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Once Upon a Star, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  “Yes, of course.” She started to run, then stopped. She hadn’t even asked his name. “I’m sorry, but—” When she rushed back, there was nothing there but the crash of water against the shore.

  Alarmed that he’d sailed back into that rising storm, she called out, began to hurry along what she could see of the shore to try to find him. Lightning flashed overhead, more vicious than exciting now, and the wind slapped at her like a furious hand.

  Hunching against it, she jogged up the rise, onto a path. She’d get to shelter, tell someone about the boy. What had she been thinking of, not insisting that he come with her and wait until the weather cleared?

  She stumbled, fell, jarring her bones with the impact, panting to catch her breath as the world went suddenly mad around her. Everything was howling wind, blasting lights, booming thunder. She struggled to her feet and pushed on.

  It wasn’t fear she felt, and that baffled her. She should be terrified. Why instead was she exhilarated? Where did this wicked thrill of anticipation, of knowledge, come from?

  She had to keep going. There was something, someone, waiting. If she could just keep going.

  The way was steep, the rain blinding. Somewhere along the way she lost her bag, but didn’t notice.

  In the next flash of light, she saw it. The circle of stones, rising out of the rough ground like dancers trapped in time. In her head, or perhaps her heart, she heard the song buried inside them.

  With something like joy, she rushed forward, her hand around the pendant.

  The song rose, like a crescendo, filling her, washing over her like a wave.

  And as she reached the circle, took her first step inside, lightning struck the center, the bolt as clear and well defined as a flaming arrow. She watched the blue fire rise in a tower, higher, higher still, until it seemed to pierce the low-hanging clouds. She felt the iced heat of it on her skin, in her bones. The power of it hammered her heart.

  And she fainted.


  THE STORM MADE him restless. Part of the tempest seemed to be inside him, churning, crashing, waiting to strike out. He couldn’t work. His concentration was fractured. He had no desire to read, to putter, to simply be. And all of those things were why he had come back to the island.

  Or so he told himself.

  His family had held the land, worked it, guarded it, for generations. The O’Neils of Dolman had planted their seed here, spilled their blood and the blood of their enemies for as far back as time was marked. And further still, back into the murky time that was told only in songs.

  Leaving here, going to Dublin to study, and to work, had been Conal’s rebellion, his escape from what others so blithely accepted as his fate. He would not, as he’d told his father, be the passive pawn in the chess game of his own destiny.

  He would make his destiny.

  And yet, here he was, in the cottage where the O’Neils had lived and died, where his own father had passed the last day of his life only months before. Telling himself it had been his choice didn’t seem quite so certain on a day where the wind lashed and screamed and the same violence of nature seemed to thrash inside him.

  The dog, Hugh, which had been his father’s companion for the last year of his life, paced from window to window, ears pricked up and a low sound rumbling in his throat, more whimper than growl.

  Whatever was brewing, the dog sensed it as well, so that his big gray bulk streamed through the cottage like blown smoke. Conal gave a soft command in Gaelic, and Hugh came over, bumping his big head under Conal’s big hand.

  There they stood, watching the storm together, the large gray dog and the tall, broad-shouldered man, each with a wary expression. Conal felt the dog shudder. Nerves or anticipation? Something, all Conal could think, was out there in the storm.


  “The hell with it. Let’s see what it is.”

  Even as he spoke, the dog leaped toward the door, prancing with impatience as Conal tugged a long black slicker off the peg. He swirled it on over rough boots and rougher jeans and a black sweater that had seen too many washings.

  When he opened the door, the dog shot out, straight into the jaws of the gale. “Hugh! Cuir uait!”

  And though the dog did stop, skidding in the wet, he didn’t bound back to Conal’s side. Instead he stood, ears still pricked, despite the pounding rain, as if to say hurry!

  Cursing under his breath, Conal picked up his own pace, and let the dog take the lead.

