“Good observation.” Now he was watching her as if she interested him . . . sort of like a bug under the microscope. “So you’re
“Of course not,” she huffed. What kind of comment was that? “I am a woman.”
“I’m glad you’ve realized that, at least.” She thought he was going to end on an insult, but in a cool, conversational tone, he said, “I was abandoned as a baby, and adopted by a single father. He was the chief of our . . . his tribe. There were only a few of the Bear Creek left in the world, and fewer still living a traditional life.”
She heard the delicate way he distanced himself from the tribe. “You aren’t Bear Creek?”
“No. I’m American Indian, obviously, but my father’s tribe knew I was not one of them, and no one ever came looking for me or my mother.”
“Do you know what happened to your mother?”
“After she gave birth to me, she flung herself off a cliff.”
Rosamund sucked in a breath, so shocked she didn’t have words to speak.
“My foster father’s tribe lived in the mountains in Idaho, in circumstances so poverty-stricken they were hanging on by their toenails, so when he died they wandered off toward a less difficult lifestyle.”
With the curiosity that made her the premier researcher of ancient manuscripts, she asked, “What did you do?”
“I learned to take care of myself.”
“How old were you?”
Note to self—don’t whine to Aaron Eagle about my upbringing.
“Did you go into a foster home?” she asked.
“No, I stayed in the mountains.” He led them into the Temperate Zone exhibit, stopped and looked at the swan geese. “It was a good way to learn what it takes to survive.”
“But what about high school? What about college?” She couldn’t imagine a life without classes.
“I didn’t graduate.” One of the huge geese lifted its head and looked at Aaron, then rose and paced toward him.
“From college, you mean.”
“From high school.”
Lifting itself on its toes, the goose spread its wings wide and flung itself at Aaron, honking wildly.
Rosamund took an involuntary step backward. “What is he doing?”
“Challenging me.” Aaron bowed his head to the imprisoned bird, and backed away as if in respect.
He understood the wild, captive bird far too well. He yielded dominance far too gracefully.
She didn’t understand him, but if she simply did a little more research into his background, she would comprehend his inner workings. Once that occurred, he would cease to be interesting to her. “So at the age of fourteen you dropped out of society, disappeared into the American wilderness, survived by yourself for . . . ?”
“And when you came out, you were”—she waved a hand up and down his well-groomed self—“this?”
He adjusted his already perfect tie. “
is who I am.”
He had intrigued her, given her something to ponder . . . about him. No matter what he claimed, the parts of Aaron Eagle did not add up to the image he so successfully projected. She needed to decide what she thought about wandering around New York City with a stranger and an enigma.
Taking her arm, he led her through the garden to the sea lion pool. The railing was lined with people. The sea lions were barking in anticipation of a feeding. The people were talking and pointing and barking back. Aaron stopped Rosamund a few feet away, and in a voice pitched to reach her ears only, he asked, “You said your father texted you. What did he say?”
Rosamund looked around at the crowd. “You brought me here so if someone is listening, they won’t hear what we say.”
“If someone is listening with the right kind of equipment, it will filter out the background noise and we would have no secrets.” He smiled, a slash of amusement. “But I doubt if anyone is that interested in us.”
She hoped he was right, because his words sent a chill up her spine.
“What did your father say?” Aaron asked again.
“The text said, ‘You were right, Elizabeth
’ Then, ‘Study hard, Elizabeth.’ Then about five minutes later, another text came through.” She shuffled her feet, suddenly all too aware how insignificant this sounded. “It said
But Aaron didn’t seem to think the messages insignificant. Instead, his face grew cool and considering. “Elizabeth is your mother’s name.”
“Yes. Not many people remember that, which is why I think . . . I think he was giving me a signal it really was him.”
“Yes . . .” Aaron stood completely still, listening to some inner logic. “ ‘Study hard
’ What does that mean?”
“I don’t know, but I started looking around for my mother’s things, and found a notebook and that stone tablet.”
“Anything of interest there?”
“The notebook is fascinating!” She could scarcely contain her excitement. “She was a master at translating pre-Columbian languages. I could have learned so much from her. . . .” Her voice faltered. The pain of her mother’s death would subside at times, but it never faded.
“I wish I’d known this. I would have recommended we bring the notebook,” Aaron said.
“It’ll be there when I return. No one goes down there except me.”
“No one except Lance Mathews.”
She stiffened at Aaron’s tone. “He’s hardly going to break in, and even if he did, he’d be hard-pressed to comprehend the contents of my mother’s notebook!”
“Right.” That seemed to cheer Aaron no end. “Lance Mathews is a philistine when it comes to understanding your work.”
She bristled. “I wouldn’t say he was a philistine. He’s simply . . . unschooled.”
“Ha.” But Aaron really paid no heed to her denial. “You were told your father died of a heart attack, so perhaps it was preceded by a stroke, or he was confused by pain.”
He wasn’t saying anything she hadn’t thought herself. “True.”
