Andras didn't choose the path they had taken the evening before; instead he followed the road. It angled steeply down, then took a sharp, right-handed turn before it wound back toward the sea. All the while they walked he talked about the history of the island and how there had been a monastery on this site for more than four hundred years. CC struggled to listen to him. Most of her attention was focused on the nearness of the sea and the call it had on her body. She did try to look attentive when he explained that he was so well acquainted with the monastery and Abbot William because the land had belonged to his mother's family for centuries. When his mother married his father, the land had passed to the Lord of Caer Llion, and, naturally, the most senior priest from his father's barony had to take over the running of Caldei Monastery.
"Oh, that's why you and the Abbot know each other so well," CC said, trying to appear interested.
"The Abbot taught me how to read and write. He is an exceptional teacher, unrelenting in his desire to instruct," Andras said with a definite tone of hero worship.
CC thought about the way Abbot William looked at Andras, and she wondered cynically if he would have been such an exceptional teacher if Andras had been less rich and handsome.
"It's nice that you had such a dedicated teacher," was all she said aloud.
Andras grinned at her. She couldn't help smiling back at him. He really was endearing in a chauvinistic, cliched kind of a way.
Once they were at sea level, several small paths branched off from the main road. Andras turned onto one that led through a thick grove of tall, fragrant pine trees and spilled out onto the pristine sand of well-shaded beach.
The ocean was heartbreak blue that morning, and CC trembled at its beauty. She wanted to rip off her clothes and dive into the frothy waves.
"Do you like it?" Andras asked in a smug voice. "I chose this spot especially with you in mind."
CC tore her eyes from the allure of the waves and gave him a compulsory smile as she tried to cover the rush of resentment she suddenly felt towards the knight. He knew nothing about the ocean or about her.
"I hope it pleases you."
At her hesitation, Andras's voice had lost its smug edge, and he was once again only a man trying his best to impress a woman. CC sighed. It wasn't that he was doing anything wrong, she realized. It was just that he wasn't Dylan.
"It's perfect," she said, warming her smile. "I love the ocean. I feel at home when I'm near it."
He gave her an odd look and said, "I find that rather surprising, Undine. I would think that in light of your recent experience you would be frightened of it."
"I'm not frightened of it—or at least I'm not anymore." The water pulled her gaze, and her expression became dreamy. She wondered where Dylan was at that moment. He said he would stay there as long as she was there, too. Actually, she thought back, he had said he would wait for her for an eternity. But that didn't mean he was keeping a constant lookout for her; he wasn't expecting her to return to the ocean until the third night. Could he be out there, watching her now? She shivered at the thought of his possible closeness.
"Did I not tell you that you must be frightened?" Andras had unfolded a blanket that had been packed in the basket, and he paused to glance at her as he unloaded their brunch. "You are trembling."
He was bent over the basket and his shapely rear end was all too easy to see. She had a sudden, mischievous urge to lift her leg and kick him squarely in that oh-so-perfect butt, watch him fall flat on his oh-so-perfect face and then tell him that where she was from women didn't need men to think for them.
"I just shivered because the ocean and my recent accident remind me of the frailty of the human body—that no matter how strong or how wise humans think they are, the might of the ocean is even greater."
Andras gave her an appraising look, like she could possibly be more intelligent than he had originally anticipated, but the look was fleeting, and soon he went back to unpacking their food.
CC watched Andras unload their brunch. She understood that he really couldn't help his archaic attitude towards women—after all, he truly was archaic. And he wasn't a bad man, actually he was quite charming. It wasn't his fault that he was trying to woo a modern woman with ancient ideals. He had hauled her from the water, she reminded herself, and he had pledged to protect her. For that he deserved to be treated courteously. She glanced at his handsome profile. Maybe they could even be friends.
She sat on the edge of the blanket. Picking up a hard-boiled egg and the leg of a grilled bird, she started eating both with genuine gusto. As close as she could figure, she had only slept for just a few hours, and she should have been very tired, but instead of fatigue she felt exhilarated, like she had exercised all day and slept soundly all night, and her body was demanding that she feed it. She finished the egg and started on a thick slice of tangy yellow cheese.
"This is really very good," she said through healthy bites.
"You seem to be enjoying it. I have rarely witnessed a lady eating with such vigor." His tone said that ladies either shouldn't eat with such vigor, or if they did, they should do so only when not in the company of gentlemen. How very Old South of him, she thought, and almost giggled.
"Where I come from, ladies enjoy their food," she said, thinking that sometimes they even eat entire buckets of fried chicken—especially when it's their birthday and they're under the influence of too much champagne.
"Undine, are you remembering more about your homeland?" Andras asked eagerly.
Oops—CC took another big bite of meat, forcing him to wait while she chewed and thought up an appropriate answer.
"Sometimes I remember little things during the course of conversations—and then I wonder, Now how did I know that? because then I can remember no more." She moved her shoulders. "Like when Isabel tried to pull my hair back and I told her, no, that maidens from my land wear their hair down. I remembered the fact that maidens in my land can let their hair be free, but nothing else." She chewed thoughtfully and hoped he'd be satisfied with her vague answer.
Reaching across the space that separated them, he captured one of her glistening locks and wrapped it around his finger.
