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The Billionaire's Witch Book One


Lydia Gold hopes she’s normal. She’s not. Soon, she will be inherited by one of the most powerful billionaires in the country – Richard Hargrave.

Richard has a secret – the same secret that flows through Lydia’s blood and that darkens the city streets of Fairchurch. Magic. He comes from a long line of practitioners, and he’s been charged since the day he was born with protecting the innocent. That duty comes at a cost – not to him. To Lydia.

From the day she is inherited and thrust into this dark world of magic and power, he will use her, for he has no choice. But Lydia will fight. It’s in her bones, pulsing in her heart, rattling in her soul – the need to battle. And though at first she directs that force at Richard, soon enough she will be drawn too far into this world, and importantly, far too close to him.

The Billionaire’s Witch is an urban fantasy series sure to please fans of Odette C. Bell’s The Frozen Witch.

Prologue

He used to watch me. I understand that now.

Birthdays, Christmas, significant holidays, I’d see that expensive car roll up to the curb, his window winding down just an inch.

I’d always ask my grandma who he was. I still remember the look in her eyes as she would tell me he was nothing more than a stranger.

And the way she said that word? Stranger.

It plays on my lips now as I lean in, lock a hand on the chipped, rustic paint of my dressing table, and pull right up close to my mirror.

I stare at my reflection, letting my lips tick all the way open as I say that out loud, “Stranger.”

Yeah, well he’s a stranger no longer. I can’t help but snort as I push back.

A second later, I hear that distinct ringing. The bell is tolling, apparently.

And who’s it tolling for?

Lydia Gold, me.

And who am I?

I won’t burden you with my personality. This isn’t a personal ad. I’m not gonna tell you that before I met him, I was a happy, crazy chatty, nutball of energy. The kind of sugar fiend to make an entire batch of cupcakes and get bored halfway through only to eat the icing right out of the bowl. The kind of romantic sap who used to sit in her bath reading Mills and Boons, wondering when that stuff would just hurry up and happen to her.

All that stuff is in the past.

Now?

This is the future.

The bell tolls louder.

I reach across to the box that sits on top of my dresser. My stomach kicks. Just a little fear. You’d think I would’ve abandoned it by now, but I haven’t. It’s the same fear – or nerves, at least – that always ignite in the pit of my stomach every time I see him.

And who is he?

Technically, he’s the guy who owns me.

A billionaire tech entrepreneur.

And me?

I’m his witch.

One more breath. I half close my eyes, I shift back from the dressing table, I turn, and I walk out.

Time to deal with Roger Hargrave’s demons.

Preferably by lunchtime.

Chapter 1

Two months earlier

I rub my eyes as I lean back from the library window and stare out at the view. My study books are piled up around me, a mess of paper and hastily scribbled notes. I have my midterm tomorrow, and I am in no way prepared.

Then again, when am I ever prepared for anything? I have a reputation among my friends for being as scatty as a kitten.

Everyone else in the library seems to be studying hard, but I can’t tear my gaze off the view. As I shove an elbow against the hard, chipped wood of the table, place my chin in my hand, and stare out at the city, I watch the clouds rolling in from the coast. They’re dark, laden with rain, as gray as the side of a gunmetal battleship.

If I could just put as much attention into studying as I am into watching them, maybe I’d have a chance of passing tomorrow.

Yeah, fat chance.

I’ve had a problem applying myself recently.

From paying my rent on time, to shopping for groceries, to studying – I leave everything until the last minute.

Except for one thing.

Calling my grandmother. Like clockwork, every single Tuesday and Friday night, I sit down at 5 PM, and I call her for a good hour.

My parents aren’t dead or anything, and I have a few siblings dotted around the country, but my grandmother has always been… I don’t really know how to describe it. I won’t call it a lifeline, because I’m not depressed or anything. But grandma Jones is… comforting.

My protector.

I have two other sisters and a brother, and they’re way more accomplished than me – and there’s a lot there for a grandmother to be proud of. But for some reason, she’s always looked after me fiercely, always told me she understands the unique pressures on my shoulders.

What pressures? I’m just ordinary – special in no way.

But to Grandma Jones, I’m something else entirely.

Someone suddenly sits at the table, shoving in close beside me.

I whip my head around, my short ponytail playing around my ears, and the cute plastic dice hairband I found on the street clanking hard.

It isn’t some forward guy about to ask me out in this packed library. Nope, it’s Lisa.

She leans right back in her chair, crossing her arms and fixing me with a disappointed expression. She clucks her tongue and shakes her head, her short brown bob bouncing around her neck. “Do you call that studying?” She points from the window then grinds a finger into the open textbook in front of me. “I call that wasting time.”

I wince, bring up a hand, scratch my temple, then shrug. “I’m just having a break. A much-needed rest. It’s important to allow everything to sink in,” I try.

She looks at me deadpanned before snorting. Then she leans over, grabs my textbook, and closes it with a thwack that echoes around the library.

“Would you mind keeping it down?” I hiss as I lean forward, pry the book out of her hands, and tuck it under my arm protectively. A few people along the long table have glanced up to shoot us deadly looks. “I really don’t want to get kicked out of here.”

“Really? Do you want to get kicked out of University? Because that’s what’s going to happen if you don’t study.”

I press my lips together and push a hard breath through my nose. “Very funny. Like I said, I was just taking a break. I can’t study all the time.”

“No, you can’t. And I agree – you do need a break. As long as you earn one. Which is why I’m here.” Lisa leans back in her chair, showing her perfect athletic balance as she pushes the seat onto two legs and yet doesn’t tumble all the way backward and clock her noggin on the hard floor.

I arch an eyebrow in confusion. “What are you talking about?”

“Party,” she says excitedly, bouncing forward, the chair rocking back onto all four legs with another way too loud thump.

I wince. But half of my mouth ticks up into a smile. “Where, when, and why?”

“The new club Sonos,” she says, shoving out her hand and counting on her manicured fingers, “tonight, and as for why, as a reward for studying. So study.” She leans in, goes to pat my left shoulder, but then grabs the book from under my right arm and thwacks it back down on the table with an even louder sound than before. One that draws a lot of suitably pissed off mutters.

“Jesus, can you please keep it down?”

“As long as you study,” she says as she leans forward and taps the book lightly. “I’m going to test you this afternoon, and if you pass, you can come. And don’t worry, I’ll pay the fee.”

I smile, but it’s a glum move. “Just how expensive is this new club?”

She shrugs, opening her lips and running her tongue back and forth along one of her canines. It’s the usual move Lisa makes whenever the question of money comes up.

You see, I’m poor, and Lisa is rich. I only made it into this University on a bursary scholarship. One I will very probably lose if I can’t get myself together.

Lisa? Well, like most of the other kids in our classes, she’s full fee-paying. Her dad is a businessman – runs some kind of financial consultancy firm.

She’s rolling in it and always has been. From her designer clothes, to her perfectly manicured nails, to her almost weekly facials, Lisa Carlisle screams money.

Me? Ah, let’s see. I’ve never had a manicure. Heck, I don’t even own nail clippers – I just bite the damn things to the stumps. My clothes? They’re from thrift shops. As for my face? People have remarked that it’s pretty on occasion, but in that kind of rugged way you get with people who just don’t care. Kind of like a boulder opal – a spark of something special fully surrounded by plain old rock.

Lisa leans forward and taps my book again. “You don’t need to know the cost – like I said, my treat.” She winks at me.

I press my lips together and grumble. “You can’t keep spending all your money on me. It’s not fair.”

“To who exactly? You’re my best friend, and unlike some of my other friends,” her voice drops, “I know you’ve got my back. I like to bring you along to these things, because I know you’re not going to use me to try to get ahead on the social ladder – like everybody else who’s going to be there. I trust you. I want you there. So I’m going to pay for you. So I’m gonna repeat again – it’s totally fair, and it’s up to me how I spend my money. Now, you’re coming,” she says flatly, her tone a ringing, strong one, making it clear that this is a categorical order and that she will not accept further discussion.

I lock my elbow on my textbook, claiming it as territory as I drum my fingers on my face. “Do I get a say in this?”

She drops a little of the act, sitting properly for the first time as she shrugs. “Up to you. I kind of thought you would want to come. It’s been a while since you’ve been out. Plus, this is going to be a hell of a party. This new club – Sonos – is apparently being funded by Richard Hargrave,” she says. Her eyes sparkle. Not too many people can actually make their eyes sparkle, but ever since I met Lisa in my first class, I got the distinct impression that she’s been practicing that very move most of her life.

