"If you don't stand up to bullies, they tromp all over you. "
Nell admired Ripley. Strong, wiry, and ready, she thought. "Knowing that and acting on it are two different things. Evan would never have taken a piece out of someone like you. "
Ripley lifted a shoulder. "So, take it back. "
"She will when she's ready," Mia countered. "You of all people should know that it's impossible to push one person's beliefs, ideas, or standards on another. Or to erase someone else's fear. "
"She's upset with me because I hurt Zack. I can't blame you. "
"He's a big boy. " Ripley shrugged, then sat on the arm of the couch. "What are you going to do about him-Zack, that is-in the meantime?"
"Yeah, do. Are you just going to let him slide through his brooding phase-which is what comes after the pissed-off phase with him and, let me tell you, is a lot harder to live with. I figure we've gotten to be pals, more or less, since you've been here. Do a pal a favor and snap him out of it before I have to smother him in his sleep. "
"We've talked. "
"I don't mean talk. I mean action. Is she really that much of a sweetie?" Ripley asked Mia.
"Apparently. Ripley, in her own delicate way, is suggesting that you lure Zack back to bed and soothe away your troubles with a bout or two of hot jungle sex. Which is her answer to all manner of pesky annoyances, including hangnails. "
"Bite me. Mia's given up sex, which explains why she's such a bitch. "
"I haven't given it up, I'm simply more selective than a cat in heat. "
"It isn't about sex. " Making the statement, making it firm and fast, was Nell's only solution to fending off another argument.
Ripley snorted. "Yeah, sure, right. "
Mia sighed. "It pains me, more than I can say, to agree with Ripley. Even partially. Certainly your relationship with Zack isn't, as all of Ripley's are, based on sex. But it's a vital part of it, an expression of your feelings, a celebration of them, and your intimacy. "
"You can put flowers on it, it's still sex. " Ripley gestured with her glass. "However high-minded Zack is, he's still a guy. Being around you and not getting laid-"
"Ripley, please. "
"Not having intimacy," she said in a prissy tone after Mia's reprimand, "is going to make him edgy. If he's going to deal with your L. A. asshole, he should be in top form. "
"He's been very careful to keep me at a distance, in that area. "
"Then close the distance, in that area," Ripley said simply. "Here's what we do. You drop me off at your place. I'll bunk there tonight. You go over to the house and take care of business. You've been hanging out with him long enough to know what buttons to push. "
"That's sneaky, deceitful, and manipulative. "
Ripley cocked her head at Nell. "What's your point?"
Despite herself, Nell laughed. "Maybe I will go over. To talk," she added.
"Whatever you want to call it. " Ripley polished off her wine. "Maybe you could take these glasses and things back into the kitchen, get your stuff together. "
"Sure. " She rose, began to gather the glasses. "I'll just be a minute. "
"Take your time. "
Mia waited until Nell was out of the room. "It won't take her long, so say what you didn't want to say in front of her. "
"What I did tonight doesn't change anything. "
"That's redundant. "
"Just shut up. " She paced again. She'd opened herself-only for a short time, but that's all that had been needed. She'd felt that heaviness in the air, the pressure. "Okay, trouble's coming. I'm not going to pretend I don't feel it, and I'm not going to pretend I haven't tried to figure a way to deal with it. Maybe I could, but I won't bet Zack on it. I'm going to sign up for this, Mia. " She turned back. "But just for this. "
Mia didn't rub it in. In fact, it didn't occur to her to do so. "We'll light the balefires at midnight on Samhain eve. We'll meet at ten on the Sabbat. Zack already wears Nell's talisman, but I'd protect your house if I were you. Do you remember how?"
"I know what to do," Ripley snapped. "Once this passes, things go back the way they were. This is-"
"Yes, I know," Mia retorted. "A one-time-only. "
Zack had given up on paperwork, given up on his telescope, and pretty much given up on the idea that he could will himself to sleep. He was trying to bore himself to sleep now, by reading one of Ripley's gun magazines.
Lucy was sprawled beside the bed in a deep sleep that he envied. Every now and then her legs would twitch as she chased dream gulls or swam in her dream inlet. But she lifted her head, one sharp motion, let out a soft, warning woof seconds before Zack heard the front door open.
"Relax, girl. It's just Ripley. "
At the sound of the name, Lucy was up and scrambling for the door, where she stood wagging her entire body.
"Forget it. It's too late to play. "
The knock on the bedroom door had Lucy barking joyfully and Zack cursing. "What?"
Lucy whipped herself into happy circles as the door opened, then she leaped enthusiastically on Nell.
Zack shot up in bed. "Lucy, down! Sorry. I thought it was Rip. " He nearly threw back the covers, then remembered he was buck naked. "Is something wrong?"
"No. Nothing. " She bent over to pet Lucy, wondering which of them was more embarrassed, and decided it was a tie. "I just wanted to see you. Talk to you. "
He peeked at the clock, noted it was coming onto midnight. "Why don't you go downstairs? I'll be right there. "
"No. " He wasn't going to treat her like a guest. "This is fine. " She came over, sat on the side of the bed. He still wore the locket, and that meant something. "I made fire tonight. "
He studied her face. "Okay. "
"No. " She laughed a little, and scratched Lucy's head. "I made it. Not with wood and a match. With magic. "
"Oh. " There was a tickling inside his chest. "I don't know what I'm supposed to say to that. Congratulations? Or. . . wow?"
"It made me feel strong, and excited. And. . . complete. I wanted to tell you. It made me feel something like I do when I'm with you. When you touch me. You don't want to touch me because I have a legal tie to someone else. "
"It doesn't stop the want, Nell. "
She nodded, let the relief of that come. "You won't touch me because I have a legal tie to someone else. But the fact is, Zack, the only man I have a real tie to is you. When I ran, I told myself I would never tie myself to another man. Never risk that again. Then there was you. I have magic in me. " She lifted a hand, fisted, to her heart. "And it's amazing and thrilling and sweet. Still, it's nothing-nothing, Zack-to what I have in me for you. "
Any defense, any rational reason he may
have had quite simply crumbled. "Nell. "
"I miss you. Just being with you. I'm not asking you to make love with me. I was going to. I was going to try to seduce you. "
He skimmed his fingers through her hair. "What changed your mind?"
"I don't want to ever lie to you again, even in a harmless way. And I won't use one set of your feelings against another set. I just want to be with you, Zack, just be. Don't tell me to go. "
He drew her down until her head was cradled on his shoulder, and he felt her long, long sigh of contentment echo his own.