Morrigans cross, p.30
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       Morrigan's Cross, p.30

         Part #1 of Circle series by Nora Roberts
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  “I’d love to.” Gently, curiously, she tapped the side of the screen. “But…how do you get the dress out of the box?”

  “We’ll get to that, too. I’m going to have to take a few shortcuts. But later, I’ll show you how to shop online the conventional way. I want something—I think—along these lines.”

  While they were huddled, Blair gave the doorjamb a knuckle rap. “Sorry. You got a minute, Glenna? I wanted to talk to you about requisitions and supplies. Figured you were the go-to. Hey. Nice toy.”

  “One of my favorites. Cian and I are the only ones linked up, so if you need to use—”

  “Brought my own, but thanks. Shopping? Neiman’s,” she said as she moved close enough to see the screen. “Pretty fancy duds for wartime.”

  “Hoyt and I are getting married.”

  “No kidding? That’s great.” She gave Glenna a friendly punch on the shoulder. “Congratulations. So when’s the big day?”

  “Tomorrow night.” When Blair only blinked, Glenna hurried on. “I know how it must seem, but—”

  “I think it’s terrific. I think it’s excellent. Life can’t stop. We can’t let it. We can’t let them make it stop; that’s the whole point. Plus, it’s great, seriously great, that the two of you found what you’ve got when everything’s so extreme. It’s one of the things we’re fighting for, right?”

  “Yes. Yes, it is.”

  “Wedding dress?”

  “A potential. Blair, thank you.”

  Blair put a hand on Glenna’s shoulder in a gesture that might have been woman-to-woman or soldier-to-soldier. Glenna supposed it was now one and the same.

  “I’ve been fighting for thirteen years. I know better than anyone you need some real, you need things that matter, and that warm you up inside, or you lose the mission. I’ll let you get back to it.”

  “Want to help us shop?”

  “Really?” Blair did a little shuffle dance. “Are vampires blood-sucking fiends? I’m so in. One thing, not to put the damper, but how are you going to get the dress here by tomorrow?”

  “I’ve got my ways. And I’d better get started. Would you mind closing the door? I don’t want Hoyt coming in while I’m trying them on.”

  “Trying…Sure.” Blair obliged while Glenna set several crystals on and around the laptop. She lit candles, then stood back, held her arms out to the side.

  “Mother Goddess, I ask your grace to bring this garment to this place. Through the air, from there to here, in the light unto my sight a symbol of my destiny. As I will so mote it be.”

  With a shimmer and flash, Glenna’s jeans and T-shirt were replaced by the white gown.

  “Wow. A whole new level of shoplifting.”

  “I’m not stealing it.” Glenna’s scowled at Blair. “I’d never use my powers that way. I’m trying it on, and when I find the one, I’ve got another spell to work the sale. It’s just to save time, which I don’t have.”

  “Don’t get bent. I was just kidding.” Sort of. “Will that work for weapons if we need more?”

  “I suppose it would.”

  “Good to know. Anyway, great dress.”

  “It’s lovely,” Moira agreed. “Just lovely.”

  Glenna turned, studied her reflection in the antique cheval glass. “Thank God Cian didn’t strip all the mirrors out of this place. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? I love the lines. But…”

  “It’s not the one,” Blair finished, and settled down on the bed with Moira to watch the show.

  “Why do you say that?”

  “It doesn’t light you up. That light, in the gut, in the heart, that just spreads out right to your fingertips. You put on your wedding dress, take one look at yourself in it and you know. The others are just practice.”

  So it had gotten that far, Glenna thought, remembering the vision of Blair and the engagement ring on her finger. And the image of her weeping in the dark, her hand bare.

  She started to comment, then said nothing. A tender area like that required more than camaraderie. It needed true friendship, and they weren’t there yet.

  “You’re right, it’s not the one. I’ve got four more picked out. So we’ll try number two.”

  She hit it on the third, and felt that light glowing. Heard it in Moira’s long, wistful sigh.

  “And we have a winner.” Blair circled her finger. “Do the turn. Oh, yeah, that one’s yours.”

  It was romantic, and simple, Glenna thought. Just as she’d hoped. There was a little float in the long skirt, and the soft sweetheart neckline was framed by two thin straps that left her shoulders bare then ran down her shoulder blades to spotlight her back.

  “It’s so exactly right.” She glanced at the price again, winced. “Well, maxing out my credit card doesn’t seem that big a deal considering the possible apocalypse.”

  “Seize the day,” Blair agreed. “You doing a veil, a headpiece?”

  “Traditional Celtic handfastings call for a veil, but in this case…Just flowers, I think.”

  “Even better. Soft, earthy, romantic and sexy all rolled into one. Do the deal.”

  “Moira?” Glenna looked over, saw Moira’s eyes were damp and dreamy. “I can see it has your vote, too.”

  “I think you’ll be the most beautiful of brides.”

  “Well, this was serious fun.” Blair got to her feet. “And I agree with the brain trust here—you look outstanding. But you need to wrap it up.” She tapped her watch. “The two of you are due in training. You need some major hand-to-hand practice. Why don’t you come with me now?” she said to Moira. “We can get started.”

  “I’ll only be a few minutes,” Glenna told them, then turned back to study herself in the glass.

  From wedding dresses to combat, she thought. Her life had become a very strange ride.

  Because he heard the music playing inside, Hoyt knocked on Cian’s door a little before sundown. There’d been a time, he remembered, he wouldn’t have thought of knocking, when asking permission to enter his brother’s chambers wouldn’t have been necessary.

  A time, he thought, he wouldn’t have needed to ask his brother if he could live with his wife in his own home.

  Locks clicked and snicked. Cian wore only loose pants and a sleepy expression when he opened the door. “A bit early for me, for visiting.”

  “I need a private word with you.”

  “Which, of course, can’t wait on my convenience. Come in then.”

  Hoyt stepped into a room that was pitch black. “Must we speak in the dark?”

  “I can see well enough.” But Cian switched on a low light beside a wide bed. The covers on the bed gleamed jewel-like in that light, and the sheets carried the sheen of silk. Cian moved to a cold box, took out a packet of blood. “I haven’t had breakfast.” He tossed the packet into the microwave sitting on top of the box. “What do you want?”

  “When this is done, what do you intend to do?”

  “As I choose, as always.”

  “To live here?”

  “I think not,” Cian said with a half laugh, and took a crystal glass from a shelf.

  “Tomorrow night…Glenna and I are to be handfasted.”

  There was a slight hesitation in his rhythm, then Cian set the glass down. “Isn’t that interesting? I suppose congratulations are in order. And you intend to take her back, introduce her to the family. Ma, Da, this is my bride. A little witch I picked up a few centuries from now.”

  “Cian.”

  “Sorry. The absurdity of it amuses me.” He took the package out, broke it open and poured the warmed contents into the glass. “Well, anyway. Sláinte.”

  “I can’t go back.”

  After the first sip, the first long stare over the rim, Cian lowered the glass. “More and more interesting.”

  “It’s no longer my place, knowing what I know. Waiting for the day to come when I know they’ll die. If you could go back, would you?”

  Cian frowned into his glass, then sat. “No. For thous
ands of reasons. But that would be one of them. But that aside, you brought this war to me. Now you take time from it to handfast?”

  “Human needs don’t stop. They’re only keener, it seems, when the end of days threaten.”

  “It happens that’s true. I’ve seen it countless times. It also happens war brides don’t always make reliable wives.”

  “That’s for me and for Glenna.”

  “It certainly is.” He raised his glass, drank some more. “Well then, good luck to you.”

  “We want to live here, in this house.”

  “In my house?”

  “In the house that was ours. Setting aside my rights, and our kinship, you’re a businessman. You pay a caretaker when you’re not in residence. You’d no longer have that expense. Glenna and I would tend this place and the land, at no cost to you.”

  “And how do you propose to make a living? There isn’t much demand for sorcerers these days. Wait, I take it back.” Cian laughed, finished off the blood. “You could make a goddamn fortune on television, on the Internet. Get yourself an nine-hundred number, a web site, and off you go. Not your style though.”

  “I’ll find my way.”

  Cian set the glass aside, looked off into the shadows. “Maybe I hope you do, providing you live, of course. I’ve no problem with you staying in the house.”

  “Thanks for that.”

  Cian shrugged. “It’s a complicated life you’ve chosen for yourself.”

  “And I intend to live it. I’ll let you get dressed.”

  A complicated life, Cian thought again when he was alone. And it stunned and annoyed him that he could envy it.

  Chapter 21

  Glenna figured most brides were a little stressed and very busy on their weddings days. But most brides didn’t have to fit in sword practice and spells between their facials and pedicures.

  At least the pace cut down on the time for the nerves she’d had no idea she’d have. She couldn’t squeeze in much of an anxiety attack when she was worried about flower arrangements, romantic lighting and the proper form for beheading a vampire.

  “Try this.” Blair started to toss the weapon, then obviously changed her mind when Glenna’s mouth dropped open. She walked it over. “Battle-ax. More heft than a sword, which would work better for you, I think. You got pretty decent upper body strength, but you’d cut through easier with this than a sword. You need to get used to its weight and its balance. Here.”

  She walked back, picked up her own sword. “Block me with it.”

  “I’m not used to it. I could miss, hurt you.”

  “Believe me, you won’t hurt me. Block!” She thrust out, and more from instinct than obedience, Glenna clanged the ax to the sword.

  “Now see, I’d just stab you cheerfully in the back while you’re fumbling to turn.”

  “It’s top heavy,” Glenna complained.

  “It’s not. Spread out your grip more for now. Okay, stay forward after the first strike. Come down on the sword, back up at me. Slow. One,” she said and thrust. “Two. Again, keep it coming. You want to counter my moves, sure, but what you want is to throw me off balance, to make me counter yours, force me to follow your moves. Think of it as a dance routine where you not only want to lead, but you also really want to kill your partner.”

  Blair held up a hand, stepped back. “Let me show you. Hey, Larkin. Come be the practice dummy.” She tossed him her sword, hilt up, then took the battle-ax. “Take it slow,” she told him. “This is a demo.”

  She nodded. “Attack.”

  As he moved on her, she called out the steps. “Strike, strike, turn. Thrust up, across, strike. He’s good, see?” she said, still calling out to Glenna. “So he’s pushing at me while I push at him. So you ad lib as necessary. Turn, kick, strike, strike, pivot. Slice!”

  She flipped the dagger strapped to her wrist and swiped it an inch from Larkin’s belly. “When his guts are spilling out, you—”

  And dodged back from the swipe of what looked like a very large bear claw.

  “Wow.” She rested the head of her ax on the floor, leaned on the handle. Only his arm had changed shape. “You can do that? Just pieces of you?”

  “If I like.”

  “I bet the girls back home can’t get enough of you.”

  It took him a moment—she’d already turned to go back to Glenna—then he burst into delighted laughter. “Sure that’s the truth. But not due to what you’re meaning. I prefer my own shape for that kind of sport.”

  “Bet. Square off with Larkin. I’m going to work with Shorty for a while.”

  “Don’t call me that,” Moira snapped.

  “Lighten up. I didn’t mean anything by it.”

  Moira opened her mouth, then shook her head. “I’m sorry. That was rude.”

  “King called her that,” Glenna said quietly.

  “Oh. Got it. Moira. Resistance training. We’re going to pump you up.”

  “I’m sorry I spoke to you that way.”

  “Look. We’re going to irritate each other a lot before this is done. I don’t bruise easily—literally or figuratively. You’re going to have to toughen up yourself. Five-pound free weights. You’re going to be cut by the time I’m done with you.”

  Moira narrowed her eyes. “I may be sorry I lashed at you, but I’m not going to let you cut me.”

  “No, it’s an expression. It means…” And every other term Blair could think of would be just as confusing. Instead she curled her arm, flexed her biceps.

  “Ah.” A smile glimmered in Moira’s eyes. “Sure I’d like that. All right then, you can cut me.”

  They worked a full morning. When Blair paused to gulp water from a bottle she nodded at Glenna. “You’re coming right along. Ballet lessons?”

  “Eight years. Never thought I’d pirouette with a battle-ax, but life’s full of surprises.”

  “Can you do a triple?”

  “Not so far.”