“Yet I knew Dr. Hall. It’s hard to imagine him suffering from dementia.”
“Also true. Daddy was so exact, so precise in his thoughts and his speech. Yet as a rule, he didn’t text. He said he didn’t understand why it was better than e-mail or a call.”
“Typical old guy.”
“Yes. So I can’t imagine how a man who was confused by a stroke could figure out how to text, or why he would text my mother.”
“Or why he would tell her to run.” Aaron wandered toward the pool and pointed at the largest sea lion, which was barking at the zookeeper.
She looked, and nodded as if she were interested, when actually, right now, she didn’t care about the sea lions.
Aaron moved them to the other end of the pool, about two feet away from the press of the crowd. After surveying the people around them, he asked, “At the time of his death, was anyone with Dr. Hall?”
“I received a phone call from a police officer telling me of the death. I asked what had happened. He told me a heart attack. I asked what Daddy was doing, where he was, who was with him. The officer seemed suddenly unable to speak English.” Her hand rested on Aaron’s arm. “My Spanish is good, so I asked him in Spanish. The call was cut off. I prepared to fly down to retrieve the body and question him face-to-face, but the next day, I got a call from the head of the library board. They’d received an urn with his ashes.” She was proud of herself. She’d recited the horrible litany without flinching.
Yet, for all his cold eyes and inscrutable demeanor, Aaron seemed to see something in her resolute gaze that roused his compassion. Carefully he uncurled her fingers from his arm and held her hand between both of his. “You believe there is a possibility that the ashes aren’t your father’s.”
“I even opened up the urn and looked at them.” She felt more and more foolish, but something about Aaron brought the words bubbling out of her. “They’re white and . . . ashy. I thought there would be some pieces that were vaguely human, but it looks like fireplace ash.”
“And yet as you looked, there was such a sense of loss.” Aaron slid his arm around her and gathered her into his body, under his jacket.
He was hugging her.
For a long moment, she stood with her arms between them, her fists clutched tightly, not knowing what to do.
When he didn’t move, she relaxed, inch by inch, loosening her fists, sliding her arms around him, burying her nose in his chest. . . . She closed her eyes. He was warm.
Did he understand how abandoned she had felt when her mother died? When she looked back on the child she had been, all unknowing as they brought her mother’s limp body up from the cenote, she felt sorry for that girl. Because she had waited for someone to tell her it was all right, that her mother would come back to her, hold her in her arms again, be with her. She hadn’t understood what that loss meant, or the anguish that would tear at her, or what it would mean in the future.
She hadn’t understood that on that same day, she would lose her father, too, or at least the father he had been. For the Elijah Hall she had known was gone, replaced by a strict teacher who kept her at a distance, taught her only what he thought she should know, occasionally disparaged her natural abilities. In all the years since, he had hugged her only once, right before he left to go back to Central America, and even then he had been stern, warning her to take care in a way that made it clear he had his doubts she could manage to tie her shoes. And she wasn’t
inept. Not usually.
Rosamund turned her head and spoke, and revealed the tiniest bit of her pain to a man she barely knew . . . yet he would understand. This man knew loss. “I remember when my mother would translate languages—she was so good, it was like magic—and my father would look at her with such delight and love in his eyes. Her death broke something in him, and I don’t know what, or why.”
“Maybe he blamed himself.” Aaron’s voice was a rumble in his chest under her ear.
“No, she was always the one who decided where we would go and what we would do. Father and I both rode along on the floodwaters of her passion for learning . . . and for life.”
“Yes, and maybe he knew of the danger and let her go because he couldn’t bear to tell her no.”
Rosamund laughed a little. “No one could tell my mother no. She was like a hurricane of enthusiasm, sweeping everything away before her.”
“He was her husband. He was responsible for her safety.”
She looked up at Aaron. He looked completely serious. “That’s archaic!”
“Men are archaic.” Aaron sounded very sure. “To see the one you love killed, knowing you didn’t protect her . . . that will break any man’s spirit.”
She didn’t agree with him. Not really. Why would her father feel responsible for her mother’s death? It wasn’t
“It’s hard to be alone in the world,” Aaron said.
She didn’t know if he was talking about her father or her . . . or himself. She only knew he smelled good. Very manly, with hints of spice—cloves?—and citrus. Soap and clean human skin . . . nice . . .
was nice, cradling her and giving her comfort as no one had since . . . since her mother’s death.
That was why she was so startled when, without warning, he pushed her away.
ive Irving my regards.
A woman’s voice, clear and husky, whispered the words—
into Aaron’s mind.
Aaron stood stiff and still, breathing deeply.
Nothing panicked him. He prided himself on his cool analysis of any situation, on his quick thinking, and those qualities had saved his life in more than one tough situation. Yet this . . . this violation of his being made him want to run, to hide, to vanish in broad daylight.
Where had those words come from?
He scanned the crowd around the sea lion pool.