May 14

Fated Magic – Chapter 17

What’s in the cards? Vadim doesn’t want to know, but he’ll find out in this new chapter of Fated Magic.

“I see my family next month.” A leavening of eagerness tinged David’s low, usually serious voice. He pointed through the windshield. “Turn right here.”

Emilia carefully steered the car around the corner as he directed. She’d driven all the way to town this morning and was now practicing on quiet residential streets. They were narrow, bordered not by curbs and sidewalks, but by every sort of greenery—twisted, red-barked madrone trees, angular cypress, fountains of pampas grass and lily of the Nile, hedges of privet or juniper.

“That’s wonderful, David!” She came to a stop sign and applied the brakes. She no longer made the car lunge into a stop.

“I have Christmas presents for them already,” he said. “I buy gold necklace and cashmere sweater for my wife and X-Box for my son. I get iPhone for my daughter, Kristina. She is eighteen next year. When they come, I’ll have Christmas tree to put everything under.”

“That will be lovely. But you know, the best Christmas present for them will be seeing you again.”

He ducked his head as if to hide his grin. “Yes. They’ll be my Christmas present, too.” He glanced up at the street sign. “Turn left here. There, see trash cans?” He pointed to the green and blue bins scattered along the shoulder. “We pretend they’re cars. You practice parallel parking.”

“Very well,” Emilia said more calmly than she felt. David had to right a few other trash cans after previous attempts.

Chatting ceased until they were headed home again. David talked of his plans after his family arrived, how they’d live in his present apartment while they looked for a house, the high cost of housing in the upscale coastal communities, how far he might have to commute.

“Easier after Yuliya gets job,” he said. “Mr. Dragovich will get her green card, maybe help find her job. She practices English all the time to be ready.”

They pulled up to the garage at Dragovich’s house. Emilia got out and waved as David climbed behind the wheel and drove away.

She’d thought hearing him talk about his family would make her sad again, but today, she felt only…wistful. Perhaps it was because of David’s happiness in looking forward to seeing them, all the bright plans he had in store.

She made her way toward the house. In the garage, she found the gardener and his young helper, Akil, cleaning and putting away tools.

The boy brightened when he saw her. “Hey, Mrs. Dunmoor! Can you tell my fortune again maybe?”

“Akil!” the gardener scolded.

Emilia laughed. The boy’s good humor was infectious. “That’s all right, Mr. Aquino.” She turned to Akil. “I’d be delighted. Tomorrow, perhaps, after lunch?”

“Sweet!” The boy gave the frowning gardener a sheepish grin and returned to his task.

In the office annex, she encountered Roman in the hallway.

“Mrs. Dunmoor,” He gave a nod of greeting. “Irina has a test at school this week. She should study, but she wants to help you.”

“Oh!” Emilia said. “By all means, tell her I said she must stay home and study. I will keep. The exam won’t.”

He gave a smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes. “Thank you. I’ll tell her.”

Roman continued on his way. Emilia, warmed by his genuine friendliness, went on hers.

She meant to go back to the house for a bite to eat for lunch, but found her steps dragging. She stopped, gazing down the hallway with its linoleum tiles and bare, dove-grey-painted walls, trying to pin down the source of her creeping unease.

There was no reason for it. The driving lesson had gone well, and her time with David had been pleasant. She’d had her usual chat and a cup of tea with Flora this morning, discussing an upcoming breakfast meeting of Dragovich and his men. Everyone she encountered had been friendly. There was no…reason…

But there was. What would happen to all these people if Dragovich died? If one of the other bosses she’d met took over his territory, someone like Baljic the butcher or Bernard the whoremaster.

She shook off the images that came with the thought and started forward again, her steps rapping like her heartbeat. At the last door, she knocked. A woman’s voice answered.

Emila opened the door and stepped in. “Good morning, Amanda. Will you be taking lunch soon? Might I join you?”

Amanda glanced at the clock on the wall. Her brows climbed. “No wonder I’m getting hungry. Sure. Let me make one more call, then I’ll be ready.”

Emilia waited in the breezeway. Amanda never asked her to leave when she was working, but Emila didn’t feel comfortable eavesdropping.

Amanda came out swinging her purse over her shoulder. “Where do you want to go?”

“I fancy dining al fresco. Perhaps, if you’re agreeable, we can get something from the taco truck on the highway, then eat at the beach.”

“Well!” Amanda said with a laugh. “Aren’t we becoming familiar with the area!”

“David and I have stopped there for lunch once or twice.” Emilia smiled. “A few minutes to settle his nerves.”

Amanda rolled her eyes.

Soon they drove along Scenic Road, the aroma of spiced meat and corn tortillas and lime sneaking past aluminum foil wrappers and into the car. Houses with huge picture windows and glassed porches and balconies lined one side of the road. On the other stretched a row of the ever-present cypress trees, their branches trained horizontal by the sea wind, a sandy path beside them. Then at the bottom of a shallow drop-off, the beach. Amanda slid her car into a parking space along the trail.

A pearly overcast turned the sunlight watery. They found a cypress tree growing parallel to the sand, just the right height for a bench, and unwrapped their lunch.

Wind played with loose strands of Emilia’s hair, teasing her cheeks and neck. She bit into her taco, savoring the bite of chile and the tang of lime on her tongue. Thank goodness fifteen years in India had accustomed her to spicy food.

“Amanda,” Emilia said after a while, “what happened when Mr. Dragovich took over this territory? Surely it couldn’t have been a simple matter.”

“Honestly, I don’t know. By the time I came on the scene, it was all done. But between what I’ve heard second-hand and on the news, it was quick and bloody. A lot of dead bodies and a lot of missing persons.”

“Like a coup d’état, I suppose.”

“Knock off the government and install your own? Pretty much.”

“The other man—Arsov, you said?—must’ve had his own people. What happened to them?”

Amanda shrugged. “I guess some of them got the same kind of choice I did. The ones close to him probably didn’t get the chance.”

The ones close. Like Amanda was close to Dragovich. Like Roman and Kisa were.

“One thing you find out early in this business,” Amanda said. “Loyalty is king. A boss isn’t going to put up with anyone who isn’t behind him a hundred percent—either because they want to be, or they’re made to be. He can’t afford to.”

Emilia frowned.

“I’ve heard the bad ones make people do some pretty extreme things to prove themselves,” Amanda went on. “As far as I know, Mr. Dragovich doesn’t do that.” She gave Emilia a worried glance. “Does he?”

“I—” I don’t know, she began to say, then realized what Amanda was asking: Emilia, having been kidnapped, clearly wouldn’t feel particularly loyal. “I was offered…an inducement.”

“An offer you couldn’t refuse, huh?”

“Indeed,” Emilia said.

They sat quietly, the rush and lull of the waves pulsing on the air, the cry and chuckle of gulls stitching through it.

Emilia took off her shoes and burrowed her toes in the cool sand. “If you could go back to your old life, your ordinary life,” she said, “would you?”

Amanda seemed absorbed in carefully wiping her fingers with a napkin. “Emilia,” she said at last, still looking down, “that’s not the kind of question you should ask anyone here. It could cause a lot of trouble. For you, and for the person you’re asking.”

“Oh! I’m so very sorry! I only asked because you’re like me…” Emilia trailed off.

Amanda finally met her eyes. “A legitimate person swallowed up by all this.” She sighed. “I know.”

Amanda gathered the remains of her lunch, the foil, the empty paper cups of salsa and sour cream, and stuffed it all into the bag the food had come in.

Finally, she said, “Would I like to go back to a straight life instead of being a crime lord’s personal assistant? Of course I would.”

She brushed sand from the tree trunk and leaned on one elbow. “I can imagine it. If one day Mr. Dragovich came in and said, ‘Amanda, you’ve done a good job. I appreciate it and I know you won’t cause me trouble, so I’m letting you retire from the business.’ I’d be doing somersaults. And I don’t know, maybe one day he will tell me something like that.” She sat quiet for a moment, looking out over the water. “But practically, the more likely scenarios for getting out of this aren’t pretty. There are no happy endings in this business.”

Emilia nodded. “Only bloody, terrible ones,” she whispered.

* * *

“You foresaw I’d come find you this afternoon, eh?” Dragovich said.

Emilia looked up from the spread of cards before her. Dragovich, wearing an open-collared shirt and jacket, stood in the entertainment room’s doorway. The afternoon light streaming through the window gave his pewter hair a golden cast.

She gathered up the cards with a practiced sweep of the hand. “Not at all. You haven’t yet asked who, when and where your doom will strike. It only stands to reason you’d wish to know.”

“Ha! Yes.”

He stepped into the room and shut the door, then paused a moment.

Emilia watched him. “Are you working magic?”

“A spell to prevent eavesdropping.” He sat in the chair she’d set on the other side of the table. “It seems strange that you have power, but can’t see or touch magic.” He pursed his lips. “Although you can disappear. How did you do that? Not using magic, I saw that.”

She wondered if it were wise to tell him.

“Of course, you don’t want to lose your one advantage,” he said, smiling.

“Not at all. It’s simply that in the present case, disappearing offers no advantage.”

“Situations can change.”

After her conversation with Amanda earlier, she didn’t particularly like the drift of this conversation.

She tapped her cards on the table, straightening them. “When I disappear… It’s rather like my gift, I suppose. In a reading, I open myself to the possibilities that flow all around us. To disappear, I open myself to the world around me. I take it into myself.”

“Will you show me?”

Again, she hesitated.

“What?” he said.

“I’m rather afraid you’ll try to do something when I do.”

He held up his hands, then tucked them under his arms. “I promise I won’t do anything.”

She smiled a little. She’d seen no evidence that he needed his hands free to do magic. “Very well.”

She took a breath, let it out slowly, and let her awareness sink into her surroundings. The slant of sunlight through the window, the way it highlighted Dragovich against the dimmer wall behind him, the shadow where his throat disappeared into the collar of his shirt, the pull of his jacket across his broad shoulders.

* * *

Vadim caught his breath. Just as she had at the farmers’ market, Emilia vanished in front of him. But unlike at the market, this time he could almost feel…something. A caress, the lightest of touches at his throat, across his shoulders, down his chest…

He felt himself responding, a growing tightness against his trousers.

He snapped open wizard’s senses, expecting to find her touching him in truth. No, the moonglow that was Emilia remained where she’d been, on the other side of the table Still, those whisper-touches continued as if something of her power brushed him.

He reached toward her, found her arm, her hands, the cool smoothness of cards held between them.

“Emilia.” His voice came out rough. “Stop.”

She blinked back into existence. Her dark eyes were wide, dilated. Her lips parted.

She broke from his gaze and drew back, suddenly businesslike. “I beg your pardon. It must be terribly disconcerting, to know I’m here and yet not see me.”

Disconcerting. Oh, yes.

He leaned back, trying to ignore the throbbing at his groin. “It wasn’t like last time,” he said casually.

Telltale color bloomed on her cheekbones. “Was it not?”

“No,” he said.

“What did…” Her tongue peeked out to wet her lips. “I suppose it might have something to do with my surroundings.” Her color heightened and she said quickly, “That is, whether it’s indoors or out, or something of that sort.”

He grinned. Or something of that sort. Maybe she opened herself to him this time? “It might be an interesting experiment. At night on the beach, say.”

Watching the struggle in her eyes, he waited for her response to his innuendo. What would it be? Outrage? Interest? Or pretended ignorance?

“I might escape you entirely,” she said, a little breathlessly.

“No more than last time.”

He wasn’t blind. He knew his effect on women. Emilia clearly wasn’t immune, as he’d seen the first time they met. But why was he so drawn?

So drawn that he refused to do what he would with any other woman who appealed to him, and simply demonstrate what he wanted. Why continue this delicate dance, like coaxing a shy animal to his hand?

“No,” she said, tapping her cards again. “I suppose you’re right.”

“I’m always right.”

“Are you indeed. Then you must have no further need of me.”

He didn’t know whether to laugh or growl in frustration. Then he saw the challenging lift to her brow.

“I wouldn’t call it need,” he purred, teasing right back.

She sniffed. “Of course not. Merely convenience.”

Was that more teasing, or distancing? “Never that,” he said seriously.

She gave him a long look. “Then shall we?” she said, holding up the cards.

He really wished she’d offered something else. Let him get this foolish desire for her out of his system.

He gave a little wave. “By all means.”

She absorbed herself in shuffling the cards, as if buying a little time and distance to calm herself.

“I’m not using the complete deck now. I want to get a general impression first,” she said. “Now you must understand my limitations with the question at hand.”

“What question is that?”

“I believe we were speaking of your doom?” She was, it seemed, determined to avoid further flirtation.

“My doom. Ah. Yes.”

“I can’t find the answer by reading you, since you won’t know.”

“I’ll be dead before I do.”

“Precisely.” A faint line appeared between her brows. “Yet the cards are open to interpretation, like dreams.”

“Like the dream that made you flee the wrong dragon,” he said. “Do you frequently have prophetic dreams?”

She didn’t answer for a moment, her attention on the cards. “I dreamt of the man taking Livy’s money from my trailer.”

“Ah! So that’s what had you worried. I didn’t know if you’d grown desperate, or ready to trust me.”

“Desperate, I believe.”

He wouldn’t allow himself to be disappointed.

“When I lay the cards for you,” she said, “I look to see how they fit with the possibilities in your future.”

“No mystical force influences the way they fall?”

She shook her head. “Let me show you.”

She shuffled through the deck, pulled out a card and laid it on the table. It was of a robed man with an infinity symbol over his head. “The Magus. This will represent you.” She pulled out another card. “The Emperor will represent your enemy, who will likely be another boss.”

He nodded.

“The Tower represents the disaster that awaits.” She laid a third card on the table. “Now we must find what links the three. Take a card.”

She offered the deck, and he slid out a card. It was of a white-robed woman wearing a moon headdress. He flicked it with a fingernail. “This is you.”

She looked up in surprise. “The High Priestess. Intuition. How did you know?”

Vadim raised a brow. “I’m a wizard, Emilia.”

She shook her head, as if that answered nothing. “Lay it down. Anywhere you wish.”

He put the card partially over the Magus.

“You put me between yourself and your future,” she said.

He frowned and reached to move the card.

“No, don’t. This is part of the reading. Take another card.”

“I won’t do this if you psychoanalyze me.”

“Your choices will speak to me, it’s true. If you prefer, I won’t speak until all the cards are laid.”

“Will that be any better?”

“That is your decision.”

Shrugging, he pulled out one card after another. The symbolism was sometimes obvious, but often not. The ones he could guess, he arranged deliberately: the Hanged Man covering the Emperor, Strength at the base of the Tower. Those not so obvious, he arranged by whim, watching Emilia’s face as he did. She gave him no clue.

At last, she set the deck aside, folded her hands under her chin and studied the spread.

She pointed at the Emperor/Hanged Man pair. “You’ve reversed the Hanged Man. You refuse to change your mind, thus enabling your enemy.”

He jerked up his head to stare at her. Did she think him a fool? He didn’t enable his enemies. He killed them.

“Here.” She tapped the card he’d placed above the Emperor. “This is your enemy. He considers himself a religious man. He’s rigid, and rules through force and fear, compelling his people to ape his beliefs.”

Vadim narrowed his eyes. Ilia Lebedev, maybe? He was said to be a devout man.

She touched the Tower and Strength. He’d put the Strength card crosswise at the Tower’s base, like a buttress. “Interesting. Upright is courage, reversed is weakness. This way is neither.” She cocked her head. “But here is Temperance.” She tapped the card near the pair. “Balance. The bringing together of sources of strength.” She tapped another card. “The Fool. Why did you reverse him?”

“He’s chaos,” Vadim said. “I don’t want to help him.”

“No. He’s new beginnings and faith in the future. When reversed, the path ahead is blocked.”

Annoyance pricked him. “You keep saying my future is set. That I’ll do nothing to change it. Why is that, Emilia?”

She straightened. “To warn you, sir. We all have choices in this life. Whether we exercise them or not is a choice of its own.”

He gave another wave. “No need for the ’sir.’ Go on.”

She almost visibly settled her ruffled feathers. “Above the Tower, you’ve placed Death. A transformation, a new beginning.”

“I meant it to be the death of my death. Isn’t ‘transformation’ another word for dying?”

“One needn’t die to be transformed.”

“I have no trouble with myself as I am,” he muttered.

She made a noncommittal noise. “You’ve reversed the Devil. To counter evil, I suppose?”

“Yes.”

“The Devil reversed represents conquering compulsions, breaking away from things that have restricted your life. Yet you’ve placed him far to the side. You’ve exiled him.”

“This is all nonsense,” he said, abruptly losing patience. “You tell me this and you tell me that, but it means nothing.”

“Does it? It seems you gain a great deal of meaning from it.”

“Don’t toy with me,” he said. “If you see something in all this, tell me.”

“You know what it says—that you refuse to step off the path to doom.”

“How can I, when you won’t tell me how?”

She laid a finger on Death. “This is how. You must do something completely different. Something you’d never have done before.” She touched the Devil, pulled him into the spread. “You mustn’t fear to change.”

A warning finger brushed up his spine. “You do what all women try to do to a man. Change him.”

“I don’t try to change you, Mr. Dragovich. Any changes you make must be by your choice, for your own reasons.”

“And you?” He poked the High Priestess card. “You’re between me and my future.”

“Yes. And you, yourself, placed me there.”

He picked up the card and flung it aside. “Not anymore.”

“Hmm,” she said. “Now she’s reversed. You won’t receive answers to your questions.”

He thrust to his feet. “Don’t try to maneuver me, woman.”

“If what I tell you offends you, then ask me no questions. I won’t be accused of base intentions every time you hear something you don’t like.”

She spread her hands to sweep up the cards.

He slammed a hand down on her wrist and bent over her. “Finish.”

Her face was within inches of his, but she didn’t flinch back. “To what purpose, when you think I mean only to manipulate you?”

“Because it’s what I tell you to do,” he growled.

“As you wish,” she said icily.

He let her go, but still stood over her.

She took the High Priestess card and turned it upright. He’d disarranged some of the other cards he’d set down. Those, she left as they were.

“You move forcefully to achieve your goals,” she said. “You know what you want and you take action to gain it, not shunning the consequences.”

“This is my fortune?” he scoffed. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

Her nostrils flared.  “Your judgement is sometimes clouded by illusion and the weight of the past. Your weakness is your certainty that you must do everything alone, on your own terms. Suspicion and distrust keep you isolated and will lead you astray—” She broke off.

“Well?”

Her eyes had gone unfocused. He’d never before looked directly into them when she read. They seemed to open onto an endless void, like a glimpse into infinity. Eerie lights glimmered far, far down. His nape prickled.

“A star glimmers on the horizon.” Her voice had changed, the gentle lilt submerged into something more powerful. “Hope. Glory. Triumph. But there is only a faint path past the fire, and beyond the fire, change and uncertainty, upheaval and darkness. The man who walks beyond the fire is not the man who walks before it. The man who goes into the darkness is not the man who emerges from it.”

“Emilia,” he said. “What are you seeing? Where are you?”

Her eyes remained locked on his, unseeing. “Fire won’t light the darkness. Fire will feed it. Division will feed it. Fear will feed it. Only by embracing fear will the star’s light shine.”

He hesitated, then reached out, caught her chin. Her skin felt too cool. “Emilia,” he said again, this time putting power behind her name. “Come back.”

“I can’t.” Her voice changed again, became high and desperate. “I’ve tried everything. I don’t know what else to do!”

He shook her a little. “Emilia. Come back!”

Her breath came in shallow pants. “Oh God, oh God. They’re killing them! They’ll kill everybody! I tried to stop it, oh God, I tried—”

He put both hands on her cheeks, leaned down and shouted into her face, “Emilia!”

She gasped and rocked back. “Vadim?”

He let go a breath. “Yes.” He dropped into his chair and leaned on the table, one hand still on her cheek. “Are you all right?”

“I feel sick again.”

“No doubt. What happened?”

“A vision…” She gripped his wrist. “Vadim, please. I know you think I want only to be free of you, but you must listen to me. Distrust me, believe my motives impure, but I beg you, listen to me.”

“Tell me.” He moved his thumb in a soothing arc across her cheek.

“If you die, you must know what will happen to your people. To Amanda. Tiff. Kisa, Irina.”

He clenched his jaw. “Yes. I know.”

“No matter what I may think of you, you must believe I wish no harm to befall them. For their sake, believe what I tell you.”

He searched her face. He could feel her pulse racing under his fingers where they rested under her ear. The desperation wasn’t an act.

“I will, Emilia. But I can’t promise to do as you say. I still make my own decisions.”

She bowed her head.

* * *

Emilia kept her gaze on the cards as Dragovich left the room to get something to eat. He’d scattered several in his anger, changing the meaning of some. The trio he’d placed below his card, the Magus, and hers, the High Priestess, remained unmoved.

The first, he’d laid down with a faint smile and a pointed glance: The Lovers.

The other two, he’d laid just below.

The World: understanding, unity, embarkation on a journey. The Wheel of Fortune: destiny.

She closed her eyes and gathered them all up.

