He'd always been a moody creature.

"My father called me this morning," he told her.

"Ah. "

"Ah," Sam repeated, and managed to make the syllable a bite. "He's 'displeased with my performance. '

That's a direct quote. I'm putting too much time and money into the hotel here. "

"It's your hotel. "

"I pointed that out. My hotel, my time, and my money. " Sam rammed his hands into his pockets. "I might've saved my breath. I'm told I'm making rash and dangerous financial and career decisions. He's pissed off that I've sold my place in New York, annoyed that I've budgeted so much for the rehab at the hotel, and irked that I sent a proxy rather than attending the June board meeting personally. "

Because she felt for him, Mia rose and rubbed his stiff shoulders. "I'm sorry. It's difficult ramming up against parental disapproval. It doesn't matter how old we are, it stings when they don't understand us. "

"The Magick Inn is our first and oldest asset. He's figured out that I finessed it from him. Now it's like a bone he wants to drag back from me. "

"And you're just as determined to keep your teeth in it. "

He shot a furious look over his shoulder. "Damn right. He'd have sold it to strangers years ago if he hadn't been legally bound to keep it in the family. He sold it to me happily enough, but now he's realized I intend to make something of it, so he's irritated. It's a thorn in his side. So am I. "

"Sam. " For a moment she pressed her cheek against his back. And for a moment she was sixteen again, and comforting her unhappy, moody love. "Sometimes you just have to take a step away, and accept what is. "

"What is," he agreed, turning to her. "He never could. Neither he nor my mother ever accepted what I am. It was something not to be discussed, as if I had some sort of embarrassing condition. "

Furious, as much because of letting himself be sucked in again as by the facts themselves, he strode down the path, through an arbor where morning glory vines were busily tangling.

"It's in his blood as much as mine. " He saw her start to speak, then stop herself. "What? Just say it. "

"All right, then. It's not the same for him. You respect what you have, you celebrate it. For him it's a . . . well, a pesky inherited trait: He's not alone in that. And because of it, you have more - are more - than he can ever have or be. "

"He's ashamed of it. And me. "

"Yes. " Her heart wrung with pity. "I know. It hurts you. It always has. You can't change what he thinks or feels. You can only change what you feel. "

"Is that how you handle your family?"

It took her a moment, and that was a jolt, to realize he meant her parents and not Lulu, or Ripley and Nell. "I used to envy you on some level. Just the fact that your parents worked up the interest and energy to push at you. Even if it meant pushing you in the wrong direction. We never argued here. "

She turned back to study the house she loved. "They never noticed if I was angry. My rebellions were completely wasted on them. There came a point when I had to accept that their disinterest wasn't personal. "

"Oh, for Christ's sake. "

She nearly laughed at his impatient explosion. "It was healthier, and more practical, and certainly more comfortable all around. What was the point of breaking my heart over it, when they wouldn't have noticed? Or if they had, it would have baffled them. They're not bad people, just careless parents. I'm who I am because they were what they were. That's enough for me. "

"You always were sensible," he replied. "I could never figure out whether I admired that or found it annoying. I still can't. "

"You always were moody. " She sat on the bench by the arbor. "And the same goes. Still, it's a shame the call put a blight on your holiday. "

"I'll get over it. " He slipped his hands into his pockets again, fingering the tumbling stones he'd forgotten he carried. "He expects me back in New York within the month, to resume my proper place in the company. "

Her world tilted. She gripped the edge of the bench to balance herself, then forced herself to her feet. Forced shut that piece of her heart she'd allowed to be touched by his pain. "I see. When will you leave?"

"What? I'm not going back. Mia, I told you I was here to stay. I meant it, no matter what you think. "

With a careless shrug, she turned to start back to the house.

"Damn it, Mia. " He grabbed her arm, pulled her back.

"Watch your step. " She said it coldly.

"Are you just waiting for me to pack up and go?" he demanded. "Is that where we are?"

"I'm not waiting for anything. "

"What do I have to do to get us past this?"

