Face the fire, p.8

Face the Fire, page 8

 part  #3 of  Three Sisters Island Series

 

Face the Fire
 


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Chapter Seven

  She wouldn't tell Mia, but Ripley didn't consider that her discretion was required to extend to Mac. She was pretty sure there was some loophole in the confidentiality law that applied to spouses. The way she looked at it, if you loved someone enough to promise them a lifetime, you got to tell them all your stuff and listen to all of theirs. It was a side benefit and balanced out having to share closet space. Though they lived together, slept together, woke together, they met for lunch a few times a week at Cafe

  Book. The few times a week Mac wasn't so buried in his work that he remembered what time it was. The lunch date, she decided, was as long as she could hold out before she spilled her news. She itched to relay the story to Nell, but after a complex internal debate, she decided Nell cut too close to Mia and didn't come under the dispensation rule.

  Mac would have to do.

  "So," she continued as she plowed through a grilled tuna and avocado salad, "he stood there, all handsome and brooding - it was still cool and misty, so he had on this long dark coat and it was all, you know, billowy. Perfect tortured-hero look. So he's like that, on her front lawn with that big old house behind him and the mists just burning off, until I made him leave. "

  "He vanished the remnants on the road?" It wasn't easy to get a word in when Ripley was on a roll, but Mac had carved out one salient point.

  "Yeah - poof. It can be a pretty intense spell, depending on the, you know, quality and complexity of the evil and stuff. " She jerked a shoulder and grabbed her coffee. "But I didn't see a trace of it, and I stopped and took a good look on the way back, just in case he'd missed something. "

  "Had he?"

  "Nope. Not even a stray vibe left, which means he swept it clean. "

  "I wish he'd talked to me first," Mac complained. "I could've gotten some on-site readings and taken a sample for lab tests. "

  She sat back, shook her head at him. "Oh, yeah, just what I want my guy to have his fingers in, some evil black ooze. "

  "It's what I do. " Mac sulked about it for a minute, then decided he might as well take a drive out and see if some of his more sensitive equipment could pick up anything.

  "So let's backtrack a minute," he continued. "He told you that Mia told him she'd seen a large black wolf with the pentagram mark on his muzzle. "

  "That's the manifestation. Black wolf, red eyes, big fangs. Her mark on it. Had to be a hell of an image to shake the queen of weird. "

  "An image is just the point," Mac said. "Not an actual wolf. No living creature was possessed this time out. Could have something to do with her branding it last winter. But it was still potent enough to send her into a skid. That's interesting. "

  "And a bad one, from the way Sam was shaken up. I'll tell you what else is interesting. " She leaned forward, hunching over what was left of her lunch and lowering her voice. "The guy sweeping up behind her, standing there looking at her place like some contemporary version of Heathcliff looking over the moors for Catherine - "

  "Good one. "

  "Hey, I read. Anyway, him standing there, emotions all swirling - and trying to act all cool and casual about it. That's interesting. "

  "From what you told me, they had a very intense relationship. "

  "Had," Ripley confirmed. "I could see him being all moony if she'd dumped him way back when. But he's the one who pulled stakes. "

  "Doesn't mean he got over her. "

  "Guys don't carry torches for a frigging decade. "

  Smiling, Mac rubbed his hand over the back of hers. "I'd carry one for you. "

  "Get out. " But she turned her hand over, linked her fingers with his. "Anyway, he doesn't want her to know he went out there. He says she'd be ticked if she knew he'd backed up her charms. And she would. But if you ask me, there's another layer. He doesn't want her to know he's stuck on her. It'd be funny if it wasn't so complicated, and if there wasn't so much at stake. "

  "Whatever was between them, is between them - or isn't - plays into what happens next. I've got some theories. "

  "You've always got some theories. "

  He smiled, inched forward. "We need to have a meeting. All parties. "

  "I figured. " Like his, her voice was a whisper now. To the casual observer, it might have appeared they were flirting, or plotting an insurrection. "Let's have it at Zack's. Nell'll cook. We're scraping the bottom of the leftover barrel at home. "

  "Good thinking. How do we handle how much we know, and who told us what who doesn't want somebody else to know we know?"

  "Jesus, I understand that. " She grinned at him. "It must be love. "

  "Well, if it isn't Bill and Coo. " Mia stepped up to the table, ran an affectionate hand over Mac's shoulder. "Don't the two of you look adorable?"

  "Yeah, we're thinking about entering a contest. " Ripley eased back, studied Mia's face. She had to give the woman credit, nothing showed but bone-deep beauty. "So what's up with you?"

  "Oh, this and that. " Mia left her hand on Mac's shoulder. Something about him always comforted her.

  "Actually, there is something I need to speak with you about - and Nell. "

  A shadow of worry crossed her face as she glanced back at the cafe counter. "It'll have to wait a bit, though," Mia decided. "She's pretty tied up with customers at the moment. "

  Ripley considered how to play it, then went with instinct. "If this is about your dances with wolves, I know about it. "

  It was a toss-up, she thought, who looked more stunned, Mia or Mac. But at least Mia didn't kick her under the table. She shifted, which gave her the opportunity to kick Mac back as she reached toward a neighboring table and dragged over a third chair.

  "Sit down a minute. "

  "I think I will. " Struggling to settle, Mia slid into the chair, folded her hands. "I didn't realize you and Sam were such confidants. "

  "Oh, can it. " Ripley pushed what was left of her lunch aside. "I ran into him out on the coast road. "

  Which was true, Ripley thought. Mia's house was on the damn coast road. "He cleaned up the little mess you left behind. "

  "The . . . " She trailed off, paled. My God, how could she have been so careless! She hadn't so much as thought of the smear of power that might have stained that section of the island.

  "Give yourself a break," Mac said gently. "You had to have been badly shaken. "

  "It doesn't matter. It was my responsibility. "

  "You don't get it, professor. " Casually, Ripley broke off a piece of the eclair Mac had picked out for dessert. "Ms. Perfect here isn't allowed to make mistakes like the rest of us lesser beings. "

  "I should've cleaned the area," Mia repeated, and gave Ripley a genuine jolt of concern when she didn't snap back.

  "Well, you didn't. He did, and all's well. Anyway, while I was ragging on him and threatening to haul him in on some trumped-up charges just to brighten my morning, he filled me in. I've filled Mac in, so you just have to bring Nell up to speed when she's off her shift. "

  "Yes, all right. " Mia rubbed at the vague pounding in her temple. She couldn't remember the last time she'd had a headache. And her stomach was queasy. She'd have to take the time to balance her chakras so she could think clearly.

  "I would like to go over it with you in more detail, Mac. I tend to believe it was nothing but a scare tactic, but I don't want to shrug it off and miss something critical. "

  "You're right, and as it happens Ripley and I were just saying we should have a meeting. Why don't we see if we can get together at Nell and Zack's tonight?"

  "At dinnertime," Ripley chimed in and made Mia smile.

  "Yes, why waste time or an opportunity for a free meal? I'll speak to Nell. " Mia got to her feet, then looked down at Ripley. "I intended to tell you about it myself. I just needed to clear my head first. I don't want you to think I was keeping secrets. It's past time for that between us. "

  Ripley suffered a pang of guilt over Sam, but sucked it in. A deal was a deal
. "Don't sweat it. Besides, it gave me a chance to needle the pretty boy. "

  "That's something, then. I'll see you later. "

  When she walked toward Nell and was out of earshot, Mac leaned forward again. "You're good, Deputy. Really good. "

  "Did you doubt it? Now I've got to make tracks and get to Sam, let him know what I told her and what I didn't, before she gets to him and everything's screwed. "

  "I'll do it. " He shoved his eclair in front of her as he rose. "I want to talk to him anyway. I need to document all of this. "

  "Hey, good deal. " She plucked up the pastry.

  "And you get to buy lunch. "

  "Always a catch," she muttered with her mouth full.

  Mac had only been able to wheedle an hour out of Lulu, and that was just as well now, he thought. He still had to drive back home, meet up with Ripley again, and drive back for the newly arranged dinner meeting at the Todds'.

  But for now he had his tape recorder and notebook, and had primed Lulu with a box of Godiva.

  "Really appreciate this, Lulu. "

  "Yeah, yeah. " She drank coffee, black, with the candy. She was giving wine a little rest. "I told you I don't much like this interview crap. Reminds me of being hauled in by the cops for protesting. "

  "What were you protesting?"

  She sent him a pitying look. "Come on. It was the sixties. What wasn't I protesting?"

  It was a good place to start, he decided. "You lived in a commune, right?"

