“Life just changes. Like a stormy headwind, Camille thought. First blowing the sails in one direction and then, without warning at all, shifting course.”
“You weren’t supposed to choose me,” he said.
Behind them, Ira approached, stunned and speechless for what must have been the first time in his life. He helped lift Samuel, whose cheeks had blanched as well. Camille prodded Oscar’s arms and stomach and face. It was truly him. The unbearable grief over losing him flipped inside out. Her joy ran so deep and strong she thought she might burst from it.
“The night the Christina went down, you rowed to me,” she answered, her throat knotted as she thought of her father. She forced it down. “This time, I must have needed to row to you.”
Oscar kissed her, his lips still cold but filled with life. She leaned into him and hung on as though he might disappear. Ira let out a playful high-pitched whistle. Samuel coughed. Oscar and Camille reluctantly pulled apart and blushed.
“Holy gallnipper,” Ira said. Camille grinned, not minding in the least that he was using that annoying turn of phrase again. “I can’t believe that little rock…I mean you were dead, mate. Dead as this bloke right here.” Ira kicked McGreenery in the leg. Oscar nodded, rubbing his hand over the fading red mark, as if to feel for himself that the deadly wound was gone.
“I was in the dory,” he whispered. Ira cocked his head.
Camille lifted her ear from his chest, where she’d wanted to listen to the smooth rhythm of his heart. She looked up at him before hearing its strong beat.
Oscar nodded again, eyebrows creased.
“I heard your voice. At the cave,” he said to Camille. “This force kept pulling me backward, away from you, like I was being sucked into the ground.”
So this was how it had felt for him to die. She remembered the way he’d looked right through her and how it had chilled her to the marrow. Her own brush with death had been different, and somehow better, if death could even be measured in levels of bad or good. The image of her father had drawn her to safety, making her forget her yearning for air. He had been there for her, but she hadn’t been able to do the same for him. All this time, all this trouble, and all she’d wanted was to bring him back, make him proud of the lengths to which she’d gone for him. In the end, she’d failed him miserably.
“And then you were gone. Your voice faded, and I was in the dory, adrift in the Tasman, the dawn after the Christina went down,” Oscar continued.
Samuel and Ira glanced at each other with marked expressions of doubt and confusion.
“But I wasn’t alone.” He gently pulled Camille away from him and gripped her arms. “Your father was with me. He was sitting there, smiling. It all seemed so real. I could taste the salt air, and…and I remember touching the water, and it was cold. It wasn’t like in a dream, when you can’t do those things.”
Camille sucked in a deep breath, trying to inflate her crushing lungs. Oscar had seen him, too. She’d give anything to see her father again, to hear his voice, to feel at home by just being in his presence. At least, that’s what she’d once believed. But Camille hadn’t been willing to give up Oscar. Did that mean she loved her father less? Never. She could never love her fatherless. So then why hadn’t her heart chosen him?
"Did he say anything?" she asked, anxious to know yet afraid to hear.
"It's all jumbled," Oscar said, again shaking his head and rubbing his chest. "I remember him saying a few things. Bits and pieces."
Camille looked to Ira and Samuel. Their parted mouths and bugged eyes hung on Oscar's every word. Oscar squinted at the ground and seemed to be working hard to piece together what her father had said on the other side.
"I'm still here to guide her?" he said, questioning his own memory. "It doesn't make any sense, I'm sorry."
She shook her head, eyes tearing up again. It had been real. He really had come to her in the black water of the underground pool.
"No, don't be sorry," she said, tears spilling. "It does make sense. It makes sense to me.”
“Do you recall where the lamps were?” Camille whispered. In the dark, in someone else’s home, whispering seemed more appropriate. A clunk off to her right and the screech of table legs skittering across the floor made her cringe.
“I don’t remember that being there,” Oscar said.
“I’m glad we don’t break into houses for a living. We’re appalling at it,” Camille said, laughing as the room brightened.”
“Oscar’s breath warmed the back of her head, his lips brushing against her hair, loosened from a braid. He drew a lock away from her neck and kissed the skin just beneath her earlobe, against the throb of her quickening pulse. Like the blackness outside the dome of lamplight, there seemed to be nothing more in the world than his lips, his touch, and the flood of heat consuming her.
With a gentle nudge, Oscar turned her toward him. He looked at her the way he had in the Grampains meadow-as if she was the most fascinating woman he’d ever seen. Under his gaze she felt fascinating, too. Capivating…wanted. He traced her jaw with his lips, kissing the angle of her neck ever so tenderly, as though he weren’t certain she wanted him, too. Camille closed the inch of space left between them, her body pressing against his. The muscles in his chest and arms tightened. He was wanted, and she needed to show him how much. No one was there to watch, no one to judge, or tell her the lips caressing her were unworthy of tasting her skin.
With those very thoughts, Oscar’s grip loosened. His lips retreated.
“This isn’t right,” he whispered, catching his breath.
Camille stared at him, her hurt and disappointment plain on her face.
“You’re engaged, Camille.” He looked around the room. His eyes rested on the bed. “I shouldn’t be here.”
All of a sudden, Camille completely and fully detested Randall. Good, sweet, well-meaning Randall infuriated her with his mere existence, with his big sapphire ring and his marriage proposal and his bright, wealthy future as the savior of Rowen & Company. She didn’t want any of it if it meant she couldn’t have Oscar’s kisses, the return of his hands, and his body pressed close to her own.
“I want you here,” she said, the words unable to express the desires stampeding her mind.
Oscar licked his lips but stepped toward the doorway. “I can’t. If you’re going to marry Randall-“
Camille hushed him. “No, don’t. Please, don’t.” She didn’t want to hear Randall’s name coming from Oscar’s lips, not when she so desperately wanted to kiss them.
“He’s not here. And you are, and…what if you stayed?” she asked, unable to believe the words had come from her mouth. He lost the tense hold of his shoulders and stared at her with disbelief.
“Nothing improper, of course,” she added quickly. “What if you just stayed until…until I fell asleep?”
Citrus and cloves charged through her sense with their dizzying effect as Oscar stepped back inside the room.
He tilted his head and looked sideways at her. “Just until you fall asleep?”
She nodded, her throat too tight with nerves to speak.”
“She was brave, wasn’t she? Look what she’d done. She hadn’t run back to the safety of San Francisco, but toward something dangerous and unknown. And Oscar had gone with her. He was it, the man she wanted to be with, and not just in sporadic or imagined trysts, Camille slowed her crawling as it dawned on her. She loved him. She loved Oscar Kildare. She loved him enough to give up everything she’d ever known.”
“No one charged you with being my savior,” Camille’s voice shook, the confrontation not something she really wanted.
“No one had to charge me with it. I made the decision on my own the night the Christina went down.” Oscar sealed his lips as if he’d let something slip he hadn’t intended.
“What are you talking about?” she asked, her boots slipping once on the moss. He avoided her by looking out at the stream. He took a few moments to answer, and when he did he still didn’t meet her stare.
“Do you remember when you woke up on the Londoner? When you asked me if I’d seen your father?”
Camille nodded, and hoped their argument was over. “You said you didn’t see him.”
He shook his head. “I lied. I did see him in the water. He was trying to stay above the surface after I got ahold of the dory.”
It was as though freezing shocks of ocean water were striking Camille in the face all over again. She jumped from the rock, the hem of her skirt nearly tripping her.
“Did you row to him? Did you try and save him?”
He shook his head again. “No.”
“Why not?” she screeched. “Oscar, how could you not help him?” She couldn’t blink. She couldn’t do anything but stare at him in disbelief. He’d abandoned her father, the man who had given him everything.
“Because I spotted you,” he answered, hardly loud enough for her to hear. “I saw you in the waves and I chose to row to you.”
She loosened her fists, stunned.
Oscar sat down on the rock, the toes of his scuffed leather boots buried in the dry layer of pine needles.
“I tried to go back for him,” he said, kicking at the needles, “but by the time I pulled you out of the water and looked back, he was gone.”
She couldn’t move, could barely breathe. If she’d only held on to her father’s hand. Oscar would have been able to save them both.
“If there had just been a way to get to the both of you,” he said.
Camille sat on the rock beside him, laying a tentative hand on his arm. “You’re the most capable man I know, Oscar. If there had been a way, you’d have found it.”
She pressed her hand against his solid arm, the flaxen hairs covering his skin coarse against her fingertips. She wanted to soothe him more, reassure him like he always did her.”
“Oscar hung his jacket on the back of a chair and undid the first few buttons of his checked shirt. Camille’s fingers trembled as she reached for the lamp on the dresser and twisted the knob, lowering the wick until the light it gave off was that of a small candle’s flame. She sat on the bed, and the other side of the hand-rolled mattress dipped with Oscar’s weight. She didn’t know how to look at him, if she should lie down or just come to her senses and ask him to leave. God, she wasn’t doing any of this right.
“You sleep sitting up?” he asked.
Camille smiled, thankful he’d lightened the moment enough for her to lean back onto one of the pillows. Turning on her side, she saw he’d already taken the same position. They lay without touching, without talking, only looking. His eyes grazed her body, slowly absorbing the pink skin of her neck, the slight curves of her breasts, and the arc of her hip. He didn’t need to lay a finger on her for the breath to stall in her lungs.
He breeched the few inches between them by sliding his hand atop hers, his skin warm and dry while beads of nervous sweat formed hot on her back. Camille reached out and let her fingertip travel along the fullness of his lower lip and down the curve of his chin. With one sweeping movement, Oscar pulled her tight against his chest and kissed her. A sensation kindled between her hips, spreading to every nerve ending in her body. This was it, the fire and heat she’d always yearned for. All these years, and Oscar had been right in front of her the whole time.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, wishing she could say something more meaningful.
