THE CANDLEBERRY TREE
Minella owed Sam more than she could ever pay
He’d saved her life, and for that Minella Farmer was grateful. But that didn't make her blind to his faults.
Sam Stafford was detestable. He used women for his own pleasure. He had a dark secret Minella was sure involved some criminal activity.
Unfortunately, the more Minella told herself this, the more she realized she wanted to know every single thing about this man she thought she hated —including who he loved.
Minella struggled, kicking violently
“Stop that noise,” Sam warned. “I’m not hurting you.” When she cried even louder he silenced her by covering her mouth with his own.
Minella abandoned herself to the glorious turmoil that rushed through her body as he crushed her to him. If there was never another moment like this, she knew this one would never be forgotten.
Sanity returned as he dropped her on the bed, his eyes smoldering. “If you weren’t so innocent, Minella, you’d know that’s no way to stop a man doing anything. Quite the reverse.”
She was rigid with the effort to control her anger and confusion.
“Isn’t it enough that you’ve got Annette?” she blazed. “Do you collect women like scalps? You’re not safe to be near. Now will you please go away!”
They were rough with her when they hauled her on board the whaleboat. They thought she was drowned. When she coughed and struggled the men looked at each other in amazement and began to talk loudly in a language she didn’t understand. Minella opened her eyes to try and see what they looked like. They wore bright jerseys and round black caps like French fishermen, but they were not French, and she wished she could remember whether they had been near any land when the storm struck. Nothing was clear at all.
‘My name is Minella Farmer,’ she said, her voice no more than a choking sound.
The boat tossed. Oars dug into waves which had lost much of their fury, but still rolled enough to make the going difficult. It was a miracle they had found her. The men shook their heads.
‘My name ... is ’ She wanted to tell them it again because it was the most important thing in the world, but this time she couldn’t remember it, and her soft brown eyes closed wearily.
She caught the one word and sighed, deciding with relief that they must be Spanish. Not that it mattered what nationality they were. They had saved her life and she would love them forever.
She was aware of nothing more until the boat grounded on a rocky beach, grating loudly as it was dragged clear of the water, and there was a lot of shouting going on in the strange language. A small crowd had collected on the shore and the sun was shining. She didn’t need to see it. The warmth was drying the salt water on her skin, making her lips parched and her eyelids too heavy to lift. Her limbs were like lead, and the few clothes she had on clung to her aching body. Someone had removed her lifejacket and oilskins, and by the coarseness against her face she guessed they were being used to cushion her head in the bottom of the boat.
She wished she could remember what had happened, but it brought a pain to her head when she tried. The rocking had stopped, and she turned her head and groaned as voices came closer. They gathered somewhere above her and curious people peered into the whaleboat for a glimpse of this girl from the sea.
She was not conscious of anything except the hot sun and the voices until she was picked up in the strongest arms she had ever known and held against a broad masculine chest. A blanket was wrapped round her, and she realised the agitated sound in her ears had been her teeth chattering, for in spite of the sun she was terribly cold. The man made sure the blanket was tucked firmly round, then set off up the beach with long, easy strides, passing the voluble sightseers without a word. One panting, puffing person tried to keep up with him, but couldn’t match the pace, and she smiled, hurting her dry lips.
There was great strength in the man who carried her. Though he walked quickly he didn’t jolt her, and she could feel the wetness of her clothes saturating his. He climbed up, away from the shore, his soft-soled shoes whispering over turf that was like carpet after the sand, and at what must have been the top of the incline he waited for his companion.
Minella felt him looking at her. For a moment he was motionless; then he moved her head so that it rested more comfortably against his shoulder, and sensitive fingers stroked wet hair away from her face. The fingers which lingered almost tenderly against her cheek belonged to someone with rare perceptivity.
‘You’re like a little wet bird,’ he said softly.
At first she hardly registered the fact that he had spoken in English. The words had been a form of caress, like his gentle touch, and she was content to lie in his arms, feeling a wonderful warmth steal over her at last. She felt protected from the terror that had struck, as if she had come home, and this was where she wanted to stay.
Strange thoughts like these formulated in her mind, but made no sense.
There was a breeze blowing now they were higher up. She heard it catch at his shirt and set it billowing away from his back like a spinnaker. A sail. A jumble of memories cascaded through her mind like a kaleidoscope. She buried her face against his chest as fear swamped her with much the same force as the sea had done, and she cried out. It must have been the first sound she had made, because he touched her face again in sympathy. If only she could see what he was like!
‘It’s all right,’ he murmured. ‘You’re safe now.’
Her eyelids refused to lift and her lashes fluttered on dry, burning cheeks, but through her lashes she had her first glimpse of the man who held her. It was nothing more than a general impression really, and her immediate conclusion was so silly she wondered if she was giggling. In her drowsy state she could imagine him stepping from the pages of the Arabian Nights tales she had loved when she was young.
She thought she asked him where she was, or who
was, but she couldn’t have spoken the words aloud, because he gave no answer, or any indication that he had heard.
His trundling companion caught up with them, the panting increased with exertion, and they didn’t speak. Minella found the effort of staying awake too great, and with a sigh she turned her head against the fresh-smelling shirt before drifting away on a wave of strange contentment.
Her next period of awareness was just as dramatic, but not quite so pleasant. This time she opened her eyes and looked round. She was in a small whitewashed room, a cubicle perhaps, and there was a bright light shining on her. The light hurt her eyes and she was glad when it was switched off so that only sunlight filtered through a tiny window. She was lying on a narrow bed, and a coloured blanket was wrapped round her like a cocoon, right up to her chin. She was very hot, and yet she still shivered.
She was not alone. There was a little man beside her and he was humming a tune. He had gentle fingers, but his touch was only sensitive to physical damage and he seemed to be a doctor. She guessed he was the one who had puffed up the hill behind them. She wondered where the tall man was, the one who had carried her. There had been communication between them on a level she didn’t understand, and being a very active, practical girl who liked explanations for everything she was anxious to know that he was real. All she could remember was his shirt billowing out like a robe, dark curly hair and a bearded chin. Surely she hadn’t imagined him entirely.
There was only the fat man in the room. Why wasn’t her brother here looking after her? A surge of anxiety brought pain to her head, and muddled, half-formed pictures chased through her mind, making her toss on the pillow.
The doctor was bending over her when she looked up. He smiled, a quick, nervous smile that twitched the muscles of his face in rapid succession, and he was like a cuddly toy. Minella smiled back and he began to fuss over her excitedly.
‘She is awake,’ he called. Obviously there was someone not far away. ‘Come and see what a pretty girl she is!’
‘I’ll take your word for it,’ came the reply in a voice that sounded too indifferent to be the Englishman, yet she recognised the low, mellow ring. Surely he hadn’t lost interest in her already.
‘But, Sam !’ The fat man was agitated and spoke in heavily accented English. He hurried to the door. ‘It is time you came and took her away. You know I cannot have her here all day. In an hour there will be patients to see me and I need the room. She will be better at your house. Sam, are you listening?’
Minella tried to sit up, struggling with the blanket, but her head was spinning and the walls closed in on her, forcing her back on to the hard bed. The little man came back quickly, clicking his tongue, and picked up a cup from a table beside the bed before slipping an arm beneath her shoulders and raising her head. The cup was put to her lips and warm liquid trickled down her throat. It wasn’t tea or coffee. It tasted more like clear soup, and it warmed her deliciously.
‘She is not hurt,’ he called. ‘No cuts or bruises. She is just very tired and shocked. Have you told the authorities she is here?’
The man called Sam didn’t answer for several seconds. It was as if he was concentrating on something and didn’t want to be disturbed.
Then: ‘Not yet,’ he said.
She wished she could see him, but everything had a dream quality. She seemed to be floating in a kind of bubble, looking down on what was happening but taking no part, like watching a play. But as the nourishment strengthened her she found the fragmented pictures in her mind staying longer in focus and began to remember things.
She remembered the yacht. She had been taking part in a race across the Atlantic, crewing for some friends of her brother.
‘Perhaps there are other survivors,’ the fat man was saying.
It was then that real fright caught up with her, sending ice-cold shivers along her spine, because Greg, her brother, and his wife, Annette, had been with her. She closed her eyes and saw them all fighting against the gale. She saw herself trying to open the hatch so that she could get whatever it was someone desperately wanted from below; wire clippers, ‘Get the wire clippers ... get... the ... wire clippers!’ She couldn’t move the hatch, and when she finally did, her lifeline was in the way. With the importance of the wire clippers uppermost in her mind, she undid the safety line for just one moment, and it was then the gigantic wave hit the yacht, sweeping her away with it as it receded. After that there was nothing but blackness. The starless sky had been as black as the water, and there was nothing else.
She had not lost consciousness. She began to swim instinctively, terrified of the great troughs and waves, but determined to survive. She wore a lifejacket, and it could only have been minutes before her hands came in contact with the lifebelt. Gasping, choking, beyond even the realms of fear, she had clung to it, letting it take her weight, and the motion of the water lifted and dropped her pitilessly until the black sky was tinted with the first grey streak of dawn and gradually changed through shades of pink to cloudy blue. By then she was drifting without being aware of anything except relief that the gale had eased and the sea was less angry. She didn’t know that she was anywhere near land. It seemed as if there would never be anything else but sea and sky, and if she didn’t keep repeating her name she would sink beneath the waves and be forgotten forever.
And now she was safe, lying on a hard, narrow bed in a quaint little room feeling weak and battered, but safe nevertheless. But where were the others? Had they not been so lucky? She wanted to ask the doctor, but couldn’t form the words.
He saw her agitation and spoke to her soothingly in a foreign tongue. Then he called again to the man outside.
‘Sam, you have a room, and the woman will take care of her. I have no women here. I will come and check on her daily and there will be no trouble. When she is rested she will be fine. She is strong.’