  "For a while. " She shrugged. Might as well get it done. "I flopped here, or there. Slept in parks, on beaches, whatever was handy. Saw a lot of the country you're not going to see if you're in the family minivan and stopping at the Holiday Inn. "

  "I bet. How'd you end up here? On Three Sisters?"

  "Heading east. "

  "Lulu . . . " he pleaded.

  "Okay, don't give me that puppy-dog look. " She made herself more comfortable on the sofa. "I hit the road when I was about sixteen. Didn't get along with my family. " She leaned over, plucked out another chocolate.

  "Any particular reason for that?"

  "You name it. My old man had a narrow mind and a hard hand, and my mother danced to his tune and played with the ladies auxiliary. Couldn't stand it. I lit out first chance I got, and I'd been such a pain in their asses, they didn't go to much trouble to find me. "

  He found the offhanded way she spoke of her parents' disinterest sad and telling. But knowing Lulu, the slightest inkling of sympathy would earn him a kick in the teeth. "Where were you going?"

  "Anywhere that wasn't there. Ended up inSan Francisco for a while. Gave my virginity in a nice marijuana haze to a sweet-faced boy named Bobby. "

  She smiled at that, as despite the years and the circumstance, it was a nice memory. "I made love beads, sold them for food, listened to a lot of music, solved all the world's problems. Smoked a lot of joints, dropped a little acid. Cruised aroundNew Mexico andNevada with a guy named Spike - can you beat that - on his Harley. "

  "At sixteen?"

  "Might've been seventeen by then. You only get to be sixteen for a year. Liked being a gypsy, as I had itchy feet. " She wiggled her toes in her ancient Birkenstocks. "I planted them now and then. The commune inColorado for one. I learned to plant a garden, how to cook what I planted. Learned how to knit there, too. But . . . "

  Behind her lenses, her eyes sharpened. "You want the weird stuff, right? Not the hippie-trippie memoirs. "

  "I'll take what I can get. "

  "I had dreams. Not like goals," she added. "Didn't have an ambition to my name back then. But I had dreams of this place - The Sisters. The house on the cliff, and a woman with long red hair. "

  Mac had been sketching Lulu's face on his notepad, but now he stopped and looked up. "Mia. "

  "No. " Because it reminded her of the old days, Lulu lighted a cone of vanilla incense. "She'd cry in the dreams, and tell me I had to tend her children. "

  Mac made a quick notation. There had been a nurse, and the one called Earth had left the children with her before leaping from the cliffs. "Reincarnation?" He scribbled. "A link within the circle?"

  "Whenever I had the dream, I just had to move again, just had to leave where I was and move on. Long story short, I ended up in Boston, broke. But I didn't mind being broke back then. Somebody always knew somebody who had a pad you could crash in. One day this girl who called herself Buttercup - Jesus - said how we should all take the ferry over to Three Sisters Island. She liked to think she was a witch, but as I remember she was the daughter of some rich lawyer whose money she was pissing away in college. She could pay the freight to get us all over and back with daddy's allowance money. I went along because, hey, free ride. They made the round-trip. I stayed. "

  "Why?" Mac asked her.

  She didn't answer for a moment. Despite her relationship with Mia, with Ripley and Nell, and the island itself, Lulu didn't talk much about her own brushes with magic.

  It always made her feel a little silly.

  But Mac was watching her in that quiet way he had. And she was damn fond of him.

  "I knew it was my place, as soon as I saw it coming up out of the water. I was high," Lulu continued.

  "We all were. Buttercup was a moron, but she always had prime weed. I saw the island like it was in crystal, everything so vivid and clear. Maybe it was the pot, but it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. I looked up and saw the house on the cliffs, and I thought - well, shit, there it is. That's where I'm supposed to be. I walked away from Buttercup and the rest as soon as we hit the docks, and never gave them another thought. Wonder what the hell ever happened to her. "

  "You went to work for Mia's grandmother. "

  "Not right away. I wasn't looking for gainful employment. Too establishment for me. " She took off her glasses to polish the lenses. "I camped out in the woods a while, ate berries or what I'd liberated from people's vegetable gardens. I think I was going through a vegetarian stage," she mused with a little frown of concentration.

  It was interesting to look back and see herself - young, careless, smooth.

  "Didn't last long. Born a carnivore, die a carnivore. So . . . one day I was hiking and this woman came by in a fancy car. Stopped. She leaned out, looked me up and down. I guess she was on the shy side of sixty, but when you're figuring thirty's the end of it all, that's really old. "

  She stopped, laughed now as she put her glasses on. "What the hell, I'm having a glass of wine. Want one?"

