Face the fire, p.19

Face the Fire, page 19

 part  #3 of  Three Sisters Island Series

 

Face the Fire


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Chapter Eighteen

  She'd intended to relax, shop, indulge in a day at a spa or salon. She'd intended to do as little thinking as possible for three days and three nights. To focus on her own emotional and physical well-being. She had not intended to take the time and effort to gain admittance into the federal facility where Evan Remington was being held.

  But since she had done so, she could rationalize the decision. Time was growing short. If fate was leading her to Remington, she would follow the path. She was in no real danger, and there was the possibility, however slight, that something good could come out of the visit. She didn't question the fact that she was able to set up a meeting with him with relatively little trouble. There were powers at work that scoffed at the tangled red tape of bureaucracy. And she was part of them.

  She faced him across a wide counter split down the center by a barricade of thick, reinforced glass. Mia picked up the phone that would link them, as he did.

  "Mr. Remington. Do you remember me?"

  "Whore," he hissed.

  "Yes, I see you do. And that the months you've spent in here haven't improved your disposition. "

  "I'll be out soon. "

  "Is that what he tells you?" She leaned a little closer. "He lies. "

  A muscle began to twitch in his cheek. "I'll be out soon," he repeated. "And you'll be dead. "

  "We've beaten him twice. And only a few nights ago he ran from me with his tail between his legs. Has he told you that?"

  "I know what's going to happen. I've seen it. I know you'll all die screaming. Can you see it?"

  For a moment she could, reflected on the glass between them. The dark, boiling storm, the rips of lightning, the swirl of roaring wind as the sea opened like a hungry mouth and swallowed the island whole.

  "He shows you his desire, but not reality. "

  "I'll have Helen. " His voice went dreamy, like a child repeating a rhyme. "She'll crawl back to me. She'll pay for her deception, her betrayal. "

  "Nell's beyond you. Look at me. At me," she demanded. She wouldn't allow even his thoughts to touch Nell now. "There's only me to deal with. He's using you, Evan. As he would a puppet, or a vicious little dog. He uses your illness, your anger. He'll destroy you with it. I can help you. "

  "He'll fuck you before he kills you. Want a preview?"

  It happened fast. Pain ripped through her breasts as if claws had dug into her flesh. A spear of ice jabbed with one hard thrust between her legs. She didn't cry out, though a scream of rage and horror spewed into her throat. Instead she drew her power down like armor. Punched it out like a fist. Remington's head snapped back, and his eyes went wide with shock.

  "He uses," she said calmly. "You pay. Did you think threats and ploys would make me tremble? I am of the Three. What works in me is beyond your scope. I can help you. I can save you from the horror he will bring you. If you'll trust me and help yourself, I can close you off from him. I can shield you so that he can't use or harm you. "

  "Why?"

  "To save myself and what I love, I would save you. "

  He inched closer to the glass. She could hear his raspy breathing over the receiver. For a moment true pity stirred in her.

  "Mia Devlin. " He licked his lips, then they spread into a wide, mad smile. "You'll burn! Burn the witch!"

  He cackled even as the guard rushed over to restrain him. "I'll watch while you die screaming. "

  Though Remington dropped the phone when the guard dragged him away, she heard his wild laughter long after the door slammed and locked behind him.

  The laughter, she thought, of the damned.

  Sam had a meeting with his accountant. Revenue was up, but so were expenses and overhead. The Magick Inn was operating in the red for the first time in thirty years, but as Sam saw it that would change. He'd booked two conventions for the fall, and with the winter holiday package he was putting together, he expected to recoup some of the loss over that historically slow reservation period. Until that time he could, and would, continue to plow his own money into the hotel. If the hotel, and the island, went down in a matter of weeks, it wouldn't be because of lack of faith on his part.

  Where the hell was she? Couldn't she have waited to go off on some shopping spree until after their lives, their fates, their futures were more secure?

  How many pairs of shoes did the woman need, for God's sake?

  It was just an excuse to get away from him, he thought. He'd told her he loved her, and she'd run like a rabbit. Things got a little bit sticky, and instead of staying put and dealing with it, she'd bolted to the mainland and . . .

  He stopped, scowled down at his own half-finished signature on the correspondence in front of him.

  "Moron," he muttered.

  "I beg your pardon?"

  "Nothing. " He shook his head at his assistant and completed his signature. "Check on the winter brochures, Mrs. Farley," he told her as he signed the next letter. "I want to be certain that the corrections are made before the end of the month. I want to meet with the head of sales tomorrow. Find me the time. "

  She flipped through his calendar. "You're free at eleven, and at two. "

  "Eleven. "

  "And send a memo to Housekeeping re . . . How long have you been married?"

  "You want to know how long the housekeeping staff has been married?"

  "No, Mrs. Farley. How long have you been married?"

  "Thirty-nine years last February. "

  "Thirty-nine years. How do you do it?"

  Mrs. Farley laid her pad down, took off her glasses. "I could say it's a bit like alcoholism. One day at a time. "

  "I never thought of it like that. Marriage as an addiction. "

  "Certainly as a condition. It's also a job that requires attention and work, cooperation and creativity. "

  "That doesn't sound particularly romantic. "

  "There's nothing more romantic than going through life, with all of its spins, with someone you love. Someone who loves and understands you. Someone who'll be there for the big bouquets. Children, grandchildren, a new house, a well-earned promotion. And for the weeds. Illness, a burned dinner, a bad day at work. "

  "There are people who get used to taking care of the bouquets and the weeds alone. "

  "I admire independence. The world would be a stronger place if we were all capable of handling life on our own. But being capable of it doesn't mean being unable to share and depend on someone else. It shouldn't mean being unwilling to. That's the romance. "

  "I never saw my parents share much more than an affection for Italian designers and a box at the opera. "

  "That's a shame for them, isn't it? Some people don't know how to give love, or how to ask for it. "

  "Sometimes the answer's no. "

  "And sometimes it isn't. " The faint edge of irritation worked into her voice. "Some people expect things to fall into their lap. Oh, they might work a bit for it. I'll just shake this tree, and if I shake it long enough that pretty red apple will plop right into my hand. Never occurs to them that they might have to climb the damn tree, fall out a couple of times, get some scrapes and bruises before they get to that apple. Because if the apple's worth wanting, it's worth risking a broken neck. "

  On a huff, she got to her feet. "I need to type up this memo. "

  He was so surprised when she strode out of his office and shut the door smartly, he didn't call her back to tell her he'd never dictated the memo.

  "Look what happens when I have a conversation about marriage," he thought aloud. "My assistant bites my head off. And I know how to climb a damn tree. I've climbed plenty of trees. "

  And right now, he felt as if he were hanging by his fingertips from a very unstable branch. And the prettiest apple was still just out of his reach.

  He picked up a file, intending to bury his frustrations in work. And a light went on inside him. Mia was back on the Sisters.

  She'd called Lulu from the
ferry and had gotten an update on bookstore business, and on island news. As she'd asked Lulu to come up to the house that evening to fill in the gaps, there was no need to drop by work. Tomorrow was soon enough to face the pile of phone messages and the backlog generated over her three-day absence.

  She'd called Ripley as well, and Nell. Since she thought the best way to pass on the details of her meeting with Remington was during a civilized meal at her own house the following evening, she needed to drop by Island Market for some supplies.

  She'd yet to call Sam.

  She would call him. She wheeled her cart over to the produce section and stared at the arugula. As soon as she figured out how to handle him, and what had been said between them, she'd call him. Life ran more smoothly with a clear-cut, but flexible, plan.

  "Still shopping?"

  And sometimes, Mia realized as she turned and looked at Sam, fate wasn't content to hang back until the plan was formulated and refined.

  "I consider shopping a work in progress. " She selected lettuce, contemplated the Roma tomatoes. "It's an odd time of day to see a businessman in the market. "

  "I'm out of milk. "

  "I'm quite sure you won't find it in produce. "

  "I'm thinking about getting an apple. A pretty red apple. "

  She continued to select items for a salad. "The plums look good today. "

  "Sometimes only one thing will do. " He let his fingers tangle in her hair. "Did you enjoy your time away?"

  "It was . . . productive. " Because he made her feel uneasy, she wheeled into dairy. "I found a nice little Wicca shop. They had a wonderful selection of bell jars. "

  "You can never have too many. "

  "My sentiments," she agreed, and picked up a quart of milk.

  "Thanks. " He took it from her, tucked it under his arm. "Why don't you have dinner with me tonight?

  You can tell me about your trip. "

  He wasn't behaving the way she'd anticipated. There was no flare of temper over her abrupt departure, no demands to know where she'd been, what she'd been doing. As a result, she felt guilty and small. Damn clever of him.

  "Actually, Lulu's coming up tonight so that we can deal with some store business. But I'm having a little dinner party tomorrow. I was going to call you. " She put a small wheel of Brie in her cart. "I've some things to discuss with everyone. Will seven o'clock work for you?"

  "Sure. "

  He leaned in, cupping her cheek with his free hand, laying his lips on hers. Softly, warmly, lingering over the kiss until it shifted from the casual to something more suited to the dark.

  "I love you, Mia. " His fingers skimmed over her cheek before he stepped back. "See you tomorrow. "

  She stood where she was, her hands vised on the handle of the cart, as he strolled away with a quart of milk under his arm.

  For years, so many years of her life, she'd have given everything to have him look at her in the way he'd just done, to tell her he loved her, in just that way.

  Now that he had, why should it be so hard?

  Why should it make her want to weep?

  Lulu got behind the wheel of her battered and beloved orange VW bug. Since the night she'd taken the unexpected swim, she'd felt safe, solid, secure.

  She didn't know what charms Ripley and Nell had conjured up, but they were working like - well, charms. Whatever you wanted to call the thing that was hovering over the island, her girls were going to screw it to the wall.

  Still, she felt better knowing Mia was back on-island, tucked into the cliff house, getting back to her routine. And though it had been a pill to swallow, she felt more at ease about Mia since she had Sam fretting over her.

  The boy'd been an idiot, she decided as she drove through the village with the classic sounds of Pink Floyd blasting through the speakers. But he'd been young. She'd done plenty of stupid things when she was young.

  Every one of them had led her here. She supposed, if she was going to be fair, everything Sam had done had led him right back to the Sisters, and Mia.

  Not that she was finished giving him grief, but she would dispense it in smaller doses now. Only one thing mattered, and that was Mia's happiness. If Sam Logan was the answer to that, then he was going to damn well come up to the mark.

  If she had to kick him up to it.

  The idea made her grin wickedly as she started up the cliff road. And was oblivious to the mist that rose and rolled behind her.

  When the music turned to a hiss of static, she glanced down at the radio, slapped irritably at the little tape player installed under it.

  "Damn it, you better not eat The Wall , you cheap bastard. "

  The response, a long, deep howl through the speaker, had her hands jerking on the wheel. The car shuddered around her as the fog poured, cold as death, through her open windows. Yelping, she hit the brakes first, an automatic response as her vision was obscured. Instead of stopping, the little car speeded up, its cheerful rubber band pinging now a machine gun's rat-a-tat . Under her hands the wheel vibrated, iced, and began to spin on its own. Though it felt like a slick and frozen snake, she gripped it, hard, and yanked. The scream of the tires echoed her own as she caught a glimpse of the edge of the cliff.

  In front of her the windshield became a starburst. Ice crackling over ice. Then the stars went black. The spoon Mia was using to stir sauce for the pasta she'd made for Lulu clattered out of her numb hand. As it bounced to the floor, the vision shrieked through her head, all sound and fury. Her throat tightened as if a hand had squeezed it as she whirled away from the stove and ran. She flew out of the house, blind with panic, racing to the road on foot. From her hilltop view, she saw the filthy mist spewing behind the little orange car on the road below, and was running, running when she saw the car spin out of control and toward the cliff.

  "No, no, no!" Fear blanked her mind, rolled sick in her stomach. "Help me. Help me. " She chanted it over and over as she struggled to find her power through the sheer wall of terror. All she had, everything she was, she gathered. And heaved the magic inside her toward the car as it crashed into the guardrail and flipped like a toy tossed by a child's angry hand.

  "Hold, hold. " Oh, God, she couldn't think . "Blow air, come wind, a bridge to form. Hold her safe, keep her from harm. Please, please," she chanted. "A net, a bridge, a steady wall, keep her from that terrible fall. "

  Panting, her vision blurred with tears, she ran the last yards to where the car teetered on the broken guardrail, over the drop to the rocks below. "It will not have what's dear to me. As I will, so mote it be. "

  Her voice broke as she reached the rail. "Lulu!"

  The car balanced precariously on its roof, seesawing on the crushed rail. The wind she'd conjured blew the hair back from her face as she climbed over the rail.

  "Don't touch it!"

  Small rocks and clumps of earth spilled off the unstable edge when she spun around at the shout. Sam leaped out of his car.

