The Hollow
Author:Nora Roberts



Chapter Nine
THERE WAS COFFEE FOR THOSE WHO WANTED IT, and a fire burning bright in Cal's living room to warm chilled bones. There were enough dry clothes to go around, though Layla wasn't sure what sort of a fashion statement she made in a pair of Cal's jogging shorts bagging well past her knees and a shirt several sizes too big. But Cybil had snagged the spare jeans Quinn had left at Cal's, and beggars couldn't be choosers.

While the washer and dryer churned away, she topped off her coffee. Her feet swished over the kitchen floor in enormous wool socks.

"Nice outfit," Fox said from the doorway.

"Could start a trend." She turned to face him. Cal's clothes fit him a great deal better than they did her. "Are you all right now?"

"Yeah." He got a Coke out of the fridge. "I'm going to ask you to put whatever mad you've still got on aside for a while. We'll deal with them later, if we have to."

"That's the problem, isn't it? Personal feelings, reactions, relationships. They get in the way, knot things up."

"Maybe. Can't do much about it as person's the root of personal. We can't stop being people, or it wins."

"What would have happened if Gage hadn't stopped you, if you'd gotten inside the house?"

"I don't know."

"You do, or you can speculate. Here's what I speculate. At that moment, the fire was real to you, you believed it, so it was real. You felt the heat, the smoke. And if you'd gotten in, despite how quickly you heal, you could've died because you believed."

"I let the son of a bitch scam me. My mistake."

"Not the point. It could kill you. I never really considered that before. It could use your mind to end your life."

"So we have to be smarter." He shrugged, but the gesture was an irritable jerk that told her temper was still lurking inside him. "It got one over on me today because nothing's ever happened at the farm, or at Cal's parents' house. They've always been out-of-bounds. Safe zones. So I didn't think, I just reacted. That's never smart."

"If it had been real, you'd have gone in. You'd have risked your life to save three dogs. I don't know what to think of you," she said after a moment. "I don't know what to feel. So I guess, like my mad, I need to put that aside and deal with it later."

"Sorry." Quinn stood in the doorway of the adjoining dining room. "We're ready in here."

"Just coming." Layla walked out. A few seconds later, Fox followed.

"I guess we should just dive in." Quinn took a seat beside Cal at the table. She glanced over to where Cybil sat with a notepad, ready to write down thoughts, impressions. "So, who wants to do the honors?"

Six people studied the wrapped package on the table. Six people said nothing.

"Oh, hell, this is silly." Quinn picked up the books, carefully unwrapped them. "Even considering they were protected, they're awfully well preserved."

"We can assume, under the circumstances, she had some power, some knowledge of magicks," Cybil pointed out. "Pick one, read an entry aloud."

"Okay, here goes." There were three, so she took the top one, opened it to the first entry. The ink was faded, but legible, the handwriting-familiar now-careful and clear.

" 'There must be a record, I think, of what was, what is, what will be. I am Ann. My father, Jonathan Hawkins, brought my mother, my sister, brother, and me to this place we call the Hollow. It is a new world where he believes we will be happy. So we have been. It is a green place, a rough place, a quiet place. He and my uncle cleared land for shelter, for crops. The water is cold and clear in the spring. More came, and the Hollow became Hawkins Hollow. My father has built a small and pretty stone house, and we have been comfortable there.

" 'There is work, as there should be work, to keep the mind and hands busy, to provide and to build. Those who settle here have built a stone chapel for worship. I have attended the services, as is expected. But I do not find God there. I have found him in the wood. It is there I feel at peace. It is there I first met Giles.

" 'Perhaps love does not come in an instant, but takes lifetimes. Is this how I knew, in that instant, such love? Is this how I felt, even saw in my mind's eye lifetime by lifetime with this man who lived alone in a stone cabin in the green shadowed wood that held the altar stone?

" 'He waited for me. This I knew as well. He waited for me to come to him, to see him, to know him. When we met we spoke of simple things, as is proper. We spoke of the sun and the wild berries I picked, of my father, of the hide Giles tanned.

" 'We did not speak of gods and demons, of magic and destiny, not then. That would come.

" 'I walked the wood, wandered my way to the stone cabin and the altar at every opportunity. He was always waiting for me. So the love of lifetimes bloomed again, in the green wood, in secret. I was his again, as I ever was, as I ever will be.' "

Quinn paused, sighed. "That's the first entry. It's lovely."

"Pretty words don't make much of a weapon," Gage commented. "They don't provide answers."

"I disagree with that," Cybil said. "And I think she deserves to have those words read as she wrote them. Lifetimes," she continued, tapping her notes. "That indicates her understanding that she and Dent were reincarnations of the guardian and his mate. Time and again. And he waited for her to accept it. He didn't launch right into, 'Hey, guess what, you and I are going to get cozy. You'll get knocked up with triplets, we'll hassle with some Big Evil Bastard, and a few hundred years from now our ancestors are going to fight the fight.' "

"Boy, a guy hits me with a line like that, I'm naked in a heartbeat." Quinn traced a finger down the page. "I'm with Cyb on this. There's value in every word because she wrote it. It's hard not to be impatient, just skim over looking for some magic formula for destroying demons."

Layla shook her head. "It won't be like that anyway."

"No, I don't think so either. Should I read on, in order?"

"I think we should see how it evolved, from her eyes." Fox glanced at Gage, at Cal. "Keep going, Quinn."

She read of love, of changes of seasons, of chores and quiet moments. Ann wrote of death, of life, of new faces. She wrote of the people who came to the stone cabin for healing. She wrote of her first kiss beside a stream where the water sparkled in the sun. She wrote of sitting with Giles in the stone cabin, in front of a fire that flamed red and gold as he told her of what had come before.

" 'He said to me that the world is old, older than any man can know. It is not as we have been taught, nor what we are told to believe in the faith of my father and my mother. Or that is not all of it. For, he said, in this old, old time before man came to be, there were others. Of the others there were the dark and the light. This was their choice, for there is always the freedom to choose. Those who chose the light were called gods, and the dark ones demons.

" 'There was death and blood, battles and war. Many of both were destroyed as man came to be. It was man who would spread over the world, who would rule it and be ruled by it. It was coming to, he said, the time of man, as was right. Demons hated man even more than they hated gods. They despised and envied their minds and hearts, their vulnerable bodies, their needs and weaknesses. Man became prey for the demons who survived. It came to be that those gods who survived as well became guardians. Battle after battle raged until there were only two, one light, one dark. One demon, one guardian. The light pursued the dark over the world, but the demon was clever and cunning. In this last battle, the guardian was wounded mortally, and left to die. There came upon this dying god a young boy, innocent and pure of heart. Dying, the god passed his power and his burden to the boy. So the boy, a mortal with the power of gods, became guardian. The boy became a man, hunting the dark. The boy became a man who loved a woman with the power of magic, and they had a son. At his death, the guardian passed his power and his burden to his son, and so it was done over all the years. Lifetime by lifetime, until this time, until this place. Now, he said, it is for us.

" 'I knew he spoke truth, for I saw it in the fire as he spoke. I understood the dreams I have had all of my life that I never dared speak of to any living soul. There, in the firelight, I pledged myself to him. There, in the firelight, I gave myself to him. I would not go back to the house of my father but live with my beloved in the wood, in the stone cabin near the altar Giles called the Pagan Stone.' "

Quinn leaned back. "Sorry, my eyes are blurring."

"It's enough for now." Cal handed her the glass of water he'd poured. "It's a lot for now."

"It jibes with some versions of the lore that trickled down." Shifting, Cybil studied her notes. "The battles, the passing of power. The way I'm reading this is there's only this single demon left. I'm not sure if I buy that, I'm a little too superstitious. But it could be interpreted that this is the only demon known to walk the world freely, at least every seven years. Why didn't he mate before Hester Deale? That's curious, isn't it?"

"Maybe he couldn't get it up." Gage smiled thinly.

"I don't think that's far off. I think, however sarcastic, it's a viable theory." Cybil held up a finger. "Maybe they couldn't mate with humans, it couldn't. But as Giles apparently discovered a way to imprison the thing, at least for a time, it discovered a way to procreate. Each side evolving, so to speak. Every living thing evolves."

"Good thought," Fox agreed. "Or it might be that up until Hester, it was shooting blanks, so to speak. Or the women it violated never came to term for one reason or another. We should take a break. Quinn's been at it a couple hours now, and I don't know about anyone else, but I could use some fuel."

"Don't look at me," Cybil said firmly. "I cooked last time."

"I'll do it." Layla pushed to her feet. "Can I root around in the kitchen, Cal, until I come up with something?"

"Have at it."

She was bent over, head in the refrigerator, when Fox walked in. When a man thought how good a woman's ass looked in baggy, drooping shorts, he decided, that man had it bad.

"Thought I could give you a hand."

