Stolen Dreams Excerpt

Warning: This excerpt contains series spoilers. If you are new to Cassie Scot, I strongly recommend you skip this for now… and check out the first few chapters of book one in the series, Cassie Scot: ParaNormal Detective.

Stolen Dreams

by: Christine Amsden


Evan’s face stared back at him from a large glossy poster hanging in the front window of the local post office. The words “Wanted Alive” were splattered across the top in big red letters. Someone had cast an animation spell over it to make his hooded eyes shift slightly, as if in guilt. Evan had seen all that before, but a new addition to the bottom of the poster stopped him dead in his tracks: “One Million Dollar Reward.”

“Crap,” he muttered under his breath. He looked around, more than half expecting an ambush right there on the street, but he saw nothing sinister. He reached within himself for his magic anyway, channeling it into a shield that would protect him from most magical attacks.

A million dollars. This was going to bring out every crazy in the country! He had been fighting bounty hunters for over a month, ever since the wanted posters first went up, but then the reward had only been $100,000.

The Scots were either getting desperate or stupid to try something like this. Rumors already abounded regarding his bottomless reserves of magic, making him out to be some kind of inexhaustible fountain of power. The million-dollar reward would only confirm these lies in the minds of many; which meant that if someone did manage to catch Evan, the Scots were unlikely to get their hands on him. Why would a bounty hunter settle for money when he could have Evan’s magic for himself?

The enmity between the Scots and the Blackwoods had bubbled beneath the surface for years, but it was on the verge of exploding into a deadly serious conflict. Evan had come close to killing the bounty hunter who had confronted him yesterday at the grocery store. The man had slipped some kind of befuddlement potion into a free sample of apple cider. It had tasted funny; Evan hadn’t downed the whole thing, which had saved him from capture. But he had not been entirely in his right mind when he’d ripped the arm off of the man who’d tried to grab him from behind.

The fresh memory made him feel sick inside. Deadly serious indeed. The injured man had survived in large part because he had a partner with some healing skills, but he could have died. Evan had killed once before, in self-defense. It had been necessary. He would do it again if he had to. But the possibility infuriated him.

Was this Cassie’s doing, or her father’s? The unanswered question troubled him almost as much as the growing tensions between their two families. The Cassie he’d known in his youth never would have put others at risk for her own personal desires. Then again, that Cassie had not recently learned the truth about what had happened to the magic she’d been missing her entire life.

He should have sat down and talked to her. He wasn’t so naïve as to think that a simple conversation would have fixed things between the two of them, but maybe it could have averted this current state of hostility.

It can’t be Cassie, he told himself for the dozenth time. If she was so desperate to get her hands on his magic, then why had she warned him of Alexander’s attack last September? At the time, he had even allowed himself to hope she still loved him somewhere deep down inside. But then she ran off to Pennsylvania with the man who had betrayed him, and she hadn’t returned a single phone call or e-mail since.

She could have changed her mind since then. She must have, or why put up posters offering a reward for him, and by extension, his magic? All she had to do was tell her father she didn’t want it.

Evan turned away from the poster and was just about to continue down the street when a black Suburban turned into the post office parking lot, cutting him off. He waited for it to pull into a spot, his shields still up, his senses alert.

Robert Scot, Edward Scot’s cousin, stepped out of the vehicle, threw Evan a dirty look, then went around to the back to pull a four-year-old girl out of a car seat. The presence of the child did not convince Evan to lower his guard, though he truly hoped they hadn’t sunk so low as to fight when an innocent child might get hurt.

One million dollars. People had killed for far less, and had allowed children to become victims. Robert Scot was a strong practitioner, on par with Edward, but he didn’t have access to the secrets of alchemy, and he was not a rich man. He earned a good living as a bank manager or something, but one million dollars had to be a temptation.

The two men did not take their eyes from one another as Robert walked into the post office. Robert clutched the wriggling child, who clearly wanted down, to his chest in an almost painful grip. A minute later he was past, and Evan breathed a little easier. He walked away from the post office, heading down the sidewalk in the direction of his Prius, parked a few stores down. He still had errands to run, but in light of what he had learned about the reward, they didn’t seem important.

Suddenly, an explosion rent the air. Evan dove behind the nearby antique shop, his shields maxed out, his senses hyper-alert. When he peeked around the corner, he saw smoke and debris where there had once been a Suburban.

The chubby face of the little girl filled Evan’s mind, and he felt a moment of terror as he wondered whether or not Robert and his little girl had already returned to the car. Practically flying from his hidden position, Evan sped back to the post office and that mockery of a wanted poster, his eyes searching the interior until they fell, thankfully, onto the shocked faces of Robert Scot and his daughter huddled safely inside the building.

Robert’s face didn’t remain shocked for long; it fell into an enraged scowl. Robert shoved the girl into the arms of a nearby post office patron and marched outside to confront Evan man to man.

“You son of a bitch! My daughter could have been in there. I almost left her there while I ran inside, but then I saw you.”

“I didn’t do that. I ran back to make sure you were all right.” More the girl than Robert, but still….

Robert didn’t respond with words; instead he let loose with a torrent of raw energy that battered Evan’s shields until he could scarcely hold them. Raw magic wasn’t normally a useful attack strategy, but powerful emotion could turn it into one for a short time. Another blast like that and Evan would be in trouble, but he had no intention of letting Robert get off another shot. He parried the attack with his own telekinetic gift, throwing Robert bodily backward, forcefully enough that he smashed through the wanted poster and the glass window, shattering it.

Evan didn’t wait for Robert to get back up; he ran. He hadn’t caused the explosion, and he had no reason to finish a fight against a man he scarcely knew, but one whose family seemed to want to go to war with his.

The worst part was that someone in Evan’s family probably had done it–they had been muttering for weeks that they couldn’t just let the Scots persecute him. Evan had begged them to give him time, but obviously time had run out.

