Dance upon the air, p.7

Dance Upon the Air, page 7

 part  #1 of  Three Sisters Island Series


Dance Upon the Air
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Chapter Six

  Ripley was right about the solstice. Cafe Book was so busy Mia had taken on two part-time clerks for the shop and added another behind the cafe counter.

  The run on the vegetarian dishes over a two-day period kept Nell in a constant state of panic.

  "We're running low on eggplant and alfalfa," she said as Peg came on shift. "I thought I'd calculated. . . Hell. " She yanked off her apron. "I'm going to run down to the market, get what I can. I may have to substitute, change the menu for the rest of the day. "

  "Hey, whatever. Don't sweat it. "

  Easy for you to say, Nell thought as she rushed downstairs. She'd run out of hazelnut muffins by noon, and there was no way the chocolate chunk cookies were going to last the day at the rate they were disappearing. It was her responsibility to make certain everything in the cafe ran as Mia expected it to run. If she made a mistake-

  In her rush to the back door, she all but ran over Lulu.

  "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm such an idiot. Are you all right?"

  "I'll live. " Lulu brushed fussily at her shirt. The girl had put in a good three weeks' work, but that didn't mean Lulu was ready to trust her. "Slow down. Just because you're off shift doesn't mean you have to run out of the place like it's on fire. "

  "No, I'm sorry. Is Mia-would you tell Mia I'm sorry, and that I'll be right back?"

  She bolted out the door and didn't stop running until she was in the produce section of Island Market. Panic and dread churned in her stomach. How could she have been so stupid? Buying supplies was an essential part of her job. Hadn't she been told to expect larger crowds over the solstice weekend? A moron could have done a better job planning for it.

  The pressure in her chest was making her head light, but she forced herself to think, to study her choices, to select. She filled her basket quickly, waiting in agony in the checkout line as the minutes ticked away.

  Dorcas chatted at her, and Nell managed to make some responses while all the while her brain was screaming: Hurry!

  She gathered the three heavy bags and, cursing herself for not thinking to bring her car, began to carry them as quickly as she could manage back to the shop.

  "Nell! Nell, wait a minute. " Shaking his head when she didn't respond, Zack jogged across the street. "Let me give you a hand with those. "

  It amazed her she didn't jump straight out of her sneakers as he reached out, took two of the bags. "I can get them. I can do it. I'm in a hurry. "

  "You'll move faster if you're not weighed down. Supplies for the cafe"

  "Yes. Yes. " She was nearly running again. She could get another salad put together. Ten minutes, fifteen tops. And prep the ingredients for sandwiches. Then she could deal with the sweets. If she could get started right away, there might not be any gap.

  "I guess you're pretty busy. " He didn't like the look on her face. It was so grim, so set. Like someone about to go to war.

  "I should've anticipated. There's no excuse for it. "

  She shoved through the back door of the shop, bolted up the stairs. By the time he got to the kitchen, she was already unbagging.

  "Thank you. I can take care of it now. I know what to do. "

  She moved like a dervish, Zack thought, her eyes glassy and face pale.

  "I thought you got off at two, Nell. "

  "Two?" She didn't bother to look up, but continued to chop, grate, mix. "No. I made a mistake. I have to fix it. Everything's going to be all right. It's going to be fine. No one's going to be upset or inconvenienced. I should have planned better. I will next time. I promise. "

  "Need two sandwich specials and a veggie pita-Jeez, Nell," Peg murmured as she stepped to the doorway.

  Zack put a hand on her arm. "Get Mia," he said quietly.

  "Two specials and a veggie. Okay. Okay. " Nell set the bean-and-cucumber salad aside, hauled out the sandwich ingredients. "I bought some more eggplant, so we'll be fine. Just fine. "

  "No one's upset, Nell. You don't need to worry. Why don't you sit down a minute?"

  "I only need a half hour. Twenty minutes. None of the guests will be disturbed. " She picked up the orders, spun around, then jerked to a halt as Mia came in. "It's all right. Really, it's all right. We'll have plenty of everything. "

  "I'll take those. " Peg eased by, slipped the orders out of Nell's hand. "They look great. "

  "I'm just putting together a new salad. " There were bands around her chest, around her head. Tightening, tightening. "It won't take any time at all. Then I'll take care of the rest. I'll take care of it. Don't be angry. "

  "No one's angry, Nell. I think you should take a break now. "

  "I don't need one. I'll just finish. " In desperation, she grabbed a bag of nuts. "I know I should've planned better, and I'm terribly sorry, but I'll make sure everything's perfect. "

  He couldn't stand it, couldn't stand to see her standing there, trembling now, her face white. "Hell with this," Zack spat, and stepped toward her.

