Olivia was drifting in an emotionally exhausted stupor, close to sleep, when George’s voice roused her. She took in the tone, the words and the situation in one panicked second, froze, and forced herself to remain motionless, though every instinct called her to scramble up and run. She could see the pack; George had gone nowhere near it and she found it unlikely he was carrying the pistol. After all, not long ago she’d been pressing close to his body and would have felt it.
Irresistibly, the low-humor center of her brain produced Is that a pistol in your holster, or are you just glad to see me? and she smiled, relaxed, and started to calculate, judging by the shuffling of Brant’s feet how far away he was. Don’t go to George, Sam. Come to me.
“You are telling a falsehood, Mr. Merrill,” Brant said. His voice was controlled, chiding, but his breath was shallow and fast; he was… excited? Hurt, possibly? All that shifting of his weight…
“Maybe I am, maybe I’m not,” George replied. “Care to take the chance? Drop the gun.”
“You’ve given me no reason to do so.”
“Well, you might need two hands to get the knife out of your ass, for one thing.”
George. You didn’t. Did you?
Brant’s reply was stiff, and yes, he was in pain. “I shall leave it in place until I am able to staunch the inevitable bleeding. If it was a taunt, I congratulate you on your aim, but a sensible man in possession of a pistol ought to have shot first. You are unarmed, and”—he chuckled—“you have every reason to remember how good my aim is.” He moved a few steps toward her. “Of course, I might still miss you in the dark—perhaps I ought to choose the less demanding target?”
“No,” came George’s voice, harsh and loud, and then the sound of his footsteps. “Damn you, Brant. If you’re worried about the dark, I’ll make it easier for you.” Olivia tensed; he was coming closer, within feet of her and Brant now. “Go ahead and shoot. You’ll be doing me a favor.”
A corner of her mind was convinced she had heard that bit of dialogue before, and wondered where, but the thread of intellectual curiosity didn’t interfere with action. Whipping the cloak away, she rolled swiftly to her left, reaching out and seizing Brant’s legs below the knees, yanking him off his feet. He twisted in the air, the gun went off, and he landed with a thud on his right side; she pounced and secured his wrists.
George, thankfully undamaged, disarmed the struggling Brant and pushed him face downward. “Rope,” he said briskly. “And his lantern. And bandages of some sort. You’re going to have to take this knife out.” She stifled the protest and began to move toward the pack. Thank goodness they had brought rope. And she could rip up her petticoat in the time-honored fashion… why didn’t you do that to bind George’s cut?
Stop that. Concentrate.
“By the way,” George continued, “thank you. I had a moment of panic thinking you were asleep.”
She stifled a reply—not about to encourage your goddamned terrifying suicidal impulses—and brought the rope back. Together they stripped their enemy of his cloak, lifted him onto it, and cut rope with Olivia’s knife to bind his feet and hands. “Surgery, now,” said George, placing the lantern close to Brant as an operating lamp.
“Didn’t you do more first aid study with your father when you went home last month?”
“Yes, but… We didn’t have that much time.” Other family matters had taken precedence. “I think he’s right, though,” she said, jerking her head down at Brant. “You shouldn’t take an object out of a puncture wound until you reach medical help.”
“We are in a rather uncivilized part of the world, Miss Lake,” said Brant’s muffled voice, “and I should prefer to arrive at… whatever my destination with my dignity intact. The knife has not penetrated very far; Mr. Merrill is, at least, consistent in his endeavors tonight. I shall talk you through it,” he went on, shifting his head so his voice came clearer. “The first step is to remove the clothing around the injury. And please have some bandages ready.”
“I know. Elevation, pressure, rinsing, dressing,” she said, ripping at her petticoat.
“Your father knows what he is about. So… yes, you did get home after all.” He didn’t mean Minnesota. “I suspected as much. I stayed in the Christchurch area long enough to hear of Sir Roger’s success at tweaking strings. Armitage and Halsey were cleared of all charges. And Annabelle Harrison must have been meant to die. It was a quicker death than puerperal infection or a childbed hemorrhage would have been. Pity you did not marry Hector Armitage, Miss Lake; there is something fatal in his seed.”
Screw you. Now I’m going to make this hurt. Consistent with medical ethics, of course. Olivia slashed the waistband of his breeches with her knife and pulled downwards. He wore drawers underneath, and she cut them away as well. There was a lot of blood already, but it was possible to see old scars crisscrossing the pale flesh of the buttock; when she removed the cloth completely the pattern of an H was visible. She and George exchanged glances of something that was not entirely amusement.
“And how about Camilla?” she asked Brant.
“By now”—he paused, as if counting the passage of months—“she must be the mother of at least one miniature Halsey, who will no doubt follow in his father’s villainous footsteps.”
Olivia arranged the bandages in neat piles. “George, take off your coat and roll it up. And get off his legs. He won’t try to escape now. Will you? So… you don’t mind about Camilla?”
“The laceration she inflicted upon my heart is healed long ago.”
“Huh. Two years isn’t that long,” George said, handing Olivia the rolled coat. She pushed Brant’s hips up and to the right and slipped the bundle underneath; it was the best she could do for elevation above the heart. Actual, rather than poetical heart.
“I should not comment on my faithlessness if I were you, Mr. Merrill,” Brant said dryly. Personally, she would have added He jests at scars that never felt a wound, but Brant had studied medicine and music, not English literature, and besides it would have been desperately unfair to George. She suspected Brant knew that, too.
“I’m going to take the knife out now,” she said, trying to sound as though she had done this a hundred times before, instead of none. “George, I need you to apply pressure with your fingers here and here”—she placed folded bandages on each side of the blade and put his hands on top—“hard pressure, and don’t let go. I’ll slide in more cloth as it’s needed.” And please don’t bleed to death, Sam. Though it would solve several of our problems.
Brant gritted his teeth in anticipation, and the muscles of his buttocks tensed. “Relax if you can, Mr. Brant,” she said, kneading his lower back. “I’m sorry about no anesthetic, but it is the eighteenth century, you know.” As soon as she felt the tautness lessen, she wrapped her fingers around the knife’s handle and pulled.
It slid out with a surprising ease, and she tossed it aside, immediately reaching for more bandages and shoving them under George’s fingers. Redness spread quickly through the linen—it had been a nice petticoat, a bit too nice for Ms. Homespun of the Maine Wilderness, and she regretted it—but the blood was not spurting: Brant would survive. She put her hands on top of George’s to increase the pressure, replacing dressings until the bleeding slowed to a trickle.
Only when the emergency was over did the disquiet she felt at touching George reappear; she removed her fingers and went back to tearing strips from her clothing.
“I’m getting ready to bind this up,” she said, “but we ought to rinse it first. We drank all the wine, but we have a little water, don’t we?”
“A small amount left for dire necessities,” George said, “and I refuse to dump it all out over him.”
“How generous,” came Brant’s voice, tight with pain. “There is a house at a mile’s distance, with a well. I can give you directions.”
“The fort is closer, but I don’t know what their water source is,” George said. “And a large pond below the hill. I’d have trouble finding it in the dark.”
“In the wilderness survival netbook my father gave me,” Olivia proposed, “it said if you didn’t have enough water to rinse a wound, you could use urine.”
George abruptly released his fingers from Brant’s buttock, and she pressed hers in place. “No way in hell,” he said.
“You wouldn’t have to… apply it directly,” she said. “You could use the wine bottle.”
“I seriously question the hygiene of such a procedure,” Brant put in. His voice was slurred, but he sounded amused.
“It doesn’t have to be all that hygienic,” Olivia told him. “You’ll be back in the twenty-second century soon.” Not that soon. How are we going to move him?
