Secrets and Lies: A Cassie Scot Novel
“I smell trouble.“
Evan Blackwood had been staring blankly at a news report about a hunt for a man who had robbed a local bank earlier in the week. Now, he stared blankly at his best friend and cousin, Scott Lee. Evan had hoped Scott would help take his mind off the woman he loved – the woman who had flatly rejected him. Instead, Scott was making things worse with dire predictions… predictions Evan had no choice but to take seriously. Scott was, after all, a powerful intuitive, whose gift had only seemed to improve after his unfortunate run-in with a werewolf ten years earlier.
“What do you expect me to do?“ Evan asked. “Hit her over the head with a club and drag her by the hair back to my cave?“
Scott snorted. “You never had to do any of that. You had her right here, in your cave, and you let her walk out. You could order her back, but you won’t.“
Evan didn’t dignify the comment with a response. Scott’s instincts had always served him better when it came to physical threats rather than emotional ones, and Scott didn’t want to hear that Cassie would hate Evan for forcing her to stay with him. In Scott’s world, after she was safe, gratitude would soften her heart. Or if not that, then at least time. If Evan had ever thought anything of the sort, her reaction to his saving her life, and the life debt she now owed him, set him straight.
He had to admit, his initial marriage proposal hadn’t been at all well done. Nerves he barely acknowledged had fumbled the question into a near-command, Marry me, and she had freaked out. Still, he had hoped she would want to marry him. Now, he wasn’t even sure how he could try to convince her without inadvertently coercing her. The life debt made it difficult for her to refuse anything she knew he wanted, and impossible for her to refuse anything he directly commanded.
Scott wasn’t the first one to suggest he just claim her, either. Evan’s father, Victor Blackwood, had said much the same thing, adding: I want to see you steal that girl right out from under her father’s nose. At least Scott’s motives were better.
“I spotted one of the Travises in town today,“ Scott said.
Evan nearly growled. “One of these days, we really need to run that family out of town.“
“Hey, you know I’d help you with that if it came to it, but it isn’t going to happen anytime soon.“
“They wouldn’t go after Cassie.“
“I wouldn’t put anything past them.“
He had a point, Evan grudgingly admitted. The Travises had always lived just outside of civilized behavior, and they seemed to make their own rules.
“And I told you about the Blairs asking questions,“ Scott added.
“You also said they were probably just trying to stir up trouble.“ The Blairs were mind mages, adept at manipulating people’s behaviors with a few well-chosen, well-timed words.
“They may be succeeding.“
“Or they may be hoping to goad me into acting too soon, pushing her away.“
Scott didn’t have an answer to that. Perhaps it was just as well that he didn’t understand matters of the heart, since he was too dangerous by half, the beast within him prone to violence. Scott was, perhaps, the only man in town Evan didn’t know if he could beat in a fight. He only hoped he never had to find out for sure.
“Come on.“ Evan shut off the TV with a flicker of will, not even bothering with the remote, resting within easy arm’s reach on the end table next to him. “I can’t stay here anymore tonight. We’ll find her, make sure she’s safe, and if not, send a message to anyone stupid enough to try anything.“
* * *
Evan spotted Matthew Blair coming out of the tiny, four-screen movie theater with his father, James. The two noticed Evan, standing in the shadows of the park across the street, and smirked, but continued walking as if they had no fear of him at all.
“I don’t like it,“ Evan said in a hushed voice. “They look like they’re up to something.“
“They look like they want you to think they’re up to something,“ Scott corrected. The Blairs had not seen him. Almost no one could, if he didn’t want to be seen. His family knew more about the magic of illusion than anyone else in town.
“There she is.“ Evan straightened when he spotted Cassie, flanked by Kaitlin and Madison, straggling out of the theater. Kaitlin and Cassie spoke animatedly about something, while Madison hung behind a step or two, listening thoughtfully.
“You can’t watch her constantly,“ Scott said, significantly. Evan ignored the implications.
Cassie and her friends turned left, away from the theater, and headed down a dark side street that would take them to Cassie and Kaitlin’s apartment, about half a mile away. Silently, Evan and Scott followed.
Suddenly, Scott stopped, holding up his hand. Evan stood completely still, allowing his friend’s superior senses to work, and then watched as Scott leaped forward. Scott didn’t have super speed, but he was in good shape and moved quickly. The man Scott had spotted hiding under the fog of invisibility never had a chance. In an instant, he was dangling by his throat against a brick wall.
The noise must have startled the women, because they tore off down the street, disappearing around a corner. Evan was momentarily torn between whether to follow them or stay and help Scott, when he recognized the man who was rapidly turning blue: Jacob Travis.
The Travises made up the heart of the parasitic underbelly of Eagle Rock. They were blood mages, though they would not openly admit it, feeding on pain and death. In the minds of many, including Evan, they were no better than vampires. In a rare, united move by the town’s most powerful sorcerers a decade or so ago, the three worst blood mages had been put down.
Not all blood was created equal, or so blood mages claimed. They liked the blood of sorcerers the best, and now here was one, trailing after the woman he loved. Many believed her to be drained or repressed, neither of which made her blood less valuable, though either hindered her ability to protect herself.
Jacob Travis looked like the trash he was, complete with scraggly beard and unkempt hair. He wore jeans and a plaid shirt that had both seen better days, and he kicked futilely at the air with sneakers that had gone through the mud a few times.
“Let’s get one thing straight,“ Evan said to the loathsome creature. “Cassie is mine.“
Jacob spluttered and gurgled until Scott relaxed his hold just enough to let him take a breath. He tried to speak, but his words came out croaky and garbled.
“What was that?“ Scott asked.
Evan frowned. “You weren’t after Cassie?“
Scott sniffed the air. “I smell blood.“
Jacob’s face paled. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.“
Scott didn’t listen. He just looked over the man until he spotted something clasped in his right hand. Using a none-too-gentle pressure on Jacob’s wrist, Scott managed to pry something free: a tissue with a smear of blood.
Since Cassie knew better than to leave something like that lying around, Evan had to admit that Jacob had probably been telling the truth about not going after her. On the other hand, Jacob was definitely after someone, and Evan intended to find out who.
“Whose blood is this?“ Scott asked.
“Mine,“ Jacob said.
Scott snorted in disgust at the obvious lie. Then he lifted the tissue to his nose and gently sniffed. “It smells like one of the girls with Cassie tonight. The pretty one.“
“Which one is that?“ Evan asked. Though Evan had eyes only for Cassie, he could see an argument for calling both of her friends pretty. He only wished it had been someone else paying the compliment. By Scott’s own admission, a werewolf had no business getting romantically involved with humans. That didn’t mean he couldn’t look, but there was something in his voice that made Evan uneasy.
“Brown hair, curvy,“ Scott said.
Madison. Evan didn’t speak her name, in case Jacob didn’t know it. For that matter, he wasn’t sure he wanted to clue Scott in to her identity.
“How did you get her blood?“ Evan asked.
Jacob closed his mouth tightly, and cast Evan a belligerent look. Scott tightened his hold on his throat.
“Okay! Call off the dog!“
Scott tightened his grip even more. There was nothing he hated worse than being likened to a dog, especially one with a master. Scott had no master, not even within his pack.
“Might not want to insult the man with his hand around your throat,“Evan said.
Jacob couldn’t speak, though he fought for air.
“You could try saying you’re sorry,“ Evan suggested, “but I don’t know if it will work.“
Jacob struggled, but still couldn’t speak.
“Hey, Scott, he might have more luck apologizing if he can talk.“
“Not sure I want him to talk,“ Scott said. “So far, he’s only spouting lies.“
An observer might have thought Scott was playing the role of bad cop in some scripted drama, but Evan knew better. A beast lay just beneath Scott’s civilized exterior, and if provoked, he would kill. Evan didn’t quite understand how Jacob Travis had provoked Scott to that level, but he saw the signs.
“I’d be interested in hearing what he has to say,“ Evan said. “I’m sure we can convince him to tell the truth.“
“Torture doesn’t work. Give me a few minutes alone with him and I’ll have him confessing to the murder of JFK.“
Jacob’s face was turning blue again.
“Scott,“ Evan said, “she’s not your mate.“
Scott turned cold, gray eyes on Evan, freezing him for a moment. Then, just as Evan was beginning to think he would have to force his friend away with magic, Scott let Jacob go. The man fell to the ground in a graceless heap. Damn. Evan hoped his guess about Scott’s motives hadn’t been right.
“Start talking,“ Evan said. “And I’d better believe your answers.“
Jacob put his hand up as he coughed and gasped for breath. Evan gave him a minute to compose himself, but only a minute.
“Well?“ Evan prompted.
“There was a bank robbery a few days back,“ Jacob began.
Evan remembered the news reports he had half paid attention to, and gave a curt nod. “The girl, she’s the one he got to. No one else knew, he just walked up to her and showed her the gun. Must have scared her half to death, ’cause she pulsed.“
Evan started in surprise, but Scott didn’t even flinch. Either he had suspected the possibility, or he was better at hiding his feelings than Evan.
Pulsing wasn’t something a grown sorceress normally did. It was a symptom of the young, or possibly those who had been painfully repressed. Even sorcerers with no access to real training naturally learned to control the untamed magical impulses by the time they reached adulthood.
What made the idea even stranger to Evan was that completely untrained sorcerers in the Eagle Rock area were almost unheard of. The magical world wasn’t one big black hole for information. There were levels of knowledge and understanding from the widely known to the obscure. The most closely held secrets, such as alchemy, were guarded almost more strongly against other sorcerers than against lay people. On the other hand, the principles involved in meditation and grounding were widely available on the Internet to anyone with a mind to look.
And as if all that wasn’t strange enough, in the Eagle Rock area almost anyone with magic was related, even distantly, to someone willing to offer basic training. Family tended to be important to sorcerers. Evan’s father had been known to tutor cousins so distant that they barely clung to the family tree.
“Who else knows?“ Scott asked.
“Don’t know. Didn’t stop to take a poll.“
Scott growled, low in his throat.
“It wasn’t strong,“ Jacob said. “Unless there was someone else in the bank who could pick up on it, no one else knows. All the pulse did was send a breeze through the room, like someone opened the door, ‘cept it was closed. Guy might have backed up a step, too.“
“Think he’s telling the truth?“ Evan asked.
“Probably,“ Scott said, “but his clan knows.“
Which meant if they killed him without the support of the town, they would have to go up against the entire Travis clan.
“All right,“ Evan said, “here’s what we’re going to do. You can go, but you deliver a message for me: If I even get a hint that you’re using blood magic, I’ll mobilize the entire town against you.“
“Weren’t using blood magic,“ Jacob whined. “Just thought she was pretty.“
Scott grabbed one of his hands, twisted, and broke Jacob’s wrist. The man let out a howl of pain, and slumped to the ground, sobbing.
“Then consider her under my protection, too,“ Evan said.
“Can’t…have…all…girls…“ Jacob said.
“I can break your other wrist,“ Scott said.
Jacob didn’t respond, except with more sobs.
Evan turned away, and headed in the direction Cassie had gone, letting the sobs and wails fall behind him. Scott followed a few feet back, remaining hidden, but of course the women were long gone. All that remained was to go to Cassie’s apartment and make sure they had made it back all right.
“You’ll get spread pretty thin if you try to defend every woman in town,“ Scott said.
Evan just shrugged. Scott may have had a point, but he didn’t care. In fact, he realized when he stood in front of Cassie’s apartment and sensed her presence safely within, he felt good for the first time in weeks. There was a primitive satisfaction in protecting someone from a bad guy, especially one as black as Jacob Travis. And even if Jacob hadn’t been after Cassie, Evan had sent a clear message to anyone who would hurt her – or her friends.
It should buy him time. He only hoped it bought him enough.
It turns out, there’s a time limit on feeling sorry for yourself. Nobody mentioned it to me the day I moved into Kaitlin’s one-bedroom apartment, stowing boxes of clothes in one corner while making a makeshift bed out of blankets on the floor. I didn’t hear a word about it on Monday or Tuesday, when Kaitlin went to work and I flipped through endless channels of daytime TV, blocking out my own problems by getting angry with the men who cheated on their pregnant girlfriends.
Kaitlin almost mentioned something on Wednesday, after I complained about the endless stream of visitors I refused to let into the apartment that day. Most notably, my former father wanted to talk about something I didn’t catch, but which, from the tone of his voice, was clearly my fault. Wasn’t it bad enough that he’d disowned me? Did I have to continue to listen to his lectures as well? No doubt he had some suspicions about me fraternizing with the Blackwoods, his long-time enemies, but I couldn’t handle it, not from a man who had rejected me. Besides, I had bigger problems with one Blackwood – Evan – than I cared to admit.
On Thursday, when Kaitlin and I took Madison to the movies to help get her mind off the bank robbery, I could have sworn Evan was following me. I’m sure it was nothing more than paranoia, but wasn’t I entitled to a few delusions about the man who had complete control of my life? Someone who could, on a whim, command me to do anything at all? I spent Thursday night, after the movie, coming up with more and more bizarre orders he could give me: Stand on your head. Circle your head and pat your tummy. Wink at the next ten strangers who walk by.
He would probably not ask me to do any of those things, but thinking about them helped me keep my mind off the more likely orders: Kiss me. Move in with me. Marry me.
He had already ordered me to do that last one, and though he had retracted the command, I didn’t doubt for a second that he was just biding his time. He wanted me, and Evan Blackwood tended to get what he wanted.
Then came Friday morning, which was, apparently, the deadline to stop moping. I was sitting at the breakfast table trying hard to wake up – due to Kaitlin’s snoring, I had barely slept – when she shoved a piece of paper in my face.
“Do you know what this is?“ she asked.
I tried to push it away. “Not when it’s pressed against my nose.“
“How about this?“ Kaitlin shoved another piece of paper at my face.
“What is this about?“
“My credit card bill is due in a few days, and the electric bill was due yesterday. This is a shut-off notice, if we don’t pay by Tuesday.“
Bills. She was talking about bills?
“You can’t just sit here feeling sorry for yourself. You have to get a job.“
Oh. Real life. She was talking about real life. My parents had sheltered me from that for most of my life. Er, my former parents. They would willingly shove money down my throat if I let them, but I was too proud for that. If I wanted to prove my own worth and independence, then I needed to get a job.
Which was why, Friday morning, I walked into the sheriff’s department and asked to speak to Sheriff Adams.
Jane, the dispatcher, looked happy to see me. She smiled and gave me a tight hug when I told her I wanted my old job back. Not all the others were quite as friendly, but then again, I had always been something of an outsider at the department. Part of it was my youth. I was three years younger than the next youngest deputy, and most of the others realized – or suspected – a sizable financial donation from my parents had gotten me the job in the first place.
That’s not why I had kept the job, and it certainly wasn’t why the sheriff had spent six months practically begging me to go back to work after I quit. I knew things. Things that made some nervous. Things that left others in awe. Only a few had ever tried to befriend me.
It was as if I didn’t quite belong in either the magical world, or the normal one.
Sheriff Adams strode out of his private office. His eyes searched my face, though I noticed that otherwise his face remained oddly impassive. Hadn’t he begged me, multiple times, to return to work for him? Well, here I was, so what was that look about?
“Why don’t you step inside my office?“
I did, waving to Jane and to a few of the other, friendlier faces, before closing the door behind me and taking a seat.
“I suppose you know I’m here to ask for my old job back,“ I said.
He nodded. “I figured. I’m just not sure if we have any openings right now.“
My jaw dropped. “What?“
“The budget is tight. We ended up putting in some overtime hours because of the recent vampire attacks, and the county trustees are stingy when it comes to paying for overtime. They’re telling me to make cuts.“
I had no doubt that what he said was true. His job as sheriff involved at least as much politics as policing, maybe more. But it was still just an excuse.
“I’m not saying something won’t come up, sooner or later,“ the sheriff went on, “but right now, things are tight.“
“Are you doing this because you’re mad at me?“ I asked. “Isn’t it good enough that I survived three vampire attacks?“
“Three?“ He frowned. “I only heard about two.“
Belatedly, I remembered that the final attack, the one that had nearly killed me and which had left me impossibly indebted to Evan Blackwood, was not common knowledge. Most thought my cousin, Jason, the vampire hunter had killed Frank Lloyd. “Whatever. Isn’t it enough?“
“You also resisted arrest. Don’t forget the part where you resisted arrest.“
So that was it. “I had no choice. My family wouldn’t let me out the door.“
“It still makes me nervous. You’re unpredictable.“
“It’s not like they’ll be a problem anymore. They disowned me.“
Sheriff Adams leaned forward and met my eyes for the first time. “I heard something about that. Care to tell me what happened?“
“What do you mean?“
“Why did they do it?“
Since I didn’t know how to answer that question for myself, I couldn’t answer it for him. “It’s complicated.“
“It always is with you.“ He shook his head. “Look, I just need some time to think about this.“
“And I need a job. What am I supposed to do while I wait for you to make up your mind?“
“Don’t tell me you never saved anything.“
A flush crept across my face, but I didn’t say anything. It had simply never occurred to me that I might need to put anything away for a rainy day. In retrospect, it seemed incredibly foolish and short-sighted. But it probably wouldn’t occur to you, either, if your parents could turn lead into gold.
“Look, Sheriff.“ I bolstered my confidence. “You can think about it all you like, but one day soon, you’re going to beg me for help and I won’t be available.“
He gave me the sort of skeptical look clearly meant to remind me precisely how many jobs I’d had in the past six months, but I didn’t back down. I looked him straight in the eyes, and believed the words at him.
“I’ll think about it.“ he said.
* * *
The next day, Saturday, I filled out an application for a job at Kaitlin’s Diner. All right, all right! It’s the Main Street Cafe, but I’d thought of it as Kaitlin’s Diner since my best friend, Kaitlin, started working there at the age of sixteen. Her mother owned the place, and to her credit, didn’t hesitate when I asked for a job. She just told me to go into the back to find a uniform in my size.
“Doesn’t this come in any color other than black?“ I asked Kaitlin as I tried on my new shackles of independence – a waitress uniform.
Not only was it all black, but the skirt didn’t quite reach my knees. That made me feel incredibly exposed because my legs are not my best feature. Since I had been to the diner for years, I knew the uniforms were black, but somehow it had never looked so bad before. Then again, Kaitlin looked good in black and had great legs.
“It looks fine,“ Kaitlin said.
“Maybe I could add some ribbons or buttons or something?“
“What about shoes?“ I mentally cataloged my wardrobe. “I’ve got some red pumps that might help.“
“I don’t own any black loafers.“ I looked down at my multi-colored strappy sandals. “Will these work?“
“Only for today. I’ve got a pair I can loan you tomorrow. Trust me, you’ll want more comfortable shoes by the end of an eight-hour shift.“
“How much do I get paid, anyway?“ Anyone else would probably have asked before accepting the job, but for me, the realities of making money and earning a living had not quite sunk in yet.
“Three fifteen an hour, plus tips.“
I paused, doing some quick mental calculations which included the cost of a bottle of shampoo. “Wait, isn’t minimum wage six something?“
She gave me an apologetic smile and a shrug. “Welcome to my world.“
I started learning my new trade during the lull between lunch and dinner. The first thing I realized was that Kaitlin hadn’t lied about the shoes. Three hours into my first shift, I tried to take my sandals off my tortured feet and walk barefoot, but Mrs. Meyers told me that constituted some kind of health hazard.
“And bloody, blistered feet aren’t a health hazard?“ I replied.
