The Road Home
Part 16
By Susan Gee Heino
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Matt kept a close eye on John. The SEAL was a man on a mission--he pointed Matt to the rock formation
and practically pushed him down toward it. Cold was already seeping into his bones, but nothing he couldn't
take. They both adjusted their buoyancy and soon reached the rocks. Matt was careful not to stir up
sediment from the bottom, but the gathering storm and the churning tide seemed to be doing enough of that
already.

Visibility was murky and Matt had to stick close to John if he wanted to keep an eye on the murderous
bastard. The last thing he needed was to get a knife in the back before he had the chance to overpower
John and disconnect his air.

His would-be partner didn't seem focused on homicide right now, though. He was feeling over the rocks,
studying them to determine the layout and get his hands on the treasure. Matt had to admit, he was pretty
curious about that, himself. Was there really a centuries-old privateer treasure down here, buried by one of
his forbearers and just waiting to be brought to the surface? He wasn't ready to work with John, exactly, but
he decided to give it a couple more minutes before he choked the life out of him for pointing a gun at the
woman he loved.

Holy hell, where did that thought come from? Since when did he think of Annie in those terms?

Since some asshole held a gun on her, apparently. He'd watched her drifting closer and closer to John's
boat, moving directly into the line of fire, and Matt had nearly panicked. All he had thought about was
stopping the threat, keeping her safe. Nothing else mattered. At all.

He felt like a fool for not realizing it all along--he'd never gotten over Annie because he just plain didn't want
to. She was everything to him, even when he thought that he didn't care about anything. He did. He always
had. He loved her and needed her and if John Turner didn't kill him here on the bottom of this cove, he was
looking forward to telling her.

Hell yeah, he'd keep her safe. If he was lucky, she'd let him keep her forever.

John grabbed his arm and interrupted his crazy romantic fantasy. Matt tensed up for a fight, but instead
John was pointing, directing his attention to the rocks. No, not just at the rocks in general, but at the very
distinctive open space in the center of the formation.

John was on it like a dog with a t-bone. He moved over the rock formation, dropping low so he could rake his
hands through the sandy surface of the roughly triangular gap. The rocks had been carefully placed in a
triangular, just as he'd expected. The empty area at the center was a good three feet by five feet, easily
large enough for the stereotypical treasure chest.

Only trouble, no matter how much John dug and probed the sandy bottom, there was no evidence of
anything. No treasure, no chest, nothing to indicate that the ancient privateer had left something behind.
John clawed at the sand, shoving the smaller rocks so he could dig under them. Sediment swirled around
and Matt had to peer closely, but it was obvious nothing was being uncovered. Just more sand.

He could easily have overpowered John at this point. The man appeared to have forgotten everything but
his hunt for the treasure. Matt thought about going for John's knife, ripping it from his leg sheath. He could
drag John up to the surface, hold the knife to his throat, and demand that Heather lay down her weapon.
Anne would be safe.

John was so unaware of him now, though, it almost seemed unfair to go at him. The guy was unhinged,
pawing at the earth like some sort of animal, losing air and gasping in his mouthpiece as he frantically
searched for a treasure that simply wasn't there.

Matt put a hand on his shoulder to try to bring him back to his senses. All the years of training must have
kicked in for John, though, because all of a sudden he shot up from his down-facing position in the gap and
he whirled to face Matt. He thrashed his arms, blowing bubbles as he tried to speak. The man was losing it
and Matt didn't have to do anything; John was going to drown himself if he didn't calm down and regulate his
breathing.

Matt shifted gears from defensive mode to rescue. He suddenly didn't want to murder John. Damned if he
didn't feel sorry for the guy. It was kind of pathetic, seeing him grovel in the murky sand that way, freaking
out over some imaginary treasure that he'd been ready to kill for.

John was still flailing his arms, advancing on Matt with a spew of bubbles and wild, unintelligible motions.
Matt didn't get a chance to subdue him; another diver suddenly appeared, crashing into John and sending
him backward into the rocks. It took Matt a full second to even realize what had happened. Despite the
heavy gear and the thick wet suit, he recognized the other diver.

Anne? What on earth was Anne doing down here? She barely had time to right herself after her collision
when John pushed off the rocks and shot toward her.

Matt launched himself after John, pulling him back before he could reach Anne. But John was out of control.
He swung wildly, the water slowing his movements but not quite enough. His arm caught Matt and shoved
him backward. Matt's buoyancy was still low so he sank sluggishly, helpless until he could slow his
momentum and readjust his control device.

