The rain, a steady, drumming splatter, began before morning. It rode on a kicky little wind that had the tender green leaves shivering and foamed the surf. Throughout the day it continued to blow and spit, until the air was raw with damp, the sea as unremittingly gray as the sky. It showed no signs of abating by evening.
It was good for the flowers, Mia told herself as she stood at the window and stared at the unbroken dullness of the gloom. The earth needed a good soaking, and despite the chill, there would be no frost to damage delicate buds.
The first fine day, she would take off work and spend hours gardening. An entire, precious day with no company, and no demands but her flowers.
That was the beauty and privilege of owning her own business.
The occasional privilege helped balance out the weight of responsibility. Of business, and of magic. She had a dozen things to do in the store that day. It didn't matter that she'd slept poorly, tossed in her dreams, or that her mood was so low she'd wanted nothing so much as to bury herself under the blankets. The fact that she'd considered it, even briefly, had been sufficiently appalling to get her up and out.
Then she'd forgotten, and she never forgot anything, that Nell and Ripley were coming to the house. At least they were a distraction, something to keep her mind off her memories and dreams, unwelcome intruders into the disciplined order of her life.
He'd snuck into her dreams. The bastard.
"Would you rather do this another time? Mia?"
"What?" Frowning, she looked up. Blinked. By the goddess, she wasn't even paying attention to her distraction. "No, no. Sorry. The rain's making me edgy. "
"Right. " Ripley slouched in her chair, hooked a leg over its arm. There was a bowl of popcorn in her lap, and she popped pieces in her mouth quickly, carelessly. "Like it's a weather pattern that got under your skin. "
Saying nothing, Mia walked to the sofa, curled up. Tucking her bare feet under the spread of her skirt, she flicked a finger at the stone fireplace across the room. The logs burst into snapping, sizzling flame.
"There, that's better. " She plumped one of her velvet pillows as if she had no concern other than her own comfort. "Now, Nell, what did you want to talk to me about before we discuss our plans for the solstice?"
"Get her. " Ripley gestured with her wineglass, and dumped a neat fall of popcorn in her mouth with her free hand. "Sounds like the chairwoman for some ladies social club. "
"Not so far off. Club, coven. But anytime you want to take charge, Deputy Fife - "
"Okay. " Nell held up a hand for peace. It seemed she was always calling for peace when Mia and Ripley spent more than ten minutes together. There were times when she thought it would be simpler to just knock their heads together. "Why don't we move beyond the insult portion of our program? I wanted to say that I thought the first meeting of the cooking club went well. "
Mia steadied her temper. Nodded. She leaned over, contemplated the glossy purple grapes she'd arranged on a pale green dish. Selected one. "It did. It was a terrific idea, Nell. I think we'll find it brings business into the store, and the cafe. We sold a dozen cookbooks that night, and a dozen more since. "
"I was thinking after we give it a couple of months to see if interest holds, we might want to plan a combination event with the book club. Maybe around Christmas. I know that's a long way off, but - "
"But it never hurts to plan," Mia finished and, nipping into a second grape, leveled a smirk in Ripley's direction. "There are a number of novels that have food playing a major role, and some even have recipes. We might suggest one for the book club, then the cooking club could prepare the dishes. Everybody has fun. "
"And you sell books," Ripley pointed out.
"Which, oddly enough, is the primary function of Cafe Book. Now - "
"There's something else. "
Mia paused, lifted an eyebrow at Nell. "All right. "
Nervous, Nell pressed her lips together. "I know selling books is the primary function, but, well, I had this idea a while ago. I've been playing with it in my head, trying to see if it would work, or be worthwhile. You may think it's out of line, but - "
"Oh, for heaven's sake, Nell. " Out of patience, Ripley shifted in her chair and set the bowl of popcorn aside. "She thinks you should expand the cafe. "
"Ripley! Would you just let me tell it my way?"
"I would, but I don't have a week to spare before I get home. "
"Expand the cafe?" Mia interrupted. "It already takes up nearly half the square feet on the second level. "
"Yes, the way things are now. " After shooting Ripley a hot look, Nell turned back to Mia. "But if you took out the windows on the east side, added a terrace of, oh, say six feet by ten feet, used atrium or sliding doors leading out to it, you'd have more room for seating, and the benefit of alfresco seating in good weather. "
Because Mia said nothing, just lifted her glass from the table, Nell rushed on. "I could extend the menu here and there, adding more entree selections for a nice, casual dinner during the summer evening hours. Of course you'd have to take on more help, and . . . and I should mind my own business. "
"I didn't say that. " Mia leaned back. "But it is a complicated idea. There's zoning, and building codes. Then there's cost, and the ratio of profit projection against that cost. The potential loss of business during that kind of remodel. "
"I've, um, looked into it. A little. " With a quick, sheepish smile, Nell pulled a stack of papers out of her satchel.
Mia stared, then sat back with a long laugh. "You've been busy, little sister. All right, let me look it all over, think about it. It's intriguing," she murmured. "More seating, entree selections . . . I imagine, if successful, it would nip into the hotel's dinner business, at least during the season. "
At Mia's small, satisfied smile, Nell felt a wave of guilt. "There's one more thing. We had Sam Logan over for dinner," she blurted out.
Mia's smile slipped away. "Excuse me?"
"You had that rat bastard at your table!" Ripley popped out of her chair. "You fed him a meal? Did you at least poison him while you were at it?"
"No, I didn't poison him. Damn it, I didn't invite him, Zack did. They're friends. " Nell sent Mia a look filled with misery and guilt. "I can't tell Zack who he can or can't invite to the house. "
"Just let Booke try asking some traitorous son of a bitch to leach off us. " Ripley bared her teeth as if she was ready to take a bite out of her new husband whether he had the thought or not. "Zack always was stupid. "
"Now, just a minute. "
"He's been my brother longer than he's been your husband," Ripley shot back. "I can call him stupid, especially when he is. "
"There's no point in this," Mia said quietly and drew both Nell's and Ripley's attention. "No point in casting blame or in recriminations. Zack's entitled to choose his friends, and to have them in his home. That's nothing Nell should feel guilty over. What's between Sam and me is between Sam and me, and it doesn't affect anyone else. "
"Doesn't it?" Nell shook her head. "Why didn't anyone tell me he was one of us?"
"Because he's not. " It all but exploded out of Ripley. "Sam Logan isn't one of us. "
"I don't think Nell was implying he's a girl," Mia said dryly. "Or even an islander. Though, of course, since he was raised here he'll always be considered an islander. " She waved her hand as if brushing that aside. "The fact that he has the gift has nothing to do with us. "
"You're sure of that?" Nell demanded.
"We are the three. " In the stone hearth, flames rose and snapped. "We make the circle. It's for us to do what must be done. Just because some - what was that lovely term of Ripley's - oh, yes, just because some rat bastard has magic doesn't change anything. "
Deliberately calm, she stretched out her hand for another grape. "Now, about the solstice. "
She wouldn't let it change anything. She would do what had to
be done, alone or with her sisters. But she wouldn't allow anyone into their circle. Or into her heart.
In the deepest part of night, while the island slept, she stood on her cliffs. The cold rain poured and the black sea lashed at the jagged rocks as if it would, in one night, wear them to nubs. All around her the irritable wind swirled, snapping at her cloak until it billowed up like wings. There was no light, no relief from the black except the single circling blade from the white tower behind her. It cut over her, the cliffs, the sea. Then left her alone in the dark again. Fly, the canny voice whispered. Fly out and let go, and it will all be over. Why do you fight the inevitable? Why would you live with the loneliness?
How many times, she wondered, had she heard that voice? How many times had she come here, testing herself against it? Even when her heart had been shattered, she'd come. And had won. She would never give in.
"You won't beat me. " She felt the cold as the dirty fog slithered over ground and rock. Felt it like icy fingers wrapping around her ankles, where it could tug, and tempt. "I'll never give up. " She raised her arms, spread them wide.
And the wild, whirling wind she called tore the fog to tatters.
"What's mine I serve and protect and keep. " She lifted her face to the rain, let it wash over her like tears. "Whether I wake or whether I sleep, to what I am I will be true in what I say, in what I do. "
Magic poured into her and pulsed like a heart.
"This vow I make, and will not break: I will meet my destiny. As I will, so mote it be. "
With her eyes closed, she fisted her hands as if she could beat against the night. As if she could use them to rip through the veil that blinded her from what would come for her.
"Why don't I know ? Why can't I feel? Why can't I do anything but feel?"
Something shivered on the air, like warm hands brushing her cheeks. It wasn't comfort she wanted, or the urges to be patient. So, she turned from them, from the cliffs, and the sea. Her cloak whipped behind her as she ran toward the lights of home.
While Mia wrapped herself in isolation, cocooned in the house on the cliff, Lulu was propped in bed with her third glass of wine, her latest true crime book, Diary of an American Cannibal , and a bag of cheese-and-garlic potato chips. Across the room, the bedroom TV blasted out gunfire as Mel Gibson and Danny Glover kicked ass in Lethal Weapon.
It was, for Lulu, her Saturday-night ritual.