Face the Fire
Author:Nora Roberts

Chapter Nine
By ten the next morning, Mia was already polishing up her proposal for an author event. She'd worked off considerable sexual frustration the night before by diving straight into the project and sticking with it until after midnight.

Then she'd sprinkled ginger and marigold over the rough draft for success in business ventures. With rosemary under her pillow to aid in a restful sleep, she'd tuned out the nagging need. She had always been good at channeling her energies, at focusing them on the task that needed attention. After her initial mourning period for Sam, that strength of will had gotten her through college, into business. Into life.

It had, for years, kept her moving forward with matters both practical and pleasurable when she was fully aware that the web of protection around her home was thinning. Yet despite that will she'd dreamed. Of Sam, and of being with him then. Of being with him now. The physical ache of it had her tossing until she was tangled in the sheets. She dreamed of the marked wolf, stalking through the woods. Howling from its perch on her cliffs. And once she'd heard it scream, in pain and rage. And in sleep, she called Sam's name like a chant. Still, she had slept, and she woke to a brilliant sunrise that promised a perfect day. She tended her flowers first while the sky shimmered with the reds and golds of dawn. She paid her respects to the elements that gave her the beauty of her gardens and the gift of her power. She brewed a cup of mint tea, for money and luck, and drank it while standing on her cliffs with the sea raging against the rocks below.

She felt closest to her ancestor there, and could always sense the iron core of strength as well as the bitter, rending loneliness.

Sometimes, when she'd been very young, she'd stood here looking out to sea and hoping to see the sleek head of a silkie bobbing in the waves. Once, she'd believed in happily-ever-after and had woven the tale in her head of how the one who was called Fire's lover had come back for her and how their spirits had found each other. Loved each other. Ever and always.

She no longer believed that, and was sorry for it. But she'd learned, and learned well, that there were some losses that sliced you to bits, shattered the spirit into dust. And still you went on, you remade yourself, mended your spirit. You lived. If not happily ever after, then contentedly enough. It had been on those cliffs that she had sworn an oath to protect what had been entrusted to her. She had been eight, full of pride in what she was. And every year since, on the nights of the summer and winter solstices, she stood on those cliffs and renewed that vow.

But this morning, Mia stood on the cliffs and simply gave thanks for the beauty of the day, then went in to dress for work.

She didn't shudder when she drove the curves of the cliff road. But she watched. At her desk, she read over her proposal, searching for mistakes, any detail she might have overlooked. Her brow furrowed at the knock on her door. Though she ignored it, deliberately, Ripley strode in.

"I'm busy. Come back later."

"Something's up." Never one to stand on ceremony, or to be put off by a less than warm welcome, Ripley came in, dropped into a chair.

That annoyed Mia enough to have her looking up. She saw Nell in the doorway.

"Nell. Isn't it your day off?"

"Do you think I'd've dragged her in here on her day off," Ripley said before Nell could answer, "if it wasn't important?"

"All right." With sincere regret, Mia set her work aside. "Come in, close the door. Did you have a vision?"

Ripley grimaced. "I try not to, and no, this has nothing to do with woo-woo stuff. Not directly, anyway. I heard Mac talking on the phone this morning, trying not to let me hear him talking on the phone."

"Ripley, I really can't meddle in your domestic disputes during working hours."

"He was talking to Sam. Well, that woke you up," she commented.

"It's hardly surprising that they'd have a conversation." Mia picked up her proposal, frowned at the bullet points, then gave up and set it down again. "All right. What were they talking about?"

"I don't know exactly, but something. Mac was really interested. He even walked outside with the phone, casual-like. But I know it was because he didn't want me to hear him."

"How do you know it was Sam?"

"Because I heard him say, 'I'll come by the cottage this morning.' "

"Well, why . . . can't you just get to the point?"

"I'm getting to it. So he scoots me out to work, trying not to make it obvious he's railroading me along.

Kiss, kiss, pat, pat. Shove, shove. But I go, because I'm thinking I'll just run by the cottage myself once I'm on patrol. But first I check in at the station house, and Zack's on the phone. And he stops talking in the middle of a sentence when I walk in, then says hello to me, using my name really definitely."

Her scowl deepened at the memory. "So I know he's talking to either Mac or Sam. Then he starts giving me all this grunt work to do, crap jobs that'll keep me tied to the station house for two or three hours. Says he's got to do stuff. I wait until I'm sure he's gone, then I drive by the cottage and what do you think I see?"

"I hope," Mia said, "you're about to tell me and put an end to this play-by-play."

"The patrol car and Mac's Rover," Ripley announced. "I grabbed Nell, and now I'm grabbing you, because I'm telling you, they're not playing poker or watching dirty movies in there."

"No, they're putting something together without us," Mia agreed. "Too manly for the little women."

"If they are," Nell said, "Zack's going to be very sorry."

"Let's just go find out, shall we?" Mia yanked her car keys out of her desk. "I'll tell Lulu I've got to go out, and I'll be right behind you."

M ac hunkered down on the ground, ran his portable scanner. "Positive energy all the way," he muttered. "Any negativity has been thoroughly cleansed. Next time call me first. I could really use a sample."

"It was a little late for science experiments," Sam told him.

"Never too late for science. Can you sketch the manifestation?"

"I can't sketch a stick figure. It was the same image Mia described. The black wolf, massive size, with the mark of the pentagram."

"It was smart to brand him when they had him down on the beach last winter." Mac sat back on his haunches. "Makes ID simple - and it's diminished his power."

Sam rolled his shoulders. "Sure as hell wasn't any pussycat last night."

"He sucked the extra punch out of something, probably you. Bet you were pissed, huh?"

"The fucker tried to drive Mia off a cliff. What do you think?"

"I think the emotional turmoil we discussed the other night is a primary element of the equation. If you'd - "

"I think," Zack interrupted, "Sam should get that shoulder looked at. Then we should stop jerking off with theories and go after this bastard. If it can hurt Sam, it can hurt somebody else. I'm not having it run loose on my island."

"You're not going to be able to track it down and shoot it like a rabid dog," Mac told him.

"I can sure as hell try."

"It won't go after anyone who's not connected." Sam frowned at the unscarred ground. He'd spent most of the night thinking it through. "Fact is, I don't think it can."

"No, exactly." Mac straightened. "This entity needs to feed off the power and the emotions of those of us who are tied to the original circle."

"A lot of islanders have ties to the original circle, however diluted," Zack pointed out.

"Yes, but it doesn't want them. Or need them."

"He's right," Sam told Zack. "It has only one focus, one purpose now, and it can't waste time or energy by scattering it. Its magic is limited, but it's canny. It fed on Ripley's emotions before. This time it fed on mine. It won't happen again."

"Oh, yeah, you've always been a real even-tempered sort," Zack muttered. "You wanted it to go for you."

"It worked," Sam pointed out. "The thing is, I didn't hurt it that bad. It should've come at me again. Another charge and I could've gotten it into the circle. I could've held it there."

"It's not for you," Mac said simply.

"Fuck that. I'm not standing back while it waits for a chance to go for Mia's throat. That's what it wants, that's what I felt from it. It'll have to get through me first, and that's not going to happen. She can make whatever the hell choice she's going to make, but in the meantime, I'm going to rip its goddamn heart out."

"See," Zack said after a beat. "Real even-tempered."

"Kiss ass."

"Okay, okay." Mac stepped between them, patted the tensed shoulders of each man for peace. "Let's just keep our heads."

"Isn't this sweet?" Mia's voice dripped honey. "The boys are out playing in the woods."

"Shit," Zack muttered after one look at his wife's angry eyes. "Busted."

Ripley hooked her thumbs in her belt, tapped her fingers on her pockets, and strode forward. And got up in Mac's face. "Lucy, you got some 'spaining to do."

"No point in hassling them. I asked them to come."

"Oh, we'll get to you," Ripley promised Sam, "but there's a natural pecking order here."

Mia stepped forward, and felt the ripples of power. "What happened here?"

"You might as well spill it," Zack advised Sam. "Take my word for it. I've dealt with these three more than you have."

"Let's go inside and - "

Mia simply slapped a hand on Sam's chest before he could move past her. "What happened here?" she repeated.

"I took a walk in the woods."

Her gaze shifted, rested briefly on the ground. "You used the circle."

"It was there."

Part of her resented that he'd been able to use what was hers, what belonged to the three. It tightened the connection, made his link to her - to Nell and Ripley - unarguable. "All right," she said calmly enough. "What happened?"

"I ran into your demon wolf from hell."

"You - " She held up a hand, more to stop herself than to keep Sam silent. Because her first reaction was gut-wrenching fear. She willed it aside - not away, that was beyond her - and made herself think. And felt fury rise up and strangle fear.

"You called him. You came out here in the middle of the night, alone, and called him out like some swaggering gunslinger."

He hadn't known she still had that much temper in her. Or that it could, as always, trigger his own. "I like to think it was more Gary Cooper-esque."

"This is a joke to you, a joke ?" Fury all but swallowed her whole. "You would dare call up what's mine? You can stand between me and what's mine to do while I - what - shrink aside wringing my hands?"

"Whatever it takes."

"You're not my shield, not my savior. What's inside me isn't less than what's in you." She shoved him back a step. "I won't tolerate your interference. You're meddling because it makes you feel like a hero, and - "

"Take it easy, Mia." Even as Zack spoke, the keen edge of her gaze cut to him, raked over his face. Recognizing a woman ready to bite out a man's heart, Zack merely held up both hands, stepped aside. Sam, he decided, was on his own.

"Do you think I need your help?" She rounded on Sam again, drilling a finger into his chest.

"Stop jabbing at me."

"Do you think because I lack a penis I'm incapable of fighting for what's mine? So you pull your idiotic, manly display, then call your idiot men friends so you can discuss how to protect the helpless women?"

"I've never seen her like his," Nell whispered and watched, fascinated, as Mia shoved Sam back another step.

"Doesn't happen often." Ripley spoke out of the corner of her mouth. "Really cool when it does." She glanced up as clouds, black as a fresh bruise, boiled into the sky overhead. "Man, she is supremely pissed."

"I said stop jabbing at me." Sam curled his fingers around the fist she was currently slapping against his chest. "If you're finished with your snit . . . Careful," he warned as thunder bellowed.

"You arrogant, stupid, insulting. . . I'll show you a snit." She used her free hand, intending to shove him again. And saw the wince of pain as she bumped his shoulder. "What have you done?"

"We've just covered that."

"Take off your shirt."

He worked up a leer. "Well, baby, if you want to finish things that way, I've got no problem with it. But we've got an audience."

She solved the matter by reaching up and ripping his shirt open.

"Hey." He'd forgotten how fast she could move. A mistake.

The claw marks on his shoulder were raw and angry. With a little sound of distress, Nell started forward before Ripley stopped her.

"She'll handle it."

"You moved out of the circle." Fear shuddered back to twist painfully with temper. "You deliberately opened yourself to attack."

"It was a test." With sorely bruised dignity, Sam yanked what was left of his shirt back in place. "It worked."

She spun away from him, and since Zack was the closest, he took her first swipe. "Do you forget that it was Nell who brought madness to its knees, even when it held a knife to her throat?"

"No." He spoke quietly. "It's not something I'll ever forget."

"And you." She rounded on Mac. "You watched Ripley wage her war against the dark, and beat it back."

"I know." Mac shoved the sensor her angry energy had fried into his pocket. "No one here underestimates what any of you are capable of."

"Don't you?" Her eyes scorched each one of them in turn before she stepped back to stand with Nell and Ripley. "We are the Three." She threw up her hands, and light, bright as fire, shot from her fingertips.

"And the power here is beyond you."

She turned on her heel and strode away.

"Well." Mac blew out a breath. "Wow."

"Real scientific, ace." Ripley tucked her hands into her pockets and nodded at Sam. "You got her stirred up, so you'd better find a way to smooth it out. If you're stupid enough to do what you did last night, then you're stupid enough to go after her when she's shooting live ammo."

"I guess you're right."

