He coughed. It was the only way his body could gather air. “What? What the hell?” He was too shocked for anger, too busy trying to breathe normally again to do anything but stare into her suddenly furious face.
“You think I want your hands on me?”
He managed the breath, rubbed gingerly at his stomach. “Yes.”
“Well, think again. Nobody juggles me with another woman.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“And don’t pull that innocent act. Maybe you think you can pretend you forget you’ve been hitting on me when you decide to hit on her, and vice versa, but that’s taking the absentminded professor act one step too far.”
She bunched both fists and nearly used them. Very nearly used them. “You’re not worth it.”
She turned on her heel and stalked into the women’s locker room.
She kicked the wall, just because it felt good, then limped to her locker. She was just about to strip off her sports bra when Mac swung in after her.
“You turn around and march straight out of here,” she ordered. “Otherwise I’m arresting you for lewd and lascivious behavior.”
He didn’t turn, he didn’t march. He stalked, seriously surprising her, until he stood toe-to-toe with her.
“I’m entitled to an explanation of what just went on in there.”
“You’re not entitled to anything from me. Now beat it.”
“If you think you can sashay in there, tease me half to death, punch me in the stomach—”
“It was an elbow jab. And I’ve never sashayed in my life.”
“You deliberately came on to me with the express purpose of slapping me back. I want to know why.”
“Because I don’t like cheats, I don’t like sneaks. And I don’t like men who try to see how many women they can sleep with at one time, especially when they’re trying to add me to the list.”
“I haven’t slept with anyone. I haven’t even gone out with anyone since I’ve been here.”
“Let’s add ‘I don’t like liars’ to that list.”
He took her firmly by the elbows, lifted her straight off her toes. “I don’t lie. And don’t even think about spitting any magic at me.”
She opened her mouth, shut it again. When she spoke, it was dead calm. “Take your hands off me.”
He set her on her feet, took a full step back. “I’ve made it clear I’m interested in you on a personal level. It happens that I’m not interested, at the moment, in anyone else on that same level. I haven’t juggled anyone. I don’t have the reflexes for it.”
“You bought a bottle of fancy wine and spent an evening snuggled up to Mia.”
“Where the hell do you get this?” Flustered, he dragged his hands through his hair. “I went to Mia’s for dinner, though that’s completely my business. She’s one of the main reasons I’m here. That’s a professional interest. However, I also happen to like her very much. I didn’t sleep with her, don’t intend to sleep with her.”
“Fine.” Because she’d started feeling like a fool even before he’d released her, she turned to her locker. “It’s your business, like you said.”
“You’re jealous.” He paused a moment, as if to gather his wits. Or his temper. “After I get over being seriously pissed off, I might find that flattering.”
She whirled back. “I’m not jealous.”
“Replay that little scene,” he suggested, jerking a thumb toward the gym. “See what you come up with. Now, I’m going to go soak my head. I suggest you do the same.”
He strode out, sending the swinging door slapping.
There was onething Ripley hated more than feeling guilty. It was feeling ashamed. It took her a while to get there, as her temper wasn’t of the flash-and-fade variety.
She wallowed in anger, enjoyed the way it bubbled and churned inside her and kept clear, rational thinking at bay.
She rode on that blissful annoyance most of the day, and it felt good. It felt just. The energy it gave her had her whipping through a backlog of paperwork at the station house and taking Zack’s turn at cleaning the premises. She did her patrol on foot, then, still raring to go, volunteered to take her brother’s cruise shift.
She drove all over the island, looking for trouble. Hoping for it.
When trouble didn’t cooperate, she spent an hour at home, beating the hell out of her punching bag.
Then common sense began to trickle through. She hated when that happened. That trickle opened a crack, and through the crack she was able to view her own behavior with distressing clarity.
She’d been stupid and that was hard to swallow. She’d been wrong and that was a bigger, nastier gulp. Feeling like an idiot made her depressed, so she skulked down to the kitchen when no one was around and ate three of Nell’s brownies.
She could hardly believe she’d worked herself up into that sort of astate over a man in the first place. Not that it had been jealousy, she thought, contemplating a fourth brownie. He was completely wrong about that. But she had overreacted, big time.
