22

The last section of the path leading to the cove descended sharply through a wide curve. There were steps along the way, interrupting their headlong dash, forcing Jordan and Eleanor, despite their growing urgency, to slow.

Lungs burning, arms aching, Jacqueline stumbled on between them, searching for some means of delay. She could hear voices drawing nearer, lots of them. It was no part of Jordan’s plan for her to die-not yet, at any rate-yet as she grappled with the enormity of all he’d done so far in his quest to own Hellebore Hall…she had no faith that if thwarted, he wouldn’t sacrifice her out of revenge.

He couldn’t be entirely sane.

She glanced sideways. On her right, Eleanor was nearing the end of her resources. Unlike Jordan, she looked frightened, increasingly panicky.

Jacqueline looked ahead; her gaze fell on the plantings bordering the path. They reached the next bend; three steps led down. Eleanor started down, her fingers locked about Jacqueline’s arm, tugging her down, too. Jordan released Jacqueline to glance back up the path.

She let herself fall, dropping her shoulder, breaking Eleanor’s grip, butting hard into Eleanor’s side. Stepping down, already off balance, Eleanor lost her footing. She shrieked, flailed, then fell backward off the step into the bed alongside.

It was filled with large cacti.

Eyes wide, her mouth open, Eleanor froze, then she hauled in a breath and screamed. She thrashed; the cactus spines dug in, caught her skirts, caught everywhere.

Jordan stared, horrified-helpless to help her.

Then he rounded on Jacqueline.

She’d stumbled, but kept her feet. “She pulled me-I tripped.”

His face contorted. She saw the blow coming, but couldn’t duck in time; the back of his hand cracked across her cheek. She reeled, then fell to her knees, gasping, struggling to catch her breath.

Behind her, Jordan tried to calm Eleanor, tried to stop her from becoming more entangled. He grasped her hands and tried to pull her loose; Eleanor shrieked. The cacti had speared her in too many places, trapping her and her clothes securely.

“It’s all right.” Jordan let go. “It doesn’t matter if you stay here-they won’t hurt you. I have to get to Cyclops and make them agree to all we want. Once they’ve put it in writing, we’ll be the victors here-we can have and do whatever we want.”

Jacqueline staggered to her feet. She was too exhausted to run.

Jordan cast her a vicious, vindictive glance. “Later,” he said quickly to Eleanor, “you can have your revenge on her-take a whip to her, do whatever you like. You can make her pay, again and again-tie her up and make her watch us. She’ll be your slave. We’ll be together and no one will be able to stop us. But I have to get her to Cyclops to win.”

Eleanor’s eyes widened; she reached out, grasping his hands. “No-don’t leave me!”

Jordan’s contemptuous exasperation returned. “I’ll come back!” Glancing up the path, he shook off her hands. “I have to go-now!”

Eleanor howled. Jordan ignored her. He moved swiftly, ducking his shoulder, hefting Jacqueline up. Locking his arm about her legs, he headed as fast as he could for the cove. And Cyclops.

Jacqueline bounced on his shoulder. Unconsciousness threatened; she fought it off, managed to raise her arms and brace them against Jordan’s back.

He was swearing continuously. As he bounded down the last section of path, she glimpsed figures above, some stopping by Eleanor, others streaming on. There were two paths that led to Cyclops, but the other, along the southern ridge, was longer.

Gauging the distance, Jacqueline accepted that Jordan, even carrying her, would reach Cyclops before any rescuers could reach them.

She’d done her best. Closing her eyes, she drew in a deep breath, smelled the salty tang of the sea-thought of Gerrard; she knew he’d come for her. Reaching deep, she marshaled her reserves. Whatever came next, she was going to need them.

Gerrard and Barnaby came to a precipitous halt on the path above the cove. Behind them, a group of gardeners was untangling a sobbing Eleanor Fritham from a bed of cacti.

Before them, high on top of Cyclops, Jordan Fritham stood, holding Jacqueline teetering on the edge of the blowhole.

Everyone else had gathered on the path, staying off the rock itself. In the center of the group, his neighbors supporting him, Lord Tregonning stood, leaning heavily on his cane; even from this distance his face was ashen.

Lord Fritham’s pallor was even worse.

The bend in the path screened Gerrard and Barnaby from Jordan’s sight. Through breaks in the foliage, they watched as he bargained with Jacqueline’s life.

Higher up the garden, Mitchel Cunningham had passed them, racing back to the house for pen and paper. Sent back by Lord Tregonning in response to Jordan’s demand, Mitchel had rapidly filled them in.

Jordan had threatened to disfigure Jacqueline, to put out her eyes then and there if they didn’t meet his demands. If any rushed him, he’d drop her into Cyclops.

He’d asked for a deed to be written and signed by Lord Tregonning, and witnessed by everyone there, ceding Hellebore Hall and the estate to him outright, giving Jacqueline to him in marriage, and absolving him of all and any crimes they might think to lay at his door.

Gerrard was beyond swearing; Barnaby wasn’t.

“Shush,” Gerrard said. “Listen.”

Lord Fritham was pleading with his son. “There’s no need for any of this.”

“Need?” Jordan’s contempt-laden sneer reached them, carried on the sea breeze. “This can all be laid at your feet, old man-thanks to you, all I have is need. You and Mama have squandered what little inheritance I might have had, what with your entertainments, always trying to pretend you were as wealthy as your neighbors. The Manor is mortgaged to the hilt-don’t you think I know? So what’s left for me? I had to take steps to find myself a future. With Jacqueline’s money, Eleanor and I will live in London-where we always should have stayed. No more being buried in the country. We’ll live like kings in the capital, and leave you damned down here.”

The last words rang with furious resentment.

Gulls wheeled; the swoosh of the waves on the rocky shore of the cove lent an eerie backdrop to the fraught scene.

The tide was coming in; Cyclops had yet to start gushing in earnest, but the hem of Jacqueline’s gown was wet. The blowhole chamber emitted a low, steadily building grumble, more definite with every set of waves that rolled in.

“I wonder how much time we have before Cyclops really blows,” Barnaby whispered.

“In about half an hour it’ll start to gush.”

It was Matthew who’d spoken; Gerrard turned as he and Sir Vincent joined them. The older man was panting heavily.

Matthew’s eyes had locked on the unfolding drama. “It’ll be an hour before Cyclops reaches full strength. Regardless, if he drops her in now, there’s no way she’ll escape. She’ll either drown, or be battered to death.”

On Cyclops, Jordan was speaking again. “As soon as that fool Cunningham brings paper and pen, all you have to do is write what I tell you, and sign it.” A smile curved his lips. “I know you all-you’re ‘men of their word.’ You’ll do exactly as I ask so I won’t be forced to let go.” Jordan eased the arm about Jacqueline’s waist-her feet immediately started to slip inward on the sloping side of Cyclop’s funnel-like hole.

Everyone gasped, started forward, then stopped as Jordan laughed and hoisted her up again. “Just so.” He brandished the knife close to her cheek. “Don’t forget-stay back. I’m sure Cunningham will be here soon.”

No one moved. No one said anything.

“Is Jordan insane?” Barnaby asked. “No one’s going to feel obliged to honor a promise given under such duress.”

“He’s not insane.” Sir Vincent looked grim. “Just think of the scandal fighting a written and fully witnessed deed will cause-for everyone.”

“Oh, God!” Matthew grabbed Gerrard’s arm; he pointed out to sea. “Look!”

A summer squall was sweeping in. A stormy, churning dark gray curtain, it steadily advanced, eating up the previously blue sky, the waves changing to slate before it, white crests rising, kicked up by the winds running before the front.

“It’s coming this way.” Matthew’s voice was rising. “It’ll drive the waves before it.” He looked at the two figures on Cyclops, their backs to the approaching danger. “Jordan doesn’t know. Cyclops will blow much sooner than he expects, and much harder. What if he loses his grip?”

Sir Vincent swore. “We’ll have to tell him-”

“No.” Barnaby was staring at Jordan. “If you force him to move away from Cyclops…It’s his weapon. Without it, with just that little knife and a threat, he’ll be vulnerable. He’s liable to panic.”

“He’ll panic anyway,” Matthew said. “I know what happens in storms. Cyclops erupts suddenly, without any gradual build-”

Gerrard clamped a hand on Matthew’s arm, enjoining silence while his mind raced. “While Jordan holds Jacqueline over Cyclops, we can’t do anything, so we’re going to do something to change that-something Jordan won’t expect.”

“What?” Barnaby asked.

Gerrard met his eyes. “I need you and Sir Vincent to go out there and support Lord Tregonning, but not in silence. Jordan is vain-he thinks he’s the victor here. Ask him about the previous deaths, get him to tell you how clever he’s been-you know how to lead men like him to fill the time.” Gerrard glanced at Sir Vincent. “Most importantly, between you, I need you to keep Jordan’s eyes on you-on your faces. Don’t let him look at the others.”

