Dance Upon the Air, page 11part #1 of Three Sisters Island Series
On Monday the incident at the Abbott rental was the talk of the village. Everyone had had time to form an opinion, particularly those who hadn't witnessed the event.
"Buster said they'd busted up every blessed knick-knack in the place. I'll have some of that lobster salad, Nell, honey," Dorcas Burmingham said, then went straight back to gossiping with her companion. She and Biddy Devlin, Mia's third cousin once removed and the proprietor of Surfside Treasures, had a standing lunch date at the cafe every Monday at twelve-thirty.
"I heard Sheriff Todd had to forcibly remove the man from the premises," Biddy expounded. "At gunpoint. "
"Oh, Biddy, no such thing. I talked to Gladys Macey, who had it straight from Anne Potter who sent for the sheriff in the first place that Zack had his gun holstered right along. Can I have an iced mocha with that salad, Nell?"
"Domestic disputes are one of the most dangerous calls for a policeman," Biddy informed her. "I read that somewhere. My, that soup smells divine, Nell. I don't believe I've ever had gazpacho before, but I'm going to have to try a cup, and one of your brownies. "
"I'll bring your lunch out to you," Nell offered, "if you'd like to get a table. "
"Oh, that's all right, we'll wait for it. " Dorcas waved the offer away. "You've got enough to do. Anyway, I heard that even though that brute bloodied that poor woman's lip and blackened her eye, she stuck by him. Wouldn't press charges. "
"It's a crying shame is what it is. Odds are her father beat on her mother, so she grew up seeing such things and thinking that's just what happens. It's a cycle. That's what the statistics say. Abuse spawns abuse. I'll wager you, if that woman had grown up in a loving home, she wouldn't be living with a man who treated her that way. "
"Ladies, that'll be thirteen eighty-five. " Nell's head throbbed like a bad tooth, and her nerve endings stretched thin as hair strands while the two women went through their weekly routine of whose turn it was to pay.
It was always playful, and usually it amused Nell. But now she wanted them gone. She wanted to hear no more about Diane McCoy.
What did they know about it? she thought bitterly. These two comfortable women with their comfortable lives? What did they know about fear and helplessness?
It wasn't always a cycle. She wanted to scream it. It wasn't always a pattern. She'd had a loving home, with parents who'd been devoted to each other, and to her. There had been arguments, irritation, annoyances. While voices may have been raised, fists never had.
She had never been struck in her life before Evan Remington.
She wasn't a goddamn statistic.
By the time the women headed off to a table, thin, sharp-edged bands of steel had locked themselves around Nell's temples. She turned blindly to the next customer and found Ripley studying her.
"You look a little shaky, Nell. "
"Just a headache. What can I get you today?"
"Why don't you get yourself an aspirin? I'll wait. "
"No, it's fine. The fruit-and-cabbage salad's good. It's a Scandinavian recipe. I've had positive feedback on it. "
"Okay, I'm game. I'll take an iced tea with it. Those two," she added, nodding toward Biddy and Dorcas. "They chatter like a couple of parrots. It'd give anybody a headache. I guess everybody's been yakking about the trouble yesterday. "
"Well. " She wanted a dark room, an hour's quiet. "Big news. "
"Zack did everything he could to help that woman. She didn't want to be helped. Not everyone does. "
"Not everyone knows what to do with an offer of help, or who they can trust to give it. "
"Zack can be trusted. " Ripley laid her money on the counter. "Maybe he plays it low key, that's his way. But when push comes to shove, he stands up. You ought to do something for that headache, Nell," she added, and took her lunch to a table.
She didn't have time to do more about it than swallow a couple of aspirin. Peg was late, rushing in full of apologies and with a sparkle in her eye that told Nell a man had been responsible for her tardiness.
As Nell had an appointment with Gladys Macey to-please, God-finalize the menu for the anniversary party, she had to rush home, gather her notes and files.
The headache had escalated to nightmare territory by the time she knocked on Gladys's door.
"Nell, I've told you, you don't have to knock. You just call out and walk in," Gladys said and pulled her inside. "I'm just so excited about this. I watched this program on the Home and Garden channel just the other day. Got me all sorts of ideas to talk over with you. I think we ought to string those little white lights through my trees, and put those luminaries-with little hearts on the bags-along the walk and the patio. What do you think?"
"Mrs. Macey, I think you should have whatever you want. I'm really just the caterer. "
"Now, honey, I think of you as my party coordinator. Let's sit down in the living room. "
The room was spotlessly clean, as if dust was a sin against nature. Every stick of furniture matched, with the pattern in the sofa picked up in the valance of the window treatments and the narrow border of wallpaper that ran just under the ceiling.
