Bay of sighs, p.7
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       Bay of Sighs, p.7

         Part #2 of The Guardians series by Nora Roberts
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  Now Riley arched her eyebrows. “What you have is a fraction of one.”

  “Worn brilliantly,” Doyle put in, and made Annika smile.

  “I think gelato’s an excellent plan.” With her damp hair drawn back in a tail, Sasha scanned the marina. “I bet it’s an easy find, too, and on the way.”

  “Let’s find out.” Bran took her hand.

  Within five minutes, after tugging Annika away from window displays of shiny objects, they met rock-hard determination.

  “This shop has suits for swimming. I need this.”

  “Take her in, Sawyer.”

  “Oh, no.” His determination just as rock-hard, he shook his head at Riley. “That’s a girl thing. That’s absolutely a girl thing.”

  “I’m going with Sawyer on that.” In solidarity Bran slapped a hand on his shoulder. “I say the females deal with this, and the rest of us head right up there.” He gestured. “We can pick up more beer.”

  “I’m going with them.” Riley stepped over to the male side.

  “Wait a minute,” Sasha began.

  “I’m going to find what we need to make Bellinis. We definitely need Bellinis.”

  “Bellinis.” Sasha sighed, looked at the shop, weighed shopping chaos against Bellinis. “All right, you’ve sold me. Annika, I’ll go in with you, but you can’t try on everything. You have to stay focused.”

  “I won’t. I will. Then we’ll get outstanding gelato.” She dashed straight inside.

  “They better be exceptional Bellinis,” Sasha muttered, and followed Annika inside.

  She found such a pretty suit with red flowers, and another in bright, bright green, and what Sasha called a wrap almost as thin as air, and shoes with pretty seashells that left most of the foot bare. With Sasha’s help, she bought them all, and another wrap with blue waves over white for Sasha.

  “For you.” She offered the little bag. “For helping me.”

  “Oh, no, Anni, you don’t have to buy me something for helping you.”

  “But it’s for you.” Firmly, Annika pushed the bag into Sasha’s hands. “The blue is like your eyes. It’s a gift for you, and makes me happy to give.”

  “Thank you. It’s beautiful. We really have to go now. Remember, we have to carry all of this.”

  “Pretty things never weigh too much.”

  To Sasha’s mind, a couple of bikinis that barely covered the essentials weighed virtually nothing, but she steered Annika out of the shop.

  “There they are.” Wary, Sasha kept a solid grip on Annika’s arm as they walked up to where the rest redistributed bottles into packs.

  “You’re exempt,” Riley told Sasha as she hefted her heavier pack. “Fair’s fair.”

  “I can carry more.” Annika turned around, offered her pack. “It’s not heavy.”

  Doyle zipped a couple bottles of Italian beer inside her pack. “That’ll do it. We’ve got the rest.”

  “There’s gelato!” Annika dashed up the steep street as if her new sandals had wings.

  She’d struck up an animated conversation with a couple of American tourists by the time the others caught up.

  “Jessica likes the chocolate, but Mark likes the pistachio. It’s a nut.”

  “Right. How ya doing?” Riley signaled Sawyer to ease Annika away, distracted the couple with small talk until they wandered off.

  “They were very nice, but I don’t know whether to listen to Jessica or to Mark. And oh, there are so many pretty colors.”

  “Pick two,” Sawyer suggested, and her eyes went wide.

  “I can have two?”

  “Two scoops in a cone.”

  “Two scoops in a cone,” she repeated. “Which do you pick?”

  “You pick first. You’re not going to go wrong.”

  “I think . . . the pink, and this green? They’ll look nice together. Like a flower.”

  “Strawberry and mint. Nice combo. It’s on me,” he told the rest.

  When, even after he’d paid, Annika just admired her cone, he demonstrated on his own. “You want to eat it.”

  She took one delicate lick, then another. “Oh! It’s like eating joy!”

  Weird, Sawyer thought as they hiked with packs, bags, and cones, but she made him feel like a hero for giving her her first taste of eating joy.

  Because of it, the hike back went easy.

  They scattered on the return, and as Sawyer moved faster, he snagged the shower ahead of Doyle. He washed off the salt, the sea, the sweat, felt fully human again as he drank half his first beer in the shower.

  When he got out, he heard laughter from the kitchen. Female laughter. And though it appealed, he thought it wise to take a little time, a little distance from Annika.

  His lust quotient there kept rising, no matter how studiously he tried to suppress it.

  He took the rest of his beer outside, pulled a lounge chair into a patch of shade, and settled in with his tablet. He needed to email home, update his family. Maybe he’d read a chapter or two of one of the books he’d downloaded.

  He dashed off the emails, promised pictures to follow. Told himself he could take an hour off, to read, or doze, or whatever the hell, then he’d do some research.

  Riley was the queen there, but he had lines to tug as well.

  Then she walked out, the mermaid in one of her floaty, filmy dresses, her hair loose, waving a little from its time in a braid. She carried a tray of flutes filled with frothy peach-colored liquid.

  “Riley says it’s Bellini time.” She set the tray on the table, picked up two flutes. “She made them, and we had sips—Sasha and I.” She handed him a flute, sat on the grass with those incredible legs folded. “The gelato was eating joy, and this is drinking it.”

