The night was warm and inviting and the sound of waves hitting the beach somehow seemed like a lullaby. I was noticing how bright the moon and stars were when I heard my name being called from behind me. I turned and found Joel coming toward me from the direction of the garage.
“Do you mind if I join you?” he asked when he had caught up.
“Of course not,” I replied with a warm smile, my heart rate quickening slightly. I waited for him fall into step with me and soon we were headed down the beach at an easy pace. “Nicolas asleep?” I asked.
“Aye, his head hit the pillow and he was out,” Joel answered with a grin. “I waited a bit to be sure, but I think he’ll sleep straight through now. I was thinking you’d be in bed yourself when I came out for a walk.”
“I wanted a walk before I turned in.” I glanced at him and studied his profile in the moonlight, thinking again how handsome he was. “Did you find your present?”
Joel looked at me and the moonlight caught in his blue eyes, making my stomach flutter a little. “Aye,” he answered quietly. “And I wanted to thank you. It was quite thoughtful of you.”
I had been worried that the reminder of Chenasar might not have been a good idea as a theme for my present, but his tone sounded as if he had truly liked the picture, so I was relieved.
Joel went on to say that the journal I had left for Nicolas was nice, too. “He’ll be thanking you himself the next time you meet,” he assured me.
“I hope he likes it. I didn’t know if he journaled or not, but I find that I always process things better after writing them down.” I paused so that I could look up at the clear night sky and marveled for a moment at the stars. They were so bright they looked like points for needlework on black material. “Isn’t it gorgeous tonight? I love the stars,” I commented as I looked over at Joel again and laughed. “Of course, not enough to ever really study them or anything. I just like the twinkle of the starlight on clear nights. Shows how smart Gaia is.”
“The sky is very beautiful here,” Joel agreed, as he looked skyward as well. “I’ve seen lots of other stars, but it seems like the most beautiful are the ones in our world.”
“Did you want to sit a while?” I asked, not wanting this time alone with him to end too quickly, but painfully aware of the hour and that I had to be at Jared’s in the morning.
“If you’d like.” Joel looked around for a likely spot and gestured toward the boardwalk that ran along the length of the property. We moved over to it and he waited for me to sit first on the wood planks before dropping down beside me. Once we were settled, Joel cleared his throat and said, “Not to be rude, but your parents have a near paranoid sense of security. I can feel the wards on the wood here, and many other places as well.”
I hesitated a second. I’d already told Joel some of Mac’s history, but I’d really only brushed the surface and I wasn’t sure I had all the answers he wanted. “I understand that the whole thing might come off a bit odd, but it’s all for a very good reason,” I assured him, meeting his eyes and hoping that he would understand that I couldn’t tell him everything. “The vampires that Mac was involved with were pretty… God, what’s the word… manipulative, I guess,” I explained with a slight shrug.
“When Mac died and Eliza went into hiding, they tried to find her. I got the feeling that something happened in Nashville when she was staying with Glenn and Siofra there, but of course none of them will ever tell me.” I looked around the edge of the property and reached out with my own magick just to be sure that the wards are still in place and secure. “It’s just better to be safe than sorry.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Joel conceded; clearly not understanding. “Warding and binding is one of the things I’m to teach Macalister. Have you asked your mother what happened?”
I shook my head. “Maybe not in as many words, but she wouldn’t tell me about it even if I did ask.” I turned my head to look out over the water. “I’m still a little girl in Eliza’s eyes and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I love her more than anything, though, so I put up with it from her more than others.” There was a smile on my face when I looked back at Joel. “Maybe that will change now that she’s pregnant. You know, give her someone else to hover over,” I teased slightly.
Joel thought a moment then said, “Perhaps, but you’re her first born. No matter what children come after, you’ll always be special in her heart.” He reached over and took my hand gently in his strong one. “Perhaps you should ask her outright what you want to know. Even when a parent wants to protect their children, a straight question deserves a straight answer. It might show her you’re not as young as she thinks.”
There was something about how he said it that made me think he might be on to something. “Maybe you’re right,” I told him with a smile as I squeezed his hand. “Is that how you are with Nicolas?”
He chuckled a little. “Aye. If a child is old enough to ask the question, most times they’re old enough to hear the answer.” He looked at me intently, with an almost hungry look in his blue eyes. “Though why she would think you a child is beyond my reckoning.”
