The girl in this photo is pretty happy about going to the ball. Emilia is definitely not happy about the party she’s attending. But the dress is kinda like I imagined, and the backdrop was just too cool to pass up.
“No,” Emilia said. “Absolutely not.”
Tiff lowered the gown she’d been displaying. The lace, silk and chiffon were dyed a golden green as pale as a watercolor, with a skirt that must’ve required yards of fabric.
“Why not? What’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing is wrong with it. It’s very beautiful,” Emilia said. “But I’m not wearing it.”
“But Mr. D’s party—”
“I will not be attending Mr. Dragovich’s party this evening.”
“You—” Tiff’s mouth worked silently a moment. “Emilia, that’s what the dress is for. You have to come!”
Emilia stiffened. “I see. He assumed I’d come, so he had you buy a gown for me. Regrettably, he neglected to ask me first.”
Tiff looked more confused than ever. “Why wouldn’t you? Don’t you like parties?”
“I find parties in general delightful. This one, however, is a notable exception.”
A knock came at the door. Both of them looked at it. Judging from Tiff’s face, she knew who it must be as well as Emilia did.
Emilia sighed. “Come in.”
The door opened to admit Dragovich. Emilia glanced once. Then she looked again, struggling to keep herself from staring. He looked…he looked…
Well! Indecently handsome.
A dark suit and deep burgundy tie set off his pewter-grey hair. A slit-pupiled eye glared from a ring on his right hand. It took Emilia a moment to realize it must be a tiger’s eye of an astonishing reddish hue.
“I heard arguing,” he said. “Why are you arguing?”
“Um…” Tiff said.
Emilia folded her hands and gathered her scattered wits. “I was expressing my regrets that I won’t be able to attend your party.”
“Of course,” he said. “I didn’t invite you yet. I’ve come to do that.”
With him standing there in that dashing suit, Emilia’s resolve traitorously wavered. “Nevertheless, I must still decline.”
Tiff’s eyes were growing larger and larger, darting back and forth between them.
“Why must you?” His amusement didn’t bode well for Emilia’s eventual success.
“I believe I’ll find the company objectionable.”
“Oh, pah.” He waved a dismissive hand. “Come. Wear the dress. Drink the wine. The company won’t bite.”
“I fear it’s quite impossible.”
“Emilia,” Tiff squeaked.
Dragovich turned to her. “Tiffany, excuse us a moment.”
“Okay,” Tiff said, but she glanced a question at Emilia.
Oh, dear. “It isn’t the dress, on my honor,” Emilia said, deliberately misunderstanding that will you be all right? glance. Dragovich wouldn’t, she suspected, have much patience with divided loyalties.
“Um, Mr. D, I, uh, I didn’t get a chance to…” She gestured at the box, a flat box of suspicious size and shape, that she’d placed on the dresser before unveiling the gown.
“Leave it there,” he said.
Tiff ducked her head and scurried out.
“I see you’ve corrupted another of my staff,” he said dryly.
“I have no idea what you’re speaking of,” Emilia said.
One side of his mouth quirked up. “Is that so. Then let’s speak of my party. You must come. I need your insight. And I promise, with me beside you, the company will have nothing but respect for you.”
Heat climbed to her face. There it was, exactly as she’d foreseen. “Or perhaps I’ll be seen as a weak link, a target.”
“No. You won’t.”
“Mr. Dragovich, you really—”
“This was what you foresaw? This is why you wouldn’t tell me how I test my associates.”
She said nothing, fixing her gaze on the dragon’s eye in his ring. The silence stretched to uncomfortable proportions.
“As you wish,” he finally said.
Surprise made her look up.
“I have something for you then.”
He reached into an inside pocket and took out something small enough to fit in his hand. He offered it to her. After a moment’s hesitation, she took it.
It was the tarot deck she’d used in her readings, the one she’d found in a dingy little antique shop in Berkley. The cards she’d abandoned in her flight from Dragovich.
“You can work in the breakfast nook,” he said. “It will be made suitably mystical. I suggest charging at least fifty dollars. My guests won’t respect you otherwise. And avoid specifics in your readings. Too much, and you’ll worry them.”
She nodded, trying to decipher what was going on.
“Guests begin arriving in an hour or so,” he said. “You should go in at 8:30 or 9:00.”
A shapeless suspicion coiled in her belly. “Mr. Dragovich. How did you come by these?” She held the cards cupped in her hands
“I can come by almost anything I wish, Emilia. You should know that by now.” He crossed to the door, then paused, a hand on the doorknob. “Your friend Olivia has her money. In the future, you can come to me with such requests. They aren’t unreasonable.”
Emilia stared at the closed door for a full minute after he left, trying to persuade her lungs to begin working properly again.
* * *
“Word is Joss Flannagan is behind the raid on Baljic’s arms drop.” Kargin sipped his drink, his gaze roving the room as he spoke with Vadim.
Other conversations—many in Russian—ebbed and flowed in the background. Soft jazz piano stitched notes through the voices. The scent of perfumes and odors of cigarette and cigar smoke wove a rich tapestry that changed with the breeze through the French doors.
“Now why would Flannagan do such a thing?” Vadim swirled his own drink. The ice made a soft, high sound against the glass. “Unless he has influence with the authorities. Does he have a way to get to those weapons once they’re in the DEA’s hands?”
“We think so. We’re—”
Kargin broke off, his eyes fixing on something behind Vadim. Vadim half-turned to see what it was. Then he turned fully, all his attention on the great room’s archway.
Emilia stood there in the gown Tiffany had found for her. The lacy bodice followed the curves of bosom and waist while the skirt flowed in a shimmering froth of fabric to the floor. Complicated braids and twists gathered her hair at the back of her head then fell in feathery coils that brushed the nape of her neck. The amber necklace and earrings he himself had bought glowed against her collarbone and neck, drops of candlelight against her skin.
“Who is that?” Kargin said and began to move in Emilia’s direction.
Vadim checked an impulse to catch the man’s shoulder and stepped smoothly past him. “I’ll introduce you.”
Emilia smiled as he approached. It seemed genuine and his breath caught for an instant.
“Mrs. Dunmoor.” He bowed his head slightly. The old formality returned as if he hadn’t spent the last two years trying to abandon it. “May I present my friend, Grigori Kargin.”
“Mr. Kargin,” she said. “A pleasure.”
She held out her hand palm-down. The gesture seemed so familiar, yet wrong. He realized why when Kargin awkwardly took her hand and shook it—it was the old-fashioned gesture of a lady offering a hand to be kissed.
“Do you live hereabouts, sir?” she asked, retaining his hand longer than necessary for a simple handshake.
The pulse of her power brushed Vadim and for a moment, her eyes unfocused. Ah! She was reading him.
“In Sacramento,” Kargin said. “I’m heavily involved in politics. And you?”
“Mrs. Dunmoor is my guest,” Vadim put in. “She’s lately come from India.”
“India! Really!” Kargin said. “And what kept you busy in India?”
At last, she let go his hand. “Mostly, my husband was kept busy. But I found ways to occupy myself. I enjoyed my garden a great deal, and learning to speak Hindustani and Farsi.” She lowered her voice. “Although I must confess to a shameful fascination with games of chance.”
Kargin laughed, clearly charmed, husband or no husband. “I’m sure we’ll have a card game or two later in the evening. You’ll have to join us, Mrs. Dunmoor.”
“Some wine first, maybe?” Vadim said. “Excuse us, Grisha.”
Vadim started to offer his arm. He caught himself this time and put a hand on the small of her back instead. The lace on her dress traced a warm pattern on his palm. He shifted his hand a fraction lower and nearer her hip, earning a wary glance from her. It had the desired effect on Kargin, though. He instantly looked much less interested.
“Sure. I’ll catch you later.”
Vadim raised a hand in acknowledgement and steered Emilia toward the bar.
“Women shake hands now,” he said in a low voice. “If a man kisses your hand, it’s because he has romantic intentions.”
Her glance this time was shocked. “Oh! Oh, my. I didn’t think. The last time I took part in such a gathering…” She trailed off.
“Was before your gift was taken.”
She nodded, her cheeks very pink.
“If someone asks you to call them by their given name, it’s a friendly offer. It isn’t an insult, or overly familiar.”
“That, I know.”
“Good. Your ‘sirs’ and ‘misters’ I think will be put down to your being English. Again, it isn’t impolite to leave them out.”
“I shall…endeavor to keep that in mind.”
When they reached the bar, she pointedly stepped away from him. He tried not to be disappointed. He ordered her a pinot noir from a winery along the Russian River. It never failed to gratify him that Russians had staked their claims on the northern California coast more than a century before he’d come to stake his own.
“Was that true, the languages you speak?” he said. “The cards, I don’t doubt. I’m surprised you didn’t make your living here as a card sharp. No one would suspect you.”
She sniffed. “It would be cheating. And of course I speak the languages. A bit of Bengali, as well. After all, I lived there for fifteen years. One doesn’t want to spend fifteen years listening to meaningless gabble everywhere.”
“Does that mean you’ll be learning Russian?” A slow smile tugged at his lips. “Ti prekrasno vyglyadish’ segodnya, moy dorogoy.” You look lovely tonight, my dear.
“What does that mean?”
“Shall I teach you?”
“I thank you, no.”
He laughed softly. “We’ll see.”
* * *
Emilia fancied she still felt the heat of Dragovich’s hand through her dress. She’d grown increasingly uncomfortable the longer it remained there, heat running through her the way it hadn’t for a very long time.
She sipped wine to hide her agitation. It simply wouldn’t do. It was surrender enough to wear the gown, the amber he’d given her warm against her breast. But after what he’d done for Livy, she could scarcely have done less. Still, she wouldn’t pretend to be more than his guest.
“How did you know about Livy’s money?” she said. “I didn’t tell Amanda her name, or what I had in my possession.”
He bent close and whispered, “Magic.”
She eyed him, not certain if he was serious.
“It’s natural that what you had would belong to your close friend,” he said. “Then people think they’re being very clever hiding things that a thief can find easily.”
“It helped I gave him a token imbued with a finding spell. He didn’t know why he felt drawn to look in certain places and take certain things.”
She bit her lip. “But if he kept some of the money for himself?”
He gave her a flat look. “No.”
Somehow, she didn’t doubt it. “Livy? Is she…?”
He touched her arm. “She’s well, don’t worry. She’ll be better, now.”
She nodded, took another sip of wine. It didn’t make the words easier to say. “Thank you.”
He gave a dismissive wave. “But I am curious. That was a lot of money. Does your friend smuggle drugs in her shopping cart?”
She stared, taken aback. Not by his statement, but by how much he knew of Livy. “Certainly not. She found it on the beach.”
“Did she. How very fortunate.”
Emilia didn’t reply.
He sipped his drink, watching her with thoughtful gaze. “What did you see in Kargin?”
She was grateful for the change of subject. “He is your friend—that is, he values you and despised the man you—” She stumbled over the news that had caused Grigori Kargin such glee.
“Got rid of?”
“Yes. He finds you less likely to upset his own plans.”
“I didn’t have a great deal of time to look, you understand.”
“Yes. Much longer, and Kargin would’ve thought you had romantic intentions toward him. Have a care, Emilia.”
“Please don’t make this more difficult than it is.”
“I beg your pardon. Go on.”
“He speaks to well-dressed men in richly appointed rooms. He gives them money. I couldn’t quite tell what for.”
“Mmm. Bribing politicians, no doubt. There’s talk about legalizing certain drugs. We don’t want that.”
They’d been walking slowly through the room. Now, Emilia stopped. “What? Why?”
He shrugged. “Black market keeps profits high.”
“So many questions, Emilia. Did you see more?”
She shook her confusion away. Clearly, the world didn’t work the way she expected. “I looked for you in his future. I saw nothing to give me concern.”
“Does that mean you saw something to give me concern?”
She couldn’t help it—she laughed.
“Finally!” he said. “I began to think I’d never hear you laugh. Well?”
She hesitated, caught off guard by the thought that occurred. She could use what she saw against him. Lure him into danger and let one of his ‘business associates’ take care of her problem for her. But could she, really? Even if she could bring herself to do so, the matter seemed fraught with hazards.
“I don’t believe I’m yet so corrupted as to wish to see you harmed,” she finally said. She pursed her lips, considering. “Far away, yes, but not harmed.”
“You’ll have neither.” He put his hand on the small of her back again, thankfully in a more proper spot. “Now come, we should mingle.”
Dragovich greeted this person and that, not introducing her this time. Emilia smiled at the curious glances and let herself be guided through the room. It was as he’d told her: letting her be seen with him. Seen belonging to him, she supposed.
