Dance upon the air, p.18

Dance Upon the Air, page 18

 part  #1 of  Three Sisters Island Series


Dance Upon the Air

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Chapter Seventeen

  I've lost him. I've ruined it. " Nell sat in Mia's great, gorgeous cavern of a living room, in front of an ox-roasting fire sipping a cup of healing cinnamon tea. Isis stretched her lean, warm body over her lap like a cozy blanket.

  None of it lifted her mood.

  "Damaged it, perhaps. And nothing's lost that can be found again. "

  "I can't fix this, Mia. Everything he said to me is true. I didn't want to think about it, to see it, but it's true. I had no right to let things get as serious as they did. "

  "I don't happen to have a hair shirt handy, but I imagine we can make something up. " At Nell's shocked stare, Mia lifted one shoulder elegantly. "It's not that I don't sympathize with both of you, because I do. But the fact is, Nell, you fell in love, both of you. And both of you dealt with it the way you needed to deal with it. You brought each other something that not everyone is given. That's nothing to regret. "

  "I don't regret loving him, or being loved by him. I regret a lot of things, but not that. "

  "All right, then. You need to take the next step. "

  "There is no next step. I can't marry Zack because I'm legally tied to someone else. And even if Evan decides to divorce me in absentia or whatever, I still couldn't marry Zack. My identification is false. "

  "Details. "

  "Not to him. "

  "Yes, you're right. " She tapped her pretty fingernails on the side of her cup as she considered. "Some things Zack would see, because he's Zack, as black and white. I'm sorry I didn't think this far ahead and warn you of that. I know him," Mia continued as she rose to stretch. "I didn't anticipate that he'd move toward legal binding so quickly. I'm jaded when it comes to love. "

  She poured more tea, pondered while she roamed the room and sipped.

  There were two sofas, both in deep hunter green, that begged for a body to sink down and sink in. They were scattered with jewel-toned pillows, all in soft fabrics. Texture was essential to luxury, and when at leisure, Mia insisted on luxury.

  The room was populated with antiques, because she preferred the old to the new unless it was in business equipment. The rugs on the wide-planked chestnut floor were satisfactorily faded. There were flowers everywhere, in priceless crystal or in cheerful colored bottles of no special value.

  Some of the candles she surrounded herself with in every room were lit. The white ones, for peace.

  "You've hurt him, Nell, on two levels. One by not falling into his arms in utter delight when he proposed. " She stopped, lifting one brow. "I told you I was jaded in this area, but nonetheless, when a man asks a woman to marry him, he's not going to be pleased when she says 'No, thank you. '"

  "I'm not a complete idiot, Mia. "

  "No, darling. I'm sorry. " Contrite, though secretly amused at the biting tone, Mia stopped behind the sofa and stroked Nell's hair. "Of course you're not. And I should have said three levels, the second being his sense of honor. He has just discovered himself poaching on what he would consider another man's territory. "

  "Oh, really. I'm not a damn rabbit. "

  "Zack would see himself breaking a code. The third level is that he would certainly have done so anyway, if he'd known. If you'd told him the circumstances. He could adjust his line there, because he loves you and wants you, and because he would be relieved that you'd escaped from a horrible situation. But the fact that you didn't tell him, that you let him go into this, let him fall in love with you blind, is going to be hard for him to swallow. "

  "Why can't he see that my marriage to Evan means nothing? I'm not Helen Remington anymore. "

  "Do you want comfort or truth?" Mia asked flatly.

  "I can't have both. It may as well be truth. "

  "You lied to him, and by lying you put him in an untenable position. More, you told him you didn't intend to end the marriage. "

  "I can't-"

  "Wait. You won't end it, and without an end there can't be a beginning. This is purely your choice, Nell, and no one can or should take it from you. But you've blocked Zack from being able to stand for you. To stand with you or, more to his liking, I imagine, to step in front of you and face your demon. Nell. "

  She sat again, taking Nell's hands. "Do you think he wears a badge for amusement, for the pathetic pay, for the power?"

  "No. But he doesn't understand what Evan can do, what he's capable of. Mia, there's a madness inside him. A kind of cold, deliberate madness that I can't begin to explain. "

  "People tend to think the word 'evil' is overdramatic," Mia said, "when actually, it's extremely simple. "

  "Yes. " A few knots untangled. She should have known by now that she didn't have to explain to Mia. "And he doesn't understand that I can't bear the idea of seeing Evan again, of hearing his voice. I think I'd break this time. I think it would shatter me. "

  "You're stronger than that. "

  Nell shook her head. "He. . . shrinks me. I don't know if you can understand what I mean. "

  "Yes, I do. Do you want a spell, a charm, to bolster yourself? To shield yourself from one man so you can have the other?" Mia reached over, stroked Isis along her sleek back. The cat raised her head, exchanged what seemed to be a telling look with her mistress, then curled up.

