Here’s the latest installment of Fateful Magic. If you missed the beginning, you can read it here.
It’s fun looking for images to go with the chapters. At first, I was going to include one of Tiff, but then I decided, no. It’s got to be Vadim Dragovich (pronounced vah-DEEM), the Dragon of Russia and the antagonist (sort of) of the story. I rarely find images that fit my people exactly, but this one isn’t too far off.
Emilia walks along the beach swinging a driftwood stick. Her skirts are hiked up, baring her legs to the calves. The wind teases tendrils of hair around her neck and face. The waves roll in and out, darkening the sand, pushing and pulling seaweed and scallops of foam. The wet sand is firm and cool beneath her bare feet, the dry soft and warm.
A shadow sweeps over the beach, snuffs the glitter of the sun on water. Heat beats against her back. She looks up and the dragon is there, his toothy mouth stretched in a grin, his claws reaching for her.
Em-i-li-a. He sing-songs her name. I’ve waited a long time for you.
She flings the stick at him. His breath burns it to ash before it can fall. She works her one trick, the only advantage she has beyond her gift. She will make herself disappear into the beach around her.
Instead, it’s the beach that disappears.
Rich carpet replaces the sand. Walls and coffered ceiling take the place of cliffs and sky. The smell of jasmine supplants the tang of salt and seaweed.
She turns, turns again. A wall of windows looks out onto an evening garden. Two chairs flank a cherry wood table. An abstract painting in sunset colors hangs on one wall. It’s the house, the same house she’s dreamt of before. The one she can’t escape.
This is the dragon’s lair. How can she not have realized it? She doesn’t see him, but she can feel his heat, hear his breaths as slow and powerful as the waves. His heart beats within the walls, a deep thrum beneath her feet.
Her mouth is papery. Her breaths come too fast. Her own heart patters like a scampering rabbit. She wants to run, but doesn’t dare. Running only tempts a predator to chase. So she stands quivering, hoping if she’s still enough he’ll forget she’s there.
Emilia. His voice is rich and soft as mink. I know you’re there. Time to wake up.
* * *
Emilia gasped and shot upright. She lay on a sofa. Opposite her, two chairs flanked a cherry wood table in front of a bank of windows overlooking an evening garden. In one chair, a man sat watching her.
The grey-haired man from the market. The wizard.
“Good evening,” he said in the dragon’s voice. “Welcome to my home.”
Her shawl, which must’ve been covering her, had slid to her lap. She clutched it to her. “Who are you?”
He smiled that same, somewhat mocking smile. “You tell me. You’re the seer.”
“The dragon.” She tried to wet her lips and couldn’t. “The Dragon of Russia.”
He bowed his head. “The very one. Vadim Dragovich.”
She shrank back. She didn’t know why—she’d known who he was even as she dreamt.
He smiled. “You’ve heard that name before, I see.”
“I heard— Yes.”
He cocked his head, studying her rather more intently than she liked. “Do you know how long my name has been forgotten?”
Her mouth was still dry. “What do you want with me, my lord?””
“Oh, pah, ‘my lord.’ Call me Vadim. Or Mr. Dragovich, if you must. I know how you English value propriety.”
Emilia blinked at that. Ridiculously, she felt eased. At last, someone who understood such things.
“Why have you been hunting me?” she said. “If you think you’ll take my gift from me again, I promise you, I’ll die first.”
“Now why should I take your gift when it sits here before me in such an interesting package?”
“Don’t toy with me, my— Mr. Dragovich.”
“So possessive! And we’ve barely met.”
The flirtation, here, now, outraged her. “How dare you! You abducted me. Now you taunt me?”
“Forgive me,” he said, but amusement still glittered in his eyes. “I meant only to put you at ease.”
As Morgan might say, Yeah, right. “You can put me at ease by returning me to my home, thank you.”
“You haven’t yet heard my business proposal.”
“I have no interest in anything you might propose, Mr. Dragovich.”
“Not when I can offer you whatever you might ask?”
“There is only one thing I would ask of you.”
“Maybe. But consider anyway.” He made an expansive gesture. “This can be your home. Why should you live in a squalid little trailer telling fortunes to anyone who puts twenty dollars in front of you? So shabby, so degrading. And in the winter, when the fog and rain keep the tourists away, what do you do then? I suppose you must be hard pressed to come up with the rent.”
He described her last winter quite accurately. She’d been worrying about what she ought to do for the one coming.
“None of that is your concern, sir.”
