Power snapped. And stung.

The choice, now and always. She could reach out, clasp the hand that beckoned, that offered a bridge to the light. Or she could stay in the dark and feed.

She was hungry.

Ripley awoke weeping, with images of destruction still reeling in her mind.

Eleven

She rarely soughtcounsel. In her experience advice was never easy to swallow. But the dream had broken her back.

Half a dozen times during the day she’d nearly dumped it all on Zack. He’d always been there for her, and their friendship was as solid and true as their blood tie. But she was forced to admit she wanted a woman’s shoulder. Mia and Nell were out of the question. They were too tightly connected.

But there was one who was linked to all of them, and who could always be counted on to speak her mind. Whether or not you cared to hear it.

She went to Lulu.

She waited until she thought that Lulu had had time enough to get home from the bookstore but not enough to settle in too comfortably. After she’d waded through the lawn art, adjusted her eyes to the virulent colors that Lulu habitually selected to paint her house, and knocked on the back door, Ripley was pleased to see her timing was good.

Lulu had changed out of her work clothes into a sweatshirt that read, “Coffee, Chocolate, Men . . . Some things are just better rich.” She had an unopened bottle of wine in her hand and was wearing ratty red slippers and the faintly irritated look of a woman who’d been interrupted.

“What’s up with you?” she demanded.

It wasn’t the warmest of welcomes, but it was Lulu. “Got a minute?”

“I guess I do.” She turned away and clomped back to the counter for her corkscrew. “Want a glass of this?”

“Wouldn’t mind it.”

“Good thing I didn’t light that joint.”

Ripley winced. “Damn, Lu.”

Lulu let out a cackling laugh and popped the cork. “Just kidding. Always could get you. Haven’t had a toke in . . .” She sighed nostalgically. “Twenty-six years. Your daddy was the first and last to bust me. Confiscated my pretty little plant, and my stash. Told me he knew I could get more where that came from if I had a mind to, or I could keep on working for Mia’s grandmother—and tending Mia, and he figured I had the good sense to know which I needed more. Always liked your daddy.”

“That’s a heartwarming story, Lu. Just chokes me up.”

Lulu poured wine into two glasses, then sat and propped her feet on one of the kitchen chairs. “What brings you to my door, Deputy?”

“Can we start with some light conversation, so I can work up to it?”

“Okay.” Lulu sipped, savoring the first taste of the end of the workday. “How’s your sex life?”

“That’s sort of part of what I’m going to work up to.”

“Never thought I’d see the day when Let-’Er-Rip came to my door for a sex talk.”

Before she could stop herself, Ripley squirmed. “Jeez, Lu, nobody calls me that anymore.”

Lulu grinned. “I do. Always did admire your up-front approach to things. Got man trouble, baby doll?”

“Sort of. But—”

“Nice-looking man. PhDee-licious.” Lulu smacked her lips. “Not your usual type, of course. Kinda slow and thoughtful, and a little on the sweet side. Not so sweet he hurts your teeth or anything. Just a nice flavor. If I were thirty years younger—”

“Yeah, yeah, you’d have a taste of him yourself.” Sulking, Ripley propped her chin on her fists.

“Don’t smart-ass me. Anyway, it’s nice to see you realize brains are sexy. So, how’s he rate in the sack?”

“We haven’t been there.”

Rather than surprising her, the statement confirmed Lulu’s recent observations. She set down her glass, pursed her lips. “Figured, and that tells me one thing. He scares you.”

“I’m not scared of him.” Accusations of that nature always put Ripley’s back up, especially when they were true. “I’m just being cautious and taking my time. It’s . . . complicated.”

Lulu pressed her fingertips together in a kind of prayer tent. “Here is some wisdom of the ages, grasshopper.”

Despite herself, Ripley grinned. “Who’s the smart-ass?”

“Shut up and listen. The wisdom is this: sex is better when it’s complicated.”

“Why?”

“Because. When you can snatch the pebbles out of my hand, you will know the answer for yourself.”

“I really like him. I meanreally. ”

“What’s bad about that?”

“Nothing. I just wish, sort of, that we’d gone ahead with it right off the bat so there wouldn’t be all these jitters and wondering and buildup so it all seems so . . .”

“Important.”

The breath whizzed out of Ripley’s lungs. “Okay, yeah. Important. Worse, I think he knows it’s important, and if he does, it means when it all comes down I’m not going to be really, you know, in charge.”

Lulu just sipped. And waited.

“And that sounds really stupid, doesn’t it? Okay.” Ripley nodded, oddly settled on one very important level. “I think maybe I’ve got that now.”

“There’s more.”

“Yeah. Mia’s going to let him observe a ritual on Friday,” Ripley blurted out. “And if Mia’s involved, Nell will be, too. She’s only doing it because she was upset yesterday. At the cave . . . you know, the cave. She got all twisted up, and it doesn’t matter how quick she manages to

untwist again, it shakes her. She’s just doing this to prove she can handle everything.”

“She can handle it,” Lulu said quietly. “If you’d stuck with her all those years ago, you’d have a better grip on what she can handle.”

“I couldn’t.”

“That’s done. Matters more what you’re going to do now.”

“I don’t know what to do. That’s the whole thing.”

“Are you looking for me to tell you?”

Ripley lifted her glass. “I guess I wanted to know what you’d say, what you thought. This messes me up, Lu. It’s coming back on me, in me. Oh, fuck, I don’t know how to explain it. I wanted it to go away. Imade it go away. Now it’s like there are these little openings all over the place, and I can’t plug them all.”

“It never did sit comfortable on you. Some things aren’t meant to be comfortable.”

“Maybe I was worried it would get too comfortable. I don’t have Mia’s control, or Nell’s compassion. I don’t have those things.”

Circles, Lulu thought. They always came around. “No, what you’ve got is passion, and an innate sense of right and wrong—and a need to see it served up. That’s why the three of you make the circle, Ripley, bringing to it the best of yourselves.”

“Or the worst.” And that was her fear. Her terror. “That’s the way it went down three hundred years ago, if you buy into it.”

“You can’t change what was, but you can what’s coming. But you can’t hide from either. It sounds to me like you’re thinking you’ve been hiding out long enough.”

“I never thought of it as hiding. I’m not a coward. Even after we dealt with Remington I could pretty much pull it back, maintain the status quo. But since Mac, it keeps slipping out of my fingers.”

“So you’re worried that if you’re with him, you won’t be able to pull anything back. Not just what you are, but what you feel.”

“That’s about it.”

“So you’re going to tiptoe around.” Lulu let out a huff of breath, shook her head. “Worry and fret and whatnot about what might be instead of swinging into the saddle and finding out what is.”

“I don’t want to hurt the ones who matter to me.”

“Doing nothing sometimes hurts more than doing something. Life doesn’t come with a guarantee, which is just as well, because most guarantees are bullshit.”

“Well, when you put it that way.” There was nothing and no one like Lulu, Ripley thought, for clearing out the murk. “I guess I’ve been on the edge of doing something for a while now, and not doing it is making me crazy. And stupid,” she added, as she would have said to few others.


Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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