“Why should you? It shouldn’t matter, anyway.” She crossed her arms over her breasts, hugged the elbows tight. Because it did matter, and it always would. “It was long ago when he wrote that. Long ago when I was foolish enough to believe he meant it. To need him to.”
“He’s not worth it. No man’s worth it.”
“You’re right, of course. But I believe, unfortunately, that there’s one person for each of us who’s worth everything.”
Rather than speak, Ripley laid a hand on Mia’s shoulder, left it there when Mia reached back, held it.
“I miss you, Ripley.” The grief of it trembled in her voice, like tears. “The two of you left holes in me. And neither of us will be pleased tomorrow that I said that today. So.” Briskly she released Ripley’s hand, stepped away. “Poor Mac. I should go make amends.”
“You smoked one of his toys, I think. But he seemed more jazzed by it than upset.”
“Still, one should have more control,” she replied. “As you well know.”
“Ah, we’re back. Well, then, I’ll go see what I can do to patch things up.” She started back toward the cave, glanced over her shoulder. “Coming?”
“No, you go ahead.” Ripley waited until Mia disappeared into the shadow of the cave before she let out a long breath. “I miss you, too.”
She stayed there, crouching at a tidal pool until she pulled herself together. Mia had always been better, she thought, at smoothing her ruffles. And Ripley had always envied her that degree of self-control.
She watched the little world in the water, a kind of island, she supposed, where each depended on the others for survival.
Mia was depending on her. She didn’t want to think about it, didn’t want to accept her connection or the responsibility it put on her shoulders. Refusing to believe it had given her a decade of normality, and cost her a cherished friend.
Then Nell had come, and the circle had formed again. The power of that had been so brilliant, so strong. As if it had never been locked away.
It had been hard, very hard, to turn the key again.
Now there was Mac. She had to decide if he was the next link in a chain that would drag her down, or the key to another lock.
She wished with all her heart he could be just a man.
Mia’s laughter drifted out of the cave, and Ripley straightened. How did she do that? Ripley wondered. How did she turn herself around in such a short span of time?
She started toward the cave just as Mia and Mac stepped out. For an instant she saw another woman, hair bright as flame, sweep out of that dark mouth. Bundled in her arms was a sleek black pelt.
The vision wavered, blurred, then slid away, like a painting left out in the rain. It left behind the vague headache that those images always brought with them.
Ten years, she thought again. For ten years she’d blocked it all. Now it was seeping back, liquid through cracks in a glass. If she didn’t shore up those cracks it would all break free. And never be contained again.
Though her knees had jellied, she strode forward. “So, what’s the joke?”
“Just enjoying each other’s company.” Mia wrapped her arm around Mac’s, sent him a slow, warm look from under her lashes.
Ripley just shook her head. “Get the goofy grin off your face, Booke. She does it on purpose. What is it about you and men, Mia? You get within two feet of one, and his IQ drops below his belt.”
“Just one of my many talents. Don’t look so flustered, handsome.” She rose to her toes to kiss Mac’s cheek. “She knows I never poach.”
“Then stop teasing him. He’s starting to sweat.”
“I like him.” Deliberately Mia cuddled against Mac’s side. “He’s so cute.”
“Is there any way I can enter this conversation,” Mac wondered, “without sounding like a moron?”
“No. But I think we’re done now.” Ripley hooked her thumbs in her jacket pockets. “How’s your head?”
“Nothing a bottle of aspirin won’t cure.” When he reached up to probe gingerly at the knot, Mia asked, “Did you hurt yourself? Let me see.” She was a great deal more gentle than Ripley had been, but just as firm. After she took a look, she hissed out a breath. “You might have had some compassion,” Mia snapped at Ripley.
“It’s just a scratch.”
“It’s seeping blood, swollen and painful. None of which is necessary. Sit,” she ordered Mac and gestured at a tumble of rocks.
“Really, it’s nothing. Don’t worry about it. I’m always banging into something.”
“Sit.” Mia all but shoved him down, then drew a small bag out of her pocket. “I have. . . a connection to the cave,” she said as she took some cayenne out of her bag. “And so a connection to this. Be still.”
She stroked her fingers over the cut. He felt a gathering of heat, a focus of the pain. Before he could speak, she was chanting quietly.
“With herb and touch and thought to heal, this wound under my care to seal. From illness and pain let him now be free. As I will, so mote it be. There, now.” She bent over, touched her lips to the unmarked top of his head. “Better?”
