At seven, the appetizers were ready, and the wine was chilling. Nell had bought a secondhand table and planned to spend part of her day off scraping and painting it. But for now she covered the scarred wood and peeling green paint with a sheet.

It stood on her back lawn, along with the two old chairs she'd picked up for a song. They weren't particularly pretty at the moment, but they had potential. And they were hers.

She'd set the table with two plates, two bowls, and wineglasses-all purchases from the island thrift shop. Nothing matched, but she thought the result was cheerful and charming.

And as far from the formal china and heavy silver of her past as possible.

Her garden was coming along well, and the tomato and pepper plants, the squash and zucchini, would all be put in the following morning.

She was very close to broke again, and completely content.

"Well, now, does

n't that look sweet?"

Nell turned to see Gladys Macey standing on the edge of her lawn, gripping an enormous white purse.

"Just as pretty as a picture. "

"Mrs. Macey. Hello. "

"Hope you don't mind me dropping by this way. I'd've called, but you haven't got a phone. "

"No, of course not. Um, can I get you something to drink?"

"No, no, don't you fuss. I've come by on business. "


"Yes, indeed. " Her tidy helmet of black hair barely moved as she gave a sharp nod. "Carl and I got our thirtieth anniversary coming up last part of July. "

"Congratulations. "

"You can say that again. Two people stick it out for three decades, it's saying something. Since it is, I want a party, and I just finished telling Carl he's not getting out of putting on a suit for it, either. I was wondering if you'd take care of putting the refreshments together for me. "

"Oh. Well. "

"I want a catered affair," Gladys said definitely. "And I want it spiffy. When my girl got married, two years ago last April, we hired a caterer from the mainland. Too snippy for my taste, and too dear for Carl's, but we didn't have much to choose from. I don't figure you're going to get snippy with me or charge me a king's ransom for a bowl of cold shrimp. "

"Mrs. Macey, I appreciate you thinking of me, but I'm not set up to cater. "

"Well, you got time, don't you? I've got a list here of how many people and the kind of business I'm thinking of. " She pulled a file folder out of the enormous purse, pushed it into Nell's hand. "I want to have it right at my house, and I've got my mother's good china and so forth. You just look over what I've put together there, and we'll talk about it tomorrow. You come on by the house tomorrow afternoon. "

"I'd certainly like to help you. Maybe I can. . . " She looked down at the folder, saw that Gladys had marked it "Thirtieth Anniversary" and had added a heart with her initials and Carl's in the center.

Touched, she tucked the folder under her arm, "I'll see what I can do. "

"You're a nice girl, Nell. " Gladys glanced over her shoulder at the sound of a car, lifted her eyebrows as she recognized Zack's cruiser. "And you've got good taste. You come on by tomorrow, and we'll talk this out. Have a nice dinner now. "

She strolled toward her car, stopping to say a few words to Zack. She gave him a pat on the cheek, noted the flowers in his hand. By the time she was behind the wheel, she was planning who she'd call first to spread the news that Zachariah Todd was sparking the little Channing girl.

"I'm a little late. Sorry. We had a fender bender in the village. Put me behind. "

"It's all right. "

"I thought you might like these for your garden. "

She smiled at the pot of Shasta daisies. "They're perfect. Thanks. " She took them, set them beside her kitchen stoop. "I'll get the wine and the appetizers. "

He walked into the kitchen behind her. "Something smells great. "

"Once I got started, I tried out a couple of different recipes. You've got your work cut out for you. "

"I'm up for it. Now what's this?" He crouched down, stroked a finger over the smoke-gray kitten circled on a pillow in the corner.

"That's Diego. We're living together. "

The kitten mewed, stretched, then began to bat at Zack's shoelaces. "You've been busy. Cooking, buying furniture, getting a roommate. " Scooping up Diego, he turned toward her. "Nobody's going to find any moss on you, Nell. "

He stood there, big and handsome, with a gray kitten nuzzling at his shoulder.

He'd brought her white daisies in a plastic pot.

"Oh, damn. " She set her tray of appetizers down again, took a breath. "I might as well get this over with. I don't want you to get the wrong impression about dinner, and. . . things. I'm very attracted to you, but I'm not in a place where I can act on my feelings. It's only fair to tell you that up front. There are good reasons for it, but I'm not willing to get into them. So, if you'd rather just go, no hard feelings. "

He listened soberly, rubbing a finger between the kitten's silky ears. "I appreciate you spelling that out for me. Seems a shame to waste all this food, though. " He plucked a stuffed olive from the tray, popped it into his mouth. "I'll just hang around, if it's all the same to you. Why don't I take the wine outside?"

He picked up the bottle and, still carrying Diego, bumped the screened door with his hip. "Oh, and in the interest of fair play, I'll tell you I'll be nudging you out of that place you're in. "

With that said, he held the door open. "You want to bring those on out?"

"I'm not as easy a nudge as you might think. "

"Honey, there's nothing easy about you. "

She picked up the tray, sailed by him. "I take that as a compliment. "

"It was meant as one. Now, why don't we have some wine, relax, and you can tell me what Gladys Macey was after. "

When they were seated, she poured the wine, and he settled the kitten in his lap. "I thought, being sheriff, you'd know all there is to know about what's going on. "

"Well. " He leaned over the tray, selected a gnocchi. "I can deduce, seeing as I'm a trained observer. There's a file on your counter, marked with Gladys's handwriting, which leads me to believe she's planning on an anniversary party. And, as I'm sitting here, heading straight toward heaven with whatever the hell it is I just put in my mouth-and knowing Gladys is a shrewd lady-I'd suppose she's wanting you to cater it. How'd I do?"

"Dead on. "

"Are you going to do it?"

"I'm going to think about it. "

"You'd do a great job. " He plucked another selection from the tray, examined it suspiciously. "Any mushrooms in this thing? I hate mushrooms. "

"No. We're fungi-free tonight. Why would I do a good job?"

"I said great job. " He popped it in his mouth. Some creamy cheese and herbs in a thin and flaky pastry. "Because you cook like a magician, you look like an angel, and you're as organized as a computer. You get things done, and you've got style. How come you're not eating any of this?"

"I want to see if you live first. " When he only grinned and kept eating, she sat back and sipped her wine. "I'm a good cook. Put me in a kitchen, and I rule the world. I'm presentable, but I don't look like an angel. "

"I'm the one looking at you. "

"I'm organized," she continued, "because I keep my life simple. "

"Which is another way of saying you're not going to complicate it with me. "

"There you go, dead on again. I'm going to get the salad. "

Zack waited until her back was turned before he let his amusement show. "Easy enough to ruffle her feathers," he said to Diego, "when you know where to scratch. Let me tell you something I've learned over the years about women. Keep changing the rhythm, and they'll never know what to expect next. "

When Nell came back out, Zack launched into the story of the pediatrician from Washington and the stockbroker from New York who'd bumped fenders outside the pharmacy on High Street.

He made her laugh, put her gently at ease again. Before she knew it, she was telling him about various kitchen feuds in restaurants where she'd worked.

Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance