There was a chilly bite to the wind that swept the deck of the ferry. Dr. Celia Lawrence readjusted the bright peridot green scarf around her neck as she took in the beauty of Stargazer Island at autumn’s peak. Gold, crimson, and bronze colored the western forests as they climbed toward the top of the plateau known to islanders as Stargazer Rock. More splashes of color flanked the island’s only town to the east. Privately, Celia always called the smaller eastern forest “Sonya’s Woods.” Her best friend had run wild there as a young child. It’s where she met her husband, Liam, when they were both barely out of diapers; where she played with pixies, tiny water elementals called “undines,” and all manner of Otherkind Celia was still trying to sort through.
As a psychic, Celia had known about Otherkind - anyone with paranormal abilities - her whole life. She was one, after all. But before arriving at Stargazer Island, she had never known multiple species who lived and worked in the same community before. Shifters and witches, fae and those descended from various gods, and even more besides. They could all be found on the island, as could humans. That was all but unheard of throughout the rest of the world. So much prejudice and fear still existed that communities were very closed off to other species.
But not Stargazer. It was created millennia before to protect the world from evil. The descendants of the witch who gave her life to make it invited multiple species to the island. Because those first residents understood something that far too many did not. It was only by every species working together that good could prevail over evil. The current residents of Stargazer were living proof of that. Without them, hell would have broken loose earlier in the year. Or at least, one of the gods who could create hell on earth.
Another stiff breeze blew Celia’s blonde curls into her face, distracting her from those dark memories. Pushing them back with a huff, Celia straightened her adorable rust-colored beret. Pairing the hat and scarf with her chocolate suede jacket, she felt like part of the foliage itself. By far, her favorite thing about the fall was the fashions. She loved color and texture. Her brother said if she had not been such a science nerd, Celia would have been a fashion designer. It was probably true, she thought. Barely a year older than she was, Derek knew her well.
Celia bounced impatiently as the ferry slowly approached the docks. After a full day spent in the mainland’s crime lab, she was eager to return to her new home. And wasn’t that just a kick in the pants? Before she had first visited Stargazer, had anyone told her she would be living in a small town on an island off the coast of Rhode Island, she would have laughed herself silly. Celia swore she would never be anything but a city-dweller and looked at those who lived in rural areas with all the pity only a life-long urbanite with mass transit and take out flowing through their veins could muster.
When she arrived on Stargazer Island back at the end of May, her intention had been a short vacation with her best friend to celebrate her doctorate. Celia had just received her advanced degree in chemistry, to go along with undergraduate degrees in Chemistry and Geology. She would help Sonya move into her Gram’s old house, lay on the beach, and maybe flirt with a guy or two. She just wanted to make sure her friend would not backslide into the shy loner Sonya had been.
They had met their freshman year of undergrad at Boston University. Celia’s original roommate decided to celebrate her newfound freedom from parental figures by partying. Hard, loudly, and nightly. Two weeks into the semester she had brought yet another random guy into their dorm while Celia was studying and turned her radio’s volume to high, as if that would hide the fact that the two were getting busy. Celia knew something needed to change or she would end her first term with a hefty prison sentence for homicide.
The school’s housing department placed Celia with another freshman whose roommate moved out the first week. Celia was leery. How bad would this one be? When they met, Sonya appeared standoffish and not quite cold, but close. She all but hid behind her long, blue-black hair. Still, she was quiet, which was a huge improvement.
Then Celia received a visit from a man acting at the behest of Sonya’s stepfather. The man offered her five thousand dollars to shun the girl. When she refused, he upped the offer to ten-grand. Celia took great satisfaction in slamming the door in the weaselly man’s face. When she turned, she saw Sonya staring at her, emerald eyes widened in shock. The ice between them melted like a snowman in Mexico. Over Mocha Frappuccino at the campus coffee shop, Celia learned all about her new roommate’s parents. It turned out that Sonya’s first roommate did take the stepfather up on his offer. Sonya had moved all the way across the country to get away from the man’s controlling isolation and until Celia arrived, it had not worked.
She shared her own stories, finding Sonya to have a sympathetic ear and sense of morality that matched her own. Despite being a year and a half older, Celia felt like she and the quiet, far too serious, girl were kindred spirits. They had been besties ever since.
Still, with all the stories about Stargazer Island, Celia never believed she would find it anything more than an interesting place to visit. Interesting it certainly was. But it also called to something inside Celia that she never knew was there. Maybe the noise and the hustle of city life meant she had never been able to hear it before. Whatever. Celia shook her head. Now that she had, there was no going back.
While helping her bestie and the island police stop a group of murderers - a cult known as VSR - who invaded Stargazer over the summer, Celia had found a true calling in forensic science. She applied at the lab on the mainland, got the job, and moved into an apartment on Stargazer. The island became hers, as much as it had always been Sonya’s.
Celia grinned at the familiar face waiting on the dock. The island was hers, and so were its people. She joined the throng of commuters disembarking. On the dock, she threaded through the sea of humanity and launched herself at the man waiting for her. Laughing, he hugged her back. Smiling inwardly, she pretended not to notice his hands linger as they pulled apart.
“Rowan, what brings you to the docks this fine evening?”
He drew her closer to avoid a collision with two running children. They stopped abruptly, beaming angelic smiles at his stern expression and police uniform. As their harried parents pulled them away, Rowan turned back to her.
“I just got off duty and figured you’d be getting back now, dragă. Thought I’d see if you wanted to grab dinner.”
Rowan snorted. “No. I’m just after knowing if you eat like a normal person or have some freaky science-y way of taking in calories. Of course, I meant with me.”
“Freaky science-y way?” Celia quirked a brow. “Do I look like Frankenstein’s monster or Igor or something?”
Biting back his immediate response that she looked like Venus, a siren, sent to tempt men into sin, Rowan deliberately ran his eyes over her. Celia was not tall, only around five foot, three, but she had more curves than the Monaco Grand Prix. Between her lush body, round, angelic face, and spiraling golden curls, she could make a man want nothing more than to wallow in her softness. Rowan certainly did. Add in the fact that the woman had nerves of steel, a keenly sharp mind, and a moral core of solid granite, and he was hooked.
Rowan’s dark chocolate eyes scanned her from top to bottom, warming her more than a cashmere sweater. She fought a blush. The damn man had been able to do that to her ever since they met, her first day on the island. After so many months, you would think she would have been used to the heat in his eyes. But apparently not.
Finally, he grinned.
“Not from where I’m standing, rinkeni. But you still haven’t answered my question. Dinner? Specifically, dinner with me?”
“After you insulted my profession?” she teased him haughtily, enjoying their flirting banter.
“I promise not to refer to science as freaky again,” Rowan professed, holding a hand over his heart.
Celia heaved an exaggerated sigh. “I suppose we can share a meal. I owe you one anyway after you so generously brought me dinner when I was stuck at the lab until eleven last Thursday.”
It was Rowan’s turn to sigh. “You don’t owe me a meal every time I treat you to one, CC. I like taking you out. Or bringing dinner to you, as the case may be.”
The two approached Nebula, the local diner. Celia stopped before they entered and looked up at Rowan.
“I know you do, but I never take advantage of friends, Rowan. I need to pay my own way.”
Rowan studied her. His dark eyes made it difficult for Celia to read his emotions. She was not an empath like her brother; a fact she never minded as much as when she was trying to read the Roma’s inscrutable face. She thought she might have glimpsed a bit of frustration in his swarthy features, but it was gone before she could be sure. He shrugged easily.
“If that’s what you need, dragă, then that’s how it’ll be.” He held the door and ushered her into the restaurant.
Inside, the diner was set up in a traditional fifties style, complete with red vinyl booths, shiny metal accents, and a juke box. On the walls were pictures from the Apollo and Voyager missions as well as photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Models of the planets and stars hung from the ceiling. Celia adored the place.
A waitress with pink hair pulled up into a large top bun waved to them as she poured coffee. She pointed to a table. The two nodded and crossed the restaurant. As they passed the long counter, they greeted Deanna, the waitress who worked behind it, and Mike, who was eating his dinner there. As Jack, the diner’s cook, put an order up in the window behind it, he tossed a good-natured insult to Mike, his closest friend, and waved to Rowan and Celia. They reached the booth and sat as the pink-haired woman made her way over.
“Celia, Rowan! Nice to see you both tonight. Once a week isn’t nearly often enough to visit.”
“Hi Betsy!” Celia greeted her with a smile. “Honestly, I’d eat here every day, but then I’d weigh three hundred pounds.”
Betsy laughed boisterously. “You just need to find yourself someone willing to help you burn off all the calories, girl.” She winked. “I’ve heard enough stories about Rowan here to know he’d be a good one to ask.”
Rowan lifted both hands, defending himself. “I never kiss and tell.”
“Don’t need to, my boy,” Betsy assured him. “Not when the ladies fall all over themselves to brag about you. Now, what’ll you two have?”
When she left to get their drinks, Celia snorted a laugh at Rowan’s expression. Betsy loved discombobulating her regular customers. It was all in good fun though. The waitress had a heart as big as the entire island. Sonya told her the island police had started a fund to build a statue of her. Betsy was a self-proclaimed institution. Celia wanted to be just like her when she grew up.
After they got their drinks, Rowan grumbled, “She makes me sound like I’m a gigolo.”
Celia nearly spit her soda across the table. “Not a gigolo. Just…popular.”
“Not nearly as much nowadays as in my misspent youth.”
“You aren’t exactly old, Rowan.”
“I’ll be thirty in February.”
“My mistake. I’ll buy you a cane and grab some brochures for the retirement community near the crime lab. You can spend your days playing bingo and shuffleboard.”
Rowan grinned at her. “I prefer canasta, personally.”
Betsy brought out their dinners. The two fell silent as they took their first few bites. Eventually, Celia commented.
“Actually, I think men who had misspent youths are more appealing. As long as they’ve outgrown those days.”
“It’s been…hell, pushing two years since I misspent anything,” Rowan realized. Then he shot her a grin. “Unless you count sponge baths from a male nurse named Bruno while I was in the hospital after my accident.”
“Depends,” Celia pursed her lips, pretending to think about it. “Did he buy you dinner and a drink first?”
“Nope. And he never called me afterward, either.”
“Poor boy,” Celia commiserated. “You’ve been fully recovered for a while now. And I’ve seen the way some of the tourists look at you. You’d have your pick. What’s stopping you?”
“I’m kind of stuck on the last woman I took out on a date,” he confessed. “But I haven’t been able to get her to agree to a second one yet.”
“Did she think it was a bad date?” Celia asked, suppressing an unnerving pang of contempt for the unknown woman.
How could any red-blooded woman not want a second date with Rowan? At just over six feet tall, and leanly muscled, he moved with the easy grace of a master fencer. Add in the darkly tanned skin, eyes like melted dark chocolate, and ebony curls, and Rowan Ellis was nothing short of gorgeous. Seriously mouth-watering. Couple that with courage, loyalty, a quick, slightly sarcastic wit, and smooth, naturally seductive demeanor and he made a package nearly impossible to resist.
“Don’t know.” Rowan’s steady gaze caught her. “Was it, dragă?”
Celia forgot to breathe for a moment. Swallowing, she kept her eyes on his.
“Our date to Luna was your last date?”
He nodded. “Admittedly, it was lacking a bit in the romance department, what with watching those VSR assholes, but I thought we had some fun.”
Remembering the murderous cult that had caused chaos and death on the island earlier that year, Celia shivered. They had been awful. Still, even with the ulterior motives, that date had not been bad. At all. Celia bit her lip as the memory of that night flooded her mind.
Dressed in crimson lace, Celia sauntered up to Rowan, who stood near the door to the McKenzie House, and flicked his tie. He grabbed her hand, bowing over it with a kiss. As he straightened, his gaze moved from her sexy black shoes with the ankle straps, up her smooth bare legs to where they could barely be seen through the lace at mid-thigh. A bit higher, and they disappeared beneath a slightly darker red slip. The dress nipped in at her waist, following her curves up to a sweetheart neckline and off the shoulder sleeves.
She knew she was blushing but could not help it. The heat in Rowan’s eyes was too much to ignore. It lit an answering fire in her own belly. In desperation, she let her gaze wander over him. That dark gray suit with the wine-red shirt fit him to perfection. His ebony curls were still tousled in that slightly messy way he always wore them. Celia had to admit, if only to herself, that small rebellion worked on him. Far too well for her peace of mind.
Celia heard Sage, the other female quarter of their double date, giggle at something someone said. For herself, she was too busy drinking Rowan in to pay attention to anyone else. The front door opened, finally breaking her trance. Glancing over, she caught sight of their shadows for the night, Mace and Tom, heading outside.
Tom paused to call back to the men, “I know it’s a losing battle, but try to keep your heads in the game guys.”
Still staring at Celia, Rowan responded, “Believe me, I’ve never been more focused.”
