"Garden tool. " He counted out his money, set that on the counter as well.

She wiped her hands on her apron, scowled. But curiosity pushed her into opening the bag. Baffled humor lit her eyes as she studied the perfectly ridiculous rolled-brim straw hat. Foolish fake flowers danced around the crown.

"This is the silliest hat I've ever seen. "

"Oh, there were sillier," he assured her. "But it'll keep the sun from burning your nose. "

"It's very considerate of you, but you shouldn't-"

"Around here it's called being neighborly. " The beeper on his belt signaled. "Well, back to work. "

She managed to wait until he was halfway down the steps before she snatched the hat and dashed into the kitchen to try it on in the reflection of the stove hood.

***

Ripley Todd poured herself another cup of coffee and sipped it while looking out the front window of the station house. It had been a quiet morning, and that was just the way she liked it.

But there was something in the air. She was doing her best to ignore it, but something was in the air. It was easier to tell herself it was overstimulation from the week she'd spent in Boston.

Not that she hadn't enjoyed herself. She had. The law enforcement workshops and seminars had interested her, given her food for thought. She liked police work, the routine and detail of it. But the demands and chaos of the city wore on her, even in that short a time.

Zack would've said it was simply that she didn't like people overmuch. Ripley would've been the last one to argue with him about that.

She caught sight of him now, heading down the street. It would, she estimated, take him a good ten minutes to make the half block. People stopped him, always had a word to say.

More, she thought, people just liked being around him. He had a kind of. . . she didn't want to use the word "aura. " It was too Mia-like. Air, she decided. Zack just had the kind of air about him that made people feel better about things. They knew if they took their troubles to him, he'd have the answer, or take the time to find it.

Zack was a sociable creature, Ripley mused. Affable and patient and consistently fair. No one would accuse her of being any of those things.

Maybe that was why they made a good team.

Since he was heading in, she opened the front door to the summer air and street sounds, the way he liked it best. She brewed a fresh pot of coffee and was just pouring him a cup when he finally arrived.

"Frank and Alice Purdue had a baby girl-eight pounds, five ounces, at nine this morning. Calling her Belinda. The Younger boy, Robbie, fell out of a tree, broke his arm. Missy Hachin's cousin in Bangor bought a brand-new Chevrolet sedan. "

As he spoke, Zack took the offered coffee, sat at his desk, propped up his feet. And grinned. The ceiling fan was squeaking again. He'd really meant to see to that.

"So, what's new with you?"

"Speeder on the north coast road," Ripley told him. "Don't know where they thought they were going in such a hurry. I explained that the cliffs and the light

and so on had been in place for a few centuries and weren't likely to move away in an afternoon. " She plucked a fax out of his in box. "And this came in for you. Nell Channing. That's the new cook at Mia's place, right?"

"Umm-hmm. " He scanned the motor vehicle report. No traffic violations. She still carried an Ohio driver's license, due for renewal in just over two years. The car was registered in her name. He'd been right about the new tags. She'd had them less than a week. Before that, the car had carried Texas tags.

Interesting.

Ripley scooted onto the corner of the desk they shared and sampled his coffee since he wasn't drinking it. "Why'd you run her?"

"Curious. She's a curious woman. "

"Curious how?"

He started to answer, then shook his head. "Why don't you drop into the cafe for lunch, check her out yourself. I'd be interested in your impression. "

"Maybe I will. " Frowning, Ripley glanced at the open door. "I think a storm's coming in. "

"It's clear as glass out there, honey. "

"Something's coming," she said half to herself, then grabbed her baseball cap. "I'll take a walk around, maybe stop in the cafe and take a look at our newest resident. "

"Take your time. I'll do the afternoon beach patrol. "

"You're welcome to it. " Ripley slid on her sunglasses and strode out.

She liked her village, the order of it. As far as Ripley was concerned, everything had a place and that's just where it should stay. She didn't mind the vagaries of sea and weather-that was just another natural order of things.

June meant a fresh influx of tourists and summer people, temperatures moving from warm to hot, beach bonfires and smoking grills.

It also meant excess partying, the routine drunk and disorderly, the occasional lost child, and the inevitable lovers' spats. But the tourists who celebrated, drank, wandered, and squabbled brought summer dollars to the island that kept it afloat during the frigid gales of winter.

She would cheerfully-well, perhaps not too cheerfully-suffer the problems of strangers for a few months in order to preserve Three Sisters.

This nine square miles of rock and sand and soil was all the world she needed.

Overbaked people were staggering up from the beach toward the village for lunch. She could never figure out what possessed a human being to flop itself down and broil like a trout in the sun. Besides the discomfort, the sheer boredom of it would have driven her wild inside an hour.

Ripley wasn't one to lie down if she could stand.

Not that she didn't enjoy the beach. She jogged along the surf every morning, summer and winter. When weather permitted, she finished off her run with a swim. When it didn't, she often ducked into the hotel and took advantage of its indoor pool.

But she preferred the sea.


Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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