Nell didn't know if word got out, but she was soon too busy for nerves. By ten-thirty she was brewing another pot of coffee and resupplying trays. Every time her cash register rang, it was a separate little thrill. And when she bagged up a half a dozen muffins for a customer who claimed she'd never tasted better, Nell had to order herself not to spring into a dance.

"Thanks. Come back soon. " Beaming, she turned to the next customer.

That was Zack's first impression of her. A pretty blonde wearing a white apron and a mile-wide smile with winking dimples. It gave him a quick and pleasant little jolt, and his own grin flashed in response.

"I heard about the muffins, but I didn't hear about the smile. "

"Smile's free. The muffins'll cost you. "

"I'll take one. Blueberry. And a large black coffee to go. I'm Zack. Zack Todd. "

"Nell. " She scooped up one of the to-go cups. She didn't have to shoot him a sidelong glance. Experience had taught her to read a face fast and remember it. His was still in her mind as she filled the cup.

Tanned, with faint lines fanning out from sharp green eyes. A firm jaw with an intriguing diagonal scar scoring it. Brown hair, a little long, with a bit of curl that was already sun-streaked in June. A narrow face with a long, straight nose, a mouth that smiled easily and showed a slightly crooked incisor.

It struck her as an honest face. Easygoing, friendly. She set the coffee on the counter, casting him another glance as she plucked a muffin from the tray.

He had broad shoulders and good arms. His shirt was rolled up at the sleeves and faded from sun and water. The hand that curled around the coffee cup was big and wide. She tended to trust big hands on a man. It was the slender, manicured ones that could strike so lethally.

"Just one?" she said as she bagged his muffin.

"One'll do me for now. Word is you just got to the island yesterday. "

"Good timing for me. " She rang up his order, pleased when he opened the bag and sniffed.

"Good timing all around if this tastes as good as it smells. Where'd you come in from?"

"Boston. "

He cocked his head. "Doesn't sound like Boston. Your accent," he explained when she simply stared at him.

"Oh. " She took his money with a steady hand, made change. "Not originally. A little town in the Midwest-outside of Columbus. I moved around a lot, though. " Her smile stayed in place as she handed him his change and receipt. "I guess that's why I don't sound like I'm from anywhere in particular. "

"Guess so. "

"Hey, Sheriff. "

Zack glanced over his shoulder, nodded. "Morning, Miz Macey. "

"You get 'round to talking to Pete Stahr about that dog of his?"

"Heading that way now. "

"Dog as soon roll in dead fish as he would in roses. Then what's he do but run right through my hanging wash. Had to do the lot of it again. I like dogs same as the next. "

"Yes, ma'am. "

"But Pete's got to keep that hound on a leash. "

"I'll have a word with him this morning. You ought to get yourself one of these muffins, Miz Macey. "

"I just came in for a book. " But she looked at the display, her lips pursing in her wide face. "Do look tasty, don't they? You'd be the new girl. "

"Yes. " Nell's throat was raw and hot. She feared her voice sounded the same. "I'm Nell. Can I get you anything?"

"Maybe I'll just have a sit-down with a cup of tea and one of those tarts. I've got a weak spot for a good fruit tart. None of those fancy teas, mind. Give me good orange pekoe. You tell that Pete to keep his dog out of my wash," she added to Zack. "Else he'll be doing my laundry. "

"Yes, ma'am. " He smiled at Nell again, kept his eyes on her face deliberately as he'd noted how quickly it had paled when Gladys Macey had called him sheriff. "Nice meeting you, Nell. "

She gave him a little nod. Kept her hands busy, he noticed, but not quite steady.

Just what, he wondered, would a pretty young woman like that have to fear from the law? Then again, he thought as he walked downstairs, some people were just naturally skittish when it came to cops.

He scanned the main level, spotted Mia stocking shelves in the mystery section. Either way, Zack decided, it wouldn't hurt to ask a few casual questions.

"Busy in here today. "

"Mmm. " She slid paperbacks into slots without looking around. "I expect it to get busier. Season's just underway, and I have my new secret weapon in the cafe. "

"Just met her. You're renting her the yellow cottage. "

"That's right. "

"You check her employment record, references?"

"Now, Zack. " Mia did turn now. In her heels she was nearly eye to eye with him, and she gave his cheek a sassy pat. "We've been friends a long time. Long enough for me to tell you to mind your own business. I don't want you going up to my cafe and interrogating my staff. "

"Okay, I'll just haul her down to the station house and get out my rubber hose. "

She chuckled, then leaned over and gave him a peck on the cheek. "You brute. Don't worry about Nell. She isn't looking for trouble. "

"Got twitchy when she found out I was sheriff. "

"Honey, you're so handsome you make all the girls twitchy. "

"Never worked on you," he countered.

"A lot you know. Now go away, let me run my business. "

"I'm going. Have to do my sworn duty and scold Pete Stahr over his smelly dog. "

"Sheriff Todd, you're so brave. " She batted her lashes. "What would we islanders do without you and your stalwart sister protecting us?"

"Ha, ha. Ripley's due in on the noon ferry. Any sooner, I'd stick her with dog detail. "

"Is a week up already?" Mia grimaced and went back to shelving. "Oh, well, nothing good lasts forever. "

"I'm not getting in the middle of you two again. I'd sooner deal with Pete's dog. "

She laughed at him, but once he'd gone she looked toward the steps, thought of Nell, and wondered.

She made it a point to go upstairs late in the morning. Nell had already put out the salads and the soup, subtly shifting the mode toward the lunch crowd. The salads, Mia noted, looked fresh and appealing, and the scent of the soup was going to tempt anyone who walked into the store.

"How's it going?"

"Fine. We've finally hit a little lull. " Nell wiped her hands on her apron. "Brisk business this morning. The muffins won the race, but the tarts came in a close second. "

"You're officially on break," Mia told her. "I'll take care of anyone who comes in, unless they want something that requires the use of that monster machine. "

In the kitchen, Mia slid onto a stool, crossed her legs. "Stop by my office after your shift. We'll get the employment forms signed. "

"Okay. I've been thinking about tomorrow's menu. "

"We'll discuss that then, too. Why don't you get yourself a cup of coffee and relax?"

"I'm already hyped enough. " But Nell did open the fridge, removed a small bottle of water. "I'll stick with this. "

"You've settled into the house all right?"

"It was easy. I can't remember ever sleeping better, or waking better. With the windows open, I can just hear the surf. It's like a lullaby. And did you see the sunrise this morning? Spectacular. "

"I'll take your word for it. I tend to avoid sunrise. It insists on coming so early in the day. " She held out her hand and surprised Nell into passing the bottle of water to her for a sip. "I heard you met Zack Todd. "

"Did I?" Nell immediately picked up a cloth, began buffing the stove. "Oh. Sheriff Todd. Yes, he had coffee, black, and a blueberry muffin to go. "

"There's been a Todd on the island for ce

nturies, and Zachariah's one of the best of the lot. Kind," Mia said deliberately. "Caring, and decent without being a pain in the ass about it. "

"Is he your. . . " The word "boyfriend" just didn't seem to apply with a woman like Mia. "Are you and he involved?"

"Romantically? No. " Mia held the bottle back out to Nell. "He's entirely too good for me. Though I did have a mild crush on him when I was fifteen or sixteen. After all, he's a prime specimen. You must have noticed. "

"I'm not interested in men. "


Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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