Stars of fortune, p.25
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       Stars of Fortune, p.25

         Part #1 of The Guardians series by Nora Roberts
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  “They’re of light.”

  “And blood?”

  “Yours and mine. They’re only for you, and can only belong to you, or your blood—someone from you,” he qualified.

  “Thank you.” She took one, almost reverently, then puzzled over it. “I don’t know how to wear it. Is it for the wrist?”

  “That’s right.” He took her hand, and the one he still held. “If you want it, it’ll go on. But understand, it’s both weapon and shield.”

  “To help me fight—without the gun or a knife.”

  “That’s right. Without a gun or knife, but with power and light.”

  “I will fight.”

  When Bran put her fingers through the cuff, it shimmered over her hand, onto her wrist, settled there, firm and true. Annika did the same with the second.

  “They’re beautiful.”

  “Only you can take them off.”

  She shook her head. “I’ll wear them always. Thank you.” She wrapped her arms around him. “Thank you.”

  “You’re welcome. Let me show you how they work.”

  “Yes, please.”

  He lifted a hand, and formed a dark, spinning ball just above his palm, then sent it into the air. Then taking her arm, bent at the elbow, turned it toward the ball. “To start, you have to think, to aim, to be deliberate. But then it’ll be instinct. Deflect the ball.”

  “Deflect?”

  “Your light, Annika, against the dark. Use it.”

  He helped her this time, this first time. The thin beam of light shot from her cuff, struck the ball.

  “I feel it,” she murmured.

  “That’s right. Do it again.”

  She surprised him, lifting her other arm, and sent the ball wheeling.

  “You’re a quick one.”

  “I feel it,” she repeated. “But what if I make a mistake? What if it strikes someone? I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

  “It only harms the dark, or someone with dark purpose. It comes from me as well, and I have a vow. Sacred to me. To harm no one. What I am, what I have, I won’t use to harm any but the dark.”

  “It’s my vow, too. I take it with you. I will fight the dark.” She lifted her arms, shot out light from both so the practice ball winged right, then left.

  “Yes, a very quick one. Destroy it.”

  “Destroy?”

  “I’ll give you another. Destroy this one.”

  This light, brighter, sharper, struck the ball, and with a flash it vanished.

  “If the things come back, attack us, I can do this. They’re evil, so I can do this.” Her eyes went hard, grim. “I can do this and break no vow.”

  “You do this, as I do, to keep one. To destroy the dark, to find and protect the stars.”

  “These are more than a gift. Even more than a weapon. You gave me purpose.” Those sea-witch eyes, usually so full of fun, met his with intensity and strength. “I won’t fail you.”

  “I know it.”

  “I like that they’re pretty.”

  “Sasha designed them for you.” He conjured another ball. “Practice. I’ve got kitchen duty.”

  “I’ll work very hard. Could you make a second, now? The evil doesn’t come alone.”

  “Good point.” He made three, gave her a pat on the shoulder, then left her to it. He could hear the snap and sizzle from her light as he crossed the lawn.

  Sawyer stood on the edge of the terrace, his hands in his pockets, a baffled grin on his face.

  “You made her freaking Wonder Woman.”

  “Sasha’s idea. It suits well, I think.”

  “Are you kidding? Look at her go.”

  Bran glanced back, watched Annika do a running forward flip, firing at one ball from midair. Striking the other two on landing.

  “Makes me feel like a git for ever thinking she needed to use a gun.” As he had with Annika, he gave Sawyer’s shoulder a pat, and went to the kitchen.

  * * *

  Annika showed off her new moves before dinner, proving herself a tireless as well as a quick study.

  “I wouldn’t mind a pair of those.” Hands on hips, Riley watched Annika flash the trio of balls while executing a series of tumbles.

  “Three nights a month you’d need four.”

  She sent Sawyer a sidelong look. “Har-har,” she said and took his beer. “Are you sure she can’t miss and zap one of us?”

  “Very.” As instructed, Bran slid the fish from grill to platter. “You’d feel something—like a bit of static electricity.”

  “Does that include wolf form?”

  “It’s still you, isn’t it?”

  “Yeah, it is. Maybe we should test it out anyway. Sawyer can be the target.”

  “And a har-har back.”

  “No joke, we should—” Riley broke off as her phone signaled. “Hold on.”

  Sasha brought out a bowl of sautéed vegetables in pasta and a round of bread on the cutting board.

  “That’s dinner,” she announced.

  Sawyer gave a whistle of approval when Annika blasted all three balls out of the air. “Talk about dead-eye.”

  Riley shoved her phone away as she sat. “The word from two sources is Malmon is currently in London—so something we shouldn’t have to worry about for now.” She looked out, judging the position of the sun and her time. “I like to sleep in, when I can, after the last night. I guess that’s not happening.”

  “We drill at dawn.” Doyle heaped food on his plate.

  “I like to drill.” Annika plopped into the chair beside Sawyer. “Some of it’s like dancing.”

  * * *

  Through the globe Nerezza watched them. It infuriated her that the images were blurred, as if through layers of gauze.

  The witch, she thought, had drawn a curtain, and had more power than she’d bargained for.

  Not enough, not nearly enough, but infuriating.

  She set the globe aside, picked up her goblet to drink.

  Let them think they were protected. Let them feast and laugh. For when she was done, the laughter would be screams.

  She called one of her creatures so it perched on the arm of her chair while she skimmed her fingertip over the rough ridges of its face. She could send an attack, just to watch them scramble like ants, but it seemed wiser to let them have that feast, to let them believe they’d won some battle.

  And let them lead her to the Fire Star.

  When they did—if they could—she would take it. She would rip them to pieces, crush their bones to dust, paint the sea with their blood.

  She wearied of waiting, wearied of only watching through the curtain of magic. She stroked her creature nearly into slumber. Then snapped the head from its body with one vicious twist. She added some of its blood to the goblet as a woman might add cream to her tea.

  She imagined, as she drank, it was the witch’s blood, and his power ran in to twine with her own.

  CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

  She swam through cool blue water, strong and sure. It called to her, like a song, and she wanted only to answer. Even when her lungs burned and begged for air—just one gulp of air—she swam on.

  She saw the change of light, a kind of beckoning, and risked all to dive still deeper. Even when her arms weakened, her kicks faltered, she never thought of the surface. Only the light. Only the song.

  Close, so close. Tears burned behind her eyes as her body betrayed her. She could see the mouth of the cave, but knew now she couldn’t reach it.

  She wasn’t strong enough.

  As the light began to blur, the song to dim, hands grabbed her.

  She sucked in air that scored her throat, gagged on dream water filling her lungs. And stared into Bran’s dark eyes.

  “Thank the gods.” He dragged her to him, rocked them both. “You stopped breathing.”

  “I was drowning.”

  “You’re here. Here with me.”

  “There was a light, and I wanted to reach it. Had to. I was swimming for it,
but I wasn’t strong enough. I was drowning.”

  “A dream.” Not a prophecy. He wouldn’t permit it. “You’re stressed, that’s all. We dive tomorrow—” Today, he thought, as dawn crept close. “And you’re stressed.”

  “I was alone. Not diving, not with a tank. And I wasn’t strong enough.”

  “You won’t be alone. We’ll stay back today. I’ll stay with you here.”

  “It’s not what we’re meant to do. You know that. The dream doesn’t make sense. I wouldn’t dive without a tank. And I wasn’t afraid, Bran. More . . . mesmerized. Until I realized I couldn’t do it.”

  “Do what?”

  “Get to the light. The cave. Stress,” she said with a nod. “Sometimes a dream’s a dream. I’m still the weak link—physically. I’m sorry I scared you.”

  “Only to the marrow of my bones. Come, rest a little longer.”

  “If I get up now, I can get coffee in before Doyle starts cracking the whip. I think it’d be worth it.”

  “We’ll have coffee then.” In that moment, with his fear still circling the edges, she could have had anything in his power to give. “Sasha, if when we’re diving, anything reminds you of the dream, you need to let me know. You won’t be alone.”

  “That’s a promise.”

  * * *

  She felt calm. The dream left her no residual upset or worries. In fact, it barely felt real. And after twenty minutes under the crack of Doyle’s whip, absolutely nothing was real except sweat and quivering muscles.

  She managed six (-ish) push-ups—half-ass push-ups according to Doyle—and three-quarters of one pull-up.

  By the time she stepped onto the boat, she felt she’d been running at top speed for half the day. She doubted anything could feel better at that moment than lowering her sore butt onto a padded bench, lifting her face to the sun, and letting the salty breeze flow over her. And all while the greens of Corfu gleamed against the blue.

  Other boats swayed in their slips or sailed across the water—as they would soon do. She could see the colors of shops and restaurants, the movement of people already strolling. On the rails of narrow balconies on a small hotel, beach towels flapped.

  The breeze carried a mix of voices and languages to her, the scent of sunscreen and lemons, strong Greek coffee, a tang of smoke.

  And wasn’t that a wonder of its own, she mused, all that life, so different from what she’d known, bustling on around them? Families on holiday, shopkeepers opening their doors for the day’s business, couples sitting at tables at pavement cafes, enjoying the sights and sounds and scents just as she was as they lingered over breakfast.

  None of them knew, she thought, there were dark hearts wanting power so greedily they would destroy all else.

  The little girl in the pretty pink capris with a ribbon trailing from her curly ponytail, bouncing along between her parents, or the old man with the weathered face and peaked cap drawing deep on his cigarette while his coffee steamed in front of him. The impossibly handsome man swabbing the deck of a nearby boat, and flashing a grin at the trio of girls who sent him flirtatious looks as they passed by.

  They didn’t know worlds hung in the balance. For them, it was only a beautiful spring morning on an island floating green on a blue sea.

  “You’re far away.” Bran sat beside her.

  “No, actually. I’m right here. Right here and right now, and it’s really wonderful. I’m going to come back,” she decided on the spot. “When there is only the right here and right now. I’m going to have coffee right over there, and browse those shops. I’m going to buy an insanely colorful scarf, and something utterly useless and beautiful, then drink kumquat wine in the middle of the day.” She angled her head, smiled. “Maybe you’ll come drink it with me.”

  “I could be persuaded.”

  Doyle eased the boat out of the marina, away from the bustle, the scents, all that life. Sasha grabbed her sketch pad to draw a quick perspective of the village from the water. She would remember the bright colors, the sun-bleached ones when she painted it. A dreamy watercolor, she decided, so that edge of a world seemed just slightly mystical and unreal.

  She flipped the page over—another sketch of the cliffs, all those browns and greens, the textures—and the beach where people already staked their claim for the day.

  Lost in the work, she barely noticed Bran get up to help Riley and Annika with the diving equipment, hardly heard over the motor, the wind, Doyle and Sawyer discussing the maps.

  Content, half dreaming, she took off her shoes, stood to remove her shirt, shorts. She’d pulled her hair back in a tail for the dive, and now set her hat on her clothes, all neatly folded on the bench.

  Despite the bright sun, she set her sunglasses on the pile. The light was a white flash striking the water, deepening the blue to breathless. The foam of it in the boat’s wake, the lap and splash of it against the hull as it took them into a gentle curve toward land struck like music.

  It pulled at her, at everything inside her. She stood on the bench, then on the rail. Then simply dived into the song.

  Bran turned first, had a split second to see her disappear under the water. “Stop the boat!” He grabbed a life ring, heaved it back, shooting power with it so it dropped on the surface where Sasha had gone in. “She’s gone over. Sasha’s gone over,” he said as he kicked off his shoes. “She dreamed she drowned.”

  “For Christ’s sake. Wait!” Riley grabbed his arm. “Get your tank. She might need the air. Doyle!”

  “Already turning.”

  Bran strapped on the tank, cursing the precious seconds it took, then rolled into the water.

  “Get tanks, weigh anchor. We need to—”

  “I can find her,” Annika interrupted Riley’s frantic orders. As Sasha had, she simply dived in.

  “Holy shit.” Strapping his tank over his T-shirt, Sawyer kept the life ring in view. “Nerezza must’ve done something to them. Let’s move.”

  He was in the water moments after Annika.

  Doyle tossed Riley a face mask. “She’s got a sorcerer in love with her. He’ll get to her.”

  Riley snapped on the sheath with her diving knife. “Let’s make damn sure of it.”

  She swam through the cool blue water, consumed by the song. It played in her head, her heart, through her blood, more beautiful than any sound ever heard.

  She saw the light up ahead, a lovely glow through the blue, pulsing, pulsing with the music.

  She dived deeper, yearning for it. Deeper still even when her lungs ached.

  She could all but feel the warmth of it, just beyond the reach of her fingertips, struggled to swim closer while her strokes faltered.

  Not strong enough. Despair flooded her at her own weakness, at the frail human need for air when all she craved was nearly within her grasp.

  It all blurred—light, pulse, song—as her body went limp. She began to sink in the blue, her hand stretched toward the beauty.

  Hands grabbed her. Helpless, she breathed in water as she was propelled forward.

  Blinding light, sudden warmth. Then nothing.

  Annika dragged her up, broke the surface of the water. In the cave, that water seemed to sing as it flowed up and over rock. Light shimmered blue as moonbeams.

  “She has no breath.” Weeping, Annika hugged Sasha to her as Bran shot up beside her. “Can you help her?”

  “Yes, yes.”

  He wouldn’t lose her. Boosting himself onto the wide lip of rock, he pulled Sasha up. He pressed a hand on her heart, pushed power there. And lowering to her, gave her his breath.

  For an instant that lasted a lifetime, he knew true fear. He wouldn’t be enough. He would be too late.

  Then her heart stirred under his hand.

  She coughed up water. He turned her gently as the others surfaced, and kept his hand pressed to her heart when she gasped in air.

  “There you are now. I’ll never tell you it’s just a dream again. There you are, a ghrá.”

&
nbsp; He lifted her, cradled her, as she shook, laid his brow on hers, rocked them both.

  “What happened?”

  Riley climbed up, took a hard look at Sasha’s face. “You decided to go diving without a tank.”

  “I . . . like the dream.” She groped for Bran’s hand. “I was on the boat, sketching, then . . . I heard the music. It was like dreaming again. I had to find the song, the light.”

  “Nerezza.” Riley bit off the name.

  “No, no. It wasn’t dark or cold. It wasn’t evil. It was beautiful.”

  “Evil hides in beauty.” Doyle hauled himself up with them.

  “No. I’d know. I can feel. It called for me. None of you heard it?”

  “Something, when we got closer to the cave.” Riley looked up, around. “This cave that isn’t on any map.”

  “And the light.” Bran stroked her cheek, wishing to will the color back into it. “It guided us to you.”

  “You saved me,” she told him, but he shook his head.

  “Annika. She got to you first, pulled you in here. She’s faster than any of us in the water.” He glanced back at her. “Understandably.”

  “I couldn’t let the sea take her.”

  Annika knuckled a tear away. Her sinuous, luminous tail curved through the water. “With legs I would have been too late.”

  Sawyer, still treading water, his gaze still riveted on the sway of sapphire, emerald, hints of ruby, slowly reached out to touch the shimmery, translucent fin with a fingertip.

  “You’re a mermaid. Well, kick my ass. That explains a lot.”

  “I couldn’t tell you. I wasn’t supposed to.”

  “Annika.” Sasha crawled to the edge where Annika rested her arms. “You saved
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