?? Bran added. “Much of what she did was rage and violence. Whatever it cost us, it cost her more. She may, if wise, consider more strategy than force. We’ll need to prepare for that.”
“And you lay them out with the cheese on top of the tomato,” he continued, so she knew to pay attention. “Drizzle this olive oil over them.” He set a container on the counter.
“Drizzle is like rain, but only a little.”
“You got it. Then you’re going to take this.” He walked over to the windowsill, where some pots sat, and broke off a stem with leaves. “It’s basil.”
“I remember. It adds flavor.”
“Yeah. Chop it up some, sprinkle it over everything, grind a little pepper on there, too, and that’s a wrap.”
“It’s a wrap.”
“It’s finished,” he explained.
“I will wrap it for you.”
Pleased, she braided her waist-length black hair back and away. She got to work while he put a pot of water on the stove, poured her wine, drank his beer.
She liked the quiet times with him, and had learned to savor them. There would be more fighting; she knew, accepted. There would be more pain. She would accept that, too. But she had been given a gift. The legs that allowed her to walk out of the sea and onto land, if only for a short time. The friends who were more precious than gold. The purpose that was her legacy and her duty.
And most of all, Sawyer, whom she’d loved before he even knew she existed.
“Do you dream, Sawyer?”
“What?” Distracted, he glanced back at her as he found a colander. “Sure. Sure, most everybody does.”
“Do you dream of when we’ve done our duty, when we have all three stars? When the Stars of Fortune are safe from Nerezza? When there is no more fighting?”
“It’s hard to see that far when we’re in the middle of it. But yeah, I think about it.”
“What do you wish for most, when this is done?”
“I don’t know. It’s been part of my life for so long—the quest if not the battle.”
But he paused in what he was doing, considered. She thought that—the paying attention—was also strength.
“I guess, maybe, it would be enough for the six of us, knowing we’ve done everything we had to do, to sit on a warm beach and look up and see them. See the three stars where they’re meant to be. Knowing we did that. That’s a pretty big dream.”
“Not for wealth or long life?” Her gaze slid toward him. “Or a woman?”
“If I could rub a lamp, I’d be an idiot not to take all that.” He paused a moment, shoved his fingers through his shaggy blond hair. “But the friends who fought with me, that warm beach? That would do just fine. Add a cold beer and it sounds perfect.”
She started to speak again, but Doyle came back through the doors.
Though a tall man, and well muscled, he moved lightly on his feet.
“We don’t have the outdoor training space we had in Greece, but we’ve got a lemon grove we could use, and more privacy than I figured on. Though Bran could add to that anyway. There’s a garden—smaller scale than the one at the villa. And pots of herbs and tomatoes out on the terrace. Big table out there for eating, and that portion’s covered by a grape arbor. Shady, but the bees may be an issue. We’ve got a pool.”
“Again, smaller scale than Corfu. It’s right off the patio deal, which is probably why they planted trees on either side of the grounds. They’d want some privacy. Do you care which bedroom?”
“Nope. Take your pick.”
“I will. I’m going to stow my gear.”
As he went out, Riley came in.
“You guys read my mind.” She walked over, slung an arm around Annika’s waist. “Starving. What are we having?”
“Sawyer is making pasta, and I’m making tomatoes and cheese with the oil and herbs. We’re going to eat, drink, and decompress.”
“I’m for it.”
“Your friend of a friend stocked the kitchen,” Sawyer told Riley.
“Yeah, we owe for that. Beer or wine?” To help her decide, she took a swig from Sawyer’s bottle, a sip from Annika’s glass. “Tough choice. It’s pasta, so I’m going for the wine. Bran and Sasha beat me to the master—but there’s two of them in there, so that’s fair.”
“Doyle and I are bunking down here. Two rooms and a full bath. It works.”
“Good enough. Annika, you get your choice of what’s left up there. Sasha and Bran will use whatever’s left over to set up her studio and the magick-works. Terraces up there, too. We won’t be able to walk to the beach from here, but we can take the funicular.”
“What is the funicular?” Annika asked.
“It’s like a train, but in the air. You pay, and you can ride it down to town, or closer to the beach, or—”
“I want to ride it! Can we ride it tomorrow?”
