confused that he couldn't resist kissing her again. By the time he took a final tug on her lower lip, her skin was flushed a healthier pink, and he could feel her breathing regularly again – well, not quite regularly, but he was entirely satisfied with the reason that her breath was coming somewhat raggedly. "We're going to live happily ever after, my love."
His simple declaration, so confident, so full of devotion, brought tears to her eyes. She looked up at him, longing to believe, but afraid to trust in the vision he was offering, and more than a little convinced she was dreaming all of this as she was dying.
"So will you marry me, Marguerite?" he asked again, the gleam in his dark green eyes drawing a look of wonder from her that made his stomach clench with regret. How long ago had it been that she'd marveled when he'd said he'd be there for her forever? Malone was so right; a happy future had been a foreign concept to her, a fairy tale. It shouldn't have taken a crisis for him to see that she needed this. He had to make it real for her. He had to help her to believe. "Be my wife, not just my lover and best friend. I'm not talking about some vague day in the future when we might maybe find a way off this Plateau. Right here and now, from now on and forever, be my wife. Be the mother of my children. Marry me, Marguerite."
She stared up at him, wishing her mind wasn't so hazy. This had to be real, didn't it? Because she'd only allowed herself to daydream about marrying him once. After he'd discovered that lapse of judgment on her part, he'd teased her – once. Only once. And he'd never again brought up the topic of marriage. His silence had convinced her that even the eternally optimistic Lord Roxton knew there was no happily-ever-after in store for the likes of Marguerite Krux, so she'd never again permitted herself to indulge in such nonsensical ideas. But the things he'd just said, and the way he'd said them, had her heart hammering as if it were really happening. "Forever?" she repeated wistfully.
"Yes, forever. You know I'm right for you," he teased, reminding her of what she'd blurted out as they fled from the cursed German village. "And you know I promised I wouldn't let you fall, promised you more than once that I would always be here to keep you in line, to keep you safe. I keep my promises, Marguerite. You know I do. Of course, you've kept me safe as often as I've protected you, and you've saved me from myself far too many times to count. You and I belong together. It's fate. It's meant to be. That's why we've always beat the odds in staying alive here. It's why there are so many connections between us – both of us being at Avebury as children, our work in the war, both of us claiming the name Parsifal in all that business with the iridium, both of us drawn here to the Plateau to live together, to get to know one another, to rescue one another from our pasts… to build a future together. You and I are tied together, Marguerite. I love you with all my heart. Everything I am, everything I own, my every thought and emotion belongs to you. Our future is together. So marry me. Please."
A tear slid down her cheek. She reached up again to touch his face, laying her palm against his cheek, feeling the prickle of his unshaven bristles against her tender skin. This wasn't a dream, and she wasn't hallucinating. He was real, he was alive, and he was promising her forever. He was so sure, so warm, his breath fanning her face as he smiled tenderly down at her. He was alive. This was real. And he wanted to marry her. Marry. Her. "John…"
He turned his head and kissed her palm. "Yes, my love?"
"Everything hurts," she whispered, then buried her face against his shoulder with a choked back sob, her hand sliding down to clutch a fistful of his shirt. "I'm not feeling so well."
She was choosing to live! He sent a mental prayer of thanksgiving upward to the Deity who had blessed him with this woman. Then he drew her close and rocked her gently, his actions at odds with his next words: "Serves you right if it hurts," he chided brusquely. "What did you expect when you tried to kill yourself? All that power you gave to Veronica – not that it wasn't bloody marvelous, but if you ever do such a thing again, I'll kill you myself!"
Her small fist thumped his chest. "Oh shut up and hold me!"
He grinned, but pressed, "I mean it, Marguerite. I know I said forever, and I intend to abide by that as much as it's within my power to do so, but none of us lives eternally. If and when, God forbid anytime in the near future, we are separated from one another, I need to know that you'll do your best to have a good life. I need you to give me your word, Marguerite."
She shook her head, face pressed to his chest. "I can't, John, I can't. I tried to pretend that I didn't need you when Death had you, but I can't be without you. I really can't."
"Can't!" he scoffed. She was shaking, and he could feel her tears soaking through his shirt. "You can do anything you set your mind to, Marguerite Krux, and everyone knows it! You're the strongest, bravest woman I've ever known. And you'll have our children to look after. What kind of example would you be setting for them if you curled up and quit living just because I –" She stiffened and flinched away, and he chose his words with care. "…just because I wasn't with you? Come on, Marguerite, promise me that you won't give up again. Promise."
