She'd brushed him off like a fly. Like a gnat. Not with a slash of temper but with irritation. That snap of connection between them meant something. He had to believe that. But if anyone he knew could hold the line against fate, could press her will against it, it was Mia.

Stubborn, prideful witch, he thought, then sighed. The fact that she was exactly that had always been part of her appeal for him. Pride and power were hard to resist. Unless he missed his guess, she had more of both now than she'd had at nineteen.

That meant he had his work cut out for him, on a number of levels. He hissed out a breath and shoved open the door to the station house. The man who sat with his feet on the desk and a phone at his ear hadn't changed much. He'd filled out here, fined down there. His hair was still unruly, still sun-streaked brown. His eyes were the same sharp, pure green.

And they widened as they studied Sam's face.

"Hey, let me get back to you. I'll have the paperwork faxed over by end of day. Yeah. Right. I have to go. " Zack swung his feet from desk to floor as he hung up the phone. Then he unfolded himself and stared, grinning, at Sam. "Son of a bitch, it's Mister New York City. "

"So, look who's John Law. "

Zack crossed the small office area in three strides on battered high-tops and caught Sam in a bear hug. More than relief rippled through Sam, for here was welcome, and the uncomplicated affection and bone-deep bond that had sprung from childhood.

The years between the boy and the man fell away.

"It's good to see you," he managed.

"Right back at you. " Zack eased away, took stock. Pure pleasure flashed in his grin. "Well, you didn't get fat and bald from sitting behind a desk. "

Sam shot a look at Zack's cluttered work area. "Neither did you. Sheriff. "

"Yeah, so remember who's in charge and keep your nose clean on my island. What the hell are you doing here? Want some coffee?"

"If you're calling what's in that pot coffee, I'll pass, thanks. And I've got business here. Long-term business. "

Zack pursed his lips as he poured muddy coffee into a mug. "The hotel?"

"For one thing. I bought my parents out. It's mine now. "

"Bought them - " Zack shrugged, eased a hip onto the corner of the desk.

"My family never did run like yours," Sam said dryly. "It's a business. One that my father lost interest in. I haven't. How are your parents?"

"Dandy. You just missed them. They came in for Ripley's wedding and stayed nearly a month. I almost thought they'd decided to move back permanently, but then they packed up their Winnebago and headed up toNova Scotia . "

"I'm sorry I won't get to see them. I've heard Rip's not the only one who got married. "

"Yeah. " Zack lifted his hand where his wedding ring glinted. "I'd hoped you would make it back for the wedding. "

"I wish I could have. " That was a real regret, one of many. "I'm happy for you, Zack. I mean that. "

"I know it. You'll be happier when you meet her. "

"Oh, I met your wife. " Sam's smile thinned. "From the smell of that crap you're drinking, she makes better coffee than you. "

"Ripley made it. "

"Whatever. I'm just grateful your wife didn't pour hers over my head. "

"Why would she . . . ? Oh. " Zack puffed out his cheeks. "Oh, well, then. Mia. " He rubbed a hand over his chin. "Nell and Mia and Ripley. The fact is - "

He broke off as the door swung open. Ripley Todd Booke, vibrating from the brim of her ball cap to the toes of her scarred boots, glowered at Sam. Her eyes, the same green as her brother's, shot arrows of resentment.

"Better late than never," she announced as she started forward. "I've been waiting for this for eleven years. "

Zack lunged toward her, caught her around the waist as she swung out. She had

, he had reason to know, a keen right cross. "Hold on," he ordered. "Just hold the hell on. "

"Hasn't mellowed, has she?" Sam commented. He tucked his hands in his pockets. If she was going to plant a fist in his face, he'd just as soon she get it over with.

"Not a bit. " Zack hefted her off her feet while she cursed at him. Her cap fell off, and her long dark hair tumbled over her furious face. "Sam, why don't you give me a few minutes here? Ripley, cut it out!" he ordered. "You're wearing a badge, remember?"

"Then I'll take it off before I punch him. " She blew her hair out of her eyes and they scorched the air between her and Sam. "He deserves it. "

"Maybe I do," Sam agreed. "But not from you. "

"Mia's too much of a damn lady to bust your chops. I'm not. "

He smiled now. "I always liked that about you. I'm renting the yellow cottage," he told Zack and watched Ripley's mouth drop open in shock. "Come on by when you have time. We'll have a beer. "

He decided the shock was complete when she didn't try to kick him as he walked to the door. He stepped outside again, took another long look at the village.

He'd had a welcome from a friend, even if three women had formed a tight circle of resentment against him.

For better or for worse, he thought, he was home.

Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance