Tom breathed deeply as he stepped onto Stargazer Island. The scent of sea, spring flowers, and something undefinable – maybe magic - filled the air. That familiar combination certainly worked its magic on Tom. Immediately, he felt as if the weight he carried every day began to lessen. With each step he took, his spirit felt lighter; brighter. Stargazer was a soothing balm for his soul. Or what was left of it anyway. Tom shook the dark thought away as his gaze swept the docks. He was surprised at how crowded it was, given tourist season had yet to begin. Then he caught sight of two familiar faces and a grin broke his normally stony façade as he quickly navigated the crowd to meet them.
The two took turns hugging him.
“Welcome back, Tom,” Derek said. “It’s good to see you again.”
“It’s good to be back,” Tom admitted. “Are you two the welcome wagon?”
Anna grinned. “We are. We’re going to treat you to lunch at Nebula.”
“About time I finally get to eat at Stargazer’s famous diner.”
The trio started toward town. As they approached Main Street, more tourists appeared, meandering down the street or checking out the various shops. Another group waved small electronic devices around as they passed, muttering about EMF readings and anomalies. Tom watched them for a moment before shaking his head.
“What’s with all the tourists? I didn’t think things got this busy until summer.”
“Ostara. The spring equinox,” Anna explained. “There are a few covens and pagan groups who come out here to celebrate the holiday. This year is a little worse than usual because of all the rumors that have been flying around since last summer. Curiosity-seekers want to know if the talk of witchcraft and cryptids is real.”
Tom shook his head. “I suppose it’s good for business, but I know you locals are concerned about attracting too much attention.”
“Rational explanations can be hard to come by once certain details leak out. Some islanders are getting a lot of phone calls about the deaths that have occurred. At all hours of the night. The police have caught a few pseudo-scientists breaking into certain places or trampling through private property hunting for monsters or whatever.”
“There have been a couple near misses,” Derek added, lowering his voice to avoid being overheard, eying the group with the electronics as they entered the diner. “We had a storm last week, which meant Donnie Tildon’s pookah form was flying about. The police blamed it on the Fata Morgana phenomenon when a few early risers caught sight of him out over the ocean. It was before their coffee kicked in, so they were too tired still to question that explanation. And some little kid saw a mermaid sunning herself on the rocks near the pier. Luckily, the girl’s favorite Disney princess is Ariel, and she calls every redhead she sees a mermaid, so her parents assumed this was just another like that.”
Tom wanted to chuckle because those were cute stories. But at the same time, he knew how dangerous the truth could be in the wrong hands.
Derek held the door to the town diner open, allowing Anna and Tom to enter first. Tom surveyed the interior, taking in the fifties-style red vinyl seats, chrome accents and the jukebox in the corner playing “Rockin’ Robin.” Photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope adorned the walls, along with much older pictures from the Apollo missions. Models of the planets hung from the ceiling.
The waitress who led them to one of the booths was just as quirky and colorful as the diner where she worked. Bright pink hair was pinned up in a large top knot, and her lips were crimson red. As Tom passed her, he caught the scents of hairspray and lilac. Before he could sit, she spoke to him.
“You’re that FBI friend of Liam’s, aren’t you?”
“Yes ma’am,” Tom responded, sliding his duffle bag under the bench seat, and holding out a hand for her to shake. “Tom Waverly.”
The waitress smirked, keeping hold of his hand. “Liam said you served in the SEALs with Eric.”
Tom shrugged. “I went through BUD/s training with Eric, but shortly after I was assigned to a team my father was killed, and I needed a discharge so I could take care of my mom.”
The waitress’s grin grew wider. She leaned in and gave him a smacking kiss on the lips, then one on each cheek.
“Thank you for your service, honey. And those other two were for being a good son to your momma. First meal is on the house. Now, what can I get you all to drink?”
Sitting dazedly, Tom waited while Derek and Anna ordered their drinks before simply repeating Derek’s order of root beer. When the waitress left, his companions started laughing. Anna took pity on him and leaned over to wipe the lipstick off his face with her napkin.
“So that’s Betsy,” she said. “She’s been waitressing here since she was in her teens. She greets all the men and women who’ve served in the military like that when she first meets them, or when they get back from deployment.”
“She certainly is something.”
Derek nodded. “The island police started a fund to have a statue of her built. They’ve gotten quite a few donations.”
He told Tom the story his sister had told him about the boisterous waitress. Her unwavering support of service men and women stemmed from Vietnam, when her fiancé was killed in action. She never married, and always made sure veterans were welcomed home.
Tom watched the woman move efficiently through the restaurant, dropping off plates, picking up checks, and refilling coffee. Betsy had a smile and friendly word or joke for everyone and had a gift for coaxing a smile out of the dourest of expressions. By the time she took their orders, he totally understood why his friends at the local precinct decided she needed a statue.
As they ate, Derek and Anna caught Tom up on recent news. Everyone he had become friends with kept in touch with him through email and texting, but he rarely got a chance to speak with them. The cases he dealt with took nearly all his time. What little he had, he spent with his mother. He did not like leaving her alone too often.
“Liam sent me a picture of his and Sonya’s son when he was born,” Tom told them when Anna asked if he had heard the latest news. “They named him Connor McCarthy?”
Anna nodded. “After Sonya’s dad, though they decided that the children who were more shifter than witch would have the McCarthy last name, and the witchy ones would be McKenzie.”
“That’s one way to do it.”
Tom recalled that Sonya McKenzie’s father had been murdered on the island when she was eleven. Albert Westin then married Sonya’s mother and made Sonya’s teen and early adult years miserable. When her Gram died, Westin tried to force Sonya to sell the family home to him, knowing that it hid the portal to the prison realm of the evil god Balor. That was the first time Tom set foot on Stargazer, helping his friends investigate the murders Albert and his coven committed. It had also been when Tom learned that magic was real. Sonya was a powerful witch, descended from one of the Mother’s children. As if that had not been shocking enough, he then discovered that Liam, his former shipmate in the Navy, could shift into a mountain lion.
He returned briefly in August for Sonya and Liam’s wedding, then again in October when Rowan, another island police officer, ran a background check on a man Tom’s colleague, Luca Karras, had red flagged. That case had been a mess. The man, Madison, was Rowan’s girlfriend, Celia’s, professor, and oddly, had appeared on the island to administer an exam. Rowan worried Madison was obsessed with Celia. What no one could have imagined was that Madison was the slave of the evil spirit of a dead woman known as a lamia, who was looking for ways to come back into the mortal world. That was when Tom met Derek, Celia’s brother.
The last time he visited the island, Tom was chasing a murderous convict, who happened to be his best friend, Eric Gunnerson’s, father. While on the island, Tom learned that yet another convict, Marcus Johnston, was threatening Eric’s girlfriend, Sage, and her family.
Johnston, or “the person” they thought was Johnston, kidnapped both his own daughter, Anna, and Sage. It was all hands on deck to sort that mess out.
Which brought him back to this visit. After all the danger they endured, Eric and Sage wanted to move on with their life together. Eric asked Tom to be his best man. He and Sage were getting married on the Equinox. Apparently in the middle of the forest they both loved. But given both had some affinity with nature, Tom supposed that made sense. Sage’s mother was going to officiate. Thoughts of her brought back the conversation they had the night before he last returned to DC.
“When the Mother creates a special soul, she breaks it. Sometimes in two, sometimes in three. But those partial souls will never be truly complete, never be all they could be, if they don’t find one another.”
He shoved that memory to the back of his mind. Now was not the time to deal with it. Tom’s thoughts returned to Nebula and his friends.
The trio finished their meals. Derek insisted on buying Tom dessert. A welcome home present, he said with a wink that had Tom flushing. The man’s silvery-gray eyes were mesmerizing. With his lean swimmer’s build and mop of golden curls, Derek was simply beautiful. And Anna, with her cinnamon skin and dark eyes and hair, was his equal.
Looking at them never failed to jumpstart Tom’s libido. And neither Derek nor Anna hid the fact that they were equally attracted, both to each other and, surprisingly, to Tom. In the middle of danger and mayhem, that was somewhat inconvenient. Tom wondered if they would have time to figure things out before he was forced to return to DC again. Because for himself, being deeply attracted to anyone was unusual. An attraction to two people at once? Unheard of. And he had never in his life desired another man. Yet, he could not paint the visceral feelings he always got around Derek in any other light. Even stranger was how easily they meshed. Right from the beginning. Tom was a suspicious person by nature. It took him time to build trust for people. He questioned everything. Yet in Derek and Anna’s company, Tom’s natural reserve disappeared completely.
Anna excused herself to go to the counter. She spent a few minutes talking with the waitress working there. Tom recalled that her name was Deanna, and he thought he had heard that she was several months pregnant. From what he remembered, she had gone through a lot, and Anna was one of the people who stepped up to help her.
When Anna returned, she walked by that group with all the electronics they had seen earlier. One of the pieces of tech started beeping, drawing excited murmurs from everyone at the table. Tom snorted derisively. Anna ignored them. She said goodbye to Betsy as their trio left the diner, still feigning deafness to that group’s questions about her being a witch. Luckily, Betsy quickly took the cryptid hunters in hand before they could give chase. Both Derek and Anna had to return to work. Tom and Derek escorted Anna back to the office of island attorney, Cal Kynes, where she worked as a legal assistant and paralegal. Anna hugged both of them once again, kissing their cheeks, before heading inside.
As they turned to head toward Alternate Universe, the bookstore where Derek managed the small café, they saw Liam and another former shipmate-turned-island-police-officer, Sam, come out of the precinct across the street. Both men jogged over, treating Tom to that one-armed backslap hug they always engaged in. Tom could not hide the wince when Sam’s slap jarred his injured shoulder.
“What happened, Tsunami?” Liam asked.
Tom saw Derek’s eyes narrow and knew that the empath was silently cursing the fact that Tom’s natural shields hid the injury from him. He sighed.
“Last case was a bad one. The killer we cornered opened fire on us. I took a bullet to the shoulder. More a deep graze. A through and through, with no damage to the bone, but it hurts like hell.”
Liam swore. “I’ll bet. I know you can’t take pain meds, but ‘Nia might have something natural that can help.”
While in the Navy, Tom had taken a piece of shrapnel to the leg. The corpsman had given him a painkiller. Tom nearly died of anaphylactic shock. Turned out, he was highly allergic to pretty much every chemical medication on the market. Luckily, he was rarely ill.
“I’d appreciate it,” Tom answered his friend. “I know if Sage finds out, she’ll insist on healing me. Last thing I want to do is drain her strength right before her wedding.”
“Good luck with that,” Sam snorted. “Hard to hide an injury from our little healer when she can see it in your aura.”
“True story,” Derek agreed.
The group paused outside Alternate Universe. Tom turned to Derek.
“Are you coming to Polaris with us tonight?”
“Of course. There’s no way in hell I’d miss Eric’s bachelor party. It isn’t every day I get to see ‘Thor’ get drunk.”
The others chuckled. Eric was over six and a half feet of sheer muscle with steel-blue eyes and hair so pale a blond it was almost white. Of Norse descent, when he first moved to the island, Sage had informed him that he possessed the abilities of a Viking Berserker. Coupled with his SEAL training, that meant in battle the man was nearly unstoppable.
Derek waved and headed into the store. Liam, Sam, and Tom continued down Main Street until they reached Little Dipper Road, leading to the east side of the island. At the end of the road, a nearly two century old Victorian stood proudly amidst even older woods. New spring shoots and a few early blooming snowdrops, crocus, and daffodils filled the fenced front garden.
Liam led the way up the path to the front porch. Boru, Sonya’s black, brown, and red mutt, greeted them excitedly when they entered the house. Tom crouched down to pet the dog, sending him into spasms of delight. He chuckled as he straightened. By then, Sonya had joined them, dusting her hands on her well-worn jeans. After kissing her husband, she hugged Tom.
“Welcome back, Tom.”
“It’s good to be back, ‘Nia,” he told her truthfully. “I’ve missed this place. And the people.”
Sam snorted. “Pretty sure it’s ‘Nia’s cooking you missed the most, Tsunami.”
Laughing, Tom shook his head. “Well, I can’t deny Sonya’s cooking is a serious enticement. Although, that lunch Derek and Anna treated me to at Nebula was as well.”
He turned to Liam and pulled out his wallet. Grabbing a twenty-dollar bill, he handed it to his friend.
“For Betsy’s statue fund.”
Liam laughed, amusement lighting his cobalt eyes. “I thought I recognized that shade of lipstick you’ve got smudged on your face.”
He laughed again when Tom quickly wiped his mouth. Sonya giggled. A baby’s cry sounded through the monitor in her back pocket.
“Looks like the little cat’s awake,” Sam grinned. “He can meet his Uncle Tom.”
Sonya turned to head upstairs, calling over her shoulder. “Tom, go ahead and put your bag in your usual room. It should be all ready for you. If you do need anything, though, just let me know.”
“I’m sure it’ll be just fine, ‘Nia,” Tom assured her, following her upstairs, Liam and Sam on his heels.
After tossing his bag on the bed, Tom shrugged out of his suit coat and pulled off his tie. He had gotten so used to wearing the standard FBI clothing that, dressing in a fog that morning, it was what he had grabbed, despite having the next couple weeks off to recuperate. Tom rolled up his sleeves and undid the top button on his shirt as he left the room. He heard Sam and Liam in the bedroom beside the master suite and strolled over to the open door.
The nursery was done in soothing tones. On one wall, someone had painted a castle atop a mountain with a forest in the foreground. A lone knight rode his horse up the winding path toward the castle gate. It took Tom a moment, but he saw a cougar lying on a tree branch and a wolf hidden in the shadows below. Several other tiny creatures were hidden throughout the forest, and a dragon flew overhead.
“That mural is incredible.”