"You can start by letting go of my arm. "

"Letting go is just what you expect. " To prove her wrong he took her other arm so they were facing each other in the dappled shade of the path. "So you won't let me touch you, not where it matters most. You'll take me to your bed, but you won't come to mine. You won't so much as sit and have a meal with me in a public place, unless it's under the guise of business. You won't let me talk about the years without you. And you won't share magic with me when we make love. Because you don't trust me to stay. "

"Why should I? Why should I do any of those things? I prefer my bed. I don't choose to date. I'm not interested in your life off-island. And to share magic during the physical act of love is a level of intimacy I'm not willing to explore with you. "

She shoved his hands aside and stepped back. "I've given you cooperation in business, some friendly companionship and sex. This is what suits me. If it doesn't suit you, find someone else to play with. "

"This isn't a goddamn game. "

Her voice was sharp. "Oh, isn't it?" He stepped toward her, and she held up her hands. Light, spitting red, shot between them. "Be careful. "

He merely held up his own hands, and a wash of searing blue water struck the light until there was nothing but the sizzle of vapor between them. "Was I ever?"

"No. And you always wanted too much. "

"Maybe I did. The problem was I didn't know what I wanted. You always did. It was always so fucking clear to you, Mia. What you needed, what you wanted. There were times when your vision choked me. "

Stunned, she dropped her hands to her side. "Choked you? How can you say that to me? I loved you. "

"Without questions, without doubts. It was as if you could see the rest of our lives in this pretty box. You had it all lined up for me. Just the way my parents did. "

Her cheeks paled. "That's a cruel thing to say. And you've said enough. " She hurried back down the path.

"It's not enough until I'm done. Running away from it doesn't change anything. "

"You're the one who ran. " She whirled back, and the pain of it crashed through all the years and struck her with a fresh blow. "It changed everything. "

"I couldn't be what you wanted. I couldn't give you what you were so sure was meant to be. You looked ahead ten years, twenty, and I couldn't see the next day. "

"So it's my fault you left?"

"I couldn't be here. For God's sake, Mia, we were hardly more than children and you were talking marriage. Babies. You'd lie beside me when my head was so full of you I couldn't think and talk about how we'd buy a little cottage by the woods and . . . "

He trailed off. It seemed to strike both of them at once. The little yellow cottage by the woods - where she hadn't come since he'd moved in.

"Young girls in love," she said, and her voice trembled, "dream about marriage and babies and pretty cottages. "

"You weren't dreaming. " He walked to her table again, sat and dragged his fingers through his hair. "It was de

stiny for you. When I was with you, I believed it. I could see it, too. And at that point it smothered me. "

"You never said it wasn't what you wanted. "

"I didn't know how, and every time I tried, I'd look at you. All that confidence, that utter faith that this was the way it would be. Then I'd go home and I'd see my parents and what marriage meant. I'd think of yours and what family meant. It was hollow and airless. The idea of the two of us moving in that direction seemed insane. I couldn't talk to you about it. I didn't know how to talk to you about it. "

"So instead, you left. "

"I left. When I started college, it was like being torn in two. The part that wanted to be there, the part that wanted to be here. Be with you. I thought about you constantly. "

He looked at her now. He would say to the woman what he'd never been able to say to the girl. "When I'd come home on weekends, or breaks, I'd be half sick until I'd see you waiting on the docks. That whole first year was like a blur. "

"Then you stopped coming home every weekend," she remembered. "You made excuses for why you needed to stay on the mainland. To study, to go to a lecture. "

"It was a test. I could go without seeing you for two weeks, then a month. Stop thinking about you for an hour, then a day. It got easier to convince myself that staying away from you, and the island, was the only way I was going to escape being trapped into that box. I didn't want to get married. I didn't want to start a family. Or be in love with one girl my entire life. Or root myself on a little island when I'd never really seen the world. I got a taste of the world in college, the people I met there, the things I learned. I wanted more. "

"Well, you got more. And the lid's been off the box for a number of years. We're in different places now, with different goals. "

He met her eyes. "I came back for you. "

"That was your mistake. You still want more, Sam, but this time I don't. If you'd told me this eleven years ago, I would have tried to understand. I would have tried to give you the time and the room you needed. Or I'd have tried to let you go, without bitterness. I don't know if I would have succeeded, but I know I loved you enough that I would have tried. But you're not the center of my life any longer - you haven't been for some time. "

Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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