Frowning, Becca pulled herself back into the present. She concentrated on her stroke, feeling the sweat beginning to form on the back of her neck, between her breasts. She was not that girl. That had been fourteen years ago, in a different world. Today she was a different person, connected to that young Rebecca only by muscle memory and the feel of the oars in her hands. Now she knew the cost of failure.
And she knew Milo was right. She was going to have to make a decision, and soon. Complete commitment to racing would mean taking leave from the job to train full-time. She could quit outright. Or she could take the leave of absence the Met had offered her. But that would leave unfinished business.
The thought brought a surge of anger so intense that she instinctively drove the oars into the water, pushing her stroke up to racing rate. The riggers creaked as the boat took the strain. Water flew from the oars on the recovery, splashing droplets across her face. She was moving now, listening to the whoosh and thunk as the oars went in, followed by an instant of absolute silence as they came out of the water and the boat plunged forward like a living thing. It was perfect rhythm, this, it was music. The boat was singing, and she was a part of it, lifting from the water like a bird.
Henley receded, a glowing dot in the distance. Now she could really see the sky, rose-gold on the horizon, fading to mauve. Clouds, still visible against the dark dome above, seemed to be flying, matching her stroke for stroke. A few cottages - hers somewhere among them - and clumps of trees on the Berkshire bank flew by in a dark blur. Ten strokes. Her thighs were burning.
Ten more, focusing on the count, on getting her oars out of the water cleanly.
Ten more, shoulders on fire now.
And one more ten, with all the power she could summon, the boat leaping from the water, her throat searing as she took great gulps of air.
Then, a pale flash on her right, the ornamental folly on Temple Island. This shard of land midriver, once a part of Fawley Court, now served as the starting point for the Henley Royal Regatta. Once past the island she'd have to turn back, or she'd lose the last glimmer of light and would truly be rowing blind before she reached Leander again.
She eased up on the stroke, letting her lungs fill, easing her cramping muscles. As she passed the downriver tip of the island, she stabilized the boat, oars resting lightly on the surface of the water.
Suddenly, she realized that her earlier anger had passed and she was filled with a deep and calm certainty.
She would race. She would not let this last chance pass her by. And if it meant leaving the Met, she would leave, but she would not be fobbed off quietly with a token gold watch and more hollow promises. She would see justice done, whatever the means, for herself and the others like her.
The swift current was carrying her downstream, towards the lock and the weir. A flock of rooks rose with a clatter from the trees on the Buckinghamshire bank. As she watched them wheel in a dark ballet, Becca let the boat swing round. When the birds disappeared from her field of view, she was facing downriver. The wind felt fiercer now. It bit at the back of her neck, and when she took her first full stroke, the current's resistance challenged her.
Rowing downriver, she'd stayed near the center, taking advantage of the swiftness of the current. Now, she eased in towards the Bucks side, where the current was less brutal, the upriver journey less arduous. Anyone who had ever rowed out of Leander knew every twist and turn and wind shadow along the Bucks bank, and most, like Becca, could row it in their dreams.
But the darkness seemed deeper, facing away from the faint illumination cast by the town, and the temperature was dropping rapidly. In her brief pause the sweat on her body had begun to chill. Becca slid forward, squaring her oars, then put all the strength of shoulders and legs into the drive. She kept it up, stroke after stroke, counting to herself - the sculler's litany - judging her progress by occasional quick glances at the shoreline.
Excerpted from No Mark Upon Her by Deborah Crombie. Copyright © 2012 by Deborah Crombie. Excerpted by permission of William Morrow. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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