Opal’s Wish

Book 4 of The Crystal Warriors Series by Maree Anderson

When the Crystal Guardian, Pieter, handed over the danburite crystal to eight-year-old Sera, he intended her mother be the one to release the cursed warrior from the crystal. But Sera’s heartfelt wish upon the crystal somehow frees Danbur from his prison. Worse, she bonds with him. Danbur now has no chance to break his curse, and despite all the magic at Pieter’s command, this is a mess he has no idea how to resolve.

Danbur is entranced by the little girl. In the weeks remaining before the crystal takes him again he resolves to protect her— even if it means clashing with her mother, Opal, a damaged young woman who doesn’t trust any man… let alone a warrior struggling to make sense of an alien world. Danbur is drawn to Opal, and if he had more time he would do his utmost to thaw a heart frozen by fear of pain and betrayal. But his priority must be helping her young daughter cope with the side-effects of the bond.

Resisting this complex, compelling stranger is taking all the willpower Opal possesses. And then her past catches up with her, catapulting her back into the media spotlight and bringing her to the attention of the powerful man who once ruined her life. With Sera in jeopardy, Opal is forced to turn to Danbur, the man she can’t bring herself to fully trust. All she can do is hope his claims about his mysterious ‘connection’ to Sera aren’t the stuff of fantasy after all. But what Opal doesn’t realize is that the clock is ticking. And Danbur’s time is about to run out.

Second Place, Long Romance category: 2015 Romance Writers of New Zealand “Koru Award of Excellence”

Other books in The Crystal Warriors series:

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Genre: Paranormal Romance
Format: eBook
Length: Novel, approx 100,000 words
Price: US $5.99 (or US$ equivalent)
Publisher: Maree Anderson
Release date: 31 March 2014
ISBN:
Amazon ASIN:
978-0-9922498-7-8
B00JDX4PRO

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Reviews for Opal’s Wish

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“Waiting for more! Pure indulgent escapism. Normally I’m quite patient & will wait for a book to go down a bit before purchasing but not this time. Totally hooked & waiting on the next one (which should happen given the mention of more crystals in Pieter’s possession). Slight twist in this one as our Warrior is released by the daughter of his intended life mate but it turns out to be a blessing in disguise. It also proves that Pieter is as much a victim of the curse he cast as the men he now tries to help. Really can’t wait for news of the next Warriors release. Proof that I can multi-task too, housework whilst reading, not easy but it happened!” ~ Loli P, Amazon UK

“AWESOME !! Loved the twist of different bonding, hope there are more stories to come […]” (Read the full review by Sam on Goodreads)

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Artwork

Cover design by Rob Anderson
(Click on the image to see the full-size cover.)

Opal’s Wish


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The Crystal Warriors Series

The Crystal Warrior Ruby's Dream Jade's Choice Opal's Wish

Excerpt from Opal’s Wish

By Maree Anderson

 

Chapter One

The barely discernible whisper invading his mind might once have filled him with hope. Now he felt nothing at all. Hope was pointless when such whispers heralded the onset of madness. This was Halja, after all—the afterlife awaiting those who displeased the gods. A place devoid of hope.

The temperature of his prison was a constant lukewarm. Or perhaps, blood-warm was a more appropriate term for a warrior to use. In his past life, Danbur could never have imagined a time when he would yearn for the kind of searing heat that crisped skin and threatened to sizzle eyeballs from sockets, or cold that spiked the marrow of bones and made them throb and ache. Now, after centuries of relentless sameness, he would have embraced either. Suffering the rigors of heatstroke or frostbite would have been proof he remained physically whole—that his physical body hadn’t been destroyed.

Alas, he was afforded no such solace.

Halja’s hue was constant, too. Black on black on black—a black so viscous and vast, it made no difference whether his eyelids were wide open or tightly shuttered. Not that he could tell either way. Yes, Halja had proven vastly dissimilar to even the darkest of tales and most terrifying nightmares but as Danbur had quickly learned, stasis, too, was a form of torture. A torture that was perpetual and pitiless.

In the beginning, he’d instructed his brain to work various muscles even though he could neither see nor feel them moving. Mere hours had passed—or perhaps days, he had no way of knowing—before that stubborn determination had waned to merely blinking his eyelids and attempting to count each blink. And that had proven a futile effort when he could feel neither the tiny muscles working to squeeze his eyelids shut, nor the brush of eyelashes sweeping his skin.

And, as the time passed, fear and despair morphed to acceptance, and finally, to no emotion at all. He existed, in some form or another, in a place outside of time. He was deaf, blind, dumb, numb—insensate in the purest meaning of the word. Nothing would change that. Nothing could change th—

There it was again. And this time his sluggish brain made sense of what he was hearing.

That he could hear anything at all was a gift beyond price. But, sweet Mother of all Gods, ’twas not some random sound but a word. And, as the whisper increased to a murmur, he realized this word was more than mere letters strung together to represent a thing or concept or place. ’Twas a word of profound import. A word that flooded his body or mind, or whatever essence remained of him, with an emotion he’d believed forever lost like corpse-ash dispersed by the merciless desert winds of his home world.

That whispered word was his true name, the name bestowed upon him when he’d been admitted to the ranks of warriors hard and cold and implacable as the crystals for which they were named.

Danburite. The three syllables resounded over and over in his mind. And, as the wonder of hearing his name engulfed him, he became conscious of another miracle. His eyelids must have been open, for how else could he have witnessed the smothering, soul-eating blackness lessening, silvering to a hazy gray mist. He blinked. And knuckled his eye sockets—realized at that moment he could feel his knuckles firmly pressing into the sockets.

He held his hands out in front of his face, saw the tremors as they shook, and felt no shame for his weakness. Yes. Yes! Gods above and below, those were his fingers… attached to hands… arms. He steeled himself for a downward glance, and the relief at seeing his body intact would have brought him to his knees had he not still hung weightless and helpless in this cursed crystalline prison.

Danburite.

The utterance had more substance now. It was distinct and real, as though phantom lips murmured his name.

He felt his heart kick in his chest. Before he could do more than gasp at the sensation, saliva pooled in his mouth. He swallowed, relishing the alien sensation of moisture lubricating the tissues of his throat. A wonder, indeed. And the warrior part of him—the pragmatist who carried within him the knowledge that one day his strength and agility and prowess would fail him at some crucial moment—stomped on the hope flowering within him and waited, loose-limbed and relaxed but vigilant still, for some new torture to be revealed.

He didn’t have long to wait.

Danburite! His name was uttered again, this time in a piping voice so clear he clapped his hands over his ears for fear his eardrums would rupture. And then….

He was catapulted into another world.

More specifically, a small room.

A female voice, chanting loudly and somewhat melodically, assailed his eardrums. He caught the words “last Friday night” but the rest of the lyrics were almost incomprehensible. The din made it difficult to concentrate as he scanned his surroundings, squinting in the pink glow emanating from the globe hung from the ceiling of the room. The hand that had instinctively sought his non-existent sword dropped back to his side as he straightened, and he expelled a long, slow breath. So far as prisons went this was… unexpected.

The walls of the room had been painted the palest of pinks. Swathes of filmy material a shade darker than the walls hung from rods over the windows. Fanciful creatures peered out at him from the glossy artworks adorning the walls. Here, a white steed with a single graceful horn sprouting from its forehead. There, dainty winged creatures perched atop spotted fungi.

The bed pressed up against the wall sported a ruffled cover in a darker shade of pink, and a haphazard pile of cushions in various shades of the same color. The small chest of drawers beside the bed had been lacquered in a white so bright Danbur knew he would see himself reflected in its sheen if he cared to look. A shaggy circular rug—also pink—graced wall-to-wall threadbare carpet in an unredeemable shade of brown. The carpet was the one jarring note in this veritable confection of a bedchamber.

He guessed this to be a child’s domain. A girl-child of course. No boy-child would covet such feminine fripperies. Not that Danbur knew anything about little girls. The women of his world birthed only boys. And the females snatched in a desperate attempt to replenish his race were confined to those of child-bearing age. Or had been. Only the gods knew how much time had passed…. And whether his people had flourished, or gone the way of the giant feline whose bones he’d once discovered in a cave.

The chanting issued from a strange device sitting atop the chest of drawers. A wondrous thing! Even if he didn’t care for the music currently blaring from it.

He was reaching for the device when a sound akin to the wheeze of a sword-smith’s bellows cut through his curiosity. He pivoted on his heel, gaze scanning the room for the source of that sound.

There. At the foot of the bed. A child, her arms wrapped around drawn-up knees, head bent to expose a vulnerable, pale-skinned nape. She wore a soft, berry-colored shirt and loose matching pants. Her face was obscured by a fuzzy mop of hair the vibrant red of a flame tree in full bloom.

She hadn’t yet noticed his unannounced arrival. Unsurprising when her slight body shuddered from the violence of her choked-off gasping sobs.

