Dark witch, p.21
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       Dark Witch, p.21

         Part #1 of The Cousins O'Dwyer series by Nora Roberts
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  Branna said to Fin.

  “I was young, and foolish.” He sent Iona a quick smile. “And feeling sorry for myself. Now that I’m older and wiser, I see it’s not any one of us who’ll end him or the curse he carries, but all of us.”

  “What if we all went back?”

  Connor paused in ladling sauce over his pasta to study Boyle. “All of us, together?”

  “Maybe it would change things, but we don’t know when he’ll try to harm any one of us, or what else he might do. I don’t know why you can’t change what was, or why you shouldn’t try when what was is something evil.”

  “It’s a slippery hill to climb, Boyle.” Branna twirled pasta, untwirled, twirled it again. “Some ask if you had the way and means, wouldn’t you go back and kill Hitler? Oh, the thousands of lives saved, and so many innocent. But one of those lives saved might be worse and more powerful than Hitler ever dreamed.”

  “But don’t you try all the same? A lot of years on the wire, as Iona said. Can’t we find the time, the place, take the battle to him? A time and place we know won’t wink Fin out of existence.”

  “Thanks for that.”

  “I’m used to you,” Boyle shot back to Fin. “And have no desire to run the businesses on my own. Is there not some magick the four of you can devise to give us the best chance of it?”

  “We may not come back to the world we left, if we come back at all,” Branna insisted.

  “Maybe we’d come back to better. He’s a shadow in this time, as Fin said.”

  “Shadows fade in the light.” Meara lifted her wine. “That’s something to consider. I may not be able to conjure a spell, but I know basic physics. Is it physics? Ah, well, action, reaction, yes? And I know it’s always better to take the enemy by surprise, on ground of your choosing.”

  “You’d go?” Iona asked. “I mean if we could, and would.”

  “Well now, unless I had a hot date lined up.”

  “It’s not a joke, Meara.”

  Meara reached over, rubbed a hand on Branna’s arm. “You’ve carried the weight long enough. Time to spread it around. Saying we’re a circle and really meaning it are different matters, Branna. You can’t protect us all, so let’s protect each other.”

  “We could think on it. On how to find that time and place, and block him from knowing it. And how to make the time and place here and now—or here and when we’ve found the answer to destroying him once and for good.”

  * * *

  “SHE’LL STUDY AND THINK AND WORK,” IONA SAID QUIETLY to Boyle as they cleared the table. “And worry. I wonder sometimes if there’d be less work and worry all around if I hadn’t come.”

  “It’s been an axe dangling over their heads long before that. And you did come. I don’t think much about what’s meant, but it seems you were meant to come. It needs to end sometime, doesn’t it? Why not now? And with us?”

  “I’m not a big fan of procrastination.” She thought it over as she wiped the table clean, kept her voice down under the clatter of dishes being loaded into the washer. “I just like plowing through to whatever’s next. But I think I could happily push all this into a box in a corner for a couple hundred years.”

  “Someone’s got to shovel the shit.”

  “And we’ve got the shovels. Yeah,” Iona conceded. “Might as well put our backs into it. I’m looking forward to tomorrow, and not just to get out and see the world beyond a two-mile radius of Ashford.”

  “It’s kilometers here.”

  “I’ve a feeling I’ll master Irish easier than the metric system. I think getting a better sense of the area beyond our little core of it might be helpful. Plus, I have an exceptional guide.”

  “We’ll be seeing about that.”

  Take the moments, she thought. Every moment of normal, of happiness and ease. “I want ruins and old cemeteries and green hills. And sheep.”

  “You don’t have to ramble far for any of that.”

  “But I’ll be rambling with you.” Turning, she wrapped her arms around his waist.

  She felt him shift, that subtle move of embarrassment, though the clatter and chatter continued around them. And because she found it endearing, she added to it by raising to her toes and giving him a quick kiss. “I could drive for a while. Practice the on-the-left thing before I buy a car.”

  “I think no, most firmly.”

  “I know how to drive a truck.”

  “You know how to drive a truck on the right when you’re counting the miles. But you don’t know how to drive a lorry on the left when you’re clicking off kilometers.”

  He had her there. “That’s the point. You could teach me.”

  “Best you try that with someone less . . . volatile,” Branna suggested.

  “She means someone less likely to shout blue murder if you clip a hedgerow or veer off the wrong direction on a roundabout,” Meara explained. “You’re better off with Connor, as he’s long on patience.”

  “I’d need be no longer than a thumbnail to have more patience than Boyle. I’ll take you out on the road, cousin, first chance we have for it.”


  “And if you’re after buying a car, I’ve a friend in Hollymount in the trade who’d make you a fair deal.”

  “Connor’s friends everywhere.”

  He merely smiled at Meara. “Sure I’m a friendly sort.”

  “And all the girls attest to it. I should be off. You’ll text me if you devise some grand scheme,” she said to Branna.

  “I’ve some thoughts to put together. I’ll let you know when I have them sorted out.”

  “Have a care.” Meara added a hug.

  “I could use a care as well.”

  Lifting her eyebrows at Connor, Meara tapped his cheek. “Enjoy your rambling, Iona, and you and Boyle have a care as well. And you, Fin.”

  “I’ll walk out with you. I’ve some thoughts of my own to put together,” he said to Branna. “We might consider Litha.”

  She nodded. “I am.”

  “Isn’t that—yes, that’s the summer solstice,” Iona remembered. “Not till June?”

  “A bit of time yet. Light smothers dark—and it’s the longest day, which we may use to our advantage. I’ve to think about it.”

  “Would you rather I stay here tomorrow? Work with you?”

  “No, go rambling. You’re right that it’s good for you to have a better sense of the world around this core of it. And I need that time to think.”

  “Why don’t we give you some peace then,” Boyle suggested. “I’ll come fetch you, Iona, about nine.”

  “You could. Or I could go with you now, and we can leave from your place whenever you’re ready.” She smiled at him. He didn’t shift, but she sensed he wanted to. “They all know we’re sleeping together.”

  “Is that a fact?” Connor feigned surprise. “And here I thought you’ve been having a chess tournament and discussing world events.”

  “You’re a rare one,” Boyle muttered. “We can leave from my house if you’d rather. Just don’t take half the night getting together what you need, as we’ll just be tramping around rubble and gravestones.”

  “I packed a bag already, just in case. Call me,” she told Branna, “if you need me for anything.”

  “Just have a good time of it.” She moved them along, friends and family, up to waving them away from the front door of the cottage.

  And stood there a moment longer in the chilly dark.

  “All right then, it’s just you and me as you wanted.” Connor laid a hand on her shoulder. “What is it?”

  He wouldn’t look, Branna thought. Though she knew how to block him, he wouldn’t draw on her heart or mind. He’d consider it an intrusion.

  “I don’t mean to cut Iona out, and she’s proven herself, God knows.”

  “But you’re still getting used to her—and used to the others, all being part of it. Makes you feel tight in your skin, doesn’t it, all these people crowding you?”

  How he knew her, she thought, and thank all the gods for it, and him. “It does, yes. How we ever came from the same parents is a wonder. Nothing suits you more than a crowd, and nothing suits me less.”

  “Keeps us balanced.”

  “Seems it does, and I’m thinking balance might be the thing.”

  “Ostara, the equinox, the balance of day to night? Rather than the solstice?”

  “I’ve thought of it—as obviously you have as well—but the time’s just too short to prepare it all, as it’s nearly on us.”

  “I didn’t think her ready, our Iona,” he admitted, “but I wonder if I was wrong about that.”

  “She needs more seasoning, to my mind. And deserves it as well. The solstice is close enough, and that’s a kind of balance as well. That tipping point of the year. It may be a chance. If you’d work with me a bit now. Just putting our heads together.”

  He touched his forehead to hers. “A ritual, a spell of balancing—and banishing at the moment day holds longest—then slides into its ebbing.”

  “There, you see. I don’t have to explain to you, so it goes easier.”

  “What you’re thinking won’t come within a league of easy, but it might work. We’ll see what we can put together. Just us two for now, and the rest soon enough.”

  They went to the workshop together, with Branna trying not to feel guilty over the relief that it was just the two of them, at least for now.

  * * *


  “What? No. I’m not embarrassed.”

  “A little. I probably should’ve said something about staying with you tonight when there weren’t other people around. I never think about things like that. And it occurred to me too late to consider you might not have wanted company.”

  “You’ve stopped being company.”

  What did it say about her that she found the careless comment romantic? Oh well.

  “Then it occurred to me you’d have had no problem saying no, and you’d pick me up in the morning.”

  “Do I look thickheaded to you?”

  “Not a bit.”

  “I’d have to be not to want to spend the night with you, wouldn’t I?”

  More romance, she thought, Boyle McGrath–style. “But I shouldn’t have announced it like the minutes of the next meeting. If we took minutes.”

  “It’s a private thing.”

  “I get that, and it would be. Or I’d try harder there. But it seems to me, the way things are, privacy’s not really on the table. That’s harder for you than it is for me.”

  “It may be, but you’re right. There are more immediate things to worry about.”

  He pulled in right behind Fin, jiggled his keys as he got out.

  “Good night then,” Fin called out, “and enjoy tomorrow.”

  “I’ll have my mobile if there’s a need.”

  Iona bumped against Boyle as they climbed the stairs to his rooms. “It is harder on you. But Fin’s got to be used to you bringing a date back with you now and then, and you with him doing the same.”

  “I don’t bring women here. As a rule,” he said after a moment.

  “Oh.” Privacy, she thought, and more. “If you go to their place, you can leave when you want.”

  “There’s that.” He stepped inside.

  “You need to tell me when you want me to go. I’d rather be told than tolerated.”

  “I don’t tolerate much.” He tossed his keys in a bowl. “I’m not tolerating you.”

  It made her smile. “Good. Don’t. It’s miserable to be tolerated.”

  He set her little bag on a chair. “If I didn’t want you here, you’d be somewhere else. Do you want something to drink?”

  “I thought I wasn’t company anymore.”

  “You’re right.”

