Chapters One and Two of Hot Magic
“Harrison Chevalier is sitting in a tree,” Doreen announced as soon as Julie Dancer answered her phone.
“The new neighbor? I didn’t know he’d moved in already. Why is he in a tree?” Julie leaned over the kitchen sink to look out the window. She gently pushed several small pots of fading herbs off to the side of the windowsill with a silent promise to water them later. “I can’t see him from the kitchen. His garage is in the way. I’m going upstairs to look out my bedroom window.”
“He’s in that old oak next to my property line.” Doreen Lessing lived in the split-level behind the small cedar shake bungalow that Harrison Chevalier had just rented. She had a much better view of his backyard than Julie. “Do you think he has some kind of mental illness that involves a compulsion to climb trees?”
“You mean OTCD, obsessive tree climbing disorder?” Julie took the steps two at a time. “That’s usually accompanied by an excessive ingestion of bananas. Unless there’s a mound of peels on the ground, I’m thinking he’s an entomologist, studying a rare species of oak mites.”
“We have a rare species of oak mites in Ann Arbor?”
“I don’t know. Ask Harrison.”
Julie hopped over the dirty jeans scattered on her bedroom floor and pulled aside her bright, yellow bedroom curtains. From this angle she could see most of Harrison’s tidy backyard. Sure enough, one shiny wingtip moved back and forth amid the leafy branches of the oak tree near Dorie’s yard.
“This is so weird,” Julie murmured.
“I say he’s a spy for the CIA, and Cindy is really an international terrorist. He’s keeping her under surveillance.” Cindy Lui, also referred to as Sexy Cindy, Sin Cindy or Luscious Lui, depending on Dorie’s mood, lived in the beige, vinyl-sided ranch on the other side of Harrison’s house. “Why else could he possibly be in that tree?”
“She rented him the house. She’d have to be a pretty inept terrorist to do that. You’ve been reading suspense novels again, haven’t you?” Julie pushed aside a couple of books that had fallen onto her bed from her nightstand. She sat and thumped her bare feet into her running shoes, which she never used for running. “I’ll go welcome him to the neighborhood and find out what he’s doing in the tree.”
“What?” Dorie’s low screech made her wince. “Grown men in shiny shoes don’t sit in trees. Seriously, what if he has some kind of problem?”
“I’m a trained social worker. I can handle it.” Okay, she worked in research and hadn’t actually counseled anyone since her practicum training. Still, it was like riding a bike, right? It would come back to her. “I’ll call you as soon as I get back in the house.”
“I’ll keep watch. I’m not comfortable with this, Julie. If things get rough, tuck your hair behind your ear as a signal, and I’ll send the twins into the yard. They’ll be the perfect distraction.”
“If things get rough? This is not a military campaign.” Though Dorie’s six-year-old twin boys probably qualified as weapons of mass destruction. “I’m going to introduce myself to our new neighbor.”
“Who happens to be sitting in a tree,” Dorie pointed out.
“He’s probably trying to rescue his cat.”
“Julie, he just suddenly appeared in his yard in a tree. No car, no moving truck, nothing. Seriously, don’t you think that’s strange?”
“I think it’s strange that you know that.”
“I’m a stay-at-home mom. It’s important to keep abreast of changes in my work environment.”
Julie paused, impressed. “That’s a really clever rationalization for being nosy.”
“His car’s probably parked in the garage, and the moving truck is coming later. I’ll talk to you soon.” Julie pressed the off button and shoved the phone in her pocket.
She jogged down the stairs, lifting her knees high so she could consider it her exercise for the day, and stopped in the kitchen to look for a new-neighbor food offering.
When Tasha left for college, Julie pretty much quit making dinners. The planning, buying, and cooking of healthy meals took time and energy that could be better used for…okay, she currently used it for watching movies and catching up on old television series she’d missed over the years. But hey, Firefly with oatmeal or Chicken Marsala with lots of dirty dishes—not a hard decision.
Unfortunately, that meant her cupboards were fairly empty. She hit the jackpot with an unopened package of Krispy Kremes in the freezer. They’d been an impulse buy, frozen once sanity returned so they wouldn’t become dinner. While they defrosted in the microwave, she grabbed a serving plate out of a bottom cupboard. The dish was fine china with little stars decorating the scalloped edges. She piled the slightly warm but now soft donuts onto it and headed out the back door.
Harrison had a detached single-car garage that sat behind his house. She followed his driveway and veered off around the garage into the backyard. A tangle of rose bushes bloomed in the September sun, adding a sweet note to the perfume of freshly cut grass. The foot still hung from the tree, a well-shod pendulum.
“Hello! Mr. Chevalier?”
The shoe abruptly stilled and the branches of the oak tree began an ominous rustling. Two legs, clad in perfectly creased black slacks, appeared beneath the lowest branch. In a rush, a large, lean male body dropped to the ground. The man crouched for a second, then straightened.
Julie brought the plate of donuts closer to her chest. “Mr. Chevalier?”
He was not the quirky, little Frenchman that his name and actions might suggest. He was not at all the type of man you’d expect to find sitting in a tree. High, haughty cheekbones graced a too-serious face. Thick blond hair brushed the collar of his black shirt and seemed more suited to a surfer than the elegant man in front of her. Eyes the color of old gold watched her with unnerving intensity.
“I saw you in the tree.” The words were breathless and not at all the welcome she’d intended. She shoved the plate into his hands.
The man glanced down at the donuts. “You saw me in the tree?” He had a British accent. She was a sucker for a British accent.
“Your foot, actually. I saw your foot hanging from the tree when I just happened to glance out my bedroom window.”
She shifted uncomfortably under his steady stare. Walking into his backyard and calling him out of a tree to welcome him to the neighborhood suddenly seemed more intrusive than friendly. “Uh, I thought you might be stuck and need some help,” she improvised.
“You thought I might be stuck and you brought donuts?” He nodded as if this made perfect sense. “Were you going to arrange them into a soft landing spot in case I fell?”
Julie sucked in her breath and kept a pleasant expression on her face. Did he mean to be rude, or was this an example of the wry sense of humor the Brits were rumored to have? She managed a laugh, just in case he’d said something funny.
He didn’t smile. “I’m quite capable of getting myself out of a tree.”
“Obviously.” She had the ridiculous urge to apologize for doubting him. She stifled it. “Welcome to the neighborhood,” she said belatedly.
They stared at each until Harrison shifted the plate of donuts and glanced pointedly at his watch.
“I know it’s none of my business, but why were you up in the tree? Do you own a cat?” Julie was usually better at polite small talk, but her brain felt unaccountably scrambled.
“No, I don’t own a cat. And you’re right. It’s none of your business.”
She laughed again, turning it into a cough when he looked at her as if she were a lunatic. Okay, so he meant to be rude, not funny. She could handle that.
She gave him her most charming smile. “Being the new guy on the block means everybody is curious about you.” She leaned in slightly. “Rumor has it you’re a spy. If you give me the real scoop, I can let everyone know that you’re actually a bird lover or an arborist or…whatever.”
She caught a flash of alarm in his eyes.
“There’s talk about me already? I only arrived fifteen minutes ago.”
Julie waved a hand in the air. “Small-town America. Gossip, gossip, gossip. You can’t avoid it.”
“You consider Ann Arbor, a city of over a hundred thousand people, small?”
Julie shrugged. “It’s all relative. We have some really big cities in America.”
His lips curved in something that was almost a smile. “I’ve heard that. What’s your name?”
“Julie Dancer.” She pointed to her right without looking away from his face. “I live in the Cape Cod next door.”
“Julie.” His gaze intensified, and she felt sudden empathy for every amoeba ever examined under a microscope. He studied her from the top of her head down to her toes, absorbing the boring details of her brown hair, brown eyes and short nose. She became conscious of her worn University of Michigan T-shirt and khaki shorts. Had she shaved her legs recently?
“Julie Dancer.” The way he repeated her name—slowly, like he held it in his mouth and savored it—sent a dart of unexpected heat through her. “At last.”
He took a step closer to her. “I’ve been waiting to meet you.”
She took a step back. Maybe Cindy had told him a lonely divorcée lived next door. Maybe he had plans to hit on her. Her pulse beat faster until reality intruded. If he wanted to hit on anybody, it would be Cindy, who far outclassed her as potential hit material. Which was fine by her because she didn’t want to be hit on.
Wait a minute.
“You moved in fifteen minutes ago and have been waiting to meet me while sitting in a tree?”
“Of course not.” He frowned up into the branches of the tree. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
She pulled herself to her full five feet, seven inches. He didn’t look impressed. Maybe because he still towered a good six inches above her. “I’m not ridiculous.”
He lifted an eyebrow.
Americans cock a brow and look amused or perplexed. Only the British could convey such arrogance with a simple facial movement. They probably employ specially trained nannies to teach the skill— “A little higher, Master Harrison, or there will be no bangers and mash for you.”
Fascinated, she watched until the brow dropped. “Why don’t you explain what you meant by the ‘I’ve been waiting to meet you’ remark?”
“Certainly, though I prefer to do so in private.”
Could Dorie be right? Was he a spy? Or maybe he was a serial killer, trying to get her indoors where he kept his electric saw. She took another step back. “This yard is private. No one can hear us here.”
His jaw firmed, and she had the distinct impression that people didn’t argue with him very often. “I’m Harrison Chevalier.” The words reverberated like a note rung on a gong. He paused, obviously waiting for a response.
Julie nodded. “I know. Cindy Lui, your landlord, told my friend Dorie you were moving in. Cindy was pleased to get another renter so quickly. Eugene, who used to live in your house, had to leave suddenly when he got an unexpected transfer. He’s an engineer at Ford. He’s in Germany now.”
Harrison crossed his arms, a furrow of impatience between his eyes. Obviously, he couldn’t care less about Eugene.
“I should recognize your name, right?”
“Yes, you should.”
She gave him a half-smile of apology.
His frown deepened. “I’m one of the Penumbrae,” he said, as if that would make everything clear. “It’s time for you to assume your rightful place in the Triad and help block a curse that is being placed on me.”
Several heartbeats passed in silence. A slight rustling in the branches above broke the unnatural quiet. Harrison grimaced as a twig fell on his head and he brushed it aside.
Julie assumed the accepting, non-judgmental expression that she’d perfected during her last research project on psychosis. “What is the curse?” Her brain hummed as she searched her mental files for a diagnosis fitting a man who believed he was cursed. Schizophrenia? Psychotic disorder? Smart ass?
“It’s a binding curse. The Walker who attempts it wishes to become my consort.”
“Your consort.” Add a delusion of royalty to the mix. Fascinated, she decided to keep him talking. The more she knew about how his mind worked, the easier the decision about buying a privacy fence would be. “Does this curse make you impotent?”
“Consort’s an old-fashioned word for a royal husband or wife, right? It’s just that if I wanted to be your consort and I was able to curse people, I’d curse you to impotence until you agreed to…consort with me.”
He cocked his head and considered her with more interest. “You are truly evil.”
“Well, what’s the point of a curse if it’s not evil?”
“I’m not impotent.” He stated the words flatly.
“I’m glad for your sake.” Her biggest problem during that study had been a tendency to become too immersed in her subject’s fantasy lives. She forced herself to rein in her curiosity about the imaginary curse and stick to the basics. “How can I help you?”
“Have sex with me.”
This was her fault. She’d introduced the topic of impotence and had gotten the man thinking about sex. She really needed to be more careful about what she said. She pulled out her phone. “Look at the time! I’ve got to run. It was nice meeting you, Mr. Chevalier.”
“You’re scared.” He sounded surprised.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” She backed up a few more steps. “It’s very hard to be frightened of a man holding a plate of donuts.” That, of course, was untrue.
He smiled. His eyes warmed with a hint of amusement that had the oddest effect on her. Did a little delusional thinking really matter in the big picture? They had meds for these sorts of things. Harrison looked down as if he’d forgotten the donuts, and she began to breathe again.
“We’ve gotten off on the wrong foot. I can explain. Come inside and share a pastry with me.” He looked up, his expression wry. “I promise to keep holding the plate of donuts if it will make you more comfortable.”
How could she even think of stepping into a house with this man? He tugged at her in a way she didn’t understand. She nervously flicked a strand of hair behind her ear and heard a door bang shut.
Dorie must have had the twins revved at the starting block, ready to explode into the yard if needed. When the first plastic arrow tipped with a suction cup bounced at Harrison’s feet, Julie muttered a weak, “Maybe later,” and beat a hasty retreat into the safety of her own home.
Harrison carefully set down the plate of donuts, ignored the steady stream of sucker-tipped arrows flying over the chain link fence along the back of the yard and hoisted himself back into the tree.
“This is uncomfortable, Bascule.” He straddled an upper branch, brushing a leaf from his pants. “There is no reason we need to meet in a tree.”
The great horned owl, perched on an adjacent limb, blinked. “Fun, Harrison. Sitting in a tree is fun.”
“Only if you’re ten years old.” Though he’d never sat in a tree when he was ten, so he couldn’t be sure of that. “Are we just about done convincing the neighbors that I’m an oddball?”
“Not quite. I have two more things to discuss with you. Word has reached me that small groups of Triad members have begun to organize and are fighting back against the demons.”
“Finally.” A surge of hope lightened Harrison’s mood. “Our work is paying off. We have to build on this.”
“You can’t do anything until you get rid of the binding.” Bas ruffled his feathers. “I also came to offer advice on how to handle the Dancer. Obviously, you don’t need it. Your charm and persuasive abilities have rendered me speechless.”
“One could only hope.” Harrison lifted his foot, reached down and unstuck an arrow that had attached to the bottom of his shoe. “You sent me here.” He narrowed his eyes at the owl. “Marguerite’s curse is already distracting me or I would have questioned you first. Is there another way to break the binding?” The Dancer was not ideal. Her flip attitude irritated him.
“The old-fashioned way is the quickest, most efficient way. Marguerite wove the first tie of the binding with earth energy,” Bas responded. “There is tremendous power involved in creating and sustaining such a tie. Theoretically, a Dancer who can channel enough light energy could undo it. The problem is finding someone with that capability. I sense the potential in Julie Dancer. If you two join together, the power should be enough to sever the tie.”
“Join.” Harry repeated the word. Bas didn’t usually use euphemisms.
“Shag, boff, bonk,” he promptly clarified. “Sex has power. Even humans use it as a tool in their magic rituals. But be careful. There’s something about this Dancer that I don’t understand, something that feels different.”
“The difference is she doesn’t bloody know who I am.” Harrison said as he rubbed at his temple.
Bas blinked slowly. “Marguerite bothers you more than I thought.”
The fact that Marguerite had successfully completed the first part of the binding curse didn’t bother Harrison. It enraged him. She sat in his mind like a weed that couldn’t be plucked. He wanted her out. Yesterday. “Julie Dancer may have been raised human, but she is one of us.” A connection that gave him a dark sense of satisfaction. “Once she understands the consequences of this curse, she’ll agree to help.”
The owl made a strange, gravelly sound.
Harrison looked at him suspiciously, but Bas merely spread his wings. With a powerful thrust, the owl lifted off, a soaring shadow against the sun-bright sky.
Julie almost ignored her phone, not wanting to rehash the whole strange Harrison encounter with Dorie until her head stopped pounding. At the last minute, years of conditioning triumphed. She picked up her phone, tucking it to her ear as she reached for the ibuprofin in her kitchen cupboard.
“Hi, Mom.” The voice of her nineteen-year-old daughter made her pause.
“Hey, Tash. Is everything going okay at school?”
“School is fine. Grandma just called me.”
Julie put four extra-strength tablets into her mouth and swallowed, without water. Her mother had promised not to tell Tasha her news until they were all together over the Christmas holidays, about three months from now. Darn the woman. She couldn’t be trusted.
“Could this be a symptom of menopause?” Tasha’s normally soft voice held an edge of anxiety.
Julie closed her eyes and slumped into one of the maple chairs that matched the small kitchen table. “As far as I know, homosexuality isn’t a recognized symptom of menopause. Besides, I think Grandma went through menopause a good decade ago.”
“Then what’s wrong with her? It’s ludicrous for a sixty-eight-year-old woman to suddenly decide she’s a lesbian.”
“She’s sixty-five,” Julie offered weakly.
“I know she hasn’t been in the closet all these years. You used to cover my ears when we’d be watching those old Paul Newman movies together because of the comments she’d make.”
True. Her mother was quite the Paul Newman fan. And not because of his acting skill.
“Is she supposed to even be thinking about sex? I thought the whole libido thing wound down as you got older and that people had to use drugs or lubricants to even do it.”
“Well, no. That’s not exactly….” Julie stopped, and tried again. “Homosexuality isn’t just about sex.”
Tash wasn’t listening. “I bet she’s going through the early stages of senile dementia. We need to get her help. I think we should fly to Chicago together and do one of those intervention things.”
“Calm down.” How like her mother to drop this bomb and leave her to deal with the aftermath. They’d both known Tasha would not easily accept her grandmother’s change in sexual preference. Tash didn’t have a problem with homosexuality; she had a problem with change. Her daughter craved stability. “You don’t do interventions for senile dementia or homosexuality. You do interventions for substance abuse.” Thankfully her child was studying English, not social work. “And many older people have active, satisfying sex lives.” So she’d heard.
“Does this mean she never loved Grandpa? Oh, Mom! Thank God he’s dead. He’d be so devastated!”
“Honey, why don’t you let this news sink in for a while before we talk about it. Can you come over for dinner tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow’s busy. I have a paper due Monday for Great Books.” Tasha attended the University of Michigan, and lived in a dorm about fifteen minutes from their house. “How about next Sunday?”
“Call me if you want a ride.”
“Okay.” Tasha sounded calmer. “Maybe this is one of Grandma’s passing fads.”
Not likely. Last time she’d spoken with her, her mother had begun organizing a Chicago chapter of the Gay Grays. “Just get your studying done and we’ll talk about this next week.”
“Mom.” Tasha sounded surprisingly serious. “You’re happy, right? You don’t have any big changes planned that I should know about?”
The fact that she even asked the question was progress. Tasha had learned that she handled transition better when she could prepare for it in advance. Tash’s father, Jack, was the exact opposite. He didn’t know the meaning of the word “stable.” An adventure junkie with a degree in archeology, he flitted from dig to dig like he was Indiana Jones with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. When Tash started middle school, Julie had decided the family should settle in one place. Jack had decided they should get a divorce.
Julie sighed and glanced out the window. She did a double take. Was that an owl swooping across her new neighbor’s back lawn? An owl? In the middle of the day?
Tasha’s voice brought her back to their conversation. She turned away from the window and what was probably just a very fat sparrow. She’d have to quit putting leftover buttered popcorn in the bird feeders. “Don’t worry, honey. I’m very happy with my life. I’m always going to be your predictable, dear old mom.”
“Which is just the way I love you.” Tasha hung up, sounding comforted.
Predictable, comfortable, safe—that’s just the way Julie wanted to live the rest of her life. She’d had enough adventure with Jack, and then with single parenting. These were going to be her quiet, peaceful years. She glanced out the window again trying to see Harrison’s oak tree. So why was she suddenly feeling restless?
Two hours later, a knock sounded on her front door. Julie set down her coffee cup and muted the baseball game before she answered. Harrison Chevalier stood on her doorstep, dressed in his elegant tree-climbing attire.
“Thank you for the donuts.”
She took the clean plate he handed her. “You’re welcome.”
“The plate is beautiful.”
Julie looked down at the perfect circle in her hands. The tiny silver stars along the rim winked at her. She’d counted them once when she was little. Exactly forty-two perfectly formed stars. Her age now, she realized.
“It belonged to my grandmother. I never met her.” Julie had no idea why she told him that.
“May I come in?” He sounded very proper, very polite.
Julie became immediately aware of the old but comfortable sweatpants and sweatshirt she’d put on after her shower. When had she become such a slob? Oh, yeah. She’d always been a slob. “Um…well, I’m watching the Tigers.”
“Watch your nature show later. We need to talk.” Polite morphed into autocratic with startling ease.
She’d never taken orders well. Her smile firmed. “I’m sorry, but now is not a good time.”
“I need your help, Julie.”
His clear eyes looked remarkably sane for someone with a thought disorder. “I have the names of a few good therapists in town,” she offered.
“I don’t need therapy.” He sounded exasperated. “How about if we have dinner at a public restaurant? I just want a chance to talk with you.”
“I have a policy not to date neighbors.”
“This has come up before?”
He didn’t need to look so surprised. “Well, no. It’s a new policy. Specifically geared toward neighbors who believe they’re cursed.”
“I know I haven’t made a good impression,” Harrison said, which wasn’t quite true. He’d made a very strong impression and it wasn’t all bad. It wasn’t even mostly bad.
He paused, as if considering what to say, and ran his hand through his hair. The golden strands fell perfectly back into place. Like magic. Julie’s shoulder length brown hair tended to wave into soft curls at the least provocation. Just once, she wanted a straight swing of shiny hair like the women in shampoo commercials.
A startled expression crossed Harrison’s face. He reached out and touched a curl with one finger. “Your hair is very nice. You don’t need to change it.”
Julie took a quick step back, out of Harrison’s reach. “How did you know what I was thinking?”
Harrison frowned. “That shouldn’t have happened. I apologize.”
There must be a logical explanation for this. But, first things first.
“Do you know what I’m thinking now?” She tried to visualize something innocuous, just in case—children laughing, dogs cavorting in a flowery field, a blue sky shimmering with sunshine. Unfortunately, her slutty brain kept inserting totally inappropriate pictures of Harrison without a shirt. Beneath that proper clothing, light hair dusted his wide chest and well-defined stomach muscles begged to be touched.
What was going on here? Men didn’t interest her these days unless they were safely on a movie screen or in a book.
Harrison shook his head. “No. I have no idea what you’re thinking.”
Thank you, God.
His hand reached out and she took another step backward. It dropped to his side.
“Mind touch is a private form of communication used by blood-bonded mates,” he explained. “I assure you this was highly irregular and purely unintentional.”
She nodded, not really listening to his gibberish as she came up with a reasonable explanation for his apparent mind reading. Non-verbal cues. He noticed her staring at his hair and correctly interpreted that to mean that she was dissatisfied with her own hair. Mystery solved. On to other things.
He’d called her hair very nice.
Granted, that wasn’t a particularly extravagant compliment, but she savored it for a moment before she remembered the man also believed in curses and mental telepathy. Not to mention he sounded like a science fiction geek or a dog breeder, with all his talk of mates. Aliens and animals have mates. People have partners.
“Julie.” His voice commanded her attention. “Will you have dinner with me tonight?”
Spend a whole two hours with this man? Something—okay, his accent and his incredible face and body—almost compelled her to say yes. “No. I can’t.”
He looked at her as if she were a particularly frustrating puzzle he needed to solve and then he smiled a slow smile that made her quickly review what she’d been thinking. Nope. Nothing to cause a smile like that.
He took a step back and gave her a brief nod. “Perhaps another time. I’ll be seeing you again soon.”
Julie quickly shut the door before she could ask when. Harrison’s delusional system might fascinate her on an intellectual level, but somehow she doubted intellectual interest alone was bumping up her heart rate.
Which meant trouble. Because on a personal level, Harrison Chevalier was definitely not the type of man a comfortable, predictable woman should be interested in.
Marguerite Deschamps moaned and kicked aside the bedcovers as she twisted her body, trying to wake. Grand-mère Belle was sobbing again, begging Marguerite to save her. With a quick, sharp move, Marguerite threw her body into an upright position and broke free of the dream.
She pulled in deep breaths, trembling in the aftermath of the tormenting vision. “I promise, Grand-mère.” She repeated the words she’d spoken since the first dream when she’d been a mere eleven years old. “I promise I’ll save you.”
Now, after years of helplessly listening to her grandmother’s pleas, she’d finally found the key to free her. Marguerite automatically felt for the tie with Harrison.
Her muscles tensed and panic iced her body as she desperately searched for the presence that had been with her since she’d cast the first words to bind him. There, he was there. Her heart slowed. For a moment she had lost the powerful, angry hum that should have scared her but instead had become oddly comforting.
Marguerite put a hand against her head, as if doing so would keep him there. She shuddered as she mentally touched the edges of a bitter essence she couldn’t identify, a sour presence that had laced her psyche ever since she’d cast the curse. No matter. She knew freeing Grand-mère would not be without price.
She glanced out the window at the sun still high in the sky. She never woke until dark. Only her dreams had roused her now. Unlike the flower she’d been named for, the ox-eye daisy, which grew like a weed across the grassy hills and was called moonflower because it bloomed both day and night, Marguerite preferred to stay in the shadows.
She dressed quickly in beige linen trousers and a loose silk shirt of the same shade. She slipped on a pair of low-heeled sandals and walked down the long marble halls of the family wing to the library. No windows marred the rose-colored walls, built centuries ago from the very stone that formed the rolling French countryside. The shadows soothed her and she slowed her frantic pace as she traveled the long, cool corridor. She reached out and let her fingers slide against the walls, feeling the strength and support of her ancestors in the very foundations of the castle.
The library doors stood ajar. As expected, her brother, Luc, sat in one of the burgundy leather chairs, reading by the light of the large mullioned windows. He looked up, surprised, when she entered the room.
“Marguerite. What’s wrong? Why are you awake?” He set his book on a small wooden table, concern marking his expression.
She glanced at the windows and the outside shutters banged shut, cutting out the natural light along with a view of the wooded slopes of Montagne Noire. Two lamps flicked on, emitting a soft glow. She wouldn’t tell him of the dream. She never did. “We have a problem. The link wavered.”
Luc tapped the cover of his book. “I’m not surprised.”
“You’re not surprised? What does that mean? I performed the first tie to perfection.” Marguerite paced the room. Her pale hair whipped against her face with the force of her movement. “Harrison is always in the corner of my mind, but suddenly, for the space of several heartbeats, he was gone. That’s impossible, Luc!”
“Magic is nothing more than the manipulation of energy. As such it can be transformed or re-routed by anyone who has knowledge and skill.”
“Not a bonding curse.” Marguerite argued with certainty.
“A curse is just the name given when power manipulation is used for evil. The mechanics stay the same. You’ve only placed the first tie on Chevalier. Two ties are required, each bound during a new moon when you’re able to access the most earth energy. You have almost three weeks to wait until the next new moon.” He paused. “This may not proceed as smoothly as you plan, Marguerite. It’s wrong, not to mention dangerous. Chevalier is powerful.”
She shivered, uneasy. “Trust me, Luc. I won’t tell you why I’m doing this, but it must be done.”
Luc watched her with eyes that invited her to confide in him. They shared almost everything. She wouldn’t have survived their parents’ death without him. Yet, she’d never told him of the dreams. And she couldn’t explain the path she now walked to free their grand-mère. She wouldn’t taint him with the evil, also.
The lights in the room flickered and power flowed in her veins, washing out her need to confide in her brother, washing out her doubts. “I am the most powerful Walker of this generation. Harrison will be my consort, tied to me.”
Luc folded his arms across his chest. “So you’ll have a fierce lion by the tail.” When Marguerite didn’t respond, he shook his head. “You’ve changed. Power was never so important to you. Why, Marguerite?”
“Power frees you.”
“What do you need to be freed from?” His eyes narrowed.
“Power creates opportunity.” Marguerite quickly tried to deflect his line of questioning.
“This power you wield creates the opportunity for much sorrow.” When Marguerite didn’t respond, Luc frowned, but continued. “While you slept, I’ve been studying. I found an obscure reference that I think we need to pay attention to.”
Marguerite picked up the book he’d been reading, relieved he’d changed the subject. “Mots de Sagesse?” She read the title aloud. “Words of Wisdom? This book is read by school children.” She dismissed it, tossing it back on the table beside Luc.
“The book is read by children because it forms the foundation of Triad teachings. It tells the story of Patre and Yesmi, father and mother of energy wielders. It outlines the prophecies. You would do well to remember these, Marguerite. To remember the balance that must be maintained.”
Marguerite laughed. She couldn’t help it. He sounded so sure of himself, so passionate, so full of book learning instead of life learning. She leaned over and placed her hands on both sides of his beloved face. “Sanctimonious drivel, mon frère. Close your book and look around you.” She patted his cheek and stepped away. “Balance is an illusion. The ones with the most power will always control the scale.” Soon she would have the strength to free Grand-mère Belle—and in doing so, be free of her.
Luc didn’t take offense. He never did. “The reference I found is in the prophecies. The verse talks of one who will rise to great power in the aftermath of a divisive war. ‘A daughter shall be born in light and shadow, a guardian who rises out of evil. Wild power circles her and chaos follows in her footsteps.’”
Cold settled across Marguerite’s shoulders. “Fifty years ago the Great Rift tore the Triad apart.”
Luc nodded, silent.
“We were born during a lunar eclipse, as the earth’s shadow darkened the moon—in the light of the moon, and then in shadow.” Marguerite swallowed, tasting fear. The dreams and the surges of power she experienced might all be signs. “Perhaps it speaks of me. Perhaps I’m the one prophesied.”
Luc watched her, a serious expression on his face. “Prophecy does not equal destiny, Marguerite. You are free to make your own choices.”
She’d not been free since the dreams first came, but soon, soon she would be.
“Today while you slept I felt something.” Luc said. “A wisp of Dancer power.”