Robert wouldn’t care whether Evan had been personally involved or not, nor would the rest of the Scots. And maybe they were right. Evan would find out who had done it and set him or her straight, but the damage was already done.

The first direct shot had been fired.

* * *

Five days later, Evan still had no idea who had caused the explosion. Everyone he questioned, from his father to distant cousins, patently denied it. Then again, it hadn’t taken long for news of his ire to make the rounds, so maybe the culprit was afraid. He should be. If Evan accomplished nothing else with his interrogations, he hoped to put fear in the hearts of anyone thinking of pulling a stunt like that again.

Retribution had not come as quickly as Evan had expected, but it would surely come. The only questions remaining were when and how?

Evan got his answers early on Wednesday morning when his cousin, Scott Lee, arrived on his doorstep, looking as if he hadn’t slept or showered in days. There was a fire in his eyes, still tinted the slightly yellow hue of the wolf, reminding Evan that the previous night had been the last night of the full moon.

“Good morning?” Evan made it a question because Scott usually slept the day after the full moon.

Scott didn’t look tired, though, despite his rumpled appearance, and there was venom in his voice when he said, “They took Amanda.”

Scott thrust a wrinkled piece of paper into Evan’s hands. Carefully, Evan unfolded it, pressing the edges together where it had been torn in one place, and read:

We’ll gladly trade Amanda for Evan.

It wasn’t signed, but it didn’t really need a signature.

“How did this happen?” Evan asked. Amanda wasn’t a weakling by any stretch of the imagination, although at eighteen she still needed training. She would probably enter into an apprenticeship the next summer, after graduating high school–if she lived that long.

“They got her at school.” Scott pushed past Evan into the house, and only then did Evan remember he hadn’t actually invited his friend inside. They regrouped in the den, and Evan grabbed a couple of sodas from his mini-fridge. Scott popped his open, but didn’t drink.

“She was staying after school to help with the Thanksgiving Day Parade. It’s the only time they could have done it. At home, she was too well protected.” Scott let out a low growl and threw the untouched soda with all his strength. It collided with a nearby wall with enough force to leave a sizable hole in the drywall, and its sugary contents left their marks on the wall, the ceiling, the floor, and a nearby chair.

“I thought she was protected at school, too!” Scott roared. “She’s got charms and wards, and she’s a damn fine illusionist, too. I don’t know how this happened.”

“We’ll get her back, Scott.”

“Damn right, we will! She was taken Monday, Evan. Monday.”


“The day after the first night of the full moon. I was with my pack for three days. The timing is too perfect to be a coincidence.”

Evan saw something new in his friend’s eyes then–guilt. Scott considered his monthly transformations to be a serious affliction, one that made him unfit for polite company. Now he had new proof that he was a danger to those around him, or at least not a capable enough protector to keep his own sister safe.

“It doesn’t matter why they took her at the full moon, we’ll get her back. They’ll be blocking our attempts to scry for her location, so we’ll need to pull everyone in. Start making calls. Contact every shirttail relative you can find, and tell them they’ll get to witness my scrying spell firsthand if they can get here by noon.”

* * *

By two o’clock, they had pinpointed Amanda’s location precisely where they had feared–at the Scots’ castle. They ushered the shirttail relatives out with thanks, leaving the core of the family to form a war council. On his father’s side there were Evan’s grandparents and his aunts Violet and Rose, along with their brood of teenagers. Most of the teens had more hormones than sense, although Paul Malloren had sharp eyes that seemed to notice more than they should. On his mother’s side there was his grandmother, Abigail Hastings, his uncle Kevin with grown children and young grandchildren in tow, and his uncle Jack with his grown children (there seemed to be a hole on his side of the room where his youngest daughter, Nancy, should have been). Scott and Amanda had lost both of their parents, including Evan’s aunt Paulette, years earlier.

“We’ve got a lot working against us right now,” Evan began, making sure he had the attention of every adult in the room. “A direct attack would put us up against countless wards and other defenses, not to mention the Scots themselves. Tomorrow’s Thanksgiving, so they’re likely to have extended family surrounding them then. If we do launch a direct attack, it will have to be tonight.”

“If you attack directly,” Abigail Hastings said from her wheelchair in one corner of the living room, “many will die.” She closed her eyes. “Can’t see who. Too much randomness in battle.” It was as straightforward a prophecy as she was ever likely to give, and Evan took it at face value.

“If we could isolate one of them and take a prisoner, then we could try to negotiate a prisoner exchange.” Evan looked to his grandmother for tips on that idea, but she still had her eyes closed. He had seen that look before, when she was looking deeply into the many paths before her. She could stay that way for hours, oblivious to the outside world.

“Who would be the easiest Scot to pick off?” Aunt Violet asked.

“Cassie,” Evan said at the same time as his father. They looked at one another, briefly, before looking away. Evan still hadn’t forgiven his father for what he had done to Cassie, or for not telling him about it, but they had been forced by the feud to set aside their differences.

“Isn’t she in Pennsylvania?” asked Uncle Kevin.

“She’s back for the holidays,” said Paul. “I saw her in town yesterday.”

Evan felt his heart clench, but he tried his best to ignore the implications–namely that Cassie’s return had coincided with Amanda’s abduction. Could the two events be related? Would Cassie stoop so low? He didn’t want to believe it of her, but every time he closed his eyes he saw the wanted posters. She might not have done it, but neither had she stopped it from happening.

“Evan, are you okay?” Victor asked, putting an arm on Evan’s shoulder.

Evan shook off his father’s arm. “Fine.”

“I think the best approach would be to set up an ambush on the road leading to the castle,” Scott said. “Then we can wait for a likely hostage to trade for Amanda.”

“I don’t think you should go,” Evan said. “It’s too personal for you.”

“I’ll go,” Paul said before Scott could reply. Several voices echoed his a few seconds later.

“Am I just supposed to sit here and wait?” Scott asked. “I should be with them.”

“It is his fight,” Victor said. “More than any of the rest of us. He’s not just her brother, he’s her guardian.”

Evan still didn’t think his friend should go, but he waved a dismissive hand and disappeared into the kitchen to put together enough food for a small army. Most of them had missed lunch, and it was going to be a long afternoon and evening.

Several hours passed with no word from Scott or his group of hostage takers. Evan fed those who remained, but didn’t stay in his large formal living room to entertain them as a good host should. He used the excuse of needing to clean the soda mess in his den, but everyone saw through it. He wanted to be alone.

Near five o’clock, the doorbell rang. It was too soon. Evan hadn’t decided if he hoped Scott’s mission would succeed or not, let alone who he hoped Scott would have taken if it was. Ready or not…

Evan opened the door, but it wasn’t Scott. The man standing on his porch was nondescript, a middle-aged man with brown hair only recently starting to go gray. He recognized the man by sight, although he couldn’t figure out what he would be doing there. Tyler Lake was a member of Alexander’s inner circle who had traveled with him to Eagle Rock back in September. And actually, as quiet as Tyler tended to be, fading into the background, that was about all Evan knew of the man.

“What are you doing here?” Evan asked.

“I’m here on behalf of Mr. DuPris, who has asked me to help mediate this dispute.”

Evan arched an eyebrow in what he knew to be a particularly intimidating manner. “Mr. DuPris was a big part of what started this dispute.”

“Yes, and he deeply regrets his role in the matter. That’s why he has asked me to help.”

Evan didn’t trust this. He didn’t trust Alexander, and never would again, but Tyler was only a messenger. Maybe he even thought he could help.

“Get the Scots to give me back my cousin,” Evan said finally. “Then maybe I’ll talk.”

“Yes, that was a regrettable move on their part,” Tyler said. “I am trying to work with them, but they are understandably angry. It might help if you were willing to sacrifice just a little bit, for the sake of justice. Cassie said–”

“Cassie?” Evan was suddenly alert. “Is she a part of this?” Say no, he begged, silently. As much as he hated coincidences, he wanted to believe Cassie was innocent of wrongdoing where Amanda was concerned.

“Cassie has a vested interest here,” Tyler said, neatly sidestepping the issue, “and so do you. I realize that none of this is fair to either of you, which is why we need to sit down–”

“Did Cassie send you here?” Evan asked.

“Alexander sent me here,” Tyler said, “although since they’re engaged–”

“What did you say?” Evan had to steady himself against the door frame. But surely, he just hadn’t heard correctly.

“You haven’t heard? It happened just a couple of days ago. Everyone’s talking about it.”

Cassie, engaged? To Alexander DuPris? He couldn’t believe it. Not only was the man older than her father, but he was so slippery. He was a true politician. Cassie liked to take care of people; Alexander liked to use people. He would eat her alive. She had to know that.

“I don’t believe it,” Evan said.

“Suit yourself.” Tyler looked supremely unconcerned.

Had she gotten over him already? Or was this her way of getting back at him? Or maybe….

“He forced her,” Evan said.

“Cassie isn’t the type of person to let herself be forced into anything,” Tyler said. “A number of men did try.”

Including Matthew Blair, and if he couldn’t do it, Alexander certainly couldn’t. So what did that leave him with? Denial?

You lost her a long time ago, he told himself firmly. But a part of him still hadn’t accepted her loss as irrevocable.

“I don’t think we have anything to discuss.” With that, Evan closed the door in Tyler’s face.

“What was that about?” Victor asked from the end of the hall. Only then did Evan realize that everyone in the living room had gone silent at the sound of the doorbell, obviously expecting news.

“Nothing important,” Evan said. “Just go back to whatever you were doing.”

Victor shot his son a dubious look, but he returned to the group. A minute later, the sounds of a large group of people all trying to be heard over one another filtered into the hallway, but Evan ignored it. He didn’t even move. He leaned his head against the front door and shut his eyes, as if he could shut the world out that way.

He didn’t know how long he stood there like that, but he didn’t move until the doorbell rang once again, the sound so close to his ears that he jumped. A nearby table and lamp jumped alongside him, rattling when they landed. He hated losing control like that, but at least no one had seen.

This time when he opened the door, he did see at least one person he expected. The woman accompanying Scott, on the other hand, was a complete surprise.

“Madison?” Evan looked between his best friend and his one-time trainee. She wasn’t bound, but neither was she there of her own free will. The look in her eyes, and her quaking form, testified to that.

“What are you doing?” Evan asked.

Scott pushed Madison inside, nearly knocking her into Evan, who only just stepped aside in time. Scott followed her, closing the door behind him.

“She’s not one of them,” Evan said.

“She’s dating Nicolas Scot.” Scott said it in a way that made Evan wonder if he was establishing a connection, or accusing her of a crime.

Evan knew his friend wanted Madison. Since Scott had saved her life–actually her soul–last summer, he could have her. Evan couldn’t help but remember a time when he had saved Cassie’s life, and Scott had proposed simply taking her. She’d get over it, he had said. He wasn’t taking his own advice when it came to Madison. Evan was glad of it, because by Scott’s own admission, he had no business being with a normal woman. The wolf in him might hurt her, might bite her.

So why had he brought her here?

“You said to look for an opportunity,” Scott said. “ This is an opportunity. She has to obey me.”

Beside him, Madison whimpered.

Murmuring from the end of the hall made Evan turn to find his assembled family all trying to see what was going on. Victor was in the lead, and his face was oddly pale.

“What are you doing?” Victor asked, echoing his son’s earlier question. “She’s not one of them.”

Scott was apparently disinclined to repeat himself, because he grabbed Madison by the arm and pushed her into the nearby den, which had only just recovered from his earlier violence. A crowd of either well-meaning or nosy relatives began to crowd their way down the hall, but Evan put up a hand, forestalling them with the gesture and the wall of air that accompanied it. “I’ll handle this. Go back to the living room.”

He didn’t wait to see if they obeyed, he simply walked into the den and shut the door firmly behind him. He considered setting up a muffling spell so no one could overhear, but he didn’t have one handy, and starting from scratch would take too long.

Evan rounded on Scott, trying not to look at the quivering Madison seated on the sofa. “What has gotten into you?”

“You said to bring back a hostage.” Scott’s nostrils flared. “In case you’ve forgotten, they still have my sister locked away somewhere.”

“I haven’t forgotten a thing, but I wonder if you have.”

“What do you mean?” Scott asked.

“If you don’t want her seeing Nicolas then tell her to dump him, but don’t bring her into the middle of this. She’s not involved.”

Madison’s head shot up, but again he tried not to look at her. If Scott might really order her to stop seeing Nicolas, Evan wouldn’t have suggested it, but he couldn’t stop to explain that to Madison.

“That’s not why I brought her here,” Scott said. “They’re close. Nicolas might trade Amanda for her.”

Madison shook her head.

“You’re not close?” Evan asked, finally turning to look at her.

Again, she shook her head.

“Then why did he tell you about the secret tunnel leading out of the castle?” Scott asked.

Evan’s eyes flew to Scott, then back to Madison, who was busily trying to hide herself in the folds of the leather sofa. “Secret tunnel? What else do you know?”


“She’s there almost every night,” Scott said. “Isn’t that right?”

She made a motion somewhere between a shake and a nod. Evan was beginning to feel like a brute, scaring her even more than she already was, but he had to agree with Scott–Nicolas wouldn’t have told her about a secret tunnel if they weren’t close.

Perhaps Evan had jumped to hasty conclusions about Scott’s motives for bringing her here. Evan didn’t want to use her as a hostage, but he didn’t want to use anyone else either. He just wanted Amanda back, alive and in perfect health.

“Have you seen Amanda?” Evan asked her.

She nodded, jerkily.

“Well?” Scott demanded. “How is she?”

“F-fine. She’s in a guest room. They b-bound her magic.”

“All of them?” Evan asked. “Is Cassie a part of this? Is she engaged to Alexander?”

Scott’s eyes widened, but he didn’t interfere. In fact, when she didn’t look like she was going to answer, he prompted her with a terse, “Well?”


Such a simple word, but one with such terrible implications. Evan tried to reach for the hope that Cassie wasn’t in her right mind, but how could he after she had successfully fought off Matthew Blair?

Evan felt his last defenses crumbling, and he sank bonelessly into a nearby recliner. He wasn’t sure how long he remained there, but he barely registered the third chiming of the doorbell. When he wasn’t inclined to answer it, Scott went in his place, letting out a roar loud enough to shake the house when he saw his sister standing there.

Amanda had escaped. Evan didn’t join in the celebration or pause to question their good luck. It wouldn’t last. The thread of civility that had kept two powerful families from unleashing their full might upon one another had broken. This was only the beginning.


I escaped from Alexander DuPris the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, only to be told by my family that I was being melodramatic. And this right on the heels of informing me that we had a hostage in the guest bedroom.

A hostage, you say? Surely now I’mbeing melodramatic! But no, Juliana used her healing gift to knock Amanda Lee unconscious, then shoved her in a supply closet until Dad picked her up from school, at which point the two of them moved the body into the backseat of his car.

“Are you crazy?” I asked. I looked from face to face, trying to find a trace of sanity, but they were all doing their normal after-dinner things exactly as if nothing were wrong. Mom, hugely pregnant with twins, crocheted an afghan, Nicolas was out with Madison, Juliana looked entirely too pleased with herself, Isaac played a video game, Elena hid behind a book, and Adam and Christina played in their rooms. It could have been any normal Tuesday evening, except for the hostage upstairs.

“Cassandra,” my father said, “you haven’t been around. You don’t understand.”

Of course I didn’t understand. No one had told me that things were getting this bad. It was as if I’d been on the moon for the past two months instead of in Pennsylvania, calling home three times a week. But oh, everything is fine at home. Just fine. Don’t worry about us. How are you doing? When will you be home?

I had never left home before, and I hadn’t realized how separate it would make me feel. I had needed the time away, and despite everything that had happened in Pennsylvania, I didn’t regret going. Eagle Rock had begun to feel too suffocating as so many people tried to live my life for me. It only got worse after I learned the truth about myself, and about what had happened to my magic. I had needed some space from my life, from my family, and most especially, from Evan. I hoped I never had to see him again, but I didn’t count on it.

“We didn’t want to worry you,” Mom said, not looking up from her afghan. “There really wasn’t anything going on until last week, anyway, when Evan blew up Robert’s car.”

“Evan? Really?” Setting aside my feelings for the man, I still had trouble believing he would do something like that without serious provocation.

“Don’t worry,” Dad said, misinterpreting my question, “we have it under control.”

“I wonder what Amanda thinks about that.”

“She’s one of them,” Juliana said.

“Just now, I wish I weren’t one of you. What else have you done?” I knew about the wanted posters; I had seen them here and there across the country in my travels with Alexander, but I didn’t bring them up yet. I intended to do that later, when I didn’t have a more pressing concern.

“We’re doing this for you,” Dad said. “Don’t you want your magic back?”

I froze, torn between painful truths. On the one hand: Yes! I wanted it back. I’d always wanted it, and had always felt a gaping hole where it should have been. It reminded me of the day I had put up the sign for my short-lived “Normal Detective Agency,” and how I had smiled while my heart broke at the ultimate admission. There had been rumors for years, but it had been time to stop hiding behind them and start being who I really was, instead of who I wanted to be.

Except, that wasn’t who I really was either.

But on the other hand, I didn’t want to go to war for it. No one was talking about killing anyone, and maybe they thought they could avoid that eventuality; but when I thought of Amanda Lee being held prisoner, I knew we had already crossed a line. Someone would die, and it was a higher price than I was willing to pay.

“No,” I told my father finally, because sometimes short answers are better than long ones. If I gave him my extended reasoning, he would poke holes in it.

He didn’t believe me but he didn’t say so in words; he only stared at the potion belt riding low around my hips, filled with some of the magical concoctions I’d developed over the past few months. The ones strapped neatly into my belt were only a small part of my stash, but they were the ones I thought might be most useful to have on hand: Strength, speed, and painful boils, among others. Two water guns strapped in holsters to either side contained electric shock and fire.

I couldn’t argue with his visual assessment of my desire to have magic at my disposal, so I retreated home–to the rental house I shared with Kaitlin and Madison–to regroup and think.

I stayed up most of the night brewing a potion. Early the next afternoon, I duped Nicolas into providing the magical energy needed to complete it, and then took advantage of a distraction to slip it into Amanda’s lunch, undoing the spell that bound her powers.

She escaped of course, and I was proud of myself for my role in it, at least until we realized Madison was missing. When she returned home late that evening, suffering from serious gaps in her memory, she told me she would never make the mistake of thinking Evan was safe, or a nice guy, ever again. It seemed I had a new ally in my hatred of Evan Blackwood, one whose loyalties had been torn, for good reason, up until then. My family also had a new ally, firmly entrenched on its side.

The war was on, and I had no idea how to stop it.

* * *

A week or so later, I crossed over enemy lines. I had to. No one would listen to me when I asked them to put an end to this fight, leaving me with no choice but to believe that the feud had little, if anything, to do with me. That was a difficult idea to get my mind around, especially when every other day I heard my name being used to justify terrible acts.

Whether it had anything to do with me or not, however; I would have to be the one to put an end to it for the simple reason that no one else would. I briefly considered going to Evan, but I couldn’t face him. He had the power to return my magic and put an end to this feud, but he had not done so, a fact that told me more about him than the words “I love you” ever had.

Thinking about him hurt me deep down inside, in a place sunshine had once touched. It was the place where fifteen years of childish friendship had gradually matured into something more, and then abruptly turned to ash. I hated him now, an ugly feeling that festered within my heart and made my father wonder why I wanted to put an end to the fighting.

It wasn’t for him; it was for the family I still did love, despite the taint of hatred. I feared death on the horizon, which left me with one obvious choice to approach for help.

Abigail Hastings lived in a two-story “mother-in-law cottage” nestled deep within the woods behind her eldest son’s lakefront home. Kevin Hastings owned acres of property that he used as little more than a buffer between him and his next closest neighbor, which meant his mother had a fair share of privacy in her home.

The woman was a seer, possessed of arguably the most powerful gift. So powerful, she had once confided to me, that there was no such thing as a seer-sorcerer. It was as if some higher power had believed in a degree of fairness–a chance for the rest of us.

I had not spent much time with seers in my lifetime. Grace Blair had once prophesied that Evan would break my heart and soul, which he had done. Grace had frightened me and I confess that if I had felt anything at the news of her death (shortly after I joined Alexander in Pennsylvania), it was relief.

Abigail, on the other hand, infuriated me. In another lifetime, perhaps, that would have been reason enough to stay away from her, but in this lifetime it was something I could live with.

When I pulled into her driveway and parked the car, I began by taking several deep breaths. I could do this. She was just a woman, one who had even admitted to having no magical talent.

A gift is not the same thing as magical talent. A person can have one without the other, and in the strictest sense of the word, a gift isn’t magical. It just seems that way. A gift is something that a person can do effortlessly, something that is a part of their soul and does not require tapping into currents of magical energy. Gifts come in all shapes and sizes, and some seem more magical than others. My mother’s eidetic memory is often not taken seriously, but it is as amazing in its way as Evan’s telekinetic ability.

A magical talent, on the other hand, is the ability to detect and manipulate magical energies. It flows primarily from within, a part of the blood, but certain places in the world contain nodes, which can amplify those abilities. A powerful node was what had attracted so many sorcerers to Eagle Rock in the first place.

Abigail possessed arguably the most powerful gift, but however manipulative she could be, she couldn’t zap me with raw magic, curse me, or otherwise threaten me in any way. So I walked up the front path and prepared to ring the bell, only to stop short when I saw a note taped to the door.

Come on in, Cassie. It’s unlocked.


Okay, so she knew I was coming. No big deal. I pushed my way inside, offering a tentative, “Hello?”

“In here, dear,” Abigail called from a formal living room down the hall. She spoke in a loud whisper, and she coughed from the exertion of raising her voice even that much.

Abigail was in her late eighties, white-haired, frail, and wheelchair-bound. Her eyes, on the other hand, remained alert and cunning. They were a clear, crystalline blue, just like her daughter’s. Like Evan’s.

She sat near French doors overlooking the dead winter landscape. Someone had set up a table nearby, making me think she wheeled her chair to that particular spot often. Today, the table was set with tea for two.

“Would you mind pouring, dear?” Abigail asked.

“Sure.” I found a nearby folding chair and set it up across the table from Abigail, ignoring the plush green sofas nearby.

“I’m glad you’ve come,” Abigail said while I poured. “I was serious about that apprenticeship offer I made a few months back, but I didn’t think you would take me up on it. I’m glad you’ve changed your mind.”

I splashed tea onto the table, then had to grab for some napkins to clean it up.

“I haven’t come about the apprenticeship,” I said, although I had given it more serious consideration than anyone might have guessed. “I came to ask you how I could put an end to this feuding before someone gets killed.”

“I see.” She closed her eyes and rested her chin on her chest. “People are going to die, you know.”

“I do.” I hesitated. “Do you know who?”

“Evan had to kill a bounty hunter a couple days ago. Did you know that?”

I hadn’t. Somehow, despite knowing how powerful Evan was, I had trouble picturing him as a killer, even in self-defense. That was part of the Evan he tried to present to the world–hard, dangerous, and unfeeling. I knew better, or thought I did.

A killer. I shuddered, despite the warmth of the house. It must have changed him to cross that line, but in what ways? Would I recognize him if I saw him again?

“As to the future,” Abigail said, “I can’t say. There are too many variables, and I–well, there are other issues.”

When it seemed clear that she wouldn’t elaborate on the other issues, I pushed for more. “So what can I do?”

“You could marry my grandson.”

Again, I shuddered. “If you’re not going to be serious–”

“I am perfectly serious. How can they continue to use you two as excuses to fight if you manage to forgive one another?”

“My family will think he’s put a spell on me, and besides, I’ll never forgive him.” I paused, considering her wording. “Wait, what do you mean ‘one another?’ What does he need to forgive me for?”

“You should ask him.”

“I’m asking you.”

Abigail sighed. “Look, Evan’s a prideful man.”

“Arrogant, you mean?”

“Let’s not argue semantics.” Abigail’s eyes hardened, chastising me. “You’ve made it clear how you feel about him, so how is he supposed to feel about you?”

“I’ve never done anything to hurt him! Just the opposite.”

“You’ve never really tried talking to him, either. Honestly talking to him. It might work wonders.”

“I did talk to him.” I’d asked him for my magic back and he’d flatly refused. The memory still made my cheeks burn. “If he wanted to put a stop to this, he could do it.”

“Strange. He said the same thing about you.”

“Good thing I didn’t go to him, then. I came to you. Do you have any other ideas?”

She paused, then nodded. “Yes. Become my apprentice. There’s a lot I can teach you, and somewhere in there, perhaps we can find the answer.”

I hesitated, not because the idea wasn’t tempting, but because my family would never allow it. “Would I have to come out here every day? My parents–”

“–don’t have to know, at least not right away.” She closed her eyes again. “I think we’ll be safe meeting here for a few weeks, at least.”

“I can’t pay you. I won’t be in your debt.”

“You wouldn’t be. We’re working together to stop a tragedy, aren’t we?”

“I suppose, but what would you teach me? I’ve been doing some pretty neat things with potions, but–”

“I will teach you dreaming.”

“Dreaming?” My heart sank. For a minute there, I thought she might have something valuable she could offer me, but dreaming was a branch of magic my father liked to call a hack. Only wannabes messed with dreaming and dream interpretation.

Abigail chuckled, then coughed. She took a sip of her tea before saying, “Your father doesn’t respect it, does he? Well, he’s never been the type to want to look too deeply inside himself. I suspect he wouldn’t like what he found there.”

“I don’t remember my dreams,” I said.

“Then that’s a good place to start, isn’t it?”

I didn’t answer. I took a sip of tea to cover the silence while I considered her offer, really considered it.

“I won’t marry your grandson,” I said. “I don’t want you to suggest it again.”

She scowled. “I know your heart is broken, but would you throw away a lifetime of friendship so easily?”

“It’s not me who’s–”

“And to let your pain over what he did push you into the arms of a self-centered, power-hungry man like Alexander DuPris–”

“I’m not marrying him!” I flushed at the reminder of how widespread the rumors had become. Alexander had posted an engagement announcement in his newsletters, and splashed it across the Internet. When I’d returned home I had been so caught up in trying to help Amanda escape, and the aftermath of that incident, that I hadn’t realized what was happening until just about everyone believed the story. I’d even had to sit down with Kaitlin and Madison to explain the truth.

“You aren’t?” Abigail frowned.

“Why?” I asked, suddenly nervous. “You don’t see us getting married in the future, do you?”

She closed her eyes, looking inward. “Maybe not. I-I told you, there are a lot of possibilities.”

“And other factors,” I repeated, wondering what those were. Maybe if I became her apprentice, she’d tell me.

“Yes.” She opened her eyes. “Evan believes it. Your friend, Madison, told him it was true.”

I cringed, but then I remembered the only time she might have told him such a tale, and felt a hot rush of anger. “Good. I hope it made him miserable.”

Abigail frowned, but continued, “He also heard it from one of Alexander’s men–that mediator who came to town for a while. I can’t recall his name….”

“Tyler,” I supplied. After his initial attempt to arrest Evan, Alexander had stayed well away from the situation, unless you count exploiting my story for political gain. (I did, but he didn’t agree.) The only thing he did do to try to help was to send a mediator. Tyler Lake was a good choice, gifted in empathy and possessed of true objectivity that is a real rarity; but his efforts had failed, and I worried that he was serving a dual role: mediator and spy. The fact that he remained in town after his initial peace talks had failed seemed to confirm my suspicion.

“So,” Abigail said, “What did happen in Pennsylvania?”

I hesitated. “It’s a long story.”

“Well, then, why don’t you put on another pot of tea?”


I didn’t date in high school. My first honest-to-goodness date wasn’t until the day after graduation, when Braden Walker took me to the movies and then to Kaitlin’s Diner for a slice of strawberry pie. At the time, I thought it was the best, most romantic thing that had ever happened to me. Finally, a man had seen through rumors and speculation to the real me, or at least saw something that made him willing to try.

Before that, I watched my friends date–I particularly watched Evan date, although I didn’t admit it to anyone–and wished for some of that success. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I thought, if everyone wanted to go out with me, and I could have my pick? I spent many nights casting that dream into the heavens, like wishing on a star.

I followed Alexander to Pennsylvania in September with new dreams of saving the world replacing those long-ago teenage fantasies; but it was the old wish upon a star that came true, and in reality, it was a nightmare.

