Dark witch, p.27
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       Dark Witch, p.27
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         Part #1 of The Cousins O'Dwyer series by Nora Roberts

  meal, Iona would think as she dealt with dishes and pots, she’d had only rarely growing up, and had craved all the more from the lack.

  So, like the gift of her tools, she’d treasure it, and all those that came.

  For now, she tried to embrace the quiet, as Branna and Connor were upstairs or about somewhere on their own devices. She had work yet. The cleansing for tonight. And tomorrow she’d imbue and recharge what was now hers.

  A good day, she congratulated herself. She’d gone to work, had her first face-to-face with Boyle, and gotten through it without humiliating herself.

  Major points.

  And she’d flown to Nan’s kitchen, a personal high point.

  She’d worked seeking spells, and had the priceless reward from it.

  To cap it, she’d had a meal with her cousins full of talk and laughter.

  And tomorrow, she’d do whatever tomorrow brought her way.

  To start on that balance, she cleaned the kitchen to a sparkle. The next time Branna walked in, she thought, giving it all a narrowed eye, it would damn near blind her.

  Satisfied, she started to walk through to the workshop to begin her last task of the day, when the knock on the front door stopped her.

  Normally, the prospect of company would have pleased her, but she really wanted to get started on her tools. Probably one of Connor’s mates or prospective lady friends, she thought. She’d yet to meet anyone who didn’t love Connor, or seek him out when they wanted a good time, or needed a shoulder for a bad one.

  When she opened the door, her greeting smile faded, as there was Boyle standing there with a big, bright spring bouquet.

  She managed an “Oh.”

  He looked so sexy, so appealing, big, scarred hand around stems, his face just a bit flushed, his eyes full of embarrassed determination.

  And he shifted his weight and nearly did her in.

  “I’m sorry. I need to tell you I’m sorry. These are for you.”

  “They’re beautiful.” Better, she thought, so much better for herself if she just sent him on his way. But she couldn’t do it, not when he’d brought her flowers and a sincere apology. “Thank you,” she said instead, and took the flowers. “They’re really beautiful.”

  “Will they get me in the door, for a minute or two?”

  “All right. Sure. I want to go back and put these in water.” She led the way back to the kitchen, using every trick she’d learned to keep her mind, her heart, quiet and steady.

  “It shines in here,” he commented.

  “I’ve been balancing some scales.” She found a large, pretty vase of mossy green, Branna’s kitchen flower scissors, and the flower food her cousin made herself. And set to work.

  “I’m sorry, Iona, for upsetting you, for hurting you. I never would have meant to.”

  “I know that.” The flowers, so lovely, the scents, so poignant, helped her with her own balance. “I’m not angry with you, Boyle. Not anymore.”

  “You should be. I earned it.”

  “Maybe. But you weren’t completely wrong in what you said to Fin. I did push, and I did get in your way.”

  “I’m not one to be pushed if I’m not wanting to be. Iona—”

  “You were attracted to me. I used that. I never used magick.”

  “I know it. I know it.” Trying to find the words, he raked his fingers though his hair. “I’m not used to all this going on inside me. I lost my seat, and you happened to come in before I’d righted it again. Give me a chance, will you, to make it up?”

  “It’s not that, or not only that.”

  Balance, she thought again. She wouldn’t find it without being honest with herself, and with him.

  “Everything about you came on me so fast, and I just went with it. Grabbed for it, and I think, held on too tight. I didn’t want it all to slip away. I always wanted to feel all this going on inside me. I’ve craved it like breath. So I got in your way, I got in your bed, and I didn’t let myself think what could go wrong.”

  “It doesn’t have to be wrong. It’s not wrong,” he said, and took her shoulders.

  “It’s not right either.” Cautious, she stepped to the side so he no longer touched her. “Do you want a beer? I didn’t even ask if you—”

  “I don’t want a bloody beer. It’s you I want.”

  Her eyes, blue and beautiful even touched with sadness, lifted to his. “But you don’t want to want me. That’s still true. And I can’t keep accepting that, keep settling for that just because I always have. It goes all the way back, Boyle. My parents never really noticed when I wasn’t there, or cared much when I was or I wasn’t. And more awful yet, didn’t notice that I knew.”

  “I’m sorry to say it, as they’re your ma and da, but it strikes me, Iona, your parents are right shits.”

  She laughed a little. “I guess they sort of are. I think they love me, as much as they can, because they’re supposed to, but not because they want to. The boys and men I’ve tried to fall in love with? They’d want me back for a while, but they never wanted me enough, or wanted to want me enough, so it went away. And then I’m left wondering, what’s wrong with me? Why can’t someone love me without reservations, without all the buffers? Or worse, that I’m a kind of placeholder till someone better comes along.”

  Had he done that? he wondered. Had he added to that? “There’s nothing wrong with you, and it’s nothing of the kind.”

  “I’m working on believing that, and I can’t unless I stop accepting less. And that’s my problem, my issue. Maybe I didn’t really, all the way, realize that until you punched me in the face with it. Metaphorically,” she added with an easier smile than she’d expected to pull off.

  Because he could see her face still, as she’d stood there in the stables, he felt as though he’d struck her. “Oh Christ, Iona. I’d give anything to take the words back, to stuff them down my own throat and choke on them.”

  “No. No.” She took his hands a moment and squeezed. “Because it knocked me down, I had to get up. And this time deal all the way. Because before that, Boyle, I’d have taken anything you’d given. I’d have wrapped my own gauzy layers around it and convinced myself that it was right. But it would never have been right. I can’t be happy, not really down-to-the-bone happy, with less than I need. And if I’m not happy, I can’t make someone else happy.”

  “Tell me what you need, and I’ll give it to you.”

  “It doesn’t work like that.” And God, she loved him more that he would try, that he’d be willing to try. “Maybe it is magick after all. What makes us love and need and want one person, over everyone else. Love and need and want them absolutely. I want the magick. I’m not settling for less. You’re why. So in a strange way I’m grateful.”

  “Oh yeah, thank me now and put a fine, foamy head on it.”

  “You showed me that I’m worth more than I thought, or let myself think. And that’s a lot to be grateful for. I’m the one who rushed in, so I’m the one responsible for the fallout. It was all too fast, too intense. It’s no wonder you felt cornered.”

  “I never felt . . . I don’t know what I was talking about.”

  “You’ll figure it out. Meanwhile, the flowers are beautiful, and so was your apology.” She carried them over, put them on the table. “On second thought, I can tell you some things I need.”

  “Anything.”

  “I need to go on working for you and Fin, not only because I need to make a living, but because I’m good at it. And because I love it, and I want to do what I love.”

  “There’s no question about that. I told you.”

  “And I need to be friends with you, so we’re not awkward or uncomfortable around each other. It’s important. I couldn’t handle working for you or with you if we held on to resentment or difficult feelings. I’d end up walking away from the job to spare us both, and then I’d just be pissed off and sad.”

  “There’s no resentment from me. I can’t promise no difficult feelings, for
that’s what they are. They’re all tangled for me, and slippery with it. If you’d just—”

  “Not this time.” Not with you, she thought, because with him, she’d never get up again whole. “I don’t just. I’m responsible for my feelings, and you for yours. You’ll figure it out,” she repeated. “But we both have good work that matters to us, good friends in common. And more important than anything, right here, right now, we have a common enemy and purpose. We can’t do all we have to do if we’re not on solid footing.”

  “When did you get so bloody logical?” he muttered.

  “Maybe I’m borrowing a little from Branna. She’s taught me a lot, shown me more than I ever imagined I’d see. I have a legacy, and I’m going to be true to it. I’m going to fight for it. And I’m going to be true to myself.”

  “So it’s work together, fight together, and be friends? And that’s the lot of it?”

  She offered another smile. “That’s a lot for most people. And I’m not holding back sex as a punishment.”

  “I wasn’t meaning . . . Though now that you say it, it has that effect. It wasn’t just sex, Iona. Don’t think it.”

  “No, it wasn’t. But I pushed there, too. Jumping in, as I tend to, well, boots first.”

  “I like the way you jump in. But if it’s what you need, it’s friends.” For now, he thought.

  “Good. Want that beer now?”

  He nearly said yes, to buy more time, and maybe to soften the line she’d drawn between them. But she’d told him what she needed from him, and he’d give it.

  “I’d best be on. I’ve all that untangling to do, after all.”

  “Might as well get started.”

  “I’ll let myself out, and see you in the morning.” He started to go, turned for a moment just to look at her. So bright, so pretty, with all the flowers beside her. “You deserve all, Iona, and not a bit less.”

  She closed her eyes when she heard the front door close behind him. It was so hard to stand firm, to do and say what she knew was right when her heart ached. When her heart yearned to take less, and make do.

  “Not with him,” she murmured. “Maybe with anyone else, but not with him. Because . . . there’s only him.”

  She’d leave the flowers on the table, for everyone to enjoy. But before she went back to the workshop to cleanse her tools, she found a tall, slim vase, chose three flowers—a magick number—and, sliding them in, took them to her room where she’d see them before sleep. Where she’d see them when she waked in the morning.

  19

  AS SPRING SPREAD OVER MAYO, THROUGH THE GREEN FORESTS, over the lush hills, rains came soft and steady. Wildflowers rose and opened to drink, gardens burst to glorious life. In the fields lambs bleated, ducks plied the lough, while the forest filled with birdsong.

  Iona planted flowers and vegetables and herbs with her cousins, scraped mud off her boots, put in long hours at the stables, long hours with the craft.

  Bealtaine with its maypoles and songs came and went, and brought the solstice closer.

  As the days lengthened, she often rose before dawn and worked well into the night, using the energy that fueled her to push harder.

  And in the rain and the mud, she learned how to handle a sword.

  Though she couldn’t imagine herself in an actual sword fight, she liked the way it felt in her hand. Liked the heft of it, and the fact that—small but mighty—she could strike and block.

  She’d never be in Meara’s league. Her friend resembled an Amazon warrior even more with her hair braided back and a sword in her hand. But she learned—angles, footwork, maneuvers.

  Within the thin veil Branna conjured she sliced and parried while Meara, relentless, drove her back. While the swords sang and Meara shouted insults or instructions, Branna sat on a garden bench like some exotic housewife, calmly peeling potatoes for dinner.

  “Put your shoulder into it!”

  “I am!” Winded, and seriously starting to ache, Iona shifted her weight, tried to advance.

  “Come at me, for feck’s sake. I could slice off your limbs like you were Monty Python’s Black Knight.”

  “It’s only a flesh wound.” Giggles caught her, distracted her, and Meara moved in like a demon.

  “Mind the . . .” Branna sighed hugely as Iona lost her footing and fell backward into a massive spread of wild blue lobelia.

  “Ah well.”

  “Ouch. Sorry.”

  “You’ve got the basics well enough.” Sheathing her sword, Meara held a hand down to help pull Iona to her feet. “And you take your lumps like a woman. You’ve good speed and agility, and endurance enough. But you’ve no killer in the blood, and so you’ll always be bested.”

  Iona rubbed her butt. “I never planned on killing anyone.”

  “Plans change,” Branna pointed out. “Fix those flowers now, as it’s your rump that crushed them.”

  “Oh yeah.” Iona turned back to them, considered.

  “No.” Branna snapped her fingers. “Don’t stop and think, just do.”

  “I’m just catching my breath.”

  “You may not have time for that. Sword, magick, a blend of both. And wit to tie them together. Just do.”

  So she held out her hands in instinct rather than plan. The crushed blue flowers plumped.

  “I gave them a little boost while I was at it.”

  “So I see.” With a faint smile, Branna plied her paring knife.

  “I could use a shower and a beer. No, beer first.”

  “We’ll go again, then a beer,” Meara told her. “Don’t hold back this time. Didn’t Branna tell you she’d charmed the blades as dull as our first form science teacher? Remember her, Branna?”

  “To my sorrow, I do. Miss Kenny, who could out-sister the sisters for the hard eye and bore your brain to liquid between your ears.”

  “I heard she moved to Donegal and married a fishmonger.”

  “I pity him.” Branna rose with her bowl of potatoes, her compost bucket of peels. “I’ll put these on and fetch the beer while the two of you hack at each other.”

  Stalling, as she really did need to catch her breath, Iona studied her sword. “You don’t really think we’ll use these, this way, against Cabhan.”

  “There’s no telling, is there? And as I don’t have what you do, this may be what I’ll use and need should the time come.”

  “Why don’t you sound scared?”

  “I’ve known of the legend all my life, and the hard fact of it since I’ve known Branna, which seems forever. That’s the one part. And on the other . . .” Meara looked around her, the new plantings, those from past years spreading and spearing, the woods beyond in their rainy evening gloom.

  “It doesn’t seem real, does it? That come the solstice we’ll try to end all this by whatever means we can. Blood and magick, blade and fang. It’s not life, but a story. And yet it is. I’m caught up in that, I think. Above that, when it comes, I’ll be with people I trust more than any others. So, the fear’s not there. Yet.”

  “I wish it were now. Some nights I think, let it be tomorrow, so it can be over. Then in the morning, I think, thank God it’s not today, so I have another day. Not just to practice, to learn, but—”

  “To live.”

  “To live, to be here. To be a part of all this. To ride Alastar, to work, to see my cousins, and you and . . .”

  “Boyle.”

  Iona shrugged, almost managed casual. “I like seeing him. I think we’ve been dealing with everything really well. Being friends was the right answer.”

  “Oh bollocks. You’re friends right enough, but that’ll never be all. The pair of you send out so much haze that’s sex and lust and emotion I don’t know how any of us see straight.”

  “I’m not sending out anything. Am I?”

  “Sure you are. I don’t suppose a woman in love can help it. But plenty’s coming from his direction.” Meara threw up her hands at the thought of so many she cared about refusing to reach for wha
t they wanted most. “Iona, the man brought you flowers, and I’m thinking the only woman he’s carried bouquets to might be his ma or his granny. And aren’t the drinks you like stocked in the little fridge?”

  “Ah, now that you mention it—”

  “Who do you think’s seen to that? And who brought you a toasted sandwich when you couldn’t stop for lunch just yesterday?”

  “He’d do the same for anyone.”

  Meara could only roll her eyes skyward. “He did it for you. And didn’t I hear him with my own ears tell you only days ago that the blue sweater you wore to the pub looked fine on you? And who made sure you sat out of the draft of the door while we were there?”

  “I . . . didn’t notice.”

  “Because you’re trying so hard not to notice. You’re putting everything you can into your work, your practice so you don’t have much left to think of him, because it’s hard for you. At the same time you’ve blinded yourself to the wondrous fact that the man’s besotted. He’s wooing you.”

  “He is not.” The heart she’d worked so hard to steady stumbled a little. “He is?”

  “Try to notice,” Meara advised. “Now come at me like you mean it.” She drew her sword. “And earn that beer.”

  * * *

  SHE LET HERSELF NOTICE, A LITTLE, THE NEXT DAY. She knew she had a habit of letting hope overrule everything else. All logic, all sense and self-preservation could, and usually did, fizzle under the bright light of hope.

  Not this time, she warned herself. Too much at stake. But she could notice, a little, if there was something to notice.

  He brought Alastar to her, and that was hard not to notice. Boyle rode him over rather than drive the horse in the trailer Alastar detested.

  “I thought you might want him today, as you’ve three guideds on your slate.”

  “I always want him.” She cupped Alastar’s face, rubbed cheeks with him. And sent Boyle a sidelong glance. “Thanks for thinking of it.”

  “Oh well, it’s no trouble, and he’s needing the exercise. I’ve a mind to switch out two of the horses for tomorrow, so I’ll be riding Caesar over to the stables tonight if you’re wanting to ride this one back. I’ll drive you home from there if it suits you.”

  “Sounds good.”

  Nothing in his tone, she thought, but friendship, as agreed. And yet . . . “I’ll put him in the paddock until I’ve checked in the first group.”

  She took the reins, rolled her aching right shoulder, gave it an absent rub.

  “Are you hurt?”

  “What? No. Just sore. Sword arm,” she said, a little cocky, brandishing her arm. “Meara’s a brute.”

  “She’s a fierce one. Why haven’t you fixed it? Or had Connor do it?”

  “Because it serves to remind me not to drop my guard.”

  She led the horse away, determined not to look back. But she felt his eyes on her. And wasn’t that interesting enough to let just a little hope eke through?

  He didn’t stint on the work he assigned. As a result, she stayed busy—body and mind—until midafternoon when he shifted her balance again by bringing her a bottle of the Coke she preferred.

  “Thanks.”

  “It seemed you should wet the throat you must’ve worked dry calling out corrections to the student you had in the ring.”

  “She’s really young.” Grateful, Iona took a long sip. “And she likes the idea
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