There were two identical lamps, two identical chairs, two identical end tables. The rug matched the curtains, the curtains matched the throw pillows.
All the wood was honey maple, including the cabinet of the big-screen TV, which was currently running a Hollywood gossip program.
"I've got a weakness for that kind of show. All those famous people. I love seeing what clothes they're wearing. You just sit down," Gladys ordered. "Make yourself comfortable. I'm going to get us a nice cold Coke, then we'll roll up our sleeves and dive right in. "
As she had the first time she'd toured Gladys's house for pre-party plans, Nell found herself bemused. Every room was tidy as a church pew and as rigidly organized as a furniture showroom floor. Magazines were fanned precisely on the coffee table, and offset by an arrangement of silk flowers in the exact tones of mauve and blues as the upholstery.
The fact that the house managed to be friendly said more, to Nell's mind, about the occupants than the decor.
Nell sat, opened her files. She knew Gladys would bring the tea in pale green glasses that matched her everyday dishes and would set them on blue coasters.
There was, she thought, a comfort in knowing that.
She began to read over her notes, then felt her stomach hitch at the chirpy voice of the program host.
"Last night's gala brought out the glitter and the glamour. Evan Remington, power broker extraordinaire and attorney to the stars, looked as sensational as one of his own clients in Hugo Boss. Though Remington denies rumors of a romance between him and his companion for the evening, the delectable Natalie Winston-who simmered in a beaded sheath by Valentino-sources in the know say differently.
"Remington was widowed only last September when his wife, Helen, apparently lost control of her car while driving back to their home in Monterey. Her Mercedes sedan crashed over the cliffs on Highway 1. Her body, sadly, was never recovered. Hollywood Beat is happy to see Evan Remington back in stride after this tragic event. "
Nell was on her feet, her breath short and shallow. Evan's face seemed to fill the wide screen, every handsome line, every strand of golden hair.
She could hear his voice, clear and terrifyingly calm. Do you think I can't see you, Helen? Do you think I'll let you go?
"I didn't mean to take so long, but I thought you might appreciate someone else's baking for a change. I just made this pound cake yesterday. Carl packed away nearly half of it. I can't think where that man puts it. Why, if I ate a fraction of what he-"
Tray in hand, Gladys stopped, her happy chatter shifting instantly to surprised concern when she saw Nell's face. "Honey, you're so pale. What's wrong?"
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I'm not feeling well. " Panic was an icy poker jabbing through her belly. "Headache. I don't think I can do this now. "
"Of course not. Poor thing. Don't you worry. I'm going to drive you home and tuck you right into bed. "
"No, no. I'd rather walk. Fresh air. I'm so sorry, Mrs. Macey. " Nell fumbled with her files, almost sobbing when they slipped through her trembling fingers. "I'll call you. Reschedule. "
"I don't want you to think a thing of it. Nell, sweetheart, you're shaking. "
"I just need to go home. " With a last terrified glance at the television screen, she bolted for the door.
She forced herself not to run. When you ran, people noticed you, and they wondered. They asked questions. Fitting in, that was essential. Blending. Doing nothing to draw attention. But even as she ordered herself to breathe slow and steady, the air wheezed in her lungs, clogged there until she was gulping for it.
Do you think I'll let you go?
Sweat ran cold and clammy on her skin, and she smelled her own fear. The edges of her vision blurred as she shot a single wild look over her shoulder. The minute she was through the door of her cottage, the nausea hit, a bright bite of pain.
She stumbled to the bathroom, was hideously ill. When she was empty, she lay on the narrow floor and waited for the shaking to pass.
When she could stand again, she peeled off her clothes, leaving them in a heap as she stepped into the shower. She ran the hot water, as hot as she could bear, imagining the spray penetrating her skin until it warmed her icy bones.
Wrapped in a towel, she crawled into bed, pulled the covers over her head, and let herself slide into oblivion.
Diego climbed agilely up the bedskirt, stretched out alongside her. And lay still and silent as a sentry.
She wasn't sure how long she slept, but she woke as if from a long illness that had left her body heavy and tender and her stomach raw. She was tempted simply to roll back into sleep and stay there. But that would solve nothing.
It was doing that got her through, and always had.
She sat on the edge of the bed, like an old woman testing bone and balance. The image of Evan's face could float back into her mind if she let it. So she closed her eyes, let it form.
That, too, was a kind of test.
She could look at him, would look at him. Remember what had been, and what had changed. To deal, she reminded herself, with what had happened.
For comfort, she gathered the kitten into her lap and rocked.
She had run again. After almost a year, the sight of him on a television screen had terrorized her to the point of blind flight. Had made her ill and stripped away every bit of the hard-won armor she'd built until she'd been a quivering, quaking mass of panic.
Because she had allowed it. She let him have that hold on her. No one could change that but herself. She'd found the courage to run, Nell told herself. Now she had to find the courage to stand.
Until she could think of him, until she could say his name without fear, she wasn't free.
She held the picture of him in her mind, imagined it breaking apart, her will a hammer against glass. "Evan Remington," she whispered, "you can't touch me now. You can't hurt me. You're over, and I'm just beginning. "
The effort exhausted her, but she set Diego on the floor, then pushed herself to her feet, dragged on a sweatshirt and shorts. She would go back to work, design and evaluate her menu. It was time to figure out how to set up an office of sorts in the little bedroom.
If Gladys Macey wanted a party coordinator, that's just what she was going to get.
She had dropped the file when she bolted into the cottage, and now she gathered up all the scattered notes, magazine clippings, and carefully written menu selections and carried them into the kitchen. She was mildly surprised to see that the sun still shone.
It felt as if she'd slept for hours.
The clock on the stove told her it was barely six. Time enough to reevaluate the Macey job proposal, to create a comprehensive list of menu and service selections for what she was going to call Sisters Catering.
She would take Mia up on the offer of the store computer and design a look for her handouts, her business cards. She had to calculate a budget, set up books.
No one was going to take her seriously unless she took herself seriously first.
But when she put her files down and looked around, she wondered why the prospect of putting on water for coffee seemed so far out of her scope.
The knock on the front door had her spinning around. Her first thought when she saw Zack through the screen was, not now. Not yet. She hadn't had time to gather herself back to what she needed to be.
But he was already opening the door, already studying her across the short distance from the front of the cottage to the back. "Are you all right, Nell?"
"You don't look all right. "
She could imagine how she looked. "I wasn't feeling well earlier. " Self-conscious, she scooped a hand through her hair. "I had a headache, and so I took a nap. I'm fine now. "
Hollow-eyed and pale, and far from fine, was Zack's judgment. He couldn't back off and leave her alone any more than he could have left a stray pup on the side of the road.
Diego gave him an opening, pouncing out of a corner to attack his shoes. Zack picked up the kitten, ruffling his fur as he walked to Nell. "You take anything?"
"No. I don't need a nurse, Zack. It was just a headache. "
Just a headache didn't send a woman bolting out of someone's house as if the devil were on her heels. Which was exactly how Gladys had described it. "You look pretty rough, honey, so I'm going to fix you the traditional Todd family restorer. "
"I appreciate it, but I was going to work for a while. "
"Go ahead. " He handed her the kitten, moved past her to the refrigerator. "I'm not much in the kitchen, but I can manage this-just like my mother did when one of us wasn't feeling right. Got any jelly?"
It was right in front of his face, she thought crossly. What was it about men that struck them blind the minute they opened a refrigerator door? "Second shelf. "
"I don't-oh, yeah. We always used grape, but strawberry should work. Go ahead and work. Don't mind me. "
Nell set Diego by his dish of food. "What are you fixing?"
"Scrambled eggs and rolled-over jelly sandwiches. "
"Rolled-over jelly sandwiches. " Too tired to argue, she sat. "Sounds perfect. Mrs. Macey called you, didn't she?"
"No. I did run into her, though. She mentioned you were upset about something. "
"I wasn't upset. I had a headache. The skillet's in the bottom cabinet, left. "
"I'll find what I need. Place isn't big enough to hide much. "
"Do you make scrambled eggs and rolled-over jelly sandwiches for everyone on the island when they have a headache?"
"That would depend. I'm making it for you because you tug at me, Nell. Have since I first met you. And when I walk in here and see you looking like something that's been flattened by a passing steamroller, it troubles me. "
She said nothing when he cracked eggs, dumped in milk and too much salt. He was a good man, she believed. A kind and decent one. And she had no right tugging at him.
"Zack, I'm not going to be able to give you what you want, what you're looking for. I know yesterday I indicated I could-that I would. I shouldn't have. "
"How do you know what I'm looking for, what I want?" He stirred the eggs in the bowl. "And whatever it is, it's my problem, isn't it?"
"It isn't fair for me to give you the impression there can be anything between us. "
"I'm a big boy. " He put enough butter in the skillet to make her wince. "I don't expect everything to be fair. And the fact is, there's already something between us. You pretending otherwise doesn't change it. " He turned around as the butter melted. "The fact that we haven't slept together doesn't change it either. We would have yesterday, if I hadn't gotten that call
"It would've been a mistake. "
"If life wasn't full of mistakes, it'd be a mighty tedious process. If all I wanted was a roll in the sheets, I'd've gotten you there. "
"You're probably right-that's my point. "
"Right about the mistakes or the sex?" he asked and began slathering jelly on bread.
She decided that even if she had the answer, it wouldn't matter. Kind, decent, he was. And also stubborn as a mule. "I'll make coffee. "
"Don't do coffee with this. Calls for tea. And I'll make it. "
He filled the kettle, set it on the stove. Poured the eggs into the heated skillet in a sizzling rush.
"Now you're angry. "
"I walked in half angry, and one look at you took care of part two. Funny thing, though, I can be pissed off at a woman and hold myself back from knocking her around. That's the kind of amazing self-control I have. "
Nell drew a calming breath, folded her hands on the table. "I'm well aware that not every man deals with temper with physical violence. That's the kind of amazing intelligence I have. "
"Good for us. " He rooted around until he found teabags, an herbal blend he felt more suited to fancy china cups than the solid stoneware mugs she had available.
He scooped eggs onto plates, found forks, and tore off paper towels in lieu of napkins.
He'd said he wasn't much in the kitchen, Nell thought as he set a plate in front of her and went back to dunk the teabags in the mugs. But even here he had an appeal. He never wasted a move, she noted, and wondered if it came from grace or practicality.
Either way, it worked.
He sat across from her, let Diego climb adventurously up the leg of his jeans and knead his thigh. "Eat. "
She forked up a bite, sampled. "They're better than they should be, considering you used a pound of salt per egg. "
"I like salt. "
"Don't feed the cat at the table. " She sighed, ate. It was so blessedly normal, sitting like this, eating oversalted eggs and strawberry jelly squished in a piece of folded bread.
"I'm not the mess I used to be," she said. "But I still have moments. Until I don't, I'm not prepared to complicate my life, or anyone else's. "
"That's sensible. "
"I'm going to concentrate on my work. "
"A person's got to have priorities. "
"There are things I want to do, things I need to learn. For myself. "
"Uh-huh. " He polished off his eggs, sat back with his tea. "Ripley said you're scouting for a computer. The rental agency's looking to upgrade a couple of theirs. You could probably get a fair deal. You might want to stop by, ask for Marge. She manages the place. "
"Thanks. I'll check it out tomorrow. Why aren't you mad anymore?"
"Who said I'm not?"
"I know how to read mad. "
He studied her face. She had some color back now, but she looked exhausted. "I bet you do. Not much point in it. " He took his plate to the sink, rinsed it off. "I might brood some later. I've got a real knack for that, according to my sister. "
"I used to be a champion sulker. " Satisfied that they were back on an even keel, she picked up her plate. "I might see if I can get back into that. You were right about the traditional Todd meal. It did the trick. "
"Never misses. Still, grape jelly's better for it. "
"I'll stock some, just in case. "
"Good. I'm going to let you get back to work. In a minute. "
He yanked her against him, jerked her up to her toes, covered her mouth with his in a hot, possessive kiss. The blood seemed to rush to her head, then poured out of it again, leaving her dizzy, weak and achy.
One strangled moan escaped before she was back on the flat of her feet and gripping the edge of the counter for balance.
"Nothing sensible about that," Zack said, "but it's real. You're going to have to shuffle it into your list of priorities. Don't work too late. "
He strolled out, letting the screened door slap comfortably shut behind him.
In her dream that night there was a circle. A thin line upon the earth as silver as starlight. Within that sphere there were three women, robed in white. Their voices flowed like music, though the words were strange to her. As they sang, spears of light sprang up from the circle, shimmering bars of silver against the black curtain of night.
She saw a cup, a knife with a carved handle, and sprigs of herbs as green as summer.
From the cup they drank, one by one. And she tasted wine, sweet and light, on her tongue. The dark-haired one drew symbols on the ground with the blade of the knife.
And she smelled earth, fresh and dark.
As they circled, chanted, a pure gold flame spurted in the center. The heat of it warmed her skin.
Then they rose up, above the gold of the fire, above the cool silver of the spears of light, as if they danced on the air.
And she knew the freedom and the joy as the wind kissed her cheeks.