Happy New Year! I’ve been getting some writing done over the holiday. I hope you’ve been enjoying yours!
Trees rise all around Emilia, dim and blurred by fog, their tangy, resinous scent so rich she can almost taste it. The air is chill and grey with pre-dawn light. Water drips from dark evergreen needles with a hollow sound.
To her right, a familiar driveway curves across the hillside. Ahead, a very familiar trailer sits in a little nook carved out of the trees. She claps her hands and gives a joyous cry. Never before has home looked so sweet. She picks up her skirt and starts forward, the wet grass dragging at her hem.
A shadowy form slips out of the trees ahead, also moving toward her trailer. Emilia freezes at the edge of the woods. Whoever it is wears a hooded jacket with the hood pulled up and walks purposefully but quietly. At her trailer, he stops and stoops in front of the door. A moment later, he swings the door open, steps inside and pulls it closed again behind him.
She puts her hands to her mouth to stifle another cry, this one of anguish. Livy’s money! It’s in there. He can’t find it. He can’t!
There’s nothing there! she wants to shout at him. Can’t you see that? What can you expect to find?
The wet grass slapping at her hem, she runs across the clearing, slithers to a stop in front of her trailer. She reaches to yank the door open. Her hand has no strength. She raises her fists to pound on the door. They strike as softly as falling leaves. She utters furious shouts. They come out as whispers, quiet as the fog.
She darts to a window. Inside, the man goes through drawers and cupboards with neat, efficient relentlessness. Tears slide down her face as she watches.
The trailer door opens again.
“No!” She throws herself in front of the man as he steps out.
Somehow, though, she isn’t where he is. He closes the trailer door, a box tucked under his arm.
Emilia’s heart clenches. The box he carries is a laundry detergent box. She hid Livy’s money in a laundry detergent box.
She lunges for it, but once more, both man and box are not where they’re supposed to be. Without so much as a glance, he turns and walks back into the woods.
* * *
The dream gnawed at Emilia from the moment she awakened. She bathed, finding no pleasure in the patter of warm water on her skin or the bright citrus scent of soap. She dressed with no real attention to the clothes she put on.
Did it already happen? Was it yet to happen?
More to the point, how could it happen?
Standing in front of the French doors to the garden, she chewed her thumb, trying to ignore the churning of her stomach. At last, she came to a decision.
A few minutes later she walked along the breezeway between the house and what Flora called ‘the offices.’ Wisteria vines long out of bloom twisted across a latticed roof, giving the shade a green tint. Following Flora’s directions, she cracked open a door and peeked into the office beyond.
Amanda looked up from a computer screen. She was speaking to someone on the phone, but smiled and waved Emilia in. She hovered by the door, looking around the office and trying not to eavesdrop on Amanda’s conversation.
This office looked more businesslike than Dragovich’s, with a desk and chairs, credenza and computer and phone. By Amanda’s elbow, a mug that said Mrs. Always Right sent coffee-scented steam into the air.
Amanda ended her call and Emilia stepped forward.
“I beg your pardon, Amanda. I wonder if you might have a moment. I wish to ask your advice.”
Amanda came around her desk and gestured to the chairs in front of it, looking competent and professional in slacks and a pale pink linen shell. “What is it?”
Emilia sank into a chair, drew a breath and plunged in. “Before I—” She swallowed was abducted. “—left, a friend entrusted something of value to me. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know where I put it. Even if she did, she has no way to reach it.”
Amanda shifted uncomfortably.
Emilia reached out a hand. “No, I don’t mean to make any awkward requests. But I don’t know what I ought to do.” Her voice went unsteady. “I don’t know if there’s anything I can do.”
Amanda nodded. “I guess you haven’t talked to Mr. Dragovich.”
“No.” That was too blunt. “That is, I hardly like to bother him.”
“Mmm. Like I said yesterday, he owes you.”
“I don’t believe he’ll see it that way.” And Emilia most certainly didn’t like the idea of owing him a favor.
“If you could get a message to your friend, would that help?”
“I hoped it might be a possibility.”
Amanda tapped a manicured nail on the chair arm a moment. “Let me think about it a little, see what I can come up with.”
“Thank you.” Emilia hesitated. “I must admit, I fear the item might fall into the wrong hands. And—” Oh, terrible new thought. “My friend must think by now I’ve absconded with it. I wouldn’t bother you otherwise.”
“I understand. I won’t take too long about it, don’t worry.”
Emilia bowed her head in thanks, but the dream still weighed heavy on her.
* * *
Dragovich continued to play the gentleman through breakfast. No teasing, no intimidation. Good heavens, she might’ve been visiting the home of friends for a fortnight or two, with the usual light chat between friendly, although not close acquaintances. Although in this case, the friendliness was on only one side.
When they were finished, he invited her to his office. Emilia sighed, got up and followed him.
She settled into the chair opposite his. The fog was still in, blurring the garden outside the windows, making the room seem more intimate. His scent enfolded her, something dusky and complex that made her think of shadowy forests and hidden things listening, watching.
“I must ask you something serious today, Emilia,” he said.
She glanced up, not a little alarmed.
“I intend a gathering of business associates. A party, if you will.”
“Oh!” Her alarm dissipated. “Yes, I know.”
“Do you!” He looked impressed.
A sneaking pride bloomed. “I told Flora there would be a party soon.”
“Ha! That’s why she asked for help. Very good. You’re more—” He checked himself as if changing what he’d been about to say. “—helpful than I expected. So. My problem. In my business, it’s sometimes difficult to know who is enemy and who is friend. I need to know where and who to guard against.”
“In your business, sir, I’d suggest you always be on your guard.”
He smiled. “Yes, true. But I like to know where to direct my energies.”
She tore her gaze from that smile, so warm and conspiratorial. Was she the only one who knew he was a wizard, one who was centuries out of place? As he was the only one who knew her own truth.
The realization unaccountably whisked the ground from under her. The lonely ache of the last two years—no, all the years since George had died—panged as sharply as when she’d dreamt of him two nights ago.
She pushed the feeling away. “Mr. Dragovich, surely your magic must be able to tell you such things. You must be able to…to magically eavesdrop or protect yourself or such things.”
He drew back in surprise. “Do you know nothing of magic?”
“I know nothing more than that it enables some wizards to strip one of one’s gift, and others to find what should be invisible.”
“Then I will explain. Yes, I can scry whoever I wish. But how likely do you suppose it is that I’ll watch at just the right moment to learn something important? How will I know what has been discussed before and with who and to what effect? Then I can curse an enemy—but I must first know he’s my enemy. And yes, I can protect myself far more effectively with magic than men with guns can. Magic gives me great advantage, but must still be precisely applied. You see my problem.” He cocked his head. “Did you have no one to teach you? Your people must’ve known of your gift.”
“Of course they did.” She brushed at her skirt. “But we were all very careful that no one outside the family knew of it. It seemed only prudent. It wasn’t so long ago—” She caught herself. “It hadn’t been so long before that women like myself might be tortured and burned.”
His lips thinned, but he only said, “No one else in your family had power?”
She shook her head. “No one that we knew. Although there are—were a few interesting family legends.”
“No doubt. A gift as strong as yours doesn’t come out of nowhere.”
Questions boiled up. There hadn’t been anyone to help her learn how to use her abilities—she’d had to learn on her own. When she was young, it had been confusing, sometimes frightening. It suddenly occurred to her that she could learn a great deal from Dragovich. The thought was equally appealing and appalling.
“I can teach you,” he said quietly.
She flinched back. Did his magic allow him to read minds?
“You’re very kind, sir,” she said in her falsest drawing room voice.
He smiled that conspiratorial smile again and replied in kind, “Not at all, madam.”
Best to get back to business.
“I must have your hand if I’m to read for you.”
He held it out to her. “Don’t look too much into my past, Emilia. You won’t like what you see.”
He wasn’t mocking her as he often did, she could see that in his face.
As she had been at the market, she was keenly aware of how large and strong his hand was. A flash came of last night, of its skill and grace moving across the piano keys. Something stirred in her, something she quickly shut her mind against.
Half-closing her eyes, she sank into the deep, strong current that was Vadim Dragovich.
This time, there was nothing to block her. She was caught up, sucked down, engulfed by power and possibilities. Dark currents swirled around her, pulling her deeper, but brightness glittered in the distance. There was something seductive in exploring such power, letting it caress and carry her as it would.
* * *
Vadim felt the moment she stopped resisting and opened herself to him.
