It rained all the way to Cincinnati.
It was an icy, driven rain, meant to tear a hole in her heart and tears from her eyes. The dark clouds hung heavy over the flat Ohio farmland in dense clumps of gray, sometimes spitting fat droplets of water on them, sometimes sharp pellets of ice. The sun wouldn’t dare peek through the thick mass, Claire told herself. Her mood simply wouldn’t allow it.
Vicki met them at the back door to the farmhouse. Her mother had just fallen asleep. It was nearly nine o’clock in the evening, so she helped both Claire and Jack with their things and told them to rest. They fell into an exhausted heap on the bed in her old room, just across the hall from her mother’s. They had driven straight through to Ohio with only brief stops along the way. Jack had managed some sleep, still recovering from the food poisoning incident; Claire, of course, never closed her eyes. Vicki promised to stay and sleep on the couch, just in case either of them needed her.
Deep into the night Claire woke to the now familiar burning within her abdomen. Taking a deep breath, she rose, glanced at the clock radio, and then left the room to visit the bathroom down the hall. The nausea welled up in her again, having slowed its coming and going the past couple of weeks, but this time it attacked in full force. She barely made it to the commode before she lost the small amount of food she’d eaten that day and other fluids she’d rather not have lost at all.
Ever since the kidnapping, she’d had the bouts with nausea. It wasn’t until recently that she realized why.
As she straightened and shakily swiped at her mouth with a towel, she realized she’d let her stomach get too empty during the day. With everything else hounding at her, she’d forgotten to eat. Her eyes closed for a moment, and then she hit the lever to flush the toilet’s contents, tucked the towel into the rack on the shower door, and laid her hand on her stomach as she turned toward the door.
“Are you all right?” Her mother’s soft voice came to her like a soothing lullaby. She stood in the doorway, her terry robe snugly tied at her thin waist. Her eyes filled with concern, her hand extended.
“Oh, Mama…” Claire drifted into her mother’s arms. She held her close for the first time in a long time, her mother’s touch soothing away the anxiety and fear. Her mother placed her hands on Claire’s shoulders and pulled away.
“Come. Let’s sit down and talk.”
She nodded, taking her mother’s hand in hers as they walked slowly to her bedroom. They faced each other as they sat on the bed. Her mother grasped both Claire’s hands and laid them gently in her lap, softly petting. Claire wondered if her mother noticed the contrast in their hands—her own still smooth and youthful fingers against the wrinkled skin-covered bones of her mother’s.
Looking up just as her mother did, their gazes locked. The look on her face startled Claire. It was as if she were wrestling with something, something incredibly important she needed to share. Continuing to watch, a finger of panic gripped her diaphragm and forced her breathing to come in shallow breaths. Then her mother’s lips parted, her tongue gently raked over her dry, thin lips.
“How long have you known about the baby?” she calmly questioned.
She knew she should be questioning her mother about her own health. That she should be insisting she get back into bed, or better yet, to the hospital. But it felt so good to be home, and so good to talk to her. Suddenly, she didn’t want to think of her mother being ill. She just wanted her mama.
Her tummy tightened again and then quickly relaxed. It only took one look into her mother’s eyes to know everything would be all right. She breathed deeply for the first time in quite a long time. As her eyes closed, her throat relaxed and the thick lump melted.
“I think I’ve suspected for about a month. I wasn’t sure, but I am now.” She reveled in how good it felt to finally discuss her suspected pregnancy with someone and get her thoughts clear in her mind.
“You haven’t been to a doctor?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“Don’t you think you should?”
She searched her mother’s face. “Yes, I think I should. I just haven’t.”
Her mother’s hands tightened around hers. “I know. There have been too many other things on your mind. Too many problems to solve.” She looked thoughtfully into Claire’s face. “Does Jack know?”
“No,” she whispered. “Mama, how did you know?”
Smiling, her mother reached up to take her daughter’s face in her hands. “I know so much, you wouldn’t believe, child.”
Claire bit her lip. Her mother’s reply was puzzling. She knew so much? Had Vicki been talking to her? Surely, that was it.
“Mama? Are you ashamed of me?”