She just smiled, shrugging. For my part, I tried to remember what was in my family’s blister ointment, and whether or not any actual magic was necessary. I didn’t think so, but I also hadn’t memorized the recipe. Blisters were not a common problem for me.
The worst part, though, was that if I asked my parents for the recipe, they would give it to me. Their version of disowning me had made little sense from the start, when in the same breath, they had also sworn to love and protect me. They seemed to want it both ways.
But something more than pride kept me from letting them have it that way. For me, it was all about self-respect. Even on blistered feet, I felt more respect for myself earning a living with my own two hands than I ever could have felt accepting charity from parents who didn’t think I fit into their family dynamic.
Respect, but apparently not grace. I spilled three sodas that afternoon, one landing in a customer’s lap. I broke a tray of dishes when I tried to hoist it on my shoulder the way Kaitlin showed me. After that, I tried just carrying it in front, but my back protested loudly, and Kaitlin explained that I would have to get used to the shoulder trick if I didn’t want to end up with permanent back problems.
Finally, near the end of my shift, I managed to wait on a family of four with no problems at all. I went through the entire routine – got them drinks, took their order, refilled their drinks, brought out their order, asked them if they needed anything, refilled their drinks, asked them if they would like dessert, and handed them the check. I might not have smiled while I did all that, because it’s hard to smile and wince in pain at the same time, but still, I did my job perfectly.
They left me one stinking dollar.
“This is crazy!“ I held up the dollar bill, practically shoving it in Kaitlin’s face.
“Yeah, I had that guy pegged as a lousy tipper.“
“How did you know?“
“You learn to spot them after a while.“ Kaitlin shrugged. “Not that there’s much you can do about it.“
“This job sucks.“
“You’re telling me? I’ve been at it for five years.“
She drove me back to our apartment, where I gratefully peeled off my high-heeled shoes. Kaitlin, apparently having developed new mind reading capabilities, brought me out a basin of warm water to soak my feet. The water felt wonderful, even if I had to lounge somewhat precariously on an overstuffed bean bag.
“Just think,“ Kaitlin said, “tomorrow you get to do breakfast and lunch, when it’s even busier.“
I threw a pillow at her. She ducked, then grabbed the remote control and started flipping through channels.
I pretended to pay attention to the TV, when in reality, in the privacy of my own head, I had returned to feeling sorry for myself – and not because I had taken a job as a waitress. I felt oddly proud of myself for that. No, that wasn’t it. Inside, I still mourned my parents’ rejection. The world may have set a time limit, but my aching heart had not received the memo.
At least work would keep me busy and give me something else to think about for a few hours each day.
* * *
By my second day at work, word had spread about my “fall from grace.“ The locals lined up to get a look at me in my too-short black skirt. It made me feel like an exhibit in a zoo at first, although as more and more of the local practitioners wandered by, I had the odd sense of being hunted.
Around eight thirty, my eighteen-year-old brother, Nicolas, wandered in, his eyes immediately searching the crowd for me in an, “I won’t believe it until I see it“ manner. Inwardly, I groaned, but outwardly I fixed a smile to my face and asked if I could show him to a table. He nodded, as if unable to speak, and followed me to a table for two near the back.
“Why didn’t you ask the sheriff for a job?“ Nicolas asked.
“I did,“ I said. “He’s thinking about it. In the meantime, I’m thinking about rent.“
“Here.“ Nicolas pulled an envelope out of his pocket and slid it across the table to me. I couldn’t see its contents, but I knew it contained money. I also knew that it had come from my parents.
“No,“ I said, more firmly. “I won’t take anything from them.“Technically, I had accepted boxes full of my old clothes, but only after Nicolas and Juliana had driven to the apartment and said they would either put them in my closet, or take them to the Salvation Army.
“It’s not from Mom and Dad. It’s from me.“
“Oh? So you’re learning the family business?“ I carefully did not mention the word alchemy in public. Very few people knew for sure how my parents made money, and for the sake of my siblings, I would help keep it that way.
“It’s from the others as well,“ Nicolas added, ignoring my question. “They miss you. They think you’ve turned your back on them.“
My heart gave a twang of longing for the brothers and sisters I had not seen since leaving the house. I had seen Juliana once when Nicolas drove her into town, but the rest were young, each three years younger than the last all the way down to Christina, who was only three. It was hard for them to get away from Mom and Dad, and I didn’t want to see my former parents.
“I’ll try to see them.“ I made it a promise, though I didn’t know how I would fulfill it. I didn’t even have a car.
“Things are bad, Cassie. The family’s falling apart.“
“It’s not my fault.“ Besides, so was I.
“I didn’t say it was.“ Nicolas took a deep breath. “Look, you can’t work here. People will think you’re unprotected.“
I had to fight the urge to roll my eyes. “Spare me the protection nonsense.“
“Can I get you anything?“ I asked. “Because if you’re not going to order, I really need to get back to work.“
I raised my eyebrows. “Since when did you start drinking coffee?“
“Since I started training.“ Despite the earlier tension, he had a smile on his face.
“You’ve started?“ I smiled too, despite myself. Nicolas had wanted to be a firefighter since he was two, but unlike many other young boys, he never grew out of it. Now, apparently, he was on his way. “Congrats.“
“Thanks. But we’re not done talking.“
“It will have to wait until after my shift. I get off at two.“ Without waiting for a reply, I walked away.
Nicolas didn’t move from his spot for half an hour, nor did he order anything except coffee. Each time he tried to speak to me, I made sure to be too busy, which wasn’t difficult, with the number of customers in for breakfast. At this time of year, the tourists were out in force, but locals were making their appearance as well, including some locals I would rather not have seen.
David McClellan came by for a coffee to go just before his nearby shop opened at nine o’clock. He dealt largely in dark or cursed artifacts, and a few months before he had nearly killed an investigator hired to find a sceptre he had stolen. He had walked away the victor from that encounter, and I had never forgiven him for it. So when he smacked me on the bottom, I poured scalding hot coffee in his lap.
“Bitch,“ David roared loudly enough for the entire diner to turn and stare. He leapt to his feet and started dabbing frantically at his crotch. “You’re going to regret this.“
Nicolas chose that moment to abandon his table, walking toward the front of the store to stand by my side – my younger brother and knight in shining armor. He puffed out his lanky chest to twice its normal size, and glared at David in obvious challenge. I felt like saying, “Down, boy,“ but wisely kept my mouth shut.
“I’d take you on in a heartbeat, boy,“ David said in a low voice.
“How about me?“ The new voice came from behind me, though I had not heard the accompanying jingle of bells to indicate that the door had opened. I didn’t recognize the voice, but when I turned, I saw the absolute last person I would have expected to walk into that diner, let alone defend me: Victor Blackwood.
