Claire trembled. The howling wind ceased and silence blanketed the beach. Both Jack and Claire stared at the flat gray stone.
Had they truly witnessed what they thought?
Jack held her tight as she rested her cheek on his heaving chest. Neither dared move for several minutes. Neither wanted to risk letting go of the other, not fully comprehending what had just happened. Finally, Jack’s hushed voice came to her. “Who is he, Hannah Claire?”
“It’s very complicated, Jack. Let’s go home and I will tell you.”
Drawing back, she looked into his face. His glazed eyes bore down on hers. “Let us go.”
She sat on the edge of their bed, her back ramrod straight, and watched Jack pace across the small cabin floor. He didn’t, or wouldn’t, speak to her. Just paced. Occasionally, he stopped to stare at a wall, contemplate some new thought, and then resumed his nervous pacing. Finally, he pulled a ladder-back chair away from the table, rotated it face out, and then sat.
He studied her face for a moment and then glanced away. “Why didn’t you tell me this before now? Why didn’t you tell me he was on the ship?”
She swallowed hard before she began. “There wasn’t time. I never intended to keep it from you, Jack. I would have told you sooner, but we just…we were so happy to get away from there, to have each other again. And then on the beach we got carried away and, frankly, we weren’t doing a lot of talking.”
Pursing his lips together, he rose, walked the short distance across the room and crouched in front of her. He took both her hands into his and laid them in her lap. His thumbs caressed her knuckles as he watched and then looked up into her face.
“Did he…? Did that monster…?”
She shook her head. “No,” she whispered. “No.”
Jack closed his eyes in relief and then snapped them back open.
“He is the man. The man you loved in your time.”
“You said you didn’t love him.”
She broke away from his grasp. “No. I don’t love him. I left him, Jack. Don’t you see? It’s him. He wants me back.” She scooted closer, found his hands again, and looked intently into his eyes. “I don’t want him. I want you. Never underestimate that statement, Jack. I love you.”
Bone-melting relief softened his features. A hand went to her cheek and stroked. “Hannah Claire, my sweet woman, I love you, too.”
Pulling her closer, he lowered his face to capture her lips in his. She could still taste the salt on his lips, relished in the sting of that, and let her lips mingle with his for a moment.
They parted and Jack studied her. “But what about…what we saw?”
She knew that was something else entirely. She wasn’t sure what the hell they had seen.
“I do not mind to tell you, Hannah Claire, that I am a believer in the Lord and the Devil. What I saw out there tonight frightens me. A severed head cannot speak.”
“And people don’t travel through time, either.” She knew he sensed the irony.
“That man must have been the Devil himself.”
She agreed. “According to history, Blackbeard was sometimes referred to as the Devil. He was an evil man. But he is gone, now.”
Puzzled, he returned, “Tell me.”
“Blackbeard is dead. On November 22, 1718, he was beheaded in a battle with soldiers sent down from Virginia. I imagine the ones for whom you piloted the ship. You had a hand in that, Jack, and you should be proud. I’m sure that is the battle we heard early this morning.”
A faraway glaze drifted over his eyes. “Maynard and his men finally defeated the bastard.”
He laid his head in her lap. She gently ran her fingers through his long, unbound hair, and then dropped them to his shoulders, massaging. He moaned and burrowed deeper into her lap, his arms reaching out to surround her waist as he clasped her to him. She knew he was having a hard time comprehending all that had happened. It was difficult for her to grasp as well.
A surge of desire raced through her, easing away the tension. As one small tear after another rolled down her cheeks, she felt her compassion for Jack deepen. Within an instant he rose, gently nudging her body onto the bed as he lay beside her, wrapping her within the protective cocoon of his arms. “This curse. I just don’t know.”
Claire held onto him all the more. “I’m not leaving you, Jack. Never will I leave you.” Immediately a pang of fear jolted up within her. She hadn’t made any decisions. Why had she just assured him that she wouldn’t leave? What was she thinking?
“But the curse…”
“The curse is just a silly thing to try and frighten us. It’s nothing. Forget it.” Was she reassuring him, or herself?
He fell silent. “I think it is a thing to be reckoned with, Hannah Claire. I think we have to do what it wants. I don’t want to risk it.”
She drew back from his embrace, placed the palms of her hands on either of his cheeks, and looked deep into his eyes. “But how can we do such a thing? Why, in order to get the head back we…”
“…we’d have to travel to your time.”
“No,” she returned abruptly, shaking her head. “We’ll not do it. We’re staying here.”
Jack sat up in the bed. “We have to do what the curse says. I do not want our love damned nor the love of our children. We have to break the curse.”
She stared at him, shaking her head.
“We have to do it,” he told her.
“You are sure?” she whispered.
“We have to steal the head.”
“But how? I don’t know where we’d look first.”
“Find him. You’d have to find this…Rick.”
“He’ll know we’re looking for him.”
She paused. “You’d go back with me?”
He nodded. “To break the eternal damnation of our love, and for our future children, I’d go anywhere with you.”
Her brain raced with the probability of what he proposed. “It’s much different, you know, than here. Much.”
“I expect that it is.”
“I’m afraid you don’t expect anything like what you’re going to see, Jack. I need time to prepare you. The culture shock could be a little much for you.”
“More so than it was for you here?”
Jack shook his head and sat up. “We can’t wait long. The longer we wait the greater chance we will never find him.”
She bit her lip. “You’re right.” Taking a deep breath, she continued. “We must go right away. Tonight. I’ll use all of today to prepare you for my time. Tonight, we travel to the future.”
Standing on the perimeter of the stone, Claire looked at Jack and wondered if she had prepared him for what was to come. She’d tried to tell him all she could about the future—fast cars, planes, space shuttles, and even cyberspace—but she knew there was no way on earth she could fully prepare him.
She took his hand. Behind him, she noticed the stars on the horizon and thought they had never looked so bright, so clear, and she wondered if she ever again would see them in such splendor. At once, a pang of despair ran through her. Would they ever be back? What would happen to them on the other side?
She looked at Jack and knew he wondered the same.
“We’ll be back,” he whispered into the still night.
She nodded. “I hope we’re not making a mistake.”
He shook his head. “No, we are doing the right thing. I need to see, Hannah Claire. I need to see what makes you the way you are. I need to see where you come from. But most of all, we need to settle the curse forever.”
Then, as if drawn by some unknown force, their gazes tore from each other and landed on the stone. Jack dropped Claire’s hand and placed his arm around her waist. She did the same. In a simultaneous motion, they stepped forward.
Each placed one foot on the center of the stone. At impact, the now familiar throbbing began, the low hum invading their senses. The building pulsation of colors and lights and sound resonated across the beach.
As they stepped into the center, Claire clutched Jack and held onto him, fearful some power would rip him from her grasp. Every crisp and shining star around them on that clear night suddenly took wing and surrounded them in a blaze of swirling pinpoints of light. Either the whirling of the stars or a sudden influx of wind, she wasn’t sure, whipped around them.
“I love you, Jack,” she whispered into his chest, shutting her eyes against the torrent.
“I love you, too, Hannah Claire.”
His arms tightened around her, giving strength and comfort, providing reassurance of the power of their own unique love. One they were each willing to die to save—for the present and for the future.
Suddenly, dark silence surrounded them. For what seemed an eternity, they stood there, arms around the other. Waiting. Finally, she looked into Jack’s face. Their gazes locked, and then they both glanced about.
In a rush of relief, Claire giggled. “We’re in the lighthouse.”
He nodded. “I remember.”
Breaking away, she glanced around the circular structure, finally resting on an open space immediately behind her. In fact, they were practically standing in it. The crack! The bright light of the moon flooded in over their shoulders. She looked at her feet and nudged him.
“Look, the stone is built into the foundation of the lighthouse.”
He looked down and then crouched to touch the stone. “You’re right. It is the magic stone.”
She ran the palm of her hand over the crumbling bricks around the crack. An aura, a mystical power emanated from the area.
Jack rose and she looked to him. “I think the stone’s power has caused these bricks to crumble. I’ll bet the energy force surrounding this thing is so powerful that all the mortar and bricks in the world would not keep it closed. What do you think?”
“I think that you are right.”
Taking his hand, Claire led the way through the crack into the dark night. As they walked around the lighthouse, she once more noticed the stars above her, and although they were the same stars, they did seem to have lost their brilliance. For a brief moment, sadness filled her.
Wary of her surroundings, she glanced right and left as they approached the house, on the lookout for Rick. She didn’t trust him, didn’t know how far he planned to take all this. He would expect her to follow him. Wouldn’t he? But not seeing any trace of him, of anyone, she tentatively moved forward, hoping he was long gone and far away by now, reveling in the fact he possessed that stupid head.
She watched Jack sleep that night, hoping they had done the right thing. Even if they couldn’t find Rick and Blackbeard’s head, she had a chance to finalize things here in this century. They were together. And as soon as they had settled this thing with Rick and the curse, she had to confront her own personal dilemma. Could she reconcile her life here, and prepare to leave forever? Would she go back with Jack to lead a lonely and limited life on those islands, satisfied only to have his love?
Could he stay here, with her?
Or would she send him back alone?
“Vick? That you?”
“Claire! My God! Where in the hell are you!” She listened to Vicki’s voice pitch higher with each syllable over the telephone.
“The Outer Banks. Where did you think I was?”
“For all I know you could be in Taiwan! I’ve been calling for days and days. Your mother’s been worried, but I’ve tried to play it off. Your cell phone doesn’t pick up.”
“I threw it into the sound. I’m sure it’s fish food by now.”
“I’m sure that was a good environmental move.”
Claire rolled her eyes. “I wasn’t really thinking about that at the time, Vick.”
“Never mind. It’s not an issue. Just call your mother. She’s worried sick.”
“I’ve given her just about every excuse in the book. Frankly, I was about to go to the police. Where have you been?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” Claire eyed Jack coming across the room. Thank goodness she’d remembered to explain about telephones. Land lines, anyway. Still, he threw a puzzled glance her way. “How is Mama, Vicki?”
There was a slight pause. “No worse. You know your mother. Still gathers the eggs every day, no matter what.”
“But how is she feeling?”
She heard the sigh through the phone. “She’s doing okay, Claire. But not hearing from you had her worried.”
She knew it would have. “I know. I’m so sorry. I’ll call her right away.”
“Who are you talking to, Hannah Claire?”
She placed a finger to her lips and shook her head.
“Who is that, Claire? Is it him? What was his name…Jack?”
She patted the couch beside her. Jack sat, watching her intently, and intertwined his fingers with hers. She made a mental note to call her mother immediately after hanging up.
“Yeah. Uh, Vicki, listen. This whole damn thing is too complicated to go into over the phone. We’re probably coming to Cincinnati very soon. Got some things we need to do here first, but I was just wondering…have you heard anything from Rick lately?”
“Yes. Has he been around?”
“Claire, why are you worried about him?”
“It’s complicated, Vicki. Have you seen him?” She twisted her body to lean back against Jack’s chest and propped her legs up on the arm of the couch. Jack folded his arms around her, and she smiled.
Vicki exhaled slowly. “I haven’t seen him for several weeks. Heard he quit his job just about the time you left. What’s going on?”
“Nothing I can tell you about right now. If you hear anything about him, or see him, you call me here, okay? I’m hooking up the machine. I might not be here, but I’ll check my messages. And I’ll keep in touch.”
She thought for a moment before going on and then bit her lip.
“Vicki? How’s the baby?”
Vicki bubbled over the phone. “Oh, honey, she’s great. Had an ultrasound last week. It’s a girl.”
Laying a hand on her own abdomen, Claire smiled. She wondered what it would be like to be pregnant with Jack’s child. “Happy, aren’t you?”
“Ecstatic. How about you?”
Reaching up to cup Jack’s cheek in the palm of her hand, she broadened her smile. “Fine. Just fine.” Then she paused for a moment before turning her attention back to Vicki. “I’m going to call Mama. I’m telling her I went on a spontaneous cruise down the coast, which actually, is pretty close to the truth. When I get back to Cincinnati, I’ll tell you the rest.”
“You’d better. When did you say you’re coming?”
“Umm, can’t say for sure, but I want you to meet Jack. I will let you know. Listen, I have to go.”
“Okay. Don’t wait so long to call next time, promise?”
She replaced the receiver and then leaned back against Jack and closed her eyes. “You okay?” she whispered as she laid her arms over his and squeezed.
His cheek nuzzled hers. “Yes. Seems not so different. Just a few things are unsettling. The inside privy that does not smell. The music that comes out of a box. The magic of light at your fingertips. The other box that cooked our breakfast this morning…and what was that we ate?”
“Pop Tarts. Sorry, it was all I had.”
“Yes, but what was it made of?”
Claire sat up and faced him. “I don’t know. Pastry and jam, I guess. Nobody knows what’s in a Pop Tart, Jack.”
She shook her head. “Uh-uh. It’s kind of like Twinkies. Nobody knows what’s in them either.”
“And people eat these things?”
“All the time.”
She smiled. “Think you’re ready for the big time?”
“Yeah. We need to hit a mall somewhere before we get started trailing Rick.”
“Hit a mall?”
She reached over and pinched his cheek. “Shopping. Buy clothes, shoes, underwear, whatever. Your clothes aren’t bad, but they just won’t go in this century.”
Jack glanced down at himself. “What’s wrong with these?” Reaching over to the V formed by the opening of Jack’s shirt, Claire slipped her hand inside. “Nothing wrong with them, Jack. I’d just like to see you in something a little more modern.” Leaning forward, she placed a kiss on the hollow of his neck and listened to his groan.
Pulling back, she planted a quick kiss on his lips and then plopped beside him again on the couch. “I’ve got to call my mother now. She’s been worried about me. After that, we’re going to make a twenty-first-century man out of you.” She saw the alarm in Jack’s face and whispered, “Even if it’s only for a while.”
“All right, Mama. I promise. I won’t do it again. Yes, yes. In a few weeks. Well, I can’t say for sure, but I’ll try. I know. I love you, too. Uh-huh. See you soon.” Claire slowly replaced the phone.
The ocean view beckoned outside the window as she sat, staring at sand and sea. She missed her mother. She had sounded so frail. How old was she now? Sixty-five? Sixty-eight? Yes, that was it. Not old. But with every year, her mother’s health seemed to fade.
Of course, there was the cancer.
The irritating drone of the news on the television penetrated her musings. She broke her gaze away from the ocean and glanced at Jack sitting across the room, mesmerized by the television.
Smiling, she rose and joined him. He sat on an ottoman, legs spread, with an elbow perched on each knee, his chin in his hands as he stared at the news.
She slipped her arms around his neck and leaned into him.
“The weather witch in the box.”
She glanced at the meteorologist going over the local forecast on the weather station. “Weather witch?”
Jack nodded. “‘Tis the strangest thing, Hannah Claire. The weather witch can foretell what is going to happen tomorrow with the weather. He says today will be partly sunny and dry, but tomorrow will be hazy and wet. Possible thunderstorms. And then the next day and the next will be the same. What he calls the five-day forecast shows that…”
Claire playfully bit Jack’s ear. “Interesting isn’t it?”
“Do you understand it all? I mean television and everything?”
Jack stared ahead at the screen. “Some. Not all.”
“I know. It will get easier. The thing is this has been simple here. We’re still isolated, but we need to get moving, Jack. I think we should pack up what things we’ll need for a few days and get over to the mainland. We should start searching for Rick. We can buy you a few things up in Nags Head or Kill Devil Hills.”
She rose and crouched in front of him. “But remember. It’s much different up there. Lots of people and hustle and bustle. Not at all like life here on Ocracoke. It might be a bit confusing. If you don’t understand something and we’re alone, just ask. If we’re out among people and you don’t understand, squeeze my hand.” She cupped his face. “And don’t forget, I was pretty scared sometimes in your world, but I feel I know you so much better for living there. I want you to know and experience my world, so maybe you can understand me a little better.”
Claire watched a smile crack his face. “Quite a little adventure we’re about to embark on, eh, m’love?”
Claire grinned back. “Not nearly as adventurous as pirates and time-travel, but, I’m sure there are a few excitements in store.”
“Are you frightened?”
Again, the smile broadened. “I’m excited to see you in your world. I need to do that.”
She gave him a soft kiss on his lips. “I’m glad.”
Not long after, they stowed their bags in the trunk of her car and began the short trek up Ocracoke Island to the ferry. Their final destination for the day, Nags Head.
Jack sat motionless in the passenger seat of her late model sedan, properly belted, his gaze never lifting from the dunes that whizzed by the side window. Periodically she glanced at him and smiled. After the initial shock over the vehicle’s speed, he had relaxed, some. The ferry ride jittered his nerves at first, but as soon as he’d gotten out of the car and stood at the rail staring over the inlet, he calmed, seeming perfectly at home on the open sea. Only a few other cars occupied the ferry at that crossing, so as the tourists fed snack foods and breadcrumbs to the gulls, Claire ushered Jack away and softly spoke to him about what to expect the further north they drove.
He seemed composed for the remainder of the trip. He watched intently as they passed through Hatteras Village, Frisco, Buxton, then further north through Salvo, Waves, and Rodanthe, all small villages settled on the ribbon of sand between Pamlico Sound and the Atlantic.
She pointed out various items of interest to him, trying to initiate him to the modern islands. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched as mile after mile, his body seemed to tighten.
Finally, they crossed the bridge joining Hatteras with Bodie Island, quickly closing the distance between them and Nags Head. The two lanes suddenly widened into four, and after whizzing past one beach rental after another, they were soon within the midst of the Nags Head-Kill Devil Hills-Kitty Hawk vacation strip. Restaurants, shopping centers, condominiums, small hotels and more beach rentals surrounded them. She had deliberately slowed her pace, but other vehicles raced past, well within the 50 miles per hour speed limit allowed on the by-pass.
Jack’s white-knuckled hand gripped the seat cushion beside her. She turned off onto Beach Road and followed the lesser traveled two-lane that bordered the beachfront rentals.
She watched his jaw tighten. “You okay?”
He nodded, still looking out the window.
She pulled off and parked at a small beach access parking lot. “Come on.”
He looked at her in wide-eyed astonishment.
“It’s all right.” She held out her hand to him. “Come on.”
His face softened, and he nodded and turned to open his car door. Hand in hand, she led him through the opening in the dunes to the beach. Upon immediate impact of the spectacular sight, she felt Jack relax. Slowly, they walked down the shore. This time of year, the beach was nearly deserted.
“You see, it’s still here.”
He breathed deeply of the salty sea mist and then looked to her. “Yes, it is. But ‘tis not the same.” He glanced over his shoulder at the row of beachfront houses and then to his feet where he kicked at a plastic lid from a soft drink bottle.
She watched his eyes fill with longing. “No. It’s not, is it?”
“But it will do,” he returned quietly.