She knew that tone. He wasn't going to stop pestering her until she gave in. Besides… if there were children… It was an absurd thought, of course, totally out of the question. But even if it was only hypothetical, she couldn't, wouldn't deprive children of their mother if they'd already lost their father. Very sneaky, and entirely unfair of him, to toss that into the mix. She lifted her head, gave a sulky sniff, and glared at him. "Fine. I promise," she snapped.
"That's my girl." He beamed down at her with relieved approval. "Now, I think Veronica may be able to help with some of that pain of yours, and to judge by the scent wafting past us on the breeze, dinner may be ready, too. Everyone's worried about you, you know. Shall we go in now and reassure them that everything's going to be okay?" He ran one hand over her dark curls and smiled at her. "We should let them know we have a wedding to plan, eh?"
"Hey, I didn't say yes!"
"Not yet, but you will," he replied smugly, then ruined the effect by adding anxiously, "Won't you?"
The sudden revelation of his vulnerability melted her heart. "Of course, John. Eventually," she added with a mischievous smile of her own.
He heaved a sigh of relief. "Thank you, Marguerite." And he kissed her again.
On the other side of the wall, where they'd prepared dinner with hushed movements as they listened to the narrative Roxton designed to inspire his lady to come back to him, Ned and Veronica exchanged grins. "Do you think they'll make it inside for dinner before the omelets are cold?" he asked in a half-whisper.
"Let's just cover everything and leave it at the fireside," she whispered back. "I don't think he'll wait long to bring her in so I can use the Trion on her." She moved the meal into a large bowl and covered it with a towel, and Ned lifted it onto the grill by the fire to keep it warm until the older couple remembered to come and eat.
She opened the cooler and drew out the juice carafe, adding it to the bread already on the tray to carry to the table, but Ned caught her hand and turned her back into his arms before she could take the tray from the counter. "In case I haven't told you yet," he said seriously, "I'm very proud of you. You were terrific today. You're such an amazing lady… and I'm an incredibly lucky man."
She blushed and her smile dimpled as she slid her arms around his waist. "I'm proud of you, too. You were pretty terrific today yourself. You really have a knack for noticing things about other people, Ned. I'm glad you were here, or we might not have known what she needed. You're a very special man, Edward T. Malone."
Ned blushed as pink as Veronica, and his gaze shifted to her full red lips. But just as his head started to lower toward hers, Challenger came into the kitchen area, almost skipping in his excitement. "You should see the power readings! What a marvel!" he enthused. "Especially at the point of convergence, over there where your mother painted the arrows! Oh good, dinner is ready. Is Marguerite… is she well enough to join us?" he asked, pausing and speaking in a tone that he'd abruptly modulated to a slightly lower volume.
From beyond the wall, Roxton's voice answered, "Yes, she's fine, and we're coming to join you."
"Oh good!" the scientist exclaimed, beaming with pleasure. Then he belatedly noticed the flushed faces of the younger couple. "And what are two so red-faced about? It's not that hot at the oven, is it? Maybe I need to readjust the settings…" He stepped over to the oven he'd jury-rigged two years ago, and bent anxiously over it. "Odd. There doesn't seem to be an excess of heat escaping," he frowned.
Ned and Veronica's blushes deepened as they heard knowing chuckles from the balcony.
"Perhaps I need to check it when it's in operation. Call me tomorrow before you start dinner, if you don't mind, Veronica."
"Okay," she agreed, beginning to be amused at his continued obliviousness. She exchanged grins with the handsome American and, arm in arm, they followed Challenger as he scooped up the tray and carried it out to the Great Room.
They were almost finished setting the table when Roxton and Marguerite stepped in off the balcony. The still-limping hunter was supporting her, bearing most of her weight with an arm around her slim waist. Her skin was too pale, her eyes weren't quite focused, and she looked like she barely had the strength to hold up her own head, but she was on her feet.
"Bring her over here, Roxton," Veronica directed, stepping into the floor space between the painted arrows.
"Oh, excellent. I can monitor the energy output," Challenger's eyes lit up like a child's on Christmas morning, and he reached for the electrometer he'd built to trace the energy lines around the plateau.
"I'm fine," Marguerite protested, the faint pink tinge of her cheeks deepening at the unexpected attention.
But Roxton guided her to the blonde's side anyway. "You're hurting, and she can help."
Veronica nodded and placed her hands on her friend's shoulders to regard her sternly. "You scared the living daylights out of me, Marguerite. Let me help. Please?"
Flustered, and as yet not entirely convinced that she wasn't imagining everything, the brunette nodded. "I'm sorry, Veronica," she whispered.
