Face the fire, p.16

Face the Fire, page 16

 part  #3 of  Three Sisters Island Series

 

Face the Fire
 


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Chapter Fifteen

  Sneaky bastard. No one had managed to get her so churned up since . . . Well, Mia admitted, no one had managed to get her so churned up since Sam Logan.

  And he was better at it now.

  Then again, she was better at banking her sexual urges than she'd once been. She'd had lovers over the years, but they'd been few and far between. As time had passed, she discovered that while she enjoyed the casual flirtation, she very rarely felt satisfied or content after having a man in her bed.

  So, she'd stopped at flirtations.

  It was something she considered a practical rather than an emotional decision. The energy and power she might have channeled into that area of physicality had gone, instead, into her craft. There was no doubt in her mind that she was a better witch for the period of self-imposed celibacy. There was no reason whatsoever why she couldn't apply the same habit now. Since Sam hadn't been in her bed for more than two weeks, it seemed the most logical choice. In any case, she was much too busy to worry about Sam, or sex, or just why he wasn't following through on any of that maddening foreplay.

  "You didn't have to come back for this," she said to Nell as she rearranged the cafe tables.

  "I wanted to come back. I'm as excited about the signing tomorrow as you are. I'll get the chair for that. "

  "No, you won't. No lifting. Period. " As she set the chairs herself, Mia kicked the one Ripley was slouched in. "You could get off your ass and help. "

  "Hey, you don't pay me. I'm just hanging out here so I don't have to hang out at home while this male-bonding barbecue ritual is going on. I hope to hell Mac doesn't blow something up. "

  "It's a charcoal grill," Nell reminded her. "Charcoal doesn't explode. "

  "You don't know my guy like I know my guy. "

  "Between the three of them, they should be able to get it going and grill some steaks. " The image of Zack grilling burgers on their own deck flashed in Nell's mind. And made her shudder. "But God help your poor kitchen. "

  "Least of my worries. " Ripley crossed her feet at the ankles, legs stretched out, and watched in amusement as Mia continued to change the table arrangement.

  "Now that one there?" She jerked her thumb toward Mia. "She's got plenty of worries. See the line she gets between her eyebrows? Means she's feeling bitchy. "

  "I don't have a line between my eyebrows. " And vanity had Mia smoothing it out. "Nor am I feeling bitchy. Slightly stressed, perhaps. "

  "Which is why the barbecue's such a good idea. " Nell walked over to the display table and began to toy with a design for the featured author's book. "You'll relax, have an evening with friends, and be clearheaded for tomorrow. I'm glad Sam thought of it. "

  "He's always thinking," Mia concluded, but Ripley and Nell could hear the underlying edge to her statement.

  "So, how did you like the concert on the beach the other night?" Ripley asked her.

  "It was fine. "

  "And the moonlight sail after the fireworks on the Fourth?"

  "Dandy. "

  "See?" Ripley nodded toward Nell. "Told you she was feeling bitchy. "

  "I am not feeling bitchy. " Mia set down a chair with an ill-tempered little slap. "Are you looking for a fight?"

  "Nope, I'm looking for a beer," Ripley replied, and sauntered into the cafe kitchen to help herself.

  "It's going to be a wonderful event, Mia. " Ready to soothe, Nell continued to stack books. "It'll be beautiful when you get the flowers in here tomorrow. And the refreshments are completely under control. Wait until you see the cake. "

  "I'm not worried about the flowers, or the refreshments. "

  "When you see how many customers start lining up, you'll feel better. "

  "I'm not worried about the customers, or not any more than I should be. " Mia dropped into a chair.

  "For once, Ripley is right. I am feeling bitchy. "

  "Is that a confession?" Ripley asked as she came out with her beer.

  "Oh, shut up. " Mia dragged her hands through her hair. "He's using sex. Or rather using the lack of sex to keep me edgy. Candlelight picnics. Moonlight sails. Long walks. He sends flowers every couple of days. "

  "But no sex?"

  Mia leveled a look at Ripley. "There's considerable foreplay," Mia snapped. "Then he dumps me at my front door and walks off. The next day I get flowers. He calls every day. And twice I've gone home and found a little gift at the front door. A pot of rosemary trained in the shape of a heart, a little pottery dragon. When we're out, he's absolutely charming. "

  "The bastard!" Ripley slammed her hand on the table. "Hanging's too good for him. "

  "He's using sex," Mia complained.

  "No, he's not. " With a dreamy smile, Nell brushed a hand over Mia's hair. "Sex has nothing to do with it. He's using romance. He's courting you. "

  "He is not. "

  "Flowers, candlelight, long walks, thoughtful little gifts. " Nell ticked the list off on her fingers. "Time and attention. That spells courtship to me. "

  "Sam and I passed by the courtship stage a number of years ago. And that courtship didn't include flowers and little gifts. "

  "Maybe he's trying to make up for that. "

  "He doesn't have to make up for anything. I don't want him making up for anything. " Jittery, she got to her feet, walked over to shut the terrace doors. "He doesn't want the traditional package any more than I do. Now. He just wants . . . "

  And that was the trouble, Mia realized. She had no clear idea what he wanted this time around either.

  "He's got you scared," Ripley said quietly.

  "He doesn't. He absolutely does not. "

  "He never scared you before. You always had your course plotted. "

  "It's still plotted. I know what I'm doing. I know where I'm going. That hasn't changed. " Even as she said it, she felt a sly chill whisper over her skin.

  "Mia. " There was both sympathy and patience in Nell's voice. "Are you still in love with him?"

  "Do you think I'd risk letting him into my heart again? That I'd risk that not knowing the cost?" Steadier now, Mia crossed over to finish the display. "I know my responsibility to this island, its people, to my gift. Love, for me, is an absolute. I couldn't survive it again. And I have to survive to fulfill my destiny. "

  "And if he is your destiny?"

  "I thought that once. I was wrong. When the time comes, the circle will hold. "

  At the house on the bluff, three men watched the flames spurt from the charcoal grill with the same intense fascination as the cavemen watched their tribal fire.

  "Going good," Zack commented, and nodded at Sam. "See? I told you we could do it with good old Yankee know-how. We didn't need any hocus-pocus crap. "

  "Good old Yankee know-how," Sam drawled. "An entire bag of charcoal and a half gallon of lighter fluid. "

  "I can't help it if his grill's defective. "

  "This is a brand-new grill," Mac protested. "This is its virgin run. "

  "Which is why it needs the hot flame. Has to be cured. " Zack tipped back his beer. Mac looked on sadly as the inside of his shiny red grill blackened. "If this sucker melts, Ripley's going to kill me. "

  "It's goddamn cast iron. " Zack gave it a little boot with his foot. "Speaking of Rip, where the hell are they?"

  "They're on their way," Sam replied as Zack frowned at him. "A little hocus-pocus crap. I like knowing where Mia is. Since Mister Science here clued us in on those readings around her house, I've been keeping tuned to her. "

  "She finds out, she'll kick your ass," Zack pointed out.

  "She won't find out. She doesn't see clearly when it comes to me. She doesn't want to, and it's damn hard getting Mia to do anything she doesn't want. "

  "How are things, you know, going between you?"

  Sam studied Mac as he drank. "Is that personal or professional interest?"

  "I guess you could say it's both. "

  "Fair enough. I
like the way things are going. Can't say I mind keeping her guessing. She's a hell of a lot more complicated than she used to be, and it's interesting - more than I figured - getting to know all the twists and turns. "

  Zack scratched his chin. "You're not going to start talking about mature relationships and exploring your inner couple or any of that shit, are you?"

  "Shh. . . here they come. " Mac gestured toward the slash of headlights on the shell road. "Let's act like

  we know what we're doing. "

  Lucy, who'd been sprawled over the deck, leaped to attention and flew down the steps inches ahead of Mulder.

