Drives Me Crazy
Amethyst woke to Caramela’s soft boof. Early light filtered through the shades, painting the comforter and bedroom furniture in shades of lavender and blue. Ears up, head raised, the dog faced the bedroom door. For an instant, Amethyst wondered why the door was closed. The sound of the water running in the hall bath came, and she remembered.
Jas. That was him in the bathroom. She thought of him in the shower, water sluicing over the muscles of his shoulders and back, slicking down the black hair on his chest and belly and—
“No, no, no,” she told herself, rapping her head to drive out the image. “You already have enough trouble. You don’t need more.”
She lay staring up at the ceiling, waiting for the throbbing down low to subside and trying to decide which was more dangerous: dealing with Balgaire on her own, or having Jas sleeping and showering a few feet beyond her bedroom door.
She sighed. Well, if nothing else, the kind of danger she faced from Jas would be more pleasant. At least in the short term.
She nudged Caramela out of bed, rolled out after her and, in her pajamas, padded into the kitchen to let the dog out, put on a pot of coffee and turn on the hall furnace so Jas wouldn’t freeze in the bathroom. It was cold this morning.
The coffeepot gurgling away, Amethyst stood looking out the patio door. The backyard was a well of blue light. With the granite-and-juniper wall of the Sandia Mountains rising no more than five miles away to the east, it would be a while before the sun broke the crest. Now, frost rimmed the blades of grass and Caramela’s breath plumed on the air as she snuffled her way across the yard.
After Caramela finished her business, Amethyst returned to the bedroom to begin her own morning routine. And, incidentally, avoid any chance encounters in the hallway with a possibly towel-clad Jas, his hair damp and unruly, his pale skin gleaming—
And, dammit! She was thinking about it again!
She made up the bed, ruthlessly throttling any fantasies involving it. There were several. When she didn’t hear any more noises from the hall bath or the guest bedroom, she decided it was safe to venture out.
The humidity from the shower and the scent of Jas’ aftershave wafted from the bathroom as she passed it. The aroma of coffee replaced it as she neared the kitchen. A quiet pleasure washed over her at the smells, so different from every other morning.
Jas had set up a nice little workstation at one end of the dining room table. Sitting open in front of him was a laptop about the thickness of a menu from fancy restaurant. A portable printer/scanner sat to one side. To the other lay an ominous, matte-black cube bearing the Magus logo, a stylized ‘M’ resting on a green starburst.
Amethyst stopped in the doorway and pointed at the cube. “What,” she said, “is that?”
“That,” Jas said, “is a hyper-secure wireless modem.”
She went on into the kitchen, got down a mug and, from the pantry, a bag of chocolate granules. “How come I don’t get a hyper-secure Internet connection so I can work from home?”
He took a sip of the coffee she’d made earlier. “Because then I wouldn’t see you as often.”
Her mug hit the microwave turntable with a clink. “You are the most scheming—”
“You already knew that,” he interrupted. “But doesn’t admitting it count for something?”
She started the microwave, leaned back against the counter and thought about it. “I guess it does.”
He closed the laptop screen and stood, coffee in hand. “Good. I was hoping it would.”
A laugh unexpectedly bubbled up. She coughed to cover it. “Just for that, you can fix your own breakfast. You’d better get in here if you want to find out where everything is.”
Only one night, and it no longer felt strange to have him here, eating meals with her, cleaning up afterwards, settling down in front of his computer to do whatever it was slumming CEO’s did with their days.
How would it feel when they’d dealt with Balgaire, and Jas went back to his own house? She ignored the anticipating twinge of regret in her middle and carried her mug of hot chocolate back into her own workroom.
It shouldn’t have made any difference having Jas out there in the dining room. Other than the occasional murmur of his voice on the phone or possibly a video chat, most of the time he was quiet. But she kept catching herself drifting out—to get a snack, check the mail, let Caramela out….
Well, okay, she usually did drift out of her workroom to do this or that, but it was different now. Now it felt like an excuse. And she was pretty sure she knew what it was an excuse for.
This time, Jas glanced up with the quirk of a brow and a half-smile.
“Restless?” he said.
“Um,” she said as if caught. Which, in fact, she was.
Damn. This isn’t going to work.
And the reason it wouldn’t work now was completely different from what it had been. But she sure wasn’t going to tell Jas. He’d ask why, and she wasn’t about to tell him that.
“Distracted,” she said. “I’m not, um, used to having someone else in the house while I work. I feel like I’m neglecting you or something.”
“Or something,” he repeated with that hint of a smile.
“I feel like we should be doing something.” Oh god. Did I really say that? Please tell me it didn’t come out like it sounded.