"I am pleased that you remembered this custom of your people. I would not have your hair bound."
CC realized that she didn't need to be worried about him questioning her too much. Unlike Abbot William, Andras wasn't bent on interrogation; his interests were obviously elsewhere. CC pulled the strand of hair out of his finger and laughed with what she hoped was maidenly nervousness.
"Isn't memory a funny thing?" She clapped her hands together, then made a show of searching through the food. "Did you bring anything to drink? All this eating is making me very thirsty."
"Of course. I brought a wine skin we can share." Andras uncorked a floppy baglike thing before passing it to her. He let his fingers linger just a moment longer than was strictly necessary on hers before releasing it to her.
CC stifled the urge to slap him away like a mosquito.
Courtesy, she reminded herself firmly. Treat him like he's a superior officer who is acting fresh.
"Thank you," she said, and smiled through a mouthful of food. His quick grimace at her unladylike behavior was worth the breach in manners. She felt the tension in her shoulders relax as he withdrew out of her personal space. The wine was thick and delicious, and she felt a satisfying warmth begin to build in the pit of her stomach.
They ate in silence, and CC took the opportunity to absorb the sight of the ocean. She had to admit that Andras had chosen well. That particular area of the shore was much tamer than the breakers below the monastery had been. Here the waves were still white-capped, but they met the beach with lazy strokes, rather than the violent crashing of water against rock. And the sea appeared more shallow, too. The water that lined the beach was turquoise, rather than the sapphire of deeper seas. There were a few bunches of coral that clustered here and there. Her full lips curved up in remembrance. Last night Dylan had introduced her to many of the colorful fish that made coral their home.
"You are so beautiful when you smile like that." An-dras's voice broke into her daydream. "What are you thinking?"
"I was thinking about creatures of the sea and their beauty," she said.
Abruptly, he reached out and snatched her hand that was temporarily emptied of food. She jerked back in surprise, but he kept a firm hold on her.
"No beast of the sea could ever hope to match your beauty," he said fervently. He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it passionately, leaving a wet spot in the middle of her skin.
CC's stomach jolted in a fluttery brush of fear, and she looked closely at his well-defined face, afraid she would see the frightening lust that had blanketed his features the first time he had kissed her. She drew in a shaky breath of relief when all she read in his expression was earnest and open adoration. Unfortunately for the knight, she felt nothing in response except an embarrassed sense of unease. The only urge she had to touch him was to pat his cheek and apologize for her lack of romantic interest.
"Andras," she said carefully. "I don't think it's proper for you to—"
A loud chattering interrupted her, and Andras dropped her hand in surprise. CC's attention swiveled to the water, and with a joyous laugh she jumped to her feet. Lifting her skirts, she ran to the edge of the shore.
"Hello, pretty girl," she called to the dolphin, who continued chattering while leaping and whirling in jubilant welcome. "Isn't this a beautiful day?" CC laughed again, and without thinking she did a little dance step and twirled around, loving the feel of her skirts twining around her legs.
The thunk of stone against flesh came hard and sharp, jarring CC's happiness. The dolphin's shrill cry of pain pierced the air, and the animal dove quickly beneath the waves and disappeared. CC spun around to see Andras testing the weight of another rock in his hand.
"What are you doing?" CC's voice had the sharp edge of command seven years in the air force had honed.
Andras blinked in surprise. "It is a wild beast; it could have caused you harm."
"Don't you know that wild is not synonymous with evil?" She forced her voice to be even. He had thought he was protecting her. "The dolphin wasn't going to hurt me. She was just a beautiful creature enjoying her freedom."
"Abbot William would remind us that many things are not as innocent as they appear, Undine, and that excessive beauty must be guarded against, for it can hide prurient intent," he countered.
CC could hardly believe she had heard him correctly. Prurient intent? A dolphin? She took a deep, cleansing breath and counted to ten before she spoke again.
"Andras, I really do appreciate the help you and the abbot have given me, and I don't mean to sound disrespectful, but did you ever consider that some people get power by convincing others they should constantly be fearful?" she asked.
"Abbot William gets his power from God," Andras said as if he was reciting a Sunday School lesson.
"I'm not saying that he doesn't; I'm only saying that just because something is beautiful or exotic or even wild, doesn't mean that it's dangerous or sinful," she said, forcing the knight to meet her gaze. He looked away quickly.
"I think you have become fatigued, and it is time we return," Andras said stonily. He was already busy repacking their leftovers.
"I think you're right. I am ready to return," CC said.
She stood looking out at sea like a breathing statue, ignoring the sounds the knight was making as he tossed their leftovers haphazardly into the basket. She felt displaced and alone. Her entire being ached to be a part of the waves. For an instant she thought she saw the glint of orange and gold, barely visible offshore just below the crystal surface, and she had to close her eyes. If she really saw him would she be able to stop herself from going to him? Then what would happen to them?
With her eyes still closed, she concentrated on sending two words out into the ocean. I'm sorry, she thought desperately. She wasn't sure if she was sending the message to the dolphin or to Dylan.
As she wearily accepted Andras's offered arm and trudged away from the water yet again, one thought was foremost in her mind. She had to talk to Gaea.
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