Isabelle's Burden

PART FOUR

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PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR
PART FIVE
PART SIX
PART SEVEN
EPILOGUE
FEEDBACK

***

They left Baru and Paskow to tend to the horses.

Mauriri was the first to enter her upstairs bedroom. He adjusted Isabelle’s bed so that she had a better view outside the window into the stables below. He knew that would give her some small pleasure as Isabelle continued her convalescence.

Grief came up a few minutes later, still carrying Isabelle in his arms. They watched the Polynesian as he methodically stripped off the somewhat rumpled bedclothes on her queen sized mattress, tossing them aside.

“I have fresh sheets in the cabinet near the bathroom.” Isabelle told Mauriri before he asked, appreciating his thoughtfulness.

As he pulled them and returned to her bed to make it up, Mauriri asked: “Isabelle, don’t you ever put together your bed in the morning?” He winked at her.

“Sometimes -- if I know I’m going to have company.” she whispered saucily and returned his humorous smile. Then, she added: “I make my bed at least as often as I do laundry.”

Mauriri chuckled and continued his task.

Isabelle, not long forgetting the man who held her so protectively, looked at David. He appeared to be watching his friend‘s efforts with a bit too much gravity. Isabelle then understood that the good captain was probably straining with the extra weight he was holding. He had carried and walked her all the way from the corral to here, upstairs to her bedroom. Isabelle wasn’t a heavy weight by any means but the exertion of the undertaking was still noteworthy.

“You can let me down now, David.” she told him although, in retrospect, Isabelle was faintly sorry. She did love the feel of his strong, considerate embrace. David Grief always managed to make her feel safe even during those moments when she was trying to prove to him that she was a better man than he …

Grief, unsure but compliant, allowed Isabelle to slide gently out of his arms to stand on her own two feet. He saw a wince of pain come from her, however, and knew Isabelle’s injured leg must be bothering her considerably. He kept a cautious arm around her just to be certain she did not fall.

When finished, Mauriri turned to the couple. “I’m going home to talk with my wife and the kids. I also need to go to the Rattler and make sure everything is prepared for the journey tomorrow.” Looking directly at Isabelle he asked, “Are you going to be okay?”

“Mauriri, thank you so much for everything.” Isabelle smiled gently, “You are a good friend.”

“Come on,” He reached forward, took Isabelle’s hand and pulled her carefully over to the bed so she could sit down. “I’ll have Lianni bring you something to eat tonight.”

“It’s not necessary. I’m sure she’s …”

He spoke low and seriously, “You are going to eat.” Mauriri insisted and touched her nose affectionately with a tip of a finger, just like a big brother to an misbehaving younger sister.

Isabelle could only smile. How things had changed. Last year at this time Mauriri only thought of her as a pest, a thieving woman who was up to no good; only out to deceive and hurt men who tried to give her a hand up. He was so sure that she would impair David in some way and his friend would be too blind to see it but, as it turned out, Isabelle Reed was not the woman Mauriri had to fear.

Even after David and Lavinia had discontinued their relationship Isabelle could have did any number of things to make David hers - and indeed she did flirt with him - but she was not a viper. She was who she was, once a woman who used all manner of people, particularly men, to benefit her livelihood but now a female of independent means. If David truly wanted her he would have to prove he deserved her … but maybe even that wasn’t enough anymore.

Again, times had changed.

As Mauriri made his way down the stairs Paiku walked gradually upward, sliding past the muscular native, nervous by what might greet him.

David looked over his shoulder at the young man, frowning.

“Miss Isabelle?” Paiku asked and glanced from the stern Captain Grief to his employer. “Can I help you?”

Isabelle could see David was about to speak, possibly to ask Paiku if he didn’t think he had done quite enough bringing her here in the first place, so she quickly replied: “Paiku, go to Lavinia’s and tell her that I will be staying in my own home now, to complete my recovery. Be certain to tell her that I appreciate everything she has done for me and not to worry about my meals. I have everything well in hand.” she added, “Pick up my medication while you’re there.”

“Yes, Miss.”

“Then, when you’re finished at the tavern, go to Miss Claire in the newspaper office and tell her the same. Also,” Isabelle cleared her throat a little, uncomfortable. “Tell her I’m sorry. She’ll understand.”

Grief and Paiku glanced at one another again, one man annoyed and the other guilty.

Paiku quickly left the room.

“Alone at last.” Isabelle said with a small amount of mirth then, feeling pain in both her shoulder and leg, rested back on her uninjured arm. “David, could you help me with my boots?” she asked.

She lifted her legs as he got down on his knees, warily sliding one then the other off and pushing them aside. Isabelle expected David to get to his feet again, possibly toss in some quip about foot stench, but was surprised when instead he lifted her skirt a bit and, not minding nineteenth century propriety, inspected her injured lower leg. Dr. Mosley had said it was badly sprained but he could not detect a break. She was bruised and scratched and the doctor had initially applied a light wrap but Isabelle hated it. The leg felt worse with the wrap applied then without. She had it discarded the second day at Lavinia’s.

“Do you have oils or a lotion?” David asked her.

“On my dresser.” Isabelle said, curious.

He returned, once again dropping to his knees, and applied the lotion to his hands. Grief watched as Isabelle lifted her skirt again and raised her leg, pointing her toe ever so slightly. He applied the lotion, rubbing gently, massaging it into her skin and pulling on the tense muscles of her calf and shin.

It hurt like the devil at first but as he continued the massage Isabelle closed her eyes and felt a great deal of warmth and pleasure. It was no wonder David Grief appealed to such a wide variety of women. He had a wonderful touch. Well yes, that and his good looks and impressive physique … his long legs and lean stomach … and the way his eyes seemed to shimmer when he smiled … and that smile …

Before she lost all her bearings, Isabelle opened her eyes once again and carefully dropped her skirt down, indicating he had done enough. “Thank you, David. That was very good.”

Grief stood.

Isabelle was aware of how quiet he had been since bringing her to the room. Grief had hardly said a word which meant he must be thinking deeply. He looked as if he wanted to say something to her now, perhaps even apologize again, but could not gather the words together to express regret.

Looking up at him, hating the uncomfortable stillness between them, Isabelle decided to let Grief off the hook. “I’m going to have a sponge bath, David. Could you go down to the kitchen and heat me a kettle of water?”

He hesitated, staring at her, then nodded and walked down the stairs.

***

A watched pot never boils.

Who was it that told him this useful yet strange piece of home-spun information? Mother? Lavinia? Grief could not remember but it appeared to be true. He sat on a wooden chair in Isabelle’s small dining area, at the foot of her stairs, not far from the kitchen. He watched the kettle as the blue and gold flame below it burned cheerily, heating the water inside.

Impatient, Grief stood and looked about the area. It wasn’t a big house but it was cozy and held potential. Isabelle had a large storage area to the back of the building that one day, should she upgrade and redecorate, could be turned into a nice living area or even a couple extra bedrooms. She had enough property to the back of her house to build another storage shed if she decided to continue or expand business. He could probably help her …

Grief shook his head back and forth, bemused by his own thought processes. He was a man of great plans and ambition, helping the helpless, but seldom saw anything completed unless it truly benefited himself. Well no, that wasn’t entirely true. He and Mauriri had helped a great many people. But it was funny … When it came to those closest to him, his own inner circle, Grief was severely lacking. If he didn’t think their requests important enough, if they interfered with his own aim, he conveniently forgot what he promised. It was almost as if he didn’t want to be trapped or … obligated.

Mauriri came to mind; happy with his wife and children, the future they represented, but also finding time for adventure on the high seas. He was an unwavering man, a person with great vision, and David looked up to him. He respected his native brother like no other. There were times when David - confident and self involved when it came to his own aspirations - wished to be like Mauriri.

For a long time David had been happy with his relationship with Lavinia. She had made Matavai a home for him. She was always there to hear about his adventures, give advice, and - when they shared a warm bed together - he thought he knew what it was to live in paradise. They were mutually comfortable and happy.

Then one day Isabelle Reed came to his little piece of heaven and things changed. He could not blame her for breaking he and Lavinia up. But Isabelle did bring something with her - bound in chains, beautiful and poised - that made David second guess his loyalties.

