"It was just that I kept making mistakes, that was all. I thought that once I learned, everything would be fine again. But it only got worse, and I couldn't keep deluding myself. One night he dragged me upstairs by my hair. I had long hair then," she explained. "I thought he would kill me. I thought he would beat me and rape me, then kill me. He didn't. He didn't do any of those things. But I realized he could have, and I wouldn't have been able to stop him. I went to the police, but he's an influential man. He has connections. I had a few bruises, but nothing major. They didn't do anything. "

Knowing that burned a hole through him. "They should have. They should've taken you to a shelter. "

"As far as they were concerned, I was a rich, spoiled trophy wife causing trouble. It doesn't matter," she said wearily. "They could have taken me anywhere.

He'd have found me. I ran once, and he found me. And I paid for it. He made it clear to me, he made sure I understood one vital point: I belonged to him, and I would never get away. Wherever I went, he'd find me. He loved me. "

It sent a violent chill through her to say it. She stopped, turned to face Zack. "His version of love, beyond rules, beyond bounds. Selfish, cold and obsessive and powerful. He would see me dead before he'd let me go. That's not an exaggeration. "

"I believe you. But you got away. "

"Because he thinks I'm dead. " She told him, her voice clear and empty of emotion, what she had done to break the chains.

"Jesus Christ, Nell. " He threw the ice bag to the ground. "It's a miracle you didn't kill yourself. "

"Either way, I was getting away. I was coming here. I believe, completely believe, that the minute that car went over the cliff, I started coming here. And to you. "

Because he wanted, too strongly, to touch her and wasn't yet sure if it would be a caress or a furious shake, he jammed his hands in his pockets. "I had a right to know, when things changed between us. I had a right to know. "

"I didn't expect things to change between us. "

"But they damn well did. And if you didn't know where we were heading, then you are stupid. "

"I'm not stupid. " Her voice took on an edge. "Maybe I was wrong, but I'm not stupid. I didn't expect to fall in love with you, I didn't want to fall in love with you, or even get involved with you. You pursued me. "

"It doesn't make any difference how it happened.

The fact is, it did. You know where you stood and why, but you didn't let me know. "

"I'm a liar," she said evenly. "I'm a cheat, I'm a bitch. But don't you ever call me stupid again. "

"Jesus Christ. " At his wits' end, he stalked away, lifted his gaze to the sky.

"I won't be demeaned, not by anyone. Not ever again. I won't be belittled, and I won't be brushed aside until it's convenient for you to pay attention again. "

Curious, he turned his head, stared at her. "Is that what you think this is?"

"I'm telling you how it is. I did a lot of thinking since you walked out of the house yesterday. I'm not going to whimper and slide into the corner just because you're annoyed with me. That insults both of us. "

"Well, three cheers. "

"Oh, go to hell. "

He turned completely around and stepped toward her. The dread curled in her stomach, her palms went clammy, but she stood her ground.

"It's a hell of a time to pick a fight with me, especially when you're wrong. "

"I'm only wrong if I'm standing where you are. Standing here, I did what I had to do. I wish I hadn't hurt you, but I can't go back and change that. "

"No, you can't. So we go from here. Did you leave out anything else I should know?"

"The woman who drove off that cliff was named Helen Remington. Mrs. Evan Remington. I don't answer to that name anymore. It's not who I am. "

"Remington. " He said it softly. She could all but see him flipping through some mental data file. "Hollywood type. "

"That's right. "

"You got about as far away from that as you could manage. "

"That's right, too. I'll never go back. I've found the life I want here. "

"With or without me?"

For the first time since she'd begun her story, her stomach clutched. "That's up to you. "

"No, it's not. You already know what I want. Now it's what you want. "

"I want you. You know that. "

"Then you have to finish what you started. You have to end it. File for divorce. "

"I can't. Haven't

you heard anything I've said?"

"Every word, and more that you didn't say. " Part of him wanted to soothe her, to draw her close, shelter her. To tell her none of it mattered now.

But it did.

"You can't live your whole life wondering, looking over your shoulder, or pretending three years away. Neither can I. For one thing, it's going to start eating at you, and for another, the world's a small place. You'll never be sure he won't find you. If he does, or if you're afraid he has, are you going to run again?"

"It's been more than a year since I left. He can't find me if he thinks I'm dead. "

"You'll never be sure. You have to end it, but you don't have to end it alone. I won't let him touch you. This isn't his turf," he said, lifting her face with a finger under her chin. "It's mine. "

"You're underestimating him. "

"I don't think so. I know I'm not underestimating myself, or Ripley, or Mia. Or a lot of people on the island who would go out of their way for you. "

"I don't know if I can do what you're asking. For more than a year I've focused on doing everything I could to make certain he doesn't find out I'm alive, he doesn't find out where I am. I don't know if I've got it in me to step out again. I need to think. I need you to give me time to think. "

"All right. Tell me what you decide. " He stooped to get the ice bag. The ice was mostly melted. As he didn't care a great deal about the pain in his jaw, he opened it, spilled out the contents. "If you don't want to marry me, Nell, I'll accept that. But after you think all this through, I need you to tell me what you decide there, too. "

"I love you. I don't have to think that through. "

He stared at her, standing in the quiet woods where the leaves rioted color and the air still carried the faintest scent of yesterday's rain.

He held out a hand for hers. "I'll walk you home. "

Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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