I swallowed hard, as a stray thought came over me that involved Joel pulling me against him so that he could fulfill all the promises that I’d just seen in his gaze. Instead I shrugged, not totally sure of myself or what to say. “Not that I’ve talked to her about it, but I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I was all she had when she thought Mac was dead the first time,” I told him, thinking that if I kept talking I wouldn’t think about his mouth or the fact that he was so close to me. “The only thing left from the man she loved more than her own life. It’s really hard to earn Eliza’s trust. She had a bad childhood, so when she met Mac and subsequently fell for him it was a big deal for her. She’s very protective over me, and Mac, too for that matter, now that he’s back again.”
“I’ve gathered that,” he said dryly, a wry grin on his lips. “She’s a small thing, but she’s got to have fighting skills to have killed so many of the Black Guard before Taeynd got to her.”
I laughed slightly, thinking that he didn’t know the half of it. “She’s got skills alright. Just be careful if you ever spar with her. She’ll be more careful now that she’s pregnant, but she can still kick butt.” I fell silent for a minute and watched him. “I hope that you’ll be happy here,” I added in a low voice, then cleared my throat quickly and asked, “Will you show Mac how to worldwalk?”
Joel nodded. “When he’s ready. We’ll find out tomorrow how much he needs to learn. I plan on staying until he knows everything he needs to know.” He paused for a moment as he looked at me with that same intense look in his eyes. “It doesn’t matter if I’m happy, what matters is that he learns what he needs to, but I can’t imagine not liking it here, Corrine.” He reached out and tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. “Especially here with you.”
“Joel…” I said a little breathy as I reached up and covered his hand with mine, bringing them downward so that our joined hands were resting on my upper chest. “Your happiness is just as important as anyone else’s,” I assured him, taking my eyes from his because I thought I would drown in them if I wasn’t careful. “I like being here with you, too,” I confessed in a quiet voice.
“Aye, but destiny brought me here,” he said cryptically. “And I’ve learned my lesson on listening to the Fates.” He then leaned closer to me so that I could feel his breath on my face. “I’ll stay as long as I’m needed,” he promised.
I leaned closer as well. “What if you’re needed here longer than Mac needs you?” I whispered, searching his eyes and hoping to see something there concerning myself.
“Do you think that’s likely to happen?” he asked just as quietly, his lips were a hairs breadth away from mine. There was a light of sorts that danced in his gaze that said he was looking for answers as well and I knew I wouldn’t be holding back much longer.
I smiled slightly. “Oh, yes. Very likely.”
His lips brushed against mine, hesitated, and then caught mine in a soft kiss that was deliberately slow, as if he were savoring fine chocolate or a glass of wine. I returned the kiss, letting Joel control the depth of it for the moment. I had already been aggressive enough when I had kissed him in Ireland, so now it was his turn.
The kiss was warm and slow. Gentle, like a light rain after a long dry period and his lips parted so that his tongue teased along my lips. I felt his hand on my face and he gradually deepened the kiss when his tongue entered my mouth to find mine.
I moved my hands to his chest and grasped at the cloth of his shirt as I leaned closer to him. A small moan escaped the back of my throat as I silently wished he would touch me, knowing that this was going against the unspoken agreement that we had, that said we would move slowly.
The kiss continued for a few minutes before Joel pulled his mouth away, his breathing heavy as he pulled my head down to his chest. “Corrine,” he gasped in a husky voice. “As much as I’d like to continue, this is neither the time nor the place for this.”
“No, you’re right,” I agreed, my forehead leaning on his shoulder so that I could catch my breath as well. “As much as I hate to admit it, you’re right.”
He gathered me close, breathing in the scent of my hair as I slipped my arms around his waist. I felt his heart beating under my cheek and it was hammering just as hard as my own was. “I don’t want to rush things here,” he murmured in my hair. “I think we should take our time. It will give you a chance to get to know me, and Nicolas a bit of time to get used to the idea.”
I lifted my head to meet his gaze. “I know, and I totally agree,” I told him. I suspected that he felt the same way for me that I felt for him and I knew that taking things slow was going to be difficult for both of us. I decided to try to lighten the mood by saying with a laugh, “You don’t know anything about me either. I’m a frightful mess in the morning and I’m a cover hog.”
Joel grinned, his eyes reflecting the moonlight and I sobered a little, then continued. “But really, I’m concerned about Nicolas as well. He should be your main concern and I completely back you up on that. He’s in a new place, surrounded by strangers and he’s feeling isolated. I’ll help with him as much as you’ll let me. I think we may have bonded a little today, but we’ll have to see.”
Joel was silent for a moment as he studied my face and ran his thumb over my bottom lip. “It will take him time, but he will come around. He’s to start school here next week, and soon I’ll be able to keep an eye on him there.” Joel looked over my shoulder and off into the distance. “And there’s his bargain to be made,” he said absently before looking back at me. “Things will work out fine; we just have to give it time.”
I nodded and lifted my hand to touch the small indentation on his chin with my finger. “Are you worried about him making his bargain?”
Joel nodded a little and tried to explain why. “Aye. When the spirits asked for mine, I thought the bargain would be an easy one for me to keep. I pray they choose something less dangerous for him to agree to.”
I didn’t understand what he was referring to, so I put my cheek on his shoulder again to hide the questions I knew were in my eyes. “Can you talk about it? I get the impression that the bargain has to do with bartering for powers, so I can only assume that the powers that be wouldn’t just give them for anything easily done.” I began to wonder if Nicolas was a little young to be making bargains for power if the consequences became something hard to live with. Was he mature enough to handle something like that?
“True enough, but one can bargain if they feel the price too high,” Joel said as he held me against him loosely. “My Da tried to talk me into bargaining, but I wouldna listen. Too young and headstrong, thinking I knew how life would be. I don’t want to see Nik make the same mistake.”
I didn’t have a right to say anything about how Joel chose to raise his son, but I couldn’t help wondering if the bargain was a good idea right now. Joel had just returned, and Nicolas needed to relearn who was boss in his relationship with his father. On top of that, the boy had to come to terms with living in a foreign place so far from the home and security he had grown up in. My voice was hesitant when I spoke, and I pulled back enough to look up at Joel, hoping that I could start learning how to gauge his reactions as we talked.
“Is Nicolas ready for this?” I asked. “I’m sorry. I know that I have no right to question you on how you choose to raise your son, but I have to admit that I am feeling some concern for him in this bargain. Would you be with him when he makes it like your Dad was?”
Joel nodded. “Aye, I’ll be there. I don’t think anyone is ready for it, really, but it’s the price we pay to do magick.” He sighed sadly and continued, “By rights he should have made the bargain last year, but I’m glad Devin made him wait. I’ll spend the next month teaching him, then the bargain will be made.” He seemed concerned for his son, but there was also an underlying knowledge that this was what was right for Nicolas and I knew I wouldn’t question him on it further. “I can’t make his bargain for him, but I can be sure he’s prepared for it.”
Putting the subject aside for now, I snuggled closer to Joel, knowing that times like this would be few and far between for us until Nicolas got used to the idea of us as a possible couple. “If that’s how it has to be then I’m sure he’ll be prepared,” I told Joel, sure that he would do all he could for his son. “If there’s anything I can do to help, I will, even if it’s moral support.”
Silence fell over the two of us and I enjoyed the quiet moment of just being with this man, but then my thoughts turned to Joel’s ex-wife and the role that she might play in her son’s bargain. “What’s Nicolas’ mother like?” I asked. “He made a comment earlier that set off some warning signals.”
“What did he say?”
I hoped that I wasn’t about to start a possible argument between Joel and his ex-wife, but I didn’t agree with what she had said about Joel in front of his son. I also figured that Joel deserved to know what the mother of his son had said about his time away.
“Something about his mother telling him that you deserved being kidnapped by Taeynd because you’re always gone,” I said quietly, watching him the entire time to see if I could read anything in his expression. I squeezed my arms tighter around him in reassurance then continued; “I guess it just didn’t sound like something a mother should say to her son about his father. It sounded too mean spirited, but it didn’t seem to alter his outlook.” I leaned back enough to really look at him and I smiled warmly. “He said something about you not listening to the Fates as well. Now I’m curious about what they said to you.”
Joel looked down into my eyes for a moment, as if deciding what he wanted to say. “I saw them just before I went to Chenasar,” he started. “I had dropped Nik off at his mother’s, and was walking through Dublin to pass the time of their visit. The three lasses surprised me, knowing my name and more. I’d not have expected it from girls of their tender age.”
I smiled up at him, sure that I wouldn’t have known how to react either if three young girls approached me, claiming to know about my future. “And so, you brushed them off then?” I asked, wondering what came next. “Not a good thing, given what I’ve seen of them.”
“‘Tis not easy brushing off a trio of teenage girls when they want your attention,” he agreed. “I’m sure I offended the lot of them, but their words were true.”