“Nevertheless,” he said, “I should prefer… it is a suggestion I hesitate to make for several reasons, but… how about sea water? Mr. Merrill could fetch it in your bottle; I have another, nearly empty, and I should like to finish what is in it, then he could take it as well. You will find it with my bundle at the edge of the clearing. Along with a blanket to cover me; I am cold.” He used the doctor’s tones, mild but authoritative.
“You can have your blanket and your drink,” said George, retrieving them, “but I am not leaving Olivia alone with you.”
“He’s tied hand and foot, he’s weak from loss of blood, and he’s got an open wound that’ll fester if we don’t clean it. Do you think he’s going to run away?” She released her hands to check for bleeding; it had nearly stopped.
“Sea water isn’t hygienic either,” George protested.
“We can filter it through the rest of my petticoat to get the sand and algae out. He’ll just have to take his chances beyond that. But I really think we ought to. Medical ethics.”
“Blast medical ethics. He was ready to let me die in England.”
“And you want to be like him?” George stared at her, his upper lip almost twitching into a snarl, and then let his breath out in a huff of frustration.
“I’ll need light to get through the woods,” he said.
Olivia reached into the hanging pocket under her skirt, pulling out an object replete with pseudo-eighteenth-century craftsmanship: a combined comb, mirror and toothpick all in what purported to be ivory and ebony. She shoved it into George’s hand and maneuvered his fingers into the right places. “Press it here, here and here.” He did, and a beam of light streamed out, illuminating a pathway of rocks and mosses.
Dousing the light, he gave her a look that asked a litany of questions, but settled for one. “Where’d you get this?”
“Rinaldo gave it to me. A knife and a pair of scissors would have been more practical, of course.”
“That’s for sure. How utterly typical. Do you want to check your hair while I have it out?” He smirked, but she was less interested in his predictable reaction to the name than in Brant’s sudden attentive tautness.
“Just go, George. As quickly as you can. Oh, wait: you’ll need the other bottle first.”
Together they shifted Brant into a half-upright position on his right side. George held him there while Olivia uncorked the bottle and sniffed it: rum. Only a few swallows remained. “We could rinse you with this.”
“No. Thank you,” said Brant, and lifted his mouth.
“All right. I’ll try not to choke you,” she said, and held the bottle to his lips. When he had finished, they lowered him to the ground again, and George took an extra piece of rope and twisted it into a tidy contraption to hold the necks of the bottles. A grin flashed out when he was done; he had been practicing knot-tying and was still impressed with his own skills. She smiled back.
“All right, I’m off,” he said. “Don’t get her mad, Brant.” He went to the pack and returned with their pistol. “This one is loaded,” he said, placing it on the ground near Olivia. “Just in case.” He nodded a final farewell, threw his overcoat around his shoulders, and disappeared into the pines, leaving silence behind.
Recalling her medical duty, Olivia checked the spotting on the dressing, changed it for another, and laid a clean piece of linen over the exposed flesh. “I’ll put the blanket on you now,” she said, “but I’ll have to look periodically to make sure you’re not bleeding too much. Are you feeling lightheaded at all?”
Brant turned his face to examine her. The pain made him look older, more worn: a man tired both physically and spiritually, emptied out. “Olivia,” he said finally, “you have handled this quite well. Did you ever consider a career as a surgeon?”
“Not in the bloody eighteenth century,” she growled. “Pardon the appropriate language.” Then she relented. “My father wanted me to be a doctor like him. I would have been better at that than being a lawyer like my mother, I think, but I rebelled against both of them and took up academics.” And look where it got me. Should have listened, Dad.
“Ah yes,” said Brant. “I was a rebel as well.”
“So your parents aren’t Arcadians?”
He snorted. “Hardly. Quite content with the century in which they were born.”
“And you weren’t?”
“I thought I was. Might I have a pillow of some sort beneath my head, please? The rocks are uncomfortable.” She found the food sacks and rolled them together, placing the bundle under his head, and while she was at it wrapped herself in her cloak and threw some more branches on the fire. The night was very cold now.
“The racist agitators seduced me first,” Brant went on, obviously in a confessional mood, “and though I soon recognized how ludicrous their opinions were—it was one thing my parents got right, that humans are humans—I was in deeper by then. When I finished college I was instructed to go to work for a time travel company. I moved to Maryland where the industry was centered, found the local Arcadian cell. Met your husband. He got me an interview with Charles Constantine.”
She wanted to question him further about Bernard’s involvement, but turned her curiosity in a less personal direction. “What was it you were supposed to do, once you got the job?”
Brant smiled. “That is no doubt a question the Time Travel Institute’s prosecutor is panting to ask. I don’t believe this is the venue in which I will answer it. Although whatever civil rights the government deprives me of, it will at least allow me to sit up.”
“If you’re healed enough by then. How long did it take after the last time?”
“Not terribly long. It seems there are curative powers in sea water after all. And I had an attentive nurse.”
“A young woman with highly questionable morals, but with some of your ethical integrity regarding treatment of the sick. She had no reason to love me either. I had treated her once for the sequelae of a miscarriage, perhaps induced; she had been unable to conduct her usual business and was out of funds, so offered to pay me in the only coin she had. My refusal was harsh. But when she found me on the beach, half-drowned and bleeding and wanted by the law, she took me in. It was a Christian act, Olivia.” He stirred, perhaps trying to shift his weight off the uncomfortable mattress of Maine soil. “A sad pity the rest of her actions failed to match her compassion.”
“I don’t imagine you proposed to marry her and take her away from a life of degradation and sin. How else did you expect her to survive?”
“Some manage,” he snapped back. “But that is not what I referred to.” He drew in a deep breath. “She robbed me. She took the one thing I had left of value in myself. Not unexpected, perhaps, for a woman so steeped in harlotry, that her extracted fee was the same as the payment she had offered earlier; she knew it would humiliate me, but not how deeply it would wound. Deeper than Halsey’s sword cuts.”
“You could have said no.”
At that, he began to cry. It was at first irritating to watch, and then painful, and then agonizing. Olivia walked to the edge of the hillside to clear her head. The sliver of moon reflected off the water in a scattering of star-points, but little else was visible in the velvety pine-scented darkness. Somewhere down there, George was filling bottles in the lapping waves. He would be wet and cold when he returned; she wished they had towels. While she was at it, she wished they had soft beds and warm blankets and another bottle of wine, and coffee and doughnuts for the morning. And a horse. Or an airship. And fewer responsibilities, and no complicated loyalties, and world enough and time.
George’s handkerchief lay on the ground where he had dropped it; she picked it up and went back to Brant. His face was turned from her, and his shoulders no longer shook, but she could hear regular sniffs. Unfair to tie a man’s hands behind his back and then make him cry, unable to wipe his own snot.
“Sam,” she said. “Blow your nose. Here.” He turned back with an awkward grunt, and she held the handkerchief to his face, feeling strangely maternal; he blew and pushed it away with a shove of his head.
“You would not know how I feel,” he croaked. “It was a profound loss, and I still regret it. I have been with other whores since, however. Young and old, pretty and ugly, bold and coy. But never one who said she was a virgin.”
“What happened to the one who nursed you?”
His eyes flashed in the firelight. “I killed her.”
“Oh.” Olivia’s heart seemed to stop. “Oh, God.”
“Would not approve. She angered me, and I throttled her. And then I fled England. It was more or less an accident, but I thought I had better let you know, in case your pity led you to release my bonds.”
“Thank you. Have you killed anyone else? Besides Miss Harrison?”
An odd smile flickered over his mouth. “Not yet.”
Olivia felt very glad of the pistol beside her. “I have come to see,” Brant went on dreamily, “why so many men avail themselves of the prostitute’s services. So easy to erase the humanity, to consider your impact minimal—after all, you are one of many. You become insignificant.”