  "No thanks. I've got driving to do. "

  "You're a real straight arrow, aren't you, Mac?" She headed off to the kitchen, shouting back. "I never was much to look at, and after camping a couple weeks, I'd've been a little ripe. Had long hair then, wore it in braids. What was I thinking? The woman, she was old to me, but she was a looker. Dark red hair all done up, lady suit on like she'd just come from teatime. She had dark, dark eyes, and when they latched on to mine, I swear I heard waves crashing on rock, storms, I felt the wind blow over me though the day was hot and still. I heard a baby crying. "

  Wineglass in hand, Lulu clumped back in, dropped back on the colorful, well-sprung sofa. "She told me to get in, just like that. And I did, just like that. Never thought about it twice. Mrs. Devlin, she had power, just like her granddaughter does. I didn't know what it was then, I just knew it was. She took me to the house on the cliffs.

  "I loved her. " Lulu allowed sentiment to fill her throat along with the wine. "I respected her, and I admired her. She was more family to me than my own blood. They'd never given much of a damn about me, and I'd gotten used to that. But she taught me. Passed on her love of reading, trusted me. Made me work for my keep - goddamn, she expected you to pull weight! I cleaned that big-ass house so many times I could've done it in my sleep. "

  "You didn't know she was a witch?"

  Lulu considered. It wasn't something she had given a great deal of thought to. "It was kind of gradu
al. I

  think she saw to that so it'd be a natural thing for me to accept. Maybe it was easier seeing as how I was into all that hippie-metaphysical-nature-is-our-mother business. "

  "When did you learn about the legend?"

  "That was a gradual thing, too. It's part of the Sisters, so you hear this, read that. Working for Mrs. Devlin, I became part of the island before I realized it. "

  "Then by the time Mia came along, it was natural for you to accept power in her. "

  "If I had to analyze it, I'd say Mrs. Devlin saw to that, too. She knew the way things would be before they were. When Mia was born, her son and his wife moved into the house. I figured out pretty soon they'd done it so they'd have themselves a couple of live-in sitters. Selfish twits. "

  She paused, took a deep gulp of wine. "The night they brought her, they went down to the hotel to have dinner, and Mrs. Devlin took me into the nursery. Mia was a beautiful baby - red-headed, bright-eyed. Long arms and legs. Mrs. Devlin, she picked her up out of the crib, cuddled her for a minute, then she held her out to me. Scared me boneless. It wasn't just that I'd never held a baby before, or that this one looked like something made of precious glass. It was that I knew. I knew she was giving her to me, and nothing would ever be the same for me again. You ever want something so bad you could taste it, but the idea of taking that first sip makes your belly jump?"

  "Yeah. " He set his notebook aside now and just listened. "Yeah, I have. "

  "It was just like that. We stood there, her holding Mia out, me with my arms crossed over my chest with my heart beating like a hammer inside it. And a storm came up out of nowhere, just like in my dreams. Wind whipping the windows, lightning flashing. It was the first and last time I saw her cry.

  " 'Take her,' she said to me. 'She needs love and care, and a firm hand. They won't give it to her, they can't. And when I'm gone, she'll only have you. ' I told her I didn't know how to take care of a baby, and she smiled at me, and just kept holding Mia out. Mia started to squirm and fuss, shake her fists, and before I knew it, I was taking her. Mrs. Devlin stepped back. 'She's yours now. ' I'll never forget that.

  'She's yours now, and you're hers. ' And she left me to rock Mia to sleep. " Lulu sniffled. "Wine's making me sloppy. "

  Touched, Mac leaned over, closed a hand over hers. "Me, too. "

  Sheriff Zachariah Todd emptied the dishwasher - one of the few tasks he was allowed to attempt in his own kitchen. "Okay, let me see if I got this straight. Mia told Sam what happened out on the coast road this morning. Ripley, who didn't know what happened, found Sam up at Mia's house and he told her, Ripley - but she promised she wouldn't tell Mia he'd been there, so she told Mia - when Mia was going to tell her - Jesus - about what happened; that she, and that would be Ripley, ran into Sam on the road when he was cleansing the area. "

  "You're doing great," Nell encouraged as Zack took a breath and she checked on the progress of her lasagna.

  "Don't throw me off the track. Then Mac told Sam what Ripley had told Mia while Mia was telling you what happened this morning. Then Ripley told you the rest of it, which you told me. For reasons that escape me. "

  "Because I love you, Zack. "

  "Right. " He pressed a fingertip dead center of his forehead. "I think I'll just keep my mouth shut altogether. No way to wedge my foot in there that way. "

  "Never a bad choice. " She heard Lucy's sudden and joyful barking. "Someone's here. You go, take the tray on the third shelf. I'm experimenting with canapes for the Rodgers's wedding I'm catering next month. Put them up where Lucy can't get them," she called as he started out, then glanced down at Diego. "Men and dogs," she said, and clucked her tongue. "You have to watch them every minute. "

  And because she did, Nell took the time to shift all the utensils Zack had put away into their proper slots before she grabbed a bottle of wine and went out to greet her guests. Mac and Ripley had brought the puppy along, which sent Lucy into spasms of delight and terror, and had a miffed Diego stalking upstairs to sulk.

  Mia arrived with a bouquet of freshly clipped daffodils, and helped herself relax by sitting on the floor playing tug-the-rope with Mulder.

  "I think of getting a dog now and then. " She laughed as Mulder lost his toothy grip on the rope and went tumbling ears over tail. "Then I think about my gardens. " She snatched the puppy up, holding him high.

  "You'd just love digging up all my flowers, wouldn't you?"

  "Not to mention chewing on your shoes," Ripley said sourly. "Of course, you've got a hundred pair to spare. "

  "Shoes are a form of self-expression. "

  "Shoes are to walk in. "

  Mia drew the puppy down, rubbed noses. "What does she know?"

  That's how Sam saw her when he came to the door, sitting on the floor, laughing while a fat yellow puppy licked her cheeks. His gut clenched, and his throat snapped shut. She looked so carelessly happy with her skirts spread out on the rug, her hair tumbling down her back, and her eyes bright with pleasure.

  There, in that outrageously beautiful woman, was the shimmer of the girl he'd left behind. Then Lucy barked, Mulder leaped, and Mia stopped laughing as her gaze snapped to the doorway.

  "Lucy!" Zack called to the dog, then grabbed her collar as he opened the screen door for Sam. "No jumping," he ordered as Lucy's muscles bunched for a joyful leap. "Either of you. " He said it under his breath. A blind man could have seen that hungry look on Sam's face.

  "She's all right. " Sam skimmed a hand over Lucy's head and she collapsed onto her back. He passed the wine he'd brought to Zack before crouching down to rub her exposed belly. The puppy gamboled over, wanting his share.

  "What are you doing here?" Mia demanded.

  Sam lifted his eyebrows at her tone, but before he could respond, Mac stepped in. "I asked him to come. " Mac nearly flinched at Mia's quick, accusing stare. "We're all part of this, and everyone here has something to contribute. We need to cooperate with each other, Mia. "

  "You're right, of course. " The carefree woman was gone. In her place was one with a cool voice and a polished smile. "So rude of me, Sam. I apologize. This has been our little club for some time now, and I wasn't expecting a new member. "

  "No problem. " He picked up the rope Mulder dropped hopefully at his feet.

  "Dinner will just be a few more minutes. " Smoothly Nell moved into the tense air. "Can I get you a glass of wine, Sam?"

  "Love one, thanks. Does your little club have any initiation rite I should know about?"

  "Just the little business where we shave all the hair off your head and body. " Mia sipped her own wine.

  "But that can wait until after dinner. I think I'll wash up. "

  Before she could get to her feet, Sam was on his, a hand held down to her. Whether it was a test or a peace offering, Mia blocked herself so that when she took his hand it was nothing more than palm meeting palm. "Thanks. "

  She knew the house as well as she knew her own, but headed up the stairs rather than using the more convenient powder room on the first floor.

  More distance, she thought. More solitude.

  She slipped inside, shut the door. Leaned back against it. It was ridiculous. Absurd for the man to affect her the way he did. It was all right, or nearly so, when she was prepared, but when she saw him at those odd moments - those moments when too much of her was already open - he just filled her up. She wanted to blame him for it, but it was foolish, and foolhardy, to keep picking at an old wound. What was done was done.

  She stepped to the sink, studied her face in the mirror. She looked tired, a little pale and drawn. Well, it had been a difficult day. And the shell, at least, was simple to mend. She washed her hands, then ran water in the sink. Bending, she scooped it, cool and fresh, onto her face. In the normal scheme of things, she enjoyed using cosmetics. The pencils and tubes and brushes were amusing, and there was something reassuringly female about using them. But for now, this was simpler,
and certainly quicker.

  She dabbed her face dry, weaving the glamour spell. Then she looked critically in the mirror again. Much better, she decided. She looked rested, with the subtle bloom of healthy color in her cheeks. More color, not quite so subtle, slicked her mouth.

  Then with a sigh for her own vanity, she traced a fingertip over the curve of her eyelid, as a woman might use eyeshadow and a brush to define them. The contour deepened.

  Satisfied, she gave herself another moment to smooth out her emotions. And went back down to join the others.

  A close-knit group, Sam thought as he ate Nell Todd's truly amazing lasagna. The body language, the looks, the half-finished thoughts one would complete for another all told him these were five people who'd bonded like glue.

  By his time line, Nell had been on the island slightly less than a year, and Mac only since the past winter. Yet they'd been absorbed in a way that made them all very much a single unit. A common enemy was part of the answer. But he saw more here than what he perceived as a kind of wartime intimacy.

  There was something in the way Mia warmed when she spoke to or listened to Mac, the amused affection on her face. It was love he saw there, not the sort that sprang from passion, but something deep and true.

  He saw byplay like that all around the table.

  Nell scooped up a second helping for Mac before he'd asked for one. Zack tore off a hunk of bread and passed it to Mia while he continued to hold a heated debate with his sister on the pitching depth of the Red Sox. Nell and Mia exchanged looks in an unspoken joke that had them both chuckling. And all of it, all the ease, made it clear to Sam that building a bridge over his years away would take more than time and proximity.

  "I think my father and yours played in the same foursome for some charity golf tournament," Mac commented. "Just last month, in Palm Springs, or Palm Beach. Or something with a Palm in it. "

  "Really?" Sam had never been interested in his father's pseudo charity events. And it had been years since he'd had to bow to the pressure of participating in any of them. "I met your parents at various functions in New York. "

  "Yeah, same circles. "

  "More or less," Sam agreed. "I don't recall meeting you at any of those various functions. "

  Mac only grinned. "Well, there you are. So . . . do you play golf?"

  Now, Sam smiled. "No. Do you?"

  "Mac's pretty much a spaz," Ripley put in. "If he tried to tee off, he'd probably slice his big toe into the woods. "

  "Sad, but true," Mac agreed.

  "Last week he tripped going down the deck steps. Six stitches. "

  "The dog tripped me," Mac said in his own defense. "And it was only four stitches. "

  "Which you could've avoided if you'd come to me instead of going to the clinic. "

  "She rags on me every time I get a bump or a bruise. "

  "Which is daily. On our honeymoon - "

  "We're not getting into that. " The flush started creeping up Mac's neck.

  "When we were using taking a shower as an excuse to have some hot, steamy sex - "

  "Cut it out. " Mac spread his hand over Ripley's face and gave it a nudge. "And that towel bar was not properly installed. "

  "He ripped it right out of the wall in the throes. " She batted her lashes at him. "My hero. "

  "Anyway," Mac said on a long breath. "Seeing as you're in the hotel business, Sam, you might want to make sure your towel bars are secure. "

  "I'll make a note, particularly if the two of you decide to take a weekend at the Magick Inn. "

  "Well, if Nell and Zack make a reservation," Ripley continued, "you'd better check the stability of the bathroom sinks. They knocked the one upstairs out of alignment when - "

  "Ripley!" Nell hissed it, horrified.

  "Do you have to tell her everything?" Zack demanded.

  "Not anymore. " Ignoring Ripley's laughter, Nell pushed to her feet. "I'll get dessert. "

  "I had no idea bathrooms had become such erogenous zones," Mia commented as she rose to clear her plate.

  "I'll be happy to show you mine," Sam said, and was given a shrug as she strolled into the kitchen.

  "She didn't eat. She only pretended to. " Sam kept his voice low.

  "She's tense," Mac added.

  "There's no point in my being here if it closes her off. "

  "The world doesn't revolve around you. " Ripley snagged her glass and drank.

  "Rip. " Zack's voice was a quiet warning. "Let's just see how it goes from here. "

  With a nod, Sam picked up his own plate. "She trusts you," he said to Mac.

