Stars of fortune, p.18
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       Stars of Fortune, p.18

         Part #1 of The Guardians series by Nora Roberts
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  “Know how to prep asparagus?” Sawyer asked him.

  “Haven’t a clue,” Bran said as he helped himself to Sasha’s wine.

  “You’re about to get one.”

  She heated her oil as the potatoes boiled. Got Bran his own glass of wine as Sawyer instructed him how to prep the asparagus. Riley came in to feed the dog; Doyle got a beer and asked when the hell they were going to eat. Annika came in for more candles.

  Like family, Sasha thought. It felt like family.

  Whatever happened tomorrow, tonight she had family.

  * * *

  She found out what it was like to share a bed with a man. They took up considerable room, but it made waking up an entirely new experience.

  With Bran on breakfast detail, she took time to send her mother an email, with pictures of her view attached. What it lacked in detail—eliminating sex, vengeful gods, and learning how to box—it made up for in bright chatter.

  And she thought how pleased her mother would be that she was enjoying her . . . holiday. And making friends.

  Once sent, Sasha grabbed the exercise bands Riley lent her, used them as instructed for biceps curls, triceps kickbacks, lateral raises, shoulder raises.

  She thought there was more, but couldn’t quite remember—and since her arms felt like rubber, called it a session.

  She grabbed her bag, her hat, and took the terrace doors out.

  The sun, brutally bright, had her lifting a hand to shield her eyes as she dug with the other for her sunglasses. When she reached the base of the steps, pushed them on, the world went night-dark.

  “There,” she said, and lifted an arm to point out toward the sea. “Her black dogs come, malformed curs riding the night on bat wings. Formed for death, no more, no less. Steel to slice, to tear. But fire, red as bloodshed, hot as the hell her hounds spring from, must burn and burn and burn. Red is the star, fire is its heart. Fire will shield it. The time of transformation is here. The bright, white moon, and the bright, white magick with it, with the chosen six and all they are. Against this she strikes. Against her we to the life or to the death. For this we were born, for this we were joined. And worlds wait, for their fates are in our hands.”

  When she swayed, Bran slid an arm around her waist to support her.

  “God, my head.”

  “You will fight it still,” he said softly and eased her down at the table to sit.

  “It’s automatic. Habit.”

  “Some juice.” Annika crouched beside her. “Do you want water instead?”

  “No, thanks. This is good.” Shaky yet, Sasha sipped at the juice.

  “Do you remember what you said?”

  “Don’t poke at her!” Riley snapped at Doyle.

  “I’m asking a question.”

  “It’s all right. Yes, I think so. I could see. It went from day to night. Like a switch flipped. And I could see them flying in from over the water. Like the bats in the cave, but bigger.”

  “You called them dogs,” Bran prompted her.

  “Yes, sort of. Like . . . gargoyles. Twisted bodies, oversized heads. Claws, fangs. Attacking.”

  “When?”

  “I don’t know. It’s not clear. Night. Tonight? Tomorrow night? Next week? I don’t know. She’s with them, and when they bleed, or we do, it feeds her. Like a vampire. Blood and death feed her.”

  “You spoke of fire. As a weapon and a shield for the star.”

  “I wish I knew what it meant.”

  “Bright magick.” Bran stroked a hand down her hair. “White magick. We fight her with it as she fights against it. But something more, or something more through that. I can work on it.”

  “And meanwhile?” Doyle asked. “This time of transformation? What’s that?”

  “I’m not looking for Optimus Prime,” Sawyer put in. “But we’re transforming, in a way. From each of us going on our own to working as a unit. We’re not all the way there, maybe, so we’ve still got some work to do on it.”

  “Maybe so, but while that transforming’s going on, we’ve got a fight coming. Sooner or later,” Doyle said. “It seems to me we’re leaning too heavy on witchcraft.”

  “When I’m going up against a homicidal god, I like having a witch in my corner,” Riley tossed back.

  “Not saying different. But since we’re going up against a homicidal god, we ought to have some battle plans.”

  Riley nodded. “I’ll give you that. We should eat, get going, and we can start working on those plans on the boat. Cold breakfast’s still breakfast,” she said as she sat.