He had been a shy man in his English persona, appealingly shy; she could see him hiding his need behind a mask. “And is that what you want to be?”
“No,” he said, in a whisper that seemed to draw all the darkness in the clearing into himself. “Insignificance is none of my ambition. Besides, the prostitute’s client lies to himself: he can change her existence in an instant, can bring new life into the world, or death. As far as I know, I have not brought life.”
“But you haven’t brought time breaches, either, have you?”
He gritted his teeth. “No. Since here you are again.”
“Bernard did.” She couldn’t help expressing pride in her husband, ridiculous as it was. “We’re all in his time breach. It closes later on, I don’t know when, and when we jumped to Bourne Heath we followed that path instead of the known course of history.” Brant went very still, listening. “George and I have a theory about that. If a jumper goes into the past and makes a breach, a looped breach I guess you’d call it, those who follow that path will be the ones who’ve jumped with him. I did a sim-jump with Bernard when we were both still academics; you went with him to Arizona. Our DNA is linked with his in the machine’s memory. And either it’s infectious, or you’ve made your own looped breaches after all, because Rinaldo has been to this world as well.”
“He’s working for Constantine now?” She nodded. “My turncoat partner.”
“He didn’t turn right away, if that consoles you. He told the story of your tragic death at the Stamp Act riots with real flair. I’ve seen the news video; he had tears in his eyes. And he kept working for Timesmiths. It was only later, when he made an unconnected jump to London and saw you… you were with Hector Armitage, at a concert…”
Brant sighed. “I remember that concert, yes. And Rinaldo… saw an opportunity?”
“He didn’t dare approach you or try to bring you back with him, but he did do some investigation into Armitage’s background, then he came home and shopped you to… I suspect to the highest bidder.”
“No. I rather think he was looking for protection, and Constantine seemed the best bet.”
And how did he know to go to Charles? “Well… he’s certainly being conciliatory. Anyway, the next spy who was sent couldn’t find you. He was in the wrong universe. So we didn’t know whether you’d be there or not when we came.” In fact, they hadn’t even been told Brant was alive. Charles had gone more close-mouthed than ever when she’d been assigned to the jump, ostensibly to investigate methods and practices of tea smuggling. Ironically, had George gone alone, as originally planned, he would have entered the Brant-free time stream, as he’d never jumped with Bernard.
“But you found me. How… significant.” Brant’s voice had gone dreamy again. “There is a link between us, Olivia, whether it exists in the bowels of the time machine or the mind of God. A fortuitous and impersonal link, and at the same time unsettlingly intimate. Like the moments a man spends with a whore.” He smiled. “I should not think love comes into it.”
“Certainly not,” she said stiffly.
“No.” Two beats of uncomfortable silence, then: “I rather regret the deer.”
She was up and across the clearing almost before her conscious mind had processed the remark; it had refused up till this moment to question the timing of Brant’s arrival on the scene, being more concerned with the practicalities of armed conflict and battlefield surgery, but her subconscious instincts had all the time been aware of the violation, as the deer anticipates the penetration of the hunter’s bullet. But I am the hunter now, she thought, looking down at the pistol that had somehow found itself in her hand.
Brant didn’t seem to have noticed her departure. “No one,” he went on in the same abstracted tones, “has ever loved me. No one has ever lusted after me like that, either. To see the two of you, imparadised in one another’s arms… You did quite right to refuse him, of course. But… oh.” The last was an inarticulate, yearning noise that made Olivia’s gut churn, befouled everything she had ever felt for George, polluted the ground on which she stood. She wanted to vomit.
Shoot him now. No one will ever know. Except George, and he won’t tell. But she couldn’t do it.
Finally she lowered the gun and said, “‘The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.’ Imparadised… you’ve been reading Milton, Mr. Brant. I don’t think you quite make it as Satan, though, no matter what a snake you are.”
