Some days you just want to smash something, Emma reflected. At the moment she very much wanted to smash the phone against the wall, crushing the black plastic and the tiny nagging voice inside. Unfortunately, in Emma’s case concentrating on the untimely demise of the phone would bring nothing but trouble.
In fact, trouble was a gentle way to put it. A catastrophe would be a much better term, Emma thought.
She tried to block out the voice and fed the stack of correspondence into the copier. Her fingers flicked over the buttons, instructing the machine to scan and email the contents to her email box. She pushed the green Start button. The top paper slid an inch into the copier, made a buzzing noise of doom, and froze. The red error light ignited on the copier’s console. Paper jam.
She closed her eyes and counted to ten. Her normal sense of humor, which she held like a shield against her stress, deserted her for no apparent reason this morning and she spent the whole day miserable.
“Mrs. Dolphin,” she said, momentarily interrupting the torrent of the outrage cascading at her from the phone. “I completely agree with you. It’s very unfortunate that the county had to repave the road in front of your condominium in the middle of summer, while you’re trying to relax and enjoy your retirement.”
“It’s criminal!” Mrs. Dolphin’s tiny voice punched Emma’s ear drum.
“It’s very unfortunate.” Emma yanked the paper free, popped open the top cover and slapped it closed. The paper jam light died. “But the county is fully within their rights to make repairs to the road. Furthermore, as much as I love speaking to you, I have to remind you that our law firm was retained by your home owner association, not by you personally.”
“Bob is the President of the Association and Bob happens to be my husband!”
Emma slid the paper back into the copier, punched in the code, and pressed the Start button.
Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Paper jam.
“I perfectly understand that Mr. Dolphin is the Association President. But that still means that our law firm can’t assist you.”
They had covered why not the first two times Mrs. Dolphin called. Emma knew she should simply repeat the same diplomatic reasons she had listed during the previous conversations but it just wasn’t in her at the moment. “Because associations sometimes sue their members, presidents included. Since we act as the association’s legal coun…”
“Oh my god! You’re going to sue Bob! This is outrageous! “
Instantly Emma knew she had made a terminal mistake. “Mrs. Dolphin…”
The phone went dead. Good riddance, a small fed-up part of her thought. She flipped the paper stack upside down and fed it into the copier. The aggravation swelled in her, but she squished it down. Nothing good ever came from losing control. Not for her. One more time…
“Emma!” The voice snapped like a whip. She almost jumped and would’ve bumped into Lloyd, but the attorney had sidestepped just in time.
He thrust a paper at her. She took it. It was a pleading, a legal document she had proofread and sent at his request that morning.
“You didn’t make the change.” Lloyd’s voice shook with nervous tension.
The paper was peppered with Lloyd’s tiny script. “Which one?”
He pointed to the last paragraph with a trembling finger. “I specifically crossed the first ‘despite’ clause out. Now despite is twice in that sentence. I look like an idiot.”
“I’m very sorry…”
He dragged his hands through his mop of hair. “You have to catch those things.”
“It was my fault,” Emma murmured. It was her fault. And Lloyd was being relatively nice about the situation. “I’ll do my best to avoid these in the future.”
Lloyd nodded, his sad eyes solemn. “Okay.”
He stormed away. Just take it under advisement and move on, Emma told herself. She pushed the start button. Bzzzzzzzzzz. Paper jam.
I will not smash the copier. I will not smash the copier…
“Emma?” Anna’s brisk voice tugged on her attention. She looked up in time to see the senior partner striding toward her, elegant and forceful in a dark wine business suit. The older woman’s face wore a slightly fatigues expression. It had been a long day for everybody. “I just got off the phone with Bob Dolphin. He’s under the impression he’s being sued by us.”
“Mrs. Dolphin misunderstood me,” Emma said, repositioning the paper once again.
“She does that a lot.” Anna smiled a dry, humorless smile. “Still, I would prefer we could avoid such misunderstandings in the future. If at all possible.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“Very good.” Anna turned on her heel and marched into Lloyd’s office.
Bzzzzzzz. Paper jam.
The aggravation, which had grown in her like a tree, congealed into a force. It strained inside her humming at her fingertips, as if her body had turned into a giant bow, drawn tight to its limit. She had only to let go. Unfortunately, that’s precisely what Emma couldn’t do. She took a deep breath, trying to ease the pressure…
The phone rang. Its beep lashed her nerves and her control slipped just a hair.
Something crunched inside the copier with a sick snap. A loud crackling rippled through the plastic and steel innards of the machine. The digital display died a silent death. All lights went out.
Damn it. Emma rubbed her face. It had to happen sooner or later. The entire week, the entire month, had been nothing but a marathon of stress. Of course, she could always quit this job. She could turn around and go back to the family with her tail between her legs.
She’d rather starve.
Still, she had never before broken anything at her job. And she couldn’t explain what she had done either. One of them were even remotely aware of magic. Nobody would believe her. A vacation, she decided, scribbling “Out of Service” on a yellow sticky. She needed a vacation. Eight months without a day off in a high-pressure law firm would stretch anybody to a breaking point. She slapped the note on the copier and wrote down the company’s number, just as Tarema came up with a stack of papers. “Oh no. What happened?”
“I broke it.”
The phone beeped again. Emma picked it up. “Yes?”
“You have a visitor,” the soft voice of the receptionist murmured. “Conference Room C.”
An older woman waited in the conference room. A huge rust-colored shawl, crocheted with FunFur yarn, swallowed her figure, and all Emma could see were the hem of the dark dress and a glorious waterfall of red hair that matched the shawl’s color so precisely, it was hard to say where the hair ended and the shawl began.
The woman turned and Aunt Julia’s warm face greeted her. Her clear grey eyes were huge behind the wire-rimmed glasses perching on her nose. She looked slightly out of it, as if not completely sure where she was or how she had gotten here. Her face lit up. She held her arms out. “Emma!”
They hugged. Emma inhaled the familiar scent of nutmeg that followed Aunt Julia everywhere she went. Emma closed her eyes and for a moment she was again eight years old, back in Aunt Julia’s kitchen, drinking eggnog and dangling her feet from a tall stool.
They sat at the ultra modern conference table.
“This is so nice.” Aunt Julia glanced through the glass wall at the elegant reception area. “You’ve done well. How big is this place?”
“We have about sixty lawyers,” Emma said.
“Wow,” the older woman murmured in a hushed voice. “It’s huge.”
“The firm is about mid-size by national standards.” Emma smiled. “It’s so good to see you.”
Aunt Julia smiled sadly. “You don’t come by anymore. I’ve seen you three times in the last two years.”
“I’ve been… busy,” Emma lied. She missed Aunt Julia terribly, but she knew how it would look to her father. Oh you made a big to do about breaking all ties with me and then ran over to your mom’s side of the family. Couldn’t hack it on your own, could you? She told herself that it didn’t matter what he thought but it still did.
“Your father is throwing a big May dinner this year,” Aunt Julia said. “In the Underhall.”
“I’m not going,” Emma said.
Aunt Julia appeared not to have heard. “The Walters are coming.” She counted the guests off on her fingers. “Us, the Iversens, the Emerys, the Loksleys…”
Every magic family in the area. Father really was going all out.
“And the Russians,” Aunt Julia said carefully.
The Russians were bad news. An old noble family that somehow managed to escape the ravages of Russian revolution, they were obscenely wealthy. They possessed old country magic, mysterious, dark, ancient, and they wielded it with ruthless brutality.
Everybody was scared of the Russians. Nobody stole their expensive cars, nobody broke into their houses, nobody toilet-papered their trees on Halloween. Their reprisals were swift and savage, and they were officially filed under the “Do Not Mess With” heading, and adults of every other family spent a great deal of time and energy imparting this fact onto their teenage offspring. One certainly didn’t invite the Russians to May dinner.
“What is dad doing?” Emma almost groaned. “Is it another one of his power schemes?”
Aunt Julia shrugged. “Nobody knows. He hasn’t said anything to us.”
Us meant the Kruepers, the mother’s side of the family. Of course, he wouldn’t say anything to Kruepers. If he were asked, he would just stick his nose in the air and advise them to mind heir own business.
Aunt Julia sighed. “Marion overheard George talking on the phone and told Jasmine, who told Rachel, who told me… anyway let’s just say that rumor has it, your father is in trouble. In big trouble. With the Russians.”
Worry flared in her chest. “It wouldn’t surprise me,” Emma said dryly.
Aunt Julia leaned forward, her voice soft and low. “Last year, Caleb McCall took one of the Russian girls on a date. Used some beguiling charms. McCalls were always good at that. Anyway, he beguiled her into his car and drove her off to some trailer he apparently had set up for this sort of thing, but the charm wasn’t strong enough. He tried to get hot and heavy, and she fought him. He beat her, knocked out two of her teeth, and raped her. She got away from him and ran through the woods to a gas station. The next morning Caleb’s mother found his head on a stick in her yard. They had cut off his private parts and stuffed them into his mouth.”
“The stick had sprouted roots and branches through Caleb’s skull in one night. They had to saw off the head, and hire a tree removal service to come and extract the stick with one of those machines.” Aunt Julia sighed. “I know that things between you and your father haven’t been that good. But if he’s really in trouble with the Russians, he’ll need every bit of help he can get. He is still your father.” Aunt Julia patted her hand. “I hope you’ll consider coming to dinner.”
The vast, four story tall building occupied an entire city block. Framed in a seven foot tall cast-iron fence, it sat among carefully manicured rose bushes and hedgerows, pretending very hard to be an old gothic-style mansion. It succeeded in part: its harsh rigid lines, stained glass windows, and tall slender towers gave it a foreboding, even menacing air, suggestive of dark secrets and torrid history. On closer examination, however, its solid modern construction and fresh stucco gave it away – it was actually reasonably new and well attended. Inside the gothic mansion gave way to modern luxury, which had made it a popular place to stay for the tourists looking for slightly out of the ordinary experience but unwilling to sacrifice any convenience for it.
Most people knew the mansion as Brennan House, rumored to be haunted and equipped with spectacular minibars. But those in the know, like Emma, called it Underhall, the place of deep magic, and Brennan’s family prized stronghold.
The place looked exactly like it had three years ago, when she marched out with nothing but a shoulder bag.
The heavy doors banged open and a tall slender figure appeared on the steps. “Emma!”
No escape now. “Hi Nikolas. You’re looking well.”
“I can’t believe you’re here.” Her brother ran down the wide steps and sauntered over. Freakishly pretty, he looked so much like her mother, it hurt. His eyes were clear, crystalline grey, his hair a dark, rich Krueper red. Tall, almost willowy, he had a dazzling smile and an easy smooth charm that made people melt in his presence. Physically, he was beautiful. Personally, that was an entirely different matter. “Dad will be ecstatic.”
“You don’t say.” She cleared her throat, hiding the beginnings of a grin. To put “ecstatic” and George Brennan in the same sentence was a crime.
She let Nikolas lead her up the steps, only half-listening to his babble about the menu and decorations. He was twenty now and age widened his shoulders a bit. It suited him well.
Most Brennans grew tall and dark, their hair a glossy, nearly blue black. Most Kruepers, on the other hand, tended to be short, well-muscled, with rust-colored hair and light eyes. Mother had been a rarity. Unlike her stocky relatives, both she and Aunt Julia turned out lissom and supple. Dad had been obsessed with mother’s beauty. He called her his witchy princess.
Nikolas had gotten the best of both worlds: mother’s coloring and father’s height. Emma turned out completely opposite, short, only five three, with the hair that couldn’t figure out if it was brown or black. Her father had lamented the fact that she failed to inherit Krueper “rust” more than once, but it never bothered her. Emma had no problems with her body: she had a small waist, relatively large breasts and a nice butt. But she knew she was nothing special: dark-eyed curvaceous brunettes were a dime a dozen.
Nikolas led her inside. Normally steeped in comfortable gloom, The Underhall had been primped and decorated like a debutante before a ball. Garlands of fake blossoms stretched along the walls. Arrangements of real flowers emitted gentle fragrance from vases that were strategically positioned in the wall niches along the main hallway. Wreaths of green branches, wound with wide lengths of ribbon, punctuated the walls.
They took the main hallway to the vast conference hall, where the usual rows of chairs had been removed and long tables had been set instead, each covered with bright green cloth. She saw father immediately. Tall, his black hair sprinkled with silver, he was chatting up Eaton Loksley and his wife, looking very dark next to Loksley’s blond head and pale skin. Like an aging crow, Emma thought.