Bringing her fully into her embrace now, her mother’s hands rubbed briskly over her back, her soft voice caressing her ear like a warm summer’s breeze off the ocean. “I have never been, nor ever will be, ashamed of you. Nor is your papa. He is smiling down on you, I’m sure.”
Claire broke away. “Do you think so, Mama?”
“I don’t know what to do. It’s all so, complicated.” She spoke to her mother as though she knew all the details of her predicament. And yet, that would be impossible.
Her mother smoothed the fabric over her upper arms. “Your heart will tell you what to do, honey.”
“But there’s so much you don’t understand. There are so many things to be considered.” Her eyes widened and her gaze met with her mother’s and held.
“You will do what is best for you and the child. You’ve been waiting all your life, Claire. You must do what is meant for you to do. No matter what the odds or the cost.”
For several minutes, she simply soaked up her mother’s words. What did her mother know? “What are you saying, Mama?”
Briefly, she closed her eyes and then snapped them wide open. “I am saying that you have a destiny to fulfill. You have a good idea what that is. So do I. I’ve been expecting this. It is of no importance to discuss it yet. We will, but not tonight. But just in case, seek your dreams, Claire. So many never get the chance.”
“Mama,” she whispered, “it’s more than you would ever think of in an entire lifetime. I may never see you again.”
Tears spilled onto her cheeks. “You know?”
When her mother looked at her, Claire not only sensed but also saw the understanding there. “I know what I need to know. Go. Live your life. I’m dying. I know that, so do you. Follow your heart. And when you do, I’ll know you’ve fulfilled your destiny and have completed the circle. You’ll understand soon enough. Someday, you’ll be repeating the same words to a child of your own.”
The lump was back in her throat, bigger than before. “Mama,” she choked out the words. “You’re not going to die.”
“Yes. Yes, I am. And so will you someday. We all die, Claire. I’m ready. It’s time.”
She melted into her mother’s feeble body and held her close. The older woman had grown so frail the past few months and was fading fast. There was not a damn thing Claire could do about it. Her mother’s life was nearly over, but her own life with Jack had only just begun.
Complete the circle?
Her gaze fell back to her mother’s watery eyes. “Oh, Mama. I’ve made so many mistakes. Sometimes I just don’t know what to do.”
Her mother laid a gentle hand against her cheek. “Child, never be sorry for doing what has to be done. The choices are out of your hands. The decisions have already been made.”
Her words wove a magical spell, casting a light of hope and peace around them. Suddenly, she knew everything would work out as it should. Maybe not right away, but eventually. There was nothing she or anyone could do, but everything would turn out all right in the end. She just had to believe.
“Since you were a young child, you were cursed with this notion that you always had to do the right thing, choose the right path, present the right image. Don’t you see that really doesn’t matter? What matters is that you do what you were sent to this earth to do, big, or small. And if you don’t know what that thing is yet, you will soon.”
She touched her mother’s hand, warm and soft, and held it in her palm.
She went on. “Sometimes what you were sent to do, is simply to find your love. Your spirit mate. That’s all.” She paused, cleared her throat. “Jack will take care of you, as you will him. Fill your lives with joy and love and lots of children and you’ll never be sorry.”
Claire felt the mist of tears sting her eyes again. As she lifted her gaze, she thought she could see her mother grow almost stronger.
Her eyes sparkled.
“I have loved him forever, Mama.”
She nodded and then laid a compassionate hand on Claire’s forearm. “I know. I know,” she said. “Claire. Do not grieve for me long. Time is running out. Your future is waiting. There is so much I haven’t told you…” Her mother coughed then, repeatedly, and she waved Claire away. “Just tired, love. We’ll talk tomorrow. And then I will meet your Jack.”
Claire’s throat tightened as sobs dared to choke her. Suddenly, she was in her mother’s arms, crying tears long suppressed. Crying for the fact her mother would soon be gone and her child would never see his grandmother’s face. She feared she’d not appreciated her mother enough in her lifetime and wondered what she could do to make it all up.
Jack sat on the back porch and watched Claire and her mother walk slowly toward the house from the garden. He could easily see the bond between the two. They strolled arm in arm, pausing to sniff a flower or pluck one up and lay it in a basket. Claire’s mother loved her flowers, it seemed, and she had a garden full of them—red poppies her favorite, Claire had told him.
This land, this place, was so different from the place he’d lived in his life. The ocean was so far away, he couldn’t hear the roar any longer. But it did not matter. This time here, spent with Claire’s mother, was for the best. And it allowed him a brief respite, a breather, from their frantic search.
His thoughts drifted to the curse. Should they be concerned? Could a dead man’s skull truly slam a curse on their lives? So far they were living in the same century and nothing had happened. He could not fathom any reason why he would ever leave Claire behind. Or why she would choose not to be with him.
Still, it troubled him, and he waited for the unexpected. The one fear in coming here was that Claire, and perhaps he, would forget to be cautious. She would be easily distracted now. He had to keep his eyes open and be ready for anything.
They could never forget to be cautious.
He didn’t trust Blackbeard for a moment. He trusted this Rick even less.
And he’d be damned if he’d let Claire or her mother out of his sight for a minute’s time.
Smiling, the women approached the porch, and he rose out of a white wicker rocker. He smiled back. Claire ascended the steps slowly with her mother on her arm. When they reached the top, she moved into him and kissed him softly on the lips.
“Good morning, Jack,” she whispered. “Sleep well?”
He nodded. “Yes, very well, thank you.”
He nodded, and then reached for Claire’s mother’s hand and looked squarely into her green eyes. Claire’s eyes. Hannah’s. Old eyes, full of wisdom. “Mrs. Winslow. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
She laid her hand gently in his, and he clasped it so very carefully. Her skin slightly yellow and paper thin, her bones fragile, she squeezed back with a strength he had no idea she could possess.
“Mama, this is Jack.”
“I know.” Slowly, the woman moved forward and smiled, keeping his hand tucked in hers. “I am so glad to finally meet you, Jack.” She motioned to the furniture on the porch. “Let’s sit and talk. We have so much to catch up on.”
She led him to a glider, and they sat together, his hand still in hers. Claire took the rocker to her mother’s left, angled toward him.
The older woman sat quietly for a moment, staring at Jack’s hand, and then lifted her gaze to peer out over the garden and the fields beyond.
“There is a circle to life that we sometimes fail to grasp in this day and age,” she began. “Today’s world is too busy to notice it. But when you stop and ponder the very basic elements of life, it is possible to suspend disbelief and understand.”
He looked to Claire, who was intently listening and watching her mother.
“In reality, it is quite simple.” She turned to her daughter. “I know it all has seemed very complicated, but really, it is not. I have sheltered you from the truth, Claire, for too long. It is time that I share this with you.” She looked to Jack. “And to you.”
She continued. “We come into this world as a spirit. Our bodies are simply the house our spirit lives in. Spirits never die. They just get wiser. They live, they love, they make mistakes, they learn, they evolve, they grow, and they gain wisdom.” She squeezed Jack’s hand and turned her attention back to him. “Sometimes spirits get lost between worlds. Sometimes, in their efforts to grow and gain wisdom, they get sidetracked. Fortunately, for us—for you Jack, for Claire and for me—we’ve evolved in such a way that we’ve learned to manipulate elements of time and space and understand the workings of the earth, even if by happenstance. The weather, elements of nature, the moon’s cycles—these help our spirits find their rightful places. They help them find love, to grow, to have families, and to become wise. To help other spirits on their way.”
She paused, and Jack watched her face. Her eyes closed and she took a cleansing breath.
“The blue moon storm,” Claire said.
Her mother opened her eyes. “Yes. Blue moons are powerful. Coupled with other elements of nature—storms, high tides, earthquakes, winds, and more—time can shift. Portals can open. And close.”
Jack thought about that last part. And close.
“Mama,” Claire whispered. “My spirit. Was my spirit with Jack before?”
They watched, and she nodded.
“I am supposed to be with Jack. Is that what you are saying?”
She opened her eyes then and looked to her daughter. “You are the only one who knows that, Claire. That is not for me to say. You have to feel it. In your heart. Deep in your soul.”
