Since I missed posting a chapter last week, here’s a bonus one. If you missed the beginning, you can read it here.
Damned If You Do
It was a grueling couple of hours, waiting for Jas. Amethyst touched a heat spell to her tea and made herself eat the sandwich. She tidied up (even though she’d already tidied up yesterday). She went out into the backyard for poop patrol. The warm, high-altitude winter sun didn’t do anything for the cold spot in her belly.
All the while, she rehearsed in her mind what she’d say to Jas. Something like, It’s my problem, not yours. I know you’ve done your best, but I just can’t get past what happened…
She made her way back to her bedroom about 1:30 to change into cords and a soft cowl neck sweater. She started a pot of coffee and put fresh water in the kettle for tea. She cut up veggies for dipping and arranged crackers on a fused glass plate with sandstone-red shapes against a turquoise background.
She checked the clock on the stove: 1:56. He’d be here any minute.
Her mouth was dry. Her stomach was upset. She put placemats and napkins on the table, then went into the bathroom to check how she looked one more time. The clock on her nightstand read 2:07.
Jas was usually pretty punctual. If anything, she’d expect him to be early, not late. Unless he’d somehow gotten wind of what she had planned—
No, that was stupid. Of course wizards had ways of eavesdropping, but not on another wizard whose house was warded up every which way to Tuesday. Not unless he knew some kind of snooping spell she didn’t—
Knowing Jas, he just might.
Stop it, Amethyst. There’ll be plenty of time for a guilty conscience later.
She drifted into her workroom. She was in the process of pinning the pieces of the fall aspens window over the pattern in preparation for soldering. She sat down at her worktable and pinned a few more pieces. Her eyes kept drifting to the wall clock. When it finally read 2:13, she pushed away from the worktable and went to the window. If she looked through it from the far end, she could see most of her driveway.
Jas’ green Infiniti was parked there. Her heart abruptly crowded into her throat. She took three deep breaths and made herself walk slowly into the living room. The stained glass panel she’d conjured in her very first effort in handling the magic glowed gently with its own ethereal light.
No doorbell. No knock at the door. She made a not-very-successful attempt to wet her lips.
What the hell? If he was sitting in his car on the phone, she was going to open the door, rip the damn phone out of his hand and stomp on it.
She waited a minute more, chewing on the inside of her lip, then strode for the front door.
The sound of voices nearby greeted her when she opened it, a woman’s laugh and a man’s voice. Jas’ voice. Amethyst took a few steps down her front walk, past the jut of the garage, looking to see what the hell was going on.
Heather Purdy, her next door neighbor, stood on the far side of the driveway talking to Jas.
Heather had hair the color of fine whisky, blue-topaz eyes and a figure that filled out anything she put on. Today it was faded skinny jeans with an artful hole high over the thigh and a turtleneck sweater a few shades lighter than the flower girl’s hair had been.
She laughed at something Jas said and gave him a playful shove. Cold fire shot through Amethyst, rooting her to the cracked concrete of the front walk. Heather looked up and caught sight of her.
“Amethyst, honey,” Heather called. “I was just making the acquaintance of your friend Jas. I’ve been seeing his car here and have been just itching with curiosity.”
“And you finally found your chance,” Amethyst said with a grin that probably showed too many teeth.
Right at that moment, it was all she could do to keep from cursing Heather with split ends, chapped lips, pimples, toenail fungus and drooping boobs.
The reaction took her aback. Heather had been a godawful flirt from the day she moved into old Mr. Meadows’ house, but as far as Amethyst had ever seen, it was men’s attention she was after, not necessarily the men themselves. Although if a man proved interested, she was pretty sure Heather wouldn’t turn him down.
Jas circled the front of his car to slip his arm around Amethyst’s waist and give her a kiss. “How are you today?”
It was a very nice, very sweet kiss, enough to filter through her unexpected anger at Heather. She backed off to find him smiling at her, as if there was no such thing as boobilicous Heather standing eight feet away.
“Just great,” she answered him, trying to regain her footing.
Not that she had much footing today to regain to start with.
Keeping an arm around Amethyst, Jas turned. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Heather.”