John flipped, lashing out toward Anne with his feet. He connected and she was sent off, disappearing in a
cloud of dusky sentiment and bubbles. Matt propelled himself toward John with everything he had, ramming
him down into the rock formation. John was pinned there, his tanks catching on the rocks and Matt on top of
him.

John reached for his knife, but Matt was too quick. His hand was already there, sliding the lethal blade out of
its sheath and tossing it off to the side. He didn't dare hold on to the thing. It would have been too tempting
to slit John's throat right here and right now.

They struggled, and John was beyond coherent. He lost his mouthpiece and was beating the rocks
insensibly now. He'd be dead in a matter of minutes if Matt didn't act. He glanced helplessly around for
Anne, but in all the chaos, so much sand and sediment had been kicked up that he could barely see a few
inches from his face.

He prayed Anne was all right, but he knew John was not. Grabbing the man's belt, he pushed off from the
bottom and shot up toward the top. They had not been down long enough for decompression to be an
issue, so he kicked his legs madly and adjusted his buoyancy controls in an effort to get John to the surface
before it was too late. Then he'd go back for Anne. He could only hope he wouldn't regret saving this
asshole's life instead of hers.

He could barely make out the dark silhouettes of the boats as he rose. There was no telling what he would
find once he got up top, but John didn't have time for him to take extra precautions. The Navy SEAL had
gone limp and Matt was struggling to drag him along.

He breached the turbulent waves and found Heather and Samuel both peering at him over the side of
Samuel's boat. There was no sign of a gun, so it seemed Heather had come to her senses. That would
explain how Anne had been able to get into her gear and join them below.

He yanked out his mouth piece and held John's head above water. The wind had picked up and between the
waves and the sleet, it seemed the man was little better off up here than he had been at the bottom. But he
coughed and Matt took that as a good sign.

Samuel and Heather were reaching over to help hoist John up onto the boat. Matt struggled to hold him up
from below. To his surprise, another boat came into view. He recognized the markings on it--the local
sheriff's office. Well, that was a welcome sight.

"Where's Anne?" Samuel called down to him.

Matt choked on a mouthful of seawater and he wrestled with John's nearly dead weight. "I don't know. She
was down there, but John went after her."

The sheriff's boat slip up closer and someone tossed out a life vest. Matt pulled it around John as he
bobbed there, barely held up by the various hands reaching down to save him. Thankfully, this would free
Matt to go search for Anne. The black ice of dread that pooled in his gut threatened to sink him right now.
"Did he find the treasure?" Heather called.

It was a stupid question, considering her husband looked half dead.

"No. He didn't," Matt yelled in reply, rigging the last latch on the life vest. "There's no treasure."

"You might want to rethink that," a voice called behind him.

Behind him? There was nothing but water behind him. He pushed away from John's now-supported form so
he could turn.

"Annie!"

She had surfaced near him, bobbing in the waves, gagging on mouthfuls of salt water, but giving him the
most beautiful smile he'd ever seen.

"Are you okay? Did he hurt you?" he asked, swimming toward her.

"I'm fine, but maybe you could help me. This is darn heavy."

He was close enough to her now to realize she had something tucked under her arm. It wasn't a chest, it
was... a rock? She brought up one of those rocks from the formation below? It was small, about the size of a
loaf of rye bread, oblong and somewhat flattened. Just a plain old rock, but she cradled it like a baby. The
cold must be messing with her faculties.

"Come on, let's get you up on the boat," he said.

The little cove was fairly packed with jostling boats by now. The Turner's boat had been lashed onto
Samuel's and the sheriff's boat had moved up next to them. It appeared Samuel had tossed a rope into
Matt's boat so it hadn't drifted away. Matt grabbed Anne and pulled her toward it, clear from the danger of
being crushed between the other boats. A couple deputies had a good grip on John and he was coherent
enough now to begin putting up a lackluster fight as they pulled him onto their boat. It seemed he would live,
after all.

Matt helped Anne up into his boat and dug in a compartment for a pile of blankets to bundle her in. She was
shaking like a leaf from the cold, but she was safe. That's all that mattered.

The sheriff got a brief run-down of what had transpired, and Samuel agreed to accompany them back to
town, towing the Turner's boat. Somehow Samuel managed to convince everyone that Anne would catch her
death of cold if Matt didn't take her directly onto the island and let her warm up there. The sheriff agreed
they could both come into town and give their statements later. Matt was more than happy with that
arrangement.

Heather boarded the sheriff's boat and clung to her husband, assuring everyone that he wasn't such a bad
guy. A quick phone call to Grams let her know everything was fine. The feisty old gal was glad to hear it, and
she even admitted that she was kind of enjoying her day with the kids. She figured she could feed them a
pizza and let them watch a couple more hours of TV before their brains would be total mush.

Anne kept clutching her rock and shivering while Matt piloted around to the dock and ushered her up to his
house. It was good to have her back. It had taken nearly losing her for him to finally find himself. She'd
almost gotten killed diving into that water after him, now he just needed to convince her that he was
somehow worth the effort.

*     *     *

Anne huddled on Matt's couch, snuggled under two layers of soft quilts and sipping coffee in front of a
crackling fire. Despite the fact that old Dan's place had sat vacant so long, and that Matt kept his duffle next
to the front door, this old house felt like a home. She was safe and warm and Matt was here.

She tried to enjoy the moment for what it was. It would all be over too soon and she'd have to rely on
memories. After all this, she wondered if Matt would even stick around here into summer. Especially if the
rock she'd brought up from the bottom of the cove was what she thought it might be. She almost wished she
hadn't seen it.

But she had. John had kicked her and she'd gone sailing, swirling with the current until she landed against
something solid. Feeling around, she'd discovered a large wooden box with crusted metal clasps. It was a
chest; a treasure chest! Someone had taken it from its original position inside the formation, but there it was.
She tried to move it, but it wouldn't budge. In fact, when she found a handle on it and yanked, the whole side
of the chest crumbled. She was able to pry the lid up and feel around inside.

Expecting coins or maybe stolen jewels, her fingers instead fumbled over a rock. At first she was confused,
but then she noticed the engravings. This was no mere rock; it had been carefully carved and placed in that
chest on purpose.

Thirty-feet under water with the two men battling nearby, she hadn't been able to study the rock, but she
knew enough to grab it. It was just the right size to tuck under her arm and drag up to the surface. It was
really sweet that Matt had been more concerned about getting her here and finding dry clothes for her than
investigating the rock, but he needed to know about it.

Even if it might mean the end to his stay here on the island.

"Do you need another blanket?" he asked.

"No, I'm good. Thanks."

She watched him move toward the fireplace, his hair still damp and tousled. The black t-shirt he'd pulled on
rose up over his biceps when he grabbed a piece of wood from the stack beside the hearth. His tight jeans
did obscene things to her heart rate when he crouched down to add the wood into the fire.

"So, what do you think about that rock?" she asked, knowing he probably didn't think anything about it since
he hadn't so much as glanced at it.

"I think you should have left it in the water," he said, poking the fire so that orange sparks flitted about.

Yes, she should have known that's what he would say. He was still a little ticked off that she hadn't trusted
him to deal with John on his own. Of course he hadn't come right out and said it, but he'd made it very clear
that he disapproved of what she'd done. He was the big brave Marine; she was just a small-town culinary
student who'd never been anywhere. According to him, it was a wonder he hadn't had to pull her out of the
water the way he did John Turner.

Well, she wasn't sorry. She'd dive in and do it all again if it meant saving him from a treasure-hungry lunatic.

There was just no way around it; she loved the guy. She always had and she probably always would. She'd
fallen hard for him way back when, and she was still the same starry-eyed fool that she'd been at age fifteen.

It was stupid and she knew it; there just didn't seem to be anything she could do about it. She was in love
with Matt Chadwick. Like it or not, there was a big, dumb chunk of her heart that would always be his. In fact,
he must have owned an ever bigger chunk of her brain because--darn it--she was going to hand him his
reason to leave her. Again.

"I brought up that rock because I thought maybe you might still want to find that silly treasure of yours," she
declared.

He paused. Slowly, he turned from the fire and his smoldering gaze met hers.

"I thought I explained. There isn't any treasure."

She shook her head. "You mean, you didn't find it where John thought it would be, inside that triangle
formation. If you'd look at that stone I brought up, you'd see there's a little more to the story."

He frowned, but went to pick up the stone where she'd left it, on the chunky round table next to the couch.
Sure enough, once he actually looked at it he was obviously intrigued. He traced his finger over the lines,
studying the engraving the way she had as she sat there shivering on the boat. It didn't take a genius to
understand the markings.

"It's a map," he said finally.

"It's a treasure map," she clarified. "The Turners were missing a clue. That, I believe is a map of Old Derby."

He dropped down to sit beside her. "It is. But... I don't think this was carved by whoever buried the treasure.
Look, this feature here, isn't this the old church building?"

She leaned closer, just enough to brush his shoulder. "I think it is. And that marking there must be the town
library."

"I remember distinctly that last summer I was here, we all participated in a centennial festival for the church
and the library. If those buildings were only a hundred years old then, there's no way they could have been
around for some old privateer to carve them into a treasure map."

Anne let out a frustrated huff. He was right. Those buildings were far too new to have been included on a
map from the days of the first Chadwick.

"But I found this inside that old chest," she protested, not quite ready to believe her hard-earned rock was
entirely useless. "I swear, it was an honest-to-goodness pirate chest, so old that it fell apart when I tried to
move it."

"I guess it wasn't really as old as it seemed. This map can't be more than twenty-five years old," he said.
"Look, it's even got a mark for the new park they built out behind the school."

"Chadwick Park?"

It didn't seem possible, but again, he was right. Who on earth would put a twenty-five year old map inside a
centuries old chest under sixty feet of ocean? Unless... she reached past him to run her fingers over the
markings again. This time she was careful to look for inconsistencies.

She found some. "These marks weren't all made at the same time," she said.

Matt's fingers covered hers as he traced the same marks. Fire raced through her body as his touch
lingered. Her skin sizzled where his hand rested on hers.

"Somebody was updating the map as new features were added to Old Derby," he said.

"But they didn't include the new firehouse on Maple Street. Or the municipal building that went up back when
I was in grade school."

"Because those buildings weren't funded by Chadwick money," he said after a pause. "I think I get it now."

"You do?"

He turned to meet her gaze. His eyes held warmth and excitement and something she almost didn't
recognize. Was it promise?

"There was a treasure," he said slowly, a grin catching the corner of his lip. "But it's gone now."

"How do you know?"

"This rock... the rock that you rescued. It was left there by my uncle. He must be the one who made the most
recent marks on it."

"And the other marks?"

"Other Chadwicks, probably. They used up the treasure building Old Derby. That's where it went, and that's
why my uncle left this rock in the old chest down there."

It made perfect sense. All these years, the Chadwick family hadn't been hoarding some secret treasure,
they'd been sharing it. That was the legacy Matt's uncle had left him.

"I'm sorry," she said, wrapping her fingers around his.

"You're sorry? That my family wasn't a bunch of misers?"

"No, I'm sorry that there's none of it left for you. I know you've been looking for something. You were
probably hoping to find that old treasure and head off... go someplace that doesn't taste like dust and sand
or isn't full of boring old memories."

He put his other hand over hers and squeezed, clasping her fingers tightly and bringing them up to his lips.
"No. I didn't know what I wanted, but I'm sure now, and that isn't it."

She made herself not read too much into his touch, the gentle pressure of his lips on her skin, his hopeful
words. "Come on, don't tell me you weren't hoping just a little bit that we'd find a treasure."

"I found a treasure," he said. "It just took me this long to figure it out."

Before she could process his words, he pulled her close to him. His lips found hers and he wrapped his arms
around her in the warmest, most wonderful embrace she had ever known. She curled her fingers into his
hair and let her body soak up his heat. His kiss took her breath away, salty and sweet and dragging her into
depths she had never known, like the very ocean itself.

"I've got a lot to make up for," he said, brushing kisses along her neck. "But I love you, Annie. I want to be
the man you used to think that I was."

"I've never seen you for anything but who you are, Matt," she said, cradling his face in her hands and letting
herself fall headlong into his bottomless gaze. "And I love you."

His smile was tentative at first, but when she didn't break away from his searching eyes, it overtook his whole
face. She'd never been able to hide her feelings and he must have seen the full measure of them. He folded
her into his arms again and held her.

"You're trembling," he murmured.

"I guess I'm still cold from the water."

"Not a problem," he said, kissing her tenderly on the top of her head. "I finally found my way back home,
Annie. I think I can find a way to keep you warm in my arms."

    Thanks for joining us on The Road Home.
    Please click the link at the top for Claudia Dain's heartwarming Epilogue to our story!




Susan Gee Heino