  "I don't know how long it can hold. I feel it slipping, inside me. "

  "You can hold it. " He pushed his way through the wind, climbed the rail until he, too, stood on the narrow edge. "Focus. You have to focus. I'll get her out. "

  "No. She's mine. "

  "That's the point. " He spent a desperate moment to take Mia's arms, shake her. The car could go at any minute, he knew. And so could the edge where they stood. "Exactly. Hold it. You're the only one strong enough to do it. Step over the rail. "

  "I won't lose her!" Mia shouted. "Or you. "

  Her legs trembled as she climbed over the rail. Her hands shook as she lifted them. And she saw the fog begin to rise again. Saw the dark shape of the wolf forming from it. Her body stilled. Fury spiked inside her and stabbed away the fear. "You won't have her. " The hand she flung out was rock-steady now. She faced the wolf, bore the weight of the magic she called on her shoulders. "You may have me, that's up to fate. But by all I am, all I have, y
ou won't take her. "

  It snarled and started toward her. It could take her life now, she thought, and so be it. Her magic would hold. She risked a glance at Sam and saw, with inner horror, that he was easing a bleeding and unconscious Lulu out of the car. And the car tipped and swayed.

  With a last push, she left herself open and defenseless, shoving everything toward the cliffs. And the wolf bunched to leap.

  As he charged, energy shot into her, out from her. It struck him like a lightning bolt. With a furious howl, he vanished into the fog.

  "Didn't count on my sisters, did you? You bastard. "

  The wind sucked away the mist, and she saw both Ripley and Nell spring out of their cars before she turned to run toward Sam.

  He had Lulu in his arms. The edge of the ground crumbled under his feet and sent him stumbling forward as a chunk of the ledge rained down to the sea. Mia reached out, grabbed him as the car overbalanced and tumbled over the cliffs. He was struggling back over the rail when the gas tank exploded.

  "She's alive," he managed.

  "I know. " She kissed Lulu's white cheek, laid a hand on her heart. "We'll take her to the clinic. "

  Outside the emergency clinic, where the air was quiet and the breeze balmy, Nell tended the cuts on Mia's feet.

  "Got six million pair of shoes," Ripley stated while she paced, restless as a cat. "And you run barefoot over broken glass. "

  "Yes. Silly, isn't it?" She hadn't felt the glass slice into her feet when she'd run to the wrecked car. Under Nell's gentle healing, she felt no pain now.

  "You can fall apart. " Ripley's tone gentled, and she laid a hand on Mia's shoulder. "You're entitled. "

  "I don't need to, but thanks. She's going to be all right. " Mia did close her eyes for a moment, waited until she felt steadier. "I looked at her injuries. She'll be unhappy and very pissed off about her car, but she'll be all right. I never considered, never thought she could be harmed this way. Used this way. "

  "Harm her, harm you," Ripley said. "That's what Mac . . . " She trailed off. Winced.

  "Mac? What do you mean?" Despite Nell's protest, Mia got to her feet. She caught a glimmer, turned white as a sheet. "Something happened before. The beach. " Furious, she grabbed Ripley's arms. "What happened?"

  "Don't blame her. Blame all of us. " Nell rose, ranged herself with Ripley. "She didn't want you to know, and we agreed. "

  "Know what?" Sam asked as he walked up with a tray of takeout coffee.

  "How dare you keep anything to do with Lulu from me. " She swung around to him, ready to bite.

  "He didn't know," Nell interrupted. "We didn't tell him either. "

  Ripley told them now, said it all fast. And watched Mia's pale cheeks bloom with ripe temper. "She might've been killed. I left her! I left her and went to the mainland. Do you think I'd have done that if I'd known she was a target? You had no right, no right to exclude me from this. "

  "I'm sorry. " Nell lifted her hands, let them fall. "We did what we thought was best. We were wrong. "

  "Not so wrong. You're going to have to deal with it, Mia," Sam added when she turned to him. "You nearly lost on the cliff road tonight because you divided your energy. Divided hell. You dumped it out and all but left yourself empty. "

  "Do you think I'd give less than my life to protect her, or anyone I loved?"

  "No, I don't. " He touched her cheek, and when she jerked away he simply moved in and took her face firmly in his hands. "And neither does she. Isn't she entitled to think of you?"

  "I can't talk about this now. I need to be with her. " She stepped away, walked to the door. But stopped when she opened it. "Thank you for what you did," she said to Sam. "I'll never forget it. "

  Later, while Mia sat beside Lulu's hospital bed, Ripley and Nell slipped into the room. For a time, there was nothing but silence.

