Ripley walked down High Street and met Zack in front of the Magick Inn. "Lobster Boy's credit card got hung up at the pizza place," she began. "Seems the circuits were down or whatever and he had to dig for cash to pay for lunch. "

"That so?"

"Yeah. And you know, every video they wanted to rent was already out. "

"Hell of a thing. "

"And I hear all the jet skis were already reserved or out of order today. "

"That's a shame. "

"And continuing in a series of bizarre coincidences, the AC in their rental just up and died. "

"And it's a hot one today, too. Supposed to be muggy tonight. Bound to be uncomfortable sleeping. "

"You're a mean son of a bitch, Zachariah. " Ripley rose on her toes and gave him a quick, smacking kiss on the mouth. "That's why I love you. "

"I'm going to have to get meaner. That Hickman boy's a tough nut. The other three'll fold fast enough, but he'll take some more persuading. " Zack swung an arm around Ripley's shoulder. "So, are you going into the cafe for some lunch?"

"I might be. Why?"

"I thought you could do me a little favor, since you love me and everything. "

The long whip of her ponytail bobbed as she turned her head to look up at him. "If you want me to talk Nell into dating you, just forget it. "

"I can get my own dates, thanks. "

"Batting zero so far. "

"I'm still on deck," he countered. "What I was hoping is that you'd tell Mia we're handling the lobster boys, and not to. . . do anything. "

"What do you mean,'do anything'? What does she have to do with it?" Ripley stopped, her temper flaring. "Damn it. "

"Don't get riled. It's just that Carl said he'd talked to her. I'd just as soon it not get around that our resident witch is cooking up a spell. Or whatever. "

To keep Ripley in check, Zack tightened his grip on her shoulders. "I'd go in myself and have a word with her, but the lobster boys should be coming along in a few minutes. I want to be standing here, looking smug and authoritative. "

"I'll talk to her. "

"You play nice, Rip. And remember it was Carl who went to her. "

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. " She shook off his arm and marched across the street.

Witches and spells. It was all a bunch of nonsense, idiotic hooey, she thought as she breezed down the sidewalk. A man like Carl Macey ought to know better. Stirring up a bunch of silliness. It was all right for the tourists to buy all the Three Sisters lore-it was one of the things that brought them over from the mainland. But it burned her butt when it was one of her own.

And Mia encouraged it, too. Just by being Mia.

Ripley swung into Cafe Book and scowled over at Lulu, who was ringing up a customer. "Where is she?"

"Upstairs. Pretty busy today. "

"Yeah, she's a busy little bee," Ripley muttered and headed up.

She spotted Mia with a customer in the cookbook section. Ripley bared her teeth. Mia fluttered her lashes. Simmering with impatience, Ripley strode into the cafe waited her turn, then snapped out an order for coffee.

"No lunch today?" Flushed with the bustle of the noon crowd, Nell poured out from a fresh pot.

"Lost my appetite. "

"That's too bad. " Mia cooed from behind Ripley. "The lobster salad's particularly good today. "

Ripley merely jerked a thumb, then marched behind the counter and into the kitchen. She jammed her hands on her hips when Mia strolled in after her.

"Zack and I are handling the problem. I want you to stay out of it. "

A bowl of top cream was less smooth than Mia's voice. "I wouldn't dream of interfering with the law of the land. "

"Excuse me. " Nell hesitated, cleared her throat. "Sandwiches. I need to make them up. "

"Go right ahead. " Mia gestured. "I imagine Deputy Fife and I are nearly done. "

"Just save the smart-ass comments. "

"I do. I store them up just for you. "

"I don't want you doing anything, and I want you to tell Carl you didn't do anything. "

"Too late. " Enjoying herself, Mia smiled brilliantly. "It's already done. A very simple spell-even someone with your fumbling abilities could have managed it. "

"Cancel it. "

"No. Why does it concern you? You claim not to believe in the Craft. "

"I don't. But I know how rumors work around here. If anything happens to those boys-"

"Don't insult me. " All humor fled from Mia's voice. "You know very well I'd do nothing to harm them, or anyone. You know, that's the heart of it. That's what you're afraid of. Afraid that if you opened yourself to what's inside you again, you wouldn't be able to control it. "

"I'm not afraid of anything. And you're not pulling me in that way. " She pointed at Nell, who was struggling to keep very busy with sandwiches. "You've got no right pulling her in, either. "

"I don't make the pattern, Ripley. I just recognize it. And so do you. "

"It's a waste of time talking to you. " Ripley stormed out of the kitchen.

Mia let out a little sigh, her only sign of distress. "Conversations with Ripley never seem particularly productive. You mustn't let it worry you, Nell. "

"It has nothing to do with me. "

"I can feel your anxiety all the way over here. People argue, often bitterly. They don't all solve the conflict with fists. Here, now. " She moved behind Nell and rubbed her shoulders. "Let the worry go. Tension's bad for the digestion. "

At the touch Nell felt a trickle of warmth melt away the ice that had balled in her belly. "I guess I like both of you. I hate to see you dislike each other. "

"I don't dislike Ripley. S

he annoys me, frustrates me, but I don't dislike her. You wonder what we were talking about, but you won't ask, will you, little sister?"

"No. I don't like questions. "

"I'm fascinated by them. We need to talk, you and I. " Mia stepped back, waited for Nell to pick up the completed order and turn. "I have things to do this evening. Tomorrow, then. I'll buy you a drink. Let's make it early. Five at the Magick Inn. The lounge. It's called the Coven. You can leave your questions at home if you like," Mia said as she started out. "I'll bring the answers anyway. "

Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance