Of course, the very best way to lock in the deal would be to ask Nell to run interference. Mia had a soft spot for Nell. But the idea of using anyone to clear the path was galling. She would just casually drop in at Mia’s bookstore, the way she had almost every day since Nell had taken over the cooking and baking for the café section.

That way she could cop a righteous lunch and new digs all in one swipe.

She walked briskly along High Street, more because she wanted the business over and done than because the wind was up and blowing. It tugged playfully at the long, straight tail of hair that she habitually yanked through the opening in the back of her cap.

When she reached Café Book she paused, pursed her lips.

Mia had redone the display window. A little tasseled footstool, a soft throw of deep red, and a pair of tall candlestands with fat red candles were arranged with seemingly haphazard piles of books. Because she knew Mia never did anything in a haphazard fashion, Ripley had to admit the whole tone was one of homey warmth and welcome. And subtly—very subtly—sexy.

It’s cold out, the window announced. Come on in and buy some books to take home and snuggle up with.

Whatever else Ripley could say about Mia—and she could say plenty—the woman knew her business.

She stepped inside into warmth, automatically unwinding her neck scarf. The deep-blue shelves were lined with books, parlor-tidy. Glass displays held pretty trinkets and intriguing dust catchers. The fireplace was simmering with a low golden flame, and another throw, blue this time, was tossed artfully over one of the deep, sink-into-me chairs.

Yeah, she thought, Mia knew her stuff.

There was more. Other shelves held candles of various shapes and sizes. Deep bowls were filled with tumbling stones and crystals. Colorful boxes of Tarot cards and runes were tucked here and there.

All very subtle again, Ripley noted with a frown. Mia didn’t advertise that the place was owned by a witch, but she didn’t hide it either. Ripley imagined the curiosity factor—both tourist and local—accounted for a healthy chunk of the store’s annual profits.

None of her business.

From behind the big carved counter, Mia’s head clerk, Lulu, finished ringing up a customer’s purchases, then tipped down her silver-framed glasses to peer at Ripley over the top of them.

“Looking for something for your mind as well as your belly today?”

“No. I’ve got plenty to occupy my mind.”

“Read more, know more.”

Ripley grinned. “I already know everything.”

“Always thought you did, anyway. Got a novelty book in this week’s shipment that’s right up your alley.101 Pick-Up Lines —unisex.”

“Lu.” Ripley gave her a cocky grin as she strolled to the stairs leading to the shop’s second level. “I wrote the book.”

Lulu cackled. “Haven’t seen you keeping company just recently,” she called out.

“I haven’t felt like company just recently.”

There were more books on the second floor, and more browsers poking through them. But here, the café was the big draw. Already Ripley could scent the soup of the day, something rich and spicy.

The early crowd, which would have snagged Nell’s muffins and turnovers or whatever treat she’d dreamed up for the day had shifted to the lunch crowd. On a day like this, Ripley imagined they’d be looking for something hot and hearty, before they treated themselves to one of Nell’s sinful desserts.

She scanned the display and sighed. Cream puffs. Nobody in their right mind walked away from cream puffs, even if the other choices were equally tempting éclairs, tarts, cookies, and what looked to be a cake made up of many layers of pure gooey sin.

The artist behind the temptations rang up an order. Her eyes were a deep and clear blue, her hair a short gold halo around a face that glowed with health and well-being. Dimples flashed in her cheeks as she smiled and waved her customer off to one of the café tables arranged by the window.

Marriage, Ripley thought, agreed with some people. Nell Channing Todd was one of them.

“You look pretty bouncy today,” Ripley commented.

“Feel great. The day’s just flying by. Soup of the day’s minestrone, sandwich is—”

“I’m just doing soup,” Ripley interrupted. “Because I need one of the cream puffs to ensure my happiness. I’ll take coffee with it.”

“Coming up. I’m baking a ham for dinner tonight,” she added. “So no grabbing pizza before you come home.”

“Yeah, okay. Sure.” It reminded Ripley of the second stage of business. She shifted her feet, gave the room another sweeping glance. “I didn’t see Mia around anywhere.”

“Working in her office.” Nell ladled up soup, added a crusty roll baked fresh that morning. “I expect she’ll breeze through shortly. You were in and out of the house s

o fast this morning I didn’t get to talk to you. Something up?”

“No, not up.” Maybe it was rude to arrange for alternate living arrangements without saying something first. Ripley wondered if this fell into the area of social skills, a tricky business for her.

“Will I be in your way if I chow down in the kitchen?” she asked Nell. “That way I can talk to you while you work.”

“Sure. Come on back.”

Nell carried the food over to her worktable. “Are you sure nothing’s wrong?”

“Not a thing,” Ripley assured her. “Bitchy cold out. I bet you and Zack are sorry you didn’t stay south until spring.”

“The honeymoon was perfect.” Even thinking of it brought on a warm, satisfied glow. “But it’s better being home.” Nell opened the refrigerator for the container holding one of the day’s salads. “Everything I want is here. Zack, family, friends, a home of my own. A year ago I’d never have believed I’d be standing here like this, knowing that in an hour or so I’d be going home.”

“You earned it.”

“I did.” Nell’s eyes darkened, and in them Ripley could see the core of strength—a core that everyone, including Nell, had underestimated. “But I didn’t do it alone.” The brightding of the counter bell warned her she had a customer waiting. “Don’t let your soup get cold.”

She slipped out, her voice lifting in greeting.

Ripley spooned up soup and sighed with contentment at the first taste. She would just concentrate on her lunch and think about the rest later.

But she’d barely made a dent in the bowl when she heard Nell call Mia’s name.

“Ripley’s in the kitchen. I think she wanted to see you.”

Shit, shit,shit ! Ripley scowled into her soup and got busy filling her mouth.

“Well, well, make yourself at home.”

Mia Devlin, her gypsy mane of red hair tumbling over the shoulders of a long dress of forest green, leaned gracefully against the doorjamb. Her face was a miracle formed of high, ice-edged cheekbones, a full, sculpted mouth painted as boldly red as her hair, skin smooth as cream, and eyes gray as witch-smoke.

Those eyes looked Ripley over lazily, one brow lifted in a perfect and derisive arch.

“I am.” Ripley continued to eat. “I figure it’s Nell’s kitchen this time of day. If I thought otherwise, I’d be searching my soup for wool of bat or dragon’s teeth.”

“And it’s so hard to come by dragon’s teeth this time of year. What can I do for you, Deputy?”

“Not a thing. But I did give some passing thought to doing something for you.”

“Now I’m all agog.” Tall and slim, she moved to the table and sat. She was wearing those needle-thin heels she was so fond of, Ripley noticed. She could never figure out why anyone would put her innocent feet in such torture chambers without a gun being held to her head.

She broke off another piece of her roll, munched. “You lost yourself a tenant when Nell and Zack tied the knot. I figured you hadn’t gotten around to doing anything about renting out the yellow cottage, and since I’m thinking about getting my own place, maybe I can help you out.”

“Do tell.” Intrigued, Mia broke off a bite of Ripley’s roll for herself.

“Hey, I’m paying for that.”

Ignoring her, Mia nibbled. “A little too crowded for you at the homestead?”

“It’s a big house.” Ripley gave a careless shrug, then moved the rest of her roll out of reach. “But you happen to have one going empty. It’s a pretty dinky place, but I don’t need much. I’d be willing to negotiate a lease on it.”

“A lease on what?” Nell swung back in, straight to the fridge to get out the makings for a sandwich order.

“The yellow cottage,” Mia told her. “Ripley’s looking for a place of her own.”

Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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