“Oh, definitely,” she said, dimpling. “I hope I can get you…and Amethyst,” she said after a pause so brief Amethyst wasn’t sure it was a pause, “to come over for coffee and cookies one day. I just love showing off my new house to people.”
An arsonist had burned down Heather’s house a year or so ago. Amethyst had always had a bad feeling that it was her house that was supposed to have burned, but her wards shunted the arsonist’s attentions to the nearest substitute. Fortunately, Heather seemed pretty happy with the cute, new northern New Mexico-style one built to replace the old house. Amethyst had taken the precaution of putting wards on that one.
“Thanks, Heather,” Amethyst said, trying hard to keep both guilt and a certain lingering nastiness out of her voice. “That’s nice. We’ll keep it in mind. Right now, I already told Jas I owed him a coffee.”
She linked her arm in his, turned and marched with him back up the front walk.
Jas heaved a sigh when she shut the door. “Thank you for the rescue.”
Amethyst shot him a look. “Somehow, I suspect you’re perfectly capable of rescuing yourself.”
“True,” he said. “But she’s your neighbor. I’d hate to cause problems.”
Amethyst grunted. If she was going to cut him loose, she supposed she didn’t have any business being irritated about Heather’s attentions. Or giving him a hard time.
Her conscience started pricking her like a cactus spine in her sock. Shut up, she told it. It shut up, but her stomach took up the chorus.
“You’ll have to tell me if the coffee is okay,” she said. “If it’s not, I can make another pot.”
“I’m sure it will be fine.”
She made herself busy in the kitchen, getting mugs, milk, sugar, putting tea in a strainer for herself. It was chamomile and mint this time. She really, really needed that chamomile. Now besides her stomach doing unhappy things, her heart made strange, painful squeezes, like someone wringing out a sponge.
“I see you got the flowers,” Jas said behind her.
“Oh!” She spun. “Oh, yes. I’m sorry, I totally forgot. They’re beautiful. Thank you. Thank you so much.”
“It was my pleasure,” he said, studying her. “Amethyst, is everything all right?”
Oh, damn. Oh, hell. Oh, shit. This is your chance. Tell him now.
She turned back to fussing in the kitchen. “Heather just kind of…set me off. Sorry. Her cousin Emily’s boyfriend used to live next door. In fact, he’d lived next door with Mommy and Daddy ever since I’ve lived here.” She was blathering, but it was better than facing Jas. “Emily finally pried him out and got him to move in with her in a place near Old Town. Said it was so Gary could be closer to UNM for classes, but I think it was because of Heather. Emily has a pretty short fuse when it comes to Heather’s flirting. I guess I would too if I’d lived with it all my life.”
Sweet Mary in Heaven, what was she thinking? Telling him that Heather’s flirting bothered her. Talking about boyfriends!
She gritted her teeth, put what she hoped was a pleasant expression on her face and turned to hand Jas his mug of coffee.
He gave her another of those smiles like he had a few minutes ago, not his usual charming one, but one that seemed specially crafted for her.
“Well, when you move from this house,” he said, “I hope it will be for reasons other than Heather’s flirting.”
That sounded an awful lot like another roundabout marriage proposal.
Say it, Amethyst. Just say it, dammit. Get it over with.
“What?” he said, teasing, but like his smile, in a different way. But different how?
“Never mind,” she muttered.
She sat down at the dining room table. Jas doctored his coffee and put veggies and crackers on his plate. Amethyst did the same, slowly, wondering what excuse she’d give for leaving them uneaten.
She watched him. Why couldn’t she just tell him? It wasn’t going to work. It would never work. They might as well admit it and end the torment. She swallowed on a dry throat and took a breath, ready to force out the words.
Then it struck her what was different about him today.
He was happy. He was happy to be here, sitting drinking coffee with her. No offhand charm, no sly suggestions, no knowing smiles. Just happy.
Happy…like she’d been this morning, before all her defenses had slammed back into place.
The realization rolled over her, powerful enough to make her dizzy. She looked at the flowers where she’d placed them as a centerpiece on the table, thinking of the card that had come with them: Magic.
