Dance Upon the Air, page 8part #1 of Three Sisters Island Series
It was still dark when Nell tiptoed down to Mia's kitchen. The house was huge, and took some maneuvering. Though she wasn't sure what time Mia rose for the day, she brewed a pot of coffee for her hostess and wrote a note of thanks before she left.
They would have to talk, Nell thought as she drove home in the softening light of pre-dawn. About a number of things. And they would, she decided, as soon as she could figure out where to begin.
She could almost convince herself that what she'd seen in the moonlight had been nothing more than a champagne-induced dream. Almost. But it was too clear in her mind to be a dream.
Light spilling out of stars like liquid silver. A rising wind full of song. A woman glowing like a torch.
Such things should be fantasy. But they weren't. . . if they were real and she had a part in them, she needed to know what it all meant.
For the first time in nearly four years she felt absolutely steady, absolutely calm. For now, that was enough.
By noon she was too busy to think about more than the job at hand. There was a paycheck in her pocket, and a day off around the corner.
"Iced hazelnut cappuccino, large. " The man who ordered leaned on the counter as Nell began to work. She judged him as mid-thirties, health-club fit, and a mainlander.
It pleased her that she could already, with very decent accuracy, spot a mainlander. And feel the slightly smug reaction of an islander.
"So, how much aphrodisiac do you put in those cookies?" he asked her.
She glanced at him. "I'm sorry?"
"Ever since I tasted your oatmeal raisin, I haven't been able to get you out of my mind. "
"Really? I could've sworn I put all the aphrodisiac in the macadamia nut. "
"In that case I'll take three," he said. "I'm Jim, and you've seduced me with your baked goods. "
"Then you'd better stay away from my three-bean salad. It'll ruin you for all other women. "
"If I buy all the three-bean salad, will you marry me and have my children?"
"Well, I would, Jim, but I've taken a sacred oath to stay free to bake for all the world. " She capped his coffee, bagged it. "Do you really want those cookies?"
"You bet. How about a clambake? Some friends and I are sharing a house. We're going to do in some clams tonight. "
"Tonight a clambake, tomorrow a house in the suburbs and a cocker spaniel. " She rang him up, took his money with a smile. "Better safe than sorry. But thanks. "
"You're breaking my heart," he said, and sighing heavily, he walked away.
"Oh, man, he is so cute. " Peg craned her neck to keep him in sight until he'd gone downstairs. "You're really not interested?"
"No. " Nell took off her apron, rolled her shoulders.
"Then you wouldn't mind if I gave him a shot?"
"Be my guest. There's plenty of bean salad in the fridge. Oh, and Peg? Thanks for being understanding about yesterday. "
"Hey, everybody gets weird now and then. See you Monday. "
See you Monday, Nell thought. It was just that simple. She was a member of the team, she had friends. She had deflected an overture from an attractive man without getting the jitters.
In fact, she enjoyed it, the way she used to enjoy such things. The day might come when she didn't feel compelled to deflect.
One day she might go to a clambake with a man and some of his friends. Talk, laugh, enjoy the companionship. Light, casual friendships. She could do that. There couldn't be any serious relationships in her future even if she could learn to handle one emotionally.
She was, after all, still legally married.
But now, just now, that fact was more of a safety net than the nightmare it had been. She was free to be whoever she wanted to be, but not free enough to be bound again, not to any man.
She decided to treat herself to an ice cream cone, and a detour to the beach. People called her by name as she passed, and that was a quiet thrill.
As she crossed the sand, she spotted Pete Stahr and his infamous dog. Both looked sheepish as Zack stood beside them, hands on hips.
He never wore a hat as he'd advised her to do when gardening. As a result his hair was lighter at the tips and almost always disordered from the ocean breeze. He rarely wore his badge either, she noted, but the gun rode in the holster at his hip almost casually.
It occurred to her that if he had stopped by the cafe and asked her to go to a clambake, she might not have brushed him off.
When the dog lifted his paw hopefully, Zack shook his head, pointed to the leash that Pete held. Once the leash was secured, man and dog walked off, heads hung low.
Zack turned, the sun bouncing off his dark glasses. And she knew instinctively that he was looking at her. Nell braced herself and went to him.
"Nell. Pete let his dog off the leash again. Mutt smells like a fish house. Ice cream's dripping. "
"It's hot. " Nell licked at the cone and decided to get it over with. "About yesterday-"
"Good. Gonna share any of that?"
"What? Oh. Sure. " She held out the cone, felt a little tingle in the blood when he licked just above her fingertips. Funny, she thought, she hadn't gotten any tingles from the cute guy with the clambake. "You're not going to ask?"
"Not as long as you'd rather I didn't. " Yes, he'd looked at her. And had seen the deliberate squaring of her shoulders before she started toward him. "Why don't you walk with me a while? There's a nice breeze off the water. "
"I was wondering. . . what does Lucy do all day when you're out upholding the law?"
"This and that. Dog chores. "
That tickled a laugh out of her. "Dog chores?"
"Sure. Some days a dog's got to hang around the house, roll in the grass, and think long thoughts. Other times, she comes on in to the office with me, when she's in the mood. Swims, chews up my shoes. I'm thinking about buying her a brother or sister. "
"I was thinking about getting a cat. I'm not sure I'd be able to train a puppy. A cat would be easier. I saw a notice on the board in the market for free kittens. "
"The Stubens girl's cat. They've still got one or two left, last I heard. Their place is over on Bay. White saltbox, blue shutters. "
She nodded, stopped. Impulse, she reminded herself, had served her well so far. Why stop following it? "Zack, I'm going to try out a new recipe tonight. Tuna and linguini with sun-dried tomatoes and feta. I could use a guinea pig. "
He lifted her hand, took another taste of her dripping ice cream. "Well, it happens I don't have any pressing plans for tonight, and as sheriff I do what I can to serve the needs of the community. What time?"
"Is seven all right with you?"
"Works for me. "
"Fine, I'll see you then. Bring an appetite," she said as she hurried away.
"Count on it," he said, and tipped down his dark glasses to watch her dash back toward the village.
At seven, the appetizers were ready, and the wine was chilling. Nell had bought a secondhand table and planned to spend part of her day off scraping and painting it. But for now she covered the scarred wood and peeling green paint with a sheet.
It stood on her back lawn, along with the two old chairs she'd picked up for a song. They weren't particularly pretty at the moment, but they had potential. And they were hers.
She'd set the table with two plates, two bowls, and wineglasses-all purchases from the island thrift shop. Nothing matched, but she thought the result was cheerful and charming.
And as far from the formal china and heavy silver of her past as possible.
Her garden was coming along well, and the tomato and pepper plants, the squash and zucchini, would all be put in the following morning.
She was very close to broke again, and completely content.
"Well, now, does
Nell turned to see Gladys Macey standing on the edge of her lawn, gripping an enormous white purse.
"Just as pretty as a picture. "
"Mrs. Macey. Hello. "
"Hope you don't mind me dropping by this way. I'd've called, but you haven't got a phone. "
"No, of course not. Um, can I get you something to drink?"
"No, no, don't you fuss. I've come by on business. "
"Yes, indeed. " Her tidy helmet of black hair barely moved as she gave a sharp nod. "Carl and I got our thirtieth anniversary coming up last part of July. "
"You can say that again. Two people stick it out for three decades, it's saying something. Since it is, I want a party, and I just finished telling Carl he's not getting out of putting on a suit for it, either. I was wondering if you'd take care of putting the refreshments together for me. "
"Oh. Well. "
"I want a catered affair," Gladys said definitely. "And I want it spiffy. When my girl got married, two years ago last April, we hired a caterer from the mainland. Too snippy for my taste, and too dear for Carl's, but we didn't have much to choose from. I don't figure you're going to get snippy with me or charge me a king's ransom for a bowl of cold shrimp. "
"Mrs. Macey, I appreciate you thinking of me, but I'm not set up to cater. "
"Well, you got time, don't you? I've got a list here of how many people and the kind of business I'm thinking of. " She pulled a file folder out of the enormous purse, pushed it into Nell's hand. "I want to have it right at my house, and I've got my mother's good china and so forth. You just look over what I've put together there, and we'll talk about it tomorrow. You come on by the house tomorrow afternoon. "
"I'd certainly like to help you. Maybe I can. . . " She looked down at the folder, saw that Gladys had marked it "Thirtieth Anniversary" and had added a heart with her initials and Carl's in the center.
Touched, she tucked the folder under her arm, "I'll see what I can do. "
"You're a nice girl, Nell. " Gladys glanced over her shoulder at the sound of a car, lifted her eyebrows as she recognized Zack's cruiser. "And you've got good taste. You come on by tomorrow, and we'll talk this out. Have a nice dinner now. "
She strolled toward her car, stopping to say a few words to Zack. She gave him a pat on the cheek, noted the flowers in his hand. By the time she was behind the wheel, she was planning who she'd call first to spread the news that Zachariah Todd was sparking the little Channing girl.
"I'm a little late. Sorry. We had a fender bender in the village. Put me behind. "
"It's all right. "
"I thought you might like these for your garden. "
She smiled at the pot of Shasta daisies. "They're perfect. Thanks. " She took them, set them beside her kitchen stoop. "I'll get the wine and the appetizers. "
He walked into the kitchen behind her. "Something smells great. "
"Once I got started, I tried out a couple of different recipes. You've got your work cut out for you. "
"I'm up for it. Now what's this?" He crouched down, stroked a finger over the smoke-gray kitten circled on a pillow in the corner.
"That's Diego. We're living together. "
The kitten mewed, stretched, then began to bat at Zack's shoelaces. "You've been busy. Cooking, buying furniture, getting a roommate. " Scooping up Diego, he turned toward her. "Nobody's going to find any moss on you, Nell. "
He stood there, big and handsome, with a gray kitten nuzzling at his shoulder.
He'd brought her white daisies in a plastic pot.
"Oh, damn. " She set her tray of appetizers down again, took a breath. "I might as well get this over with. I don't want you to get the wrong impression about dinner, and. . . things. I'm very attracted to you, but I'm not in a place where I can act on my feelings. It's only fair to tell you that up front. There are good reasons for it, but I'm not willing to get into them. So, if you'd rather just go, no hard feelings. "
He listened soberly, rubbing a finger between the kitten's silky ears. "I appreciate you spelling that out for me. Seems a shame to waste all this food, though. " He plucked a stuffed olive from the tray, popped it into his mouth. "I'll just hang around, if it's all the same to you. Why don't I take the wine outside?"
He picked up the bottle and, still carrying Diego, bumped the screened door with his hip. "Oh, and in the interest of fair play, I'll tell you I'll be nudging you out of that place you're in. "
With that said, he held the door open. "You want to bring those on out?"
"I'm not as easy a nudge as you might think. "
"Honey, there's nothing easy about you. "
She picked up the tray, sailed by him. "I take that as a compliment. "
"It was meant as one. Now, why don't we have some wine, relax, and you can tell me what Gladys Macey was after. "
When they were seated, she poured the wine, and he settled the kitten in his lap. "I thought, being sheriff, you'd know all there is to know about what's going on. "
"Well. " He leaned over the tray, selected a gnocchi. "I can deduce, seeing as I'm a trained observer. There's a file on your counter, marked with Gladys's handwriting, which leads me to believe she's planning on an anniversary party. And, as I'm sitting here, heading straight toward heaven with whatever the hell it is I just put in my mouth-and knowing Gladys is a shrewd lady-I'd suppose she's wanting you to cater it. How'd I do?"
"Dead on. "
"Are you going to do it?"
"I'm going to think about it. "
"You'd do a great job. " He plucked another selection from the tray, examined it suspiciously. "Any mushrooms in this thing? I hate mushrooms. "
"No. We're fungi-free tonight. Why would I do a good job?"
"I said great job. " He popped it in his mouth. Some creamy cheese and herbs in a thin and flaky pastry. "Because you cook like a magician, you look like an angel, and you're as organized as a computer. You get things done, and you've got style. How come you're not eating any of this?"
"I want to see if you live first. " When he only grinned and kept eating, she sat back and sipped her wine. "I'm a good cook. Put me in a kitchen, and I rule the world. I'm presentable, but I don't look like an angel. "
"I'm the one looking at you. "
"I'm organized," she continued, "because I keep my life simple. "
"Which is another way of saying you're not going to complicate it with me. "
"There you go, dead on again. I'm going to get the salad. "
Zack waited until her back was turned before he let his amusement show. "Easy enough to ruffle her feathers," he said to Diego, "when you know where to scratch. Let me tell you something I've learned over the years about women. Keep changing the rhythm, and they'll never know what to expect next. "
When Nell came back out, Zack launched into the story of the pediatrician from Washington and the stockbroker from New York who'd bumped fenders outside the pharmacy on High Street.
He made her laugh, put her gently at ease again. Before she knew it, she was telling him about various kitchen feuds in restaurants where she'd worked.
"Temperaments and sharp implements," she said. "A dangerous combination. I once had a line chef threaten me with an electric whisk. "
Because dusk was falling, he lit the squat red candle she'd set on the table. "I had no idea there was so much danger and intrigue behind those swinging doors. "
"And sexual tension," she added, twirling linguini onto her fork. "Smoldering looks over simmering pots of stock, broken hearts shattering in the whipping cream. It's a hotbed. "
"Food's got all that sensuality. Flavor, texture, scent. This tuna's getting me pretty worked up. "
"So, the dish passes the audition. "
"It's great. " Candlelight suited her, he thought. It put little gold lights in those deep blue pools. "Do you make this st
"Both, I like to experiment. When my mother. . . " She trailed off, but Zack merely picked up the wine bottle, topped off their glasses. "She liked to cook," Nell said simply. "And entertain. "
"My mother-well, we'll just say the kitchen wasn't her best room. I was twenty before I realized a pork chop wasn't supposed to bounce if you dropped it. She lived on an island most of her life, but as far as she was concerned tuna came out of a can. She's hell with numbers, though. "
"Certified public accountant-retired now. She and my dad bought themselves one of those big tin cans on wheels and hit the great American highway about a year ago. They're having a terrific time. "
"That's nice. " And so was the unmistakable affection in his voice. "Do you miss them?"
"I do. I'm not going to say I miss my mother's cooking, but I miss their company. My father used to sit out on the back porch and play the banjo. I miss that. "
"The banjo. " It sounded so charming. "Do you play?"
"No. I never could get my fingers to cooperate. "
"My father played the piano. He used to-" She stopped herself again, realigning her thoughts as she rose. "I could never get my fingers to cooperate either. Strawberry shortcake for dessert. Can you manage it?"
"I can probably choke some down, just to be polite. Let me give you a hand. "
"No. " She waved him down before he could rise. "I've got it. It'll just take me. . . " She glanced down as she cleared his plate, saw Diego sprawled belly-up in apparent ecstasy in his lap. "Have you been sneaking that cat food from the table?"
"Me?" All innocence, Zack picked up his wineglass. "I don't know what makes you think that. "
"You'll spoil him, and make him sick. " She started to reach down, scoop up the kitten, then realized that considering Diego's location, the move was just a tad too personal. "Put him down a while so he can run around and work off that tuna before I take him inside. "
"Yes, ma'am. "
She had the coffee on and was about to slice the cake when he came through the door with the serving bowl.
"Thanks. But guests don't clear. "
"They did in my house. " He looked at the cake, all fluffy white and succulent red. And back at her. "Honey, I've got to tell you, that's a work of art. "
"Presentation's half the battle," she said, pleased. She went still when he laid his hand over the back of hers. Nearly relaxed again when he simply moved hers to widen the size of the slice.
"I'm a big patron of the arts. "
"At this rate Diego's not the only one who's going to be sick. " But she cut him a piece twice the size of her own. "I'll bring the coffee. "
"I should tell you something else," he began as he picked up the plates, then held the door for her again. "I plan on touching you. A lot. Maybe you could work on getting used to it. "
"I don't like being handled. "
"I didn't plan to start out that way. " He walked to the table, set down the cake plates, and sat. "Though handling, on both sides, can have some satisfying results. I don't put marks on women, Nell. I don't use my hands that way. "
"I'm not going to talk about that," she answered curtly.
"I'm not asking you to. I'm talking about me, and you, and the way things are now. "
"Things aren't any way now-like that. "
"They're going to be. " He scooped up some cake, sampled it. "God, woman, you sell this on the open market, you'd be a millionaire inside of six months. "
"I don't need to be rich. "
"Got your back up again," he observed and kept right on eating. "I don't mind that. Some men look for a woman who'll buckle under, tow the line, whatever. " He shrugged, speared a fat strawberry. "Now, me, I wonder why. It seems that would get boring fast for both parties involved. No spark there, if you know what I mean. "
"I don't need sparks either. "
"Everybody does. People who set them off each other every time they turn around, though, well, that would just wear you out. " Something told her he didn't wear out-or wear down-easily.
"But if you don't light a spark now and again," he went on, "you miss the sizzle that comes with it. If you cooked without spice or seasoning, you'd come up with something you could eat, but it wouldn't satisfy. "
"That's very clever. But there are some of us who stay healthier on a bland diet. "
"My great-uncle Frank. " Zack gestured with his fork before he dived into the cake again. "Ulcers. Some said it came from pure meanness, and it's hard to argue. He was a hardheaded, miserly Yankee. Never married. He preferred curling up in bed with his ledgers rather than a woman. Lived to be ninety-eight. "
"And the moral of the story?"
"Oh, I wasn't thinking of morals. Just Great-uncle Frank. We'd go to dinner at my grandmother's the third Sunday of every month when I was a boy. She made the best damn pot roast-you know, the kind circled around with the little potatoes and carrots? My mother didn't inherit Gran's talent with a pot roast. But, anyway, Great-uncle Frank would come and eat rice pudding while the rest of us gorged. The man scared the hell out of me. I can't look at a bowl of rice pudding to this day without getting the shakes. "
It must be some kind of magic, she decided, that made it so impossible not to relax around him. "I think you're making half that up. "
"Not a single word. You can look him up in the registry at the Island Methodist Church. Francis Morris Bigelow. Gran, she married a Ripley, but was a Bigelow by birth and older sister to Frank. She lived to just past her hundredth birthday herself. We tend to be long-lived in my family, which is why most of us don't settle down to marriage and family until into our thirties. "
"I see. " Since he'd polished off his cake, Nell nudged hers toward him and wasn't the least bit surprised when he took a forkful. "I'd always thought New England Yankees were a taciturn breed. You know-ayah, nope, maybe. "
"We like to talk in my family. Ripley can be short-winded, but then she isn't overly fond of people as a species. This is the best meal I've had since Sunday dinner at my gran's. "
"That is the ultimate compliment. "
"We'd finish it off exactly right if we were to take a walk on the beach. "
She couldn't chink of a reason to say no. Maybe she didn't want to.
The light was fading, going deep at the edges. A needle-thin and needle-bright swath of light swept over the horizon, and a blush of pink gleamed in the west. The tide had gone out, leaving a wide avenue of dark, damp sand that was cool underfoot. The surf teased it, foaming out in ribbons while narrow-bodied birds with legs like stilts pecked for their supper.
Others strolled the beach. Almost all couples now, Nell noted. Hand-in-hand or arm-in-arm. As a precaution, she'd tucked her own hands in her pockets after she'd pried off her shoes and rolled up her jeans.
Here and there were stockpiles of driftwood that would be bonfires when full dark fell. She wondered what it would be like to sit by the flames with a group of friends. To laugh and talk of nothing important.
"Haven't seen you go in yet. "
"The water," Zack explained.
She didn't own a bathing suit, but saw no reason to say so. "I've waded in a couple of times. "
"Of course I can swim. "
"Let's go. "
He scooped her up so fast her heart stuck between her chest and her throat. She could barely manage to breathe, much less scream. Before full panic had a chance to bloom, she was in the water.
Zack was laughing, spinning her away from an oncoming wave to take the brunt of it himself. She was sliding, rolling, fighting to gain her feet when he simply nipped her at the waist and righted her.
"Can't live on Three Sisters without being baptized. " Tossing his wet hair back, he pulled her farther out.
"It's freezing. "
"Balmy," he corrected. "Your blood's just thin ye
"I don't want to-" Whatever she did or didn't want, the sea had its own ideas. The wave hit, knocked her off her feet, and had her legs tangling with his.
"You idiot. " But she was laughing as she surfaced. When the air hit her skin, she quickly dunked neck-deep again. "The sheriff's supposed to have more sense than to jump in the ocean fully dressed. "
"I'd've stripped down, but we haven't known each other long enough. " He rolled over on his back, floating lazily. "The first stars are coming out. There's nothing like it. Nothing in the world like it. Come on. "
The sea rocked her, made her feel weightless as she watched the color of the sky change. As the tone deepened bit by bit, stars winked to life.
"You're right, there's nothing like it. But it's still freezing. "
"You just need a winter on the island to thicken your blood up. " He took her hand, a quiet connection as they drifted an armspan apart. "I've never spent more than three months at a time off-island, and that was for college. Had three years of that, and couldn't take it anymore. I knew what I wanted anyway. And that's what I've got. "
The rhythm of the waves, the sweep of the sky. The quiet flow of his voice coming out of the dark.
"It's a kind of magic, isn't it?" She sighed as the cool, moist breeze whispered over her face. "To know what you want, to just know. And to get it. "
"Magic doesn't hurt. Work helps. So does patience and all kinds of things. "
"I know what I want now, and I'm getting it. That's magic to me. "
"The island's never been short on that commodity. Comes from being founded by witches, I suppose. "
Surprise tinged her voice. "Do you believe in that sort of thing?"
"Why wouldn't I? Things are, whether people believe in them or not. There were lights in the sky last night that weren't stars. A person could look the other way, but they'd still have been there. "
He planted his feet again, lifting her until she stood facing him with the water fuming at waist level. Night had drifted in, and the lights of the stars sprinkled over the surface of the water.
"You can turn away from something like this. " He skimmed her wet hair away from her face, left his hands resting there. "But it's still going to be there. "
She pressed a hand against his shoulder as his mouth lowered to hers. She meant to turn away, told herself to turn away, to where everything was safe and ordered and simple.
But the spark he'd spoken of snapped inside her, warm and bright. She curled her fingers into his wet shirt and let herself feel.
Alive. Cold where the air whisked over her skin. Hot in the belly where desire began to build. Testing herself, she leaned into him, parted her lips under his.
He took his time, as much for himself as for her. Sampling, savoring. She tasted of the sea. Smelled of it. For a moment, in the star-drenched surf, he let himself drown.
He eased back, let his hands run over her shoulders, down her arms before he linked his fingers with hers. "Not so complicated. " He kissed her again, lightly, though the lightness cost him. "I'll walk you home. "