Disclaimer:  Don't own these characters.  Sigh ….

Author's notes:  This is a missing scene from The End Game.  In The End Game, Lord John Roxton plays a game with a personified Death, and loses each of his friends.

Also in this episode Veronica returns to the Treehouse after her long absence in the balloon.  Ned Malone has left for a quest to find The Meaning of Life.

Many thanks to my tireless beta-reader.  Any mistakes that remain are because I didn't take her excellent advice.

Shall we begin?

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"George, you know I'm not a writer!  Malone has all the imagination around here, not me!  I can scarcely put two words together.  Hell, back in London I didn't even write my own letters!  My solicitor did them all!"  Roxton pushed his chair away from the great room table and bounded to his feet.  The chair crashed to the floor, and Challenger bent over to pick it up.

Since dinner Roxton had been ricocheting off the furniture and the other Treehouse inhabitants.  He ought to use the frenetic energy to catch up on his chores down on the ground, but he didn't want to leave his friends.  He needed them close enough to touch.

Quick exasperation clouded Challenger's face.  After spending a large part of the last twenty-four hours burning in Hell, world-heavy weariness sagged his aging frame.  "Look, John, do what you think best, but you asked me what I thought."  Challenger picked up a small stack of paper and a pen from the table and offered them to Roxton.  "And I think that you have a choice between praying, cursing, or taking this pen and writing down your experience with Death.  I highly recommend the writing.  There's much to be said for catharsis.  It cleanses the soul.  Surely during your time in Tibet …"

Roxton's ears stopped listening.  In his mind he re-climbed a snowy Himalayan slope and pounded on a monastery door.  Behind it he'd learned to control the black fury and grief that had been eating away his life after William's death.  But apparently all he did was control and darkness still lurked in the corners of his heart.  It had escaped when he denied Death her victory and now the rough beast wouldn't re-submit.  Wailing and whining, it goaded him with memories of Marguerite, Challenger and Veronica burning, burning, burning …

In so much Death had won the game.  Roxton had lost his fragile peace.

With a wordless growl, Roxton snatched the writing materials from Challenger's hands.  "I'd be more convinced if Malone weren't so inclined to wander off into his dream world.  There's catharsis and then there's diarrhea.  But I'll have a go at it, if you say so."

Challenger's cloud of exasperation dissipated and an affectionate sunny smile kissed the thin lips.  "Try it, my boy.  I think you'll be surprised.  As for Malone, I suspect his writing stabilizes him.  He's a very imaginative fellow.  Just think what he'd be like if all his fantasies stayed locked up inside."

Roxton rolled his eyes as he sat down at the table.  "He'd be so full of hot air that he'd float away and take the Treehouse with him."

"And you say you don't have an imagination, John!  Malone float away?  Ha-ha!"  Chuckling, Challenger picked up his tea and headed for the laboratory.  "I'll be downstairs for a bit, then I'm going to bed.  Good night."

"G'night."

Alone in the great room now, Roxton rested the steel nib of his fountain pen on a blank sheet and waited for something to happen.  After about ten seconds, when the pen didn't start writing by itself, he snorted with disgust and wrote down the first words that came to mind.  A few more followed.  Soon the pen raced across the page.  Deeply buried in his memories, Roxton didn't notice when Marguerite and Veronica returned from their showering and settled on the balcony.

"I know you might not be ready for him, Veronica, but Ned loves you.  He loves no one but you.  I'm sure of it."  Marguerite watched Veronica's face as she whispered the words.  Fatigue etched deep lines around Veronica's soft summer-rose mouth and painted the hazel eyes with lavender shadows.  Veronica was exhausted.  They all were.

Today three of them had burned in Hell and the fourth had burned his soul.

Like dark and fair reflections of each other, Marguerite and Veronica sat on the divan wrapped in brightly blue-striped cotton Zanga robes, their heads resting on the bamboo balustrade.  So low did they whisper that Roxton, who wrote at the great room table, didn't overhear.  Veronica turned her head away from Marguerite to look at a golden setting sun shining obliquely through the trees.  "Why did Ned leave us then?  Did he give up on me?"  Veronica quickly looked sideways at Marguerite.  "I mean, did he think I was dead?"

Marguerite shook her head.  "Ned never gave up hope.  He talked about you every day.  And he wrote about you every night like he always does.  I know.  He left all of his journals behind.  They're in his room."  Veronica's face seemed to disintegrate a bit.  The corners of her eyes and mouth turned down.  The lines in her forehead deepened.

Only Veronica's iron will had brought her home to her family.  But without Ned, that family was incomplete, and her will was rusting away, leaving her with uncertainty and lamentations.  Marguerite understood because she'd been there just last night, and the soul-empty loneliness still nibbled her heart.

And she and Veronica both had been abandoned by their parents.  Ned didn't known about Marguerite's loss, but he knew about Veronica's, and it hadn't stopped him from leaving.

Ned had a lot of apologizing to do when he returned -- if he returned -- and not just to Veronica, but to all of them.  He'd hurt everyone in their little family.  Even Roxton sometimes picked up one of Ned's journals and read a page or two.  Then he'd go out and work off his feelings by chopping more firewood.  Without Ned to share their heavier chores, Roxton always had something to do.

The sun's last rays made molten gold of the unshed tears pooled in Veronica's eyes.  She turned away from the familiar vista, sat upright, and combed fingers through her lion's mane of hair.  Burying her feelings for future consideration, with a huff Veronica blew away her sorrow, and when she spoke her voice was strong.  "I'll have to read them."  She pinched her nose and wiped at her eyes.  "You know, I think I'm ready for bed.  I can't remember the last time I slept."

Marguerite took Veronica's hand and squeezed.  "Alright, but I think it's George's turn to do breakfast tomorrow, and you know what that means."

Veronica laughed, and together she and Marguerite chorused, "Burnt toast and coffee!"  Challenger had fairly good cooking skills, but breakfast was not his meal.  He was usually too anxious to get to his laboratory and start the day's experiment.

Marguerite watched Veronica's departing back.  Veronica had been so sad.  Marguerite had wanted to hold her close and tell her everything would be all right, but Veronica hadn't asked for comforting and the moment had slipped away.

Gently tender family feelings were an unfamiliar sensation for Marguerite, although she'd often seen them in Roxton -- that is, when he wasn't charging around like a wounded t-rex as he was tonight.  She glanced his way.  He hadn't looked away from his writing since she and Veronica had come up from the shower.  Challenger had really started something.  Roxton was so absorbed he'd lost all his hunter instincts.

A stray thought wandered into Marguerite's mind and before she could chase it out, it whispered in her ear:  If Roxton was, as she'd once told him, the "father" figure of the Treehouse family, would she be the mother if she married him?  Perish the thought.  With a grin and a shake of her head, Marguerite took a lamp off the wall and made it ready to light.

Well, at least I can boil water, Marguerite told herself as she pulled the rocking kettle off the cook fire, and that means I can make tea.  After measuring a double spoonful of tealeaves into a sturdy earthenware pot, she slowly poured in the water.  Marguerite left coffee making to Roxton, who seemed to have a magic caffeine touch, but tea she could manage, tea and most things that didn't need to be put to a flame.  Other than boiling water, Marguerite and the Treehouse cook fire simply didn't get along.

Taking Roxton's favored porcelain cup from the shelf, Marguerite poured in milk and tea.  She set it by the lamp she'd lit an hour ago and served herself.  Roxton didn't seem to see anything but his moving pen, which in the last ten minutes or so had slowed from a dead run to a walk.  His beefy shoulders had begun to bow.

After Veronica had gone to bed, Marguerite had pulled out the mountain of mending and had stitched diligently while she watched Roxton wrestle with his memories.

Most days Roxton had a grin like Alice's Cheshire cat.  And like the cat his smile often lingered after him.  As with Roxton's guns and the man's almost over-whelming physicality, the grin made him who he was.

