Harding continued to write, but his concentration began to waver. His fingers dug into the pen, and the pen into the paper.
BITCH! WHORE! BURN THE WITCH!
BLOOD. DEATH. VENGEANCE.
VENGEANCE IS MINE, IS MINE, IS MINE.
He flipped pages rapidly, slashing words over them, as his breath quickened. And the writing that was not his own all but scorched the paper.
THEY MUST DIE. THEY ALL MUST DIE. AND I WILL LIVE AGAIN.
When he came back to himself, his notebook was neatly closed, his pen set aside. And he was nonchalantly drinking coffee, gazing out the window, and planning his day.
He thought it might be wise to take a nice long walk, to be out exercising in the fresh air. He could fill in several areas of description of the island, take a closer look at the cottage where Nell had lived when she’d first arrived.
It was certainly time he had a personal look at the woods where Remington had chased her that night.
Feeling comfortably full, Harding tucked away his notebook, secured a fresh one. He slipped it, along with a small tape recorder and a camera, into his pockets and set out to work.
He remembered nothing he’d written, nor the bloodlust that had gushed inside him as he’d done so.
The yellow cottagestood quiet at the edge of the little forest. The trees were bare and black and cast short shadows on the ground. Within them was utter silence.
There were thin, lacy curtains at the windows and the glass sparkled in the bright sunlight.
Nothing stirred. Not a blade of winter grass, not a single crisp brown leaf. There seemed to be no sound at all, though the sea was close and the village just at his back. As he stood, staring at the house by the wood, Harding thought it was like studying a photograph taken by someone else. A frozen moment, given to him for reasons he couldn’t explain.
He felt a chill run up his spine. His body shook with it, and his breath came hard and fast. He took one stumbling step back, but it seemed as if he was rammed against a wall. And could not turn and run as he so suddenly wanted to do.
Then, as quickly as the sensation had come, it passed. He was only standing on the roadside, looking at a pretty cottage by a winter wood.
He would definitely get a checkup when he got back to the mainland, he decided, as he took one shaky step forward. Obviously, he was under more stress than he had realized. Once he had all the background data and research for the book organized, he would take that vacation. Just a week or two to recoup and recharge before he got down to the serious work of writing.
Cheered by that thought, he continued toward the woods. Now he could hear the soft and steady heartbeat of the sea, the careless call of birds, the light rustling of wind through naked branches.
He shook his head as he marched into the trees, and glanced around with the suspicious condescension of a confirmed urbanite for the solitude of nature. Why anyone would choose to live in such a place was beyond him.
Yet Helen Remington had done so.
She’d given up great wealth, a privileged lifestyle, a beautiful home, and a gilded social standing—and for what? To cook for strangers, to live on a rocky lump of land, and one day—he imagined—to raise a brood of squalling brats.
His hands clenched and unclenched as he walked. Beneath his feet a dirty fog began to churn, to boil over his shoes. He quickened his pace, nearly running now, though the ground was slick and patched with ice. His breath came out in visible streams.
She had to be punished. To be hurt. She and all the others had to pay,would pay for everything they’d done. They would die. And if they dared challenge his power, dared challenge his rights, they would die in agony.
The fog ate along the ground and spilled at the edges of a circle that pulsed with a soft white glow. His lips peeled back, and a feral growl sounded deep in his throat.
He lunged at the ring—and was repelled. Light rose from the circle, a thin, sparkling curtain of gold. In fury, he threw himself against it, time and time again. It burned, white fire scorching his skin, smoking his clothing.
As rage devoured him, what was inside the body of Jonathan Q. Harding threw itself on the ground, howling and cursing the light.
Nell made uptwo orders of the day’s lunch special. She hummed while she worked and toyed with adjustments to the menu for the wedding she was catering at the end of the month.
Business was good. Sisters Catering had found its feet, and even in the slow winter months kept her busy and content. But not so much so that she hadn’t eked out time to work on a proposal for Mia. A cooking club in Café Book and an expanded menu were both very doable. Once she had the details more refined, she would present the idea to Mia—businesswoman to businesswoman.
After she served the orders, she glanced at the time. Another half hour and Peg would relieve her. She had a dozen errands to run and two appointments to discuss other catering jobs.
She’d have to move fast, she thought, to get everything done in time to put dinner together. The simple chaos of housewifely chores and business obligations piled together in overlapping layers made her happy.
But there were serious issues to be faced, she couldn’t deny it. Dinner that night wasn’t just a social function. She understood Mac’s concern, and the need to focus her energies on what was to come. But she had already faced the worst and survived.
Whatever had to be done to protect who and what she loved would be done.
She strolled out to clear a table in the café, pocketed her tip. Tip money went in a special jar and was considered her splurge money. Paychecks were for expenses, catering profits would be plowed back into the business. But tip money was for fun. It jingled cheerfully in her pocket as she turned to carry the plates and bowls back to the kitchen.
She stopped short, then rushed forward when she saw Harding standing by the counter staring blankly at the chalkboard menu.
“Mr. Harding, what happened? Are you all right?”
He stared at her, through her.
“You should sit down.” Quickly, she put the dishes on the counter, took his arm. She led him around the counter and back into the kitchen. He sank into the chair she pulled out for him, and she rushed to the sink to get a glass of water.
“I don’t know.” He took the glass gratefully, gulped down the cool water. His throat felt scorched and raw, as though it had been scored with hot needles.
“I’m going to fix you some tea, and some chicken soup.”
He simply nodded, staring down at his hands. The nails were full of grit, as if he’d clawed at dirt. The knuckles were abraded, the palms scraped.
He saw that his trousers were stained with dirt, his shoes filthy. Bits of twig and briar clung to his sweater.
It embarrassed him, a fastidious man, to find himself in such disarray. “Might I . . . wash my hands?”
“Yes, of course.” Nell tossed a worried look over her shoulder. A red streak, like sunburn, covered half his face. It looked vicious, painful and frightening.
She led him to the rest room, waited for him outside the door, and then walked him back to the kitchen. She ladled the soup, brewed the tea while he stood as if in a trance.
“Mr. Harding.” She spoke gently now, touching his shoulder. “Please sit down. You’re not well.”
“No, I . . .” He felt vaguely nauseous. “I must have fallen.” He blinked rapidly. Why couldn’t heremember ? He’d taken a walk in the woods on a bright winter afternoon.
And could remember nothing.