“I don’t want to be.”

“I know.”

Ripley hissed out a breath. “How do you know so damn much?”

“I’ve been where you are, and not so long ago. It’s scary and exciting, and it just changes everything.”

“I liked things the way they were. Don’t tell Zack,” she said, then immediately regretted it. “What am I saying? Of course you’ll tell Zack. It’s like a rule. Just maybe give it a few days first. I may get over this.”

“Okay.” Nell walked over to transfer baking trays.

“It could be I’ve just got the hots for him and it’s messing me up.”

“I suppose.”

“And if last night’s any indication, we’ll probably burn each other out in a couple of weeks, max.”

“It happens.”

Ripley tapped her fingers on the table. “If you’re just going to stand over there and humor the fool, I’m changing. I’m going for my run.”

Nell set the muffins on the rack to cool, totally content with herself as Ripley stormed out. “Go ahead and run,” she said softly. “Bet he catches you.”

Twelve

Considering that hewas criminally insane, Evan Remington had his good days. He could, depending on what pictures were wheeling through his mind, be fairly lucid, even momentarily charming.

There were moments, according to one of the nurses Harding interviewed, when you could see the sly intellect that had made him a top Hollywood power broker.

Other times, he just sat, and drooled.

To Harding he had become a fascination that was edging toward an obsession. Remington was a man in his prime, by all accounts a brilliant operator of the entertainment machine, one who had come from wealth and privilege. And yet he’d been brought to nothing. By a woman.

The woman was also a fascination. A quiet, biddable little mouse, if you accepted the opinion of many who’d known her during her marriage. A courageous survivor who had escaped a nightmare, if you went with the popular feminist take.

Harding wasn’t convinced that she was either. But he was willing to consider she was something more.

There were so many angles there. Beauty and the beast, destroyed by love, the monster behind the mask.

Already he had mountains of notes, reams of tape, photographs, copies of police and medical reports. He also had the beginnings of a rough first draft of the book he was certain would make him very rich and very famous.

What he didn’t have, as yet, were solid personal interviews with the key players.

He was willing to invest a lot of time and effort into acquiring them. While he followed Nell’s trail across the country, forming impressions, gathering data, he flew back to visit Remington regularly.

And each time he did, he was fueled with more purpose, more ambition, and an underlying anger that baffled him. The anger would fade, but it came back stronger every time.

Most of the travel was dumped on his expense account, and though he shot off stories to the magazine, he was well aware that there would come a day of reckoning. He was already dipping into his personal funds, couldn’t seem to stop himself.

Whereas once he had been proud of his magazine work, had enjoyed, even thrived on, the pace and demands of it, he now found himself resenting every hour he had to spend fulfilling his professional obligations.

The Remington/Todd story was like a fever burning in him.

On Valentine’s Day—and he would always find that wonderfully ironic—he made his first real connection with Evan Remington.

“They think I’m crazy.”

It was the first time Remington had spoken to him without prompting. It took everything Harding had not to jump at the quiet,reasonable sound of his voice. He gazed at the recorder to be sure the tape was running.

“Who thinks that?”

“The people here. My traitorous sister. My adulterous wife. Have you met my wife, Mr. Harding?”

Something icy seemed to slick the inside of Harding’s gut at being called by name. He had introduced himself on every visit, but he’d never believed, never really considered, that Remington had heard, or understood.

“No, I haven’t. I was hoping you would tell me about her.”

“What can I tell you about Helen?” There was a sigh, a sound of patient amusement. “She deceived me. She’s a whore, a cheat, a liar. But she’s my whore. I gave her everything. I made her beautiful. She belongs to me. Has she tried to seduce you?”

The spit in Harding’s mouth dried up. Ridiculous as it seemed, it felt as if Remington could see into his mind. “I haven’t met . . . your wife, Mr. Remington. I hope to have the opportunity to meet her. When I do, I’d be happy to take her a message from you.”

“Oh, I have plenty to say to Helen. But it’sprivate ,” he said, whispering the last word as a slow smile curved his lips. “Many things between a man and his wife should be private, don’t you agree? What happens between them in the sanctity of their home is no one’s concern.”

Harding offered a sympathetic nod. “It’s difficult, isn’t it, to balance that privacy when you’re a man who has the public’s attention.”

Remington’s eyes clouded, fog over ice, and began to dart around the room. The intelligence, the crafty humor in them, had vanished. “I need a phone. I seem to have misplaced my phone. Where’s the damn concierge?”

“I’m sure he’ll be right here. Could I ask you what it was about Mrs. Remington that first attracted you to her?”

“She was pure, simple, like clay waiting to be formed. I knew immediately she was meant to be mine. I sculpted her.” His hands flexed at the ends of his restraints. “I didn’t know how deeply flawed she was, how much work would be involved. I devoted myself to her.”

He leaned forward, his body vibrating as it strained. “Do you know why she ran?”

“Why?”

