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Chapter 1
So Far Away

by Beckers

**

She pulled a large garment bag from underneath her bed and tossed it, defeated, onto the mattress.

“You’re leaving.” His tone was low, so low she almost didn’t realize he had entered the room right after her. “I never would have believed …” he began.

“What?” Isabelle Reed turned suddenly, her long-heavy hair tossing itself over her right shoulder, “That I would just give up, David?” Her tone was bitter and accusing. “It’s gone! ALL of it.”

“I know.” he said softly, lacking the eloquence to say what she needed to hear. He only wished he knew what to utter to relieve her anger and heartache. “You’re going back to England?”

“There or somewhere. Maybe Australia.”

“That’s not too far away …”

“Far enough to forget. I hope.”

The lawyers and their minions had come for the last of the horses this morning. Isabelle had openly wept when her favorite, Dante, was pulled from her grasp. The horse had actually craned its long neck and looked back to her as if asking why she was giving him up to the rough hands of these unscrupulous strangers.

“I thought after the fire a month ago that things couldn’t get worse, David.” Isabelle whispered, her bottom lip trembling but out of sight of Captain Grief. “But they did.”

The fire.

Grief remembered it well. She was with him during a haul to Fatovu. When returning to Matavai Isabelle had commented that the air around them seemed heavy and somehow polluted. It wasn’t until they docked and saw Lavinia and Reverend Trent waiting on shore that Isabelle realized something terrible had happened. Tragedy was written all over their faces.

Isabelle’s stable had burned to the ground, taking the life of a stable boy - Pui. Many of the horses had also been hurt and were ordered destroyed by the local board of health. Although Isabelle’s living quarters had been spared, the bulk of her supplies, many vital to her on-going business, were damaged. Miss Reed was going to have to start from scratch if she wanted to continue her chosen business and livelihood.

Many thought the young woman would fall to pieces when hearing the news but those who knew Isabelle Reed best understood that it was merely another challenge. She was down but not out. She had a little money put away and could start building again -- but she would need more. That was where the mainland bank came in. They were more than eager to lend the lovely stable owner cash, especially when she was able to show proof that Reed Enterprises had been very profitable. She had only been set up in Matavai for eighteen months but was already a business to be reckoned with, showing impressive revenue, until her luck turned bad.

Two weeks after she and Grief’s return, Isabelle made a request of he and Mauriri. “I know how much you two want sole ownership of The Rattler. I was never your choice for a partner, David …” she said and noted that he did not interrupt, “ … so let’s make a bargain. If you’re willing to give me all the profit from the Pow Mir run, no matter how big or small it is, I’ll write myself out of the partnership. The ship will be your own again.”

Even now Grief debated the conflicting emotions that overcame him. Yes, The Rattler was his and he wanted her back as his and only his but Grief had to admit that having Isabelle about, tending to their books and making all the right business decisions, hadn’t been so bad. For the first time in a long while he and Mauriri were making a profit and actually keeping some of their savings, which wasn’t really something he could brag about when they were left to their own brand of haphazard bookkeeping.

Grief agreed and, at first, it seemed a wise decision. They picked up cargo from Pow Mir, a small but agriculturally wealthy island near Bora Bora, and it was a vast haul. Isabelle would have made a more than healthy yield once they delivered to Tuvalu.

But then the storm hit.

It was unexpected and viscous. The only thing Grief and Mauriri could do was drop their load. If not, the Rattler would have been sunk, never to be recovered, in the deep water of the south seas. It was either their lives and the lives of the crew or the cargo.

The Rattler pulled in that evening and he would never forget, as long as he lived, the joy and expectation on Isabelle’s face, the radiance in her expression. She had received their cable about the successful pick up. It nearly killed David Grief to have to tell her what happened but he did and he watched her gray-green eyes avert in disappointment. He thought she might scream and curse or even slap both he and Mauriri, but Isabelle merely nodded and asked: “Are you okay?”

When they both nodded she said no more. Isabelle merely looked like a woman who had to make a decision. She then turned on her booted heel and marched to her home, where the burned out stables used to reside.

The following morning Grief was called upon by a solicitor who informed him that Isabelle had signed over complete ownership of the Rattler to him. Grief, standing on the beach, looked at the official document then to the solicitor once again. “Did she say anything when the papers were signed?” he wondered, deeply troubled despite his own good fortune.

