I got a lot of writing done this weekend, so here’s the next chapter of the latest Land of Enchantment book. If you missed the beginning, click here to read it.
“You’re pretty quiet, Wiz,” Melodie Odham said. “Something tells me things didn’t go well yesterday.”
Amethyst had known Melodie since their days in UNM’s Information Technology program. Even after leaving computers for stained glass, they remained best friends. Melodie had given Amethyst the nickname ‘Wiz’, short for ‘whiz kid.’ Neither of them knew then how appropriate it was…and not for Amethyst’s aptitude with computers.
“Actually,” Amethyst said, “it did go well. I got to drive his car. We had lunch at The Shed. Jas took me to see his old house when he lived in Santa Fe.”
“Uh-huh,” Melodie said. “And you’re slouching along the trail with your hands in your coat pockets and your head down because you’re giddy with joy.”
She was, in fact, doing exactly that. Not even enjoying the glint of sunlight on the Rio Grande River, the huge cottonwoods of the bosque all around them, brown leaves clinging to their branches silhouetted against another perfect blue New Mexico sky. Ignoring both her best friend and poor Caramela, who’d picked up a stick and was prancing happily along with it.
“Okay,” she said. “It went well until we got back to my house.”
Melodie perked up.
“He walked me to the door. He started to kiss me.” She walked several steps, her footsteps almost silent on the soft earth of the trail. “Mel, I panicked.”
“You what? Why—? Oh. Oh.” Melodie frowned, puzzled. “Are you saying you haven’t kissed him since—then?”
Melodie knew about the binding Jas had laid on her—and exactly how he’d gone about doing it. She was the only person who did.
“My god, Wiz,” Melodie burst out. “He’s kissed you exactly once? And that’s it? Nothing else? The man asked you to marry him!”
She threw up the hand not holding Caramela’s leash. “I know, huh? Why do you think I told him no?”
“Because he’s Jas Harker?”
Amethyst grinned. “Besides that. Things have to be done in the proper order, I tell him. Now he leans in for a kiss and it’s all I can do to keep from throwing the whammy on him and running inside and locking myself in the house. It was the most humiliating moment of my life.”
“You’ve had several most-humiliating moments in your life. Usually to do with men.”
“Acting like a dork on a date is one thing. Turning into a quivering knot of sheer terror when your date tries to kiss you is a whole new level of humiliation.”
Melodie gave her a sharp look. “You’re not exaggerating, are you?”
A flock of waterfowl on the river made faint music. Overhead, ravens croaked, dive-bombing a bald eagle on a cottonwood branch. The eagle looked pretty nonchalant about the whole thing, gazing around as if no such harassment was taking place.
“Well, what’d he do when it happened?” Melodie said.
“Promptly backed off. Then said he could wait.”
Melodie’s eyes went wide. “Whoa. That’s serious stuff. What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know, Mel. I can handle Jas when he’s being Mr. Pushy CEO. When he’s being considerate…” She sighed. “Not so much.”
“There’s something I’m not understanding here. I thought you wanted to put him off the whole let’s-take-this-to-the-next-level plan. What you describe would definitely qualify. So what’s the problem?”
“I don’t know!”
At the tone of her voice, Caramela dropped her stick and nosed Amethyst’s hand. She reached down and stroked the dog to soothe her.
“Okay, I lied,” Amethyst said. “I do know. The thing is, I don’t want to be one of those women twisted up in a seriously unhealthy relationship.”
“A man you can’t even bring yourself to kiss, because the last time you kissed him, he put the whammy on you.”
“That’s the part the falls under the ‘seriously unhealthy’ heading.”
“Okay, I get that. I also get why you’d react the way you did.”
Welded iron jetty jacks with rusty steel cable strung between for erosion control crossed the trail, looking like relics from some World War II battlefield. Amethyst and Caramela ducked under the cable between a tangle of dead vegetation, waited for Melodie to follow then continued on.
“Look,” Melodie resumed. “You know I’m no big fan of Jas Harker after what he did. Obviously he’s done some convincing between then and now for you to be friendly with him. I’ll respect that and not badmouth him. Anyway, it’s obvious you’re still attracted to him.”
Melodie waved a hand. “Truth hurts, huh? Anyway, I think the problem is that the way you reacted caught you by surprise.”
“I was nervous about how I should handle the whole good-night scenario,” Amethyst said. “I sure didn’t expect to have a meltdown on the front porch.”
Melodie nodded. “Then I guess you have to decide which is stronger. The attraction? Or the fear?” She gave Amethyst a frown. “And if it turns out the fear is the attraction, I’ll tell you right now, I’m going to stage an intervention. Because even if it’s none of my damn business, I’m not about to let my BFF get tangled up in that kind of crap without trying to do something about it.”
“Trust me,” Amethyst said. “I don’t find fear the least bit attractive.”
* * *
The moment Amethyst had been dreading arrived: her phone rang. She didn’t even need to pick it up to know who it was. The fast techno ringtone told her that.
She squeezed her eyes closed. The ringtone kept playing.
She let out a long breath and thumbed on the phone without looking at his charming smile in the picture on the screen. “Hi, Jas.”
“Amethyst,” he said. “Are you busy?”
She sat in her front bedroom-slash-home office-slash-workshop, her computer armoire open and her laptop running. On her worktable under the window, cut pieces of stained glass in gold and opalescent white and ice blue waited for the grinder out in the garage.
Drumming her fingers on her desktop, she contemplated the spreadsheet on the screen. Did she want to be can’t-stop-now busy?
No, avoiding it wouldn’t make it any easier. Might was well just get it over with.
“Busy doing what every business owner loves best,” she said. “Catching up the books.”
“Then I’m here to rescue you,” Jas said. “How about lunch?”
It was close to 1:30. She wondered if he knew she usually ate lunch late. Knowing Jas, probably.
“Do you know the Vietnamese place a few blocks up Eubank from you? Can you meet me there in half an hour?”
Half an hour. Oh god.
“Sure,” she said. “See you.”
Amethyst ended the call, set down the phone and put her head in her hands. Well, it wouldn’t help her self-assurance to meet him in the sweats she wore now. She pushed to her feet, crossed the hall to her bedroom and opened the closet door. Definitely no silk top this time.
She was dressed in ankle boots, leggings and a tunic sweater in black and teal when she opened the door to Basil Leaf restaurant. A gold laughing Buddha beside the register greeted diners. A dining room painted in deep tones and glass-topped tables decorated with paper flowers made the place cozy and intimate.
She’d seen Jas’ green Infiniti parked out front. She spotted him at a table on the right, toward the back. He raised a hand in greeting.
Here goes. She walked to his table and slid into the booth across from him. She had to be radiating awkwardness and discomfort. The other option was fake cheer and friendliness, and that would be even worse.
“I hope you haven’t been waiting long,” she said.
“Only long enough to order tea and look at the menu.”
Amethyst picked up her own menu. It was hard to keep her mind on the array of Vietnamese dishes. It didn’t help that the appetite she should’ve had by this time of the afternoon had deserted her. She forced herself to concentrate, trying to remember which dishes she’d enjoyed in the past. At least they didn’t have to talk while she read the menu.
After the waiter came, poured tea and took their orders, she didn’t have that excuse anymore.
There were only a couple of other tables occupied, both on the other side of the restaurant, giving them a degree of privacy. She stared across the table at Jas, hoping she had a pleasant expression on her face. God. She’d never had this problem when they were just friends.
He gazed back at her a moment, then sipped tea. “How have you been?”
It wasn’t the casual question it sounded. Amethyst chose to take it as one. “Good. Melodie and I took Caramela for a walk on the bosque yesterday.”
“Ah,” he said. “Reviewing the previous day’s events, I presume.”
“I can see it bothers you. We can talk about it.”
They both knew what ‘it’ was.
She rubbed her forehead. “Okay. Do you want the honest version, or the don’t-want-to-hurt-your-feelings version?”
“I’m encouraged that you don’t want to hurt my feelings.” He took another sip of tea, leaned back and extended an arm along the seat back. “Let’s hear the honest version.”
Her mouth was dry. She drank tea, which tasted of toasted rice. She set down her cup and put her hands in her lap.
“This isn’t going to work, Jas.”
He gave a dismissive little wave. “What happened the other night is a speed bump. Nothing more.”
“It’s more than a speed bump.”
“I disagree. I frightened you badly when I laid that binding on you. You weren’t expecting it, which at the time was entirely the point. I should’ve guessed I might trigger you. Since it’s my doing you reacted the way you did, the least I can do is work to repair the damage.”
Her hands were cold. She curled them around her teacup. “Did you ever think you might not be able to?”
“You’ve gone from considering me your enemy to calling us friends. So no, I don’t regard it as impossible.”
“This isn’t the same. Let’s…” She closed her eyes for a moment. “Look, I don’t want to negotiate something like this. Let’s just stay friends. I’d rather do that than blow up the whole relationship.”
“I’m not negotiating. I’m trying to persuade you that this isn’t the disaster you think it is. I realize you were embarrassed. I’m sorry for that. That isn’t how I wanted to end the day with you.”
She picked up her chopsticks and toyed with them. “I know.”
“Did you enjoy our time together?”
“I wasn’t just being polite when I said I did.”
“Good. Aside from the stumble at the end, was there anything else you wouldn’t want to repeat?”
Stumble, right. “No, but—”
“Then if we’d parted three minutes earlier, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
She squirmed. “I guess not, but—”
“Then let’s work on the three minutes of the entire day that didn’t go well.”
She looked at him, exasperated. “It’s a pretty significant three minutes, don’t you think?”
“Of course it is. That’s why it’s important to address it.”
She shouldn’t ask. She really shouldn’t. “And exactly how do you propose to do that?”
He leaned forward. “Do you know how phobias are treated?”
She sat back, bracing her hands on the table. “No, Jas. No, no, no.”
He slid out of the booth, came around to her side and sat next to her. “It’s a process of desensitization. You start by presenting the object of the phobia at a safe distance. When the phobic person can tolerate that, you increase the intensity by bringing the person closer to the thing they’re afraid of.”
She already knew that. “Here?”
“We’re in a public place,” he said. “Nothing can happen.”
“Except that you’re a wizard. Cast the right spell, and nobody notices anything.”
His eyes, dark and intense, held hers. “You’re a wizard, too, Amethyst.”
She picked up her napkin and edged away a few inches. “This is ridiculous. I’m not doing this here.”
“Then tell me where,” he said. “Don’t shake your head. I’m serious.”
“There is no good place, because I’m telling you, it won’t work.”
He extended his arm across the seat back behind her and eased closer. She fought the impulse to scoot away. She’d only end up pressed into the corner, anyway.
“It will work,” he said. “Are you all right with this?” He waved to indicate the distance between them. The small distance.
Her heart wasn’t pounding, but she was definitely uncomfortable. “Come on, Jas—”
“Are you?” he repeated.
“Fine. Yes. Okay?” She concentrated on not leaning back.
He slid closer until his knee touched hers. “Now?”
“I changed my mind,” she said. “I’m not okay. This is embarrassing.”
“There’s no need to be embarrassed. No one is looking. Now raise a ward.”
“Go ahead. I’ll wait.”
If she told him to back off, to let her out, she knew he would. But no, she was going to go along with this. She had no idea why.
She reached for the magic. The ward she shaped guarded against ill-intent, physical force and magical attacks. But she also wove a spell of reflection. Any magic he tried to work on her would be turned back on him. She let the spells settle around her, humming energies of ice-scented blue and shimmering, shifting opalescence that fitted to her like molded armor.
“Good,” he said. “Now kiss me.”
I can’t, she wanted to tell him. But she wasn’t going to let him see her quivering like a thirteen-year-old girl.
She wet her lips and leaned forward. He didn’t lean closer, but he closed his eyes. That made things easier. Her pulse picked up. Warmth spread from her middle. Not fear then. Well.
Tilting her head, she closed the space between them and kissed him.
Jas kissed her back, his lips moving soft and warm on hers. Like the first time—the last time—it was like some rich liqueur spreading through her.
She sat back and opened her eyes. When had she closed them? And when had she put her hand on his arm? She still felt warm, a flush that spread from her middle all the way to her skin.
“There,” he said, smiling that smile that brought out the crinkles around his eyes. “Was that so bad?”
Her napkin had slid off her lap. Straightening, she rearranged it, trying not to notice the tingle in her lips, the way she could catch a whiff of his cologne on her skin.
“Don’t gloat,” she said. “It’s much nicer when you’re a gentleman.”
“That’s the second time you’ve said that. I will certainly be a gentleman, then.”
He reached across the table for his cup and utensils, arranged them in front of him and stretched his arm behind her again. Amethyst was acutely conscious of his nearness, his knee almost touching hers, his arm grazing her shoulders.
“Call a ward whenever you feel the need to,” he said. “I won’t be offended.”
A quiver went through her, though she didn’t want to guess its source. “And what if I always feel the need to?”
He refilled her teacup. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”