The puppy wriggled in delight and licked Mac's chin. Giving up on the lecture, Mac tucked Mulder under his arm. "Beer's in the kitchen. " He led the way back, got two bottles out of the fridge. On the table sat a number of electronic devices, one of which seemed to be gutted. Idly, Sam reached over to pick one up, and set off a series of beeps and blinking red lights.

"Sorry. "

"No problem. " Mac's eyes narrowed, a speculative look. "Why don't we take these out on the deck?

Unless you want to look around. You know, the old homestead and whatever. "

"No, thanks anyway. " But as they started back out, Sam glanced toward the stairs, imagined his room as it had been, and himself watching the sea, or watching for Mia, out the window. From the second floor a new beep sounded.

"Equipment," Mac said easily, and had to squelch the urge to dash upstairs and check readings. "I've got my lab set up in one of the extra bedrooms. "

"Hmmm. "

Once outside, Mac set Mulder down, and he immediately bounded down the steps and began to sniff along the yard. "Anyway . . . " Mac took a swig of beer, leaned on the rail. "Ripley didn't mention that you were a witch. "

Sam opened his mouth, closed it again, then just shook his head. "What, am I wearing a sign?"

"Energy readings. " Mac gestured toward the house. "And actually, I'd wondered about it, as I've done a lot of research on the island, the families, the bloodlines, and so on. Did you practice inNew York ?"

"Depends on your definition. " It wasn't often that Sam found himself being studied like a science experiment, or that he would have allowed it. But something about Mac appealed to him. "I've never neg

lected the Craft, but I don't advertise either. "

"Makes sense. So what do you think of the legend?"

"I've never considered it a legend. It's history, and fact. "

"Exactly. " Delighted, Mac lifted his bottle in a kind of toast. "I've done a time line, projecting the spin, you might say, of the cycle. By my calculations - "

"We have until September," Sam interrupted. "No later than the equinox. "

Mac nodded slowly. "Well, bingo. Welcome home, Sam. "

"Thanks. " He sipped his beer. "It's good to be back. "

"Are you going to be open to working with me?"

"It'd be stupid to turn down the input of an expert. I've read your books. "

"Yeah?"

"You have an open and flexible mind. "

"Someone else said that to me, once. " Mac thought of Mia, but was tactful enough not to mention her name. "Can I ask you a personal question?"

"Yes, as long as I can tell you to mind your own business as an answer. "

"Deal. If you knew September was a kind of deadline, why did you wait so long to come back?"

Sam turned his head, looked out on the cove. "It wasn't my time. This is. Now let me ask you one. In your expert opinion, with your research, your calculations, your projections, am I necessary to the Three Sisters?"

"I'm still working on that. I do know you're part of what's necessary to Mia's role in it - the third step. "

"Her acceptance of me. " When Mac frowned, drummed his fingers on the deck rail, Sam felt unease slither into his belly. "You don't agree. "

"Her choice, when it comes, has to do with her own feelings. Accepting them, and what's right for her. That might mean accepting you, or it might mean resolving her emotions by rejecting you - without malice. " Mac cleared his throat. "The last step has to do with love. "

"I'm fully aware of that. "

"It doesn't require her to . . . it doesn't mean, in my opinion, that she'll be obliged to love you now, but that she accepts what she once felt, and that it wasn't meant. To, well, let you go without resentment and cherish what used to be. Anyway, it's a theory. "

The hem of Sam's coat snapped in a stray gust of wind. "I don't like your theory. "

"I wouldn't like it either from where you're standing. The third sister killed herself rather than face her lover's desertion. Her circle was broken, and she was alone. "

"I know the goddamn story. "

"Just hear me out. Even then, she protected the island, and her bloodline and the line of her sisters. As far as she could with what she had left. But she couldn't - or wouldn't - save herself. Couldn't or wouldn't live without the love of one man. That was her weakness, and her mistake. "

It was direct enough to follow. It was logical. It was maddening. "And Mia's lived without me very well. "

"On one level," Mac agreed. "On another, and in my opinion, she's never resolved her feelings, never forgiven you or accepted. She'll have to, one way or the other, and with a whole heart. If she doesn't, she'll be vulnerable, and as the protective spell weakens, she'll lose. "

"And if I'd stayed away?"

"The logical conclusion is you weren't meant to stay away. And the presence of more magic on the island . . . well, it can't hurt. "

He'd never thought it could. But his conversation with Mac had put doubts in his mind. He'd come back to the island with no questions about what needed to be, and would be done. He would win Mia again, and once things were as they had been between them, the curse would be broken. End of story.

End of story, he thought now as he walked the beach by the cove, because he hadn't wanted to look beyond it. He wanted Mia, was ready for Mia, and that was that.

He'd never once entertained the notion that her not wanting him, not loving him, might be the answer. He looked toward the mouth of the cave. Maybe it was time to explore that possibility, and face his ghosts. As he walked toward the cave, his heart beat too fast. He stopped, waiting until he'd controlled it, then ducked into the cave's shadows.

For a moment, it was filled with sound. Their voices, her laughter. The sighs of lovers. And of weeping.

She'd come here to cry for him. Knowing it, feeling it, sliced him with sharp stabs of guilt. He willed them clear, then stood in the silence, with only the backdrop of the surf lapping at the shore. When he'd been a boy, the cave had been Aladdin's, or a bandit's hideout, or whatever he and Zack and other friends had made it.

Then he'd no longer been a boy, or not quite a boy, and it had been Mia. His legs felt weak as he moved to the far wall, knelt and saw the words he'd carved for her. She hadn't scored them out. Until that moment, until a fist released its squeezing grip on his heart, he hadn't realized he'd been afraid she might. That she could. And if she could, that her heart would be lost to him. Ever and always.

He reached out, and light filled the words, seemed to drip from them like tears of gold. He felt in that light everything the boy had felt when he'd carved them, with magic and utter faith.

It rocked him, staggered him that there had been so much bursting inside that boy that the man he was could still reel from it. And ache for it.

The power was still there. Why would it be, if it meant nothing? Was it only his will, his wish, that brought back to life what had been?

They'd loved here, so wrapped up in each other that the world could have ended without them knowing, or caring. They'd shared bodies, and hearts. And magic.

He could see her now, rising above him, her hair like wildfire and her skin golden. Her arms lifted as she rode them both past reason.

Or curled against him in sleep with her mouth curved in contentment. Or sitting close while they talked, her face alight with excitement, so full of plans. So young. Was it his fate to let her go, before he had her again? To be forgiven, then forgotten?

The idea stabbed at him, left him shaken as he got to his feet. Unable to bear the press of memories any longer, he turned away from them and walked out of the cave.

Into the sunlight, a flash like fire, where she stood with her back to the sea.


Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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