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"I can't sleep, Sylvie. I'm scared." The boy stood trembling in the lamplight. Dressed in a ragged flannel nightshirt, he was small for his age. His long-lashed eyes, the color of new copper pennies, were filled with anxiety that went straight to Sylvie Cragun's heart.
"Come here, Daniel. I'll rock you awhile." Sylvie put down the novel she was reading and gathered her six-year-old half brother onto her lap. He snuggled against her shoulder, his black hair and tawny skin a rich contrast to her porcelain fairness.
Outside, though the storm battered the quaint cabin they called home, Sylvie had no worries for their safety. Their father had fashioned the outer walls and roof from the inverted hull of a wrecked schooner he'd sawed into sections and windlassed up the cliff. It was sound enough to hold up under any deluge. But the wind was ferocious tonight. It howled like a chorus of harpies, shrieking among the ancient pines that sheltered the clearing. Lightning flashed through the porthole windows. Rain beat against glass that was thick enough to withstand an ocean tempest. She couldn't blame the boy for being frightened.
Daniel stirred on Sylvie's lap. "Papa's been gone a long time. When's he coming home?"
"He'll be here as soon as he can." Sylvie's arms tightened around her little brother. She was worried, too. Their father had left two weeks ago with a wagon-load of salvage to sell in San Francisco. It wasn't like him to be gone so long. She could only hope he wasn't caught somewhere on the road in this awful storm.
"Will you tell me a story, Sylvie?"
Her breath teased his hair. "What kind of story?"
He mulled over his answer for a moment. "A story about a prince. I like your prince stories."
"All right, let's see " Sylvie enjoyed telling stories almost as much as Daniel enjoyed hearing them. She usually made them up as she went along, spinning out whatever came to mind. Sometimes her stories surprised even her.
"Once upon a time there was a prince," she began. "A prince who lived at the bottom of the sea."
"How could he breathe?"
"He just could. It was magic."
"Oh." Daniel snuggled closer. Sylvia rocked the chair gently, her voice soft and low.
"This prince was the son of the great sea king. They lived in a palace with gold and jewels and all sorts of treasure. It was a beautiful place. But there was just one thing the prince wantedand it was the one thing he couldn't have."
"What was that?" Daniel asked.
"He wanted to walk on land. He wanted to see mountains and rivers, birds and animals and everything that was there. But the prince couldn't walk. Instead of legs, he had a tail like a fish. He could only swim, so he had to stay in the water.
"One night, while the prince was swimming, a storm blew in. A huge wave picked him up and swept him right onto the beach. When he opened his eyes, he was lying on the sand. Where his tail had been, he had two fine, strong legs. The prince was delighted. He stood up, took a few practice steps and set out to explore the land."
"But he wouldn't have any clothes on," Daniel muttered drowsily.
"Oh, dear, you're right!" Sylvie exclaimed. "Maybe he could make some out of seaweed. Or just say a magic word, and the clothes would be there. What do you think?"
But there was no answer from Daniel. He had fallen asleep.
Brushing a kiss onto his forehead, she lifted him in her arms and carried him to bed. She'd been a girl of thirteen when her father's second wife, a sweet-faced Mexican woman, had died in childbirth. Sylvie had taken the tiny black-haired baby and kept him alive on goat's milk. Now, after six years, she couldn't imagine a real mother loving her child any more than she loved Daniel.
With a sigh, she settled back into the rocking chair and picked up her book. Her father usually brought her a used book or two each time he returned from San Francisco. By now, the books filled several shelves on the far wall. Tonight she was reading Moby Dick, a weighty novel about hunting whales. The book was filled with enthralling description, but Sylvie wasn't sure she liked it. She had glimpsed whales from the top of the cliff. For all their great size, they'd seemed as peaceful as grazing cows, nothing like the monsters in Herman Melville's book. And the story was all about men! The only women in it were the ones who stood on the dock with mournful faces, watching their menfolk sail away.
It wasn't fair. Why couldn't women travel the earth and have adventures, too?
Sometimes when Sylvie gazed into the ribbed ceiling of their ship-turned-house, she wondered where it had journeyed before the sea cast it into the cove below the cliff. Had it beat the battering waves around Cape Horn? Sailed into Canton for a cargo of tea? Brought fortune seekers to the California gold fields?
Through the pages of her books, Sylvie had traveled the world. Paris, New York, Cairo, Zanzibar, Bombay The names sang like music in her head. She could almost imagine herself strolling the bazaars, fingering silks, sampling exotic foods, wandering through ancient palaces. But she knew it was only a dream. Even if she had the money to travel, how could she ever leave Daniel or take the boy away from his father?
