in it, in her control over it. As she bent from the waist, the ski cap that she’d tugged on fell to the sand and her hair, the color of varnished oak, tumbled free.
She called the storm.
The gales of wind, the bolts of lightning, the rage of the sea that was both prison and protection. She called the forces, those that lived within her, those that dwelled without. The bright and the dark.
Slender, with her cloak streaming back like bird-wings, she stood alone on the wind-whipped beach. Alone but for her rage and her grief. And her power. It was that power that filled her now, rushed inside her in wild, pounding strokes like a lover gone mad.
And so, perhaps, it was.
She had left husband and children to come to this place, left them under a spell-sleep that would keep them safe and unaware. Once she had done what she had come to do, she could never go back to them. She would never again hold their much-loved faces in her hands.
Her husband would grieve for her, and her children weep. But she could not go back to them. And she could not, would not, turn from the path she had chosen.
Payment must be made. And justice, however rough, would be met at last.
She stood, arms outflung in the tempest she had conjured. Her hair flew free and wild, dark ribbons that slashed at the night like whips.
“You must not do this thing.”
A woman appeared beside her, burning as bright in the storm as the fire after which she was named. Her face was pale, her eyes dark with what might have been fear.
“It is already begun.”
“Stop it now. Sister, stop before it is too late. You have no right.”
“Right?” She who was called Earth whirled, her eyes glowing fierce. “Who has better right? When they murdered the innocents in Salem Town, persecuted and hunted and hanged, we did nothing to stop it.”
“Stop one flood, cause another. You know this. We made this place.” Fire stretched out her arms, as if to encompass the island that rocked in the sea. “For our safety and our survival, for our Craft.”
“Safety? You can speak of safety, of survival, now? Our sister isdead. ”
“And I grieve for her, as you do.” Pleading, she crossed her hands between her breasts. “My heart weeps as yours weeps. Her children are in our keeping now. Will you abandon them as well as your own?”
There was a madness in her, tearing at her heart as the wind tore at her hair. Even recognizing it, she could not defeat it. “He will not go unpunished. He will not live while she does not.”
“If you cause harm, you’ll have broken your vows. You will have corrupted your power, and what you send out in the night will come back to you threefold.”
“Justice has a price.”
“Not this. Never this. Your husband will lose a wife, your children a mother. And I another beloved sister. More, even more than that, you break faith with what we are. She would not have wanted this. This would not have been her answer.”
“She died rather than protect herself. Died for what she is, for what we are. Our sister abjured power for what she called love. And it killed her.”
“Her choice.” One that stayed bitter in the throat long after it was swallowed. “And still she harmed none. Do this thing, use your gift in this dark way, and you doom yourself. You doom us all.”
“I cannot live, hidden here.” There were tears in her eyes now, and in the storm-light, they burned red as blood. “I cannot turn from this. My choice. My destiny. I take his life for hers, and damn him for all time.”
And calling for vengeance, shooting it like a bright and deadly arrow from a bow, she who was known as Earth sacrificed her soul.
Sand, frosted withcold, crunched under her feet as she ran along the curving shore. Incoming waves left froth and bubbles lying on the crusted surface like tattered lace. Overhead, the gulls called, relentlessly.
Her muscles had warmed, and moved fluid as oiled gears in the second mile of her morning run. Her pace was a fast and disciplined jog, and her breath rushed out in white plumes. And rushed in, sharp and cold as shards of ice.
She felt fabulous.
The wintry beach held no footprints but her own, and hers were stamped, new over old, as she jogged back and forth across the gentle sweep of winter beach.
If she’d chosen to do her three miles in one straight line, she could have crossed Three Sisters from side to side at its widest point.
The idea of that always pleased her.
The little clump of land off the coast of Massachusetts was hers, every hill, every street, every cliff and inlet. Deputy Ripley Todd felt more than affection for Three Sisters, its village, its residents, its well-being. She felt responsibility.
She could see the rising sun glint against the windows of storefronts on High Street. In a couple of hours, the shops would open, people would walk along the streets going about the day’s business.
There wasn’t much of a tourist trade in January, but some would come over from the mainland on the ferry, poke about in the shops, drive up to the cliffs, buy some fresh fish right off the docks. For the most part, though, the winter was for islanders.
She loved the winter best.
At the end of the beach, where it bumped the edge of the seawall just below the village, she pivoted and headed back across the sand. Fishing boats plied an ocean that was the color of pale blue ice. It would change as the light strengthened, as the sky deepened. It never failed to fascinate her how many colors water could hold.
She saw Carl Macey’s boat, and a figure, tiny as a toy in the stern, raised a hand. She saluted back, kept running. With under three thousand islanders year-round, it wasn’t hard to know who was who.
She slowed her pace a bit, not only to cool down but to prolong the solitude. She often took her morning runs with her brother’s dog, Lucy, but this morning she had slipped out alone.
Alone was another thing she liked best.
And she’d wanted to clear her mind. There was a great deal to think about. Some of which she preferred not to, so she tucked those annoyances and problems away for now. What had to be dealt with wasn’t precisely a problem. You couldn’t call something that made you happy a problem.
Her brother was just back from his honeymoon, and nothing could have pleased her more than to see how happy he and Nell were together. After all they’d been through, and what it had nearly cost, seeing them cozied up together in the house where she and Zack had grown up was pure satisfaction.
And over the past months, since summer, when Nell had ended her flight from fear on the island, they’d become real friends. It was a pleasure to see the way Nell had bloomed, and toughened.
But all that mushy stuff aside, Ripley thought, there was one little blight on the rose. And its name was Ripley Karen Todd.
Newlyweds didn’t need to share their love nest with the groom’s sister.
She hadn’t given the matter a thought before the wedding, and even after, when she’d waved them both off for a week in Bermuda, she hadn’t seen the whole picture.
But when they’d returned, all snuggling and flushed with a honeymoon haze, it couldn’t have been more clear.
Just-marrieds needed privacy. They could hardly have hot, spontaneous sex on the living room floor if she might stroll into the house any time of the day or night.
Not that either of them had said anything about it. But they wouldn’t. The pair of them might as well wear we’re-nice-people merit badges plastered on their chests. And that, Ripley thought, was something she would never be pinning on her own shirt.
She stopped, used the outcropping of rocks at the far end of the beach for support as she stretched out calves, hamstrings, quadriceps.
Her body was as lean and toned as a young tiger’s. She took pride
She wore it long because it didn’t require regular trims and styling that way. It was just another type of control.
Her eyes were a sharp bottle green. When she was in the mood she might fuss with mascara and eyeliner. After considerable debate, she’d decided her eyes were the best part of a face made up of mismatched features and angular lines.
She had a slight overbite because she’d despised her retainer. And she had the wide forehead and nearly horizontal dark eyebrows of the Ripley side of the family.
No one would have accused her of being pretty. It was too soft a word—and would have insulted her in any case. She preferred knowing it was a strong and sexy face. The kind that could attract men. When she was in the mood for one.
Which she hadn’t been, she mused, for several months.
Part of that was wedding plans, holiday plans, the time she’d spent helping Zack and Nell unwind legal tangles so they could be married. And another part, she was forced to admit, was her own sense of annoyance and unease that lingered from Halloween, when she’d ripped open pockets in herself that she had purposely sewn shut years before.
Couldn’t be helped, she thought now. She’d done what needed to be done. And had no intention of a repeat performance. No matter how many cool, smirky glances Mia Devlin shot her way.
The thought of Mia brought Ripley back full circle.
Mia had an empty cottage. Nell had rented it, then moved out when she married Zack. As much as Ripley hated the idea of having any sort of dealings, even straight business, with Mia, the yellow cottage was the perfect solution.
It was small, private, simple.
It just made sense, Ripley decided and started up the worn wooden steps that zagged from the beach toward the house. It was irritating, but it was practical. Still, maybe it wouldn’t hurt if she took a few days, let the word out that she was looking for a place to rent. Something—something that didn’t belong to Mia—might drop in her lap.
Cheered by the possibility, Ripley bounded up the steps, jogged to the back porch.
Nell would already be baking, she knew, just as she knew the kitchen would smell like heaven. The biggest advantage was that she wouldn’t have to hunt up breakfast. It would just be there. Delicious, delightful, and on demand.
As she reached for the doorknob, she saw, through the glass, Zack and Nell. They were wrapped around each other, she thought, like ivy on a flagpole. Wrapped around each otherand wrapped up in each other.
Hissing out a breath, she backtracked, then came back up on the porch stomping like a horse and whistling. It would give them time to peel themselves off each other. At least, she hoped it would.
But it didn’t solve her other problem. She was going to have to deal with Mia, after all.
She was goingto keep it casual. To Ripley’s way of thinking, if Mia knew she really wanted the yellow cottage, she would refuse to rent it.
The woman was so damn contrary.
Of course, the very best way to lock in the deal would be to ask Nell to run interference. Mia had a soft spot for Nell. But the idea of using anyone to clear the path was galling. She would just casually drop in at Mia’s bookstore, the way she had almost every day since Nell had taken over the cooking and baking for the café section.
That way she could cop a righteous lunch and new digs all in one swipe.
She walked briskly along High Street, more because she wanted the business over and done than because the wind was up and blowing. It tugged playfully at the long, straight tail of hair that she habitually yanked through the opening in the back of her cap.
When she reached Café Book she paused, pursed her lips.
Mia had redone the display window. A little tasseled footstool, a soft throw of deep red, and a pair of tall candlestands with fat red candles were arranged with seemingly haphazard piles of books. Because she knew Mia never did anything in a haphazard fashion, Ripley had to admit the whole tone was one of homey warmth and welcome. And subtly—very subtly—sexy.
It’s cold out, the window announced. Come on in and buy some books to take home and snuggle up with.
Whatever else Ripley could say about Mia—and she could say plenty—the woman knew her business.
She stepped inside into warmth, automatically unwinding her neck scarf. The deep-blue shelves were lined with books, parlor-tidy. Glass displays held pretty trinkets and intriguing dust catchers. The fireplace was simmering with a low golden flame, and another throw, blue this time, was tossed artfully over one of the deep, sink-into-me chairs.
Yeah, she thought, Mia knew her stuff.
There was more. Other shelves held candles of various shapes and sizes. Deep bowls were filled with tumbling stones and crystals. Colorful boxes of Tarot cards and runes were tucked here and there.
All very subtle again, Ripley noted with a frown. Mia didn’t advertise that the place was owned by a witch, but she didn’t hide it either. Ripley imagined the curiosity factor—both tourist and local—accounted for a healthy chunk of the store’s annual profits.
None of her business.
From behind the big carved counter, Mia’s head clerk, Lulu, finished ringing up a customer’s purchases, then tipped down her silver-framed glasses to peer at Ripley over the top of them.
“Looking for something for your mind as well as your belly today?”
“No. I’ve got plenty to occupy my mind.”
“Read more, know more.”
Ripley grinned. “I already know everything.”
“Always thought you did, anyway. Got a novelty book in this week’s shipment that’s right up your alley.101 Pick-Up Lines —unisex.”
“Lu.” Ripley gave her a cocky grin as she strolled to the stairs leading to the shop’s second level. “I wrote the book.”
Lulu cackled. “Haven’t seen you keeping company just recently,” she called out.
“I haven’t felt like company just recently.”
There were more books on the second floor, and more browsers poking through them. But here, the café was the big draw. Already Ripley could scent the soup of the day, something rich and spicy.
The early crowd, which would have snagged Nell’s muffins and turnovers or whatever treat she’d dreamed up for the day had shifted to the lunch crowd. On a day like this, Ripley imagined they’d be looking for something hot and hearty, before they treated themselves to one of Nell’s sinful desserts.
She scanned the display and sighed. Cream puffs. Nobody in their right mind walked away from cream puffs, even if the other choices were equally tempting éclairs, tarts, cookies, and what looked to be a cake made up of many layers of pure gooey sin.
The artist behind the temptations rang up an order. Her eyes were a deep and clear blue, her hair a short gold halo around a face that glowed with health and well-being. Dimples flashed in her cheeks as she smiled and waved her customer off to one of the café tables arranged by the window.
Marriage, Ripley thought, agreed with some people. Nell Channing Todd was one of them.
“You look pretty bouncy today,” Ripley commented.
“Feel great. The day’s just flying by. Soup of the day’s minestrone, sandwich is—”
“I’m just doing soup,” Ripley interrupted. “Because I need one of the cream puffs to ensure my happiness. I’ll take coffee with it.”
“Coming up. I’m baking a ham for dinner tonight,” she added. “So no grabbing pizza before you come home.”
“Yeah, okay. Sure.” It reminded Ripley of the second stage of business. She shifted her feet, gave the room another sweeping glance. “I didn’t see Mia around anywhere.”
“Working in her office.” Nell ladled up soup, added a crusty roll baked fresh that morning. “I expect she’ll breeze through shortly. You were in and out of the house so fast this mo
rning I didn’t get to talk to you. Something up?”
“No, not up.” Maybe it was rude to arrange for alternate living arrangements without saying something first. Ripley wondered if this fell into the area of social skills, a tricky business for her.
“Will I be in your way if I chow down in the kitchen?” she asked Nell. “That way I can talk to you while you work.”
“Sure. Come on back.”
Nell carried the food over to her worktable. “Are you sure nothing’s wrong?”
“Not a thing,” Ripley assured her. “Bitchy cold out. I bet you and Zack are sorry you didn’t stay south until spring.”
“The honeymoon was perfect.” Even thinking of it brought on a warm, satisfied glow. “But it’s better being home.” Nell opened the refrigerator for the container holding one of the day’s salads. “Everything I want is here. Zack, family, friends, a home of my own. A year ago I’d never have believed I’d be standing here like this, knowing that in an hour or so I’d be going home.”
“You earned it.”
“I did.” Nell’s eyes darkened, and in them Ripley could see the core of strength—a core that everyone, including Nell, had underestimated. “But I didn’t do it alone.” The brightding of the counter bell warned her she had a customer waiting. “Don’t let your soup get cold.”
She slipped out, her voice lifting in greeting.
Ripley spooned up soup and sighed with contentment at the first taste. She would just concentrate on her lunch and think about the rest later.
But she’d barely made a dent in the bowl when she heard Nell call Mia’s name.
“Ripley’s in the kitchen. I think she wanted to see you.”
Shit, shit,shit ! Ripley scowled into her soup and got busy filling her mouth.
“Well, well, make yourself at home.”
Mia Devlin, her gypsy mane of red hair tumbling over the shoulders of a long dress of forest green, leaned gracefully against the doorjamb. Her face was a miracle formed of high, ice-edged cheekbones, a full, sculpted mouth painted as boldly red as her hair, skin smooth as cream, and eyes gray as witch-smoke.
Those eyes looked Ripley over lazily, one brow lifted in a perfect and derisive arch.
“I am.” Ripley continued to eat. “I figure it’s Nell’s kitchen this time of day. If I thought otherwise, I’d be searching my soup for wool of bat or dragon’s teeth.”
“And it’s so hard to come by dragon’s teeth this time of year. What can I do for you, Deputy?”
“Not a thing. But I did give some passing thought to doing something for you.”
“Now I’m all agog.” Tall and slim, she moved to the table and sat. She was wearing those needle-thin heels she was so fond of, Ripley noticed. She could never figure out why anyone would put her innocent feet in such torture chambers without a gun being held to her head.
She broke off another piece of her roll, munched. “You lost yourself a tenant when Nell and Zack tied the knot. I figured you hadn’t gotten around to doing anything about renting out the yellow cottage, and since I’m thinking about getting my own place, maybe I can help you out.”
“Do tell.” Intrigued, Mia broke off a bite of Ripley’s roll for herself.
“Hey, I’m paying for that.”
Ignoring her, Mia nibbled. “A little too crowded for you at the homestead?”
“It’s a big house.” Ripley gave a careless shrug, then moved the rest of her roll out of reach. “But you happen to have one going empty. It’s a pretty dinky place, but I don’t need much. I’d be willing to negotiate a lease on it.”
“A lease on what?” Nell swung back in, straight to the fridge to get out the makings for a sandwich order.
“The yellow cottage,” Mia told her. “Ripley’s looking for a place of her own.”