A glance at the sky made her swear aloud. It was later than she'd thought, darker than she'd realized. Since the clocks had moved back, night seemed to fall like a bludgeon, and there was a heavy wall of cloud moving in from the west, presaging a storm.
Heart thumping, she moved across the cottage's shadowy garden and through the gate that led out onto the Thames Path. Tendrils of mist were beginning to rise from the water. The river had a particular smell in the evenings, damp and alive and somehow primeval. The gunmetal surface of the water looked placid as a pond, but she knew that for an illusion. The current, swift here as the river made its way towards the roar of the weir below Hambleden Mill, was a treacherous trap for the unwary or the overconfident.
Breaking into a jog, Becca turned upriver, towards Henley, and saw that Henley Bridge was already lit. Her time was running out. "Bugger," she whispered, and pumped up her pace.
She was sweating by the time she reached Leander, the most renowned of rowing clubs, tucked into the Remenham side of Henley Bridge. Lights had begun to come on in the dining room upstairs, but the yard was twilit and empty, the boatshed doors closed. The crew would be doing their last training session of the day in the gym, accompanied by the coaches, and that suited Becca just fine.
Opening the small gate into the yard, she went to the boatshed and unlocked the doors. Although her boat was up on an outside rack, she needed access to her oars, which were stored inside. She flicked on the lights, then stood for a moment, gazing at the gleaming yellow Empachers, the German-made boats used by most of the rowing eights. The shells rested one atop another, upside down, long, slender, and impossibly graceful. The sight of them pierced her like an arrow.
But they were not for her. She'd never been suited for team rowing, even at university when she had rowed in the women's eight. A gawky fresher, she'd been recruited by her college's boat club. All the boat clubs trawled for innocent freshmen, but they'd been particularly persistent in their pursuit of her. They had seen something besides her height and long limbs — obvious prerequisites for a rower. Perhaps, even then, they'd spotted the glint of obsession in her eyes.
Now, no team would be daft enough to take her on, no matter how good she had once been.
The thump of weights came from the gym next door, punctuated by the occasional voice. She didn't want to speak to anyone — it would cost her valuable time. Hurrying to the back of the shed, she picked out her own oars from the rack at the rear. The rectangular tips were painted the same Leander pink as her hat.
She turned, startled, knocking the oars against the rack. "Milo. I thought you were in with the crew." "I saw the light come on in the shed." Milo Jachym was small and balding, with a bristle of graying hair still shading the scalp above his ears. He had been a renowned coxswain in his rowing days, and he had also once been Becca's coach. "You're going out." It was a statement rather than a question, and his tone matched his scowl. "You can't keep this up with the clocks going back, Becca. Everyone else has been in for an hour."
"I like having the water to myself." She smiled at him. "I'll be fine, Milo. Help me get the boat down, will you?"
He followed her out, picking up two folding slings from just inside the boatshed doors. Becca took her oars through the gate and laid them carefully beside the launch raft, then walked back into the yard, where Milo had set up the trestles beside one of the freestanding boat racks. Her white and blue Filippi rested above two double sculls, and it took all of Milo's reach to unstrap and lift the bow as she took the stern.
Together they lifted the shell free and lowered it right side up into the waiting cradle. As Becca checked the rigging, she said, "You told Freddie."
Milo shrugged. "Was it a state secret, then, your rowing?"
"I see you haven't lost your talent for sarcasm," she countered, although for Milo, who used sarcasm the way other coaches might use a battering ram, the comment had been mild enough.
"He was concerned, and I can't say I blame him. You can't keep on this way. Not," he added before she could draw breath for a heated protest, "if you want a chance of a place in the semis, much less at winning."
"What?" Glancing up in surprise, she saw that he was no longer frowning, but regarding her speculatively.
"In spite of what everyone says," Milo went on, "I think it's possible that you can win in the trials, maybe even in the Games. You were one of the best rowers I've ever seen, once. It wouldn't be the first time a rower your age has made a comeback. But you can't keep up this half-arsed business. Rowing after work and on weekends, doing weights and the erg in your cottage — oh, I know about that.
Did you think a few beers would buy you silence in a place this incestuous?" He grinned, then sobered. "You're going to have to make a decision, Becca. If you're going to do this, you'll have to give up everything else. It will be the hardest thing you've ever done, but I think you're just bloody-minded enough to succeed."
It was the first time that anyone had given her the least bit of encouragement, and from Milo it meant more than from anyone else. Her throat tight, she managed to say, "I'll — I'll think about it." Then she nodded at the shell, and together they hefted the boat above their heads, maneuvering it through the narrow gate, and gently set it into the water beside the launch raft.
She slipped off her shoes, tossing them to one side of the raft. Then she retrieved her oars, and in one fluid movement she balanced them across the center of the shell while lowering herself into the sliding seat.
The shell rocked precariously as it took her weight. The movement reminded her, as it always did, that she sat backwards on a sliver of carbon fiber narrower than her body, inches above the water, and that only her skill and determination kept her fragile craft from the river's dark grasp.
But fear was good. It made her strong and careful. She slipped the oars into the locks and tightened the gates. Then, with the bow-side oar resting on the raft and the stroke-side oar balanced flat on the water, she slipped her feet into the trainers attached to the footboard and closed the Velcro fasteners.
"I'll wait for you," offered Milo. "Help you put the boat up."
Becca shook her head. "I can manage. I've got my key." She felt the slight weight of the lanyard against her chest. "But, Milo ... " She hesitated. "Thanks."
"I'll leave the lights on, then," he said as she pushed away from the raft. "Have a good row."
But she was moving now, letting the current take the shell out into the river's center, and his words barely registered.
The world seemed to fall away as she settled into a warm-up.
From No Mark Upon Her by Deborah Crombie. Copyright 2012 by Deborah Crombie. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins.