He wondered how much work it was going to be for him to talk her into taking a trip with him, maybe in the spring. Before he had to buckle down and turn his data and theories and conclusions into a book. They could make a quick stop in New York. He wanted her to meet his family.
Then they could take a few days somewhere, anywhere she wanted. He wasn’t particular.
Some time alone with her, away from work. It might help him evaluate another hypothesis he was working on. That he was falling in love with her.
Ripley decided tokeep her distance from whatever was going to happen at Mia’s that evening. Since Zack had chosen to go along, she would have the house to herself for a change. She could take advantage of that by turning the TV up too loud, eating junk food, and watching a really bad action movie on cable.
She’d been spending nearly all her free time with Mac, and maybe that was part of the problem. A little alone time in her own space was just what she needed.
She would work off some energy lifting weights, take a long, hot shower, then settle in with popcorn, loaded with salt and butter, and watch TV with her pals Lucy and Diego.
She turned the music up to earsplitting in the spare room she used for workouts, then with the dog and cat trailing her, walked into the bedroom to change into her gear.
And there were the tulips, the charming explosion of them, taking over her dresser. The air was sweet with them.
“Valentine’s Day’s just a racket,” she said out loud, then gave up. “But it really works.”
She picked up the card she’d bought for Mac. It wouldn’t take her very long to run over to the cottage, slip it under his door. In fact, it would probably be better if she didn’t have to give him something so, well, mushy face-to-face.
And she could add a little note saying that she would see him tomorrow. The more she’d thought about it, the less she wanted to talk about whatever it was he wanted to talk about when he was still pumped from his witch session.
She didn’t care if it was unfair or unrealistic, or even stupid. For now, for a while longer, she wanted to keep whatever it was they felt for each other separate from his work and her . . . gift.
She’d never been in love before. What was wrong with holding on to that for a while, and putting off the rest?
“Okay, back in ten,” she told Lucy and Diego. “No smoking, drinking, or making long distance calls while I’m gone.”
She grabbed the card and headed toward the door leading out to the deck.
And stepped out onto the beach, into a rising storm. The wind slashed, the icy tip of a whip. The air was blue with lightning. She was spinning, spinning through it, flying on a current of power that pulsed in a thousand heartbeats over her skin.
The circle was a white flame on the sand. She was in it, and above it, outside it.
Three figures ringed inside it. She saw herself, who was not herself, link hands with her sisters. And the chants that rose up hummed inside her.
She saw herself, yet not herself, standing alone, beyond that bright circle. Arms lifted, hands empty. And the grief shot up out of that lonely heart into her own.
She saw herself, as she was, as she could be, alive in that storm. Beyond the circle where her sisters waited. Rage and power twisted inside her.
One man cowered at her feet, and another ran toward her in the violent dark. But she could not be reached. Would not be reached. In her hand was the bright silver sword of justice. With a cry, she brought it down.
And destroyed them all.
She awoke sprawled on the deck, shuddering helplessly in the balmy night. Her skin was damp and there was the electric smell of ozone stinging the air. Her stomach spasmed as she pushed herself to her hands and knees.
Too weak to stand, she stayed there, rocking gently, taking gulping breaths to feed her starved lungs. The roaring in her head subsided and became the endless rolling of the sea.
It had never come on her like that, never so abruptly, so physically. Not even when she was practicing, when she had willingly sought such things.
She wanted to crawl back into her room, to curl up on the rug in the dark and whimper like a baby. It was the small, pitiful sounds coming from her own throat that made her force herself up until she was kneeling, until she was breathing deep and steady again.
With the vision still pounding at her, she scrambled to her feet and ran.
“Are you sureyou want to do this?” Nell linked her hand with Zack’s, deliberately slowing the pace.
Thin clouds sailed overhead, filtering the starlight. The fat curve of moon was a soft and waiting white. She knew her way in the dark, through Mia’s gardens, past her jutting cliffs and into the winter forest. With her hand warm in Zack’s, she let Mia and Mac pull ahead.
She could hear Mia’s voice, like a light trail of music, slip back through the trees and shadows.
“Would you rather I stayed behind?”
“No. It’s just that you’ve never come with me before.”
“You never asked me before.”
Her fingers curled in his, she stopped. She could see him clearly enough. She could always see him clearly. “It wasn’t that you weren’t welcome.” In the starlight, she saw his brows arch, and she smiled. “Exactly.”
In a slow, easy movement, he lifted their joined hands to his lips. “Does my being here make you uncomfortable?”
“Not uncomfortable. A little nervous, maybe.” Because she was, she touched him, just a skim of her fingers over his arm. “I’m not sure how you might react, how you’ll feel about this part of me.”
“Nell.” He put his hands on her shoulders, gave them a little rub. “I’m not Darren.”
“You know—Darren.Bewitched. You twitch your nose and I get all grumpy about it.”
It took her a minute, then she wrapped her arms around his waist. Nerves, doubts, worries, were completely swamped by joy. “I really love you.”
“I know. There is one thing. I was going to be open-minded and not bring it up, but . . .” He glanced over to where Mac had disappeared into the dark with Mia. “I’ve read up on rituals and magic and that sort of thing, and I know that sometimes they involve getting naked. I don’t care how stupid it sounds, but I want you to keep your clothes on when Mac’s around.”
She tried to hide her amusement. “He’s a scientist. Like a doctor.”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass. In this particular area, I’m Darren.”
“Well, Darren, it’s not warm enough to go skyclad. And to be perfectly frank, I keep my clothes on even when it’s just me and Mia. Apparently I’m a very prudish witch.”
They began to walk again, with him letting her lead the way. “So . . . does Mia get naked?”
“Skyclad,” Nell corrected. “And I don’t see why you’d be interested.”
“Purely from an academic standpoint.”
They were still teasing each other as they stepped into the clearing.
Shadows, gray as smoke, ringed the edges. Hanks of dried herbs and chains of crystals hung from the bare branches of the trees. A trio of stones rose up in a kind of altar. Mac crouched in front of it, busily taking readings.
Mia had denied him his video camera and tape recorder. No amount of persuasion had moved her on that point. But she had permitted his sensors and his notebook.
And his mind.