“No, not really.” the dispassionate man had said. “She merely whispered ‘A deal is a deal.’”

Not long after, he and Mauriri looked on as the bankers came to call. Isabelle could offer them nothing substantial. However, dressed stylishly in a light blue skirt and vest, her hair brought up behind her head in the smartest of business fashion, a small time piece attached to her white blouse, Isabelle promised that if they would have just a little faith in her she would bring the business back to its former glory and pay them back in full.

Grief almost smiled at the certainty in her voice. He would have been convinced and knowing Isabelle Reed like he did, she would have kept her word, at nearly any cost.

However, not swayed by either her beauty or business skills, making the odd comment about “a woman in a man’s profession” Mister Peakston, the mainland banker, had other ideas. He looked at her remaining horses, all healthy and well taken care of, then turned to Isabelle with an almost triumphant expression on his spectacled face.

“Miss Reed,” he said, “Weren’t you once accused of murdering your French lover, Marcel Pinnet? Didn‘t it have something to do with stolen gold or some such?”

Grief had never seen Isabelle look so lost for words or any woman’s face turn so white.

***
 
He could see the pain and it touched his heart, “Tell me what I can do, Isabelle. I really want to know.” Grief watched as she pulled a large valise from her closet and lay it on the bed next to her long garment bag.

“David, if I knew I would tell you.” She said as she opened her luggage, “Things are different now. You’re not rescuing me from prison, poison, uncivilized tribes or even an unscrupulous business decision. No one can help me. I just have to take care of matters the best way I can.”

‘And hope for the best.’ Grief‘s subconscious added. Isabelle was a strong woman but emotionally it had taken a toll, as it would for anyone who found themselves in her situation.

He scrutinized her, only an hour before, watching as Dante and the other horses were loaded onto a ship. The woman’s expression was serene but a small tear had slid down her cheek.
 
“Au revoir mi charmante“ she had said then added, “I will follow.”
 
That was when Grief knew Isabelle was leaving Matavai.
 
Impulsively, he had taken her by the elbow then, directing her away from the scene, told Isabelle about an idea he and Mauriri were forming. There was still a way she could start again but it would mean Isabelle would have to accept monetary aid from he, Clare and Lavinia …

… and that was when Isabelle shook free from him, appearing appalled or insulted, and ran to what was left of her home. Like David Grief, the woman had her pride. Or, at least, she had developed it while living on Matavai. Isabelle would not accept handouts, not even from her friends, particularly a certain sea captain. He tried to tell her, following after Isabelle, it was only a loan but she knew better. None of her current companions had the type of cash that could get Isabelle out of her current situation.
 
The only way they could help her was to go to the bank, as Isabelle had. Lavinia would be putting her tavern at risk, Clare the newspaper and David would, once more, being jeopardizing The Rattler. She couldn’t do that to them. She would not do that to them.

“Peakston gave me two days to vacate the premises. I have enough savings for a one way ship’s passage. Tomorrow the freighter Dante is on leaves for Australia. Once there, I’ll find a job and see where life takes me.” Through her misery Isabelle tried to put on a facade of eager anticipation, “I’ll also be able to keep tabs on Dante for awhile. I want him to go to a good home. Then, who knows. I might even make enough money cleaning stables to go to America. They call it the land of opportunity ….”

“Isabelle, you don't need to do that. Lavina has offered you a guestroom. She’s more than happy to have you there -- and when you get your head on straight, when you really know what you want to do, I’ll help you. I’ll take you wherever you want to go on the Rattler. And, as far as Dante goes, maybe an arrangement can be made ...”

“No, David.” Isabelle was firm, “I can’t keep depending on you and everyone here to help me out of my problems.”

“We’re your friends.”

Tossing two folded pairs of jodhpurs in her bag, Isabelle nearly snorted a laugh. “Lavinia’s a nice and extraordinary lady but she’s hardly my friend. The only reason she’s offering a room is because you asked her. That and because -- “ Isabelle recalled the woman’s concern for her several months go when Isabelle had badly cut her foot on coral, “-- she seems to have a thing for wounded puppies.”

“Lavinia offered the room on her own. I had nothing to do with it.” Grief thought for a moment and knew how much Isabelle appreciated honesty, “At first you didn’t make a very good impression on her, on a lot of people, when you arrived on Matavai but since you’ve been here we’ve all grown to care for and respect you. Even Mo.” Grief smiled, catching a glint on humor in Isabelle‘s profile as she packed, “And he was one of your biggest detractors.”

Isabelle had to chuckle. She always knew Mauriri, in those early days, was not an admirer. However, he was gentleman enough to keep his opinions to himself. Still, as time crawled by, Isabelle knew she had gained his respect with her fighting skills, tenacity and one special incident that would forever be etched on both their minds. “It’s funny how removing a simple piece of wood from a man’s gut makes him value you.”

There was quiet for a moment as both pondered over that time. Isabelle stared down at the suitcase and Grief studied her expression.

“Just so you know, you didn’t fail me, David.” she unexpectedly whispered.

Grief blinked his confusion, “I don’t understand.”

“I know, on the surface, you’re here because we’re friends and you want to help me. That’s what I’d do if our circumstances were reversed. But I also know that I’ve always been a sort of David Grief Success Story.” She continued quickly before he could interrupt, “You saved me from blind justice and from myself, you helped to guide me in the right direction and you’ve felt some pride that I stayed on track, only wavering occasionally.” Isabelle grimaced mildly then turned to look at him, her eyes meeting his. “Just because my life fell apart here, you don’t have to feel you’ve failed me, David. You deserve all the credit myself and the others have given to you. What’s happened here doesn’t change that.”

“Isabelle, whatever success you’ve made of your life here you did it on your own. I might have turned you in the right direction at one point but since then it’s been all you.”
 
It started right from the moment Isabelle was acquitted of Marcel’s murder and they turned the gold over to the French government. “As a matter of fact if it had been up to me …” He suddenly paused, recalling his thought of that time over a year ago. ‘I would have been more than happy to seen you turn, walk away, never to return.’
 
Back then it was true but later, as he watched her develop, as he noticed how self sufficient Isabelle Reed was and how she sincerely did make an effort to turn her life around, he felt warmed -- and a little guilty. Being honest was a good thing but, at a moment like this, Grief didn’t need to reveal too much. Isabelle needed encouragement, not constant reminders of where it was she had come from.
 
“Well, we all know how much you love the beauty of Tahiti, particularly Matavai, and how you want to live here for the rest of your life.”

“You’ve been talking to Clare, I see.” Isabelle tossed a few intimate garments into her bag. She looked quickly over to the bedroom window, noting how dark it was becoming outside. Night fell quickly this time of year in Matavai.

Grief, backing up slightly, leaned against a far wall, arms folded over his broad chest.

He had thought much less of Isabelle Reed during the beginning of their association than he should. He knew she was beautiful and, initially, vulnerable. He desired her and always felt Miss Reed would be a temptation if she stayed. She would cause problems between he and Lavinia and throw a monkey wrench into all project he’d undertake. She would be an interference -- and she was. But she was also a friend, a source of great amusement when times were hard, and invaluable help. Also - in many ways - she was his savior.

When others had deservedly turned their backs on him, calling Captain David Grief unreliable, Isabelle Reed had shown to pledge her support. She had saved him financially and emotionally. Without her help Grief would have lost the Rattler and if she hadn‘t killed a criminal, a woman he had been delusional over, he might to this very day have been lost. Without knowing it, Isabelle Reed had saved his soul -- and he counted on her. Sometimes even more than Mauriri.

Yet, had he ever told her how much he appreciated what she did? No. A small portion of his mind pushed away gratitude for a less than gallant point of view. ‘Certainly,’ his pride told him, ‘she’s been a support. But, after all I have done for her it’s only right that Isabelle should ….’ and Grief felt himself becoming furious over his own self-importance.
 
He was a product of the nineteenth century and as hard as he tried to disregard those lessons that had been taught to him by a smug father and subservient mother he found himself, at times, being an out and out hypocrite.

Grief could almost hear his father’s voice: “She’s a woman and a convenience but don’t let an occasional witty comment or an act of extraordinary capability confuse you. God created man before woman, David. That makes the female of a lower order. It is just the way it is, son. It's their curse and our burden.”

