Jul 16

Summer Steal – Blackthorne

Blackthorne is FREE* through August 13. Go here to find it at your favorite e-bookstore.

*Amazon won’t allow me to sell the book for less than 99 cents. If you want Blackthorne for Kindle, email me and I’ll gift you a copy.

Blackthorne - K. Lynn Bay

Blackthorne on Amazon

A dark lord from another universe. A lonely young woman. A fateful meeting between them changes both their lives forever– and leaves the fate of two worlds hanging by his forgotten past.

Jul 08

Fated Magic – Chapter 21

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

Fated Magic cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He certainly wouldn’t restrain himself now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

A hand touched Emilia’s shoulder.

“Señora Dunmoor?” a voice whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, quite,” Emilia said, distracted.

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

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

“Okay, but—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Kisa said. “Come in, Emilia.”

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

“What have you seen?” Kisa said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emilia gave Amanda a nod and departed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emilia nodded, her heart racing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emilia laid a hand on her shoulder in silent sympathy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What am I going to do with you?’

“I beg your pardon?” Emilia said.

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

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

“Does she?” Kisa said.

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

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

“Perfectly,” Emilia said.

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

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

Emilia followed, her throat tight with dread.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the moment.

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

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

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

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

Flora stood, too. “Señor Dragovich!”

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

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

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

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

Vadim’s brows climbed.

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

“So I’ve been told,” he said.

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

“How are you?” he asked.

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

The maids giggled and ducked their heads.

Vadim grimaced. “Amanda?”

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

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

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

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

Emilia…

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

* * *

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

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

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

“Vadim! Thank Heaven! At last!”

She seized his wrist, pulled him into the room.

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

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

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

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

“But I—”

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

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

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

“I did see it!”

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

“I told you—”

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

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

“You had your chance.”

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

“You had no trouble seeing before.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I already don’t.”

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

“Stop what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jun 27

Fated Magic – Chapter 20

I’M DONE! I’M DONE! I’M DONE!

I just finished the book, the last word of the last sentence of the last chapter! Now it’s just a matter of tinkering and getting everything just right, then working on the cover and blurb.

By the way, this isn’t the last chapter. There are seven to go.

Assassin

Emilia stands in an unfamiliar bedroom. It’s tastefully decorated in cream and muted greens, the bed piled with pillows. A comfortable chair and ottoman sit in one corner by the curtained window. Soft, golden light spills from a lamp on a low table. Jasmine scents the air.

Confused, bewildered, she turns to leave. The door opens as she reaches for the knob and a tall, smiling woman draws a man through.

Emilia retreats, stammering an apology, then realizes that she recognizes the woman. It’s the woman from Dragovich’s brothel, the tall woman who first greeted him when he brought Emilia. Emilia’s face burns with mortified horror. Dear God, what is she doing in a brothel boudoir in the middle of the night?

As if Emilia is invisible, the woman pulls the man into a passionate kiss as he shuts the door. Taking advantage of their distraction, Emilia darts to the door to escape.

Her hand on the knob seems no more than a feather. Sneaking a desperate glance over her shoulder, she sees the woman open the man’s suit jacket, strip off his tie and unbutton his shirt, kissing her way down his chest. Emilia takes the doorknob with both hands, but her grip remains weightless and strengthless.

The woman has reached the waistband of the man’s pants. She reaches to unbuckle his belt, but he laughs and holds her hands away, tugging her to the chair in the corner. He sits and she kneels in front of him, running her hands up and down his thighs.

Emilia spins to face the door. As pleased hums and groans begin behind her, she struggles to open the door again. Giving up, she covers her ears.

A crack like the snapping of a big stick sounds. Emilia jumps and spins again, her heart hammering.

The tall woman slumps face-first to the floor in a boneless sprawl, her hair spilling around her. Emilia blinks, trying to make sense of it, then sees the gun in the man’s hand. He rises and comes toward her. His pale eyes are calm, his boyish face shows no emotion.

She throws herself at the door, pounding on it with her fists, then springs away as the man reaches her. Without a glance at her, he opens the door and steps through. Emilia looks once at the still huddle on the floor, then rushes after him.

The man walks down a hall, opens the next door. A woman screams. He points the gun into the room. Another crack, and the scream falls silent. Emilia screams as well and turns to run, but she’s still behind the man, still following him.

Another man appears in the hallway ahead, the big, bearded man who’d opened the door when she visited. He holds a gun of his own. Another crack, and he staggers. His gun hits the floor with a thud as he tumbles to the floor. The boyish man stops to pick up the other’s gun.

A girl—one of the girls Dragovich rescued from Bernard—steps into the hall. She wears an oversized shirt as a nightdress, and rubs her eyes sleepily, frowning in confusion at the sight of the stranger, of the bearded man on the floor.

“No, Lidiya, run!” Emilia screams and lunges at the man with the gun.

Her lunge, which should have shoved him hard from behind, brings her no closer to him. His gun cracks again. Lidiya jolts backward, her mouth going round in shock and pain. A red flower bursts in the middle of her nightshirt. Knotting her fingers in her hair, Emilia screams Lidiya’s name.

The man steps over the girl’s still form and continues down the hall, opening doors and shooting into the rooms beyond.

“Get out!” Emilia screams. “He’s got a gun, get out, GET OUT—”

* * *

Emilia jolted upright in bed, her throat raw, tears streaming down her face. Her heart hammered just as hard as it had in her dream. Faint light from the garden spilled through the French door, turning the room into an ominous landscape of shadows. Struggling free of the tangled bedclothes, she stumbled to the closet, groped for her robe. Dragging it hastily around her shoulders, she ran out of her bedroom.

It was too much, too much like her dream, running down the darkened hallway, terror thumping in her chest and throat and fingertips. She passed the darkened great room and dining room, the high, dim foyer, the small dining room with its shadowy table and chairs. Turning into the wing that housed Dragovich’s office, she paused, took a shaking breath and slowed to a walk.

She’d never seen his bedchamber—Heaven forbid!—wasn’t even certain where it was. She cracked open a door, peeked through.

A slice of dim light showed one corner of a dresser. Yes, this must be it. She slipped in, her heart beating as hard as ever. The room was almost completely dark, the shapes of furniture no more than dimly illuminated edges here and there. A musky, male scent enveloped her. Slow, not-quite snores guided her toward the bed, the bulky shape of the sleeper barely visible in faint strokes of light.

She reached for a shoulder, met warm, bare skin. “Vadim!” Her voice came out in a trembling whisper.

His hand reached up, seized her by the neck.

* * *

Vadim’s eyes shot open at the touch and the voice. Emilia bent over him, a dim blur of pale face and shadowy hair flowing loose over her shoulders.

Arousal flushed through him. He reached up, slid a hand behind her neck under her hair, pulling her down to him.

She gripped his forearm and braced a hand on his chest. “Mr. Dragovich! It’s Emilia!” Her voice was high and tight with fear.

“Emilia—”

“Wake up, you must wake up! He has a gun—”

Every trace of heavy, tingling warmth vanished. Pushing her to the side, he shoved out of bed. The bedside lamp blinked on at a thought and he jerked open the nightstand drawer for his gun.

He grabbed it and checked the clip. “Where?”

Her gaze flicked up and down his body. Her face blazed red and her eyes and mouth went round—he slept nude.

He took her wrist and shook it. “Emilia. Where?”

Her eyes jumped up to his. “No. No, not here. Victoria’s—”

He frowned. “How do you know?”

“I dreamt it!” she flared. “He goes through the house shooting everyone! The women, the big man with the beard, one of the young girls—”

“You dreamed it! God in heaven, woman—”

“For pity’s sake, listen to me! You have to stop him!”

Vadim made himself pay attention. This was no silly woman babbling of a nightmare. This was Emilia.

He sat on the bed, twitched the covers into his lap to spare her English modesty. “When?”

He still held her wrist. She laid her free hand over his and her eyes went briefly unfocused. She gasped.

“Dear God. Soon. Tonight.”

* * *

Dragovich let go her wrist, stood and crossed to the closet. “Tell me what you saw. Everything you remember.”

Emilia averted her gaze from his broad, muscular back and firm backside. She stammered a moment, trying to net her fluttering thoughts. At last, she began relating her dream. Surrounded by Dragovich’s scent, standing beside his bed, heat rushed through her remembering the boudoir scene, the woman stroking the man’s chest, his thighs—

No. She didn’t need to tell him all that. Dragovich would know exactly what went on in those rooms. She skipped to the gun, the horrible, methodical trek down the hall.

Dragovich shrugged into a shirt, pulled on trousers and zipped them up. “Tell me what he looked like. What kind of gun did he have?”

She glanced at the gun he’d tossed on the bed. “Like yours. But it seemed very long, rather like a dueling pistol.”

He grunted. “Silencer on it, probably. Go on.”

“He was—is—middle height, middle build. Short brown hair, light eyes. His face looks young, but I don’t think he is. My age, perhaps a bit older.” She shut her eyes, conjuring his image again. “He’s wearing a dark suit and a grey striped shirt.” She opened her eyes again.

Dragovich sat on a bench at the foot of the bed and pulled on his shoes. “Which woman was he with?”

“When you took me there, remember the tall woman who came out to greet you? The one who called to her friends?”

His lips went thin. “Sylvie. Yes.” He snarled something in Russian. “This—this is what I get for restraining myself.”

He stood, snatched up the gun, thrust it into his waistband. “Go to the security office. You know where—down the hall from Amanda’s office. Tell them I went to Victoria’s. Tell them to come. Say what you need to make it believable.”

“What—?” she began.

He vanished in a pop of air.

* * *

Vadim rematerialized in Sylvie’s room. It was empty, a little lamp on a low table casting soft light over the room. No body on the floor in front of the chair. He let go a breath and crossed to the door.

The hallway outside was empty, but a soft laugh came from behind one of the closed doors. Vadim paused, extending wizard’s senses: murmuring voices, panting, the smells of perfume and sex. No blood, no sharp tang of gunpowder. He continued down the hall to the more public areas of the house.

Voices came from the living room ahead, women’s light tones, the deeper ones of men.

Vadim strolled into the room as if dropping in for a visit. Five women and three men looked up from sofas and chairs. Delight bloomed on the women’s faces. The men eyed him more appraisingly.

“Good evening!” Vadim said, smiling.

He studied the men. One was middle-aged with a belly that overhung his belt, another harsh-looking and angular, maybe somewhere between 65 and 70. The third—

Middle height, middle build. Light eyes in a round, soft, too-young face. He wore a dark suit. Sylvie, perched on the edge of his chair, was just loosening the tie in the collar of his striped grey shirt.

“Mr. Dragovich!” Morgan, who wasn’t presently entertaining a man, rose from the sofa to come greet him. “How are you?” She took his hands, pulled him close and kissed him on the corner of the mouth.

The other women murmured greetings, but appropriately didn’t let their attention wander far from their clients. The man Sylvie attended stiffened slightly.

Ah, yes, Vadim thought.

Morgan continued talking to him, asking if he’d like a drink, if he planned to stay. Yes, a drink would be welcome, and yes, he might be convinced to stay. Morgan smiled, stroked a manicured hand down his arm and crossed the room to the wet bar.

Vadim made himself comfortable in a chair, crossed ankle over knee and considered strategy. It wouldn’t do to make a scene. It would be bad for business. Neither would he allow the assassin out of his sight. Vadim’s presence might alter the man’s plans—killing Vadim himself would be a far sweeter victory. Maybe he should simply sit back and make himself a tempting target. But there was no guarantee the assassin wouldn’t attempt wider carnage for effect. Or that there wasn’t more than the one assassin Emilia had seen in her dream.

The man was watching him, maybe planning strategy of his own. Vadim smiled and raised the drink Morgan had brought, then continued his own watching, making no secret of it.

The man was a professional, that was clear enough. Other than that first reaction on Vadim’s entrance, he showed no nervousness, no tension or watchfulness, apparently enjoying Sylvie’s attention. Yet he was too cool. An ordinary client would react to Vadim’s scrutiny, either writhing under it, or challenging it.

Even Morgan, perched on the arm of his chair, noticed. Bending close as if kissing his ear, she murmured, “Everything okay?”

He reached up, pulled her head down and kissed her. The movement reminded him viscerally of Emilia, when she’d bent over his bed a few minutes ago. Heat pooled in his groin and he coaxed Morgan’s mouth open, exploring it with his tongue. He imagined doing the same with Emilia, wondering how she’d taste, imagining his fingers shaping her curves beneath the nightgown—

He broke free of the kiss before it could distract him any more, brushing his lips back to Morgan’s ear. “Wait. We’ll see.”

“Mmm,” Morgan said. “How about I get you a snack? I’ve never seen a man enjoy his food as much as you do.”

“To keep up my strength,” he said with a suggestive twitch of the brows.

