Dance upon the air, p.9

Dance Upon the Air, page 9

 part  #1 of  Three Sisters Island Series

 

Dance Upon the Air


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Chapter Eight

  Mia, can I talk to you?" With ten minutes until opening, Nell hurried down from the cafe. Lulu was already ringing up mail orders and shot her a typically suspicious look while Mia continued to put the finishing touches on a new display.

  "Of course. What's on your mind?"

  "Well, I. . . " The store was small enough, and empty enough, that Lulu would hear every word. "I thought we could go up to your office for a minute. "

  "Here's fine. Don't let Lulu's sour face put you off. " Mia built a small tower out of new summer releases. "She's worried you're going to ask me for a loan, and naturally I'm such a soft touch-along with my soft head-I'll let you rob me blind so I'll die penniless and alone in some filthy gutter. Isn't that right, Lu?"

  Lulu merely sniffed and jabbed keys on the cash register.

  "Oh, no, it's not about money. I'd never ask for-after you've been so-damn it. " Nell fisted her hands in her hair, tugged until the pain stiffened her spine. Deliberately now, she turned to face Lulu.

  "I understand you're protective of Mia, and you have no reason to trust me. I came out of nowhere, with nothing, and haven't been here a month. But I'm not a thief, and I'm not a user. I've carried my weight here, and I'm going to keep carrying it. And if Mia asked me to try serving sandwiches while standing on one foot and singing 'Yankee Doodle Dandy,' I'd give it my best shot. Because I came out of nowhere, with nothing, and she gave me a chance. "

  Lulu sniffed again. "Wouldn't mind seeing that myself. Likely bring in fresh trade, too. Never said you didn't carry your weight," she added. "But that doesn't mean I won't keep a watch on you. "

  "Fine with me. I understand. "

  "All this sentimental bonding. " Mia dabbed at her lashes. "It's ruining my mascara. " She stepped back from her display, nodded in approval. "Now what do you need to talk to me about, Nell?"

  "Mrs. Macey is having an anniversary party next month. She'd like to have a fancy catered affair. "

  "Yes, I know. " Mia turned to straighten stock on the shelves. "She'll drive you a bit crazy with changes and suggestions and questions, but you can handle it. "

  "I didn't agree to. . . We just discussed it yesterday. I didn't realize you'd heard she asked already. I wanted to talk to you first. "

  "It's a small island, word gets around. You don't need to talk to me about an outside catering job, Nell. "

  She made a mental note to order more ritual candies. There'd been a run on them during the solstice, and they were running unacceptably low on Passion and on Prosperity. Which just showed, she supposed, where many people's priorities lay.

  "Your free time is your time," she added.

  "I just wanted to tell you that if I did the job for her, it wouldn't interfere with my work here. "

  "I should hope not, particularly since I'm giving you a raise. " She glanced at her watch. "Time to open, Lu. "

  "You're giving me a raise?"

  "You've earned it. I hired you at a probationary salary. You're officially off probation. " She unlocked the door, walked over to turn on the music system. "How was your dinner with Zack the other night?" Mia asked with amusement. "A small island, as I said. "

  "It was fine. It was just a friendly dinner. "

  "Good-looking boy," Lulu said. "Quality, too. "

  "I'm not trying to lure him into temptation. "

  "Something wrong with you, then. " Lulu tipped down her silver frames and peered over them. It was a look she was particularly proud of. "If I were a few years younger, I'd be setting out lures. Got a great pair of hands on him. Bet he knows how to use them. "

  "No doubt," Mia said mildly. "But you're embarrassing our Nell. Now where was I? Gladys's anniversary, check. Raise, check. Dinner with Zack, check. " She paused, tapped a fingertip against her lips. "Ah, yes. Nell, I wanted to ask. Do you have a religious or political objection to cosmetics or jewelry?"

  She could find nothing more constructive to do than huff out her breath. "No. "

  "That's a relief. Here. " She took off the silver dangles on her ears, handed them to Nell. "Wear these. If anyone asks where you got them, they come from All That Glitters, two doors down. We like to promote other merchants. I'll want them back at the end of your shift. Tomorrow you might try a little blush, maybe some lipstick, eyeliner. "

  "I don't have any. "

  "I'm sorry. " Mia held up a hand, laid the other on her heart, and staggered to the counter for support. "I feel a little faint. Did you say you don't own any lipstick?"

