Dark witch, p.25
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       Dark Witch, p.25
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         Part #1 of The Cousins O'Dwyer series by Nora Roberts

  “Well, sticking with the theme, I’ve dipped my finger in the bowl of frosting and had a small sample or two, but nothing more.” From her own corner of the couch, Meara shifted. “I want to say, Boyle can be a idjit.”

  “Branna called him a gobdaw.”

  “And that as well, as can most men. And I’m sorry to say our side as well has moments of grand stupidity. I want to say as well, I’ve known him a good long time, and I’ve never seen him look at another woman the way he looks at you.”

  She believed that. She’d felt that. But. “I wish it could be enough. My problem is I always want more.”

  “Why is that a problem?”

  “It’s a problem when you don’t get it.”

  She plopped down again as Branna came back with her violin case. “He’s out there,” Branna said.

  “Boyle?” And damn it, Iona felt her heart jump.

  “No. Cabhan.”

  This time her nerves jumped even as she and Meara pushed off the couch.

  “There’s fog all around the house, pressed right up to the windows like a Peeping Tom.”

  “What should we do?” Iona saw it now, the gray curtain of it as she stepped to the glass with her friends. “We should do something.”

  “We will. We’ll have music. He can’t go past my shield on this place,” Branna said as she calmly took out the fiddle, the bow. “So we’ll have more wine, and we’ll have music. And we’ll shove the sound of it right up his arse.”

  “Something lively then.” Meara shot her middle finger at the window before she turned. “Something for dancing. I’ll see if I can teach Iona a few steps.”

  “I’m a fast learner,” she said, as much to what lurked outside as to Meara.

  17

  THE HANGOVER WOKE HER, THE STEADY THROB, THROB, throb in her temples that picked up the beat from the bang, bang, bang in the center of her skull.

  She’d had worse, Iona thought, but not by much.

  She considered pulling the covers over her head and trying to sleep it off, but she couldn’t—wouldn’t—miss work. Cautiously she opened her eyes, then squinted at the living room window.

  Not in bed, she realized, but on the couch with a pretty throw in melting shades of purple tucked around her. She remembered now. She’d stretched out on the couch after dancing herself breathless and after joining her friends in a song or two.

  She didn’t have their quality of voice, but she knew the words thanks to Nan, and could pull off some decent harmony.

  Plus it was fun, she thought. And defiant, making song as the fog curled outside.

  She’d drunk, eaten, talked, laughed, then sung and danced her way through that first awful punch of pain. And now she had a hangover to distract her, and that was all to the good.

  She hadn’t cried—or not enough to count—and that was even better.

  She’d down a gallon of water, a bottle or two of aspirin, make herself eat something. Then shower for a few days. All better.

  And she’d work through the rest.

  Sometime between the first glass of wine and the last, she determined she’d go to the stables as usual. She wouldn’t crawl off and quit a job she loved because her boss—her lover—had broken her all-too-fragile heart.

  If he wanted her gone, he’d have to fire her.

  She got up, shuffled her way to the kitchen. She’d gulped down water, some aspirin, and was contemplating trying some dry toast when Meara walked in looking annoyingly bright-eyed and rosy.

  “Got a bit of a head this morning, do you?”

  Iona gave Meara as close to the stink eye as she could manage. “Why don’t you?”

  “Oh, I’ve a head like a rock and a stomach like iron.” She spoke cheerfully as she put on coffee. “Can’t remember ever being the worse for wear after a drinking night.”

  “I hate you.”

  “And who’s to blame you? We left you where you dropped last night, as it seemed best. Since I’d brought a change with me in case we made a night of it, I slept in your room. You’ll want the coffee and some food in your system. Oatmeal, I’m thinking.”

  Iona winced. “Really?”

  “Good and healthy. I’ll make it up, as Branna won’t be stirring as yet.”

  “Does she have a head like a rock and a stomach like iron, too?”

  “I’d say she does, yes. But then she’s careful how much she drinks. She’s one to keep her wits about her, always. Here now.” Meara poured the coffee. “When she’s up, ask her to fix you a potion for the head. She has one that’s renowned.”

  “Good to know. I’d like a clear head when I get to work.”

  “So you’re sticking with it then?” Meara gave her a light shoulder punch of approval. “Good for you.”

  “I’m not going to deprive myself of work I love, or mope in a corner. I need the job, so we’ll figure out how to work together, unless he fires me.”

  “He never would. He’s not so hard, Iona.”

  “No, he’s not. Besides, the sun may be out now, but there’s always a chance of fog. With that to deal with, we have to put the rest aside. No chinks in the circle, right?”

  “You’ve got spine.” This time Meara gave her a quick rub on the shoulder.

  “If you’re really making oatmeal, I’ll go up, soak some of this hangover away in the shower, and get dressed for work.” She hesitated, then wrapped her arms around Meara in a hug. “You and Branna got me through a tough night.”

  “Ah, well now, what else are friends for if not that?”

  By the time she got out of the shower, the throbbing and banging had clicked down a couple levels. But a sober study of her face in the mirror told her more help was needed. Instead of her usual workday slap-and-dash-on makeup, she took some time, some care. She didn’t want Boyle to think the pale cheeks and smudged eyes were due to him, though indirectly they were, since she’d overindulged to buffer the hurt.

  Satisfied she’d done the best with what she had to work with, she dressed and went back down to face oatmeal.

  She found Branna, sleepy-eyed in her pajamas, drinking coffee as Meara hummed a tune while she slapped butter on toasted bread.

  “And there’s herself now, and looking only half dragged out.”

  “That bad?”

  “Not bad at all,” Meara said staunchly, and dished out oatmeal.

  “Sure we can do better.” Branna crooked a finger. “Lean down here, since you won’t do it for yourself.” She glided her hands gently over Iona’s face. “Just a touch, as we don’t want him to think you fussed for him either.”

  That brought on a smile. “You read my mind.”

  “It’s sensible, so a little glamour adds just the right touch. We women, and witches, stick together. Meara says you’ve a bit of a head.”

  “It’s better.”

  “Drink that.” She tapped her finger on a glass filled with pale green liquid.

  “What is it?”

  “Good for what ails you. Herbs and such, and a touch of more. No point going in as you are, feeling less than well, or looking it. You’re showing backbone by dealing with what is, so you’ll have a reward.”

  “And oatmeal.” Meara set three bowls on the table, went back for the toast, then sat.

  “Here goes.” Considering it medicine, Iona drank the potion—but found it had a cool, fresh flavor with a faint hint of mint. “It’s nice.”

  “Good for what ails you doesn’t have to be unpleasant. Eat as well, it adds to it.”

  “You’re both taking care of me. I want to say if either of you get the crap kicked out of you by love, I’ll be there for you.”

  “That’s reassuring.” Meara dug into the oatmeal.

  The hangover slid away, like raindrops sliding down a window pane—a kind of slow, soft, liquid fading that left Iona feeling refreshed and rested.

  “You could make a fortune off that single potion,” she told Branna as she pulled on her jacket. “It’s a miracle.”

 
“Not quite that, and making fortunes isn’t all it’s thought to be. We work tonight, cousin, and twice as hard for the night off.”

  “I’ll be ready. I know you’re not much for hugs,” she added as she gave Branna a squeeze. “But I am.” She stepped outside with Meara. “I don’t think Cabhan liked the music.”

  “I hope it rings in his ears still. I’ll speak with you later,” Meara said to Branna, and strode to her truck. “I hate I’m saying this,” she continued when Iona sat beside her. “But don’t be too awful hard on him. Oh, he deserves it with no doubt, the donkey’s arse, but men can be such fumblers.”

  “I don’t want to be hard on him. I just want to get through.”

  “Then you will.”

  * * *

  HE DIDN’T EXPECT HER TO COME TO WORK, AND IT CHAFED at him that he couldn’t blame her. Before the mucking and feeding, watering and daily morning medications began, he huddled down with the weekly schedule. In a relatively short time, he realized, he’d assigned Iona to so many tasks, students, duties he’d need to do a bit of scrambling to fill in her spots.

  Pain in the arse, and really when you thought about it all in a rational way there was no reason she’d get herself in such a state so she’d toss the work in the trash bin along with the rest.

  And if he could just have a rational word or two with her, he’d surely climb out of the bin himself.

  If women were more like men, life would run along smoother, without a doubt.

  He stewed, and finagled the schedule, brooded and shifted hours and students. As he pushed away to pull out his mobile and begin to make the necessary calls, he heard Meara’s truck drive up. Hers ran with a cougar’s purr rather than Mick’s aging lion with bronchitis.

  He strolled out, determined to pass the calls to her, and to, very casual-like, pump her for information on Iona, as word was she’d stayed over at Branna’s.

  So it threw him off stride when Iona hopped out of the passenger’s door, dressed for the workday.

  “Morning then,” Meara said with a kind of fierce cheer, and walked right by him into the stables.

  He led with: “Ah . . .”

  “I’m here to work.” In a clipped voice he’d never heard her use, Iona stopped a foot away to speak to him. “And that’s all. I need the work, I like the work, I’m good at the work. If you intend to fire me—”

  “Fire you?” Shocked, and once again off stride, he gaped at her. “Of course I’m not after firing you. Why—”

  “Good. Then that’s that.”

  “Well now, wait a minute there, we need to talk about—”

  “We don’t.” She cut him off in that same tone, cool and dismissive. “I know what you feel and think, and on some level I understand it. You’re entitled to feel what you feel, and I’m responsible for my own feelings. So it’s just work, Boyle, and you have to respect that.”

  She turned her back on him, walked to the stables. He could stop her, just pluck her up and haul her off somewhere private where she’d have to talk it out and over. He thought of doing just that for a moment, then let her go.

  He stuffed his hands in his pockets, stood in the cool morning air, and wished he’d gotten the damn flowers.

  He tried it her way. As he was the one who’d fucked up, he was obliged to give her the room she asked for.

  She went about her work, but not all brisk business as he’d expected. Oh no, she had plenty to say to Meara, to Mick and the others, a laugh to share, a question to ask. But not a bloody word did she speak to him unless given no choice.

  She managed to be cordial and distant at once.

  It pissed him off, then when the mad faded, the guilt piled in.

  “You’re driving him mad.” Meara watched Iona saddle Spud for a guided ride.

  “I’m just doing my job, and leaving the personal out of it.”

  “Exactly what’s driving him mad. He’d say, being male, and being especially Boyle, the logical thing to do in such situations is separate the business from the personal, but you doing just that’s squeezing his balls. He doesn’t know whether to yelp or drop.”

  “I’m getting through.” After tightening the cinch, Iona put on her riding helmet. “That’s what counts. But I can’t say I’m sorry it’s giving his balls a good squeeze.”

  She led the group out—a couple and two teenage girls from America taking advantage of spring break—letting them chatter among themselves. But she did glance back, once, and couldn’t deny a quick twist of satisfaction at catching Boyle watching her ride away.

  As they turned into the woods, she brushed her fingers over the amulet she wore, then tapped them to her pocket where she’d put a protection charm that morning.

  She wouldn’t fear the woods, she told herself. She wouldn’t fear what came. And she wouldn’t fear living her life alone if that’s what destiny handed her.

  Putting her guide’s smile on, she shifted in the saddle, glanced back at the family. “So, how are you enjoying your visit so far?”

  * * *

  A BUSY DAY MOVED QUICKLY, AND FOR THAT SHE WAS GRATEFUL. Knowing she did just exactly what she needed to do didn’t make it any easier to do it. She wanted to smile at Boyle, and see him flash her a grin in return. Wanted to feel entitled to touch him, just a hand to his, a hand on his arm, and have him feel entitled to do the same.

  She wanted to be easy with him again. Even if they couldn’t be lovers, even if she had to find a way to snuff out the light of the love she felt for him, she wanted him in her life.

  Needed him, she corrected as she cleaned up at the big stables after her lesson with Sarah. Until Cabhan was defeated, until what Sorcha had begun so long ago was finished, they all needed one another.

  What they faced was so much bigger than a bruised heart and some scarred pride.

  They’d find a way. If Branna and Fin could work together, she could certainly work with Boyle. It might take some time to find the right way, to smooth out the bumps—and they’d have to talk it out, she admitted.

  But not yet. Too tender yet.

  She hugged Alastar’s neck, pleased when he nuzzled her. “I’ve got you, don’t I? My guide, my friend, my partner. I’ve got family who cares about me, and understands me. And I’ve got a home, a place I belong. It’s more than I ever had before.”

  She drew back, kissed his nose. “So no complaints, no pity parties. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

  She walked out, noted she timed it well when she spotted Connor strolling toward the stables, his whistled tune leading the way.

  The perfect Irish picture, she thought, a good-looking man, all lanky limbs and wicked angel face, hands in the pockets of his rough work pants, and the brown path and green, green woods behind him.

  “All done for the day then?” he called out.

  “Just now. You?”

  “Ready to walk my pretty cousin home, and see if our Branna baked any fresh biscuits today. I’ve a yen for some, and since according to our Branna we’re working tonight, I deserve them as well.”

  “I’m ready for magick.” She wiggled her fingers. “And to learn something new.”

  “New, is it?”

  “Astral projection. I’m doing it in dreams, either on my own or manipulated by Cabhan, I don’t know for sure. But I don’t control it. I want to.”

  “It’s a good arrow for your quiver. And so . . . how did it all go with Boyle today?”

  “Maybe a little awkward and tense here and there, but we got through it. It should be easier going forward.”

  “He’s feeling a right shit about the whole business.”

  She would not feel pleased (maybe just a little). She would not feel sorry, or she’d ignore the sorry.

  “He feels what he feels, that’s why we’re here. He’s your friend.” She gave Connor’s arm a quick rub. “He feels bad he hurt me. You feel bad that he feels bad. We all just have to get past it and not lose sight of what we have to do.”

  “And you can do that?”<
br />
  “I’ve had a disappointed heart before.” She said it lightly, had to, as it went so deep. “I think some of us are just destined not to connect that way.”

  “But you don’t.” He took her hand in his, gave it a bolstering squeeze. “You don’t think that at all.”

  “I think,” she said more carefully, “there’s something about me that makes it difficult for others to forge an intimate connection to.”

  “Bollocks,” he began, but she shook her head.

  “My own parents couldn’t. Is that them, or is it me? Who knows, but if they can’t, and there’s been no one until Boyle I wanted, deep down, to make that connection to, I can’t blame him. If it’s me, I have to work on me. And I have been. I’m a classic work-in-progress.”

  “You’re wrong, about the connection, or anything about it being you. You’re as easy to love as a summer morning. If we weren’t cousins, I’d marry you myself.”

  She laughed at that, touched. Then sent him a sultry, sidelong stare. “We’re distant cousins.”

  “Cousins all the same.” He slung an arm around her shoulders. “And it’s too odd and tangled for that.”

  “Too bad, because you’re so pretty.”

  “I’ll say the same right back to you.”

  He opened the door to the workshop, gave his arm an exaggerated sweep to usher her in. Then sniffed the air.

  “Ginger biscuits, and what a fine welcome home.”

  “Have some and your tea, as we’ve work to make up.”

  At the counter Branna poured white liquid wax into a clear jar, already weighted with a long white wick. Iona wondered how Connor scented the ginger over the summer fragrance of hydrangea.

  “How did it all go then?” Branna asked as she tipped up the pan, moved down to the next jar.

  “First day down, and not too bad.”

  “She thinks she’s unlovable.” Connor spoke over a mouthful of cookie.

  “Oh bollocks.”

  “I didn’t say that, don’t think that. I meant—never mind.” She grabbed a cookie for herself. “Do you need help with those?”

  “I’m about done, but you can help me with the labels and wick trimming later on. I’ve made dozens as we were running low, and the tourists come thicker in spring than in winter. Have your tea. We’ll work twice as much today for working not at all yesterday.”

  “I’m ready.”

  “She’s after astral projection,” Connor put in.

  “Astral projection, is it?” Pursing her lips, Branna studied Iona. “It wasn’t what I had in mind, but well, why not? It’s a fine skill to have.”

  With the last jar filled, she left them cooling on the rack, pulled off the white bib apron she’d worn to protect her poppy red sweater from drips and spills.

 
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