Stars of fortune, p.12
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       Stars of Fortune, p.12

         Part #1 of The Guardians series by Nora Roberts
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  “Hell of a house in a hell of a spot. Whose is it?”

  “Friend of a friend of an uncle—of Riley’s. She’s connections.”


  “It has been. McCleary, is it? So your people are from Ireland?”

  “Back a ways,” Doyle said as they started upstairs.

  “Mine are still there—or most of them. Sligo.”

  “Clare. I’m told.”

  “Well, McCleary. Either of these two rooms are open to you.”

  “This one’s fine.”

  “Then it’s yours. Be at home, and if you’ll come down when you’re ready, we’ll put some food together and talk this through.”

  He went into his own room, stripped down, and took a good look at his side. The cuts and slices on his arms didn’t bother him overmuch, but his side showed a maze of punctures and gashes from when a group of the bastards had swarmed him when he’d tried to get to Sasha.

  Gone now, he thought. He’d burned them to cinders, but they’d gotten some pieces of him along the way. He moved to the dresser, brushed a hand over the drawer to release the locking spell he’d put on. He lifted out a case where he kept some potions and brews, took what he needed, locked up the rest again.

  In the shower, he hissed as the water hit the wounds, then just braced his hands on the tile wall, and let those wounds run clean.

  Once he’d washed, let the water beat most of the aches away, he got out of the shower, examined the wounds again, and laid the salve on thick. Immediately the raw edge of pain eased. He bandaged it as best he could, dressed, then went to face the music.

  * * *

  Sasha wept in the shower. The jag increased the headache, but she felt steadier purged of tears. She ran the water as hot as she could bear until it no longer felt as if spiders crawled over her skin. She scrubbed that skin, ignoring the pain when she hit cuts and scrapes, washed her hair. Scrubbed again, washed again.

  And finally felt clean.

  After wrapping herself in a towel, she wiped the mirror clear of fog, studied her face, traced the bruising at her neck.

  She’d been weak, she thought, and couldn’t, wouldn’t be weak again. If she continued this—and she knew she would—she had to be smarter, stronger, more prepared. She wouldn’t cower back a second time while some demon goddess from hell tried to take her over.

  She wouldn’t be used again or deceived again.

  “People underestimate you because you underestimate yourself,” she told her reflection. “That stops now.”

  She walked out of the bath, then stopped when she saw Bran at her open terrace doors, looking out.

  “I need you to leave.”

  He turned back, studied her as she stood, hair sleek and wet, her hand clutching the towel between her breasts. And insult and anger in her eyes.

  “I have a salve.” He held up the small jar. “I can help with the wounds, and with the pain.”

  “I don’t want—”

  “Stop being a git. You’re not a stupid woman. You want to be pissed, be pissed,” he invited as his own temper clawed at him. “Stay pissed after I explain, that’s your choice to make, but now you’ll sit down and let me help.”

  “You’re not in charge of me.”

  “And thank the gods for that. But we’re all in this together, and I’ll do what I can to help the others in turn. But you took the brunt of it. Now sit down, and be pissed and smart.”

  Refusing, she realized, was weak, was letting her hurt and disappointment cloud judgment. She needed to be strong and well to fight.

  So she sat on the side of the bed.

  He came over, set the salve down. And laid his hands gently on her head.

  “That’s not—”

  “Your head aches, that’s clear to see. She tried getting into your mind, didn’t she? And you’ve been crying. So your head hurts.” He brushed his thumbs over her temples, her forehead. “I’m not as good at this as others, but with you being an empath—”

  “I’m not.”

  “For Christ’s sake, woman, don’t argue with what I know.” Impatience snapped, a whiplash. “You block most out, but it’s there. Use it now, in a kind of reverse, and that will help me help you. Let me feel it, open up and let me feel. We’ll start with the headache, as you’ll think clearer then.”

  Because he was right, because there’d been impatience rather than pity, she closed her eyes, offered her pain.

  “There now,” he murmured, and his fingers stroked her brow, her skull, her temples. “It’s a dark gray cloud.” He ran his hands down, pressed thumbs into the base of her neck. “It’s whisking away as a breeze comes up. Cool and fresh. Feel it.”

  She did, and the horrible, gripping pressure eased. “Yes, that’s better. That’s better,” she repeated, and nudged his hands aside. “Thank you.”

  “You’ve cuts and scrapes and bruises, and a puncture or two. The salve alone will do for that, but this gash needs more. Annika did a fine—what do they call it?—field dressing. She’s an array of disparate talents. Let me feel it.

  “Yes, it’s hot, and it throbs.” And would scar if he couldn’t fix it. It surprised him how the thought of that upset him. “But it’s clean. Nothing to fester here.”

  “How do you know?”

  “You know, and I can see what you know here. Help me cool it now, help me close it.”

  She lost herself in his eyes. It occurred to her later he must have taken her into some light trance, but her feelings seemed to touch his, like fingertips, and the heat of her arm cooled.

  “That’s good now, that’s fine. And the salve will do the rest right enough.”

  A little dazed, she looked down to see the gash closed, and no more than a long scrape remaining.

  “But, that’s—”

  “Magick?” he suggested. “It’s healing, and you’re doing most of the work. What about your leg? You’re favoring the right one.”

  “I don’t know. I must have twisted or turned my ankle in the cave. When the bats . . .”

  “We won’t think of them now.” He crouched, skimmed his hands over her ankle, eased back when she flinched. “Tender, is it? We’ll fix it.”

  She understood now, let him in. Imagined the swelling, the tendons and muscles while his fingers circled and stroked.

  Then he rose. “Your throat, that’s the worst of it, and the hardest. She touched you.”

  “She didn’t. Not physically.”

  “And that’s the deepest wound, you see? Her power against ours. I think it will hurt to heal this, at first. You have to trust me.”

  “Then I will. For this.”

  “Keep your eyes on mine. I don’t have what you have, but what I have will help you lift this away.”

  He closed his hands lightly, gently, around her throat, covering the raw bruises.

  It did hurt. A sudden shock of pain stole her breath, had her gripping the side of the bed to hold herself in place. She fought not to cry out—weak, weak—but a moan escaped.

  “I’m sorry. A little more.”

  He murmured in Irish now, words that meant nothing to her, but the tone, both comfort and distress, helped her bear it. Then, as the rest, it eased. The relief made her head spin.

  “It’s better.”

  “It needs to be gone. I won’t leave her mark on you. I should have stopped it.”

  “You did. With blinding bolts of lightning. That’s enough. It doesn’t hurt.”

  She shifted away, stood. “You should take the salve for the others.”

  “That’s for you. I have more.”

  “I’ll be down as soon as I get dressed. We all have a lot to talk about.”

  “We do.” But he stood where he was, waited.

  “You lied to me.”

  “I never did.”

  “The absence of truth—”

  “Isn’t always a lie. Sometimes it’s just personal business.”

  “I told you everything about me, everything I kne
w, and you . . . What are you? A warlock?”

  He winced, had to struggle not to be insulted. “Some will insist on turning that word away from its origin—which is one who does evil, even the devil—and making into a man with powers. I’ll take witch, even sorcerer, but I prefer magician, which is what I told you when we met.”

  Accusations, and worse, much worse, disappointed hurt lived in her eyes.

  “You know what I thought you meant.”

  “I do, and there’s an absence there. Still, I do stage magic to make a living and to entertain myself. And my blood, my craft, my gift, and my honor is in white magicks. But it’s considerable to share with someone who doesn’t trust her own gifts, fáidh. What would your reaction have been, I wonder, if I’d shown you more than a bit of sleight of hand at first?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “My family keeps our bloodline to ourselves, not out of shame, but caution. I can wish now I’d been able to show you what I am, who I am, in its entirety, in a less dramatic way, but Nerezza took the choice out of my hands.”

  “She meant to drain me.”

  “I never anticipated, and for that . . . I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t plan it better, or find a better way. But I can’t be sorry for what I am, or for waiting until I felt there was real trust before I told you, or the others.”

  “Did you kiss me to help create trust?”

  He cursed, surprising her with the quick flare of anger as he strode around the room. “That’s an insult to both of us. Bloody hell.”

  He grabbed her, yanked her to him without any of the care or gentleness he’d shown in the healing. The flare of anger remained hot and ready in the kiss.

  “You know it all now, so what was that about, do you suppose?”

  “I have to think about it.”

  “Fine then, you do that.”

  “I’ll be down when I’m dressed.”

  “That’s grand.” He strode out, gave the door a quick, bad-tempered slam.

  She turned, walked to the mirror. No marks remained on her throat, and color had come back into her face. She didn’t feel weak now, Sasha realized.

  And that was a damn good start.

  * * *

  Sawyer put his spin on sandwiches with grilled ham and cheese. Annika once again created a tablescape with napkins folded into flowers arranged along a winding river of plates. Once again wearing one of her flowy dresses, she stopped her work to turn and give Sasha a hard and heartfelt hug.

  “You look pretty, and you feel better.”

  “Thanks, and I do. Were you hurt?”

  “Only a little, and Bran gave us a salve that smells very nice. Don’t have mad at him.”

  “I’m working on it. Where’s . . . I can’t remember his name.”

  “You mean Doyle. Doyle McCleary. Riding his dragon is fun. He came down, and he wanted to walk around the villa, to see the lay of the land.”

  “Can’t blame him. Annika, thank you for helping me when I was hurt.”

  “We’re here to help each other.”

  As simple as that, Sasha thought. “You’re exactly right. Let’s have some wine.”

  “I like wine.”

  “I’ll get it.”

  She went into the kitchen, where Sawyer flipped the last of the sandwiches onto a platter, and Riley pulled beer from the fridge.

  “Dead-Eye here has hidden depths,” Riley said. “He made salsa.”

  “Everything was here.” Sawyer turned. “Ready to eat?”

  Sasha hadn’t thought she could face food, and now found the opposite true. “More than, and those look great. We’re missing Doyle and Bran.”

  “They’re doing a walkabout. Snooze you lose,” Riley announced. “How’re you doing?”

  “Fine now. How about both of you?”

  “Bumps and cuts, and nothing a hot shower and Bran’s magic salve didn’t deal with. Probably shouldn’t have said magic,” Riley realized.

  “It is what it is. Annika and I are having wine.” She chose a bottle, got glasses, and took them out with her.

  “She came around quick,” Sawyer observed.

  “Men.” Pitying him, Riley screwed a half dozen beers into a bucket she’d filled with ice. “She’s pissed, cutie. Down to a smolder maybe, but pissed—and trying to figure out how she feels about the fact that she was locking lips a few hours ago with a guy who turns out to be a sorcerer.”

  “Oh, yeah? Lip-lock?”

  “Talk about smoldering.” She winked at him, hefted the bucket. And noticed when she carried it out, Bran and Doyle rounding the side of the villa. They struck her as pretty easy with each other already.

  “Order up!” she called to Sawyer, then plucked out a beer, dropped down into a chair. She waited until Sawyer brought the food, until others had taken wine or beer. Then lifted her own bottle.

  “Here’s to a damn good fight.”

  When Sasha just stared, Riley gestured with the bottle. “Any fight you walk away from and polish off with a cold beer is a good fight.”

  “Can’t argue with that.” Doyle took a sandwich. “Got beer, got food—and appreciate it. But I still don’t have answers. Mr. Wizard’s being vague. Let’s get specific.”

  “Mr. Wizard.” Riley snorted out a laugh. “That’s a good one,” she insisted as the others kept silent. “Sash, you should start rolling the ball, seeing as you got things going.”

  “I don’t think I got anything going, but all right.” She took a sip of wine first. “I’m an artist.”

  “I could see that from the sketch.”

  “I live in North Carolina, now. I’ve always had . . .”

  “A gift,” Bran finished, as if daring her to contradict him.

  She just ignored him. “Right after the first of the year, I began having dreams, about us—all of us here—and about the stars.”

  She took him up to her arrival at the hotel in Corfu.

  “So you just hopped on a plane and . . . followed your dreams?”

  “I couldn’t ignore them, couldn’t make them stop, so yes, that’s what I did. Riley, you should take it from there.”

