Face the fire, p.18

Face the Fire, page 18

 part  #3 of  Three Sisters Island Series

 

Face the Fire


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Chapter Seventeen

  He'd have sworn the world stopped. For one rushing moment there was no sound, no movement. There was nothing but Mia, tall and curved and beautiful. All alabaster and fire, she wore only a slim silver chain that nestled a moonstone between her breasts and an anklet made up of tiny Celtic knots above shoes that were no more than a trio of narrow straps and stiletto heels. His mouth watered.

  "You want me. " Her voice was a low feline purr. "Your body aches as mine does. Your blood's as hot. "

  "Wanting you has always been the easy part. "

  She stepped to him. "Then this should be a snap. " She ran her hands up his torso, over his chest.

  "You're trembling. " Easing closer, she rubbed her lips over his shoulder, over muscles that were tensed rock-hard. "So am I. "

  His hands flexed, fisted. "This is your answer?"

  "I don't need an answer when I don't have a question. " She lifted her head until their eyes met. "I have needs, just as you do. Desires, hot and restless inside me. As you do. We can both take what we need, and harm no one. "

  She leaned in, nipped sharply at his bottom lip. "Let's take a walk in the woods. "

  When he jerked her hard against him, her face lit with triumph. A quick, laughing moan escaped when he swung her into his arms. The moment of victory was hot and sweet.

  "Here," he said. "In this house. In my bed. "

  Needs bubbling inside her clouded her mind, only for an instant. But an instant was enough to have him striding through the kitchen before she struggled. "No, not here. "

  "It can't be all your way. "

  "I won't be with you here. " The minute she hit the bed, she rolled, but he pinned her.

  "Yes, you will. "

  She fought him. Pure instinct had her bucking under him, straining against his hold. She could smell the lavender she'd planted outside the window, and the sweetness of it tore at her heart. She hadn't come for sweetness, nor for intimacy. She had come for sex. She gathered herself, reached for composure and derision. "All you've proved is that you have superior strength. "

  "Yeah. That's the breaks," he said. Her voice might have been cold, but the heat was pumping off her skin. "I'm not letting you go this time, Mia. Considering the mood we're both in, you fighting me is only going to make this better. So, fight me. " He yanked her arms over her head. "I don't want it easy. And I don't want it fast. "

  He handcuffed her wrists and used his mouth on her.

  She continued to struggle, because he was right. She could damn him for it, but he was right. The underlying threat of violence added a slippery thrill that fed the reckless need inside her. She could hate herself for wanting that, for the part of her that reveled in being overpowered, undone, taken. But she couldn't deny it.

  He ravished, his mouth assaulting her body. The little war had her skin springing with sweat and her senses tangling into one mass of molten pleasure. Her body twisted, arched, but he simply found new spots to torture and entice.

  The energy that burned inside her whipped to flash point, ripped a cry from her throat as he drove her to the first brutal climax with his mouth alone.

  And that quick and glorious release only fueled a hunger for more. He felt her body quake, heard her breath catch. Beneath his lips her pulse beat like fury. Her flesh was damp and fragrant, erotically hot and slick. Knowing that she fought them both only added to the vicious passion surging through his blood.

  He rode it, recklessly, until they were both quivering.

  When his mouth conquered hers, the kiss was a kind of madness. There was no thought, no room for reason. In a war of lips and tongues and teeth, they fed on each other. When he felt her fly a second time, he released her hands to take more.

  They branded each other, rolling restlessly over the bed in a search for dominance and more pleasure. The air went thick, and the sun streaming through the windows turned to gilt. She rose over him. Craving her, he reared up, clamping his mouth over her breast. Drawing her in like breath.

  She lost herself in the frenzy of sensation. Gave herself to that feral need to take and be taken. Here there was only desperation, and the one man who could make her feel it. The glory of those animal urges, the mindless wonder of being alive raced inside her.

  Time quickened, then sprinted past her, as the storm inside her broke yet again. Breathless, still spinning, she wrapped herself around him, holding on as if for her life. Her heart quaked, and threatened to break open.

  She heard his harsh murmurs as his body slid over hers, as his lips skittered over her face, her throat. She shook her head, quick denial, as the Gaelic stroked her aching heart. Light, warm and blue, pulsed from him.

  "No. Don't. "

  He couldn't stop. What they'd brought to each other sapped his control. The need to complete the

  intimacy was raw and open in him.

  "A ghra. A amhain. " My love. My only. The words tumbled out of him without design. His power shimmered, seeking its mate even as his body craved. But when he brushed his lips over her cheek, tasted tears, he squeezed his eyes shut.

  "I'm sorry. " His breath ragged, he buried his face in her hair. "Just a minute. Give me a minute. "

  He fought for control, to pull the magic back inside him. Whatever they were or had been to each other, he had no right to force her to share that part of herself.

  She felt him quiver as he struggled to pull it in. It would hurt him, she knew. A deep and physical aching that came from denying the blood and starving the soul.

  Still, he held her while he locked himself away. Held her while she listened to his breath tear out against the pain of it.

  She couldn't bear it, for either of them.

  She lifted his head, looked into his eyes. And gave him her magic. "Share with me," she said, drawing him down into the kiss. "Share all. "

  Her light was gilded red against his deepening blue. The brilliant thrill flooded her, swamped her as their powers entwined and merged. And merged, streamed inside them both. She let herself fly on it, rose to him as he filled her.

  There was a rush like the wind, a stream of sound like a hundred harpstrings plucked at once. The air swelled. All she was, and all he was, laid open.

  The air shimmered, light against light building to a radiant glow. Even as he moved in her, long, slow thrusts that savored the gift, he took her hands. Linked fingers curled tight and sparks swirled from them to dance in the air.

  As they climbed, the light brightened, building, building toward a flash that burst like lightning. And on that burst, he met her mouth with his, and flew with her.

  He nuzzled at the curve of her shoulder, rubbed his cheek to hers, whispering soft and foolish endearments. His power continued to whisper inside her as well. Her body felt unbearably soft. And though her heart continued to pound, she knew its beat was no longer for her alone. What had she done?

  She'd stripped aside, by her own will, the last of her defenses. She had given him all she was, taken all he was.

  She had let herself love him again.

  Stupid, she thought. Stupid, careless, and dangerous.

  Even knowing it, she could lie here with his weight pressing against her and want to gather him close and cling to the dreamy echoes of what they'd shared.

  She had to get away, clear her head of him. And consider what to do next. She lifted a hand to his shoulder, intending to nudge him away. But her fingers slid into his hair.

  "Mia. " His voice was thick and sleepy. "Allaina. So soft, so lovely. Stay with me tonight. Wake with me tomorrow. "

  Her heart trembled, but when she spoke her voice was brisk and even. "You're speaking Gaelic. "

  "Hmm?"

  "You're speaking in Gaelic. " Now she did give his shoulder a little nudge. "Which means you're about to fall asleep on top of me. "

  "No, I'm not. " He braced himself on his elbows so he could gaze down at her. "You make my head spin. " He droppe
d a kiss on her forehead, then the tip of her nose. "I'm glad you dropped by. "

  It was hard to resist the easy affection. "So am I. But I have to go now. "

  "Uh-uh. " Idly toying with her hair, he studied her face. "I'm afraid I can't allow that. And if you try, I'm going to have to get rough with you again. You know you liked it. "

  "Please. " She pushed at him, tried to slither free.

  "You really liked it. " Leaning down, he lightly bit her shoulder.

  "Maybe, under this limited set of circumstances, I found it . . . arousing. I needed an outlet for the excess energy that last night's spell worked up in me. "

  "Tell me about it. " He caught her chin in his hand. "I mean that. I want you to tell me about it. But right now, I'm starving. Aren't you starving? I've got leftover Chinese takeout. "

  "Yummy. But - "

  "Mia, we need to talk. "

  "Talk isn't the usual activity when we're lying naked in bed and you're still inside me. "

  "There is that. " He slid his hands under her hips, lifted them. Slid deeper into her. "Tell me you'll stay. "

  Her breath caught. "I'm not - "

  "I want to watch you climb again. " He kneaded her hips, his thrusts slow and steady. "Just let me watch you. "

  He left her no choice. He exploited her weakness, drained her will with a ruthless tenderness. He watched her surrender, to him, to herself, to the rise of sensation. And when she crested - one long wave - it rippled through him. And he lifted her, wrapped her close.

  "Stay. "

  With a sigh, she rested her head on his shoulder. "I could eat. "

  They made quick work of the Chinese, then scavenged for more. By the time they were digging into a box of dry cereal, the edge was off. Sam took a last handful of puffed rice.

