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Dragovich seemed to have disappeared. Emilia saw nothing of him. Not with her own eyes. Not even in her readings for Flora.
She was doing just that now, Flora sitting beside her in the small dining room.
Frowning, she released Flora’s hand. “I don’t see you making breakfast for him tomorrow morning, either.”
“He’s doing business,” Flora said, unruffled. “No worry.”
“I’m not worried.” Emilia wondered if she were trying to convince Flora, or herself. “What kind of business?”
Flora shrugged. “Who knows? Not me. I just cook.”
Emilia nodded and Flora bustled off with the breakfast dishes.
Yes, Emilia decided, she was worried. Dragovich had killed Baljic, murderer of women. And she’d seen a vision of Bernard betraying Dragovich. Did one have to do with the other? Did Bernard betray Dragovich because of Baljic’s death? Her mouth went dry. Then Bernard’s actions could be laid at her doorstep.
No, she couldn’t begin thinking that way, making daisy chains of fault and blame. She’d been down that road more than once, and it led only to misery, confusion and paralysis. Because she could foresee possibilities did not make her the cause of events—not usually, anyway. And no more so than any other person involved.
And why was she thinking this way now, when she’d long ago reconciled herself to the consequences of her gift?
Why? Because Dragovich had told her to think about what good her ability could do. And where one could do good, one could also, of course, do harm.
Emilia put her head in her hand. It had been so much easier offering a few minutes of diversion to people she’d never see again. If she changed futures, she rarely found out about it.
“There you go again,” Amanda’s voice said. “The weight of the world on your shoulders.”
Emilia sighed and raised her head. “It sometimes feels that way.” She gestured toward the chair beside her. “Won’t you join me?”
“Thanks.” Amanda slid into the chair next to hers. “Things tend to be a little slow when Mr. Dragovich is gone.”
“Flora seemed to believe he’s away on business, though she hadn’t a guess what kind.”
“Neither do I, which tells me it’s the kind of business we don’t want to know about.”
“I rather thought so.”
“Did you?” Amanda sipped coffee, watching her with an uncertain expression. “You know, I’ve been curious, which, granted, isn’t a desirable trait around here. But with you I figured I’d be safe. I hear you’re a fortune teller.” She held up a hand. “Don’t laugh, that’s what they’re saying.”
“I most certainly won’t laugh. I am a fortune teller.” Emilia sighed. “A very idle one.”
“Wow. I didn’t really believe them. Is that why—” Amanda shook her head. “Never mind. Was that your line of work before?”
“Since I came to the United States, yes. In Gualala, I had regular days for readings at a gallery, a New Age shop, the farmer’s market on weekends, and a few regular clients I visited each week…”
A sudden wave of homesickness closed her throat. She took a hasty sip of tea to clear it.
“I know,” Amanda said. “And you don’t have a lot to take your mind off all that, do you? At least I was busy.” She stared into her ever-present Mrs. Always Right cup. “Too bad you don’t have anything to keep you busy.”
“I—” Emilia began then straightened. “Oh. Oh!”
She frowned, vexed that she hadn’t thought of it before. Dragovich hadn’t said anything about her reading for Flora. Why not do more?
She gave a slow smile. “Perhaps I might.”
Amanda glanced up from her coffee, arched a brow and smiled.
* * *
Emilia lured in her clients like an angler. With a pot of tea at her elbow, she casually laid a spread on the small dining room table. The room wasn’t, in this case, ‘suitably mystical,’ but her activity caught the curious glances of the maids. An encouraging smile, and soon she had them at her other elbow, tittering and exclaiming in Spanish as she interpreted the cards.
The Filipino gardener paused in his pruning to peer in the window. It was a sunny afternoon, so Emilia gathered up her cards and took them outside to lay them on a mosaic-topped patio table. The men working on the sprinklers suddenly had various tasks that kept taking them past the table. Eventually one of them drifted over and sat across from her while the other two packed up tools.
The next day she snared a mechanic who’d delivered a car, the two maids again, the gardener’s helper (a good-looking boy with an Arab’s black eyes and hair), and a technician of indeterminate expertise.
The maids had helped her move the mosaic-topped table, which she’d set up in the breezeway between the house and offices. Emilia was in the middle of reading for the technician when a car drove up and pulled into the garage. She paid it little attention. Cars frequently came and went—workers, Flora, Dragovich’s men, who knew who else.
A breeze blew in off the ocean today, but a hedge sheltered her table, and the afternoon sun poured golden warmth over her. The technician, a woman named Sam, sat across from her on a wrought iron chair Emilia had commandeered from the garden.
From the direction of the offices, a door opened and closed again. Footsteps and male voices speaking Russian echoed along the breezeway. Sam glanced around and scrambled to her feet, grating her chair back across the concrete. The voices abruptly fell silent.
Emilia dragged herself out of her reading. Dragovich and two of his men came toward them, Dragovich smiling a smile that boded no good for anyone on the receiving end.
He stopped a few paces away, glanced at Sam, at the table with its Tarot spread, then finally at Emilia.
“Emilia,” he drawled.
Behind him, his men exchanged looks.
She raised her chin, making no move to gather up her cards. “Good afternoon, Mr. Dragovich. You had a pleasant journey, I trust?”
He muttered something over his shoulder in Russian, and his men turned and hurried back to the offices. He turned back to Emilia, that same smile still on his lips. “I found it productive.” He gestured at her table and cards. “And this…?”
Sam jittered, clearly wishing to be elsewhere.
“I’m doing a reading for this young lady,” Emilia said calmly. “We have a bit more yet to go over.”
“That’s okay, Ms. Dunmoor,” Sam quavered, shooting nervous glances at Dragovich. “Maybe another time.”
Not taking his gaze from Emilia, he gave a dismissive wave. Sam fled.
Resisting the inclination to wilt under his scrutiny, Emilia gathered up her cards and tapped them into order. Dragovich watched, a looming, ominous figure at the edge of her vision.
She forced herself to look up at him. “Yes, Mr. Dragovich?”
“What are you doing, Emilia?”
“I’m doing readings for those interested. I’m not charging them, and I’m careful, of course, not to take too much of their time.”
“Doing readings. For my staff.” He let that hang in the air for the space of a breath. “Come with me.”
Emilia rose to her feet, and at his gesture, preceded him to the house. He ushered her into his office and closed the door.
He walked past her and leaned on the edge of his desk. His eyes had that broken-bottle look again. “What do you think you’re doing, reading for my people?”
Emilia, would not, would not allow herself to be intimidated. “Doing? Why, I’m doing my work, the work that occupied me before you snatched me up without a by-your-leave.”
“You were a gentlewoman. I assumed you knew how to fill your days.”
She pressed her lips together a moment to restrain an imprudent reply. “Yes. I ran my household. I cared for my children. I wrote letters to my friends. I now have none of those to occupy my time.”
“You can’t read a book?” he said with exaggerated patience. “You can’t watch TV or use the computer?”
“I fear the contents of your library are not to my taste.” Since her taste didn’t run to photos of nude women or novels filled with gunfire and explosions. “I find TV frantic and bewildering, and a computer is quite beyond my grasp.”
He braced his hands on the edge of the desk and drummed his fingers. “How many people have you read for?”
“Since I’ve been here?” she asked innocently.
He just stared.
She counted. “Ten, I believe. Or was it twelve?”
He pushed off the desk and paced. “Did you think I might not want everyone to know about you?”
“My abilities don’t seem to be any great secret. The house gossip does reach my ears from time to time, and you had no quarrel with my readings for Flora.”
“Now the gossip is confirmed. I employ a fortune teller. Do you know how that makes me look?”
“I suppose it makes you seem a superstitious man.”
“It makes me seem weak!” Still pacing, he waved his arms. “It makes them think I take advice from a woman!”
Sudden understanding dawned. “Dear me, that is distressing.” She paused, struggling to maintain a straight face. “Since you are taking advice from a woman.”
He rounded on her, chewing a string of invective in Russian. He narrowed his eyes. “You. You enjoy this.”
Her heart beat hard despite the wild urge to laugh. “I must confess, I appreciate the irony.”
“The irony, yes.” He rocked on his heels. “Is this defiance, Emilia?” he said softly. “Do you try to undermine me?”
Cold shot through her. Temper burned it off. “It is boredom, sir. Do you think I simply fold myself up and put myself away on a shelf when you don’t find me necessary? I am accustomed to movement. I am accustomed to being useful. What do I have here?”
“This.” He flung his arms wide. “You have this!”
“I have nothing of my own. I can go nowhere of my own choosing, indulge few of my own inclinations.”
“I told you. When you have requests, come to me.”
“To beg a boon of my abductor?”
He spun away with a wordless snarl.
She stood quiet, swallowing as her heart tried to crowd up her throat. He continued to pace in front of his desk. It was like being in the same room with an angry dragon.
Finally, he stopped, folded his arms and faced her. “You’re right. I didn’t think how it is for you now, when the life you knew is long past.”
She didn’t know why those words went through her like a blade. “I made a life for myself.”
“A life at the edges. No good, Emilia.” His gaze now was considering. “I’ll see what I can do.”
She drew back, surprised and suspicious.
“For now, I want to know who you read for. And what you saw.” He gestured to the chairs in front of the window.
She wanted to argue, to tell him it was none of his affair. Instead, she came forward, sank into the seat he indicated. She suspected she’d tried her luck enough for one day.
* * *
Emilia was allowed to continue reading for the maids and the gardeners.
“Allowed!” Alone in the entertainment room, she slapped a card down on the table. It skittered on the glass surface. She snatched it up and put it in place. “Insufferable! Who does he think he is? My husband?”
Even George had never tried to forbid her anything. He’d respected her too much for that. Argue with her, yes. Reason with her, certainly. But tell her what she might and might not do?
She flung down another card, then shoved the deck away. The exercise was futile. She couldn’t even read for herself in her current state.
She’d spent the last hour trying various ploys to calm herself. Instead, she’d grown only angrier. First at herself, for fearing Dragovich’s anger. Then at him for being angry for something so…so inconsequential. Heaven forbid she should use her gift—her own gift!—as she saw fit.
She gathered up the cards, set them aside on the table and paced the room. “I suppose he thinks he’s generous,” she muttered. “Vastly reasonable.”
The worst part of the matter was, she’d been relieved, grateful when she left him, that his anger hadn’t taken a darker turn…
“It’s outside of enough!” she shouted.
A knock sounded at the door. She spun to find a man in the doorway—one of Dragovich’s, of course. She’d seen him occasionally, a man with a heavily lined forehead and a crooked nose.
“Mrs. Dunmoor?” He stepped into the room, glancing around as if to see who she’d been shouting at.
Emilia composed herself as if no such shouting had taken place. “Yes?”
He turned and beckoned, and a young girl who looked somewhere between thirteen and fifteen came in behind him. Her hair was cut longer on one side, reminding Emilia irresistibly of a soldier’s side cape.
“I’m Roman.” He put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. Cyrillic letters were tattooed on his knuckles. “This is my daughter, Irina. She’s come to teach you computer.” His accent was much heavier than Dragovich’s.
“She’s very good. She’ll show you everything.” He patted the girl’s shoulder. “Okay, Irina?”
“Okay, Dad,” she said without a trace of an accent. “I’ve got it from here.”
She turned and kissed him on the cheek. He patted her cheek in return, ducked his head at Emilia and left.
Irina eyed her. “My dad says you don’t know anything about computers. Is that really true?”
Emilia wasn’t sure whether to be affronted or amused. “Indeed it is.”
“We didn’t have computers where I come from.”
“You mean England? You talk like you’re from England.”
Emilia held in a sigh. She grew weary of dancing around these questions. “I was born in England. I lived in India for many years.”
“Oh.” Irina flipped her hair out of her eyes with a practiced head toss. “There’s no computers in India?”
“Not where I lived.”
“Oh.” Another head toss. “So you really don’t know anything about computers. At all.”
“No, nothing.” Emilia put on an interested face. “You must know a great deal about them, if you’re to teach me.”
The girl shrugged. “My dad says I could make a good hacker someday.”
“Hacker?” Emilia imagined the girl in a forest with an ax.