  "There are things that can be done," Mia said, briskly now. "To protect, to center yourself, to enhance your own energies. But beneath it all, Nell, the power's inside you. For now. . . "

  She slipped the silver chain and its silver disk over her head. "You gave Zack your talisman, so I'll give you one of mine. It was my great-grandmother's. "

  "I can't take it from you. "

  "On lend," Mia said, slipping the chain over Nell's head. "She was a very canny witch, my great-grandmama. Married well. Made a killing on the stock market, and kept it, for which I continue to be grateful. I wouldn't like being poor. She acted as doctor on the island before we had one with a medical degree living here. She treated warts, delivered babies, stitched up gashes, and nursed half the population through a dangerous run of influenza among other things. "

  "It's lovely. What does the carving mean?"

  "It's an old language, similar to what was written on the ogham stones in ancient Ireland. It means courage. And now that you're wearing my courage, I'll give you my advice. Sleep. Let him wrestle with his feelings while you examine your own. When you go to him-and as much as he loves you he won't come back to you-be clear in your mind what it is you want, and what you're willing to do for it. "


  "You're being an asshole, Zack. "

  "Okay. Now will you shut up?"

  Ripley considered never shutting up a sister's privilege. "Listen, I know she screwed up. But don't you want to know why?" She slapped her hands on his desk, leaning down so she could get in his face in a satisfactory manner. "Don't you want to push, dig, maneuver until she tells you why she's still married?"

  "She had plenty of time to tell me if she wanted to. " Zack concentrated on his computer. His business on the mainland hadn't just been buying a ring; he had also testified in a court case. Now that it was done, he could update his file.

  Ripley made a sound somewhere between a groan and a scream. "You make me crazy. I don't know how you don't make yourself crazy. You're in love with a married woman. "

  He spared her a withering glance. "That fact is very clear in my mind right about now. Go do your patrol. "

  "Look, it's obvious she doesn't want the other guy. She ditched him. Also obvious is that she's moony about you and vice versa. Nell's been here, what, five months? And from all appearances she's digging in for the duration. Whatever came before is over. "

  "She's legally married. That doesn't spell over for me. "

  "Yeah, yeah, Dudley Do-Right. " The fact that she admired his code of honor didn't mean it couldn't exasperate her. "So let it ride for a while. Just let things go as they've been going. Why the hell do you have to marry her, anyway? Oh, wait, I forgot who I'm talk
ing to. But if you want my advice-"

  "I don't. I really don't. "

  "Fine. Stew in your own juice, then. " She grabbed her jacket, then immediately tossed it down again. "I'm sorry. I can't stand to see you hurting. "

  Because he knew that, he gave up on pretending to update files, rubbed his hands over his face. "I can't make a life with someone who has another life that she hasn't finished. I can't take a woman to bed who's legally married to another man. And I can't love someone the way I love Nell and not want, not expect, marriage, home, and children. I can't do those things, Rip. "

  "No, you can't. " She came to him then, wrapping her arms around his neck from the back, resting her chin on top of his head. "Maybe I could. " Though she couldn't imagine loving anyone enough to make the choice. "But I understand you can't. What I don't understand is why if you love her, and you want her, you can't sit her down and make her explain it. You deserve to know. "

  "I'm not going to make her do anything, not only because I don't work that way but because I have a feeling the man she's married to did plenty of making her. "

  "Zack. " Ripley turned her head so that her cheek rested on his hair. "Did it ever occur to you that she's afraid to divorce him?"

  "Yeah. " His stomach did a quick, nasty pitch. "I came around to that about three o'clock in the morning. If it's true, I've got plenty of feelings to punch into that bag. But it doesn't change what is. She's married, she didn't tell me. She doesn't trust me enough to be there for her, whatever it takes. "

  He reached up, closed his hand around hers.

  That's how Nell saw them when she opened the door, holding on to each other. And she saw the beam of blame shoot out of Ripley's eyes even as the shutters came down on Zack's.

  "I need to speak with you. Alone. Please. "

  Instinctively Ripley tightened her grip, but Zack gave her hand a squeeze. "Ripley was just heading out on patrol. "

  "Yeah, sure, toss me out just when it's getting good. " She was shrugging into her jacket, contemplating that this was what it felt like when people said you could cut the tension with a knife, when Betsy poked her head in the door.

  "Sheriff-Hi, Nell, Ripley. Sheriff, Bill and Ed Sutter are starting to mix it up out in from of the hotel. It looks like it could get messy. "

  "I'll take care of it. "

  "No. " Zack got up at Ripley's statement. "We'll take care of it. "

  The Sutter brothers vacillated between staunch family loyally and hating each other like poison. Since they were both bullheaded and built like the same animal, he thought it best not to let Ripley get into a two-on-one situation. He gave Nell a brief glance as he walked outside. "You'll have to wait. "

  So cold, she thought, rubbing her arms. It was hard to accept ice from a man who had such warmth. He wasn't going to make this easy. Oddly enough, even after the worst of it the evening before, she'd convinced herself that he would.

  He would let her talk. He would sympathize, understand, hold her.

  Standing alone in the station house, Nell watched that little fantasy crack in two and disappear.

  Here she was, swallowing her pride, risking her peace of mind and well-being, and all he could do was spare her a single icy look.

  Well, then, maybe she should just let bad enough alone.

  Stung, she pulled open the door. Two steps out and she could not only see the commotion up the street, she could hear it. Freezing in place, she hugged herself and watched it play out.

  One big man with short-cropped hair belly-slammed another big man with short-cropped hair. Curses were flying. An interested crowd was gathering at a safe distance, and some of them appeared to be taking sides by hooting and calling out names.

  Zack and Ripley were already wading in, muscling the men apart. Nell couldn't hear what they were saying, but while it quieted the crowd, it didn't appear to have much impact on the Sutter brothers.

  They were all but snapping at each other's faces.

  Nell cringed, closed in when she saw the first fist strike. There was a lot of shouting now, and she heard it like the pounding of the surf. A lot of motion that seemed lost in a fast blur.

  Zack had one man's arm, Ripley the other's. Both had their handcuffs out. Bumping, shoving. Curses and clipped warnings.

  Then one brother swung viciously at the other, missed his mark and plowed his fist into Zack's face.

  She watched Zack's head snap back, heard the crowd gasp as one voice. Everyone went so still, it seemed like a film stopped in a freeze-frame.

  She was already rushing across the street as motion and voices started again.

  "Well, goddamn it, Ed, you're under arrest. " Zack snapped the cuffs in place as Ripley did the same. "And for good measure, the same goes for you, Bill.

  Couple of hotheaded peckerbrains. You people go on about your business now," he ordered as he muscled Ed around.

  He caught sight of Nell, standing on the sidewalk like a deer caught in the headlights, and cursed again.

  "Come on, Sheriff, you know I wasn't aiming at you. "

  "Doesn't matter a damn to me who you were aiming at. " Not when he tasted blood in his mouth. "You just assaulted an officer. "

  "He started it. "

  "Like hell," Bill shot back as Ripley walked him briskly along. "But I'm sure as hell going to finish it when I get the chance. "

  "You and what army?"

  "Just shut up," Ripley ordere'd. "Couple of forty-year-old delinquents. "

  "Ed's the one who punched him. What're you hauling me in for?"

  "You're a damn public nuisance. If the two of you want to butt heads, do it in the privacy of one of your homes and keep it off the streets. "

  "You're not going to put us in jail. " Calmer now as he saw his fate, Ed turned his head to appeal. "Come on now, Zack, you know my wife'll skin me if you lock me up. It was just family business, after all. "

  "Not when it's on my street, and not when it involves my goddamn face. " His jaw throbbed like a bitch. He marched Ed straight into the station house and back to one of the two tiny holding cells. "You're going to have some time to cool off before I get around to calling your wife. Whether she cares enough to come down and make your bail is up to her. "

  "Same goes," Ripley told Bill cheerfully as she uncuffed him and nudged him into a cell.

  Once the cell doors were shut and locked, she dusted her hands. "I'll write up the report. I type slower than you do. I'll call the wives, too, though I suspect they'll hear about this before I even start on the paperwork. "

  "Yeah. " Disgusted, Zack swiped the back of his hand over his mouth and smeared blood.

  "You're going to want some ice on that jaw. Lip, too. Ed Sutler's got a fist the size of Idaho. Hey, Nell, why don't you take our hero to your place and give him some ice?"

  Unaware that she'd come in, Zack turned slowly and stared at Nell as she stood in the open doorway.