  “Look.” Still holding the bottle, Blair whipped her body around three times then shot her leg out to the side, up at a forty-five-degree angle. “That kind of momentum puts a good solid punch in a kick. You need solid to knock one of these things back. Practice. You’ve got it in you. So.” She took another swig. “Where’s the groom?”

  “Hoyt? In the tower. There are things that need to be done. As important as what we’re doing here, Blair,” she added when she sensed disapproval.

  “Maybe. Okay, maybe. If you come up with more stuff like the fire dagger.”

  “We’ve fire charmed a number of the weapons.” She walked to another section of the room, took down a sword to bring it back. “Those that are charmed we’ve marked. See?”

  On the blade near the hilt was a flame, etched into steel.

  “Nice. Really. Can I try it?”

  “Better take it outside.”

  “Good point. Okay, we should break for an hour anyway. Grab something to eat. Cross- and longbows, boys and girls, after lunch.”

  “I’ll come with you,” Glenna told her. “In case.”

  Blair used the terrace doors, jogged down to ground level. She glanced at the straw dummy Larkin had hung from a post. You had to give it to the guy, she mused. He had a sense of humor. He’d drawn fangs on the stuffed face and a bright red heart on the chest.

  It would be fun to test the fire sword out on it—and a waste of good material. No point burning up Vampire Dummy.

  So she began in a fighting stance, her arm arched behind her head, the sword pointing out.

  “It’s important to control it,” Glenna began. “To pull the fire when you need it. If you’re just slapping the burning sword around, you could burn yourself, or one of us.”

  “Don’t worry.”

  Glenna started to speak again, then shrugged. There was nothing and no one to hurt but the air.

  Then she watched as Blair began to move, slowly, fluid as water, the sword like an extension of her arm. Yes, a kind of ballet, she thought, a lethal one. But
nonetheless compelling. The blade shimmered when the sun struck its edge, but remained cool. Just as Glenna began to assume Blair needed coaching on how to use it, the woman thrust out, and the blade erupted.

  “And you’re toast. God, I love this thing. Will you make me one, out of one of my personal weapons?”

  “Absolutely.” Glenna lifted her brows as Blair swished the sword through the air and the fire died. “You learn fast.”

  “Yeah, I do.” She frowned, scanning the sky. “Clouds boiling up in the west. Guess we’re in for more rain.”

  “Good thing I planned an indoor wedding.”

  “Good thing. Let’s go eat.”

  Hoyt didn’t come down until late afternoon, and by that time Glenna had given herself permission to take time for herself. She didn’t want to do a quick glamour to look her best. She wanted to pamper herself, just a bit.

  And she needed flowers to make the circlet for her hair, to make a bouquet. She’d made the facial cream herself, from herbs, so dabbed it on generously as she studied the sky from the bedroom window.

  The clouds were moving in now. If she was going to get flowers, she had to get them before the sun was lost and the rain came. But when she opened the door to dash out, Moira and Larkin stood on the other side. He made some sound as his eyes widened, reminding her of the soft green goo on her face.

  “It’s a female thing, just deal with it. I’m running behind. I haven’t got the flowers for my hair yet.”

  “We…Well.” Moira brought her hand from behind her back and offered the circlet of white rosebuds with red ribbon braided through it. “I hope it’s all right, that it’s what you wanted. I know something red’s traditional for a handfasting. Larkin and I wanted to give you something, and we don’t have anything really, so we did this. But if you’d rather—”

  “Oh, it’s perfect. It’s perfectly beautiful. Oh, thank you!” She grabbed Moira in a crushing hug, then turned a beaming smile up to Larkin.

  “I’ve thought it wouldn’t be a hardship to have you kiss me,” he began, “but just at the moment…”

  “Don’t worry. I’ll catch you later.”

  “There’s this as well.” He handed her a nosegay of multicolored roses twined with more red ribbon. “To carry, Moira says.”

  “Oh God, this is the sweetest thing.” Tears dribbled through the cream. “I thought this would be hard without family here. But I have family here, after all. Thank you. Thank you both.”

  She bathed, scented her hair, creamed her skin. White candles burned as she performed the female ritual of preparing herself for a man. For her wedding, and
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