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Authors: Maggie Shayne

Dangerous Lover

BOOK: Dangerous Lover
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MAGGIE SHAYNE
Dangerous Lover

Chapter 1

“T
here's something incredibly freeing about being naked outside,” Selene said.

She adjusted the sarong skirt where it was knotted at her side. It was the only piece of clothing she wore. “Well,
nearly
naked.”

“Naked enough to get the idea,” Marcy said, giggling as she spun with her arms open wide and her head tipped back beneath the stars. “This is awesome. It's…primal.”

“I'm not sure I like it so much.” Helena had finally stopped crossing her arms over her chest, but it had taken the better part of the ritual before she'd let the energy take away her inhibitions. “I mean, among you guys, sure, but I don't know that I'd do it with anyone else.

“Well, we couldn't have known what it would be like unless we tried it,” Erica said, and she whipped off the skirt and stood in the moonlight, completely naked, while the others gasped and laughed. “And I
love
it. It's like—a rebellion. It's like shouting in the moonlight, ‘Take your stupid phony standards, society, and cram them where the sun don't shine!' Who the hell ever decided clothes were necessary, anyway?”

“Probably the first caveman to get caught naked in a snowstorm,” Selene said. Everyone laughed, and the ring of that laughter, feminine and secretive, filled the clearing. Beyond it the thunder of the nearby waterfall pounded. It was constant and powerful, and the main reason the women—Witches all, and every one of them completely hidden within the depths of the proverbial broom closet—had chosen this spot for their secret gatherings.

They came here once in the month, when the moon was full. And no one else knew. No one ever would. They had too much to lose. Here they came, to cast a circle of invisible power. Here they called on the elements of nature to meld with their own energies, so that they could be closer to the Whole. Here they worshiped the Moon Goddess. They called her Diana, visualized her as a powerful huntress. They saw her not as a separate being, or a deity dwelling somewhere in the cosmos. To these women, Diana was the deepest, most powerful part of themselves. And she was also the collective soul of womankind. The secret rituals they held here were sacred and beautiful.

Trying the nudity was an attempt to learn to see and love the beauty of their own bodies—a direct challenge to the way society taught women to think of themselves. And it was also to satisfy the curiosity they'd all felt when reading that some Witches practiced their rites
only
in the nude.

“Magical requests, before we close?” Selene asked. She felt incredibly free and slightly wicked standing bare-breasted in the moonlight. Not that she hadn't done ritual in the nude before. She had. But only when she was all alone and certain no one would ever find out. This was entirely different.

Marcy raised her hand, knowing full well that wasn't necessary. “I know I ask every month, but could we just
try
to turn my ex into a toad?”

Selene shook her head slowly. It was an old joke, but still funny. They didn't do harm. They just didn't.

“Fine. Then let's work to ensure my custody battle gets settled in the best possible way for the boys.”

“Works for me,” Selene said, and she stepped aside. Marcy moved to the altar at the center of the circle taking with her a photo of her sons, Jack and Joey, both blond, blue-eyed angels, six and eight respectively. She removed the drawstring pouch from the sash at her waist, and laid that beside the photo. Everyone knew it contained a lock of each boy's hair. Then she stood, hands extended to feel the energy, and she led the chant.

“Be it me or be it him, give my boys the best for them.”

“Be it her or be it him,” the women repeated, “give her boys the best for them.”

The others began to move in a clockwise circle around the altar, chanting with Marcy in a slow and steady rhythm. Selene picked up a rattle. Erica kept time on a small drum. Their movements grew faster as the rhythm picked up. Faster. Louder. The rattle became more urgent, the drum more frantic. And the energy rose. Marcy's hands rose with it, and when she sensed the power peaking, she shouted “Release!”

At the moment of that shout the others went still and silent, expelling their breath and relaxing their bodies with such a rush of release that two of them even sank to the ground. And in the same instant, Marcy drew her hands downward quickly, aiming them at the photo on the altar, pushing all the energy they had raised into the photo and hair, which stood in as representatives for the boys themselves.

She sighed, and let her head fall forward, spent. “That was intense,” she muttered.

“I sure felt it,” Helena said. She was one of those on the ground, but she got up now, smoothing her sarong and brushing twigs and leaves from it. “You're selfless, Marcy, you know that? Most people would be working magic to win custody. Not to do whatever's best for the boys.”

“They're what matter,” Marcy said. “They're all that matter.”

The others nodded. If the doe-eyed brunette, Helena, felt the energy, it had been real, Selene was sure of that. Helena was the most sensitive, and her impressions were usually accurate. As for Marcy, she came off as the most fiery, the most hot-tempered and impulsive, and her coloring matched her personality. Flame-red hair, bright-green eyes. But there was nothing she wouldn't do for her kids. Nothing. And inside a circle, she could generate magical energy like nobody's business.

“Anybody else have magic they need done tonight?” Selene asked, looking around the circle. “You, Erica? How are things with your father?”

“He's still the local minister,” she replied, as she gathered up her sarong and tied it around her waist again. “And I'm still keeping the truth from him.”

Selene had to wonder how. Erica with her dyed black hair, straight down her back to her waist, and her overly dramatic application of eyeliner, her Stevie Nicks wardrobe and her collection of goddess-symbol jewelry, seemed to be doing everything except painting the word
Witch
across her forehead. But her father didn't see it, or didn't want to. And she didn't come out and tell him. Mostly, they didn't communicate at all.

She was the youngest of them all, still in college, living in her own apartment with some other juniors, and having as little as possible to do with her father, though she still went home on weekends.

“You, Tessa?”

The butterscotch-blonde sighed. “I just want to keep this part of myself private. Chet would never understand.”

They'd been married less than a year, and Tessa lived in fear of losing him. Selene thought he would understand, and was probably much more deeply in love with Tess than Tess could comprehend, but she was going to have to come to that conclusion on her own.

“I just want to work to keep this part of my life secret. Just a little bit longer.”

“And anything else?” Selene asked.

No one had anything, until Marcy said, “What about you, Selene? Isn't there something you want to work for?”

“Yeah, or maybe some
one
?” Helena added.

The others laughed softly. Selene rolled her eyes. There were no secrets in this circle, that was for sure. “I want to find the love of my life. The perfect mate for me. The man I'm destined to be with. But I don't want to work magic for that. I know he's out there, the Universe has been telling me so my whole entire life. I want him to come to me exactly when and where and how he's supposed to. And until then, I can wait.”

“How can you be sure he hasn't already, though?” Tessa asked. “I mean, how can any of us be sure the one we pick is the right one? You should at least ask for a sign.”

“I agree,” Marcy said. “A clear, unmistakable sign to let you know when he arrives.”

Selene smiled. “That wouldn't be a bad idea. What kind of a sign though?”

“Have him fall at your feet the first time he sets eyes on you,” Helena said with a breathy sigh.

“Have a fork-tailed comet shoot through the sky when you meet.”

“And make sure he absolutely can't live without you,” Erica tossed in. “We like our men a bit needy, right?”

“You guys are a riot. What do you say we just do the secrecy charm and close the circle?”

“Fine,” Marcy said. “Have it your way. But remember we're between the worlds. Whether we cast a spell or not, we've created a thought form. You're going to get a sign.”

Helena nodded her agreement, went to the altar, knelt beside it and took the wine from the ice bucket nearby. She poured it into five wine glasses, and each woman came forward to take one.

They returned to their positions around the circle, then. Selene in the west, probably because her silver-blond hair, pale-blue eyes and even her name corresponded with a moon goddess, and because the moon was most closely associated with the west, and with water. Helena stood in the east, home of the element of air. Marcy was in the south with fire, and Tessa in the north, the home of earth. Erica took center, and the position of spirit, though her own spirit seemed awfully unsettled tonight. Probably she was excited about the four-day camping weekend she'd be spending at a Pagan festival, down at Merry Meet Campground in Texas. She was leaving right from here. And only her fellow Witches knew where she would be.

They lifted their glasses as one, and Selene said:

“Elements and Deities gathered this night
We bid you farewell and give thanks for your light,
Our secrets we ask that you help us to keep,
Until the time comes when fate deems we must speak.
Hail and farewell.”

The others repeated, “Hail and farewell,” and then they gathered closer to the center, clinked their glasses together with their favorite toast, “May you never thirst,” and drank deeply.

But Selene stopped with her glass halfway to her lips, and lifted her head, her eyes probing the darkness beyond the altar and the ring of candles that marked the boundary of their circle on the ground. “Someone's coming,” she whispered.

Marcy shot her a look, then quickly grabbed the double-edged dagger from the altar, and thrust it into Selene's hand. “Better open the circle, hon, so we can get this site cleaned up and get out of here.”

She nodded, and moved to the edge of the circle, lifting the blade, and trying to keep her focus on the task at hand, rather than out there, in the night, where something was happening; something that made her stomach clench tight, and her nerves tingle. She pointed the blade outward, and moved slowly, counterclockwise—or what the Witches called
widdershins
—around the circle, drawing its energy into the blade. When she returned to the north, she pointed the blade down and whispered that she would send the excess power back into the earth mother as she prepared to drive the athame's tip into the ground at her feet.

But before she could bring it down, someone came. Crashing, stumbling, careening, he came and he fell. Right there: right at her feet at the edge of the circle's boundary. He rolled onto his back, knocking lit candles over in the process, and she stood blinking down at him even as he opened his eyes. He gazed up at her, his unfocused eyes on her body, her unclothed breasts and then her face, and finally, as they found the blade in her hands, his eyes went wide.

Something flashed overhead, so bright she jerked her head up, and she saw the comet, its forked tail glittering behind it as it jetted across the sky. “Ohmygoddess,” she muttered, and, as she lowered her head again, Selene realized that the man was bleeding. And not just a little bit. His shirt was soaked in blood.

He'd fallen at her feet. A fork-tailed comet had shot across the sky. And he would almost certainly die without her.

“Damn,” Selene muttered. “As much as I tell myself I believe, it still gives me goosebumps the way this shit works.” She drove the blade into the earth beside him and whispered, “The circle is open. So mote it be.”

 

He'd found himself stumbling through the woods, a burning pain in his gut, his shirt and his hands soaked in blood. And he'd known—though he wasn't sure how—that someone was chasing him. He had to run. He needed help. He was injured. Those were his thoughts then. And those were the thoughts that had driven him down from the steep, wooded hillside into the clearing.

He'd heard them, clearly. Voices, like tinkling bells: women, laughing and talking, chanting and singing. Beyond the voices there had been a roar, like rushing water, but it was the voices that drew him.

They held in their female lilt the promise of aid, so he'd fought his way clear of the undergrowth, pushing aside branches to try to catch a glimpse of his salvation, better to pick his way closer.

The women danced in a circle of candles, bathed in moonlight, naked, except for sarong skirts, and one hadn't even been wearing that much when he'd first glimpsed them. For a moment he thought he must be hallucinating from the blood loss, imagining he'd stumbled upon an enchanted grove full of fairies. Their backdrop was a thundering waterfall, the source of the rushing, roaring sound. But the women were far more interesting. Their bodies swayed and moved in time with the haunting and primitive sounds of rattle and drum, and their voices rose in some mystical cadence, though he couldn't make out the words. The sight of them, the feeling of something primal and forbidden, something
powerful
, sent chills racing up his spine.

BOOK: Dangerous Lover
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