Dance upon the air, p.20

Dance Upon the Air, page 20

 part  #1 of  Three Sisters Island Series

 

Dance Upon the Air


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Chapter Nineteen

  It wasn't easy for an important, successful man to get away by himself for a few days. It was a complicated and tedious business to reschedule meetings, postpone appointments, inform clients, alert staff.

  There was a whole world of people dependent upon him.

  More tedious yet was making travel arrangements personally rather than using the services of an assistant.

  But after careful thought, Evan decided there was nothing else to be done. No one was to know where he was, or what he was doing. Not his staff, not his clients, not the press. Naturally, he could be reached via cell phone if there was a crisis of any sort. Otherwise, until he'd done what he set out to do, he would remain incommunicado.

  He had to know.

  He hadn't been able to get the information his sister had so casually passed on to him out of his mind.

  Helen's double. Helen's ghost.

  Helen.

  He would wake up at night in a cold sweat from images of Helen, his Helen, walking along some picturesque beach. Alive. Laughing at him. Giving herself to any man who crooked his finger.

  It couldn't be borne.

  The terrible grief he'd felt upon her death was turning slowly, inexorably, into a cold and killing rage.

  Had she tricked him? Had she somehow planned and executed the faking of her own death?

  He hadn't thought her smart enough, certainly not brave enough, to try to leave him, much less succeed. She knew the consequences. He had made them perfectly clear.

  Till death do us part.

  Obviously she couldn't have done so alone. She'd had help. A man, a lover. A woman, especially a woman like Helen, could never have devised such a scheme on her own. How many times had she sneaked off to lie with some wife-stealing bastard, working out the details of her deception?

  Laughing and fucking, plotting and planning.

  Oh, there would be payment made.

  He could calm himself again, continue about his business and his life without an outward ripple. He could nearly convince himself again that Pamela's claims were nonsense. She was, after all, a woman. And women, by nature, were given to flights of fancy and foolishness.

  Ghosts didn't exist. And there was only one Helen Remington. The Helen who had been meant for him.

  But at times in that big, glamorous house in Beverly Hills, he thought he heard ghosts whispering, or caught the bright sound of his dead wife's taunting laughter.

  What if she wasn't dead?

  He had to know. He had to be careful, and clever.

  "Ferry's loading. "

  His eyes, pale as water, blinked. "I beg your pardon?"

  The ferry worker stopped blowing on his take-out cup of coffee and instinctively stepped back from that blank stare. It was, he would think later, like staring into an empty sea.

  "Ferry's loading," he repeated. "You're going to Three Sisters, ain't ya?"

  "Yes. " The smile that spread over the handsome face was worse than the eyes. "Yes, I am. "

  ***

  According to legend, the one known as Air had left her island to go with the man who promised to love her, to care for her. And when he'd broken those promises and turned her life into a misery she had done nothing. She'd borne children in sorrow, raised them in fear. Had bowed, and had broken.

  Had died.

  Her last act had been to send her children back to the Sisters for protection. But she had done nothing, even with her powers, to protect or save herself.

  So the first link in the chain of a curse was forged.

  Nell thought of the story again. Of the choices and mistakes, and of destiny. She kept it clear in her head as she walked down the street of what had become her home. What she intended to keep as her home.

  When she walked in, Zack was delivering a blistering lecture to a young boy she didn't recognize. Automatically, she started to step out again, but Zack merely held up a finger and never broke rhythm.

  "You're not only going straight over to Mrs. Demeara's and clean up every last scrap of pumpkin guts and apologize for being a moron, but you're going to pay a fine for possession of illegal explosives and willful destruction of property-five hundred dollars. "

  "Five hundred dollars!" The boy, thirteen at the outside, Nell calculated, lifted a head that had been sunk low. "Jeez, Sheriff Todd, I ain't got five hundred dollars. My mom's going to kill me as is. "

  Zack merely raised his eyebrows and looked merciless. "Did I say I was finished?"

