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The Charming Universe

The Fates Universe

Other titles by Kristine Grayson

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  1. I’ve read all your charming and fates books. I just finished reading a book by an author I’d never heard of before. I loved Assasins in Love, and was pleased to find out you wrote it. Keep up the good work. I think that Rigley might have an interesting story.

    • Thank you! I’m so glad that you’re enjoying the books and you found the DeLake novel. Another is coming out in the summer.

  2. Just picked up Charming Blue at my local library and I am now hooked. You have a new fan!

    Cannot wait to read Utterly Charming & Thoroughly Kissed!

  3. After reading Utterly Charming in 2001 I fell in love. When it was re-released I was rejoiced to share your wonderful books to new friends. I have read everything you’ve written and adore your style. I simply cannot wait for your next book!

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More stories

 

Visions of Sugar Plums ebook coverNissa Kealoha helps control Santa’s image—his brand. An Image Specialist with Claus & Company, she helps promote his positive image and deflect anything negative. This year, Nissa finds herself counting the days until she can return to the Greater World to goose holiday donations and remind people about the good Santa represents. Until a man on a mission threatens her holiday plans.

 

Professor Ryan Palmer possesses the perfect voice in the perfect body. And he uses that perfection to launch an anti-obesity campaign against, of all people, Santa. Or as he sees it, Santa’s image. Ryan thinks the mythology of Santa eating cookies and drinking eggnog contribute to the obesity epidemic—one he hopes to help reverse.

 

Nissa must stop Ryan from tarnishing Santa’s image, but when they meet, sparks fly—the magical, person-of-your-dreams kind of sparks. Can Nissa keep her objectivity? Can Ryan let himself believe in the impossible? Can they find their own kind of Christmas magic together?

 

“Grayson’s clever, humor-tinged writing is absolutely delightful.” —Booklist

Paperback available from Amazon, B&N, and others.
Ebook available from AmazonB&NiTunesKoboSmashwords and others.


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Julka is part of Santa’s Advance team, but she’s spending her days inspecting rooftop entrances for the Big Night. And she’s traveling with an annoying elf who just happens to be on double secret forever probation.

 

She hates her job. She wants excitement. She wants to explore the Greater World. She wants romance.

 

Audiobook available from AudibleiTunes, and others. Paperback available from your favorite bookstore, Amazon, and B&N.
Ebook available from your favorite bookseller, AmazonB&NiTunesKobo, Omnilit, Smashwords and others.

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Ever wonder what happened to the scary vampire? The icky, white-faced creature of the night? The kind of vampire that vants to suck your blooood, not the kind that wants to kiss you silly? Well, only one such vampire remains, huddled in his New York apartment. He has one last chance to save his race. One last chance—and a plan that can’t fail. Or can it?

“The spellbinding Grayson…gives readers their money’s worth by taking the familiar and turning it on its ear, with humor and charm.”
—RT Book Reviews

Available in electronic form for $2.99.
AmazonB&NiTunesKoboSmashwords and others.
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Bethanne Dupree runs a computer dating service and pretends she doesn’t need it too. She manages to separate her personal life from her business life until Ray Greco comes to the office of the dating service to make a video. The handsome Greco distracts her staff, and his video crashes her server. In fact, he crashes a lot of things. Including Bethanne.

Available in electronic form for $2.99.
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LizBet wants to accept Van’s marriage proposal, but she can’t say yes until she figures out what to do about her last name. Should she take his? Should she keep hers? Such a simple thing. How come it feels so hard?

“Kristine Grayson gives ‘happily ever after’ her own unique twist!”
—Kasey Michaels

Available in electronic form for $2.99.
AmazonB&NiTunesKoboSmashwords and others.
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Roz trusts her husband Jack. So when she catches him in her photography studio with a naked young woman, she knows there’s more here than meets the eye. Turns out the young woman wants to pose for “artistic photographs”—the euphemism given to naked daguerreotypes sold to soldiers on the western frontier. The young woman isn’t the usual naked photograph type. So what’s she up to? And why has she involved Jack?

“Kristine Grayson gives ‘happily ever after’ her own unique twist!” —Kasey Michaels

Available in electronic form for $2.99.
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Roz knows that men distrust women in any profession. But when the men from Wells Fargo need a photograph of the man who tried to rob their stage coach, they had no one to ask but Roz. She’ll photograph the prisoner, but only on her terms—and her terms are unique, indeed.

“Kristine Grayson gives ‘happily ever after’ her own unique twist!”
—Kasey Michaels

Available in electronic form for $2.99.
AmazonB&NiTunesKoboSmashwords and others.
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Grint lived an uneventful life, so he’s living an uneventful afterlife, working as a minion, making sure the cosmic balance remains balanced. Birth day curses get balanced with birth day blessings. And no one gets into Heaven or Hell unless they’re supposed to go. But what happens when a particularly bad guy lines up in front of the Pearly Gates? A guy who shouldn’t be there. A guy who has somehow managed to game the system—during Grint’s shift. What’s a minion like Grint, who has no real power, supposed to do now?

“The spellbinding Grayson…gives readers their money’s worth by taking the familiar and turning it on its ear, with humor and charm.”
—RT Book Reviews

Available in electronic form for $2.99.
AmazonB&NiTunesKoboSmashwords and others.

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Completely Smitten Excerpt

I’m on a campaign to excerpt as many of my novels as possible for you, so that you can sample them before you buy.

This month, I’ve excerpted Completely Smitten, which I wrote as Kristine Grayson. The storyline follows Utterly Charming, and Thoroughly Kissed, both of which I’ve excerpted here. You don’t have to read either book to enjoy  Completely Smitten.  The Grayson novels are marketed as romance, but in truth, they’re light fantasy.  For those of you who have been asking, this is Sancho’s story. 

I hope it will wet your appetite, not just for this book, but for my other Grayson novels as well. You’ll find ordering information at the end of this post.

Here’s the back cover copy, followed by the excerpt and the ordering information:


THE SIDEKICK’S JOURNEY

Darius has been a sidekick forever. Always the best friend, never the hero. Known throughout the ages by a variety of names from Merlin to Sancho Panza, Puck to Andvari, Darius has kept his real identity secret.

Three thousand years ago, he disrespected true love. So, as punishment, the Fates took away his good looks and forced him to unite 100 soul mates before he got his looks back. He just united his 98th and 99th couple. He has one left when he meets Ariel Summers.

Ariel Summers, a world-famous triathelete, is hiking the Idaho Wilderness to come to terms with a career-ending injury. She falls off a cliff, but somehow manages to stop on a ledge halfway down. But she needs help, and a handsome man provides it—using magic. She meets Darius in his true form, which he can revert to once a year—and falls in love with him.

Or does she? Because Darius’s lifelong enemy, Cupid, lurks in the woods, and he’s shot an arrow at Ariel. Did it hit? And does it matter? Because Darius knows Ariel is part of the final couple he must unite. He can’t bear to unite her with anyone else. But Darius doesn’t deserve true love. So he must break Cupid’s spell, find Ariel’s soul mate, and unite them. Even though he doesn’t want to.

 

 

Completely Smitten

Kristine Grayson

 

Copyright © 2011 by Kristine K. Rusch

Published by WMG Publishing

First Published by Kensington 2001

 

The Sentence

(2700 Years Ago)

 

 One

 

“Cupid is stupid.” Darius stabbed his javelin into the ground and crossed his arms.

The sky was an unbelievable shade of blue and the grass was emerald. In the distance, Mount Olympus disappeared into the clouds. To his left, a silver pool with a golden waterfall released spray that haloed in the sun.

He was covered with sweat from his practice session. He had spent most of the day with the javelin. The day before, he had concentrated on his discus throw. In a few weeks’ time, he had to defend his position as the first winner of the Olympic Pentathlon, and he was not about to give up his title.

The Fates stood before him. They wore white gowns that were held in place by a gold broach on the right shoulder. Their sandals were also made of gold.

“Cupid?” Clotho asked. A large replica of a spool of thread held her blonde hair in place.

“Whom are you calling Cupid?” Lachesis asked. Her red hair had been divided into sections, which Darius took to be representative of Lots. Her supposed duty as a Fate was the Dispenser of Lots, the one of the three who theoretically assigned each living person a destiny.

“Eros.” Darius answered the question with more than a little annoyance.

“Eros?” Atropos asked. A golden set of shears held up her long black hair in an elaborate style. “No one calls Eros Cupid.”

“The Romans do.”

“Those pretenders who give so much credence to Romulus and Remus?” Clotho asked.

“Those pretenders are going to be important,” Darius said. “Just you watch. I think they’re power-hungry, greedy, and more than a little vicious. I bet in a couple hundred years, everyone will have heard of Rome.”

“You’re not here to wager on anything,” Lachesis said. “You are here to answer our questions.”

He knew that. He had known that the moment they had whisked him away from his practice session near Athens. He had no idea where he was now. He had been about to throw his javelin and then, one blink later, he was standing next to this pool.

Darius knew the pool was magical. Water could turn silver in the moonlight and golden in the sunlight, but it was never both at once.

“Ask away,” he said. “But get me back before the sun goes down. I have a lot of work left to do.”

“Throwing that stick?” Atropos asked.

“It’s not a stick,” he said. “It’s a javelin.”

“We know,” Clotho said. “But you are not a warrior. You are a gamester.”

“We do not approve of games,” Lachesis said.

“I’ve heard you don’t approve of much.” Darius was getting tired of this. And he was getting cold. The air here had a chill and his sweat hadn’t dried yet. Although it should have. Were they doing this deliberately to torture him?

“Really?” Atropos asked. “Who told you this?”

Darius shrugged. “People talk, you know.”

“About us?” Clotho asked.

“About everything.” He didn’t want the Fates to know he had checked up on them. He figured they weren’t much of a threat to him, but it was always good to know your potential enemy.

“You listen to gossip.” Lachesis frowned. “Is this where you get your information about Eros?”

“What information?” Darius said. “All I did was tell you he’s stupid.”

“You dare malign the God of Love?” Atropos asked.

“He’s no more the God of Love than I am.” This conversation was going nowhere. Darius wished he had a tunic, but he didn’t want to spell one while in the Fates’ presence. That would show them he was uncomfortable, and he didn’t want to be at a disadvantage. “Eros is a little spoiler who likes playing with people’s lives. Just because he’s decided to use his considerable magic to bring couples together doesn’t mean that I have to respect it.”

The Fates raised their chins in unison. They did most things in unison. They were the ruling tribunal of the magical, the court of last resort. They had the power to punish those who misused their magic, and their sentences were feared throughout the known world.

Feared by everyone except Darius. He’d done a little research on the Fates. He’d found out that they were students of the Powers That Be—interns to be more precise, practicing their newly acquired knowledge on those below them.

If the Fates misused that knowledge, they’d be demoted, returned to the ranks of the average mage. There was no guarantee that they’d move into the exalted ranks of the Powers That Be anyway. There hadn’t been a vacancy in that august body since Earth was covered with primordial ooze.

“Did you or did you not induce the mortal known as Homer to write of Eros…”

Then Clotho paused and a piece of parchment appeared in her hand. A moment later, parchment appeared in the hands of Lachesis and Atropos.

They read in unison:

 

“Evil his heart, but honey-sweet his tongue.

“No truth in him, the rogue. He is cruel in his play.

“Small are his hands, yet his arrows fly far as death.

“Tiny his shaft, but it carries heaven high.

“Touch not his treacherous gifts, they are dipped in fire.”

 

Darius frowned. “That wasn’t Homer. I told Homer to ignore the bastard.”

“Eros is not a bastard,” Lachesis said.

“His mother is one of the Powers That Be.” As Atropos said that, all three Fates bowed their heads and spread out their hands in a reflexive movement.

“She would be quite angry to hear you speak like this.” Clotho cringed just a little as if she were afraid of Aphrodite.

Darius ignored them. They seemed to prattle a lot. “It was another poet whose name escapes me. They’re all alike, thinking—well, thinking too much, for one thing. And they never exercise. Whoever said writers were touched by the Gods were wrong. Writers are ignorant, easily manipulated, arrogant—”

“Did you or did you not force those words to be written?” Lachesis asked.

“Well, I didn’t force them,” Darius said. “It was more like a suggestion.”

“While you were pretending to be this mortal poet’s muse?” Atropos asked.

“I wasn’t pretending. I was his inspiration. I’ve inspired a dozen poets. They sing of my athletic prowess. They—”

“Eros is very angry about the phrasing in this so-called work of art,” Clotho said.

“Particularly the ‘tiny his shaft’ part,” Lachesis said.

“It was all we could do to prevent him from showing us how inaccurate that was.” Atropos grimaced, as if the memory were distasteful.

“You brought me here because of a poem?” He’d heard that the Fates were capricious, but he had no idea how capricious.

“Of course not,” Clotho said. “There are other complaints.”

Darius resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He was certain there were other complaints. The battle between him and Cupid or Eros or whatever the little troublemaker wanted to be called had been going on for the last ten years.

It had started when Darius was fifteen. He had been walking through the agora in the center of town. He wasn’t shopping, although he had bought himself a few too many glasses of wine at some of the market’s booths, but he was still steady on his feet.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw some movement. A slender man wearing a loincloth was pointing an arrow at him. Darius hadn’t come into his magical powers yet, but he was the fastest man in Athens. He managed to snatch the arrow away from the man before the man had a chance to release it from his bow.

At that moment, Darius realized the man he was dealing with had wings—dirty little stumpy wings—and he was very angry.

He wasn’t used to being thwarted when he was shooting his arrows of love. Darius had misunderstood the reference at first, and when he finally did understand it (after much shouting), he grew even angrier.

Darius believed that Cupid—as he started calling the little bastard almost immediately (having learned that the barbarian name irritated the golden-haired cherub)—should have recognized another mage, even if the mage was six years away from gaining his powers.

Cupid, on the other hand, said his power over love extended beyond mortals to mages, an argument that irritated Darius to this day. Mortals, in Darius’s opinion, were useless creatures with the lifespan of gnats, certainly not comparable to the magical immortals who could live for thousands of years.

When Cupid pointed out that Darius took that attitude because he hadn’t lived as long as most mortals and didn’t know what magic was, the damage had been done. Darius decided the two of them were enemies for life.

“What other complaints?” Darius asked, as if he didn’t know all the things he had done to the winged troublemaker.

“You tipped his arrows with lead,” Lachesis said.

“So?” Darius said.

“Couples that were supposed to fall in love hated each other on first sight,” Atropos said.

“So?” Darius asked. “Why should it matter? If emotions are that easy to trifle with, maybe they should be banished.”

“You have disturbed the cosmic order,” Clotho said.

“You’re telling me that little idiot’s arrows are part of the cosmic order?” Darius shook his head. “What purpose would that serve?”

“I grant you,” Lachesis said, “it is a crude device and our predecessors—”

The Fates looked at each other and shuddered slightly.

“—could have been more subtle,” Atropos finished.

“But they had a master plan,” Clotho said.

“They believed that love is the essence of all existence,” Lachesis said.

“We still believe that,” Atropos said.

“It is the basis of our prophecies,” Clotho said.

“What prophecies?” Darius asked, then mentally kicked himself. He really wanted to get back to practice. He needed to finesse his javelin technique and he was here, talking with these glorified secretaries. He planned to win his second Olympic competition like he had won his first—without magical intervention of any kind. That meant he had to be in tip-top physical condition. A missed day was a missed opportunity.

“No one has told you of the prophecies?” Lachesis frowned and looked at the others.

“You are in charge of destinies,” Atropos whispered to Lachesis.

“Assigning them, not explaining them,” Clotho said.

“I know that.” Lachesis sounded annoyed.

“So what is Darius’s?” Atropos said.

“I don’t remember if you ever shared it with us,” Clotho said.

Darius was getting annoyed. How disorganized were these women?

Lachesis patted her tunic as if she were searching for something. Then she snapped her fingers and another piece of parchment appeared.

“He must have a heart before it can break,” she said.

“What in Hades does that mean?” Darius asked. “I have a heart. I can feel it beating every time I run.”

“A heart does more than beat,” Atropos said.

“Most hearts,” Clotho said softly to her companions. “Remember, we are speaking of Darius here.”

“Ah, yes,” Lachesis said. “The man who destroyed several perfect love matches all for the sake of a grudge.”

“The man who tried to kill the God of Love,” Atropos said.

“That twerp is not the God of Love!” Darius said.

“That is correct,” Clotho said. “Eros is not the God of Love, but he is the closest thing to it that we have at the moment.”

“At least until he serves out his sentence,” Lachesis said.

“By my calculations,” Atropos said, “he still has seventy-five arrows left in his quiver.”

Clotho sighed. “That’s too many. It will take him another three hundred years to go through them.”

“It was not our sentence,” Lachesis said. “Our predecessors believed this would work.”

Atropos nodded. “It was fine when mortals were primitive, but if a boy like this one can see through the cherub with the arrow routine—”

“I am not a mortal!” Darius said.

“We know that,” Clotho said. “But it really doesn’t matter. You shouldn’t have been able to see what he was doing.”

“We are not here to discuss Eros,” Lachesis said. “We’re here to discuss his complaints.”

“They’re more than complaints,” Atropos said. “Some are quite serious.”

“Particularly the last,” Clotho said.

“If you mean the hot wax thing,” Darius said, “I can explain.”

“You do not need to explain,” Lachesis said. “You interfered with the greatest love of all time. The redemptive love.”

Darius rolled his eyes. He hadn’t done much. Cupid had fallen for a beautiful, smart, and cold woman named Psyche and made her promise not to look at him. Stupid promise, which of course she couldn’t keep. So one night, Darius talked her into looking at Cupid in his sleep and then Darius made hot wax from her candle drip on his shoulder.

Cupid, like the baby he was, ran home to Mommy, and Psyche, to Darius’s surprise, cried like the world had ended.

“They weren’t suited,” Darius said. “She’s as cold as winter in the mountains and he doesn’t have the brains of a newborn lamb.”

“You are too young to know this,” Atropos said, “but one of the things we do is create myth.”

“He is heart and she is soul. They must be united before any relationship can last,” Clotho said. “By separating them, you doomed all lovers to impermanence and heartache.”

Darius shook his head. “I don’t have that much control.”

“No, you do not,” Lachesis said.

“Eros has returned to Psyche. But the damage was done. It is now extremely difficult for soul mates to unite,” said Atropos.

“Love at first sight is no longer enough,” said Clotho.

“The winged arrow becomes only the first step,” said Lachesis.

The afternoon was waning. Darius shifted on his feet, anxious to leave. “What does this have to do with me?”

“You,” Atropos said, “must be punished for meddling in things that only the Powers That Be should touch.”

At the mention of the Powers That Be, the Fates again bowed their heads and moved their hands.

“Punished? How can I be punished for something I didn’t know was wrong?”

“Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” said Clotho.

“He wasn’t ignorant,” Lachesis said. “He thought it amusing to meddle with Psyche’s psyche.”

“He does not know what damage he inflicts,” Atropos said.

“Hey,” he said. “I’m standing right in front of you.”

“In the terms of an immortal’s existence, you are less than an infant,” Clotho said.

“But even infants must have their hands slapped to learn the limits of their behavior,” Lachesis said.

“So,” Atropos said, “we sentence you thusly—”

“Thusly?” Darius asked. “Who talks like that?”

Clotho crossed her arms and glowered at him. “We do, when we are about to make a pronouncement about someone’s fate.”

“Listen closely, Darius,” Lachesis said, “We are about to take control of your future.”

“Sure you are,” he said, grinning at them. “As if you have that kind of power. You’re just glorified secretaries.”

All three women rose to five times their normal height. They towered over him, making him feel quite small indeed. Since he was a tall man, feeling small made him uncomfortable, but he tried not to show it.

“Who is your mentor, Darius?” Atropos asked.

“Bacchus,” he said.

“That drunkard?” Clotho frowned at her companions. “I thought we decided he would never again mentor a young mage.”

“We did,” Lachesis said. “But Darius’s assignment had already been grandfathered in.”

“What did Bacchus teach you?” Atropos asked.

“Besides how to drink wine without paying for it yourself,” Clotho said.

“He did a week’s worth of work with me, showed me how to use my powers, told me that I had enough discipline since I was an athlete, and then sent me on my way.”

“He what?” Lachesis grew even taller.

“He said I should come back when I was twenty-five. By then I would know what kind of troubles I faced and we’d deal with them.”

“Have you gone back?” Atropos asked.

Darius shook his head. “I was thinking of going after the Olympics. But I’ve been busy.”

“He’s been unsupervised,” Clotho said.

“He is young,” Lachesis said.

“He does not know the law,” Atropos said.

“And he’s standing before you,” Darius said. “Can we include me in this conversation?”

“Still, he has no discipline,” Clotho said.

“He has no respect for traditions,” Lachesis said.

“He has done more than any other to destroy loving relationships,” Atropos said.

“Probably because he has not had one himself,” Clotho said.

“Hey!” Darius said. “I have family.”

“Loving family?” Lachesis asked.

Darius frowned. He hadn’t seen his family since he was ten. That was when he had been sent to Athens to apprentice to an older mage. That mage had been Bacchus, who had left him on his own until he came into his powers, then gave the lessons that he had just described to the Fates.

“He cannot answer,” Atropos said. “He does not know.”

Clotho sighed and shrank to her normal size. “Standard judgments might be inappropriate here.”

Lachesis shrank too. “I did like the idea of tying him to a tree and shooting him with arrows for a thousand years.”

Atropos smiled. It was not a nice smile, especially at three times normal size. “And having him pluck the arrows out before the shots could be fired again.”

“Such a punishment will only push him farther into darkness,” Clotho said. “Right now, his actions can be attributed to ignorance and a need for attention.”

Darius didn’t say anything. For the first time since he’d been spelled to this place, he was worried. He hadn’t thought they could do much to him, but this talk of thousand-year punishments was beginning to upset him.

“No one has taught him appropriate behavior,” Lachesis said.

“Perhaps we should tie Bacchus to a tree,” Atropos finally shrank to her normal size.

“I think all we need to do with him is deny him wine for the next millennium,” Clotho said. “That will be punishment enough.”

“But what of Darius?” Lachesis asked.

“He needs to learn the true nature of love,” Atropos said.

All three Fates stared at him. The hair on the back of Darius’s neck rose. “I’ll learn. I promise. You can teach me anything.”

The women smiled in unison. It was a very unsettling look.

“Don’t worry,” Clotho said. “When we’re through with you, you’ll know more about love than anyone else in the world.”

“Why does that sound like a threat?” Darius asked.

Lachesis put her hands on his shoulders. “Because,” she said gently, “it is.”

 

 

 

 

The Aging, Annoying

God of Love

(Last Year)

 


Two

 

Ariel Summers should have heeded the warnings. Every portent had shown that this trip was going to be strange.

She wasn’t superstitious, not really. Sure, she had her rituals before every race, just like other athletes she had met. Some athletes kissed their religious medals; others carried a lucky rabbit’s foot; still others recited a little mantra or prayer.

Ariel laid out her transition equipment in a very special way—shoes first, then bike, then shirt—and she always put on her swimming cap exactly fifteen minutes before the swimming portion of the race started, no matter how hot it was. She painted on her own numbers, starting with the right leg, and never let anyone else pin her singlet to her shirt.

Rituals were important because they told her body that it was about to participate in a triathlon, and it helped her mental preparedness. It had nothing to do with superstition. She really didn’t believe that because she forgot to put on her cap at the right time on the day of the Ironman Canada, she had been doomed. It had only been coincidence that she had torn her rotator cuff. It had nothing to do with failing to follow her rituals.

Nothing at all.

But she couldn’t help feeling a little odd about this hike into the Idaho’s River of No Return Wilderness Area. First of all, there was the name: the River of No Return. Part of her worried that it was prophetic.

Then there was that incident with the park ranger as she headed onto the trail. Usually trailheads in areas this remote were unguarded. A hiker signed in and then was left on her own. The little sign-in box was miles from anything or anyone. Often there wasn’t even a Port-A-Potty nearby, just a rickety wood outhouse that could barely stand and lacked toilet paper.

But three days ago, when she started her hike, a man stood right next to the sign-in box. He looked like the cartoon character Dudley DoRight (not like Brendan Frasier, who played him [quite admirably] in the movie)—oversized chin, small piggy eyes, and exceptionally muscular chest. He wasn’t wearing a Canadian Mounted Police Uniform since it would have been out of place in Idaho, but his brown rangers’ uniform had a similar effect, right down to the narrow pants, which he had tucked into his boots.

“Where’re you going, Miss?” he’d asked in a booming cartoon character voice, and she’d nearly aborted the trip right there.

After all, it had been clear where she was going. She was already in the mountains. Ahead of her was a narrow trail that led through the tall pine trees toward the river. The trail only ran in one direction, and since she had just arrived at the trailhead, it would be logical that she was going into the wilderness.

“I’m, um, going on a hike,” she said.

“You should have a companion.” He had frowned at her, and if he had volunteered to accompany her, she would have ended the trip right then and there. The whole point of this hike was to do it alone, to test her own strength and stamina, and to reflect on her future.

She didn’t need an oversized cartoon hero babysitting her in case she encountered a crazed squirrel.

“I decided to go this one alone,” she said.

“In that case, sign here.” He gave her a big grin and patted the paper attached to the box. She gave him a reluctant look, then filled out one of the sheets and shoved it through the little hole, just like she was supposed to do.

When she was done, she frowned at him. “I’ve never encountered a ranger at the trailhead before.”

“Just waiting for a friend, ma’am,” he had said and for an odd moment, she was afraid he’d give her a salute. But instead, he nodded at her and wished her well.

And so she started down the trail, feeling disconcerted, as if time had gone out of sync.

The feeling really hadn’t left her. It was the morning of her third day and she was almost halfway through the trip. This night would be spent at a hot springs often used by rafters. She had thought it would be a good idea to stop at public sites a few times along the way, to see people, just in case she did run into trouble.

She hadn’t so far. The weather was lovely—cool in the evenings, warm during the day. The sun was out all the time, but it was thin at this altitude, and it wasn’t as hot as she had expected, considering she was making the trip in July.

Her backpack—in which she carried everything she needed—was comfortable, and the wilderness area was lovelier than she had been prepared for.

For the last two days, the trail had run above the river. Two thousand feet below, the river’s waters frothed over rocks and down waterfalls. Rafters went by, the guides looking serious and the rafters themselves screaming or laughing and having a good time. They almost never looked up and saw her, and she was grateful.

Ariel always did best alone. She had learned that after her parents died. Before that, she had been a coddled only child, touched by fairy dust, as her mother used to say. The world had seemed safe and easy.

Then, three days after her twelfth birthday, her parents’ car had been hit by a truck that had crossed the median, and there had been nothing left—of the car, of her parents, of her life.

Ariel had gone to live with her unmarried aunt in Monterey Bay. By the age of thirteen, she had made no friends. She had come home one afternoon to hear her aunt talking to social services.

“She’s such a strange child,” her aunt had said. “Never speaks, just watches television. I don’t even think she’s cried. I have no idea what to do with her.”

“Are you able to care for her?”

“Well, enough, I suppose,” her aunt said. “After all, she should stay with family, although God knows I never wanted children.”

That was all Ariel heard. She dropped her books, banged out the back door, and ran as far from the house as she could get. Midway through her mad dash, she realized that running felt good. It made her feel like a strong human being—one who could survive on her own.

From that moment on, Ariel became determined to be the strongest girl in her class. She could out-run, out-jump, out-ride, and out-swim all the girls and most of the boys. Her aunt hated the athletics, saying they were not feminine, but Ariel loved them and refused to give them up.

Which was why she was here, on this mountainside, all alone. Every time she hit a setback, she spent some time by herself, proving her own strength. This hike would allow her to focus on her future. She had some important choices to make.

The rotator cuff injury was too severe. Her doctors had ruled out any more competitive swimming. They might have allowed her to participate in a sprint tri, but she wasn’t good at the short length. Her strength was the Ironman—a 2.5-mile swim, followed by a 100-mile bike ride, and ending with a 26.2-mile run—all done within a single day.

She loved the challenge of it, pushing her body to its extremes. That was why she was here.

Walking through the primitive area of Idaho alone was an extreme.

And it was strange. That morning, it had gotten even stranger. As dawn’s thin light was just filtering through the evergreen branches, she had crawled out of her tent to pee. Dew glistened silver on the grass, and overhead she could hear birds chirping.

She had tiptoed across the cold ground toward the two rocks she had designated the night before as her bathroom site, when she saw a man pointing a bow and arrow at her.

He was short, bathed in gold, and he had little wings on his back. Gold curls rimmed the bottom of his skull like a skirt, but he was bald on top. Wrinkles covered his face, and it looked as if his nose had been flatted by a steamroller. He had a scar on his shoulder, and in his mouth, he clenched a half-smoked cigar.

“For this,” he said, “I come out of retirement. Like I still owe the Fates something. I was drunk that night I told the Enquirer everything. It wasn’t like I blew too many secrets. A single one-time punishment, they say. Jeez. What kind of trick will they pull next time they need a marksman, I ask you?”

He grimaced at Ariel.

“Why am I asking you? You, who are so uneducated as to have no clue who I am. You, who fail to realize you are in the presence of greatness.”

Then he released the arrow.

That snapped her out of her reverie. She ran for the trees, her breath coming hard, her body working without warm up. She moved faster than she ever had—she was not a sprinter—and finally she found an outcropping of rock that protected her.

When she looked back, the little man was still there, cursing. The arrow was stuck in the ground. He bent over and grabbed the shaft, tugging at it.

“Like those three harpies will ever know,” he was mumbling. “As if I wanted to help him in the first place. Why they assumed we’d become friends, I have no idea.”

He pulled, and the arrow finally came loose. He looked at it and frowned. Then he broke the arrow over his knee. Wisps of smoke, in the shape of red hearts, floated out of the arrow’s center, and then faded as if they never were.

“Good enough,” he said, and shoved the broken pieces of arrow back in his quiver. Then, in a blinding flash of white light, he disappeared.

Ariel rubbed her eyes. She was crouched on the damp ground, behind the rock cropping, breathing hard. Dawn’s light still filtered through the evergreen boughs, and dew still covered the grass—except in the places where her footsteps had disturbed it. Footsteps that made it look like she had been running.

But there was no little man with a cigar and wings, and there was no broken arrow that created smoky red hearts. She must have been asleep and dreaming.

Sleep-running.

That was a new one, and a bit disturbing too, especially since most of her campsites from now on would be near the river. What if she slept-ran into the water—or over the edge of a cliff?

That was the thought that had been worrying her all day. She really wasn’t thinking about competitive swimming or torn rotator cuffs. She was wondering if the stress of the last few months had damaged her mind.

Twigs, leaves, and broken branches covered the dirt path. Even though the hiking trail had been open for a month, no one had bothered to clear the winter debris. A sign, posted at the fork, warned of slides and unstable rocks, but Ariel didn’t plan to dislodge any of them.

She was smart enough to keep an eye on her surroundings at all times. People died every year in Idaho’s River of No Return Wilderness Area. She didn’t plan on being one of them.

She planned to come out of this trip refreshed, her confidence in her body’s abilities renewed. The rotator cuff injury had shaken her, and the loss of the Ironman—particularly when she’d been favored to win Hawaii this year—was especially hard.

Some of the other tri-geeks, people she’d known since she started running tris in high school, told her to swim through the pain. But she had done some research on her own. If she did, she might lose the use of her arm altogether. She planned on living another seven decades, and she felt that the use of her arm was more important than being in some record book as the winner of the Hawaii Ironman.

Even if it did come with endorsements and great publicity. She hadn’t been doing triathlons for the money anyway. She had been doing it for the challenge.

Hiking was a challenge. It was just a different kind of challenge, one that she hadn’t tried before.

Physical activity had always been her escape in the past.

She saw no reason why it wouldn’t work now.

 

***

Darius sat on a hillside, feeling grumpy. He had no reason to feel grumpy. The day was beautiful—the sky a clear blue, the sun shining down through the pine trees. The air smelled fresh and clear, summer in the mountains. In the distance he could hear the roar of the river, and it wasn’t even accompanied by the screams of rafters.

The hiking trail was empty. He hadn’t seen anyone all day except, of course, Cupid.

Cupid had shown up at Darius’s front doorstep shortly after dawn, looking angry, disgruntled, and generally out of sorts. Darius’s greeting hadn’t helped.

“They still making you wear diapers?” Darius said as he peered through the screen door.

“Fine way to greet a man you haven’t seen in five hundred years.” Cupid’s voice rasped from too many cigars. The butt of his last one stuck to his lower lip and moved when he talked.

“Hello, Cupid,” Darius had said. “I thought you gave up the arrows and wings around the birth of Christ.”

“I thought so too. Damned Fates decided I needed a refresher course. They slapped the wings on me last night. I think they’re just drunk with power.”

“They have been holding the same job for a very long time.”

“Too long, if you ask me.” Cupid shuddered. “You know, it’s cold up here at this time of the day. May I come in?”

Darius looked at Cupid’s wings. “If you don’t shed.”

Cupid snapped his fingers, but the wings didn’t disappear. He sighed. “Guess I haven’t finished my little task. Or is there a mandatory time limit on form-altering spells?”

“I have no idea,” Darius said as he held the screen door open.

Cupid stepped inside. “I’d heard that the Fates made you four feet tall with a long white beard and a hideous mug.”

Darius started. He hadn’t realized any of the magical knew about that part of his sentence. They knew about the other part, of course. He was a laughingstock because it had been nearly three thousand years and he still hadn’t put one hundred soul mates together.

He’d just finished the ninety-ninth couple a few months before and he had come to his Idaho house as a getaway. The Fates granted him two weeks every year—taken either in whole or in part, whenever he chose—when he got to look like himself. For the last few years, he’d been taking a week in solitude, up here.

“But you look just like you always did,” Cupid was saying. “How’d you keep from losing your hair?”

Darius didn’t answer that question. Instead, he asked, “Where’d you hear that I got slapped with a different body?”

Cupid shrugged. “Bacchus, maybe. Or whatshisname, later called himself Rasputin—crap. The brain’s going.”

“So are the wings,” Darius said, looking pointedly at the feathers covering his hardwood floor.

“They’ll be gone by the end of the day, I’m sure,” Cupid said. “And none too soon. They itch.”

He sat on Darius’s overstuffed couch and put his feet on the coffee table Darius had made out of a tree stump.

Darius debated whether or not to offer him food. The sooner he got Cupid out of the house, the sooner he’d be alone again. “To what do I owe this visit?”

“Old times,” Cupid said, pulling the ancient wool blanket Darius had on the couch over his torso. “Do you know there’re not a lot of folks who can remember Ancient Greece anymore?”

“You just mentioned Bacchus.”

“The last time I saw him was Spain four hundred years ago. He did something to really piss off the Fates and disappeared into deep storage around then.”

“What about Pan?”

“Went legit about ten years ago. Does concerts in the style of Yanni. Makes a mint, and doesn’t like talking to the riff-raff.”

“Hermes?”

Cupid rolled his eyes. “I don’t talk to Hermes anymore.”

“You never willingly talked to me either,” Darius said. “I interfered with your sentence from the Fates, or so you said.”

“So they said. Seems to me that’s why you’ve been playing matchmaker for most of your life.” Cupid leaned back on the couch, then exclaimed with pain as he crushed his wings. “Still not used to the damn things. Listen, offer me breakfast, and then I’ll get out of your way. I’m too damn tired to whisk myself back to Monte Carlo.”

“What’re you doing in Monte Carlo?” Darius asked.

“Running a casino.” Cupid took the cigar out of his mouth. “Don’t look so surprised. Casinos are safe. They’re one of the few places in the world where young lovers are scarce.”

“What does Psyche think about this?”

“Psyche?” Cupid grinned. “She loves the games, man. It was her idea to open the place. She’s a lot more adventurous than she looks.”

He leaned back and closed his eyes. Within thirty seconds, he was snoring. Darius sighed and stood. He and Cupid had reached a sort of peace five hundred years ago. Of course, it had come at a price. Cupid had spent most of that last visit laughing at Darius for failing to complete his sentence. Cupid seemed pleased that Darius was still paying for the things that had happened two millennia ago.

Darius still didn’t like the little creep. Breakfast was all he was willing to do. He made pancakes and sausages, and pour some of his homemade syrup into a pitcher.

When he finally served the food, Cupid was too busy stuffing his face to talk. He’d made Darius get up three times to bring him more syrup and then, when they’d finished eating, Cupid had disappeared without a real good-bye.

But he’d never been good on manners. It was one of the many things that Darius still disliked about him. The other was the stench of cigars that he couldn’t seem to get out of the house.

Darius had come to his favorite reflecting spot just so that he could get some fresh air. He still didn’t see the point in Cupid’s visit. They hadn’t talked about old times. They hadn’t talked about much at all. Darius got a sense that Cupid had remembered why their mutual dislike was…well, mutual.

A twig snapped, pulling Darius out of his reverie. He sighed and hoped this hiker wasn’t in trouble. The last few were so relieved at seeing a house, they stopped just for conversation. After this morning’s visitor, the last thing Darius wanted was conversation.

Then a woman emerged from the trees. She was too thin. He could see the bones in her arm even from this distance. But it wasn’t a thinness caused by excessive dieting or illness. This was an athlete’s thinness, the kind that came from pushing a body to its very limit. A kind he both recognized and respected. The body he wore at the moment—his original body—had that kind of thinness.

He had always found that look extremely attractive.

With a shrug of her shoulders, she adjusted her backpack. It looked heavy—at least 50 pounds—and she carried it as if it weighed only five. Within easy access she had rope, a knife, a flashlight, and a bottle of water. She was prepared.

She wore her auburn hair pulled back from her face. Darius strained to see her features, but couldn’t make them out clearly.

She moved with an athlete’s grace, with a confidence that very few people ever attained.

He inched closer to the tree, peering around it so that he could see her better. She walked with her head up, taking in the beauty of her surroundings. He looked too, trying to see this familiar vista through her eyes: the jagged mountain peaks, the bright summer sunshine, the ribbon of water running through the valley below.

She was conquering this place, hiking through it alone, making it her own. He, on the other hand, came here to hide. He used an airstrip that had existed since the 1930s, and he had never hiked in, not once, in the more than one hundred years he’d owned the house, hidden in the woods above him.

She had just passed beneath him when he heard a snap and then a rustle. He stiffened, hoping the sound didn’t portend what he thought it did.

He looked down, saw tiny rocks sliding toward her. She saw them too, and tried to step backward, but it was too late.

The path disintegrated beneath her and suddenly she was falling toward the raging river, a thousand feet below.

 

 Three

The path crumbled beneath her hiking boots. Ariel jumped backward, but not quickly enough. Her weight made the path disintegrate faster. She reached for the stable part of the mountain, but her hands couldn’t find purchase.

She suddenly found herself on her back, sliding down the cliff toward the water. She couldn’t grab anything. Her pack was between her and the ground.

Using all her strength, she rolled over and grabbed her knife from her belt. The rock-strewn ground cut into her bare skin, abrading it. She stabbed at the dirt, trying to slow her slide so that she could grab a tree branch or a root or anything that would keep her from sliding the thousand feet into the river.

The strain pulled at her barely healed shoulder. She could feel the rocks scraping her skin, but she couldn’t seem to hold on to anything. She was sliding faster and faster and she couldn’t stop.

And the worst part of it was, no one was here to see her fall, to help her, to record her death. She would plunge into the river and she might never wash up again.

No one would ever know what had happened to her.

She struggled harder, her fingers raw and bleeding. Her knife was finally slowing her fall. She could feel the movement ease, her body remaining stationary while the dirt slide beneath her. All she needed to do was dig herself in somehow and she would be all right.

Carefully she shoved her toes into the ground, then stuck the fingers of her free hand in as well. She found herself hoping to see the crazed arrow guy. She’d pay him to haul her off this mountainside. She’d even explain to him how to do it, since she doubted that anyone who ran around the woods while wearing diapers thought of carrying rope.

The mountain seemed steady. The little landslide had ended, and she hadn’t slid any farther. She breathed a deep sigh of relief.

Then her blade snapped and the fall started all over again, faster this time. Suddenly she was in free fall, no longer touching the ground at all.

This was it then. She was going to die, alone, unnoticed on this mountainside.

The portents had been right after all. This trip was a strange one—and it was going to end in her death, the strangest journey of all.

***

Darius hurried out of the trees, running toward the path. The woman was sliding on her back like an overturned turtle. She wouldn’t be able to do anything from that position.

Then, to his surprise, she righted herself and pulled out her knife, all in the same elegant movement. She dug the blade into the ground, trying to slow herself.

She didn’t seem panicked at all.

It had been years since he’d seen an ordinary mortal who was so calm in the face of death. The last one had been Napoleon, and he hadn’t been calm, he’d been crazy.

Darius stopped just shy of the place where the slide began and watched her fall. She was slowing down—the blade was working—and he knew then that she would be all right.

He stayed above her, though. She might need his assistance getting back up the mountainside. Normal, human-like assistance, with rope and a lot of effort. No magic at all.

She stopped sliding near the edge of an embankment. The mountainside turned into a cliff face not a hundred yards from her feet. She dug her fingers and toes into the dirt and sighed with relief. Darius started the spell for the rope, hurrying toward her as he did so.

With a crack, the knife blade snapped, and she was sliding again, faster than before. He ran toward her but he was too late. She slipped over the edge of the cliff and vanished.

She didn’t even scream.

He knew what that edge looked like. It was a sheer drop to the river. No one would survive that fall.

Not without help, anyway.

Darius raised his arms and cast a spell, one he hadn’t used in a thousand or more years. He made it as specific as possible. He was creating a ledge, one that would break her fall, so it had to appear below her.

He only hoped he got to her in time. If the ledge was too far down, he’d kill her, and nothing he could do would bring her back. Not even the Fates would let him revive her.

The air crackled with lightening and thunder as the magical power left him. Then he heard a thud. He started down the slope, but more ground loosened, and he nearly lost his footing. So he murmured another spell and floated over the edge.

The ledge had formed about thirty feet below him. She was sprawled on it, face down, her body twisted at an unnatural angle. He floated toward her, terrified that she was dead.

He landed on the ledge and crouched over her. She was breathing, but she had been badly injured. Blood trickled out of her nose, and she made a strange whistling when she breathed.

It had been so long since he had used magic for anything other than parlor tricks and transportation that he had forgotten almost everything he’d learned. He wasn’t supposed to heal injuries or sickness from natural causes, but he might be able to slide this one by on a technicality.

He had created the ledge, so the injuries couldn’t be natural. They were his fault. At least, that was what he would tell the Fates when they decided to punish him all over again.

Darius closed his eyes and tilted his head back. The river roared beneath him and he thought he heard the scream of a rafter. A warm breeze caressed his face. He forced himself to blot all that out, trying to remember the exact words of the healing spells he’d learned from a midwife in King Arthur’s court.

After a moment, the words came to him. He clenched his left fist, and extended his right hand over the woman’s back. She was still breathing, but her breathing was shallow. Then he recited the words of the spell. Light appeared through his fingers and illuminated her skin through her clothes. He saw blood spilled inside her stomach disappear, broken ribs knit, a punctured lung mend.

He moved his hand, repeating the spell over her head, and then again over her arms and her twisted legs. He was careful though, to make sure it was only internal injuries that got healed. External ones had to remain. She would remember the fall and think it suspicious if she didn’t have scrapes and bruises.

When he was done, he felt dizzy. He sat down and put his face in his hands. He had forgotten how draining using real magic was.

But he wasn’t done. He had to make the ledge disappear before the seasoned rafters noticed it and realized it was new, and then he had to get the woman to a place of safety.

He scooped her in his arms. She was lighter than he expected. He could feel her muscles beneath her skin. She moaned as he picked her up. Her eyes fluttered and then opened.

They were a rich green, almost an emerald color, and they were natural, not contacts at all. The color enhanced her ivory skin and her auburn hair. He found himself staring at her as if he had never seen a woman before.

“My pack,” she whispered.

Her pack? It must have broken off after she started to fall the second time. He didn’t see it anywhere.

“It’s got everything….” Her voice trailed off, but he could still see the concern in her eyes. She wouldn’t rest until he told her what happened to it, and if she didn’t rest, he wouldn’t be able to get her off this ledge.

“It’s fine,” he lied. “I’ll get it after we get you taken care of.”

She smiled and mouthed “thank you” before closing her eyes. Her body went limp as she lost consciousness again.

He cradled her to him, feeling her warmth against him, then recited a levitation spell. They rose up the cliff face.

A yellow raft made its way down the river, and one of the guides stared up at him. The guide tapped someone beside him and pointed. At that moment, they hit white water, and the guide nearly toppled out of the raft.

Darius reached the edge of the cliff and landed on a safe area away from the slide. That guide would remember what he saw, but he wouldn’t be able to prove anything.

Still, Darius felt careless. One of the many rules of the magical was to avoid calling attention to himself and his spells. He should have used a location spell. Obviously, he wasn’t thinking as clearly as he would like. That irritated him. But the proximity of this woman, the nearness of her death, and the fact that he had used more magic in this one afternoon than he had used in the past hundred years was clouding his judgment.

He would have to be careful from now on.

He raised his hand, balanced the woman against his hip, and used the spell now. Their surroundings vanished. For a brief half-second, they existed in darkness, and then they appeared in the guest room of his house.

The guest room was big, with a comfortable bed made out of logs. Log furniture sat in the corners, and a desk he’d owned since the mid-seventeenth century sat beneath one of the windows. The main window opened into the forest. The green rug that covered the floor had grown threadbare, but it would do.

At least the room didn’t smell of mothballs. He’d had the window open during most of his stay.

With a nod of his head, he used a slight spell to change the sheets. He couldn’t remember having a guest sleep over since Ernest Hemingway stayed here more than eighty years before. For all Darius knew, the sheets hadn’t been changed since then. It was probably less a reflection on his housekeeping skills than it was on his need for privacy. He hadn’t allowed anyone to stay in this house for a very long time.

It seemed odd to him that this woman was here now, right after his visit from Cupid.

Darius stiffened. Cupid hadn’t used those silly arrows on him, had he? Darius would have noticed.

Or would he?

Was that little creep finally getting his revenge?

The woman moaned again, and Darius focused on her instead. He laid her on the bed. Her hair had spilled out of its ponytail and cascaded across the pillow, accenting the pallor of her face. She still looked as if she were in pain, but that simply could be the after-effects of the fall. Her forearms were scraped raw and she had a large bruise on her right cheek.

He went into the bathroom and got his medical kit. From it, he removed some wet disinfectant pads and some bandages. Then he went back into the guestroom and cleaned off her scrapes.

She tossed her head from side to side. It appeared that what he was doing hurt her, but not enough to wake her up.

After he got the wounds cleaned, he bandaged them, then covered her with a blanket. He was staggering with exhaustion now—the magic use having taken its toll—but he still had several things left to do.

He went outside and reversed his ledge spell. From the river below, he heard shouts, followed by a curse, and then laughter. Apparently more rafters had been going by, but only one saw the ledge disappear. Darius smiled. That person would talk about his rafting hallucination for a long time to come.

Darius walked to the good part of the trail before doing his last spell. He watched the river, saw several rafts float by, and waited until he didn’t see them any more. Then he raised his arms and did a summons spell.

At first, he thought it didn’t work. Then a water-soaked backpack emerged from the river. The pack was torn and pouring water from its side. It rose the thousand feet, then dropped in front of him, landing with a soggy thud.

He wasn’t sure how he was going to explain this one to her. She was all right, but her pack had gotten wet? It had somehow fallen into the river and he had managed to fish it out, despite the steep canyon walls and the dangerous currents? Maybe he would tell her that a rafter had thrown it the thousand feet from the river below. Surely she would believe that.

He smiled. He was exhausted. He was getting punchy. Any more magic use would take the last of his reserves. That was what happened when a man didn’t stay in shape. If his best friend Aethelstan were here, he would be able to do all these spells and not lose a bit of energy.

Darius had become lazy over the centuries, and he hadn’t even realized it. All of the parlor tricks he had done to impress recalcitrant lovers had taken very little of his magical energy.

Then, in his mind’s eye, he saw her bruised face, heard her soft voice, filled with despair.

My pack. It’s got everything….

He knew what it was like to lose everything in a single moment. It was a sensation he never forgot, no matter that thousands of years had passed in the interim.

Slowly, he raised his tired arms to cast one more spell.

 

***

Heaven smelled like spaghetti.

Ariel kept her eyes closed. She lay on the softest surface she had ever been on in her life. A light, smooth blanket covered her, and her head was cushioned as if it were on air.

Everything was so clear. She remembered sliding over the edge and then falling, unfettered, toward the river and the rocks below. She had died on a beautiful day, in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. If a woman had to go out, she might as well go out spectacularly.

She didn’t remember hitting—someone had been merciful there—and then an angel had come for her. Only it wasn’t one of the golden cherubs from the murals in her childhood church. This angel was even better.

He had curly golden hair and eyes so blue that they couldn’t have existed on Earth. His nose was perfect, his lips thin, his face filled with concern. It was almost as if someone had plucked the image of the perfect man from her mind and then let him cradle her as she made the transition from life to afterlife.

He was what a grown-up Cupid should look like, not like that wizened little man she’d seen in the woods. Wouldn’t it be funny if the Greek myths were the true version of the afterlife, not the Christian versions she’d learned in her parents’ church or that hokey white-light stuff she’d seen on countless TV shows?

But if the Greek myths were true, shouldn’t she be on a river right now, trying to find fare to pay the scary guy who was supposed to ferry her to Hades? And if she was dead in that Christian universe, the one that she had been raised in, shouldn’t she be standing at the Pearly Gates, talking to St. Peter so that he could decide whether or not she was supposed to go up or down?

She had seen white light, but that was sunlight glinting off her angel’s curls. She would swear to it. She thought, as she half-opened her eyes, she had seen eagles flying above him in the beautiful blue sky. A pair of eagles, obviously in love…

She smiled, stretched—and immediately whimpered. Every muscle in her body ached. If she were in Heaven, then someone had screwed up. She hurt.

Ariel opened her eyes. She was in a bedroom, with windows that had a view of a forest. Sunlight dappled across a thin green carpet. An end table covered with very old books sat across from her, and beneath the window an antique desk rested, a quill pen and inkwell on its edge. The bed itself appeared to be made of logs, cut and polished, but otherwise left in their natural form. Other furniture in the room also seemed to be made of logs as well.

This was not Heaven, although it did smell of spaghetti. She was in someone’s bedroom, and she was still in the Idaho wilderness.

She frowned, wondering how much of what she remembered was real and how much was a dream. She had fallen off the edge of that cliff—she knew that much. She would never forget the way time slowed down, the way she could feel every second, the strange calmness she felt when she knew she was going to die.

She had thought she was alone, and she accepted that. No one would witness her fall. Even if she managed to survive it, no one would save her. She had been on her own.

As she hit the open air, she had thought that she’d better enjoy the view because it would be her last.

But she obviously hadn’t been alone. Someone had seen her fall and had rescued her. But how? She had been on a sheer cliff, and she knew she wasn’t going to hit anything. She had looked down in those slow-motion seconds and saw nothing between her and the river.

It was a spectacular sight—frightening and beautiful at the same time. Part of her had felt like Wile E. Coyote—as if she wouldn’t fall until she realized she was in trouble.

But she had fallen, and somehow she had come out alive.

Ariel pushed herself into a sitting position and let out another cry of pain. Her back muscles hurt. Her shoulder was so sore, she wondered if she had damaged the rotator cuff again. Even the muscles in her arms and fingers ached, probably from trying to grab hold of the ground.

She’d thought she had, too, and then her knife blade had snapped. Snapped and sent her falling to her death.

Maybe Heaven was like they portrayed it in the movies—a place that was somewhat familiar. Hence the guestroom and the lovely smell of spaghetti sauce.

But that didn’t explain the pain. Only living bodies felt pain. And it wasn’t just her muscles that hurt; the skin on her arms and chest burned.

She looked at the sore places on her arms. Someone had bandaged them. Then she pulled her shirt back and saw a raw scrape that ran from her breastbone to her navel. She wondered if the entire front of her body looked like that, then realized it probably did.

She had ridden down the mountainside on her stomach. Of course she would be scraped.

Obviously the person who had saved her hadn’t known about this. She would have to tend to it herself.

She sat all the way up, letting the pain shiver through her. Slowly she eased her legs off the side of the bed. They throbbed too, and her knees burned. More scrapes, she assumed. More scrapes and pulled muscles.

Then she slid off the bed and her left leg buckled beneath her. She crumpled to the ground and sat there for a moment, pain so pure and fine coursing through her that it took her breath away.

She eased her leg out from beneath her and then looked at it. Something was wrong. If her leg wouldn’t support her weight, then some bone was probably broken.

She ran her hands along her thigh, over her knee, and down her shin. The skin was scraped and raw over the knee and part of the thigh—whoever had bandaged her arm hadn’t found these wounds either—but it was her ankle that caught her attention. It was puffy, red, and three times its normal size.

Broken.

Ariel gritted her teeth and straightened her leg. This was just one of life’s new challenges. She was very lucky. She wasn’t dead. She had to remember that.

Using her elbows, she levered herself up, careful to keep her foot from touching the ground. She stood one-legged, searching for something that would act as a cane and seeing nothing.

So she had to hop out of the room. She sounded like an elephant, thudding her way forward. She hoped the floor was sturdy enough to take all this jumping. Otherwise, she might need to be rescued again.

The room next to hers was a bathroom, long and narrow, with a window that had a view of a private garden. The bathroom dated the house to the 1970s at the very least, even though the furnishings were modern—porcelain and chrome.

A medical kit sat beside the sink, apparently the same kit her rescuer had used to bandage her arms. She found a clean washcloth on the shelf above the sink. Then she sat on the edge of the bathtub, extended her leg so that she wouldn’t bump her ankle, and proceeded to clean up her wounds.

 

***

Vivaldi played softly on Dar’s battery-operated boom box. The boom box was on the counter, beside the sink, so that he could listen whenever he cooked—which was often up here. Back home in Portland, he acted like he had never made a meal in his life. Cooking was Aethelstan’s province—Aethelstan Blackstone, who had been Dar’s friend for more than a thousand years.

Most people in the country knew Aethelstan as Alex Blackstone, the famous chef. His restaurant, Quixotic, was a destination for most upscale tourists when they hit town. He also had his own line of gourmet food products, recipe books, and cooking accessories.

Ostensibly, Darius worked in the restaurant, managing its advertising and its work force. He didn’t need the money. He was richer than Aethelstan, richer than almost anyone he knew. And why wouldn’t he be? If a person lived nearly three thousand years and hadn’t learned how to earn and save money, then he was a fool—at least in Darius’s opinion.

He worked at the restaurant because he liked Aethelstan’s companionship and it gave him a cover for the work he had to do to fill out his sentence. While he was in Portland, he’d put two couples together: Aethelstan and his wife Nora, and Aethelstan’s former fiancée, Emma Lost, and her husband, Michael Found.

Darius stirred his spaghetti sauce. The sauce required a lot of attention, particularly since he hadn’t cooked it at this house in perhaps fifty years.

No electrical power wires ran to the house. There weren’t power poles this deep in the wilderness. Most of the electricity ran on two large generators that he kept fueled in the garage. Some of the rest of the power came from the solar units he had added onto the house in the 1980s.

And sometimes, when he ran out of fuel for the generator or when he simply had to watch a video or go out of his mind, he conjured up some electrical power all on his own.

Right now, though, he was cooking on the Franklin stove that he had installed in the house in the ‘teens. He considered that quite a sacrifice, because he had to build a fire in the stove to make the burners work, and the stove heated the kitchen unbearably. But this particular sauce had been his specialty since the mid-nineteenth century, and he had to make it.

He wanted his guest to experience the best of everything while she was here.

He wasn’t sure where that impulse came from—perhaps he was lonelier than he thought—or maybe he felt sorry for her. But he doubted it. He was attracted to her courage. He had never seen someone think so quickly or act with such competence. She was amazing. She was clearly an athlete, and a very smart person.

Darius sighed. He hadn’t been attracted to a woman like this in centuries—maybe ever. Especially a woman he hadn’t spoken to. He couldn’t ever remember being attracted before a conversation started.

It was still too early in the evening to open any windows to catch the cool mountain breezes. He had taken off his shirt in preparation, but it didn’t feel like enough. The kitchen was hot and stuffy, although the smell of garlic and oregano and the tomato-based sauce was divine.

Then the music thudded. Darius frowned. Vivaldi never thudded, not even when played by a particularly bad orchestra—and the recording he had was certainly thud-proof. He turned, wondering if the sound had come from the guest room.

He shut off the Vivaldi and listened for a moment, but didn’t hear anything else. Finally he turned the Vivaldi back on, and continued to stir the sauce.

Then he heard the thud again. It was followed by another, and another. He shut off the Vivaldi and listened to the thudding. It was irregular, and it definitely hadn’t come from outside.

Which meant his visitor was awake. Although he had no clue what was causing her to thud.

He hurried down the hallway. The door to the guest room was open, and the covers were thrown back on the bed. He peered inside the room, but didn’t see her.

Instead, he saw a movement out of the corner of his eye. She sat on his bathtub, her left leg extended, her shirt unbuttoned.

She wasn’t wearing a bra. Her breasts were perfectly shaped ski-jumps. Stunning, except for the long red scrapes running down the front.

She hadn’t seen him.

He looked away, silently cursing himself for not thinking that she’d be scraped under clothing. If he’d thought of that, he would have had to repair the scrapes, or at least bandage them, which would require cleaning out the wounds, which would allow him to run a cloth along that upturned skin, down to the nipple…

A trickle of sweat ran down his forehead. He was hotter than he’d thought he was. Damn that stove. Its effects even reached back here.

He backed away, considering himself fortunate that she hadn’t seen him. He moved silently, going back into the living room. He grabbed his shirt, wiped off his hot face, and slipped the shirt on. Then he started whistling the Vivaldi as he made his way down the hall.

Something clanged against the porcelain tub, followed by a soft female curse. He walked slower, giving her time to cover herself up—although part of him wondered why he was doing that. He would never have done so in the past. But then, he wouldn’t have cooked his special sauce for just anyone either. He would have radioed for a plane and gotten the offending tourist off his property as quickly as possible.

He looked into the bedroom as if he hadn’t known she was gone. Then he looked in the bathroom.

She was still sitting on the edge of the tub, but she had covered herself. She clutched the washcloth in one hand. The medical kit had fallen into the tub.

He hadn’t realized how very beautiful she was. In repose, she had been merely lovely, her angular features almost mismatched. But with light in her eyes and animation in her face, she became the most beautiful woman he had ever seen—and he’d seen some world-famous beauties, from Helen of Troy to Emma Lost.

He attempted nonchalance. He leaned against the door frame and crossed his arms. Then he smiled.

“Hello,” he said, and waited for her response.

Here’s how you order the rest of the book.  You can order the ebook now from all sources, including KindleNook, and Smashwords. You can get the trade paper edition at any bookstore or order it here.

 

 

 

 

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Wickedly Charming Novel Excerpt

I’m on a campaign to excerpt as many of my novels as possible, so that you can sample them before you buy.

Here, I’ve excerpted Wickedly Charming. The Grayson novels are marketed as romance, but in truth, they’re light fantasy.  At its heart, this is a book about books.  As Publishers Weekly said, “Reality and fairy tales collide in this altogether delightful story….Book lovers will be thrilled by the inside look at the publishing world, while fairy tale fans will love the in-jokes.”

I hope it will wet your appetite, not just for this book, but for my other novels as well. You’ll find ordering information at the end of this post.

Here’s the back cover copy, followed by the excerpt and the ordering information.

He’s given up on happily-ever-after…


Cinderella’s Prince Charming is divorced and at a dead end. The new owner of a bookstore, Charming has given up on women, royalty, and anything that smacks of a future.
That is, until he meets up with Mellie…

 

But she may be the key to happily-right-now…

Mellie is sick and tired of stepmothers being misunderstood. Vampires have redeemed their reputation, why shouldn’t stepmothers do the same? Then she runs into the hand

somest, most charming man she’s ever met and discovers she’s going about her mission all wrong…

It’s only natural that sparks fly and magic ensues when these two fairy tale refugees put their heads—and vulnerable hearts—together…

 

 

Wickedly Charming

Kristine Grayson

Chapter 1

Book Fair

The very words of the sign filled Mellie with loathing. Book Fair indeed. More like Book Unfair.
Every time people wrote something down, they got it wrong. She’d learned that in her exceptionally long life.

Not that she was old—not by any stretch. In fact, by the standards of her people, she was in early middle age. She’d been in early middle age, it seemed, for most of her adult life. Of course that wasn’t true. She’d only been in early middle age for her life in the public eye—two very different things.
And now she was paying for it.

She stood in a huge but nearly empty parking lot in the bright morning sun. It was going to be hot—California, too-dry-to-tolerate hot, fifty-bottles-of-Gatorade hot—but it wasn’t hot yet. Still, she hoped she had on enough sunscreen (even if it did make her smell like a weird, chemical coconut). She had her hands on her hips (which hadn’t expanded [much] since she was a beautiful young girl, who caught the eye of every man) as she surveyed the stunningly large building in front of her, with the banner strung across its multitude of doors.

The Largest Book Fair in the World!, the banner proclaimed in bright red letters. The largest book fair with the largest number of publishers, writers, readers and moguls—movie and gaming and every other type of mogul the entertainment industry had come up with.

It probably should be called Mogul Fair (Mogul Unfair?). But people were pitching books, not pitch ing moguls (although someone probably should pitch moguls; it was her experience that anyone with a shred of power should be pitched across a room [or down a staircase] every now and then).

This season’s books, next season’s books, books for every race, creed, and constituency, large books, small books, and the all-important evergreen books which were not, as she once believed, books about evergreens, but books that never went out of style, like Little Women or anything by Jane Austen or, dammit, by that villain Hans Christian Andersen.

Not that Andersen started it all. He didn’t. It was those Grimm brothers, two better named individuals she had never met.

It didn’t matter that Mellie had set them straight. By then, their “tales” were already on the market, poison ing the well, so to speak. (Or the apple. Those boys did love their poisons. It would have been so much bet ter for all concerned if they had turned their attention to crime fiction. They could have invented the entire category. But noooo. They had to focus on what they called “fairies,” as misnamed as their little “tales.”)

She made herself breathe. Even alone with her own thoughts, she couldn’t help going on a bit of a rant about those creepy little men.

She made herself turn away from the gigantic build ing and walk to the back of her minivan. With the push of a button, the hatchback unlocked (now that was magic) and she pulled the thing open.
Fifty signs and placards leaned haphazardly against each other. Last time, she’d only needed twenty. She hoped she would use all fifty this time.

She glanced at her watch. One hour until the Book Unfair opened.

Half an hour until her group showed up.

Mellie glared at the building again. Sometimes she thought of these things like a maze she needed to thread her way through. But this was a fortress, one she needed to conquer. All those entrances intimidated her. It was impossible to tell where she’d get the most media exposure. Certainly not at the front doors, with the handicapped ramp blocking access along one side.

Once someone else arrived to help her hand out the plac ards, she could leave for a few minutes and reconnoiter.

She wanted the maximum amount of air time for the minimum amount of exposure. She’d learned long ago that if she gave the media too much time in the begin ning, they’d distort everything she said.
Better to parcel out information bit by bit.

The Book Unfair was only her first salvo.

But she knew it would be the most important.


He parked his silver Mercedes at the far end of the mas sive parking lot. He did it not so that he wouldn’t be recognized—he wouldn’t be, anyway—but because he’d learned long ago that if he parked his Mercedes anywhere near the front, the car would either end up with door dings and key scratches, or would go missing.

He reached into the glove box and removed his prized purple bookseller’s badge. He had worked for two years to acquire that thing. Not that he minded. It still amazed him that no one at the palace had thought of opening a bookstore on the grounds.

He could still hear his father’s initial objection: We are not shopkeepers! He’d said it in that tone that meant shopkeepers were lower than scullery maids. In fact, shopkeepers had become his father’s favorite epithet in the past few decades, scullery maid being both politi cally and familially incorrect.
It took some convincing—the resident scholars had to prove to his father’s satisfaction that true shopkeep ers made a living at what they did, and in no way would a bookstore on the palace grounds provide anyone’s living—but the bookstore finally happened.

With it came a myriad of book catalogues and dis counts and advance reading copies and a little bit of bookish swag.

He’d been in heaven. Particularly when he realized he could attend every single book fair in the Greater World and get free books.

Not that he couldn’t pay for his own books—he could, as well as books for each person in the entire Third Kingdom (which he did last year, to much com plaint: it seemed everyone thought they would be tested on the contents of said gift books. Not everyone loved reading as much as he did, more’s the pity).

Books had been his retreat since boyhood. He loved hiding in imaginary worlds. Back then, books were harder to come by, often hidden in monasteries (and going to those had caused some consternation for his parents until they realized he was reading, not practic ing for his future profession). Once the printing press caught on, he bought his own books—he now devoted the entire winter palace to his collection—but it still wasn’t enough.

If he could, he would read every single book ever written—or at least scan them, trying to get a sense
of them. Even with the unusually long life granted to peo ple of the Third Kingdom, especially when compared with people in the Greater World (the world that had provided his Mercedes and this quite exciting book fair), he would never achieve it. There were simply too many existing books in too many languages, with too many more being written all the time.

He felt overwhelmed when he thought of all the books he hadn’t read, all the books he wanted to read, and all the books he would want to read. Not to mention all the books that he hadn’t heard of.

Those dismayed him the most.

Hence, the book fair.

He was told to come early. There was a breakfast for booksellers—coffee and doughnuts, the website said, free of charge. He loved this idea of free as an enticement. He wondered if he could use it for anything back home.

The morning was clear, with the promise of great heat. A smog bank had started to form over Los Angeles, and he couldn’t see the ocean, although the brochures assured him it was somewhere nearby. The parking lot looked like a city all by itself. It went on for blocks, delineated only by signs that labeled the rows with double letters.

The only other car in this part of the lot wasn’t a car at all but one of those minivans built so that families could take their possessions and their entertainment systems with them.

The attractive black-haired woman unloading a pas sel of signs from the van looked familiar to him, but he couldn’t remember where he had seen her before.

He wasn’t about to go ask her either. His divorce had left him feeling very insecure, especially around women. Whenever he saw a pretty woman, the words of his ex-wife rose in his head.

She had screamed them at him in that very last fight, the horrible, unforgettable fight when she took the glass slipper—the thing that defined all that was good and pure in their relationship—and heaved it against the wall above his head.

Not so charming now, are you, asshole? Nope, not charming at all.

He had to concede she had a point—although he never would have conceded it to her. Still, those for merly dulcet tones echoed in his brain whenever he looked in the mirror and saw not the square-jawed hero who saved her from a life of poverty, but a balding, paunchy middle-aged man who would never achieve his full potential—not without killing his father, and that was a different story entirely.

Charming squared his shoulders and pinned his pre cious name badge to his shirt. The name badge did not use his real name. It used his nom de plume—which sounded a lot more romantic than The Name He Used Because His Real Name Was Stupid.

He called himself Dave. Dave Encanto, for those who required last names. His family didn’t even have a last name—that’s how long they’d been around—and even though he knew Prince was now considered a last name, he couldn’t bring himself to use it.

He couldn’t bring himself to use any name, really. He still thought of himself as Charming even though he knew his ex was right—he wasn’t “charming” anymore. Not that he didn’t try. It was just that charming used to come easily to him, when he had a head full of black, black hair, and an unwrinkled face, and the squarest of square jaws.

Prince Charming was a young man’s name, in truth, and then only the name of an arrogant young man. To use that name now would seem like wish fulfillment or a really bad joke. He couldn’t go with P.C. because the initials had been usurped, and people would catch the double irony of a prince trying to be p.c. with his own name change.

And as for Prince—that name was overused. In addi tion to the musician, Princes abounded. People named their horses Prince, for heaven’s sake, and their dogs, and their surrogate children. In other words, only the nutty named a human being Prince these days, and much as Charming resented his father, he couldn’t put either of his parents in the nutty category.

So he told people to call him Dave, which was em phatically not a family name. Too many family names had been co-opted as well—Edward, George, Louis, Philippe, even Harry, not just by another prince, but by some very famous, very fictional, magical potter’s kid.

Dave, not David, a man who could go anywhere in cognito any time he liked. Gone were the days when people would do a double-take, and some would say, Aren’t you…? or You know you look just like that prince—whatsisname?—Charming.

Now they nodded and looked past him, hoping to see someone more important. Which was why he preferred the Greater World to the Third Kingdom. In the Greater World, they knew he wasn’t the Prince Charming. To them, the Prince Charming was a man in a fairy tale, a creature of unattainable perfection, or—more accurately (he believed) a cartoon character, an animated hero.

He was none of those things. True, he had a longer-than-usual life, but that caused longer than usual problems—like waiting for his father, who also had a longer-than-usual life, to kick the proverbial bucket (which in the Third Kingdom, wasn’t as proverbial as you might think).

But as for magical powers, Charming had none, be sides that all-encompassing charm, that Ella had told him, in no uncertain terms, was gone now. Ella, who got his estates, half of his money, and custody of their two daughters because—true to form—his father wouldn’t let Charming contest the divorce over girls.

Charming sighed and started across the monstrous parking lot. Several other cars were pouring into the first entrance, way up front, near the doors. The park ing there, he knew from the emails he had gotten, was reserved for booksellers and the disabled—or the dif ferently abled, as he had been bidden to say. The emails claimed he would need the close-in parking for the hun dreds of pounds of books he would lug back to his car at regular intervals. But he had lugged chain mail and two injured companions over a hundred miles. He figured he could handle a few books.

The attractive woman had pulled out the last sign. He saw the initials—PETA—and felt a surge of disap pointment. He’d seen what those animal rights lovers had done to his mother’s favorite fur coat the one and only time he had taken her to the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan. His mother had been horribly traumatized, although not so traumatized that she forgot to command him to bring the entire cast of the Met to the Third Kingdom at the end of every opera season.

Charming walked around the attractive woman, re sisting the urge to stare at her. Instead, he glanced at her out of the corner of his eye.

She had hit that age when women moved from cute and perky to beautiful and sometimes even handsome. This woman had a narrow face and raven black hair, the kind that always attracted him. She wore a short-sleeved black jacket over matching black pants, along with a red blouse that accented her unlined skin.

She looked like the kind of woman who knew ex actly what she wanted and exactly how to get it. The kind of woman who ran boardrooms and households with equal ease.

The kind of woman his ex most certainly was not.

He shuddered at the thought of Ella. No matter how much he tried to forget her, he couldn’t. He’d had hopes for that relationship. He had hoped it wouldn’t be an empty relationship, like his parents’ relationship. He had hoped it would be based on trust and mutual interests, and most of all, on love.

He had loved Ella. He had loved her a lot.

But he had paid for his myopia time and time again, for the fact he hadn’t recognized her when he had seen her covered with ash from her stepmother’s fireplace, a fact that Ella—in all the years of their marriage—never let him forget.

In those days, he hadn’t known he needed glasses. No one used glasses back then, well, no one important anyway. A few people wore a magnifying glass over their eyes, but a king’s son certainly couldn’t, not if he wished to maintain his dignity.

His mother had paid for a few spells to improve his eyesight, but the damn things always wore off at the most inconvenient times. He’d been married a year when he got his first pair of glasses—and he’d gotten them in defiance of his entire family, including his wife. But none of them had nearly died on the field of battle, because the damn spell wore off as he was in the middle of hand-to-hand combat with one of the champions from the other side. The entire world went from crystal clear to blurry in a half a second, and he flailed miserably.
Fortunately, in the flailing, he’d managed to disarm (and accidentally dismember) his opponent.

It ended well for Charming—in those days, things usually did—making him even more of a hero to his people.

But they didn’t know it was an accident because he couldn’t see anything.

Not that he ever wore his glasses on the field of battle. His family wouldn’t hear of that (and truthfully, the thought frightened him—glasses broke at the most inopportune times and in the most inopportune ways. Eye-gouging was a favorite practice in those days—one of the few things the early fairy tales [misnamed stories of his—and other people’s—exploits] got right).

He had passed the woman now. For a brief moment, he fantasized that she would look up from her struggle with the PETA signs (why did the gorgeous ones always have a tinge of nutcase to them?) and would see him. She would watch him walk with great interest, as if he were still the Charming of old, thinking how much she’d like to meet him (and maybe how much she’d like to do other things with him).

The very thought made him blush. Then it made him grimace. He didn’t do himself any favors by letting his imagination run wild. That had been the problem the first time. He’d seen a pretty, petite girl at a ball—honestly, the prettiest girl he’d seen up until that time—and he’d convinced himself he was in love. He had been in lust, but fairy tales didn’t deal with lust. And neither did virtuous king’s sons—at least, not in their conscious mind. But the subconscious… well, that was a different story.

Back then, he hadn’t known what a subconscious was. Or what failure was.

Or how it felt to be balding and no longer distin guished. Just another middle-aged man with a purple badge, heading into a book fair.

Charming sighed. He tried to put the attractive woman out of his mind. He still had something to look forward to—something he enjoyed greatly. Something he couldn’t get back home.

Coffee. Doughnuts. And insight into this season’s bestsellers.


Mellie watched the handsome man walk the length of the parking lot. She had only caught a glimpse of his profile, but it was classic: high cheekbones, square jaw, aquiline nose. The frame of his glasses was so thin that it looked like an arrow pointing to his stunning salt-and-pepper hair.

He wore what was known as business casual—a long-sleeved shirt and dark pants (no suit coat, no tie) but he still looked elegant. Some of that was the clothing itself; there was nothing casual about it. It was tailored to fit—and fit it did, over a well-muscled back, broad shoulders, and a
nice tight—

She shook her head and looked away. If she really thought about it, she had to acknowledge that men were the source of her troubles. From her beloved first husband who had left her a young widow with two extremely young daughters to her know-it-all second husband who stupidly introduced her as a fait accompli to his own daughter starting a resentment that continued to this day, men had been the root cause of her dilemmas from the moment Mellie had hit the public eye.

Of course, she had handled things badly. She always thought that any publicity was good publicity. Little did she realize that once someone had defined you to the media, then it didn’t matter how many charities you gave to or how many advanced degrees you had, you would always be the evil stepmother, the wicked witch, or worse, the aging malignant crone.

At least she had avoided that last category—for now, anyway. She felt it hovering around her, like the fly ing monkeys from the stupid Hollywood version of The Wizard of Oz.

She heard a sound and turned. The man behind her was exceptionally attractive. He had pale blue eyes and glossy black hair that fell like a mane around his face. He also left a trail of wet footprints heading west. He was a selkie whose real name she did not (of course) know. He carried his pelt over his right arm and this time he wore human clothing.

He had actually stopped their first protest earlier this year by pulling off his pelt and having nothing suit able on underneath it. (Although she could see why the human storytellers had felt threatened by these creatures from the sea: not only were they preternaturally good-looking, they were also very well endowed.)

“As people show up, will you hand out signs?” she asked. “I need to figure out where we’ll stage our protest.”

She shoved the last pile of signs at him, not giving him a chance to say anything, and then she hurried along the parking lot.

Midway there, she realized she was trying to catch that ever-so-elegant man and she slowed her steps.

She had sworn off men decades ago.

She wasn’t about to let one distract her now.

 

Chapter 2


The coffee was bitter and only the inedible coconut-covered doughnuts were left. Charming should have ar rived earlier. Still he poured himself a cup, grabbed one of the few remaining paper plates, and found a maple bar crammed against the back of the doughnut box. Then he settled into a chair at the back of the room.

The panel was already talking about social media and whether or not it meant the death of the book, a topic that always broke his heart. He understood the im portance of stories—he’d been raised on stories. Bards had come to his father’s court before Charming could even read. But the best stories were the ones he accessed privately—and a screen never really felt private to him.
Still, he listened politely, getting more and more dis couraged, until he finished his maple bar and fled.

The doors to the main exhibition hall were locked, with guards standing out front. The guards didn’t look that formidable—two fat security guards in uniform, and several bookish types with their arms crossed, trying to look tough.

Too late for doughnuts; too early to see the books. Story of his life.

Still, he had some time before the exhibition hall opened, so he decided to explore. He knew from his convention packet that there were side rooms, meeting rooms, conference rooms, and the all-important media room where the famous people, from the writers to the politicians/actors/musicians who loaned their names to books, gave interviews about whatever seemed impor tant at the time.

The hallways were unbelievably wide so that they could accommodate crowds and wheelchairs, and yet he was the only person in them, except for the occasional publishing house salesman scrambling to put the finish ing touches on a booth. From a distance, he caught the scent of cafeteria food, and remembered that they would all be able to buy lunch here if they were so inclined.

He was inclined, especially after that maple bar. There were no restaurants nearby, and he didn’t want to lose his parking space.

He meandered, glancing at computer-generated signs telling him that the small press area was in a building to his left, the affiliated organizations were in the base ment, and the media room was down the hall.

The media room was closest. Besides, he had a hunch he’d spend time in the media room and wouldn’t in the affiliated organizations area. He didn’t want to leave the building—not yet, maybe not ever. This wasn’t his first book fair, and he’d learned that he couldn’t see every thing in the main exhibit hall, let alone everything in the other wings and buildings.

The amount of things published in English alone scared him. In English in the United States. Not counting England, Canada, or Australia. Not counting all the other countries and their own presses in their own languages.

Sometimes he thought of starting his own publishing company back home, but these things tended to spawn more publishing companies, and then there’d be book fairs, and then he’d have to read everything published in the Kingdoms—not just everythingwritten about the Kingdoms, which had been going on for centuries.

He felt overwhelmed just thinking about it.

The media room signs pointed to both a flight of stairs and to a bank of elevators. He stopped and looked at the map for this network of buildings. The media room wasn’t a room; it was an entire wing.

Which made sense, since most of the programming he wanted to see was held in the media room. He’d had to get tickets ahead of time, sometimes at extra cost, just so that he could see his favorite authors expound on something he probably didn’t care about.

Still, he was enough of a geek to want to see the people whose work he enjoyed, even if they were talk ing about something else. He’d gotten as many tickets to as many events as he could. He’d sit in the back of the room, though, because there would be cameras.

Not that he was famous here in the Greater World—he wasn’t (unless you counted that whole Prince Charming thing [every girl was looking for one, or so he was told]). He had simply learned over the years that the camera loved him. He had a bit more charisma than the average author, so camera operators would focus on his reactions to various speeches.

He became the “average reader” nodding and smiling as his favorite author spoke. No one recognized him as Prince Charming. No one even thought he was a celebrity. But for a year or so, he became “Reaction Man”—the go-to guy on Book TV. If Charming had been near an au thor who gave a speech, and that speech was filmed, then inevitably, Charming would find his own face flittering across Book TV—laughing, looking very serious, or ap plauding as the writer said something worthwhile.

Charming hated that. At first, he’d thought it a simple error. Then he saw it repeated over and over again. Then, at one of the smaller book fairs, he overheard segment producers asking if someone could find Reaction Man so that they could actually interview him.

From that point on, Charming hid in the back of the room, in the dark, away from the lights, never raised his hand and—sadly—never asked his favorite writers for autographs at the end of their talk.

But to get that coveted back-of-the-room spot, he had to scope out the room and find the darkest corner. Moments like this were the best time to do so, when no one important was around—especially not the camera operators or the producers.

The wing had several function rooms. He stopped in the hall and double-checked his program. He might have to investigate more than one room.

He would just have to find out which one.


Mellie pulled her badge out of her purse. The badge was a disgusting orange, the designated color for “affiliated organizations.” She had registered PETA with the book fair right at the start, although she’d had to use the orga nization’s full name—People for the Ethical Treatment of Archetypes—because (apparently) the other, more famous, PETA was both hated and feared.
Rather like she had been once, for a brief span of her life, back when she was searching for Snow White.

Mellie sighed. She didn’t miss those days. In fact, she wished she could wipe them out entirely. But they defined her life, whether she wanted them to or not.

She rounded the building—which was bigger than half the castles in the Kingdoms (uglier too)—and found the double doors leading into the north wing. The north wing, according to her book fair materials packet, held the media room, and the publicity area, and the inter view room—all the places she cared most about.

She carried flyers in her book bag. The flyers would get her into the publicity area. Savvy book fair attend ees knew to put their flyers in the publicity area and on their booth. Especially when their badge category was relegated to the basement like hers was.

She’d tried to get a press badge, which would have given her the run of this wing. She’d even started a newsletter, with book reviews and everything. But the book fair committee—while not exactly telling her she was an amateur, implied it:

Due to the preponderance of regular media, the re fusal letter had said, we are unable to give more than one hundred passes to smaller media organizations. We thank you for your interest in our fair.

“We thank you for your interest in our fair,” she mouthed, still annoyed at that. Apparently there were limitations on press, but none on affiliated organizations. If you were willing to pony up the exorbitant fee—damn near ten times the fee for the booksellers (those folks got in almost for free)—then you could have a booth in the affiliated organizations area.

She’d gotten Griselda, Hansel and Gretel’s stepmother, to man the booth most of the time. Griselda—or Selda, as she preferred—could talk about their cause without getting furious. She was a true asset. But she had gone through counseling and done lots of work here in the Greater World. Selda wasn’t even angry at her former husband for making up all the lies about her. She said such things happened all the time in abusive relationships.

Mellie slipped through the double doors into the loading dock. The media area always got the best load ing dock, mostly because it needed a place to safely park the various trucks—including satellite trucks, which got brought in on the second day for the keynote speaker.

This year’s keynote wasn’t all that spectacular—some bestselling writer who wrote thrillers. In previous years, there’d been former presidents. Mellie had been hoping a former president this time. The former presi dents did force the place to have added security, but that didn’t matter as much as the added media coverage. Just because one of those former heads of state visited—and they were, in her mind, rather minor, considering they only ruled for a maximum of eight years (why would anyone agree to that?)—every major news organization showed up in droves. And the fair got coverage on all the major channels as well as the minor ones.

No such luck this year. She’d been disappointed when she figured that out. But, she decided, this book fair would be a practice run at a bigger media blitz. She’d convince places to report on her grievances, and then maybe—if she got lucky—she’d become a keynote speaker at one of these things. Her goal this weekend was minor. All she wanted was local press coverage.

Although “local” in Los Angeles was a misnomer. If nothing else, her footage would air on major affili ates from here to New York. If this worked, she’d head from here to the publishing capital of the United States to press her case.

Her breath caught. Beneath it all, she was very, very nervous. She had a lot resting on this.
She really wanted to make a difference in countless lives, and this was the only way she knew how.

She wound her way around cables strewn across the concrete floor, past trucks with station logos emblazoned on the side, past brawny men with droopy pants carrying light and sound equipment up a small flight of stairs.

A number of the men smiled at her as they went by. She still looked good. Her old self—the pre-disaster self—would’ve seen that as a positive sign. Now she knew it for what it was, a symptom of the world’s—both worlds’ (hers and this one’s)—obsession with beauty over substance.
When she’d had real beauty, she’d had little substance. Now that she was older, she had a lot of substance, but she was nowhere near as beautiful as she had been before.

Although she did have a bit of glamour. A touch of the magical that made her seem larger than life here in the Greater World. She’d learn to use that to press for her cause.

She waited until another group of sweaty men carry ing equipment went up the small flight of stairs into the main part of the building. Then she scurried up the steps behind them.

She had a few missions: First, she’d scout out the locations, find the green room, find the interview room, and find the celebrity hideout for the on-air talent con signed to this place. Then she’d see if she could line up an interview or two. If some security guard saw her badge and told her that she didn’t belong, she’d pull out her flyers, and bat her eyes, and ask (oh-so-dejectedly) where the publicity room was.

She’d also find the best place to stage a protest. Maybe she’d do it during the keynote speech, which wasn’t until mid-afternoon tomorrow. She knew from experience that she could probably store her signs in the loading dock or one of the small, unused closets alongside it.

She stepped into the hall. The lights were brighter here, the air cooler (air conditioning—one of the best in ventions ever in the Greater World), and the floor softly carpeted. The color scheme left a lot to be desired—whoever thought rose red and sky blue made for a good combination?—but she wasn’t the one who had to put all that garishness on film.

She just had to use it to her advantage.

She clutched her book bag to her side, flipped her badge over so that its white back was the only visible part, and made her way to the keynote speech area. First she’d figure out if she had room for a protest there. Then she’d find the interview room.

The hallway was surprisingly empty—no sweaty men carrying equipment, no overly made-up on-air tal ent trying to find the green room. No one except that elegant man she’d seen earlier.
He stood with his back to her as he peered at the pro gram listing outside one of the function rooms.

His back was stunning. She really couldn’t get over those broad shoulders, the hint of muscle through the beautifully tailored shirt, the way that it all tucked into the form-fitting pants—

She shook off the thought and made herself look away, her cheeks warm as if she were a young maiden like she’d been before her first marriage.

Of course the elegant man would be down here. He was probably on-air talent. He wouldn’t be national—she would’ve recognized him, even from (especially from?) the back. He was probably the main anchor at one of the local affiliates. They liked their main anchors to have some judiciously silver hair—sometimes they even made the men dye the silver in, so they had that classy salt-and-pepper look.

Male anchors had to look authoritative, but approach able. The knowledgeable, trustworthy guy on the block, not too handsome, but handsome enough.

Or in the parlance of fairy tales: Just Right.

He was Just Right, even from the back. Especially from the back.

Her cheeks grew even warmer. She pressed her hands against them, willing the reaction to go away. She didn’t need to get all hot and bothered over some local anchor.

Although he might make a good contact. Maybe she could even sweet-talk him into an interview.

She let her hands drop away from her cheeks. She took off her badge and smoothed her clothes. She swept one hand over her hair—it felt like all the strands were in place—and she suddenly felt thankful for that blush. It would highlight her skin (still flawless after all these years) and make her seem more vibrant.

She straightened, then sashayed toward him, trying to figure out how, exactly, she would approach him. Maybe she’d pretend to be an expert on the building. Or better yet, someone who was as lost as he was. They’d have something in common, a bit of instant camaraderie.
As she approached, she saw him turn slightly. He reached for the door, then stopped as if he thought the better of it. He glanced over each shoulder quickly, as if he were doing something wrong.

He didn’t see her.

Which was a good thing.

Because she stopped walking, her heart in her throat.

He wasn’t an anchor at all.

He was a Charming.

 

Chapter 3

Charming slipped inside the main function room and shivered. Someone had turned the air conditioning on “icicle,” probably in anticipation of large crowds for the various speeches. This room was huge—as big, if not bigger, than most hotel ballrooms. At least five hundred seats had been placed too close together, and a bit too close to the makeshift stage.

The room had already been set up for a panel discussion. A long table sat on top of a dais, with microphones in front of four seats. No names yet—someone always set the name placards out just before the thing started—but an ice-filled pitcher of water along with four glasses sat on a little coaster in the middle of the table.

It was so cold in here that ice probably wouldn’t melt.

He rubbed his hands together. Someone had taped x’s to the floor on either side of the table, a sugges tion for the camera operators—a suggestion that would probably irritate them. A sound board sat near the door, already hooked up, which was good for him. That meant that no one from the media would be anywhere near the back.

He walked to the back of the room, realized there was space for at least another two hundred chairs (some of which were stacked against the far wall), and glanced up at the lighting. It was regular conical lighting—more flattering than fluorescents—but also good for him. Conical lights created circles. Circles overlapped, but they also created shadows.

The door banged.

He froze, glanced over, not wanting to be caught in the room alone. Not that there was anything wrong with it. He just hated the hassle.

But no one had come in.

He let out a small sigh, then looked up again, double-checking what he already sensed. He walked over to the farthest chair deep in the shadows, and took out the extra program he’d filched off one of the doughnut tables. He set the program on his chair, and wrote “reserved” across it in Magic Marker.

Even if someone moved the program, they’d only move it a seat or two away. He had his spot for the first panel discussion.

Now all he had to do was find similar spots in the other function rooms. By the time he was done, the ex hibition hall would be open.

And he’d be ready to enjoy the book fair.

Like he always did.


A Charming.

A Charming in the middle of a book fair.

What was a Charming doing here?

He was trying to get in the way of Mellie’s message, that’s what. Charmings benefited from the archetype. Charmings were the flipside of the Wicked Stepmother motif. Charmings were desired and desirable.

Charmings were the bane of her existence.

Now there was one in the middle of her book fair, about to destroy her carefully laid plans.

And she couldn’t stand for that.

Mellie hurried to the door as it eased closed. She managed to catch it before it latched. She peered through the opening.

He was surveying the room, probably going over his speech, dammit.

She finally saw him full-on. He was breathtakingly handsome—all of the Charmings were—albeit a little older than the last time she had seen him. She could at least pinpoint that date.

The end of what the Greater World called the nine teenth century. Those horrible Grimm brothers had already published their lies for the entire world to see. The lies had seeped into the Kingdoms, and they were making life difficult for everyone concerned.

Well, not everyone. The younger women came off rather well (if they didn’t mind being considered beau tiful victims) and the Charmings had become heroes. None of them were called Charming then; they were “the king’s son” or “the prince”—always single and perfectly willing to marry beneath them, unlike most princes now.

If she was really being honest, the people who came off poorly were the older women (evil stepmothers, witches hiding in the woods), the ugly men (Bluebeard—who really was indefensible; and the cursed Beast, who wasn’t), and Those Who Were Different.
Some of Those Who Were Different got a pass, even if they didn’t get the girl—the so-called Dwarfs in the so-called Snow White tale; good old Tom Thumb (who was small, but not as tiny as everyone said); and that conniving little tailor. All of these men were abnor mally short (she later figured it was probably due to a failure of nutrition in the Kingdoms), but somehow positive role models.

Unlike her old friend Rumpelstiltskin, who was also short. And loud. And a bit of a con man. He didn’t de serve to be the bad guy any more than she deserved to be a witch and a murderer.
But so it went in storyland.

Those who didn’t mind the lies told about them felt that no one should do anything about Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm. Or Hans Christian Andersen for that matter. Or Oscar Wilde (although, if she told the truth, she had to admit she liked the wry tone of some of his fairy tales).

She held a meeting way back then, and nothing had come of it, except the first (and only) meeting of all of the so-called fairy tale characters in one place.

All those Charmings. They looked so different—Sleeping Beauty’s self-assured Charming; Cinderella’s handsomer, slightly shy Charming; and of course, the Charming Mellie knew well, her former son-in-law, Snow White’s Charming. Who was charming on first glance, and got more and more creepy as time went on.

Mellie sighed. She knew the man in the room wasn’t Snow’s Charming. But she wasn’t sure if he was Beauty’s Charming or Ella’s Charming. He could’ve been one of the lesser Charmings—the Goose Girl’s Charming or Rapunzel’s Charming. They all had that bit of look-at-me glamour, whether they wanted it or not.

The hundred-plus years had changed this Charming just enough to make him hard to recognize.

At the meeting, none of the Charmings had silver highlights, and none of them wore glasses. This Charming’s glasses accented his square face and strong features, making him look intelligent and oh-so-handsome all at the same time.

In fact, his front was much better than his back, and his back had been spectacular. It had been a long time since she’d seen a man this desirable and—

She backed away from the door. It banged closed and she cursed.

The last thing she wanted to do was interact with a Charming. They were all so handsome and so sure of themselves, and so dismissive of older women—even though all of the Charmings were more of an age with the stepmothers than with the girls they married.

She wasn’t sure what to do or how to confront him. Or even if she should confront him at all.

Maybe she should just follow him around and see what subversive activity he was up to.

Of course, if she did that, she’d never accomplish her mission.

Better to stop him in his tracks now, to let him know she was here and she wasn’t going away. No matter what lies he told.

Here’s how you order the rest of the book. The mass market edition is in bookstores now.  You can get it through your favorite bookstore or order it here. The ebook is widely available.  Here are the links to Kindle and Barnes & Noble. Other ebookstores should have it as well.


 

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Thoroughly Kissed Excerpt

I’m on a campaign to excerpt as many of my novels as possible for you, so that you can sample them before you buy.

This month, I’ve excerpted Thoroughly Kissed. Sourcebooks will release Thoroughly Kissed in June. The storyline follows Utterly Charming, which I excerpted a few months ago. You don’t have to read Utterly Charming to enjoy Thoroughly KissedThe Grayson novels are marketed as romance, but in truth, they’re light fantasy.  This book is a reissue. It was first published in 2001, and was nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award for Best Paranormal Romance. Since paranormal romance has skewed darker in the past decade, Sourcebooks decided to leave that information off the cover copy.

I hope it will wet your appetite, not just for this book, but for my other novels as well. You’ll find ordering information at the end of this post.

Here’s the back cover copy, followed by the excerpt and the ordering information:

Sleeping Beauty has sworn off kissing…

Emma awakens to an entirely different world than the one she lived in a thousand years ago, and although she’s the real Sleeping Beauty, her life is no fairy tale. After parting ways with her supposed Prince Charming, she’s determined to be a normal girl—she hides her magic and swears off kissing strange men.

But her gorgeous boss Michael knows there ‘s something unusual about Emma, and he thinks she’s as infuriating as she is beautiful. Now Emma needs to teach Michael a lesson, which means mastering her magic. She knows she’s flirting with danger, but after one look at Michael’s perfect lips, all she can think is, “What’s another thousand years … ?”

Welcome to the fractious fairy tale world of Kristine Grayson, where the bumpy road to happily ever after is paved with surprises …

“Charming and engaging, the story moves quickly and fluidly. Emma is the right balance of strong and vulnerable, and Michael complements her with his skepticism and compassion. A sweet love story makes this a perfect beach read for hopeless romantics.” —Publishers Weekly

Thoroughly Kissed

Kristine Grayson

 

Copyright 2012 by Kristine K. Rusch

Published by Sourcebooks

First published by Kensington in 2001.

 

One

 

Emma Lost cleared the last of the winter debris from her yard, put her dirt-covered hands on the small of her back, and stretched.  The air had a sweet, fresh odor, and the sky was a warmer blue than it had been a month ago.

Spring had finally arrived — and not a moment too soon.  Sometimes she questioned her sanity, moving to Wisconsin from Oregon.  Oregon, at least, had had winters like those she had grown up in — wet, chilly, and rainy.  Nothing like the hip-deep snow she had had to endure, the layers of ice beneath it, and temperatures so far below freezing that they barely registered on the thermometer the house’s previous owner had glued to the outside of her kitchen window.

And even though she had been a member of the modern era for the last ten years, there were still things she didn’t completely understand.  Like wind chill. The concept was clear enough — it got colder when the wind blew.  But she had no idea how anyone would be able to measure how much colder, or why they couldn’t build a thermometer that incorporated it.

She’d asked one of her colleagues at the university, and she had looked at Emma as if she were crazy, a look Emma should be used to by now.  If she told most people her history, they all would think she was crazy, or at least delusional.  They would have no idea that she was telling them the truth.

She didn’t even try any more.

An angry yowl sounded from her front door.  She turned, just as she was expected to.  Her black cat, Darnell, sat behind the screen, his ears back, his green eyes slitted.  When he realized she was looking at him, he put a paw on the screen door.

“No such luck, pal,” she said.  “You have never been an outdoor cat, and I’m not starting the habit now.”

Darnell’s ears went even flatter, if that were possible.  His eyes flashed.

“You’re twenty years old,” she said.  “And I don’t care that the vet just gave you a clean bill of health, you wouldn’t survive a day out here.  Sometimes I wonder how I do it.”

Darnell huffed at her, then butted his head against the screen.

“One more time,” she said, “and I’ll close the door.  You won’t even get the fresh air.”

He moved his head away from the screen so fast he nearly fell over.  Then he wrapped his tail around his paws as if he had no interest in leaving the house.

She grabbed her pruning sheers off the pile of tools she had placed on her brick stairs, then headed for the tulip bed.  The previous owner of this house had loved flowers — especially spring flowers, especially bulbs. She had so many tulips on the south side of her house that it looked as if she had moved to Holland. The daffodils were planted around back — just as many if not more.

The tulips and daffodils were nearing the end of their season and needed to be deadheaded.  Not that she minded.  She would be working near the lilac bushes, which were just beginning to flower.  The lilac scent was heavenly.

Before she started to change the flower garden, she would have to wait to see how many more surprises the warm weather would bring.  She had rented the house last fall, when the University of Wisconsin hired her as an associate history professor.  Her specialty was the Early Middle Ages in England, commonly known as the Dark Ages — the years from 500 to 1100 AD — but she’d been teaching everything from survey classes of the whole medieval period to graduate seminars on everything from the Roman Conquest to the Crusades.

But it was her lecture series — England in the First Millennium — that made her one of the most popular professors on campus.  Her popularity, and her book, Light on the DarknessEngland from 450-1000 AD, a pop culture bestseller which had inspired the university to ask her to teach in the first place, convinced Mort Collier, the chairman of the history department, to recommend her for a permanent position.

To celebrate, she had bought the house.  She loved it.  Her refuge in a world that was too modern for her. She had friends here — a lot of them, actually — but none of them knew who she was — or why she specialized in the Dark Ages.

And she would never tell them.

Imagine, sitting with her girlfriends at Mother Fool’s Coffee House, sharing lattes, and explaining that she taught about the Dark Ages because she had been born in them.  That would go over well. Just about as well as telling them that when she was twenty years old, she kissed a young man named Aethelstan and went into a magically induced coma for the next thousand years.  Then, when she woke up, it was to find herself in a glass coffin in the back of a decrepit VW microbus, facing Aethelstan’s lawyer — the pretty, petite woman who later became his wife.

And she could have him.  Emma shuddered as she always did when she thought of Aethelstan.  He had lived those thousand years — aging slightly, as all mages did — and becoming a person she didn’t know.  She liked him now, but she couldn’t imagine being attracted to him — or wanting to kiss him.

Then again, she didn’t want to kiss anyone again. Ever.  For any reason.   Too risky.

She knew the spell that had put her in the magical coma had supposedly ended ten years ago, but sometimes magic was tricky.  It didn’t always do what people expected.  And sometimes it came back. So Emma protected herself, and her lips.  She didn’t need a real man with real problems and real needs.  She had Darnell.  He was cranky enough for one lifetime.

A UPS truck drove by and stopped in front of a house down the block. Emma set down her sheers beside the tulips and hurried to her brick sidewalk. Sure enough, the UPS truck had stopped in front of the house at the corner.  She slipped her dirty hands in the back pocket of her jeans. She hadn’t expected that.  The house had been empty ever since she had moved into the neighborhood last fall.

She kept an eye on that house because it was a companion house to hers.  Both had been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright who had spent much of his life in the Madison area.  Apparently, he had designed the houses for sisters who wanted to live in the same neighborhood.  Emma’s sister had died young, and the next owner had remodeled the house — leaving the Wright exterior which blended so beautifully with the lot, and meddling with the interior.  But the other Wright house was just as it had been when it was built — furniture and all.

Emma had wanted to go in it since she’d heard that, but the owner was out of the country.  No one knew when he was coming back.

The UPS driver opened the back of the truck, and grabbed a huge cardboard box.  He staggered with it over the curb and toward the front door of the sister house.  Then he leaned on the doorbell.

The door opened, but Emma couldn’t see who was inside.  She walked to her lilac bushes, and hoped that the branches would hide her just enough to prevent her neighbors from knowing how nosy she really was.

The box disappeared out of the UPS driver’s hands, and then he went back to the truck, peering inside it as if he were facing a herculean task.  After a moment, the door to the mystery house opened, and a man came out.

