OMG! Tax time! And doing taxes, believe it or not, takes precedence over writing. *sigh*
“Okay.” Irina settled into a chair and opened the laptop. “Today we’re going to google.”
“Google!” Emilia said, laughing.
“Yep. You’ll see.”
It was raining today, a grey, steady rain that hissed on the glass and distorted the view of the garden. California winters reminded Emilia of England. She wore her shawl against the damp chill that even modern heating struggled to dispel. All those years in India had made her much thinner-blooded than she had been as a girl.
Irina clicked open a browser window on the computer. “What do you want to search for? How about your name? See what’s out there on you.”
“No,” Emilia said.
Irina turned a curious look on her.
“That is,” Emilia said quickly, “I doubt you’ll find anything interesting. I’d much rather search for my friend, Olivia Rolfson.”
Irina nodded and typed in the name. “Here’s one.” She clicked the link. “Born in 1875. I guess that wouldn’t be her.” She pointed to another link and laughed. “Does your friend play college volleyball? I didn’t know college volleyball was a thing. Here are some photos…”
Emilia shook her head. “No. None of those are her.”
“We’ll try a people finder.” Irina tapped at the computer, explaining as she went. “Hey,” she interrupted herself. “My dad says you’re learning to drive, too. Don’t tell me they don’t have cars in India.”
“Of course they have cars. But you take your life in your hands to drive there.” It was something Emilia had once heard someone say.
“Huh. My dad says the guy teaching you is taking his life in his hands.”
Roman had obviously been one of the men watching the other day. “No doubt.”
“Where does she live?”
Talking to Irina was like playing shuttlecock. “Livy?”
Irina rolled her eyes. “Who else?”
“In Gualala. California.”
More tapping at the keyboard. “Here we go. 35550-B Cedar Drive. That sound like it? No phone number, though. Maybe it’s unlisted. We might need to hack the phone company. If you really want it, though, I bet Garry could get it. That’s still a little out of my league. Plus my dad would kick my butt.”
“No, that’s not necessary. I only need her direction for a letter.”
“Lemme see if I can find her email address. Then you can email her.”
“Livy doesn’t have a computer.”
Irina sat back in her chair and stared. “Are you guys all refugees from another century?”
Emilia stiffened. “What do you mean?”
“Never mind. Kidding.” Irina slid the computer toward her. “Here, you do a search now.”
Emilia thought a moment, then typed in ‘Vadim Dragovich.’
“Hang on,” Irina said. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Why ever not?” Emilia said innocently.
“Well… For one thing, you’re on his network. Somebody might see.”
Emilia was feeling decidedly wicked. “Didn’t you tell me a search displays public information? What is there to see?”
“Uh…well…” Irina squirmed, then brightened. “My dad says most people don’t like snooping. Says if you snoop in the wrong places, you can get into trouble.”
“Isn’t this like hacking? A treasure hunt?”
“That’s different. That’s somebody else’s information.”
“Well, this certainly isn’t mine.”
“If you don’t wish to be party to this, Irina, I completely understand. I’ll do it later.” She began to close the search window.
Irina caught her hand. “Wait.” She glanced at Emilia and bit her lip. “I guess it’s okay. But anything looks funny, we close it down right away. Okay?”
“As you wish.”
She pressed enter and search results filled the screen. Irina leaned over her shoulder and read as she clicked through links.
* * *
The rain made for an early twilight that enclosed the room with an oddly comforting veil of privacy, as if all the world paused, seeking shelter from the damp. Vadim tilted back in his chair and for once, let his mind wander.
A light knock came at the office door. “Mr. Dragovich?” Emilia’s voice said from behind him.
Ah. Now why was he not surprised to find her here?
He turned his chair. “I see I’ve created a monster.”
She drew herself up very straight. “I beg your pardon?”
“Doing a search on me.” He clucked his tongue. “And involving your young tutor. Shameful.”
“When she realized what I intended, she thought it best to remain and observe me.”
He leaned back and laced his hands behind his head. “And what did you learn about Vadim Dragovich?”
“That he’s a partner in a construction company. He supports several charitable interests, including,” she raised a brow, “an animal rescue group. He’s the son,” she raised the other brow, “of Pyotr and Karin Dragovich, a civil engineer and dentist who immigrated to this country following the dissolution of the USSR.” She frowned. “How did you do that? How did you make yourself seem a man of this time?”
“There are ways.” He cocked his head, calculating. “I could do the same for you. Get you a birth certificate. A family history. Driver’s license, green card.”
She eyed him. “You’d allow me to live as anyone else?”
“Should I not?”
She didn’t seem to have an answer to that.
He waved a hand. “We can discuss this another time. You came for something else, I think.”
“Yes. I hope you might indulge my curiosity.”
“Mmm,” he said. “Dangerous.”
“So Amanda tells me. Nevertheless, I must ask. What was Livy told when her money was returned?”
He rocked in his chair, studying her. As always, she met his gaze.
“She was told nothing,” he said at last. “The money was placed in a safe deposit box at a local bank. The key and necessary information for retrieval were sent to her.”
“I see.” She looked down at her folded hands then stepped forward and offered an envelope. “Then I’d be grateful if you would read this letter.”
He leaned forward and took it. It was addressed to Mrs. Olivia Rolfson.
“Dispose of it as you see fit.” Emilia bowed her head and left.
Tapping the envelope on his desk, Vadim stared at the empty doorway in her wake. The rain hissed and muttered on the windows, gurgling in the downspouts. At last he stood and walked to the window. The chill of the grey day seeped through. He slid a sheet out of the envelope and unfolded it.
The page was written in an elegant hand the likes of which he didn’t see in the modern world. Graceful strokes and generous loops made the writing look like calligraphy.
My dearest Livy,
I’m ashamed by how long it’s taken to write you, as I know you must’ve been terribly worried. I will explain as best I can, though you may not feel it adequate.
At the farmers’ market, I encountered someone who frightened me badly. At the time, all I could do was flee, fearing for my life. I had no thought of you, or any other of my friends, and left all behind in my panic.
My flight was arrested by one who removed me to what was to become a refuge. I was soon convinced of the precariousness of my situation, and offered a position which allows me to use my gift. My every need~ indeed, every comfort~ is provided for with unsparing generosity. I have friends here who take an interest in my welfare and happiness. It was my patron who ensured the item that you entrusted to my care was returned to you, a kindness for which I am forever grateful.
If I harbour regrets, it is that I cannot be there to reassure you that I am well, and that we cannot walk the beach together or share a meal and conversation as we used to do. I hope and trust, however, that these are pleasures we may yet anticipate.
Be well and happy, and I beg you, suffer no distress for me, for it should surely be in vain.
Your most affectionate friend,
Vadim held the letter a long moment, flicking the edge with a finger. How long had it taken her to write this? Truthful, yet omitting all the alarming facts. Designed to soothe her friend while admitting nothing.
No, not quite nothing. She admitted gratitude for his action with the money. Had that been a deliberate sop, or was she at last softening to him?
Still, it was possible that she’d coded messages. He worked a spell, one designed to resonate to the state of mind of the writer. He closed his eyes, scenting.
Intentness, carefulness brushed his senses, worry and a certain tension. It told him nothing. If she’d tried to communicate something beneath the face of the letter, he couldn’t detect it, magically or otherwise. But she’d given it to him to read. A gesture of trust?
He refolded the letter, slid it back into its envelope and into his breast pocket.
* * *
Emilia sat reading in the sunshine. Yesterday’s rain had given way to clouds like great, full-sailed ships riding a sparkling blue sky. Every scent was sharp-edged—the mushroomy smell of moist earth, the bright one of evergreen needles, a whiff of musk from the oaks that rose on the other side of the wall. Turning her book facedown on her knee, she closed her eyes.
A shadow fell across her, stealing the sun’s warmth. She opened her eyes.
Dragovich stood looking down at her, his hands in his pockets. “I missed you at breakfast.”