“You know, somebody who uses a computer to steal stuff.”
Emilia’s opinion of Dragovich and his men fell several notches. “You…want to steal things?”
“Well, it’s not always stealing things. A lot of times it’s just getting to information other people don’t want you to see. Like a treasure hunt, you know?”
“I see.” That didn’t sound much better.
“So anyway,” Irina said, “let’s get started.”
She headed to a computer stand that sported a laptop and printer, pausing to drag a second chair over in front of it. Emilia obligingly took a seat.
Irina opened the laptop. “First thing, you push this button to turn on the computer…”
After an hour or two, Emilia decided that Dragovich was fiendish in his punishments. Between the clicking and tapping and scrolling, the windows, the nonsensical keyboard (“That’s okay,” Irina said. “There a reason they call it ‘hunt ’n peck.’”), Emilia was more bewildered, not to mention frustrated, than when she’d started.
She sat back and blew a breath through her lips. “I fail to see the use of all this.”
Irina stared at her through the eye that wasn’t curtained by hair. “Ms. Dunmoor, you can do anything with a computer. You can shop, talk to people, use the bank, watch movies, read books, listen to music, see anyplace in the world, find out anything you want…” She waved her hands. “Everything. You never even have to leave the house, if you don’t want to.”
“Oh, I want to,” Emilia muttered darkly.
“Okay. So where do you want to go?”
“Bredwardine.” The name leapt to her lips.
“Spell it.” Irina’s fingers flickered across the keyboard. She tapped a title on the screen and pictures appeared.
“Oh!” Emilia sat back then sat forward again. “There’s the old church! And the dear cottages. That’s the coaching inn! How different it looks now. And the standing stones—” She became aware of Irina watching her curiously. “Bredwardine was my childhood home in England, you see. I thought never to see it again, especially after— Well.”
“Yeah,” Irina said, skimming through photos. “I can see why you don’t know anything about computers. So, what else do you want to see?”
“You said books?”
“For that, we head over to Amazon…”
The computer lessons subsequently went much more smoothly.
* * *
Autumn in coastal California was a curious thing, with few blazing colors and little crisp air. The trees seemed only to drop their leaves half-heartedly, and the fog stayed in later and was thicker and greyer. This morning was just that sort, fog thick enough to veil the far edges of the garden and discourage one from wishing to be out-of-doors. Emilia therefore did her readings in the small dining room.
She finished a reading for one of the maids and was gathering up her cards when Amanda came in and slid into the chair next to hers.
She offered a slip of paper. “This is for you.”
Emilia unfolded it to find what looked like words of code. After a moment, she recognized one as an email address. She glanced a question at Amanda.
“It’s your PayPal username and password,” she explained. “So you can buy things on the internet.”
“What would I wish to buy?”
“Whatever you want,” Amanda said. “Well, maybe not a car. There isn’t that much in the account. Speaking of which…”
Amanda sat back and studied her. “It’s just that I’m getting curious again. And I’ll remind you that’s not a desirable trait around here. But you’re supposed to present yourself at the garage in an hour. For driving lessons.”
Amanda might’ve tossed a bucket of water on her. “Driving? A car?”
“Not a cart, I’m pretty sure.”
Emilia clutched her cards. “Yes. Of course.”
Amanda’s brows climbed. “You really don’t know how to drive. Mr. Dragovich said you’d been in a bad car crash when you were younger. You didn’t seem like the type to be that badly traumatized by anything.”
Emilia resisted the desire to put a hand to her head. “I suppose…I must’ve been.”
Amanda studied her. “Okay, I won’t ask any more questions.”
It had been a simple one to avoid, before. She didn’t own a car, so of course she didn’t drive. Now this woman, who wasn’t the least unintelligent, was wondering at the peculiarities she saw in front of her.
“You must think me very odd,” Emilia said. “Indeed, I often feel odd.” She made a helpless gesture. “But my life has taken some very strange turns. I often find myself…at a loss.”
Amanda reached out a hand. “Emilia, I don’t mean to put you on the spot. I am curious, but I know better than to ask what people would rather not tell. I’m not insulted.”