Victor Blackwood and my father had been enemies since before my birth for reasons I had never understood. His son, Evan, on the other hand, had been my best friend at times, much to my father’s dismay. Evan didn’t look much like his father, except, perhaps, in build. They were both tall, with lean, muscular bodies. Evan’s face and eyes had come from his mother, though. Victor looked harder, meaner, and far less trustworthy – or perhaps I had inherited some of my father’s prejudices toward the man. After all, while I had been friends with Evan for a long time, and determined in my insistence that my father couldn’t blame the son for his father’s sins, the man himself could definitely be blamed for his own sins.
I had never spoken to Victor, though I had seen him with Evan at plenty of school functions. The man had never looked at me or acknowledged me before, which had always suited me just fine. And now, suddenly, he was in my face. Well, in David’s face. He still didn’t look at me or speak to me directly, but his posturing was clearly on my behalf.
What, if anything, had Evan told him? And if Evan had mentioned something about the life debt or what he wanted from me, shouldn’t Victor have felt outraged at the thought of his son with a Scot? I took several nervous steps backwards, trying to force the world right side up again.
David, for his part, didn’t seem to think challenging Victor was a good idea. As he left – without his coffee – he muttered something under his breath about, “Scots trying to have it both ways.“
I’m not sure how long I stood there, frozen, but by the time I came back to myself, customers at six tables needed me. I spent the next few minutes running from one task to the next, barely able to catch my breath.
When I did, I found Victor seated at one of my tables, patiently waiting for me to take his order. Nicolas sat across from him, shooting daggers at his father’s oldest rival. Victor looked entirely unperturbed, despite the fact that the glass of water in front of him was boiling and steaming. Questions flew through my mind for both Victor and Nicolas, but all I managed was a choked, “Hi,“ without meeting Victor’s eyes.
I turned to Nicolas. “Don’t you have to get to training?“
“Go on,“ I said.
He looked up at me, shaking his head as if coming out of a trance. “I still need to pay for the coffee.“
“Fine.“ I held out my hand, and Nicolas pulled the money-laden envelope out of his pocket.
“Keep the change,“ Nicolas said, pressing the envelope into my palm.
I withdrew my hand, and the envelope fell to the table. “Coffee’s on the house. Just go.“
Throwing one last, angry look at Victor, Nicolas left, grabbing the envelope on his way out.
I didn’t feel the tension ease at all after my brother left. In fact, as I looked at my father’s arch-nemesis, I found myself wondering what he might do to keep me away from his son.
“What can I get for you, Mr. Blackwood?“
“What’s good?“ he asked. “I’ve never eaten here before.“
I hesitated for only a moment. “The blueberry pancakes. The blueberries are fresh this time of year.“
“That sounds great.“ He folded his menu and placed it behind the napkin holder. “I’d also like to talk to you.“
Yeah, to tell me to stay away from his son. Although, a rational part of me said, that didn’t explain why he’d frightened off David McClellan on my behalf. Whatever it was, did I even want to know?
“Hey, Miss,“ one of my customers called from another table.
“I don’t have the time,“ I said. “We’re really busy.“
It didn’t take much to prove how busy I was for the next half hour, but around nine thirty, the crowd began to thin, and at nine forty, Mrs. Meyers insisted I take a break.
“I still have three tables,“ I said.
“Kaitlin can handle them.“ Mrs. Meyers looked uneasy. “Besides, I’ve been told in no uncertain terms to let you have a few minutes to speak to Mr. Blackwood.“
I bit my lip and turned to look at Victor, whose dark brown eyes were fixed unwaveringly on me. Quickly, I weighed my options. Victor wasn’t the sort of person you said no to, unless you had something to back it up. Once upon a time, that something had been my parents. Now, though I hated to think about it, let alone use it, that something was Evan. Not that I wanted to start a fight between father and son, but I couldn’t imagine Evan standing for his father taking any hostile action toward me.
More importantly, I didn’t want to gain a reputation for being easy to push around. That’s why I had poured hot coffee in David McClellan’s lap, and why I wouldn’t obey Victor’s orders now. I might not have any choice when it came to his son, but he was another story. If he wanted to talk to me, he would have to find a less arrogant way to do it.
With that in mind, I grabbed a muffin and a glass of orange juice from the kitchen, and sat on a bar stool at the counter. Not surprisingly, Victor joined me barely a minute later.
“Is this your way of testing boundaries, Ms. Scot?“ Victor asked.
That rankled. It was also the second time in less than a month that someone had likened me to a toddler. “That assumes you have any authority over me, which you don’t.“
“Maybe not, but I did offer my protection, and all I’d like in return is a few minutes of your time.“
I turned to face him fully, and I could feel my face reddening. “Are you suggesting that stunt you pulled back there constitutes some kind of debt?“
He frowned. “Maybe not, but isn’t it at least a friendly overture?“
“So, now you’re my friend?“
“Why not?“ Victor asked. “Apparently, you no longer have familial ties to my enemy.“
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I took a bite of my muffin.
“You really shouldn’t work here,“ Victor said.
“You sound like my brother. Let me guess – it will make people think I’m unprotected.“
“David seemed to be thinking along those lines.“
I shrugged, trying to look completely unmoved, though in truth, the incident had made me feel uneasy. The town I had lived in and loved my entire life had seemed to grow a hundred pairs of tiny, blinking eyes, all focused on me.
“Look, Mr. Blackwood, this is my life, and it’s really no one’s business where I decide to work. So why don’t you get to the real point of this conversation? I assume you want to warn me away from your son.“
Victor laughed. “Why would you think that?“
Images of my own father warning me away from the Blackwoods flashed through my mind. “What do you want, then?“
“I actually came here to tell you to do the smart thing. Marry him.“
I froze, thinking back to Evan’s nightmarish proposal. So, marry me.And I hadn’t been able to say no, despite wanting to; despite wanting nothing to do with magic any longer. Evan, too, had offered me protection. I can take care of you, he had said. As if I were a puppy instead of a woman.
“Wait,“ I said, “why would you want me to? I thought you hated my family.“
“Oh, I do.“
My insides twisted. “So this is some kind of sick revenge?“
“I’d call it fate.“ He smiled, but the expression didn’t make it to his eyes. “It’s really for your own good, you know. You need protection, and when you started working here, you basically confirmed all the rumors going around that your parents cast you out.“
“Why should anyone care?“ I’d asked Evan the same question, but never received an answer. Suddenly, getting those answers became a much higher priority. Unfortunately, Victor didn’t seem inclined to share.
“I’ve tried to talk sense into my son, but he won’t listen. He could force you, you know.“
I shivered, but didn’t otherwise respond.