Barnaby frowned. “Why?” Suspicion laced his tone.

Gerrard held up a hand. He looked back up the path, beckoned to one of the men surrounding Eleanor.

It was the senior undergardener. He came quickly. “Sir?”

“We need you to keep Miss Fritham there, and keep her down-we don’t want her seeing what goes on out on Cyclops.”

The man glanced at the rock, then saluted, and hurried back up the path.

Gerrard turned to Matthew. “Can we get from here to the cove without Jordan seeing us?”

Matthew frowned. He pointed to the right. “There’s a gardener’s track that swings around that way-it ends at the cove. Because of the dip where the stream runs down, there’s cover all the way.” He looked at Gerrard. “Why?”

His gaze fixing on the figures out on the rock, Gerrard drew a determined breath. “Because I’m going to do the last thing Jordan will expect. I’m going to climb Cyclops from the seaward side.”

“No. You can’t,” Matthew said. “It’s not possible.”

Sir Vincent was shaking his head. “’Fraid he’s right-it’d be suicide.”

Gerrard turned his head and met Barnaby’s eyes. “You often rib me about my county of origin-tell them.”

Barnaby held his gaze, read his resolution, then sighed and glanced at the others. “Peak District. He’s right. If anyone can climb the seaward side of Cyclops, it’s him.”

Like a giant awakening, the rumbling grumble of Cyclops rose beneath Jacqueline’s feet. The blowhole gaped beside her; the powerful surge and swoosh of the waves steadily building within the rock cavern below filled her with terror.

Jordan’s arm was her only link with life. If he let go, poised as she was, she wouldn’t be able to save herself.

She was helpless, and one small step from certain death.

Panic threatened to engulf her. She fought it, but like the wetness seeping up her skirts, despair, cold and clammy, spread insidiously through her.

She had no idea what would happen, how the scene would play out, but the comber of tension running through Jordan’s muscles told her he was nowhere near as in control of himself as he was striving to appear.

What if he fumbled and dropped her?

The rumble of men’s voices was a counterpoint to that of Cyclops. She tried to make sense of the words, but couldn’t seem to tear her gaze or mind from the yawning hole at her feet. It seemed to be waiting to suck her down…

Gerrard. If she slipped and died, losing him and their future would be her last and overwhelming regret; she was determined to fight for the chance to embrace both. That purpose, the certainty of knowing what she wanted, of knowing nothing else was more important in life, had allowed her to think, and delay, and remove Eleanor.

He’d given her a vision of her future to cling to.

Closing her eyes, she let that purpose once more infuse her, calm her.

A stir among those who were circling Cyclops had her raising her head, determinedly refocusing. Barnaby and Sir Vincent pushed through to join her father. Barnaby gripped her father’s arm reassuringly. Her father, stone-faced, gave no sign he noticed, but she knew he had. Barnaby had a plan, but where was Gerrard?

Jordan was wondering the same thing; he searched the crowd, then asked.

Barnaby met his gaze. “He’s injured. He had to stay at the house.”

Her heart plummeted. Barnaby shifted his gaze and met her eyes.

And she knew it was a lie. Gerrard was here somewhere, doing something they didn’t want Jordan to know about.

Her heart changed direction; her spirits soared. She listened, trying to get some idea of their plan. Trying to gauge what her part in it might be, steeling herself to do whatever was necessary.

Barnaby seemed resigned to Jordan getting his way; his conversation was clearly predicated on that. “You’ve planned this well,” he told Jordan. “And over such a long time. But I’ll admit I’m confused-why did you kill Thomas?”

Jordan hesitated, but couldn’t resist the invitation to gloat before them all. “Obviously because he was about to offer for Jacqueline’s hand, and she would have accepted him. He was about to poach what ought to be mine.”

“Indeed.” Barnaby nodded. “I quite see that. But why, once he was removed, didn’t you ask for Jacqueline’s hand and tie up the business then?”

“I would have.” Jordan’s voice took on an edge. “Except first she went into mourning for the idiot, and later, it became clear she wasn’t likely to accept my suit.”

“But you didn’t give up?” Barnaby sounded intrigued. Jacqueline suspected he was, just not in the way Jordan thought.

“Of course not-I just hunted for another avenue to achieve the same end.” When Barnaby waited, Jordan went on, “Miribelle was encouraging Jacqueline to go to London, but then Miribelle herself handed me the perfect solution. She poked her nose somewhere it shouldn’t have been. When she tried to stop Jacqueline riding with us, we realized who’d seen us in the Garden of Night. So Miribelle had to be dealt with, quickly, before she drummed up the courage to tell anyone. And that, of course, was the key.”

“You killed Miribelle,” Sir Vincent cut in, his eyes and tone condemnatory, “and placed the blame on Jacqueline.”

Jordan smiled. “Actually, no-I killed Miribelle, and you all placed the blame on Jacqueline. You suspected-and that was all Eleanor and I needed. All we had to do was blow gently here, then there, fanning your silly suspicions-it was so easy. You were all so gullible-it was the greatest game.”

“One you played beautifully,” Barnaby concurred.

Jordan inclined his head. “It gave me a scenario I could exploit to secure Jacqueline’s hand, even against any resistance from her-in the circumstances, it was perfectly natural to propose a marriage of convenience to keep her quietly here in the country. It would have worked, too.”

“But”-Barnaby looking confused-“I thought Lord Tregonning refused your suit?”

“He did.” Exasperation and contempt laced Jordan’s words. “He rambled about his honor and not accepting such a sacrifice-but he would have come around in the end. Once the rumors spread about Millicent’s death, well, it was just a matter of time before the situation with Jacqueline became simply too pressing. Marrying her off to me would have been the only solution.”

“Good God!” Sir Vincent was appalled, but then he swallowed and offered, “You really played us well.”

Jordan smiled. “Thank you.”

“One other thing,” Barnaby continued, as if they were merely filling in the time until Mitchel returned. “How did you…”

Standing on the rocks at the edge of the cove, hands on his hips, Gerrard looked up at the granite face of Cyclops. He could reach the narrow ledge circling it easily enough, but the climb up from there would be close to vertical for most of the way.

He eyed the wet rock, then walked across to its lower reaches, and leaned against it to tug off his boots. Leather soled, they’d be no help. In lieu of proper climbing boots, bare feet were the best alternative.

The waves were rolling in, angrily grasping more of the rock-strewn beach, feeding the roar, still muted, inside Cyclops’s cavern. Without a word, Matthew took his boots. Gerrard stripped off his stockings and crammed them in, then methodically emptied his pockets. He would have preferred to remove his coat, but the material would give him some protection against the rough, encrusted rock. He was going to get cuts enough as it was.

Turning to Cyclops, he buttoned his coat.

Beside him, Matthew looked up at the granite monolith, black where the waves had wet it, and shivered. “You might not make it.”

“I know.” He had thought of it. “But if she dies, I’d never be able to live with myself if I hadn’t tried.”

He studied the face for an instant longer, then looked at Matthew. “Don’t get seen until I reach the top.”

Matthew nodded. “Good luck.”

A crash of waves swallowed the words. Gerrard turned, reached for the narrow ledge and hoisted himself up.

The ledge was barely wider than his foot; clinging to the rockface with one hand, he quickly followed it along, circling the bulk of Cyclops until he reached the point he’d visually gauged as directly opposite where Barnaby and the others stood. As it happened, he would be climbing straight up one side and then over the top of the gaping maw where the sea rushed in, boiling and churning as it pushed into the cavern.

He didn’t stop to consider. He climbed.

He’d been climbing since he could crawl. Despite all his years in London, he’d visited his home every year, and every year he’d climbed. He wasn’t too rusty, too out of practice. Which was just as well. For someone of his experience, the rock itself was easy enough to conquer. What made the seaward ascent of Cyclops treacherous was the wet, and the constant but unpredictable crash and surge of the waves.

He didn’t look down, but climbed steadily on. The moves were second nature-finding the next fingerhold, shifting his weight, searching for the next toehold, lifting up and on, over and over. There were a few strained moments, especially as he moved past the upper edge of the opening in the rock and footholds became scarce, but the tricks, the rhythm, and most especially the discipline, were there to see him through.

No rush. Never hurried. One small step at a time, steady and sure.

Behind him, the squall drew steadily nearer; the light started to dim.

He slipped on a patch of seaweedy slime he hadn’t been able to see against the wet rock. He swung over the gaping hole-if he fell, he’d be swept into the chamber to a certain death. For an instant, he hung, fingers aching, muscles screaming, then he searched and found another toehold, and steadied.

He didn’t think of anything but Jacqueline. Just her. Not what was going on above his head, but the feel of her in his arms, the scent of her in the night.