He approached her warily, treating her as he would any wounded animal. Even week-old fennec cubs could inflict a sharp nip to the unwary. He squatted beside her and rested a hand on her nape, prepared to wait patiently for her to realize she was no longer alone. But the warmth of her skin seeped into his palm, the sensation so unexpected after feeling nothing at all for so very long that he expelled a hissing breath.

She glanced up, her mouth slack with shock.

Danbur snatched his hand back, but it was too late to escape the regard of pale green alien eyes that were far too big for her face.

Gods above and below. What kind of world was this?

And then a distant memory spooled through his mind. There’d been a woman—an older female, many years past her prime—who’d set herself up as an apothecary. The first time he’d visited her shop he’d been fascinated by the bizarre contraption she’d worn perched on the bridge of her nose. She’d been flattered by his curiosity, happy to explain how the lenses made things larger and therefore easier for her to see clearly.

What had she called the contraption again?

Ah, yes. Spectacles. He huffed a bark of astonished laughter that he could recall such a thing after all he’d endured.

Another shaky sob reached his ears. The child’s freckled, tear-stained face was screwed up in a fearful expression. And Danbur’s triumph over having recalled the word soured in his belly. She was afraid. Of him.

He tensed, awaiting the inevitable loud shriek. Instead, a whooping sound issued from her throat. He narrowed his gaze to slits, shutting out the alien-ness of his surroundings to focus on her, and her alone.

As she inhaled, her spine bowed. She had to fight for each breath.

He had observed this before—a child struggling to breathe, the lingering weakness in the boy’s chest worsened by the harsh chill of a desert night. The memories flickered through his mind. The camp’s Healer had tossed some herbal concoction into a pot of boiling water, and made the boy breathe the vapors until the tightness in his chest eased. The most pressing thing was to calm this child down and keep her relaxed as possible while he sought help.

“’Tis all right, little one,” he crooned, glancing around the room, searching out anything that might be of use. “Be calm. Breathe with me now. In. And out. In. And out.”

She tried her best, but her efforts were met with another wheeze. Her flushed face turned a deeper shade of scarlet. Magnified by the spectacles he could plainly see panic and fear roiling in her eyes.

He scooped her up and propped her over his shoulder, rubbing firm circles across her spine as he pivoted full-circle. But there was nothing of use in this too-pretty, too-feminine room. Unwelcome helplessness shrouded him. He stifled the desire to punch something, to rail at the cruelty of gods who would release him from Halja to witness an innocent child’s suffering.

She nuzzled his ear. When she spoke it was the barest croak. “Inhaler.”

Inhale-er? “I do not understand,” he said, frustration sharpening his voice. “Is there a place I can heat water?”

“Baaa—” wheeze “—thh—” wheeze “—room.”

He’d exited the sleeping room before he’d consciously registered her words. Of course. This abode must have some sort of bathing area. Although a cooking hearth might be better for heating water—

“That— One.” She managed to lift a hand to indicate a door before another ineffectual attempt to catch her breath wracked her slight body.

He strode to the door, shouldered it open, and halted. His stomach performed a lazy somersault and then lay leaden in his belly. The sleeping room had been shock enough, but this?

He kicked the door shut with one booted foot and approached the tub. In or beside? Beside, he decided, and lowered his arse until he perched on the edge. Setting his jaw, he transferred the child to his lap. She lay limply in the crook of his shoulder, exhausted by her efforts to breathe.

Silver spigots—at least, he presumed them to be spigots—jutted from the wall above the tub. One sported a faded red circle, the other blue. Danbur ground his teeth. He was a crystal warrior—elite among his kind. He would not allow this… this… minor setback to defeat him. He twisted the spigot with the red circle, and grunted with satisfaction when it belched water. A swipe of his fingers beneath the stream confirmed it was warming, and within seconds, the stream was hot enough to waft a curling tendril of steam toward him.

He rubbed the child’s back and chanted his demands for her to breathe in and out, while the small room filled with steam. When it got too hot, he twisted the spigot with the blue circle. As he’d hoped, the stream of cold water cooled the steam somewhat.

Time passed. His world shrank to the negligible weight of the child in his arms and the hair-raising whoops that punctuated her efforts to breathe. He’d thought himself beyond petitioning gods. They’d not deigned to answer his prayers to be mercifully put down, as a man would grant mercy to a mount with a broken leg. But for this innocent he would try one last time. And as he prayed, he rocked the child in his lap and wondered, despairing, what he could offer his gods that they hadn’t already taken from him.

At last it appeared the Mother had chosen to be merciful, for the child’s breathing eased… and slowed until it synchronized with his so perfectly, Danbur could almost believe that he and the child were somehow connected, and that he was breathing for her.

After a while she sighed and her breathy exhalation was echoed with his own hiss of relief that the crisis had past.

She peered up at him through the steam-fogged lenses of her spectacles.

“Can you breathe without effort now?”

His question was answered with a nod.

“Shall I turn off the water?”

Another nod.

He shut off the spigot, marveling anew at the efficiency of such an invention, even as he despised a world where guardians had seen fit to leave this young one alone to cope with such a serious affliction. If he’d appeared in her room a few minutes later….

The child wriggled restlessly in his lap but it was difficult to gauge the extent of her recovery when he couldn’t fully discern her expression. He plucked the spectacles from her pert little nose, intending to wipe the lenses with the square of cloth he’d spied hanging over the tub, but her sharply indrawn breath and the stiffening of her body stilled him mid-stretch. “Forgive me,” he said. “I meant only to clean them and return them to you. I should have asked your permission before removing such precious possessions.”

“It’s okay,” she whispered, her voice hoarse.

Poor little chick. Her battle to breathe had exhausted her. “May I?” he asked.

She nodded, and he snagged the nubby cloth… which did not prove the best for wiping such delicate things as spectacles, but was far superior than using his fingers.

He perched the cleaned lenses carefully atop the bridge of her nose, and hid his wince when she cringed. “There is no reason to be afraid, little one. I will not hurt you.” He fisted his spare hand on his breastbone. “My word on it.”

Those rare green eyes peered at him through the thick lenses. She scrambled from his lap to settle cross-legged on the floor with her back against the wall. “I’m not afraid of you,” she said, folding her arms over her chest and thrusting out her lower lip. But this brave declaration was somewhat ruined by a hiccup and a tear tracking down her cheek.

So courageous. He favored her with a short nod to convey his respect.

Her lower lip wobbled. “When we were back in my room you laughed.” She swiped her cheek with the back of a hand. “Is it ’coz I look funny?”

A fist grabbed his heart and squeezed. And something—perhaps the same intuition that served him so well during battle—told him to be wary how he phrased his answer. A careless word could wound far more efficiently than a finely honed blade.

“I laughed with the relief of finally understanding what I was seeing,” he said, speaking slowly and carefully, infusing his words with truth and willing her to believe. “And I laughed because I realized I had no cause for fear.”

She blinked tear-spiked lashes and a tiny frown pleated her forehead. “You were scared?”

He nodded.

“But you’re so big!”

His lips curved at her awed tone.

“And… and….”

“Black?” he supplied, wondering if dark-skinned people were a rarity here—wherever “here” might conceivably be.

“Duh,” she said, wiping her nose on the back of her hand. “I was gonna say muscley.”

Apparently black skin did not unnerve this child. Good. A useful piece of information. “I would share a secret with you, young one,” he said, hoping if he gained her trust she would reveal more. “But you mustn’t tell a soul.”

Her eyes rounded. “I won’t tell anyone,” she said, her voice squeaky with excitement. “I promise!”

He leaned forward to impart a bit of the wisdom his mother had once gifted a small, skinny boy who’d suffered what his disappointed father had termed an irrational fear of horses. “Even grown men as big as I are oftentimes afraid.”

“Really?”

“My word on it.”

The tiny frown creased to a scowl that was impressive for one so young. “You’re just saying that to make me feel better,” she said.

Damned if he didn’t feel like smiling again when he had no cause to smile—not given the precariousness of his current situation, not after enduring an emptiness so profound it was a miracle he’d not lost his mind. Or perhaps he finally had. Perhaps this “reality” was nothing more than the product of a fractured psyche. Perhaps in truth he was still entombed in darkness. If so, he would embrace this fantasy for however long it lasted.

“I was fearful of your spectacles,” he said. “And then I recalled where I’d seen such a wondrous invention before.”

Her jaw sagged. “Huh?”

“Spectacles.”

A screwed up nose conveyed her confusion. Perhaps he had mispronounced the word. “This clever contraption that makes things appear larger.” He gently tapped a forefinger on the metal frame bridging her nose.

She crossed her eyes, the expression made more comical magnified through the thick lenses. “My glasses?”

Danbur fought the grin that threatened to bloom across his face. Doubtless she would take it the wrong way and be offended. “If that is what you call them, then yes.”

“You were scared of my glasses?”

He nodded, keeping his expression grave. “Indeed I was.”

“Wow.”

Whatever that strange word might signify, she was no longer breaking his heart with her efforts to suppress her sobs. All in all an excellent outcome—even if she now regarded him as one might regard some alien beast from a traveling menagerie.

“My name is Danbur,” he said.

She gave a little burbling giggle that dared him to throw caution to the sands and laugh alongside her. “Danbur? That’s a funny name. I’ve never heard of anyone called that before. Can I call you Dan, instead? Dan’s a proper boys’ name.”

He cocked his head to one side, gauging her expression, her body language. When he detected neither mean intent nor slyness in her tone he nodded. “Very well.”

She stuck out her hand, gazing expectantly at him.

Ah. A greeting was in order. He leaned forward to engulf her small hand in his, and relaxed his arm muscles when she enthusiastically pumped his hand up and down.

“I’m Seraphine,” she said.

Interesting. Seraphinite was a crystal so rare his fief’s priests possessed but one example of it and—

A tremor coursed through him and he was struck by a sense of… of… teetering on the verge of discovering something vital. And then it faded, leaving him pondering the startling coincidence that this girl-child would be so closely named for a seraphinite crystal.

He didn’t believe in coincidences.

He mentally shook himself, sloughing off the disquiet still scuttling over his skin. “’Tis a pleasure to meet you, Seraphine.”

As the last syllable of her name slid from his lips a sharp pain lanced the base of his skull. He grit his teeth, breathing slow and deep, waiting for the next one….

It never came. Apparently a dull throbbing, akin to the aftermath of a night spent carousing, was to be his only punishment for escaping his crystal prison. For now, at least.

“You can call me Sera if you want.” She wrinkled her nose. “It’s heaps better than Seraphine.”

“Very well, Sera. Shall I take you back to your room now?” And tuck you up in your pretty pink bed and wait until you fall asleep so I may explore this place more thoroughly.

She nodded and when he scooped her from the floor she wound her arms about his neck. He inhaled the scent of her hair—sweet and delicately fruity. And something inside him softened still more.

He entered her very pink room and strode to the bed. Thankfully the music had changed to a slower tune—one he could tolerate, even though he wasn’t at all certain a song about being taken, and wanting to be someone’s victim, was suitable for a young child. Sera didn’t seem perturbed, however. Perhaps the device was this world’s equivalent of a mother singing her child a lullaby? If so ’twas a poor substitute.

When he lowered her to the mattress she clung to him like a sand-burr to a trouser leg. “Please don’t go,” she said. “I don’t want you to go.”

Damned if he could ignore the plea in her voice. Or the threat of more tears. He knew it would be prudent to remain aloof until he had the measure of this world, but couldn’t bring himself to choose prudence over this little girl’s tears. He sat on the edge of the mattress, holding her in his lap, and surrendered to the compulsion to discover the root cause of her misery. And end it if he could.

“Is there something you would like to tell me, Sera? Are you hurt?” He hadn’t noticed any bruises to indicate she’d been hit or abused in any way. But who knew what that soft pink shirt and pants might hide?

Her sweet little face crumpled, and the lenses of her glasses magnified the fat tears glistening in her eyes. “My special crystal broke,” she whispered, and buried her face against his chest.

A chill lanced through him, lifting the fine hairs on his nape, but he kept his voice gentle, matter-of-fact. “It must be a very special crystal indeed for you to be so upset about it.”

“It w-was,” came the muffled reply. “Mr. S-Stone g-gave it to me. He lives next door. He s-said it was a w-wishing crystal.”

He tipped her chin with careful fingers to better examine her expression. “A wishing crystal?”

Tears fell in earnest now. “I dropped it—only on the carpet. B-but it broke!”

“Would you show me this special crystal, Sera?”

She knuckled tears from her eyes and caught her quivering lower lip between her teeth. When she hesitated, the “Please!” exploded from his throat in a hoarse whisper.

She scrambled from his lap to extract something from beneath her bed. And then, rising onto her knees, she held out both hands, palms upward like a supplicant bearing a gift.

Danbur’s world tilted yet again.

Cradled in each small palm was a chunk of a crystal he recognized instantly and intimately. The breaks were clean—as though the crystal had been deliberately cut. If it had been whole, the bottom half of the crystal would have been a rich amber, graduating to lighter, paler shades, with the top almost translucent.

It was danburite. Golden danburite to be precise. The stone he’d been named for. The stone he’d been bonded to, mind, body and soul, in a sacred ceremony witnessed only by the priests of the Shifting Sands fief and his warrior brothers.

~*~

Chapter Two 

“Dan? Dan?”

The childish voice jolted him from the past. Danbur blinked at the small fingers kneading his forearm. Against his dark skin that little hand looked too pale and fragile to be real. It took him a few moments to register that Sera had crawled onto the mattress and was kneeling beside him.

“You okay?” she asked, all huge worried eyes and quivering lips.

“A memory,” he said. “’Tis of no import.”

“Mommy’s memories make her sad, too.” Sera leaned forward, reaching for the crystal pieces she’d abandoned atop the bed.

“Do not touch them, Seraphine.” His voice lashed out, whip-like, and he bracketed her wrists, preventing her from grasping the evil things. His skull felt as though someone had smacked him with the flat of a sword. It gave one last throb and then, thank all merciful gods, the pain eased.

Sera whimpered and he released her immediately, his heart twisting as she scrambled backward on her bottom until she encountered the wall. And she huddled there, arms wrapped around her middle, the broken halves of the danburite crystal—his prison—lying on the coverlet between them like some malevolent omen.

The bared skin of Danbur’s forearm prickled as if protesting the loss of the warmth—and yes, the comfort—of Sera’s soft little hands. He regretted his sharpness. The crystal had broken, and gods knew it was not this child’s doing that he, a warrior, had been reduced to a superstitious, fear-filled coward.

His breath eked out in a sigh. “Forgive me, Sera. I am—” He searched for an appropriate word. “I am confused by what has happened to me.”

“And scared,” she whispered. “Of that, right?” She pointed to the pieces of danburite.

“Indeed.”

“It’s okay.” And then, with the ghost of smile, “I’d be confused and scared, too, if I’d just come out of a crystal. But you shouldn’t be scared of it. Mr. Stone’s my friend. He wouldn’t have given me something scary or nasty or anything.”

It took a moment for her words to register through the buzzing in his skull. “You know I emerged from that crystal?”

She bobbed her head. “Uh huh.”

He guessed that was an affirmative. “Did you see me emerge?”

“Nope. I was crying ’coz it broke, remember?”

He nodded, but must have appeared doubtful for she said, “Where else could you’ve come from?”

Where else, indeed.

“Mr. Stone said it was a wishing crystal. He said I should give it to Mommy and tell her to make a special wish. But I was sad, so I wished on it instead. And then it… it… b-broke.”

Danbur gave up trying to make sense of the snarled tangle of thoughts tumbling through his brain. Perhaps it would all fall into place once he had interrogated the personage who had given Sera the crystal—this Mr. Stone. And if the interrogation proved fruitless then so be it. A warrior could ill afford to be distracted on the battlefield, and this new reality was but another battlefield to be conquered. He needed a clear head. He needed to remain focused. But it was impossible to gain the clarity he needed when one thought snagged in his mind and refused to be banished.

A wishing crystal….

His gaze sought the child’s. “What did you wish for, Sera?”

Her eyes shone with a suspicious gleam. Her lower lip did that tiny quiver that made him want to snatch her up and shelter her from life’s harsh lessons, but he did not wish to scare her again. Nor did he want to promise something he couldn’t deliver—not when he could be taken by an old sorcerer’s vengeful magic again at any moment. And so he remained silent and still. Watchful.

She stared at him, her pretty eyes awash with tears, mouth twisted with an expression he instinctively recognized as a combination of shame and rage—a twin of what might be reflected on his own face right now if he allowed emotion to rule him. Shame, for his weakness. And rage, for knowing himself helpless as this child to fight whatever the guardian of the crystals had planned for him.

“What did you wish for, Seraphine?” That sharp, biting agony returned, scouring his skull in a heated rush that had ebbed by the time he’d reacted and clenched his jaws against the pain. Now it was merely a dull throbbing behind his eyes, a throbbing that was exacerbated by the caterwauling coming from the musical box, where the singer was now insisting an infant was a “fire work” who should let his or her “colors burst”. Whatever that meant.

Danbur blinked slowly and forced himself to concentrate on the child. “Tell me. Please, Sera.”

She cringed and ducked her head. “You sound just like Mommy when she’s caught me doing something bad.”

He made a deliberate effort to relax his muscles and soften his expression. “You are brave, little one. And from what I have witnessed thus far you have a good heart. I cannot believe you would wish for something ill or self-serving.”

Her lip quivered again. “It was just a little bit selfish,” she said. “But he was being so mean to me! And Mommy’s tired and sad all the time, a-a-and I just wanted her to be happy.”

He didn’t like the conclusion he was rapidly reaching. “Sera—”

“I wanted him to stop being mean!” she wailed. “And I wanted Mommy to be happy! I didn’t wish for anything bad, I promise!”

Danbur could feel the muscles working in his jaw. His hands had clenched into fists. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut against the surge of fury.

“I wished for someone big and strong to help Mommy be happy. I wished for him to be my daddy. And that he’d tell me I was pretty like Mommy, and I’d believe him and I’d be happy, too. And we’d all be happy together!”

Such a simple wish. And one he didn’t have the remotest chance of fulfilling. He struggled to keep his expression neutral as he opened his eyes and fixed his gaze on hers.

“It’s his fault, too,” she said. “H-he was real horrible to me.” Her voice wobbled. Her eyes were so shadowed and tragic that Danbur compressed his lips against an all-consuming desire to beat the man who had hurt her to a bloody pulp.

“H-he called me Four-Eyes Frizz-head. ”

Trying to make sense of what had obviously been a mortal insult so far as Sera was concerned, distracted him from his seething fury. “Is this scum who torments you a simpleton?” he blurted.

Sera blinked at him. “Huh?”

“An idiot,” Danbur clarified. “You have but two eyes—obviously. And they are a rare color.”

She hiccupped and swiped her nose with the back of her hand. “He calls me that because of my glasses.” A pause, and then, “They are?”

“Indeed. Your eyes remind me of the cool waters of a stone-lined oasis pool. Or the fragile buds sprouting on desert plant-life after the rains. I have known women who would give their most precious possession for eyes like yours, Sera. And your hair is the color of flame tree blossoms. In my wor—” He swallowed the all-too revealing word. Best to err on the side of caution. “Where I come from, a flame tree in full bloom is an awe-inspiring, wondrous sight, for it occurs but once every ten years.”

Those green eyes rounded, and a hint of pleasure sparked in their depths… only to be extinguished by doubts. He shook his head, unaccountably saddened that this child couldn’t view herself as he saw her. When she became a woman she would be a beauty—he could see it in the delicacy of her bones beneath the childish roundness. And that hair would be her crowning glory. A pity he would not witness her metamorphosis from child to woman.

“’Tis the truth, Sera,” he said.

Her small white teeth caught her lower lip and nibbled. “You’re a real nice man,” she finally said, her tone solemn. A pause, and then, “My friend Mr. Stone told me my eyes were pretty, too.”

“So it must be true, yes?”

She crinkled her brows, and had opened her mouth to respond when a loud moan scythed through the lyrics wailing from the music-playing device.

Another moan followed. And another.

Sera scooted into his lap and buried her face in his shoulder. Danbur patted her back, offering comfort as he listened carefully, trying to identify the sound.

It seemed to be coming from the next room.

Sera’s sigh feathered the fine hairs on the bared skin of his upper arm. “They’re doing it again,” she said. “It’s gross.”

Another moan—this one full-throated and hair-raisingly loud. Not pain, as he’d first thought. A moan ripe with the pleasure of carnal things.

Heat slashed his cheeks. What manner of guardian left a little girl gasping to draw breath whilst she indulged her own desires?

The moans increased in frequency and segued to high-pitched feminine squeals. And then a distinctly male voice shouted a hoarse obscenity that prompted Danbur to cover Sera’s ears. Enough.

“Stay here, Sera.” He eased her from his lap and stood, flexing tightness from his neck and shoulders. “I will deal with your mother.”

“But—”

“Stay here.” Aware he sounded harsh and unforgiving, he said, “Please, little one. This is a matter best discussed between adults. I will not leave you alone for long—my word on it.”

She nodded. “Okay, Dan.”

“Good girl.” He slipped from the room and strode to a room off the narrow corridor he hadn’t yet explored. He examined the shiny globe that was the door’s handle, and palmed it. Ah. Another clever thing. Rotating the handle carefully, he opened the door a crack

“Yes. Yes. Yes. Oh, baby. That’s it. Yes. Yes!”

“Like that, huh? Oh yeah. You love it when I pound my dick into your—”

Danbur burst through the doorway. He had heard enough. “Get out,” he told the scrawny male who was grasping a young woman’s hips, and driving his cock into her so forcefully that she struggled to balance on all fours.

The young woman shrieked and flopped face-first onto the mattress. She rolled, scrambling to cover herself with a bed sheet. She was younger than Danbur had expected—barely out of girlhood. And yet she had birthed a child Sera’s age? Gods above and below. What kind of debauched society allowed men to lie with little girls?

The man glanced over his shoulder at Danbur. His eyes rounded. “Who the fuck are you?” He clumsily rolled from the mattress to stand feet apart, chest outthrust, in what he doubtless imagined was a threatening pose.

His pimple-scattered complexion, and the scraggly tuft of beard sprouting from his chin, suggested a stripling yet to reach his majority. No match for a seasoned warrior. “I am the man who is going to toss you out on your hairy white arse on the count of five,” Danbur said, keeping his tone conversational.

The stripling blinked and swallowed hard. “You need to fuck off, dude. You got no business here.”

Danbur took another step into the room. “Four,” he said.

“I’ll call the cops if you lay a finger on Ryan.” The young woman clutched the sheet more tightly to her chest.

Danbur spared her an assessing glance. Stick-straight dark hair framed her plump, olive-skinned features. Kohl—applied with a heavy, inexpert hand—made her eyes appear dark holes in her face. He couldn’t see an ounce of Sera in her.

“Ya deaf or something? I told you to fuck off.” The stripling—Ryan—had waved his hand to catch Danbur’s attention, but his rapidly shrinking cock belied his show of belligerence.

“Three.” Danbur held Ryan’s gaze, observing the unsubtle tells that shouted the youth’s intentions. This would be laughably easy.

He shifted his weight onto the balls of his feet. “Two.”

Ryan charged, arms swinging wildly.

“Watch out, Dan!”

The worried little voice came from somewhere behind Danbur. Gods. How much had Sera seen?

Danbur popped Ryan on the chin with his fisted right hand. He’d pulled the punch of course, but even so it laid the youth out cold on the mud-brown carpet.

The young woman shrieked loud enough to wake the dead and scrambled from the bed, abruptly oblivious to her nudity. She rushed to Ryan’s side and knelt to pat his face. When he didn’t respond, she uttered a keening moan. And then she hissed at Danbur. “Bastard! I told you not to hurt him! I’m calling the cops. Get the phone, Sera. Now! Or you’ll be real sorry!”

Danbur felt small hands gripping his thigh and glanced down to see Sera peeping out from behind him. He rested his hand atop her head, wondering how to deal with this new complication.

“You’ll be in real big trouble if I tell Mommy you’n Ryan were having S-E-X in her bed, Liza,” Sera said to the young woman.

Pieces of the puzzle slipped into place.

Danbur fixed his gaze on the young woman—Liza. “You are not Sera’s mother.”

“God, no,” Liza said, and at the same time Sera shrieked, “No way!”

Liza glared at him. Or perhaps she was glaring at Sera. There appeared to be little love lost between the two. “I’m calling the cops,” Liza said. “You punched Ryan out! He’s hurt!”

Danbur remained silent. What more was there to say? He had indeed punched the young man, and doubtless Ryan would suffer a bruised chin and an aching head when he awoke. Danbur couldn’t find it in himself to care.

“Ryan tried to hurt Dan first, so serves him right,” Sera said. “You shouldn’t have let him come over, Liza. You know my mom wouldn’t like him being here. And she’d be real mad at you having S-E-X in her bed. And you just sat there and laughed when Ryan was mean to me. I hate him and I hate you, too. So there!”

There was a world of emotional hurt in that impassioned little speech. Danbur squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Sera, enough. ’Tis not seemly for you to speak of such matters.” He stroked her hair, hoping to convey that he understood she was lashing out because she felt hurt and betrayed.

Apparently Liza had no care for anyone save the pathetic specimen of manhood she chosen to give herself to. She ignored Sera to bat at Ryan’s face again, trying to bring him around.

“He will awake soon,” Danbur said. “I merely tapped him on the chin. In the meantime, I suggest you clothe yourself.”

“And I suggest you go fuck yourself, asshole.”

He captured her defiant gaze and held it. “Do not provoke me, Liza. Your behavior suggests you are both an unsuitable guardian and a person of questionable morals. And I believe any….” He cast about for the word she’d threatened him with—some sort of governing authority, he guessed. Ah yes. “I believe any cops informed of your actions this night would agree with me. ’Tis my belief you would prefer to end this encounter with some scrap of dignity remaining. And I also believe you would not wish further trouble upon Ryan. Yes?”

Her cheeks flushed with mottled patches of red but she nodded.

He jerked his chin at items of clothing piled on the floor beside the bed. And did her the undeserved courtesy of turning his back to give her a modicum of privacy while she dressed.

When Danbur turned around again she’d clothed herself in tight leggings that left nothing to the imagination, and a short, midriff-baring top that resembled an undergarment. Her idea of appropriate clothing did nothing to increase his estimation of her. “Pick up Ryan’s clothes, also,” he told her, pointing to the remaining items.

She scowled but did as she was bid, stuffing them into a bag.

“Stay here, Sera,” he instructed. “I will escort your guardian and her wretched excuse for a companion from the premises, and return momentarily.”

“No way,” Sera said. “I’m coming, too, in case Ryan wakes up and does something dumb again. Then I can be your witness and stuff.”

He noted the stubbornness infusing her tone. His head ached. His body ached, too, with the kind of bone-deep weariness that invades a man after a day-long battle. He gave in. “Very well. But keep your distance from Liza. I do not trust her.”

From the corner of his eye he glimpsed Liza opening her mouth and then shutting it again with a snap. Good. The girl was learning some sense, at least.

He could no longer think of her as a woman after these events. Children were precious. And no woman he’d yet encountered would allow a child in their care to be treated so. Liza was self-absorbed, morally corrupt and cruel. She was undeserving of his respect. He did not know whether she could be redeemed and nor did he care. Whatever the future held, his most pressing priority was to see Sera safely removed from her influence as soon as humanly possible. He could only thank the gods she was not Sera’s mother. That would have been a fine nest of sand-vipers.

He bent, grasped Ryan’s wrists, and slung the stripling facedown over his shoulder. “After you,” he said to Liza, not trusting her at his back.

“Wh-where’re you taking him,” she asked, her voice pitched high with strain and worry.

“Away from here.” He decided it prudent not to inform the girl he intended to locate the front entrance of this abode and toss Ryan out on his arse. She would learn his intentions soon enough. And if Ryan didn’t happen to bounce when he hit the ground, it would be no concern of Danbur’s.

“Put him in Liza’s car. She can drive him home.” Sera sounded rather delighted by the turn of events. “And I won’t tell my mom about you and Ryan having S-E-X if you promise you’ll never babysit me again. Or anyone else I know, either. Okay, Liza?”

The older girl stopped dead and swiveled to face them, her face a twisted mask. “You little b—”

“You are in no position to make threats, Liza,” Danbur interrupted. “You are in the wrong here, not Sera.”

“But I haven’t been paid,” she whined. “And I need the money!”

“Perhaps you should have thought about that before you invited this piece of scum into Sera’s home and broke the trust her mother placed in you.”

She absorbed the expression on his face, swallowed and turned away.

Scuttling so quickly she was on the brink of running, Liza headed down a flight of stairs at the end of the short corridor. Danbur increased his stride to keep up with her. Beside him, Sera’s glee was so palpable he could almost see it.

Little fiend. Pride bloomed in his chest and he bit back a grin… which quickly faded as he recalled Sera’s misery when she had told him of Ryan’s cruel taunts. He should have dragged the idiot boy from the room by his hair. After gelding him with a blunt instrument.

Once downstairs, Liza tugged open a sturdy door and then they were outside. More stairs, leading to a pathway running parallel to a wide expanse of dense black road. Danbur had travelled paved roadways before, but none as smooth and even and perfectly formed as this.

Multi-story buildings of a similar construction and configuration to Sera’s abode dotted the area. Evenly spaced sturdy poles, strung with black ropes of some sort, stood like sentinels guarding the buildings on the opposite side. Jutting from the poles were oddly constructed lanterns, which threw out such bright, uniform pools of illumination that it took Danbur a moment to realize it was a moonless night. And then he was confronted by another miracle, a… a… conveyance the likes he’d never laid eyes upon before. It was so alien that he could barely comprehend what he was seeing.

This must be the— What had Sera called it again?

Car.

Liza fished something shiny and metallic from her bag, and poked it at the conveyance. She fiddled with a latch of some sort, and then a door swung open. “Put him in the backseat,” she said, and climbed into the front of the conveyance, tossing her bag on a seat next to her.

Danbur glanced at Sera for assistance.

In answer, Sera darted forward and opened a rear door, swinging it wide.

Danbur bent his knees, leaned inside the car, and none-too-gently dumped Ryan’s limp form onto the seat. When he straightened, Sera slammed the door shut and tugged him away. “Liza’s real mad,” she said. “She might do something real stupid, like try’n run you over with the car.”

“She is welcome to try,” he said, but allowed Sera to lead him back toward the house.

A roar split the air. Danbur glanced over his shoulder to see bright lights issuing from the conveyance. To his amazement, the car lurched into motion and rolled away at a speed a stable-master would envy. And Liza seemed to be in charge of directing it.

Gods save them all….

Before he could close his sagging jaw, movement caught his eye. There. A twitch of the cloth draping a window in the abode to the left.

Friend or foe?

The spy remained concealed inside the building. Danbur’s natural inclination was to leave nothing to chance, and he knew he should march up to the door and interrogate whoever was inside as to their intentions. He could not help but feel grateful when Sera grasped his hand and demanded his attention. The dull throb in his head had escalated to a steady pounding. His eyesight had blurred. Nausea roiled in his belly and his gorge rose in his throat. If he didn’t sit down soon he’d fall on his face.

“You okay, Dan?”

He blinked, wondering how he’d gotten back inside, and ended slumped on a couch that was comfortable as any mattress he’d ever encountered in a pleasure house.

“You don’t look so good,” Sera informed him.

“My head aches.” The admission was a grudging response to the pleating of her brow and the worry shadowing her eyes.

“You stay here. I’m gonna get some stuff Mommy gives me when I’m feeling sick.”

He must have responded in the affirmative, for when he peeled open his eyelids again she was holding out a small bottle with a flat white lid.

“Mommy gives me one pill,” she said. “But that’s just for little kids like me. Bigger kids get two. You’re real big. So maybe you should take three?”

Danbur blinked at the double-image of Sera. He needed to be quickly rid of whatever malaise he was suffering. “Four,” he said firmly, and extended his hand palm up.

He lost time again while Sera disappeared to get him water to “wash them down ’coz they taste yuck”. And when she returned, she held the tumbler to his lips while he swallowed the pills. The water tasted strange. It seemed fresh enough, though—not that he cared at this precise moment. He drained the tumbler’s contents and closed his eyes.

Sera clambered up onto the seat and snuggled into the crook of his arm. He shifted, making more room for her. And his last conscious thought was that when the child’s absentee mother returned, he would treat her to a stern lecture about her lamentable choice of guardian.

~*~

You can do this, Opal told herself sternly. It’s not New York Fashion Week, for God’s sake. And this isn’t Bryant Park or Lincoln Center—it’s an exhibition center in Brooklyn. With tables of diners looking on. You can do this. But the clammy sweat pearling her brow and her lamentably wobbly knees told her she was a liar.

God. What was I thinking?

Panic tightened her throat, and when she turned to the woman behind her, all that escaped from her mouth was a whimper… which was drowned in the explosion of music heralding the start of the main event.

“Here we go!” Desiree tossed her a wide grin, obviously mistaking terror for excitement. And then Desiree’s gaze focused inward, psyching herself up for the coming, uh, ordeal. Opal had known Desiree mere hours but she felt like an old friend already. An outspoken friend with a sixth sense about how best to support you when you needed it most. And if there was ever a time Opal needed a confidence-boosting mini-lecture, it was now. Unfortunately she was on her own.

She turned her focus to the music. Her heartbeat pounded so loudly in her ears it almost drowned out the cue to start. Oh God. Too late to back out now without making a dreadful scene and screwing up the entire show.

Desiree patted her on the butt. “Knock ’em dead, hon!” she mouthed. And when Opal balked, the pat became a firm push that propelled her forward…. And then long-buried instinct took over and she was strutting down the runway as though the camera-flashes weren’t distracting as all hell, her ridiculously high ill-fitting heels didn’t threaten to pitch her on her face, and she wasn’t being jabbed by a pin from a hastily mended seam.

As though it hadn’t been nearly a decade since she’d last strutted a runway and “knocked ’em dead”.

Opal settled into what had once been her signature “walk”. Easy peasy…. So long as she didn’t think too hard about all the reasons why this was a bad idea.

Chill, she lectured the part of herself that wanted to flee back to her motel room. There was no real reason to be worried. No one would recognize her now. She was a different person to the gawky, naïve girl she’d once been. And according to the internet news sites she’d scoured he was still in Dallas, attending some political fundraiser. He hadn’t been to New York in a while—too busy trying to get his mayoral campaign off the ground. She was safe. So….

Get your shit together, Opal! Time to show ’em all what you can do.

As she gave attitude for all she was worth, she shucked the last vestiges of disgust that she’d not had the guts to speak up and refuse Annie North’s pleas to do this—even though, “It’s a showcase for Conrad’s daughter Stella and a bunch of other aspiring designers, and there’s no one else we can think of to fill in at such short notice, and we’d have to be blind not to notice your to-die-for figure beneath that overall, and I already know you’ve done some runway modeling before because Sera told me when you brought her ’round that time she had a day off school,” had been a pretty good effort so far as outright begging went. Not to mention it was doubly hard to look a sweet person like Annie in the eye and turn her down flat without giving an explanation. Especially when Annie and Conrad, her husband, had covered the cost of a sitter Saturday morning through Sunday evening. Annie had even gotten on the phone right then and there to confirm availability of the sitter Conrad’s middle daughter regularly used.

Looking back, Annie had seemed determined as a gull winkling a tasty morsel from a clam shell to get Opal out of the house and out of her comfort zone. And she was almost enjoying herself. Except—

No. She couldn’t afford to go there, so she ground the last of her worries over leaving Sera with a stranger beneath her currently so-lethal-they-should-be-illegal heels. Not to mention the shock of answering the door and seeing Liza, the sitter Conrad’s daughter had spoken so highly of, wearing a super-brief super-tight outfit and heavy makeup that made her look like she’d been punched in both eyes.

Opal didn’t make a habit of stooping to snap judgments but Liza’s sullen demeanor and, uh, interesting dress-sense had hardly been the stuff of good first impressions.

She posed at the end of the runway area before pivoting to saunter back. Halfway up she encountered Desiree. The statuesque black woman with the swanlike neck and killer body would be a knockout dressed in a sack, but in the crimson dress with a neckline that few women would be able to pull off without judicious taping, she was outstanding. And boy, she knew how to work it.

Desiree dropped her a saucy wink as she minced past. And Opal felt herself relaxing for the first time since she’d been talked into this gig. She could do this. Hell, she’d once been an old hand at this. And as she flashed sultry eyes at one of the diners, damned if she didn’t feel the teensiest bit of pride tingling through her veins at the cat-calls and loud applause trailing in her wake. Seemed she still had a smidgeon of the right stuff.

Once she hit the temporary dressing room she ran for her rack of clothes, hands already busy with her current garment’s fastenings. She shimmied into the next outfit—an emerald green cat-suit—and Stella, the aspiring designer whose creation she now wore, checked her over.

Stella radiated excitement as she gave Opal a nod of approval. “Perfect,” she said. And even though Opal suspected Stella’s “perfect” had been directed at the outfit rather than the wearer, it was hard not to feel buoyed by the compliment.

A breath to center herself and she was on again, slinking down the runway, working it like a pro. The silky material of the cat-suit’s flared legs swished about her thighs. The unaccustomed luxury of the fabric made her feel like a million bucks, and overshadowed even the remembered humiliation of struggling to communicate with stranger after stranger during the journey to the motel and the check-in. Thankfully this morning’s rehearsal hadn’t been quite so stressful as she’d imagined. She had done what she’d been told, when she’d been told, and acquitted herself admirably according to Desiree.

Right now the temporary backstage area was organized chaos, but Opal could get by with a nod or shake of the head. She could do this. She was doing this. And in the middle of another outfit change she realized that despite an exhausting few hours, she felt energized, ready to cope with whatever life threw at her. Not even having her hair catch in the zipper as one of the assistants helped her into another dress could dampen her mood. God. She’d missed this. She hadn’t realized how much until now.

By the time the show ended her feet were about ready to curl up and die, and her calf and back muscles were shrieking. But tired feet and sore muscles were much easier ignore when paired with the camaraderie of the other models and positive feedback from the show’s organizers. And doing it all again tomorrow sure beat cleaning bathrooms and picking up after folks who didn’t have time to pick up after themselves. Opal resolved to extract every last drop of fun she possibly could from this experience.

She waited patiently in the line waiting to climb aboard one of the shuttles hired to take them all back to the motel. A twinge of envy spiked her heart as she glanced at Desiree, who was laughing and chattering with the other young women as they all rehashed the day’s events. She yearned to join in, but too often her efforts immediately killed a conversation.

Her butt muscles protested as she took her seat and she sagged against the seatback, resting her temple against the window. Hah. Suck it up, girl. This had been a walk in the park compared to the dog-eat-dog world of go-sees and fashion shoots, runway shows and on-location assignments.

Desiree gently squeezed Opal’s wrist to snag her attention. “You all right, sweetie?”

Opal smiled and nodded.

“Tired, huh?”

The high from the show was fast disappearing and the effort it took for Opal to force a simple “Yes” from her mouth left her throat so tight her vocal chords ached and throbbed.

“We’re gonna hit the bar,” Desiree said. “Wind down a bit. Believe me, there’s no point trying to sleep when you’re hyped from a show. You in?”

Opal shook her head. And was casting about for the shortest, easiest explanation when a pretty brunette—from memory her name was Rachel—claimed Desiree’s attention with a shriek.

“OMG,” Rachel said. “Check out the local talent. Yum! I could eat him for breakfast, lunch and dessert.”

There was a flurry of activity as those on Opal’s side of the shuttle dashed from their seats to peer out the driver’s side windows. Opal closed her eyes, shutting out the laughter and increasingly suggestive banter. The last thing she wanted was to goggle at anything remotely male. When it came to men she preferred the small-screen variety. Watch, enjoy, maybe even go so far as to drool a little, then flick a switch to banish them from your life. The real deal tended to complicate your life at best, and at worst haunt your nightmares.

When the group of women exited the shuttle and made a beeline for the motel’s bar, Opal hung back and then took refuge in her room. She flopped on the single bed she’d claimed, and toed off her canvas slip-ons. Wiggling her toes was sheer bliss.

With any luck the girls would make a night of it and wouldn’t be back until late, because she planned on taking a long, hot shower, and being out for the count by the time her roommate got in. Sharing a motel room with anyone—even someone as lovely as Desiree—was kinda like being transported to the eighth level of hell.

She grabbed her cheap mobile from her tote and checked her messages. Nothing. And it was later than she’d thought, dammit. Sera would surely be asleep. Opal bit her lip, trying to banish her disappointment. It would have been the frosting on the cake to tell Sera all about the beautiful clothes and accessories.

She debated using the room’s phone to call home but if Sera was asleep she didn’t want to wake her. Not to mention introducing herself to Liza and showing her around the house and discussing Sera’s routine had been hugely awkward, so attempting a phone conversation with the sulky teen was bound to be ten times worse. God only knew what a confident, uh, outgoing girl like Liza had truly thought about Opal’s speech impediment.

She finally decided she wasn’t going to get any sleep until she’d checked in, and texting the sitter was the best option. Hey Liza. Hope everything’s going OK. Is Sera still awake?

She plucked non-existent lint from the coverlet while she waited for the girl to reply. Like all teens these days, Liza’s mobile was practically grafted to her ear so—

The text alert chirped. Opal peered at the screen. The text read, How the eff shd I know???

Her stomach pitched and rolled. What the hell was that supposed to mean?

What happened? Her fingers trembled as she tapped the question and fought to stay calm. Just teenage histrionics. A misunderstanding. Nothing to worry about.

No reply. God. Is Sera okay???

Blank screen. And, after what seemed like a lifetime, the beep of the text alert sent Opal’s pulse into overdrive.

She snatched a breath and read the text. Dunno how yr kid is coz yr asshole boyfriend kicked me out!!! I shd press charges!!!

Opal had never texted so fast in her life. Liza, what happened? Who’s with Sera???

This time the reply came in seconds. Ask yr effing boyfriend, it said.

Boyfriend….

Opal’s skin prickled hot-cold-hot. No. It couldn’t be him. Why now, after all these years, would he come looking for her?

Unless….

Unless he’d been watching her all this time, waiting for a chance to hurt her again. And the easiest, simplest way to hurt her, was through Sera.

God, no. Please no!

Blind panic consumed her. Logic took a hike and she was catapulted back in time to the bruising pressure of his hand over her mouth, mashing her lips into her teeth until they bled. The suffocating pressure of his body, and the pain, and his hoarse voice telling her over and over to “shut the fuck up just shut the fuck up you little slut shut up and stop whining because I know this is what you wanted and now you’re getting what you wanted so shut the fuck up and if you tell anyone no one will believe you and if you tell anyone I’ll make you sorry you were ever born….”

~*~

Chapter Three

The thwack of a slamming door… the relentless pressure of hands gripping her shoulders… words she couldn’t comprehend because inside her head she was howling with fear and pain and despair even though no sound issued from her mouth. She was mute, the words locked up tight. And then a face swam into her field of vision—a face she recognized. A friend.

Desiree’s elegant features had twisted with worry. “What happened, Opal? Talk to me!”

Opal grasped the other woman’s wrists, holding on tight, desperate to anchor herself in the present. She swallowed, tried to speak… couldn’t force a sound past the huge aching knot in her throat.

Desiree plunked onto the mattress beside her and draped an arm over her shoulders. “It’s okay, sweetie. Take your time. Do you want a glass of water?”

She needed to tell Desiree how afraid she was, that she had to leave, get home to Sera, now. But the words were trapped inside her.

Damn him to hell! She hated that he’d done this to her—made her weak, turned her into a frightened victim who’d done exactly what he’d told her to do. She’d shut up, told no one. And she was still shutting up, still unable to speak up when she needed to most. Even now, when Sera’s safety was paramount, and she was so worried her skin was clammy and her heart kicked like it would burst through her ribcage, she was mute.

Despairing, she thrust the mobile phone at Desiree.

Her friend frowned as she read the last text. And then, as Opal watched, inhaling in short, shaky breaths that sounded like sobs, Desiree scrolled back to read the earlier messages. Her eyes widened. “Shit,” she muttered. And then she fixed her gaze on Opal’s face. “Does this mean what I think it means? I’m guessing this ‘asshole’ who pissed off your sitter is your ex. And he’s not someone you want alone with your daughter.”

Opal nodded, sagging with relief. And then fear grabbed her by the throat and shook her hard, and the full-body trembles stole what little control she’d managed to grab on to. Oh God. This was a nightmare. Rick Windsor would have taken one look at Sera and known he was her father. Because Sera, with her thick, wavy red hair and freckles, was his spitting image. And he wouldn’t hesitate to use her to get what he wanted.

Opal had kept tabs on him as much as she was able—the whole know your enemy tactic—and had been hugely relieved when he’d returned to Dallas. He came from an influential, obscenely wealthy family. He’d made powerful friends—the kind who could see to it that Opal never laid eyes on her daughter again. No one would believe her version of events. No one would take her side if she was foolish enough to go public after all this time. If she crossed him, he’d keep his promise to make her sorry she was ever born.

She fumbled in her tote for the credit card she kept for emergencies. The cab fare back to Philly would be phenomenal but she couldn’t think about that now. If this didn’t constitute a dire emergency nothing would.

She inhaled, held her breath for a slow count of three, and as she exhaled she forced out a word and prayed Desiree would understand.

“Taxi?” Desiree shook her head. “I’ve got a better idea. Grab your bag. And don’t waste your breath telling me I’m not coming with you, because I’m coming with you.” She grasped Opal’s wrist and tugged her toward the door.

Desiree in action was like watching a force of nature. Three men had joined the group of women at the bar; a promising young upcoming designer, a photographer hired by the organizers, and one of the stylists. Within minutes, all three were clamoring for the privilege of doing Desiree a favor. The chosen one—selected because he’d arrived in his own car—accepted Desiree’s “personal emergency” explanation without demur and handed over his keys.

Opal glanced back as she and Desiree exited the bar, and discovered him staring at Desiree’s butt like it held the answer to all the mysteries of the universe.

“Where’re we headed?” Desiree asked as she peeled out of the motel parking lot.

“M-M-Manayunk.” It came out as a croak. She cleared her throat. “It’s… it’s….”

“In Philly, right? Good friend of mine lives around there. We’ll be there in a couple of hours.” Desiree threw her a mock glare. “And don’t you dare apologize. This is what friends are for, right?”

Opal nodded. Tears stung her eyes but she didn’t turn away and try to hide them. She wanted Desiree to understand how much she appreciated everything Desiree was doing when it would have been so much easier to call Opal a cab and head back to the bar for drinks.

“I get it, sweetie. You don’t have to say anything, okay?”

Opal stubbornly sucked in a deep breath and with a great deal of effort expelled a shaky but audible, “Thanks.”

Desiree reacted to her stubbornness with another  mock glare. “Wanna grab my phone from my handbag? It’s got GPS. Unless you feel up to giving me directions? Been a while since I was last out that way.”

Nyuh uh. Directions would be way out of Opal’s league given how stressed she was right now. By time she got the words out of her mouth they’d have passed the exit or turn or whatever. She twisted in her seat to snag the covetable designer tote from the backseat, and fished in its copious depths for Desiree’s mobile—one of the latest smartphones. Complete with cat cover that had pointy feline ears. Cute.

She fiddled with it, feeling clumsy and inept, and finally figured out how to access the GPS app. So far so good. She typed in her street address and waited for the app to do its thing. And when the little red circle blipped on screen, she leaned over to hold the phone in Desiree’s line of sight.

“Thanks. I’m pretty sure I know where we’re going but last thing we need is a wrong turn or taking the long way home. I shouldn’t need it again until we get off the interstate.”

They drove in silence, and although Opal was grateful for the lack of conversation it gave her too much time to think. She pulled out her mobile, stared at it for a long minute, her fingers clutching the casing so tightly her knuckles turned white. She had to know. And if she revealed parts of herself that she always kept private to Desiree then so be it.

She accessed her contacts list, selected Liza’s number, and held the mobile to her ear.

Straight to voicemail. Dammit! Liza was obviously screening her calls.

Opal disconnected and gnawed her lower lip as she stabbed the buttons to phone home. She didn’t want to even think about what she would say if he answered the phone.

There was no answering service so she let it ring. And ring.

Come on, come on. Pick up, Sera! And then, just as she was about to give up, the call connected and a sleepy little voice said, “Hello. This is the Stewart residence. Can I help you?”

Under any other circumstances Opal would have been proud as anything that Sera had answered the phone exactly as she’d been taught, remembering not to give her first name until she identified the caller. Instead, her daughter’s name exploded from her throat. “Sera!”

“Hi, Mommy.” A pause while Sera audibly yawned. “It’s real late.”

Opal glanced over at Desiree, and met bitter-chocolate eyes brimming with sympathy and worry and determination. Even though they’d only been introduced to each other mere hours ago, Opal knew Desiree was someone she could rely on. Someone she could trust. Desiree hadn’t mocked her behind her back, hadn’t pried into her privacy or judged on face value. She’d acted as Opal’s intermediary where possible. She wasn’t fazed by Opal’s stutter—it didn’t appear to matter to her in the slightest. So there was no reason to be embarrassed if her stutter got really bad, which it tended to do at the most inconvenient times. Like now, when the stress had rendered her borderline mute.

Deep breath, Opal. Inhale. Hold. Exhale. You can do this. “G-G-Got a t-t-text from Liza. W-W-Was w-w-worried ’b-b-bout you, b-b-baby girl.”

Desiree nodded encouragingly before turning her full attention to the road again.

“It was Liza did a bad thing, Mommy, not me. Her boyfriend came over and his name is Ryan and he’s real mean.” Sera punctuated this hair-raising explanation with another long, drawn out yawn. “I don’t like him one bit and I told him he should go and Liza got mad at me and made me go to my room. So then my friend Dan made ’em both leave. He was awesome!”

Rick wasn’t there. Thank you, God! She and Sera were still off his radar, still anonymous. Still safe and—

Hang on. Liza had asked her boyfriend over? Opal ground her teeth so hard her jaw throbbed. Just wait ’til she got a hold of that girl. And just wait ’til she told Annie and Conrad what Liza had been up to! Conrad would have a fit. That girl was in big trouble.

Opal flopped against the seatback and contemplated the beige interior of the car. Still, it could have been so much worse. If it had been Rick….

It took a few seconds for what Sera had said to slice through the fog of what-ifs and thank-Gods and truly register in Opal’s brain. She bolted upright in her seat, stomach churning, skin slick with shock. “Sera.” She had to fight to keep her voice calm. “Wh-Wh-Who…. Who’s D-D-D-Dan?”

From the corner of her eye she spotted Desiree slanting her a sharp glance but Opal couldn’t spare Desiree any attention right now. Her focus was on the mobile pressed to her ear as she mentally willed her daughter to tell her what the hell was going on.

“Dan’s my friend,” Sera said. “I wished on the crystal Mr. Stone gave me and Dan came out. He’s really big and muscley, Mommy. He’s really nice, too. But he’s not feeling too good so he’s napping on the couch.”

She could not be hearing this right. “Y-Y-You’re—” She closed her eyes. Concentrate, Opal. Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. Now, spit it out. “Alone now?”

“No, Mommy,” Sera said. “Weren’t you listening? Dan’s here. He’s my friend. He’d never leave me on my own.”

That wasn’t at all comforting, despite the pleasure she could hear in her daughter’s voice.

“I’m… on m-m-my w-w-way, Sera.” She shot an imploring gaze at Desiree, who promptly planted her foot on the gas pedal.

The car shot forward, shoving Opal hard against the seat. “B-B-Be there in a… in a l-l-little bit. L-L-Listen. I w-w-want you to… to… g-g-go into the b-b-bathroom and l-l-lock the d-d-door.”

“Don’t worry, Mommy. I’m okay, I promise. Dan won’t let anything bad happen to me.” A breathy little giggle sounded down the line. “You should’a seen him punch out Ryan. It was awesome! I gotta go. I don’t want to wake him up ’til he’s feeling better.” And damned if she didn’t disconnect the call, leaving Opal staring mutely, helplessly, at her mobile phone.

She didn’t know which scenario was worse. Either Sera was alone in the house with a stranger, or Sera was alone, period, and this Dan was her imaginary friend. Which seemed… highly unlikely, given Liza’s text.

“Gonna clue me in?”

Desiree’s question yanked Opal from the mire of unanswered questions and ghastly scenarios that no mother who’d left a young child with a sitter should have to think about. She’d opened her mouth and snapped it shut again, at a loss where to start, when Desiree said, “Do we need to call the cops?”

Well, duh. It was the most logical thing to do, right? But something prompted Opal to shake her head. Having the cops barge in would be terrifying for a little girl. And Sera hadn’t sounded the slightest bit scared—the complete opposite, in fact. And if “Dan” was real and Sera had been frightened, the minute he’d fallen asleep, Sera was smart enough to have gotten out of the house and run next door to—

Omigod. Opal mentally smacked herself upside the head. Why hadn’t she thought of ringing her neighbor before? She didn’t have a clue whether Peter Stone had a mobile phone but she could ring his landline. She waved a finger at Desiree in a give-me-one-second gesture, and searched her contacts list for her neighbor’s number.

Got it. She held her breath, waiting for the call to connect.

“Peter Stone speaking.”

Thank you, God. “It’s… it’s… O-O-Opal.” She was so strung out it was all she could do to spit out her own name. She’d have been humiliated to her core if she hadn’t been so damn relieved he’d answered the phone at this late hour.

“You sound distressed, my dear. How can I help you?”

“The s-s-sitter. She… she… l-l-left.”

“She left young Sera alone? Abominable! I will insure Sera is supervised until you arrive.” And before she could thank him, or caution him, or ask him to call her back when he’d checked on Sera, he’d disconnected the call.

Opal puffed out a breath. Never mind. She owed her neighbor more than he could ever know. Calling the cops and having to answer the inevitable questions increased the chances someone would recognize her once-famous face. If it got out that Opal Jordan Stewart had once been Jordan Cast, and she was now a single mom, and someone decided they had a newsworthy story on their hands….

She wrapped her arms about her middle and suppressed a moan. God. What had she been thinking? She should never have agreed to this gig. She’d been dreaming to think she deserved a little respite from worrying about her daughter’s health and wellbeing, and struggling to make ends meet. She should have known that her desire for a little pampering—to have her hair and makeup done, wear nice clothes, pretend just for a little while she was someone else—would come back to bite her in the ass.

“Opal? Talk to me, sweetie. It’s killing me seeing you like this. Talk to me!”

Opal nodded. Desiree deserved an explanation—even if it took the remainder of the trip to get that explanation out.

~*~

“This the right place?”

Opal didn’t realize she’d drifted into a doze until Desiree’s voice dragged her from the fog of weariness. She pinched the bridge of her nose to clear the fuzz from her brain. “Yes.”

As Desiree pulled up to the curb, Opal peered up at her house. Lights blazed in the sitting room. It took every ounce of control she possessed not to leap from the still moving vehicle. Instead, she waited until the car came to a complete stop before unfastening her safety belt and opening the passenger side door. She held herself in check and waited for Desiree. And was so damn grateful when the other woman clasped her hand that she wanted to bawl.

“You ready?” Desiree asked.

Opal responded with a sharp nod.

“We can still call the cops and let them handle whoever might be inside with Sera.”

Opal shook her head… and hoped to God she was doing the right thing.

“I’m sure ringing you back just slipped his mind. He probably had his hands full with your little girl.”

It took a moment to click that the “he” Desiree referred to was Peter Stone. And Desiree had a point. Her neighbor was hardly a young man and, like most eight year olds, Sera could be demanding when she got over-excited.

“I’ve got my mobile right here,” Desiree said, brandishing the phone like a weapon. “Anything seems hinky, you give me the word and the cops’ll be on their way. Okay?”

“O-k-k-kay.” Thank God Desiree was here. Because if this “Dan” turned out to be a real person, and something had happened to Sera and Peter, the local cops might not take Opal seriously when she could barely make herself understood. They might believe she was mentally impaired. Last thing she needed was someone believing she couldn’t take care of Sera and getting Child Protective Services involved.

Opal fished her front door key from her tote. Arm in arm, she and Desiree marched up the stairs to the front door… which was unlocked.

Anger washed away shock. So much for trusting her elderly neighbor. Anyone who would leave a front door unlocked at night was either criminally naïve or an idiot. Or maybe one step away from senility, in which case she should be a bit more charitable, but damn it was hard when she was so worried about Sera. God. Anyone could have wandered in!

Opal untangled her arm from Desiree’s and burst into the living room at a run… only to stop dead at the sight that greeted her.

Desiree skidded to a halt beside her. “Oh, my,” she said, one hand drifting to her heart. “That’s a calendar-worthy photo right there. And I’m about to melt into a gooey little puddle of girl-parts.”

Ditto. Except rather than melting, Opal felt like she’d been kicked in the chest by a herd of grumpy donkeys.

The man stretched out on the couch was big. And black. And… beautiful, which she knew was trite and unimaginative and terribly clichéd but she couldn’t think of a better way to describe him. She’d never seen such a gorgeous specimen of manhood outside of a glossy magazine. Curled up atop his chest, the top of her head tucked beneath his chin, was Sera. Her features were partially obscured by her unruly hair, but it was obvious she had felt safe and secure enough to drift off to sleep without her favorite stuffed toy—a fluffy red fox she’d instantly fallen in love with because its fur matched her hair.

Sera’s human mattress must be her “friend”. Dan. The man who’d given Liza and her boyfriend their marching orders—reacting exactly as Opal would have done if she’d walked in on the two teens doing… what she suspected they’d been doing. This was the man her elderly neighbor had randomly left in charge of Sera.

And what a man he was.

Her horror at seeing a stranger cuddling her daughter segued to fascination and some other emotion Opal couldn’t identify. She didn’t realize she’d moved but she must have… because now she was standing by the couch, staring down at him, reaching for him, her outstretched hand hovering above his cheek, fingers itching to touch him.

A large hand snaked out, manacling her wrist as he shifted, pushed himself into a seated position with Sera still cradled carefully in one arm. Before Opal could so much as squeak, his eyelids snapped open. And the breath was snatched from her lungs by the regard of shockingly blue eyes that were leached of all beauty, because right now they were so cold and piercing and… and… disapproving, that she instinctively threw her weight backward, and ended up on her butt, heels scrabbling for purchase on the wooden floor.

Her wrist gave a sharp twinge, protesting the angle, but his grip was firm rather than bruising. He wasn’t deliberately hurting her. Not physically, at least. But the disgust skating across the depths of those sky-blue eyes and the defined curl of his lip were hurtful. He didn’t know her but he was judging her. And it was painfully obvious he didn’t approve of what he saw.

Opal concentrated on relaxing the too-tight muscles of her back and chest and remembering how to breathe. “Thank you for looking after Sera. And now you need to go.”

Happily, her stutter had taken a hike. It happened sometimes—randomly, and too infrequently for her to analyze exactly what she’d done and attempt to replicate it. But for now, rather than frustration she felt a flicker of fierce pride that she’d spoken her mind.

That pride sputtered like a candle in a draft when his coolly assessing gaze skimmed her from head to toe, making her abnormally conscious she wore a skirt and was flashing not only far too much leg, but goodness knows what else right now.

She clamped her thighs together. And then, when he didn’t seem inclined to take the hint and release her wrist, she used the tension in his muscled arm to haul herself to her knees.

Big mistake. Being on her knees before him put her at even more of a disadvantage, as though she was some supplicant begging for mercy. Or just plain begging.

She compressed her lips, forcing back unwelcome memories of the last time she’d begged a man.

“Let go of her,” Opal heard Desiree say in a clipped no-nonsense tone. “Now. Or I’m calling the cops. See? This is me with my finger poised over the Call button.”

Opal was grateful beyond words for Desiree’s courage, but bringing the cops into this was only going to open a can of worms. “P-P-Please d-d-don’t,” she said, not taking her gaze from the stranger’s face.

Huh. Her reprieve had been temporary and the stutter had returned. Fantastic. She worked moisture into her mouth and swallowed to ease the strain of her vocal chords. Stuttering made her seem weak. And she didn’t believe for an instant this man respected anything weak.

“You sure, Opal?” Desiree asked.

Dan’s gaze flicked past Opal’s shoulder. And then returned to her. He gave her another once-over—a far more thorough one this time.

He was comparing her to Desiree, damn him.

Opal averted her chin, fixing her gaze on a dust bunny beneath his chair as the wave of heat painted her cheeks. The navy polyester skirt, shiny with age, and the plain white tee she’d donned after the show couldn’t compare to Desiree’s effortlessly stylish hot pink blouse and tailored black pants. Opal hadn’t cared prior to this moment. So long as she’d showcased the designer’s clothes on the runway, what did it matter what she wore afterward? But he made her care. Right now he made her feel as cheap and down-market as her clothes.

She shrugged off her hurt. Bastard. No one had the right to judge her. No one. Sera had nice clothes, and a few quality toys and gadgets—the best Opal could buy given her limited income. And if that meant there wasn’t much left to spend on clothing for herself, and buying new was a treat she saved for Christmas and her birthday, then it was no business of his.

She jerked her wrist from his grip, all-too-aware that had he wanted to keep hold of her, she would have been powerless to prevent him. She scrambled to her feet, looming over him, channeling lioness protecting her cub for all she was worth. “G-G-Give me… m-m-my daughter. N-N-Now.”

He arched one eyebrow—a challenge if ever she’d seen one.

She sensed a flurry of movement and then Desiree was beside her, wafting expensive scent mingled with resolve. “We can do this the easy way or the hard way,” Desiree said. “Give Opal her daughter right now or we’ll make you big-time sorry, you handsome asshole.”

Opal slanted her friend an “are you insane?” glance and Desiree shrugged. “I tell it like it is, sweetie. He’s handsome as sin and a real—”

“I have been called worse,” the handsome asshole said.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Opal’s Wish by Maree Anderson

© Copyright 2014,  Maree Anderson

www.mareeanderson.com/books/opals-wish

www.opalswish.com

 

 

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