Emma caught her breath.  He was gorgeous.  Broad-shouldered with a narrow waist that tapered into long muscular legs.  He had hair so blond that it could rightly be called golden, and his features seemed, from this distance at least, to be perfect. Women these days would call him “movie star handsome” but an old term from her past rose in her mind.  He was wulfstrang – powerful enough to defend anything.

Then she shook herself.  It didn’t matter how good-looking he was. She wasn’t going to allow herself to be attracted to anyone, for any reason.  The last time it had happened cost her a thousand years of her life.

Darnell yowled from the house, and she shushed him over her shoulder.  Obnoxious cat.  He had originally belonged to Aethelstan’s wife, Nora, but then became enamored with Emma, and cried for her when she wasn’t with him.  Nora had given him to Emma and, at the time, she’d been very happy to have him.  She still was, if truth be told.  But she didn’t like the yowling or the jealousy. And that cat was jealous of everyone.

The blond man with the broadshoulders took a box from the UPS man, who then took one of his own. They carried the boxes into the house. The blond man seemed to have no trouble with the box’s weight, while the UPS man staggered yet again.

Emma frowned. What was in them?  His possessions?  It would be a strange way of moving in this day and age, but she was the first to admit she didn’t understand many things about the modern era. She had spent the last ten years in school — first catching up on the time she’d missed while learning practical things like how to read, how a stove works, and how to drive a car.

She’d come a long way in a short time — from an illiterate to a Ph.D.  Or perhaps, more accurately, from a woman who was afraid of a shower to someone who occasionally was occasionally interviewed on A&E or the History Channel as an expert on the past.

Sometimes the person she had become amazed her.  There would have been no way to explain this life to the girl who had been kissed into a magical coma.  She would have seen this entire world as make-believe, or magical.  And she never would have believed that she would be able to do all the things she did without magic.

But she had none, and she was relieved.  She would become a mage one day but, for the time being, she was as normal as the next person.  If, of course, the next person had been in a magical coma for one thousand years.

The men left the house again. The blond man glanced in her direction and she cringed behind the lilac bush, hoping he didn’t see her.  Men had terrible reactions when they saw her.  They acted just like Darnell. They became enamored, entranced, attracted.  And she hated it.

When she had complained to Aethelstan, he had laughed at her.  This culture’s story of Sleeping Beauty is based on your life, my dear.  Of course men are going to find you incredibly attractive.  You are.

She didn’t see it.  Her skin was too pale, her cheeks and lips too red, her eyes too blue.  And her hair was a glossy black in a culture that seemed to worship blondes.  Blondes with hair the color of that man across the street.

She peered over the lilac bush.  He was still carrying boxes.  The UPS man had paused to wipe the sweat off his face, even though it wasn’t that hot.  He didn’t look her way once.

Darnell yowled again.  She sighed.  She got up and went to her front door, pulling open the screen. Darnell bolted for the great outdoors, but she blocked him with her foot, and then pushed him inside.  He gave her an affronted look as she pulled the heavy oak door closed, locking him inside.

The screen door whapped her in the side.  She moved away from it, and headed back to her lilac bush.

As she did, she heard the truck start up.  The UPS man was driving away, and the door was shut on the blond man’s house.  She had missed him.

But they were neighbors. She would see him again.  She couldn’t get near him — that would be risking too much — but she could watch him from afar.  There weren’t many men in this modern age who were wulfstrang.

Perhaps he had an old soul.

She sighed and went back to her tulips.  A big bouquet of the last of them would look beautiful in her entryway.  A little bit of spring indoors.

Just the thing to pick up her  mood — and make her forget the mysterious stranger who had moved in across the street.

***

He wasn’t ready to be back.  Five days ago, he’d been standing at Stonehenge — now fenced off, so that no one could deface the marvelous rocks — and now he was back on campus.  Strange that it all looked the same.

Michael Found rubbed his eyes.  The sky was a lovely shade of blue, but the ground was still brown from the harsh winter. A few blades of grass made Bascom Hill look as if it were a patchwork quilt — a patchwork quilt covered with student ants.  The students all looked the same too, in their tattered jeans and carefully funky coats.  Backpacks were back in style — ergonomically designed, of course (it was a new century after all) — but still packed to the brim.

The air was just warm enough to bring most of the vendors to the Library Mall.  T-shirts hung from stalls, and he could smell falafels even though it was only 10 a.m.   A juice bar was open and had a line; so did the new coffee vendor, who hadn’t been in business when Michael left Madison last July.

It was May and he was back, the sabbatical over.  He had to step into his new job as department chairman whether he was ready to or not.   The previous department chair, Mort Collier, had chosen the end of spring term as his retirement date.  Michael had just barely made it home in time for last night’s private party.  Mort had looked happy and younger than Michael had seen him look in years.

“It’s a good job,” Mort had said.  “It just drains you.  But you’ll have the break to get your feet under you—and summer’s an easy term.  The hard stuff won’t start until fall.”

It felt like the hard stuff was starting now.  His mind was still in England, thinking about the research he was doing for his current book, and instead, he was here, about to jump into the fray. Michael had been Mort’s assistant and heir apparent for three years now.  He knew the drill.  He just wasn’t ready to be the one responsible.

But he was.  Mort made it clear that he would only help in cases of extreme emergency – and Michael had no idea what those cases would be, although he suspected they would all be political.

Michael was not looking forward to the political part of his new job.

Nor was he looking forward to the first thing on his morning’s agenda.  He was going to a lecture.  Mort had urged him to see the history department’s newest acquisition, a female medieval history professor who had somehow gotten a long-term contract the space of a single semester.

At the party, all Mort could do was rave about this woman.  Michael hadn’t had the heart to tell Mort he’d already heard of her — and had read her so-called masterpiece.

Light on the Darkness was pop history at its worst, and her scholarship was abysmal.  And her name didn’t help matters.  Emma Lost.  He could only guess at the jokes the graduate students would make about that.  Dubbing the history department the Lost and Found Department was only going to be the beginning.  Michael had been around students long enough to know it was going to go downhill from there.

He jogged up the steps leading to the 1970s eyesore the university had deemed the Humanities building. Built after the Vietnam war protests (in which one group of misguided university students had bombed the UW’s Army-Math research center), the Humanities building had thick concrete walls, steel doors, and pencil-thin windows in only a few of the offices. There was an interior courtyard — and there were windows facing that — but all they showed was a patch of grass and the rest of the building.  Sometimes, when he’d been hunkered in this building for weeks, he felt as if he were in a 1950s underground bomb shelter, waiting for the end of the world.

He let himself inside. The interior smelled of blackboard chalk and processed air — he doubted this place had had a breeze inside it since it was built.  What surprised him was that he had missed the smell.  The musty, fusty buildings he’d been in while he was in England usually smelled of ancient dust and mold.  For some reason, the processed air smell to him was the scent of cleanliness.

There were no students in the hallways — for obvious reasons, no one hung out in Humanities — and those who were here were already in class.  He hurried to the lecture hall where Professor Lost teaching her 200-level undergraduate survey on the Early Middle Ages, and sighed softly.

He wished he were hiking in Cornwall.  He had planned to end his trip there, but he had run out of time.  He was going to use his favorite bed-and-breakfast in Mousehole (pronounced Mozzle) as his home base, and he was going to go around to all the historic and magical sites — even to one of the many purported sites of Camelot.  Jogging concrete stairs and hallways in the Humanities building was a poor substitute.

The door to the lecture hall was open, and he slid into the back.  It was a huge room, with stairs descending to what the faculty unaffectionately called “the pit” — a small floor with a large blackboard behind it, screens that could come down for film viewing, and a movable podium up front.

Michael had once told Mort that it felt as if he were a Christian in the Roman coliseum, waiting to face the lions.  Mort had laughed and said that it was his job to capture the students, not to let them capture him.

Michael had never quite found the trick to that.  He was better at research and scholarship than actual lectures.  He actually liked the organization his administrative duties required of him, and if he never taught another class, he doubted anyone — including him— would miss it.

Obviously Emma Lost’s students didn’t feel that way.

Michael had never seen a 200-level Middle Ages class so full.  And more surprisingly, most of the students were male — and, if he didn’t miss his guess, several of them were the school’s top athletes.  He’d never heard of non-majors taking a medieval history course as an elective — the non-majors flocked to American history, and then to famous events, like the Civil War or World War II.  And the jocks avoided the history department ever since Mort had cancelled all of the History for Dummies classes (as they were affectionately called) ten years ago.

So what were the jocks doing here?

Michael gazed down at the stage and didn’t see a professor at all. The teaching assistant had her back to him. She was gathering a pile of papers and placing them on the table that doubled for a desk.

Then she turned around, and his breath caught in his throat.

She was slender yet curvy in all the right places. She wore her long black hair loose, and it flowed past her knees.  It caught the light, shiny and reflective like hair in a shampoo commercial.  But her hair wasn’t her most stunning feature.

Her face was.  She had a true peaches-and-cream complexion, the kind he hadn’t seen outside of Ireland, and never on a brunette before.  Her eyes were almond shaped, her cheekbones high, and her mouth a perfect bow.

He sank into one of the ugly orange plastic chairs, his legs no longer able to hold him, and it took him a long time to remember to close his mouth.

No wonder this lecture hall was filled with men.  No wonder they all stared like — well, like he was.  She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in his life.

She walked over to the podium and grabbed the cordless microphone.  It thumped once, making him start.

“Sorry about that,” she said. “I just had to make sure you all had the revised assignments list.”

She had a throaty alto with a bit of an accent, an accent he couldn’t quite place.  It was almost Scandinavian, but not in the broad comical tones he usually heard all over the upper Midwest, the accent that had been so aptly lampooned in the movie Fargo.  No, this was more like a hint of an accent, as if English were not her native language.  She clipped the ends of words the way a German would who had long been acclimatized to the United States.

“All right,” she said, leaning against the podium but not stepping behind it.  “Since you all seem to be having so much trouble believing that the people who lived a thousand years ago were the same as the rest of us, with the same problems, similar cares and worries, and similar feelings, let’s try to bring their world a little closer, shall we?”

Even though she was chastising the group, she didn’t seem at all angry. In fact, Michael felt himself being drawn closer to her.

“We still practice a lot of rituals that began in the Middle Ages,” she said and then she smiled.  It seemed as if the entire room had been lit by its own sun.  “And frankly, the rituals made a lot more sense back then than they do now.”

Michael’s hands were shaking.  He had never been drawn to a woman by her beauty before, but he couldn’t help himself.  She was absolutely, positively mesmerizing.

“For example,” she said, that smile still playing around her lips, “one of the Suebic tribes worshipped the Mother of the Gods. They wore an emblem to honor that rite — it was the image of wild boars.”

Half the class tittered nervously.  The sound brought Michael back to himself for just a moment.  He caught his breath, but couldn’t make himself look away from her.

She didn’t even seem to notice their reaction.  “To them, the boar guaranteed that the worshipper of that goddess would be without fear even if he was surrounded by his enemies.  At Yule-tide, the warriors made their vows for the coming year on a sacrificial boar.  You all continue that practice.  You make New Year’s resolutions.”

A young man in the front of the room said, “You don’t know that the events are tied.  You can’t just say —”

“Justin,” she said in a weary tone.  “What did I tell you about comments in class?”

“Geez, Professor Lost, I…”

Michael stiffened.  He frowned at the woman, still engaged in conversation with the young man in the front of the room. She looked as young as her students. There was no way that this could be Emma Lost.

He had expected a middle-aged woman with a narrow mouth that never smiled, and small beady eyes which constantly moved back and forth searching for people who saw through her terrible scholarship.  He should have realized that she was tiny and telegenic.  After all, he’d been hearing that she made the lecture rounds before she came to the UW, and she was still being called by interviewers as an expert on all things historical.

“My favorite senseless thing that’s still practiced in this century,” she was saying, “occurs in the spring.  Now remember, that medieval people understood the world based only on what they could see.”

Michael gripped the plastic top of the chair in front of him.  She looked so relaxed down there, one ankle crossed behind the other, the microphone held easily in one hand.  He was always behind the podium, struggling with notes.

“There is a bird in England called a lapwing which, for those of you who don’t know, is a plover —“

The hand of the boy in the front row rose again.

“— which,” she continued with a grin, “for those of you who don’t know is a wading bird —”

The boy’s hand went down.

“—and it builds a nest which looks remarkable similar to the scratch of a hare, which for those of who don’t know, is a rabbit.  Because of the similarity in nests, many of the early English believed that rabbits —”

She paused, waiting for the class to come up with the answer on its own.

“Laid eggs,” Michael whispered.

“Laid eggs,” she said, her eyes twinkling.  “And that’s why the Easter bunny lays Easter eggs.”

Another hand went up. This one belonged to a studious girl who sat in the middle.  “Our books mentioned that the word ‘Easter’ came from the pagan goddess ‘Eostre.’”

The grin faded from Professor Lost’s face and she was watching the girl intently.  Michael felt his back straighten.

“We haven’t discussed the pagans much—”

“We’ve discussed the Christian church’s influence and various beliefs.”  Professor Lost sounded almost defensive.

“A little.  But the book mentions that it’s impossible to know what pagan beliefs really were because the early Christians did what they could to destroy any history of paganism.”

Professor Lost’s magnificent eyes seemed to have grown larger.  Michael wondered what it was about this topic that made her uncomfortable. It was well known that the Christian church did its best to convert all it contacted to Christianity.   Had she run into trouble in the past by teaching pagan history?  He doubted that.  She didn’t look old enough to have been teaching long.

“What’s your question?” Professor Lost asked.

Apparently the girl heard annoyance in the professor’s tone and flushed.  “Well, in, like, fiction books, they say the pagans practiced magic.  Did they?”

Professor Lost’s face shut down completely. All the personality left it.  Michael leaned back wondering how she would handle this.  Magic was his special area of historical expertise — and the subject of his next book.  He knew the answer.  He wondered if she did.

“We don’t discuss magic in this class,” she snapped.  “Now, if there are no more questions, let’s return to our discussion of Alfred the Great.  He was about 23 years old when he was crowned in 871…”

Michael stood. He knew more about Alfred the Great than he wanted to.  Even though medieval history hadn’t been Michael’s area before, he’d had to study it as his history of magic project grew.

“…was an outstanding leader both in war and in peace, and is the only English king —”

There was a small break in her voice.  Michael looked over at her and found her staring directly at him.  He felt her gaze as if it were a touch. Her eyes were wide, her mouth parted, and all he wanted to do was run down those stairs and kiss her.  For a long, long time.

He shook himself.  That would have shocked the students.  The new chairman of the history department going from class to class and kissing the professors  That would really shock old Professor Emeritus Rosenthal who was giving a lecture on British Naval History in the next room.

The thought of kissing Professor Rosenthal broke the spell, at least for Michael. But Professor Lost was still staring at him as if he were the answer to all her prayers.

She would soon discover that he wasn’t.  He hadn’t been all that impressed with her famous lecturing skills.

“I wouldn’t call Alfred the Great a king of England,” he said, his voice carrying in the cavernous room.

She blinked as if catching herself, and then said into the microphone in a very cold voice, “And who might you be?”

“I’m Michael Found.”

“Michael Found?

Several students tittered. She glared at them and they all leaned back.  Michael felt like he wanted to as well.

“I don’t appreciate jokes, Michael Found, and I know your name is not on my student roster, so if you would kindly—”

“I’m the new chairman of the history department.”

To his surprise, she blushed.  She turned a lovely shade of rose that accented her dark hair and her spectacular eyes.  “Oh, well, then, I guess you can interrupt at any time.”

They stared at each other for a moment.  The students seemed to be getting tennis neck turning their heads back and forth, trying to see what was going on.

She cleared her throat.  “What would you call Alfred the Great if not a King of England.”

“England was divided into tribal areas at that period.  Alfred was king of the West Saxons in southwestern England, but he didn’t —”

“He conquered London in 886,” she said.  “All the English people who weren’t subject to the Danes recognized him as their ruler.  By my book, that makes him a king of England.”

“By your book, yes,” Michael said, “I suppose it does.”

She frowned, obviously not understanding the comment. She would later.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt your class,” he said.  “You’re the only tenured professor I haven’t met yet, and I wanted to hear you work.”  He glanced at the students.  “You can all go back to learning about Danelaw.”

That blush rose again on her skin, and he felt that same attraction.  He dodged it by turning and going out the door.  As he did, he heard her say,  “Well, you never know what’s going to happen on a pretty May morning.  Let’s talk about Alfred, though.  He was the youngest son of…”

Michael hurried down the hall.  His heart was pounding.  He hadn’t challenged a professor in front of a class since he was a student himself. And as a professor, he hated being challenged by a colleague.  He had no idea what had provoked him to do that.

But as he reached the stairwell, he realized he did know.  It had been his reaction to her beauty.  He knew that her work was poor and that she had gotten fame, fortune, and an undeserved tenure for her rotten scholarship.  She had looked bright enough, but she clearly didn’t understand that history was about facts, not fiction.

He had always been attracted to smart, capable women.  Men who were interested in women solely because of their beauty were contemptible.  He had always prided himself on seeing a woman’s intelligence before he noted her physical attractiveness.

Except this time.  He had gone in knowing that she was going to be an embarrassment to the university, hoping that she would prove him wrong, and then all he  had done was stare at her like a lovesick puppy — which was exactly the way all the undergraduate men, including half the football team, were staring at her.

So he had challenged her, and she had actually answered him with something resembling an argument.

Still, he was unimpressed with her analysis and her so-called lecturing skills. Discussing Easter eggs and boar’s heads might be fun over beers, but such things had no place in a 200-level history course. Those courses were difficult in the first place because the instructor had to cram as much information as possible into a very short semester.  To waste time with frivolities like New Year’s Resolutions and the Easter bunny was the sign of an undisciplined mind.

He climbed the stairs to his office two at a time, but the movement didn’t drive the feeling from his stomach.  She was beautiful and he wanted to go back down there and stare at her.  He half envied those kids who got to see her every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

She was precisely the kind of woman a man could worship from afar.

***

Emma’s hands were shaking as she picked up her books. The gorgeous man from her block had been in her 9 a.m. lecture, and she hadn’t even noticed him until he stood to leave.

Michael Found. What a horrible, awful coincidence. She would bet that he was born with his name. In her day, very few people had last names — and usually they were descriptive, just like hers was. She had chosen the name Lost a few days after she had woken up in the Computer Age. She had felt it described her then.  It didn’t describe her nearly as well now, but it was what she was known as, well known, surprisingly enough.

She turned to see a handful of students hovering near the stairs. She suppressed a sigh.  Usually she hurried out — she knew that half the boys had crushes on her — but she had forgotten this time.  Michael Found — her new boss — had a lot to answer for.

She talked to the students — that was her job after all — reminding them about the readings, refusing offers of coffee, and telling inane anecdotes, all the while walking up the stairs.  She had to hurry to get to the sanctity of her office.  She didn’t have office hours on Monday, and she might get some personal time.

Heaven knew she needed it.

She managed to escape quicker than she expected, and then took the stairs to the cubicle the university let her call home.  She unlocked her office, and stepped inside.  Her office was small and rectangular.  She had decorated it herself with her own furniture — the book had paid for a lot of extras — which meant that she had a Danish modern desk, a thick leather chair, and a comfortable seat for students who needed help.

On the wall behind her desk, she put a Danish modern bookshelf covered with the books she’d assigned for class, as well as extra copies of her own book.  On the wall across from her was a large photograph of Portland, Oregon, the city where she had “come to herself” as Aethelstan so euphemistically put it.  She used that photo to ground herself and remind her where she had come from.

Her other decorations were her degrees — no one except her Oregon friends knew what a victory those degrees were — and literacy posters.  She volunteered for two different literacy organizations and she tutored students who needed extra help.  She figured it was the least she could do, considering all the tutoring and special help she had.

She pushed the door closed, flicked on the green desk lamp, and sank into her comfortable leather chair.  Then she closed her eyes.  When she did, she saw Michael Found.  He was even more gorgeous up close — those blue eyes so startling that they seemed to blaze across a room.  His voice was deep, rich, and musical, and he had a lovely subtle Midwestern accent.

She wondered if he had seen her reaction to the magic question. He probably had, and he probably thought her a cross and unhelpful teacher.

Unfortunately, that was a question she had no idea how to answer.

Medieval history scholars had the magic issue all wrong. First, they started from the premise that magic did not exist.  Then they drew their conclusions from there. They believed that all medieval people who believed in magic were pagans — and that was not true — and that all pagans were the same.  Actually, it was so much more complicated than she could ever explain.  If she had trouble getting her students to believe that New Year’s Resolutions were originally a medieval custom brought to the Computer Age, she had no idea who they would take the fact that half the mythical people they studied and a good eighth of the real people were mages just like Aethelstan.

And, if she were honest, like she would be someday.  She hadn’t come into her magic yet. She had twenty more years before that happened, and she wished it were longer.  Men got their magic at the age of 21, but women didn’t get theirs until fifty or so.  All magic arrived full-blown, so a mage had to learn how to control her magic before it arrived.

Emma had spent so much time studying that she didn’t want to apprentice herself to anyone, at least not yet. And besides, the last time she had done that, it had gone badly as well.

Besides, there was plenty of time to deal with the magic before it came. Aethelstan would probably teach her, with Nora acting as referee.  But Emma wanted to enjoy life as a normal — there was that word again! Well, as normal as she could be — American in the first decade of the New Millennium.

She deserved that much.

Maybe the next time a student asked the magic question, she’d tell them what the other scholars believed. Who cared that it was wrong? Only she knew.

But she was such a perfectionist that knowing made all the difference.

A knock at her door made her jump.  She sighed. If it was that football player again, she’d complain to his adviser.  She got up and pulled the door open.  The department secretary, Helen Knoedler stood outside, hands clasped in front of her.

Helen had been with the department longer than anyone.  She was a tiny elderly woman who seemed grandmotherly until she opened her mouth.  Then she spoke with a voice so deep and powerful, it should have come from a man who wielded an axe instead of a woman who reminded Emma of a sparrow.

“I don’t know what you did,” Helen said dryly, “but Michael wants to see you first thing tomorrow.”

Emma felt that blush return.  He was probably going to take her to task for being so harsh on the students.  Or maybe he was going to talk to her about staring at him.   Or maybe he realized she was the person who had been spying on him when UPS delivered his boxes the day before.

Helen watched her reaction then raised her eyebrows.  “You know him?

“I just met him this morning. Sort of.”

“Well, you made an impression.”

So did he.  “What’s first thing?”

“He gets in about nine, or so he tells me.  Can you come?”

“Sure,” Emma said. “My first class isn’t until eleven tomorrow.  Do you know what it’s about?”

“Not a clue,” Helen said.  “And I don’t want to know.  I’m still handling the paperwork the changeover has caused.”

“I saw Mort yesterday,” Emma said. “I can’t believe he’s leaving.”

Helen frowned at her. “He’s not leaving.  He’s just not going to chair the department any more. He’ll be back in his office, harassing all of us next semester.”

Emma smiled. She was glad of that.  She hadn’t realized that Mort would continue teaching. That was good.  He needed to.

Then her smile faded.  “I hadn’t met the new chairman before.  Was he brought in from somewhere else?”

“Michael?” Helen laughed.  She had a deep-throated chuckle. “He’s one of those rare lucky ones.  He went to school here, then managed to get a job here. That almost never happens.  Most graduates who stay in town —“

“Drive cab.”  Emma recited the litany. “I know.”

“He’s been around forever.  He was just on sabbatical in England.”

“England? What was he doing there?”

“Walking everywhere. The man is a health fanatic. And he was studying something.  I never did pay attention.”

Emma felt a chill run down her back.  She hoped it wasn’t the Middle Ages. She definitely didn’t agree with his comments on Alfred the Great.  She had no idea how he would react to some of her “speculations” which weren’t speculation at all.

They were actually memories.

“Why would he want to see me?  I mean, we met this morning?”

“Michael is a different animal from Mort.  Now Mort would take you out for a beer and ask you about yourself.”

Emma smiled. “I remember.”

“But Michael believes in doing things by the book.” Helen shook her head. “Which means I’ll have to redo my desk, believe me.  So what he wants with you is beyond me.”

Then she grinned.

“Except the word is — and my ancient eyes tell me it’s true — you are the most beautiful professor to grace the history department in some time.  Michael’s single.”

Emma felt her blush grow.  She wanted to put hands to her cheeks and stop it, but she couldn’t. She had never learned how to control that response.  “Wouldn’t it be illegal for him to date me?  I mean, technically, he’s my boss.”

“Technically, sweetie, the university is your boss.  He’s just the head of the department. And while this campus frowns on teacher-student relationships, you’re at least two degrees and one best-selling book away from that distinction.”

Emma swallowed hard. She didn’t want to fend off her boss for the rest of her tenure.

“Don’t look so solemn,” Helen said. “Michael was voted one of Madison’s most eligible bachelors a few years back.  He’s what we called in my day a good catch.”

“I’m not trying to catch anything,” Emma said.

“Looks to me, honey, like you’re afraid you will catch something.”

That was more accurate than Helen knew.  Emma shrugged.  “I like my life.”

“You and that cat.”

Emma frowned. “How did you know I had a cat?”

Helen reached over and plucked a black hair off Emma’s sweater.  “I know the signs,” she said and held out an arm. She had short gray and orange hairs on hers.  “But a cat isn’t a substitute for a man.”

“I don’t need a man,” Emma said.

“I never took you for a feminist,” Helen said.

Emma grinned. “Oh, Helen,” she said. “I’m the original feminist.  That part of my history simply got lost in the translation.”

***

By the time Emma got home, the beautiful spring sunshine had given way to showers. The rain was cold, too, and reminded her of one of the worst days of an Oregon winter.

She lit a fire, ordered a pizza, and peered out the dining room picture window at the matching house down the block. The lights were off, so Professor Found wasn’t home yet.  She wondered what he was doing — having dinner with old friends? Seeing a movie with a woman? Catching up on his new work in the office?

Then she caught herself.  Mooning. The worst thing she could do. The man was too handsome by half, and she didn’t need to be thinking about him.

Thinking about him was almost as bad as looking at him, and looking at him made her forget all her vows.

Which would someday come back to haunt her.

She closed the blinds all through the house and put on some Brahms.  She had fallen in love with her CD player, and the way music was available at the touch of a button. That was, in her personal and quite private opinion, the absolutely best thing about this brave new world she had woken up in.

If someone asked her, of course, she would lie and talk about indoor plumbing (which used to terrify her) or refrigerators (on her first day, she had asked Nora how they captured winter) or the amazing availability of food (even though she missed growing it by hand).  But in reality, it was the luxuries that caught her.  Shoes that actually kept the feet dry.  Lights at the touch of a finger.  And music whenever she wanted it.

Not to mention books and movies and books on tape. Stories, like her father used to tell her, only more complex. When she had been a young woman, education was beyond her means — there was no such thing as education for all — and there was no way to mass produce books.  No one had even dreamed of movies, and theater as people understood it now hadn’t really been invented yet either.  And the idea of television, well, it still boggled her.  She had a few favorite shows, but she watched them in private, because she still stared at the box gape-mouthed, unable to fathom how other people took it so completely for granted.

Darnell was asleep in front of the fire, his long black body stretched out so that his stomach absorbed most of the heat.  She had asked the person who took her order at Pizza Pit to make sure the delivery guy knocked this time.  The last time, when he’d rung the doorbell, had been a disaster.

As if in answer to her thoughts, the doorbell rang.  Darnell leapt out of his sleep onto all fours like a lion defending his turf.  He growled softly in the back of his throat.

“Stay here,” she said, knowing it would do no good.

She walked to the front door, grabbed the cash she had placed on the table beside the entry, and peered through the peephole. Sure enough, it was the pizza guy, looking very damp, the pizza steaming in its thermal pouch.

Maybe she would have to add pizza as one of this age’s greater achievements.  She certainly ate enough of it.

She pulled the door open and put out a foot to hold Darnell back even though Darnell was nowhere in sight.

The pizza guy was young — a student, obviously, and just as obviously, he hated the job.  He mumbled the price and as she opened the screen to hand him the cash, Darnell came at a flying run from the fireplace.

She figured her foot would be enough, but it wasn’t. Darnell was prepared for it. He leapt over it as if it were fence and he were a horse, and he wrapped his paws around the delivery guy’s leg, biting and growling and clawing as he did so.

The poor pizza guy screamed and dropped the pizza. The thermal container slid down the brick steps, but didn’t open.

Emma bent over and pulled Darnell off the boy’s leg, but the damage was done. The delivery guy’s jeans were torn and his skin was scratched and bleeding.

She tossed Darnell inside, and slammed the screen door shut.  “I’m sorry,” she said.  “But —”

“Jeez, lady your cat’s nuts. I’ve never seen an insane cat before.  Has it got rabies?”

Actually, it took her a moment to understand the delivery guy.   He actually said, “Jeezladyyercatsnutsiveneverseenaninsanecat beforehasitgotrabies?”

“No, he doesn’t have rabies.” She was amazed she could sound so affronted. She’d never seen a cat act like Darnell either — at least, not a domesticated housecat.  She’d seen nature videos of lions back when she was in her learning phase, and the leader often attacked anything that threatened the pride.  Apparently, she was Darnell’s pride.

The delivery boy was wiping at his legs.

“Look,” she said, handing him the cash.  “I’m sorry.  There’s an extra tip in here —”

“They warned me you had a nuts cat, but I didn’t believe them.  I mean, what can a nuts housecat do? Hiss at you? Now I’m going to have to get shots.”

“He’s vaccinated.”

“Yeah, but I’m not.”  The delivery boy stomped to his car.

Emma looked up, and saw that Professor Found’s front door was open.  He was standing on the stoop, staring at her. He’d probably come out when the delivery boy had screamed.

She blushed again — three times in one day had to be some kind of record — and hurried back inside the house.  Darnell was sitting in front of the fire, cleaning his face, looking quite proud of himself.

“You’re not a lion.  I don’t care what you think of yourself.  If you ever met a real one, you wouldn’t know what to do.”  Then she squinted at him.  “You don’t even look like a lion.”

Darnell stopped washing and glared at her.  Apparently she had affronted his sense of self.

She shook her head and reached for the pizza.  Then she realized she hadn’t brought it inside.

She sighed and went back to the door. Sure enough, the pizza was still in its thermal container at the bottom of the stairs.  She glanced at Professor Found’s house.  He was still on the stoop.  When he saw her, he raised an imaginary glass to her.

Her face grew even warmer, but she wasn’t going to count that as a fourth blush. The other one hadn’t ended yet. She scurried down the stairs, grabbed the pizza, thermal container and all, and hurried inside her house.

How embarrassing.  He’d seen her at her worst teaching, and then this.  She had no idea how she would face him in the morning.

Maybe having Michael Found for a neighbor wasn’t the good thing it had originally seemed like.  Maybe he had arrived just to make her life a living hell.

Well, the only thing she could do was be on her best behavior in the morning. And maybe then, they’d get off to a better start.

Not that she wanted anything closer than a cordial working relationship.

Even if he was the best-looking man she’d ever seen.

 

Two

 

Emma dreamed she was sinking.  It was a pleasant feeling.  She was on a soft surface, wrapped in a warm comforter, her feet nice and toasty. But everything was moving down, as if a hole had opened up beside her, and if she wasn’t careful, she would roll into it.

Then she heard a muffled snore and felt hot breath on her neck.  That feeling did not come from her dream.

She scrambled awake so fast she nearly did tumble into the hole.

She was on her back, staring at the white ceiling. Sunlight poured into the room, illuminating the quilts she had hung on the wall to give the place color.  She still had that feeling of lying at the edge of a precipice.

And then she heard a whistled exhale.  She turned her head to the right, and saw a huge black lion asleep on the bed beside her.

She screamed and tried to get out of bed, but the lion was lying on the comforter, and she was wrapped up in it as if it were a cocoon.  She cursed as she tried to pull herself out, then finally scrambled backwards, hitting her head on the oak headboard.

The lion opened its eyes.  They were golden, sleepy and confused.  It yawned and stretched, its hind feet sliding off the foot of the bed, and its front paws touching the tip of the headboard.

Then it yowled.  If an animal could look terrified, the lion did.  It raised its head to her, overbalanced itself, and fell off the bed with the loudest thump Emma had ever heard.

Just like Darnell would do if he were surprised.

She put a hand over her heart and peered over the edge of the bed.  The lion was lying on its back, its head raised like a sea otter’s, and was peering down at its body as if it had never seen it before.

“Darnell?” she whispered.

The lion made a plaintive mew, which, if the sound had been made by a house cat would have been small and sad, but since it was made by a lion, shook the entire room.

“Oh, my,” she said, putting a hand to her mouth.  Poor Darnell.  “Oh, my, Darnell, who did this to you?  Why would someone do this to you?”

She peered around the room to see if there were signs of any magical person invading her bedroom.  She no longer had any enemies, at least that she knew of.  Aethelstan would never do anything like this, and neither would his sidekick, Merlin.  Nora hadn’t come into her abilities yet.

Emma froze.  Come into her abilities yet.  She closed her eyes.  Even if someone wanted to hurt her — and if they did, why had they gone after poor Darnell?  (Unless that pizza delivery guy was actually a mage…but he was too young, and she would have known. At least, she thought she would have known.  Oh, dear.  Maybe all the pizza people…)  Her eyes flew open.

Darnell was struggling, his gigantic paws in the air. There wasn’t enough room on the floor for him to roll over.

She was the only one who had thought of him as a ferocious lion, and she hadn’t mentioned that to anyone else.  She wouldn’t mention it to anyone else.

“Oh, Darnell, I’m so sorry.”

And scared. Her mouth was dry. She was twenty years too young for powers.  She was only thirty.

At least, she was only thirty in years that she was awake.  If she counted the years she had been in that magical coma, she was one thousand and forty.

Magic wouldn’t work that way.  It wouldn’t count all those non-years — would it?

“That’s not fair,” she said.

Darnell mewed and waved his paws weakly. They were so big — bigger than her hand.  She flopped across the bed and scratched his large stomach.  His mane spread out on the floor like a nimbus of hair around his familiar — if much larger — face.

“We have to think this through, Darnell,” she said, continuing to scratch.  He squirmed a little — tummy scratching was one of his favorite things — and then he started to purr.

She could feel the rumble all the way from the floor to the bed.

If it was her magic that had caused this, then she was in serious trouble. She hadn’t studied.  She didn’t know how to control it.  All she had were a few words and phrases that Aethelstan had taught her for emergencies.

She clenched one fist as she had seen Aethelstan do.  “Change back,” she whispered to Darnell.  “Be my house kitty again. Change back.”

His hind paw kicked the air in rhythm to her scratching. She had hit a good spot. But he was still huge, he still had a mane, and his tail had a tuft at the end of it that hadn’t been there when they both went to sleep the night before.

“Change,” she whispered.  “Reverse.  Go back.”

Nothing happened. No light, no sound, not even a different feeling.

Her breathing was coming hard now. She couldn’t leave him alone, not oversized like this. He would be able to break out of the house — heck, he would break the house and everything in it, and he wouldn’t even realize he was doing anything wrong.

Then the authorities would come for him and do whatever they did to loose lions.  Loose black lions.  Loose black lions of a type that didn’t occur in nature.  He would be a freak and he would get all sorts of media attention and she would have trouble busting him out of wherever they held him and —

Oh, she had to clamp a hold on her vivid imagination. She had to focus.

And then she remembered a single word, one of the emergency words, that Aethelstan had given her.  In the old language.  He had said it meant “reverse.”

She sat up and waved her arm as she had seen him do, and uttered the word at the top of her lungs.

There was a bright white light, a crackle and sizzle, and then a small explosion.  It felt as if something had left her and danced in the air before dissipating.

She sat for a moment, not wanting to look at the floor.

What if she had turned him into something else? What if he hadn’t changed at all?

What if she had killed him?

A small black housecat with lovely gold eyes jumped onto the bed, and butted his head against her arm.

“Darnell,” she said and scooped him close.  “Oh, Darnell.  I think we have a problem.”

Darnell whined, then squirmed.  His interpretation of the problem was obviously different from hers.  His was that he wanted breakfast, and wanted it now.

If only she could recover that quickly.

She let him go and he ran to the bedroom door, then looked over his shoulder as if asking her what she was waiting for.  She brought her knees up to her chest.  It had been so long since she had had any real instruction in magic.  She could barely remember what she knew about the arrival of powers.

Full blown.  Out of control.  Those were the phrases she had always heard. But she wasn’t sure if getting magic was like going through puberty — did the changes happen in spurts? Or was she one day magic-less and the next day magical?

She didn’t know.

Darnell yowled.  She looked at the clock.  It was too early to call Aethelstan in Oregon.  Neither he nor Nora would appreciate a call at 5 a.m.

She wiped her hands on her nightgown. She had to handle this on her own, at least for a few hours.

And during those few hours, she had to meet with the new chairman of her department.

She hoped he would let her cancel.

***

Of course, no one answered the phone in his office, and Helen said he would arrive just a few minutes before nine.  Helen had told her that Professor Found was a stickler for detail, and missing this first meeting wouldn’t sit well with him.  So Emma decided to go through with the meeting. After all, it would only take a few minutes, and she would use the rest of the time to call Aethelstan and see if she could find a short-term solution to the problem.

Besides, she had gotten through the rest of her morning routine without a hitch. Darnell seemed no worse for the wear.  Her breakfast tasted fine.  She had to put on a dress because all of her jeans and sweaters were dirty — and when she cursed her lack of housekeeping skills, the clothes didn’t automatically get clean on their own.

Even when she encountered a morning traffic jam on University, the cars didn’t miraculously disappear.

If her powers had arrived full blown and out of control, something else would have happened by now.

She stopped only briefly in her office before going to Michael Found’s.  And during that time, she got annoyed at herself for adjusting her skirt, and brushing loose strands of hair into place.  It felt like she wanted to impress him, and not because he was the new chairman of the department.  Maybe she’d be able to forget how handsome he was, and concentrate instead on letting him know that she wasn’t as flaky as she seemed.

Her high heels clicked on the concrete stairs as she made her way to Professor Found’s office.  When she reached the top, she felt calmer.

Helen sat at a large desk in a vast open area that in any other profession would have been known as reception.  But she wasn’t a receptionist. She guarded the copy machine, the fax, and all the other equipment, and let a graduate assistant handle the phones.

She waved a hand in greeting as Emma passed.  Emma started toward Mort’s office, but Helen pointed her in the opposite direction.

Emma walked down the narrow corridor, reading the names beneath the numbers on the steel doors.  Ultimately, she didn’t need to:   Professor Found’s door was open, and he was waiting for her inside.

His office was a surprise. It was bigger than hers — which she expected. All offices in the administrative section of the building were large — but it seemed warm and friendly.  Bookshelves covered the walls, and plants hung off every available surface.

The furniture was ergonomically designed — she recognized the styles from the ads — except for the reading chair in the corner. It was upholstered with thick heavy cushions that bore the imprint of Michael Found’s body.  A footstool sat in front of it, and books spilled off the table beside it onto the floor.  She couldn’t see the titles from the door, but not all of them seemed like scholarly tomes.

He was standing behind his desk. He wore jeans and a red and black checked flannel shirt that accented his flat torso and his blond hair. Up close, his eyes seemed even bluer than they had in the lecture hall—the bright blue of a summer sky.

“Professor Lost,” he said.

“Professor Found.”

She suppressed the urge to giggle.  No wonder the students had started cracking jokes.

“I’ve read your book.”

Her breath caught in her throat.  She had been planning to ask him to reschedule the meeting, but she wanted to hear what he thought of her work first.  “I hope you enjoyed it.”

His fingers formed little tents on the desktop.  His gaze hadn’t left her face, but it felt as if his expression had gotten even more remote.  “Close the door, please.”

She stepped inside and pushed the door shut with her foot.  A compliment usually didn’t take a closed door. She braced herself.  This wouldn’t be the first time a man had tried to take advantage of her small stature behind a closed door, although until that moment, she hadn’t thought Michael Found the type.

“Your book,” he said slowly, “is the biggest pile of bunk I had ever read.”

She wasn’t sure she had heard him correctly.  He wanted her to close the door so that he could trash her book?  No one had trashed her book. It was a critical and popular success. It had gotten her offers from some of the best universities in the nation.  It had gotten her this job.

“Bunk?” she said softly.

“Bunk,” he repeated.  “The research is shoddy, the conclusions poor and the study of paganism has absolutely no basis in fact.”

No wonder he had looked so interested in her comment about magic the day before.  He had read her book. She had discussed some of the systems in Chapter Fifteen.

“All of my work is based in fact,” she said.

“Not according to your footnotes.  I’m familiar with those sources.  Many of them contradict what you’ve written.”

“Maybe you should have crossed checked them,” she snapped.  “They support my argument.”

“Your argument is that no one knows what happened in the early Middle Ages except you.”

“I’m not the first scholar to say that what remains from that period is open to interpretation.”

“But you are the first to say that an entire system of apprenticeship existed in the non-Christian religions.”

“I didn’t call them a religion!”

“Which is another flaw!”

They had both raised their voices.  She took a step closer to him. What an arrogant idiot he was. She had read his credentials in the course guide over pizza the night before. His specialty was world history from 1600 to the present day.  He had no right to criticize her.

She took a deep breath.  All of her friends had warned her at various points in her life that her temper flared too quickly. She didn’t need to lose it in front of her department chairman, not during their first meeting.

“It was the Christian Church that labeled a lot of those practices as religion,” she said as calmly as she could.  “The church was working on converting people who had never heard of it.  The record is biased toward that conversion.”

“History is always written by the winners.”

“Do you always speak in cliches or is this something you’re just doing for my benefit?”

His blue eyes flashed.  “I’m not planning to do anything that will benefit you, Professor Lost.”

She straightened her shoulders.  She was dangerously close to losing her temper. That last sarcastic sentence was the first sign that she was about to lose control. She had to hold onto it.  If she got mad, he would never forget it.  People who were on the receiving end of her wrath never did.

“I’m not asking you to do anything to benefit me,” she said softly.

He flattened his hands on his desk.  “I’m in charge of the hirings and firings here, and frankly, I’m not pleased with anything about you.”

She crossed her arms. “You’re not in charge of hiring or firing. The university has committees for that.”

“Committees which take the recommendation of the department heads very seriously.”  He leaned toward her.  “You’re a fraud, Professor Lost.  You make up your research and then go on the History Channel pretending to be a real historian.”

“I am the most real historian you’ll ever have in this department,” she snapped.  “I know more about primary research than all of your colleagues put together.”

“Do you?” he asked, his voice even softer.  Somehow it sounded more menacing that way.

She swallowed, wishing she could take back the words.  Of course she had done more primary research than the rest of them.  She had lived in that time period.  She knew what she had written was fact. The rest of them were guessing.

“Yes,” she said, “I do.”

“Then why don’t you cite more primary sources in your book?”

“I’ve cited enough for every other scholar in the world, Professor Found.  England in the early Middle Ages is not your time period.  Why don’t you trust the people who specialize in the area?”

He smiled then, and the beauty of the expression caught her even though she wanted to slap him.  “I do specialize in the area, Professor Lost.”

“Not according to your write up in all the college guidelines,” she said, then flushed.  She hadn’t wanted him to know that she was checking up on him.

He raised his eyebrows as if the comment amused him.  “Those were written when I was hired. For the last five years, I’ve changed specialties.  I just came from England.   I’ve been studying the Dark Ages.”

“Oh,” she said. “So you want to get rid of me because I’ve got more credentials in the field you aspire to. I’m teaching the classes you want to teach.”

“No, Professor,” he said. “I’m telling you this so that you know that I know what you think you know.”

She blinked.  She wasn’t sure what he had just said.  “Excuse me?”

“You’ve made everything up.”  He picked her book off his desk.  “This entire volume is a work of fiction.  It’s well written, it’s interesting. It’s easy to see why the literati embraced the whole thing, and it’s pretty with all those color photographs.  It’s a very nice coffee table book. But just because the book critic in the New Yorker says you can write doesn’t mean you can produce a good work of historical scholarship.”

“You’re jealous,” she said.

“No.” He slapped the book on his desk.  “I don’t want a fraud in my department.”

“I’m not a fraud,” she said.

“Ms. Lost —”

“Professor Lost,” she snarled.

“— You are the worst kind of fraud.  You are attractive, articulate, and intelligent.  You tell a coherent and plausible story.  But you are lazy and inept and ultimately you will embarrass this department.  I want you out of here before you do that.”

“You can’t fire me,” she said.  “I was hired with Mort’s highest recommendation.  I’ll tell the academic review board that you’re jealous and you want to clear me out of here because I teach the very subjects you believe you should teach.”

“And I’ll show them how poor your documentation is.”  His eyes narrowed. “When I get through with you, you won’t be able to get a job at any reputable campus anywhere.”

A surge of panic rose inside her and she fought to keep it from showing on her face.  She wasn’t suited to anything else.  She was awful at all the other jobs she had tried. Teaching was her calling, and writing books about her past was the best thing she could do.

This good-looking pompous ass was threatening more than he knew.  He was threatening her very survival.  Her very future.

She clenched her fists, struggling to control herself.  The office felt hot and stuffy. The furniture was closing in on her.  If only she had room to breathe —

This time she felt the little puff of energy leave her before she saw the bright light. There was a thunderous clap that echoed around her, and she saw stars for a moment. When her vision cleared, she was standing in an empty room — with Michael Found.

He staggered forward as if he had been leaning his weight on something and it was now gone.  His face was pale.

“What was that?”

She opened her mouth, but nothing came out.  She blinked, unable to think of a response. Except that she needed to reverse the spell.

She was full blown and out of control and she had to get out of here very, very fast.

The door opened and Helen looked in.  Her face was pale.  “Um, Michael,” she said, “how did all your furniture get into my office?”

He looked at Emma, whose mouth was still open.  At least she wasn’t blushing.  Her heart was pounding and she had to mutter the reverse order, but she didn’t want to do it in front of them. Then they’d know she caused all of this.

“Michael?” Helen asked.  “What’s happening?”

“I have no idea.” His voice sounded calm, but his right hand shook.  He clenched his fist.  “I was telling Professor Lost —”

“Stop!” she said before she thought the better of it.  She didn’t want Helen to hear about that humiliating conversation. She didn’t want Helen to hear anything.

Michael Found made a choking noise and for a brief, terrifying moment, Emma thought she had taken his voice away.  Then he cleared his throat, and took a step toward the door.

“Helen?”

Emma looked at Helen, ever so slowly.  Helen was no longer moving. She was frozen in position, and her skin was gray.  Well, not exactly gray. It looked like it was made of stone.

She had become a statue.

“Oh, no,” Emma muttered softly.

Professor Found approached the department secretary as if he thought what she had was catching. When he reached her, he touched her arm.

“She’s cold,” he said.

His back was to Emma.  She whispered the “reverse” word ever so softly and twirled her hand.

The stone around Helen cracked and fell to the floor, then vanished.

“Michael?” Helen said.  “You didn’t answer me.”  She leaned back slightly. “And don’t sneak up on me like that.”

“I didn’t sneak up,” he said.  “You turned to — ah, hell.”

He looked at Emma, who shrugged.

“To what?” Helen asked.

“Don’t you remember?” he asked.

“I remember asking you a question you have yet to answer.  What’s going on?”

“I wish I knew.”  He frowned at Emma.  She didn’t have to work at looking panicked. She was barely breathing, afraid of doing anything, thinking anything.   She had to get out of here and get some help.

“One minute I was having a discussion with Professor Lost, the next thing I know, my furniture is gone.”

He turned back to Helen who peered into the room.  Emma understood her confusion.  There weren’t even any dust bunnies in here — and considering how many books had lined the floor, there should have been.

Helen’s gaze met Emma’s and then she looked away.  Emma used that moment to try the reverse spell again, but it didn’t work.

“Do you know what’s happening, Professor Lost?” Michael asked.

Emma clenched her fists and pushed past him. “I’m sorry. I have to leave.”

“But we’re not done…”

“Oh, yes, we are. You’re having a weird furniture problem. We can resume this discussion some other time.”  Emma slid past Helen.  “Sorry,” she said softly.

Helen didn’t seem to have a response.  Emma almost ran down the hall, her heels preventing her from moving too fast.  When she reached Helen’s office, she had to slow down to make her way past the piles of furniture.

It was a neat spell, more or less.  The furniture had actually arranged itself in its proper positions — the bookshelves against the wall, the reading chair in a corner with its footstool in the proper place — but there wasn’t enough room for everything, and so the space was crammed.

Emma was lucky that the spell had worked as it had, otherwise Helen could have been crushed under a load of ergonomically designed furniture.

The thought made Emma shudder. It could have been so much worse.

Although it was bad enough.  It would take a lot of work to get the furniture moved back to Michael Found’s office.  She wished she could spell it there, but she knew now that wasn’t possible.

She pushed open the stairway door, paused because she felt light-headed, and went down to her office, hoping she wouldn’t see anyone else.  The last thing she needed was another magical accident.

Things were bad enough.

***

Michael still stood in the middle of his office.  With a clap of thunder, the furniture had magically reappeared, almost as if someone had commanded it to do so. Everything was in its place. Even the plants draped as they had before.  The same books were on top of his reading stack, and Emma Lost’s disgraceful tome was in the spot where he had slammed it on his desk.

Helen had taken one look at the restored furniture, shaken her head, and hurried away from him, as if he had caused it.

He wasn’t sure what had caused it.  Or if anything had really happened. He was still vaguely jet-lagged, and he had been very angry at Emma Lost.  The woman was as infuriating as she was beautiful.

And she seemed to firmly believe that she hadn’t done anything wrong.

He walked back to his desk and touched its wood surface.  It felt the same.  He frowned, trying to remember the exact sequence of events.  Had he walked through the space where the desk should have been?  Or had he walked around it as though it were still there?

Had someone played a trick on him, knowing that he was writing a book on magic?  It wouldn’t surprise him. Students were endlessly creative.  And if David Copperfield could make the Empire State Building disappear then a talented student could make Michael believe that his office furniture had vanished.

There had been that flash of light, and it had affected his eyesight for a moment.  Was that some sort of special effect that made it seem as if his furniture was gone?

That would certainly explain why Helen had come into his office.  The students had probably projected the images of his furniture in her office, making it seem as if the furniture had transferred.

Brilliant. He would have to search for the source of it in a  moment.

Even though that didn’t explain why Helen’s skin had been so cold, why she had looked as if she had been made out of stone.

He had never really touched her before.  Maybe her skin was naturally cold.  Maybe he had only thought she had looked frozen in stone.

Maybe she was in on it.

He shook his head.  Helen wasn’t really one for practical jokes. Neither, it seemed, was Emma Lost. She had bolted from his office like a frightened child.

He ran a hand through his hair. He supposed he owed her an apology — for the weirdness, not for saying she was incompetent.  He would have to be clear about that.  Which, of course, would continue the argument.

But he had to let her know where he stood.  This was his department now, and her presence was tainting it.  It would be unethical for him to keep her on board, knowing how bad her research was.  It would be like the  Washington 
Post keeping on that woman who had made up the newspaper articles that had won her the Pulitzer Prize.  Yes, the work seemed credible, but it wasn’t.  And if Emma Lost got caught, it would reflect badly on the school, the department, and him.

He put a hand on his desk just to make sure it was there.  It was.  It felt smooth and warm to the touch, just as it always had.  Now that magic trick had seemed amazingly real.  Just like Emma Lost’s research. For most people, all she needed was to be convincing, but Michael was a man who liked proof.  A man who understood reason, and who believed in accuracy above all else.

She may have thought she found a sinecure here at the University of Wisconsin, but she was about to learn that she was wrong.

Here’s how you order the rest of the book.  You can get the mass market edition through your favorite bookstore or order it here. The ebook will be widely available.  Here are the links to Kindle and Nook. Other ebookstores should have it as well.

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Utterly Charming Novel Excerpt

I’m on a campaign to excerpt as many of my novels as possible for you, so that you can sample them before you buy.

This month, I’ve excerpted Utterly Charming, my most recent Kristine Grayson novel which Sourcebooks will publish in early October. The Grayson novels are marketed as romance, but in truth, they’re light fantasy.  This book is a reissue. It was first published in 2000, and won the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award for Best Paranormal Romance. Since paranormal romance has skewed darker in the past decade, Sourcebooks decided to leave that information off the cover copy.

I hope it will wet your appetite, not just for this book, but for my other novels as well. You’ll find ordering information at the end of this post.

Here’s the back cover copy, followed by the excerpt and the ordering information:

Bestselling author Kristine Grayson’s fairy tale romances bring the classic stories into the present day, where fairy tale characters must grapple with the complexities of modern life as well as their own destinies.

This time when Sleeping Beauty wakes up, she wants nothing to do with the man who kissed her. Consoling Alex Blackstone, the rejected suitor who is a brilliant magician but inept when it comes to women, falls to modern career woman and lawyer, Nora Barr. Nora now has to deal with Beauty’s evil stepmother, and the discovery that Alex just might be her own personal Prince Charming…

 

Utterly Charming

Kristine Grayson

Copyright © 2011 by Kristine K. Rusch

Published by Sourcebooks

First published in 2000 by Zebra Books

 

Ten Years Ago


One

Her father used to tell her, Never lose your sense of humor, Nora. Sometimes it’s all you need.

And sometimes, it was all you had left.  She hadn’t lost everything, not yet, but she would, if she didn’t get another client, if she didn’t find a way to earn some real money fast, if she didn’t find a way to turn everything around.

Served her right for listening to her mother.  A girl needs to follow her dreams, honey.  Nora was following them.  All the way to bankruptcy.

Still, she had to laugh as she left her office on the third floor of one of Portland’s most exclusive buildings.  The lower floors rented cheap because the offices hadn’t been converted and the remodeling was shoddy.  The carpet caught and bunched in places, and the ceiling tiles looked as if they might fall down at any moment.  But that wasn’t what made her smile.

It was the fact that the travel agency two doors down had picked that very morning — the morning she had received four final, final, final! bills, the morning her landlord had called and threatened her with eviction if she didn’t pay the last two months rent, the morning her most promising client’s retainer check bounced — to decorate the hallway with beautiful 12 x 20 travel posters of exotic places that Nora would never see.  As she stepped out of her office, she found herself facing a bright blue ocean, a pristine beach, and a clearly exclusive resort in the distance.  Searching for Romance? the poster read.  Try Hawaii.

She smiled.  Romance.  She didn’t have time for romance.  Even if she could afford to go to Hawaii.

She clutched her battered briefcase to her side, and hurried toward the elevator. The upper floors of the building had an express elevator, done tastefully in polished wood and brass.  The elevator that served the first five floors was an ancient Otis with a cracked mirror that covered the walls.  Every time she stepped inside, she was startled at the girl who looked back at her.

She wasn’t a girl.  She was a twenty-five-year-old woman who had graduated with honors from the University of Oregon Law School.  She was the twenty-five-year-old crazy woman who had decided to open her own practice despite all the offers she had received from prestigious law firms around the state.  She was the twenty-five-year-old crazy and unrealistic woman who believed she could make a living in Portland, Oregon’s largest city, a city so full of experienced lawyers that no one with any sense would go to an inexperienced one, let alone one who had only recently received her J.D.

And who happened to look like the head of the high school cheerleading squad.  It wasn’t her fault that she was only five-two, petite and blond.  It wasn’t her fault that her nose turned up (“like a little ski-jump” her father used to say) or that her eyes were wide and blue, making her seem at first glance like an innocent adrift in the large, complicated world.  The only asset she had was her voice, strong and strident and able to silence a room with a single word.

Her favorite law professor had told her that she had to learn to use her appearance to her advantage.

Obviously, she hadn’t yet, not if the way she looked still surprised herself.

She got into the elevator, let the creaky doors close and leaned against the mirror’s crack.  The only reason she was going to see this client — a doctor who had more malpractice suits filed against him than any other doctor in the state, a doctor who had gone through lawyer after lawyer — was because she needed the money.  She knew it, and he knew it, which was why he could command her to come to his office instead of having him come to hers.

So much for her vaunted ethics.  So much for not handling cases she didn’t believe in.

Did all lawyers throw out morality in exchange for food?  She didn’t know.  She suspected they did, though, which was why so many elderly senior partners were fat.

To give herself credit, though, she wasn’t completely sure she was going to see him.  She was going to treat herself to a cheap lunch at the nearby all-natural low-fat Mexican food place (which was as tasty as treating herself to a sugarless ice cream cone) and she was going to decide on a full stomach.  She couldn’t make the decision in her office, not with the phone ringing, and bills piled up on her desk.

The elevator clanked its way down to the bowels of the building, which hadn’t been remodeled at all.  She never told her clients — what few of them there were — to use the parking garage because she was afraid it would scare them.  It used to scare her, until she badgered the landlord into putting in an extra bank of florescent lights.  She had been cantankerous about it too (“Women alone don’t like dark places, Stan,” she had snapped at him one afternoon), which was probably why he was pressing her so hard for the rent.  The florescent lights did banish the darkness, but they also revealed spiders the size of mice and a crumbling concrete foundation completely at odds with the BMWs and Porsches parked beside the columns.

BMWs, Porsches, and of course, her mighty steed, an ancient Rabbit that belched blue smoke every time she put it into reverse.  She parked it toward the back corner of the garage after one of the lawyers from the huge firm upstairs (the one that had tried to hire her out of law school and who had continued to belittle her dream of independence ever since) requested that she “Do Something about her car so that people knew this was a Reputable Building.”  She couldn’t Do Something about the car, but she could hide it so that the snobbish people who worked in this Reputable Building didn’t have to see the rust, dented fenders, and blue smoke.

Inside the garage, the cars were lined up like little soldiers, the most expensive closest to the express elevator, and the rest scattered throughout the remaining spots.  Despite the new lights, the place had an air of perpetual grayness, like an overcast day that kept promising, but never delivering, rain.   It also echoed like crazy, and she was glad she had taken off her high heels and stuffed them into her briefcase before coming down.  Her tennis shoes handled the concrete and the oil slicks much better, and they didn’t make it sound as if she were an army of women on mission.

But there were already people in the garage, and their voices were echoing.

“…still don’t see why you’ve dragged me here,” said the first voice.  It was low and musical and sexy.  She had always loved voices like that.  The kind that had a faint English accent, the kind that made her think that a man could seduce her without her ever seeing him, just listening to his warm mellifluous voice speaking softly in a dark room.

“You won’t find out unless you go upstairs.”  The second voice was nasal and harsh. It was the complete opposite of the voice she had first heard.

“I really don’t want to. I have a lot of other things to do, things that have nothing to do with Eals—”

“Really?” asked the second voice. “Is that why you were in Beaverton?”

“I’d heard she was there.”

“She is there, but I don’t know the exact address.  There’s all those little houses, you know, that go on like rabbit’s warrens —”

The other voice interrupted, still speaking too low for Nora to hear.  She rounded a corner, and as she did, her foot hit a loose piece of metal.  It clanged, and the sound resounded off the thick concrete walls.

A man appeared on the back of a blue 1974 Lincoln — at least, it seemed as if he had appeared.  One minute the car had been there — alone and slightly out of place — and one minute later, he was standing beside it. She would have sworn to that in a court of law.

Well, maybe not.  After all, people didn’t just appear.  She could almost hear herself cross-examining herself.  Perhaps she hadn’t noticed him in her haste to get to her car.  Perhaps —

But the hadn’t-noticed thought stopped her.  How could she not have noticed this man?  He was tall and slim with broad shoulders and narrow hips, and legs that went on forever.  He had black hair in need of a cut, gray — or were they silver? — eyes, and smooth skin the color of toffee.  His features were an odd mix of harsh angles and soft lines — an angular nose, high cheek bones, and sensitive lips — none of which should have gone together, but which did in a way that made her heart beat faster.  She couldn’t tell how old he was; his face was unblemished, but his eyes held an wisdom most young men did not have.  He wore a shimmery gray silk suit that accented his broad shoulders, and on his feet, he wore cowboy boots trimmed in real silver.

He was the most gorgeous man she had ever seen.  He literally made her stop breathing, although her heart kept beating — so hard he could probably hear it.  Color rushed to her cheeks, and she almost put her hands to them, until she realized it would draw attention.  He would think her an actual cheerleader, blushing and stammering and completely out of her league.

The man turned, saw her, and his eyes met hers, holding her.  She had never felt such intensity in a man’s gaze before.  He tilted his head slightly, as if in recognition, and she nodded back.

It took her a moment to notice the snake he held in his left hand.  In fact, she probably wouldn’t have noticed if the creature hadn’t turned toward her, and hissed.

“Who’s that?” the nasal voice asked.  She couldn’t see where it came from.

The man smiled at her, a small apologetic smile, as if to say that he had more manners than his nasal-voiced friend.  “Probably someone on the way to her car.”

He was the one with the beautiful voice.  It suited him, so rich and warm, deep and smooth. She had been right.  It was a musician’s voice.

“Oops,” the nasal voice responded, and suddenly a tiny man stood on the Lincoln’s bumper. Nora would have used the word “appeared” to describe him too, but she didn’t want to. That meant that he had been invisible one moment and visible the next. People didn’t simply pop in.  And people who saw people pop in, well, they were considered crazy.

The little guy grinned at her.  He was perfectly proportioned, square with a pugnacious face, a chin that curved outward and a nose that obviously had been broken several times.  He wore dark blue jeans and a T-shirt with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the sleeves.

He raised his eyebrows, making him look like the inspiration for Puck from A Midsummer’s Night Dream.  “It’d be nice to have a woman,” he said, ruining the image.

She shook herself.  What had she expected?  Him to leap on the back of the car and intone, What fools these mortals be?

His companion rolled his eyes, almost as if he’d heard Nora’s thoughts.  Then she realized he was responding to the little man. “Things are different now,” he said.  “You can’t just have any woman.”

His gaze remained on Nora’s, his silver eyes sparkling as if he knew that she understood the joke.

She didn’t.

“Excuse me,” she said, and shifted her briefcase again. The thing weighed more than a small child.  She walked toward the Lincoln, not really sure if she wanted the attention of these two men. The tall one was spectacular, but his friend was unnerving.  Still, she had to go by them to get to her car.

The snake wrapped itself around the tall man’s wrist.

The little man watched.  So did the tall one.  In fact, he didn’t seem willing to take his gaze off her.  She wasn’t really willing to take her gaze off him, but she did, just to prove to herself that she could do it.  Besides, that blush had moved from her cheeks into her neck and down her fake silk blouse.  She probably looked like a little blond tomato.

She was just past the car when the little man scurried in front of her.  She stopped.  He moved quickly.  If she tried to go around, he would get in front of her again.  She didn’t like this game (although she might have if his friend had been playing it).

“Who are you?” the little man asked.

She had had enough.  She rose to her full five feet two inches, and said, “My name is Nora Barr.  I’m a lawyer.”

She added that last so that they wouldn’t mess with her.

The tall man raised his eyebrows and looked at the little man. The little man shrugged.  “Told you we needed a woman,” he said.  Then he grinned.  It looked like a triumphant grin.  “And I had a hunch we’d find one here.”

***

It wasn’t that hard for them to talk her out of lunch.  They needed an attorney, they claimed, and they had money to burn.  Actually, the little guy said that and the gorgeous guy shushed him, but the little guy said that Nora needed to know that, which she did. It allowed her to forget the malpractice doctor, and to hang onto her ethics for at least one more day.

Besides, she wasn’t really going to sell out for a single retainer, was she?

She didn’t want to think about that question.

Instead, she found herself daydreaming about the gorgeous man as they rode the elevator to her floor.  He was even better looking up close and he smelled wonderful, a mixture of leather and something intoxicating, something exotic.  She took several deep breaths and would have continued until she saw the little guy staring at her with that knowing grin on his face.

“Feeling faint?” he asked.

“Just practicing my calming techniques,” she said.  “I have a hunch I’ll need them.”

The tall man laughed, a deep pleasant sound.  “She’s got you pegged,” he said to his companion.

“It wasn’t hard,” she said, as the elevator doors creaked open.

The travel agency had added some potted palm trees to the foyer, such as it was, and so cramped the space that Nora and her would-be clients had to file out of the elevator one at a time.  She had to admit that the travel posters gave the corridor a professional appearance which dissipated, of course, the moment she opened her office door.

Ruthie, her secretary, was sitting at the old metal desk, the telephone plastered to her ear.  Several law books sat on the edge of the wall-to-wall bookshelves, waiting to be refiled.  Four separate files were open before her, and behind her, the cursor on the old PC screen blinked orange.  When she saw Nora, she murmured an excuse into the phone and hung up.

“When does Bryan go back to work?” Nora asked, knowing the others hadn’t quite gotten to the door yet.  She wanted Ruthie to be as professional as Ruthie could be when they arrived, and usually Nora had to knock Ruthie off-balance to make that happen.

Ruthie swallowed.  “He — ah — doesn’t.  He wants to be a househusband.”

“I thought you don’t have children.”

“We don’t, not yet. But he says with my salary, and his planning, we could do real well.”

If Ruthie continued to get her salary. She was the only one who got paid regularly around here, and that probably wouldn’t be happening for much longer.

The men had appeared in the door behind her. Nora could tell from Ruthie’s gape-mouthed stare. She was looking up of course, and behind Nora the tall man chuckled softly.

For some reason, that small chuckle annoyed Nora almost as much as Ruthie’s stare did.  “Clients,” Nora said, and marched through the door into her office.

It was the larger of the two rooms, and it actually had a window, even though the view was of the roof of the building next door.  Her desk was hand-carved oak, a gift from her father when she graduated from law school, given to her a few weeks before he died.  She kept it highly polished and spotless.  Everything had its place, from the phone to the blotter to current cases (all three of them).  Two mismatched chairs sat in front of the desk, and to the side, next to the small file room, was a ratty blue couch.

Certainly not the office of a prosperous attorney.  But they probably knew that from the parking garage. She was willing to bet that the little man had her in mind from the very start.  He had said something about going upstairs in the parking garage, before he had known she was there.

So they wanted an inexperienced attorney. That almost made them suspect.  In fact, it would have made all of her clients suspect if it weren’t for the fact that her last name began with “B” and was listed as the fifth attorney in the Yellow Pages.  (And she was the first whose ad claimed reasonable rates.)

She slid around the desk and into the plush brown chair she had found at an estate sale.  The men had followed her inside.  The tall one was looking at her degrees, prominently displayed on the walls.  The short one was staring up at the chairs with something like dismay.