Apr 30

Fated Magic – Chapter 16

Two things have kept me from posting chapters lately, one good and one bad. The good thing? A week’s vacation in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains. The bad thing? A nasty case of writer’s block. The vacation is definitely over. We’ll have to see about the writer’s block. I’m keeping my fingers crossed (or, as my Swedish friends would say, I’m holding my thumbs).

Emilia walks in the garden at Stonedale, her father’s house. Fine snow sifts down from a flat, grey sky. She and her sister Catherine wear hooded cloaks and mufflers against the chill, but cold nips Emilia’s feet and ankles through her boots and stockings. It’s a bearable discomfort, since this isn’t the sort of conversation she wants the servants to overhear.

“Why on earth did I tell him, Kit?” Emilia’s throat feels threateningly tight and she clears it. “He’s right. It would’ve been far more sensible to simply remain quiet and let matters take their course.”

Kit gives a short, derisive laugh that plumes on the air. “You could no more do that than sprout wings and fly away, Em, you know that.”

“When a such man has kidnapped and holds me against my will? Don’t insult me. I’m a fool not to take any chance I can get.”

“Why did you tell him, then, if he’s such a blackguard?”

“I don’t know!” Emilia’s voice pierces the soft fall of snow. She shakes her head and says more quietly, “Forgive me.”

They walk in silence a while. Finally, Kit says, “Is he a blackguard?”

“Of course!” Emilia says, then, “No.” She sighs. “I don’t know.”

Kit laughs again. “Oh, dear. I see the problem.” She reaches over and squeezes Emilia’s arm. “My poor sister. What a terrible quandary!”

“I know what you’re thinking,” Emilia says. “Don’t. Being carried off isn’t the least bit romantic, I assure you.”

“No, indeed not.” Kit gives her arm another understanding squeeze. “But there must be other considerations, or you wouldn’t be so muddled.”

“There always are, aren’t there?”

“Tell me.”

Emilia sighs again. “If some other wretch takes over, what happens to Dragovich’s people? I can disappear easily enough. But what about my friends? What about those whose only crime is to work for him? They can’t do the same. And they’ll die.”

“You could warn them.”

“While they’re caught between a tiger and a raging river? It could never work.”

Kit slants her a look from under her hood. “Are you listening to yourself, Em? Face it. You have no wish to see him dead.”

Emilia turns away in agitation and vexation. “I’ve no wish to see anyone dead. Nor to trade lives for my freedom.”

“And that’s all.”

Kit has always been forthright and fearless. Often too much so, much to the despair of their mother. But Kit’s fine looks and the cheerful candor in her dark eyes seldom allow others to find offense in her words.

“What do you want me to say, Kit? That for all he’s an unapologetic beast, he still has a certain nobility and honor? That I must keep reminding myself that he’s a villain and a scoundrel? That I’m still drawn to him after all he’s done? Such knowledge is bad enough.”

“You don’t credit yourself. You wouldn’t feel that way if there were no reason.”

“Yes,” Emilia says on a humorless laugh. “I’m a foolish woman.”

“You know perfectly well that isn’t true, so you mustn’t keep saying it. You see too deeply to be any kind of fool.”

They walk in silence a few steps, their breath curling white into the still, cold air.

“I told him I don’t do murder, even by silence,” Emilia says at last. “But if he were as despicable as I accused him of being, I might. Heaven save me, but I might.”

“Ah,” Kit says softly, tipping back her head. “He’s perhaps more noble than beastly, then?”

“I haven’t quite decided the precise proportions of each.”

Kit nods thoughtfully. “And what do you see, sister, when you look into his future?”

“I see…” Past the fire, beyond the violence, so distant and tenuous it approaches impossibility. Something squeezes her chest; hope or despair, she can’t say.

“I see what he could be,” she whispers.

* * *

Emilia awakened feeling vaguely ill. A headache pressed behind her eyes, and her body felt achy and heavy.

Her dream returned so powerfully she could almost hear the slightly husky tones of Kit’s voice, feel the pressure of her fingers on her arm, the whiff of cinnamon that always accompanied her.

All that, gone. Not separated by thousands of miles and weeks of travel and years of absence, but gone. Dust, for a hundred and fifty years.

Tears pushed up. She let them come this time. There was nothing wrong with weeping for the loss of one well-loved. And she’d lost everyone. Everyone. Her sisters. Her husband. Her children. When had she even had the chance to grieve for them, after awakening in an utterly alien world, struggling for bare survival?

A tap came at the door. “Señora Dunmoor?” a woman’s soft voice said.

Emilia raised her head and found both her pillow and her face wet. She fumbled for a tissue on the bedside table and hastily wiped her face and nose.

“I’m ill,” she called. Her voice came out weak and unsteady. “Please, I wish only to sleep.”

Silence from the other side of the door. Emilia wondered who it was. Not Flora. One of the maids, perhaps.

“Okay, Señora,” the voice said. Footsteps padded away down the hall.

Emilia wiped her face again, lay back down and stared at the ceiling. Dragovich would expect her at breakfast. She couldn’t quite bring herself to care.

She drifted a while, not asleep, but not entirely awake, either. Another tap came at the door.

“Señora Dunmoor?” the soft voice said. “Señor Dragovich says, come eat breakfast.”

“I can’t eat. My stomach hurts.” This achiness and malaise and weakness were uncomfortably familiar.

The footsteps moved off once more.

The next knock was more forceful. “Emilia,” Dragovich’s voice said. “Come out.”

She shoved upright in bed. “For heaven’s sake, can’t you leave me alone? I’m ill!”

The door opened. Dragovich took one, hard look at her, turned and spoke to someone behind him—the maid, presumably. Stepping into the room, he shut the door. He crossed to the closet and flipped through the garments within.

Covers clutched to her chest, Emilia spluttered, too outraged for words.

Finally, he approached the bed, a robe in hand. “Get up. Put this on. Go wash your face.”

“How dare you, sir! Leave the room this instant!”

“Come, Emilia. Do you think you’re the only undressed woman I’ve seen?”

Still hugging the covers to her, she leaned forward and snatched the robe. He walked away, to the French doors, and stood looking out into the garden. She slithered out of bed, pulling the robe around her as she hurried to the bathroom.

She shut the bathroom door. And locked it. For whatever good it would do. After all, he was a wizard. She supposed a locked door was no barrier to him.

After splashing water on her face, she confronted her reflection. It looked as ghastly as she felt: eyes purpled and puffy, nose red, her hair straggling out of its braid.

Smoothing her hair and gathering the robe about her with as much dignity as she could muster, she opened the door.

Dragovich turned and studied her again. “Mia said you have a stomachache. Is that all?”

She swallowed the impulse to say it was none of his concern. It wasn’t, but telling him so would do nothing to convince him to go away.

“A headache. A slight fever, perhaps.”

He abruptly crossed to her and laid the back of his hand on her cheek, then her neck. Emilia was too astonished to flinch away.

“No fever,” he said. “Has this happened before? Say, after other readings?”

She realized why this particular illness seemed so familiar. The air in the room seemed suddenly to vanish. “After I saw…” Her voice failed her. She wet her lips. “George’s death,” she whispered.

“You were sick.”

She nodded.

“How long?”

“Three days.”

The door cracked open and the maid peeked in. Dragovich beckoned her. She carried on a tray and set it on a table. With many worried glances between him and Emilia, she quickly withdrew.

The tray bore a Dragovich-sized breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage, biscuits, jam and fruit compote.

Emilia swallowed hard and turned away. “I can’t possibly—”

“You can, and you will. Sit down.”

Emilia sat, avoiding looking at both him and the food.

He took the other chair and gestured. “Eat.”

I can’t.”

“Let me guess what you feel. Your stomach seems an aching void. You’re weak and your joints hurt like an old woman’s.”

She met his eyes in surprise. “Yes.”

He nodded. “I’ll explain something to you. You aren’t a wizard, but you still expend power when you use your gift. Can you see the magic? Can you feel when I use it?”

Intrigued despite herself, she shook her head.

“I can. When you read me yesterday, you used much power, more than usual. Did you eat after?”

“I was— No. That is, not very much.”

“When we use power, we must replenish ourselves. You no less than I. When you don’t, your gift takes what it needs from your body. That’s why you’re sick now. That’s why you must eat. Try.”

Reluctantly, she split a biscuit and spread butter and jam over it, then forced a bite between her lips.

Dragovich crossed his arms, watching her. She fought the impulse to squirm under his regard, concentrating on chewing, swallowing, taking another bite. For a worrisome moment, she thought she might have to dash for the bathroom. Then her stomach apparently decided food was a desirable thing, and she tackled it with increasing enthusiasm. The eggs, laced with cheese and herbs and green onions, seduced her tongue with their fluffy savor.

“You never realized this before?” he said with some amusement.

“I rarely have visions that overpower me.” She thought back. How she’d felt when she’d seen George’s death. Tiff’s. Now Dragovich’s. “I thought it was only distress over what I saw.”

“Distress, yes. But your power, too.” He was silent a long moment. “I use you badly, don’t I, Emilia? You must forgive me. It’s only ignorance, not malice.”

She almost dropped her fork.

“Does that surprise you? Wizards are few. Those with a little power, a small gift…” He waggled a hand back and forth. “A few more of those. You—you’re the first seer I’ve seen. Or maybe I should say the first strong one, the first who can see the future at will. I don’t know how your power works. How it affects you.”

“Some visions…” she began. “It’s like I’m living them. Not only seeing them. The pain and fear is my own. I can’t escape it, and I can’t close my eyes and mind to it.”

“How many deaths have you died?”

“Please, don’t ask me that.”

“Too many,” he said. “How many did you spare?”

“A few. Not as many as I’d like.” She put down her fork, stared at the food. “I told you there is no destiny. But people can be very set, no matter what future lies before them.” She raised her eyes to meet his. “It may be why the future I saw for you is so strong.”

“Because I won’t change to avoid it.”

“Yes.”

He leaned back in his chair. “Is that what happened to your husband? You foresaw his death, and he went to meet it anyway?”

She squeezed her eyes closed. “Yes.”

Dragovich was already sitting back, his arms crossed. She couldn’t say why it seemed that he withdrew further. “You were his wife. He didn’t trust you?”

“Of course he trusted me!”

Pain twisted, almost as strong as those days and weeks after her vision of George’s death. Why now, when it had been so long, when the years had finally begun to smooth the jagged edges?

“He felt duty-bound,” she went on. “I concocted excuses he could give to escape the trip—a fever, an accident, a death in the family back in England. Anything to allow him to beg off with his honor intact. We quarreled—” Her voice wavered and she stopped, lest she humiliate herself in front of Dragovich.

“But it was honor that forced him to go, was it not?” Dragovich said. “How could he leave his fellows to face what he would not?”

