"Mr. Bigelow, Lancefort Bigelow, prefers my cream puffs. He said if I'd make them for him every day, he'd marry me and we'd move to Bimini. "

Still grinning, Zack broke the muffin in half, treated himself to the fragrant steam. "That's pretty stiff competition. "

Bigelow, a confirmed bachelor, was ninety.

He watched her stir the dough, form it into a ball. Then she emptied the muffin pan, set them to cool on a rack while she refilled the cups. When the timer buzzed again, she shifted trays, went back to roll out her pastry dough.

"You've got yourself a real system," he commented. "Where'd you learn to bake?"

"My mother-" She broke off, realigned her thoughts. It was too easy in the quiet kitchen, with all these homey smells, to get overly comfortable and reveal too much. "My mother liked to

bake," she said. "And I picked up recipes and techniques here and there. "

He didn't want her to stiffen up, so he let it pass. "Do you ever make those cinnamon rolls? You know the ones with that sticky white icing?"

"Mmm. "

"I make them sometimes. "

"Really. " She began to cut the dough for tarts and glanced back at him. He looked so. . . male, she thought, leaning back on the counter with his ankles crossed and a mug of coffee in his hand. "I didn't know you cooked. "

"Sure, now and then. You buy these tubes down at the market. Then you take them home, rap them against the counter and peel the bun things out, cook them, and squirt icing on the top. Nothing to it. "

It made her laugh. "I'll have to try that sometime. " She went to the refrigerator, took out her bowl of filling.

"I'll give you some pointers on it. " He drained his cup, set it in the sink. "I guess I'd better get home, and get out of your way. Thanks for the coffee. "

"You're welcome. "

"And the muffin. It was just fine. "

"That's a relief. " She stood at the table, methodically spooning filling into the center of her rounds of dough. When he stepped toward her, she tensed a little, but continued to work.

"Nell?"

She looked up, and filling slopped out of her spoon when he put his hand on her cheek.

"I sure hope this doesn't put you off," he said, and leaning down, he laid his lips on hers.

She didn't move a muscle. Couldn't. Her eyes stayed open, locked on his. Watching, as a deer might watch when pinned in the crosshairs.

His lips were warm. She registered that. And softer than they looked. He didn't touch her. She imagined she'd have leaped out of her skin if he'd laid his hands on her now.

But it was only his mouth, light and easy on hers.

He'd prepared himself for her to be annoyed, or disinterested. He hadn't expected her to be scared. That was what he felt from her, a rigid anxiety that could easily bloom into fear. So he didn't touch her as he wanted to, not even a gentle brush of fingers down her arms.

If she'd stepped back, he'd have done nothing to stop her. But her absolute stillness was its own defense. It was he who stepped back, and kept it light despite a gnawing in the gut that was more than a stir of desire for her-it was a cold fury for whoever had hurt her.

"Seems I have a soft spot for more than your muffins. " He tucked his thumbs in his front pockets. "See you later. "

He strolled out, hoping the kiss and the ease of his leaving would give her something to think about.

***

He wasn't going to get any sleep. Resigned to it, he thrilled Lucy by taking her for an early-morning swim in the inlet. The romp, and her sheer foolishness, worked off a good portion of his stiffness, and his frustration.

He watched Ripley finish her run on the beach and dive into the surf. Dependable as sunrise, he thought as she cut through the waves. Maybe he didn't always know what went on in her head, or how it got there, but he rarely had to worry about Ripley Todd.

She could handle herself.

Lucy ran out to meet her as she started back, and the two wet females had a wrestle and a race. They both joined him on the upper porch, Lucy to flop down in delighted exhaustion, and Ripley sucking on a bottle of water.

"Mom called last night. " Ripley flopped down herself, on one of the deck chairs. "They made it to the Grand Canyon. They're sending us six million pictures that Dad took with his digital. I'm afraid to start the download. "

"Sorry I missed the call. "

"I told them you were on a stakeout," she said with her tongue in her cheek. "They got a kick out of the lobster caper. Any updates?"

"Oh, yeah. "

He sat on the arm of the Adirondack chair, and filled her in.

She turned her face up to the sky and hooted. "I knew I should've gone with you. Idiot drunk putz. Lobster Boy, not you. "

"I figured. He wasn't that drunk, Rip. "

She lifted a hand, waved it at him. "Don't start that. I'm in too good a mood for you to spoil it by mentioning Mia and her double, double, toil and trouble routine. "

"Suit yourself. "

"I usually do. I'm going to get a shower. I'll take the first shift. You must be wiped. "

"I'm okay. Listen. . . " But he trailed off, trying to think how to put what he wanted to say.

"Listening. "

"I went by the yellow cottage on the way home. Nell's lights were on, so I stopped in. "

"Aha," Ripley teased.

"Gutter-face. I had a cup of coffee and a muffin. "

"Gee, Zack, I'm sorry to hear that. "

Normally he'd have laughed. Instead he rose, paced to the rail. "You stop in and see her most every day. You're friendly, right?"

"I guess we're friendly enough. It's hard not to like her. "

"Women tend to confide stuff to their female friends, don't they?"

"Probably. You want me to ask her if she likes you enough to go to the school dance with you?" She started to snicker, but stopped when he turned around and saw his face. "Hey, sorry. I didn't know it was serious. What's up?"

"I think she's been abused. "

"Man. " Ripley stared down at her water bottle. "That's tough. "

"Some son of a bitch messed with her, I'm sure of it. Whether or not she's had counseling or gotten help, it seems to me she could use a. . . you know, a girlfriend. Somebody she could talk to about it. "


Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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