  "Pretty women," Zack said. "A couple of good dogs and some steaks. Damn good deal. "

  The steaks were charred, the potatoes slightly underdone, but appetites were keen enough. They ate on the deck, by the strong glow of candles and the backwash of light from the living room, where music pumped out of the stereo.

  When Sam lifted a bottle of wine to fill Mia's nearly empty glass, she shook her head, laid her hand over the bowl. "No, I'm driving. And I need a clear mind for tomorrow. "

  "I'll come by in the morning, give you a hand with the setup. "

  "No need. Most of it's done, and we have plenty of time tomorrow. I already have thirty-eight pre-sold copies of the hardcover, with orders still coming in, and nearly that many of her backlist set aside. She's going to be very busy tomorrow. I imagine she'll . . . "

  Mia trailed off as she caught the look on Nell's face. Her body tensed, and she rose half out of her chair.

  "Nell. "

  "The baby moved. " The expression of shock and astonishment turned to wonder. "I felt the baby. A fluttering inside me. " She laughed, pressed a hand to her belly. "So quick and strong. Zack. " She grabbed his hand, pressed it against her. "Our baby moved. "

  "Do you need to lie down?"

  "No. " She leaped up, tugged his hand. "I need to dance. "

  "You need to dance. "

  "Yes! Dance with me. " She threw her arms around his neck. "We'll dance with Jonah. "

  "We don't know it's a boy. " Swamped with love, Zack wrapped his arms around her waist, drew her up to her toes and held tight. "Might just as easily be a girl. Then it's Rebecca. "

  "Uh-oh. They're getting sappy. " Before it rubbed off, Ripley got up, pointed at Mac. "You're dancing. "

  "Somebody's going to get hurt," Mac muttered.

  Sam watched the entertainment for a moment, then laid a hand on Mia's. "We used to be good at this. "

  "Hmmm?"

  She was staring at Nell, her face wistful and so totally unguarded that seeing it was like a fist to his heart. Tears sparkled on her lashes. What he saw in them was love, and longing.

  "Dancing. " Holding her hand, he stood. "We used to be good at it. Let's see if we still are. "

  Following impulse, he pulled her down the steps to the bluff. Then he spun her out to arm's length, whipped her back.

  Her arm hooked smoothly around his neck, her body fit to his.

  "Oh, yeah. " He slid his hands down to her hips and began to sway with her. "We're still good. "

  It had been a long time, but she hadn't forgotten his moves, his rhythm. And she remembered as well the sheer pleasure of moving with him to music. Giving herself to it, she kicked off her shoes. Sand flew under their feet as they turned, dipped, and spun.

  Dancing had always been a kind of joyful and somehow innocent mating ritual between them. Bursts of energy. Co-ordination. Anticipation.

  She stopped hearing the music with only her ears. She heard it in the quick pressure of his hand on her back, the grip of his fingers on hers, the whirl of her own body.

  When he lifted her off her feet, she threw her head back and laughed. Then she linked her arms around his neck, for the first time in more than a decade, in an embrace that was sheer and simple affection. The applause and whistles exploding from the deck had her shifting her head, leaving her cheek resting against his temple as she caught her breath.

  "Told you they were show-offs. " Ripley elbowed Mac, but she was grinning.

  "Hey, we don't have to take this abuse. Come on!" Holding Mia's hand, Sam dashed down the beach steps so that Mia had to run to keep up.

  "Slow down! You'll break our necks!"

  "I'll catch you. " To prove it, he hauled her up, spun her in circles. "How about a swim?"

  "No!"

  "Okay, we'll dance instead. " He set her on her feet, pulling her close and tight against him. The slow, seductive strains of "Sea of Love" flowed into the air, over the beach.

  "That's an old one," she remarked.

