Chapter Seven

She wouldn't tell Mia, but Ripley didn't consider that her discretion was required to extend to Mac. She was pretty sure there was some loophole in the confidentiality law that applied to spouses. The way she looked at it, if you loved someone enough to promise them a lifetime, you got to tell them all your stuff and listen to all of theirs. It was a side benefit and balanced out having to share closet space. Though they lived together, slept together, woke together, they met for lunch a few times a week at Cafe

Book. The few times a week Mac wasn't so buried in his work that he remembered what time it was. The lunch date, she decided, was as long as she could hold out before she spilled her news. She itched to relay the story to Nell, but after a complex internal debate, she decided Nell cut too close to Mia and didn't come under the dispensation rule.

Mac would have to do.

"So," she continued as she plowed through a grilled tuna and avocado salad, "he stood there, all handsome and brooding - it was still cool and misty, so he had on this long dark coat and it was all, you know, billowy. Perfect tortured-hero look. So he's like that, on her front lawn with that big old house behind him and the mists just burning off, until I made him leave. "

"He vanished the remnants on the road?" It wasn't easy to get a word in when Ripley was on a roll, but Mac had carved out one salient point.

"Yeah - poof. It can be a pretty intense spell, depending on the, you know, quality and complexity of the evil and stuff. " She jerked a shoulder and grabbed her coffee. "But I didn't see a trace of it, and I stopped and took a good look on the way back, just in case he'd missed something. "

"Had he?"

"Nope. Not even a stray vibe left, which means he swept it clean. "

"I wish he'd talked to me first," Mac complained. "I could've gotten some on-site readings and taken a sample for lab tests. "

She sat back, shook her head at him. "Oh, yeah, just what I want my guy to have his fingers in, some evil black ooze. "

"It's what I do. " Mac sulked about it for a minute, then decided he might as well take a drive out and see if some of his more sensitive equipment could pick up anything.

"So let's backtrack a minute," he continued. "He told you that Mia told him she'd seen a large black wolf with the pentagram mark on his muzzle. "

"That's the manifestation. Black wolf, red eyes, big fangs. Her mark on it. Had to be a hell of an image to shake the queen of weird. "

"An image is just the point," Mac said. "Not an actual wolf. No living creature was possessed this time out. Could have something to do with her branding it last winter. But it was still potent enough to send her into a skid. That's interesting. "

"And a bad one, from the way Sam was shaken up. I'll tell you what else is interesting. " She leaned forward, hunching over what was left of her lunch and lowering her voice. "The guy sweeping up behind her, standing there looking at her place like some contemporary version of Heathcliff looking over the moors for Catherine - "

"Good one. "

"Hey, I read. Anyway, him standing there, emotions all swirling - and trying to act all cool and casual about it. That's interesting. "

"From what you told me, they had a very intense relationship. "

"Had," Ripley confirmed. "I could see him being all moony if she'd dumped him way back when. But he's the one who pulled stakes. "

"Doesn't mean he got over her. "

"Guys don't carry torches for a frigging decade. "

Smiling, Mac rubbed his hand over the back of hers. "I'd carry one for you. "

"Get out. " But she turned her hand over, linked her fingers with his. "Anyway, he doesn't want her to know he went out there. He says she'd be ticked if she knew he'd backed up her charms. And she would. But if you ask me, there's another layer. He doesn't want her to know he's stuck on her. It'd be funny if it wasn't so complicated, and if there wasn't so much at stake. "

"Whatever was between them, is between them - or isn't - plays into what happens next. I've got some theories. "

"You've always got some theories. "

He smiled, inched forward. "We need to have a meeting. All parties. "

"I figured. " Like his, her voice was a whisper now. To the casual observer, it might have appeared they were flirting, or plotting an insurrection. "Let's have it at Zack's. Nell'll cook. We're scraping the bottom of the leftover barrel at home. "

"Good thinking. How do we handle how much we know, and who told us what who doesn't want somebody else to know we know?"

"Jesus, I understand that. " She grinned at him. "It must be love. "

"Well, if it isn't Bill and Coo. " Mia stepped up to the table, ran an affectionate hand over Mac's shoulder. "Don't the two of you look adorable?"

"Yeah, we're thinking about entering a contest. " Ripley eased back, studied Mia's face. She had to give the woman credit, nothing showed but bone-deep beauty. "So what's up with you?"

"Oh, this and that. " Mia left her hand on Mac's shoulder. Something about him always comforted her.

"Actually, there is something I need to speak with you about - and Nell. "

A shadow of worry crossed her face as she glanced back at the cafe counter. "It'll have to wait a bit, though," Mia decided. "She's pretty tied up with customers at the moment. "

Ripley considered how to play it, then went with instinct. "If this is about your dances with wolves, I know about it. "

It was a toss-up, she thought, who looked more stunned, Mia or Mac. But at least Mia didn't kick her under the table. She shifted, which gave her the opportunity to kick Mac back as she reached toward a neighboring table and dragged over a third chair.

"Sit down a minute. "

"I think I will. " Struggling to settle, Mia slid into the chair, folded her hands. "I didn't realize you and Sam were such confidants. "

"Oh, can it. " Ripley pushed what was left of her lunch aside. "I ran into him out on the coast road. "

Which was true, Ripley thought. Mia's house was on the damn coast road. "He cleaned up the little mess you left behind. "

"The . . . " She trailed off, paled. My God, how could she have been so careless! She hadn't so much as thought of the smear of power that might have stained that section of the island.

"Give yourself a break," Mac said gently. "You had to have been badly shaken. "

"It doesn't matter. It was my responsibility. "

"You don't get it, professor. " Casually, Ripley broke off a piece of the eclair Mac had picked out for dessert. "Ms. Perfect here isn't allowed to make mistakes like the rest of us lesser beings. "

"I should've cleaned the area," Mia repeated, and gave Ripley a genuine jolt of concern when she didn't snap back.

"Well, you didn't. He did, and all's well. Anyway, while I was ragging on him and threatening to haul him in on some trumped-up charges just to brighten my morning, he filled me in. I've filled Mac in, so you just have to bring Nell up to speed when she's off her shift. "

"Yes, all right. " Mia rubbed at the vague pounding in her temple. She couldn't remember the last time she'd had a headache. And her stomach was queasy. She'd have to take the time to balance her chakras so she could think clearly.

"I would like to go over it with you in more detail, Mac. I tend to believe it was nothing but a scare tactic, but I don't want to shrug it off and miss something critical. "

"You're right, and as it happens Ripley and I were just saying we should have a meeting. Why don't we see if we can get together at Nell and Zack's tonight?"

"At dinnertime," Ripley chimed in and made Mia smile.

"Yes, why waste time or an opportunity for a free meal? I'll speak to Nell. " Mia got to her feet, then looked down at Ripley. "I intended to tell you about it myself. I just needed to clear my head first. I don't want you to think I was keeping secrets. It's past time for that between us. "

Ripley suffered a pang of guilt over Sam, but sucked it in. A deal was a deal

. "Don't sweat it. Besides, it gave me a chance to needle the pretty boy. "

"That's something, then. I'll see you later. "

When she walked toward Nell and was out of earshot, Mac leaned forward again. "You're good, Deputy. Really good. "

"Did you doubt it? Now I've got to make tracks and get to Sam, let him know what I told her and what I didn't, before she gets to him and everything's screwed. "

"I'll do it. " He shoved his eclair in front of her as he rose. "I want to talk to him anyway. I need to document all of this. "

"Hey, good deal. " She plucked up the pastry.

Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance