Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  


Nora Roberts


  She was born the night the Witch Tree fell. With the first breath she drew, she tasted the power—the richness of it, and the bitterness. Her birth was one more link in a chain that had spanned centuries, a chain that was often gilded with the sheen of folklore and legend. But when the chain was rubbed clean, it held fast, tempered by the strength of truth.

  There were other worlds, other places, where those first cries of birth were celebrated. Far beyond the sweeping vistas of the Monterey coast, where the child’s lusty cry echoed through the old stone house, the new life was celebrated. In the secret places where magic still thrived—deep in the green hills of Ireland, on the windswept moors of Cornwall, deep in the caves of Wales, along the rocky coast of Brittany—that sweet song of life was welcomed.

  And the old tree, hunched and gnarled by its age and its marriage to the wind, was a quiet sacrifice.

  With its death, and a mother’s willing pain, a new witch was born.

  Though the choice would be hers—a gift, after all, can be refused, treasured, or ignored—it would remain as much a part of the child, and the woman she became, as the color of her eyes. For now she was only an infant, her sight still dim, her thoughts still half-formed, shaking angry fists in the air even as her father laughed and pressed his first kiss on her downy head.

  Her mother wept when the babe drank from her breast. Wept in joy and in sorrow. She knew already that she would have only this one girl child to celebrate the love and union she and her husband shared.

  She had looked, and she had seen.

  As she rocked the nursing child and sang an old song, she understood that there would be lessons to be taught, mistakes to be made. And she understood that one day—not so long from now, in the vast scope of lifetimes—her child would also look for love.

  She hoped that of all the gifts she would pass along, all the truths she would tell, the child would understand one, the vital one.

  That the purest magic is in the heart.

  Chapter 1

  There was a marker in the ground where the Witch Tree had stood. The people of Monterey and Carmel valued nature. Tourists often came to study the words on the marker, or simply to stand and look at the sculptured old trees, the rocky shoreline, the sunning harbor seals.

  Locals who had seen the tree for themselves, who remembered the day it had fallen, often mentioned the fact that Morgana Donovan had been born that night.

  Some said it was a sign, others shrugged and called it coincidence. Still more simply wondered. No one denied that it was excellent local color to have a self-proclaimed witch born hardly a stone’s throw away from a tree with a reputation.

  Nash Kirkland considered it an amusing fact and an interesting hook. He spent a great deal of his time studying the supernatural. Vampires and werewolves and things that went bump in the night were a hell of a way to make a living. And he wouldn’t have had it any other way.

  Not that he believed in goblins or ghoulies—or witches, if it came to that. Men didn’t turn into bats or wolves at moonrise, the dead did not walk, and women didn’t soar through the night on broomsticks. Except in the pages of a book, or in the flickering light and shadow of a movie screen.

  There, he was pleased to say, anything was possible.

  He was a sensible man who knew the value of illusions, and the importance of simple entertainment. He was also enough of a dreamer to conjure images out of the shades of folklore and superstition for the masses to enjoy.

  He’d fascinated the horror-film buff for seven years, starting with his first—and surprisingly successful—screenplay, Shape Shifter.

  The fact was, Nash loved seeing his imagination come to life on-screen. He wasn’t above popping into the neighborhood movie theater and happily devouring popcorn while the audience caught their breath, stifled screams, or covered their eyes.

  He delighted in knowing that the people who plunked down the price of a ticket to see one of his movies were going to get their money’s worth of chills.

  He always researched carefully. While writing the gruesome and amusing Midnight Blood, he’d spent a week in Romania interviewing a man who swore he was a direct descendant of Vlad, the Impaler—Count Dracula. Unfortunately, the count’s descendant hadn’t grown fangs or turned into a bat, but he had proven to possess a wealth of vampire lore and legend.

  It was such folktales that inspired Nash to spin a story—particularly when they were related by someone whose belief gave them punch.

  And people considered him weird, he thought, grinning to himself as he passed the entrance to Seventeen Mile Drive. Nash knew he was an ordinary, grounded-to-earth type. At least by California standards. He just made his living from illusion, from playing on basic fears and superstitions—and the pleasure people took in being scared silly. He figured his value to society was his ability to take the monster out of the closet and flash it on the silver screen in Technicolor, usually adding a few dashes of unapologetic sex and sly humor.

  Nash Kirkland could bring the bogeyman to life, turn the gentle Dr. Jekyll into the evil Mr. Hyde, or invoke the mummy’s curse. All by putting words on paper. Maybe that was why he was a cynic. Oh, he enjoyed stories about the supernatural—but he, of all people, knew that was all they were. Stories. And he had a million of them.

  He hoped Morgana Donovan, Monterey’s favorite witch, would help him create the next one. For the past few weeks, between unpacking and taking pleasure in his new home, trying his skill at golf—and finally giving it up as a lost cause—and simply treasuring the view from his balcony, Nash had felt the urge to tell a tale of witchcraft. If there was such a thing as fate, he figured, it had done him a favor by plunking him down only a short, pleasant drive from an expert.

  Whistling along with the car radio, he wondered what she’d be like. Turbaned or tasseled? Draped in black crepe? Or maybe she was some New Age fanatic who spoke only through Gargin, her channeler from Atlantis.

  Either way, he wouldn’t mind a bit. It was the loonies in the world that gave life its flavor.

  He’d purposely avoided doing any extensive research on the witch. He wanted to form his own opinions and impressions, leaving his mind clear to start forming plot angles. All he knew was that she’d been born right here in Monterey, some twenty-eight years before, and she ran a successful shop that catered to people who were into crystals and herbs.

  He had to give her two thumbs-up for staying in her hometown. After less than a month as a resident of Monterey, he wondered how he could ever have lived anywhere else. And God knew, he thought as his angular face creased in a grimace, he’d already lived just about everywhere.

  Again, he had to thank his luck for making his scripts appealing to the masses. His imagination had made it possible for him to move away from the traffic and smog of L.A. to this priceless spot in northern California.

  It was barely March, but he had the top down on his Jag, and the bright, brisk breeze whipped through his dark blond hair. There was the smell of water—it was never far away here—of grass, neatly clipped, of the flowers that thrived in the mild climate.

  The sky was cloudless, a beautiful blue, his car was purring like a big, lean cat, he’d recently disentangled himself from a relationship that had been rushing downhill, and he was about to start a new project. As far as Nash was concerned, life was perfect.

  He spotted the shop. As he’d been told, it stood neatly on the corner, flanked by a boutique and a restaurant. The businesses were obviously doing well, as he had to park more than a block away. He didn’t mind the walk. His long, jeans-clad legs ate up the sidewalk. He passed a group of tourists who were arguing over where to have lunch, a pencil-slim woman in fuchsia silk leading two Afghan hounds, and a businessman who strolled alon
g chatting on his cell phone.

  Nash loved California.

  He stopped outside the shop. The sign painted on the window simply read WICCA. He nodded, smiling to himself. He liked it. The Old English word for witch. It brought to mind images of bent old women trundling through the villages to cast spells and remove warts.

  Exterior scene, day, he thought. The sky is murky with clouds, the wind rushes and howls. In a small, run-down village with broken fences and shuttered windows, a wrinkled old woman hurries down a dirt road, a heavy covered basket in her arms. A huge black raven screams as it glides by. With a flutter of wings, it stops to perch on a rusted gatepost. Bird and woman stare at each other. From somewhere in the distance comes a long, desperate scream.

  Nash lost the image when someone came out of the shop, turned, and bumped into him.

  “Sorry,” came the muffled apology.

  He simply nodded. Just as well, Nash thought. It wouldn’t do to take the story too far until he’d talked to the expert. For now, what he wanted was to take a good look at her wares.

  The window display was impressive, he noted, and showed a flair for the dramatic. Deep blue velvet was draped over stands of various heights and widths so that it resembled a wide river with dark waterfalls. Floating over it were clusters of crystals, sparkling like magic in the morning sun. Some were as clear as glass, while others were of almost heartbreaking hues. Rose and aqua, royal-purple, ink-black. They were shaped like wands or castles or small, surrealistic cities.

  Lips pursed, he rocked back on his heels. He could see how they would appeal to people—the colors, the shapes, the sparkle. That anybody could actually believe a hunk of rock held any kind of power was one more reason to marvel at the human brain. Still, they were certainly pretty enough. Above the clusters, faceted drops hung from thin wires and tossed rainbows everywhere.

  Maybe she kept the cauldrons in the back.

  The idea made him chuckle to himself. Still, he took a last look at the display before pushing open the door. It was tempting to pick up a few pieces for himself. A paperweight, or a sun-catcher. He might just settle for that—if she wasn’t selling any dragon’s scales or wolf’s teeth.

  The shop was crowded with people. His own fault, Nash reminded himself, for dropping in on a Saturday. Still, it would give him time to poke around and see just how a witch ran a business in the twentieth century.

  The displays inside were just as dramatic as those glistening in the window. Huge chunks of rock, some sliced open to reveal hundreds of crystal teeth. Dainty little bottles filled with colored liquid. Nash was slightly disappointed when he read one label and discovered that it was a rosemary bath balm, for relaxing the senses. He’d hoped for at least one love potion.

  There were more herbs, packaged for potpourri, for tea, and for culinary uses, as well as candles in soft colors and crystals in all shapes and sizes. Some interesting jewelry—again leaning heavily on crystals—was sparkling behind glass. Artwork, paintings, statues, sculpture, all so cleverly placed that the shop might more accurately have been termed a gallery.

  Nash, always interested in the unusual, took a fancy to a pewter lamp fashioned in the shape of a winged dragon with glowing red eyes.

  Then he spotted her. One look had him certain that this was the very image of the modern witch. The sulky-looking blonde was holding a discussion with two customers over a table of tumbling stones. She had a luscious little body poured into a sleek black jumpsuit. Glittery earrings hung to her shoulders, and rings adorned every finger. The fingers ended in long, lethal-looking red nails.

  “Attractive, isn’t he?”

  “Hmm?” The smoke-edged voice had Nash turning away from the dragon. This time one look had him forgetting the stacked young witch in the corner. He found himself lost for several heartbeats in a pair of cobalt-blue eyes. “Excuse me?”

  “The dragon.” Smiling, she ran a hand over the pewter head. “I was just wondering if I should take him home with me.” She smiled, and he saw that her lips were full and soft and unpainted. “Do you like dragons?”

  “Crazy about them,” he decided on the spot. “Do you shop in here often?”

  “Yes.” She lifted a hand to her hair. It was black as midnight and fell in careless waves to her waist. Nash made an effort and tried to put the pieces of her together. The ebony hair went with pale, creamy skin. The eyes were wide and heavily lashed, the nose was small and sharp. She was nearly as tall as he, and wand slender. The simple blue dress she wore showed taste and style, as well as subtle curves.

  There was something, well, dazzling about her, he realized. Though he couldn’t analyze what while he was so busy enjoying it.

  As he watched, her lips curved again. There was something very aware as well as amused in the movement. “Have you been in Wicca before?”

  “No. Great stuff.”

  “You’re interested in crystals?”

  “I could be.” Idly he picked up a hunk of amethyst. “But I flunked my earth science course in high school.”

  “I don’t think you’ll be graded here.” She nodded toward the stone he held. “If you want to get in touch with your inner self, you should hold it in your left hand.”

  “Oh, yeah?” To indulge her, he shifted it. He hated to tell her he didn’t feel a thing—other than a shaft of pleasure at the way the dress skimmed around her knees. “If you’re a regular here, maybe you could introduce me to the witch.”

  Brow lifted, she followed his look as he glanced at the blonde, who was finishing up her sale. “Do you need a witch?”

  “I guess you could say that.”

  She turned those wonderful blue eyes on him again. “You don’t look like the type who’d come looking for a love spell.”

  He grinned. “Thanks. I think. Actually, I’m doing some research. I write movies. I want to do a story on witchcraft in the nineties. You know . . . secret covens, sex, and sacrifices.”

  “Ah.” When she inclined her head, clear crystal drops swung at her ears. “Nubile women doing ring dances sky-clad. Naked,” she explained. “Mixing potions by the dark of the moon to seduce their hapless victims into orgies of prurient delights.”

  “More or less.” He leaned closer and discovered that she smelled as cool and dark as a forest in moonlight. “Does this Morgana really believe she’s a witch?”

  “She knows what she is, Mr.—?”

  “Kirkland. Nash Kirkland.”

  Her laugh was low and pleased. “Of course. I’ve enjoyed your work. I particularly liked Midnight Blood. You gave your vampire a great deal of wit and sensuality without trampling on tradition.”

  “There’s more to being undead than graveyard dirt and coffins.”

  “I suppose. And there’s more to being a witch than stirring a cauldron.”

  “Exactly. That’s why I want to interview her. I figure she’s got to be a pretty sharp lady to pull all this off.”

  “Pull off?” she repeated as she bent to pick up a huge white cat that had sauntered over to flow around her legs.

  “The reputation,” he explained. “I heard about her in L.A. People bring me weird stories.”

  “I’m sure they do.” She stroked the cat’s massive head. Now Nash had two pair of eyes trained on him. One pair of cobalt, and one of amber. “But you don’t believe in the Craft, or the power.”

  “I believe I can make it into a hell of a good story.” He smiled, putting considerable charm into it. “So, how about it? Put in a good word for me with the witch?”

  She studied him. A cynic, she decided, and one entirely too sure of himself. Life, she thought, was obviously one big bed of roses for Nash Kirkland. Maybe it was time he felt a few thorns.

  “I don’t think that’ll be necessary.” She offered him a hand, long and slender and adorned with a single ring of hammered silver. He took it automatically, then hissed out a breath as a jolt of electricity zinged up to his shoulder. She just smiled. “I’m your witch,” she said.

>   * * *

  Static electricity, Nash told himself a moment later, after Morgana had turned away to answer a question from a customer about St. John’s wort. She’d been holding that giant cat, rubbing the fur. . . . That was where the shock had come from.

  But he flexed his fingers unconsciously.

  Your witch, she’d said. He wasn’t sure he liked her use of that particular pronoun. It made things a bit too uncomfortably intimate. Not that she wasn’t a stunner. But the way she’d smiled at him when he jolted had been more than a little unnerving. It had also told him just why he’d found her dazzling.

  Power. Oh, not that kind of power, Nash assured himself as he watched her handle a bundle of dried herbs. But the power some beautiful women seemed to be born with—innate sexuality and a terrifying self-confidence. He didn’t like to think of himself as the kind of man who was intimidated by a woman’s strength of will, yet there was no denying that the soft, yielding sort was easier to deal with.

  In any case, his interest in her was professional. Not purely, he amended. A man would have to have been dead a decade to look at Morgana Donovan and keep his thoughts on a straight professional plane. But Nash figured he could keep his priorities in order.

  Nash waited until she was finished with the customer, fixed a self-deprecating smile in place, and approached the counter. “I wonder if you’ve got a handy spell for getting my foot out of my mouth.”

  “Oh, I think you can manage that on your own.” Ordinarily she would have dismissed him, but there must be some reason she’d been drawn across the shop to him. Morgana didn’t believe in accidents. Anyway, she decided, any man with such soft brown eyes couldn’t be a complete jerk. “I’m afraid your timing’s poor, Nash. We’re very busy this morning.”

  “You close at six. How about if I come back then? I’ll buy you a drink, dinner?”

  Her impulse to refuse was automatic. She would have preferred to meditate on it or study her scrying ball. Before she could speak, the cat leapt onto the counter, clearing the four feet in that weightless soar felines accomplish so easily. Nash reached out absently to scratch the cat’s head. Rather than walking off, insulted, or spitting bad-temperedly, as was her habit with strangers, the white cat arched sinuously under the stroking hand. Her amber eyes slitted and stared into Morgana’s.

  “You seem to have Luna’s approval,” Morgana muttered. “Six o’clock, then,” she said as the cat began to purr lustily. “And I’ll decide what to do about you.”

  “Fair enough.” Nash gave Luna one last long stroke, then strolled out.

  Frowning, Morgana leaned down until her eyes were level with the cat’s. “You’d better know what you’re about.”

  Luna merely shifted her not-inconsiderable weight and began to wash herself.

  * * *

  Morgana didn’t have much time to think about Nash. Because she was a woman who was always at war with her impulsive nature, she would have preferred a quiet hour to mull over how best to deal with him. With her hands and mind busy with a flood of customers, Morgana reminded herself that she would have no trouble handling a cocksure storyteller with puppy-dog eyes.

  “Wow.” Mindy, the lavishly built blonde Nash had admired, plopped down on a stool behind the counter. “We haven’t seen a crowd like that since before Christmas.”

  “I think we’re going to have full Saturdays throughout the month.”

  Grinning, Mindy pulled a stick of gum out of the hip pocket of her snug jumpsuit. “Did you cast a money spell?”

  Morgana arranged a glass castle to her liking before responding. “The stars are in an excellent position for business.” She smiled. “Plus the fact that our new window display is fabulous. You can go on home, Mindy. I’ll total out and lock up.”

  “I’ll take you up on it.” She slid sinuously off the stool to stretch, then lifted both darkened brows. “My, oh, my . . . look at this. Tall, tanned, and tasty.”

  Morgana glanced over and spotted Nash through the front window. He’d had more luck with parking this time, and was unfolding himself from the front seat of his convertible.

  “Down, girl.” Chuckling, Morgana shook her head. “Men like that break hearts without spilling a drop of blood.”

  “That’s okay. I haven’t had my heart broken in days. Let’s see . . .” She took a swift and deadly accurate survey. “Six foot, a hundred and sixty gorgeous pounds. The casual type—maybe just a tad intellectual. Likes the outdoors, but doesn’t overdo it. Just a few scattered sun streaks through the hair, and a reasonable tan. Good facial bones—he’ll hold up with age. Then there’s that yummy mouth.”

  “Fortunately I know you, and understand you actually do think more of men than you do puppies in a pet-store window.”

  With a chuckle, Mindy fluffed her hair. “Oh, I think more of them, all right. A whole lot more.” As the door opened, Mindy shifted position so that her body seemed about to burst out of the jumpsuit. “Hello, handsome. Want to buy a little magic?”

  Always ready to accommodate a willing woman, Nash flashed her a grin. “What do you recommend?”

  “Well . . .” The word came out in a long purr to rival one of Luna’s.

  “Mindy, Mr. Kirkland isn’t a customer.” Morgana’s voice was mild and amused. There were few things more entertaining than Mindy’s showmanship with an attractive man. “We have a meeting.”

  “Maybe next time,” Nash told her.

  “Maybe anytime.” Mindy slithered around the counter, shot Nash one last devastating look, then wiggled out the door.

  “I bet she boosts your sales,” Nash commented.