Stars of fortune, p.20
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       Stars of Fortune, p.20

         Part #1 of The Guardians series by Nora Roberts
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  “Stop. Just stop. It’s Riley.”

  “She’s hurt. And Apollo, too.” Crooning, Annika stroked both. “Help them.”

  “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Sawyer shoved his gun back in its holster. “Riley’s a werewolf?”

  She snarled at him, had him backing up one cautious step. “Easy, girl. Annika, we need to get you inside, stop that bleeding.”

  “Apollo first. He’s innocent. He came to help us, and this isn’t his fight. Help him.” She turned beseeching eyes to Sawyer. “Please.”

  “Okay. Sure. Okay. Don’t bite me,” he said to the wolf. “I’m just going to see how bad he’s hurt.”

  “Let me see what I can do right here.” Bran crouched down, ran his hands over Apollo. “That’s a big secret you’ve held on to, Dr. Gwin. It’s not bad, no, it’s not bad.” He soothed the dog. “But even superficial wounds are likely toxic. And that goes for all of us. I have things that will deal with it inside.”

  As he spoke, the last stars faded. The sun shimmered at the edges of the east.

  The wolf howled, one long note that might have been pain, might have been triumph.

  And began to change.

  It hunkered down, muscles and fur quivering. Bones seemed to shift, to twist. Only the eyes remained the same. As the light bloomed, the woman emerged.

  Riley sat, naked, her arms wrapped around the knees she hugged tight to her chest.

  “Holy shit, and let’s add a wow.”

  At Sawyer’s comment, Riley lifted her head. “Not to play shy, but maybe somebody can lend me a shirt. I had to leave my pack in the jeep.”

  Saying nothing, Doyle shrugged out of his coat, tossed it to her.

  “Thanks. Can we save the questions, comments, remarks until we get inside and start triage? He’s not bad, like you said,” she told Bran, “but he’s really hurting.”

  Again keeping his silence, Doyle got his arms under the dog, lifted the considerable weight. Riley managed to get her arms in the sleeves of the coat, wrap it around herself, and, murmuring to Apollo, walked with Doyle.

  Annika took three limping steps before Sawyer picked her up, carried her. “Riley’s a freaking werewolf.”

  “Lycan,” she snapped over her shoulder. “Call me a werewolf again and I will bite your ass.”

  “Can you walk?” Bran asked Sasha.

  “Yes. I’m mostly just . . . I don’t know what.”

  “How did you know it was Riley?”

  “I just knew. When it—she—came out of the dark, I knew. It didn’t even surprise me—then. Now I just feel numb.”

  As the sun lifted, she, a woman who barely a week before had never held a weapon of any kind, walked back toward the villa holding a knife still wet with blood.

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN

  Apollo first.” Still wearing only Doyle’s coat, Riley sat on the floor, the dog’s head in her lap.

  “I’ll need some things,” Bran began. “I have healing supplies in my room.”

  “I’ve got a non-magickal first-aid kit in mine, if it helps.”

  “I’ll get that as well. We’ll want plenty of towels, but for now let the wounds bleed.”

  When Bran strode out, everyone began talking at once. Sasha actually felt the words beat like little hammer blows on her temple.

  “Talk later,” she snapped, surprising everyone into silence. “Doyle, towels. Sawyer, put Annika on the table.” As she whipped out orders, she snatched the fruit bowl off the table, then pulled the largest pot out of a cupboard. After she turned on the faucet to fill it, she shoved her hands at her hair, turned.

  “Ah, Sawyer, get Apollo’s water bowl and a couple of his dog biscuits. If Bran has to medicate him, it should go down easier that way.”

  “Check you out, Captain Sasha,” Riley commented.

  “I’m winging it.” She grabbed some towels from Doyle, folded some under Annika’s leg to elevate it. And thought, Thank God, when Bran strode back.

  He nodded when she put the pot of water on to boil. “Good thinking. But let’s speed it up.” At his gesture, the water bubbled. “Ten drops each, these three bottles. In this order,” he told Sasha. “Brown, blue, red. Ten exactly. Can you do that?”

  “Yes.”

  He knelt by the dog. “Keep him quiet and still,” he told Riley, and ran his hands over Apollo. “I need to clean his wounds first, counteract any poisons. How did he get out?”

  “Busted right through the window of my room. We’re going to have to fix that,” Riley added with a weak smile. “Don’t want to lose our security deposit.”

  He gave her arm a pat. “Sasha, are you done there?”

  “Yes, ten exactly. Brown, blue, red.”

  “Step back from the pot now.”

  He held out a hand toward the pot, and his gaze fixed on it. On his murmured incantation, light spewed up from the bubbling water, burst, then circled back down, as liquid circles down a drain.

  “One of the large, clear bottles now. Hold it out. Don’t worry. I won’t miss.”

  His brew arced out of the pot, arrowed into the bottle.

  “And the next,” he told her, and repeated the process.

  “Give one to Sawyer. You’ll need to pour it, slowly now, over that gash on her leg. You’ll know it’s done when the blood runs clear. It’s going to hurt some, darling,” he told Annika.

  “Let me do that.” Doyle took the bottle from Sasha. “Why don’t you hang on to him.”

  With a nod, Annika turned her face into Sawyer’s chest.

  “Bring me that one, Sasha. Between the two of you, you can keep the dog still and calm.”

  As he worked, Sasha felt Apollo’s pain, like a slow burn, and his fear of it. He quivered under her hands, turned his head to lap, lap, lap at Riley as if begging her to make it stop.

  She felt Annika’s pain, that shocking rise of heat, a thin line of fire.

  She felt Sawyer’s barely suppressed rage, Doyle’s cold control, Riley’s struggle with tears. And Bran’s utter focus.

  She felt them all, crowding her, the pain, the grief, the purpose, in a tumult of emotions. She wanted to turn away from them, close off from them. Then Bran’s hand brushed hers.

  “Nearly done,” he said quietly. “Nearly there. Can you hold on?”

  She nodded. Tears spilled out—Riley’s tears, she realized, and felt them run down her own cheeks.

  “A second time, Doyle. It won’t be as bad now. Cooler now. There now, it’s cooler, cleaner. What burns washes away, what blackens spills out in light.

  “I don’t want to stop, Sasha, but I’ll need the bottle—the one you brought me when I needed it. Four drops in water for Annika, then just the bottle here for Apollo. All right?”

  She did as he asked, urged the mixture on Annika. “Drink it all now. It’s the salve next, isn’t it?”

  “That’s right.”

  At Bran’s nod, she took the salve out of Bran’s box, handed it to Sawyer. “I’ll need it for Apollo when you’re done. How many drops for Apollo? I can put them in his water bowl.”

  “Another four. See that he drinks it all, Riley, then coat his wounds with the salve. He’s going to sleep,” he added. “And sleeping, he’ll heal.”

  He rose then, moved to Annika. “That’s good. See, already healing. Now, where else did they hurt you, darling?”

  Once he’d treated her, he turned to Sasha. “And you. Let’s have a look at you.”

  “Some scratches. Just scratches. It was the knife, wasn’t it? The knife you gave me.”

  “I’m pleased it worked. I couldn’t be sure,” he said as he lifted her arm, began to treat the scratches running down from her shoulder.

  “Sawyer has worse. But you.” She looked at Doyle. “You don’t have any wounds.”

  “Just lucky, I guess.”

  No, she thought, there were still secrets here.

  “Riley’s are healing on their own.”

  “Wounds inflicted when I’m in wolf form heal f
ast. One of the perks.” Since Apollo slept, she rose. “I know you all have questions, but I need to eat something. The change is like running a marathon at sprint speed; add on the rest, and I’m feeling a little shaky.”

  “I’d say the questions, as there’ll be many, can wait until we’ve all cleaned up. Where’s the worst of it, Sawyer?” Bran asked him.

  “My back.”

  Riley yanked open the fridge, grabbed a jar of olives as it came first to hand. “I’m going to catch a quick shower, put some clothes on.”

  By the time they’d mopped up blood, set the kitchen to rights, and Sasha got a shower of her own, she was starving herself.

  She came down to find Riley and Bran putting breakfast together.

  “Figured this way I can eat as it cooks.”

  “Your color’s coming back.” Sasha went straight to the coffee.

  “Once I filled the hole. Listen, I’m sorry. You’re peeved, and I get it, so I’m sorry.”

