Dance Upon the Air, page 15part #1 of Three Sisters Island Series
Ripley stopped her cruiser and watched Nell unpack her car. The sun had gone down, and with the cold snap that had slapped the island with a wicked northeast punch, any tourists were snuggled into the hotel sipping hot drinks.
Most of the natives would be sensibly settled in front of the television or finishing up dinner. She was looking forward to engaging in both those activities herself.
But she hadn't managed a one-on-one with Nell since the evening she'd come to the door.
"You're either getting a very late start or a really early one," Ripley called out.
Nell hefted the box and hunched inside the fleece-lined jacket she'd mail-ordered from the mainland. "A second start. The book club that Mia runs is back from its summer break. First meeting's tonight. "
"Oh, yeah. " Ripley got out of the car. She was wearing an ancient and well-loved bomber jacket and hiking boots. Her summer-weight ball cap had been replaced by one of plain black wool. "Need a hand?"
"I wouldn't turn one down. " Happy that she sensed no lingering animosity, Nell gestured with her elbow to the second box. "Refreshments for the meeting. Are you going?"
"Not a chance. "
"Don't like to read?"
"No, I like to read, I just don't like groups. Groups are made up of members," she explained. "And members are almost always people. So there you go. "
"People you know," Nell pointed out.
"Which gives my stand a firmer base. This group's a bunch of hens who'll spend as much time pecking at the latest gossip as they will discussing whatever book they used as an excuse to get out of the house for the evening. "
"How do you know that if you don't belong to the club?"
"Let's just say I have a sixth sense about these things. "
"All right. " Nell adjusted the balance of her box as they walked toward the rear entrance. Despite the weather, Mia's salvia hung on, as red and sassy as July. "Is that why you don't accept the Craft? Because it's like joining a group?"
"That would be reason enough. Added to that, I don't like being told I have to fall in line with something that started three hundred years before I was born. "
A blast of wind blew her ponytail into a thick, dark whip. She ignored it, and the cold fingers that tried to sneak under her jacket. "I figure whatever needs to be dealt with can and should be dealt with without cackling over a cauldron, and I don't like having people wondering if I'm going to come flying by on my broom wearing a pointy black hat. "
"I can't argue with the first two reasons. " Nell opened the door, stepped into the welcome warmth. "But the second two don't hold. I've never once heard Mia cackle, over a cauldron or otherwise, and I've never seen anyone look at her as if they expected her to jump on a broom. "
"Wouldn't surprise me if she did. " Ripley strode into the main store, nodded at Lulu. "Lu. "
"Rip. " Lulu continued setting up the folding chairs. "Joining us tonight?"
"Are they holding the Ice Capades in hell?"
"Not that I've heard. " She sniffed the air. "Do I smell gingerbread?"
"Got it in one," Nell told her. "Is there any special way you want the refreshments set up?"
"You're the expert there. Mia's upstairs yet. If she doesn't like the way you've done it, she'll tell you. "
Nell carried the box to the table that was already waiting. She'd made some pricks in Lulu's shell, but had yet to crack all the way through. It was, she admitted, becoming a personal challenge.
"Do you think I can stay for some of the discussion?"
Lulu peered narrowly over the tops of her glasses. "You read the book?"
Damn. Nell took out the plate of gingerbread first, hoping the scent would sweeten her chances. "Well, no. I didn't know about the club until last week, and-"
"A person's got an hour a day that can be put to reading. I don't care how busy they are. "
"Oh, stop being such a bitch, Lulu. "
Nell's jaw dropped at Ripley's command, but the sidelong look she risked showed her Lulu's reaction was a happy grin.
"I can't. It goes down to the bone. You can stay if this one stays. " She jerked a thumb at Ripley.
"I'm not interested in hanging out with a bunch of females chattering about a book and who's sleeping with who, who shouldn't be. Besides, I haven't had my dinner. "
"Cafe's open another ten minutes," Lulu told her. "Split pea and ham soup was good today. And it'll do you good to spend some time with females. Explore your inner woman. "
Ripley snorted. But the idea of the soup-in fact, any food that she wasn't obliged to fix herself-held tremendous appeal. "My inner woman doesn't need any exploration. She's lean and mean. But I'll check out the soup. "
She sauntered toward the steps. "I might stay for the first twenty minutes," she called back. "But if I do, I want first crack at that gingerbread. "
"Lulu?" Nell arranged star-shaped cookies on a glass plate.