  "Yes. All right. "

  "There's ice in the back. I can take care of it. "

  "You'd be better off putting some distance between yourself and Ed," Ripley advised. "Until you're sure you're not going to unlock that cell and punch him back. "

  "Maybe. "

  His eyes weren't cold anymore, Nell noted. They were hot green glass. She moistened her lips. "Ice'll help keep the swelling down. And. . . some rosemary tea might help the ache. "

  "Fine. Great. " His head was already ringing, why not finish it off? "Two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar fine, for both of them," he snapped at Ripley. "Or twenty days. They don't like the sound of that, fill out a formal arrest warrant, and they can deal with the court. "

  "Yes, sir. " Ripley beamed as Zack stalked out.

  Wasn't this great? she thought. The whole thing had really brightened her mood.

  They walked to the cottage in silence. Nell no longer knew what to say or how to say it. This furiously angry man was every bit as much a stranger as the
icy cold one had been. There was no doubt in her mind that he didn't particularly want to deal with her right now. She knew just how long it could take to regain equilibrium after a blow to the face.

  Still, he'd taken a fist at short range, and other than the head, and temper snap, he'd had little reaction.

  People were always saying someone was tougher than he looked. It seemed to be true about Zachariah Todd.

  She opened the cottage door and, still saying nothing, walked back to the kitchen and began to make an ice pack out of a plastic bag wrapped in a thin cloth.

  "Appreciate it. I'll get the dishcloth back to you. "

  She'd already lifted the kettle to make tea. She blinked at him. "Where are you going?"

  "To walk off what I can of this mad. "

  Seeing no choice, she set the kettle down again. "I'll go with you. "

  "You don't want to be with me right now, and I don't want to be with you. "

  It was quite a discovery to learn that there were times a slap was preferable to words. "That can't be helped. We have things to talk about, and the longer it's put off the harder it'll be. "

  She opened the kitchen door, waited. "Let's try the woods. We can consider it neutral territory. "

  He hadn't bothered with a jacket, and the rain that had swept in the night before had left cool temperatures in its wake. He didn't seem to mind. She glanced up at him as they headed into her little wedge of forest.

  "That ice isn't going to do any good if you don't use it. "

  He pressed it to his aching jaw and felt mildly ridiculous.

  "In the summer when I came here I wondered what it would be like to walk through the trees in autumn, with all the color and the first bites of cold. I'd missed the cold, the change of seasons, when I lived in California. "

  She let out a little breath, drew one in. "I lived in California for three years. Los Angeles primarily, though we spent a lot of time in the house in Monterey. I preferred it there, but I learned not to let him know that or he'd have found ways to cancel trips north. He liked to find little ways to punish me. "

  "You married him. "

  "I did. He was handsome and romantic and clever and rich. I thought, Why, here comes my prince and we'll live happily ever after. I was dazzled and flattered and in love. He worked very hard to make me fall in love with him. There's no point in going into all the details. You've guessed some of them anyway. He was cruel, in little ways, in big ones. He made me feel small. Small, smaller, smallest, until I all but disappeared. When he hit me. . . the first time it was a shock. No one had ever hit me before. I should've left, right that minute. Or tried. He would never have let me, but I should've tried. But I'd only been married a few months, and somehow he made me feel I'd deserved it. For being stupid. Or clumsy. Or forgetful. For all manner of things. He trained me like a dog. I'm not proud of that. "

  "Did you get help?"

  It was so quiet in the woods. She could hear, in that quiet, every step she and Zack took over the ground already strewn with fallen leaves.

  "Not at first. I knew about abuse, intellectually. I'd read articles, stories. But that didn't apply to me. I wasn't part of that cycle. I'd come from a good, stable home. I'd married an intelligent, successful man. I lived in a big, beautiful house. I had servants. "

  She slipped a hand into her pocket. She'd made a magic bag for courage, and had tied it with seven careful knots. Letting her fingers worry it helped calm her nerves.

  "It was just that I kept making mistakes, that was all. I thought that once I learned, everything would be fine again. But it only got worse, and I couldn't keep deluding myself. One night he dragged me upstairs by my hair. I had long hair then," she explained. "I thought he would kill me. I thought he would beat me and rape me, then kill me. He didn't. He didn't do any of those things. But I realized he could have, and I wouldn't have been able to stop him. I went to the police, but he's an influential man. He has connections. I had a few bruises, but nothing major. They didn't do anything. "

  Knowing that burned a hole through him. "They should have. They should've taken you to a shelter. "

  "As far as they were concerned, I was a rich, spoiled trophy wife causing trouble. It doesn't matter," she said wearily. "They could have taken me anywhere.