That heat flared within Celia’s stomach again.
Liam, who was staying behind with Sonya, snorted, escorting the two couples out. “He meant the investigation, brother.”
Celia laughed along with Sage as their dates led them to Rowan’s vintage mustang convertible.
Walking into Luna beside Eric and Sage, Rowan led Celia to the bar to order drinks. They made small talk, watching as their friends quickly got into discussions with two of the suspected cult members they were there to surveille. Celia’s gaze scanned the bar area beyond Rowan’s shoulder, looking for more possible cult members. Her attention returned to her date when Rowan turned toward her with a charming smile.
“May I have this dance, rinkeni?”
Celia narrowed her eyes, not sure she trusted that smile, but nodded. He led her to the dance floor and spun her into his arms as Frank Sinatra crooned “Fly Me to the Moon,” over the speakers. Damn, the man had moves. She was going to have to be very careful here, especially considering this so-called date had ulterior motives. As they circled the room, his dark eyes never left hers. She quirked a brow. Rowan would have to bring his A-game if he hoped to charm her.
“Was there a reason you asked me to dance?”
It was his turn to raise a brow. He twirled her, then dipped her.
“Do I need a reason to ask, rinkeni?”
“Hmm, normally, I’d say no, but I feel like that’s not the case now. So, stop trying to distract me. It won’t work.”
He straightened her and chuckled. “Now that’s a challenge I look forward to meeting. However, you are right, I did have a reason to ask you to dance. Then, once I had you in my arms, I was caught up in the sheer pleasure of having you there.”
There went that heat again. Celia did her best to ignore it, not letting the way he affected her show as she shot him a cheeky grin.
“Point for me then. You’ll need to work on your attention span, Rowan, if you want to win our challenge. I wasn’t even trying to distract you. Now tell me why we’re dancing so I can help you investigate.”
Rowan heaved a dramatic sigh. He pulled Celia closer, dipping his head to whisper directly into her ear. She tried to suppress the shiver that ran through her, but it was impossible. Resisting was going to be tougher than she thought.
Celia shivered again and stared blankly up at him. Wow. The man was potent on a normal day. Up close and personal? Yeah. She was already on her way to intoxication and it had nothing at all to do with the Dances with Wenches drink she had ordered from the bar. Rowan’s smooth voice could melt butter. It did not matter what he was saying. Wait. What had he said?
He chuckled and spun her around. “I think that ties our score at one apiece, rinkeni. But yes, the Woodbridges. The couple who was seen speaking to Andi Green is sitting at a table just at the edge of the dance floor. They’re dining with another couple.”
Rowan spun her again, allowing her a glimpse of the sophisticated looking couple two tables away. Celia knew the Woodbridges were being investigated for the murder of an island tourist. As such, they topped the list of suspects to watch.
To keep from gaining the couple’s attention, Celia turned her eyes back to Rowan as he danced them silently past. When he twirled her again, she used her momentum to step closer, brushing against him as she whispered against his neck.
“What about the couple they’re with? I don’t recognize them from the photos Betsy took.”
Celia felt Rowan’s breath catch as their bodies met. She inwardly cheered, realizing she affected him almost as much as he did her. When he finally drew in a breath, it was tight. He remained silent for several long seconds as they circled the floor. Finally, he cleared his throat.
That had Celia grinning up at him again.
“Two to one.”
Rowan’s smile turned devious. His hand slid up her back to caress the nape of her neck while he surreptitiously watched the Woodbridges over her head. When Celia gasped and bit her lip, his grin widened.
“Two to two.”
They danced closer to the table, using the closing bars of the song as an excuse to sway in place where they could overhear the conversation between the two couples.
“Yeah, I’m a volunteer with District 98 in Chicago,” Rob Woodbridge told the other couple.
Celia’s eyes widened. Her gaze met Rowan’s and held. She could read the grim thoughts in those chocolatey depths as he led her away from the couple. The Woodbridges were lying to that other couple. They had told the tourist who was later found murdered that they lived in West Virginia. The truth was both were from California.
Stepping aside, Celia watched Rowan have a quick word with Mace, one of their shadows. The man slipped out from behind the bar and followed the couple who had been dining with the Woodbridges. Celia breathed a sigh of relief. If anyone could keep that couple safe, it was the former Delta soldier. That allowed her to return her attention to her date. She used the fact that Rowan was following Mace’s progress to sidle closer without his notice.
When Rowan turned to find Celia standing much closer than he realized, she went up on tiptoe and kissed the corner of his mouth, stunning him. His hands clenched on her hips. She felt his need to drag her even closer and reveled in it. Celia could see the hunger in Rowan’s eyes. All for her.
Amused, she watched him rein in those instincts. Once he had, she grinned.
“Three to two, arătos.”
As her memories of that night faded away, Celia’s attention returned to Rowan, sitting across from her in the booth at Nebula.
“We did have fun,” she agreed. “It was the best date I’d been on in years, if you must know.”
Rowan stared at her. “Mainland men must be morons then. You deserve to be the center of your date’s attention, dragă.”
Celia realized Rowan had begun calling her that shortly after that date. She never told anyone she had secretly looked up the meaning of the word. Knowing he was calling her sweetheart gave her a serious case of the warm and fuzzies.
“So, does that mean if I agree to a second date with you, I’ll be the center of your attention?”
She thought again about his absolute focus when she came down the stairs at Sonya’s the night of that date. Beneath his unwavering gaze, she felt like she was baking under the summer sun. Honestly, she was not certain she would survive an entire evening of his undivided attention. She hoped that did not cost her a membership card to the independent woman’s club.
“It does. Does that mean you’d consider a second date, CC?” Rowan countered.
Celia blinked a moment, wondering if being a mind-reader was a Romani thing. Then realized he was answering her question, not responding to her thoughts. Her brain drove her nuts. It was far too chaotic at the best of times. Panic began to build when his meaning finally sank in.
“I’m really busy right now, Rowan. I’ve got work, and you know I started online classes for forensic science, plus my mom and brother are coming out to visit in another week…” she trailed off, unwilling to say no, but somewhat terrified to say yes. “Can I have a few days to think about it?”
She winced at her less than decisive response but did not take it back. She really did need to think about it. And maybe talk to Sonya and Sage about that underlying fear. It was not something she had ever experienced before, and it irked.
Rowan gave her a crooked half-smile. “At least you didn’t shoot me down outright. Sure, rinkeni. It’s Tuesday. This Saturday is the last farmers market of the season. The Andersons always go all out for it, with Halloween activities, hayrides, and such. Then they host a barn dance that evening. If you want to go as my date, let me know Friday. Otherwise, I’ll likely see you there as just a friend. Sound good?”
He had known from almost the first moment he met her that Celia would be a challenge. She possessed a high-energy, effervescent personality that kept her constantly moving, impossible to pin down. More, her mind zipped along at high speed. The woman was always thinking, usually about multiple topics at once. That energy, the fire inside her, drew Rowan like nothing and no one else. Getting her interested in him was always going to take some serious strategy. Especially given the barrier she seemed to keep between herself and the men around her.
Sure, she was close to him and the others, but there was a slight distance. A hesitance, maybe? That kept most of the male population firmly in the “friend zone.” Something he wanted to change. Rowan decided a major part of his strategy would be keeping her slightly off-balance. If she did not know what to expect, she could not build defenses against him. Not strong ones, anyway.
Their first date showed him the benefits of that. Having the investigation to focus on meant that he could catch her off-guard, slipping past her walls when she was not looking. The fact that his teasing, slightly sarcastic sense of humor closely mirrored hers helped as well. But he also needed to set himself apart from the rest of the pack. Otherwise, how could he ever expect her to see him differently? Hence his invitation to the farmers market and barn dance.
Knowing Celia had always lived in cities, he figured all the men she had dated in the past wined and dined her in a fairly traditional sense. Fancy dinners, expensive restaurants. Red roses and romance. Not that she did not deserve all that, but Rowan also wanted to treat her to something fun, that engaged her interest on multiple levels. After hanging out with her in groups over the last few months, Rowan was fully cognizant of Celia’s love of color, texture, sound, and movement. She seemed to just absorb the world around her. He also knew that she was still eager to explore the island, her new home. The Anderson’s farmers market would give her all that on a silver platter. He just hoped she would allow him the chance to feed it to her.
“A barn dance?” Celia’s nose wrinkled. “Won’t that be kinda smelly? What if we step in something? Don’t the animals get in the way?”
Rowan’s shoulders shook with laughter. “City-girl. I promise you’ll have fun.”
“Hmm, you do like a challenge, don’t you?”
“When it comes to you, dragă, I love a challenge.”