Present Day: July 30, Otherworld:
Spying had become a bad habit.
But it was the only way she ever learned the truth in this palace of secrets.
Over the past three months, her mother had frequently cloistered herself in her vision room. After each session, trembling and with swollen, reddened eyes, she refused to meet Moira’s gaze. What secret made the queen so desperate she turned to confide in an outsider she’d met only a few days ago?
Moira settled herself in the corner, shielded by a cabinet. Alarm skittered along her nerve-endings like a bolt of lightning sparking its way through her body.
Never one to ignore a warning, she inched forward, preparing to make her escape. The door opened and Ma entered followed by Major Steve Taylor, a wereleopard visiting from Earth.
Moira shivered at the sight of the tall, lean, hard-muscled warrior’s unflinching moss-green stare. His scent of laurel and crisp mountain air mixed with a hint of musk wafted over her, exciting every nerve ending. It drew her, enveloped her, melted her where she sat. Good thing she’d never gotten this close to him at her brother and Deva’s wedding. She inhaled again. Goddess help her, she would have fallen at his feet and made a fool of herself.
Moira gnawed on her lower lip. What was it about this hard, closed-off Were? What made her look twice at him when no other male triggered her interest?
A second later, a guard in the hall pulled the door shut, sealing them inside.
Moira eased back into her corner and prayed she escaped discovery. They couldn’t see her, but she could observe and hear everything from her location.
“Major, I trust everything I say will remain in this room.”
“You have my word, your majesty. Within limits.”
“I’ll do nothing to betray my oath to the Cáidh Arm or her mate.”
Moira bit back a snort. A Fae-human half-breed as the Goddess’ Holy Weapon, who would have thought it? She bit her lower lip and reminded herself the Goddess had spoken and it wasn’t her place to question.
“I would never ask you to deceive Deva.” Her mother clasped Steve’s hand. “But if Padraig discovers I knew and kept silent, he might turn against me—all my children may.”
Her mother’s heartbreak and sense of hopelessness ripped through Moira. Her burgeoning empathic power, a new skill she’d disclosed to no one and had covertly viewed as an asset, was now a crippling liability. She couldn’t think or move. Her mother’s pain overwhelmed all thought, leaving only a roiling sea of fear in its wake. What could her mother have known that was so terrible she feared her children couldn’t forgive her?
“Have more faith in him. In all your children, Queen Graciela,” Steve said with the firmness of someone used to command. He placed a finger to his lips and scanned the room. His eyes phased to those of a leopard, fitting seamlessly into his human face—unblinking, soft grass green with a narrowed black iris. His mouth opened slightly, his tongue pressed against his teeth, as if tasting the air. His head made small abrupt movements, taking in the room.
Moira’s eyes widened at his mouthed, “We aren’t alone.”
She froze as he turned and prowled toward her. Damn his wereleopard nose. She squeezed her eyes shut and prayed to the Goddess with every cell in her being she were invisible.
Goose bumps broke out all over her body. The air in front of her stilled. Nothing moved. Only his scent touched her.
He’d found her.
She opened her eyes and stared into his. Her chest constricted with dread. He stood, fully alert, feet planted directly in front of her. If he’d been in cat form, she suspected his ears would tip forward to catch the slightest breath. Whiskers would twitch, testing for any change in the air.
Panic rose. She quickly tamped it down. A Tuatha de Danaan princess did not crumple in a crisis. Her gaze narrowed at his quizzical expression and she braced herself for exposure. He was playing with her. Making her believe he didn’t see her.
Yet, he showed no recognition of her presence as he frowned and his forehead furrowed. It was as if he doubted his senses. As if he didn’t see her.
Bewildered, she looked down at her hands and studied them. She turned them palm up then down. She was here. She could see herself, so why couldn’t he?
Maybe he wasn’t playing.
Over the past six months, she’d been changing. First in small ways, now larger, unexpected abilities had emerged. Her sense of smell rivaled a werewolf’s. At night, she’d swear she saw the dew beads form. Until fifty years ago, she loved being a court lady. Now she stared out at the warriors practice field with unfulfilled longing. She had the strangest urge to fly, not as a D’ Danaan, but as something flying loops and figure eights. What kind of creature, she didn’t know, except it was massive; dwarfing anything she’d ever seen, and she craved to be it.
She inhaled and a shudder rippled through her. That blasted leopard and his wonderful scent! It tickled her, filling her senses, and she knew she’d never be free because it would haunt her. Stifling a sigh, she focused on him. His hard green eyes gleamed with intelligence and frustration as he searched her alcove then shook his head.
Sucking a wayward curl that always slipped into her mouth, Moira watched him stalked back to Ma.
“I’d swear I smelled someone here. It’s a scent I’ve encountered before, but only since I’ve been in Otherworld.” He glanced about the room, again. Confusion and frustration clearly marked his expression. “Must’ve been my imagination.”
Moira smelled his placating lie. He knew better. If she wanted to avoid detection, she needed to steer clear of him over the next two weeks during his stay in Aoibhinn Tir nan Og.
“Come, Major, we have much to discuss and little time. The Cáidh Arm will soon demand your presence.”
Moira held her breath, waiting to learn her mother’s secret yet fearing what she’d hear.
Ashen-faced, the queen turned toward the window with tears in her eyes. “Since Moira’s birth, I have had dreams. Visions. Nightmares.” Shoulders shaking, she wrapped her arms around her waist. “Moira opens her mouth. Flames shoot out, burning off a man’s face. I have also seen another child, now a woman, who bears a family resemblance that can’t be denied.”
“And Moira, with her brown eyes and copper hair, obviously doesn’t.”
Her mother spun and faced the major, fury etched in every line and feature of her face. “You are correct, Major. A traitor exchanged Moira for my daughter right after her birth. I sensed the difference immediately. Her energy felt different.”
Moira clutched her stomach. Her lungs and throat spasmed closed. Who was she? Where did she belong?
He took a couple of steps back from her mother. “If this missing woman’s your daughter, who’s Moira?”
Hands fisted, mouth tight, Moira glared at the queen through watery eyes. Yes, who am I, Mother?
“The daughter of my heart,” the queen said in a soft voice, one weighted with years of pain.
So that’s what she meant all these years.
“Is she D’ Danaan?”
“No, Major, she isn’t. But only I have recognized the subtle differences.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. All your children, including Moira, strike me as very astute.”
Anger, rage, a refusal to believe what she’d just heard filled Moira. She wanted to demand the Goddess force her mother to recant. She was too Queen Graciela’s daughter. But Graciela’s anguished emotions and the confident affirmation in Steve’s voice told the truth.
She, Moira, did not belong in the lineage of the O’Neill’s, the royal family of Aoibhinn Tir nan Og. Her mouth opened as if to scream her denial, but only a soft puff of searing, hot air escaped.
Yet deep down, in the place she’d never admit existed, she’d always wondered why in a sea of blue and gray-eyed tow-heads she had red hair and brown eyes.
“In my vision, my stolen daughter was abused. Her torment resulted in the birth of twins. Daughters...my granddaughters. She was finally rescued, but not by me.” Her gaze met the major’s. “I’ve never known where she was, except it wasn’t Earth.”
Her mother’s breathing was rapid and shallow. She stood wringing her hands, and seemed to fumble for the words to continue. “Three months ago, I had the first vision of my daughter in over a hundred years. She has learned the truth of her birth and that her twins live and although over a hundred they are unlike the Fae. They are immortals. Her new knowledge lashes at me. She has left her hiding place and is now on Earth.”
The queen’s hands covered her heart. “These visions will not leave me alone. I have not slept a night through because of them.”
Moira took in Steve’s rigid stance. He looked as if he were standing at attention. His hesitancy in approaching the weeping queen sent a ripple of unease through her.
Moira understood. Her own helplessness was overwhelming. Everything in her cried out to comfort the queen as she had after Da died. Yet rage and denial at what she’d learned warred within her. With a few words, her world had just been destroyed.
“Why have you told me and not sought council from your advisors?” he asked.
“This must not be known by any within my Kingdom. It will create...problems. Problems we do not need when fighting a war with the Dark Lord.” Her voice dropped to a whisper, “I refuse to have Moira hurt. The Fae may reject her; they can be bigoted and very unforgiving. I love the daughter of my heart, Major. I will not allow her to be hurt or her joyful, trusting spirit crushed. At a hundred and fifteen, she’s still a youngster.”
“That’s an explanation of why you haven’t told anyone in Otherworld. But you still haven’t said what you expect of me.”
“I want you and those you trust to search Earth for my daughter and granddaughters.”
“Again, why us?”
“You know Earth. My people don’t. And as I said, Aoibhinn Tir nan Og must not learn of this until the three women are found.”
“And then what happens to Moira?”
“I hold her in my arms and we discover together what she is and where her birth mother is. But never doubt for one moment that Moira is anything other than my daughter.”
Numb, Moira watched Steve rake fingers through his short honey-colored hair, pivot and pace to the window and back to the queen. “And just how am I supposed to accomplish this?”
The queen shrugged. “My lost child’s scent and that of her daughters should be similar to my eldest daughter Rhianna, whom you met at the wedding.”
“There’s no way we can find these women by scent alone. Do you have any idea how large Earth is? Also, my team is Deva’s protection detail. We’re already splitting our forces because of a time-critical mission. I can’t and won’t accept another mission without telling Deva and she’ll tell her mate, your son, Padraig.”
His gaze bore into her mother’s. “This is the only way I’ll help you find these three women. Understand my duty is to the Cáidh Arm and saving Earth in our war against the Dark Lord.”
Moira focused on the unyielding soldier, inhaling his scent, examining his emotions, checking for lies and finding only an honor-bound warrior.
“You may tell my son and his wife. Finding my missing daughter and her twins is every bit as critical as this special mission of yours. They have untold power and will be important in this war. Should the Dark Lord or one of his allies capture them …”
Moira sat in frozen silence as her mother’s words rained down on her like stone hammers. For years after Da died, she accompanied Ma to the vision room only to have her mother crumple to the floor weeping, stopping once Moira crawled onto her lap. Her mother would wrap her arms around Moira and while rocking her, croon, “At least I have you, child of my heart.”
All this time, she’d believed she was special because she was the child of Ma’s heart and could take away the sadness. She now knew nothing could have been further from the truth. Instead of being a comfort, she’d been a constant reminder of her mother’s loss.
Gradually, the oppressive quiet penetrated her stupor and Moira realized she was alone. Curling into a ball, she sobbed as she hadn’t since her father’s death.
An hour ago, she’d felt loved and protected.
Now she was adrift.
With a few words, life as she knew it had ceased.
Moira entered her bedroom, marched to her dressing table and stared at her reflection. Why hadn’t she seen it before? Red hair. Brown eyes. No one in the family looked like her. Not even ten millennia ago. Even Deva a half-breed had the Fae height and hair the color of a golden-red sunset. Talk about blind!
She shoved the stupid itinerant copper curl that always fell into her mouth behind her ear. All she wanted was to disappear.
Her eyes widened at the now empty mirror.
She looked down at her hands. They were there just like in the vision room.
She turned back to the mirror. Only the pale green plaster wall behind her was visible. “It’s true, he didn’t see me.”
She was like the Cáidh Arm. She wasn’t Fae and could become invisible at will. As she stared at the empty mirror, her image wavered back into view.
Clearly, she needed more practice.
Between now and when she left for Earth—and she was going—she just didn’t know when or how yet, she’d master invisibility. Then she’d hunt for the queen’s missing daughter and granddaughters and return them safely to her mother. That was the only way she could free herself from the bonds of Otherworld and discover who she really was. What happened to her fulfilling her mission, where she went and what she did, was in the Goddess’ hands.
Sniffling, Moira grabbed a linen cloth and scrubbed all evidence of hurt from her face. She stared at her now-despised hair. It marked her as an outsider, not truly belonging.
As she studied herself, another blasted lock of red hair fell forward and into her mouth. “This ends now.” She couldn’t do anything about the color, but she could cure the annoying distraction of her hair.
She marched over to her desk, grabbed a pair of shears, and returned to the mirror. “If I’m not Fae, there’s no reason to have long hair like them.”
She grabbed a hank of hair and lopped off all but three fingers width. Eyes narrowed, she made her way around her head, hacking as she went. In some places, like the nape of her neck, she rested the scissors on her skin and cut.
Completing her declaration of adulthood and independence, she stared at her image. A few long, straggly pieces and curls of differing lengths stuck out from her head. Perhaps it had been a declaration of insanity. Then again, why not finish the job? Lips tightening into a thin line, she grasped those few long stands and sliced them off.
As they fell to the floor, she heard someone gasp behind her.
“Moira Fiona O’Neill! What in the name of the Goddess have you done?”