One of Her Better Days
As the first rays of sunrise peaked through her window and coaxed her to open her eyes, she knew without a shadow of a doubt that this particular dawn heralded the start of one of her better days – maybe even a good day!
Marguerite Krux hadn't encountered many 'better days' in her turbulent life. In fact, such bright spots had been so few and far between that she'd long ago trained herself to expect the worst each day. But somehow, although she knew better, there were days when she simply couldn't sustain her protective pessimism. So when she awakened with an unusually optimistic feeling that matched the rising sun shining in her window, she opted not to suppress her rising anticipation. This might just be The Day I've been waiting for, the golden, red-letter Day when everything will finally fall into place!
And if today really is the day, then this is no morning to waste by lingering in here, trying to duck out on the chores or avoid my housemates. No, I want to be ready for whatever this day brings! She kicked back the light coverlet, swept aside the mosquito netting, and bounded gracefully from her bed, then paused with her head tilted a bit to one side to listen, a glint of eagerness in her silver-green eyes. Can I match my record this morning?
The cacophony that surrounded their jungle treehouse seemed normal. Now that she'd been stuck in this lost world for several months, she could identify dozens of the noises that constituted this area of the plateau's symphony of sound. Careful observation each day had enabled her to connect more and more of the different jungle 'voices' with their correct species of insect, bird or animal. She played this game daily as she dressed, seeing if she could accurately name the source of at least one more sound than she had the day before. To her satisfaction, she'd succeeded more mornings than she'd failed. Moreover, the complex plateau apparently had enough varieties of species that she should be able to amuse herself with the private game for many months to come, should the way home continue to elude the explorers.
Not that she had any intention of achieving complete mastery of the activity she'd invented. No, she planned to strike gold - either metaphorically or literally, she didn't really care which at this point - and be long gone from this annoyingly primitive place before she could identify all the sources of the constant noise. But until she found something valuable to make this trip to the South American plateau worth her while, playing the game alleviated the tedium of being stranded. Besides which, she smiled slyly to herself, I rather enjoy the challenge of gathering information without alerting any of the others that I'm doing it. And what I've learned so far has already proven valuable; it enables me to be less reliant on the others. Always nice to come up with a game that has a practical benefit. Marguerite smugly noted and labeled the Sapajou monkeys chattering to the south of the Treehouse and then picked out the lower timbre of the quieter marmosets to the east as well. Then, triumphantly, she placed the clear call of the curassow, a bird with funny spike-like feathers on its head. Good old Summerlee pointed that one out to me only yesterday, she recalled. And that makes three new sounds added to my tally this morning!
The record number boded well for her hope that today she might hit her long-awaited jackpot. The possibility of finally finding some sign of where the Ouroboros lay hidden was delicious. If it does turn up today and the legends are true, I could have my birth certificate by nightfall. Marguerite ran her brush through her hair and deftly braided it, dreamy-eyed as she contemplated learning her true name and the names of her birth parents. With that paper in hand, it shouldn't be hard to trace my family. Today could be The Day, yes indeed!
Marguerite opened her small jewelry box and hesitated. Should I wear earrings today? I only brought a half dozen pair, and I've already lost several pieces. Perhaps I'll wait to see what's on the schedule for today before I decide. I don't want to risk losing any more of them if we're going to be making another foray through the jungle. As always, before she closed the lid of the small but ornate box she was compelled to lift out the locket she'd had since childhood, so she could reread the inscription on the simple gold heart: To our daughter Marguerite, forever in our thoughts.
Her eyes lifted back to the small mirror, and she studied her reflection hungrily. This might be the day when I learn the names of the couple who gave me life. When I leave this room today it might be the last time; today could end back in Shanghai, where I'll be one step closer to finding out if I have the same color eyes as my mother or my father, whose smile I inherited, and which of my parents bequeathed me my curls. All the answers to the mystery of my gift with languages and the puzzles of my past could be just over the horizon today.
With her pleasant daydreams lingering in her mind, the slim brunette stepped from behind the hanging cloth that served as her bedroom door, and she smiled at the first person she saw.
The fair-haired American's jaw dropped and he stared after her in stunned bemusement as she breezed on by him and took the stairs to the upper level with a surprisingly bouncy step, oblivious to Ned's reaction.
"What's got you gaping like a fish out of water, Malone?" asked Lord John Roxton in amusement as he came up behind the younger man. His keen dark green eyes quizzically followed Ned's flabbergasted gaze upward in time to recognize Marguerite. The hunter sighed as he finished pulling his braces into place over his broad shoulders. "What's she done now?" he asked in resignation.
Ned gestured slowly after the fast-disappearing figure of the lovely brunette. "She smiled at me! For no reason!"
Roxton's hands stilled against his shoulders and he blinked, his brows lifting blankly. "She what? Marguerite?!"
Ned tore his gaze from the now empty stairwell to focus on the tall hunter beside him. "I'm not imagining things, Roxton. Marguerite Krux " he hesitated, second-guessing his own perception. Had she? No, he hadn't imagined it; yes, she really had! He repeated, "She smiled at me."
The hunter's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Wonder what she's up to now?" he muttered darkly, and purposefully ascended the curved stairs.
Ned came out of his daze and hurried after the dark-haired man. "Maybe it's nothing," he suggested, not truly believing his own words but dreading the thought of a new dust-up from the expedition's financier. There was adventure enough in this lost world without adding Marguerite's shenanigans in her constant search for profit.
"With Marguerite, it's never 'nothing'," growled the group's self-appointed guardian.
Conceding that the other man had a valid point, Ned nodded.
But although the two men kept a sharp eye on the unpredictable beauty, there was no sign that she was either undertaking a new plot or indulging in any aberrant behavior designed to amuse herself at someone else's expense. In fact, as the group gathered at the table for breakfast Marguerite behaved almost politely – at least, more politely than was customary for the acerbic brunette. She curled her lip in disdain at the meal prepared by their hostess, but refrained from her usual scathing commentary comparing the plateau food to 'civilized fare'.
Challenger and Summerlee, absorbed as usual in a disagreement over the scientific name of something they'd seen while out the day before, took no note of Marguerite's comparatively open expression and pleasant demeanor. And Veronica, who'd grown accustomed to the other woman's regular contempt for her cooking, her home, and her lifestyle, regarded Marguerite's unspoken disgust as a pretty normal reaction. However, when the choosy brunette didn't voice one of her typical derogatory comments as she accepted a miniscule portion of pterodactyl quiche, the omission aroused the leather-clad blonde's suspicion.
Roxton and Malone held their breath as the temperamental lady noticed Veronica's incautiously revealed distrust. For just a moment, Marguerite clearly debated whether to be amused or offended, but then her silver-green eyes began to twinkle. The men released their breath in unconscious relief, Ned audibly enough to draw her attention. One fine brow arched at finding both men guardedly watching her. Once again, though, Marguerite chose not to be riled. Instead she smirked at the three of them, "What, you want me to complain?"
"No, no, not at all," Veronica dryly assured her as she helped herself to a much larger serving of quiche. "I'm just wondering what's put you in this good mood."
Her lashes dropped over the gleam in her eyes and an enigmatic smile curved her lips as Marguerite smugly drawled, "Wouldn't you like to know?"
This more typical Margueritish response was somewhat reassuring to her companions. She rarely acted so self-satisfied when scheming to get her own way; if she were up to something she'd be smooth as honey. Still, something odd was going on.
Blithely unconcerned about the suspicions she'd aroused, she ignored the three younger explorers in favor of imagining the look on Xan's face when she brought him the fully restored Ouroboros and he had to hand over her birth certificate. She was distracted from her pleasant ruminations, though, when Challenger's fist hammered on the table in emphasis of his point, making plates and cups bounce; his disagreement with Summerlee was escalating. That's always good for a bit of entertainment.
Marguerite's watchful companions relaxed a little more when a familiar smile of malicious enjoyment began to play about her lips as she observed the raging debate. Her gaze shifted from one man to the other with wry amusement, which made the others suddenly realize they had more to worry about than her. Tempers more and more heated, the two older gentlemen pushed their half-eaten food aside, appetites forgotten in the midst of intellectual battle.
The egotistical mannerisms and fantastical assumptions of the red-headed scientist always provoked the otherwise mild-mannered Summerlee into defending his own more common-sense-based knowledge and theories, and today was no exception. Their wrangling was as familiar as Marguerite's mischievous troublemaking, but far more predictable. When Challenger rose furiously and seized his plate, the others weren't quite certain what he intended, but Ned and Veronica leapt to their feet and intervened to prevent the two scholars from damaging either the tableware or one another.
Veronica captured Challenger's arm in mid-descent and stopped him from inadvertently using his plate as if it were a gavel to hammer home his point. Relieved that she'd rescued her mother's china, she firmly eased the treasured item from his grip and set it back down on the table as she sternly warned, "Enough of that, Professor!"
The ginger-haired genius blinked at her in momentary confusion. He'd been so wrapped in his argument with his nemesis that he'd forgotten the others were present. His cheeks reddened as he realized he was being rebuked for endangering the Layton china. He couldn't help but recall the many times his wife had reprimanded him for doing the same thing at home, lamenting the loss of yet another cup, plate, vase, or whatever other frippery item he might have absently taken hold of when in the heat of debate. About to apologize, his momentary remorse was vanquished when his attention was caught by Malone's soft-spoken words from across the table.
Challenger's mouth thinned mulishly as he saw that the American was coaxing a chastened Summerlee back into his chair. Good heavens, these children were treating them as if they were merely wrangling tots! All concern about manners aside, didn't they comprehend that the truth was vital?! These foolish youngsters had no respect for the importance of scholarly pursuits! Insulted and offended, he glared at his young hostess, but she only shook her finger at him. Though she smiled to take the sting from her rebuke, he turned abruptly on his heel and strode off to his lab, muttering under his breath about the impertinence of the younger generation.
Summerlee, on the other hand, flushed in embarrassment at having let his opponent goad him into an unmannerly show of temper at the table. "I do beg your pardon," he apologized sheepishly as Ned eased him down onto his seat with a supporting hand under his elbow. "That man does bring out the worst in me."
"Quite all right, Professor," Ned assured him politely, and reseated himself beside the white-bearded gentleman. "You'd best finish your breakfast. It's a long time until lunch."
"Quite right." Blinking owlishly at his remaining quiche, Summerlee reached for his fork. "It would be a shame to miss even a mouthful of this delicious repast."
Veronica smiled her appreciation of his compliment, and gracefully settled back onto her chair so she could return to her own unfinished meal. "I'm glad you like it, Professor."
Roxton, once he'd seen that Veronica had Challenger well in hand, had given his full attention to Marguerite. It wouldn't have surprised him if she'd tried to encourage the two men's argument – she'd done it before, purely for her own amusement – but this morning she simply sighed and resumed eating. When she grimaced with distaste at the next dainty mouthful, the nobleman was satisfied and allowed himself to ease his vigilance. "So what's on the agenda for today, Veronica?"
"The usual chores, and then it's time for the harvesting we talked about this past week "
Harvesting that's in the direction of that site her mother wrote of. What a perfect opportunity! This could be the very opportunity I've needed! Marguerite listened to their hostess's suggested schedule for the day's activities. Her mind whirled as she laid her own plans, although to the others it appeared that she was ignoring the conversation with her usual disinterest in anything that smacked of work.
By the time the group completed the regular morning chores that followed breakfast, the strange incident between Malone and Marguerite was forgotten.
With so many people now living in the treehouse, Veronica needed to restock the pantry's supply of preserved foodstuff, especially the fruits they relied upon to stay healthy in the tropical, insect-infested climate. It was vital to ensure that they had preserved fruit to last through the inevitable periods of heat waves that withered and wasted vegetation. As their hostess had explained when she first introduced the topic a week or so earlier, although they could gather smaller quantities of year-round fruits on a day to day basis, the time for harvesting the best quality of each type of fruit came only once a year. The more they could gather and store at each peak harvest time, the less time and effort they would need to expend on supplementing their diet the remainder of the year. She also pointed out that the more workers who joined in the reaping, the sooner they could be done and get back to their normal activities.
Today was the perfect day to do it, Veronica declared, and no one argued, although Marguerite did put up a token show of resistance. She'd already drawn Roxton's attention once today by acting out of character when she'd refrained from criticizing breakfast. Now that she knew the plan for the day, it was doubly important to maintain the persona the others had come to expect. She had no intention of allowing anyone to suspect that the proposed outing actually interested her – not that I intend to bother with the harvest for long, but hiking to the orchard will take me halfway to a site I've wanted to explore. She'd lulled the perceptive hunter into relaxing his suspicions with her carefully crafted attention to the two professors, and if today was to go as she now planned, she mustn't do anything to incite further suspicions.
She wasn't the only one with plans of her own. Ever since Veronica had first broached the need to do some harvesting, Challenger had been intrigued by the topic of drying, preserving and storing foods in the tropics. He'd spent the previous evenings immersed in the Layton journals to read up on their practices. Now that the day had arrived, the redheaded professor didn't join in their preparations for departure. With the intense look in his blue eyes that bespoke his preoccupation with a fascinating new concept, he announced, "I believe I can create a more efficient means of processing quantities of fruit preserves. If I can just have a few hours for uninterrupted effort I'm certain I can simplify and reduce the amount of work necessary."
Veronica, recalling the hours of work in the hot kitchen just to have enough pantry reserves to feed one person, gladly encouraged the ginger-haired scientist to pursue his improved procedure while the rest of them did the harvesting. "We'll all be thankful if you can do that, Challenger; the temperature is hot enough without prolonging a process that creates even more heat indoors," she explained, definitely intrigued. Then she decided that this might be the right time to introduce an idea she'd wanted to bring up with her houseguests since their arrival on the Plateau. "In fact, I strongly recommend that the rest of you leave any extra layers of clothing behind today; gathering the fruit will be hot enough work without your coats and vests."
Arthur was the main target of her advice, since he already had the most difficulty adjusting to the tropic climate. Marguerite followed the youthful blonde's gaze to the eldest of their party and, seeing the wisdom of the suggestion, chimed in with her own persuasive arguments. The old gentleman was difficult to convince, but eventually he agreed to undertake the hike and harvesting in his shirtsleeves instead of the traditional "proper" European attire. He looked distinctly uncomfortable about it, though, so to salve Summerlee's troubled conscience over this social solecism, Marguerite slipped out of her duster, draped it over the back of a chair, and smiled gently. "See, we're all going to follow Veronica's advice," she said, with a pointed look at the younger men. "Isn't that right, boys?"
Roxton nodded and magnanimously discarded both his leather vest and his jacket. "It'll definitely be cooler this way," he agreed.
Ned shrugged and grinned. "I've never been much for coats, and I quit wearing my long johns before we were halfway up the Amazon," he confessed with an unrepentant grin. "I only wear 'em now at night or when the wind is up, so I don't have any extra layers to worry about."
"Might be a good idea for us to do the same," Lord Roxton murmured thoughtfully. Like Summerlee, Challenger, and even Marguerite most of the time, he adhered to the strictures of their homeland regarding their layers of clothing, despite the heat on the plateau. It might be worth adjusting their habits in accord with their environment particularly if it meant he had the privilege of observing Marguerite's tempting figure without her thigh-length duster obscuring his view.
The dark-haired beauty caught his eye on her, and wrinkled her nose at him, as if she knew exactly what he was thinking. She probably does, he decided ruefully when she said flatly, "Don't be such a lout, Lord Roxton."
He chuckled and shrugged his broad shoulders beneath his bandoliered holsters, which felt much looser without the vest beneath them. "I have no idea what you're talking about, Miss Krux. Let's get moving, people. Daylight's a-wasting."
Considerably cooler, the more lightly-clothed group began the trek to the orchard planted years before by the Layton Expedition, while Challenger stayed behind to work in the lab.
The grove was only about an hour's walk from the treehouse. Although he huffed in his effort to keep up with the younger adults, Summerlee still peppered Veronica with questions about the methods Tom and Abigail Layton had used to tend their fruit trees. His professional curiosity was piqued to learn that no special husbandry had been employed for either the orchard or their garden patch at the base of the treehouse. Veronica explained that her father had chosen this particular site for the orchard because of its rich soil. "And he was right; everything he planted there has thrived."
Even forewarned by the jungle girl's description, the beauty of the small sheltered valley took their breath away when they reached the hilltop overlooking it. Tom Layton had laid out his orchard as much for scientific experimentation as for nutrition, planting to cross-pollinate fruit varieties as well as to maintain pure strains of the original seedlings he'd transported to the Plateau. He'd been wildly successful.
Their first sight of the lush fruit hanging ripe for picking and preserving, as well as other varieties just setting forth flowers or starting to fruit, made even Marguerite's eyes light with pleasure. Arthur Summerlee was awed, and as they descended into the groves he repeatedly claimed the younger explorers' attention with delighted exclamations over the variety, size and quality of the various types of fruit weighing down the branches.
They indulged his enthusiasm patiently, trailing along with him beneath the fruit-laden boughs until Marguerite tactfully pointed out that the sun was rising higher and the heat would only worsen. "Quite right, my dear, quite right!" he agreed promptly in his usual good natured way, his blue eyes twinkling at them through his spectacle lenses. "Pardon my rambling on! We should get to work immediately!"
He accepted one of the canvas sacks Veronica had brought along, and ambled off toward some intriguingly angular-looking bluish fruit called "ceruleans". She had served cerulean sauce as a side dish several times since the explorers had come to live at the Treehouse, but until now her houseguests hadn't seen a sample of the actual fruit.
"We'd best keep an eye on the old boy," Roxton advised Ned with a grin. He dropped his pack under the shade of a broad tree, where the sun wouldn't overheat the water in his canteen, but slung his rifle over his shoulder before he strode off with two sacks toward a section with pleasantly familiar cherry trees.
The newsman took a good look at where the botanist was settling down to pick the oddly colored fruit, and fixed the position in his mind. Then he left his rucksack beside Roxton's, chose a canvas sack with a shoulder strap from Veronica's assortment of bags, and jogged eagerly toward an orange tree. He quickly scampered up into the branches to get at the largest and most succulent orbs growing at the top, impatient with the thorny protrusions that hampered his progress. One thing he could never get enough of on the Plateau was oranges. It had been difficult to come by the citrus fruit in the colder northern climate where he had spent his childhood, and he considered them a delicacy.
Marguerite accepted the sack Veronica thrust at her and wandered down toward the lime trees visible near the other end of the pleasant valley. She liked a slice of lime in her water; it was natural for her to choose to reap a fruit she had a personal interest in, just as each of the others had instinctively done. No one thought anything of the fact that she didn't leave her backpack with the men's; they were accustomed to the way she kept her own belongings with her nearly all the time. With a glance back over her shoulder to verify where each of the others were situated, she diffidently plucked the small green fruit from its boughs, dropping each one neatly into her bag, taking only the ones that were easiest to reach. When she couldn't reach more without stretching uncomfortably or climbing into the tree, she simply moved to another tree and gleaned from the lowest branches there.
Veronica devoted a few minutes to scouting the perimeter to be certain there was no sign of incursion by any of the dinosaurs who liked to feed here as they migrated through, then devoted her attention to the section of the orchard her father had planted in her honor; avocados! Mmmm!
By late morning they had been in the grove for well over an hour, and had been hard at work for almost three quarters of that time. The white-haired eldest stretched his aching back and shoulder muscles and sat down wearily beneath a pear tree to take a breather. He removed his pith helmet, tugged his handkerchief from his trouser pocket, and mopped sweat from his gleaming scalp.
Veronica, always alert to the needs of the others as they adjusted to living on the Plateau, left her work and quickly crossed to his side. She offered her water skin and advised, "Have a drink, Professor. The sun is pretty strong this morning."
"Indeed it is, my dear," he nodded, reaching up to accept the refreshing liquid with a smile as he replaced the hat over his balding pate to protect himself from sunburn. "But the work is going well; we should soon have as much as we can carry."
"Yes," she agreed. "We'll be able to head back in time for lunch."
Their voices drew Ned's attention, and he eased down from the prickly citrus tree he was clearing, careful not to spill the contents of the full bag of oranges dangling heavily over his shoulder. "I'm ready for a drink, too," he called with a cheerful grin as he crossed beneath the fruit-laden boughs. He snatched up one of the canteens he and Roxton had left piled in the shade nearby, and dropped to the ground beside Summerlee. "The harvest is incredible! We could live off the different kinds of fruit here for months!" he enthused.
Roxton heard the fair-haired man's comment as he strode over to the others with a pair of bulging canvas bags. "I've lived off the land for months, Neddy-boy, and believe me, even though this seems like a lot of variety at the moment, much of it will soon get overripe, and it'll be a while before the next series of fruit would be available. But it's certainly good to know we have a plentiful supply of food. We have a lot of mouths to feed."
"Actually, we appear to be missing one."
At Summerlee's mild words, the younger three tensed and looked around quickly. "Marguerite! I should have kept a closer eye on the perimeter!" Veronica chastised herself. She knew better than to rely solely on a lack of noise; although an attack by raptors or other lizards could probably be ruled out, human predators struck with deadly speed and silence. The other woman had been pretty far from her companions, perhaps far enough to embolden a hidden enemy into ambushing her.
Seeing her anxiety, Summerlee quickly offered, "I'm certain she's fine, my dear."
Ned nodded, eager to smooth the frown from her pretty face. "Yeah, you know Marguerite can't follow the rules worth a plugged nickel. She's probably wandered off on her own, like usual when we can't find her."
"She's slipped away again?" That made sense, but the thought didn't cheer the jungle-born girl at all. How had she missed it?! Marguerite's tendency to come and go unnoticed, and apparently at will, indicated a weakness in the defensive capabilities of the group as a whole, and in herself in particular. Each time it happened the younger girl was determined to be more alert, yet it hadn't seemed to make a difference.
Roxton, thinking the very same thing as Veronica, swore in irritation and dropped his sacks onto the grassy ground beside Ned with a bit more force than was probably good for the contents. "We should just let her face the consequences this time!"
Ned snickered, seeing an opportunity to relieve the growing stress with a little humor. "Like you can resist going to her rescue! You could no more let harm come to Marguerite than you could go home without taking along a T-Rex as a trophy." His blue eyes sparkled with merriment as he grinned at the tall dark-haired man standing beside him. "After all, she's your woman of fire and steel!"
Veronica chuckled, and even Summerlee didn't bother smothering his grin at the handsome hunter's reddened ears and indignant expression as he sputtered a denial. "Don't be ridiculous! Marguerite Krux is not my woman! I wouldn't have her if she were the last woman on earth!" How the British lord regretted his lack of caution in uttering those words where the journalist could so easily overhear! Ned had teased him about his attempted dalliance with the independent lady more than once before now, but always privately. This was the first time the younger man had been as indiscreet as to bait him publicly for his rash overconfidence. "She means no more to me than – than – than Veronica here!"
"I think I'm insulted!" the young blonde laughed as Ned guffawed and even Summerlee chuckled. Then, seeing Roxton's eyes narrow dangerously in Ned's direction, Veronica quickly suggested, "We'd better make sure it really isn't anything more than another of her treasure-hunting jaunts. One of us should go find her. Where was she last?"
Still glaring at the instigator of this tempest in a teacup, Roxton jerked a thumb over his shoulder, indicating a downhill section of the grove where another fruit peculiar to the Plateau could be seen weighing down the branches of its squat, shrub-like trees. "She was over there."
Rashly, Ned chortled, "Of course, it would be you who noticed where she was before she took off. She's certainly got you wrapped around her little finger, hasn't she?"
Roxton stiffened and his jaw tightened perceptibly. Ned abruptly realized he should have quit teasing while he was ahead. He braced himself for a blow, acknowledging ruefully to himself that he deserved it – but it never came.
With the calm control of a stalking lion, Lord Roxton stepped away from the younger man lest he give free rein to his ire. Jaw taut with restrained anger, he took a moment to double-check that his Webleys and his rifle were properly loaded before he scooped up his backpack. As he shrugged it on and adjusted the straps properly to allow himself easy access to his pistols, he issued orders with crisp, icy civility. "You three finish here and take the fruit back to the treehouse. I'll find her and keep an eye on her to be sure she doesn't get herself killed." The hunter pivoted sharply on his heel and strode away without waiting for a reply, his aristocratic back ramrod straight.
The other three watched him go in cautious silence. Once he had angled away out of sight into the trees where Marguerite had last been seen, Summerlee peered over the top of his glasses at Ned. "I don't think I would tease him like that again, if I were you," he advised in his usual gentle tone. "He doesn't seem to care for it."
Veronica couldn't help giggling. "No, he sure doesn't – but it was perfectly true!"
Ned's irrepressible grin flashed, though his voice revealed his tenderhearted regret at having genuinely upset their companion. "Yeah, but the professor is right. I wouldn't blame Roxton if he knocked me over the head next time. He gets enough trouble from Marguerite; he doesn't need it from me, too." He nodded reassuringly at Summerlee. "I won't mention it again, Professor."
"Good lad," the bearded gentleman approved with a benevolent smile. Though he wasn't so sure which of the dark haired pair gave whom the most trouble, the couple definitely didn't need anyone else creating further tensions between them.
"Where do you suppose she's gone this time?" Veronica curiously asked the two men as Ned rose to his feet and held out a hand to help the older man up.
"Who knows?" Ned shrugged. "With Marguerite it could be anything from searching for more of her gemstones to simply trying to avoid doing her share of the work."
"I don't think anything concerning Miss Krux could be called simple, Malone," Arthur Summerlee commented with a thoughtful sigh. He could only hope that her wanderlust wouldn't unduly endanger her before the group's protector caught up with her. And that the aristocrat didn't take out his anger on her, which would surely lead to a battle of royal proportions. When the volatile pair butted heads, it was always distinctly uncomfortable in the treehouse for days afterwards.
Hmm, and thinking of their home He glanced at the two bulging sacks Roxton had left behind, and studied the overflowing sacks he, Malone and Veronica had also gathered, and then gestured to the accumulated fruit. "Might I suggest we have quite enough to carry without the other two to help? We should head back."
Veronica nodded her agreement. "Six bags – it's a good harvest for today, plenty of each ripe variety, except for the rosha. It will take us a while to finish processing all this; any more and it would just rot. We can always come back when we're ready to process some more. Or perhaps we should send Marguerite and Challenger so they can do their fair share."
Ned gaped at her. "Veronica! Are you crazy? That will never work!"
She rolled her eyes at his gullibility. "Oh come on, Ned; you don't really believe I was serious, do you?"
He flushed sheepishly. "Sorry." His blue eyes suddenly began to twinkle. "Although now that I think of it, sending the two of them here to pick fruit might make for a pretty entertaining story. Just imagine what might happen!"
Summerlee shuddered. "I'd rather not, thank you. Challenger would be distracted by every insect or scientific anomaly he came across. It would take him a week merely to reach the orchard."
Laughing, Veronica added, "And Marguerite would do her best to do as little as possible."
Chuckling at the scant supply of usable fruit likely to result from such a combination of harvesters, the trio shouldered their gathered bounty and started the hike back toward the treehouse. Along the way they continued to joke about how Veronica's proposed second harvest would probably fare. Their light-hearted musings made the heavily-laden journey pass pleasantly.
Beyond the lime trees, in the exact direction she wanted to head anyway, Marguerite was delighted to spy a familiar brown-skinned fruit that probably grew nowhere but here on this otherwise-cursed Plateau. After her first cautious taste when Veronica had introduced the new fruit to her guests, Marguerite had grown fond of it. The only food she'd discovered here that she liked as well as the rosha had been the 'eternity fruit' that had lengthened the lives of Kirin and his followers. While the rosha had no magical effects on aging, as the other fruit did, it also didn't require human sacrifice to attain it. So when she spotted trees bearing her favorite fruit further down the grove, she was eager to move past the lime trees to add the preferred item to her sack.
Besides, harvesting fruit had never been her ultimate goal. Finding the rosha in her path was merely an unexpected bonus – and another encouraging sign that today could be one of those occasional good days that came along all too rarely in her life. She gradually worked her way further from the others, deeper into the rosha section of the orchard, careful to wait until Roxton hadn't glanced her way for several minutes. When she was far enough down the grove to be unseen by the others – and after she'd filled her bag so full of rosha that she was almost unable to close it properly with its drawstring – she seized the opportunity to slip away.
She'd known this would be the perfect ploy. Chances to explore alone were hard to come by. Of course everyone would scold her when she returned – especially Lord High-and-Mighty Roxton. But then again, if I do find the other half of the medallion today, I won't be returning.
She suppressed an oddly disturbed reaction to the thought of not seeing this pesky group of explorers again, and concentrated on making good her escape. Before she'd gone too far, she did a quick inventory to confirm that she was well equipped. I have my canteen and my pistol, and of course my kit of geology tools is in my pack, along with spare ammo and the few gems I've been able to collect thus far. And now I also have the limes and plenty of rosha, so I have food and juice as well. Regardless of what happens today, whether night finds me on another continent, or still here, this is a nice list of resources to have when venturing away from the others. And if I do end up going back to the treehouse at the end of the day, at least I won't go empty-handed. Bringing back the rosha will temper Veronica's anger, at least, if not Roxton's. Satisfied that she was as prepared as possible, she climbed the hillside, concealed from the others by the orchard, and left the valley and her companions behind without hesitation.
Marguerite had managed to elude the group about half a dozen times in the last few months. Although she hadn't been able to find any trace of the Ouroboros, she'd always been able to make her way back to the treehouse unscathed. Of course, that included the times Roxton had tracked her down and dragged her back "safe and sound". In all honesty, more than once she'd considered killing him simply to rid herself of a pesky annoyance. It wouldn't be the first time she'd eliminated someone who was interfering in her work. If he knew whom he was irritating – but he didn't. None of them did, and she intended to keep it that way. Besides, there were times when Lord Roxton's survival skills had proven quite handy and he could be an amusing and entertaining diversion from the complicated circumstances of her life. As long as she could still manage to slip away like this, she could afford to tolerate his less attractive traits.
She'd wandered over a fair amount of territory near the treehouse, but hadn't been able to venture in this direction before today. Hours of pouring through the many journals Veronica's parents had left behind had yielded only a few clues as to possible locations for either the Ouroboros or geological deposits where she might be able to find gemstones. One of the more tantalizing leads to the possible location of the Ouroboros lay in this direction. Yet another positive omen for today! This is going to be it; I can feel it in my bones! With a grin of anticipation as she left the orchard's valley behind, she paused to mark her position relative to the treehouse, cross-referenced it with the notations she'd memorized from the Layton journal, and turned to begin the day's adventure.
Her morning game came in very handy for these precious times when she could get away from the watchful eyes of the group's hunters. They had no idea how carefully she observed them, or how much she'd learned. Roxton insisted she was out of her depth here in this lost world where time had conspired to mix entire eons of animal, reptile, and botanical species on one plane of existence. Of course, she'd never admit to the arrogant aristocrat that he was right.
Marguerite considered herself well qualified to handle almost anything so-called 'civilized' life could throw at her. I learned long ago to survive predators at least as deadly as those found here – predators of the two-legged variety that turn on their own kind just as raptors do. This isn't the only dangerous place where no mercy is granted to those who can't protect themselves. But I must admit that while this plateau holds opponents similar to those I've faced before, there are enough oddities and unique challenges here to make me glad I followed my intuition and funded the Expedition instead of coming alone. It's no wonder Shanghai Xan believes the artifact is here; the mystical character of this place and its inhabitants combine to make the perfect setting for the hidden fragment of a legend – a legend I might just find today.
She pondered the tales surrounding the Ouroboros, wondering exactly how much was based in truth and how much was mere superstition or exaggeration.
If the stories are all true, when I get off this bloody plateau, I'll exchange the restored Ouroboros for my birth certificate – not exactly the trade Xan intended, but a fair one that I'm sure he'll accept. I'll have to keep firm hold of it until I can talk him out of being angry about my taking the first piece from him, but he'd never have allowed me to bring it along. He didn't really believe I'd come back for my birth certificate unless I had no choice. To him, despite what he said, it's only a piece of paper. People who know who they are and where they come from never understand. Having that birth certificate means more to me than any so-called mystical powers the Ouroboros might have. Even if it proves to have no magical power at all, my birth certificate means more to me than the potentially priceless value of the artifact. But Xan will never believe that I didn't take it from him to profit from it, not until he sees me bringing it back to him. Only then will he listen to my explanation, accept that I was right to take it, and call off the assassins that have hunted me around the globe.
It obviously makes more sense to restore the medallion here – not to mention that the tales say having one half makes it easier to locate the second half. Once I find it, I have no intention of prolonging the time between finding it and traveling back to Shanghai. If the legend is true, and the restored artifact does have some kind of translocative power, then he'll have it back in his possession much more quickly this way. Why run the risk of trouble or delays on the journey back, if the Ouroboros can take me to Shanghai instantly?
A twinge of guilt tugged at her conscience. Finding her own answers meant leaving her companions behind, and she hated to think what dear old Arthur Summerlee would go through. The others might worry, too, particularly the conscientious Lord Roxton. He might suffer some anguish or guilt when she disappeared without a trace; he seemed prone to it, oddly enough. As a sop to her concerns, she assured herself that she'd send a rescue party after the Challenger Expedition as soon as she'd dealt with Xan. It wasn't comfortable to feel that she owed these people anything. But contrary to her expectations when they'd started out from England, the four men had grown on her. She couldn't – wouldn't – gain her own happiness at the cost of leaving them permanently stranded.
The men of the expedition were relative innocents – with the possible exception of Roxton, whose perceptiveness provoked extreme wariness even while it left her invigorated as nothing else had since the exhilarating terror of being Parsifal. While she might have toyed with the British nobleman back in Europe, ordinarily she'd have avoided entangling her life with any of the others. There was no sport in playing her highly sophisticated games on the unsuspecting and uninitiated. However, this time each member of the group had skills, experience, or knowledge she'd needed in order to survive on this journey toward her goals. Even Veronica was a potential asset, despite her youth and the seclusion of her life here. Contrary to what the others believed, Marguerite wasn't just being mean-spirited or spiteful when she baited the younger woman. For the most part, she was testing Veronica's reactions, cataloging her usefulness to either the search for the artifact or her quest for wealth. Although I must admit that even if Veronica doesn't prove helpful in finding the Ouroboros, riling her is an amusing way to pass the time – and more challenging than baiting young Malone.
A sudden rustling in the tall fern groundcover had her ducking behind a handy Assai palm. Marguerite pulled her thoughts back to the present, berating herself for allowing her mind to wander when she knew full well she had to stay alert. She held her breath and waited, one hand hovering over the butt of her pistol.
Hearing no further disturbance from that direction, she cautiously craned her neck to peek around the conveniently massive trunk. She chuckled at what she saw, relaxed and stepped out from behind the shelter. It's only a rabbit! Scared of a measly rabbit, Marguerite Krux?! Some Parsifal! she chided herself, and moved on. This time she kept her mind on where she was and on her current mission.
In one of the journals Marguerite had scanned through, Abigail Layton had recorded runes she'd seen carved at the site of a trio of rock pillars, just to the north of the sunny area where her husband had planted his orchard. Those rock pillars were her goal today. She needed to find the carvings and translate them for herself. Veronica's mother had recorded too few of the markings for Marguerite's peculiar linguistic skills to grasp the fundamental language. But one of those markings noted in the journal had been remarkably similar to the Ouroboros. If I can locate the actual pillars, they could prove to be what I'm looking for. This is going to be the day that this absurd expedition pays off.
Aha! There's the path Veronica's mother mentioned! The slim Englishwoman stepped lightly along the faint trail she found threading through the brush, keeping the sun to her left and maintaining a listening ear on the twitter of birds, chatter of monkeys high up in the canopy, and buzz of insects all around. As long as everything remained 'normal', there weren't likely to be any predators sneaking up on her, at least in theory. And if she kept a steady pace, she wouldn't suffer as much from the heat of the day.
Marguerite smiled as she topped the crest of the small hill. The jungle sprawled below her at the base of a steep descent. And there it was, exactly as the line drawing in the journal had pictured it. The three stone obelisks were almost overgrown with jungle vegetation, of course, but it shouldn't be too hard to pull away the creepers so she could read the carvings for herself. Before descending to the promising site, she spent five minutes familiarizing herself with the lay of the land around the pillars, scanning for danger as well as for potential places of refuge should it become necessary.
The obelisks stood in a field about ten yards from the thickly-wooded edge of jungle area that spread out in all directions for as far as she could see. There were no crevices or rocky outcroppings, and there didn't appear to be any other structures nearby. Nor were there any signs of larger predators having passed recently. There isn't anyplace for me to hide – which also means there shouldn't be anyone or anything else hiding down there. Looks safe enough.
She skipped lightly downhill, barely maintaining a controlled pace in her eagerness. This could be it! She chewed impatiently on her lower lip as she forced herself to slow down and walk thoughtfully around the first pillar. It's wider than I expected from the journal drawings and notes, and taller. Any one of the three will probably serve my purposes, no use wasting time clearing all three of them if it isn't necessary – but which one? She turned toward the second pillar, but had taken only a couple steps when she noted that the ground she was crossing between the columns felt different. This is too level to be natural. She stooped to have a closer look, and ran her hand lightly over the leafy ground. Yes, this is different, she confirmed, and drew her knife from its sheath at her waist to verify what her fingers had revealed. With steady pressure, she pushed the gleaming blade into the mass of vegetation. It sank down no more than a couple inches. There's some kind of pavement here. It must have been overgrown before Abigail was here, since she didn't record its existence. A platform for the obelisks may mean this area was used for community gatherings or worship. Some type of flagstone, perhaps?
Marguerite carefully carved out a small square and pried it out using the knife's tip. It wasn't actually a solid mass, she found, but an interweaving of creeping vines and dirt that had accumulated over time. And sure enough, hewn stone lay beneath the compressed mass. Better and better! If these three pillars were once part of a formal shrine, it increases the chances that there could be some mention of the Ouroboros. She replaced the handful of vegetation; no need to leave any more sign than necessary. Clearing a pillar of its covering would be too easily noticed as it was, and would advertise to unwanted parties that someone was interested in this site.
She straightened up and resumed her inspection. As far as Marguerite was able to tell, the second and third pillars were roughly the same circumference and height as the first. All three were also about equally covered with the climbing vines that were so prolific in this area, so there was no advantage to choosing one pillar over another to examine. She drew her knife again and went to work on the one she happened to be facing at the moment.
The vine was tenacious, but so was the slender brunette, and it wasn't too long before she'd cleared the vegetation off one face of the three-sided pillar from the ground to as high as she could stretch. She resisted the urge to stop and read the many carved runes she was uncovering, wanting to wait until she had the whole surface ready. Finally, she stepped back, wiping her brow, satisfied that she had plenty of symbols to read now. This should be more than enough to grasp the gist of the language and gain a general idea of what it said.
Sure enough, the words began to translate into sense almost immediately now that she could see so much of it. She suppressed a shiver; it always troubled her when she was able to suddenly decipher a language she'd neither seen nor heard before. She'd utilized the eerie and inexplicable talent more in the last few months than she had in her entire life, but she didn't think she'd ever be comfortable with doing it.
Although the top quarter of the writings were still covered where she couldn't reach with her knife to cut away the vines, it was clear that this pillar was dedicated to a history of the people to whom the pillar had belonged. Frustrated that there was nothing more intriguing, and that she couldn't find the runes recorded by Veronica's mother, she went back to work and cleared the clinging greenery away from the remaining two sides. But it was only more of the same. Each side of the stone monument appeared to cover a couple decades worth of this tribe's illustrious doings.
Marguerite sighed and moved to the next pillar to repeat the process, taking along her rucksack, the sack of fruit, and her canteen. She'd learned the hard way that the shiny metals of buckles, weapons, and tools were popular with apemen, monkeys, and even toucans! She hadn't allowed her gear beyond her reach at a work site since she'd lost some belongings to a keen-eyed pterodactyl only a few weeks after arriving on the Plateau. Once she'd shifted everything to the new location, she paused long enough to sip sparingly from her canteen and to wet her handkerchief to wipe her face, neck and arms. The sun was beating down full force. Not a time of day when most predators would be active, but the wary woman spent a few minutes carefully scanning the surrounding landscape once again. Reassured that there was nothing to worry about, she went to work clearing the second obelisk.
Unlike the first one, it had no sides, but was continuously curved. It became almost conical as it tapered away toward its top, which she hadn't noticed before she'd torn away the vines. The discovery explained why it felt easier and faster to clear this second pillar – the tentacles of vegetation couldn't find as good a hold on the smoother, rounded surface. And here I thought it was only my anticipation of what I might find that made the task seem lighter! But it's yet another good omen for this day – instead of it getting harder to work, it's actually getting easier as time passes. Good thing, since it's a scorcher of a day. Both her blue cotton blouse and the safari pants were damp and clinging to her overheated skin by the time she was ready to read the second pillar, and even her boots felt clammy. Marguerite stepped back and studied the second pillar for a moment, puzzled when she couldn't read it. Odd. Oh, the runes are totally different than the ones used on the first pillar! A different language? Disconcerted, it took a few minutes to shake off the preconceived notions of the first set of markings. Ah, there it is, coming into focus . . . Another bloody historical record, but obviously of a different people. To add to her confusion, once again the Ouroboros-like symbol of the journals was not present.
What is this place? She fought the feeling that she should have ignored her optimism about the day. She wouldn't give up yet; the third pillar remained untouched, so there was still a chance she'd find what she needed.
Marguerite allowed herself a five minute break to rest and drink from the now-lukewarm canteen. She leaned in apparent idleness against the shady side of the first obelisk and listened carefully; the last half hour or so she'd become aware of the familiar sensation that she was being watched. It would be just like the insufferable Lord Roxton to track her down before she'd finished here although she couldn't blame him for not trusting her, since he was perfectly on target with his suspicion that she had her own agenda. Actually rather insightful of the lout, but it's none of his business if I choose to go off alone, and he'd best learn I won't submit to his high-handed overprotective rules. It'll take forever to locate the other half of the Ouroboros if he keeps following me every time I leave the group. They're bound to have noticed I'm not with them by now, so he could show up any time.
But the sounds and activity around her still seemed normal, and although she half expected to see the admittedly handsome man striding angrily down the hill, there were no physical harbingers of his imminent arrival. Expecting him to show up and ruin the day is probably just a bit of my usual pessimism trying to surface, she decided ruefully. She continued to scan for any sign of Roxton as she again dampened her handkerchief and freshened her face, arms and neck. She took her time about it, but there was no hint that her watchfulness was warranted. None of the animals, birds and insects I noticed earlier has interrupted their usual chatter, chirping and buzzing. This "being watched" sensation isn't comfortable, but until something more substantial comes along, there's work to do. Marguerite gathered her pack, fruit sack and canteen, and carried them to the third obelisk.
Setting everything close enough to grab if there was a sudden need, she paused to stretch, working the kinks from between her shoulders. I'm going to feel this tomorrow, she acknowledged ruefully to herself. But if this lead pans out, it will all be worth it. In moments she was focused on her goal again as she steadily worked away at the last pillar with her knife.
This time her unfaltering labor uncovered a four-sided memorial with yet a third 'language'. Her eager scan led only to disappointment. It's only another tribal history
Perplexed, she stepped back and looked from one to the other of the pillars. This makes no sense. Three different tribes built historic memorials in one place? What am I missing here? She paced around them again, slowly, searching for some common denominator that might explain it. No mention of a treaty, no record of an event that happened to each group, no similarities in their languages or even in their pillar styles It seems as if the only thing these three tribes had in common besides this space was that they shared an unparalleled run of good fortune – there's not a single disaster recorded. Of course, that's not necessarily significant if these monuments are meant to boast of their accomplishments.
She still hadn't seen the symbols Abigail had copied into her journal, including the one that was similar in shape to the Ouroboros itself. But this was the right place, it had to be. There must be something else here, something that I haven't seen yet. Or it's something I've seen, but I'm missing its significance. Marguerite scowled, hands fisted on her hips. She didn't like mysteries, particularly if they might be related to her own life. And even more particularly when the effort to resolve a puzzle left her hot, sweaty, and streaked with dirt. Just once, couldn't I find answers instead of only more questions?
She glanced up at the position of the sun. It looks to be well after noon. I'll eat a couple of the rosha and think this through. There has to be an angle I haven't considered here. Refreshment and rest might provide a new perspective. She carried her belongings with her to the shade at the jungle's edge and settled gracefully on the ground, where she thoughtfully studied the situation as she dug into the bag of fruit she'd harvested earlier in the day.
The dark-haired European selected a plump brown-skinned orb and deftly skinned the tough outer peel away with her handy knife. Without conscious thought, she wiped the blade clean on nearby foliage and tucked it back into its sheath. Then she bit into the soft flesh of the fruit. Mmm, delicious! I wish I could always carry these when away from the treehouse.
A sudden prickling sensation ran down her spine. She had learned the hard way not to ignore that sixth sense. It wasn't the feeling of being watched, but the foreboding of serious danger. She paused in mid-chew and stiffened alertly, but there were no variations in the usual sounds that filled the jungle, no visual indications, either – No, wait! Was that a flash of movement off to the left? Yes, there it was again, barely a glimpse visible through the dense underbrush, but definitely moving closer. She waited guardedly, ready to dive for cover and defend herself if necessary. But nothing could have prepared her for what emerged from the trees a dozen yards away.
It was a veritable flood of ants, flowing silently, smoothly over everything in their path. Apparently they were nibbling on anything they climbed over, and based on what she could see already, their passage would leave behind a bare swath as neat as a newly paved Roman road was reputed to have been. The only thing they left untouched was the trees; all the smaller vegetation behind the sea of insects was vanishing, being consumed by the innumerable tiny members of the hungry army. The path they were cutting was only about thirteen or fourteen feet wide when she first saw it, but of more immediate concern was the fact that as they streamed through the thinning trees toward the jungle's edge, the front line of ants began to spread out into the more open field.
Marguerite leaped to her feet, instantly recognizing her danger. She was nowhere near as inedible as a hard-barked tree, so she'd better get herself into one fast! She was only a few feet from the nearest sturdy rosewood, but the black wave swept over the ground so quickly that she almost didn't make it up into the branches. She had a few frantic moments while slapping off dozens of persistent insects from both her knapsack and the bag of fruit, which she had let trail too far behind her as she jumped for the lower limbs of the tree. Her forearms were bitten numerous times, as were her upper thighs where the two ant-infected bags rested on her lap, although her legs were somewhat protected by her jodhpurs while she rid herself of the last of the painful little pests.
Clinging tightly to her perch, she watched incredulously as the ants swarmed over the site, blanketing it with a moving carpet that gradually merged back into their original column as they reached the other side of the memorials, veered away from the steep hillside at almost right angles, and reentered the jungle further down the valley. It took almost an hour for the last of the ants to pass beneath her. By then, Marguerite was gritting her teeth in pain both from the tiny welted ant bites she had suffered and from the constant challenge of hanging onto her precarious balance on the tree limb without losing her pack, bag and canteen. Yet the stream of life below her was fascinating, and the opportunity to observe such a phenomenon went a long way toward making it worthwhile.
As the ground finally became visible again, she almost forgot the pain in her awe at a sight that was nearly as incredible as witnessing the sea of ants themselves. This is what I was missing before! Why didn't I think of it?! During the colony's passage across the historic site, the ants ate away the thick vegetation over the pavement upon which the three pillars stood – and there was yet a fourth ancient writing on the now-uncovered stones! Why did I assume the ground was already overgrown when Abigail was here? The languages were each unique; it's not inconceivable that a fourth language, a fourth people, should unify them in a common purpose, and record it all on the pavement that joins them.
Marguerite was elated. I couldn't have cleared that without days and days of backbreaking labor! Amazing! With luck like this, today absolutely has to be the big day!
She climbed stiffly down out of the tree and stood bent over with her hands braced on her knees, swaying, until she was fairly certain she could take a step without collapsing. Then she circled around the revealed stonework, cautiously keeping one eye on the receding mass of insects as she scanned the newest symbols. The meaning formed quickly in her mind.
Ah! Boundary markers! That's why these memorials were built here! The site was a visible testament to a peace treaty of sorts, established by someone named – Morrigan? Now why does that name jiggle at my memory but refuse to come clear? Druids? Yes, there's some connection to druids, I think – to keep three strong peoples from annihilating one another. And she'd been mistaken about the nature of the tales recorded on the pillars; what she'd believed to be histories were instead promises of future blessing, grand visions of heroics and prosperity, as long as the three tribes honored the boundary agreement. This fourth language, strangely enough, seems almost Celtic, but of an older version than anything I've seen during my studies. Combined with the name Morrigan, this would fit in with the myths about Druids. Guess we can add one more displaced European civilization and its superstitions to the plethora we've already discovered here.
Most interesting to the linguist, though, were the glyphs that recorded the agreement's surety. The promised blessings recorded on the monuments were guaranteed for as long as certain 'emeralds' remained at their 'safe place'. The discovery was both good and bad. On the down side, the symbol translated 'emeralds' was the Ouroboros-like one from the Layton journal that she'd been searching for here. Okay, the resemblance was only a coincidence. It doesn't have anything to do with Xan's artifact. This location isn't going to yield anything that will bring me any closer to reuniting the halves of the medallion, which is disappointing. But still – emeralds! This was the good part of what she'd found. These words are nouns, yes, even better, her silver-green eyes gleamed with satisfaction as a quick scan confirmed her hope, proper nouns. This is an actual title, 'The Emeralds", just as 'Morrigan' is a real person's name, so it's not merely a symbolic term for something else – this means there had to have been genuine emeralds that were kept in a specific location. Any emeralds large enough to be surety for a treaty with such grandiose promises must be priceless!
Marguerite grinned in satisfaction. It may not be the Ouroboros as I hoped, but I'll settle for emeralds. They must have been kept somewhere near this boundary agreement. The important question is, are the gemstones still there? Obviously no one had been here for ceremonial reasons in many years. If the truce were still in effect, this place would be tended and guarded, as would the site where the emeralds were displayed. Abigail Layton had seen the symbols before they were covered over, so the insidious jungle growth must have concealed the paving stone within the last dozen years. That meant a generation or more might have passed since the truce had been in effect. Surely by now someone else will have found emeralds large enough to seal such a pact binding three tribes to their boundaries.
Still, it's worth looking. But not before I do something about these stinging ant bites She glanced around as she shifted from foot to foot and rubbed at her forearms. The tiny red contusions were looking angrier. What could she use to soothe the pain? There on the other side of the bare ground that had been left in the wake of the ant army, where the jungle was unscathed between where the ants emerged on one side and then curved back into the lush greenery again down the valley, there was a patch of aloe amidst the other undergrowth.
Malone's implication that he, Lord John Richard Roxton, was at the beck and call of the infuriating Miss Krux – that he leapt to the rescue whenever the irritating female landed herself in another fix – left him fuming as he tracked her away from the orchard. He was no woman's lapdog and never would be, and any insinuation to the contrary was absurd! It was only that the woman needed a keeper! Why, a wet-behind-the-ears child could've followed the obvious footprints she'd left! It would serve her right to be grabbed by roving slavers or cannibals!
His anger was further fueled by the realization that Marguerite's trail wasn't random. As he stalked along, he could tell there was no hesitation to her steps, no change of direction, no wandering. She'd had a destination in mind when she left them. Probably another bloody get-rich-quick scheme!
His long-legged stride ate up the ground as he followed the signs of her more leisurely passage. He was ready to strangle her for breaking the rules he and Veronica had set for the safety of the other members of the expedition. Still, as angry as the nobleman was, his footsteps slowed as he neared the top of a long rise, years of experience having drilled into his subconscious the importance of caution before exposing oneself on high ground in unfamiliar territory.
When he spotted her down below, he hadn't yet made up his mind whether to haul her willy-nilly back to the treehouse for this latest stunt, or whether to hang back and, barring a life-endangering threat, let her face the inevitable consequences of wandering off again. She might be a clever minx, but she was no more than a babe in the woods out here – literally! With his dander up, Roxton decided he'd prefer the immediate gratification of giving her a piece of his mind. He opened his mouth to bellow down at her – but didn't, his attention arrested by where she was and what she was doing.
Three pillars. Hard physical labor.
The irritating woman's focus had so often been on gems during the half year since he'd met her in London, he often forgot she also claimed to be a scholar. He had to admit that there had been times when she appeared to be every bit as intrigued by ancient artifacts and scientific enigmas as either of the two professors. Until now, he'd assumed it was another deception meant to hide her true goals. But today there was no one for her to put on an act for, and she'd clearly traipsed alone through unknown terrain, facing potential danger from dinosaurs, apemen, slavers, cannibals, and Lord knew what else – not in pursuit of wealth, but in order to study those obelisks?
Somehow, it took the wind out of his sails.
One column was freed from the vines already, and if he could judge by her laborious effort to do the same with the second one, it hadn't been an easy task. What was it about the stone markers that had inspired her to risk her life and, more amazingly, to work hard enough to work up a sweat when no one was demanding that she do so? Why was she willing to endanger herself, and to invest her time and energy in those things down there, when it was so bloody difficult to convince her to participate in much simpler chores that directly affected her survival?
The hunter glanced around for camouflage and found it in a nearby copse of cassava trees; he stepped away from the open ground into the shade, knowing that from downhill he'd be indiscernible amidst the branches of the shrub-like trees. He pondered briefly. Here was the perfect opportunity to do some in-depth study of his own. Perhaps whatever she was doing down there would help him understand more about why she'd joined the expedition, and what motivated her secretive behavior.
After all, he had the upper hand at the moment. If she should prove to be in danger, he'd be here to bail her out, and if she happened to remain safe in spite of her tendency to draw trouble like a flame drew a moth, he could always scold her and haul her back to the treehouse later.
From his vantage point on the high ground, the adventurer alertly searched the surrounding area for potential enemies. Nothing sent up flags of alarm, even through the spyglass he withdrew from his pack, so he decided it was safe to wait and watch Marguerite. He squatted down beneath the cassava branches, his rifle across his knees, and idly turned the collapsed cylinder in his hands as he peered down at his prey. How long would she keep at her task? Would she be as tenacious as when she dug for gems?
Much to his bemusement, she was.
Apparently she really was a true scholar. He'd wondered if it was a possibility when she'd wanted to return to the tomb of that long-dead King, taking a tribute of flowers, no less! But between her unease over her ability with languages and her preoccupation with the questions of legacy, whether they'd be remembered or forgotten, he'd written off her interest in the tomb and its king as more of an emotional pursuit than a serious study. Yet here, there could be only one reason for the way she stretched up on her tiptoes to clear as much of the vegetation away as possible, the way she ignored the heat, and the way she disregarded the filth as bits of dirt and torn leaf sprayed on her when she tugged persistent vines away from the rock face. There certainly weren't any gemstones in sight to attract her mercenary attention. It looked as if he would have to stop mocking her, and instead treat her interest in geological ruins and ancient sites as genuine. Well, he amended wryly, at least when there were no gemstones involved, as was the case this time.
He held his position as she finished clearing as much of the second pillar as she could reach, and watched as she walked around it, her head cocked at an angle while she read the carvings. When she stood still again, he extended the spyglass and raised it to his left eye, shortening the smallest pipe until her face came clearly into focus; she was disturbed about something, or perhaps disappointed would be a better word to describe her frown and the downward tilt of her mouth. She leaned down, scooped up her canteen, and stepped to the shadowed side of the tall stone monument.
Her openly expressed reaction implied that she was looking for something specific and hadn't found it. He wondered what it was that she hoped to discover, and whether she would continue to the last pillar or quit before the heat grew any worse. Judging by her slow and lingering movements as she drank, then used her handkerchief to rinse off, she was definitely tired and sore. She'd stop now, right?
His question was answered when she abruptly gathered her gear. He pushed up from ground, battle-light glittering in his green eyes as he prepared to intercept her. He'd show himself here at the top of the ridge and wait for her, let her know she was in for it so she'd have to think about it as she made the hot uphill hike – but Marguerite surprised him again by simply transferring her things to a position beside the third pillar instead of starting to climb in the direction of the treehouse. She stretched her lithe body, bending and rolling her slim shoulders before she resettled her hat atop her damp, dark curls, and then drew the knife from her belt again and went straight back to work.
He'd underestimated her stamina and determination yet again! Roxton sank back to his heels with a disgruntled sigh and resigned himself to a longer wait before he'd have the satisfaction of confronting the irascible woman.
As he surveyed the scene below him and noted the way she stayed within reach of her gear while she worked, he couldn't help being impressed anew with this woman's unexpected aptitude for handling herself well in a dangerous environment. She was definitely engrossed in what she was doing. But unlike Challenger and Summerlee, she wasn't so wrapped up in her project that she forgot practical issues; that was good. At least if she kept wandering off like this he could console himself with the knowledge that she wasn't oblivious to where she was.
Thankful for the shade he was in as the sun rose higher into the sky, he wondered where the slender brunette found the strength to maintain her pace. She'd have heatstroke if she didn't finish up soon, between the increasing temperature and the physical demands of her labors. He'd definitely remind her that she needed to be more careful about pacing herself in the tropical heat, especially if she intended to persist in wandering off alone.
The hunter swatted at several insects that buzzed around his ear, shifted his position to loosen his cramping leg muscles, and utilized the spyglass to scan the area again. Still looked okay. The jungle was nice and quiet today. Her luck was holding.
Roxton's stomach growled. He glanced up at the position of the sun and grimaced. Might as well eat while he waited. He dug his fingers into a pouch on his belt for a strip of dried raptor, and gnawed off a chunk. If she did faint from heatstroke – or collapse in sheer exhaustion, for that matter – there'd be no time for a meal until much later. He'd have his hands full with carrying both her and their combined belongings back to the treehouse.
Now wouldn't that just give him plenty of fodder for teasing the prickly heiress! A smile quirked his lips as he chewed on the meat and planned out his strategy, selecting the phrases most likely to rile her. He chuckled in anticipation as he imagined how her thick-lashed, silver-green eyes would turn stormy grey and spark with annoyance, and the way her lovely bosom would heave with outrage while she faced him down. Or perhaps she'd hold her brittle temper, as she did nearly as often as she lost it, and banter right back, either flirting with him or engaging him in a verbal barrage that they would each pretend hadn't entertained and delighted them.
His eyes twinkling, he nodded to himself as he recalled the insinuations of that pup Malone. Yeah, instead of allowing the inventive reporter to get his goat, he should've given him the truth – that it was the fun of harassing the uppity woman that inspired him to keep an eye on her, not any sentimental or romantic rot, whatever the others might imply! Besides, no one could deny that it was his job to keep them all safe. Being their protector and guardian was his role in the group. Minding Marguerite was no different than when he rode herd on the professors to keep them from being distracted on the trail by every little thing that caught their eye, or when he mentored the young American as a hunter and tracker. It was his duty to do the same for the enigmatic lady who had financed the expedition, to see that she stayed alive from day to day in this Lost World, as the journalist had labeled the Plateau.
The only difference was that with Marguerite he had the added bonus of matching wits with a wickedly wily opponent. There wasn't a doubt in his mind that she was more than what she appeared to be. For the sake of the expedition, if not for her own good, it was his responsibility to keep the mischief-prone woman in line by whatever means necessary. He'd manhandle her, argue with her, challenge her every move, and even flirt with her if that's what it took. If he happened to enjoy the process or perhaps win her favors well, so be it.
Satisfied with this evaluation, the hunter washed down the first mouthful of raptor with a swallow of water from his canteen and chomped off another portion of dried meat, chewing heartily while he observed the lady below him. She really ought to take another break; she was working too hard.
Roxton blinked. Now there was a thought he'd never expected to have about Marguerite Krux! But it was true, nonetheless. Despite her image of indolence, she was a diligent, efficient worker. Another of her deceptions, he decided thoughtfully. But why did she do it?
He pondered this latest puzzle, and smirked when the truth occurred to him. Camouflage. She cultivated the appearance of habitual idleness and near-laziness to conceal her true abilities. Well, she might fool a lesser adversary, but he was onto her tricks!
He finished his impromptu meal a few moments before Marguerite yanked off the last strand of vine and tossed it aside, and he wiped the back of his hand over his mouth as she stepped back to read the third set of writings. Roxton didn't need the spyglass to see that she wasn't any happier with the results than she'd been the last time. The familiar sight of her hands fisted against her slender hips brought a salacious grin to his face. The woman was downright beautiful even grimy, sweat-stained and in a temper! No question: if he could tame her, the rewards would be well worth it!
The hunter smiled with grim satisfaction as he saw her heave a heavy sigh. It didn't matter to him whether her sigh portended resignation or exasperation. Either one meant she'd hit a wall in pursuit of her goal, which in turn meant she'd pack it in and head home. Now he'd have his chance to – No. Yet again Marguerite refused to give up. Instead, she hefted her pack, fruit sack and canteen and marched over to the shaded edge of the jungle, determination in every nuance of her movement.
He opened the spyglass again as she sat down cross-legged and proceeded to eat. She never stopped eyeing the cleared obelisks, as if she expected to decipher something else from where she was seated. He studied her through the magnifying tube as she, in turn, studied the standing stones. What was she thinking about with such intensity in those fey eyes of hers? What could be so important that she'd devote all of this time and energy to it?
Abruptly, the hunter tensed. Marguerite had stiffened. He could feel the hairs on the back of his neck rise as she twisted toward the jungle behind her.
Roxton collapsed the spyglass and shot to his feet in search of the source of her alarm. It took only a moment to spot the black shadow moving toward her from beneath the jungle canopy. What the devil was that?! He whipped the spyglass back up and slid it into focus on the mass. His breath caught sharply. He'd seen something similar once in northern Africa when a swarm of locusts had decimated mile after mile of savannah. This rapidly advancing column wasn't airborne, though, but down on the ground; it had to be ants. Ants! Not dangerous ordinarily, but a colony of that size, on the move – they'd be consuming every small living plant or animal in their path! The bark of the trees was too tough to merit slowing the migration of the voracious colony, not when there was plenty of other food available – but they wouldn't spare human flesh!
Swearing fiercely, he swung the glass back toward Marguerite. She was already moving – Oh no! She wasn't running away from the danger, as he'd expected. With a hoarse cry, he darted forward, but he'd only taken a couple steps when he realized what she was doing. He stumbled to a halt with a grudging grunt of acknowledgment. Once again she'd kept her head. With her usual sense of self-preservation, she'd instantly processed what he hadn't absorbed at first, namely that she was too close to the center of the column's front and it was surging toward her too fast for her to make a break for the safety of the hillside. Instead, she sprinted for the only shelter possible – and she even remembered her belongings, catching up the canteen strap with one hand, the two packs with her other hand. Roxton could see that the only way for her to stay alive was to make it up into the safety of one of the large trees the insects were bypassing. But could she reach the nearest tree before the ants did?
Almost. He watched, jaw clenched tightly, as she leapt forward and upward, over the oncoming black mass. If she missed – but she'd jumped high enough to hook one arm over a lower branch, the canteen flipping over the bough and back down to strike her side. The tenacious lady held onto both the branch and the canteen strap, despite the pain of the smack of metal against her ribs. The still-dangling pack and fruit bag hampered her efforts, too heavy for her to lift in her tenuous position. Unable to use her second arm, she resorted to swinging her lower body up, clasping the branch between her lower legs, fighting gravity and the weight of the bags as she wriggled for a better grip. He could hardly bear to look, his own body taut as he watched her scramble from hanging beneath the thankfully-sturdy limb to finally straddling it. She sprawled on her stomach with her cheek pressed into the scratchy bark and gasped for breath, her left arm and legs wrapped tightly around the branch as the heavy bags continued to pull on her right arm, threatening her balance.
"No, no, don't let them drag!" he muttered anxiously as he noticed that her backpack and the fruit sack were still hanging in harm's way while she caught her breath up on the rosewood branch. "Too close, Marguerite – get them up higher! You're not safe yet, don't quit now!" The hunter clenched his fists and willed her his own strength as she braced herself and struggled upright on the branch. She shrugged the canteen strap over her shoulder to free her left hand, and then, gripping the branch with her thighs, hauled on the two bags, raising them up to her lap.
He sagged in relief – and then growled in helpless frustration when she slapped frantically at the canvas containers and he realized ants had ridden up on the packs and were now in the tree with her! He waited with baited breath while she dealt with the tiny pests. She nearly lost her precarious balance more than once, and from the fury with which she brushed at her arms and thighs, too, he knew at least a few of the ants had transferred onto her and had bitten her before she could flick them back down to the ground. It seemed like forever to the agonized nobleman until Marguerite finally rested, delicate frame shuddering, head bowed as she straddled the branch with the knapsack and the bag of fruit balanced before her, legs tightly clenched around the tree limb. The ground beneath her was carpeted with millions of ants, marching on, unaware of the human whose life hung in the balance above them.
Lord Roxton paced back and forth on the hilltop, knowing there was nothing he could do to reach her, knowing she wouldn't be in this peril now if he hadn't delayed up here to spy on her. How could he have missed such a thing, not seen it coming?! The column had to be more than a dozen feet across as it emerged from the jungle – and it seemed to have no end! – and Marguerite's tree was smack in the middle of the flowing colony. If she fell - !
But she didn't.
As the minutes dragged on, he fought back the desire to at least descend the hill to let her know she wasn't alone. He didn't know enough about the habits of these insects. Might his proximity trigger a change in their direction? Or attract strays on the perimeter of the ant army that might somehow communicate with the others and endanger both Marguerite and himself? Or worse still, might the woman clinging to safety with increasing difficulty be distracted by him at the wrong moment, so that he actually caused her to fall? No, it was best that he wait where he was, despite the strain of inactivity.
Would the column never end?!
He was sweat-soaked and shaking by the time he was able to spot the end of the column through his spyglass. The last of the ants were still drawing nearer across the now-denuded jungle floor, and he cursed roundly when he realized it was going to be another half hour at least before it would be safe for Marguerite to climb out of the tree. All he could do was watch and pray, continually scanning to squash his fear that the column might turn back and endanger her anew when she was already weakening.
Because of his anxious repeated scans, he saw flashes of the pavement before she did; he glimpsed it several times as the column finally began to thin an age after they'd first appeared. As soon as he realized there were carvings present, he growled beneath his breath and, full of dread, shifted the spyglass from the ground to the pale woman trembling on the branch. No, she wouldn't, couldn't, linger to study the new runes, not when her face was pinched with exhaustion and pain!
She not only could; she did.
Somehow, he knew she would even before he saw the way her eyes lit up when she spotted the new writings. Roxton wanted nothing more than to charge down the hillside, throw her over his shoulder, and get her back to the treehouse, where Summerlee or Veronica could apply some kind of ointment to the welts on her arms and she could rest. But his own nerves were ragged from witnessing her pained exertions to stay on that branch, and he wasn't ready to face her yet, to answer her inevitable questions about why he hadn't warned her, helped her
So he sprawled on the ridge with his spyglass and watched the heiress practically fall out of the tree and bring herself upright only by sheer force of will, her gaze never leaving the bloody pavement. And he held himself in check while she stumbled around the circumference of the site, all the while rubbing her forearms first with one hand, then the other. More than once her fingers absently strayed to her legs as well, but her forearms had sustained more damage. How she stayed on her feet was beyond his understanding; the excitement she was exhibiting was remarkable! She was remarkable!
"Now what are you doing?!" he muttered as she turned away from the monuments and trudged across the denuded lea to where vegetation still survived. His fingers tightened on his rifle, holding it at the ready in case it became necessary to defend her from hidden predators that might jump out at her as she neared the edge of the jungle again.
She carefully lowered herself to her knees and bent over something. A moment later she turned and sat down, and he was able to focus in on what she had in her hands. "Aloe. Thank God, she's finally thinking of herself instead of – well, instead of whatever it is she's after down there." Pleased that she was showing some common sense, he watched as she sliced open the thick blade of aloe she'd cut from the cluster growing behind her. Her hands trembled visibly as she spread the gel-like sap over her forearms, and he grimaced sympathetically. Would it do the trick?
A smile spread over his face as he saw the relief in her unguarded expression. Yes, the aloe was helping. Now was the perfect moment to force her to admit how dangerous it was for her to go off alone like this – but his intention was snuffed out as she rose shakily to her feet and dropped her trousers with a wriggle of her hips. Roxton's jaw dropped and he stared, dumbfounded, while her still-trembling hands pushed aside her drawers and rubbed the aloe onto her thighs. Only when she bent and gathered the material to pull her pants into place again did he regain his senses and recall his intention of confronting her.
Unfortunately, he was no longer in any physical condition to walk up to her. One look at his own tented pants and she'd laugh in his face.
Her injuries tended, Marguerite sank back to the ground for a well-earned breather. The bone-weary woman took off her hat and lifted her face to the sky to enjoy the light breeze that cooled her heated skin. She groped for her canteen, twisted the cap off, and indulged in a long drink. Then she rolled her shoulders, corrected her hunched posture, and reached into the fruit sack for another rosha. Her movements as she skinned this one were less graceful than those before the ant colony had interrupted her meal, but efficient nonetheless, and she was soon biting into the juicy pink fruit.
Roxton grinned at the ecstasy evident as she chewed and swallowed. She'd eaten the rosha with enthusiasm earlier, too, he recalled. So there was something she liked about this Plateau after all! She'd never admit it, he was sure, but when she peeled and ate a second rosha immediately after eating the first one, he knew her face hadn't brightened like that just because she'd satisfied her hunger. She was enjoying the fruit far too much.
Ut-oh his amusement faded as he noted that the intensity was back in her gaze.
With renewed energy, she rose to her feet in one smooth motion, her lazing in the sunshine finished as she returned to the puzzle of the pavement and its pillars.
Roxton scowled. What was it that drew her to this place? Wait – what was that?
There was a brief vibration in the ground beneath his torso. He heaved himself up onto his knees and trained the spyglass on the jungle, searching worriedly. There it was again, an ominous rumble beneath him. What was causing it? Again There! He could see a disturbance amidst the treetops as something big passed through just below. Possibly a T-Rex, although the odds were against it since he couldn't see or hear any sign of smaller creatures fleeing from its path. If they were fortunate, it would only be a brontosaurus shuffling along. Which way was it headed?
He stood up stealthily. But a feeling of dread built in the pit of his stomach while he watched the treetops shimmy with the progress of the dinosaur. It was on a direct line for Marguerite. He slapped the spyglass into its collapsed position, grabbed his rifle, started to run toward her, opened his mouth to shout a warning – and tripped over a root hidden in the tall grass.
Lord Roxton fell flat on his face. His jaw smacked directly onto another gnarled root that poked up through the soil. His rifle was jarred from his hand as he hit the ground; it slid several yards downhill before it stopped. He sprawled there, winded, jaw throbbing, disoriented and blinking at a slug. It blinked back. Did slugs blink?
The nearing cracking and crashing of falling trees brought him back to his senses. Marguerite!
He surged to his feet – or halfway, anyway. With a groan he fell back to his hands and knees, head reeling. Wincing, he tried again, more slowly this time. He reached for the shoulder strap of his rifle to swing it up into readiness, but found nothing. The rifle where was his rifle? Still groggy, he dropped back onto his hands and knees yet again and scrambled around on the ground. His hands swept aside the swaying wild grasses as he searched frantically for his weapon, all too aware that the dinosaur was almost at the jungle's edge and Marguerite was armed only with her wits and her pistol.
Aahhh The cool gelatinous aloe instantly eased the pain and itching of the blotchy bites on her legs, just as it had on her arms. Lucky the ants couldn't bite as hard through the jodhpurs, she ruefully reflected as she tugged her pants back up, re-fastened the buttons at her hip, and twisted her belt and holster back into their proper place around her waist. Sinking back to the ground, Marguerite allowed herself to relax. She lifted her hat and tilted her face upward, pleased to allow the gentle breeze to cool her face, neck and scalp. For a while there, I really didn't think I'd make it, she mused. But here I am, admittedly stiff and sore, but alive. Today could still turn out as I hope, as long as I don't give up.
With determination backed by the desire to resolve two decades of loneliness, uncertainty and fear, she forced her aching muscles into action, working her shoulders, bending and stretching to loosen up. Once her movements came more easily, she straightened her shoulders and took a deep, cleansing breath. Much better. Then she reached for the canteen that dangled at her hip. She hadn't dared try to open it for a sip while she needed to stay upright on that branch, and she was parched. Marguerite gulped down enough of the lukewarm water to satisfy her initial thirst, but stopped when the canteen was noticeably lighter. Don't know where the nearest water source is; must leave some for the journey back to the treehouse. She recapped the container and then turned to the fruit sack. Now I'm hungry. After the tense grip she'd had to maintain on the two bags throughout the last hour, her fingers felt stiff and awkward. She had a little trouble gripping her knife, but she focused and managed to succeed, as usual. The result was well worth her effort. The first rosha was gone all too quickly, so she skinned a second to enjoy as well, the tangy fruit doing as much to revive her as the breeze.
Enough. Time to get back to work. I need to read the rest of the pavement carvings; there must be something there about where the emeralds are. Who knows? Maybe when I find those, the Ouroboros will be nearby; that could be the reason for the similarity. She stood – much better, no danger of falling over this time! – scooped up her pack and the fruit sack, absently adjusted the canteen to hang behind her holster, and ambled back toward the exposed pavement. I've already read about two-thirds of the glyphs, so it shouldn't take too long to finish.
Marguerite felt the tremors and halted in dismay at the all-too-familiar warning sign. She waited, head cocked to one side as she evaluated the strength of the disturbance. Not now! Not here! Just go some other direction! It didn't matter whether it was a carnivore or an herbivore; anything that could make the earth vibrate was too large for the safety of the pavement. If one of those massive beasts stepped on it, only rubble would remain. I need more time to read the rest, to study it! But the mini-quakes didn't decrease in force; they increased. Whatever it was, it was coming nearer.
For a long moment she hesitated, torn between trying to read as much as possible or seeking more protective ground. There really wasn't any choice, though, at least until she could identify the approaching danger. She groaned, turned on one heel, and jogged wearily for cover at the edge of the jungle, where it would be possible to duck behind trees and shrubbery or flee.
Moments later she wondered if it might not have been better to wait in the open after all, but decided that at this point the best she could do was stand ready to dodge as the sounds of shattered and falling trees grew deafening. Sounds like it's moving directly here, and I'm probably right in the path of the debris! At least it can't be a T-Rex, or there'd be a stampede of smaller dinosaurs coming at me right now, she assured herself. So as long as I watch out for flying objects, I'm not the one in direct danger, just the pillars and their pavement. If only my luck holds today, and whatever it is emerges off-center and doesn't damage anything
This time her luck didn't hold. A full grown brontosaurus, a good seventy or seventy-five feet long, brushed through a half dozen rosewood trees, snapping or uprooting them as it emerged into the open area. Although it was far enough from Marguerite that she was clear of the path it was trampling through the jungle, it stopped to crane its neck up toward the sunshine – with one massive foot only inches from the pavement!
She held her breath and debated whether she could lead it away if she shouted and jumped around. She dropped her rucksack, canteen and the bag of rosha to try it, took half a dozen steps toward the beast, and then reconsidered. Since it's a plant-eater, it probably won't follow me like a carnivore would. Think, Marguerite, think! There must be something I can do – "NO!" she cried out.
One step was all it took: a quarter of the pavement and one of the pillars were gone, nothing but dust.
The agitated European woman cursed furiously as she watched the bulky brontosaurus proceed to crush the rest of the site as well. It turned itself in a circle as if enjoying the sunny spot, and then idly shifted its enormous bulk back and forth as it stretched out its neck to the nearest standing tree for a snack. It toppled and trampled the other two obelisks, and its weight pulverized all but a few square feet of the pavement.
Aghast, Marguerite sat down abruptly, elbows on her knees, head in her hands. For a stunned moment, she ignored her proximity to the ignorant beast that had sabotaged her best lead yet. Hoping against hope that it had only been her imagination playing a cruel trick on her, she lifted her head and looked once more. Nope, still nothing but rubble. Ruined! Now there's no way I'll find out about the location of those emeralds, or see if there's another clue to the Ouroboros wherever the emeralds are! "Could this day get any better?" she groaned, dropping her head back into her hands.
A gust of steamy, putrid air hit her from above and tumbled her sideways. Startled, she propped herself on one elbow and looked up. Her eyes widened at the sight of the massive dinosaur's anus expelling its bodily wastes – right toward her!
No time to run! Instinctively, she curled into a ball on the ground and rolled away from the brontosaurus, arms shielding her head as best she could. This is going to hurt – and it's going to stink! It'll be weeks before I get the smell out of my hair!
Roxton finally spotted the bent grass that indicated where his rifle had skipped away downhill. He followed, eyes focused desperately on the path as he half-ran, half-slid along – I can't help her until I'm armed again, my Webleys would be useless against anything that size! – there it was! He skidded to a stop, barely staying on his feet as his boots slipped on the tall field grasses. He crouched, snatched up his fallen rifle with both hands, and shot to his feet again to face whatever had emerged into the open.
His shoulders sagged in relief.
It was only a brontosaurus after all.
Ignoring the dinosaur, he searched for Marguerite. There she was, safely off to one side. Why was she sitting there like that, all hunched over? Was she overcome with emotion, as relieved as he that it hadn't been a T-Rex? There had to be a limit to her endurance, and she'd already been so exhausted
Her face lifted, and even without using the spyglass to close the distance between them, her despair was so palpable that he felt it in his gut. Roxton followed her gaze, not upward, but across at ground level, toward the dinosaur. What was it about the brontosaurus – oh. Her obelisks and the pavement were history.
His lips quirked as he realized his unintentional quip – history indeed! But he swiftly squelched his amusement. All her work for nothing. No wonder she was so severely disappointed. Whatever she had been hoping to find, it was a lost cause now. If she were any other woman, she'd either be crying her eyes out or throwing a dilly of a tantrum right about now. But Miss Krux was made of sterner stuff than any woman he'd ever known – fire and steel. After the determination he'd repeatedly witnessed today, he wouldn't allow himself to be caught by surprise at anything she might do next, even if she were to get down on her hands and knees and try to piece that pavement back together again. Although she was clearly unhappy, she –
What the devil?! She'd just fallen over! No, she hadn't simply fallen over; it was as if something invisible had struck her and knocked her sideways. He swore under his breath as he flipped his rifle up and fitted the stock to his shoulder in readiness for whatever the plateau was going to throw at her next. What had he missed this time? Had some smaller predator emerged from the nearby ferny underbrush without his noticing?
As she pushed up on one elbow and looked over her shoulder, Roxton followed the tilt of her face in search of an answer, upward this time. "Good Lord!"
He saw it all as if it were happening in slow motion, thinking through the ramifications with near-detached clarity even as the events unfolded with an agonizing lack of speed.
An endless flow of dark chunky stool emerged a good twenty feet above the sprawled woman and streamed both downward and outward from the brontosaurus. It was going to have considerable force of impact when it hit the ground, and based on what he'd found at sites of other bronto droppings, there would be a splatter pattern of another twenty-five yards beyond the perimeter of the actual dump itself.
Steam rose from the excrement as it was expelled from its internal chamber, the vapors creating a haze – was it hot enough to burn her fair skin? – and he could almost smell the overpowering odor already. Impossible at this distance, he knew, but the repugnant stink filled his nostrils in spite of knowing it was only anticipation.
There was no time for Marguerite to scramble to her feet. Even if she stood, doing so would only have decreased the distance between her and disaster, and would've left her with less time to react. She'd obviously come to the same conclusion with her usual acuity, because she folded her arms across her chest, tucked her head down and rolled away with as much speed as she could muster.
The brontosaurus chewed with a slow, sideways motion as it munched on its mouthful of vegetation, green-tinged saliva dribbling from both sides of its mouth – thankfully well away from the already besieged woman. But the drool left streaks of moisture on the ground that would make a foothold tricky if they had to pass that way.
His boots pounded the ground in what he already knew was a fruitless charge downhill. He was aware of the rifle stock's smooth wood grain as his sweaty right hand tightened on the barrel. He couldn't lose his grip again, there was no time to stop to retrieve it.
Cooler air swept his brow as his urgent leaps threatened to make his hat tumble off. His left hand clapped tight over the brim to hold it in place, and it smacked back down with a barely-discernable squish against the beads of perspiration on his forehead. He struggled to keep his balance without losing forward momentum. With all his might he resisted a wave of guilt that threatened to overwhelm him; this was no time to dwell on the unthinkable. She would NOT be buried alive and smothered to death before he could reach her! She would be okay!
But even as he promised himself that he'd reach her in time, he knew it might not be true. With the distance he needed to cover, his efforts were essentially futile; he was barely half way down the incline when the feces struck the ground a few feet to the left of where Marguerite had been a mere moment ago.
And then like the inevitable crash of waves on the seashore, the falling excrement struck, spread and splattered in all directions.
As if she knew it was coming, which she probably did, Marguerite stopped rolling and contorted her limbs into as small a target as possible, huddled into a ball. She was caught in the splash zone, pummeled by dozens of variously-sized globs of dung. He held his breath, gaze never leaving her as he continued his mad downhill plunge, until the streams of steaming matter petered out long minutes later and he saw her start to straighten up.
She was moving! She was okay! He staggered to a halt and bent over to keep from falling over, hands braced against his knees as he sucked huge gulps of air into his starving lungs. He was almost to the flat bottomland now, though still too far away to help her. He had to pull himself together if he was going to be of any use at all.
To his utter relief, she rose slowly to her knees and stared down at herself, her face screwed up in distaste as she stared at the malodorous material clinging to her body. Her front was relatively unscathed, but muck dripped from her hat and from the twelve inches of her curls that had been unprotected by her hat. Her entire right arm and her back were covered with thick layers of the offensive substance, and as she twisted to look over her shoulder at her grunge-coated backside, Roxton noted that only the back of her right calf was unmarred – although that was rapidly changing as rancid clumps oozed down from higher on her body.
As he saw that she was able to move freely, Roxton took the time to breathe deeply and recover his equilibrium. Why rush? There was nothing he could do now. Better not move too close until he was certain the brontosaurus had finished his business. No use running the risk of looking or smelling like she now did if it could be avoided. He moved forward again, though much more slowly. Warily giving the bronto a wide birth, the hunter skirted around the massive legs and dodged the swinging tail as the giant lizard shifted position again in its search for another choice branch of rosewood leaves. His detour brought him up to one side of Marguerite, nearer to the jungle than to the hill he'd just descended.
Unaware of his presence, the brunette ran her left hand down her right arm, slicking off as much sludge as she could, then vigorously shook her hands free of the loose matter as he finally neared her. "Ugh! Ouch, ouch, ouch! Hot!" he barely heard her grumble, which made him tense again as he remembered his fear that she'd be burned. There was no indication that she was in agony, though. Instead she merely looked irate, which wasn't an uncommon sight. In fact it was rather reassuring that she had the energy to be mad, after all she'd gone through today.
Still on her knees, she glared up at the dinosaur, her beautiful eyes gone slate grey with wrath. If looks could kill, he mused, that beastie would be dead as a doornail! She pointed an accusing finger at the undaunted creature. "Look what you've done to that pavement, you odious creature! And then, as if desecrating a sacred site weren't bad enough, you have to do this! I was having such a good day before you showed up! I've waited weeks for the chance to come here, and you ruined everything! If I had Roxton's big game gun in my hands right now, I'd kill you dead where you stand, you – you – you pea-brained brontosaurus!"
The hunter smothered a grin. Nope, nothing wrong with her. At least, nothing that a lot of soap and water and a good long rest couldn't cure. And he'd learned something interesting: Marguerite had considered this to be a good day. That had to be a first, particularly given that to the best of his knowledge she was one of the most cynical people he'd ever met. More camouflage, he wondered, or only a rare occurrence? Her words also confirmed his suspicion that she'd known this place was here and she'd come looking for it, hoping to find something specific.
"Are you listening to me?!" The brontosaurus continued to chew methodically, completely oblivious to the drama playing out at its feet. Marguerite scowled and vowed, "You find another way to foul up my day, and I swear by all that's holy that I'll skin you alive!"
Done venting her spleen, she returned her attention to the immediate need of the moment. A quick glance at the inundated ground around her showed that there was very little chance of moving in any direction without stepping in another splash of the putrid fecal matter. She grunted in revulsion at the odor permeating the air as she gingerly stood up. With a grimace, she used two fingers to remove her hat, then upended it and slapped at it to clear off the loose dung.
"Well, well, what have we here?"
At the smug drawl, she jumped and swung her head in his direction. She flinched visibly as she found him standing not a dozen feet from her, his rifle cradled casually across his chest, his green eyes twinkling with unholy glee at her predicament. She barely kept herself from groaning aloud. Not him! Not now! I knew he had to be nearby. He's going to make sure I never hear the end of this!
He pursed his lips thoughtfully and asked in dulcet tones, "Had enough of being on your own for today, Miss Krux?"
Her mouth thinned mulishly as he issued his not-so-subtle reminder that there were reasons for the rules she'd broken. "Don't start with me, Roxton," she warned, eyes flashing irritably. She planted her fists on her hips, but jerked her hands away as she encountered the still-steaming debris clinging to her trousers. "Yuck! I need water, now. Which direction?" she demanded tersely.
One aristocratic brow arched as he deliberately looked her up and down. "I think you're right," he agreed blithely, and gestured casually. "That way, milady."
With a scowl that dared him to say another word, she turned – not in the direction he'd indicated, but toward the five-foot high pile of manure. To his bemusement, she stalked around it to a point near where she'd been sitting only a few minutes earlier, took a deep breath, eased to her knees again in spite of the deeper debris into which she sank, closed her eyes to protect them from the fumes and steam, turned her face away from the stinking heap – and plunged both arms into the fresh mound.
He took an abrupt step forward, his rifle lowering to a tight one-handed grip. If the evidence of the heat vapor rising in waves from the pile were to be believed, it ought to be hot enough to burn her hands in there! "What the devil are you doing?!"
She ignored him, wholly focused on holding her breath and not gagging as she groped blindly through the too-horrid-to-contemplate slop. As she'd expected, it was densely packed, difficult to maneuver in after being compacted by the dung piled above it. It took considerable strength to shove her way through the mass. My nails are going to be ruined, she mourned. And this heat is going to redden my hands for days, too – not to mention what might be in there that could stain them. I should have known better than to believe this day would be any different than any other in my life. Why is it that I never learn?
"Marguerite! You'll burn yourself!" Her attention was captured by the alarm in his husky voice, and she heard his footsteps squish across the ground between them as she continued to search through the droppings. He was concerned enough to come closer to this malodorous mountain? His worry touched her, at least until he added with an audible smirk, "There can't possibly be any jewels in there."
Her back stiffened. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction of explaining herself; he'd know what she was doing when she'd done it. No way am I leaving my tool kit behind, no matter how disgusting this is – and it certainly is disgusting! I can't believe I'm digging around in a dung heap! And I thought I'd done every low and filthy thing possible during the war! Hey, there it is! Good. Much more of this, and I'll add insult to injury by vomiting! She pulled with all her might. It was like fighting quicksand, the compressed excrement resisting as she struggled to extract her backpack. She shifted position to her left knee, and dug the heel of her right boot down until she found some solid ground to use as leverage. That did it! She fell backwards with a grunt as the pack came free of its prison with a loud sucking sound. Ugh! Yuck, yuck, yuck! She'd just been splattered with another battery of feces, although at least this time the projectile samples were much smaller than those that had hit her before.
Roxton stared down at her with mingled respect and incredulity as she lay on her back, ashen-faced, gasping for breath, her muddied pack's flap gripped tightly in one out-flung hand. He now understood her goal, and could only applaud her awareness of the fact that their gear was irreplaceable. But even knowing how essential it was not to lose equipment, how could anyone, let alone a woman, actually dare to dig through that?! Was there no end to the lengths Marguerite would go to, nothing she wouldn't do in pursuit of her goals?!
When her breathing was almost under control, she opened her eyes and started to sit up. He leaned forward and offered his hand to help her to her feet, a gesture intended to indicate his respect for her retrieval of her pack, and also to serve as an apology for his jibe about jewels.
Marguerite shook her head once, shoved the filthied pack aside and rolled to her knees. To his bemusement, she once again resumed her position on her left knee, chest tucked down almost onto her bent right knee as she dug the right boot heel down through the muck to find a purchase on solid ground. "Canteen," she said shortly without looking up at him, not wasting any breath. A fast scan confirmed that she was in the right position, and then she turned her face and sucked in as much air as her lungs could hold. She closed her watering eyes and once more shoved both arms into the heap, in the same direction where she'd located the pack. Thankfully, since she knew the two items had been together, finding the canteen was easier. She backed away the second she closed her hand on the smooth container. Slippery! Too fast! She lost her hold and ended up with a handful of something slimy; her stomach lurched. Oh no! I can't – not in front of him! Control, Marguerite, control! But the bile refused to cooperate. She clenched her teeth and swallowed back vomit as she searched for a handhold. Her desperately probing fingers recognized the leather strap and latched on. With a groan of despair, she yanked the canteen out of the dinosaur deposit and spun away from both Roxton's hovering presence and the dung heap. On her hands and knees, she retched violently and repeatedly, until there was nothing left but dry heaves that shook her from head to toe with their force.
Could this day get any better?! I should have known from the start – this is definitely NOT a good day. He's never going to let me live this down! Not ready to face him yet, she moaned internally, mortified not only by her weakness, but by having revealed it to an adversary. Moreover, beneath the mud-like coating on her arms and hands, her skin had begun to smart painfully, especially the welted places where she'd been bitten by the ants. She'd been vaguely aware of the increased discomfort while she was throwing up, but now the pain was rising to a level she couldn't ignore. There must have been something acidic in the dung that resettled after I'd pulled out my bag. She cautiously pressed one hand over a particularly bad spot on her other forearm, and bit back a cry of pain. Okay, that's bad. Don't touch it. Ignore it. Block it out. Deny it, Marguerite, don't let it get the best of you! Don't let Roxton see any more than he already has!
Unaware of her additional problem, Lord Roxton stood uneasy guard over her, knowing all too well that she would hate his witnessing this. She was going to be in a hellish mood on the way to the closest water source sufficient for bathing. The prickly heiress was undoubtedly going to be furious no matter what he said or did. While he doubted she'd appreciate his efforts, he'd simply have to try his best not to provoke her and let the chips fall where they would. He winced at the inadvertent pun.
When she finally sat back on her heels and braced herself to face him, she found his back turned to her as he paced between her position and the jungle, rifle at the ready. She'd fully expected him to be waiting to mock or lecture her, or perhaps both. If I didn't know better, I'd think he was trying to give me some privacy. But discretion or mercy would be out of character from the high and mighty Lord Roxton. Yet even as she thought it, she remembered how he'd offered his hand so gallantly before she'd gone after the canteen, despite the filth that covered her from head to toe. Alright, she conceded grudgingly, maybe he's been gracious occasionally. Still, men rarely act selflessly unless they have an ulterior motive, she bitterly reminded herself. What's he really doing? It doesn't add up. There has to be something I'm not seeing yet. He's probably tickled pink that I'm in this predicament, laughing up his sleeve and expecting me to fall apart so he can gloat about his bloody rules and how I need his help! But I don't need anyone's help, let alone his! I won't give him the satisfaction – I won't!
She eyed him with veiled suspicion as she struggled to stand up, silently cursing her shaky limbs. Her eyes were still watering, stinging from the fumes, but she didn't have either a clean hand or a bit of clean cloth with which to wipe them, and the stench of her own filth wasn't helping. I can't let him know about these bloody welts. I have to find something to keep my hands busy, otherwise I'll be rubbing my arms and making it worse.
He glanced over his shoulder and saw her stagger to her feet and sway uncertainly before dragging in a deep breath to gather her strength. Another deep breath, and she bent over with careful control to retrieve her knapsack and canteen from the ground. She straightened up again, blinking and shaking her head a little in an effort to clear her vision, brow furrowed with determination. He'd never known another woman with such inner strength! But she can't possibly make it to the water under her own steam, despite her bravado – can she? He turned toward her, and she squared her shoulders and looked up with a combination of wariness and defiance that told him as plainly as words that she expected harassment and ridicule. Once again he was struck by the conviction that she couldn't have known many decent people. In fact, he sometimes suspected that Marguerite hadn't had the benefit of a single trustworthy friend in her entire life.
Well, if that's the case, then I'll be the first. He might enjoy teasing and arguing with her, but he'd never been one to kick another person when they were down. Sooner or later, Marguerite would learn that he could be trusted if and when she needed help.
However, he knew her well enough to know better than to try to help yet. She'd refuse even an offer to wipe down her arms and hands with a bit of water and a handkerchief, not that such an attempt would do much good given the magnitude of cleanup needed. No, she wouldn't accept his aid until she couldn't take another step on her own. "Ready?" he asked simply. When that was all he said, surprise flickered in her reddened eyes, followed by a glimmer of puzzlement. There, think that one over, he thought, satisfied that he'd done the right thing by neither teasing her nor riding roughshod over her independence by issuing orders.
When she nodded wordlessly, he repeated his earlier gesture indicating the direction to the nearest water, and stepped out in the lead. Marguerite followed, mindful of the slippery footing.
Roxton adjusted his stride to position himself between her and the brontosaurus. She was still carrying her backpack and canteen by hand instead of slipping the straps over her shoulders. He wasn't sure why, and didn't dare ask, and as a practical matter it wouldn't do to offer to carry them for her, either. It would only set her back up, and one of them had to keep their hands clean and clear in case they needed to defend themselves. There was no way he could fire his guns effectively if his hands were covered with dino dung. And from the looks of her holster, the slimy sludge had likely rendered her pistol useless even if she could draw it, so it was doubly important that he remain capable of protecting them both. There had to be something else he could do to help, though, something she couldn't refuse and wouldn't lose her temper about.
As they trudged gingerly along toward the perimeter of the foul-smelling area, all he could think to do was to offer her an idea of what she was facing. "It's about a twenty minute hike to the hot springs from here. It's mostly downhill once we get out of this valley," he said gruffly. "I know a game trail we can follow almost all the way. The springs are about the same distance from the treehouse as the Layton orchard, but further east. Once we finish there, it'll take roughly another hour from the springs to home." The time estimates would give her measurable goals to work toward, something concrete to focus on. He knew from personal experience that it would help her fight the exhaustion that must be threatening to overwhelm her.
She cast him a sideways glance from beneath her lashes as she considered possible hidden meaning, but was unable to find anything that smacked of mockery or censure in either his tone or his words. "Okay," she replied, tentatively accepting the information as a neutral statement. Twenty minutes. I can do that. Twenty minutes. It's not quite mid-afternoon. There'll be plenty of time to bathe and scrub my clothes and gear. He said hot springs. Perfect, that's exactly what I need. Washing up with hot water will be a refreshing change. I'll feel a lot better once I'm clean again. If I can make it to this place he's talking about, I can make it all the way. Just one foot in front of the other.
Roxton ignored the direct route up the steep incline they needed to climb. Instead of heading straight up, he guided her on a diagonal path which eased the angle of their ascent. It would take a few minutes longer to reach the top, but wouldn't be as big a strain for her; a good trade off. He deliberately stayed barely a step ahead of her. She could easily follow him without tripping and he was close enough to catch or steady her if it became necessary. He kept one eye on the unstable, stubborn lady, and the other on their pathway. He escorted her around fallen trees, outgrowths of rock, and thicker clumps of underbrush, choosing the easiest possible route, but suspected she didn't notice. She simply followed him without a word. In fact, her unusual silence was what worried him most. It was never good when Marguerite was too quiet for too long. Far better to have her whining and complaining.
That was another thought he'd never expected to have about her, and he couldn't help grinning ruefully to himself. No question about it, the woman had him completely addle-brained.
Marguerite doggedly matched his measured pace and focused on taking deep, even breaths and forcing one foot in front of the other. This hill didn't seem so high on the way down. But I can do it. It's only twenty minutes. Just twenty minutes. I have to do it; I won't have Roxton laughing at me. I'm going to make it. I can do it. The hike in the full heat of afternoon soon had her sweating, which worsened the skin irritation. Mustn't scratch at it; it'll only make it burn more. Washing up will help. Just have to make it to the water. Carrying her belongings to keep her hands too full to rub the stinging flesh had been a mistake. The muck on her clothing was already stiffening, which made her body feel heavy, awkward, unbalanced. It required serious concentration not to stumble over her own feet. First chance I get, I have to free my hands and arms or I'm going to trip and fall flat on my face. But I can't ask Roxton for a break; it's only a twenty minute walk and we've barely begun. Maybe once the trail levels off, I can shrug them on while we're moving.
As they crested the hill, Roxton held up a hand. "Hold on; let me make sure it's clear." He drew out his spyglass and made a show of studying the terrain spread before them, once again turning his back to her. If he took his time, she'd be able to recoup her strength before the next leg of their hike.
Marguerite halted for the break with gratitude. She didn't sit or kneel, too afraid she wouldn't be able to get back up. Instead she eased first her knapsack and then her canteen over her shoulders. She flinched several times when the straps touched her aching skin, but managed to restrain the groans that would have alerted her escort. Good. Did it. And I don't think Roxton noticed. Can't give him any more advantages than he already has.
They both felt the familiar vibrations beneath their feet. Roxton alertly swung, trotted a half dozen steps back the way they'd come and peered down. As he'd suspected, the brontosaurus was moving again. It ambled down the valley to the west. "Just your friend," he assured Marguerite, returning to her side.
"That brontosaurus was no friend of mine," she retorted sourly.
He chuckled, pleased at the familiar attitude. It was a good sign. He was also glad to see that her pack and canteen were in their proper places again, but was troubled by her continued pallor and the pinched look about her eyes and mouth. Pain, or simply exhaustion? I'll give her a couple more minutes of rest, see if it helps. To stall, he unhooked his own canteen, twisted off the cap, and extended it to her. "Have a drink while I finish scouting the trail."
Since her canteen was still utterly gross, and since he hadn't really given her the option of refusing, Marguerite accepted the shiny canister. Wish that brontosaurus would hurry up and get out of range! The tremors continued to threaten her fragile stability. She widened her stance to steady herself, raised the canteen to her mouth and sipped carefully, swallowing gratefully. Her gaze followed the hunter back to his previous position overlooking their trail. He doesn't usually take so long to decide if it's safe or not. Is it some kind of charade? Maybe he can see that I'm struggling to keep up. Is he helping me? What's he going to expect in return?
The hunter had retrained the spyglass on the other side of the rise and was panning it over the terrain. "Looks like it'll be a quiet walk," he noted aloud to encourage his drooping companion. He turned and strode back to her side with a smile. "No sign of any predators to hinder us " His gaze snapped to the left, focusing behind her in sudden recognition and alarm, and his voice trailed off. He swore briefly under his breath and then commanded, "Stand still, Marguerite. Stand very, very still."
She might not trust the man, but she trusted that hoarse authoritative tone that he only adopted when they were in imminent danger.
Another tremor and another stronger, closer Not the steady gait of the herbivorous giant. Her silver-green gaze clung to him as his darker eyes narrowed. She could track the approach of the danger by his unwavering focus on it. The barrel of his rifle inched smoothly upward. "What is it?" she whispered, horribly afraid she already knew. She could hear the claws rending the earth with each step up the hill behind her.
"T-Rex," he replied under his breath, and at her sharp inhalation he added with quiet force, "Just stay very still. Don't move."
"You said that before and it didn't work," she hissed, remembering all too vividly the first time a T-Rex had suddenly appeared behind her, only days after the balloon had crashed onto the plateau. You ended up leading it away to save my life, and the rest of us spent a horrid half day afraid it had eaten you alive before we were all sucked through that whirlpool and ended up across the inland sea. "You ran then, shouldn't we run now?"
"No! Just stand still. And shut up!" he ground out between clenched jaws, gaze still fastened on the dinosaur.
She knew the T-Rex was almost on them, could feel the hot breath as it blew down on the top of her head, Roxton's head, their shoulders, the back of her neck. Every instinct told her to run for her life. But she stood still, clasping his canteen tightly with both hands, staring at the British nobleman as he stared up at the dinosaur now only a few feet away.
Roxton remained at her side, the rifle ready to blast into the massive jaw that hovered over their heads. This weapon wouldn't kill the beast, but at this range it would put some painfully discouraging holes into the king of the plateau predators. He had to be right this time. It had only been a theory the first time he'd told her to stand still when faced with a hungry T-Rex. Since then Veronica had confirmed Challenger and Summerlee's assertions that the beast had weak eyesight and tracked its prey by sound and scent and motion. They should be safe if they stayed still, particularly since he was almost a hundred percent positive that the dinosaur wouldn't want a meal covered in bronto droppings. The rifle was only ready in case his tiny bit of doubt proved to be more accurate than the two professors' learned opinions and Veronica's first-hand knowledge.
Steady, he thought to himself as the foot-long teeth were bared beneath the descending snout.
It sniffed the two humans – and its head reared away.
Steady, the hunter thought again, wishing desperately he could communicate that to Marguerite, but he knew they had to remain absolutely silent at this critical moment.
The T-Rex lowered its head once more, snuffling over them. All it could discern was the strong scent of the other dinosaur's bodily refuse. With a snort of disgust, it turned back downhill and strode away.
The tip of Roxton's rifle steadfastly followed it. He didn't want to risk any further movement until he was certain the carnivore wasn't going to be attracted by the motion. How the devil could I have missed its approach? Stupid, to assume the brontosaurus had merely finished feeding and moved on! His carelessness could've gotten both Marguerite and himself killed. Some protector, some trustworthy friend he'd turned out to be!
The earth tremors decreased in strength as the predator once again caught the scent of prey and followed after it. Roxton's tense shoulders relaxed just a trifle, informing Marguerite that the danger was finally past. She noted his tight jaw and the angry glitter of his dark green eyes, and knew with a sinking heart that it was time to face up to his wrath. "I know. It's my fault," she sighed sullenly. "If I hadn't gone off "
He blinked and met her guarded gaze. "What?" With a start, he realized she thought he was blaming her for their encounter with the T-Rex. "No, this was my fault," he admitted honestly, shouldering his rifle. "I was thinking too much about where we're going and not enough about where we'd been. The truth is, this must be your lucky day."
Her jaw dropped, then abruptly snapped closed again. She stared hard at him. "Excuse me?"
"Well, you're the reason we're both standing here alive, instead of trying to outrun that T-Rex or already being digested in his belly. It may not seem like it at first glance, but you getting slathered by that," he gestured at her body, "that – er – stinking mess, that's what saved our lives. Like many other creatures, dinosaurs won't have anything to do with the droppings of other dinosaurs. Being covered with it saved your life, and mine, too, because I was so close to you. So even though you stink to high heaven, having all that dumped on you brought us luck." He smiled half-heartedly, knowing he was treading a fine line. Given her weariness, her anger, and her perceived humiliation, he half expected the feisty woman to draw her pistol and shoot him where he stood.
Instead, she only nodded thoughtfully and handed him his canteen back. Could he be right? Is there still a chance that something good might come of this day? She considered the possibility, compared against her past. Her hopes had been dashed so many times, only to find out that a new lead, a new possibility had opened up. Whatever power it is that controls the fates, it does have a quirky sense of humor, whether I like it or not. So maybe he's right. Maybe there's still hope for this day.
Roxton uncapped his canteen and raised it for a draught of the water, warily watching his companion over the rim, then wrinkled his nose. Ugh! What a smell! He'd noted with appreciation how careful she'd been when touching the container – except perhaps when they'd been threatened by the T-Rex. He quickly lowered the canteen and resealed it. He'd wait for a drink until they reached the springs. Most of the pools were mineral springs that bubbled up hot enough to steep tea, but there was one spring of cooler fresh water. "Ready to go on?"
"The game trail is over this way." This descent was much less steeply inclined, but Roxton again assumed a position where he could catch her if necessary. He couldn't believe she hadn't collapsed yet. Where does she find the energy to stay on her feet?! She truly was the most incredible woman he'd ever met! Her feet were dragging, but she continued to place one foot before the other with dogged determination. He'd seen such behavior in some of his men on the front lines during the Great War, but he'd never expected a civilian, especially a mere slip of a woman like Marguerite, to exhibit the same heroic effort. It made him hurt to watch her. They were only half way to the springs when he noticed that she was fighting a grimace every time she took another step. Combined with the gingerly way she was moving, he realized that she was in a great deal of pain. By studying her discreetly, he eliminated broken bones as a source of her suffering, and finally concluded that the most likely causes were the ant bites, the effects of the burning hot dung on her arms, or perhaps a combination of both. By the time they were within sight of the grottos, her face was deathly pale, her lips compressed, and her hands balled into fists so tight that he suspected her nails would leave marks. Roxton gritted his teeth to prevent himself from simply picking her up and carrying her the rest of the way. "There they are, just a few more feet," he said as lightly as he could.
She looked up, saw the yawning opening of the cavern, and stumbled to a halt, staring in dismay. He stopped, too, and turned back to her. "Marguerite?"
She moistened her lips with her tongue, and asked carefully, "The hot springs are in a cave?" Not another cave, please! Cave-ins, hallucinations, tombs of forgotten kings, doorways to societies centered around man-eating trees Couldn't these hot springs be someplace other than a cave? Am I the only one who's noticed that every time we go into a cave, something bad happens?!
He took a step closer to her. "Something wrong?"
She hesitated, fleetingly met his concerned gaze, then bent her head and fiddled idly with her belt. "Are you certain they're safe?"
Safe? Why would she even ask? What in the world was going on in that head of hers?!
When a glance up from beneath her lashes revealed his confusion, she sighed impatiently. "Oh, come on, Roxton! Need I remind you we haven't been all that lucky with caves? Have you forgotten the cave that came down on our heads and erupted beneath our feet at the same time, trapping us here? Or about Lady Cassandra Yorkton's little cave full of psychotropic mind games? Or that cave where we were cornered by that ugly flat-faced dinosaur right before we ended up in that so-called Paradise? Shall I go on?"
He ignored her sarcasm. She was tired, and besides, she was right; she had good reason to regard caves with caution. Patiently he replied, "This grotto is safe. I've been here before, Marguerite. It's just a series of small caves connected to one another by short tunnels. No sign that they've ever been used by man or beast as a permanent dwelling, no sign of instability, nasty rituals or secret passageways. This place is so safe that I've actually created a stash here for emergency use; some food and weapons tucked away for a rainy day. They've not been disturbed."
She didn't look convinced, but when he started on again, she followed.
Roxton paused at the cave's threshold to pull a torch from his rucksack and light it, then gave her a reassuring smile. "You'll feel better after you have a nice bath," he said with a crooked grin. "Come on, in we go."
Marguerite rolled her eyes, but she stayed at his heels as he crossed the shadowed threshold.
He mentally reviewed the layout of the hot springs, and, given her suspicions, instead of using the pools he normally chose when he was alone, he chose a smaller offshoot grotto that included three pools separated by stalagmites. The rock formations would offer her some privacy but allow him to be nearby. He could keep an eye on the lone entrance while he washed off her pack and canteen. If he was discreet, by the time she was done bathing and washing her clothing, it would be too late for her to protest that she didn't need his help. He could hear her close behind as he led the way through the twisting tunnels. "What do you think?" he asked.
She touched a stone wall with a knowledgeable hand, and nodded. "Seems okay. How did you find it?"
"Veronica told me about it; she said it was in the center of the Zanga hunting grounds, and it wasn't difficult to find when I went looking for it. There's plenty of game around here. Although I try not to hunt in this area so that I don't intrude on the Zanga's territory, I've come here to clean blood off my shirt or pants before it sets, after I've made a kill further off. I've even stashed some of Challenger's soap here," he added with a smile. "It's a bit strong, but I think in this case it'll exactly suit a lady's needs." He heard a half-hearted snicker at his joking evaluation, and grinned. Good, she's feeling well enough to appreciate a joke. "It's only a little further now, Marguerite. There are three pools in this particular grotto, and only one entrance or exit, so it'll be easy to guard. You can use one pool for bathing, one for laundry, and the third for rinsing."
"Why, Lord Roxton," she purred with a husky laugh, "You'll make some lucky lady a wonderful houseboy."
"I'm open to discussing terms of engagement, milady." he quipped, pleased that she was feeling up to their usual banter. "I'm willing to offer my services: fetch towels, scrub those hard to reach places " He leered over his shoulder, and was delighted at her answering chuckle. She might look like she'd fall over if touched by a feather, but her spirit was intact.
"I think I can manage fine, thank you, kind sir," she replied, her silver-green eyes alight with not only humor, but also a heat that he felt to the soles of his feet as she added, "But I'll keep that offer in mind for a later date."
Lord Roxton swallowed hard and nearly tripped over his own feet. "You do that," he rumbled, then gestured through a smaller, lower tunnel. "It's through here. It opens up almost right away."
She shook her head. "After you," she replied firmly. He tipped his hat at her with another of his lopsided grins and stepped into the passage. She followed and was relieved to see that he was right; it opened up beautifully, the cave's stalactites hanging down from a good thirty feet up. The stalagmites to which Roxton had referred were old, thicker and taller than he was. A brief examination revealed that the rock formations rising around the farthest steaming pool would serve as an effective screen. I can probably undress and toss my clothes over into the second pool to soak them while I bathe and wash my hair. If Roxton stays near the entranceway, he'll never catch a glimpse.
He'd dropped his own pack near the entrance and followed her on her inspection tour, and when she voiced her plan he promptly agreed. "Here, I'll take your pack and gear, keep them up front. Less steam." She nodded absently, letting him slide the straps from her shoulders and take her belt and hat as well. "Boots?" he prompted, amused at the longing with which she eyed the pools of water.
That brought her attention back to him. "No thanks. I'll keep the boots with me. Soap?"
Roxton carried her gear back to the first pool and left it there, darted out long enough to retrieve the soap and the towel he had stored here, and returned to Marguerite's side. He tucked the torch into a crag in the nearest stalagmite to provide light to all three pools. As she disappeared behind the rock formations he called after her, "That's George's special mix, you know."
Marguerite's only reply was a groan. "Don't remind me. It's probably going to take off two layers of skin, but as long as it also takes off this this abominable-smelling goop I don't care."
Roxton waited, hesitant to attend to his chores or wash up himself until he was certain she didn't need further assistance. For a long time the only sounds he heard were the bubbling springs and the faint rasp of cloth against cloth. What in the world is taking her so long to undress?! Finally he saw first her blouse and then her jodhpurs sail over the stalagmite wall, followed almost immediately by a lacy camisole and her other underclothes. The first two hit the water with unerring aim, but he snagged the undergarments with the tip of his rifle. It had occurred to him that the grime of her outerwear might transfer to the finer materials if left together in the spring water. She'd be furious if that happened; lace was so much more difficult to clean than sturdier materials. He heard the splash as she entered the screened water of the third pool, and grinned at the sigh of feminine pleasure that followed.
Satisfied that matters were well in hand, he strode back to the pool nearest the entrance and carefully set the undergarments on the stone floor beside their gear. "Marguerite, I'm going back to my cache to fetch some supplies," he called over his shoulder.
The predictable reply drew another grin from her escort. She'd be fine for a while on her own, busy with washing off the excrement. His stash of supplies wasn't far away, in a hidden niche he'd discovered on one of his more relaxed visits to the grotto. One of the items he stocked among the basic medical supplies was aloe, for soothing skin irritations when he'd inadvertently tangled with the wrong specimens of thorn or ivy vegetation. He also stored dried foodstuff for days like this when he wouldn't make it back to the treehouse in time for the evening meal. It didn't need to be cooked, and if he could convince Marguerite to eat something, it would give her a bit more strength for the rest of the hike home. If he remembered correctly, there might also be a small bar of milder soap left, too, one Veronica had made. If so, it would be suitable for laundering Marguerite's undergarments.
When he returned with his armload of goods, he made sure to shout a warning ahead. As he entered the chamber, he added conversationally, "I've brought a spare shirt you can use while you're washing your other clothes. I'll hang it on this stalagmite here between the pools." He suited action to his words, careful to drape it so that she could reach it from the other side. "And I'm leaving you some aloe, too, in case your arms and hands were burned." He set the small canister on the rock at the base of the same projection.
He paused with a frown. She was supposed to sound better, more relaxed. But her voice was strained. "Everything okay?"
He hesitated. The terse, single-word replies were not reassuring. There couldn't possibly be someone in there holding a gun on her, could there? Should he chance a look? What if she was only irritated that he was talking to her, and preferred him to leave her alone? It could be as simple as that, couldn't it? It didn't have to be danger. Was there any other reason why a hot bath wouldn't be soothing her? Even the simple act of lathing brook water over her face and arms almost always noticeably brightened her demeanor. One thing was for certain: she'd pitch a fit at him if he intruded without cause.
On the other side of the stalagmite that screened her from his view, Marguerite sighed. No sound of his manly stride moving away; he was still there, worried about her. I can't very well tell him that I can't bear to touch my own skin! Oh, she'd started to wash off the muck, prepared for it to hurt since it ached already anyway. Her hair hadn't been too difficult; it had been no trouble to dunk beneath the surface to thoroughly wet her long tresses, use the bar of soap she'd left at the side of the spring to work up a lather with her fingertips, and then dip beneath the water again to work the soap out, again mostly with her fingertips. But by the time her hair was clean, she'd discovered that the filth that had caked her hands had also protected them to some degree. Washing her hair had cleared the dung from her palms and fingers, and relaxing in the warm water had soaked off much of the excrement that had coated her forearms and the backs of her hands.
When she'd grasped the bar of soap to actually begin washing off what hadn't already soaked off, it had stung. But she hadn't been prepared her for the downright excruciating pain that hit when she'd started to rub that bar of soap along her arms and hands. She'd seen stars and almost blacked out.
In fact, now that most of the dung had soaked off, even the gentle lapping of the warm water against her skin of her hands and forearms was sending waves of agony through her. But there's no choice. I have to bathe, and I have to finish before Roxton finds out how bad my hands and arms really are. He'd just jump at the chance to get right in here with me to wash off the last of this muck! I won't be at his mercy, I won't! He can't know, not right now! Partial truth, that should do the trick. She drew a steadying breath and said flatly, "I'm all right, Roxton. Really. But I'm glad you brought that aloe. It'll be helpful. Thank you." That's no more than the truth. The aloe will definitely help, if I can stand to apply it.
He cocked his head and considered her words and her tone. He could tell she'd recognized his concern and was trying to calm him down. Could he accept her words at face value? Probably not. But at least the danger was only from Marguerite's stubborn independence, not from another outside risk that he'd missed again. "Okay. Call me if you need anything. The offer of assistance is still open."
Marguerite released her breath quietly as she listened to him walk away. Good. That worked. Now come on, Marguerite, do it. Putting it off isn't going to make it hurt any less. Get it over with. She focused tautly on controlling her reactions and reached for the soap again. She had to keep a firm enough grip not to lose hold of it, using as little skin contact as possible, and apply it to her arm as steadily as she could without blacking out, or worse, screaming. No, definitely no screaming. That will bring Roxton running for certain. I can do this. Mind over matter. That's all it is. I can do this.
A very long seventy-eight minutes later by his pocket watch, Roxton finally saw the red-and-white striped shirt hanging on the stalagmite slip free of the projection where he'd hung it. He stopped pacing and squatted back on his heels, brow creasing in concern as the minutes dragged on. He'd expected her to saunter out within seconds of donning his shirt, most likely still buttoning it with her usual daring nonchalance as she came. What was taking her so bloody long?!
He'd been going crazy with the effort to hold back his urge to personally attend to her needs. In order to prevent himself from fidgeting or irritating Marguerite by hovering, he'd focused on the work at hand. First he'd gently laundered her chemise and drawers, rather enjoying the process as he'd imagined her chagrin at his handling of her most intimate articles of clothing, and resolutely not dwelling on the fact that she was barely a few feet away er bare. That done, his libido sternly rebuked and tamed, and with no hint that Marguerite would be done soon, he'd thoroughly cleaned her backpack and both their canteens. He'd left long enough to refill the canteens from the cool spring in the next small cavern. Once that was done, he'd given himself over to the task of cleaning her weapons belt and her pistol, which, thankfully, hadn't been as bad as he'd feared. He'd also taken the time to strip down to his long johns for a quick wash. Then, when she still hadn't emerged, he'd gone ahead and washed her trousers and the blouse she'd worn that day, instead of waiting for her to do it herself.
Through it all, he'd kept a close ear on the muffled sounds from the last pool of water, and thanks to the acoustics of the grotto he'd heard enough bitten off groans and gasps to know that bathing hadn't done much if anything to ease her pain. So when she finally appeared from behind the rocky spikes rising from the cave floor, he was prepared for the exhaustion-shadowed slate-grey color of her eyes that matched the ash-grey pallor of her skin. But he wasn't prepared for the truth of what was causing her pain: he sucked in a sharp breath at the sight of her forearms and hands. They were fire-red below the rolled back sleeves of his shirt, and the swollen ant-bites were darker still. "Bloody – Marguerite! Why didn't you say something sooner?" He shot to his feet and closed his hands around her upper arms to steady her wobbly balance, his grip much more tender than his terse tone of voice. He led her carefully to the bedroll he'd laid out for her.
Marguerite sank down with relief and steadily met his smoldering gaze. "What could you have done? You said this was the closest water."
He scowled, but couldn't argue with the facts. She was right. The little he could have accomplished with his handkerchief and two half-empty canteens wouldn't have made a significant difference. There was nothing he could have done before they'd reached water, no way to treat this without it being thoroughly cleaned first. Doing his best to hide his chagrin and concern, he held out her canteen. "Here, I refilled it with fresh water." When she didn't even reach for it, he focused on her again, one brow quirked in question.
I hate this. Oh boy, do I hate this. Without a word, she turned her hands palm up for him to see, not quite successful in her effort to conceal the tremors. Between the acidic dung, the harsh soap, and the scrubbing, her fine-boned hands were visibly swollen and as bright a red as her arms, almost blistered.
He swallowed hard and cursed under his breath as he realized more fully what it must have cost her to wash herself. No wonder it had taken over an hour! He started to look up, but his gaze was caught by the shirt buttons. She'd had to button every one of those buttons after easing his shirt over her arms, and then roll up the sleeves, too. That's why it had been almost five minutes from when she'd taken his shirt until when she'd emerged. His gaze slowly lifted to meet hers, positive that she would bitterly resent this whole situation. The expression he found wasn't hard to interpret and confirmed his expectation: she was braced, defiant, once again prepared for him to mock her. What in the name of all that was common and decent in humankind had she faced in her past, to expect such a thing?! Or if not in her past, then what had he done in the last few months to make her think he'd add to her suffering?!
Well, although he'd much rather the occasion hadn't arisen, he'd look at this as another opportunity to show her he could be trusted. His hand was steady as he raised the canteen to her lips. "Drink up," he commanded gruffly. "Want something to eat, too? I'll get you something to eat while we dab a little aloe on your arms. Okay?"
It took a moment for his words to sink in as she stared up at him. He's asking, not just ordering? Offering to wait on me hand and foot without a single wise-crack? There has to be something more. The other shoe has to drop. It can't be this simple. It's never this simple. Thick-lashed green eyes narrowed suspiciously as she nodded. "Whatever you say." She sipped from the canteen, noting that it was in pristine condition. It's mine, isn't it? Yes, there's that dent from when the balloon fell He cleaned my gear?
He watched her eyes shift to scan the cave while she swallowed the cool water. He knew what she'd see; her belongings were hung on every craggy spot he could use, all clean, or at least only mildly stained, all in the process of drying. Even her hat had been scrubbed and brushed. Her lovely silvery eyes widened and she pulled back from the canteen, gaze snapping back to him again.
He shrugged in response to her unspoken question. "Idle hands and all that. With a woman of fire and steel naked on the other side of the rocks, it was either throw my heart into doing the laundry or throw caution to the winds and hop into that pool with you. Made the right choice, didn't I?" he asked lightly with his usual crooked grin. "Because if not, we can always start over ?"
A faint smile graced her face, her distrust eased a little by his familiar banter. "No, you made the right choice, Lord Roxton," she assured him quietly. "More water, please." I almost believe him. But no one's this altruistic, especially powerful men like him. He wants something, he's just not pressing for it right now. He's aristocracy, for goodness sake, and he expects me to believe he's done my laundry without wanting something in return?! Not bloody likely!
Yet despite her misgivings, there was no sign of his demanding anything in return for his solicitude. He knelt at her side and held the canteen for her, and he hand-fed her chunks of dried pterodactyl to chew on before he began to smooth aloe over her arms and hands. Chomping away at the tough meat strips gave her a good reason to clench her jaw, but she was trembling under the strain long before he finished applying the medicine just to one arm. Before long she was swaying where she sat, struggling to remain conscious in the face of the pain.
For his part, Roxton was in almost as much agony, although his was purely mental. It was particularly bad when he touched the welts, making her hiss with agony, and more than once he was afraid she was going to faint. He ground his teeth, hating that his actions were hurting her more, but knowing it needed to be done. At least he could feel a difference in the heat rising from her flesh after the aloe had been spread over her blotchy skin. He just prayed he was doing more good than harm.
If he could only think of something else, another way to distract her, anything else that might distract her while he finished! The solution came to him in a flash of inspiration. Talking was the next best thing to take one's mind off of pain, at least in his experience, and he remembered the look he'd glimpsed on her face through the spyglass when she'd been up in that tree. If her scientific pursuits were anything like those of Challenger or Summerlee, he might just have a topic that would serve his purpose. To test his theory, Roxton gestured to the seeping sores on her arms. "Insect bites?"
She nodded, and he was intrigued by the genuine enthusiasm that lit her eyes and brought a slight flush to her pale face. There was no doubt about it; her interest was every bit as genuine as that of the two professors! Exactly like the two senior members of the expedition, Marguerite was delighted with what she'd observed, despite the consequences to herself. And as he'd hoped, talking about it energized her and allowed her to focus on something other than her aching body.
"Yes, they were ants. You should have seen them, Roxton! Millions of them! They swept out of the jungle like a blanket covering the ground." Her eyes sparkled a brilliant green with excitement at the memory. "I don't know if Challenger might be familiar with the species. The professors will be so disappointed to have missed seeing the migration. Their whole colony was on the move. They were literally devouring everything in their path, short of the trees themselves! It was fantastic!"
"You were in their path, I take it?" he asked lightly, only just preventing a grimace as he recalled the fear that had gripped him when he'd seen the danger.
"Almost," she looked up at him with a gamine grin. "I climbed a tree; only a few bit me. They stole a ride on my rucksack. I was lucky." Abruptly, she fell silent, her smile vanishing. Lucky! What am I saying?!
He glanced up from applying the aloe around her fine-boned elbow, alerted by the sudden silence. Disappointed to see that she'd lost her animation, expressive eyes once again shuttered, he attempted to rekindle her eagerness by sharing his similar experience. "I saw something like that once, only it was locusts in northern Africa. It's not something I'd want to experience twice. You're right that you were lucky to make it into a tree. Like I said before, this just must be your day."
She tilted her head and considered that, a hint of skepticism in the curl to her lip. "Perhaps."
"Well, look at the facts: You didn't get eaten by ants; you managed to find your pack and canteen in spite of adverse circumstances; and those same adverse circumstances saved your life and mine from a very large and hungry T-Rex." He sat back on his heels again, giving her a little time to recoup before he continued with the medicinal aloe. "Furthermore, if you'd been alone, you'd never have known where to find the nearest water, and on top of that," he held up the clay pot of aloe mixture. "I had soap, a towel, and a store of aloe. I'd say you've been amazingly fortunate today."
Marguerite smiled reluctantly. "Well, when you put it like that, I'd have to agree."
"You agree?! Well, that doesn't happen very often, now does it? I'll mark it on my calendar," he teased, glad to see an answering twinkle in her eyes. Then he sobered. "You know, I think your, er, unmentionables might be dry by now. Do you want to put those on before I tend to the rest of those ant bites?"
The rest? She looked down. He'd already slathered the medicine on both her arms and hands. What ? She blushed, and then blushed more hotly as she realized she was blushing. Why is it that this man can reduce me to the status of an awkward schoolgirl?!
She'd forgotten she was only wearing Roxton's shirt. The tails reached to her upper legs, covering all the necessary parts, which was all she'd been thinking about when she'd donned it after climbing out of the water. But his shirt left far more leg bare than she had considered until now. More than a dozen angry red welts were visible on her thighs, the bites she'd received through her pants when she'd been up in the tree. Faced with the pain emanating from her upper limbs, she'd forgotten, or perhaps simply ignored, the stinging on her lower limbs. They didn't hurt as badly as the ones on her arms, not having been exposed to the extra damage of direct contact with acidic dung, but they should be treated, too.
He was right; she'd definitely feel more comfortable with her undergarments on before he touched her legs, regardless of how platonic his intentions. A surprisingly considerate suggestion, particularly when he's been trying to get his hands on me since this trip began. This is so strange! Have I actually met a genuine gentleman? I didn't think such a creature existed. He told me himself that he was no more a gentleman than I am a lady. He can be such a cad at times, but then he does things like this, showing tender, caring consideration in everything he's done since he tracked me down today. Who is he, really?
Unaware of her internal debate, he'd risen to his feet and crossed to where her lacy garments were hung. He touched the hemmed layers; the thickest parts were always the last to dry. "Still a little damp. Do you want to wait, or wear them anyway?"
"I can deal with a little dampness."
"Okay." He brought both garments to her and laid them on her lap. "If I go refill your canteen, can you manage?"
She nodded, once again taken aback at his discretion. "I'll manage." I can do it. She stared down at the two pieces of clothing. She'd need to take off John's shirt. All those bloody buttons. But I can do it. I'll have to do it. It'll be okay; my hands hurt much less now, with the aloe on them.
His large hand splayed out over the material folded neatly on her lap, and he waited until she looked up and met his gaze. Very gently, he reasoned, "Marguerite, there's another option. I know your hands must be very painful. I can hold the clothes from behind you and help you dress. I wouldn't peek or touch, I give you my word of honor. You'll need your strength for the rest of the hike back to the treehouse. There's still another hour, remember? It may not be the 'proper' thing to do, but it's the smart thing to do."
She closed her eyes for a moment. He's right. But if he breaks his word, I'm not in much shape to put him back in his place. It wouldn't be the first time she'd been lulled into a dangerous situation by a man's softly-spoken words and pretty promises.
As if he could hear her thoughts, Roxton added, "You could always elbow me in the ribs if I forget myself."
Marguerite's eyes flew open, astonished that he had correctly guessed what she was thinking, as he continued with a waggle of his brows, "Or you could knee me in the groin. Or push me into the water. Actually," he reconsidered with a lopsided grin, "that last one sounds best. Go ahead and push me into the water. Let's forget all about ideas like elbows in the ribs or the knee in the groin, okay? I'm sure dumping me in the water would put me in my place sufficiently, and it wouldn't do any permanent damage you might regret down the line when I've won you over." And then the cheeky nobleman winked!
She laughed. She couldn't help it. "Alright, alright already! If I don't have to give up the options of elbowing or kneeing you, along with the possibility of pushing you into the water, I'll let you help!" No wonder he's reputed to be one of the smoothest orators in the House of Lords! The man is a silver-tongued devil!
He nodded approvingly and moved behind her to slip both hands beneath her arms and lift her to her feet. "Your hair smells a lot better, though it'll still be another wash or two before you're bearable," he commented slyly, and was rewarded by a sharp look over her shoulder. In the blink of an eye he was treated to the sight of her pink tongue – yes, she actually stuck her tongue out at him! Her playfulness so rarely emerged that he laughed.
Marguerite smiled, too. "I knew it would take more than one bath to get rid of the smell," she admitted. "But at least I don't reek so badly now."
He chuckled and knelt behind her, reaching around her bare feet to pick up the drawers first as he teased, "True. You only reek mildly now." Grinning at her indignant squawk, he flicked his wrists to shake the undergarment open, and held it level with her mid-calves. "Ready, milady? You can use my shoulder if you need to brace yourself." If he weren't mistaken, she'd take him up on his subtle challenge to test his resolve and self-control. If he could get her to focus on seeing whether he'd live up to his word, it would relieve her natural embarrassment and discomfort over the intimacy and lack of modesty during the process. If only he could similarly relieve his own equally natural reaction!
Although she wasn't dizzy now, she deliberately leaned her left hip against his steady shoulder as she raised her right foot and inserted it through the right leg hole he held open for her, and then braced her right hip against him while she did the same with her left foot. Without any delay, he eased the short pants up over her knees, thighs, and hips, before releasing the elastic band to settle at her waist. She couldn't vouch for his gaze, but his fingers didn't once skim over her bare flesh. If he hadn't already kissed me more than once, I might wonder whether he's one of those men who prefer men! But he has kissed me, and I know his reputation: he's definitely not one of those. So his word is pretty good. Maybe. She caught her breath as his arms unexpectedly encircled her and he began to unbutton his spare shirt. After a moment of mingled fear and heart-pounding exhilaration, she realized why he was removing the shirt. Oh, this has to come off so the camisole can go on! Wait a second – had she just almost wanted him to break his word?! What on earth is wrong with me?
Once again his nimble fingers stayed away from her skin, and, as he'd promised, he remained behind her. She thought her heart would stop altogether when he eased the cotton off her shoulders and down her arms. The precautions he undertook to prevent the material of the sleeves from rubbing along her hypersensitive forearms nearly brought her to tears of appreciation. No one's taken this much care of me in, well, ever. Is he for real? Does he really care whether he hurts me, or is he only trying to make me let my guard down? In her experience, men never passed up an opportunity to ogle and grope a topless woman. But Lord Roxton proved to be unlike any other man she'd met; he stepped away from her to lay the red striped shirt aside, staying behind her in accord with his vow.
With the shirt removed, he once more knelt and reached around her legs to pick up her chemise. He rose to his feet with his arms encircling her but not touching her, and unfolded the underbodice in front of her. It fastened in the back, thankfully, not at her front. "Hold out your arms, Marguerite," he instructed softly, huskily. She obeyed, and he took the same care as before to slip the garment up over her injured arms without brushing against her injured skin, finally settling the lace straps onto her shoulders. She waited for him to comment about her birthmark, then realized it must have been hidden by her hair when he asked curiously, "How do you keep from snagging all these curls in your clothes?" while he fastened the chemise. It was obviously a rhetorical question since he went on, "I think I saw a comb when I was cleaning up your pack. We should get these tangles out of your hair before it dries. I don't know how to do braids or anything like that, but I used to comb my mother's hair when I was a little lad. I think I can do that without hurting you." Only after he had the chemise secured did he gather her thick damp curls and pull her hair free from beneath the lace-edged shoulder straps. "Hold on," he said as she started to sit, and she waited, tensing. A moment later he draped his spare shirt back over her shoulders. "Okay, done."
With a hand just above her elbow, he guided her back down to sit on the blankets. Then the lanky man dropped down beside her and met her wondering gaze. "Ready for the last application of the aloe?" His voice was graveled with desire, but his unguarded expression testified of his grim determination to carry on honorably.
I think he just might be for real. "Yes."
Roxton dipped his fingers into the gelled aloe and began dabbing it onto the welts on her thighs. He kept his eyes focused solely on the bite marks, but was all too aware of her silky skin and how close his hand was to where it couldn't be. Not now. Not yet. Not this way. How could he be so fiercely attracted to her when she still smelled like a dunghill and her flesh was marred by the day's series of misadventures? It was taking every ounce of strength he possessed not to let his hand slide along her thighs, to remember that she was hurt and exhausted and placing a precarious trust in him. I have to fight this attraction, keep my word! She was trembling. He didn't dare look into her eyes. If she were feeling one iota as he did, he'd be lost.
Marguerite couldn't help staring at the handsome man leaning over her so solicitously. He wants me. I can see it in his eyes, see the pounding of his pulse there at the base of his neck. His hands are trembling. Oh drat! I'm trembling, too! His touch is so tender. All she could think of was the kisses they'd shared. That very first one, when she'd bitten his lip and then told him off for his presumption, she'd learned how soft his lips were. When he'd been infected by that vampiric virus and had come to her in her tent, those kisses had been the stuff of her dreams. And only recently, when she'd been under the influence of the paradise fruit and tried to seduce him, his kisses had made her burn with wanting him. But he knew something wasn't right in that place, and he pulled back. He didn't take advantage of me, even though I literally threw myself at him. He was focused on protecting Malone then, protecting us all. And he's doing the same now, protecting me, she realized as he deliberately drew his hand away from the last ant bite. He's going to keep his word. His hands had worked steadily despite the tremor that betrayed his desire. Their touch on her legs had remained light and brief, no straying, not a single accidental brush of his fingers on the sensitive flesh around the little swollen marks.
She was stunned by recognition of her own reaction. I'm actually disappointed that he's not trying to seduce me! How could this be?! What am I thinking?!
Finally finished tending each bite, Roxton rose stiffly to his feet without looking at her. He was positive that if he so much as glanced into her beautiful green eyes, he'd ravage Marguerite on the spot. He was so aroused by the time spent touching her that there'd be no gainsaying him, and despite his joking earlier, she wasn't in any shape to stop him. For her sake, he'd best remove himself from her proximity until he could be sure he'd not disgrace himself or, worse, dishonor her. Maybe she'd been right not so long ago when she'd told him they were a disaster waiting to happen. Well, this certainly qualified as a near-disaster. He'd never forgive himself if he took advantage of her under these circumstances. He'd best get out of here until he had himself under control again. "I'll be back in a minute," he said gruffly, and strode rapidly away, leaving her safely alone.
Marguerite could only be thankful that he'd gone. This is bad. This is very, very bad. I would have let him – heavens, I wouldn't have just let him, I'd have seduced him myself if he hadn't walked out of here! And there's no fruit to blame it on this time! Marguerite scrambled awkwardly to her feet and began to pace. My plans, my goals don't include Lord John Roxton, and never will! There's no room in my life for a complication like him. My goals – oh no! The Ouroboros! My boots! Where are they?! She whirled around, looking everywhere, frantic, but couldn't see them. What did Roxton do with them?! Did he find – no, that's ridiculous! He wouldn't have the faintest idea what it is! Think, Marguerite, think!
Then she remembered, and dashed back to the third pool. She sagged in relief as she found her boots right where she'd left them after easing her sweaty feet out and wiping the leather down. Thank God I had the presence of mind to keep them with me, even if the rest of my wits did desert me there for a while! Cleaning off the boots was the first thing she'd done after stripping off her clothes. She'd used her trousers as a cleaning rag before she'd tossed the filth-besmirched clothing over the stalagmite formations into the steaming middle spring to soak.
As penance for her lapse of self-control about Roxton, she forced herself to endure the pain of picking up her boots and carrying them to where her clothing hung. She dropped the footwear long enough to struggle into her damp jodhpurs and the much damper shirt. Why in the world do blouses have so many bloody buttons?! She gave up on the painstaking task after managing to do up half the small pearl buttons, practically dancing at the agony in her fingers. At least she was no longer aroused! Shifting focus, she folded Roxton's extra shirt, the towel, and the bedroll, simple easy movements that required almost no dexterity. Then there was no putting off the rest of what she had to do. Although the effort left her panting and near tears, she held onto the top rim of each boot with both aching hands while she shoved her feet down into them. As soon as the second boot was on, she dropped to her knees and cradled her throbbing hands on her lap, rocking back and forth as she silently fought the agony.
There was no way to tell how long it took before the shaking subsided and she was able to stumble to her feet again. She wiped the tears from her face with first one shoulder and upper arm, and then the other, before glancing cautiously around. She'd more than half expected him to be there, gawking, but he wasn't back yet. A frown furrowed her brow. I wanted to be dressed before he returned, but hasn't it been a long time? What on earth is he doing? She listened carefully, but couldn't hear anything except the bubbling and hissing of the hot springs. If he's not back by the time I'm done, I'll go looking for him. Who knows, maybe he's the one in trouble this time, and I'll have to rescue him. Marguerite smiled at the unlikely thought, took a deep breath and went back to work, determined to be ready when His Lordship showed up again.
A fine sheen of perspiration had beaded on her brow before she had collected her gear and reloaded her rucksack, but she didn't stop, wouldn't allow herself the luxury of sitting back and waiting for him to return and do it for her. I can't depend on anyone else. They're only here to serve one purpose, to keep me alive until I can find the second half of this accursed medallion and get off this bloody plateau! I can't forget that. They're all expendable, if it comes to that. I can't let my life be entangled with the lives of the others, especially Roxton. I'll have to avoid him; he's too bloody attractive and too bloody good at playing the knight.
Her hands were shaking again, throbbing like the devil. There was no way could she use her comb, but she also couldn't consider his suggestion. Offering to comb my hair, indeed! What a ridiculous idea! That's a very sensual, intimate activity. There's no way I'm going to let him comb my hair! Besides, it's completely unnecessary. She refused to allow herself to dwell on her insidious inclination to experience the hunter's hands working in her hair, and instead finished looping her tangled tresses into a rolled ponytail that would serve until she could reach the treehouse tonight.
To her mingled relief and dread, Roxton's footsteps echoed as he neared the cave again. Marguerite picked up her belt, using only her thumbs and index fingers, and swung it around her waist, buckling it carefully. Good. If I only use a couple fingers, it's not so bad. I can do this. Only an hour to the treehouse.
She looked up and defiantly met Roxton's eyes as he stepped into the grotto. His hair's wet. He went and doused himself with cold water, she realized with no little satisfaction. She'd been so consumed with her own thoughts that she hadn't paused to consider why he'd suddenly left her alone. The blatant desire in his dark green eyes hadn't abated much, if at all, in spite of his obvious efforts to cool his ardor. Now the truth struck her: he was fighting the same attraction. She watched warily as he looked her over, standing there completely dressed again, even her hat on her head, her backpack and canteen at her feet, and when his gaze lifted to her face again, she saw the resigned acceptance in his dark green eyes. That's right, Roxton! Stay away!
Her chin lifted. She bent, picked up her knapsack, and shrugged into it with steady care. Next she slung her canteen over her head, too, to hang diagonally across her torso and rest against her hip. Finished, she stood facing him, waiting. He could probably see that it had pained her, but he stayed where he was. Apparently he understood her message. I don't want your help. I don't need your help.
He'd heard it all right, loud and clear. It was no more than he'd expected. She always pulled away after they'd shared intense emotions. She'd done it after their experience in the Cave of Fear, after their conversation once he'd been cured of Calista's vampiric infection, and after they'd returned from the valley of the eternity fruit. It was actually reassuring to be shut out by the beautiful brunette. It proved she'd been as affected as he, that it wasn't all in his mind.
Without a word, he knelt beside his own pack and stuffed the shirt, towel, and bedroll into it instead of taking them back to the cache; everything would need to be thoroughly laundered to rid the material of the dung scent that now clung to each item. Then, in case the supply was low back at the treehouse, he added the aloe canister to the pack before strapping it closed again. He fastened his canteen to the bindings, reached for his rifle, and rose to his feet. "Ready?" he asked.
He did, guiding her out of the caverns and striking out for the treehouse without attempting to talk to her. She was scared; he could feel it. He couldn't press his advantage while she was hurt and weary; it would only make her resent him. But this wasn't over yet. No other woman had ever resisted him so steadfastly. Then again, she wasn't like any of the other women he'd ever known. He remembered the way her face had lit up while she told him about the ants. She'd been hurt by them and yet she'd marveled over seeing them! There was so much more to her than he'd guessed.
She was a mystery, and he was determined to uncover the truth about her. He'd win her trust and overcome whatever it was that made her so skittish about simple friendships, or simple dalliances for that matter. Because there was no way she could deny that she was every bit as attracted to him as he was to her. After all, she'd been the one who initiated their brief tryst in that Paradise place, not him. It hadn't been only the fruit; there'd been plenty of times when he'd caught her watching him with appreciation. And then there was that intriguing whisper that night when the bloodlust had filled his veins, before Challenger had chased him out of her tent. She'd dreamed of being kissed by him, just as he'd dreamed of kissing her. That was what she'd whispered when she'd been only half-awake.
No, this was by no means a one-sided attraction. She'd be his when the time was right. And she would definitely be worth the time and effort he'd need to expend. He knew it down deep in his bones, just as he knew that her attraction to him frightened her. She needed to be in control. Well, he could let her think it was up to her, for as long as it took to overcome her qualms.
I'll have to plan for it, just like any campaign, he decided as he spotted the right game trail and turned onto it. Reaching over his right shoulder, he drew his machete from its hook on the side of his pack. Without conscious thought, he slashed through the ferns that had overgrown the path since he'd last used it. I can't just wait for the right moment; between her wariness and her wiliness, I'll never override her resistance in the natural course of events. But if I prepare a strategy, well then, I can manipulate events to achieve what I want. And I want her. He hadn't held an officer's rank during the Great War only because of his title; he'd worked for it, earned it. That training would come in handy in wooing Marguerite – His long-legged stride abruptly faltered.
Wooing? Wooing?! As in 'courting', for goodness sake?! Where the devil had that come from?!
Behind him, Marguerite panted, "Don't slow down on my account, Lord Roxton."
Startled, he suddenly realized he'd been rushing the pace. He'd been so deep in his scheming that he'd forgotten the condition of the very person his mind had been centered on! She probably thought he was punishing her for her show of independence. That certainly wouldn't forward his campaign. What could he do to erase that bad impression? Ah! "Shh. Hush!" He put a finger to his lips, squashing his feeling of guilt at deceiving her. All's fair in love and war, and this happens to be both.
Again – where the devil had that come from?! War, he could see. But love?!
Well, it's true - but only in the carnal sense! Any man crazy enough to fall in love with Marguerite Krux would need the patience of a saint and the temperament of an angel to put up with such a termagant. I certainly don't have those qualifications, and wouldn't be interested in the job even if I did. Real love, marriage - those weren't pleasant propositions, as he had good reason to know. Once was more than enough. Even if it hadn't been, Marguerite's certainly not the type of woman I could take home to oversee the manor.
Resolutely, he put aside the past and focused on the present.
His diversionary tactic had worked. As he'd intended when he'd hushed her, she tensed and listened hard, the same way he'd appeared to be listening to the jungle around them as he gathered his thoughts. "What is it?" she whispered. "Raptors?"
After a long moment to be sure he'd cleared his mind, he shook his head. "It's gone. But we'd better take it slower, listen more carefully."
She nodded. "Whatever you say."
Well, that had been a good save. An excuse for his distraction, a reason to slow the pace down again for her sake, and she was none the wiser about either. He congratulated himself on his strategic success. His campaign was off to a flying start. He had everything well in hand.
"RUN, MARGUERITE, RUN!"
Why now?! They were only another half hour from the treehouse!
"Oohh!" she wailed. "I thought you said this was a safe game trail!" The accusation wafted back over her shoulder as she ran, one hand clapped on top of her hat to hold it onto her head, her rucksack slapping against her back.
Lord Roxton was hard on her heels, trying not to bowl her over while at the same time attempting to prod her to a faster pace. "Move it, Marguerite!"
She tried. He knew she did. But she didn't have much left, even with the adrenaline rush of having four raptors come out of nowhere into their faces. There weren't many options, not with the nasty reptiles almost as close to them as he was to her. He could feel their torrid breath, hear them drawing closer and closer, smell the odor of decaying flesh that always seemed to cling to raptors from previous unfortunate prey. There was no defensible position around here, except – "Turn left!"
The slender brunette swerved to the left and charged through the thick foliage of a stand of young firs. "You'd better have a plan, Lord Roxton!" she snapped as the boughs slapped her face, scratched her already abused limbs, and caught at her hair.
Hold on? Hold onto what?! She peered back over her shoulder to ask, but he tackled her around the waist, sweeping her feet from under her. She let out a yelp of outraged surprise, and then grunted as they hit the ground, her body shielded somewhat from the impact because he'd positioned her atop himself. But it didn't stay that way for long; they'd landed on the verge of a steep incline and he deliberately went with the momentum and started rolling downhill with her. "Oh no!" She grabbed for his shoulders, missed and latched onto his bandoliers instead, and held on for dear life as they bounced, tumbled, and crashed through thick jungle foliage as they descended into a ravine.
Rocks and sticks gouged her back and legs, she lost her hat, and the breath was knocked from her lungs before they abruptly struck the bottom and stopped. A heavy weight trapped her, pressing her into the lumpy ground.
The moment she could suck in enough air, she groaned and opened her eyes. Naturally it was her so-called protector pinning her down. Not again! What does the man think I am, some kind of personal cushion?! "Get off me, you oaf!" she huffed, all too aware that her arms and hands were throbbing horridly again.
"Shh!" He waited right where he was, all of his attention still focused on listening to the raptors rooting through the shrubs at the top of the ravine, until he was certain they weren't going to come right down after them. As he'd hoped, they weren't hungry enough to bother with the rugged slope. Barely any time passed before the carnivores moved on. Then he grinned and levered himself off her chest. "Lost 'em!" he announced with satisfaction, sitting back on his heels and beaming down at her.
Still panting for breath, not yet having the strength to sit up, she tilted her chin to look back up the way they'd come. Sure enough, although the crushed wild grasses and broken striplings clearly marked the path they'd just made as they rolled downhill, there was no sign of the four grey-scaled raptors. She glared at Roxton nonetheless, and as soon as she could get a good long breath she demanded, "How did you manage to keep your hat on when mine is now lost?"
He lifted a hand and traced one fond finger around the brim of his sweat-stained headgear. "Just lucky, I guess."
Marguerite's brows drew together. "If you use that word once more today – or any other word that implies good fortune – I'll shoot you on the spot!" she said crossly.
Undaunted, he patted her cheek. "Relax. I'm sure we'll find your hat. It can't have gone far." He eased one arm beneath her back and helped her sit upright. "Are you all right?"
"Isn't it a little late to ask about that?" she retorted. "You really need to learn to think through these little plans of yours before you put them into action."
Yes, she's all right.
He straightened cautiously to his feet and shook his head to clear the residual ringing from cracking it against a rock on the way down. "A little spur of the moment, it's true. But you must admit it was effective."
That only earned him another glare as she sat up slowly and painfully.
"Okay, you sit there a minute and rest. I'll find your hat." He could also scout for a way out of this ravine. He'd known this jagged vale was here, hoped it would serve to elude the raptors, but he'd never actually been down into it before. She was going to be a whole lot angrier if he couldn't get them back out of here without too much trouble. In fact, now that he thought about it, it might have been better to turn and face the raptors than to risk Marguerite's wrath. He chuckled as he imagined the fireworks that would ensue if he told her so.
"What are you laughing about?" she demanded half-heartedly, glancing up only briefly from examining a new rip in her jodhpurs to see how difficult it would be to mend.
"Just glad to be alive," he said with one of his lopsided grins. "Glad to be alive," he repeated as he began to scan the area. "Ah, there it is. Be right back, Marguerite."
He's far too chipper. The angrier I've gotten, the more cheerful he's been. He's the most irritating man I've ever met! Ouch, that hurts! Wonderful! New scrapes and bruises! She ached in places she hadn't known it was possible to ache. Well, okay, she'd known, but it had been a while. And now she had bits and pieces of fir twigs and fern down the back of her blouse and stuck in her hair! She sat up, shrugged off the rucksack and attempted to rid herself of the debris that had trickled beneath her shirt during the tumble. I don't know which is worse; the torment of whatever's scratching me or this bloody skin rash! Not that it makes much difference, since I can't stop either one! A few minutes of futile fumbling had her grumbling under her breath, "Could this day get any better?!"
Roxton's boots appeared in her line of vision as she sat doubled over, trying to reach up under the untucked back of her shirt to get at the irritating souvenirs of their tumble. "Better?" his deep voice drawled, echoing her last word. "Yes, I think today can get better. Here's your hat, completely unharmed."
She scowled up at him, ignoring the black hat as she continued to grope for the source of the irritating prickles. "Which is more than you can say about me!"
He squatted down beside her. "What's the problem now?" he asked as he watched her squirming efforts to do something. She didn't seem to be making any progress, perhaps because of the previous injuries to her arms and hands.
"There's something under my shirt!"
"And a very pretty something it is, too," he smirked.
He sighed. Wrong time to tease. "Okay, okay, let me have a look." Her stormy grey eyes shot daggers at him, but she twisted to allow him access. He rolled the blue material up. "It's only a few little twigs and leaves, Marguerite. This'll just take a second " He picked the twigs and fronds out of the lace edge of her camisole, one by one, and then brushed away the loose pine needles that were scratching her creamy skin. "There, that's everything. No serious damage." He didn't mention the reddish marks that he knew would be mottled bruises by tomorrow; better a few bruises than being caught by those raptors. He straightened the silk blouse and patted her shoulder. "Anything else I can do for you?" he asked lightly as he plunked her hat onto her tousled head.
"No. Thank you." Her reply was grudging, but sincere.
He shrugged and helped her up to stand as rose to his feet. "I live to serve, milady."
Marguerite sighed, exasperated. "You're insufferable." No matter how she rebuffed him, he insisted on teasing, or worse, flirting. If he keeps this up, maybe I'll smother him in his sleep. Or I could slip some poison into the next cup of tea he drinks.
"But you like me anyway," he retorted, undaunted, and his lopsided grin widened when she merely rolled her eyes. She hadn't bothered to deny it this time. He noted her uneasy look at the rim of the ravine, and quickly assured her, "The raptors are gone, and there's an easier climb further down the same direction I found your hat. Let's take a five minute break before we tackle it."
Although she was feeling the worse for wear, Marguerite shook her head. "I'd rather press on, if you don't mind." She leaned over and scooped up her rucksack again. It's going to take some doing to hide this renewed pain, and I don't want him fussing, or deciding he needs to apply more of that aloe! If his attention is on guiding us home, I'll be able to deal with my aches and pains more easily.
He shrugged, catching hold of the leather shoulder straps of her pack and looking her in the eye. "As you wish," he conceded. He refused to release the backpack when she tried to tug it free.
She held his gaze for a long moment, but gave it up when she saw that he wasn't going to yield. She was too tired to insist that she could do it herself; it wasn't worth the fight. She let go and turned, allowing him to ease the straps over her arms one at a time and onto her shoulders. He gently settled the pack into place. She had to admit that she'd never have accomplished it as painlessly alone. "Thank you," she said again, through gritted teeth.
Roxton suppressed a smile. She really hated having to say that. "My pleasure. Shall we go?" It was darkening sooner than it should at this time of day, and he suspected clouds were gathering above the jungle canopy. The overhead coverage was too thick here to confirm it, but the trees would thin out considerably as they neared the treehouse. The lighter forestry wouldn't provide much cover from a storm, so if they were due for a cloudburst, then the sooner they reached shelter, the better.
Fortunately, he'd been right in his estimation of the track he's spotted while retrieving her hat. He was able to climb out of the ravine without any trouble at all, and for once she didn't argue about accepting his support when the footing was tricky. Of course, that meant she was devoting all her energy to hiding how much pain she was really in. Once more he marveled at her inner strength. How was she staying conscious, let alone on her feet and moving under her own power?
Searching for another topic to help pass the time and to occupy the suffering brunette's thoughts, Roxton remembered the brief tirade she'd directed at the brontosaurus after it had destroyed her pillars and defecated on her. Could he use what he'd overheard to help her now? It could go one of two ways; it might spark her scientific excitement, like when he'd led her to tell him about the ants, or it could ignite the fuse of her short temper. Well, there was only one way to find out.
He ventured over his shoulder, "I didn't see any sign that you'd gone any further from the orchard than where I found you. From your tracks, I'd say you had a pretty good idea where you wanted to go when you left us behind this morning. There must've been something special at that place to keep you there for a couple hours, something you really wanted to find. Was it there? Did it turn out to be as good as you'd hoped?"
In case his idea backfired and angered her, he'd thought of a contingency plan. And when one of Marguerite's injured hands grabbed a fistful of the rolled shirtsleeve at the back of his elbow, stopping him in his tracks and spinning him to face her, he knew he'd have to use it.
Her silver-gray eyes flashed and one slim finger jabbed him in the chest as she exploded: "As good as I hoped?! Hope is for fools and dreamers! There hasn't been a single good thing about this day since the moment I opened my eyes this morning! I don't want to hear another word about this ludicrous day, Lord Roxton! No rot about luck or good fortune or omens or signs or anything else that even remotely smacks of anything optimistic! Is that understood?!"
Apparently bemused, he stared down at her.
She stamped her foot angrily. "Roxton, did you hear me?!"
He nodded slowly, his gaze never leaving her face as a smile tugged at his lips.
Marguerite punched his shoulder, despite the additional pain to her aching hand. "Roxton!"
His grin widened into an admiring smile. "You're very beautiful when you're passionately angry."
Her jaw dropped and her thick-lashed eyes widened incredulously. Her fists clenched. For a moment he was sure she would haul off and belt him. He discreetly braced himself for the impact. She saw it and the truth pierced through her fury. He's baiting me! The idiot is actually trying to make me angry! He doesn't have a clue who he's messing with here! In the next second she realized why he was doing it. Marguerite reined in her impulse to flatten him, though she was still fuming. She understood, yes, but she still resented his tactics. And if he'd done this to someone less astute than herself, he might very well be in a battle for his life right now.
With taut control she stated flatly, "You, Lord Roxton, are a candidate for Bedlam."
She shoved past him, deliberately digging her elbow into his ribs in the process, and marched off down the faint path. If he gathered correctly from the muttering he could make out as he followed in her wake, she was furious with her ruined day, with his manipulations, and with Fate in general.
He'd underestimated her yet again. He hadn't expected her to guess what he was doing. Was he losing his touch with women, or was Marguerite simply more adept at reading people than the others had been? The wily woman had caught on almost instantly. Of course he'd hoped to raise her spirits rather than setting off her temper. But he'd fully intended to accomplish his goal regardless of which way it went, and he'd succeeded: she had up a good head of steam. She was mad enough to spit nails, and that energy should carry her through to the treehouse.
The hunter lengthened his stride to stay close, alternately scanning ahead of her for potential trouble and admiring the view. She moved with the grace of a panther, except His appreciative smile faded to concern again as he noted the stiffness with which she held her arms and hands as she stalked along. The sooner she's in Summerlee's care, the better. Or perhaps Veronica, he amended his thought as he recalled that she'd need help with her clothes. Yes, and then there are her legs.
They were so close to the treehouse now that he could see the lights glowing through the thinning trees. Good. Nothing else can possibly go wrong between here and there. No sooner had he thought it than the first raindrop splashed off the brim of his hat. He looked up in dismay as more droplets bounced off Marguerite's black hat ahead of him. Before he could blink, the rain poured down on them. It was so sudden and so heavy that they were both drenched in seconds.
Marguerite stopped again, her slim shoulders sagging in defeat. She turned slowly to face him. "Well?" she prompted, sarcasm dripping from the single syllable.
"Well what?" he asked blankly.
"Well, go ahead. Find something lucky about this." She folded her arms across her bosom and tilted her head – which loosed a stream of water that poured from the brim of her hat and flowed down her shoulder. Not that it made her any wetter than she already was. She didn't even flinch, simply waited for his reply.
He shrugged sympathetically. "Another bath to help reduce the stench before we rejoin the others?" he suggested, his voice gruff with the effort to suppress a chuckle at her bedraggled appearance.
Her lips compressed.
"Aw, come on Marguerite," he coaxed gently. "Days like this one, there are only two options: laugh or cry. Isn't it better to laugh?"
She studied him, her mouth curled sourly as the rain pounded down and turned the trail into a miry mud puddle around them. "I'm sure the others will find it hilarious when you tell them all about it."
All amusement faded from his face. He promptly shook his head in denial. The motion sent an extra spray of water flying off his hat; it splashed across her face. He grimaced a wordless apology. "No, Marguerite. The others will never hear a word about what you've gone through today, not from me."
One fine brow lofted as she considered his earnest expression. "You're giving me your word of honor, Lord Roxton?"
"Absolutely," he replied without hesitation.
"Hmm. We'll see." She winced as the wind changed and the rain pelted directly onto her arms. "I'd have been so much better off if I'd worn the coat today," she sighed.
She was right. The extra protection for her skin would have saved her a lot of trouble.
Roxton reached over and stroked her cheek. Even with her dander up, she was far too pale. The pain was draining her. "You're getting chilled. Come on, we'd best get up into the treehouse. We're only a few minutes away from dry clothes, a hot meal, and proper care for your injuries, so chin up, Marguerite." He gestured toward the welcoming lights that flickered through the driving rain. "The rest of this day has only good things in store, eh?"
She nodded, straightened her shoulders, turned to start on – and her boots slid right out from under her on the mud-slicked trail. "Roxton!" Her arms flailed as she sought for balance. Her feet slid in opposite directions, legs scissoring.
He managed to catch hold of one arm, but couldn't get a good enough grip to hold her up. Her skin was slimed with the mixture of aloe and rainwater and she literally slipped through his fingers. Before his anxious eyes, she fell, landing spread-eagled, sprawled face down. Mud splattered everywhere. She didn't get up, didn't even lift her face from the mire.
"Marguerite! Marguerite?" He straddled her, making sure his feet were planted firmly on solid grass tufts on either side of the narrow trail, then leaned down and scooped her upright. He lifted her so that her back was against his chest to steady her. "Marguerite?" She was limp in his arms, head hanging. Was she breathing? She hadn't been face down for that long, he was sure of it. Ignoring the rain that continued to fall on them, he shifted her to one arm and turned her so he could see her muddied face. Anxiously, Roxton searched for some sign of consciousness. "Marguerite?"
The rain was washing the grime from her delicate features, at least partially. Her lashes fluttered briefly; her nose wrinkled and one hand lifted to rub away a glob of wet earth stuck to one eyelid.
"Wait!" he commanded. "That's not going to help; your hand's all muddy, too. Let me use my handkerchief." He shifted his arm to free one hand and dug it into his pocket. "Here it is." Tenderly he mopped at her eyes, then around her mouth and nose, clearing away the gunk too big to be rinsed away by the rain. She tried to open her eyes again, but squinted instead at the rain pelting her face.
Right. Hers had been knocked off when she'd taken the nosedive. He pulled off his own hat and held it over her exposed face. "There. Try again."
This time she was able to fully open her eyes and focus. She was bearing some of her own weight now, too, and he was relieved to note the rise and fall of steady breathing. "What happened?"
"Uh you fell."
Remembrance flooded back, and Marguerite scowled. "Okay, that's it. I'm not giving this day another chance, no matter what you say!" She straightened up, clinging to his arm barely long enough to be certain her feet were under her. "Ow! Perfect!" One step was all it took to know she'd twisted her left ankle. Roxton opened his mouth, but was silenced by her warning finger and fierce glare. "Not a word, Roxton. Not a single word."
He nodded meekly, bent to retrieve her hat, and handed it to her.
She slapped it onto her head and then shook the excess mud off of her arms and hands. I should have known better than to trust emotions! There is no such thing as a good day! On days like this one, I shouldn't even get out of bed! She turned with as much dignity as she could muster and limped toward the lights glimmering through the downpour, so near yet so far.
He tried to help, but she was in no mood to listen to reason. The third time she slapped his hands away, she cussed him out with phrases he'd only heard before in a harbor-side bar full of sailors. He'd never seen her this furious. When he noticed the way her hand hovered over her pistol, he didn't dare override her stubborn refusal to let him carry her. She'd only be hurt further if he had to fight her into submission. Roxton decided that the wisest thing to do was leave her alone.
"They should have been back long ago," Veronica scowled, unable to focus on the painting she was supposed to be completing. She threw down the brush in frustration. "They must have run into trouble. And now this storm – I should have gone with Roxton."
Arthur Summerlee strolled over and placed a reassuring hand on her sun-bronzed shoulder. "They'll be fine, my dear." He tucked the stem of his pipe between his teeth and puffed calmly as he admired her artwork. "Lord Roxton is no stranger to trouble."
Ned snickered. "That's for certain! He's with Marguerite, isn't he?" The white-haired botanist frowned at him in reproof, and the young reporter hastily wiped the smirk from his face. He kept forgetting the strange accord that seemed to be developing between the professor and the mysterious brunette. "I'm sure you're right, though, Professor. They'll be along any time now."
"I should hope not," came Challenger's surprising opinion as he looked up from the bookshelves where he was searching for a book he'd seen the other day. The other three turned and stared at him. "Well, it would be much more logical and practical for them to sit out this storm somewhere safe and dry than to struggle through it."
