Dark witch, p.17
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       Dark Witch, p.17

         Part #1 of The Cousins O'Dwyer series by Nora Roberts
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  “Can you do that?”

  “I haven’t got the wings, but I don’t have lead either.”

  “Ask the lady to dance then, you git.” Fin dropped napkins on the table.

  Iona only shook her head. “I don’t know how to do that.”

  “Then it’s past time you learned,” Connor proclaimed and, snatching her hand, pulled her in.

  “You’re slow, brother,” Fin murmured to Boyle.

  “I move at the pace that suits me.”

  “Slow,” Fin repeated. “As a snail on a turtle’s back.”

  But Boyle shrugged it off. He liked watching Iona try to keep up with Connor’s fast and clever feet. More, he liked the way she laughed as she spun around.

  And who could argue with the laughter, he thought when Fin twirled Meara in three fast circles, and at the stove Branna clapped her hands in time.

  The light and the laughter felt good, felt needed. So he’d take it.

  Neither he nor any of the others in the bright kitchen with the warm smells, the quick music, the rolling laughter saw the shadow outside the rain-splashed window that watched. That hated.

  * * *

  WITH THE MEAL BEHIND THEM, THE KITCHEN PUT TO RIGHTS, and the hour growing late, Boyle readied to go.

  “We’ll see you home, Meara. I’ve my lorry. Branna, I meant to ask if you’ve any of the tonic you make for head colds. Mick’s been blowing and sneezing for the last two days, and I’ve a mind to pour some of it down his throat.”

  “I do, of course.” She started to rise.

  “I’ll get it for him,” Iona said. “In the blue bottle, right, on the shelves nearest the front window.”

  “That’s the one. You can settle up with me here or at the shop, Boyle, at the end of the month.”

  “I’ll do that, and thanks for dinner. I’ll meet you and Meara out front,” he told Fin.

  He walked back with Iona, made the turn into the workshop. She hit the lights.

  “I’ve been trying to get a good sense of her stock and what she keeps here, what she sells in the village. She won’t let me make anything yet—not unsupervised—but at least I’m learning some of what goes into what.”

  She reached for the bottle, clearly marked with Branna’s Dark Witch label. “I hope this helps Mick. He’s been miserable the last couple days.”

  “Less if he’d taken his medicine sooner.”

  “I guess swallowing witch potions makes some people nervous.”

  “He’ll swallow this, if I have to personally hold his nose.” Boyle slipped the bottle in his pocket. “I wanted to say, while there’s a moment, it meant something before, the way you stood up for Fin.”

  “Being excluded hurts, just like being blamed for what you are hurts. I can understand Branna’s feelings, but my instincts are to trust him, and I get tripped up when I go against my instincts. Sometimes when I go with them, too.”

  “Speaking out as you did, it mattered. So . . .” He shifted his feet. “We’ll go have dinner sometime.”

  “Oh?” Her heart grinned like an idiot, but she did her best to keep her smile polite. “All right.”

  “I prefer doing the asking. Whether or not that’s old-fashioned, it’s how it is.”

  “Good to know. My social calendar’s pretty clear.”

  “Then we’ll book something. I’ll see you in the morning.”

  He started out, got halfway to the door, turned back.

  This time Iona was ready for the grab, and grabbed him back.

  She loved the way he hauled her to her toes. It didn’t make her feel small. It made her feel wanted. The reluctance in it only added a sexy edge. Everything about the kiss, the heat of his lips, the strong grip of his hands made her feel irresistible.

  And that was a heady sensation, a powerful thrill.

  He kept meaning to take it slow with her, if at all. He’d taught himself control, learned—for the most part—to balance heat and temper with cool-headed thinking and logical steps.

  Yet here he was again, wrapped around her, wrapped up in her. And it was God’s own truth, he just wanted to sink there, be there, and draw all that natural sweetness, that cheerful energy in.

  And with it, he wanted his hands on all those pretty curves and dips, his mouth on that smooth skin. That surprisingly tough little body moving, moving, moving under his.

  She clung another moment when he would’ve pulled back, and nearly undid him.

  “Well then,” he managed, and ordered his hands back down by his sides. Then, safer yet, into his pockets.

  She just stood there, her pretty eyes heavy, her lips curved and so soft. So soft he wanted to—

  “You could come back, after you take Meara home. You could drop Fin off and come back. Then you could take me to work in the morning.”

  “I . . .” The idea of it, a night with her, had every need inside him threatening to boil over. “I’m thinking with Branna and Connor in the house that would be awkward at best. And there’s the matter of rushing the fences.”

  “You want dinner first.” Her smile perked up when she clearly saw he didn’t get the joke. “That’s fine. I think it’s simpler to be clear, from my side, that when it’s not awkward or rushed, I want to be with you. It’s not that I take sex lightly, it’s that I don’t.”

  “You’re a puzzle, Iona. I’d like to figure more of you out.”

  “That’s nice. I don’t think I’ve ever been a puzzle to anyone before. I think I like it.” She rose on her toes again, brushed his lips lightly with hers. “I’ll help you fit some of those pieces together if I can.”

  “I’ll work on it in my own time. In the morning then.”

  “Okay. Good night.”

  She locked up behind him, watched through the rain as he strode to his truck. And did a little dance in place as she watched the lights sweep, then move away through the dark.

  She puzzled him, and wasn’t that wonderful? Iona heart-on-her-sleeve Sheehan, the girl who too often blurted out her thoughts before they’d fully formed, puzzled Boyle McGrath.

  Talk about power. Talk about wonder.

  The delight of it carried her out of the workshop and into the kitchen, where she threw her arms around Branna for a spin.

  “Well then, I see groping with Boyle’s given you a fine burst of energy.”

  “It was really good groping. He asked me out, in his Boyle way. ‘We’ll go have dinner sometime.’”

  “Christ Jesus!” Eyes wide, hand flying to her heart, Branna goggled. “It’s all but a proposal of marriage.”

  Too happy to be dampened, Iona laughed. “It’s a big step up from grunting at me. He thinks I’m a puzzle, can you imagine? I mean, seriously, who couldn’t figure me out? I’m as simple as they come.”

  “Do you think so?”

  “I sure don’t run deep. I’m going to have some tea. Do you want tea? God, I’m crazy about him.”

  “It’s early days for crazy, isn’t it?”

  “I don’t get that, never have.” Iona put the kettle on, contemplated Branna’s collection of homemade teas. “Don’t you know when you know? Five minutes, five years—how does that change what you know? I wanted to know with the man I was with before. I tried to know. I liked him, and I was comfortable with him. I told myself, give it more time. But time didn’t change anything. Not for either of us as it turned out.”

  Branna thought of what Connor had said. “You want to give love, and to be given it.”

  “It’s what I’ve always wanted most. I’m going for your lavender blend, not only because it smells wonderful, but it’s for relaxation.” She glanced back. “For a restful night’s sleep. I’m so up I need to come down some to get one. Right?”

  “It’s a good choice, and yes, you’re learning. Which brings me to this. It’s a bit late, but I think we’ve both got another hour in us. We’ll work a spell. Something very, very simple,” she said as Iona’s face burst with joy. “A toe in the water.”

  “I’m
a jump-in-feet-first fan, but I’ll take the toe. Thanks, Branna.”

  “Thank me in an hour, and if you’ve managed to master the spell. Here.”

  “A broom. Am I going to fly on it?”

  “You are not. You’ll learn a protection spell, and with this, you’ll learn to sweep away the negative energies, the films and dusts of dark forces and lay in the strong, the positive. Our home is always to be protected. It’s the first you should learn, and I should’ve taught you before this.”

  Iona took the broom. “Teach me now.”

  * * *

  SHE SLEPT DEEP AND DREAMLESS, AND FACED THE DAY—RAIN, but slower and thinner—with enthusiasm. As she beat both her cousins to the kitchen, she put on the coffee and considered trying her hand at breakfast for three. Her talents there might be limited, but she thought she could handle scrambled eggs. And if she cooked ham and cheese in them, they’d be a sort of lazy-woman’s omelet.

  Organization, she told herself. Line up ingredients and tools first. She got down a skillet, a mixing bowl and whisk, a grater for the cheese, a knife and board for the ham.

