Dark witch, p.14
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       Dark Witch, p.14

         Part #1 of The Cousins O'Dwyer series by Nora Roberts
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  When Darling angled her head so her cheek pressed to Boyle’s, and when he took the half apple out of his pocket, and fed it to her, Iona knew she was done.

  “I’ll get another for Winnie. You haven’t had enough of them in your life.”

  “That’s done it,” Iona muttered. “I’m good at getting mad, mostly when it’s justified. At least I think so. But I suck at staying mad. I just can’t hold on to it, it’s so heavy. Then add in me standing here watching this mutual love affair, and I can’t do it. So I’m finished being mad at you, if that matters.”

  Boyle eyed her with some cautious speculation. “The day and the work go easier without having the mad weighing it down.”

  “Agreed. So.” She held out a hand. “Peace?”

  He frowned at her hand a moment, but he took it. He meant to let it go, right away. But he didn’t.

  “You work for me.”

  Iona nodded. “That’s true.”

  “You’re cousin to one of my closest mates.”

  Her pulse skipped lightly, but she nodded again. “I am.”

  “And it’s barely a week since I first set eyes on you.”

  “I can’t argue.”

  “And what you are is . . . a matter.”

  Now she frowned. “A matter of what?”

  “A matter of, well, fact. And something you yourself are just getting acquainted with.”

  “Okay. Is it the fact that’s a problem for you?”

  “I wasn’t saying it was a problem.”

  “Are you a witch bigot?”

  Insult flew across his face so the green shimmered deeper over the tawny gold of his eyes. “That’s a softheaded thing to say, seeing as I’m friends with three of them, and one of those stands as my partner as well.”

  “Then why did you bring it up as one of the reasons you’re not or shouldn’t be—I’m not sure which—interested in me?”

  “Because it’s there. It is. And I’d like to know one single bloody man,” he continued with some heat, “who wouldn’t give it some considerable thought.”

  “Maybe I should get mad again.” She mulled it over. “But it’s hard to work that up when Darling’s standing there watching you with adoring eyes. Plus, everything you said is true, can’t be denied. And if all of that is an issue for you, it is. None of it’s an issue for me.”

  “But you’re not standing where I’m standing.”

  “No, I’m not. Peace holds.” And so, if you factored in her hand, did he. “Are we good?”

  “Some of it should be an issue for you.”

  “Why? People get involved with bosses and employees all the time, and it’s fine—from my point of view—as long as the power structure isn’t used as a lever. People date friends’ relatives all the time, too. And I can’t, and wouldn’t, change what I am.”

  “Being logical doesn’t change a thing.”

  She had to laugh. “Being illogical does?”

  “It’s not— Bloody hell.”

  He gave her his second yank of the day, as frustrated as the first. And since she was still laughing, he put the stop to it by crushing his mouth to hers.

  She tasted as he imagined light would, warm and bright with a snap of energy. It pulled at him, that taste, made him want more of it, and more still. She befuddled him, that’s all it was, all that warm and bright there in the dim, closed in by the familiar scent of horses. His world, and now she was in it.

  And she wrapped her arms around him as if she always would be.

  If that didn’t jolt a man, what would?

  He jerked back. “This isn’t wise.”

  “I wasn’t thinking about wise or unwise. Kiss me again and I will.”

  She had to boost up on her toes, pull his head down, but she met his mouth with hers. She thought it was like clinging to a volcano just before it erupted, or flying on a cloud about to swirl into a tornado.

  What would it be like when the fire spewed and the storm broke?

  She wanted, very much, to find out.

  But again, he drew back. “You’re not thinking.”

  “You’re right, I forgot. Let’s try it again.”

  He laughed himself, and though there was a little pain in it, he might have taken her up on it. Except for the exaggerated throat-clearing behind him.

  “Begging your pardon, but Sarah and her mother are here.” Kevin gave a wide smile. “Winnie’s saddled and ready—that is, whenever you are.”

  “I’m on my way.” She looked at Boyle. “Is there paperwork?”

  “Just a form for her mother to sign. I’ll take care of that.”

  “All right. I’ll go get her started.”

  As Iona strode out, Darling gave another whicker that might have been an equine chuckle. Kevin slid his hands in his pockets, whistled a tune.

  “Not a bloody word,” Boyle muttered. “From either of you.”

  * * *

  PLEASED WITH HER DAY ON EVERY LEVEL, IONA WALKED HOME THROUGH THE GREEN SHADOWS. It felt good to step into her instructor’s boots again, and with such a promising student. Maybe, with that door cracked, Fin or Boyle would trust her with another student or two.

  And speaking of doors cracking, the unexpected and thoroughly satisfying interlude in the stables gave both her ego and her mood a big, lofty boost.

  Plus, she could see some very interesting possibilities through that crack.

  Boyle McGrath, she thought. Tough, taciturn, temperamental. And a marshmallow when it came to the pretty, traumatized mare who adored him. She really wanted to get to know him better, to find out if all this fluttering and stirring equaled basic physical attraction, or something more.

  She’d hoped for something more most of her life.

  Plus, it boosted everything higher because he was reluctant, conflicted, and a little pissed off. He just couldn’t help himself, and that was so sexy.

  Maybe she should ask him out, just something casual. A drink at the pub? A movie? First she’d have to find out where people went to movies around here.

  If she could cook, she’d invite herself to his place to make him dinner. But there lay disaster waiting to happen. Maybe instead, she could . . .

  She paused, baffled as she glanced around. She hadn’t veered from the path, had she? Maybe she hadn’t paid strict attention, but after taking this walk back and forth for days, it was instinct.

  Yet, something was wrong, the direction seemed off.

  She did a circle, rubbing arms that had gone suddenly cold.

  And watched the fog crawl across the ground.

  “Uh-oh.”

  Iona took a step back, struggled to orient herself. On impulse she turned right, started down the narrow track at a jog. It took only seconds to realize she’d chosen wrong, and was moving deeper into the woods.

  When she turned around to backtrack, trees wide as her arm span blocked the way. Fog oozed between their rugged trunks.

  She ran. Better to run in any direction than become trapped. But to the right, trees pushed out of the ground, crackling, snapping as they broke through the turf. And forcing her to angle away.

  The light changed, going gray like the fog. Wind, ice-edged, whistled through limbs as they knotted and tangled together to close out the sun.

  Air, she thought frantically, trees through the earth, water in the form of fog.

  He used the elements against her.

  She forced herself to stop, pulled for power though fear rose with it. Throwing out her hands, she held twin balls of fire.

  The chuckle sounded low, pricked over her skin like the legs of a spider. She shivered at the whisper of her name. Then every muscle quivered at the rustle, at the growl.

  “Kathel.”

  But what stepped out of the gray light was the wolf of her nightmare.

  Not a dream this time. As real as her terror, as the wild beat of her heart.

  As he padded closer, slinking toward her, she caught a glimpse of the jewel glowing red at his throat.

/>   “Keep back,” she warned, and the wolf showed his fangs.

  She’d never outrun it, she thought even as she took a step back. And the look in its glinting eyes told her it knew.

  She hurled the fire, one ball, then the other, only to watch them burst into smoke inches from the wolf that stalked her. Desperate, she struggled to conjure another, but her hands shook, and her mind clogged with terror.

  Quiet mind, she ordered, but it wanted to scream.

  All real, she thought. It had all seemed so fanciful, so otherworldly—sorcerers, curses, fighting an evil that lived in shadows.

  But it was all very, very real. And it meant to kill her.

  She saw the wolf poised, ready to spring. Then on a feral scream, the hawk dived out of the sky. Its talons scored the wolf’s flank, drawing blood as black as the hide before the hawk soared up again.

  A moment’s hot relief doused when a second growl sounded behind her. When she whirled, relief poured back. Kathel stood snarling. Iona sidestepped to him, laid a hand on his head, and felt a ribbon of calm wind through her fear even as Connor, then Branna, stepped through the fog.

  Connor lifted one gloved arm so the hawk glided down to land, wings outstretched.

  “Take my hand,” he told Iona, keeping his eyes calm and cold on the wolf.

  “And mine.”

  Connor and Branna flanked her, and when hands joined it wasn’t calm she felt, but the hot rise of power filling her like life.