  "Classic," he corrected. "Change of pace. "

  He buried his face in her hair as they circled in the sand. Her heart was a steady beat against his. Their legs brushed as she rose on her toes, sliding with him until they formed one shadow in the moonlight. He remembered, so much, that the shapes and sounds of all the memories whispered and blurred in his brain. "Do they still have dances in the high school gym?"

  "Yes. "

  "Do kids still sneak outside to neck?"

  "Probably. "

  "Let's pretend. " He turned his head, skimming his lips along her jaw before they met hers. "Come back with me. "

  Before she understood, could think to resist, she found herself spinning. They were no longer dancing on the sand, but wrapped together in the shadows of the high school gym while a crisp fall breeze blew the scents of aging leaves and blooming mums around them.

  Music pumped out of the building, a rebel crash of drums and guitars. Her hands rushed over the cool, worn leather of his jacket, into the silky warmth of his hair.

  His body was slimmer, his mouth less skilled, but, oh, how hers responded. The torch of love burned blinding bright inside her.

  She whispered his name, mindlessly. And offered everything.

  It was the ache swelling inside her, throbbing like a wound, that snapped her back. Breath heaving, she shoved him away. "Damn you. Damn you! That wasn't fair. "

  "No. I'm sorry. " His head was spinning. For a moment he could still smell the crispness of autumn in the humid press of summer air. "No, it wasn't fair. I wasn't thinking. Don't walk away. " He pressed his fingers to his temples as she turned from him.

  He hadn't planned it, and would have found some way to stop the impulse that had taken them back into what they'd been. How could he have known what it would be like to have her love him like that again?

  To feel that absolute purity of emotion from her?

  To know he'd tossed it away, and might never, never have it again. When he steadied himself she was standing at the edge of the water, hugging herself and staring out at the night.

  "Mia. " He went to her, but didn't touch her. One of them, he was certain, would break if he did. "I have no excuse, no way to apologize for that kind of manipulation. I can only tell you I didn't intend to do it. "

  "You hurt me, Sam. "

  "I know. " And myself, he thought. More than I could have realized.

  "Time can't be erased. And it shouldn't be. " She turned to him now, her face pale against the night. "I don't want to go back to that girl, or that boy. I don't want to give up what I've made of myself. "

  "I wouldn't change a thing of what you've made of yourself. You're the most astonishing woman I've ever known. "

  "Words are easy. "

  "No, they're not. Some of them have never been easy for me. Mia - "

  But when he reached out, she turned away again. Then froze as she saw the pale blue light spilling out of the cave. "Stop it. You go too far. "

  He saw it too, and did touch her now so she would feel, and believe him. "I'm not doing it. Wait here. "

  He set her behind him, then strode quickly toward the cave, stopping only when he stood at the opening, washed in the light. He heard her step beside him, but said nothing as they both looked inside. The light in the cave was soft and blue, the s
hadows deep and still as wells. In that light were two people. Images carved like statues out of the light itself.

  Then they breathed.

  The man was beautiful. The sleek muscles of his long, naked body gleamed with water. His hair was glossy black, spilling damp and straight over his shoulders as he stretched on his side in a deep sleep. The woman was beautiful. Tall and slender in her dark cloak, she stood looking down at him. The hood was tossed back so the fiery curls of her hair tumbled free to her waist. In her arms, she held a pelt, black as midnight and still wet from the sea. When she turned, Mia saw what seemed to be her own face, with the skin glowing as if a thousand candles were alight beneath it.

  "Love," the one who had been Fire said, "is not always wise. " She walked toward them, cradling the pelt like a child. "It has no conditions, and no regrets. " She rubbed her cheek against the pelt as she stepped out of the cave. "Time is shorter than you think. "

  Mia lifted a hand - a gesture of comfort and command. "Mother?" The one who was Fire stopped, and her beauty shimmered when she smiled.

  "Daughter. "

  "I will not fail you. "

  "It is not for me. " She traced her fingers along Mia's cheek, and Mia felt a line of warmth. "Take care not to fail yourself. You're more than I was. "

  She looked back into the cave. "You forget, too often, that he is in you as well. " Hugging the pelt she turned back until her eyes met Sam's. "And me in you. "

  She walked away across the sand. "It watches, in the dark. " And vanished like smoke. The light in the cave winked out.

  "I can smell her. " Mia cupped her hands in the air as if it were water, and brought it to her face.

  "Lavender and rosemary. You saw her amulet?"

  He lifted the disk of silver and sunstone that Mia wore on a linked chain. "This one. The same way I looked at her face, and saw this one," he said, lifting Mia's chin.

  "I have a lot to think about. " She started to step away, but her gaze was drawn up. As she watched, an inky haze blurred the bright edges of the moon.

  "Trouble's coming," she whispered, seconds before they heard the growl. Fog spilled in from the sea, crawled up the sand. The wolf, the pentagram a white flash against its black body, waded into the mist and bared its teeth.

  For the second time, Sam pushed Mia behind him. His body blocked hers like a shield. "Go. Now. Get to the house. "

  "I won't run from this. " She stepped to the side, into clear view, and watched the wolf track her. With no time to wait for her circle, she began the spell alone.

  "Air that swirls and spins, arise, build to wind that screams and cries. Tremble earth beneath the sea, walls of water build for me!"

  She speared her hands up, through the gale that spewed around her. Her hair blew out, wild ropes of red. And at the shout of her voice, the quiet waves of the cove boiled up, higher, higher with each crash. The world roared.

  "Rage and thrash and whirl for me, air and earth and rising sea. Flames within my blood that churns, I conjure from you a circle that burns. Now you that crawled out of the mire, come if you dare, and face my fire!"

  A ball of lightning hurled out of the sky, blazing like a comet on its violent arc. An instant before it crashed into the land, she saw the black wolf curl itself back into the fog.

  "Coward," she called out, riding wildly on the whip of her own power.

  "Mia. " Sam's voice was rock steady. "Can you turn it back?"

  "I just did. "

  "No, baby. The wave. "

  "Ah. " She studied the wall of water, a full twenty feet high now and sweeping closer while the jaws of wind snapped vicious teeth. She held out her arms, targeted her energy down them like sighting down the barrel of a gun. Then flung it outward.

  The wave collapsed into a shower of silver drops. The cool rain of them washed to shore, over her hair and skin as she twisted her fisted hand and gathered back the spinning wind. The night was once more clear as glass, the breeze playful as a faerie. She threw back her head, gulping in air while the heat of power streamed through her blood. "Well, yes, that gave him a taste, didn't it?"

  Sam was still gripping her shoulder, as he had been since she'd stepped out from behind him. "How long have you been doing that spell?"

  "Actually, that was the first time I put it all together. I have to say" - she blew out a laughing breath - "it was better than sex. "

  Hearing the shouts and running feet from above on the bluff, she turned to reassure her friends.

  "Are you sure you're all right?"

  Mia grabbed one of Nell's stroking hands. "I'm fine. "

  "Well, I could use a drink. " Ripley popped open a beer, turned to Mia. "You?"

  "No, thanks. " She already felt wonderfully, gloriously drunk.

  "Some lemonade for the little mother. " Ripley poured a glass. "Sit down or something, Nell. You're making me twitchy. "

  "I think we should go down and see what they're doing. "

  "Oh, let them play with their toys. " Restless, Ripley paced the deck. Mac and the other men had hauled equipment down to the beach. Even now she could hear the beeps and mechanical squeals.

  "That was a pretty big spell there, Glenda. How did it feel?"

  Mia's lips curved, slow and smug.

