“You’re joking, aren’t you?”
Jack was dead serious. Claire watched, ready for him to crack a smile. He didn’t.
She stepped closer. “Yes, this is all a damn joke, isn’t it? What is this, some kind of sadistic rendition of Candid Camera? Eighteenth century, huh? I don’t think so.” But somehow she knew it wasn’t a joke. Little things—tidbits of information—came flying back at her: his clothing, his speech, the furniture, the cabin. She looked him straight in the eyes and shook her head from side to side. “No, it’s impossible.” She backed away one step.
He moved forward. “Hannah…”
“No! Don’t call me that.” She bolted.
“Hannah!” Jack followed. It only took him three or four steps to reach her and pull her body into his, halting her.
“No!” She screamed louder this time, flailing her arms. “No! It can’t be true. It can’t be!”
He grabbed her arms and pinned them between his body and hers.
“What, Hannah? What cannot be true?”
Suddenly the fight went out of her, and she leaned against him. Tears formed in her eyes. After several minutes, she turned her face up. It was all too clear now. How she’d figured it out, she didn’t know. But suddenly, she knew.
“You had a wife, didn’t you?”
His face pained. He nodded slowly and whispered, “You are my wife, Hannah.”
Sighing, she closed her eyes, shook her head wildly, and then opened them again. “My name is Claire. Hannah was your wife. She died, didn’t she?”
Jack clutched her closer. She watched his eyes clamp shut, the tears squeezing past the barrier like tiny nodules. He nodded. “You are my Hannah. You look like her, you feel like her. I have you back now. You are my Hannah.”
She barely heard him.
Fear lanced through her. He had a wife. She died. Now he thought his beloved Hannah had returned to him.
And had she? Could it be?
She gazed into Jack’s now open eyes. Okay, I’ll play along.
“What year did we marry?”
“Marry? Why, don’t you remember, love? It was in June of last year, 1717.”
1717. Claire kept her gaze fixed on his lips. 1717? But how? How did I get here?
“When did I…when did your wife…die?”
He loosened his grip and stepped back. “About ten months later. Last spring.”
“You know how, Hannah. I choose not to discuss it with you.”
She felt him physically and emotionally cut himself off from her. She stepped back. Too painful.
“So it’s now…1718?”
Jack nodded. Claire felt the silence of the forest around her. Now it all made sense. Sort of. In 1717, Jack married Hannah. She died ten months later, and now, somehow, Claire had become his wife. Somehow, she’d crossed the barriers of time and landed here, in 1718, as this man’s wife!
“How did this happen?”
His gaze pinned her. Her every nerve ending shivered from her head to her toes as he spoke. “Why, it was the magic in the stone, of course.”
She glanced away.
Oh, Lord. And I thought my existence was so mundane. Wait until I tell Vicki about this.
Then terror stunned her as she realized she might never see Vicki again. Or Mama.
No, before she’d accept this, she needed more.
Jerking her gaze back to him, she ordered, “Prove it.”
“Prove to me that this is 1718.” She needed that. Something, anything, to make sense of this entire situation. “Prove to me that I’m your wife, Jack. Prove to me that everything you’re telling me is the truth.” There. He would have to come clean. Have to tell her all of this was nothing but a stinking lie. “Otherwise, I will not believe you.”
The startled look on his face was nearly her undoing. She cared for this man. Truly, she did. Somehow. She just wanted something—some semblance of truth and sanity to bop her on the head and make her believe this story he portrayed was indeed the truth and all of this was possible. No, not possible, but probable. She needed a dose of reality about now. The problem was did she want it to be the truth, or did she want it to be fantasy?
He held her gaze a moment longer and then gently grasped her left hand. She watched as his thumb and forefinger squeezed the band of gold around her third finger and pulled. Funny, how all this time she couldn’t get the ring off but he pulled it off with such ease. As it left her finger, her hand suddenly felt naked and empty, and there was a definite tug at her heartstrings when it was gone. Jack held the ring between his thumb and forefinger and thrust it between the two of them.
“I traveled to the mainland for this. I wanted it to be special. When I placed it on your finger our wedding day, I knew then that we’d sealed a bond that would last forever.”
He turned the ring in his fingers and then handed it to Claire. “Look.” His gaze caught and held hers. Without breaking the connection, she reached out and took the ring. “Go on, look at it.”
She held it in the palm of her left hand. With her right hand she picked up the wide gold band and looked closer, turning it so she could see the interior. It was inscribed.
With her heart tripping madly in her chest, she read out loud the words she saw: “For Eternity, 15 June 1717.”
Stunned, she could not take her eyes off the ring until Jack took it from her hand and returned it to her shaking finger.
“This,” he began, “is where it belongs. And this is where it will stay.”
Misty clouds enveloped her brain, turning her vision fuzzy. The world spun white around her, and blood galloped in her ears. She turned, lightheaded and nauseous all at once, as she fell into a solid heap at Jack’s feet.
The next thing Claire realized as she looked up at Jack through veiled eyes was that she ought to get up from there and run. Run as fast and as far as her legs could carry her. But to where? He cared for her. He loved her. She had felt it in his kisses last night. She saw it in his eyes when he woke this morning. He’d saved her from Rick. He’d protected her.
No, if everything Jack told her was true, she couldn’t run. She had to stay right here. At least now she knew he wasn’t crazy. Or a ghost. And as bizarre as it all seemed, it was a relief to know that somehow, she was not in the hands of a lunatic, but simply in another time. No, her best chance was to stay right here.
Simple. There was nothing simple about this.
The pain in his eyes ran deep. As he squatted before her, his still naked body twisted slightly away, his face angled in thought, or perhaps memory, she felt drawn to him. Silently she leaned closer, touched his cheek, and lifted his troubled face toward hers.
My God, the pain of her death must have been horrible.
He rotated toward her, and she held out her arms to him. He fell into the embrace and quickly folded her into him. They tumbled, bodies intertwined. With a sigh that nearly tore her heart out, she listened as he whispered Hannah’s name into her hair. His embrace tightened, and there they stayed for several minutes. She cooed words of reassurance into his ear, and he finally quieted and just held her.
At length, he broke free, wiped near non-existent tears from his face with the heels of his hands—she was sure letting her see any semblance of tears was not manly to him—and looked deep into Claire’s face. His hands settled on her shoulders.
“I’m telling you the truth, I swear it. I’ll tell you everything I know, and I’d like you to do the same with me. I don’t understand it, I probably never will, but maybe we can figure it out together.”
He brushed away a stray lock of hair and then threaded his fingers through the length. He continued, his voice choking with emotion. “It’s just that…it’s just that I nearly died myself when you left me. It’s a miracle from the Heavens I’m sure. I just give thanks that I have you back.” He leaned forward, his lips brushed hers in the sweetest and most emotion-filled kiss she thought she’d ever experienced.
She knew instantly this man was probably the most sincere person she’d ever encountered in her life and she had no choice but to trust him. “We have a lot of talking to do,” she said quietly.
“That we do.”
She smiled and angled her face at him. “How about if we first go back to the cabin and get dressed?”
“Yes,” he agreed.
She slipped her arms around his waist. The shock of her existence here had not quite settled in her brain. It would come, she was certain. The shock. But after it wore off, would she be content here? Would she be able to stay forever?
Could she ever get back to the twenty-first century if she wanted? If she tried?
And were Jack’s kisses and passionate lovemaking enough? Were they really intended for her? Claire? Or was he just making love to Hannah in his mind?
Did he even know the difference?
“So you are telling me you remember none of it?”
She nodded. After a short nap, she had insisted they talk. They lay tangled, wrapped in each other’s arms. She wanted every detail, every minute particle of Hannah’s life, suddenly realizing she had to know her intimately, to try to make some sense of this whole situation. And Jack, after a moment, had agreed to discuss it, even though it would be painful. Somehow, she had to make him understand she wasn’t really Hannah. At least she didn’t think she was Hannah.
“Jack, it’s difficult for you to understand, I know, but I’m not Hannah. I can’t remember.”
He shook his head quickly. “You are Hannah. Whatever your name now, I know you are my Hannah.” He peered into her eyes. “I could never forget that shade of green in all my days. Nor the softness of your lips. Your beautiful white breasts. Or how you smell when I make love to you. I could never forget that, Hannah.”
She swallowed the emotion that pooled in her throat. “Oh,” she whispered softly. “So maybe I am…Hannah?”
And at that moment, she resigned herself to the fact that perhaps it could be true. That maybe she was Hannah Porter. Somehow. She might as well consider it, nothing else made sense so far. Looking into his eyes, she continued, “I need to know everything, Jack. Tell me everything.”