Spray and spume surrounded him; the roar in the blowhole chamber was gaining in intensity. He shut his ears to it, thought of Jacqueline’s laugh-he hadn’t heard it often enough yet for either of them to die.

What will be will be.

He clung to Timms’s message like a promise, closed his mind to the pain in his wrists and grazed palms. Didn’t think of the gashes on his feet, across his fingers.

Beneath him, the sea surged and crashed, demanding his attention, demanding he stop and look down. He ignored it and climbed.

The edges were more jagged the higher he went, less worn by the waves, sharpened by the wind. Clouds had blown in and now covered the sun; the wind freshened further, hurling froth and lashing the waves. He was soaked to his thighs, and was starting to lose sensation in his feet, but he was almost there.

Almost at the point where the vertical face ended and the rock curved toward its flattened summit. The first gradual slope would be the most crucial; he wouldn’t be able to stand until he reached more level ground nearer to the blowhole, but throughout he’d be exposed, visible to those watching, and to Jordan if he turned around.

He was almost surprised to find himself lying prone, catching his breath on the top of the rock. He’d kept his head down; he hoped no one had yet sighted him. Drawing in a steadier breath, feeling his heart slow to a more normal rhythm, he focused on the discussion taking place mere yards away.

It had reached its culmination.

“Enough!” Jordan sounded harassed. “Just write a straightforward pledge, nothing fancy, stating you give Hellebore Hall and the entire estate to me, now, as of this date, that you promise that Jacqueline will marry me, and that you swear I’m not guilty of killing Thomas Entwhistle, Miribelle Tregonning or Millicent Tregonning.” Jordan paused. “Just write it!”

No one moved; no one spoke.

Gerrard risked lifting his head.

Just as Jordan lost patience. He swung Jacqueline out over the edge-her feet left the rock and she shrieked. She clutched at Jordan’s arm around her waist; he drew her back, but left her teetering on her toes, wholly dependent on his arm to keep her from sliding to her death.

“Now,” Jordan snarled, “are you going to start writing?”

Gerrard rose into a crouch. All the men arrayed about the rock facing Jordan saw him. His eyes locked on Jordan, he crawled swiftly forward, until he was on sufficiently level ground to stand.

For one instant, he remained still, gathering every ounce of strength he had left, gauging what he needed to do.

Cyclops’s eye was two yards wide, black and gaping. Jordan stood to one side with his back to him; he held Jacqueline balanced precariously over one sloping edge. She, too, was facing the other way. Even as Gerrard watched, there was a roar from beneath, then Cyclops spewed froth and water up and out over the rock, covering Jacqueline’s ankles.

The salt water stung his cut feet. Her slippers were soaked-she’d have no purchase at all.

Any second Jordan was going to notice the direction of many of the men’s shocked gazes.

Barnaby shifted, mouth opening, but Sir Vincent beat him to it. He tapped Mitchel on the shoulder. “Here-I’ll kneel down. Rest the paper on my back and write what he wants.”

“Just get on with it.” Jordan spoke through clenched teeth.

“The deed first.” Barnaby looked at Lord Tregonning. “What’s the legal name of the estate?”

Jordan looked at Lord Tregonning, then looked further. His head moved as he scanned the faces.

He started to turn, to glance behind.

Gerrard exploded into a sprint, then launched himself in a flying tackle across the open hole.

Jordan saw him; stunned, he swung to face him-and let Jacqueline go.

She screamed, twisted as she started to slide.

Gerrard slammed into her.

He grabbed her about her waist, yanked her to him and let his momentum carry them on.

Jordan lunged for them, stabbing with the knife-missed.

Gerrard juggled Jacqueline as they fell, cushioning her against him as they landed heavily and skidded across the stone.

They were facing the hole when they landed. Both saw what happened next.

Jordan had assumed Gerrard would come for him. He’d braced, then, realizing his error, lunged forward to strike at them. Too late.

He overbalanced and toppled into the hole.

They saw his face as he went in, eyes wide, incredulous that any such fate would come to him.

His mouth opened in a scream, then he was gone.

The scream abruptly cut off, smothered beneath the cauldron of surging waves in the blowhole chamber.

For an instant, there was no sound beyond the crashing symphony of the sea and the eerily distant call of gulls.

Then exclamations exploded all around. Men rushed onto the rock, clustered around the hole. Someone called for rope, but they were a mile from the house.

Lying on their backs on the rock, catching their breaths, Gerrard and Jacqueline sensed the gathering roar before anyone else. They turned their heads, met each other’s eyes, then Gerrard reached for her, wrapped her in his arms, kissed her temple.

She clung, wept, relief and joy, sorrow and loss intermingling.

He held her close, then slowly gathered himself and rose, lifting her with him as the roar built.

And broke.

Water gushed five feet above the hole as all the men leapt away.

“Good God!”

“Dear Lord in Heaven.”

Numerous other horrified exclamations fell from shocked lips as everyone stared at the small fountain. At what it contained.

A high-pitched, unearthly scream rang out. Eleanor had fought free; she raced out onto the rock.

She flung herself at the hole.

They caught her, restrained her.

Jacqueline’s last sight of her was Eleanor kneeling, keening as sea-water stained with her brother’s-her lover’s-blood spread out on the rock about her.

The squall hit, raged briefly, then swept on, leaving them and the gardens drenched, cleansed. The majority trudged back up the paths, shaking their heads, shocked but relieved.

Gerrard’s feet were so badly cut, he couldn’t put on his boots, much less walk back to the house. He sat on the rocks edging the rising bed bordering the path.

Jacqueline crouched before him, examining the damage. “I can’t believe you did this.”

She repeated the horrified comment three times, increasingly choked, before Sir Vincent, one of the gentlemen discussing Gerrard’s predicament over his head, bethought himself of the rowboat in the next cove. Matthew volunteered to hie over and row it around; Gerrard decided he would have to appreciate Matthew and Sir Vincent as they deserved from now on. Richards left to saddle up a steed to carry him up to the house once they reached the cove.

Jacqueline, of course, took charge.

She’d been horrified by the state of his feet; when she saw his hands, when he winced as she turned his right wrist, the one he’d landed on, she was so upset she couldn’t speak-not even to upbraid him.

Wise enough-experienced enough-in the ways of women to understand she felt she should, and that that in no way diminished her appreciation of his rescue, Gerrard kept his lips manfully shut and lapped up every ounce of her solicitous care.

By the time the boat arrived and they rowed around to the cove, and he rode slowly back to the house with Jacqueline, Matthew and Richards walking alongside, his feet had healed enough to hobble up the steps, across the porch and onto the blessedly cool tiles of the hall.

There, the ladies were waiting, to exclaim over them, roundly condemn Jordan and Eleanor, comment quietly, with real feeling, over the terrible legacy left to the elder Frithams, and to impart good news.

Millicent had awoken and was entirely herself, in full possession of her wits. In the same way burnt feathers brought some out of a faint, the smoke from the fires had revived her.

Jacqueline firmly cited his injuries as an excuse to cut the ladies’ time short; she determinedly bore him upstairs.

At his suggestion, they looked in on Millicent, and found Sir Godfrey sitting beside the bed holding Millicent’s hand.

Seeing them, Millicent quickly retrieved it, but her cheeks were pink, indeed, glowing; there seemed no doubt of her return to health.

“I stayed here,” Sir Godfrey told them. “There are some things it’s better for me not to see, if you take my meaning.”

Gerrard did. But as it had transpired, he hadn’t laid a finger on Jordan Fritham. Jordan had sowed the seeds of his own destruction, and reaped the bitter harvest.

Leaving Millicent and Sir Godfrey to learn the full story from the crowd milling downstairs, Jacqueline insisted Gerrard let her tend his wounds.

His room was wrecked; she took him to hers.

They didn’t return downstairs that evening. Their own company was all they desired. All they needed.

But need they did.

Needed to reassure, to celebrate, to simply live.

To love. To take joy in each other, in what they’d found, to reaffirm all that had grown, so strong and vital, between them.

Jacqueline knew what he’d risked for her-not just his life but his ability to live. He was a painter; painting was his soul, yet he’d climbed Cyclops knowing that one too-deep cut, one slice in the wrong place, could have stopped him from gripping a brush or pencil again.

Her tears fell as she bathed the angry wounds, too choked to give voice to the emotions buffeting her; he leaned close, found her lips and gently kissed her, assured her his fingers still worked, that he could close them around hers.

She raised her head, returned the kiss-simply accepted. There was nothing else she could do.

Gerrard lay back and let her tend his cut hands, his lacerated feet. Let her tend to him as she wished. Let her restore him body and soul, let her lavish devotion, worship and love upon him.

Later, he returned the gift in full measure, let the power rise, take them and bind them forever.

In the depths of the night, he asked, and was granted his reward. For being her champion, for freeing her to live, all he asked for was her life, and she pledged it gladly. Joyously.

What will be will be.

As always, Timms was right.

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