How could I live with myself, Emmy? George had said, holding both her hands in his, shaking them in the effort to make her understand. What kind of man would stay home, safe with his wife and children, knowing his friends and colleagues will suffer a cruel death? Is that the kind of man you want to spend your life with, the kind of man you want as a father to your children?

And she’d accused him of caring more for his friends than for her, the children. Then wept bitterly, because she knew he was right, that he’d die in another way if she convinced him to stay home, to stay safe.

Dragovich leaned forward, brushed her cheek with a thumb. She was weeping after all.

She snatched up a napkin and turned away a little, blotting at her face. “Forgive me.”

He sat back again. “What is there to forgive?”

She gave a watery laugh. “Nothing, I suppose. Only it was so long ago now. You must think me terribly feeble.”

“I think,” he said, “you’re stronger than most wizards. We can bend the world to our will. You have a power as great in its way, but its potency depends on the will of others.” He sat silent a moment. “It seems a cruel sort of power.”

Was that understanding? Kindness, coming from this man? She fought the desire to reach out to it.

“What is the alternative?” she said. “To impose my will on others?”

“We all impose our will on others.”

She took a sip of tea. “Some more than others,” she muttered into her cup.

He laughed. “Yes. I look forward to the day you pardon me for that.”

“You, sir, are an optimist.”

“No. Only a realist.” He leaned forward. “Who else understands power? Who else understands the world we knew? We’re all alone in this world, Emilia, you and I. No one else knows that. No one born to this age can ever know. Have you thought of that?”

Emilia looked away. He might as well have twisted a knife in her heart.

* * *

Vadim sighed quietly. He’d set out to chip away at her resistance, her resentment, let her see what her connection with him was worth. Now, her quickly averted face showed complete rejection.

More and more with each day, he regretted stealing her away. Oh, not that he regretted her, of course. But he’d thought he could take her like any other thing of value, fitting her to his purpose. What had he told her that first day in his office? I’ll use you to my benefit.

It wasn’t so simple.

She could, with frightening ease, lead him to disaster. But now, learning how her husband had died, he realized something else—she could also guide him into any path she wished.

He completely understood her husband’s actions. What woman, no matter how prescient, can understand what drives a man? And what man can stand to be molded by a woman?

Either required a level of trust he’d damaged, if not destroyed. But had he ever had a chance of persuading her?

What would he have said? Yes, I’m a wizard, and I realize the last wizard you encountered raped you of your very soul. Yes, I’m a warlord and an outlaw. But let me show you how much we can do for each other

He huffed a laugh.

“I beg your pardon,” she said, “but you find our common isolation humorous?”

“I laugh at how I’d wish to convince you that what we share is more than what divides us,” he said. “I laugh at absurdity and futility.”

She grew very solemn, touched his hand where it rested on the table. “Send me home, Vadim.”

He looked down at her fingers, so delicate against his own, covered them with his other hand. “You must see how impossible that is now.”

He gently picked up her hand and laid it back on the table.

Apr 10

Fated Magic – Chapter 15

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.”

“Emilia—”

“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,

Emilia Dunmoor

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.”

“Mmm.”

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.”

“Can’t you?”

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—

Then nothing.

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.”

“When?”

“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.”

“What paths?”

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.”

“Then guess.”

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.

Mar 27

Fated Magic – Chapter 14

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.”

“Where?”

“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?”

Vadim translated.

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.

“Why?”

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.

Miss the last chapter? Read it here. Go here to read from the beginning.

Mar 12

Fateful Magic – Chapter 13

I’m still looking for readers to review Fateful Magic. If you’d like to receive a free advance copy of the book for review, sign up for my mailing list or send an email to kathys.wizards@gmail.com.

Fateful Magic - Kathlena L. Contreras

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.

“Teach me?”

“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.”

“How?”

“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…”

“Yes?”

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.

Go here to read from the beginning. Read the last chapter here.

Feb 26

Fateful Magic – Chapter 12

I’m really hoping to have Fateful Magic finished in another month, but between you and me, butt-in-chair time doesn’t always translate into words on the page. I won’t make promises, but I will do my darndest. If you’d like me to send you an email when the book comes out, sign up for my mailing list. As always, you have my no-spam, no-share guarantee.



Fateful Magic - Kathlena L. Contreras

There was no sign of Dragovich in the morning when Emilia ventured out for breakfast. As late as she’d heard that piano playing, she hadn’t expected to see him. With any luck, she’d not see him for a day or two, and he’d forget…

She squeezed her eyes shut and put her head in her hands. Forget she’d slapped him.

“Rough night?” a woman’s voice said.

Emilia straightened quickly. Amanda stood in the small dining room’s archway.

“I’m not eager for another like it,” Emilia admitted.

Amanda came and took a seat by her, snagging a warm scone from a plate on the table. “Mr. Dragovich left a message for you.”

“Yes?” Emilia said warily.

“’Tell Emilia that Kisa is well.’”

“Oh!” Emilia sat back in her chair, a hand to her chest. “I’m so glad!”

“Why? What happened?”

“Last night, she left the party with a very bad man.”

Amanda gave one of her wry smiles. “Emilia, they’re all bad men.”

“I know.” She toyed with her teacup, turning it in the saucer. “Mr. Dragovich said he’s worse than all of them.”

Amanda huffed and rolled her eyes. “For what it’s worth, I think that was meant to be reassuring.”

“Reassuring!”

“If he’s the biggest dog in the room, the others won’t come sniffing around.”

“He did imply something like that.” She sipped tea. “He also told me he took care of the problem I spoke with you about. I must thank you for your intervention.”

Amanda gave a dismissive flick of the fingers. “I know you didn’t want to take it to him, so I hope you don’t mind. It seemed the best way to get it solved. Like I told you before, Mr. Dragovich is reasonable.”

“Mm,” Emilia said, stirring her tea.

“Are you…” Amanda began, stopped, started again. “Are things any better for you now?”

“Amanda, please don’t ask me that.  I don’t want things to be uncomfortable between us.”

Amanda had brought her Mrs. Always Right cup. She sat back and sipped from it now.

“Believe it or not,” she said, “I completely sympathize with you. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of working for him, either.”

Emilia wet her lips, not sure what to say. “And now?”

Amanda shrugged. “I still have my moments. But this isn’t the kind of job you can quit if you get mad at your boss.”

That surprised a laugh out of Emilia. “No, I suppose not.”

“I don’t want you to think it’s all bad, because it really isn’t. I mean, yes, I work for a crime lord, I can’t make excuses about that. But I owe him.” Amanda studied her coffee mug. “I owe him my life.”

The man inspired loyalty everywhere he turned—honest, well-earned loyalty. It made Emilia’s head hurt.

“He seems…more altruistic than I’d have guessed,” she said carefully.

“I wouldn’t say that. More that he has his own sense of justice.” Amanda tapped the mug near a small, coffee-stained chip in the rim. “Have you heard he took over this territory from another boss?”

“I’m aware of it.”

“About a year and a half ago. The guy he took it from—Arsov—was probably the most despised crime boss in northern California. Even the other bosses—Russian, Italian, Mexican, whatever—hated him.” Amanda shook her head. “A real piece of work. Crazy. Beyond vicious. Some people said he was ex-KGB. Others said the KGB had worked him over one too many times. Whichever it was, when Mr. Dragovich took him down, he couldn’t have chosen a better target. Nobody was heartbroken. In fact, a whole lot of people breathed a sigh of relief.”

“You sound quite well-versed on the matter.”

“Oh, yeah. I made it my business to become well-versed.” Amanda took a bite of scone. “That’s how I got into all this. Actually, that’s not altogether true. My husband was the reason I got into it.”

“I beg your pardon… Your husband drew you in? That’s…” utterly appalling, Emilia wanted to say, but stopped herself.

Amanda nodded seriously. “He ran an investment firm. Garden variety funds for a long time, then he started getting adventurous. High-risk stuff—options, currency trading, venture capital, that type of thing. Somewhere along the line, though, one of his investments turned into a Ponzi scheme.” She ran a thumb along the rim of her cup, tracing the chip there. “I don’t think he did it deliberately. Maybe a hedge fund went south and he panicked. Unfortunately, some of his clients were some nasty people. When the scheme fell apart…” Her fingers whitened on the mug. “They killed him.”

“Oh, Amanda!” Emilia reached over and took her hand. “I’m so sorry.”

Amanda squeezed her hand in return, then released it. “Thanks. It was…” She shook her head. “I still don’t like thinking about it. I got it into my head that I’d get the people who did it. I started digging, looking at his records, talking to clients. When I hit the right one, I worked my way up the food chain, saying I wanted to pay the money back to the person who’d invested it, golly, if only I could find him.”

Dear God. “You must’ve been beside yourself,” Emilia whispered.

“More like out of myself, I think,” Amanda said. “Anyway, the person I ended up facing was one Vadim Dragovich. I thought he was one more lackey, because by then I knew Arsov was the guy I wanted. I went through my song and dance, ‘No, I’m very sorry, Mr. Dragovich, I can’t let anyone except Mr. Arsov have the money.’ I was pretty quickly given to understand Mr. Arsov wouldn’t be getting the money. Ever. Under any circumstances.”

“Weren’t you frightened these people would kill you, too?”

“To be honest, I really didn’t care much then what happened to me. I don’t think I could’ve gone through it all if I had.”

“And Mr. Dragovich—did he realize what you intended?”

“Oh, yeah,” Amanda said with a laugh. “They’d already taken away the switchblade I brought. A gun would’ve been better, but I knew there was no way I’d get one past them. I did have hopes for the knife, though. So there I was in Arsov’s old office in Santa Cruz, staring at Mr. Dragovich sitting there on the other side of his desk while two of his thugs held my arms, thinking ‘Uh-oh. I’m in trouble.’”

“What did he do?”

“He sent his guys out of the office, got up, poured me a cup of coffee and said, ‘What shall I do with you, Mrs. Vaughn?’”

“But—forgive me,” Emilia interrupted, “but are you saying you owe him your life simply because he didn’t…didn’t kill you then?”

“Well, he could have. Most men like him in a similar position would have. But that’s not it. I say he saved my life because if I had managed to catch up with Arsov, the brief—very brief—remainder of my life would’ve been…bad. But he’d already done away with the man responsible for my husband’s death. So actually, I owe him for that, too.”

Emilia restrained herself from pointing out the obvious gap in that logic.

“I know. He didn’t do it for me,” Amanda said, clearly reading the skepticism on her face. “But the result was the same. And then he gave me something to take the place of my rage and grief.”

“I would think,” Emilia said slowly, “it would be terribly difficult to work for him. After all, he was the same sort as the man who killed your husband.”

“It was. I said I didn’t much like the idea of working for him. But he wasn’t going to just let me go, not with everything I knew. He couldn’t afford to. A day earlier, and I might not’ve cared if he killed me. With Arsov dead, I realized I didn’t feel that way anymore.”

Amanda put down her mug and leaned forward. “It’s hard to explain. Sometimes I worry it’s only that I’m justifying it to myself. But Mr. Dragovich is decent. I know that doesn’t make any sense, but he is. For all the things he does that neither of us wants to think about, he’s fair. He’s rational. He cares about the people under him. I think if it was two, three hundred years ago, he’d be the type that would’ve made a good lord. The kind loved by his people while he slaughtered the enemy’s soldiers and burned their villages.”

Emilia almost choked on a bite of scone. “I daresay you’re right,” she managed.

Amanda looked at her a little quizzically. “Sorry. I spend a lot of nights thinking. Cognitive dissonance and all that.”

Emilia wasn’t sure what ‘cognitive dissonance’ was, but she had a guess. “I don’t believe you’re in a position that you must justify yourself, Amanda. It seems you had no choice.”

“No, that’s not what keeps me awake on bad nights. It’s that…well, most of the time I like working for him. I admire a lot of what he does.”

An increasingly uncomfortable feeling of foreboding crept up on Emilia. “If he does admirable things…”

Did he not do admirable things? Had he not, at Emilia’s bare word, removed Tiff from danger? Hadn’t he made sure Livy’s money was returned to her? And just now, that small kindness of relieving her worry for Kisa, even after—

She rubbed her temple.

“I don’t know if any of this helps,” Amanda said. “I just wanted you to know you’re not alone.”

“You’re very kind,” Emilia said, touching Amanda’s hand again. “I’m grateful for your confidence.”

Although not, she thought, for making me doubt my certainty.

* * *

It’s the proper thing to do, Emilia told herself once again.

She stood outside Dragovich’s office door, fiddling with the hem of her vest. She’d been working herself up to it all morning. All afternoon, too, when she finally heard men’s voices and footsteps in the house.

It was the wisest thing to do, too. The better part of valor and all that.

She wet her lips, took a long breath and knocked.

A word in Russian came from behind the door. She supposed it must be ‘come in,’ so she opened it.

Frowning, Dragovich looked up from his phone. His face cleared when he saw her.

“Emilia.” He beckoned her in.

She shut the door and crossed the room, stopping short of his desk. She stood very straight, trying to convince herself she didn’t feel like a supplicant.

“I must apologize for my behavior to you last night. It was ill-mannered and ill-bred.”

He sat back, studying her. “Ill-conceived, too.”

She bit back the impulse to tell him he’d do well never to make light of her husband again, then. “No doubt.”

Dragovich nodded. “Very well. Apology accepted.”

“I’ll disturb you no longer.” She turned to go.

“Emilia.”

She stopped.

“Your vision last night. The one you had of Tiffany.”

She turned fully, suddenly anxious. “Yes? Is she—?”

He waved a hand. “She’s well. But your vision was true. The man—his name was Baljic—had done what you saw to many women.”

Emilia squeezed her eyes shut. “Dear God.”

“Your horror last night was understandable. That was maybe more ugliness than you saw before?”

She swallowed hard and nodded. “But for when—what happened to George. My husband,” she added.

“I shouldn’t have taunted you. Torture and murder are no easy things to see. But I’m glad you did this time. Baljic won’t harm another woman.”

She knew what he was telling her: the man was dead. She should’ve been shocked. She certainly shouldn’t be relieved.

“Put down like a mad dog, I suppose,” she said faintly.

“Yes.”

Should one say ‘thank you’ in such a situation?

“I can’t promise you won’t see such things again,” he said. “But if you hadn’t, Baljic would’ve had Tiffany. He would’ve had who knows how many others. He’d been doing it a long time.”

“But you—” She stopped, not sure she wanted to know more.

“I, what? I’m as brutal? I won’t lie to you, Emilia. I wouldn’t survive if I wasn’t. But I try to limit it to enemies.”

“How many people in the world survive quite well without it?”

He smiled. “You try to reform me?”

“I’d never dare take on such a task.”

He laughed. “Too big a job, yes. Don’t deceive yourself. Men like me make it possible for people like you to live. We keep the ruffians and outlaws busy.”

She gave a disbelieving huff. “Mr. Dragovich!”

“What happened to ‘Vadim’?”

“This is a ridiculous argument. If not for men like you, there would be nothing to protect from.”

“But there are. There always will be. Why pretend otherwise?”

“Oh, as you will.”

“You admit I’m right?”

“Of course you’re right. But you can’t expect me to condone it.”

“Why not, when it keeps worse in check?”

She touched her forehead and closed her eyes. “What do you want from me, Vadim?”

He leaned forward. “I want you to see working for me isn’t the shame you think. It might have a purpose you approve. It might have more purpose than giving tourists fifteen minutes’ amusement.”

She drew back, stung. “You believe what I do is no more than amusement?”

“You misunderstand, Emilia. I believe you’re worth much more.”

He was maneuvering her. She even knew why. It didn’t make his arguments any less effective. But it was unthinkable that she could do more good working for such a man than she could on her own… Wasn’t it?

He leaned back again. “I only say, think about it. Think about what might’ve happened last night, and didn’t. And why.”

Emilia was beginning to understand the meaning of ‘cognitive dissonance.’

* * *

Vadim stood on bare, torn earth, naked steel beams rising against the sickly orange city-glow. A sticky breeze heavy with the marshy reek of salt ponds stirred his hair, flicked at the hem of his coat. Stacks of structural steel, metal decking, drums of cable littered the ground. A crane stood nearby like an enormous, jointed insect. Beneath it, several storage trailers stood in a row. He crunched across clods and bits of construction debris to the last, nearest the crane Emilia had heard Bernard speak of when she read him.

Magic made so many things easier. For instance, moving the crates of arms and ammunition out of this trailer without the commotion, lights and noise of trucks and men. True, moving that much bulk and weight any distance would cost him in other ways. But for now, stealth was his primary concern.

Vadim opened his power, reached for the magic and shaped a transport spell.

An odd, deep fump sounded inside the trailer as the air rushed in to fill the space the crates had occupied. The trailer’s bolts and seams groaned, popped, then settled again.

Vadim hung his head and braced a hand against the trailer’s cold metal, his stomach abruptly roaring with hunger at the expenditure of power. After a moment, he turned and made his way back to his car and the cooler full of sandwiches, soft drinks and candy bars in the trunk.

* * *

“You were right, boss,” Roman said, crossing his arms. “It was a setup.”

Vadim hitched a hip onto the security station desk’s smooth formica. Screens flickered with feeds from around his estate. Alexei, Roman and three more of his men sat or stood around the room. Cigarette smoke twisted and curled between them, acrid.

“Tell me what happened,” Vadim said.

“I can do better than that.”

Roman reached for the laptop on the desk beside him, the ropy scars on his wrist visible past his shirt cuff. He tapped keys and a grainy, green-tinted image came to life on the screen. The skeleton of a building sketched lines across the darkness, the boom of a crane angled across one corner of the screen. The rectangles of storage containers blocked the foreground.

“We did what you said, found a few good places to sit back and watch the site. This—” Roman tapped the computer screen. “—was from a camera we set up on the crane. The cars are out of view from there, but we watched maybe eight or ten unmarked drive up to the site from different directions. They were real cool about it, just parked here and there. One was a delivery van, probably the mobile command center.” Roman turned to meet his eyes. “It was the Feds, boss. Bernard’s in with them.”

Vadim tapped his lips. “Interesting. I wonder who’s on whose payroll?”

Roman leaned over again, moved the slider at the bottom of the image to advance the recording. A panel van trundled into view across the churned dirt, pulled up next to the construction office and turned out the lights.

“There. That van? You can’t see it here, but it had our company’s name, logo, the whole bit. Pretty slick.”

Vadim nodded.

Roman advanced the video again. “This is about two hours after we were supposed to show up. I guess they were getting impatient by then.”

Half a dozen men in helmets and body armor climbed out of the van, sweeping the area with automatic weapons. Flashlight beams streaked the darkness. A few figures approached the construction trailers and set about opening them while the rest stayed on guard. Vadim laughed at their obvious frustration at the contents—or lack of contents, in this case.

Roman stopped the playback, sat back again. “Garry hacked their network. Sounds like when Bernard calls, the heat jumps. They might think he’s their snitch, but Garry heard some things that make us think Bernard’s got some of them on his payroll.”

“He’d be a fool if he didn’t,” Vadim said.

Heads nodded all around.

“So,” Alexei said, turning back and forth in his chair. “Now you know what Bernard planned. What do we do about it, boss?”

Vadim tapped his lips again, pretending to think. “I think I owe him a favor in return. I happen to know he has a shipment of his own coming in soon. One more delicate than what he expected to take from me. Let’s find out where and when and make sure we’re there to save him the trouble of dealing with it.”

Grins and hoots greeted the prospect. The men stood, preparing to start work on the project.

Missed the last chapter? Find it here. Go here to read from the beginning.

Feb 11

Fateful Magic – Chapter 11

One thing writing (and reading) is great for, is getting away from real life. Stories make sense. They have villains and trials and suffering and struggle, but you usually know the hero/heroine will prevail in the end.  These days, I find a lot of consolation in getting lost in my story. Mob life is so much more pleasant than what’s going on in the world. 😀

It was after one in the morning when Vadim received the text from Kisa. He grunted in satisfaction, sat back in his chair and poured himself a fresh cup of coffee. He took his time drinking it, then changed into a new pair of jeans, a new shirt and cheap pair of boots. He pulled on a pair of leather work gloves, then reached for the magic.

A travelling spell, particularly at any distance, was no small working. But he didn’t wish to drive a car that might be seen.

He blinked back into existence in a large, tastelessly decorated bedroom—mirrored ceiling and one wall, animal-print bedding rumpled and apparently energetically tossed, explicit prints on the walls.

A door in the mirrored wall was open. Closed, it would’ve been just another sheet of mirror, no knob or hinges to give it away. The door itself was quite thick, with a keyed deadbolt on the inside.  Strange, muffled sounds came through it. He walked quietly over and found himself looking down a flight of stairs.

He wasn’t fool enough to call out. Anything, anytime could be a setup. His wards were in place, of course, but wards deflecting knives or bullets tended to raise too many questions. He extended wizard’s senses.

The smell of sex. The reek of fear. Two people, one breathing heavily.

Good enough.

Vadim went down the stairs, not bothering to be quiet this time. The room gradually came into view, a replica of the bed upstairs oddly out of place against an industrial tiled floor. Kisa, dressed in a man’s robe and holding a gun, stood in front of a plastic patio chair. On the bed, a naked man lay cuffed hand and foot to handy tie-downs on the bed, hot pink duct tape over his mouth. Stanislav Baljic. The man Emilia had pointed out. The moment he saw Vadim, he started making muffled, desperate noises.

