Unseen Genius: Chapter 24: A Vision’s Truth II
“ARIA!” she shrieked, but only her own echo answered her before being swallowed up by the chasm in the pond’s ice.
Without thought Brielle lurched forwards, stumbling as her feet came free of the oversized galoshes, leaving them standing upright in the middle of the yard. Running with only a pair of house slippers through the freezing mud, her skirts hiked over her knees, she could only scream her daughter’s name over and over again, each cry more wretched and distraught than the last. The air burned Brielle’s lungs with every gasped breath, her own panic searing a familiar trail of misery straight to her heart. As the adrenaline pumped through her blood, her legs stretched beyond their normal capacity, quickening her pace to frenetic speeds; she was across the yard and at the pond’s edge before a coherent thought could form in her head. This can’t be happening. It is a dream. This can’t be happening.
As Brielle slid unceremoniously down the embankment to the pond’s edge, her mind flashed unbidden back to other losses, other deaths. The glitter of the ice stretching out before her dimmed as the image of her father gasping his last breath bullied its way into her thoughts.
She had watched him die, held his hand as his body went stiff and cold, felt helpless during the weeks of his illness. It had been amazing really - he was there one moment squeezing her hand and then gone the next. How was that possible? How was it possible for a life of such generosity and passion to end without lightning splitting the sky or the world coming to an end?
He had just faded away.
And at fifteen she had wanted to go with him. To fade away and leave the burning, mind-numbing pain which loomed over every day thereafter. People had reassured her that time could heal all wounds, that eventually she would get over it. But the sad truth, she had come to realize, is that grief is never forgotten or healed; it simply looses its virulence. The truth was that death is only painful for the living. It burrows deep into the heart, bruising and permanent.
Two years after she and Conner lost their father, Brielle had met the Donovan brothers. She had first been introduced to Andrew by chance. Conner, even at twenty, had made a name for himself as a violinist among Dublin’s upper crust. It was at one of his performances that she had, literally, stumbled into Andrew. He had been polite despite her clumsiness, had invited her and Conner to a party he was throwing for his younger brother.
The Sinclairs had accepted the invitation, though Brielle detested large crowds. She went because somewhere in her heart she had felt it important. The party itself was painfully dull, too many stuffy British aristocrats had blathered on endlessly while Brielle had wished to escape their eyes. Stealing away from the crowd, she had found refuge out upon the terrace overlooking the garden. That was where she had found John. As it turned out, he was hiding from the Ton as well.
After that first encounter she knew she would marry him. Something about his quiet good humor, his shyness, stirred her broken heart. She had loved him for that, held him more dearly than taking her next breath. John had brought her out of the shadow of her father’s tombstone, taught her to live again.
And then he had died. Shot through the head, far from home and far from her. She had felt his death cut through her even before the Army had sent an official death notice. When John died, she died with him.
But unlike when her father had left her, John left something behind to assuage the blinding sorrow. He gave her life, he gave her Aria. And now faced with the prospect of loosing another loved one to Death’s insatiable appetite, Brielle’s heart rebelled, refusing to feel that soul shattering pain again.
She struggled to right herself as she took her first unsteady steps out onto the ice. The soft felt soles of her house slippers offered no traction as she half-slid, half-ran across the ice, her arms cartwheeling over her head. All memories, all thoughts vacated her head save for one mantra repeating over and over. Come up, love. Come back up. Take a breath. Come up, love.
As if prompted to action by the force of Brielle’s thoughts, Aria broke through the surface of the water, her tiny hands grappling for the edge of the ice. Only seconds had passed since the child fell through the ice but in her mother’s heart a lifetime had passed in each heartbeat. Aria clung to the ice, trying desperately to stay above water, as her hands slid over its surface and her small body shook violently from the breathtaking cold.
Picking up her pace Brielle barreled forward, hope driving her now rather than despair. “Aria! Hold on! Don’t move I’ll be right there!”
Though the child couldn’t form a coherent affirmative through her chattering teeth Aria managed a slight nod to show she had heard. Without slowing, Brielle slid awkwardly closer to where her daughter clung to the ice, her feet constantly threatening to slide out from under her with every step. As she quickly drew close to the middle of the pond, the ice beneath her feet began to groan ominously. Glancing down, Brielle slowed her pace, momentarily considering the lacework of spider web cracks radiating from the hole.
Still more than five feet from Aria, Brielle carefully tiptoed her way forward, straining to hear even the slightest warning from below. Distantly she heard her name being called, but ignored the shouts and took another step. With a snap, her leading foot broke through the weakened surface, plunging into the freezing water below all the way up to her hip. Falling forward she hit the ground hard, knocking the breath right out of her lungs, locks of her hair falling free to spread out across the ice about her head. Fighting to pull air into her lungs Brielle lifted her face her eyes, meeting Aria’s across the few feet of ice still lying between them. Wincing against the needling pain shooting up her leg she stretched out a hand, desperately hoping she would be able to reach her daughter.
“Try to take my hand, love!” Brielle cried out straining every muscle in her body, willing her arm to stretch just a little further.
Aria, her face ashen under a mop of wet hair, raised one arm from her grip upon the edge and waved it wildly toward her mother, kicking her feet frantically trying to boost her tiny body further out of the water. Nodding encouragement Brielle edged forward, ignoring the pain of the ice scraping along her thigh.
“Just a little further,” she mumbled through trembling lips as her fingers nearly brushed those of her daughter’s. Fear and hope warred within her chest, cutting off her air, as she was just able to touch a fingertip to Aria’s bone cold digits. Just a little farther…she chanted mentally even as the ice under her body gave a terrible lurch. A little farther…a little farther.
Suddenly, through the tunnel vision of her concentration, Brielle felt a jerk on the hem of her skirt. Her body pivoted away from Aria when the grip upon her clothing gave another sharp pull, grappling for one of her hands. Screaming in protest she kicked out at the hands now tugging at her sleeve. The ice gave sharp squeal as her weight was spun away from the weakened section.
“NOO! I almost had her. Let me go!” she shrieked, clawing at the ice with her nails, desperately trying to stop her backward movement.
The hands at her ankle unexpectedly released her, only to grapple for the collar of her cloak. As the material pulled tight Brielle’s screams gurgled to a stop, the clasp at her throat cutting off her air. Fighting frantically now, Brielle beat at the strong grip at the nape of her neck. Impervious to her attacks the hands pulled her violently backwards, freeing her caught leg from the ice and sliding her steadily away from where her little girl still clung in the middle of the pond.
“Stop fighting, Brielle!” came a grunted demand as one of her flailing hands raked fiercely across bare skin.
Andrew continued to pull her backward, his costly leather shoes skidding over the ice, nearly sending his legs out from under him. “The ice is too unstable. If you had stayed any longer we would have to save you too!”
In her panicked state Brielle hardly heard a word he was saying, her eyes staying riveted upon Aria despite her wild fighting. The child had stopped kicking her legs, now merely hanging limply upon the lip of the ice hole, her large gray eyes slowly closing with exhaustion. Precious moments had passed since Aria had been plunged into the freezing water. Brielle knew, despite her near delirium, that soon her baby wouldn’t be able to hold on any longer and would slip back into the darkness of the pond water. Seeing her daughter’s growing weakness, Brielle ignored Andrew’s reasoning and fought twice as hard against his hold. I have to get to her…she can’t die…if she does I’ll have nothing…nothing.
Screaming till her throat burned, Brielle banged her heels against the ice, grappling vainly to free herself. When Andrew suddenly let her go she fell flat onto her back, knocking her head against the toe of one of his shoes. Before she could scramble to her knees the young lord bent down and easily hauled her to her feet, his hands gripping her upper arms with bruising force. He gave her a good shake, but when she once again fought against his hold he coolly drew back a hand and brought it smartly across her cheek. Raising a hand to cradle her smarting jaw Brielle stilled, shocked tears springing into her eyes.
“I won’t have you doing something foolish like risking your life when it isn’t necessary,” he began, his dark eyes pulling in the spring light, and reflecting her own panicked image back at her.
Closing her shocked mouth into a fierce line, Brielle removed her hand from her cheek only to raise it and slam it over Andrew’s jaw. The man blinked in astonishment as she screamed in his face. “You don’t understand - there isn’t time!”
Coming back to himself he shook her again, the pulse at his temple beating furiously. “We must simply fetch a rope and everyone will be safe. If anyone goes back out onto that ice, it will only give way.”
Brielle turned her face from Andrew, unwilling or unable to listen to the logical calm in his tone. Her eyes falling upon Erik’s form a short distance away. The dark-haired man stood poised on the brink of motion, every muscle in his body thrumming with a tension she could almost taste in the air. His full attention was focused upon Aria as she struggled to keep her head above water.
Slowly Erik swung his gaze toward Brielle, she was shocked to see the same stark terror in his over bright blue eyes that she felt in her own heart. As the man clenched his jaw tightly against the waves of panic his face drained of all color. Becoming even more agitated after assessing her emotional state Erik took a step forward onto the ice, but then hesitated, as if warring with himself upon his next course of action.
Unable to stand the feeling of helplessness rising to burn tears behind her eyes, Brielle pulled against Andrew’s hold. As she did so she tilted her head back to catch a glimpse of Aria. The sight of the child slumping lower and lower into the deadly cold sent new waves of horror shooting through her blood, nearly sending her into a dead faint with the intensity of the emotion.
“Somebody do something!” she screamed, beating against Andrew’s vise-like grasp.
At her words Erik visibly jumped, his eyes shooting furiously between Aria and Brielle. When the child slipped and fell sputtering back under the water’s surface the masked man sprung into action.
His long, lean legs blurred as Erik raced across the ice, the strong working boots he wore preventing the sliding which had slowed both Brielle and Andrew’s movements. Reaching where Aria had disappeared in mere seconds he fell quickly to his knees, then to his stomach, spreading out his weight as he inched his way forward. Brielle held her breath as she watched him slowly progress until his hand snaked out over the water, grabbing hold of her daughter’s flailing arm and pulling her back above the surface.
Relief so strong it buckled her knees immediately rushed through her as she raised a hand to her mouth in order to muffle a strangled sob. Falling to the ground despite Andrew’s support, Brielle splayed her fingers over the ice, trying to shrug off Andrew’s hands as he squatted down and wrapped an arm about her waist.
“Don’t let go Erik! Don’t let go!” she cried out, biting her bottom lip as she watched the man slowly pull the child from the dark water. Like he would, a little voice chided in the back of her head.
Nervously clenching her hands upon the ice, Brielle ignored the fact that she could no longer feel her fingers. Every cell in her body, every ounce of her strength was all fixed upon the two people on the ice. Painstakingly, Erik inched a near unconscious Aria out of the water, the child no longer able to assist in her own rescue, her body temperature having dropped so low that she no longer continued to shiver.
Brielle nearly came out of her skin when one of Erik’s hands, which he had been bracing against the edge of the hole, broke a large chunk of the ice off and splashed into the freezing water. The dark haired man stilled for a moment and attempted to ease back only to dislodge another chunk of ice. Several colorful curses flitted over the ice as he shook his now soaked arm trying to dry it as much as possible.
“Be careful!” Brielle called out, her words of warning earning another string of swearing from the man on the ice.
Erik managed to drag Aria completely from the water and slide her up alongside himself. Turning carefully, pushing the child’s limp form before him, he was able to make an about face until his head was facing Brielle and Andrew. Raising his chin from the surface of the ice, Erik glanced up to meet Brielle’s anxious eyes, and damned if he didn’t wink at her before giving Aria another shove toward the shore.
Shaking her head at the man’s cavalier display, Brielle was just beginning to relax slightly when the ice near Erik’s feet caved in, sending the lower half of his body sliding into the water. A pained expression twisted his mouth into a grimace as he struggled to pull his legs from the biting water. With a gasp Brielle jumped to her feet dragging Andrew up with her. Feeling dizzy with dread as she took a step forward, she nearly toppling over when her numb legs wouldn’t hold her. Andrew’s arm around her hips tightened then stopping her progress.
Turning in his grasp Brielle punched the man in his chest. “Andrew, do something we have to help him.”
“This is exactly what I was talking about,” the young lord mumbled in response, apparently missing the seriousness of the situation as he coolly watched Erik struggle out on the ice.
With a groan the ice once again slid out from where Erik laid, half on the ice and half off. Yelping, the masked man plunged completely into the water, disappearing from view for a moment only to resurface almost immediately. He trod water, sputtering, before hooking an arm over the hole’s edge, his other hand coming up to clamp over his face as the bindings holding his mask began to loosen. Aria, having found the strength to sit up slowly, leaned over and grabbed weakly onto Erik’s hand, a pitiful wail issuing from her chattering mouth.
Another kind of panic began burning to life inside Brielle’s heart at that moment. Erik was a close friend, but what she was feeling at that moment was far more than worry for a friend. She was stricken, almost paralyzed with concern. It is almost as if…
The sound of a pair of boots pounding across the yard startled her from the daze she was in. Turning Brielle laughed hysterically when her eyes caught the sight of her brother running towards them.
“What are you two standing about for?” the redhead asked furiously as he blew past both her and Andrew, working a length of rope in his hands.
“Conner, Aria fell through the ice and when Erik tried to get her out, he…”
“I know!” came a quick reply as Conner twisted the rope quickly into a clever lasso. “I saw from the window. It took me forever to find the right kind of rope in that damned barn!”
“Hurry! Stop talking and do something!”
With an easy movement Conner swung the rope up over his head, his green eyes focused upon the two people out in the middle of the pond. Before Conner could release the rope, Erik gave Aria another shove, sending her small body sliding away from him over the ice.
“Take her first!” he shouted through chattering teeth as his body began to jerk violently from the life-sapping chill in the water.
Nodding his head, Conner turned his attention to his niece and let the lasso fly. The loop landed over the little girl’s waving arms and with a quick jerk the redhead tightened it around her small wrists, pulling her to shore. Limping forward as quickly as she could, Brielle fell to her knees and gathered her little girl up in her arms, smothering Aria with hysterical kisses even as she turned her eyes back to the man struggling in the water. Thank God…Thank God!
Struggling to undo the rope from Aria whilst she was cradled in her mother’s arms, Conner finally resorted to giving Brielle’s nose a good tweaking to still her movements. Shocked by his odd action, Brielle paused and glanced up at him; in that moment her brother quickly undid the rope and straightened.
“Conner, you’d better get that blessed man out of that water,” she stated, crushing her daughter protectively to her chest.
“I was planning on it, you daft thing,” he replied, swinging the rope up over his head once more. Watching carefully he waited for the opportune time to let the loop fly. “Andrew do something useful and go get a doctor,” he hissed, without taking his eyes off his target.
“Excuse me, but you do not order me ab…”
“No you are right, there is no excuse for you,” he shot right back. “Erik, put one of your arms up!”
Hesitating, Erik’s eyes flickered to where Brielle knelt near the shore. After several seconds he slowly dropped his hand from his face and struggling to obey the Conner’s barked order he raised his stiff arm over his head, trying at the same time to keep his head above the water. Without hesitation Conner released the rope, the lasso smoothly falling over the other man’s arm.
“Where did you learn to do that?” Andrew asked with confusion as he watched Conner give the rope a good jerk, tightening the rope about Erik’s wrist.
“A rather unscrupulous Texan fellow taught me this trick,” the redhead replied, a nasty grin flashing over his face as he momentarily glanced Andrew’s way before beginning to pull upon the rope. “Though, technically it wasn’t meant to wrap a rope about a person.”
Frowning Andrew pursed his lips. “What is it meant to…”
“Oh, you know, pigs, cows…anything dirty with four legs,” Conner said as he heaved against the rope. “Though I have heard they also use it to round up useless bastards before stringing them up by their…”
Not liking where that conversation was heading, Brielle interrupted. “Andrew will you please go get a doctor?”
Looking between the siblings, first at Brielle’s shaky smile then Conner’s belligerent sneer, Andrew nodded slightly. “Of course I will,” he said as he turned and jogged off to retrieve his horse.
As soon as he was out of earshot Conner looked to his sister with a confused smile. “Whatever are YOU asking him to get a doctor for? I only asked to get rid of him.”
Ignoring his question Brielle remained still, watching as Erik was pulled to shore over the ice. When the masked man came within a few feet of her Brielle - her daughter still clutched in her arms - moved forward, carefully sliding over to where he laid dripping. As she neared, Erik hastily raised a shaking hand to press against his face, his mask having nearly slid off his head. Noting this with sadness Brielle slowly knelt at his side, placing a hand on the man’s chest and drawing his eyes to her face.
Though Erik lay there shaking like an oak leaf in a storm, he still managed to form a fierce disapproving frown. “What is wrong with you, get her inside.”
“He is right,” Conner said, coming up behind his sister. “It is alright. I’ll take her in.”
She kissed Aria on the forehead before carefully handing her over to Conner. For a moment Brielle watched her brother as he hurried over the yard and into the house before she turned her attention back to Erik. Suddenly finding herself unable to hold back the torrent of relieved tears in the face of the gruff tenderness softening his eyes, Brielle finally burst into hysterical sobs. Even as the tears burned hotly down her frozen cheeks, she began to laugh at the man glaring up at her.
“You could have died, you crazy man…thank you. I’ll never be able to repay you for today…”
Erik managed to shake his head slightly at that, averting his eyes from her face. “No, it is I who owe you…for more than you know.”
Leaning forward, Brielle brushed a hand over the side of his wet cheek, smoothing out the frown wrinkling the skin there. When he turned the right side of his head toward the ground, trying to further hide what his slipping mask wasn’t, Brielle looked away momentarily with a sigh. Turning her eyes upon him once more she carefully took hold of his chin, forcing his face around till he looked her in the eye. His one hand still remained firmly cradling his mask.
“Stop that, now. Do you honestly think I would care if that fell off right now? You saved my daughter, idiot.”
“If you knew what I looked like you wouldn’t say that,” he snapped, agitated by her steady glare. “It is true. In fact you would most likely run off to…”
Brielle hurriedly clamped a hand over his mouth, not wanting him to pick a fight when she had hardly thanked him for his heroism. “You really are stupid sometimes Erik,” she said.
Closing her eyes, she silently prayed for courage before brushing her lips over his. The electric shock that sent shivers racing down her spine was instantaneous. Erik stiffened when her mouth touched his as he had the time she had kissed him before. His hesitation was endearing, though she knew his awkwardness stemmed from years of neglect as a child. It makes me want to kiss away all those years, until he no longer jumps when I touch him.
“Thank you…” she mumbled against his mouth as she opened her eyes and pulled back slightly, her previous thoughts wrinkling her brow with worry.
“Any time…” he replied, his voice shaking as he desperately tried to appear casual with her face so close to his own.
“But next time don’t cut it so close. You made me worry terribly.”
Guilt immediately darkened his gaze. “I know, I should have acted sooner. By the time I got around to it she had been in the water for…”
Placing a hand over his mouth she stilled his words. “No, I meant you made me worry about you as well. When you fell I think my heart stopped for the second time today.”
Shock flickered over his face before a slow smile brought out the handsome lines about his eyes. Brielle hadn’t known until that moment how fond she was of his laugh lines.
“You were worried…about me?” he asked quietly, his eyes flickering shut in exhaustion.
“Of course, you daft man,” she replied, a strange warmth beginning to infuse her entire body as she looked down at his worn and weary appearance.
It felt natural, this new lurching within her heart and for several moments Brielle basked its glow, savoring the inner calm now filling her soul. But as Brielle wiped at the water beading upon his forehead, as she listened to her brother’s approaching footsteps, a terrible realization burst to the forefront of her thoughts. She recognized without a doubt what this new heavenly sensation toward Erik was and suddenly a bleak horror filled her.
It was love.