"Never mind. Everything's okay now. Stand still."
"Wait! Wait!" Challenger rushed over and extended his gadget between the two women. "Okay, you can start now."
"Thanks, George," the women replied in unison, and exchanged smiles.
Veronica, her Trion cupped in her palm, laid her hand gently on Marguerite's chest above her heart, and let the power flow from the Plateau to her own heart and through to her best friend. From the corner of her eye she saw Roxton blink in surprise as he felt it, too; he was still steadying his lady, and apparently the influx of energy passed to him through his contact with her. The younger woman lofted a brow at him as she wondered whether it was passing purely because the couple was touching, or whether it was because of their emotions for one another. Whatever its cause, Marguerite seemed unaware of the additional effect, and when the hunter gave a discreet shake of his head, Veronica didn't mention it.
It could wait. It was enough to see John's pain-tensed posture ease. Besides, they didn't need to set George off on another quest for understanding; he was excited enough as it was.
This time the energy infusion was not rebuffed, but was absorbed into the Chosen One's fragile body, and almost instantly they could all tell that it was strengthening her dangerously weakened internal organs, blood vessels, muscles and bones. Within minutes her unnatural pallor was replaced with her usual soft peach glow, and her gaze sharpened. The rebuilding of her health also lifted the haze from her mind, and she glanced down at the strong sun-bronzed forearm crossing her midriff before she lofted an incredulous brow at her friend.
The blonde understood and nodded. Then she smiled broadly as she felt another jump in the energy passing through the Trion. Marguerite was actively participating now, hastening her own recovery in light of Veronica's confirmation that John was alive.
She wasn't dreaming! He was standing right behind her, his arms wrapped around her, somehow, beyond all hope or expectation, living and well! Marguerite's whole posture straightened as she rapidly gained strength, and her silver-green eyes glowed with wonder and delight.
Roxton grunted as he, too, felt the increased healing power flow between himself and his lady.
"Fantastic!" Challenger breathed, staring in amazement at his electrometer as the needle surged around the dial. "I wonder if you could cure my arthritis…"
Veronica reached out to grasp Marguerite's hand as she shifted the Trion so it touched George's shoulder instead. He flinched, then his blue eyes widened as he felt the same tingling he'd experienced in the jungle when the aura had washed over them. It spread throughout his body, warming him, then localized in the bone joints that had been his own personal cross to bear for longer than he cared to recall. Intrigued, he turned the electrometer toward himself. "Look at that! Look at that!" he exclaimed in wonder. "There must be a way that science could harness this power to heal…"
Veronica and Marguerite exchanged smiles, and then stepped apart as the Protector released the scientist - until Marguerite caught sight of Ned, and reached for Veronica's hand again. The blonde arched an inquiring brow at her, then followed her pointed gaze and grimaced. How could she have neglected Ned? Together the women aimed a healing flow of energy at the American, who jerked in surprise before he realized what they were doing, then smiled in appreciation at the rapid easing of his aches and pains. "Thanks!" he said heartily, delighted.
Apparently Marguerite had been aware of the power passing through her to John, because she didn't direct Veronica toward him when they'd finished helping Ned. Veronica held onto her hand long enough to ascertain that their joint efforts hadn't been detrimental to the brunette, then released her again.
Roxton turned his lady and studied her for a long moment, until he too was satisfied that she was, if not wholly well, at least mended enough that her hand was perfectly steady when she raised it to rest her palm against his cheek. "Hello," she said softly.
"Hello yourself," he replied just as tenderly, and drew her into a gentle embrace. "Welcome back, Darling."
Ned wrapped Veronica in his arms and subjected her to a much heartier hug than the cautious hunter was offering to Marguerite. "Well done, Miss Layton; very well done," he praised.
Veronica blushed charmingly and opened her mouth to reply, but was interrupted by George's exclamations as he flexed a shoulder that moved freely for the first time in several years.
"Not a bit of pain, and good heavens, will you look at this! I haven't had this range of movement since I partook of the fountain of youth! This could be an amazing boon to the world…" He studied the power register as he thoughtfully turned away toward his lab. "I really must study this phenomenon more closely."
Ned's hand closed on his upper arm and turned him back toward the dinner table. "Save the world tomorrow, Challenger. Let's have dinner now."
"What?" George looked up, startled. "Oh yes, of course. Yes, tomorrow will be time enough. We should savor today's victory before we consider waging war on an altogether different front," he conceded, although he cast a longing look back over his shoulder toward his lab.
Laughing and agreeing, the other three joined them at the table. "I'm definitely ready to eat," Roxton said, reaching to take the covers from the serving dishes. "Mmm, perfect! Omelets and fresh toasted bread. I could smell them from the balcony."
Marguerite glanced around the table, marveling at the sight of the three men gathered with them, all home safe and relatively sound. Each of them still bore the evidence of today's life-threatening struggles, but despite torn and blood-stained clothing, they were alive and well. She met Veronica's contented gaze with a peaceful smile. "Yes, everything looks perfect."
Veronica nodded in satisfaction. "Yes, it does. Absolutely perfect."
"Actually," George corrected in surprise, "Along with the obvious laundry and mending and repairs to the garden, there's quite a bit of debris we'll need to clean away. We should collect the ash and add it to the compost for next season's garden…"
After grinning at one another, the others humored Challenger by discussing the various chores that would soon need attending.
Almost finished clearing his plate, Roxton glanced up during a lull in the conversation and asked, "Say, did I mention yet that Marguerite's going to marry me?"
With a completely straight face, Ned replied, "You don't say?"
Outraged and blushing hotly, the brunette punched the nobleman's arm. "I did not say I would marry you, Lord Roxton!"
Ignoring her protest, Challenger asked, "When's the wedding?" as he served himself another healthy quantity of omelet.
Marguerite glared at him. "I haven't said I'd marry him," she repeated crossly.
"As soon as we can get the shaman to agree to a date," Roxton answered, green eyes dancing. "And she'd like you to give her away, George."
That got the scientist's full attention. Caught off guard, his fork stopped half way to his mouth, and he stared first at Roxton, and then at Marguerite. "No." He blinked suddenly teary eyes. "Really?"
Her indignation vanished in the face of his unexpectedly touched reaction, and she sighed in resignation. "Actually… Yes, really."
Challenger's face crinkled into a broad smile, clearly delighted. "I'd be honored."
"No, I would be honored," she said simply.
He beamed. "Well then, of course… So we're off to the Zanga village tomorrow, then?"
"Sounds good to me," Veronica agreed, a grin tugging at the corner of her mouth.
"You're the maid of honor," Roxton informed her casually, pleased with the direction of their conversation. "So better bring along that blue gown in case the shaman can marry us right away. Is there anything in your parent's trunks that would serve as a wedding gown for Marguerite? And a nice suit for Malone here so he can play at being my best man?"
"Now wait just a minute here!" Marguerite demanded. She'd tensed again as soon as Challenger mentioned the next day, and by now she was scowling.
"Best man? Thanks." Ned accepted the invitation with an elated grin. "But what about a ring?" he asked as he followed Challenger's example and dished up a second plateful for himself, too.
"Oh, I've had the ring for ages," was his lordship's blithe response.
"What? What ring? I haven't seen any ring!" Marguerite sat up straighter and stared at Roxton, her pique momentarily forgotten under his astounding assertion.
"How'd you manage to keep Marguerite from finding it?" Veronica asked, giggling at her friend's astonishment.
"I took a lesson from the master – or, in this case, the mistress," he inclined his head toward his bemused fiancé. "I hid it in plain sight."
"Well, if you've got the ring, then there's no reason to wait, is there?" grinned the reporter, very much enjoying their game.
"I haven't said yes," Marguerite inserted automatically, narrowed eyes never leaving her handsome suitor as she immediately added, "When and where did you get a wedding ring for me?"
The nobleman grinned at her, but didn't answer.
"Lord Roxton, I'm not saying yes until you tell me about this ring." She folded her arms over her chest and glared at him.
"Finish your dinner before it gets cold," he advised kindly. "I'm not going to give you any details about your ring until you say yes."
"Sounds reasonable to me," Malone put in, tongue in cheek. "Otherwise you'll never be certain whether she married you because she loved you or because she wanted the ring."
"That might be logical if we were talking about some society debutante only looking for a title and an estate, but it hardly applies here," Challenger disagreed. "We already know Marguerite loves Roxton more than she values wealth, or, in this case, gemstones."
Marguerite blinked, and color flooded her face again as she saw everyone nod.
"Yes, but she's never admitted it, at least not to the rest of us," Veronica decided to throw in her penny's worth, her blue eyes dancing with mirth at the way they were teasing Marguerite.
"Well I for one would like to hear her say so," her fiancé shrugged.
"Seems only fair," Ned agreed.
"Of course she'll say so. Why wouldn't she?" Challenger frowned, not quite catching on.
"Yeah, why?" Veronica smirked.
