His voice came to her on a wicked cold breeze.
“Ah, me pigeon. Ye’ve come home to roost at last. Come here, me darlin’ lass, and let me get a good look at ye.”
She turned toward it and froze. There it sat, solidly in the center of the stone. Blackbeard’s skull.
Ripe for the picking.
She moved toward it. The stone thrummed. Radiated a bit of red and orange.
But as she stepped closer, the skull changed. No longer smooth bone, it morphed right in front of her. Layering on flesh and blood and matter.
She had to get it. Had to snatch it now before the thing disappeared into the night. Now was the time.
Was she alone? Where was she?
Twirling, she glanced about. The full moon shone above her in the night. A dark cloud made a sinister shroud over half of it. The wind swift and sure raced from ocean to sound.
She was alone.
Jack? Where was Jack?
No matter. She had to do this. Had to get the skull. It was up to her.
“Come closer, sweet pigeon,” the thing taunted. “That’s right, me lovely. Come closer so I may see your exquisite breasts.”
Eyes. The skull now had eyes? It wasn’t just a skull any longer. The once empty sockets were now looking at her.
Claire looked down. Her chemise was torn. Torn! How did that happen? Her breasts nearly exposed, the night’s chill made them firm, her nipples pebble-hard.
“Don’t look at me, you bastard.”
The skull hooted now. Loud and long. “Me eyes see more than ye know, lass.”
The ringing drummed in her ears as the stone came to life. It pulsed and glowed, teasing and seducing.
Come, pretty Hannah. Come to the stone. See what it has for you today.
Hair. It grew hair. Long awful dreadlocks that smelled already. A bitter reminder of being too close to the mangy son of a bitch. The stench was putrid, wafting closer to her on the breeze.
I’ll snatch him by that hair and wrap it up in my apron. I can’t bear to look at it. But I have to get it. Have to take it back to Jack.
The head spun.
Jerking away, she watched it rise, spin, gurgle, laugh.
“Come get me, pretty Hannah. Come take me home,” it taunted.
“Stop it!” she yelled to the stone. “Stop making it do that. Don’t you see I need to get it?”
She reached, pushing her hand into the vortex, careful not to step on the stone. Came up with air. She tried again, grasping at the flying dreadlocks. They broke off in her hand.
His cackle was lost in that dizzying whirlwind, rotating over the stone like a tornado in a bottle. Sparks shot out and stung her face.
Then it stopped.
Stone cold still in the night. Looking at her.
Just looking at her.
When the flesh started to melt, she knew this was her time. Now! As the skull sank closer to the stone, she rushed forward, grasped the thing to her breast, and got caught up in that same spinning, dizzying whirlpool of lights.
Caught. No way out.
She watched from the core as the blood red tornado spun around her. Screaming. The skull clutched to her chest. Pushing against the vortex. She was the axis. Everything twisted around her. Trapped.
No! I need to get out! Back to Jack.
Don’t take me…
She landed with a thud, and it wasn’t on the stone. It wasn’t sand. Grass. Somewhere else. The skull sat gape-mouthed in her lap.
A hand reached out to her and she took it. Pulled her up to sit.
“Look at the skull, Claire.”
His voice was familiar but his face blank. Who was he? What was happening?
“Look, Claire, at the skull.”
It was in her hands now, the skull. The thing she sought. The key to quelling the curse.
She finally had it. Now everything would be all right. They could break the curse.
She looked and saw.
Terror hit her straight in the gut. Both ice and fire ran through her veins.
A head. In her hands. Flesh again. Eyes lolled back in his head. Tongue slightly askew. Blood dripping from his neck onto her fingers, onto her chemise, her skirt, her bare feet.
She sank to her knees. No! No. Not Jack!
Sobs wracked her body. No, not Jack…
“Dead. He’s dead. Took his head, I did.”
The man cackled again. Tossing back his faceless head as though he were baying at the moon.
“I told you I would kill him, Claire. You should have listened to me long ago, sweetheart. I killed him and I will kill him again and again until he is erased from your head and your heart. Remember that. Your Jack is dead. Your spirit mate. You will never find him. Never, Claire. Never. Not as long as I possess a breath.”
Drawn to look at the man, she lifted her gaze from the bloody mass in her lap.
A primal scream rent the air.
“And I will kill his child, too.”
Claire bolted upright in the bed, perspiration running cold on her neck, her scream loud enough she was certain to wake nearly everyone on the hotel floor.
Jack was at her side in an instant. Holding her. Soothing. Chasing away the nightmare.
Disoriented. Dizzy. She clutched him.
She remembered. They were tailing Rick. He would lead them to the skull. Jack had been at the window, at watch, letting her sleep, making sure Rick didn’t leave without them. She sucked in breath after breath. Shaking.
“There, my Hannah Claire, it’s only a dream,” he crooned, trying to sooth her. “Nothing to fear. Just a dream.”
Nothing to fear. They had everything to fear.
Driving down the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, miles of dunes on their left and scrub pines to their right, Claire’s mood remained somber. The nightmare had her rocked to the core. She’d been hard-pressed to shake it all day.
They’d left Virginia that morning, hot on Rick’s tail. Now, the early evening sun slanted over the western sky as if in search of its nighttime resting place over the mainland.
A full moon stood waiting in the wings to take its place and rule the night.
Jack sat beside her, his head relaxed against the headrest. She thought about the last time they’d made love. Funny, it seemed a small eternity ago. She really couldn’t pinpoint exactly when, but knew it had been sometime before her mother died. As she glanced at Jack, a shiver of anticipation wafted over her as she thought about what they were about to do. How would this all end? Would they live happily-ever-after? Or would the curse follow them, find them and doom them to a life of strife forever?
Is the curse already at work?
She certainly hoped not. She didn’t know if either of them could stand living in purgatory for the rest of their lives.
But the dream haunted her. Chilled her to the bone. Too real, too painful. Could this undying search to get this skull simply be a trick? Would they die trying to get it? And then truly be separated, forced to search for each other’s spirits all over again?
A crazy Karma circle that could never be completed?
Both were quiet as they approached the ferry to Ocracoke Island. Now came the tricky part. Getting close enough to get on the same ferry with Rick, but far enough behind that he would not see them hidden away in the black rental car with tinted windows. Even in their disguises of hats and scarves, she was glad she’d thought about renting the car. One less thing for her to worry about, driving a vehicle Rick would not recognize.
They followed him all the way into Ocracoke Village. Thankful for the night, she felt confident they were still undercover. When Rick pulled onto a side street, she hung back and then turned off her lights. Creeping along until she saw his brake lights slide to the right, she slowed and finally came to a stop, engine idling.
Jack slept beside her. He’d been up most of the night standing watch, making sure Rick didn’t give them the slip. He stayed awake so she could sleep and then drive. Now, he was tired and out cold. She didn’t wake him. As long as they knew where Rick’s hangout was going to be, they were okay.
Now it was a game of watching and waiting.
Rick pulled bags out of the trunk and motioned. Cracking her window, she heard him shout to a man on the porch. The porch light backlit the man who met him halfway up the sidewalk. He took a large duffle from Rick, and they both went into the house.
She stayed there for another thirty minutes or so and then decided to head back to the light keeper’s house. The rental was still hers. She’d paid the year’s lease. Although they’d abandoned it not long after, she assumed it was still hers.
She had to think. A lot to consider.
A lot to risk.
Hours of driving had led to concentrated thought about what had to happen next. Particularly when she’d realized Rick was leading them right back into Blackbeard’s lair, where all of this had begun. A plan formulated in her mind.
Jack was in danger. Given one thread of a chance, Rick would kill him.
Rick also wanted her and everything that came with her.
She wasn’t in danger. He wouldn’t hurt her.
But he would kill Jack if he had a chance.
The narrow dirt road ended by the lighthouse. The cottage sat to their left, the lighthouse in front at the foot of a dune. Claire glanced from side to side, wary of anyone who may have decided to meet her there. It wouldn’t be the first time Rick had followed her to the cottage with plans of his own.
But that was just her paranoia. Rick had no clue she was here. And she’d just left him back in the village. There were no visible signs of another human being for miles.
She shoved the gearshift into park and twisted the ignition key to off.
It’s now or never.
“We’re here, Jack. We made it.”
He roused and glanced about. “We’re at the lighthouse?” he muttered. “I must have slept like a babe.”
“Yes. But you have to wake up now. We need to hurry.”
He sat up straighter. “Where is that bastard? Is he here?”
Claire shook her head. “No. But he’s close. That is why we have to hurry.” She got out of the car. “Come on, Jack. Now. We have to get to the lighthouse.”
Groggy and disoriented, he obviously didn’t understand. Claire gathered up a backpack from the rear seat and rounded the car. She met him on the other side and hooked her arm in the crook of his elbow.
“We have little time. I didn’t wake you. But we have to move fast.” She pulled him toward the lighthouse, down the sandy bank.
They stumbled, moving quickly through the dark.
“Hannah Claire,” he stopped abruptly at the foot of the dune and halted her. “Tell me what is going on.”
She glanced nervously from side to side then took a deep breath. Taking his face in her hands, she focused his attention on her. “Okay, listen to me, Jack. This is important. You were asleep. Rick stopped at a house in the village. A small cottage near the sound, off the beaten path. He took some things inside and then he left again. I waited but he didn’t come back. So I took a risk. I slipped into the house through an open back window and Jack,” she paused, taking a breath and hoping he was grasping the urgency of her story, “I found it. I found the chalice.”
She nodded. “It’s in my backpack. So, we have to move. We have to cross over back to your time as soon as possible. When he returns and finds that it is gone…”
Now more fully awake, she could see his brain turning, coming alive as understanding dawned.
“We have it?”
“You aggravating little wench, you went and stole it all by yourself?” He grasped her upper arms like he was going to shake her.
“Are you going to chastise me or hug me? Because I’m not sure which to expect, but whatever you decide, do it quickly because I don’t want to be in this century when Rick finds out.” She glanced to the sky. He followed her gaze.
“A full moon.”
“A good sign.”
“I want to go home and make love to you.”
“Jack, I want nothing more. It’s time,” she said as she took his hand and pulled him closer to the lighthouse. “It’s time to go home.”
Fear lanced through her at that moment, but she moved forward. There was no other choice.
The yellow-gold moon bathed them. The lighthouse beckoned. The ocean roared beside them, the water high on the shore. And as Claire glimpsed the full moon following their fast trek toward the stone, she thought about the clues inscribed there.
Prior to the second celestial orb, with the waxing tide, as the seasonal winds blow…
She panicked and looked once more to the moon.
Prior to the second celestial orb…
Was this a blue moon, the second full moon this month? She hadn’t thought to check the calendar.
The moon cycles.
Mama had warned her to be wary of the cycles.
They rushed forward.
Jack looked at her.
With the waxing of the tide…
Was the tide high? Two out of three. Maybe. Her breathing deepened.
As the seasonal winds blow…
The hurricane. A hurricane had been moving through when the time portal opened. Tonight, she glanced to where the sea oats stood tall, gently arched on a breeze. The wind was calm and still. She relaxed.
Please God, she prayed. Don’t let this be the night the portal is closed forever.
“Hannah Claire?” Jack’s voice came to her within a dizzying gyration of moon and sand and surf. Of his face and his voice. Her mother’s. Of the ring she wore on her hand and of the look on his face when they made love.
“Just one last look, Jack,” she whispered. “I’m ready now.”
He nodded. She felt his gaze on her for several seconds after she turned away. They pulled together on the heavy door of the lighthouse, still carelessly left unlocked, and took several urgent steps toward the gaping hole in the back.
Blood galloped through her chest as the ocean surf pounded the sand outside the lighthouse. With each hurried step they took toward the stone, the pounding grew louder, until she no longer knew whether it was the ocean surf or the surging of her blood through every capillary in her body that roared to life within her.
They stood before the stone, embedded in the foundation of the structure.
Something fluttered in her belly. Something unlike anything she’d ever felt before, confusing her. Her free hand flew there to caress it.
She was doing this for the baby. To protect her baby’s father.
At that precious moment, a moonbeam showered upon them from a window high near the top of the lighthouse, illuminating the stone. Slowly, she lifted her gaze upward and a feeling of archaic power entranced her. Her breathing deepened and shuddered within her chest. She looked at Jack and the tears fell.
But a glimmer of hope raced through her. She had a purpose. And she would see to it.
The quest to find the skull was now hers and hers alone.
She reached up for one last touch of Jack’s cheek against the palm of her hand.
“I love you, Jack,” she whispered. Her head pounding, her heart breaking.
“I love you, too.” He took her in a powerful embrace then, raking his lips over her mouth, holding her so very close to his body. “I love you more than life itself.”
Within an instant, Claire felt and saw the magnetism of the stone’s power.
The low hum.
The pulsating red and orange.
He broke away and grasped her hand. “Let’s go, Hannah Claire. Let’s go home.”
She nodded. “Yes. I’ll follow up.”
Smiling, Jack eagerly took the first step onto the stone. One foot and then the other. The vortex of lights spun around him, and then Claire lifted a foot to join him.
“Come, my darling, Hannah. Come.”
Then she pushed away, pulling her hand out of his. Those familiar, minute points of light dizzied her. “Hannah!”
She stepped back once again, out of the beam and into the shadows, her face wet with tears. The last thing she saw was the agonized look on Jack’s face and his hand reaching out. The last thing she heard was the deep wail of pain as her name tore from his lips.
And with a painful flash, he was gone.
Terror ripped through her, and she screamed his name. Reaching out, she lunged back into the beam and tried to grab him, barely able to skim the stone. But the swirling lights burned to the touch, and she jerked her hand out of the stone’s reach.
The curse. Was this the curse? This pain she felt being separated from him?
In trying to do the right thing, had she done exactly the thing the curse had warned her would happen? No. She couldn’t believe that. No.
“I will come back, Jack. I will. I will find you,” she screamed. Eyes wide in disbelief of what she’d done, her breathing quickened until she nearly hyperventilated. She sank to her knees and her entire body hit the floor. Her face plunged into the cold wooden planks. Tiny granules of sand ground into her cheek. She sobbed, lying there on the cold floor, whispering his name repeatedly until her body was weak from exhaustion.
When the last of the sobs had wracked her body, she stood and looked up into the same beam of moon glow shining down over her. She rose and cursed the moon for all it had done to her. For its part in her pain.
I will come back, Jack.
She willed the words to him across time, through the depths of the lighthouse, staring at the mute, gray slab of rock.
Please hear me.
I will be with you again. I had to do this. Mama said sometimes I might have to do things I don’t want to do. But it is for the best. Rick would have killed you, Jack. I am saving your life. And when I come back, I will have the chalice for real, and we will be together for always.
It’s about love, Jack. Love.
But no words came back to her.
Without a backward glance, she stepped across the circle of floor to leave. As she pushed open the heavy door of the lighthouse to step out onto the beach, the wind gusted into her face like an icy blast from the north, throwing her into the door, billowing sand around her ankles, and piercing her heart with its frozen shards of pain and fear.