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Jul 08

Fated Magic – Chapter 21

It’s countdown to publishing date now. A bit more work and the book will be ready for prime time. Here’s the cover, which I’m pretty darned pleased with. Now I just have to get the descriptive blurb. In the meantime, here’s another chapter.

Fated Magic cover

The cards she laid were a nightmare. Emilia swept up the third spread and looked out the living room windows. The night beyond was deceptively quiet, a light fog creating halos around the garden lights. She glanced at the clock on the wall. Almost two hours since Dragovich had vanished before her eyes. She rose and paced, rubbing her arms.

If half of what the cards said was indeed happening—or would happen—Dragovich was in some very deep trouble indeed. Killings. Betrayals. Plots. Multiplication of enemies. Multiplication of difficulties. Insecurity. Disarray.

She pressed fingers to temples. Without a subject, the cards were difficult. She might be pulling threads of the future from anywhere, anyone. If only Dragovich would come back! At least to tell her if he’d been successful in stopping the killer. At least to let her read him—

She turned back to the marble-topped coffee table where she’d left her cards and put a finger to her lips, thinking. This was Dragovich’s house. His presence, his thoughts would’ve left their imprints here. Her gaze slid to the piano where he opened himself to music…

Emilia picked up her cards, crossed to the piano and opened it, opening herself at the same time to any vibration of Dragovich that might linger here.

She started and looked up when it came—the sense of his forceful, formidable presence. Unaccountably, the memory of him earlier rose before her mind’s eye—his broad shoulders, deep, powerful chest, muscular legs. What would it feel like, that admirable body pressed against hers, his big hands with their graceful fingers touching her—

No.

Taking a suddenly shaky breath, she pressed her hands to her belly to quiet the quiver there. Impossible, that she should even think such a thing! With Dragovich? Never!

She glanced around the room. There was only the night quiet of the house to witness her mad weakness, the living room empty of all but furniture shaped by the light of a single lamp.

Lowering herself to the piano bench, she shuffled the cards and laid the first one on the keys.

Success in business. She let go a breath. He must’ve stopped the killer. She turned over another card. Uncovering secrets. Learning who’d hired the man? Her fingers hesitated on the next card. After Dragovich’s party, she harbored no illusions about the methods applied.

She took a long breath and laid another card on the keys. Gathering resources. Then, ruthlessness. Disregard for consequences.

The scene played out before her mind’s eye almost as if she were reading him: Dragovich gathering his men for an attack on his enemy. Precisely how such an attack would be carried out and against whom, she had no wish to dwell on. She knew him well enough by now to realize he wouldn’t let tonight’s insult go unanswered. He’d strike back and strike hard.

What had he said just before he disappeared? This is what I get for restraining myself.

He certainly wouldn’t restrain himself now.

Another card. Conflict, hostility. Escalation. Dear God, what was he doing? How much bloodshed was—would be—taking place?

Then the Tower. Upheaval. Disaster. Fire. She pushed away from the cards again.

“Vadim, for pity’s sake, stop!” she said to the empty room. “Let me read for you before you do anything more! Don’t you see you’re making it worse?”

She gathered up the spread, unable to bear any more. She rubbed her eyes, the back of her neck. She was so tired. What was the use of her gift if it could change nothing? What good, when all it did was torment her?

No. No. She must think about Tiff, what she’d saved her from. And the women at Victoria’s. Two horrors she’d borne to good purpose. She might yet save more…

If only Dragovich would stop long enough to listen to her.

Taking a long breath and stretching the tense muscles of her back, she crossed to the sofa and tucked herself into one corner to wait for him.

* * *

A hand touched Emilia’s shoulder.

“Señora Dunmoor?” a voice whispered.

Emilia started awake. One of the maids bent over her, her young forehead wrinkled with worry.

“You fall asleep here,” the girl said. “You okay?”

Emilia hastily sat up, blinking away grogginess and confusion. Soft, shadowless light poured in through the living room windows. Fog wreathed the world outside, muting colors and blurring shapes.

“Yes.” She tucked a fallen lock of hair behind her ear. “Yes, thank you. I was waiting for Mr. Dragovich. I didn’t mean to fall asleep.”

The maid eyed her, no doubt wondering why she waited up for the master.

“Excuse me,” Emilia said and rose, brushing at her rumpled skirt and blouse.

She hurried to the kitchen. Flora stood at the counter, wrapping up muffins and muttering.

When Emilia came in, she looked around, frowning. “What happened? You said yesterday, breakfast at seven-thirty. Eight-thirty, and no Señor Dragovich.”

Emilia’s heart sank. “Something happened last night. An emergency. Have you heard from him?”

“Me?” Flora snorted. “I just cook, remember?” She looked Emilia up and down and took her by the elbow. “You don’t look so good. You better sit down.”

“I’m well, merely awake much of the night.” She couldn’t bear this. “Flora,” she said abruptly, “may I read for you?”

“Sit down first,” Flora said, drawing Emilia to a stool by the cluttered kitchen island.

I must look a fright. Emila climbed onto the stool and took Flora’s hand.

She saw Dragovich in high good humor, teasing Flora as Emilia sat by him.

She pulled out of her seeing and frowned. In good humor? After the mayhem she’d read in the cards? Would Dragovich be pleased after wreaking vengeance?

“What?” Flora drew back. “What do you see?”

Emilia schooled her face into less alarming lines. “Nothing to worry about. I looked into the disposition of tomorrow’s breakfast. I’m merely surprised that Mr. Dragovich should appear to break his fast so late. After eleven!”

Flora looked heavenward. “Okay, I’ll make Eggs Benedict. Good for lunch, too.”

“Yes, quite,” Emilia said, distracted.

It was always odd seeing herself in a reading. But there was something about the look on her own face in the vision, flushed and troubled behind a smile. Why?

Flora started to speak, but Emilia rose and said, “If you happen to see Mr. Dragovich, will you kindly say I wish to see him?”

“Okay, but—”

Emilia squeezed Flora’s hand. “Thank you.”

Smoothing her clothes and re-pinning her hair as best as she could, she made her way to Amanda’s office. Her eyes felt gritty and her head like a balloon on a string.

She found Amanda and another woman standing by Amanda’s desk in close conversation. The other woman looked around.

Emilia blinked, her hand on the doorknob. “Kisa!”

There was nothing alluring about her today. She wore cargo pants and a long-sleeved t-shirt. Over it she wore a shoulder holster with a gun quite as wicked-looking as the one she’d dreamt of last night. Emilia suddenly realized why Dragovich had said Kisa could take care of herself.

“I beg your pardon,” Emilia said, already backing out the door. This version of Kisa was more intimidating than the others she’d seen. “I’ll return later—”

“No,” Kisa said. “Come in, Emilia.”

She stepped in and shut the door. “Have you heard from Mr. Dragovich?” She made an effort to appear calm. It would scarcely do to sound like a fretful wife. “I need to speak with him. Can you contact him?” She glanced at Amanda, too, extending the ‘you’ to both women. Amanda shook her head.

“What have you seen?” Kisa said.

Emilia blinked at this direct admission of her abilities. “Things grow very—very difficult. He—” She stopped herself. “Without him before me, I can’t be certain.”

Kisa nodded. “We all have to do our best.” She turned, seeming to dismiss her.

Emilia stammered a moment. “You don’t understand. I’m unable to do what he requires of me without his presence.”

Kisa turned back. “He doesn’t have time to stop and clarify things for you just now.”

Amanda’s worried glance darted between the two of them.

“Oh, I assure you, it isn’t for my sake.” Emilia bowed her head. “I’ll be grateful if you convey my message. Good day.”

Emilia gave Amanda a nod and departed.

She walked quickly along the breezeway, the fog’s damp chill seeping through her sweater. Her stomach churned in distress and frustration. What could she do? If Dragovich didn’t return, how could she possibly stop this headlong plunge into disaster?

A crash and boom sounded, echoing in the dampening fog. Emilia stopped and turned. It had come from the direction of the gate, down at the end of the driveway. She stepped gingerly through the plantings along the breezeway, out onto the lawn where she might see.

Beyond the offices, a length of the wall surrounding the property was visible. On the other side, a great, black cloud billowed. A staccato rattle came, like hail on a roof, then a loud, ripping crack. A man screamed, quickly cut off.

Emilia backed toward the house. Why hadn’t she foreseen this? Was this part of what the cards had shown? Oh, dear God. Not yet, not now! Not before she had the chance—

Kisa burst through the door, gun drawn. She pounded toward Emilia. “Get in here!” she shouted. “Now!”

She grabbed Emilia’s arm, jerked her around and dragged her back toward the offices at a run.

“Wait!” Emilia gasped, her feet tangling in her skirt. “Flora! The maids—”

Kisa only shoved her through the door and down the hall. The hallway boiled like a disturbed anthill, men running and shouting in Russian.

Emilia finally managed to get hold of her skirt and hitch it out of the way. “What—?”

Kisa propelled her into a room. Amanda sat in a chair, her eyes wide and frightened.

Kisa jabbered something in Russian at the man sitting in another chair in front of an array of TV screens, then turned to Emilia.

Stay here.” Kisa jabbed a finger downward. “Understand?”

Emilia nodded, her heart racing.

Kisa snapped something else at the man then darted out the door. It slammed behind her.

Emilia edged over to Amanda. “What’s happening?”

“Someone’s attacked the house,” Amanda said in an undertone. “It doesn’t seem to be going well for them. I think that boom we heard a minute ago was their car exploding when they tried to ram the gate.”

She nodded toward the screens. One showed the driveway gate. In the street, something burned fiercely, flames reddening billows of black smoke. The shapes of men darted back and forth around the blaze. Other shapes lay sprawled on the road.

The man who shared the room with them muttered in Russian.

“What is he saying? Do you know?” Emilia whispered.

Amanda shook her head. “Relaying information to the men outside, I guess.”

Another screen showed a hillside, oaks blurred by fog. Two men seemed to be struggling with their guns. That hail-rattle came over a speaker and they fell. They didn’t get up again.

“Strange,” Amanda said under her breath, watching the screens. “It’s like…like they’re incompetent.”

Emilia gave her a sharp look. “What do you mean?”

“You know, I’ve only ever seen this kind of thing on TV. I never thought I’d be living through it. But I’d think if somebody was going to hit the house, they’d do a better job of it.” She gave a nervous giggle. “These guys are like the Three Stooges. Their car blows up. It looked like at least two guns backfired—the guys were shooting, then their guns just exploded. Bam.” She made a face.

Emilia had heard George talking once with another gentleman about just such a thing. She’d also heard what a mess the gun had made of the poor fellow’s face and hand.

“And those guys on the hill just now?” Amanda went on. “It looked like their guns jammed. Good for us, but I can’t believe a boss would send people who couldn’t do the job.”

The back of Emilia’s neck prickled. My wards will protect you, Dragovich had told her on her first day here. She looked at the screens, men swarming, fires burning, bullets hammering.

Was magic at work now, making things happen to thwart the attack? It certainly seemed so. So many convenient coincidences. Would anyone here question the reason for their great good fortune?

“Emilia,” Amanda whispered, “did you see this happening?”

“Only hints.” She twisted her hands together. “Oh, if only I could see Mr. Dragovich! So I can see!”

Amanda sat quiet a moment, watching the mayhem on the screens. “Kisa had a heads-up. That’s why she’s here. She didn’t say much, just that everyone was supposed to stay put until Mr. Dragovich said it was okay.”

Emilia wondered how much she ought to say. “There was…an incident last night. I scarcely had time to warn Mr. Dragovich.”

The sounds of sirens came, muted by walls and distance.

Amanda hugged herself. “I don’t like this.”

Emilia laid a hand on her shoulder in silent sympathy.

“This is a godawful mess,” Amanda said. “He’ll have to come, now. As soon as the cops get here, it’ll be worse.”

Those sirens. The police. Something in Emilia leapt at the thought, then plummeted just as quickly.

The man sharing the room with them muttered in rapid-fire Russian. On the screen showing the gate, one car, then another, sped away. A third paused just long enough for two men to haul in someone slumped and stumbling, then followed. On the screen that showed the hillside, other men dragged limp forms toward the garden wall.

Amanda gave Emilia a worried look. “Listen, Emilia,” she said quick and low. “Don’t get any crazy ideas. The cops can’t do anything for us. You know that, right?”

Emilia nodded grimly. “Yes. Not that I hadn’t entertained the thought—”

The door banged open and Kisa strode in again. She talked with the man as she stripped off her holster and handed it to him. He opened a file drawer and dropped it in, thunk.

Dragging fingers through her wild hair and reassembling her ponytail, Kisa swung to face Emilia.

“What am I going to do with you?’

“I beg your pardon?” Emilia said.

“The cops will be here any minute. I don’t know your arrangement with Vadim. But you need to know you can’t cause us trouble.”

Amanda stood. “She knows, Kisa. It’s okay.”

“Does she?” Kisa said.

“I’ve had innumerable opportunities to escape.” Emilia spread her arms. “Yet here I am.”

Kisa leveled a long stare on her, then nodded. “Yes. You are. But the cops ask lots of questions when things like this happen. If they ask you questions, you just say, ‘Yes, officer,’ and ‘No, officer,’ and ‘I don’t know, officer.’ Understand?”

“Perfectly,” Emilia said.

Kisa jerked her chin at the door. “You two go to the house. Stay quiet and out of sight until Vadim or I come for you.”

Even Amanda seemed daunted, only nodding as she moved toward the door.

Emilia followed, her throat tight with dread.

* * *

It took hours to deal with the mess at the house. Hours.

Vadim had come home to find the street clogged with police vehicles, lights flashing, radios squawking. They’d all climbed out of the car, he and Roman and Alexei and a couple of others, and made their cautious approach while uniformed officers, hands on weapons, moved to meet them.

Vadim had strategically disappeared in the confusion. With a spell of invisibility wrapped around him, he prowled the grounds, assessing the damage.

Kisa and the men Vadim had left behind had apparently spirited away any bodies. As the crime scene technicians worked, Vadim touched magic to the grass where the bodies had fallen. The resulting grass fire not only got rid of evidence, it also offered an excellent distraction. First, as the police scurried away from the spreading fire, then when they had no choice but to get out of the way of the fire truck and firefighters. All those tramping boots, all that spraying water—perfect.

Vadim prowled unseen through the busy throng of officials, turning bullet casings to little piles of ash. Bernard’s and the younger Lebedev’s men had conveniently snatched up their injured—no witnesses there.

It only remained for Vadim to put in his appearance as the shocked and outraged homeowner. That such a thing could happen here! This was supposed to be a good neighborhood! What was the world coming to when a man couldn’t feel safe in his own home? And what fool had started the fire? Did they have any idea what the damage would do to his property values?

Of course the police knew who he was, but as far as they could see, he was the violated party here. His home attacked by who-knew-who, leaving nothing more incriminatory than a couple of burned-out hulks where the thugs had attempted to ram through his gate. Vadim didn’t bother trying to remove VINs or license plates. Let Bernard and Lebedev Jr. try and convince the authorities the cars had been stolen.

After the last squinty-eyed detective had gone on her way, there was, of course, the necessary debriefing of Kisa and the others, then arranging disposal of the bodies. Then, then it was all finished…

For the moment.

Vadim heaved a sigh and rubbed his forehead, then pushed to his feet and made his way to the house. As he walked along the breezeway, voices echoed softly in the cool night air—his people going about their business securing the estate.

He walked into the house through the back door, past the kitchen’s lingering aroma of chile and beans and tortillas. At the foyer, he could hear music and women’s voices drifting down the hallway. He followed them.

He stepped through the entertainment room’s doorway to find Amanda, Flora and the two maids playing a card game. Glasses of wine and plates smeared with the remains of refritos and salsa showed that dinner had been taken here.

The women stopped talking and the two maids popped to their feet when they saw him.

Flora stood, too. “Señor Dragovich!”

Taking in the rest of the room with a glance, he waved the three back to their chairs. “Where is Emilia?”

“She went to bed,” Amanda said. “She was tired.”

He opened wizard’s senses, heard soft, slow breaths in the bedroom, caught Emilia’s warm, sleepy scent. He withdrew before it could distract him.

“I find her asleep on the sofa this morning, señor,” one of the maids said. “She wait up for you.”

Vadim’s brows climbed.

“She’s been anxious to talk to you,” Amanda added.

“So I’ve been told,” he said.

He pulled a chair over and sat. All four women watched him anxiously.

“How are you?” he asked.

Flora shrugged. “Just like Juarez, eh, chicas?”

The maids giggled and ducked their heads.

Vadim grimaced. “Amanda?”

“Well…” She shifted in her chair and wet her lips. “Honestly? Scared.”

He nodded. “Dmitri will take you home and keep an eye on you. Someone will take you, too,” he said to Flora and the maids. “Things will be tense for a while. Don’t worry, we’ll deal with it. You’ll be safe. Okay?”

He put a hand on Amanda’s, swirling a ward around her as he did. It was nothing elaborate, but it would serve until he got the situation under control. He patted the younger maid’s hand, warding her as well. As he ushered the four women down the hall and to the offices, he took the second maid briefly by the elbow, put a hand on Flora’s back, setting a spell with each touch.

His civilians taken care of, he returned once more to the house.

Emilia…

Standing by the darkened foyer, he ran a hand through his hair. Emilia, it seemed, was a problem. Whether she was a problem intentionally remained to be seen. He strode back down the hallway to Emilia’s door and knocked.

* * *

A sound dragged Emilia up out of sleep. She lay a moment, frightened and confused without knowing why, then the sound came again: someone knocking at her door.

She turned on the bedside lamp, stumbled out of bed and across the room to the closet. She found her robe, pulling it around her as she hurried to the door.

Dragovich stood outside, his face grim in the light from the hallway sconce.

“Vadim! Thank Heaven! At last!”

