CHAPTER 12

Now what?

Mariel didn't know the answer to that question, only that she had to find somewhere to stay for the night. Probably longer. What a dilemma: There she was, a well-paid doctor, homeless. Temporarily homeless, but still homeless.

Luckily, she had a stash of napkins in the car's glove compartment. At a red light she grabbed a handful to wipe her tears and blow her nose. A quick glance at the wallet in her purse calmed her somewhat. Debit card, American Express, Visa. Good. She had her pick as to where she would stay as long as the hotel had an available room.

Because she couldn't go back to Tom. And she couldn't—wouldn't—go back to Russell's.

Larkin was alive. Mariel knew that should have been a joyous discovery, once the shock of it died down. There she'd stood, a real-life, flesh-and-blood woman. As beautiful as ever, no sign of having been shot brutally and then cast to the sea in hopes of making her whole. Which, evidently, had worked after all.

And…strapped to her back was Larkin's baby. Russell's child.

Mariel sobbed into a napkin, gripping the steering wheel tighter with her other hand. It did no good to be so emotional while behind the wheel, but it couldn't be helped, could it? One moment she was in bed with Russell. Kissing him again…holding him…enjoying the heat of his body pressing against hers as they made love.

That night, she'd become his again. Whatever spell Tom had cast over her had been broken. The love she'd had for Russell had never died; she knew that now. It had only cooled, been dormant. But it had come alive full-force that night with the strength of ten hurricanes.

And then Larkin, Russell's present wife, had returned.

There was a little motel, a cheap one, right off the interstate, about five miles down. That'd be good. It was frequented mostly by truckers…and men cheating on their wives, she noted with irony. No one from the hospital would see her there. She didn't want to see anyone she knew tonight.

She didn't want to have to explain herself.

"I'm not a bad person," she said in a whisper, sounding like a confused child. "I'm not. Not a bad person."

But she was a hybrid. She had changed, and not for the better.

There was a loud popping sound that startled her, making Mariel let out a yelp. She grasped the wheel in both hands to steady the car.

Great! Now she had a flat. Was there no end to that night's fun? She lifted her foot off the accelerator, just managing to keep the car from veering into a tree.

It was totally out of character for her—but hell, then again, so was having sex with another woman's husband—but she cursed as she got out of the car, leaving her purse in the passenger seat. In her frustration she kicked the driver's side door and cried harder.

Larkin was alive. How was she supposed to have known that? Had she thought for one moment that Larkin was alive, she would never have slept with Russell Varon.

The man who had been her husband…until she left him for Tom. Tom—the man who had turned her into this, this thing that she now was.

Turning, she leaned against the car door and cried. She brought her cell phone out of her pocket, staring at it glumly for some seconds.

Who could she call? Not Russell. She'd caused enough trouble for him in one day, hadn't she? Certainly not Dave. Once Dave got wind of what had happened, he'd hate her, and rightfully so.

No! Not rightfully. She reminded herself again that she hadn't known Larkin was alive. She'd thought, as everyone else had, that Larkin was dead.

Such surprises. Grace was alive.

And now Larkin.

Mariel wiped her nose with the damp napkin.

AAA. She could call them. That was a relief, considering the only other person she could have called was Tom. Something else she couldn't do, she thought ruefully.

"Marieeeeeeeeeel…"

Straightening up, she looked out at the woods. That had to be her imagination. The wind, combined with the sound of planes flying overhead. And hadn't she also heard the low rumble of thunder in the distance?

Mariel swore again. She had come to hate thunder. Thunder, lightning, anything having to do with rain, she had learned to hate.

"Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr…"

Her heart began to beat fiercely with that rise of adrenaline coursing through her. Was that the low growl of an animal? Or some psychopath toying with her?

"Who's there?" she demanded in a steady voice.

Listening intently, she heard the sound of thunder again. The wind rustling through the trees. No answer came to her.

How far was she from help? She remembered seeing a diner on the side of the road, one of those in that old-fashioned style, within several yards of a gas station. That had been maybe two or three miles ago. In a half hour, give or take some minutes, she could walk back there and find help.

The sudden ring of her cell phone made her jump. Quickly, she flipped it open and frowned.

The number coming across the screen was unfamiliar to her.

"Hello?" she greeted the caller anxiously.

"Good evening, Dr. Underlay. You seem…distressed."

Her breaths were coming faster as she pushed away from the car and looked around. "Who is this?"

This wasn't an accident. Her tire blowing out had been on purpose.

This was a trap.

"You know, Mariel, it's not very nice," the male voice on the other line informed her calmly, tauntingly, "stealing another woman's man like that. Especially when the man is…well, an inferior human. Russell Varon is so very inferior to your current husband, Tom."

She ignored his attempt to embarrass her. "I'm one of you. What do you want?"

