Before Ripley could speak again, Nell shot her a warning glance. "You're right, of course. And with the season coming on, you'll both be too busy to get in each other's way. Why don't you come to dinner tonight? I'm trying out a new recipe, and I could use the feedback. "

"You'll get that from Zack. No need to pamper me or soothe me, little sister. "

"Why don't we all go out and get drunk and bitch about men in general?" Ripley perked up. "That's always fun. "

"As appealing as that sounds, I'll pass. I have a number of things to do at home . . . if I can get my work done here. "

"She wants us to clear out," Ripley told Nell.

"I get that. " Nell sighed. It was hard, she thought, to want so badly to help and not know how. "All right, but if there's anything you need or want - "

"I know. I'm fine, and I'm going to stay that way. "

She scooted them out, then sat - just sat with her hands in her lap. It was self-defeating to tell herself she would work, or to pretend she could move through this particular day as if it were any other day. She was entitled to rage and to weep, to spit at fate and beat her fists on the face of destiny. But she would do none of those things, those weak and useless things. She would, however, go home. She got to her feet, gathered her purse and the light jacket she'd brought. And as she passed her window, she saw him.

He stepped out of a sleek black Ferrari, his coat a dark swirl around him. He always did like shiny toys, she thought. He'd changed out of his jeans into a dark suit and tamed his hair, though the breeze was already playing with it. As her fingers once had.

He carried a briefcase and strode toward the Magick Inn like a man who knew precisely where he was going and what he meant to do.

Then he turned, lifting his gaze unerringly to where she stood in the window. His eyes locked on hers, and she felt the jolt, the punch of heat that would once have melted her knees. But this time she stood straight, and without a quiver. When enough time had passed for pride, she stepped away from the window and out of his sight.

Home soothed her. It always had. Practically, the big, rambling stone house on the cliff was too much for one woman. But it was, she knew, perfect for her. Even when she'd been a child, the house had been more hers than it had been her parents'. She'd never minded the echoes, the occasional drafts, or the sheer volume of time it took to maintain a house of its size and age. Her ancestors had built it, and now it was hers alone.

She'd changed little on the inside since the house had come into her care. The furnishings here and there, a few of the colors, some basic modernization of the kitchen and baths. But the feel of the house was as it had always been for her. Embracing, warm, waiting.

There had been a time when she'd imagined herself raising a family there. God she'd wanted children. Sam's children. But over the years she had accepted what was, and what wasn't, and had made a nest of contentment.

At times she thought of the gardens as her children. She had created them, taking the time to plant, to nurture, to discipline. And they brought her joy.

And when she needed more than the gentle pleasure they provided, she had the passion and drama of her cliffs, the secrets and shadows of her forests.

She had, Mia told herself, all she needed.

But tonight she didn't wander out to fuss with her flowers or walk to face the sea from her cliffs. She didn't stroll into her forest. Instead, she went directly upstairs, climbing until she was closed inside her tower room.

Here had been refuge and discovery when she was a child. Here she had never felt alone unless alone was what she needed to feel. Here she had learned, and had disciplined, the beams of her own power. The walls were rounded, the windows tall, narrow, and arched. The late-afternoon sun streamed through them in pale gold to pool on the dark, aged wood of the floor. Shelves curved along one wall, and on them were many of the tools of her trade. Pots of herbs, jars of crystals. Spell books that had belonged to those who'd come before her, and the ones that she'd written herself. An old cabinet held other objects. There was a wand she'd made herself, from maple that she had harvested on Samhain when she turned sixteen. A broom, her best chalice, her oldest anthame, and a ball of pale blue crystal. Candles and oils and incense, a scrying mirror. All this and more, carefully organized.

She gathered what she needed, then slipped out of her dress. She preferred, whenever possible, to work skyclad.

And so she cast the circle, calling on her element - fire - for energy. The candles she lighted with a breath were blue, for calm, for wisdom, for protection.

She had performed this ritual before, several times in the past decade. Whenever she felt her heart weaken or her purpose waver. She admitted that if she hadn't done so she would have known Sam was coming back to the Sisters before he'd arrived. So the years of relative peace had their price. She would block him again - block her thoughts and feelings from him, and his from her. They would not touch each other, on any level.

"My heart and mind are mine to keep," she began, lighting incense, sprinkling herbs on still water.

"When I wake and when I sleep. What once I gave with love and free will, I take back to me, and hold calm and still. Then lovers, now strangers without joined destiny. As I will, so mote it be. "

With her cupped palms lifted, she waited for the cool flow of serenity, the stream of confidence that would indicate her ritual was complete. As she watched, the cup of herb-scattered water began to shiver. Water lapped against the rim in quiet, teasing waves.

She fisted her hands, fought back her own temper. Focusing her energy, she punched magic against magic. "My circle is closed to all but me. Your tricks are foolish and bore me. Do not enter what's mine

again without invitation. "

At the flick of her fingers, the lights from the candles streamed up, lancing to the ceiling. Smoke from them billowed, spread, and blanketed the surface of the water.

Even then she couldn't find her calm, or get a clean grasp of her temper. He would dare test his power against hers? And in her own home?

So he hadn't changed, she decided. Samuel Logan had always been an arrogant witch. And his element, she thought, hating herself when the first tear escaped, was water. In her circle, behind the haze of smoke, she lay down and wept. Bitterly. The island grapevine spread the news fast. By the next morning, the hot topic of Sam Logan had outdistanced every other tendril of gossip.

Conflicting reports had him selling the Magick Inn to mainland developers, expanding it into some fancy resort, firing the staff, or giving everyone a raise.

Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance