Dance Upon the Air, page 5part #1 of Three Sisters Island Series
On her first day off, Nell rearranged the furniture-what there was of it. She watered her flowers and herbs, did the wash, and baked a loaf of brown bread.
It was still shy of nine o'clock when she cut the first slice for her breakfast.
Evan had hated her early-rising habit, and had complained that that was the reason she was dull at parties. Now, in her little cottage near the sea, there was no one to criticize, no need to creep about. She had her windows open wide, and the whole day belonged just to her.
Still munching on bread and with a heel of the loaf in the pocket of her shorts, she took herself off for a long walk on the beach.
The boats were out, bobbing and gliding over the water. The sea was a soft, dreamy blue with frisky waves that rolled up lacy on the sand. Gulls winged over it, white-breasted in their graceful dance on the air. The music of them, the long, shrill cries, pierced the low, endless rumble of the surf.
She turned in a little dance of her own. Then she tugged the bread from her pocket and tore it into small pieces, tossing it high to watch the gulls circle and dive.
Alone, she thought, lifting her face to the sky. But not lonely. She doubted she would ever be lonely again.
At the sound of church bells she turned to look back at the village, at the pretty white steeple. She glanced down at her shorts with the frayed hem, her sandy sneakers. Hardly dressed for services, she decided. But she could worship in her own way, and offer a prayer of thanksgiving.
While the bells rang and echoed, she sat near the edge of the water. Here was peace, she thought, and joy. She would never, never take either for granted. She would remember to give something back every day. Even if it was just a heel of bread for the gulls. She would tend what she planted. She would remember to be kind, and never forget to offer a helping hand.
She would keep her promises and expect nothing more than the chance to lead a good life that hurt no one.
She would earn what she'd been given, and treasure it.
She would take pleasure in the simple things, she decided. Starting right now.
Rising, she began to collect shells, tucking them in her pockets at first. When the pockets were full, she tugged off her shoes and used them. She reached the far end of the beach, where rocks jutted out of the sand and began to tumble toward the sea. Here there were palm-size stones worn cobble smooth. She picked one, then another, wondering if she could fashion an edging for her little herb bed.
A movement to her left had her wrapping her fingers tight around the stone and turning quickly. Her heart continued to beat in hard jerks as she watched Zack coming down a zigzag of wooden steps.
"Good morning. " In automatic defense, she glanced back, uneasy to realize how far from the village proper she'd wandered. The beach was no longer empty, but the scattered people were some distance away.
"Nice day for a long walk on the beach," he commented, leaning against the handrail to study her. "You've sure had one. "
He'd watched her, from her dance with the gulls. It was a shame, he thought, how quickly her face could go from radiant to guarded.
"I didn't realize how far I'd come. "
"Nothing's really that far on an island this size. It's going to be a hot one," he said easily. "Beach'll be crowded before noon. It's nice to get a little time on it before it's full of towels and bodies. "
"Yes, well. . . "
"Come on up. "
"Come on up. To the house. I'll give you a bag for those shells and stones. "
"Oh, that's all right. I don't really need-"
"Nell-is it cops in general, men in general, or me in particular that worry you?"
"I'm not worried. "
"Prove it. " He stayed where he was, but held out a hand.
She kept her eyes on his. He had good eyes. Smart ones, but patient too. Slowly she stepped forward and lifted her hand to his.
"What do you plan to do with your shells?"
"Nothing. " Her pulse was galloping, but she made herself climb the sandy steps with him. "Well, nothing brilliant. Just scatter them around, I suppose. "
His hand held hers loosely, but even so she could tell it was hard and rough. He wore no rings, no watch on his wrist.
No pampering, she thought. No adornments.
Like her, he was barefoot, and his jeans were ripped at the knee, frayed at the hem. With his sun-streaked hair and tawny skin, he looked more beach bum than sheriff. It tamped down some of her anxiety.
At the landing they turned, walked along a gentle slope. Below, on the far side of the rocks, was a sunny inlet where a small red boat bobbed lazily at a rickety pier.
"Everything's a picture," she said quietly.
"Have you done any sailing?"
"Yes. A little," she said quickly. "Is that your boat?"
"She's mine. "
There was a sudden wild splashing of water, and a sleek, dark head appeared, cruising around the rocks. As Nell stared, a huge black dog leaped onto the shore and shook herself madly.
"Her, too," Zack stated. "Mine, that is. Are you all right with dogs? Tell me now. I can hold her off and give you a fair head start. "
"No, I like dogs. " Then she blinked, looked back at him. "What do you mean, head start?"
He didn't bother to answer, just grinned as the dog leaped up the slope in powerful bounds. She jumped on Zack, tail wagging and spewing water, and licked his face. On two short, deep barks she bunched her muscles and would have given Nell the same treatment if Zack hadn't blocked her.
"This is Lucy. She's friendly, but mannerless. Down, Lucy. "
Lucy got down, her entire body wagging now. Then, obviously unable to control her joy and affection, she leaped on Zack again.
"She's two," he explained, firmly pushing her down and shoving her butt to the ground with his hand. "Black Lab. I'm told they mellow out some when they're older. "
"She's beautiful. " Nell stroked Lucy's head, and at the first touch the dog collapsed on the ground and rolled over, belly up.
"No pride, either," Zack began, then looked surprised when Nell just hunkered down and sent Lucy into ecstasy by rubbing her belly with both hands.
"You don't need pride when you're beautiful, do you, Lucy? Oh, there's nothing like a big, beautiful dog, is there? I always-oh!"
In a delirium of pleasure, Lucy rolled, scrambled, and knocked Nell flat on her back. Zack was fast, but not quite fast enough to keep her from being leaped on and licked.
"Jesus, Lucy. No! Hey, I'm sorry. " Zack shoved at the dog and lifted Nell to her feet one-handed. "You okay? Did she hurt you?"
"No. I'm fine. " She'd had the wind knocked out of her, but that was only part of the reason for breathlessness. He was brushing at her while the dog sat, head down, tail cautiously thumping. He was, Nell noted, frustrated and concerned. But not angry.
"You didn't hit your head, did you? Damn dog weighs almost as much as you do. Banged your elbow a little," he added, then realized she was actually giggling. "What's so funny?"
"Nothing, really. It's just sweet the way she's pretending to look ashamed. She's obviously terrified of you. "
"Yeah, I take a bat to her twice a week whether she needs it or not. " He ran his hands lightly up and down Nell's arms. "Sure you're okay?"
"Yes. " It struck her then that they were now standing very close, almost embracing. And that his hands were on her, and her skin was much too warm from them. "Yes," she said again and took a deliberate step in retreat. "No harm done. "
"You're sturdier than you look. " There were long, lean muscles in those arms, he noted. He'd already admired the ones in her legs. "Come on inside," he said. "Not you," he added, pointing at the dog. "You're banished. "
He scooped Nell's shoes up from the ground and walked toward a wide porch. Curious, and unable to think of an excuse not to follow, Nell went through
"It's the maid's decade off. " Comfortable in his own clutter, he set her shoes on the floor and went to the refrigerator. "Can't offer you homemade lemonade, but we've got some iced tea. "
"That's fine, thanks. It's a wonderful kitchen. "
"We use it mostly for heating up takeout. "
"That's a shame. " There were acres of granite-toned counters, and wonderful rough-hewn cabinets with leaded-glass fronts. A generous double sink with a window over it offered a view of the inlet and the sea.
Plenty of storage and work space, she mused. With a little organization and a bit of imagination, it would be a marvelous. . .
We? He'd said "we," she realized. Was he married? She'd never thought of that, never considered the possibility. Not that it mattered, of course, but. . .
He'd flirted with her. She may have been out of practice and short on experience, but she knew when a man was flirting.
"You've got a lot of thoughts going on inside that head at one time. " Zack held out a glass. "Want to share any of them?"
"No. That is, I was just thinking what a nice room this is. "
"It was a lot more presentable when my mother was in charge of it. Now that it's just Ripley and me, the kitchen doesn't get a lot of attention. "
"Ripley. Oh. I see. "
"You were wondering if I was married, or maybe living here with someone who wasn't my sister. That's nice. "
"It's none of my business. "
"I didn't say it was, just said it was nice. I'd take you through the house, but it's probably in worse shape than the kitchen. And you've got a tidy soul. We'll go this way. " He took her hand again, pulled her back outside.
"Where? I really should be getting back. "
"It's Sunday, and we've hit our day off together. I've got something you'll like," he continued and tugged her across the porch.
It wrapped around the house, edged the side where there was a scrubby garden and a couple of gnarled trees. Weather-worn steps led up to a second-story porch that faced the sea.
He kept his hand over hers and led her up them.
Air and sun washed over her, made her think how easy it would be to stretch out in the wooden chaise and let the day rock away.
A telescope stood by the rail, along with a stone troth that had yet to be planted.
"You're right. " She stepped to the rail, leaned out and breathed. "I do like it. "
"You look west, you can see the mainland when it's clear enough. "
"You don't have your telescope pointed west. "
At the moment all his attention was on her very pretty set of legs. "I guess I don't. "
"What do you look at?"
"Whatever strikes my fancy at the time. "
She glanced over as she moved away. He was staring at her now-long, speculative looks, and they both knew it. "It'd be tempting to stay out here all day," she said as she turned the corner and looked out on the village. "Watch the comings and the goings. "
"I watched you this morning, feeding the gulls. " He leaned on the rail, a man at home, and drank his tea. "I woke up thinking, 'You know, I'm going to find a reason to drop by the yellow cottage today, get another look at Nell Channing,' then I came out here with my morning coffee, and there you were. So I didn't have to make up a reason to get another look at you. "
"It's my day off," he reminded her. He started to lift his hand to touch her hair, but when she edged back he simply slid it into his pocket. "Since it is, why don't we spend a couple hours of it on the water? We can go for a sail. "
"I can't. I have to. . . "
"You don't have to hunt up excuses. Some other time. "
"Yes. " The knot that had formed in her belly loosened. "Some other time. I really should go. Thanks for the drink, and the view. "
"Nell-" He took her hand again, kept his fingers light when hers jerked. "There's a line between making a woman a little nervous and scaring her. That's a line I wouldn't want to cross. When you get to know me a little better, you'll believe that," he added.
"Right now I'm working on getting to know myself a little better. "
"Fair enough. I'll get you a bag for your shells and stones. "
He made a point of going into the cafe every morning. A cup of coffee, a muffin, a few words. To Zack's way of thinking, she'd get used to seeing him, talking to him, and the next time he worked it around so they were alone together, she wouldn't feel compelled to check for running room.
He was perfectly aware that Nell wasn't the only one who noticed his new morning habit. Zack didn't mind the teasing comments, the sly winks and chuckles. Island life had a rhythm, and whenever anything new added a beat, everyone felt it.
He sipped Nell's truly excellent coffee while he stood on the dock listening to Carl Macey bitch about lobster poachers.
"Three blessed days this week trap's been empty, and they ain't troubling to close it after them, neither. I've got the suspicion it's them college boys renting the Boeing place. Ayah. " He spat. "That's who's doing it. I catch 'em at it, I'm gonna give them rich college brats something to remember. "
"Well, Carl, the fact is, it sounds like summer people, and sounds like kids on top of it. Why don't you let me have a talk with them?"
"Got no call interfering with a man's livelihood that way. "
"No, but they wouldn't be thinking of it like that. "
"They'd better start thinking. " The weathered face went grim. "I went up to see Mia Devlin, asked her to put a spell on my traps. "
Zack winced. "Now, Carl-"
"Better than me peppering their skinny white asses with buckshot now, ain't it? I swear that's next in line. "
"Let me handle this. "
"I'm telling you, ain't I?" Scowling, Carl bobbed his head. "No harm in covering all my bases. Besides,
I got a look at the new mainlander while I was up to the bookstore. " Carl's pug-homely, wrinkled face folded into a snicker. "See why you're such a regular customer there these days. Ayah. Big blue eyes like that sure start a man's day off on the right foot. "
"They can't hurt. You keep your shotgun in your gun cabinet, Carl. I'll take care of things. "
He headed back to the station house first, for his list of summer people. The Boeing place was an easy enough walk, but he decided to take the cruiser to make it more official.
The summer rental was a block back from the beach, with a generous screened porch on the side. Beach towels and swim trunks hung drooping from a nylon line strung inside the screen. The picnic table on the porch was heaped with beer cans and the remnants of last night's meal.
They hadn't had the sense, Zack thought with a shake of his head, to ditch the evidence. Scraped-out lobster shells lay upended on the table like giant insects. Zack dug his badge out of his pocket and pinned it on. Might as well get in their faces with it.
He knocked, and kept right on knocking until the door opened. The boy who opened the door was about twenty. Squinting against the sun, his hair a wild disarray, he wore brightly striped boxer shorts and a golden summer tan.
He said, "Ugh. "
"Sheriff Todd, Island Police. Mind if I come inside?"
Hungover, big-time, Zack decided, and translated.
"To talk to you. It's about ten-thirty. Your friends around?"
"Somewhere? Problem? Christ. " The boy swallowed, winced, then stumbled through the living room past the breakfast counter and to the sink, where he turned the water on full. And stuck his head under the faucet.
"Some party, huh?" Zack said when he surfaced, dripping.
"Guess. " He snagged paper towels, rubbed his face dry. "We get too loud?"
"No complaints. What's your name, son?"
"Josh, Josh Tanner. "
"Well, Josh, why don't you rouse yo
"Yeah, well. Okay. "
He waited, listened. There was some cursing, a few thuds, water running. A toilet flushed.
The three young men who trooped back in with Josh looked plenty the worse for wear. They stood, in various states of undress, until one flopped down on a chair and smirked.
"What's the deal?"
All attitude, Zack calculated. "And you'd be?"
"Steve Hickman. "
Boston accent, Zack concluded. Upper-class one, almost Kennedyesque. "Okay, Steve, here's the deal. Lobster poaching carries a thousand-dollar fine. Reason for that is that while it's a kick to sneak out and empty the traps, boil up a couple, some people depend on the catch for their living. An evening's entertainment to you is money out of their pocket. "
As he lectured, Zack saw the boys shift uncomfortably. The one who'd answered the door was flushing guiltily and keeping his eyes averted.
"What you had out there on the porch last night would've run you about forty down at the market. So you look up a man by the name of Carl Macey at the docks, give him forty, and that'll be the end of it. "
"I don't know what you're talking about. Does this Macey put a brand on his lobsters?" Steve smirked again, scratched his belly. "You can't prove we poached anything. "
"True enough. " Zack glanced around the room, skimmed faces. Nerves, a little shame. "This place rents for what, about twelve hundred a week in full season, and the boat you've rented puts another two-fifty onto that. Add entertainment, food, beer. You guys're shelling out 'round about a grand apiece for a week here. "
"And pumping it into the island economy," Steve said with a thin smile. "Pretty stupid to hassle us over a couple of allegedly poached lobsters. "
"Maybe. Even more stupid not to come up with ten bucks each to smooth things over. You think about that. It's a small island," Zack said as he started for the door. "Word gets around. "
"Is that a threat? Threatening civilians could result in a litigious action. "
Zack glanced back, shook his head. "I bet you're pre-law, aren't you?" He strolled out, back to his cruiser. It wouldn't take him long to hit the right spots in the village and make his point.
Ripley walked down High Street and met Zack in front of the Magick Inn. "Lobster Boy's credit card got hung up at the pizza place," she began. "Seems the circuits were down or whatever and he had to dig for cash to pay for lunch. "
"Yeah. And you know, every video they wanted to rent was already out. "
"Hell of a thing. "
"And I hear all the jet skis were already reserved or out of order today. "
"That's a shame. "
"And continuing in a series of bizarre coincidences, the AC in their rental just up and died. "
"And it's a hot one today, too. Supposed to be muggy tonight. Bound to be uncomfortable sleeping. "
"You're a mean son of a bitch, Zachariah. " Ripley rose on her toes and gave him a quick, smacking kiss on the mouth. "That's why I love you. "
"I'm going to have to get meaner. That Hickman boy's a tough nut. The other three'll fold fast enough, but he'll take some more persuading. " Zack swung an arm around Ripley's shoulder. "So, are you going into the cafe for some lunch?"
"I might be. Why?"
"I thought you could do me a little favor, since you love me and everything. "
The long whip of her ponytail bobbed as she turned her head to look up at him. "If you want me to talk Nell into dating you, just forget it. "
"I can get my own dates, thanks. "
"Batting zero so far. "
"I'm still on deck," he countered. "What I was hoping is that you'd tell Mia we're handling the lobster boys, and not to. . . do anything. "
"What do you mean,'do anything'? What does she have to do with it?" Ripley stopped, her temper flaring. "Damn it. "
"Don't get riled. It's just that Carl said he'd talked to her. I'd just as soon it not get around that our resident witch is cooking up a spell. Or whatever. "
To keep Ripley in check, Zack tightened his grip on her shoulders. "I'd go in myself and have a word with her, but the lobster boys should be coming along in a few minutes. I want to be standing here, looking smug and authoritative. "
"I'll talk to her. "
"You play nice, Rip. And remember it was Carl who went to her. "
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. " She shook off his arm and marched across the street.
Witches and spells. It was all a bunch of nonsense, idiotic hooey, she thought as she breezed down the sidewalk. A man like Carl Macey ought to know better. Stirring up a bunch of silliness. It was all right for the tourists to buy all the Three Sisters lore-it was one of the things that brought them over from the mainland. But it burned her butt when it was one of her own.
And Mia encouraged it, too. Just by being Mia.
Ripley swung into Cafe Book and scowled over at Lulu, who was ringing up a customer. "Where is she?"
"Upstairs. Pretty busy today. "
"Yeah, she's a busy little bee," Ripley muttered and headed up.
She spotted Mia with a customer in the cookbook section. Ripley bared her teeth. Mia fluttered her lashes. Simmering with impatience, Ripley strode into the cafe waited her turn, then snapped out an order for coffee.
"No lunch today?" Flushed with the bustle of the noon crowd, Nell poured out from a fresh pot.
"Lost my appetite. "
"That's too bad. " Mia cooed from behind Ripley. "The lobster salad's particularly good today. "
Ripley merely jerked a thumb, then marched behind the counter and into the kitchen. She jammed her hands on her hips when Mia strolled in after her.
"Zack and I are handling the problem. I want you to stay out of it. "
A bowl of top cream was less smooth than Mia's voice. "I wouldn't dream of interfering with the law of the land. "
"Excuse me. " Nell hesitated, cleared her throat. "Sandwiches. I need to make them up. "
"Go right ahead. " Mia gestured. "I imagine Deputy Fife and I are nearly done. "
"Just save the smart-ass comments. "
"I do. I store them up just for you. "
"I don't want you doing anything, and I want you to tell Carl you didn't do anything. "
"Too late. " Enjoying herself, Mia smiled brilliantly. "It's already done. A very simple spell-even someone with your fumbling abilities could have managed it. "
"Cancel it. "
"No. Why does it concern you? You claim not to believe in the Craft. "
"I don't. But I know how rumors work around here. If anything happens to those boys-"
"Don't insult me. " All humor fled from Mia's voice. "You know very well I'd do nothing to harm them, or anyone. You know, that's the heart of it. That's what you're afraid of. Afraid that if you opened yourself to what's inside you again, you wouldn't be able to control it. "
"I'm not afraid of anything. And you're not pulling me in that way. " She pointed at Nell, who was struggling to keep very busy with sandwiches. "You've got no right pulling her in, either. "
"I don't make the pattern, Ripley. I just recognize it. And so do you. "
"It's a waste of time talking to you. " Ripley stormed out of the kitchen.
Mia let out a little sigh, her only sign of distress. "Conversations with Ripley never seem particularly productive. You mustn't let it worry you, Nell. "
"It has nothing to do with me. "
"I can feel your anxiety all the way over here. People argue, often bitterly. They don't all solve the conflict with fists. Here, now. " She moved behind Nell and rubbed her shoulders. "Let the worry go. Tension's bad for the digestion. "
At the touch Nell felt a trickle of warmth melt away the ice that had balled in her belly. "I guess I like both of you. I hate to see you dislike each other. "
"I don't dislike Ripley. S
"No. I don't like questions. "
"I'm fascinated by them. We need to talk, you and I. " Mia stepped back, waited for Nell to pick up the completed order and turn. "I have things to do this evening. Tomorrow, then. I'll buy you a drink. Let's make it early. Five at the Magick Inn. The lounge. It's called the Coven. You can leave your questions at home if you like," Mia said as she started out. "I'll bring the answers anyway. "