Heaven and earth, p.7
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       Heaven and Earth, p.7
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         Part #2 of Three Sisters Island series by Nora Roberts  

  “Since you opened back up to help me,” Nell finished quietly. She rose at the buzz of the oven timer.

  “I don’t regret that, Nell, not for an instant. It was my choice, and I’d do it again. It’s just that it’s been harder to lock everything down again. I don’t know why—”

  Wouldn’t admit why, she thought, and ground that thought to dust. “It just is. I caused physical harm. I had to fix it, but that doesn’t make up for causing it.”

  “How did he deal with it?”

  “Like it was no big deal. Got me a glass of water, practically patted me on the head and went back to conversation like I’d done nothing more than spill some wine on the tablecloth. The man’s gotcajones , I’ll give him that.”

  Nell walked back, stroked Ripley’s hair as she might have stroked a child. “You’re too hard on yourself. I can’t even count the mistakes I’ve made in the past few months, even with Mia guiding me step by step.”

  “It’s not a good time to bring her name up.” Ripley leaned over again, began to eat as if the food would ease the clenching in her stomach. “If she hadn’t brought him here—”

  “She didn’t bring him, Ripley.” The faint but unmistakable edge of impatience in Nell’s voice had Ripley hunching her shoulders. “And if she hadn’t rented him the cottage, he’d have found another, or stayed at the hotel. Did it ever occur to you that by renting him her cottage, by agreeing to talk to him, she controls the situation to an extent that she couldn’t otherwise?”

  Ripley opened her mouth, shut it again. “No, it didn’t. It should have. She never misses a trick.”

  “I’m going to talk to him, too.”

  The spoon clattered into the bowl. “That’s just a bad idea. All-round bad idea.”

  “I’ve thought about it. He’s promised Mia that he won’t use real names without permission. I’m interested in his work,” she continued, scooping cookies off the tray and onto the cooling rack. “I’d like to know more about it myself. I don’t have the same feelings for what I am as you do.”

  “I can’t tell you what to do.” But Ripley would make certain Mac didn’t push too hard, or in the wrong direction. “How does Zack feel about it?”

  “He’s left it up to me. He trusts me, respects me. That’s every bit as wonderful as knowing he loves me. I’m not worried about Dr. Booke.”

  “He’s sneakier than he looks,” Ripley muttered. “He sort of lulls you into thinking he’s like this harmless puppy dog. But he’s not.”

  “What is he?”

  “Smart, slick. Oh, he’s got those puppy-dog qualities in there, and the combination throws you off. One minute he’s looking around with that lost look, wondering where he put his head last time he took it off. And the next . . .”

  Nell sat again. “And the next?”

  “He kissed me.”

  Nell’s fingertips tapped together before she laced them. “Really?”

  “It was supposed to be like a joke. Guy has to walk you to the door like you’re coming back from prom night. Then he just sort of . . .” She trailed off as she tried to mime the way his arms had slid around her. “And you know, reeled me in. Taking his time about it, and everything got blurry and hot. Then it was like being gulped down, slow.”

  “Oh, my.”

  “I didn’t have any bones left, so I was just, like, fused against him while he’s doing all these incredible things to my mouth.” She blew out a breath, sucked another in. “I’ve kissed a lot of men, and I’m damn good at it. But I couldn’t keep up.”

  “Wow. Well.” Nell scooted her chair an inch closer. “What happened next?”

  “I walked into the door.” Ripley cringed. “It was mortifying. I walked right into the door.Blap. And Dr. Romeo just politely opens it for me. It’s the first time a kiss ever made me feel like an idiot, and it’s going to be the last.”

  “If you’re attracted to him—”

  “He’s cute, he’s built, he’s sexy, of course I’m attracted to him.” Ripley gave a quick shake of her head. “But that’s not the issue. He shouldn’t have been able to dissolve my brain with one kiss. The problem is I haven’t been going out in a while. It’s been more than four months since I had, you know. . . .”

  “Ripley.” Nell gave a quick laugh.

  “I figure this was just like, I don’t know, spontaneous combustion or something. He’s got good moves, boom. Now that I know what’s up, I can handle it.”

  Feeling better, she polished off the oatmeal. “I can handle him.”

  Mac browsed thebookstore, flipping pages, scanning covers. He’d already acquired and read material on Three Sisters, but there were a couple of books here he’d yet to come across.

  He tucked them under his arm and continued to wander.

  The store had a nice eclectic selection. He found a pretty volume of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’sSonnets from the Portuguese ; the latest in a vampire hunter series he liked; two books on local sites, flora and fauna; and a handbook for solitary witches. And two other books on the paranormal to replace those he’d misplaced. . . somewhere.

  Then there was a really cool Arthurian Tarot deck.

  Not that he collected them or anything.

  Never one to miss an opportunity to indulge in books, he took them all. They would, he thought, entertain him in his free time and give him the opening he wanted to talk to Lulu.

  He carried the books to the checkout counter, offered his most innocent smile. “Terrific bookstore. You don’t expect to see this kind of selection in a small town.”

  “Lots of things around here people don’t expect.” Lulu glared at him over the top of her glasses to let him know she’d yet to make up her mind about him. “Cash or charge?”

  “Uh, charge.” He dug out his wallet, tilted his head to see the title of the book she’d been reading.Serial Killers: Their Hearts, Their Minds. Oh, boy. “How’s the book?”

  “Too much psychobabble, not enough blood. Intellectual types don’t cut much mustard.”

  “A lot of intellectual types don’t get out in the world enough. Too much classroom, not enough fieldwork.” He leaned companionably on the counter, as if she were handing him roses instead of thorns. “Did you know one theory is Jack the Ripper had preternatural powers, and while his period in London was the first documented case of serial killing, he’d lived before, and killed before, in Rome, Gaul, Brittany.”

  She continued to watch him over the top of her glasses as she rang up the books. “I don’t hold with that.”

  “Me, either. But it makes a good story.The Ripper—Murder Through Time. The way I read it, he was the first to use the hornless goat—human sacrifice,” he explained when Lulu’s eyes narrowed—“in ritual magic. Black magic. Very black.”

  “Is that what you’re looking for around here? Blood sacrifices?”

  “No, ma’am. Wicca uses no blood sacrifice. The white witch harms none.”

  “Lulu. Don’t call me ma’am.” She sniffed at him. “Pretty clever, aren’t you?”

  “Yeah. Sometimes it irritates people.”

  “You’re barking up the wrong tree with me, pretty boy. I’m not a witch.”

  “No, you just raised one. It must’ve been interesting watching Mia grow up. And Ripley.” He began to shuffle his purchases idly. “They’re about the same age, aren’t they?”

  Yes, she thought. Very clever boy. “What of it?”

  “You know how it is with intellectual types. We’re full of questions. I’d like to interview you, if Mia doesn’t mind.”

  Caution warred with delight. “What for?”

  “Call it human interest. Most people don’t understand the ordinary, the everyday pattern of an extraordinary woman. Even if they open their minds to the extraordinary they tend to think there’s no usual, no simple. No math homework, or getting grounded for coming in after curfew, or having someone’s shoulder to lean on.”

  Lulu swiped the credit card he handed her. “Have you got personal de
signs on Mia?”

  “No. But I sure like looking at her.”

  “I don’t have time to talk to some college boy for his term paper.”

  Mac signed the credit slip without, Lulu noted, looking at the total. “I’ll pay you.”

  She heard the faint sound—ca-ching—in the back of her mind. “How much?”

  “Fifty an hour.”

  “What, are you stupid?”

  “No. Loaded.”

  Shaking her head, Lulu handed him his sack of books. “I’ll think about it.”

  “Okay. Thanks.”

  When he walked out, she shook her head again. Pay her to talk. Could you beat that?

  She was still wondering over it when Mia glided down the stairs. “Too quiet in here today, Lu. I think I’m going to run a cookbook sale upstairs, get people in. Nell could make some samples from some of the books.”

  “Whatever. College Boy was just in.”

  “Who? Oh.” Mia handed Lulu the cup of tea she’d brought her from the café. “The interesting and yummy MacAllister Booke.”

  “Shelled out over a hundred fifty for books without batting an eye.”

  Mia’s businesswoman’s heart went pitty-pat. “Bless him.”

  “Looks like he can afford it. He offered me fifty an hour to talk to him.”

  “Really?” Sipping her own tea, Mia lifted an eyebrow. She knew Lulu had an ongoing love affair with profit, an affection she’d learned at Lulu’s knobby knee. “I should’ve charged him more rent. What does he want to talk to you about?”

  “You. Said it was like human interest. How many times I had to swat your butt when you were growing up, that sort of thing.”

  “I don’t think we need refer back to the unfortunate incidents of butt-swatting,” Mia said dryly. “But this is interestingand unexpected. I’d thought he’d be pestering and pressuring me to discuss and demonstrate. Instead he’s letting all that sit to one side and offering you a consultant fee to discuss my formative years.”

  She tapped a fingertip on her bottom lip. Both were painted bold red. “Very clever of him.”

  “He admitted he was, and that it irritated some people.”

  “I’m not irritated. I’m intrigued, which is just what he’d hoped for, I imagine.”

  “Claims he doesn’t have any designs on you of a personal nature.”

  “Now, I’m insulted.” With a laugh, Mia kissed Lulu’s cheek. “Still watching out for me?”

  “You could do worse than take a look in his direction. He’s polite, rich, and has brains—and he’s not tough to look at.”

  “He’s not for me.” With a little sigh, she rested her cheek on Lulu’s hair. “I’d know if he was.”

  Lulu started to speak, then kept her tongue still, hooked an arm around Mia’s waist.

  “I’m not thinking of Samuel Logan,” Mia said, though she had been. The only man who’d ever held her heart. The only man who’d ever crushed it. “I’m just not romantically attracted to the interesting, clever, and yummy Dr. Booke. Are you going to talk to him?”

  “Depends.”

  “If you’re worried that I have an objection, I don’t. I can protect myself if I need protecting. And I won’t, not from him.”

  There was something else, something not quite clear, that slithered around the edges of home. But it didn’t come from MacAllister Booke.

  She drew away, picked up her tea again. “In fact, I may agree to talk to him myself. Fifty dollars an hour.” She let out a low, delighted laugh. “Fascinating.”

  Loaded down withportable equipment, Mac plowed through the snow piled on the floor of the narrow forest beside his cottage. The police report and the newspaper stories he’d read cited this as the place Nell had run to when Evan Remington attacked her and Zack Todd.

  He’d already completed scans of the kitchen area, the site of the attack. He’d found no negative energy there, no remnants of violence. Which had surprised him until he’d reasoned out that either Nell or Mia would have cleansed the house.

  He hoped to find something in the woods.

  The air was still and cold. Ice gleamed on the dark trunks and branches of trees. Snow lay on them like fur.

  He saw, and was charmed by, what he recognized as deer tracks, and automatically checked his camera to be certain he’d loaded film.

  He passed a little brook where trickles of water forced their way over rocks and ice. Though his gauges didn’t register any anomaly, he felt something. It took him a moment to realize it was simply peace. Simply pleasure.

  A bird called, flashed by like a bullet. Mac just stood, happy and content. It feltgood here, he thought. A place where the mind could be quiet. A place for picnics or contemplation.

  With some reluctance, he continued to walk, but promised himself he would come back and just enjoy.

  He wandered, and though he hated to spoil the mood, he tried to imagine what it had been like to run, fleeing in the dark from a man bent on violence. A man armed with a knife already bloody.

  Bastard, he thought. The bastard had hunted her down. A rabid wolf after a doe. Because he could. Because he would rather have seen her dead than free of him. Prepared to swipe the knife over her throat rather than lose what he considered his possession.

  Fury raged in him, hot, roiling fury. He could almost smell the blood, the hate. The fear. Steeped in it, he needed several moments to realize that his sensors were going wild.

  “Jesus!” He jolted back, shook himself, and was abruptly the cool-headed scientist again.

  “Here. Right here.”

  He swept with scanners, dragging out his tape recorder, muttering data into it. He paced off the area, using another gauge to measure distance, radius, diameter. Down on his knees in the snow, he recorded, calculated, documented. Considered, while the numbers and needles on his tools swung wildly.

  “Highest charge, almost pure positive energy encompasses an area of twelve feet, in a perfect circle. Most rites of paranormal origin involve protective circles. This is the most powerful I’ve found.”

  Pocketing his tools, he used his hands to dig, to clear. A light sweat covered his back before he uncovered a reasonable portion of the energy circle.

  “There are no markings under the snow. No symbols. I’ll need to come back with a shovel to clear the entire circle. If this was made on the night Evan Remington was arrested, it was cast more than two months ago and would have been ritualistically closed on that same night. Yet there is a positive echo registering a steady six-point-two on my scale.”

  Six-point-two! His mind leaped at the data. Hot dog!

  “My previous experience, with an active circle during an initiation rite, registered no more than five-eight. Check those data.”

  He got to his feet again, snow clinging everywhere as he took photographs. He dropped his tape recorder, cursed, and spent some time scooping it out of a pile of snow, then worrying that he’d damaged it.

  But nothing could diminish the thrill. He stood in the silent wood and wondered if he had stumbled across the heart of the Sisters.

  An hour later,without bothering to go back to the cottage, Mac was trudging along the snowy beach. The tide had moved in, moved out and swallowed some of the snow with it. But the damp and the cold had packed what remained like bricks in a wall.

  The air was far from still here, shivering in from the sea in icy streams. Despite the layers he wore, his fingers and toes were beginning to feel it.

  He thought idly about a steaming-hot shower, steaming-hot coffee, as he examined the area where he remembered seeing the woman on his first night on the island.

  “What the hell are you doing?”

  He looked up and saw Ripley standing at the seawall. And was mildly embarrassed that looking at her turned his thoughts, immediately, to steaming-hot sex.

  “Working. How about you?”

  She set her hands on her hips. He couldn’t see her eyes, as she wore dark glasses. It made him wish he’d remembered h
is own, for the sun bouncing off the snow was blinding.

  “Working at what? Becoming the Abominable Snowman?”

  “The yeti isn’t indigenous to this part of the world.”

  “Take a look at yourself, Booke.”

  He did, glancing down. He was, indeed, covered with snow. It was, he knew, going to be a damn mess when he peeled everything off for that shower. “I guess I’m really into my work.” He shrugged.

  Since it didn’t appear that she would come to him, he started toward her. It wasn’t an easy process, and he managed to find a couple of snowdrifts that hit above his knees. But he trudged to the seawall, hitched himself up on it, and caught his breath.

  “Ever hear of frostbite?” she said dryly.

  “I can still feel my toes, but thanks for thinking of me. How about some coffee?”

  “I don’t happen to have any on me.”

  “Buy you a cup.”

  “I’m working.”

  “Maybe I do have frostbite.” He turned his head and sent her a soulful look. “Wouldn’t it be your duty as a civil servant to assist me to a warm and sheltered location?”

  “No, but I’ll call the health clinic.”

  “Okay, strike one.” He swung over the wall, remembering in the nick of time to protect his dangling camera, and stood beside her. “Where are you headed?”

  “Why?”

  “I thought wherever it was, there’d be coffee.”

  She sighed. He looked frozen and ridiculously adorable. “All right, come on. I’m heading in, anyway.”

  “Didn’t see you at the gym this morning.”

  “I got a late start.”

  “Didn’t see you around the village either.”

  “You’re seeing me now.”

  She had a long stride, he noted. He barely had to check his to keep pace with her.

  She stopped in front of the station house, took a good look at him. “Stomp that snow off your boots.”

  He obeyed, sent a little flurry of snow from his coat and pants.

  “Oh, for God’s sake. Turn around.” She slapped and brushed at the snow that clung to him, scowling as she worked her way around to the front. Then her eyes flicked up, caught his grin.

  “What are you smiling at?”

  “Maybe I just like being handled. Want me to do you?”

  “You’ll watch your step if you want that coffee.” She shoved the door open and was bitterly disappointed that Zack wasn’t in.

  She peeled off her gloves, her coat, unwinding her neck scarf as he did the same. “What the hell were you doing crawling around in the snow?”

  “Do you really want to know?”

  “I guess I don’t.” She walked to the coffeepot, poured the last of the thick brew into two cups.

  “I’ll tell you anyway. I was in the woods earlier, and found the area where you . . . dealt with Remington that night.”

 
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