“I’m not. If he’d been a good uncle, I’d have stayed in Boston. Never would have found my way to San Francisco,” he said.
Camille knew where the rest of his story led and grinned.
“And you never would have rescued my father from a pickpocket,” she added.
He started to laugh, a quiet, almost personal chuckle, like he was thinking about some funny memory. Camille caught the bug of laughter and wanted to join in.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Your father didn’t need a rescuer. He caught the pickpocket himself,” Oscar answered, a hand on his abdomen from all his laughter. “And then he invited him inside for dinner.”
Her smile fell flat. She stared at him, trying to comprehend what he’d just said.
“You?” she asked, dumbfounded. “You were the pickpocket?”
Oscar nodded, scratching the back of his head. “Yeah. I wasn’t very good at it.”
Her father could have had him arrested or shooed him away without thinking twice. But he’d invited Oscar inside. He gave him work, food…a real chance.
“Why didn’t he tell me?” she asked, feeling like she’d been duped once again. All the lies her father had woven to cover up his secrets had become so frayed, Camille wondered if she had truly known him at all.
“To give me a clean slate with everyone. Even you.” Oscar moved toward her in cautious, deliberate steps. “We’re alone. We should talk.”
The pantry was cramped and dismal despite the oil lamp, and Camille had a sudden urge to flee.
“About what?” she asked, her ears burning. She still reeled with the knowledge that the pickpocket story hadn’t been real, just like her mother’s story hadn’t been real. Oscar stopped within a few inches from her and reached a hand around her waist.
“About our night together, Camille,” he answered, his dimples forming. “There’s a lot to say.”
“Is it Randall?” Oscar sounded out the name with care, as if testing dangerous waters. Camille closed her eyes and turned her face away from him, not wanting to have to see him when she said what she needed to say.
“I have a duty, Oscar, just like my mother did. She failed at hers and look what happened; she destroyed so much. My father asked me not to say anything, but if I don’t marry Randall…I’m sorry, Oscar, I just have to.”
Camille tried to edge by him, but Oscar held her back with his arm.
“Do you think I’m a fool, Camille? Don’t try to blame marrying Randall on some duty you think you have.”
She parted her lips to insist he was wrong. He cut her off.
“If this is how you really feel, then you had no right to ask me to stay with you that night. You gave me a taste of what being with you might be like, and now you’re asking me to walk away. Who do you think you are?”
Camille shook her head. He wasn’t listening. He had no idea how difficult it was for her, too, to have that one taste, that single moment of pure bliss to feed off of for the rest of her life.
“I don’t have a choice-“
He slammed his fist against the pantry shelf behind her.
“I don’t have a bank vault filled with money, or ten suits hanging in my closet to choose from each morning. I know I couldn’t give you all the things he could, but I can give you something he’ll never be able to. I love you, Camille,” he said, his mouth so close to hers his breath moistened her lips. “I love you. Not your last name or your pretty face or all the business opportunities you could bring me.” He laid his palm just beneath her neck, his thumb caressing the skin above where her heart lay. “Just you.”
She stared at him, unblinking, unable to breathe, let alone speak. Oscar’s arm fell away.
“You do have a choice, Camille. Or should I already be calling you Mrs. Jackson?”
He stormed from the pantry, Camille on his heels. Promise or no promise to her father, she had to tell Oscar everything.
“Please, Oscar, wait, if you’ll just listen-“
The companionway steps rattled, and Ira bounded into the galley. Oscar scooped up his shirt and shoved his arms inside the sleeves as Ira kicked out a bench at the table and sat down.
“I’ve never been so friggin’ tried in my life,” Ira said, grabbing a mug for coffee. “And I once played a game of poker that lasted two days.
Camille ignored him, Oscar’s anger still stinging. She’d created a massive mass. Ira peered at her, then at Oscar.
“Why’re you two all red in the face?” he asked. Then his cheeks drew up and his teeth glistened. Oscar caught him before he could speak.
“Save it, Ira,” he said, quickly glancing at Camille. She couldn’t plead with him to listen to her explain with Ira there. Oscar buttoned his shirt and left the galley. Ira directed his wily grin toward her.
“Save it, Ira,” she echoed, and resumed scrubbing the floor.”
“He combed a hand through his tousled brown hair, and Camille noticed how handsome he was. Beneath the dirt and insincerity, anyway.”
“It’s already midmorning, and we’ve got beasts to outrun, holes to avoid, and whopper spiders to squish before we make it back to the Lady Kate.”
Camille picked up the map. Oscar took Camille’s arm and helped her up the first boulder.
“Well, aren’t we a sorry-lookin’ lot?” Ira bellowed as they limped up the cascade, each one nursing injuries. As they climbed, their huffing and puffing and grunts of pain were both amusing and disheartening.”