And she, she decided as the feeling of stupidity began to slide toward the first sticky edge of guilt, had treated him shabbily.
She’d teased him. She had no respect for women who used sex as a weapon, or a bribe. Or a reward, for that matter. But she’d used it as bait and punishment.
That shamed her.
Replaying her actions in the gym drove her to brownie number four.
Even if he had been interested in Mia, which she was now convinced he hadn’t been, he was a free agent. A couple of lip locks with her didn’t make them exclusive, or oblige him to fidelity.
Though she firmly believed that if you were nibbling on one cookie, you finished it off before you picked up another.
But that was neither here nor there.
The best thing to do, she thought, rubbing her now slightly unsettled stomach, was nothing. Stay out of his way, nip any personal connection in the bud, though it was probably a little late for the bud stage, she admitted.
They would just pretend nothing had ever happened—which, of course, it shouldn’t have.
She crept back up to her bedroom, closed herself in, and decided it would be wise to avoid all human contact for the next eight hours.
Sleep didn’t come easily, but she put that down to overdosing on chocolate and deemed it fair punishment for her crimes.
The dreams, when they came, seemed harsher than she deserved.
The winter beach was deserted. Solitude weighed like chains around her heart. The moon was full, ripely white so that its light washed over the shore and sea. It seemed you could all but count every grain of sand that glittered in that beam.
The sound of the surf drummed in her ears, a constant sound that reminded her she was alone. Would always be alone.
She flung up her hands, called out in pain, in fury. The wind answered, and spun those sparkling grains of sand. Faster. Faster.
Power sliced through her, a blade so cold it burned hot. The storm she called roared and built until it blocked the light of that pure white moon.
“Why do you do this?”
She turned in the torrent and looked at her lost sister. Golden hair shimmered, blue eyes were dark with sorrow.
“For justice.” She needed to believe that. “For you.”
“No.” The one who had been Air didn’t reach out but stood quiet, hands folded at her waist. “For vengeance. For hate. We were never meant to use what we are for blood.”
“He spilled yours first.”
“And should my weakness, my fears, excuse yours?”
“Weak?” Magic dark boiled inside her. “I am stronger now than ever I was. I have no fears.”
“You are alone. The one you loved sacrificed.”
And she could see, like a dream within the dream, the man who had held her heart. She watched him, watched again, as he was struck dow
n, taken from her and their children by the bitter edge of her own actions.
The tears that swam into her eyes burned like acid.
“He should have stayed away.”
“He loved you.”
“I am beyond love now.”
Air turned over her hands, hands that gleamed as white as that blinding moonlight. “There is no life without love, and no hope. I broke the first link between us, and lacked the courage to forge it back again. Now you break the second. Find your compassion, make your amends. The chain grows weak.”
“I would change nothing.”
“Our sister will be put to the test.” Urgently now, Air stepped closer. “Without us, she may fail. Then, our circle is broken once and forever. Our children’s children will pay. I have seen it.”
“You ask me to give up what I have tasted. What I can now call with athought ?” She flung out a hand and the great sea rose to rage against the shimmering wall of sand—a thousand voices, screaming. “I will not. Before I am done with this, every man, every woman, every child who cursed us, who hunted us like vermin, will writhe in agony.”
“Then you damn us,” Air said quietly. “And all who come after us. Look. And see what may be.”
The wall of sand dissolved. The furious sea reared back, froze for one throbbing moment. The moon so white, so pure, split and dripped cold blood. Across the black sky, lightning slashed and whipped, stabbed down toward the earth to smoke and to burn.
Flames erupted, fed by the wild and greedy wind, so that the dark was blinded with light.
The night became one long, terrified scream as the island was swallowed by the sea.
However upsetting thedream, Ripley could convince herself it was a result of guilt and chocolate. In the light of day she could shrug off the anxiety it had caused and expend her energy shoveling the latest snowfall.
By the time Zack joined her, she’d finished the steps and half the walk. “I’ll do the rest. Go in and get some coffee, some breakfast.”
“Couldn’t eat. I gorged on brownies last night, so I can use the exercise.”
“Hey.” He caught her by the chin, lifting her face for a long study. “You look tired.”
“Didn’t sleep very well.”
“What’s gnawing at you?”