Dance upon the air, p.21

Dance Upon the Air, page 21

 part  #1 of  Three Sisters Island Series

 

Dance Upon the Air
 


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Chapter Twenty

  She started to head home half a dozen times that afternoon, but there was so much fun in the village. Most of the merchants had decked themselves out in costumes to celebrate the day. There were demons selling hardware and fairies ringing up produce.

  She had a late lunch with Ripley, and an impromptu meeting with Dorcas about catering a Christmas party.

  And it seemed that every second person she passed stopped her to congratulate her on her engagement.

  She belonged. To the village, she thought. To Zack. And finally, finally, she belonged to herself.

  She swung by the station house to make a date with Zack to hand out the goody bags she'd already made up for the ghosts and goblins expected at dusk.

  "I might be a little late. Have to run herd on some of the older kids," Zack told her. "I've already dealt with a couple of teenagers who tried to convince me the twelve rolls of toilet paper they were buying were for their mothers. "

  "How did you get the toilet paper for rolling houses when you were a kid?"

  "I stole it out of the bathroom closet at home, like anyone with half a brain. "

  Her dimples deepened. "Any more exploding pumpkins?"

  "No, I think the word got out on that. " He cocked his head. "You sure look chipper today. "

  "I am chipper today. " She stepped forward, wrapped her arms around his neck.

  He'd just gotten his arms around her when his phone rang. "Hold that thought," he told her, and answered.

  "Sheriff's office. Yeah, Mrs. Stubens. Hmm?" He stopped lowering his hip to the corner of the desk and stood straight again. "Is anybody hurt? Good. No, just stay right there, I'm on my way. Nancy Stubens," he told Nell as he strode over to the coat rack for his jacket. "Teaching her boy how to drive. He ran straight into the Bigelows' parked Honda Civic. "

  "But is he all right?"

  "Yeah, I'll just go sort things out for them. It might take a while. That Honda was brand-new. "

  "You know where to find me. "

  She walked out with him, felt a nice steady glow when he leaned down to kiss her good-bye. Then they walked in opposite directions.

  She'd gone half a block when Gladys Macey hailed her.

  "Nell! Hold on. " Puffing a little at the effort to catch up, Gladys patted her heart. "Let me see that ring I'm hearing so much about. "

  Before Nell could offer her hand, Gladys was grabbing it, bending over close to get a good, long look. "Should have known that Todd boy would do a good job. " She gave a nod of approval, then looked up at Nell. "You got a winner there, and I don't mean the ring. "

  "I know it. "

  "I watched him grow up. Once he got some man on him, if you know what I mean, I used to wonder what sort of woman would catch his fancy. I like knowing it's you. I've got a fondness for you. "

  "Mrs. Macey. " Undone, Nell hugged her. "Thank you. "

  "You'll be good for him. " She patted Nell's back. "And he'll be good for you. I know you've had some troubles. " She simply nodded as Nell drew back. "You had something in your eyes when you came here. It's not there much anymore. "

  "I left all that behind. I'm happy. "

  "It shows. Have you set the date?"

  "No, not yet. " Nell thought of lawyers, of conflict. Of Evan. She would deal with it, she told herself. With all of it. "As soon as we can. "

  "I want a front-row seat at the wedding. "

  "You'll have one. And all the champagne you can drink at our thirtieth anniversary party. "

  "I'll hold you to it. Well, I've got to get on. Monsters'll come knocking at the door before long, and I don't want my windows soaped. You tell that man of yours I said he did well. "

  "I will. " That man of hers, Nell thought as she began to walk again. What a wonderful phrase.

  She quickened her steps. She was going to have to hurry to beat dusk.

  She went to the front of the cottage, glancing around a bit self-consciously. Secure that she was alone in the lowering light, she held her arms out toward her jack-o'-lanterns, breathed in, focused.

  It took some work, a hard slap of effort, and a match would certainly have been quicker. But it wouldn't have given her the same rush as watching the candles spurt flame and the pumpkins glow from the fire in her mind.

  Boy! She let out her breath on a quick laugh. Boy, oh boy, that was so cool.

  It wasn't just the magic, she decided. It was the knowing-who and what she was. It was finding her strength, her purpose, and her heart. Taking back control so that she could share it with a man who believed in her.

  Whatever happened tomorrow, or a year from tomorrow, she was now and always Nell.

  She danced up the steps and into the front door.

  "Diego! I'm home. You wouldn't believe the day I've had. Absolutely the best day. "

  She twirled into the kitchen, flipping on the light. She put on the kettle for tea before beginning to fill a big wicker basket with her goody bags.

  "I hope we get a lot of kids. It's been years since I've done trick or treat. I can't wait. " She opened a cupboard. "Oh, for heaven's sake! I left my car at the bookstore. What was I thinking?"

  "You always were absentminded. "

  The mug she reached for slipped like water out of her hand, smashed on the counter, shattered on the floor. A roaring filled her ears as she turned.

  "Hello, Helen. " Evan walked slowly toward her. "It's so good to see you. "

  She couldn't say his name, could make no sound at all. She prayed it was another vision, a hallucination. But he reached out, and those slender fingers brushed her cheek.

  She went cold to the marrow.

  "I've missed you. Did you think I wouldn't come?" Those fingers slid around the back of her neck now and brought on a hideous wave of nausea. "Wouldn't find you? Haven't I told you, Helen, so many times, that nothing would ever keep us apart?"

  She only closed her eyes when he bent, brushed his mouth over hers. "What have you done to your hair?" His hand fisted it, tugged viciously. "You know how I love your hair. Did you cut it off to displease me?"

  A tear slithered down her cheek as she shook her head. His voice, his touch, seemed to drain everything she was away and leave her as she'd been.

  She felt Nell fading away.

  "It does displease me, Helen. You've caused me a great deal of trouble. A great deal. You've stolen a year of our lives. "

  His fingers tightened, went biting cruel as he jerked her chin up. "Look at me, you stupid little bitch. Look at me when I speak to you. "

  Her eyes opened and all she could see were his, those clear, empty pools.

  "You'll have to pay for it, you know that. More than a year erased. And all the while you've been living in this miserable little shack, laughing at me, working as a waitress, serving people. Trying to start your pitiful little business, kitchen business. Humiliating me. "

  His hand slid from her cheek to her throat, squeezed. "I'm going to forgive you after a time, Helen. After a time, because I know you're slow, and just a bit stupid. Have you nothing to say to me, my love? Nothing to say after this long separation?"

  Her lips were cold, felt as if they might crack. "How did you find me?"

  He smiled then, and made her shudder. "I told you I'd always find you, wherever you went, whatever you did. " He gave her a hard shove that jammed her back into the counter. The pain registered in kind of an absent way, like a memory.

  "Do you know what I found here, in your little nest, Helen? Helen, my whore? Men's clothing. How many men have you slept with, slut?"

  The kettle began to shriek, but neither of them heard.

  "Did you find yourself some strapping local fisherman, let him put his fumbling, workingman's hands all over you? All over what belongs to me?"

  Zack. It was her first clear thought. Clear enough that her swimming eyes registered bright fear.

  "There's no fisherman," she said and barel
y cried out when he slapped her.

  "Liar. You know how I detest liars. "

  "There's no-" The tears escaped at the next slap. But it snapped her back to who she was. She was Nell Channing, and she would fight. "Keep away from me.

  Keep away. " She grabbed for the knife block, but he was quicker. He'd always been quicker.

  "Is this what you want?" He drew the long, jagged-edged blade free, turned it in the light an inch from her nose. She braced herself. She thought: So, he'll kill me after all.

  Instead he reared back, smashing the side of her face with a vicious backhanded slap that sent her flying. She crashed into the table, striking her head against the edge of the thick wood. The world went bright, went dark.

  She didn't feel her body hit the floor.

  ***

  Mia treated a young space explorer. The bookstore was one of the most popular spots on Halloween. She had dancing skeletons, grinning pumpkins, flying ghosts, and, of course, a coven of witches. Her usual store music had been replaced with howls and shrieks and rattling chains.

  She was having the time of her life.

  She served a cowboy ghoul a cup of punch from a cauldron as the dry ice packed beneath it sent out curls of smoke.

  His eyes were huge as he watched her. "Are you gonna ride on your broomstick tonight?"

  "Of course. " She bent down. "What kind of a witch would I be otherwise?"

  "The witch who chased Dorothy was a bad witch. "

  "She was a very bad witch," Mia agreed. "I happen to be a very good one. "

  "She was ugly, and had a green face. You're pretty," he giggled and slurped his punch.

  "Thank you very much. You, on the other hand, are very scary. " She handed him a bag of candy. "I hope you won't trick me. "

  "Huh-uh. Thanks, lady. " He dropped the bag in his begging sack, then ran off to find his mother.

  Amused, Mia started to straighten. The pain came fast, bright, like a spear of light through the temple. She saw a man with pale eyes and bright hair, and the gleam of the blade.

  "Call Zack. " She rushed to the door, calling out to a startled Lulu. "There's trouble. Nell's in trouble. Call Zack. "

  She raced into the street, swung around a group of costumed children and nearly plowed into Ripley. "Nell. "

  "I know it. " Ripley's head was still ringing. "We have to hurry. "

  ***

  She came to slowly, her vision fractured, her head screaming. There was absolute silence. She rolled, moaning, and managed to get to her hands and knees. Nausea sent her curling into a ball again.

  The kitchen was dark now, lit only by the faint glow of a candle in the center of the table.

  He sat there, in one of her kitchen chairs. She could see his shoes, the gleam of them, the perfect crease in his slacks, and she wanted to weep.

  "Why do you make me punish you, Helen? I can only think you must enjoy it. " He nudged her with his shoe. "Is that it?"

  She started to crawl away. Just a moment, she prayed. Give me one moment to breathe, and I can find my strength again.

  He simply pressed his foot into her back.

  "We're going to go somewhere where we can be alone. Where we can discuss all this foolishness, all this trouble you've caused me. "

  He frowned a little. How was he to get her away? He hadn't meant to put marks on her, not where they could be noticed. She had pushed him to it.

  "We'll walk to my car," he decided. "You'll wait there for me while I pack and check out. "

  She shook her head. She knew it was useless, but she shook her head, then began to cry quietly when she felt Diego brush against her legs.

  "You'll do exactly as I say. " He tapped the tip of the knife against the table. "If you don't, you'll leave me no choice. People already believe you're dead, Helen. Beliefs can easily become reality. "

  His head snapped up as he heard a sound outside the door. "Perhaps the fisherman's come calling," he whispered, and rose, turning the knife in his hand.

  Zack opened the door, hesitating, cursing as the phone on his belt rang. The break in stride saved his life.

  He caught a blur of movement, a glimpse of the blade hacking down. He twisted, going for his weapon with a cross-body draw. The knife ripped through his shoulder instead of burying itself in his heart.

  Nell screamed, gained her feet, only to have her head spin and send her staggering. In the dark kitchen, she could see the two silhouettes struggle. A weapon, she thought, biting her lip to keep from passing out again.

  The bastard would not take what was hers. He would not harm what she loved.

  She stumbled for the knife block, but it was gone.

  She turned back, prepared to leap, to use teeth and nails. And saw Evan standing over Zack's body, the knife dripping in his hand.

  "Oh, my God, no! No!"

  "Your knight in shining armor, Helen? Is this the man you've been fucking behind my back? He's not dead yet. I have a right to kill him for trying to steal my wife. "

  "Don't. " She drew in a breath, released it. Struggled to gather herself and find her core of strength. "I'll go with you. I'll do anything you want. "

  "You will, anyway," Evan commanded.

  "He doesn't matter. " She began to edge around the counter, saw Diego crouched, teeth bared. "He doesn't matter to either of us. It's me you want, isn't it? You came all this way for me. "

  He would go after her. If she could get out the door, he'd go after her and leave Zack. It took all her will to keep herself from throwing herself down over Zack, to shield him. If she did, if she so much as looked at him now, they were both dead.

  "I knew you would," she continued, every muscle trembling as she watched Evan lower the knife to his side. "I always knew. "

  Evan took one step toward her, and the cat leaped like a tiger on his back. With his howl of rage in her ears, Nell ran.

  She veered toward the street, toward the village, but even as she glanced back, he was coming through the door. She would never make it.

  So, it would be the two of them, after all. Putting her faith in the fates, she dived into the trees.

  ***

  Zack pulled himself to his knees as Evan bolted out the door. The pain was like hot teeth gnawing at his shoulder. Blood dripped from his fingers as he got to his feet.

  Then he thought of Nell and forgot the pain.

  He was flying out the door just as the trees swallowed her and the man who pursued her.

  "Zack!"

  He paused only to flick a terrified glance at his sister and Mia. "He's after her. He's got a knife, and she doesn't have much lead. "

  Ripley bit down on the worry. His shirt was soaked with blood. She nodded, drew her weapon as he did. "Whatever you've got," she said to Mia, "we use. "

  She plunged into the woods behind her brother.

  ***

  In the dark of the moon, the night was blind. She ran like a wild thing, tearing through brush, leaping over fallen branches. If she could lose him, get him deep enough in and lose him, she could circle back to Zack.

  She prayed with every beat of her heart that he was alive.

  She could hear Evan behind her, close, too close. Her breath was coming in gasps, tattered by fear, but his was a steady determined beat.

  Dizziness swept over her, urged her to drop to her knees. She fought it off, nearly stumbled. She would not lose now.

  Then his body slammed into hers and sent her sprawling.

  She rolled, kicked, her only thought to get free of him. Then froze when he yanked her head back by her short cap of hair and pressed the knife tip to her throat.

  Her body emptied, went limp as a doll's. "Why don't you just do it," she said wearily. "Just end it. "

  "You ran from me. " There was as much bafflement as rage in his voice. "You ran. "

  "And I'll keep running. Until you kill me, I'll keep running. I'd rather be
dead than live with you. I've already died once, so do it. I've stopped being afraid of you. "

  She felt the blade bite. At the sound of running feet he dragged her up.

  Even with a knife at her throat, she felt joy when she saw Zack.

  Alive. The dark stain on his shirt glimmered in the faint starlight. But he was alive, and nothing mattered more.

  "Let her go. " Zack took his stance, supporting his gun hand with his weak one. "Drop the knife and step away from her. "

  "I'll slit her throat. She's mine, and I won't hesitate. " Evan's eyes passed from Zack's to Ripley's to Mia's as they stood in a half circle.

  "Hurt her, and you're dead. You won't walk away from here. "

  "You've no right to interfere between a husband and wife. " There was something almost reasonable in his voice, something sane under the madness. "Helen is my wife. Legally, morally, eternally. " He jerked her head back another inch with the blade. "Throw your guns down and walk away. This is my business. "

  "I can't get a clear shot," Ripley said under her breath. "Not enough light to be sure. "

  "It's not the way. Put the gun down, Ripley. " Mia stretched out her hand.

  "The hell with that. " Her finger itched on the trigger. The bastard, was all she could think as she saw Nell's exposed throat, smelled her brother's blood.

  "Ripley," Mia said again, soft, insistent under the sharp, clipped orders from Zack to drop the knife. To step away.

  "Damn it, damn it. You better be right. "

  Zack didn't hear them. They'd ceased to exist for him. His only reality was Nell.

  "I'll do more than kill you. " Zack held the gun rock steady and his voice was calm as a lake. "If you cut her, so much as nick her, I'll take you apart, piece by piece. I'll put bullets in your knees, in your balls, in your gut. I'll stand over you and watch while you bleed out. "

  The color that rage brought to Evan's face drained away. He believed what he saw in Zack's eyes. Believed the pain and death he saw there, and was afraid. His hands trembled on the handle of the knife, but he didn't move. "She belongs to me. "

  Ripley's hand gripped Mia's. Nell felt the punch of energy they created, felt the hot waves of love and terror that rolled off Zack as he stood bleeding for her.

  And felt, as she had never felt, fear from the man who gripped her.

  Her name was Nell Channing, now and always. And the man behind her was less than nothing.

  She closed her hand over the pendant Mia had given her. It vibrated. "I belong to myself. " Power trickled back into her, a slow pool. "I belong to me. " And faster. "And to you," she said, her eyes locked on Zack's. "He's done hurting me now. "

  She lifted her other hand, laid it on Evan's wrist, lightly. "Let me go, Evan, and you'll walk away. We'll put all of this behind us. It's your chance. The last chance. "

  His breath hissed at her ear. "You stupid bitch. Do you think I'll ever let you go?"

  "And your choice. " There was pity in her voice. "Your last. "

  The chant was in her head, rising, as if it had only been waiting for her to free it.

  She wondered how she could have been so afraid of him.

  "What you've done to all and me, turns back to you, one times three. From you this night I'll forever be free. As I will, so mote it be. "

  Her skin glowed like sunlight, her pupils dark as stars. The knife trembled, whispered along her skin, away, then fell. She heard the choking gasp, the high whine that couldn't reach a scream as Evan collapsed behind her.

  She didn't spare him a glance.

  "Don't shoot him," she said quietly to Zack. "Don't kill him like this. It wouldn't be good for you. "

  Because she could see the intent, she walked to Zack as Evan began to moan. "It wouldn't be good for us. He's nothing now. " She laid a hand over Zack's heart, felt its wild beat. "He's what he made himself. "

  Evan lay on the ground, twitching as if something vile slithered under his skin. His face was bone white.

  Zack lowered the gun, wrapped his good arm around Nell. He held her there a moment as she reached out, clasping hands with Mia, and linking them all.

  "Stay with them," Zack told her. "I'll deal with him. I won't kill him. He'll suffer more if he lives. "

  Ripley watched her brother walk toward the writhing man, take out his handcuffs. He needed to do this last thing, she thought, and she needed to let him. "He gets two minutes to secure and Mirandize that smear of slime, then I want him taken to the clinic. I don't know how bad he's hurt. "

  "I'll take him. " Nell looked down at the blood, Zack's blood, on her hand, curled her fist over it, and felt life pump. "I'll stay with him. "

  "Courage"-Mia reached out, touched the pendant-"breaks the spell. Love weaves another. " She pulled Nell into her arms for a fierce hug. "You did well, little sister. " She turned toward Ripley. "And you found your fate. "

  ***

  Early on the feast of the Saints, long after the balefires were charmed away, before dawn broke the sky, Nell sat in the kitchen of the yellow cottage, her hand resting loosely in Zack's.

  She needed to come back, to be there, to tidy away what had happened and what might have happened. She'd swept away the negative forces that had lingered and had lit candles and incense.

  "I wish you'd stayed overnight at the clinic. "

  She turned her hand under Zack's, squeezed. "I could say the same. "

  "I've got a few stitches, you've got the concussion. "

  "Mild," she reminded him, "and twenty-three stitches is more than a few. "

  Twenty-three stitches, he thought. A long, nasty gash. The doctor had called it a miracle that no muscle or tendons had been severed.

  Zack called it magic. Nell's magic.

  She reached out to touch the fresh white bandage, then trailed her fingers over the gold locket. "You didn't take it off. "

  "You asked me not to. It got hot," he told her, and brought her gaze back to his. "An instant before he cut me. I could see, in my head, in that quick blur, the blade going toward my heart, then being deflected. As if it hit a shield. I thought I imagined it. But I didn't. "

  "We were stronger than he was. " Nell brought their joined hands to her cheek. "I was afraid, drowning in fear from the minute I heard his voice. It took away everything I'd built, everything I'd learned about myself. He paralyzed me, sucked out my will. That was his power over me. But it began to come back, and when he hurt you, it flooded back. But I couldn't think, not clearly. Hitting my head was part of it, I suppose. "

  "You ran to save me. "

  "And you followed to save me. We're a couple of heroes. "

  He touched her face, gently. There were bruises on it that he felt throb in his own. "He's never going to hurt you again. I'll go in and relieve Ripley at dawn, and contact the prosecutor's office on the mainland. A couple of attempted-murder charges will keep him locked up, no matter how fancy his lawyers are. "

  "I'm not afraid of him anymore. He looked pathetic in the end, eaten up by his own cruelty. Terrified of it. His madness is staring back at him now. He'll never be able to hide it again. "

  He could still see Evan Remington's colorless eyes, wide and wild in a face white as bone. "A padded room's as good as a cell. "

  She got to her feet to pour more tea. But when she came back to the table, Zack wrapped an arm around her, pressed his face into her body.

  "It's going to take a while for me to get the picture of you with a knife to your throat out of my head. "

  She stroked his hair. "We have a lifetime to put others in its place. I want to marry you, Sheriff Todd. I want to start that lifetime very soon. "

  She slid into his lap, sighing as she rested her head on his good shoulder. Through the window she could see the first streaks of color announcing dawn, the pale burn across the sky.

  Laying a hand on his heart, she timed its beats to her own. And knew the truest magic was there. <
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