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23.12.2018

"Power," Mia told Nell, "carries with it responsibility, a respect for tradition. It must be tempered with compassion, hopefully intelligence, and an understanding of human flaws. It is never to be used carelessly, though there is room for humor. Above all, it must never be used to harm."

"How did you know you were… How did you know what you were?"

"A witch." Mia sat back on her heels. She was weeding her garden. She was wearing a shapeless dress of grass green with deep pockets in the skirt, thin floral gardening gloves, and a wide-brimmed straw hat. At the moment, she couldn't have looked less like the witch she professed to be.

"You can say the word. It's not illegal. We're not the pointed-hat-wearing, broomstick-riding cacklers that much of fiction drew us to be. We're people-housewives, plumbers, businesswomen. How we live is a personal choice."

"Covens?"

"Another personal choice. I've never been much of a joiner myself. And most who form groups or study the Craft are just looking for a pastime, or an answer. There's nothing wrong with that. Calling yourself a witch and holding rituals is one thing, being one is another."

"How do you know the difference?"

"How do I answer you, Nell?" She leaned forward again, neatly snipping off deadheads. "There's something inside you, burning. A song in your head, a whisper in your ear. You know these things as well as I do. You just didn't recognize them."

The deadhead went along with her weeds into a basket.

"When you peel an apple, haven't you ever thought if you could finish it without breaking the chain, you'd have a wish granted or gather good luck? Snapped a wishbone? Crossed your fingers? Little charms," Mia said, sitting back again, "old traditions."

"It can't be as simple as that."

"As simple as a wish, as complex as love. As dangerous, potentially, as a lightning bolt. Power is risk. It's also joy."

She picked up one of the deadheads, cupped it gently in her hands. Opening them again, she offered Nell a sunny yellow blossom.

Delighted, fascinated, Nell twirled it in her fingers. "If you can do this, why do you let any of them die?"

"There's a cycle, a natural order. It's to be respected. Change is necessary." She rose, picked up her basket of weeds and dead flowers, and carried it to a composter. "Without it there'd be no progress, no rebirth, no anticipation."

"One flower blooms off to make room for another."

"A lot of the Craft is philosophy. Would you like to try something more practical?"

"Me?"

"Yes, a simple spell. A stir of the air, I think, considering. Besides, it's a warm day, and a breeze would be welcome."

"You want me to…" Nell made a circling motion with her finger. "Stir the air?"

"It's a matter of technique. You need to focus. Feel the air moving over your face, your body. See it in your mind, rippling, turning. You can hear it, the music of it."

"Mia."

"No. Put doubts aside and think of those possibilities. Focus. It's a simple goal. It's all around you. You only have to stir it. Take it in your hands," she said, lifting her own, "and say the words. 'Air is breath and breath is air. Stir it round from here to there. Spin a breeze and spin it lightly.' As you will, Nell, so mote it be. Say the words, one times three."

Mesmerized, Nell repeated them. Felt the faintest flutter across her cheek. Said them again and saw Mia's hair lift. On the third count, Mia's voice joined hers.

The wind spun around them, a private carousel of air, cool and fragrant with a happy little hum. The same hum sounded inside her as Nell turned, circling round and round, her short cap of hair dancing.

"It feels wonderful! You did it."

"I gave it the last nudge." Mia laughed as her dress billowed out. "But you got it started. Very well done for your first time. Now quiet it again. Use your mind. Visualize it going still. That's it. Good. You picture things well."

"I've always liked to draw moments in my head," Nell said, breathless now. "You know, images that appeal or that I want to remember. It's sort of like that. Wow, I'm dizzy." She sat straight down on the ground. "I felt a tingling inside, not unpleasant. Almost like you do when you're thinking-really thinking-about sex."

"Magic is sexy." Mia dropped down beside her. "Especially when you hold the power. Have you been doing a lot of thinking about sex?"

"I didn't give it a thought for eight months." Steadier now, Nell shook back her hair. "I wasn't sure I'd ever want to be with a man again. Since the Fourth, I've been doing a lot of thinking about sex. The kind of thinking that makes you very itchy."

"Well, I've been there. Why don't you do something about it? Scratch the itch?"

"I thought, I'd assumed, that after the fireworks last week, Zack and I would end up in bed. But after we drove around and he finished his patrol, he took me home. Kissed me good night at the door, the kind of kiss that lifts the top of your head off and spins it around. Then he went home."

"I don't suppose it occurred to you to drag him inside, toss him on the floor, and rip his clothes off."

The idea made Nell chuckle. "I can't do things like that."

"A minute ago you didn't think you could conjure a breeze either. You have the power, little sister.

Zachariah Todd is the kind of man who's willing to put that power in your hands, to give you the choice of time and place. If there was a man like that I was attracted to, and who was attracted to me, I'd do something about that power."

She felt the tingle again, the stir inside her this time. "I wouldn't know how to begin."

"Visualize, little sister," Mia said wickedly. "Visualize."

Zack couldn't think of a better way to spend a Sunday morning than skinny-dipping with the girl he loved. The water was cool, the sun warm, and the inlet private enough to allow for such activities.

They discussed taking a sail later, and the adoration in her beautiful brown eyes told him she'd follow him anywhere. He stroked her, sent her into a wiggle of delight before they swam companionably through the crisp and quiet water.

When a man had a female so uncomplicatedly devoted, Zack figured, he had it all.

Then she gave a yip of excitement, splashed a stream of water in his face, and headed to shore. Zack watched his boon companion desert him for the woman standing on the rough bank.

Lucy bounded onto the bank and straight into Nell, knocking her back two full steps and drenching her with seawater and doggie kisses.

Zack listened to Nell's laughter, watched her scrub her hands enthusiastically over Lucy's wet fur. Maybe a man who had a pretty dog didn't have quite everything, he decided.

"Hey. How's it going?"

"It's going good." Shoulders, she thought. The man had amazing shoulders. "How's the water?"

"Close to perfect. Come on in, see for yourself."

"Thanks, but I don't have a suit with me."

"Me either." He flashed a grin. "Which is why I didn't follow Lucy's example."

"Oh." Her gaze shot down, then immediately back up to hover six inches over his head. "Well. Ha."

Visualize, Mia had told her. But this didn't seem quite the appropriate time.

"I promise not to look. You're already wet."

"All the same, I think I'll stay out here."

Lucy dived back in, retrieved a mangled rubber ball. After scrabbling back to shore again, she deposited it neatly at Nell's feet.

"Wants to play," Zack told her. And so did he.

Obliging, Nell picked up the ball and tossed it. Before it hit the surface, Lucy was leaping in pursuit.

"Pretty good arm. We've got a softball game coming up in a couple of weeks if you're interested." He drifted closer to the bank as he spoke.

Nell scooped up the ball Lucy retrieved, heaved it again. "Maybe. I was thinking about trying out another recipe."

"Is that so?"

"The catering's turning into an actual enterprise. If I want to expand on it, I need to be able to offer a variety of dishes."

"I'm a strong believer in capitalism, so anything I can do to help."

She looked down. He had such a nice face, she thought. She would just concentrate on that and wouldn't think about the rest of him. Right now. "I appreciate that, Sheriff. I've been playing it by ear so far, but I think it's time to put together an actual list, with pricing and services. If I do all that, formalize it, I have to apply for a business license."

That wouldn't be a problem, she assured herself. She was clear.

"It's going to keep you busy."

"I like being busy. There's nothing worse than not being able to do anything with your time or your interests." She shook her head. "And don't I sound dull and boring?"

No, but she had sounded grim. "How do you feel about recreation?"

"I approve of recreation." Her eyebrows lifted as he hooked a hand lightly around her ankle. "And just what is that?"

"I call it the long arm of the law."

"You're too nice to pull me in after I've come over here to offer to feed you."

"No, I'm not." He gave her foot a playful little tug. "But I'm willing to give you a chance to strip first."

"That's considerate of you."

"My mother raised me right. Come on in and play, Nell." He glanced back at Lucy, who was busy paddling around with the ball in her mouth. "We've got a chaperone."

Why not? she thought. She wanted to be with him. Even more, she wanted to be the kind of woman who could be with him. A woman confident and open enough to do something fun and foolish like tossing off her clothes and diving in.

The grin she sent him was quick and careless. As she toed off her shoes, he treaded water. "I changed my mind. I'm going to watch," he warned her. "I'd tell you I wouldn't peek, but I'd be lying."

"Do you lie?"

"Not if I can help it." His gaze lowered as she gripped the hem of her T-shirt. "So I'm not going to tell you I'll keep my hands off you once you get in here. I want you wet and naked, Nell. I just plain want you."

"If I wanted you to keep your hands off me, I wouldn't be here." She took a deep breath, started to peel off her shirt.

"Sheriff Todd! Sheriff Todd!"

"There is no God," Zack grumbled as the lovely glimpse of creamy flesh vanished under Nell's hastily tugged-down shirt. "Out here," he called. "Is that you, Ricky?" To Nell, he said, "It'll only take me two, three minutes to drown him. Just stand by."

"Yes, sir, Sheriff."

A towheaded boy of about ten scrambled across the rocky slope, his freckled face pink with excitement. He gave Nell a hasty nod. "Ma'am. Sheriff, my mom said I was to come right over and tell you. The tenants in the Abbott rental are having a big fight. There's screaming and crashing and cursing and everything."

"Is that Dale Abbott's or Buster's place?"

"Buster's, Sheriff. The one right across from ours. Mom says it sounds like the man in there's beating the woman something fierce."

"I'm on my way. Go on back. Go straight home and in the house."

"Yes, sir."

Nell stayed where she was. She saw a blur of tanned, muscled body as Zack levered himself out of the water. "Sorry, Nell."

"No, you need to go. You need to help her." It felt as though there were a thin glaze over her brain as she watched him hitch on jeans. "Hurry."

"I'll be back as soon as I can."

He left her there, hated leaving her there with her hands gripping each other tightly, and bolted up the steps to get a shirt.

He was at the Abbott rental in under four minutes. A handful of people edged the street while the sounds of shouting and breaking glasses poured out of the house. A man Zack didn't recognize jogged up to him as he approached the deck stairs.

"You're the sheriff. I'm Bob Delano, renting the place next door. I tried seeing what I could do, but the doors're locked. I thought about breaking one in, but they said you were on the way."

"I'll take care of it, Mr. Delano. Maybe you could keep those people back."

"Sure. I've seen that guy, Sheriff. Big sonofabitch. You want to watch yourself."

"I appreciate it. Get on back now." Zack pounded a fist on the door. Though he'd have preferred to have Ripley with him, he hadn't risked waiting for her to answer his beeper call. "This is Sheriff Todd. I want you to open the door, and open it now." Something shattered inside, and a woman began to wail. "If this door isn't open in five seconds, I'm kicking it in."

The man came to the door. Delano was right. He was one big sonofabitch. Six-four, maybe, and a good two seventy-five. He looked hungover and mad as piss.

"What the hell do you want?"

"I want you to step back, sir, and keep your hands where I can see them."

"You got no right coming in here. I'm renting this place paid in full."

"Your rental agreement doesn't give you leave to destroy property. Now back up."

"You're not coming in here without a warrant."

"Bet?" Zack said softly. His hand shot out, lightning-quick, gripped the man's wrist, and twisted. "Now, you want to take a swing at me," he continued in the same mild tone, "we'll add resisting arrest and assaulting an officer to the mix. More paperwork, but I get paid for it."

"By the time my lawyer's done, I'm going to own this fucking island."

"You're welcome to call him-from down at the station house." Zack cuffed him and looked around with relief as he heard Ripley pounding up the stairs.

"Sorry. I was all the way over on Broken Shell. What's this? Domestic dispute?"

"And then some. This is my deputy," Zack informed his prisoner. "Take my word, she can clean your clock. Put him in the back of the cruiser, Ripley. Get his particulars, read him his rights."

"What's your name, sir?"

"Fuck you."

"Okay, Mr. Fuck You, you're under arrest for…" She glanced back at Zack, who was already moving through the broken glass and crockery to the woman sitting on the floor, holding her face in her hands and sobbing.

"Destruction of private property, disturbing the peace, assault."

"You got that? Now unless you want me to kick your ass in front of all these nice people, we'll just walk to the cruiser and take a little drive. You have the right to remain silent," she continued, giving him a helpful shove to get him going.

"Ma'am." She was late thirties, Zack estimated. Probably pretty when her lip wasn't split and her brown eyes weren't blackened. "I need you to come with me. I'll take you to a doctor."

"I don't need a doctor." She curled into herself. Zack noted shallow cuts on her arms, gifts from flying glass. "What's going to happen to Joe?"

"We'll talk about that. Can you tell me your name?"

"Diane, Diane McCoy."

"Let me help you up, Ms. McCoy."

Diane McCoy sat hunched in a chair with an ice bag held to her left eye. She continued to refuse medical assistance. After offering her a cup of coffee, Zack pulled his own chair from behind his desk, hoping the move would put her more at ease.

"Ms. McCoy, I want to help you."

"I'm okay. We'll pay for the damages. You just have the rental agency make up a list and we'll pay for it."

"That's something we'll need to see to. I want you to tell me what happened."

"We just had a fight, that's all. People do. You didn't need to lock Joe up. If there's a fine, we'll pay it."

"Ms. McCoy, you're sitting there with your lip bleeding, your eye black, and cuts and bruises all over your arms. Your husband assaulted you."

"It wasn't like that."

"What was it like?"

"I asked for it."

Even as Ripley let out a vicious stream of air across the room, Zack leveled a warning glance. "You asked him to hit you, Ms. McCoy? To knock you down, to bloody your lip?"

"I aggravated him. He's under a lot of pressure." The words tumbled out, slurred a bit from her swollen lip. "This is supposed to be a vacation, and I shouldn't've nagged at him that way."

She must have sensed Ripley's furious disapproval as she turned her head, stared defiantly. "Joe works hard, fifty weeks a year. The least I can do is leave him alone on his vacation."

"It seems to me," Ripley countered, "the least he could do is keep from punching you in the face on your vacation."

"Ripley, get Ms. McCoy a glass of water." And shut up. He didn't have to say the last with his mouth, when his expression said it so clearly. "What started the trouble, Ms. McCoy?"

"I guess I got up on the wrong side of the bed. Joe was up late, drinking. A man's entitled to sit in front of the TV with a few beers on his vacation. He left the place a mess-beer cans, spilled chips all over the rug. It irritated me, and I started on him the minute he was awake. If I'd shut up when he told me to, none of this would've happened."

"And not shutting up when you were told gave him the right to use his fists on you, Ms. McCoy?"

She powered up. "What happens between a husband and wife is nobody's business but theirs. We shouldn't have broken things, and we'll pay for them. I'll clean the place up myself."

"Ms. McCoy, they have counseling programs back in Newark," Zack began, "and shelters for women who need them. I can make some calls, get you some information."

Her eyes might have been swollen, but they could still flash fury. "I don't need any information. You can't keep Joe locked up if I don't press charges, and I won't."

"You're wrong there. I can keep him locked up for disturbing the peace. And the property owners can press charges."

"You'll just make it worse." Tears began to fall. She took the paper cup Ripley offered her and gulped at the water. "Don't you see? You'll just make it worse. He's a good man. Joe's a good man, he's just got a short fuse is all. I said we'd pay. I'll write you a check. We don't want any trouble. I'm the one who made him mad. I threw things at him, too. You're going to have to lock me up along with him. What's the point?"

What was the point? Zack thought later. He hadn't been able to reach her, and he wasn't egotistical enough to think he was the first to try. He couldn't help when help was rejected. The McCoys were caught in a cycle that was bound to end badly.

And all he could do was remove the cycle from his island.

It took half the day to straighten out the mess. A check for two thousand satisfied the rental company. A cleaning crew was already in place by the time the McCoys had packed up. Zack waited, saying nothing as Joe McCoy loaded suitcases and coolers into the back of a late-model Grand Cherokee.

The couple got in from opposite sides. Diane wore big sunglasses to hide the damage. They both ignored Zack as he got into the cruiser and followed them to the ferry.

He stayed there, watching, until the Jeep and the people inside it were no more than a dot on their way to the mainland.

He hadn't expected that Nell would have waited for him, and decided it was just as well. He was too depressed and far too angry to talk to her. Instead he sat in the kitchen with Lucy, nursed a beer. He was considering indulging in a second when Ripley came in.

"I don't get it. I just don't get women like that. The guy's got a hundred fifty pounds on her, but it's her fault he bashed her face. And she believed it."

She got out a beer for herself, jerking the bottle at him as she twisted off the cap.

"Maybe she needs to."

"Oh, like hell, Zack. Like hell." Still simmering, she dropped into the chair across from him. "She's healthy, she's got a brain. What does she gain hooking herself to a guy who uses her for a punching bag when the mood strikes him? If she'd pressed charges, we could've held him long enough for her to pack her bags and get gone. We should've held him anyway."

"She wouldn't have left. It wouldn't have made one damn bit of difference."

"Okay, you're right. I know it. It just burns me, that's all." She sipped her beer, watching him. "You're thinking about Nell. You figure it was like that for her?"

"I don't know what it was like for her. She doesn't talk about it."

"Have you asked?"

"If she wanted to tell me, she would."

"Well, don't snap my head off." Ripley propped her feet on the chair beside her. "I'm asking you because I know you, big brother. If you've got a thing for her, and the thing turns into a big thing, you're never going to be square with it unless you have the story. Without the story, you can't help, and when you can't help, it drives you nuts. You're brooding right now because you couldn't help-to your satisfaction-a woman you'd never seen before and won't see again. It's that Good Samaritan gene of yours."

"Isn't there someone else on the island you can go annoy?"

"No, because I love you best. Now, instead of having another beer, why don't you take Luce and go for a sail? Still plenty of daylight yet, and it'll clear your head and improve your disposition. You're just no fun to be around when you're broody."

"Maybe I will."

"Good. Go. Odds of a second crisis in one day are slim to none, but I'll take a cruise around, just in case."

"Okay." He got up and after a moment's hesitation leaned down and kissed the top of her head. "I love you best, too."

"Don't I know it." She waited until he got to the door. "You know, Zack, whatever Nell's story is, there's one key difference between her and Diane McCoy. Nell got gone."