Cave of Living Memories
Summary: Marguerite is lost in a cave and Roxton must find her.
Disclaimer: The Lost World does not belong to me. *sigh* It belongs to New Line Television, the Over the Hill Gang, et al, …
Author's Note: Not canon, since this was written before I saw the last six episodes of Season 3; "The Secret", "Finn", and "Suspicion" have happened, but I didn't know enough about Finn to include her - and I like Ned, so he's home.
Lord John Roxton followed the booted footprints through the bushes, and found yet another cave entrance. But this one only had boot prints going in; no boot prints came back out.
He shook his head in exasperation, and set his rifle down against the rocks.
She must have found something interesting - gems, most likely - and lost track of time. She probably had no bloody idea they'd been looking for her for three hours, ever since she'd not come back to the campsite for lunch as they'd agreed this morning. He called over his shoulder, "Veronica! Over here!"
The blonde jungle girl came running as he shrugged off his backpack and drew out the torch that extended from it. When she burst through the shrubs and saw the cave entrance her blue eyes widened in recognition. She held up one slender hand as she noticed the tall hunter preparing to go in. "Wait!"
"What?" He tensed at the warning tone used by the young woman.
"I know this cave. See those markings?" she pointed to some scratches above the irregular gap in the rocky hillside that served as the cave entrance. "This is the Cave of Living Memories."
He quirked an inquiring brow at her. "Living Memories?"
Veronica nodded. "The natives come here to remember those who have passed ahead. There's something about the cave that recreates your memories. I know that sounds odd," she added with a frown at the tall Englishman in rebuke for his clear disbelief. "But the cave really does bring your memories to life - or at least, you can see images of things from the past. You can't really touch the visions, but they look almost real, and you can hear them. There are several tribes whose members come here so their grief or loss can be assuaged by visions and pleasant memories of the ones who have died." Veronica paused to take a breath, then said, "But . . ."
The handsome hunter scowled. "There's always a 'but' on this bloody plateau!" he muttered.
Veronica nodded again. "It's like a maze in there. And if you go in without knowing that you must guard your thoughts and only focus on the memories you want to see . . ."
Roxton's head came up sharply. He pushed aside the abhorrent thought of his brother William's death being presented to him as if it were real again, without any forewarning. Marguerite, with her past demons, had gone in there without a clue about what would occur! Who knew what she was facing - and she hadn't come back out!
Veronica could see her friend had realized the possible danger. "The cavern floor is far from smooth in many places, so it's easy to trip and fall. And if Marguerite saw something - or someone - and didn't know it wasn't real . . . if she ran, Roxton, then it's likely she's either hurt, lost or both. If her memories weren't pleasant ones, if she happens to dwell on the things she fears,…"
Roxton cursed under his breath, because they'd all realized long ago that the mysterious Miss Krux hadn't enjoyed much pleasantness in her past. "She could be stuck in there seeing and hearing her worst memories come to life. And if another person goes in there?" he asked. "Will I see her memories, too? Or will I only see my own?"
"You'll see her memories, yes," Veronica nodded. "And the longer you're in there, the more of your memories will come to life as well, mingling with Marguerite's. But if you focus, think only of good memories, you can control which memories live again, and suppress the memories you don't want to relive. Roxton," she put her hand on his arm to stop him as he would have moved into the cave. "The more of us in the cave at one time, the more convoluted the images will be in passages more than one person's been in. If Marguerite is already confused or hurt, we'll make it harder for her. You have to let me go alone to find her. I know the way. I spent time here when I was missing my parents."
He shook his head, eyes on the black interior of the cave as he was lighting the torch. "I can understand only one of us going to get her. But it will be me, not you, Veronica. If Marguerite is hurt, I can carry her out. You'd only have to come get help."
The blonde hesitated, then said softly, "John, she has secrets she won't take kindly to you learning about like this. And if she's been facing those demons she's hinted at having in her past, and needs your strength . . . You can't truly know that your love won't be shaken by whatever she's done in the past. For Marguerite's sake, in case she's right to be cautious . . . I should go, so you can be here for her when she comes out, wholeheartedly and without reserve."
Roxton was taken aback by her open reference to his feelings for the dark-haired former heiress; it was the first time one of their housemates had spoken so bluntly about his devotion to Marguerite. He knew the others were aware of his feelings for her, and had appreciated that they'd refrained from teasing or interfering in his courtship of the skittish brunette. But it was disappointing to learn that Veronica, too, harbored doubts about whether his love could withstand knowing Marguerite's history. "She can't have done anything worse than what I've already imagined, and I don't love her less because of the inane possibilities I've dreamed up," he growled at Veronica. "You should know me better than that! Her secrets won't change my feelings for her."
She wasn't intimidated by his ire. Slowly, carefully, she said, "John, based on the little we know for certain, Marguerite has lived in a world that I think has depths and darkness I'm not sure any of us can imagine. Remember, too, that one reason she's kept those secrets is to protect us, not just to protect herself. I think she wants to protect you most of all. You know she'll react better if it's me that sees whatever her secrets are . . . than she will to knowing you've seen into her soul. She values your opinion more than anything in life, Roxton," she concluded softly.
That made him grin wistfully. "I wish that were true. I admit, lately I've had reason to hope. Maybe this is exactly the right opportunity to prove to her that there really isn't anything in her past that could make me turn my back on her." He shifted impatiently, and said, "She's in there alone, Veronica. You wait here. Trust me." He patted her shoulder. "I'll bring her out."
Veronica sighed and resigned herself to letting him go in alone. At least he was on guard and prepared for his own memories, if not for Marguerite's. And hopefully, she'd given him sufficient reminder of their friend's fear of his rejection to temper his reactions to whatever events he might find repulsive in her living memories. But whether he handled it well or not, Veronica suspected Marguerite was going to be furious with her for letting Roxton step into that cave instead of going in herself.
Roxton left his rifle but took his backpack, in case he needed rope or medical supplies once he found the errant beauty to whom he'd pledged his heart. He gave one last grin to the blonde watching him so pensively. Then he lifted the torch and stepped into the shadowed passageway.
Almost immediately he turned a corner, then another, cutting off all sign of daylight from the entrance. He turned the next corner - and came face to face with his brother William. With a start of alarm, John jumped backwards.
Then he smiled wryly at himself. Prepared, hah! He'd just been thinking how he would've felt if he'd entered this cavern without knowing that he could possibly walk into William, unprepared to see and hear his brother's death all over again.
And here it was.
The blood was spreading around the gaping wound in William's chest, and that look that John could never forget was in his brother's eyes - realization, shock, pain, fear . . . John could hear the echo of the shot, see the great ape falling, see William totter. . .
Another image appeared, of himself as a much younger man, dropping his rifle and rushing toward his brother. It was as if he was watching himself react to the horror, he realized, as if it were happening for the first time all over again. Odd, that his memories should include an idea of how he himself had looked and behaved. Or maybe not so odd, since everyone had a mental image of himself.
He steeled himself and reached out a slightly trembling hand toward the African scene. His hand passed right through the image, though the likeness kept moving, his brother falling to the ground slowly even as the image John reached him and dragged him into his arms. He could hear himself moaning William's name, hear Rice's excited shouting as he marveled at the shot that had brought down the great ape and the trophy it would make. He saw his own agony, his desperation in trying to staunch the blood, yelling for a doctor, wailing out his grief as his brother's life expired.
Roxton shook his head. It seemed so real! No wonder they called it the Cave of Living Memories.
Another sound caught his attention, coming from behind him. He whirled around, tensing. There was a new image there, one he hadn't noticed before. This one was a stranger dressed in a German uniform, and though Roxton had known many Germans during and after the war, this was a man he didn't recognize. This must be one of Marguerite's memories.
The soldier was pulling out a gun as he ran toward Roxton, continually calling out an order in German, obviously commanding someone to halt, then firing his gun. More Germans appeared behind him, also giving chase. It was an alley, or a dark street, crooked, and now from ahead of the angry Germans a shadowy figure sprinted out of the darker shadows by the wall, breaking into a run.
He knew the movements of that person. That was Marguerite, running from pursuit by the Germans.
Okay, so the first memory she'd seen in this cave was of being chased by Germans firing guns at her. The memory had probably been provoked by this twisting passage, which bore similar characteristics to that twisting alleyway - and of course she would've ducked and run from the convincing images and sounds, reacting instinctively to the danger. She wouldn't have had any reason - yet - to suspect that it wasn't real.
Roxton turned from the image, and saw that the replica representing his brother's death was replaying. Apparently the memory images just kept repeating over and over. He braced himself and walked right through it, following the passageway as Marguerite must've done earlier this morning.
The passages branched out around the next bend, giving him four choices of direction. Which way had Marguerite run? He could hear voices down two of the four dark rock tunnels, and chose to try the far right one first.
There were cross connections, more dark passages branching off, intersecting then winding away, and he could hear more and more voices from all of them as he continued on. Apparently, the number of memory images increased as the cavern was penetrated further.
The first war-time image must have triggered a slew of war memories for Marguerite, because he walked through at least two dozen more memory scenes involving Germans. He quickly gathered that his lady had been "flirting" - more like seducing, and with more than a little success - with quite a few of these . . . peacocks.
Everyone was speaking German, including Marguerite, so he couldn't understand much they were saying. But it was clear that she'd endured some near brushes with drunken officers – in one memory image she killed an officer as he tried to grope her, one quick knife thrust, then turned her back on the man without hesitation and ransacked his desk in search of something - and there was a succession of images in which Marguerite was imprisoned. He rounded another turn in the path and saw a pair of soldiers beating her brutally in an interrogation chamber.
Roxton abruptly found himself doubled over in pain because he'd smashed his fist into the stone wall while instinctively trying to punch one of her tormentors. He rubbed his aching hand at the painful lesson as he continued toward the next curve in the path; no more taking swings at mere reflections of her memory in defense of his lady, he sternly rebuked himself. He braced himself for whatever might be around the bend ahead.
Yet the next one still took him off guard, until he remembered Askwith's little stunt stranding them in his cursed dirigible, and how Marguerite had recognized Winston Churchill when they'd been taken back in time to that airfield during the war.
This was not a memory from their adventure with Askwith. The image in front of him was of an office, full of British uniformed men and women, maps and charts and machines. "Winnie", as Marguerite had called the intelligence mastermind during their encounter with him in the past, was in this memory image, and this time Roxton could understand the conversation perfectly since it was in English. It didn't take long for John to realize this was a top secret war room.
What on earth had she had to do to infiltrate such a top level place? And why had she wanted to? His stomach clenched with suspicions that made him feel ill. When he'd first met her, the former heiress's single-minded pursuit of wealth at any cost had been one of her outstanding traits. But he'd at least thought she was a loyal patriot, based on his impressions when the group conversation had touched on the Great War. Who could've paid her enough to betray England?! And why had she been running from Germans in the other memories if she'd been working for them? Then the words of the image Churchill sank in, and he sucked in a breath of relieved realization. She hadn't been spying for the Germans or seeking some financial gain for herself – she'd been spying for Winnie!
The pudgy man was pointing to positions on the map, and telling a much-younger Marguerite that it was vital to get this information - actually, misinformation - to the German high command, in order to successfully trick the Germans into committing their forces in the wrong place. Of course, the stocky intelligence master was saying dryly, no need to remind his best operative that she'd have to beat a hasty retreat once the information had been passed on. Her cover would be blown as soon as the real battles began and the enemy realized she'd passed on blatantly false information. The Germans would know for certain then that she was really a British agent, and hadn't been working for the Axis as she'd led them to believe these last two years.
And she would have to use her own ingenuity, Winnie was adding apologetically. He couldn't risk sending anyone else to help her get back out of Germany - not that he had anyone else who could do it besides Margie anyway. He was obviously concerned for her safety, fond of her, and just as obviously felt that he was asking her to commit to carrying out what was almost certainly a suicide mission.
Marguerite - Margie - was laughing it off as the least she could do, since he'd given her official reason to continue as an international jewel thief. She assured him lightly that she'd use that reputation to get her out of Germany. She had a plan in mind, she told him, and he could expect to hear from her again once she'd made her way to Cairo. She casually said she'd suspected her usefulness in Germany was nearly at an end, after so many close calls in a row, so she'd already laid the groundwork to follow a lead on a traitor fermenting rebellion among the Arabs . . . if he was still interested in that?
Winnie was definitely interested; he shook his head in admiration, saying she was always a step ahead.
Roxton grinned to himself, and forced himself to move on from the intriguing set of memory images, reminding himself that Marguerite was lost in here somewhere, and might need help.
Still, he was glad that he'd paused to see and hear that image. Now he understood why she'd known Winston Churchill, and why the Germans probably still wanted her dead. She'd been a double agent during the war. And her career as a jewel thief had apparently been government sanctioned, not just a matter of greed and poor morals!
Naturally, the memory images moved on to the Middle East. Cairo . . . Avery Burton had remembered her from this time, Roxton realized. Marguerite had fit in well there, with her coloring and the addition of some kind of juice to darken her skin. Trapped there in a jihad inspired by the traitor, the images of that place, and the things she'd done to get information to authorities - and to survive - had his stomach churning as he passed through without stopping to investigate further. He saw enough to gather that Marguerite had been betrayed in Cairo by a man she'd apparently trusted. Just a glimpse of those memories of her dealings in Cairo was enough to confirm that she'd been in as much or more danger here as she had been while in Germany.
She'd been taken prisoner, but wasn't in prison. He paused to try to figure out what was going on as he studied the images of his favorite heiress dealing with her captors and the jihad. It would be helpful if these images came with translations to English, or even French, which he spoke fluently. But the images were true to her memory, and since she spoke Arabic fluently . . .
He marveled again at the petite brunette beauty's command of linguistics. She certainly wasn't having any trouble communicating with the Muslim Middle Easterners in these images.
She was a chameleon, continually changing languages, changing allegiances. One moment she was a demure British woman begging for protection against the heathen, the next she became an Arabic dancing girl plying powerful men for secrets, using her beauty to gain entrée to places no male spy could have managed. Image after image, she was doing whatever it took to avoid detection for as long as she could, getting information for Britain – at least he knew that much, based on what he'd seen earlier - and then maneuvering to escape capture. How had she kept her sanity doing this?!
Roxton noticed but ignored images from his own memories as he moved on and continued searching for Marguerite through the maze of intersecting tunnels that seemed to make up the cave. Because he was focused so intently on Marguerite, the images coming forth from his own memory were of her and their time on the plateau. But he couldn't indulge by stopping to admire the images of her beauty, or to shake his head over the mischief she sometimes caused, or to dwell on why he was remembering some of the images that were showing up. Time enough later for that. For now, he needed to find her.
It didn't take many passages to realize Marguerite's memory images seemed to be grouped by similar time periods or trains of thought.
He passed through one grouping of images where she was just a child. There was never a problem identifying Marguerite; her long dark curls and silver-green eyes were distinctive even when she was little more than a toddler. Also, she was always the child that was the object of derision and taunting in the images. He saw other children mocking her about staying behind in schools for the holidays. He saw her alone with teachers and tutors at private schools and in convents.
He paused to watch one image that caught his eye. Perhaps only five or six years old, she was opening a small trunk, taking things out until she could reach a carved wooden box - a box she still had, he realized as he recognized it as the one she used to hold her special treasures. The pretty child sifted through the ornate box, and lifted out that little locket she cherished so much as an adult, opening it and reading off the inscription.
Marguerite had never shown him the inscription, but once he heard the wistful longing and loneliness in the tiny child's voice as she read the words aloud, he understood why the simple piece of jewelry was so precious to his lady, and why she'd brought it with her to the plateau. After all, he'd recently learned that she'd come here in search of her identity. And that locket was her only link to her parents and her real identity, so of course it figured largely in her memories of her childhood.
Heart aching for the isolation she'd experienced, he resumed his search, silently vowing that he'd make sure she never felt so alone again. But he couldn't help pausing once more as he saw her in a library, at the elbow of a priest who was studying a scroll. She was even younger here . . . no more than four, he decided as he watched the priest take her up onto his knee, questioning what she was doing down in this musty library instead of outdoors playing with the other children. She replied stoically that the bigger girls didn't want her to play, and asked him what he was reading. He told her it was an ancient script in a language called Greek. He looked at her kindly, and suggested that her father had probably studied Greek when he was a young fellow.
Her wide green eyes lit up with excitement, and she demanded that he teach her, too, so she could be like her daddy. The old priest laughed gently at the idea, but indulged her. Roxton saw his amusement change to interest at the speed with which the child grasped the meaning of symbols. He told her she was gifted and began to teach her in earnest, much to Marguerite's glowing delight and satisfaction.
Roxton realized he'd just seen the beginning of Marguerite's education in linguistics. And he'd also learned why it had interested her; languages had been a connection with her missing parents, gone to who knew where.
John pulled himself away from the first nice memory he'd found among these reflections of her past. He had to keep moving on until he found the missing beauty.
About to step through another image that seemed pleasing on the surface, he paused, a scowl darkening his brow as he realized there were tears trickling down Marguerite's face as a French Sister brushed her hair with short, hard strokes. The adorable little girl was perhaps seven or eight by now, and there was a growing expression of grief in her young face at the woman's words. The nun was scolding Marguerite, saying what a bother it was to have to look after such a troublesome child. She muttered bitterly about having to work through all the tangles of the thick wavy hair, and how much work it was to have to look after Marguerite, since she never went home like the other students.
The woman wasn't even trying not to hurt the child as she yanked the brush through the lovely hair. All the while she just kept going on and on about how it was no wonder her parents had never come back for her, when she was so much trouble to see to. She didn't blame the child's parents at all for leaving her for others to look after year after year. She told the sensitive child it wouldn't surprise her if her parents never came back for her at all, since she was such a horrid child.
Roxton wished he could smack the selfish woman who was so thoughtlessly wounding an already insecure, lonely little girl with that nonsensical idea that it was her own fault that her parents had not returned for her, that she was unworthy of their love. Grimly, he moved away from the image, determined anew to show Marguerite that she was not alone in this world, didn't have to rely only on herself.
He noted and tucked away other images for further reflection later; glimpses of conflicts with other students, condescension and pity from teachers and caretakers who really didn't care, spread across about a dozen different schools. Always, there were the same attitudes toward the young, lovely but lonely girl from the people who belonged in these places, while she clearly did not belong anywhere.
Even when he couldn't understand the languages, he could tell by the tones and expressions that she'd never found acceptance at any of the many schools that boarded her through her youth. John could see the developing attitude of cold hauteur building through her youth, used effectively to shield her heart from the spitefulness, envy, and cruelty of both her school mates and the adults who were supposed to be raising her.
Then he saw someone he recognized - Adrienne. It was in one of the schools, and everyone was speaking French. Rebellious, angry, about 17 years old, the vivacious redhead was sitting on the stomach of a very well dressed fellow student, hands threateningly around the other girl's neck, telling her there was a lot more in store if she continued to mock Marguerite for having to stay at the convent school over Christmas. She told the other girls, who encircled the little tableau listening in shock, that it was unfair of them to rub Marguerite's nose in it for something she couldn't help, and that they'd have Adrienne Montclaire's wrath to face if they didn't start being nicer to Marguerite. She let the other girl up then, facing the group of school girls with narrowed eyes as she told them all to get out.
Marguerite, clearly a couple years younger than her new champion, had watched all this in stunned amazement. She stayed behind when the others left, and confronted Adrienne. Why had she done that, she'd asked, searching the red-head's lovely face.
Adrienne had laughed and declared that she'd taken a liking to "Madge", even if "Madge" was a bluestocking! They were going to be friends - best friends! And she scolded Marguerite for letting the others walk all over her like that.
Marguerite responded, with a very French shrug, that it didn't matter. She was always moving to new schools. Roxton smiled grimly at the façade of indifference the fifteen year old Marguerite hadn't fully mastered yet.
Why did she change schools so often, the image Adrienne asked curiously.
Marguerite didn't know. All she knew was that one day the headmistress, or Mother Supreme, or whoever was in charge, would call her to the office and tell her to pack up in preparation for being sent on to another school.
Adrienne asked a lot of questions very quickly, and Roxton shook his head as he heard the answers of the dainty young beauty with the masses of dark wavy hair tumbling to her waist.
No, she didn't know who her parents were, or where they were, or if they were ever coming back. She did admit to having sneaked a peak at correspondence once. She'd learned that the latest move to another school had been authorized by a law firm in Paris, the same one that forwarded her school payments and generous quarterly allowance.
Her new friend wanted to know why she stood for it, why she hadn't demanded to know what was happening, and where her parents had been all this time. Hadn't Marguerite ever received even a letter from her parents since being left at her first school? Or anything from any other relatives?
No, no letters, no gifts, no contact at all with her parents, and no hint of interest from any other family member. To the best of her knowledge, no one had ever asked after her or checked on her progress, except that law firm.
Adrienne wanted to know why Marguerite bothered with studying, then.
Her silver-green eyes lighting up, Marguerite explained to Adrienne that she often imagined her parents were explorers, gone off to discover secrets of ancient societies, and that the life was too rough and dangerous for them to take her along. But one day they would send for her to join them, the young brunette added with a dreamy look.
When Adrienne asked curiously how she'd decided on that scenario, Marguerite shrugged and said she couldn't remember why, but it had been her theory for as long as she could remember. Then she'd added that if nothing else, she was learning cultural skills that would enable her to search for her parents anywhere in the world.
John Roxton nodded grimly to himself. He knew why she thought her parents were explorers. It was that old priest who'd told her that her father probably spoke Greek, and talked about the lives of famous explorers as he taught her the ancient languages. It had all merged in her young mind as an explanation of where her parents were and why they'd left her.
The image Adrienne declared that while world travels were fine for the future, Marguerite was much too serious for the present. Now that they were going to be friends, Marguerite would have to learn to lighten up, have some fun!
The teenage Marguerite smiled, intrigued by this first person to show interest in her as a friend, and willing to follow the lead of the older girl.
Roxton grimaced ruefully at the mischief in the red-head's dancing eyes. He moved forward in the passageway again, scanning the images. Oh, Adrienne had certainly taught Marguerite some things! She'd been years beyond her protégé in worldly experience and had gotten the two of them into some deep mischief at school, then had taken Marguerite with her when she decided she'd had enough of school.
Their first stop had been Paris.
Paris. The Fat Boy's Club. The Fat Boy's Club?! A night club?! Marguerite?!
Whoa! He stopped and stared, astounded. Marguerite could sing!
Well, he'd known she'd had the usual young ladies' courses of study in the schools; he'd glimpsed music lessons, sewing lessons, and art lessons in the memory images along with the usual academics – she definitely enjoyed learning, something he'd suspected but doubted she'd admit. He'd quickly passed by the images of Marguerite's vocal scale practicing, without paying much attention. But with the popular songs and ditties she was performing in these new images - she had the voice of an angel, and a natural stage presence. And she seemed so free and happy while singing, relaxed and genuinely enjoying herself! He'd rarely ever seen her so carefree, and he'd never heard her sing like this. Had something happened since then to injure her voice? Was this how she'd really sounded, or was it merely how she imagined herself sounding?
