“Oh, please. What kind of a word is that?” She snorted, crossed her legs at the ankles. “Smitten. Jesus.”
“It’s the perfect word from where I’m sitting. And I think it’s wonderful.”
“Don’t get on that romance boat of yours and sail, Nell. We’re just hanging out. Then we’ll have sex and hang out. We’ll keep it friendly as long as he doesn’t shove the witch angle down my throat. Then he’ll go back to New York and write his book or paper or whatever. We’re not stuck on each other.”
“Whatever you say. But in all the months I’ve been on the Sisters, I haven’t seen you spend this much time with anyone else, or look as happy doing it.”
“So, I like him better than most.” Ripley sat up again, shrugged. “And I’m more attracted to him than most.”
“Smitten,” Nell said under her breath.
“Bring him to dinner?”
“Bring him home to dinner tonight.”
“Because I’m making Zack’s favorite, and there’ll be plenty.”
“We’re having Yankee pot roast?” Ripley’s mouth began to water.
“I’m sure Mac would appreciate sitting down to a home-cooked meal instead of eating takeout or eating in a restaurant, or heating up one of my deliveries.” Nell stood up, brushed sand off her pants.
“Sure, he likes to eat. Nell, you’re not going to try any matchmaking deal, are you?”
Her blue eyes widened with innocence. “Of course not. Tell him six-thirty, and let me know if that’s not convenient.”
She clapped her hands, called for Lucy, then started for home.
She had a great deal to do in a short amount of time.
“I’m not doing a spell.”
Mia angled her head, smiled sweetly as Nell scowled at the potato she was peeling. “Then why did you ask me to come by and discuss your plans for tonight’s dinner?”
“Because I admire your taste.”
“Because you know Ripley better than I do.”
“Oh, all right.” Grimacing in disgust, Nell snatched up another potato. “It’s not a spell. That would be wrong . . . wouldn’t it?” she added with a quick sidelong glance.
“Yes, that would be wrong. You have neither party’s permission. Added to that, interfering with anyone’s personal life crosses a line.”
“I know it.” Nell’s shoulders slumped, just for a minute. “Even when you have their best interest at heart?” She let the statement hang as a question, though she knew the answer. “She looks so happy. You’ve seen it for yourself. You should have heard her. She was absolutely bubbling about him.”
“Deputy Dawg bubbling?” Mia chuckled. “I’d have paid to see that one.”
“She was, and it was adorable. All I wanted was to give her a little nudge. Not with a spell,” she added quickly, before Mia could speak. “A nice friendly family dinner. And if I added a little of this, a bit of that, just something to encourage clear vision. Something that would lower the boundaries just a tiny inch or two.”
“And if they’re seeing what they need to see, feeling what they need to feel, at this moment? Can you be sure your . . . nudge won’t be in the wrong direction?”
“You’re so frustrating when you’re practical. Worse when you’re right. It’s hard not using what’s available to help.”
“Power’s a tricky business. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t mean anything. You’re in love yourself,” Mia said. “Still riding on that lovely rush of it all, and you’re seeing everyone coupled and cozy and content. Not all of us are meant for what you have with Zack.”
“If you could have heard the way she babbled about him before she caught herself.” Shaking her head, Nell scrubbed her peeled vegetables. “She’s halfway in love with him and doesn’t even know it.”
Mia indulged herself in one moment of pleasure and envy at the thought of her childhood friend taking the fall. “And if she did know it, if you helped her see what may be happening inside her, she might scramble back from that edge before she falls. It would be just like her.”
“You’re right again. I hate that. Tell me what you think of him. You’ve talked to him more than I have.”
“I think he’s a very clever man, very astute and very focused. He’s not pushing Ripley with his research because he knows she’ll balk. So he circles around that.”
Mia wandered to the cookie jar, dipped in. “Chocolate chunk. I’m doomed.”
“That’s calculation.” Automatically Nell moved to the stove to brew tea to go with Mia’s cookie. “If he’s using her—”
“Wait.” Mia held up a finger, swallowed. “Of course he’s using her. That isn’t always wrong. She refuses to let him be direct in this area, so he’s indirect. Why should he ignore what she is because she does, Nell?”
“To spend time with her, to play on her feelings. That’s wrong.”
“I didn’t say that, and I don’t think he is. He’s too well mannered. And I think besides being smart, he’s also a very good man.”
Nell sighed. “Yes. So do I.”
“I imagine he’s quite attracted to her, despite the fact that she’s abrasive, annoying, and hardheaded.”
Nell nodded. “That makes sense. You care about her a great deal, despite those facts.”
“I once did,” Mia said flatly. “Your kettle’s boiling.”
“She matters to you. You matter to each other, no matter what happened between you.” Nell turned to deal with the tea and missed Mia’s soulful expression.
“She’ll have to deal with me again, and I with her. Until she accepts who she is, what she is, and what she’s meant to do, she’ll never be open to what you have. You had fear. So does she. So do we all.”
“What’s your fear?” As soon as she asked, Nell turned back. “I’m sorry, but I look at you and see only confidence, such incredible assurance.”
“I fear feeling my heart break a second time, because I’m not sure I could survive it. I’d rather live alone than risk the pain.”
The statement, the quiet truth in it, made Nell’s own heart ache. “You loved him that much?”
“Yes.” It hurt, Mia thought, just to say it. As much as it ever did. “I had no barriers where he was concerned. So you see, it could be dangerous to nudge at Ripley’s. MacAllister Booke is part of her destiny.”
“You know that?”
“Yes. Looking isn’t interfering. They’re connected to each other. But what they do about it, the choices made, are for them alone.”