She seized his wrist, pulled him into the room.

“Whatever you’re doing, you must stop,” she rushed on. “Things grow very precarious. They’re changing too quickly for me to read— Oh!” She closed her eyes and put her hands to her head. “I must read you. You must let me read you before you do anything else—”

“Emilia,” he broke in. He took her arm, steered her to the table and chairs in front of the French door. “Sit down.”

Her sleep-muddled, darting thoughts abruptly cleared, settling on one, appalling point. Her face heated and she clutched the collar of her robe closed. “I do beg your pardon. How thoughtless of me. Please, excuse me a moment while I dress.”

He gave an irritated wave. “That isn’t important now.”

“But I—”

“Tell me why you didn’t see the attack today.”

She stammered, caught off guard. “How could I? You weren’t here.”

“And why you didn’t see the attack at Victoria’s last night.”

“I did see it!”

“Barely in time.” He folded his arms, staring narrowly down at her. “This is no good, Emilia. I need to be moves ahead of my enemies, not snapping at their tails.”

“I told you—”

“You tell me a great many things. Except what I need to know.”

She bit back a gasp of outrage. “Then perhaps you should allow me to do what you brought me here for.”

“You had your chance.”

“Two days ago?” she shot back. “What have you been doing between times?” She raised a hand. “Oh, don’t tell me. I know. Havoc and mayhem of all sorts. And now you drag me from my bed to accuse me of negligence.”

“You had no trouble seeing before.”

“Do you expect me to manage stormy seas as easily as calm ones?”

“Yes. I expect my people to do their jobs. Not make excuses.”

She breathed a moment, swallowing the angry pounding of her heart. “As you wish, sir.”

She took his wrist again, slipping into the tumult of his existence.

Futures branched crazily. Gunfire. Blood. Explosions. Violence spinning out of control, every disaster the cards had warned of, an exploding chaos of possibilities. She flicked between them, tracing paths, splits, rejoinings. Fire blazed, the dead end of them all.

No. No, another chance must remain. There must be another way. There, yes—there, a restaurant, two men in expensive suits talking: Vadim, be sensible. You know we can’t allow you to continue this. And the churn of Dragovich’s fury and humiliation—

Emilia blinked back into the room. She let go his wrist and took a step back.

She could think of no way to soften this. And at the moment, wasn’t particularly inclined to. “You won’t like it.”

“I already don’t.”

She drew a breath. “You have to stop.”

“Stop what?”

“This.” She waved in the general direction of the gate. “What happened today. More violence.”

Dragovich gave one of his forbidding stares. “This, this is your advice. When they shoot one of my best men. When they try to slaughter my girls. When they attack my house.” His accent grew thicker and his voice turned to a menacing growl. “And you tell me stop?”

“Yes, I do. Nearly every path I see ends in disaster. All but one. Treat with your enemies before this gets worse.”

“Treat with them!” He barked a harsh laugh. “Surrender, you mean. Roll on my back like a whipped dog!”

This was impossible. “Don’t treat with them, then. Merely wait. Give them time to consider the error of their ways.”

“Give them time to consider other ways to kill me, you mean. No. You tell me what happens next. I decide what to do about it.”

She let out a disbelieving breath. “Do you not understand, Vadim? Every choice you make spawns ten of theirs. Every one of those spawns ten more of yours. Do you expect to keep me by you always, to read you as things change and change again?”

“You’re the seer. These are your problems. Not mine.”

“Yes, and I tell you where all these possibilities lead, every one of them! Unless you stop this, you will be killed. Is your pride worth dying for?”

“I’d rather die fighting then live humiliated,” he snarled.

“Then what is the point?” she cried. “Why do you keep me if you won’t listen to me?”

He stared down at her, his chest rising and falling fast, his hands clenching and unclenching at his sides.

He stepped forward, crushed her in his arms and kissed her.

Her hands came up to thrust him away. But no, her fingers curled into his shirt, pulling him closer. He didn’t smell like a forest now, but like fire, like smoke and gunpowder. His kiss was devouring, insistent. His fingers threaded into her hair to hold her fast. She opened her mouth in a gasp and his tongue tangled with hers, sending liquid heat pouring through her. She broke away, panting, and his mouth traced heat along her jawline, down her neck.

Breathless, spinning, she closed her eyes. “Vadim,” she breathed, plea or protest, she couldn’t say.

His hands shifted, half lifting, half guiding her, then he was pressing her down on the bed. Trembling, every nerve afire, she gave herself up to him, to his big, solid body, his hungry mouth, his hands sliding beneath her robe.

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