He did, starting with their courtship and marriage and the blissful ten months prior to Hannah’s death. He spoke of her meekness, her genteel ways, her soft-spoken manner. Claire wondered if Jack had noticed the subtle, and maybe the obvious, differences. Or if he was in denial of all that. It wasn’t that Claire was hard and crude by any stretch of the imagination, but she would never have thought of herself as genteel. Perhaps a little naive at times, and not very aggressive unless provoked, but definitely assertive.
Maybe that’s what the twenty-first century does to you, Claire.
“The day of the kidnapping was the worst of my life.” Jack’s voice grew softer and his arms tightened around her.
For several minutes, he didn’t continue as he gathered his wits about him. And when he did speak, it was like he was talking to Hannah. “It was a beautiful day, I remember. We rode into the
just to be outside enjoying the
day. You missed people, sometimes, and you liked to visit. So I finished my
chores and we went. The town was bustling that day, and it had been a good day
for the fishermen. The wharf was loaded with fish, several ships sat in the
harbor filled with merchandise to trade or sell, the streets were packed with
laughing children and women doing their marketing, and seamen back from long
months at sea eyeing the women as if they were theirs for the picking.” village of Ocracoke
Claire let him speak. She dared not interrupt, afraid he would stop and she would never know the truth.
“I didn’t like the way some of them stared at you. I kept you close by my side, your arm in mine the whole time, until you saw Abigail Miller near the wharf and waved to her and she motioned for you to come closer.
“I glanced around and the crowds were thinning. There’s no danger here, I thought. So I told you to go see to her, and I stepped into the fishmonger’s to see what he had to offer. We talked and laughed, and it wasn’t until I heard your scream that I turned and saw the filthy bastards carrying you away.
“‘Twas like the picture froze in my mind and I couldn’t move at first—then I ran. By the time I reached the edge of the wharf, they’d tossed you in a small boat and were oaring toward the ship. Your screams pierced my soul. When I tried to follow, to get someone to help me go after you, they all looked at me and shook their heads. I didn’t understand why until one man simply pointed to the large sloop and I saw the Jolly Roger unfurl.
“It was the ship of Blackbeard.”
“Blackbeard? You mean the pirate Blackbeard?”
Jack nodded. “Yes, one and the same.”
Claire shivered with dread then, the blood in her veins turning icy cold. She burrowed into Jack. It was almost as though she felt Hannah’s fear. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to hear the rest. From her knowledge of history, she knew Blackbeard had wreaked havoc over the East Coast for several years, and she knew he frequented the barrier islands. Ocracoke was his home. Until this moment, she’d not thought about the historical ramifications and the danger here. And she didn’t want to think of what probably had happened to poor Hannah.
A flash of memory of the man in the village shop broke into her thoughts and she shivered. Was that just yesterday? Or the day before?
“I curse that day like no other. I, of all people, should know the ship of Blackbeard, but he’d captured a different sloop. He’d not yet cut down the gunwales and fashioned her to his needs. I didn’t know. Truly, Hannah, I didn’t know.”
“I know that, Jack.” She was afraid to look at him, afraid he was upset. It was as if he was apologizing to her, and then, she thought, he probably was. “Hannah knew that. You would never intentionally put Hannah in danger.”
As if to reassure himself she was actually lying in his arms, he rubbed his hands over her body and cradled her tight against him. It was difficult to breathe. The warmth of his breath blew moist against her cheek.
“I’m here, Jack. I’m not going anywhere.”
He loosened his grip. “I know. ‘Tis just so painful, at times.”
She pulled back slightly to look into his eyes. “I know,” she whispered. “But we need to do this.”
He nodded and then continued. “He kept you for three days out to sea before I saw his ship passing through the inlet late the third night. I knew he would come. I knew where he liked to stay. Teach’s Hole, it is called, just on the sound side of the island, where escape is easiest.
“I waited until the night took over and the rum had taken hold of his crew. I prayed that the pirate had taken enough laudanum to black himself out, for he likes the drug, you know, even traded prisoners for it a week or two earlier, I’d heard. So I hoped it was this night that he’d indulge himself. The thing was he had forced it on you.”
Jack spoke quickly as if to get it all out and over with as soon as possible, glazing over the pain as much as he could. “I found you in his quarters, but I had to slice into his…his male parts before I could get to you. You were in a deep sleep, so I carried you and jumped off the ship before Blackbeard’s wails woke the entire crew. I put you in my boat and oared into the mist before they could get to us and then I brought you back here.
“You died two weeks later in my arms. You never woke up.”
Claire squeezed her eyes tight, the pain in his voice forced her to sob softly and clutch to him.
“You curled into me,” he continued softly. “Your breath fanned warm and soft against my chest. I thought I felt the pressure of your hand grasp at me. And then, quickly, you were gone.”
His voice was a hushed whisper. “I loved you so, my Hannah. When I lost you, it broke my heart into a thousand pieces.”
For a flash of time, she thought she was there. That she remembered it. That she felt the sensation of Hannah dying. She trembled in his arms.
Jack tucked the fingers of his right hand under her chin and pried her face away from his chest. “Hannah,” he whispered. “Let me look at you.”
Her tear-stained face rose to meet his.
“I love you, Hannah Porter. You. The woman in my arms right now. You are Hannah Porter. Help me put the pieces back together.”
She reached to cup his face and felt the stubble of beard growth under her fingertips. Gently, she pulled him closer. Her own heart swelled and thumped wildly within. “Yes. Yes, Jack. I’ll help you put the pieces back together,” she whispered and then briefly touched her lips to his. “I care for you more than any man I’ve ever known.”
And she knew she did. Always had. But it worried the hell out of her.
“Let me love you,” he whispered into her hair. “Let me love you for all those days and nights we were apart.”
Claire looked deeply into Jack Porter’s eyes. “No, this time, let me love you.”
Her hands fell to his chest, and she gently rolled him over and pushed him back into the tick. She rose over him and straddled him, whisking her gown away from her body. She started at his shoulders, kneading slowly with her hands, moving downward over his chest, then down lower to his belly until she grasped him as he lay hard and ready between her legs.
She stroked and fondled him, watching his face. His head lay back and his breathing deepened. He glanced lower, watching her hands slide over him. She could feel the tip of his shaft grow damp, slid her fingers over it, and spread his silky fluid downward.
Scooting backward, she leaned to his chest and let her lips follow the trail left by her hands, lower and lower she moved until he threaded his hands into her hair and grasped her head tightly.
“Hannah…” he rasped.
She moved lower. Licking, sucking at the juncture of his thigh and pelvis, slowly nipping as she centered her mouth closer to the base of his shaft and curled her tongue around him.
“Hannah…” he croaked a warning.
Her tongue flicked out and grazed the length of him.
Involuntarily, he clasped his hands into her hair and jerked her head up and away from his cock to look into his eyes. Claire registered the frantic, almost tortured look on his face.
“What are you doing to me?”
Then she knew she was doing something to Jack that Hannah never had. Somehow the simplicity and the decadence of that pleased her.
“Loving you, my Jack. My way,” she whispered. “Let me.”
He released his grasp on her hair then and fell back against the pillow. She reached up and pulled his hands into hers, threading her fingers into his, and clasped them down hard against the tick, on either side of his hips.
Lowering herself again, she grazed her lips softly against his shaft and felt his silken cock move against her cheek. She tongued him, laved him, repeatedly, and she reveled in his groans and the tight grip he had on her palms.
When she took him fully into her mouth, she enjoyed only a few solid strokes, loving the feel of him inside her cheeks, before he exploded, holding her to him, and curled up off the bed with a howl that rivaled a hurricane wind.
“Come. I want to show you the stone.”
Jack rose from the bed and stepped across the cabin toward the hooks on the wall and retrieved some of his clothing. As he pulled on a pair of baggy breeches, Claire sat up in the bed, smiled, and watched. Next, he fastened a shirt around him, letting the top hang open at his chest, loose and carefree. He raked his fingers through his long hair and then tied it back with a thin piece of leather. Looking at her, he smiled back.
“You know you are very pretty sitting there like that, but don’t you think you should get up and get dressed. You’ve worn your angel’s gown for two days now. I want to show you the stone.”
Claire glanced around her, the smile fading from her lips. “I haven’t any clothes, Jack.”
His smile faded as well and his eyes closed briefly, as if he’d momentarily forgotten how she’d gotten there.
“Oh. But you do.”
He turned and lifted the lid on the heavy carved chest across the room. He carefully lifted several articles of clothing, turned and thrust them to her. “Here you go, m’ love. I stored them all away after you…after—”
She rose and walked across the room. “Never mind. I know.” He dumped the layers of clothing into her arms and then started to close the lid of the chest. “Wait.”
The motion stopped in mid-air. Smiling, she peeked over his shoulder and peered into the chest. “You don’t have any tennis shoes or jeans in there do you?” She saw his puzzled look, realizing she was confusing the hell out of him with her joke.
“Didn’t think so,” she muttered and crossed the room, laying the clothing on the bed.
She picked up the articles and laid them aside. For the life of her, she didn’t know what to put on first. She glanced back over her shoulder. “Um, Jack?”
“I, uh…I think I need some help here.”
He crossed the room and smiled wickedly. “Gladly, m’ love.”
His hands settled on her waist and he bent to nibble at her ear. Then one hand lowered, slapped her on her backside lightly, and he growled. “Plenty of time for that later, though. Now get dressed. We’re going to see the stone.”
She whirled, but he was gone. The door to the cabin stood open, and she heard him shout from outside. “I’ll get the horse and wait for you.”
Turning back to the pile of fabric, she decided she’d give it her best shot. After all, she couldn’t run around in her nightgown, no matter what the century.
Of course, she had no choice.
Surveying the articles one by one, she muttered, “All right. Let’s see what we’ve got here.”
The first article looked somewhat like a corset with shoulder straps. The next article looked like her grandmother’s nightgown with ruffles at the top and long full sleeves. Then the skirt, she did recognize that, an apron, and some type of bonnet. Obviously, Hannah never heard of underwear.
“Oh, for an extra pair or two of plain old cotton panties,” she said under her breath. “Well, here goes.” Figuring that the corset was like a bra, she put it on first, struggling with the front lacing, then the nightgown thing, the skirt went on top. She chucked the apron and bonnet figuring she had enough clothes on to keep any of her body parts from showing. And it was hot. He didn’t give her any shoes, so she didn’t bother trying to find any. After all, he didn’t wear them either, so maybe they went barefoot most of the time. It was a beach, wasn’t it?
Well, it’s now or never.
She walked to the front door, feeling a bit ridiculous, wondering if she looked like she’d swiped somebody’s Halloween costume, and stepped out onto the small covered porch.
“Jack?” Silence answered her. “Jack?” She wandered a few steps away from the porch and glanced both right and left. “Jack?”
Turning, Jack came around the side of the cabin leading a horse. He stopped and stared. “Really, Hannah, go get yourself dressed.”
She glanced down and then back at him. “I am dressed.”
He snorted. “Halfway.” He dropped the horse’s reins and stepped closer to her. He pulled down the shoulder of the gown-thing revealing the corset and stared at her chest. “Why did you put your corset under your chemise, Hannah?”
She stared at him. “That’s where it goes, isn’t it?”
“Surely you jest?”
She bristled at his frankness. “No, Jack. I do not jest. I asked you for help but you just walked out.”
“But you know how to get dressed, don’t you?”
“Not in these clothes.”
“Did you forget everything, Hannah?”
I never knew it in the first place, Jack! “Okay. Tell me how to get dressed so I don’t feel like an imbecile.”
“Idiot. Fool. Stupid person.” She shook her head. “Just tell me what to do.” To say the least, she was irritated.
“You just put them on, Hannah. Just like every other woman. You know I don’t know about womanly things.”
“I’ll bet you know how to take them off!”
Jack stared at her, his eyes widening. “That, I do,” he said with a twinkle.
“Then tell me how to put them on. Look, I’m telling you I don’t know how. So are you going to help me or not? Either tell me or I’ll wear them any way I damn well please!”
He cocked his head to one side and placed his hands on his hips. “You surely are feisty, woman. You never crossed me before, Hannah.”
Claire bit her lip before she shouted, “But I’m not Hannah!”
Sighing, she spoke softly. “Sorry, Jack. This is all rather new to me, too. Please, tell me how to put the clothes on and I’ll do it. Then we can go.”
Without flinching, he began, “The chemise goes on first,” he reached out and touched the gown-thing. “That’s this. Then the skirt and the apron, then the corset on top. You need your bonnet, too.”
“I’m not wearing that stupid bonnet.”
She shot him a look that could kill.
“All right.” He turned to walk away.
“Do I have to wear the apron?” He stopped in mid-stride. She could tell it was taking everything he had in him not to yell at her.
“I’ll wear the apron.” Today.
He returned to the horse. Claire stepped to the porch. “I’ll be back in a jiffy.”
“A jiffy?” he mumbled. “What article of clothing is a jiffy?”
Claire stopped for a second upon entering the doorway and grinned.