Bay of sighs, p.19
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       Bay of Sighs, p.19
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         Part #2 of The Guardians series by Nora Roberts

  “They will,” Bran told her, “when you need them to.”

  Sawyer plucked his guns out of the air, examined them, holstered them. “That’ll be in, what, under thirty-two hours now.”

  “Less, I think—feel,” Sasha added as Doyle sheathed his sword. “Less than that. They move in the dark tonight, the mother of lies and her pet. And tomorrow comes the blood. Blood in the water, and the death of men. And one of ours, one of ours, if the choice is wrong. I can’t see who. I can’t . . . It’s murky. And so clouded with pain, and fear.”

  “Easy now.” Bran drew her in. “You reach too far.”

  “What good is it if I can’t see?”

  “You’ve seen it’s tomorrow.” Doyle hefted his crossbow. “And we’ll be ready for it.”

  CHAPTER TWELVE

  He woke with her curled around him, so he drew in the scent of her hair, her skin with every breath.

  The coming day, and all it held, was now just a subtle lessening of the dark. So he indulged himself, let himself just be. Breathing her in while his fingers tangled in the dark silk ropes of her hair, while her heart beat, slow and steady at rest, against his.

  He could imagine this, waking like this, morning after morning as his life spun out into weeks and months and years. He knew all about time, what it gave, what it took, what it offered. If he could, he would have used his gift, his legacy, for time and space to take them somewhere else, some time else, where they could have this together, as long as they lived.

  But they’d both sworn an oath. He knew time, he knew distance. And he knew duty. The compass he carried wasn’t a toy, it wasn’t simply a tool. It was, would always be, a responsibility.

  He accepted it, and all that went with it.

  And she, he knew, accepted her own duty, the responsibility that came with her gift. When her time ended—it was always about time—she would have no choice but to go back to her world, her people, and live her life where he couldn’t follow.

  He didn’t want to love her, didn’t want to feel as if he always had, always would. But she’d twined around his heart just as she did his body.

  Would time, he wondered, ease the heartbreak he knew would come? He didn’t need Sasha’s sight to tell him he’d never forget Annika, would long for her and what might have been as long as he drew breath.

  Yet what they worked for, fought for, what each one of them would die for, was so much more than one man’s wounded heart.

  They had time, he reminded himself. They had today, tomorrow, and the weeks to come. He shouldn’t waste that precious time mourning the future.

  He brushed his lips over her temple, drew her in a little closer. She moved against him, just a lazy slide of skin against skin. It simply lit him up, from his heart out.

  Though the dawn had yet to break, the morning birds yet to sing, he saw her smile as she tipped her head back.

  “Good morning. It’s a very good morning when I wake with your arms around me. Did you rest well?”

  “Yeah. You’re restful, Anni.”

  “I like to be quiet with you like this, before the sky wakes. Before Doyle wakes,” she said with a laugh in her voice, “and everything is loud and fast. I can make you coffee.”

  “No. You should stay right here.” Now he touched his lips lightly to hers, felt hers curve.

  “You want to wake with sex.” Running a hand down his flank, she wiggled closer. “Your penis is already awake.”

  She made him love and laugh and long, so he found it impossible to separate one reaction from the other.

  “I want you, Annika.” He kissed her again, soft and slow. “Do you want?”

  “When you kiss me, when I feel your body against mine, I’m filled with want. Take my want, Sawyer, and I’ll take yours.”

  So simple, he thought, and so complete. He sank them both into the kiss, felt that even dawn held its breath to give them this time. This precious time.

  Gently, his hands moved over her gently, so he could savor every inch. The soft skin, the subtle curves, the long lines of torso and miraculous legs. Tenderly, his lips followed. Taking her want, he thought, giving her his.

  She offered, accepted. Turning to him, melting against him as if everything she was had been waiting only for him.

  Every move, every shift, every touch pulsed under his skin. Warmth and light and beauty that captured his heart like cupped hands.

  Her breath merging with his in a soul-deep kiss. Her breast, perfect in his hand. Her hips rising up as he glided her over the first peak. In that moment, that hushed moment between the dark and the light, she was, would be, his only and his all.

  “Annika.” Overwhelmed, he buried his face in the curve of her neck. “I need you.”

  His words shimmered through her. She knew poetry, and song and story. But no words she knew had ever moved her so deeply. To be needed by him lifted her heart, sent it soaring. Even as tears blurred her eyes, she laid her hands on his cheeks, lifted his face so she could look at him.

  “I would give you all you need. Be one with me, before the sun comes. Before the sun,” she said again, and arched up in welcome.

  And if she wept as they moved together, she could tell herself it was only from joy, only from beauty. Only from knowing he needed her.

  She took the joy with her, through the push-ups and lunges, through breakfast.

  She kept it clutched tight when Sawyer brought the recorder out to the table.

  “It may not sit well after a meal, but everybody should hear this.”

  “Another meet?”

  “In a way,” he told Riley. “From the bedroom recorder, just after midnight.”

  “If we have to hear Malmon getting it on with some unfortunate working girl—”

  “It’s Nerezza.”

  Sawyer waited a beat, pressed playback.

  For a moment, there was a kind of living silence, like a throaty hum. Then what seemed to Annika like a crack in the air. Malmon’s voice trembled, but Annika couldn’t be certain if it came from excitement or fear.

  I’ve waited.

  When Nerezza spoke, it was somehow cloying, like honey dripping from a nest of bees. And all is as I wish?

  All is as you wish.

  No, my pet, all is not as I wish until the stars are mine, and those who keep them from me are screaming.

  All is in place so all will be as you wish. Please, my queen. I’ve waited.

  The laugh made Annika shudder. Will you not offer me refreshment first?

  Your cup.

  But not yet sweetened. A moment later, Malmon hissed. Ah, perfect. The pain only adds to the potency, and the flavor.

  “Blood,” Bran murmured. “It would be his blood, freely given.”

  Your room here is pleasing. I will stay here an hour with you.

  An hour? But . . . You won’t live with me here while I find the star for you?

  In this place? One for mortals, for humans? I make my own.

  The disgust in her voice rang clear, then turned to amusement.

  Do not sulk, my pet. I’ll give you paradise for an hour. Take off your clothes so I can see the progress of your transformation. And then you and I will sate our appetites.

  “Transformation.” Riley nodded at Sasha. “You said he wouldn’t be what he was.”

  “But I don’t know, yet, what he’s becoming.”

  Ah, yes. You, too, are pleasing. Is there pain?

  It comes sharply, then passes.

  But you like the pain. It tells you you’re becoming.

  I’m stronger.

  And will be stronger still.

  I’ll be invincible. Immortal. And together we’ll rule all the worlds.

  Of course.

  “She lies,” Annika whispered. “Can’t he hear the lie?”

  There was a sound, like a whistle of wind, a low growl.

  Thudding, harsh grunting, hungry sucking, animal pants, and twice an agonized cry cut off as if sliced with a blade. Slaps sharp and ri
nging, moans like the damned begging.

  Under the table Annika clasped her hands together. “This is not what we do. This isn’t sex. It’s . . . like the sharks. This is only feeding, without beauty or kindness. Or . . . heart.”

  “Sex isn’t always kind, but yeah, this?” Riley shifted in her seat. “Be grateful we don’t have video.”

  More! There was a guttural sound to Malmon’s voice, something not completely human. An hour. You said an hour.

  Did I? After a laugh, Nerezza said, Sleep now. Yes, yes, sleep and dream, before you bore me. Soon, my pet, you’ll bring me all I want, all that’s mine. Fail, and your blood will more than sweeten my wine.

  Again, there was a kind of crack, then silence.

  “That’s it,” Sawyer told them.

  “More than enough.” After grabbing her water glass, Sasha drank deep. “She wanted to see him, so there has to be something physically transforming.”

  “Don’t look at me,” Riley said when Sasha did. “I’m a hereditary, three-nights-a-month girl.”

  “But you said there’s pain, when you change.”

  “Some. It’s just part of it. She’s not making him a lycan. That change is rapid, and the moon’s not full. My money’s on demon.”

  “And I agree,” Bran said.

  “So we’ll be fighting a god, a small army, and a demon.” Rising, Sawyer picked up the recorder. “Awesome. I’ll put this back.”

  Though the recording had shaken her, Annika reached back for the joy of dawn. She held it close through talk of battle—for Sasha felt certain there would be a battle that day—and instead, slipped over the side of the boat to find what Sawyer called a tracker so Bran could send it far away.

  She watched Sawyer strap on the special gun for in the water.

  “Okay, this location officially takes us more than halfway around the island.” After zipping her wet suit, Riley picked up her gun. “The gods can’t accuse us of not being thorough or freaking tenacious.”

  “I wish I could tell you I felt something, like I did the day we found the Fire Star.”

  “It’s not all on you.” Riley slapped Sasha’s arm. “Six of us in this. I forgot, with the triple-X Malmon audio, I think I’ve picked up something on the Bay of Sighs. Need to dig more when we get back, but I think I’m digging in the right spot. So if we don’t hit today, maybe I’ll come up with something that helps. Meanwhile? Ready to rock and roll?”

  “The first cave’s at two o’clock.” As he strapped on his tanks, Doyle raised his chin to indicate direction. “About fifteen feet under.”

  “Then let’s hit it.” Sawyer sat on the side, rolled back into the water.

  No matter how often they’d tried and failed in the search, swimming with her friends always brought Annika pleasure. Today dread clawed at that pleasure, at the joy of dawn.

  She would fight if a fight came. She would never, never shirk her duty. But the image Sasha had painted kept floating into her mind.

  Today, when she circled the others in the water, it wasn’t in play, but to make certain everyone stayed close.

  She saw the cave, and quickly, but didn’t arrow toward it. Instead she kept pace with the others.

  She went into the mouth with Sawyer, and though she didn’t need it to see, found herself grateful for the light Bran made. There was a cleanness to it because it came from the good, and illuminated the fanning plants, the small fish that darted among them.

  A broken shell, a shattered home, only increased the dread.

  They didn’t fan out until well inside. Even then Annika watched her friends more than searched. Riley swam up a wall, peering into crevices, small holes, while Doyle went deeper, and Sawyer pulled himself up on a narrow ledge. For a moment she nearly panicked that she wouldn’t be able to keep them all in sight.

  Then she saw a starfish, red as fire, sleeping on a rock. It soothed her, the peace of it, the prettiness. She swam closer, thinking to pet it, and realized it wasn’t sleeping.

  Charmed, she cupped it in her hands, felt a warmth from it, and when it swam away, toward the mouth of the cave, she smiled. It seemed as if lights had sparkled in its wake.

  She wanted to swim after it, to swim in those sparkles of light. But her friends . . .

  Ashamed that, even for a few seconds, she hadn’t been vigilant, she turned in the water, saw Riley tap her watch.

  So she did swim through the sparkles, though she lost sight of the starfish as Sawyer went first. But she felt that joy again, and wanted to go above, talk to Sawyer about swimming through the stars.

  At the very moment it struck her, she heard the sighs, heard the song. Still distant, but closer than before. A guide, of course, a guide. And the sighs and songs calling them. Calling her.

  Not this cave, but another. If she could catch the starfish, the guide, it would lead them. Excitement burst through her. She kicked her legs, reached out to touch Sawyer. He glanced back at her as he swam out of the cave.

  And looking back at her, at the delight on her face, he didn’t see the ambush.

  The fléchette hit him high on the right shoulder.

  Annika heard the terrible sound, saw the blood spill into the water. She burst out of the cave like fury, only to have Sawyer shove her back and behind him as he reached across his body to draw his own gun with his left hand.

  She didn’t think, but acted, punching out light from the bracelets, ripping it through the water to send men tumbling back. And Bran’s lightning joined them. A spear sliced out and into a man’s leg from Sasha’s harpoon.

  It was blood and madness. Sawyer’s blood, the blood of men.

  And the sharks came to hunt, just as in the painting.

  She knew what to do, to stay close. And though her stomach twisted when one of the sharks closed those jaws around a man, she told herself they were the enemy. As predicted, that enemy turned away, to fire at the sharks.