In the ensuing silence, Marguerite glared back and forth between the four of them while they all looked at her. After a very long moment, she threw up her hands and huffed, "Fine. I admit it. I love Roxton more than I care about jewels – or anything else, for that matter!"
Roxton smiled warmly at her as the others laughed at her reluctant admission. "There now, was that so hard? Here, eat your omelet." He offered her a forkful of eggs from her plate.
"You owe me, Lord Roxton," she hissed with a scowl, never a gracious loser, and took the fork away from him.
"Oh, I'm quite willing to make it up to you, love, never fear," he drawled, waggling his brows and looking at her with such open intent that it made her blush all over again.
She quickly shoveled in the mouthful of egg.
"I do have one dress that would be lovely on you, Marguerite," Veronica said, taking pity on her. "We could have a look after dinner."
"And I know just what I'll say when I give my speech."
The four younger adults froze and focused on the ginger-haired scientist. "Speech?" Roxton asked in a carefully neutral tone.
"Yes, of course. Naturally I'll give the marriage charge once I've walked Marguerite down the aisle. After all, you can hardly expect the Zanga shaman, fine man that he is, to provide you with proper Christian guidance when he joins you. I believe I am the best qualified individual available to discharge that responsibility." He leaned back in his chair and patted his stomach in satisfaction. "Marvelous meal, Veronica. And a most pleasant dinner, altogether. If we're going to be away for a few days while John and Marguerite are married, I believe I'd best get back to my lab now. Science waits for no man. So much to learn, so little time…"
He rose and started away, collecting his electrometer from a nearby shelf and already muttering to himself as he made calculations.
Marguerite glared at Roxton. "Now see what you've done, encouraging him like that! I refuse to be rushed into a marriage when I haven't even said yes!" She held up a warning finger at the younger couple. "No! I did not say yes! I said 'eventually'! That does not mean that we go to the Zanga village tomorrow! And you!" Now her finger wagged at Roxton. "You can't really believe I'd say yes just to see a ring!"
Somewhat abashed, he shook his head. "That was just spur of the moment teasing, Marguerite – well, not the part about the ring. I do have a ring for you. I meant we were teasing about the idea of you agreeing to marry me just so you could get the ring."
Before this could disintegrate into the argument she could see Marguerite was spoiling for, Veronica arched one brow and suggested, "You wouldn't have to sneak back and forth at night. You could share one room all the time."
Marguerite and Roxton's jaws both dropped, and he turned as beet red as she.
"What, you thought we didn't know?" Ned snickered. "The walls around here aren't exactly solid." It wasn't often that that anything silenced the dark haired couple both at once.
Marguerite's mouth snapped shut, and she turned to John. "You know that second treehouse you mentioned earlier?" she said between gritted teeth.
John cleared his throat and nodded. "I'll get right on it."
Their hostess nodded serenely, although her sky blue eyes were twinkling merrily. "Right after you make an honest woman of her, Lord Roxton. The way you two have been going at it, those little Roxtons will be crawling all over the place any time now."
Lord Roxton blinked, caught his breath, and leaned forward eagerly, startling all three of his companions. "Do you know something I don't?" His bright gaze swung to his lady.
Marguerite, who'd just been thinking that this conversation couldn't get any stranger, stared at him in stunned disbelief. "You want me to be… with child?"
He knew he was grinning like an idiot as he reached over to spread his hand across her flat abdomen. "You'll be such a terrific mother," he said softly.
Her gaze lifted from his hand on her stomach to stare at his eager expression again, her eyes even wider. "Are you daft? Me?"
Ned looked at Veronica and mouthed "her?" but although her eyes glimmered with answering humor, she gestured at him to keep quiet. Fortunately, the older couple had eyes only for one another.
"Of course. Don't you want to have children with me? The ones we talked about, the ones you promised to live for?" His other hand sought and found one of hers, his fingers entangling hers in a gentle caress. "I think I'd be a good father, and I think we'd make wonderful babies."
She moistened her lips, caught totally off guard by this entire topic. Their conversation on the balcony was cloudy, but based on what he was saying now, her vague memory of his earlier mention of children wasn't some dream. He'd talked about a son and a daughter, hadn't he? He couldn't really mean he wanted her to bear his children, could he? You couldn't walk away from children – or at least, a man like Lord John Richard Roxton would never walk away from his children. Children were… children were forever. Forever! He really does want forever!
It was suddenly all very possible and her heart soared. She could have it all, everything she'd ever dreamed in the deepest, most secret places of her heart and mind, but had never dared to truly believe in, had barely even admitted to herself until this very moment. Beautiful green-eyed baby girls with long curly dark hair like their mama. Now where had those words come from? Still, the idea was appealing."I hope they have your disposition, not mine."
"Is that a yes, Miss Krux?"
She hesitated, everything she'd ever known clashing with the vision he was offering. There was no question in her mind which was bound to come out on top. Who am I kidding? Me as John's wife and mother of his children? It would never work.
Witnessing Marguerite's doubt filled, panicked expression, Veronica impulsively leaned forward and reached across the table. "Marguerite."
The brunette tore her gaze from the man she loved and looked at her best friend. Only when the blonde looked pointedly down at her outstretched hand did the older woman realize Veronica was offering a gesture of support and comfort.
Veronica waited until Marguerite hesitantly took her hand. Then, holding her gaze, she spoke firmly. "He was right, out there on the balcony. You two do belong together. And even if you can't have him forever, you can have him for a little while – maybe fifty or sixty years, or even longer. That may not seem like much compared to forever, but it's a lifetime. He loves you. You love him. You both deserve to be happy. You've always been brave for the rest of us; now be brave for yourself. Don't spend any more time apart when you don't have to. Say yes."
Ned nodded and touched her shoulder as he added his own encouragement. "C'mon, Marguerite. You're good for each other. Don't let the chance pass you by. So maybe we were teasing you about getting married tomorrow, maybe that's a little too soon. But you really don't want to miss a single day of knowing that you're where you belong, where you were always meant to be. You and Roxton, you're magic together. We've all seen it for ages. Even Challenger sees it."
"What do I see?" asked the man himself, wandering back upstairs in search of the notebook he'd set down somewhere after taking notations of the readings from his electrometer.
"That Marguerite and I belong together," John replied gruffly, touched and gratified at the open support from their friends. "And that she should marry me."
"Well of course. Who in their right mind would say otherwise?" the treehouse patriarch reasoned absently. "Any two people so in love should be together. It would be a crime to waste such a blessing. Have you seen my notebook? I'm certain I had it up here with me earlier while I was making those notations about the energy readings." He looked around with a frown. "I need the numbers I jotted down…"
Marguerite pointed to the same shelf where he'd had the electrometer. "It's right there, George."
"Ah, quite right. Thank you, m'dear." He collected the errant notebook, and turned away, then paused thoughtfully and faced them again. "Ah, about your wedding. I was thinking that you should honeymoon down at the inland sea for a week or so. As I recollect, you like it there, and while you two are away Malone and I can get a start on building you a home of your own. Naturally you'll need both the privacy and the space, particularly once the babies come along."
In a slightly strangled voice, Marguerite gasped, "You think I should be the mother of John's children?"
He snorted. "Well, it would hardly be proper for someone else to be their mother when you're his wife, now would it?" he asked with a hint of impatience. "What a question!"
Veronica and Ned smothered gurgles of laughter at the look on the others' faces.
Challenger looked at them enquiringly.
Helpfully, Ned offered, "She's still not sure she should be his wife."
Astounded, Challenger considered this anomaly for a brief moment. Then he slapped the notebook down on the edge of the table and pulled his chair around so he could seat himself beside the uncomfortable brunette. He gathered both her hands into his in an affectionate clasp. "My dear child," the scientist reproved. "If I may?"
Marguerite gave a watery chuckle, wondering if she was ever going to stop blushing after this incredible conversation. "As if I have any choice!"
He smiled. He knew he could be unobservant about the people around him, too wrapped up in his science. But that didn't mean he hadn't thought about these things, usually in the last hours when he was missing Jessie, or when, like now, his housemates needed a word or two of guidance from someone with a few more years under his belt. "Well, you do have a choice, you see. We're a family. My wife would be astonished to think it, but it's the truth nonetheless. We're luckier than most, because we've had the opportunity to choose the members of our family here. We didn't become a family merely because we were stranded together. We've chosen each other, time after time. But families aren't static. Families grow and change. Some leave the nest, like Arthur. Some join in, as Finn did for a time. Change can be painful, but it is usually for the best. Finn was needed in her time. And Arthur, the old goat, is doubtless somewhere where he can spend all of his time in his blessed gardens."
He looked up at her from beneath his beetled brows, and Marguerite nodded her acceptance of his words thus far. "Well, sometime in the not too distant future, young Malone here is going to propose to our Veronica. Should she choose to marry him?" He ignored both the gasp from Veronica and Ned's suddenly flaming face.
"Of course," the brunette nodded without hesitation. "She'll be a good wife for Ned."
Challenger's gaze lifted to meet Roxton's over her head, having expected just such a response. "Indeed," he said, absently patting her hand.
It took only a moment for Roxton to grasp what Challenger had just revealed. He closed his eyes for a moment, then said quietly, "Thank you, George. I'll take it from here."
The older man nodded, released Marguerite's hands, and rose. "You two come with me," he said to Ned and Veronica, circling the table to retrieve his notebook. "We need to do some planning so that when we go to the Zanga village we know exactly what we'll need. I'll have to expand the electric fence to encompass the Roxton treehouse, of course, but I've already calculated how to generate enough electricity with only a few adjustments to the windmill, and the addition of a new device I've been designing to collect solar power." He headed for the stairs, still talking,"We can complete the work in short order if the Zanga assist us in assembling the new treehouse and generators; I believe they'd be willing if I showed them a design for a better village water system, which happens to be something I've had on the drawing board for several months. We're just so busy all the time, I haven't been able to do half the things I've had in mind. But now that this nonsense with Hordred is finished, I should be able to accomplish a great deal more."
His voice faded as Veronica and Ned, giving one another shy looks, obediently rose and followed him downstairs to his lab.
Marguerite, with the uncomfortable feeling that she'd missed something important, realized she was now alone with Roxton and hastily shot to her feet, avoiding his eye. "I'll just clear the table."
He caught her hand and tugged her down onto his lap. Her response to Challenger's question about the other couple had been just what he needed to know. She hadn't said a word about Ned being a good husband or whether they loved one another or belonged together; no, uppermost in her mind was the question of being a good wife. He tucked a finger beneath her chin and tipped her head up until she had to face him. "That's what this is about? You think you wouldn't be a good wife for me?" he asked softly, his dark green eyes tender and loving.
She twisted her hands on her lap, met his gaze fleetingly, and prevaricated. "It's this mothering thing. How often have you – all of you, truth be told! – joked that I haven't a maternal bone in my body? You've seen how I am around children. I never know what to do, and I always say the wrong things… I wouldn't be a good mother."
She was avoiding the main topic, but he could see now that it was all part and parcel of the same issue; this should be dealt with, too. He'd never suspected that their teasing affected her, but in light of today's revelations about how deeply her insecurities still ran, clearly they'd not only hurt her feelings but done more serious damage. Their joking had confirmed yet more of her deeper fears about herself. "You're thinking the worst of yourself, my love. But you've always done fine with children once you've had a little time with them. You worked wonders with that snot-nosed king, and you got on fine with Gideon, too, remember? Didn't you become fast friends with that little fellow from the children's village? It'll be easier with our own children, because you'll get to know them a little at a time, as they grow. No one really knows how to be a parent before they start. I've never been a father before, just as you've never been a mother, so we'll learn together, the same way we'll learn to be husband and wife together."
She flinched, and he placed a soothing hand over her agitated, white-knuckled hands. "That's what's making you shy away, isn't it? You don't think you'll be … well, for lack of a better word, a 'good' wife."
She shrugged, clearly nervous but trying to seem untroubled. "You know me, Roxton. I've no patience for domestic things. And really, think what I'd do to your reputation, to your future in the House of Lords. I'd be off doing something that interests me instead of looking after you and your home. I'm not the submissive type. I've a terrible temper and the tongue of a harpy. I'd embarrass you before your friends and family. I know I've s-satisfied you as a lover," she ignored his smirking, whispered comment that she was understating the matter, and continued, "But as a wife, I'd … I'd disappoint you, John."
He shook his head. "Oh Marguerite, you're so hard on yourself, and so unfairly. The only thing you're right about is that I know what you're capable of. I've seen you exercise extraordinary patience over what you call domestic things. Don't you handle all of our sewing? You always do your fair share, and sometimes more, of the household chores and maintenance. You're even a passable cook, when you set your mind to it." He bent his head and kissed her cheek, the tender caress of his lips on her skin making her shiver. "And I've no doubt that you'd do wonders for my reputation if and when we ever return to England. You'd be renowned as the miracle worker who reformed the Roxton heir, settled the wild adventure seeker and saved him from his self-destructive ways. Just the fact that any woman married me would increase my credibility a hundred fold." He grinned down at her. "Marguerite, my love, I don't want or need a submissive wife, or one of those simpering society misses who are only interested in gossip and parties. I've dreamed of a wife who'll come adventuring with me and be content to make do with whatever's at hand and with whatever we might come across. I've longed for a wife who can fight at my side all day in spite of her fears, one who will make love like a tigress at the drop of a hat, give as good as she gets when life tries to slap us down, and know how to enjoy herself when there's time to play. I want a wife who will enjoy simple things with me when we're alone together, yet will also appreciate the finer things I may be able to give her. But above all else, I want and need a wife who loves me enough to do the right thing, no matter what it may cost. Now tell me, have I found the right woman?
