Diane McCoy sat hunched in a chair with an ice bag held to her left eye. She continued to refuse medical assistance. After offering her a cup of coffee, Zack pulled his own chair from behind his desk, hoping the move would put her more at ease.

"Ms. McCoy, I want to help you. "

"I'm okay. We'll pay for the damages. You just have the rental agency make up a list and we'll pay for it. "

"That's something we'll need to see to. I want you to tell me what happened. "

"We just had a fight, that's all. People do. You didn't need to lock Joe up. If there's a fine, we'll pay it. "

"Ms. McCoy, you're sitting there with your lip bleeding, your eye black, and cuts and bruises all over your arms. Your husband assaulted you. "

"It wasn't like that. "

"What was it like?"

"I asked for it. "

Even as Ripley let out a vicious stream of air across the room, Zack leveled a warning glance. "You asked him to hit you, Ms. Mc

Coy? To knock you down, to bloody your lip?"

"I aggravated him. He's under a lot of pressure. " The words tumbled out, slurred a bit from her swollen lip. "This is supposed to be a vacation, and I shouldn't've nagged at him that way. "

She must have sensed Ripley's furious disapproval as she turned her head, stared defiantly. "Joe works hard, fifty weeks a year. The least I can do is leave him alone on his vacation. "

"It seems to me," Ripley countered, "the least he could do is keep from punching you in the face on your vacation. "

"Ripley, get Ms. McCoy a glass of water. " And shut up. He didn't have to say the last with his mouth, when his expression said it so clearly. "What started the trouble, Ms. McCoy?"

"I guess I got up on the wrong side of the bed. Joe was up late, drinking. A man's entitled to sit in front of the TV with a few beers on his vacation. He left the place a mess-beer cans, spilled chips all over the rug. It irritated me, and I started on him the minute he was awake. If I'd shut up when he told me to, none of this would've happened. "

"And not shutting up when you were told gave him the right to use his fists on you, Ms. McCoy?"

She powered up. "What happens between a husband and wife is nobody's business but theirs. We shouldn't have broken things, and we'll pay for them. I'll clean the place up myself. "

"Ms. McCoy, they have counseling programs back in Newark," Zack began, "and shelters for women who need them. I can make some calls, get you some information. "

Her eyes might have been swollen, but they could still flash fury. "I don't need any information. You can't keep Joe locked up if I don't press charges, and I won't. "

"You're wrong there. I can keep him locked up for disturbing the peace. And the property owners can press charges. "

"You'll just make it worse. " Tears began to fall. She took the paper cup Ripley offered her and gulped at the water. "Don't you see? You'll just make it worse. He's a good man. Joe's a good man, he's just got a short fuse is all. I said we'd pay. I'll write you a check. We don't want any trouble. I'm the one who made him mad. I threw things at him, too. You're going to have to lock me up along with him. What's the point?"

***

What was the point? Zack thought later. He hadn't been able to reach her, and he wasn't egotistical enough to think he was the first to try. He couldn't help when help was rejected. The McCoys were caught in a cycle that was bound to end badly.

And all he could do was remove the cycle from his island.

It took half the day to straighten out the mess. A check for two thousand satisfied the rental company. A cleaning crew was already in place by the time the McCoys had packed up. Zack waited, saying nothing as Joe McCoy loaded suitcases and coolers into the back of a late-model Grand Cherokee.

The couple got in from opposite sides. Diane wore big sunglasses to hide the damage. They both ignored Zack as he got into the cruiser and followed them to the ferry.

He stayed there, watching, until the Jeep and the people inside it were no more than a dot on their way to the mainland.

***

He hadn't expected that Nell would have waited for him, and decided it was just as well. He was too depressed and far too angry to talk to her. Instead he sat in the kitchen with Lucy, nursed a beer. He was considering indulging in a second when Ripley came in.

"I don't get it. I just don't get women like that. The guy's got a hundred fifty pounds on her, but it's her fault he bashed her face. And she believed it. "

She got out a beer for herself, jerking the bottle at him as she twisted off the cap.

"Maybe she needs to. "

"Oh, like hell, Zack. Like hell. " Still simmering, she dropped into the chair across from him. "She's healthy, she's got a brain. What does she gain hooking herself to a guy who uses her for a punching bag when the mood strikes him? If she'd pressed charges, we could've held him long enough for her to pack her bags and get gone. We should've held him anyway. "

"She wouldn't have left. It wouldn't have made one damn bit of difference. "

"Okay, you're right. I know it. It just burns me, that's all. " She sipped her beer, watching him. "You're thinking about Nell. You figure it was like that for her?"

"I don't know what it was like for her. She doesn't talk about it. "

"Have you asked?"

"If she wanted to tell me, she would. "

"Well, don't snap my head off. " Ripley propped her feet on the chair beside her. "I'm asking you because I know you, big brother. If you've got a thing for her, and the thing turns into a big thing, you're never going to be square with it unless you have the story. Without the story, you can't help, and when you can't help, it drives you nuts. You're brooding right now because you couldn't help-to your satisfaction-a woman you'd never seen before and won't see again. It's that Good Samaritan gene of yours. "

"Isn't there someone else on the island you can go annoy?"

"No, because I love you best. Now, instead of having another beer, why don't you take Luce and go for a sail? Still plenty of daylight yet, and it'll clear your head and improve your disposition. You're just no fun to be around when you're broody. "

"Maybe I will. "

"Good. Go. Odds of a second crisis in one day are slim to none, but I'll take a cruise around, just in case. "

"Okay. " He got up and after a moment's hesitation leaned down and kissed the top of her head. "I love you best, too. "

"Don't I know it. " She waited until he got to the door. "You know, Zack, whatever Nell's story is, there's one key difference between her and Diane McCoy. Nell got gone. "


Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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