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Pricelessby Mariah Stewart
Gordon Chandler stood on the deck of the Albemarle and leaned over the railing. His head and shoulders cast an elongated shadow across the blue-green ocean below, where his children frolicked in the late afternoon sun, and he closed his eyes, impressing the scene upon his memory. Over the past several weeks, it had become painfully obvious to him that his vast stash of memories contained far more images of sunken hulls than of his son and his daughter at play, and he was stunned as well as saddened by the realization. Somehow, during all those years he'd spent carefully locating and digging artifacts from the ocean's floor, both Jared and Rachel had managed to grow into adults with precious little assistance from him.
Gordon was at a loss to explain how it had all happened so quickly.
After all, hadn't it been just yesterday that he'd bought Jared his first wet suit and taken him on that trip to the Florida Keys? And how long ago could it have been that he'd gifted Rachel with that small conch shell that she, even now, wore about her neck on a thin silver chain?
Gordon sighed and shook his head imperceptibly. The years had drifted past as stealthily as a sailboat on a calm sea, gently and without fanfare. Water through his fingers.
Jared had been nine years old the year that his father had taken him out of school for three weeks to spend most of the month of April tracking a Spanish galleon that had centuries ago gone down in a fierce hurricane off the coast of Florida. Gordon had wanted his son to be standing on the deck with him on the day that the remains of the Santa Maria Elena de Cordoba would see the light of day for the first time in four hundred years. He'd wanted Jared to understand that what kept his father away from his family for weeks, often months, at a time was not so much the hint of finding lost treasure as the chance to touch other times, other lives.
Jared was now thirty-two years old, Rachel, twenty-eight, and Gordon was still not certain of how much of their lives he had touched, beyond, of course, their choice of profession.
It never failed to humble Gordon to realize that both his children had chosen to follow in his footsteps, as he had followed in his father's, and his father had before him. Jared was the fourth generation of Chandler men to seek to uncover the mysteries hidden beneath the sea, Rachel the first woman. Both had joined Chandler and Associates upon graduating from college. Both had worked various operations, sometimes with their father, sometimes with each other, but the three Chandlers had never worked the same job at the same time. This latest venture, the salvaging of the True Wind, with all its legendary pirate treasure aboard, would mark the first time father, son, and daughter had worked together.
Somehow, despite his shortcomings as a father, both of his children had seemed to understand that the countless hours Gordon spent researching the location of each vessel was a journey toward fulfilling the legacy of every one of the men on board those doomed ships. That each salvaged ship brought to light the stories of a hundred or more men who had perished on an angry sea, and in the remains left on the ocean's floor, Gordon often learned just what it was that those men had believed was worth dying for.
For some, it had been gold.
The act of finding the treasures that Gordon had resurrected over the years had satisfied him in much the same way another might be pleased at having solved a particularly vexatious puzzle. True, the financial rewards he reaped were a means of supporting his family as well as his next salvage operation, but it was his respect for the past that drove him. Over the years, his strict honesty and his meticulous efforts to preserve his finds had earned him a reputation as a man who could be trusted equally with the treasure and with the integrity of the site. Gordon Chandler's name was always on the top of the list of men to call when there was an important salvage operation to be planned.
Gordon watched his son and his daughter as they swam through the gentle swells like true children of the sea. They were beautiful, as had been their mother, Amelia, who had died when Rachel was eight, Jared twelve. The death of one's wife might be expected to bring one home from the sea, and it had, though only briefly. Amelia, a concert pianist, having been away from home nearly as much as Gordon himself had been, had long since sweet-talked her Aunt Bess into moving in with her children. As soon as Gordon had been assured that Bess would stay on with them after Amelia's death, he had set off to research a ship — suspected to be Sumerian — that had been located off the coast of a small island in the Aegean.
And somehow, between that job and the next, and the one after that, his children had grown up without him. Somehow Jared had shot up to well over six feet tall, had grown broad shouldered and trim and handsome enough to catch the eyes of the young ladies wherever he went. And somehow, Rachel, who had always seemed to skip through her father's heart, a perpetual little girl made of spun glass, had grown into a strikingly beautiful woman, one who was not the least bit hesitant to let it be known that she was now made of much sterner stuff. A few short years out of college, Rachel was more competent a salvager than many of the men Gordon had worked with over the years. Smart and savvy, Rachel was as accurate in locating a ship, as sensitive and exacting in preserving all of the site's artifacts, as was Gordon himself.
A small school of dolphin approached, passing close enough to the swimmers for Rachel to be splashed in the face by a lively youngster. From his position on the Albemarle — the retired tug he'd bought and refitted years ago — Gordon heard his daughter's laughter float above the waves, watched his son race gamely to keep up with the pod before dropping back as the animals sped out to sea, and was struck almost numb by the depth of his love for them both.
And yet Gordon knew with certainty that before the day ended, one of them would be fiercely disappointed and painfully angry, and he, Gordon, would be the cause.
Well, Gordon sighed, it couldn't be helped. If he'd passed up the unexpected offer from the Foundation for the Preservation of Eden's End, the job of bringing up the Melrose would have gone to another salvage firm, perhaps one who might not be as concerned with preserving the details of the historic vessel. And wasn't that the Foundation's primary purpose in wanting to salvage the Melrose, to find and preserve as many of the personal belongings of that ship's venerable captain as possible?
Of course, the fact that this particular operation would stand him in exceptionally good graces with the state of North Carolina — with which Gordon was currently negotiating the rights to another ship he'd spent years tracking off Kitty Hawk — had not been lost on Gordon.
Besides, it was a done deal. He and Norman Winter, the head of the Foundation, had shaken hands on it just a few hours earlier. Now Gordon would have to break the news to his children that one of them would have to leave the True Wind, and the certain joy of discovering its pirate treasures, to salvage Civil War artifacts from a sunken blockade runner that might, at best, yield arms and ammunition that had been intended to bolster the Confederate cause, but had, alas, lain untouched on the ocean floor for the past one hundred thirty-five years.
Noticing his father standing alone on deck, Jared paused to tread water and call, "Hey, Dad! You up for a race to the sandbar?"
Gordon laughed, the sandbar being a good quarter mile from the tug. "Another time, maybe. Actually, I was just about to ask you and your sister to come aboard. There's something I need
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