Weighing his wife's ire against the sheer exhaustion of playing buffer, Zack pushed away from the table.

"I need to round up Lucy," he said, and using his dog as an excuse, he hurried out. Nell sent a fulminating look at his retreating back. "Why don't you go on with Zack? I'll make a pot of fresh coffee in a minute. "

Absently, Sam reached down to pet the gray cat that had uncurled from under the table to stretch. It hissed at him.

"I'll just give you a hand," he said

after barely saving his hand from a nasty swipe. He saw Nell give the cat he'd heard her call Diego a small, approving nod.

"I don't want a hand. "

"You don't want my hand," Sam corrected. "Zack's the best friend I ever had. "

Rather than spare him a look, Nell opened the dishwasher and began loading. "You have an odd way of defining friendship. "

"However I define it, it's a fact. He matters to both of us. So, for his sake, I hope we can call a truce. "

"I'm not at war with you. "

He glanced at the cat again. It had plopped down beside its mistress to wash and watch Sam narrowly.

"You'd like to be. "

"Fine. " She slammed the dishwasher door, turned. "I'd like to hang you by your toes for what you did to Mia. And while you're hanging by your toes, I'd like to start a nice, steady fire under you, so you'd roast slowly and in great pain. And while you were roasting slowly and in great pain, I'd like to - "

"I get the picture. "

"If you do, you know just how useless it is for you to try to charm me. "

"Did you make all the right choices, the best choices, the wisest choices, when you were twenty?"

She slapped on the hot water, squirted soap under the stream. "I never deliberately hurt someone. "

"And if you had, deliberately or otherwise, how long would you expect to be punished for it? Damn it!"

He swore as she ignored him, then switched the water off himself.

She cursed right back, lifted a hand to turn it on again. Infuriated, he closed his hand over hers. Light, shimmering blue, sparked between their meshed fingers.

Nell went very still as her anger slid under shock. She left her hand in his as she shifted her body, angling it until they were face-to-face and she could look directly into his eyes.

"Why didn't anyone tell me?" she demanded.

"I don't know. " He smiled as the light mellowed to a glow. "Sister. "

Baffled now, she shook her head. "There are only three who form the circle. "

"Three who came from three. But four elements. Yours is air, and she who was, lacked your courage. Mine is water. You believe in destiny, in the Craft. We're connected, and you can't change that. "

"No. " But she would have to think about it, hard and long. Slowly, she slid her hand from under his. "I don't have to like it, or you. "

"You believe in fate, in the Craft, but not in forgiveness. "

"I believe in forgiveness. When it's earned. "

He stepped away, jammed his hands in his pockets. "I came here tonight planning on charming you. To scrape away a few layers of your resentment and dislike. Part of that was pride. It's tough having your oldest friend's wife detest you. "

He picked up the wine bottle, poured some into the glass she'd yet to clear. "Part of that was strategy. "

He drank. "I know very well that you and Ripley stand in front of Mia. "

"I won't see her hurt again. "

"And you're sure that's what I'll do. " He brought his glass to the counter. "Then I came into your home, and felt what you and Zack have together. What you've made between you. I sat at your table, and you fed me, though you'd rather have hung me by my toes. So instead of charming, I'm charmed. "

He glanced around the kitchen. It had always been a warm and friendly room. Once, he'd been welcome there. "I admire you, for what you made out of your life. And I envy you your clear vision and your happy home. Zack's important to me. "

He looked back at her as she said nothing. "It's hard, I imagine, for you to buy that, but it's fact. I don't intend to do anything that complicates his relationship with you. I'll go out the back while he's busy with his Lucy. "

Nell dried her hands. "I haven't made coffee yet. "

He turned at the door, just looked at her.

And she saw why Mia had fallen for him. Not just the dangerous good looks. But in his eyes she saw so much power, so much pain.

"I'm not forgiving you," she said briskly. "But if Zack considers you a friend, you must have some redeeming qualities. Somewhere. Sit down. We're having trifle for dessert. "

She had humbled him, Sam thought later as he walked back to the cottage. The pretty blue-eyed blonde who'd been bitingly polite, then brutally frank, then cautiously understanding all in one evening had brought him to his knees.

It was rare for him to want to earn someone's respect, but he now wanted badly to earn Nell Todd's. He walked the beach as he had walked it as a boy. Restlessly. And turned for home, as he had as a boy. Without any sense of pleasure.

How could he explain that while he had loved the house on the bluff, it had never been his place? He'd had no regrets when his father had sold it.

The cove, the cave, they had meant a great deal once. But the house itself had just been wood and glass. With so little warmth inside. Demands, yes. To be aLogan , to succeed, to excel. Well, he'd learned to do all three, but he wondered now what it had cost him. He thought again of the spirit in the Todd house. He'd always believed houses had spirits, and theirs was warm, affectionate. Marriage actually worked for some people, he decided. The commitment, the unity, and the promise - not just for convenience or status but for heart.

That, in his mind, was a rare, rare gift.

There'd been little affection in his house. Oh, no neglect, no abuse, no meanness. His parents had been partners, but never, in his memory, a couple. And their marriage was as coldly efficient as any merger. He could still remember being baffled, fascinated, and vaguely embarrassed when he was a boy by the open displays of affection between Zack's parents.

He thought of them now, traveling around in their house on wheels and reportedly having the time of their lives. His parents would be appalled at the idea.

Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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