  His black hair, nearly shoulder-length and heavy now with rain, streamed back in the wind from a sharply-honed face. He had the high, long cheekbones of the Celts, a narrow, almost aristocratic nose, and a well-defined mouth that could look, as it did now, hard as granite. His eyes were a deep and passionate blue.

  His mother had said they were eyes that saw too much, and still looked for more.

  Now they peered through the rain, and down, as Hugh climbed, at the turbulent toss of the sea. With the storm, the day was almost black as night, and he cursed again at his own foolishness in being out in it.

  He lost sight of Hugh around a turn on the cliff path. More irritated than alarmed, he called the dog again, but all that answered was the low-throated, urgent bark. Perfect, was all Conal could think. Now the both of us will likely slip off the edge and bash our brains on the rocks.

  He almost turned away, at that point very nearly retreated, for the dog was surefooted and knew his way home. But he wanted to go on—too much wanted to go on. As if something was tugging him forward, luring him on, higher and higher still, to where the shadow of the stone dance stood, singing through the wind.

  Because part of him believed it, part of him he had never been able to fully quiet, he deliberately turned away. He would go home, build up the fire, and have a glass of whiskey in front of it until the storm blew itself out.

  Then the howl came, a wild and primitive call that spoke of wolves and eerie moonlight. The shudder that ran down Conal’s spine was as primal as the call. Grimly now, he continued up the path to see what caused young Hugh to bay.

  The stones rose, gleaming with wet, haloed by the lightning strikes so that they almost seemed to glow. A scent came to him, ozone and perfume. Hot, sweet, and seductive.

  The dog sat, his handsome head thrown back, his great throat rippling with his feral call. There was something in it, Conal thought, that was somehow triumphant.

  “The stones don’t need guarding,” Conal muttered. He strode forward, intending to grab the dog by the collar and drag them both back to the warmth of the cottage.

  And saw that it wasn’t the stones Hugh guarded, but the woman who lay between them.

  Half in and half out of the circle, with one arm stretched toward the center, she lay on her side almost as if sleeping. For a moment he thought he imagined her, and wanted to believe he did. But when he reached her side, his fingers instinctively going to her throat to check her pulse, he felt the warm beat of life.

  At his touch her lashes fluttered. Her eyes opened. They were gray as the stones and met his with a sudden and impossible awareness. A smile curved her lips, parted them as she lifted a hand to his cheek.

  “There you are,” she said, and with a sigh closed her eyes again. Her hand slid away from his cheek to fall onto the rain-trampled grass.

  Delirious, he told himself, and most likely a lunatic. Who else would climb the cliffs in a storm? Ignoring the fact that he’d done so himself, he turned her over, seeing no choice but to cart her back to the cottage.

  And when he started to gather her into his arms, he saw the pendant, saw the carving on it in another spit of lightning.

  His belly pitched. His heart gave one violent knock against his chest, like an angry fist.

  “Damn it.”

  He stayed crouched as he was, closing his eyes while the rain battered both of them.

  She woke slowly, as if floating lazily through layers of thin, white clouds. A feeling of well-being cushioned her, like satin pillows edg
ed with the softest of lace. Savoring it, she lay still while sunlight played on her eyelids, cruised warm over her face. She could smell smoke, a pleasant, earthy scent, and another fragrance, a bit darker, that was man.

  She enjoyed that mix, and when she opened her eyes, her first thought was she’d never been happier in her life.

  It lasted seconds only, that sensation of joy and safety, of contentment and place. Then she shot up in bed, confused, alarmed, lost.

  Margaret! She’d missed the ferry. The boat. The boy in the boat. And the storm. She’d gotten caught in it and had lost her way. She couldn’t quite remember, couldn’t quite separate the blurry images.

  Stones, higher than a man and ringed in a circle. The blue fire that burned in the center without scorching the grass. The wild scream of the wind. The low hum of the stones.

  A wolf howling. Then a man. Tall, dark, fierce, with eyes as blue as that impossible fire. Such anger in his face. But it hadn’t frightened her. It had amused her. How strange.

  Dreams, of course. Just dreams. She’d been in some sort of accident.

  Now she was in someone’s house, someone’s bed. A simple room, she thought, looking around to orient herself. No, not simple, she corrected, spartan. Plain white walls, bare wood floor, no curtains at the window. There was a dresser, a table and lamp and the bed. As far as she could tell, there was nothing else in the room but herself.

  Gingerly now, she touched her head to see if there were bumps or cuts, but found nothing to worry her. Using the same caution, she turned back the sheet, let out a little sigh of relief. Whatever sort of accident there’d been, it didn’t appear to have hurt her.

  Then she gaped, realizing she wore nothing but a shirt, and it wasn’t her own. A man’s shirt, faded blue cotton, frayed at the cuffs. And huge.

  Okay, that was okay. She’d been caught in the storm. Obviously she had gotten soaked. She had to be grateful that someone had taken care of her.

  When she climbed out of bed, the shirt hung halfway to her knees. Modest enough. At her first step, the dog came to the door. Her heart gave a little hitch, then settled.

  “So at least you’re real. Aren’t you handsome?” She held out a hand and had the pleasure of him coming to her to rub his body against her legs. “And friendly. Good to know. Where’s everyone else?”

  With one hand on the dog’s head, she walked to the bedroom door and discovered a living area that was every bit as spartan. A couch and chair, a low burning fire, a couple of tables. With some relief she saw her clothes laid over a screen in front of the fire.

  A check found them still damp. So, she hadn’t been asleep—unconscious—for long. The practical thing to do, now that she’d apparently done everything impractical, was to find her rescuer, thank him, wait for her clothes to dry, then track down Margaret and beg for mercy.

  The last part would be unpleasant, and probably fruitless, but it had to be done.

  Bolstering herself for the task, Allena went to the door, opened it. And let out a soft cry of sheer delight.

  The watery sunlight shimmered over the hills, and the hills rolled up green in one direction, tumbled down in the other toward the rock-strewn shore. The sea reared and crashed, the walls of waves high and wonderful. She had an urge to rush out, to the edge of the slope, and watch the water rage.

  Just outside the cottage was a garden gone wild so that flowers tangled with weeds and tumbled over themselves. The smell of them, of the air, of the sea had her gulping in air, holding her breath as if to keep that single sharp taste inside her forever.

  Unable to resist, she stepped out, the dog beside her, and lifted her face to the sky.

  Oh, this place! Was there ever a more perfect spot? If it were hers, she would stand here every morning and thank God for it.

  Beside her, the dog let out one quiet woof, at which she rested her hand on his head again and glanced over at the little building, with its rough stone, thatched roof, wide-open windows.

  She started to smile, then the door of it opened. The man who came out stopped as she did, stared as she did. Then with his mouth hard set, he started forward.

  His face swam in front of her. The crash of the sea filled her head with roaring. Dizzy, she held out a hand to him, much as she had to the dog.

  She saw his mouth move, thought she heard him swear, but she was already pitching forward into the dark.


  SHE LOOKED LIKE a faerie, standing there in a wavery sunbeam. Tall and slender, her bright hair cropped short, her eyes long-lidded, tilted at the tips, and enormous.

  Not a beauty. Her face was too sharp for true beauty, and her mouth a bit top-heavy. But it was an intriguing face, even in rest.

  He’d thought about it even after he’d dumped her in bed after carrying her in from the storm. Undressing her had been an annoying necessity, which he’d handled with the aloof detachment of a doctor. Then, once she was dry and settled, he’d left her, without a backward glance, to burn off some of the anger in work.

  He worked very well in a temper.

  He didn’t want her here. He didn’t want her. And, he told himself, he wouldn’t have her, no matter what the fates decreed.

  He was his own man.

  But now when he came out, saw her standing in the doorway, in the sunlight, he felt the shock of it sweep through him—longing, possession, recognition, delight, and despair. All of those in one hard wave rose inside him, swamped him.

  Before he could gain his feet, she was swaying.

  He didn’t manage to catch her. Oh, in the storybooks, he imagined, his feet would have grown wings and he’d have flown across the yard to pluck her nimbly into his arms before she swooned. But as it was, she slid to the ground, melted wax pooling into the cup and taking all the candle as well, before he’d closed half the distance.

  By the time he reached her, those long gray eyes were already opening again, cloudy and dazed. She stared at him, the corners of her mouth trembling up.

  “I guess I’m not steady yet,” she said in that pretty American voice. “I know it’s a cliché and predictable, but I have to say it—where am I?”

  She looked ridiculously appealing, lying there between the flowers, and made him all too aware she wore nothing but one of his shirts. “You’re on O’Neil land.”

  “I got lost—a bad habit of mine. The storm came up so fast.”

  “Why are you here?”

  “Oh, I got separated from the group. Well, I was late—another bad habit—and missed the ferry. But the boy brought me in his boat.” She sat up then. “I hope he’s all right. He must be, as he seemed to know what he was doing and it was such a quick trip anyway. Is the visitors’ center far?”

  “The visitors’ center?”

  “I should be able to catch up with them, though it won’t do me a lot of good. Margaret’ll fire me, and I deserve it.”

  “And who is Margaret?”

  “My stepsister. She owns A Civilized Adventure. I’m working for her—or I did work for her for the last twenty-three days.” She let out a breath, tried the smile again. “I’m sorry. I’m Allena Kennedy, the moron. Thank you for helping me.”

  He glanced down at the hand she held out, then with some reluctance took it. Instead of shaking it, he pulled her to her feet. “I’ve a feeling you’re more lost than you know, Miss Kennedy, as there’s no visitors’ center here on Dolman Island.”

  “Dolman? But that’s not right.” The hand in his flexed, balled into a little fist of nerves. “I’m not supposed to be on Dolman Island. Oh, damn it. Damn it! It’s my fault. I wasn’t specific with the boy. He seemed to know where I was going, was supposed to be going. Or maybe he got turned around in the storm, too. I hope he’s all right.”

  She paused, looked around, sighed. “Not just fired,” she murmured. “Disinherited, banished, and mortified all in one morning. I guess all I can do is go back to the hotel and wait to face the music.”

  “Well, it won’t be today.”
r />   “Excuse me?”

  Conal looked out to sea, studying the crashing wall of waves. “You won’t find your way back today, and likely not tomorrow, as there’s more coming our way.”

  “But—” She was talking to his back as he walked inside as though he hadn’t just sealed her doom. “I have to get back. She’ll be worried.”

  “There’ll be no ferry service in these seas, and no boatman with a brain in his head would chance the trip back to the mainland.”

  She sat on the arm of a chair, closed her eyes. “Well, that caps it. Is there a phone? Could I use your phone to call the hotel and leave a message?”

  “The phones are out.”

  “Of course they are.” She watched him go to the fire to add some bricks of turf. Her clothes hung on the screen like a recrimination. “Mr. O’Neil?”

  “Conal.” He straightened, turned to her. “All the women I undress and put into bed call me Conal.”

  It was a test, deliberately provocative. But she didn’t flush or fire. Instead her eyes lit with humor. “All the men who undress me and put me into bed call me Lena.”

  “I prefer Allena.”

  “Really? So do I, but it seems to be too many syllables for most people. Anyway, Conal, is there a hotel or a bed-and-breakfast where I can stay until the ferry’s running again?”

  “There’s no hotel on Dolman. It’s a rare tourist who comes this far. And the nearest village, of which there are but three, is more than eight kilometers away.”

  She gave him a level look. “Am I staying here?”


  She nodded, rubbing her hand absently over Hugh’s broad back as she took stock of her surroundings. “I appreciate it, and I’ll try not to be a nuisance.”

  “It’s a bit late for that, but we’ll deal with it.” When her only response was to lift her eyebrows and stare steadily, he felt a tug of shame. “Can you make a proper pot of tea?”


  He gestured toward the kitchen that was separated from the living area by a short counter. “The makings are in there. I’ve a few things to see to, then we’ll talk this out over a cup.”