They’d driven to the garage, but Colin and Johnny had already closed shop. Chloe begged off going to the Tavern once again. As much as Tina warned that she shouldn’t put off the inevitable, that it wouldn’t stop the Boyz from finding a way to pour all their interest and good-will on her, Chloe couldn’t deny herself an evening alone before taking the plunge. A more luxurious dive had been in the back of her mind all day: the large and deep garden tub in her suite, complete with a bowl of bath bombs and foaming bubbles to choose for her pleasure. By the time she slipped out of the suds and into the complimentary silk nightgown and soft velour robe from the armoire, her original determination to keep her stay short had softened to a satisfied “I could get used to this.”
She ordered room-service (delivered by a cheerful and entertaining Jeff) and settled on the balcony lounger to watch the evening make its exit. Gulls flew over and around the hotel as they made their farewells to the departing sun. Mackerel clouds quilted the sky above in ombre jewel tones: turquoise, amethyst, rose, and citrine. The atmosphere turned blue with dusk.
Utterly relaxed, Chloe watched the HMS Surprise rock gently in its moors, her spars black sticks against the remaining light. At one point, she heard the ting-ting of the watch bell and saw shadows move about on deck, as if they were part of a nautical clockwork diorama. It had to be a crew of the Boyz, Chloe thought, and she peered hard to see if she could detect Jack whittling away on his violin as he paced his brightly lit stern cabin. She’d not seen him since she settled into the hotel, remembered that Tina mentioned he was intent on practicing a new piece of music (new for him at least) for a performance during the festival. When he was so engrossed, Tina told her, he tended to avoid a lot of socialization until the main event.
I’ll have to make a point of stopping by to say thank you for the rescue. I wonder if he’ll let me on board his ship…
But it wasn’t Jack Aubrey that loomed up in her mind. A particular pair of green eyes and familiar accent washed out any nautical vision…
“Dont forget,” said a voice. A tiny movement just outside her peripheral gaze prompted Chloe to turn her head. Had she been sliding into sleep and not noticed that someone had come into her room and onto the balcony? Expecting Tina, she felt her heart skip with shock when she saw that the figure standing nearby was not her crime-scene technician friend at all.
She was more striking than beautiful, her hair parted in the middle and pulled back into a chignon at the nape of her neck. The dress was something out of a Dickens novel, black and demure, with a lacy white collar and brooch the only ornament to break the monotony of widow’s weeds. Chloe knew the face instantly, had become familiar with it in her childhood, fascinated by the story of a woman in the wilds of Texas when the area was just starting to forget the forays of Spanish conquistadores.
Chloe tried to sit up in her lounger, but her muscles were too relaxed to comply. She wasn’t entirely sure she should move. The woman’s attire and figure were solid enough – her skirts rustled as she stepped in front of her – but there was something of a skip, as if the edge of a prism passed over her whenever Chloe glanced away. The effect was disconcerting, to say the least.
“You’re Jane Long,” Chloe finally said. “Aren’t you…?”
“Your pebble,” the woman replied and pointed to the little glass table next to the chair, where the remains of her dinner sat, and the little pebble Pippin had given her sat for consideration. “You mustn’t forget that from now on.”
“Why?” Chloe challenged as she picked it up, rolled around in her palm. She’d been thinking of doing just that by dropping it off the balcony, or tossing it in the trash. “If I throw it away, will I be kicked out of the Point?”
“No,” the woman laughed. “You were invited here. It’d take a great deal more than the loss of a pebble for you to lose the Point.”
“Ha! Good pun,” Chloe smirked. “What is it, then? A kiss, like Peter Pan’s?”
“Pippin shouldn’t have done that,” Jane replied. She sounded reproving, but the grin at the corners of her mouth belied the judgement. “Such a little troublemaker…”
“I wasn’t dreaming?” Chloe asked, truly startled.
“You’re not dreaming now,” Jane replied, and sat down on the second lounger beside her as if there were such a thing in her time. Her skirts spread like a blanket, shimmering in the darkness of nightfall. “I am only that part of you which understands what the Point is about, the part that knows it to be true. I appear in form as one that exemplifies the qualities you sought in yourself when you decided to come to the Point. The pebble is to remind you of that.”
Chloe blinked several times as hard as she could. She was nearsighted enough to need contacts, but even her corrected vision could not seem to hold the image of Jane in focus for too long. And her words did not make sense at all.
“So you’re not Jane Long?”
“I am,” was the reply. “And I am not.”
“What are you?”
“I am the Point,” Jane said, firmly.
“You’re still not making sense,” Chloe snapped after several seconds of waiting for Jane to add more clarity to the statement. “Fess up or leave me alone.”
“I’ll leave you this,” Jane said, unperturbed by Chloe’s break in temper. “You may not realize it, but that pebble is what got you through the ordeal.”
“I can’t remember all of it. It comes in bits and pieces,” Chloe said. The images of falling and recovery were as slidey as Jane’s image.
“Remembering the events of that day is not what’s important,” Jane told her. “What you must hold onto is what that pebble represents. What Jane Long meant to you.”
Well, that was easy to remember: a young Maryland belle, married and with child, in the wake of her husband’s political ambitions, who found herself in the extreme environment of a bitter Gulf Coast winter, bluffing native hunting parties, scraping every morsel of food from the bay.
Was it all worth it when you learned of your husband’s death? Chloe wanted to ask, but didn’t trust that the answer would be made clear. This phantom, dream or otherwise, was playing with words.
“You…Jane…survived,” she chose to say instead. “You held on when everything else looked hopeless. You were independent and not willing to give up. You gave birth in a snow storm! You were one of the bravest women I’d ever read about.”
“Keep that pebble. You will need it tomorrow,” Jane replied, then stood once more.
“But you said…”
“Hush! You have a visitor!” She said, one finger at her lips, the other pointing to her door.
A doorbell sounded, made her turn her head. Who could be calling? When she looked back to Jane, the figure was gone, a ghost returned to the aether.
Trembling, Chloe fumbled to her feet, hastened to a mirror in the living area to check her appearance. Damp hair from the bath had dried to a jumble of curls and she looked like a blank slate without makeup. Whoever it was picked a fine time to be sociable! She flung open the door with half a mind to scold the interloper.
She recognized him immediately, even though he had long since shed the old fashioned trousers and braces. Levi jeans, Ropers, and Stetson in hand, not to mention a plum-colored shirt that brought out the green in his eyes, his figure was grounded solidly in the twenty-first century.
It was Cort.
“Chloe,” he stammered, taken by surprise. He fumbled with his hat. It was hard to tell in the dim lighting of the hallway, but Chloe was almost certain his face flushed. She pulled the robe tighter around her body, even though the shiver that went through her had nothing at all to do with embarrassment.
“Yeah?” she ungraciously asked.
He straightened and cleared his throat. “Oh…well, I thought I’d come by…that is, I hope you’re doin’ better….” He shifted awkwardly, as if he didn’t quite know what to do with his hands. “Forgive me, I thought you’d be at the Tavern tonight, but then Tina said you’d turned in already. I shouldn’t have disturbed you.”
“No, it’s okay, I’m fine!” she said, a little too quickly as he turned to go. Her nerves were jangling. Did he expect to be invited in? She wasn’t ready for company…but she didn’t want him to walk away, either. “Dr. Anthony said I should wait on going to the Tavern,” she lied.
“Well, I’m not here about the Tavern,” Cort rallied, and a small grin shadowed his mouth, as if he guessed her lie. “I’m here because Colin thought you’d want to go with us to find your truck. We’re heading out bright and early.”
“Oh.” The sound came out more disappointed than she intended.
“Do you want to go with us? We just need to know,” Cort pursued.
She didn’t relish the idea of getting up early, not when there was the big lovely canopy bed to enjoy in the morning hours.
“Y’all put this together for me, didn’t you?” She asked, conscious of the supreme effort they were undertaking.
It now seemed selfish and rude to say no.
“Yeah, I do. I want to go,” she replied. “I should check and make sure I got everything. But if it’s going to cause problems, then…”
“No, no not a problem,” he replied. “It’s just…it might take all day, and you probably have things you’d like to do back here…and we’re used to it out there…”
Chloe’s grin was rueful. Ah, the old chivalrous “don’t bother your pretty little head…”
“You think a little sun and sweat’s gonna be too much for me? Is that what you’re suggesting?” she calmly asked. Most women got offended by any implication they weren’t competent. She just liked busting little bubbles with a few facts.
Cort’s eyes narrowed, the question was she fixing to unleash on him? clear in his expression.
“Believe me, I’ve spent plenty of hours under a hot blazing sun before,” she explained. “Played with mounds of dirt and hauled heavy screens and tools. I’ve even crawled around in some pretty dank areas. I think I can handle a little walk in the woods.”
She told him why.
“Well,” he chuckled, and appeared to relax a little. Surprisingly, so did she. “You might be disappointed then. Not much dirt to speak of and it’s an awful long walk.”
“So, um, we’ll be taking the tow truck,” Cort went on, visibly relieved. “Colin’s fixed it so it can go through rough terrain.”
“A tow truck?”
“Yeah. Just the one contraption.”
“All of us in the tow truck?” On second thought...what did she think when she agreed to do this? Visions of being scrunched in between the men made her heart flip. Not exactly a bad prospect, but she hated being cooped up for long periods of time.
“Well, me, Colin, and Johnny…possibly Bud. I’ll be on horseback. Johnny might take an ATV. Colin’s the one with the experience with the tow truck. You can ride with him…unless, of course, you know horses…”
“Oh, no, no, no,” Chloe laughed, and realized that the relief on her own face may be all too obvious. “Last time I sat on a horse, I was five years old at the county fair and my father held the reins. You’ll be more comfortable if I ride with Colin.”
“I could change that,” Cort interjected. An eyebrow flicked up as if he were challenging her. “I’m real good at it, you know.”
It was on tip of her tongue to ask “good at what?” but caught herself. Not only did she not know anything at all about Cort, but a series of things that the various incarnations were known to be good at flicked through her brain. Good at singing, good at command, good at kissing…
“Change what?” She decided to ask, wondering if her cheeks were as red as they felt.
“Your fear of horses,” he said, as though she had completely missed the clue. “I can teach you how to ride.”
“Oh, I’m not afraid of them!” She stammered, but he went on.
“Just let me get through Saturday….and Sunday morning…then you and I can coax a horse or two out of the stables and spend time learning how to handle them,” he said, and his eyes were earnest, an indistinct color in the dim light of the hallway. Chloe found she could barely meet them once more. Cort came across as honest as day, but there was an intensity that sat restless behind his eyes, a sharpness she sensed would be a mistake to casually dismiss. “We work with greenhorns all the time. I always tell ‘em it’s not as hard as it looks but it does take some patience.”
“I’d like that,” she told him. Images of running horses and wind in the hair already captured her imagination. “Yes, let’s do that.”
A lull fell and she became aware of his proximity. They had drifted closer to each other. Self-conscious, she drew her robe tighter around her, tried to move away as naturally as possible. She still felt raw and unpolished, unused to the prevalent spirit of good will and curiosity. Only after several seconds of watching her did Cort himself look away.
“So, where do I meet y’all?” She asked to break the silence.
“Oh…at the big garage, goin’ down toward the stables. There’s little signs everywhere pointing the way. Can’t miss. Be there at seven a.m.”
The awkward silence persisted. He fidgeted with his hat, she fiddled with a stray curl.
“Well…” she began, her mind an absolute blank now. Escape or encourage? “Guess I should be getting to bed then…want to be able to get up in time.”
“Yeah, um…yes. Bright and early,” he said, and then gave her a wide grin that made her reach out for the doorjamb for support. “See you in the morning.”
“‘Nite!” she said, and slipped back into her room, closed the door behind her as gently as she could. Leaning against it, she took a few deep breaths.
Dear God, what a dork I can be! Please spare me making an utter fool of myself tomorrow! Or make me violently sick to get me out of this. Whichever. I came here to get away from insecurity, not…not…
Damn it. Did you have to make his eyes and voice so kind?