When it leaped, she was alone on her cliffs. She saw the red eyes burning. She heard her own voice cry out - despair and triumph - as she wrapped her arms around it. And took it with her off the cliffs. As she fell she saw the moon, full and white, break through the storm and, with the fire of stars, shine over the island.

In her tower, she knelt on the floor, her eyes blurred with visions, her heart pounding.

"You give me this only to take it away? Is there a price for the gift, after all? You would have let the innocent be harmed, the mother of my heart? Does it all come down to blood?"

She slid to the floor, curled in the circle. For the first and last time in her life, she cursed the gift.

"She's holding something back. " Sam paced the kitchen in the house where he'd grown up. "I know it. "

"Maybe she is. " Mac pushed through the documents spread over the kitchen table. They'd been his breakfast companion until Sam had shown up. "Something started bugging me last night, but I can't put my finger on it. I've been going through everything I have on Three Sisters: the island, the women, the descendants. I've read over my own ancestor's journal. I feel like I'm missing something. Some angle. Some, what was the word Mia used? Interpretation . "

Sam pushed the bag he'd brought with him over the table. "You can add these to your research pile, at least until she realizes I pulled them out of her library. "

"I've been meaning to get to these anyway. " Carefully, reverently, Mac took an old and scarred leather book out of the bag. "Mia gave me the go-ahead to scour her books. "

"Then we'll use that when she gets pissy about me hauling them over here. I'm going to talk to Zack. "

Sam jingled change in his pockets and paced again. "The Todds have been on the island as long as anyone can remember, and he's had his finger on the pulse of things all along. Maybe if I can think of the right questions, he'll have the right answers. "

"We've got just over a week until the full moon. "

"Start cramming, Professor. " Sam checked his watch. "I've got to get to work. You come up with anything, let me know. "

Mac grunted his assent, already absorbed in the first book.

Instead of going to his car, Sam followed the urge and walked down to the beach, heading toward the cave.

There had always been something pulling him there, even before Mia. As a little boy he'd slipped away from his mother or his nanny and wandered there. Even if it had been only to curl up and sleep. He could still remember the time - he had been only three - when the police had been called to search for him. Zack's father had rooted him out, scooping him out of a dream where he'd slept in the arms of a beautiful woman with red hair and gray eyes.

She'd sung to him in Gaelic, a story-song about a handsome silkie who had loved a witch, then had left her for the sea.

He'd understood her words, and the language of her song had become his own. When he was older, he and his friends had played inside the cave, used it as a fort, a submarine, a den of thieves. Still, he'd often gone in alone, sneaking out of the house after bedtime to stretch out on the floor, make a fire with a thought, and watch the flames play on the walls. As he'd grown from child to boy, the woman had come to his dreams less often, and less clearly. But he'd seen her in Mia. The two images had blurred in his mind until there had been only Mia. He stepped into the cave and could smell her. No, he corrected, fascinated. He could smell them both. The soft, herbal scent of the woman who had sung to him, and the deeper, richer scent of the woman he loved.

Mother, Mia had called her the night they'd seen her carry the pelt from this place. With the warmth of affection, the formality of respect, she had addressed the vision as though they had met many times before.

He supposed, though she'd never told him - even when she had seemed to tell him everything - that they had.

He crouched, studying the smooth cave floor where he had seen the man curled in sleep.

"You had my face," he said aloud. "Just as she had Mia's. Once I let myself believe that meant we weren't supposed to be together. It was one of my many excuses. You left. I left. But I came back. "

He shifted, reading the words he had carved into the stone so long ago. As he read, he reached under his shirt to pull out the chain he wore. His foot tapped against something and sent it clinking against the stone.

With one hand closed around the ring he wore on the chain, he picked up its mate. The smaller ring was badly tarnished, but he could feel the carving that circled it. The same Celtic knot pattern that circled the one he'd found in the cave on the west coast of Ireland. The same pattern as the design Mia had etched under the promise he'd carved in stone.

Gently, he closed his fingers over the ring and brought out a dimly remembered spell suited to housewives. When he opened his hand again, the little ring gleamed silver. He studied it for a long time, then slid it onto the chain with its mate. In her office, Mia printed out e-mail orders, set them aside to fill, then efficiently began on the paperwork generated during her brief absence. She'd used the backlog as a legitimate excuse to leave the house early. Though, she recalled, Sam hadn't seemed eager to keep her around. By nine, she'd made considerable progress, and stopped to make her first phone call. She needed to

see her lawyer at the first opportunity and make a few adjustments to her will. She told herself she wasn't being fatalistic, just practical.

From her satchel she took some of the personal papers she'd brought from home. Her partnership agreement with Nell in Three Sisters Catering was in order. But she intended to leave Ripley her share, should anything happen.

She thought Nell would appreciate that.

As the will stood now, the bookstore went outright to Lulu, but she'd decided to change that and designate a percentage to Nell. Lulu, she had no doubt, would approve. And she intended to start a small trust fund for her sisters' children, including the deed for the yellow cottage. It was something she would do in any case.

She would leave her library to Mac, as he would make the best use of it. For Zack there was her star collection, and her great-grandfather's watch.

It was the sort of thing one left to a brother.

She would leave the house to Sam. She could trust him to preserve it, to see that her garden was tended. And to guard the heart of the island.

She put the papers in her bottom drawer, locked it. She didn't intend for any of these arrangements to be necessary anytime soon. But she strongly believed in being prepared. She gathered up the printouts, took them downstairs to fill the orders. And she got on with the day, and her life.

"Something is just not right. "

"Yeah," Ripley agreed. "There are too many people on the beach, and half of them are idiots. "

"Seriously, Ripley. I'm really worried about Mia. We only have a couple of days before the full moon. "

"I know what day of the month it is. Look at that guy there, on the Mickey Mouse towel. Frying like a fish in a pan. Bet he's from Indiana or someplace and hasn't seen a beach before. Give me a minute here. "

She marched across the sand, nudged the brilliantly pink man with her toe. Nell waited, shifting from foot to foot while Ripley launched into her lecture, pointed skyward, leaned down and poked a finger in the man's shoulder, as if testing doneness.

As she marched back, the man dug out sunscreen and began slathering it on.

"My public service for the week. Now, about Mia - "

"She's too calm. She'

s breezing along like it's business as usual. She came to the book club meeting last night. She's in there right now checking inventory. We're doing the biggest spell I've ever done in a matter of days, and she just pats me on the head and tells me it'll be fine. "

"She's always had ice water for blood. What's new?"

Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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