  "Figured. Even linking last minute and adding a push, I got a nice rush. Always leaves me wanting more, though. "

  "Zack's going to get very lucky later. " Nell laughed, then immediately stopped herself. "How can we stand around here laughing about sex? That was terrifying. Mia, we couldn't get down to you. Your wind came up like a tornado. "

  "A nice summer breeze wouldn't have done it. And you did get to me. I felt you. " With her hands braced on the rail, she leaned out, her face lifted to the sky. "It was like a thousand hearts beating inside me. A thousand voices in my head. And every cell, every muscle, every drop of blood was so alive. When it looked at me. " She whirled back. "When it looked at me, it was afraid. "

  "Maybe it's finished," Nell said.

  Mia shook her head. "No, not yet. "

  "Whether's it's done or not, I've got to say one thing. " Ripley tipped back her beer. "I didn't know you had that much, and I've known you all your life. And seeing what I saw tonight, I've got a better handle on why you've always been so picky and careful. That's a lot of firepower to cart around. "

  "Is that a compliment?"

  "It's an observation. With a warning tagged on. Wait for us next time. Okay. " She gathered up three more beers. "Playtime's over. Let's go see what Mac and his pals have come up with. "

  On the beach, Mac had sensors and monitors scattered, cables strewed everywhere. He sat on the ground hammering away at the keyboard of his laptop.

  Hauling the equipment down, carting it to where Mac wanted it, had helped. But Sam needed to do something physical and sweaty to take the edge off.

  "Look, this is all really cool stuff, but what the hell is it doing?"

  "Measuring. Triangulating. Documenting. " Mac tapped more keys, squinted behind his glasses at a near monitor. "Wish I'd gotten to a damn camera. Best estimate on that wave's twenty feet. But that's just eyeballing it from up above. "

  "Twenty's conservative," Sam said mildly. "And that's eyeballing it from down below. "

  "Um. Ah. " Mac peered at the readout on his thermometer. "Give me your best guess at ambient temperature at the center here during the climax of the event. "

  Sam shot a look at Zack, who just shrugged. "Ambient temperature? Jesus. It got hot. "

  "But was it a dry heat?" Zack asked and made Sam laugh.

  "Makes a difference. " Mac shoved up his glasses and frowned. "The ambients around the negative energy flow dip. It gets cold. In trying to reconstruct and calculate the ion clash and the dominant direction of force, I need reasonable estimates of the ambients. "

  "It got hot," Sam said again. "Damn it, I'm a witch, not a meteorologist. "

  "Very
funny. Now take that sensor and get me a reading where her fireball hit. Hey. Wow!" As one of his machines began to hum like a beehive, he scrambled up, barely missed snagging his foot on a cable. He made a dash for it just as the women came down the beach steps.

  "Oh. Should've known. " He nodded, crouched down to get a better look at the readings.

  "I'm going to take a look at the cave," Nell informed Mac. "I want to help if I can. "

  He grunted, then crooked a finger at Mia. Amused at him, she strolled closer, then stopped when he held up a hand.

  "Whoa, baby," he said. "Look at this, just look. It's phenomenal. Are you doing any internal spells? Do you have anything working, actively working, in another area?"

  "Not at the moment. Why?"

  "Your readings are spiking. They're all over the place, and all the way up the scale. You always have a

  high level, even at rest, but this is a big surge. Hold on. I want to measure your vital signs. "

  He took her blood pressure, her body temperature, her heart rate. He was studying the readout on her brain wave patterns when the rest of the group gathered around them.

  "How do you do it?" Mac's voice was quiet now, and sober.

  Mia leaned toward him. Mimicking his tone, she pretended innocence. "Do what, Mac?"

  "The level of energy pumping around inside you right now would have most people bouncing off the walls. But your vitals are well within normal range. You've been sitting here, calm as ice, for ten minutes. "

  "Exquisite control. Now, this has been a delightful and entertaining evening, but I really have to go. " She rose, one smooth movement of grace, and brushed the sand from her skirts. "I have a busy day tomorrow. "

  "Why don't you stay here in the guest room?"

  "You don't have to worry about me, Mac. "

  "It's not finished. "

  "No, it's not finished. But it's done for tonight. "

 
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