For my grandchildren,
my magick and miracles
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit.
Fortune favors the brave.
The story was told, generation by generation, in song and in story, until time misted it into myth and legend. But some believed, as legends brought comfort.
And some knew the story as truth.
That in another time, in a realm as old as the sea, three goddesses created three stars to honor and celebrate a new queen. A star of fire, a star of water, a star of ice, meant to shine over all the worlds, they forged and brightened with wishes for a strong heart, strong mind, strong spirit.
These, the moon goddesses, stood as guardians over the worlds, as watchers of gods, demigods, mortals, and immortals. Though of the light, they understood war and death, blood and battle.
There was another, of the dark, whose great thirst, whose unquenchable greed blighted her heart to black. Nerezza, the mother of lies, cursed the stars even as she coveted them. On the night of their creation, she winged her power to them as they flew to the sky, enspelling them. One day, by her curse, they would fall from their shining curve around the moon.
When she possessed them, all three, when she held their power, the moon would die, the light would cease, and she would rule over the dark.
So it was that the moon goddesses—Celene the seer, Luna the kind, Arianrhod the warrior—gathered their magicks to protect the stars.
But such things require sacrifice and courage, and eons of hope.
The stars would fall; they could not stop this fate, but they would fall in secret, and remain in hiding until a time, in another realm, when those who came of them united in the quest to find and secure those stars.
Six guardians who would risk all to keep the stars from Nerezza’s evil hands.
To save the light, and all the worlds, the six would unite, would offer all they were to the quest, and the battle.
Now the six, from lands far-flung, had come together, had forged their bonds, their loyalties, had shed blood and given their own to find the first star, so the goddesses met again.
On the white beach where they had birthed the stars in joy and hope, they gathered under a moon full and ice white in the dark sky.
“They have bested Nerezza.” Luna took the hand of each of her sisters. “They found the Fire Star, and have put it beyond her reach.”
“Hidden it,” Arianrhod corrected. “And cleverly done, but none of the stars is beyond her until they are home again.”
“They defeated her,” Luna insisted.
“Yes, for now, yes. They fought bravely, risked all in battle, gave all for this quest. And yet . . .”
She looked to Celene, who nodded. “I see more blood, more battle, more fear. Strife and dark to face where terrible pain, terrible death can come in an instant and last for eternity.”
“They will not yield,” Luna said. “They will not.”
“They have proven their courage. Courage is truer when there is fear under it. I do not doubt them, sister.” Arianrhod gazed up to the moon and the place where for so long three sparkling stars had curved. “But neither do I doubt Nerezza’s hunger or her fury. She will hunt them, and she will strike again and again.”
“And will enlist another, a mortal.” Celene stared into the sea, its black glass, and saw the shadows of what might be. “Whose hunger is a mate to hers. He has and will kill for prizes less vaunted than the Stars of Fortune. He is poison in the wine, a blade in an offered hand, snapping teeth behind a smile. And in Nerezza’s hands, a weapon, keen and swift.”
“We must help them. They have proven themselves, we agree,” Luna reasoned. “We must be allowed to help.”
“You know we cannot,” Celene reminded her. “Every choice made must be made without our interference. We have done all we can, for now.”
“Aegle is not their queen.”
“Without Aegle, without this place, without the moon and we who honor it, they have no world. Their fate, our fate, all fate, is in their hands.”
“They are of us.” In comfort Arianrhod tightened her grip on Luna’s hand. “They are not gods, yet more than mortals, each one with their own gift. They will fight.”
“And as important as battle, they will think, and they will feel.” Celene let out a sigh. “And they will love. Mind, heart, spirit, as much as sword and fang and even magicks. They are well armed.”
“So we trust.” Flanked by her sisters, Luna lifted her face to the moon. “Let our trust be their shield. As we are guardians of the worlds, they are guardians of the stars. They are hope.”
“And valor,” Arianrhod added.
“And they are canny. There.” Smiling, Celene lifted a hand, gesturing to the swirl of color streaking over the sky. “They pass by us, through our world, hurtling toward the next. To another land, to the second star.”
“And all the gods of light go with them,” Luna murmured, and sent her own.
For an instant, like a single beat of wings, Annika scented the sea, heard the voices lifted in song. Here then gone, a blur within the blur of color and speed, but it swelled in her heart like love.
Then came a sigh, and the echoes of sighs, another kind of music. Bittersweet. And this washed through her like tears.
So with joy and sorrow mated in her heart, she fell. Tumbling, spiraling, spinning in a breathless rush that added a reckless thrill and a quick panic.
A thousand wings beat now, a thousand and a thousand more, with whipping wind, a wall of sound. And color flicked away into the dark as she landed abruptly enough to lose her breath.
For a moment she feared they’d landed in some deep, dark cave where spiders would crawl, and worse, much worse, where Nerezza waited to strike.
Then her vision cleared. She made out shadows, what she knew as moonlight, and felt the firm body beneath hers, the arms wrapped tight around her. She knew that shape, that scent, wanted to snuggle right in, Nerezza or not.
It was a wonder, a star-struck sea of wonder, to feel his heart beat, so fast and strong, against hers.
