So this was what it felt like to be in the eye of a hurricane.
The beach under her butt was still wet from the previous night's pounding rain. The storm that had driven them to this small, secluded island had finally broken in the wee hours of the morning and now the crisp promise of a new day surrounded her. Laurin Marshall tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear, the cool breeze off the water brushing her skin like a caress.
The calm was deceptive and soon to be torn apart.
Out in the bay the sunrise turned the water to shimmering gold, framed by the distant mountains of the British Columbia coastline. Marring the tranquil scene were the bare white boards of the underside of the Stormchild as she lay tilted awkwardly, the single-masted yacht trapped on the sandbar they'd hit during the storm. A flash of anger rushed Laurin--being stranded like this was not what she'd expected. Not what she'd fought so long and hard for during the past two years. She picked up a stone from beside her bare feet and tossed it angrily at the ocean.
She'd made sacrifice after sacrifice, the greatest of which had been never shifting.
Laurin rose, wiping the sand from her palms against the dangling tails of the only garment she wore, the oversized shirt they'd found in the cabin where they'd sheltered for the night. She needed to move, needed to burn off some of the nervous energy racing through her veins.
It had felt incredible to be able to be herself again for one brief moment. Forced by the storm to abandon ship, Laurin had thrown herself into the wind and shifted into an osprey. The wind under her wings had been achingly good... She shivered at the memory. She hadn't wanted to change back.
She hadn't wanted anything to change, but it seemed that was all she was going to get. Damn it all. Laurin kicked at the sand in frustration, torn between crying and raging at the injustice of it all.
There are many things we don't ask for, but still receive.
She paused in mid-stomp, the words of her grandfather returning to her. That first time, when she'd surprised her whole clan, he'd looked at her so seriously. So kindly. Laurin snorted in bitter amusement. She'd been wavering between tears and shouting that day as well...
"This...you call this a gift? How can this be good, Grandfather?" Her limbs trembled from the aftereffects of her first flight. Her first time ever having turned into one of the giant birds of prey that the People of the Air could assume.
Only she was of the peregrine falcon clan, and she'd shifted into an eagle.
Grandfather sat back, waving away the rest of the people crowding around. Finally only her parents remained, her mother cradling her in her arms. Laurin turned her face into her mother and breathed deeply, smelling the familiar scents of home and happiness. Today was supposed to be a celebration, and instead there had been shouts of fear and confusion. Her ten-year-old heart and mind were overwhelmed.
Grandfather drew on his pipe. Slow and even. His measured and thought-out actions were unlike most of the People of the Air who tended toward impulsive and rash behavior. He pulled the end of the pipe from his mouth and pointed the end at her as he spoke. A rush of tobacco and incense swirled on the air, and his words wrapped around them like an entangling vine covering the mountainside.
"There are many things we don't ask for, but still receive." He motioned over the foothills that lay before them, gestured up to the snow-covered crags of the Rocky Mountains towering at their backs. "The sun rises and warms us. The earth and rivers provide food, and beauty to delight our eyes in the colors of her flowers and the richness of her grasses."
Laurin pulled away from her mother's comfort, propping her fists on her boyish hips. She was upset; she didn't want to hear about the bounty of the earth right now. "Grandfather, I changed into an eagle."
"So you did." He smiled at her and opened his arms. She crawled into his lap as if she were no more than a baby. "My child, the Great Spirit knows what he is about. Trust that there is a reason for this."
A reason for her to be different from all the other children? Not what she wanted to hear. The pleasure of the flight was the only thing keeping her from fully bursting into tears. "I don't want this, Grandfather."
"I know, but it is what you are. There will be good from this--I see it. The water wears down the mighty mountains, carving her destiny. The air carries the seed on the wind to a new home, bringing new life. You will be the one who brings balance, my child. It will test you, and shake you, but you are strong. You are Hawate."
He kissed her nose, then settled into a gentle rocking motion, humming a prayer song low under his breath. Laurin pressed her ear against his chest and listened to his heart beat, strong and steady. She would bring balance. Okay. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad after all...
Laurin blinked and shook herself. She'd resettled on the beach as she reminisced, seated cross-legged, her body rocking with the tempo of her Grandfather's tune. She deliberately finished the prayer song, rubbing the stone she discovered in her fingers. The smooth surface warmed under her touch and she swallowed hard.
She'd left her clan when it became clear that the only balance the men were interested in was the balance of power. Once she had grown to maturity, and it became common knowledge she could shift into any of the air shifter clans, the rumbles had begun. Especially when it was learned her ability as a Hawate would enhance the power of her mate. Yet she had no intention of becoming a pawn in some kind of hierarchy battle amongst her people. A cooling breeze ruffled her hair and she looked out over the ocean.
Hiding only worked if she didn't shift, and last night she'd as good as sent out a beacon announcing her whereabouts. After two years of working as a traveling teacher, her cover was blown. There would be air shifters arriving sometime today, looking to claim her.
Prophecies and predestined omens were a pain in the butt.
The ship in the bay caught her eye again. The only bright spot she could think of was Matt. Tall, dark, infinitely droolworthy. Although she should probably consider the shaman of the People of the Sea, even in her thoughts, with a little more respect than yummy.
It was difficult to believe they were lovers. She'd spent two years hiding, and remaining celibate. The first man she'd broken her sexual fast with had not only rocked her world, they'd set off a magical backlash that seemed to indicate they were... Well she wasn't exactly sure what they were. Definitely something more than a one-night stand. Her cheeks flushed at the memory of crawling out of his bed the previous morning with the objective of never seeing him again. It hadn't worked. Their one night of bliss had been followed by a tangled web that had eventually led them here, to this island.
It seemed the Great Spirit was still playing games with her.
Suddenly she had to see him. Had to be with him. Wrapping her fist around the stone, she ran the thin path through the trees back to the rustic one-room fisherman's cabin.
Storm-freshened air surrounding her, Laurin slipped silently inside. She leaned against the door and watched enthralled as her lover stood after loading the small stove with wood. The embers caught rapidly, and golden light flickered off Matt's dark skin, the firm muscles of his legs and ass shifting smoothly as he wandered to the tiny sink to grab the solid tin coffeepot.
She licked her lips and hummed in appreciation. "There is something so sexy about a man's bare butt."
He twirled, stark naked, a happy smirk on his face. It was impossible to ignore the proof that his interest in her grew more and more by the second. "You were gone when I woke. I thought maybe you were going to try to skip out on me. Again."
She shook her head as she tore her gaze from his groin. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have done that yesterday. One-night stands never have been my thing."
"And it wasn't this time either--a one-night stand, that is." Matt strode to her side and cupped her face in his hands. His voice softened, caressing her ears, smoothing her senses. "Good morning, Miss Marshall."
"Mr. Jentry." Laurin's heart rate sped up as he rubbed his thumb over her bottom lip. "Are you planning on getting dressed sometime soon?"
"Clothing optional, at least for now."
His lips brushed hers, fleeting, like a lingering gust of wind from the tempest that had chased them into this remote island cabin. She could hardly curse the storm--it had been the catalyst that had brought them together as more than simply lovers. Laurin pressed her mouth against his, longing to feel the fire that he'd awoken in her, the magic.
Matt leaned closer, his skin heating her through the fabric of her shirt. She wrapped her arms tight around his neck and melted, welcoming his touch, his kiss.
A loud pop rang out from the fire, interrupting their interlude. She had no idea how long they'd stood there, but somehow already the kettle whimpered and hissed, and they reluctantly separated.
Laurin nodded toward the stove. "I'll get that. I don't want you to splash anything...vital."
He laughed as she brushed his erection with her fingertips en route to the kettle. He was hard, his cock jutting out proudly, and she really couldn't care less about making coffee. Still, at some point, this day was going to change from carefree to one with an agenda.
It was difficult to believe how much her world had changed in less than two days. From being a simple traveling teacher amongst the People of the Sea to--she wasn't sure what she would be called now. She glanced at Matt. He stood beside the single bed they'd shared the night before and was making it up, his bare butt teasing her as it flexed.
"What are we?" she asked, attempting to ignore the streak of fire that shot through her. The temptation to touch him, to press him to the bed and crawl on top for more sexual delight overwhelmed her senses. Whatever magic they had loosed between them, a water shifter shaman and an air shifter, the residual effects were powerful and long lasting.
Matt sat on the mattress and considered her seriously, his dark hair falling across his brow in heavy contrast with the dazzling purity of the blue in his eyes. "I don't know if I understand the question. Are you asking if as part of a shaman couple you have a formal title? Or are you asking if we're married or..."
Laurin frowned as she replaced the kettle on the tiny countertop and put together cups of coffee for them both. "I know we're partners--we established that last night. We belong together and I have no issues with it. I just don't understand it completely."
He held out his hand for the cup she offered and settled her at his side. "I don't understand it completely either. As a shaman, the balance of nature directs me to healing and helping. My strong tie to the ocean comes from being a water shifter. As a trained physician, I see where a person's sickness is wrapped up with the ills of nature. Curses and blessings, disease and cures--they are simply different sides of the same coin."
The steaming hot coffee cleared the final morning fogginess as Matt spoke. Laurin curled her legs up and leaned on the back wall, her feet tucked under his hard thigh.
She couldn't resist touching him.
"I know your role as a shaman, or at least I know what the shaman from my clan, from the People of the Air, did. What I don't understand is why the two of us set off such an explosive reaction. Have you ever heard of an air shifter and a water shifter joining?"
Matt nodded slowly. "A few times. It's rare, partly because you air shifters, my beautiful woman, tend to stay in the mountains. Too far away for us poor ocean dwellers to witness your beauty and fall hopelessly in love."
She stilled. It was too soon to speak of love. She admired him, she wanted him. There was no denying there was something mystical to indicate they were meant to be together at least for a short while, but love?
Not after thirty-six hours. Not when there were other issues flapping their way toward the island.
He put his mug to the side and captured her free hand in his. "What are we? For now, accept that we are meant to be partners as we head to your next teaching assignment and my next medical tour. Beyond that, we will be there for each other as needs arise, and somewhere along the line I hope it will become clearer exactly what we are."
The doubts and fears she'd been wrestling with on the beach returned. "Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that needs arising thing is probably going to be fairly soon, at least on my part."
"Since the storm didn't break until nearly three in the morning, we might have until noon. But I wouldn't be surprised to see a group of men arriving as soon as they can get here." She stared at their linked hands. "I'm sorry for bringing trouble on you so quickly."
Matt lifted her fingers to his lips. "Now you're assuming I don't want to have a good fight to prove my affections for you are of the highest quality."
When she raised her head to stare into his eyes, she spoke firmly, resolute. "I don't want you to get hurt."
He snorted in derision. "Are you forgetting I'm a shaman? I have more power available to me than second and third sons could ever dream of. Any lower-level opportunists from your people hoping to gain advancement using you will have to go through me."
As long as that was only who arrived. She needed to warn him, just in case. "There might be a few...higher-level males as well." He raised a brow and she hurried on. "I can shift into any of the air forms, remember?"
"As I can for the water people. Go on."
She hesitated. How much should she say? "There were a few clans--the golden eagles and the red-tailed hawks--that have twins as potential leaders. Only one brother can eventually take charge of the clan, and..."
The expression on his face calmed her fears a little more. He was furious on her behalf. "They were jostling to join with you for a power booster. Don't worry, I can handle them."
Mysteriously, her coffee mug disappeared and she found herself pressed back against the mattress. Matt loomed over her, his fingers circling the buttons on her shirtfront.
"You think the storm last night slowed them down? Since there's really nothing I can think of that needs to be done right now..." The fabric parted and his warm fingertips drew designs on her bare skin, his gaze fixed on her torso.
She swallowed hard. "The Stormchild. I saw her on the sandbar. Shouldn't we be seeing if we can get her afloat?"
Matt leaned over to lick a circle around one nipple and a great shiver of desire shook her. His voice was husky when he lifted high enough to hover over the tightly pebbled surface. "The tide is low. Nothing we can do...except wait."