I’ve been kinda lukewarm on the title Fateful Magic. I didn’t exactly dislike it, but it didn’t really excite me, either. I mean, what does it say? What does it really mean? What is “fateful,” anyway? So I’m making a minor change: “Fateful” will become “Fated,” which I think captures Emilia’s situation much better.
If Dragovich sought to keep her too busy to get into mischief, he was succeeding. Driving lessons took place in the morning, computer lessons in the afternoon. The computer alone could steal away hours without her noticing. Emilia had discovered an English novelist named Jane Austen. As she read, Emilia’s heart squeezed with painful recognition.
With the remains of her lunch on a plate beside her—an apple core, a crust of bread, a cup of half-drunk tea in her hand, she bent over the computer.
“Emilia?” Dragovich’s voice said behind her.
She brushed at her eyes, foolishly damp, and turned. “Yes, Mr. Dragovich?”
“Vadim,” he corrected. “I see Roman’s girl unlocked the mysteries of the computer for you.” He cocked his head. “You see something that upsets you?”
“I—” Her voice came out foolishly tight, too. She cleared her throat. “It’s only a book I’m reading.”
He raised his brows in a question.
“The story takes place in England,” she said in a rush. “My England.”
“Ah. Yes.” He tipped back his head in understanding. “Then I’ll take you away from your England, that makes you sad. Come with me.”
“I want to show you something. It’s something I think will make you happier.”
Equal parts curious and cautious, she followed him through the house to the garage. He led her to a car, a sleek, silvery-grey machine that exuded controlled power. She climbed into the passenger seat and buckled in as he got behind the wheel. He started the engine and swung onto the driveway.
It felt odd sitting beside him in the car—too close, too private somehow, though she’d been as close and as private in other settings. He drove with the contained assurance he did everything else. She caught herself watching him.
He caught her, too. “What?” he said.
“How did you learn to drive a car?” she asked, the first thing that popped into her mind.
“Someone taught me,” he said, smiling.
“Didn’t this person think it odd, a mature man who couldn’t drive a car?”
“No doubt she did. But I’d just stopped three thugs from knifing her son, so she wasn’t about to question me.”
She turned to face him. “You stopped criminals from assaulting a man?”
He shrugged. “I was lost and angry. A fight seemed a good diversion.”
She couldn’t help it—she laughed. “Men are the most outlandish creatures.”
“What did you do when you were lost?”
Her humor vanished. “I spent quite a lot of time invisible then.” She rubbed her arms.
He glanced aside at her. “I had my power. No matter how lost I was, I knew I could get what I wanted, that no one could harm me. How vulnerable you must’ve been. How frightened.”
“It was…nothing I’d wish to revisit.”
“You won’t,” he said quietly.
Am I not vulnerable now? she wanted to challenge him. Am I not frightened? And realized with a start that she wasn’t—or at least, not nearly as much as she’d been then. It shook her.
Silence fell in the car. She almost wished he’d speak, make one of his usual arrogant, overbearing statements so she could be angry at him, rather than leave her to this traitorous confusion.
They wound out of the hills onto a highway. The scenery was much more pastoral than the steep cliffs and evergreen-clothed slopes of the north coast. Slat fences and peeling eucalyptus trees lined the road. They passed a pale strip of beach and brilliant blue water, then he turned onto a side road that led inland. Not far and a Spanish-style villa with red-tiled roof and arches came into view around a curve. Dragovich pulled onto a gravel driveway, pulled up to the arched portico and shut off the engine.
“What are we doing here?” Emilia said.
“You’ll see.” He got out of the car and came around to open her door.
More and more curious, she walked with him to the house.
The front door, made of stout planks and bearing a wrought iron latch and bars, would’ve been right at home in some ancient manor house. Dragovich rang the bell. The door opened to a bearlike man with a full beard and bright blue eyes.
“Mr. Dragovich,” he said in a peculiarly light voice. “Come in.”
The man was even bigger than Dragovich. Emilia hesitated, but Dragovich urged her inside.
The Mediterranean theme continued in the spacious foyer within, with red Saltillo tiles on the floor and a wrought iron lamp hanging from the ceiling. From the living room that opened ahead came the murmur of voices and the scents of amber and sandalwood.
“Mr. Dragovich?” a woman’s voice said. A tall woman dressed in loose linen trousers and sleeveless top that showed graceful arms appeared in the living room archway. “Morgan, Izzie, Nikki, look who’s here!”
The murmur in the living room rose to an excited burble and women came bubbling out. The next moment Dragovich was surrounded by half a dozen women hugging him, kissing him, holding his hands. Emilia stood to one side, astonished and quite forgotten. Every female in his orbit seemed to adore him.
Judging from the lines at the corners of his eyes, the man who’d answered the door was smiling somewhere under that beard.
The women continued to pet and chatter at Dragovich. Slowly, it began to dawn on Emilia what sort they were. Heat rose to her face. She flicked an unwilling glance at the bearded man and met his speculative gaze. Raising her chin and folding her hands tight in front of her, she summoned every ounce of willpower to keep from bolting through the door.
At last, Dragovich disentangled himself from his admirers.
The bearded man gestured an invitation down the hall. “Victoria is with a client at the moment,” he said. “Can I bring you anything while you wait?”
“No need,” Dragovich said.
The bearded man left them in a pleasant office with plush, comfortable chairs, a fan palm in one corner and several black and white prints of nudes on the wall. Emilia avoided looking at the prints.
“You’ve brought me to a house of ill repute!” she hissed.
“Yes. I have,” Dragovich said. “And I know your manners will keep you from embarrassing the women who work here.”
“That man thinks I’m one!”
“Possibly. When we leave, he’ll know you’re with me.”
She spluttered a moment. “With you! My reputation—”
“Will be greatly enhanced,” he broke in. “The girls will all be wildly jealous.”
She struggled with outraged words, but an unexpected laugh came out instead.
Attached as she was to a man like Dragovich in whatever capacity, what reputation could she have?
“My word,” she said. “It’s so absurd.”
His eyes crinkled with amusement. “It is, isn’t it?”
The door opened and a woman stepped inside.
She might’ve been anywhere from her middle 50s to middle 60s, about average height with an attractive, but not voluptuous figure. Her hair, which Emilia had thought blond at first, was instead a striking ivory.
“Vadim!” she said and came forward, offering her hand. “So good to see you.” She gave Emilia a curious glance and smile.
He shook her hand. “Happy to see you, too, Victoria.” His voice was warm in a way Emilia had seldom heard. “How are the youngsters doing?”
Victoria’s smile faded. “As well as can be expected. Some better than others.”
Dragovich nodded. “This is Emilia Dunmoor. She’s the one who told me about them.”
“Oh!” Victoria said, her look more curious than ever. “Would you like to see them?”
“Yes.” Dragovich gestured toward the door.
* * *
Vadim ushered Emilia ahead of him, watching for her reactions. She glanced up at him, plainly mystified, but followed Victoria through the house.
The sound of a television came from a room ahead, the murmur of more feminine voices. He stepped into the doorway of a bright family room with big windows that looked out onto a grassy yard. Eight or ten young girls, all strikingly lovely and none older than fifteen, sat on couches or chairs, even on the floor. Their voices died, leaving only the TV to fill the sudden, quivering silence.
Emilia glanced from them to him, her face steadily darkening.
“Has anyone spoken to them?” Vadim asked. “Told them what’s happening?”
“Sergei and Peter did, when they brought them last night,” Victoria said. “I don’t know how much good it did, under the circumstances.”
He nodded. Some of the nearer girls had edged away from him. All watched him with round, frightened eyes. He lowered himself into a chair so as not to loom over them.
“Thank you, Victoria,” he said.
She took it for the dismissal it was and slipped out. The tension in the room climbed, some of the girls looking desperately after Victoria, others not daring to look away from Vadim as they shifted closer to one another.
He turned to Emilia. “These are the girls you saw when you read Bernard.”
Her frowning disapproval turned to shocked astonishment, then to wariness. “What are they doing here?”
“Because here is well-guarded and peopled mostly by women. They can recover here before they go elsewhere.” The suspicion on her face didn’t lift. He gestured toward the girls. “I brought you so you can see the results of the work you do for me.”
Emilia didn’t look reassured, but she turned to the nearest girl and smiled. The girl stood up as if ready to face a threat. As young as she was, she was still taller than Emilia.
She held out a hand. “Hello. I’m Emilia.”
The girl looked at least as suspicious as Emilia had a moment ago.
“She’s introducing herself,” Vadim said in Russian. The girl jumped, her gaze darting to him. “Her name is Emilia. Will you shake hands with her?”
The girl hesitated, then held out her own hand. “Lidiya.”
Emilia got that briefly unfocussed look. “Oh!” she said, then smiled again, a much warmer smile. “I’m so pleased to meet you, Lidiya.” She flicked a questioning look at Vadim. “Will you introduce me to your friends?”
Vadim translated that. Slowly, though not quite as suspiciously, she named two of the nearest girls. Emilia shook hands with each.
She turned toward a girl huddled in a chair near the TV, her gaze on the floor and her arms folded tight over her chest.
“May I speak with your friend there, Lidiya? Do you think she’d be too frightened?”
Lidiya frowned. “You better stay there, mister.”
“I’ll stay here,” he promised, then said in English, “Go ahead, Emilia.”
Emilia threaded through the other girls, knelt by the chair and took the girl’s hand. She flinched and looked up with alarm. Emilia smiled, patted her hand reassuringly and withdrew into her inner vision. Emotions crossed her face, most too quickly to identify—all but the last, shock and anger.
“She’s with child,” she grated out. Her lips pressed whitely together.
“Don’t look at their pasts, Emilia,” he said. “That’s over.”
She was pale with shock and fury. “They’re only children! I saw—”
He held up a hand to silence her. “Yes. I know. I’ll tell Victoria. She’ll talk to the girl. Later, not now. Too much, too soon.”
Emilia gave one, short nod and continued to hold the girl’s hand. Her anger faded, gradually lightening. Relief and satisfaction bloomed.
She let the girl’s hand go and gently cupped her face. “Oh, dear child. Don’t be afraid. You’re safe now.”
Safe. She thinks they’re safe. In my care. Did she even notice that shift in her thinking? Something swelled in him, an almost painful sensation.
She turned to Vadim with a look he’d never seen before on her face. “How do I say it?”
He cleared his throat. “Ti v bezopasnosti.”
Emilia repeated the phrase with a passable accent then continued in English, “You’ll live with a lady who takes care of dogs. You like dogs, don’t you? I see how happy they make you. You’ll help with the dogs and you’ll go to school and take singing lessons. People say you sing very well.”
It took Vadim a moment to find his voice. When he was sorting through his contacts for who might take the girls, one was a woman who ran an animal rescue operation.
Belatedly, he translated. The girl gradually unfolded like a flower opening.
Her lips parted in wonder. “I’ll take care of the dogs?”
“Da,” Vadim said. “The lady rescues them and finds them homes with good people. Taking care of them is a lot of work, though, and she can use some help.”
The girl gave a tiny, timid smile and nodded.
Emilia stood and made her way through the rest of the girls. After the one she’d just talked to, the rest were more welcoming.
Emilia smiled around at them when she was done. “I’m so happy to have met you all.”
She did look happy, happier than he’d yet seen her. She took her leave, Vadim translating. When they left the room, a flurry of whispers started up behind them.
He watched Emilia, trying to read her. She was quiet, certainly, unwilling to meet his eye. Or was she only thinking of other things?
She remained quiet when they met again with Victoria. Vadim gave his instructions regarding the girls. He’d have a doctor in to look them over. A female doctor, he cautioned himself mentally.
“A therapist would be helpful, I think,” Victoria said. “If you know of any who speak Russian.”
Vadim grimaced at the necessity of a therapist. “I’ll arrange it.”
Victoria, sitting in the chair beside his, reached over and gripped his hand. “Thank you, Vadim. And for the sake of those poor girls, I thank you again.”
Emilia listened and watched in silence, giving no sign of what thoughts passed behind her dark eyes.
Only when they were in the car and he’d started the engine did she speak.
Vadim put the car in gear and pulled out of the driveway. “Why, what?”
“Why should you rescue those girls?”
Besides the fact that that my enemy is in a panic since I declined to attend an ambush and his shipment of trafficked girls was suddenly, ruthlessly stolen, by who, he has no idea?
“Because I wanted to,” he said. “Should I not have?”
“You said before it was to punish Bernard for attempting to betray you.”
“Then why do you ask me now?”
“Because…it would be easier to use those girls as Bernard planned to.”
Annoyance pricked him. “Do you really think so poorly of me, Emilia? That I approve of the rape of children?”
“What am I supposed to think?” she flared back. “You run a brothel!”
“Yes. I run more than one. And I make sure the girls there are protected. They don’t have to worry about being beaten or raped or murdered. They see a doctor. My girls on the street, if anything happens, anything they don’t like, my men go take care of it.” He quirked a humorless smile. “And it doesn’t happen again.”
“Vadim, it’s wrong, selling those women. You’re using them.”
“Why is it wrong? Because someone made a law against it? People like sex. Why not let them have it when they want it? The men have their pleasure, the women make some money, I make some money. What’s so bad?”
She folded her arms and looked out the window. “I am not discussing this with you.”
“Then we’ll talk of something else. You had children?”
“I had four.”
“So you found them under a cabbage leaf, or in a basket on the doorstep? Come, Emilia. One child suggests duty. Four, now…” He tsked. “That’s enthusiasm.”
She glared at him. “Don’t tempt me to strike you again.”
“Then don’t pretend shock and innocence. You know perfectly well how these things work.”
“Between married men and women!”
“Emilia,” he said. “Don’t insult me.”
She gusted a sigh and turned to the window again. “I don’t understand you.”
Ah! He was making progress.
“I saw those girls’ futures,” she said. “Living with people who care for them. Going to school. Living like ordinary girls their age.”
“I don’t force women into the business. They get into it for their own reasons. If they want to leave it, they do.”
Her frown was troubled. Vadim smiled.