Well, she’d made the decision to fulfill his requirements by attending as his guest rather than as the entertainment. She’d known how it would be.
More people were arriving, men in dark suits and ladies in richly colored gowns.
“Excuse me a moment,” he said. “I must welcome my guests.”
She bent her head in assent. So, she wasn’t to be thought the lady of the house. Thank goodness.
Voices grew louder with the influx, and with alcohol, perhaps. A flash of fiery red amid the crowd caught her eye, a young lady in a halter dress that hugged her curves all the way down to her knees.
Emilia blinked, then realized she knew the lady. “Tiff!”
She wove through the people toward her.
“You didn’t tell me you were coming!” Emilia said when she reached her. “I’d’ve been much less reluctant to come myself if I’d known to expect a friendly face here.”
“I wanted it to be a surprise. Let me tell you, I was sure disappointed when I thought you wouldn’t get to see my dress. Isn’t it sweet?”
“Good heavens, I almost didn’t recognize you. You look so…” Emilia swallowed much older. Tiff likely wouldn’t appreciate that.
Tiff put a hand on one red-sheathed hip and smirked. “Sexy, huh?”
Several men had turned interested faces their way. Not gentlemen, Emilia was quite sure.
“Shall we go get you something to drink?” She linked her arm in Tiff’s and turned toward the bar.
A vision of Tiff’s future rolled over her like a wave, sweeping over the room, obliterating it and everyone in it. All she could see was Tiff, screaming, terrified, in agony—
“Emilia?” Tiff was holding her by the arms. “Emilia, what’s wrong?”
Emilia blinked free of the vision, panting, shaking. Her wine glass lay at her feet, bright shards of glass in a red puddle on the tiles.
“I—I— Forgive me,” she stammered. “I must—” She cast about the room, searching for Dragovich. Searching for another face, as well.
“What—” Tiff began.
Emilia gripped her by the shoulders. “Stay here. I—I’ll go find someone to clean this up. Make sure no one slips on this broken glass. Will you do that for me? I don’t want anyone hurt. Promise me you won’t go anywhere.”
“Well, yeah, sure—”
“Stay here,” Emilia said, giving her a little shake.
Dragovich was still talking and laughing with the people who’d recently arrived. She made her way determinedly toward him, slipping through gaps, excusing herself and pushing past when no gap was available.
At last, she stepped up to Dragovich’s side. He was still talking. If he noticed her, he gave no sign.
She touched his arm. “Vadim?” His name felt strange on her tongue.
He obviously heard the difference as well. He stopped talking and looked down at her. “Yes, Emilia?”
She smiled apologetically. “Forgive me for interrupting. May I speak with you a moment?”
His eyes searched her face. “Of course.” He turned to his guests. “Please, get a drink. Make yourselves at home.”
Taking Emilia’s elbow, he stepped into the hallway, where it was quieter for the moment. Piano music and voices and the clink of glasses spilled through the living room archway. Lamps clasped in wrought iron shaped the hallway in golden light.
She turned to face him. “You must send Tiff home. She mustn’t go with that man.”
He turned his head in annoyance. “Emilia, Tiffany is young, but she’s a grown woman. Women now aren’t ashamed to go home with a man. If you try to protect her virtue—”
“No! Do you think I’d abuse my gift that way? If you don’t send her away—” Tears crowded into her throat. She swallowed hard and put a hand to her forehead to hide them.
He took her arm again, bringing her hand down. “What did you see?”
“He’ll—” She shuddered and reddened at the vile mockery of intimacy she’d seen. “He’ll—hurt her. Then he’ll kill her.”
Dragovich’s grip tightened. “Who?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t—”
The doorbell rang. In the foyer, a maid opened the door and a man stepped in: a tall, rather good-looking man in his middle forties.
Emilia caught her breath, her heart suddenly thundering. “Him,” she whispered.
Dragovich looked toward the door, his eyes narrowing. “Are you sure?”
She couldn’t mistake the strong jaw with its shadow of beard, the full lips that had curved in pleasure at Tiff’s weeping pleas in her vision. “Yes,” she said tightly. “I’m sure.”
“Go back to Tiffany. I’ll take care of this.”
Emilia nodded once and fled.
Go here to read from the beginning.