Over a difficult winter, Caitlin Ross has led a simple life preparing for the birth of her first child. Now spring and her due date are imminent, and she’s about to find out that for a witch married to a shaman, life never stays simple for long. When she witnesses a chance encounter between her husband and Gordarosa’s new dance teacher, Caitlin discovers they once were lovers. Timber swears he wants nothing to do with his old flame. But the dance teacher has magic of her own, and she’ll stop at nothing to get Timber back.
When a local girl with a crush on Timber is murdered, the sheriff arrests Caitlin’s husband for the crime. Caitlin suspects her rival of framing Timber out of revenge, and sets out to clear his name. In her quest, she uncovers a motive far deeper and more dangerous that simple retribution. To bring Timber home, Caitlin must sacrifice her very being, and make an alliance with a Power as old as Love itself.
My pre-natal dance class was not going well. Two weeks away from being born, my daughter was restless, and her kicks made a disconcerting counterpoint to the smooth flute and wave sounds coming from the teacher’s battered boom box. Toward the end, I gave up and took to pacing in the back of the room. It calmed the baby a bit, but every time I slowed down she started kicking again.
“I love you. You know I do,” I muttered. “But you’re being a real pain.”
“Alors! Looks like someone is getting ready to make an appearance, non?” an amused voice said.
Aisha Touissant, my dance teacher, popped up at my elbow; the class had come to an end without my noticing. The other women were gathering around the water cooler or picking up their things and heading for the door. I saw Mariah talking to one of the teachers from the grade school and gave her a wave to let her know I’d be with her soon.
“I knew she’d need a lot of attention after she was born,” I said. “I expected to lose sleep. But I thought I’d be safe until she got here.”
Aisha laughed, a rich sound, like dark chocolate. “I can tell it’s your first, chèrie. You’d know better, if you’d done this before.”
“Do you have kids?” I’d wondered. She seemed solitary. At least, no family members had ever appeared at the dance class, and I’d never seen her with a boyfriend, the few times we’d met outside the Arts Center.
“Pas moi!” She shook her head, making her gold earrings swing. For the briefest instant her face clouded, as if I’d touched a sore spot. Then she smiled. “But I’ve taught this class a long time and as a doula I’ve been around a lot of pregnant women. You get a feel for it, after a while. May I?”
She gestured toward my belly and, when I nodded permission, laid a long hand on it.
“Hush now, ma p’tite,” she crooned. “Give your mama a rest, for a while.”
I didn’t expect anything. But to my surprise, a gentle wave of energy soaked into my abdomen. The baby in me stretched and seemed to sigh, and her kicks softened.
“That’s great.” I smiled, too relieved to question the fact that my dance teacher had demonstrated some real healing juju. “Can I take you home with me for the next couple weeks?”
She laughed again. “Sorry. I’m booked up until June, at least. But you’ll be fine.”
Away on the other side of the studio the door opened, admitting a blast of cold wind that sent a shiver down my spine. I didn’t think anything of it. Women were leaving; they’d be opening the door.
“You know, I never thought I’d get tired of being pregnant. But I’m ready to be through.”
“Everyone says the same thing,” Aisha agreed.
“Hey, Caitlin.” Mariah popped up at my side, wearing her coat and carrying mine, which she thrust at me.
“Sorry, Mariah. Am I keeping you?”
“Not me.” Grinning, she jerked her chin over her shoulder in the direction of the door. “Looks like your man came for you. And you’d better rescue him before Stacy eats him alive.”
I glanced up to see Timber standing just inside the studio to one side of the door, where a figure in pink had backed him up against the wall. He peered over the top of her head, trying to locate me, then glanced back down, face abstracted. Stacy had said something and he didn’t want to be rude, I decided. But then she pushed her luck a bit too far. She laid a hand on his arm in a gesture too intimate for mere acquaintances and pressed her body several inches closer than she should have. Timber made a curt response and yanked his arm out of her grasp. Stacy didn’t get a clue. In fact, she took a step closer. Timber’s face darkened with irritation and, to my surprise, he put his hands on her shoulders and moved her aside.
“Wow,” Mariah commented. “She’s getting super pushy.”
“I’ll say.” I’d never liked Stacy’s obsession with my husband, but I hadn’t paid it much attention, either. Maybe I should have. It needed to stop.
His eyes finding me at last, Timber stalked across the studio, still muttering. Beside me, Aisha went still and drew in a breath. I remembered she and Timber had never met. He’d been working too hard, both at his job site and getting ready for the baby, to spare a lot of time for hanging out in town. And I always came to dance class with Mariah. Aisha may have heard through the grapevine that I had an attractive husband, but this would be the first she’d seen him. Her reaction didn’t strike me as unusual. A lot of women had a hard time breathing the first time they laid eyes on Timber. After ten years, I should have been used to it.
