“Nothing. I ate too many sweets, didn’t sleep well, and now I’m paying for it.”

“Baby, you’re talking to somebody who knows you. When you’ve got a problem you march through work—physical and mental drudgery—until you come out the other side. Spill it.”

“There’s nothing to spill.” She shuffled her feet, then finally just sighed. Her brother could simply stand and wait through an entire geological era for an answer. “Okay, I’m not ready to spill it. I’m working it out.”

“All right. If all this shoveling’s helping you with that, I’ll just leave you to it.”

He started back in. She didn’t just look tired, he thought. She looked unhappy. At least he could take her mind off that. He scooped up a handful of snow, smoothed it into a ball. What were big brothers for? And let it fly.

It hit the back of her head with a solidwhomp. He wasn’t leadoff pitcher for the island’s softball team without reason.

Ripley turned slowly, studied his cheerful grin. “So . . . want to play, do you?”

She grabbed up snow as she sidestepped. The instant he bent down for ammo, she fired straight between his eyes. She played third, and it was a brave or foolish runner who tried to steal home against her arm.

They pummeled each other, winging snowballs across the half-shoveled walk, slinging insults and taunts after them.

By the time Nell came to the door, the once pristine blanket over the lawn was bisected with messy paths, dented with furrows where bodies had temporarily fallen.

Lucy, with high, delighted barks, shot through the door like a bullet and dived into the action.

Amused, Nell hugged her arms against the chill and stepped out on the porch. “You children better come in and get cleaned up,” she called out. “Or you’ll be late for school.”

It was instinct more than plan that had brother and sister doing instant and identical pivots. The two snowballs hit Nell dead center. The resulting squeal had Ripley laughing so hard she had to drop to her knees, where Lucy leaped on her.

“Oops.” Zack swallowed the grin as he caught the dangerous glint in his wife’s eyes. “Sorry, honey. It was, you know, a reflex.”

“I’ll show you a reflex. It’s comforting to know the entire island police force will shoot the unarmed.” She sniffed, shot her chin into the air. “I want that walk cleared off, and you can clean off my car while you’re at it, if you can spare a moment from your hilarity.”

She sailed back inside, slammed the door.

“Ouch,” Ripley said, then dissolved into laughter again. “Looks like you may be bunking on the sofa tonight, hotshot.”

“She doesn’t hold a grudge.” But he winced, hunched his shoulders. “I’ll go take care of her car.”

“Got you whipped, doesn’t she?”

He merely burned her with a look. “I’ll kill you later.”

Still chuckling, Ripley hauled herself to her feet as her brother and Lucy plowed through the snow toward the back of the house. Nothing, she thought, like a good snow fight to put everything back on an even keel. As soon as she finished the walk, she would go inside and make nice to Nell.

Still, she’d counted on Nell’s having a little more sense of humor. What was a little snow between friends? Brushing herself off, Ripley picked up the shovel, then heard the pained howl, the wild barks.

Gripping the shovel like a bat, she raced around the side of the house. As she cleared the corner, she was greeted by a face full of snow. The shocked gasp caused her to swallow some of it, choke. As she spit it out, rubbed it off her face, she saw her brother, covered to his shoulders with snow.

And Nell, standing with a smug smile, and two empty buckets. She banged them together smartly to shake out any remaining snow. “That,” she said with a nod, “was reflex.”

“Boy.” Ripley tried to dig under her collar where snow was dribbling, cold and wet. “She’s good.”

She was ableto maintain the good, even mood through most of the day. She might’ve stayed there if Dennis Ripley hadn’t come shuffling into the station house.

“It’s my favorite delinquent.” As he rarely failed to entertain her, Ripley propped her feet on the desk and prepared to enjoy the show. “What’s up with you?”

“I’m supposed to apologize for causing trouble, and to thank you for taking me back to school, and blah blah.”

“Gosh, Den.” Ripley dabbed at an imaginary tear. “I’m touched.”

The corner of his mouth turned up. “Mom said I had to. I got two days ISS, I’m grounded for three weeks, and I have to write essays on responsibility and honesty.”

“Essays? That’s the worst, huh?”

“Yeah.” He plopped down in the chair across from her, sighed weightily. “I guess it was pretty stupid.”

“Guess it was.”

“No point in hooking school in the winter,” he added.

“No comment. How about the history test?”

“I passed.”

“No kidding? You are a jackass, Den.”

“Well, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be. And Mom didn’t wear me out like I figured she would. Dad either. I just got the lecture.”

“Oh.” Ripley obliged him with a shudder and made him grin. “Not the lecture!”

“I can use most of it in the essays. I guess I learned my lesson, though.”

“Do tell.”

“Well, besides planning better so you don’t freeze your ears off in the woods when you ditch school, it’s less trouble to just do what you’re supposed to—mostly—in the first place.”

“Mostly,” she agreed. And because she loved him, she rose to make him a cup of instant hot chocolate.

&n

bsp; “And because you made me go in and say what I did, right out, I didn’t have to sweat it out, you know? Dad said how when you mess up, you have to face up to it, make it right. Then people respect you, and even more, you can, you know, respect yourself.”

She felt a twinge in her gut as she dumped chocolate powder in a mug. “Man,” she muttered.

“Everybody makes mistakes, but cowards hide from them. That’s a good one, doncha think, Aunt Rip? I can use that in the essay.”

“Yeah.” She cursed under her breath. “That’s a good one.”

If a twelve-year-old boycould face the music, Ripley told herself, then a thirty-year-old woman had to be able to do the same.

Maybe she’d rather be grounded, maybe she’d rather write the dreaded essay than knock on Mac’s door. But there was no option. Not with guilt, shame, and the example of a twelve-year-old crowding her.

She thought Mac might just slam the door in her face, and she couldn’t find it in herself to blame him if he did. Of course,if he did, then she could just write a polite note of apology. Which was almost like an essay when you thought about it.

Face-to-face had to be the first move, though. So she stood in front of his cottage door as the light dimmed with dusk, and prepared to eat crow.

He opened the door. He was wearing his glasses, and a sweatshirt that carried an emblem from Whatsamatta U and a picture of Bullwinkle. Under any other circumstances, it would have been amusing.

“Deputy Todd,” he said. Very coolly.

“Can I come in for a minute?” She swallowed the first stringy morsel of crow. “Please.”

He stepped back, gestured.

She could see he’d been working. A couple of the monitors were booted up. One of them had zigzagging lines that put her in mind of hospital equipment.

He had a fire going, and she could smell stale coffee.

“I’m interrupting,” she began.

“That’s all right. Let me take your coat.”

“No.” Defensively, she pulled it tighter. “This won’t take long, then I’ll get out of your hair. I want to apologize for the other day. I was wrong. Totally wrong, and completely out of line. There’s no excuse for what I did, what I said, or how I behaved.”

“Well, that about covers it.” He’d wanted to stay angry with her. He’d been very comfortable in that groove. “Accepted.”

She jammed her hands in her pockets. She didn’t like it when things were too


Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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