Marguerite had never quite decided if she loved or hated that grin, but tonight as Roxton wrote he wasn't smiling.  His most dependable stress barometer -- his lower lip -- had pulled down and folded out.  His upper lip squared off an arch above exposed white teeth.  The high-boned cheeks were flushed.  Roxton's sunken eyes followed his moving pen.  In the yellow lamplight it was hard to tell, but his eyes seemed a little shiny.

All in all, Roxton looked to be in pain and Marguerite ached for him.

Marguerite had been hesitant to interrupt Roxton's cathartic fervor, but it was getting late.  Alone and abandoned in the Treehouse, Marguerite had slept last night, if you could call that drunken stupor sleep, but Roxton, like Veronica and Challenger, had been captive in Death's domain and awake for two solid days.

If she helped Roxton to bed, it would lead to complications.  It always did.  And complications were one thing Marguerite didn't need.

For most of the last two years she and Roxton had frolicked, fought and enjoyed each other's bodies.  Then this year Roxton had re-activated something in her dead heart, some little kernel of human feeling.  Now Marguerite could bear no more fun and games.  Love was a serious pursuit, and every time Roxton touched her, she panicked.  Marguerite couldn't afford to love Roxton.  She had … obligations.

Of course, he didn't understand why she'd cut him off, and she didn't know how to explain.  Roxton was patient.  He didn't give up.  But avoiding the worst temptations made it easier on both of them.

So Marguerite had laid aside her sewing and made the tea.  But it wasn't pulling Roxton away from his writing, and she had to do something more direct.  Tiptoeing to the table, with a stealthy fingertip Marguerite slipped the three remaining blank sheets of paper off the table one by one.  He didn't seem to notice.  Mission accomplished, she sat down, sipped her tea and waited for Roxton to finish his final page.

Marguerite's love was the strongest of all.  It was stronger than Death and stronger than pain and fear.  It reached me past Death's door.  I need no other proof she loves me.  And I know that I….

Roxton's pen ran out of fresh empty space and without looking he reached for a new sheet of paper.  His hand found only bare table boards.

"Wha …?"  He looked up to find Marguerite sitting across from him sipping at a steaming mug.  "Marguerite, where's the rest of my writing paper?"  Marguerite coolly returned his glare.  Roxton had seen brick walls with more expression, but brick walls weren't as beautiful as Marguerite.  The opulent inner curve of her left breast peeked through her robe's loose front.  Lamplight glinted on the cascade of dark hair.

Marguerite answered, "Oh, I don't think there's any more paper up here.  But Challenger keeps some down in the lab.  Would you like me to look?"

Marguerite knew damn well he wouldn't.  Challenger's bedroom faced the laboratory and she might wake him up.  There wasn't any call for that.  "No, of course not."  He put down the pen, leaned back, stuck out his arms and stretched.  "I was about finished anyway."  He rocked his head from side to side and rolled his shoulders.  "You know, I'd never realized:  Writing is hard work."

When Roxton's arms came back down, he picked up the aromatic cup of tea.  He took a soothing sip and sighed.  Just right, milky and strong.  But when Marguerite made him tea, she usually wanted something.  Best get it over with.  He was too tired for guessing games.  "So what is it you need this time, Marguerite?  Just tell me and I'll take care of it."

Marguerite's eyebrows went down in a scowl.  "I have to want something to make you tea?"  Her voice had a knife-sharp edge of accusation.

Marguerite had put Roxton in the wrong again.  How did she do that?  "No, of course not.  Sorry, just tired.  Thank you for the cuppa."  He toasted her with it and took another reviving sip.

Marguerite shifted uncomfortably in her chair.  "Well, actually there is something."

Oh yes, here it comes.  What is it, Marguerite?  You want me to take another turn at cooking?  Roxton truly didn't care.  Marguerite deserved a little pampering.  She'd saved not only his life, but also his very soul.

"I'd like to read what you wrote tonight.  Call it morbid curiosity."

Surprised, but in a small way flattered, Roxton picked up the fluffy stack of sheets, flipped through them quickly to check their sequence then passed them over.  "Enjoy yourself, but no editing, okay?  I'm not Neddy-boy."

Looking at the sheets in Marguerite's hands, Roxton almost had a change of heart.  He hadn't held back anything as he wrote, and he'd said a great deal about his feelings for Marguerite.  What would she think?  It had been six months since she … since the last time they had …  would it push her yet further away?  Too late now.  No doubt he'd find out in the morning, along with every misspelled word.

Marguerite held up two fingers together in the Boy Scout sign.  "Scout's honor.  No editing.  Mum's the word."

"Yeah, right."  Roxton caught the two fingers and brought them to his lips.  "Thank you," he whispered, "for saving us all from Hell."  He took her hand with both of his, a small white bird caught in a cage of thick brown fingers.  If only he could trap her heart so easily.

"You saved us, John, not me, but you're welcome.  Any time.  Any place."  Marguerite squeezed Roxton's hand.  "Just whistle.  You know how to whistle, don't you?"

"Sure do."  He demonstrated a low-pitched warble.  They laughed.  "I think I'd better go to bed.  I'm getting kinda giddy."

Marguerite poured the remaining tea into her mug and took it and the table lamp out to the balcony divan.  There a slight breeze made the evening a bit more bearable.  The lamp would attract insects, but they were everywhere.  She settled back and sighed.  It would be a while before she'd turn in.  Like Roxton, Marguerite was wound up like a crank-start motorcar, and she'd had much more sleep.  Perhaps Roxton's writing would be a good soporific.  The man wasn't a philosopher, and he'd only been jotting down his thoughts.

Marguerite had seen only a few samples of Roxton's handwriting and those no more than a word or two, but now she had page after page.  Taking up the top sheet, the first thing she noticed was the boldness of his hand.  His t's were crossed with long sword slashes and his g's looped across several lines.  Every letter was fully rounded and squared with military precision.  All the lines sloped up across the page.

Since Roxton's big hands forced him to write large, despite the inter-tangling g's the pages were easy enough to read and Marguerite began.

Aristotle said that the gods live on mountains.  Most religions agree with that.  I've seen it everywhere.  The Greeks had their Mount Olympus, the Jews and Christians Mount Sinai.  I was with Bingham when he discovered the Incan holy city of Machu Picchu in the Andes of Peru.  I've explored among the man-made mountains of Egyptian pharaoh tombs.  And long ago with Father I climbed Mount Fuji in Japan.  It's all clear enough:  If you seek God, you must climb up.

One morning about nine years ago, two years after I shot William, I awoke in a London street with no memory of the previous week.  I'd been robbed and beaten.  At the hospital the doctor said he'd treat my wounds but I needed a reason to live or I'd be dead within a year.  I thought about that for a day or so while I dried out, and not coming up with a better reason than sparing poor Mother's nerves -- and that one mostly spurious as she and I hadn't exchanged a dozen words since Father's funeral and my assumption of the title -- I decided I'd best ask God's advice, and I went to the highest mountains I could find:  the Himalayas.  There I can't say that I found God, but in a Buddhist monastery I did find peace.

And what did I learn?  I studied all five levels.  And what I took away from it was this:  To live in this moment, not yesterday.  To release the past and embrace tomorrow.  That for me, love and loyalty are the most important things in the world.

Over a winter of snow and study I re-built my life on that foundation.  When I arrived back in England, I spent one whole month with Mother catching up.  It was awkward at first, but my mother is a strong woman and finally I was a strong man.

But tonight I'm not doing so well.  Once again I burn with raging grief.  When I close my eyes I see Marguerite's face in Death's flames.  If I lost her … if I lost all my friends, well, I don't know how long I'd stay alive.  Although they're back safe with me, for a few minutes I thought Death had won and I had lost.  It left an emptiness that's still inside.

And when I think of all that my friends suffered at Death's hands, the pain and terror, all because of me, because Death wanted me in her power, I almost can't look them in the eye.

Death will have its victory if I can't reclaim my peace.  It takes a large love of Life to survive here on the Plateau.  I don't know that I have it anymore.  Some day soon a dinosaur will chase me or an arrow will come my way and I may say, "Oh, what the Hell!" and forget to live.

I have no fear of Death.  I flirt with her far too often, at least as often as I flirt with Marguerite.

Marguerite put down the sheet she was reading (she was almost up to page five) and rubbed her eyes.  "Damn you, Roxton," she sniffled.  "Why can't you be predictable?"  This was not going to put her to sleep, and she'd already read too much.  She couldn't just put it down and walk away.  She had to know more.

Perhaps that's why Death chose the form of a pouting woman to play her game -- because I've flirted with her so much.  Or perhaps it indicates Death's ambition to be something more than ugliness and brutality.  She certainly spent a lot of time defending herself.

And I do wonder why Death chose to be a redhead.  I've never favored them myself.  Too flashy by half.  Marguerite's brunette is more my style.  I love to twist my fingers in Marguerite's hair.  I love those gray eyes, and that elfin face.  I love …

But I digress.  And writing about what I can't have is not going to get me anywhere.  She'll come back to me eventually.  I know she will.  I've just frightened her somehow.  Marguerite touches me every day.  She lets me kiss her.  Sometimes she kisses me.  I will wait for her to return to me.  I think that's what she wants.

Marguerite had reached the bottom of another page.  She sat back to let Roxton's words sink in.  Marguerite knew that his feelings for her had grown, but this came near to an open declaration.  At that moment, if Roxton had been sitting with her on the balcony, his waiting would be over.

Deep breaths.  Calm down, Marguerite.  He's not here.  He's asleep, Marguerite told herself and reached for her tea.  She had it half way to her mouth when a fluttery teacup tempest splashed liquid on her knuckle.  She looked inside to find that several large insects had drowned their sorrows in her tea.  Irritably tossing the cupful of tragedy off the balcony, Marguerite went back to the kitchen board, took down a clean cup and poured herself some of Challenger's melon brandy.  Last night Marguerite had drunk more than her usual share, but with Malone gone, they had plenty and to spare, and if she didn't take something for her nerves, she'd never get to sleep.

Sitting down again, Marguerite picked up the next page.  She'd read about half the small stack.  In these next pages, Roxton's bold handwriting grew a bit less precise.

Back to the topic at hand -- Death and her morbid little game.  I wonder if Death understood how and why she lost.  I don't think she did.

Death didn't seem to know the transitory nature of her Realm, that her precious kingdom of shadows actually belongs to God and that He will some day reclaim it.  She brushed off Donne's notion that "One short sleep past, we wake eternally, and death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die," claiming that she counted the poet among her inmates, but I think my thrust skewered the bitch dead center.

Ha!  "Dead center" -- what a horrible pun!  I definitely should leave the professional writing to Malone.

Anyway, when I saw that, I knew some of Death's weaknesses.  She had no notion of man's free will.  She'd never heard of reincarnation or salvation or immortality.  She didn't seem to know that here on Earth, Death has power for a little while, but in Eternity she'll lose it all.

When I realized I was gaming for my friends' lives on Earth, but not their souls, a little of my burden fell away.  Death lied to me, tried to convince me otherwise, but I knew.  I knew.  A childhood of Sundays spent in church will do that for you.  I learned some things in my bones, and not just the hardness of wooden pews.  I guess that absolute conviction is what they mean by faith.

Marguerite's Catholic.  I ought to ask her how she saw past Death's game.  Did she have an epiphany when Death came for her?  Or was it her religious training at the convent boarding school?

Marguerite resisted an impulse to crumple up this page into a ball and throw it across the room.  Roxton had assumed …  Well, most upper-class children went to boarding schools.  Roxton probably had gone to one himself.  But as a child, after her parents had abandoned her, Marguerite hadn't lived in comfy heated halls, slept between white sheets or eaten decent food.  Her convent hadn't been a boarding school, but an orphanage.

So far Marguerite's brandy cup had remained insect free.  Taking several headily fragrant sips, she eyed the thin stack of unread pages.  Could she bear to finish Roxton's drivel?  The arrogant ass didn't understand anything about her.  He hadn't looked beyond the pretty face.  Roxton wanted the same as every man -- her body and her kisses, not who she was, not the real Marguerite.

Marguerite stood up and almost tossed the pages into the night, but she stopped with her arm half extended.  To be fair, based on the façade she'd adopted for the Challenger expedition, Roxton had made a perfectly reasonable assumption.  In fact, it was a compliment.  He thought her background upper class -- what she'd always longed for -- not orphanages and gutters.  Marguerite sat back down and slammed the pages into a divan cushion.  She couldn't throw them away.  The pages were a favor granted at her own request.

Moreover, they gave her a window into Roxton's soul.  Roxton wasn't omnisciently wise.  He just seemed that way sometimes.

Somewhere in the Treehouse a snore started up.  Marguerite listened.  Roxton didn't snore often, but when he did, he sort of hummed.  Challenger's snore sawed logs.  Malone wasn't here, but his snore had a cough.  Marguerite sometimes wondered if he'd been asthmatic as child.  This snore was high pitched and chirpy, and it could only be … yes, it had to be Veronica.  Marguerite smiled.  She knew these people intimately, right down to their snores.

Casting about for something to protect her brandy from suicidal bugs, Marguerite found only Roxton's papers.  Finally she laid the last three of them on her cup and taking a fourth returned to her reading.

Marguerite says that I'd outsmarted Death too many times.  Death had to prove to her Master that she could still do her job, her Master, of course, being Lucifer.

Marguerite is right.  Death served Hell.  Never again will I refer to the "angel of death."  Hah!  Death proved herself to be a demon, and no mistake.

I thought Death jealous of me, even covetous, if you will.  That I'd teased her too often with my narrow escapes and she'd taken everyone I love to even the score.  I thought Death could steal a life before its time.  That's what she claimed, but I should have recognized the lie.  She lied about everything.

Marguerite is so full of magic that sometimes I think she's half spirit.  Somehow she broke through her hideous hellfire pain and yelled to me that Death would only win if I let her.  But slow top that I am, I didn't fully understand.

Marguerite shook her head as she picked up the next page.  Roxton gave himself so little credit.  Only King Arthur's Sir Lancelot had a purer soul.  And Roxton was a man, not a fairy tale.

I thought if I gave Death what she wanted -- me -- she'd release my friends.  As a suicide I'd damn my soul for Eternity, but it seemed a small price to pay.  As I knelt there, the dueling pistol to my jaw, my finger on the trigger, Marguerite's words kept rattling in my head:  I was going to let Death win.

Death had already stolen so much from me.  She'd taken my brother in his youth and brought my great bull of a father down with a heart attack.  Death was a liar and cheat, and no matter what I did, she'd never release my friends.  The greedy bitch held every playing chip but mine, and she wanted that one too.

I'm ashamed to say my rage took over.

"And thank God, for that," Marguerite whispered as she finished that page.  She'd seen all of this happening and had been so afraid of what Roxton would do.  Roxton had no sense of self-preservation and so little fear of death, it was almost a liability.

I didn't pull that trigger.  Why?  I don't know.  A rational answer would be that I hoped to save my soul and join Challenger, Veronica and Marguerite in Eternity.  Life is short and all religions promise a long Hereafter.  But with my rage in charge, I don't think that was my true reason.  At that moment, I didn't care about Eternity; I didn't care about anything but denying Death the victory.

Then Death taunted me with her hourglass.  "Oh, look you're out of time," she said.  I refused to play that game again.  I told Death that time had lost its meaning and taking the pistol, I blasted the sands of my life everywhere.  I thought that would send me to straight to Hell, but to my amazement Death lost her power.

With trembling fingers, Marguerite took Roxton's last page off her brandy cup and the warm perfume of sweet melons floated up again.  Holding the brandy in both hands, she took a deep whiff then several sips.  It calmed her.

Marguerite hadn't really wanted to remember that part.

Shooting the hourglass had been a typical Roxton move:  No thought or plan, just action.  Roxton could have killed himself.  He could have annihilated the cosmos for that matter.  He hadn't, but it wasn't from lack of trying.  You had to believe someone with Roxton's phenomenal luck had Divine protection.