“So, now I’m trying to talk sense into you.“
The door opened with a jingle, and something in the air told me my day had just gone from bad to worse.
“Edward,“ Victor said, as if greeting an old friend.
I faced my former father for the first time since he had announced his intention to disown me. He looked just as he always had, with straight dark hair, brown eyes, a long, angular face, and a wide, curving mouth – curving downward into a frown, that is.
If Victor was the last person I had expected to see in the diner that morning, then my former father was the last person I wanted to see. Even now, with Victor explaining my part in his unusual scheme for revenge, I didn’t want my former father nearby. I didn’t want his help. I only hoped Nicolas and Juliana hadn’t broken their promise and told him about the life debt, or I would never hear the end of it.
The air crackled with visible tension. Sparks of shimmering red fire danced around my father’s head. Behind the counter, Mrs. Meyers twisted her hands together anxiously, as if afraid her diner might burn down. Her fears were not unjustified.
I stepped boldly between them, facing my father. “What are you doing here?“
“We need to talk,“ he said.
“I have nothing to say to you. You disowned me, remember?“
The color seemed to drain from his face as he stared past me, at his oldest enemy.
Victor raised his water glass in a mock toast. “I’ve known for some time. If it makes you feel any worse, so does everyone else in town who hasn’t been asleep for a week. Or at least, they guess.“
“I don’t care what you think you know. Stay away from my daughter.“With that, he grabbed my arm with a hand hot enough to leave a reddened imprint on my skin, and dragged me through the kitchen to the employee room at the back. Only then did he release my injured forearm.
“Ouch.“ I rubbed at the red mark, though it didn’t hurt nearly as much as my roiling insides. I just wanted him to know he had caused me real, measurable pain.
If he noticed, he didn’t say anything. He closed the door, and then spent a minute releasing a spell from an amulet that would cloak the room in silence, keeping anyone from eavesdropping.
When he finished, he rounded on me. “What were you thinking, announcing our private business to the entire town?“
Indignation welled within me. “What’s this our of which you speak?“
“Cassandra Morgan Ursula Margaret Scot!“
I blinked a few times in surprise. I hadn’t gotten the triple middle name since middle school.
“Do you have any idea what you’ve done? I couldn’t believe it when I found out you ran straight to Evan Blackwood, of all people!“ His hands rose and fell with his words, barely contained sparks dancing from the fingertips. “But there he was, the very next day, full of arrogance and false apologies.“
I tried to speak, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. Was it possible he had intended to pretend to everyone that nothing had changed? Thinking back to the conversation we’d had before I had run out of my childhood home forever, it seemed possible. Beneath all his assurances that they would always love and protect me, had this been his intention? To use a veil of secrecy?
“And now, Evan is telling everyone you’re under his protection.“
“Did you think no one would find out?“ I asked. “How were you going to explain the fact that I never called or visited, that I wasn’t taking money from you, and that I had to take a waitressing job to make ends meet?“
“I didn’t expect any of that to happen. I told you, we’d still protect you and take care of you. What did you think I meant?“
“I think you want it both ways, and you can’t have it.“
He closed his eyes tightly. “I’m just trying to keep my family safe, the best way I can.“
I shook my head. “What’s the danger?“
“Oh, please!“ I threw up my hands in disgust.
“This isn’t just me. Grace Blair saw it, too.“
Grace Blair, the mayor’s mother, was a powerful seer. I had never trusted her, or her prophecies. They often struck me as being manipulative, and this one was no different.
“Can you say, ‘self-fulfilling prophecy?’“
“Cassandra, stay away from Evan Blackwood.“
I shook my head. Not that I had any choices where it came to Evan, but it felt good to defy my father on this.
“What is between you?“ Dad asked. “Were you with him the week you were missing? What happened after Kaitlin’s apartment burned down and Jason killed that vampire?“
Clamping my mouth shut, I turned slightly away from him, refusing to answer.
“Did you bargain with him for protection?“ Dad went on. “Or is he forcing you?“
“That’s between me and Evan.“
“He told me about the love spell. The next day, during his false apology. I know all about it.”
My face reddened as I remembered my response to Evan’s magical kiss. The memory of it still made me shudder. It wasn’t exactly a love spell – more of a potent lust spell – but it was definitely not something I wanted to discuss with my father.
“Cassandra, please look at me.“ The agitation in his voice made me glance his way. To my surprise, he looked more frightened than angry now, his face oddly pale.
“Evan hasn’t forced me to do anything.“ Yet, I added, silently.
“You can’t work here anymore.“
He was silent for a long time, but finally, I heard him slip out the door. Even then, I didn’t move for a long time, so I’m not sure how much time passed before Mrs. Meyers joined me. I didn’t notice her at first, and she didn’t announce her presence.
“Is it time for me to go back to work?“ I asked, when I finally noticed her.
“No,“ she said, a note of resignation in her voice. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to fire you.“
It took a minute for her meaning to register. When it did, I shot away from the wall as if it had burned me, and raised my voice at the anxious woman. “What the hell for?“
She wrung her hands. “The diner is okay, today. I don’t know about tomorrow. No one in this town would be crazy enough to get between something your father or Mr. Blackwood wanted. And the fact is, they both want you to stop working here. So I don’t really have a choice. This might be the first thing they’ve agreed on in twenty years.“
I wanted to continue to rage at her, but I couldn’t – she didn’t deserve it. She had tried to help me. It wasn’t her fault if forces beyond her control had gotten in the way.
“I’m really sorry,“ Mrs. Meyers said. “I’ll help you in any way I can until you get back on your feet. You can eat here for free, or I’ll send food home with Kaitlin.“
“I don’t want charity.“ After a moment, I added, “Thank you, anyway.“
I grabbed my purse from the peg by the door and fled the restaurant. Luckily, both Victor and my former father were gone, giving me a clear path out. I could probably have found a ride home, but the long walk did me good and gave me time tot think about what to do next.
I fumbled through my purse, looking for a stick of gum, but instead I found something that shouldn’t have been there – an envelope. I knew what would be inside before I drew it out. I had to keep myself from screaming in frustration. Had Nicolas or my former father slipped me the money? Not that it mattered. I would not take charity. One way or another, I would do this on my own.
Spotting the local Catholic Church a block or so away, I smiled to myself. There would be a nice surprise in the poor box when next they checked it.
Kaitlin refused to speak to me Sunday night, capping off my perfect day with a perfect, tension-filled evening. She wouldn’t even tell me why she was mad at me, saying only, “I’m not mad,“ in that tone people only use when they are.
It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t as if it were my fault I no longer had a job. But somehow, I didn’t think she was in the mood for reason at the moment. In truth, neither was I.