  The corner of Nell's mouth turned up and brought out a hint of dimples. "I'm afraid not. "

  "Lulu, we have to help this woman. It's our duty. Emergency supplies. Hurry. "

  Lips quivering with what might have been a smile, Lulu hauled a large cosmetic bag out from under the counter. "She's got good skin. "

  "A blank canvas, Lu. A blank canvas. Come with me," she ordered Nell.

  "The cafe-the regulars will be coming in any second. "

  "I'm fast, and I'm good. Let's move. " She grabbed Nell's hand, hauled her upstairs and into the rest room.

  Ten minutes later, Nell was serving her first customers and wearing silver earrings, peach-toned lipstick, and expertly smudged slate eyeliner.

  There was something, she decided, very comforting about feeling female again.

  ***

  She took the catering job and crossed her fingers. When Zack asked if she'd like to go for an evening sail, she said yes and felt powerful.

  When a customer asked if she could bake a cake in the shape of a ballerina for a birthday party, she said absolutely. And spent her fee on a pair of earrings.

  As word spread, she found herself agreeing to provide picnic-style food for a party of twenty for July Fourth and ten box lunches for a private day sailor.

  At her kitchen table, Nell spread out notes, files, menus. Somehow she was becoming her own cottage industry. Which, she thought, looking around, seemed perfectly apt.

  She glanced up at the brisk knock on the door, and happily welcomed Ripley in.

  "Got a minute?"

  "Sure. Sit down. Do you want anything?"

  "I'm fine. " Ripley sat, then picked up Diego when he sniffed at her shoes. "Meal planning?"

  "I've got to organize these catering jobs. If I had a computer. . . Well, eventually. I'd sell my soul for a professional blender. And both feet for a commercial-grade food processor. But for now, we make do. "

  "Why don't you use the computer at the bookstore?"

  "Mia's already doing enough. "

  "Whatever. Listen, I've got this date for the Fourth. A date with potential," she added. "Casual because Zack and I are more or less on duty right through the night. Fireworks and beer sometimes make people a little too festive for their own good. "

  "I can't wait to see the fireworks. Everyone says they're spectacular. "

  "Yeah, we do a hell of a job on them. The thing is, this guy-he's a security consultant on the mainland-he's been hitting on me, and I decided to let him land one. "

  "Ripley, that's so romantic, I can barely catch my breath. "

  "He's really built, too," Ripley continued as she scratched Diego's ears, "so the after-fireworks fireworks potential is fairly high, if you get me. I've been in a downswing sexwise. Anyway, we talked about having this night picnic deal, and somehow I got stuck with doing the food. Since I think I'd like to jump this guy's bones, I don't want to poison him first. "

  "A romantic picnic for two. " Nell made notes. "Vegetarian or carnivore?"

  "Carnivore. Not too fancy, okay?" Ripley plucked a grape from the bowl of fruit on the table, popped it in her mouth. "I don't want him more interested in the food than me. "

  "Check. Pickup or delivery?"

  "This is so cool. " Cheerful, she popped another grape. "I can pick it up. Can we keep it under fifty?"

  "Under fifty. Tell him to pick up a nice crisp white wine. Now if you had a picnic hampe
r. . . "

  "We've got one somewhere. "

  "Perfect. Bring that by and we'll pack it up. You'll be set, foodwise. The bone-jumping portion of the evening is up to you. "

  "I can handle that. You know, if you want, I can ask around, see if anybody's got a secondhand computer they want to sell. "

  "That would be great. I'm glad you came by. " She rose, got out two glasses. "I was afraid you were annoyed with me. "

  "No, not with you. That particular subject annoys me. It's a bunch of bullshit, just like. . . " She scowled through the screened door. "Well, speak of the devil. "

  "I try not to. Why borrow trouble?" Mia sailed in, laid a note on the counter. "Phone message for you, Nell. Gladys and her newest party brainstorm. "

  "I'm sorry. You don't have time to run over here this way. I'll speak to her again and I promise I'll see about getting a phone. "

  "Don't worry about it. I wanted a walk or I'd have left it for tomorrow. And I'll have a glass of that lemonade. "

  "She needs a computer," Ripley said flatly. "She won't use the one at the store because she doesn't want to hassle you. "

  "Ripley. Mia, I'm perfectly fine working this way. "

  "She can certainly use the computer at the store when it's free," Mia said to Ripley. "And she doesn't need you running interference between her and me. "

  "She wouldn't if you weren't trying to push your psychic hooey on her. "

  "'Psychic hooey' sounds like the name of a second-rate rock band and has nothing to do with what I am. But even that's better than blind, stubborn denial. Knowledge is always better than ignorance. "

  "You want ignorance?" Ripley said, getting to her feet.

  "Stop! Stop it. " Jittering inside, Nell put herself between them. "This is ridiculous. Do you two always go at each other this way?"

  "Yes. " Mia picked up a glass, sipped delicately. "We enjoy it, don't we, Deputy?"

  "I'd enjoy popping you one more, but then I'd have to arrest myself. "

  "Try it. " Mia angled her chin. "I promise not to press charges. "

  "Nobody hits anybody. Not in my house. "

  Instantly contrite, Mia set down her glass, rubbed a hand down Nell's arm. It was rigid as steel. "I'm sorry, little sister. Ripley and I irritate each other, a long-standing habit. But we shouldn't put you in the middle. We shouldn't put her in the middle," Mia said to Ripley. "It isn't fair. "

  "Something we agree on. How about this? If we run into each other here, it's a neutral zone. You know, like Romulan space. No warfare. "

  "Romulan Neutral Zone. I've always admired your grip on popular culture. Agreed. " She even picked up the second glass, passed it to Ripley. "There. You see, Nell, you're a good influence on us already. " She handed the third glass to Nell. "To positive influences. "

  Ripley hesitated, cleared her throat. "Okay, okay, what the hell. Positive influences. "

  And standing in a loose circle, they tapped glasses. They rang like a bell, one bright peal as a shower of light fountained up from that connection of secondhand kitchenware.

  Mia smiled slowly as Nell let out a laughing gasp.

  "Damn it," Ripley muttered, and gulped down lemonade. "I hate that. "

  ***

  Celebrants streamed to the island for the Fourth. Red, white, and blue flags snapped from the rails of the ferries as they chugged to the mainland and back. Banners and bunting swagged the eaves of the storefronts on High Street, waving cheerfully as tourists and islanders alike jammed the streets and beaches.

  For Nell it was anything but a holiday, but that didn't prevent her celebrational mood as she delivered orders. She not only had a job she loved, she had a business she could be proud of.

  Independence Day, she thought. She was going to make it hers.

  For the first time in nine months, she began to plan for a future that included bank accounts, mail delivery, and personal possessions that couldn't be stuffed into a duffel or backpack at a moment's notice.

  A normal, functioning life, she thought as she paused by the display window of Beach Where. The mannequin was wearing breezy summer slacks with bold blue and white stripes and a gauzy white top that scooped low at the breasts. Strappy white sandals as fun as they were impractical adorned its feet.

  Nell bit her lip. Her pay was burning a hole in the pocket of her ancient jeans. That had always been her problem, she reminded herself. If she had ten dollars, she could find a way to spend nine of it.

  She'd learned how to save and scrimp and resist. How to make five dollars stretch like elastic.

  But she hadn't had anything new, anything pretty, in so long. And Mia had been hinting, not quite so gently of late, that she should spruce up a bit on the job.

  Plus, she had to make some sort of a showing of herself for the catering sideline. If she was going to be a businesswoman, she should dress the part. On the island that meant casual. Still, casual could mean attractive.

  On the other hand, it would be more practical, more sensible, to save the money and invest it in kitchen tools. She needed a food processor more than she needed sandals.

  "Are you going to listen to the good angel or the bad angel?"

  "Mia. " Vaguely embarrassed at being caught daydreaming over a pair of shoes, Nell laughed. "You startled me. "

  "Great sandals. On sale, too. "

  "They are?"

  Mia tapped the glass just below the Sale sign. "My favorite four-letter word. I smell possibilities, Nell. Let's shop. "

  "Oh, but I really shouldn't. I don't need anything. "

  "You really do need work. " Mia tossed back her hair, took Nell's elbow in a firm grip, much like a mother with a stubborn child. "Shopping for shoes has nothing to do with need, and everything to do with lust. Do you know how many pair of shoes I own?"

  "No. "

  "Neither do I," she said as she strong-armed Nell into the shop. "Isn't that wonderful? They have those slacks in a candy-cane pink. They'd look fabulous on you. Size six?"

  "Yes. But I really need to save for a good food processor. " Despite herself she reached out to finger the material of the slacks that Mia pulled off the rack. "They're so soft. "

  "Try them with this. " A brief hunt turned up what Mia considered the perfect top, a clingy white halter. "Don't forget to lose the bra. You've got little feet. Six there, too?"

  "Yes, actually. " Nell took a discreet peek at the price tags. Even with the sale it was more than she'd spent on herself in months. She was stuttering protests as Mia shoved her behind a dressing room curtain.

