“Can you believe those kids thought we’d buy their story about their teacher letting them go early for good behavior?”
Sam LaSalle’s dry question had Meredith Jones snorting with laughter.
“I personally enjoyed that one boy—Lucas?—his response when you informed them that school wasn’t a prison sentence.”
“You mean, ‘Gee, Officer LaSalle, are you sure’?” Sam chuckled.
Granted at the time, he had been in no mood to find humor in the situation. Larry Ballinger, the imp who served as both the island’s bank manager and resident practical joker, had rigged the bank awning to collapse right as Sam had stepped beneath it, utterly soaking him with the rainwater the canvas had collected all afternoon.
That little prank generated a lot of laughter among the islanders and tourists who had witnessed it. For himself, Sam was less amused. Until he caught sight of Meredith laughing so hard that she had tears in her eyes. That vision captivated him. Had him thinking of other ways to make her laugh, wondering if she was ticklish… Then her laughter died, and heat flared within those russet depths as her gaze lingered on how his wet uniform clung to his body. Sam swore that look had steam rising from his sodden clothes. Teasingly, Sam had asked her if she wanted to help him dry off. After she helped him strip out of his dripping uniform.
He could have sworn she was about to say yes. The heated tension that had been building for months between Meredith and himself had been seconds from combustion. The passionate fire in Meredith’s eyes had him nearly groaning, definitely aching, for her. Despite being on duty, Sam had been hunting for a suitably private location when Lucas and his pals plowed into him.
By the time they herded the would-be truants back to school, the moment had passed. The heat between him and Meredith returned to its usual slow simmer, and his uniform was mostly dry. While the ache was still there, Sam had gotten used to it over the past months. He was back in control of his libido, and Meredith’s guard was back in place. No way was anything going to happen between them that day. Or night, as was now the case.
It was the same story that played out nearly every day from the first time they met, nearly six months before. Sam’s attraction had been instantaneous and powerful. And not just because of Meredith’s looks. She had brains, guts, a quick wit, and she cooked like a goddess. Honestly, Sam had more than one dream about that caramel parfait she made. Usually involving him licking it off Meredith, but still. If there was one thing guaranteed to win a soft spot in Sam’s heart, it was good food. And if that made him a cliché, so be it. Sam would wear that moniker with pride. Because his grandmère had always said food could only reach its highest potential when there was heart put into the preparation of it.
So, Sam was smitten to the point that he had not even bothered with dating since meeting the woman. Meredith, however, was a far tougher nut to crack. She had shields that could rival the Death Star, and her weakness was far smaller than that two-meter exhaust port. While Sam knew she was just as attracted to him as he was to her, Meredith was also skittish, prickly, and tense.
All of which meant the two of them had been dancing around each other for months. Sam would jab, Meredith would parry, with neither gaining nor losing any ground. Which, Sam had to admit, only served to deepen his interest in Meredith further. Just as he was certain his stubbornness in not giving up deepened Meredith’s interest in him. And heightened the sexual tension between them. He wondered how much longer it would be before the kettle boiled over.
Sam stopped at the base of the stairs leading to Meredith’s apartment over the laundromat. Their conversation fell silent as Meredith fished out her keys and looked up at him. Heat flared in those russet depths again, drawing an answering need from deep inside Sam. He could not remember ever wanting a woman as badly as he wanted her. But the passion in Meredith’s eyes was tempered by wariness. And her trust was too hard-won for Sam to risk losing it.
After one fraught moment—a moment where he was certain they both imagined the possibilities—Sam stepped back with, maybe not an easy smile, but a smile, nonetheless.
“’Night, Sha. Sleep well. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
As he headed down to the end of her street, making for his own home, he heard her call out in the darkness.
Beneath the darkness of the new moon, the group gathered in the northeastern corner of the island. Save for the constant shush of waves on the nearby shore, all was silent. The island seemed a place of peaceful slumber. Only the flashing beacon of the lighthouse broke the stillness. But the group suspected there was more to Stargazer than the islanders let on. And as far as they were concerned, it was up to them to discover what hid within the shadows.
The group’s leader looked over a row of equipment before addressing his companions. “We all know there’s no smoke without fire. There’s been too many stories about paranormal happenings on Stargazer for there to be nothing to find. Ritual sacrifices, people dying of wounds inflicted by animals that don’t actually live on the island, and even talk of battles against spirits or something both on the plateau and in town. So, tonight we find out. Whatever it takes, we’ll find the truth.”
A chorus of quiet affirmations rose from the group.
“Do you really think people around here can cast spells?”
“That Witch’s Pantry store is likely just a gimmick,” one of the men snorted in response to the question that had been called out. “Just a Wiccan who likes to think they know about the paranormal. We’re looking for something much more real than smoke and mirrors.”
“Yeah. Ghosts,” another replied, getting several laughs.
“Cool it, people,” the leader admonished. “Need I remind you of what we’re trying to accomplish here? We want that contract for our own show, don’t we?”
A chorus of muted “yeahs” filled the air.
“Stargazer Island’s been in the news for a year. People are interested in it. Lots of people. But so far, no one’s really talking about ghosts. Which means we can get the jump on that. We’ll be the first investigators to find proof of the paranormal on this island, and we’ll ride that train all the way to a TV deal.”
A woman stepped forward to address the group. “Alright, people, you know the drill. Let’s get this equipment into place. Fast and silent. We need to be away from here before dawn. The property closest to us is a farm. Those types get up early. So, let’s get to it.”
Everyone grabbed the equipment and moved toward the small cabin and much larger lighthouse. It was time for the investigation into Stargazer Island to begin.
Sam’s feet pounded rhythmically on the pavement as he jogged up Forestview Road. Early morning sea fog blanketed the island, giving it an otherworldly feeling. Sam snorted at his thoughts. Stargazer Island pretty much was the definition of otherworldly. No fog-induced ambience required. The island had been created by magic to protect the world against evil. It was inhabited by multiple species of magical beings, known as Otherkind, who swore to continue the island’s legacy by defending it against the forces of darkness. And didn’t that just sound like a superhero backstory?
Not wanting to mess up the rhythm of his breathing, Sam refrained from snorting again. The island kind of was Nerd-vana. Most of the streets and businesses had space-themed names. Rumors and legends that seemed straight out of fantasy-author anthologies abounded, and it was basically DC’s “Hall of Justice” and Marvel’s “Avenger’s Tower” all rolled into one. Sam loved it.
After his maman died, Sam had lost his anchor. At the time, his ship had been radio-silent, so he didn’t even find out about her death until after the funeral. He never had a chance to say goodbye. When he returned on leave to deal with her estate, everything that once filled his life felt empty. Her house on the bayou just outside New Orleans did not feel like home anymore. So, he had her attorney sell the property. There were any number of families living around there who could use a good home. Sam then rejoined his ship to finish out his enlistment. His shipmates were the ones who got him through those dark days.
It was his best friend, Liam “Merlin” McCarthy, who brought him here. Merlin grew up on Stargazer Island. He would tell their shipmates all sorts of stories about the place. Crazy tales of magic and pixies that sounded straight out of fairytales. But it was the love and open acceptance demonstrated in those stories that caught everyone’s notice. The way Liam talked about it made Stargazer seem like a utopia.
When they decided not to reenlist, Liam invited Sam to come home with him. Sam agreed, mostly because he had nowhere better to go. He never actually believed his friend’s tales could be remotely true. Boy had he been in for a surprise!
His first day on the island, Liam’s family welcomed Sam as if he were a long-lost relative. Liam’s little sister, Siobhan, teased him exactly as she had her older brother. As an only child, it took Sam a couple minutes to get used to it, but he quickly grew to love the teasing.
Then the police chief, Ed Simons, knocked on the door. Turned out he was in desperate need of officers. Two of the older ones had retired and moved to the mainland about a month before. A third officer needed a leave of absence to take care of his mother, also living on the mainland, until she passed. His last policeman, a childhood friend of Liam’s, had just been in a serious car accident. When Liam introduced Sam to the chief, Ed immediately extended his invitation of a job to him as well.
A year later, his world changed again. That was when Sonya returned home. Sonya McKenzie was granddaughter to Cordelia McKenzie, lifelong island resident, and someone everyone on the island respected, practically revered. When Cordelia passed away the island was devastated. Well, most of it. There was that incident where the old island pastor tried protesting at her funeral. He claimed there was no place for witchcraft on a God-fearing Island. The islanders quickly shut him down. Then they petitioned the diocese for a replacement.