Look, I have a pretty fair picture of myself–my strengths and my weaknesses: I’m attractive but not beautiful; I’m friendly but not charismatic; I’m kind but no saint. So why, all of a sudden, were dozens of men, essentially all the unattached men living and working with Alexander, interested in me?

Evan had once warned me of the type of interest men would have in me. At the time, I worried that he himself shared that interest, and though his motives no longer concerned me in the least, his warning did. Breeding stock, he had called it. Many powerful men would want a woman with lots of magical potential to pass on to their children, but no actual magic to threaten them.

He hadn’t known the half of it, because at the time, I hadn’t been Alexander’s personal political symbol. My secret was now out. Way out. It had first come out during the botched attempt to arrest Evan, but Alexander had not let such a minor failure get in his way. If he couldn’t have Evan as a symbol of justice, then he would have me as a symbol of possibility and endurance. “Look at Cassandra,”–he liked to use my full name, as my parents did–“She has no magic of her own, but she has turned knowledge into power. If she can do it, then what excuse have we, who were blessed with everything she never had?”

I didn’t recognize myself in his highly charged political speeches. He called me brave because I had learned to overcome my disability, but I was neither convinced of my bravery nor my disability.

And all the while a secret so closely guarded that even I hadn’t known it became common knowledge. It was even splattered across the Internet for any practitioner who cared to read about it.

When I wasn’t being publicly paraded around in Alexander’s shadow as a symbol of virtues I didn’t possess, I stayed at his compound in the Appalachian Foothills. The place was impressive to say the least–ten stories deep, with only one above the ground serving as a front for the normals.

Within the compound, a thousand people lived and worked, almost like members of a commune, although with more inequalities than I would have imagined. Jobs were doled out based on magical potential above any other factor, so much so that I found a woman with a law degree working in the kitchens, and a man with an M.D. on the janitorial staff. When asked why they didn’t leave, they kind of gaped at me like I had grown two heads.

“Look what you’ve been able to do with no magic at all,” the doctor told me. “That’s the sort of knowledge he’s trying to make public, so that we all have a more even playing field. I want to be a part of that.”

“By pushing a mop?” I asked.

“He’s got healers on staff. Besides, I specialized in psychiatric medicine, and there isn’t such a need for that here.”

My conversation with the lawyer was much the same. I asked Alexander about it, of course, and he told me that real change took time, but didn’t I want to be a part of it?

Did I?

I had gone to Pennsylvania with big dreams about helping people, but in a vague, idealistic way, sort of like hoping for world peace. The truth is never that easy. The truth is politics, and I quickly came to realize that I was no politician.

I wouldn’t have suited Matthew Blair because of his political ambitions. But as the weeks wore on, becoming months, I developed an odd feeling of gratitude toward him, for everything he had done to me. He had not succeeded, but in the meantime he had helped me understand mind magic in both its subtle and overt forms; and he had given me practice fighting it–a skill I found myself using nearly every single day.

The teenage version of me would probably have thought being wanted by dozens of men would make me feel beautiful. In reality, it made me feel cheap, like some popular toy everyone wanted for Christmas and then forgot about the next day. No one wanted me for me, only for what I could do for them. It might have been better if I were some drop-dead-gorgeous beauty, because at least then they would have wanted me for something that was mine, even if it was only skin deep. But no, they didn’t care what I looked like, how I acted, what I thought, how I felt, or what I knew. They only cared about power, and how I could help them get it.

Alexander never got between me and my beaus, as he called them, except to warn them against any direct physical attack. He wouldn’t stand for that kind of assault in his compound. He never said anything about mental attacks, and by so doing, gave everyone tacit permission to use mind magic against me.

I couldn’t let my guard down for a second. You probably can’t imagine how exhausting that is, and I don’t like to think about it. My family and friends were all thousands of miles away, and a cell phone is cold company.

Then one day, I had enough. I had finally come to understand that my role in Alexander’s organization was as a trophy, not as a person, and I was done with it. Trouble was, it wasn’t quite as done with me.

* * *

Alexander invited me to dinner the Sunday before Thanksgiving. It wasn’t the first such invitation, but it would be the last, because the next day I would be going home. I had already packed, and was only waiting now to tell Alexander in person. I owed him that much.

Alexander isn’t exactly a mind mage, but he has the strongest gift of charisma I’ve ever run into. My six-year-old brother might come close when he grows up, but I thought Alexander topped even him. Which meant denying Alexander anything was… difficult. His charisma had come into play when I had agreed to come work for him in the first place, although he hadn’t needed to turn on the charm to full force. I admit, I had been running away, at least for a time. (Perhaps I should go with regrouping instead, since running away sounds like cowardice.)

That night, though, he had his charm dialed up to full volume. I noticed it the moment I walked in to see, not the usual collection of advisers and favorites, but a table set for two, lit by candles.

I almost turned right around and left his apartments, ten floors below the ground. I didn’t even have my potion belt with me, thinking I wouldn’t need it with Alexander. I swore then and there that I would never leave it behind again.

“Come in and have a seat,” he said, ushering me to one of the two place settings. As soon as I was settled, he took the domed cover off of my dinner plate to reveal tempting roast duck, boiled potatoes, and steamed broccoli.

I didn’t eat a bite until I splashed a single drop of my special potion on each item. I might not have brought the whole belt, but Alexander didn’t rule the kitchens, and the single vial fit nicely into my clutch.

The potatoes and broccoli passed inspection. The duck didn’t. It was laced with some kind of mind-altering potion. Too bad, it smelled amazing.

“My men have kept you on your toes, haven’t they?” Alexander asked.

“That’s an understatement.”

“You’ve bested them all, though.”

“Yeah.” I didn’t tell him about the near misses. There were too many of them for comfort, and I simply couldn’t remain vigilant twenty-four seven. Sooner or later, something would get through.

“So listen,” I began.

“Cassandra,” Alexander said at the same time.

There was that moment of awkwardness when two speakers realized they had tried to take control of the conversation at the same time, and the silent tug-of-war while one conceded the reigns to the other.

“Cassandra,” Alexander began again, “I know this hasn’t been easy for you. I also know you wish I would be more forceful in keeping them away.”

“Why haven’t you been? One word from you, and they’d stop with the love potions and mental whammies.”

“Would they?” Alexander asked. “I’m afraid they wouldn’t, but that it would give you a false sense of security. Besides, there is one obvious way to put an end to all of this.”

“Oh?” Nothing had occurred to me.

“Get married.”

“Are you serious? To one of those… those… throwbacks to another time?” It was the kindest thing I could think to say about a collection of men who wanted a woman like me.

“Throwbacks to an….” Alexander frowned, the expression etching deep lines into his distinguished face. “You think they want to dominate you? Do you think anyone in this compound believes you could be dominated?”

Yes, I did. Despite everything, or maybe because of it, many of them believed they could “tame” me. A couple had used that precise word.

“If you would just take some time to get to know a few of them, they might surprise you.”

I shook my head. “I don’t want to get married right now. The idea is so far off my radar, it may as well be on another planet.”

“Because of Evan?” Alexander asked.

“Because of a lot of things.” But yes, mostly Evan. It wasn’t that he had broken my heart, although he had, as prophesied, or even because he had broken my soul, though he had done that too. It was because, thanks to Evan, I no longer believed a man would want to marry me for the right reasons. One day I might choose a lesser of evils, if for no other reason than because I wouldn’t let a world full of greedy, power-hungry men keep me from my own dream of having lots of children, but that day was far off. I was only 21, after all. I had plenty of time.

“You should get married,” Alexander said. “I know things have been tough for you, but you need someone to love.”

“None of your men love me.”

“They don’t know you. Most of them would, if they did.”

I stabbed my fork into my plate at random, catching a piece of duck. Great, it was contaminated now. I tossed it down.

“They don’t know what love is if they think they can throw it in duck sauce.”

Alexander chuckled. “Maybe not, but I still think they’d learn. It would also be such a shame… you do want children, right?”

The question sliced like a knife through my heart. He knew I did.

“You’re young. If you start soon, you could have as many children as your parents.”

“Oh, I don’t know if I want that many.” I hadn’t set a number because I always figured I would know when I was done.

“And I hate to say it, because I know you don’t need it, but getting married would protect you.” He held up a hand before I could protest. “If from nothing else, it would protect you from annoyances.”

“There’s a reason to get married–to stop everyone else from asking!”

Alexander smiled, but didn’t join in my mirth. His eyes were sober and solemn. He lifted his napkin from his lap, patted his mouth, and then set it on top of the table, his eyes never leaving mine the entire time.

“You’re a very attractive woman, Cassandra.”

I felt a familiar fluttering in my stomach, but at the same time, it was strange. I had felt something like it before, especially with Evan. A certain look or a simple touch from him, and I felt fluttery sensations straight through to my core, and I didn’t even want to think about how his kisses made me feel.

These fluttery sensations were similar but, I finally realized, they didn’t flow from my heart. Instead, they seemed to flow from my eyes, where they connected to Alexander’s.

“Thank you,” I said, because it was polite. I didn’t feel any gratitude for the compliment, and wished fervently that he hadn’t issued it. I could see where this was going, and I didn’t like it in the least.

“You’re also intelligent, capable, and brave,” Alexander said.

He was starting to sound like one of his speeches, which I tried to point out as a way to break the tension, but those eyes held me. That’s when I realized it didn’t matter what he said–he didn’t know mind magic the way the Blairs did, but he knew something, and he had charisma. I had a sudden memory of Alexander facing off with Matthew Blair at Hodge Mill the first time I had ever met him. It had been a draw, and that was saying something.

Of course, I had beaten Matthew. I could beat this, too.

Alexander kept talking, probably extolling my virtues as well as the wisdom of an alliance between us. I’m pretty sure he didn’t say he loved me; I can give him that much credit, although he came close.

He didn’t give me an opening to speak for a long time. Instead, he anticipated my arguments and countered them. The fact that he was older than my father hardly mattered, since he was still in fine shape, attractive, and fertile. I’m sure there was more to his argument than that, but that’s what I heard. He was trying to tell me, both through words and whatever hypnosis he had going on, that he could give me children and that he wouldn’t be hard to look at while we made them.

The fact that I didn’t love him–yet–didn’t matter, either. He knew I would be strong, committed, and faithful, and that I would grow to love him. Love grew out of mutual respect, after all.

I kept looking for more arguments, but every time I did, he anticipated and countered, leaving me feeling as if he had scored a victory on the point whether he had or not.

Then he made a mistake. He anticipated an argument I would never have made: He told me all about how important I would be as his wife, a leader in my own right. I didn’t want to be a politician. Or a politician’s wife.

It didn’t break the hypnosis entirely, but it gave me clarity enough to recognize my one way out of a proposal which was, with the exception of Matthew’s, the hardest of all to break.

I would have to lie.

“Cassandra,” Alexander said, finally coming to a conclusion. “Will you marry me?”

I should make it clear that at this point, I could have said no. He didn’t have such control over my mind and heart that I had no choice but to accept him. Oh, he had done something to me to make it difficult to refuse him, between the fluttery feeling in my belly and the hypnosis, but so far my voice was my own. My will was, more or less, my own.

“Yes,” I told him, clearly and firmly, not because I had to, but because if I didn’t, he would not have let me leave the next morning–ostensibly, to share the good news with my family over the Thanksgiving holiday.

There was the faintest glimmer of something in his eyes at my easy acceptance. Disappointment, I thought. He had wanted a greater challenge, even expected it. So be it, because the next day I escaped (though my family found this idea melodramatic), and only then did I send him an e-mail telling him what I really thought of his offer.

His electronic response came within fifteen minutes, and the message contained two words: Well played.

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