“Yes.” He blew out a long breath. The ache, the throbbing had vanished before she’d finished her chant. “I’ve seen cayenne work on minor cuts, but not like that. Not instantly.”
“The herb’s a kind of backup. Now be more careful with that handsome head of yours. Friday night, then?”
“I’m looking forward to it.”
“Wait.” Ripley held up a hand. “What?”
“I thought it only fair that I make it up to Mac for damaging his equipment. I’ve invited him up on Friday to observe a ritual.”
Ripley was speechless for a moment, then she grabbed Mia’s arm. “Can I talk to you?”
“Of course. Why don’t you walk me to my car?” Mia sent Mac an easy smile. “Friday, after sunset. You know the way.”
“Obviously you’ve lost your mind,” Ripley began as she accompanied Mia across the shale. “Since when do you perform for an audience?”
“He’s a scientist.”
“All the more. Listen. . .” Ripley broke off as they started up the rise to the road. “Okay, listen,” she started again. “I know you’re probably a little shaken up right now, and not thinking straight.”
“I’m fine, but I appreciate your concern.”
“Fine, my ass.” Ripley took three long strides away, three long strides back. Waved her arms. “Why don’t you sell tickets?”
“He’s not a gawker, Ripley, and you know it. He’s an intelligent man with an open mind. I trust him.” Mia angled her head, and those witch-smoke eyes were both amused and puzzled. “I’m surprised you don’t.”
“It’s not a matter of trust.” But she rolled her shoulders as though she felt a twinge. “Just take some time, think it through before you do something you can’t take back.”
“He’s part of it,” Mia said quietly. “You already know that. I feel something for him. Not sexual,” she added. “But intimate, nonetheless. A warmth without heat. If there’d been heat, I’d have acted on it. He wasn’t for me.”
She said the last pointedly. “What you feel for him is different, and it unsettles you. If it was just sexual attraction, you’d have had sex with him.”
“How do you know I haven’t?” When Mia merely smiled, Ripley cursed. “And this has nothing to do with anything.”
“It has all to do with everything. You’ll make your own choices, in your own time. I’m going to ask Nell to join us, if she’d like.” Mia opened the car door as Ripley stood and steamed. “You’re welcome, of course.”
“If I wanted to join the circus, I’d have learned how to juggle.”
“Your choice, as I said.” She climbed in, then lowered her window. “He’s an exceptional man, Ripley. I envy you.”
That statement had Ripley’s mouth dropping open as Mia drove away.
Mac was packingup when Ripley came back. He?
??d gotten all he believed he was going to get that day, but he intended to return when the atmosphere wasn’t quite so volatile.
In any case, he needed to do some repairs and needed to settle himself as well.
When Ripley’s shadow crossed the opening of the cave, he tucked his Palmcorder into its bag. “You tried to talk her out of meeting with me.”
“Is that how you refrain from interfering in my work?”
“This is different.”
“Why don’t you give me your definition of interference?”
“Okay, you’re pissed off. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to keep my mouth shut when someone I . . . someone I know makes a decision because she’s whacked out emotionally. It isn’t fair.”
“You think I’d take advantage of whatever it is that upset her?”
He was quiet for a moment, then shrugged. “I don’t know. She has several days to change her mind.”
“She made the deal, she’ll keep it. That’s how she works.”
“So do you. You’re like two pieces of the same puzzle. What caused the rift between you?”
“It’s old news.”
“No, it’s not. She hurt and you bled for her. I watched you. Now you’d protect her if you could.” He picked up two of his bags, straightened. “You’re the same with Nell. You’re a shield for those who matter to you. Who stands for you, Ripley?”
“I can take care of myself.”
“I don’t doubt it, but that’s not the point. They stand for you, and that’s what you don’t quite know how to handle.”
“You don’t know me well enough to know what I can handle.”
“I’ve known you all my life.”
She reached out to stop him before he walked outside again. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“I asked you once about your dreams. One day, I’ll tell you about mine.”
He’d put dreamsin her mind, that’s what she told herself even as she was sucked into them. Knowing it was a dream didn’t stop the action.
She was on the beach with a storm charging in like a runaway train. And the storm was her fury. There were others with her, shadows and lights. Love, and the barbed trap of its opposite.
A bolt sliced out of the sky, a silver blade that cleaved the earth in two. The world around her was madness, and the taste of it wildly tempting.
The choice is yours, now and always.