"Not if they were caught out in the open," Veronica argued.
The three men looked out at the rainstorm raging beyond the treehouse balcony, turning what should have been a lovely dusk into a miserable maelstrom. "Well, we've done everything we can to be ready for their return," Summerlee sighed. "All we can do is wait, and trust that Roxton will bring her back safely, as usual."
"Indeed," his fellow scholar agreed as he finally spied the intriguing text. How had it ended up mixed in with the recipe books? "John Roxton is a remarkably capable fellow, and while Miss Krux may be headstrong at times, she's quite resourceful as well. I'm sure one of them noticed the oncoming weather, and they've simply taken shelter."
Veronica nodded, but wasn't convinced. She picked up her paintbrush again, dipped it into the blue on her palette, and added a stroke to the background color absently as she reflected that none of her guests had been here long enough to truly know and appreciate how treacherous life here could become at a moment's notice not even Roxton, despite his obvious expertise.
Besides, the men might insist that the missing couple would be fine, but she noticed that each of them had found a reason to remain in the great room tonight, close by the lift. The sudden arrival of the tropical storm had made them uneasy. Dinner had been quiet, too quiet without the other two chairs occupied. Funny, that. When the explorers had first come to live with her, the treehouse had seemed to be bursting at the seams, stretched beyond capacity. With such a crowd around there'd been moments in these last few months when she'd heartily wished she'd never stopped to help Ned that fateful day. But when chance – or Marguerite's shenanigans, in this case – separated even a couple of the explorers from home, it felt wrong. Lonely.
The thick ropes hanging in the empty shaft went taut and then the gears began to turn. "They're back!" Ned jumped to his feet, tossing aside his pen.
Relieved to hear the elevator mechanism engage, all four anxious treehouse residents moved to the foot of the flagstones at the doorway of the elevator shaft to confirm that their two missing companions were safe. But their smiles of welcome faded when the bamboo cage came into view and revealed its sopping wet occupants. As the elevator stopped level with the opening, the whiff of dinosaur dung that accompanied its arrival caused them each to take an abrupt step backwards. If they'd thought about it, they would have withdrawn then, but shock at the stench combined with the hunter and the heiress's appearances held them in place around the base of the stairs.
Roxton was mud-spattered and soaked, certainly in need of a warm bath and a cup of tea. But it was Marguerite at whom they stared in amazement. When she stepped off onto the stone slab at the top of the steps, she found the path to her bedroom blocked by her stunned housemates. Roxton tried in vain to get their attention, to gesture them away from the sullen spitfire before she lost her temper entirely. But no one noticed. Resigned, he waited, poised to restrain her if the worst happened.
Her mood hadn't improved between her fall on the trail and the ride up. She glowered at the dry, clean, curious quartet and waited for them to get out of her way, impatiently tapping her booted foot.
Challenger, who had already identified the odor as a variation of brontosaurus feces, studied her avidly, intrigued by the skin discolorations on her arms. His keen blue eyes identified and catalogued insect bites, minor steam burns as well as several friction burns, signs of raw aloe that had been applied to her rash, assorted scratches and bruises, clay stains and still-moist mud from a recent fall, bits of flora and twigs sticking in her long tangled curls and clinging to her filthy, dripping wet clothing and gear. One ginger-colored brow rose. "Interesting day?" he drawled wryly, clearly intrigued at the inferences he drew.
Plateau born, Veronica recognized the smell even faster than the red-headed scientist, and she fought the urge to smile at the thought of the extent to which the irritating Miss Krux must have been immersed in the droppings to end up smelling and looking like this. It probably served her right! The other injuries weren't difficult for the jungle girl to recognize, either. None of it was life threatening, but nothing would have happened at all if the other woman had simply followed the rules. Maybe today's unpleasant experiences would make Marguerite think twice about running off the next time. The young blonde folded her arms over her bosom and met the brunette's blazing gaze with barely suppressed satisfaction. She knew she didn't need to say a word.
Summerlee, on the other hand, was obviously appalled and alarmed. "My dear child!" he exclaimed as he set aside his pipe and drew his handkerchief from his pocket. He pressed the square of cloth over his nose. His compassionate blue eyes blinked at her owlishly from behind his spectacles. He too noted her injuries, and he quickly formed a mental list of the herbal and medicinal remedies he should gather from their places around the treehouse for her use. "You look terrible!" he sympathized.
"What on earth happened to you?!" the American reporter demanded, making no effort whatsoever to hide his revulsion at the odor wafting from her, his amusement that it was Marguerite it had happened to, or his eager anticipation to learn the details of how it had happened. He was already writing this down in his mind, positive that there had to be a terrific story behind her condition. "My editor's going to love this! It'll make a great human interest piece!"
Ned's lack of sensitivity was the last straw. The battered and bruised brunette glared at the hapless young man. "If you don't get out of my way right now I'm going to kill you just to give myself something to smile about before this day is over!" Marguerite hissed ominously, her silver green eyes flashing. "Now MOVE!" she snarled.
Startled by her barely suppressed violence – and, in Ned's case, more than a little alarmed, since she was glaring directly at him – her housemates parted.
Marguerite felt Roxton's hands at her shoulders. She allowed him to take hold of the leather straps of the pack and stepped down onto the next step, leaving the backpack in his capable hands. Good idea. Less to take off before I can clean up again. Then, back and shoulders ramrod stiff, chin held high, she limped through the opening into the inner treehouse, and walked haltingly but steadily to the curved stairway that led to the sanctuary of her room. She could feel their eyes on her and concentrated on not falling. I will never, ever let myself believe in a good day again, as long as I live, she vowed silently, bitterly. And if Roxton breaks his word, I'll break his neck.
Once she was out of sight and her footsteps had faded to silence down the lower hall, the others turned to Roxton. The hunter had descended from the elevator platform to the great room and was hanging his gear and Marguerite's on the proper pegs. "Well?" Ned prompted.
The lord pushed a weary hand through his longish dark locks and shook his head. "The least said, the better," he said flatly. "Let this one go."
There was no brooking that tone of finality, and Ned's face fell. After her threat, he knew he'd learn nothing from the tight-lipped financier of the expedition, and if Roxton wouldn't tell either, then no one would ever know what had happened today.
Summerlee cleared his throat discreetly. "I'll gather some medicines for her," he said quietly, and received a nod from the hunter confirming that this would be appropriate. With a sympathetic sigh, he ambled toward the kitchen to retrieve the kit. "Judging from appearances, I'm afraid she's going to be feeling unwell for some time."
Veronica snorted. "She's not going to be any help around here for a few days, that's for sure." She crossed the great room and picked up the paintbrush she'd discarded when she'd heard the elevator gears engage. Then she paused to reflect on the angry rash on the other woman's arms, and the welts she'd noticed, too. She called over to the white-haired gentleman, "Better take her some extra aloe, Professor, and tell her that if she washes her clothes and hair with some of that blue powder, it'll ease the – uh – scent."
The botanist nodded his approval to her over his sloped shoulder. "Splendid idea, my dear."
"Really? The powder that's in the glass jar on the shelf by your mother's herbal remedies?" Challenger's sky blue eyes lit up and he set his book aside. "That has the strength to counteract the stench of dinosaur dung? Now why would that be, I wonder ?" He followed Summerlee into the kitchen to collect a small sample so he could take it to his lab for a few tests.
Roxton waited long enough to see Ned return to his journal, wanting to be sure the curious journalist wouldn't take his life in his hands by pursuing Marguerite and attempting to push her for the story. Once the weary nobleman was certain Malone was wrapped up in composing his daily entry, he crossed the great room to pause at Veronica's side. Quietly he said, "Challenger's soap is too harsh. Is there any left from the last batch you made?"
Startled, Veronica met his gaze in confusion.
"Not for me."
Remembering the rash, she winced. For the first time, she felt sympathy for the haughty heiress. If the only soap available to Marguerite on the trail had been the stuff Challenger had mixed, it had probably made that rash even worse. She nodded. "I have a couple bars set aside," she admitted, laying down her paintbrush again.
He hesitated, again pushing one hand through his already disheveled hair.
The blonde waited, one brow raised.
Careful to keep his voice low enough that none of the others could overhear, he said, "It's not just her arms and her ankle. I, uh, don't think Summerlee's going to be able to help her with everything she needs." Even with the milder soap, he doubted the feisty lady could manage to bathe herself without some assistance this time. And the thought of the old-school gentleman's attempts to help Marguerite with her clothing, or his mortification if he had to apply aloe to her thighs, left Roxton teetering between amusement and an odd irritation.
Veronica's lips twitched. "I see. I'll go down," she agreed. She crossed her arms and looked up at him, her blue eyes thoughtful as she speculated on how he knew the extent of care needed by Marguerite.
He backed away, clearly uncomfortable. He'd said too much already; best to end this before she started asking questions he'd promised not to answer. "Good. Thanks," he added gruffly, knowing it would be a trying experience for their young hostess, especially given Marguerite's mood.
He swung on his heel and started back across the great room toward the stairs, suddenly aware that he was pretty tired himself, not to mention in need of dry clothes.
Summerlee met him at the landing with his armful of medicinal supplies. "You'll find warmed water in your room," he offered with a sympathetic look at the water-logged hunter. "We set up the washtub in Marguerite's room after Veronica noticed the storm rolling in."
Trailing after him out of the kitchen, Challenger glanced up from the sample of the blue powder he was already examining. "Yes, and I must say, I'd forgotten how much work it is to heat and haul that much hot water at once. It's much more convenient to use the pond as we've been doing. However, we're bound to experience more occasions like this one if we remain here for long. I really must work on a way to properly collect and heat water for the ladies."
"A hot bath would be appreciated by more than only the ladies, I assure you," Arthur said with feeling. The pond and waterfall waters were cold or lukewarm at best; neither were a comfort to aching joints. The closest he'd come to the blessings of a nice steaming soak in a tub since arriving on the Plateau were the two times Roxton had guided him to a cavern full of lovely hot springs not too far away.
"Speaking of hot baths," Veronica inserted smoothly, "It's been long enough since we added the last hot water to the tub and the wash basin. Maybe you two could handle hauling some more of that water that's heating up over the fire, and I'll take the medicines down for Marguerite."
Summerlee surrendered his supplies to Veronica without argument, and forestalled Challenger's imminent objection by saying lightly, "Oh, I'm sure Mr. Malone and I can manage the hot water, Veronica. George has an appointment with his laboratory microscope, isn't that so?"
Relieved, Challenger nodded his agreement and bent his head over the powder sample again. "Indeed I do! Most intriguing!" He strode off toward the lab.
Ned chuckled, rising from the table. "That's the last we'll see of him until tomorrow," he grinned. "Let's check on the water, Professor. I don't think it's boiling yet, but it might be hot enough to help reheat at least the water in Roxton's wash basin."
So it was only Veronica who went downstairs with Roxton. Listening to the rainwater squishing in his boots with each step he took, she placed a compassionate hand on his broad shoulder and said, "You'd better get out of those wet things." She wasn't reassured by his absent nod, noting that his gaze swung automatically toward the heiress's room as they reached the lower level of the treehouse. "You brought her home; now it's our turn. We'll look after her, Roxton. You just take care of yourself, okay?"
He flashed her a weary smile, glad that their housemates had been thoughtful enough to prepare for their return. Most likely Marguerite wasn't expecting it, and it would do her good to see that they cared. And knowing that the tenacious blonde would tend to the injured woman despite her probable objections, he followed the heiress's example and went to his bedroom to clean up and fall into bed for some well-deserved rest.
He knew Marguerite doubted the value of his word. By keeping his vow not to talk to the others about this day, she might begin to trust him a little more. And one day, maybe not soon but sometime in the future, she'd trust him enough to tell him what had fascinated her so about those pillars and what she'd been trying to learn today.
(Two years later, the evening of the day that Veronica departed to ask the Zanga about the Xan symbol on the mask they'd presented to Arthur Summerlee)
"It was the Ouroboros you were trying to find that day, wasn't it?"
His voice coming unexpectedly from behind her caused Marguerite to jump and spin toward her bedroom doorway, her hairbrush clutched in a white-knuckled grip. "Roxton! Don't do that!" she gasped. One slender hand fluttered up to nervously touch her throat as her heart pounded erratically. Disconcerted by his presence, it took her a moment to gather her scattered thoughts enough to ask, "That day? To which day are you referring, Lord Roxton?" After all, there were very few days when I wasn't looking for the Ouroboros, at least until recently when I had other things on my mind.
The hunter apologetically shrugged one broad shoulder. The other shoulder remained immobile as it propped him against her door jamb. His hands were shoved into his pockets, and he was balanced on one foot, one ankle crossed over the other. His gaze remained on her too-pale face as he patiently repeated his question, a little more specifically. "That day you left the Layton Orchard and I came after you, you were trying to find the Ouroboros, weren't you? Following some lead you'd found?"
Her lip curled. "Oh, that day," she said flatly. She turned back to the mirror and resumed her nightly task of brushing the tangles from her hair before retiring to bed. How much heartache might I have saved myself if only that brontosaurus hadn't trampled the runes to dust before I could read them? Might I have found the artifact and been long gone years ago? If only I'd found it that day, I could have arranged for the others to be home again before Summerlee was lost and before Ned left us. Veronica never would have been troubled by doubts about her parents being involved with the Xan, and John no one would have been hurt by my past. Yesterday need never have happened. Blast that dinosaur! If only he hadn't wandered along!
Unbeknownst to the slender brunette, Lord Roxton was pondering almost the same thing, although he came to a completely different conclusion. That site might have held clues to the medallion she'd been looking for. If the bronto hadn't destroyed it, Marguerite might have found the blasted thing years ago. She would've gone back to Xan that very day. He'd have lost any chance of really knowing her. He'd never have known that what he really wanted from her was far more than a physical fling. And he'd certainly never have had a chance to try and win her. Thank God for that brontosaurus!
He was waiting for an answer, but she was reluctant to risk a reply, not knowing where it might lead. "You promised you'd never speak of that day again," she reminded him quietly. I know he said today that my secrets will be safe with him, when I'm ready. But how can I chance it? How can I justify telling him anything else about my past, after the way he reacted yesterday? And how can he not understand the danger after Callum hurt each of them just to get to me? It's too dangerous, not only for me, but for him, for everyone.
He watched her for a long moment before he ventured a reply, determined to be patient this time as he sought answers. Is she avoiding the question as usual, he wondered, or is this some kind of test? I've given her enough cause to doubt me over the last few days, between my stupid accusations and the demands I made on her, no two ways about it. "I promised I wouldn't tell the others about it, and I haven't. But I never said I wouldn't talk to you about it."
A ghost of a smile curved her lips, and she met his gaze in the cloudy mirror. "Splitting hairs, John?"
"Not at all. So was that what you were doing that day? Looking for clues to where the Ouroboros might be?"
Bull-headed, as usual. He's not going to let this go. "Yes."
"Will you tell me about it?"
She considered the request. Well, what can it hurt now? I owe him at least this much, and if nothing else, it's a conversation. We've barely spoken since he followed me out to the balcony after Veronica left this morning. Hardly daring to hope that his questions meant he hadn't lost interest in her after all, she shrugged a silk-clad shoulder and set her hairbrush down with exaggerated care, turning it so the handle was perfectly aligned with the edge of the small bureau. "I suppose so. What do you want to know?" As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she regretted them. This is probably a bad idea. It can't go anywhere; there are too many other things in my past. Concerned that she was opening herself and him to more pain, she gnawed on her lower lip and busied herself with nimbly gathering and braiding her long dark curls into a thick plait.
Roxton held his position in the doorway, not wanting to crowd her. He contented himself with watching her reflection in the mirror. "What took you to that place? Did you know those pillars were there?"
No harm in answering that, I suppose. With an almost imperceptible sigh, she nodded. "Abigail Layton had written about them. There was a symbol copied from that site in one of her journals, and it was very similar to the Ouroboros. I was hoping to find a connection. I assumed it was on one of the pillars, thinking she must have seen them before the vegetation covered them – oh, that's right, you came later. When I first found them, they were all covered over with vines that I had to clear away before I could see the runes."
Roxton shifted uncomfortably. This would probably be a bad time to confess that he'd been watching her for quite a while that day.
Oblivious to his inner debate, she continued the tale. "But that particular symbol wasn't carved on any of the pillars. Only after the ants had gone did I see it on the pavement." He knows about the ants, because I told him when he was spreading that aloe on my arms and legs. No, best not to think of that, or prompt him to think about it either. "But before I could get a good look at more than that "
"Yeah," he said softly. "I remember. The brontosaurus came along."
She tied off the end of the braid and wrinkled her nose in remembered disgust. "That was really not a good day." Her words were lightly spoken, but the reflection in the mirror revealed that her eyes were glistening with unshed tears. As if any of my days are or ever will be good! No matter how many times a day starts off full of promise, like yesterday, when John held me and we waltzed, my optimism is always proven false. Two years ago I came back to the treehouse with nothing. Yesterday I came back with less than nothing. There's not even the potential for hope now. It's over.
She was hurting again, and he hated to see her suffering like this. Was she regretting that she hadn't gone when she had the chance yesterday, before Callum had grabbed the restored artifact and run? Thank God she'd hesitated despite his words urging her to go! He mentally kicked himself yet again, remembering his behavior the day before. How he wished he'd been more patient with her during the whole debacle!
He needed to let her know that he hadn't really meant what he'd said yesterday, angry words uttered when he hadn't understood what was truly at stake. Whether she knew it right now or not, she hadn't lost everything by hesitating to leave. She needed to believe she wasn't alone in the world. He'd never leave her all alone. But that wasn't what they were supposed to be talking about right now. It was too new; too raw, and she was too unsure of him and of herself. He'd have to phrase his reassurance in the context of their conversation about that day two years ago. "Oh, I don't know about that," he said gently. "I look back on that day two years ago as a red-letter day in our getting to know each other."
His words, and the warmth with which he spoke them, caught her attention.
He'd have to confess after all, but maybe she wouldn't be too mad. Actually, maybe this was a good time to tell her the whole truth about that day; he'd be sharing one of his own secrets. Maybe she'd return the favor someday soon, without circumstances forcing her hand. "See, it's like this
Marguerite turned slowly to face him, arms folded across her bosom as she leaned back against the bureau. She fleetingly met his gaze, only long enough to verify the truth in his open countenance. He looks like he means what he's saying. "Respect?" she repeated softly.
"Yes," he nodded firmly. "Oh, I was still annoyed with you for wandering off. But you hadn't snuck away for nothing. You didn't do it to avoid work – fact is, you did more work clearing those pillars than most men could have done in that heat! I could see that you had a purpose, whatever it was. I was impressed."
"Definitely. And I admired the fortitude with which you handled the whole – er – well, you know. When you reached into the dung heap to get your pack and canteen? You astounded me with your determination to retrieve the equipment. I don't know if I could have done the same," he admitted, smiling tenderly across the room at her, willing her to look up, to believe him. "I know I teased you a bit that day, but you were so incredibly brave - and beautiful, of course," he added with a familiar wag of his brows and lusty twinkle in his eyes, deliberately there for her to see when she chanced another quick look up at him from beneath her lashes.
Flustered, not sure how to respond, she sought to turn his attention from herself. "Oh, I've seen you do truly brave things many times to keep us in bullets and supplies, or to help one of us. Why, in the last few months alone you've dueled with a prankster god, tackled spirit beings, traveled back in time to right an injustice in the old west, fought hand to hand with icy aliens, and even battled Death herself, always for the benefit of your friends. That's much more brave, not to mention selfless, than I've ever been."
"Don't change the subject," he chastised with a lopsided grin to take the sting from his words. "I gained a lot of insight into your inner strength that day, Marguerite, and your true character." He straightened up, which startled her into pressing back against the bureau. He knew he was making her uneasy, but he needed to say these words. Not just to counteract what he'd said yesterday, but because she needed to know the truth about how he really saw her. He hoped that he could somehow convey enough to comfort her without saying so much that he scared her off with his intense feelings. Yesterday had opened his eyes about more than Marguerite's background. He'd known some time ago that he loved her, but he hadn't realized how much until his enraged turmoil yesterday brought it home to him. He hadn't been able to sleep last night, worrying that the day's events had done irreparable damage to their relationship. She certainly wasn't ready yet to hear him say he loved her, no matter how much he burned to say the words. Soon, perhaps, but not today.
Firmly he continued. "I know that day two years ago seemed like a day from hell to you, but to me it was just the first of many promising days to come, days when I've discovered more and more about you. Not the Marguerite you wanted us to see back then, with the short temper and the avaricious nature, but the bright and compassionate woman you really are."
Her eyes had widened as he spoke, and now she swallowed uncertainly. Lord, I'm in so much trouble here! Is that really how he sees me? Oh, how I wish he'd always think so well of me! But there's too much more, and he's going to be terribly hurt if – when! – he finds out the rest! I've relaxed far too much with him, played along too often for the pleasure of his company. He's forgotten that he can't trust me, that I'm capable of doing anything when it's in my own best interests, no matter who might be hurt. She swallowed over the lump in her throat, wishing more than anything that she could allow herself to believe in a future with him. "You're such an optimist, Lord Roxton!" she managed to chide. "You'd find something good to say about the Devil himself!"
Her jeer didn't faze him. Time to tie it all together for her, make it absolutely clear that I'm talking about more than that day two years ago. "Yes, I find that I am indeed an optimist, Miss Krux, and so are you," he said softly. "You never give up hope. Oh, you grumble and complain, no doubt about it," he added with a grin, raising a hand to cut her off when she would have interrupted. "But still, no matter how much you might rant, you stay the course and you keep hoping. I've seen it in your eyes too many times to count, Marguerite, and I've leaned on that strength of yours and found it unfailing. What's happened in the last few days hasn't changed my belief that anything's possible. I still want to take everything that today has to offer, and see what tomorrow brings. Don't you?"
She had no answer for him, but his words matched a yearning inside herself, a desire to believe that tomorrow held the promise of being better than today.
He crossed the room in three long strides, coming to a halt in front of her before she could move. She flinched, but there was no room for retreat. Two work-callused fingers reached up and caressed her cheek as he smiled enigmatically down into her wide-eyed face. "Good night, my dear. Sleep well. Tomorrow's a new day." His lips brushed her forehead lightly, and then he was gone.
Bemused, Marguerite automatically trimmed the wick of her lantern and slipped into bed. Well, this has been a very strange day. It's all backwards to how it usually works. I woke up certain there was nothing left worth living for, and yet now I think maybe there is. Maybe he's right. Perhaps I'm an optimist after all. And as John says, tomorrow is up for grabs
One thing was clear: Roxton hadn't given up on her yet. Perhaps he never would. Who would have thought that a day as horrid as that day two years ago could end up having anything positive associated with it? Respect. He's too soft-hearted for his good, she scoffed to herself. But a tiny smile played about her lips. He respects me. And he kissed me good night.
As the moon rose and lit her chamber with its peaceful blue-tinged light, and the night breezes began to cool her room, she decided that despite its unpromising beginning, today might just have ended as one of her better days. She closed her eyes and slept.
Length: 41,374 words