I just noticed a big boo-boo with the chapters I’ve been posting. I completely skipped this one. So if you’ve been reading along and felt like you missed something… Well, you did. My bad. Sorry. Here’s the correct Chapter 4, in which Emilia tests the limits of her prison.
Emilia awakened in a decadently soft bed. There was no moment of forgetfulness, of wondering where she was that she could possibly be so comfortable. No, she knew exactly where she was.
She was in Vadim Dragovich’s house, his prisoner, chained no less by his threats to her friends than she would be by real, physical bonds. Livy’s money hidden in her trailer made it all the worse.
She opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling. The fact of her situation weighted her chest. The urge to weep clogged her throat. Somehow, she suspected weeping and pining would do little to move Dragovich. Nor did she have any desire to abuse her self-respect that way.
She took a long, steadying breath and sat up, putting the bedclothes aside. Perhaps she ought to try outright defiance? No, that would only rouse his more forceful instincts. And she had no doubt he had instincts far more forceful than what she’d encountered so far.
But submitting, cheerfully or otherwise, was out of the question. That left only one thing to do: test the limits of her imprisonment.
She slid out of bed and padded across thick, soft carpet to the bathroom, hesitating again at the shower. She could wash at the sink—after all, she’d bathed with a basin and ewer for decades.
But a shower was so much more refreshing.
She raised her chin, slipped off her nightgown and turned on the spray.
Tiff had indeed supplied clothes, including new underthings. A towel wrapped around her, Emilia frowned at unmentionables that truly were unmentionable. Both bra and panties were little more than teases of lace. She slipped them on and was surprised to find herself feeling scandalous and daring. Well! Good thing they’d be safely covered up.
She put on a flared skirt in sea colors, a soft, jade green blouse and ballet flats, opened the French door and stepped out into the garden.
Beyond a small patio bedecked with potted geraniums and petunias, a brilliant green lawn unfurled, tempting bare feet. Emilia planned on going farther than the lawn, so she left her shoes on as she stepped across it.
The rest of the garden was a carnival of greenery and color. Scents swirled around her as she walked: the shy sweetness of gardenia, the bold perfume of star jasmine, the richness of roses.
The warm, mild air gave the sense she was farther south than her home on the north coast. She wondered with dismay how much farther south. Her reading for Dragovich had been in the early afternoon yesterday. She’d awakened in his home in the evening, what, four, five hours later? Too many hours to have travelled, whether it was four or six.
She passed immaculately tended beds free of the tiniest weed seedling and eventually came to a high, stuccoed wall bordered by flamelike bougainvillea, red-berried firethorn, climbing roses and blackberries.
All thorny. Emelia pursed her lips. Interesting.
Eventually, she came to a wrought iron gate set in an archway. She touched the latch and the gate swung open with only a hush of well-oiled hinges. She raised her brows. That high wall, all those thorns…and an unlocked gate. A test?
Perhaps magic guarded it, and the moment she attempted to step through, flames would erupt, or she’d be transported back to her room, or…
Dithering here wouldn’t answer the question. Wincing a little, she stepped through.
Nothing happened, only an ordinary step through an archway onto an ordinary hillside dotted with ancient, twisted oaks. Grass, straw-colored after the long, dry California summer, rolled across the hills to the distant blue of the sea. Picking up her skirt, she began descending the slope, the dry grass crisping under her feet.
“Hey!” a man’s voice called behind her.
Emilia stopped and turned. A young man wearing sunglasses and a tight-fitting polo shirt trotted toward her. The limit of her prison, perhaps?
He came to a stop in front of her. He wasn’t a large man, but the shirt revealed an impressively muscular build. The fact that he was scarcely panting confirmed that he was in excellent shape.
“Mrs. Dunmoor?” he said. “Where are you going?”
She offered up her most disarming smile. “Why, I’m going for a walk.”
“For the air and exercise.” She started forward again.
After a moment, he followed. “Mrs. Dunmoor—”
Still smiling, she said, “You seem to have the advantage of me, sir. To whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?”
“Uh,” he said. “I’m Alex.”
He eyed her through the sunglasses. “Murin.”
“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Murin.”
“Yeah, okay, but Mrs. Dunmoor—”
“It’s an excellent day to be out-of-doors, wouldn’t you agree? And your grounds are most inviting. How far do they extend?”
“A ways. Look, do you want—”
“Is that a town I see there, beyond that hillcrest? Tiff, the young lady who was so kind as to bring me this dress, spoke of a town nearby. I’d like to see it. Will you be accompanying me, Mr. Murin?”
“What, on foot?”
“It doesn’t look that far. Surely not more than a brisk morning’s walk.”
“About fifteen minutes or so on the road, I guess.” He brightened suddenly. “Tell you what. We’ll go back to the house and talk to Mr. Dragovich about taking the car to town, okay?”
“Drive? On such a fine day? Nonsense. This is much more pleasant.” She increased her pace.
Alex matched it, edging a little in front of her as if prepared to block her way. “Mrs. Dunmoor, please—”
She stopped. “Yes?”
He ran a hand across his brush-cut hair. “You can’t walk to town. There’s whole lot of private property between here and there. You can’t just go wandering across it. People will call the cops or something. It’ll be lots better if you come back to the house.”
She could see him wondering if he’d be forced to bodily carry her back. Of course he was fully capable of doing so, but he clearly didn’t wish to.
How odd. She’d have expected Dragovich’s creatures to be as careless of her as Dragovich himself.
“I see,” she said, then took pity on him. “In any case, I haven’t breakfasted yet.”
He grinned in relief. “Yeah, okay. Let me take you back and you can eat breakfast before you do any more walking.”
Unable to resist teasing him a moment more, she turned and looked toward the town again. “And this such a fine day for a walk…” She sighed. “Perhaps another day, then.”
“Sure,” he said, “Another day.”
He took her arm as if to prevent any more changes of heart. She caught a glimpse of a gun under his jacket when he reached for her.
He tapped his ear. “Murin. Incoming.”
“I beg your pardon?” Emilia said.
“Just checking in,” Alex explained, steering her back toward the stucco wall.
She’d seen people talking on Bluetooths (or was it Blueteeth?), a disconcerting experience. Before someone had explained to her, she’d thought them mad, talking and gesturing to invisible companions. She supposed Alex wore something of the sort.
She expected him to take her back through the gate she’d used, but he followed the wall around to a nondescript building set off from the main house, like a gatehouse. He pressed his palm to a panel beside the door. The panel beeped and a light below it flashed green. He opened the door and ushered her inside.
A sterile hallway opened ahead. Their steps tapped on the concrete floor. A door opened ahead and another young man, this one balding on top with a thin ponytail behind, poked his head out.
“Everything okay?” he said.
“No problems,” Alex answered. “We’re headed to the house.”
The ponytailed man nodded and disappeared back into the room.
Emilia remained silent, taking the opportunity to observe. The security was obvious. Curious that it seemed to be of the usual sort, rather than magical. A wizard should have no need for guns and locks and cameras and whatever other methods were used nowadays. Was it all camouflage? A way to make himself seem an ordinary man? Well, an ordinary criminal.
They exited the building into a breezeway that led to the house. Alex took her through a door into some sort of utility area.
The aroma of frying bacon and cinnamon wafted to her. Her mouth watered and her stomach growled. If she didn’t have to share a table with Vadim Dragovich, she might at last be able to eat.
Once in the kitchen, Alex turned her over to Flora, the cook, a harried woman with flour-dusted hair falling out of its bun. Emilia expressed her willingness to eat in the kitchen—to save trouble, she said.
Flora threw up her hands in horror. “Oh, no, señora! You’re a guest! Guests eat in the dining room.” She made a shooing motion. “Go, go, I’ll bring you something.”
Emilia calculated. “Has the master eaten yet?”
Flora blew a loose piece of hair and gave a short laugh. “He asked the same thing. ‘Has my guest breakfasted yet, Flora?’ he says. I tell him no, so he just takes coffee and a roll to his study.”
Stalking me again, is he? “When does he usually dine?”
Flora shook her head and pulled on oven mitts. “You never know with that man. Usually it’s late. Today, it’s early.” She pulled a sheet of cinnamon rolls out of the oven.
Emilia smiled. “It sounds as though you could use my help.”
“Did you perhaps hear that I tell fortunes?”