Jack met Claire’s gaze then and he felt the incredible draw, the taut golden thread that indeed did bind them together. He knew it. Did she?
“Yes, Mama. I understand,” she murmured.
“Our spirits have been entwined for eons,” her mother continued. “We’re all just trying to find our way back together, sweetheart. And part of making our spirits happy, is finding the one we love. Our spirit mates, or soul mates as they are often called today. The passage of time sometimes makes it all so difficult. Unless one learns how to travel, figure out the elements, respect Mother Nature, and use it to her advantage. Spirit mates, my child, cannot be denied. The sad part lies when spirit mates reside in different times and have no earthly clue how to find their way back to each other.”
She sat up straight and turned directly to Claire. “You have found the way child. It is what you are supposed to do. Do not let anything in this world stop you from being together. Do what you must to stay with him. Fight for it. Even if it tears your heart out at times. You’ll gain the wisdom. And you’ll have your mate in the end. Your life will be much happier for it.”
She cleared her throat and looked over the garden again. “Your father and I were fortunate. We found each other and lived a happy life. We’ll find each other again in the future. Soon. I look forward to that.” She let Jack’s hand go and reached for both of Claire’s. “You and Jack are fortunate as well. Do not let this slip away.”
Her mother slumped back into the glider, and he watched as her strength appeared to drain right out of her body. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes. “This farm. The farm is important. Do not let this farm get into anyone else’s hands, Claire. There are secrets here...” She drifted for a moment, and Jack was sure she’d fallen asleep. His gaze rose slowly to Claire’s face. If only he truly could understand.
“I’m tired now,” her mother whispered. “Claire, honey, would you see me to my bed?”
Jack watched as the two women slowly moved inside. Then he rose to stare over the land himself, contemplating all he’d just learned.
Her mother died two days later on a blustery late fall morning. Claire hadn’t expected it. She’d found her lying at peace in her bed. With one touch to her mother’s still, cool cheek, she knew. It was expected, but oh, so sudden. There were too many things she’d wanted to discuss with her. Too many things she needed to know.
You must follow your heart, Claire, her mother had told her as they’d strolled through the apple orchard behind the farmhouse. Do what you must to make it work. Never look back. Complete the circle.
And there was something else, too. Something that still nagged at her. Her mother spoke apologetically, but with great determination that Claire never trust herself to Rick. Not ever again.
Rick’s mother was my friend, she’d said, we’d been spirit friends in other lives. We ended up here, on this farm together, by chance. She worked for me, as you know, for years. Her spirit mate was lost and no matter how far she searched, she never found the key to find him. At least in this life. She was convinced, Claire, that the key to her finding her spirit mate lay somewhere on this farm. She’d found me here and was convinced of it. Although your father and I were unsure, until the day Rick’s mother disappeared.
She’d been far out in one of the orchards. You remember? You and Rick were teenagers. And there was a terrible quake that day, a rare earthquake for Ohio, along a fault line that is known but not predicted to shift. It did that day. And Rick’s mother was lost. Never to be seen again.
Rick knows things, Claire, but he’s not used it in a good way. I had hopes that he would use his gifts for good. But no. He’s used his knowledge for gaining power and control. His wisdom does not come from lessons learned, but from greed. I know he was your friend, child, and I know you have cared for him in your life—in fact, for years, your father and I were convinced that he was your spirit mate, something I am very sorry for now—but you cannot trust him. You cannot.
It’s about love, Claire, and nothing else. Not power. Not money. It is simply about love.
That was just yesterday. And today, her mother was gone.
The next few hours and days were a blur. The funeral took place the afternoon of the second day after her mother’s death. The November sky threatened an early winter storm. How her mother had loved the first winter’s snow. Claire hoped it would snow. Days and inches of fluffy white covering the fields, trees, and buildings. How appropriate her mother would be buried in the winter’s first blanket.
But she wasn’t. Sleet poured from the sky the entire day. Ice hung heavy on the trees, breaking thin branches, thick on power lines, snapping them from their connectors. The day was plunged into a gray fringe. It was okay. It matched her mood.
The weather gave them a brief respite as they stood on the frozen ground and listened to the minister’s graveside recitation. Claire stood unmoving, staring at her mother’s casket, while icy gusts clutched at her ankles. There was but one comforting thought. Her mother had gone home to her papa. She knew her mama had missed her husband for years. She just hoped her papa was waiting on the other side where her mother could find him.
She envisioned her mother’s spirit young and free, unencumbered, and searching for her mate. Happy and ready for the next adventure. It helped her to think of her in that way. Her body had been tired, and it was time for her spirit to find a new home. It was a comforting thought and one Claire knew would bring her comfort when her own time did come.
When the time came for her, would Jack be there? Would they have to start the search all over again to connect their spirits?
At the end of the graveside ceremony, she asked Jack to give her a few minutes, and he’d gone off with Jeremiah and Vicki toward their car. Just a minute, she assured them, she just needed to see her mother off safely.
Her eyes stung as she stepped next to her mother’s casket. “I wish we’d had more time, Mama.” She sighed. Slowly, she lifted her fingertips to her lips, gently kissed them, and then thrust the kiss forward, as if her mother were waiting to catch it.
“Good-bye, Mama.” A sob wrenched from her throat. “I love you.”
Glancing up, as the workers prepared to fill her mother’s grave with thick clumps of dirt, she saw a glimmer of light. A small shaft of sunlight, way off in the distance, piercing the afternoon’s gloom. A rainbow of hues glinted off that shaft, like a colorful flower garden against the gray sky.
A glimmer of hope struck her.
Her mother was fine. Happy. Suddenly, she knew that.
Turning, she moved forward, ramming up against a firm chest. She knew immediately who it was. Funny how earlier in their lives together she had trusted him, but looking into his blank, expressionless face, she saw only the man who had held her hostage aboard that pirate ship. The man who had planned her kidnapping to lure Jack aboard the vessel.
The man who held the key to her future.
She pushed at his chest with all her might. He stumbled backward. “How dare you show up here after all you’ve put me through! How dare you!” Heads turned. She saw Vicki and Jeremiah look her way. Jack’s back was to her. “Get out of my sight. I don’t ever want to see you again,” she hissed.
Turning and walking briskly away, she waved off her friends. She didn’t need help. She wanted out of here. She didn’t want Jack to see Rick, and vice versa. Not yet. She had no earthly idea what Jack would do if he saw Rick today. And she didn’t want a scene. If Rick saw Jack, well…
He touched her shoulder. She shoved his hand away and kept walking. He circled her body to halt her. “I said leave me alone.”
“So where’s your boyfriend, Claire?”
Damn him. “That is none of your business.”
“Didn’t work out? Leave him behind?”
“Oh, damn. It must have been the curse…”
She pushed him. “Get the hell out of my way.”
He whispered her name. “I can break the curse.”
She brought her smoldering gaze to his and crossed her arms over her chest. “I don’t believe in the curse, Rick. And I can’t believe you have the balls to show up at my mother’s funeral. You are truly a pirate of the worst kind. What do you want?”
One corner of Rick’s mouth turned up as he snickered. “Now, Claire. You know how I loved your mother.” He smiled. “I’ve come to apologize. When I heard, I just simply had to come. Your mother was like my own.”
And your mother bore a lech for a son.
“I’d like to help you with the estate, Claire.”
I’ll just bet.
“I could come over, say, later this evening and we could discuss arrangements…and your mother’s financial status. You know I always loved her.”
And you always did her taxes. I bet you know every asset and liability down to the very penny.
It dawned on her then. Rick wasn’t after her. Rick was after her mother’s estate. Her assets. The farm? Suddenly, she felt very powerful.
Don’t ever get rid of the farm, Claire. There are secrets here…
“Be at the farm tomorrow night at eight.” She moved briskly toward the black limousine and noticed Jeremiah had ushered Jack inside. Good. She had something Rick wanted, and he possessed the very thing that would keep her and Jack together, forever. The skull. She’d damned well do what she had to do to get it.
Do what you must to make it work. Never look back.