  So far so good.

  Eggs, ham, cheese from the fridge—oh, and butter for the skillet.

  Break eggs in bowl, she instructed herself, then open the cupboard under the sink to toss the shells in the bin Branna used for compost waste. She noted then in the confusion of cleanup the night before they’d neglected to take out the trash.

  Determined to be organized, she pulled out the filled liner, tied it, and hauled it to the door to take out to the big bin.

  Inches beyond the little stoop lay a pile of dead rats. Black as midnight, coated with blood and gore, they lay in a circle of scorched earth.

  The bag slipped out of her hand, hit the stoop with a hard splat. Revulsion urged her to step back in, close and bolt the door. Indeed her hand shook as she groped back for the knob to do just that.

  Can’t run, she reminded herself. Can’t hide. There would be a shovel in the garden shed, she thought. She only had to get it, dig a hole, bury the ugliness. Sprinkle the ground with salt.

  She started to step out, around the horrible circle.

  “What’s it then, in or out?”

  Connor’s sleepy voice behind her had Iona jumping back, barely muffling a scream.

  “Didn’t mean to give you a start. Is this breakfast to be? Here, I’ll take that out when we leave for work, then—”

  He stepped over, reached for the bag. Stopped when he saw the rats.

  “So, he’s sent us a gift.” The sleepy cheer in his voice turned to flint on the words. “Here now.” And still his hand as he took Iona’s arm to draw her back held warmth, comfort. “I’ll deal with it.”

  “I was going to. Get a shovel from the shed.”

  “That’s what big, strong cousins are for.” He touched his lips to her forehead.

  “And just what are they for other than waking a body up singing in the shower like he’s on the bleeding X Factor?” The annoyance Branna led with faded as she got a clear look at Iona’s face, then her brother’s. “What is it?”

  “See for yourself.” He moved back to the door, opened it.

  “He’s bold,” she said coldly, as she looked out. “Leaving such a thing on our doorstep.”

  “I didn’t do the spell right. Last night, the protection spell. I—”

  “Is that ugly mess in the house?” Branna demanded. “Are they living and scampering about in here?”

  “No.”

  “Then you did it fine and well. Do you think he wanted them dead, and outside if he could’ve had them in and swarming over us?”

  The image had Iona shuddering. “No. Good point.” She let out a long breath as at least the guilt she felt fell away. “I was going to bury them.”

  “No, it’s not burying we do with them, not at first. We burn them.” Branna turned to Iona. “All of us, but the first fire is yours. Strong, white, and hot.”

  She took Iona’s hand, stepped outside, with Connor behind them.

  “Say the words I say, then send the fire.

  “White to dark, power I call. On evil’s stench my fire will fall. Destroy this threat to mine and me. As I will, so mote it be.

  “Say it,” Branna demanded. “Feel it. Do it.”

  Iona repeated the words, her voice growing stronger, her rage keener. And her power at the end of them full and white.

  Flames snapped, shot to the center of the circle, spread.

  “Again,” Branna told her, as she and Connor joined her on the words.

  Fire, white as lightning, burned. When it banked, only black ash remained.

  “We bury the ash?” Iona’s body tingled, as if from an electric shock. Even her blood felt hot.

  “We do.”

  “And salt the earth.”

  “I’ve better than that, but that would do as well. Fetch the dustpan and broom,” she told Iona, “and Connor the shovel. I’ve the spot for this.”

  She waited a moment as they moved off to obey. “Oh aye, just the spot for this.”

  She led them around, to the far front corner of the workshop.

  “Here?” Iona stared at her. “So close to the house, to where you work. I don’t—”

  “She’s a plan, make no mistake.” And trusting it, Connor shoved the blade of the shovel into the rain-softened ground. “Just what I wanted to be about this morning. Digging a hole for rat ashes in the bleeding rain.”

  “I can help with that.” Calling on her lesson from the day before, Iona slid the rain back so the three of them stood in the warm, the dry.

  “Very well done.” Branna shook back her damp hair, laid her hands on her hips as Connor dug. “That’ll do well enough. Dump them in, Iona. We’ve all three taken part in this, and the work’s stronger for it.”

  “Then you can shovel the dirt back over them,” Connor suggested when Iona dumped the black ashes into the hole.

  “You’re doing such a fine job, and I’ve my own to do when you’re done with it.”

  “He’s watching,” Connor said quietly as he tossed dirt back into the hole. “I can just feel it.”

  “I thought he might be. So much the better. Now this is mine.”

  In her flannel pants, bare feet, her hair wet from the rain, Branna lifted her hands, palms up.

  “Fire of white to purify, power of light to beautify. From Cabhan’s dark grasp I set you free. As I will, so mote it be.”

  From the freshly turned earth flowers burst, bloomed, spread. A deep rainbow of colors shimmered in the gloom of morning, pretty shapes dancing in the light wind.

  “It’s beautiful. It’s brilliant.” Iona clasped her hands together as the defiant palette glowed. “You’re brilliant.”

  With a satisfied nod, Branna tucked her hair back. “I can’t say I disagree.”

  “And there’s a fragrant stick up the arse for him.” Connor set the shovel on his shoulder. “I’m hungry.”

  Beaming happy, Iona hooked arms with her cousins. “I’m cooking breakfast.”

  “God help us, but I’m hungry enough myself I’ll risk it.”

  Branna walked back with them, glancing back once. Right up the arse, she thought.

  12

  SHE ENJOYED THE NEW ROUTINE, WALKING WITH CONNOR IN THE MORNINGS, riding Alastar on the guideds, juggling in a few students, then having Boyle walk or drive her home again.

  Late afternoons meant work and practice, and an additional hour at night for refining her skills.

  The sun came out again, so the river sparkled with it. The loughs went to gleaming mirrors, and the green of the fields and hills only deepened under its shine through the puffs and layers of clouds streaming across the sky.

  She could forget—almost—all that lay on the line, all yet to be faced. After all, she was having a romance.

  Not one that included poetry and flowers, and her romantic sensibilities would have relished just that. But when your heart aimed toward a man like Boyle, you h
ad to learn to find poetry in brief words and long silences, and flowers in an unexpected mug of tea pushed into your hands or a quick nod of approval.

  And who needed flowers when the man could kiss the breath out of her? Which he did in the green shadows of the woods, or in the disordered cab of his lorry.

  Romance, a home, a steady paycheck, a magnificent horse she could call her own, and the new and brilliant understanding of her craft. If she just eliminated the threat of ancient evil, her life struck the top of the bell.

  She finished her lesson with Sarah, both of them pleased with the progress.

  “Your form’s really improving. We’re going to work more on changing leads, smoothing that out.”

  “But when can we add another bar? I’m ready, Iona, I know it.”

  “We’ll see how it goes next lesson.” Looking up into Sarah’s pleading eyes, Iona patted her mount’s neck. And remembered herself at that age. “I’ll tell you what. One bar up, one jump before you take Winnie in and tend to her.”

  “You mean it! Oh, thanks! Thanks! This is brilliant.”

  “One bar, one jump,” Iona repeated, and glanced at Sarah’s mother as she started to the bars. She hefted one, maneuvered it in place.

  Just three feet, she thought, and believed her student could handle it. If not, the horse would know.

  She looked back at the horse now.

  She wants to fly, wants to feel you fly with her. Keep it steady.

  Iona stepped back, noted Sarah’s mother twisted the ends of the scarf she wore around her neck.

  “All right, Sarah. It’s only one bar, but you have to let Winnie know you’re in it together. Trust her, and let her know she can trust you. Eyes open, let’s have a good, steady pace, and remember your form.”

  Her heart was pounding, Iona knew. With such excitement, and some nerves. Still a beginner’s course, even with the single additional bar, but a new challenge, a new hope.

  “Good, that’s good,” she called out, circling as Sarah took Winnie around the course. “Posture, Sarah, light hands. You both know what to do.”

  Set, she thought, steady and smooth. Gather. And go.

  She flew a little herself as she watched her student soar cleanly over the bar, land well, adjust. Then wave one hand over her head in triumph.

  “Oh, it’s like magick, it is! Can’t I do it again, Iona? Just once more?”

  “Once more around, then Winnie needs her rubdown.”

 
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