Dance upon the air, p.3

Dance Upon the Air, page 3

 part  #1 of  Three Sisters Island Series

 

Dance Upon the Air


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Chapter Two

  The village, Nell decided, was a bit like Brigadoon as seen by Nathaniel Hawthorne. She'd taken some time to explore before she'd gone to the market. For months she'd told herself she was safe. She was free. But for the first time, wandering the pretty streets with their quaint houses, breathing in the sea air, listening to the sharp New England voices, she felt safe. And free.

  No one knew her, but they would. They would know Nell Channing, the clever cook who lived in the little cottage in the wood. She would make friends here, and a life. A future. Nothing from the past would touch her here.

  One day she would be as much a part of the island as the narrow post office with its faded gray wood or the tourist center cobbled together by old clinker bricks, and the long, sturdy dock where fishermen brought their daily catch.

  To celebrate she bought a wind chime fashioned of stars that she saw in a shop window. It was her first purchase for pleasure in nearly a year.

  She spent her first night on the island in the lovely bed, hugging her happiness to her as she listened to the stars ring and the sea breathe.

  She was up before sunrise, eager to begin. While the day's soup simmered, she rolled out pastry dough. She'd spent every penny she had, including most of the advance and a good portion of her next month's salary on kitchen tools. It didn't matter. She would have the best and produce the best. Mia Devlin, her benefactor, would never have cause to regret taking her on.

  Everything in the kitchen was precisely as she wanted it. Not as she'd been told it must be. When she had time, she would make a run to the island's garden center for herbs. Some she would plant outside the windowsill. All cluttered together the way she liked things to be. Nothing, absolutely nothing, in her home would be uniform and precise and stylishly sleek. She wouldn't have acres of marble or seas of glass or towering urns of terrifyingly exotic flowers without warmth or scent. There wouldn't be. . .

  She stopped herself. It was time to stop reminding herself of what wouldn't be, and plan what would be. Yesterday would hound her until she firmly closed the door on it and shot the bolt.

  While the sun came up, turning the east-facing windows to flame, she slid the first batch of tarts into the oven. She remembered the rosy-cheeked woman who had helped her at the market. Dorcas Burmingham-such a fine Yankee name, Nell thought. And full of welcome and curiosity. The curiosity would have shut

  Nell down once, turned her inward. But she'd been able to chat, to answer some questions breezily and avoid others.

  Tarts cooled on the rack and muffins went into the oven. As the kitchen filled with light, Nell sang to welcome the day.

  ***

  Lulu folded her arms over her skinny chest. It was, Mia knew, her way of trying to look intimidating. As Lulu barely inched up to five feet, weighed ninety pounds soaking wet, and had the face of a woeful pixie, it took work for her to look intimidating.

  "You don't know anything about her. "

  "I know she's alone, looking for work, and in the right place at the right time. "

  "She's a stranger. You don't just hire a stranger, and lend her money, give her a house, without at least doing a background check. Not one reference, Mia. Not one. For all you know, she's a psychopath running from the law. "

  "You've been reading true crime books again, haven't you?"

  Lulu scowled, an expression that on her harmless face approximated a pained smile. "There are bad people in the world. "

  "Yes, there are. " Mia printed out the mail-order requests that had come through her computer. "Without them we'd have no balance, no challenge. She's running from something, Lu, but not the law. And fate pointed her here. It brought her to me. "

  "And sometimes fate's a backstabber. "

  "I'm well aware of that. " With the printouts in hand, Mia walked out of the office, Lulu on her heels. Only the fact that Lulu Cabot had essentially raised her prevented Mia from telling her to mind her own business. "And you should know I can protect myself. "

  "You take in strays, your guard goes down. "

  "She's not a stray, she's a seeker. There's a difference. I felt something from her," Mia added as she started downstairs to fill the orders. "When she's more comfortable I'll look closer. "

  "At least get a reference. "

  Mia lifted a brow as she heard the back door open. "I just got one. She's prompt. Don't poke at her, Lulu," Mia ordered as she handed the printouts over. "She's also tender yet. Well, good morning, Nell. "

  "Good morning. " Arms full of covered trays, Nell breezed in. "I pulled my car around back. That's all right, isn't it?"

  "That's just fine. Need a hand?"

  "Oh, no, thanks. I have everything stacked in the car. "

  "Lulu, this is Nell. You can get acquainted later. "

  "Nice to meet you, Lulu. I'll just start setting things up. "

  "You go right ahead. " Mia waited until Nell climbed the stairs. "Looks dangerous, doesn't she?"

