"That may be, but I'm not the one who got creamed when we got home. "

"True enough. I was eighteen," Zack recalled, "and Mom still skinned my butt. "

"Then she skinned mine. " The memory made Sam wince. "Jesus, that woman could terrorize me. No matter what you did, she knew about it before you'd finished doing it. And if she didn't, she'd get it out of you. She'd just stare at your face and pick away until you'd beg to confess. "

"That's how it's going to be with my kids. They won't have a prayer. " Ripley slanted Mac a smug look as he laid his hand over hers.

It flashed into Mia, fast and bright. "You're pregnant. "

"Hey. " Ripley lifted her water glass. "Nell's not the only one who can get knocked up. "

"A baby!" Nell leaped out of her chair, danced around the table to throw her arms around Ripley's neck. "This is wonderful! What a way to announce it. "

"I've been working on that story and segue since this afternoon. "

"How about that?" With a grin a mile wide and a voice that wasn't quite steady, Zack moved over to tug Ripley's long ponytail. "I'm going to be an uncle. "

"You've got a couple of months to practice being a daddy first. "

Amid the jokes and congratulations, Mia rose. She walked to Ripley, running her hands up and down Ripley's arms as she, too, got to her feet. Then Mia simply drew her in. Drew her close. Held her tight. Emotion flooded Ripley's throat, and she turned her face into Mia's hair.

"There are two," Mia whispered.

"Two?" Ripley's jaw dropped. "Two?" It was all she could say as she pulled back. "You mean . . . "

Staggered, she stared down at her flat belly. "Man. "

"Two what?" In the process of drinking the wine Sam had poured into his glass for a toast, Mac smiled over at his wife. Gradually the shock on her face trickled through. "Two? Twins? We've got two in there? I need to sit down. "

"You need to sit down?"

"Right. We need to sit down. " Mac sat, pulled her onto his lap. "Two for one. That's so cool. "

"They'll be safe. I can see it. " Mia leaned over, kissed Mac's cheeks. "Go on in the living room, be comfortable. I'll bring coffee. Tea for the mothers. Ripley, you'll want to cut back on the caffeine. "

"Something's wrong," Sam commented when Mia walked into the kitchen. "Something more than Lulu's weighing on her. "

"She gets worked up about babies. " With her hand on her stomach, Ripley tried to imagine two.

"It's more than that. I'll give her a hand with the coffee. "

When he stepped into the kitchen she was standing in the open back door, watching the soft summer rain fall on her gardens.

"I want to help you. "

"It's no trouble. "

He moved to her. "I'm not talking about the coffee. I want to help you. "

"You have. " She took his hand, gripped it hard for a moment. "You risked your life yesterday for someone I love. You trusted me to hold you, and her, safe so you could help her. "

"I did the only thing that could be done. "

"The only thing you could do, Sam. Being you. "

"Let's leave that. I want to help with what's bothering you now. "

"You can't. Not now, in any case. This is my battle, and now there's more at stake than ever. Everything that matters to me is inside this house tonight. And it's there, out there, wanting. Can you feel it?" she whispered. "Just beyond my circle. Pressing, shifting. Waiting. "

"Yes. I don't want you staying here alone. "

When she started to move away, he took her firmly by the shoulders, turned her. "Mia, whatever you think or feel or want from me, you're too smart to push aside the power I can add to yours. Are you certain that either of us could have saved Lulu alone?"

"No. " She let out a breath. "No, I'm not. "

"If you don't want me with you, I'll sleep in one of the guest rooms, or the goddamn sofa. You've got your dragon to guard you - and a broken arm wouldn't stop her. This isn't about me trying to get into your bed. "

"I know. Let me think about it. We have other things to discuss tonight. "

She could think all she liked, he decided as she walked away to finish the coffee. He was staying with her, even if he had to sleep outside in his car.

She served coffee and slices of cream cake. Then she did something Nell hadn't seen her do in the time they'd known each other.

Mia drew the drapes and closed out the night.

"It watches. " Mia's voice was calm as she walked the room, lighting more candles. "Or tries to. My gesture was meant to be rude and dismissive. A petty slap. Petty," she continued as she sat and picked up her own coffee, "but satisfying. I owe it more than a petty slap for harming Lulu. "

And she would give it more. Much more.

"I have to say, the timing of this is poor. We should be celebrating Ripley and Mac's news. And we will. "

She was like a queen, Sam thought. A warrior queen addressing her troops. He wasn't sure how he felt about the image. But as he focused on her, narrowed his vision on her, his belly did a queasy roll.

"Where did you go, Mia? When you left the island, where did you go?"