  Sawyer signaled, closed the hand of his wounded arm around his compass. Prepared to travel, Annika shot out more light. And as she felt the pull, the swirl, something struck her hip.

  Sharp, shocking. Her vision blurred, and she slipped away.

  Blind with pain, Sawyer collapsed on the deck of the boat.

  “Fuck, fuck, fuck. Get us out of here. I’m not sure I’ve got another one in me.”

  “Let me see.” Face grim, Bran dropped down beside him as Doyle yanked off his fins.

  “Anni.” Though her hands shook, Sasha reloaded the harpoon. “She didn’t come back with us. She’s not with us.”

  “What?” Shoving Bran aside, Sawyer lunged to his feet. “I had her. I had her.”

  “She dropped away. I could see it—I couldn’t stop it. She—they—a dart in her hip. I couldn’t—”

  She got no further. Sawyer vanished.

  “Christ. I’m going back in.”

  “We’ve got company.” Doyle’s statement stopped Riley from jumping back in the water.

  “We’re not leaving them down there.”

  “We’re not leaving anybody.” Doyle stepped out of the wheelhouse, grabbed his sword.

  They swarmed out of the sky, swooping over the dive boat fifty yards away, diving toward theirs. Though blade and bullet were coated with Bran’s potion and burst dozens into ash, the pitched and ugly battle took precious time. Enough for them to helplessly watch the other boat speed away as they fought.

  “They’ve got them!” Weeping, Sasha grabbed Sawyer’s gun, fired over and over. “We have to go after them.”

  “They’ve defenses of their own.” As they destroyed the last of the birds, a gray fog rolled over the sea, swallowed the other boat. Bran threw light at it, but it bounced off, like a ball striking a wall. “Bitch.”

  “We go after them anyway,” Riley insisted. “They don’t have that big a lead.”

  “More than this boat can cover. And you’re bleeding, Gwin.” Doyle set down his sword, pulled the flap from the slice in her wet suit.

  “Yeah, one
grazed me. Just grazed.” She looked down at her side. “Just a—ha-ha—flesh wound.”

  “You wouldn’t have that if you hadn’t pushed me aside down there. Don’t ever do that again.”

  Riley raised her eyebrows at Sasha. “You’re welcome.”

  “I mean it. Goddamn it. I can handle myself as well as you.”

  “Settle down now,” Bran soothed. “And you, sit down and let me have a look. Doyle, you’d best take us back to shore.”

  “We can’t. We can’t go back. We can’t leave them.”

  “Fáidh, we need to deal with wounds, get more weapons. And we need to find them. On my life, we will find them. We’ll bring them home.”

  She dropped down, covered her face with her hands. “I felt her go numb—a tranquilizer gun, I think. I felt her slipping away from us, but I couldn’t reach her. It happened too fast. I couldn’t get to her.”

  “Then believe Sawyer did.”

  “He’s shot.”

  “Believe,” Bran repeated. “We’ll bring them home safe.”

  “Retreat isn’t surrender.” Doyle turned the boat. “We’ll get them.”

  She woke muddled, her head aching, her hip tender and sore. For a moment, a blessed moment, Annika thought she’d had a terrible dream. But as she tried to reach out for Sawyer, she felt the kiss and flow of water all around.

  The sea, the men, the blood, the sharks.

  As she struggled to clear her mind, make her body move, she saw yes, she was in the water. But the water had glass walls, and a closed glass top. Like a box.

  And she had no clothes. Though she didn’t have the ingrained modesty of land people, Annika understood that to have been stripped without knowledge and consent, to be trapped without covering in a box of water, was a deep and terrible violation.

  She pressed her hands on the glass, looked out.

  The cave. She believed it to be the cave, though there were changes. Lights and counters or tables, and machines. And men with guns.

  Her heart leaped, then froze when she saw Sawyer.

  They had chained him, his arms over his head. Blood stained the bandage on his shoulder. They’d taken his wet suit so he wore only the trunks, and they’d chained him so his feet barely met the floor.

 
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