Morgan gave a soft, throaty laugh and stood. Some communication must’ve passed, because Leigh, the other unattached woman, stood as well.

“Maybe something for everyone,” she said and followed Morgan.

Vadim, relieved of the necessity of conversation, went to work.

He’d entertained enemies from time to time, in drafty halls smelling of straw and dogs and sweaty men and roasting meat, around campfires in the vast dark, a dome of glittering stars overhead. When enemies gathered to talk, all were supposed to come unarmed. But sometimes, they hadn’t been.

He shaped a spell much like the one he’d used in his chat with Lebedev, the one that had convinced him to let go of the icon. But this time he directed it toward steel.

The big-bellied man suddenly stopped speaking, muttered and rubbed at his wristwatch. “Damn,” he said and held out his wrist to Ava, who sat on the sofa beside him. “Feel that. It’s hot!”

She made a sympathetic noise and slid off the watch. “That’s the wrong thing to be hot right now.”

Vadim missed the man’s reply, increasing the power to his spell. The man with Sylvie twitched and shifted in his chair. Another moment, and he leapt to his feet, his hand going under his jacket as if reaching for a wallet. Vadim tensed.

“Dammit, I forgot, I’m supposed to make a call,” the assassin said to Sylvie. “I’ll just step out into the hall.”

Sylvie’s brows climbed, but she smiled. “Don’t go too far, honey.”

Vadim considered increasing the heat enough to catch clothes on fire, then decided that would indeed make a scene. No, just hot enough to burn skin.

The man hurried past him, his back arched as if to escape pain. Nodding pleasantly to Sylvie, Vadim pushed to his feet and followed.

Morgan must’ve raised the alarm—Richard, the big, bearded man who’d greeted Vadim and Emilia when they’d visited, was coming down the hall. The assassin gave him a nod of greeting—

Then reached around under his jacket and came out with a gun. It was lengthened by a silencer. With a hiss of pain, he promptly dropped it.

The same instant, Richard raised his own gun. Vadim, no more than six feet behind the assassin, knew he himself would make either a good target or a valuable hostage. His wards would prevent either one from happening.

Naturally, the assassin came around at Vadim. As he tossed another spell at him, Vadim caught a flash of a knife in the man’s hand. The assassin lunged, and his feet went out from under him. He went down hard on his back.

Richard fell on him like a breaching whale. He hit the man on the temple with the butt of his gun, then in the throat with his wrist, ending a tedious, possibly noisy struggle before it began.

“Good job,” Vadim said in an undertone.

The entire confrontation had taken place in near silence. He plucked the knife from the assassin’s fingers. It wasn’t hot—the handle must be made of carbon fiber, unaffected by his spell. He stuffed it into his pocket.

Richard only growled like the bear he resembled, kicked the gun down the hall and grabbed the limp man under the shoulders. Picking up his feet, too, to keep the noise down, Vadim helped lug him down the hall.

“Where do you want him?” Vadim asked.

“The garage, for now,” Richard said. “What do you want to do with him?”

“My men should be here soon. We’ll take care of him. I’ll leave one or two with you, in case this one,” he jerked his chin at the unconscious assassin, “has a partner.”

Richard nodded grimly, turned and opened the door to the garage with one hand, supporting his end of the burden with the other. “You knew about him?”

“I found out just in time.”

They dumped the man on the garage floor. Vadim pulled out his own gun, guarding him while Richard crossed to a workbench.

“Strange, isn’t it, how he dropped his gun,” Richard said, pulling open a drawer and digging through it. “I was worried he’d drill one of us before I could get off a shot. And the way he tripped…” Richard shook his head. “I wouldn’t’ve expected either one.”

“I’m not complaining,” Vadim said.

Richard straightened, a bundle of zip ties in one big hand. “No, me neither. But still…”

He turned his attention to binding the man’s wrists and ankles. He wasn’t gentle about it. “Look at this! His hand is all burned.” Richard tsked. “Pore widdle pussy. He shouldn’t’a brought his gun if he couldn’t hold it.”

Vadim grunted a laugh. “It makes you wonder about the quality of the help the opposition hires.”

Shaking his head in reply, Richard stripped off the assassin’s tie and gagged him with it. He pushed to his feet and scowled down at him, hands on hips.

The sound of a car, then another, came from outside. Engines fell silent, doors slammed.

Vadim extended wizard’s senses, heard Roman’s quiet voice speaking Russian, and two or three other familiar voices.

He gave a satisfied grunt. “That should be my men. Go check it out. I’ll watch him.” He toed the man on the floor.

Nodding, Richard chambered a round and went into the house.

The assassin groaned and rolled his head. Gun in hand, Vadim waited for his men, more curious to discover what Emilia had told them than who had hired the man.

That, he had a fairly good idea. Now he had only to decide what form his retribution would take.

Jun 13

Fated Magic – Chapter 19

Woo-hoo! I’m working on the last chapter now! After that, it’ll just be getting Fated Magic ready for publication. Want me to notify you when the book is published? Would you like a free advance copy for review? Contact me or sign up for my mailing list.

“Oh!” Emilia stopped short in the entertainment room’s doorway.

Dragovich, a spread of cards laid on the glass table before him, looked up. “Good evening, Emilia.”

She inclined her head in greeting. She was rarely caught by surprise, but this certainly qualified.

“Vadim.” She stepped into the room. “Pardon me, but what are you doing with my cards?”

“I’m telling my future. Would you like to hear?”

She studied the cards. He was using the full deck.

She settled in the chair opposite. “By all means.”

He pointed to the Emperor. “Here’s my enemy, Ilia Lebedev.” He pointed to another card. “And here, see the cups knocked over? He’s spilled what he knows. You can see he’s a fool, trying to juggle lives and deaths, but look. Disaster! A magic staff has cursed him. He was warned, but he makes the wrong choice. The curse strikes and there’s his body, in a coffin in church.”

He shifted his finger to another grouping of cards. “Now, this is his partner, Anthony Bernard. You see how he wakes at night after dreams of violent death.” He tsked. “Poor Bernard. Look. His friends throw down their weapons and walk away from him. One by one, his plans and operations fail. He’s weaker and more exposed than ever. The lot of the plotter and backstabber.”

Emilia had been prepared to point out the uncertainty of reading for oneself, but decided it was beside the point. It was clear he’d deliberately chosen each card for what he meant to convey.

“Very good,” she said. “Would you like me to try?”

He leaned back in his chair and swept a hand over the spread. “Go ahead.”

She decided to read them as she normally would, with Dragovich in the client’s place.

“Your spread has an abundance of Swords. You wish for solutions to conflict, to the clash of power and ambitions around you. What will happen, happens in the winter.” Weeks. She had a few weeks left to break from disaster. “You must ignore that which is unimportant and—”

Oh, dear. Another change card. Those hadn’t gone over well at all in her last reading.

“And?” he said.

“And be ready to switch strategies in an instant. Your energy is high, ready to propel you to new action.”

He sat back and nodded.

Emilia relaxed. This was nothing new. How many times had she tailored a reading to the client? But in her anger at Dragovich, she’d felt no need to sweeten or soften what she saw. If she hoped to move him, she’d have to do better.

She cocked her head and frowned at the cards. “These are unclear. This one shows an enemy vanquished. Here, a multiplication of difficulties. Now, a distrust of abilities. Here, a painful loss. And this one…” She tapped a final card. “An unwelcome surprise.” She looked up. “They tell me the situation grows more unstable. More difficult to predict.”

“Not helpful, Emilia.”

She transferred the frown to him. “It’s your spread.”

He grunted.

She returned to the cards. “There are hidden powers at work, ones that seek to overthrow you.”

“What powers?”

She walked her fingers across the cards. “There are three of them. They’re distant, but two will come to confront you.”

“The bosses in Russia. The bosses here bow and scrape to them. They kick profits up to them. But you know what they are?” He snorted. “Prison gangsters! Big fish in little, vicious ponds, but they think they’re men to be reckoned with. In my day, men would die before letting themselves be taken prisoner.”

“I don’t think it’s the same sort of prisoner, Vadim. This sort isn’t taken in war.”

“No. They’re locked up by courts and lawyers. Put into boxes by frightened weaklings.” He leaned across the table. “Can you see anyone doing the same to me? Can you imagine me allowing myself to be locked in a pen?”

“No, I can’t,” she answered with perfect honesty. “Even without your magic, I doubt you would submit to such usage.”

He leaned back again. “No. I wouldn’t.”

She bit the inside of her lip, thinking. “But if I may be so bold as to offer an observation?”

He gave a little go on wave.

“These people may not be of your caliber, but they do represent an increase in the forces marshalled against you. This is, I assume, not a desirable development.”

“You think I can’t deal with them?”

“I’m hardly fit to say.” She cocked her head. “Is this like after you reawakened? You’re lost and angry and wish for a fight?”

Here came the challenging stare. She met it calmly, waiting.

“Do you say I’m weak?” he said softly.

“I’ve said nothing of the sort. And may I remind you, sir, you did give me leave to speak my mind.”

He stared for a couple more heartbeats, then one side of his mouth slowly curled up. “Yes. I did. Please, go on.”

“What I say is that strength isn’t proven by collecting enemies.”

“Yet I can’t ignore a man who threatens me. That only encourages him.”

Did he threaten you?”

Dragovich opened his mouth, then hesitated. “No. After your reading, I confronted him. He confirmed what you’d said.”

“Exactly. Before that, he had no inkling you were aware of the threat he posed.”

He folded his arms, studying her narrowly. “Are you saying I should take action based only on what you tell me?”

“It gives you the greatest advantage. In Russia, did you never send spies among your enemies? Did you never act on what they told you?”

“Emilia, what are you doing?”

She folded her hands and took a long breath. “Do you know what I did today while you were gone? I read as many of your household as I dared. Shall I tell you what I saw?”

“Let me guess. Their violent deaths?”

She bent her head in agreement. “Shall I tell you of my attempts to warn one or two?”

His dark brows drew together. “Emilia,” he growled.

“I was met with anger. I was warned in my own turn, apprised of my ignorance and arrogance.”

He barked a sudden laugh. “Were you! Good.”

“Make no mistake, Vadim. These deaths, so many and so unnecessary, I will not allow.”

His laughter evaporated and his eyes narrowed. “And you mean to prevent them…how?”

“I mean to do everything in my power to help you.”

* * *

Vadim rocked back. God in Heaven. She took submission and turned it to triumph on her own terms. How could one so fragile, so powerless possess the savor of an equal?

He sat quiet a long moment, struggling to keep his amazement from showing and gather his wits.

“For the sake of my people,” he said at last.

“Yes.”

“And nothing more.”

She hesitated, uncertainty and trouble passing through her eyes. “For your sake, as well,” she said, almost too low to hear.

Why? he wanted to ask, but was sure she’d withdraw if he spoke.

She wet her lips and said into his waiting silence, “The fortunes I’ve told in the past have been those of ordinary people. People whose lives make only slight ripples in the sea of existence. Never those of lords, or men and women of consequence. I know—” She sent him an uneasy glance. “I see the forces at work are different in such circumstances. The push and pull of events are greater. The ripples of influence are waves that can swamp ships and drown shores.”

“Lovely words. But what do you mean?”

She touched her forehead and closed her eyes, clearly distressed. “I mean…I can see how your choices and actions affect the lives of many, not only a handful. I understand why you must do much of what you do. I can see…the honor you strive for.”

“Do you?” he breathed.

“Yes.” She opened her eyes, straightened a card on the table before her. “We’ve lived in different worlds. Yours pains and frightens me. It’s as unlike the life I’ve led as a garden is unlike the jungle. I know enough to realize that what it takes to live in a garden, won’t allow one to survive in the jungle.”

Vadim sat very still, barely breathing. That loyalty—that incredible loyalty that had made an English gentlewoman strike a Russian warlord, that had prepared her to brave a murderer for another woman’s sake—was his. Not through force, not through coercion, not even by seduction.

By her own choice.

He felt as he had as a young man, when one day his teacher, Father Ivan, had placed a jewel-encrusted chalice in his hands. He remembered looking down at the glittering treasure in the rough, dirty-nailed hands of a peasant youth. Then, too, he’d held his breath, marveling at the precious thing.

He drew a hand down his chin. “You won’t agree with my methods.”

“Very likely not. But if I see alternatives, I will offer them.”

“And if I choose not to take them? It won’t be easy for you.”

She let go a breath. “Yes. I know.”

Proud, Kisa had called her. Principled.

How much had this cost Emilia? He fought the impulse to challenge her—her certainty, her sincerity. Oh, he wouldn’t trust her blindly—he hadn’t lived so long or been so successful by making that kind of mistake. But he’d be a fool to turn down a gift so freely offered.

He picked up the card she’d said meant a distrust of abilities: three men standing under the arches of a cathedral. Holding her gaze, he turned it back and forth between his fingers, then laid it face down on the table.

