With Brent’s “help,” it took them longer than usual to make three fruit pizzas, but the time went quickly, listening to his childhood stories and memories.
“It sounds like you have a wonderful family,” Thora said.
“The best. Mom’s a big softy, always ready to help with this or that. Dad tries to be the disciplinarian, but he doesn’t scare anybody either. My sisters--well, they babied me whenever they weren’t giving me a hard time.”
Thora laughed. “Sisters are your best friends and your worst critics.”
“How many do you have?” Brent asked.
Before Thora thought, she said, “Thirteen.”
“My mom didn’t stay with one man very long.”
Brent shook his head. “She must be something if she can attract men when she’s had a slew of kids.”
“Oh, she’s something, all right,” Thora agreed, not mentioning that her mother--a nymph--mated with a man for his lifetime, before she married another one.
His eyes slid away from hers.
“Just ask,” Thora said. “If I don’t want to tell you, I won’t.”
“What about the father of your baby?”
“It was a one-night stand,” she said. “But I knew he was the right one because he could really see me.”
“That’s what true love is, isn’t it?” he asked. “I can’t bullshit Claire. She sees me the way I really am.”
“Do you love her?” Currie asked, joining their conversation for the first time.
“Yeah, I love her enough to do her a big favor and stay out of her life.”
“Why?” In Currie’s mind, the woman who got Brent would be a lucky girl.
“She has two boys, three and seven. Neat as hell. They deserve a dad who’ll be a good role model. Not a screw-up like me.”
“What about their real dad?” Thora asked.
“Dead. In the military.”
Thora sighed. “Men and their wars. I’m sorry.”
“He was the best. There’s no way I can fill his shoes. Especially now.” Brent thumped his stump of a leg.
“Your leg’s not what’s holding you back,” Currie said. “But if you’re serious about this woman, you should drink less and slow down on the partying.”
“Hell, no. I’m doing it more, so that I won’t be tempted.”
“Everyone makes choices,” Currie said. “Are you sure you’re making the right one?”
“Quit with the lectures, will you? I drink two beers with supper while I’m here. That’s it.”
“Can you do that for a month?”
“A month? I thought I would only stay a week.”
“Anyone can slow down for a week. I’m not impressed.”
He grinned. “I have a feeling it takes a lot to impress you.”
An image of her father sprang into her mind, followed quickly by Ward. Currie pushed them away. “I bet Claire’s no pushover either.”
Brent’s grin faded. “She’d take me on, but it wouldn’t be fair. She doesn’t need another little boy.”
“Then grow up for her.”
Brent stared. “You don’t mince words for all your nicey-nice, do you?”
She shrugged. “What would be the point?”
He nodded. “I like you girls.”
“Good, then stay on the island for a while and get to know us better.”
He laughed. “A ploy. You just want me to stay so that you can pry around more in my sick, little psyche. But why not? Maybe my dad had it right and a month will help me get my head together.”
“Good, then I don’t have to worry about Currie picking someone else to finish the nursery and mess up what we started,” Thora said.
After all the guests were tucked into their cabins for the night, Currie and her sisters met with Thora and Emeralda on the balcony of Brie’s room. The air was silky, filled with a jumble of nighttime scents. Wafts of tangy lemon mixed with the sweet perfume of roses and quick splashes of seaside breezes. The women sipped glasses of wine and discussed their guests.
“Avery spent most of the morning asking questions about you instead of looking for birds,” Saffron said. Her copper curls gleamed in the mellow light spilling out from the lodge. Currie often envied her sister’s hair, wishing her coloring looked more dramatic than its soft chestnut.
“He’s in my art and cooking classes,” Currie said. “He’s sort of a nuisance, always underfoot.”
“The man’s brilliant,” Brie informed them. “He spends hours in the library, doing research, before he hikes the trails to study the species on the island and catalog them. And for the first time ever, a guest beat me at chess.”
“Avery?” Saffron asked, amazed.
“Avery. He’s a master at strategy.” Brie couldn’t keep the admiration out of her voice.
“He’s a brainiac all right,” Currie said, unimpressed.
Saffron shrugged. “Currie’s right. Always has his nose in a book.”
“And what’s wrong with that?” Brie demanded.
Saffron and Currie looked at each other. “Boring!” they sang in unison, then laughed at Brie’s scandalized expression.
“It’s not like he’s quiet.” Thora jumped in to defend Brie.
“He’s wonderful to talk to,” Brie said. “He knows a lot about all kinds of different topics.”
“Mmm-hmmm.” Saffron covered her mouth when she gave an elaborate, fake yawn.
“I suppose he’s not as handsome as Price or Ward,” Brie said. “Or as fun as Brent.”
“Price IS handsome,” Emeralda chimed in. “He came to sit with me by the lake this afternoon.”
“I looked out the window and saw you,” Currie said. “He didn’t look happy when you left.”
“Really?” A smile quirked the corner of Emeralda’s full lips. “I get a case of the nerves every time I’m around him. I can barely talk right. I’ve been with men before, but I’ve never felt nervous. Is that a sign of attraction?” She looked at Thora, their new resident expert.
“It can be. Or it can mean that Price is coming on to you, and your subconscious tells you that he’s not the right one.” Thora looked directly at Currie before she went on. “I always see you with the fireman.”
“Ward.” Emeralda gave a deep sigh. “Now THERE’S a man, but he’s the serious type, not just a quick frolic.”
“So you’re attracted to both of them?” Saffron asked, obviously thrilled with the drama.
“Haven’t you ever been interested in a mortal?” Thora asked.
Saffron wrinkled her nose. “Once or twice, but no one has ever been able to see me when I blend into a plant or the wind or the water. I’ve tried all three. For a while, I thought maybe I’d chosen the wrong medium, but it didn’t make any difference. I don’t think I’m right for any mortal.”
Thora laughed. “You just haven’t met the right one.”
Saffron shook her copper curls. “I don’t think it’s ever going to happen. I’m going to die an old maid.”
“You would be difficult to live with!” Brie teased. “High maintenance.”
“And you wouldn’t?” Saffron shot back.
“I’m DETERMINED to die an old maid, so it doesn’t matter,” Brie said.
Thora shook her head. “You’re both wrong. It’s going to happen, and when it does, you won’t be able to stop it.”
“That’s silly.” Brie poured herself a second glass of wine. “It’s simply mind over matter. If your head tells your heart not to be bothered, that’s the end of it.”
Thora grinned. “You three have a lot to learn.”
“It doesn’t matter how many men you’ve slept with,” Emeralda informed them. “It’s different each time it happens, and you’re still thrown off balance.”
Currie was stunned into silence. How many men had Emeralda been with? When Em went to visit her mother, a wood nymph in South America, she’d come home from her two week breaks with stories of strong, handsome men who could see her as a sprite. Sometimes, she gave details. Sometimes, she didn’t.
“Were you ever attracted to anyone here?” Saffron asked. “On the island?”
“Here?” Emeralda raised a dark brow. “This is the first time any normal, younger men have come to visit. No, not here, but the men back home are more in tune with the earth and sea and all that it offers.”
“ALL that it offers?” Saffron asked, smiling.
“My mother’s not the only reason I visit there so often.”
Saffron broke out laughing.
“You don’t feel that you HAVE to stay here, do you?” Brie asked, concerned. “You don’t feel trapped?”
Emeralda threw an arm around Brie’s shoulders. “Are you nuts? You’re more like my sisters than my real sisters are. I see them when I go home, but they’re scattered from one forest to another to care for the trees. Here, I get to visit with all of you every night. We’re family.” She paused and a teasing note entered her voice. “Besides, I can visit my family three times a year, and if I’m in the mood for sex, I can have all I want in the two weeks I’m gone.”
“It’s not fair,” Saffron complained. “I want to be a sprite.”
“Sorry, Saff, but you’re immortal. You have more serious things to do,” Thora said.
“That’s the whole point. You don’t live as long, so you get to pack in a lot more fun while you’re here.”
“Until we have a child,” Thora reminded her, resting a hand on her stomach. “Then we’re on our best behavior until that child is grown and gone.”
“Yeah, no one gets to play all the time,” Emeralda said.
Currie tried to word her next question carefully. “When you have sex with a man, does he have to be able to see you when you meld into a tree? Or does that only happen when you’re going to have a baby with him?”
“No nymph or sprite should form any type of bond with a mortal who can’t see her in her natural state,” Thora said.
“So how do you know which one should be the father of your baby?” Currie asked.
Emeralda smiled. “The one who makes you pregnant. We’re not like mortals. It only happens with the right one.”
Currie couldn’t force herself to ask the question she really wanted to. Had Ward seen Emeralda when she joined with a tree?
“Then it should be easy to decide which man is for you.” Thora spoke to Em, but gave a meaningful glance in Currie’s direction. “Join with a tree and see which man sees you.”
“Or if they both do,” Saffron teased.
Emeralda shrugged. “It’s too soon. I’m enjoying myself too much right now.”
“Why ruin a good thing?” Saffron agreed.
Brie yawned and looked at the night sky. “It’s late. I need to be up early tomorrow. I’m going to call it a night.”
The rest stood, too, but Currie was too restless to go straight to her room and to bed. Instead, she headed to the kitchen. When her mind was too active, she soothed herself with cooking. By the time she finished, two coffee cakes and three frittatas waited, ready for the next morning. The moon was a lopsided orb shining across the gardens, and she glanced out the back windows to soak in its beauty. Ward sat under her father’s willow, gazing across the still lake, painted silver with moonbeams. Her heart caught in her chest, a physical stab of pain, and she pressed her hand to it. She was drawn to cross the grassy slope to him, to sit by his side the way that Emeralda had done. But it would be wrong. Emeralda showed interest in him. If Ward could see the sprite when she joined with a tree, Emeralda would have a fling with him on the island, or more, he might father a child with her.
The pain in Currie’s chest throbbed. How would she feel looking at Ward’s mortal child, watching him grow while Emeralda mothered him? Would it hurt every time she caught a glimpse of the boy’s dark hair, sturdy build, and was reminded of his father? She started to leave when Ward pushed himself to his feet and turned toward his cabin. As if he felt her eyes on him, he hesitated and turned. He looked toward the kitchen windows and saw her framed in them. His eyes locked with hers across the distance, and Currie could feel his gaze search her face. Then, with a slight nod, he turned and walked away.
Currie burrowed into her sheets and light blanket, trying to get warm. She opened an eye and looked out the French doors that led to the balcony off her bedroom. Dark clouds gripped the island, wrapping it in gloom. The last time she’d seen a brooding sky was when her father died. Usually, the rain came at night and left by morning. Occasionally, a warm, happy storm sprinkled the island for an hour or two and left a rainbow behind.
She shivered as she got out of bed. A definite chill hung in the air. Even a long, flowing skirt and a tee with three-quarter sleeves weren’t enough to dispel the dampness, so she made her way down to the warmth of the kitchen. For once, she didn’t fling open the doors that led to the back patio and gardens. Instead, she lit the oven and soaked up the heat.
Out of habit, she glanced across the lawn to the willow tree. She knew her father was dead, but once in a while, she still expected to see him sitting there. This morning, in the chill dampness, Ward’s form hunched close to its trunk. Mist rose from the lake, and fog enveloped him. It couldn’t be comfortable, but he sat staring across the water, as he did so often, trying to bury his demons. As she watched, the tree’s branches swayed and brushed against his shoulders, his back, in comforting motions. Had Emeralda melded with the tree? It was too far away for her to tell, but was Em using its branches to stroke Ward? Currie glanced away. She felt like a voyeur, spying on a fiercely personal moment. Thankfully, Thora bustled into the kitchen and distracted her.
“Geez, it’s foul out there! I got wet just walking from my cabin to the lodge.” Thora ran a hand through her damp platinum hair. “It’s like the island’s brooding, unhappy about something.”
“It reminds me of the afternoon my father died.”
Thora shook her head. “That was mourning, a fine drizzle, like tears. This feels different--a wet blanket of misery.”
There was motion outside, and Currie glanced out the doors. Saffron had stepped out of the library with a handful of guests, ready to lead them on a bird watching expedition.
“Hope they’re going to the shore to look for ducks. Any bird in its right mind is roosting this morning,” Thora said.
“Saff’s in her element now. She knows the island better than any of us.” Currie watched her sister turn to the path that led to the cove. “If something’s wrong somewhere, she’ll find it.”
Saffron stopped the group to wave at someone, and Emeralda stepped out of the orange grove that hid her cottage. When she went to the lake to sit by Ward, the willow tree subtly withdrew its branch from around his shoulders.
Currie blinked, surprised. The tree had consoled Ward on its own. It felt drawn to a mortal. But once she thought about it, the willow had loved her father--a human.
Thora poured herself a cup of coffee. “We’re getting a late start this morning. Maybe the guests can have peanut butter on toast for breakfast.”
“I made most of the meal last night--the coffee cakes and frittatas, and I’ve already put the ham slices in the oven. I was going to finish it with grapefruit halves and mango salsa.”
“We can make short work of that.” Thora pulled out the huge, wooden chopping board and began to slice and section grapefruit. Currie started on the salsa. “Finished in record time!” Currie cheered.
“Pour yourself another cup of coffee, and I’ll load the buffet table,” Thora said. “I’ve gotten off easy this morning, so you should have a break too.”
Currie was sipping her coffee in between cleaning pots and pans when she heard something scratch at the glass doors. She glanced outside and saw that the sun was trying to burn off the morning gloom. Another beautiful day would soon be on offer, but patches of gray mist hovered in the gardens, clinging to the ground. She glanced to where the scratching sound was coming from and saw a pitch black, baby bunny shivering on the flagstone patio. She slowly crossed the kitchen and opened the door. The rabbit hopped inside and rubbed against her leg.
Currie frowned. Animals on the island weren’t pets. Their mother, Gaia, provided for every living thing, but Nature wasn’t kind. The food chain served a purpose and kept the earth in balance. When the girls were young and complained when they saw a hawk swoop down to catch a mouse, Gaia was unapologetic. “Earth isn’t here to coddle its inhabitants, human or animal. It’s their home. Period. What they make of it is up to them.”
Still, how could Currie ignore a baby rabbit that had come to her for help? “What’s wrong, little fella?” She knelt to stroke its smooth fur.
It sat on its hind legs, begging to be held. She didn’t care what her mother said. Currie scooped it into her arms. She’d give it to Saff to take to the nursery.
Gaia didn’t really approve of the nursery the girls started for animals that needed temporary care, but Saffron convinced her that it was a fair compromise. “I can’t walk past a wounded animal and leave it,” she told their mother. “But I’ll do everything I can so that I only heal them, so that they don’t become tame.” True to her word, Saffron provided for them, then released them. But this little rabbit had come to Currie. Totally unnatural. Why?
“Is your mother sick?” Currie asked. The bunny was just out of the nest, so small that she could easily hold it in one hand. She held him close and stepped outside into the gardens. What foul weather! Gray and damp. “Let’s look around and see if your nest is somewhere close.”
She carried him through the vegetable gardens and turned into the last row of herbs. Rosemary grew in blue-gray masses along both sides of the narrow path. It reached out to her as she passed. The dark clouds hugged themselves to her, like a mournful shroud. And that’s when she saw them. She stopped so abruptly, she almost tripped. The mother rabbit and her five babies lay in a dark stain of blood, barely recognizable. The earth had done its best to absorb their pain and deaths, but they’d been killed with such savagery that only scraps of fur and shreds of flesh remained.
Currie stared in shock. This wasn’t the work of a fox or predator hunting for food. This was slaughter--angry and violent. She laid a hand over the tiny rabbit’s head, shielding his eyes, and bent to study the bloody remains. What would do this? Nothing she’d ever seen. It looked as though the animals had been stabbed over and over again until they’d become pulp. By what?
She turned and walked away from the awful sight. She felt sick. Cuddling the rabbit to her shoulder, she said, “No wonder you came to us. This isn’t right. It shouldn’t have happened.” Her voice shook, and she tried to calm herself. “I’ll care for you from now on. I’ll be your mother.” As she walked back to the lodge, she said, “I’ll call you Thumper.” The name brought back a happy memory of her father giving her and her sisters a ride in the ferry to the mainland and taking them to a movie. A rare event. Remembering it made her feel a little better.
