Chapter Sixteen

Nell put it all out of her mind, or tried to, and went to work. She served coffee and muffins, joked with regulars. She wore her new blue sweater and stirred the pumpkin soup she had simmering for the lunch crowd.

She replenished the stack of business cards Mia had suggested that she put beside the cafe's cash register.

It was all so normal, almost breezy. Except she reached for the locket she no longer wore a dozen times through the morning. Each time she did, the image of Zack covered with blood flashed through her mind.

He'd had to go to the mainland that morning, and the idea of him being off-island was one more fear. He could be attacked on the street, mugged. Left to lie bleeding and dying.

By the end of her shift she'd concluded she hadn't done enough, and needed help.

She found Mia helping a customer with a selection of children's books. She waited, mentally wringing her hands, until the choices were made and the customer headed to checkout.

"I know you're busy, but I need to talk to you. "

"All right. Let me get my jacket. We'll take a walk. "

She was back moments later with a suede jacket tossed over her short dress. Both were the color of butternut squash that made her hair glint like a mane of fire.

She waved at Lulu as she walked out the front door. "Taking my lunch break. Great sweater," she added as they stepped outside. "Lulu's work, isn't it?"

"Yes. "

"You've jumped a hurdle. She wouldn't have made you something that fine if she hadn't decided to accept you. Congratulations. "

"Thanks. I. . . did you want to get some lunch?"

"No. " Mia shook her hair back, breathed deep. There were times, rare times, when she felt locked inside the bookstore. When she needed space desperately. "I want to walk. "

Ripley had been right about Indian summer. The cold snap had given way to balmy days of warmth and moist breezes that carried the scents of both sea and forest. The sky was clouded up, and against that dull pewter the trees rose like flaming beacons. The ocean mirrored the sky, and its kicky waves foretold a storm brewing.

"It'll rain within the hour," Mia predicted. "And look. " She gestured out to sea. Seconds later, as if she'd ordered it, a pale jag of lightning cracked the steel mirror of sky. "Storm's coming. I love a good storm. The air goes electric and the energy of it pumps into your blood. Makes me restless, though. I want my cliffs in a storm. "

Mia slipped out of her lovely shoes, hooked them on her fingers, and stepped barefoot into the sand. "The beach is almost empty," she pointed out. "It's a good place to walk, and for you to tell me what's troubling you. "

"I had a. . . I don't know if it was a vision. I don't know what it was. It frightens me. "

Mia slid her free arm through Nell's and kept the pace easy. "Tell me. "

When she finished, Mia kept walking. "Why did you give him your locket?"

"It was all I could think of. An impulse. The thing that mattered most to me, I suppose. "

"You were wearing it when you died. You brought it with you into your new life. This symbol of where you came from, this connection to your mother. Your talisman. Strong magic. He'll wear it because you asked him to, and that makes it stronger yet. "

"It's a locket, Mia. Something my father bought my mother for Christmas one year. It's not particularly valuable. "

"You know better than that. Its value is its meaning to you, and the love you have for your parents, the love you've given to Zack. "

"Is it enough? I don't see how it can be. I know what it meant, Mia. " And this was the terror that stretched like a beast inside her. "In the vision his face was gray, and the blood-there was so much blood. In the vision, he was dead. " She made herself say it again. "He was dead. Isn't there something you can do?"

She'd already done all she could think of, all she felt within her power. "What do you think I can do that you haven't?"

"I don't know. So much more. Was it a premonition?"

"Is that what you believe?"

"Yes. Yes. " Even thinking of it stopped her breath. "It was so clear. He's going to be killed, and I don't know how. "

"What we see are possibilities, potentials, Nell. Nothing is absolute. Nothing, good or bad, is guaranteed. You were given this vision, and you acted to protect. "

"Isn't there a way to stop whoever will try to hurt him? A spell?"

"Spells aren't a cure for every circumstance, or shouldn't be. And remember, what you send out can come back to you or yours, threefold. Attack one thing, unleash another. "

She didn't say what went through her mind. Stop the knife, Mia thought grimly, and you may load a gun.

"A storm's coming," she repeated. "And more than the lightning is going to slash through the sky this afternoon. "

"You know something. "

"I feel something. I can't see it clearly. Perhaps it's not for me to see. " That was a frustration, this barrier. And the knowledge that she, so long a solitary witch, couldn't do what needed to be done alone. "I'll help you all I can, that I can promise. "

Even as she worried it wouldn't be enough, she saw Ripley standing on the edge of the sand. "Call Ripley down. She'll come for you. Tell her what you've told me. "

Nell didn't have to call, only to turn and look. In her practical chinos and sensible boots, Ripley strode toward them. "You're going to get wet if you stay out here much longer. "

"Thunder," Mia said, and a dull rumbling of it rolled above the sea. "Some lightning. " And it burst like a firewall toward the west. "But no rain for a half hour or so. "

"You forecasting the weather now, Glinda?" Ripley said pleasantly. "You ought to get yourself a job on TV. "

"Don't. Not now. " Nell expected the sky to break open any second, but she didn't care. "I'm worried about Zack. "

"Yeah? Me, too. I've got to worry when my brother starts wearing girlie jewelry. But I have to thank you for giving me the opportunity to razz him. "

"Did he tell you why he's wearing it?"

"No. And I hesitate to repeat just what he did say to me in such polite company. But it got our day off to a fine start. "

"I had a vision," Nell began.

"Oh, perfect. " In disgust, Ripley started to turn away, stopping when Nell gripped her arm. "I like you, Nell, but you're going to piss me off. "

"Let her go, Nell. She's afraid to listen. "

"I'm not afraid of anything. " And it burned her butt that Mia knew exactly which button to push. "Go ahead, tell me what you saw in the crystal ball. "

"I wasn't looking at a crystal ball. I was looking at Zack," Nell said, and told her.

No matter how hard she denied it, how carelessly she shrugged, Ripley was shaken down to the toes. "Zack can take care of himself. " She paced away, and back again. "Look, in case you haven't noticed, he's a capable, thoroughly trained officer of the law. He carries a weapon, and knows how to use it when and if he has to. If he makes the job look easy, it's because he knows how to handle whatever comes along. I'd trust him with my life. "

"I think Nell's asking if she can trust you with his. "

"I've got a badge, I've got a weapon, and a solid right cross. That's how I handle things," Ripley said furiously. "If someone comes after Zack, you can bet your ass they'll have to go through me. "

"One times three, Ripley. " Deliberately, Mia laid a hand on her arm. "In the end, that's what it'll take. "

"I'm not going to do it. "

Mia nodded. They were standing in a circle under the angry sky. "You already are. "

Instinctively, Ripley stepped back, broke the connection. "Don't look for me," she said. "Not this way. " She turned her back on them and the rising wind and, kicking at the sand, she walked back to the village.

"She'll think about this, and struggle with it. As her head's made of granite, it's going to take longer than I like. But for the first time in years, she's wavering. " Mia gave Nell

a comforting pat on the shoulder. "She won't risk Zack. "

They went back to the bookstore, and had no sooner stepped inside when the rain fell in a torrent.

***


Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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