Face the fire, p.9

Face the Fire, page 9

 part  #3 of  Three Sisters Island Series

 

Face the Fire


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Chapter Eight

  It was all a matter of strategy. In business, Sam thought. In relationships. And sometimes in just surviving the day. He checked the progress on the rehab and was pleased that the work was proceeding on schedule.

  He knew something about building and design. There had been a time, years before, when he'd considered breaking with Logan Enterprises and building his own hotel. He'd taken some extra college courses in architecture and design and had even spent a summer working as a laborer on a construction crew.

  That had given him some practical knowledge, an elementary skill, and a healthy respect for manual labor.

  But his plans to build his own had faded as every design he attempted or imagined turned into a mirror image of the Magick Inn.

  Why replicate what already was?

  Once he'd realized he wanted the hotel, the rest was a matter of patience, canniness, and careful strategy. It had been important not to let his father know that the Magick Inn was the single family asset he coveted.

  It would have come to Sam through inheritance in any case, but had Thaddeus Logan realized it had become a kind of Holy Grail to his son, he would have felt obliged to nudge it out of reach, thereby pressuring his son and heir to take more personal interest in other areas of the family empire. The carrot would have dangled at the end of a very long, very thorny stick during his father's lifetime. It was, Sam knew, how his father operated. He was not a man who rewarded; he was one who withheld. A philosophy that garnered results and never concerned itself with affection. Despite that, Sam hadn't been willing to perch like a vulture on a tree branch, waiting for his own father to die before he claimed what he wanted.

  For nearly six years, he had held his desire for the hotel close to the vest. He'd worked, he'd learned, and whenever he'd managed to carve out room, he had implemented some of his own ideas, establishing a few profitable offshoots to Logan Enterprises.

  In the end it had come down to deflecting his father's attention, waiting him out, then broaching the deal at the right moment and meeting the cost.

  Historically, the Logans were staunch believers in the adage that nothing comes free - unless, Sam thought, it was their own trust funds. So he had paid fair market value for his father's share of the hotel. Sam didn't count the cost, not when he had what he wanted.

  He was going to try not to count the cost with Mia.

  He intended to be patient - within reason. He would, of course, be canny. But he had yet, he was forced to admit, to outline a clear-cut strategy.

  His direct approach - Honey, I'm home! - hadn't worked. And why he'd been brainless enough to think it would was currently beyond him. Let's kiss and make up hadn't done much better. She wasn't freezing him out at every opportunity, but neither was she softening. He wanted her safe. He wanted his island secure. And he wanted her back. The idea that he might not be able to have all three didn't sit well with him. But the fact was that the responsibility of cleaning up a disaster three hundred years in the making was in their laps. And it couldn't be ignored.

  Mac hadn't mentioned his theory in the meeting at the Todds' the other night. But Sam imagined he had discussed it - or would - with Mia in private. In the end, rejecting him might be her answer. Might be the answer.

  But going down without a fight went against nature.

  So . . . strategy, he thought, and scanned the parlor area of the currently empty suite where the walls had been newly papered in pale green moire silk and the woodwork sanded down to its natural oak and varnished golden.

  Thinking, he wandered through the bedroom and to a doorway where a second bedroom had been sacrificed to expand the bath and the master closet space. The fixtures had yet to be installed, but he'd selected the generous jet tub himself, the ripple glass on the multi-head shower unit, the curving ribbon of counters.

  He'd used warm colors, a lot of polished granite and copper. Luxurious amenities in old-fashioned apothecary jars.

  A blend of tradition, comfort, and efficiency.

  Just the sort of thing, he mused, that appealed to Mia. Business, steady profit, and exquisite service. He smiled to himself as he took his cell phone out of his pocket. Then just as quickly replaced it. A personal call wasn't the way to conduct some business discussions.

  He headed down to his office to tell his assistant to get Ms. Devlin on the phone.

  H e puzzled her. The boy she'd thought she knew so well had become a man full of unexpected turns and missing pieces. A business dinner? Mia mused when she hung up the phone. At her convenience. She frowned at the receiver she'd just replaced. And he'd sounded as if he meant it. Very cool, very professional.

  A business meeting, over dinner at the hotel, to discuss a proposal he hoped would be of benefit to both of their establishments.

  Just what did the man have up his sleeve?

  Sheer curiosity had pushed her to agree to the meeting, though she was wily enough not to be available the same night. She graciously agreed to rearrange her schedule to fit him in the following evening. It wouldn't hurt to see if there was anything she should be ready for. She took a ball of crystal from her shelf and set it at the center of her desk.

  With her hands cupped around it, she focused her mind, gathered her power. The glass began to warm. Mists swam inside it, shimmering with a light that seemed to come from deep within the globe. Visions swirled into the mists, and into her eyes.

  She saw herself as she had been, young - so young - lying naked in the cave, wrapped only in Sam's arms.

  "Not yesterday," she whispered. "But tomorrow. Clear the future from the past so I can see what may be. "

  Her garden, lush with summer, under a bright white moon. As she looked, the air in her office was perfumed with the vanilla scent of heliotrope, the spice of dianthus. She wore white, a long flow of it, to echo the moon.

  He stood with her in that ocean of flowers and held out a hand. In his palm he held a star, a slice of colored light that beat like a pulse.

  He was smiling when he tossed it high, when a shower of light and color exploded over their heads. As it streamed down, she felt the thrill, the utter joy that the woman inside that ball of glass felt. It swelled inside her own heart, like a song.

  And in a flash, she was alone on the cliffs while a storm screamed. Lightning struck around her, burning arrows of it. Her island was enveloped by a fetid fog. The chill of it reached out to where she stood in her quiet office and iced her bones.

  Out of the dark, the black wolf leaped. His jaws were still snapping at her throat as they fell toward the raging sea.

  "Enough. " She passed a hand over the globe, and it was only a pretty glass ball.

  She replaced it, and sat. Her hands were steady, her breathing even. She had always known that looking into what might come could mean seeing her own death. Or worse, the death of a loved one. It was the price that power demanded. The Craft didn't ask for blood, but still it squeezed the heart to a throbbing bruise at times.

  So, she thought, which would it be for her? Love or death? Or, by taking the first, would she ensure the second?

  She would see. She'd learned much in thirty years as a witch, Mia thought as she turned back to her computer, back to the work of the day. And one thing she knew. You did what you could to protect, to respect, taking the joys and the sorrows. Then, in the end, you accepted your destiny.

  "I thought you said it wasn't a date. "

  Mia secured the back of her earring. "It's not a date. It's a business dinner. "

  Lulu sniffed. Loudly. "If it's a business dinner what're you doing wearing that dress?"

  Mia picked up her second earring, let it dangle in her fingers a moment. "Because I like this dress. "

  She'd known it was a mistake to bring the change of clothes to work rather than going home. But this saved time, and energy. Besides there was nothing wrong with the little, very little, black dress.

  "Woman puts on a dre
ss like that because she wants a man to think about what's under it. "

  Mia merely fluttered her lashes. "Do tell. "

  "And don't you get smart with me. I can still give you a good whap when you need one. "

  "Lu, I'm not ten anymore. "

  "If you ask me, you're showing less sense than you had when you were. "

  A long-suffering sigh wouldn't work. Pointing out that she hadn't asked would only lead to an argument. Since it was impossible to ignore the scowling woman jammed in the bathroom with her, Mia tried another angle.

  She turned. "I've finished my homework and cleaned my room. Please can I go out and play?"

  Lulu's lips twitched, but she managed to get them back into a thin, flat line quickly enough. "Never had to nag you to clean your room. I used to worry because you were too damn neat for a kid. "

  "You don't have to nag me about this either, because I know how to handle Sam Logan. "

  "You figure squeezing yourself into that dress and showing half your boobs is handling him?"

  Mia glanced down. Her boobs, in her opinion, were nicely, even elegantly, displayed. As were her legs, clear up to mid-thigh. "Oh, yes, indeed. "

  "Are you wearing underwear?"

  "Oh, for God's sake. " Mia yanked the black jacket off the padded hanger.

  "I asked you a question. "

  Searching for patience, Mia put on the jacket. Its hem grazed an inch above the bottom of the skirt, turning the sexy little dress into a sexy little suit. "I find that an odd question coming from a former flower child. You probably didn't even own any underwear from1963 to1972 . "

  "Did so. I had a very pretty pair of tie-dyed panties for special occasions. "

  Undone, Mia leaned back on the seat and chuckled. "Oh, Lu. What an image that creates in my feverish little brain. Just what sort of special occasion called for tie-dyed panties?"

  "Don't change the subject, and answer the question. "

  "Well, I don't own anything quite that festive, but I'm wearing underwear - after a fashion. So if I'm in an accident, I'm safe. "

  "I'm not worried about an accident. I'm worried about on purpose. "

  Straightening, Mia leaned down, cupped Lulu's homely face in her hands. She hadn't had to search for patience after all, she realized. She'd only had to remember love.

  "You don't have to worry at all. I promise. "

  "My job is to worry," Lulu muttered.

  "Then take a break. I'm going to have a lovely dinner, find out just what business it is Sam's cooking up, and enjoy the side benefit of driving him crazy. "

  "You've still got a thing for him. "

  "I never had a thing for him. I loved him. "

  Lulu's shoulders drooped. "Oh, honey. " She lifted a hand, fussed with Mia's hair. "I wish he'd stayed in goddamn New York City. "

  "Well, he didn't. I don't know if what I'm feeling now is just left over from what I felt then, or if it's because of now, or all the years between. Shouldn't I find out?"

  "Being you, you have to. But I wish you'd kick his ass first. "

  Mia turned, slipped on a hammered-gold necklace that dripped a slim column of pearls between her breasts. "If this dress doesn't kick his ass, I don't know what will. "

  Lulu curled her lip, angled her head. "Maybe you're not so stupid. "

  "I learned from the best. " Mia colored her lips in murderous red, shook back her wild cloud of hair,

  turned. "So, how do I look?"

  "Like a man-eater. "

  "Perfect. "

  Mia thought she timed it perfectly as well. At precisely seven, she strolled into the lobby of the Magick Inn. The young desk clerk glanced over, goggled, then dropped the sheaf of papers in his hand. Pleased, she shot him a killer smile, then breezed into Sorcery, the hotel's main dining room. There was a moment of surprise as she scanned the room and saw the changes. Sam had been busy, she realized, and felt an unwilling tug of pride.

  The standard white tablecloths had been replaced by rich midnight-blue ones, the china on them a moon-bright contrast. The old clear glass vases had been removed, and now brass and copper pots rioting with white lilies formed ribbons of glint and fragrance. The crystal glassware had a heavy, almost medieval look.

  Each table was graced with a small copper cauldron. Candlelight flickered through cutouts in the shapes of stars and crescent moons.

  For the first time in her memory, the room reflected, and honored, its name. Impressed, approving, she stepped in. And experienced a fast, hard jolt.

  There on the wall was a life-size painting of three women. The three sisters, backed by the forest and the night sky, looked down at her from a frame of ornate antique gold. They were robed in white, and the folds of those robes, the tendrils of their hair, seemed to move in an unseen wind. She saw Nell's blue eyes, Ripley's green ones. And her own face.

  "Like it?" Sam said from behind her.

  She swallowed so that her voice would be clear. "It's stunning. "

  "I had it commissioned nearly a year ago. It just arrived today. "

  "It's beautiful work. The models . . . "

  "There were no models. The artist worked from my descriptions. From my dreams. "

  "I see. " She turned to face him. "He or she is very talented. "

  "She. A Wiccan artist living in SoHo. I think she captured . . . " He trailed off as he shifted his gaze from the portrait to Mia. Every thought in his head scattered in pure, primal lust. "You look amazing. "

  "Thank you. I like, very much, what you've done with the restaurant. "

  "It's a start. " He started to take her arm, then realized his palms had gone damp. "I'm having new lighting designed. Something in brass, more lanternlike. And I want - well, why don't we sit before I bore you with all my plans. "

  "On the contrary. " But she let him guide her to an intimate corner booth where, she noted, a bottle of champagne was already chilling.

  She slid in, then deliberately slipped out of her jacket. She watched his eyes blur, but to his credit, his gaze stayed primarily on her face. "Warm in here," she said, then nodded to the waiter when he poured her champagne. "What are we drinking to?"

  Sam sat, picked up his own glass. "One question before we get to that. Are you trying to kill me?"

  "No. Just kick your ass. "

  "Done. I don't think a woman's made my hands sweat since, well, since you. Now if I can just get some of the blood back into my head. " When she laughed, he tapped his glass to hers. "To mutual business. "

  "Do we have any?"

  "That's what this is about. First, regarding dinner. I pre-ordered. I think I remember your taste. If that doesn't suit you, I'll get you a menu. "

  Smooth, she thought. Very smooth. The man had learned how and when to polish over all those dangerous edges. When it suited him.

  "I don't mind the occasional surprise. " She sat back, let her gaze drift around the room. "Business is good. "

  "It is. And I intend for it to get better. The first-floor renovations should be complete in another two weeks. The new presidential suite rocks. "

  "So I hear. Your contractor is my contractor. "

  "So I hear. When do you plan to start your expansion?"

  "Soon. " She glanced at the variety of appetizers placed on the table by silent waiters. She sampled a bit of lobster pate.

  "I hope to keep the inconvenience to my customers at a minimum. Still, during the main part of the work, I imagine you'll pick up some of my lunch crowd. " She paused for a beat. "Temporarily. "

  "Improvements to your business only benefit mine, and vice versa. "

  "I can agree to that. "

  "Why not exploit it? I want to stock some local-interest books, maybe some current bestsellers, in the luxury suites. A discreet card or bookmark could advertise your store. "

  "And?" She waited for the catch.

  "You get a lot of day-trippers. Again, using the local-interest a
ngle, what if they bought a particular book you've selected - a book on the island's history, whatever. A purchase of that book gives them a chance to win a free weekend's stay at the hotel. They fill out a form with their name and address, we pull a ticket once a month during the season, and somebody gets lucky. "

  "And we have all those names on our mailing list. "

  He topped off their champagne. "I knew you'd follow me. You sell books, I get a few more tourists into the hotel, and we both add to our potential customer base. Vacations," he continued, selecting a delicate crab puff. "Hotels, beach reading. Then there's business travel. Same deal. I'm working on pulling in more conventions. I get them in and part of the welcome package is a discount coupon for Cafe Book, which gets them into your place across the street. "

  "Which, if they fill out the prize form, gets them back into your place on a weekend vacation. "

  "Bull's-eye. "

  She considered as fresh field-greens salads were served. "The cost to each of us is negligible. Some paperwork. It's simple enough. In fact, much too simple to warrant a business dinner to discuss it. "

  "There's more. I've noticed you don't, as a rule, do author events. "

  "One or two a year, local interest again. " She shrugged her shoulders. "Sisters and Cafe Book are well off the beaten path for book tours and standard book signings. Publishers don't send authors to remote islands off the New England coast, and most authors aren't going to pay to come here and work. "

  "We can change that. "

  He had her interest now. She accepted the bread he'd buttered for her, unaware that he'd been nudging food on her since she'd sat down. "Can we?"

  "I made a number of contacts in New York. I've still got some buttons to push, but I'm working on convincing a few key people that sending a touring author to Three Sisters would be well worth the time and money. Particularly since the Magick Inn will offer a generous corporate rate and first-class accommodations. Then there's the convenience of having a classy independent bookstore right across the street. What you have to do is put together a proposal detailing just how Cafe Book would host an author, how you'd pull in the warm bodies and have books moving out the door. We pull it off once, just once, and others will be hopping on the ferry. "

  She felt the quick twist of excitement at the idea, but weighed it from all angles. "Filling a room a few times a year at a corporate rate will hardly made a difference to you. "

  "Maybe I'm just trying to help my neighbor. So to speak. "

  "Then you should know your neighbor isn't gullible or naive. "

  "No, she's just the most beautiful woman I've ever known. "

  "Thank you. Now. What's the point in these ideas for the hotel?"

  "Okay, so much for charm. " He leaned toward her. "There are a lot of publishers with a lot of authors with a lot of books to hype. That's one. Two, publishers have sales conferences. If I snag the interest of one publisher because of a successful author event, it's going to add to the weight I'm putting on to cop a major conference. I get that, I'm going to get in a lot of repeat business. " He lifted his water glass. "So will you. If you can handle an author event. "

  "I know how to host a signing. " She ate without thinking because her mind was already on the details. "If you can push those buttons for, say, July or August, even into September the first time around, I'll get plenty of warm bodies. Give me a novel, a mystery, a romance, a thriller, and we'll sell a hundred minimum on the event day, and half that many during the follow-up week. "

  "Write the proposal. "

  "You'll have it tomorrow, by the close of the workday. "

  "Good. " He ate some salad. "How would you like John Grisham?"

  Enjoying herself, enjoying him, she picked up her glass again. "Don't toy with me, smart guy. He doesn't tour, his books come out in February, not the summer. And even you aren't that good. "

  "Okay, just testing. How about Caroline Trump?"

  Mia's lips pursed. "She's very good. I've read her first three books. Solid romantic thrillers. Her publisher's been building her well, and they're moving her into hardcover this summer. A July release,"

  she considered, studying Sam's face. "Can you get me Caroline Trump?"

  "Get me the proposal. "

  She sat back again. "I misjudged you. I imagined you used business as an excuse to get me in here. I figured you'd have some little scheme to spring off a seduction attempt, but nothing really viable. "

  "If I hadn't had something viable, I'd have settled for a scheme to get you here. " He brushed his fingers over the back of her hand. "Even if it only meant I could look at you for an hour. "

  "And I thought," she continued, "that sometime during the conversation you'd remind me that you had a number of rooms upstairs, and why didn't we make use of one. "

  "I thought about it. " He remembered what she'd said to him as they'd sat in her car outside of the yellow cottage. "But it wouldn't make you happy. "

  Her breath caught for an instant. "Oh, I wish I knew if that was sincere, or just fucking clever. "

  "Mia - "

  "No. I don't know what's between us. I can't see it, and I've tried to. Why is it that, even knowing better, we can fool ourselves into believing we'd be all right if we just knew what happens next?"

  "I don't know. I can't see it either. " When she looked at him, he nearly sighed. "I was never as good as you at clearing away the now to see the what-ifs, but I had to try. "

  She looked to the portrait of the sisters. "The only thing set in stone is yesterday. I can promise you I have no intention of letting what they began be destroyed. This is my home. Everything that matters to me is on this island. I'm more than I was when you left, less than I will be when I'm done. That, I do know. "

  "Do you think being with me diminishes that?"

  "If I did, I wouldn't be sitting here now. " Her lips curved as their entrees were served. "I was going to sleep with you. "

  "Christ. " He pounded a fist on his heart. "Medic. "

  Her laugh was low and intimate. "I imagine, before we're done, I will. But since we're being so friendly, I'll tell you frankly, I want you to suffer first. "

  "Believe me," he said with feeling, and reached for his water glass. "Let's go back to business before I whimper and lose the respect of my restaurant staff. "

  "All right, tell me about your other plans for the hotel. "

  "I want it to matter. I want people who stay here to take away an experience. I spent six months in Europe a few years ago, touring and studying and dissecting the smaller hotels. It's about service first, but overall, it's about the details. Color schemes, the thread count on the sheets. Can you reach the phone without getting out of bed? Can I get a damn sandwich at two in the morning, or get this spot cleaned off my tie before my afternoon meeting?"

  "How thick are the towels," Mia commented. "How firm is the mattress. "

  "And so on. In-room faxes and Internet access for the business traveler. Complimentary champagne and roses for the honeymooners. A staff that clues in and greets guests by name. And fresh flowers, fresh linens, fresh fruit. I'm going to hire a maitre d'etage to butler the luxury suites. "

  "Well, well. "

  "And every guest, on arrival, will have an amenity delivered. From a fruit plate and sparkling water to champagne and caviar, depending on the price level of the room. Every room will be rehabbed before we're done, and every one will be personalized and unique. I'm naming them, so guests will stay in the Rose Room or the Trinity Suite, and so forth. "

  "That's a nice touch," she told him. "More personal. "

  "Exactly. We already have a data bank, but we'll put it to better use for repeat guests. That way we can do our best to put them back in a favorite room. We'll bump up the level of their amenities with recurring visits, maintain a file on their preferences. And in the health club . . . " He trailed off. "What?"

  "Nothing. " But she couldn't help smiling at him. "Go
on. "

  "No. " He laughed a little. "I get caught up. "

  "You know what you want, and how you intend to go about it. It's very attractive. "

  "It took me a long time to get there. You always knew. "

  "Maybe I did. But wants and intentions change. "

  "And sometimes they circle back around. "

  He laid his hand on hers, and then she gently slid hers free. "And sometimes they just change. "

  He went back to work after she'd left the restaurant. But he couldn't concentrate. He went home, but he couldn't settle.

  Being with her was both torture and pleasure. Watching the expressions cross her face when she became interested enough not to close herself off from him, pure fascination. Wanting her was like a drug in his bloodstream.

  In the end, he changed and walked into the dark woods. He went unerringly to the circle where he could feel the shimmer of her magic rise up and merge with Nell's, with Ripley's. Preparing himself, he stepped into its center, and let their power, and his own, wash over him like water.

  "What is mine, I add to yours. With power shared, the link endures. " The light grew, spreading around the ring as strong as the sun. "To win your heart, I'll face the fire, and all that the fates conspire. By earth and air, by fire and water, I will stand by the sisters' daughter. Yet I wait for her to come to me, that we might make our destiny. "

  He breathed deep, spread his arms. "Tonight while the moonlight streams, she is safe within her dreams. Here to me I call out of the night that which feeds on pain and blight. Know I join the sisters three and dare to show yourself to me. "

  The earth trembled and the wind whipped. But the fire that ringed the circle ran straight and true toward the night sky.

  And outside the circle, a dark mist fed along the ground, and coalesced into a wolf with a pentagram-shaped scar on its snout.

  So, Sam thought, let's understand each other.

  "To him who seeks her life to take, within this ring this vow I make. By all the power that lives in me, from your hand she will be free. I will crush you into dust by all means fair or foul or just. "

  Sam watched while the wolf paced around the circle, snarling.

  "Do you think I fear you? You're nothing but smoke and stink. "

  Sam waved a hand, and the light around the circle lowered. In challenge, he stepped clear of the protection. "Power to power," he murmured while the air outside the circle swirled filthy and foul. Sam watched the wolf gather, the ripple and bunch of muscle. It leaped for his throat. The weight of it was a shock, as was the quick, sharp pain in his shoulder where claws dug. Using both muscle and magic, he flung the wolf aside, then yanked the ritual knife out of his belt. "Let's finish it," he said between his teeth.

  This time when the wolf charged, he pivoted and raked the knife over its side. There was a sound, more scream than howl. Black blood dripped onto the ground, sizzling into it like hot oil. And wolf and mist vanished.

  Sam studied the fresh scar on the earth, then the blackened tip of his blade. Absently, he ran a hand over his shoulder where his shirt and flesh had been ripped.

  So, they'd both bled. But only one had screamed and fled. "Round one goes to me," he murmured, then prepared to cleanse the ground.

 
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