As a result she had a tight, athletic body that was most often clad in khakis and T-shirts. Her skin was tanned like her brother's, her eyes the same vivid green. She wore her straight brown hair long and most often pulled through the back of her baseball cap.

Her features were an odd mix-a wide, slightly top-heavy mouth, a small nose, and dark, arching brows. Her looks had made her feel awkward as a child, but Ripley liked to think she'd grown into them, and grown out of worrying about them.

She strolled into Cafe Book, waved at Lulu, and headed for the stairs. With luck, she could get a look at this Nell Channing and avoid Mia altogether.

She was still three steps from the cafe level when she saw her luck wasn't going to hold.

Mia was behind the counter, looking slick as always in some floaty floral dress. Her hair was tied back and still managed to explode around her face.

The woman working beside her looked tidy, nearly prim in comparison.

Ripley immediately preferred Nell.

She jammed her thumbs into her back pockets and swaggered toward the counter.

"Deputy Todd. " Mia angled her head, looked down her nose. "What could possibly bring you here?"

Ignoring Mia, Ripley studied Nell. "I'll have today's special soup and sandwich. "

"Nell, this is Ripley, Zack's unfortunate sister. As she's come in for lunch we can safely assume hell has frozen over. "

"Kiss ass, Mia. Nice to meet you, Nell. I'll have a lemonade to go with that. "

"Yes. All right. " Nell shifted her gaze from face to face. "Right away," she murmured and ducked into the kitchen to put the sandwich together.

"Heard you scooped her up right off the ferry," Ripley continued.

"More or less. " Mia ladled the soup. "Don't poke at her, Ripley. "

"Why would I?"

"Because you're you. " Mia set the soup on the counter. "Notice anything odd when you stepped off the ferry yesterday?"

"No. " Ripley replied too quickly.

"Liar," Mia said quietly as Nell came back with the sandwich.

"Can I take this to a table for you, Deputy Todd?"

"Yeah, thanks. " Ripley tugged money out of her pocket. "Why don't you ring me up, Mia?"

Ripley timed it, sliding into a chair just as Nell set the food down. "Looks great. "

"I hope you enjoy it. "

"I'm sure I will. Where'd you learn to cook?"

"Here and there. Can I get you anything else?"

Ripley held up a finger, spooned up soup and sampled. "Nope. This is great. Really. Hey, did you make all those pastries yourself?"

"Yes. "

"A lot of work. "

"It's what I'm paid for. "

"Right. Don't let Mia work you too hard. She's pushy. "

"On the contrary," Nell said in a voice that chilled. "She's incredibly generous, incredibly kind. Enjoy your lunch. "

Loyal, Ripley decided as she continued to eat. She couldn't fault Nell for that. Polite, too, even if she was a bit stiff about it. As if, Ripley thought, she wasn't quite used to dealing with people.

Nervous. She'd visibly cringed at the relatively mild byplay between Ripley and Mia. Well, Ripley decided with a shrug, some people couldn't handle conflict, even when it had nothing to do with them.

All in all, she thought Nell Channing was harmless. And a hell of a good cook.

The meal put her in such a good mood that she took the time to go by the counter on her way out. It was easier to decide to do so since Mia was occupied elsewhere.

"Well, now you've done it. "

Nell froze. She deliberately kept her face blank, her hands loose. "I beg your pardon?"

"Now I'm going to have to start coming in here regularly, something I've managed to avoid for years. Lunch was great. "

"Oh. Good. "

"You may have noticed, Mia and I aren't exactly chummy. "

"It's none of my business. "

"You live on the island, everybody's business is your business. But don't worry, we manage to stay out of each other's way for the most part. You won't get squeezed in the middle. I'm going to take a couple of those chocolate chip cookies for later. "

"You save if you buy three. "

"Twist my arm. Three, then. I'll give one to Zack and be a hero. "

Relaxed now, Nell bagged the cookies, rang up the bill. But when she took the money from Ripley and their hands touched, the bright shock had her gasping.

Ripley glared, one long, frustrated stare. Snagging her cookies, she strode toward the stairs.

"Deputy-" Clenching her hand tight, Nell called after her. "You forgot your change. "

"Keep it. " She bit the words off as she stomped down the stairs. There was Mia at the bottom, hands folded, brow lifted. Ripley simply snarled and kept going.

***

A storm was coming. Though the sky stayed clear and the sea calm, a storm was coming. Its violence roared through Nell's dreams and tossed her helplessly into the past.

The huge white house sat on a verdant carpet of lawn. Inside, its edges were sharp, its surfaces hard. Colors were pa

le-sands and taupes and grays.

But for the roses he bought her, always bought her, that were the color of blood.

The house was empty. But it seemed to be waiting.

In sleep she turned her head away, resisted. She didn't want to go into that place. Not ever again.

But the door opened, the tall white door that opened into the long, wide foyer. White marble, white wood, and the cold, cold sparkle of crystal and chrome.

She watched herself walk in-long, pale hair sweeping past the shoulders of a sleek white dress that sent off an icy glitter. Her lips were red, like the roses.

He came in with her, close behind. Always so close behind. His hand was there, lightly on the small of her back. She could still feel it there if she let herself.

He was tall, slim. Like a prince in his evening black with his hair a gold helmet. She had fallen in love with the fairy-tale look of him, and she had believed his promises of happy-ever-after. And hadn't he taken her to this palace, this white palace in this fantasy land, and given her everything a woman could want?

How many times had he reminded her of that?

She knew what happened next. She remembered the glittery white dress, remembered how tired and relieved she was that the evening was over, and that it had gone well. She'd done nothing to upset him, to embarrass him, to annoy him.

Or so she'd thought.

Until she'd turned to say something about how nice an evening it had been, and had seen his expression.

He'd waited until they were home, until they were alone, to make the transformation. It was one of his best skills.

And she remembered the fear that had clutched her belly even as she scrambled to think of what she'd done.

Did you enjoy yourself, Helen?

Yes, it was a lovely party. But a long one. Would you like me to fix you a brandy before we go to bed?

You enjoyed the music?

Very much. Music? Had she said something inappropriate about the music? She could be so stupid about such things. Barely, she repressed a shudder as he reached out to toy with her hair. It was wonderful to be able to dance outside, near the gardens.

She stepped back, hoping to turn toward the stairs, but his hand fisted in her hair, held her in place. Yes, I noticed how much you enjoyed dancing, especially with Mitchell Rowlings. Flirting with him. Flaunting yourself. Humiliating me in front of my friends, my clients.

Evan, I wasn't flirting. I was only-

The backhanded slap sent her sprawling, the bright shock of pain blinding her. When she would have rolled into a protective ball, he dragged her across the marble floor by the hair.

How many times has he had his hands on you?

She denied, she wept, he accused. Until he grew weary of it and left her to crawl away and sob in a corner.

But this time, in this dream, she crawled off into the shadows of the forest, where the air was soft and the ground warm.

And there, where the stream gurgled over its smooth rocks, she slept.

Then awoke to the cannon-blast of thunder and the jagged rip of lightning. Awoke to terror. She was running through the woods now, her white dress a sparkling beacon. Her blood pumped, the blood of the hunted. Trees crashed behind her, and the ground heaved under her feet and boiled with mist.

Still she ran, her breath tearing out of her throat and ending in whimpers. There were screams in the wind, and not all of them hers. Fear ruled until there was nothing else inside her, no reason, no sense, no answer.

The wind slapped at her with sharp and gleeful hands, and clawing fingers of brush tore her dress to shreds.

She was climbing, scrabbling like a lizard along the rock. Through the dark the beam from the lighthouse slashed like a silver blade, and below, the wild violence of the sea churned.

She kicked and cried and climbed. But she didn't look back, couldn't force herself to look around and face what pursued her.

Instead, choosing flight over fight, she leaped from the rocks, spun and spun in the wind on her plunge toward the water. And the cliffs, the light, the trees all tumbled in after her.


Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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