  “Will you test us here?” Branna challenged. “Will you try it here and now?” A bolt of light, jagged as lightning, flew from her outstretched hand, arrowed into the ground a bare whisper from the wolf’s forelegs. It retreated. The red jewel glowed, fiercely red; its snarl sounded like thunder, but it retreated.

  Fog gathered in on itself, boiled into a smaller and smaller mass. Connor lifted Iona’s hand with his. Light glowed from it, spread and strengthened until the fog tore and vanished.

  And with it, the wolf was gone.

  “I . . . God, I was just—”

  “Not here,” Branna snapped out at Iona. “We’ll not be talking here.”

  “Take her back to the cottage. Roibeard and I will have a look around, then we’ll be home.”

  Branna nodded at Connor. “Have a care.”

  “I always do. Go on now with Branna.” He gave Iona’s hand a steadying squeeze. “You’ll have a tot of whiskey, and you’ll do fine enough.”

  With Iona’s hand clasped in hers, that power still humming at the edges, Branna strode briskly through the woods. Wanting nothing more than to get inside, Iona let herself be pulled along despite her shaking knees.

  “I couldn’t—”

  “Not until we’re inside. Not a bloody word about it.”

  The dog led the way, always in sight. As she saw the cottage through the trees—at last—Iona watched the hawk circle through the heavy sky.

  The minute they were inside, Iona’s teeth began to chatter. As gray teased the edges of her vision, she pressed her hands to her knees, lowered her head between them.

  “Sorry. Dizzy.”

  “Hold your guts a moment.” Though her voice rang with impatience, the hand Branna laid on the back of Iona’s head stayed gentle, and the dizziness passed as quickly as it had come.

  “Sit,” she ordered, giving Iona a shove into the living room, flicking her fingers toward the smoldering fire to have the flames leap up and spread more heat. “You’re having a bit of shock, that’s all. So sit, breathe.”

  Briskly she walked to a decanter, poured two fingers of whiskey in a short glass. “And drink.”

  Iona drank, hissed a little, drank again. “Just a little . . .” She sighed. “Scared shitless.”

  “Why were you off the path, and so deep?”

  “I don’t know. It just happened. I didn’t turn off, or don’t remember turning off. I was just walking home, and thinking about stuff. Boyle,” she admitted. “We made up.”

  “Oh well, that’s fine then.” With two jerks, Branna pulled pins from her hair, tossed them on the table as it tumbled free. “All’s well.”

  “I didn’t go off the path, not knowingly. And when I realized I wasn’t where I was supposed to be, should’ve been, I started back. But . . . the fog came first.”

  Iona looked down at the empty glass, set it down. “I knew what it meant.”

  “And didn’t call us, or your guide? Called to none of us.”

  “It all happened so fast. The trees—they moved, the fog closed in. Then the wolf was there. How did you come? How did you know?”

  “Connor was out with Roibeard, and the hawk saw, from above. You can thank him for calling Connor, and me.”

  “I will. I do. Branna—” She broke off as the door opened and Connor walked in.

  “There’s nothing now. He’s gone to whatever hole he uses.” He walked to the whiskey, poured his own. “And how are you doing now, cousin?”

  “Okay. All right. Thank you. I’m sorry I—”

  “I don’t want apologies,” Branna snapped. “I want sense. Where’s your amulet?”

  “I—” Iona reached for it, then remembered. “I left it in my room this morning. I forgot—”

  “Don’t forget, and don’t take it off.”

  “Ease back a bit there.” Connor touched Branna’s arm as he walked over to Iona. “You gave us all a fright.” Now his hand stroked Iona’s arm, and the calm seeped into her. “It’s not your fault. It’s not her fault,” he said to Branna before she could snap back. “She’s barely a week under her feet. We’ve a lifetime.”

  “She won’t have time or opportunity for more if she doesn’t have the good sense to wear what protection she has, and to call out for her guide and for us when she needs more.”

  “And who’s been educating her if not you?” Connor tossed back.

  “Oh, so it’s my fault now she’s no more sense than a babe in a pram.”

  “Don’t fight about me, and don’t talk over me. It was my fault.” Steadier, Iona rose to go stand nearer the fire, and the warmth. “I took off the amulet, and I wasn’t paying attention. Neither will happen again. I’m sorry I—”

  “By all that’s holy, I swear I’ll sew your lips shut a week on the next apology.”

