"If I did, I wouldn't be sitting here now. " Her lips curved as their entrees were served. "I was going to sleep with you. "

"Christ. " He pounded a fist on his heart. "Medic. "

Her laugh was low and intimate. "I imagine, before we're done, I will. But since we're being so friendly, I'll tell you frankly, I want you to suffer first. "

"Believe me," he said with feeling, and reached for his water glass. "Let's go back to business before I whimper and lose the respect of my restaurant staff. "

"All right, tell me about your other plans for the hotel. "

"I want it to matter. I want people who stay here to take away an experience. I spent six months in Europe a few years ago, touring and studying and dissecting the smaller hotels. It's about service first, but overall, it's about the details. Color schemes, the thread count on the sheets. Can you reach the phone without getting out of bed? Can I get a damn sandwich at two in the morning, or get this spot cleaned off my tie before my afternoon meeting?"

"How thick are the towels," Mia commented. "How firm is the mattress. "

"And so on. In-room faxes and Internet access for the business traveler. Complimentary champagne and roses for the honeymooners. A staff that clues in and greets guests by name. And fresh flowers, fresh linens, fresh fruit. I'm going to hire a maitre d'etage to butler the luxury suites. "

"Well, well. "

"And every guest, on arrival, will have an amenity delivered. From a fruit plate and sparkling water to champagne and caviar, depending on the price level of the room. Every room will be rehabbed before we're done, and every one will be personalized and unique. I'm naming them, so guests will stay in the Rose Room or the Trinity Suite, and so forth. "

"That's a nice touch," she told him. "More personal. "

"Exactly. We already have a data bank, but we'll put it to better use for repeat guests. That way we can do our best to put them back in a favorite room. We'll bump up the level of their amenities with recurring visits, maintain a file on their preferences. And in the health club . . . " He trailed off. "What?"

"Nothing. " But she couldn't help smiling at him. "Go

on. "

"No. " He laughed a little. "I get caught up. "

"You know what you want, and how you intend to go about it. It's very attractive. "

"It took me a long time to get there. You always knew. "

"Maybe I did. But wants and intentions change. "

"And sometimes they circle back around. "

He laid his hand on hers, and then she gently slid hers free. "And sometimes they just change. "

He went back to work after she'd left the restaurant. But he couldn't concentrate. He went home, but he couldn't settle.

Being with her was both torture and pleasure. Watching the expressions cross her face when she became interested enough not to close herself off from him, pure fascination. Wanting her was like a drug in his bloodstream.

In the end, he changed and walked into the dark woods. He went unerringly to the circle where he could feel the shimmer of her magic rise up and merge with Nell's, with Ripley's. Preparing himself, he stepped into its center, and let their power, and his own, wash over him like water.

"What is mine, I add to yours. With power shared, the link endures. " The light grew, spreading around the ring as strong as the sun. "To win your heart, I'll face the fire, and all that the fates conspire. By earth and air, by fire and water, I will stand by the sisters' daughter. Yet I wait for her to come to me, that we might make our destiny. "

He breathed deep, spread his arms. "Tonight while the moonlight streams, she is safe within her dreams. Here to me I call out of the night that which feeds on pain and blight. Know I join the sisters three and dare to show yourself to me. "

The earth trembled and the wind whipped. But the fire that ringed the circle ran straight and true toward the night sky.

And outside the circle, a dark mist fed along the ground, and coalesced into a wolf with a pentagram-shaped scar on its snout.

So, Sam thought, let's understand each other.

"To him who seeks her life to take, within this ring this vow I make. By all the power that lives in me, from your hand she will be free. I will crush you into dust by all means fair or foul or just. "

Sam watched while the wolf paced around the circle, snarling.

"Do you think I fear you? You're nothing but smoke and stink. "

Sam waved a hand, and the light around the circle lowered. In challenge, he stepped clear of the protection. "Power to power," he murmured while the air outside the circle swirled filthy and foul. Sam watched the wolf gather, the ripple and bunch of muscle. It leaped for his throat. The weight of it was a shock, as was the quick, sharp pain in his shoulder where claws dug. Using both muscle and magic, he flung the wolf aside, then yanked the ritual knife out of his belt. "Let's finish it," he said between his teeth.

This time when the wolf charged, he pivoted and raked the knife over its side. There was a sound, more scream than howl. Black blood dripped onto the ground, sizzling into it like hot oil. And wolf and mist vanished.

Sam studied the fresh scar on the earth, then the blackened tip of his blade. Absently, he ran a hand over his shoulder where his shirt and flesh had been ripped.

So, they'd both bled. But only one had screamed and fled. "Round one goes to me," he murmured, then prepared to cleanse the ground.


Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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