“Oh.” It was Friday, she remembered. She’d done her best to block that particular fact out of her head. Now he was giving her the perfect way to put it all off. To put off something that was important to his work.

Yep, she thought with an inward sigh, the man was a sweetheart.

“No, don’t worry about it. It’s already set up.”

“You could come with me.”

When she started to turn away, he kept her in place with his hand on her hair, turning a tender gesture into a no-nonsense one with a simple flexing of fingers.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do. Don’t count on me.”

“Whatever you say.” He hated to see her struggle, but knew of no way to smooth it all away. “There are some things I want to talk to you about. If you decide to give the session at Mia’s a pass, can you come by the cottage afterward?”

“What things?”

“We’ll talk about it.” He gave her hair a last tug before walking to the door. “Ripley.” He paused, his hand on the knob and looked at her. A gun at her hip, a pail of tulips at her side. “I know we’re standing on opposite sides of a line in one area. As long as we understand why, and accept that, accept each other, we’re okay.”

“You’re so damn stable.”

“Hey, my parents spent a lot of money to make sure of it.”

“Shrinks,” she said and worked up a sneer for him.

“Damn right. See you later.”

“Yeah,” she murmured when the door closed behind him.

Problem was, she wasn’t quite so stable. Not quite so okay. Because she was crazy about him.

It was difficultfor a woman to maintain her dignity and reputation as somewhat of a hard-ass when she was walking around with a bucket full of tulips. It was damn near impossible when that same woman got caught perusing a dwindling display of sentimental Valentine’s Day cards.

“I like this one.” Gladys Macey reached around her and tapped a huge card with an enormous pink heart. Ripley did her best not to squirm.

“Yeah?”

“I picked it out for Carl a week ago, and he liked it fine when I gave it to him this morning. Men like big cards. Must make them feel more manly.”

Having no doubt that Gladys knew more about such matters than she did, Ripley plucked the card out of the slot.

“Last one,” she commented. “Lucky me.”

“Lucky you, indeed.” Gladys bent down to admire the tulips. “Must be four dozen tulips in there.”

“Five,” Ripley corrected. Okay, she’d counted. She couldn’t help it.

“Five dozen. Mmm. And they cost the earth this time of year. Pretty as a picture, though. You get candy, too?”

Ripley thought of the little heart that she’d tucked in her pocket. “Sort of.”

“Candy, too.” Gladys nodded wisely. “The man’s smitten.”

Ripley nearly bobbled the bucket. “What did you say?”

“I said the man’s smitten.”

“Smitten.” Something tickled Ripley’s throat, but she wasn’t sure if it was panic or humor. “That word’s getting around these days. Why do you think that?”

“Well, for heaven’s sake, Ripley, a man doesn’t buy a woman flowers, give her candy and so forth on Valentine’s Day because he wants a canasta partner. What makes young people so thickheaded about these things?”

“I just figured he was one of those people who make Hallmark stand up and cheer.”

“Men don’t make grand gestures unless they’re reminded to, in trouble, guilty, or smitten.” Gladys ticked these possibilities off on her fingers, with nails newly polished in Valentine Red. “Not in my experience. Did you remind him what day it was?”

“No, I forgot about it myself.”

“You have a spat?”

“No,” Ripley conceded.

“Anything you can think of for him to be guilty about?”

“No, there’s nothing in particular for him to feel guilty about.”

“Well, then, where does that leave him?”

“According to your lineup, smitten.” She’d ha

ve to think about it. She studied the card in her hand. “So, they like the big ones?”

“Absolutely. You put those flowers in something pretty now. They’re too sweet to stay in that old bucket.” She gave Ripley a pat on the shoulder, then wandered off.

As soon as she could manage it, Gladys would be spreading the word that the village deputy was sweet on the mainlander. And vice versa.

The mainlander wasback at work. He’d studied, organized, and logged the varied data that had come through on the night he and Ripley had been together. He was formulating theories, hypotheses, and working toward logical conclusions.

He hadn’t noted the time when he and Ripley had made love. His mind had been on more important matters. Nor had he clocked the duration. But his printouts, assuming that his theories on energy dispersal were correct, pinned it down for him.

The machines had picked up burst after burst, spikes, long, steady rises, fluctuations. Wasn’t it interesting that he hadn’t heard the clatter of them as they recorded? He’d been so completely absorbed in her.

Now he could look at the tangible record of what they’d brought to each other. It was oddly arousing.

He measured distances between the spikes and rises, calculated the valleys between energy peaks and the output of each.

Then he had to get up and walk around until he could stop imagining her naked and concentrate on science.

“Long steady holding pattern here. Low-grade energy levels.” He crunched on an apple, pushed up his glasses. “Afterglow period. We’re just lying there now. Languor, pillow talk. Makes sense. So why does it start building again here?”

It was almost like steps, he noted. A rise, a plateau, a rise, a plateau.

He tried to think. She’d gotten up, gone for the pizza, into the kitchen for a couple of beers. Maybe she’d been thinking about making love again. He didn’t mind thinking she was. It was a nice boost to the ego.

But it didn’t explain the abrupt and violent energy flash. Nothing steplike there. It had been like a rocket going off. Nothing he could find indicated that it came from an outside source or an underlying well of energy.

To his best recollection, he’d been in a kind of twilight sleep, just sort of floating while he waited for her. He’d been thinking about the pizza, about eating it in bed with her. Naked. It had been a pleasant image, but he hadn’t been the cause of this.

Therefore, Ripley had. But how and why were the puzzles.

An aftershock sort of thing? That was possible. But aftershocks were rarely as powerful as the initial quake, and this one punched right through the ceiling.

If he could re-create the event. . . . That was a thought. Of course, he would need to find a delicate way to propose that to her.

They had a lot to talk about.

He bit into the apple again, and felt happy just remembering the stunned look on her face when he’d walked in with all those flowers. He liked surprising her that way, then watching her deal with it.

He just liked watching her.


Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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