  "Yes, she does. "

  "Maybe that balances things out. "

  Sam had nerves of his own when they settled back in the living room. What he was had never been an issue for him. It simply was. But neither was his gift something he discussed. He joined no coven. And though only four out of the six there were hereditary witches, it was very much a kind of coven.

  "We all know the legend," Mac began.

  The historian, Sam thought. The scientist. The detail man with the facile mind.

  "During the Salem witch trials, the three who were known as Fire, Earth, and Air conjured what became Three Sisters Island as a haven against persecution. "

  "While innocents were hunted and murdered," Ripley added.

  The soldier. Sam idly stroked the cat, who had deigned to join him on the sofa. A woman with grit. The earth.

  "They couldn't have stopped it, or if they'd tried," Zack said, "others might have died. "

  And here, Sam decided, was reason and authority.

  "Change one angle of destiny, change all. " Mac nodded, continued. "The one called Air fell in love, married a merchant who took her back to the mainland. Bore his children, kept his home. But he could never accept what she was. He abused her, and ultimately killed her. "

  "She blamed herself, I think, for not being what he wanted. For not staying true to herself, and choosing poorly. "

  Nell, the nurturer, Sam thought when she spoke. The cat stretched under his hand, as if agreeing. She was the air.

  "She saved her children, sent them back to her sisters. But the circle was diminished. Weakened. And the horror of it, the fury of it," Mac went on, "festered in the one known as Earth until she surrendered to the anger, the rage, and the need for revenge. "

  "She was wrong," Ripley said now. "I understand what she felt, why she felt it, but she was wrong. And she paid. Using her power to kill the one who'd killed her sister destroyed her, and came back threefold. She lost her husband, a man she loved; was never able to see her children again; and shattered what was left of the circle. "

  "There was one left. " Mia's voice was clear, her gaze level. "One left to hold it. "

  Intellect, pride, and passion. Was it any wonder that she stirred him? Sam thought. She was the fire.

  "Despair can crush even the strongest. " Nell laid a hand on Mia's. "But even alone, even heartbroken, she wove a web of protection. Three hundred years strong. "

  "She made certain her children were taken care of. " Mac thought of Lulu. "Which brings us to now. " He frowned into his coffee. "A still unbroken circle. "

  "You're worried I'll fail when my time comes. Nell faced her demons, and Ripley hers. " In what seemed an idle gesture, Mia stroked Mulder with the side of her foot. "Of the three of us, my knowledge and practice of the Craft is the most extensive. "

  "Agreed. But - "

  She lifted a brow at Mac. "But?"

  "I wonder if, on the other side of the scale, what you'll have to deal with is more, well, insidious. Nell had Evan Remington, a man. "

  "He was a piece of shit," Ripley corrected.

  "Be that as it may, he was human. She had to find the courage to face him, to defeat him and embrace her gift. I'm not saying any of that was a walk on the beach, but it was pretty tangible. If you're following me. "

  "A m
an with a knife. " Sam spoke for the first time since Mac had begun, and drew everyone's attention.

  "A sociopath, psychopath, whatever the term might be for that kind of evil, in the woods, in the dark of the moon. No, not a walk on the beach. It took great courage, deep faith, and a formidable power to do what Nell did. But it was an evil whose face she knew. "

  "Exactly. " Mac beamed as if Sam were a prized student. "In Ripley's case - "

  "In Ripley's case," Ripley repeated, "I had to accept a power I'd rejected, and walk the line when part of me wanted to cross it. "

  "Emotional turmoil," Sam agreed. "It can affect the tone of power in the same way it can affect the tone of your voice, the tone of your actions. The gift doesn't protect us from flaws, or mistakes. That kind of turmoil was tailored toward you, and Nell's was turned toward her as a potent weapon. With - "

  He broke off, glanced at Mac.

  "No, keep going. " Mac waved a hand. "It's good to hear it from someone else's point of view. "

  "All right. The force that was unleashed centuries ago used Remington as a conduit and fed itself into the reporter who followed Nell's cross-country route to the Sisters. "

  "You've kept up," Mia said quietly.

  "Yeah. I've kept up. Holding the line, power against power, without crossing that line isn't a simple matter. It requires conviction, compassion, strength. Even so, in the end Ripley, like Nell, faced a man. Whatever was inside him, he was flesh and blood. "

  "It looks like Sam and I have circled around to the same theory. "

  "Then why the hell don't you punch through to the point of it and stop circling?" Ripley complained.

