Dance Upon the Air
Author:Nora Roberts



Chapter Five
It went pretty much as Zack had expected. The Hickman kid had to flex his muscles. The other three had folded, and Zack expected Carl to get his money from them the next morning. But Hickman had to prove he was smarter, braver, and far superior to some dinky island sheriff.

From his place on the dock, Zack watched the rented boat putt along toward the lobster traps. He was already on the wrong side of the law, Zack mused, nibbling on sunflower seeds. Boating after dark without running lights. That would cost him.

But it was nothing to the grand that the little defiance was going to cost the college boy's father.

He expected the kid was going to give him some trouble when he hauled him in. Which meant they'd both be spending a few hours in the station house that night. One of them behind bars.

Well, lessons learned, Zack decided, lowering his binoculars and reaching down for his flashlight as the boy began to haul up a pot.

The scream was high and girlish, and gave Zack a hell of a jolt. He switched on his light, shot the bright beam of it across the water. A light fog crept over the surface, so that the boat seemed to bob in smoke. The boy stood, the trap gripped in both hands, the look on his face as he stared into it one of sheer horror.

Before Zack could call out, the boy flung the trap high and wide. Even as it splashed into the water, he was tumbling in.

"Oh, well, hell," Zack muttered, peeved at the prospect of ending his workday soaking wet. He stepped to the end of the dock, scooped up a life preserver. The kid was doing more screaming than swimming, but he was making some progress toward shore.

"Here you go, Steve." Zack tossed the preserver in. "Head this way. I don't want to have to come in after you."

"Help me." The boy flailed, swallowed water, choked. But he managed to grab the flotation. "They're eating my face!"

"Almost there." Zack knelt down, held out a hand. "Come on up. You're still in one piece."

"My head! My head!" Steve slipped and slithered onto the dock, then lay there on his belly, shuddering. "I saw my head in the trap. They were eating my face!"

"Your head's still on your shoulders, son." Zack hunkered down. "Catch your breath. Had yourself a hallucination, that's all. Been drinking a bit, haven't you? That, and some guilt got to you."

"I saw... I saw." He sat up, laid shaking hands on his face to make certain all his parts were there, then began to shake in stupendous relief.

"Fog, dark, water. It's a tricky kind of situation, especially on a couple bottles of beer. You're going to feel a lot better when you give Carl that forty dollars. In fact, why don't we go get you cleaned up, get your wallet, and go by his place now? You'll sleep better for it."

"Yeah. Sure. Right. Okay."

"That's fine." Zack helped him to his feet. "I'll take care of getting the boat back, don't you worry."

That Mia, Zack thought as he led the unprotesting boy away from the water. You had to give her credit for creativity.

***

It took a while to calm the boy down, then to calm four boys down once he'd taken Steve back to the rental. Then there was Carl to deal with, and the boat. Which was probably why Zack ended up nodding off at the station house just before three A.M.

He woke two hours later, stiff as a board and annoyed with himself. Ripley, he decided as he stumbled out to his cruiser, was taking the first shift.

He meant to drive straight home, but he'd gotten into the habit of swinging past the yellow cottage at the end of his shift. Just to make sure everything was as it should be.

He made the turn before he realized it, and saw the lights in her windows. Concern as much as curiosity made him pull over and get out of the car.

Because the kitchen light was on, he went to the back door. He was lifting his hand to knock when he saw her standing on the other side of the screen, a long, smooth-bladed knife gripped in both hands.

"If I tell you I was just in the neighborhood, you won't gut me with that, will you?"

Her hands began to tremble, and her breath exploded out of her as she dropped the knife on the table with a clatter.

"I'm sorry I scared you. I saw your light as I was... hey, hey." When she swayed, he bolted through the door, gripping both her arms and lowering her into a chair. "Sit. Breathe. Head down. Jesus, Nell. I'm sorry." He stroked her hair, patted her back, and wondered whether she would just keel over on the floor if he jumped up to get her a glass of water.

"It's all right. I'm all right. I heard the footsteps. In the dark. It's so quiet here, you can hear everything, and I heard you coming toward the house."

She'd wanted to run like a rabbit in the other direction and keep going. She didn't remember picking up the knife, hadn't known she could.

"I'm going to get you some water."

"No, I'm all right." Mortified now, she realized, but all right. "I just wasn't expecting anyone to come to the door."

"Guess not. It's still shy of five-thirty." He sat back on his heels when she lifted her head again. Color was coming back, he noted with relief. "What're you doing up?"

"I'm usually up by-" She jumped like a spring as the oven timer buzzed. "God! God!" With a half laugh she pounded a fist on her heart. "I'm going to be lucky to survive till sunrise at this rate. My muffins," she said and got up quickly to take them out of the oven, slide the next batch in.

"I didn't realize you started so early."

He could see, now that he looked around, that she'd been at it a while. There was something simmering on the stove and smelling like glory. A huge bowl of batter sat on the counter. Another bowl, covered with a cloth, was beside the stove. Still one more was on the table, where she'd obviously been mixing something before he'd scared ten years off her life.

Ingredients were lined up, as organized as a marching band.

"I didn't realize you worked so late." She calmed herself by cutting shortening into the flour for her pastry dough.

"I don't usually. I had a little project to finish up last night, and when it was all said and done, dropped off in my office chair. Nell, if you don't give me a cup of that coffee I'm going to start crying. It'll embarrass us both."

"Oh. Sorry. Um."

"You just keep on with what you're doing there. Cups?"

"Cabinet to the right of the sink."

"Want me to top yours off?"

"I suppose."

He poured a cup, filled hers as it sat by the sink. "You know, I don't think these muffins look quite right."

With the bowl tucked in the crook of her arm, she turned. Her face was a study of alarm and insult. "What do you mean?"

"Just don't look quite the thing. Why don't you let me test one for you?" He gave her a quick, boyish grin that had her lips twitching.

"Oh, for heaven's sake. Why don't you just ask for one?"

"More fun this way. No, don't bother. I can get it myself." He plucked one out of the pan, burned the tips of his fingers. As he tossed the muffin from hand to hand to cool it, the scent told him it was going to be worth it. "I've sure got a soft spot for your blueberry muffins, Nell."

"Mr. Bigelow, Lancefort Bigelow, prefers my cream puffs. He said if I'd make them for him every day, he'd marry me and we'd move to Bimini."

Still grinning, Zack broke the muffin in half, treated himself to the fragrant steam. "That's pretty stiff competition."

Bigelow, a confirmed bachelor, was ninety.

He watched her stir the dough, form it into a ball. Then she emptied the muffin pan, set them to cool on a rack while she refilled the cups. When the timer buzzed again, she shifted trays, went back to roll out her pastry dough.

"You've got yourself a real system," he commented. "Where'd you learn to bake?"

"My mother-" She broke off, realigned her thoughts. It was too easy in the quiet kitchen, with all these homey smells, to get overly comfortable and reveal too much. "My mother liked to bake," she said. "And I picked up recipes and techniques here and there."

He didn't want her to stiffen up, so he let it pass. "Do you ever make those cinnamon rolls? You know the ones with that sticky white icing?"

"Mmm."

"I make them sometimes."

"Really." She began to cut the dough for tarts and glanced back at him. He looked so... male, she thought, leaning back on the counter with his ankles crossed and a mug of coffee in his hand. "I didn't know you cooked."

"Sure, now and then. You buy these tubes down at the market. Then you take them home, rap them against the counter and peel the bun things out, cook them, and squirt icing on the top. Nothing to it."

It made her laugh. "I'll have to try that sometime." She went to the refrigerator, took out her bowl of filling.

"I'll give you some pointers on it." He drained his cup, set it in the sink. "I guess I'd better get home, and get out of your way. Thanks for the coffee."

"You're welcome."

"And the muffin. It was just fine."

"That's a relief." She stood at the table, methodically spooning filling into the center of her rounds of dough. When he stepped toward her, she tensed a little, but continued to work.

"Nell?"

She looked up, and filling slopped out of her spoon when he put his hand on her cheek.

"I sure hope this doesn't put you off," he said, and leaning down, he laid his lips on hers.

She didn't move a muscle. Couldn't. Her eyes stayed open, locked on his. Watching, as a deer might watch when pinned in the crosshairs.

His lips were warm. She registered that. And softer than they looked. He didn't touch her. She imagined she'd have leaped out of her skin if he'd laid his hands on her now.

But it was only his mouth, light and easy on hers.

He'd prepared himself for her to be annoyed, or disinterested. He hadn't expected her to be scared. That was what he felt from her, a rigid anxiety that could easily bloom into fear. So he didn't touch her as he wanted to, not even a gentle brush of fingers down her arms.

If she'd stepped back, he'd have done nothing to stop her. But her absolute stillness was its own defense. It was he who stepped back, and kept it light despite a gnawing in the gut that was more than a stir of desire for her-it was a cold fury for whoever had hurt her.

"Seems I have a soft spot for more than your muffins." He tucked his thumbs in his front pockets. "See you later."

He strolled out, hoping the kiss and the ease of his leaving would give her something to think about.

***

He wasn't going to get any sleep. Resigned to it, he thrilled Lucy by taking her for an early-morning swim in the inlet. The romp, and her sheer foolishness, worked off a good portion of his stiffness, and his frustration.

He watched Ripley finish her run on the beach and dive into the surf. Dependable as sunrise, he thought as she cut through the waves. Maybe he didn't always know what went on in her head, or how it got there, but he rarely had to worry about Ripley Todd.

She could handle herself.

Lucy ran out to meet her as she started back, and the two wet females had a wrestle and a race. They both joined him on the upper porch, Lucy to flop down in delighted exhaustion, and Ripley sucking on a bottle of water.

"Mom called last night." Ripley flopped down herself, on one of the deck chairs. "They made it to the Grand Canyon. They're sending us six million pictures that Dad took with his digital. I'm afraid to start the download."

"Sorry I missed the call."

"I told them you were on a stakeout," she said with her tongue in her cheek. "They got a kick out of the lobster caper. Any updates?"

"Oh, yeah."

He sat on the arm of the Adirondack chair, and filled her in.

She turned her face up to the sky and hooted. "I knew I should've gone with you. Idiot drunk putz. Lobster Boy, not you."

"I figured. He wasn't that drunk, Rip."

She lifted a hand, waved it at him. "Don't start that. I'm in too good a mood for you to spoil it by mentioning Mia and her double, double, toil and trouble routine."

"Suit yourself."

"I usually do. I'm going to get a shower. I'll take the first shift. You must be wiped."

"I'm okay. Listen..." But he trailed off, trying to think how to put what he wanted to say.

"Listening."

"I went by the yellow cottage on the way home. Nell's lights were on, so I stopped in."

"Aha," Ripley teased.

"Gutter-face. I had a cup of coffee and a muffin."

"Gee, Zack, I'm sorry to hear that."

Normally he'd have laughed. Instead he rose, paced to the rail. "You stop in and see her most every day. You're friendly, right?"

"I guess we're friendly enough. It's hard not to like her."

"Women tend to confide stuff to their female friends, don't they?"

"Probably. You want me to ask her if she likes you enough to go to the school dance with you?" She started to snicker, but stopped when he turned around and saw his face. "Hey, sorry. I didn't know it was serious. What's up?"

"I think she's been abused."

"Man." Ripley stared down at her water bottle. "That's tough."

"Some son of a bitch messed with her, I'm sure of it. Whether or not she's had counseling or gotten help, it seems to me she could use a... you know, a girlfriend. Somebody she could talk to about it."

"Zack, you know I'm no good at that kind of thing. You are."

"I've got the wrong equipment to be Nell's girlfriend, Rip. Just... just see if you can spend some time with her. Go out on the boat, or go shopping or..." He gestured vaguely. "Paint each other's toenails."

"Excuse me?"

"Give me a break. I don't know what you people do in your mysterious caves when men aren't around."

"We have pillow fights in our underwear."

He brightened because she wanted him to. "Really? I was afraid that was a myth. So, be a friend, okay?"

"Are you starting to get a thing for her?"

"Yeah. So?"

"So, I guess I'll be a friend."

***

Nell walked into the Coven at precisely five. It was not, as she'd feared, a dark, eerie place, but rather cozy. The light was faintly blue and added a soft tint to the white flowers in the center of each table.

The tables themselves were round, with deep chairs and small sofas circling them. At the glossy bar the glasses sparkled. Nell had no more than chosen a table when a young waitress in trim, unrelieved black set a silver bowl of mixed snacks in front of her.

"Can I get you a drink?"

"I'm waiting for someone. Maybe just a mineral water for now. Thanks."

The only other patrons were a couple poring over an Island Tours brochure while they sipped white wines and nibbled from a cheese plate. The music was low, and very like what Mia tended to play in the bookstore. Nell tried to relax in her chair, wishing she'd brought a book.

Ten minutes later, Mia breezed in, the long skirt swirling around her long legs. She carried a book, and lifted her free hand in a wave toward the bar. "A glass of Cabernet, Betsy."

"First glass is on Carl Macey." Betsy shot Mia a wink. "He gave me orders."

"Tell him I enjoyed it." She sat down across from Nell. "Did you drive over?"

"No, I walked."

"Do you drink alcoholic beverages?"

"Now and then."

"Have one now. What's your pleasure?"

"The Cabernet'll be fine. Thanks."

"Two, Betsy. Damn, I love these things." She began to pick through the snack bowl. "Especially the little cheese ones that look like Chinese symbols. So, I brought you a book. A gift." Mia nudged the book toward Nell. "I thought you'd like to read about where you've chosen to live."

"Yes, I've been meaning to. The Three Sisters: Legends and Lore," she said, reading the cover. "Thank you."

"You're settling in now, getting your feet under you. I should tell you first that I couldn't be happier with your work."

"I'm glad to hear it. I love working at the cafe, the store. I couldn't have tailor-made a job I'd like more."

"Oh, you're Nell." Catching the comment as she served the wine, Betsy beamed. "You're always gone when I get to the caf6. I try to zip in before I open the bar. Great cookies."

"Thanks."

"You hear from Jane, Mia?"

"Just today. Tim got his audition, and they're hopeful. They're paying the rent by working at a bakery in Chelsea."

"I hope they're happy."

"So do I."

"I'll leave you two alone. Let me know if you need anything."

"So." Mia lifted her glass, tapped it to Nell's. "Slainte."

"I'm sorry?"

"A Gaelic toast. Cheers." Mia brought the glass to her lips, watching Nell over the rim. "What do you know about witches?"

"Which sort? Like Elizabeth Montgomery on Bewitched or the ones who wear crystals and burn candles and sell little bottles of love potion?"

Mia laughed, crossed her legs. "Actually, I wasn't thinking of Hollywood or pseudo-Wiccans."

"I didn't mean to be insulting. I know there are people who take the matter very seriously. A kind of religion. That should be respected."

"Even if they are kooks," Mia said with a hint of a smile.

"No. You're not a kook. I understand... Well, you mentioned it that first day, then your conversation with Ripley yesterday."

"Good. Then we've established that I'm a witch." Mia sipped again. "You're a sweet one, Nell. There you are, trying very hard to discuss this intelligently, soberly, when you're thinking I'm-let's say-eccentric. We'll table that for the moment and go back in history so I can lay some groundwork for you. You know of the witch trials in Salem."

"Sure. A few hysterical young girls, fanatical Puritans. Mob mentality. Burn the witch."

"Hang," Mia corrected. "Nineteen people-all innocents-were hanged in 1692. One was pressed to death when he refused to declare himself innocent or guilty. Others died in prison. There have been witchhunts throughout time. Here, in Europe, in every corner of the world. Even when most stopped believing, or admitting to a belief, in witchcraft, there were hunts. Nazism, McCarthyism, the KKK, and so on. Nothing more than fanatics, with power, pushing their own agendas and finding enough weak minds to do the dirty work."

And don't, Mia thought, taking a breath, get me started. "But today we're concerned with one microcosm of history."

She leaned back, tapped a finger lightly on the book. "The Puritans came here, searching, they said, for religious freedom. Of course, many of them were only looking for a place to force their beliefs and their fears on others. And in Salem, they persecuted and murdered blindly, so blindly that not one of the nineteen souls they took was the soul of a witch."

"Prejudice and fear are never clear-sighted."

"Well said. There were three among them. Women who'd chosen this place to live their lives and live their craft. Powerful women who had helped the sick and the sorry. They knew, these three, that they could no longer stay where they would, sooner or later, be accused and condemned. So the Isle of Three Sisters was created."

"Created?"

"It's said that they met in secret and cast a spell. And part of the land was torn away from the mainland. We're living on what they took from that time and that place. A sanctuary. A haven. Isn't that what you came for, Nell?"

"I came for work."

"And found it. They were known as Air and Earth and Fire. For some years they lived quietly and at peace. And alone. It was loneliness that weakened them. The one known as Air wished for love."

"We all do," Nell said quietly.

"Perhaps. She dreamed of a prince, golden and handsome, who would sweep her away to some lovely place where they would live happily and have children to comfort her. She was careless with her wish, as women can be when they yearn. He came for her, and she saw only that he was golden and handsome. She went away with him, left her haven. She tried to be a good and dutiful wife, and bore her children, loved them. But it wasn't enough for him. Under the gold, he was dark. She grew to fear him, and he fed on her fear. One night, mad with that hunger, he killed her for being what she was."

"That's a sad story." Nell's throat was dry, but she didn't lift her glass.

"There's more, but that's enough for now. Each had a sad story, and a tragic end. And each left a legacy. A child who would bear a child who would bear a child, and so on. There would come a time, it was said, when a descendant from each of the sisters would be on the island at the same time. Each would have to find a way to redeem and break the pattern set three hundred years ago. If not, the island would topple into the sea. Lost as Atlantis."

"Islands don't topple into the sea."

"Islands aren't created by three women, usually," Mia countered. "If you believe the first, the second isn't much of a stretch."

"You believe it." Nell nodded. "And that you're one of the descendants."

"Yes. As you are."

"I'm no one."

"That's him talking, not you. I'm sorry." Instantly contrite, Mia reached out and gripped Nell's hand before she could rise. "I said I wouldn't pry, and I won't. But it annoys me to hear you say you're no one. To hear you mean it. Forget all the rest for now if you must, but don't forget who and what you are. You're an intelligent woman with spine enough to make a life for herself. With a gift-magic in the kitchen. I admire you."

"I'm sorry." Struggling to settle again, Nell reached for her wine. "I'm speechless."

"You had the courage to strike out on your own. To come to a strange place and make yourself part of it."

"Courage had nothing to do with it."

"You're wrong. He didn't break you."

"He did." Despite herself, Nell's eyes filled. "I just took the pieces and ran away."

"Took the pieces, escaped and rebuilt. Can't you be proud of that?"

"I can't explain what it was like."

"You don't have to. But you will, eventually, have to recognize your own power. You'll never feel complete until you do."

"I'm only looking for a normal life."

"You can't forget the possibilities." Mia held out a hand, palm up. Waited.

Unable to resist, Nell reached out, laid her palm against Mia's. And felt the heat, a painless burn of power. "It's in you. I'll help you find it. I'll teach you," Mia stated as Nell stared dumbfounded at the shimmer of light between their palms. "When you're ready."

***

Ripley scanned the beach scene and saw nothing out of the ordinary. Someone's toddler was having a tantrum, and the high-pitched cranky sound of No! No! No! blasted the air.

Somebody missed his nap, she thought.

People were scattered over the sand, staking out their territory with towels, blankets, umbrellas, totes, coolers, portable stereos. Nobody just went to the beach anymore, she mused. They packed for a day on the sand the way they packed to go to Europe.

It never failed to amuse her. Every day couples and groups would haul their possessions out of their rentals and hotel rooms and set up their temporary nests on the shore. And every day they would pack everything up again and haul it, along with a good bit of sand, back again.

Holiday nomads. The Bedouins of summer.

Leaving them to it, she headed up to the village. She carried nothing but her police issue, a Swiss Army knife, and a few dollars. Life was simpler that way.

She turned on High Street, intending to spend those few dollars on a quick meal. She was off duty, as much as either she or Zack was ever off duty, and was looking forward to a cold beer and a hot pizza.

When she spotted Nell standing in front of the hotel, looking dazed, she hesitated. It was as good a time as any, she supposed, to make that friendly overture.

"Hey, Nell."

"What? Oh. Hello, Ripley."

"You look a little lost."

"No." She knew just where she was, Nell thought. At the moment, it was the only thing she was absolutely sure of. "Just a little distracted."

"Long day, huh? Listen, I'm about to grab some dinner. A little early, but I'm starved. Why don't we split a pizza? My treat."

"Oh." She continued to blink, like someone coming out of a dream.

"The Surfside makes the best pizza on the island. Well, it's the only pizza place on the island, but still... How're things going at the cafe?"

"Good." There was really nothing to do but fall into step. She couldn't think clearly and would have sworn that her fingers still tingled. "I love working there."

"You've classed up the place," Ripley commented, and angled her head to get a look at the book Nell carried. "Reading up on island voodoo?"

"Voodoo? Oh." With a nervous laugh, Nell tucked the book under her arm. "I guess if I'm living here, I ought to know... things."

"Sure." Ripley pulled open the door of the pizzeria. "The tourists love all that island mystique crap. When we hit the solstice, we'll be flooded with New Agers. Hey, Bart!"

Ripley gave the man behind the counter a salute and grabbed an empty booth.

It may have been early, but the place was jammed.

The jukebox was blaring, and the two video games tucked back in a small alcove shot out noise and light.

"Bart and his wife, Terry, run the place." Ripley shifted, stretched her legs out on the bench. "They've got your calzones, your pasta, and yadda yadda," she said, tossing Nell a laminated menu. "But it's really all about the pizza. You up for that?"

"Sure."

"Great. Anything you don't like on it?"

Nell scanned the menu. Why couldn't she think? "No."

"Even better. We'll get a large, loaded. What we don't eat, I'll take home to Zack. He'll pick off the mushrooms and onions and be grateful."

She slid out of the booth again. "Want a beer?"

"No. No, thanks. Just water."

"Coming up."

Seeing no point in waiting for table service, Ripley walked up to the counter, placed the order. Nell watched the way she joked with the long, thin man behind the counter. The way she hooked her sunglasses in the collar of her shirt. The way she stretched gorgeously toned and tanned arms out for the drinks. The way her dark hair bobbed as she turned to walk back to the booth.

The noise receded, like echoes in a dream, until it was a wash of white sound under a rising roar. Like waves cresting. As Ripley sat across from her again, Nell saw her mouth moving, but heard nothing. Nothing at all.

Then, like a door flung open, it all swarmed back.

"...right up through Labor Day," Ripley finished, and reached for her beer.

"You're the third." Nell gripped her tingling hands together on the table.

"Huh?"

"The third. You're the third sister."

Ripley opened her mouth, then closed it again in a long, thin line. "Mia." She ground the two syllables together, then gulped down half her beer. "Don't start with me."

"I don't understand."

"There's nothing to understand. Just drop it." She slapped the glass back on the table, leaned forward. "Here's the deal. Mia can think, believe, whatever she wants. She can behave however she wants as long as she doesn't break the law. I don't have to buy into it. If you want to, that's your business. But I'm here for pizza and a beer."

"I don't know what I buy into. It makes you angry. It just confuses me."

"Look, you strike me as a sensible woman. Sensible women don't go around claiming to be witches descended from a trio of witches who carved an island out of a chunk of Massachusetts."

"Yes, but-"

"No buts. There's reality and there's fantasy. Let's stick with reality, because anything else is going to put me off my pizza. So, are you going to go out with my brother?"

"Go..." Confused, Nell pushed a hand through her hair. "Could you rewind that question?"

"Zack's working up to asking you out. You interested? Before you answer, let me say he's had all his shots, practices good personal hygiene, and though he has some annoying habits, he's reasonably well adjusted. So, think about that. I'll get the pizza."

Nell blew out a breath, sat back. She had, she decided, entirely too much to think about in one short evening.