Roxton saw in successive images that Adrienne had accompanied on piano for her, and they were saving up their money, planning to go to Monte Carlo to meet handsome, rich young husbands who would adore them and lavish them with love and gifts - beautiful gowns, jewels, servants, homes of their own.
Oh, they were good together! And naturally both young girls were a big hit with the patrons. Of course Adrienne in her element, but Good Lord, the danger Marguerite was in - an innocent sixteen year old at the Fat Boy's!
Sure enough, she wasn't 'innocent' for long.
Roxton turned his head and hurried away from the image of the handsome man who seduced her with flattering words and implied promises, making her bright eyes shine with adoration and dreams that all-too-quickly faded to Marguerite's more familiar disillusioned cynicism.
The British Lord's hazel-green eyes narrowed and darkened as he walked through a series of images where the pair of young beauties were subjected to "protection fees" by several men, and suddenly their lives were no longer their own. There was a confusing jumble of half-formed images, and then Roxton saw Adrienne telling Marguerite that they had a way out.
The older girl had been approached by a man with a proposition. It would be easy. The man had contacts and would tell them the names of certain men with certain valuables. All the girls had to do was take turns keeping a man occupied while the other one found and took those particular items. Afterward, they would receive a percentage of the resale value. Madge needn't worry, Adrienne assured her, she didn't have to sleep with the men, just flirt enough to keep their attention. If it needed to go further than that, Adrienne would handle it, she promised the younger girl with a gleam of anticipation in her eyes. It wasn't ideal, but it was only until they could save enough of this extra cash to afford to break away from the situation at the Pit.
John Roxton glared at the image Adrienne as he stalked deliberately through the scene that hovered over the stone floor. Now he knew where Marguerite had learned the value of gems, and how to be a thief. This was also where she'd mastered using her beauty to sway men to her own purposes, under the older girl's tutelage. How Adrienne had become so expert, he had no idea and didn't really care.
Roxton passed through far too many images like these, hating it, but realizing she'd done these things so that she and Adrienne could gather enough to flee this place where their talent had been used against them so easily. They were both clinging to their dreams of a secure future with husbands who would love and protect them - Adrienne as much as Marguerite, he admitted to himself as he continued down the passageway.
He saw the two girls' desperation grow as instead of freeing them, their activities drew them deeper and deeper into the darker side of life and exposed them to the control of even worse men. The stolen articles became more and more valuable, the danger greater and greater, the need for lying, thievery and deception increasing exponentially just for them to survive... and he saw the men who came and took Adrienne away after she hid some of the jewelry they'd been told to steal. She'd told Madge that this was their private stash, for freedom, and with her last look at Marguerite as she was taken away she shook her head 'no' when the slim brunette had motioned toward the hiding place. She hadn't wanted the younger girl to turn over their private cache, but to keep it and use it for the future they had dreamed of together.
Roxton had to concede that as bad for Marguerite as Adrienne had been, their friendship had been genuine. The reckless young woman had been as true a friend as she could to the younger girl.
And Marguerite had been right when she said there was no way Adrienne had escaped those people.
He saw Marguerite's own hair's breadth escape from the same fate as she fled Paris. How sad that her only 'friend' had been someone like Adrienne, who had led her into bad habits and dangerous alliances.
Roxton determinedly kept moving on, and turned to the next corridor of the cave. But he caught his breath sharply, stopping dead as he saw the images here.
A man was violently beating Marguerite.
Not a soldier. This was happening in a large, well-furnished mansion. He was well-dressed and well-groomed. He was also drunk. He was raving, in French, that it was all her fault, that if Marguerite were more of a woman he wouldn't need to find satisfaction elsewhere!
Marguerite was about nineteen or twenty, Roxton estimated. He was frozen in place as he saw that every image in this passageway was similar to this one. She was battered, bruised, abused both physically and emotionally before his eyes. Numbly, he gathered from parts of the conversations that this was one of her husbands.
He finally forced himself to move forward, through the nightmare images. Accusations, threats, curses, and blows fell on her repeatedly - until a uniformed policeman stood before her and informed her that her husband had been killed that morning in a duel with another man.
This was how Marguerite had become an heiress . . . and this was when she looked in a mirror at herself, and vowed that she would never again let a man hurt her like this, her green eyes cold and fierce with determination.
The next images in the passageway were of the delicate woman taking sword and marksmanship lessons. Her teacher looked oddly familiar.
Roxton paused and studied the man. Then it came to him. The man was handsome in an angular sort of way, hawk-nosed and lean, very fluid in his movements, dark-haired and darker in complexion. His face reminded the hunter of the gargoyles on the walls of that cursed castle where the explorers had nearly killed each other. When they had first seen the statues in that castle, Marguerite had made a joking comment that the stone gargoyle reminded her of her first husband - or her third.
Since this one certainly did look like those gargoyles, Roxton concluded before he saw the next images that the Italian who'd taught her to defend herself had become her third husband. There were glimpses of a wedding, and then John was stopped by the very next image as he heard Marguerite telling the man that they were going to have a baby.
John paid careful attention, surprised. Since they'd come to this plateau, Marguerite had avoided children as much as possible, so he was amazed at the glow of excitement and happiness her pregnancy brought forth in her as she shared the news with the man. His stomach clenched when her husband's response was to reveal that he'd married her for her fortune and beauty, and he told her in no uncertain terms that it was no part of his plan to be tied to a wailing brat. Marguerite was instantly wary, protective of the unborn child she carried.
The man warned her that he was her master now, and Marguerite's job was to please him. He intended her to understand that he had no intention of waiting around while she was as big as a whale, waiting on her hand and foot. The wretch flat out told her he wouldn't stand for anything that got in the way of his enjoying either her money or her beauty. And then, to Roxton's horror, her image-husband ordered her to abort the child.
Marguerite refused. They fought. She struggled, broke free from his grasp, and ran to the library. John saw her retrieve her gun from a desk drawer there, and her threat to use it enabled her to get past him, back out of the room. But her enraged husband was stronger and faster; horrified, John watched as they struggled in the hall, and her husband hurled her down the stairs before she could fire the weapon at him. He'd come down the stairs after her, to finish what he'd begun, swearing at her for ruining his plans. Badly hurt, already bleeding heavily as she lost the baby, Marguerite had picked up the gun that had landed near her, and managed one shot before she blacked out.
"Good shot," Roxton said in satisfaction.
She'd killed him.
No wonder she was so wary of opening her heart again, with husbands like these!
Okay, that was number three, which probably meant the previous images were of husband number two. So where was husband number one? Roxton turned the corner into a short hall.
Ah . . . Monte Carlo. Must be husband number one. He was a handsome young man with the title of Count. He courted her with flowers, gifts, and promises. He gave her a lovely wedding and took her home to a beautiful villa. There were society parties, outings, trips to the casinos and night clubs, and house parties. It looked like this one had been everything Marguerite had been hoping for.
Then her husband's eye was caught by another beauty, and he brought his mistress home to the villa, telling his stunned wife not to be a little fool, that this was how it was going to be. She became aware of the way he was spending, and betting at the gambling tables, as if there was no end to his resources.
It was Marguerite who found his body after he took his own life rather than face up to authorities, leaving his young bride broke, alone, and very confused.
Roxton had to swallow hard as he watched the young image Marguerite at her husband's graveside, talking to the tombstone as tears streamed down her pale cheeks. What had happened? Marriage was supposed to mean security, yet she had lost everything. Creditors had even taken every last piece of her jewelry to pay the debts he'd incurred - all except her precious locket, which, fortunately, they'd deemed worthless. She would have to be more careful whom she fell in love with next time, she told herself. Good thing she still had connections in the industry, to tide her over until she could find a stronger man.
John continued on through the shadowed passage grimly. That accounted for three marriages. She had recently mentioned a fourth - the cynic. Had she been serious? Or just yanking his chain because she was jealous of his admiration for the woman in the old west?
He carefully turned the next corner, holding his breath.
Travel. Trains, caravans, boats, planes, horseback . . . rickshaw? He recognized places, cities mostly, all over Europe and North America . . . New York, Rome, Moscow - Singapore. She was dealing in a dark world of back alleys, gambling dens, nightclubs, fishing wharves, and yes, the darkness reached even palaces, mansions, and the parlors of the rich and famous. Roxton shivered at the look of the men and women she was associating with, any of who could have slit her lovely throat without a second thought. The coldness, calculation, cruelty and cunning were mind-boggling. And she was still so young! She couldn't be out of her early 20's yet, and she'd already learned to adopt any number of masks to hide her true goals, and had hardened her heart to do whatever was necessary to ensure her survival in this world.
Roxton passed through image after image, gathering bits and pieces of information from each one. Everywhere she went, she was searching for her parents. She was using the gem trade to finance her search for her past, following a vague trail of where money for her schooling had come from. And she was relying only on herself now. She'd learned that marriage was definitely not security.
This was before the war. He paused as he saw Marguerite pulled forcibly into a room to face a Chinese man. They spoke some English - and he immediately realized this man was Xan. This was the meeting Marguerite had told him about, her introduction to the Ouroboros.
He had to grin as he listened. Naturally she'd left out a few little details when she'd told him about this. So, Marguerite had owed the crime lord for diamonds she hadn't delivered due to the Russian uprising . . . Interesting, that hint that Marguerite Smith had given Xan's gold payment to a foreign government: Was she already working for Winnie?
He watched as Xan offered to let her repay the debt of the undelivered diamonds by finding the missing half of his artifact, with the added inducement of giving her some coveted information - her birth certificate. The man obviously hadn't known her as well as he thought he had. She didn't respond well to blackmail, even if the answers she'd been seeking were within her grasp.
Roxton wasn't surprised to see the memory image of Marguerite's break in at Shanghai Xan's place or her successful theft of the Ouroboros half that Xan secreted there. But he was alarmed as he saw that she'd barely made it out of Shanghai alive, taking a near-fatal sword wound but sparing the life of the swordsman to send word back to the crime lord that he needn't worry about the safety of his artifact - just hold onto that birth certificate. The first half would be her security that he wouldn't destroy her birth certificate while she was searching for the second half. She'd be back when she had both parts, she told the messenger.
Roxton shook his head.
The Old Master must have been apoplectic about her outwitting him like that! No wonder he'd sent that ninja warrior after her, after such a blow to his pride! He wanted to be the only one doing the manipulating. Xan must have rejoiced when his minion had brought him the complete Ouroboros not so long ago now.
And he would definitely have destroyed her birth certificate the moment he had the artifact in his hands again. As soon as Callum disappeared with her talisman, Marguerite had known that her only chance of ever seeing her birth certificate was gone. She'd known that the vengeful crime lord wouldn't hesitate to consign her identity to ashes.
John Roxton's heart was warmed anew that she'd lost that opportunity because of her feelings for him. And she was in this bloody cavern somewhere, probably scared, definitely alone facing all these memories. With that stern reminder to himself, he moved on.
There were more memories . . . Oxford, where she had been the only female student. Roxton passed by a conversation with the dean, a man Roxton knew well. Though her silver-green eyes were filled with mocking derision, she had stoically accepted the decision that despite the fact that she'd just completed a linguistics degree in less than two years, they wouldn't allow her to graduate at the ceremony, nor to keep or publish any record of her achievement. He witnessed quick flashes of harassment from the male students and slights from the teachers who had felt a woman had no place there. The general attitude was that she was only tolerated there, not a student by merit of her intelligence. She was "just" a woman!
Roxton winced at this echo of his own attitude when he'd first met her.
This must have been after her third marriage, in further preparation for the travels through Europe and Asia that he'd seen before. She was purposely mastering all the languages she could, burning through every bit of course content available. There were flashes, too, of memories of her studies in geology and cultures. She'd also found time to seat herself at the feet of gem-cutters, learning the trade from the experts this time, making a name for herself that would engender credibility as she traveled and did deals in illicit gems and rare items.
Then suddenly, rounding another corner, Roxton found himself in the midst of another life and death struggle, this one in an alley. Marguerite was fighting for control of a knife with a man who grunted in German at her. She won by using a movement she must've learned in the Orient - a high kick Roxton would have thought impossible to pull off in a gown - and then used the assailant's own knife to kill him. Then she looked up breathlessly at the sound of others coming, also speaking German. She straightened her gown and hat, and slipped away down a darkened street.
One set of footsteps followed her closely . . . the others much further back.
Roxton stood still and watched as Marguerite proceeded down street after street - London! Only one set of footsteps remained as she turned into an alley, and finally turned to face the man.
Another German, this one armed with a gun. They spoke English, thankfully, and Roxton watched as she coolly bargained for her life. When that failed, she calmly shot the would-be-assassin without blinking an eye.
Then she slipped in a side door in the alley.
It was the Royal Zoological Society meeting!
Roxton saw himself, Malone, Challenger, Summerlee, brief focused faces amidst the blurred crowd - and then she was stepping forward and offering to provide the funding for the expedition, totally calm and collected. Incredible! She'd been unflustered by the shock, disapproval and interest of the gathering in the lecture hall, by her near assassination, or even by the need to kill or be killed.
Roxton had to chuckle as the image showed her departure after her offer to fund the expedition had been accepted. As he watched her departure, he realized for the first time that her goal of getting to the plateau where the Ouroboros was located wasn't the only thing she'd managed to achieve that night four years ago.
Her unexpected appearance at the men-only establishment, and her incredible offer of funding for the Challenger Expedition, had generated a flurry among the press present, and they'd followed her as she boldly exited via the front door this time. The reporters had made a very effective human shield for the canny woman against the other German assassins still waiting outside for her, enabling her to escape without having another fight for her life. Oh, his love was so deviously clever!
Then he sobered as he realized the import of the next images.
Well, this explained why she so desperately needed to take home a rich load of gems. She'd told the truth when she'd claimed to have used every last pound to fund the Expedition, determined to give it every chance of success - her best chance to find out who she really was.
He watched ruefully as the wily widow received their written, itemized lists of things needed for the trip that was being planned. Challenger had wanted quite a vast quantity of equipment he didn't already have at hand, and Summerlee had added his own requirements. Roxton had maliciously sent her a list of supplies he deemed necessary for the successful prosecution of the Expedition, weapons enough to arm dozens of travelers, even though he could have provided almost all of it himself.
The image Marguerite's lip curled as she read his list, and she murmured "You think I can't get these things, don't you, Lord Roxton?"
That was exactly what he'd thought. He hadn't believed a mere woman would even know what half of that equipment on the list was, let alone how to obtain it.
Even Ned had sent her a list . . . cameras and notebooks and small things.
Grimly, she'd added it all up. It was a massive amount of money. Then she'd ordered her car around to the door. Marguerite had not only used every last cent she had to her name, she'd borrowed from half a dozen sources, mortgaging every available piece of her property and jewelry to secure the rest of what was necessary to meet her promise to fund the Expedition without limit. The beautiful heiress had started with legitimate financial sources, and then had gone on to borrow from contacts made in her shadier past.
Roxton moved slowly along the passageway, watching as the image Marguerite made plans to join the expedition, keeping it carefully secret. If any of these new creditors found out she was going along on this expedition, she reckoned humorously to herself, she'd have a lot worse problems than avoiding the German assassins for a few more days. Her shady lenders would naturally suspect she'd cheated them - rightly so, since she'd used the very same assets to secure half a dozen "loans" - and was essentially skipping out with the proceeds.
She'd gone to the Expedition meeting at Challenger's that night before departure and only then had she informed them she would accompany them. She'd proven she could bring value and expertise to the group by easily identifying the various bones around the scientist's laboratory study, and had faced them all down - including placing that shot at Roxton – before she walked out again, chin up.
Roxton shook his head in bemused dismay. If Marguerite ever went back to London without gems - probably more than she'd amassed even after these last several years - she wouldn't live the day out! Those people she'd borrowed from would kill her without compunction. She really had quite literally risked everything to find out who she was!
The British Lord wished he could do it over. So much of that extra expense had been because he was being facetious to the mysterious lady who'd dared intrude on a man's world. He wondered if anything would've been different if he and the other men hadn't been so resistant to having the mysterious widow along. If they'd only welcomed Marguerite, not fought her at every turn, made it easier for her - if they'd only had some idea of the woman's capabilities and the desperate straits she was in!
But then, they'd all been different people then. And she never would've trusted them. Not after what life had taught her about surviving.
Surviving! Roxton hurried forward again, cursing himself for allowing his attention to be distracted so easily by her 'living memories'.
He was in a familiar time now, recognizing many of the memory images he passed. The trip across the ocean and up the Amazon . . . their ascent to the Plateau . . . their many experiences here.
He paused as she pretended to be Summerlee's Anna when he was so ill from bee venom, seeing her compassion . . . and he grinned at her taunting of the egotistical and stuffy Challenger's first failures to generate electricity for the electric fence to protect the tree house.
Now that he was seeing everything from her point of view instead of only his own, Roxton was impressed by her efforts to protect the other members of the Expedition from Tribune's executioners, even in those early days. He'd have to tell her that he regretted doubting that she really had been working for their benefit and not only her own. She deserved to know that he appreciated what she'd tried to do for them despite their mutual distrust.
He laughed as he passed through the image of her seduction of that giant. What a woman! Only Marguerite could've done that!
Looking at all of this from her perspective as he was now, and having seen the other memory images, he could see the way she'd struggled to maintain her distance, to protect herself from her growing fondness and respect for them - and to protect them from herself, just as she'd claimed in that cave while he'd been dangling over the abyss. She'd used verbal barbs to keep them wary of her. She'd deliberately made her company unpleasant with complaints, demands, and snide insults.
Yet at the same time, she'd put herself on the line to defend and shield them, using every survival skill she'd ever learned to help keep them all alive in this strange new world. They hadn't understood her methods, and of course they'd been appalled at her "lack of morals". Instead, it had been far too easy to believe her when she defensively rationalized her actions by saying that she needed the others to survive here. Yet time and time again, despite her prickly attitude and selfish demeanor, she'd placed the benefit of the group above her own interests.
He gained further understanding as he passed by another memory image and heard Marguerite telling the false Adrienne that she couldn't tell the others the truth. She'd been so relieved to tell her 'friend' the truth, and so regretful that she couldn't tell the other treehouse dwellers her real reasons for coming here. They'd been through so much together, and they deserved better than to be endangered by knowing the truth about her, she told the false Adrienne, and added that she knew they'd feel betrayed, and she owed them more than that. Roxton knew his anger over Callum's arrival had proven her right; he had felt betrayed, just as she'd expected.
Apparently she'd even admitted to Askwith that the explorers were more like family than just friends. John scowled at the cursed captain's likeness, wishing his lady had made such an admission to him instead of a stranger. At least now he had a better grasp on why the wary woman considered such a sentiment something of a weakness instead of a strength; caring had left her vulnerable too often not to be leery of the potential consequences.
Dinosaurs, headhunters, pirates, lizard men, slave traders, apemen, Trogs, Goths, Norsemen, the cursed castle - Danielle, - the memories were all jumbled up together, coming fast upon one another, as if they had just overwhelmed Marguerite all at once.
Roxton proceeded watchfully - and was surprised to run into a completely unfamiliar time zone of images. Or at least, ones he didn't remember, though he was present in her memories of this.
He stopped to figure it out, and familiarity nibbled at the edges of his thoughts. He saw robed men lift Marguerite up and put her on an alter, saw one man raise a knife over her back, heard himself cry out - then the knife cut open the back of her blouse, and they were examining her birthmark.
Roxton stared from one image to the next as his own memories flooded back.
Marguerite . . . Morigan. High Priestess, Chosen One.
He realized this had taken place not long after they'd come to the Plateau. She'd risked her life to help the Druids, but he hadn't believed her capable of thinking of others instead of herself. He winced now as he watched his image self sneer at her and accuse her of being the most selfish person he'd ever met. She didn't even blink, merely said that he wouldn't understand.
Amazed at what he was seeing, he watched Marguerite step off the cliff into thin air – his Marguerite, the cynic who had to see to believe! – and walk through fire! Then, when the task of retrieving the emerald was accomplished and the druids were ready to leave, their leader said it would be as if it had never happened . . . the fog. Marguerite clinging to his hand . . . her confusion when the fog cleared. He and Malone had forgotten, but had she?
He watched himself make a snide comment, mocking her: "Can't you think of anything but gems?" He saw the touch of hurt in her green eyes, and this time he understood it. On their quest she'd experienced his respect, briefly, and she missed it now that he'd forgotten the entire adventure. But she'd quickly masked it with her drawl, "Not at the moment."
How had he forgotten this? Why had she never thrown it back up in their faces? He looked at another image, and heard himself telling her that just because a bunch of Druids called her a High Priestess didn't mean she really was one. In another image, Malone was saying incredulously that she was certainly taking this all seriously.
He shook his head regretfully.
Of course she hadn't mentioned it to them again, knowing that they didn't remember it and believing they hadn't accepted it even though they'd stayed with her during it. The whole situation had simply become another secret to be guarded, another mystery about herself that was potentially dangerous both personally and for anyone with her. So much for her to bear alone…
He squared his shoulders, more determined than ever to prove to Marguerite that she could rely on him. Whether she ever acknowledged it or not, she needed him.
He neared the next turn, and slowed cautiously. It was pretty quiet . . .
He eased around the corner, and his step faltered, his eyes widening at the sight of the images here. He swallowed hard, gaze moving from one image to another. He and Marguerite were kissing, or nearly kissing, in every image floating eerily in this passage. He was speaking softly to her, flirting and teasing - or she was teasing him. That one was the time he'd been shot, and she'd had to cauterize the wound to stop the bleeding. Over there was the incident when he'd started to kiss her and they'd fallen into the pirate's treasure pit. And beyond that was the kiss that had been interrupted when the scorpion stung her. And so many more…
His body reacted instantly to the sight of the two of them in so many amorous positions. Although they were too often interrupted, there had also been plenty of times when they'd indulged their mutual attraction. These images were sharp and finely detailed, proof that their passionate interludes were as special to Marguerite as they were to him. With a lopsided grin of satisfaction, he pulled his focus from the images and tried to sidle past, but tripped. He looked down, startled, and recognized Marguerite's backpack.
Hah! Finally! Evidence other than these ethereal visions that she'd actually been here! He must be near her by now. He scooped up her backpack and hurried through to the next dark tunnel.
The passage twisted back, merging into a passageway with images he'd seen before. He followed it to the next place the paths crossed, and looked both ways. He'd been down here already . . . and down there, too. He turned into the last direction of the intersecting paths.
The images here were back to war-time again, but he hadn't seen these ones before. There were wirelesses set up in fields, lots of night meetings with whispering people. She was working with the Resistance in France . . . and the underground in Germany, from what he could gather as he walked through. Messages passed, messages given. Signals sent. Belgium, Netherlands, Austria – she'd been everywhere in the thick of things.
The next new tunnel yielded image memories of fancy dress parties with very high-ranking German officials. Private dinners and balls, concerts, theatre, restaurants . . .
He noticed that one man appeared again and again. Marguerite was often at his side, or close by. The man was quietly possessive of her, and she was behaving as demurely and smoothly as he'd ever seen, coolly fond of this high ranking German officer. There was a bored cynicism about the man . . . Ah, of course. She'd mentioned this particular trait in connection with her fourth husband. But he had no doubt that she hadn't married this one for love, security, or money. This relationship was business, spy business, and it was dangerous.
This one was for Winnie, he realized, stomach tightening as he passed an image where Marguerite was going through a desk in a dark room, but wearing a dressing gown. She looked up sharply as the door opened, and the German came in. By the time he turned on the light, she'd slipped the tiny flashlight into her pocket, silently closed the drawer, and masked her alarm with a welcoming smile as she leaned back in his desk chair. "I thought if I waited for you here you would eventually show up," she drawled in seductive amusement – speaking English to him? "You work far too hard, darling."
He looked at her with a bit of a smile. "You want another little - how is it the Yanks say it? - roll in the hay? Before you return to England, my sweet?" he asked in heavily accented English. "Are you this ardent with the foolish officer from whom you extract such excellent information for the Motherland?" Ah, that explained it. The man thought she was a double agent for Germany.
Marguerite's smile was full of mystery and allure as she rose gracefully from the seat and came around the desk to him. "Only if absolutely necessary, Wilhelm."
Roxton turned his head away from the image of them embracing, sidling around the edge instead of just walking through it. That had been a close call for Marguerite.
He scowled at the next image. Apparently there'd been more than one time when Wilhelm had nearly caught her, and only her quick thinking had saved her life.
He dodged another amorous image, and ducked around to the next passageway, tensing as he heard the sounds of yet more brutal battles, the clash of weapons, and the sound of sobs. She must be being hurt again in the next memories, and it must be pretty bad. He hadn't seen Marguerite cry more than a handful of times all through her life. So he braced himself as he entered the group of memories.
But the images weren't of war. They were here on the Plateau. And in every one of them, it was John Roxton who was injured, fighting for his life, defending the lives of the others on the Expedition, facing the odds with determination.
And the sobbing was coming not from a memory image, but from the real life Marguerite, huddled on the floor against the wall. Her face was pressed against her drawn up knees, arms wrapped over her head to try to block out the sounds of the oft-agonized pain the image John was enduring over and over. Worse, his usually stoic lady was visibly shaking with the force of her heart-rending sobs.
Roxton, after a moment of shock, dashed to her side and knelt, dropping the torch to the uneven stony floor. "Marguerite! Are you hurt?" he demanded, rubbing his hands on her arms to try to comfort her.
She jerked back from him, head snapping up to reveal her tear-ravaged face and grief-stricken expression. For a long second she stared at him uncomprehendingly, dazed eyes searching his concerned face. Then she swallowed, and whispered hoarsely, "Did you touch me? Are you real?"
He understood, and carefully held his hand out toward her again, but didn't touch her this time. "I'm real, my dear. See? Touch me. I'm solid."
John's heart went out to her as he saw how badly she was trembling. Slowly, she extended her own hand - blood! There was blood on her fingers! He forced himself to remain motionless, clamping his jaw to prevent himself from saying anything else while she was still so spooked.
She hesitated a moment more before gathering the courage to touch him. As soon as she felt his warm flesh, she sucked in her breath sharply and tightly grasped his hand, breaking into fresh tears. "John! Get me out of here!" she commanded desperately, reaching out with her other hand as well - stained with more blood, he noted in concern.
Still, he felt a grin tug at his lips, glad for her usual imperious tone. "Easy Marguerite, I'll get you out," he soothed as he squeezed her hands, relieved to note that the blood was dried, not fresh. "But first I want you to look at me. Come on, my dear, look at me," he coaxed his shaking lady, keeping his voice calm and restraining himself from physically searching her to find out where she was injured. She was too upset; he had to calm her.
She met his concern-darkened green eyes with a hint of impatience and more than a little panic. "John, please! Get me out of here now," she pleaded urgently. "I can't take any more! I've been watching you get hurt for so long!"
The tears and distress were not for herself - it was for John that she was crying! He cupped her chin in his hand and spoke firmly. "Listen to me, Marguerite. You can block out these memories if you focus. You have to focus."
"I can't!" she cried, flinching as another John image groaned at a blow.
"Yes, you can. Come on, you can do anything if you put your mind to it. Now focus! Close those beautiful eyes of yours and concentrate. Think about the happiest moment of your life," he insisted. "Come on, close your eyes, and concentrate! Your happiest moment, Marguerite."
She swallowed hard again and closed her reddened eyes, tears still slipping from beneath her lashes and drifting down over the hand that caressed her face. Her grip on his other hand tightened as they both heard one of the likenesses of Roxton cry out in a nearby memory.
"Come on, my dear. Focus. What was the happiest moment of your life?" he repeated, much more softly this time, so she'd have to block out the sounds of battle raging around them and concentrate on his voice.
Marguerite's brow furrowed in concentration. Abruptly, the sounds of battle dimmed, and music began to flood the passageway. John recognized it as an orchestrated composition from one of the gramophone records, but he didn't look around to see what memory she'd conjured; he kept his gaze locked on her.
She opened her eyes slowly, looking fearfully past him. Then she closed her eyes again in relief, wearily sagging back against the wall.
Obviously, she'd succeeded in finding a memory image that was at least somewhat better than all the images of Roxton being injured. "That's my girl," he praised. "Now, where are you hurt?" He resisted the urge to turn and see the image that had helped her. First things first, he told himself. There would be time to investigate her happiest moment later. "Did you fall?"
She shook her head slowly, and opened her eyes again. "I shot myself." She looked from him to the image beyond him, hanging onto her self-control by a thread.
He blinked. She'd shot herself?! "Okay," he said slowly, "Where did the bullet hit?"
She shifted and turned a little onto her left hip, straightening her right leg with difficulty. Her skirt was bloody and torn around knee length. He eased the skirt material up to her thigh, and started to unwind the blood-soaked bandage she'd made by tearing a strip of material from the bottom of her blouse. He could hear the image Marguerite laughing, and a man's soft voice from behind him, and he spared a quick glance up at her.
She was watching the image behind him, soaking it in with a little smile playing now about her weary lips. Her green eyes had gone from haunted to wistful.
Feeling a surge of jealousy that some other man was helping to calm her fear, he couldn't help glancing over his shoulder - then took a longer look, surprised at what she'd conjured as her happiest memory.
It was him! It was that morning when he'd asked her to teach him to dance, one of their rare times alone in the tree house. She hadn't known Roxton could already dance, and she'd agreed to teach him. He'd pretended at first that he couldn't follow her directions, stepping on her feet, bumping into her with his awkward movements, making her giggle despite her efforts to keep her promise not to laugh at his attempts to dance. He'd been totally inept and uncoordinated, and she'd fallen for it hook, line, and sinker.
Then when she'd told him he was doing everything wrong, and they'd better start all over, he had pulled her close - so close that she'd lost her breath. He'd teased her that the waltz was supposed to leave both the man and the woman breathless, and he'd whirled her into the waltz with perfect ease. How she had laughed, and then shrieked with pleasure when he swung her around, lifting her right off her feet and whirling her around the room!
This was the happiest moment of her life?! He turned back to Marguerite, and raised an incredulous brow.
She shrugged, avoiding meeting his eyes this time. "I love to dance," she whispered, correctly interpreting his unspoken question.
"Then we'll have to do it more often," he smiled boyishly, and winked at her.
Content to have his touch on her leg as he worked at unwrapping the bandage, she let go of his second hand. With both hands to use, he quickly finished, and winced at the sight of the bloody gash that crossed her leg just below her knee. Pulling off his backpack, he unceremoniously upended it and picked up the canteen that tumbled out with everything else. Her eyes widened as she saw it, and he remembered that she'd lost her own pack in another corridor. She must be thirsty after all that crying! Wordlessly, he offered her a drink from the canteen first.
She drank long and deep, with Roxton supporting the canteen for her since she was still trembling too much to balance it herself. "Easy, Marguerite," he cautioned. "Not too much too fast. I found your pack, so there's plenty more."
Once her initial thirst was sated, he used the remainder of the water in his canteen to cleanse the wound. "How did you do this?" he asked curiously, drying her leg as best he could before he dosed the wound with the healing powder Challenger and Summerlee had developed in the first months of their stay on the Plateau.
She leaned her head back against the wall and watched the images behind him. "I saw - thought I saw - someone, and I pulled out my pistol and fired. It ricocheted," she admitted reluctantly.
He wondered which husband or enemy she'd fired at. There were certainly plenty to choose from. She was no doubt feeling foolish, to judge by the faint flush rising on her fair skin. So he offered with a grin, "I did something similar. I tried to deck some German who was beating you and hit the wall instead." He lifted his bruised hand for her to see, inviting her to enjoy the joke.
Marguerite did not smile. She touched his knuckles with obvious sympathy. Then, a moment later, she said quietly, "Thank you, Lord Roxton."
"For?" he quizzed as he wrapped her leg with clean strips of cloth from the first aid kit in his backpack, preoccupied with the thought that Challenger would probably want to stitch it closed due to its depth. But this temporary cleansing and bandaging would have to do until he could get her back to the campsite.
"Coming to my rescue again," she said softly.
"Oh, that," he shrugged, grinning at her. "That comes naturally. I could no more stop coming to your rescue than I could stop breathing." He spoke lightly, but his expression and tone were full of loving devotion.
She caught her breath, eyes widening again at the unmistakable message he was sending with his warm voice and warmer gaze. "How - how many of these passageways have you been in?" she asked hesitantly.
"Almost all of them, I think," he replied matter-of-factly, noting that the soft natural color that had started to return to her face faded abruptly again. "Veronica says this cave is known as the "Cave of Living Memories" because something here creates these replicas of our memories. I kept getting distracted by your memories, and it took me far longer to find you than I had hoped. Are you hurt anywhere else?" He kept his tone affectionate, wanting to reassure her that seeing her memories hadn't estranged him from her, since she obviously believed his devotion would fail in the face of leaning the truth about her.
She barely nodded. "I twisted my ankle when I fell. I can't stand on it at all," she admitted, looking back to the image again to steady her roiling emotions.
"Okay. Same leg?" Another nod from the uncertain brunette. "Right, I'm not going to take off your boot. It'll help immobilize your ankle until Challenger can look at it. I'll just carry you out of here, if you've no objection?" he quirked one brow and grinned, as if there was nothing unusual going on.
It was a running joke that if she grew too tired - or just plain bored – while they were out on hunting, mapping, or gathering hikes, she would "demand" that he carry her. Or if she were being particularly annoying with her griping about hiking along, he would "threaten" to carry her. Of course she always stayed on her own two feet unless she was actually injured. It was a game.
His familiar playfulness at least temporarily overcame her fears. She responded to his instigation of the pastime with a low chuckle and a definitely appreciative twinkle in her green eyes. "This is one time I won't object, I promise," she assured him with feeling. "I haven't gotten any closer to getting out of here just crawling around."
This was a good sign; she was starting to sound more like her normal self, willing to enter into their usual teasing. Her color was looking a little better again, too.
Roxton gave her some more water, from her own canteen this time, then repacked the backpack. She watched the image . . . but kept one hand lightly on his leg as he knelt there beside her, needing to reassure herself that he was still here and that he was real, now that his hands weren't working on her leg anymore. He shrugged into the pack's straps, added her pack to his, then carefully scooped her into his arms and stood up. "There. Comfortable, milady?" he teased lightly.
Marguerite rested her head against his shoulder and nodded. "Just peachy," she answered. Then she asked softly, "John, what's your happiest moment?"
He paused long enough to grin down at her, and then looked pointedly ahead. She followed his gaze to the image forming there.
The likeness of John Roxton lay on a cot, his shoulder bloodied, and the image Marguerite sat on the floor beside the bed, her head lowered to rest against the pillow beside his. His hand raised to stroke her hair, and her head lifted. A few quiet words, and then they kissed.
Marguerite looked back to him in confusion. "But you were so badly hurt!"
"That was the moment I knew you loved me, too."
The simple statement, spoken with warm contentment, made her jaw drop. "You knew – what?!" she gasped.
"When I regained consciousness and found you so close, and then you kissed me back . . . I knew I had been right all along about there being something special between us. I knew that even though you pretended you didn't feel it, you really did. This was when I knew that you loved me just as I do you, and that if I were only patient enough, eventually you'd admit it."
Uncertainly, she moistened suddenly-dry lips with the tip of her tongue, and managed a tremulous, "All that from one kiss?"
"Yeah," he agreed smugly, "All that from one kiss."
She shifted in his arms, deciding it would be better to redirect this conversation. She was in no shape to parry his romantic overtures. Especially when they were so insightful that it scared her. To change the subject, she asked quickly, "Any other happy moments?"
His grin widened. He knew exactly what she was trying to do. "Oh, some very memorable ones, my dear," he drawled huskily, beginning the walk back the way he'd come. "Do you want me to share them with you?" he teased, knowing quite well that she had a threefold reason to want exactly that.
Primarily, of course, she thought it would get her out of having to admit that she really did love him, which she still hadn't come to terms with. Then, it would give her something other than her own terrible memories to dwell on as he carried her back out amid the still ongoing memory images they both knew they'd need to pass through to get out of this cave. And of course, she was hoping to learn if she was part of any more of his happy memories. "How about this one?" he asked, tongue in cheek.
The image came to life before them, and she drew her breath in sharply as she realized it was the memory of when that cursed castle had dumped them back into the jungle au natural, without a stitch of clothing. He'd obviously thought about it intensely. The image was sharp and clear, and totally detailed - at least, the image Marguerite was sharp and clear. The present-day woman noticed their other friends' images were rather blurry. John had been focused solely on Marguerite.
The slender brunette in his arms blushed hotly and punched him in the chest with enough force to show that she wasn't happy about his teasing, but not enough to hurt him. "Roxton!" she snapped irritably. "You turn that off right this minute!"
He laughed, "You did ask for my happy moments, didn't you?" But he obligingly refocused his thoughts as he carried her past the naked Marguerite image that was still scolding the smirking image of John and demanding that Challenger go find their clothes as she ducked into bushes. "Well then, does this one meet with your approval?"
Marguerite saw the campsite of the group of archeologists who had let loose the spirit of a demon. She and Roxton were sitting on a fallen tree, when he suddenly stood, angrily, and demanded didn't she know him after all this time?
She remembered this quite well herself; he'd been hurt that she might believe he could be possessed by the demon. The image Marguerite stood, too, and stepped closer, reaching for his hand with her own.
Marguerite looked away from the image, up at John. "That's one of your happy moments?" she questioned, puzzled.
He nodded, walking on past it. "You trusted me," he said with simple satisfaction. "In spite of the situation, you trusted me."
The warmth of his words filled her heart with pleasure. "It doesn't take much to make you happy, Lord Roxton," she scoffed, automatically defensive.
But John just grinned down at her, not at all deceived.
Another image shimmered into view . . . Marguerite running through water, shouting his name, searching frantically for him. The sunrise behind her made her wet skirt virtually see-through as she splashed through the rising tide on the flood plain. He'd seen her and heard her as she frantically crossed and re-crossed the water-covered lowland looking for him, but despite his strenuous attempt to move his still-paralyzed body, he couldn't call out to her . . . and then the water cut off his breath, and things went black.
In his arms, she tensed. Her hand caught hold of his shirt, anxiously.
Then the image cleared, and was filled with her face as she pressed her mouth to his and forced air into his lungs. The image John coughed up the dirty river that had filled his throat, gagging. The image Marguerite sank down in the water, holding his head above the water against her breast, sobbing in relief, pressing kisses to his forehead, uncaring that she'd lost her hat or that she was surrounded by insects. There was no way to doubt her love and concern for the man she held in her arms.
Marguerite was astonished. She hadn't known that her feelings had been revealed so clearly. No wonder John was so sure that she loved him! She might as well have admitted it outright!
She looked up at him from beneath her thick lashes, trepidation evident to her patient lover. He gave her a gentle hug. "Relax, Marguerite. I haven't taken advantage of you or pushed you too hard, have I? I'm not going to start now. You're well worth waiting for, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to prove to you that we have a future." His warm green eyes were tender and loving.
Marguerite met his eyes, and slowly wonder filled her own gaze. "You really believe that? After . . . after everything you . . . you must have seen in here?" she whispered, desperately wanting to believe it herself, despite proof to the contrary provided by her past experience.
He couldn't really blame her for asking, for doubting, now that he'd seen for himself why she found it so hard to accept that she really was loved, and understood why she needed so much reassurance.
"You know I'm not anything like those other men. You know you can trust me. You just need the confidence to act on what you already know," he said with tender assurance. "I'll be here when you're ready. I already promised you that I'd never let you go, that I'd always be here to straighten you out, that I'd never leave you behind, and that your secrets will be safe with me."
The images from her past were fading even as he strode through them, carrying her safely in his arms. Different images were flitting into "reality" now that he was with her, his presence redirecting the focus of her thoughts and memories. She was remembering the different times he'd made the promised he'd just listed. The memories were strong and clear, overcoming the shadows left of the previous memories that had filled the passageways before he'd reached her side. Marguerite's fond memories of John were banishing the unpleasant images of her past.
The new images were of working with him, hiking with him, fighting at his side, eating together at a fireside and in the tree house. Images of John chopping wood, glistening and shirtless . . . or throwing his rifle to his shoulder and firing, bringing down a dinosaur with enough meat for weeks of hearty meals . . . or springing into action to defend someone weaker. John cleaning his guns, or helping collect samples for the scientists, or the taller man walking along with Ned, arm dropped over the younger man's shoulders in companionable affection. Working in tandem with Veronica to hunt or track . . . repairing furniture, carting Challenger's experiments back and forth . . .
These images of Marguerite's mingled with John's own memories of special smiles and laughter shared, of her eyes snapping at him in irritation at his teasing, of her marching away from him, slim hips swinging angrily as he watched admiringly . . . Marguerite swimming at the pond in daylight, and in moonlight. Marguerite laving dust from herself at the edge of a stream or river, in her camisole. Marguerite asleep outdoors, Marguerite asleep in the tree house . . . Marguerite doing the laundry, or washing dishes, or sewing, or just sitting and reading a book with one foot swinging idly.
Marguerite watched the images in fascination, relaxing slowly again in his arms. He had an incredible range of images stored up. Was this really how he saw her?
John, who had delightedly noted Marguerite's flattering memories of himself, could see that she was bemused by his memories of her. He started talking softly, casually, about how he loved the way she'd learned to do things around the tree house - he tactfully refrained from mentioning the complaints that had accompanied the process. He recounted how impressed he was with her gradually-revealed skills in geology and gemology, and his realization that even Challenger had grown to respect her talent. He even admitted to her that he was sometimes totally awed by her obvious brilliance.
She flushed with pleasure, studying an image of Challenger and herself working in the lab at the tree house, side by side as equals.
Her suitor told her how much he enjoyed watching her with Veronica and Ned these days, and how pleased he was with the big sister role she'd accepted with both of the younger explorers. Veronica needed a big sister to help her cope with Ned's changes since his spirit experience. And Ned needed a big sister to encourage him, and at times reprimand him.
The images with the two youngest members of their party prompted a fond smile from her. She'd admitted to herself some time ago that she did love both of her younger housemates, although she'd never said as much. If she could judge from John's memories, her actions were enough to convey the truth she couldn't verbalize. And she could see, in these images captured by his attentiveness, that Ned and Veronica each felt respect and affection for her, too.
A smile played about her lips. "I belong," she whispered to herself more than to him, although he heard it.
He wasn't about to let her realization pass without commenting on it. "Of course you belong," he stated firmly.
She met his eyes and flushed again, but this time not in pleasure. "There's no 'of course' about it, John. I've never belonged before. And I didn't belong when we first came here. You know I didn't," she insisted when he would have protested. She chewed pensively on her lower lip.
"But you belong now, and that's all that matters. Remember what Summerlee told you. We all have the chance to begin again here."
She gave him a surprised look, then realized he must've seen a memory image of the conversations she'd had with Summerlee that night after the German pilot had nearly killed her. She gathered her thoughts and answered, "Yes, well, that sounds marvelous in theory . . . but you must realize by now that my past isn't going to just magically vanish. It keeps coming back. It's a little tough to begin fresh when your past has continuous consequences."
John responded with a ready grin. "You've done just fine so far, my dear. All we have to do is keep facing it one day at a time."
She raised a brow mockingly. "We? I've told you before that you may not be in my future plans." Again, her words were an instinctive defensive sarcasm against letting him too close.
His arms tightened a bit, but his charming grin held. "And I told you, if you'll recall, that I was willing to take that chance. I'm more than willing to put my money on you, long term, Marguerite. It might not be easy, but I'm a big boy. I won't scare off. You're just plain stuck with me."
Marguerite eyed him, uncertainty warring with the desire to accept his assurances. She'd believed the similar words of other people before, and had blindly believed that love was genuine when she was younger. Each time she'd been completely wrong. Abominably wrong, and deeply hurt.
Her line of thought made more images shimmer into view, drawing Roxton's eye.
It was her husbands. Roxton stopped walking to balefully study the men who had hurt her so badly. Then he looked down at the woman in his arms. "Want to tell me about them?" he asked quietly, nodding his head toward the images.
She looked up at him, chewed on her lower lip a long moment, and finally said softly, "You'd better sit down. This could take a while."
Roxton sat, keeping Marguerite on his lap, his arms around her.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Then she opened them with cool determination. She pointed to the youngest, the one she'd married in Monte Carlo. "That one is Count Paulo de Gris. I thought he was the prince of my dreams. He treated me like a princess. Unfortunately, he treated other women the same way. And he had a wee problem with gambling." She tilted her head a little, considering his image thoughtfully. Self-mockingly, she added, "I was far too young, so incredibly foolish! He turned out to be a poor choice."
John shook his head. "He hurt you," he said gently, knowing she was reluctant to admit it. "But not physically, as the next one did. How did you meet your second husband?"
She sighed, reluctantly studying the image of her second husband, the one who'd nearly beaten her to death. "Duke Stephan Rueger. He was Belgian. He had a castle, a villa, and so many servants that I never had to lift a finger. Of course, later I found out I was rarely able to lift a finger," she kept her tone light and wry. "I met him in Rome after Paulo died. He was very charming, very attentive, and" she hesitated a second, then admitted, "he talked a lot about wanting to fill his home with children."
John, remembering the baby she'd lost during her third marriage, hugged her gently. "You'd like to have children, wouldn't you?" he asked her tenderly.
She gave him a look of deep grief, and nodded, turning her face to his shoulder to gather her shaky composure. "Stephan . . . said it was my fault we didn't conceive. He was . . . very unhappy with me. He said there must be something wrong with me. He started drinking a lot."
She drew an unsteady breath, and whispered into his shoulder, one hand plucking at his shirt absently, nervously. He made himself stay still under taut control as she confided the truth about how Stephan had abused her. John stroked her dark hair and tenderly hugged her, but was careful not to reveal any of the rage the whispered tale - and the accompanying images he could see - provoked in his body. He could feel Marguerite trembling, and knew she needed his strength not his anger. He didn't want to risk her clamming up or mistakenly thinking he blamed her. She'd probably never told anyone about this before, and he clung to a grim satisfaction that she was choosing to tell him.
When she trailed off to silence, he kissed the top of her head, and told her gruffly that none of it had been her fault. It had been Stephan who was at fault.
She shuddered and lifted her head, drained, but relieved that she'd finally told someone. His plucky lady summoned a smile for his benefit. "I knew that," she agreed quietly. She searched his face for any sign of revulsion, but still found only understanding and loving acceptance.
He could see the puzzled wonder in her green eyes, then the little crease in her brow as she remembered she wasn't done the tale yet. She schooled her expression back to guarded caution, reminding herself that he might still turn away once he knew everything.
He could see the way she suppressed her hope, and he understood. So he smiled encouragingly at her and prompted, "You've been a Countess and a Duchess already. And who came along next?"
She blew out her breath slightly, and looked back over at the images floating in the shadowed passage. "The gargoyle look-alike," she said flatly. "He was number three."
Roxton chuckled. "Yeah, I remembered that you'd likened the gargoyle to him when I first saw him. He really does look like that castle creature, doesn't he?"
She nodded. "I actually hired him to teach me to defend myself. Ironic, isn't it? I was so impressed with his skill. He treated me with such respect and admiration. Maybe I was just . . . I don't know. I really can't remember what it was that made me think he was any different." She shrugged helplessly. "I had the castle, all the holdings of the dukedom, and I was suddenly free again. I threw myself into the parties and social life, surrounded myself with every luxury I could find . . . and Tonio was everywhere I was. He taught me to shoot a gun, to use a sword, and to fend off a physical attack. Some days we spent hours together, training. And then I would meet him at social gatherings in the evening. He was easy to laugh with, danced well, and never seemed to want anything from me. Suddenly . . . I was his wife." Her brow creased in lingering puzzlement over how it had happened. "I never saw it coming. I still don't know why I married him."
Roxton nodded gravely. He'd seen fortune hunters move in like that on new widows in England. And she'd been recovering from being abused, as well. He understood, even if she didn't. This Tonio had made her feel comforted and safe at a time when she'd been shamed, hurting, and lonely . . . and still so incredibly young!
"He didn't want children. He just wanted to have fun." She stopped, staring at the image of her third husband, hands clenched in her lap, trembling. "It didn't take long to discover that Stephan had been wrong - it couldn't have been my fault we didn't conceive the children we both wanted. Because with Tonio, I conceived in less than a week." She paused and shook her head. "It should have been such a happy time . . ."
He soothingly rubbed her back and hugged her again. To help her over this, he offered, "I saw what he did, my love. You lost the baby."
She nodded slowly, then turned her gaze to his, eyes full of unshed tears and regrets for what had been lost. "The doctor said I should never risk becoming pregnant again," she whispered painfully. "He said I would never be able to carry a child to birth, and would likely lose my own life in the bargain if I risked conceiving another child."
John closed his own eyes in sympathy for her agony, and his brow furrowed in fury at the man that had caused her such grief. She'd been condemned to a life without hope of creating a family of her own, by a man who'd taken advantage of her confused feelings and vulnerability. Marguerite undoubtedly understood at least that much about her relationship with Tonio, even if she'd never understood how the man had ended up as her husband.
On top of the other things in her past, it was more than reason enough to cause anyone to build walls around their heart to keep such manipulation and pain from ever occurring again. It had certainly been the last straw for Marguerite. She'd stopped looking for love, stopped believing in it . . . and had focused on accumulating the things that would provide security as she searched for her past.
Roxton's eyes flashed open again, to find Marguerite shrinking back from him. Instantly he knew she'd misinterpreted his tension and outrage. Her expression was . . . defeated, resigned to the fate she'd been expecting all along. He cursed himself for letting her witness his pained reaction to her loss without verbalizing exactly what he was thinking. With her mindset, she'd naturally mistaken his empathetic grief and anger as being aimed at her and this particular secret. She thought that the way he was tensing up was an indication that he was withdrawing from her.
It took only another moment to make the connection for why she might react like this. It had to be the restrictions about future attempts to bear a child. This, he suddenly realized, was most likely at least one of the secrets that she fully believed would cause him to reject her!
She knew that as Lord Roxton he was expected to produce an heir, knew from watching him enjoy the children of the villagers they'd met in the last three years that he would want children of his own. She knew his sense of duty and honor, how strongly he'd feel about fulfilling his responsibilities to carry on the Roxton name. She thought his reaction, his pain on her behalf just now, meant he was finally realizing he could never build a future with her, despite the love he might think he felt for her.
Quickly he placed a kiss on her forehead, drawing her eyes back to his face. Gently he asked, "Did you know I have a cousin who's next in line for the title? Capital fellow, nice wife, two sons born already before we left England. Made him my official heir years ago, knowing that every safari, every trip was a danger."
Marguerite, startled by the tender kiss when she'd been so sure he was finally going to turn away, stared up at him, bewildered by the seemingly unconnected information he was giving her. What was he saying?
"I don't care diddly-squat about the bloody Roxton lineage, Marguerite," he stated bluntly. "I care about you. If you want to try to have a child, I'll wrap you in cotton wool and keep you safe till the baby comes. If you want to adopt, we'll adopt. If you want it to be just the two of us - well, I can't say I would be unhappy with that. As long as I have you, nothing else matters. Do you understand?" He started to lower his mouth over hers.
She pulled back a little, stunned as she began to take in what he was saying. If he kissed her now, she wouldn't be able to think straight, and she really needed to come to terms with what she was seeing in his dark eyes. "No, please don't kiss me -"
Almost instantly, the words were echoed from an image conjured from John's memory by her frightened plea. "Please don't kiss me again."
Her head swung, to find herself looking at an image of herself, clad in black, wearing a strange hat - and Roxton, dressed like - like a cowboy!? And he was saying his Marguerite was frightened of him sometimes, too, just as she - the image Marguerite - was. He went on to say he suspected someone had broken her heart in the past, just as hers - the image woman's - had been broken, so that she was afraid to love again for fear of being hurt like that again.
The image woman was asking him if anyone had ever broken his heart.
And much to Marguerite's astonishment, the image John was replying softly and honestly that he had never met the woman who could break his heart, until he'd met his Marguerite!
The real Marguerite drew a long, shocked breath at the image John's declaration.
The real Roxton, holding her in his strong arms on his lap, said gently, "That's my beautiful prairie girl. Told you she was just like you."
Slowly, she turned her face back toward him. "That - that is the prairie girl?" she whispered, eyes wide and glistening.
John Roxton nodded. "Isn't she beautiful?" he teased.
"You told her - I could break your heart?"
He nodded again. "It's just the simple truth, Marguerite," he said tenderly. "I've never given my heart to any woman before, and I never will give my heart to any other woman. There's only you for me, now and forever."
She swallowed hard. "Secrets . . ." her eyes searched his face, looking for any sign of reservations, and found nothing. "I haven't told you . . ."
He put his index finger against her lips. "What? That you shot your husband? You didn't murder him, you know, Marguerite. It was simply self-defense. That you've been a thief, a liar, a con artist? You didn't have much choice in order to survive, and I've met good old Winnie, remember? You turned your life around. You used all those things to benefit the entire world. You think I would reject you because you used your body, not just your mind, to stay alive? I've long admired your instinct and ability for survival. If you hadn't been able to do these things, I might not be here. I was one of the soldiers whose life was saved by the work you did to misdirect the Germans in that final battle. You didn't know that, did you?"
She shook her head, stunned at his stern defense of her. "You were there?"
He nodded. "And from what I saw today, if you hadn't been leading that Wilhelm fellow around by the nose so cleverly, I'd have been right in the line of fire of the main German offensive, instead of facing a depleted German defensive action during that series of battles. We would've been slaughtered if your information hadn't drawn them away on that wild goose chase."
She tensed automatically as he spoke, glancing around and saying "Shh" anxiously, before remembering that there was no one here to hear the top secret things he was talking about so freely. "John, you shouldn't talk about that!" she reproved urgently. "You should never have seen or heard anything about all of that!" Her green eyes were wide and dark with fear - fear for John. "You must never ever mention anything about any of that, not to anyone, not anyone at all, do you understand? You have no idea what could happen if you speak of these things!"
He grinned. "Don't worry. I value my own life too much to speak carelessly about anything I've seen in your memories, Marguerite. And even more importantly than my own life, I have a vested interest in your continued safety. I won't talk about this again, unless you bring it up." He gave her a tender hug. "But I wanted you to know that I'm proud of you, Marguerite, not ashamed of you for anything you've done. I'm proud of you."
The dark-haired beauty's eyes widened and she smiled up at him tremulously. "You . . . you are . . . proud of me?"
"Very proud. Your problem is that you haven't had anyone before who knows the truth about you, and you've been believing your own reputation," he teased. "But actions speak louder than words, my love, and despite the words you've used since we met, every one of us at the tree house know the truth about you. The others don't know details, but they know, just as I knew even before I came in here after you, that your heart isn't as hard as you've always made believe. Come on, Marguerite; you know you can love us and allow us love you, too. You do know that. Right?"
Marguerite shivered, searching the face of this noble, gentle man holding her so safely in his strong arms, his dark green eyes so full of love and . . . acceptance.
Did she dare to actually believe in it?
Was there really a chance that her life, which had seemed fated never to know real love, could be blessed with a love, with friends, who didn't have to be feared and guarded against?
She tucked her head down against his chest and thought about it, reminding herself of the time she'd spent living on the plateau with these people.
Roxton watched the memory images flash before him, and realized she was reviewing the last three years. She was remembering time after time when Challenger, Summerlee, Ned, Veronica, and John himself had put their lives on the line for her, and all the times they'd reached out in friendship to her, despite her frequent rebuffs. New chances offered, friendships built, affection and respect developing moment by moment, day by day. Risks taken against all odds, laughter shared, dangers faced together, not alone, looks of pained patient resignation changing, becoming approval . . .
John, ever-present John, teasing, comforting, flirting, exhorting, protecting, shielding, defending, laughing, . . . John, with smoldering admiring eyes, patiently waiting for her.
Slowly, she nodded. "Yes," she whispered, looking up to meet his startled eyes.
He cocked his head, staring down at her, forgetting the images. Had she just said yes?!
Outside the cavern, where the others had joined Veronica as they waited anxiously for the two to emerge, they all jerked to their feet in alarm as they heard an echoing whoop from inside the opening.
They exchanged looks of concern, automatically reaching for the always-ready weapons at their sides. As one, they surged toward the cave entrance. Then there was more whooping, and they stopped and stared at one another. That sounded like - laughter? Joyous, free, bellows of - laughter?!
Challenger started to grin. "That, my friends, does not sound like danger. That sounds like a man who has just been given his heart's desire."
Ned raised his brows. "Marguerite?" he asked doubtfully.
They inclined their heads toward the cavern entrance as the laughter faded away, then exchanged puzzled looks again. Now it was very quiet. Should they go in after them? What was happening?
"Wait," Veronica recommended, knowing full well what would happen if three more people added memories to the mix already clouding the cavern's corridors. "If he doesn't come out with her in the next five minutes, we'll go after them."
But within a few minutes, Roxton came hurrying from the darkness, cradling Marguerite in his arms. "Challenger! Good, you're here! I think she's broken her ankle," he said, eyes meeting the professor's keen gaze. "And she'll need some stitches, too, if I'm not mistaken."
Marguerite was pink-cheeked, her green eyes glowing happily despite the pain she was still in from her injuries. She met the other explorers' eyes with a bright reassuring smile. "Please don't worry. It's not so bad."
George Challenger took one look at the blood and bullet hole on her skirt, and motioned Ned and Veronica. "I'll need splints and hot water. We'll meet you back at the camp site," he said briskly.
"Right. I'll get the splints," Veronica nodded, pulling her gaze from her friend.
"I'll get more firewood," Ned volunteered promptly, though his blue eyes burned with curiosity. The pair quickly vanished into the jungle.
Challenger turned and walked beside the tall hunter as he carried the injured woman toward their campsite. He glanced sideways at them, and noted the almost shy way the normally bold Marguerite was looking up at the man carrying her. Ordinarily she'd be snapping at the nobleman to be more careful with her. He cleared his throat and suggested casually, "We heard the oddest sound coming from the cave a little bit ago."
Roxton's sun-bronzed skin went a little red. "Did you?" he asked blandly with a grin down at Marguerite, whose green eyes were now amused.
"Yes, we did. Sounded almost like . . . laughter. But of course, you couldn't have been laughing, with Marguerite injured like this . . ." the professor drawled, his own eyes twinkling.
Roxton's lips twitched. "Her injury is no laughing matter," he agreed, tongue in cheek. "But," he admitted, "I did laugh."
Marguerite, Challenger noticed with interest, was now looking up at the handsome hunter in open adoration. Obviously whatever Roxton had laughed about hadn't offended her, but pleased her. Just as obviously, things had been resolved between them in a very positive way.
He lifted a brow at the pair of them, asking dryly, "Anything you'd like to tell me?"
Roxton shook his head. "Not just yet, old man." He glanced down at his lady, and she flushed anew at the love in his eyes just for her.
Challenger held off asking any further questions; he was pretty sure he knew what the end result had been, even if he couldn't imagine how John had finally broken through the defensive walls around the heart of their beautiful fellow explorer.
There was a sense of peacefulness about Marguerite that the scientist had never seen before. And John had such an air of contentment to him, despite his obvious concern over her injuries as he hurried them toward the camp they'd made the night before. There really could be no doubt that the two had finally come to an understanding.
When they reached the campsite, John set Marguerite down on one of the camp chairs by the burned out campfire. He knelt beside her, his hand on her shoulder, and nodded to the professor who'd become their resident healer on the plateau. "It's this one, George," he said, pointing.
Challenger squatted down so he could ease off Marguerite's boot. She didn't make a sound, but he was all-too-aware of the pain she must be experiencing as she clenched her hands into white-knuckled fists. She was as white as a sheet by the time her foot was free of the leather. He studied her foot and ankle carefully before sitting back on his heels.
"Well?" Roxton demanded through gritted teeth, a few shades paler himself as he witnessed her struggle to stay silent.
"Oh yes, I'd say it's broken," he agreed with John's earlier prognosis, glancing apologetically up at the young heiress. "The skin isn't broken, which is good. But this is going to hurt, Marguerite," he warned. "If I don't set it . . ."
She nodded. "I understand. Thank you, George." She lifted her hand to Roxton's, holding fast to it as George reset the bone as quickly as he could. Once again, she didn't cry out or complain, though she couldn't conceal the tears that shimmered in her eyes. She looked mutely to John.
He smiled at her, though her pain was mirrored in his own eyes. "That's my girl," he teased gently. "Always the strong one, eh?"
She managed a tremulous smile, but couldn't trust her voice.
Veronica returned with the splints, and Malone with an armful of kindling and wood. They worked together restarting the fire while Challenger put the splints in place and immobilized her injured ankle and foot. The jungle girl had also brought back leaves that she ground into powder and added to tea for Marguerite, to reduce the pain she was experiencing.
Like Challenger, the younger members of the expedition could see the change in the other couple - especially in Marguerite. All the hardness had vanished from her posture and expression, and the way she was looking at Roxton left little doubt as to the source of her sudden change of outlook.
And it wasn't only with John that she was dropping the mask she'd worn for so long.
Having decided she could trust them, she deliberately allowed each of the others to see her affection and respect for them, too. Of course, they'd known for a long time that the Expedition financier didn't really hold them in derision the way she seemed to so often. But the depth of her emotion for them was now evident for the first time, and they couldn't help but be delighted at the trust and gratitude she expressed freely as they all worked together to quickly treat her injuries and to make her comfortable.
Roxton remained at her side throughout the process of putting stitches into her leg, and while she ate the meal Veronica pulled together from their supplies for her since she'd missed lunch.
Despite her new openness, even Ned refrained from teasing Marguerite about getting lost in the Cave of Memories - or even asking questions. His restraint was rewarded when she'd finished eating. She laughed up at him, and motioned the ground beside her. "Come sit down, Neddy, and ask me whatever it is you want to know, before you explode."
At first he was stunned into stillness. Marguerite offering to answer a question?! He looked at John Roxton, and the hunter grinned and nodded in confirmation.
That was all the encouragement the younger man needed. Ned grinned eagerly, and dropped down to sit cross-legged beside the dark-haired woman whose past had so intrigued all of them for these last three years of knowing her. How many questions would she let him ask? He'd better choose carefully, in case she abruptly closed the door again after only one!
Veronica and Challenger joined them, though Challenger warned, "Not too many questions, Ned. She should rest soon."
Marguerite couldn't help but smile at the tender concern the others were lavishing on her. She glanced to Roxton, suddenly overwhelmed, her smile faltering. He got to his feet long enough to lift her from the chair - and seated himself there instead, settling her on his lap.
It startled the others, but not as much as the way she snuggled against him with a sigh of contentment, reassured and strengthened by his embrace. "I am resting," she told Challenger with obvious contentment, then faced Ned. "Go ahead, Neddy-boy."
He grinned at her use of John's affectionate nickname for him, and blurted out the question they'd all been wondering about. "What did Roxton laugh at in there?" Then he could have bitten his tongue out. What a stupid question to ask her, when there was so much he wanted to know!
But she only smiled as she tilted her head back on John's shoulder to look up at his face. "He was just being silly."
John kissed her lips lightly, then met his friends' curious gaze. "Actually, I was celebrating. You see, Marguerite had just decided that it was okay for all of us to love her, and to let herself love all of us in return." He announced it with a glance of pride at her, as if it was an incredible accomplishment.
And given the little they did know about her past, none of them doubted that John was right. They each reacted with smiles and congratulations, their warm response nearly overwhelming Marguerite again. Her tears sobered them with mixture of concern and gladness for her as she confessed, "I never imagined I would ever have such a wonderful family as all of you!"
Then, as the dusk drew nearer, she answered an elated Ned's every question, along with ones tossed in by an awed Veronica and an impressed Challenger.
She argued with John about answering some of them - embarrassed about some details, concerned about security issues during talk of her wartime work - and there were some questions for which she honestly couldn't seem to recall answers.
But most of the time she answered their inquiries as fully as she could, to everyone's delight.
A couple times John intervened, when he felt that she was presenting herself in the worst possible light, offering his own interpretation garnered from her memory images.
Marguerite was touched that the others apparently agreed with John's conclusions, and more than once she tearfully said they were being much too good to her, far more so than she deserved.
Ned still had more questions - actually, they all did - when John finally declared that it was time for Marguerite to get to bed. John could feel the trembling of exhaustion that the others couldn't see in the flickering firelight of early evening. Her slender body and tender emotions needed the rest, even if her incredible heart did long to finally give them all the answers possible. So he put his foot down, rose from the camp chair with her still in his arms, and carried her to her tent. She was exhausted from the day's adventure, and several cups of Veronica's tea through the evening had sufficiently dulled her pain so she could rest. He stayed with her until she'd fallen safely asleep.
Then he went back out to the fireside where the other three had waited to share the evening meal with their hunter. As they ate together, Roxton volunteered more information about what had happened in the Cave of Living Memories.
Very quietly, he shared some of the darker things he'd discovered, the things about her childhood that she couldn't or wouldn't consciously remember, and a little more about her husbands and her work. He would have liked to tell them everything, but he only told them enough so that they would understand Marguerite's predicament about going home to England.
Roxton admitted grimly to the others that he had doubts about whether he'd be able to keep his lady safe if they were to ever find a way off the plateau. Facing Challenger, he said "George, if you could have seen some of those people she borrowed money from to finance the expedition, it would curdle your blood." She'd downplayed that part of her life when answering Ned's questions, and John hadn't argued it earlier, knowing she didn't want George to feel badly. But Roxton knew George needed to know about the lengths to which she'd gone in order to fund the expedition.
Determinedly, he continued, "I think it would be safer for her to stay here with Veronica, if we find a way home." The hunter met their eyes one by one. "Ned can come back to England to join me as we verify the plateau's existence for you, George, and to publish his stories . . . then he and I can come home to Veronica and Marguerite."
Ned glanced at Veronica. They hadn't talked about this for a long time.
She met his blue eyes uncertainly.
He smiled at her in his bashful way, answering Roxton as he kept his gaze on Veronica. "I like the sound of that, John, coming home to our women. I'd be willing to adopt a plan like that."
The young blonde drew a sharp breath. "Would you really be coming home?"
His smile wavered, and he asked, "Would you be waiting?"
The beautiful young lady nodded, chewing on her bottom lip nervously.
"Then I would be coming home," Ned assured her with tenderness.
Roxton and Challenger exchanged grins. "Well, looks like we have a plan."
John nodded at the professor's words. "It'll work. I can take Marguerite's gems back to England for her. If she stays here, no one will jump the gun trying to kill her before I can pay the blighters back. She'll be safe with Veronica, here away from any Germans. It shouldn't take me long to settle the details of my estate. How long would it take you to publish, Neddy-boy?"
"Not long. I've got everything in shape already. It's just a matter of getting the material to a publisher and working out a contract." Ned pulled his gaze away from Veronica to grin at the other two men. "I kind of figured on setting up a trust for my parents, instead of waiting around to collect anything myself before I came back to Veronica. That way there won't be a need to wait once contracts are signed for the publishing and the royalties."
Veronica swallowed hard, staring at the young reporter. "You . . . you don't want to wait and see how your book does?"
"No. I want to get back to you as soon as I can," he replied simply. "That's why I've been writing everything up in finished format, ready for the publishers. I don't want to be away from you, or from our home here on the plateau, any longer than absolutely necessary."
Veronica blinked back tears as she realized from the way he was speaking that this had been his intention even before he'd known she would be waiting. He'd already been working on it, already intending to make his home here with her, without even talking it over with her. He hadn't even considered trying to convince her to leave her home to go back with him.
"I hope you're not planning on leaving me behind," George said crossly. "It shouldn't take long to provide proof that my theories were correct."
Veronica's eyes widened again, and she stared at the frowning scientist. "You're coming back, too?" she whispered, suddenly feeling overwhelmed. "You're not going away for good?"
"Of course not!" he scoffed. "You all are my family! I just have to go back for Jessie, and to silence those idiots at the Society! I can't imagine breaking up our family. Besides, this plateau is home. Jessie is going to love it here. And she's going to loving being mother to our four children, probably love you to death," he grinned at the "children".
Veronica did cry then, and Ned was quite willing to embrace her and comfort her. He whispered sweet loving words to her, promises that made her blue eyes shine.
Challenger stomped off to his own blankets, muttering to himself ruefully about these women who seemed so willing to believe that they would be abandoned.
John Roxton gave Ned a look of empathy, and then went back to Marguerite's tent to check on her. She was still soundly asleep, looking like an angel with her dark curls tumbled around her face and shoulders and nary a sign of pain on her lovely face.
He tucked the light-weight blanket closer about her, brushed her hair back off her cheek, and tenderly kissed her forehead.
Now they all finally had a future.
Thank God it would be together.