"Then by the time Mia came along, it was natural for you to accept power in her. "

"If I had to analyze it, I'd say Mrs. Devlin saw to that, too. She knew the way things would be before they were. When Mia was born, her son and his wife moved into the house. I figured out pretty soon they'd done it so they'd have themselves a couple of live-in sitters. Selfish twits. "

She paused, took a deep gulp of wine. "The night they brought her, they went down to the hotel to have dinner, and Mrs. Devlin took me into the nursery. Mia was a beautiful baby - red-headed, bright-eyed. Long arms and legs. Mrs. Devlin, she picked her up out of the crib, cuddled her for a minute, then she held her out to me. Scared me boneless. It wasn't just that I'd never held a baby before, or that this one looked like something made of precious glass. It was that I knew. I knew she was giving her to me, and nothing would ever be the same for me again. You ever want something so bad you could taste it, but the idea of taking that first sip makes your belly jump?"

"Yeah. " He set his notebook aside now and just listened. "Yeah, I have. "

"It was just like that. We stood there, her holding Mia out, me with my arms crossed over my chest with my heart beating like a hammer inside it. And a storm came up out of nowhere, just like in my dreams. Wind whipping the windows, lightning flashing. It was the first and last time I saw her cry.

" 'Take her,' she said to me. 'She needs love and care, and a firm hand. They won't give it to her, they can't. And when I'm gone, she'll only have you. ' I told her I didn't know how to take care of a baby, and she smiled at me, and just kept holding Mia out. Mia started to squirm and fuss, shake her fists, and before I knew it, I was taking her. Mrs. Devlin stepped back. 'She's yours now. ' I'll never forget that.

'She's yours now, and you're hers. ' And she left me to rock Mia to sleep. " Lulu sniffled. "Wine's making me sloppy. "

Touched, Mac leaned over, closed a hand over hers. "Me, too. "

Sheriff Zachariah Todd emptied the dishwasher - one of the few tasks he was allowed to attempt in his own kitchen. "Okay, let me see if I got this straight. Mia told Sam what happened out on the coast road this morning. Ripley, who didn't know what happened, found Sam up at Mia's house and he told her, Ripley - but she promised she wouldn't tell Mia he'd been there, so she told Mia - when Mia was going to tell her - Jesus - about what happened; that she, and that would be Ripley, ran into Sam on the road when he was cleansing the area. "

"You're doing great," Nell encouraged as Zack took a breath and she checked on the progress of her lasagna.

"Don't throw me off the track. Then Mac told Sam what Ripley had told Mia while Mia was telling you what happened this morning. Then Ripley told you the rest of it, which you told me. For reasons that escape me. "

"Because I love you, Zack. "

"Right. " He pressed a fingertip dead center of his forehead. "I think I'll just keep my mouth shut altogether. No way to wedge my foot in there that way. "

"Never a bad choice. " She heard Lucy's sudden and joyful barking. "Someone's here. You go, take the tray on the third shelf. I'm experimenting with canapes for the Rodgers's wedding I'm catering next month. Put them up where Lucy can't get them," she called as he started out, then glanced down at Diego. "Men and dogs," she said, and clucked her tongue. "You have to watch them every minute. "

And because she did, Nell took the time to shift all the utensils Zack had put away into their proper slots before she grabbed a bottle of wine and went out to greet her guests. Mac and Ripley had brought the puppy along, which sent Lucy into spasms of delight and terror, and had a miffed Diego stalking upstairs to sulk.

Mia arrived with a bouquet of freshly clipped daffodils, and helped herself relax by sitting on the floor playing tug-the-rope with Mulder.

"I think of getting a dog now and then. " She laughed as Mulder lost his toothy grip on the rope and went tumbling ears over tail. "Then I think about my gardens. " She snatched the puppy up, holding him high.

"You'd just love digging up all my flowers, wouldn't you?"

"Not to mention chewing on your shoes," Ripley said sourly. "Of course, you've got a hundred pair to spare. "

"Shoes are a form of self-expression. "

"Shoes are to walk in. "

Mia drew the puppy down, rubbed noses. "What does she know?"

That's how Sam saw her when he came to the door, sitting on the floor, laughing while a fat yellow puppy licked her cheeks. His gut clenched, and his throat snapped shut. She looked so carelessly happy with her skirts spread out on the rug, her hair tumbling down her back, and her eyes bright with pleasure.

There, in that outrageously beautiful woman, was the shimmer of the girl he'd left behind. Then Lucy barked, Mulder leaped, and Mia stopped laughing as her gaze snapped to the doorway.

"Lucy!" Zack called to the dog, then grabbed her collar as he opened the screen door for Sam. "No jumping," he ordered as Lucy's muscles bunched for a joyful leap. "Either of you. " He said it under his breath. A blind man could have seen that hungry look on Sam's face.

"She's all right. " Sam skimmed a hand over Lucy's head and she collapsed onto her back. He passed the wine he'd brought to Zack before crouching down to rub her exposed belly. The puppy gamboled over, wanting his share.

"What are you doing here?" Mia demanded.

Sam lifted his eyebrows at her tone, but before he could respond, Mac stepped in. "I asked him to come. " Mac nearly flinched at Mia's quick, accusing stare. "We're all part of this, and everyone here has something to contribute. We need to cooperate with each other, Mia. "

"You're right, of course. " The carefree woman was gone. In her place was one with a cool voice and a polished smile. "So rude of me, Sam. I apologize. This has been our little club for some time now, and I wasn't expecting a new member. "

"No problem. " He picked up the rope Mulder dropped hopefully at his feet.

"Dinner will just be a few more minutes. " Smoothly Nell moved into the tense air. "Can I get you a glass of wine, Sam?"

"Love one, thanks. Does your little club have any initiation rite I should know about?"

"Just the little business where we shave all the hair off your head and body. " Mia sipped her own wine.

"But that can wait until after dinner. I think I'll wash up. "

Before she could get to her feet, Sam was on his, a hand held down to her. Whether it was a test or a peace offering, Mia blocked herself so that when she took his hand it was nothing more than palm meeting palm. "Thanks. "

She knew the house as well as she knew her own, but headed up the stairs rather than using the more convenient powder room on the first floor.

More distance, she thought. More solitude.

She slipped inside, shut the door. Leaned back against it. It was ridiculous. Absurd for the man to affect her the way he did. It was all right, or nearly so, when she was prepared, but when she saw him at those odd moments - those moments when too much of her was already open - he just filled her up. She wanted to blame him for it, but it was foolish, and foolhardy, to keep picking at an old wound. What was done was done.

She stepped to the sink, studied her face in the mirror. She looked tired, a little pale and drawn. Well, it had been a difficult day. And the shell, at least, was simple to mend. She washed her hands, then ran water in the sink. Bending, she scooped it, cool and fresh, onto her face. In the normal scheme of things, she enjoyed using cosmetics. The pencils and tubes and brushes were amusing, and there was something reassuringly female about using them. But for now, this was simpler,

and certainly quicker.

She dabbed her face dry, weaving the glamour spell. Then she looked critically in the mirror again. Much better, she decided. She looked rested, with the subtle bloom of healthy color in her cheeks. More color, not quite so subtle, slicked her mouth.

Then with a sigh for her own vanity, she traced a fingertip over the curve of her eyelid, as a woman might use eyeshadow and a brush to define them. The contour deepened.

Satisfied, she gave herself another moment to smooth out her emotions. And went back down to join the others.

A close-knit group, Sam thought as he ate Nell Todd's truly amazing lasagna. The body language, the looks, the half-finished thoughts one would complete for another all told him these were five people who'd bonded like glue.

By his time line, Nell had been on the island slightly less than a year, and Mac only since the past winter. Yet they'd been absorbed in a way that made them all very much a single unit. A common enemy was part of the answer. But he saw more here than what he perceived as a kind of wartime intimacy.

There was something in the way Mia warmed when she spoke to or listened to Mac, the amused affection on her face. It was love he saw there, not the sort that sprang from passion, but something deep and true.

He saw byplay like that all around the table.

Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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