Mystic Memories

Mystic Memories - time travel romantic suspense

Mystic Memories

 

As they search for a boy lost in time, they find a love to last a lifetime.

“A Wonderful time travel romance filled
with adventure and page turning suspense.”
– Kristin Hannah NYT Bestselling Author

When a fourth-grade classroom of school children spend the night aboard a refurbished nineteenth century merchant brig in Dana Point, California, one of them disappears in the night. After a three-month fruitless investigation, the distraught parents are led to private investigator, Cara Edwards, who relies on her sixth sense as much her common sense to solve a case. But when her psychic connection to the lost boy draws her back to 1833 California, she must find a way to bring them both back to the future.

Captain Blake Masters has sailed the oceans of the world for nearly twenty years, never once looking back on his dark childhood memories. When Cara enters his life and opens the door to his forgotten past, can he trust her psychic insight to lead him on an uncharted course toward a destiny of love and compassion?

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Reviews:

Bell, Book & Candle: “…one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Fantastic!!”

Under the Covers: “…exciting, believable, finely crafted, and has a hero and heroine worth cheering for…”

Old Book Barn Gazette: “…If you don’t read this book, you’ll be missing out on an opportunity of a lifetime!”

Rendezvous Reviews: “…the spirited tale between this exceptional couple is loaded with sensuality… [An] ingenious slant on time-travel, combined with the paranormal, makes this book complex, full of riveting emotions, historically vibrant, and a magnetic read that pulls the reader in. The spellbinding ending is just the frosting on the top.”

RT BOOK REVIEWS: ★★★★½ Don’t pick up this book unless you plan to stay up all night: [Gillian Doyle writing as] Susan Leslie Liepitz draws you in deep with characters so real they might come knocking at your door. Though she’d never characterize herself as such, Cara Edwards is a psychic detective. During a period reenactment, a ten-year-old boy disappears on a restored 19th-century sailing ship and the boy’s father turns to Cara. Fearing the media frenzy, Cara at first refuses to help but finds herself fighting off physical pain until she agrees to use her powers. Having taken the case, she tries another reenactment.
On the Mystic, as Cara prepares for her turn at watch, the wall near her bunk opens. She enters the portal and walks through to 1833—still aboard the ship—where a storm is brewing. The command to “batten down the hatches” comes too late and Cara and Captain Blake Masters, a guest on the 1833 Mystic, are washed ashore. When Blake realizes Cara—even dressed as she is—is no young boy, he goes along with her tale of a young widow in search of her son. He is a true hero—very human in spite of being handsome; compassionate yet practical; and realistically frustrating at times. Gillian Doyle chooses words exquisitely in her sensual prose. The transitions in time are plausible and the author’s take on how people perceive life after death touches the heart. This is a mystical story, woven well. Everything about it strokes the senses, giving the imagination a curl-your-toes workout.

Excerpt:

Prologue

SPRING, 1815

CONNECTICUT SHORES

“Take whatever can be hauled by cargo wagon to my shipyard. I want it there at midnight Monday. No earlier—you understand?”

“Aye, sir.”

“Do you swear on God’s good name that no one else knows of this?” His lantern cast a flickering shadow across the deserted beach, illuminating the bow of the shipwrecked brig.

“Not a one, sir. She blowed up here last night during the storm. Full sails and all, sir. Thar weren’t a soul aboard. Gone, all of them. The ship is cursed, she is. I heard old salts spinnin’ yarns about her for years—mysterious deaths and vanishings of shipmates. But never the whole crew before, sir.”

“Enough! Do you think I haven’t heard the rumors as well? Why in the devil’s name do you think I want your work kept secret? I intend to use her piece by piece to repair other damaged vessels. Now that the blockade has been lifted, the demand for materials to build new ships has exceeded beyond my grasp. I cannot compete with the half-dozen other builders on the Mystic who have the means to meet the costs. Salvaging her is the answer to my prayers.”

“Prayers, sir?”

“Indeed—I have needed a turn-of-the-luck for some time now. It appears to have happened.”

“What if the curse she carried goes with these boards and timbers to the other ships? What then?”

“Nonsense. It is all nothing but superstition, my boy. I don’t believe a bit of it. Mark my words—as long as no one knows that she’s been used for repair, those fanciful rumors will stop. Not one of the ships to leave my dock will be haunted by the history of this ill-fated brig.”

“No one will learn the truth from me, sir.”

“Keep it that way and you will not need to be looking over your shoulder the rest of your life.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Monday, then. Midnight.”

“Aye, sir. Have a safe ride back to Mystic, sir.”

“I intend to.” Extinguishing the lantern light, he turned to leave, then paused. “On the off chance anyone should happen by while you are working on her, it might be wise to destroy any evidence of her name.”

“Consider it done, sir.”

 

Chapter 1

MARCH 1998

LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA

“I need your help. My ten-year-old son is missing.”

Cara Edwards studied the father of the young boy, her heart going out to Victor Charles in his desperate situation. He looked like a man on the brink of collapse, his emotions held only by a fine thread of control.

She already knew of the bizarre disappearance, as did anyone with a radio or television living anywhere on the continent during the past three months.

Fourth grader Andrew Charles of Huntington Beach had been with his class during an educational overnight experience aboard a nineteenth-century sailing ship, the Mystic. The following morning he was reported missing. No one, not even his fellow classmates, saw or heard anything unusual during the night. Nor had his body been washed ashore.

“I agreed to meet with you, Mr. Charles, but only to explain that I—” Her stomach tightened into a painful knot that she tried to ignore. It was extremely difficult to keep her objectivity in cases that were so gut-wrenching, such as this lost child. “I don’t think I’m the person to solve this case. My brother never should have given you my phone number.”

“You are a private investigator, right?”

“Yes, but—”

“And you are also psychic, right?”

She held up her palm to stop his interrogation. “I’m afraid you may have the wrong impression about me, sir. My brother has a tendency to misrepresent my… talents in that area. I don’t deny I have a seemingly unique ability to be led in the right direction by a sixth sense. But I prefer not to advertise myself as a—”

“Psychic detective?”

She winced. “Is that how Frank put it?”

The man nodded with a bittersweet smile. She couldn’t blame him for grasping at the last bit of hope Frank had thrown at him. If only Mr. Charles knew it was nothing more than a cruel joke by her older brother—a maneuver to get even with Cara. Frank had tried to humiliate her at their parents’ anniversary party over the weekend, taunting her to offer her unique services to find the missing boy. She had sidestepped his barbs and he’d ended up looking like the fool. Now he’d paid her back by putting her in this awkward situation with Mr. Charles.

“Please don’t turn me down.” His blue eyes beseeched her. He reached inside his silk suit coat and withdrew a checkbook and pen. “Name your price.”

She gently touched the sleeve of his jacket. “It isn’t about the money. I simply don’t believe I can do any more than the rest of your people have been doing for the last several weeks. I’ve seen the news reports. I know you’ve had at least one well-known psychic on this hunt.”

“She didn’t come up with any useful information.”

“Nothing at all?”

He shook his head.

“Then what makes you think I can do any better?”

“Your brother said—”

“Frank had no business making claims that he himself doesn’t believe. You see, Mr. Charles, my brother—in fact, my entire family—has never been able to conceptualize this phenomenon. Even I don’t quite understand how or why I was born with an acute intuitive sense of knowing things, seeing things through my mind’s eye. Once in a while it works in my favor to help a client. But I don’t guarantee success.”

“All I ask is for you to give it a chance.”

Cara shook her head, turning away from the man to escape the desperation and anguish in his eyes. From press coverage, she knew he was in his mid-forties, but he looked ten years younger and closer to her own age of thirty-four. He had the boyish-blond good looks of a surfer who had made it big in the boardroom. He was also married to an equally attractive woman who looked more like his sister than his spouse. The small, tight-knit family lived in Huntington Harbour with a moderate-size yacht tied to their private dock. Cara had caught a glimpse of the elegant waterfront home on the evening news. She had also seen the security force protecting the property from the reporters and cameramen camped outside on the doorstep—as well as anchored in the canal.

She glanced nervously toward the closed gate, expecting any one of those media maniacs to leap over the fence of the historic Rancho Los Cerritos, where she’d arranged this private meeting during the early-morning hours. Mr. Charles had managed to elude the news-hungry field reporters, but for how long?

As the two of them stood between their cars in the enclosed compound, Cara heard a sorrowful mourning dove. It seemed to echo the sentiments of the distraught father with a sad poignancy that tugged at her conscience.

Walking a few steps away, she ran her fingers through her close-cropped curls and released a sigh of frustration, her back to the man. “The last thing I want is to have my face flashed into every household in America, identifying me as a psychic investigator. I can forget about working undercover if I become known as ‘that California Quack on TV.’ ” She hooked quotes in the air. “Without anonymity, I may as well kiss my business good-bye.”

Mr. Charles came over and paused at her side, following her gaze toward the single gray bird perched high in the winter-bare branches of a sycamore. She noticed he’d put away the checkbook and pen. His hands were stuffed into the pocket of his slacks. Earlier his face had been in shadow, but now, caught in the morning sunlight, it showed the ravages of this three-month nightmare.

“Do you have children, Ms. Edwards?”

“No.”

“A husband?”

“I’m surprised you didn’t do a thorough background check on me, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

“I don’t. And I did.”

“Then you already know the answers to these questions. Make your point.”

“Your husband died six years ago on a hike in the mountains. You weren’t with him. It was reported as an accident. But somehow you managed to dig up the truth and bring his murderer to trial…”

Cara tensed, feeling her fingernails dig into the palms of her clenched hands as her mind flashed images of those horrendous days following Mark’s death. After seeing his killer brought to justice, she had been commended by one of the detectives, who had called her a “natural” at investigative work. Abandoning her well-planned future that had included Mark, she’d considered the police academy but chose to go it alone as a private investigator. Hiking and kayaking with Mark had given her not only physical endurance but also a sense of self-reliance, self-determination. She had also learned that an ordinary woman didn’t attract attention. People didn’t suspect a woman to be a down and dirty detective. They believed what they saw, whether she portrayed a homeless bag lady or an overzealous real estate agent. She was good at her line of work. Damn good. And proud of it. She liked to think Mark would’ve been proud of her too.

“…And with the exception of your brother,” Mr. Charles solemnly concluded, “your family is somewhat embarrassed by your unusual abilities.”

Somewhat embarrassed? My mother is mortified. My father barely tolerant. And my kid sister wishes I would just act normal. What does normal look like anyway? I’ve never met a normal human being.”

“In your line of work, I don’t suppose you would.”

“Not just in my line of work. Scratch the surface of anyone you know and you’ll find secrets and neuroses no matter how well they are hidden.”

“Yours being…?” He lifted one brow, pinning her with a knowing gaze, then answered his own question. “You’re not comfortable in your own skin. Your special talent is a gift but also a curse. You went after your husband’s murderer out of misplaced guilt because you didn’t sense the danger before he was killed.”

Cara felt her anger leap from the depths of a secret hell that had been sealed shut for nearly four years. “Is that your opinion or did you hire someone to dig it out of my shrink’s private files?”

“In my business, I make a point of knowing who I’m dealing with. This is no different. My source tells me you keep a low profile but have an exceptional track record.”

Flattery didn’t take the sting out of his violation of her privacy. “You should have put your ‘source’ to better use—such as finding your son.”

“Already done. He was the first man on it, Ms. Edwards. The news reports didn’t exaggerate when they said Andrew vanished without a trace. Everyone on that ship on December twenty-second has passed every conceivable interrogation, including lie detector tests.”

Cara watched as he walked to the trunk of his Mercedes sedan, opened it, and pulled out a baseball cap. He came back with it in his hands, worrying the bill.

“If you won’t take the case, will you at least see if you can pick up something from his Anaheim Angels hat?”

“Did he wear it much?”

“Sometimes.”

She would’ve preferred a ring or watch, something solid that wasn’t washed frequently and that the boy wore most of the time. But she was willing to give it a try. She reached for the cap and held it for several moments in silence.

“Do you recall the last time you saw him wearing this?” she asked, unable to pick up anything but a feeling of contentedness. If nothing else, she sensed that Andrew Charles was a happy kid.

“I can’t really remember. I’ve been rather distracted with my work the last several months…” His words trailed off with a tone of regret.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Charles. I wish I could help you.” Her stomach clenched as she handed back the cap. She flinched.

“Are you ill?” The man leaned toward her as if she might need assistance.

“No, not really. Just a little reaction to something.”

“I should have known you had a good reason to turn me down. I understand if you aren’t feeling well.”

“I only wish my brother would have consulted me before he called you. It could’ve saved us both a trip out here.”

“I’m grateful for his desire to help.”

She held out her hand. “Good-bye, Mr. Charles. I hope you find Andrew soon.”

As the man accepted her handshake, Cara experienced a flash of images in her mind’s eye. Unlike the posed head-shot of Andrew released to the media, these were snippets of the young boy through his father’s eyes. Looking down on him, she saw his youthful face turned up in adoration.

No—I don’t need this! I don’t want to see him! Don’t show me his face! Cara yanked her hand away, holding it protectively against her as if she’d been burned by a hot flame.

“Ms. Edwards? What’s wrong?”

“I—” She cleared her throat, struggling to make her voice sound calmer than she felt. Why did she have to see the boy through his father’s eyes? It was so much easier to turn down the case when the victim was only a black and white photo in a press release. Now…those youthful blue eyes would forever haunt her. “I saw your son.”

“Where?!”

She shook her head. “It’s not what you think. I didn’t see him lying in a ditch. I saw your memories of him.”

The man’s shoulders sagged. “I guess I should be relieved you didn’t see him dead.”

“I’m sorry—” She cut off her words, realizing how much she seemed to repeat her apology. The knot in her stomach was tighter than ever. “You know, Mr. Charles, it’s usually just plain old everyday investigative procedures that solve the case, not a paranormal camera lens in my head.”

“I understand.” He reached into his jacket again and brought out a small business card. “If you change your mind when you’re feeling better, please call me. Anytime. Day or night.”

Cara took the card, holding it in both hands as he drove away. She turned and walked into the restored adobe building where her Aunt Gaby worked in the visitors’ information office. Her great-aunt had unlocked the gates to allow Cara and Mr. Charles the clandestine visit. Eighty-three-year-old Gabriella Salazar was a docent of the rancho during a retirement filled with activity. The small, white-haired woman was a sharp-minded historian with the strength and agility of most fifty-year-olds.

Aunt Gaby looked up from a pile of research books, pushing her glasses up from the end of her nose. “You look like you could use a sip of this. Here…”

Cara blindly accepted her aunt’s personal cup of Yerba Santa. The holy herb was blended with mint and chamomile flowers to create a distinctively sweet flavor that soothed the senses before it even reached her upset stomach. Holding the stoneware mug in one hand and the silver-gray business card in the other, she propped one hip over the corner of the massive desk.

“I turned him down,” she said, then grimaced at the sharp twinge in her abdomen. She sucked in a short breath and held it, waiting for the spasm to subside. Her own body badgered her as if, on a deep-down level, it knew the right answer and would not let up on her until she made the proper decision. But she had made the proper decision. Hadn’t she?

“Perhaps you should have accepted.”

“I don’t need the notoriety.”

“You will handle it with the utmost grace.”

“You make it sound like I’m going to change my mind and take the case. I’m not.”

“You will if you want to get rid of that bellyache.”

“It’s just a little indigestion.”

Her aunt softly clicked her tongue in admonition. “This is your Aunt Gaby you’re talking to, Cara—not your mother or father. When will you learn that I understand how these things work? Listen to your body. It’s trying to tell you that something isn’t right.”

“Yeah, well, the only thing not quite right was last night’s green peppers in my stir-fry.”

Cara hated to admit that her aunt might be right…again. Gabriella Salazar had guided Cara through her childhood experiences when her parents had refused to believe the peculiar psychic revelations. Aunt Gaby had encouraged Cara to open up to her inexplicable insight, telling her stories of their ancestors who had similar abilities. Those same ancestors were part of a secret history no one else would acknowledge among the living descendants in her family— no one, that is, except Gabriella, Cara, and Cara’s kid sister. Her own father was raised to believe in his singularly Latin heritage, which had been traced to the Spanish settlers of early California. Although her mother was half Italian, she also claimed that the other half of her bloodline was Hispanic. This was partially true. Only Aunt Gaby would talk of the Indians who became known by their mission names—Gabrielino and Luiseño. Only Aunt Gaby believed that the powers of the native people had been passed on through the generations who had denounced their blood ties to avoid persecution.

Her aunt flattened her palms on a scattered array of papers, levered herself to her feet, and leaned forward. “Cara, you must pay attention to what your soul already knows. You won’t have a minute’s peace until you do what you know is right.”

Of all the women in her family, Cara resembled their matriarch, Gabriella, the most—in strong opinions as well as physical appearance. Both had light copper skin, a round face, and wide-set dark eyes. Both possessed the thick hair that held its own soft curls, though her aunt’s had long since lost the deep brown-black color. In her youth, the woman had been as much in love with the physical challenges of outdoor life as Cara was. They were kindred spirits, the two of them. So it was no surprise that Aunt Gaby could dig right to the heart of the present situation.

“I realize how cold I must sound,” Cara said. “I do care about the boy’s safe return. I just don’t think I can help.”

“What if you can?”

“His father’s had the best-of-the-best working for him for three months.” Cara set the mug on the coaster beside her aunt’s splayed fingers. With a shake of her head, she thought of the culprit who’d given her name to Mr. Charles. “What I would do to get my hands on Frank right now. My brother is a thirty-eight-year-old adolescent. It’s his fault I’m in this mess.”

“In it, are you?” Aunt Gaby’s white brows arrowed upward, her eyes bright with amusement. “Why, only a moment ago you had washed your hands of it all.”

“I’m not actually in this mess,” she backpedaled, wishing her quick-witted aunt wasn’t quite so fast at picking up a mere slip of the tongue. “It was just a figure of speech. I was in a mess. I’ve told Mr. Charles I’m out now.”

Her abdomen knotted again. Cara tried to hide her discomfort.

“How is the pain?”

With a sigh of resignation, she grumbled, “Worse.”

“See?”

“See what? I just need an antacid.” Glancing around for her purse, she realized she’d left it in her car.

“Deny it all you want. Sooner or later you’ll come around. That little boy is lost somewhere. And you won’t be able to live with yourself if you don’t do what you can to find him. Even if you come up empty-handed, you’ll be no worse off than all the others who have tried and failed. But I guarantee you won’t be hunting antacids anymore.”

Absentmindedly, Cara fiddled with the business card in her hand, turning it over and over with the dexterity in her fingers she’d learned playing poker in college. She contemplated her aunt’s advice. Maybe it wouldn’t be so difficult to take a look around the ship. Maybe she could deal with the media attention. Maybe she wasn’t giving enough credit to her own investigative abilities.

Aunt Gaby moved around the corner of the desk and slipped her arm around Cara’s shoulders. “Stop being afraid of your psychic powers.”

“I’m not afraid.”

“Yes, you are.” Gabriella spoke gently yet firmly. “You are also ashamed of them.”

Cara tensed under the truth of her aunt’s statements. Her own heated response surprised her. “Yes, I am embarrassed to admit I am different than most people. I’m afraid to be singled out by the reporters and labeled a weirdo, a freak. I don’t know if I can ever truly let go of this fear.”

“Then don’t. Instead, you must allow yourself to feel the fear, experience it, embrace it…then do what you must do anyway. Let yourself be who you are.”

The quiet words seemed to echo in the room, bouncing off the adobe walls as if blasted from a bugle. Cara couldn’t deny the plainspoken reality. Acknowledging the challenge in her aunt’s words, she looked down at the business card in her hand.

“Would you mind if I made a call?”

Grinning, Aunt Gaby gestured toward the desk phone with a wide sweep of her arm. “Be my guest.”

*  *  *

With permission from the corporation that owned the Mystic, Mr. Charles arranged to take Cara aboard later that same morning. The hour-long drive south on the freeway took her onto Interstate 5 and past the exits for Laguna Beach and San Juan Capistrano before she finally turned off for the quieter Pacific Coast Highway. Within minutes she found Dana Point Harbor Drive and followed it north a short distance until it ended in a small parking lot at the base of steep bluffs near the Orange County Marine Institute. She cut the engine and hopped out of her eight-year-old Camry, activating the alarm with a remote on her key chain. The car chirped as she made her way through the full parking lot that served the congested marina.

Approaching the institute, Cara looked at the ship anchored several yards out in the water. The Mystic was smaller than she’d expected—about ninety to a hundred feet in length. As a meticulously restored nineteenth-century square-rigger, it looked as if it had been plucked from the pages of a history book. The dark wooden hulk was a sharp contrast to the sleek lines and bright colors of the contemporary pleasure boats moored in the east basin of the marina beyond the brig. It was hard to imagine that such a small ship plied the waters off California, let alone sailed the great distance around the tip of South America to New England. Though her school lessons were a bit foggy, she did remember the assigned reading of Two Years Before the Mast, recounting the experience of the author from whom the coastal community had taken its name.

“Ms. Edwards?”

She turned to see Victor Charles emerge from the front door of the building with a casually dressed gentleman at his side. He approached and introduced the other man. “This is Samuel Schermerhorn, director of the institute. He’ll be taking us onto the ship.”

The director offered a welcoming handshake. “I’m only too happy to cooperate with the corporate owner and the Charleses, Ms. Edwards.”

She shook his hand. “Please call me Cara.”

“We would like to see this unfortunate incident resolved for everyone’s peace of mind. I understand you’re psychic.”

Cara gave Mr. Charles a furtive glance of annoyance. “I assumed we had an agreement about divulging that information.”

“To the press,” Victor corrected pointedly. “Samuel isn’t any more eager than you to have the newspapers exploit this ship as haunted. Such PR may have boosted the popularity of the Queen Mary, but it certainly wouldn’t be an asset in this case.”

Schermerhorn led them toward the dock. “Our primary focus is overnight visits for elementary students, usually in the nine-and ten-year-old age group. The idea of ghosts may be appealing at an amusement park or a historical building. But here we need the kids’ attention on the reenactment of history and interaction with each other in problem-solving situations. Their imaginations are vivid enough without frightening horror stories to distract them. The word from parents has confirmed the opinion. Only recently have we been able to reopen the program, after the authorities ruled that our safety procedures were not at fault.”

The three of them climbed down into a small powerboat, motored the short distance to the Mystic, and climbed the ladder to board her. Cara managed far easier in her jeans and running shoes than Victor did in his business clothes.

The deck was neat and orderly, with coils of thick ropes at the base of tall masts. The gray sky above was scored with lines and angles of rigging and cross timbers, the names of which Cara had forgotten from her school studies. The scents of the salty breeze and the old wood sparked her imagination with the danger and excitement of a more primitive era. An element of darkness and fear crept into her thoughts. She paid close attention to the sensation, seeking its source, waiting for something more to come to her. The feeling became like a black veil, obscuring shadowy thoughts and images that seemed to lie just beyond her mental grasp.

A gull flew past with a raucous “Scree—,” effectively interrupting her concentration.

Turning to the director, Cara said slowly, “How old is this boat?”

“The actual brig,” he corrected, “has been refurbished a number of times—the latest of which was in Connecticut at Mystic Seaport, hence her name. There probably isn’t a single board on her that is original. I have the history of her in my files. It’s spotty, at best.”

“I’d like a copy when we’re finished here.”

The visit proved unproductive, which was as much a disappointment to the two men as it was to Cara. She didn’t need special perception to read the expression on their faces. It was her own attitude of frustration that surprised her. Hadn’t she expected to fail when she’d first met with Mr. Charles? Hadn’t she told him she couldn’t do it? Then why did it bother her so much that she’d been right?

A revelation came to her with such crystal clarity it startled her. She knew the answer to why she was bothered about being right…

Because her gut told her she’d been wrong.

 

Chapter 2

Cara knew with a deep-down conviction that she was going to be the one to find Andrew. What’s more, her stomach didn’t hurt any longer. She could already imagine Aunt Gaby’s reaction to that news. But just because she’d taken a 180-degree turn, she found the job no easier than her predecessors had. She went back to the ship two more times without Mr. Charles. On each visit, she sensed the same darkness and fear, particularly in one small cabin below deck. Digging further into the history of the ship didn’t supply any information that hadn’t already been documented in the papers from Schermerhorn’s files.

The Mystic had been built smaller than most ships of the early 1800s—small and speedy for the smuggling trade. When she’d read of its illicit past, she’d felt a quiver of dread run down her spine. While there was no proof that innocent souls had died on board, she had sensed an ominous dark cloud hanging over the ship, as if it were shrouded in such secrets. Yet she was fairly certain Andrew was not one of the departed spirits. The brig had also gone through a number of owners, resulting in several different names. “Mystic” had appeared more than once during the last two centuries. In the 1830s it had been a merchant ship sailing between Boston and California, carrying dry goods to the West Coast and returning with cattle hides.

And yet nothing, absolutely nothing, shed any light on the disappearance of Andrew Charles on last year on December twenty-second. There was one thing left that she hadn’t tried—putting herself on the ship under the same circumstances as the young ten-year-old would have experienced.

*  *  *

“I want to go on the Mystic,” Cara told Schermerhorn on Friday afternoon.

He checked his watch. “There’s still a few hours before our school group arrives.”

“I don’t need another look around. I want to be on that ship tonight to stand watch at the same time Andrew did.”

“I told you I was only too happy to cooperate, but I’m afraid this may be going a bit too far, don’t you think?”

“I think it may be just the right atmosphere I need to help me finally pick up something.”

“Ms. Edwards—Cara…” The patronizing tone didn’t surprise her, even though he hadn’t shown such open disapproval during previous meetings. She’d sensed that he had been masking his true opinion of her credibility. “Our own people are in full costume and trained to act their parts during the experience. Since you are quite obviously not one of the schoolteachers or parent chaperons, how would we explain your presence on board? You can’t go unnoticed dressed in your jeans and sneakers. And we can’t very well tell them you are a private investigator.”

Cara folded her arms across her chest. “Train me.”

“But that’s—”

“—Not impossible. I’m a quick study with a sharp memory for details. I have the athletic ability to climb the ropes—literally.” She dropped her hands to the edge of his desk and leaned forward. “I want on that ship. If I have to work my butt to the bone learning how to climb that rigging, I’ll do it.”

“I can’t possibly authorize it.”

“Then put me in touch with the person who can.”

The director stared at her, then a slow smile of respect crept into the corners of his mouth. He reached for his office phone. “Let me see what I can do.”

Several minutes later, Cara received the answer she’d been counting on—one week of intensive one-on-one lessons, starting at seven on Monday morning. By next Friday, she would be ready to work the overnight “voyage.”

On her way home that evening, she stopped at a local bookstore and bought a paperback of Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast. She intended to study it over the weekend, memorizing every detail of a sailor’s life in the early nineteenth century.

*  *  *

Bo’s’n, halyard, yardarm, fo’c’sle, gaff, mizzenmast…

The maritime words and their meanings swam through Cara’s head as she approached the enthusiastic young sixth graders on the dock the following Friday afternoon. Her muscles were still sore from the relentless week-long workout of hauling heavy ropes, climbing rigging, and rowing the longboat. Still, the daily training had been a piece of cake compared to some of the wilderness treks she’d taken with Mark.

Dressed in white duck trousers, red-checked shirt, and short blue jacket, she listened to the captain address his “men” and felt confident that she would be a convincing crew member. To begin the adventure, she manned an oar in one of the longboats to take the kids out to the brig.

Boarding the Mystic from the longboat, she blended in with the activities aboard ship, following orders from the curmudgeonly British captain as if he were actually in command on the high seas. The children formed a line hustling their gear down the companionway and into the forecastle in the bow, where the lowly sailors lived. When the first mate referred to it as a “fo’c’sle,” the common sailor’s term, one boy snickered, then whispered to another with a lewd wink. Cara had nearly forgotten how the prepubescent male mind could find a sexual connotation to just about any word in the English language. She stifled a grin and raised an eyebrow to let them know she had their number. One flashed a beguiling smile, while the other blushed and turned back to his work. Shifting the leather strap of her sports bag on her shoulder, she shook her head, picked up the rolled sleeping bag at her feet and moved on, wondering if Andrew was anything like the mischievous little charmer or his red-faced friend.

Cara had requested the small cabin adjacent to the captain’s quarters. After stowing her things, she paused in the tiny cubicle, feeling the same uneasiness as before. She stood in the narrow space between the wall and the berth, which took up the length of the second mate’s room. If there was anything to sense regarding Andrew’s whereabouts, it wasn’t coming through. Not yet anyway.

But the uneasiness persisted. Allowing herself to feel the aura of fear, she lightly rubbed her upper arms as if a chill breeze had crept across her skin, even though the musty air was close and warm compared with the cool ocean temperatures topside.

The fear she felt was not her own. There was no threat to her personal safety. This she knew without question. She also knew she was on the threshold of a breakthrough. Something was different in this cabin. Something unsettling. Off balance. From somewhere in her mind came a solid conviction that she was definitely on the right track.

*  *  *

At twilight, a one-dish supper of beef stew was served to all except the captain and the adult chaperons, who had been invited to be his guests. Cara had declined, choosing instead to walk around the ship in hopes that her solitude would help her make a psychic connection with Andrew. And yet she had a moment of regret when the captain’s dinner of roast chicken was ceremoniously paraded past the line of hungry sixth graders, reenacting the vast differences between the paltry crew and their superior officers. Cara watched the young faces turn sour at the sight of their own meal of cubed carrots, potatoes, and mystery meat in a pale-gray gravy. She felt the same way as she held out her tin plate.

After dinner, the children and their parent chaperons gathered in the between decks for a few of the captain’s yarns, told by the light of a single lantern. As Cara headed for her cabin to catch a few hours of sleep before taking her turn on the night watch, she overheard two of the mothers whispering to each another.

“It gives me the creeps,” said one, “to think of the poor kid who disappeared. I bet I don’t close my eyes all night.”

“Why did you volunteer to chaperon?”

“I couldn’t let my daughter come alone.”

“She’s not alone. She’s with her whole class.”

“So was that Charles boy.” The fretful mother caught sight of Cara. “Do you know what really happened to that child?”

As part of this living history experience on the nineteenth-century brig, every person on board—male and female—was regarded as an able-bodied seaman. Staying in character as a crew member, Cara addressed the woman accordingly: “What child might that be, sir?”

“Andrew Charles,” offered the second one. “His disappearance was in all the papers.”

Cara affected a swarthy tone. “There warn’t no papers on me last ship, sir. I just made port b’fore signin’ on the Mystic. Can’t say I heard nary one word about a…boy, y’say?”

She stayed her course, playing it to the end. Those were the rules in her training class. The instructor had been adamant. No matter how much a visiting class might tease or pressure the actors to slip out of character, they were expected to maintain the illusion of the adventure at all times.

The first woman didn’t seem to grasp the concept, however, and patiently explained in detail about the disappearance of Andrew. “I have my own theory that the gravitational alignment of the planets on the winter solstice might have something to do with all this.”

The other mother spoke up with a skeptical laugh. “You may as well say that kid vanished on a spaceship. Or, better yet, blame it on those offshore earthquake tests! The subterranean explosions might have knocked him overboard.” Cara was more than a little amused and intrigued by the direction of the conversation.

“There might be some truth to those possibilities,” said the first mother. “What if the explosions disturbed the electromagnetic field?”

“Excuse me, sir,” interrupted Cara with a waning smile. “I was about to turn in. I ’ave second watch, y’know.”

“Oh—yes, of course,” stammered the mothers, apologizing for keeping her too long.

Moments later, Cara pulled out a small penlight she’d hidden in a deep pocket. After hanging it from the same hook as her gear bag, she shucked the wool jacket and boots issued to her as part of her costume. Cara’s watch would be the same as Andrew’s had been, starting at midnight, or eight bells. Instead of the regular four-hour watches described in Dana’s book, the Mystic observed “anchor watch” of two-hour shifts.

The short, narrow bunk seemed barely large enough for Cara’s five-foot-six height, let alone a man of larger size. She wondered if sailors in the 1800s had been smaller in stature than today’s standards or just more adaptable to tiny spaces. She shifted to her side, then yanked the top of the sleeping bag over her, leaving it unzipped.

Listening to the gentle creaks and moans of the floating antique, she contemplated the conversation between the two women. Centuries of superstition surrounded the change of seasons in many cultures. What if the winter solstice had played a role in the disappearance of Andrew? Stranger things had been known to happen.

Like private investigators who used psychic senses to solve cases.

Cara couldn’t turn her back on any possibilities, no matter how far-fetched. Could the approaching spring equinox next week be a factor? If so, tonight might be a waste of time and she would need to return on the twenty-first.

Then again, there were fault tests to consider. She had read about them. Some people were afraid the underground explosions would trigger an actual seismic tremor, perhaps even a full-scale earthquake. So far, not so much as a geological hiccup had occurred, at least not anything that registered on the Richter scale. But what if the electromagnetic field had been disrupted? Cara wasn’t a scientist, but she had long ago learned to open all mental doorways to let in any ideas, giving them equal importance. Nothing was ever discarded. Not until the case was closed.

The quiet knock came through the dark recesses of her sleep.

“Eight bells, sir,” said a young male voice in a loud whisper, despite the order of total silence when rousing the next watch.

Instantly awake and alert, Cara quietly answered, “Aye-aye, mate.” She knew from training that the new crew had ten minutes to relieve the sailor on the previous watch.

After switching on the flashlight that dangled overhead, Cara slipped her legs out of the sleeping bag and dropped them over the wooden lip of the berth. Sitting hunched over, she plowed her fingers through her hair, then took down her gear bag and pulled out a knit watch cap and a pair of leather gloves. As a thin-blooded native of Southern California, she didn’t like the slightest drop in temperature. To her, March was one of the coldest months of the year. Especially on the water. And especially in the dead of night.

Turning to stow her bag, she was startled by a sudden image out of the corner of her eye. She swiveled to her left and pointed the halogen beam at the dark wood panel.

Nothing was there.

The skin on her arms prickled. Without a doubt, she had seen something a moment earlier. But it had been too fleeting to even register in her brain. Maybe she wasn’t as awake and alert as she’d thought.

She stared at the blank wall. It was old and worn, scarred and scratched. Stretching toward it, she traced a long gash in the wood with her fingertip. White-hot heat radiated up her hand.

Anger.

Fear.

Terror.

She yanked her hand away from the marred wood, severing the painful sensation of the heat as well as the wrenching emotions. An adrenaline rush of anticipation quickened her heart rate. She closed her eyes, drew a deep breath, and let the air slowly leave her lungs. With each deliberate exhale, she emptied her mind of all thought, all preconceived ideas, all speculation about Andrew’s disappearance. When she opened her eyes again, she felt a strange sense of weightlessness, as though her body was floating.

Staring at the bulkhead, she let her gaze drift slightly out of focus. A glimmer of light blossomed into shapes and shadows and images. The outline of a figure appeared, too small to be a grown man. He was dressed in dark, baggy clothing, and a misshapen oversized floppy hat covered his head. The momentary vision vanished. Gone. Winked out in the time it took to blink.

Damn it.

She heard only the creaking of the ship as it gently rocked with the roll of low waves in the sheltered harbor. Disappointed with the brief, inexplicable image of a faceless boy, Cara sighed in resignation and dropped to her feet. As she reached down for her shoes on the floor, the cabin tilted, pitching her off balance. She reached out to brace her fall, grasping the berth rail with one hand while flinging the other toward the bulkhead.

Her fingers disappeared through the solid wood panel.

She yanked her hand back and stared at her fingers, then at the panel. First the vision. Now this? And where had that rogue wave come from? The ship was anchored inside a protected marina.

Another wave tossed her violently toward the bulkhead. Her hand shot out in front of her and again disappeared into the wood. Only her grip on the berth kept the rest of her body from falling into the unknown.

Instinctively, she knew to remain calm and let her mind listen for the still, small voice inside her head—the voice of wisdom and insight. It guided her to close her eyes to her physical surroundings. She mentally pictured her upper arm, then let her gaze travel to her elbow, through the wood to her wrist, hand, fingertips, and beyond.

Her view of the other side was of the captain’s quarters, which she recognized from her previous visits to the Mystic. And yet the decor was clearly different. Gone was the sparse elegance of museum-quality restoration. Instead, a cluttered disarray of papers and clothing was scattered about the floor and over furniture. The dining table set for two was littered with platters of uneaten food. An unmade bunk was strewn with yellowed sheets and gray blankets.

It was another dimension. Another time.

For the first time since boarding the brig, Cara sensed Andrew’s presence. She knew he was over there, somewhere. She was sure of it. But if she were to follow her gut instinct to go after him, she might not find her way back.

Slowly withdrawing her arm back into the second mate’s cabin, Cara reluctantly opened her eyes.

You’ve got to go, her conscience prodded. You’ve got to do this.

Fear rose up inside her. It was one thing to climb over a security fence or face a couple of guard dogs while in pursuit of information on a case. She knew how to deal with those circumstances—and quite successfully, she admitted proudly to herself. But she had never, ever taken a leap of faith that came anywhere close to this one.

Maybe she needed to rethink the solstice theory. Maybe she needed to come back next week on the spring equinox. Yeah, that was it. Waiting a few days would give her time to pack a bag of necessities for whatever she might confront in the past. A gun came to mind, though she had a definite aversion to firearms.

A feeling of urgency pressed heavily on her. If she postponed her decision to go through the mysterious portal, she might find it closed next time. Now might be her only chance.

Battling her own instinct for self-preservation, Cara glared at the scarred wood panel, deceptively solid in its appearance. Suddenly, a muddied image of the rumpled child returned. He was lying on his side, bound and gagged. Two men stood over him, exchanging a leather pouch. One of them hauled the boy to his feet. Cara tried to see the face beneath the brim of the hat, but the boy was quickly shoved toward a door.

As the picture vanished, Cara could not be sure it had been a vision of Andrew. Yet she suspected the child had been bought and paid for. But why?

A sinister chill rippled down her spine. Even if the child was not Andrew, she’d been shown this vision for a reason. Perhaps the two boys were together. Or perhaps this child could lead her to Andrew.

Go, Cara!

But what if—

Go! Now! Before it’s too late!

Cara crammed her feet into the shoes and shoved her arms into the sleeves of the jacket. Snatching the flashlight and bag off the hook, she stepped toward the bulkhead. Then stopped. She glanced down at her toes, inching one forward until the tip of the leather shoe almost touched the wood panel. Her heart hammered in her chest.

Praying she wasn’t about to make the biggest mistake of her life, Cara forced herself to walk through the invisible portal.

MARCH, 1833

CALIFORNIA COAST, OFF SAN PEDRO

The flogging was merciless.

Despite his anger at the unwarranted punishment, Blake Masters held no authority to intervene. He was merely a guest aboard the Mystic. It was not his ship. These were not his men. He could do nothing but watch as the burly sailor was stripped to the waist, seized up, and whipped until he cried out for divine intervention. Captain Johnson clearly savored inflicting pain with each strike of the thick rope clenched in his hand, much as he had savored his dinner only a short while ago.

The meal had been interrupted by the first mate, a rat-faced, scrawny fellow who had reported an incident in the hold. Johnson had excused himself to deal with the situation. Blake should have taken his leave then and returned to his own ship, the Valiant. But he had accepted the invitation to dine with the captain, and they were barely midway through the meal. Or rather, he was. The portly Johnson had all but inhaled his first platter with great noise and had begun a second when news of the scuffle had been delivered. Shortly thereafter, Blake had been summoned to the quarterdeck to witness the punishment, though for what infraction he didn’t know. Nor did he care to learn. Whipping a man within an inch of his life was abhorrent to him. Even though flogging was accepted punishment on most vessels, he’d vowed not to use such brutality on any ship he captained. No one challenged his leniency, however. Not if they knew of his own stripes of degradation, emblazoned across his back.

The rodent of a second officer called out the number of the final lash, drawing Blake’s attention back to the scene before him. As the blond sailor hung limp and unconscious, the captain ranted and raved like a damn lunatic, challenging any of the seven remaining sailors to cross him as their crew mate had done. The cowering men hung their heads, unable to look into the wild eyes of their captain. Johnson laughed with a high-pitched cackle that sounded more like a deranged crone than a man, if one could even call him a man.

Sickened by the entire vile performance, Blake could not bring himself to return to the captain’s table. Determined to depart at once, he saw the ominous signs of an approaching squall. The blood-chilling drama on deck had kept him from noticing the darkening night sky or the shifting wind.

Blake glanced across the water toward the Valiant. She was gone. During the commotion, she must have slipped anchor and made for open sea to ride out the storm. He trusted his men. They would save his ship, of that he had no doubt.

“Captain Johnson, sir.” Blake spoke in a polite yet loud voice to capture the raving man’s attention. The sorry excuse for an officer fell silent, clearly startled that anyone would dare usurp his authority while he castigated his crew.

When he realized that the impudence came from his guest, his contorted face relaxed into a deceptive smile. Had Blake not witnessed the preceding episode, he would not have known what sort of odious monster captained this merchant ship.

“Ah—yes, Captain Masters.” Johnson swept his hand in a grand gesture toward his quarters. “I believe our dinner still awaits us.”

Couldn’t the fool see that the wind had grown stronger? Couldn’t he fathom the severity of the storm bearing down upon them? Blake resisted the urge to bark orders to the men standing together in the middle of the ship’s deck, awaiting commands from their deranged captain.

“I believe our dinner will have to wait, sir,” said Blake, his patience strained to the limit. “Might I suggest that necessary precautions be taken for the weather?”

The full import of the innocuous statement seemed to register in the officer’s mind. He suddenly blinked as if coming out of a trance, glanced about at the starless sky and the turbulent seas, then turned upon the line of seven men.

“You!” Johnson bellowed at one sailor he had singled out from among the rest.

The young fellow stared at the accusing fingertip as if it were a sword point at his throat. “Me, sir?”

You should have informed me of the southeaster. What sort of sailor are you?”

“But, sir—”

“Don’t argue with me,” barked the captain, closing the short distance between them. The young man’s eyes widened with fright. “It will be on your head if we lose a man tonight. We’ll be lucky if we come out alive.”

Blake saw the lad’s lower lip tremble. Good God, he barely looked old enough to shave, let alone stand up for himself against the captain.

“It warn’t my fault, sir. I dinna know—”

Backhanding the sailor’s cheek, Johnson shouted, “Shut up, you bastard.”

The cracking sound could have been a jawbone snapping, but it would have been hard to say with absolute certainty. For it was the lad’s cry of pain that pealed loudest through the blustering wind.

Blake could not reach the captain in time to stop the brutalizing of another member of the small crew. A larger vessel would have carried enough able-bodied seamen to sustain the loss of two. As it stood now, there were barely enough left to make sail.

“Captain Johnson.” Blake placed his hand on the man’s arm before he could hit the young sailor again. “I urge you to give orders before we lose all your men. We will be hard-pressed to get under way with only the six you have left, sir.”

“I have a full crew on board this brig. And the entire lot of them will do the work or they will all be flogged.” The man was beyond reasoning with. As the wind whipped at their clothing and the first raindrops began to fall, the young sailor clutched his jaw, sucking back sobs of pain and fear. The flogged sailor still hung unconscious from the shrouds, unaware and incapable of following any orders from the captain of the Mystic.

Staring at the seaman’s bloodied back, Blake shucked his coat and tossed it to the cook. “Stow this for me. And get me an oilcloth.” He then turned to Johnson. “I am taking that sailor below. When I come back, I will be his replacement. You shall have your full crew, sir.”

“I forbid it! You are an officer. You are my guest.”

“I am a sailor first, Captain. And right now you need my hands and my skills a hell of a lot more than you need one more goddamn officer on this brig.”

He did not back down from his challenge, certain that Johnson would not refuse the renowned skills of Captain Blake Masters. A first-rate seaman, Blake was also well known as one of the youngest captains on the high seas. At thirty, he had more years of experience than most officers his age. For this reason, Blake was all too aware of the current breach of etiquette between fellow officers. This was not his command. Yet he could not stand idly by and watch the brig go down with all hands. Lives were at stake, including his own.

Johnson snapped to, commanding the ship as he should have done earlier. Precious time had been wasted. The crew hastily set to work.

Blake carried the beaten sailor to his berth. Sadly, there was no time to tend his open wounds. He could only leave the moaning man and return to the deck.

Moments later, he spied someone slipping out of the captain’s quarters with a dark bundle held tight to his chest. The sailor glanced about. Amid the escalating wind and rain, amid the shouted orders and echoed responses, amid the chaos on deck and aloft, it appeared that one of the spartan crew was taking advantage of the confusion to commit thievery against the captain. Though that bastard deserved the loss of a few coins, Blake was infuriated that one man would risk the ship and his fellow mates at such a dangerous time as this.

Blake glanced up at the poop deck. Johnson had his back to them, the nefarious flogging rope in his hand. Blake advanced on the thief, hoping to hell he could divert trouble before the captain spied the criminal in his midst and again doled out retribution with the rope.

As he crossed the deck, he wondered how it was that he had not seen this sailor earlier. Nothing about the man looked at all familiar. Where had he been when the crew had been gathered for the flogging? There were so few hands on board that it was impossible for the captain or other officers not to notice his absence. Unless he was a stowaway. Unless he was…

The thief looked up as Blake closed the distance between them. He halted in midstride.

a woman?

 

Chapter 3

Blake thought he must be mistaken as he looked into dark eyes that peered out beneath a rain-drenched fringe of hair and a knit cap. Surely the face could not belong to a young man. It was too pretty by anyone’s standards. And yet the idea of a female on a ship, masquerading as a sailor, was even more preposterous. The fleeting moment of speculation vanished when the captain called out, “You there!”

The stranger glanced over his shoulder at Johnson, then slowly turned around while surreptitiously sliding the satchel behind his back.

“What have you there, boy?” demanded Johnson.

“It is mine, sir,” Blake answered, taking one long stride and confiscating the leather bag. The thief looked up at him in surprise. Those hauntingly beautiful eyes mesmerized him. He felt his body respond with an unexpected flash-fire in his loins that startled him beyond comprehension. He had only a heartbeat of time to regain his composure. Dragging his gaze away from the exotic feminine eyes staring up at him, he looked at the captain once more. “I mislaid it earlier. He was bringing it to your cabin for me.”

Blake hoped to heaven the rain obscured the old man’s vision so he would not catch the lie. The rough seas pitched and rocked the brig, slamming the thief into Blake’s chest. In spite of the layers of masculine attire, there was no question in his mind any longer that this sailor was a woman.

“Go to the fo’c’sle!” Blake shouted over the noise of the storm. He would tell the captain he’d sent the boy down to take care of the injured seaman. Later, he would allow himself time to wonder what brought a lady aboard dressed as one of the crew.

The woman mutely nodded and darted directly toward the hatch, managing the slippery tilting deck with the experience of an old salt. She certainly knew her way about the ship, by the looks of it. But her hasty escape was quickly thwarted by the first mate, who shouted orders for all hands to lay aloft. She paused, peering through the sheets of rain at Blake, with question in her eyes. Her hesitation cost her.

“All hands aloft!” The captain repeated the first mate’s order, marching across the distance to the woman at the hatchway. It became clear to Blake that Johnson could not see that the sailor was neither a man nor one of the regular crew. The rest of the men were too busy at their duties to pay any attention one way or the other. Yet the captain— arrogant fool that he was—could not see what was quite obvious to Blake.

“I ordered you aloft, boy!”

The thief nodded, keeping his head down.

Wise of her, thought Blake as he approached the two on the wave-washed deck. If she were to look up and Johnson saw that slender neck and delicate chin, he was sure to realize she was not one of his own sailors.

She darted toward the rigging without acknowledging the order, which further riled the captain.

“I expect an answer from you!”

Though she paused, she kept her back to him. Blake closed in, not knowing what he would say. But he could not let anyone, least of all a woman, fall victim again to the madman’s anger.

“Turn around and look at me when I speak!” bellowed Johnson, struggling to stay upright despite the erratic motion of the unsteady ship. Waves broke over the railing and rolled across the deck. The disguised woman began to turn around, but her response was not quick enough to suit the captain.

When the man jerked his hand back, Blake saw the flogging rope lifted high. Throwing his body between the officer and the thief, he took the full impact across his chest. Despite the searing pain, he grabbed the thick rope with both hands and yanked it out of the grasp of the startled captain.

Horror in his eyes, Johnson threw his arms across his face as if expecting Blake to turn the rope on him. For one brief moment, Blake was all too tempted to give in to the fury that raged within him. Before he could rein in his own urge to extract revenge for the innocent victims, a woman’s scream startled him.

He spun halfway around as a towering wall of water crashed down on them. Knocked off his feet, he slid across the slick wood deck, slamming into unseen objects, gulping for air and swallowing seawater. Amid the cries and chaos, he heard a man holler…

“She’s headed for the cliffs!”

*  *  *

Cara slowly emerged from a fitful sleep to the soothing sound of gentle surf rolling across rocks and pebbles. The terrifying nightmare was behind her now. She was no longer surrounded by an ocean of black water, numbing her body with its freezing temperature. As she drew her mind from the depths of the dream, she felt cold, yet safe. The water was gone. Only the sound of the sea remained.

Rolling onto her back, she opened her eyes to bright, glaring sunlight. She blinked once, twice, then shielded her eyes with both hands. In her groggy state of confusion, she realized she was not in her cabin on board the Mystic, but lying on a beach. A cool, salt-tinged breeze ruffled over her cheek. A shiver of cold rippled through her body.

She propped herself up on her elbows and looked around. Bodies were strewn about the stretch of sand, half in the water, half out. Only one man moaned. Were the rest dead?

The nightmare had been real.

Dropping back onto the damp sand, she let out a groan of disbelief, struggling against a frightening sense of disorientation. Pressing the heel of her palms to her eyes, she felt the slight burn in them from sand and salt water. She tried to ignore the chill breeze as her mind raced through surreal memories of the previous night.

After she had stepped through the invisible portal into the captain’s quarters, the ship had pitched and swayed in heavy seas. From the shouted orders topside, she had assumed all hands were on deck, but she couldn’t go unnoticed for very long on the small brig, in spite of her authentic costume.

If she had been caught in the captain’s quarters, she would have been in worse trouble. She had no choice but to sneak out during all the commotion, make her way to the hold, and seek a hiding place until it was safe to emerge. But her plan had gone haywire as soon as she’d reached the storm-battered deck.

Everything had happened so fast. It was all a blur of motion in her head now. The wind. The rain. The shouts. The commands. A man grabbed her bag, claiming it as his own. He wasn’t one of the crew, she was certain—not by the way he addressed the captain. There had been no time to think. Less time to react. The wall of water took them by surprise. White foam. The roar of rushing bubbles in her ears.

Cara slid her palms from her eyes and gazed out at the deceptively calm ocean, recalling her struggle to stay afloat. She had swum until every muscle in her arms and legs burned with the pain of exhaustion. Her body rode the crest of mountainous waves only to plunge into deep troughs the next instant. Swamped by the salt water again and again, she had continuously fought her way to the surface, numbed by terror, driven on by her stubborn will to live. Somehow, some way, she had succeeded.

Now what do I do? she wondered uneasily, pushing herself into a sitting position. Her gaze traveled over her damp period clothing to the clumsy shoes on her feet. Another shiver shook her, as much from fear as from cold. Rubbing her arms with her hands to stimulate warmth, she shoved the heel of her foot into the moist sand, digging a furrow as she anxiously contemplated her fate. She had not been on the brig more than a couple of minutes when she’d found herself up to her neck in trouble, then tossed into the sea.

She wrapped her arms around her upraised knees and dropped her head forward, allowing the heat of the early-morning sun to seep into her spine. Mentally beseeching divine guidance, she murmured, “Where do I go from here?”

“You will be coming with me.”

Her head popped up at the sound of the gruff masculine order. She had expected an inner prompting, a gut feeling that would guide her toward her next step. She hadn’t expected the baritone message of the man kneeling next to her.

It was the man from the ship—her ally against the captain.

“You!” As she pushed herself halfway to her feet, her vision blurred, then nausea hit. She had swallowed too much saltwater. A firm hand on her upper arm gently lowered her to the beach.

Sitting on the sand, she stared at him, trying to bring his face into focus. Thick black hair framed his tanned skin, bringing back the memory of the moment when she had first seen him on the ship. He had spotted her coming out of the captain’s quarters, yet he had not betrayed her. Instead, he had lied for her, protecting her from the commanding officer. This man with the firm set to his jaw had stepped in the way, taking the full blow of the flogging rope that had been meant for her.

Why?

Cara saw something disturbingly intimate in his deep-blue eyes. Unnerved, she looked away. Then she realized her jacket was missing. She didn’t remember losing it, but she’d probably discarded it to keep its weight from pulling her under. The damp, red-checked shirt clung to her curves, revealing the outline of her small breasts. Her gaze snapped back to his.

“Yes, I know,” he said, acknowledging her gender.

A split second of panic swept over her, urging her to take off at a dead run, to get as far away from him as she could. But her exhaustion would make escape across the sand impossible.

While her wary gaze lingered on him, he gently draped a damp peacoat over her shoulders. She didn’t question whether it was his. She didn’t care. At least it warmed her from the bone-chilling breeze on her damp skin.

“I knew you were a woman when I saw you on the ship.”

“But the captain—”

“—was an imbecile and a fool. If he had an empty bucket for a brain he would have more sense than he displayed last night. And perhaps he would still be alive— though I have to admit the seas are safer today due to his demise.”

“The captain’s dead?”

“Yes, and all but two of the crew. The Mystic lies aground by the cliffs to the north.” He tilted his head toward the rocky bluffs, a good half mile away.

Panic tightened her chest like a vise. She asked in an unsteady voice, “Is the ship salvageable?”

“Not without timber and tools.”

How would she find her way back to the future if the time portal had been destroyed? “I need to see it for myself.”

“No, the rocks are too slippery. Considering the harrowing ordeal you have been through, I doubt you are steady enough to keep your footing.” The blue of his eyes deepened, and his narrowed gaze allowed no argument. “My offer still stands—”

“Your ‘offer’ sounded more like an order.

“Be that as it may, you are invited to come with me. My men will be coming ashore soon to look for me.”

“Your men? Who are you? How do I know you’re not a pirate of some sort?”

“I am Captain Blake Masters of the Valiant, a merchantman that has been two years on the coast gathering cattle hides from the owners of the rancheros. We will soon be on our way back to Boston with a full hold. But, alas, no pillaged loot from innocent victims, I assure you. And you would be…?”

“Cara Edwards.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” he responded with a single nod. “As I was saying—I was a guest on the Mystic when circumstances altered the events of the evening.”

Cara could see that he’d planned to say something else but changed his mind. For a moment she sensed his intense anger and disgust, as though his feelings were her own. She knew, too, that his hatred was directed at the captain. “I take it you weren’t on friendly terms.”

“Captain Johnson and I met only yesterday when he made anchor here off San Pedro.”

Cara glanced around. “This is San Pedro?”

“Yes.”

Her surroundings looked nothing like the same area in 1998. In her own time, a long and rocky breakwater protected the enormous twin harbors of Los Angeles and Long Beach, where oil tankers and cargo ships passed one another every day. Now she looked upon a barren stretch of land with little vegetation and no trees.

She had been on the Mystic in the twentieth-first century. And she had come through to the same ship in an earlier time and at a different location. What year was it? She couldn’t ask without raising unwanted curiosity in Captain Masters. It was bad enough that she couldn’t explain how she, a woman, had ended up on a merchant sailing ship.

“How is it that you came to be on the Mystic?” asked Masters, startling her with the very thought that had been running through her mind. Was it merely a coincidence? Or had he unknowingly picked up on her thoughts? If so, she would need to guard her silent speculations carefully.

Avoiding his gaze, she cautiously answered, “I secretly boarded the ship in Santa Barbara. I’m looking for a little boy. I thought he might be aboard the Mystic. I didn’t expect to sail with her. I just—”

“Is he yours?”

“Mine?” Cara quickly calculated the benefit of claiming Andrew to be her own son. It would make it easier to explain her search—far easier than the reality of being a private investigator from the future. “Yes, of course he’s mine. Why else would I go to such dangerous extremes?”

“Why, indeed,” he answered with more of a statement than a question in his voice, while looking at her with sympathetic eyes.

She tried her hardest to make a show of motherly worry for the missing boy.

“Perhaps I may be of some assistance in your search. As soon as I take care of the present state of affairs here, I will be setting sail for San Diego. You may find some answers there.”

“Do you know something about Andrew?” Cara searched his face, hoping for a sign of encouragement. With his tanned olive complexion and fine lines at the corners of his eyes, Masters had the rugged good looks of a strong, healthy athlete.

“I couldn’t say I know the name—Andrew, you say?” When she nodded, he went on, “I recall a few young lads lolling about the hide houses while their ships were in port. He would undoubtedly have brown eyes and hair like yours, I assume.”

“Light-blue eyes. Blond hair.” Seeing his dark brows angle upward in mild surprise, she hastened to add, “He looks like his father who is—was very blond. White-blond, actually. And pale. Yes, Andrew is the spitting image of my Swedish husband. That is, my deceased husband, who passed away two years ago.”

She couldn’t resist including one tiny little tidbit of truth. After all, she needed to keep some element of truth in her story or she’d end up tripping over the lies later.

Her deception seemed to be working. He offered his apologies for her loss. “And now to lose a child as well—,” he said gently with a sad shake of his head, “—must be more than you can bear. I only hope… Have you considered that—”

“Andrew is alive.”

“You sound so sure. Ah, but then you are his mother. You would never give up hope. And that’s a good thing.”

“This isn’t just about a mother’s hope,” she explained, meeting his gaze with open honesty. “I can sense it. I know he’s not dead.”

He stared at her for a long moment, appearing to weigh her words, as if he somehow understood her intuition. Which was ridiculous, she told herself. Few understood, and fewer still accepted.

“Very well, then.” He rose to his feet as two longboats appeared in the distance. “It’s settled. I will take you to San Diego to look for him. For now, however, stay here and rest while I check again on the other two survivors.” Cara watched him walk away with long, purposeful strides. Like her, his clothing was still wet and the cloth of his shirt clung to his broad shoulders and the tapered line of his back. In another time and place, she could easily find herself attracted to a gentleman of his caliber. And his attractive physique. But she couldn’t let her guard down. She had to find Andrew and get back to her own time.

