Dark witch, p.10
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       Dark Witch, p.10
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         Part #1 of The Cousins O'Dwyer series by Nora Roberts

  “My arse.” Boyle hefted what was left of his pint. “Tried making a meal out of Kevin Leery’s arm this morning after he kicked the shit out of Mooney.”

  “Take any piece of you?”

  “Not yet, and not for lack of trying. Behaved like a gentleman for your cousin.”

  Iona smiled into her beer. “He’s just misunderstood.”

  “I understand him fine.”

  “We wonder what Fin’s about with this one.” Meara spooned up some soup, kept her eyes on Connor. “Alastar’s no riding hack, that’s for certain. It may be he’ll breed well, but he never said he was after acquiring a stallion for that when off he went.”

  Connor gave his easy shrug. “No one knows what’s in Fin’s mind save Fin, and plenty’s the time he doesn’t know either. And speaking of that, there’s our Branna.”

  He lifted a hand, caught her eye.

  “Well now, it’s a party,” she said when she walked to the table. Her hand lowered to rub on Meara’s shoulder as she sent Boyle a smile. “Are you working my girl then, right through her supper?”

  “More the other way around,” Boyle claimed. “She’s relentless. I was coming to see you tomorrow. The salve you made for us is about gone.”

  “I’ve more on hand. I’ll send it along with Iona in the morning.” She sat, picked up her beer. “So, here’s to Iona and her new position, and to you for having the good sense to hire her.”

  She felt nearly giddy, sitting there. Cousins, boss, coworker—and ordering, at Connor’s suggestion, the beef and barley stew.

  As her first working day in Ireland, it couldn’t get better.

  And then it did.

  Connor slid away from the table. He came back a few moments later with a violin.

  “Connor,” Branna began.

  “I’m buying, so the least you can do is play for your supper.”

  “You play the violin?”

  Branna glanced at Iona, gave a shrug much like her brother’s. “When the mood comes.”

  “I always wanted to play something, but I’m hopeless. Please, won’t you?”

  “How can you say no?” Connor handed his sister the violin and bow. “Give us a song, Meara darling. Something cheerful to match the mood.”

  “You didn’t pay for my supper.”

  He sent her a wink, both cheeky and wicked. “There’s always a sweet to come, if you’ve the appetite.”

  “One.” Branna tested the bow. He’d rosined it, she noted, confident he’d coax her into it. “You know he won’t leave off till we do.”

  She angled her chair, tested again, tweaked the tuning. Voices around them quieted as Branna smiled, tapped her foot in time.

  Music danced out, cheerful as Connor had asked, lively and quick. Branna’s gaze laughed toward Meara, and Iona saw the friendship, the ease and depth of it even as Meara laughed and nodded.

  “I’ll tell me ma when I go home, the boys won’t leave the girls alone.”

  More magick, Iona thought. The bright, happy music, Meara’s rich, flirtatious voice, the humor on Branna’s face as she played. Her heart, already high, lifted as she imprinted everything—the sound, the look, even the air on her memory.

  She’d never forget this moment, and how it made her feel.

  She caught Boyle watching her, a bemused smile on his face. She imagined she looked like a starstruck idiot, and didn’t care.

  When applause rang out, she found herself bouncing on her seat. “Oh, that was great! You’re both amazing.”

  “Won us a prize once, didn’t we, Branna?”

  “That we did. First prize, Hannigan’s Talent Show. A short-lived enterprise to match our short-lived career.”

  “You were grand, both of you, then and now, but we’re grateful Meara didn’t run off to be a singing star.” Boyle gave her hand a pat. “We need her at the stables.”

  “I’d rather sing for the fun than my supper.”

  “Don’t you want to have more fun?” Iona gave Meara a poke on the arm. “Give us another.”

  “Look what you started,” Branna said to her brother.

  “You don’t play for fun often enough. I always wish you would.” And when he laid a hand on Branna’s cheek, she sighed.

  “You have a way, you do, and you know it.”

  “Iona’s not the only Yank in here tonight. I’ve spotted a few others. Give them ‘Wild Rover,’ and send them back with the memory of the two beauties in the pub in Cong.”

  “Such a way, you do,” she said and laughed. And shaking her hair back, lifted the fiddle.

  Iona saw the smile fade, all the humor fade out of the smoky eyes. Something else came into them, so quick there, then gone, she couldn’t be sure. Longing? Temper? Some combination of both.

  But she lowered the instrument again.

  “Your partner’s back,” Branna said to Boyle.

  7

  EVERYTHING ABOUT HIM WAS SHARP. The cheekbones, the jaw, even the bold green of his eyes—and the glint in them.

  He’d come in on a kick of wind that had the simmering peat fire giving a quick snap.

  As they had with Connor, several people hailed him. But Connor had been greeted with easy and affectionate warmth. Finbar Burke’s welcome was edged with respect and, Iona thought, a little caution and wariness.

  He wore a black leather coat that skimmed to his knees. Rain, which must have started while she’d been cozy and warm, beaded on it, and on his sweep of black hair.

  Cautious herself, Iona skimmed her gaze toward Branna. Nothing showed on her cousin’s face now, as if that momentary swirl of emotion had been nothing more than illusion.

  Fin wound through the crowd and, as Branna had with Meara, laid a hand on Boyle’s shoulder, and on Connor’s. But his gaze, Iona noted, fixed on Branna.

  “Don’t let me interrupt.”

  “And there he is, home from the wars at last.” Connor sent him a cheeky grin. “And just in time to stand the next round.”

  “Some of us have to work tomorrow,” Branna reminded her brother.

  “Sure it’s fortunate my boss is an understanding and generous sort of man. Unlike yours,” Connor added with a wink for Branna, “who’s a tyrant for certain.”

  “I’ll stand the round,” Fin said. “Good evening to you, Meara, and how’s your mother faring? I got word she was feeling poorly,” he said when she blinked at him.

  “She’s better, thanks. Just a bout of bronchitis that lingered awhile. The doctor dosed her with medicine, and Branna with soup, so she’s well again.”

  “It’s good to hear it.”

  “You brought the rain,” Boyle commented.

  “Apparently. And Branna. You look more than well.”

  “I’m well enough. You cut your travels short then?”

  “Six weeks was long enough. Did you miss me?”

  “No. Not a bit.”

  He smiled at her, quick and again sharp, then turned those vivid eyes on Iona. “You’d be the American cousin. Iona, is it?”

  “Yes.”

  “Fin Burke,” he said and extended a hand over the table. “As this lot doesn’t have the manners for introductions.”

  She took his hand automatically, and felt the heat, a quick zip of power. Still smiling, he cocked an eyebrow as if to say: What were you expecting?

  “Another Guinness for you?” he asked.

  “Oh, no. Despite understanding and generous bosses, this is my limit. Thanks anyway.”

  “I wouldn’t mind some tea before I head out in the rain,” Meara said. “Thanks, Fin.”

  “Tea then. Another pint, Boyle?”

  “I’m in my truck, so this will have to do me.”

  “I’m on my feet,” Connor said, “so I’ll have another.”

  “Sure I’ll join you.” Fin had barely glanced around when their waitress hurried up. “Hello there, Clare. The ladies, they’ll have tea. Connor and I will have a pint. Guinness tonight.”

  He found a chair, pulled it
up. “We won’t bring business into the party,” he said to Boyle. “We’ll talk later in that area, though I think we’ve kept each other up to date. And you as well, Connor.”

  “Suits me. I took Merlin out a few times while you were rambling, as did Meara,” Connor told him. “And he took himself out when he wanted. Will you be coming by the school tomorrow?”

  “I’ll make a point of it, and the stables.”

  “Make sure you have a kind word for Kevin and Mooney.” Boyle lifted his beer. “As your newest acquisition battered both of them.”

  “Got spirit, he does, and an iron will. Has he battered you as well?”

  “Not for lack of trying. He likes this one.” Boyle nodded toward Iona.

  Locking eyes with Iona again, Fin tapped his fingers on the table as if to an inner tune. “Does he now.”

  “After doing his damnedest to buck me across to Galway, the Yank here mounts him and takes him around the ring like a show horse.”

  Fin smiled slowly. “Is that a fact? Are you a horsewoman then, Iona?”

  “It is, and she is,” Boyle answered. “She’s now in our employ, which I’m keeping you up to date with in person.”

  “Happy to have you. A working holiday for you, is it?”

  “I . . . I’m going to live here. That is, I’m living here now.”

  “Well then, welcome home. Your grandmother’s well, I hope. Mrs. O’Connor?”

  “Very. Thanks.” To keep them still, Iona clutched her hands together under the table. “I needed a job, so Branna asked Boyle to meet with me. I worked at Laurel Riding Academy in Maryland. I have references, and my resume. That is, Boyle has them now, if you need to see them.”

  Shut up, shut up, she ordered herself, but nerves overwhelmed her. “You have a wonderful operation. Meara showed me around. And you’re right. Alastar has spirit, and a strong will, but he’s not mean. Not innately. He’s just mad and unsettled, finding himself in a strange place, with people and horses he’s not used to. Now he has something to prove, especially to Boyle.

  “Thank God,” she breathed when the tea arrived. She could use it to stop her mouth.

  “You make her nervous.” Amused now, Branna spoke to Fin. “She tends to chatter on when she’s nervous.”

  “I do. Sorry.”

  “And apologizes continually. That really has to stop, Iona.”

  “It does. Why did you buy him—Alastar?” she began. Then held up a hand. “Sorry. None of my business. Plus you said you didn’t want to talk business.”

  “He’s beautiful. I have a weakness for beauty, and strength, and . . . power.”

  “He’s all that,” Meara agreed. “And anyone who knows bloody anything about horses knows he’s not meant to plod around with tourists on his back every day.”

  “No, he’s meant for other things.” He looked at Branna. “Needed for other things.”

  “What are you about?” she murmured.

  “He spoke to me. You understand me,” he said to Iona.

  “Yes. Yes.”

  “So, he’s here, and on her way is the prettiest filly in the West Counties. Spirited, too, a two-year-old, fine as a princess. She’s Aine, for the faerie queen. We’ll be playing matchmaker there, Boyle, when she’s mature enough. Until she is, she’ll do well on the jump course, even, I think, with novices.”

  “You’ve more than breeding on your mind.” Branna nudged her tea aside.

  “Ah, darling, breeding’s ever on it.”

  “You knew she’d come, and what it would mean. It’s already begun.”

  “We’ll talk about it.” Fin laid a hand over Branna’s on the table. “But not in the pub.”

  “No, not in the pub.” She drew her hand from under his. “You know more than you say, and I’ll want the truth of it.”

  Irritation simmered in his eyes. “I’ve never lied to you, mo chroi. Not in all our lives, and you know it. Even when a lie could have given me what I wanted most.”

  “Leaving gaps is no different from a bold lie.” She pushed to her feet. “I’ve work yet. Boyle, use your truck to see Iona back to the hotel, would you? I won’t have her walking through the wood at night.”

  “Oh, but—”

  “I’ll see to it.” Boyle interrupted Iona’s protest smoothly. “Not to worry.”

  “I’ll get that salve to you in the morning. And see you, Iona, tomorrow, after work. We’ve much more to do.”

  “Well and hell.” Connor sighed, started to rise as Branna left.

  “No, stay and finish your pint.” Meara rubbed at Connor’s arm as if to soothe even as she pushed back her chair. “I’ll go with her. It’s time I started home anyway. Thanks for the tea, Fin, and welcome back. I expect I’ll see the lot of you tomorrow.”

  Grabbing her jacket, Meara dragged it on as she hurried out of the pub.

  Connor patted Iona’s arm. “You’ll need to get used to that.”

  “That’s God’s truth,” Fin muttered, then very deliberately eased back, smiled. “I tend to put our Branna in difficult moods. So tell us, Iona from America, what is it you’ve seen and done in Ireland?”

  “I . . .” How could they just pick up the small talk when the air actively pulsed with temper and heartbreak? “Ah . . . not very much. And a lot, I guess. I came to meet Branna and Connor, and to find a place, to find work. Now I have. But I haven’t had time, yet, to see anything but here. It’s so beautiful, it’s enough.”

  “We’ll have to get you out and about more than that. You say you found a place, to live you mean? That’s quick work.”

  “I’m staying at Ashford for a few more days.”

  “Now there’s a rare treat.”

  “It really is. Then I’m going to live with Branna and Connor.” She saw his eyes flicker, narrow, shift quickly to Connor. “Is that a problem?”

  In answer, Fin leaned over the table, kept those eyes focused on her face. “She knew you. She reaches out to many, but holds precious few. Home is sanctuary. If hers is yours, she knew you. Have a care with them,” he murmured to Connor. “By all the gods.”

  “Don’t doubt it.”

  “Speaking of gaps.” Frustrated, Iona looked from one man to the other, and to Boyle who sat, saying nothing at all. She’d get nothing out of any of them, not there and then. “I should go. Thanks for dinner, Connor, and for the tea, Fin. You don’t have to drive me back to the hotel, Boyle.”

  “She’ll skin my arse if I don’t, and it could be literal. I’ll see you back at home,” he said to Fin.

  “I’ll be coming along shortly.”

  Stuck, Iona walked to the door. She took one glance back, caught a glimpse of Fin brooding into his pint, and Connor leaning over the table, talking quick and low.

  She stepped out into windy rain, and found herself grateful after all for the ride.

  “You and Fin live together?”

  “I keep my place over the garage, and make use of his house when I’ve a mind to, as he’s out as much as in. It’s handy for both of us, living there near the big stables.”

  He opened the door of an old truck with faded red paint, and reaching in, shoved at the clutter on the seat. “Sorry about that. I wasn’t expecting a passenger.”

  “Don’t worry about it. It’s a relief to see someone’s as messy as I am.”

  “If that’s the way of it, take a warning. Hide and confine your debris. Branna’s orderly, and she’ll hound you like a dog if you leave things flung about.”

  “So noted.”

  She boosted up, slid in among clipboards, wrappers, an old towel, rags, and a shallow cardboard box holding hoof picks, bridle rings, a couple of batteries, and a screwdriver.

  He got in the opposite door, shoved a key in the ignition.

  “You didn’t say much in there.”

  “Being friends with all parties, I find it best to stay out of it altogether.”

  The truck rattled, the rain pattered, and Iona settled back.

  “They’re a t
hing.”

  “Who’s a thing?”

  “Branna and Fin. They either are, or were, involved. The sexual buzz was so loud my ears are still ringing.”

  He shifted, frowned out at the road. “I’m not after gossiping about friends.”

  “It’s not gossip. It’s an observation. It must be complicated, for both of them. And it’s clear I need to know what’s going on. You know more about any of it than I do, and I’m in it.”

  “Put yourself there from what I can see.”

  “Maybe I did. So what? How did you know I’m like them?”

  “I’ve known them most of my life, been a part of theirs. I saw it in you, with the horse.”

  Brows knit, she shifted to face him. “Most people wouldn’t be so casual about it. Why are you?”

  “I’ve known them most of my life,” he repeated.

  “I don’t see how it can be that simple. I can do this.” She held out her palm and, focusing hard, managed to flick a small flame in its center.

  It was pitiful compared to Branna, but she’d been working on it off and on.

  He barely glanced her way. “Convenient if you’re backpacking and misplace the matches.”

  “You’re a cool customer.” She had to admire it. “If I’d pulled that on the guy I’d been dating, he’d have gone through the door, leaving a cartoon-guy hole in it.”

  “Must not have been much for backpacking.”

  She started to laugh, then caught her breath when fog rose up on the road ahead like a wall. Her hands balled into fists as the truck punched through it, tightened as the fog blanketed over them.

  “Do you hear that? Can you hear that?”

  “Hear what?”

  “My name. He keeps saying my name.”

  Though he was forced to slow to a crawl, Boyle kept his hands steady on the wheel. “Who’s saying your name?”

 
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