He’d meant it. The flowers hadn’t been part of some calculation to soften or beguile her. He’d truly enjoyed their evening together, and wanted to let her know it.
The tension that had wound her so tight evaporated. This wasn’t a wreck hurtling toward her, impossible to avoid. It was… She didn’t know what it was. Maybe, just possibly, it was something honest.
She picked up a carrot stick and crunched it, the choking tightness in her throat gone.
“I’ve been thinking,” Jas said, “about what we should do next weekend.”
That ‘we’ caught her off guard, then realization hit her. She’d invited him over today. Since she hadn’t told him what she’d intended to, how else could he take the invitation but acknowledgment that they were a ‘we’? How—and more to the point, why—had she managed to do exactly the opposite of what she’d intended?
Caught, she fumbled for a reply. “It’s still this weekend, Jas.”
“So it is. What do you want to do?”
“Now?” She definitely wasn’t going to get a chance to fall back and regroup.
“A few hours of a very nice day remain.”
“I, um, was going to take Caramela to the dog park.”
“Why don’t we go after we finish our coffee?”
“You want to go to the dog park and throw a ball for Caramela?”
“You never struck me as a ball-throwing kind of guy.”
“I’d like to turn that into a suggestive comment, but I can’t quite figure out how.”
She rolled her eyes.
“You don’t seem the type to own a pit bull,” he said.
She twirled a broccoli floret in the dip. “There were some renters a couple of houses down from Heather. Caramela was basically a four-legged burglar alarm living in the backyard with their junk. When they moved, they left her behind along with the other junk they didn’t want.” Amethyst bit off the head of the broccoli. “So she came to live with me.”
“You see,” Jas said quietly after a moment, “Today I’ve learned something else about you. You have a kind heart.”
If he’d deliberately set out to prick her, he couldn’t have done a better job. If only you knew the bullet you just dodged, she thought.
Caramela had heard the words ‘ball’ and ‘dog park’ and was dancing around, nudging Amethyst with her nose.
“Okay, okay, I’ll ask Jas if we can go soon,” Amethyst told her.
He took a last sip of coffee and stood. “I’ll get our coats.”
Strange how intimate that felt, Jas going to her hall closet for her coat. Amethyst went into the laundry room for Caramela’s leash and ball, Caramela dancing around her the whole way. She danced while Jas helped Amethyst into her coat, but settled down when Amethyst bent and put her hands on her shoulders.
“Let’s get ready to go out,” Amethyst told her and called the magic.
Amethyst clipped on the leash and straightened. Jas gave her a questioning look.
“It’s a little ward against ill-will,” she explained. “A lot of people don’t like pit bulls.”
She didn’t mention that she’d also worked a spell of distraction. Something to occupy Heather as they walked past her house. Maybe a smoke alarm going off or an insistently beeping microwave. Electronics were so susceptible to magic.
Amethyst felt…odd, walking with Jas. Although why walking along Eubank toward Los Altos Park should be any different than walking in Santa Fe, she didn’t know. Maybe because, like her coat closet, it was part of her home space, places she’d rarely let Jas enter.
The happiness of the dog and the happiness of the man beside her, stylishly casual in his distressed leather jacket and designer jeans, gradually wore away her awkwardness. There was only the brilliant afternoon, the cold air and sunshine, intense even in winter.
Eubank was a busy street, and the noise of the passing traffic made much talking impractical. It wasn’t far to the park, though, maybe only half a mile or so.
The park was brown with winter, the trees casting only a tracery of shade. As usual, dogs bounced around the fenced-in area, running, playing, barking, their people looking on, hands tucked in pockets for warmth. With the spell on Caramela, no one gave the dog evil or wary looks.
Inside the fence of the big-dog park, Amethyst unhooked Caramela’s leash. Caramela focused on her the way only a pit bull can as Amethyst took the Chuckit ball-thrower out of her back pocket and the ball out of her jacket pocket. She popped the ball into the Chuckit and let fly. Caramela flew as well, running just as fast to return the ball as she had to chase it, pure, thoughtless joy.
Jas, true to his word, took his turn with the Chuckit. Amethyst hadn’t thought he really would. But yes, there he was, Jas Harker, wizard and CEO of Magus Corporation, urging Caramela to go deep before he threw the ball. There was the same happiness she’d seen earlier, his enjoyment of something as simple as playing with a dog.
A warm little bloom unfurled under her heart. She didn’t want to examine it too closely.
The ball arced high through the air, whistling, and Caramela raced after it, although not quite as fast as before. Pretty soon, Caramela’s tongue lolled dripping from her wide, pink mouth.
Amethyst took the slobbery ball and clipped Caramela’s leash back on. “Time to take a break, crazy dog.”
They left the fenced-in area and found a bench to sit on. She took a water bottle from her other pocket and filled a collapsible bowl. Caramela lapped noisily.
“Did you ever have dogs?” Amethyst asked.
“I had a few hunting dogs I was fond of,” Jas said.
Hunting dogs. She pictured men on horses coming home with their winded dogs to a lantern-lit house. No, still better not ask how long ago it had been.
“We always had a dog or two when I was growing up,” she said. “I’d forgotten how much I missed them until I got Caramela.”
The sun was descending to an early sunset, not much more than an hour away, and the air was decidedly cooler. Even so, Caramela lay at Amethyst’s feet, panting. Jas sat beside her, his arm extended along the bench behind her. And damned if it didn’t feel comfortable. After all this morning’s agony, had she given up that easily?
“So, next weekend,” Jas said. “I thought this time we might do something that includes your friends.”
That idea made her shiver. She bent and smoothed a hand along the soft, short fur of Caramela’s head and neck. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea.” Sighing, she straightened. “Melodie is, and I quote, not a big fan of Jas Harker.”
“Ah,” he said. “I wondered why I’ve encountered her only once or twice. I’d hoped I’d mended her opinion of me. I suppose I’ll have to convince her that I’m not the devil incarnate.”
Amethyst closed her eyes. “Please, Jas. No convincing. If you start convincing, she’ll be sure you’re the devil incarnate.”
A teasing glint came into his eyes. “I hope you realize I can easily take that as a compliment.”
She gave him a disgusted look. “You would.”
* * *
“All that anguish, wasted,” Melodie said.
Amethyst had called to tell her about the interview with Jas. Now, Bluetooth headset clipped over her ear, Amethyst stood at the sink peeling the charred skin off some green chile.
“Well,” she said, “I’m sure not going to go through with something like that just for the principle of the thing. Besides, it hardly seemed fair to hurt someone so that I won’t get hurt.”
Melodie’s snort came clear over the headset. “That’s what I was trying to tell you this morning, but you didn’t want to hear me.”
“I heard you, I just didn’t want to listen.”
“I’m going to regret being the voice of reason, aren’t I?” Melodie said on a sigh.
Amethyst laughed. She was glad Melodie wasn’t here in person. She wasn’t sure how much she wanted to see her reaction to what was coming next.
“Jas and I are going snowboarding next weekend. You and Marl are invited.” Marl was Melodie’s husband.
Dead silence on the other end of the line. Amethyst bit her lip and waited.
Then finally, “You don’t know how to snowboard. I don’t know how to snowboard. If Marl ever went snowboarding, he never said anything.”
“That was pretty much my argument, too. Jas said it’ll be fun, all of us learning together.” Amethyst dropped the green chile into the food processor and started peeling tomatillos. “I’m a little ashamed to admit, it does sound like fun.”
She’d wanted to learn to snowboard for a long time, but it just never seemed to happen.
More silence. “If I say we’re busy, this will just come up again later, won’t it?”
Itchy prickles ran under Amethyst’s sweatshirt. “Well…I guess it’s a possibility at this point. You could always wait it out and see. You won’t hurt my feelings.”
Melodie sighed again. “I’ve already spent a year hoping I wouldn’t encounter Jas.” This time the silence was a thinking one. “I think I can promise to be civil.”
“Thanks, Mel,” Amethyst said on an outrush of breath. “I won’t ask for more. I can’t promise you’ll have fun, but it should be…interesting.”
“I can’t wait,” Melodie said without enthusiasm.