How old had he been when Father dispensed this advice? Seventeen? Eighteen? Perhaps too young to realize David Grief senior was a fool …and it had costs one innocent girl her life.

“I always wondered …” Isabelle started, pulling a skirt from its hanger. She then bowed her head slightly. “Never mind.” She pitched the skirt into the valise.

“No, ask me.” Grief requested, sincerely wanting to hear what she had to say.

“When you and Lavinia broke off your relationship ... was it because of me?”

Grief stared at Isabelle for a moment, astonished by the guilt in her expression.

“You two were so good for each other. It was obvious you were in love. Then, not long after I came around and started to flirt, you stopped seeing one another.” Shamefaced, Isabelle glanced once in his direction. She looked down again, folding a pair of socks. “If that was my fault, David, I’m sincerely sorry. I’m not going to lie and say I wasn‘t pleased when you were free but …”

“It wasn’t your fault.” he stated, “Lavinia wanted more from me than I was willing to give at that time. She deserves better and one day she‘ll find him.”

“Better than you?” Isabelle openly laughed this time but there was a sullenness in the tone that was jarring, “And here I’m thinking you deserve far better than *me*. Guess I know where I rate in the scheme of things.”

“Isabelle, stop talking that way.” he said, dropping his arms and moving forward. Grief’s tone had grown from concerned to troubled. “You are a remarkable woman. You’re smart, efficient, clever, beautiful and, if I do say so myself, you have a terrific right hook.”

With a roll of her eyes Isabelle handed him the garment bag, where she had draped three of her best dresses inside, and tying the front fasteners, mimed for David to hang it in the closet, out of the way. “But I’m so …”

“You’re remarkable. I’ve never seen a survivor like you.” he returned to her.

There was silence for a count of fifteen as Isabelle closed the valise. She dropped it to the floor next to her chest of drawers. “So, Captain Grief, tell me more good things about myself ...” she said and both laughed, a moment of humor in the midst of anguish. But just as quickly, it was gone and Isabelle was looking up into his eyes. She said nothing; just looked at David Grief as he gazed down at her.

“So this is it then.” he murmured, “You’re leaving tomorrow and none of us will ever see you again.”

“I wouldn’t say that.” Isabelle whispered, aware of how close he was to her. She could practically feel the warmth radiating off his tanned skin. It took all of the self control she possessed not to reach out and touch him. “I might come back one day. It all depends on where fate takes me.”

“Okay … well … I better leave then. You're going to need some rest.” Grief words did not match his motions, “I’ll see you off tomorrow, help you carry your bags, and maybe we can talk …”

“Thank you, David.” Isabelle said before he could go any further, speaking words he might eventually regret.

Again there was a pause. They both looked at one another.

Something was in the air.

Both felt it.

I don’t want to go.

I don’t want you to go.

He reached forward, initially to touch her cheek, to express sorrow, but then something happened that neither would totally understand for days and even weeks to come.

With an explosion of unabashed passion they came together and clung frantically. Grief crushed his mouth to hers as Isabelle clutched his shoulders, holding him to her possessively, as a greedy man might with a bag of free gold.

“Oh God, not now …” Isabelle cried mournfully between heated kisses, pulling herself half heartedly away just to feel his searing lips on her throat. “David … oh please don‘t …” But she couldn’t stop this anymore than he. She needed him so badly and had wanted him for so long …

“Isabelle … Isabelle …” Grief whispered over and over again, kissing the tears from her cheeks, running his fingers through her beautiful hair, finally revealing - through action - the pent up emotions he’d been feeling for so long.

They fell onto the bed together, whispering sweet words, pulling at each other’s clothing, carressing each other's flesh. They were a man and a woman who knew exactly what it was they wanted. There was no hesitation and they marveled at the gifts that were so beautifully displayed. The holding and touching was like a tonic. They held off as long as possible, experiencing one another to the fullest, until finally a culmination of desire wracked their bodies and they were lost …

They made love all evening, a hand on someone’s bare shoulder or a whisper in his or her ear was enough to ignite that flame of desire …again and again. Until finally, totally satiated, all they could do was sleep, exhausted, embracing one another, making silent promises that would be broken ….

***

When David Grief awoke the following morning Isabelle Reed was gone.

***

((TO BE CONTINUED))