Nell burned the candles in her trio of jack-o'-lanterns not just to decorate now, but for their original purpose. She set them on her porch to frighten away evil.

Between the knowledge gleaned from the books Mia had lent her and her own instincts, she set about making her cottage as safe a haven as she could manage.

She swept away negative energy, lit candles for tranquility and protection. She laid red jasper and small pots of sage on the windowsills and moonstones and sprigs of rosemary under the pillows on her bed.

She made a pot of chicken soup.

It simmered while the rain lashed, and her little cottage became a cozy cocoon.

But she couldn't relax in it. She paced from window to window, door to door. She looked for busy-work and couldn't find it. She forced herself to sit in her office, to complete a job proposal. But after ten minutes she was up again, her concentration as fractured as the lightning-struck sky.

Giving up, she called the station house. Surely Zack was back from the mainland by now. She would speak to him, hear his voice. Then she'd feel better.

But it was Ripley who answered and told her in a voice as cold as a slap that Zack hadn't returned, that he would be back when he got back.

Now her worry doubled. The storm took on the proportions of a tempest for her. The howl of the wind was no longer musical but full of teeth and threats.

The rain was a smothering curtain and the lightning a weapon hurled.

Dark pressed against the windows as if it would break the glass and burst in. The power she'd learned to accept, even to embrace, began to waver like a candle flame under hot breath.

A thousand scenarios raced through her mind, each more horrible than the last. In the end, unable to bear it, she grabbed her jacket. She would go down to the docks, wait for the ferry. Will him to come.

She wrenched open the door in a blast of lightning. In the blind dark that followed, she saw the shadow move toward her. She opened her mouth to scream, then through the scent of rain and wet earth and the sting of ozone, she caught the scent of her lover.

"Zack!" She leaped at him, nearly sending the two of them tumbling off the stoop as he caught both her and his balance. "I've been so worried. "

"And now you're wet. " He carried her into the house. "I picked a hell of a day to go off-island. Bitch of a ferry ride back. " He set her on her feet, then stripped off his soaking jacket. "I'd've called, but I couldn't get my cell phone to connect. That'll be the last ferry coming or going tonight, in this weather. "

He dragged a hand through his hair, scattered rain.

"You're soaked to the bone. " And because his shirt was wet, she saw, with relief, the faint outline of the locket just above his heart. "And cold," she added when she took his hand.

"I've got to admit, I've been dreaming about a hot shower the last half hour. "

And would have had one by now, he thought, if

Ripley hadn't met him at the front door, interrogated him, then told him Nell had called in a panic.

"Go take one now. Then you can have a bowl of hot soup. "

"Definitely the best offer I've had all day. " He cupped her face in his hands. "I'm sorry you worried. You shouldn't have. "

"Now I'm not. Go on, before you catch cold. "

"Islanders are hardier stock than that. " But he kissed her lightly on the forehead and went straight for the shower.

He left his clothes in a sopping heap on the bathroom floor, turned the spray on hot, and let out a grateful sigh when he stepped in.

The little room, and the tub in it, hadn't been designed for a man of six-one. The nozzle was aimed straight at his throat, and if he wasn't careful he rapped his elbow against the wall whenever he moved his arms.

But he'd developed a routine during the time he'd been with Nell.

Bracing his hands on the front wall, he bent over so the spray sluiced over his head and back. Since she tended to use fragrant and feminine soaps and shampoos, he'd casually placed some of his own on the ledge above the lip of the tub.

Neither of them had mentioned these additions-or the change of clothing he'd left on the shelf of her closet.

They didn't talk about the fact that they rarely spent a night apart. Other people did, he knew. He saw the winks and was becoming accustomed to having his name and hers roll off people's tongues together as if they were one word.

But they hadn't spoken of it. Maybe it was a kind of superstition, he thought, not to speak out loud what you were most afraid to lose.

Or maybe it was just another kind of cowardice.

He wasn't sure it mattered, but he was sure it was time to take another step forward.

He'd taken one himself, the biggest step he'd ever taken, on the mainland that afternoon.

He had to admit he felt good about it. He'd felt a little jittery, but that had passed quickly enough. Even the hideous ride back from the mainland hadn't managed to dampen his mood.

The sounds on the other side of the curtain surprised him enough to make him move too quickly. The rap of his elbow against the wall echoed in the little room, and was followed, viciously, by a stream of curses.

"Are you all right?" Torn between amusement and sympathy, Nell pressed her lips together tight and kept his wet bundle of clothes crammed against her chest.

He wrenched off the spray and whipped the curtain back. "This room is a hazard. I've a good mind to check the code and. . . what are you doing with those?"

"Well, I-" She broke off, baffled when he all but leaped naked out of the tub and snatched them back from her. "I was just going to toss them in the dryer. "

"I'll take care of it later. I've got a change around here. " He dumped them on the floor again, ignoring her wince as they hit with a wet plop behind him.

"At least hang them up. They'll just mildew lying in a pile like that. "

"Okay, okay. " He grabbed a towel, ran it roughly over his hair. "Did you just come in here to pick up after me?"

"Actually, yes. " Now her gaze traveled down, slowly, over the damp chest where her locket glittered, the flat belly, the narrow hips he swagged in the towel. "But right at the moment, I'm not thinking tidy. "

"Is that so?" One look from her did more to warm his blood than an ocean of hot water. "What are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking the very best thing to do with a man who has just come in from a storm is tuck him into bed. Come with me. "

He let her take his hand and draw him through to the bedroom. "Are we going to play doctor? Because I think I could get really sick if it was worth my while. "

Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance