The road to hell, Sam decided, was paved with intentions - and they didn't have to be good. He'd intended to stride back into Mia's life, face her fury, her tears, her bitterness. She was entitled to all of those, and he would be the last to deny it.
He would have accepted her rage, her curses, her accusations. He'd intended to give her the opportunity to vent every drop of resentment she had harbored for him. And, of course, he'd intended then to sweep them aside and win her over.
A done deal, in his calculations, in a matter of hours at best, days at worst. They'd been linked since childhood. What was eleven years compared to a bond of blood and heart and power?
But he hadn't intended to face her cool indifference. Oh, she was angry with him, he thought as he parked in front of the cottage. But overlying the anger was a thick, icy shield. Chipping through that would take more than smiles, explanations, promises, even apologies. Lulu had blasted him, Nell had slapped at him, and Ripley had bared her teeth. Mia had done none of those things, but her response had leveled him as none of the others' had, or could. It stung to have her look at him with a kind of studied disdain, particularly since seeing her again had stirred all the memories inside him, churning them with fresh spurts of lust, longing. Love. He had loved her, obsessively, outrageously. And that had been the root, or one of the many tangled roots, of the problem.
As he turned it over in his mind, he tapped his fingers idly on the steering wheel. He refused to believe she didn't still care for him. There had been too much between them, too much of them for there to be nothing left.
And if there'd been nothing, that spark, that one instant of connection when their hands had touched, wouldn't have happened. He was going to hold on to that, Sam thought as his hands tightened and released on the wheel. Whatever else came down, he was holding on to that one spark. A determined man could build one hell of a blaze from one good spark. Winning her back, doing what must be done, facing what must be faced, would be a challenge. His lips quirked. He'd always enjoyed one.
He would have to do more than chip through Mia's ice. He'd have to get past the dragon - and Lulu was no pushover. And he'd have to deal with the women who flanked Mia: Nell Todd with her quiet disapproval, and Ripley with her infamous temper.
When a man had to wage a battle against four women, that man had best have a plan. And very thick skin. Or he would be ground to dust in a heartbeat.
He'd work on it. Sam swung out of the car, rounded back to the trunk. There was time. Not as much as he might have liked under the circumstances, but there was time.
He hefted two suitcases out of the trunk, started up the walk. Then stopped and took his first real look at what would be his home for the next weeks.
Well, it was charming, he realized. Neither the photographs he'd studied nor his memory had done the cottage justice. It had been white once, as he recalled, and a bit run-down. The yellow paint warmed it, and the flower beds, just sprouting with spring, cheered it. That would be Mia's doing, he imagined. She'd always had exquisite taste and clear vision.
She had always known precisely what she wanted.
Another tangled root for him.
The cottage was quaint, tiny and private, on a pretty corner lot that bled into a small wood and was close enough to the water that the rumble of the sea played through the greening trees. It had the advantage of quiet solitude and the convenience of being an easy walk from the village. An excellent investment, Sam thought. Mia would have known that, too. The clever girl, he mused as he continued up the walk, had become a clever woman. He set his suitcases on the stoop and dug out the house keys.
The first thing that struck him when he stepped inside was the warmth of welcome, the smooth, open hand of it. Come in and make this home, the room seemed to say. There were no lingering sensations or energy spurts from previous tenants.
That would be Mia's doing as well, he was sure. She'd always been a thorough witch. Leaving his suitcases by the door, he took himself on a quick tour. The living room was sparsely but prettily furnished, and split logs had already been laid in the hearth. The floors gleamed, and thin, lacy curtains framed the windows. A female ambience, he thought, but he could live with that. There were two bedrooms, one cozy, the other . . . well, he only needed one. The bath, scrubbed and cheery, was also a narrow box designed to give a tall man with long limbs considerable grief. The kitchen at the back of the house would more than do for his needs. He didn't cook, and didn't intend to begin. He opened the back door to find more flower beds, an herb garden already thriving, and a tidy patch of lawn that slid right into the spring woods.
He could hear the sea, and the wind, and, if he listened carefully, the hum of a car heading to the village. Bird-song, and the playful yap of a dog.
He was, Sam realized, alone. With the realization, some of the tension that had gathered in his shoulders eased. He hadn't understood just how much he craved solitude. It wasn't a commodity he'd been able to claim in great quantities over the last couple of years.
Nor was it something he'd actively sought in the day-to-day scheme of things. He'd had goals to achieve and points to prove, and such ambitions didn't allow for the luxury of solitude. He hadn't understood that he needed to find that serenity of aloneness again, almost as much as he needed to find Mia. Once he had had both whenever he wanted them. And once he had cast them both aside. Now the island he'd run from so fast as a young man was going to give them back to him. He would have enjoyed walking through the woods, or down to the beach. Or driving, he thought, to his old house and seeing his bluffs, his cove, the cave where he and Mia . . . He shook that idea and those memories away. It wasn't the time for sentiment.
There were practical matters to be dealt with. Phones, faxes, computers. The little bedroom would have to suit up as a secondary office, though he planned to base his work at the hotel. He needed supplies, and he knew that as soon as he made his way around the village buying them, word of his return would spread like fire through dry kindling.
He would see what he would see.
Turning from the door, he went back inside to unpack and set his place to rights. Well-meaning friends, Mia thought, were a blessing. And a curse. At the moment, two of hers were crammed into her office.
"I think you should kick his ass," Ripley announced. "Of course, I thought that ten years ago. "
Eleven, Mia corrected silently. Eleven years, but who's counting?
"That would make him too important. " Nell stuck her nose in the air. "She's better off ignoring him. "
"You don't ignore a blood leech. " Ripley bared her teeth. "You rip it off and stomp it into a quivering pulp. "
"What a pretty image. " At her desk, Mia leaned back, studied her two friends. "I have no intention of kicking Sam's ass, or of ignoring him. He's taken a six-months' lease on the cottage, which makes me his landlord. "
"You could cut off his hot water," Ripley suggested.
Mia's lips twitched. "How perfectly childish - but however satisfying it might be, I've no intention of pulling silly pranks either. If I did, I'd cut off his water altogether. Why stop at hot? But," she continued as Ripley gave a hoot of laughter, "he is my tenant, and that means he's entitled to everything that's spelled out in the lease. It's business, and nothing more. "
"Why the hell is he renting anyplace on the Sisters for six months?" Ripley wondered.
"Obviously he's here to take more personal charge of the Magick Inn. "
He'd always loved it, Mia mused. Or so she'd thought. Yet he'd walked away from it just as he'd walked away from her.
"We're both adults, both business owners, both islanders. And though it's a small world here, I imagine the two of us can manage to run our enterprises, live our lives, and coexist with a minimum of fuss. "
Ripley snorted. "If you believe that, you're delusional. "
"I won't let him into my life again. " Mia's voice took on an edge. "And I won'
t let my life be upset because he's here. I always knew he'd come back. "