“There are no Dancers in the area.” None had lived in the Montagne Noire area since the Great Rift. Luc, however, was a powerful Sensitive. He would not be mistaken. “Where is this Dancer?”
“Very far away.” He looked thoughtful. “And the energy was Dancer energy, but different. Perhaps I felt it though your tie. It may be the reason your connection with Harrison faltered.”
Marguerite clenched her fist, muscles tensing all over again. Only a very powerful Dancer could help Harrison break the bonding curse. She knew of none with that much power.
“I contacted London,” Luc continued. “Harrison left the city over a week ago.”
Damn the limitations of the first tie, which told her none of Harrison’s actions. “Where is he?”
“He’s gone to the States. To a town in Michigan.”
She made her decision quickly. “We leave for Michigan as soon as can be arranged.”
Julie stopped by the grocery store after church the following Sunday to stock up on as many of Tasha’s favorite foods as she could find. If she kept her daughter’s mouth full, maybe Tash wouldn’t spend the entire dinner discussing her grandmother. This was, admittedly, a coward’s strategy. A true social worker would encourage Tash to talk out her feelings. Tash, however, being a true social worker’s daughter, didn’t need the encouragement. Julie added a gallon of cookie-dough ice cream to the cart, Tash’s absolute favorite.
She parked in her driveway and walked around to the trunk. How to get the bulging plastic bags into the house in the fewest trips?
The handles of the four lightest bags went around her left wrist and she hooked the handle of a gallon of milk with her fingers. Two bigger bags fit around her right wrist and she cradled the twelve-pack of diet root beer in her right arm. The case of water would have to stay in the trunk for now. She staggered back from the car and realized she didn’t have a way to close the trunk. She’d have to put something down.
A large hand reached from behind her and lowered her trunk lid. “Can I help?”
“Harrison!” Harrison had become the hit of the neighborhood. In the last week, several neighbors had had him over for tea. If he planned to stay for any length of time, the local Starbucks might be in serious trouble. “You move very quietly.”
“So I’ve been told. Your hands are turning purple.”
She looked down. Her hands were purple and quickly turning numb. “You’re right. Better get these groceries in the house. Thanks for closing the trunk.” She hurried up the front walk, only to stop before the front door, stymied as to how to open it.
“Do you have a key?” He stood behind her.
“It’s not locked.” She couldn’t see his face but she felt his disapproval.
“Crime is on the rise everywhere. It’s dangerous not to secure your home.”
Julie glanced over her shoulder and met his steady gaze. “You’re right. I’ll start locking the door from now on.” Especially since he now knew she kept it open. Her hands had passed the tingly stage and were going numb. “Would you open my door, please?”
He reached past her, his knuckles brushing her bare arm, and turned the brass knob. She rushed inside, almost ran through the small living room, and dropped the bags on the kitchen counter. Instant relief. She flexed her wrists a few times to get the blood flowing.
Harrison stood in the arched doorway that led from the living room to the kitchen. Today he wore khakis and a brown shirt, making them look more formal than they were. Even though he leaned a shoulder against the door frame, he had a presence that made her stand up straighter.
She smoothed her dark blue capris and tugged at the sleeveless white shirt she’d changed into after church. The early October weather was unseasonably warm. She’d tamed her hair and even put on makeup. She wasn’t always a slob. She could hold her own with this man. Maybe.
“Making two trips would have been more sensible,” he commented, nodding toward her hands.
“Next time I’ll do that.” Of course she wouldn’t.
“You’re lying.” His eyes watched her steadily. “Don’t.”
His words didn’t sound like a threat. There was no invisible “or else” tagged on to the end. That would almost have been easier. She could have gotten angry at his arrogance and presumption.
Instead, his simple request for honesty struck her as intensely personal and scared her more than any threat. Which was stupid. If you asked most people if they wanted you to lie to them or tell them the truth, they’d pick the truth. So why did his asking for it outright shake her to her core?
“Okay, here’s the truth.” She spoke louder than normal, trying to dispel the growing intimacy building in the room. “I hate making two trips and next time I’ll load up with as many bags as I possibly can to avoid it.”
He smiled slightly and then nodded once. “Excellent.”
She was breathing too quickly. Who was this man?
His expression serious, he straightened, the spell he’d woven between them gone. “All week you’ve avoided speaking with me privately. We have to talk. Marguerite will undoubtedly show up soon.”
Julie sighed and began to move efficiently around the kitchen, putting away the groceries. She’d forgotten for a moment that this man was crazy. “I don’t know who Marguerite is, Harry,” she said gently.
“I’m aware of that. Stop patronizing me and give me your full attention. I’ll explain.”
Julie paused, a box of lasagna noodles in her hand. “Does this have something to do with you wanting to have sex with me?”
“Yes.” His face was expressionless.
“It’s not going to happen.”
He studied her a moment. “Would it make a difference if I told you that you’d enjoy yourself?”
“Please.” Julie shook her head. He might be crazy, but his ego was doing just fine.
“You’d no doubt get offended if I offered you reimbursement for your services.”
“You think? Don’t even go there.”
He ran a hand through his hair in a motion she was beginning to recognize as frustration. “I thought Americans weren’t as hung up about sex as they used to be.”
“Where did you get that idea? Of course we are.” She put the cheese in the refrigerator, stuffed all of the now empty plastic bags into one bag and shoved them under the sink, then straightened. “You’ve been watching American television, haven’t you?”
“Everyone watches American television.”
“Television is fantasy,” she said. Just like the delusions buzzing around inside your head, handsome man.
Harry took a step toward her. “Define fantasy, Julie.”
“I know you have that word in England. You’re from the land of Tolkien and Rowling.”
When he continued to watch her, waiting, she elaborated. “Fantasy is make-believe. Pretend. Dragons and magic.” She waved her hands in the air. “Happily ever after.”
“What if I told you dragons once existed?” He took a step closer.
“I’d ask for fossil evidence.”
“What if I told you magic exists now?”
“I’d say prove it.” He stood so near she could smell him, an elusive scent of earth and sun that made her want to breathe deeply.
His voice lowered. “What if I said happily ever after is a possibility?”
“I’d say you’ve never been married.” The words came out as a whisper. He stood too close. She should back away, but she didn’t want to. A frisson of heat built from the soles of her feet to her shoulders. The warmth spread out and filled her.
Harrison’s eyes darkened to rich amber and his breathing deepened. He didn’t touch her, but it felt like he did. It felt like he moved his hands over her, learning her skin, the space inside her elbow, the curve of cheek.
“Have you ever been married, Harry?” She forced herself to talk, to back away from him and the odd, intimate sensation.
He frowned, but answered. “No.”
“Take my advice. Stay single. Life is so much simpler that way.”
“I haven’t noticed that my life is simple.” He stood still, his gaze following her movements as she picked up a washcloth and began to wipe the tile counter, just for something to do.
She relaxed when he maintained a safe distance. “Only because you don’t have the married state to compare it to.”
“You’re cynical for one so young.”
Julie laughed, truly amused. She tossed the cloth in the sink and folded her arms. “I’m forty-two. I have a child in college. The gray in my hair is gathering momentum for a scalp takeover. I have to eat one less meal a day just to maintain a weight that is ten pounds heavier than it should be. I’m losing so many brain cells that my head may be hollow by tomorrow morning. Thank you, but I am not young.”
“I don’t see any gray in your hair.”
“Hmmmm.” She tilted her head and pretended to consider him. “Maybe I will sleep with you after all.”
“Yes. You will.” The calm assurance in his voice caused a tremor of anticipation in the pit of her stomach.
“Harry, I’m joking. Listen, you’re an incredibly attractive man, if a little tightly wound. Find yourself someone younger, more adventurous.” Before I get hurt again.
She tried again. “I’m not going to do something stupid like sleep with a man who believes he’s cursed.”
“Would you sleep with me if I didn’t believe I was cursed?”
Hoo boy. She didn’t want to think too closely about that one. “Of course not.”
“AIDS. Sexually transmitted diseases. Sagging breasts.”
“You’re not planning on getting married again?”
“Been there, done that, have the scars. No.”
“You’re not planning on having casual affairs?”
“Of course not.” She had a strong moral code, a daughter to set an example for. Though her daughter really wasn’t around all that much to appreciate the good example she was setting.
“So you’re never going to have sex again in your life?”
Julie pulled out a chair from the kitchen table and sat down hard. “I hadn’t thought about it like that. That’s sad, isn’t it?”
“It’s not sad. It’s bloody ridiculous.”
Julie rested her chin in her hand. “Let’s not talk about this. I’m getting depressed.”
The front door banged and quick footsteps sounded across the living room. Tash appeared in the kitchen doorway, her thick, red hair pulled back from her face in a ponytail. She wore black running shorts and a white sport T-shirt that molded to her torso. She bent over, hands on thighs, and took a deep breath. “I knew you’d make lasagna, Mom, so I decided to run over and pre-burn the calories.”
Julie glanced at Harrison. He stared at Tash with surprise. Tash straightened and stretched before she noticed Harrison. She gave her mother a startled look, then stepped forward, her hand outstretched. “Sorry, I didn’t see you. I’m Natasha Morgen.”
Harry took her hand with a smile. “Harrison Chevalier. I just moved in next door.”
Julie saw her daughter’s eyes widen under the full impact of the Chevalier charm. “Welcome.” Tash’s voice sounded breathy. Julie suspected it wasn’t from her recent run.
“Thank you.” Neither had released the other’s hand. Julie fought an urge to rip them apart. She felt an equally strong urge to stamp her foot. She settled for clearing her throat. Loudly.
Harrison took a step back from Tasha, dropping her hand. “I didn’t realize your daughter was fully grown.”
“I told you she was in college.”
“Yes, but….” He paused, looking at the young woman still smiling at him. A calculating glint glimmered in his eyes when he turned back to Julie. “Perhaps Natasha might be willing to help me break the curse.”