"We were friends once. "

"We're friendly now. " She breathed in deeply. "How do people live without the sea close? How do they breathe?"

"Mia. " He touched the tips of her hair. "When we made love, I didn't intend to ask you to share magic with me. It wasn't calculated. "

"I know that. " Though she stopped walking, she kept her back to him.

"Why did you let me?"

"Because you would've stopped. It meant something to me that you would've stopped when I asked. And, I suppose, because I've missed it. Sharing power excites and fulfills. "

"Was there no one else in all these years?"

"You've no right to ask me that. "

"No, I don't. So instead I'll tell you what you don't ask me. There was no one but you. Never anyone but you in that way. "

"It doesn't matter. "

"If it doesn't," he said, taking her arm before she could move away, "then you should be able to listen. I never got over you, and if I was with another woman, it was never the way it was between us. Every one of them deserved better than I could give. I couldn't give them better, because none of them were you. "

"There's no need for this," she began.

"I need it. I've loved you all my life. No spell, no incantation, no act of will has ever been able to change that for me. "

Her heart stumbled in her chest. It took all of her strength to balance it again. "But you tried. "

"I tried. With women, with work, with travel. Not loving you is beyond my power. "

"Do you think, Sam, that even if it were only my own heart at risk, I could pour it into your hands again?"

"Then just take mine. I'm not doing anything else with it. "

"I can't. I don't know how much of what I feel is an echo of what was. How much mixed with that is anger. More," she said, turning back to him, "I don't know how much of what you believe you feel is real. Everything's at stake now, and clouded emotions are dangerous. "

"My emotions aren't clouded. They were, for a long time. "

"Now mine are. And I've learned to step back from them. I care about you. The link's too strong for that to be otherwise. But I don't want to be

in love with you again, Sam. And that's my choice. If you can't accept that, then we need to stay away from each other. "

"I can accept that it's your choice, for now. But I'm going to do everything I can to change your mind. "

She threw up her hands in frustration. "By sending me flowers, going on picnics? Those are frills, trappings. "

"Those are romance. "

"I don't want romance. "

"Deal with it. I was too young and stupid to give it to you once. I'm older and smarter now. There was a time when it was hard for me to tell you I loved you. Didn't come naturally off my tongue. And it sure as hell wasn't a phrase that was bandied about in my house. "

"I don't want you to tell me. "

"You always said it first. " He saw the surprise on her face. "You never realized that, did you? I was never able to say it to you, unless you'd said it. Times change. People change. Some people take longer than others. I realize I've been waiting, Mia, maneuvering again, so you'd say it first. Easier for me that way. You used to make things too damn easy for me. "

"Fortunately, that's changed. Now I have to go. It's late. "

"Yeah, it's late. I love you, Mia. I love you. I don't mind saying it a few hundred times until you believe it. "

It hurt to hear it. A quick, pinching pain. She used that pain to keep her heart cool and her voice even.

"You gave me words before, Sam. We gave each other words. They weren't enough. I can't give you what you want. "

She ran down the path, away from him.

"Won't give me," he replied. "Yet. "

She didn't stop until she got to her car. Didn't go into the house for her shoes, or think about them. She thought only of driving away, driving fast until her mind settled again. She had let herself love him again. Or rather, her heart had turned on her when she'd been vulnerable. But that was her problem, and one she would deal with.

Rationally, reasonably, if loving him were the right choice, it wouldn't make her so unhappy. If hearing him say he loved her was the solution, how could it have been like a blow to the heart?

She would not become a victim of her own emotions, not a second time. She wouldn't throw herself mindlessly into love, putting herself and everything that mattered to her at risk. Balance, she told herself, and clear thinking. They were essential when one was contemplating a life-and-death decision. Maybe it was time to take a few days off, regroup. She'd been spreading herself too thin, she decided. She needed to be with herself.

Alone.

"What the hell do you mean she's gone?" Annoyed at being roused out of sleep before eight-thirty, on a Sunday, on the only day that week she could sleep in, Ripley scowled at the phone.

"She's off the island. " A pulse was pounding in Sam's throat, making speech almost painful. "Where did she go?"

"I don't know. Christ. " She sat up in bed, scrubbed her hand over her face. "I'm not even awake. How do you know she went off-island? Maybe she's just out for a walk or a drive. "

He knew, Sam thought, because he'd tuned in to her. And the snapping of the connection had

awakened him. Next time, he thought grimly, he wouldn't limit the link to the island.

"I just know. I was with her last night. She didn't say anything about plans on the mainland. "

"Well, she doesn't keep me as her social secretary. Did you have a fight or something?"

"No, we didn't have a fight. " What they'd had could never be boiled down to such an elemental word.

"If you have any idea where she's gone - "

"I don't. " But the worry in his voice got through. "Listen, ask Lulu. Mia wouldn't go anywhere without letting her know. She probably just went over to do some shopping or something and - " Scowling, Ripley held the phone out and listened to the dial tone. "Well, goodbye to you, too. "

He didn't bother with the phone this time, but jumped in his car and drove to Lulu's. He barely noticed that she'd changed the paint from the pumpkin orange he remembered from his boyhood to a wild purple. He knocked on the front door.


Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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