  "They want to keep her until tomorrow," Mia said at length. "Because of the concussion. She wasn't happy about it, but she's weak enough that she couldn't put up much of a fight. The arm . . . " She had to take a moment to steady her voice. "It's a clean break. She'll be in a cast a few weeks, but it'll be fine. "

  "Mia," Nell began. "We're so sorry. "

  "No. " Mia shook her head, kept her eyes on Lulu's bruised face. "I'm calmer now, and I've thought it through. I understand what you did, and why. I don't agree. We're a circle, and we must value and respect that - and each other. But I also know how stubborn and persuasive she is. "

  Lulu's eyelids fluttered, and her voice was thin and raspy. "Don't talk about me like I'm not here. "

  "Just be quiet," Mia ordered. "I'm not speaking to you. " But she took the hand Lulu held out. "Thank God you'll have to buy a new car. That mini monstrosity is finally dead. "

  "I'm gonna find me another one just like it. "

  "There couldn't be another one like it. " But if there was, Mia thought, she would find it for her.

  "Don't give these girls or their guys a hard time," Lulu mumbled. She opened one of her blackened eyes, closed it again because her vision was blurry. "Did what I told them to do. Respected their elders. "

  "I'm not angry with them. Just you. " Mia pressed her lips to the back of Lulu's hand. "Go on home," she said to her sisters. "Tell your husbands I won't be turning them into toads anytime in the near future. "

  "We'll come back in the morning. " Nell moved to the bed, laid a kiss on Lulu's forehead. "I love you. "

  "Don't get sloppy. Just a few bumps. "

  "Too bad. " Her voice a bit thick, Ripley leaned over the bedrail and kissed Lulu's cheek. "Because I love you, too, even though you're really short and ugly. "

  With a weak cackle, Lulu freed her good hand from Nell's grasp and waved them off. "Go away. Buncha chattering females. "

  When they'd gone, Lulu shifted in her bed.

  "Pain?" Mia asked.

  "Can't get comfortable. "

  "Here. " Rising, Mia trailed her fingers over Lulu's face, down her casted arm. She murmured softly as she stroked, until Lulu sighed.

  "Better'n drugs. Feel floaty now. Brings back memories. "

  Relieved, Mia sat again. "Go to sleep now, Lu. "

  "Will. You go home. No point you sitting here watching me snore. "

  "Yes, as soon as you sleep. "

  But she sat while Lulu slept, kept watch in the dim light.

  And she was there, keeping watch, when Lulu woke in the morning.

  "You didn't have to come early. "

  "Zack needs to bring the patrol car. " Nell helped Mia set the table and admired the lovely old china.

  "This time of year, there's no telling if he'll get called in for something. And I wanted to see Lulu. "

  "It took guilt, temper, and threats to get her to agree to spend a couple of days in one of the guest rooms. You'd think I was putting her in prison. "

  "She likes her own space," Nell said.

  "She can have it back when she's steadier. "

  Nell brushed a hand over Mia's hair. "How are you?"

  "I'm fine. " The long night's vigil had given her plenty of time to think. To plan.

  "I'd hoped I'd get here early enough to give you a hand. Not that you need it. "

  She studied the dining room, with its flowers and candles already in place. The window were open wide to summer.

  "You can check my fricassee," Mia said as she draped an arm over Nell's shoulders. The gesture, the easy warmth of it, erased any remnants of tension between them.

  "From the smell, it's perfect. " When they were in the kitchen, Nell removed the lid while Mia poured two tall glasses of iced tea. "Everything's perfect. "

  "Well, the weather's not cooperating. " Restless, Mia moved to the door, pushed open the screen and breathed in the wind. "We'll have rain after sunset. A pity. We won't be able to have coffee in the garden. Still, my morning glories have grown a foot in the last three days. Maybe the rain will tease out the blooms. "
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  She turned back to find Nell staring at her. "What?"

  "Oh, Mia, I wish you'd tell me what else is troubling you. I hate seeing you look sad. "

  "Do I? I'm not. " She stepped outside, looked up at the sky. "I'd rather a storm than rain. We haven't had enough storms this summer. It's as if they're building up and waiting for one big blow. I want to stand on my cliffs and meet the lightning. "

  She reached back, covered Nell's hand. "I'm not sad, just unsettled. What happened to Lulu shook me, on the most primal of levels. And now something inside me is waiting, building, like those storms. I know what I have to do. What I will do, but I can't see what's coming. It's frustrating for me to know, and not to see. "

  "Maybe you're looking in the wrong place. Mia, I know what's between you and Sam. I can feel it when I'm within ten feet of you. When I fell in love with Zack and was pulled in all those directions, you were there for me. Why won't you let me do the same for you?"