Nikolas headed straight for them. “Dad! Look who came to visit us!”
Father turned, looked at her, nodded, and went back to his conversation. And that was that.
The families arrived one by one. The Loksleys came first, very proper and still very British even after many years spent in the States. They said polite hellos in clipped cultured accents and drifted through the room. Emma found herself alone and sat in a chair out of the way. Unsure of what their patriarch decided about her being here, none of the Brennans approached her aside from Nikolas. Emma could see by Aunt Michelle’s strained face that the family was dying to talk to her. Once father tore himself away from smoozing the Loksleys and condescended to speak with her, they would flood her. But he was in no hurry.
The Kruepers followed the Loksleys in a loud silly mob. They assaulted her with ‘who” and “where” and “haven’t seen you in ages.” Aunt Julia hugged her. “Has you father spoken to you?” she murmured in her ear.
“Of course not.”
Julia grimaced. “Stupid man.”
Emma laughed. “He thinks he has a little bit of power left over me and he’s holding on to it with all his teeth.”
Julia shook her head.
“Mom, get out of the way. You’ve seen her, I haven’t.” Valeria all but pushed her mother aside. A carbon copy of Julia, she was a year older than Emma. They hugged.
“When did you come back from England?” Emma asked.
“It’s been three months.”
“Where is Thomas?” Emma scanned the crowd for the lanky figure of Lera’s fiance.
“It didn’t work out,” Lera said with a smile that failed to hide the hurt in her grey eyes.
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
Lera shook her head. “What’s gone is gone. Mom says you work in a law firm?”
The Iversens were next. Five decades ago big brawny blonde Matthias Iversen had married a little tiny Japanese lady by the name of Natsuki Kudo. Their blood mixed with some hilarious results and the progeny they produced, which now formed the Iversen clan, came in every shape and size.
The room grew noisy and joyful. Beer was brought out in a huge vat, followed by the wines and hard liquor tended by a bartender. Somebody conjured a flight of glowing butterflies for the toddlers and the kids chased it, squealing. Theirs was a rough world, families at each others’ throats, vile magic, but today it was full of warmth and cheer and Emma melted right into it, as if she had never left. She never realized before how much she missed it.
The conversation threatened to reach deafening levels and just like that it died, severed like a candle snuffed out by a gust of wind.
The Russians had entered the room.
They wore black and grey. And they looked ready to fight a war.
None of them brought weapons, not that she could see anyway, but as they entered the hall, together, grim-faced, hard-eyed, radiating menace, people scrambled to get out of their way. Emma fought an urge to back away with her hands in the air.
Their leader drew her gaze like a magnet. To say that he was tall or broad-shouldered would be an understatement. He didn’t stand, he towered. Dear God, he must be seven feet tall. His hair framed his face in a disorderly ash-blonde mess. His features were large and roughly hewn: broad face, hard line of a perfectly carved jaw, large mouth with narrow, defined lips… He couldn’t have been more than thirty, judging by his face. His eyes were very dark under wide slashes of eyebrows. Almost black.
Their stares connected and within the obsidian irises Emma glimpsed quick intelligence, sharp enough to draw blood. It slapped her senses, setting her nerves on fire. Danger. Hide. Run away and don’t look back.
She wasn’t sure she could move even if she wanted to. That power in that stare anchored her in place like invisible shackles. Emma knew she should glance away, somewhere safe, maybe to the floor or her own feet, but to do so now would be admitting weakness. So she just looked on with a little smile, waiting to see what he would do.
He glanced away first, shifting his forceful gaze to her father and suddenly she could breathe, as if a fifty pound weight fell off her shoulders.
The hall had gone dead quiet.
The Russian smiled. It was a dazzling smile, touched with sardonic humor and magnetic charm. It transformed his face from a terrifying adversary to everyone’s best friend.
“My friend!” Her father called, stepping forward. “Welcome to the Underhall.”
The tension vanished and immediately the conversation surged back up as the Russians began mingling through the hall.
“Some man, huh?” Lera reflected as they watched the Russian leader clasp hands with Emma’s father.
“You know, he isn’t that enormous. Father is six feet even and look, the Russian is only a couple of inches taller,” Emma said.
“He just seems colossal.” Lera nodded. “Larger than life.”
It was his presence, Emma decided. That sharp predatory presence that instantly intimidated most men into backing away and made women adjust their hair and pull their shoulders back to show off their assets. You could no more ignore him than you could ignore a hungry tiger strolling through a room.
“Like a big predatory cat,” Emma murmured.
“Or a bear.”
“Yes, maybe a bear. Shapeshifting is more common among Slavic families. Maybe he turns into a bear at night and climbs trees to steal honey from the wild bees.”
The Russian finished listening to her father’s spiel and they began making their way to the end of the hall together. Something was definitely up.
“I have a feeling it’s not honey he’d be after.” Lera frowned. “The Russians call him Mullet.”
Emma glanced at her. “Why in the world would they call him that? He doesn’t have a mullet. His hair is messy but it suits him well.”
“I’m probably mispronouncing it. Mullot? Mallot? Anyway, it means hammer in Russian.”
He certainly deserved the name, Emma thought, watching his broad back, as he followed her father into a private room. He looked like he’d hammer you into the ground if you got in his way.
Midway through the dinner, once the opening speeches were done and the party was well under way, Emma wandered away from the crowded main hall to the long brooding hallways of the mansion. The noises of the dinner chased after her, the murmur of voices, random laughter, clinking of glasses, but she outran them and soon she was alone in the blissful quiet. Home… So many memories rested here, woven into the very walls of the hotel.
She let her legs carry her with no direction, soaking up the familiar sights and smells. The small nook where she used to sit with her books. The faint stain on the hallway’s runner, where Nikolas had bled when he was five. He lost his temper and punched a window and it cut his hands. He just stood there, bleeding, and wailed until father came to his rescue. She paused at the Blue Room and edged the door open. While mother was still alive, this room served as her craft room, forever full of looms and yarn and fabric, a purely female domain where men were afraid to tread. It was just a regular guest suite now.
She’d left it all behind. Her father had counted on the pull of this place to bring her back, but it hasn’t. She lived in a small apartment now. It was nice and simple and it felt like home. This place felt like a museum, where shattered pieces of her childhood rested on display.
Emma heard voices around the bend of the corridor and stopped, annoyed. There goes her solitude. She turned to go back the way she came, but Nikolas’s voice stopped her in midstep.
“Honestly, guys, there is no need to overreact…”
She would recognize his tone anywhere – she’d heard it a million times. It was the cute plaintive voice he used when he landed in big trouble and was trying to charm his way out of it.
“How about we’ll go back and have some bee…”
Something cut him off in mid-word. She turned on her heel and marched around the bend. Two Russian men stood in the hallway, watching as their leader hoisted her brother against the wall with one hand locked on Nikolas’s throat. Her brother’s feet dangled half a foot above the floor.
Nikolas saw her and squeezed out a tiny choking sound.
The Russians froze. The leader’s black eyes fastened on her, icy with rage.
Nobody moved. They probably knew who she was but not what she was. Her talent was rare and Brennans took trouble to keep it private. The Russians had to suspect she had a power but had no clue what she could do with it. A stand-off.
In a situation like this, with no metal or complex machinery around, she was completely useless.
“Ah, gentlemen,” she said, keeping her voice light and nonchalant. “You must be lost. I can’t blame you. Underhall can be confusing.”
Nikolas rasped in the Russian’s grip, struggling to breathe. His face turned purple
“Why don’t you let me show you back to the hall?” Emma smiled. “This way.”
She turned and strode down the corridor in an unhurried fashion, as if she didn’t have a care in the world. Her heart hammered in her chest, its beat impossibly loud in her ears. If one of the men behind her reached out to touch her, she’d jump three feet into the air and pummel him to death with her fists.
Emma held her breath. Step. Another step.
A loud thud announced her brother being discarded to the floor. He drew a few tortured gasps. She stopped and looked over her shoulder to see a wall of a chest only a couple feet away. Mullet, or whatever his name was, completely blocked her view. “Hurry up, Nikolas,” she said pleasantly. “Let’s not keep father waiting.”
She continued on her way. A few breaths later Nikolas raced up to her, his eyes wild, his face still magenta in color. He gave her a crazy look and hurried past her into the hall, leaving her alone with three Russians in tow. Nothing changed, Emma reflected. Nikolas was still a selfish conniving whiner.
“Left you by yourself,” said a deep voice over her shoulder.
She forced herself to shrug. “He knows there is no reason to worry.” Chew on that, Mr. Siberian bear.
They turned the corner and Emma saw the wide open door of the hall at the end of the corridor. She squished a sigh of relief. “I believe you can find your way from here.”
The Russians moved past her without a word. Their leader grinned at her in passing, scalding her with a red-hot smile.
She nodded, trying to look amused but not impressed, watched them enter the hall, and went the other way, toward the door, and out into the night. The cold air chilled her. Her legs gave out and she sank onto the steps, breathing hard, as if she’d run a marathon. Her stomach lurched, threatening to jettison the feast back out the way it came.
Gradually fear drained into the night, exhaled with every rapid breath and her mind started working again, slowly, like a rusty windmill. Her first impulse demanded to relay the incident to her father, but her common sense told her that it would accomplish nothing. Nikolas would come up with some sort of ridiculous explanation, and father would buy it hook, line, and sinker. She had learned a long time ago that in their father’s eyes she could do no right and Nikolas could do no wrong. Whatever they’re into, I don’t need to know it, she told herself. She had excised herself from this family. Her good deed for the day was accomplished. She could leave with a clean conscious.
I’m twenty five years old. I have my own life.
Emma pushed from the stairs, pulled her keys out of the pocket of her jeans, and headed to her Kia.
The Cannon repairman frowned at Emma from across her desk. “It says in the trouble report you caused the malfunction of the copier.”
“Yes, I did.” Emma braced herself for the estimate. The copier was state of the art. She had no idea how much the repairs would cost. Hopefully under five grand. That’s how much money she had saved for a house down payment and a rainy day. Well, it was raining.
“You couldn’t have done it.” The technician gave her a sharp look. “Come with me, please.”
He led her to the utility room, where Lloyd loitered by the copier. He must’ve had a hearing coming up, because he’d stolen a handful of chocolate minibars from the conference room and now nervously unwrapped the candy, chain-popping the chocolate into his mouth.
The tech crouched by the copier, spread open like some sort of mechanical flower. “First, the factory seal was intact, so I was the first person who opened it. Second, look at this.” He pointed to the inside of the copier. There, among plastic lay a sphere the size of a basketball made of crushed metal parts: wires, broken computer plates, and plastic rolls neatly compacted into a dense ball. The tech took a wrench and banged at the ball. The ball appeared unimpressed. “Whatever caused it, you weren’t it.”
“I was using it when it happened,” Emma insisted. “I must’ve done something to make this happen.”
“Lady, it would take a car compactor to do this,” the tech declared. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s not humanly possible.”
“You’re being irrational,” Lloyd told her.
Emma saw no graceful way to counter.
“It’s the freakiest thing,” the tech reflected.
A harried admin stuck her head into the room. Emma struggled for a moment to recall her name. Belinda. That was it.
“Anna wants you in conference room A.”
“I’ll be right back,” Emma told the tech and headed to conference room, brushing her hair out of her face on the way. Like all conference rooms, room A was enclosed in glass walls, but the glass panels here had been frosted. She had no way of figuring out who waited for her inside. If her bad luck continued, it would be Mr. and Mrs. Dolphin come to demand a personal apology.
She knocked carefully and opened the door.
A tall man sat in the chair, his back to the door, facing Anna. The man had ash-blond hair.
Emma stared, incensed. He came here. To her place of business. Everybody knew that ordinary world things like jobs and schools were off-limits. It was the unwritten cardinal rule of their little community. How dare he.
“Emma, so nice of you to join us,” Anna said. Laying on charm so thick, butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. “Please come in. I believe you know Mr. Morozov?’
Emma walked into the room, a smile fixed on her face. Morozov rose and offered her his hand. He wore a tailored grey suit that probably cost her annual salary. Salary he put into jeopardy by choosing to barge into her comfortable, mundane life. Emma took his hand and squeezed hard, wishing with all her might for Grandma Mindy’s powers so she could incinerate him on the spot with her look.
A hint of a smile curved Mullet’s mouth. He squeezed back, nearly crushing her fingers. She clenched her teeth to deny him the satisfaction of a wince. He let go off her hand and she sat opposite him, on Anna’s right.
“Mr. Morozov has expressed interest in retaining our services,” Anna crooned. “He tells me we have you to thank for that and he wanted to make sure that if he chooses to sign engagement agreement, you would get the credit.”
“That’s very generous of you,” Emma said sweetly.
“It’s the least I can do,” Morozov said in his baritone.
Anna proceeded to list the firm’s services, going over the engagement agreement, referencing to the garish array of marketing materials spread before her, and sprinkling flattery between the data points. Emma tuned her out. Morozov watched Anna, seemingly absorbed in her chatter. A faint whiff of Irish Spring soap drifted across the table from him. His jaw was clean shaven, his hair brushed, but more importantly, his demeanor had changed. Gone was the menacing warrior. In his place sat a power-broker. He smelled of money and prestige. She wondered if she could kick him under the table without Anna’s noticing.
What was he hoping to accomplish? Was this an intimidation tactic? We know where you work and can screw it up for you any time we please? If so, he was barking up the wrong tree. She wasn’t intimidated in the slightest. She was pissed as hell, however.
Finally the presentation came to the end. Pleasantries were exchanged and Anna rose to walk Morozov out to the elevator. “Emma, please wait for me here. I need to speak to you.”
They left. A minute stretched by. Another. Emma picked a marketing pamphlet and fiddled with it. Honestly, how long does it take to walk a man to the elevator? It was twenty five feet away. Vam, bam, thank you ma’am.
The door opened, admitting Anna inside. She closed the door and walked to her chair, her face tired and haggard. She sat, picked up an issue of Community Association Expert, looked at it, and tossed it back on the table.
“Do you know who Morozov is?” she asked.
An arrogant asshole. “Not really. We met very casually at a party.” Where he held my brother up by his throat.
“Aldebaran Development,” Anna said.
Emma blinked. Aldebaran development was easily the biggest developer in the mid-size commercial real estate.
“The Morozov family owns it,” Anna said. “We had profiled them as a possible client when we opened this office. Their attorney is family. I don’t believe for a moment that they will sign with us. What is the point of sending one of your children to Georgia School of Law and have him graduate cum laude, if you’re going to turn around and hire an outside counsel?”
She sighed. “I know that young people tend to ignore advice when it comes from someone older. I’m almost fifty, and at the risk of sounding cliché, I’m old enough to be your mother. But I wasn’t always a workaholic, so I hope you look at this advice as coming from someone who’d been there and done what you now contemplate doing. The Morozov family has old money. His parents had money. His grandparents had money. His great grandparents had money and their parents brushed sleeves with Romanov royal family. You and I will never understand people like that. They have an entirely different mindset. They don’t know what it’s like to be poor or hungry. They have no concept of living paycheck to paycheck. You can’t explain it to them; they have no frame of reference.”
Emma sat quietly not sure what to say. This side of Anna was new to her.
“People like that view others as means to an end. And Mr. Morozov, although he looks handsome in his Brioni and can knock a woman off her feet with his smile, is knitted from the same cloth. He isn’t looking for a nice girl to take care of him and his money. He’s looking for a quick cheap lay he can shrug off when she bores him.” Anna sighed. “You’ll do what you’ll do and I can’t help that. All I’m saying is, be careful because all the money and thrills in the world aren’t worth having your heart broken.”
Emma had brought her lunch, just like always, a home-made salad with bits of chicken roasted a couple of days ago. The same salad cost $6.00 in the cheapest deli downtown and most days she couldn’t afford to fork out $6.00 for lunch. Spending six dollars plus tax every day amounted to wasting about seventy dollars out of every two-week paycheck. But today, after Anna’s speech, she had to get out of the office. The moment the clock on her computer turned one o’clock, her lunch hour, she logged out of the system and escaped.
The brightness of a May day did nothing to lift her spirits. The high rise sat recessed from the street. A narrow access road curved by the building and rejoined the busy throughway in a horse-shoe loop. Directly across the access road sat a large pound, its banks surrounded by artfully manicured greenery. Three small cypresses grew out of the water, spreading painstakingly trimmed branches. Beyond the pond, another highrise stabbed the sky.
The access road and the park lay deserted. Most people took their lunch at noon, but she fielded calls from Anna and Lloyd’s clients during the lunch hour, and by the time one o’clock came around, her head hummed with a dozen conversations. Usually she grabbed her lunch and went to the park to sit and quietly pick at her salad alone. She liked it that way. On most days, the steady stream of cars at the busy street to the left was the only indicator of human presence. Today a lone white van sat parked at the curb, in the bend of the access road. It would get towed before the day was over if the driver didn’t move it.
Emma closed her eyes, turned her face to the sunshine, and let the breeze and sun wash away the heavy cloud of embarrassment and dread that clung to her.
It was very plain that Anna thought she was having an affair with Morozov. Or about to have an affair. The very idea was preposterous. Yes, Morozov was attractive in an animal sort of way, if you were easily taken in by slabs of hard muscle and aggressive power. And his wealth greatly enhanced his appeal to some women. But she didn’t have a cave-woman complex and she made her own money. It wasn’t much but it was enough. She liked her men smart and sophisticated. She liked witty conversations and serious discourse. Morozov’s idea of a date would be to rip a woman’s clothes off, toss her on his bed, and have his way with her, while growling ferociously.
The very suggestion that she might be interested in him made her clench her teeth. When Anna brought it up, her first instinct was to deny it, immediately and vehemently. Nothing went on between her and Mullet. Nothing would ever go on between her and Mullet. But something must’ve happened in Anna’s past, something the older woman must’ve tried very hard to put aside. Anna had bared the wound for her sake, to keep her from making the same mistake, and so Emma just listened quietly and thanked her in the end.
By his mere appearance, Morozov completely destroyed the mundane haven of her job. She worked very hard to be taken seriously, as a professional. She didn’t date or flirt at work. She didn’t date or flirt period, not for the last four years, but that wasn’t exactly by choice. At the heart of it, despite her everyday pragmatism, Emma was a romantic and she fully realized that. She didn’t want to date. She wanted to fall madly, hands over feet, in love. The kind of love that would make her lose her mind and fill her with giddy anticipation. But leaving the family effectively cut her off from the community of magic. And falling in love with a man without magic meant she could never share that part of self with him. So Emma didn’t date. Men didn’t hit on her anyway: the only place she met men was at her job, where she strove to be a paragon of secretarial virtue.
Now Anna thought she was a floozy. And a gold digger. And it would get around the office – it inevitably did.
A quiet rumble of a vehicle coming to a stop made her open her eyes. A dark grey Audi pulled up in front of her. It was aerodynamic and elegant, a child or a race car and a luxury automobile, slick, fast, expensive. The kind of car James Bond might drive.
The window rolled down with a smooth electronic purr. Dangerous black eyes stared at her.
Morozov. The nerve.
Emma gave the car a slow deliberate once-over. “Could scrape up enough for a Lamborghini?”
Emma turned and began walking down along the pathway to the main road. She had no choice: returning to the building would smell too much like retreat, and she’d rather die than let him think he intimidated her.
The Audi followed alongside her. The narrow walkway kept her close to the parking lot. Cutting across the grass wasn’t an option. With her heels, she’d sink right into the freshly watered lawn and have the devil of a time pulling her shoes out, while the Russian Mullet of Doom laughed himself silly. Just keep walking, she told herself grimly.
“You should go to lunch with me,” Morozov said.
She ignored him.
“You like French food? I’ll take you to JOËL. We can talk about your brother.”
“What happens to my brother is not my concern. Try my father with that offer.”
“You’re a frigid little thing,” he said with light amusement. “Do I need to spring for some expensive booze to thaw you out?”
“Ha!” She leveled a look of pure scorn at him. “I’ll spring for my own booze, thank you very much, when I eat my lunch. By myself.”
“Why make this difficult?” he asked. “We both know that you’ll come to have lunch with me.”
Emma stopped and fixed him with an icy look, loading so much derision into it, it was a wonder he didn’t faint on the spot. “Hell will sprout roses first.”
She resumed her walk.
“It’s like that, huh?”
“I’m not going to lunch with you. No. Nyet.”
He sighed. “Okay. Have it your way.”
The Audi dropped back. Emma maintained her stride. Well, that was kind of anticlimactic. All that growling and posturing and “You will go to lunch with me” and then he just gave up. Not that she was disappointed, but…
A large shape loomed behind her. Steel hands grasped her waist and lifted her off her feet with laughable ease. The ground vanished, somewhere below and she found herself face to face with Morozov, their gazes level.
“Let go off me!” she hissed in her best mother voice. It always worked with Nikolas.
“Settle down.” With a self-satisfied smile, Morozov slung her over his shoulder as if she was a sack of potatoes and headed to his car.
She jerked, trying to throw him off balance, and kicked him in the chest. Like ramming your knee into a concrete column.
“Stop squirming,” Morozov commanded.
Emma rocked back, flexing her stomach and sank her nails into his neck, clawing at his skin. He kept moving. She took a deep breath and screamed at the top of her lungs. “Heeeelp! Help me!”
No passersby were around to answer her call.
Morozov tossed her into the passenger seat of the Audi. She tore at the door but it was locked, and the latch resisted her frantic efforts to pull it open.
“Custom locks.” Morozov’s enormous form slid into the driver seat. He shut the driver door.
Emma swung her feet up and hammered a kick into his side. The spiked heels dug into his flesh. He snarled, caught her foot, tore off her shoe and tossed it in the back. She kicked at him with her other foot, but he stripped off her other shoe.
“It’s your own damn fault. I offered to take you to lunch. I would’ve slipped a roofie into your drink. It would’ve been nice and civilized.”
“If you’re that hard up, get a damn hooker!”
“It’s not about you, you idiot. It’s about your brother.”
His neck was bleeding where she had clawed it. She lunged at it, hoping to make the wounds bigger. He raised his arm and she collided with it. He pushed her back, throwing her against the door. She might as well fight with an iron golem for all good it did her. The Audi swung around, heading to the street.
“I won’t hurt you unless you make me,” Morozov said.
“You have three seconds to let me out of this car.” Steel vibrated in her voice.
“Hell will sprout roses first,” he told her.
“You thought this through?” she asked.
“Okay.” Emma gathered all of her rage, smiled, and channeled it into the Audi.
Demyan Morozov was about to edge into the traffic when his world imploded. The dashboard attacked him, ramming the wheel into his chest. His door folded inward, pinning his arm just as the passenger door exploded outward. He swiped at the girl, but she squirmed through the opening and took off.
At the bend of the access road the white van rocked. Its doors burst and Ignat and Vasya hit the ground running toward him
“Not me!” he roared at his men, trying to fight free of his metal prison. “The girl! Get the girl!”
The men veered right, cutting off her access to her building. She swung left and flew across the grassy lawn.
Demyan rammed his shoulder into his door. It gave with a tortured screech. He smashed into it again, sinking all of his strength into the blow. A two inch gap of light sliced between the bottom of the door and the body of the car, and then the door held fast. He growled. The flash of magic burst deep within his chest. A glowing carmine outline coated his skin. The metal shuddered and shook around him, struggling to contain his aura.
Power swept through him in a hot flood, making him stronger, faster, sharper. Demyan grabbed the wheel pinning him in place and ripped it off with a savage jerk. He brought his arms to his chest and thrust them to his sides.
Carmine splayed. The driver door exploded, crashing to the ground with a dull clang. The roof flew off.
He shot out of the car with a hoarse snarl. The aura flared about him, feeding off his rage. He extinguished it, took a second to get his bearings, and chased after the girl.
She had nearly cleared the park. Ignat finally recalled what his power was and stopped, waving his arms. A green shoot snapped from the grass like a lasso, tripping her. She fell and rolled to her feet. Vasya was almost on her. He swiped at her arm, expecting her to run. She dodged his fingers and punched him in the throat. The attack came so unexpected that Vasya did nothing to counter. He choked and she kicked him in the balls. He folded onto the grass.
“Idiots,” Demyan growled.
Ignat clawed at the air in a deranged dance. The ground erupted under the girl’s feet. Green lassos whipped at her ankles. She dashed left, right, and jumped into the pond. Smart.