She smiled faintly. "By a strange coincidence…"
Marguerite glanced up at him from beneath her lashes. "You really hoped I was already carrying your child?"
"With all my heart."
The simple reply made her tremble. "You would really marry me… tomorrow?"
"I would marry you right this instant. I would have married you months ago, if I'd had any inkling that you might have said yes. I didn't understand until today that you shied away from the topic not because you weren't interested in marriage but because you never thought it would really happen." He gently hugged her, and pressed a light kiss to her cheek. "Being together is wonderful, but I want more than this, and I believe we can have a great marriage. I'm not going to change my mind, and I'm not going to leave you. I love you with all my heart and soul. Do you remember… did you hear what I was telling you when I was holding you on the balcony?"
She shook her head, finding it difficult to digest all that he was saying, all that was implied in his words. "Some of it, I think, but I don't remember all of it," she admitted apologetically.
He nodded. "That's okay. I don't mind saying it again, and I'll repeat it as often as it takes for you to believe it. I have every intention of growing old with you, Marguerite, and watching our children's children grow up. You and I, Marguerite, we're meant for one another. We're going to make a home together, wherever we are, and we're going to raise children together – a girl with your dark curls and beautiful eyes, who we'll name after your friend Adriane, and a boy we'll name after –"
"William," she whispered, misty eyed, knowing now the source of her image of little girls who took after her.
"Exactly. Maybe we'll have more than Adriane and William. Maybe it'll be William and Arthur, or Adriane and Abigail, or some other combination; it won't matter because we'll love each one of them no matter how many or which gender they are. Our children will be playmates with Ned and Veronica's young ones, and they'll grow up happy and safe with a mother and father who love them, and they'll find their soul mates just as you and I found one another, and they'll marry and have little ones, and we'll bounce our grandchildren on our knees and love them almost as much as we love each other. We'll grow old and gray together, and we'll have adventures, and we'll fight and worry and rejoice… together, Marguerite. We'll do it all together. So marry me. It doesn't have to be tomorrow, but I won't be whole until you're my wife, until I know I have the right to care for you forever. I love you so desperately, you see. But you knew at least that much, didn't you?" He reached up and wiped away the tears that had begun to slide down her cheeks as she listened.
"John, do you really see all of that for us?"
"I do. And I can believe enough for both of us until you've lived it for a while and can believe for yourself," he offered, and coaxed, "Only say yes, Marguerite. Be my wife. Allow me the privilege and honor of being your husband. Be Lady Marguerite Roxton."
He could see her pulse racing. Would she dare? She'd dared so much in her life…
Marguerite couldn't look away from his steady, loving gaze. This was like it had been in that cave, when he'd told her he loved her and he wanted her to admit that she loved him, too. The future is now, he'd said, but he hadn't meant only while they were trapped. He'd meant forever when he said those words that day. He'd meant 'forever' all along! "Yes," she whispered, clutching tightly to his hand.
And his smile spread from ear to ear. He was as thrilled as he'd been that day she'd so fearfully told him the three words he'd longed to hear. "When?"
Her grip on his hand tightened even more. "F-forever?"
"Forever," he confirmed. "Name the date of your choice, Marguerite. I'll make it happen."
She swallowed hard and buried her face against his neck. "In for a p-penny, in f-for a pound, right?"
His chuckle rumbled beneath her cheek. "Right."
"Then… whenever the shaman says."
He closed his eyes in relief and hugged his trembling lady close. She was trusting him again, trusting him with her future this time, not only with the here and now. "You won't be sorry, my love," he vowed. As he had in the cave, he kissed her with all the tenderness and passion he could convey.
And this time, she responded without hesitation or reservation. Maybe, just maybe, "happily ever after" wasn't only for children's fairy tales after all; perhaps it was possible, even for someone like herself. Lord John Roxton believed. And he loved her. And he was alive, despite the best efforts of their enemies. He was alive and he loved her. He wanted her to be his wife!
She pulled back from his embrace and met his gaze once again, her arms now linked around his broad shoulders. "Forever, John," she pledged.
He searched her face, found the newborn assurance there, and he knew he'd won. She believed! "That's my girl. Forever."
"Yes. Now," she said firmly, an excited gleam in her silver-green eyes. "About that ring…"