She gestured at the table beside her, bearing plate and cup. “I breakfasted here. It’s much too fine to be indoors.”
He rocked on his heels, studying her as he often did. These staring contests often preceded a challenge.
At last he said, “I mailed your letter.”
She sat up. Did you? she almost said. “I thank you, sir. It eases me a great deal.”
He gave an irritated wave. “Sir, pah. I’ve told you, call me Vadim.”
Yes, there was the challenge. She restrained a smile. “Very well. I thank you, Vadim, for mailing my letter.”
He grunted in what she presumed was satisfaction then turned, found a nearby chair and set it near hers. “It was well done. Did you know the best lies stay closest to truth? Where did you learn to lie so well, Emilia?”
She put her book aside on the table. “A lady must always be polite.” She paused, considered, then added, “And I must say, I was being extremely polite.”
He laughed. “Yes. You were.” He folded his arms and leaned back, extending one long leg. “Why did you give it to me? You could tell your friend what really happened, then ask someone else to mail the letter for you. Irina, for example. Even Tiffany. Neither would question it.”
“Do you test me, or the young women?”
“Neither. I’m curious.”
“Do you suppose I wish to bring down your wrath on others?”
“Do you think I’d be angry at them?”
“Indeed, I never considered it. Writing such a letter would serve no purpose but to distress Livy.”
“You’re a faithful friend,” he said. “It’s a pity you saw I’m a wizard when we met. You and I might’ve been friends.”
She almost laughed at the sheer absurdity of it. “I fear it’s quite impossible, even if you weren’t a wizard.”
“But think how it would’ve been, if you hadn’t read me. Have you?”
“How long would it have been before I learned what you are and what you do? Would you have hidden that from me?”
“Mmm.” He tilted his head. “Long enough to convince you I’m not such a bad guy.”
She did laugh this time. “Really, Vadim! And what a terrible shock it would’ve been when I discovered the truth.”
“Maybe not so bad as being kidnapped?”
She drew breath to assert it certainly would’ve been just as bad, then let it out. At least the kidnapping had been straightforward and honest…in its way. There was no question of where she stood and how she ought to feel about him.
“Don’t you grow weary of it?” she said. “Lies, force, threats. The violence. Always looking behind you.”
He gave her a beaming smile. “That’s why I have you. No need to look over my shoulder.” He put his hand on his heart and bowed his head. “I’m grateful. Now, I must be grateful to you yet again.” He extended his hand.
“Here?” she said, pretending shock. “Where anyone can see me reading for you?”
“Here.” He reached over, took her hand. “Where anyone can see me holding your hand.”
Something in Emilia’s middle gave a foolish little dip at his touch, at the way his hand engulfed hers.
She wet her lips. That secret-forest scent of his enfolded her, his nearness, the size of him overwhelming her awareness of everything else. Emilia’s heart bumped against her breastbone. Why, she couldn’t begin to say.
No, that wasn’t true. She knew perfectly well why.
“Shall I tell you your plans will be successful?” she said, struggling to regain her balance.
He took her hand in both his. “Only if it’s true.”
“I have little doubt of it.” The warmth of his touch ran up her arm, spreading all through her.
“Nor I.” He stroked her wrist with his thumb. “But in my business, it pays to be sure.”
A flash of vision came—herself in his arms, in passion. She flinched away from it, tried to free her hand. “Vadim…”
He held her fast. “Yes, Emilia?”
“I— Forgive me. I fear I can’t concentrate.”
She put her free hand on his, stilling his distracting touch. “No,” she whispered. “I—I can’t.”
“Maybe think of something else, then.” He drew her irresistibly toward him.
She should pull away. She closed her eyes. “You know…it’s impossible.”
“Tell me what’s impossible. This?” His hand slid up her arm.
The Lovers. Destiny. Over and over.
“There is no destiny…”
Emilia reached out with her gift. For a moment, her sight wouldn’t come. There was only Vadim, his nearness, the firm warmth of his fingers. She closed off her awareness to sensation, to the traitorous impulse to lean closer, to let him pull her into his arms. Finally, she managed to focus on the now-familiar rush and roar of his being.
She dipped in gingerly. Reading him was equal parts exhilaration and fright, the thrill of riding a dragon, the wind of power and possibility streaming through her hair, tempered by fear of the fire that might consume her. Taking a breath, she let herself go.
Faces whirled past, voices spoke, snatches of conversations with people she couldn’t make out. Confused, not a little alarmed, she tried to slow herself, but the vision swept her on. Fire bloomed in the distance. It grew closer, larger, then fire was all, all she could see, fire everywhere, pain, fury—
Emilia’s vision floated in blankness. She’d seen such blankness once before. With George.
Her heart hammering, she turned her sight back. She tried to control it this time, to study the net of possibilities, observe where paths branched and turned. She was swept forward into the fire once again, and once again beyond to darkness, silence.
She withdrew into the everyday awareness of herself, the sensation of her hand in Dragovich’s, the leaden throb of headache behind her eyes, the queasiness coiling and uncoiling like a parasite in her stomach.
Keeping her eyes closed as if she still read him, she thought hard on the future she’d seen—his, and by extension, hers.
* * *
When she’d closed her eyes, Emilia’s power had rolled over him like an earthquake, thrumming through him with a beat Vadim felt to the roots of his teeth. He tensed to thrust her away, reached to fling up a shield. Then it all stopped.
He waited, his breaths coming fast. What had just happened? What had caused her to expend such power? He shifted, uneasy, but her head remained bent, her eyes closed.
She certainly no longer read him, yet she didn’t speak. Uneasiness congealed into suspicion. It was as if she pursued her own thoughts of what she’d seen, deciding what she’d say.
A cold knot curdled in his belly. Don’t lie to me, Emilia, he thought. Don’t make me distrust you.
If he couldn’t trust what she told him, she was indeed dangerous. And if she was dangerous—
He shut his mind to the thought, willing her to look up, to look him in the eyes as she did and tell him—
She raised her head at last. “I see your death.”
Such a statement shouldn’t make relief rush through him. He had to struggle to keep from letting out a breath.
“Tell me.” His voice came out rough.
“You get into a car with two other men. You’re talking comfortably, then…” Her free hand made an arc and a troubled line appeared between her brows. “Fire. Then nothing.”
“Impossible,” he snapped. “I ward every car I get into.”
Frowning, she shook her head. “Nevertheless, this is what I see.”
“Soon.” She hesitated. “Within the next few weeks. It’s difficult to say. The possibility is very strong, overwhelming everything else. Very…insistent.”
“Insistent. Does that mean unavoidable?”
“It’s likely, but not unavoidable. I see paths around it.”
Her troubled look grew even more troubled. “They’re faint. Difficult to manifest, perhaps.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Perhaps. You don’t know?”
She drew herself up. “At this moment, no. I do not know.”
Her lips compressed and she pulled her hand from his. “I will not guess.”
He was silent a long moment. “What will you do then, Emilia?” he said softly. “Let me die?”
She sat, if possible, even straighter. “If I intended you to die, I wouldn’t warn you of it. I don’t murder people, Mr. Dragovich. Not even by silence. Not even those I despise.”
Those I despise. He’d roused her temper again. And why? What had driven him to goad her, when she’d done exactly as he wished?
He leaned forward, opened his hands. “Then help me. Tell me what I need to know to avoid this.”
She looked past him. He could see the line of tension from the angle of her jaw down her slim neck, the lock of her hands in her lap.
“I have every intention of doing so, sir,” she said at last and oh, so stiffly.
“Why?” he said abruptly. It wasn’t what he’d intended to ask.
“I told you—”
“If I die, you’re free of me. Isn’t that worth offending your fine sensibilities?”
She looked, if possible, even angrier. “You dishonor me, sir. You impute your own motives to me. We can have nothing further to say to one another.” She stood, her head held very high. “I bid you good day.”
She turned her back on him and walked away.