I frowned slightly, feeling him tense a little where my body was pressed to his. “Did they warn you of Taeynd and you went anyway?”
Joel hesitated then confessed, “Without mentioning her name, yes.” He sighed deeply then. “I didn’t think destiny could touch me if I didn’t let it. I was wrong.”
I tipped my head forward to kiss his cheek comfortingly. “At least we were able to get you out of there.”
“Aye,” he said with a slow nod of his head. “If I could have killed her without losing my magick, I would have,” he confessed softly. “I wanted to, but without magick I-” he cut himself off there, letting the sentence hang in the silence.
I disentangled my arm from around him and used my fingertips to caress his face, not totally understanding how his bargaining and magick worked, but I got that it was a serious process. I got the impression that there was something more there that he wasn’t quite saying, but mostly I could feel the underlying pain that the entire situation had caused him, and I wished there was a way that I could have taken those negative feelings from him. “Well, you were under her spell, right?” I asked as I moved my fingers over his brow in a light caress, remembering how he had been when I’d seen him in Chenesar. “It’s not like you had a choice, but to do what she wanted.”
Something in my mind clicked then and I stopped to frown at Joel slightly. There was something about what he had just said about his magick that made me remember his bargain and the fact that he had said he would lose his magick if he killed her. “Wait, you would have lost your magick?” I asked. “I don’t understand…”
He smiled wryly. “The bargain, remember? If I break it, I lose the magick, every bit. When I was young I thought it would be easy to never harm a woman. Cathryn taught me differently, but Taeynd drove the lesson home.”
My frown deepened. “Your bargain for your magick is to not harm a woman?” I asked in surprise.
Joel seemed confused by my reaction. “Yes, I can never physically harm a woman, or I will lose my magick. That was the bargain I’ve made and lived with.”
“That’s one hell of a bargain, that’s for sure,” I told him, still very surprised, but suddenly able to understand something that he had said before about not being able to kill Taeynd himself. If he had, he would have lost his magick and I saw now why he hadn’t taken it upon himself to kill the evil woman, no matter how much she had made him suffer.
“And Cathryn… she was like Taeynd?” I asked, changing the subject to something else that I was wondering about. My mind had been a flurry of activity about the other woman ever since I have found out that Joel had been married. He had mentioned her name earlier, but I was hesitant to ask about her before. Since he brought her up again, I figured it was a good time to find out more about her.
Joel’s voice went dry as he spoke. “Aye. She was the first to make me wish I’d bargained differently.”
I chuckled slightly, hoping that he wouldn’t freely strike a woman even if it hadn’t meant losing his magick. “What is she like?” I asked.
“Difficult,” was his answer. He then paused for a moment and pulled back a little to look down at me. “What do you know of the fae?”
“She’s a fae?” I gasped in surprise, stopping a moment to think about what I knew. “I don’t know anything really,” I confessed after a moment. I had picked up little things here and there since my Awakening, but I wasn’t sure what was true and what was the stuff of stories I’d read as a child.
“Well, anything you’ve read in fairy tales is true, for the most part,” Joel explained. “The Fae are changeable, moody, capricious, and very, very beautiful. Unfortunately, their beauty is only skin deep, especially that of the Unseelie Court.”
There was something about the way he had said that last bit that caused me to study him in uncertainty. His tone had undoubtedly made me wonder if he still had feelings for his ex-wife when he had admitted to the Fae’s beauty, but I hoped I was just being sensitive about the other woman.
“I’ve heard of the Unseelie Court from different fiction books I’ve read,” I told him with a shrug. “I guess I never thought about whether the courts were real or not.” I looked at Joel and brought my hand up to touch his chin again, loving the cleft there. “Are the differences in the books true as well? I mean as far as the Seelie being the ‘good’, and the Unseelie being the ‘bad’ fae?”
Joel shrugged slightly. “They’re not ‘bad’,” he relented grudgingly. “They just don’t have the same morality we do. She once left Nik with a pooka for three days because she thought it would teach him humor.” I wasn’t sure what a pooka was, but his tone told me he didn’t approve as his storied continued. “He was four. I came damn close to hitting her when I found out, closer than I ever came with Taeynd.” Joel’s body was very tense under my hands as he spoke, and it was easy to see that this was a hard topic for him to talk about.
This was the most emotion I’d ever seen from Joel. I touched his face again and as I ran my finger over his bottom lip I said, “We don’t have to talk about her if you don’t want to. I can tell the subject bothers you and I didn’t mean to upset you. I’m sorry.”
In reality, I was totally fascinated by Cathryn and what Joel’s life had been like with her, but I didn’t want to be nosy or ask too many questions. Maybe after we got to know each other better he would tell me more about her, but I knew it was too soon to expect to be told the entire story.
“Corrine, I don’t want you to think that my bargain is the only thing that stops me from beating women,” Joel assured me, his eyes imploring me to believe him. “I just want you to understand that she pushes my buttons, nearly as bad as Taeynd did, though for different reasons.” He paused and took a deep breath. “And I’d think we’d have other things to talk about tonight in the short time we have together than my ex-wife,” he finished ironically and with a smile as his eyes met mine.
I looked down guiltily, knowing that he was right. “I know, I’m sorry. I’m being impatient. I just want to know everything about you all at once, good or bad. I know that even without the bargain you would never hurt anyone without just cause, especially a woman.” I lifted my gaze to his again. “I really wish that I didn’t have to go see Jared tomorrow.”
“There will be time, Corrine,” he said softly as he touched my hair. “I’ve years of teaching to give to Macalister. But as much as I’d love to stay here under the moonlight with you, we should go back.”
I knew that it had to be close to ten and I also knew that I really did need to get some sleep before my session with Jared tomorrow. “You’re right of course,” I said as I pulled away from him and stood, moving so that I was standing in front of Joel before he could stand himself. “Will you promise me something?” I asked.
He looked up at me and smiled briefly. “If I can, Corrine.”
“I would like to go with you the next time you worldwalk,” I blurted quickly. I knew that worldwalking was a large part of his life and I thought it might help me understand him a little more if I went with him. I thought the idea was exciting and I couldn’t wait to see what it was like to travel the way he did.
Joel smiled and put his hands on my waist. “If I can. I’ve promised Nik he can come with me next time, and if he doesn’t mind, you can come as well,” he told me as he stood, keeping his hands where they were. “If he does, then I’ll take you with me the next time I go.” He dropped a quick kiss on my cheek before taking my hand and leading me back toward the house.
“You should take Nik,” I told him as we walked, and I dropped my head to his shoulder. It was going to be hard, taking a backseat to Joel’s son, but I knew that in the end we would all benefit from the patience that Joel was instilling between the two of us and this fledgling relationship of ours. I realized that I was being over eager and that I needed to take a breath and let things happen. “I’ll wait to know about that part of you,” I said. “It’s more important that he go.”
“It’s just that I’ve been away from him for so long,” Joel explained, clearly trying to make sure I understood where he was coming from. “I don’t want you to think that I don’t want to take you, Corrine, but his needs take precedence over mine right now.”
I looked up at him again and smiled. “Of course, he should. And I understand that you need to think that way… really, I do.” I lifted my free hand and put it on the same arm that he was using to hold my other hand. “There’s time for us to spend time together later,” I assured him.
He smiled and squeezed my hand. “I’m glad you understand.”
We walked back to the house in silence, taking comfort in each other’s company. When we neared the courtyard, Joel stopped and took my face in his hands to give me a soft kiss that was feather light and made my heart flutter again. He then wished me good night in his quiet voice and turned to mount the garage steps with the grace of a cat.
I entered the house in a dreamy haze, remembering the feel of Joel’s lips on mine and aware of the fact that it was nearly ten o’clock. Mac was reading a book while Eliza flipped through the baby book she had bought that day on the mainland. They both looked up as I entered the house.
I breezed in, trying to hide the idiotic grin on my face as I gave each of them the perfunctory goodnight kiss on the cheek and said that I would probably be gone before either of them woke up, so I would call next week to see how things were going.
I was slow the next day during my session with Jared. He said that I did fine, but I was angry with myself for not picking up the concepts he was trying to get across as fast I as normally did. Thankfully he didn’t give me a hard time over it, but I was still disappointed in myself regardless.
I hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before, waking around six to memories of my dreams where Joel had taken me to many different worlds that were exotic and beautiful. There were pyramids unlike any ever built on earth and an ocean so deep and so blue it made my heart ache at the beauty of it. Another place had a castle that was as big as a small American city. Another where I saw a six-footed cat that moved with a power I had never seen in something so large. Then there were the cliffs that soared over a tropical sea where so many Pegasus flew that they nearly blocked out the sun.
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