The next morning, I canceled my cell phone. I did this shortly after calling to get the bill transferred to my new address, and then discovering it cost almost a hundred dollars each month. If I didn’t have a job, I couldn’t pay the bill, and I refused to let my former parents pay it for me.
There was still the land-line, and the Internet. I used the latter all morning in hopes of finding a new job, something that wouldn’t attract the notice of certain powerful people in town. I was entertaining the possibility of some kind of work-from-home venture when the visitor I’d been expecting – and dreading – for a week finally showed up.
Somehow, I knew it was Evan as soon as his fist hit the door. But unlike my father, I couldn’t put him off because he’d set the wards. This meant meant he could go through them. Even if he hadn’t, he could have commanded me to let him in.
Framed by the doorway, he looked impossibly large, though he was only half a foot or so taller than me, probably 6’1“ or 6’2“. He had a lean, well-muscled frame, usually garbed in fitted, designer jeans and t-shirts. Today, the t-shirt was in his favorite shade of forest green, with a plea for people to recycle on the front. He wore his hair long, to just past his shoulders, making it longer than mine at the moment. (I had recently lost a lot of my hair to a fire.) Somehow, it heightened his masculinity, framing his hard face, and highlighting his blue eyes.
He looked good. He always looked good, only now the sight of him caused an odd fluttering in my stomach. Twice I had felt his lips on mine, and the result had been… intense. I was ashamed to realize that part of me wanted to feel them again.
Dangerous. I summed him up with that single word. Most of the town would agree, although until recently, I had never thought of him that way. He had been my friend, even my best friend at times, but now, thanks to a magical debt, he was my owner.
He was also the last thing standing between me and a completely normal, magic-free existence: A powerful, handsome roadblock who could make me forget my resolve with a kiss. I had wondered how long he would stay away before returning with all his considerable charm. He was a man who got what he wanted. Now, he wanted me.
“May I come in?“ he asked, making me wonder how long I had stood there gawking.
“Um, yeah. Come in.“
He stepped inside, his gaze flickering around the room at the mismatched beanbags as if looking for a place to sit. After a while, he turned to me, opting to stand.
“How are you? Do you need anything?“ The sideways look he gave to my beanbags made me feel certain he included furniture in the list of “anything.“
“I’m doing great. I’m settling in nicely.“
He set his jaw in that way he had of masking emotions, keeping even me out. Even me? What was I thinking? I didn’t want in. I could no longer afford to think of this man as anything at all, not even my friend.
“I thought you were a better liar than that,“ Evan said.
Anyone else would have been offended, but I merely shrugged. “You didn’t expect things to be perfect right away, did you? I’m going to do this. On my own.“
“I know. My dad told me about what happened at the diner on Sunday. Sorry about that.“
“You are?“ I wasn’t sure I believed him. “Do you think I should work there?“
“Because people will think I’m unprotected?“ I managed to say it without rolling my eyes.
“David McClellan–“ Evan began.
“Is the world’s biggest asshole,“ I finished for him. “I’d hope the hot coffee I poured in his lap would keep him from reproducing, but I couldn’t be so lucky.“
Evan fought back a smile, and lost. “All right, all right! I didn’t come here to argue, anyway.“ He suddenly let out a bark of laughter. “You aren’t afraid of anyone, are you?“
Only you, I thought. “So, why are you here?“
He sobered instantly, setting his mask back in place. He looked… nervous. No one else would have caught the emotion underneath his mask, but to me the mask itself was a dead giveaway.
“I want us to be friends again,” he said.
“I don’t know…“
“We could start with dinner tonight. Hodge Mill at seven?“
“Are you asking, or ordering?“ I held my breath as I waited for a preview of the rest of my life.
I had to make sure he meant it, and there was only one way to do that. “Then no, I don’t think it would be such a good idea.“
He nodded, once, his expression not even flickering. “Another time, maybe.“
As he strode to the door, I wondered if, beneath that calm exterior, I had hurt his feelings. The fear that I had almost made me change my mind and say yes. Almost. Then I remembered the compulsion of the debt, and wondered if, perhaps, it was making me want to say yes. I could never know with him.
“If you need me,“ Evan said, “you know how to get in touch. Don’t let yourself get too comfortable thinking McClellan is an exception to the rule.“
With that, he slid out the door, closing it behind him and leaving me to wonder about the implied threat.
* * *
Nicolas stopped by that afternoon, after training. By then, I had stopped looking for a job, and had instead been considering how on earth I could cancel the life debt I owed Evan. Short of marrying him, at any rate. The trouble was, Nicolas had already given me a full report from the research he’d done in his parents’ library, and it didn’t sound promising. He had promised to keep reading, but I no longer believed he could help.
“There is one thing I haven’t brought up yet, because I wasn’t sure how you’d react.“ Nicolas didn’t look at me as he spoke, a bad sign.
We were both perched awkwardly on beanbag chairs, drinking iced tea, and watching the evening news on TV. With nothing particularly interesting going on that evening, it wasn’t much of a distraction.
“What is it?“ I asked warily.
“Well, I’ve been trying to convince Evan to let me buy your debt.“
I leapt to my feet, nearly spilling my tea. “Are you crazy? Do you know what he could do to you?“
He held up his arms, as if to ward off an attack. “Yes, which is why I don’t want him to have that power over you. Besides, I offered a fair trade – access to Juliana’s gift.“
“You told him about Juliana?“
“Not by name.“
“You sure narrowed it down! Nicolas, how could you?“
“I’m trying to save you from him. Look, it’s not crazy. Juliana and I are family, so you don’t have to owe us anything. And it’s not like we’re short on magic to trade.“
“No, just common sense.“
“Excuse me?“ Nicolas was on his feet now, glaring down at me from his superior height.
“I owe him the debt. Me. Not you. Not Juliana. He saved me. You’ve said yourself that debt is largely psychological, and there’s no way my psyche would consider us even because he had access to my little sister’s healing power.“ If only the solution could be so simple.
“So what are you going to do?“ Nicolas was beginning to radiate heat, a dangerous sign. “Let’s go over your options.“ He held up a hand and begin ticking off items on his fingers. “You could marry him.“
“You could save his life.“
“Not likely,“ I muttered.
“You could give him a child.“
I shuddered. I would never give up a child, which meant I would definitely marry him first.
“You could give him all your magic,“ Nicolas said.
“You could at least let me ask Dad for help.“
I shook my head. “Your father can go to hell, for all I care.“
Nicolas stopped short at my angry retort, and it put a damper on the rest of the conversation. He left a few minutes later, swearing to come up with something.
I didn’t plan to hold my breath.