  "Strong magic and good sex. Nothing like it to sharpen the appetite. "

  "I had two muffins, a sandwich, cake, and a bowl of rotini. And that was before the sex. Give me that. "

  She took the box from him and dug in.

  "It was a potent spell. "

  "Now that we've very efficiently cleaned out my kitchen of all edible products, let's take that walk in the woods. "

  "It's getting late, Sam. "

  "Yeah, it is. " He took her hand. "And we both know it. " He glanced down at her bare feet. "Since I don't see how you can walk anywhere in those shoes you had on, maybe we should head to the beach instead of the woods. Easier on your feet. "

  "I'm used to walking barefoot in the woods. " It was best, she thought, to deal with it. As long as they were talking, or eating, or seducing each other, she wouldn't have to think about loving him. Or what she would do about it.

  "You want me to explain the spell, and I'm not sure I can. "

  "I don't want the nuts and bolts. " He drew her across the lawn toward the shadows and the path. "But I'd like to know, first, how long you've known you had that kind of power. "

  "I'm not sure I did - not exactly. Felt," she continued. "As if there was a switch inside waiting for me to flip it. "

  "It's not that simple. "

  "No, it's not. " She could smell the trees and the sea. And on such a night, she thought, you could smell the stars. A cool brush along the senses. "I've worked on it, studied, practiced. I've gathered myself. You understand that. "

  "I also understand that to pull that out the way you did the other night, without any real preparation, is beyond anything I've experienced. "

  "I've been preparing all my life. " And in the last decade, she thought, it's been my one and only love.

  "Still I couldn't finish it. It wasn't quite enough. " Determination toughened her voice. "But I will finish it. "

  "That's where you and I have a problem. What you did was dangerous, for you. It didn't have to be. "

  "The risk was minimal. "

  "If you'd told me what you could do, what you'd obviously planned to do, given the opportunity, I could have been prepared. I could have helped. But you don't want my help. "

  She said nothing as they passed the little stream where foxglove nodded on the banks. "It's been a long time since I considered having your help. "

  "I've been back for over two months, Mia. "

  "And were gone over ten years. I learned to do a great deal without you in that length of time. Without anyone," she added, "as Ripley cut herself off from me and what we shared during the same period. I've taken what I was given and honed it, built it. "

  "That's right, you have. I wonder if you would have if I'd stayed. "

  She rounded on him, her temper quicker than it might have been, as the same thought had come to her.

  "Is that a new rationalization? A new reason for what you did?"

  "No. " He met her fury with utter calm. "My reasons for leaving were completely selfish. It doesn't seem to change the results. You're stronger than you would have been. "

  "Should I thank you for it?" She angled her head. "Maybe I should. Maybe it's time for me to acknowledge that your leaving was the best thing for both of us. I saw you as the beginning and end of my life, and everything in between. But you weren't. I lived without you. And whether you stay or go, I'll continue to live, to work. To be. I can enjoy you now without illusions. It's a nice bonus to share myself with someone who understands power and who expects nothing in return but pleasure for pleasure. "

  It rubbed at his temper, as he supposed she'd intended it to. "Don't thank me too soon. You wondered why I'd maneuvered you into dating. I needed to show you, and maybe to prove to myself, that there's more than sex between us. "

  "Of course there is. " Calm again, she began to walk. "There's magic, a shared history. And though I didn't initially believe it, a shared love of the island. We have mutual friends. "

  "We were friends once. "

  "We're friendly now. " She breathed in deeply. "How do people live without the sea close? How do they breathe?"

  "Mia. " He touched the tips of her hair. "When we made love, I didn't intend to ask you to share magic with me. It wasn't calculated. "

  "I know that. " Though she stopped walking, she kept her back to him.

  "Why did you let me?"

  "Because you would've stopped. It meant something to me that you would've stopped when I asked. And, I suppose, because I've missed it. Sharing power excites and fulfills. "

  "Was there no one else in all these years?"

  "You've no right to ask me that. "

  "No, I don't. So instead I'll tell you what you don't ask me. There was no one but you. Never anyone but you in that way. "

  "It doesn't matter. "

  "If it doesn't," he said, taking her arm before she could move away, "then you should be able to listen. I never got over you, and if I was with another woman, it was never the way it was between us. Every one of them deserved better than I could give. I couldn't give them better, because none of them were you. "

  "There's no need for this," she began.