He dismissed that with a flick of his fingers. “I can provide you with much more stable, lucrative employment. In the comfort a woman of your abilities deserves.”
“Did it occur to you to try this approach before stalking me and carrying me off?”
“I had every intention of it.” He sighed. “But you never gave me the chance.”
“Your reputation and actions suggest otherwise. You must forgive me when I say that I cannot possibly, under any circumstances, accept your offer.”
“Mmm.” He thrust out his lower lip thoughtfully. “Since my reputation is familiar to you, perhaps you can tell me what it is.”
A warning chill brushed her. “That you’re a criminal of the basest kind.”
“So disappointing. I expected to hear you speak of the bloodthirsty warlord whose name once made entire armies tremble. For whom towns would fling open their gates in surrender rather than incur my wrath.”
In fact, the rumors she’d heard had never said any such thing. Emilia wanted to believe he was trying to frighten her, but had an uneasy feeling it was the literal truth.
“Do you threaten me, sir? If so, just say it. It’s unworthy of a man to torment the woman in his power.”
“Ah, so you do recognize the situation. Good. Then you accept my offer.”
“I most certainly do not!”
“Not even when I offer you life?”
Her heart lurched and she swallowed hard. She’d spoken so boldly of dying a moment ago, but did she have the courage for this? Could she truly give up her life rather than do as this man wanted?
“I suppose I’m of little use to you dead.” Her voice quavered on the word dead.
“You misunderstand me, Miss Dunmoor,” he said with that soft voice. “Do you think I’d threaten your life?” He shook his head. “As you point out, it would be beside the point. But I think there are other lives you value. Your friend Olivia frequently walks alone on the beach as she gathers her driftwood. A dangerous thing for a woman to do. And that young woman who works at the candy shop, the one with the astonishing hair? I’m told she takes a night class once a week. It can be such a long walk in the dark to her car.”
Emilia’s lips and hands went cold. “What do you want?” she whispered.
He gave another dismissive wave. “No need to tremble. Nothing you haven’t already been doing.”
“You—you want me to do readings for you?”
He spread his hands. “Is that so terrible? Is it worth all this indignation and refusal?”
She hugged her shawl to her and sat silent.
He sat watching her, legs crossed and at his ease. “Well?”
“What would you do with my predictions?”
“Why, use them to my benefit, of course. What else?”
His straightforwardness caught her off guard. “You expect me to willingly aid a criminal.”
He smiled. “If it soothes your conscience, I wouldn’t call you willing.”
He stood, looming out of his chair. Somehow, he seemed larger here in his house than he had outdoors, at the market.
He swept a hand toward the doorway. “Come. I’ll show you to a room. You can rest and settle in.”
Emilia searched her gift for some hint of what she ought to do. But there was nothing. Nothing but the dream of this house—the one she couldn’t escape.
She pushed herself to her feet. Sudden exhaustion weighted her. She straightened, took a step toward the Dragon of Russia.
“Very well.” She stopped just beyond arm’s reach, dismayed to find that she barely came to his shoulder. She swallowed the sudden flutter of her heart. “I’ll rest there now, but I will not share a roof with you.”
He escorted her into a wide, carpeted hallway. She gritted her teeth. It was the one from her dream. The same vaguely Moorish pattern in gold and ultramarine that stretched and stretched ahead no matter how far she ran.
“Of course you will,” he said. “You’ll be safe and comfortable here. My men—and my wards—will ensure that no one will carry you off.”
His eyes danced with laughter at his joke.
Emilia did not see the humor in it. “I suppose I have no other choice.”
He gave her a slight bow. “I’m glad we understand one another, Miss Dunmoor.”
* * *
Vadim left her in one of the guest bedrooms, staring around her as if bewildered. Perhaps she was. He’d snatched her up and changed her life in the space of a few hours. She belonged to him now, though she wasn’t ready to acknowledge the fact.
Not only had her power defied his wards, she’d recognized him as a wizard. More, in her vision at the craft market, she’d recognized that moment his power had been stolen from him, which meant hers had been stolen the same way. She’d as much as admitted it when she said she wouldn’t allow her gift to be taken again. How long ago had it happened? Long enough that she knew his name. No wonder she didn’t appear in any modern records.
He’d have plenty of time to satisfy his curiosity—and ease his isolation. What a relief it was to no longer be a man whose past was lost, a castaway in this foreign century. This woman already understood things that he’d have to painstakingly explain to anyone else. Talking to her would be a pleasure.
