"All right, all right. " With a huff of breath, Ripley marched along the seawall to finish her beach patrol.
"I'm worried, too. Satisfied? And if I wasn't, Mac's twitchy enough for both of us. He's buried himself in research, spends hours making notes. He thinks Mia has something going on that she's not telling us. "
"So do I. "
"That makes three of us. I don't know what the hell we're supposed to do about it. "
"Zack and I have talked about it. We could confront her. All of us, at one time. "
"What, like an intervention? Come on. You couldn't crack that woman with a sledgehammer. I wish I didn't like that about her. "
"I had another idea. I thought that between the two of us, we could . . . well, if we were linked, we could get through this shield she's thrown up and see what she's thinking. "
"You're talking about prying into her private thoughts, against her express wishes?"
"Yes. Forget I said it. It's rude and intrusive and sneaky. "
"Yeah, that's why I like it. Great idea. I can take an hour . . . " She checked her watch. "Right now. Your place is closer. "
Twenty minutes later, Ripley lay back on the floor of Nell's living room, panting and sweating. "God!
She is such a bitch. You've got to admire that. "
"It's like trying to cut through concrete with a toothpick. " Nell swiped her forearm over her brow. "It shouldn't be this hard. "
"She figured we might try it. She was ready for us. Man, she is good. And she's got something to hide. "
Ripley wiped her damp palms on her slacks. "Now I'm seriously worried. Let's tap Sam. "
"We can't. Whatever she's protecting probably has to do with him. It wouldn't be right. Ripley, she loves him. "
Staring at the ceiling, Ripley tapped her fingers over her stomach. "If that's her choice - "
"She hasn't made her choice. At least that she's letting on. She loves him, but as far as I can tell, it isn't making her happy. "
"She never could be simple. You know what I think? I think she's going to go for it during the banishment spell. A double whammy. She's already made her decision, Nell. She doesn't do anything spur of the moment. "
"Ripley, she said our babies would be safe. "
"That's right. "
"She never said she would be. "
Sam loosened his tie as he watched Mac circle the outside of the cottage with one of his handheld gadgets. Every so often, Mac would detour, crouch, mutter.
"He puts on a real show, doesn't he?" At Sam's side, Ripley rocked back on her heels. "Since Mac's big production, he's been doing this check at our place, and at Lulu's, twice a day. "
"What's all this about, Rip?" Sam had come straight from one meeting into what appeared to be another. Zack and Nell were due any minute. "Why are we doing whatever it is we're going to be doing without Mia?"
"This is Mac's deal. I've only got pieces of it. " She cocked her head as Mac started back toward them.
"Okay, Dr. Booke, what's the story?"
"You keep this place tight," he said to Sam. "Good job. "
"Thanks, Doc. Now what the hell is this about?"
"Let's wait for the others. I've got to get some stuff out of the car. Is Mia expecting you anytime soon?"
"I don't punch a time clock. " Noting the easy humor that passed between his friends at the statement, Sam set his teeth. "Look, she'll be on her way home shortly. Lulu, who must've passed stubbornness on to Mia through osmosis, has moved back to her own place. I don't like Mia being alone for long. "
"We'll get you off to play house," Ripley began, then saw the icy temper on Sam's face. "Hey, hey. Easy, Sam. We're on the same team, remember?"
"It's hot out here. " With that, Sam turned and strode into the house.
"Edgy," Ripley said as he passed.
"Who isn't? Here come Nell and Zack. Let's get started. "
Within ten minutes, Sam found his little cottage taken over. Nell, obviously anticipating the state of his supplies, had brought cookies and a cooler of iced tea. She managed to set it all up like a party even as Mac spread his notes and books over the table.
"Nell, would you sit down?" Zack tugged her toward a chair. "Get the kid off his feet for five minutes. "
"Hey, I've got double. " Ripley boosted herself onto the kitchen counter, snagged a cookie. "So, I'll start. Nell and I decided to do a little spying yesterday - "
"It wasn't spying. "
"It would've been," Ripley said, "if we'd pulled it off. But we couldn't. Mia's totally blocked. She's got herself locked up like a vault. "
"And you think this is news?" Sam asked.
"She's got something going on in that prissy brain of hers that she doesn't want anyone to know," Ripley continued. "It's irritating, but more, it's got us worried. "
"She's worked out what she's going to do. "
"I think you're right about that," Mac said to Sam. "The other night when we were together, she said something about knowing all the aspects, the interpretations. It got me thinking. On the surface, it's pretty cut and dried. Her task, let's call it, deals with love. Love without boundaries. We can take that to mean she's meant to love that way, or to let go, freely, of an attachment that restricted her. Sorry," he added.