"Not a single word. You can look him up in the registry at the Island Methodist Church. Francis Morris Bigelow. Gran, she married a Ripley, but was a Bigelow by birth and older sister to Frank. She lived to just past her hundredth birthday herself. We tend to be long-lived in my family, which is why most of us don't settle down to marriage and family until into our thirties. "

"I see. " Since he'd polished off his cake, Nell nudged hers toward him and wasn't the least bit surprised when he took a forkful. "I'd always thought New England Yankees were a taciturn breed. You know-ayah, nope, maybe. "

"We like to talk in my family. Ripley can be short-winded, but then she isn't overly fond of people as a species. This is the best meal I've had since Sunday dinner at my gran's. "

"That is the ultimate compliment. "

"We'd finish it off exactly right if we were to take a walk on the beach. "

She couldn't chink of a reason to say no. Maybe she didn't want to.

The light was fading, going deep at the edges. A needle-thin and needle-bright swath of light swept over the horizon, and a blush of pink gleamed in the west. The tide had gone out, leaving a wide avenue of dark, damp sand that was cool underfoot. The surf teased it, foaming out in ribbons while narrow-bodied birds with legs like stilts pecked for their supper.

Others strolled the beach. Almost all couples now, Nell noted. Hand-in-hand or arm-in-arm. As a precaution, she'd tucked her own hands in her pockets after she'd pried off her shoes and rolled up her jeans.

Here and there were stockpiles of driftwood that would be bonfires when full dark fell. She wondered what it would be like to sit by the flames with a group of friends. To laugh and talk of nothing important.

"Haven't seen you go in yet. "

"In?"

"The water," Zack explained.

She didn't own a bathing suit, but saw no reason to say so. "I've waded in a couple of times. "

"Don't swim?"

"Of course I can swim. "

"Let's go. "

He scooped her up so fast her heart stuck between her chest and her throat. She could barely manage to breathe, much less scream. Before full panic had a chance to bloom, she was in the water.

Zack was laughing, spinning her away from an oncoming wave to take the brunt of it himself. She was sliding, rolling, fighting to gain her feet when he simply nipped her at the waist and righted her.

"Can't live on Three Sisters without being baptized. " Tossing his wet hair back, he pulled her farther out.

"It's freezing. "

"Balmy," he corrected. "Your blood's just thin ye

t. Here comes a good-size one. You'd better hold on to me. "

"I don't want to-" Whatever she did or didn't want, the sea had its own ideas. The wave hit, knocked her off her feet, and had her legs tangling with his.

"You idiot. " But she was laughing as she surfaced. When the air hit her skin, she quickly dunked neck-deep again. "The sheriff's supposed to have more sense than to jump in the ocean fully dressed. "

"I'd've stripped down, but we haven't known each other long enough. " He rolled over on his back, floating lazily. "The first stars are coming out. There's nothing like it. Nothing in the world like it. Come on. "

The sea rocked her, made her feel weightless as she watched the color of the sky change. As the tone deepened bit by bit, stars winked to life.

"You're right, there's nothing like it. But it's still freezing. "

"You just need a winter on the island to thicken your blood up. " He took her hand, a quiet connection as they drifted an armspan apart. "I've never spent more than three months at a time off-island, and that was for college. Had three years of that, and couldn't take it anymore. I knew what I wanted anyway. And that's what I've got. "

The rhythm of the waves, the sweep of the sky. The quiet flow of his voice coming out of the dark.

"It's a kind of magic, isn't it?" She sighed as the cool, moist breeze whispered over her face. "To know what you want, to just know. And to get it. "

"Magic doesn't hurt. Work helps. So does patience and all kinds of things. "

"I know what I want now, and I'm getting it. That's magic to me. "

"The island's never been short on that commodity. Comes from being founded by witches, I suppose. "

Surprise tinged her voice. "Do you believe in that sort of thing?"

"Why wouldn't I? Things are, whether people believe in them or not. There were lights in the sky last night that weren't stars. A person could look the other way, but they'd still have been there. "

He planted his feet again, lifting her until she stood facing him with the water fuming at waist level. Night had drifted in, and the lights of the stars sprinkled over the surface of the water.

"You can turn away from something like this. " He skimmed her wet hair away from her face, left his hands resting there. "But it's still going to be there. "

She pressed a hand against his shoulder as his mouth lowered to hers. She meant to turn away, told herself to turn away, to where everything was safe and ordered and simple.

But the spark he'd spoken of snapped inside her, warm and bright. She curled her fingers into his wet shirt and let herself feel.

Alive. Cold where the air whisked over her skin. Hot in the belly where desire began to build. Testing herself, she leaned into him, parted her lips under his.

He took his time, as much for himself as for her. Sampling, savoring. She tasted of the sea. Smelled of it. For a moment, in the star-drenched surf, he let himself drown.

He eased back, let his hands run over her shoulders, down her arms before he linked his fingers with hers. "Not so complicated. " He kissed her again, lightly, though the lightness cost him. "I'll walk you home. "


Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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