A couple of people are having really difficult time this week due to deaths in the family. They asked for a snippet, so we are making an exception and releasing a little more. We will have to put the obligatory buy links and cover so Avon views this as promotion.
I had texted Mom while en route, and the family met us at the door. Bern took Ragnar from Augustine and carried him into my office; Grandma Frida wrapped a blanket around Runa, Arabella thrust a cup of hot cocoa into her hands, Leon told her she was safe now, and Mom thanked Augustine and shut the door in his face.
Then everybody left, abandoning us in my office. Runa blinked at me from the client chair, her hands wrapped around the mug of hot chocolate, looking a little shell-shocked.
I walked over to where Ragnar lay on the floor, to the left of my desk. Someone had already moved the rug, exposing the arcane circle underneath, and Bern had placed the boy inside it. Drawn in chalk by hand, arcane circles served various purposes. Some refined the mage’s power, some amplified or channeled it. This one drained excess magic. I had drawn it for just such an emergency and redrew it every week, for practice. From above, it resembled a complex double ring, encircled by glyphs. Straight lines of various lengths pierced the rings, radiating out like the sun’s corona.
I took a piece of chalk from the shelf and drew two lines connecting the second circle under my chair to the one with Ragnar in it. I sat in the chair and sank a burst of magic into the smaller ring under my feet. The chalk lines flashed with silver and faded to a weak white glow as the circle began to sap my magic from Ragnar. Eventually I would get tired and have to quit, but I had a lot of power and I was willing to bet Ragnar would be purged first.
“He’ll be fine,” I told Runa. “There is no way to keep his magic from being drained as well, so he might be groggy, powerless, and kind of flat emotionally for the next few days.”
“That might be for the best,” she said.
I felt pressure to say something, but my brain refused to come up with anything appropriate. Asking her if she was okay was pointless. Her mother and sister had just died. In her place I would be catatonic.
Runa looked away from me to the corner of my desk. Her eyes widened. I glanced to the right to see what she was looking at.
A framed picture of Alessandro Sagredo sat on my desk. The frame itself was square, but the photograph cutout was shaped like a heart, its edge studded with rhinestones seated in the small pools of the glue from the hot glue gun. The left half of the frame was a hideous Pepto-Bismol pink; the other was covered in pink glitter. Massive plastic jewels decorated both. The image of Alessandro was black and white, and on it in pink glittery marker someone had written, “My smoochie poo.”
I would recognize that cursive anywhere. My twenty-eight-year-old sister took the time out of her busy schedule of wrenching the truth from terrorists and murderers and preparing for an extended trip overseas to make this monstrosity, and then conspired with my other sister to troll me with it.
Why, Nevada? Why . . .
He was tall and broad-shouldered. He stood with an easy, natural grace. I used to stalk his Instagram and I knew every line of his face, but he hadn’t posted for a while and usually his pics were posed. Alessandro against a Maserati. Alessandro on a yacht. Alessandro riding an elegant Andalusian horse like he was born in the saddle. Alessandro the Prime. Count Sagredo. The heir of one of the oldest noble families in Italy. Wealthy, powerful, handsome, once a teen heartthrob with millions of followers on Herald and Instagram and now a man who weaponized his influence and beauty. He could make a photograph communicate whatever he wanted.
But this, with the sun in his eyes and wind messing with his brown hair, this was real. And his smile was magic. I looked at it and was eighteen again, standing across from him in a trial room, waiting to match my magic against his and prove that I was a Prime. He had spoken to me, impossibly handsome, with amber eyes and that slightly lopsided grin, and I couldn’t even make noises come out of my mouth.
I thought I was over this.
“Boyfriend?” Runa asked.
“No.” And that didn’t hurt at all.
Whenever I looked at Alessandro, in pictures or in person, he made me think of duels and courting, of a time when men carried swords and women concealed daggers. There was a dangerous edge to him, hidden deep in his eyes, and it drew me to him like a magnet. But that Alessandro was a fantasy, born from reading too many books set in medieval Italy with all its wars, glamour, art, and poison. He was a fantasy the way imagining being a secret princess was a fantasy. I knew it wasn’t real, but it was so seductive, I couldn’t let it go.
The real Alessandro didn’t carry a sword. He was an Antistasi Prime. His magic nullified other mental magic. The Keeper of Records had chosen him to test my power during the trials. To be recognized as a Prime, I had to make Alessandro step over the line drawn on the floor. He took the full brunt of my power and resisted it for several minutes, but in the end I won.
With that type of talent, there were only two paths open to Alessandro: military service or private protection. He chose neither. Instead, he did what many young Primes with too much money and freedom chose to do. He indulged. He sailed yachts, raced fast cars, and dated stunning women.
He and I were worlds apart. He would never be what I imagined him to be and it was probably for the best.
I slapped the frame facedown on the desk. The back of the frame was covered in pink hearts and small pictures of Alessandro printed from his Instagram.
If the world had any compassion in it at all, I would teleport a thousand miles away.
Runa squinted at the back of the frame. “Is that Alessandro Sagredo?”
I picked up the frame to throw it in the trash, changed my mind halfway there, and dropped it into the desk’s top drawer instead. Putting him in the garbage was beyond me. “My sisters have a weird sense of humor.”
“Sisters do that,” she said, her voice dull.
And hers was dead. “I’m so, so sorry.”
She looked at me with haunted eyes. “Thank you. You’re the only person who’s been nice to me since this happened.”
Who wouldn’t be nice to her? She just lost most of her family. “What do you mean?”
“I was at UCLA. I’m working on my master’s, molecular toxicology.”
Her tone was flat, her expression detached. She had to be barely keeping it together. I’d been there before, in a place where you’re so freaked out that you hold yourself supertight, because any splash of emotion could break the dam and you would fall to pieces.
“On Monday I got a call from the Houston PD. They said, ‘The residence in Piney Point Village burned down and we believe your mother and sister died in the fire.’ Just like that. I understood that sentence, but also kind of didn’t. I knew what the words meant, I just couldn’t put them together to make sense. I must’ve stood there with the phone in my hand for ten minutes, just trying to process, you know?”
I didn’t, but I could imagine it in vivid detail.
Runa sighed. “I took the first flight.”
It was Wednesday now. She’d been in town for two days.
“I came back to a burned-out husk of a house and two dead bodies. Ragnar was on a school trip to Colorado at an astronomy camp. No cell reception. I had to call the local police station and get them to notify him. That first day, after I viewed the bodies, I just didn’t know what to do with myself. I mean, what do you do when your mom and sister are lying on a table so burned, the ME has to use dental records to identify them?”
That was odd. Why dental records? Everything Primes did was dictated by the need to strengthen and preserve their magic. Parenthood was no exception. The Houses based marriages on calculated DNA matches most likely to result in powerful offspring. Because of this, every magically significant bloodline registered with a genetic database. It would take at most twenty-four hours to compare DNA from the bodies to their genetic profiles, and unlike dental records, DNA match was error-proof.
Runa looked into her cup. “I didn’t want to be by myself, so I called Michelle. We’ve been friends since middle school. She wouldn’t take my call. Then I called Felicity, my other friend. She picked up, made all the right noises, and then when I asked her if I could stay with her for one night, she told me she would call me back in five minutes.”
Runa looked at me. Her eyes looked dead. My heart cracked. When I met her two and a half years ago, Runa was larger than life. She made jokes, she ate poisoned fondant, she flirted with Rogan’s security detail. She was strong and confident and alive. This Runa wasn’t even a shadow of herself. She was a ghost.
“Felicity never called back?” I guessed.
“No. I’ve known these people for years. They were my squad. We’ve lost touch since we all went to college, but we got together on holidays. We follow each other’s accounts on Herald. These were my friends, Catalina.” A little life came back into her gaze. “I expected them to have my back.”
That didn’t surprise me. Houses entered alliances based on family ties and mutual benefit. Runa wanted to hire Augustine, which meant she suspected that her family was murdered. If she was right, both she and Ragnar could be targeted. Runa was alone and inexperienced, which made her vulnerable. Sheltering her, aiding her, or associating with her brought no advantages. It only put you in danger.
“I spent the night in a hotel,” she said. “Ragnar flew in the next day. I met him at the airport and his face just fell. He must’ve expected me to tell him that it wasn’t true, but it is, and then he shut down. He went limp on me right there, and he was too heavy for me to carry. Then airport security called the first responders, and I let them take him to the hospital. I didn’t know what else to do. I was late to my appointment with Montgomery, but he agreed to meet me at Memorial. You know the rest. When Montgomery offered to see me at the hospital at one o’clock in the morning, I really thought he would help. I should’ve known better.”
“What did he quote you?” I asked.
“Twenty million. Even if I sold every financial asset the estate has, I couldn’t raise enough money.” Runa shook her head.
Even for MII, that was a high price tag. But then Augustine came and got me to help her. He had a moment of compassion. Unfortunately, telling her that wouldn’t make anything better.
Runa looked down at her hot chocolate. “Thank you again. I’ll be out of your life as soon as Ragnar wakes up.”
The responsible thing to do, the Head of the House thing to do, would be to send her on her way. This wasn’t our fight and there was no profit to be made here. We were an emerging House, and we had neither the financial resources nor the manpower of MII. If I helped her, I would be putting all of us in danger.
But she was a friend. She’d kept us all from dying at Nevada’s wedding, and when I looked at her, my chest hurt.
“You’re not going anywhere,” I told her. “We have more than enough guest bedrooms and if you don’t want to be alone, you can crash on the media room couch. Someone’s always in the media room.”
She stared at me.
“It’s a very special couch,” I told her. “Mad Rogan once fell asleep on it. We’re thinking of having it gold-plated and donated to a museum . . .”
Runa’s composure broke like a glass mask and she cried.
I got up, took away her hot chocolate before she sloshed it all over herself, and hugged her.