“I’ll need a deposit, of course. I think that’s where your ring comes in handy.” Ira extended his open hand toward Camille. She took off the sapphire and slapped it into his palm.
“And McGreenery?” Oscar asked. Ira nodded and threw his hat back on. He pulled it tight and grinned from ear to ear.
“Leave him to me, mates. I’ll meet you at the blacksmith’s in town tomorrow morning, eight o’clock sharp.”
Oscar took a step closer, towering over Ira. “If you’re not there, I’ll find you. And you don’t want me to have to find you.”
Ira cleared his throat and pulled the brim of his hat. “Then I better not oversleep.”
He swiveled on his heel with the same lighthearted air Camille had loved about her father and strolled back down the road. The similarity to her father ended there.”
“Oscar pushed a strand of her loose raven hair behind her ear, and Camille knew she hadn’t completely failed. The man she loved, and who loved her, was alive when, under all normal circumstance, he shouldn’t be. How could that be seen as failure?
“You know, and I know.” Oscar paused to take a breath. “William would never have approved of us being together.”
He held his eyes level with hers, as if trying to detect any flicker of doubt or apprehension in her.
“We won’t be tying bait bags for a living, will we?” she asked, willing to give up her wealth, her good name, but never her dignity.
Oscar laughed. “No bait bags.”
“Well, of that my father would at least approve. And even if he didn’t,” she said with a sly grin, “I do.”
She rose to the tips of her toes and kissed him.
“Oy, lovebirds!” Ira shouted from the ground. He and Samuel had reached the base and now looked into the sunlight, shielding their eyes with the planes of their hands. “Should I build a campfire and start sending smoke signals? Here we are, beasties! Come have lunch!”
Oscar’s familiar sarcasm slipped back into place. “No smoke signals needed, Ira, the shouting will do just fine.”
He released his arms from around her waist, and Camille reluctantly let him go, too. He descended the first boulder. “I’ll go first, in case you slip.”
Oscar’s eyes came level with Camille’s ratty wool stockings. He looked up at her, his dimples as irresistible as the first time she’d seen them.
“Well, at least it’s an improvement from bare feet,” he said.
Camille wiggled her toes, laughing. She started down the mound of boulders toward the world that lay ahead, her footing sure and steady.”
“Their voices echoed over the stream and along the edge of the trees. She saw the tail end of a smile on Oscar’s lips.
“I thought you didn’t like to sing,” she said. He’d always remained silent while the crew sang their sea chanteys.
“I don’t,” Oscar said. “But you have a pretty voice.”
His compliment shaped a bashful smile onto her lips. She was glad for the firelight, already casting a reddish glow to her skin.
“And what ‘bout me, mate?” Ira asked.
“Couldn’t say. I was trying to block it out,” Oscar replied.”
“Camille heard the rustle of grass. She opened one eye and saw Oscar settling down beside her.
“We can spare a few minutes,” he said. She sat up and cradled her knees in her arms. He plucked a blade of grass and commenced peeling it down the center. They heard the Australian snoring from his spot a few yards away, completely hidden in a blanket of green.
“I guess we can spare more than a few minutes.” Oscar smiled and met her gaze, holding it a moment. She suddenly realized how horrible she must look-her hair, her clothes, her skin.
“Do you miss him?” he asked, not seeming to notice any of those things.
Camille uprooted a purple flower and a white daisy near it. “Of course I do. But I’m hoping with the stone I won’t have to very long.”
“Not your father, Camille. Randall.”
She took a deep breath, shocked she hadn’t thought of her fiancé for so long. How many days had it been? A full week, maybe more.
“Oh. Well…I suppose I do.”
Oscar raised an eyebrow and laughed at her clear lack of conviction.
Camille shrugged. “What? A lot has happened and right now getting back to San Francisco isn’t something I’m concerned about.”
Oscar nodded and chewed on the tip of his blade of grass.
“It’s not that Randall isn’t a perfectly good man,” she said, fiddling with the flowers in her hands. The roots crumbled dirt onto her lap. “He’s kind and caring and handsome and an excellent businessman.”
Oscar continued to nod.
“And he’ll make a fine husband, I’m sure,” she added, knowing he really was all those things. If only all of them combined could make up for what she didn’t feel while with him.
“I’m sure,” Oscar repeated. Had he been mocking her? She thought she had caught a trace of sarcasm. All this talk about Randall had her itching.
“Why do you ask?”
“Just wondered if you missed home,” Oscar answered and threw the mangled blade of grass behind him.
“Do you?” she asked, ashamed to her Oscar know how little she desired to return. He thought for a moment, tugging up another switch of grass and rolling it between his fingers.
“No,” he answered with stark certainty. “I have everything I’d miss right here.”
Every inch of Camille’s body smoldered under Oscar’s gentle, and so very forward, gaze. He’d miss her. She looked into his gray-blue eyes, rimmed by thick, honey-colored lashes-had they always been so full? The bridge of his nose crooked to the left slightly, perhaps broken in a fight after he’d moved from her father’s carriage house to a small apartment along the San Francisco harbor front. She’d never noticed the charming imperfection before.
She watched as his eyes traveled over her own features, touching on the wound by her temple and settling on the heart-shaped fullness of her lips.
Oscar held his piercing stare. “We probably won’t arrive home in time for your wedding.”
“We probably won’t arrive home in time for your wedding.”
She pictured the wedding gown hanging in her closet. The veil. The shoes. Even the strands of pearls, all laid out awaiting her return. Return. The heavy word weighed on her as Ira continued to snore and Oscar continued to study her in a way that made her feel captivating and beautiful.
Camille stood up, not sure if she’d been inching toward him. His lips had certainly seemed to be getting closer.
“Randall will understand, I’m sure. He’s a very reasonable person,” she said, her voice rapid.
Oscar started to stand. “Where are you going?”
“No, please, sit,” she said. “I…I just need to, um, use the trees.” Camille jiggled her nearly empty canteen to strengthen her excuse. She turned in a circle until she spotted a copse of trees. She had to be somewhere other than hidden in the flowers with Oscar, somewhere she could try and convince herself that Randall might one day be able to look at her with the same intensity Oscar had just displayed.
Oscar sat back down, and Camille trampled the grass on the way to the safety of the trees. Another attack of guilt snuck up on her as she glanced back at Oscar, who was watching her walk away. Camille would miss her own wedding-and she didn’t care one bit.”
“Are you William Rowen?”
Ira checked the space behind him, over each shoulder, then sorted. “Me? Her father? I’m gonna pretend you never said that.”
“Let’s get some sleep,” he whispered. “Before dawn we’ll see what we can gather up.”
His eyes rested on her forehead, on the new bruises and gashes from the Juggernaut blast.
“You look awful,” he said.
Camille narrowed her eyes to slits. She grabbed the lamp from his hands. “Thank you very much.”
“I didn’t mean it like that,” he said, following her as she climbed the narrow stairwell.
“You look just as whipped,” she said over her shoulder. Camille already felt like a load of dung-her head throbbed, her limbs ached, and the rope marks around her wrists burned. She didn’t need to be told she looked dreadful, too.
“The bruises, Camille. Your injuries look awful, not you,” he said. She walked down the hallway in self-conscious silence.”
“What am I thinking, to be going after this stone? You were right. It can’t be real. How can it possib;y work?”
Oscar stepped up behind her, close enough for her back to feel his warmth. Close enough to sense the moment his hands would touch her. They traveled down her neck and rested on her shoulders.
“You saw the map,” he said softly. “There has to be something powerful about the stone. I don’t know if it’ll bring William back, but what else do we have to lose?”
His warm hands slipped down her arms, thoughtfully, as if anticipating her flinching away. He’d never touched her so brazenly before. He took her hips in his palms and leaned her back, against him. She went willingly. His chest and stomach felt solid and sure, yet comfortable, too. Camille took a shallow breath, remembering how before the wreck, she’d wondered what Oscar was to her. Not a friend, not an acquaintance, but somewhere in between. Like two people just waiting for the right circumstances, the right moment, to begin. This moment, these circumstances, felt right.”
“Holy gallnipper, how long till we hit the magic trail? It’s gloomier than my own funeral I here.”
Camille adjusted the bag’s rope and looked at Ira. “Don’t even joke about that.”
Since the moment they’d entered the forest, she’d felt like something was listening. Like they’d woken some sleeping creature, and now it followed them with silent cunning. The deafening chants had not returned to pierce her eardrums, but danger still felt close.
A few paces ahead of her, Oscar peeled away another cobweb, the octagonal spinning so massive Camille didn’t even want to imagine the size of the spider that had created it.
“Mate, you got a stomach made of iron,” Ira said.
A flash of orange and black swept in front of Camille’s eyes and she felt an odd tug on her dress. She looked down and froze. A spider with a body the size of her first flexed its hairy legs on her skirt. It started to scuttle up. Her scream echoed through the forest as she swiped the spider off. It hit the marshy ground and scampered under a log. Oscar grabbed her arm and pulled her toward him.
“Did it bite you?”
She shook her head, arms and legs stiff with fear.
“I’ve never seen one so bloody big,” Ira said, running past the log as though the spider would leap out at him. Oscar started walking again, his hand on the small of her back. She exhaled with more than one kind of relief. He was at least still concerned for her.
As they started to pick up their pace, another black critter swung down from a nearby tree. Camille say it flying toward them, but her warning shout was too slow. The spider landed on Oscar’s shoulder, fat and furry and swift as its legs darted up his neck.
Oscar shouted an obscenity as he whacked the giant from his skin. Camille heard it thud against the leafy forest floor. Unfazed, the spider quickly sprang to its finger-length legs and darted toward her boot. Her shrieks echoed again as it leaped onto her hem. With his foot, Ira knocked the spider back to the ground, and before it could bounce back up, Oscar smashed it with a stick. The squashed giant oozed yellow-and-green blood onto the marshy ground. Camille gagged and tasted her breakfast oats in the back of her mouth.