“And you, Miss Lake, are no Eve. We could be a tree of knowledge to each other, however. You have been honest with me, even if you did not intend it, and I shall be honest with you. Care to bite?”
She stared at him for a long moment, shifting the pistol in her hand. “I think I’ll gather some more fuel for the fire first. We’ll be here all night and it’s cold.”
“‘Is this the region, this the soil, the clime, this the seat that we must change for Heaven, this mournful gloom for that celestial light?’ I cannot think what Mr. Merrill sees in it, truthfully. Please do. I am sorry not to be able to render assistance.”
Wondering if Brant had read Paradise Lost after swallowing a dose or two of the Anamnex they’d left with him, Olivia gathered fallen pine branches from the edges of the clearing. She took as long as she could manage, to clear the lingering putrid odor from her mind, and then sat down by Brant again.
“Now,” she said. “About the Arcadians.”
“What is it you really want to know, Olivia?”
“I want to know why the Arcadians wouldn’t have let Rinaldo sell you to anyone else, if he’d gone to them first. What’s so great about you?”
“Nothing. I am, thank you, a snake and a hardened sinner. But—” He hesitated. “Might I please have my hands free? The pain is increasing, and I must move to have some relief.”
She was abruptly reminded that she hadn’t checked his dressing since first covering him. It was the last thing she wanted to do, but it was necessary; she yanked off the blanket and steeled herself to look at his flesh without revulsion. Playing doctor again wasn’t difficult; nothing but blood was visible.
“Shit.” Again, she applied pressure and bandages; it was not a heavy flow, only a constant trickle she could not stem. “You haven’t been taking blood thinners, have you? Self-treating for gonorrhea or syphilis? I don’t know the side effects.”
“I… nothing of the sort. They were all… and I have used protection without fail,” he stuttered.
“Glad to hear it. An herbal treatment, perhaps. Let’s try more elevation.” Uttering something like a prayer, and wondering where George was, she took up the knife and prepared to cut the rope on Brant’s hands, remembering at the last second to search his pockets first. Watch, coins, handkerchief: no weapons, no ammunition, and thank goodness no “protection.” As soon as his hands were free, she lifted them above his head; he sighed long and hard, and stretched.
“Now. Shift onto your right side.” George’s frock coat, now worth twenty minutes of lecture from Phoebe, went under Brant’s hip. The position was awkward, and she was about to make it worse. “I’m tying your hands again; I’m sorry. In front this time; it’ll be slightly more comfortable.” He said nothing, only positioned his hands for her to bind.
“You haven’t given me an answer,” she said. “Why do the Arcadians want you as much or more than Charles does?”
“They do not trust easily, and I have demonstrated nothing but indecisiveness. And they would want me silenced.”
“You know too much about what they’re doing?”
“Yes. And about who they are.”
“Bernard,” she whispered. “You’ll tell about Bernard, won’t you?”
“I should have to. I will not be allowed to hold anything back.” He smiled. “I thought we would come to this, Olivia. You are not a political beast, I think; you care nothing about the Arcadians, though perhaps you ought to. Your concern is all personal. If your husband’s reputation is ruined, you will not be trusted either, and your entertaining travels with Mr. Merrill will end. Sooner than they otherwise might. Or,” he went on, looking at her curiously, “could it be worry for poor Bernard? You know where he is, don’t you? You’re afraid they’ll try to bring him back?”
“How deep in was he?” she asked, holding her breath.
“Deeper than I was. It was a long-standing association.”
She shook her head. “He kept it a complete secret from me. I hope you’re wrong.”
“Oh, I am not wrong. You wish to protect him, then?”
“Certainly not if you turn me in.” His eyes met hers. “Here is the apple, Miss Lake. Not knowledge, but the withholding of it. Shall we pretend that you did not bind my hands again? That I tricked you into coming close, overpowered you, cut the ropes on my feet and fled? No one would blame you. I am a serpent, after all. I slither away.”
