I just realized how short the last chapter was. so to make up for it, I thought I’d better post another sooner rather than later. This one should make up for the last, though, since it’s quite a bit longer.
Magic in the Air
The pep talk was well-timed, Amethyst decided. Jas turned through an open gate onto a long driveway that wound between bare trees. Cars were already parked at the circle driveway at the end: Beemers, and Jags, Audis and Mercedes. Jas slid in behind a Porche Cayenne and turned off the engine.
The house was newer, a large Mediterranean with a tile roof and stacked sandstone columns and accents. Tall windows cast golden rectangles onto the landscaping. Low-voltage lighting illuminated flagstone pathways through xeriscaping immaculately tended even in the dead of winter. The scent of pinon smoke spiced the air.
Amethyst’s heels clicked on the stone, and the night air traced a chill up her legs even under her coat. The jitters came back.
Wizard, she thought again, not putting as much of a push into it this time. Wizard with a smokin’ date looking good in a sweet purple dress.
It almost made her laugh, but it did make the jitters go away.
Jas smiled at her again and pushed the doorbell.
The woman who answered the door looked more Mexican than Spanish. It took Amethyst an instant to realize she was a maid, and not the hostess. Rich people, she supposed, didn’t get their own doors. The maid took their coats and ushered them into the most enormous great room she’d ever seen—not excepting the living room at Jas’ house, which was at least at human scale.
This room rose in two stories of glossy plaster walls to an actual groined ceiling. Furniture covered with pillows in russets and golds made artful groupings on the marble tiled floor. A fire of pinon wood blazed in a huge stone fireplace. And throughout the room, groups of people stood or sat, women in black or white or red dresses, men in slacks and coats. The buzz of conversation echoed from the high ceiling, the clink of glasses wove through a background of smooth jazz.
Jas’ hand on the small of her back urging her forward made Amethyst realize she’d stopped short. All the nervousness was back.
Think of it as an anthropological expedition, she told herself. The one percent in their natural habitat.
The thought helped.
She leaned close to Jas and whispered, “I wonder what the mortgage payment is on three million dollars?”
“Amethyst,” he said in a chiding tone, but his lips tucked in a repressed grin.
It occurred to her that he must be relatively confident that she wouldn’t embarrass him. It was more confidence than she had in herself.
A man came across the room toward them. “Jas!” he said, shaking Jas’s hand. “So glad to see you.”
The man loomed over Jas by a good six inches. Jas was a little shorter than average, but he had such presence, Amethyst tended not to notice until he stood with other men.
This one positively dripped money. His brown hair, silvering at the temples, looked barbered just this morning. He wore a platinum and diamond ring that covered most of his first knuckle, a gold watch that looked like it must weigh a pound, and around his neck…was it? Yes, it was. An actual silk cravat.
Standing to one side with a polite smile on her face, she compared him to Jas: slim, not tall, in slacks and coat and one of his usual green ties, this one an awesome black and emerald green paisley. His wore his black hair in a style that looked casually finger-combed, but probably wasn’t, and not a speck of jewelry. And damned if Jas, for all his understatement, didn’t look classier than the other guy.
Jas put his hand on the small of her back again. “This is Amethyst Rey.”
Amethyst jerked herself out her thoughts and stuck out her hand. “Hi. Pleased to meet you.”
She’d missed his name. Great start, Amethyst. She gave a firm shake when his hand engulfed hers.
His brows went up and he gave a laugh. “What a grip for such a little lady! You must spend a lot of time at the gym.”
“Um…” She resisted the impulse to look to Jas for help. “I’m a stained glass artist.” She mimed holding a glass cutter and cutting a curving line. “My hands are always getting a good workout.”
“That explains it, then.” He turned to Jas again. “Go ahead and help yourself at the bar. Hors d’oeuvres are there.” He nodded across the open-plan room toward a dining area. “Enjoy yourselves.”
He gave Jas a manly shoulder pat and wandered off to talk to another guest.
“Was I supposed to give one of those limp lady shakes?” she asked Jas in an undertone.
He took her elbow and steered her toward the bar, where a bartender in a white jacket mixed drinks.
“Don’t worry what you’re supposed to do. That’s one of the advantages of being an artist. You’re expected to be eccentric.”
“That’s why you’re not worried I’ll embarrass you.”
“How would you embarrass me?”
She gave an evil smile. “Dang, Jas,” she drawled. “Didja see that goose egg he was wearing? He’ll break somebody’s jaw with that thing if he hits ’em.”
Jas laughed. “All right. Not that eccentric.”
At the bar, he ordered her a white zin and himself a Scotch on the rocks.
She sipped her wine and eyed the amber liquid in his glass. Seemed like matters could get difficult if a wizard had too much to drink.
Jas must’ve noticed her dubious look. “I’m not much of a drinker, but I do enjoy a good single malt once in a while.”
She held up her free hand. “No problem. Just thought I’d better know if I’m expected to do damage control.”
“Now who’s worried about being embarrassed?”`
She sniffed. “Nothing you can do can embarrass an artiste.”
“Not even this?”
He leaned close, bent his head as if to kiss her neck and slid his hand down her back, perilously close to her butt. And whoa, did the heat pour through her at that.
“One more millimeter,” she said, “And you get a shock that’ll flambé your whisky.” She turned her head. “And there I’ll be standing,” she whispered in his ear, “watching in grave alarm while you yell and jump around, trying to put out your drink.”
He laughed softly into her hair and straightened. The look in his eyes, when they met hers, sent fire racing under the violet dress.
“You’re a cruel, cruel woman,” he said.
She was pretty sure he wasn’t talking about her threat.
His hand rested lightly on her waist as they turned back to the room to circulate. It made it hard to pay attention to names and faces. She told the liquid ripple in her middle to settle down and shut up. Damn Jas, anyway.
The party was a Who’s-Who of New Mexico movers and shakers. An Intel executive, one of the big land developers, the owners of a couple of companies that contracted for Sandia National Labs.
One of the tech company owners had a trophy wife about half his age. She wore a red dress that looked like it had been spray-painted on, ruby and diamond studs in her ears and her lion-colored hair in a complicated updo. The woman, who had to stand over six feet tall in her heels, looked down on Amethyst and gave her one of those limp lady shakes. Amethyst kept a friendly smile on her face, tried not to feel small and grubby and limited herself to ‘pleased to meet you.’
When Jas introduced her to Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic, Amethyst almost bolted for the door. The only thing that kept her from it was the fact that Branson took himself totally un-seriously and seemed to be a genuine and nice guy.
The conversation eventually got around to what she did.
“White-hat hacker,” she said.
The term for the person a company hires to test how hack-proof their computers are.
“For the premier computer security firm in the world?” A little corporate-magnate sharpness peeked through Branson’s impressed look. “I might have to steal her from you,” he told Jas in his cool English accent.
Jas slid her a glance, half teasing, half challenging. “That might be harder than you think.”
Especially since 95% of her hacking involved magic.
“You know hackers,” Amethyst said with a shrug and a smile she hoped was disarming. “Free agents by nature.”
Wizards, too, she thought, reminding herself that no, she wasn’t out of her depth here. Really, she wasn’t.
To her immense relief, Branson saw the director of the Spaceport Authority not long after and excused himself to go talk to her.
“I’m going to pass out,” she told Jas.
“He does have his own charisma, doesn’t he?”
“That’s not what I’m talking about. Can we please get something to drink? Sparkling water. Anything non-alcoholic.”
Jas immediately became serious. “Of course.”
He conjured a spell of avoidance, just enough to discourage anyone from engaging them. Better than studiously avoiding people’s eyes.
“Thanks,” she breathed. “I am so not wired for talking to Important People.”
“You talk to me.”
“Trust me, I was totally intimidated when I first found out who you are.”
“You did seem that way, yes,” he said. “For a smart, capable woman, you intimidate easily.”
“Put me in front of a computer or a sketch pad and I’m fine. With people?” She waggled her hand back and forth. “Not so much.”
They reached the bar, where she asked for a limeade.
Jas touched her arm. “Let’s get something to eat and find a quiet place to sit down for a few minutes.”
She held her limeade in both hands, resisting the temptation to press the cool glass to her face. “That sounds good.”
It was strange, that she was confiding in Jas like this. She didn’t quite know how that had happened. She’d say it was because she didn’t care if she put him off. Except somehow, she didn’t feel like she would. Was that a good thing, or bad?
They made a pass over the hors d’oeuvre selection. No jalapeño tortilla wraps or barbecued cocktail weenies here. No, there were crostini and mini seafood salads on scallop shells; endive leaves stuffed with marinated veggies and squares of cheese; little puff pastries that tasted of lemon and basil that almost evaporated when she bit down on them. Jas found a spot at the end of the banco that flanked the fireplace and sat down with her.
Amethyst sipped her limeade and ate nibbles off a Mexican glass plate, catching her breath.
Jas sat quietly beside her for a few minutes. “We can go, if you’d like.”
“No, I’ll be fine. Just… If the governor’s here, please don’t introduce me yet. Okay?”
“I think I heard someone say she is.”
Amethyst looked around, alarmed, then stopped. “You’re messing with me, aren’t you?”
He put a hand over his heart. “On my honor, it’s the truth.”
She watched the people with their fancy clothes and expensive jewelry. A bad feeling uncoiled in her gut, like midnight was striking and the real world was about to intrude.
“Politicians tend to be more accessible than corporate types,” Jas said into her silence. “I don’t think you’ll have trouble with her.”
He was being kind. She appreciated it, but it didn’t change the fact that they lived two very different kinds of lives, even if they were both wizards.
She set her plate aside. “I think I need to splash some water on my face. Do you mind?”
He was instantly on his feet, offering his hand. “Of course not. Take your time.”
It was his usual smooth charm, but she saw a flicker of concern in his eyes. She let him raise her to her feet. Sudden gloom pressed down on her.
Damn, she thought. When did this get to be so hard?
She squeezed his hand, then went to find the bathroom.
It was occupied. She’d just turned to find a strategic spot to wait when the door opened and Trophy Wife came out, a little unsteady on her feet. For a moment, Amethyst thought she was drunk. Then she saw how pale the other woman looked, how tight her face was.
“Are you okay?” Amethyst said.
Trophy Wife started, then she averted her gaze again. “I’m fine, thank you for asking.”
She made to go past, but Amethyst touched her arm. “Are you sure? You look like you need to sit down or something.”
Amethyst didn’t know why she pressed, except the woman seemed so not fine. Trophy Wife hesitated, looking down the hall with something like dread.
“I’m Amethyst. We met a little earlier. I’m sorry, but I’ve forgotten your name. I’m terrible about stuff like that.”
“Jessica,” Trophy Wife said, really looking at her for the first time. “You are? I thought it was only me.”
“Well, I feel better now,” Amethyst said. “Because here I was thinking it was only me.”
“I’m not sure if I can go back in there,” Jessica said in a low voice.
Amethyst would’ve laughed if it hadn’t been so depressing.
“I know,” Amethyst said. “But I don’t think we’ll be able to hide in the bathroom all night. If they don’t come looking for us, we’ll have people pounding on the door, wanting in.”
Jessica did laugh. “That’s true.”
“If you’ll excuse me while I have my own panic attack,” Amethyst said, “maybe we can go back in together.”
Jessica gave her a very nice, very white grin. “I’ll wait.”
She did wait, which told Amethyst how uncomfortable the woman must be. When Amethyst came out, they stood awkwardly for a minute.
“See, this is the problem,” Jessica burst out. “If I have to make one more minute of small talk, I think I’ll throw up. Again.” She paused. “I mean, everybody is so smart and so talented. They have all these degrees, and they run charities and own boutiques and they’re on this or that non-profit board. And me? I shop. I party. Like, how much good is that supposed to do anyone?”
If she realized that, she was way ahead of a lot of people.
Amethyst started back down the hall toward the noise and motion of the party, more or less forcing Jessica to follow. Fused glass wall sconces in amber and citrine and cream cast cones of light on the faux-painted plaster.
“And I’ll bet they’re all at least ten years older than you are,” Amethyst said. “If you could get them to tell you the honest truth, they were probably doing the same thing at your age.”
Jessica stalked along beside her in her four-inch heels. “I’m afraid my husband’ll get bored of me. I’ll make him ashamed,” she said, almost too low to hear.
The words rang in Amethyst like a bell of truth. No. That couldn’t be what had been gnawing at her all night.
They’d made it back to the great room, opposite the bar and kitchen. Here, in a corner between a window and shelves displaying a collection of Pueblo pottery and carved kachina figures, it was quieter. Most of the guests were gathered nearer the refreshments.
Amethyst was absolutely the last person in the world who should be giving relationship advice. But an observation was probably safe.
“I thought your husband looked pretty proud of you,” she said.
“Really?” Jessica looked torn between hopeful and doubtful. “I know some people say I married him just because…” She shrugged one elegant bare shoulder. “You know. His money and all. But that’s not true. I love him. He makes me feel special.”
If ever the universe was trying to tell her something, it was right now. Amethyst had a sudden, intense desire to escape the conversation.
“Then what’re you doing hiding here with me?” she said with a smile.
Jessica blinked. “I guess you’re right.” She looked around. “There he is. Thanks, Amethyst.” She stalked off across the room, vivid and graceful as a flamingo.
Amethyst turned back to the window. The reflection of the party going on behind her moved like ghosts across the glass. The warmth of the room, the clink of glasses, the occasional laugh that bubbled up out of the ebb and flow of conversation contrasted with the stillness of the moonlit garden outside.
One shape detached itself from the kaleidoscope images, growing clearer as at neared: Jas. She held in a sigh and turned.
He held out her glass of limeade. She took it and sipped, conscious of his gaze on her.
“You have that ‘this isn’t going to work’ look on your face again,” he said.
She put on a smile she hoped looked sincere. “I’m fine.”
Jas studied her. “I saw you talking to Trevor Bayford’s wife. Did she say something to upset you?”
“Why would she do something like that?”
“Obviously something happened.”
“Nothing happened, Jas. We talked a little. She’s a nice young woman who loves her husband and feels overwhelmed and inadequate. That’s all.”
“Ah.” Sudden comprehension showed on his face. “I hope you told her that her husband wouldn’t bring her to meet his business associates if he felt she was in any way inadequate.”
“Something like that,” she said.
“Good. I suppose this…” He gestured around him. “…is all new to her. Once it’s no longer quite so new, I doubt she’ll find it as daunting.”
“Maybe not,” she said. “I guess it depends—”
The magic suddenly lurched like someone had sent a jolt of electricity through it. The same instant, there came an odd foomp and rush of heat. A couple of women uttered startled screams and someone cursed aloud. Amethyst spun.
The fire was… She blinked, trying to make sense of what she saw. It was clawing out of the fireplace, a shifting, shimmering shape more alive than any flame had a right to be.
“What the hell.” Amethyst said.
People scrambled backwards. The bartender grabbed a bucket of ice and shouted, “Where’s the fire extinguisher?”
The thing crawling out of the fireplace expanded, ballooning outward, licking upward, its red and orange and yellow light flickering across the shocked faces of the people in the room.
Jas’ eyes were narrowed, scanning the room. “It’s a summoning. What the bloody hell does he think he’s doing?”
Amethyst scrambled for a spell that would get rid of the thing, but blank shock was the only thing in her head at that moment. Desperate, watching the fire fill more and more of the room, she started pulling energy out of it.
It was big medicine. It wasn’t a proper counterspell, magic directed to a specific purpose, but rather using her power to force the magic out of the spell and back into the ether. Something like trying to use a high-powered fan to blow smoke back into a bottle. Her power thrummed and shivered with the strain. The fire spirit, demon, elemental, whatever-it-was shrank back, dimming and thinning. It gave an angry hiss, like a doused campfire, but didn’t show any signs of returning to a normal fire.
Jas whipped around. “What are you doing?”
She panted, sweat prickling along her hairline and nape. “The only thing I can think of!”
“No. Banish it.” He grabbed her wrist and the outline of a spell formed in her mind. “Like this.”
She and Jas were linked—she’d done it herself a year ago. It had been unintended, but the end result was the same: she could use Jas’ power, and he could use hers, effectively doubling the power of each.
It was hard, shifting her power into the new spell, like grinding gears. Jas used the link to give her a little push and the spell took form. She immediately saw how it worked—it snipped off the root to whatever dimension the spirit had been summoned from, leaving it to wither or forcing it to return.
Amethyst didn’t know which the fire spirit had chosen—or if it was even capable of choice. But it evaporated like burning tissue paper and fizzled out.
People clustered in muttering, exclaiming groups as far from the fireplace as they could manage. A few of the women clung to their men. The bartender had reached the fireplace and chucked the bucket of ice and water on the fire. It hissed much like the fire spirit had and spluttered out in a gout of pinon-scented smoke and a spattering of wet ash.