Sam figured Cordelia must have been Wiccan or something. His own grandmère was considered a Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, and his maman was a priestess, so Sam shrugged and let it go. Everyone practiced their own beliefs. It was one of the rights he and Liam fought to defend.
When Liam first introduced him to Sonya, Sam could have been knocked over by a feather. Not only because the woman was seriously gorgeous, but because he found out all those crazy stories Liam used to tell were true. Magic did exist. Old Father Carson claimed Delia was a witch because she really was. So was Sonya.
Sonya taught him and another shipmate, Eric Gunnerson, about the history of magic, wars between gods, species descended from them, and all about her family’s legacy. Then she and another islander, Sage, told him and Eric about latent abilities.
Sam learned he had Voodoo blood running through his veins. He already knew that. What he had not realized was that he could tap into those abilities whenever he wanted. Or needed. Sonya’s friend, Celia, taught him how to create psychic shields to keep the spirits from entering his body uninvited and worked with him on interacting with those spirits. She was a psychic medium, so her skills were a bit different from his, but she truly did teach him a lot.
Even more shocking, though, was when Sage told him that he was also a latent shifter. Liam revealed that he, himself, was a full-blood shifter, a mountain lion, and introduced everyone to his animal guardian. Before that, Sam had always believed such abilities to be terrifying curses. He had grown up on tales of the Rougarou, after all. It took him some time to wrap his head around the fact that true shifters were a species like any other. They could be good or bad, and shifting into an animal did not make them violent or bloodthirsty.
Sam’s thoughts were interrupted by the muffled sound of approaching footsteps. As he reached the corner of Forestview and Aquarius Lane, he saw Meredith Jones jogging toward him.
She fell into step beside him without a word. Sam was content to just enjoy her presence. Meredith, or Meri, as she liked to be called, was fairly new to the island. She transferred from the county police back in January. Just in time for Sam’s transformation into a full shifter. He had been attacked by a skin-walker on her first day with the precinct and awakening his shifter guardian was the only way Liam could save his life. Sam certainly could not fault the woman’s guts, given that trial by fire. The county sheriff, who had been with her at the time, still refused to talk about magic or anything that happened during that whole skin-walker case.
Of course, Sam found out later that Meredith herself not only had a few witchy abilities, kind of like Sonya, but was a wolf shifter as well. That had been a huge surprise. Meredith never really spoke about herself, her family, or her past. Had it not been for the fact that he and Liam were taking on six fae hellhounds, Sam probably still would not know she was a shifter. She only changed into her wolf to help them.
As the two joggers turned onto Big Dipper Road, running along the northern cliffs, Sam found his mind wandering to his fellow officer’s more physical traits. At five and a half feet tall, she was of average height, with a svelte, athletic build, and subtle curves. All too often, Sam found himself entranced by her large, russet-brown eyes. He also had a craving to taste her creamy cocoa skin.
Her ebony hair was pulled back into its usual no-nonsense military bun. He had been lucky enough to see it down once, though. It reached about mid-back, thick and curly, with a couple surprising streaks of sapphire blue. Sam felt like her hair mirrored her personality. She hid her inner beauty, streaked with fun surprises, behind a strict, no-nonsense veneer. He really, really wanted to knock that out of the way to reach the real her.
So far, he had only been able to reach past her guard a couple times. The first was right after they met. He had still been recovering from his injuries. Since Sam could not reach the wounds on his back, Meredith helped him rub a healing balm over them. The feel of her hands on his skin was paradise. Sparks fired between them until he thought they would combust together. The pleasure he felt from her touch drew an unintentional groan from his chest. Meredith heard it and skittered away like a nutria rat spotting a gator.
That had been the only time she touched him in any way until a couple months later. As county employees, they had been forced to attend a political dinner for the island mayor. With the aid of a couple goofy lines, Sam managed to catch Meredith off guard enough that she agreed to dance with him. It was just one dance, but it certainly drove home the point that Sam was totally hooked on the woman. He just wished there were a way he could get her hooked on him.
They turned down Cassiopeia Lane, the road that wound down the eastern side of the island, bypassing the bridge to the islet where Stargazer’s lighthouse sat. John and Richard Anderson waved to them as they passed by the farm’s fields. The Andersons were one of the oldest island families, arriving shortly after the McKenzie, McCarthy, and Winters families.