He saw from the quick race of surprise over her face that he'd caught her off guard. And because he had, he reached through that narrow chink and pulled out more. Pulled out enough to have him pushing to his feet.

"Remington? You went to see Remington?"

"Yes. " She sipped her coffee, gathered her thoughts while the emotions in the room bulleted and careened around her.

"Oh, that's fine. That's just fine!" At the explosion from Ripley, Mia looked over at her coolly. "You're the one who's always haranguing me about being cautious, controlled. About being prepared. "

"That's right. And I was. I wasn't careless or foolish. "

"And I am?"

Mia lifted her shoulders in an elegant little shrug. "I'd use the word reckless, which you tend to be. Going to see him was a calculated risk, one that needed to be taken. "

"You had the nerve to ream us last night for not coming clean about Lulu, then you keep this to yourself. "

"Hardly," Mia said smoothly. "I'm telling you what I did, and what happened. Freely. "

"You shouldn't have gone alone. " Nell's voice was quiet, and all the more effective for it. "You had no right to go alone. "

"I disagree. Remington's feelings toward you would have prevented any possible discussion. Ripley's temper would have very likely forced a confrontation then and there. Of the three of us, I'm most able to deal with him, and I have more need at this point to do so. "

"There are four of us," Sam reminded everyone.

"There are fucking six of us. " He'd said nothing to this point, but now Zack got to his feet. "You're going to start remembering there are six of us," Zack ordered Mia. "I don't care if you can shoot lightning out of your goddamn fingertips. There are six of us in this. "

"Zack. "

"Be quiet," he snapped at Nell and had her gaping at him.

"You think because there're two of us in this room who can't whistle up the wind or pull down the moon or whatever the hell you call it, we're just going to sit on our hands. I've got as much at stake as you do, Mia. And I'm still the sheriff on Three Sisters. "

"I come from them, the same as you do. " Mac drew Mia's considering gaze to him. "I don't have what you have, but I've spent most of my life studying it. Cutting us out this way is not only insulting, it's arrogant. "

"Just one more way to prove you don't need anyone else. "

She made herself look directly at Sam. "That wasn't my intention. I'm sorry if that was the result. I'm sorry," she repeated, lifting her hands to encompass everyone in the room. "I wouldn't have gone to see him if I hadn't been certain I could deal with him. At that time and under those circumstances. "

"Never wrong, are you?" Sam shot out.

"Oh, I've been wrong. " Because the coffee lay bitter on her tongue, she set the cup aside. "But I wasn't wrong about this. He couldn't harm me. " She shut off the memory of claws and cold. "Remington is being used, and his hate, his madness, is a powerful tool. There was a chance I could reach him, that with his cooperation I could close him off, shut down that source of energy. He's a conduit," she said, looking to Mac for verification. "Shut off the valve, so to speak, and the power weakens. "

"It's a valid theory. "

"Screw theories. What happened?" Ripley demanded.

"He's too far gone. He believes the lies, the promises. And he's damned himself. But that's a weakness, that hunger to bring pain and misery. The singularity of that purpose is innately flawed. In the end it'll destroy itself. But I think we can, and should, move that process along. After what happened yesterday, we must move it along. I won't take any chances with Lulu, and as long as it can't get to me, it will try for her. "

"I think you're right about that," Mac put in. "Your feelings for her would be seen as a weakness. An Achilles' heel. "

"Then we act sooner - because it's not a weakness. It's another weapon. "

"A preemptive strike?" Sam suggested.

"In a manner of speaking," Mia nodded. "An offensive move rather than defensive. I've been thinking about it for some time. I know, without doubt now, that his power builds over time. There was more when I faced off with it yesterday. Why should we wait until September, give him that much more time to gather strength against us? With you and Ripley and Nell, we have the four elements represented. We have new life, a new circle inside the old - three children who carry the old blood - waiting to be born. That's powerful magic. A banishing spell with full ritual. "

"The legend calls for something else," he reminded her. "It calls for you to make a choice. "

"I'm aware of that. I'm aware of all the interpretations, all the nuances. All the risks and sacrifices. Our circle isn't broken, as theirs was. Our power isn't diminished, as theirs was. " Her voice went steely. "By hurting Lulu it has only given me more reason to finish it, by whatever means necessary. My part comes when it comes. And a banishing ritual would be a hell of a distraction - and very possibly put an end to things. Mac?"

"You'll need the full moon," Mac added, his brow furrowing as he calculated. "That doesn't give you much time. "

Mia only smiled, but it was fierce and it was cold. "We've had three hundred years. "

Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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