I’m pretty sure this is some famous person, although I’m going to betray my age and lack of interest in celebrities and admit I don’t know who she is. But she’s a lot like how I imagine Tiff.
Emilia sits on the verandah. The soft, heavy air is alive with the sounds of night—the song of insects, the cries of animals out in the jungle. George sits beside her on the wicker settee, his arm around her, the rise and fall of his chest under her cheek. The buttons of his waistcoat are open, his cravat discarded to show the strong column of his neck.
She clutches him close. “Oh, George, my darling, my heart, how I’ve missed you!”
He feels so good, so warm and comforting. Something in her twists painfully.
“Missed me!” he says, chuckling and hugging her back. “Have I been gone so very long?”
She shakes her head. “I had a dream…” Her throat tightens. “I dreamt you died and I was all alone. Years and years alone, and then something terrible happened—”
Tears push up and spill down her cheeks.
“Emmy!” George raises her face and brushes the tears away. “When did you become a watering pot? As you see, I’m right here.” He bends his head and kisses her. “There, does that convince you? Or do you need more convincing?”
His grin is wicked and his fingers trace the rim of her ear. The pain comes again, a dread knowledge of something she can’t quite remember.
“Yes. Convince me, George. Show me it was only a dream. It seemed so real, and I—I’m afraid…”
“You? My fearless lady? You’re never afraid. You always know exactly what will happen and exactly what to do about it. But if you need convincing…” His kiss this time is deeper, more lingering. “I’m more than happy to convince you.”
He stands, pulling her to her feet, then draws her into the house. The light of the moon spills through the big windows facing the garden.
The sound of men’s voices and laughter suddenly comes from outside. Fear spikes through her. She shrinks back, clinging to her husband as if she’s no more than a child.
“What are they doing here?” she says. “Make them go away.”
George only smiles, quite unconcerned.
Anger sweeps aside the fear. “They’re right outside! Why don’t you do something?”
He turns away as if she’s only a silly, foolish woman. Furious tears choke her. She screams at him in rage and betrayal that he would abandon her like this, leaving her to deal with these—these persons on her own.
* * *
Emilia finished pinning up her hair and sat staring into the vanity mirror. It showed a woman calm, composed and prepared to face another day of captivity. Perhaps a little paler, a few lines around the mouth and brow that weren’t usually in evidence. But after her dream, that was hardly surprising.
It had been a long time since George’s loss had pained her so strongly. He hadn’t abandoned her—not willingly, in any case. What a terrible thing to dream. It was most certainly not his fault that she now shared a house with criminals, that their voices and laughter kept her awake long into the night. And invaded her dreams once she’d finally fallen asleep.
Not to mention the one she’d had to discourage earlier in the evening.
She sniffed and smoothed her skirt. So much for Dragovich’s assurances of safety.
At least she’d not see Dragovich this morning. With any luck, she’d not see him all day.
She made her way to the small dining room and found it set for one, as she expected. As she sipped tea, Flora bustled in with a tray.
“Oh, señora! You should’ve seen Señor Dragovich this morning. Dios mia!” She slid a plate of crepes and a poached egg onto the placemat in front of her.
Emilia paused in lifting the lid of a little dish to inspect the contents. “What do you mean?”
“It was like thunder and lightnings all around his head!” Flora gestured at her own head. “I’m glad you told me about this morning. I would hate if I told him there was no more coffeecake left!”
Emilia thought of her reading for him yesterday and unease curled through her. “He was angry? Why?”
Flora shook her head. “I don’t know. He asked for coffee and cake in his office, like you said. Later some of the boys came in. Then they all left. You didn’t hear them?”
“I heard cars and voices earlier. I suppose that must’ve been them.”
She took a sip of tea to settle herself. She’d expected to be able to enjoy Flora’s excellent cooking without being harried and intimidated into a complete lack of appetite. It seemed Dragovich could manage to ruin it even while not present.
Flora touched her shoulder. “Don’t look like that, señora! We don’t have to worry. Señor Dragovich will take care of his business and not bother us about it.” She checked the teapot and nodded, apparently satisfied. “Now eat your breakfast. You’re his guest. You won’t see any thunder and lightnings.”
Emilia nodded, not entirely convinced. “Shall I look into tomorrow’s breakfast for you?”
Flora immediately sat and extended her hand.
Emilia took it and let her gift range forward. “You’re frying a breakfast steak and potatoes. A bowl of melon balls and blackberries sits on the counter. You slide a pan of muffins into the oven. The clock there reads a little after nine.” She loosened her fingers, but another image came, along with a flustered feeling. “Wait— You’re speaking to Mr. Dragovich. There will be a party.”
“A party! When?”
“In two days? Three? I can’t tell, but soon. You’ll call women in to help. It will be more work than you can do by yourself.”
Flora muttered in Spanish. “Well, I better call now. Make sure they’re okay to come in.” Flora gave an approving nod. “This is a big help, senora. A big help.”
“I’m happy to do it.”
She liked Flora, and the more allies she could find here, the easier she’d feel.
She’d finished eating and was pouring another cup of tea when women’s voices and the sound of footsteps echoed along the hallway outside. A laugh trilled out, then the irrepressible tones of Tiff’s voice. A moment more and Tiff herself appeared in the small dining room’s archway. Two other women followed her.
“There you are.” Tiff came and plunked into the chair next to Emilia’s—not Dragovich’s usual chair, she noticed. Leaning forward, she opened the teapot lid and peered inside. “What’s this? Tea?” She made a face. “Where’s the coffee?”
Emilia opened her mouth to reply, but Tiff was already barreling on.
“That’s okay. There’s no extra cups, anyway. Look at you, sitting here eating breakfast all by yourself. I wish we’d gotten here earlier. We could’ve eaten with you.”
Emilia lifted a curious glance to the other two women. One was tall and stunning. Hair the color of burnished bronze was pulled back in a simple ponytail. The casualness of her jeans and bottle-green t-shirt didn’t detract in the least from a figure as splendid as her face.
The second woman looked to be somewhere in her fifties, and as ordinary as the other was striking. Neither tall nor short, heavy nor slim. The crinkles at the corners of her eyes and deepening laugh lines by her mouth as she listened to Tiff’s patter spoke of good humor.
Tiff followed Emilia’s gaze. “Oh!” she said. “This is Kisa,” she gestured at the bronze-haired beauty, “and Amanda. Amanda is Mr. D’s secretary. Kisa is—”
“Security,” the tall woman said in a pleasant alto voice with—of course—a Russian accent.
“I was going to say ‘muscle,’” Tiff said. “But I guess ‘security’ sounds better.”
“Yes.” Kisa didn’t smile, but amusement bubbled in her voice. “It does.”
“And I require security?” Emilia said.
“You’re worrying her, Tiff,” Amanda said.
“Am I?” Tiff said. “Are you worried, Ms. Dunmoor? Oh! I didn’t tell you yet, did I?” She smirked. “We have a surprise for you. We’re taking you shopping! Then we’re going to lunch and a movie. I told Amanda about how Mr. D bulldozed you, and how you were feeling all down about it, and how I wished there was something to make you feel better. And Amanda said, ‘Well, you know how intimidating Mr. D can be,’ only she said ‘Mr. Dragovich,’ not ‘Mr. D.’ And then she said—”
“I said,” Amanda broke in, “a little normalcy might make you feel more comfortable under…” She paused as if to choose words. “…difficult circumstances.”
Difficult circumstances! Emilia struggled not to laugh, though there was nothing whatsoever humorous about the situation.
“I see,” she said, then added scrupulously, “Thank you both. You’re very kind.”
“Kisa’s got the day off, so I said, ‘Why don’t you come, too. It’ll be fun, a girls’ day out, and if you come along, Mr. D won’t have anything to gripe about.’” Tiff bounded to her feet. “So. Are you ready?”
It all sounded highly engineered to Emilia. Clearly Tiff thought she was the engineer. Emilia wasn’t so sure.
“I can scarcely refuse.”
“Of course you can’t!” Tiff said.
Tiff, whirlwind that she was, towed Emilia out of the room and to the front door.
Once outside, there was some argument about whose car to take. Tiff didn’t want to ride in “that Mom-mobile” and Kisa refused to be “crammed in like a clown in a toy car.”
“’Crammed een like clown in toy car.’” Tiff mimicked Kisa’s accent.
Amanda watched the interchange with the same humor she had inside. “Kisa’s right, Tiff. She’d have to fold herself double in your car. And hers will be more comfortable for four.”
Tiff heaved a sigh. “Okay, fine. But only if Ms. Dunmoor isn’t embarrassed to ride in that boring box.”
“Emilia,” Emilia said. “Please, you must call me Emilia. And a car is a car, to my mind,” she continued. “I’m not overly particular.”
Of course she’d ridden in cars on occasion. And really, they were far superior to carriages—more comfortable and much cleaner.
An automatic gate swung open as they approached. Emilia turned in her seat for a glimpse of the house sprawling across its grounds, stuccoed walls and tile roof as bright as a corner of Italy in the morning sun. The gate closed behind them and the walls blocked all but a bit of driveway and a flaming riot of bougainvillea frothing at the edge.
Kisa turned onto the road. Emilia made a conscious effort not to grip the edge of her seat and the door handle. She’d gotten over the disorientation of not seeing horses in front, but the vehicle still seemed to be hurtling along at frightful speeds.
The scenery, she told herself. Focus on the scenery. Which was indeed lovely. Stately homes nestled in the curves of summer-gold hills. The noble old oaks presiding over the slopes had probably been young when Emilia had. It was a startling thought, one that made her long to touch the rough bark for a glimpse of what those days had been like here, on this shore so far from any she’d known then.
The town was larger than Gualala on the north coast, a potpourri of modern buildings, the tiled roofs and arches and bright colors of Spanish architecture, and half-timbered cottages that looked like they’d be perfectly at home in the countryside of the England she’d once known.
“What town is this?” she asked.
That earned her three startled looks, Kisa’s in the rearview mirror.
“What?” Tiff said.
“Carmel,” Kisa said.
Tiff turned around in the passenger seat, hooking her arm around the headrest. “Did Mr. D put a bag over your head and kidnap you?”
Emilia had little desire to confess that this had pretty much been the case. “I…wasn’t in a state to notice where I was when I came.”
“Oh,” Tiff said. “You had me worried for a second.”
Amanda looked like she was still worried. Kisa’s gaze in the rearview mirror was knowing.
Kisa pulled to the curb and turned off the engine, scanning the street and sidewalks around them. Shops lined both sides of the street, which was divided by a tree-planted median. Trees also graced the sidewalks, everything from the familiar coastal evergreens to neat, glossy-leaved bay trees, making it seem as though the shops had sprung up in a very confused forest.
Seeming satisfied with whatever she saw, Kisa climbed out of the car. The rest of them followed, Tiff bouncing out of the front passenger seat to grab Emilia’s arm.
She slanted Emilia a look. “So. Mr. D said you didn’t want me to get you any more clothes. What’s with that?”
“Tiff,” Amanda said. “Don’t put her on the spot like that.”
“No, really,” Tiff said. “I thought I was doing a good job. Mr. D says I’m doing a good job.”
And that, Emilia thought, is the problem.
“You’re doing a fine job, Tiff. You mustn’t think me ungrateful. But—” She drew a fortifying breath. “I simply don’t feel comfortable…” She thought of Amanda’s description. “…under the circumstances.”
“What, bulldozing?” Tiff said.
Emilia gave a regretful shrug.
“It’s the nature of the business,” Kisa said. “People get sucked into it. You shouldn’t be upset. It’s nothing personal.”
Emilia set her lips against several indignant replies and said only, “Indeed.”
“Believe it or not,” Amanda said, “Mr. Dragovich is actually pretty reasonable. If you don’t want to be involved in the more…serious parts of the business, he’ll try to keep you out of them.”
Emilia glanced at her. No, better not ask.
Amanda nodded, correctly interpreting her look. “Yes, I speak from experience. I’ll tell you sometime.”
“I fear what I want and what I don’t want carry little weight with Mr. Dragovich,” Emilia said.
“Don’t say that!” Tiff said. “If he didn’t care what you want, we wouldn’t be here. But here we are, credit card loaded and ready to charge whatever catches your eye.” She patted her purse. “What else can a girl ask for?”
Emilia supposed there was little point in answering that question.
Tiff studied the shops with a practiced eye. Like Emilia’s little town, there were galleries and realties, cafes and candy shops—although this town seemed to boast far more galleries than anything else.
Tiff pulled her into a boutique between a sculpture gallery and jeweler’s. “Okay, time to get serious.”
The shopkeeper came forward to greet them, her attention focused, naturally, on tall Kisa. Soon, however, Emilia found various garments in petite sizes displayed for her approval. She was surprised to find herself enjoying the process, something as familiar and comfortable as choosing clothes with other women. The happy chatter, the serious consideration of cut and style, color and fabric.
She held up a full-skirted sleeveless dress with a floral swirl on the hem, thinking it would look well on her.
She checked the tag and gasped. “Perhaps not.”
The shopkeeper offered another dress. “How about his one? It’s simpler and would pair well with a knee-length silk vest I can show you.”
Emilia had hopes for the simple dress. The price, however, was certainly not simple. “I’m afraid I can’t.”
“Why not?” Tiff said. “What’s wrong with them?”
Heat rose to Emilia’s face. “I can’t possibly accept…such lavish gifts.” Certainly not from this source.
The shopkeeper gave a practiced smile and excused herself.
“What’s the problem, Emilia?” Tiff said. “I don’t understand—”
“I won’t be bought, Tiff,” Emilia said quietly. “It simply won’t do.”
“Bought! What d’you mean?” Tiff said. “You need clothes, and we’re shopping for them. What, you think we’d take you to Walmart or something? Or the Salvation Army? Mr. D’d spread me on toast and have me for breakfast if I did.”
Emilia straightened. “You may tell Mr. Dragovich to take up the matter with me directly if he’s displeased. I won’t be humiliated in this fashion—dressed like a doll at his whim!”
Tiff stammered a moment, then put a hand on Emilia’s arm. “No, no, no, it wasn’t that way at all, I swear! Mr. D didn’t have anything to do with it! It was my idea—well, mine and Amanda’s. And we asked Kisa to come—one of the reasons we asked her—was because we knew if she did, Mr. D couldn’t say no.”
“He could still say no,” Kisa said, her lips curling up on one side in amusement.
“Well, yeah, he could, I know,” Tiff said, “but he probably wouldn’t. So Emilia, you’ve gotta see, we’re the ones who wanted to take you shopping and get you some nice things, and I’d never take you someplace cheap. That’s what would be insulting, and why would I want to insult you that way?”
That set Emilia back. Perhaps the outing hadn’t been as engineered as she’d thought.
“Look at it this way,” Amanda said. “Mr. Dragovich owes you. This is a way to even things up.”
Tiff rocked back. “That’s mean!”
“Amanda, the revolutionary,” Kisa said dryly.
Amanda shrugged. “I expected better of him than…what happened to Emilia.”
Tiff looked between them, then her eyes went wide. “Seriously?” she squeaked. “I thought you were joking! Mr. D really kid—”
“Tiff,” Kisa said sharply.
Tiff closed her mouth and looked around the shop as if to see if anyone had been near enough to overhear. “Are you sure…” she said in a low voice, “sure it wasn’t just a misunderstanding? I mean, I can’t imagine he would really…you know. Do that.”
They respect him, Emilia thought, surprised. Not fear, but respect. And Tiff seemed genuinely fond of him.
“Things might possibly have gone otherwise,” Emilia admitted. If I hadn’t bolted. “Or so I’m given to understand.
Kisa nodded as if this explained everything. “Vadim applies only enough pressure to get results.”
Emilia drew an outraged breath, but Kisa didn’t seem to be justifying anything. Only explaining.
Tiff bit her lip. “I guess. But will you let us do this, Emilia? I mean, really, what’s the point of saying no? You’ve gotta have clothes no matter what, so they might as well be nice ones, right? Cheap ones aren’t gonna change anything.”
Emilia blinked, touched by their honest efforts to console her. “You’re quite right. Thank you. Your kindness means a great deal to me.”
* * *
Shopping, lunch and a movie turned into shopping, lunch, a movie and coffee and cookies at Tiff’s apartment. Some hours later, it was, “Look at the time! We might as well go to dinner.”
The outing did, in fact, make Emilia feel better. It also made it that much more difficult to go back.
The door snicked shut behind her. The sound might’ve been a bar dropping across a prison door. The welcoming light that filled the foyer did little to dispel the feeling.
From the living room ahead, music spilled, rich and lovely. Emilia paused, surprised, then the music pulled her forward. Who could be here, playing with such skill and emotion?
The living room opened before her, night beyond its soaring windows, furniture clustered in graceful islands on Oriental rugs. In one corner of the room, in front of the windows, Dragovich sat making that incredible music. He looked up from behind the instrument and the notes fell like dying leaves.
“Oh!” Emilia blurted into the shivering silence. “You play the pianoforte!”
He cocked his head, that little smile of his dancing at his lips. “I play the piano, yes. Do you play?”
“Only enough to embarrass myself.” The oft-repeated answer popped out before she could catch it.
He gave a little shake of the head, as if she were being overly modest. “You must sing then, surely. Ladies always had some accomplishment to boast of.”
“I do sing, although my range isn’t good,” she said warily. He didn’t seem to be taunting her, as he usually did. Still, she had no desire to prolong the conversation. “Please, Mr. Dragovich, don’t allow me to interrupt. Return to your playing.”
His fingers danced across the keys and notes bloomed like wildflowers. “Shall I play for you? Sit down, if you like.”
For anyone else, she’d’ve complied happily enough. Now, she was torn between a desire to escape and a wish to hear more of that music that had drawn her. Raising her chin, she crossed to a chair and settled herself, more than a little curious what should make him decide to play the gentleman now.
He bent over the keyboard once more. The music unfurled around her, sank into her. It was a rhapsody that sounded vaguely Russian, but no piece she knew. She gradually relaxed, letting her gaze drift to the tall windows, the reflections of the room sketched against the darkness outside.
Dragovich’s big, graceful hands glided over the keys, his powerful shoulders bowing forward as he pounded out the more intense passages. Then he’d lean back again, drawing out delicate melodies like a man coaxing some shy, wild thing into the light.
How strange. As if the reflection she watched in the windows had manifested itself here tonight, somehow replacing the frightening criminal.
The final notes of the piece lifted into the air, drifting into silence. Emilia blinked back into the present, wondering if he’d woven magic into that music—and not only in the poetic sense. She resisted an impulse to applaud, another to thank him.
“You play very well,” she said instead. “You surprise me, sir.”
“You think I’m more skilled at chopping heads and gutting children, I suppose.”
Ah, there was the Dragovich she knew. “Something rather like that.”
“Music is a refuge,” he said. “At the end of a trying day, it makes me think of better things.”
She thought of Flora’s report of his anger this morning. She hesitated, then plunged on. “Then why not fill your days with better things? Why not avoid chopping heads and such?”
“The strong prosper. I wouldn’t have this…” He gestured around him. “Without the ‘and such.’”
“You’re a wizard,” she said on a disbelieving laugh. “You’re already stronger than other men even without…unpleasantness.”
“You see this world we’ve been reborn to. Should I work magic for all to see? Your kind of magic they want to believe in. Mine, if they did, they’d fear. And like all fearful men, they’d try to destroy me.”
So that was behind the pretense of walls and guards and guns. He might be a frightening man, but to most eyes, he was merely that—a man.
“But you don’t need to do harm,” she said. “You especially don’t need to.”
“No. But if violence is the only language some men understand, if force is the only persuasion others will hear, I’ll use them.” Anger flashed across this face, then he shrugged. “This is the way of the world.”
“Of your world.”
“Of yours, too. You’re only fortunate that worse hasn’t yet caught up to you.”
She gave a short, bitter laugh. “Oh, it’s caught up to me.”
He nodded seriously. “And I promised you a safe haven, did I not? Then you were accosted in my home last night. I owe you an apology, Emilia. I failed in that promise.”
She sat quiet, stunned, whether more at the hypocrisy or the apology itself, she couldn’t say. Was he deluding himself, or trying to delude her?
“You are a criminal. Your associates are criminals. I assure you, sir, at no time have I felt safe here.”
“Then I’ve done a poor job of reassuring you. What happened last night…” His mouth tightened to a grim line. “No one will bother you again.”