“Have a seat,” she said, somewhat perversely.  She knew the little man would have trouble getting into the chair, and she didn’t really care, not after his introductory remarks.  The little man put his hands on the seat, and boosted himself up.  Then he settled in, looking for all the world like a particularly ugly child.  His stubby legs extended over the seat and didn’t pretend to try for the ground.  Like a little boy, he put his hands on the armrests as if he were trying to hold himself in place.

The other man left her degrees, and slid into the remaining chair as if it had been built for him.  He pushed the chair back so that he could extend his long legs.  His booted feet hit the edge of her desk, rattling it.  The snake had disappeared, probably hiding in his suit.  The jacket was open, revealing a white shirt of the same material.  He folded his elegant, ringless hands over his flat stomach and watched her with those sharp silver eyes.

That fluttery feeling was back. Was it ethical to have a client who attracted her like this, just from the way he looked?

Probably not.  Although it was more ethical than working for the malpractice doctor.  Of that she was convinced.

“All right,” she said, leaning forward and folding her own hands into what she hoped was a business-like position.  “What can I do for you?”

To her surprise, the little man answered.  “Can you have someone tested for a witch?”

“That never worked,” the other man said.

“Exactly,” the little man said.

Nora leaned back.  Whatever she had expected, it hadn’t been this.

“If she can’t be tested for a witch,” the little man said, “perhaps tarred and feathered —?”

“Wrong century.”

“Hung from a tree until she’s dead?”

“Wrong century.”

“Boiled in oil?”

“You know no one did that.”

Nora sighed.  “Gentlemen, please.  You only get one free hour before I must begin to charge you, so unless there’s a realistic way I can help you —”

“I’m sorry.”  The tall man smiled faintly again.  She wondered how powerful his smile would be at full wattage.  On low, it was pretty strong stuff.  She fought the urge to smile back.  “I get so preoccupied that I forget the rest of the world doesn’t work the way I do.”  He stood just enough so that he could extend his hand.  “I’m Blackstone.”

She looked at the hand with its long fingers, and did not take it.  She was afraid that if she did, she wouldn’t let it go.  Instead, she said with just a trace of sarcasm in her voice, “The Blackstone?”

“Well, actually, yes, but not the one you’re thinking of.  He, in fact, was the impostor, but that’s a long story which ended rather nastily for all concerned. He —”

“Blackstone.” She shook her head.  She should have known better than to take clients from the parking garage.  “Is that a first or last name?”

“It’s a surname,” he said, easing his hand back to his side as if he didn’t want anyone else to notice her obvious snub.  “My given name is Aethelstan.”

“Aethelstan?”  She’d never heard a name like that.

He shrugged prettily.  “It was in style once.”

“A long, long time ago,” the little man added.

“And you are?” she asked.

“Let’s just call me Panza,” the little man said.

“Let’s not,” she said.  “Try again.”

The little man crossed his arms.  The cigarette pack slid under his sleeve until it hung beneath his right bicep.  “My name is Sancho Panza.”

She shot an exasperated look at Blackstone.  His eyes were twinkling again.  He looked even better when he was amused, not that it helped any.  She would have to deal with the little guy on her own.  “If you want me to do something for you in a court of law, I’ll need your legal name.”

The little guy leaned back in his chair.  “It’s not me you’re helping,” he said.  “It’s Blackstone.”

She crossed her arms.  She had the odd feeling they were playing a game, and she didn’t know why.  Did they have some sort of scheme?  If so, why all the subterfuge?

“All right, Mr. Blackstone,” she said in her most haughty voice, “what can I help you with?”

For a moment, the mask dropped, and she saw something in his eyes, a vulnerability, almost a fear mixed with sadness.  Then he seemed to notice her watching him, and the expression disappeared.  He cleared his throat, glanced at his companion who was watching both of them, and said, “You charge what?”

The question was clearly meant to be rude, obviously because she had seen behind his facade.  And the question was rude, at least the way he asked it.  As he spoke, the snake stuck its head out of his shirt and looked at her as if it too expected an answer.

“One hundred dollars an hour, plus a —” she almost quoted her regular rate, then decided to double it because these two were proving to be so much trouble (not to mention the fact that she needed the money) — “plus a thousand dollar retainer.”

“A thousand dollar retainer?” The little man strangled on the last word.  “In my day, you could run a country on a thousand dollars.”

“In your day, there was no such thing as dollars,” Blackstone muttered.  He hadn’t taken his gaze off her.  “What do you prefer? A check or cash?”

“Or gold,” the little man added. She would be damned if she would think of him as Sancho Panza.

“A check is fine,” she said.  No sense in taking currency.  With these two, it could just as easily be forged, and then where would she be?  The worst thing a check could do was bounce.

Blackstone put a hand inside his shimmery jacket, and brought out a checkbook.  A pen appeared in his other hand — just as Blackstone had appeared initially.  Just as the little man had appeared.  Out of thin air.

She felt the muscles in her shoulders tighten.  More games.

He poised the pen over his checkbook.  “Do I write this check to you or to the law firm?”

“I am the law firm,” she said.  “Either is fine.”

She was telling him that so that he could pull out.  But he didn’t quiz her about her background, or the types of cases she handled, or her past successes, of which there were quite a few, given the scant months she’d been in business.  Not that those wins had brought more clients.  It took time to build a business.  But time was what she didn’t have.

She watched him write the check.

He signed it with a flourish, and then handed it to her.  She glanced at it, noting his name in bold and only a post office box for an address.  Her hand shook.  She needed the money so badly.  But she couldn’t let that get in the way of her judgment.  It was time to get serious.

With her left hand, she pulled open a draw and removed a legal pad.  Then she took her pen out of its holder.  “Let’s get your street address and phone, starting with you, Mr. Blackstone, and then going onto your friend here.”

“You don’t need me,” the little man said.  “I already told you.”

She stared at him for a moment.  He had just given her the opportunity she had been waiting for.

“Then I’ll have to ask you to leave,” she said.

“I don’t mind him staying.” Blackstone leaned back in his chair. The pen was gone.  So was the checkbook. She hadn’t seen him put either away.

The snake had disappeared as well.

“I mind,” she said.

Blackstone raised an eyebrow.  The little man scowled.  “You got books in the waiting area?”

“Law books,” Nora said.

“Good enough,” the little man said, and scooted off the chair.  Blackstone held the back so that the chair didn’t tip. As the little man’s feet hit the floor, he brushed off his backside, and adjusted his cigarettes. Then he let himself out the door.

The room felt three times larger without him.  Nora wasn’t certain how a person that tiny could fill such a big space.

“Mr. Blackstone,” she said, keeping the businesslike tone to her voice, “street address and phone number?”

He gave her an address in the west side suburbs, in a new development that was only partially finished. The address surprised her; she would have thought a man like him belonged in one of Portland’s older homes, filled with history and charm.  Instead, he chose a cookie cutter neighborhood without any class at all.

She must have paused long enough to catch his notice.  He raised an eyebrow again — an expression which, on most people, would seem like an affectation, but on him seemed completely natural.

“Something wrong with my address, Miss Barr?”

The “miss” also surprised her, but she let it go.  Unlike her mother, she did not make a federal case out of the misuse of the female honorific.  It simply told her what sort of man she was dealing with.

She already knew he was strange; that he was also old-fashioned in some ways didn’t surprise her much.

“No,” she said.  “I simply hadn’t spoken to anyone who lives in Lakewood Development.  It’s fairly new.”

His eyes narrowed a bit as if he knew she were lying, but didn’t know why.

“So,” she said, before he could speak again, “how can I help you?”

He flushed. The faint redness ran from his high cheekbones, down his neck, and beneath the shimmering collar of his shirt.  It was attractive and boyish, and made her feel as if she’d found a kindred soul.  She blushed more than she wanted, more than was seemly for a woman her age, and for a woman in her profession.  His blush made him seem more approachable. It also made her wonder if he looked that way in bed.  That thought made her uncomfortable and she made herself look at the legal pad while she waited for his response.

He threaded his fingers together, glanced nervously at the door, and then said, “A — dear friend of mine — had, um, been in a, for lack of a better word, a coma — for, um, some time.  Her, um, guardian won’t — let me near her, and although I’ve fought for that right for, um, some time, I haven’t made any progress.”

For an articulate man, he suddenly had a great deal of trouble choosing his words.  She didn’t write anything down.  Instead, she placed her pen across the page with his name and address on it.

“And you want me to — what?  Contact the guardian?”

“Isn’t there anything legal you can do?”

“Depends,” she said.  “What’s your exact relationship to this woman?”

His flush grew deeper.  She sighed inwardly.  Girlfriend. Of course.  A man who looked like that had to have a thousand of them.

“She’s — ah — someone special to me.”

Nora resisted the urge to pick up her pen and tap it against the desktop.  “Special.”  She let her tone go dry.  “As in fiancé? Lover?”

“No,” he said.  “But she will be.”

Nora closed her eyes.  Will be. He had hopes, but the girl probably didn’t.  Which meant he was some kind of stalker.  Why were all the gorgeous ones also crazy?  She opened her eyes.  He was watching her, obviously puzzled.

She sighed again.  So much money and it was now going to disappear.  Apparently she had ethics after all.

“Look, Mr. Blackstone,” she said.  “I can’t help you in any legal way unless the woman in question is in some way a relative.  I’m sorry, but that’s just the law.  You’ll have to accept the situation for what it is and move on.”

She pushed his check back toward him.

“You can’t help me?” he asked, sounding a bit astonished.

“Not me, not any lawyer,” she said.  “You have no rights with someone who is just a friend. I’m sorry.  The guardian has legal control.”

The snake poked its head out of Blackstone’s sleeve and hissed softly.  Its long forked tongue curled as it did so.  He absently petted its flat head, and then pushed it under his sleeve.

“This is becoming untenable,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” she said again.  He had no idea how sorry she was.  Sorry that she wouldn’t get to look at him any longer.  Sorry that she wouldn’t be able to use his money to save her law practice.

He took the check, stood, and held out his hand. “Sorry to take all of your time.”

His mimicry of the pattern of her thoughts startled her.  She wasn’t sorry he had taken her time.  He had shown her that she was thinking of walking the wrong path.

“I’m sorry that I couldn’t have been of help to you,” she said as she stood.  This time, she took his hand.  His skin was smooth and warmer than she expected.  His touch sent a little shiver of pleasure through her, and it took all of her strength to keep from pulling away in surprise.

“Nonetheless,” he said.  “I appreciate your candor.”

He bowed slightly, a courtly move that somehow seemed appropriate to him.  Then he slipped out the door.  She continued to stand for a moment, looking at the closed door, feeling vaguely unsettled.  He seemed like a man who, despite his charming surface, was a bit lost.

Then she shook herself as if she were waking from a long, strange dream.  It wasn’t often she let good looks influence her that much.  She sank into her chair and picked up her pen, pausing over his name and address.

After a moment, she reached for her phone, and dialed the number of Abercrombie, Hazelton, Finch and Goldberg. The receptionist answered, and Nora hung up.  What had she been thinking, dialing up Max?  Max had interesting cases and interesting clients, thanks to his accidental success shortly after he had joined Portland’s largest firm.  Max had been out of law school as long as she had, but already he had a buzz.  Everyone was saying that Max would be the state’s best defense attorney, and she had a hunch everyone was right.

Max wouldn’t want to talk about this.  Max would humor her, of course — he was nothing but polite — but he would think that she was even more marginalized than she already was.

Nora sighed and picked up her mini tape recorder. She would  dictate a few notes about Blackstone and his little friend, just so that she had a completed file in case Blackstone did turn out to be a stalker and claimed he had done something on her advice.

Then she would close the file forever.

When she finished, she handed the entire mess to Ruthie, and took off for her long-over due lunch.  When she got into the elevator, which still smelled faintly of leather and something intoxicating, she let herself dream a little.  It would be nice to have a man who looked like that be interested in her.  A sane man.

But that would never happen, and she was smart enough to know it.  Men always found her attractive at first — so little, so cute — and then she would open her mouth.  So few men appreciated her blunt style, and even fewer of them appreciated her opinions.  She didn’t know how many men she had scared away.  The ones who liked her mouth and her brains only saw her as a friend.

She sighed.  She hated being practical.  Her father used to say that it stole the magic from her life.

And he was probably right.

Of course, if she were really practical, she would have taken Blackstone’s money.  She had enough, if she were cautious, to pay one month’s rent and hope her landlord would be satisfied.  If she didn’t have anything new on her desk in two weeks, she would have to apply at the law firms that had turned her down.

She would have to admit defeat.

And it was looking more and more like she would have no choice.

 

Two

Two weeks later, nothing had changed, except that Nora had gotten a bit more desperate.  She actually thought of calling her mother for a loan.  But her mother would have given her a long lecture about responsibility, forgetting the admonition she had often given about following dreams, and then would write a check for three times the amount that Nora wanted to borrow.  Nora hated going into debt. She hated it worse when it was accompanied by a lecture followed by kindness.

Fortunately, Ruthie had managed to get that client who bounced the retainer check to pay cash instead.  Ruthie used to work for a collection agency, and for once her strange skills had proven useful. Privately, Nora believed Ruthie knew the end was near, and with her strange boyfriend Bryan to support, Ruthie would do anything to keep the office open.

Even with the lost retainer restored, Nora was still on the edge.  She was sitting at her desk, checkbook beside her, a stack of bills on the other side, trying to see which ones she could skip and which ones she absolutely had to pay.  No new clients had come in the door in over a week, and none had called. She was beginning to think she was going to have to chase ambulances to find work.  At least then, she might have a chance of finding someone truly in need of her help, unlike the malpractice doctor who was the only person burning her phone lines these days.

As if on cue, Ruthie buzzed the intercom.

“Mr. Blackstone is on the line.”

Nora felt her heart jump, and then frowned at herself in annoyance.  Blackstone had been a difficult man who would prove to be a more difficult client.  She wasn’t doing him or herself a favor by swooning over his looks.

Even if they were spectacular.

She thanked Ruthie and picked up the phone.

“’Bout time,” said a nasal voice that clearly didn’t belong to Blackstone.

Nora sighed.  “Yes?” she said, pretending not to recognize the voice of the little man who called himself Sancho Panza, just so that she wouldn’t have to use his name.

“Blackstone’s in a lot of trouble.  I think he needs an attorney.”

“If he needs an attorney,” Nora said, “why doesn’t he call me himself?”

“He can’t,” the little man said.  “The police are just arriving, and he’s otherwise engaged.”

“Police?”  She felt a chill run through her.   “I’m not a criminal attorney.”

“Doesn’t matter.  You’re the only attorney we know.  Can you come?”

“You haven’t told me where,” she said, mentally kicking herself for the curiosity that made her ask the question.

He listed an address in Beaverton near the Washington Square Mall.  She recognized the neighborhood; it was one of the older developments in what had once been a bedroom community for Portland, instead of an indistinguishable suburb.

“All right,” she said.  “I’ll be there.  But I may have to —”

She heard a click on the other line before she finished the sentence.  She stared at the receiver for a moment.

“— find him a new attorney,” she finished, softly, to herself.

Then she sighed and slipped on her trusty black shoes. She was glad she had worn a blazer, even though the shoulder pads made her look like a linebacker.  Actually, they made her look like a cheerleader dressed in a linebacker’s suit coat.  She grabbed her cheap briefcase and her oversized purse, and headed out the door.

“I don’t know when I’ll be back,” she said to Ruthie.  “Tell anyone who calls that I’m on an emergency, and will talk to them later tonight or tomorrow.”

Ruthie nodded, pretending, like Nora was, that someone would call,  and Nora hurried out of the office, wishing she were busy enough to tell Ruthie to cancel her afternoon appointments.

When Nora reached the elevator, she wondered exactly what she was doing.  She didn’t have a criminal specialty.  She should have called someone else.  But she felt a need to see Blackstone, a need that she didn’t want to analyze to closely.  A need she suspected had nothing to do with her work.

***

Her drive from downtown to Beaverton took nearly twenty minutes in the hot afternoon sunshine.  She spent most of the drive worrying about how she could get a retainer out of Blackstone and keep it while she found him a good defense attorney.  It wasn’t until she had reached 217 that she actually realized she had tried and convicted the man in her mind. Just because he was in trouble didn’t mean that he didn’t need a civil attorney.  Just because the police were involved didn’t mean she couldn’t help.  Just because he needed help didn’t mean he was a criminal.

Gorgeous men shouldn’t be criminals.  In the world of her imagination, they couldn’t be.  Criminals looked like — well, criminals looked like Blackstone’s little friend, Sancho Panza.  Not that criminals were short (she thought most of them were tall) but in the world of her imagination, they all had improperly set noses and they all rolled cigarettes up in their sleeves.

Maybe the little guy had gotten Blackstone in trouble. Maybe that was why he was trying to get Blackstone off the hook.

As she took the Tigard exit off Interstate Five, she frowned at the cloud of inky black smoke that covered the horizon.  It was field burning season — when the Willamette Valley’s grass farmers burned their fields to prepare it for the next crop — but regulations required them to wait until the winds would take the smoke away from the city, not toward it.  Besides, they would have to be burning fairly close to the west side suburbs for that much smoke, wouldn’t they?

She frowned and rolled up her windows, wishing that she could afford to fix the air-conditioning in her ancient Rabbit.  Immediately the air grew stuffy, but that was better than the smoke that she was driving into.

With a flick of her right hand, she turned on the radio. The local talk station had a single helicopter that was just going toward the site. The news stated what she already knew: something was happening ahead of her.

A prickly feeling grew along her back.  She hoped that the smoke wasn’t related to Blackstone, but that prickly feeling said it was.

Maybe she should stop at a pay phone and call another attorney now.  But she was curious.  She was broke.  And she really, really wanted to see Blackstone again.

She rolled her eyes at her own thoughts.  Maybe she deserved to look like a cheerleader. Only teenagers got crushes like this.  Or, more accurately, only teenagers acted upon them.

She decided to take a back route to the address that the little man had given her.  She took a side road, and then another, sweat running down the back of her cotton shirt beneath the blazer. The car was stuffy and smelled of smoke.  The sky was so black here that she could barely see in front of her car, and what she did see was oily smoke and flaky ash.

There was no way one person could cause all of this.  Maybe Blackstone wanted her to sue someone for burning his house down.  Maybe.  But then why had the little guy mentioned the police?

She bit her lower lip and turned into the neighborhood that the little man had told her about.  Immediately she slammed on the brakes. Directly in front of her was a police barricade, and around that, fire hoses, emergency equipment, and more flashing red lights than she had ever seen in one place.  She still couldn’t tell what was causing the smoke, but she knew it was just ahead.

A cop rapped on her window.  His beefy face was red and streaked with soot.

She shut off the radio and rolled down the window.  “I’m Mr. Blackstone’s attorney,” she said, wondering if that would mean anything to the cop.

Apparently it did.  He waved her forward. She had to drive slowly to avoid the hoses and the emergency personnel.  Burning bits of wood littered the road, and she constantly had to swerve to avoid them.  Several homes were on fire. The fire leapt out like a live thing, not responding to the water at all.

The smoke had gotten in the Nora’s throat, making it feel swollen. She had forgotten to roll up the window, and the stench was overpowering.  She didn’t see Blackstone anywhere.

She kept driving, cautiously. The address the little man had given her was right in the middle of the devastation.  Police cars blocked the entire road.  She couldn’t drive any farther.  She really didn’t want to get out, but she felt she had no choice.

She grabbed her purse but left her briefcase, thinking that she didn’t want to be too encumbered but she needed her identification.  She opened the car door and slid out, gingerly putting her feet between fire hoses and charred debris.

It was worse outside. The stench permeated everything. Bits of charred wood and flame floated down with the ash.  The sky was so dark, it seemed as if a severe storm were about to break overhead.  Her eyes watered.  Police band radios were crackling voices and static, and firemen were yelling directions at each other.  Strangely enough, she didn’t see any residents.  Maybe they had been evacuated.  But she would have expected at least one, screaming and shouting and defending his house.  Instead there was no one.  Other than emergency vehicles, there weren’t even cars parked along the street.

For some reason that unnerved her more than anything.  She walked around a parked police car, its flashing red lights a dramatic counterpoint to the artificial darkness.

There was a brown and orange Volkswagen microbus parked at the curb in front of the house that the little man had told her about.  She walked around it, and then she saw Blackstone.

He was on a green lawn untouched by flames, its flowers a reminder of what the neighborhood had been just a short time before.  He had not a speck of dirt on him.  He wore the cowboy boots, and a tight pair of jeans, and a T-shirt so white, so clean, that it flared like a neon sign.

His hair was slightly mussed, but he seemed calm.  And he was even more gorgeous than she remembered.

Five policemen stood around him — not protecting him so much as guarding him.  Another group was on the driveway, including a man who was taking pictures.  From her position on the street, Nora looked at what he was shooting, and the sensation that she was out of her league grew from a feeling to a certainty.

There was a woman on the concrete.  She was sprawled, face down.  With all the commotion around, Nora could only assume that the woman was dead.

Nora swallowed, then smoothed her skirt in a nervous gesture.  Just as she had suspected, Blackstone needed a criminal attorney.  But all he had at the moment was her.  She would do what she could to get him out of here, and call Max to defend him as soon as she was able.

Beside, her the microbus rocked slightly.  She looked up.  Sancho Panza or whoever he was moved by the window. She was about to call up to him, when he disappeared into the bus’s interior.

How had he called from the bus?  Did he have one of those expensive mobile phones?  He didn’t look like the gadget type.

She swallowed against the smoke-ravaged dryness of her throat.  She had to stay focused. She had to get through these next few moments and then get out of here.

She stepped onto the lawn, and her movement caught Blackstone’s attention.  His face softened when he saw her.  It had been all hard lines and angles before.  Now it was gentle, rounded, as if someone had changed the lighting or he had become a different person somehow.

He looked at her as if she were a lifeline.  She went to him like the schoolgirl whose crush she had appropriated.  Only when she was halfway across the yard did she remember she was supposed to be his attorney.

She squared her shoulders, and prepared to sound tough.  Heaven knew, she couldn’t look it.

She stopped beside one of the police officers, a middle-aged man whose soft stomach edged over his belt.  His face was soot-streaked and his eyes were red from the smoke.

“I’m Mr. Blackstone’s attorney,” Nora said in her best don’t-screw-with-me voice.  “What’s going on here?”

“Honey,” the officer said, “you don’t belong here.”

She raised her chin as if it would give her more height.  She hated being called “honey” and she hated even more being called “honey” in that tone of voice.

“I have every right to be here,” she said, louder and even more stridently than before.  “I am Mr. Blackstone’s attorney.  I demand that you tell me what’s going on.”

“Nora,” Blackstone said, and on his lips, the use of her name sounded like a poem. “What are you doing here?  I don’t need you.  It’s not safe.”

“What’s going on?” she asked again, this time to both Blackstone and the cop.

The cop stared at her as if she were a cat who had suddenly spoken.  Then he looked around as if what she saw explained everything.  “Your client destroyed this neighborhood.”

She raised her brows, skeptical. “This doesn’t look like the work of one person.”

“Believe me, lady,” the cop said.  “It is.”

“Nora,” Blackstone said again.

She held up a finger, a silent command ordering him to wait.  “I don’t believe you,” she said to the cop.

“We have witnesses,” he said.

“Nora —”

“Just a moment,” she snapped.  Blackstone closed his mouth, obviously stunned at her curtness.

“And,” the cop said, “those witnesses put that woman alive not fifteen minutes ago.”

After the little man had called her.  So he had called her while this — whatever it was — was going on.

She straightened.  She had to take charge of this situation.  “Are you charging my client with anything?”

It was the cop’s turn to raise his eyebrows, as if he couldn’t believe the stupidity of her question.   “What aren’t we charging him with? Carrying incendiary devices.  Arson.  Murder, and Attempted Murder.  And that’s just for starters.”

Blackstone rolled his eyes, and then shook his head, as if he couldn’t believe what was going on.  Nora’s hands were trembling.  She clasped them together to maintain her illusion of calm.

“Nora,” Blackstone said.  “Since you’re here, find Sancho.  Make sure he has secured the case.”

“I can’t believe you’re speaking,” she said, turning on him.  “You’re being charged with damn near every felony in the criminal code.  Don’t say another word.”

“Nora —”

“I mean it.”

He closed his mouth as if she had pushed it closed.  The cop watched them.  He hadn’t called her honey since she got strident.  And now he was looking at her as if she were someone to be reckoned with.  The other officers who had been crowding around watched as well.  One of them finally took out handcuffs.

“Are those necessary?” Nora asked in the same tone she had used with Blackstone.

The cop visibly flinched, but nodded.  He snapped them on Blackstone’s wrists.

“Where are you taking him?” she asked.

“Downtown,” the first cop said.

“Not the Beaverton station?”

“We’re better equipped for this kind of criminal downtown, ma’am,” the cop said.

This kind of criminal.  She shook her head.  “My client is not a criminal.”

“All right,” the cop said.  “We’re better equipped to handle this kind of alleged criminal downtown.”

Now she remembered why she had avoided criminal work.  It was so that she wouldn’t have to deal with cops.  “I’m coming with you.”

“No!” Blackstone said.

“I told you to be quiet,” she said.

“And I need you to find Sancho.  We need —”

“One more word,” she said, “and I’ll gag you myself.  You will not speak unless told to by an attorney.”

“I promise,” he said, “I won’t say another word, if you promise you’ll find Sancho.”

“I’m going with you to the station,” she said.

He shook his head.  “You’re my attorney, aren’t you?” he asked.  “You have to do what I ask.”

Technically that was correct, but it was also her job to save her clients from themselves.  The cops were watching the entire interaction with great interest.

“I promise to say nothing at all until you tell me when I can speak again, if you find Sancho and secure the case.”

She didn’t know what he meant by “secure the case” but she was sure she would find out.   “All right,” she said, wishing she had another choice.  She probably did, but damned if she knew what it was.  If he chose to speak without an attorney present, that wouldn’t be her problem. She didn’t do defense work.  “But I won’t meet you at the station.  I’ll be sending one of my colleagues.”

No sense in using Max’s name since she hadn’t yet spoken to him.  Blackstone smiled, full wattage.  It hit her like a beam of light in the darkness.  That smile was as powerful as she had fantasized it would be.  She almost had to take a step backwards.

“Thank you,” he said, then he let the cops lead him away.

She watched.  He was taller than the cops, but not by much.  He only seemed taller because he stood so straight, even handcuffed when most people would be humiliated.

Amazing how she could find him attractive, even now.

She brushed a strand of hair out of her face.  The smoke was making her woozy.  She adjusted her purse strap, and walked across the green lawn.  Amazingly, none of the ash and burning debris had fallen here.  The cops were still bent over the corpse, and as Nora passed, she paused to look.

The corpse was of a slender older woman, with jet black hair, and a streak of white off the right temple.  Her face, which might have been beautiful in life, was frozen in an expression of such malevolence that it took Nora’s breath away.  The woman’s hands were splayed at her side, her legs bent, and her expensive dress torn.  She didn’t look like the kind of woman who normally frequented the suburbs.

She also didn’t look dead.  She looked more like she had — stopped — freeze frame, the way someone would stop a film in a VCR.

One of the cops moved in front of Nora, blocking her view.  And she let him, feeling a bit odd lingering here. The fires were not spreading any more, but it would take a long time for them to burn out — at least that was what one of the firefighters said as he passed behind her.

She walked across the sidewalk and down the curb.  As she passed the microbus, the passenger window rolled down a crack.  A tiny face pressed against it.  Sancho.

“I’m going to your office,” he whispered.

She suppressed a sigh and didn’t even nod as she passed him. The last thing she wanted was for the cops to investigate the microbus.  Who knew what they would find inside?  She couldn’t believe they hadn’t cordoned it off as part of the crime scene.  It was as if no one seemed to notice it.  No one but her.

She climbed over hoses and returned to her own car. It was covered in a film of ash.  As she settled into the driver’s side, she turned on the wipers. The ash smeared all over the glass.

The cops said Blackstone had destroyed a neighborhood and maybe killed a woman.  She didn’t believe it. Was that because she had spent the last two weeks fantasizing about him?  Or was it because she had some innate belief in the goodness of people?  Or was it because this feeling that she had — that she had had from the beginning — that this was a decent man was growing stronger instead of weaker?

She started the car, and executed a series of small Y-turns in the tiny space, careful not to run over any hoses.  Why didn’t she see this destruction as something awful?  It looked as make-believe as the dead woman, the one who looked as if she had been a video stopped mid-frame.

Whew.  Nora had never thought she was one who practiced denial. At least, she hadn’t thought it — until now.

***

Before she drove to her office, she stopped at a pay phone just off 217 and called Ruthie.  Ruthie asked if Nora had heard about the disaster in the west side suburbs, and Nora said, yep, she’d heard.  No sense telling Ruthie Nora had been in the middle of it.  Ruthie would panic and Nora would spend the next few minutes calming her instead of getting business done.

And she suddenly had a lot of business, although she doubted she’d be paid for it.

Not that it mattered.  Some part of her really thought Blackstone was being framed.  By whom and for what she didn’t know, but she was convinced of it.

She had Ruthie set up a conference call with Max, and while she waited on hold, she brushed the ash off her blazer.  There was a lot of ash, and as she brushed, she changed the color from a faded blue to a dusty gray.

When Max came on, she told him about Blackstone (“You’re kidding about the name, right?”) and asked him to go to the police station. Max sniffed money immediately and all the fame and publicity a good local defense attorney wanted.  He agreed to go the police station before Nora had told him about the dead woman.  She was left holding the receiver, Ruthie on the other end, asking her if she was all right.

Nora lied and said she was.

She was shaking as she drove back to her office, shaking and slightly woozy from the smoke.  Her nylons were ripped and she didn’t know how she had done that.  She smelled like charred wood, and she doubted the smell would ever come off.

The traffic was horrible — backed up for miles as people gawked at the smoke and pulled aside for the emergency vehicles.  Nora ran a hand through her hair, and her fingers came away covered with dirt.  She was filthy, but she couldn’t go home.  This might be her only chance to meet Sancho.

She was a bit amazed she hadn’t told Max about him.  The police would be looking for Sancho, particularly after Blackstone’s three requests that she find him.  The little man would prove important to all of this, she knew that somehow. But she didn’t know exactly how.  And she didn’t relish meeting with the man without Blackstone around.

Still, she couldn’t stay away either.  She was too involved.  If Sancho told her something pertinent, she would send him to Max.  It was the least she could do.

So, after this meeting, the problems would no longer be hers.  She would bill for these few hours — any attorney would, right? — and then she would get on with her life and not think about the case at all, except maybe a few phone calls to Max, and those would be an excuse to talk to him, not necessarily to find out about Blackstone.  She would act as if nothing unusual happened.  Not that she would succeed, of course.  She knew, deep down, that this afternoon had changed her life.

But, in the spirit of pretense, she flicked on the radio to focus her mind on something else.

Instantly a shrill female voice, filtered through a phone line, grated on her nerves.  She was about to flip away when a professional radio voice broke in and clearly hung up on the caller.

“Crackpots,” the announcer said.  “We have a situation and all we get are crank calls.”

“Several dozen of them, though, Dave,” said a professional female voice.  “Don’t you think we should pay attention to them?”

“No,” Dave said.  “To recap, there’s been an incident…”

He started to describe the neighborhood she had just left, adding nothing to what she already knew.  Fortunately he didn’t have Blackstone’s name and he didn’t seem to know about the dead woman. At that moment, the radio was reporting that no one had died.  In fact, it said that no one had even been injured, and that all of the residents had seen the trouble brewing and had been able to leave as the fires started.

“…another caller from the neighborhood,” the female announcer was saying.  “And this one we both happen to know.  It’s Rick Ayers, our morning news announcer. Rick?”

Traffic had slowed to a crawl.  Nora had turned on 99, but it seemed as if all of Tigard was at a standstill.  In the westbound lanes, traffic had completely stopped as the police tried to prevent anyone from heading to Beaverton.  She didn’t know what was causing the tie-ups in her eastbound lanes. She just wished it would end.  She wanted to get out of here.

“Stephanie.”  Rick-the-Morning-News-Announcer’s voice crackled over the phone lines and through Nora’s radio.  “Even though Dave thinks the other callers are cranks, they aren’t.”

Nora felt a shiver run down her back.  It was a warning shiver.  She turned up the volume.

“Come on, Rick,” Dave said.  “Two people fighting with fire that gets out of control?  A big wild fireball battle like something out of Tolkien?  We’re supposed to believe that?”

Now they really had her attention.  Nora glanced at the radio as if she could gauge its truthfulness just by looking at it.

“’Fraid so,” Rick said.  “I was across the street.  I got the kids out and down the block as fast as possible.  There were two people involved — a man and a woman.  The man had been coming out of the woman’s garage.  He had a glass case shaped like a coffin in front of him, and there was something inside it.  That’s what caught my attention.  He wasn’t carrying the case.  It was floating in front of him.”

Glass case.  Nora gripped the wheel tightly.  Blackstone wanted her to talk to Sancho about the case.  Not his court case.  A glass case.

“And what were you drinking this afternoon?” Dave asked.  It didn’t sound like banter.

“I wasn’t drinking anything,” Rick said.

Behind Nora, a horn honked.  She glanced in her rearview mirror, saw a red pickup and its driver waving his fist. Then she looked forward, and realized the traffic had started to move again.  She drove, the muscles in her shoulders so tight that it actually hurt to move the wheel.

“The guy put this case in an orange and brown Volkswagen bus,” Rick was saying.  Nora resisted the urge to close her eyes. “And then this woman comes out of her house and lobs a ball of fire at him.”

“A ball of fire, Rick?” Dave asked.

“The size of a basketball,” Rick said, unperturbed.  “The guy deflects it and it lands on a neighbor’s house.  That’s when I got the kids and sent them down the block, knocking on doors.”

“You sent your kids into that mess?” the woman, Stephanie, asked.

“It was smarter than staying inside,” Rick said.  “Believe me.  The entire neighborhood fanned out.  I think we got the place evacuated by the time the firefight started in earnest.”

“According to the police, you did,” Stephanie said.

“What does ‘started in earnest’ mean?” Dave asked.  The man was a bulldog.  Nothing could sidetrack him.  Maybe he saw the morning news anchor slot opening up.  He had to be thinking: If I can discredit old Rick here, I’ll be getting drive time.

Nora was finally at full speed, heading toward downtown.  She drove like a madwoman, not sure if she wanted to see Sancho now or not.

“They were throwing fire at each other like kids throw water balloons,” Rick said, “and the fire was landing everywhere but on them.  It was ugly and scary and —”

“I hope you were hiding somewhere,” Stephanie said.

“There was nowhere to hide,” Rick said.  “Most of us had moved to the far side of the block, but the way that fire was flying, we were no safer than we had been up close.”

Nora took her usual exit.  It was dark, even here. The smoke had settled over the valley.

“So, what?” Dave said.  “Someone was passing hallucinogens through your neighborhood this afternoon and everyone had the same bad trip?”

“No —”

“It sounds more like David Copperfield came to visit,” Stephanie said, and laughed.

“Really,” Rick said.  “It happened.  I’m not lying to you.  My neighbor Alex, he took out one of those camcorders and…”

Nora pulled into the underground parking garage near her building and lost the radio signal, just like usual.  Another thing she didn’t like about the garage.

The fluorescents glowed as brightly as they did at night.  It felt like night here, with the overcast caused by the smoke.  She drove past the usual decrepit cars to her parking space.  There she shut off the car and leaned her head against the steering wheel.

The thing was, she believed this Rick, this voice on the radio who claimed he had seen two people hurling fireballs at each other. She believed him, and she knew, without a doubt, that one of those people had been Blackstone, and that somehow, Blackstone had killed his opponent after he had stolen a glass case from her, a glass case that he wanted Nora, somehow, to help Sancho with.

What she didn’t know was whether believing all of that made her as crazy as she was afraid it did.

She sighed, and sat back up.  Her eyes were swollen, her throat scratchy, and the entire car smelled of smoke. Those were the facts.  That was all she could know. From there on, she would have to see what happened.  No supposing, no guessing, no relying on disembodied radio voices for her information.

Her father used to call her ability to set aside her beliefs as great a magic trick as the ones he used to perform.  She still missed him, more than she wanted to admit. The Great Maestro, Portland’s best birthday entertainer, who had always wanted to be something more, who had always wanted, in his heart of hearts, for the magic to be real. That was why her mother left him, not the lack of money or the hand-to-mouth existence, but her father’s stubborn belief that, beneath the tricks and the sleight of hand, real magic did exist.

He also believed that he had the ability to do real magic, if only someone would teach him how.

She still couldn’t believe how much she missed him.  He’d only been dead a year, and sometimes she still felt him beside her, laughing and pointing out the beauty in the world.  He was the one who taught her to look at sunsets.  He used to drive toward the end of rainbows, searching for gold.  All his life, he never lost that belief, that child-like belief, that there was more to the world than most people could see.

Oh, how she needed him now.  He would have listened to her stories about this afternoon.  He would have had suggestions.

But she was on her own, with only his memory for company.  Somehow that had to be enough.

Nora opened the car door and heard a clang. She frowned, wondering if she had hit the car next to her.  She looked over and saw that it wasn’t a car.  It was a brown and orange VW microbus.

Sancho, or whatever his name was, crawled from under her door.  “Man, am I going to have a headache,” he said, one hand cradling the side of his face.

“What’s going on?” she asked, wishing he hadn’t come, wishing he had taken that damn vehicle somewhere else.

“You don’t want to know,” he said, then murmured something in a language she didn’t understand, rubbed his temple and added, “Better.”

The bruise that had been forming in the side of his face had completely disappeared.

“I’m supposed to know,” she said, gathering her purse and her briefcase, and pretending she hadn’t seen anything unusual.  “Blackstone said I’m supposed to help you.”

“Let’s go to your office,” Sancho said.

She wriggled out of her car, nearly beaned Sancho again with her briefcase, and then used a hand to wave him forward.  He wasn’t covered with anything.  His T-shirt, the cigarettes missing, was as white as Blackstone’s had been, and his tiny jeans looked new.  Only his shoes seemed out of place. When she really looked at them, she realized he was wearing cracked leather shoes that buttoned instead of tied.

He walked through the garage, his arms swinging fiercely like he was punching imaginary (short) opponents.  She kicked her door closed with one foot, and followed him, feeling dirty and short of breath.

When they got into the elevator, she concentrated on the door instead of looking at her reflection in the mirror. Even then, she saw, through the corner of her eye, that her blond hair had gone streaky brown, her normally clear skin looked like it had been finger-painted by five-year-olds, and her clothing was coated with gray ash.  She tried to brush some of it off, raising a dust cloud. Sancho began coughing and only just managed to croak out an offended “Hey!” before she stopped.

The ash was still billowing when the elevator door opened and, for the first time since she had taken the office, there were people in the corridor.  They stared at her as she led Sancho down the hall, most of them shrinking back as if getting close to her would contaminate them as well — which, if she were being fair, it probably would.

She opened her office door and Ruthie shrieked.

“Ms. Barr! Ms. Barr!  Are you all right? When you said you knew about that mess on the west side, I didn’t know you meant youreally were there.  I mean, actually.  You know, I —”

“You mean literally,” Sancho said.  “That’s what you mean.”

Ruthie looked at him as if she had seen him for the first time.  “All right,” she said, her voice as cool as his.  “I mean literally, whatever that means.”

“It means —”

“Ruthie,” Nora said, not wanting to hear any more of this discussion.  “Can you get me a Coke? Would you like anything, Mr.—?”

“Pan-za,” he said slowly, as if he were speaking to a particularly dumb child.  He waited.  She didn’t repeat the name.  “And no, I’m not thirsty.”

Nora rolled her very dry eyes, and walked into her office.  It looked like she had left it, cluttered, but clean. She turned. She was tracking gray dust behind her.  Sancho was avoiding it as he followed her.

She went to her desk and sat down, knowing she would have to clean the chair afterward. She didn’t touch the desk’s surface, or anything else.  Sancho climbed into the chair he had used before.

“I won’t do anything for you,” she said, “until I know your real name.”

He stared at her for a moment, his eyes an icy blue.  Then he rolled to one side, and pulled a swath of paper from his back jeans pocket.  Until that moment, she had thought the pocket empty.

He placed a birth certificate, a social security card, a passport, and a driver’s license on her blotter.  She leaned forward, careful not to brush the desk, and stared at the papers. They all showed his name to be Sancho Panza, and the driver’s license and passport photos confirmed that the name belonged to him.

She put her index finger against the edge of the blotter and shoved it toward him.  ‘I don’t deal in fake I.D.,” she said.

“Neither do I,” he said, shoving the blotter back toward her.

She looked at the papers again. She couldn’t tell if the birth certificate and social security card were real, but the driver’s license had been done on the special paper that the DMV used to discourage forgers. She picked up the passport, getting gray fingerprints all over the blue leather.  It was four years old, with several stamps inside, as well as the raised stamp specially done by the State Department.  If his identification was good enough for several governments, including this one, it was good enough for her.

“I still don’t believe it,” she said, because she didn’t.

“You don’t have to.”  He settled in his chair.  “Just help us.”

“I already got a defense attorney for Blackstone.”

“Fine,” Sancho said as if he didn’t care.  “The most important thing is the glass case.”

“Yes.”  Nora was amazed at how calm she sounded.  So Rick the Morning News Anchor had been right.  There had been a glass case.  “I understand it levitated out of someone’s garage.”

“How he got it isn’t your concern,” Panza said.  “Helping him with it is.”

“I don’t deal in stolen property,” Nora said.

“It’s not stolen,” Panza said, and stopped as someone knocked on the door.

“Come in,” Nora said.

Ruthie entered, carrying two cans of Coke.  She too avoided Nora’s gray footprints.  “Want a glass?” she asked.

Nora shook her head.

“I suppose you want me to call the cleaning service.”

Nora smiled.  At last, Ruthie was thinking on her own.  “Please.”

“Good,” Ruthie said, “because I sure as hell don’t want to clean up this mess.”  And with that, she let herself out.

“Nice secretary you got,” Panza said.

“You get what you pay for.”  Nora grabbed a can, and pulled the ringtop.  “Sure you don’t want one?”

He wrinkled his nose.  “Ever since they removed the cocaine, it hasn’t been the same.”

She gave him a flat level look.  “I don’t appreciate drug jokes in my office.”

“You don’t appreciate much, do you?” Panza said.  “I thought you had more sense than that.  Maybe I misjudged you.”

“Maybe,” Nora said.  She crossed her arms.  “Your choice.”

He stared at her a moment.  “You’re not that ruffled by the events of this afternoon.”

“I’m a good actress.”

“Not that good.”  He nodded.  “We can proceed.”

She wasn’t sure she wanted to.  “I don’t mind if you find another attorney.”

He grinned.  The expression made him seem like a ferocious twelve-year-old.  “Naw.  You’re perfect.”

“Have you checked my credentials?”

“Enough,” he said.

She took a long, long drink from the can of Coke. The sweetness helped bring up her blood sugar, and the liquid felt cool against her dry throat.  She would eventually need water — she was probably dehydrated — but this would do for now.

The movement gave her a chance to plan and take control of this interview.

“Why did Blackstone destroy that neighborhood?” she asked.

“He didn’t.”

“Someone did.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Panza said.

“I have to worry about it.” She ran a hand over her face, felt the soot flake off.  “People make jokes about lawyers having no ethics, but that’s not true.  I can’t help him and stay true to myself if I know he destroyed a neighborhood.”

“It was a diversion.”

“Really?”

Panza nodded.

“Blackstone would destroy people’s homes and kill a woman just to divert attention from — what?”

“He didn’t kill her,” Panza said.

“She looked dead to me.”

His eyes narrowed.  “Well, she wasn’t.  He just knocked her out.”

“The EMTs thought she was dead.”

Panza shrugged.  “It’s amazing how susceptible some people are to the power of suggestion.”

“I’m not,” Nora said.  “And I am not sure I want to represent someone who performs wholesale destruction as a means to an end.”

Panza clenched a fist, hit the arm of the chair softly, and then shook his head.  “What if I told you everything would be fixed?”

She laughed and felt its bitterness. “That can’t be fixed.  Not in the way I would want.”

“And that is?”

“To make it seem as if today never happened.  But people don’t forget.  Even if everything were made better, people would remember and —”

“Say no more.”  Panza stood in the chair. She was constantly amazed at how small he was.  “We can do that.”

“Sure,” she said.  “And pigs fly.”

“Not without help,” he said, and he seemed perfectly serious.  “Now.  Assist us.”

He wouldn’t go away.  And no matter how ethical she got, the images wouldn’t go away.  She might as well see what Panza wanted. “Tell me what you need.”

“I need you to store the microbus,” he said.

“You can do that.”

He shook his head.  “We can’t know where it is.  Only you can know.  You’ll store it for us, and then when we come and get it everything will be safe.”

“It doesn’t sound legal.”

“It is.  All you have to do is find a garage, rent it, and keep the microbus there.  We might not come for it for years.”

“Years?” Nora asked.

“Years.”  Sancho reached inside the breast pocket of his T-shirt (she hadn’t realized there was a breast pocket until he did that.  Didn’t most t-shirts come without breast pockets?) and removed an envelope.  The envelope was four times the size of the pocket.  “This should cover rent for the next fifteen years, plus your fees and time, based on the estimate you gave Blackstone when we first met.  There is also a periodic cost of living adjustment factored into the amount.  I’ve included a worksheet so that you can see how I came to the enclosed figure.”

She took the envelope.  It was too thin to be holding cash.

“Of course,” he said, “if it takes us longer to come for the van, we will send more money.”

“Of course,” she murmured as she used one short fingernail to slit the envelope open.  Inside she found a very ornate check made out for a huge amount of money.  More money, in fact, than she had ever seen in one place in her entire life.  If she thought about that, she would start trembling again, and lose any advantage she might have in this interview.

Sancho was watching her, a bemused expression on his face.

“I’ll have to verify funds,” she said, using the primmest tone she could muster.

“Of course,” he said, echoing her earlier words.

She took the check, and walked to the front office.  After the door closed behind her, she let out a deep shaky breath.  Please let the check be genuine, she prayed to any god that would listen.  Please.

Ruthie was watching her as if she had grown a new head.  She probably did look strange, still covered in soot and ash, carrying a check and shaking as if she had won the lottery. Which, if this check were valid, she had.

She made herself swallow and focus on the piece of paper in front of her. The check was issued by Quixotic Inc. and signed by Sancho Panza.  His signature was as ornate as the check.

“Ms. Barr?” Ruthie asked.

Nora shoved the check toward her.  “Verify this,” she said.

Ruthie took the check and her eyes grew wide.  “Holy Shmoly,” she said.  “What does he want you to do?”

“Not much,” she said, and sat down because she was shaking so badly.

“This is a lot of cash for not much,” Ruthie said.  “What’d you do?  Quote him the rate for billionaires?”

“No, actually,” Nora said.  “Just the standard fees.”  Then she grinned.  “The standard fees for troublemakers.”

Ruthie held up a well manicured hand.  “All right.  I don’t want to know.”  She shoved the phone between her ear and her shoulder, and dialed with a pen.  Nora took several calming breaths while Ruthie verified that the check was valid.  Then, for good measure, she asked about another check, making up the number, for an equal amount of money.

When she was finished, she hung up and whistled.  “These guys are loaded,” she said.

“You didn’t have to do the second,” Nora said.

“Actually,” Ruthie said.  “I used to work for a debt collection agency —”

“I know,” Nora said.

“— and they always made you do that,” Ruthie continued, “so that the check you had wouldn’t bounce if someone took $5 out of the account.  It also gives you a sense of how much a person is worth, you know, by how much he keeps in his checking.”

For the first time, Nora didn’t regret hiring Ruthie.  “Thanks,” she said as she stood and took the check.

“Does this mean I get a bonus?” Ruthie asked.

“The money goes in escrow,” Nora said.  “This isn’t a debt collection agency.”

“Obviously,” Ruthie muttered.

Nora ignored her, and went back into the office, tapping the check against her hand.  The little man was still standing on the chair.  He was watching her.  She closed the door and leaned on it, thinking only a second too late of the smudge she was making against the presswood’s veneer.

“Here’s what I’m willing to do,” she said.  “I’ll take your money and put it in a special account.  I will have the rental for the garage removed from that account, as well as my monthly fee.  I will keep the keys here, and I will not inspect the microbus.  I will not touch the microbus after I take it to the garage, and I will not relinquish the keys to anyone but you.  Ever. Is that clear?”

He nodded.  Then he tilted his head.  “Will the account bear interest?”

“Yes,” she said.

“And who gets the interest?”

“Probably the person who owns the garage, when you don’t show up in fifteen years,” she said.

The little man smiled.  “I like you,” he said.  “If Blackstone’s heart weren’t imprisoned, I bet he would too.”

Here’s how you order the rest of the book. The mass market edition will be in bookstores October 1, 2011.  You can get it through your favorite bookstore or order it here. The ebook will be widely available.  Here are the links to Kindleand Barnes & Noble. Other ebookstores should have it as well.


 

 

 

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Simply Irresistible Excerpt

I hope to excerpt as many of my novels as I can for you.  Sometimes it depends on the publisher’s company policy.  WMG Publishing is happy to let me excerpt.  So here I’ve excerpted Simply Irresistible.

Here’s the back cover copy, followed by the excerpt and the ordering information.

Dexter Grant, the inspiration for the greatest superhero of all time, lives in reduced circumstances. Now he runs a pet store in Portland, Oregon, and privately calls himself a Kitten Superhero because he saves stray animals. He aspires to something greater, but his magic has been restricted—by the Fates.

The Fates, three women who control the magical universe. Only they’ve lost their position, and they’re on the run. They’ve turned to an old friend for help, but that friend is dead. Her niece, Vivian Kineally, runs her estate. Vivian, who doesn’t even know magic exists. Vivian, who loves comic books. Vivian, who also happens to be psychic.

The Fates steer Vivian to Dexter Grant. They want his help. He’s not willing to give it. But now that he’s met Vivian, he’s not willing to give her up either. Dexter Grant must save the Fates—and discover his own fate, all at the same time.

“Simply Irresistible is an enchanting blend of sweet romance, mythology, and magic as Grayson puts her own unique magical stamp on figures from Greek myths and fairy tales, including a deliciously over-the-top super villain and a hero who inspired the creation of Superman. And Grayson’s clever, humor-tinged writing is absolutely delightful.”  —Booklist

Simply Irresistible

Kristine Grayson

 

One

“Why do all superheroes have to look like Superman?” Vivian Kinneally asked as she studied the interior of her nephew’s comic book. She was sitting on the stoop outside her apartment building, her eleven-year-old nephew Kyle beside her.

The sun cast its warm rays on the concrete steps and illuminated Kyle’s latest hand-drawn effort. In the week that Vivian had lived in Portland, the sun had been out every day. She had no idea how the city had gotten its rainy, gloomy reputation.

“He doesn’t look like Superman,” Kyle said, craning his neck over the double-page spread that rested on Vivian’s knees.

“Yes, he does.” Viv traced the hero’s chin, feeling the pen marks beneath her finger. “See? He’s got the same lantern jaw that Siegel and Shuster gave the original in 1938. He’s even got the dimple in his chin.”

She loved that dimple. She had always thought—and never admitted aloud—that the Siegel and Shuster Superman, the original, was the handsomest man she had ever seen. Even if he was only a creation of paper and pen.

“Superman doesn’t have a dimple,” Kyle said.

“Sure he does.” Vivian smiled at her nephew. Kyle was thin and bookish, his round glasses sliding to the bottom of his nose. His fingers were stained with ink, and the fleshy side of his palm had traces of the red he’d used to color the book. “Take a look, especially in the first thirty years or so, before he got associated with Christopher Reeve.”

“I didn’t want my character to look like Superman,” Kyle said. “Spider-Man doesn’t look like Superman.”

Kyle wrapped his arms around his waist and leaned forward, extending his Nike-covered feet down three steps. Vivian’s brother, Travers, kept Kyle dressed like the athlete he would never be. Vivian wondered how Kyle would do now that she had relocated here.

“Actually,” Vivian said, “they all look like Superman. They have to. They need the muscles and the strong chin. Could you imagine wearing one of those costumes if you had a weak chin? You’d look like—”

“Michael Keaton in Batman,” Kyle said before she could. She’d made that argument before.

“You said you wanted to know what I thought,” she said.

After you’ve read it,” Kyle said. “I think this one is really different.”

Vivian smiled at him. Kyle’s greatest dream was to become a comic book writer. Travers said that was her fault. Vivian had the most extensive comic book collection of anyone she knew—and she knew a lot of comic book fans (although most of them weren’t twenty-seven year-old women).

When she was a kid, comic books had been her escape. In them, she found people with secret identities and super powers, mutants who decided to fight on the side of all that was good and right. She had a super power too, although she had never thought of it as that, at least not when she was growing upThen it had simply been something else that marked her as different.

She hated being different so much. She was teased by her peers. She used to look at the superheroes and daydream that someday she would meet one, and he would sweep her off her feet.

She could even imagine the panel art: an entire page with Superman or Batman or some other square-jawed (and dimple-chinned) superhero with a cape, carrying her in his arms.

Vivian slid her own round glasses up her nose and stared at Kyle’s art. He was spectacular for someone his age. There was a confidence to his work that most young artists lacked. His stories were still derivative, but she knew that originality took time—and Kyle had plenty of time.

She raised her head, seeing if she got a sense of her brother Travers. She was psychic, and there were some people she was particularly attuned to. Her brother Travers was one of them. So was her younger sister Megan. And, until a few weeks ago, Vivian had been attuned to her Aunt Eugenia too.

“You okay, Aunt Viv?” Kyle asked.

The family question. Everyone was always worried whether Vivian was all right. It had started before she could even remember. She would say things or get a funny look, and everyone would panic. Then, at thirteen, she’d started to black out, and her parents had taken her to specialist after specialist to see if there was some physical cause.

Then her Aunt Eugenia had come to visit. Mysterious, wealthy Aunt Eugenia, whose age no one knew and whose exact relationship to Vivian’s mother was unclear as well. Vivian’s grandmother once said that Eugenia wasn’t a blood relation at all, but a close, close friend who had wormed her way into the family’s hearts through deeds of goodness.

With family members who talked like that, was it any wonder that Vivian had fallen in love with comic books?

She smiled.

“Aunt Vivian?” Kyle was peering at her, his face owlish in the bright light.

“I’m all right,” she said, the words so familiar she didn’t have to think about them.

Aunt Eugenia had told the family that Vivian’s blackouts were normal, that her power was growing stronger. Vivian’s mother had gotten upset over the use of the word power until Aunt Eugenia made Vivian’s mother admit what she had always feared about her daughter—that Vivian had an amazing psychic talent, a talent that seemed to be growing worse (or better, depending on one’s perspective).

The blackouts faded once Vivian hit high school, but by then, she was the weird kid. She wore glasses, she had been too skinny, and she had passed out all through middle school. Sometimes she blurted out things that other kids had only been thinking, and eventually they all stayed away from her.

Vivian put her arm around Kyle. He was going to face that horrible world in a few years. There was nothing worse than middle school, especially for a sensitive kid.

“Dad’s coming, isn’t he?” Kyle asked, looking down the street. This was a side street downtown, with a great view of the mountains, rivers, and bridges, and the added benefit of very little traffic.

“I don’t sense him yet,” Vivian said.

Travers had taken the car into the local Jiffy Lube to make certain it was ready for the long drive home. When he returned, he expected Kyle to be ready to leave.

Travers wanted to stay with Vivian—and Kyle had argued for it—but they had other obligations. School was starting next week, and Travers had enrolled Kyle in some expensive gifted and talented program that no one had even imagined yet in Oregon. Kyle was heading home, and Vivian didn’t argue with the decision.

She had a sense, just a sense—and she wasn’t even sure if it was accurate because her senses about herself often were not—that staying in Portland would be dangerous.

“You’re going to mail me your next comic, right?” Vivian asked.

Kyle’s gaze returned to hers. His eyes were a pale blue, like his father’s. He would be reedy and handsome someday, just like his father. The relationship showed.

Of course Kyle’s relationship to Vivian didn’t show. Vivian, like her brother and sister, had been adopted. All three looked very different. Vivian was small, skinny, and dark. Travers was tall, slender, and blond, and Megan was a green-eyed redhead who, at twenty-five, still hadn’t lost her baby fat.

“Mail?” Kyle made that sound as if Vivian wasa talking about communicating by Pony Express. “I was planning to scan it and e-mail it to you.”

She ran her hand gently over the comic he’d just given her. “I like the way this feels. I can see the work you’ve done, watch the paper  curl—”

“And my original can get lost in the snail mail. C’mon, Aunt Viv. Let’s move into the twenty-first century.”

It was an old tease and an accurate one. It had taken Vivian years to get a computer. She had refused to buy a VCR, and now VCRs were almost obsolete. When she moved here, Travers had given her a DVD player as a housewarming gift, and Kyle had made certain she knew how to use it before they left.

They were both afraid she’d be lonely. They were right. She’d never lived so far from her family before.

But it wasn’t just her family she would miss. She had no friends here. All her friends in L.A. thought she was moving for a man. But there was no man either. There never had been.

That loneliness seemed permanent.

Then, for no particular reason, she thought of Travers, his hands on the steering wheel of his SUV, the radio playing Clint Black’s “No Time to Kill.” Travers was thinking about the words, worrying about Vivian, and trying to figure out a way to get her to come back to L.A.

“He’s almost here,” Vivian said to Kyle.

“Can’t we just stay here with you?” Kyle asked. “I’m scared for you, Aunt Viv. Dad told Aunt Megan that the old lady was murdered. What if that same person comes after you?”

“Aunt Eugenia wasn’t an old lady,” Vivian said. At least, she never seemed like an old lady, although she had to be at least eighty. She had looked the same all of Vivian’s life—and, apparently, all of Vivian’s mother’s life as well.

One of Vivian’s many tasks would be to track down a birth certificate—if that was possible. Aunt Eugenia’s mansion had burned down the morning after the police found her body.

“But what if, Aunt Viv?”

Travers had turned onto Burnside, which wasn’t very far away. He had the radio blaring in his SUV, and now the station was playing Alan Jackson. Vivian wanted to put her hands over her ears, but knew that wouldn’t solve the problem. Somehow Travers’ environment was leaking into her own.

“Aunt Viv?”

“Sorry,” Vivian said. “Your dad’s listening to country again.”

“Yech.” Kyle wrinkled his nose. “I’m not going to listen to that going home.”

“Good luck,” Vivian said.

“You’re not going to answer me, are you?” Kyle said. “Are you scared, Aunt Viv?”

“Scared?” She turned toward him. She was scared, but not of dying. Of living in a strange town for several months. Of testing new skills with her psychic powers. And trying to figure out all the clues Aunt Eugenia had sent her the week before she died.

Oh, and visiting the attorney who had contacted her about Aunt Eugenia’s will—the one that dated from the day Vivian was adopted. Apparently, Eugenia had left her entire estate—worth several million dollars—to Vivian.

Vivian couldn’t believe that Eugenia hadn’t updated the will after Travers’ and Megan’s adoptions. There had to be another version somewhere. She just had to find it.

“I’m not scared,” she said to Kyle. “Not of being murdered, anyway. They think she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“I don’t,” Kyle whispered. “I think she knew something.”

That dramatic comic-book imagination of his. Vivian would have to quell this right away. “Why do you think that?”

But as she asked the question, Travers’ SUV turned onto her street and sped past the parked cars in front of the other apartment buildings. He drove twice as fast as anyone in Oregon, and Vivian was afraid he’d get pulled over.

Oregon cops wouldn’t be lenient on Travers. He had California plates and a California driver’s license. She’d learned, in her short week in Portland, that the only people Oregonians consistently discriminated against were Californians.

“That’s Dad!” Kyle said, standing and waving as if Travers had forgotten where Vivian lived during the hour he’d been gone.

The moment passed. Vivian clutched the comic book, careful not to crease its pages, and followed her nephew down the stairs. Travers stopped right in front of the building. The booming bass from his SUV’s speakers blended with the sounds in her mind.

When he shut off the ignition, Vivian heaved a sigh of relief.

Kyle stopped at the bottom of the stairs, waiting on the edge of the cracked concrete sidewalk. When Vivian stopped beside him, he whispered without turning his head, “I don’t want to go.”

“I don’t want you to either,” she said. “But there’s no point in staying. I might be home in a month.”

Although she doubted it. Eugenia’s estate was a mess. The fire created even more problems, and the murder—well, there were things about the murder that Vivian hadn’t told anyone. Things she had seen, things she had felt, while Aunt Eugenia had been dying.

In spite of herself, Vivian shivered.

“You won’t be home in a month,” Kyle said. “I don’t think you’re coming back to L.A. at all.”

Vivian peered at him. Her glasses had slid down her nose again and she saw a dual image of him—the young eleven-year-old, crisply outlined against the backdrop of his father’s black SUV, and a fuzzy, larger version, the man Kyle might become.

Vivian shoved her glasses back into place, pushing so hard she poked a fingernail into the soft skin on the bridge of her nose.

“You don’t know that, Kyle,” she said as she watched her brother get out of his car. He looked sleek, put-together, and expensive, something she always wondered how he managed to do on his accountant’s salary. “None of us know that.”

“You’re psychic,” he whispered.

“Yeah, but I’m not able to see the future. Just the present.” And sometimes that was more than enough.

“I thought psychics see the future,” he whispered.

“I wish I did,” Vivian said. “Sometimes I think it would make life a whole lot easier.”

“I don’t think it does,” Kyle said, and for the first time in Vivian’s recollection, he sounded a lot older than eleven.

She looked at him, feeling an odd sensation, as if she were missing something. But he was already running down the sidewalk to greet his father, as if they’d been separated for years instead of hours.

Vivian followed, sighing. For the first time, she realized just how difficult life was going to be here. She wouldn’t have Travers’ common sense to rely on, or Kyle’s jokes to give her joy.

But she didn’t want them facing the same thing Aunt Eugenia had faced. Vivian could take care of herself, but she couldn’t handle it if something happened to her family.

Her sixth sense had been working overtime—and she knew Kyle and Travers were leaving none too soon.

 

Two

 

Dexter Grant looked inside the filthy box sitting on top of his pristine countertop. Five mewling kittens nosed the crumpled newspaper as if it held the secrets of the universe. They were tiny, five weeks old at best. They hadn’t lost their downy fur yet and their eyes were barely open.

“I don’t take animals,” he said to the woman who stood across the counter from him. She was meticulously dressed, wearing a silk suit that shone in the light from the hundred working aquariums that lined the walls.

“You’re a pet store, aren’t you?” she snapped.

He nearly corrected her—he wasn’t the pet store; he owned the pet store—but he knew that it would gain him nothing. And he already had a heck of a battle on his hands, one that was becoming all too familiar these days.

So he thought he’d try a different tack. “These kittens are too young to be away from their mother.”

“She’s dead,” the woman said flatly.

Her son, who had been eyeing the exotic fish in the saltwater tanks, started. The boy had been Dex’s clue that something was wrong here from the start. Even though the woman was painstakingly put together, the boy was a mess—his hair uncombed, his skin dirty, and his shirt ripped. He was old enough to take care of himself—maybe thirteen at most—and old enough to rebel against an obsessed parent.

“How’d she die?” Dex asked. Nursing mother cats rarely left their broods. It was unusual for one to die when she had kittens this young.

“Squashed,” the woman said, moving her hand in dismissal. Bracelets jangled as she did.

“Squashed?” Dex asked.

The boy was watching closely now, as if he couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“And the kittens were unharmed?” Dex asked.

“Miracles do happen,” the woman said without a trace of irony. “So how much are you going to pay me for them?”

“Pay you?” Dex choked. That part was new.

“They’re stock, and you’re a store. You should pay your suppliers,” the woman said.

“They’re mammals, and I specialize in fish,” Dex said. “Besides, they haven’t been weaned yet.”

“So wean them,” the woman said.

As if he could snap his fingers and wean the kittens. Then he shook his head. He could do that—he had all sorts of magic powers—but he wouldn’t. The less he tampered with the natural order of things, the better.

Still, this had already gone farther than he liked. He couldn’t very well give the kittens back to this woman. She would take them to every pet store in Portland, and when she discovered that stores didn’t pay for strays, she’d probably dump them beside the road.

He truly despised people like her, but he couldn’t do much about her—at least through regular legal means. And the things he wanted to do would get him in trouble with the Fates. He’d spent the last few decades watching his back so that the Fates had nothing to hold against him.

There were a few other things he could do, things on the borderline between legal and not, things that would at least prevent her from coming into contact with vulnerable creatures again.

“Ma’am,” Dex said. “Kittens this young need more than I can give them. You need to—”

“I don’t need to do anything,” she said. “They’re your responsibility now. Come along, Harold.”

Harold. Poor kid. Dex had known quite a few Harolds in his hundred years, but most had been born at the turn of the twentieth century. Kids who would make it in the twenty-first would see the name Harold as something to overcome.

The woman headed to the door. The kid followed, as if he were a prisoner being led by an invisible chain.

“I’m sorry,” the kid whispered as he passed Dex. And that was what decided him.

Dex did snap his fingers—that was one of the many ways he could do magic—freezing time around him, along with the woman, the boy, the fish, and the poor, mewling kittens. The woman’s manicured fingers just brushed the door handle and the kid was in front of the counter, the embarrassed and worried look still on his acne-covered face.

The kittens appeared even younger than they had a moment before. Dex revised their ages downward another week. Their eyes had probably just opened.

It was up to him. Look at what he’d become. Dexter Grant: Kitten Superhero. It wasn’t a title he minded, although it did lack the glamour of his past.

Still, he stepped into the role. With a delicate movement of his fingers, he opened a rip in reality, searching for the kittens’ mother. He found her in the woods outside an expensive house on Portland’s west side, plaintively meowing for her missing children.

How did he know that was what he was going to find? This cruel woman had taken the kittens away from their mother, seeing dollar signs. The cat didn’t even have a collar, and her coat was rough. She was probably a stray who’d ventured into the wrong yard.

Then Dex glanced at the boy. Or maybe she had become a companion to a lonely child.

He sighed. Maybe he wasn’t just a kitten superhero. Maybe he still had some weaknesses for human beings. Now he had to do more spells, just because this horrible woman had walked into his store.

He did the spells in rapid succession. First, he clapped his hands together, bringing the mother cat to her babies. She landed inside the box—and he had to do an emergency spell before she thought her frozen offspring were dead.

The kittens started mewling, and the mother cat heaved a sigh of relief. She didn’t even look confused about her sudden change of venue. She just seemed happy that she had found her brood.

She lay down and the kittens nuzzled at her teats. Dex smiled, relieved that this one would turn out all right. Then he spelled the boy, adding a memory. The boy would think he had managed to defy his mother and had brought the mother cat in on his own.

Then Dex did one last spell. He put a hex on the woman herself, making her seem poisonous to any domesticated animal that came to her for help. That, at least, would prevent this from happening again.

The kid wouldn’t be able to have pets while he was growing up, but given the mother’s insensitivity, that would probably be a good thing. No sense in teaching Harold how to mistreat animals. With his subtle rebellious nature and his tender heart, he might grow up to be one of those people who adopted animals instead of harming them, so long as he didn’t have his mother’s cold-hearted example.

The mother cat was purring. She looked up at him with warm, adoring eyes. “We’ll take care of you,” Dex said, wishing it would be as easy as those last few spells had been. He’d have to dig into his meager coffers to fix the cat and vaccinate her, and he’d have to do the same with the kittens.

Then he’d have to figure out how to give them away. He already had way too many animals at his house. He didn’t want to sell the kittens at the store, but he might have no choice. He’d have to use more magic in that case. He wasn’t about to let a kitten go home with someone he didn’t know.

Dex snapped his fingers and the “freeze” spell ended. The woman continued her way out the door. But Dex touched the kid’s arm as he passed.

“You did the right thing, bringing the mother and her kittens here,” Dex said.

The kid turned toward him, stopped, and touched the box. He peered in like a hungry man being denied food. “I wanted to take them to the shelter, but she wouldn’t. She said that was too far and they were just cats.”

And you couldn’t make a profit at the shelter.

“You know her attitude about animals is wrong,” Dex said, treading lightly. No matter how awful a parent, a child often refused to see it.

“How come you don’t have pets in a pet store?” Harold blurted out, as if he’d been bottling in the question.

Dex smiled at him. “I can’t bear to part with the animals.”

Harold nodded. His fingers dipped into the box and lightly touched the mother cat’s back. She closed her eyes and continued purring. Dex shouldn’t have worried about Harold; the cat was letting him know the boy was all right.

“I always wanted a cat,” Harold said.

“You’ll be able to have one,” Dex said, “just as soon as you move out.”

Harold’s smile left. “You noticed that too, huh?”

“It wasn’t hard to miss. You know, you could always volunteer at the shelter. They need extra help, particularly in the winter.”

The shop door opened. A bell tinkled above. The woman stuck her face back inside. “Harold!”

Her tone made Dex jump.

“Coming, Mom,” Harold said. Then he whispered, “Thanks,” as he hurried out the door.

Dex watched the boy and his mother through the shop window. They crossed the parking lot, the mother berating the boy. Dex had the magic to spell that relationship too, maybe even fix it, but such intervention in mortal lives wasn’t allowed. The Fates had already given him a warning, telling him that he was violating the rules made centuries before he was born.

He wouldn’t get another warning. They would zap him away from whatever he was doing—even if he was saving a life—and then they’d try him, and probably send him away for a millennium.

If he’d been a slightly different man, he would have continued intervening—after all, what was the point of magic powers if you couldn’t use them for all that was good and right?—but he couldn’t stand the thought of the Fates’ punishment.

He’d heard about some of the sentences the Fates had dealt out, like forcing master musician Apollo to listen to Wagner’s Ring Cycle for three hundred years, which would have been bad enough even if the singers hadn’t been nearly a half step flat. The last thing Dex wanted to do was be sent to some Fate-imagined hell, probably (for him) a place without any animals at all, just because he had done something he believed to be right.

So he’d had to rely on his own instincts, pushing where he could push and being subtle everywhere else. He’d done both here. If he had to defend his spells to the Fates, he’d tell them the truth—he’d hexed the mother so that no other animals would cross her path. And he’d tell the Fates the only reason he’d spelled the boy was to make certain the kid wouldn’t notice anything wrong when Dex had to bring the mother cat to her kittens.

All the things he had to do to pretend he wasn’t using his magic. He resented it. And he missed the days when he saw trouble and responded, using the gift he’d been given.

Dex leaned over the box of kittens just like Harold had. The kittens were still nursing, and the mother cat was still purring. Everything looked fine, but Dex had a lot of work to do if he was going to care for these cats—and he would be the one to care for them. The local shelter was overstocked with strays and kittens, and he didn’t want to throw more into the mix.

Someday he wished he could find someone else who cared as much about animals as he did. Someone who wasn’t a vet or a pet store owner, someone who had a warm heart and a good soul.

Someone female.

He smiled at himself. In a hundred years, he hadn’t met a woman who interested him. Even though his personal prophesy from the Fates said he would have a great love, he didn’t believe it.

No woman had ever interested him beyond a passing fancy. He was beginning to think he’d never meet the right one.

He picked up the phone and dialed his vet’s number from memory. As the ringing sounded in his ear, he swiveled toward the cash register. He started punching in the prices for a cat bed, a litter box, and some Science Diet cat food. He was becoming his own best customer.

“Heart’s too soft, Grant,” he muttered to himself as the vet’s tech put him on hold. But he’d always known that was his problem.

He also knew that he really wasn’t interested in a solution.

***

Her name was not Erika O’Connell, but that was the name she had been using for the past twenty years. Her time with that name was almost up. When you were in the public eye as long as she had been, people tended to notice when you didn’t age. She figured she had another ten years before she had to fake a spectacular death or disappear on a trip to a remote outpost.

Unfortunately, there weren’t that many remote outposts left, not like it had been when she was a child—four thousand years ago—when everything, it seemed, was remote.

Erika O’Connell—whose real name, Eris, was not something she had shared with anyone—sat behind the desk in her Los Angeles office. She had her shoes off. They lay on the tasteful white carpet, the heel of one inside the other.

Hard-copy files rested on all the leather furniture—only a custom-built wooden desk chair had escaped the clutter. Even her plants were messy, because she preferred them that way—overgrown, trailing down the sides of tables and onto the floor.

She was talking on her cell phone, listening to a meeting on speaker phone, watching CNN, KAHS, FOX News, and CNBC on the double split-screen television that sat on one corner of her desk. In the center of her desk, her state-of-the-art IBM with more bells, whistles, and other unnecessary items, remained on AOL, pinging whenever she received e-mail. In one corner of that screen, stock quotes ran in real time, and in the other corner, ESPN shared the tiny television monitor with C-SPAN.

And on the far corner of her desk, her handy-dandy laptop was synchronizing that day’s schedule with her Palm.

Who needed magic in the twenty-first century? Technology did everything for her.

The intercom on her desk buzzed, and she tapped it lightly. “In a meeting,” she said to the secretary, whose name she had never bothered to learn.

Eris rarely used the Los Angeles office—she preferred the New York headquarters because no one could predict what was going to happen on any day in the Big Apple—and she viewed being here as a great inconvenience. But she had had to meet some stockholders the night before, and once in a while she had to come to them.

Besides, her A-team was here, covering yet another entertainment scandal, and she was looking for a way to pry them loose. Her network, KAHS, had risen to the top tier of the cable news shows in two short years, but she still had a long way to go to become number one.

She didn’t want to do it by imitating this week’s rival. Instead, she had to establish her own voice. And doing that required more than covering the latest Hollywood divorce. She wanted to cover stories that would change the world—not all at once, but one little layer at a time.

She had just hung up from the conference call when her son—who was, dangerously, calling himself Stri these days—appeared before her. At three-thousand-eight-hundred and something, he wasn’t even close to young, but he liked to pretend at it. This time, he had a shaved head, a jacket that was more chain than fabric, and more tattoos than she had ever seen on a human being.

“Busy,” she said as she was about to dial another conference call.

“Yeah,” Stri said, “but I got news you can’t cover in any part of your multimedia empire.”

She flicked the cell phone shut without saying good-bye and pulled a red-tipped fingernail away from the speaker phone. “What?”

He grinned. He had blacked out or discarded half of his teeth. It didn’t look menacing. In fact, it made him look like a peasant during the Russian Revolution—even with the ridiculous clothes. Or maybe she only thought that because she could remember the Russian Revolution.

“Well?” she asked, when he didn’t answer.

Her door opened and the nameless secretary—a mouse of a mortal, brown skin, brown hair, brown clothes (weren’t people in Los Angeles supposed to be prettier than average? What went wrong here?)—crept into the room to throw more paper on one of the chairs.

“I’m having a meeting,” Eris snapped, furious that her son hadn’t come in by normal channels.

“Just more numbers from overseas, ma’am,” the secretary said. “I thought you might want to see them immediately.”

“Fine,” Eris said. “Next time, e-mail them to me. I’ll see them quicker.”

“Yes, ma’am.” And the secretary backed out.

Stri didn’t even turn around, nor did he wait for the door to close to start telling his news. He always created trouble. That was one of the things Eris loved about him—most of the time.

“The kids have taken the oath and are now exploring their new office,” he said.

Eris forgot her irritation with him. “When?”

“Just a few minutes ago,” he said. “Saw them get flown into Mount Olympus, and was their first customer when they got out. They have a lot to learn.”

Eris laughed. “Wonderful. And the Fates?”

He shrugged. “On their own, I guess.”

“Even better,” she said. “Put some kind of trace on them. Let me know if they get anywhere close to the mortal realm.”

Stri grinned. “Will do, Mommy Dearest. You gonna hunt them down? Or are you going for more finesse than that?”

She raised a single eyebrow at him, giving him the stare she had used when she was a twenty-two-year-old mother with no magical powers at all. He cringed. Of all the tricks in her bag, that one was the most effective—at least with Stri.

“Guess you’re going for finesse,” he said.

“Have I ever done anything else?” she asked, and he looked away.

“I’ll trace them,” he said. “But there are rumors they’re heading into Faery, and I’m not going in there again.”

Last time he did, he ate some of the food and lost a hundred years before Eris even noticed he was missing.

“Just trace the Fates,” she said.

“Why can’t you do it?”

“Because if I do,” she said, flipping open her cell phone again, “they’ll think I’m up to something. If you do it, they’ll think you’re just creating trouble.”

“I’m not someone who should be ignored.” He crossed his arms, and the tattoos bulged.

“No, darling, you’re not,” she said, glancing at the divided television screen. “You’re something to be tolerated, and you should be proud of that. Now go away and let Mommy take over the world.”

He peered at the television too. “I still think you should put me on the air.”

“Busy,” she said, just like she had when he came in.

“Jeez, Mom, I’m doing you a favor.”

“No, dear,” she said, picking up a pencil to dial with so that she wouldn’t break a nail. “You’re doing me a job. Now get out before I stop cleaning up after you, and you’ll be in trouble with the Powers That Be.”

“If the Fates are really gone, that won’t matter,” he said.

“We’ll see.” Eris dialed, but stopped before the last number. “’Bye.”

Stri frowned, his pout looking perfectly natural on his tattooed and pierced face. He waited just long enough for her to catch the full impact of the look and then he vanished, leaving a cloud of red smoke that smelled of cherry bombs.

With a wave of a hand, Eris made the smoke disappear. She wished she could make everything else that bothered her disappear as quickly, but that would be obvious, and she hated nothing more than the obvious.

She smiled. Everything was going well. She was even ahead of schedule. With the Fates gone, her life would get a whole lot easier.

She might even abandon some of her finesse and reveal a tiny corner of herself.

The last time she had done that, the world had taken notice.

It would take notice again.

 

Three

 

Vivian was dreaming of a world filled with homeless kittens, kittens that people kept dumping on her doorstep, expecting her to take care of them. They were little and they seemed to be multiplying asexually. Every time she touched one, there would suddenly be two, but she couldn’t stop herself from picking them up.

Then the kittens started pounding in unison, as if they all wanted to join the cast of Stomp, and she kept telling them to stop, but they wouldn’t. It took her a few minutes to realize that the pounding really existed.

She sat up and rubbed a hand over her face before glancing at the fancy CD alarm clock that Travers insisted she buy. 6:45 a.m. Light was coming in through the sides of the linen shade, but the bedroom was still dark.

Her heart was pounding and her eyes were made of glue. She hadn’t had much sleep. She’d stayed up, reading and rereading Kyle’s comic book, missing her family already.

It felt like she was in a hotel. She’d only been living here for a week and everything was unfamiliar. Even though it was her nightstand against her bed, her blue sheets and pillow cases surrounding her, her specially build comic book shelves holding all the boxes of her collections, the arrangement was different than the one she’d had in L.A. And she wasn’t used to the sounds of the building yet.

Somehow she hadn’t thought the walls were this thin.

The pounding continued. She flopped back on the mattress and pulled a pillow over her face, wishing her neighbor would answer the damn door. Who pounded at someone’s door this early in the morning anyway?

“Vivian!” a female voice shouted. “Vivian, please. We know you’re in there. Please let us in!”

The voice sounded panicked. In fact, it sounded so panicked that it kept changing tone. Soprano, alto, mezzo-soprano. How weird was that?

Then Vivian pulled the pillow off her face. No one knew her here. No one except her landlord, and she had gotten the impression he hadn’t paid much attention to her application, only to her check.

She hadn’t gone to the police yet to see their file on Eugenia, and she hadn’t gone to the lawyer. Vivian was waiting until Travers left, which had taken five days longer than he had promised.

That mezzo/alto/soprano voice wasn’t his. And that was the only thing she could be sure of.

She got out of bed, grabbed her robe, and shoved her feet into her bunny slippers. She opened the bedroom door and stepped into the combination living room/dining area. The floor-to-ceiling windows sent a cold draft across the hardwood floor. Sunlight poured in, making her glass-topped dining room table sparkle.

Vivian braced one hand on a chair as she made her way to the door. The pounding grew louder the closer she got.

“Vivian!”

Maybe this was some kind of scam to get someone to open her door in the middle of the night. Or the earliest part of the morning, as the case may be.

“Let us in!”

Vivian peered through the peephole. Three women were crowded on the landing. Three gorgeous women, all the same height, with movie-star good looks.

“Please!” cried the blonde closest to the door.

The other two were looking over their shoulders down the stairs as if they were afraid of something outside.

Vivian made sure the chain was on, then pulled the door open until the chain caught.

“Do I know you?” she asked, peering into the hallway. The women looked in her direction. They had bright eyes and matching expressions—sort of a combination between exasperation and panic.

“Of course you know us,” the redhead snapped. “Let us in.”

“I don’t remember meeting you,” Viv said.

“Please!” The brunette sounded terrified.

Vivian was a sucker for terror. When she was a kid, she used to pretend that she would rescue people who were terrified and save them with her psychic powers.

As if that would ever happen.

But the fantasy was real enough to get her to consider unlatching the chain. “This isn’t some scam, is it?”

“Scam?” the blonde asked.

“No, it’s not,” the redhead said.

“Please!” the brunette said again, in that exact same terrified tone.

Vivian gave up. If they were going to mug her, they were going to mug her. Their frightened act was convincing. She closed the door to unlatch the chain—and heard squeals of dismay from the hallway. Then she undid the chain and pulled the door open again.

She was nearly bowled over as the three women ran inside.

“Oh, thank you!” the blonde said.

“You’d better spell the door,” said the redhead.

“Or maybe the entire building,” the brunette said.

Vivian frowned. She was probably still dreaming. That was the only explanation. But her feet were cold despite the bunny slippers, and she had that woozy feeling she usually got when she woke up badly. To her recollection, she’d never had that feeling in a dream before.

“What is going on?” she asked. “Who are you?”

All three women gaped at her. Even though they looked very different—the blonde was blue-eyed and delicate; the redhead green-eyed and zaftig; the brunette brown-eyed and model-thin—they had the same expression on their faces.

“What do you mean, who are we?” the blonde asked.

“You know who we are,” the redhead said.

“No,” Vivian said. “I’m sorry. I don’t.”

“Oh, no,” the brunette said.

“Are you telling me that Eugenia told you nothing?” the blonde asked.

“About what?” Vivian asked.

The women were very close to the door, huddled against it in fact, and it took Vivian a moment to realize that she was preventing them from moving deeper into the apartment.

Downstairs something banged. She hoped it was only a door.

“I’m Atropos,” the brunette said.

“And I’m Clotho,” the blonde said.

“And I’m Lachesis,” said the redhead.

Then they all stared at her as if she should recognize their admittedly odd names.

“I’m sorry,” Vivian said. “I’ve never heard of you.”

“We’re the Fates!” they said in unison, and that was when she knew she was dreaming. Kyle’s comic book was coming back to haunt her. Either that, or Aunt Eugenia had been involved in something even stranger than usual.

“Are you a rock group?” Vivian asked, deciding to play into the dream rather than fight it.

“A what?” Atropos asked.

“A rock group,” Clotho said quietly. “You know, like in those Beach Party movies.”

“Annette Funicello?” Lachesis asked, and then shuddered.

“We’re not that shallow,” Atropos said.

“No, no, no,” Clotho said. “We’re the Fates.”

“You know,” Lachesis said, just in case Vivian missed it. “The Fates.”

Vivian was apparently staring at them blankly because Atropos said in exasperation, “Shouldn’t we have fallen into human mythology by now?”

“I thought we had,” Clotho said. “The Greeks referred to us properly.”

“And then the Norse,” said Lachesis.

“Who got it wrong,” Atropos added as an aside, “calling us the Norn.”

“The Weird Sisters,” they said in unison.

“As if we’re sisters at all,” said Clotho.

Vivian’s head was spinning. She was beginning to suspect something was seriously wrong here—she was awake and this still wasn’t making sense.

“And that Wagner,” Lachesis said, “dressing us the way he did.”

“No sane woman would wear those clothes,” said Atropos.

“I don’t think that was him,” Clotho said. “I think it was the director.”

“I still didn’t like it,” Lachesis said. “I’d rather be a Valkyrie—”

“Stop!” Vivian put a hand to her head. The spinning continued. “One at a time, tell me what’s going on.”

The women stared at her as if she’d made an improper request. Another door banged downstairs—or was that a car backfiring outside? Vivian couldn’t tell.

“I think the last time we spoke one at a time,” Atropos said.

“Completing an entire thought on our own,” said Clotho.

“Had to be three thousand years ago,” said Lachesis.

They all looked confused. Or crazy. Or maybe Vivian was the crazy one.

“I don’t care,” Vivian said. “Just tell me what’s happening.”

“Oh, dear,” Atropos said. “This will be difficult if you have no idea who we are.”

“Can you spell the building first?” Clotho asked.

“I can’t spell anything,” Vivian snapped, and then she paused. “You don’t mean spell-spell, do you? As in spelling bee?”

The women stared at each other, looking even more confused.

“I suppose not,” Vivian said. “That would be too simple.”

She marched across her floor and headed into the kitchen, pushing open the swinging door. The kitchen had been remodeled just before she moved in, and still had that new plastic smell appliances sometimes had. Her large blue teakettle, shaped like the Tick with his little antennae serving as a handle, looked out of place on the black stove.

She grabbed the kettle, turned on the cold water, and shoved the kettle beneath it. Breakfast. She needed breakfast. And time to think.

These women had mentioned Aunt Eugenia. So they were connected to Vivian somehow, and they thought Aunt Eugenia had told her something.

Maybe Aunt Eugenia had. She had sent Vivian a box full of papers the week before she died. Vivian had scanned them to look for a new version of the will and had found nothing except hand-written notes, books, and newspaper clippings from the previous century. She planned to go through it all when she had more time.

Cold water splashed on her hand. She shut off the faucet, dried off the teakettle, and set it on the stove. Then she slid out her toaster and put an English muffin inside.

The women would be able to smell the food. Vivian sighed. She hated being impolite, even to strangers—and was there a better word for these women? Strange–ers?—so she supposed to ease her own mind, she’d have to offer them something.

Vivian pushed open the swinging door and held it in place. The strange women were still standing in her entry, huddled together and talking quietly.

“I’m going to have breakfast,” Vivian said. “Would you like something to eat?”

“Food!” Lachesis said with relief.

“Oh, yes,” Atropos said. “We haven’t had food in hours.”

Clotho clapped her hands together. “How about some chocolate crepes, followed one of those egg-cheese things—”

“An omelet,” Lachesis said.

“Three omelets,” Atropos said.

“And perhaps some freshly ripened grapes,” Clotho said. “You know the type. At the very peak—”

“I have English muffins or Pop Tarts,” Vivian said, wishing she’d never made offer. “And if you want the muffins, you get a choice of peanut butter, margarine, strawberry jelly, or cream cheese.”

The toaster popped. She went back into the kitchen and slathered peanut butter on her English muffin. She didn’t care what the women wanted.

“And,” Vivian shouted so that they could hear her, “you make them yourself.”

Her remark was greeted with silence. She poured orange juice into a MacDonald’s promotional glass from the third Batman movie, and carried it through the swinging door to the glass-topped table.

The three women had gathered around her table in anticipation of food, and now that she had refused to give them what they wanted, they stared at her.

Vivian set her glass down as if nothing were wrong. But something was wrong, and she just realized what it was.

She had no sense of these women. She always had a sense of people—whether they were good or bad, whether they meant to harm her or not, whether they were self-involved or saintly.

That was why she’d had no idea they were at her door—why she had assumed they were at someone else’s. And that was what bothered her the most about them. It wasn’t their odd way of talking or their appearance. It was that they made no impact on her psyche. As if they weren’t there at all.

She almost touched one, then realized that would be a mistake. They were here, and present. They had moved her chairs, and they brought with them the faint scent of summer sunshine, not to mention all the noise.

There had been only one other person in the whole world Vivian could never sense, and that had been Aunt Eugenia. Aunt Eugenia, whom these women claimed to know.

“You really have no idea who we are, do you?” Lachesis asked quietly.

Vivian looked up from her contemplation of her orange juice glass. “No, I don’t.”

Atropos licked her lips nervously. “Do you have any chocolate? We’ll eat anything chocolate for breakfast.”

The teakettle whistled. Vivian sighed. She did have some chocolate truffles that Kyle bought her the day before, and she hadn’t been planning on eating them. They looked too rich for her.

She went back into the kitchen, took the teakettle off the burner, and shut it off. Then she made some Earl Gray, put the teapot, her muffin, the truffles, and some X-Men mugs on a tray, and carried the whole thing back to the dining room.

“All right,” she said, as she set the tray down near her orange juice glass. “Sit down. Tell me what’s going on, and convince me not to call the police.”

“Well, for one thing, your police can’t help,” Clotho said.

“They lack the power.” Atropos reached for a truffle.

Lachesis slapped her hand. “We haven’t been invited yet.”

“Yes, you have,” Vivian said. “The chocolate is for you.”

“Thank you.” The three women said in unison, and it was as if she had given them the world. They each took a truffle, bit into it at the same time, and got the identical expression of joy on their faces.

Vivian ate her muffin, the peanut butter making her tongue stick to the roof of her mouth. She drank some orange juice to dislodge it. “You do owe me an explanation.”

Clotho nodded. “We’re trying to think of the best way to tell you.”

“What did Eugenia tell you about the magical world?” Lachesis asked.

“The magical world?” Vivian repeated. “Eugenia told my parents I’m psychic.”

“And?” Atropos asked.

“And to tolerate what happened to me, saying that it was pretty normal for someone with my abilities,” Vivian said.

“And?” Clotho asked.

“And that Eugenia had been psychic when she was a kid, so she understood what was going on.” Vivian frowned.

Eugenia had said had been, as if being psychic was something someone outgrew. She never exhibited any psychic powers around Vivian that she could remember, but maybe Eugenia had had different talents. Maybe she could foresee the future. Maybe that was why she had sent Vivian that box the week before her death.

Maybe that was what Eugenia had meant when she used to invite Vivian to Portland, claiming they were running out of time. I’m not young any more, Eugenia would say during their phone calls.

Nonsense, Vivian used to say, you’re going to live forever, Aunt.

“And?” Lachesis asked.

“And what?” Vivian said.

“What else did she tell you?”

Vivian shrugged. “Bits and pieces here and there. So I wouldn’t feel like a freak. Even though I did. Because I was. Am. You know. You do know that I’m psychic, right?”

“We know everything about you, child,” Atropos said, and Vivian started. She never had anyone her own age call her child before.

“Or we used to,” Clotho said.

“And we will again,” Lachesis said, her voice rising the way people’s voices did when they were trying to cheer other people up.

“How old are you?” Atropos asked.

“I thought you knew everything about me,” Vivian said.

Clotho waved a hand in dismissal. “We’re never great with details.”

“I’m twenty-six,” Vivian said.

“Twenty-six,” Lachesis said to the other two. “That’s old enough. In fact, that’s too old. Eugenia should have started the training long before that.”

“Training?” Vivian asked.

“She did tell you that she was your mentor, right?” Atropos said.

“Well, it was obvious,” Vivian said. “No one else I ever met could have been my mentor.”

“No, for your magical training,” Clotho said.

“My what?” Vivian asked.

“Your training, you know, how to control your powers,” Lachesis said.

“My what?” Vivian asked again.

“Your powers, you know, the ones you’ll come into after menopause,” Atropos said.

“What are you talking about?” Vivian asked. “Are you saying I’ll be Super Hot-Flash Woman?”

“Your magical powers,” Clotho said.

“I can’t believe Eugenia didn’t tell you,” Lachesis said.

“She’s always so responsible,” Atropos said.

“Except lately,” Clotho said.

“She could have told us about losing the house,” Lachesis said.

“And her change of address,” Atropos said. “If she had planned better, we wouldn’t be here now.”

She addressed that last to Vivian. Vivian, who felt like she was only getting half of this conversation anyway, set her English muffin down.

“Um,” she said cautiously, “you do know that Eugenia died at the beginning of the month.”

“She what?” All three women spoke in unison.

“Impossible,” said Clotho.

“We would have known,” said Lachesis at the same time.

“We should have known,” said Atropos a second later.

“I’m sorry to tell you this way,” Vivian said. “She was murdered.”

The three women didn’t respond to that. Instead they looked at each other, and for the first time, Vivian got a sense of them. The sense was fleeting and odd, as if they were communicating with each other telepathically.

They were frightened. That much she could tell, even without her gifts.

A car alarm went off in the street. All three women jumped. So did Vivian, but she pretended that she hadn’t. To cover her own nervousness, she poured tea into all four mugs.

“You were going to explain things to me,” Vivian said, her hand shaking. She set the teapot down. She was more on edge than she had thought.

“We were,” Clotho said.

“But first,” Lachesis said.

“Explain why you weren’t studying with Eugenia,” Atropos said.

“I didn’t know I was supposed to,” Vivian said.

“Surely she invited you up here,” Clotho said.

“She wanted me to spend some time with her, yes,” Vivian said. “But I had a business to run, and she wouldn’t come to L.A.”

“A business?” Lachesis said. “You mean that psychic hotline?”

“You thought that was more important than your training?” Atropos asked.

Vivian felt her cheeks flush. If she had known Eugenia was going to die so soon, she would have made a point of coming here. But she hadn’t known. That wasn’t how her gifts manifested.

“I think I did some good with that hotline.” Vivian’s voice sounded small.

It had seemed like a good idea at the time—a psychic hotline with real psychics, not people who traced your phone number or used your credit reports (gleaned from your credit card number) to give them their “special” knowledge.

And it had worked. Her hotline got to be known as the hotline to call. But she had to shut it down. There weren’t that many real psychics walking around Los Angeles, and most of the real ones didn’t want anything to do with her little idea.

Eventually, there were too many calls for her to handle. Even though she was minting money, she had to close the doors—and then she slept for what seemed like two months straight.

That was just before Eugenia died.

“Some good?” Clotho said.

“You would have done more good if you had had training,” Lachesis said.

“Training in what?” Vivian asked again.

“Magic,” Atropos said.

“But Aunt Eugenia wasn’t a magician,” Vivian said.

“No,” Clotho said. “She was a mage, just like you will be some day.”

“A mage,” Vivian said, trying to wrap her mind around the difference between mage and magician, besides the spelling and the number of syllables.

Another car alarm went off, and then another. The three women clutched each other’s hands.

“He’s getting close,” Lachesis said.

“This was a stupid idea,” Atropos said.

“We agreed on it,” Clotho said.

“We were forced into it,” Lachesis said.

“It’s too late,” Atropos said. “We made the choice.”

Vivian glanced out the window. Three cars in front of the building across the street were blaring, their headlights blinking on and off. She had no idea what could have set them off.

“All right.” Clotho’s delicate mouth was covered in chocolate. She didn’t seem to notice. “We’ll do our best to explain, but since your mentor failed on the job, you’ll probably not believe this.”

Lachesis handed Clotho a napkin, then said, “Before we do this, perhaps we should ask her about Blackstone.”

“Blackstone? The magician?” Vivian asked.

“Yes!” they said in pleased unison.

“Do you know him?” Atropos asked.

“I know of him,” Vivian said, wondering how she could know a man who had been dead for a very long time.

“Good,” Clotho looked relieved. “Then you go to his restaurant.”

“What?” Vivian asked. That spinning feeling had returned.

“What’s it called?” Lachesis looked at her companions. “Quixote?”

“Quixotic?” Vivian asked. “It’s next door.”

The women smiled at her as if she’d won a prize.

“I’ve been there. What does it have to do with Blackstone?”

“He owns it,” Atropos said. “Or he did. It wasn’t open this morning. Do you know why?”

Viv shrugged. “It doesn’t serve breakfast. I’m sure it won’t open until eleven or so.”

A dog started barking nearby, big deep, scary barks. The car alarms were still going, and Vivian thought she heard another one flare up.

“Eleven’s too late,” Clotho said. “We’ll have to explain.”

“All right.” Lachesis took a deep breath, and the others followed suit. They leaned toward Vivian in one swift movement.

Another bang sounded below, and all three women jumped.

“There are mortals, and then there are the magical,” Atropos said, looking toward the door.

“You are one of the magical,” Clotho said.

“Yeah, right,” Vivian said.

“No, really,” Lachesis said. Then she frowned. “That is the correct modern response, isn’t it?”

“What?” Vivian asked.

“Never mind,” Atropos said. “We’ll update our slang later.”

“If there is a later,” Clotho said, and she too looked toward the door.

Vivian heard more banging, and then the sound of firecrackers.

“Oh, no,” Lachesis said.

“He’s found us,” Atropos said.

“Quick,” Clotho said. “We must wrap this place in tinfoil.”

“What?” Vivian said.

“Tinfoil,” Lachesis said. “Have you got tinfoil?”

Somehow that question seemed logical—at least coming from these women.

“I have some,” Vivian said, “but not enough to wrap the apartment in, and besides, that would take all day.”

The banging stopped, but the sound of firecrackers continued. It faded and blended into the sound of sparklers. Then smoke came in under Vivian’s door.

“Oh, no,” Atropos said.

The smoke filtered across the floor in tendrils, white and thick. The movement was orderly, and the smoke was odorless.

Vivian got up and ran for the phone. She had to call the fire department.

The three women climbed on their chairs.

“Your conventional friends can’t help, Vivian,” Clotho said.

“We need you to do something,” Lachesis said.

Vivian picked up the phone. “I can’t stop fire.”

“There is no fire.” Atropos peered at the floor. The tendrils of smoke were feeling their way over the couch, around the end tables. Once, it seemed like the tendrils stopped and sniffed the air.

“You must imagine this building encased in glass,” Clotho said, her voice breathless.

Vivian started to dial 911.

“You must, Vivian,” Lachesis said. “That’s the only way to help us.”

“Imagine it and projected it outward, as if you were pushing the image out of you,” Atropos said.

“Look,” Vivian said, still clutching the phone. She hadn’t quite finished dialing. “If you guys believe in magic, you do it.”

“This isn’t magic, per se,” Clotho said. “It’s a psychic’s trick. But you have to do it.”

Her voice went up as the tendrils got closer. Vivian’s floor was lost in a sea of white. Throughout the sea, white telescope-like things poked out of the smoke and sniffed. Fingers felt the surfaces. This didn’t look like any smoke that Vivian had ever seen before.

“Please, Vivian,” Lachesis said as she moved her feet away from a poking smoke finger. “Just try it.”

“If it doesn’t work, then dial your friends,” Atropos said.

The other three glared at her as if she had just given bad advice.

The smoke curled around Vivian’s legs. It was cool, not hot, and she thought she felt tiny pinpricks against her skin.

“Imagine a glass case?” she asked.

“Around the entire building,” Clotho said.

“Then push it away from you,” Atropos added.

Vivian closed her eyes. It took her a moment to envision the building—she’d never really looked at all of it, just the interior—and then she imagined slamming a glass box over it. She pushed the image away from her mind, and actually felt something leave her with the force of a sneeze.

She staggered, caught herself on the telephone table, then opened her eyes.

The smoke was gone.

“You did it!” Clotho shouted.

“I wasn’t sure it would be possible,” Lachesis said, sinking down into her chair.

“We’re saved,” Atropos said, reaching for a truffle.

“For the moment,” Clotho said.

“I don’t understand.” Vivian set the phone down. She was shaking, and she felt a little weak. “What’s going on here?”

“That’s what we want to explain, dear,” Lachesis said. “Now that you’ve bought us a little time.”

Here’s how you order the rest of the book. A trade paper edition will be available in bookstores in late May, however, you can order it on Amazon.com right now. The ebook is widely available.  Here are the links to Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords.  Other e-bookstores should have it as well.

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