“All the gods save me from ill-mannered groupies,” Timber grumbled as he approached. “Are ye ready to go, Caitlin? Because if I’ve to speak to yon strapaid again I’ll not answer….”
His words trailed off as he stopped at my side, uncertainty in his face. He didn’t want to interrupt my conversation, I thought, once more thankful to have such a considerate spouse.
“That’s my call,” I said to Aisha. Then I remembered my own manners. “Oh, I’m sorry. You haven’t met. This is my husband…”
“Timber MacDuff,” Aisha finished for me.
I glanced at her, startled. Her eyes sparkled like polished gems, and her lips had opened in a wide, moist smile, showing a glint of white teeth. The expression held something possessive and knowing, and I didn’t like it.
Mariah widened her eyes at me. Her lips shaped words: What the fuck?
“Je n’en crois pas! How long has it been?”
I glanced at my husband in time to see the uncertainty in his expression fade into something else, something I couldn’t read. His next word came unwillingly, as if his lips shaped it before his brain could put on the brakes.
“Ashanne.” To my surprise, Timber bowed his head in a momentary sign of respect. Then he looked up, and his eyes blazed at my dance teacher in an all too familiar way. I’d never seen him look at anyone but me like that.
Their eyes met. The air between them crackled like wildfire, swift and hot. But as quickly as it had erupted, the blaze died; one or the other of them had clamped a lid on it. I glanced from my dance teacher to my husband. Aisha was smiling more widely than ever. Timber’s face had gone still and remote, the way it did when he stumbled over something from his past. Something he didn’t wish to share.
“It’s good to see you again,” he said.
“Come see me sometime, chèr,” she drawled. “We’ll talk.”
Timber took my arm and steered me across the dance studio and out the door. I pulled my coat around me, shivering. The storm had passed and the sky had cleared to a night of icy cold, but the weather hadn’t put the chill in my bones.
Aisha and Timber knew each other. Not only knew each other; I’d felt the energy flare. They’d been lovers.
And he’d never mentioned her to me. Not once in ten years.
* * *
They drive home in silence. She’s brooding, and he can’t think what to say to Her. She knows, of course. She couldn’t have missed the flare, like a meteor blazing through the sky, a fireball of forgotten passion. At least, he’d thought it forgotten. It’s been years since Ashanne, years since she haunted his dreams, years since she even came to mind in idle moments. He doesn’t want her in his mind now. The past doesn’t matter. He’s Caitlin’s, and She should know it.
But the body. Sometimes the body remembers. It’s not something you can help; it just happens. A reflex, like a chicken running around with its head off before it understands it’s dead. And that’s all it was. A memory of smell, of touch, of taste. A bright spark, soon consumed into ash. A meteor blazes through the sky and crashes to earth, ended and cold. Some things can’t live, when you bring them down to earth.
Still, he wishes She hadn’t seen it. She’s been moody the last few months. It’s because of the child. Their child—he can’t quite get over it, and even now, here in the dark truck with Her unhappy, the thought brings a smile to his lips. That they should have made a child together. It’s something any two creatures with the appropriate parts can do. Snakes. Snails. Rats. Rats do it constantly. Yet for him, with Her…. It’s an unexpected joy.
Anyway, She’s been moody. He’s seen it in other pregnant women, but he knows better than to make light of it, put it down to hormones and discomfort, as other men might. As other men do, because they’re afraid of paying too much attention to what women feel. What women think and say. He knows the reality of thoughts and feelings, how they can gnaw a hole right through a person if they go unregarded. How a little thing, a single misstep, can push you off the edge of reason into disaster. And he’d never do such a thing to Her if he could help it. But he couldn’t help running into Ashanne.
How long has she been in town? He fumbles for memory. Caitlin’s been going to the dance class since they came back from their disastrous trip to Michigan. He’s been glad for Her to do it. She loves to dance, doesn’t get enough of it, especially since he won’t dance with Her. And that’s Ashanne’s fault too, in a way. Because he danced with Ashanne back then, and it turned dangerous. Too dangerous to risk in a civilized country. But Caitlin needs it. Sometimes he hates not being able to give it to Her.
So, since late fall. Caitlin’s mentioned her dance teacher, though not by a name he would have recognized. Aisha, she calls herself these days. How had he missed running into her? Well, he knows well enough. He’s been busy. He’s had no cause to go downtown—funny how in such a small place a person can go months at a time without setting foot on a stretch of road a half a mile away. In the short winter days he often doesn’t get home from work until after dark, and Caitlin has wanted him close. Weekends they’ve spent together they’ve seldom left the house except for groceries, a few trips to Junction after supplies for the bairn. Of course he wouldn’t have run into Ashanne. If he hadn’t gone for a beer tonight with a couple of Gary’s hands, if he’d not thought to stop in at the Arts Center and pick Caitlin up after Her class, he wouldn’t have run into Ashanne today.
He pulls the truck into the drive, behind the SUV they bought last month because Caitlin will need her own vehicle once the baby comes. He goes around to Caitlin’s door while She’s still struggling with the seatbelt, helps Her out. She accepts his hand without a word and they go into the house, pausing in the entry to hang up their coats. They pass into the living room. She heads for Her usual place on the sofa, feet dragging; She’s tired. He hangs back, unsure whether to join Her or not. Perhaps he should make Her some tea. There’s supper to see about, too. Perhaps he should look into it.
“Thank you for coming to get me,” Caitlin says.
She’s hasn’t yet sat down. She’s standing by the coffee table, waiting for him, perhaps. Her words hang in the air, formal and strange. Not strange for Her to thank him; She never neglects courtesy, even toward acts another would take for granted. Still, there’s an odd tenor to Her speech. A distance he hasn’t heard in a long time. He doesn’t like it.
“I didn’t know,” he blurts. “I’d no idea.”
She nods. He sees the lamplight flicker off Her cheek. “You never mentioned her.”
“I had no cause. Ye dinna share the details about your old….”
“Lovers,” She says.
He remembers darkness, the scents of fire and rain and trees that do not grow in this temperate country. He remembers tropical heat, the taste of sweat, the feel of slick entwined limbs, shadow and highlight, black on white. The night rhythm of bodies and drums, and the calls of unfamiliar roaming beasts in languages he only half understands.
“It was before I met ye,” he says. “Years before, and far away.”
Two years of travel, living off research grants, looking for old cultures with old ways. And finding more than he’d expected, or wanted.
“A long time ago,” he adds, wanting to stress the fact, make things better somehow. She must understand it; She’s perfectly capable of counting the years between then and now. It sounds lame and insufficient, as he expected it would. But he needs to say something.
“‘A long time ago and in another country,’” She murmurs. He recognizes the quote. Marlowe. “A long time ago and in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.” Except Ashanne isn’t dead. She’s here. And that’s the problem.
What is she doing here? How did she come to Gordarosa, of all places? He wants to believe it a coincidence. He wants to believe she hasn’t come looking for him. Surely she’d have had no reason to look for him.
“You knew her by a different name,” Caitlin says.
“Ashanne.” The name wakes memories of hot nights, damp hanging in heavy air without a breath of wind, of fat drops of water spilling from a canopy of green. Of unfamiliar food, alien tastes in his mouth. Of learning the names for things in the dark, in the oldest way. Lips, breasts, belly, cock. “She called herself Ashanne, then.”
She nods again but says nothing more. He feels the stillness in Her, the way She holds back from a thing that might prove painful, hazardous. The way She examines the unknown like a small animal sniffing around the edges of a trap, taking care lest the iron jaws slam shut. He sees Her standing there, half turned away. The way pregnancy has blurred the enchanting lines of Her body, adding both softness and weight. The way even his shapeless old sweatshirt pulls tight over Her breasts and belly. The little lines of discomfort and tiredness in Her face. He did that to Her. He put the child in Her. And though they both wanted it, he can’t help but feel some guilt over it, over the fact it is She who has to carry it all by Herself. She who will bear the pain. His heart goes out to Her.
“Come sit down, Love.” He takes Her by the elbow, leads Her to the sofa; She doesn’t resist him. “Give your feet a rest. I’ll find us something to eat.”
She hunches over Her belly, hands clasped under the bulge to support the weight of it. He hesitates, then takes a step toward the kitchen. Her voice stops him.
“I don’t know why it bothers me. It’s not like I thought you were celibate before we met. It’s just…a shock.”
He changes direction, sits beside Her. Takes Her hands in his. Her beautiful hands, strong and lovely as the rest of Her. They’ve given him pleasure, given him comfort. Now they’re swollen. She can’t wear Her rings and it troubles Her. Sometimes She glances at Her jewelry box and sighs. But She never complains.
“We were never lovers,” he says. “We had a physical relationship, aye. Nothing more.” The denial sticks in his throat a bit. There was more. But not love. “You’re the only woman I’ve ever loved.”
“You’re still attracted to her, though,” Caitlin whispers.
He thinks before answering. Tastes the truth of the experience.
“It shocked me to see her. It made me remember things I’d put behind me. My body responded to the memory. Ye ken how it is? When something old living in ye gets stirred up?”
“I dinna want her. I’d be happier if she’d never come here. I only want you.”
“She wants you, though,” Caitlin says, Her voice full of wisdom and sorrow.
He takes Her in his arms.
“She’ll never get me.”