"I'll call you a bitch if it'll help bring us closer as people willing to explore our inner woman. "
Lulu gave a snort of her own. "You've got a quick mouth on you when you want to. You carry your weight and you keep your word. That goes a way with me. "
"I also make superior gingerbread. "
Lulu walked over, picked up a slice. "I'll be the judge of that. See that you read October's book before the next discussion. "
Nell's dimples flickered. "I will. "
Upstairs, Ripley annoyed Peg by demanding a bowl of soup minutes before closing.
"I've got a date, so if you don't finish this before my time's up, you'll just have to wash the bowl yourself. "
"I can dump it in the sink the same as you would, for Nell to deal with in the morning. Give me a hot chocolate to go with it. Are you still stepping out with Mick Burmingham?"
"That's right. We're snugging in and having a video festival. We're watching Scream One, Two, and Three. "
"Very sexy. If you want to take off, I won't snitch to Mia. "
Peg didn't hesitate. "Thanks. " She whipped off her apron. "I'm gone. "
Appreciating the fact that the cafe was empty, Ripley settled down to enjoy her soup in blissful solitude. Nothing could have spoiled her pleasure more quickly than hearing the click of Mia's heels on the floor barely one minute later.
"I cut her loose. Hot date. "
"I don't appreciate you giving my employees permission to leave early. The cafe doesn't close for another four minutes, and it's part of her job description to clean the case, counters, and kitchen after that time. "
"Well, I booted her along, so you can kick my ass instead of hers. " Intrigued, Ripley continued to spoon up soup as she studied Mia.
It was a rare event to see the cool Ms. Devlin heated up, and jittery. She was twisting the chain of the amulet she wore around her neck, continued to worry it as she strode over to the display counter and hissed.
"There are health regulations about cleanliness in food services. Since you were so generous to Peg, you can damn well scrub this up yourself. "
"In a pig's eye," Ripley muttered, but felt a tug of guilt that threatened to spoil her appetite. "What bug crawled up your butt?"
"I have a business to run here, and it takes more than stalking around the village looking cocky, which is your specialty. "
"Oh, get fucked, Mia. It'll improve your humor. "
Mia rounded back. "Unlike you, fucking isn't my answer to every whim and itch. "
"You want to play the ice maiden because Sam Logan dumped you, that's your. . . " Ripley trailed off, despising herself even as the hot color in Mia's face drained. "Sorry. Out of line. Way out of line. "
"Forget it. "
"When I sucker punch somebody, I apologize. Even if you did come in here looking for a fight. In fact, I'll not only apologize, I'll ask you what's wrong. "
"Normally, I don't. But normally I don't see you spooked. What's the deal?"
They'd been friends once, and good ones. As close as any sisters. Because of that it was harder for Mia to sit, to open up, than it would have been if Ripley had been a stranger.
But the matter was more important than feuds or grudges. She sat across from Ripley, leveled her gaze. "There's blood on the moon. "
Before Ripley could finish, Mia's hand shot out, gripped her wrist. "Trouble, bad trouble is coming. A dark force. You know me well enough to be sure I wouldn't say it, wouldn't tell you, of all people, unless I was sure. "
"And you know me well enough to know what I think of portents and omens. " But there was a cold chill working up her spine.
"It's coming, after the leaves finish dying, before the first snow. I'm sure of that, too, but I can't see what it is, or where it comes from. Something's blocking it. "
It disturbed Ripley when Mia's eyes went that deep, that dark. It seemed you could see a thousand years in them. "Any trouble comes to the island, Zack and I will handle it. "
"It'll take more. Ripley, Zack loves Nell and you love him. They're at the center of this. I feel it. If you don't flex, something will break. Something none of us can put right again. I can't do whatever needs to be done alone, and Nell isn't ready yet. "
"I can't help you that way. "
"Can't or won't comes out to the same thing. "
"Yes, it does," Mia said as she got to her feet. There wasn't temper sparking her eyes; that would have been easy to fight. There was weariness. "Deny what you are, lose what you are. I sincerely hope you don't regret it. "
Mia went downstairs to greet her book club and deal with the business at hand.
Alone, Ripley rested her chin on her fist. It was a guilt trip, that was all. When Mia wasn't shooting out spiteful little darts, she heaped on layers of sticky guilt. Ripley wasn't falling for it. If there was a red haze over the moon, it was due to some atmospheric quirk and had nothing to do with her.
She would leave the omens and portents to Mia since she enjoyed them so much.
She shouldn't have dropped in tonight, shouldn't have put herself in a position where Mia could try to pin her. All they did was annoy each other. It had been that way for more than a decade.
But not always.
They'd been friends, next to inseparable friends, until they'd teetered on the cusp of adulthood. Ripley remembered her mother had called them twins of the heart. They'd shared everything, and maybe that was the problem.
It was natural for interests to diverge when people grew up, natural for childhood friends to drift apart. Not that she and Mia had drifted, she admitted. It had been more like a sword slash down the center of their friendship. Abrupt and violent.
But she'd had the right to go her own way. She'd been right to go her own way. And she wasn't going back now just because Mia was jittery over some atmospheric hitch.
Even if Mia was right and trouble was coming, it would be dealt with through the rules and obligations of the law, and not with spellbinding.
She had put away her childish things, the toys and the tools she had no further interest in. That had been sensible, mature. When people looked at her now, they saw Ripley Todd, deputy, a dependable, responsible woman who did her job; they didn't see some flaky island priestess who would brew them a potion to beef up their sex lives.
Irritated because even her thoughts sounded defensive and nasty, she gathered up her dishes and took them into the kitchen. There was just enough guilt still pricking at her to oblige her to rinse the dishes, load them in the dishwasher, scrub out the sink.
That, she decided, paid her debt.
She could hear the voices, all female, flowing back from the front of the store where the book club gathered. She could smell the incense Mia lit, a scent for protection. Ripley snuck out the back. A fleet of steamrollers couldn't have pushed her forward and into that noisy clutch of women now.
Just outside the back door she saw the fat black candle burning, a charm to repel evil. She would have sneered at it, but her gaze was drawn up.
The waning globe of the moon was shrouded in a thin and bloody mist.
Unable to work up that sneer, she jammed her hands in her jacket pockets and stared down at her own boots as she walked to her car.
When the last of the book club members were out the door, Mia flipped the locks. Nell was already clearing plates and napkins while Lulu closed the register.
"That was fun!" Stoneware rang gaily as Nell stacked coffee cups. "And so interesting. I've never discussed a book that way. Whenever I read one, I just think, well, I liked it or I didn't, but I never talked about why. And I promise to read next month's selection so I'll have something to contribute. "
"I'll see to the dishes, Nell. You must be tired. "
"I'm not. " Nell lifted a loaded tray. "There was so much energy in here tonight. I feel like I just lapped it up. "
"Isn't Zack waiting for you?"
"Oh, not tonight. I told him I was going to crash the party. "
Lulu waited until Nell was upstairs. "What's wrong?" she asked Mia.
"I'm not entirely sure. " To keep her hands busy, Mia began folding the chairs. "That's what concerns me most. Something's coming, and I can't pin it down. It's all right for tonight. " She glanced up the stairs as she carted chairs to the storeroom. "She's all right for tonight. "
"She's the center. " Lulu stored her own haul of chairs. "I guess I felt that all along, and didn't cut her much of a break. But the fact is, that's a sweet girl who works hard. Does somebody want to hurt her?"
"Someone already has, and I don't intend to let him do it again. I'll try a foretelling, but I need to prepare for it. I need to clear my mind. There's time. I can't tell how much, but it'll have to be enough. "
"Will you tell her?"
"Not just yet. She'll have her own preparations, her own cleansing to do. She's in love, and that makes her strong. She'll need to be. "
"What makes you strong, Mia?"
"Purpose. Love never worked for me. "
"I heard he's in New York. "
Mia shrugged, a deliberate gesture. She knew who Lulu meant, and it irritated her to have Sam Logan tossed at her twice in one night. "It's a big city," she said flatly. "He'll have plenty of company. I want to finish and go home. I need sleep. "
"Idiot man," Lulu muttered under her breath. There were too many idiot men in the world, to her way of thinking. And most of them ended up bumping up against stubborn women.
Spells were, Nell decided, really just a kind of recipe. And there she was on solid ground. A recipe required time, care, and quality ingredients in proper proportions for success. Add a bit of imagination and it became a personal dish.
She set aside time between jobs and book work to study the spell book Mia had lent her. She imagined Mia would be amused by the idea of viewing it as a kind of metaphysical cookbook, but she didn't think she would be offended.
Time also had to be carved out for meditation, visualization, for gathering and creating her own tools so that she'd have what she liked to consider a well-supplied witch's pantry.
But now she intended to reward herself with her first solo practice session.
"Love spells, banishing spells, protection spells," she chanted as she flipped through. "Binding spells, money spells, healing spells. "
Something for everybody, she thought, and remembered Mia's warning about being careful what she wished for. A careless or selfish wish could boomerang in unpleasant, or certainly unexpected, ways.
She would keep it simple, choosing something that involved no one and couldn't inadvertently cause harm or trouble.
She used her broom first, sweeping the negative energy away, then she set it by the kitchen door
Expelled a breath, drew in fresh.
She referred back to the healing spell Mia had written out on parchment in India ink and, closing her eyes, adjusted the words in her mind to suit her purpose.
"Here goes," she whispered.
"This damaged bloom I seek to heal, from its withered petals fresh beauty reveal. Um. . . its blooming time was too soon done, its color brings pleasure to all and harm to no one. Set the flower within it free. As I will, so mote it be. "
She bit her lip, waited. The geranium sat stubbornly wilted in its pot. Nell bent over, looking close for some little sign of green.
She straightened again. "Shoot. I guess I'm not ready to solo. "
But maybe she should try again. She needed to visualize, to see the plant lush and full and blooming. She needed to smell leaves and petals, channel her energy. Or was it the plant's energy? In any case, giving up after one try made her a pretty wimpy witch.
She closed her eyes again, started to process, then yelped at the brisk knock on her back door. She spun around so quickly, she booted Diego halfway across the little room, which caused him to plop down and begin to wash himself as if that was what he'd intended all along.
Chuckling, Nell opened the door to Ripley.
"I was cruising by, saw the candlelight. Are you having power trouble?" Even as she asked, she looked past Nell and saw the ritual candles on the table. "Oh. "
"Practicing, and from the results, I need a lot more. Come on in. "
"I don't want to interrupt. " Since the night of the book club meeting she'd made a point to stop by, or at least cruise by, every evening. "Isn't that the dead plant from our front porch?"
"It's not dead yet, but it's close. I asked Zack if I could try to bring it back. "
"Working spells on dead geraniums? Man, you slay me. "
"I figured if I made any mistakes, it couldn't hurt anything. Do you want some tea? I brewed some just a while ago. "
"Well, maybe. Zack said to let you know he'd be by when he finished up. We had a D and D-drunk and disorderly," she explained. "Underage minor. He's just about sicked up all of the six-pack he swiped from his parents' refrigerator. Zack's walking him home. "
"Anyone I know?"
"The Stubens boy, the oldest. His girlfriend dumped him yesterday, so he decided to cry in his daddy's beer. Since the result was him getting sick as three dogs, I think he'll look for another way to ease his broken heart next time out. What's that smell?"
"I've got a pork loin roasting. You're welcome to stay for dinner. "
"I'd just as soon not sit here and watch you two make googly eyes at each other. But I wouldn't mind you sending a doggie bag home with Zack. "
"Happy to. " She handed Ripley a cup of tea. "But we don't make googly eyes at each other. "
"Do so. "
Nell got a plate of tiny appetizers out of the fridge.
"Man, do you guys eat like this every night?" Ripley asked.
"I practice on Zack. "
"Lucky bastard. " Ripley helped herself to a little wedge of bruschetta. "Anything he doesn't go for, you can send on to me. I'll let you know if it's any good. "
"That's generous of you. Try a stuffed mushroom. Zack won't touch them. "
"Doesn't know what he's missing," Ripley announced after one bite. "The catering deal's moving along pretty well, huh?"
"It is. " But Nell dreamed of a convection oven and a Sub-Zero refrigerator. Impossible and impractical in her cozy cottage kitchen, she reminded herself. And, for the moment, out of Sisters Catering's financial grasp. "I'm doing sandwiches and cake for a christening on Saturday. "
"The new Burmingham baby. "
"Right. And Lulu's sister and family from Baltimore are coming in next week. Lulu wants to wow them. There's some sibling rivalry there. " Nell jerked a thumb toward the oven. "I'm making this pork loin, so I wanted to try it out first. "
"That's going some for Lu. She squeezes a penny until Lincoln weeps. "
"We worked out a deal, a barter. She's knitting me a couple of sweaters. I can use them with winter coming. "
"We've got a warm spell coming. We'll snag a bit of Indian summer before it hits. "
"I hope you're right. "
"So. . . " Ripley bent down, picked up Diego. "How's Mia doing?"
"She's fine. She seems a little distracted lately. " Nell lifted her eyebrows. "Why do you ask?"
"No reason. I guess she's busy making plans for Halloween. She really gets into it. "
"We're going to decorate the store the week of the first. I'm warned that every kid on the island hits Cafe Book for trick or treat. "
"Who can resist candy from the witch? I'd better go. " She gave Diego a quick scratch as she set him down. "Zack'll be along any minute. I can take that pot out of your way if you. . . " She trailed off as she glanced over.
A glory of crimson petals covered healthy green stalks. "Well, well, son of a bitch. "
"I did it! It worked. Oh! Oh!" In one leap Nell was at the table, her nose buried in blooms. "I can't believe it. I mean, I wanted to believe it, but I didn't really think I could manage it. Not by myself. Isn't it lovely?"
"Yeah, it's okay. "
She knew what it was like, the rush of power, that bright thrill. The pleasures, both small and huge. Ripley felt an echo of it now as Nell lifted the pot high and circled.
"It's not all flowers and moonbeams, Nell. "
"What happened?" Nell lowered the pot, cradled it like a baby. "What happened to make you resent what you have?"
"I don't resent it. I just don't want it. "
"I've been powerless. This is better. "
"What's better isn't being able to make flowers bloom. It's being able to take care of yourself. You didn't need a spell book to figure out how to do that. "
"One doesn't have to be exclusive of the other. "
"Maybe not. But life's a hell of a lot easier when they are. " She walked to the door, opened it. "Don't leave your candles unattended. "
By the time Zack arrived, Nell had the table cleared and set. The kitchen was fragrant with her roast and the aftermath of her candles.
She liked hearing him come to the kitchen door, those long strides. The way he stopped and wiped his feet on the mat. The rush of brisk air he let in when he opened the door. And the easy smile he gave her as he kept on walking until his mouth covered hers.
"Later than I expected. "
"It's all right. Ripley stopped by and told me you would be. "
"Then I guess I don't need these. " He took the bouquet of carnations from behind his back.
"No, but I do. " She gathered them up. "Thanks. I thought we'd try this Australian wine I read about, if you want to open it. "
"Fine. " He turned to shrug out of his jacket and hang it on the kitchen peg. His gaze hit the pot of geraniums she'd set on the side counter. It gave him a little jolt, but after the briefest hesitation, he went on and pegged his jacket. "I don't guess you did that with fertilizer. "
"No. " She linked her fingers together around the carnation stems. "I didn't. Does it bother you?"
"Not bother. But talking about it, even knowing about it's different than seeing it. " At home in her kitchen, he pulled open a drawer for a corkscrew. "In any case, you don't have to smooth out every ripple with me. "
"I love you, Zack. "
He stood, the corkscrew in one hand, the bottle of wine in the other. And suddenly couldn't move. Emotions overwhelmed him.
"It's been hard waiting for you to say that to me. "
"I couldn't say it before. "
"Because you brought me carnations. Because I don't have to smooth out every ripple with you. Because when I hear you coming up to my door everything inside me lifts and sighs. And because love is the most vital magic. I want to give mine to you. "
He set the wine and corkscrew aside carefully, stepped over to her. Gently, he stroked his hands across her cheeks, into her hair. "I've waited my whole life for you. " Tenderly, he kissed her forehead, her cheeks. "I want to spend the rest of it with you. "
She ignored the clutch in her belly and concentrated on the joy. "Let's give each other the now. Every minute's precious. " She laid her head on his shoulder. "Every minute counts. "