He hummed an old Russian folk melody and strode down the hallway with a little bounce in his step. Once in his office, he placed a call then sat down to catch up on his email while he waited. Soon enough, a tap came at the door.
“Boss?” Nikolai said. “You wanted to see me?”
Vadim waved him in and into a chair. “I looked into the fortune teller.”
“Yeah?” Niko sounded eager, but Vadim detected an equal measure of nervousness.
“You were right,” he said. “She’s genuine.”
Niko relaxed minutely into his chair.
“It was a good job, Niko, coming to me. I appreciate people I can depend on to do a good job, to look out for my interests. As of now, no more commission. You’re on the payroll. Get yourself a car. What do you like? A Corvette? Maybe one of those big SUVs, a Land Rover?”
Niko looked like he was trying to catch up. “I’ve had my eye on an Audi for a while.”
“Good. Pick up one of those, then. Talk to Amanda. She’ll get you a card. Put the car on it, then keep it for expenses.”
Niko grinned. “Thanks, Boss.”
Vadim waved a negligent hand. “Go. Take a few days off. Take your lady friend somewhere special.” He gave a sly smile. “Make sure the place has a good bed and thick walls.”
Niko laughed. “You bet, Boss.”
He left, looking a good deal more pleased and confident than when he’d entered.
Vadim turned, laced his fingers over his middle and tilted his chair back, gazing through the windows across the dim curves of hills to the last, liquid light that gleamed over the sea. He’d soon be enjoying a test drive of his own—to find out what his new seer could do.
* * *
Emilia sat on the edge of the bed, her head in her hands. She should be thinking of how to escape, but she couldn’t think of anything. Anything but what Vadim Dragovich planned to do with her. Her dream had indeed been true; the trap’s beauty—and its inescapability.
When Dragovich had closed the door behind him, she hadn’t bothered to check to see if it was locked. To what purpose? Still, she felt duty-bound to examine her prison cell.
As prison cells went, she had to admit she had no cause for complaint. This room, like the rest of the house, was beautiful, furnished with a huge, decadently soft bed piled with pillows; two inviting chairs upholstered with plush fabric in a dusty turquoise flanking a little tea table of curly maple; a small writing desk under windows that looked out onto a garden glowing with soft lights. A French door led out onto that garden. Another door opened onto a bathroom tiled in a sandy tan and the same soft turquoise hue as the chairs. It reminded Emilia of the beach under a gauzy fog. She eyed the claw foot tub longingly, but the thought of disrobing here made her back away and quickly close the door.
That’s when she’d sunk onto the bed.
A knock came at the door. Emilia lifted her head. Her shoulders and back were stiff and her mouth dry, as if she’d been sitting that way a long time. Perhaps she had been.
The knock came again. It didn’t sound like a man’s knuckles made it.
“Come in,” she said—or tried to say. Her voice came out as a whisper. She cleared her throat. “Come in.”
The door cracked open and a young woman’s head peeked around the edge. “Ms. Dunmoor?”
Emilia stood and brushed down her skirt. “Yes?”
The girl came all the way in and stuck out a hand to shake. Tattoos covered her arms from wrist to shoulder. Her hair was very short on the sides with the rest swept up and back on top. She looked like a fire spirit.
“Hi, I’m Tiff. Mr. D. sent me. I’m s’posed to pick up some things for you, clothes, underwear, soap, shampoo, makeup, stuff like that, but I gotta know your size first and what you like to use, y’know?”
Emilia had gotten no further than— “’Mr. D?’”
“You know, the boss, Mr. Dragovich. Only I call him Mr. D, ‘cause every time I tried to call him ‘Mr. Dragovich,’ I kept wanting to say it like Dracula. You know, like, Meestor Dragoveech.” She assumed an odd pose, holding her hands fingers-down in front of her and tucking her chin. She rolled the R’s. “And then I’d always, like, crack up, and he never could figure out why, and I’m for sure not gonna tell him. So I call him Mr. D.”
“I see,” Emilia said, feeling like she was listening to someone speak an unfamiliar language much too fast.
“Anyway, I said wouldn’t it be better if I took you shopping, ‘cause that would be a lot more fun. ‘Course I didn’t tell Mr. D that, only ‘wouldn’t it be better,’ and he said maybe another time because you had a busy day and you were tired. And you do look tired. Oops!” Tiff’s eyes went wide. “That was pretty rude, wasn’t it? Sorry.”
“No apology necessary,” Emilia said, finally catching up. “I am…tired.” She resisted an impulse to rub her eyes.
Tiff grinned. “Yeah, I bet. Your first day or so with Mr. D can be like that. One minute you’re going along, la-la-la, and then BOOM!” She flung up her hands. “Mr. D comes along and everything changes.”
“So what’s your size?” Tiff interrupted. “Six? Petite, for sure.” She came to stand beside Emilia, measuring her. “You’re littler than me, so four, maybe, right? What about your bra size? Thirty-two, um, what, C? You’re not built, so I’m guessing C. There’s this sweet lingerie shop downtown, kind of off the side where you have to look for it if you don’t know it’s there. I’ll pick you up something to die for. They have these g-strings—” Tiff frowned. “Nah, g-strings don’t look like your style. Just bikinis, maybe with some lace—”
Emilia eyed Tiff’s tank top, lacy, cherry red bra straps showing under the spaghetti straps, short shorts and navel stud and said, “Please, Tiff, it all sounds like far too much trouble—”
“Sorry, Ms. Dunmoor.” Tiff held up her hands. “Mr. D said get you something to wear, so I gotta get you something to wear.”
Emilia held in a sigh. “It’s kind, but I fear I’m rather particular about my clothing.”
Tiff nodded vigorously. “Yeah, Mr. D already told me. ‘Something tasteful,’ he said. Actually, he said that after he said, ‘Tiffany, no jeans, no short pants or skirts, no tight tops. She won’t wear them.’”
Emilia stood there, not sure whether to be outraged or humiliated. How dare the man presume to know what she would and would not wear!
“You’re lucky maxi skirts are in now,” Tiff said, “’cause if they weren’t, we’d be looking at evening wear. And evening wear for everyday just won’t fly.” She patted Emilia’s arm. “Don’t worry. I’ll get you something tasteful.” She deepened her voice and said the last word with a Russian accent. “Except maybe for the bra and panties. A girl’s gotta be a little wild, right?”
Emilia opened her mouth to argue about the underthings, but Tiff was already breezing out the door.
Emilia groped her way to one the chairs and sank into it, staring at the closed door and trying to catch her breath. Clothes. They were buying her clothes. That meant…it meant—
She wouldn’t be going home. The clothes, more than anything today, brought home the fact.
The ache of tears pushed into her eyes. Swallowing them down, she shoved out of the chair and paced the room, arms folded tight over her chest.
“Mr. D,” she muttered. “Mr. D, indeed!”
She strode for the door.
The hallway outside was lit by fused glass wall sconces. Emilia turned the way she’d come earlier, the Moorish-patterned rug muffling her footfalls. She didn’t have the vaguest idea where she’d find Dragovich, Likely plotting with his henchmen to…to… Well, whatever iniquity criminals plotted with their henchmen.
The smell of roasted meat and potatoes teased her. The man had to eat, she supposed, even if he was a villain of the highest—or was it lowest?—order.
She followed the smell of food past a vast, darkened living room and a formal dining room almost as large. Ahead, golden light spilled through an archway. She stepped forward into another, much smaller dining room. Dragovich, sitting at a cozy round table of dark wood, looked up and smiled.
For just an instant, the smile on that handsome face framed by the mane of startling grey hair made her forgot how detestable he was. But only for an instant.
“There you are,” he said. “I expected you sooner.” He waved to the seat beside his, where another place setting was already prepared. “Sit down. Eat. I’m afraid I started without you. I’m a poor host.”
Emilia abruptly realized she hadn’t eaten anything since a lemon poppy seed muffin this morning. She also realized she absolutely no idea what she planned to say. You’re a despicable cur? I demand you release me at once?
She hovered in the doorway, trying to resurrect the outrage that had carried her here.
“Come, come. Eat. Starving yourself will do no one any good,” he said, emphasizing no one.
She supposed that meant if she decided to kill herself rather than serve him, her friends would still suffer the consequences.
Her stomach crumpled into a knot. Ignoring it, she raised her chin. “I thank you, sir, but I will not break bread with you.”
“Ha!” he said. “You think I’m a beast, and refuse to share my meal with me.” One side of his mouth quirked up and a wicked glitter lit his eyes. “Perhaps you’re afraid I’ll ask you to marry me after dinner.”
Emilia was in no temper to spar with him. “I prefer a tray in my room.”
“A tray. In your room. You sound like a nun. No, Miss Dunmoor, you may not have a tray in your room. You may sit here and eat with me tonight.”
“It’s Missus Dunmoor, if you please,” she said with steel.
He toyed with his fork. “Yes, the husband eight years dead. I suppose that does make you a ‘Missus.’”
She caught her breath. “How do you—!”
He gestured an extravagant invitation to sit. Gathering her skirt, she sat with an excessively straight back.
Dragovich gave a satisfied grunt. “I made it my business to know about you, Mrs. Dunmoor. You don’t believe I only stumbled upon you, do you?” He served her slices of roast beef, potatoes, glazed carrots and a hunk of fresh bread. “No. Someone told me about you.”
Who that someone was struck Emilia, stealing her breath. “The young Russian man with the red-haired woman. Niko. And I—I told him—”
You’ve learned a truth this hour. Now you must decide what to do with it.
She put a hand over her eyes. “I told him to share what he knows.”
She’d done it herself. She’d told him to lead the dragon to her. No. No.
“Ah. Yes, then he did exactly as you suggested,” Dragovich said. “I, in turn, showed how much I appreciate a loyal employee.”
Emilia dropped her hand. “I know.”
“As you knew the devourer. The wizard who stole my power—and your gift, eh? How could he have possibly been able to prey upon you, Mrs. Dunmoor?”
“Because of you!” she flared. “I dreamt of a dragon hunting me. I knew of only one dragon, the Dragon of Russia. I went to a man I thought might help me, who might be able to give me some kind of protection.”
“You fled the wrong dragon. Had you come to me, I would’ve protected you.” He nodded once. “Most zealously.”
An assertion more ominous than comforting. “As you protected yourself?”
He tilted his head. “Mm, true. There is that.”
“I dreamt of the dragon again,” she said. “This week past. Will you still say I fled the wrong dragon?”
“I say you can’t run from your destiny.”
“There is no destiny! The future isn’t fixed, like a book already written whose pages we’re compelled to live, one after another. We write our own stories.”
“What story are you writing, Emilia— I may call you Emilia, may I not? ‘Mrs. Dunmoor’ sounds so matronly, so dull. What story do you write when you dream of me now? And when you dreamt before, a hundred years ago? Two hundred?”
“This can’t possibly work, you do realize that, don’t you? People will ask questions. I’ll be missed.”
She suddenly remembered Livy’s money, hidden away in her trailer. And she hadn’t the chance to tell Livy where.
He laughed. “Missed. By whom? Your elderly landlords? A pensioner who relies on charity for her meals?”
“They’ll go to the police—”
“Who will do what?” Dragovich leaned close, lowered his voice. “You don’t exist in today’s world, Emilia Dunmoor. Existence here, in this age, is more than simply living. You must have records. Numbers. Identification. You must be present in innumerable computers. How can the police search for a woman who doesn’t exist? Why should they bother trying?”
She stared at him, her throat tight.
He leaned back again. “You should hope the police don’t find you. If they do, you’ll be in deeper trouble than you are now. At the very least, you’ll be an undocumented immigrant, and where will they deport you? England? You won’t exist there, either. No, you’re much better off with me.”
She broke from his gaze, from those deceptively soft brown eyes. The food on her plate sat untouched.
“Eat,” he said, picking up his own fork. “You dinner is growing cold.”
She shook her head.
“Why so stricken? Because the Dragon of Russia has you in his clutches?”
He was laughing at her again. She clenched her fists in the folds her skirt. “Yes.”
“I should think you’d be relieved. I’m giving you a comfortable home, safety, protection. You’ve been living on a fine, dangerous edge since you reawakened. Surviving, I assume, by your wits and your gift. Admirable, to be sure, but you no longer need do so. Look at this reasonably, and you’ll see I’m right.”
“Relieved!” she said on a disbelieving laugh. “After what you’ve done?”
“If you’d never heard of me, would you have bolted? If you’d allowed me to offer you employment, would you have calmly considered it?”
Emilia drew breath to emphatically assure him that nothing would’ve been different, then stopped, remembering how she’d reacted to him before she realized who and what he was. How attractive she’d found him. Good heavens, she’d even flirted with the man! If he’d offered her this, would she have accepted?
If she were honest with herself, she had to admit she’d have seriously considered it.
“That’s beside the point,” she said quickly. “Because that isn’t what happened. You demonstrated the kind of man you are by your actions. Nothing can change my opinion of you now.”
He picked up his wine glass and swirled the contents. “I think you’ll discover how very good I am at changing minds.”
If you missed the earlier chapters, go here to read from the beginning.