“Maybe. It’s a strong walk down to the shops in Anacapri and a steep hike back. And to get down to Capri town means a bus or cab or a serious hike. No cars in Anacapri. If we need one, I’ll find us a ride, and we’ll park it in Capri, but mostly we’re on foot or public trans. I’m going to do a quick check outside on security.”
“Doyle just did.” Sawyer slid spaghetti into the pot of boiling water.
Riley hesitated, glanced toward the door. Then shrugged. “No point in me walking in his footsteps.”
“We have a pool,” Annika told her.
“Yeah, I got that. And I might just try it out before I turn in. Table out there, right? Why don’t we eat outside?”
“I’m for it. Set us up.”
Riley poured herself some wine, lifted it to Sawyer. “I’m all over it.” She got another glass when Sasha came in with Bran. “Wine—it’ll put some color in your cheeks.”
“I’d love some wine. And food. Sawyer, Annika, you’re the best.”
“Italian beer? I’ll be happy for that.” Bran opened the refrigerator, got his own. “Doyle?”
“Our immortal’s stowing his gear.” Sawyer stirred the pasta as steam puffed. “We’re taking the two bedrooms down here.”
“That leaves you a choice upstairs, Annika.”
“Riley said you need a room for your painting and for Bran’s magicks. You should choose it. I’m happy with whatever is left.”
“If you really don’t mind, we could take the room across from ours. It’s the smaller of the two left, and big enough for what we’d need. And yours would face the sea. You’d rather wake and sleep with the sea.”
Touched, Annika moved to hug Sasha. “Thank you.”
“I’m across from you,” Riley told her. “I love me a sea view as much as the next guy—or mermaid—but there’s something to be said about looking out over a lemon grove.”
“And guarding the rear flank,” Bran added.
“And that. We’re eating outside. As soon as I find plates.”
She found them, as colorful as the cushions. With Sasha helping to set up, they went out as Annika meticulously added the herbs to her dish.
“Is this right? Did I do it the way I should?”
Sawyer glanced at her tray. “Looks perfect. I just need a few minutes to put the rest together.”
“But we need candles! And flowers.” Annika dashed out to hunt up what she considered a properly set table.
Sawyer tested the pasta, turned off the burner. “Sasha okay?”
“A little more shaken, apparently, than the rest of us. Food and rest should do the trick.” He looked over as Doyle came back in. “I’ve done a basic protection spell on the house and grounds, but will want to layer over that before we turn in for the night. She’ll find us, sooner or later, and she’ll be right pissed.”
“She’ll find us,” Sawyer agreed as he drained pasta. “It’ll be a lot tougher for her to find the Fire Star where and how you’ve hidden it.”
“Which says to me she’ll come harder for the next.” Doyle lifted his beer, drained it. “In her place? I’d decide I’d underestimated my enemy in the first round of things. Her pride would lead her to that conclusion. She’ll go harder, bloodier.”
“And it may be cannier,?
“We need to eat.” Sawyer dumped the pasta into a bowl, tossed it with the butter and herbs he’d prepped. “And we need to sleep.”
“You’re not wrong. And we need to celebrate, however briefly, the fact that we’re safe, whole, and together.”
“And ready to search for the next star.”
Bran nodded at Doyle. “For the next. Water or ice, we can’t know, not yet. But the fates sent us here, where the inestimable Riley has again secured us a roof and beds, food. Tomorrow’s soon enough, isn’t it, to plot our own strategies?”
“It’ll have to be, because this is ready. Grab that tray, will you? And the wine. And I could use another beer.”
Sawyer stepped out into the lemon-scented night where a slice of moon shot soft blue light over land and sea.
Annika, being Annika, had fashioned a bouquet of flowers out of napkins, and gathered candles from around the house.
“I couldn’t find the . . .” When the word escaped her, she mimed striking a match.
“Matches,” Sawyer supplied.
“I’ll take care of that.” Bran simply flicked his fingers, and the tea lights and tapers glowed.
With a laugh, Annika clapped her hands. Then rushed over to hug Bran.
