“Are you okay?”

“Yes. I need to—”

“Don’t pull away from me.” His voice carried an undertone of steel.

“I wouldn’t pull if you didn’t grab.”

“I beg your pardon,” he said and released her.

“Look, damn it.” She poked at his arm as he turned away. “I’m a little churned up right now. I could use a few minutes to settle down.”

“Take all the time you need. I’ve got plenty to do.”

He walked back to pick up his notebook, check his equipment.

“That was unkind of you,” Mia scolded.

“Don’t hassle me now.”

“Suit yourself. We’re going back to the house. You’re welcome, of course. Or you can go to the devil, which often suits you as well.”

She shot her nose in the air and walked off to join Mac.

“Hey.” Zack stepped to her, ran a hand through her hair, then framed her face. “Scared me.”

“Scared me, too.”

“Keeping that in mind, you might want to cut the guy some slack. I’ve seen a little of what the three of you can pull off together before. He hasn’t. Rip.” He pulled her close a moment. “You go running through fire, it shakes a man up some.”

“Yeah, okay.” Nothing, she thought, ever felt quite as solid and steady as her brother. “I’ll talk to him. Why don’t you take Nell and Mia back to the house? We’ll be along in a minute.”

“You got it.”

She gathered herself, picked up one of Mac’s scattered pencils and took it to him. “I’m sorry I snapped at you.”

“No problem.”

“Look, don’t go sulky on me. You don’t know what it’s like to . . .”

“No, I don’t,” he shot back. “And you don’t know what it’s like to just stand there, fuckingstand there, when I don’t know if you’re hurt.”

“Okay, I’m sorry. I couldn’t. . .” To her horror, her voice broke, and her vision wavered with tears. “Damn it, I told you I was churned up.”

“Okay. Whoa.” He drew her into his arms, stroked her hair. “Why don’t you just hold on here a minute?”

“Crying pisses me off.”

“I bet. Just hold on.”

She gave in, gave up and wrapped her arms around him. “I’ll get it together in a minute.”

“That’s okay, because I want to hold on, too. I thought you were . . .” He saw it again, that flash of her face that was white as bone as she leaped into a wall of golden flame. “I don’t know what I thought. I’m prepared for a lot of this kind of thing. I’ve seen magic. I believe in it. But nothing I’ve seen or imagined comes close to what the three of you did tonight.”

“I didn’t want to be here.”

“Then why were you? What scared you enough to bring you here?”

She shook her head. “I only want to tell it once. Let’s go back to Mia’s.”

He hitched his equipment bag onto his shoulder. “You were in pain. I saw that.”

“The circle wasn’t prepared for me, and I wasn’t prepared for it.”

“No, before that. Before you did your death-defying leap.”

“You see a hell of a lot, don’t you, for a guy who’s always losing his glasses.”

“They’re just for reading and close work.” He wanted to stroke, to tend, to cuddle. And was afraid if he did, they’d both fall apart. “Is there any pain now?”

“No.” She sighed. “No. I took the power, called my element, made the circle of Three. There’s no pain now.”

“But you’re not happy about it.”

Like Nell, she knew her way through the forest, through the dark. Already she could see the glimmer of light from Mia’s windows. “It brings Nell joy, and gives Mia a kind of, I don’t know, foundation. For Nell it’s an exploration, for Mia it’s like breathing.”

“And for you?”

“For me it’s a goddamn stampede.”

“So you chose to fence it in.”

“And I didn’t use strong enough nails,” she finished, with just a hint of bitterness, and shook her head to ward off any more questions.

Mac supposed thefood and wine were another kind of ritual, one used as a bridge between the fantastic and the ordinary. Though he doubted he would forget even the smallest detail about the night, he scribbled in his notebook as Mia played hostess.

“Is it all right to ask questions?”

She smiled at him.

“Of course,” she replied, as she curled cozily in a chair. “But they may or may not be answered.”

“What you did tonight . . . your preparations, your ceremonial tools and ritualistic, well, trappings, were very simple, very basic for such extraordinary results.”

“Too many trappings and too much ceremony is usually a cloak to disguise a lack of power, or used to feed the ego, perhaps to impress an audience.”

“Do you need them at all?”

“What an interesting question, Mac. What do you think?”

“I think not.” And even he, before tonight, wouldn’t have believed it. “I think the gift in each one of you is beyond them. I think you could light the fire in your hearth without moving from that chair, without casting a circle, without ritual.”

She sat back, regarding him. What was it about him, she wondered, that tugged at her? That made her want to share with him what she’d shared with no outsider? “There’s a reason for traditions, even for superstition. For ceremony. It helps focus power, and pays respect to the source. But, of course . . .” Behind her, the fire leaped to life in the hearth. “You’re quite right.”

“Show-off,” Ripley muttered.

She laughed, and the fire damped down to a soft and pleasant glow. “You’re right, too.” She sipped her wine, and her eyes met Ripley’s over the rim of her glass. “You used to have more of a sense of humor about it.”

“And you used to lecture that I should take more responsibility.”

“I suppose I did. How tedious of me.”

“Oh, don’t start pinching at each other,” Nell ordered. “You wear me out.”

“We could have used her as a mediator years ago.” Mia sipped her wine again. “We are the Three. It can’t be changed, avoided, or ignored. You know the legend,” she said to Mac.

“Very well. The one called Air left the sanctuary of the island. She married a man who couldn’t accept her, wouldn’t cherish her, and in the end destroyed her.”

“She destroyed herself,” Nell said, disagreeing. “By not believing in who she was, by lacking the courage to.”

“Maybe.” Mac nodded. “The one called Earth refused to accept what had happened. It ate through her until she used her power to avenge her sister.”

“She wanted justice.” Ripley rose to prowl. “She needed it.”

“Her need caused her to break trust.” Mia’s hand lifted an inch off the chair, then lowered again. It wasn’t time to reach out. “To turn from everything she was and had been given and use power to harm.”

“She couldn’t control it,” Ripley said in a shaky voice. “She couldn’t stop it.”

“She didn’t control or stop it, and doomed herself and what she loved.”

“And the third,” Ripley spun back. “She who was Fire found a silkie in human form sleeping in a cave near a cove. And taking his pelt, she hid it and bound him to her.”

“It’s not against the laws of magic to do so.” In a casual move that cost her a great deal, Mia leaned over and selected a cube of cheese from a tray. “She took him as lover, as husband, raised her children with him, then the children of her lost sisters.”

The food tasted like chalk in her throat, but she nibbled casually. “She gave him her heart. But the day came when she was less than vigilant, and he found his pelt. And though he had loved her, when a silkie has his pelt, the sea beckons. He forgot her, their life, their love, their children—as though they had never existed—and left her for the sea.”

; Mia lifted a shoulder. “Without sister, without lover, without husband she pined, and pining, despaired. She cursed her magic for bringing her love, then stealing it away. And abjuring it, leaped from the cliffs to the sea where her lover had gone.”

“Death isn’t the answer,” Nell added. “I know.”

“It was, at that moment, hers,” Mia stated. “So three hundred years later, the descendants of the sisters, of the Three, must make restitution, must turn back each key. One by three. Or the island they made will tumble forever into the sea.”

“If you believe that, why do you live here?” Ripley demanded. “Why are you in this house, why the bookstore, why anything?”

“This is my place, and my time. The same as it’s yours, and Nell’s. If you don’t believe it, why are you here tonight?”

Mia could feel her temper begin to snap, and yanked it back. She also saw the misery on Ripley’s face. It was hard, after so many years, to reach out. But she got to her feet, held out a hand.

“Tell me. Let me help.”

“I saw—it was painful, like being ripped open, head to gut. And so fast there was no time to react.”

“You know it doesn’t have to be that way. You know it doesn’t ask for pain, nor want harm.”

“Threefold.” A single tear spilled over before she could stop it. “What you send comes back, times three. She destroyed them.”

“Not alone. Each of them had responsibility. Tell me.” She wiped the tear from Ripley’s cheek herself. “What did you see?”

“I saw . . .” She replayed the vision, her voice calming as she spoke. “I don’t know who he was, or what he represented, but he’ll come. None of you could stop me, no more than I could stop myself. It was my sword, Mia. My ritual sword. I killed him with it—and killed us all.”

“You won’t. You won’t,” she repeated before Ripley could protest. “You’re stronger than that.”

“I wanted to hurt him. I could feel the rage. I’ve never had control over power when my emotions take over. Why the hell do you think I stopped?”

“Because you were afraid?” The temper came bubbling back, a decade of fury. “You turned away from me, from what you are, because you were afraid of what you might do? You’re juststupid !”

She whirled away, then yelped when Ripley grabbed her by the hair and yanked. “Who the hell are you calling stupid, you skinny, snotty, self-serving bitch?” Her eyes narrowed when Mia lifted a bunched fist, then she let out a laugh. “Yeah, like that scares me. Hit me with your thumb tucked in that way, you’re going to hurt yourself more than me. You’re such a damn girl, Mia.”

“That’s an interesting observation, since you’re the one doing the hair pulling.”

With a shrug, Ripley let go. “Okay, we’re even.” She blew out a breath, blinking when she realized that all the other people in the room had gotten to their feet. She’d forgotten they were there. “Sorry.”

After smoothing her hair, Mia slid into her chair again. “Pissed you off when I called you stupid, didn’t I?”

“Damn right. So watch it.”

“But you didn’t use power to strike at me when my back was turned.” Mia lifted her glass again. “You didn’t even consider it.”

Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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