Dance upon the air, p.4

Dance Upon the Air, page 4

 part  #1 of  Three Sisters Island Series

 

Dance Upon the Air


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Chapter Three

  Nell found the stream, and the wild columbine-like little drops of sun in the green shade. Sitting on the soft floor of the forest, listening to the stream gurgle and the birds chirp, she found her peace again.

  This was her place. She was as sure of that as she'd been of any single thing in all her life. She belonged here as she'd belonged nowhere else.

  Even as a child she'd felt displaced. Not by her parents, she thought, running her fingers over her locket. Never by them. But home had been wherever her father was stationed, and until his orders changed. There'd been no single place for childhood, no pretty spot for memories to take root and bloom.

  Her mother had had the gift of making a home wherever they were, and for however long. But it wasn't the same as knowing you would wake up to the same view out of your bedroom window day after day.

  And that was a yearning Nell had carried with her always.

  Her mistake had been in believing she could soothe that yearning with Evan, when she should have known it was something she had to find for herself.

  Perhaps she had, now. Here in this place.

  That's what Mia had meant. Like recognizing like. They both belonged on the island. Maybe, in some lovely way, they belonged to it. It was as simple as that.

  Still, Mia was an intuitive woman, and an oddly powerful one. She sensed secrets. Nell could only hope she was as good as her word and wouldn't pry. If anyone started digging through the layers, she would have to leave. No matter how much she belonged, she couldn't stay.

  It wasn't going to happen.

  Nell got to her feet, stretching up her arms to the thin sunbeams, and turned slow circles. She wouldn't let it happen. She was going to trust Mia. She was going to work for her and live in the little yellow cottage and wake each morning with a giddy, glorious sense of freedom.

  In time, she thought as she began to walk back toward her house, she and Mia might become real friends. It would be fascinating to have a friend that vivid, that clever.

  What was it like to be a woman like Mia Devlin? she wondered. To be someone so utterly beautiful, so sublimely confident? A woman like that would never have to question herself, to remake herself, to worry that whatever she did, or could do, would never be good enough.

  What a marvelous thing.

  Still, while a woman might be born beautiful, confidence could be learned. It could be won. And wasn't there amazing satisfaction from winning those small battles? Every time you did, you went back to war better armed.

  Enough dawdling, enough introspection, she thought and quickened her pace. She was going to blow the last of her advance at the garden center.

  If that wasn't confidence, she decided, what was?

  ***

  They let her open an account. Another debt to Mia, Nell thought as she drove back across the island. She worked for Mia Devlin, so she was looked upon kindly, she was trusted, she was allowed to take away merchandise on the strength of her signature on a tally.

  A kind of magic, she supposed, that existed only in small towns. She'd struggled not to take advantage, and had still ended up with half a dozen flats. And pots, and soil. And a silly stone gargoyle who would guard what she planted.

  Eager to begin, she parked in front of the cottage and hopped out. The minute she opened the back door of the car, she was immersed in her small, fragrant jungle.

  "We're going to have such fun, and I'm going to take wonderful care of all of you. "

  Feet planted firmly, she stretched inside to lift the first tray.

  Hell of a view, Zack thought as he stopped across the street. A small, shapely female bottom in snug, faded jeans. If a man didn't spend a minute appreciating that, he was a sorry individual.

  He got out of his cruiser, leaned against the door, and watched her take out a flat of pink and white petunias. "Pretty picture. "

  She jerked, nearly bobbled the tray. He noted that, just as he noted the alarm shoot into her eyes. But he straightened lazily, strolled across the street.

  "Let me give you a hand. "

  "That's all right. I've got it. "

  "And a lot more. Gonna be busy. " He reached past her, took out two more flats. "Where're you going with them?"

  "Just around the back for now. I haven't decided where I'm putting everything yet. But really, you don't have to-"

  "Smells good. What've you got here?"

  "Herbs. Rosemary, basil, tarragon, and so on. " The quickest way to be rid of him, she decided, was to let him cart the trays around. So she started across the yard. "I'm going to put in an herb bed outside the kitchen, maybe add a few vegetables when I have time. "

  "Planting flowers is planting roots, my mother always says. "

  "I intend to do both. Just on the stoop'll be fine. Thank you, Sheriff. "

  "You've got a couple more in the front seat. "

  "I can-"

  "I'll fetch them. Did you think to get any soil?"

  "Yes, in the trunk. "

  He smiled easily, held out his hand. "I need the keys. "

  "Oh. Well. " Trapped, she dug in her pocket. "Thanks. "

  When he strolled off, she clasped her hands together. It was all right. He was just being helpful. Not every man, not every cop, was a danger. She knew better than that.

  He came back loaded, and the sight of him, a huge bag of soil slung over one shoulder and a flat of pink geraniums and white impatiens in his big hands, made her laugh.

  "I got too much. " She took the flowers from him. "I only meant to get herbs, and before I knew it. . . I couldn't seem to stop. "

  "That's what they all say. I'll get your pots and tools. "

  "Sheriff. " It had once been natural to her to repay kindness with kindness. She wanted it to be natural again. "I made some lemonade this morning. Would you like a glass?"

  "I'd appreciate it. "

  All she had to do was remind herself to relax, to be herself. She filled two glasses with ice and poured in the tart lemonade. He was already back when she came out. Something about the way he looked, big and male, standing in the middle of pink and white flowers, gave her a quick little jolt.

  Attraction. Even as she recognized the sensation she reminded herself it wasn't anything she could or wanted to feel again.

  "I appreciate the pack mule services. "

  "Welcome. " He took the glass, draining half of it while that little jolt became a twitchy dance in her belly.

  He lowered the glass. "This is the real thing. Can't think the last time I had fresh lemonade. You're a real find, aren't you?"

  "I just like to fuss in the kitchen. " She bent, picked up her new garden spade.

  "You didn't buy any gloves. "

  "No, I didn't think of it. "

  She wanted him to drink his lemonade and scat, Zack thought, but was too polite to say so. Because he knew that, he sat on the little stoop outside the kitchen door, made himself comfortable. "Mind if I sit a minute? It's been a long day. Don't let me stop you from getting started, though. It's pleasant to watch a woman in the garden. "

  She'd wanted to sit on the stoop, she thought. To sit there in the sunshine and imagine what she would do with the flowers and herbs. Now all she could do was begin.

  She started with the pots, reminding herself if she didn't like the results, she could always redo them.

  "Did you, um, talk to the man with the dog?"

  "Pete?" Zack asked, sipped at his lemonade. "I think we came to an understanding, and peace settles over our little island once more. "

  There was humor in the way he said it, and a lazy satisfaction as well. It was hard not to appreciate both.

  "It must be interesting, being the sheriff here. Knowing everyone. "

  "It has its moments. " She had small hands, he noticed as he watched her work. Quick, clever fingers. She kept her head bent, her eyes averted. Shyness, he decided, coupled with what seemed to him to be a r
usty sense of socializing. "A lot of it's refereeing, or dealing with summer people who're vacationing too hard. Mostly it's running herd on about three thousand people. Between me and Ripley it's simple enough. "

  "Ripley?"

  "My sister. She's the other island cop. Todds have been island cops for five generations. That's looking real nice," he said, gesturing toward her work-in-progress with his glass.

  "Do you think?" She sat back on her heels. She'd mixed some of everything into the pot, stuck in some of the vinca. It didn't look haphazard as she'd feared it might. It looked cheerful. And so did her face when she lifted it. "It's my first. "

  "I'd say you've got a knack. Ought to wear a hat, though. Fair skin like yours is going to burn if you stay out long. "

  "Oh. " She rubbed the back of her hand over her nose. "Probably. "

  "Guess you didn't have a garden in Boston. "

  "No. " She filled the second pot with soil. "I wasn't there very long. It wasn't my place. "

  "I know what you mean. I've spent some time on the mainland. Never felt home. Your folks still in the Midwest?"

  "My parents are dead. "

  "I'm sorry. "

  "So am I. " She tucked a geranium into the new pot. "Is this conversation, Sheriff, or an inquiry?"

  "Conversation. " He picked up a plant that was just out of her reach and held it. A cautious woman, he decided. In his experience cautious people usually had a reason. "Any point in me inquiring?"

  "I'm not wanted for anything, never been arrested. And I'm not looking for trouble. "

  "That about covers it. " He handed her the plant. "It's a small island, Miz Channing. Mostly friendly. Curiosity comes along with it, though. "

  "I suppose. " She couldn't afford to alienate him, she reminded herself. She couldn't afford to alienate anyone. "Look, I've been traveling for a while now, and I'm tired of it. I came here looking for work and a quiet place to live. "

  "Looks like you found both. " He got to his feet. "I appreciate the lemonade. "

  "You're welcome. "

  "That's a pretty job you're doing. You've got a knack for it, all right. Afternoon, Miz Channing. "

  "Afternoon, Sheriff. "

  As he walked back to his car he tallied up what he'd learned about her. She was alone in the world, wary of cops, prickly about questions. She was a woman of simple tastes and skittish nerves. And for reasons he couldn't quite fathom, she just didn't quite add up for him.

  He glanced at her car as he crossed to his own, scanned the license plate. The Massachusetts tag looked brand spanking new. Wouldn't hurt to run it, he thought. Just to settle his mind.

  His gut told him Nell Channing might not have been looking for trouble, but she wasn't a stranger to it.

  ***

  Nell served apple turnovers and lattes to the young couple by the window and then cleared an adjoining table. A trio of women were browsing the stacks, and she suspected they'd be lured into the cafe section before long.

  With her hands full of mugs, she loitered by the window. The ferry was arriving from the mainland, chased by gulls that circled and dived. Buoys bobbed in a sea that was soft and green today. A white pleasure boat, sails fat with wind, skimmed along the surface.

  Once she'd sailed on another sea, in another life. It was one of the few pleasures she took from that time. The feel of flying over the water, rising on waves. Odd, wasn't it, that the sea had always called to her? It had changed her life. And had taken it.

  Now, this new sea had given her another life.

  Smiling at the thought, she turned and bumped solidly into Zack. Even as he took her arm to steady her, she was jerking back. "I'm sorry. Did I spill anything on you? I'm clumsy, I wasn't watching where-"

  "No harm done. " He hooked the fingers of one hand through two mug handles and, careful not to touch her again, took them from her. "I was in your way. Nice boat. "

  "Yes. " She sidestepped, hurried back to the counter, behind it. She hated having anyone come up behind her. "But I'm not getting paid to watch boats. Can I get you anything?"

  "Take a breath, Nell. "

  "What?"

  "Take a breath. " He said it gently as he set the mugs on the counter. "Get yourself steady again. "

  "I'm fine. " Resentment pricked through her. She clanged mugs together as she scooped them off the counter. "I didn't expect to have anyone hulking around behind me. "

  His lips twitched. "That's better. I'll take one of those turnovers and a large coffee to go. Did you finish your planting?"

  "Nearly. " She didn't want to talk to him, so she busied herself with the coffee. She didn't want to have the island cop making friendly conversation and watching her out of those sharp green eyes.

  "Maybe you can make use of this when you're finishing up and tending to your flowers. " He laid a bag on the counter.

  "What is it?"

  "Garden tool. " He counted out his money, set that on the counter as well.

  She wiped her hands on her apron, scowled. But curiosity pushed her into opening the bag. Baffled humor lit her eyes as she studied the perfectly ridiculous rolled-brim straw hat. Foolish fake flowers danced around the crown.

  "This is the silliest hat I've ever seen. "

  "Oh, there were sillier," he assured her. "But it'll keep the sun from burning your nose. "

  "It's very considerate of you, but you shouldn't-"

  "Around here it's called being neighborly. " The beeper on his belt signaled. "Well, back to work. "

  She managed to wait until he was halfway down the steps before she snatched the hat and dashed into the kitchen to try it on in the reflection of the stove hood.

  ***

  Ripley Todd poured herself another cup of coffee and sipped it while looking out the front window of the station house. It had been a quiet morning, and that was just the way she liked it.

  But there was something in the air. She was doing her best to ignore it, but something was in the air. It was easier to tell herself it was overstimulation from the week she'd spent in Boston.

  Not that she hadn't enjoyed herself. She had. The law enforcement workshops and seminars had interested her, given her food for thought. She liked police work, the routine and detail of it. But the demands and chaos of the city wore on her, even in that short a time.

  Zack would've said it was simply that she didn't like people overmuch. Ripley would've been the last one to argue with him about that.

  She caught sight of him now, heading down the street. It would, she estimated, take him a good ten minutes to make the half block. People stopped him, always had a word to say.

  More, she thought, people just liked being around him. He had a kind of. . . she didn't want to use the word "aura. " It was too Mia-like. Air, she decided. Zack just had the kind of air about him that made people feel better about things. They knew if they took their troubles to him, he'd have the answer, or take the time to find it.

  Zack was a sociable creature, Ripley mused. Affable and patient and consistently fair. No one would accuse her of being any of those things.

  Maybe that was why they made a good team.

  Since he was heading in, she opened the front door to the summer air and street sounds, the way he liked it best. She brewed a fresh pot of coffee and was just pouring him a cup when he finally arrived.

  "Frank and Alice Purdue had a baby girl-eight pounds, five ounces, at nine this morning. Calling her Belinda. The Younger boy, Robbie, fell out of a tree, broke his arm. Missy Hachin's cousin in Bangor bought a brand-new Chevrolet sedan. "

  As he spoke, Zack took the offered coffee, sat at his desk, propped up his feet. And grinned. The ceiling fan was squeaking again. He'd really meant to see to that.

  "So, what's new with you?"

  "Speeder on the north coast road," Ripley told him. "Don't know where they thought they were going in such a hurry. I explained that the cliffs and the light
and so on had been in place for a few centuries and weren't likely to move away in an afternoon. " She plucked a fax out of his in box. "And this came in for you. Nell Channing. That's the new cook at Mia's place, right?"

  "Umm-hmm. " He scanned the motor vehicle report. No traffic violations. She still carried an Ohio driver's license, due for renewal in just over two years. The car was registered in her name. He'd been right about the new tags. She'd had them less than a week. Before that, the car had carried Texas tags.

  Interesting.

  Ripley scooted onto the corner of the desk they shared and sampled his coffee since he wasn't drinking it. "Why'd you run her?"

  "Curious. She's a curious woman. "

  "Curious how?"

  He started to answer, then shook his head. "Why don't you drop into the cafe for lunch, check her out yourself. I'd be interested in your impression. "

  "Maybe I will. " Frowning, Ripley glanced at the open door. "I think a storm's coming in. "

  "It's clear as glass out there, honey. "

  "Something's coming," she said half to herself, then grabbed her baseball cap. "I'll take a walk around, maybe stop in the cafe and take a look at our newest resident. "

  "Take your time. I'll do the afternoon beach patrol. "

  "You're welcome to it. " Ripley slid on her sunglasses and strode out.

  She liked her village, the order of it. As far as Ripley was concerned, everything had a place and that's just where it should stay. She didn't mind the vagaries of sea and weather-that was just another natural order of things.

  June meant a fresh influx of tourists and summer people, temperatures moving from warm to hot, beach bonfires and smoking grills.

  It also meant excess partying, the routine drunk and disorderly, the occasional lost child, and the inevitable lovers' spats. But the tourists who celebrated, drank, wandered, and squabbled brought summer dollars to the island that kept it afloat during the frigid gales of winter.

  She would cheerfully-well, perhaps not too cheerfully-suffer the problems of strangers for a few months in order to preserve Three Sisters.

  This nine square miles of rock and sand and soil was all the world she needed.

  Overbaked people were staggering up from the beach toward the village for lunch. She could never figure out what possessed a human being to flop itself down and broil like a trout in the sun. Besides the discomfort, the sheer boredom of it would have driven her wild inside an hour.

  Ripley wasn't one to lie down if she could stand.

  Not that she didn't enjoy the beach. She jogged along the surf every morning, summer and winter. When weather permitted, she finished off her run with a swim. When it didn't, she often ducked into the hotel and took advantage of its indoor pool.

  But she preferred the sea.

  As a result she had a tight, athletic body that was most often clad in khakis and T-shirts. Her skin was tanned like her brother's, her eyes the same vivid green. She wore her straight brown hair long and most often pulled through the back of her baseball cap.

  Her features were an odd mix-a wide, slightly top-heavy mouth, a small nose, and dark, arching brows. Her looks had made her feel awkward as a child, but Ripley liked to think she'd grown into them, and grown out of worrying about them.

  She strolled into Cafe Book, waved at Lulu, and headed for the stairs. With luck, she could get a look at this Nell Channing and avoid Mia altogether.

  She was still three steps from the cafe level when she saw her luck wasn't going to hold.

  Mia was behind the counter, looking slick as always in some floaty floral dress. Her hair was tied back and still managed to explode around her face.

  The woman working beside her looked tidy, nearly prim in comparison.

  Ripley immediately preferred Nell.

  She jammed her thumbs into her back pockets and swaggered toward the counter.

  "Deputy Todd. " Mia angled her head, looked down her nose. "What could possibly bring you here?"

  Ignoring Mia, Ripley studied Nell. "I'll have today's special soup and sandwich. "

  "Nell, this is Ripley, Zack's unfortunate sister. As she's come in for lunch we can safely assume hell has frozen over. "

  "Kiss ass, Mia. Nice to meet you, Nell. I'll have a lemonade to go with that. "

  "Yes. All right. " Nell shifted her gaze from face to face. "Right away," she murmured and ducked into the kitchen to put the sandwich together.

  "Heard you scooped her up right off the ferry," Ripley continued.

  "More or less. " Mia ladled the soup. "Don't poke at her, Ripley. "

  "Why would I?"

  "Because you're you. " Mia set the soup on the counter. "Notice anything odd when you stepped off the ferry yesterday?"

  "No. " Ripley replied too quickly.

  "Liar," Mia said quietly as Nell came back with the sandwich.

  "Can I take this to a table for you, Deputy Todd?"

  "Yeah, thanks. " Ripley tugged money out of her pocket. "Why don't you ring me up, Mia?"

  Ripley timed it, sliding into a chair just as Nell set the food down. "Looks great. "

  "I hope you enjoy it. "

  "I'm sure I will. Where'd you learn to cook?"

  "Here and there. Can I get you anything else?"

  Ripley held up a finger, spooned up soup and sampled. "Nope. This is great. Really. Hey, did you make all those pastries yourself?"

  "Yes. "

  "A lot of work. "

  "It's what I'm paid for. "

  "Right. Don't let Mia work you too hard. She's pushy. "

  "On the contrary," Nell said in a voice that chilled. "She's incredibly generous, incredibly kind. Enjoy your lunch. "

  Loyal, Ripley decided as she continued to eat. She couldn't fault Nell for that. Polite, too, even if she was a bit stiff about it. As if, Ripley thought, she wasn't quite used to dealing with people.

  Nervous. She'd visibly cringed at the relatively mild byplay between Ripley and Mia. Well, Ripley decided with a shrug, some people couldn't handle conflict, even when it had nothing to do with them.

  All in all, she thought Nell Channing was harmless. And a hell of a good cook.

  The meal put her in such a good mood that she took the time to go by the counter on her way out. It was easier to decide to do so since Mia was occupied elsewhere.

  "Well, now you've done it. "

  Nell froze. She deliberately kept her face blank, her hands loose. "I beg your pardon?"

  "Now I'm going to have to start coming in here regularly, something I've managed to avoid for years. Lunch was great. "

  "Oh. Good. "

  "You may have noticed, Mia and I aren't exactly chummy. "

  "It's none of my business. "

  "You live on the island, everybody's business is your business. But don't worry, we manage to stay out of each other's way for the most part. You won't get squeezed in the middle. I'm going to take a couple of those chocolate chip cookies for later. "

  "You save if you buy three. "

  "Twist my arm. Three, then. I'll give one to Zack and be a hero. "

  Relaxed now, Nell bagged the cookies, rang up the bill. But when she took the money from Ripley and their hands touched, the bright shock had her gasping.

  Ripley glared, one long, frustrated stare. Snagging her cookies, she strode toward the stairs.

  "Deputy-" Clenching her hand tight, Nell called after her. "You forgot your change. "

  "Keep it. " She bit the words off as she stomped down the stairs. There was Mia at the bottom, hands folded, brow lifted. Ripley simply snarled and kept going.

  ***

  A storm was coming. Though the sky stayed clear and the sea calm, a storm was coming. Its violence roared through Nell's dreams and tossed her helplessly into the past.

  The huge white house sat on a verdant carpet of lawn. Inside, its edges were sharp, its surfaces hard. Colors were pa
le-sands and taupes and grays.

  But for the roses he bought her, always bought her, that were the color of blood.

  The house was empty. But it seemed to be waiting.

  In sleep she turned her head away, resisted. She didn't want to go into that place. Not ever again.

  But the door opened, the tall white door that opened into the long, wide foyer. White marble, white wood, and the cold, cold sparkle of crystal and chrome.

  She watched herself walk in-long, pale hair sweeping past the shoulders of a sleek white dress that sent off an icy glitter. Her lips were red, like the roses.

  He came in with her, close behind. Always so close behind. His hand was there, lightly on the small of her back. She could still feel it there if she let herself.

  He was tall, slim. Like a prince in his evening black with his hair a gold helmet. She had fallen in love with the fairy-tale look of him, and she had believed his promises of happy-ever-after. And hadn't he taken her to this palace, this white palace in this fantasy land, and given her everything a woman could want?

  How many times had he reminded her of that?

  She knew what happened next. She remembered the glittery white dress, remembered how tired and relieved she was that the evening was over, and that it had gone well. She'd done nothing to upset him, to embarrass him, to annoy him.

  Or so she'd thought.

  Until she'd turned to say something about how nice an evening it had been, and had seen his expression.

  He'd waited until they were home, until they were alone, to make the transformation. It was one of his best skills.

  And she remembered the fear that had clutched her belly even as she scrambled to think of what she'd done.

  Did you enjoy yourself, Helen?

  Yes, it was a lovely party. But a long one. Would you like me to fix you a brandy before we go to bed?

  You enjoyed the music?

  Very much. Music? Had she said something inappropriate about the music? She could be so stupid about such things. Barely, she repressed a shudder as he reached out to toy with her hair. It was wonderful to be able to dance outside, near the gardens.

  She stepped back, hoping to turn toward the stairs, but his hand fisted in her hair, held her in place. Yes, I noticed how much you enjoyed dancing, especially with Mitchell Rowlings. Flirting with him. Flaunting yourself. Humiliating me in front of my friends, my clients.

  Evan, I wasn't flirting. I was only-

  The backhanded slap sent her sprawling, the bright shock of pain blinding her. When she would have rolled into a protective ball, he dragged her across the marble floor by the hair.

  How many times has he had his hands on you?

  She denied, she wept, he accused. Until he grew weary of it and left her to crawl away and sob in a corner.

  But this time, in this dream, she crawled off into the shadows of the forest, where the air was soft and the ground warm.

  And there, where the stream gurgled over its smooth rocks, she slept.

  Then awoke to the cannon-blast of thunder and the jagged rip of lightning. Awoke to terror. She was running through the woods now, her white dress a sparkling beacon. Her blood pumped, the blood of the hunted. Trees crashed behind her, and the ground heaved under her feet and boiled with mist.

  Still she ran, her breath tearing out of her throat and ending in whimpers. There were screams in the wind, and not all of them hers. Fear ruled until there was nothing else inside her, no reason, no sense, no answer.

  The wind slapped at her with sharp and gleeful hands, and clawing fingers of brush tore her dress to shreds.

  She was climbing, scrabbling like a lizard along the rock. Through the dark the beam from the lighthouse slashed like a silver blade, and below, the wild violence of the sea churned.

  She kicked and cried and climbed. But she didn't look back, couldn't force herself to look around and face what pursued her.

  Instead, choosing flight over fight, she leaped from the rocks, spun and spun in the wind on her plunge toward the water. And the cliffs, the light, the trees all tumbled in after her.

 
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