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The Phoenix Charm
By Helen Scott Taylor
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2010 Helen Scott Taylor
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe sun sank into the Atlantic, painting the water molten gold and casting a warm glow over the granite manor house set atop the rocky cliffs of Cornwall. After years of neglect, Trevelion Manor, ancestral home of the Cornish pisky troop, now thrived under the care of the new pisky king and queen. Sun sparkled off the tiny diamond panes of glass in the windows. Tumbling creepers dotted with purple and yellow flowers clothed the walls, while granite tubs on the terrace overflowed with scarlet, pink, and white geraniums.
Seated on a Windsor chair at the table in the library, pisky wise woman Cordelia Tink paused at her work and glanced out the open window, inhaling the floral-scented air. She ran her hand down the crease of the huge leather-bound book laid on the table before her and took a moment to reread the last few paragraphs she'd written. With a sigh, she set aside her pen and rubbed her eyes.
The task of recording the history of the pisky troop fell to her, but she would have gladly handed the job to another of the piskies. Two years ago, Niall and Rose O'Connor, the new pisky king and queen, had rescued the troop from thirty years of imprisonment in the shadowy nothingness between life and death called in-between. Today, Cordelia had finallysummoned the strength to relive her failure to protect her people from that horror and enter an account in the pisky annals.
Lazing in the last few rays of sunlight on the desk at Cordelia's side, her gray cat Tamsy opened one eye. She peered at Cordelia critically and flicked her tail. "You're right, poppet." Cordelia nodded to her cat. "Enough doom and gloom for one day." Cordelia closed the book with a thud and pushed it away.
She stroked the soft fur on Tamsy's belly and smiled at the rumbling purr of response. What she needed was something to take her mind off the past-something pleasurable. Just the word "pleasure" summoned the image of Michael O'Connor's seductive smile in her mind. A quiver of awareness ran across her skin, light and tickly as the brush of a feather. She'd once seen him do that-trail a feather across a woman's naked body ...
Cordelia screwed her eyes closed, trying to rid herself of the image she'd seen while foretelling his future. Instead, the memory became clearer, his long naked body spread languorously on the sheets while he brushed the feather over the woman's breasts.
Cordelia stood and swiped her hands down the front of her dress to rid herself of the tingling sensation tightening her skin.
Although the pisky king Niall O'Connor was not Cornish, but half noble Irish Tuatha Dé Danaan and half leprechaun, he was a strong, caring leader they could depend on. How the womanizing rascal Michael could be related to Niall, let alone be his twin brother, baffled her.
She pressed her hand to her bodice where the hot thud of Michael's psychic presence beat in her chest like a second heart. She was powerful enough that fairy glamour didn't affect her, with one darned annoying exception-Michael O'Connor.
Unwillingly, her eyes rose to the silver divination dish she used to foretell the future. The skin on her scalp prickled and her cheeks warmed as she tried to pretend she wasn't thinking of doing what she was thinking of doing.
"Not again. I promised myself I'd abstain." Despite the firmness of her tone, her feet were already moving toward the door. She pulled it open just enough to poke her head out and check that the hall was empty. The ancient oak creaked as if trying to alert someone to her wicked intent. She drew back quickly and turned the long iron key, grimacing at the thunk of the lock.
Pressing her back to the door, she rubbed her temples. In anticipation of what she was about to see, the sensual water nymph allure she'd inherited from her mother churned within the confines of the restrictive magical wards painted on her skin.
She drew a slow, deep breath and stared through the dust motes dancing in a shaft of sunlight at her divining dish. Were the gods themselves tempting her to indulge? Surely everyone was allowed one illicit pleasure-even she.
Tamsy sat up and watched with enigmatic gray eyes as Cordelia gave a defiant huff and marched back to her seat. She lit the three fat white candles floating in the silver, water-filled dish. Within seconds, wide ribbons of smoke rose before her.
Raising a hand, she sketched a magical symbol in the air. The smoke stilled and glazed over into a mirror. Her insides trembled expectantly while she concentrated on Michael's psychic signature and waited for an image of his future to appear in the shiny surface.
She pressed her fingers to her lips as the picture became clearer. When she peeped into Michael's future, half the time she saw him performing routine activities at the pub he owned in a nearby village, the other half ...
Her breath caught. She stared, too entranced to blink as an image of Michael's naked shoulders and lean back filled her scrying surface. Muscles rippled beneath smooth skin when he moved. His biceps clenched as he lifted a hand and flicked back a handful of dark wavy hair from his face.
A woman appeared before him, an indistinct form clothed in muted colors. When Cordelia watched Michael, she chose to ignore the identity of his numerous human lovers. All her attention focused on him.
Cordelia's heart thudded as he prowled forward, faded jeans riding low on his hips. Slowly, sensuously, he ran his hand down his ribs, over his abdomen, flicked open the buttons on his fly one by one with a little flourish of his hand like a magician performing a trick. Although it was no white rabbit he was about to pull out. As the last button popped and the jeans slid lower, a small needy sound escaped Cordelia's lips.
Heat flashed across her flesh, gathered and swirled, a hot whirlpool in her belly. Her sensual water nymph allure flowed closer to her skin, preparing to draw in and capture the man she desired. When the energies met the barrier of the magical Celtic symbols painted on her skin, her temperature shot up as though she were trapped in a pressure cooker.
She flapped a hand in front of her face, fanning herself. If she kept watching Michael, she would expire from lust.
Although she was burning up, a breath of chill through the window raised goose bumps on her arms. She caught a whiff of something rotten on the breeze and reluctantly dragged her eyes from Michael to glance out at the twilight sky.
When she looked back to the divination mirror, darkness oozed across the gilded smoke like oil on water, obscuring Michael and his faceless woman. Cordelia blinked in surprise and leaned closer to get a better view. A howl issued from the murky surface, a mournful wail that slashed fear through her. Her cat shot to its feet, fur on end, puffed up to twice her normal size. Hidden within the mirror's shadowy image, other creatures joined the lament until the eerie clamor of baying filled the room.
Tamsy scooted off the table and crouched beneath a chair in front of the huge stone fireplace, but Cordelia had no time to comfort her. She stared at her divination mirror, searching the gloom for any clue to the meaning of the augury. Was this still Michael's foretelling? Had another possible future for him intruded? The hair on her neck prickled when pairs of small red dots appeared. They looked like animals' eyes glowing evilly in the darkness.
Her fists curled against the table as the memory of being imprisoned in-between crawled back to haunt her. Then, on the edge of perception, a whispered name snapped her to attention, trapped the breath in her lungs.
Gwyn ap Nudd.
The King of the Underworld.
Her concentration shattered. The murky image dissolved with a pop, scattering wisps of smoke. Her eyes watered, and she waved a hand to clear the air. The thought of the red-eyed creatures unsettled her, but more worrying was the fact that the whispered words had not come from the mirror. Someone nearby in Cornwall had actually spoken the name Gwyn ap Nudd.
She thrust out her awareness, tried to identify who'd called the King of the Underworld. Behind the deep pulse of Michael's psychic signature, the members of the Cornish pisky troop filled her senses with the white noise of their presence. Cordelia focused on the lingering chill of the dreadful name.
She was sure the call had not originated from inside the manor. She puffed a misty sigh of relief in the cold air, wishing the granite fireplace held a roaring fire instead of a stoneware pot full of dahlias.
What would happen if the Welsh King of the Underworld answered the summons and came to Cornwall? Niall and Rose had left for two weeks to search for displaced piskies in America, leaving her in charge. Why on earth did this have to happen now? Cordelia glanced at the Queen Anne clock on the oak mantelpiece. They'd already be in the air over the Atlantic. The earliest she could call them for advice would be the following day.
She traced her finger across a lacy layer of ice that had formed on the water in her divination dish, and shivered. When the pisky troop had been trapped thirty years ago, she should have foreseen the danger, but she'd been so distracted by the old king's death, she had let her duties slide. This time she wouldn't let the piskies down.
She glanced at the rows of massive leather-bound tomes holding records of pisky life going back centuries. She must find out quickly if the piskies had any history of conflict with Gwyn ap Nudd or the Welsh fairies in his domain.
Tamsy slunk out from beneath the chair and jumped on the desk. She padded closer, mewed softly, and butted her forehead on Cordelia's chin.
Cordelia laid her cheek against Tamsy's shoulder and considered what to do. She couldn't check through a whole shelf of books in one night on her own.
She winced. "Oh, rats' tails!" If she needed help, the logical choice was Michael. Not only was he the pisky king's brother, but while the king and queen were away, he was responsible for their twin boys. He had a right to know immediately if the children might be in danger.
With luck, she might catch him upstairs putting the babies to bed before he went down to the great hall below the manor house for the night's entertainment. In Ireland, he'd been Seanchai, the official storyteller in the Irish fairy court. Now that he lived in Cornwall with the piskies, he'd fallen into the routine of telling a tall tale to the assembled troop most evenings.
Cordelia stood and peered at her rosy cheeks in a small mirror near the door and thanked the gods that Michael would never guess the reason she was flushed. She fastened the three small buttons on the front of her dress, closing the garment to her throat.
When she reached the nursery, she found Michael's leprechaun half sister Ana dozing in a chair beside the cot, keeping watch over the babies. But no sign of Michael.
She huffed as she closed the door. Tamsy wound between her legs and looked up at her with inscrutable gray eyes. "All right, I know. I'll have to look for him in the great hall."
After she descended the stairs, she strode purposefully along the moth-eaten carpet runner covering the passage. She'd rather stick pins in her eyes than walk into the packed hall and interrupt Michael when he was telling a story, but if she wanted his help, she had no choice.
When she reached the top of the narrow staircase that led beneath the house, she paused for Tamsy to catch up, and grabbed a fortifying breath. Then she descended to the rooms carved from the granite underneath the manor grounds. At the bottom, she grasped the doorknob for a couple of heartbeats before she pushed the door open.
The jaunty beat of Irish music assailed her.
She slipped in and pressed her back to the wall, hugging the shadows. Rising on tiptoe, she peered between the tall brown-haired piskies. Most of them worked the land, turned wood or forged metal, and lived in cottages around the estate. Many were still dressed casually in work clothes, but a few had donned brightly colored jackets and hats in anticipation of the rowdy evening that always ensued when Michael told one of his bawdy tales.
A lump formed in her throat when she glimpsed Michael O'Connor on the far side of the room putting a mug down on the bar. His shaggy dark hair shone in the low light. The divine masculine shape of his wide shoulders and narrow hips silhouetted against the lamplight sent a hot shiver through her. How she hoped she could get the image of him naked out of her mind before she talked to him.
Michael grabbed the hand of an older pisky woman. She grinned up at Michael like a teenager on her first date and giggled as he spun her into a dance. The piskies clapped to the beat. Cordelia plucked at the neck of her dress, the collar tight on her clammy skin. Despite its size, the confounded hall was always stuffy in the evenings.
Tamsy pressed her silky body against Cordelia's legs. Relieved at the distraction, Cordelia scooped the cat into her arms. She rested her cheek on Tamsy's head and watched the laughing crowd of piskies.
Mewing, Tamsy turned a speculative eye on Cordelia. "I know." She buffed the top of the cat's head with her fingers. "No need to bully me. I'm about to ask him."
Michael had escorted his partner to her seat and was now weaving between the tables toward his storytelling stool. As usual, the spiky auburn hair of her ward, Thorn, marked his presence a few steps behind Michael. She wished Thorn had chosen a more suitable male role model: Niall for instance. But at least Michael had generously taken the young man under his wing. She couldn't fault him for that.
Cordelia threaded her way through the crowd. When people noticed her, they stepped aside with deferential nods. She pasted on her serene wise woman mask and held her head high.
When she entered the brighter circle of light near the bar, Michael looked toward her. He caught his bottom lip between his teeth and flicked up his eyebrows in question. Cordelia nodded in answer to his unspoken query. He grinned the wide seductive smile that had women falling at his feet.
Streamers of heat unfurled inside her, rippled beneath her skin. Her heart raced and she gritted her teeth. She could hardly think straight when she got close to Michael. But she'd eat worms before she admitted as much. The reprobate was already far too cocky.
He held out his arms and shimmied sideways between the tables, heading in her direction. The disreputable faded jeans he wore were the ones she'd just watched him unbutton. Cordelia swallowed. She wanted to look away; she really did. But his fairy glamour entranced her so much, she couldn't fight the compulsion to stare.
Since St. Patrick's Day, he'd insisted on wearing a green trilby with shamrocks embroidered on the band. He turned to face her, tilted the hat at a rakish angle on his mop of dark wavy hair, and captured her with his sinful blue gaze.
"You be wanting me, darlin'?"
Cordelia opened her mouth to answer, but there didn't seem to be any air in her lungs. She sucked in an embarrassing gasp that made Michael's lips twitch. "I need to speak to you on troop business."
Michael reached out and rubbed a finger underneath Tamsy's chin. The cat tipped back her head and purred, vibrating against Cordelia's chest.
"Here's me hoping you might be wanting me for something a tad more interesting." As his finger lazily caressed Tamsy's fur, he glanced up at Cordelia from beneath his lashes. A hot spurt of desire shot through her body, making her legs tremble.
This is ridiculous.
Fantasizing about him in private was one thing, being seduced by his glamour like a gullible human was another. After the effort her grandmother and father had put into hiding her uncontrollable sensual allure, she couldn't let them down and shame herself-again. The price she'd paid the one time she defied them still haunted her night and day. Cordelia tightened her arms around Tamsy, shielding herself. The poor creature squeaked and Cordelia hastily loosened her grip.
"This is no time for joking. It's a matter of urgency." Someone chose that moment to reduce the volume of the music. Her final word came out rather louder than she intended. A few anxious glances shot her way.
She smiled reassuringly. The last thing she wanted was panic.
Excerpted from The Phoenix Charm by Helen Scott Taylor Copyright © 2010 by Helen Scott Taylor . Excerpted by permission.
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