"Don't start. I haven't time to referee. "

"Don't worry. " Ripley snagged one more egg roll. "I can't waste the energy on Hecate here. Gladys's nephew from Cambridge just arrived and is looking just fine. I'm going to go hit on him. "

"It's so comforting to know some things never change. "

"Don't touch anything," Nell ordered, then hurried out with the tray.

"So. . . " Because she preferred being away from the crowd of people, but still wanted to eat, Ripley eased up the lid on a covered tray. "Nell seems okay. "

"Why wouldn't she?"

"Don't play dumb, Mia. It doesn't suit that cat face of yours. " Ripley helped herself to a couple of frosted, heart-shaped cookies. "I don't need a scrying mirror to see she's had a rough time. A woman like h

er doesn't pop up on the island with nothing to her name but a backpack and a secondhand Buick unless she's on the run. Zack figures some guy knocked her around. "

When Mia said nothing, Ripley leaned back on the counter, nibbled. "Look, I like her, and my brother's gone over her. I'm not looking to hassle her, but maybe to help if she needs it. "

"With or without your badge?"

"Either or both. It seems to me she's putting down stakes here, not just working for you, but starting this catering deal. She's starting a life on Three Sisters. That makes her one of mine. "

"Give me one of those. " Mia held out her hand, waited until Ripley gave her a cookie. "What are you asking me, Ripley?"

"If Zack's right, and if he is, if someone's going to come after her. "

"Whatever Nell's told me in confidence has to be respected. "

Loyalty, Ripley was forced to admit, was never a question with Mia. It was more a religion. "I'm not asking you to break a confidence. "

Mia nipped into the cookie. "You just can't say it, can you?"

"Oh, kiss ass. " Ripley slapped the lid back on the tray, started to storm out. But there was something about the way Nell had been, flushed and happy, as she worked in the miraculously ordered kitchen, that pulled at her.

She spun back. "Tell me what you've seen. I want to help her. "

"Yes, I know. " Mia finished the cookie, dusted the crumbs from her fingers. "There's a man. He hunts and he haunts her. He's the physical reality of her every fear, doubt, worry. If he comes here, if he finds her, she'll need both of us. And she'll need the courage to take her own power and use it. "

"What's his name?"

"I can't tell you that. It wasn't shown to me. "

"But you know it. "

"What she gave to me I can't pass on to you. I can't break her trust. " The worry in Mia's eyes crawled into Ripley's belly. "If I could, and did, his name would make no difference. This is her path, Ripley. We can guide and support, instruct and assist. But in the end, it'll be her choice. You know the legend as well as I. "

"I'm not getting into that. " Ripley pushed the subject away with a sharp gesture. "I'm talking about someone's safety. A friend's safety. "

"So am I. But I'm also talking about a friend's destiny. If you really want to help her, you could start by taking responsibility for your own. " With that, Mia walked out.

"Responsibility, my butt. " Ripley was annoyed enough to pry up the lid for one more cookie.

She knew what her responsibilities were. She was obliged to see to the safety of the residents and visitors of Three Sisters Island. To keep order and uphold the law.

Beyond that, her responsibilities were nobody's business but hers. And it wasn't responsible to go around practicing mumbo jumbo and clinging to some stupid legend that was as much nonsense now as it had been three centuries before.

She was the island deputy, not part of some mystic trio of saviors. And she wasn't destined to mete out some nebulous psychic justice.

Now she'd lost her appetite, and her desire to hit on Gladys Macey's nephew. Served her right for wasting time with Mia Devlin.

Disgusted, she stalked out of the kitchen. The first thing she saw as she moved back toward the party was Zack. He was in the middle of things, where he always seemed to be when it came to people. They were drawn to him. But even as he stood in the middle of a group who chattered at him, she could see that his gaze and his mind were aimed elsewhere.

It was all for Nell.

Now, Ripley watched her brother as he watched Nell circulate with her fancy little egg rolls. There was no doubt about it.

The man was completely over the moon.

While she could resist and ignore Mia's talk of destinies and responsibilities when it came to herself, when it came to a newly formed and still evolving friendship, it was an entirely different matter. Especially if it involved her brother.

There was nothing she wouldn't have done for Zack, even if it meant linking hands with Mia.

She was going to have to pay close attention to the situation, reevaluate periodically. Do some hard, uncomfortable thinking.

"He's on the edge," Mia whispered in her ear. "The shimmering edge just before the breathless tumble. "

"I've got eyes, don't I?"

"Do you know what happens when he falls?"

Ripley took the wineglass out of Mia's hand, drank half of it. "Why don't you tell me?"

"He'll lay down his life for her, without an instant's hesitation. He's the most admirable man I know. " She took the glass back, sipped. "That, at least, is a point of absolute agreement between us. "

Because she knew it, Ripley weakened. "I want a protective spell. I want you to take care of that. "

"I've already done what I can. In the end, it has to be a circle of three. "

"I can't think about this now. I'm not going to talk about it now. "

"All right. Why don't we just stand here and watch a strong and admirable man fall in love? Moments this pure shouldn't be wasted. " Mia laid a hand on Ripley's shoulder, a casual link. "She doesn't see it. Even as it passes over her like a breath of warm air, she isn't whole enough to know it. "

With a sigh that may have held the barest whiff of envy, Mia looked down into her wine. "Come on. I'll buy you a drink. "

***

Zack bided his time. He talked with the other guests, danced with the ladies, shared a celebratory beer with Carl. He listened with apparent interest to village complaints and scrutinized the alcohol intake of anyone who held car keys.

He watched Nell serve food, chat with the guests, replenish pots staying warm over little cans of sterno. What he observed, he thought, was a blooming.

He started to ask if he could lend her a hand, then realized it was laughable. Not only did he have no clue what needed to be done, but she so obviously needed no one's help.

As the crowd thinned out, he drove a few celebrants home himself, to be on the safe side. It was nearly midnight before he felt his own duties were dispatched and he could hunt Nell up in the kitchen.

Empty trays were stacked neatly on Gladys's marbled white counter. Serving bowls were nested. The sink was filled with soapy water that sent up little fingers of steam, and Nell was systematically loading the dishwasher.

"When's the last time you were off your feet?"

"I lost track. " She slid plates into slots. "But the fact that they're killing me makes me incredibly happy. "

"Here. " He held out a glass of champagne. "I thought you deserved this. "

"I certainly do. " She took a quick sip before she set it aside. "All these weeks of planning, and it's done. And I have five, count them, five appointments for jobs next week. Did you know Mary Harrison's daughter is getting married next spring?"

"I heard that. To John Bigelow. Cousin of mine. "

"I have a shot at catering it. "

"I vote you put those meatballs of yours on the menu. They were really tasty. "

"I'll make a note of it. " It felt so good to be able to plan ahead. Not just a day or a week, but months ahead. "Did you see the way Gladys and Carl danced together?"

She straightened, pressing hard on the aching small of her back. "Thirty years, and they were dancing on the patio, looking at each other like it was the first time. It was the best moment of the night for me. Do you know why?"


Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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