"Don't be so smug. " There was a little bite in Mia's voice, a not entirely playful nip. "You'll be hitting it yourself in six weeks. "

"Yeah, but you'll always be older than me. "

Isis was already

in the clearing, sitting still as a sphinx in the center.

"We have some candles for working light. You can put them on the stones, Ripley, and light them. "

"No. " She shoved her hands, very deliberately, into the pockets of her bomber jacket. "Carting your bag of tricks is one thing. I won't participate. "

"Oh, for pity sakes. You'll hardly spoil your magic celibacy by lighting one or two candles. " But Mia snatched the bag from her and stalked to the stones.

"I'll do it," Nell insisted. "There's no point in either of you being angry, when you're each doing what you want. "

"Why are you so angry?" Ripley kept her voice down, crouched as Mia came back to select what she needed from her bags. "I usually have to work a lot harder to get under your skin. "

"Maybe my skin's thinner these days. "

"You look tired. "

"I am tired. Something's coming. It's pushing, and pushing closer. I don't know how much longer I can hold it back, or even if I'm meant to. There'll be blood. "

She gripped Ripley's wrist, held her still. "And pain. Terror and grief. And I'm afraid that without the circle there'll be death. "

"If you're so sure of this, afraid of this, why haven't you sent for someone? You know others. "

"It's not for others, and you know it. " She glanced back toward Nell. "Maybe she's strong enough. "

Mia straightened, tossed back her hood. "Nell. We'll cast the circle. "

Whatever she'd expected to feel, Ripley hadn't expected the yearning that ribboned through her as she watched the basic ritual, as the familiar words echoed in her head.

She'd given it up, she reminded herself. She'd set it aside.

She watched wand and athame glimmer. She had always preferred the sword.

Her mouth pursed in consideration as Mia lit candles with a wooden match. Even as she opened her mouth to speak, to question, Mia sent her a quieting look.

Fine, your way as usual, Ripley thought, and kept her comments to herself.

"Earth, wind, fire, water-elements, hear this call from your daughters. While the moon above does ride, within the magic circle rise. "

With her head thrown back and her arms raised, Mia waited. And the wind lifted, all but sang, the candle flames speared, ruler-straight despite the swirl of humming air. Under her feet, the earth trembled lightly, and in her cauldron, fragrant liquid began to bubble.

As Mia lowered her arms again, each subsided.

Nell had yet to get her breath back. Over the past months, she'd seen and done and been told the fantastic. But until tonight she hadn't been treated to such a vivid display.

"Power awaits," Mia told her, and held out a hand.

When Nell clasped it, she found Mia's skin warm, nearly hot.

"It waits in you. Your link is air, and calling to it comes most easily to you. But there are four. Tonight, you'll make fire. "

"The balefire, yes. But we didn't bring wood. "

With a little chuckle, Mia stepped back. "We won't need it. Center yourself. Clear your mind. This fire does not burn. This fire does no harm. It lights the dark and glows from charm. When you make its golden tower, you will know your strength and power. And once begun, bring harm to none. "

"It's too soon for her," Ripley said from outside the circle.

"Quiet. You're not to interfere. Look at me, Nell. You can trust me, and yourself. Watch. And see. "

"Hold on to your hats," Ripley muttered, and stepped a bit further back, just in case.

Mia opened her hands, empty hands. Spread her fingers. Turning them over, she held her arms out as if reaching.

There was a spark, electric blue. Then another, then a dozen, then too many to count. They sizzled, like fire on water, turned the air within the circle to deep sapphire.

And there, where the bare ground had been, rose a bright and gilded pillar of flame.

Nell's legs simply folded until her butt hit the ground with a solid thump. Nothing that was going through her mind, had she been able to capture any of the scattered pieces of her thoughts, could have made its way out of her mouth.

"Told you. " Ripley sighed, shook her head.

