Dance Upon the Air, page 14part #1 of Three Sisters Island Series
The last weeks of summer passed in a blur. Days were filled with work, with plans for the jobs she'd won and proposals for more.
Once the weather turned she would lose the summer-people aspect of her business. So she would be the clever ant, Nell decided, who carefully prepared for winter.
She'd solicit jobs for holiday parties, for Super Bowl Sunday, for cabin fever victims. The islanders were growing so accustomed to calling her for their events, small and large, it would become strange to do otherwise.
Nights were nearly always spent with Zack-taking advantage of the final burst of warmth with candlelight dinners alfresco, evening sails made brisk from the chill rising from the water, long, luxurious lovemaking in the cozy nest of her bed.
Once she lit red candles for passion. They seemed to work exceptionally well.
At least two evenings a week she worked with Mia on what she thought of as her ritual lessons.
And at dawn she was baking in her kitchen.
The life she'd always looked for was all around her, and more. She had a power inside her that ran like silver. And love that glowed warm gold.
There were times she caught him watching her, quietly, patiently. The waiting look. Each time she did, there was a tug of guilt, a ripple of unease. And each time that she took the coward's way and ignored it, she disappointed both of them.
She could rationalize it. She was happy, and entitled to a time of peace and pleasure. Only a year before, she'd risked her life, and would have forfeited it, rather than live trapped and afraid.
For so many months following, she'd been alone, constantly on the move, wary of every sound. She awakened night after night in cold sweats from dreams she couldn't face even in the dark.
If she'd locked that time in a box and buried the key, who had a better right?
It was the now that mattered, and she was giving Zack all she could of the now.
As summer slipped into fall she was convinced of it, and of the solidity of her haven on Three Sisters.
With her latest kitchen catalogs and her new subscription to Saveur under her arm, Nell walked out of the post office and headed down High Street toward the market. The summer people had been replaced by tourists eager to view New England foliage at its peak.
She couldn't blame them. Wedges of the island were covered with a brilliant patchwork of flaming color. Every morning she studied the changes from her own kitchen window, dreaming into her own woods as the leaves took on fire. There were times she walked the beach in the evening just to see the slow roll of fog tumble in, swallow water, cloak the buoys, and muffle the long, monotonous bongs.
Mornings, a fine, glassy frost might glitter on the ground only to melt under the strengthening sun until it beaded on the grass like tears on lashes.
Rains swept in, pounded the beaches, the cliffs, then swept out again until it seemed to her that the whole of the world sparkled like something under a glass dome.
She was under that dome, Nell thought. Safe and secure and away from the world that raged beyond sea and inlet.
With the brisk wind sneaking up her sweater, she waved at familiar faces, paused briefly at the crosswalk to check traffic, then jogged carelessly into the market for the pork chops she intended to make for dinner.
Pamela Stevens, on an impromptu visit to the island with her husband, Donald, gave a little cry of surprise and rolled down the window of their rented BMW sedan.
"I'm not stopping at any of these shops, Pamela, no matter how quaint they are, until I find the right place to park. "
"I've just seen a ghost. " Pamela dropped back on the seat, laid a hand over her heart.
"It's witches around here, Pamela, not ghosts. "
"No, no, Donald. Helen Remington. Evan Remington's wife. I'd swear I've just seen her ghost. "
"Don't know why in God's name she would come all the way out here to haunt anybody. Can't even find a damn parking lot. "
"I'm not joking. The woman could've been her double, except for the hair and the clothes. Helen wouldn't have been caught dead in that frightful sweater. " She craned her neck to try to keep the market in sight. "Pull over, Donald. I've just got to go back and get a closer look. "
"As soon as I find a parking place. "
"It looked just like her," Pamela repeated. "So odd, and it gave me such a jolt. Poor Helen. I was one of the last people who spoke to her before that terrible accident. "
"And so you said, a hundred times for six months after she drove off the cliff. "
"Something like that stays with you. " Bristling, Pamela straightened in her seat, sent her nose in the air. "I was very fond of her. She and Evan were a beautiful couple. She was so young and pretty, with everything to live for. When something tragic like that happens, it reminds you that lives can change with the snap of a finger. "
By the time Pamela managed to drag her husband back to the market, Nell was unpacking her single bag of groceries and trying to decide between couscous and a spicy new sauce she wanted to try out on red potato wedges.
She decided to decide later, and flipping on the portable stereo Zack had left at her cottage, she settled down with Alanis Morissette and her issue of Saveur.
While she crunched on an apple from the basket on her table, she pulled over her notepad and began to scribble ideas sparked from an article on artichokes.
She moved from there to a feature on Australian wines and noted the writer's opinion of the best values.
The sound of footsteps didn't jolt her now, but gave her a warm feeling as she glanced over to watch Zack come in.
"A little early for the upholder of law and order to call it a day, isn't it?"
"I swapped some time with Ripley. "
"What's in the box?"
"A present. "
"For me?" Shoving her notebook aside, she got up, stepped hurriedly to the counter. Her mouth fell open. Love and lust tangled and burned inside her.
"A food processor. Commercial grade, top of the line. " With reverent hands, she stroked the box the way some women might stroke mink. "Oh, my God. "
"According to my mother, if a man gives a woman anything that plugs into an electric socket for a gift, he'd better be fully paid up on his life insurance. But I didn't think that rule applied here. "
"It's the best on the market. I've wanted it forever. "
"I've seen you ogling it in the catalog a few times. " He caught her when she launched herself into his arms to cover his face with kisses. "I guess I'm not going to need that life insurance. "
"I love it, I love it, I love it. " She finished with a hard, smacking kiss, then leaped down to attack the box. "But it's outrageously expensive. I shouldn't let you give me an outrageously expensive present right out of the blue. But I'm going to because I can't stand the idea of not having it. "
"It's rude to turn down a gift, and anyway, it's not out of the blue. A day early, but I didn't think that mattered. Happy birthday. "
"My birthday's in April, but I'm not arguing because. . . "
She caught herself. The pulse began to throb in her temples, hot and hard. Helen Remington's birthday was in April. Nell Channing's was listed clearly on all identification as September nineteenth.
"I don't know what I was thinking. Slipped my mind. " Because her palms sprang with damp, she wiped them hastily on her jeans. "I've been so busy, I forgot about my birthday. "
All of his pleasure of giving her the gift curdled, left a sour ball in his belly. "Don't do that. Keeping things to yourself is one thing. Lying to my face is another. "
"I'm sorry. " She bit down hard on her lip, tasted shame.
"So am I. " Because he wanted her to look at him, he cupped her chin, lifted it.
"I keep waiting for you to take the step, Nell, but you don't. You sleep with me, and you don't hold anything back there. You talk to me about what you hope to do tomor
He'd tried not to dwell on that, tried to tell himself, as he'd told Ripley, that it wasn't important. But now, slapped in the face with it, he couldn't pretend.
"You let me into your life from the day you stepped onto the island. "
It was true, perfectly true. What point would there be in denying it? "For me, my life started from there. Nothing before then matters anymore. "
"If it didn't, you wouldn't have to lie to me. "
Panic wanted to climb into her throat. She countered it with a snap of temper. "What difference does it make if my birthday's tomorrow, or a month from now, or six months ago? Why does it have to matter?"
"What matters is you don't trust me. That's hard on me, Nell, because I'm in love with you. "
"Oh, Zack, you can't-"
"I'm in love with you," he repeated, taking her arms to hold her still. "And you know it. "
And of course, that was perfectly true as well. "But I don't know what to do about it. I don't know what to do with what I feel for you. Trusting that, trusting you, it's not that simple. Not for me. "
"You want me to accept that, but you don't want to tell me why it's not that simple. Play fair, Nell. "
"I can't. " A tear spilled over, shimmered down her cheek. "I'm sorry. "
"If that's the way it is, we're both fooling ourselves. "
He let her go and walked away.
Knocking on Zack's front door was one of the hardest things Nell had ever done. She'd spent so much time stepping back from anger. Now she would have to face it, head on. And with little defense. This was a turmoil she'd caused, and only she could resolve it.
She walked to the front of the house because it seemed more formal than strolling across the beach and up the stairs to the back. Before she knocked, she rubbed her fingers over the turquoise stone she'd slipped into her pocket to aid her verbal communication.
Though she wasn't convinced such things worked, she didn't see how it could make her situation any worse.
She lifted her hand, cursed herself as she lowered it again. There was an old rocker on the front porch, and a pot of geraniums that were frost-burned and pathetic. She wished she'd seen them before the weather had turned so she could have urged Zack to carry them inside.
And she was stalling.
She squared her shoulders, knocked.
Was torn between relief and despair when no one answered.
Just as she'd given up and turned away, the door swung open.
Ripley stood in leggings cropped just below the knee and a T-shirt marked with a vee of sweat between her breasts. She gave Nell one long, cool stare, then leaned on the doorjamb.
"Wasn't sure I heard anyone knock. I was lifting, and had the music up. "
"I was hoping to talk to Zack. "
"Yeah, I figured. You pissed him off good. It takes work to do that. Me, I've had years of practice, but you must have an innate talent for it. "
Nell slipped her hand in her pocket, fingered the stone. She would have to get through the shield to get to the target. "I know he's angry with me, and he has a right to be. Don't I have a right to apologize?"
"Sure, but if you do it with choking little sobs and flutters, you're going to piss me off. I'm a lot meaner than Zack. "
"I don't intend to cry and flutter. " Nell's own temper bubbled up as she stepped forward. "And I don't think Zack would appreciate you getting in the middle of this. I know I don't. "
"Good for you. " Satisfied, Ripley shifted to let Nell in. "He's up on the back deck, brooding through his telescope and drinking a beer. But before you go up and say whatever you have to say to him, I'm going to tell you something. He could've looked into your background, picked the pieces apart. I would have. But he's got standards, personal standards, so he didn't. "
The guilt that had settled on her since he'd walked out her door took on more weight. "He would've considered that rude. "
"Right. I don't mind being rude. So you square this with him, or deal with me. "
"I like you, and I respect someone who takes care of business. But when you mess with a Todd, you don't get off free. Fair warning. "
Ripley turned toward the stairs leading to the second floor. "Help yourself to a beer on the way through the kitchen. I've got to finish my reps. "
Nell skipped the beer, though she'd have relished a tall glass of ice water to ease the burn in her throat. She walked through the comfortably untidy living room, through the equally untidy kitchen, and took the outside steps up to the deck.
He sat in a big chair faded to gray by the weather, a bottle of Sam Adams nestled between his thighs and his scope tilted starward.
He knew she was there but didn't acknowledge her. The scent of her was peaches and nerves.
"You're angry with me, and I deserve it. But you're too fair not to listen. "
"I might work my way up to fair by tomorrow. You'd be smarter to wait. "
"I'll risk it. " She wondered if he knew how much it meant-how much he meant-that she would risk it. "I lied. I've lied often and I've lied well, and I'd do it again. The choice was between honesty and survival. For me, it still is, so I'm not going to tell you everything you need to know. Everything you deserve to know. I'm sorry. "
"If two people don't trust each other, they've got no business being together. "
"That's easy for you to say, Zack. "
When he shifted his gaze from the stars to hers, and the heat of it scorched her, she stepped closer. Her heart throbbed. She didn't fear that he would strike her. But she did fear that he'd never want to touch her again.
"No, damn it, it is easy for you. You've got your place here. You've always had it, and you don't have to question it, or fight for it. "
"If I've got a place," he said in careful, measured tones, "I've had to earn it. The same as anyone. "
"That's different, because you started on a foundation, a solid one, and built from there. These past few months I've been working to earn a place here. I have earned it. But it's different. "
"Okay, maybe it is. But you and I started on the same ground, Nell, when it comes to what we were making together. "
Were making, she thought. Not are making. If this was his line she could stand where she was, keep on her side of it, or take the first step over.
It wasn't any harder, she decided, than driving off a cliff.
"I was with a man, for three years, I was with a man who hurt me. Not just the slaps and the shoves. Those kinds of bruises don't last. But others do. "
She had to let out a little breath to ease the pressure in her chest. "He systematically chipped away at my confidence, my self-esteem, my courage and my choices, and he did it so skillfully they were gone before I realized what was happening. It's not easy to rebuild those things, and I'm still working on it. Coming here, just walking over here tonight took everything I've managed to store up. I shouldn't have gotten involved with you, and I didn't intend to. But something about being here, and about being with you, made me feel normal again. "
"That's the start of a fine speech. Why don't you sit down and just talk to me. "
"I did what I had to do to get away from him. I'm not going to apologize for it. "
"I'm not asking you to. "
"I'm not going into the details. " She turned away, leaned on the rail and stared out at the night-dark sea. "I'll tell you it was like living in a pit that got deeper and deeper and colder and colder. Whenever I tried to crawl out, he was right there. "
"But you found a way. "
"I won't go back. Whatever I have to do, wherever I have to run, I won't go back. So I've lied, and deceived. I've broken the law. And I've hurt you. " She turned back. "The only thing I'm sorry for is the last. "
She said it defiantly, almost furiously as she stood with her back to the rail
Terror and courage, he thought, dragging at each other inside her. "Did you think I wouldn't understand?"
"Zack. " She lifted her hands, dropped them. "I still don't understand. I wasn't a doormat when I met him, I wasn't a victim waiting to be exploited. I came from a solid, steady family, as functional as any family manages to be. I was educated, independent, helping to run a business. There'd been men in my life before, nothing really serious, but normal, healthy relationships. Then there I was, manipulated and abused. And trapped. "
Oh, baby, he thought, as he had when she'd fallen to pieces in the cafe kitchen. "Why are you still blaming yourself for it?"
The question broke her rhythm. For a moment she could only stare at him, baffled. "I don't know. " She walked over to sit in the chair beside him.
"It'd be a good next step to stop doing that. " He said it easily, taking a sip of his beer. There was still temper inside him, dregs of it for Nell, but a new and ripe well of it for the man-the faceless, nameless entity-who'd scarred her.
He thought he might work that off later by pounding the hell out of Ripley's punching bag.
"Why don't you tell me about your family?" he suggested and offered her the beer. "You know my mother can't cook worth a damn and my father likes to take snapshots with his new toy. You know they grew up here on the island, got married, and had a couple of kids. And you've had personal acquaintance with my sister. "
"My father was in the Army. He was a lieutenant colonel. "
"An Army brat. " Since she shook her head at the beer, he took another pull himself. "Saw some of the world, didn't you?"
"Yeah, we moved around a lot. He always liked getting new orders. Something new to handle, I suppose. He was a good man, very steady, with a wonderful, warm laugh. He liked old Marx Brothers movies and Reese's peanut butter cups. Oh, God. "
Grief caught her by the throat, choked off her voice, dug raw wounds in her stomach.
"He's been gone so long, I don't know how it could seem like yesterday. "
"When you love somebody, it's always there. I still think about my grandmother now and again. " He took Nell's hand, held it loosely. "When I do, I can smell her. Lavender water and peppermint. She died when I was fourteen. "
How was it he could understand, and so exactly? That, she thought, was the magic of him. "My father was killed in the Gulf War. I thought he was invincible. He'd always seemed to be. Everyone said he was a good soldier, but I remember he was a good father.
He would always listen if I needed to tell him something. He was honest and fair, and had this code of honor, a personal one that meant more than all the rules and regulations. He. . . God. " She turned her head to study Zack's face. "It just hit me, how much you're like him. He would have approved of you, Sheriff Todd. "
"I'm sorry I never got the chance to meet him. " He turned the scope toward her. "Why don't you take a look, see what you can find up there?"
She lowered her head toward the viewer, scanned the stars. "You've forgiven me. "
"Let's say we've made some progress. "
"Good thing for me. Otherwise Ripley was going to kick my ass. "
"And she's a hell of an ass-kicker, too. "
"She loves you. I always wanted a brother or a sister. My mother and I were tight, and I guess we got tighter after we lost my father. But I always wanted a sister. You'd've liked my mother. She was tough and smart and full of fun. Started her own business from the ground up after she was widowed. And she made it work. "
"Sounds like someone else I know. "
Her lips curved. "My father always said I took after her. Zack, who I am now is who I was before. The three years between, they were the aberration. You wouldn't recognize the person I became during that lost time. I barely do. "
"Maybe you had to go through it to get where you are now. "
"Maybe. " The light through the scope haloed as her eyes misted. "I feel like I was always headed here. All those moves when I was growing up. I'd look around and think: No, this isn't it. Not yet. The day I crossed over on the ferry, and I saw the island floating on the water, I knew. This is my place. "
He lifted their joined hands, kissed the back of hers. "The day I saw you behind the counter in the cafe, I knew. "
The thrill rocketed up her arm, and straight into her heart. "I've got baggage, Zack. I've got complications. More than I can tell you. You matter to me more than I thought anyone ever could. I don't want to mess up your life with my problems. "
"From where I'm sitting, Nell, it's too late to worry about that. I'm in love with you. "
Another long thrill rippled through her. "There's so much you don't know, and any one piece of it could change your mind. "
"You don't think much of my wherewithal. "
"Oh, yes, I do. Okay. " She pulled her hand away, rose. She faced crises better on her feet. "There's something else I can tell you, and I don't expect you to understand or accept it. "
"You're a kleptomaniac. "
"An agent for a clandestine splinter group. "
She managed to laugh. "No. Zack-"
"Wait, I get one more. You're one of those Star Trek addicts who can recite all the dialogue in every episode. "
"No, only in the first season of the original. "
"Well, that's all right, then. Okay, I give up. "
"I'm a witch. "
"Oh, well, I know that. "
"I'm not using that as a euphemism for temperament," she said impatiently. "I mean it literally. Spells and charms and that sort of thing. A witch. "
"Yeah, I got that the night you were dancing naked on your front lawn and glowing like a candle. Nell, I've lived on Three Sisters all my life. Do you expect me to be stupefied, or to do that crossed-fingers thing to ward off evil?"
Unsure if she was relieved or disappointed by his reaction, she frowned at him. "I guess I expected you to be something. "
"It gave me a moment," he admitted. "But then, living with Rip sort of tones down the jolt. Of course she hasn't had anything to do with that kind of thing for years now. If you were to tell me you'd put some sort of love spell on me, I might be a little irked. "
"Of course I didn't. I wouldn't even know how. I'm just. . . learning. "
"An apprentice witch, then. " Amused at both of them, he got to his feet. "I imagine Mia'll whip you into shape before long. "
Did nothing surprise the man? "A couple of nights ago, I drew down the moon. "
"What the hell does that mean? No, never mind, I don't have much of a head for the metaphysical. I'm a simple man, Nell. " He ran his hands up and down her arms in the way he had that managed to arouse and soothe at the same time.
"No, you're not. "
"Simple enough to know I'm standing here with a pretty woman and wasting the moonlight. " He lowered his mouth to hers, drew her up and into a sumptuous kiss.
When her head fell back in surrender, and her arms wound around his neck, he circled her toward the glass door.
"I want to take you to bed. My bed. I want to love you-the Army brat who takes after her mother. " He slid the door open, drew her inside. "I do love you. "
Here, she thought as they lowered to the bed, was truth. And here was compassion. He would give these to her, as much as desire, as much as need. When he touched her, those thrills, those soft and fluid aches, were welcome.
The yearning she'd felt for home was satisfied.
Slow and sweet she moved with him. Freely, she opened for him, baring her heart as well as her body.
Her skin hummed under the brush of his fingers. The long, liquid pull inside her made her sigh. When her mouth met his again, she poured all she had into the kiss. What she couldn't give him in words, she could give him here, with her heart. With her body.
He skimmed his lips over her shoulder, tracing the shape of it, marveling at the firmness of musc
He found her breast, pleasured them both with lips and teeth and tongue until her heart began to beat under his mouth like the endless pulse of the sea. And as that beat quickened, she rose beneath him with a single breathless gasp.
Without hurry, he moved down her. A skim of fingers, a brush of lips. Felt her begin to tremble while his own blood pounded in sharp, anvil strikes of need.
Her hands groped, then fisted desperately in the sheets when he lifted her hips and used his mouth on her. With a kind of ruthless patience, he shot her screaming to peak.
Her breath was sobbing now, her skin slick and damp as she rolled with him over the tangled sheets. Heat spiked, seemed to throb in the air, under her skin until her body felt like a furnace stoked too high.
"Not yet. Not yet. "
He was wild for her, for the taste of flesh, the urgency of her hands. In the pale splash of moonlight through the glass, her body seemed unearthly, white marble erotically hot to the touch and glimmering with the healthy sweat of lust.
When he fixed his teeth on her neck, it felt like feeding. Her mouth was wild, her body plunging. Then she cried out again, shocked pleasure, when his fingers drove her relentlessly over the edge.
Beyond control, beyond reason, she moved like lightning. She would have sworn the bed spun, in fast, dizzy circles, as she straddled him. Panting, she took him, rode him, drove him as he had driven her. Curved down to him, she ravished his mouth, then flung herself back, arms bowed behind her head, and flew as power whipped through her.
He reached for her, his fingers sliding helplessly down her busy hips. His blood was a rage, his mind a torrent. For a moment, all he could see was her eyes, flame-blue and vivid as jewels.
He reared up, pressed his lips to her heart, and shattered.