“Because she’s weak, and stupid. Weak and stupid. Weak and stupid.” He said it again and again, like a chant as his fisted hands pounded. “I found her because I’m not.” He turned his wrist as if checking the Rolex that was no longer there. “It’s time I left here, isn’t it? Time I fetched Helen and took her home. She has a lot of explaining to do. Call the bellman for my bags.”

“He’s . . . on his way. Tell me what happened that night on Three Sisters Island.”

“I don’t remember. Anyway, it’s not important. I have a plane to catch.”

“There’s plenty of time.” Harding kept his voice low and soothing as Remington began to squirm in his chair. “You went to find Helen. She was living on the island. You must have been pleased to find her alive.”

“Living in a hovel, hardly more than a tool shed. Little bitch. Pumpkins on the porch, a cat in the house. Something wrong with the house.” He licked his lips. “It doesn’t want me to be there.”

“The house didn’t want you?”

“She cut her hair. I didn’t give her permission to do that. She whored herself. She has to be punished, has to be taught. Has to remember who’s in charge. She makes me hurt her.” Remington shook his head. “She begs for it.”

“She asked you to hurt her?” Harding asked cautiously. Something stirred in him, something ugly and unrecognizable. Something that wasaroused by the thought.

It shocked and appalled him, nearly made him pull back once more. But then Remington was speaking.

“She doesn’t learn. Can she be that dense? Of course not. She enjoys punishment. She ran when I killed her lover. But he came back from the dead,” Remington went on. “I had a right to kill him for trying to take what belonged to me. A right to kill them both. Who are all those people?”

“What people?”

“In the woods,” Remington said impatiently. “The women in the woods. Where did they come from? What business is this of theirs? And him! Why didn’t he die when I killed him? What kind of world is this?”

“What happened in the woods?”

“The woods.” He rubbed

his lips together as his breath began to rush through them. “There are monsters in the woods. Beasts hiding behind my face. Crawling inside me. Light, in a circle. Fire. Too many voices. Screaming? Who is that screaming? Hang the witch. ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’ Kill them all, before it’s too late!”

He was screaming now, howling like a madman. As aides rushed in, ordered Harding to leave, he picked up his tape recorder with a trembling hand.

And didn’t see the crafty gleam in Remington’s eyes.

Ripley slogged herway through paperwork. She’d lost the coin toss with Zack, which still irritated her, since the false spring was hanging on. It would be close to sixty degrees by afternoon, and she was stuck on desk duty.

The only good part was that he wasn’t around, so she was free to sulk and call him nasty names under her breath. When the door of the station house opened, she prepared to launch a few at him, face-to-face. But it was Mac who walked in, behind what looked to be most of Holland’s supply of tulips.

“What’re you doing, going into the florist business?”

“No.” He crossed to her, held out the rainbow of spring flowers. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”

“Oh, well. Wow.” Even as her heart went soft as putty, her stomach jumped. “Um.”

“You say thanks, and kiss me now,” Mac told her helpfully.

“Thanks.”

There were so many of them, she had to hold them out to the side before she could manage the kiss. And when she would have kept that part of the ritual light, he simply slid his arms around her, drew her closer, sucked her down into that soft, slippery world.

“There are a lot of flowers.” He rubbed his lips over hers, stirring them both. “Say thanks again.”

“Th—” He took the kiss deeper until her skin was humming and she’d risen to her toes.

“That ought to cover it.” He ran his hands up and down her sides.

“I guess.” She had to clear her throat. “They’re really pretty.” She felt silly holding them, sillier still because she wanted to bury her face in them and sniff like a puppy. “But you didn’t have to bring me flowers. I don’t really go in for the whole Valentine’s gig.”

“Yeah, crass commercialism and blah, blah. So what?”

He made her laugh, and she stopped feeling silly. “There’s a hell of a lot of them—the florist must have fallen weeping to his knees when you walked out. Let me see if we’ve got something around here to hold them.”

She had to settle for a plastic scrub bucket—but did indulge herself with some sniffing and sighing as she filled it with water from the bathroom tap.

“I’ll do better by them when I take them home,” she promised as she carried them back out. “I didn’t know tulips came in so many colors. I guess I haven’t paid attention.”

“My mom goes for tulips. She—what do you call it—forces the bulbs in little glass jars every winter.”

Ripley set the makeshift vase on the desk. “I bet you sent your mother flowers today.”

“Sure did.”

She looked at him, shook her head. “You’re a hell of a sweetheart, Dr. Booke.”

“Think so?” He dug in his pocket, frowned, dug in the other. And came up with a little candy heart, then dropped it into Ripley’s palm.

Be Mine, she read, and felt that little jitter in the belly again.

“So, how about it?” He reached around to tug on her ponytail. “Are you going to be my valentine?”

“Boy, you’re really into this. Looks like you’ve got me. Now I’m going to have to go buy you a mushy card.”

“It’s the least you can do.” He continued to play with the sleek tail of hair. “Listen, about tonight. I didn’t realize it was Valentine’s Day when I made the arrangements with Mia. If you want, I can reschedule that and we can go out to dinner, take a drive, whatever you’d like.”


Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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