  He'd have found me. I ran once, and he found me. And I paid for it. He made it clear to me, he made sure I understood one vital point: I belonged to him, and I would never get away. Wherever I went, he'd find me. He loved me. "

  It sent a violent chill through her to say it. She stopped, turned to face Zack. "His version of love, beyond rules, beyond bounds. Selfish, cold and obsessive and powerful. He would see me dead before he'd let me go. That's not an exaggeration. "

  "I believe you. But you got away. "

  "Because he thinks I'm dead. " She told him, her voice clear and empty of emotion, what she had done to break the chains.

  "Jesus Christ, Nell. " He threw the ice bag to the ground. "It's a miracle you didn't kill yourself. "

  "Either way, I was getting away. I was coming here. I believe, completely believe, that the minute that car went over the cliff, I started coming here. And to you. "

  Because he wanted, too strongly, to touch her and wasn't yet sure if it would be a caress or a furious shake, he jammed his hands in his pockets. "I had a right to know, when things changed between us. I had a right to know. "

  "I didn't expect things to change between us. "

  "But they damn well did. And if you didn't know where we were heading, then you are stupid. "

  "I'm not stupid. " Her voice took on an edge. "Maybe I was wrong, but I'm not stupid. I didn't expect to fall in love with you, I didn't want to fall in love with you, or even get involved with you. You pursued me. "

  "It doesn't make any difference how it happened.

  The fact is, it did. You know where you stood and why, but you didn't let me know. "

  "I'm a liar," she said evenly. "I'm a cheat, I'm a bitch. But don't you ever call me stupid again. "

  "Jesus Christ. " At his wits' end, he stalked away, lifted his gaze to the sky.

  "I won't be demeaned, not by anyone. Not ever again. I won't be belittled, and I won't be brushed aside until it's convenient for you to pay attention again. "

  Curious, he turned his head, stared at her. "Is that what you think this is?"

  "I'm telling you how it is. I did a lot of thinking since you walked out of the house yesterday. I'm not going to whimper and slide into the corner just because you're annoyed with me. That insults both of us. "

  "Well, three cheers. "

  "Oh, go to hell. "

  He turned completely around and stepped toward her. The dread curled in her stomach, her palms went clammy, but she stood her ground.

  "It's a hell of a time to pick a fight with me, especially when you're wrong. "

  "I'm only wrong if I'm standing where you are. Standing here, I did what I had to do. I wish I hadn't hurt you, but I can't go back and change that. "

  "No, you can't. So we go from here. Did you leave out anything else I should know?"

  "The woman who drove off that cliff was named Helen Remington. Mrs. Evan Remington. I don't answer to that name anymore. It's not who I am. "

  "Remington. " He said it softly. She could all but see him flipping through some mental data file. "Hollywood type. "

  "That's right. "

  "You got about as far away from that as you could manage. "

  "That's right, too. I'll never go back. I've found the life I want here. "

  "With or without me?"

  For the first time since she'd begun her story, her stomach clutched. "That's up to you. "

  "No, it's not. You already know what I want. Now it's what you want. "

  "I want you. You know that. "

  "Then you have to finish what you started. You have to end it. File for divorce. "

  "I can't. Haven't
you heard anything I've said?"

  "Every word, and more that you didn't say. " Part of him wanted to soothe her, to draw her close, shelter her. To tell her none of it mattered now.

  But it did.

  "You can't live your whole life wondering, looking over your shoulder, or pretending three years away. Neither can I. For one thing, it's going to start eating at you, and for another, the world's a small place. You'll never be sure he won't find you. If he does, or if you're afraid he has, are you going to run again?"

  "It's been more than a year since I left. He can't find me if he thinks I'm dead. "

  "You'll never be sure. You have to end it, but you don't have to end it alone. I won't let him touch you. This isn't his turf," he said, lifting her face with a finger under her chin. "It's mine. "

  "You're underestimating him. "

  "I don't think so. I know I'm not underestimating myself, or Ripley, or Mia. Or a lot of people on the island who would go out of their way for you. "

  "I don't know if I can do what you're asking. For more than a year I've focused on doing everything I could to make certain he doesn't find out I'm alive, he doesn't find out where I am. I don't know if I've got it in me to step out again. I need to think. I need you to give me time to think. "

  "All right. Tell me what you decide. " He stooped to get the ice bag. The ice was mostly melted. As he didn't care a great deal about the pain in his jaw, he opened it, spilled out the contents. "If you don't want to marry me, Nell, I'll accept that. But after you think all this through, I need you to tell me what you decide there, too. "

  "I love you. I don't have to think that through. "

  He stared at her, standing in the quiet woods where the leaves rioted color and the air still carried the faintest scent of yesterday's rain.

  He held out a hand for hers. "I'll walk you home. "

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