"He's really built, too," Ripley continued as she scratched Diego's ears, "so the after-fireworks fireworks potential is fairly high, if you get me. I've been in a downswing sexwise. Anyway, we talked about having this night picnic deal, and somehow I got stuck with doing the food. Since I think I'd like to jump this guy's bones, I don't want to poison him first. "

"A romantic picnic for two. " Nell made notes. "Vegetarian or carnivore?"

"Carnivore. Not too fancy, okay?" Ripley plucked a grape from the bowl of fruit on the table, popped it in her mouth. "I don't want him more interested in the food than me. "

"Check. Pickup or delivery?"

"This is so cool. " Cheerful, she popped another grape. "I can pick it up. Can we keep it under fifty?"

"Under fifty. Tell him to pick up a nice crisp white wine. Now if you had a picnic hampe

r. . . "

"We've got one somewhere. "

"Perfect. Bring that by and we'll pack it up. You'll be set, foodwise. The bone-jumping portion of the evening is up to you. "

"I can handle that. You know, if you want, I can ask around, see if anybody's got a secondhand computer they want to sell. "

"That would be great. I'm glad you came by. " She rose, got out two glasses. "I was afraid you were annoyed with me. "

"No, not with you. That particular subject annoys me. It's a bunch of bullshit, just like. . . " She scowled through the screened door. "Well, speak of the devil. "

"I try not to. Why borrow trouble?" Mia sailed in, laid a note on the counter. "Phone message for you, Nell. Gladys and her newest party brainstorm. "

"I'm sorry. You don't have time to run over here this way. I'll speak to her again and I promise I'll see about getting a phone. "

"Don't worry about it. I wanted a walk or I'd have left it for tomorrow. And I'll have a glass of that lemonade. "

"She needs a computer," Ripley said flatly. "She won't use the one at the store because she doesn't want to hassle you. "

"Ripley. Mia, I'm perfectly fine working this way. "

"She can certainly use the computer at the store when it's free," Mia said to Ripley. "And she doesn't need you running interference between her and me. "

"She wouldn't if you weren't trying to push your psychic hooey on her. "

"'Psychic hooey' sounds like the name of a second-rate rock band and has nothing to do with what I am. But even that's better than blind, stubborn denial. Knowledge is always better than ignorance. "

"You want ignorance?" Ripley said, getting to her feet.

"Stop! Stop it. " Jittering inside, Nell put herself between them. "This is ridiculous. Do you two always go at each other this way?"

"Yes. " Mia picked up a glass, sipped delicately. "We enjoy it, don't we, Deputy?"

"I'd enjoy popping you one more, but then I'd have to arrest myself. "

"Try it. " Mia angled her chin. "I promise not to press charges. "

"Nobody hits anybody. Not in my house. "

Instantly contrite, Mia set down her glass, rubbed a hand down Nell's arm. It was rigid as steel. "I'm sorry, little sister. Ripley and I irritate each other, a long-standing habit. But we shouldn't put you in the middle. We shouldn't put her in the middle," Mia said to Ripley. "It isn't fair. "

"Something we agree on. How about this? If we run into each other here, it's a neutral zone. You know, like Romulan space. No warfare. "

"Romulan Neutral Zone. I've always admired your grip on popular culture. Agreed. " She even picked up the second glass, passed it to Ripley. "There. You see, Nell, you're a good influence on us already. " She handed the third glass to Nell. "To positive influences. "

Ripley hesitated, cleared her throat. "Okay, okay, what the hell. Positive influences. "

And standing in a loose circle, they tapped glasses. They rang like a bell, one bright peal as a shower of light fountained up from that connection of secondhand kitchenware.

Mia smiled slowly as Nell let out a laughing gasp.

"Damn it," Ripley muttered, and gulped down lemonade. "I hate that. "

***

Celebrants streamed to the island for the Fourth. Red, white, and blue flags snapped from the rails of the ferries as they chugged to the mainland and back. Banners and bunting swagged the eaves of the storefronts on High Street, waving cheerfully as tourists and islanders alike jammed the streets and beaches.

For Nell it was anything but a holiday, but that didn't prevent her celebrational mood as she delivered orders. She not only had a job she loved, she had a business she could be proud of.

Independence Day, she thought. She was going to make it hers.

For the first time in nine months, she began to plan for a future that included bank accounts, mail delivery, and personal possessions that couldn't be stuffed into a duffel or backpack at a moment's notice.

A normal, functioning life, she thought as she paused by the display window of Beach Where. The mannequin was wearing breezy summer slacks with bold blue and white stripes and a gauzy white top that scooped low at the breasts. Strappy white sandals as fun as they were impractical adorned its feet.

Nell bit her lip. Her pay was burning a hole in the pocket of her ancient jeans. That had always been her problem, she reminded herself. If she had ten dollars, she could find a way to spend nine of it.

She'd learned how to save and scrimp and resist. How to make five dollars stretch like elastic.

But she hadn't had anything new, anything pretty, in so long. And Mia had been hinting, not quite so gently of late, that she should spruce up a bit on the job.

Plus, she had to make some sort of a showing of herself for the catering sideline. If she was going to be a businesswoman, she should dress the part. On the island that meant casual. Still, casual could mean attractive.

On the other hand, it would be more practical, more sensible, to save the money and invest it in kitchen tools. She needed a food processor more than she needed sandals.

"Are you going to listen to the good angel or the bad angel?"

"Mia. " Vaguely embarrassed at being caught daydreaming over a pair of shoes, Nell laughed. "You startled me. "

"Great sandals. On sale, too. "

"They are?"

Mia tapped the glass just below the Sale sign. "My favorite four-letter word. I smell possibilities, Nell. Let's shop. "

"Oh, but I really shouldn't. I don't need anything. "

"You really do need work. " Mia tossed back her hair, took Nell's elbow in a firm grip, much like a mother with a stubborn child. "Shopping for shoes has nothing to do with need, and everything to do with lust. Do you know how many pair of shoes I own?"

"No. "


Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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