Hell Fire Page 49

Mr. Cheney thanked me with an overbright smile. ’’I will never forget you for this. If you hadn\ come . . .’’

They\d have sacrificed her and probably Sandra and Jim as well on December 21. They would have tried to make good with the demon, even though they\d been failing each year I remained alive and well. I just nodded a ’’You\ e welcome’’ as we headed out.

We went back to the house to get our stuff. Before we left town, I called Chuch and Eva to let them know the job was done and everyone was more or less in one piece. To my amusement, Eva stole the phone from her husband and regaled me with anecdotes about her pregnancy. I marveled at the normalcy of it all and promised I\d come to her baby shower in a few months.

’’Yes, I\ll stop by on my way home,’’ I agreed.

Then I rang Booke, who confirmed the black stain was gone from the astral. He could explore the place at his leisure now, but there didn\ appear to be anything unusual to see. I fancied I could almost feel him next to me, watching me, but that was ridiculous. He couldn\ go out of body and talk on the phone at the same time.

’’I\m so glad you\ e safe,’’ he said quietly. ’’I just wish I could\ve done more.’’

’’You did plenty. I\ll call you soon and not just to ask for help.’’

I hung up and collected my things. Knapsack in hand, I took one last look at the farmhouse. We\d done good work here, almost like the old days. Except you can never go back. Thomas Wolfe was right when he said you can\ go home again. Nothing ever looked or felt the same. It was an appointment with disappointment.

But now that we\d sorted things in Kilmer, there would be no putting Chance off any longer. His truce with Jesse was over, and I knew he was eager to hear how I felt.

Well, here I stood, cursed and demon touched, and I didn\ want to see him broken over me. I didn\ want him to bear the weight of my death any more than I wanted to die.

The cost was just too high.

’’You all set?’’ Chance had his duffel in hand, ready to load the trunk.

He expected to take me home with him. My things were still there, just as I\d left them. To his mind, we could simply make the decision and start over. I could stroll back into the life I\d left behind.

Just before she died, Mama had started telling me the rules of riding in cars with boys, as she understood them. I was twelve, and she thought I should learn about that kind of thing. Always leave with the boy you came with, she\d told me. It\s not polite otherwise.

I knew that. Oh, I knew.

But I couldn\ abide by the rules this time.

’’No,’’ I told Chance. ’’I\m going with Jesse and Shannon as far as Texas.’’

Eva had a passport waiting for me there. After visiting with them for a while, I\d take the bus to Monterrey. From there, I\d hop a flight to Mexico City. But he didn\ need to know my plans.

’’I don\ understand.’’ His face was stark and pale.

’’It just doesn\ make sense for you to drive me all the way back home when you\ e so close to Florida now. That\s where you live, Chance. And it\s not where I live anymore. We\ e going two separate ways now. It\s not fair of you to expect me to give up everything for you. I have a new life. I love my pawnshop. It\s not just what I do to pay the bills. I\ve finally found a place where I can use my gift quietly, turn a profit, and not suffer for it. You really want me to give that up for you? Would you give up your life in Tampa for me and move to Mexico City? Do you want this thing bad enough?’’

Maybe it wasn\ fair to ask him that, but it wasn\ only a matter of our conflicting geographic locations. There would always, always be the insurmountable matter of his gift. I didn\ want to be another victim to his luck, like the lover he refused to tell me much about. And I would never again sacrifice so much of what made me happy for a man. I\d found a core of steel inside myself, and it wouldn\ let me make so many compromises. Maybe it wasn\ fair, but he had to show me he\d follow me to the ends of the earth or at least to Mexico City.

’’I can\ do that at the drop of a hat,’’ he protested. ’’There\s too much I need to be on hand to manage there.’’

’’And yet you expect me to sell my shop for you,’’ I said.

His hands clenched into fists, a muscle ticking beside his mouth. ’’Are you saying what I think you are?’’

Oh God, I didn\ want to be.

I was.

’’Yeah,’’ I said softly. ’’I\m saying that. Tampa is where Min is, where the store is. Your mom\s waiting. She needs you. Keep the Mustang you earned it. It\s a cherry car and Chuch would kill you if you sold it.’’

’’He would.’’ His voice sounded odd and hollow. ’’That\s it, then. I . . . I\ll send your stuff. I know you\ll want your Travis McGee books for sure.’’

A knife twisted in my heart. Twist. I swore I could feel the blade lodged just so. That meant he\d accepted I wasn\ coming back;hence time for him to move on. I didn\ want to hear about him with someone else. Part of me would always love him, but I wasn\ going to let that part\s play-in-traffic attitude get me killed. Maybe one day he\d love me enough to change all the way, put his promises into actions, but that wasn\ now, and I wanted to go home.

’’You don\ have to.’’

’’It\s no trouble.’’

I leaned in to hug him, but Chance stepped back. He didn\ want anything of me in parting, heartbreak burning in his eyes. When he climbed into the Mustang, I didn\ watch him drive away. Instead, I slithered into the backseat of Jesse\s SUV and drew my knees up to my chest. Butch popped out of my handbag and hopped onto the seat beside me, snuggling as if he knew I needed comfort.

’’You gonna live, sugar?’’ I heard warmth and concern in Jesse\s voice.

Shannon didn\ know what had passed between Chance and me, but she took one look at my face and said, ’’Drive.’’

Clever girl. Couldn\ have said it better myself.

I closed my eyes. I had a long way to go and miles of hard road before I got there.

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