“I think I’ve figured it out.”
Claire sat across the table from Jack, the whale oil lamp settling a low yellow glow over the room. She watched him finish his dinner. The dinner he’d prepared, as usual. Jack had long since given up on her eighteenth-century culinary pursuits. Besides, he was doing a more than adequate job, and he’d resigned himself to the fact that one of the major differences between Claire and Hannah was Claire didn’t cook.
That and the fact he thought Claire was a sex fiend.
His head rose slowly and he stared, chewing. The rhythm slowed the longer he waited.
She knew what he was thinking.
She lowered her gaze and stared at a pewter bowl in the center of the table. She was nearly certain she had figured out the stone’s magic. What with her questions of Jack the past couple of weeks, the things she remembered from the night she passed through and the nights she first saw him, not to mention her crude translation of the stone’s inscription, she felt close. The only way to be sure though, was to test her theory—and she wasn’t quite sure she wanted to do that. She had no fear of returning to the future, but she had every fear of never being able to return to Jack, if she needed, or wanted, to do so.
“Tell me what you think about the magic.”
She faced him and knew she had to tell him her thoughts.
“From what I remember of the nights I first saw you, and then from what you told me, I think there is only a certain period of time when one can pass through. The thing that frightens me is how will the portal know to which time to return me? What if it transports me to ancient
or to the year 2525? Do I have a choice? Does it pick where it wants me to go? Or
does it simply return me where it found me?” Egypt
“It returned me to where it found me.”
She nodded. “Yes, it did. And that’s what I’m counting on.” She watched Jack’s face grimace, and she could tell he was trying desperately to control his reaction to her statement as well as to understand her theory. “I mean, should we decide that I, or perhaps we, have to return at some point, I want to be relatively certain that I’m going back from whence I came.”
He nodded his agreement.
“It seems that there are certain events that must occur to trigger the opening to the portal. You said you found the stone after a blue moon storm. When I was in my own time, there was a blue moon.” She thought about telling him about the man in the store, saying he haunted the beach looking for Hannah during a blue moon, but decided against it. “You said the tide was high, too. I don’t know about the tide in my time. But there was a hurricane the night we first…the night you came to me at the cottage. Remember? On the stone, there are some words, Latin, I think. They refer to a celestial orb, or moon, the tide, and something about winds. It all fits, you see. And I think there must be something about the convergence of all of these events that make time travel possible. So maybe it’s the period of all these happenings.”
Jack spoke, breaking her concentration. “So how do you know for sure?”
“I don’t. Not really. That is, I wouldn’t know unless…”
Jack cleared his throat and sat up straight. His gaze pinned hers so she felt she couldn’t move. “Unless?”
He knew. There was only one way. She exhaled in defeat. “Never mind.” She rose and stepped away from the table, not wanting to get into that discussion.
Within seconds he was behind her, his hot breath skimming over the tiny hairs on the back of her neck. “Yes, you do Hannah. You know exactly how to do it, don’t you?”
She slowly turned, fearful of the tone of his voice. “What do you mean by that?”
Jack grasped her upper arms and turned her to him. “What I mean is that you know how to do it. The question is are you going to do it?”
“No,” she answered matter-of-factly.
“Good.” Jack dropped her arms and turned away, dismissing the subject. “Let’s sleep now.”
Staring at Jack’s back as he stepped across the room, watching him extinguish the first of the two oil lamps, she felt her blood begin to boil.
How dare he?
As he bent to snuff out the last one, she took two steps forward and called out his name.
He turned his body halfway to her. The confident and smug look on his face told her all she needed to know.
“What do you mean good?”
Jack straightened to his full height and simply looked at her. “What do I mean? Good is good. That is what I mean. You’ll stay away from that stone.”
She crossed her arms and shook her head back and forth. “No, that’s not what you mean. What you mean is you’re not even considering the effect that staying or going will have on me. You want it your way and that’s that!”
“Do you want to go back?”
Something tickled Claire’s ear and she wanted desperately to scratch it, but she didn’t want to move. Neither did he, she could tell.
Their bodies stood rigid, as if any sudden movement would crack the ice around them and they might have to admit to each other their fears.
Do I want to go back?
She hadn’t been able to answer that question for herself yet, let alone answer it for him. It was just too damn confusing. She had no earthly clue as to what she would do. How dare he put this kind of pressure on her? Her obligations on both sides of the fence were overwhelming—both too difficult to even think about rejecting.
Obligations? No, that wasn’t entirely right. She did have obligations in her century, but here? All she had here was Jack. And that’s all it would ever be. All she would ever have in the eighteenth century was Jack.
Was it enough?
Finally she spoke. “I don’t know what I want, Jack. It’s difficult, okay?”
“Difficult? What could be so difficult? Everything is here for you. This is where you belong.”
She couldn’t believe her ears and tried to remind herself that he was coming from an antiquated perspective. “What do you mean this is where I belong? What do you really know about me? I have no idea where I belong anymore. How would you know the answer to that when I don’t?”
“Because I do know you. I am your husband and I know what is best for you. And I know you’ll obey my wishes.” He turned and drew back the covers from the straw bed, quickly removed all of his clothing and slid between the blankets. He patted the ticking next to him. “Let’s sleep.” He grinned. “Oh, and get the lamp, would you?”
If ever in her life she’d experienced a bout of high blood pressure, it was now. Her head pounded at the rush of blood through every artery and capillary in her brain. The gall of the man! The absolute gall! He had no consideration for her needs. None whatsoever!
Get the lamp, huh.
“Like hell! Get it yourself!”
Jack sat up in the bed and stared across the tiny cabin. He watched the door fling open, striking the inside wall and bouncing as it did. He caught just a glimpse of Claire’s skirt as she marched out onto the porch. Without thinking, he rose quickly, jerked on his breeches, and rushed out of the cabin after her, trying to control his temper.
“Hannah! Come back!” He could vaguely see her in the moonlight as she stalked away from the cabin.
“Blasted woman!” Jack mumbled to himself as he once again took off after her, hastily trying to fasten his clothing. “Hannah! Stop, will you? What’s got your ire up again?” He continued after her, nearing the edge of the woods. “Hannah, come back before you lose yourself in the trees.”
From the direction of her voice, he knew he was gaining on her. Then all at once, he caught a glimmer of moonbeam reflected from her hair. Within seconds, he was upon her, grabbing her from behind and spinning her body to face him.
“Where do you think you are going?” Her face was inches from his.
“None of your business. Let me go.” She struggled within his grip.
He breathed deeply. “Bloody hell, woman! I asked you a question and I expect an answer. Now where do you think you are going?”
“How dare you speak to me with that tone. Let’s get one thing straight, Jack. I never promised to ‘love, honor and obey’ you. And we’ve got to come to an understanding. I’m not Hannah! I’m Claire.”
The sting of her words bit deep, and he studied her long and hard. After a minute, he spoke slowly, his voice barely more than a whisper. “So that would kill you, wouldn’t it? To love, honor and obey?” Why did it take her so long to answer? And why did she even want to consider going back to her other life? What possible…?
“Well, it’s certainly not the love part.” She spat back at him. “Because I…I do care for you. Very much.”
He sighed. Love. She didn’t say the word. Had she ever said it?
“And I don’t have a problem with honor, either.”
He knew where she was going next.
“My real problem, Jack Porter, is the obey thing,” she said bluntly. “I am not a dog. I do not obey. I have a mind of my own.”
He tightened his grip on her shoulders. “You won’t obey me?”
“No, Jack, I won’t. Especially if it’s something I believe in strongly enough. The thing is I’m used to choices. I like choices.”
His gaze lowered to the ground, and then he quickly jerked it up to her face. “But it’s a man’s God-given right to possess a wife who will obey him, Hannah.”
“Possess? God-given? I don’t think so.”
“You are my wife. You will obey me.”
He released her and stepped backward. “Woman, you try my patience! Are you saying you won’t obey my wishes?”