  "Trying doesn't mean buying," she whispered to herself over and over as she stripped down to her practical cotton panties.

  Mia was right about the pink, she thought as she slipped into the slacks. The bright color was an instant mood lifter. But the halter, well, that was another matter. It felt. . . decadent to wear something so close-fitting without a bra. And the back-she turned to look over her shoulder. There basically wasn't a back.

  Evan would never have allowed her to wear something so revealing and casually suggestive.

  Even as the thought popped into her mind, Nell cursed herself.

  "Okay, back up and erase," she ordered herself.

  "How you doing in there?"

  "Fine. Mia, it's an adorable outfit, but I don't think. . . "

  Before she could finish, Mia whisked open the curtain and stood, the sandals in one hand while she tapped her lip with the finger of her free hand. "Perfect. Girl-next-door sexy, casual, chic. Add the shoes. I saw this little bag. Just the thing. Be right back. "

  It was like being marched through a campaign by a veteran general, Nell thought. And she, a mere foot soldier, couldn't seem to do anything but follow orders.

  Twenty minutes later, her habitual jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers were tucked into a shopping bag. What was left of her cash was stuffed into a palm-size purse that she wore cross-body and at the hip of her new slack
s, which flapped softly around her legs in the frisky breeze.

  "How do you feel?"

  "Guilty. Great. " Unable to resist, Nell wiggled her toes in her new sandals.

  "That'll do. Now, let's buy some earrings to go with it. "

  Nell abandoned all resistance. Independence Day, she reminded herself. She fell for the rose quartz drops the minute she saw them.

  "What is it about earrings that makes you feel so confident?"

  "Body adornments show that we're aware of our bodies and expect others to be aware as well. Now, let's take a walk on the beach and get some reaction. "

  Nell fingered the pale pink stones swinging from her ears. "Can I ask you a question?"

  "Go ahead. "

  "I've been here a month now, and in all that time I haven't seen you with anyone. A date, I mean. A male companion. "

  "I'm not interested in anyone at the moment. " Mia held the flat of her hand above her brow to skim the beach. "Yes, there was someone. Once. But that was another phase of my life. "

  "Did you love him?"

  "Yes, I did. Very much. "

  "I'm sorry. I shouldn't pry. "

  "It's no secret," Mia said lightly. "And the wound's long healed. I like being on my own, in control of my destiny, and all the little day-to-day decisions and choices. Coupling requires a certain amount of unselfishness. I'm a selfish creature by nature. "

  "That's not true. "

  "Generosity has levels. " Mia began to walk, lifting her face to the breeze. "And it's not synonymous with altruism. I do what suits me, which stems from self-interest. I don't find that something to apologize for. "

  "I've had personal acquaintance with the selfish. You may do what suits you, Mia, but you'd never deliberately hurt anyone. I've watched you with people. They trust you because they know they can. "

  "Not causing harm is a responsibility that comes from what I've been given. You're the same. "

  "I don't see how that can be. I've been powerless. "

  "And because of it you have empathy for those in pain and those who despair. Nothing happens to us without purpose, little sister. What we do because of it, what we do about it, is the key to who and what we are. "

  Nell looked out to sea, to the boats gliding, the jet skiers racing, the swimmers gleefully riding the waves. She could turn away, she thought, from what she was being told and what would be asked of her. She could have a calm and normal life here.

  Or she could have more.

  "The night I stayed at your house, the night of the solstice, when I saw you on the cliffs I told myself I was dreaming. "

  Mia didn't turn, just continued to look calmly out over the ocean. "Is that what you want to believe?"

  "I'm not entirely sure. I dreamed of this place. Even when I was a child, I had dreams. For a long time I ignored them, or blocked them out. When I saw the painting-the cliffs, the lighthouse, your house-I had to come here. It was like finally being allowed to come home. "

  She looked back at Mia. "I used to believe in fairy tales. Then I learned better. The hard way. "

  And so, Mia thought, had she. No man had ever lifted his hand to her, but there were other ways to bruise and scar. "Life isn't a fairy tale, and the gift carries a price. "

  A shudder raced up Nell's spine. Easier, she thought, to turn away. Safer, to run away.

  A boat out to sea let off a sky rocket. The gleeful shriek of sound ended on a burst of light that showered little specks of gold as it shattered. A delighted roar went up from the beach. She heard a child call out in wonder.

  "You said you would teach me. "

  Mia let out a breath she hadn't been aware she was holding. So much rested on this. "And so I will. "

  They turned together to watch the next rocket soar.