“What in all wrath are those monsters?” Ira panted as he twisted around, looking for more.
Camille looked up to the trees to try and spot any others that might be descending from glossy webbing. Terror paralyzed her as her eyes landed on a colony of glistening webs in the treetops. An endless number of black dots massed above their heads, dangling from tree limbs. Oscar and Ira followed her horrified stare.
“Run,” Oscar whispered. Camille sprinted forward, her skin and scalp tingling with imaginary spider legs. The bag of provisions slammed against her back, tugging at her neck, but she didn’t care. They didn’t slow down until the gigantic spiderwebs grew sparse and the squawk of birds took over.”
“So you want to turn around? Give up on the chance of having him back?”
Oscar took a swig of his canteen, then capped it. He held her stare. “I just want you alive.”
Camille glanced toward Ira. He sat far enough away to hear just the murmur of their voices. This was her only opportunity to clean up after the messy scene in the pantry. Where to begin baffled her. The cold manner in which they were now acting made it difficult to believe Oscar had held her so lovingly, her body curled into his. She’d felt his hot breath on her shoulder as he dipped into sleep and out again to bury his nose in her hair or race her scar from the Christina with his finger. Camille had never wanted to leave that bed.
“I don’t love him,” she said with little fanfare. Plain. Simple. The truth. “He’s a decent man, and things would be easier if I did love him. But I want what only you can give me, Oscar.”
She couldn’t imagine feeling warm and safe and loved in Randall’s arms the way she had in Oscar’s. She didn’t know what would happen once her father returned to them or how he’d react. Right then, it didn’t matter.
“Good night, then,” she said when he remained quiet. Camille turned onto her other side, away from the fire. The immediate cold lashed at her. A moment passed before she heard the scrape of his boots on the ground. His footsteps rounded the fire. Without saying a word, he lay down beside her. Oscar pulled her close to him without checking to see if Ira was watching.
He kissed the crown of her head. “Good night, then.”
“My Camille,” he said, his voice as soft and powerful as a blow from a bellows, “did you believe you’d sail with me forever?”
She wanted to say yes, just to be able to say yes. But she shook her head.
“This is all my fault,” her father mumbled.
Camille sat back in the chaise longue and curled her legs beneath her. “What is?”
“I shouldn’t have let you accompany me to sea all these years. I should have sent you to a proper finishing school, given you a chance to find your place here in San Francisco. Instead, I was selfish and wanted you with me every moment.”
Camille relaxed her shoulders. “I don’t mind your selfishness, Father.”
He sent her a grin, but it was the one he used when there was a caveat attached.
“It did have to end sometime, Camille. True ladies don’t belong on merchant ships, and it’s high time you were a lady instead of a child.”
He was right, though she wished he weren’t. “True ladies” didn’t sail on ships. Their palms weren’t blistered from hauling line, the bridges of their noses and apples of their cheeks weren’t bronzed from the sun, and they most certainly didn’t associate with sailors.
Camille sighed. “Being a true lady sounds achingly dull.”
“Cap’n don’t like us tellin’ tales,” another man added.
“That’s just ‘round his girl, is all,” the storyteller replied.
Camille ceased breathing and widened her eyes. They were right about her father banning such rubbish aboard his ships, but she’d never known she was the reason for it. Why did he feel the need to protect her from them? The few parts of stories she had managed to overhear were entertaining but obvious malarkey to scare young sailors ut of their wits.
“If he thinks she’s too fine for them, he shouldn’t bring her along,” Lucius said, his sneer reaching through to his tone of voice.
“This is her last time, ain’t it?” another sailor asked.
Her stomach cramped at the unwelcome reminder.
“If it is, I wager it’ll be Kildare’s, too. He won’t stick ‘round no more,” another chuckled. Camille’s ears perked at Oscar’s name, then reddened at the sailor’s implication that Oscar was there only for her. It was absurd.
“Good,” Lucius replied. “Who will be our new first mate?”
What were they going on about? Oscar was a perfect first mate. Her father had groomed him for it. Oscar couldn’t just…leave.
“Well, it won’t be you, Drake. You can’t even make a shroud knot!”
The sailors in the fo’c’sle burst out in laughter. Grabbing her chance to leave, Camille took off down the corridor until their laughter faded with the sighs of the ship.”
“The renegade strand of hair nipped her eyes once more. With a swift, steady hand, Oscar pushed it away from her face. His fingertip left a trail of fire along her cheek. Camille reached up to help him tuck the strand back, and their fingers met. She knew for certain the flush had returned to her ears.
Oscar dropped his arm and walked to the rail, wrapping his strong hands around the carved wood.
“He is used to having things go his way,” Oscar said, his voice low and only for her ears. Camille moved to stand beside hm.