“I’m glad. It would distress me if you were. But Amanda…” She waved the slip of paper Amanda had given her. “Why is Mr. Dragovich doing all this? The money, the driving…”
Amanda sat back. “If he didn’t tell you, I don’t know. He just has me arrange things. He doesn’t tell me why.” She tapped a nail on her coffee cup. “But I will tell you, all his people get paid. One way or another.”
“And I’m one of his people.”
Amanda gave her a sympathetic look. “Seems like it to me.”
Emilia sighed. “Indeed.”
* * *
A tall, balding man waited for Emilia in front of the garage. The fog had finally retreated, leaving behind dripping leaves and watery light. The moist air was heavy with smell of wet grass and the turpentine-like scent of the junipers lining the driveway.
“Mrs. Dunmoor?” He offered a knuckly, knotty-veined hand to shake. “I’m David Rumyantsev.” He pronounced it dah-VEED. “I teach you to drive car.” Like Roman, he had a heavy Russian accent.
“I thank you, sir.” She eyed the car. It was a cheery bright gold and smaller than many cars she’d seen.
David opened the driver’s door for her. “Ready?”
Driving, Emilia reminded herself, would give her a great deal more freedom than she’d had the last two years. She sighed inwardly. Although not freedom enough to go home. Dragovich had demonstrated how easily he could reach into her old life.
She lowered herself into the driver’s seat as David (she wasn’t going to try to say his last name), went around and folded himself in on the passenger side.
He showed her how to adjust the seat, the steering wheel and the mirrors. He pointed out the turn signals and lights and had her operate them. Then she turned the key in the ignition. The engine started, a sound as cheery as the car itself.
“I like this car,” Emilia said.
David nodded. “Mr. Dragovich thought it would fit you. Now. Put your foot on brake. Good. Keep your foot on brake and shift into Drive. Okay, lift foot slowly.”
There followed a great deal of lurching and jolting along the driveway. David sat calm and patient throughout, though he kept a hand braced on the dash. Emilia apologized and apologized again.
Soon three of Dragovich’s men stood in front of the garage, arms folded, watching. She wondered if they intended to leap on the car and wrest control from her if it became necessary. David must’ve noticed her glances, because he rolled down his window and waved them off.
“Pay attention to driving, not people watching,” David said. “You make accident.”
Emilia put a foot on the brake and gathered her wits. Sweat—or embarrassment—prickled under her blouse.
“You seem accustomed to all this.” She gestured to take in the general situation.
“In Russia, I teach my children to drive. On standard transmission.” He gave a theatrical shudder. “Much worse than this.”
Emilia couldn’t help smiling. “That’s encouraging. I hope this isn’t too great an imposition on your time.”
“Mr. Dragovich asks me to do this.” He looked at her a little curiously. “Is no burden, don’t worry. I’m happy to do it.” He pointed to her feet. “Try again. To end of driveway, then turn around.”
Emilia tried to press the accelerator gently and smoothly. “How old are your children?”
“Almost grown, now.” The car hummed down the driveway, jerking only a little. “Is long time since I see them. They’re still in Russia.”
“In Russia! That must be difficult.”
“Now, look both ways before pulling onto road.”
Emilia did as he said.
“I come to U.S. last year,” he said. “I was power plant manager in Russia. But government there?” He shook his head. “One month I get paid. Three, four, six months, no pay. Is hard to raise family that way. I decide to come here, but is hard to get visa. Not so many power plant managers wanted. Especially Russian power plant managers.”
Emilia shook her head sympathetically.
“Okay, no traffic,” he said. “Turn right. Stop. Check mirrors. Now, shift into Reverse and back up.”
Lip caught between teeth, she completed the maneuver unsteadily and started back up the driveway, weaving a bit from one side to the other. “Mr. Dragovich helped you come to the United States?”
David nodded. “I work as auto technician now. Good money. Mr. Dragovich brings my family over. I see them by Christmas.”
“How excited you must be.”
“Yes. Very excited. I miss them.”
She smiled. Another bound to Dragovich through a debt of obligation. It almost made her wish she’d waited to hear his offer, rather than bolting when she met him.