“Some of the boys were talking about it. I thought it was la huavada.”
Emilia had to dig deep for that translation. It came to ‘a nest of eggs.’ She presumed that meant ‘nonsense.’
“Not at all. I am a fortune teller.”
Flora made a skeptical face.
“I’ll prove it. Shall I tell you when Mr. Dragovich will want breakfast tomorrow?”
Flora laughed. “If you can tell that, you really are a fortune teller. Go ahead.”
Emilia looked longingly at the baking sheet with its plump, golden cinnamon rolls. “Might I have one of those rolls? And perhaps a small cup of tea?”
“Sure. I’ll get you a plate.”
I’ll eat my meals where I please, Mr. Dragovich, she thought. Flora bustled a minute or two, then brought a cinnamon roll and tea.
“Thank you,” Emilia said. “May I have your hand?”
Flora shyly extended it.
This close in time to the question, the answer, barring any catastrophes, should be fairly certain. Since the subject was Dragovich, Emilia sincerely hoped there wouldn’t be any catastrophes to spoil her prediction. Otherwise, she’d be risking her breakfasts to his company.
Emilia took Flora’s hand and looked.
She caught a flash of exhaustion, of fear and thirst and anguish. Of carrying a baby burning with fever across a dark desert, thorns and rocks tearing at legs and feet.
What had happened that the poor woman had endured such things? Emilia pulled out of the past and skimmed her sight forward.
This kitchen appeared, already warm from the oven, smelling of sugar, sausage, frying potatoes.
“You want the boss to be happy,” she murmured, surprised. “It pleases and gratifies you to hear him praise your cooking.”
“Yes,” Flora said, surprise of her own in her voice.
Guilt pricked Emilia over her rejected dinner last night, but she continued.
“It’s 7:45. You just put a coffeecake in the oven. You’re humming, content.”
She released Flora’s hand, wondering. Emilia had sensed no fear or resentment, and Flora seemed to be genuinely happy working here. Could she possibly not know what kind of man Dragovich was?
Flora looked down at her hand as if she might see there what Emilia had. “I was gonna make a raspberry coffeecake tomorrow. I’m going to the store for fresh raspberries this afternoon.” She looked up again. “How do you know?”
“I saw it in your future.”
Flora looked at her a little sideways, raised a hand as if to cross herself then dusted her apron instead. “What happens if I make something else?”
“Well, unless it takes longer to bake, it shouldn’t affect my reading. If it does take longer to bake…” She shrugged. “I suppose you’d best start earlier.”
“That’s what I saw on the clock.” Emilia gestured at the big clock above the kitchen sink.
“So he’ll eat around nine.”
Therefore I’ll be otherwise engaged around nine in the morning, Emilia thought, pleased.
Flora made a thoughtful sound. “If you’re right…” She wet her lips. “Maybe you can tell me for every morning?”
“I’d be delighted. Perhaps we can make a trade? I do so hate to intrude on Mr. Dragovich’s valuable time while I’m here, but manners seem to compel him to invite me to dine with him. It would make matters so much less awkward if I could take my meals here.”
Flora frowned. “It’s not right, señora. Senor Dragovich said you’re his guest.”
Oh, yes. A guest who can’t leave. “Of course, I understand if it isn’t possible. I don’t want to put you in an uncomfortable position.”
“Okay,” Flora said. “If he doesn’t ask to set a place for you, then no problem. Bueno?”
“Bueno.” Emilia said. “You’re very kind.”
* * *
His seer was testing him. Tilting his office chair back, Vadim chuckled and slapped his knee.
First this supposed walk to town, now she suborned his cook. It had been all he could do to keep from laughing when Flora had so smugly boasted that from now on, she’d have his breakfasts ready exactly when he wanted them. Señora Dunmoor had promised to tell her what time.
Vadim didn’t assume for an instant that the offer stemmed from her wanting to help Flora better serve him.
How should he engage in this battle of wits?
He took out his phone and texted his secretary: I’m engaged. Hold my calls.
He stood, brushed down his slacks, smoothed his hair and called a finding spell. This time the spell worked, guiding him through the house to one of the bedrooms in the guest wing. He stopped outside the door and knocked.
There was a long pause during which he imagined the seer trying to decide whether or not she was available to callers. At last, she opened the door.
Well! Tiffany had done well. The clothes she’d chosen were far more flattering than the drab castoffs the seer had worn yesterday. He took a moment to appreciate the view of slender neck and shoulders the blouse’s low neck revealed.
Faint color pushed into her cheeks. “Yes, Mr. Dragovich?”
“I require your services.” He gestured an invitation.
She eyed him with what he supposed was withering contempt, her chin high. He struggled to maintain a serious face.
“Very well,” she finally said and swept out of the room.
First pausing to close the door, she preceded him down the hall. He had yet to see a modern woman who’d mastered that queenly bearing. The result of years of confinement in corsets, he assumed. On the other hand, women nowadays tended not to faint so frequently.
He opened the door to his study and ushered her in. She stood, her hands folded in front of her. It was the same room he’d carried her to last evening.
“Will you sit?”
She silently took the chair he offered, sitting with that disapprovingly straight spine.
He settled into the chair opposite, the small table between them. “I wish you to do a reading for me.”
“I require my cards.”
“You didn’t require your cards yesterday. My hand seemed sufficient.” He thought of how she’d caressed his palm. “More than sufficient.”
Again, that hint of color rose to her cheeks. “That was before you abducted and imprisoned me, Mr. Dragovich.”
“Pah. Such imprisonment, when you stroll in my gardens and wander my grounds.”
“Where your man stopped me and forced me to return.”
“You put poor Alexei in quite a quandary. He didn’t know what to do if you’d refused to return. I told him to come to me and I’d deal with you myself.”
Her dark eyes flashed. “I haven’t the least doubt of it.”
“Good,” he said. “Have a care for my men, Emilia. Don’t embarrass them in front of me.”
Doubt flickered across her face. Clearly, she hadn’t thought of that.
Vadim extended his hand across the table while she was off balance. “If you please?”
She didn’t take his hand this time, only laid hers on either side of it and bent her head. After a long moment, she frowned and cupped his hand in both hers.
His breath stopped. It must’ve been the pulse of her power that sent such heat through him. Surely that, and not the sight and feel of her small fingers imprisoning his.
She let go and raised her head. “I can’t see.”
He frowned and withdrew his hand rather too quickly. “This won’t do.”
“I’m not attempting to be difficult. It might have to do with your magic. I had the same trouble yesterday, if you recall.”
“Yet you were able to see a great deal then,” he said softly.
“Yes. But those kinds of visions are unpredictable and difficult to interpret, like dreams.”
He sat back in his chair, studying her. She met his gaze, but he had a suspicion she steeled herself to do so.
At last, he grunted. She was right. It did have to do with his magic. Vadim called up his power and dispelled the ward against magical sight and one designed to obscure his presence in the magical ether.
He replaced his hand on the table. “Try again.”
She didn’t move to comply with his command. “Mr. Dragovich. There is something you must understand. As I’ve already explained to you, when I look into the future, it isn’t like reading the pages of a book. Just as there is no such thing as destiny, so too there are many possible futures. I can only tell you those most likely at any given moment. I have no desire to incur your notorious wrath as a result of unrealistic expectations.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Then what good are you?”
“None, perhaps. You may find I’m not worth the trouble of keeping and return me home.”
He laughed. Clever woman, hiding steel beneath that quiet, gentle exterior.
“I may indeed. But not today,” he said. “So tell me, Emilia, what expectations should I have?”
“Simple questions, close in time, yield the most accurate predictions.”
“I see.” He pursed his lips as if thinking. “Say I ask you to tell me what time I’ll breakfast tomorrow. Is that simple enough?”
He thoroughly enjoyed thwarted fury on the face of an opponent. He thoroughly enjoyed it now.
His hand still lay palm-up on the table. He wiggled his fingers.
“I don’t need to touch you to see that.” She didn’t say it through gritted teeth, but she might as well have. Her power brushed him again. “Slightly after nine in the morning.”
“And if you’re wrong?”
“If I’m wrong,” she said sweetly, “it means some dreadful misfortune has befallen you. And I won’t be held accountable for that.”
“Then barring any dreadful misfortunes, I’ll look forward to breakfasting with you tomorrow.”