Face the fire, p.13

Face the Fire, page 13

 part  #3 of  Three Sisters Island Series


Face the Fire

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Chapter Twelve


  Mia closed and locked the door behind the last straggle of customers. Then leaned back against it and looked at Lulu. "Long day. "

  "I thought that last group was going to make camp in here. " Lulu shut down the cash register for the night, then zipped the cash bag. "You want to take this moola home, or should I make a night deposit?"

  "How much moola?"

  Because they both enjoyed it, Lulu unzipped the bag, pulled out the stack of bills, and flipped her thumb over the ends. "Lots of cash customers today. "

  "God bless them every one. I'll do the deposit. Credit card receipts?"

  "Right here. "

  Rolling her shoulders, Mia crossed over, scanned the stack. "Business is good. "

  "Solstice week, sucks them right in. I had two teenagers in here today, summer girls. Wanted to know if they could see the witch and get some love potion. "

  Amused, Mia leaned on the counter. "And what did you tell them?"

  "I told them sure, and how well the beauty potion worked for me. That sent them scurrying. "

  "Well, they have to learn not to look for life cures in a pretty bottle of potion. "

  "You put out some fancy jars full of colored water during solstice week, and customers would trip over themselves to buy them. Mia's Magic Mix, for love, beauty, and prosperity. "

  "Terrifying thought. " Mia angled her head. "In all these years, Lu, you've never once asked me for a spell or a charm. For luck, love, fast money. Why is that?"

  "I get on well enough on my own. " Lulu hauled her enormous purse from behind the counter. "Besides, don't think I don't know you look out for me anyway. Better start looking out for yourself. "

  "What an odd thing to say. I always look out for myself. "

  "Sure, you've got your house, and you live well. Live the way you see fit to live. You've got your looks, and you're healthy. Got more shoes than a Vegas chorus line. "

  "Shoes separate us from the lower mammals. "

  "Yeah, yeah. You just like having men look at your legs. "

  Mia trailed a hand through her hair. "Well, naturally. "

  "Anyway. " Lulu focused in. She knew her girl, and she knew when that girl was trying to distract her.

  "You run things pretty much as you want to. Got good friends. And you've made this place into something you can be proud of. "

  "We made it," Mia corrected.

  "Well, I didn't sit on my hands, but this is your place. " Lulu gave a decisive nod that took in the entire store. "And it shines. "

  "Lu. " Touched, Mia brushed Lulu's arm as she came around the counter. "It means a lot to me that you'd think that, say that. "

  "It's fact. And there's another fact, one that worries me some nights. You're not happy. "

  "Of course I am. "

  "No, you're not. And worse, you don't think you're ever going to be. Not deep-down-in-the-gut happy. You want to give me a spell, you fix that. That's all I have to say. Now I'm going to go put my feet up and watch my video of Die Hard. I like seeing Bruce Willis kick ass. "

  With no comeback, Mia simply stood there while Lulu strode through the store and out the back. Unsettled now, she took the cash and receipts and wandered through the store. It did shine, she thought. She had put a great deal of energy and imagination to use here. Financial resources and intellect, long, hard hours and eclectic taste.

  And nearly seven years of her life.

  It made her happy, she insisted as she walked up the stairs. It challenged and fulfilled her. That was enough. She'd made it be enough. Maybe she had once assumed she would have a different kind of life. A life that included a man who loved her and the children they made together. But that had been a young girl's fantasy, and she had put away such dreams. Just because she didn't have those things didn't mean they were missing, she thought as she went into her office to fill out the deposit slips. It only meant she'd taken another path, ended up at a different destination.

  In-the-gut happy, she mused, and sighed. How many people were, when it came right down to it?

  Wasn't it just as important to be satisfied, fulfilled, successful? And wasn't it essential to any level of happiness to feel in control of your life?

  She heard, as clearly as fingernails scraping against glass, the dark pressing against her windows. She looked outside. The sky was still glowing with the light of a summer evening. But the dark was there, just at the edges, trying to find a crack, a chink in her will.

  "You won't use me to destroy. " She said it clearly, so her voice carried through the empty store.

  "Whatever else I do in my life, I won't be used. You are not welcome here. "

  And there at her desk, with the day's receipts and paperwork neatly stacked, she spread her arms, palms up, and called the light. It shimmered in her hands like gilded pools, then flowed out in golden rivers. As it spilled from her, the dark slithered back.

  Pleased, she gathered what she needed to make the deposits.

  Before she left the store, she detoured to her new terrace. The doorwalls had been installed that day, and she unlocked the glass, slid it open. Stepped out into the evening. The ironwork railing was exactly as she'd wanted. Fussy and female. She laid her hands on it, gave it a quick, testing shake, and was satisfied at its unyielding strength. Beauty, she thought, never had to be weak.

  From her vantage point she could see the curve of beach, the roll of the sea. And the first sword of white from her lighthouse as dusk faded toward night. The dark that crept in now was benign, full of hope. Below her, High Street was still busy. Tourists were out for strolls, wandering into the ice cream parlor for a treat. The air was so clear she could hear bits of conversation and the shouts and squeals of young people on the beach.

  As the first stars glimmered to life, she felt her throat go tight with a longing that she refused to recognize, and couldn't resolve.

  "If you had a trellis, I'd climb up. "

  She looked down and there he was. Dark and handsome, and just a little dangerous. Was it any wonder the girl she'd been had fallen so pathetically in love with Sam Logan?

  "Climbing up into business establishments after hours is discouraged on the island. "

  "I've got pull with the local authorities, so I'd risk it. But why don't you come down? Come out and play, Mia. It's a hell of a night. "

  There had been a time when she would have run to him. Because she remembered just how easy it had been for her to forget everything and anything but him, she simply leaned out over the railing. "I have an errand to do and another long day tomorrow. I'm going by the bank, then home. "

  "How can anyone so beautiful be so stuffy? Hey" - he grabbed the arm of one of three men walking by, then pointed up - "isn't she spectacular? I'm trying to hit on her, but she's not cooperating. "

  "Why don't you give the guy a break?" one of the men called to her, only to be elbowed aside by one of his companions.

  "The hell with him. Give me a break. " He laid a hand dramatically on his heart. "I think I'm in love. Hey, Red. "

  "Hey, yourself. "

  "Let's us get married and move to Trinidad. "

  "Where's the ring?" she demanded. "I don't move to Trinidad unless I have a big fat diamond on my finger. "

  "Hey. " The man jabbed one of his friends. "Lend me ten thousand dollars so I can buy a big fat diamond and move to Trinidad with Red. "

  "If I had ten K, I'd move to Trinidad with her. "

  "Now see what you've done. " Sam chuckled. "Destroying friendships, inciting riots. You'd better come down here and go with me before my new pals and I have to beat the crap out of each other. "

  Amused, she laughed, stepped back, and shut the doors.

  He waited for her. When he'd seen her standing on the terrace, he'd been staggered. She'd looked so enchanting, and so sad. Heartbreaking. He'd have done anything in his power to lift that quiet sorrow. And anything, nearly anything, to
reach past that thin shield she kept between them. He wanted to see what was in her mind. In her heart.

  Maybe the key, at least for one precious evening, was to keep things simple. He stood on the sidewalk when she came out and locked the front door behind her. She wore a slim dress that flowed around her ankles and was scattered with tiny yellow rosebuds. Her shoes were a series of slender crisscrossing straps and a high wedged platform. He found the thin chain of gold around her left ankle ridiculously sexy.

  She turned, hitched the strap of her bag onto her shoulder, then scanned the sidewalk. "Where did your friends go?"

  "I bribed them with free drinks at the Coven. " He jerked his head toward the hotel.

  "Ah. Replaced by a cold beer. "

  "Want to go to Trinidad?"

  "No. "

  He took her hand. "Want an ice cream cone?"

  She shook her head. "I have to go to the bank, make a night deposit. Which, I'll point out, isn't being stuffy but responsible. "

  "Uh-huh. I'll walk with you. "

  "What are you doing in the village?" she asked as they started toward the bank. "Working late?"

  "Not particularly. I went home about an hour ago. I was restless. " He shrugged his shoulders. "Came back. " And, he thought, had timed it exactly as he'd planned. Just as she'd be closing. He glanced over, studied a small group of people on the opposite side of the street. They were decked in flowing robes and weighed down with silver chains and crystal pendants.

  "Amateurs," he commented.

  "They're harmless. "

  "We could call up a storm, turn the street into a meadow. Give them a real thrill. "

  "Stop it. " She drew out her key for the deposit slot.

  "See - stuffy. " He heaved a sigh. "It's painful to see such a bright hope turn into a rule book. "

  "Really. " Efficiently, she made her deposit, tucked her copy of the transaction into her cash bag. "I don't recall you ever so much as looking at a rule book. "

  "When they look like you, I study them in depth. "

  His moods, she thought, were many and varied. Tonight's seemed to be foolish. She could do with some foolishness.

  And as the group of would-be witches approached a window box filled with struggling dahlias, she gave a graceful turn of her hand. The flowers sprang up like jewels, full and bright.

  "And the crowd goes wild. " Sam acknowledged the reaction across the street, the shouts, the gasps.

  "Nice touch. "

  "Stuffy, my butt. I'll take that ice cream now. "

  He bought her a frothy swirl of orange and cream and talked her into enjoying it during a walk on the beach. The moon was nearly full. It would be fat and round by the weekend, and the solstice. And a full moon on the solstice meant bounty, and promise. And the rites of fertility that lead to harvest.

  "Last year I went to Ireland for the solstice," he told her. "There's a small stone dance there, in County Cork. It's more intimate than Stonehenge. The sky stays light until nearly ten, and when it begins to fade, toward the end of the longest day, the stones sing. "

  She said nothing, but paused to look out to sea. Over it, she thought, thousands of miles away, was another island. And the stone circle where he had been a year ago.

  She had been here, where she always was. A solitary witch. A solitary celebration.

  "You've never gone," he said. "Never gone over to Ireland. "

  "No. "

  "There's magic there, Mia. Deep in the soil, bright in the air. "

  She continued to walk. "There's magic everywhere. "

  "I found a cove, on the rocky western coast. And a cave, nearly hidden by the tumble of the rocks. And I knew it was where he'd gone when he left her here. "

  He waited until Mia stopped again, turned to him. "Three thousand miles across the Atlantic. He'd been pulled back by his own blood. I knew how it felt, to be pulled that way. "

  "Is that why you go to Ireland? You're drawn by your blood?"

  "It's why I go there, and why I came back here. When you've done what you need to do, I'd like to take you. To show you. "

  She licked delicately at her ice cream. "I don't need to be taken anywhere. "

  "I'd like to go with you. "

  "You learn fast, don't you?" Mia said. "I may go one day. " She shrugged and wandered closer to the surf. "We'll see if I want company. I will say, though, you were right about one thing. It's a hell of a night. "

  She threw back her head, drank in the stars and sea air.

  "Take off your dress. "

  She kept her head back. "Excuse me?"

  "Let's go swimming. "

  She nipped into the cone. "I realize it may seem fussy to a sophisticated urbanite like yourself, but there are laws against nude swimming on the public beach in our little world. "

  "Laws - that would be the same as rules, right?" He scanned the beach. They weren't alone, but there was hardly a crowd. "Don't tell me you're shy. "

  "Circumspect," she corrected.

  "Okay, we'll preserve your dignity. " He spread his hands and conjured a bubble around them. "We see out, but nobody sees in. It's just you and me in here. "

  Stepping to her, he reached around, slowly lowered the zipper in the back of her dress. He could see her thinking, considering, as she finished off the cone. "A moonlight swim's a nice way to cap off the evening. Haven't forgotten how to swim, have you?"

  "Hardly. " She slipped out of her shoes, then let the dress slither down. She wore nothing but amber beads and a glitter of rings. Turning, she strolled into the surf, then dived into the dark sea. She swam strong, cutting cleanly through the breakers and reveling in the sensation of streaking through the water as unencumbered as a mermaid. Until her spirit began to hum - with pure joy - she hadn't realized how much she'd needed this.

  Freedom, fun, and foolishness.

  She circled a buoy, listening to its hollow clang, then rolled over to float lazily on her back under a bejeweled sky. The water lapped gently over her breasts as he swam to her.

  "You ever beat Ripley in a swim race?"

  "No. Much to my regret. " Mia trailed her fingers through the water. "Putting her in water's like putting a bullet in the air. "

  "I used to watch the two of you in the inlet over at the Todds'. I'd be hanging out with Zack and pretending not to notice you. "

  "Really? I never noticed you. "

  It didn't surprise her to find her head underwater. She'd expected it. And because she had, she turned like an eel in the water and jerked him under by the ankles.

  She surfaced, slicked back her hair. "You always were a sucker for that move. "

  "It got your hands on me, so who's the sucker?" He treaded water in circles around her, his hair black and glossy as a seal. "I remember the first time I maneuvered you into wrestling with me wet. You had on this blue number, cut so high up on the hips that I speculated your legs went clean up to your ears. That sexy pentagram birthmark like gold on your thigh, driving me nuts. You were fifteen. "

  "I remember the suit. I don't recall being maneuvered. "

  "You were cooling off with Rip in the water. Zack was fooling around with his boat at the dock. He'd just gotten that boat. Fast little fourteen-footer. "

  She remembered that well enough. Remembered perfectly how her heart had slammed into her ribs when Sam, long and tanned a summer gold, had sauntered out onto the dock wearing nothing but cutoffs and a teenage smirk.

  "There were a number of times I swam with Ripley in the inlet while Zack tinkered with his boat. And you came along. "

  "This particular day," Sam continued, "I bided my time, fiddling on the boat with Zack, plotting out my moves. I got him to take a break, and in we went. That meant a lot of splashing, which meant you and Ripley had to bitch about being splashed. And doing so, you fell right into my clever hands. "

  Like Sam, Mia began to tread and circle. She'd always enjoyed him in these
playful moods. They'd been rare in his youth. She imagined they were rare still.

  "I believe you have delusions of grandeur in your faulty memory. "

  "Memory's clear as a bell on this one. I egged Zack into challenging Rip to a race, which left the two of us bobbing around. Which meant, naturally, I could challenge you to a race. "

  "Oh, yes. I do seem to recall something of that sort. "

  Perfectly. She remembered perfectly, the nervy thrill of floating in the water with him, of having him focus on her with those sea-toned eyes. And the longing that had swept through her like a summer storm.

  "Of course, I held back, paced myself so it was close, so I beat you by only a stroke. "

  "Held back?" She dipped back her head, studied the stars. "Please. "

  "Oh, yeah, I knew what I was doing. You said it was a tie, and I said I'd crushed you. When you got huffy, I dunked you. "

  "When I protested your bad call, you dunked me," she corrected.

  "You retaliated, as I'd anticipated, by locking your arms around my knees and hauling me under. Whereby, I could engage you in the sort of battle that allowed me, at last, to get my hands on your excellent young ass. It was a moment for me. Then you giggled. "

  She made a derisive sound. "I've never giggled in my life. "

  "Oh, yeah, you did. You giggled and squirmed and wriggled around until I was so worked up I thought I'd explode. "

  She let her feet come up and floated again. "Foolish, foolish boy. When you wrestle naked with a female, she's bound to discover just where your brain cells have gathered. "

  "You were fifteen. What did you know?"

  Now she smirked. "Enough to wriggle and squirm until I obtained a satisfactory result. "

  "You did it on purpose?"

  "Of course. Then Ripley and I discussed it in some detail. "

  "That better be a lie. " He reached across the water, grabbed a handful of her hair.

  "We were both fascinated and amused. And if it soothes your ego, I'll finish this walk down memory lane by telling you I had hot, disturbing, and imaginative dreams for a week afterward. "

  He tugged at her hair until their bodies bumped. Then he skimmed his hand over the wet white slope of her breast. "So did I. " He trailed a fingertip down her torso, back up again. "Mia?"

  "Mmm. "

  "I bet I can still make you giggle. "

  Before she could evade, he nipped her by the waist and turned her facedown in the water. Taken by surprise, she flailed for a moment, then rolled when his fingers moved unerringly up her ribs.

  "Stop it. " Her hair was in her face, saltwater in her eyes.

  "Giggle," he insisted, tickling ruthlessly. "And squirm and wriggle. "

  "You idiot. " She couldn't see or catch her breath. Despite her struggles the helpless and foolish laughter escaped. It rolled out of her and over the waves as she slapped at him and tried to wiggle free. She managed to get a grip on his hair and yank, while trying to shove her own out of her face. But he only rolled them over and over into the waves until she was dizzy, disoriented, and brutally aroused.

  "Damn octopus. " His hands were everywhere.

  "You've got a hell of a squirm. And it still works. Only this time" - he gripped her hips - "why just dream?" And plunged into her.

  He went home with her, and they ate bowls of cold pasta like ravenous children. With hunger unabated, they fell into bed and fed off each other.

  Tangled with him, she slipped into sleep, and into dreams of floating in a dark sea as peacefully as the moon sailed the night sky. She drifted on her own pleasure, the water cool, the air sweet. In the distance, the shadows and shapes of her island rose out of the sea. It slept, with only the beam from the cliff light guarding it from the dark.

  The music of the waves lulled her until she, too, slept.

  And the stars erupted into bolts of lightning, stabbing down at the shadows and shapes of her island. Around her the sea began to thrash and heave, pulling her helplessly away from home. She fought, striking out with hard, desperate strokes toward the fog that had begun to build a dirty wall

  at the shore. Waves swamped her, spun her into that breathless black, slapped her back, dragged her under.

  Roaring filled the night, and the screams that followed it ripped at her heart. With what strength she had left, she reached for the fire inside her. But she was too late to beat the dark. She watched the island fall into the sea. Even as she wept, it pulled her down with it. She woke curled away from Sam, drawn into a tight ball and clinging to the edge of the bed. Trembling, she rose, walked to the window to soothe herself with the view of her garden, of the steady beam of the island light.

  Would it come to that? Would she do everything that could be done, and have it still not be enough?

  Through the night she heard the long, triumphant howl of a wolf. Knowing that it wanted her to cower, she stepped out onto her little balcony.

  "I am fire. " She said it softly. "And what's in me will, one day, purge you. "

  "Mia. "

  She turned and saw Sam sitting up in bed. "Yes, I'm here. "

  "What is it?"

  "Nothing. " She came back in, but left the doors open to the night. "Just restless. "

  "Come back to bed. " He held out a hand. "Let me help you sleep. "

  "All right. " She slid in beside him, turned her body to his. Invitation. But he only drew her close, stroked her hair. "Close your eyes. Let your mind go. Let it go for one night. "

  "I'm not - "

  "Let it go," he repeated, and stroking her hair, he charmed her into a deep and dreamless sleep.

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