Sam tossed a wave and wink at Siobhan as she passed them on her way to school. Since it was the first week of June, she had been extra busy lately, studying for her finals. The fourteen-year-old was finishing up her freshman year of high school.
A small, wooded area lay beside the McCarthy House, stretching nearly to the east coast. Those woods were where Liam had first met Sonya when they were children. Where Sonya and Siobhan had found a murder victim, and where Sam nearly died. He supposed you had to take the bad with the good.
And near the southern edge of those woods, was a place that was very good. The McKenzie House. A centuries old Victorian, it stood high enough that the sea was visible over the trees from the widow’s walk around the roof. Flowers filled the front gardens, and herbs and vegetables grew in the back. The place seemed timeless, a magic all its own.
Liam and Sonya met Sam and Meredith at their front gate. Sonya pushed a racing stroller with their nearly three-month old son, Connor, nestled inside while Liam held their dog, Boru’s, leash. Both fell in behind Sam and Meredith. In good weather, Liam and Sam usually swam together. Sonya often joined them on their jog to the beach. She would exercise on land while the two of them took to the ocean.
Reaching the beach, Sam and Liam stripped off their shirts and sneakers before running down the length of the small fishing pier and jumping into the Atlantic. In early June, the water was still chilly, but they were used to swimming in such temperatures. They cut smoothly through the waves, swimming parallel to the beach. As they reached the boulders that created the boundary between the swimming area and the boat docks, they turned.
On the beach, Meredith finished her third set of sit-ups and flipped onto her stomach to start another set of push-ups. Beside her, Sonya did the same, groaning as she struggled to lift herself.
Meredith chuckled. “Feel the burn, Sonya.”
“I felt the burn when I finished our second set,” Sonya complained. “Pretty certain I won’t be able to feel my arms after this set.”
“This is your first day going to three sets. It’ll be better by the end of the week.”
“That means I’ve got at least four more days of pain to get through before it gets better, Meri. Not sure your encouragement is helping.”
Still, Sonya managed to finish her ten push-ups. Chuckling, Meredith did another ten before flipping back to start another round of sit-ups. Sonya watched her in amazement as she finished those and flipped again to do more push-ups.
“You put me to shame, Meri.”
“Nah, you’re doing well, for a civilian. The Army doesn’t care if you’re male or female. You want in, you do what they say. I know a few people who stopped exercising once they got out. Now, they can’t do anywhere near what you can, let alone meet the military requirements.”
Finally finishing her reps, Meredith stood and brushed off the sand. Sonya scrambled to her feet as well to join her in a few rounds of squats. She was much better at those. Meredith knew it was because Sonya took dance classes a couple nights a week. Rowan’s sister, Miri, opened a studio on the island back in April and most of the younger women on the island took at least one of her classes. Meredith let her friend, Anna, talk her into signing up for the belly dancing class with her. She had to admit, it was a good core workout.
A splash had her looking out to sea. Liam and Sam had just turned at the docks to start their fourth lap. Her gaze focused on Sam’s form as he sliced through the water, smooth as a torpedo. She was a mediocre swimmer at best but could totally appreciate the man’s skills. And his form… Well, she tried not to think too much on that. Her appreciation there could get her in over her head. Sam was seriously hot.
At six feet tall, the width of his shoulders reminded Meredith of an NFL linebacker. He was totally ripped with muscle and had abs she wanted to eat dinner off. She had heard of six-pack abs, but eight? When Meredith was being honest with herself, she would admit that she had counted them the first time she saw him with his shirt off.
His dark coffee skin boasted several tattoos on his arms that she wanted to study up-close. And there were the scars, both from his time in the military and from when he was attacked by a bear-that-wasn’t-a-bear. That had been her first day on the island. She very nearly turned around and jumped on the next ferry back to the mainland. Two men lay on the ground, all but bleeding out. A giant cougar was latched onto Sam’s good shoulder, while the other arm was shredded. Both Meredith and the county sheriff, John Dolman, pulled their weapons, ready to kill the animal. The islanders stopped them.
Turned out, the cougar was actually another officer she had met that morning. Liam McCarthy. In fact, she had been offered a room in the cougar-man’s house while her apartment wiring was being fixed. That had been shock number one. Number two came when the severely injured man he had bitten shifted into a huge gray wolf and his wounds began closing. Someone, to this day she could not say who, explained that awaking his latent shifter abilities was the only way they could save Sam’s life.