As she tried to draw her wayward thoughts away from the captain, she saw him kneel over a body several hundred feet away and gently roll it over. The arm flopped lifelessly to the sand. Masters shook his head, crossed himself reverently, and moved on to another motionless sailor on the beach.

A chill descended upon her, unlike the physical cold of the ocean breeze on her wet clothes. A sense of fear rippled down her neck to the base of her tailbone. She couldn’t see the spirits of the departed sailors, but she perceived a cumulative presence in the air around her—a feeling of confusion and terror. The dead men were unable to comprehend their state of physical non-existence. Violent or tragic deaths were known to have kept some poor souls from completing their journey to the other side. And what could have been more violent than that deadly storm?

She looked over her shoulder to be certain she was alone—as alone as a person could be with the hovering entities of lost souls.

“There’s no reason to be afraid,” she whispered aloud, knowing that Masters was too far away to hear her talking to the dead. Though she did not know the men, she could not help the swell of sadness in their plight. Tears filled her eyes. A sob caught in her throat. “Look for the light. You’re going to be fine. Just head toward the light. It’s time for you to go.”

She continued to talk to the wind, sensing that each spirit was listening to her. Some went easily. Others took a bit longer. Eventually the air around her felt clearer, as if the weight of fear had been lifted. She had no way of proving any of it. Yet she sensed it in a way that was as normal to her as breathing. Scientifically, there was nothing to convince a person who didn’t have this psychic awareness. But there was also nothing that could convince her differently of her own unique perceptions about life and death.

*  *  *

By the time the two boats from the Valiant reached the breaking surf along the beach, Blake had performed the unhappy duty of inspecting all the bodies that had washed ashore after the southeaster. Of the two crewmen still alive, only one was able to move about to identify his dead shipmates. The other was barely alive but looked as if he would survive.

When the familiar bark of a dog caught Blake’s attention, he shaded his eyes against the reflective glare of the sun on the water. On the first of the two longboats, his large black mutt stood with its front paws braced on the bow, barking excitedly. The canine leaped out, splashing into a receding wave, then bounded toward Blake as four of his crew hauled the boats by the gunwales onto the sand.

Meeting the rescue party halfway, Blake knelt on one knee to give Bud a moment of praise and attention before he stood to greet the men.

“Good to see you, Cap’n,” said his first mate, Mr. Bellows, with a mile-wide grin, followed by a similar hearty greeting by seaman McGinty.

Aloha, Capnee!” added Lopaka, a dark-skinned Sandwich Islander. “Aloha nui!

To the white merchantmen, Lopaka and others from the Pacific Islands were individually called Kanaka, a variation of their own word for “man.” Addressed as a group, they were Kānaka with a line over the first “a”. And they held the unusual and envious position of working for themselves, hiring out to hide-trading ships along the coast without being tied to a contract like a regular sailor.

Blake grinned at the enthusiastic young man. “Yes, Lopaka, a big hello to you, too.”

Then he turned to Keoni Pahinui, who was the ship’s cook and, on occasion, the doctor as well, owning an impressive collection of knives that served both purposes. He was also a cherished friend of many years. There was not another man alive for whom Blake would lay down his own life.

Aloha, Kaikua’ana,” Hello, big brother, Blake greeted him.

The large, smiling Kanaka shook his head, then grabbed Blake in a gruff hug and slapped him heartily on the back. Highly improper behavior, but Keoni was not one to follow protocol. Ever.

“You scare da hell outta me, Kaikaina,” he scolded, referring to Blake as his little brother. “Thought maybe you make.”

“If you thought I was dead, you’d have carved up ol’ Bud by now and had him for dinner.”

“‘A’ole, not this Kanaka. Others eat dog. Not me. Bud, he my family, too.” Keoni lifted his head, distracted by something behind Blake. Following his friend’s curious gaze, Blake saw the short-haired woman in men’s clothing coming down the beach toward the men. “What is this?”

Blake almost smiled at the ease with which Keoni could drop his Islander dialect for the educated demeanor taught at the missionary school on Oahu. “A wahine, my friend. Or have you forgotten what a woman looks like after all these weeks?”

All four of the Valiant crew stared in silence as Mrs. Edwards approached. He couldn’t blame them. He, too, felt a strange dumbness at the sight of her, despite her unconventional clothing and cropped dark hair. She was truly unlike any female he had ever seen. An exotic mixture of heritage, none of which he could determine.

It was Bud who broke the spell. His tail wagged slowly back and forth as he walked cautiously up to her, his head lowered.

Without fear or hesitation, she dropped to her knees and looked into the dog’s eyes. “Hi, there, fella.” She glanced at Blake, then back at the dog. “What’s his name?”

“Bud.”

The dog twisted his head around at the sound of his name, his tongue lolling out the side of his huge mouth as the woman scratched him behind his ear. Wishing he were the recipient of similar affection, Blake felt a lopsided grin quirk his mouth but quickly stifled it.

He cleared his throat and turned to his first mate. “Mrs. Edwards could use a blanket and some food. I assume you brought supplies with you.”

“Aye-aye, sir.” Mr. Bellows turned to McGinty and Lopaka. “You heard the captain, men. Bring the lady those blankets and the basket of food.”

As the two trotted off down the beach to the longboats, the widow walked up, with the dog at her side. Blake introduced her to the first mate, then the cook, who raised the back of her hand to his lips like a gentleman suitor. The blush that stole over her cheeks did not sit well with Blake, who was all too aware of the easy way his adopted brother charmed the woman. Keoni was a fine-looking Kanaka, a few years older than Blake. He was also a man from a culture that enjoyed the pursuit of physical pleasure between the genders without the guilt and restrictions of civilized countries.

Blake felt a nudge beneath his hand and looked down to see Bud gazing up at him. At least someone had noticed he was still around. He stroked the top of his dog’s massive head, then spoke to Mr. Bellows. “Did the Valiant fare well?”

“Beautifully, sir.” The first mate gestured toward the cliffs. “Would that be the Mystic, then?”

“Aye, it is. We will need to check for any survivors aboard her.”

“McGinty and I will take care of it, sir.”

“Good. I’ll have Lopaka help me. Keoni—” Blake turned to his friend. “There is an injured sailor in need of your attention.”

Mrs. Edwards spoke up. “Please, may I ask a favor of the men going to the Mystic, Captain Masters? Could they look for my leather backpack?”

“Your leather what?”

“Back—um…baggage. Bag, that is. My leather bag. I had it with me on the ship.”

“I doubt they will find it aboard the Mystic, but I will have them look for it.”

*  *  *

By midafternoon, the bodies had been buried in the clay soil on a low hill overlooking the sea. Blake and Lopaka were walking back from their unpleasant duty when the search party of two returned to give their report of the shipwrecked Mystic.

“Sir, she was washed clean of most everything that wasn’t nailed down,” answered Mr. Bellows. “She’s busted up real good. The tide’s taken quite a toll through the hole in her starboard quarter. Here’s the captain’s papers, though.”

Blake had already learned from a conversation with Captain Johnson that the Mystic had arrived from Boston only four months earlier with dry goods to trade with the cattle owners on the ranchos. Unlike the Valiant, which was nearing the end of its two years on the California coast, the small brig had a long way to go to fill its hold with hides before it could return to the East.

“Thank you, Mr. Bellows. Did you find the leather bag?”

“No, sir. Sorry, sir.”

He noticed the way the sailors eyed the widow Edwards, sitting at a small fire Keoni had built to warm her and the two other survivors.

“That will be all,” he stated firmly, dismissing the men to make ready for the return trip to the ship. They had finished their work here in San Pedro on the previous evening, so no hides would be collected today. Had it not been for the storm, they would already have been halfway to San Diego by now.

He clutched the scrolled papers in his left hand, lightly tapping them against his thigh. Turning toward the driftwood fire, he approached Mrs. Edwards, who sat with her back to him, still huddled in the woolen blanket. Her head hung forward between her shoulders with the posture of someone who was exhausted.

In the bright afternoon sun, he saw the color of her short hair was not black, as he had assumed during the storm, but actually a rich, deep brown. So were her eyes, he recalled. She appeared to be close to his own age of thirty, perhaps a bit younger, but no woman of his acquaintance had ever looked quite so physically strong and as able as any young sailor. Yet she certainly did not possess any other masculine qualities.

He felt a resurgence of his own wanton desire for her.

 

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