“Have you always done everything he’s asked of you?” She was cautious not to come off sounding snide.
His knuckles whitened as he gripped the rail tighter, as if to hold something back. Hold something in.
She hadn’t expected him to give her an answer, and certainly not that one.
“No? I don’t believe it. What have you done that’s gone against his wishes?”
Oscar had been her father’s shadow since day one. He’d watched and obeyed William Rowen with the kind of devotion any eager apprentice would show his teacher.
Oscar had been staring at the water, at the mounting churn of the waves. Now he shifted his eyes to her and fixed her with a look so strong and deep, she felt helpless beneath it.
“He asked me to stop associating with you,” he answered, still hushed. Camille’s eyes watered with mortification and dread. Her father had spoken to Oscar, too. She wiped her sweaty palms on the hips of her trousers.
“But clearly,” Oscar continued, leaning toward her, “I didn’t listen.”
His gaze revolved out to the ocean again, releasing Camille. Air flowed back down her windpipe. This was beyond humiliation. Her father couldn’t do this. He couldn’t order people to stop speaking to her.
“Why not?” she asked, her breath uneven from a cross of fury and the steadfast way Oscar had looked at her. “He could fire you.”
He moved away from the rail.
“If he wants to fire me for speaking to you, for looking at you…” He turned back to her on his way to the quarterdeck and held her gaze again. “Then I’ll risk it.”
She watched in awe as Oscar took the helm from a sailor and placed himself behind the great spoked wheel. He’d risk everything he had to be able to speak with her, to just look at her. His bravery made her feel no taller than a hermit crab. She’d so quickly, dutifully, accepted her father’s request to set her focus solely on Randall. But she mattered to Oscar. She mattered, and that one truth made her wish she was brave enough to risk everything, too.”
“Oscar, we’re alive and in Melbourne and that’s all that matters.”
The door clicked shut behind him. He placed the bowl on the dresser and dropped the spoon into the soup. “We’re alive, in Melbourne, and living in a whorehouse.”
“Making good use of that room?” Lucius asked them, having a laugh with the trollop at his side. Oscar stood unwavering in the center of the hall, forcing Lucius to skirt around him.
“You’re a pig,” Camille replied, but he only squealed and snorted like a sow.
“Either of you figure out yet how we’re going to get home?” Lucius asked. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m perfectly content here for the time being.”
A pair of sloppy-looking men stumbled through the front door, obviously drunk, and howling like wolves. Oscar stepped up beside Camille, blocking her from their view. His shoulders and chest were the perfect shield against whatever misguided attentions the men might show her.
“When did you become concerned about the three of us sticking together?” she asked Lucius. “We haven’t set eyes on you since you disappeared into the orlop deck of the Londoner.”
Lucius nodded over his shoulder. “I’m being nursed back to health, can’t you see?”
She glared at him. Why someone like Lucius had survived the shipwreck instead of a worthier person like her father angered her. Maybe she really was cursed.
“You don’t have a plan, do you?” Lucius asked Oscar, who continued to block Camille from the two men anxiously waiting by the front door for someone to greet them. Lucius snorted a laugh. “Should’a guessed as much.”
Oscar took a step forward, pressing Camille between his chest and Lucius’s.
“What do you mean by that?”
Lucius laced his fingers together and bowed them, cracking his knuckles. “Just that everyone knew you were only good for dishing out orders that came from someone else.”
Camille placed one hand on Oscar’s chest and the other on Lucius and shoved them apart.
“Stop it,” she said. “I liked it better when you were out of sight, Lucius.”
“The stone is not a plaything for little girls, Camille.” He hardened his stare. She tried to keep her eyes equally fierce. “The path to the stone is said to be riddled with traps, endless holes in the earth where you fall forever. Deep caves shelter a species of enormous beasts that protect the stone. Men who set out to find it are usually never seen again.”
She sat back, surprised by his intensity and passion.
“Well, then,” she said, and watched him puff out his chest victoriously. “I do hope you set out to find it.”
He glowered at her. “Oh, I most certainly will. The map and stone will be mine.”
Camille stood, pushing her chair back. “It looks like you have some competition, then. I won’t give up until I’ve brought my father back to life.”
McGreenery flashed his white smile and roared with laughter. “Bring him back? Oh yes, you would actually use the stone.”
She lifted her chin. “And you wouldn’t?”
He laughed at her again. “Dear child, you don’t know a thing about it, do you? You don’t have the faintest clue how the stone will work. If you think this is some short journey without risks or sacrifices, you should sail home right now. The magic of that stone is but a fraction of the everlasting power it leads to. A clever businessman would sell that power to the highest bidder.”
“Didn’t I advise you to forget the stone? Didn’t I tell you it would be mine? Look at everything you’ve lost.” He threw the sack over the ornate teal stone, pulled a cord tight around the sack’s opening, and lifted it from its resting place without placing a single finger on it. “And look at everything I’ve gained.”