Liam glanced at him over his shoulder. “Anna painted it for us. And the ceiling.”
As he ventured further into the room, Tom saw that the ceiling was a blue several shades darker than the walls. It was covered with comets, stars, and planets, all done in bright colors that seemed to reflect the light, brightening up the space. A sturdy oak crib, changing table, dresser and bookshelf filled the room. Over by the large window sat an antique rocking chair.
Liam finished changing his son’s diaper and picked him up. Tom smiled. Even though Connor was only a couple weeks old, his shipmate looked to have the whole fatherhood thing down. Liam brought the baby over, giving Tom his first glimpse of the black-haired, blue-eyed little boy.
“Connor, meet your daddy’s friend, Tom. Uncle Tom, meet Connor Ian McCarthy.”
Tom touched the baby’s hand, surprised when Connor grabbed a finger.
“Your boy’s got a strong grip, Merlin.”
Liam grinned proudly. “That he does.”
Sonya walked into the room, now wearing a wrap-around dress and suede boots. Her blue-black hair was pulled up in a twist and her emerald eyes flashed with love as she caught sight of Liam with the baby. She cooed at her son, leaning in to kiss both him and her husband.
“You boys have fun today. And behave yourselves.”
“Now, Sugar, how do you expect us to do both those things at once?” Sam asked.
“I know it’s difficult, Teddy Bear, but I’m sure if you put your mind to it, you’ll manage. Connor’s bottles are in the fridge, and your pulled pork is in the crockpot and the potatoes are in the fridge. Just put the potatoes in the oven, uncovered, at three hundred fifty degrees for thirty minutes. Tom, there’s a cup of tea waiting for you on the kitchen counter. It should help with your pain and inflammation. It’s the same blend I made for you last summer after you were stabbed, so you’ll be safe drinking it. Liam, your parents will be here around eight to watch Connor.”
“We’ll be fine, Fairy Queen,” Liam assured her, kissing her nose. “You and the girls have fun tonight, and we’ll meet up with you at Polaris later, okay?”
Sonya nodded, giving hugs all around. “Tom, I’m sorry I have to run out on you already.”
“It’s fine, ‘Nia,” Tom grinned at her. “If you feel a need to make it up to me, you can save me a dance later tonight.”
“Sounds good! ‘Bye guys! Love you!”
She skipped lightly down the stairs, patted Boru, and left the house. Following more slowly, the men wandered down toward the kitchen.
“Sonya’s been taking the afternoon shift at her store once she started working again this week while I work mornings,” Liam explained to Tom. “She’ll close up and meet the girls at Luna for dinner to kick off Sage’s bachelorette party.”
“Do you two ever get to see each other anymore?” Tom asked as Sam handed him the tea and grabbed bottles of root beer for Liam and himself.
Liam shrugged. “We make time, but yeah, things have been a bit hectic.”
“So, how did Sonya’s labor go?”
“Pretty certain I was more of a nervous wreck than ‘Nia. Especially since the little dude decided to make his appearance while Doc Harris was on the mainland with his wife for their anniversary. Luckily, Sage, Abigail, Andi, Andrea, and Miz Delia were all on hand here to help. I think Sage and Abigail helped speed ‘Nia’s recovery.”
“Sonya’s Gram made another appearance?”
Normally, this would not rate a comment from Tom. As far as he was concerned, family should support one another. Except in this case, Delia McKenzie had died nearly a year before. But she appeared to Sonya and Liam once over the summer, so… Tom just mentally shrugged. Only on Stargazer.
“Said she wanted to welcome in the next generation,” Liam said.
“I was more surprised that Andi was here, than Miz Delia,” Sam admitted. “Hadn’t realized she’s a doctor.”
“Andi,” Tom thought. “Wasn’t she the woman Johnston shot when he kidnapped Sage and Anna?”
“That’s right. She pushed Deanna out of the way. Thankfully, Doc was able to save her life. She had nearly finished her residency at the coastal hospital over on the mainland. Once she was able to get back to work, she got all that wrapped up and Doc hired her that same day. He wants to be able to retire and said he couldn’t do that until he was sure the island would be in good hands. Seems Andi is it.”
When Connor began fussing, Liam handed him over to Tom with a smirk, showing him how to support the baby. “Your first official act as an uncle. You get to hold him while I heat up his bottle.”
Tom blinked, looking down at the little bundle of humanity in his arms. The baby’s face screwed up, his eyes clenching tightly as he worked his way up to screaming for his lunch. To forestall the storm, Tom began walking around the kitchen, lifting Connor slightly to show him the gardens through the windows and the forest beyond. Finally, Liam handed him the bottle. As he watched the baby suck down his milk, and chatted with his former comrades in arms, Tom inwardly smiled. It was good to be back.