He could see that Lavinia was growing uneasy. After five years of togetherness she wanted, more than anything, what Grief was not willing to give. He did love Lavinia but their contentment he quickly realized was hinged on his willingness to hand over his freedom. Lavinia wanted, needed and deserved a secure man who was keen to set up a home with her and settle down to family life. He could not do it. It wasn’t in him. If ever he was going to pledge himself it would be to a self-sufficient someone willing to go out and face hell with him. He needed an audacious woman with fire in her veins and courage enough to match him quip for quip and, when necessary, blow for physical blow. He needed someone who wouldn’t back down when he told her to mind her own business or to just leave him alone …

“David!”

He heard Isabelle call.

“Is the water hot yet?”

The kettle was rumbling, preparing to whistle.

“Yes, I’ll bring it right up, Isabelle.” he called back.

**

Lianni Lepau walked the path from her home to Isabelle’s stable in less than forty five minutes. Normally it would take longer, especially if she had the children with her, but Mauriri was more than willing to take the kids with him to the Rattler while he and Sparrow oversaw a last minute refitting of the ship. Over her arm Lianni held a deep bag containing some fruits, vegetables and a portion of the fish dish she and her family had for lunch. She hoped it would be to Isabelle’s liking.

She did not know the woman very well, only when Isabelle came to the house with David, but she liked her. Isabelle helped her set the table once while Mauriri and David played with Tahnee and Tevaki She was a lively, lovely and honest young English woman and did not possess that air of superiority that some of the other westerners who came to the island displayed.

Even while David was still with Lavinia Lianni could see why he appreciated Isabelle. Or more specifically why the woman made him so nervous. She wondered if the two might one day be an item. Mauriri didn’t seem to think so but her husband, the gods love him, wasn’t the brightest candle in the sconce when it came to affairs of the heart. He had practically told her that their daughter Tahnee was going to live with them until she was thirty years old and even then the man she married would have to be very special and meet his most stringent specifications before he allowed the girl to leave the house.

With a start, Lianni stopped in her tracks. She thought she heard something in the jungle, the odd cracking of a branch, whispers and the rustle of leaves. “Imagination.“ she whispered but had the strangest feeling she was being watched.

Shaking off apprehension, Lianni returned to her walk.

**

“How does that feel?” Grief asked, gently rubbing the rough sponge against her bare back.

“Very nice.” Isabelle whispered, leaning forward on the bed. It was nice, with the warm water trickling against her tender skin, but she was not particularly comfortable.

Isabelle supposed she must have looked as pathetic as she felt because, after pouring the water into a basin then mixing in a touch of cooler water, David brought it over and gave it to her, along with the sponge. He then wordlessly moved to the linen cabinet, removed two towels and sat behind her on the bed. He handed a towel to her over a shoulder as he helped Isabelle to pull the camisole from her body.

She held a towel in front of her, having removed the blouse before David arrived with the hot kettle. The effort had hurt, a line of perspiration dotting her forehead, and by the time she got the front fastenings to her camisole undone Isabelle could not peel it off her shoulders. At the time she thought to rest awhile before working on the removal it and her skirt.

As she used the sponge to washed her chest and neck David, still behind her, was startled by Isabelle’s shoulder scars, how they crossed cruelly over her back. Grief knew she had been whipped while staying at the penal colony last year but he never realized just how vicious the attacks were.

“David?”

“Nothing.” He snapped himself out of the empathetic haze he was lost in.

Not normally a shy woman, Isabelle was compelled to hold the towel firmly in front of her while David took the sponge and began to gently rub her back and uninjured shoulder.

More than anything she wanted to tell him to leave, to not look at her while she was so defenseless. Appearing vulnerable in front of David Grief was the one thing Isabelle had always avoided. Lavinia once told her she had nothing to prove, especially with Grief, but Isabelle knew better.

But, if she were to be honest with herself, it wasn’t just him. Isabelle needed to be strong for that young girl who had been adopted out because she was easy labor. And for that girl who was nearly attacked, when only sixteen, by a predator step-uncle who wanted her body. She had to be brave then and she would remain fearless until the day she died. Or at least, she would try to, even if she ended up alienating the one person who saw something good in her and had rescued her - from herself and the masses - a countless amount of times.

Grief pushed her long hair over the bandaged shoulder then started washing her closer to the injury, careful to avoid the dressing.

“You do that well. I imagine you’ve had experience.” Isabelle said flippantly, feeling obliged to break the silence between them.

“Not as much as you might think.” he replied. When finished David handed the sponge back to Isabelle and dried her back, lightly patting with the extra towel.

“In a couple days I’ll see if Lianni can help me with a bath. Hopefully I‘ll have more mobility by then.”

“Take it slow.” Grief suggested, “Do you have another nightgown?” he asked.

“Top dresser drawer.”

It was light and diaphanous, white with embroidered lace, cut low up front and stimulating. It was the type of garment a beautiful woman would wear to entice a man to bed. However, David well knew that Isabelle had bought it because it was pretty and it pleased her, not just a man. Ten months ago Grief would have alleged Isabelle did everything with an agenda in mind but now, the better he knew her, the less he believed in her materialism. She wanted to be happy and prosperous, of course, but that was not what she was all about. “Do you need help?’ he started forward, lifting the nightdress.

Isabelle raised her head and shot him an arched eyebrow. “Lianni will be here soon. She’ll help me.” She hesitated, the towel still clutched to her breasts, and gazed at him. He did not seem to want to move. “Honestly, I’m fine. You can go back to the horses, David. Make sure they’re brought back to the stables after a good wiping down.”

He tossed the gown beside her on the bed and smiled placidly, “I’ll come back to see you before I leave for the day.”

She nodded slowly and - a little sad - watched him turn and trot down stairs.

**

Two hours later Isabelle was lying in her bed, draped in the lovely nightgown, propped up by pillows, and looking forlornly out of her window, down at the stables. It was twilight now and those who had rented horses earlier in the day were now returning them. Paiku was stalling King, Viper and Lady. He acknowledged Grief apprehensively as he and the hands were bringing in the brindles back after a good run, washing and wiping down.

They had one more day. Day after tomorrow the New Zealanders would arrive and Isabelle would know if she had a future on Matavai or not.

“What was that terrible black thing resting in your coal stove?” Lianni asked with a chortle, folding some clean clothes and placing them into Isabelle‘s dresser drawers. “It looked like a big rock with burnt orange and green vegetables laying next to it.”

“A roast. Last weeks dinner.” Isabelle replied, brightening a bit, and looking at her sarong wearing nursemaid. “I spent a pretty penny for it at the island butchers. When I had my accident it was simmering over a low flame. I guess it must have over-cooked and the flame flickered out.”

“Well, It’s gone and the stove is clean now.” Lianni turned from the dresser. “You’ll have to try making a dinner for you and David another time.” She moved to check the water in Isabelle’s basin.

Isabelle felt a small jolt of indignation, “How did you know I was making dinner for both David and myself?”

Lianni hesitated, wondering if she had said too much. “Mauriri told me that David was supposed to have dinner with you and he forgot about it.”

“Wonderful.” Isabelle sighed. ‘The whole of Matavai knows about David standing me up.’ She thought silently and rolled her eyes. Laying in the bed she watched as Lianni picked up the pitcher and took it into the bathroom. There was a simplicity about Mrs. Lepau, a directness, that was charming and refreshing. Isabelle liked Lianni’s sweet earthiness despite her insight.

“I think your secret is safe.” Lianni called, “The only reason Mauriri told me was because he was trying to make small talk, trying to avoid an argument …” She trailed off as she re entered the bedroom, “I shouldn’t have said that. Never mind.”

“Ah, a marital dispute.” Isabelle smiled, patting the blanket at her waistline. “Come on now, tell me everything. I haven’t heard a good piece of juicy gossip for far too long.”

“I shouldn’t talk about …” Lianni put the refilled pitcher back on Isabelle‘s bedside stand.

“It’s good therapy for me.” Isabelle insisted, “It’ll make me feel better.”

Sighing with a relenting chuckle, pleased to see a gleam in the woman’s eye, Lianni walked over to Isabelle’s bed and sat on the edge near the bottom of the mattress, “It’s nothing serious but Mauriri and I are having troubles. It’s mostly me, I suppose. I’ve been thinking a lot about he and David and how they live so dangerously. “

“It’s nothing new, Lianni. Trading and selling in the South Seas is a competitive business.”

“Yes but … Mauriri has a family!” Lianni suddenly looked very distressed, “I’ve nursed him through broken legs, black and blue eyes and injuries no wife should have to worry about, let alone bandage on a weekly basis!”