Then he shifted a little, and one hand slid up, then down her hair. The other skimmed wonderfully over her bottom.
She snuggled right in.
“Um.” Both hands came to her shoulders now, but his voice spoke close enough to her heart that his breath tickled it. “Are you okay? Are you hurt? Everybody okay?”
She remembered her friends—not that she’d forgotten them, not ever. But she’d never lain so intimately on a man before—on Sawyer—and she liked it very, very much.
She heard grunts, short groans, some cursing. Doyle’s voice, close by and annoyed, clearly said, “Fuck me,” which she knew wasn’t an invitation to mate, but an oath.
She didn’t worry about Doyle. After all, he was an immortal.
“Sound off.” That was Bran, somewhere a few feet away. “Did everybody make it? I’ve got Sasha. Riley?”
“What a ride!”
“One you finished with your knee in my balls,” Doyle added.
Annika heard a thump, which she interpreted as Doyle shoving Riley and her knee aside—as balls, she’d learned, weren’t just the round toy that bounced, but a man’s sensitive area.
“I’m here,” she called out, and experimented by wiggling a little on Sawyer’s sensitive area. “Did we fall out of the sky?”
“Not far from it.” Sawyer cleared his throat and, to Annika’s disappointment, shifted again and sat up. “I couldn’t slow it do
wn. I’ve never taken six people this far. I misjudged, I guess.”
“We’re here, the six of us, and that’s first on the list,” Bran stated. “Now, are we where we aimed to be?”
“We’re inside,” Sasha commented. “I can see windows, and moonlight through them. Wherever we are, it’s still night.”
“Let’s hope Sawyer and his time- and space-bending compass got us where and when we want. So let’s find out.”
Riley pushed to her feet. The scientist—archaeologist. Annika rolled the word in her mind as her people, the merpeople, had nothing to compare. They had no lycans either, she thought, so nothing and no one quite like Riley existed in Annika’s world.
Dr. Riley Gwin—tough, compact body, wide-brimmed hat that had somehow stayed on her head—strode to the window.
“I can see water, but not the view from the villa on Corfu—we’re higher up. A road, steep, narrow. We’ve got steps leading down to it. I’m pretty sure this is Capri, and this is the villa. Bull’s-eye, Sawyer. Kudos to the traveler and his magic compass.”
“I’ll take them.” He stood, hesitated, then held out a hand to help Annika up. Though her legs were strong and agile, she let him.
“Let me see if I can find the lights,” Riley began.
“I can help with that.”
Bran, on his feet, an arm around Sasha, held out his hand. The ball of light hovering over his palm illuminated the room.
Seeing her friends lifted her heart as the song had. Sasha, the seer, with her hair like the sun and her eyes of the sky, and Bran, the sorcerer, so handsome with his magick lighting him. And Riley, one hand on the butt of the gun on her hip—at the ready—her dark gold eyes looking everywhere at once as Doyle, a warrior through and through, stood with his sword already drawn.
And Sawyer, always Sawyer, with the compass of the traveler in his hand.
They might be bruised and bloodied from the last battle, but they were safe and together.
“Is this our home now?” she wondered. “It’s very pretty.”
“Unless Sawyer dropped us at the wrong address, I say this is the new HQ.” Though her hand stayed on her gun, Riley moved from the window.
The room had colorful cushions on a long bed—no, Annika reminded herself, a sofa. And chairs and tables with pretty lamps. The floor—they all had reason to know—was hard, with large tiles the color of sun-beaten sand.
Riley moved to one of the lamps, turned the switch and, with the magic of electricity, it lit.
“Let me get my bearings, make sure we’re in the right place. We don’t want a visit from the polizia.”
Riley moved out of the room through a wide, arched opening. In seconds, more light poured through. Sheathing his sword, Doyle moved out after her.
“Here’s all our stuff, at least it looks like all of it. And it looks like it had a softer landing than we did.”
Annika peeked out. She didn’t know what to call the space with its big door facing the sea, and the archways leading to other spaces. But their bags and boxes sat in a pile in the center of it.
And with a muttered curse, Doyle heaved his motorcycle upright.
“I had to drop the stuff first so we didn’t end up landing on it,” Sawyer said. “Bull’s-eye or not, Riley?”
“It fits the description I got,” Riley went on. “And the location. There’s supposed to be a large living area with glass doors leading to a . . . And here we go.”
More lights, and as Riley said, a large room with more of the sofas and chairs and pretty little things. But best, oh, best of all, the wide, wide glass to bring in the sky and sea.
When Annika rushed forward to open the glass, Riley stayed her hand.
“Don’t. Not yet. There’s an alarm system. I have the code. We need to turn it off before we open this, or anything else.”
“Panel’s right here,” Sawyer told her, and tapped it.
“Give me a sec.” Riley dug a piece of paper out of her pocket. “Didn’t want to trust my memory in case the trip scrambled my brains.”
“Shifting doesn’t scramble brains.” Grinning, Sawyer knocked his knuckles on Riley’s head as she keyed in the code.
“Go ahead and open it, Annika.”
When she did, she twirled out onto a wide terrace, where there was night and moon, sea and the scent of it all, all perfumed with lemons and flowers.
“It’s beautiful! I’ve never seen it from so high.”
“But you’ve seen it before?” Sawyer asked her. “Capri?”
“From the sea. And beneath, where there are blue caves and deep water and the bones of ships that sailed long ago. There are flowers!” She reached out to touch the petals of flowers spilling out of hefty pots in bright colors. “I can water and tend them. It can be my job.”
“Deal. This is the place.” With a satisfied nod, Riley set her hands on her hips. “Kudos again, Sawyer.”
“We should check through it in any case.” Bran stood at the opening, dark, intense eyes scanning the sky.
Nerezza often came from the sky.
“I’ll be adding protection over the more usual alarm system,” he continued. “We caused her pain, and harm, so it’s unlikely she’ll gather herself enough to come at us again tonight, if indeed she can find us. But we’ll sleep better with a layer of magick over all.”
“Split up.” With his sword sheathed, his dark hair tumbled around his hard, handsome face, Doyle nodded agreement. “Go through the place, make certain it’s clear and secured.”
“Should be two bedrooms down here, four more upstairs, and another common space. It’s not big and plush like the villa, and we won’t have all that outdoor space.”
“Or Apollo,” Annika put in.
“Yeah.” Riley smiled. “I’m going to miss that dog. But there’s room, and it’s well located. I’ll take the upstairs.”
“You just want first call on the bedrooms.”
Riley grinned at Sasha, then frowned. “You okay, Sash? You’re pale.”
“Just a headache. A regular headache,” she said when all eyes turned to her. “I don’t try to fight the visions anymore. It’s just been a very long day.”
“And so it has.” Bran drew her close to his side, whispered something in her ear that made her smile and nod. “We’ll take upstairs as well,” he said, and with Sasha, vanished.
“Oh, cheat! No fair using magick!” Riley charged toward the steps and up.
“Three up, so three down to clear this floor. I’d sooner bunk down here,” Doyle said with a look around, “closer to the outside access.”
“You and me down here then,” Sawyer decided—to Annika’s disappointment. “Closer to the kitchen and the food. Let’s see what we’ve got.”
The two bedrooms stood side by side. Not as big as the ones they’d left behind on Corfu, but with nice beds and pretty views from the windows.
“Works,” Doyle stated.
“Works,” Sawyer agreed after opening another door to a bathroom with a shower.
The door slid in and out of the wall, delighting Annika so she had to push it in, pull it out a few times before Sawyer grabbed her hand and pulled her away.
They found another room with what Sawyer called a bar, a big television on the wall (she loved television), and a large table where colorful balls stood in a triangle on a green top.
Annika stroked her hand over the top. “It isn’t grass.”
“Felt,” Sawyer told her. “It’s a pool table—a game. You play?” he asked Doyle.
“What man who’s lived a few centuries hasn’t played pool?”
“I’ve only lived a few decades, but I’ve played my share. We’ll have to have a game.”
There was a powder room—though no one powdered anything in them that Annika had seen—and then the kitchen and eating area. She knew immediately Sawyer was pleased.
He wandered through it. A tall, lean body that moved, she thought, as if never hurried. Her fingers wanted to brush through all
the dark gold hair the sun had streaked, shaggy and windblown from the traveling. And eyes, gray like the sea in the first silver light of dawn, that made her want to sigh.
“The Italians understand cooking—and eating. This is excellent.”
She knew something about cooking now, had even learned to make a few dishes, so she recognized the big stove with its many burners, and the ovens for baking and roasting. A center island held its own sink, which charmed her, and another sink—wider—stood under a window.
Sawyer opened the box that kept things cold—the refrigerator, she remembered. “Already stocked. Riley doesn’t miss a trick. Beer?”
“Oh, absolutely,” Doyle said.
“I don’t like the beer very much. Is there something else?”
“Got your soft drinks, some fruit juice. And wait.” He pointed up to a rack holding bottles. “Wine.”
“I like the wine.”
“Got you covered then.” He chose a bottle, passed a beer to Doyle, took one for himself, then wandered to a door. “Pantry, also stocked. We’re in business.”
He opened drawers until he found the tool to open the wine. Corkscrew—such a funny word.
“I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m starved. Shifting that many that far, it hulls you out.”
“I could eat,” Doyle decided.
“I’m going to throw something together. Riley was right, Sasha looks pale. We’ll eat, drink, decompress.”
“Have at it then. I’m going to check outside.” With his sword still sheathed on his back, Doyle went through another wide glass door.
“I can help you make the food.”
“Don’t you want to grab up a bedroom?”
“I like to help make the food.” With you, most of all, she thought.
“Okay, let’s keep it simple. Quick pasta, tossed with butter and herbs. And we’ve got . . . yeah, we’ve got tomatoes, mozzarella.” He pulled the cheese from the refrigerator, handed her a tomato from the bowl on the counter. “You remember how to slice these up?”
“Yes, I can slice very well.”
“You slice them up, then find a plate or tray or platter.” He spread his hands to show her size.
He had strong hands, but was gentle with them. Annika thought gentleness was its own kind of strength.