  "No, sir," the boy mumbled, and went back to looking so hangdog that Nell wanted to go pat his head.

  "You can work off the fine by cleaning the station house. Twice a week, three dollars an hour. "

  "Three? But it'll take me. . . " The boy had smartened up enough to shut up. "Yes, sir. You weren't finished. "

  His lips wanted to twitch, but Zack kept them in a firm, hard line. "I've got some odd chores around my place, too. Saturdays. "

  And oh, Zack thought, that one stung. There was no crueler fate than being imprisoned by chores on a Saturday.

  "Same rate. You can start there this Saturday, and in here Monday after school. If I hear you're in any more trouble like this, your mother's going to have to stand in line to skin you. Clear?"

  "Yes, Uncle Zack. . . um, I mean, yes, sir, Sheriff. "

  "Beat it. "

  He beat it, nearly spinning the air into a funnel as he raced past Nell.

  "Uncle Zack?"

  "Second cousins, really. It's an honorary term. "

  "What did he do to earn the hard labor?"

  "Stuck an ash can, that's a firecracker, in his history teacher's pumpkin. It was a damn big pumpkin, too. Blew that shit all over hell and back again. "

  "Now you're sounding proud of him. "

  He pokered up, as best he could. "You're mistaken. Idiot boy could've blown his fingers off, which is what I nearly did at about the same age when I blew my science teacher's pumpkin to hell and back. Which is beside the point, especially when we'll be in for similar Halloween pranks tomorrow if I don't make an example now. "

  "I think you did the job. " She walked over, sat down. "Have you got time for another matter, Sheriff?"

  "I could probably carve out time. " It surprised him that she hadn't leaned over to kiss him, and that she sat so straight, so still, so solemn. "What's the matter?"

  "I'm going to need some help, and some advice. On the law, I suppose. I've generated false identification, and I've put false information on official forms, signing them with a name that isn't legally mine. I think faking my own death is illegal, too. At least there must be something about life insurance fraud. There were probably policies. "

  He didn't take his eyes off hers. "I think a lawyer would be able to handle that for you, and that when all facts are known, there'll be no charges brought. What are you telling me, Nell?"

  "I want to marry you. I want to live my life with you, and make those children with you. To do that, I have to end this, so I will. I need to know what I'm going to have to do, and if I'll have to go to jail. "

  "You're not going to jail. Do you think I'd let that happen?"

  "It's not up to you, Zack. "

  "The false papers and so on aren't going to put anyone's sense of justice up. The fact is. . . " He'd given this angle a great deal of thought. "The fact is, Nell, once you tell the story you're going to be a hero. "

  "No. I'm no one's hero. "

  "Do you know the statistics on spousal abuse?" He pulled open his bottom drawer, took out a file and dropped it on his desk. "I've put some data together on it. You might want to have a look at it sometime. "

  "It was different for me. "

  "It's different for everybody, every time. The fact that you came from a good home and you lived in a big, fancy house doesn't change anything. A lot of people who think it's different for them or that there's nothing they can do to change their situation are go
ing to look at you, hear what you did. Some of them might take a step they might not have taken because of you. That makes you a hero. "

  "Diane McCoy. It still bothers you that you couldn't help her. That she wouldn't let you help her. "

  "There are a lot of Diane McCoys out there. "

  She nodded. "All right. But even if public sentiment falls on my side, there are still legalities. "

  "We'll handle them, one at a time. As far as the insurance, they'll get their money back. We'll pay it back if we have to. We'll do what we have to do together. "

  When she heard that, a weight lifted. "I don't know where to start. "

  He rose, came around to her, crouched at her feet. "I want you to do this for me. That's selfish, but I can't help it. But I want you to do it for yourself, too. Be sure. "

  "I'll be Nell Todd. I'll have a name I want. "

  She saw his expression alter, the deepening of emotion in his gaze, and knew she had never been more sure of anything. "I'm afraid of him, and I can't help that either. But I think I realize I'll never stop until this is done. I want to live with you. I want to sit out on the porch at night and look at the stars. I want that beautiful ring you bought me on my finger. I want so many things with you I thought I'd never have. I'm scared, and I want to stop being scared. "

  "I know a lawyer in Boston. We'll call him, and we'll start. "

  "Okay. " She let out a breath. "Okay. "

  "There's one thing I can take care of right now. " He straightened, walked over and opened a drawer in his desk. Her heart gave a lovely little flutter when she saw the box in his hand. "I've been carting this around with me, putting it in here, or in my dresser at home. Let's put it where it belongs. "

  She got to her feet, held out her hand. "Yes, let's. "

  ***

  Her stomach was jumping when she left to walk back to the bookstore. But there was anticipation tangled with the nerves. And every time she looked down at the deep blue stone on her finger, anticipation won.

  She walked in, sent a wave to Lulu, and practically floated upstairs to Mia's office.

  "I need to tell you. "

  Mia turned from her keyboard. "All right. I could spoil your moment by saying congratulations and I know you'll be very happy together, but I won't. "

  "You saw my ring. "

  "Little sister, I saw your face. " However jaded she considered herself about love, the sight of it warmed her heart. "But I want to see the ring. " She leaped up, snatched Nell's left hand. "A sapphire. " She couldn't stop the sigh. "It's a love gift. As a ring it sends out healing, and can also be used as protection against evil. Beyond all that, it's a doozy. " She kissed Nell on either cheek. "I'm happy for you. "

  "We talked to a lawyer, someone Zack knows in Boston. My lawyer now. He's going to help me with the complications, and with the divorce. He's going to file a restraining order against Evan. I know it's only a piece of paper. "

  "It's a symbol. There's power in that. "

  "Yeah. In a day or two, once he's got everything in place, he'll contact Evan. So he'll know. With or without a restraining order, he'll come, Mia. I know he will. "

  "You may be right. " Was this what she'd been feeling, the dread, the building of pressure?

  The last leaves had died, and the first snow had yet to fall.

  "But you're prepared, and you're not alone. Zack and Ripley will meet every ferry that comes here after he's been contacted. If you don't plan to move in with Zack right away, then you'll stay with me. Tomorrow's the Sabbat, Ripley's agreed to participate. When the circle's joined, he can't break it. That I can promise you. "

  ***

  She intended to tell Ripley next, if she could find her. But the minute Nell stepped outside, she was stricken with a wave of nausea that rolled thick and greasy through her belly. She staggered a little, sweat popping out on her skin. With no choice, she leaned back against the wall of the building and waited for it to pass.

  When the worst of it eased, she regulated her breathing. The jitters, she told herself. Everything was going to start happening now, and happening very fast. There'd be no turning back. There would be questions, and press, and stares, murmurs even from people she'd come to know.

  It was natural to be a little queasy.

  She looked down at her ring again, the hopeful glint of it, and the lingering dregs of sickness passed.

  She would find Ripley later, she decided. Right now she was going to buy a bottle of champagne and the makings for a good Yankee pot roast.

  ***

  Evan drove off the ferry and onto Three Sisters as Nell leaned weakly against the wall of the bookstore. He surveyed the docks, disinterested. The beach, unimpressed. Following the instructions he'd been given, he drove to High Street and pulled up in front of the Magick Inn.

  A hole-in-the-wall in a town suitable for middle-class Currier and Ives buffs, he judged. He got out of the car, studied the street, just as Nell turned the corner into the market.

  He walked inside, and checked in.

  He'd booked a suite, but found no charm in the coffered ceilings, the lovingly preserved antiques. He detested the fussiness of such rooms, preferring the streamlined, the modern. The art, if one could call it that, ran to misty watercolors and seascapes. The mini-bar didn't hold his favored brand of mineral water.

  And the view? He could see nothing but beach and water, noisy gulls and what he supposed were fishing boats run by locals.

  Dissatisfied, he walked to the parlor. From there he could see the curve of the land and the sudden sharp jut of cliffs where the lighthouse stood. He noted the stone house as well and wondered what type of idiot would choose to live in such an isolated spot.

  Then he found himself squinting. There seemed to be some sort of light dappling through the trees. A trick of the eye, he decided, already bored.

  In any case, he had hardly come for the scenery, thank the Lord. He'd come to look for Helen or to satisfy himself that what was left of her was still at the bottom of the Pacific. On an island this size, he was sure he could get the task done in a day.

  He unpacked, meticulously hanging his clothes so that each garment was aligned precisely one inch from the next. He set out his toiletries, including his triple-milled soap. He never used the amenities offered in hotels. Even the idea of it revolted him.

  And last, he set the framed photograph of his wife on the bureau. He leaned over, kissed the curved bow of her mouth through the glass.

  "If you're here, darling Helen, I'll find you. "

  On his way out, he made a reservation for dinner. The only meal he found acceptable to eat in a hotel room was breakfast.

  He stepped out, turned left, just as Nell, with her two bags of groceries, swung around the end of the block to the right, toward home.

  ***

  It was, Nell was sure, the happiest morning of her life. The sky was silver, with sweeps and rises of rose and gold and deep red. Her lawn was carpeted with leaves that would crunch merrily underfoot and had left the trees bare and spooky. Which was perfect for an island Halloween.

  She had a man sleeping in her bed who had shown his appreciation for a good pot roast in a very satisfactory way.

  Muffins were baking, the wind was shivering, and she was prepared to face her demons.

  She would be leaving her little cottage behind soon, and that she would miss. But the idea of setting up housekeeping with Zack made up for it.

  They would spend Christmas together, she thought. Maybe even be married by then if all the legal tangles could be unraveled.

  She wanted to be married outside, in the air. It was impractical, but it was what she wanted. She would wear a long dress, of velvet. Blue velvet. And carry a spray of white flowers. The people she had come to know would all be there to bear witness.

  While she daydreamed, the cat meowed piteously.

  "Diego. " She bent down, stroked him. He was
no kitten now but a sleek young cat. "I forgot to feed you. I'm very scattered of brain today," she told him. "I'm in love, and I'm getting married. You'll come to live with us in our house by the sea, and make friends with Lucy. "

  She got out his kibble, filling his bowl while he wound excitedly through her legs.

  "A woman who talks to her cat could be considered strange. "

  Nell didn't jump, which pleased both of them. Instead she rose and walked to Zack, who stood in the doorway. "He might be my familiar. But I'm told that'll be up to him. Good morning, Sheriff Todd. "

  "Good morning, Ms. Channing. Can I buy a cup of coffee and a muffin?"

  "Payment first. "

  He came to her, wrapped her up in a long, deep kiss. "That do it?"

  "Oh, yeah. Just let me give you your change. " She drew him down again, lingered over the taste of him. "I'm so happy. "

  ***

  At precisely eight-thirty, Evan sat down to a breakfast of sweetened coffee, fresh orange juice, an egg-white omelette, and two slices of whole wheat toast.

  He'd already made use of the hotel health club, such as it was. He had only glanced at the pool. He disliked using public swimming pools, but had considered it until he'd seen it was already being used. A long, lean brunette was streaking through the water. As if she was in a race, he'd thought.

  He'd only caught glimpses of her face as she turned it rhythmically in and out of the water in time with her strokes.

  And he didn't see, as he dismissed her and walked away, her sudden loss of pace. The way she pulled up in the water as if gathering for attack. How she shoved her goggles, treading water as she looked around for what had felt like an enemy.

  He'd showered in his room, dressed in a pale gray sweater and dark slacks. He glanced at his watch, ready to be annoyed if his meal should be above one minute late.

  But it arrived, just as requested. He didn't chat with the waiter. He never did such foolish things. The man was paid to deliver food, not to fraternize with guests.

  He enjoyed his breakfast, surprised that he could find no fault with it, as he read the morning paper and listened to the news on the parlor television.

  He considered how best to do what he'd come to do. Walking through the village as he'd done yesterday, driving around the island as he planned to do today, might not be enough. Still, it wouldn't do to ask people if they knew anyone of Helen's description. People never minded their own business, and there would be questions. Speculation. Attention.

  If, by some chance, Helen was alive and here, the less attention paid to him, the better.

  If she were, what would she do? She had no skills. How could she earn a living without him to provide for her? Unless, of course, she'd used her body to entice yet another man. Women were, at the center, whores.

  He had to sit back and wait for the fury to pass. It was difficult to think in logical steps through anger. However justified.

  He would find her, he reassured himself. If she was alive, he would find her. He would simply know. And that took him to what would be done when and if he did.

  There was no question that she would have to be punished. For distressing him, for deceiving him, for attempting to break free of the promises she'd made to him. The inconvenience, the embarrassment of it all couldn't be calculated.

  He would take her back to California, of course, but not right away. They would need to go somewhere quiet, somewhere private first, so he could remind her of those promises. So he could remind her who was in charge.

  They would say she'd been thrown from the car. That she'd struck her head or some such thing. She'd had amnesia and had wandered away from the scene of the accident.

  The press would love it, Evan decided. They would eat it up.

  They would work out the details of the story once they were settled in that private, quiet place.

  If none of that was possible, if she tried to refuse him, to run again, to go crying to the police as she'd done before, he would have to kill her.

  He made the decision as coolly as he had decided what to have for breakfast.

  Her choices were just as simple, in his opinion. Live-or die.

  At the knock on his door, Evan folded the paper precisely, walked over to answer.

  "Good morning, sir," the young maid said cheerfully. "You requested housekeeping service between nine and ten. "

  "That's right. " He checked his watch, noted it was nine-thirty. He had lingered over his thoughts longer than he'd planned.

  "I hope you're enjoying your stay. Would you like me to start in the bedroom?"

  "Yes. "

  He sat with his last cup of coffee, watched a report on a fresh hot spot in Eastern Europe that couldn't have interested him less. It was too early to call the coast and see if there was anything he needed to know. But he could call New York. He had a deal cooking there, and it wouldn't hurt to stir the pot.

  He went into the bedroom to retrieve his memo book and found the maid, her arms full of fresh linen, staring at the framed photograph of Helen.

  "Is there a problem?"

  "What?" She flushed. "No, sir. I'm sorry. "

  She moved quickly to make the bed.

  "You were looking at this photograph very intently. Why is that?"

  "She's a lovely woman. " His voice was sending skitters up her spine. She wanted to get the suite clean and get out.

  "Yes, she is. My wife, Helen. The way you looked at the photograph, I thought perhaps you might have met her at some time or other. "

  "Oh, no, sir, I doubt it. It's just that she reminded me of someone. "

  He had to consciously stop his teeth from grinding. "Oh?"

  "She really looks a lot like Nell-except Nell doesn't have all that beautiful hair or that look of. . . I don't know, polish, I guess you'd say. "

  "Really?" His blood began to sizzle, but he kept his voice mild now, almost friendly. "That's interesting. My wife would be fascinated to know there's a woman who looks that much like her. "

  Nell. Helen's mother had called her Nell. A simple, inelegant name. He had always disliked it.

  "Does she live on the island, this Nell?"

  "Oh, sure. She's lived here since early summer, in the yellow cottage. Runs the cafe at the bookstore-does catering, too. Cooks like a dream. You should try the cafe for lunch. There's a soup-and-sandwich special every day, and you can't beat it. "

  "I might do that," he said, very softly.

  ***

  Nell strolled through the back door of Cafe Book, called out a casual greeting to Lulu, then continued upstairs.

  Once she was there, she moved like lightning.

  Just under two minutes later, she called down in a voice she tried to infuse with frustrated apology. "Mia, I'm sorry, but could you come up here a minute?"

  "Ought to be able to set up on her own by now," Lulu mumbled and earned a slanted look from the boss.

  "You ought to be able to give her a break by now," Mia returned and started upstairs.

  Nell stood by one of the cafe tables, where a pretty frosted cake glittered under the lighted birthday candles. Also on the table were a small wrapped box and three flutes frothy with mimosas.

  "Happy birthday. "

  The sweetness of the gesture made up for being caught off guard, as she rarely was. Mia's smile bloomed-absolute delight. "Thank you. Cake?" She lifted a brow as she picked up a flute. "Mimosas, and presents. It almost makes it worth turning thirty. "

  "Thirty. " Coming up behind her, Lulu snorted. "Still a baby. When you hit fifty, we'll talk. " She held out another wrapped box, a larger one. "Happy birthday. "

  "Thanks. Well, what first?"

  "Wish first," Nell ordered, "and blow out the candles. "

  It had been a long time since she'd made anything as simple as a wish, but she did so now, then swept her breath over the candles.

  "You have to cut the firs
t piece. " Nell handed her a cake knife.

  "All right. Then I want my presents. " Mia cut, then picked up the large box and tore in.

  The throw was soft as water, the color of midnight sky. Scattered over it were the symbols of the zodiac. "Oh, Lu, it's fabulous!"

  "Keep you warm. "

  "It's beautiful. " Nell stroked the throw. "I tried to imagine it when Lulu described it, but it's so much more. "

  "Thank you. " Mia turned, rubbed her cheek over Lulu's before kissing it.

  Though pleased color pinched Lulu's cheeks, she waved Mia away. "Go on, open Nell's before she bursts. "

  "It's just that they made me think of you," Nell began as Mia set the throw aside to open the little box. Inside were earrings, a dangle of silver stars twinkling against tiny globes of moonstone.

  "They're wonderful. " Mia held them up to the light before she kissed Nell. "And perfect, particularly today," she added, holding out her arms.

  She was wearing black again, but the sleek sweep of the dress was picked out in tiny silver stars and moons. "I couldn't resist it for Halloween, and now these. . . " She made quick work of slipping off the earrings she'd put on that morning and replacing them with Nell's. "Just top it off. "

  "Okay, then. " Lulu raised her glass. "To hitting the big three-oh. "

  "Oh, Lulu, don't spoil it. " But Mia laughed as she clicked glasses. "I want cake. " She lifted her little silver watch that dangled from one of her chains. "We're going to open just a few minutes late today. "

  ***

  It wasn't difficult to find the yellow cottage. Evan drove past it, slowing his car to study the small house tucked among the trees. Little better than a shack, was his opinion, and the insult of it nearly choked him.

  She would live in that hovel rather than in the beautiful homes he'd provided for her.

  He had to fight the urge to go to the cafe, to drag her out and into the street. Public scenes, he reminded himself, were not the way to deal with a deceitful wife.

  Such things required privacy.

  He drove back to the village, parked his car, then went back on foot. His blood was already bubbling. Careful study showed him that none of the neighboring houses were close enough to worry him. Still, he strolled into the trees first, circled around. Stood in their shadows watching the house.

  When nothing moved, nothing stirred, he crossed to the back door.

  There was a wave of something-something strong and fretful. It seemed to push against him, as if to bar him from the door. For a moment it laid what might have been fear over his skin, and he actually found himself stepping back, off the stoop.

  Fury bubbled, burned away that fear. While the stars hanging from the eaves chimed madly in a sudden gust of wind, he shoved through what seemed like a wall of solid air and gripped the doorknob.

  She didn't even lock the house, he thought in disgust as he let himself in. See how careless she was, how foolish?

  He saw the cat and nearly snarled. He detested animals. Filthy creatures. They stared at each other for one long moment, then Diego streaked away.

  Evan scanned the kitchen, then began to walk through the cottage. He wanted to see how his dead wife had been living this past year.

  He could hardly wait to see her again.

 
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