* * *

“The architects have requested a meeting regarding the change orders on the Solea building,” Amanda said. Vadim took the letter she handed across her desk. “They’re concerned about—”

Behind him, the office door snicked open.

“Boss?”

Vadim turned in his chair. Roman stood in the doorway, nearly quivering with tension.

“Sorry to interrupt,” he said. “I need to see you.”

Nodding once to Amanda, Vadim rose and followed Roman to the security office. Several grave faces met him there.

“What’s happened?” he said.

The men all looked at Roman.

“Lebedev is dead,” he said. “His car had a blowout and crossed the median. A semi truck hit him.”

Vadim rocked on his heels. Well, well. Seems Lebedev activated the curse. He should’ve listened to me.

“Convenient for us,” he said.

“Yes and no,” Roman said. “Petya Bezpalov has been shot, too.”

Vadim stiffened and narrowed his eyes. Like Roman and Alexei, Peter Bezpalov was one of his best men. “Is he alive?”

Roman nodded. “I think that was the point. Lebedev’s son, Tolya, walked up to him in a parking lot and gut-shot him. While Petya was lying there on the ground, Tolya told him his father said if anything happened to him, you’re the one behind it.” He blew out a breath. “Lebedev’s crew will be gunning for you now, boss.”

“No doubt,” Vadim said. “And whoever Lebedev counted as friends.”

Heads nodded all around.

Vadim paced. The house was safe inside his wards. No one here was in danger. He could ward cars, people attached to him. But he didn’t fight wars that way, if it came to it. Better to strike first and fast, terrify the enemy into more caution and respect.

“What do you want to do?” Roman said.

“Tell everyone on the street what’s going on. I don’t want anyone else caught like Petya was. If they see any of Lebedev’s people—or Bernard’s—in my territory, it’s open season. I’ll go see Garry. He’s been doing some research for me. I want to know what he found out.”

“You should take a couple of us with you,” Roman said.

“Not now.”

The men stirred and muttered in protest.

Roman frowned. “Boss—”

Vadim held up a hand. “I have my reasons. If I miscalculate… Well, you and Tolya Lebedev can decide if we’re even now.”

Roman grimaced, but shrugged in unhappy acceptance.

* * *

Emilia waited by the garage, a cool autumn breeze off the sea plucking at her skirt and hair. The sound of a racing engine coming up the drive echoed from the wall behind her. She frowned and craned her neck, wondering what could compel David to drive so fast.

The car that screeched to a stop wasn’t the little gold car she drove, but one larger and more formidable, crouched low over its wheels, with a long, aggressive-looking hood.

One of Dragovich’s men jumped out, slammed the door and ran for the offices. Another man, the balding one with a ponytail whose name she’d never learned, strode to meet him. The two spoke fast and low.

The ponytailed man looked up to find Emilia watching. He frowned and approached.

“Mrs. Dunmoor,” he said. “Why don’t you go inside?”

“I’m to meet David for my driving lesson,” she explained.

He made a short, irritated gesture. “David won’t be coming. We’re a little busy today.”

Indeed! “I see.” She swiftly calculated. “I was to meet Mr. Dragovich afterwards. Will he—”

“No, he’s busy, too.” He took her arm. She caught a glimpse of a gun under his jacket as he reached for her. “Now come on.”

Smiling, she gently disengaged her arm. “Of course. I do beg your pardon.”

She started back for the house. The ponytailed man turned and hurried back to the offices. Emilia waited until she heard the door close, waited a few more breaths, then followed him.

Dare she become invisible? She certainly could, but she didn’t fancy dodging edgy, snappy men with guns to indulge her curiosity. Instead, she cracked open the door to Amanda’s office and peeked in.

Amanda, also frowning, looked up from her computer. “Hi, Emilia. Everything okay?”

Emilia stepped in and shut the door. “I certainly hope so, but I fear not. I’m told David isn’t coming, and everyone seems terribly disturbed.”

Amanda nodded. “You’re right about that. I don’t know what’s going on, either. Even if I did, it wouldn’t be up to me to tell you.”

Emilia bit her lip. “Do you remember what you told me, about there being no happy endings in this business?”

Amanda sat up straight, turning fully to face her. “Do you know something?”

“I’ve seen things. Through my gift.”

Amanda nodded.

“At the risk of angering and offending you, I must ask you to consider something.” Emilia wet her lips. “I must ask you to watch, and listen. And if you learn anything that causes you alarm…”

Amanda got up and came around her desk. “Emilia, what are you saying?”

“I see…” She gestured generally toward the west. “…a storm gathering. I don’t yet know when or how it will strike, but I fear…” Under Amanda’s intense gaze, she faltered.

“Does Mr. Dragovich know this?” Amanda said quietly.

“Of course!”

Amanda blew out a breath and visibly relaxed. “And you don’t want me caught up in it.”

“I don’t want any of us caught up in it. But all I can do is watch, and warn…” She glanced away. “However little good it may do.”

“Thank you.” Amanda touched her arm. “It’s always a risk, you know? But I’ll try to come out in one piece.” She dropped her hand. “If I can. If I’m able.”

Emilia nodded, debated asking one more thing: If one day I say, you must go now, will you go? But that would only frighten Amanda more than she’d already done. And if she did her job properly, it should never come to that.

Taking an awkward leave, she hurried back to the house for her cards.

Sitting on her bed, her feet tucked under her, she laid a spread.

Destruction. The innocent. Vengeance. Death.

Emilia sucked a breath and stared down at the cards. “Vadim,” she whispered to her quiet room. “What are you doing?”

* * *

Garry provided Vadim with a wealth of targets. Number one was Lebedev’s real estate firm, where he kept his offices. Vadim left Garry hacking the cloud servers where Lebedev stored data for his operations.

In San Francisco, Vadim parked near the bottom of Telegraph Hill. A monochrome view of the San Francisco Bay opened between a newer apartment building and the hill itself, the top of the Bay Bridge disappearing into the fog. Wrapping himself in a spell of disinterest, he walked down the hill the few blocks to Bay Cities Properties.

The street was like many in the city, lined with townhouses and row houses and trees scantily clad in brown leaves. Vadim, hands in the pockets of his wool coat against the fog’s penetrating chill, stopped across the street from a red-brick building that might once have been a bank. It remained equally stately and imposing now, commanding its corner with an air of smug arrogance.

“Not for much longer,” Vadim muttered.

Reaching out his wizardry, he shaped the magic into a thin, hot stream, then guided it into the building.