  "Are you going to stay to watch the fireworks?" Nell asked her.

  "No, I can see them from my cliffs. And it's less frantic. Besides, I hate being a fifth wheel. "

  "Fifth wheel?"

  "Ladies. " Zack strolled up. It was one of the rare times he had his badge pinned to his shirt. "I'm going to have to ask you to move along. Two beautiful women standing on the beach creates a safety hazard. "

  "Isn't he cute?" Mia reached up to cup his face and give him a noisy kiss. "When I was in third grade, I planned to marry him and live in a sand castle. "

  "You might've clued me in on it. "

  "You were sweet on Hester Burmingham. "

  "No, I just had lustful feelings for her shiny red Schwinn. The Christmas I turned twelve, I got one of my own from Santa, and Hester ceased to exist in my little world. "

  "Men are bastards. "

  "Maybe, but I've still got the bike, and Hester's got twin girls and a minivan. Happy ending all around. "

  "Hester still checks out your butt when you're walking away," Mia told him, delighted when his mouth dropped open. "And on that note, I take my leave. Enjoy the fireworks. "

  "That woman always manages to get the last word," Zack muttered. "By the time a man untangles his tongue, she's gone. And speaking of getting a man's tongue tangled, you look great. "

  "Thanks. " She held her arms out to the side. "I splurged. "

  "In all the right places. Let me cart that for you. " He slipped the shopping bag out of her hand.

  "I need to take it home, and see to some things. "

  "I can walk in that direction for a bit. I was hoping to see you around today. I heard you've been busy, delivering potato salad all over the island. "

  "I must've made twenty gallons of it, and enough fried chicken to deplete the poultry population for the next three months. "

  "Don't suppose you've got any left. "

  Her dimples winked. "I might. "

  "It's been hard to find time to eat-traffic control, beach patrol. I had to sit on a couple of kids who thought it'd be fun to toss firecrackers in trash cans and watch them blow up. I've confiscated enough firecrackers, roman candles, and bottle rockets to start my own insurrection. And all that on two hot dogs. "

  "That doesn't seem fair. "

  "No, it doesn't. I spotted a couple of your box lunches. Looked to me like there was apple pie in there. "

  "You have good vision. I could probably hunt up a few drumsticks, scrape together a pint of potato salad. I might even be able to manage a slab of apple pie and donate it to a hardworking public servant. "

  "Might even be tax deductible. I've got to supervise the fireworks display. " He stopped at the end of the street. "We usually get it started right around nine. " He set her shopping bag down to run his hands up her bare arms. "Things start thinning out around nine-thirty, nine-forty-five. I lost the toss with Ripley, so I've got to take the last patrol, cruise around the island to make sure nobody's set their house on fire. Maybe you'd like to take a drive. "

  "I might. "

  His fingers danced up and down her back. "Do me a favor? Put your hands on my shoulders. I'd like you to have a grip on me when I kiss you this time. "

  "Zack-" She took two careful breaths. "I'd like you to have a grip on me this time, too. "

  He wrapped his arms around her. She circled his neck. For a moment they stood, lips a breath apart while her system shivered with anticipation.

  Mouths brushed, retreated, brushed again. It was she who moaned, she who crushed her lips to his on a hot spurt of hunger.

  She hadn't let herself want. Even when he'd stirred those dormant needs to life, she'd been careful not to want. Until now.

  She wanted the strength of him, the press of that hard, male body. She wanted the ripe flavor of him and the heat.

  The silky dance of tongues, the teasing nip of teeth, the edgy thrill of feeling a heart pound against her own. She let out a little gasp of pleasure when he changed the angle of the kiss.

  And dived in again.

  She set off aches in him that throbbed like pulse beats. Quiet sounds of need hummed in her th
roat and burned in his blood. Her skin was like hot satin, and the feel of it under his hands sent erotic images through his brain-desires, demands that belonged to the dark.

  Dimly he heard another rocket burst, and the shouts of approval from the beach behind them.

  He could have her inside her cottage in two minutes. Naked and under him in three.

  "Nell. " Breathless, churning toward desperate, he broke the kiss.

  And she smiled at him. Her eyes were dark, filled with trust and pleasure.

  "Nell," he said again, and lowered his forehead to hers. There were times when you took, he knew. And times when you waited. "I've got to make my rounds. "

  "All right. "

  He picked up her bag, handed it to her. "You'll come back?"

  "Yes. I'll come back. " She was floating on air as she spun around and headed for her cottage.

 
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