She straightened, turned with her hands full of a pack of American cheese slices, a pound of bacon, and a couple of hothouse tomatoes. "I thought grilled cheese, bacon, and tomato sandwiches. Maybe a quick pasta salad on the side if he's got something I can throw together for that. I can handle it."

"Because you want me out of here."

"No." She dumped the armload on the counter. "I'm not mad. It's too much trouble to stay mad. You could see if the clothes are dry so I could get out of these shorts and into my own clothes."

"Sure. But you look kind of cute."

"No, I don't."

"You're not looking at you." Gauging her mood, he stepped forward. "I can slice tomatoes. In fact, it's one of my more amazing skills. Plus." He kept moving in until she was backed against the counter with his hands planted on either side of her. "I know where Cal keeps the pasta."

"Making you invaluable in the kitchen?"

"I hope not. Layla." His eyes roamed her face. "I'm not going to tell you what to think or how to feel, or when to take those thoughts and feelings out of whatever box you need to keep them in. But I think about you. I feel for you. Unlike slicing tomatoes, packing away thoughts and feelings isn't one of my finer skills."

"I'm afraid of you."

Instant and complete shock ran over his face. "What? Of me? Nobody's afraid of me."

"That's absolutely not true. Deputy Napper is afraid of you. It's part of the reason he keeps after you. But that's a different kind of thing anyway. I'm afraid because you make me feel things I'm not sure I'm ready to feel, want things I'm not sure I'm ready to want. It would probably be easier if you rushed me, just did the sweep-off-the-feet routine because then I wouldn't have to feel responsible for my own choices."

"I could try that."

"No." She shook her head. "You won't. You're not built that way. Relationships are partnerships, sex is a mutual act and decision. That's how you were raised from the ground up, that's who you are. And it's part of what attracts me and makes it harder at the same time."

She put a hand on his chest, nudged slightly. When he eased back, she smiled as the basic action and reaction proved her point.

"I'm afraid of you," she continued, "because you'd run into a burning building to save a dog. Because you'd take what was my share of pain and trauma. You were right before. It's your nature. It wasn't just because it was me. You'd have done the same if it had been Cal or Gage, Quinn or Cybil. A complete stranger. I'm afraid of what you are because I've never known anyone like you. And I'm afraid that I'll take the chance, I'll reach out and take hold, then I'll lose you because, exactly because of who you are."

"All this time, I never knew I was such a scary guy."

She turned away, took a knife from the block, set it on the cutting board. "Slice the tomatoes."

She opened a cupboard, found the pasta herself. As she hunted up pan and skillet, his phone rang. She glanced over as he read the caller ID. "Hey, Mom and/or Dad. Yeah. Really?" He set the knife down again, leaned on the counter. "When? No kidding. Sure, sure." He tipped the phone away, murmured to Layla. "My sister and her partner are flying in. What?" he said into the phone. "No, not a problem. Ah, listen, while I've got you... We were out at the farm today, me and the rest. Early this morning. The thing is..." He trailed off, walked away into the adjoining laundry room.

Layla smiled as she heard the murmur of his voice. Yes, it was his nature, she thought as she put on water for the pasta. To save dogs, to be honest. And to explain to Mom and/or Dad just why he'd chiseled a stone out of their old shed.

It was hardly a wonder she was half in love with him.

The rain continued into the damp and dreary afternoon. They ate before moving into the living room by mutual consent where Quinn continued to read by the fire.

It was almost dreamy now, Layla thought. The patter of rain, the crackle of flame and wood, the sound of Quinn's voice speaking Ann's words. She curled in her chair, cozy again in her own warm clothes, drinking tea while Fox and Lump stretched out on the floor nearby.

If she were to take a picture, it would look like a group of friends, gathered together on a rainy day, in that chilly window between winter and spring. Quinn with her book, Cal beside her on the couch. Cybil curled like a lazy cat on the other end, and Gage sprawled in a chair drinking yet another cup of coffee.

But she had only to listen to the words for the picture to change. She had only to listen to see a young woman building another fire in a hearth, her bright hair sweeping down her back. To feel the ache in the heart that had stopped beating so long ago.

I am with child. There is such joy in me, and there is such grief.

Joy for the lives inside her, Layla thought. Grief as those lives signaled the beginning of the end of Ann's time with Giles. She imagined Ann preparing meals, fetching water from the stream, writing in the first journal with the cover Giles had made her from the leather he'd tanned himself. She wrote of ordinary things, of ordinary days. Pages and pages of the simple and the human.

"I'm tapped," Quinn said at length. "Somebody else can take over, but the fact is, my brain's just plain tired. I don't think I can take any more in right now even if someone else reads."

Cal shifted her to rub at her shoulders, while Quinn stretched in obvious relief. "If we try to take in too much at once, we'll probably miss something anyway."

"Lots of daily minutiae in that section." Cybil flexed her writing hand. "He's tutoring her, showing her simple magicks. Herbs, candles, drawing out what she already had. She's very open to it. It seems obvious he didn't want to leave her without weapons, tools, defenses."

"Pioneer days," Fox commented. "Hard life."

"I think life was part of the point," Layla added. "The ordinary. We've all felt that, mentioned it at one time or another through this. The ordinary matters, it's very much what we're fighting for. I think she wrote about it, often, because she understood that. Or maybe because she needed to remind herself of it so she could face whatever was coming."

"We're more than halfway through the first journal." Quinn marked the page before setting the book down. "She still hasn't mentioned specifics on what's coming. Either he hasn't told her yet, specifically, or she hasn't wanted to write of it." She yawned hugely. "I vote we get out of here awhile or take a nap."

"They can all get out of here." Cal lowered his head to nip at her neck. "We'll take a nap."

"That's a lame euphemism for rainy-day sex, and you guys already get enough sex." Cybil uncurled a leg to give Cal a light kick. "Option two, another form of entertainment. That isn't poker," she added before Gage could speak.

"Sex and poker are the top two forms of entertainment," he told her.

"While I have no objection to either, there must be something a group of young, attractive people can find to do around here. No offense to the Bowl-a-Rama, Cal, but there must be somewhere we can get adult beverages, noise, maybe music, bad bar food."

"Actually- Ow!" Layla glared down at Fox when he pinched her foot. "Actually," she began again, "Fox mentioned a place that seemed to fit that bill. A bar across the river with live music on Saturday nights."

"We're so going there." Cybil pushed to her feet. "Who's stuck being designated drivers? I nominate Quinn from our side."

"Seconded," Layla called out.

"Aw."

"You're getting sex," Cybil reminded her. "No complaints will be registered."

"Gage." Fox mimed a gun with his thumb and forefinger.

"Always is," Gage said.

Even with the agreement it took thirty minutes for such vital matters as redoing makeup, dealing with hair. Then there was the debate over who was riding with whom, complicated by the fact that Cal remained adamant over not leaving Lump unattended.

"That thing came after my dog once, it could come after him again. Where I go, so goes the Lump. Plus, I ride with my woman."

Which left Fox squeezing into Cal's truck with Gage behind the wheel and Lump riding shotgun.

"Why can't he ride in the middle?" Fox demanded.

"Because he'll slobber on me, shed on me, and I'll smell like dog."

"I'm going to."

"Your problem, son." Gage slid a glance over. "And I guess it might be as the pretty brunette may object to being slobbered on by you scented with eau de Lump."

"She hasn't complained yet." Fox reached over to let the window down a few inches for Lump's sniffing nose.

"I can't blame you for moving in that direction. She's got that classy waif with brains and an underlayment of valor you'd go for."

"Is that what I go for?" Amused, Fox leaned against the bulk of Lump to study Gage's profile.

"She's right up your alley, with the unexpected addition of urban polish. Just don't let it screw you up."

"Why would it?"

When Gage didn't answer, Fox shifted. "That was seven years ago, and Carly didn't screw me up. What happened did, for a while. Layla's part of this, Carly wasn't. Or shouldn't have been."

"Does the fact that she's part of this worry you at all? You two have the connection, like Cal and Quinn. Now Cal's picking out china patterns."

"Is he?"

"Metaphorically speaking. Now here you are moving on Layla, and getting that cocker spaniel look in your eye when she's within sniffing distance."

"If I have to be a dog I want a Great Dane. They have dignity. And no, it doesn't worry me. I feel what I feel." He caught a glimmer. He couldn't help it; it was just there. And it made him smile as only brothers smile at each other. "But it worries you. Cal and Quinn, me and Layla. That leaves you and Cybil. You afraid fate's going to take a hand? Destiny's about to kick your ass? Should I order the monogrammed towels?"

"I'm not worried. I factor the odds in any game I play, make the players."

"The third female player is extremely hot."

"I've had hotter."

Fox snorted, turned to Lump. "He's had hotter."

"Plus, she's not my type."

"I didn't know there was any woman who wasn't your type."

"Complicated women aren't my type. You tangle in the sheets with a complicated woman, you're going to pay a price for it in the morning. I like them simple." He grinned over at Fox. "And plenty of them."

"A complicated woman will give you more play. And you like play."

"Not that kind. Simple gets you through. And plenty of simple gets you through a lot. I figure going for quantity, seeing as we might not live past our next birthday."

Reaching over, Fox gave Gage a friendly punch on the arm. "You always cheer me up with that sunny, optimistic nature of yours."

"What are you bitching about? You're going to eat, drink, and possibly make Layla, while I settle for club soda and bad music in a crowded West Virginia bar."

"You could get lucky. I bet there's at least one simple woman inside."

Gage considered as he pulled to the curb near the bar. "There is that."

IT WASN'T WHAT HE'D PLANNED, FOX THOUGHT. He'd had the idea of sitting with Layla at a corner table, well in the back where the music wasn't loud enough to hamper conversation. A little get-to-know-each-other-better-as-regular-people interlude, maybe followed by a little low-key necking. Which, if done right, might have led to some fooling around in his truck, and ended with her in his bed.

He'd considered it a pretty damn good plan, with room for flexible options.

He'd ended up crammed with five other people at a table for four, drinking beer and eating nachos while the juke blasted out twangy country.

And laughing, a lot.

The live music wasn't bad when it started. The five guys stuffed in the stage corner managed to pump it out pretty well. He knew them and, feeling generous, bought them a round on their break.

"Whose idea was this?" Quinn demanded. "This was a great idea. And I'm not even drinking."

"Mine, technically." Fox clinked his beer to her glass of diet something. "I routinely have great ideas."

"It was your general concept," Layla corrected. "My execution. But you were right. It's a nice bar."

"I particularly like the Bettie Page wall clock." Cybil gestured toward it.

"You know Bettie Page?" Gage wanted to know.

"Know of, certainly. The fifties pinup sensation who became a cult icon, partially due to being the target of a Senate investigation-read witch hunt in my opinion-on porn."

"Cybil met her." Quinn lifted her soda, sipped.

Gage peered over his drink. "Get out."

"I helped research the script for the biopic that came out a couple of years ago. She was lovely, inside and out. Are you a fan, Mr. Turner?"

"Yeah, actually, I am." He took a sip of club soda as he studied Cybil. "You've got a lot of unusual avenues in there."

She smiled her slow, feline smile. "I love to travel."

When the band came back, two of its members stopped by the table. "Want to jam one, O'Dell?"

"You guys are doing fine without me."

"You play?" Cybil poked him in the shoulder.

"Family requirement."

"Then go jam one, O'Dell." Now she gave him a push. "We insist."

"I'm drinking here."

"Don't make us cause a scene. We're capable. Q?"

"Oh yeah. Fox," she said. "Fox. Fox. Fox." Letting her voice rise a bit on each repetition.

"Okay. Okay."

When he rose, Quinn put her fingers between her lips and whistled.

"Control your girl."

"Can't." Cal only grinned. "I like 'em wild."

Shaking his head, Fox lifted a guitar from its stand, held a brief conference with the band as he slung the strap over his shoulder.

Cybil leaned over to Layla. "Why are guitar players so sexy?"

"I think it's the hands."

His certainly seemed to know what they were doing as he turned, tapped out the time, then led with a complex riff.

"Show-off," Gage muttered, and made Cybil laugh.

He went with "Lay Down Sally," an obvious crowd pleaser. Layla had to admit it had a tingle working in her when he leaned into the mike and added vocals.

He looked the part, didn't he? she thought. Faded jeans over narrow hips, feet planted in run-down work boots, shaggy hair around a handsome face. And when those tiger eyes, full of fun, latched on hers, the tingle went right up to the top of the scale.

Cybil scooted over until her lips were a half inch from Layla's ear. "He's really good."

"Yeah, damn it. I think I'm in trouble."

"Right this minute? I wish I was." With another laugh, she leaned back while the song ended, and the bar erupted with applause.

Fox was already shaking his head, taking off the strap.

"Come on," Cybil called out. "Encore."

He kept shaking his head as he came back to the table. "I do more than one in a row, they have to pry the guitar out of my greedy hands."

"Why aren't you a rock star instead of a lawyer?" Layla asked him.

"Rock starring's too much work." The music pumped out again as he leaned close to her. "I resisted the more obvious Clapton. How many guys have hit you with 'Layla' over the years?"

"Pretty much all of them."

"That's what I figured. I've got this individualist streak. Never go for the obvious."

Oh yeah, she thought when he grinned at her. She was definitely in trouble.
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