  "Don't!" She stumbled back, dropping the bag, flinging her arms up as if to guard her face from a blow. The moment she did, shame smothered panic.

  "Oh, baby. " Zack's voice was ripe with sympathy. She could do nothing but turn away from it.

  "I want you to come with me now. " Mia moved to her, took her hand. "All right? Come with me now. "

  Miserably embarrassed, helplessly shaken, Nell let herself be led away. Zack jammed his hands in his pockets and felt useless.

  "I don't know what got into me. " The fact was, the last hour was largely a blur.

  "I'd say you had a big, whopping panic attack. Now sit down. " Mia walked across her office, opened what Nell had taken to be a file drawer. Instead she saw a mini-fridge stocked with small bottles of water and juice.

  "You don't have to talk to me," Mia said as she stepped over, gave Nell an opened bottle of water. "But you should think about talking to someone. "

  "I know. " Rather than drinking, Nell rubbed the chilled bottle over her face. It was beyond ridiculous, she thought now, falling to pieces over eggplant. "I thought I was over it. That hasn't happened in a really long time. Months. We were so busy, and supplies were running low. It got bigger and bigger in my mind until I thought if I didn't get some more eggplant, the world was going to end. " She drank now, deeply. "Stupid. "

  "Not stupid if you were used to being punished for something just that petty in the past. "

  Nell lowered the bottle. "He's not here. He can't hurt me. "

  "Can't he? Little sister, he's never stopped hurting you. "

  "If that's true, it's my problem. I'm not a dishrag anymore, I'm not a punching bag or a doormat. "

  "Good to hear. "

  She pressed her fingers to her temple. She had to let something out, she realized. Lift something off, or she'd break again. "We had a party once and ran out of martini olives. It was the first time he hit me. "

  Mia's face registered no shock, no judgment. "How long did you stay with him?"

  There was no censure in the question, no slick surface of pity or underlying smugness. Because the question was asked in a brisk and practical tone, Nell responded in kind. "Three years. If he finds me, he'll kill me. I knew that when I left. He's an important man. Wealthy, connected. "

  "He's looking for you?"

  "No, he thinks I'm dead. Nearly nine months now. I'd rather be dead than live the way I was living. That sounds melodramatic, but-"

  "No, it doesn't. The employment forms you filled out for me? Are they safe?"

  "Yes. My grandmother's maiden name. I broke some laws. Computer hacking, false statement, forged documents to get new identification, a driver's license, Social Security number. "

  "Computer hacking?" Lifting a brow, Mia smiled. "Nell, you surprise me. "

  "I'm good with computers. I used to-"

  "You don't have to tell me. "

  "It's all right. I helped run a business, a catering business, with my
mother a long time ago. I used a computer for records, invoices, what have you. Since I was going to keep the books, the records, I took some courses. When I started planning to run, I did a lot of research. I knew I'd only get one chance.

  God. I've never been able to talk to anyone about it. I never thought I could. "

  "Do you want to tell me the rest?"

  "I'm not sure. It gets stuck somewhere. Right about here," she said, tapping a fist on her chest.

  "If you decide you want to, come up to the house tonight. I'll show you my gardens. My cliffs. Meanwhile, take a breather, take a walk, take a nap. "

  "Mia, I'd like to finish in the cafe. Not because I'm upset or worried. I'd just like to finish. "

  "All right. "


  The drive up the coast was breathtaking. The curving road with its sudden, unexpected twists. The steady roar of the water, the rush of wind. The memories it brought back should have disturbed her, left her shaken. Instead as Nell pushed her poor rust-bucket of a car for speed, she felt exhilarated. As if she were leaving all her excess weight on the twisted road behind her.

  Maybe it was the sight of that tall white tower against the summer sky and the broody stone house beside it. They looked like something out of a storybook. Old and sturdy and wonderfully secret.

  The painting she'd seen on the mainland hadn't done them justice. Oil and canvas hadn't been able to translate the sweep of the wind, the texture of the rocks, the gnarled humps of trees.

  And, she thought as she rounded the last turn, the painting hadn't had Mia, standing between two vivid flows of flowers in a blue dress with her miles of red hair rioting in the wind.