She'd nearly reached the edge of the woods when he caught up to her. "Just wait a damn minute." Sam reached for her arm, then hissed as the electric shock stung his fingers. "Cut it out!"

"Don't touch me."

"I'm going to do a hell of a lot more than touch you in a minute." But he kept his hands to himself until she'd reached her car.

She yanked the door open. He slammed it shut.

"Taking off isn't going to solve anything."

"You're right." She tossed back her hair. "That's your usual solution."

Pain kicked in his gut, but he nodded. "And you've just recently demonstrated that you're so much smarter and more mature. Let's finish this out away from innocent bystanders. Let's take a drive."

"You want to take a drive. Fine. Get in."

She pulled the door open again, slid behind the wheel. When he was beside her, she eased onto the road.

She kept her speed down as she cut through the village. And the minute she hit the coast road, she let it rip.

She wanted speed, and wind, and the keen edge of danger. All of those things would help carve away some of the anger and help her find her center again.

Her tires squealed as she shot into turns. And because she felt Sam tense beside her, she poured on more speed. She whipped the wheel, and the car shuddered as it clung to the road inches from the edge of the island.

He made some sound in his throat. Deliberately she sent him an icy look. "Problem?"

"No." Not, he thought, if you considered driving at ninety on a road that curved off into nothing, with a very pissed-off witch behind the wheel, your idea of fun.

As the road climbed, he kept his eyes trained on the stone house on the cliff. It was, at the moment, his nirvana. All he had to do was live to get there.

When she pulled into the drive, he had to take a few deep breaths to get his lungs working again.

"Point taken," he said, and resisted wiping his damp hands on his jeans. "You're capable of handling yourself, even when your control meter's shaky."

"Thank you so much." Sarcasm dripped like acid as she stepped out of the car. "Come inside." She snapped it out. "That wound needs tending."

Though he wasn't sure it was wise to put his flesh and blood in her hands at the moment, he followed her up the walk. "The place looks great."

"I'm not interested in small talk."

"Then don't say anything back," he suggested. He went inside with her. The colors were rich, the wood polished. And the air alive with warm, fragrant welcome.

She'd made changes, he noted. Subtle ones. Mia ones. Mixing elegance with charm. Exquisite taste with simplicity. Though she strode straight back toward the kitchen, he took his time. It might give both of them a chance to cool off.

She'd kept the heavy carved furniture that had been passed down for generations. But she'd added plush, sink-in textures. There were rugs he didn't recognize, but their age told him they'd been rolled up in some attic and had been unearthed when the house had come under Mia's control. She used candles and flowers generously. Bowls of colored rocks, chunks of glittering crystals, and the canny little mystical figures she'd always collected. And books. There were books in every room he passed.

When he stepped into the kitchen, she was already taking jars out of a cupboard. There were gleaming copper pots, hanks of drying herbs in their delicate faded tones and scents. The broom by her back door was very old, the restaurant-grade range very new.

"You had some work done in here." He tapped his fingers against the surface of the dove-gray counter.

"Yes. Sit down, take off your shirt."

Instead, he walked to the windows, looked out over her gardens. "It's like an illustration out of a book of fairy tales."

"I enjoy flowers. Sit down, please. We both have work to get back to, and I'd like to see to this."

"I did what I could with it last night. It just has to heal."

She merely stood, staring at him, a jar the color of poppies in her hand.

"All right, all right. Maybe you'll rip a bandage off your petticoat."

With little grace, he shrugged out of his torn shirt and sat at her kitchen table. The sight of those raw wounds knotted her stomach. She hated seeing anything, anyone, in pain. "What did you use on it?" She bent down, sniffed. Wrinkled her nose. "Garlic. Obvious."

"It did the trick." He'd have sawed his tongue in half before admitting the wound was throbbing like a bad tooth.

"Hardly. Be still. Open up," she ordered. "I've no intention of hurting you until after I've healed you. Open."

He did what she asked and felt her magic slide inside him, even as he felt her fingers, coated with soothing balm, slide over his abraded flesh.

He could see it, the warm red of her energy. Taste it, sharp and sweet, like the first bite of a succulent plum. The heavy scent of her, of poppies, clouded his senses.

Drifting, he heard her quiet chant. Without thinking, he turned his head, rubbed his cheek against her forearm.

"I see you in my sleep. I hear your voice inside my head." As he slid along the silk of her power, he spoke in Gaelic. The language of his blood. "I ache for you, even when I'm with you. Always you."

When he felt her slipping out of him, he struggled to hold on. But she slid away, and he was left blinking in confusion and swaying in the kitchen chair.

"Ssh." Her fingers were gentle as she stroked his hair. "Take a moment."

As his mind cleared, he fisted his hands on the table. "You took me under. You had no right - "

"It would've been painful otherwise."

She'd never been able to stand back from someone's pain. Turning from him, she capped her jars carefully, gave herself time to settle. Easing his pain had brought on her own. His Gaelic words had bruised her heart.

"And you're hardly one to throw rights in my face now. I can't fully erase the wounds. That's beyond my capabilities. But they'll heal quickly enough now."

He angled his head to look at his shoulder. He could barely see the marks, and there was no discomfort. The surprise of that had him studying her. "You've improved."

"I've spent considerable time exploring and refining my gifts." She replaced her jars, then simply lowered her hands to the counter. "I'm so angry with you. So . . . I need the air."

She crossed to the door and walked outside.

She went to the pool, watched the fish dart gold beneath the lily pads. As she heard him come up behind her, she cupped her elbows with her hands.

"Then be angry. Spit and swear. It won't change a thing. I have a part in this, Mia. I am part of this. Whether you like it or not."

"Impulse and machismo have no part in this. Whether you like it or not."

If she thought he would apologize for what he'd done, she was going to have a long wait. "I saw an opportunity, a possibility, and I took a calculated risk."

She spun around again. "It's my risk to take. Mine, not yours."

"So damn sure of everything. You've always been so damn sure. Don't you ever consider there might be another way?"

"I don't question what I know here." She pressed fists to her belly. "And what I know here." And to her heart. "You can't take what's mine to do, and if you could - "

"If I could?"

"I wouldn't permit it. It's my birthright."

"And mine," he countered. "If I had been able to end it last night, Mia, it would be done."

She was more weary than angry now. "You know better. You know ." She pushed at her hair, wandered away down a garden path where spearing blades of iris fanned out, waiting for the blooming time. "Change one thing, potentially change a thousand others. Move one piece of the whole indiscriminately, and destroy the whole. There are rules, Sam, and reasons for them."

"You were always better at rules than I was." There was a sting of bitterness in the words, and she could taste it even as he did. "How can you expect me to stand to the side? Do you think I can't see you're not sleeping or eating well? I can feel you fighting off the fear, and it rips at me."

She'd turned back as he spoke. How well she remembered that dark anger in him, that restless passion. It had drawn her to the boy. And, God help her, it drew her to the man.

"If I wasn't afraid, I'd be stupid," she pointed out. "I'm not stupid. You can't go behind my back this way. You can't challenge again what comes for me. I want your word."

"You can't have it."

"Let's try to be sensible."

"No." He took her arms, yanked her against him. "Let's try something else."

Hot, and nearly brutal, his mouth took hers. And it was like a branding. She'd pushed and scraped at his feelings even as she'd eased his wound. She'd opened him, tangled herself inside him only to leave him empty again. Now he needed something, would take something back.

His arms pinned hers, leaving her unable to struggle or accept. Leaving her helplessly trapped in a kiss that was all hunger, little heart. The thrill of that, her own pleasure in it, shocked and shamed her. Still, she could have stopped him. She needed only her mind for that. But it was so crowded with him, just as her body was crowded with need.

"I can't stand it." He tore his mouth from hers to race his lips over her face. "Be with me or damn me, but do it now."

She lifted her head until their eyes met. "And if I told you to go? To take your hands off me and go?"

He ran his hand up her back, into her hair. Fisted it there. "Don't."

She'd thought she wanted him to suffer. Now that she could see he was, she couldn't bear it. For either of them.

"Then come inside, and we'll be with each other."
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