  Iona just threw up her hands at Branna’s threat. “I don’t know what else to say.”

  “Just tell us what happened, in detail, before we got to you,” Branna told her. “No, back in the kitchen. I’ll make the tea.”

  Iona followed her back, then crouched to pet Kathel, to thank him. “I was walking home, from the big stables.”

  “Why were you there?”

  “Oh, Fin sent for me. They gave me a student, for jumping instruction. I rode over on Alastar. We flew a little.”

  “Sweet Brighid.”

  “I didn’t mean to, exactly, and I stopped. Then Fin had to leave, but Boyle stayed to supervise, to make sure I didn’t screw it up, I’d say. I asked to meet Darling, but first I met Aine, and oh my God, she’s miraculous.”

  “I’m not interested in a report on the horses,” Branna reminded her.

  “I know, but I’m trying to explain. Then I met Darling, and watched her and Boyle, and I couldn’t stay mad at him. Then one thing led to another because I wasn’t mad at him.”

  “Why were you?” Connor wondered.

  “Oh, we had kind of a thing this morning when he picked me up.”

  “He kissed the brains out of her ears,” Branna supplied, and Connor’s grin broke out.

  “Boyle? Did he indeed?”

  “Then he was rude and nasty, and that pissed me off. But then, watching him and Darling, I just couldn’t stay mad, so I told him I wasn’t mad anymore, and then it was the one thing leading to another and he just grabbed me and did it again. I’ve probably lost at least twenty percent of my brain cells now. And the lesson went really well, it felt so good to have a student again, so I was feeling good, and distracted,” she admitted, “and thinking t
hat maybe I should ask Boyle out—for a drink or the movies, or something. It was such a good day, after a rocky start, and I was just full of all of it. Then I wasn’t where I should’ve been.”

  She told them the details she remembered.

  “You didn’t focus,” Branna said. “If you’re to use fire as defense or offense, you have to mean it.”

  “She’s never used it against anything or anyone,” Connor pointed out. “But she had the wit and the power to bring the fire. Next time she’ll burn his arse. Won’t you, Iona darling?”

  “Damn right.” Because she’d never feel that helpless and terrorized again. “I was going to try again, and okay, I was terrified. Then Roibeard dived out of the sky. He’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

  “He makes a picture,” Connor said with a smile.

  “Then Kathel was there, then both of you. I did freeze,” she admitted. “It was like being caught in a dream. The fog, the black wolf, the red gem glowing at its throat.”

  “Feeding his power. The stone,” Branna explained, “and your fear. We’ll work harder. You’ll wear the amulet. Connor will walk you to the stables in the mornings, and we’ll see someone brings you home at the end of the day.”

  “Oh, but—”

  “Branna’s right. A week and he’s come at you in dreams, and in the here and now. We’ll be more careful, is all. Until we decide what’s to be done. Go get the amulet now, and we’ll get to work.”

  Iona rose. “Thanks for being there.”

  “You’re ours,” Connor said simply. “We’re yours.”

  The words, and the quiet loyalty in them, made Iona’s eyes sting as she hurried through the back toward the kitchen and the cottage.

  “She’s taken on a great deal in no time at all,” Connor began.

  “I know it. I know it perfectly well.”

  “And you were sharp with her, as you were frightened for her.”

  Branna said nothing a moment, just went about the soothing process of making the tea. “I’m the one who’s teaching her.”

  “It’s not your fault any more than it’s hers. And this was, for all of us, a lesson learned. He’s grown bold since she’s come here.”

  “With the three of us together, he knows, as we do, the time’s coming. If he can harm her, or turn her—”

  “She won’t turn.”

  “She won’t, no, not willingly. She’s got your loyalty, I think, and far too much gratitude for too little given.”

  “When you’ve had less than little in some things, you’re grateful for even a spoonful of more. We’ve always had each other. And we’ve always been loved. She wants love, the giving and the having of it. I didn’t pry,” he added. “It’s so much a part of her, I can’t not see it.”

  “I see it myself. Well, she has us now, like it or not.”

 
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