  Bran waved a hand over the platter of bacon and eggs. “Now it’s hot.”

  “See that?” Happily Riley piled food on her plate. “Having a witch around’s handy.” She rubbed Sasha’s thigh under the table with one hand, scooped eggs onto Sasha’s plate with the other. “Even if you’re a little queasy, it’ll settle you—and it’s going to be a long workday.”

  She’d carry her weight, Sasha promised herself. And despite being a little queasy, picked up her fork and ate.

  * * *

  Sasha worked on her nerves on the way to the first cave. She’d done all right on the dives the day before—even enjoyed part of them. But the morning vision left her shaken and uneasy. She hoped the cool, damp wind, the flashing sun off the water would clear out those nerves. When they didn’t, she dug out her sketchbook.

  “We’ll be fine.” When she glanced over at Bran, he tapped a finger on her temple. “You don’t have to be a seer to see. You’d do better to relax. We’re here for a purpose, and it isn’t to lose when we’ve barely begun.”

  “I could smell the blood,” she said quietly. “Hear the shrieks those things made as they poured out of the sky. And feel the madness in them. Her creations, Bran, formed of nothing but hate and madness. Their only purpose is death.”

  “Ours is life. I believe life, if it’s willing to fight for it, wins. Trust life. Trust yourself and what’s in you.”

  “I’m working on it.”

  When they geared up, Sawyer hooked on a camera.

  “I picked this up in the village yesterday. Depth rated to two hundred feet. I figured we should start documenting.”

  “I’m keeping a log.” Riley studied the camera. “That’s a really nice toy. Good idea, Sawyer. Stills and video?”

  “Yeah. I’ll do some of both, see how it goes.”

  Though the dive proved pleasant and pretty, even amusing as Annika performed underwater gymnastics for the camera, they found nothing but sea life. And while Sasha caught herself glancing over her shoulder, half expecting to see a black cloud of winged creatures slicing through the sea, she felt more confident in her rudimentary diving skills by the time she pulled herself back on deck.

  “Hydrate.” Riley dug in the cooler for bottles of water after she’d stowed her used tank. “That’s three crossed off. My pick’s next,” she added, tossed a bottle to Doyle.

  “I’m going to review the pictures.”

  “I want to see.” Annika snuggled onto the bench beside Sawyer.

  Because she’d leaned in as well, bracing a hand on Sawyer’s shoulder, Sasha felt the lust punch through him. Surprised at how clear it came, embarrassed she hadn’t blocked it, she eased back just a bit.

  Not that anyone could blame him, she thought, as Annika wiggled closer. But understanding it and feeling it were different things. To ensure his privacy, Sasha moved to the other side of the deck where Doyle pored over maps.

  “Do you have another location in mind?” she asked him.

  “A lot of possibilities. We should pick up the pace.”

  “Which is slower because I’m inexperienced.”

  “You’re doing all right.”

  He looked up then, and she sensed something hard and deeply guarded.

  “Looking for something?”

  She answered as coolly as he’d asked. “Trying not to.”

  Still watching her, he picked up his water. “Anyone else in your fami
ly with the sight? It tends to run in families.”

  “No. Not that I ever heard of.”

  It occurred to her she didn’t know him, not the way she felt she’d come to know the others. He held himself just a little aloof. Still, it meant he didn’t know her either. Maybe they should try to fix that.

  “Not much family anyway,” she continued. “Both my parents were only children, and I only saw my grandparents sporadically. My father left when I was about twelve. He couldn’t handle what I have. My mother made excuses for me, then made excuses for him. I resented that, which isn’t really fair. She did her best. She does her best. But given all that, I chose to live alone, so I didn’t have to deal with what I have. Where I could focus on art, and I liked it.”

  She looked back to where the other four passed around Sawyer’s camera.

  “I like this better. Even knowing what could happen, knowing some of what will happen, this is better. What about you?”

  “What about me?”

  “Do you have family?”

  “No. Not anymore.”

  “It’s hard, without family. I didn’t realize until . . .” She looked back again. “It feels like alone’s easy until you realize.”

  “It’s got its advantages. Only one person to worry about. You want to go left, you go left because nobody’s pushing you to go right.”

  “I’d rather go right, at least give right a try, than be alone again. I like the way Sawyer talks about his family, his grandfather especially. And Riley and Bran theirs. They don’t know alone, not the way we do. And Annika . . .”

  She couldn’t imagine Annika alone, but it occurred to her she’d never asked.

  “Annika? Do you have family?”

  “Family?” Tossing back her long braid, Annika smiled. “Yes. I have six sisters.”

  “Six—” Sawyer began.

  “Sisters?” Riley finished.

  “Yes. I am the youngest. Chantalla is the oldest, then Loreli, then—”

  “You’re the seventh daughter,” Bran interrupted.

  “My father says he’s cursed with girls. He’s joking,” she added.

  “Your mother?” Doyle shifted around. “Does she have sisters?”

  “She has six, as I have six.”

  “And she’s the youngest?” Bran glanced at Doyle as Annika nodded.

  “Well, kick my ass.” Riley shoved the camera back at Sawyer. “We’ve got us a seventh daughter of a seventh daughter. Do you have the sight, Anni?”

  “Oh, not like Sasha. I know things. Just know sometimes. I knew to be on the beach for Sawyer. To be here—this time, this place. So I came. I don’t like to fight, but I knew I would. I will. Sasha sees things that help. That warn. I only see what I’m meant to do.”

  “What you see might help, too,” Sawyer told her. “You should let us know.”

  “I want to help. When we find the Fire Star, it will get harder. She’ll be angry we have what she wants.”

  “That’s a good bet,” Riley agreed.

  “I say set the course, Doyle.” Bran’s gaze gleamed hard and bright. “And let’s see if we can really piss her off.”

  * * *

  They found nothing, though they pushed it to three dives. Fatigue hung over the boat like a cloud on the trip back to the marina. Sasha tried to shake it, reminding herself they’d barely begun. They weren’t likely to stumble across the prize without a lot of sweat and effort.

  But the sensation of adventure had faded for the day, and only a thin shadow of dread remained.

  It seemed infectious.

  Sawyer toyed with his compass and brooded. Riley huddled over her logs. Even Annika had lost some of her shine and sat curled on a bench, staring out over the water.

  “Your vision,” Bran said at length. “On the cliff, in the storm. Calling the storm. The lightning. Maybe it’s time.”

  “No.” Panic clawed through her belly.

  “You can’t let fear cloud it.”

  “It does. It does, but it’s not only that. There was something urgent, immediate, even desperate in it. Beyond the danger of it, even beyond the power. It’s not for now. I don’t know when or why, but I’m sure it’s not now.”

  “But you’ll say when it is?” He closed a hand over hers before she answered. “Truth, Sasha. And a promise.”

  “Yes. I think you’ll know as well as I, but yes.”

  That added another layer of dread as they dealt with the gear and equipment. She wanted her paints, Sasha decided. To lose herself in them for an hour. By the time Riley pulled up at the villa, Doyle roaring in behind her on his bike, she’d set plans to begin her series of local flora.

  “I’m heading back to the village,” Riley announced. “I’ve got some people I want to talk to, some lines to tug.”

  “I could go with you,” Annika began.

  “I’m not looking to shop. Don’t look for me for dinner,” she added. “In fact, don’t wait up. I might get a hot date out of this.”

  “Maybe you shouldn’t be going out on your own,” Sawyer said.

  “I can handle myself, cowboy.” The dog poked its head in the jeep, wagged all over. “You hang here, big guy.” Though she ruffled his fur, she nudged him away. “I’ll be back when I’m back.”

  The dog looked mournfully after her when she drove off, then leaned his big body against Annika.

  “It’s all right. I’ll play with you.”

  After the others walked off, Sasha stood, staring after the dust the jeep kicked up behind it on the narrow road.

  “What is it?” Bran demanded.

  “I don’t know. It just feels off. Something.”

  “Open to it, Sasha.” He laid his hands on her shoulders, rubbed.

  “I can’t get there. She doesn’t want me to. I just know she wasn’t telling the truth—or not all of it. I need to clear some of this out. I need to paint awhile.”

  “I’ve work of my own.”

  “We don’t feel together,” she said as they started for the house. “I don’t mean you and me. I mean all of us. Last evening, it felt we were—or really close. But now, it feels as if we’ve all closed into our separate places. Maybe that’s what feels off.”

  “I’d say we’re all a bit tired. It’s been a long day.”

  “That’s probably all it is.” But she glanced back at the road again, at the dust settling as they climbed the terrace steps.

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN

  Sasha painted until the sun bled over the western horizon. She couldn’t quite lose the edgy feeling, but she’d dulled it. She’d hoped to see the jeep drive back by the time she cleaned her brushes, but nothing came up the bumpy little road.

  She wanted Riley back, wanted her new family under one roof, however silly it sounded. And because she’d sensed Riley wanted exactly the opposite—and knew just how it felt to need solitude—she made herself go down.

  She supposed she’d be in charge of dinner—again—and there wasn’t any point in resenting it just because she was in a bad mood.

  But when she stepped into the kitchen, she found Annika carefully chopping peppers.

  “Sawyer’s teaching me to cook. I like learning.”

  “You catch on quick. Doing a big stir-fry,” he told Sasha. “I figured I’d just toss stuff in. Anything you don’t like, hell, eat around it.”

  “I can do that. Anything else I can do?”

  “You could crack open a bottle of white. I don’t care what kind. Some for this, some for us.”

  “That I can also do.”

  It dulled the edge a bit more, watching Sawyer show Annika how to chop and slice, sipping wine while others cooked. And more yet when Bran strolled in, spun her into a kiss.

  “It’s pretty,” Annika said, with a long, long sigh. “Kissing’s pretty.”

  “Let’s be pretty again.” Bran grabbed Sasha back, dipped her a little this time.

  “I’d say you’re not tired now.” Though her pulse skipped and danced, Sasha turned to ge
t Bran a glass.

  “I’m making some progress on a spell. Not quite there, but definite progress.”

  “That’s just something you don’t hear every day, is it? Progress on a spell.”

  “In my world.” Bran took the wine she offered. “Whatever you’re cooking there, Sawyer, smells brilliant.”

  “About ten minutes to go, and we’ll see if it tastes the same.”

  “Since Annika’s the sous chef tonight, we’ll set the table.” Sasha turned, started to stack six plates, remembered. “I guess Riley’s having dinner with one of her contacts, but somebody should let Doyle know we’re about to eat.”

  “I’ll take these.” Bran took the stack of five. “And let him know.”

  “Maybe she’ll make it back before we sit down.”

  Annika rubbed Sawyer’s arm. “You shouldn’t worry. Riley is very smart and very strong.”

  Sasha thought it excellent advice, and tried to take it. By the time they’d finished the meal—with compliments to the chef and his apprentice, as there was barely a grain of rice left—the sun had set, the moon, fat and white, had risen.

  “Maybe a couple of us ought to go down and look for her.”

  Doyle arched eyebrows at Sawyer. “In what?”

  “Your bike?”

  “She doesn’t have a curfew, Daddy. If she was the damsel-in-distress sort, yeah, we could go down, slay the dragon for her. But she’s got a Beretta, a combat knife, and a badass attitude. She can take care of herself. Plus.” He wagged his beer. “If she’s hooked up with one of her contacts, she’d be pretty pissed with the white-knight routine.”

  “Well, I’m worried, too. I didn’t think she meant it about not coming back tonight. And.” Sasha lifted her phone. “She’s not answering my texts.”

  “She answered mine,” Bran commented.

  “Yours? When?”

  “Before I came down. I just sent her one that asked if all was well. She texted back: Five-by-five. Precisely that.”

  “What, precisely, does five-by-five mean?”

  “It’s all good,” Doyle told Sasha. “Everything’s fine.”

  “She added she’d likely bunk in the village with a friend.”

  “What friend?” Sasha stopped herself, huffed out a breath. “None of our business. And Doyle’s right. If anyone’s armed and dangerous, it’s Riley Gwin. I’m just jumpy because I’ve gotten used to everyone being right here.”

 
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