Isabelle stared at her, stunned by the usually quiet woman‘s outburst. “Does he have any idea how you feel?”

Lianni looked away from Isabelle, thinking. “Before David came along Mauriri earned money by crewing on other ships. He’s always loved and appreciated the sea so I completely understood why he did this rather than working exclusively on my mother’s farm. When the children came along he crewed and worked the farm to make extra money. But he was never completely satisfied until he and David bought the Rattler and went into business for themselves. They’ve been partners for nearly six years and their work gets more and more dangerous with each passing month. Isabelle, am I wrong to be concerned?”

“Of course not. But you said yourself that he loves it.“ Isabelle could clearly see that Lianni was holding something back, “There’s more to the story, isn’t there? Is he neglecting you and the children?”

“Mauriri’s a wonderful husband and father … when he‘s here. But sometimes I think the sea, not to mention the intoxication of risk, is more important to him than us.”

There was a melancholy expression on her face that tugged at Isabelle’s heart.

“And it’s so important that he be here for us now …” Lianni whispered.

Isabelle studied her expression, “Why now especially?”

Lianni, eyes wide, looked back at Isabelle. It was obvious she did not know she had made the comment out loud. “I just meant …” She looked down at her hands, lost.

Isabelle, suddenly understanding, allowed her face to break into a wide grin, “Lianni … you’re pregnant, aren’t you?”

The native woman sighed, “Yes. I am. Not too far yet. Mauriri does not know about it.”

“Tell him.” Isabelle encouraged, “Once he knows he’s not going to want to leave.”

“Oh, I will when he returns.” she murmured, “It may change things … for awhile at least. ”

Isabelle gazed at the native woman. She didn’t think Isabelle knew how she felt but Lianni was wrong. Isabelle understood it very well. Mauriri, as much as he loved Lianni, did not comprehend that his wife was feeling abandoned. Why were men like that? Why did they start off loving you, being happy with you, then when matters became comfortable they wandered off? It was as if their minds closed down.

Isabelle smiled at Lianni. All this couple needed was to be steered back in the right direction. “Talk with Mauriri. Set some ground rules. He’s crazy about you and the children. Compromise, Lianni. From what I understand it does a marriage good.” Then Isabelle said because she meant it, “You are very lucky to find a man who loves you, is faithful, and is so eager to return to you. I know it‘s true whether he shows it or not. Remember, I‘ve crewed on the Rattler and have heard Mauriri talk about how much he loves you and the children.”

“Does he really? Talk about us, I mean.”

“All of the time.”

Lianni’s wide, bright smile was genuine. She leaned forward in the bed and kissed Isabelle on the cheek, “You are so smart. Have you ever been married, Isabelle?”

“Me? Never. But I know when something is right. You and Mauriri are right.” Isabelle smiled mildly then - distracted - turned to look out the window again. Below, the men were receiving instructions from David Grief about what would be expected from them the following day.

Lianni’s gaze followed Isabelle‘s. As much as Lianni adored Lavinia and the closeness she once shared with Mauriri's closest friend, only one thought now entered into her head: ‘Isabelle, you and David Grief are right.’

***

There was a bright and beautiful half moon rising by the time Grief trotted up the stairs to wish Isabelle a good night. He lit her lamp, pushed it slightly closer to the bed so she could read a book, not to mention Claire’s latest newspaper, and he poured her a fresh glass of water. Grief then asked Isabelle if there was anything else she might need.

“Not a thing.” she replied with a good natured grin, “Paiku brought me my medication. I’m going to take one in the next half hour and I’ll be off to dreamland in no time.”

“Isabelle, I don’t like leaving you hear on your own.” Grief reiterated for the third time.

“David please, go to Lavinia’s. Play cards. You deserve a break after working so hard today.”

With a smile and gentle roll of his eyes, Grief sat at the edge of her bed. “Don’t pretend that you’re not going to be laying here all night worrying. I know you.” His expression was friendly but firm, “Are you sure you don’t want me to stick around so we can talk a little more about it?”

“You’re a good man.” The corners of Isabelle’s mouth upturned slightly, “But there’s nothing further for me to tell. You already know what is happening, David. I am afraid, I admit it, but I have to stay strong or go crazy with worry. You don‘t want to see that happen, do you?”

Grief chuckled with her and shook his head no.

“But I do thank you, David, for not sending me back to Lavinia’s, allowing me to stay here in my home. It’s funny but I feel stronger and it’s only my first day here.” Her thoughts wandered slightly, “It’s almost as if I get my strength from this house and property … my horses and ….” Then, snapping back she looked directly at her visitor, “Anyone else but you wouldn’t have understood how important it was for me to be here. I think it’s because it’s the same way you feel aboard the Rattler.”

“I never thought about it that deeply but you may be right.”

Self-conscious, Isabelle looked down at her hands. “Foolish girl thoughts. I’m becoming quite the feeble old woman, aren’t I?”

“No.” David whispered, “Your strength has always come from your expectations and accomplishments, Isabelle. You might be kicked down but you know how to pick yourself back up again …” He grimaced at his choice of words.

Isabelle laughed, “It’s all right. I know what you mean … and that‘s very kind of you.” She said the last part with an air of wonder. Isabelle knew that David respected her, if nothing else, but the gentleness in his voice, the way he looked at her, was flattering … and disturbing. “Have a good evening, David.” she said, attempting to break the strange spell that appeared to be coming over both of them.

“Goodnight.” he leaned forward to kiss her goodbye.

Isabelle, reflective and nervous, turned her head away just as she had done a few evening before when he stopped over to see her, However, she was taken aback when David reached a hand up to touch her cheek and gently turning her face back to him.

Softly, Grief kissed her, his lips tugging sensitively at hers, giving an intimate kiss as gently as he could. He was saying “you welcome” and “I care” with that kiss and even more … It was a kiss that could make a woman lose her resolve.

But not Isabelle Reed.

With her good hand, Isabelle pushed him back ever so slightly, then lifting the same hand she slap David Grief soundly across the face. “What the hell do you think you are doing?” she asked.

Completely flummoxed, Grief stood and touched a hand to his cheek. “What?” he asked, nearly dazed.

“Do not do this to me, David Grief.” Her eyes and tone had turned to stone, “It’s cruel.”

“Isabelle, it was just a kiss. I thought …”

“Spoken like a man.” Her teeth gritted, “I’ve not changed over the last six months, Captain. I am the same woman you knew and stopped desiring a long time ago. Just because I’m laying here, temporarily wounded, does not give you permission to treat me the way you treat all your women.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Grief searched her angry eyes for some clue of what it was he did wrong. “Isabelle, you said you forgave me for all those times I disappointed you. I’m sincerely sorry. You have to believe me.”

He truly didn’t understand and that angered Isabelle even more, “I did forgive you for those things.”

“Then what the hell is wrong!?”

“I will not be coveted by you -- because you have this irresistible urge to help women in distress -- just to be tossed away again when I’m better. I’ll eventually become stronger and more capable, wanting more from you emotionally than you are willing to give, then you will toss me aside. It’s in your history and emotional make-up, David, and I will not be another notch to your psyche.”

“I can’t believe you’re saying this. I’m helping you because I care, Isabelle. You’re my friend.”

Friend. When was the last time you kissed Mauriri like that?”

They continued to stare at one another.

“Like I said, David, I am the same as I was last month and the month before. If you’re feelings have changed why didn’t you kiss me then? Or even last week? Why, until now, haven‘t you shown some sign that we are more than what we appear?”

“I …” He really did not have an answer for her.

“I think you should leave.”

There was a silence between them that lasted only seconds but felt like an eternity.

Finally, Grief turned around and descended the stairs. “I’ll lock up before I leave.” he called back to her.

Laying back on her pillows, Isabelle closed her eyes and whispered: “You always do.”

****

((End of Part 4))

***

There was a bright and beautiful half moon rising by the time David Grief trotted up the stairs to wish Isabelle a good night. He lit her lamp, pushed it slightly closer to the bed so she could read a book, not to mention Claire’s latest newspaper, and he poured her a fresh glass of water. Grief then asked Isabelle if there was anything else she might need.

“Not a thing.” she replied with a good natured grin, “Paiku brought me my medication. I’m going to take one in the next half hour and I’ll be off to dreamland in no time.”

“Isabelle, I don’t like leaving you hear on your own.” Grief reiterated for the third time.