He closed his laptop screen. “Forget about Balgaire. There’s no point worrying about him until he makes his next move.”
“I’m not worried about Balgaire,” she muttered.
“You don’t have to worry about me, either.”
“I know.” She folded her arms and looked out the kitchen window. “I’m sorry. You’re going out of your way for me. I really do appreciate it.”
“It’s my pleasure. Which I’m sure you also know.”
She gave him a sideways look. “Jas, you can’t always be this nice. You’re setting yourself up for a fall.”
He laughed. “If you think I’m being nice by staying with you, you’re giving me far more credit than I deserve.”
“Okay, just don’t let me take advantage of you.”
“Please,” he said. “Please take advantage of me.”
Oh, yeah. He knew exactly what was going on.
She grinned. “Don’t tempt me.”
She came around the breakfast bar to where he sat at the table, bent and kissed him. “Thank you. Thank you for being here. Thank you for making it easy.”
He looked somewhere between startled and taken aback.
“Amethyst, I’d make every day easy for you, if you’d let me.”
Her hand still on his cheek, she smiled down at him. “I won’t hold you to that.”
He looked way more pleased at that than he should. Amethyst puzzled over it, trying to figure out why. Then she got it. She’d just implied that they had a future together.
Pretending cool, she headed for her workroom before she could say anything else damning.
* * *
It was too much to hope that Balgaire wouldn’t come back. So when the little spell she’d set to alert her to that eventuality scooted a piece of red glass from one side of her worktable to the other, Amethyst only sighed, got up and looked out the window.
Sure enough, there was Balgaire’s screaming red Cadillac pulling up in front of Heather’s house. Amethyst stepped back, out of sight. She stared at the clutter of glass and strips of copper foil and coils of solder on her worktable, thinking. Finally, she reached a decision.
In the dining room, Jas sat back in his chair, arms folded, eyes on his computer screen. From the intentness of his gaze and the pinch between his brows, she guessed he was using the screen as a scrying medium.
“I’m just going to step outside,” she said, shrugging on her coat.
He raised his eyes to her face. “Are you indeed.”
“Yep.” She could see him wanting to get all male about the situation and restraining himself.
“You’ll deny me every satisfaction,” was what he finally said.
Leave it to Jas to turn it into a double entendre.
She grinned. “Not every one. But there’s something I feel honor-bound to address, first.”
He barked a surprised laugh. “Sometimes you’re more old-fashioned than I am.”
“Just my conscience bugging me.”
“Ah,” he said. “I know better than to stand in the way of that.”
It was an old argument. Jas liked to call it the Rey sense of What is Right. And then he’d shudder.
“Thank you,” she said. “I know you’ll be watching, so if things go south, please don’t come out with magic blazing, okay?”
His eyes crinkled with amusement. “You’re speaking to the man who avoided a far greater menace for more years than you want to know.”
“Okay. Just so you remember.” She leaned down, patted Caramela’s side and told her, “Be good for Jas.”
Heading for the front door, Amethyst shaped the magic in a hunter’s spell, something that would leave her silent and unseen by her prey. Until she was ready.
Balgaire’s Cadillac SUV sat parked at the curb in front of Heather’s house. Amethyst wondered where he learned to drive and how he paid for a vehicle like that. Then again, wizards didn’t seem to have a problem getting whatever they wanted—which was why Jas found her sense of right and wrong so entertaining.
She walked over to the Caddy (“SRX” according to the emblem), and leaned against one flaming red fender.
She could see Balgaire on the porch, ostensibly waiting to see if Heather would answer the door. But when he stepped away, he turned to look toward Amethyst’s house. She waited until he was most of the way down the driveway before dropping her concealing spell.
He stopped short. “Ah, very good! Where did a young lass like you learn a spell like that?”
She cocked her head, thinking about her answer. “My great-grandmother’s compadre was an old Pueblo Indian. He’s been my mentor.” She thought a little more, tapping her fingers on the Caddy’s sheet metal—a soft pap-pap-pap. “He doesn’t have much respect for Anglo magos. Says they want the magic all for themselves.”
“We’ve known one or two like that ourselves, eh, lass?” Balgaire said, either ignoring or not getting the insult.
“What do you want, Dougal?” she said. “Because if you’re looking for Heather, you wasted a trip.”
“It’s no waste when I still happen to see a lovely lady.”
Amethyst snorted. “Does that line work on lovely ladies? Because it sure doesn’t on me.”
He grinned. “Modest, are you?”
“Just honest. Which is what you should be, too. If you’ve got business with me, bring it to me. Don’t put Heather in the middle of it.”
A calculating gleam came into his eye. “What’s all this, when you yourself placed such a tasty morsel before me?”
A spurt of guilt went through her, but she didn’t let her gaze drop. “Maybe. Or maybe I’m just not interested in vying with Heather for anyone’s attention.”
She thought she was being clever, but it must’ve been the wrong thing to say. He looked intrigued.
“Modest and proud,” he said. “That’s not a thing a man sees much in women.”
Spanish guys could be macho and sexist, but they usually knew better than to be so in-your-face about it.
“And no woman wants to be used.” She pushed off the fender, not intruding into Balgaire’s personal space, but pushing it. “Don’t use Heather. If you like each other, fine. But no wizard games with her.”
He drew himself up. “I’ve no need of magic to bed a woman I fancy.”
“Good. And don’t lead her on, either.” This was hitting too close to home. Her temper rose. She throttled it with an effort.
“Are you her da, to be askin’ my intentions toward the lady?” he said with a snotty little smile.
“I’m the wizard whose territory you’re in, and if I find out you’re messing with the civilians under my protection, I won’t be happy.”
The good-ol’-boy attitude fell away. “You’re not what I expected, Amethyst Rey. I’ve not seen your like in a long, long while.”
He studied her, looming a good foot over her, broad and tall and imposing in his kilt and boots. It was probably stupid, but she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of reaching for the magic, letting him know that he worried her. She just met his eyes, prickles running up her spine and into her hair like hackles rising.
“But I’ll see you again.” He nodded once. “That I will.”
He tipped an imaginary hat, circled around to the driver’s door and got in. She crossed her arms, watching. The Caddy’s engine started with a purr. One more salute, and Balgaire drove off up the street.
Jas looked up from his computer when she came back in. “Remind me not to get on your bad side,” he said.
She filled a mug, plunked in the tea strainer. She was still hot enough to warm the water without magic. Okay, maybe not literally, but zapping heat into the water did help burn off a little of her temper.
“You’ve been on my bad side,” she said. “For similar reasons.”
What is it with you guys? she felt like saying. But that wasn’t fair to Jas who, despite leading her on once upon a time, was at least willing to admit it was a mistake. And to go to great lengths to make amends.
She plopped into the seat next to his. “See? He did it again. Got me all fired up about what happened with you. It can’t be an accident.”
Jas sat back in his chair. “That assumes he knows our history.”
Or he sees a man like you showing interest in a woman like me and just put two and two together. She was surprised at how depressing the thought was.
Jas was watching her. God only knew what her face showed. Scowling to hide whatever he might see, she took a sip of tea, steam laden with the scent of cinnamon and cardamom curling over her face, the same flavors running over her tongue.
When she got her emotions back under control, she said, “He’s got a brain behind all the BS.”
“I don’t doubt he does,” he said, either diverted or willing to pretend to be. “But in this case, I’m not certain he intended what you think.”
She sipped tea, running the conversation back through her mind. True, she had made the assumptions about Balgaire’s intentions toward Heather. And that had touched something still sore.
“Well, what do you think he was up to?” she said.
Jas tapped the tabletop with one finger. “I don’t think he expected any success from his flirtation.”
Amethyst made a gagging noise.
“It still feels like he’s testing,” he said. “First the extent of your power, now the extent of your forbearance.”
“Apparently I gave him the impression that I’m more forbearing than I am. If someone told me to back off, I wouldn’t say, ‘See you later, sweetheart.’”
He smiled. “Women sometimes have better sense than men.”
“It’s nice to know somebody thinks so.”
“The misogynistic comment was all part of the testing. I think his parting shot was, too. Now he’ll want to see how you’ll back up your threat.”
She carefully set her mug on the dining room table. The urge to throw something was almost overwhelming. She stood and paced to the patio door.
“You know, this is exactly the problem I’ve had with wizards from the beginning. Nobody takes me seriously.”
Jas was silent behind her. After a moment, he said, “I take you seriously. I take you seriously enough to let you go out there and confront the man on your own. Despite the fact that I’d take great pleasure in simply putting a stop to his games.”
He said it calmly enough, but she heard the current of anger that underlay his voice. She didn’t quite know what to think about this newly-protective Jas. Was it simple possessiveness? Or concern about someone he cared for? The answer made all the difference in the world.
She sat down again, in the other chair this time. Jas slid her tea over. She curled her fingers around the mug, tracing the glossy ridges where the brown glaze shaded to purple.
“I really, really hate posturing,” she said.
“It didn’t sound like you were posturing out there.”
“No, I guess not. Heather might be an annoying flirt, but she’s my neighbor. And she can be pretty decent when she wants to be.”
He nodded. “By the time we discover Balgaire’s aim, I suspect he’ll have learned to take you seriously.” His eyes crinkled and one corner of his mouth quirked up in smile. “We all do, if we know you long enough.”