  "I depend on you. "

  "To a point. Then you step back over this line, and it's only you who can cross it. And you step over it more often since Sam came back to the Sisters. "

  "Then I'd have to say he has upset the balance. "

  "Upset your balance," Nell corrected, and waited for Mia to turn. "Are you in love with him?"

  "A part of me was born loving him. I closed that part off. I had no choice. "

  "And that's the problem, isn't it? The not knowing if you should open it up again or keep it closed. "

  "I made a mistake once, and he left. I can't afford to make a mistake again, whether he stays or goes. "

  "You don't believe he'll stay. "

  "It's not a matter of believing. It's a matter of considering every possibility. If I open myself to him again, completely, what happens if he does go? I can't risk that. Not just for myself, but for all of us. Love isn't a simple thing, you know that. It's not a flower to be picked on a whim. "

  "No, it's not a simple thing. But believing you can control it, mold its shape, plot its direction? That you have to do that? That's a mistake. "

  "I don't want to love him again. " Her voice, always so smooth, so sure, trembled. "I don't want it. I put those dreams aside. I don't need them now. I'm afraid to take them out again. "

  Saying nothing, Nell slipped her arms around Mia, drew her close.

  "I'm not who I was when I loved him. "

  "Neither of you is. What you feel now matters most. "

  "My feelings aren't any clearer than my vision. Before it ends, I'll do whatever needs to be done. " She sighed. "I'm not used to having a shoulder to cry on. "

  "The shoulders are there. You're just not used to leaning. "

  "Maybe you're right. " She closed her eyes, let herself focus on Nell and the life glowing inside her. "I can see you, little sister," she murmured. "I can see you sitting in an old wooden rocker, in a room soft with candleglow. There's a baby at your breast, and its hair is soft as down and bright as sunlight. When I see you like that, I have such hope. Such courage. "

  She drew back, pressed a kiss to Nell's forehead. "Your child will be safe. That I know. " She heard the sound of her front door slamming.

  "That would be Ripley," Mia said dryly. "Not only doesn't she bother to knock, but she can't resist slamming a door. I'm going to take a tray up to Lulu. Then I think we'll have drinks and appetizers in the garden, while the weather holds. "

  As Mia moved inside to greet her guests, Nell thought how typical it had been. She'd begun by offering comfort, and Mia had ended by giving comfort to her.

  "So then this joker says, 'But, Officer, I wasn't stealing the cooler full of beer. I was just moving it. ' "

  Ripley forked up more fricassee. "When I pointed out that that didn't explain how come he had Budweiser on his breath and three empty beer cans lying beside him in the sand, he said maybe somebody drank the beer while he was sleeping. I guess somebody poured beer into him, too, because he was half trashed and it was only three in the afternoon. "

  "How'd you handle it?" Zack asked her.

  "Fined him for drinking in a restricted area, and littering. Cut him a break on lifting the cooler since the guys he'd lifted it from didn't want any hassles. Seeing as they'd had a cooler of beer in a restricted area to begin with. "

  "Imagine that. " Sam shook his head. "Drinking beer on the beach. "

  "Rules is rules," Ripley stated adamantly.

  "Absolutely. None of us ever snuck a six-pack onto the beach. "

  "I recall somebody copping a bottle of his father's best scotch. " Zack grinned. "And how he generously shared it with his pals. Who proceeded to get toasted. "

  "Speak for yourself. " Ripley wagged her fork. "One pull of that stuff was enough for me. Talk about foul. "

  "Such a girl," her brother said.

  "That may be, but I'm not the one who got creamed when we got home. "

  "True enough. I was eighteen," Zack recalled, "and Mom still skinned my butt. "

  "Then she skinned mine. " The memory made Sam wince. "Jesus, that woman could terrorize me. No matter what you did, she knew about it before you'd finished doing it. And if she didn't, she'd get it out of you. She'd just stare at your face and pick away until you'd beg to confess. "

  "That's how it's going to be with my kids. They won't have a prayer. " Ripley slanted Mac a smug look as he laid his hand over hers.

  It flashed into Mia, fast and bright. "You're pregnant. "

  "Hey. " Ripley lifted her water glass. "Nell's not the only one who can get knocked up. "

  "A baby!" Nell leaped out of her chair, danced around the table to throw her arms around Ripley's neck. "This is wonderful! What a way to announce it. "

  "I've been working on that story and segue since this afternoon. "

  "How about that?" With a grin a mile wide and a voice that wasn't quite steady, Zack moved over to tug Ripley's long ponytail. "I'm going to be an uncle. "

  "You've got a couple of months to practice being a daddy first. "

  Amid the jokes and congratulations, Mia rose. She walked to Ripley, running her hands up and down Ripley's arms as she, too, got to her feet. Then Mia simply drew her in. Drew her close. Held her tight. Emotion flooded Ripley's throat, and she turned her face into Mia's hair.

  "There are two," Mia whispered.

  "Two?" Ripley's jaw dropped. "Two?" It was all she could say as she pulled back. "You mean . . . "

  Staggered, she stared down at her flat belly. "Man. "

  "Two what?" In the process of drinking the wine Sam had poured into his glass for a toast, Mac smiled over at his wife. Gradually the shock on her face trickled through. "Two? Twins? We've got two in there? I need to sit down. "

  "You need to sit down?"

  "Right. We need to sit down. " Mac sat, pulled her onto his lap. "Two for one. That's so cool. "

  "They'll be safe. I can see it. " Mia leaned over, kissed Mac's cheeks. "Go on in the living room, be comfortable. I'll bring coffee. Tea for the mothers. Ripley, you'll want to cut back on the caffeine. "

  "Something's wrong," Sam commented when Mia walked into the kitchen. "Something more than Lulu's weighing on her. "

  "She gets worked up about babies. " With her hand on her stomach, Ripley tried to imagine two.

  "It's more than that. I'll give her a hand with the coffee. "

  When he stepped into the kitchen she was standing in the open back door, watching the soft summer rain fall on her gardens.

  "I want to help you. "

  "It's no trouble. "

  He moved to her. "I'm not talking about the coffee. I want to help you. "

  "You have. " She took his hand, gripped it hard for a moment. "You risked your life yesterday for someone I love. You trusted me to hold you, and her, safe so you could help her. "

  "I did the only thing that could be done. "

  "The only thing you could do, Sam. Being you. "

 
"Let's leave that. I want to help with what's bothering you now. "

  "You can't. Not now, in any case. This is my battle, and now there's more at stake than ever. Everything that matters to me is inside this house tonight. And it's there, out there, wanting. Can you feel it?" she whispered. "Just beyond my circle. Pressing, shifting. Waiting. "

  "Yes. I don't want you staying here alone. "

  When she started to move away, he took her firmly by the shoulders, turned her. "Mia, whatever you think or feel or want from me, you're too smart to push aside the power I can add to yours. Are you certain that either of us could have saved Lulu alone?"

  "No. " She let out a breath. "No, I'm not. "

  "If you don't want me with you, I'll sleep in one of the guest rooms, or the goddamn sofa. You've got your dragon to guard you - and a broken arm wouldn't stop her. This isn't about me trying to get into your bed. "

  "I know. Let me think about it. We have other things to discuss tonight. "

  She could think all she liked, he decided as she walked away to finish the coffee. He was staying with her, even if he had to sleep outside in his car.

  She served coffee and slices of cream cake. Then she did something Nell hadn't seen her do in the time they'd known each other.

  Mia drew the drapes and closed out the night.

  "It watches. " Mia's voice was calm as she walked the room, lighting more candles. "Or tries to. My gesture was meant to be rude and dismissive. A petty slap. Petty," she continued as she sat and picked up her own coffee, "but satisfying. I owe it more than a petty slap for harming Lulu. "

  And she would give it more. Much more.

  "I have to say, the timing of this is poor. We should be celebrating Ripley and Mac's news. And we will. "

  She was like a queen, Sam thought. A warrior queen addressing her troops. He wasn't sure how he felt about the image. But as he focused on her, narrowed his vision on her, his belly did a queasy roll.

  "Where did you go, Mia? When you left the island, where did you go?"

  He saw from the quick race of surprise over her face that he'd caught her off guard. And because he had, he reached through that narrow chink and pulled out more. Pulled out enough to have him pushing to his feet.

  "Remington? You went to see Remington?"

  "Yes. " She sipped her coffee, gathered her thoughts while the emotions in the room bulleted and careened around her.

  "Oh, that's fine. That's just fine!" At the explosion from Ripley, Mia looked over at her coolly. "You're the one who's always haranguing me about being cautious, controlled. About being prepared. "

  "That's right. And I was. I wasn't careless or foolish. "

  "And I am?"

  Mia lifted her shoulders in an elegant little shrug. "I'd use the word reckless, which you tend to be. Going to see him was a calculated risk, one that needed to be taken. "

  "You had the nerve to ream us last night for not coming clean about Lulu, then you keep this to yourself. "

  "Hardly," Mia said smoothly. "I'm telling you what I did, and what happened. Freely. "

  "You shouldn't have gone alone. " Nell's voice was quiet, and all the more effective for it. "You had no right to go alone. "

  "I disagree. Remington's feelings toward you would have prevented any possible discussion. Ripley's temper would have very likely forced a confrontation then and there. Of the three of us, I'm most able to deal with him, and I have more need at this point to do so. "

  "There are four of us," Sam reminded everyone.

  "There are fucking six of us. " He'd said nothing to this point, but now Zack got to his feet. "You're going to start remembering there are six of us," Zack ordered Mia. "I don't care if you can shoot lightning out of your goddamn fingertips. There are six of us in this. "

  "Zack. "

  "Be quiet," he snapped at Nell and had her gaping at him.

  "You think because there're two of us in this room who can't whistle up the wind or pull down the moon or whatever the hell you call it, we're just going to sit on our hands. I've got as much at stake as you do, Mia. And I'm still the sheriff on Three Sisters. "

  "I come from them, the same as you do. " Mac drew Mia's considering gaze to him. "I don't have what you have, but I've spent most of my life studying it. Cutting us out this way is not only insulting, it's arrogant. "

  "Just one more way to prove you don't need anyone else. "

  She made herself look directly at Sam. "That wasn't my intention. I'm sorry if that was the result. I'm sorry," she repeated, lifting her hands to encompass everyone in the room. "I wouldn't have gone to see him if I hadn't been certain I could deal with him. At that time and under those circumstances. "

  "Never wrong, are you?" Sam shot out.

  "Oh, I've been wrong. " Because the coffee lay bitter on her tongue, she set the cup aside. "But I wasn't wrong about this. He couldn't harm me. " She shut off the memory of claws and cold. "Remington is being used, and his hate, his madness, is a powerful tool. There was a chance I could reach him, that with his cooperation I could close him off, shut down that source of energy. He's a conduit," she said, looking to Mac for verification. "Shut off the valve, so to speak, and the power weakens. "

  "It's a valid theory. "

  "Screw theories. What happened?" Ripley demanded.

  "He's too far gone. He believes the lies, the promises. And he's damned himself. But that's a weakness, that hunger to bring pain and misery. The singularity of that purpose is innately flawed. In the end it'll destroy itself. But I think we can, and should, move that process along. After what happened yesterday, we must move it along. I won't take any chances with Lulu, and as long as it can't get to me, it will try for her. "

  "I think you're right about that," Mac put in. "Your feelings for her would be seen as a weakness. An Achilles' heel. "

  "Then we act sooner - because it's not a weakness. It's another weapon. "

  "A preemptive strike?" Sam suggested.

  "In a manner of speaking," Mia nodded. "An offensive move rather than defensive. I've been thinking about it for some time. I know, without doubt now, that his power builds over time. There was more when I faced off with it yesterday. Why should we wait until September, give him that much more time to gather strength against us? With you and Ripley and Nell, we have the four elements represented. We have new life, a new circle inside the old - three children who carry the old blood - waiting to be born. That's powerful magic. A banishing spell with full ritual. "

  "The legend calls for something else," he reminded her. "It calls for you to make a choice. "

  "I'm aware of that. I'm aware of all the interpretations, all the nuances. All the risks and sacrifices. Our circle isn't broken, as theirs was. Our power isn't diminished, as theirs was. " Her voice went steely. "By hurting Lulu it has only given me more reason to finish it, by whatever means necessary. My part comes when it comes. And a banishing ritual would be a hell of a distraction - and very possibly put an end to things. Mac?"

  "You'll need the full moon," Mac added, his brow furrowing as he calculated. "That doesn't give you much time. "

  Mia only smiled, but it was fierce and it was cold. "We've had three hundred years. "

 
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