“David please, go to Lavinia’s. Play cards. You deserve a break after working so hard today.”

With a smile and gentle roll of his eyes, Grief sat at the edge of her bed. “Don’t pretend that you’re not going to be laying here all night worrying. I know you.” His expression was friendly but firm, “Are you sure you don’t want me to stick around so we can talk a little more about it?”

“You’re a good man.” The corners of Isabelle’s mouth upturned slightly, “But there’s nothing for me to tell. You already know what is happening, David. I am afraid, I admit it, but I have to stay strong or go crazy with worry. You don‘t want to see that happen, do you?”

Grief chuckled with her and shook his head no.

“But I do thank you, David, for not sending me back to Lavinia’s, allowing me to stay here in my home. It’s funny but I feel stronger and it’s only my very first day here.” Her thoughts wandered slightly, “It’s almost as if I get my strength from this house and property … my horses and ….” Then, snapping back she looked directly at her visitor, “Anyone else but you wouldn’t have understood how important it was for me to be here. I think it’s because it’s the same way you feel aboard the Rattler.”

“I never thought about it that deeply but you may be right.”

Self-conscious, Isabelle looked down at her hands. “Foolish girl thoughts. I’m becoming quite the feeble old woman, aren’t I?”

“No.” David whispered, “Your strength has always come from your expectations and accomplishments, Isabelle. You might be kicked down but you know how to pick yourself back up again …” He grimaced at his choice of words.

Isabelle laughed, “It’s all right. I know what you mean … and that‘s very kind of you.” She said the last part with an air of wonder. Isabelle knew that David respected her, if nothing else, but the gentleness in his voice, the way he looked at her, was flattering … and disturbing. “Have a good evening, David.” she said, attempting to break the strange spell that appeared to be coming over both of them.

“Goodnight.” he leaned forward to kiss her goodbye.

Isabelle, reflective and nervous, turned her head away - just as she had done a few evening before when he stopped over to see her - but Isabelle was taken aback when he reach a hand up to touch her cheek, gently turning her face back to him.

Softly, Grief kissed her, his lips tugging sensitively at hers, giving an intimate kiss as gently as he could. He was saying “you welcome” and “I care” with that kiss and even more … It was a kiss that could make a woman lose her resolve.

But not Isabelle Reed.

With her good hand, Isabelle pushed him back ever so slightly, then lifting the same hand she slap David Grief soundly across the face. “What the hell do you think you are doing?” she asked.

Completely flummoxed, Grief stood and touched a hand to his cheek. “What?” he asked, nearly dazed.

“Do not do this to me, David Grief.” Her eyes and tone had turned to stone, “It’s cruel.”

“Isabelle, it was just a kiss. I thought …”

“Spoken like a man.” Her teeth gritted, “I’ve not changed over the last six months, Captain. I am the same woman you knew and stopped desiring a long time ago. Just because I’m laying here, temporarily wounded, does not give you permission to treat me the way you treat all your women.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Grief searched her angry eyes for some clue of what it was he did wrong. “Isabelle, you said you forgave me for all those times I disappointed you. I’m sincerely sorry. You have to believe me.”

He truly didn’t understand and that angered Isabelle even more, “I did forgive you for those things.”

“Then what the hell is wrong!?”

“I will not be coveted by you -- because you have this irresistible urge to help women in distress -- just to be tossed away again when I’m better. I’ll eventually become stronger more capable, wanting more from you emotionally than you are willing to give, then you will toss me aside. It’s in your history, David, and I will not be another notch to your psyche.”

“I can’t believe you’re saying this. I’m helping you because I care Isabelle. You’re my friend.”

Friend. When was the last time you kissed Mauriri like that?”

They continued to stare at one another.

“Like I said, David, I am the same as I was last month and the month before. If you’re feelings have changed why didn’t you kiss me then? Or even last week? Why, until now, haven‘t you shown some sign that we are more than what we appear?”

“I …” He really did not have an answer for her.

“I think you should leave.”

There was a silence between them that lasted only seconds but felt like an eternity.

\

Finally, David turned around and descended the stairs. “I’ll lock up before I leave.” he called back to her.

Laying back on her pillows, Isabelle closed her eyes and whispered: “You always do.”

****