* * *
On Wednesday, Nicolas stopped by my apartment near lunchtime, dressed in his training uniform. It reminded me of the countless Halloweens he had dressed as a firefighter, except it no longer looked fake. He was really doing it. I smiled at him, though the smile faltered somewhat after my gaze lifted to his face, which looked like a mirror of his father’s.
“How’s training going?“ I asked, after inviting him to sit on one of the beanbag chairs.
He shrugged. “All right, I guess. The chief hasn’t come up with a reason to get rid of me yet, but I swear he’s always looking.“
“He’s a fool,“ I said loyally. And even though I understood why the fire chief was reluctant to take Nicolas on, I did think he was a fool to insist on seeing Nicolas as the little boy who didn’t always have full control over his fiery gift. Even I could see that Nicolas’s natural ability to control and manipulate fire would be a great asset.
“Well, he’s not the only one. Dad’s getting on my case again. I thought I’d heard the end of it when Henry Wolf refused to take me on. Not that he and I would have been a great fit, but you know Dad. “
I did, but I really didn’t want to talk about his father. I especially didn’t want to hear complaints about him from a brother whose biggest source of vexation was that Dad wanted him to take up a magical apprenticeship before becoming a firefighter. Part of me even agreed, though I would never admit it out loud. If I had any magical talent, I would want to learn as much as I could about it, but I didn’t even have a gift, let alone the talent to control and manipulate magical energies.
“Is there a reason you stopped by?“ I asked pointedly.
“I have a job for you.“
“A job?“ I groaned. This was far more likely his latest scheme to push a pile of C-notes into my hands. I had to give him credit for the new tactic, but I still could not accept money from my parents, not even through Nicolas. “I won’t take it.“
“You didn’t even hear what the job is.“
“I won’t take charity.“
“You have a weird idea of what charity is. You wouldn’t even take your own clothes until Juliana and I pushed them on you.“
“I’m hungry,“ I said. “Want some lunch?“
“Not a very subtle dodge.“
“It’s not a dodge, it’s lunch.“ I went to the kitchen and opened the pantry, though I didn’t find much.
“It’s a real job. It’s not charity.“
“Peanut butter and jelly okay?“ I asked, reaching for a loaf of bread.
“Two girls went missing from a summer camp yesterday. Neither Dad nor I could find them with magic.“
I fumbled the loaf of bread, just managing to keep it from falling to the floor. Oh, he knew how to tempt me, but there had to be a catch.
“One of the girls is a distant cousin,“ Nicolas continued. “Her name is Regina. She’s fifteen.“
I closed my eyes. “Is she dead?“
Nicolas didn’t answer.
“Is she a sorcerer?“
“I don’t think so. That branch of the family went dry a while back. Will you take the case?“
I knew I would, but I still couldn’t take money from my former parents, no matter the guise. If my one-time father was willing to help this person, then he was doing it for family, and I could do the same. The trouble would be convincing Nicolas to agree with me.
“Cassie?“ Nicolas asked, when the silence had gone on for too long. “It’s not like you to turn your back on family.“
I shook my head. “No, it’s not, and you know I’ll do it. But I won’t take any money for it.“
“Don’t be ridiculous.“
Time to change the subject. “I don’t have a car, and you need to get back to training.“
“You can borrow mine.“ Nicolas frowned, deeply. “Or is that too much charity for you?“
“No, I can borrow your car. Do you want lunch before I leave?“
Nicolas hesitated. “How about if we go to the diner? I’m not really in the mood for PB&J. I’ll pay.“
I shook my head, even though the idea of a big, greasy lunch sounded wonderful. I still hadn’t gained back all the weight I’d lost recovering from the vampire attack.
“Come on, Cassie, is it really that big a deal?“ Before I could answer he rushed on. “Did you know the family is falling apart?“
“What do you mean?“ I remembered him making a comment or two over the weekend, but he hadn’t gotten specific.
“I mean just what I said. You haven’t bothered to see anyone except me, and I have to come to you.“
That was because the others were always at Mom and Dad’s home –or my former Mom and Dad. I still hadn’t worked out what to call them yet. Somehow, Edward and Sheila just didn’t fit. In any case, Nicolas was the only one old enough to drive, so he was the only one who regularly strayed from the castle. I couldn’t even drive over there to see the others if I wanted to, since I no longer had a car. The old one hadn’t been insured.
“You haven’t even returned our calls,“ Nicolas added.
“I canceled my cell phone. You’ll have to call here on the land-line.“
“Why did you do that?“
I decided not to get into the fact that it cost almost a hundred dollars a month, since he would argue that the bill was in our parents’ name. In fact, that was the bigger problem.
“What’s wrong with everyone?“ I asked.
“For one thing, Elena hasn’t spoken since you left. Not to anyone alive, anyway.“
Elena, my nine-year-old sister, had the gift of speaking to the dead. As a result, she often seemed to linger in the doorway between this world and the next. So far, we’d managed to keep her facing our way
“Can you bring her to see me?“ I asked. “Maybe this weekend? You’re not training this weekend?“
“Maybe,“ Nicolas said, “but I’m not done.“
My stomach clenched a bit.
“Adam’s charisma has turned into a force that repels people instead of attracting them. He’s so sad that he spends most of his time in his room, and when he comes out, none of us can stand to be around him.“
I opened my mouth to speak, perhaps to ask Nicolas to bring Adam around to see me, too, but he spoke again before I had a chance.
“Isaac’s run away at least half a dozen times. No one knows where he’s going, or what he’s doing.“
“What about Christian and Juliana?“ I whispered, afraid to hear the answer.
“Christina keeps going from person to person, trying to make them happy. I think she thinks this is all her fault.“
It’s not my fault, I wanted to say, but a part of me wasn’t sure how true that was. It wasn’t all my fault, or even mostly my fault, but that didn’t mean my abrupt withdrawal of all contact hadn’t contributed to the current situation.
“Mom is sick,“ Nicolas continued. “She says it’s the pregnancy, but you know she’s always healthier when she’s pregnant than any other time.“
I shrugged as dismissively as I could, willing myself not to care about the woman formerly known as Mom.
“Juliana can’t heal her,“ Nicolas went on. “She no longer trusts her ability. She accidentally killed an injured bird she found last week. Now she won’t touch anyone.“
“What can I do?“ I asked, helplessly.
Nicolas shrugged. “You should have at least known.“
He had me there. I swore to myself to be a better sister, or at least a more involved one. I had been inadvertently punishing my brothers and sisters for something my parents had done and it wasn’t fair, but I would find a way to make it right. Steeling my resolve and swallowing my pride, I began with a simple enough gesture. “Come on. You can pay for lunch.“