Face the fire, p.6

Face the Fire, page 6

 part  #3 of  Three Sisters Island Series

 

Face the Fire


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Chapter Five

  For a moment he could only look at her as old memories and old needs tangled with new. Time hadn't stood still for them. She wasn't the coltish young girl who would splash headlong into the water with a dare. The woman who watched him now with cool, measuring eyes had a layer of polish and sophistication the girl had lacked.

  The breeze had her hair dancing in fiery spirals. That, at least, hadn't changed. She waited with every appearance of calm as he walked to her, but he neither saw nor felt any welcome.

  "I wondered how long it would take you to come here. " Her voice was low, as measured as her gaze. "I wasn't sure you'd have the nerve. "

  It was difficult, horribly, to speak rationally when the emotions and images from the cave still churned inside him. "Do you ever come back here?"

  "Why would I? If I want to look at the ocean, I can stand on my own cliffs. If I want the beach, it's a short walk from my store. There's nothing here to warrant the trip. "

  "But you're here now. "

  "Curiosity. " Her head tilted to the side. The dark blue stones at her ears caught the light and glinted.

  "And did you satisfy your own?"

  "I felt you in there. Felt us in there. "

  It surprised him when her lips curved, almost affectionately. "Sex has strong energy, when it's done correctly. We never had a problem in that area. As for me - well, a woman has a certain sentimental vision of the first time she gave herself to a man. I can remember that particular event fondly, even if I came to regret my choice of partner. "

  "I never meant to - " He broke off, swore.

  "To hurt me?" she finished. "Liar. "

  "You're right. Absolutely. " Whatever came from this point on, if he was indeed fated to lose her, he could and would be honest about this one thing. "I did mean to hurt you. And I'd say I did a damn good job of it. "

  "Well, you surprise me at last. " She turned away because it hurt to look at him, to see him stand there with his back to the shadowed mouth of the cave that had been theirs. To feel the echoes of that boundless, consuming love she'd once felt for him.

  "A clear truth, after all these years. "

  "Meaning to do something at twenty doesn't mean I can't, and don't, regret it now. "

  "I don't want your regrets. "

  "What the hell do you want, Mia?"

  She watched the water tease the shore in its endless flirtation. She heard the edge in his voice, knew it as a sign of a rising and reckless mood. And it pleased her. The more unsettled he was, the more she could feel in control.

  "A truth for a truth, then," she said. "I want you to suffer, to pay, and to go back toNew York or to hell, or wherever you choose, so long as it isn't here. "

  She looked back over her shoulder at him, and her smile was cold as winter. "It seems so little to ask, really. "

  "I mean to stay on Three Sisters. "

  She turned back to him. He looked dramatic, she thought. Romantic. Dark and broody. Full of anger and turmoil. Because of it, she indulged herself and gave him yet another push.

  "For what? To run a hotel? Your father managed to run it for years without being here. "

  "I'm not my father. "

  The way he said it, that small, verbal explosion, triggered more memories. He'd always had to prove himself, to himself, she thought. The constant internal war of Samuel Logan. She shrugged.

  "Well, in any case, I imagine you'll be bored with island life soon enough and escape. As you did before.

  'Trapped,' I believe was your term. You felt trapped here. So, it's just a matter of waiting you out. "

  "You'll have a long wait," he warned. He hooked his hands in his pockets. "Let's get something straight, so we can avoid going around the same loop again and again. I have roots here, just as you do. The fact that you spent your twenties on-island and I didn't doesn't change the fact that we both come from the same place. We both have businesses here, and beyond that we have a purpose, one that goes back centuries. What happens on and to Three Sisters matters to me as much as it matters to you. "

  "An interesting speech from someone who walked away so casually. "

  "There was nothing casual about it," he began, but she had already turned her back on him, was already striding toward the bluff.

  Let her go, his mind ordered. Just let her go. If this is fate, it can't be beaten. Shouldn't be, for the good of the whole, fought against.

  "The hell with that. " The words ground between his teeth as he went after her. He grabbed her arm, spun her around so quickly their bodies collided. "There was nothing casual about it," he repeated.

  "Nothing impulsive, nothing careless. "

  "Is that how you justify it?" she tossed back. "Is that how you make it right? You left because it suited you, and you come back because it suits you. And because you're here, why not see if you can stir up some old flames?"

  "I've been pretty restrained in that area. " He yanked his sunglasses off, threw them on the ground. His gaze was burning, blistering green. "Up till now. "

  He crushed his mouth to hers, let himself take, let the storm of emotions that had shadowed him since he left the cave break over both of them. If he was to be damned, he'd be damned for taking what he wanted, not for letting it go.

  The unique flavor of her seared through him, sizzling the nerves, smoking the senses. His arms tightened so that her long, lean body was molded to his, and against his heart her heart kicked and galloped until the paces matched. Exactly.

  The scent of her, darker than he remembered and somehow forbidding, slithered into him, twining through his system until it was tied in knots. The memories of the girl, the reality of the woman - both blurred together and became one. Became Mia.

  He said her name once, his lips moving against hers, then she broke free. Her breathing was as uneven as his. And her eyes were huge, dark, unreadable. He waited to be cursed, and counted it worth the price of that one taste of heaven.

  But she moved to him in one quick stride. Locking her arms around his neck, pressing her body to his, she took from him as he had taken from her.

  Her mouth was a fever, and the ache of it throbbed through her. He was the only man who'd ever brought her pain, and the only man who'd ever brought her true pleasure. Both edges of that keen sword stabbed, and still she took.

  She had pushed him, plucked at the ragged threads of his temper with one underlying purpose. This. Just this. Whatever the risks, whatever the price, she'd had to know . She remembered the taste of him, the texture, the way it felt when his hands slid up from her waist to fist in her hair. She relived all of that now, and experienced the new.

  He nipped her bottom lip, just one quick bite before his tongue slicked over the same spot to soothe and to entice. She changed the angle of the kiss, daring him to follow, to circle the slippery rim of that well of need.

  Someone trembled. She wasn't sure who, but it was enough to remind her that a misstep could lead to a tumble. And the fall was long.

  She drew back, then away, as the reverberations of that mating of mouths tossed her emotions. So she knew. He was still the only one who could meet and match her passions. His voice was hoarse, and far from steady when he spoke. "That proves something. "

  It helped, somehow, knowing he was as undone as she. "Proves what, Sam? That we still have heat between us?" She waved her hand, and a duet of clear blue flames danced on her palm. "Fire is easily lit. " She curled her fingers, opened them again, and her palm was empty. "Easily extinguished. "

  "Not so easily. " He took her hand, felt the pump of energy. And knew she felt it, too. "Not so easily, Mia. "

  "Wanting you with my body means so very little. " She drew her hand from his, looked toward the cave.

  "It makes me sad to be here, to remember how much more we both expected of each other, and ourselves, once. "

  "Don't you believe in fresh starts?" He reached out to touch her hair. "We've both changed
. Why not take the time to get to know each other again?"

  "You just want to get me into bed. "

  "Oh, yeah. That goes without saying. "

  She laughed, surprising them both. "More honesty. Soon I'll be speechless. "

  "I'd seduce you eventually, but - "

  "Seduction's overrated," she interrupted. "I'm not a jittery virgin. If I decide to sleep with you, then I'll sleep with you. "

  He blew out a breath. "Well, then. It so happens I have an entire hotel at my disposal. "

  " 'If' is the key word," she said mildly. "On the occasion 'if' becomes 'when,' I'll let you know. "

  "I'll stay available. " To give himself a moment to steady, he bent down to pick up his sunglasses. "But what I was going to say, was that while I'd seduce you eventually, I'll settle for a friendly dinner. "

  "I'm not interested in dating you. " She turned to walk back up the bluff, to the road, and he fell into step beside her.

  "A civilized meal, intelligent conversation, that chance to see who we are. If you don't like calling it a date, we can call it a meeting of two of the island's prominent business owners. "

  "Semantics don't change reality. " She stopped beside her car. "I'll think about it. "

  "Good. " He opened the car door for her, but blocked her from getting in. "Mia - "

  Stay with me, he wanted to say. I've missed you.

  "What?"

  He shook his head, stepped back. "Drive safe. "

  She went straight home, ruthlessly keeping her mind turned off as she changed into gardening clothes. Her large black cat,Isis , ribboned between her legs as she headed outside. In her greenhouse she babied and fussed over her seedlings, selected flats to set out in the sun to help them harden off before planting later in the month.

  She gathered tools and set to work prepping soil.

  Her daffodils were already up and dancing, and the hyacinths perfumed the air. Warm weather was beginning to tease her tulips open, and soon she imagined they'd be parading in their candy colors. She had manipulated him into kissing her, Mia admitted as she turned the earth. Once a woman knew a man's buttons, she didn't forget where to push.

  She'd wanted him to hold her, she'd wanted to feel his mouth on hers. It wasn't a crime or a sin, or even a mistake, she thought now. She'd had to know. And now she did. There was still a charge between them. She couldn't claim it surprised her. Between the last kiss and this, no man had truly moved her. There'd been a time when she'd wondered if that part of her had simply died off. But the years had coated the wound, and she had recognized, even appreciated, her own sexuality.

  There had been others. Interesting men, amusing men, attractive men. But none who tripped that switch inside her, opened her to that rush of feeling.

  She'd learned to be content without it.

  Until now.

  And now what? she wondered, studying the wisteria, just greening, that scrambled over one of her arbors. Now she wanted, and had tested and believed - needed to believe - that she could take her pleasure on her own terms. And protect her heart.

  She was human, wasn't she, and entitled to basic human needs?

  This time she would be careful, she would be calculating, and in control. Better, always, to face a dilemma head-on than to turn your back on what wouldn't be ignored. Her wind chimes jingled, and the tune struck her as faintly mocking. She glanced over to whereIsis lay sprawled in the sun, watching her.

  "And what would happen if I let him drive this train?" Mia demanded. "I wouldn't be sure of the destination, would I? But if I choose the track, I choose the station. "

  The cat made a sound between a purr and a growl.

  "So you say," Mia muttered. "I know exactly what I'm doing. And I believe I will have dinner with him. Here, on my turf. " She stabbed her garden spade into the soil. "When I'm damn good and ready. "

  Isisrose, stuck her tail meaningfully in the air, then stalked over to watch the fish swim in gold flashes in the lily pond.

  For the next few days, Mia had too much to do to think about critical cats, or having dinner with Sam, or potentially taking him to her bed. Lulu was distracted and cranky. Crankier than normal, Mia corrected. They'd squabbled twice over petty bookstore business.

  Which forced Mia to admit she was a bit cranky herself. In any case, Nell's expansion proposal had lighted a fire under her and provided her with an outlet for the energy that had pumped through her since the moment on the bluff with Sam.

  She met with an architect, with a contractor, with her banker, and spent several hours running figures. It didn't please her that the contractor she wanted had already committed the bulk of his time over the next few months to Sam and his renovation of guest rooms at the Magick Inn. But she tried to take it philosophically. Sam had, damn it, gotten there first.

  Both the renovation and her expansion, she reminded herself, were good for the island. As the weather continued warm, she spent her free time in the gardens at home and in the beds she'd planted behind the bookstore.

  "Hey. " Ripley wandered to the back garden of the store from the road. "Looks nice," she commented, scanning.

  "Yes, it does. " Mia continued to plant. "The moon's been warm and yellow all week. We won't have another frost. "

  Ripley pursed her lips. "Do you make that stuff up?"

  "I'm setting in my cosmos, aren't I?"

  "Whatever that means. Mac's got this itch to plant some stuff around the house. He's been researching the soil and the local flora and blah, blah. I told him he should just ask you. "

  "He's welcome to. "

  "He's going to be coming into the village sometime soon to interview Lulu for his books and stuff. He can catch you then. "

  "All right. "

  "I had the weirdest dream about Lu the other night - something to do with Mel Gibson and frogs. "

  Mia paused, looked up again. "Frogs?"

  "Not your lily pad variety. A big, spooky frog. " Ripley furrowed her brow, but could bring the dream back only in vague and disjointed pieces. "Something about the stupid gargoyle thing of hers, too. Weird," she said again.

  "Lulu might be interested - if Mel was naked. "

  "Yeah, well. Anyway. " Ripley stuck her hands in her pockets, shifted her feet. "Anyway, I guess you knowLogan came over to the house a few days ago. "

  "Yes. " Mia said a mental charm as she set a plant. "It's natural he'd want to see the house again. "

  "Maybe so, but that doesn't mean Mac should let him inside and give him a damn beer. Believe me, I skinned him over that one. "

  "Ripley. There's no reason Mac should've been rude, and no way his nature would allow him to be. "

  "Yeah, yeah. " Which was, she thought, just where her argument with him had ended up. "But I don't have to like it. He's got this whole mumbo about Sam's place in the destiny deal, and your step toward holding the circle intact. "

  Mia's stomach clutched, but her hands remained steady as she selected another plant. "I've never considered Mac's theories or opinions mumbo. "

  "You don't live with him. " But on a sigh, Ripley crouched down beside Mia. There was a time, not so long before, when such a gesture would have come hard to her. It still took her a moment to find what she wanted to say, and how she wanted to say it.

  "Okay, Mac's stupendously smart, and he's thorough, and nine times out of ten, he's right, which is really irritating in the day-to-day course of things. "

  "You're crazy about him," Mia murmured.

  "Well, sure. Sexiest geek on the planet, and all mine. But even the amazing Dr. Booke has to miss sometime. I just want to say I don't figure Sam Logan has to have anything to do with anything. "

  "Succinct, and sentimental. "

  "Well, why the hell should he?" Ripley lifted her hands, let them fall in frustration. "You two had a thing when you were practically kids still, and it cut you up when he ended it. But you've been handling the way he came bac
k, going about your business and pretty much keeping your distance. You've blown him off, and lightning hasn't shot out of the sky. "

  "I'm going to sleep with him. "

  "So I say chances are he's irrelevant to your part of the . . . What? What? " Ripley's mouth dropped open as she goggled. "Sweet Jesus Christ. "

  Even as Mia's lips twitched, Ripley leaped to her feet and headed into a full-blown rant.

  "What are you thinking? Have you lost your mind? Sleep with him? You're going to give the guy sex as a reward for dumping you?"

  All amusement fled. Carefully tugging off her gloves, Mia got slowly to her feet. "I'm thinking I'm an adult and capable of making my own decisions. That I'm a single, healthy, thirty-year-old woman who is free to have a physical relationship with a single, healthy man. "

  "It's not a man, it'sLogan !"

  "Perhaps you could shout just a little louder. I don't believe Mrs. Bigelow across the street heard you clearly. "

  Ripley set her teeth, rocked back on her heels. "I gave you too much credit, I see that. I figured you'd kick his ass, one way or the other. Then dust your hands off and walk away. I don't know why I thought you had it in you. You never did. "

  "What does that mean?"

  "Just what I said. You want to cozy up with Sam, go right ahead. Don't look for me to pick up the pieces when he breaks you again. "

  Mia bent to set down her garden trowel. Even a controlled and civilized woman had to take care when she had a weapon in her hand. "You needn't worry. I've had experience in that area with you. You cut me off every bit as coldly, as completely as he did. Cut yourself off, for ten years, from the gift we share and all its joys and responsibilities. Yet I still manage to join hands with you when it's necessary. "

  "I didn't have a choice. "

  "Convenient, isn't it, how when one devastates another, it's always because there wasn't a choice. "

  "I couldn't help you. "

  "You could've been there. I needed you to be there," Mia said quietly, and turned to go.

  "I couldn't. " Ripley took her arm, wrapped her fingers tight. "It's his goddamn fault. When he left you all you did was bleed, and I . . . "

  "What?"

  Ripley dropped her hand. "I don't want to get into all this. "

  "You kicked in the door, Deputy. Have the guts to step through it. "

  "Fine, great. " She paced away, paced back. Temper still stained her cheeks, but her eyes were bleak.

  "You walked around like a zombie for weeks, barely functioning. Like somebody who hadn't quite recovered, and never would, from some horrible illness. "

  "It probably came from having my heart ripped out. "

  "I know it, because I felt it too. " Fisting a hand, Ripley tapped it on her chest. "I felt what you felt. I couldn't sleep, I couldn't eat. I could barely get out of bed most days. It was like dying from the inside out. "

  "If you're talking about complete empathy, I've never - " Mia stammered.

  "I don't know what you call it," Ripley snapped. "I experienced, physically, what you experienced. And I couldn't stand it. I wanted to do something, wanted you to do something. Pay him back, make him hurt. And the longer it went on, the more angry I got. If I was mad, it didn't hurt as much. I couldn't think past the fury. "

  She drew a breath. "I was standing outside, behind the house. Zack had just come in from a sail. Minutes before. And all this rage just rose up. I thought about what I wanted to do, what I could do. It was inside me to do it. I pulled lightning out of the sky. A black bolt. And it struck the boat where Zack had just been. A few minutes earlier, and I might have killed him. I couldn't control it. "

  "Ripley. " Shaken, appalled, Mia reached out to touch her arm. "It must have terrified you. "

  "A few giant steps beyond terrified. "

  "I wish you'd talked to me. I could've helped. "

  "Mia, you couldn't even help yourself. " Sighing as the weight slid off her shoulders, Ripley shook her head. "And I couldn't take the chance of hurting someone. I couldn't handle the - I don't know - the intimacy of my link with you. I knew if I told you, you'd talk me out of giving up the Craft. I saw only one way out, and that was to pull back from you. From all of it, before I did something I couldn't take back. "

  "I was furious with you," Mia countered.

  "Yeah. " Ripley sniffled, but she was only marginally embarrassed. "I got mad back, and it got easier, maybe more comfortable for me, to be at odds with you than it had been to be your friend. "

  "Maybe it got easier for me, too. " It was difficult to admit, after all the years when casting blame had helped soothe the hurt. "Sam was gone, but you were still here. Needling you whenever possible was some small satisfaction. "

  "You were really good at it. "

  "Well. " With a little laugh, Mia brushed back her hair. "Just one of my little gifts. "

  "I always loved you, even when I called you nasty names. "

  Tears threatened. A stone that had been in her heart for so long dissolved in an instant. She took the two steps that separated them, slid her arms around Ripley's waist and held on. Held tight.

  "Okay. " Mia's voice caught. Ripley patted her back. "Okay. "

  "I've missed you so much. So much. "

  "I know. Me, too. " She let out an unsteady breath, then blinked when she saw Nell standing just outside the door, crying silently.

  "Sorry I came out in the middle of that, and, well, by the time I'd decided whether I should mediate or just slip back inside, I was caught up. " She handed tissues all around. "I'd apologize for eavesdropping, but I'm just so happy. "

  "What a trio. " Ripley sniffled. "Now I'm going to finish my rounds with red eyes. It's embarrassing. "

  "For heaven's sake, do a glamour and get rid of them. " Mia finished wiping her eyes, then closed them, murmured a chant. When she opened them again, they were sparkling and clear.

  "Always the show-off," Ripley muttered.

  "I still can't do it that quickly," Nell began. "Do you think if I - "

  "Let's not get into a damn coven here. " Ripley waved a hand. "Since you're here, Nell, I need some weight. Get this. Mia's going to shag Sam. "

  "You have such a way with words," Mia said. "It never fails to impress me. "

  "The point is, whatever you call it, it's a mistake. " Ripley gave Nell a little poke on the arm. "Tell her. "

  "It's none of my business. "

  "Cop-out," Ripley stated, with a sneer.

  "To spare you from the insults, and from biting your own tongue, I'll ask for your opinion. " Mia raised her eyebrows. "If you have one on the subject. "

  "My opinion is it's your decision. And if," Nell continued over Ripley's snort, "you're considering going to bed with him, then you're still attracted enough for it to be an issue. You don't do things on impulse or recklessly. It seems to me that until you either get Sam out of your system or resolve your feelings, you'll be conflicted and unsettled. "

  "Thank you. Now - "

  "I'm not quite finished," Nell told Mia, then cleared her throat. "Physical intimacy will resolve only one level of your conflict, and probably the easiest one. What happens after will depend on whether you open yourself or close yourself. That'll be your decision, too. "

  "I'm considering it finishing up old business. Until I do, I can't know, clearly, what step it is I'm meant to take. "

  "Then just look," Ripley said impatiently. "You were always a whiz with visions. "

  "Do you think I haven't tried?" Some of the pent-up frustration snapped out. "I can't see my own. I see her, standing on the cliffs, with the storm raging, the fog creeping. I feel her strength and her despair. And in that instant before she jumps, she seems to reach out to me. I can't tell if it's to pass that last link to me, or to pull me over with her. "

  Her eyes blurred, and the air thickened. "Then I'm alone, and I feel the dark pressing in. Close, tight. And so cold it seems the night s
hould crack from it. I know if I can get to the forest, to the clearing and the heart of the island, we'll make the circle and that dark will break apart, once and for all. But I don't know how to get there. "

  "You will. " Nell took her hand. "She was alone. You aren't and never will be. "

  "We haven't come this far to lose now. " Ripley took her other hand.

  "No. " Mia drew strength from the circle. She needed it. For even there, in the sunlight, with her sisters beside her, she felt alone in the dark.

 
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