He caught his breath. The sensation was almost sexual. His body reacted, and he had to clench his free hand on his knee to keep from reaching across the table and pulling her to him. It wouldn’t improve matters.
She’s exquisitely sensitive, he reminded himself. Think of something else. Anything else. His thoughts would be little improvement over actions, if she knew.
He breathed deep, hoping to calm himself. Her hand was like a butterfly in his, light and fragile. Her lowered lashes made a delicate fan that veiled her dark eyes.
Fool. Since when have you let a woman steal your wits?
At last, thankfully, she spoke, giving him something else to focus on.
“You’re like a stone thrown into a fire. It burned quietly, but now flames are spattered all over. They might start other fires, or they might wink out. You took what you wanted easily, and now many fear you. Many respect you and wish to share in your strength. Some want revenge for what you did.”
“Yes.” When it was time to carve out a place for himself in this world, he’d done so quickly and decisively, giving the man whose territory this had been no chance to counter him. “But which is which?”
“They’ll come into your house, hiding their thoughts behind smiles. Four stand back, cautious and watching. Three circle like jackals, sniffing for weakness. Two stand behind you, grateful for removing a menace. One hides a dagger of hatred in his heart.”
Vadim counted the men he’d thought to invite, trying to match his own intuitions to her prediction. “Who? What do they look like?”
She shook her head. “You don’t know yet, so I can’t know the faces. I see only hearts.”
He growled something in Russian.
“Hush, sir,” she said.
He stiffened. “Don’t ‘sir’ me, woman, when you tell me to be quiet.”
She released his hand to make a little quelling gesture, little improvement over the ‘hush,’ and not likely to soothe him. “You gather them and—”
Her gaze flashed up to him, clear and present.
“Well?” The heat of anger was welcome distraction from that of desire.
“You test them,” she said smoothly, but color bloomed on her cheekbones.
“By allowing them to reveal themselves.”
Her other hand still enfolded his. He turned it to grip hers, not tightly enough for pain, but enough to keep her from pulling away. “How?”
She made no attempt to struggle, but the openness he’d felt a few minutes ago had turned to a bristling shield.
“You have a great deal of power,” she said coldly. “You can compel those around you to do much. But have a care, Mr. Dragovich, that you don’t drive them to desperation. Desperate, frightened people can do foolish, dangerous things. Things you can’t predict.”
He narrowed his eyes. “But you can.”
She met his gaze, her small hand still imprisoned in his. “The more unstable the present, the more difficult it is to predict the future. The possibilities multiply. They change moment to moment. You expect a great deal of me, sir.”
He could feel through her hand the suppressed tremor that went through her. She was telling the truth, though she quivered to face him with it.
And— He gave a startled laugh. God in heaven, this woman would look him in the eye and warn him off. Don’t make me desperate, she was telling him.
At his laugh, she looked startled in her own turn.
He could break her easily enough, but why should he? He knew his own strength, and so did Emilia—the trembling told him that. He didn’t need to crush her to prove it. No, he needed her confident enough for frankness, however little he might wish to hear it.
He let her go. “You’re right. Chaos is unpredictable. I’ve been in enough battles to know that.”
“And you’ll be wise to avoid precipitating battles.” Her voice betrayed her shaking only a little. “Your situation is not as stable as you’d wish.”
“Is this something you saw?”
She gestured vaguely. “I saw…paths that lead to turmoil. Violence.”
He sat back, ran a finger back and forth across his lips. “And you want me to avoid violence.”
“Of course I do! You do not?”
“It’s sometimes necessary.”
She shook her head. “As you will.”
“But I’ll hear suggestions.”
He thought that would appease her, but she looked at him, more troubled than before.
* * *
Emilia closed the office door behind her, leaned against the wall and closed her eyes. She still trembled. Dear God, what had possessed her to openly defy Dragovich? She practically dared him to do his worst—
And he’d laughed. That had been almost as unsettling as what she’d glimpsed in her seeing.
That was what had possessed her. She wasn’t about to tell him how he tested the business associates he’d invite to his party. If he thought of it, it certainly wouldn’t be because she made the suggestion.
Because it entailed having her on his arm as he entertained his guests.
Photo credit: Backtracker Road, Nicolet National Forest; copyright Andrew Sabai