Even a visit to San Francisco would ease her wanderlust, she thought. She remembered the place dimly from her childhood, but she hadn't been there since before Daniel's birth. Judging from the occasional newspaper she saw, the sprawling settlement had grown into a vast wonderland of mansions, docks, businesses, fine restaurants and theaters. She yearned to see it for herself. But her father refused to take her and Daniel along on his trips. "San Francisco's a wicked place," he was fond of saying. "There's danger around every corner and sights not fit for a young girl's eyes. Better you stay safe at home."
Restless, Sylvie laid her book aside, rose and walked to the door. Sliding back the bolt she stepped out onto the porch. Wind lashed her flannel wrapper. Rain streamed off the low eave. From far below, at the foot of the cliff, surf thundered against the rocks.
Heaven help anyone who had to be out on a night like this.
Shivering, she moved back inside, barred the door and prepared to go to bed. Maybe tomorrow their father would be home. They would hear the creak of wheels on the bluff road, the jingle of harness and the wheezing bray of the tired old mule. If the trip had been a good one, their father would be singing in his hoarse, off-key voice. Then Sylvie would grab Daniel's hand and they would run down the trail to see what he'd brought them. Aaron Cragun might not be the most sober of men or the most honest. But no one could deny that he loved his children. And they loved him.
What if something had happened to him?
What would they do if he didn't come home?
* * *
By the time Sylvie awoke the next morning, the storm had passed. Dawn shone through the porthole windows in shades of pewter and rose. A crested jay squawked in the crown of a pine tree.
Pulling on a faded gingham dress and a clean apron, she pattered into the kitchen, added a few sticks to the potbellied stove and put some barley coffee and corn-meal mush on to boil. While breakfast was cooking, she made the bed, splashed her face and pulled her pale hair back into a braid. Then she went outside to milk the three nanny goats.
By the time she'd finished, Daniel was up and dressed in a shirt and overalls Sylvie had remade from some old clothes of her father's. After sending him out to feed the chickens, she sliced some bread and set the table for breakfast.
"Did you wash your hands?" she asked when he appeared at the door a few minutes later.
"Yup, and my face, too." He sat with her at the table and bowed his head until Sylvie had murmured a few words of grace.
"Can we go down to the cove?" he asked. "You can find the best stuff after a storm."
"We'll see. Maybe there'll be time after we've weeded the garden."
"But I want to go now, while the tide's low," he argued. "Why can't I just go by myself?"
Sylvie spooned fresh cream over his mush and poured him some barley coffee. "It's too dangerous," she said. "You could fall, or a big wave could wash you out to sea. And you never know what might be down there. Once I stepped on a sea-urchin spine. My foot was so swollen I couldn't walk for days. I certainly wouldn't want that to happen to you."
"Then come with me. Please, Sylvie. The weeds will only grow this much before we get back." He indicated a tiny space with his thumb and forefinger.
Sylvie had to laugh. "All right. But just for a little while. Now, finish your breakfast."
When breakfast was done and the dishes washed, they set out down the zigzagging cliffside trail. Sylvie carried an empty basket to hold any treasures they might finddelicate shells, chunks of coral, jars and bottles washed up from distant shores. Once, they'd found a brass sextant from a wrecked ship. Another time they'd found a sea chest filled with bolts of soggy cotton fabric, which Sylvie had washed, dried and saved. It troubled her when she thought of itprofiting from shipwrecks in which people had lost their lives. But as her father always said, the things they found would only wash back out to sea and be lost if they left them. How could making use of them be wrong?
His rationale made perfect sense. But there were times when she yearned for a different kind of lifea blessedly ordinary life in a town with friends and neighbors, tree-lined streets, churches, schools and stores. She'd known such a life in the years before her mother died and her father caught gold fever. But now those days seemed as distant as the stars.
Sylvie loved her father and her little brother. And she knew better than to pine for what she couldn't have.
But at times the weight of loneliness threatened to crush her. Most girls her age had friends, relatives and beaux around them. Many of them were even married, with families of their own. Not that she was asking for someone to marry. Not yet, at least. Just to have someone she could talk tosomeone real to share her thoughts and dreamswould make all the difference in a world peopled by characters from novels and fairy tales.
As for romantic love, she'd read about it in books, mostly the ones written by her favorite author, Jane Austen. But here, in this isolated spot, the notion seemed as fanciful as the tales she made up for her little brother.
"Hurry, Sylvie!" Daniel called over his shoulder. "I see something down there! It looks like a boat!"
"Stop right there, Daniel Cragun! Wait till I catch up!" Sylvie quickened her pace. The trail was narrow, the sheer cliff more than eighty feet high. Ferns and cascading flowers dotted the rocky face, forming a lush hanging garden. Beyond the black rocks that jutted at the foot of the cliff, a pale crescent of sand, exposed by the low tide, rimmed the cove.