Claire narrowed her gaze and stepped forward. Her nipples grazed his chest, and he flinched ever so slightly. The index finger of her right hand gently brushed against the front of his breeches, connecting in exactly the spot where he burned the most. She spoke softly and sweetly as she drew near to his ear and breathed the words over his cheek. “That depends, Jack. On what your wishes are.”
She had him right where she wanted him, and he knew it. Could hear it in the seductive whisper of her voice, could see it in the sensual curve of her lips. It took all the control he could muster not to raise his arms and capture her in a heated embrace.
Her breath soft and warm against his neck, she kissed him just beneath the lower part of his ear and then stepped back. “And that’s the way it’s going to be, Jack.”
He drew in a ragged breath, his chest heaving. His fingers clenched into fists at his side. “I can live with that.”
She risked a small grin. “Welcome to a taste of the twenty-first century.”
“Too many changes.”
“Well, Jack, you can look at the changes in more ways than one. It’s a trade-off, you see? Some changes you like, some you don’t. The obey thing is non-negotiable.”
He grasped her upper arms once more, dragging her closer into him, but he spoke softly and determinedly. “There is one thing I will not concede to, my dear Hannah. And that is this business with the stone.”
“I asked you earlier where you were going and you didn’t answer.”
She removed one arm from his grasp and put some space between them. “To the stone, Jack. I am going to the stone. I just need to know if I can go home.”
Drawing in a ragged breath, he spoke in a near whisper. “You are home, Hannah.”
“No. No, I’m not. My home is in Cincinnati, Ohio, hundreds of miles and almost three hundred years away from these barrier islands. And maybe that’s where I should be. I don’t know.” Exhaling deeply, she broke the connection between them by glancing to the sand at her feet.
“There are people there who need me,” she said. “Things I have to do. I’m just not sure I can live like this.”
He held her gaze. “Do not lie to me, Hannah.”
“I’m not lying to you, Jack. Why would you even think that?”
Point-blank, he threw his thoughts out to her. “You have a man there. While you were away from me, you found a man.”
She blinked and then made a rude noise.
“No, Jack. There is no man in my life there.”
“Then why are you in such a rush to get back?”
“I told you, Jack. I have obligations there. There are people…”
“A man,” he said stubbornly.
“I told you, there is no man.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Her fingers curled into tight fists at her side. “Then don’t!” Swirling away, she stalked off again toward the wooded area. She may have walked a dozen hurried steps when she heard him call after her.
“Hannah, come back here!”
His plea met with silence.
“Hannah! I said come back here.” His request grew more demanding. Claire threw a glance over her shoulder and shouted back at him as she continued walking. “I don’t obey, remember Jack?”
She stopped in mid-stride, her back still to him. “What did you call me?”
“Claire. I called you Claire.”
Slowly turning back to face him, she pondered the meaning of what she’d just heard. “Don’t think one minute that by pulling that little trick I’m going to melt into your arms and all will be forgiven.”
“I’m not tricking you, C-Claire.”
“So what does that mean, Jack? What does it mean that you called me Claire?”
He quickly spanned the distance between them. “What it means is that I know you are not Hannah. I know that. Maybe you are just my Hannah Claire. Perhaps that’s what I should call you. Some of her, some of you.”
She watched as Jack raked all ten fingers through his hair and paced off to the left. He stared into the trees, and then he turned slightly back to her. Watching him, his chest muscles all sweaty and rippling, glistening in the moonlight, she felt her abdomen grow tight with the knowledge of how those smooth muscles felt underneath her fingertips.
Then his gaze, cool and determined, connected with hers. “Since you’re not Hannah, you must have a man there.”
She shook her head back and forth in disbelief. “I’m not following you, Jack.”
He held up his hands and stepped back up to her. “I know you’re not following me, Ha…Claire. I’ve been following you all over these damned woods!”
If she hadn’t been so angry with him, she would have laughed, but under the circumstances, she knew better. “No, Jack. What I mean is I don’t understand what you’re saying to me. What does my not being Hannah have to do with me having a man back in my time?”
Jack dropped his head into his hands and briskly rubbed his palms over his face. “Because you weren’t a maiden, Hannah Claire. When I loved you at first, you were impure. So since you aren’t Hannah, I know you have, or at least had, a man in your lifetime. I don’t want to believe you’d be the kind of woman to whore yourself. I believe you to be the kind of woman who would find one man to be with and stay with him for all your life. That’s why I think you feel obligated to go back.”
She stood silent, not knowing whether to be ecstatic over the fact he had finally accepted that she wasn’t really Hannah, or to be upset over his assumptions due to her lack of virginity.
Oh, God. How in the world am I going to explain the sexual revolution to an eighteenth century male? And an extremely jealous eighteenth century male at that?
“Jack,” she began slowly, “there is no man I need to return to.”
“So you’re a whore then?”
Was he thinking about their lovemaking? Which may have seemed somewhat exotic at times? Was he comparing what he knew of her, what she did and what Hannah wouldn’t do?
She breathed deeply. “No, Jack. I’m not a whore.”
He lifted one hand to stroke his stubbled chin. “Then what would you call yourself?”
“Look, Jack. You’re obviously going to believe what you want, so I’m going to put it to you plain and simple. I’m going to tell you the truth, and then whatever you choose to believe is up to you. I really shouldn’t have to do this, you know, because it shouldn’t amount to a hill of beans whether I had a lover in my other life. But listen closely because this is the way it is. And then I don’t ever want to talk about it again. That’s a closed chapter of my life.”
She took a deep breath. “I did have a man. One man, Jack. I loved him for many years. But he deceived me. He turned into someone I didn’t like. And then I found you at the beach. I came here. And I…well…I came to care for you. And whatever you say or think, I will never consider going back to my own time simply to be with him. He is out of my life forever.”
He studied her. “Were you married?”
“No. And the only thing I can tell you about that is that in my time people don’t get married just because they feel a mutual attraction to one another and want to become lovers; sometimes they even live together without getting married.”
Then a thought struck her. “Kind of like us.”
His face piqued with interest at that statement. “But we—”
She shook her head slowly. “No, we’re not.”
His gaze held hers for a moment longer. “Then we should be.”
She knew what he said was true, but there was a feeling of things left undone that niggled at her from time to time, and made her question her decision to stay with Jack.
He reached for her and she nuzzled into the crook between his neck and chin. She didn’t want to leave him—she didn’t. But her mother’s health wasn’t good. Not to mention that she must be frantic with worry. How could she have abandoned her? What was she thinking anyway, running off to live on the Outer Banks like she had? What would it do to her mother if she never went home again?
She shivered and Jack held her tighter. “There are no decisions to be made here,” he said, “unless your heart is unsure.”
She pulled back and looked into his worried face, not sure of the exact meaning of that statement. “My mother is back there, Jack. And I miss her. She needs me.”
Jack held the silence for a moment longer as he peered into her eyes. “I can understand missing your mother.”
“No, you see, she is very ill. Has been for a while. And we’ve always been so close. She wouldn’t understand my leaving and never coming back. She would be heartbroken if she never heard from me again. Do you understand how I might need to see that she is all right? That I need to communicate with her? To tell her I’m okay?”
Somehow, she knew that was all she really needed to do. If she’d just make contact with her mother, she knew she would understand. Wouldn’t she?
She searched Jack’s profile. He was struggling.
“Jack, we need to understand how the stone works. There may be a reason for me, or for us, to pass through again. But I wouldn’t do it to intentionally leave you. And I wouldn’t do it without telling you.” She glanced at their clasped hands. “Actually, I don’t even know whether I could do it at all,” she whispered.
She felt a finger curl under her chin and lift it to meet his gaze.
“Whatever reasons you have for needing to return, I have no fear that you will leave me willingly. I only fear that you will do so unwillingly.”
Puzzled, she stared at him a moment longer, her jaw clenched.
Then understanding dawned. Hannah’s kidnapping. His fears were as great as hers, she knew, maybe even worse. And even though his fear of losing her to another man was great, his fear of losing her to death was even more intense.
They strolled back to the cabin and went inside. Beside the bed, she turned to him, and sighed deeply. “I’m tired, Jack. Let’s go to bed.”
He stood for a moment, his eyes playing over her features as if he wanted to memorize them for eternity, and then turned and extinguished the whale oil lamp. In only a matter of seconds, she felt his hands groping for the lacing of her corset as he removed her clothing. Lying back against the bed, his hands covered her hot flesh in wild abandon, his mouth smothering and tasting.
She wanted to fall into his lovemaking, but tortured thoughts spun mercilessly through her mind. Was Jack truly accepting of the fact she was indeed Claire and not Hannah? Did he really love her? Or did he love the notion of her being Hannah? And as he made love to her tonight, would he be making love to Claire? Or would he still be making love to an image of his dead wife?
Could she be his Hannah Claire and still be herself?
Four nights later Claire lay beside Jack listening to his gentle snoring, fighting the compulsion to get out of their bed and return to the stone. Since the day she and Jack had spoken about the possibility of her leaving, they’d not discussed the subject further. It seemed understood that she would stay. Yet, the mystery of the stone nagged at her, and her theory as to how the thing worked still intrigued her. And now, as she lay there thinking about its magic, she had to fight herself to stay beneath the covers and not fling them back, rush to the beach, and satisfy her curiosity.
She snuggled deeper into Jack’s side and urged her body to relax. This was the second night she’d fought the longings. Twenty-four hours earlier, she’d lain in this same bed, in this same position, willing herself not to get up and go to the stone. At last, mercifully, she’d fallen asleep. She only hoped she’d be so lucky tonight.
Finally, she did the thing she swore she wouldn’t do. Tossing the covers aside, then carefully tucking them back around Jack, she rose. She quickly donned her clothing, slipped out the door of the cabin, and by the light of the full moon, stole away to the stone.
In no time, she’d reached that magical place and knelt at its base.
Breathing deeply, she sat and stared. The stone seemed to pulsate under the moonlight. She closed her eyes, and when she looked once more, she saw it was. Never in the light of the day had she witnessed this action. It was coming to life in front of her, almost as if it were breathing. She felt its vibrations as she stood there and then let her hand hover over it, feeling the strange sort of power it held.
Spellbound, she lowered her hand. Something, some power pulled it toward the stone. She feared if she touched it, the stone’s magic would suck her away, forever. After lowering her hand even more, the stone turned a pulsating red, like that of a glowing ember.
She jumped back, her breathing suddenly coming in hard, shallow breaths.
Her theory must be true. If she wanted, right now, she could pass through the portal and back into her old life.
Excited, she stood and looked at the piece of bedrock. It lay before her as lifeless as a dead rose. But it worked! And if she wanted, she could go home. She was almost giddy.
She backed up several steps, tried to settle the jumping nerve-endings all over her body. She sat down on a nearby dune, her body sinking comfortably into the sand.
Did she really want to do that? Did she want to go home? What if she went back for only a few hours? Jack certainly had done that. He was able to pass through and return in the same night. Why couldn’t she? Jack would never have to know. She could run over to the cottage and call her mother and Vicki and explain things, and then she would come right back.
No, she couldn’t really explain things. Well, maybe to Vicki. She would understand, but not her mother. Maybe she could tell her mother she was going away for a while and she wouldn’t be able to reach her. Maybe she should have Vicki check in on her from time to time.
No. Don’t go.
She jumped up and searched the night around her, but saw nothing—no one. Was that her thought? Or his? Was she telling herself not to go? Or was Jack trying to communicate with her?
For several minutes she stared over the ocean and watched the twinkling diamond peaks of the waves.
I can’t risk going back. Going back might mean that I could never return to Jack. I don’t think I could live with that. I need Jack. I can’t risk it.
But I need more.
What about Jack? What would it do to him if I left? Even if he’s still hanging onto Hannah. I want to be with him. I can’t leave him.
It would kill him.
It would kill me.
She rose and turned her back on the stone. With two steps forward the humming began again, and she felt the heat behind her. Slowly turning, she saw its near-blinding radiance. The stone was sizzling now, even though she was nowhere near it, and throbbing as its glow alternated between a fiery yellow-orange and neon red. She turned toward it fully. The hum began low, but built to a deafening crescendo as its intensity grew greater.
Dropping to her knees, she stifled a scream and clasped her hands over her ears. The humming grew extreme; the wind kicked up and blew stinging sand pellets about her. She thought the vibrations would burst her eardrums.
As she huddled close to the sand, she had to fight the compulsion to go to the stone and step directly in the center of it. In fact, she felt so drawn to the stone’s magic it was as though she was sliding along the sand toward it. Frightened, she squeezed her eyes shut tight, forcing back the tears that wanted to spill onto her cheeks.
When she thought she could stand it no more, everything stopped.
The sudden silence was overpowering. She lay on the sand for several seconds without moving. There was no humming; she couldn’t even hear the ocean. And right before she opened her eyes, she had the sensation that when she opened them, she wouldn’t be in the same place.
But she was. And as she rose she knew she had to go to it. Taking a few steps closer to the stone, she saw it looked no different from any other time she’d seen it during the day. It lay cold and gray and lifeless against the brown sand.
So she thought it wouldn’t matter, that the magic was gone for the night. Jack hadn’t told her about what she’d witnessed. Had the same thing happened to him? It was almost as if the stone was calling to her, that it wanted her to step on it. That some force was drawing her to it. Why hadn’t Jack told her about that?
She stood before it, and for some reason she could not explain, lifted her right foot and placed it in the air just over the center of the stone. As it hovered there for several seconds, a myriad of thoughts raced through her brain.
Could she do this?
Her heart ripped as her thoughts turned to never seeing Jack again. And as her foot lingered there, barely a few inches of air separating the ball of her foot and the stone, she felt the heat again. Looking to the stone once more, she saw the sparks and the curls of steam and the throbbing red. Her foot sucked into quicksand and she jerked it to the ground and flung herself backward, landing on her rear in the sand.
“You tricked me!” she shouted at the stone. “Why did you trick me?”
It lay lifeless. She stilled her heavy breathing and sat for a moment quieting her heart. She got up again. This time she knew exactly what she was getting into.
Walking determinedly to the stone, she hesitated for only a fraction of a second and lifted her foot over it once more. Breathing deeply, she shuddered as a cloud passed before the moon and plunged both her and the stone into total darkness. Uttering up a silent prayer, she closed her eyes and lowered her foot. This is it, she told herself. I have two choices here. I can either muster up the courage to step on the damn thing and take my risks, or turn my back on it and never think about it again.
The tension she felt between foot and stone was magnetic. Then just at the point of greatest stress, she opened her eyes and caught the faint red glow once more.
Her heart pounded. The blood rushed through her body. The humming screamed again in her ears. Each breath she took drew the ocean’s night mist deeper into her lungs. She remembered the first night she saw Jack as she stood on her cottage porch.
Just thinking of him sent shivers down her spine. She couldn’t leave him. Not now. She couldn’t.
Carefully and quickly, she removed her foot and turned her back on the stone, hurriedly stumbling away into the dark night. She collapsed to her knees in the sand and buried her face in her hands, her salty tears silently slipping through her fingers. A cloud passed away from the moon then, spreading a golden glow over the sands, and when she looked up through her blurry eyes, she saw the ghostly image that stood before her.
He looked just as he did those nights at the cottage. Her heart burst at the sight of him.
Her gaze held his for several seconds as she searched his face. What was he thinking? Then she rose and walked to him, the questions in his eyes drawing her nearer. They were damp. Misty, just like the air hanging above the ocean. Then she shuddered, but not from the breeze. Instead, she shuddered from the sudden realization she had nearly thrown it all away. A risk. A chance. She’d almost thought she could leave him, even for the briefest period. But now, she knew that was impossible.
You are a part of me. I’m a part of you.
The words echoed inside her brain as she locked into his gaze, not quite certain if she simply remembered those words or if he was saying them to her now.
Her temples throbbed.
“I couldn’t do it,” she whispered. “I could no sooner leave you than I could cut out my heart.”
His eyes closed and his chest heaved as he finally took a long-awaited breath. Then he reached out and grabbed her by the shoulders, crushing her against him.