“Okay,” he said, slanting his gaze upward. “It’s early enough that we can do it before dark, if you think you’re up to it.”
The liquor had mostly evaporated, and my new injuries were stinging, but I’d certainly suffered worse. It seemed a dubious accomplishment.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine.”
He paused. “Corine, I need you to believe this—I didn’t kiss you in the bathroom because of Saldana. It may have seemed that way because of what I said afterward, but . . . woman, you were
At that, I smiled because there was no mistaking his aggrieved tone. I was willing to concede I might have misjudged him. Maybe I’d seized on the first excuse to push him away . . . because I was scared of where we were headed, and this wasn’t the time for distractions like that. I needed a clear head to do some thinking, and Chance kissing me silly wasn’t going to get that done.
“Don’t worry about it.”
Unlike other occasions where I’d said it in a way guaranteed to rile him because I refused to talk, I really wanted to forget the misunderstanding. I wouldn’t trot it out later. I wouldn’t
what came before, though. My toes curled, just thinking about the way he’d taken control, snagged my hair, and pushed me up against the bathroom door.
I nodded. “And I’m sorry I thought the worst of you. That wasn’t fair.”
He hunched his shoulders into his well-cut jacket. “I admit, I’m jealous as hell of him because he doesn’t seem to rub you wrong like I do. He makes the right moves with you easily, effortlessly, and I’d like to punch him in the face over it.” An astonishing confession, coming from Chance—he never admitted to weakness or uncertainty, never admitted to feeling much of anything at all.
Surprise washed over me. “Why are you telling me this? Before, you never told me
“I made a lot of mistakes before,” he said quietly. “I’m trying not to repeat them.”
“Why?” For all I knew, Chance could be under a geas to make amends with me. Min liked me. Based on what I’d seen in Laredo, it wouldn’t surprise me if she could do the spell. Before then I’d never have guessed she could summon the Knights of Hell to do her bidding. “It’s past.”
“You don’t want to think about what might have been? In fact, you’d probably prefer to forget we were ever together. God help me, maybe we can even be friends, right? Well, I
. I refuse to let you write us off.”
I started to say that he hadn’t answered my question, but he sealed his fingers against my mouth as if he wanted to kiss me quiet, and then went on. “I haven’t forgotten anything. I don’t want to. I still have all your books at home—did you know that?”
I did now. Sometimes I missed our place on Harbour Island. I missed swinging by his mother’s homeopathy shop and going over to her house for dinner on weekends when we weren’t traveling for a job. Chance and Min had become the closest thing to family I’d known in years.
A pang hit me as I remembered decorating the loft with him: how we’d discussed the placement of a statue I set on the corner of the counter that opened the kitchen to the living room and how he hadn’t wanted to put any pictures on the brick wall that gave the room so much character. We’d agreed on a fluffy white rug in the center of the hardwood floor. I remembered drinking our morning coffee on the balcony, overlooking the ocean.
In Mexico City, I was hours from the sea. I had mountains instead. Though I’d made a life there, I’d probably never stop missing the one I’d left behind.
My expression must have given away my feelings, because he went on, more gently. “I still have the clothes you left behind hanging beside mine in the closet. I went day by day, trying to pretend you were coming back . . . until I couldn’t anymore. But know this: Nobody will
love you like I do.”
“Chance . . .”
He hesitated. I could see him trembling, and though it might have been the chill, I didn’t think so. “I spent three days at your bedside with neither food nor sleep, Corine, and I promised any god or devil that might be listening I’d give anything for you to walk out of there on your own two feet. And when you left me, not only did I think I deserved it—I thought that was the price I had to pay for your survival. But nothing ever showed up to enforce the terms. Turned out there wasn’t any otherworld pact—just good medical personnel.” His beautiful mouth twisted. “When you live in our world, you tend to look for that, I guess, even when it’s not there.”
“That much is true.” My voice sounded rusty.
These days, I found myself seeking signs and symbols in the strangest places, some clue that I wasn’t making disastrous decisions. Sadly, there were no guarantees, and nobody ever gave you a do-over when it mattered. Butch whined, likely sensing my inner turmoil, and burrowed his head against my arm. I took comfort in his warm little body.
“But the fact is, I’m not willing to let you go. I will do my damnedest to be the man you need—I’ll even try to find some way to kill this luck—but you have to meet me halfway. Now, you tell me, should I keep trying? Sometimes I feel like I’m beating myself to death against a stone wall, and it’s named Corine.”
I found myself getting mad, and it helped banish the ache for what we’d lost. “I don’t care! I can’t predict how I’ll feel ten minutes from now, let alone wrap myself up for you with a bow and an instruction manual. You want me back? Earn me! I’m not giving you shortcuts or promises.”
He started to smile. “Earn you? Like a pay increase?”
“Not what I meant,” I muttered.
“I know what you mean.” Chance sounded impossibly tender as he bent his head and brushed his lips along my jaw. “I think I get it. Finally.”
A shiver stole through me. “Get what?”
“No, you don’t.”
“Show, not tell, right, Corine? Action, not words. You don’t want to hear how sorry I am or how things will be different this time. You want to see it with your own eyes. And until I can show you that, you won’t tell me what I want to hear.”
Huh, he finally
His answer came low. “That you still love me.”
I didn’t want to. I wanted to start over, and Chance had no place in my new life. I wished I could cut him out of me. But part of me would always look at him and remember he represented the first home I’d known since my mama died.
“You’re right on all counts. It broke my heart to leave, Chance. You’ll never know how hard it was for me to walk away from you, or how much strength it took. If we ever get back together, it’ll be because you convinced me we can make it work long term,
because you trust me with everything you are.”
He had been nodding, a smile building on his wonderful mouth, until I said the last thing. The breath ran out of him in a sigh. I hated the haunted look in his eyes, but I didn’t back down.
“Some of my secrets could hurt you,” he said quietly.
“And your luck could kill me.” Maybe that wasn’t fair. Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned it. That wasn’t something he could help, after all.
“I know,” he murmured, tawny eyes full of smoke and shadow. “That’s why I let you walk away in the first place.”
“But you don’t love me enough to let me keep walking?”
His voice deepened, gained a raw note. “There aren’t words for what I feel for you.”
“You’ll have to prove that,” I said softly.
“And you still didn’t answer my question.”
Chance raised his brows, plainly surprised. I guess he thought he’d succeeded in distracting me. “The why of it?”
“Exactly. Why are you so determined
when you could’ve tried at any point before I left?”
Or come after me
you needed me
, I added to myself.
“Because you’re back, and that’s like a second chance,” he said quietly. “I learned from losing you.”
“What do you mean?”
“After you left, I only had my pride for company. At first I was furious, and I tried to tell myself, ‘Fine, if that’s how she wants it.’ Unfortunately, I had plenty of time to think about the things we used to fight about and how none of them seemed to matter. I’m not saying I’d cave on every issue now, but I realized it’s important to pick your battles.
“There should’ve been more give-and-take between us, and a lot of that was my fault. Because I didn’t want to share, didn’t want to give you insights that would make me vulnerable. So this time I told you how I feel about Saldana. You said yourself—I never would’ve done that before. I’ve lost too many people. Now that you’re back in my life, I’ve made up my mind you won’t be one of them. But I won’t push you.”
I considered what he’d said, and it all seemed honest enough; certainly more than he would’ve offered in the past. If Chance really wanted to change, I’d wait and see. He had been right when he said I wanted proof, not promises. It was easier to say,
Baby, come back. Things will be different this time.
But it could be hard to put the words into practice, and sometimes, good intentions resulted in falling back into old habits.
“Is that what you guys talked about at the bar? You agreed to back off?”
“Thanks. It was starting to get awkward. And I appreciate your giving me the space I need to figure out what I want.”
“Take your time.”
“Talking about your feelings is only the tip of the iceberg, though it’s a good start. If you really want me back, you have to tell me who you are . . . and part with those closely held secrets.”
“I know. Give
time too. Rome wasn’t built in a day.” His tone ached with intensity, but he changed the subject, fixing me with a glare. “Dirt, Corine? First houses, now dirt? I’m worried about you, love. I’m afraid you’re going to push yourself too far; that you’ll go into a handling and you won’t come out again. I had no idea you could do this stuff, none at all.”
Well, I couldn’t, before I’d died. I didn’t tell him that.
Chance went on. “What’s it going to be next? Highways? Bridges? I thought your power only applied to buttons, shirts, lost jewelry—”
“I don’t know what my limits are,” I put in quietly. “But if anyone deserves my best, it’s my mom.”
He bowed his head then, in silent acknowledgment. I’d given his mother my best—and we’d saved her. When he spoke next, it was only to make plans. “We should eat, gear up, and then get out there.”
Food sounded like a good idea. As we went inside for more of my famous peanut butter sandwiches, I remembered I hadn’t mentioned the most important thing. “The bad guy . . . the one who choked Farrell in my vision?”
Butch wiggled, demanding to get down. He trotted into the kitchen, and I heard him munching his kibble—lunchtime for him too.
Chance paused just inside the front door. “Yeah?”
“I’ll recognize him. If we spot him anywhere in town, I will know him. And he’s key. I can’t imagine having a
reason to throttle somebody, can you?”
“Not unless you’re Kel Ferguson.”
I wished he hadn’t said that. I still wasn’t over the uneasy truce we’d struck with the holy killer. He scared me more than demons, missing persons, and accursed towns combined.
Before I went into the kitchen, I hid our clues in a safe place—Curtis Farrell’s Bible—along with Stu’s list and that Robert Frost poem. Together they went up onto the highest shelf I could reach. I found Jesse and Shannon already eating. Jesse looked a little pale, probably from Shannon’s poking around in his wound. She’d already made sandwiches for us too, so I thanked her and took my place at the table.
While I ate, Chance told them the bit of happy news about my being able to ID the guy who’d choked Curtis Farrell into submission. Jesse thought about that, munching on his PBJ.
“That’s not all,” he said. “Our guy will have scabs on his wrists and hands if it wasn’t too long ago. And Curtis may have bruises on his neck like yours.”
“His hands might match the marks on my neck,” I said, much struck. “You think we should file a police report before the bruises fade?”
Jesse frowned at me. “I’m not letting you file a false report, even here.”
“Fine. But there’s one more thing.”
“What?” Chance asked.
“I recognize the guy. I’m sure my mother saw him just before she died.”
Both Chance and Jesse put down the remainder of their sandwiches; I could see questions in their eyes. I hadn’t told either one of them how viscerally I had experienced her death; it had been like living inside her skin. And my visions from handling charged objects kept ratcheting up in intensity ever since.
“So the guy who choked Farrell is one of the twelve,” Chance said.
Shannon ventured, “What did he look like? Maybe I know him. If I do, I could tell you who he’s likely to be working with.”
It was a long shot, at best. A maladjusted teenager couldn’t possibly know everyone in town, not even one the size of Kilmer. But it might be worth trying, so I described him to the best of my ability.
She shrugged, visibly disappointed. “That could be any of thirty men. Saying ‘old, tall, and thin’ isn’t specific enough.”
“I wish I could draw.”
Jesse waved that away for the moment. “This is big, folks. We’re talking about a solid lead. This guy could be the key to unraveling everything else. Assuming you don’t plan to execute him when you find him?”
wished he hadn’t asked that.
Luckily, I came up with an answer that satisfied Saldana and had the added value of being true. “I won’t execute him,” I said in neutral tones.
Until he leads me to the other eleven.
Until then, I needed him.