The Myth Hunters Page 2

“It doesn’t. Doesn’t make a bit of sense. But it’s been haunting me. Julianna’s family are wealthy and they’re local and they’re very tightly knit. We both work for the firm . . . the firm Dad helped found. Her father and Dad are both on the board of directors at the bank. They’ve golfed together at the club. She’s entrenched in that whole scene, same as me. If I marry Julianna, it’s the final concession. It’s not even defeat, but surrender. I’m giving up whatever chance still existed that I might someday do what I want instead of what he wants. Just like . . . just like Mom.”

“Ollie, Mom never surrendered. She never stopped loving the things she had a passion for.”

He laughed bitterly. “Maybe she never surrendered, but she was captured, sis. Think about it. Look at this house. One little room where she could do exactly what she wanted, where she could have it look like she pictured it, instead of how Mr. Imagination thought other people would expect it to look.”

Collette put one comforting hand on his shoulder. “Oliver, I know he can be awful, but you’re being unfair. All couples compromise. That’s what marriage is. Yes, he could be bullying—”

Oliver cut off her words with a curt glance. “If she was forced to compromise her passions to mix with his, that I could understand. But he doesn’t have any. His only passion is work. He had an image of how things should look that had nothing to do with what he liked or disliked, and everything to do with what he thought was appropriate. Mom used to tell me he wasn’t always like that. She said when she met him he had stars in his eyes. ‘Just like you,’ that’s what she said. But at some point, that part of him went away. But not for her. She was filled with passion, and . . . look, never mind.” He brushed at the air. “I’m sorry I started. It’s just . . . with her gone, I see it all around me, all through the house, and it’s just so fucking tragic.”

Collette hesitated a moment, gnawing her lower lip, then forged on. “And so, what? You think your life with Julianna’s going to be the same thing, only in reverse? Is that it?”

Slowly, he nodded. “The really twisted part is, I’m going to end up resenting Julianna just as much as I already resent him. How is that fair?”

Collette shook her head. “It’s not.” For several seconds she only stared at him, then she ran her hands through her hair and laughed, not in amusement but in obvious disbelief. “Jesus, Oliver. Now what? It’s two weeks before Christmas. You’ve got three hundred people coming to a wedding tomorrow. Flying in from LA and London and New York, some of them. I’m not telling you not to do it. I know as well as anyone what a mistake it is to get married if it just isn’t right. But if you’re going to call it off, you’d better be damned sure.”

A chill ran through Oliver. He stroked his chin, taking some odd physical comfort in the rasp of the stubble he found there. Something burned in his gut, but he had no idea if it was that dread he and Collette had discussed or simple guilt. His throat was still dry and his chest felt hollow, too quiet, as though his heart had paused to let him think. He lifted his eyes to gaze balefully at his sister.

“I guess running away isn’t an option?”

Collette smiled tenderly. “I think you’re a little too old for that.”


He fell into contemplation once again and his sister rose and began to drift about the room as if she were seeing it for the first time. She caressed certain knickknacks that she recognized from their childhood, ran her fingers along the spines of several books, then slid one of the Agatha Christies off the shelf. Oliver took all this in peripherally and only glanced over at her when she grunted softly in appreciation of the book and then continued to peruse the shelves, paperback clutched against her chest like a talisman.

Oliver lay back on the sofa, his head against the wall. It would not be a bad life with Julianna. She came from a similar background, but she still understood his dreams. Yet that was the worst of it, in a way, for though she understood what he dreamed of, she had never once considered it more than a dream.

He closed his eyes and imagined his future in this house or one much like it; his future with this bright, funny, beautiful girl who wanted to marry and raise a family with him. Perhaps it was the time of year, but images of Christmas mornings came into his head, of his children opening gifts beneath the boughs of a tree Oliver himself would decorate. If they were wealthy, so much the better. He would never have to fear for his children’s well-being. That was a worthy pursuit, wasn’t it?

“Shit,” he whispered, one hand on his forehead.

Collette turned quickly to regard him once more. “What?”

Before Oliver could reply, a familiar voice boomed out in the hall, shouting his name. Brother and sister turned to stare at the open doorway of the parlor, then Collette glanced at him.

Oliver took a breath then shouted, “In here!”

Heavy footfalls came nearer and a moment later the doorway was filled with the figure of their father, his face etched with the usual impatience. He was Maximilian Bascombe, after all, and it was not now nor had it ever been his place to go chasing about his own home for his children.

“I should have thought to look for you here first,” the old man said.

Old man, Oliver thought. What a quaint expression. It seemed almost insultingly ironic when applied to Max, who at sixty-six was in better shape than Oliver had ever been, salt-and-pepper hair the only hint at his age. But the phrase had never been associated with age in Oliver’s mind. Max had always been the old man in his mind. It was a crass term, reminiscent of bad sixties television. But as formal as they were in the Bascombe home, Father seemed too generous an appellation.

“What’s wrong?” Oliver asked.

“Nothing. I couldn’t find Friedle,” the old man replied dismissively. Then he held up a portable telephone Oliver had not noticed at first. “Julianna’s on the phone.”

For a moment Oliver froze. He stared at his father, his mouth slightly open, aware that he must look foolish, as though he had gone catatonic. His gaze shifted toward the phone and only when he reached out his hand to receive it did he understand what had happened within him.

“Thank you,” he offered, more from practice than purpose.

“Ollie?” Collette ventured, her concern and wonder clear in her tone.

Oliver cast her a resigned glance, then took the phone from his father. The old man muttered something about wanting to talk to him later about a case that needed to be dealt with before he and Julianna left for their honeymoon in South America. Oliver barely heard him.

He put the phone to his ear. “Hello?”

“Hey,” Julianna said, her voice soft and near, as though she spoke to him from a pillow beside his own. “What’s shakin’?”

A melancholy smile spread across his face and Oliver turned his back on his father and his sister.

“Oh, just celebrating my last night as a bachelor with a bit of perverse revelry.”

“As is to be expected,” Julianna replied. “I’m just getting rid of the gigolos and the mule myself.”

Oliver could not help himself. He laughed. Julianna was a wonderful person, kind and beautiful and intelligent. And he had made a promise to her. Wasn’t it up to him to keep his own passions alive? His mother had surrendered. And where his father was concerned, Oliver had always done so as well. But that did not mean that his marriage had to be a cage. It was up to him.

“It’s good to hear your voice,” he said.

As he did, his father retreated into the hallway. Collette came over to kiss her brother on the cheek; she stroked his hair a moment and he saw the regret in her eyes and knew it was for him. He nodded to her. It’s going to be okay, he thought, and hoped she would read his mind or at least his expression.

“So, what are you doing tomorrow?” he asked Julianna as Collette left the room, disappearing into the massive house with their father.

“Why?” Julianna asked. “Did you have something in mind?”

“As a matter of fact, I did.”

* * *

Hours later, Oliver was still in the parlor. It was late enough that Mrs. Gray was long gone, so he had made a trip to the kitchen for some hot cocoa. Somehow, in the short time he was gone, Friedle had come into the parlor and laid a fire in the stone fireplace. When he returned with a large steaming mug, a dollop of whipped cream bobbing on top of the cocoa, the blaze was roaring. Oliver was more than happy to feed new logs into the flames from time to time. Friedle had put a large stack of wood aside for him, and now it was nearly gone. Across the room, one window was open several inches and there was something delicious about the combination of the heat of the fire and the chilly winter wind that swirled in. Snow had begun to build up on the windowpane and some landed on the wood floor, slowly melting there.

This was magic; right here in this room with his cocoa and a worn leather-bound copy of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf in his hands. He had rescued the book from its lonely place amongst the other abandoned volumes on these shelves, but it was not the first time. The Sea Wolf was an adventure he had returned to many times over the years. Always in this room, in this chair, beneath this light.

With the snowstorm raging outside and the house gone quiet now, time slipped away. Oliver might have been twelve again. The fire crackled, casting ghostly orange flickers upon the walls.

He was lost in the book, adrift upon the sea aboard the Ghost with Wolf Larsen at the helm. All the world had been pushed aside so that Oliver existed now within the pages of The Sea Wolf, far from his concerns about the future and the delicate irony of his love for a woman destined to become, for better or for worse, his anchor.

Oliver had shivered several times before he really noticed how cold it had grown in the parlor. The fire was down to one charred log licked by weak flames. Reluctantly he slipped a finger into his book, dry paper rasping against his skin, and went to kneel before the fireplace. He used a poker to push back the black iron-mesh curtain in front of the burning log— the metal would long since have grown too hot to touch— and then carefully arranged two thin logs within.

The fire began to spread and Oliver picked up another log, this one fat with a thick layer of bark, and placed it diagonally atop the others. For a moment after he had closed the mesh curtain again he remained there, watching the blaze. Then, finger still holding his place in the book, he stood again and started back toward his chair.

Cold wind raced through the room, trailing chill fingers along the back of his neck. Again Oliver shivered, though this time he noticed it.

“Brrr,” he said, mostly to himself, a smile creeping across his face.

The open window rattled hard in its frame. He glanced over to see that the snow had built up much more than he had realized. One corner of the gap between window and sash was packed with pure white and enough of it had powdered the floor that it was no longer melting.


Oliver started toward the window. The edge of the Oriental rug was easily six feet from the wall but some of the snow had reached it. He paused to try to brush it away with his shoe but managed only to melt it into the carpet. The window rattled harder, buffeted by the storm. The sound was so loud and abrupt that Oliver jumped a bit and turned to squint in amazement at the snow outside his windows. The night seemed darker than before. The air whipped so hard against the panes of glass now that where it rushed through the opening it howled softly. More snow blew in with every gust.

“Wow,” he whispered to himself as he stood peering out through the glass. Even in the dark, he could see that what had begun as a light snowfall had become nothing short of a full-fledged blizzard. The snow was thick and plentiful, the ground already completely blanketed, and the wind drove it in twisting swirls and waves.

Oliver held the book up against his chest with his left hand, keeping it away from the open window. For a moment he simply enjoyed the storm. Then the glass rattled again, the window seemed to bow inward as though the storm was trying to get in. He reached out to close the window, but enough snow had built up on the sill that it slid only a fraction of an inch before jamming. He brushed as much of it out as he could. Even then, it seemed frozen in place. Awkwardly, finger still holding his place in The Sea Wolf, he set both hands upon the top of the window and put his weight into it. The window began to slide down.

A powerful gust slammed against the house, shaking all of the parlor windows, as though in defiance. The open window seized again and he worked hard to force it closed. The storm raged outside, buffeting the walls. The wind that passed through the narrow gap remaining between window and sash fairly shrieked.

The wooden frame shook and a long crack appeared in the glass, stretching a tendril from one side of the window to the other. Oliver cursed under his breath and let the book fall from his hand. The Sea Wolf struck the damp floor on its spine and something in its binding tore. Oliver barely noticed that he had dropped it, never mind that he had lost his page.

Swearing again, he struggled to close the window, worried that at any moment the glass might splinter further, even shatter. It would not close that final inch, however, and his fingers were numb with the frigid air, the whipping snow. It seemed impossible that it could be so cold.

Oliver paused, suddenly certain that he was not alone in the room. Friedle or Collette, perhaps . . . someone had heard the banging and come to investigate. But no . . . the presence he felt was not within the room, but without.

He narrowed his gaze and for just that moment, twisting with the currents and eddies of the wind, he saw a figure dancing in the storm, eyes like diamonds staring in at him, from a face with features carved of ice. All the air went out of Oliver then, as though his lungs expelled his final breath.

The wind drove in through that narrow opening with the force of a sliver of hurricane. The crack in the glass spread no farther, but the storm blew in so hard that it knocked Oliver backward. He stumbled, slipped upon the melting snow, and fell sprawling onto the Oriental rug.

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