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Authors: Nora Roberts

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To stand there and
smile
at her as if he expected her to shout for joy and jump into his arms. And to look baffled when she hadn’t.

Bastard.

She clenched her fists, and a thin crack snaked across the glass of her window.

She’d known the moment he’d walked in. Just as she’d known the instant he’d come onto the island. It had washed over her, flooded into her, as she’d sat at her desk completing a stock order. Pain, shock, joy, fury, all so intense, all so immediate, she’d been dizzy from them. One stunning emotion slamming into another, leaving her weak and trembling.

And she’d known he was back.

Eleven years. He’d walked away from her, leaving her hurting and helpless and hopeless. It still shamed her to remember the quivering mass of confusion and grief she’d been for weeks after he’d gone.

But she’d rebuilt her life on the ashes of the dreams that Sam had burned beneath her. She’d found her focus, and a kind of steady contentment.

Now he was back.

She could only thank the fates that her foreknowledge had given her time to compose herself. How humiliating it would have been if she’d seen him before she’d had a chance to prepare herself. And how satisfying it had been to see that flicker of surprise and puzzlement cross his face at her cool and casual greeting.

She was stronger now, she reminded herself. She was no longer the girl who had laid her heart, bleeding and broken, at his feet. And there were more—many more—important things in her life now than a man.

Love, she thought, could be such a lie. She had no
place, and no tolerance, for lies. She had her home, her business, her friends. She had her circle again, and that circle had a purpose.

That was enough to sustain her.

At the knock on the door, she blocked her feelings, her thoughts again, then slid onto the chair behind her desk. “Yes, come in.”

She was scanning the data on her monitor when Sam stepped inside. She glanced over absently, with just a hint of a frown in her eyes. “Nothing on the menu to tempt you?”

“I settled for this.” He lifted the coffee, then pried off the top and set it on her desk. “Nell’s very loyal.”

“Loyalty’s a necessary quality in a friend, to my mind.”

He made some sound of agreement, then sipped the coffee. “She also makes superior coffee.”

“A necessary quality in a café chef.” She tapped her fingers on the desk in a gesture of restrained impatience. “Sam, I’m sorry, I don’t want to be rude. You’re more than welcome to enjoy the café, the store. But I have work.”

He studied her for one long moment, but that slightly annoyed expression on her face didn’t waver. “I won’t keep you, then. Why don’t you just give me the keys, and I’ll go off and settle in?”

Baffled, she shook her head. “Keys?”

“To the cottage. Your cottage.”


My
cottage? Why on earth would I give you the keys to the yellow cottage?”

“Because.” Delighted to have finally broken through that polite shield, he drew papers out of his pocket. “We have a lease.” He set the papers on her desk, leaning back when she snatched them up to read. “Celtic Circle’s one of my companies,” he explained as she scowled at the names. “And Henry Downing’s one of my attorneys. He leased the cottage for me.”

Her hand wanted to tremble. More, it wanted to strike. Deliberately, she laid it, palm down, on the desk. “Why?”

“I have attorneys do all manner of things for me,” Sam said with a shrug. “Added to that, I didn’t think you would rent it to me. But I did think—was sure—that once a business deal had been made, you’d keep your end.”

She drew in a long breath. “I meant, why do you need the cottage? You have an entire hotel at your disposal.”

“I don’t choose to live in a hotel, nor to live where I work. I want my privacy and my downtime. I won’t get either if I stay at the hotel. Would you have rented it to me, Mia, if I hadn’t gone through the lawyer?”

Her lips curved now, sharply. “Of course. But I’d have bumped up the monthly rent. Considerably.”

He laughed, and more on balance than he’d been since that first sight of her, drank more coffee. “A deal’s a deal, and maybe it was meant to be. Since my parents sold our house to Ripley’s new husband, I can’t set up housekeeping there. Things usually happen the way they’re supposed to happen.”

“Things happen,” was all she said. She opened a drawer, took out a set of keys. “It’s small, and it’s on the rustic side, but I’m sure you’ll make do with it while you’re on the island.”

She set the keys on the desk, on top of his copy of the lease.

“I’m sure I will. Why don’t you have dinner with me tonight? We can catch up.”

“No, thank you.”

He hadn’t meant to ask, not so soon. It irked him that the words had escaped. “Some other time, then.” He rose, pocketed the keys, the lease. “It’s good to see you again, Mia.”

Before she could evade it, he laid his hand over hers on the desk. Something sparked, visibly. The air sizzled with it.

“Ah,” was all he said, and tightened his grip.

“Take your hand off me.” She kept her voice low, spoke slowly while looking directly into his eyes. “You have no right to touch me.”

“It was never about rights with us, and all about need.”

Her hand wanted to tremble. Sheer will kept it steady. “There is no us now, and I no longer need you.”

It hurt. A bright, swift pain twisted in his heart. “But you do, and I need you. There’s more to be considered than old, bruised feelings.”

“ ‘Bruised feelings.’ ” She repeated the phrase as if it were a new language. “I see. Be that as it may, you will not touch me without my permission. You don’t have it.”

“We’re going to have to talk.”

“That implies we have something to say to each other.” She allowed some of the anger to surface and coated it with disdain. “Right at this moment, I don’t have anything to say to you. I want you to leave. You have the lease, you have the keys, you have the cottage. That was clever of you, Sam. You always were clever, even as a boy. But this is my office, my store.” My island, she nearly said, but bit it back in time. “And I don’t have time for you.”

When his grip loosened, she slid her hand free. The air cleared. “Let’s not spoil your visit with a scene. I hope you’ll like the cottage. If you have any problems with it, let me know.”

“I will. Enjoy it and let you know.” He turned to the door, opened it. “Oh, Mia, this isn’t a visit. I’m here to stay.”

He saw, with vicious pleasure, her cheeks go pale just before he shut the door.

He cursed himself for that, and for bungling the first steps. His mood remained foul as he stalked downstairs and out of the store under Lulu’s steely stare.

He turned away from the docks where he’d parked,
away from the cottage where he would live for a while, and headed toward the police station.

He could only hope that Zack Todd, now Sheriff Todd, would be in. By God, Sam thought, he’d like one person, one goddamn person, to welcome him home and mean it.

If he couldn’t count on Zack for that, he was in a very sorry state. He hunched his shoulders against the brisk spring breeze, no longer appreciating it.

She’d brushed him off like a fly. Like a gnat. Not with a slash of temper but with irritation. That snap of connection between them meant something. He had to believe that. But if anyone he knew could hold the line against fate, could press her will against it, it was Mia.

Stubborn, prideful witch, he thought, then sighed. The fact that she was exactly that had always been part of her appeal for him. Pride and power were hard to resist. Unless he missed his guess, she had more of both now than she’d had at nineteen.

That meant he had his work cut out for him, on a number of levels.

He hissed out a breath and shoved open the door to the station house.

The man who sat with his feet on the desk and a phone at his ear hadn’t changed much. He’d filled out here, fined down there. His hair was still unruly, still sun-streaked brown. His eyes were the same sharp, pure green.

And they widened as they studied Sam’s face.

“Hey, let me get back to you. I’ll have the paperwork faxed over by end of day. Yeah. Right. I have to go.” Zack swung his feet from desk to floor as he hung up the phone. Then he unfolded himself and stared, grinning, at Sam. “Son of a bitch, it’s Mister New York City.”

“So, look who’s John Law.”

Zack crossed the small office area in three strides on battered high-tops and caught Sam in a bear hug.

More than relief rippled through Sam, for here was welcome, and the uncomplicated affection and bone-deep bond that had sprung from childhood.

The years between the boy and the man fell away.

“It’s good to see you,” he managed.

“Right back at you.” Zack eased away, took stock. Pure pleasure flashed in his grin. “Well, you didn’t get fat and bald from sitting behind a desk.”

Sam shot a look at Zack’s cluttered work area. “Neither did you. Sheriff.”

“Yeah, so remember who’s in charge and keep your nose clean on my island. What the hell are you doing here? Want some coffee?”

“If you’re calling what’s in that pot coffee, I’ll pass, thanks. And I’ve got business here. Long-term business.”

Zack pursed his lips as he poured muddy coffee into a mug. “The hotel?”

“For one thing. I bought my parents out. It’s mine now.”

“Bought them—” Zack shrugged, eased a hip onto the corner of the desk.

“My family never did run like yours,” Sam said dryly. “It’s a business. One that my father lost interest in. I haven’t. How are your parents?”

“Dandy. You just missed them. They came in for Ripley’s wedding and stayed nearly a month. I almost thought they’d decided to move back permanently, but then they packed up their Winnebago and headed up to Nova Scotia.”

“I’m sorry I won’t get to see them. I’ve heard Rip’s not the only one who got married.”

“Yeah.” Zack lifted his hand where his wedding ring glinted. “I’d hoped you would make it back for the wedding.”

“I wish I could have.” That was a real regret, one of many. “I’m happy for you, Zack. I mean that.”

“I know it. You’ll be happier when you meet her.”

“Oh, I met your wife.” Sam’s smile thinned. “From the smell of that crap you’re drinking, she makes better coffee than you.”

“Ripley made it.”

“Whatever. I’m just grateful your wife didn’t pour hers over my head.”

“Why would she . . . ? Oh.” Zack puffed out his cheeks. “Oh, well, then. Mia.” He rubbed a hand over his chin. “Nell and Mia and Ripley. The fact is—”

He broke off as the door swung open. Ripley Todd Booke, vibrating from the brim of her ball cap to the toes of her scarred boots, glowered at Sam. Her eyes, the same green as her brother’s, shot arrows of resentment.

“Better late than never,” she announced as she started forward. “I’ve been waiting for this for eleven years.”

Zack lunged toward her, caught her around the waist as she swung out. She had, he had reason to know, a keen right cross. “Hold on,” he ordered. “Just hold the hell on.”

“Hasn’t mellowed, has she?” Sam commented. He tucked his hands in his pockets. If she was going to plant a fist in his face, he’d just as soon she get it over with.

“Not a bit.” Zack hefted her off her feet while she cursed at him. Her cap fell off, and her long dark hair tumbled over her furious face. “Sam, why don’t you give me a few minutes here? Ripley, cut it out!” he ordered. “You’re wearing a badge, remember?”

“Then I’ll take it off before I punch him.” She blew her hair out of her eyes and they scorched the air between her and Sam. “He deserves it.”

“Maybe I do,” Sam agreed. “But not from you.”

“Mia’s too much of a damn lady to bust your chops. I’m not.”

He smiled now. “I always liked that about you. I’m renting the yellow cottage,” he told Zack and watched
Ripley’s mouth drop open in shock. “Come on by when you have time. We’ll have a beer.”

He decided the shock was complete when she didn’t try to kick him as he walked to the door. He stepped outside again, took another long look at the village.

He’d had a welcome from a friend, even if three women had formed a tight circle of resentment against him.

For better or for worse, he thought, he was home.

Two

T
he 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.”

Before Ripley could speak again, Nell shot her a warning glance. “You’re right, of course. And with the season coming on, you’ll both be too busy to get in each other’s way. Why don’t you come to dinner tonight? I’m trying out a new recipe, and I could use the feedback.”

“You’ll get that from Zack. No need to pamper me or soothe me, little sister.”

“Why don’t we all go out and get drunk and bitch about men in general?” Ripley perked up. “That’s always fun.”

“As appealing as that sounds, I’ll pass. I have a number of things to do at home . . . if I can get my work done here.”

“She wants us to clear out,” Ripley told Nell.

“I get that.” Nell sighed. It was hard, she thought, to want so badly to help and not know how. “All right, but if there’s anything you need or want—”

“I know. I’m fine, and I’m going to stay that way.”

She scooted them out, then sat—just sat with her hands in her lap. It was self-defeating to tell herself she would work, or to pretend she could move through this particular day as if it were any other day.

She was entitled to rage and to weep, to spit at fate and beat her fists on the face of destiny.

But she would do none of those things, those weak and useless things. She would, however, go home. She got to her feet, gathered her purse and the light jacket she’d brought. And as she passed her window, she saw him.

He stepped out of a sleek black Ferrari, his coat a dark swirl around him. He always did like shiny toys, she thought. He’d changed out of his jeans into a dark suit and tamed his hair, though the breeze was already playing with it. As her fingers once had.

He carried a briefcase and strode toward the Magick Inn like a man who knew precisely where he was going and what he meant to do.

Then he turned, lifting his gaze unerringly to where she stood in the window. His eyes locked on hers, and she felt the jolt, the punch of heat that would once have melted her knees.

But this time she stood straight, and without a quiver. When enough time had passed for pride, she stepped away from the window and out of his sight.

Home soothed her. It always had. Practically, the
big, rambling stone house on the cliff was too much for one woman. But it was, she knew, perfect for her. Even when she’d been a child, the house had been more hers than it had been her parents’. She’d never minded the echoes, the occasional drafts, or the sheer volume of time it took to maintain a house of its size and age.

Her ancestors had built it, and now it was hers alone.

She’d changed little on the inside since the house had come into her care. The furnishings here and there, a few of the colors, some basic modernization of the kitchen and
baths. But the
feel
of the house was as it had always been for her. Embracing, warm, waiting.

There had been a time when she’d imagined herself raising a family there. God she’d wanted children. Sam’s children. But over the years she had accepted what was, and what wasn’t, and had made a nest of contentment.

At times she thought of the gardens as her children. She had created them, taking the time to plant, to nurture, to discipline. And they brought her joy.

And when she needed more than the gentle pleasure they provided, she had the passion and drama of her cliffs, the secrets and shadows of her forests.

She had, Mia told herself, all she needed.

But tonight she didn’t wander out to fuss with her flowers or walk to face the sea from her cliffs. She didn’t stroll into her forest. Instead, she went directly upstairs, climbing until she was closed inside her tower room.

Here had been refuge and discovery when she was a child. Here she had never felt alone unless alone was what she needed to feel. Here she had learned, and had disciplined, the beams of her own power.

BOOK: Face the Fire
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