Through the arched, mullioned windows, he caught here and there a spatter of sparks as some piece of electronic equipment exploded. He smiled as magic raced through the building, burning out every phone, every hard drive, every modem connected to the lines.

A moment more and the screech of smoke alarms cut the hum of city noise. Up on the third floor, someone flung open a window. Shouts and shrieks drifted out along with a cloud of smoke that stank of burning wire.

Vadim shaped the magic again. While he’d been learning about the modern world, so much of technology had seemed like magic, even to him. Indeed, much of it worked much like magic, using an untouchable ether for power and communication. And all so very conveniently susceptible to his kind of magic.

He turned his attention to the building’s electrical wiring. Still swathed in his spell, he watched as variously crying, cursing and coughing people in suits and dresses stumbled from the building. A few he recognized as Lebedev’s men. This time carefully modulating the magic, he directed it toward their cell phones. He almost laughed aloud when, shouting and cursing, they stripped off jackets or shucked out of pants, watching in bare-assed horror as their phones burned merrily in the clothes on the sidewalk.

Vadim punched power through every window in the building, blowing glass inward. People screamed and ducked and huddled, arms over heads.

When the sound of sirens echoed up the street, he turned and walked back to his car.

He drove across the Bay Bridge to a smoke shop in one of Berkeley’s seedier neighborhoods—a cover for Lebedev’s drug operation. A hangout for many of his people, too. Two tattooed toughs leaned against the wall, apparent loiterers, but after what happened at the office a few minutes ago, more likely guards. Behind barred windows, neon marijuana leaves glowed. More neon advertised PIPES – CIGARS – VAPOR. At such a place, no one would glance twice at the coming and going of so many shady-looking types.

Vadim didn’t bother with finesse this time, simply tossing a spell at the building as he walked past. The explosion inside the place set dogs barking and car alarms wailing up and down the block. The smoke that billowed through the roof and blown-out windows reeked of dope and cigars. He didn’t wait to see if anyone came out afterwards.

He drove north and took the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge across the bay, then headed back south on Highway 101 into Sausalito.

Lebedev’s home sat on a ridge that offered views of both the San Francisco Bay and the wilderness of the recreation area that took up much of the Marin peninsula. With a concealing spell over the car, Vadim drove past the house.

On the paved parking area beside it sat a couple of SUVs and a nondescript midsize car. The narrow street in front wound past other multimillion-dollar homes on one side, a steep, green-clad slope on the other. Vadim finally found enough of a gravel shoulder to pull off and park. He put an illusion over the car, making it appear a handyman’s van. With another spell to completely conceal his presence, he walked back down the road toward Lebedev’s house.

Fires and explosions were all very well, but when it came to Lebedev’s own home— Well, it deserved a bit more creativity. Standing invisible in front of it now, he considered.

Once, he wouldn’t have hesitated to simply put an enemy’s house to the torch, wives, children and servants inside be damned. Since then, he’d learned to be a bit more civilized. And anyway, Lebedev was already dead. No need for—he chuckled—overkill.

Unsheathing his power, Vadim went to work on the house’s foundations.

A loud crack and groan pierced the neighborhood’s pastoral quiet. Vadim withdrew the force he’d applied and waited. The house groaned again like an old horse. The chime of a window breaking came from somewhere. A loud creak and drag came, as of someone forcing a door open, then a babble of frightened voices.

Four women ran out onto the porch, one of them shepherding two school-aged children. Four men came behind them, three of them scanning the area— clearly Lebedev’s men. The fourth only looked around in confusion as he steadied the oldest woman—the children’s grandmother, according to Garry’s information.

Vadim returned to pushing on the house, crumbling concrete, twisting reinforcing steel, popping nails and bolts and anchoring straps. The house moaned and wailed like some great, injured beast, drowning out the screams of the women and children. One side collapsed in a greyish puff of dust, then the rest slumped as well. Then the whole thing slid down the steep slope in a tangle of broken boards, crazy-skewed roof and bent window frames.

The women and children gripped each other in a mutual clutch. Two of the men walked toward the ragged edges of the porch.

“Go on,” Vadim muttered. “A little closer.”

What was it in human nature that compelled people to look over an edge? Whatever it was, Lebedev’s men weren’t immune. Vadim gave the closest one a little magical push. The other two, of course, were equally obliging, lunging to catch at the first as he went shrieking down. Vadim sent them after, the last one pinwheeling his arms before he went over.

A chorus of screams rose from the clutching women and children. The fourth man, watching in horror, herded them all into one of the SUVs.

Vadim nodded once and walked back to his car, his spell of concealment tucked around him.

May 27

Fated Magic – Chapter 18

It’s the Memorial Day weekend here in the US. To all our veterans, thank you for your service.

Russian Orthodox church

Vadim drove the highway to Salinas, skirting past Pebble Beach and Monterey, then turning to wind into the oak-studded hills of the coast range. It would’ve been far quicker and easier to make a phone call. But some business had to be done face-to-face.

The hills opened onto the Salinas Valley, with its endless acres of irrigated fields. At the edge of town, the fields slowly gave way to strip malls, car lots and gas stations.

At last he came to a row of apartment buildings off an industrial park. Whatever landscaping there’d once been had deteriorated into gravel punctuated with mounds of dirt. TV cables dangled across siding that looked like it had been in need of paint for at least two years. The cars parked in the lot were almost uniformly battered and faded, if not outright broken down. Vadim glanced around, shook his head and laid a ward against thieves and vandals on his car.

The apartment he sought was around the back, on the ground floor. A skinny woman who could’ve been anywhere between 35 or a drug-ridden 25 sat on the concrete steps to the second story, watching him. Pretending to ignore her, he knocked on the door under the stairs.

Seconds ticked past. Vadim knocked harder, then waited again.

The man who finally opened the door held a baseball bat and scowled down at Vadim through a pair of small spectacles.

“Oh.” He rested the bat against the wall, took off his spectacles, polished them on the hem of his flannel shirt then replaced them. “Come in, boss.” He turned. Blond hair a woman would envy flowed to his waist.

Vadim stepped inside, shutting the door behind him. Gloom instantly descended, lit only by the blue glow of computer screens and the flickering eyes of LEDs. Cables snaked across the carpet. Electronic equipment littered every surface, as well as the floor. The only seating was a chair that looked like it belonged in a high-end sports car.

“God in Heaven, Garry,” Vadim said. “Don’t I pay you enough to live someplace decent?”

Garry lowered himself into the chair. “It’s okay. Nobody bothers me here.”