“I hugged Sasha and Riley. We’re all together, in this new place.” She turned to wrap her arms around Doyle, coaxed a smile out of him. “We have good food and good friends.”
Last, she turned to Sawyer, embraced him, indulged herself by breathing in the scent that was only his. “Nerezza is not with friends, and can’t have what we have.”
“She doesn’t want what we have.”
Sasha swayed once, then straightened. Her eyes were dark and deep, and saw more than the sea and the slice of moon.
“She has no wish for friends or love or affection. She is lies and greed and ambition, all dark. She is the dark. Now she rages, and she knows pain. But soon she’ll seek, and plot, and come. She thirsts, and the thirst is for blood. Our blood, for nothing else can slake that thirst. She will come, however we curtain our world. The Globe of All will find us. And she will find another, one to join in the hunt. Greed blinds, greed binds. The god takes the man; the man takes the god in a bargain sealed in blood. On this island, in these waters, in the songs, in the sighs, there will be battles new. Blood runs, pain strikes. And betrayal comes with smiles.
“On this island, in these waters, in the songs, in the sighs, the star waits, blue and pure, for the innocent and the valiant. It is not tears that form the Water Star, but tears will be shed before it is found.”
She swayed again, white as a ghost. Bran caught her to him, held her. “Just breathe, fáidh.”
“I didn’t fight it. I swear I didn’t try to block it. I just . . . Everything just felt a little off.”
“The shift. I’ve never traveled with a seer before, not anything like this,” Sawyer added.
Sawyer slanted a look at Riley. “Not exactly, but maybe the vision just needed to, you know, catch up. You want some water? I’ll get you some water.”
“No, no, I’m all right. Better.” Sasha breathed out. “Actually better. It was like I couldn’t quite get my balance. Now I can. So maybe, yes, maybe it was the shift. And God, it’s been a day, hasn’t it? I’m just going to sit down.”
“And eat.” Moving quickly, Annika filled a plate with pasta, scooped out the tomato and mozzarella. “You need to eat the food.”
“And I will. We all will. It came on so fast. It was, yes, like it caught up and slammed into me. And so much of it’s brutal. Just the feeling inside it all. Her fury and need to destroy us. Not just hurt or kill now. Destroy.”
“You said she’d find someone,” Riley reminded her. “A man.”
“Yes, but I don’t know if it means male or just human. But she’ll find someone, and this person will join forces with her.”
“After battling a god?” Doyle heaped food on his plate. “I’ve no worry about dealing with a mortal.”
“Says the man who can’t die,” Riley put in. “Humans are canny, cagey, and dangerous. If Nerezza makes a deal with one, it’s because he—or she—is useful to her. Don’t get cocky.”
Sawyer passed the bowl to Annika. “Well, now we know which star we’re looking for in and around Capri. The Water Star. We can take that off the list of what we need to figure out.”
“It’s blue, and beautiful. Unearthly blue. I don’t know if I can capture the tones of it with paint. The Fire Star, it flashed and burned. And this . . .” Sasha closed her eyes a moment. “It glowed and seemed to . . . ripple. Water? Maybe that’s why.”
After she’d wound pasta around her fork, sampled, Sasha closed her eyes again. “Oh, this is good, Sawyer. This is just exactly right. I’ll take the breakfast shift.”
“No, I’ve got it. You get the morning off.”
“I can help again.”
“And see.” He gestured to Annika. “I’ve got my top sous chef, willing and able.”
“I made this.” Annika carefully cut a bite of the salad. “And it’s good.”
“Damn good,” Riley concurred, and took a second helping. “I’ll hit research mode tomorrow. Maybe it’s knee-jerk to figure the Water Star’s in the water, but the first was—or under it. I know some of the caves around here, water and land. I’ll find out more.”
“You spoke of both land and sea,” Bran pointed out. “Of songs and sighs.”
“Like when we were flying.”
“Not flying,” Annika said to Sawyer. “What it feels like to fly, or what I think it would feel like to fly. The traveling. The songs and the sighs when you brought us here.”
“What songs and sighs, Annika?” Bran’s dark gaze arrowed to her.
“You didn’t hear them?”
“No.” He glanced around the table. “I don’t think the rest of us heard anything.”
“All I heard was the tornado.” Though she watched Annika, Riley continued to eat. “I’ve been through a few, and that’s what traveling Sawyer’s way sounds like to me. But you heard singing and sighing.”
“Only for a moment. It was so beautiful. It—” She pressed a hand to her heart, then cupped it out. “It made my heart big. There was the wind, and the colors and light. It’s very exciting. Then the songs, just music with words I couldn’t hear all the way. And sighs, but not sad ones—or not all sad. Sweet, but with some sadness. A little sorrow with the joy. Is that right?”
“Mermaid ears, maybe?” Riley speculated. “Water Star, mermaid. Interesting.” She took another bite of pasta, smiled. “We’re going to need another boat. I’ll get on that.”
Later, when the house was quiet, when all her friends slept, Annika stepped out on the terrace outside her new room. The sea drew her—she was of it, from it. She wished she could fly down to it, wished she could swim inside its heart for a little while.
But the sea must wait.
She had the legs, and she prized them, though now that she’d told the others what she was—she’d had no choice—her time with them was a ticking clock.
So she wished on the moon-slice over the sea that she might sing and sigh inside Sawyer’s heart, in the time she had left. She wished he might feel what she felt, if only for a single day.
Duty came first, and she would never shirk it. But she could hope inside her heart that she would do her duty, fulfill her legacy.
And know love before she returned to the sea forever.
In the morning, Annika woke early. She chose one of her pretty dresses that swirled around her legs—a lovely reminder she had them—and hurried straight down to the kitchen.
She wanted to make the coffee. She’d learned how in the villa on Corfu, and liked doing things ord
inary people did. But this new house had a different machine, and would take some time to figure out.
She liked figuring things out, too.
Today she wanted real flowers for the table, so she wandered outside and down toward the garden. And saw the pool. The pale blue water under the first soft beams of sunlight.
The sea was too far for a morning swim, she thought, but this. Well, it was right here. Trees flanked the yard, making a kind of green wall. In any case, she didn’t understand the human fuss about bodies. They were as natural as hair and eyes, as fingers and toes, and no one made a fuss about hiding them.
Besides, she longed for the water, and saw no reason to go back to her room and find the suit to swim in. Instead, she pulled off the dress, tossed it onto a chair. And dived in.
The water embraced her, gentle as a mother, sweet as a lover. She skimmed along the bottom, her sea-green eyes open and lit with pleasure. Delighted, she swam the length of the pool, back again, then, pushing off the bottom, let her legs spear up into the air and sun.
And slice down into the water again as a tail.
Sawyer, a cup of coffee in his hand, stopped dead on the skirt of the pool.
He’d come out to see who was up, who’d put the coffee on. He’d known it was Annika the instant her legs had come up and out of the water—long, dusky gold, and perfect.
Then color had swirled around those legs, winking, flashing like precious gems, gems that went to shimmering liquid before they’d become the mermaid’s tail.
It took his breath. Knowing her for a mermaid and seeing her transform were two different things. And it simply took his breath. Even before he caught it again, she flew up, long black hair streaming, arms outstretched, tail sparkling, her face bright and beautiful.
She arched in midair—and Jesus, she wore nothing but the tail—then slid backward into the water again.
His body reacted, and it didn’t matter he reminded himself he was a man, and what man wouldn’t go hard watching a gorgeous, naked mermaid. He tried to think of her as a sister, got nowhere. Did better listing her firmly as a teammate.
Most of all he had to stop her from swishing that amazing tail around. They had neighbors here.
She came up again, laughing, flipped back to float. He ordered himself not to look at her breasts—too late—but managed to shift his gaze to her face. She had her eyes closed, a quiet smile on her face as she floated, with the only movement the gentle flick of her tail fin.
Her eyes opened; she smiled over at him. “Sawyer, good morning. Do you want to swim with me?”
Oh, yeah. Oh boy, yeah.
Couldn’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t.
“Ah, not right now. And you can’t, ah, you know, be right out here with the tail. Without the legs. And naked. Somebody could spot you.”
“There are the trees, and it’s so early.”