Face the fire, p.7

Face the Fire, page 7

 part  #3 of  Three Sisters Island Series


Face the Fire

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Chapter Six

  Amist blanketed the island, as thin and luminous as the skin of a pearl. Trees and rocks rose up from it, humps and towers in a soft white sea.

  Mia left the house early. On the slope of her lawn, she stood for a moment, absorbing the serenity, the stillness that was the Sisters on a lovely spring morning.

  Her spread of forsythia was a golden fan of color through the morning fog, her daffodils a band of sunny trumpets. She could smell her hyacinths, damp and sweet. It seemed to her that the earth was waiting to awaken, to throw off all memories of winter and burst into life.

  She could appreciate the sleepy before as much as she would the beauty of what was to come. She opened her car, her satchel of paperwork on the seat beside her, and started down the long and curving road to the village.

  There were several routine chores to deal with before the store opened. She enjoyed that, too - the relative quiet, the repetition, the freshening of stock - as much as she did the business hours with customers breezing in and out, lingering, browsing. And, of course, buying. She loved being surrounded by books. Uncarting them, shelving them, designing displays. She loved the smell and the texture and the look of them. And the surprises uncovered when she flipped one open at random and saw the play of words on paper.

  The bookstore was more than a business to her. It was a deep and steady love. But she never forgot it was a business, one she ran efficiently, and profitably.

  She'd come from money, and as a result had never had to work for a living. She'd had to work for her own gratification, her own sense of ethics. Her financial base had allowed her to choose the course of her career and establish a business that reflected her interests. Those ethics, and her own skills, effort, and shrewdness had made the business flourish.

  She was grateful, and always would be, for the Devlin money. But it was, to her mind, much more exciting and satisfying to make her own.

  And to risk her own.

  That was precisely what she would be doing by following through with Nell's idea. Expanding the cafe

  would change things. As much as Mia trusted and respected tradition and continuity, she was also a proponent of change. As long as the change was smart. And this one, she thought as she wound her way through the mist, could be.

  Expanding the cafe could mean tucking in a more appealing, and roomier, event area. Her monthly book club was popular on the island, and the new cooking club already showed potential. The trick would be to make the best use of space and still maintain the intimacy the store was known for. But since Nell had planted the seed in her mind, the idea had taken hold. Mia could see exactly what she wanted, and how it would be. When it came to Cafe Book, she knew precisely what she was doing. Too bad she wasn't quite as confident at the moment about the rest of her life. It was as if a curtain had been lowered, dead center of her vision. She could see peripherally, but straight ahead was blocked. It worried her more than she was willing to admit. Behind the curtain were choices, she understood that. But how could she make the right one if she didn't know the options waiting for her?

  One of the choices was Sam Logan. But to what extent did she trust her instincts there, weighing them with logic and past history? Balancing them against a primal sexual attraction that tended to cloud logic. A misstep with him could crush her a second time. She might not survive it whole. More, the wrong choice could doom the island she loved and was sworn to protect.

  Once another woman had chosen death rather than bear the pain of loneliness and heartbreak. She had flung herself into the sea, after the lover who had deserted her. And had woven the last threads of the web about Three Sisters.

  Hadn't she herself, by choosing to live, to find contentment, even to flourish, already countered that act?

  Nell had chosen courage, and Ripley true justice. And so their circle held. And she had chosen life. Perhaps the curse had already been broken, and the dark that hovered in wait around the island had already been banished.

  Even as the thought, and the hope of it, ran through her mind, the mist boiled up from the roadbed. A jagged lance of lightning crashed beside her car with an explosion of dirty red light and the stink of ozone. In the center of the road, an enormous black wolf snarled.

  Instinctively she slammed on the brakes, jerked the wheel. The car skidded, spun, giving her a dizzying view of rocks, fog, and the dull glint of the guardrail that stood between the narrow edge of road and the sheer drop to the sea.

  Fighting back the panic that gushed into her throat, she yanked the wheel again. The eyes of the wolf glowed like embers, and its teeth were long. On its muzzle was a white pentagram, sliced through the black hide like a scar.

  Her mark - and her heart slammed painfully against her ribs at the sight of it. Through the roar of blood in her head, over the scream of her own tires, she felt the cold of its breath on the back of her neck. She heard the sly, coaxing voice whispering, whispering in her mind. Let go. Just let go, and you won't be alone. It's so hard to be alone. Tears blurred her vision. For a moment, her arms went weak, trembling as the urge to let it end nudged at her will. In that moment she saw herself, quite clearly, flying over the edge of the cliff. She bore down even as she struggled to control the car, and pulled her power up from the gut. "Go back to hell, you son of a bitch. "

  As the wolf threw back its head to howl, she spun the car forward, punched the gas. And drove through it.

  She felt the shock, not from impact but from the explosion of greed that pounded the air as her car rammed through the image.

  The fog lifted, and the mist, thin and pearly in the strengthening sun, sparkled over Three Sisters. Mia pulled over to the side of the road, laid her forehead on the wheel, and gave in to the shakes. Her own breathing was too loud in the closed car, so she fumbled for the window control. The cool, damp air and the steady chant of the sea revived her.

  Still she closed her eyes, made herself sit back until she began to calm again.

  "Well, I guess that answers my question about this being over and done. " She inhaled, exhaled slowly until her chest no longer hitched with every breath. Then opening her eyes, she scanned the road behind her in the rearview mirror.

  Her tires had left wild, sinuous trails over the pavement - trails, she noted with one quick shudder, that had veered perilously close to the edge.

  The wolf was gone, and the mist was already as sheer as gauze.

  "An obvious ploy," she said aloud for herself and whatever listened. "Black wolf, red eyes. Obvious and cliched. "

  And, she thought, very, very effective.

  But he'd borne her mark, the mark she'd put on him when he'd worn another form. He hadn't been able to disguise it, and that gave her some comfort. Much-needed comfort, she admitted, for the ambush had

  very nearly succeeded.

  She eased the car back on the road, and her hands had almost stopped trembling by the time she parked her car in front of Cafe Book.

  He'd been waiting for her. It had been easy enough to time his arrival at the hotel to match hers at the store. She wasn't like clockwork, Sam mused as he strolled across the street. But sometime between eight-forty-five and nine-fifteen she parked her pretty little car and unlocked the store. She wore one of her long, thin dresses today, the kind of dress that made a man want to offer thanks to the gods of spring. It was a soft, pale blue, the color of quiet pools, and skimmed fluid as water down her body.

  She wore sexy high-heeled sandals, hardly more than a series of buff-colored straps and a long, thin spike.

  He'd had no idea shoes could make the mouth water.

  She'd tied her hair back, his only complaint about her appearance that morning. He liked it best wild and loose, but the binding did leave an intriguing spill of red down the center of her back. He'd like to lay his lips there - beneath the spill of hair, beneath the soft, thin dress, and onto the smooth skin at the center of her back.

  "Good morning, gorge
ous. "

  She jerked when he spoke and turned away from the door. His opening grin faded instantly, and his eyes went dark at the shock still mirrored in hers.

  "What is it? What happened?"

  "I don't know what you're talking about. " Damn it, her hands were going to shake again. "You startled me. " She angled her body enough to hide the tremor in her hand as she unlocked the door. "Sorry, Sam, no time for a neighborly chat. I have work. "

  "Don't pull that on me. " He moved through the door with her before she could attempt to shut it and lock it in his face. "I know you. "

  "No, you don't. " Her voice wanted to rise, and she refused to allow it. As casually as possible, she set her satchel on the front counter. "You don't know me. "

  "I know when you're upset. Christ, Mia, you're shaking. Your hands are like ice," he said as he snatched one and held it between his own. "Tell me what happened. "

  "It's nothing. " She'd thought she was calm. She'd thought she was steady again. But her legs wanted to give. Pride made her lock them stiff. "Damn it, let me go. "

  He nearly did. "No," he decided, moving closer. "I did that once. Let's try something new. " He scooped her off her feet.

  "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

  "You're cold, and shaking. You need to sit down. Put on a little weight, haven't you?"

  She sent him one withering look. "Oh, really?"

  "It looks good on you. " He carried her to the sofa, set her down. He pulled the bright throw off the back and tucked it around her.

  "Now. Tell me. "

  "Don't sit on the - " She bit off a sigh because he'd already lowered himself to the coffee table facing her. "I see you never have figured out the difference between a table and a chair. "

  "They're both in the furniture family. There, you've got some color coming back. Good thing I came along to annoy you. "

  "Just my lucky day. "

  He took her hand again, warming it in his. "What scared you, baby?"

  "Don't call me that. " He had only used that term, she remembered, when he was being particularly sweet. She let her head rest back against the cushions. "It's just . . . I had a near miss on the drive down. A dog jumped out in the road. The roads were damp with the mist, and I skidded. "

  His grip tightened on hers. "I don't think so. "

  "Why would I lie?"

  "I don't know. " He held on until she stopped trying to pull her hand free. "But something's off. I imagine I could find out for myself if I took a drive up the coast road. "

  "Don't. " Fear grabbed her by the throat so that the single word was thin and urgent. "Don't," she repeated with more control. "It isn't for you, but at this point I can't be sure it won't take what it can get. Let go of my hand, and I'll tell you. "

  "Tell me," he countered, knowing the value of the link, "and I'll let go of your hand. "

  "All right," she managed after a vicious internal struggle. "Your way. This time. "

  She told him, sparing none of the details but keeping her tone even, almost conversational. Even so, she saw his expression change.

  "Why aren't you wearing protection?" he demanded.

  "I am. " She lifted the trio of crystals dangling from a star-shaped pendant. "It wasn't enough. He's strong. He's had three centuries to gather his forces, nurse his powers. Even so, he couldn't cause me real harm. He can only play tricks. "

  "This trick might've caused you to have an accident. You were probably driving too fast. "

  "Please, you'll force me to pull out the old pot calling the kettle. "

  "I didn't nearly drive off a cliff. " He pushed to his feet, paced away the terrifying image of Mia doing exactly that.

  He hadn't anticipated this kind of direct, frontal attack on her. And, he thought, neither had she. Confidence in their own powers, he realized, had blindsided them.

  "You'd have taken extra precautions with your home. "

  "I protect what's mine. "

  "You neglected your car," he said, tossing a look over his shoulder and having the satisfaction of seeing her flush.

  "I certainly did not neglect it. I have the standard charms - "

  "Standard isn't enough, as you've just discovered. "

  Her teeth clenched at being told how to conduct herself, but she nodded. "Point taken. "

  "Meanwhile, I'd prefer to give him back some of his own rather than constantly taking the defense. "

  She got to her feet. "This isn't for you, isn't about you. "

  "No point in wasting time arguing that point, as we both know I'm part of it. "

  "You're not one of the three. "

  "No, I'm not. " He stepped back to her. "But I'm of the three. My blood and your blood, Mia, spring from the same pool. My power and your power feed from the same source. It links us, however much you might prefer otherwise. You need me with you to finish this. "

  "What I need isn't yet clear. "

  He lifted a hand, grazing a knuckle over the line of her jaw. An old gesture. "And what you want?"

  "Wanting you sexually isn't life and death, Sam. It's scratching a vague itch. "

  "Vague?" Amusement brightened his face as his hand slid around to cup the back of her neck.

  "Vague," she repeated and let his mouth come to hers, let it rub teasingly. And entice. "Slight. "

  "I was thinking more . . . " He danced the fingers of his free hand up and down her spine. "Constant. Chronic. " Nibbling on her, he eased her closer.

  She kept her gaze on him, her arms at her sides. "Desire's only a hunger. "

  "You're right. Let's eat. "

  He ravished her mouth, shifting so swiftly from gentle warmth to raging heat that she had no choice but to plunge with him.

  Her hands gripped his hips, squeezed, then ran roughly up his back to hook like talons over his shoulders. If he would push her to the brink, she thought, she would push him harder - and further. She let her head fall back, not a gesture of surrender but one of demand. Take more, if you dare. When he dared, she purred in pleasure.

  Her scent seemed to pour over him, into him, until his belly ached and his head spun. In one desperate move he dragged her closer and prepared to fall with her onto the couch. The front door opened. The cheerful jingle of bells might as well have been sirens.

  "Go rent a damn room," Lulu snapped and let the door slam behind her. It gave her dark satisfaction to watch the two of them spring apart. "Or at least crawl into the backseat of a car if you're going to act like a couple of horny teenagers. " She slapped her enormous purse on the counter. "Me, I've got a business to run around here. "

  "Good point. " Sam slipped an arm possessively around Mia's waist. "We'll just take a walk across the street. "

  It was another old gesture, Mia remembered. Once she would have hooked her arm around him in turn and leaned her head against his shoulder. Now, she simply stepped away.

  "That's a charming offer, really, but I'll just take a rain check. The business that Lulu so helpfully pointed out needs to be run is mine. And we're opening in . . . less than an hour," she said after a glance at her watch.

  "Then we'll make it fast. "

  "Another delightful offer. Isn't that sweet, Lu? It's not every day a woman gets an invitation for a quick roll before operating hours. "

  "Adorable," Lulu said sourly. She felt sour - and preferred blaming it on Sam rather than on not being able to sleep well since her Saturday-night hallucination.

  "But be that as it may . . . " Mia patted Sam's cheek absently, then started to turn away. He took her chin in a firm grip. "You're playing me," he said softly. "You want to make this a game, then I should warn you. I don't always play by the rules now. "

  "Neither do I. " She heard the back door open, close. "Ah, there's Nell. You'll have to excuse me, Sam. I have work. As I'm sure you do. "

  She nudged his hand away, then walked over to meet Nell as she came in. "I'll take that up.
" Mia scooped the first box of baked goods out of Nell's arms. "Smells fabulous. " She sailed up the stairs with the scent of cinnamon rolls floating behind her.

  "Um. " Nell cleared her throat. Walking into the tension had been like walking into a wall. "Hello, Sam. "

  "Nell. "

  "Well, I've got . . . more," she managed, then escaped out the back again.

  "In case you haven't noticed," Lulu said, "we're not open for business. So get. "

  He could still taste Mia. With his mood hot and ripe for trouble, he walked to the counter and leaned over close to Lulu's scowl. "I don't give a damn if you approve or disapprove. You won't keep me away from her. "

  "You did a good job of that yourself these past years. "

  "Now I'm back, and we're all just going to have to deal with it. " He strode to the door, yanked it open.

  "If you want to play guard dog, there's something a hell of a lot more dangerous than me you should be snapping at. "

  Lulu watched him stalk across the street. She wasn't sure there was anything more dangerous to Mia than Sam Logan.

  No family. The wine-and-junk-food-induced hallucination had been wrong about that, she thought. She had family. She had a child. Lulu glanced up the stairs where Mia had gone. She had a child, she thought again.

  He canceled his first meeting. A man had priorities. He drove up the coast road. Through sheer will he held his temper and his speed in check.

  But he could do nothing about the shock and horror that careened through him when he saw the skid marks. Inches, he thought as he got out of his car on rubbery legs, just inches more and she'd have been into the guardrail. The right speed, the right angles, and her little car would have toppled right over it and down the unforgiving face of the cliff.

  He followed the pattern, scanning the road, scenting the air for anything that lingered. He knew she liked to drive fast, but she'd never been reckless. To go into a spin such as the one indicated by the tire marks smeared over the pavement, she'd have had to be doing ninety.

  Unless she'd had help.

  Cold fingers ran over his spine because he was certain now that was what had happened. Something had shoved that spin along, pushing her toward the edge.

  If she hadn't been strong enough, smart enough, fast enough, she might not have come out of it whole. He studied the roadbed where a black scar marred it, like an old, festering burn. It oozed, like oily blood, as he watched. And as he watched, he felt the dark energy that emanated from it crawl over the air.

  Mia had been more shaken than either of them had realized, he thought, to have left this. Going back to his car, he popped the trunk, selected what he needed. With his tools in hand, he took a long look up and down the road. It was deserted. A plus, he thought, as what he needed to do would take a little time.

  He circled the scar three times with sea salt, and the ooze smoked where it spilled into the ring. With his power cold and clear inside him, he used a birch wand for cleansing. As he sprinkled both bay and cloves for protection, the scar bubbled and hissed. And began, slowly, to shrink.

  "No one who passes now need fear. You can do no more harm here. Dark back to dark as light breeds light. Safe passage here by day and night. " He crouched as the scar closed in on itself. "I will guard what is dear to me," he whispered. "As I will, so mote it be. "

  He returned to his car and drove over the shadow of the scar toward Mia's house. He'd needed to see it, and had resisted. But he couldn't afford to wait for her invitation now. It was so much what it had been, he thought as he studied the gorgeous ramble and spears of stone. And so much more. More Mia, he realized as he again got out of his car. The flowers, the budded shrubs and great trees. The gargoyles and faeries. The breeze stirred wind chimes and strings of crystal into constant music. The white tower of the lighthouse stood like an ancient sentinel, guarding both island and house. And she'd planted purple pansies at its feet. He followed the winding path of stepping-stones around the side of the house. The sea beating on the rocks drew both his mind and his heart toward the cliffs and made him remember how many times he'd stood on them with her. Or come upon her standing there alone.

  But as he walked he glanced around, then stopped, staggered.

  Her gardens were a world. Arches and arbors, slopes and flows. Stone paths softened by moss spreading through the cracks meandered through rivers and floods of flowers. Some were tender with spring, some already reigned.

  Not just blooms, he realized, but the green. There were so many tones and textures of it that each spill or shimmer of pink or white, yellow or blue against it added a wonder. There were pools of water, the glint of copper from a sundial, the charm of a dancing faerie twirling in the shrubbery. He could see benches tucked here and there, some in sun, some in shade, inviting visitors to sit, to enjoy.

  He couldn't imagine what it would be like when the young plants burst into full summer bloom, when the vines finished their climb up the arbors. Couldn't conceive of the color and shape, the perfume. Unable to resist, he wandered along some of the stone paths, trying to imagine how she had done it. How she had turned what had been a pretty, if pedestrian, garden, a stretch of manicured lawn, and the single formal terrace he remembered into a celebration.

  And he wished, foolishly, that he could sit and watch while she tended one of her beds. The house had always been beautiful, he thought now. And she had always loved it. But he remembered it as somewhat staid, and very formidable. She had made it a place of pleasure and beauty, warmth and welcome.

  And standing in the midst of Mia's personalEden , with the fragile scents, the trill of birds, the thunder of the surf, he understood what she had created, and what he had never found. Home.

  He had had the luxurious, the adequate, the tasteful, and the efficient. He had looked for, but had never found, his place. Until now.

  "A hell of a note, isn't it?" he murmured. "To realize she had hers, and mine, all along. "

  Since he didn't know what to do about it, he went back to his car to finish what he'd come to do. He would add his own charms of protection to Mia's, and make her - and hers - doubly safe. He'd just finished when he spotted the island's patrol car coming up the road. Watching it, he dropped a small silk bag of crystals back into his coat pocket. His initial pleasure at the prospect of seeing Zack flipped over to irritation when Ripley got out of the car.

  "Well, well, isn't this interesting. " Simmering, and delighted to be so, she tucked her hands in her back pockets and swaggered toward him. The bill of her cap was angled low over dark glasses. But he didn't need to see the whole of her face to know it was hard as stone.

  "Here I am, on routine island patrol, and what do I find but a nefarious character. And find him skulking around on private property. " Smiling fiercely, she unhooked her cuffs from her belt. Sam eyed them, eyed her. "Not that I don't have a soft spot for a little bondage now and again, Rip, but you're a married woman. " When her lips peeled back to show her teeth, he shrugged. "Okay, bad joke. But so are those. "

  "The law isn't a joke, hotshot. You're trespassing, and I imagine I could make an attempted daylight B

  and E stick. " The cuffs jingled in her hand. "Either way, trying is just going to make my day. "

  "I didn't go in the damn house. " He'd just been considering it. "And if you think you're going to arrest and cuff me for trespassing - "

  "Goody. I can add resisting. "

  "Cut me some slack. "

  "Why the hell should I?"

  "I didn't come up here to poke around. " Though he had poked, a bit. "I'm just as concerned about Mia as you are. "

  "Too bad being a lying sack of shit isn't against the law. "

  "How about this for truth?" He leaned over until they were nose to nose. "I don't give a rat's ass what you think of or about me. I'm going to make damn sure this house and the woman who lives in it are protected, especially after what nearly happened to her this morning. And if
you think you're going to get those fucking cuffs on me, sweetheart, you'd better step back and think again. "

  "It's not your job to protect this house. And if I want these cuffs on you, city boy, you'll be flat on the ground eating dirt while I secure them. What the hell do you mean, 'after what happened this morning'?"

  He started to spit something back at her, but then his gaze narrowed in speculation. "Mia didn't tell you?

  She tells you every damn thing. Always has. "

  Ripley's color came up a little. "I haven't seen her today. What happened?" Then the color drained away again as she gripped his wrist. "Is she hurt?"

  "No. No. " His temper ebbed, leaving only frustration. He raked his fingers through his hair. "But she could've been. Nearly was. "

  He relayed the story, appreciating when Ripley swore impressively and stalked around the front yard as if looking for something handy to kick.

  It reminded him why he'd always liked her.

  "I didn't see any skid marks. "

  "I vanished them after I cleansed the area," he explained. "I thought it would upset her to see them again. God knows, it bothered me. "

  "Yeah, well. " Her voice dropped to a mutter. "You're right. "

  "Excuse me? I don't believe I caught that. "

  "I said you're right. Don't milk it. You took care of things here?"

  "Yeah. Just added a layer over what she's done. She's stronger than she was," he said half to himself.

  "And she's thorough. "

  "Obviously not thorough enough. I'm going to talk to Mac about it. He has all sorts of ideas. "

  "Yeah, he's full of them," Sam said sourly, then shrugged his shoulders when Ripley scowled at him. "I liked him. So congratulations and best wishes on your marriage, and all of that. "

  "Gee, thanks, that was so heartwarming. "

  That made him smile. "Maybe it's just hard for me to imagine Let-It-Rip cozied up in connubial bliss. "

  "Shut up. That was high school. "

  "I liked you in high school. " Because he had, he tried again. "I'm glad you and Mac bought the house. It's a great spot. "

  "Yeah, we think so. No hard feelings your old man sold it out from under you?"

  "It was never mine. "

  She opened her mouth, shut it again. For a moment he'd been the lost and restless boy she remembered. And had cared for. "You messed her up, Sam. Seriously messed her up. "

  He stared at the cliffs that rose over the sea and spilled down to it. "I know it. "

  "Then I messed her up. "

  Puzzled, he looked back at Ripley's face. "I don't understand you. "

  "She didn't tell me about this morning because we're just getting back on even ground again, after a long time. I dumped her just as hard as you did, so I'm thinking . . . " She drew a breath. "I'm thinking I don't have any right to take shots at you, when part of it's just to ease my own conscience. You knocked the ground out from under her, but I didn't stick around to help break her fall. "

  "You want to tell me why you didn't stick?"

  She sent him a hard, level look. "You want to tell me why you didn't?"

  He shook his head. "No. Why don't we start dealing with now? I'm part of this, and I'm sticking this time around. "

  "Fair enough," she agreed. "I say we can use all the help we can get, from whatever the source. "

  "I'm going to do whatever I can to convince Mia to let me back into her life. "

  "I'll wish you luck. " At his surprised glance she smirked. "But until I make up my mind about you, pal, I won't say whether that's good luck or bad. "

  "Reasonable. " He held out a hand, and after a moment's hesitation she took it. Heat shimmered and sparked. "Figures," she said in a dour voice.

  "Connections. " He gave her hand a friendly squeeze before releasing it. "What can you do?"

  "I'll let you know when I figure it out. I have to finish my patrol. " She waited a beat, inclined her head.

  "After you. " She jerked a thumb at his car. "And keep that phallic symbol on wheels under the speed limit. "

  "Oh, absolutely, Officer Friendly. " He sauntered back to his car. "One more thing? Let's not mention my little visit here to Mia. She'll just get pissy about me questioning her skills. "

  Ripley snorted as she climbed into her own car. She had to give Sam credit for one thing. He still knew his woman.

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