  “Sure. Most excellent salsa,” she added, and dipped a chip in the hill she’d put on her plate. “Tracking legends, myths, finding antiquities and artifacts—that’s what I do. The stars have been on my radar for a long time, and I’d dug up some information that arrowed here. I’d just finished a job, had some time, and decided to see what I could find out on the spot.”

  She waved the bottle, took another hit.

  “The thing is—and I didn’t mention this before—I didn’t plan to stay in that hotel. I’d planned to come to this area all along, but I had this impulse, is the best I can say. Treat yourself to a good hotel for a day or two, Riley, take a break. So there I was, taking a break with a very nice Bellini on the hotel terrace, and up walks the blonde.”

  When she’d finished her side of it, she reached for another beer. “Over to you, Bran.”

  He’d wrangled with himself over how much to tell them, what he should hold back. And decided, considering all, on full disclosure.

  “Someone in my family, generation by generation, has been tasked to look for the stars, to hold them safe, and to one day return them to where they began, to where they can never be used for ill. So it came to me. We descend from Celene.”

  “The goddess?” Riley set her beer down. “You’re a god?”

  “I’m not.” Impatience sharpened his voice. “I’m what I told you. I’m a magician, and descended from her. She mated with a sorcerer—a mortal—and bore his son.”

  “The demigod Movar,” Riley prompted, “conceived with the sorcerer called Asalri.”

  “As you say.”

  “And Movar had five sons and three daughters. I know the legend. Or,” Riley corrected, “your family tree.”

  “The gift of magicks has come through the blood, and so has the quest for the stars. I came here because, as with you, Riley, I came upon some informat
ion. While once again scouring books until my eyes bled, I came on a passage that spoke of a fallen star, one of fire, waiting in a land of green. You might think Greenland, and I did, or Ireland, but there was more that convinced me it was here. It was written the maidens of Korkyra had hidden it, away from the mother of lies.”

  “Not much different from what I found,” Riley said. “And the timing? You, me, Sasha? It cements it.”

  “I’d barely arrived, and like you, booked the hotel on impulse as I thought to rent a villa. For the quiet, the privacy, as I’d need to work, and hotel rooms aren’t always . . . convenient for certain work.”

  “When you make magick,” Annika said, and made him smile.

  “When I do. And so I walked out on the hotel terrace, annoyed with myself for changing my plans and direction. Imagine my surprise when I found myself lured over to two beautiful women, with fascinating stories to tell.”

  “So you teamed up,” Doyle said.

  “I’d be the last to ignore power or turn away from the fates. And beyond the stories there were the sketches, Sasha’s brilliant sketches, which made it clear this was meant. Still, I felt it best to keep what I’m telling you now to myself.”

  He frowned at his beer, then shrugged. “Others have been deceived by lovely faces, by fascinating stories, by the whiff of power and the promise of trust. So I bided some time—and it can’t be said I bided long, can it?”

  Temper flared around the edges of his tone as he looked over at Sasha. “A bit of time to be more certain what I felt, what I knew was truth, and that meeting, that joining of forces was for the right of it.”

  He paused, considered having another beer. “So we piled ourselves into Riley’s borrowed jeep and headed north and west, where I had always planned to go. And Riley, being enterprising and well-connected, arranged this place for us. On the way back, after we’d gone to get our things from the hotel, there was Sawyer, walking toward this place, on the side of the road.”

  He opted for the beer. “And there,” he said to Sawyer, “you come into it.”

  “It’s a family thing for me, too. The story of the stars came down through my family. I’m not much of a scholar, not like Riley here, so most of what I know is through those stories. And . . .” He scratched the back of his neck, frowned into the distance.

  “Didn’t tell us the whole of it either, did you?” Bran asked.

  “Not exactly. It’s the sort of thing people don’t buy into, and like you said, it hasn’t been long since we teamed up. A psychic’s one thing—I mean a lot of people buy into that. Hell, it’s an industry. No offense.”

  “None taken,” Sasha assured him.

  “But after today. Mutant bats from hell, evil gods, and, well, Bran, it might not seem so weird. Family deal again. An ancestor, back in maybe—nobody’s exactly sure—the fourteenth century. He was a sailor, and his ship went down in a storm. So he’s drowning and, the story goes, he was rescued, pulled to shore by a
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