  He sampled to please her. “Fancy. Good. Good and fancy.”

  “Sasha said a monk found—discovered—champagne, and said it was drinking stars.”

  “I’ve heard that.”

  “Stars are meant to be for beauty and light, and for all the worlds. Nerezza won’t drink them.”

  “Damn right, she won’t.” Sawyer shifted, tapped his glass to hers.

  “Damn right.”

  Sasha and Bran came out, chose another patch of shade with their drinks, Sasha’s sketch pad. Riley settled in the sun with a Bellini and, like Sawyer, a tablet. Doyle came last, gave the Bellinis a look of suspicion, then shrugged, took one. He, too, chose the sun.

  “I like when we’re all together,” Annika murmured. “Even apart, like this a little bit, but together. I’ll miss it, miss everyone, once we return the stars to the Island of Glass.”

  “We’ll have a reunion.”

  “I don’t know that word.”

  “It’s like when people who’ve been together, then go separate ways, come back together again to celebrate. For a night, or a couple of days.”

  “A reunion.” She thought it would be a new favorite word. “You’d come?”

  “Sure. I bet Bran could fix it up, somewhere private, by the sea. We’ll have gelato and Bellinis.”

  “And pizza.”

  “Pizza goes without saying.” He couldn’t help himself, and stroked his hand down her hair. “We’ll end Nerezza, but that won’t end us.”

  CHAPTER FOUR

  At midnight, far too intrigued to resist, Malmon studied the house matching the address on the card Nerezza had given him. He’d already had one of his men take photos of it earlier in the day, and had assigned another to find out everything there was to find on the woman.

  It both angered and intrigued him when everything to be found was nothing at all.

  But the house suited her, to his mind. Even as he studied it now, from the smoked glass of the limo, he could imagine her inside. It held an eerie grace with its old stone, shielding trees, the gargoyles perched on the eaves.

  As his did, it stood back from the road, behind a gate. He appreciated the desire for privacy, the power it took to command it.

  What would she offer him? He had
to know.

  When he ordered the driver to pull up to the gate, he found himself unsurprised it opened immediately. Once the driver opened his door, he stepped out, a confident man in a bespoke suit, who believed he’d already seen and done all there was to see and do.

  The wide, arched door opened as he approached. A man, pale of face, dark of eye, stood silently.

  Malmon stepped into a foyer lit with dozens of candles. In the shifting, shimmering light, the pale man closed the heavy door. And Malmon’s heart beat quickly.

  “My mistress waits.”

  The man’s voice scraped rough, like a lizard’s tongue over flesh. Malmon followed him up the stairs—more candles, and urns full of lilies so red they looked nearly black in the candlelight. Lilies so strongly scented they swam in his head.

  He entered a large drawing room where Nerezza sat in an ornate chair, almost a throne, that glimmered gold. Its back rose up behind her with a carving of intertwined snakes at its peak.

  She wore the same red as the flowers, so deep it showed black, with rubies like fat drops of blood dripping around her throat, from her ears.

  An odd bird—not a crow, not an owl, but some odd combination—perched, like the gargoyles, on the wide arm of the chair.

  Her beauty struck him like a bolt—both fierce and terrible. And so, in that moment, was his desire for her.

  She smiled, as if she knew.

  “I’m pleased you came. Leave us,” she told the servant while her dark eyes stayed on Malmon’s face. She rose, her gown rustling like papery wings, and glided to a decanter. Poured deep red into glasses. “A drink, to new friendships.”

  How dry his throat; how fast his pulse. He struggled to keep his voice even, casual.

  “Will we be friends?”

  “We have so much in common already, and more to come.” She watched him over the rim as she sipped. “You came because you wonder, and your life has few wonders now. You’ll stay because you’ll know, and you’ll want.”

  Her scent seemed to twine around him, made him think of everything dark and forbidden.

  “What will I know? What will I want?”

  “You’ll know what I tell you. You’ll then tell me what you want. Your choice to make.” But her eyes told him she knew that choice already. “Shall we sit?”

  She didn’t sit on the throne chair, but moved to a curved settee, waited for him. And said, “The Stars of Fortune.”

  “You believe they exist.”

  “I know they exist. The first, the Fire Star, was found only days ago, in an underwater cave in Corfu.”

  His interest piqued, and some irritation with it. His network should have picked up that information. If true.

  “You have it?”

  Something dark, and far more terrible than beauty, slid in and out of her eyes. “If I did, I’d have no need for you. I told you there are six who stand in the way. They found the star, they have it, and—for now—it’s beyond my reach. Now they hunt for the next, and I hunt for them. I . . . underestimated their inventiveness. I won’t do so a second time.”

  Now he smiled, believing he held the advantage. “You want my help.”

  “Your skills, your thirst, combined with mine. Force alone proved inadequate. I require guile, and human ambitions.”

  “Human?”

  She said nothing to that, only sipped again of the wine that swam in his head like the heady scent of lilies.

  “You know two of the six.”

  “Do I?”

  “Riley Gwin.”

  “Ah, yes.” Even the sound of her name made his mouth thin. “I know Dr. Gwin. A bright, resourceful woman.”

  “She’s more than that. Sawyer King. And I see you have no love for this one.”

  “He has something I want, and haven’t yet managed to take.”

  “The compass. It can be yours. I have no use for it.”

  Fascinated, Malmon leaned toward her. “You know of it, what it’s reputed to do?”

  “He is the traveler, for now, able to shift through time, through space as long as he possesses the compass. You want that power.”

  “I’ll have it. It’s simply a matter of time. One way or the other, I take what I want.”

  “As do I. With these two are four others. None of the six are only what they seem. If you choose to do what I ask of you, I’ll show you what they are, what they have. And what they are, what they have can be yours. I only want the stars.”

  The compass. He coveted the compass, and only more since he’d failed to . . . acquire it.

  But she clearly coveted the stars, so a bargain must be struck. “If, as you say, the stars exist, nothing six people are or have can compare to their worth.”

  “The guardians—these six—are not all I’d give you. The offer of money is too usual for you and me, Andre, though I can give you more than any man can hold. You can choose more wealth, but I think you’ll make another choice.”

  “What else is there?”

  She lifted a hand, and in it rested a clear ball of glass.

  “Parlor tricks?”

  “Look and see.” Her voice whispered over his skin like ice. “Look into the Globe of All, and see.”

  “Something in the wine,” he murmured as clouds and water stirred and stirred inside the glass.

  “Of course. Only to help you forget all of this should you choose to refuse me.” And, she thought, to make him—like his servant—susceptible to suggestion.

  Hers, should he disappoint her, would be for him to return home, take the weapon he now had at the small of his back, put it into his mouth, and pull the trigger.

  If he refused, he was of no use to her.

  “Look and see,” she said again. “See the six. Guardians of the stars. Enemies of Nerezza. See them, and what they are.”

  He saw Riley standing under the light of a full moon, saw her transform into a wolf that threw back its head to howl before running into shadows.

  He watched Sawyer, holding the compass, vanish in a golden light and reappear in another.

  He saw a man hold lightning in his hands, a woman who spoke of visions and things yet to come. Another man run through with a sword who rose again, healed and whole.

  And the woman, the beauty who dived into a night sea and rose up with a jeweled tail.

  “You see the truth.” Nerezza spoke quietly, watching the dazed and dazzled look in his eyes. “What they have, all and each, you can possess. Do with what you will. Think of hunting the she-wolf, the thrill of it. She has a pack, more hunting. Think of possessing the mermaid. Of owning the compass. Of harnessing the magician, the seer for your own purposes.

  “Or destroying them. How it would thrill to destroy such creatures. Your choice. Enslave or destroy. And the immortal?”

  She smiled when he looked at her again, when she saw what she’d known she would on his face. The greed for life.

  “This could be yours.”

  “Immortality.”

  “A payment, if you choose. I can give this to you.”

  “How? How can you give me immortality?”

  “I am Nerezza.”

  “Named for the goddess who cursed the three stars.”

  She rose, lifted her arms. The candlelight swirled into walls of fire. Her voice was a thunder that dropped him to his knees.

  “I am Nerezza. Goddess of the dark.”

  The strange bird gave a cry, almost human, then swooped. Malmon felt a quick sting at his throat, but made no sound. He trembled with awe, with lust.

  “Refuse me and leave, never to see again the wonders. Accept my task, and choose your payment. Wealth, power? Life eternal?”

  “Life! Give me immortality.”

  “Give me the stars, and it’s yours.”

  The fire died to candlelight; she sat. She held out a paper, and a silver quill. “A contract, between us.”

  His hands shook—fear, excitement—he’d forgotten what it was to feel so much. To calm himself, he drained the
wine in the glass, then accepted the quill.

  “It’s written in Latin.”

  “Yes. A dead language for immortality.”

  He read Latin, as well as Greek, Arabic, Aramaic. But his heart thudded as he translated. He wanted more time. A night to think, to settle his nerves.

  She rose, skimmed her hands down, and the gown spilled away, leaving her naked, magnificent.

  Nerves smothered under lust.

  “Once signed, we’ll seal. It’s been too long since I’ve had a man in my bed. A man worthy of it.”

  He could take a goddess, have immortality, possess all the powers he’d seen inside the ball of glass.

  He signed his name, and she hers. He watched those names bleed and burn into the parchment.

  Then she took his hand. “Come with me, and we will do all there is to do to each other, until the light comes.”

  She took her fill of him, took with a voracious hunger he nearly matched. Because he pleased her, well enough, in bed, she knew she would use him there again.

  When he slept, she smiled into the dark.

  Men, of all worlds, of all natures, all species, were to her mind the simplest of creatures. They might spring to act, to violence more fiercely, more quickly than the female, but the female remained cannier and more clever.

  And the male? Sex would always rule them. The offer of it, the act, the need.

  She’d had only to offer this when he hesitated, and he had signed the contract, in his own blood. That blood now burned and bound him.

  He belonged to her now. And when he helped her take the stars, when she granted him his choice of immortality, he would belong to her—as ever she wished—for eternity.

 
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