A little over twenty-four hours later, Sam’s wounds were almost completely healed. Meredith saw them. Her hand clenched involuntarily. Even months later, she could still feel that expanse of hot, smooth skin over hard muscle. The man was potent. And dangerous.
Her libido had pretty much lain dormant for years. Ever since that night, though, it raged beyond her control. She was very close to jumping Sam in a convenient alley while on patrol one of these days. In fact, she nearly had just the day before when Sam teased her about something while they were on patrol. Only stumbling upon a group of teens who had skipped school stopped that from happening when he turned those light hazel eyes on her.
Finishing her workout, Meredith did some stretches to cool down. A small sound came from the stroller. Sonya reached in and lifted her son out. Boru danced around her feet, excited to greet the baby. At a quick command from Sonya though, he settled back on the sand. Sonya sat down beside him.
Meredith had to admit, Connor McKenzie was adorable. He had Sonya’s blue-black hair, and Liam’s cobalt blue eyes. She knew his abilities would be a mix of both his parents as well. While Liam was a shifter, Sonya was a witch. That, apparently, was not a derogatory term here on the island. It was where Meredith had grown up. Everyone in her family’s coven considered themselves mages. Meredith was not really certain what the difference was.
Worse than being a witch in her old coven’s mind, however, was not being “pure.” Like little Connor, Meredith was part mage and part shifter. Her childhood had not been a good one once that was discovered. Given just how much prejudice seemed to exist between different paranormal species, Meredith had been beyond shocked to discover that was a non-issue on Stargazer Island. All that mattered to the majority of islanders was that you were a good person. Connor was a lucky little cub.
Both Meredith and Sonya looked up when Liam and Sam rejoined them after rinsing the ocean off in the beach showers. Liam grabbed towels from beneath the stroller and tossed one to his best friend. Meredith had to bite her lip against a desire to ask Sam if she could dry those abs of his. Heat rushed through her when he grinned and responded to something Liam said. Then everyone turned to her expectantly. She blinked. Had she moaned out loud?
Sonya nudged her. “Liam asked if you were working the early shift or the late today.”
“Oh! Sorry, woolgathering,” Meredith muttered. “I’m working this afternoon.”
Liam nodded and grabbed Sonya’s free arm to help her to her feet. “In that case, I’ll see you around four. I’ve got to get over to the precinct now. Sam, I appreciate you seeing ‘Nia and Connor home for me.”
The two men fist bumped. “No problem, Merlin. I’ll see you later.”
Meredith stood and brushed herself off. Now would be a good time for her to head back to her apartment. She needed a shower. A cold shower.
“Meri, I found that book my Gram had,” Sonya told her. “If you want to come back with us, I’ll give it to you. And I made cinnamon rolls this morning. You and Sam can both take some home with you.”
Meredith’s escape evaporated like the morning sea fog. Considering it disappeared in a cloud of cinnamon and sugar, she could not complain too much, though. And she really did want to read that book.
“Sure, Sonya. Thanks.”
Sonya settled Connor back into the stroller and the trio left the beach. Meredith listened to Sam and Sonya tease each other. Their ease was something she envied, even as she wondered how they developed it.
When Sonya laughed and told her how they had met, Meredith realized she must have spoken her thoughts aloud. Those five-plus years of celibacy were starting to affect her mind.
“Teddy Bear rescued me from my abusive stepfather,” Sonya said.
“I’ve heard you call Sam that before. I’d have thought he’s too macho for such a cuddly nickname, though.”
Sam threw back his head and laughed. Meredith’s stomach muscles clenched. She loved that sound.
“When Liam introduced us, I called her ‘Sugar’,” he explained with a grin. “Teddy Bear was ‘Nia’s retaliation.”
Sonya shrugged, emerald eyes twinkling. “I’m not a huge fan of the generic nicknames men give women. Most get the hint when I call them something they’d rather not have their friends overhear. Sam just laughed and accepted it. Now it’s kind of become our thing. I don’t even mind him calling me ‘Sugar’ anymore.”
They walked into the house. Sonya waved her and Sam back to the kitchen.
“I’ve just got to grab that book from the private office. Be back in a second.”