  "I need it. I've loved you all my life. No spell, no incantation, no act of will has ever been able to change that for me. "

  Her heart stumbled in her chest. It took all of her strength to balance it again. "But you tried. "

  "I tried. With women, with work, with travel. Not loving you is beyond my power. "

  "Do you think, Sam, that even if it were only my own heart at risk, I could pour it into your hands again?"

  "Then just take mine. I'm not doing anything else with it. "

  "I can't. I don't know how much of what I feel is an echo of what was. How much mixed with that is anger. More," she said, turning back to him, "I don't know how much of what you believe you feel is real. Everything's at stake now, and clouded emotions are dangerous. "

  "My emotions aren't clouded. They were, for a long time. "

  "Now mine are. And I've learned to step back from them. I care about you. The link's too strong for that to be otherwise. But I don't want to be
in love with you again, Sam. And that's my choice. If you can't accept that, then we need to stay away from each other. "

  "I can accept that it's your choice, for now. But I'm going to do everything I can to change your mind. "

  She threw up her hands in frustration. "By sending me flowers, going on picnics? Those are frills, trappings. "

  "Those are romance. "

  "I don't want romance. "

  "Deal with it. I was too young and stupid to give it to you once. I'm older and smarter now. There was a time when it was hard for me to tell you I loved you. Didn't come naturally off my tongue. And it sure as hell wasn't a phrase that was bandied about in my house. "

  "I don't want you to tell me. "

  "You always said it first. " He saw the surprise on her face. "You never realized that, did you? I was never able to say it to you, unless you'd said it. Times change. People change. Some people take longer than others. I realize I've been waiting, Mia, maneuvering again, so you'd say it first. Easier for me that way. You used to make things too damn easy for me. "

  "Fortunately, that's changed. Now I have to go. It's late. "

  "Yeah, it's late. I love you, Mia. I love you. I don't mind saying it a few hundred times until you believe it. "

  It hurt to hear it. A quick, pinching pain. She used that pain to keep her heart cool and her voice even.

  "You gave me words before, Sam. We gave each other words. They weren't enough. I can't give you what you want. "

  She ran down the path, away from him.

  "Won't give me," he replied. "Yet. "

  She didn't stop until she got to her car. Didn't go into the house for her shoes, or think about them. She thought only of driving away, driving fast until her mind settled again. She had let herself love him again. Or rather, her heart had turned on her when she'd been vulnerable. But that was her problem, and one she would deal with.

  Rationally, reasonably, if loving him were the right choice, it wouldn't make her so unhappy. If hearing him say he loved her was the solution, how could it have been like a blow to the heart?

  She would not become a victim of her own emotions, not a second time. She wouldn't throw herself mindlessly into love, putting herself and everything that mattered to her at risk. Balance, she told herself, and clear thinking. They were essential when one was contemplating a life-and-death decision. Maybe it was time to take a few days off, regroup. She'd been spreading herself too thin, she decided. She needed to be with herself.

  Alone.

  "What the hell do you mean she's gone?" Annoyed at being roused out of sleep before eight-thirty, on a Sunday, on the only day that week she could sleep in, Ripley scowled at the phone.

  "She's off the island. " A pulse was pounding in Sam's throat, making speech almost painful. "Where did she go?"

  "I don't know. Christ. " She sat up in bed, scrubbed her hand over her face. "I'm not even awake. How do you know she went off-island? Maybe she's just out for a walk or a drive. "

  He knew, Sam thought, because he'd tuned in to her. And the snapping of the connection had

  awakened him. Next time, he thought grimly, he wouldn't limit the link to the island.

  "I just know. I was with her last night. She didn't say anything about plans on the mainland. "

  "Well, she doesn't keep me as her social secretary. Did you have a fight or something?"

  "No, we didn't have a fight. " What they'd had could never be boiled down to such an elemental word.

  "If you have any idea where she's gone - "

  "I don't. " But the worry in his voice got through. "Listen, ask Lulu. Mia wouldn't go anywhere without letting her know. She probably just went over to do some shopping or something and - " Scowling, Ripley held the phone out and listened to the dial tone. "Well, goodbye to you, too. "

  He didn't bother with the phone this time, but jumped in his car and drove to Lulu's. He barely noticed that she'd changed the paint from the pumpkin orange he remembered from his boyhood to a wild purple. He knocked on the front door.

  "You got two seconds to tell me why you woke me up out of a dream where I was dancing with Charles Bronson and we were both naked. Otherwise, I'm kicking your - "

  "Where's Mia?" he snapped.

  He slapped a hand on the door before she could slam it in his face. "Just tell me she's okay. "

  "Why shouldn't she be?"

  "Did she tell you where she was going?"

  "If she did, I'm not telling you. " She could sense his anger and his fear. "You try any hocus-pocus on me, and I'll not only kick your ass, I'll mop the floor with it. Now back off. "

  Disgusted with himself, he stepped back. When the door slammed he just sat on the porch steps and rested his head in his hands.

  Had he driven her away? Was it some kind of ugly joke fate continued to play on them that one of them would love so much that the other was compelled to flee?

  It didn't matter, he told himself. Not now. All that mattered now was that she was safe. When he heard the door open again, he stayed where he was.

  "You don't have to tell me where she is, what she's doing, or why she left. I just need to know that she's all right. "

  "Any reason you know of she shouldn't be?"

  "I upset her last night. "

  With a sniff, Lulu marched over and gave him a quick boot with her bare foot. "I should've figured it. What did you do?"

  "I told her I loved her. "

  Behind his back, Lulu pursed her lips. "What did she have to say to that?"

  "That she didn't want to hear it, basically. "

  "She's a sensible woman," Lulu said, then immediately felt nasty. More nasty than she was comfortable with. "She's taking a few days off, that's all. On the mainland - shopping, getting pampered. Do her good to decompress, if you ask me. She's been working 'round the clock. "

  "Okay. " He rubbed his hands on the thighs of his jeans, then turned to face her. "Okay. Thanks. "

  "Did you tell her you loved her to mess with her head?"

  "I told her I loved her because I do. Messing with her head was just a side benefit. "

  "I don't know why the hell I always liked you. "

  Sam was shocked. "You did?"

  "If I hadn't, I'd have peeled the skin off your face for putting hands on my baby. Well, I'm up," she said and buried both hands in her disordered mop of hair to scratch her head. "You might as well come in and have some coffee. "

  Too intrigued to refuse, he followed her into the kitchen. "I always wondered why you didn't live at the cliff house. "

  "First off, because I couldn't stand those pompous, self-absorbed Devlins. " She dug coffee out of a canister shaped like a piglet. "Didn't mind spending a few days there when they were off on one of their trips, but when they were at home, I needed a place of my own. Otherwise, I might have smothered them both in their sleep. "

  "When did they leave - for good?"

  "Few months after you did. "

  "After . . . but she was nineteen. "

  "Just shy of her twentieth birthday. They headed off to - who the hell cares. Came back once or twice during that year, for form, if you ask me. Mia hit twenty-one, and that was over. Guess they figured their job was done. "

  "They never did their job," Sam stated. "You did. "

  "That's right. She's been mine since her grandmother put her in my arms. She's still mine. " She shot him a challenging look over her shoulder.

  "I know it. I'm glad of it. "

  "Maybe you've got some sense in that pea brain of yours after all. " She poured water from a cherry-red kettle into the coffeemaker. "Anyway, after they moved off-island, Mia asked if I didn't want to come up and live with her. Plenty of room. But I like my place, and she likes being up there on her own. "

  She studied him while the coffeemaker burped and grumbled. "You thinking of trying to convince her to let you move up there with her?"

  "Ah . . . I hadn'
t thought quite that far ahead. "

  "Don't change much, do you? Always dance back from the sticking point. "

  "And what would the sticking point be?"

  "That girl," she said and drilled a finger into his chest. "My girl. She wants marriage, and she wants babies. She wants a man she can share her whole life with, thick and thin, and not one who gets pale when the word marriage comes up in conversation. Like you're doing now. "

  "Marriage isn't the only serious commitment - "

  "You think you can bullshit her with that, or are you just bullshitting yourself?"

  "A number of people make and keep a bond without a legal ceremony. Mia and I are hardly traditionalists. "

  Lulu's skewering stare made him feel like a teenager again, bringing Mia home after curfew. "But in any case, I haven't given the matter a great deal of thought. At this point she's not even comfortable with me telling her I'm in love with her. "

  "That's a real fine speech. Full of hot air, but it sounded almost pretty. "

  "What's so important about marriage?" he demanded. "You're divorced. "

  "Got me there. " Amused, she got out two cheerful yellow mugs. "Funny thing about life. You just can't get a guarantee with it. You pays your money, you takes your choice. "

  "Yeah. " Depressed all over again, Sam took the mug. "I've certainly heard that one before. "

 
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