His sailors laughed with him. Camille spotted her straggly-beared attacker. A fist-sized bruise from Samuel’s boot discolored his jaw. Camille discreetly scanned the cascade, but didn’t see Ira or Samuel. She returned her stare to McGreenery; only this time, it was she who smiled.
“I remember what you said. But I have the real map, don’t I?” She held it up for him to see as the second wave of sparks, invisible to everyone else, rolled back over the map and erased the riddle. “Samuel copied the diagram for you, but there were things the map wouldn’t show him. Things only the one worthy of the stone could see. And he overlooked something else, something he had no reason to believe was important.”
McGreenery came around the shrine, the sack’s cord cutting so deeply into his flesh, the skin whitened. Camille twirled the map around to show the glowing mark.
“This is the mark of Umandu.” She stepped aside so he could see the amber stone aglow at her heel. Shock drowned McGreenery’s simper. “And you can go to hell.”
“If you’re going to shoot me, do it. Do you think I’m afraid of you?” Camille asked. No bullet could hurt worse than the thought of her father drowning, or the sight of Oscar gurgling for air as he lay in a pool of his own blood. She stared into the barrel of the rifle. “You’re a coward. Heartless and cruel, and the devil won’t even want you.”
A single shot and she’d be back with her father and Oscar. She’d have them both. Perhaps that was why Umandu hadn’t worked; her heart hadn’t been able to decide.
McGreenery pressed the cold steel against her throat. He bared his teeth, losing every ounce of composure and calculated grace. Camille threw a glance toward Ira, who finally jammed his knife into the ribs of his opponent. He pulled the blade free in time to see her at the end of McGreenery’s rifle. But instead of running toward her, he stopped and stared. What was he doing?
McGreenery reeled forward. The rifle and stone clattered to the floor. His lips parted. “What-?” he rasped.
Camille stared at him, equally bewildered. A sharp metal spike protruded from his chest and glinted in the single band of sunlight streaming from the dome’s entrance. McGreenery collapsed to his knees and revealed his assailant to her.
Oscar placed a foot on McGreenery’s back and kicked him forward, sliding him off the very spear McGreenery had used to kill him.
“Let’s see how you like it,” Oscar said and tossed the spear aside.”
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Oscar asked.
“I’m sure.” The sound of their voices disturbed the night, and her dishonesty disturbed her. How could she be all right? She’d been abducted at knifepoint. She’d heard the chanting again and seen the eerie black skeletal face on the bathwater’s surface. What were those things, if not part of the Umandu curse?
“Are you sure he didn’t touch you?” Oscar asked, the softness of his question poles apart from the anger and irritation he’d shown all day. It was obvious he didn’t want to go chasing after Umandu, but she couldn’t imagine the prospect of bringing her father back to life would make him so sour.
Camille sat up, holding the thin blanket around her neck. An odd thought struck her: They were on land, alone in a room, and they hadn’t yet struggled with an awkward stretch of silence. Camille liked the change and hoped it stuck.
Oscar lay on the floor, beneath the double windows. He had one arm over his chest, the other behind his head. He saw her and pushed himself up, his own covers loose around his waist. He still wore his clothes, and she grinned, knowing it was for her benefit only. He’d be sweating rivers tonight in the heavy heat. Oscar wrapped his arm around one knee.
“You have no idea what went through my mind tonight when I found that bathtub empty,” he whispered. “I can’t let anything happen to you, Camille.”
She sat up a little straighter, hoping he wouldn’t pledge his protection just to honor his dead captain. “I didn’t mean to make you worry, Oscar. But my safety isn’t your burden.”
Though she couldn’t see him clearly in the shadowed room, Camille felt his eyes on her.
“You’re not a burden, Camille. Not to me.”
She searched his dark outline. A patch of moonlight fell on a swath of bare skin on the curve of his neck. It glistened with sweat, and she felt her own skin fire with the charged silence growing between them. She didn’t know how to respond; he wouldn’t look away.
“He didn’t touch me,” she whispered instead, answering his original question. She lay back and turned onto her side, disappointed she hadn’t found something more to say. Something to make the moment last a hair longer.
Oscar’s covers rustled as he settled back as well.
“That was smart of him,” he replied, and said no more.”
“It was a terrible decision, and I confess I'd make it again.”
“But I gathered that it was classified...by order of this Colonel, uh, Plushbottom.” “Thrushbotham. Thrushbotham, sir. A fat, fatuous, flatulent, foot-kissing fool incompetent to find his hat with it nailed to his head. Which it should have been.”
“The sunset was that long, achingly beautiful balance of stillness in which the sun seemed to hover like a red balloon above the western horizon, the entire sky catching fire from the death of day; a sunset unique to the American Midwest and ignored by most of its inhabitants. The twilight brought the promise of coolness and the certain threat of night.”
“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”
“I've learned that everyone can do their part to repair the world”
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