  He grabbed her the way she liked, pulled her through to the bedroom. “You can get your own drink after.”

  “I’ll get you one, too.” She yanked his jacket off his shoulders and away. “Boots,” she said and made him laugh.

  “I’m aware of the order of things.”

  And still they dived toward the bed. Pulling, tugging, then tossing boots.

  “We broke something last time,” she remembered as she rushed to unbutton his shirt. “What was it?”

  “My grandmother’s crystal vase.”

  Her fingers stilled, her eyes widened in distress. Then he grinned.

  “Oh! Liar!” She threw a leg over him, shoved him onto his back. “You’re going to pay for that.” Crossing her arms, she grabbed the hem of her sweater, pulled it over her head, winged it over her shoulder.

  “I’ll pay more,” he told her. He slid his hands up her sides, over her breasts as she fought open the last buttons.

  “You bet you will, buddy.” She lowered her head, catching his mouth in a crushing kiss before scraping her teeth over his bottom lip, ending with a nip.

  He retaliated by flipping her over, doing the same.

  They wrestled off clothes, wrestled each other in a rush of give-and-take.

  So much the same, she thought, wonderfully the same, but now she knew what they could bring to each other. All heat and demand and speed, like flying through fire—simmers and flashes and bursts.

  She reveled in the thrill of skin sliding against skin—his to hers, hers to his—the heady friction of it. His mouth, dark with hunger, his hands, rough with greed, raced over her.

  How had she lived without knowing what it was to be wanted so completely, so urgently, so thoroughly?

  She needed to give him the same, to show him how the want for him flooded through her.

  He couldn’t get enough of her. Whatever he took only sparked a bright hot need for more. When he had her like this, moving, moving in the dark, he couldn’t think, could only feel.

  And she made him feel drunk, half-mad with it. Made him feel strong as a god, reckless as a cornered wolf.

  The world outside dissolved; time spun away.

  Just her body, the shape of her, those sleek muscles under smooth skin. The sound of her—breath and sigh and soft, soft moan. And her taste, so hot and sweet.

  She struggled up, fast hands, quick legs, to straddle him, and starlight caught in the crown of her hair like diamonds.

  She took him in, fast and deep, her hands pressed to her own breasts as the first wave of ecstasy swamped her.

  Then she rode, free and wild, starlight on her skin, dark triumph in her eyes.

  He gripped her hips, clinging to her and some last thread of sanity.

  And she lifted her arms high, crying out in that same dark triumph.

  Flames shimmered at her fingertips, tiny pinpoints of light that flashed, bright and blinding as the sun. Stunned by them, bewitched by her, he held on—and he let go.

  * * *


  “Do you hear that? Do you hear that?”

  “It’s just the wind.”

  “No.” The woods were so thick, the night so black. Where was the moon? Why was there no moon, no stars?

  And with a shudder, she understood. “It’s in the wind.”

  Her name, the seductive pull of the whisper. A stroke of silk on bare skin.

  “You need to sleep.”

  “But I am. Aren’t I?”

  When she shivered again, he rubbed her chilled hands between his. “We should have a fire.”

  “It’s so dark. It’s too dark, too cold.”

  “I know the way home. Don’t fret now.”

  He began to guide her, through the trees, away from the little licks of fog that flicked, sly as the tongue of a snake, along the ground.

  “Don’t let go,” she said as the whisper slid and stroked over her skin.

  “The way’s blocked, do you see?” He gestured to the thick branches blocking the path. “I’ll need to move them before we can get through.”

  “No!” On a
spur of panic, she gripped his hand tighter. “It’s what he wants. Just like before, to separate us. We have to stay together. We have to hold on.”

  “The way’s blocked, Iona.” He turned her now, looked into her eyes. His were dark gold, intense, unwavering. “We should have a fire.”

  “The fog’s closer. Can you hear it?”

  The wolf now, just the faintest growl through the black, through the fog.

  “I hear it. Fire, Iona. It’s what we need.”

  Fire, she thought. Against the dark, against the cold.

  Fire. Of course.

  She threw her arms out, out, lifted her face up. And called it.

  Strong, bright, with a whip-snap that lashed through the creeping fog, made it boil, made it steam and die to thin black ash.

  “To the dark I bring the light. Against the black I forge the white. From my blood I call the fire to burn, to flame high and higher. Awake or in dreams, my power runs free. As I will, so mote it be.”

  A curl of fog snuck out, slithered close. Boyle lunged in front of Iona, threw out a fist.

  He felt a quick pain across his knuckles. Then both fog and ash vanished, and there was only fire and light.

  She saw blood well up across Boyle’s hand.

  And woke with a jolt.

  Morning, she saw now, the pearly promise of it glowing against the window.

  A dream, just a dream, and she took a breath to steady herself. When Boyle sat up beside her, she reached for his hand.

  And saw the blood.

  “Oh God.”

  “In the woods, together.” His fingers curled tight over hers. “Is that how it was?”

  She nodded. “It’s a kind of astral projection, I think. We’re here, but we were there. I must have pulled you in with me. You . . . You hit out at the fog.”

  “It worked, and felt fine as well, though your fire did more.”

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