  Nell parked her sad car behind Mia's shiny silver convertible.

  "I hope you don't take this the wrong way," Nell called out.

  "I always take things the right way. "

  "I was just thinking, if I were a man, I'd promise you anything. "

  When Mia only laughed, Nell tipped back her head and tried to take in all the house at once-the dour stone, the fanciful gables, the romance of the widow's walk.

  "It's wonderful. It suits you. "

  "It certainly does. "

  "But so far from everything, everyone. You're not lonely here?"

  "I enjoy my own company. Are you afraid of heights?"

  "No," Nell answered. "No, I'm not. "

  "Have a look at the headland. It's spectacular. "

  Nell walked with her, between the house and the tower, out to the rugged jag of cliffs that jutted over the ocean. Even here there were flowers, tough little blooms that fought their way through cracks or blossomed along the scruffy tufts of wild grass.

  Below, the waves thrashed and fumed, hurling themselves against the base of the cliffs, rearing back to slap again. Beyond, the water turned a deep, deep blue and stretched forever.

  "When I was a girl I would sit here, and wonder at all this. Sometimes I still do. "

  Nell turned her head, studied Mia's profile. "Did you grow up here?"

  "Yes. In this house. It's always been mine. My parents were for the sea, and now they sail it. They're currently in the South Pacific, I think. We were always more a couple and a child than a family. They never quite adjusted to me, nor I to them, for that matter. Though we got along well enough. "

  With a little shrug, she turned away. "The light's been here nearly three hundred years, sending out its beam to guide ships and seamen. Still, there've been wrecks, and it's said-as one would expect it to be said of such places-that on some nights, when the wind is right, one can hear the desperate calls of the drowned. "

  "Not a comforting bedtime story. "

  "No. The sea isn't always kind. "

  Still she was drawn to it, compelled to stand and watch its whims, its charm and its violence. Fire, drawn to Water.

  "The house came before," she added. "It was the first house built on the island. "

  "Conjured by magic in the moonlight," Nell added. "I read the book. "

  "Well, magic or mortar, it stands. The gardens are my joy, and I've indulged myself there. " She gestured.

  Nell looked back toward the house, blinked. The rear was a fantasy of blooms, shapes, arbors, paths. The juxtaposition between raw cliffs and lush fairyland almost made her dizzy.

  "My God, Mia! It's amazing, spectacular. Like a painting. Do you do all the work yourself?"

  "Mmm. Now and then I'll dragoon a strong back, but for the most part I can handle it. It relaxes me," she said as they walked toward the first tangle of hedges. "And gratifies me. "

  There seemed to be dozens of secret places, unexpected turns. An iron trellis buried under wisteria, a sudden stream of pure white blossoms curling through like a satin ribbon. A tiny pool where water lilies drifted and reeds speared up around a statue of a goddess.

  There were stone fairies and fragrant lavender, marble dragons and trailing nasturtium. Cheerfully blooming herbs tumbled through a rock garden and spilled toward a cushion of moss covered with starry flowers.

  "No wonder you're not lonely here. "

  "Exactly. " Mia led the way down a crooked path to a small stone island. The table there was stone as well, and stood on the base of a laughing winged gargoyle. "We're having champagne, to celebrate the solstice. "

  "I've never met anyone like you. "

  Mia lifted the bottle out of a gleaming copper pail. "I should hope not. I insist on being unique. " She poured two glasses, sat, then stretched out her legs and wiggled the painted toes of her bare feet. "Tell me how you died, Nell. "

  "I drove off a cliff. " She took her glass, drank deep. "We lived in California. Beverly Hills and Monterey. It seemed at first like being a princess in a castle. He swept me off my feet. "

  She couldn't sit, so she wandered the little island and drew in the scent of the flowers. She heard the tinkle of bells and saw that Mia had the same starry wind chime she'd bought for herself on her first day.

  "My father was in the military. We moved around a lot, and that was hard. But he was wonderful. So handsome, and brave and strong. I suppose he was strict, but he was never unkind. I loved being with him. He couldn't always be with us, and we missed him. I loved seeing him come back, in his uniform, and the way his face would light up when my mother and I went to meet him. He was killed in the Gulf War. I still miss him. "

  She drew a deep breath. "It wasn't easy for my mother, but she got through it. That's when she started the catering business. She called it A Moveable Feast. Hemingway. "

  "Clever," Mia acknowledged. "Classy. "

  "She was both. She's always been a terrific cook and loved to entertain. She taught me. . . it was something we liked doing together. "

  "A bond between you," Mia commented. "A lovely and strong one. "

  "Yes. We moved to Chicago, and she built up an impressive reputation while I went to college, took care of the books, and pitched in whenever I could manage it around classes. When I was twenty-one, I started working with her full-time. We expanded and developed an elite list of clients. That's how I met Evan, at a party in Chicago we were catering. A very important party for very important people. I was twenty-four. He was ten years older, and everything I wasn't. Sophisticated, brilliant, cultured. "

  Mia held up a finger. "Why do you say that? You're a traveled, educated woman with an enviable skill. "

  "I didn't feel like any of those things when I was with him. " Nell sighed. "In any case, I didn't move in the same circles. I cooked for the rich, the high-powered, the glamorous. I didn't share the table with them. He made me feel. . . grateful that he would pay attention to me. As if it were some fabulous compliment. I just realized that. " She shook her head.

  "He flirted with me, and it was exciting. He sent me two dozen roses the next day. It was always red roses. He asked me out, and took me to the theater, to parties, to fabulous restaurants. He stayed in Chicago for two weeks, made it clear he was stayin
g, reorganizing his schedule, putting off his clients, his work, his life, for me. I was meant for him," Nell whispered, rubbing arms that were suddenly chilled.

  "We were meant for each other. Then, when he told me that, it was thrilling. Later, not so very much later, it was terrifying. He said things to me that seemed romantic then. We'd always be together. We'd never be apart. He would never let me go. He dazzled me, and when he asked me to marry him, I didn't think twice. My mother had reservations, asked me to give it some time, but I wouldn't listen. We eloped, and I went back to California with him. The press called it the romance of the decade. "

  "Ah. Yes. " Mia nodded as Nell turned back. "It clicks. You looked different then. More like a pampered kitten. "

  "I looked the way he told me to look, and behaved the way he told me to behave. At first that seemed fine. He was older, wiser, and I was new in his world. He made it seem reasonable, just as he made it seem. . . instructional when he would tell me I was slow or dull. He knew best, so if he ordered me to change my dress for another before I was permitted to go out, he was only looking out for my interests-and our image. It was very subtle at first, those digs, those demands. And whenever I pleased him, I was given a little treat. Like a puppy being trained. Here, you performed very well for company last night, have a diamond bracelet. God, it disgusts me how easily I was manipulated. "

  "You were in love. "

  "I did love him. The man I thought he was. And he was so clever, so relentless. The first time he hit me, it was a horrible shock, but it never occurred to me that I didn't deserve it. I'd been so well trained. It got worse after that, but slowly, bit by bit. My mother was killed, hardly a year after I left. Drunk driver," Nell said, her voice thickening.

  "And you were alone then. I'm so sorry. "

  "He was so kind, so supportive. He made all the arrangements, canceled his appointments for a week to take me to Chicago. He did everything a loving husband could do. And the day we got home, he went wild. He waited until we were home, back in that house, and he'd sent all the servants away. Then he knocked me down, he raved, and slapped. He never used his fists on me, always an open hand. I think it was somehow more degrading. He accused me of having an affair with one of the mourners. A man who'd been a good friend of my parents. A kind and decent man whom I thought of as an uncle.

  "Well. " Surprised that her glass was empty, she walked back to the table, poured another. There were birds singing, a pretty chippering among the flowers.

  "We don't need a blow-by-blow account. He abused me, I took it. "

  She lifted her glass, drank, steadied herself again. "I went to the police once. He had a lot of friends on the force, a lot of influence. They didn't take me seriously. Oh, I had some bruises, but nothing life threatening. He found out, and he explained to me in ways I'd understand that if I ever humiliated him like that again, he'd kill me. I got away once, but he found me. He told me I belonged to him, and that he would never let me go. He told me that when his hands were around my throat. That if I ever tried to leave him, he'd find me, and he'd kill me. No one would ever know. And I believed him. "

  "But you did leave him. "

  "I planned it for six months, step by step, always careful not to upset him, not to give him cause to suspect. We entertained, we traveled, we slept together. We were the picture of the perfect affluent couple. He still hit me. There was always something I didn't do quite right, but I would always apologize. I pilfered cash whenever I could and hid it in a box of tampons. Pretty safe bet he wouldn't look there. I got a fake driver's license, and I hid that too. And then I was ready.

  "He had a sister in Big Sur. She was having a lavish tea party. Very female. I was expected to go. That morning, I complained of a headache, which, of course, annoyed him. I was just making excuses, he said. A number of his clients would be there, and I just wanted to embarrass him by not showing up. So I said I'd go. Naturally I'd go. I would just take some aspirin and be fine. But I knew my reluctance would ensure him letting me out of the house. "

  She'd gotten clever, too, Nell thought now. At deceit, at pretense.

  "I wasn't even frightened then. He went off to play golf, and I put what I needed in the trunk of the car. I stopped on the way and put on a black wig. I picked up the secondhand bike I'd bought the week before, and put it in the trunk. I stopped again before I got to the party, hid the bike at a spot I'd picked out. I drove down Highway 1, and I went to tea. "

  Nell sat down, spoke calmly while Mia sat in silence. "I made sure that a number of people noted I wasn't feeling very well. Barbara, his sister, even suggested I lie down for a bit. I waited until most of the guests had left, then I thanked her for a lovely time. She was worried about me. I looked pale. I brushed her off, and I got back in the car. "

  Her voice was calm, almost flat. She was just a woman telling a mildly distasteful story. One that had happened to someone else.

  That's what she told herself.

  "It was dark now. I needed it to be. I called Evan on my cell phone to tell him I was on my way. He always insisted on that. I got to the stretch of the road where I'd hidden the bike, and there were no other cars. I knew it could be done. Had to be. I took off my seat belt. I didn't think. I'd practiced it in my head a thousand times, so I didn't let myself think. I opened the door, still driving, swerving, going faster. I aimed for the edge. If I didn't make it, well, I was no worse off. I jumped. It was like flying. The car soared over the edge, just soared like a bird, then it crashed on the rocks, horrible sound, and it tumbled and rolled and fell into the water. I ran, back to where I had the bike and the bag. I pulled off my beautiful suit and put on old jeans and a sweatshirt, the wig. I still wasn't afraid. "

  No, she hadn't been afraid, not then. But now, as she relived it, her voice began to hitch. It hadn't happened to someone else after all.

  "I rode down the hills, and up and down. When I got to Carmel, I went into the bus station and I paid cash for a one-way ticket to Las Vegas. When I was on the bus, and it started to move out of the station, I was afraid. Afraid he would come and stop the bus. And I would lose. But he didn't. In Vegas I got on a bus for Albuquerque, and in Albuquerque I bought a paper and read about the tragic death of Helen Remington. "

  "Nell. " Mia reached out, closed a hand over Nell's. She doubted that Nell was aware she'd been crying for the last ten minutes. "I've never met anyone like you, either. "

  Nell lifted her glass and, as tears spilled down her cheeks, toasted. "Thanks. "

  At Mia's insistence, she spent the night. It seemed sensible after several glasses of champagne and an emotional purge to let herself be led to a big four-poster. Without protest, she slipped on a borrowed silk nightshirt, climbed between soft linen sheets, and fell instantly asleep.

  And woke in the moonlit dark.

  It took her a moment to orient herself, to remember where she was and what had awakened her. Mia's guest room, she thought groggily. And people were singing.

  No, not singing. Chanting. It was a lovely, melodious sound, just on the edges of her hearing. Drawn to it, she rose and, still logy with sleep, moved directly to the terrace doors.

  She pushed them open to a warm, whipping wind and stepped out into the pearl-white light of a three-quarter moon. The scent of flowers seemed to rise up and surround her until her head spun with it as it had with wind.

  The heartbeat of the sea was fast, almost a rage, and her own raced to keep pace.

  Then she saw Mia, dressed in a robe that gleamed silver in the moonlight, step out of the woods where trees swayed like dancers.

  She walked to the cliffs, the silver of her gown, the flame of her hair, whirling. There, high on the rocks, she faced the sea and lifted her arms to star and moon.

  The air filled with voices, and the voices seemed filled with joy. With her eyes dazzled with wonder, stinging with tears she didn't understand, Nell watched as light, shimmering beams of it, slid down from the sky t
o brush the tips of Mia's fingers, the ends of her flying hair.

  For a moment it seemed she was like a candle, straight, slim, incandescent, lighting the edge of the world.

  Then there was only the sound of the surf, the pearl-white light of the waning moon, and a woman standing alone on a cliff.

  Mia turned, walked back toward the house. Her head lifted, and her eyes met Nell's. Held. Held.

  She smiled quietly, moved into the shadow of the house. And was gone.

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