Vadim snorted. “Nobody bothers you because they’re afraid you’ll beat them to death.”

It was no exaggeration. Vadim had seen him nearly do just that when another man had spilled a drink on Garry’s laptop. It had taken Vadim and two other men to pull him off.

Vadim had hired him on the spot.

Garry shrugged and tapped at the keyboard in front of him. Lines of code spilled across the screen.

Vadim leaned on the desk beside him. “I need you check into somebody. Ilia Lebedev.”

Garry kept tapping but nodded. The code disappeared, replaced by a new screen. “Lives in Sausalito,” he said. “Partner in Bay Cities Properties in San Francisco.”

“Where does he go to church?” Vadim said.

Garry squinted at him. “Church?”

He shrugged again, reached for the mouse, tapped away at the keys. Vadim pushed off the desk and wandered around the room. The click of keys and of the mouse button stitched through the quiet hum of cooling fans.

“San Francisco,” Garry said. He quickly ran through several screens, the images there flashing across the lenses of his spectacles. “Our Lady of Noyabrsk.”

“Good,” Vadim said. “Get me everything you can on him. Where he goes. When. Who he talks to. Text it to me.”

Garry nodded distractedly, already engrossed in his hunt. Vadim let himself out.

* * *

Vadim stood on the sidewalk gazing up at the church. Textured copper onion domes topped two-and-a-half tall stories of pale, arch-adorned stucco walls in a surprisingly harmonious blend of Russian and Mission architecture. Against a sky the color and texture of dirty lint, Byzantine crosses stood out starkly. The double cross. Vadim snorted a humorless laugh. Somehow, it seemed appropriate.

He opened himself to magic and worked a spell of disinterest. People would see him, but their attention wouldn’t fix on him. He’d be just another man passing by. Settling the spell around him, he climbed the grand flight of steps to the church’s arched double doors and stepped inside.

How long since he’d been in a church? A long, long time, even discounting the century and more he’d been a mindless wraith stripped of his power. He was surprised by how familiar it all felt, the icons of saints, the candles, the fantastically detailed carving. The smells of beeswax and incense.

A few men in suits stood inside, ostensibly praying. From the way two or three glanced around when Vadim stepped inside, he suspected they were Lebedev’s men. They turned away. Good.

How easily the old habits returned! He walked forward, crossed himself, bowed and kissed an icon. Crossing to a little side table, he lit a taper, crossed himself and bowed again. Pretending to pray, he dipped into the flow of magic all around him and let it carry him outward.

His awareness drifted through the doors behind the altar into the sanctuary, down hallways, into rooms. In a room just off the nave, he sensed the presence of a single man. The room would be, he suspected, one reserved for quiet contemplation. The presence of the watchful men outside told him the occupant must be his quarry.

He covered himself in an illusion of a priest’s dark robes and full beard. It was no difficult illusion. He’d worn a beard most of his life. With the spell of disinterest still in place, he walked to a door, quietly opened it and stepped through.

As he’d expected, room was a private chapel. Within, a short, sharp-faced man with a high hairline stood in front of a small altar bearing candles and an icon of Jesus. The man’s head was bowed in prayer. Ilia Lebedev. Perfect.

Lebedev glanced up, gave a distracted nod and returned to his prayers. Stepping up beside him, Vadim let the priest illusion tatter away, crossed himself and bowed his own head. He stood in silence a few minutes, wishing he had Emilia’s ability to see a man’s secrets.

Well, he had the next best thing. He had Emilia.

“God in Heaven,” he murmured as if praying, shaping the magic into a curse as he spoke. “Bless and protect me from my enemies. Let their schemes rebound on them. Let the harm they intend instead be inflicted upon them. Let the deaths they plot strike them down instead.”

From the corner of his eye, Vadim saw Lebedev’s head jerk up.

He raised his own head and smiled. “Hello, Ilia.”

Lebedev scrambled backward, his hand going to the waistband of his trousers.

“You left your gun outside, remember?” Vadim said. “No weapons in the house of God.”

“Viktor! Ivan! Leo!” Lebedev shouted, still backing up.

Vadim shook his head. He’d already worked a spell of silence, as well as a barrier spell to keep people out—and in. So much like when he was a young man amusing himself by working spells to awe the worshipers and confound the priests.

“Sorry, Ilia,” he said. “Your men can’t hear you. But don’t be too hard on them. It’s not their fault.”

The other man was breathing hard. “How the hell did you get in here?”

“Your men can’t keep people from coming to church to pray, can they? I think God would take a dim view of it.”

“Why are you here? What do you want?”

“I thought we’d have a little private talk, you and I. About your plans.”

“What plans?”

Lebedev’s eyes darted to the altar. Watching him calculate the usefulness of a candlestick as a weapon, Vadim set another spell to fix in place the objects in the room—chairs, table, the items on the altar.

“I have it on good authority that you’d like to see me dead,” he said.

“Who told you that?” Lebedev said half angrily, half in alarm.

Ah-ha, Vadim thought. Accurate as always, Emilia. “You can hardly expect me to reveal my sources,” he said.

“Whoever it was, they were lying,” Lebedev said quickly, edging toward the altar. “They’re trying to start trouble between us.”

“Do you think so?”

“Yes. Yes, I do. Whoever it is, they’re a danger to both of us, Vadim, do you see? Get one out of us of the way, maybe both, step in and pick up the pieces.” Lebedev nodded. “I think I might even know who it is.”

“The same one who suggested that I’m a problem that should be cleaned up? That too many bosses have ended up in body bags since I came on the scene?”

Lebedev went pale and dived for the altar, seizing the icon of Jesus in its heavy frame.

Vadim worked another spell on the icon.

Lebedev released it with a yelp. He looked down at the red streaks of burns on his hands and paled. “What’s going on?”

“You should have more respect for our Lord, Ilia. He might strike you dead where you stand. Heart attack, stroke, aneurysm. You never know.”

A sheen of sweat appeared on Lebedev’s forehead. He glanced around him as if for escape. “You won’t kill me, Vadim. You can’t afford to.”

Vadim crossed his arms. “When a man intends to kill me, I can’t afford not to.”

“And Bernard? Are you going to kill him, too? Or is it only me who gets to pay the price?”

Bernard. Of course. After that attempted setup, it only made sense that he’d try a more direct approach.

“No need to worry about Bernard. He has enough worries enough for both of you.”

Lebedev cracked a laugh. “You think you’ll do in both of us? You’ll have the bosses in Russia on you by the time a plane can get here.”

“The bosses. In Russia. Ilia, men like that were drinking lemon tea in the parlors of their dachas when I was running an army in Russia’s backlands. Do you really think they’ll stop me?”

“Someone will. Maybe not me, maybe not the Russians. But you keep making noise, more people than you’ll like will have a reason to silence you.”

Vadim snorted. “They can try.” He took a step toward Lebedev. “If I need to protect myself, I will,” he said softly. “It’s up to you. Understand?”

Lebedev opened his mouth, but nothing came out.

“Good.” Vadim nodded once and walked out.

* * *

Emilia didn’t, as a rule, attempt to read anyone who hadn’t asked her to. Besides being a shocking invasion of privacy, it was frequently too taxing to know secrets she’d rather not.

Today, she determined to break that rule.

Except for Flora. She did, of course, request her services, but Emilia ranged further into her future than usual, steeling herself.

Screams. Gunfire. Broken dishes scattered across the floor. Flora screaming curses in Spanish as she swung a cast iron pan at a man’s head—

Then that familiar nothingness.

It took all Emilia’s will to avoid reacting. Still, Flora noticed something.

“Señora?” she said her brows kinked in a worried frown. “Things are okay? No troubles?”

“There are always troubles,” Emilia said, putting on a smile. “The trick is avoiding them before one meets them.”

David, when she shook his hand after their driving lesson, fared better in her glimpse ahead. But she saw his apartment empty and unkempt, gifts unopened under a brittle drift of Christmas tree needles.

Amanda—

They often lunched together. Oddly, Amanda had never asked Emilia to tell her fortune. Perhaps, as she’d implied at the beach, she had little hope of it being a bright one.

In the end, Emilia’s courage failed her when the moment came that she might read Amanda. She couldn’t bear to feel Amanda’s terror when some man brought a gun to bear on her as she sat at her desk, or murdered in her home or as she went about some ordinary task. Because, of course, a woman who knew as much as Amanda did about Dragovich certainly couldn’t be allowed to live.

Irina’s future saw her weeping bitterly, great, painful gulps of sobs.

Weary to the soul, Emilia escaped into the garden when her computer lessons were done. She stared across greenery now subdued by the cooler temperatures and greyer days, hoping to wash away the images of fear and violence and pain.

There you are,” a light voice said behind her.

Emilia turned. “Tiff! How are you?” She took Tiff’s hands and squeezed them, but kept her gift sheathed. “What have you been doing?”

“Mr. D’s been keeping me busy lately. There’s bunch of girls just come over from Russia, so I’ve been taking them shopping, going with them to meet their sponsors, stuff like that. It’s kinda annoying not being able to talk to them, but I’ve been trying to teach them some English, so it’s getting better.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful.” It was the only bright spot of the day. “I met the young ladies recently. I long to see them again.” And see if their futures have changed since last I looked, she thought.

“You met them? How?”

Emilia smiled a little. Leave it to Tiff to be so blunt. “Mr. Dragovich introduced me.”

“Really?” Tiff eyed her doubtfully. “At Victoria’s? Um, you know about Victoria’s, right? And about those girls?”

“Indeed I do.”

“And…well…you’re okay with it?”

It was just the opening Emilia was looking for. She took Tiff’s arm and steered her away from the house, wishing she had Dragovich’s ability to magically make a conversation private.

“I must admit, it seems degrading to those women. What do you think of the matter? Of Mr. Dragovich’s involvement in—” She found it difficult to pronounce the word. “In prostitution?”

Tiff gave her a sharp look. “I think he kept a whole bunch of girls out of it, is what I think.”

“But—forgive me—how can you be certain?”

“Because that’s what he did for me. If he took you to meet them, you should know it, too.”

It took every ounce of manners Emilia possessed to control her face. “I do beg your pardon, Tiff,” she said. “I— That is, I haven’t the advantage of your experience with Mr. Dragovich.”

“If you did, you’d know better. Yeah, Mr. D’s mob, and the mob is full of not-exactly-nice people. But I’m here to tell you, the world is full of not-exactly-nice people. Just the ones here don’t pretend to be something they’re not.”

Emilia bowed her head. “Still, it leaves something more to be desired, don’t you agree? Have you ever considered leaving Mr. Dragovich’s employ?”

“What? No! Why would I?”

“You must know the danger of this business, amidst such company.”

“Danger?” Tiff said on a disbelieving laugh. “Excuse me, but you don’t know what you’re talking about. I know what’s dangerous, and Mr. D isn’t it. Mr. D won’t lie to you. Mr. D won’t mess with your head. Mr. D won’t do things to make you wish you were dead.”

Emilia reached out a hand to her, dismayed by her sudden anger. “Of course not, Tiff. I don’t mean to say any such thing. But others aren’t so nice. And that’s where the danger lies.”

The anger seemed to leave Tiff as quickly as it had come. “Yeah, I know. But with Mr. D around, I don’t have to worry about that. That’s why I’ll always be happy to work for him, because then I know nobody will fool with me. If they even try, Mr. D will kick their ass.”

“Yes,” Emilia said quietly, remembering Baljic’s fate. “I know he will.”

“You’re still mad at him, aren’t you?”

Emilia thought about it. “No… I don’t believe I am.” That realization caught her by surprise. “Frustrated on occasion, yes. He’s a very obstinate man.”

“You just found that out?” Tiff said, smiling.

“Perhaps I should say I’m learning to plumb the depths of his obstinacy.”

Tiff laughed. “Wow. I didn’t know anybody ever tried to argue with him.”

“That’s the problem then, I suppose.”

Emilia sighed. It was George all over again. Everyone hurtling toward disaster, unwilling to abandon the others to it. What had Dragovich said of her gift? It was a cruel sort, to be able to see…

And yet do nothing to change it.

“If only I could bring him to trust me!” she murmured.

“Trust you?” Tiff said. “About what?”

Emilia waved a hand. “You mustn’t mind me. It’s just that—”

The realization struck her, quaking through her like thunder.

“What?” Tiff said.

My obstinacy is the problem,” Emilia whispered, appalled. “My righteous anger. My implacable resentment. Why should he listen, why should he rely upon one determined to set herself against him, opposing him at every turn?”

“Emilia, what are you talking about?”

“I’m a fool,” she said. “I’ve been so certain of myself, so certain of the injuries done me. I never thought how terribly that might lead me to injure others.”

“But you haven’t hurt anyone!”

“No. Not yet,” Emilia said. “Not if I can help it.”

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.

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