She held his gaze for a long moment, temptation gnawing at her. “I can’t,” she said finally.
Because it would only postpone the inevitable. Because I want this to end. Because George would know why I did it.
“Medical ethics,” she told him. “You’re bleeding, the wound will get infected, you can’t sit down. It would be wrong to let you go.”
“How very ironic. I could steal your antibiotics again.”
“Not if I don’t untie you. I’m not going to.”
“Ah well. It was worth a try. You will regret the choice.” He closed his eyes and lay still. She thought he must be profoundly uncomfortable, but it seemed he was past caring. When he spoke again, his voice had wandered far away. “What a lovely fire. You have taken such care of me. Thank you.”
“We didn’t build the fire for you.”
His eyes opened, and one corner of his mouth curled up. “Of course not. Do you hate me, Olivia?”
I’m too tired to hate anyone. “Yes.”
“At least I have made something enduring in my life, then.”
“Sam. What was your apple?” He was silent. “What did they promise you? You said insignificance was none of your ambition. Is that it? Making a difference?” The quotation bobbing in the shallows of her brain finally floated ashore. “‘Nor can they to that region climb, to make impression upon time’?”
“That’s very nice,” Brant said abstractedly. “What is it?”
“Andrew Marvell.” She hesitated, then added: “The Unfortunate Lover.”
He chuckled. “I shall have to read it. I will have plenty of time for reading, I imagine. That was part of it, yes.”
“And the rest?”
He shut his eyes, and it was so long before he spoke that she thought he’d gone to sleep, but finally he said, so quietly she had to lean forward to hear, “I was not a believer, then. I found God in the eighteenth century, and lost Him there as well; to me the Almighty will always wear breeches and a waistcoat. And a physician’s bob wig, perhaps.”
His mouth tightened, as though annoyed at himself for getting off the topic. “But I began to wonder, after a while, if they had been right. The ones who whispered in secret, after the meetings, of what our… impression upon time promised. Because at that point in my life, God seemed to be giving me…”
“All good things. A future, at least. I have none, now. Answered prayers. Hope.”
They fed him up with hopes and air… “But what was the promise?” There was no response. “Sam? Tell me.” Silence: his breathing slow and steady. “Sam?”
It was not until she was quite certain he slept that he stirred again and whispered, “Paradise.”
* * * * *
She had just decided it was high time to put some more wood on the fire, but had not yet persuaded herself to move, when she heard the crackling of branches and George stumbled back into the clearing. Pointing at Brant, she signaled her partner to quiet with a don’t wake the baby gesture.
George put the bottles on the ground with exaggerated, sarcastic gentleness. “Cold salt water on the ass makes a terrific wake-up call. How about it?”
“I’d rather let him sleep. I’ve had quite enough of him for the time being.” Her voice trembled, and George darted an intent glance at her; then he examined Brant more closely.
“You untied him. Temporarily.”
“He was stiff and sore, and I needed to change his position. He’s been bleeding a lot. Moving him tomorrow isn’t going to be fun. While you’re up, could you feed the fire?”
When George was done, he sat gingerly on a rock and put a hand to his back. Olivia knew she should ask to examine his injury as well, but she had no medical conscience left, no initiative, and no desire to communicate. She watched the dark shapes between the dancing flames fly and twist and dive.
“Sixpence for your thoughts,” said George finally.
“The market will bear it. What’s on your mind?”
“Cormorants,” she said, still thinking of Marvell.
“We can watch them in the morning if you’d like. I know that’s not what you mean, but I’m too tired to ask you to explain. What did you do with Brant besides change bandages?”
“Well, I figured. That’s the only reason I left you alone with him. Was it useful?”
“I don’t know.”
George made one false start on an utterance, stopped and cleared his throat, and tried again. “You know… I was almost expecting to come back and find you alone in the clearing.”
“You thought I’d let him go?”
“I wouldn’t have blamed you. I don’t like what’s going to happen either.”
“They’d only have sent us after him again,” she said. “And again. And again.”
“They don’t really have any other places to send us. Unless he was going to throw some clue over his shoulder when he left. We’ve been everywhere he mentioned in that diary Rinaldo found, that he left with his housekeeper.”
“But they still wouldn’t let us stop. I want it to be over. I didn’t even consider letting him go.” Well, barely at all. “I did almost shoot him at one point.”
George made it to her side in one ungraceful lunge, knelt and held out his arms for her to fall into. Surprised, because she hadn’t sounded that upset to herself, she nevertheless leaned into the welcome comfort and let herself be held for a minute or two, until the body next to hers ceased being partner support and became George. George the desired, George the dearly loved, George the ever-present torment. She pulled away.
“Don’t,” she said.
“I wasn’t doing anything.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” She patted his hand. “There’s no good solution. If I’d killed him, I couldn’t have lived with myself. And if we bring him home, he’ll testify about Bernard, and…” They knew the implications well enough. “But if we let him go, we’ll have to keep searching. Together. And… I can’t.”
“Which part can’t you?” George said tensely.
“Both parts. I’m sorry…” The “love” formed in her throat died in her mouth before it could live as voice. “I’m sorry. But I can’t work with you anymore.”
“If it’s about what happened earlier—”
“Well, of course it’s about that! What else did you think? That you took too long to get the damned water?” She let out a quick sigh of irritation. “You’re the best partner I could ask for. Constantine and Associates’ number one jumper, can skin a bear and play a minuet and tie knots and light fires and God knows how many other things, and I’ve even gotten used to you throwing yourself off cliffs without consulting me first, and… I can’t do it any longer. The way you look at me… the way you touch me… I never know if this is going to be the day I finally give in. I half-meant it to be, tonight. Just so it would be over. Done with.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “And we would have been… and he would have been there.”
“Oh, sweetheart. It won’t always be… Listen, I admit I got carried away; I suppose I should have checked the bushes. It was beautiful while it lasted, though.”
“It made me sick.” The bluntness shocked her, but it must have shocked George more. He moved abruptly away, back to his own seat. She felt compelled to push the knife in further. “I keep thinking what it would be like if I did give in. And then we found Bernard, someday. I think he’d forgive me for being unfaithful, particularly if it had been a long time… he’s been gone almost a year now… it would hurt him, but he wouldn’t hate me for it. But when he knew who—he’d just look at me in that way he has, and say ‘Oh, Olivia. George Merrill, of all people.’ And he’d be quite right.”
George sank his face into his hands. She watched his fingers clench and his shoulders begin to shake, and thought I cannot cope with another man crying tonight, but when he raised his head she saw that he was laughing.
“Oh, the shame of it,” he said between manic giggles. “Latest in a string of broken hearts, balled up and cast into the waste disposal unit when he’s through with her, just one of so many. My damned reputation. My fucking reputation, I ought to say.” He scowled, the laughter over. “Fine. I can do without the prick-teasing through history, too. And you deserve a chance to jump with someone who can keep his prick in his breeches. Rinaldo’s probably available.”
He took two long, ragged breaths. “Dammit, Olivia. If you’re so sure you’ll want to make things up with your husband when you find him—or the government finds him for you—then just tell me you’re not interested and leave it at that. You won’t let yourself have both of us—well, then don’t ask. I thought you cared about me, once; I was obviously wrong. If all you want is my body, you can have it any time you choose—I’m easy—but if you don’t, then leave me the hell alone.”
For answer, she stood, wrapping herself firmly in her cloak, and stalked back to the oak tree and the chilly moss and flowers at its foot. She lay on the ground and curled tight against the cold, tears blurring the shifting shadows and the flickering firelight and the dark that blanketed the trees and the rocks and the water.
The world was all before her, and she had chosen her place of rest.