Perhaps that was the true explanation for Death's little game -- Hell trying to steal Heaven's purest soul.  She would never know.

Picking up the last page again, Marguerite returned to her reading.  Roxton's broad writing looked relaxed, and his military precision had gone on furlough.  More than half scrawl, the words danced like drunken dwarves.  Some were tall, some short; some were round, others thin.  And yes, well, to be honest Marguerite was just a little drunk.

Even when I found myself at the windmill, I still believed that Death had won.  I've never seen anything so sweet as Marguerite running to me across the meadow, unless it was Challenger following after.  And Veronica!  Veronica home at last!

Death thought she would win her games.  Death thought herself stronger than anything on Earth, but now she knows there's something stronger:  Love, the strongest thing both in this life and beyond the grave.

Marguerite's love was the strongest of all.  It was stronger than Death and stronger than pain and fear.  It reached me past Death's door.  I need no other proof she loves me.  And I know that I….

That was the end, the last unfinished sentence on the page.

"Damn it, Roxton couldn't you squeeze in two more words?" Marguerite muttered and sniffled.  Leaning back, resting the back of her head on the balustrade, she looked up at a vast sky spangled with southern stars.  A shooting star raced across the sky, east to west, and disappeared among the trees.  Marguerite listened for an impact, but there was no sound other than the wind soughing through the trees.

Roxton loved her.  He'd as good as said it.  What would that mean?

It wouldn't mean anything good for Roxton.  He could never have the heart of Marguerite Krux.  It wasn't hers to give away.  Long ago she'd traded it for a birthright, and for gold and diamonds.  He must never know that.  Let him think her a fine lady; let him think her a thief.  Let him think her anything but the heartless emptiness she'd been for years.

But Roxton loved her.  Despite all her lies, the emptiness and the secrets, he loved her.  Wasn't there a song about that?  Something about a blind and foolish heart?  Roxton even thought Marguerite loved him.  The utterly blind, sweet fool.  How could she disappoint such a trusting heart?

Rapidly guttering lamplight made faint Treehouse shadows dance.  The lamp was nearly out of oil.  Marguerite turned its flame down to a whispery memory and picked up the stack of papers.  Glancing around to make sure the Treehouse was secure for the night -- the cook fire doused and the elevator locked -- she took the steps down to Roxton's room.

Roxton awoke to butterflies.  That's what it felt like -- butterfly wings gently brushing his arm.  Apparently he'd forgotten to pull the mosquito net.  But a hip-shaped warmth pressed against his side.  His bed ropes squeaked.  He had company.  Someone sat on Roxton's bed, but whether woman or butterfly, it was hard to tell.

Eyes closed, Roxton waited and assessed.

Butterflies didn't smell of gardenias, or have a fall of hair to spread on Roxton's chest like Chinese silk.  And that moistness on his nipple might be a butterfly, but it felt more like a woman's kiss.

Had Marguerite … did she want him tonight?  It had been so long.  Roxton's heart beat in heavy thuds.  Afraid he'd frighten her away, Roxton lay absolutely still while a soft hand explored his body.  Marguerite knew all the places he liked touched.

He groaned.

"John?"  The word flitted.  He raised a cupped hand and a smooth cheek filled it.  Lips played across his fingers.

His bed ropes shifted.  Roxton tipped back and forth then like a delicate butterfly, a woman's body was brushing his.

He opened his eyes.

At the bedside a lamp burned low, almost to the point of vanishing.  A Zanga robe fluttered on the chair.  And next to Roxton, woman, she of the butterfly touches and silken hair.  Lifting an arm, Roxton offered his shoulder for her pillow.  Marguerite accepted with a heart-deep sigh.

"I've missed you," Roxton whispered in her ear.

Brandy sweet lips brushed his.  "Shhh.  Hold me close.  Don't let me go."

"Never, my love," Roxton answered.  "You're mine for Eternity."

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Holy Sonnets: Death, be not Proud

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
   And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
   And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
   And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
   One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
   And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

By John Donne (1572-1631)

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