The girl splashed through the water the color of tea, aiming for the far end, cut off from the rest of the lawn by a tall metal fence marked “Authorized Personnel Only.” If she made it to the shore, she could cut through the high rises and be gone before they managed to scale the fence. Or worse, she might find help. Good luck explaining that.
Ignat hesitated at the edge of the pound.
“Jump in after her, you balda!” Demyan yelled. He was almost to the pond.
Ignat gingerly stepped into the pond, slipped, and landed on his ass in the murky water.
Demyan leapt over Vasya, who was still squirming in the grass, and splashed into the pond.
The girl squeezed a burst of speed, but she was wading to the deep end and the water came up to her ass, while for him it was above his knee. This was one of those cases where his strength paid off. In four breaths he caught up with her.
The tea-colored water lay placid. He waded to the far end of the pond as fast as he could. There it was, a ripple on the surface. He leapt onto it and plucked her from under the water. She kicked and squirmed in his hands. He lost his footing and they went down in tangle of limbs into the tepid sludge. He surged back up with a growl and dragged her to the shore, where Ignat was dancing in place, a syringe with sedative in his hands.
She snapped and hissed like a pissed off cat. Demyan wrestled her onto the grass, pinning her down with his bulk. Ignat scooted back and forth, trying to find a spot where he could sink the needle.
With a long, agonizing whine, the lamp post by the road toppled onto the pavement, missing the van by a mere foot.
“Do it!” Demyan barked.
Ignat pierced her left thigh. She clawed at Demyan’s arms, but the strength went out of her fingers. She took a deep breath and went limp.
Demyan held her for another moment, afraid she was faking, but she lay still and he rolled off of her. He was soaked. Foul-smelling muck dripped from his hair. His neck burned where she had scratched it with her nails. His side ached where she had kicked him with those cursed heels. From here he could see the car. The front of the Audi R8 was a mangled ruin. Bits and pieces of sharp metal stuck out in a chaotic mess from the gaping hole that used to be the hood, as if a bomb had gone off inside the engine. The left side of the car scrunched, trying to impersonate a crushed coke can. The right side curved outward. The roof peeled back. The vehicle wasn’t just totaled. It was utterly unrecognizable.
He really liked that car. He only had it for six months.
“A simple kidnapping.” Demyan shook his head. “Just one girl. Whose plan was this again?”
“Yours,” Ignat told him.
“Right.” Demyan rolled to his feet and picked her up. She felt tiny now in his hands, light as a feather. “Bogah rahdi, Vasylii, get off the damn lawn. Like you’ve never been kicked in the nuts before. Call a wrecker for the car. Let’s get her out of here before somebody comes to ask questions. Or before she comes to.”
He shuddered at the thought.
Emma awoke slowly. She dreamt of being stuffed into a bag full of cotton. She tore at the white stuff and clawed at the blue fabric of the bag, but it refused to break. Finally, she opened her eyes, saw an unfamiliar ceiling, and pushed up.
“Here’s the deal,” Morozov’s voice said.
She turned and winced at the ache in her back. Her arms felt filled with lead.
Morozov sat in a chair opposite her. He wore a fresh pair of jeans and a white T-shirt. His hair was perfectly clean and not even a little bit damp. She was out long enough for him to wash up and for his hair to dry. Emma looked down at herself. She still wore her khakis, stained with brown smudges of mud. She smelled like a swamp.
“You behave yourself and don’t break things,” he told her. “Or you can spend your time here drugged up and chained to the wall. Your choice.”
“What do you want with me?” Her voice came out hoarse.
“You put me through all this for nothing?”
Morozov sighed. “Your brother stole something from us. Something important and very valuable. We know he did it. He knows he did it. He knows we know he did it. We can’t prove he did it and he knows that too.”
Her head throbbed with pain. All of the knows blended into a mess. “Do you have a point?”
“My point is, I want our property back.” He leaned back. The muscles on his arms bulged. His gaze blazed with terrifying power that froze her in place.
“I could go to war,” he said, his voice low and hard.
Emma drew back from the terrible finality of his words. His eyes told he knew the price the war exacted. It was paid in blood and bodies. He didn’t want to pay it but the severity of his face told her he would, if his hand was forced. She looked into his eyes and saw her family shattered, Underhall burned in splashes of brutal magic, her father and brother reduced to corpses, and him walking through the carnage, his eyes glowing red, like a merciless demon.
Fear raced up her spine and lodged in her throat in a hard clump. For the first time since she had seen him dangle her brother above the floor, Emma was truly and completely terrified.
“I value my people,” the demon in human skin said. “I don’t want to destroy lives, ours and yours, because your punk-ass brother has sticky fingers.”
The pressure of his presence eased and Emma drew a breath. He wasn’t a demon. Just a man. It had to be some sort of intimidation power. She recalled him striding into the party at the Underhall. He’d seemed enormous then, impossibly big and powerful. He was almost pleasant now, amicable, so he could turn it on and off at a moment’s notice. It was just magic, Emma told herself. She could deal with magic.
She cleared her throat. “So…” Her voice trembled and she clenched her teeth to get herself under control.
The left corner of his mouth crept up in a self-satisfied smirk. She went from near panic to anger. “What’s your plan?” she said, crossing her arms on her chest.
“I sent your father a message. I’m going to trade you for our object of power.”
It was the most absurd idea she had ever heard. Emma tried to keep a straight face, but laughter bubbled up, and she dissolved into giggles.
Morozov looked taken aback. “What’s so damn funny?”
“You don’t know my father very well, do you?”
“No. Enlighten me.”
She tried, but the laughing fit got the better of her, and she waved her arms. It had to be nerves.
He rolled his eyes.
“First,” she choked out, “Nikolas never does anything wrong. He could walk over to a man in full view of fifty people and stab him in the heart, and my father would be sending the family out to scout for an invisible assassin who must’ve have done the deed. If you’re hoping for any kind of investigation, you’re out of luck.”
“And second?” Morozov asked.
The laughter finally died down. She hiccupped, held her breath to get rid of the hiccups, and continued. “Second, my father lives to scheme. The dictionary has his picture in it under conniving. If devil tried to bargain with my dad for his soul, at the end of negotiations my father would keep his soul and devil would end up owing him twenty bucks. If he did manage to get his hands on an object of power, he would rather die than let it go. He certainly wouldn’t trade it for me.”
Morozov’s thick eyebrows crept up. “Pointing this out to your kidnapper isn’t the smartest move.”
“On the contrary,” Emma smiled. “I’m saving you the trouble of prolonged negotiations which will end in nothing. My father and I are estranged. Sure, he might make a play for time, hoping to find the object and use it himself, but in the end you’ll get nowhere. So you should let me go now. I promise I won’t call the cops. He simply doesn’t value me that much, you see?”
A smug expression claimed Morozov’s face. “No, I think you don’t see. I’m the Russian Hammer. I have a certain reputation. I’m a violent, mean, ruthless sonovabitch. Mothers tell their daughters scary stories about me to keep them home after curfew. No father would ever leave his daughter in my clutches. If it was my daughter, or my sister, I’d move heaven and earth to get her away from me.”
He said it with such surety that she believed him. Women in his family must’ve felt very safe knowing they had him to rely on. “You’re judging my father by what you would do,” she said, her voice not unkind.
“He isn’t a monster.” Morozov got up and once again she was overwhelmed by the sheer size of him. “He’ll deal.”
He strode to the door.
“So what am I suppose to do in the meanwhile?” she called after him.
He gave her a casual glance. “I’d shower. You smell awful.”
“I smelled like roses before you dunked me into that pond.”
“As I recall, you jumped in all by yourself,” he pointed out.
“Your minions chased me in there. I had no choice.”
Morozov grinned in triumph. “Aaaah, but you did have a choice. You could’ve come to lunch with me and had some lobster risotto or one of those twenty dollar salads you women like. We would drink some lovely wine and then you’d feel light-headed, fall asleep, and wake up here. But no, you had to have a huge chase through the park. You kicked poor Vasiliy in the balls. You annihilated my car.”
“You tried to kidnap me!” She glowered at him.
“I didn’t try. I did.”
Her eyes narrowed. The power swelled in her. There had to something metal and electric in this house she could crunch.
“Basement,” he said with a smile that was pure, undiluted evil. “Damp, dark basement, with rats and cockroaches. One whisper of magic and that’s where I will chain you.”
She snorted. “You probably don’t even have a basement.”
The wicked light dancing in his eyes assured her he did and would enjoy chaining her there. “I have to keep you alive and in good health, as you’re my hostage. I don’t have to make you comfortable. If I want to have you tied up in the yard like a dog, I can do that. Or I can make you join me for dinner – naked.”
She gritted her teeth. “Do you just generally get off on humiliating women?”
Morozov looked down on her. “Don’t think for a moment that because you’re a woman, you’ll get any slack. You know those cute date movies where a woman throws the guy’s stuff out of the window into the street, punches him in the nose, embarrasses him in front of his friends, and everybody thinks it’s adorable, sexy, and funny? Well, this isn’t one of those movies. You punch me, you better get ready to block. I’ll give you the car – it’s fair, because you were defending yourself. But you damage anything else of mine, because you’re throwing a hissy fit, and I’ll take it out of your hide. Be reasonable, and I promise I’ll turn you over to your father in exact same condition you came here.”
Emma couldn’t resist. “Covered in mud, half-drugged, and pissed off beyond all reason?”
“If need be.” He stepped through the door and shut it.
He was gone.
Emma looked around. She sat in an airy room on a bed pushed against the wall. Judging by the light spilling into the room through the tall window in the right wall, it was almost evening. In an hour the sunset would be imminent.
A blue Oriental rug, splashed with elaborate flourishes of cream and green, hung on the wall behind the bed. A small round table, covered with a blue cloth, stood on her right, supporting a white lamp. A larger round table stood closer to the door, flanked by two chairs upholstered in cream-colored fabric. Next to it perched a small dresser of blond wood. Two doors cut the walls. The first, directly opposite her, hid Morozov’s escape route. The second, on her left, stood wide open and through it she saw a blue shower curtain and a toilet with cream cover.
It was a nice room, she admitted grudgingly. The blue and cream colors were soothing, the mattress criminally soft, the pillows plump. It wasn’t a sort of room that predisposed one to acts of daring escape; it was the sort of room where one took naps and read books in bed atop plush blue covers with a glass of iced tea on the table nearby. He probably counted on the room to keep her docile. Fat chance.
Emma crawled off the bed, uncomfortably aware of dried flecks of mud showering from her, and came to the window.
She was on the third floor. A vast garden lay before her. No, “garden” implied something small and carefully tended to. She saw woods: straight spires of pines; massive oaks; fluffy ashes; rowans with textured leaves; and a stretch of birches, their white bark, striped with black, almost glowing. Beautiful glades, filled with pink, white, and yellow wild flowers, interrupted the trees. A narrow ribbon of the river wound its way through the forest. Its water was dark in the shadow and sparkled like a jewel when the sun hit it. Weeping willows lined the river’s banks, dripping their long thin branches to the river like a group of lithe women come to wash their hair in the clear water. Emma pushed the window open and took a deep breath. The air tasted sweet.
She hugged herself and stood for a long while, drinking in beautiful tranquility. The trees stood too far apart, too picturesque to have grown naturally. Someone planted, weeded, and managed this wilderness, turning it into a beautiful fairy tale wood.
Eventually she stepped up to the window and looked down. The walls were sheer. It would be hard to climb out without a rope. And if she did climb out, which way would she go? The woods couldn’t stretch on forever; they were planted, after all, but she couldn’t see that far out. She had no idea what lay at the end of the woods. It could be more wilderness, the natural sort, or a busy interstate, or a subdivision.
She stepped away from the window and pulled out the top drawer of the dresser. A pack of underwear greeted her, white Hanes, still in the plastic wrap. Oh good. At least she wouldn’t be reduced to wearing hand-me-downs from Mullet’s bimbos.
Further search unearthed three bras, all in different sizes, and a light green sundress that looked like it would fit her. Emma sighed, scooped her clothes, and headed to the bathroom to take a shower. She locked the door and tried the handle. A bit loose. She opened the door, dragged one of the chairs from the room inside the bathroom, locked the door again, and propped the chair against the door handle. There. Now she could wash herself in peace.
It was only when the hot water cascaded from the shower head, drowning out all sounds with its steady hum, Emma allowed herself to cry. But only for a little while. She had to face Mullet later and she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing her red eyes and puffy cheeks.