Kisa lowered the gun and sat, primly crossing her bare legs. “Good call, boss.”

He nodded and looked around the room. There were mirrors over the bed here, too. But the wall, instead of sporting more mirrors, held a huge, flat panel TV screen. Video cameras were placed at strategic points around the room. SD cards lay scattered across the floor near a utilitarian white computer stand.

Vadim stopped at the foot of the bed, folded his arms and let his gaze travel up and down Baljic’s naked body He shook his head and clucked his tongue. “Looks like the lady has you at a disadvantage.”

“I think it might be a new experience for him,” Kisa said.

“Really?” Vadim said, feigning surprise. “He doesn’t secretly long for a dominatrix? So many powerful men do.”

“His tastes run in more…exotic directions.” She gestured at the SD cards on the floor.

Vadim walked over, picked one up at random and slotted it into the computer. He took the remote on the stand and pushed a button. The screen on the wall lit up.

Screams, sobs, pleas blared out of the speakers. The screen showed blood, first a little, then more. The volume become unbearable. He dialed it down.

It wasn’t the first time he’d seen such things. A warlord in Asia’s savage hinterlands saw more than his share of rape and blood and horror.

He punched the remote and the screen went dark again. He turned to Kisa. “Tell me what happened.”

“About what you’d expect.” She jerked her chin to indicate the bedroom upstairs. “He thought he’d slip me something to make me more accommodating. I played along…” She sagged in the chair as if drugged, then straightened. “…and we ended up here. He was just trying to cuff me when I gave him a little surprise.”

Baljic shook his head hard, his eyes wide. The noises he made grew more desperate.

Vadim rocked on his heels. “Is that true, Stas? You planned to make Kisa here the star of one of your productions?”

Baljic shook his head, high, frightened sounds coming through his nostrils.

“You must’ve known she’s one of mine, Stas. You met her at my party. You saw me greet her. Yet you’d bring her—my girl—here to your playhouse? To play with?”

He thought of what Emilia had told him, of the vision she’d seen of Tiffany, here, in this place, suffering what he’d seen on that video. He clenched a fist and fought an impulse to blast Baljic to ash on the bed.

“Would you like the gun now, boss?” Kisa said.

Whimper, whimper, whimper, Baljic said.

Vadim cocked his head, pretending to consider. “No, I don’t think so. You’re the one he insulted. I’ll leave him to you.”

Baljic bucked and writhed and screamed through his nose.

Vadim turned his back and started up the stairs. He was almost to the top when the crack of a silenced gunshot came from below. Then one more, then a third.

* * *

Vadim went through the house, from bedroom to bathroom, hall to living room, casting spells of bafflement. Once he’d learned about fingerprints and DNA, he adapted a couple of spells to encompass them.

Kisa came into the living room fastening her earrings. “Do you want him found, or not found?”

“Found,” Vadim said. “Let’s give people something to think about.”

“Those SD cards should help clear up some disappearances.”

Rage swept him again. He wrestled it down. “Yes. There’s that.”

There was a great deal of ugliness in this business. But there was ugliness, and then there was ugliness. He’d never had much tolerance for outright depravity.

She opened her purse and took out her phone. “Where’s your car?” she said, tapping in a text.

“I got a ride. I’ll ride back with you.”

Outside at Kisa’s SUV, Vadim glanced around. “Where are his men?”

“Around,” she said. “Ordered not to disturb him when he played, it seems.”

Vadim shook his head in disgust, surreptitiously setting a spell of diversion as well as an illusion on the car. He climbed in. If anyone had the ability to pentrate the diversion, the car they’d see driving away was something small and grey or some other indeterminate color.

He buckled in and Kisa started the car.

“I texted Jakow,” she said. “He’ll be here within the hour.”

“Good.”

Vadim had confidence in his spells, but a crime scene that was too clean made suggestions of its own. Jakow would make sure it looked uninteresting—or utterly confusing.

Kisa pulled onto the road, beginning what would be a circuitous route home. Vadim just stared out the window at the dark, sleeping houses sliding past.

“Should I ask?” Kisa said eventually.

“What?” He didn’t turn from the window.

“What’s biting you. All night you’ve been acting like someone pissed in your shoes.”

“It’s not enough the podletz meant to rape, torture and murder you?”

She snorted. “But you already knew what he was doing, or you wouldn’t have sent me to deal with him. What I wonder is how.”

“I have my resources.”

She shot him a sideways glance. “Hmm. Are those resources recently acquired?”

Now he turned. “Kisa—” he began, warning, then sat back and folded his arms. “Recently acquired and not yet altogether reliable.”

“I thought I noticed some tension earlier this evening.”

He drummed fingers on knee. “What’ve you heard about her?”

“Some of the men say she’s a fortune teller. Most of them laugh, but not all.”

“What do you think?”

She shrugged. “I think she has something valuable enough to abduct her outright instead of taking the time to convince her.”

He grunted. “There wasn’t going to be any convincing. She knew who I am and what I want.”

Kisa’s brows climbed. “Did she? And she knew about Baljic the same way?”

Vadim grimaced. “Exactly the same.”

She drove in silence a while, apparently thinking. “And you threw her into the middle of the likes of him and Ilchenko and Bernard? Somehow, she doesn’t seem the type to take that well.”

He grunted again. “You could say that.” The sprawling hillside estates had given way to dim, empty slopes. He watched them pass by, the darker shadows of oaks hunched on them. “Then I dared to mention her husband—”

“Husband!”

“Dead.”

Kisa stifled a noise.

He waved a hand.  “A long time ago. Not my doing. The doing of villains like me.”

“Oof.” Kisa commented, wincing. At a stop sign, she checked the mirrors and turned onto the highway. “She must’ve been seriously offended.”

Vadim thought of the white fury on Emilia’s face, the sting of her small hand on his jaw. No, he wouldn’t relate that.

He drummed his fingers again. “She’s no use to me hostile.”

“She can be dangerous to you hostile. If she can do what you say, she could set you up.”

“The thought had occurred to me.”

“You’re going to have to change her opinion of you somehow.”

“I give her a comfortable place. I try to show her she doesn’t need to be afraid of me. I do her favors.” He threw up his hands. “What more can I do?”

A wry smile curved Kisa’s lips. “It’ll take a lot to make up for that kidnapping, Vadim. I can tell she’s not like most people who fall into this business. The ones who’re already flirting with it. People outside are afraid of us. You’re going to have to convince her you’re not a villain like the ones that killed her husband. Like Baljic and Bernard and the rest like them. You’re just a businessman, even if your business is the kind the law doesn’t agree with.”

He turned to look out the window again. “I have to convince her there are good reasons to work with me,” he mused.

“She’s no Tiff, grateful for some stability and security. No Amanda, either, relieved you took out the bastards before she got to them.” She shook her head. “I don’t know Emilia well. But from what I’ve seen, if you push, she’ll dig in. Or go underground. If she thinks she’s being manipulated, if you lie to her, it’ll all be over. You’ve got to figure out what she wants and give her that.”

He snorted. “Besides sending her home? It seems that’s the only thing that will satisfy her.”

Again, Kisa was quiet a while. “She was willing to confront you about her husband. So she’s loyal. When we took her shopping, she didn’t want the clothes when she thought they were your idea. So she’s proud. Principled too, probably. The way she acts toward Tiff and Flora, she’s kindhearted.”

“And protective,” Vadim muttered. “I had to stop her from trying to rescue you from Baljic at the party.”

Kisa’s brows climbed. “Really! You’ve got a lot of potential there, boss.”

“Yes.”

He sighed. If he could he could manage to break through her hostility.

* * *

Awakening to the sound of a piano, Emilia opened her eyes to her dim bedroom. Faint squares of light shining through the French door patterned the carpet. The bedside clock read 3:53.

The notes were compelling, evocative, and she wondered if they were meant to lure her to the musician’s side.

Remembering the cards she’d laid when she returned to her room after the party, the spatter of bloody reds, the menacing black teeth of spades, she hugged her pillow and huddled deeper into the covers.

Go here to read the next chapter. You can find the last one here, or go here to read from the beginning.

Jan 29

Fateful Magic – Chapter 10

I’m finally coming down the home stretch on Fateful Magic. I’m working on Chapter 20 now, and figure I have around three chapters to go. I’d love to give away some advance copies for reviews. If you’d like one to review, send me an email through my Contact Me page.
You can also sign up  below for my no-spam, no-share mailing list.



Tiff was still where Emilia had left her, looking longingly at the party going on around her. At her feet, a young man was just finishing mopping up the spill. A dustpan of broken glass rested beside him on the tiles.

“There you are,” Tiff said to Emilia. “I saw you talking to Mr. D. You didn’t have to bother him about something like this. See, I already took care of it.”

The young man smiled at her in a way that suggested they’d been having a pleasant chat before Emilia arrived. “Anything else I can do for you?”

Tiff smiled back, cocking her head. “I’d like to say yes, but I’m tied up tonight.”

Emilia lost the rest of the conversation, watching the archway for the man who’d just come. After a moment, he came in, Dragovich’s hand on his shoulder as he talked and gestured.

“Tiff,” Emilia said and caught her arm again. “Let’s get something to drink then go outside. It’s frightfully hot in here.”

She gave Tiff’s young man a nod of dismissal and towed Tiff toward the bar.

“Emilia, what’s wrong with you? You’re acting really weird. Are you drunk or something?”

“I most certainly am not drunk! But I do feel quite ill.” True enough. “I’m hoping the fresh air will revive me.”

“Omigod, I’m sorry.” Now Tiff took Emilia’s arm. “Come on. You’re probably not used to stuff like this, are you? All the people, the smoke and everything. Sure, I can sit with you for a little bit, okay?”

“I’m grateful.”

This time Emilia asked for only a sparkling water with an orange twist. Tiff ordered a strawberry daquiri, then followed Emilia outside.

Cricket song blended with the murmur from the party inside. The light fanned across the patio, stretching the shadows of table and chairs and potted plants away into the night.

Emilia nervously watched the doors, people moving back and forth within their frames like stick puppets.

“Are you okay?” Tiff said. “You hang on to that glass any tighter and it’s gonna break.”

“Yes. Yes, I’m fine.” Deliberately, she took a sip. “Tiff, do you know what sort these men are?”

Tiff stared at her. “You’re kidding me, right? How could I not know?”

“Neither of us belongs here. It’s simply not—”

“Hey, Mrs. Dunmoor. Hey, Tiff,” a man’s voice said. “What’re you doing out here when there’s a party going on inside?”

Emilia nearly jumped out of her chair, narrowly avoiding spilling her drink all over herself.

The man stepped into the light. Alex, from her first day here. Tonight he wore a sport coat and tie.

“Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”

“Alex!” Tiff sounded genuinely glad to see him. “Emilia’s a little nervous with all the company. I told her I’d sit with her till she feels better.”

Alex put a foot up on a chair and leaned elbow on knee. “Too bad. You’re not a party animal?”

Not this party. Emilia began to wish she’d set up a table in the breakfast room.

No, she didn’t. She wouldn’t have seen Tiff, then.

“This is rather different than the parties I’m accustomed to.”

He nodded, but didn’t comment. He turned to Tiff. “You’re working tonight?”

She shrugged. “Entertaining the guests and all that.”

“There’s a change of plans” Alex said. “One of the guys that was supposed to come tonight, well, his kid got caught in a drive-by. They’re at the hospital now.”

“Oh, crap!” Tiff said the same moment Emilia said, “Oh, my!”

“Some of us are going over there now to show Mr. Dragovich’s support. The kid’s the age he’ll appreciate a pretty girl in a hot dress. Maybe take his mind off other things.”

Tiff gave him a smile and a sidelong look, clearly not missing the compliment. “I’m happy to go, Alex.” She turned to Emilia. “Will you be okay?”

“I’ll be perfectly fine.” She reached across to grip Tiff’s hand, reaching out her gift at the same time. A glimpse of flirtation in the car, and a glimpse of rather more later. She quickly returned to the here-and-now. “Go see the young man.”

Alex straightened. “Good. Come on.”

Tiff waggled her fingers goodbye and followed him through the dim garden, her dress flaming red in the light, fading dark in the gloom.

Emilia let out a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding. How neatly you arrange things, Mr. Dragovich, she thought, impressed despite herself.

She rose and returned to the living room’s open French doors, pausing at the edge of the light to scan the room.

She spotted the new man—the murderer—talking seriously with two other men. Dragovich stood near the archway. From that position, he’d be able to watch all the exits to the room.

Indeed, as soon as Emilia stepped into the doorway, he raised his glass to her. The meaning was clear: come here. She made her way toward him, keeping watch on the murderer as she did.

“There you are, Emilia” he said when you came near. “I’d like you to meet Anthony Bernard.”

Emilia smiled and extended her hand—for a proper handshake, this time. Bernard’s hand seemed too large for the rest of him, and somehow uncomfortably soft, like gripping a large sponge. She gathered herself and looked.

She abruptly released his hand, recoiling into Dragovich’s arm behind her. He moved his arm to support her, curving it around her waist.

“Emilia?”

“Oh, dear, I’m so sorry, Mr. Bernard. My ankle turned.” She forced a smile. “I know it’s terribly rude, but will you excuse me?”

Bernard murmured something appropriate and meaningless.

“Come,” Dragovich said. “You must sit down.”

While she feigned a limp, he steered her to into the dining room. The sounds of the party spilled into the room along the hallway outside.

She sank into a chair, rubbing her hands. “I looked for you in his future. It must be soon, because what he says came quite clear. He speaks on the phone to someone—‘He’ll be at the construction site at Fourth and Ash. Eleven on Wednesday night.’ Does that mean anything?”

“Maybe. What else?”

She realized she was still rubbing her fingers, as if to rub out a stain. “’It will be in the storage trailer next to the crane.’”

“He says in English? Of course he does. You wouldn’t understand if he didn’t.”

“Not so. Since I’m…” She gestured, searching for a way to explain. “…seeing through his eyes, hearing through his ears, I see and hear and understand what he does…” She trailed off, remembering what else had come to her.

“What?”

“They begin speaking of something else—” She stopped.

“Yes?”

“Of—” She wet her lips. “He says— The new girls. Coming in.”

Dragovich waited expectantly.

“He—he sells women,” she said in a rush. “They’re only young girls! They cry and beg, and the men—they—they—”

She squeezed her eyes closed, but couldn’t shut out what she’d seen.

He spat a word in Russian. “He’s trafficking. They go to Russia, to Estonia, to Ukraine, they tell the poor girls there they’ll be models or dancers or movie actresses. They don’t say what kind of dancers, or what kind of movies.”

She was shivering now, sick to her stomach. “Vadim, I can’t do this.”

“Oh, pah. Of course you can. Where would Tiffany be if you hadn’t come tonight? You suffer seeing unpleasant things. What if those things did happen?”

“And those young girls? What good will my vision do them? Will you arrange for them to be whisked out of danger?”

He smiled. The smile sent an icy trickle down her back.

“When they belong to a man who plots to betray me? I will ruin his plans with pleasure. All his plans.”

She wondered what he’d do if the man had been as friendly toward him as Kargin.

“I don’t want to…to know these things,” she said. “I don’t want to associate with these people.”

“You associate with me.” He bent near and whispered, “And I’m much worse than they are, don’t you think?”

She said nothing.

He straightened. “Come, Emilia. Don’t tell me your sight never showed you the ugliness people hide. Mothers who beat children. Doctors who peddle poisons. Men who play around with their best friends’ wives.”

She made to get up, to get away from him. He set a hand on her shoulder, holding her there.

“Don’t tell me you never saw disaster come near someone you cared about.” He paused. “Maybe your husband?”

She shot to her feet and slapped him. He jerked back, so it wasn’t much of a slap. But his eyes narrowed and turned hard as broken glass. She instantly knew her mistake but clenched her fists, bracing against the black menace of that look.

“Don’t you speak of my husband!” she spat. “Men like you killed him. Villains who cared for nothing, nothing but what they wanted. He died a terrible death. I saw it. I saw it, and could do nothing to stop it, nothing to help him. Nothing, even, to comfort him as he died. You might keep me, and threaten me, and force me to see such things again and again, but I will not hear you make light of one who was more a man than you can ever hope to be.”

Silence stretched, thin and brittle. The music, the sounds of the party in the next room seemed a mockery.

“I see I was mistaken in thinking you afraid of me,” he said at last.

“On the contrary, sir.” She was shivering now, with reaction, with real fear at the look on his face. “One can bear the ground quaking beneath for only so long before wishing for the worst be over and done.”

He pinned her with that cold, hard gaze. “Sit down. I will bring ice for your twisted ankle. Return to the party after.”

He turned his back on her and left the room.

Emilia groped for the back of the chair and sank into it, still shaking. She leaned her elbows on the table and put her head in her hands.

The worst to be over. Dear God, she didn’t want to see the worst. She wanted to be far, far away from it.

She got up and slipped back to the party before Dragovich could return. Even the company of his vile guests was preferable.

The ‘twisted ankle’ was fortuitous. It enabled her to sit out of the way and watch without, mostly, being bothered. Dragovich did attend to her on occasion, his smiles not reaching his eyes. Emilia offered the same in return.

On one of these instances, a stir passed through the room like a current. One by one, male faces turned toward the entry. Emilia looked as well. Then looked again.

If Kisa had been stunning in jeans and a t-shirt, she was positively breathtaking in a black gown girdled with a thin, shimmering red belt. The gown left one shoulder bare, and a slit in the skirt revealed nearly the full length of one shapely leg against a glimpse of red lining.

“Ah,” Dragovich said. This time his smile reached his eyes.

There was a general movement of men toward her. One of them was the tall man, the murderer. Emilia caught her breath when he took Kisa’s hand and introduced himself.

“Don’t worry,” Dragovich said. “Kisa can take care of herself.”

With a nod of farewell, he wandered in Kisa’s direction.

“Kisa!” he said when he reached her, his voice rolling across the room. He kissed her on both cheeks, took her hands. “I was beginning to think you wouldn’t come.”

She smiled warmly at him. “You know I come any time you ask, Vadim.”

Emilia watched the scene worriedly—Dragovich the friendly host, Kisa smiling, accepting a drink from the hand of the murderer. Her worry turned to shock and disbelief when Dragovich left them together to visit with other guests.

The men vying for Kisa’s attention gradually fell away under her clear preference for the murderer, the way she glanced, touched him, laughed at his jokes. He took the liberty of placing a hand on her hip, pulling her close and whispering something in her ear. She cocked her head, smiling, and whispered something back.

Emilia rose to her feet, ready to do…something. What, she didn’t quite know. But Kisa had to be warned, even if she could take care of herself.

She’d taken a step when a sense of attention brushed her. She stopped, looked around and found Dragovich watching her. Holding her gaze, he raised his drink, forefinger lifted in warning. Emilia shook her head, No, you can’t be serious, and glanced back at Kisa and the murderer.

They were walking together out of the room, his hand on her very familiar. Emilia cast a desperate glance back at Dragovich.

He turned away and resumed speaking to his friends.

Go here to read from the beginning.

Jan 14

Fateful Magic – Chapter 9

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.”

“But—”

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.

“My cards!”

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.”

“Oh, no!”

“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.”

“Which are?”

“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.”

“But—”

“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.

Jan 01

Fateful Magic – Chapter 8

Happy New Year! I’ve been getting some writing done over the holiday. I hope you’ve been enjoying yours!

Trees rise all around Emilia, dim and blurred by fog, their tangy, resinous scent so rich she can almost taste it. The air is chill and grey with pre-dawn light. Water drips from dark evergreen needles with a hollow sound.

To her right, a familiar driveway curves across the hillside. Ahead, a very familiar trailer sits in a little nook carved out of the trees. She claps her hands and gives a joyous cry. Never before has home looked so sweet. She picks up her skirt and starts forward, the wet grass dragging at her hem.

A shadowy form slips out of the trees ahead, also moving toward her trailer. Emilia freezes at the edge of the woods. Whoever it is wears a hooded jacket with the hood pulled up and walks purposefully but quietly. At her trailer, he stops and stoops in front of the door. A moment later, he swings the door open, steps inside and pulls it closed again behind him.

She puts her hands to her mouth to stifle another cry, this one of anguish. Livy’s money! It’s in there. He can’t find it. He can’t!

There’s nothing there! she wants to shout at him. Can’t you see that? What can you expect to find?

The wet grass slapping at her hem, she runs across the clearing, slithers to a stop in front of her trailer. She reaches to yank the door open. Her hand has no strength. She raises her fists to pound on the door. They strike as softly as falling leaves. She utters furious shouts. They come out as whispers, quiet as the fog.

She darts to a window. Inside, the man goes through drawers and cupboards with neat, efficient relentlessness. Tears slide down her face as she watches.

The trailer door opens again.

“No!” She throws herself in front of the man as he steps out.

Somehow, though, she isn’t where he is. He closes the trailer door, a box tucked under his arm.

Emilia’s heart clenches. The box he carries is a laundry detergent box. She hid Livy’s money in a laundry detergent box.

She lunges for it, but once more, both man and box are not where they’re supposed to be. Without so much as a glance, he turns and walks back into the woods.

* * *

The dream gnawed at Emilia from the moment she awakened. She bathed, finding no pleasure in the patter of warm water on her skin or the bright citrus scent of soap. She dressed with no real attention to the clothes she put on.

Did it already happen? Was it yet to happen?

More to the point, how could it happen?

Standing in front of the French doors to the garden, she chewed her thumb, trying to ignore the churning of her stomach. At last, she came to a decision.

A few minutes later she walked along the breezeway between the house and what Flora called ‘the offices.’ Wisteria vines long out of bloom twisted across a latticed roof, giving the shade a green tint. Following Flora’s directions, she cracked open a door and peeked into the office beyond.

Amanda looked up from a computer screen. She was speaking to someone on the phone, but smiled and waved Emilia in. She hovered by the door, looking around the office and trying not to eavesdrop on Amanda’s conversation.

This office looked more businesslike than Dragovich’s, with a desk and chairs, credenza and computer and phone. By Amanda’s elbow, a mug that said Mrs. Always Right sent coffee-scented steam into the air.

Amanda ended her call and Emilia stepped forward.

“I beg your pardon, Amanda. I wonder if you might have a moment. I wish to ask your advice.”

Amanda came around her desk and gestured to the chairs in front of it, looking competent and professional in slacks and a pale pink linen shell. “What is it?”

Emilia sank into a chair, drew a breath and plunged in. “Before I—” She swallowed was abducted. “—left, a friend entrusted something of value to me. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know where I put it. Even if she did, she has no way to reach it.”

Amanda shifted uncomfortably.

Emilia reached out a hand. “No, I don’t mean to make any awkward requests. But I don’t know what I ought to do.” Her voice went unsteady. “I don’t know if there’s anything I can do.”

Amanda nodded. “I guess you haven’t talked to Mr. Dragovich.”

“No.” That was too blunt. “That is, I hardly like to bother him.”

“Mmm. Like I said yesterday, he owes you.”

“I don’t believe he’ll see it that way.” And Emilia most certainly didn’t like the idea of owing him a favor.

“If you could get a message to your friend, would that help?”

“I hoped it might be a possibility.”

Amanda tapped a manicured nail on the chair arm a moment. “Let me think about it a little, see what I can come up with.”

“Thank you.” Emilia hesitated. “I must admit, I fear the item might fall into the wrong hands. And—” Oh, terrible new thought. “My friend must think by now I’ve absconded with it. I wouldn’t bother you otherwise.”

“I understand. I won’t take too long about it, don’t worry.”

Emilia bowed her head in thanks, but the dream still weighed heavy on her.

* * *

Dragovich continued to play the gentleman through breakfast. No teasing, no intimidation. Good heavens, she might’ve been visiting the home of friends for a fortnight or two, with the usual light chat between friendly, although not close acquaintances. Although in this case, the friendliness was on only one side.

When they were finished, he invited her to his office. Emilia sighed, got up and followed him.

She settled into the chair opposite his. The fog was still in, blurring the garden outside the windows, making the room seem more intimate. His scent enfolded her, something dusky and complex that made her think of shadowy forests and hidden things listening, watching.

“I must ask you something serious today, Emilia,” he said.

She glanced up, not a little alarmed.

“I intend a gathering of business associates. A party, if you will.”

“Oh!” Her alarm dissipated. “Yes, I know.”

“Do you!” He looked impressed.

A sneaking pride bloomed. “I told Flora there would be a party soon.”

“Ha! That’s why she asked for help. Very good. You’re more—” He checked himself as if changing what he’d been about to say. “—helpful than I expected. So. My problem. In my business, it’s sometimes difficult to know who is enemy and who is friend. I need to know where and who to guard against.”

“In your business, sir, I’d suggest you always be on your guard.”

He smiled. “Yes, true. But I like to know where to direct my energies.”

She tore her gaze from that smile, so warm and conspiratorial. Was she the only one who knew he was a wizard, one who was centuries out of place? As he was the only one who knew her own truth.

The realization unaccountably whisked the ground from under her. The lonely ache of the last two years—no, all the years since George had died—panged as sharply as when she’d dreamt of him two nights ago.

She pushed the feeling away. “Mr. Dragovich, surely your magic must be able to tell you such things. You must be able to…to magically eavesdrop or protect yourself or such things.”

He drew back in surprise. “Do you know nothing of magic?”

“I know nothing more than that it enables some wizards to strip one of one’s gift, and others to find what should be invisible.”

“Then I will explain. Yes, I can scry whoever I wish. But how likely do you suppose it is that I’ll watch at just the right moment to learn something important? How will I know what has been discussed before and with who and to what effect? Then I can curse an enemy—but I must first know he’s my enemy. And yes, I can protect myself far more effectively with magic than men with guns can. Magic gives me great advantage, but must still be precisely applied. You see my problem.” He cocked his head. “Did you have no one to teach you? Your people must’ve known of your gift.”

“Of course they did.” She brushed at her skirt. “But we were all very careful that no one outside the family knew of it. It seemed only prudent. It wasn’t so long ago—” She caught herself. “It hadn’t been so long before that women like myself might be tortured and burned.”

His lips thinned, but he only said, “No one else in your family had power?”

She shook her head. “No one that we knew. Although there are—were a few interesting family legends.”

“No doubt. A gift as strong as yours doesn’t come out of nowhere.”

Questions boiled up. There hadn’t been anyone to help her learn how to use her abilities—she’d had to learn on her own. When she was young, it had been confusing, sometimes frightening.  It suddenly occurred to her that she could learn a great deal from Dragovich. The thought was equally appealing and appalling.

“I can teach you,” he said quietly.

She flinched back. Did his magic allow him to read minds?

“You’re very kind, sir,” she said in her falsest drawing room voice.

He smiled that conspiratorial smile again and replied in kind, “Not at all, madam.”

Best to get back to business.

“I must have your hand if I’m to read for you.”

He held it out to her. “Don’t look too much into my past, Emilia. You won’t like what you see.”

He wasn’t mocking her as he often did, she could see that in his face.

As she had been at the market, she was keenly aware of how large and strong his hand was. A flash came of last night, of its skill and grace moving across the piano keys. Something stirred in her, something she quickly shut her mind against.

Half-closing her eyes, she sank into the deep, strong current that was Vadim Dragovich.

This time, there was nothing to block her. She was caught up, sucked down, engulfed by power and possibilities. Dark currents swirled around her, pulling her deeper, but brightness glittered in the distance. There was something seductive in exploring such power, letting it caress and carry her as it would.

* * *

Vadim felt the moment she stopped resisting and opened herself to him.

He caught his breath. The sensation was almost sexual. His body reacted, and he had to clench his free hand on his knee to keep from reaching across the table and pulling her to him. It wouldn’t improve matters.

She’s exquisitely sensitive, he reminded himself. Think of something else. Anything else. His thoughts would be little improvement over actions, if she knew.

He breathed deep, hoping to calm himself. Her hand was like a butterfly in his, light and fragile. Her lowered lashes made a delicate fan that veiled her dark eyes.

Fool. Since when have you let a woman steal your wits?

At last, thankfully, she spoke, giving him something else to focus on.

“You’re like a stone thrown into a fire. It burned quietly, but now flames are spattered all over. They might start other fires, or they might wink out. You took what you wanted easily, and now many fear you. Many respect you and wish to share in your strength. Some want revenge for what you did.”

“Yes.” When it was time to carve out a place for himself in this world, he’d done so quickly and decisively, giving the man whose territory this had been no chance to counter him. “But which is which?”

“They’ll come into your house, hiding their thoughts behind smiles. Four stand back, cautious and watching. Three circle like jackals, sniffing for weakness. Two stand behind you, grateful for removing a menace. One hides a dagger of hatred in his heart.”

Vadim counted the men he’d thought to invite, trying to match his own intuitions to her prediction. “Who? What do they look like?”

She shook her head. “You don’t know yet, so I can’t know the faces. I see only hearts.”

He growled something in Russian.

“Hush, sir,” she said.

He stiffened. “Don’t ‘sir’ me, woman, when you tell me to be quiet.”

She released his hand to make a little quelling gesture, little improvement over the ‘hush,’ and not likely to soothe him. “You gather them and—”

Her gaze flashed up to him, clear and present.

“Well?” The heat of anger was welcome distraction from that of desire.

“You test them,” she said smoothly, but color bloomed on her cheekbones.

“How?”

“By allowing them to reveal themselves.”

Her other hand still enfolded his. He turned it to grip hers, not tightly enough for pain, but enough to keep her from pulling away. “How?”

She made no attempt to struggle, but the openness he’d felt a few minutes ago had turned to a bristling shield.

“You have a great deal of power,” she said coldly. “You can compel those around you to do much. But have a care, Mr. Dragovich, that you don’t drive them to desperation. Desperate, frightened people can do foolish, dangerous things. Things you can’t predict.”

He narrowed his eyes. “But you can.”

She met his gaze, her small hand still imprisoned in his. “The more unstable the present, the more difficult it is to predict the future. The possibilities multiply. They change moment to moment. You expect a great deal of me, sir.”

He could feel through her hand the suppressed tremor that went through her. She was telling the truth, though she quivered to face him with it.

And— He gave a startled laugh. God in heaven, this woman would look him in the eye and warn him off. Don’t make me desperate, she was telling him.

At his laugh, she looked startled in her own turn.

He could break her easily enough, but why should he? He knew his own strength, and so did Emilia—the trembling told him that. He didn’t need to crush her to prove it. No, he needed her confident enough for frankness, however little he might wish to hear it.

He let her go. “You’re right. Chaos is unpredictable. I’ve been in enough battles to know that.”

“And you’ll be wise to avoid precipitating battles.” Her voice betrayed her shaking only a little. “Your situation is not as stable as you’d wish.”

“Is this something you saw?”

She gestured vaguely. “I saw…paths that lead to turmoil. Violence.”

He sat back, ran a finger back and forth across his lips. “And you want me to avoid violence.”

“Of course I do! You do not?”

“It’s sometimes necessary.”

She shook her head. “As you will.”

“But I’ll hear suggestions.”

He thought that would appease her, but she looked at him, more troubled than before.

* * *

Emilia closed the office door behind her, leaned against the wall and closed her eyes. She still trembled. Dear God, what had possessed her to openly defy Dragovich? She practically dared him to do his worst—

And he’d laughed. That had been almost as unsettling as what she’d glimpsed in her seeing.

That was what had possessed her. She wasn’t about to tell him how he tested the business associates he’d invite to his party. If he thought of it, it certainly wouldn’t be because she made the suggestion.

Because it entailed having her on his arm as he entertained his guests.

Go here to read from the beginning. Read the next chapter here.

Photo credit: Backtracker Road, Nicolet National Forest; copyright Andrew Sabai

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