"I like your bookstore," he said, careful to keep his voice casual. "Or what I've seen of it. "

"Well, we'll have to give you the grand tour. Lulu, you have customers. "

"I know what I've got," Lulu muttered. "It's a workday, isn't it? You don't have time to go showing this one around the place. "

"Lulu. " Mia merely angled her head, a quiet warning. "I've always got a few minutes for an old friend. Come upstairs, Sam, see the cafe. " She started back up, her hand trailing along the rail. "You may have heard that a mutual friend of ours, Zack Todd, was married last winter. Nell's not only a close friend of mine but she's a spectacular cook as well. "

Sam paused at the top of the stairs. It annoyed him that he had to get his bearings, seek his balance. The scent of her was turning him inside out.

The second floor was just as welcoming as the first, with the added enticement of a bustling cafe on one end and all the wonderful aromas, of spices, coffee, rich chocolate, that wafted from it. The display glass sparkled in front of a dazzling selection of baked goods and salads. Fragrant smoke streamed from an enormous kettle where even now a pretty blonde ladled out soup for a waiting customer.

Windows on the far wall let in glimpses of the sea.

"It's terrific. " That, at least, he could say without qualification. "Just terrific, Mia. You must be very proud of what you've done here. "

"Why wouldn't I be?"

There was a bite, a quick, nasty nip, in the tone that had him looking back at her. But she only smiled again, gestured with an elegant hand that sparkled with rings. "Hungry?"

"More than I'd counted on. "

A glimpse of that bite snapped, for an instant, in those smoke-gray depths before she turned and led the way to the counter. "Nell, I have a man with an appetite. "

"Then he's come to the right place. " Nell grinned, her dimples fluttering, her blue eyes friendly when they met Sam's. "Our soup of the day is chicken curry. Special salad is shrimp diablo, and the sandwich of the day is grilled pork and tomato on olive loaf. Plus our regular fare," she added, tapping the counter menu, "with our vegetarian offerings. "

Zack's wife, Sam thought. It was one thing to realize that his oldest friend had taken the plunge and another to see the reason why. It gave him yet one more jolt.

"Quite a selection. "

"We like to think so. "

"You can't make a bad choice when Nell's prepared it," Mia told him. "I'll just leave you in her capable hands for the moment. I do have work. Oh, Nell, I should have introduced you. This is an old friend of Zack's, Sam Logan. Enjoy your lunch," she said, then walked away.

Sam watched surprise race over Nell's pretty face, then every bit of warmth drain away. "What can I get you?"

"Just coffee for now. Black. How's Zack?"

"He's very well, thank you. "

Sam drummed his fingers on his thigh. Another guard at the gate, he thought, and no less formidable than the dragon, for all the soft looks. "And Ripley? I heard she got married just last month. "

"She's very well and very happy. " Nell's mouth formed a firm, unwelcoming line as she set his coffee in a to-go cup on the counter. "No charge. I'm sure Mia doesn't want, or need, your money. They serve a very nice lunch at the Magick Inn, as I'm sure you know. "

"Yes, I know. " A pretty kitten, and very sharp claws, Sam mused. "Do you think Mia needs your protection, Mrs. Todd?"

"I think Mia can handle anything. " She smiled now, thin as a blade. "Absolutely anything. "

Sam picked up his coffee. "So do I," he agreed, then wandered off in the direction Mia had gone. The bastard. Once she was behind the closed door of her office, Mia let out a splinter of the rage. Even that had books and knickknacks on her shelves rattling and jumping. That he would have the nerve, the insensitivity, the stupidity to waltz into her store.

To stand there and smile at her as if he expected her to shout for joy and jump into his arms. And to look baffled when she hadn't.

Bastard.

She clenched her fists, and a thin crack snaked across the glass of her window. She'd known the moment he'd walked in. Just as she'd known the instant he'd come onto the island. It had washed over her, flooded into her, as she'd sat at her desk completing a stock order. Pain, shock, joy, fury, all so intense, all so immediate, she'd been dizzy from them. One stunning emotion slamming into another, leaving her weak and trembling.

And she'd known he was back.

Eleven years. He'd walked away from her, leaving her hurting and helpless and hopeless. It still shamed her to remember the quivering mass of confusion and grief she'd been for weeks after he'd gone. But she'd rebuilt her life on the ashes of the dreams that Sam had burned beneath her. She'd found her focus, and a kind of steady contentment.

Now he was back.

She could only thank the fates that her foreknowledge had given her time to compose herself. How humiliating it would have been if she'd seen him before she'd had a chance to prepare herself. And how satisfying it had been to see that flicker of surprise and puzzlement cross his face at her cool and casual greeting.

She was stronger now, she reminded herself. She was no longer the girl who had laid her heart, bleeding and broken, at his feet. And there were more - many more - important things in her life now than a man. Love, she thought, could be such a lie. She had no place, and no tolerance, for lies. She had her home, her business, her friends. She had her circle again, and that circle had a purpose. That was enough to sustain her.

At the knock on the door, she blocked her feelings, her thoughts again, then slid onto the chair behind her desk. "Yes, come in. "

She was scanning the data on her monitor when Sam stepped inside. She glanced over absently, with just a hint of a frown in her eyes. "Nothing on the menu to tempt you?"

"I settled for this. " He lifted the coffee, then pried off the top and set it on her desk. "Nell's very loyal. "

"Loyalty's a necessary quality in a friend, to my mind. "

He made some sound of agreement, then sipped the coffee. "She also makes superior coffee. "


Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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