Off to the east she spied the prism of light still shining down from the heavens.
“Thank you, Mama,” she whispered.
Claire watched Vicki’s facial expression spark across the room.
“This is ridiculous,” Jeremiah shot back.
“Of all the bloody hell, woman! What is in your head?” That last reaction from Jack told her everything she needed to know. Fully rested now, his spunk was back, and boy, did she need that. Now, if she could only get him to listen.
“I won’t be a part of it, Claire. I won’t.” Vicki tilted her chin higher like a defiant child.
“You don’t have to do anything, Vick. Just go along with everything I say.”
She shook her head. “I can’t do it.”
“I’ve made up my mind. I have to get the skull.”
Jack stepped forward. “You are the most stubborn woman in the world. You do not have to get the skull. We have to get the skull. The two of us.”
She grasped Jack’s hands. “Look, he doesn’t know you are here. He didn’t see you yesterday. So we can trick him. I’ll get him alone, but you will all be close enough by. We have to get him to tell us where it is. I need all of you to listen because I may be too busy dodging him to remember everything. You just have to trust me on this.”
Jack threw up his hands and paced off. “Dodging! What do you expect he will do?” Turning, he stood firm. “He wants you, Hannah Claire. I’ll not let you anywhere close to that bastard alone. Do you understand me?”
She did. And she knew he was going to be the biggest obstacle in her path.
“I’m not so sure it will work. I don’t trust Rick. Not anymore.” Jeremiah stood beside Jack.
Hell, all she needed was a battle with two alpha males at once.
“It has to work. He’s here. It’s our only chance. He could flee at any time. We have to strike now, and we have to use what we have to our advantage.”
Jack narrowed his gaze. “And what do we have, Hannah Claire?”
She swallowed. “Me. And the farm. He wants the farm. It must be important because Mama told me to never let him have it. Perhaps I can trick him into thinking that it is the bigger asset. Bigger than the chalice. Perhaps he’ll trade me the chalice for the farm.”
“But of course,” Vicki added, “you really wouldn’t be trading.”
“No. I can throw enough loopholes into the mix that he’ll never get it. I do know my real estate law.”
Jack paced. She went to him and spoke softly. “Jack, it will never be a risk. You and Jeremiah and Vicki can be right in the next room. Should anything get out of line, you will be there.”
“It is not worth it.” His stare bore into hers.
She grasped his arm to get his attention. “Jack, our love is worth it. Our children’s love is worth it. We have this time to be together. We have to try, and the time is right now.”
They all stood silent for a moment. She hoped that meant they were beginning to agree with her.
“Even if it means going to bed with him?” Vicki blurted out.
Claire whirled and shot her a look that could kill.
“I’m sorry, Claire. I had to say it. What if it comes to that?”
With that thought, Jack pushed away and turned his back on them. He strode to the window and looked out.
Claire swallowed. “Thanks, Vick, for putting that scenario in his head.”
“Sorry, but I know Rick and—”
“It won’t come to that, but if playing up to Rick will get the damn skull away from him, I’ll do it. Even if it means pretending I’ll marry him.”
“And you’re going to trust Rick to back off when you say no?” Jeremiah interjected.
“Damnation!” Jack shouted and pounded the wall with his fist. A little bit of plaster trickled down from the ceiling. He burst back into the discussion. “Trust! There is no trust when it comes to that man! Hannah Claire, this is not the answer. I forbid this.”
“It’s my choice. You cannot tell me I can’t do this.”
“You will obey me, woman!”
“I’ll not and you know it! We’ve been down this route before.” She stood before him, fists perched on her hips, her tone defiant.
“I’ll not have you used as bait.”
“Then what do you suggest? What plan do you have, Jack?”
He harrumphed. “My plan would be to beat the bloody bastard silly until he told us where the thing was hidden.”
Jeremiah slapped him on the back. “I like your plan, man.”
Jack stood up a little straighter.
“Well, if Rick gets out of line, you might just get that chance.” Claire placed her hands on his chest and softened her voice. “It is all we have, Jack. I’m going to do it with help from the three of you, or without. If my way doesn’t work, then you can beat the shit out of him.”