Amethyst slumped, drained from the expenditure of power. Jas slid a supporting arm around her, but still scanned the room with that narrow look.
“Someone,” he said, “is in a great deal of trouble.”
“That was a stunning example,” said a man’s voice with a Scottish accent, “Of the work of Gramarye FX.”
People gasped and looked around. The voice seemed to be coming from a spot a yard or so in front of the fireplace. A spot now glaringly empty.
“Come on,” Jas said under his breath.
The magic swirled again in answer to a wizard’s power. A fold in the air seemed to form, opening to produce a man.
He was big and tall and looked to be in his forties (which didn’t mean much when estimating a wizard’s age). He had the most amazing henna-colored hair, a dark, dark brown with a distinct reddish tinge that wore long and loose with… Amethyst’s gaze traveled down from his coat. A kilt. An actual kilt, with knee-high stockings and garters under it.
A few more startled squeals and excited exclamations greeted his appearance.
The man made a stagey bow. “Dougal Balgaire, owner and founder Gramarye FX. I hope you enjoyed the demonstration of the effects my little startup can produce.”
He turned and, meeting Amethyst’s eye across the room, raised the glass he held to her.
She swallowed hard. She’d just blown her cover. Not to the civilians in the room, of course—it wasn’t like any of them could see the magic she’d just worked. But certainly to this wizard.
Jas looked ready to start a wizard’s war right there in the middle of the cocktail party.
Mr. Gold Watch, the host of the party whose name Amethyst hadn’t yet managed to get, stepped forward and slapped Balgaire on the back.
“I didn’t believe you when you said you could do that kind of thing in an ordinary setting,” Mr. Gold Watch said. “I’m impressed. Extremely impressed.”
Uncertain applause peppered the room. A few people laughed nervously and someone gave an approving whistle.
Amethyst watched in disbelief. “Yeah, but if we hadn’t stopped that…”
“I suspect,” Jas said quietly, “that was exactly the point. To find out if he would be stopped.”
“Shit,” she said under her breath. “It was a setup. And I walked right into it, didn’t I?”
Jas, his arm still around her, gave her hip a reassuring pat. “Under the circumstances, I doubt you gave away anything he didn’t already know.”
She looked a question at him, worried: Does he know you’re a wizard?
He shook his head. “As long as you’re here, I’m fine.”
Knowing the keenness of wizards’ senses, he was talking in code: as long as Amethyst was there, any wizard present would assume the magic worked was her doing. And Jas was very, very careful to keep the spells he wove subtle and untraceable so no other wizard would realize he was one, too. It gave him an edge he wasn’t willing to lose.
A fan club of sorts had gathered around Balgaire. He laughed and nodded and seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. Once he clapped and pointed across the room. Heads turned, necks craning. Liquid leaped out of someone’s abandoned glass on a table, did a dolphin twist in midair and splashed back into the glass. This time, the applause was certain and enthusiastic.
“I’ll have to let you take the lead, Amethyst,” Jas said.
“Thanks a lot,” she muttered.
She’d had her fill of confronting other wizards, which is what seemed to happen every time she met a new one. It was comforting to know that Jas was her ace in the hole—a strange thought, considering he was the very first wizard she’d ever confronted.
She was still trying to decide the best way to confront this particular wizard when she realized he was gradually making his way in their direction. Amethyst thought she ought to be getting nervous about now. Instead she folded her arms and waited, half curious to see what he’d do, half disgusted that they’d probably end up circling each other like two strange dogs.
Balgaire paused at the bar to refresh his drink, and to shake the bartender’s hand. “Good work, man,” he said, then resumed wandering in their direction, chatting and laughing with this person and that.
Amethyst had long since finished her limeade and now sipped melted ice, growing increasingly impatient.
“Take your time, why don’t you?” she muttered.
She wondered if Balgaire had a history on the stage. He certainly knew how to draw out the suspense. Eventually, he stopped in front of them.
“Dougal Balgaire,” he said, offering his hand.
Jas shook it and introduced himself and Amethyst. She folded her hands, ignoring his outstretched one.
Balgaire lowered his hand and hooked it in his belt. “I’m afraid my poor display’s left you unimpressed,” he said in his brogue.
“Flashy and self-indulgent,” Amethyst said. “And if you’ll excuse me for saying so, really, really stupid. How much damage control were you prepared to do?”
He grinned. “Why, lass, you did it all for me.” He took her hand and bowed over it. “And for that, I thank you. I did hear you’re no one to fook with.”
“Watch your language around a lady,” Jas snapped.
“Och now. Ladies aren’t so delicate where I come from.”
Amethyst retrieved her hand and laid it on Jas’ arm. “That’s okay, Jas. Old Oscar Griego from next door could see his ‘fook’ and raise it a ‘mutha’…um, something else.”
Jas’ lips twitched, but his black stare didn’t waver from Balgaire. “Then let’s call it respect. And I think this…” Jas gestured at the other wizard and let the pause draw out long enough to be an insult on its own. “…fellow owes you that, under the circumstances.”
Balgaire laid a hand over his heart. “On my word, I never meant a bit of disrespect.”
Definitely a stage background, Amethyst thought.
“So,” she said. “Your point in all this?” She waved a hand in the direction of the fireplace.
“Why, for business connections.” Balgaire grinned. “And venture capital.”
“Really,” Jas said. “Speaking for myself, I’ve backed startups before. Confidence is certainly an element of success. “Unfortunately, overconfidence isn’t a good selling point. It causes people to make…” He glanced at Amethyst. “…stupid mistakes.”
“Ah, I see you trust the lady’s opinion of my work.”
“That I do,” Jas said.
“A powerful man like you.” Balgaire switched his attention to Amethyst. “How is it, knowin’ you’ve got more power than any man? Ah, I should say, almost any man.”
She couldn’t decide if the remark was funny or irritating.
“Be careful, Dougal,” she said. “You’ll date yourself with comments like that. Women these days don’t have to wring their hands on the sidelines while the men do all the heavy lifting.”
“Oh, aye, that’s why they hang all over me, then.”
Privately, she thought it had more to do with the kilt and the accent than anything else. She gave Jas a ‘spare me’ look.
“Lucky man,” he said dryly.
Amethyst was pretty sure Jas didn’t have any trouble attracting women, himself.
“It’s got to be hard for the both of you,” Balgaire said, “goin’ against the natural order of things.”
Amethyst turned to Jas. “Help me out here. Is he insulting us? Or is he coming on to me?”
Jas tilted his head as if thinking. “I’d say he’s questioning my masculinity while trying to drive a wedge between us.”
Balgaire rocked thoughtfully on his heels. “The truth of it is, I’m wondering about the man who owns a company called Magus Corporation.”
Her palms went sweaty. “Damn,” she said and thought, Damn, damn. He knows. “I was getting ready to be all flattered.”
Jas shot her a look, opened his mouth to say something, then barked a surprised laugh and turned back to Balgaire. “Are you saying I’m a wizard?”
Right then, Amethyst knew exactly what to do.
She called back the moment a couple of years ago when she’d realized what Jas was, that he’d wooed her for weeks to draw her in, to lull her. All the hurt and betrayal flooded in as if it had only been waiting.
She took a step back. “Are you, Jas? Does he have it right? So help me god, if you’ve been lying to me all this time, setting me up as your front man, your fall guy—”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he snapped. “Would I have hired you if I were capable of doing what you are?”
“If you thought you had something to gain by it, damn right you would. You think I don’t know that?”
Damn, the anger was still there. She thought she’d gotten past all that.
His nostrils flared. “If you feel that way,” he said with dead, chilling calm, “why are you here?”
The bottom dropped out of her middle, like a misjudged step in the dark.
“Dear me,” Balgaire said. “I’ve gone and started a lover’s quarrel. I’d best be going.”
Amethyst rounded on him. “Ya think? Hey, by the way, thanks for a lovely evening. I’ll be sure to look you up sometime and return the favor.”
He held up his hands. “Now, now, no need for that. I meant no harm.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Well, I guess it’s too bad, then, since the harm’s been done. Better look for work in LA, Dougal. I have a bad feeling none of the film studios in New Mexico will want to hire you.”
Balgaire looked like he very much wanted to say something, but had the good sense to beat a hasty retreat. Amethyst watched while he made his excuses to the host and hurried—without seeming to hurry—out the door.
She let out a breath and closed her eyes. “Don’t be mad at me, Jas.”
He didn’t say anything for a long, painful moment. “That sounded serious, Amethyst,” he finally said.
Her mouth was so dry she couldn’t swallow. “So did you.”
“What you said…caught me by surprise. I didn’t think you still felt that way.”
She looked down into her empty glass. “I don’t, mostly.”
She plunked the glass down on a table. “Look, I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry I don’t get over things easily. I know it has to be frustrating. It’s frustrating for me sometimes, too. If it makes you feel any better, it caught me by surprise, too.”
Turning away, she folded her arms, concentrating on not hugging herself. “Well, what do you want to do?” That was a much bigger question than she wanted the answer to. She immediately backtracked. “It’s not like I can leave. I wouldn’t embarrass you that way.”
“Amethyst…” He touched her arm, turned her to face him. “It was a difficult situation. I won’t fault you for how you handled it.” He took her hands. “Thank you.”
She leaned back. “What?”
“Thank you,” he said again. “For coming with me tonight. For so artfully turning aside suspicion. For being willing to use…” He gave a regretful shrug. “…what happened between us to shield me.”
“I— What I said. About you having something to gain by it,” she began, stumbling. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
His crinkly smile came. “That’s twice now you haven’t wanted to hurt my feelings. A year or two ago, you would’ve happily eviscerated me. I’m making excellent progress.”
“Not eviscerated you,” she said, scowling to hide a smile. “Only ripped you a new…um, orifice.”
His hands tightened on hers. “Would you like a change of scenery? I’ve filled my quotient of networking for the evening.”
Amethyst closed her eyes in pure bliss and sighed. “I thought you’d never ask.”
He made a show of running his finger under his necktie. “There you go with that voice again.” He cleared his throat. “Do you like to dance?”
“I love to dance.” She paused and considered. “As long as it’s not Regency or something. The way you offered your arm at my front door has me worried.”
“No, in the Colonies it was more jigs and country dances.”
She laughed, then stopped. “Are you saying you—” She shook her head and held up her hands. “No, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. It would be too weird if you’re that old.”
“All right. I won’t tell you.” He held out his arm once more.
Amethyst slipped her arm into his. “Although it might be interesting to see you in a cravat and waistcoat.”
“We’ll see,” he said, sliding her a teasing smile.
* * *
Dancing with Jas at the Route 66 Casino nightclub was much more enjoyable than talking to Important People at someone’s three million dollar estate on the bosque. Jas might still be a wily schemer, but he made one helluva dancer.
It would be so, so easy to fall under his spell again. More than once she opened wizard’s senses to see if he was doing anything with the magic. But it seemed the only magic was the ordinary kind—the gentlemanly attention he paid her, the way he smiled at her, the pressure of his hand on her waist, light in his dark eyes when he looked at her.
And if she lowered her guard, what then? She liked to think he wouldn’t try another binding. She trusted him that much, anyway. But if it turned out he had some other ulterior motive…
She didn’t want to think about it. Not now.
He pulled into the driveway at her house and turned off the ignition. Silence expanded into the car, thick and heavy. In the dim light, he turned to her, a question on his face. Something in Amethyst’s middle fluttered. Whether it was excitement or nervousness, she couldn’t begin to guess.
She drew a steadying breath. “I’d like to invite you in, but you have to promise not to take advantage of me. I’m not a cheap date.”
“I assure you,” he said. “I most certainly do not consider you a cheap date.”
“Okay, then. Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee before you head home?”
“I’d love to.”
Something about the way he said it made goosebumps prickle up her arms.
She waited for him to come around and help her out of the car, then concentrated on her hand in his, avoiding his eye.
Caramela’s happy greeting at the door pulled the plug on the tension. This time she gave Jas a cursory sniff as if to say, Oh, it’s you again. He bent and scratched under her chin. Caramela gave a mollified wag then went and flumped down on her bed by the sofa. It was way past her bedtime.
Amethyst reached to take off her coat. Jas stepped forward to help her, then laid the coat over the arm of the sofa. He glided his fingertips down her arm, took her hand and stood still, waiting.
Her heartbeat immediately ramped up, not entirely unpleasantly. In fact, not at all unpleasantly.
She wet her lips. “I’m going to try this without a net.” In other words, no wards. “But if you—” she began, threatening.
He put his fingers to her lips, stopping her. “If you don’t feel comfortable, don’t do it. I can wait.”
She gave him a skeptical look. “Jas, no man is that patient.”
“Men have lost the art of patience. If they’d bother to try it, they’d find it yields its own rewards.”
She wasn’t sure why that statement made her insides do funny things.
Very gently, he cupped her face in both hands then paused, watching her. She put her hands on his arms and waited for the panic to flare again, but nothing happened. Well, not quite nothing. Her breath quickened and her pulse fluttered in her lips. She tilted her face to his.
He bent his head and kissed her. She closed her eyes and leaned into him.
Still holding her face, he drew back enough to meet her eyes. His thumbs traced gentle arcs on her cheekbones. “All right?”
Her heartbeat was definitely racing, but the sensations thrumming through her didn’t have anything to do with fear.
“Good,” she said, not entirely steadily.
“Only ‘good’? I’ll have to work on that.”
He slid his hand behind her neck, encircled her with his other arm, still very gently, giving her the chance to pull away if she wanted to. Heaven save her, she didn’t want to.
He brushed his lips lightly against hers, his breath a warm caress on her cheek. He kissed the corner of her mouth, then took her lips again.
His scent surrounded her like a nighttime thunderstorm, the tang of warm rain on desert plants and musky earth. The sensation of his lips moving on hers, the flex of his fingers in her hair raced across her skin like lightning. Her heart beat like thunder.
Her hands moved without her deciding to, around his neck, his chest. He pulled her closer, pressing her against the lean firmness beneath his shirt. She melted into him, tipping back her head to invite a deeper kiss. His tongue traced the rim of her lips then slipped between.
A little sigh escaped her as she opened her mouth to meet him. His hand slid down her back to her bottom, pressing her even closer. Liquid fire rippled its way through her. She shifted her leg, his thigh inside hers, close enough to feel how he was reacting.
Breaking free of her lips, he kissed his way along her jawline to the sensitive place below her earlobe.
“Amethyst,” he breathed, then traced the rim of her ear with his lips.
She shivered and tipped her head to the side, kissing the delicious-smelling hollow of his throat. His breath shook against her skin. His hand cupped her bottom and his fingers tightened in her hair. His mouth moved lower, tracing the line of her neck to her shoulder.
“Amethyst.” His voice was husky. “If you want to escape with your virtue intact, you’d better send me home.”
His lips and hands said just the opposite. So did hers, moving over the muscles of his back. She felt dizzy, drunk, her head spinning and heat throbbing through her.
Somewhere, a little sense flickered. Wait, it said. She wanted to ignore it, but it shouldered its way past all the spinning and throbbing, growing larger and more insistent.
Amethyst made herself let him go, put her hands on his chest. He shifted his grip, too, resting his hands on her waist. His eyes were closed, his chest rising and falling under her touch.
She was suddenly, horribly embarrassed. Here she was supposed to be resisting his spell, and it had been Jas himself who’d had to remind her of it. The heat that had been running so high in other parts rose to her face.
She extricated herself as gracefully as she could. “Sorry,” she muttered.
Jas’ eyes popped open. “Sorry? What in God’s name for?”
“I, um, well…” For being ready to ravish you? For being a tease? No. “I forgot all about the coffee.”
He just stared at her in either bewilderment or disbelief, then bent over laughing. Finally, he straightened. “I think I’ll have to take a rain check on the coffee.”
“Oh. Okay,” she said, not sure if she was relieved—or disappointed.
“Thank you for coming with me tonight. It was…” He touched her cheek. “…perfect.”
Maybe not perfect, but pretty damned close. She should probably tell him so, but couldn’t quite manage to do it. Why not?
He gathered his coat and crossed to the door. Amethyst trailed after, trying to think of something to say that wouldn’t sound lame or too formal. Or worse still, too flippant.
He stopped outside the door. “Sleep well, Amethyst.”
She grinned. “Oh, yeah, sure. You too.”
He returned the grin. The look in his eyes challenged her to change her mind.
Not yet, that little voice in the back of her head whispered. It was right. If things had kept on going, the morning-after regret would’ve been absolutely classic. And Jas must’ve realized it before she did. Now that was a strange thought.
She shut the door, leaned against it and blew out a breath.
Neither of them would be sleeping well at all tonight.