His chuckle was light. "How convenient of you to remember you're one of us now. You were changed, Mariel, but you were never one of us. You had one foot in this world and one in ours. Ultimately, you belonged to neither world."

"What do you want?" she asked, her voice rising in anger.

The answer came in a detached tone that was chilling: " Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.' "

Shakespeare. Mariel couldn't remember where it was from—Hamlet or Macbeth—but the words frightened her and sent her walking fast, away from her car and toward the road.

Then, like a dark angel, a figure lighted to the ground several feet in front of her. Gasping, she dropped the phone and stared, at a momentary lost for words.

MARLINS. The man in front of her, with his head bowed, wore a Marlins baseball cap. But then he raised his head and glared at her, and she remembered at once that this was no man, no human at all.

"Don't be afraid, Dr. Underlay," it told her. "I'm here to set you free…"

The sun had set and the starless sky was darkening on the deep August night. Grace Underlay had been training—actually, brushing up on the skills she would be needing when they overtook the inhabitants of the earth, skills that included shooting—but now she was making her way to the shore.

Sure enough, her sentinels had been correct. That was Larkin, with her baby in the pouch strapped to her back, returning to the remote key on the small motorboat.

Grace was tired, but she quickened her gait nonetheless to meet her second-in-command as she secured the boat to land. Larkin hadn't appeared to recognize her at first, which slightly amused Grace. That made sense, since she rarely wore jeans and had cut her hair in a style that was short, manageable and, on her, gave her a rather wild, appealing look.

"Where'd you run off to?" she asked. "You didn't tell anyone and I was worried about you."

"Oh…I think you can guess where I went." Larkin wasn't being argumentative; if anything, she came across as embarrassed.

Grace didn't play games with her. "Oh. Well…how was the reunion?"

"Not good. I should have listened to you. I wouldn't feel like I do right now." Forcing a smile, Larkin accepted a sisterly hug from her. "He was with her, Grace."

"I see." She didn't have to ask who the woman with Varon was; Grace instinctively knew. She also understood that if Mariel had been with Russell, then she hadn't been with Tom. But her friendship with Larkin Groves, and her affection for her, made her stop short of feeling triumphant.

"She gets around, that girl," she said.

The comment made Larkin laugh, though somewhat sadly. "Anyway, I'm sorry I disappeared on you that way."

"It's all right. You're free to go where you wish. You're not a prisoner here, Larkin."

That wasn't 100 The Truth, of course. Yet Grace had surprised herself with the desire that, where she was concerned, it was.

"Still, you worried about me. It won't happen again." Larkin walked slowly with her toward the compound. The baby reached out a tiny hand and Grace caught it tenderly, smiling. "But if you don't mind, I—I need to—"

"You need to be alone. Of course. I understand. I'll have supper sent to your room."

"I'm not very hungry."

"I can imagine, but try to eat a little something, Larkin. You'll need your strength. And you're nursing Jenny. You need to take care of yourself."

Reluctantly, Larkin nodded. "You know something, Grace? I know you'll think it's stupid, but I still love him. No matter what I saw tonight, no matter how badly he hurt me, I still love Russell."

"I don't think that's stupid at all." Grace spoke from her heart.

Larkin looked almost afraid as she spoke her next words. "I love him so much, I don't know if—if I can really…"

"Go and rest, honey. You had your heart broken tonight. We can talk about this in the morning. 'Kay?"

I don't know if I can really destroy him. That was what Larkin had meant to say, but the words had fought her. Grace understood that fully.

Especially because the full scope of her mission had finally become clear to her, and that it entailed destroying Tom and Kira if they continued to rebel. That wasn't to say that she would surrender, either; if there was a way, any way at all, to persuade Kira or hide her somewhere safe until her daughter could be convinced that this was all for the best, Grace would do it. That was a secret, something she wasn't making known, though she believed she could trust Larkin Groves with it.

Kira, she would attempt to save, if it meant losing her own life. Tom, on the other hand, was a lost cause. She couldn't save him, and even if she could, he would refuse her help.

And the reality of that, despite how much she tried to tell herself she didn't care, tore at her heart.

Grace lingered, watching Larkin disappear into the compound. The young woman was more devastated than she was letting on. Grace would have to give her time, a little space to heal.

From the distance came the sound of a motor. An approaching boat.

Drawing her .45 from its holster, she turned and headed back toward the beach. The intruder—she could make him out once the boat was close enough—was Russell Varon. He was in his park ranger uniform, though his shirt was unbuttoned. The wind ruffling his dark, wavy hair gave him an untamed appearance.

That insolent bastard! He'd spotted her and was glaring right back at her. Grace returned insolence with insolence, greeting him with a smirk…and a raised weapon aimed directly at him. She wouldn't think twice about shooting him, either, so he would be well advised not to test her.

"Men!" she scoffed under her breath. "Ever hear of calling before you barge in, guys?"