What had he been doing all day? She had a suspicion she didn’t want to know the particulars.
“How can you promise that?” she said. “You’ve said violence is a part of your life. As long as I’m here, it must necessarily be part of mine, as well.”
“I take care of my people. Or have you heard different?”
She thought of what Amanda had said about avoiding the more serious aspects of the ‘business.’
“No. What I heard…” Emilia glanced away. “Wasn’t what I expected.”
* * *
Vadim raised his brows at that admission. He hadn’t planned today’s outing, but it had been a convenient way to keep Emilia busy while he dealt with Peterson. Now it seemed to have produced unexpected benefits.
He couldn’t decide whether to be outraged or amused. “You don’t expect to find loyalty or gratitude or respect?”
Her eyes rose. “No. I didn’t.”
He shook his head. “Oh, Emilia. How exhausting and wasteful it would be to keep all my people through fear and intimidation.”
The answer clearly took her by surprise, but she rallied quickly. “And me? You’ve already ensured my cooperation…” She gave a significant pause, as if to remind him that it had been through fear and intimidation. “The other women who work for you have their own homes. I see no reason why I must remain in yours while serving you.”
The absolute denial that leapt to his tongue caught him off guard, but he only stared at her. As on past occasions, it seemed she forced herself to meet his gaze. She broke off first this time, twisting her fingers in her skirt.
She was afraid of him. That hadn’t been a lie for Peterson’s benefit. Why else negotiate for this distance?
Her composure, her testing, her willingness to spar with him under such circumstances… God in heaven. She was far braver than he’d given her credit for.
“I could give you all the reasons I’d keep you here and you’d counter them. I can give you no reason at all and simply say you’ll stay, earning your further resentment. But let us call a truce. I admit I was rash in bringing you as I did…” He held out a hand, palm up, a gesture of conciliation. “If you’ll be persuaded I mean you no harm.”
“You—” She didn’t seem to be able to get any further.
At last, she said, “I can’t say that comforts me.”
“No. Not yet, I know.”
She gave a tiny shake of the head and her lips parted as if she prepared to deny the ‘yet,’ but didn’t quite dare.
* * *
The piano music began again behind her as Emilia walked down the hall. What had just happened? Why should Dragovich suddenly decide to make peace?
Unless it was as simple as he said—one of his men had accosted her in his own home. She hadn’t considered Dragovich a man of honor. But he was a man nevertheless, and men often seemed acutely conscious of such things.
She frowned. No, that might be part of it, but not all. He certainly hadn’t given a fig for honor when he’d abducted her. What had changed? She ran the conversation back through her mind, searching for some clue, then searched back further. Yesterday morning, when she’d read for him—
She went cold. You’ll see for yourself, she’d told him. He meddles with something you value highly. Something that makes you stronger.
“Oh, no,” she said aloud.
She found herself standing still, her hands clenched in her skirt, staring blindly down the hall. Looking quickly around to place herself, she hurried to a door and stepped into the room beyond.
She didn’t know what the room would be called nowadays—it was something of a cross between what she’d consider a drawing room and library. It contained a collection of books and magazines, a TV, gaming console, a compact sound system and other odds and ends to entertain oneself. And in a drawer she’d found a pack of playing cards.
She pulled open the drawer and took them out now, sat on a low divan and shuffled.
Her hands shook as she laid the spread on the glass table in front of her. They shook more with each new card. Four of Clubs—caution. Eight of Clubs—greed, lust, evil intentions. Nine of Spades—danger. Four of Diamonds—circumstances beyond one’s control. Five of Clubs—a difficult alliance. Two of Spades—uneasy peace.
So many dark cards, each feeding into the darkness of the next. She stopped, unwilling to turn another. Steeling herself, she slipped a finger beneath the next card.
King of Spades—a powerful man. Then, the Two of Hearts—the Lovers. Emilia closed her eyes and slid out one last card. Her pulse pounded in her throat and lips. She turned over the card and opened her eyes.
The Ace of Spades—destiny.
“There is no destiny!”
She dashed the cards away. They fluttered to the floor. The Two of Hearts fell to cross the King of Spades.
Emilia hugged herself and shivered.