  Lulu set her jaw. "Looks can be deceiving. "

  Moments later Nell jogged downstairs again. She wore a plain white T-shirt tucked into her jeans. The little gold locket lay against it like a charm. "I started a first pot of coffee. I'll bring some down next trip, but I don't know how you like it. "

  "Black for me, sweet and light for Lu. Thanks. "

  "Um. . . would you mind not going up to the cafe until I've finished? I'd really like you to see the whole presentation. So just. . . " She backed toward the door, face flushed, as she spoke. "Wait. Okay?"

  "Eager to please," Mia commented as she and Lulu filled the orders. "Eager to work. Yes, definite psychopathic tendencies. Call the cops. "

  "Shut up. "

  Twenty minutes later, breathless, jangled with pleasure and nerves, Nell came downstairs again. "Can you come up now? I still have time to change things around if it doesn't suit you. Oh, could you come, too, Lulu? Mia said you know everything about the shop, so you'd know if it doesn't look the way it should. "

  "Hmph. " Grudgingly Lulu stopped ringing up the mail orders. "Cafe's not my department. " But with a shrug, she followed Mia and Nell upstairs.

  The display case was brimming with glossy pastries, wide-topped muffins and scones popping with golden currants. A tall torte gleamed under a sleek chocolate frosting and laces of whipped cream. Cookies as big as a man's palm covered two delicate white sheets of baker's paper. Wafting out of the kitchen was the scent of soup simmering.

  On the chalkboard, written in a fine and careful hand, were the day's specials. The glass had been polished to a gleam, the coffee was irresistibly fragrant, and a pale blue canning jar filled with cinnamon sticks stood on the counter.

  Mia walked up and down the display, like a general inspecting troops, while Nell stood struggling not to wring her hands.

  "I didn't put the salads and the soup out yet. I thought if I waited till around eleven for that, people would be more apt to go for the pastries. There're more tarts in the back, and the brownies. I didn't put them out because, well, I think people want them more if it doesn't look as if you're oversupplied. And the brownies are more lunch and afternoon items. I put the torte out now, hoping customers might think about it and end up coming back into the shop again later for a slice. But I can rearrange things if you'd rather-"

  She broke off when Mia lifted a finger. "Let's sample one of those tarts. "

  "Oh. Sure. Just let me get one from the back. " She darted into the kitchen, then back out again with a tart in a little paper doily.

  Saying nothing, Mia broke it in two, handed half to Lulu. As she took the first bite, her lips curved. "How's that for a reference?" she murmured, then turned back to Nell. "If you keep looking so nervous, customers are going to think something's wrong with the food. Then they won't order it, and they'll miss something very special. You have a gift, Nell. "

  "You like it?" Nell let out a relieved sigh. "I sampled one of everything this morning. I'm half sick," s
he said as she pressed a hand to her stomach. "I wanted everything to be just right. "

  "And so it is. Now relax, because once word gets out we've got a genius in the kitchen, you're going to be very busy. "

  ***

  Nell didn't know if word got out, but she was soon too busy for nerves. By ten-thirty she was brewing another pot of coffee and resupplying trays. Every time her cash register rang, it was a separate little thrill. And when she bagged up a half a dozen muffins for a customer who claimed she'd never tasted better, Nell had to order herself not to spring into a dance.

  "Thanks. Come back soon. " Beaming, she turned to the next customer.

  That was Zack's first impression of her. A pretty blonde wearing a white apron and a mile-wide smile with winking dimples. It gave him a quick and pleasant little jolt, and his own grin flashed in response.

  "I heard about the muffins, but I didn't hear about the smile. "

  "Smile's free. The muffins'll cost you. "

  "I'll take one. Blueberry. And a large black coffee to go. I'm Zack. Zack Todd. "

  "Nell. " She scooped up one of the to-go cups. She didn't have to shoot him a sidelong glance. Experience had taught her to read a face fast and remember it. His was still in her mind as she filled the cup.

  Tanned, with faint lines fanning out from sharp green eyes. A firm jaw with an intriguing diagonal scar scoring it. Brown hair, a little long, with a bit of curl that was already sun-streaked in June. A narrow face with a long, straight nose, a mouth that smiled easily and showed a slightly crooked incisor.

  It struck her as an honest face. Easygoing, friendly. She set the coffee on the counter, casting him another glance as she plucked a muffin from the tray.

  He had broad shoulders and good arms. His shirt was rolled up at the sleeves and faded from sun and water. The hand that curled around the coffee cup was big and wide. She tended to trust big hands on a man. It was the slender, manicured ones that could strike so lethally.

  "Just one?" she said as she bagged his muffin.

  "One'll do me for now. Word is you just got to the island yesterday. "

  "Good timing for me. " She rang up his order, pleased when he opened the bag and sniffed.

  "Good timing all around if this tastes as good as it smells. Where'd you come in from?"

  "Boston. "

  He cocked his head. "Doesn't sound like Boston. Your accent," he explained when she simply stared at him.

  "Oh. " She took his money with a steady hand, made change. "Not originally. A little town in the Midwest-outside of Columbus. I moved around a lot, though. " Her smile stayed in place as she handed him his change and receipt. "I guess that's why I don't sound like I'm from anywhere in particular. "

  "Guess so. "

  "Hey, Sheriff. "

  Zack glanced over his shoulder, nodded. "Morning, Miz Macey. "

  "You get 'round to talking to Pete Stahr about that dog of his?"

  "Heading that way now. "

  "Dog as soon roll in dead fish as he would in roses. Then what's he do but run right through my hanging wash. Had to do the lot of it again. I like dogs same as the next. "

  "Yes, ma'am. "

  "But Pete's got to keep that hound on a leash. "

  "I'll have a word with him this morning. You ought to get yourself one of these muffins, Miz Macey. "

  "I just came in for a book. " But she looked at the display, her lips pursing in her wide face. "Do look tasty, don't they? You'd be the new girl. "

  "Yes. " Nell's throat was raw and hot. She feared her voice sounded the same. "I'm Nell. Can I get you anything?"

  "Maybe I'll just have a sit-down with a cup of tea and one of those tarts. I've got a weak spot for a good fruit tart. None of those fancy teas, mind. Give me good orange pekoe. You tell that Pete to keep his dog out of my wash," she added to Zack. "Else he'll be doing my laundry. "

  "Yes, ma'am. " He smiled at Nell again, kept his eyes on her face deliberately as he'd noted how quickly it had paled when Gladys Macey had called him sheriff. "Nice meeting you, Nell. "

  She gave him a little nod. Kept her hands busy, he noticed, but not quite steady.

  Just what, he wondered, would a pretty young woman like that have to fear from the law? Then again, he thought as he walked downstairs, some people were just naturally skittish when it came to cops.

  He scanned the main level, spotted Mia stocking shelves in the mystery section. Either way, Zack decided, it wouldn't hurt to ask a few casual questions.

  "Busy in here today. "

  "Mmm. " She slid paperbacks into slots without looking around. "I expect it to get busier. Season's just underway, and I have my new secret weapon in the cafe. "

  "Just met her. You're renting her the yellow cottage. "

  "That's right. "

  "You check her employment record, references?"

  "Now, Zack. " Mia did turn now. In her heels she was nearly eye to eye with him, and she gave his cheek a sassy pat. "We've been friends a long time. Long enough for me to tell you to mind your own business. I don't want you going up to my cafe and interrogating my staff. "

  "Okay, I'll just haul her down to the station house and get out my rubber hose. "

  She chuckled, then leaned over and gave him a peck on the cheek. "You brute. Don't worry about Nell. She isn't looking for trouble. "

  "Got twitchy when she found out I was sheriff. "

  "Honey, you're so handsome you make all the girls twitchy. "

  "Never worked on you," he countered.

  "A lot you know. Now go away, let me run my business. "

  "I'm going. Have to do my sworn duty and scold Pete Stahr over his smelly dog. "

  "Sheriff Todd, you're so brave. " She batted her lashes. "What would we islanders do without you and your stalwart sister protecting us?"

  "Ha, ha. Ripley's due in on the noon ferry. Any sooner, I'd stick her with dog detail. "

  "Is a week up already?" Mia grimaced and went back to shelving. "Oh, well, nothing good lasts forever. "

  "I'm not getting in the middle of you two again. I'd sooner deal with Pete's dog. "

  She laughed at him, but once he'd gone she looked toward the steps, thought of Nell, and wondered.

  She made it a point to go upstairs late in the morning. Nell had already put out the salads and the soup, subtly shifting the mode toward the lunch crowd. The salads, Mia noted, looked fresh and appealing, and the scent of the soup was going to tempt anyone who walked into the store.

  "How's it going?"

  "Fine. We've finally hit a little lull. " Nell wiped her hands on her apron. "Brisk business this morning. The muffins won the race, but the tarts came in a close second. "

  "You're officially on break," Mia told her. "I'll take care of anyone who comes in, unless they want something that requires the use of that monster machine. "

  In the kitchen, Mia slid onto a stool, crossed her legs. "Stop by my office after your shift. We'll get the employment forms signed. "

  "Okay. I've been thinking about tomorrow's menu. "

  "We'll discuss that then, too. Why don't you get yourself a cup of coffee and relax?"

  "I'm already hyped enough. " But Nell did open the fridge, removed a small bottle of water. "I'll stick with this. "

  "You've settled into the house all right?"

  "It was easy. I can't remember ever sleeping better, or waking better. With the windows open, I can just hear the surf. It's like a lullaby. And did you see the sunrise this morning? Spectacular. "

  "I'll take your word for it. I tend to avoid sunrise. It insists on coming so early in the day. " She held out her hand and surprised Nell into passing the bottle of water to her for a sip. "I heard you met Zack Todd. "

  "Did I?" Nell immediately picked up a cloth, began buffing the stove. "Oh. Sheriff Todd. Yes, he had coffee, black, and a blueberry muffin to go. "

  "There's been a Todd on the island for ce
nturies, and Zachariah's one of the best of the lot. Kind," Mia said deliberately. "Caring, and decent without being a pain in the ass about it. "

  "Is he your. . . " The word "boyfriend" just didn't seem to apply with a woman like Mia. "Are you and he involved?"

  "Romantically? No. " Mia held the bottle back out to Nell. "He's entirely too good for me. Though I did have a mild crush on him when I was fifteen or sixteen. After all, he's a prime specimen. You must have noticed. "

  "I'm not interested in men. "

  "I see. Is that what you're running from? A man?" When Nell didn't respond, Mia slid to her feet. "Well, if and when you're inclined to talk about it, I'm an excellent listener, with a sympathetic ear. "

  "I appreciate all you've done for me, Mia. I just want to do my job. "

  "Fair enough. " The bell dinged, signaling someone had come to the counter. "No, you're on break," Mia reminded her before Nell could hurry out of the kitchen. "I'll take the counter for a while. And don't look so sad, little sister. You've no one to answer to now but yourself. "

  Oddly soothed, Nell stayed where she was. She could hear the low ripple of Mia's voice as she spoke to the customers. The store music was flutes now and something fluid. She could close her eyes and imagine herself here, just here, the next day. The next year. Comfortable and comforted. Productive and happy.

  There was no reason to be sad or afraid, no cause to be concerned about the sheriff. He'd have no purpose in paying attention to her, looking into her background. And if he did, what would he find? She'd been careful. She'd been thorough.

  No, she was no longer running away. She'd run to. And she was staying.

  She finished off her water, started out of the kitchen just as Mia turned around. The clock in the square began to bong the noon hour, in slow, ponderous tones.

  The floor beneath her feet seemed to tremble, and the light went brilliant and bright. Music swelled inside her head, like a thousand harp strings plucked in unison. The wind-she could have sworn she felt a hot wind flow over her face and lift her hair. She smelled candle wax and fresh earth.

  The world shuddered and spun, then righted itself in a blink of time, as if it had never moved. She shook her head to clear it and found herself staring into Mia's deep gray eyes.

  "What was that? An earthquake?" Even as she said it, Nell saw that no one else in the store looked concerned. People milled, sat, chatted, sipped. "I thought. . . I felt. . . "

  "Yes, I know. " Though Mia's voice was quiet, there was an edge to it Nell hadn't heard before. "Well, that explains it. "

  "Explains what?" Shaken, Nell gripped Mia's wrist. And felt something like power rocket up her arm.

  "We'll talk about it. Later. Now the noon ferry's in. " And Ripley was back, she thought. They, the three, were all on-island now. "We'll be busy. Serve your soup, Nell," she said gently, and walked away.

  ***

  Mia wasn't often taken by surprise, and she didn't care for it. The strength of what she'd felt and experienced along with Nell had been more intense, more intimate, than she'd expected. And that annoyed her. She should have been prepared. She of all people knew, believed, and understood what twist fate had taken so many years before. And what twist it could take now.

  Still, believing in fate didn't mean a woman simply stood there and let it run her down. Actions could and would be taken. But she had to think, to sort things out.

  What in the goddess's name was she supposed to do to make things right when she would be bound to a stubborn twit of a woman who consistently denied her power and a scared rabbit on the run who didn't know she had any?

  She closed herself in her office, paced. She rarely turned to magic here. It was her place of business, and she deliberately kept it separate and earthbound. But there were exceptions, she told herself, to every rule.

  So thinking, she took her crystal globe from the shelf, set it on her desk. It amused her to see it there, along with her two-line phone and computer. Still, magic respected progress, even if progress didn't always respect magic.

  Laying her hands on either side of the globe, she cleared her mind.

  "Show me what I have to see. This island holds the sisters three, and we will shape our destiny. Visions in glass come clear to me. As I will, so mote it be. "

  The globe shimmered and swirled. And cleared. In its depths, like figures in water, she saw herself, Nell, and Ripley. A circle formed in the shadows of the woods, and a fire burning. The trees were aflame as well, but with color struck by autumn. Light poured out from a full moon like water shimmering.

  A new shadow formed in the trees and became a man. Beautiful and golden with eyes that burned.

  The circle broke. Even as Nell ran, the man struck out. She shattered like glass, a thousand pieces scattering. And the skies opened to lightning, blasted with thunder, and all Mia could see in the glass was a torrent of water as the woods, and the island they lived on, tumbled into the sea.

  Mia stepped back, planted her hands on her hips. "Isn't that always the way?" she said in disgust. "A man ruins everything. Well, we'll see about that. " She put the globe back on the shelf. "We'll just see about that. "

  ***

  By the time Nell knocked on her door, Mia was just finishing up some paperwork. "Right on time," she said as she logged off the computer. "That's a pretty habit of yours. I need you to fill out these forms. " She gestured to the neat stack on the desk.

  "I've dated them yesterday. How's the lunch crowd moving?"

  "Smoothly enough. " Nell sat. Her palms no longer sweated when she filled out forms. Name, date of birth, Social Security number. Those basic facts and figures were hers. She'd seen to it personally. "Peg dives right in. I made up tomorrow's menu. "

  "Mmm. " Mia took the folded paper Nell pulled out of her pocket, read it over while Nell filled in the form. "It looks good. More adventurous than Jane's tended to be. "

  "Too adventurous?"

  "No, just more. So. . . what will you do with the rest of your day?" Mia briefly looked at the first completed form. "Nell, no middle initial, Channing?"

  "Take a walk on the beach, do some gardening. Maybe explore the woods around the cottage. "

  "There's a small stream where columbine grows wild this time of year, and in the deeper shade jack-in-the-pulpits and ferns. The kind that make you think the faeries hide in them. "

  "You don't strike me as the kind of person who looks for shy faeries. "

  Mia's lips curved. "We don't know each other well yet. Three Sisters is alive with legend and lore, and the woods have all manner of secrets. Do you know the story of the Three Sisters?"

  "No. "

  "I'll tell you one day when there's time for tales and stories. But for now you should be out in the light and air. "

  "Mia, what happened before? At noon?"

  "You tell me. What do you think happened?"

  "It felt like an earth tremor, but not. The light changed, and so did the air. Like a. . . blast of energy. "

  It sounded foolish when she said it, but she pushed on. "You felt it too. But no one else did. No one else felt anything out of the ordinary. "

  "Most people expect the ordinary, and that's what they get. "

  "If that's a riddle, I don't know how to solve it. " Impatient, Nell shoved to her feet. "You weren't surprised by it-a little irritated but not surprised. "

  Mia sat back, intrigued, and lifted a brow. "True enough. You read people very well. "

  "Survival skill. "

  "And sharply honed," Mia added. "What happened? I suppose you could call it a connection. What happens when three positive charges occupy the same space at the same time?"

  Nell shook her head. "I have no idea. "

  "Neither do I. But it'll be interesting to find out. Like recognizes like, don't you think? I recognized you. "

  Nell's blood went cold and burned under her skin. "I don't know what you mean. "

&
nbsp; "Not who you are, or were," Mia said gently. "But what. You can trust me to respect that, and your privacy. I won't pry into your yesterdays, Nell. I'm more interested in the tomorrows. "

  Nell opened her mouth. She nearly, very nearly, let it pour out. Everything she'd escaped from, everything that haunted her. But to do so put her fate in the hands of another. That was something she would never do again.

  "Tomorrow I'll serve a summer vegetable soup and a chicken, zucchini, and ricotta sandwich. That's as complicated as it's going to get. "

  "That's as good a start as any. Enjoy your afternoon. " Mia waited until Nell reached the door. "Nell? As long as you're still afraid, he wins. "

  "I don't give a damn about winning," Nell replied. Then she stepped out quickly and closed the door behind her.

 
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