"Quiet!" Mia spun away from the fire, held out a hand to help Nell to her feet. "You've seen me do magic before, little sister. You've done magic yourself. "

"Not like that. "

"It's a basic skill. "

"Basic? Mia, really. You made fire. Out of nothing. "

"What she means is it's along the lines of losing your virginity. It's kind of a jolt," Ripley said helpfully. "It might be less pleasurable than you expect the first time around, but after a while, you get better at it. "

"Close enough. " Mia agreed. "Now center yourself, Nell. You know how. Clear your mind. Visualize, gather the power. Make your fire. "

"I can't possibly-"

Mia cut her off with a lifted hand. "How do you know unless you try? Concentrate. " She stepped behind Nell, laid her hands on Nell's shoulders. "There's light inside you, and heat, energy. You know it. Bring it together. Feel it. It's like a tingling in the belly, and it rises toward the heart. It spreads up, fills you. "

Gently, she put her hands under Nell's arms, lifting them. "It runs under your skin, like a river, flows down your arms, to your fingertips. Let it come. It's time. "

While they worked, Ripley watched. There was something lovely about it in a strange way. Something like watching Mia balance Nell on her first two-wheeler, offering encouragement, keeping pace, building confidence.

The first time wasn't easy on student or teacher, she knew. Nell's face was sheened with the sweat of effort. The muscles in her arms trembled.

The clearing, never completely silent, seemed to vibrate. The air here, never completely still, sighed.

There was a faint and fitful spark. When Nell would have leaped back, Mia was there, holding her in place, her quiet and steady encouragement like a chant.

Another spark, stronger.

Ripley watched Mia step back, leaving her little sister wobbling on two wheels, solo. Despising the weakness, Ripley felt tears, pure sentiment, gather in her eyes. And a little spurt of pride as Nell's fire shimmered to life.

For the first time since she'd begun, Nell felt the beat of her own heart, the rise and fall of her own chest. Power, bright as silver, pumped through her blood.

"It's better than losing your virginity. It's beautiful, and bright," she whispered. "Nothing will ever be the same for me again. "

She turned, full of joy. But Mia was no longer looking at her, but at Ripley.

"We need three. "

Furious, Ripley refused to let the tears fall. "You won't get the third from me. "

Mia had seen the tears, and understood them. She also understood Ripley. "Very well. " To Nell she said, "She probably can't do it anymore. "

"Don't tell me what I can't do," Ripley piped up.

"It'd be hard for her to find that out, especially after watching you do so well, after such a short time. "

"And stop talking like I'm not here. I hate that. "

"Why are you here?" Mia asked with annoyance. "Nell and I can make the third together. " Which had been Mia's plan before she'd seen Ripley at the door. "We certainly don't need you and your pathetic, rusty attempts. She was never as good as me," she said to Nell. "It always infuriated her that what came so easily to me was such an effort for her. "

"I was every bit as good as you. "

"Hardly. "

"Better. "

Ah, Mia thought. Ripley never could turn down a challenge. "Prove it. "

Weakened by sentiment, stirred by longing, and bristling with the dare, Ripley stepped into the circle.

No, Nell thought. She swaggered.

She didn't hold out her arms as Mia had, but seemed to throw them, and the fire that burst from their tips, onto the ground.

The minute she did, she hissed like a sna

ke. "You did that on purpose. "

"Perhaps, but so did you. And look here, the sky did not fall. You made the choice, Ripley. I couldn't have pushed you into it unless you'd wanted it. "

"This doesn't change anything. It's one time only. "

"If you say so, but you might as well have some wine while you're here. " Mia studied the trio of flames as she picked up the bottle. Ripley's was bigger than hers, a result of temper. But not, Mia thought with satisfaction, nearly as elegant.

And, pouring the wine, she felt a fire inside herself. That was hope.

***

They had another glass when they returned to Mia's house.

Restless now, Ripley wandered from window to window. Jingling the change in her pocket. Mia ignored her. For as long as she'd known her, Ripley had never been a quiet soul. And at the moment, Mia understood there was a considerably testy war going on inside of her.

"Have you decided how you're going to handle your situation with Zack?"

Nell glanced up at her. She sat on the floor, mesmerized by the fire. "No. Part of me hopes that Evan will divorce me, take it out of my hands. And the rest of me knows that's not the core of the problem. "


Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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