The guests were already milling in the dining room when she entered the kitchen to find her sisters. Nothing would be gained by disrupting the usual routine, so she tipped chairs over to make a temporary cage for her rabbit and went to join them. She didn’t have much of an appetite, but she knew she had to eat something. It would be a while before she got another chance. She decided on a slice of frittata and some fruit. Brie was sitting at a table with Avery, Leann, and Teri. The two women had become quilt enthusiasts, and Currie could hear them chatting happily about different patterns as she poured herself a cup of coffee. Saffron sat with Brent, Trisha, and Mandy. As Currie passed their table, their discussions centered around gardening and the animal nursery that Trisha watched over. Currie went to her usual table to eat with Ward, Ted, and Price.
“You’re late!” Price said. “We started without you.”
“It felt good to wake up to some cool weather and gray clouds,” Ted said. “There’s too damned much sunshine on this island.”
“I don’t mind clouds, but I didn’t like how damp it was.” Price pointed his fork to the cinnamon streusel coffee cake. “I don’t suppose you’d like to make this every morning?”
She smiled and shook her head. “The weather didn’t seem to bother you,” she said to Ward.
He shrugged. “I’m a fireman. Water’s my friend.”
Ted nodded toward Ward. “The boy’s on the moody side this morning. Hasn’t said more than two words.”
“’Good morning’, that’s it,” Price added.
Currie looked at him. “Is everything okay?”
“You need to stop sitting on your ass, staring at the water, and break your back moving stones,” Ted told him. “When you get things done, you feel better.”
“You work so that you don’t have to think,” Price said. “Maybe you need to center yourself and take yoga before bedtime with Saffron.”
Price laughed at the thunderous look on Ted’s face. “Thought that would get you going.”
Ted shook his head. “You love to push peoples’ buttons, don’t you?”
“No, just yours. I sort of like you, old man.”
Ted grimaced. “Lucky me.” But there was a satisfied glint in his eyes.
Ted and Price bickered through the rest of the meal, and Ward sat in a brooding silence. Currie half-listened, unable to concentrate. She was relieved when they pushed themselves away from the table, and she could take her sisters, Emeralda, and Thora to the carnage in the garden.
The mists had started to evaporate, and stabs of sunshine warmed the earth.
“What did this?” she asked.
Saffron shook her head. “No animal.”
Saffron’s face grew dark. “We know it wasn’t one of us. That only leaves a guest.”
Thora swallowed a deep intake of breath. “A human did this? Why?”
Brie’s expression was stern and serious. “We have to go through our guests’ files again. One of the mortals we invited on the island has bigger problems than we realized. We have to make sure this doesn’t happen again... or worse.”
“How do we do that?” Thora asked.
“I don’t know,” Brie admitted. “They all have problems. That’s why they’re here. But one of them has a scar that we might not be able to heal.”
“Are the guests in danger?” Currie asked.
Brie thought a minute. “Sometimes, before a break through, a person needs to face his darkest fears. If that’s what this is--frustration and pain--it’s horrible, but it’s done.”
“And if it happens again?” Saffron asked.
“We need to warn the guests,” Brie said. “They’ll have to decide if they want to stay on the island.” She looked at Thora and Emeralda, “And you two will need to take care, too.”
“Thora and Emeralda?” Currie asked, surprised. “They’re sprites. They should be safe.”
Emeralda shook her head. “A man raped a sprite in my sister’s forest.”
“Why didn’t she just merge with something?”
“You nymphs can meld with anything in nature,” Thora said. “Sprites can only join the thing that they protect. I have to be near water. Emeralda would need a tree. If we’re separated from those, we’re in trouble.”
Currie blinked. “So if you were in the garden. . .”
“If I was stabbed over and over again, like the rabbits, I’d be dead.”
A shiver raced through Currie’s veins. She’d never known death and violence on the island before, but lately, she felt overwhelmed with it.