  Sasha only nodded, and took her coffee outside.

  “You make friends easily, don’t you?” Bran said as he piled the last of the mountain of eggs on the platter.

  “I guess.”

  “She’s hasn’t, until you.”

  “Hell.”

  “Take that out; I’ll bring the rest. You can explain things while we eat.”

  Since she wasn’t at all sure how to explain, Riley filled her plate, shoveled in food until the last of the hunger pangs eased. “Maybe you should just ask questions, give me a kind of running start into it.”

  “Were you bitten?” Sawyer asked her.

  “No. It’s hereditary.”

  “You come from a family of were— Of lycans?”

  “That’s right. Let me say right off, we don’t eat people. We don’t bite them, we don’t eat them. Not that there aren’t some rogues out there, but my pack—my family—doesn’t hunt, doesn’t kill. And we’re not interested in making more lycans through infection. We make them the old-fashioned way. We mate.”

  “Do you mate with humans?” Annika wondered.

  “You fall for who you fall for, right? So yeah, it happens.”

  “Can there be children?”

  “Sure. Fifty-fifty on lycan traits, so all kids are trained for the change. Initial transformation hits in puberty—as if puberty didn’t whack you out enough. Big ceremony, gifts, celebration. Every kid takes an oath, not to hunt, not to kill, not to infect.”

  “Any ever break the oath?”

  She looked over at Doyle. “Sure. And those who do are punished or banished, depending on the crime and circumstances. We’re pack animals.” She looked down to where Apollo dozed peacefully beside her chair. “Banishment is the worst—worse than execution. We’re civilized, okay? We have rules, a code. Three nights a month—”

  “Night before the full moon,” Sawyer filled in. “Night of, night after.”

  “Yeah, three nights—except in the event of a blue moon, then we get six—we transform, sundown to sunup. During that time, we fast.”

  “And you transforming like you did. Jesus Christ, Riley, I could’ve shot you.” Sawyer jabbed a finger at her. “I nearly did.”

  “Unless you loaded with silver bullets, it wouldn’t have done much harm.”

  His expression changed—reluctant delight. “That’s real? Silver bullets?”

  “Silver bullets, silver blade. It’s going to hurt to get shot or cut otherwise, but it’s not going to be fatal.”

  “You left us.” Sasha spoke quietly. “Rather than trust us, you lied, and you left.”

  “I didn’t go far, and I came as soon as I realized what was happening. I couldn’t risk staying here. Apollo would have sensed the change coming, for one thing. He’d have smelled the wolf on me. And even if I’d locked myself in my room, what if one of you had gotten in?”

  “What if you’d just told us the truth?” Sasha countered. “The way I told you the truth? Bran held back at first, and you know how upsetting that was. We’ve been together day and night for a week now, we fought together. Twice now. If you could’ve gotten clear before sunrise this morning, you would have.”

  “I’d have tried,” Riley agreed. “I don’t think it would’ve done much good. You knew. You knew before I changed back. That weighs on my side of it. It’s part of the oath, Sash. A sacred oath I took at twelve. We don’t reveal ourselves, not without permission from the Council of Laws.”

  “If you do?” Bran asked.

  “The punishment, first offense? You’re locked up for three cycles, no contact. It may not sound like much, but to be chained in wolf form? It’s pretty awful. Added to it is the loss of honor and trust.”

  “An oath is a holy thing,” Annika stated.

  “Yeah, it is. It’s a little late for it, but I applied for permission three days ago. It’s politics, so there has to be a lot of discussion and debate. I figured I’d get it, considering what we’re doing, but it was going to take a couple weeks to wind its way through the system.”

  Annika reached out. “Will they punish you?”

  “Not likely. I’d applied, and I only broke faith because we were attacked. There are a couple council members who lean pretty hard conservative, but it’s going to balance out. At worst, they’ll postpone sentencing, and if we find the stars, it’s going to be pretty hard for them to lock up the one who helped find them. Either way, I’ll deal with it.”

  “You asked for permission to tell us,” Sasha repeated.

  “It’s a process, believe me. We wouldn’t have survived as a species if we didn’t hold what is secret and sacred. So sharing what we are needs the process, and more requests are denied than granted. But we’re different, and what we’re doing is a heavy weight. I’d have had permission before my next cycle. I’d have made sure of it, but there wasn’t enough time before this one.”

  “An oath is a holy thing. I’ll accept that.”

  “You’re still pissed.”

  “I’ll get over it. We needed you last night. You came, fought.”

  “And we kicked some ass,” Sawyer put in.

  “Too easy.” Doyle let the words drop, continued eating.

  “Easy?” Sawyer scowled down the table. “You call that easy?”

  “Only one of us—and the dog—with serious injuries, and we beat them back in about twenty minutes.” He glanced down at Bran. “You know it, too.”

  “A test, to see what we have, what we’d do. She’ll come harder next time. I’m thinking on it.”

  “You’re thinking on it,” Sasha muttered, and shoved up from the table. “Teamwork. We make placating noises about being a team, but we’re not. We fought last night, but not really as a unit. You gave me a knife that had some sort of protection, but didn’t really explain it.”

  “I couldn’t be sure it would hold,” Bran began.

  “You didn’t tell me,” she repeated. “You didn’t tell us what you were doing with the light. You didn’t tell us you had power until you had to. Just as Riley didn’t tell us what she has. Good reasons for it, of course. Always good reasons. I’m sure the rest of you have good reasons for the secrets you’re holding. So keep them, that’s your choice. But I know we don’t have a chance in hell of winning this until we are a unit.

  “So make up your minds, because the next time, those secrets may be the reason she burns right through us.”

  She strode away, up the terrace steps, and shut the doors to her room with a decisive click to give herself what she’d always sought.

  Quiet and solitude.

  She slept. She’d fought a war, treated the wounded, cleaned up blood, and topped off the morning snarling at her “team.”

  So she slept, and woke feeling more rested—and just as annoyed.

  If there were plans to go out diving later, she thought, they’d just have to do without her. She intended to take a walk on the beach, do some sketching, and some hard thinking.

  She put what she wanted in a tote, stepped outside. Br
an stepped out on the terrace seconds after.

  “I’m going for a walk,” she told him.

  “I need to do the same, to gather more supplies. Would you go with me, help me with that?” He stepped toward her. “And if you could give me some time after, I’d show you how to prepare some of the ingredients. It would be a help to me.”

  “Why? You’ve done fine on your own.”

  “I have, and can. I’d do better with your help. You were right, everything you said. I can’t speak for the others, but I can promise you, no more secrets between us. It wasn’t trust so much, Sasha, as habit. Now I’m asking for your help, and doing what I can to get used to the asking.”

  “Then it would be bitchy to refuse. I feel like I used up my daily quota of bitchy.”

  “You used it well. I need a pouch and a couple of tools.”

  He came back with a pouch slung over his shoulder, and the knife he’d given her before, this time in a rough leather sheath.

  “I should have told you how I’d empowered it.” He snapped it on her belt. “I’ll tell you now, if she sends a different sort of attack, I can’t know if it will hold up the same.”

  “If and when, we’ll find out.”

  He took her hand as they started down. “You’re not afraid.”

  “There’s part of me, inside, still terrified. That part wanted to cut and run screaming this morning. I’m not sure what part of me refuses to do that—but I’m trying to get used to it. Where’s everyone else?”

  “Riley’s sleeping. She got little to none last night, and I think, despite the bravado, she’s worried about the ruling of this council of hers.”

  “If they rule to punish her for fighting with us, they’ll have to get through us to do it.”

  “And listen to you. So fierce.”

  “It’s a waste of time to be mad at her, though I still am, a little. I know about having secrets, but—”

  “You shared yours with her, with me. And we held back.”

  “And I understand why. It still stings, but I understand.”

  “It might help if I tell you when you left the table Sawyer looked thoughtful and troubled. If there’s more to him and his compass, he’s struggling over whether to tell us or not. Annika? There’s something deep there.”

  “I know she’ll give us everything she can. Doyle . . .”

  “Ah, Doyle. Whatever he holds, he’ll hold tight until he’s damn good and ready to loosen it. But I trust him.”

  “Why?”

  “He’s a warrior at the base, isn’t he? He’ll fight with his last breath, and defend those who fight beside him. And that includes a dog. He carried Apollo from the field.”

 
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