Penelope stood in the crater the time portal had sliced into
the tree line. Sheared-off branches sprouted new growth overhead,
and grass choked the scorched ground, concealing most of the sand
that had been fused into glass globules by the rift. Frowning,
she dislodged one of the spheres with the tip of her shoe and
kicked it into the dunes. This gate hadn’t opened in months.
Two days prior, a hurricane had ravaged Three Star. Alone on
the southern tip of the island, Penny had ridden out the storm in
her farmhouse while gales ripped up centuries-old live oaks by
their roots and tossed debris through the walls of her
outbuildings. She’d seen a time gate’s flicker in the immediate
aftermath half a mile from where she now stood on the beach, but
there had been no reason to dash out into the dwindling rain in
hopes of reaching it before it shut.
None of them would let her go home again.
Grasping her skirts in one hand, she made her way through
the oat grass to ascertain what the storm had offered her in
compensation. The summer of 1721 had been a blistering one,
providing scarcely any rain to offset the heat. With few
thunderstorms of much note, ships in the area had enjoyed a
season of calm, returning to port with full holds and happy
sailors, and Penny’s larder suffered for it. Without wreckage to
pick through, she’d survived on meager rations from her garden
and the bones of a sloop that ran aground on the shoals to the
Yesterday threw one more long, hard bout of rain at the
island, keeping her inside until dusk. Now, with the sun a few
hours into the sky, she hurried to collect her share of the
shattered remains of dead men’s fortunes. This time, she was
determined it wouldn’t bother her. She tucked a short strand of
hair behind her ear, knuckled her glasses higher, and proceeded
to the shore.
The sea mirrored the heavens, flat and tranquil. Whitecaps
lapped the sand, pulling back to reveal a stripe of broken shells
stretching as far as she could see. Currents funneled past the
rock barrier jutting out into the water, and a smattering of
planks and splintered crates gathered on the sand bars the rising
tide would soon submerge.
Penny stooped to dip her fingers into a mountain of sea
foam. Lacework-white and delicate, it dissolved at her touch. A
flicker of movement caught her eye. Slanting toward the beach on
a downdraft, a laughing gull shrieked its peculiar, broken cry
and swooped over a figure lying in the surf.
Her stomach dropped. The waves had disgorged a body.
Straightening, she fidgeted with her apron strings. The tide was
rising. Soon, the ocean would reclaim the life it had taken,
leaving no trace of the drowned man behind. Here, he was alone
and unknown. Somewhere else, however, he would be an empty seat
at a hearth, a bed half-filled, a promise unkept. Like her, he
could never go home again.
Penelope sighed. Unable to bury him, she could at least bear
witness to his return to the sea. Keeping close to the water, she
trudged toward him.
She stopped when his arm moved. It was a tiny motion she
could’ve mistaken for a trick of the wind, his sleeve toyed with
by the breeze, yet when his fist clenched the sand, she was
He was alive.
“Son of a . . .”
The ocean licked his feet, greedy for the life it had been
refused. She picked up her skirts and ran. Speeding to him, she
whispered a prayer to the waves, the tide, the elements, anything
but the god she no longer believed in. Crashing to her knees
beside him, she snatched off her broad-brimmed straw hat and
shielded his face with it.
His skin was crimson, scorched past its tan by the sun. Sand
caked the blood on his waistcoat and salted his hair, turning his
red locks blonde. Cracked lips attempted words. He managed a
Penny put a hand to his chest. “Don’t worry, I’m here. You’re going
to be all right.”
Blue eyes slitted open, working hard to focus.
“Don’t move.” She plucked a strand of seaweed from his
close-cropped beard. “I’m going to go bring my cart closer to get
you in it, so you’re going to have to hang tight here for a bit.”
“Yes, and I need you to stay that way. Can you do that for
His tongue crowded his mouth, thickened by dehydration. He
“Good.” She glanced around for something to prop her hat on
while she was gone. Her eyes snagged on the cutlass shoved into
his belt. Intricate patterns decorated its hilt, matching the
leather scabbard the sea had done its best to disfigure. It was a
far more beautiful weapon than any common sailor or Royal Navy
man would carry, and it gave her pause.
He grasped her skirts.
Startled into action, Penny unsheathed the sword and jammed
it into the sand by his head. Tying her hat to its hilt by the
blue ribbons fluttering in the wind, she maneuvered it to cast a
shadow across his face and untangled his fingers from her dress.
His knuckles were a mass of bruises and scabs.
“Don’t leave me,” he rasped.
“I’m not,” she said. “Not for long.”
His desperation cut through her apprehension. She brushed
his hair from his forehead and searched his bloodshot eyes. “We
have to get you off the beach. I’ll only be gone a short while.
Just promise me you’ll be here when I get back.”
A corner of his mouth curled. He nodded again.
Penny dashed off to fetch the cart, her heart in her throat.
She’d secured her donkey at the tree line, yards from the dunes.
Pines and oaks stunted by the constant wind formed a barrier
between her house and the beach, the path through it clogged by
storm-shattered branches and underbrush. It would take days to
clear. The return would be hell.
Rushing back to the stranger, she knelt beside him and
smiled. “Hi there. Miss me?”
He struggled onto an elbow.
Putting her arms around his shoulders, she helped him sit
up. “I’m not going to lie. This isn’t going to be fun. I can’t
get the cart down here, so we’ve got a walk ahead of us. We’re
going to start by getting you into the shade.” She pointed to the
“Sword,” he grunted.
“Shade first. Sword later.”
A mass of solid muscles, the castaway nearly bent her double
with the effort of getting him to his feet. They shuffled slowly
to the crescent cut out by the time gate, Penny alternating
between encouragement and a few choice expletives. She sat him on
a severed tree stump and ran back for her hat and his sword.
She returned to find him frowning at the unnatural dome the
time gate had slashed in the trees overhead.
“Lightning,” she explained, hoping he was too dazed to catch
It took a quarter of an hour to get to the cart. She
insisted he rest along the way, fearful that sunstroke and his
rapid heartbeat would send his body into shock. Once they reached
the wagon, she guided him to the rear and gestured to the bed.
“Can’t.” He swayed, clinging to her shoulder.
“Yes, you can.” She transferred his grip to the wagon wheel
and knelt in front of him, lacing her hands together. “I’m right
here. Step up.”
With her help, he tumbled into the cart, panting. His eyes
“Hard part’s done.” She tossed his sword beside him. “Don’t
make me regret this.”
She clambered onto the wagon seat and hurried home.