“Oh, but—” Nell turned. “You have a place of your own. With us.”
“Let’s not make this sticky.” It was too late to regret she hadn’t arranged to speak to Mia privately. “I was just thinking it’d be cool to have a little place to myself, and since Mia’s got one going begging—”
“On the contrary,” Mia said smoothly. “Neither I nor my possessions need to beg.”
“You don’t want me to do you a favor?” Ripley lifted a shoulder. “No skin off mine.”
“It’s so considerate of you to think of me.” Mia’s tone was candy-sweet. Always a bad sign. “But as it happens I just signed with a tenant for the cottage not ten minutes ago.”
“Bullshit. You were just up in your office, and Nell didn’t say you were with anyone.”
“On the phone,” Mia continued. “With a gentleman from New York. A doctor. We’ve signed a three-month lease for the cottage via fax. I hope that relieves your mind.”
Ripley wasn’t quite quick enough to mask her annoyance. “Like I said, no skin off mine. What the hell’s a doctor going to do for three months on Three Sisters? We’ve got a doctor on-island.”
“He’s not a medical doctor. He’s a Ph.D.—and as you’re so interested, he’s coming here to work. Dr. Booke is a paranormal researcher, and he’s eager to spend some time on an island conjured by witches.”
“Always so succinct.” Amused, Mia got to her feet. “Well, my work here is done. I must go see if I can bring joy into someone else’s life now.” She strolled to the door, waited a beat before she turned. “Oh, he’ll be here tomorrow. I’m sure he’d love to meet you, Ripley.”
“Keep your weirdo spook hunters away from me. Damn it.” Ripley bit into her cream puff. “She’s eating this up.”
“Don’t go anywhere.” Nell lifted her order. “Peg comes on in five. I want to talk to you.”
“I’ve got patrol.”
“You just wait.”
“Damn near ruined my appetite,” Ripley complained, but managed to devour the cream puff.
In fifteen minutesshe was stalking outside again, Nell glued to her side.
“We need to talk about this.”
“Look, Nell, it’s no big deal. I was just thinking—”
“Yes, you were thinking.” Nell yanked her wool cap down over her ears. “And you didn’t say anything to me, or to Zack. I want to know why you feel you can’t stay in your own home.”
“Okay, okay.” Ripley put on her sunglasses, hunched her shoulders as they started down High toward the station house. “It just seems to me that when people get married, they need privacy.”
“It’s a big house. We’re not in each other’s way. If you were the domestic type, I could see you feeling displaced because I have to spend so much of my time in the kitchen.”
“That’s the least of my worries.”
“Exactly. You don’t cook. I hope you don’t think I resent cooking for you.”
“No, I don’t think that. And I appreciate it, Nell, I really do.”
“Is it because I get up so early?”
“Because I took one of the spare bedrooms for an office for Sisters Catering?”
“No. Jeez, nobody was using it.” Ripley felt as though she was being systematically pounded with a velvet bat. “Look, look, it’s not about cooking or spare rooms or your baffling habit of getting out of bed before the sun rises. It’s about sex.”
“You and Zack have sex.”
Nell stopped, cocked her head as she studied Ripley’s face. “Yes, we do. I don’t deny it. In fact, we have quite a lot of sex.”
“There you are.”
“Ripley, before I officially moved into the house, Zack and I often had sex there. It never seemed to be a problem for you.”
“That was different. That was regular sex. Now you’re having married sex.”
“I see. Well, I can assure you the process works in almost exactly the same way.”
“Har-har.” Nell had come a long way, Ripley mused. There’d been a time when even the hint of a confrontation would have had her backing down.
Those days were over.
“It’s just weird, okay? You and Zack are into the mister and missus thing and you’ve got me hanging around. What if you wanted to do the horizontal tango on the living room rug, or just have dinner naked some night?”
“We’ve actually done the first, but now I’ll give some serious consideration to the second. Ripley.” Nell touched Ripley’s arm, rubbed lightly. “I don’t want you to move out.”
“Jesus, Nell, it’s a small island. It’s not like I’d be hard to reach wherever I landed.”
“I don’t want you to move,” she said again. “I’m speaking for myself, not for Zack. You can talk to him separately if you want and get his feelings about it. Ripley . . . I never had a sister before.”
“Oh, man.” She cringed, scanning the area from behind her dark glasses. “Don’t get mushy, not right out on the street like this.”
“I can’t help it. I like knowing you’re there, that I can talk to you whenever. I only had a few days with your parents when they came back for the wedding, but knowing them now and having you, I have a family again. Can’t we just leave things the way they are, for now, anyway?”
“Does Zack ever say no to you once you turn those big blue headlights on him?”
“Not when he knows it’s really important to me. And if you stay, I’ll promise that when Zack and I have sex, we’ll pretend we’re not married.”
“It might help. Anyway, since some jerk from New York snagged the cottage right under my nose, I’ll have to let things ride.” She let out a pained sigh. “Paranormal researcher, my butt. Ph.D.” She sneered and felt marginally cheered. “Mia probably rented the place to him just to piss me off.”
“I doubt it, but I’m sure she’s enjoying that side benefit. I wish the two of you wouldn’t jab at each other so much. I’d really hoped, after . . . after what happened on Halloween you would be friends again.”
Instantly, Ripley closed in. “Everybody did what had to be done. Now it’s over. Nothing’s changed for me.”
“Only one phase is over,” Nell corrected. “If the legend—”
“The legend is hooey.” Even thinking of it blighted Ripley’s mood.
“What we are isn’t. What’s inside us isn’t.”
“And what I do with what’s inside me is my business. Don’t go there, Nell.”
“All right.” But Nell squeezed Ripley’s hand and even through the gloves that both women wore, there was a spark of energy. “I’ll see you at dinner.”
Ripley balled her hand as Nell walked away. Her skin still hummed from the contact. Sneaky little witch, Ripley thought.
She had to admire that.
Dreams came latein the night, when her mind was open and her will at rest. She could deny by day, close herself off, stand by the choice she’d made more than a decade before.
But sleep was a power of its own, and seduced the dreaming.
In dreams, she stood on the beach, where the waves rose like terror. They pounded, black and bitter, on the shore, a thousand mad heartbeats, under a blind sky.