  "Okay. " Since Sam gestured the go-ahead, Mac took over. "What came at Mia today wasn't flesh and blood, not a living thing, but a manifestation. That tells me a couple of things. Maybe, just maybe, because the circle's intact, because twice now it's been defeated, its power's diminished. It can't possess, but can only deceive. "

  "Or it hordes its strength. Waiting for its time, and its place. "

  "Yes. " Mac nodded at Sam. "Waiting for the right circumstance. There isn't that much time - when you measure by three centuries - left on either side. It's going to keep pushing, trying to weaken the circle, and Mia most specifically. Undermining the bedrock of your power. It'll use your fears, doubts, any weaknesses that trickle through the chinks. Tailored to you," he added with a nod to Sam. "That's just exactly right. It'll try to prey on you as it did on her three centuries ago. Through her loneliness and loss, her despair at the thought of living without the people she loved, and needed most. "

  "I'm aware of that," Mia acknowledged. "But I'm not lonely, and I've lost nothing. My circle holds. "

  "Yes, but . . . I don't believe the circle can be considered complete, and whole, until your step is taken. "

  Since this was tricky ground, Mac took his time. "Until then, there's a vulnerability, and that's where the pressure will be the greatest. It only needed to break Nell, and it failed. To seduce Ripley, and it failed. With you . . . "

  "It needs to cause my death," Mia finished calmly. "Yes, I know. I've always known. "

  When she started to leave, Nell held on to her.

  "Don't worry so, little sister. " Mia pressed her cheek to Nell's hair. "I know how to protect myself. "

  "I know. I just wish you'd stay. I know how stupid that sounds, but I wish you'd stay with one of us until this is really over. "

  "I need my cliffs. I'll be fine, I promise. " She gave Nell one last squeeze. "Blessed be. "

  She'd lingered longer than the others, hoping to avoid any more conversation. But when she stepped outside, she saw Sam leaning against her car.

  "I walked over. How about a lift back?"

  "It's a pleasant night for a short walk. "

  "Give me a lift, Mia. " He took her wrist as she started to move past him. "I want to talk to you, for a minute anyway. Alone. "

  "I suppose I owe you a favor. "

  "Do you?"

  She circled the car, slipped in behind the wheel. She waited until she'd started the car. "For cleaning up my mess on the coast road this morning," she said as she eased into a U-turn. "Ripley told me she ran into you. Thank you. "

  "You're welcome. "

  "Well, that didn't hurt too much. Now, what did you want to talk to me about?"

  "I wondered about you and Mac. There's something there. "

  "Really?" Deliberately she took her attention away from the road long enough to bat her lashes. "Do you think I'm trying to tempt my sister's husband into a wild, illicit affair?"

  "If you were, he'd already be there. "

  She laughed. "What a lovely compliment, even if you're wrong. He's sweetly, madly in love with his wife. But you're right about one thing, there is something between us. You've always been good at picking up atmosphere and emotion. "

  "What is it?"

  "We're cousins. "

  "Cousins?"

  "It happens that the granddaughter of the first sister married a MacAllister - Mac's mother's side of the family. "

  "Ah. " Sam did his best to stretch out his legs in the little car. "So he's of the blood. That explains a number of things. I felt a connection the minute I met him, but couldn't pin him down. Just as I felt one for Nell, even when she wanted to drop me into a dark pit and leave me there to rot. I like your friends. "

  "Well, I'm so relieved. "

  "Don't snipe at me, Mia. I meant it. "

  Because she knew it was true, she sighed. "I'm tired. It always make me cross. "

  "They're worried about you. How you'll handle things. "

  "I know. I'm sorry about it. "

  "I'm not worried. " He paused when she pulled up in front of the cottage. "I've never known anyone, witch or woman, more vital than you. You won't give in. "

  "No, I won't. But I won't say I don't appreciate the confidence, particularly after a long, difficult day. Good night, Sam. "

  "Come inside. "

  "No. "

  "Come inside, Mia. " He slipped a hand through her hair to rub the back of her neck. "And be with me. "

  "I'd like to be with someone tonight," she continued, "to be comforted and soothed. To be touched and taken. So I won't. "

  "Why?"

  "Because it wouldn't make me happy. Good night, Sam. "

  He could have pressed, they both knew it. But some of her glamour had slipped, and he saw fatigue breaking through to haunt her face. "Good night. "

  He climbed out, watched her drive away. And kept her in his mind until he knew she was safely inside the house on the cliffs.

 
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