My eyebrows crumple. My fingers pause on my cheek, too. “Richard Hargrave, Richard Hargrave,” I mutter to myself under my breath, trying to figure out why that name seems to ring a bell.

Lisa waits several seconds then rolls her eyes. “Richest man in the city. Socialites Today ranked him as the number one bachelor in the country. Self-made billionaire. Okay, not exactly self-made – his daddy was a millionaire, but still, that’s a considerable rank climb.”

I arch my eyebrow on the term rank climb. Why is it that Lisa and most of the other rich kids in school seem to refer to gaining more wealth like it’s some kind of game?

Then I let my eyebrow drop as I realize I do know who she’s talking about.

“He recently donated a couple of million dollars for a new science school on campus,” Lisa continues, bringing up a hand, making star fingers with it, then promptly counting off the guy’s fantastic exploits. “He has his own freaking orphanage like he’s out of some kind of Dickens novel,” she adds.

I don’t bother to point out that the owners of orphanages in Dickens novels weren’t usually the good guys.

“And what else? God, I don’t know – all round good rich dude. Point is, he’s going to be there tonight. Point is, this is his club. And the point is,” she leans forward, now cupping her chin in her hand as she rests her elbow on the other end of my textbook and leans in, her eyes sparkling even brighter, “this is going to be one hell of a party. It’s my reward to you. If,” she leans forward and flicks the book with her free hand, making it jolt, “you study. You’re a smart kid, and I don’t want to see you getting kicked out of Uni just because you’ve been distracted this year. Got it?”

I smile. “Thanks, Lisa,” I say genuinely.

“It’s settled, then. Study hard, and I’ll see you tonight.”

“I thought you were going to test me first?”

“I will. Or maybe I won’t. I know you’re a girl who never goes back on her word,” she waggles a finger in front of my face, “and that’s why you’re my best friend. Now, wear something pretty.” She shoves up, twirls, and walks away.

I watch her go. Then I turn back to my books. For several seconds, I want to watch the clouds racing in over the city, I want to watch them as they block out the bright sunshine and cast the tall towers of downtown into shadow.

Then I realize Lisa’s right – I’ve never been a girl who goes back on my word. So I tuck my head down, open my textbook, get my pen, and study.

Inside, I prepare myself for tonight.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been out, and I know whatever happens tonight, I will have earned it.

Chapter 2

“I can’t believe we have to park so far away,” Lisa grumbles for about the 50th time as she shoves the gear stick into park, presses on the button for the parking brake, yanks open her door, and storms out of her car.

She is in a sheer pink satin dress, white heels, and has a good 2.5 karats of diamond draped around her neck.

She literally looks like a million bucks.

Me? I’m in a little black dress I picked up from the thrift store for all of five bucks. As for my heels, I got them on sale for $25. And as for my necklace? As I get out of the car, I place a hand tenderly on it, wrapping my fingers around the chain and letting my thumb brush over my pendant.

It’s a simple silver necklace. It’s not worth much – or wouldn’t be to anyone other than me.

My grandmother gave it to me when I was born. It’s a silver circle with a complicated knot wrapped around it. Three strands of delicate filigree silver wire encase the circle, almost as if they’re trapping it in place.

This charm is my go-to whenever I’m stressed, in a difficult situation, or just need some calm. During tests or accidents or any kind of stressful situation, you’ll always find my hand snatching my pendant out from under my top and clasping it for dear life.

Now is no different as I pat it fondly, close Lisa’s car door carefully, then jump up onto the pavement.

We’re in some kind of side alley, a good block away from the Sonos.

It’s not gonna take that long to walk there – maybe two minutes, tops, but from the way Lisa is caterwauling and complaining, you’d think we were a city-length away.

“It’s not that bad. Plus, the night is pretty clement,” I try to pacify her as I wave her onto the pavement.

She’s stomping around on the road in her tiny high heels, and cars are trying to shift past her. They’re all expensive, all worth way more than I’ll probably ever earn in my life. And they’re all vying for a park.

“I didn’t think this party would be so packed,” she complains as she finally mounts the pavement, fixes her necklace, coifs her hair with a quick, practiced pat, and nods forward. “When I heard about it on The Vine, I thought it was exclusive.”

The Vine is the exclusive social network for the – fittingly – exclusive socialites of the University. Suffice to say, I’m not on it. But because I’m best friends with Lisa, I know all about it.

I offer her a glum smile. “This is a pretty rich city. And the University is packed with the kids of the rich and famous. They’re all on Vine, and they would’ve all heard about it. Plus, if this Richard Hargrave is half the businessman he’s meant to be, he’s going to want to create as much hype around his club as he can.”

She snarls at me, but it’s a friendly move. “I really don’t want you to be rational now. I want you to complain with me about the fact we have to walk miles in these heels.”

I smile. While she’s wearing pinprick stilettos, I’m in some pretty old – but seriously stable – pumps. “We’ll be all right. If you need to hold onto anyone – you can hold onto me,” I say as I offer her an arm like a gentleman.

“I fully expect you to use some of your ninja skills if I teeter too close to the road. The last thing I want to do is be run over by one of these rich bastards or lose a heel in some grating, got it?”

I laugh softly. “I understand, but I’m not a ninja. Sorry to burst your bubble on that one.”

It’s her turn to snort. It’s punctuated by the loud clip clops of my heels on the pavement. “You did gymnastics for 10 years, and you have a black belt in karate. That’s about as ninja as anyone can get.”

I laugh again as I bring up a hand and check my ponytail. “I’m not nearly as impressive as you’re making me out to be. And if you nosedive in front of a car because of those ridiculous high heels, there isn’t going to be much I can do.”

She looks at me with mock indignation. “You’re here as my bodyguard. You’re meant to save me.”

I cross my arms and fake a haughty expression. “I thought I was here as your friend? I didn’t realize this was going to be a transactional relationship.”

“Good point. Just watch my back, that’s all I ask. Oh, and the drinks are on me.”

We reach the end of the laneway, turn, and head out across the main street.

There are plenty of people out, and from one look at what they’re wearing, they must all be heading to the Sonos.

I’ve never been particularly body conscious, as my grandmother always emphasized that what was on the inside mattered way more than what was on the outside. If you live your life perfecting your appearance, when your appearance starts to go, you’ll have nothing. You’ll also achieve way less than if you channel all that energy and attention into doing good.

Still, it’s kind of hard not to shrink back and try to hide behind Lisa. Some of the women that walk past are statuesque model types. As for the men, they’re all perfectly handsome. It looks like somebody has grabbed a couple of copies of Vogue, shaken out all of the models, and shoved them onto the street.

Still, even though I feel a little like a sore thumb as I stick out in my cheap dress and old heels with my drab ponytail and simple necklace, I don’t let that affect me too much. Because Lisa’s right – I am here for her. I don’t usually get too much out of these parties. I don’t like dating – especially the privileged guys that hang out at our university. And I’m not much of a drinker. But I enjoy Lisa’s company, and it’s kind of nice to see how the other half lives every now and then.

Despite the fact Lisa thinks we’re on an endless trek, it actually doesn’t take that much longer to reach the Sonos.

We line up for a while until we’re allowed entry. Not only does the place look extremely expensive from the outside, the tickets Lisa pulls out of her purse look as if they’ve been printed on sheets of pure gold.

That isn’t even to mention the glimpses I catch of the other guests.

I feel like I’ve been thrown into the pages of a celebrity gossip magazine.

The inside of the Sonos is far more impressive than the outside. It screams money. It’s huge, too. The main dance area lacks the sardines-in-a-can feel you get in most of the clubs around town.

I stick next to Lisa’s side like a dog to its master. Not that I think she’s my master or anything – just that I know I am so far out of my depth.

She mingles for a while, socializes a bit, and soon enough heads for one of the bathrooms.

Considering I’m her wing woman tonight, I follow dutifully.

I wait outside of the bathroom until she’s finished, leaning against the wall.

Guests come and go, and I catch the occasional glimpse of staff.

The hallway I’m in opens right out onto the main area of the club. The music is so loud that I can hear it thumping through the wall and chasing up my vertebrae like they’re ball bearings.

Other people come and go from the bathroom, but Lisa takes her time. She always does. She’ll be clinically going over her makeup with a slide rule.

I settle down against the wall, crossing my arms in front of myself, stifling the urge to crawl into my shell as I see the city’s best, brightest, and most beautiful walk on by.

I position myself so I can see the doorway to the lady’s bathrooms, but I can also see other people coming and going. Just to my left, there’s a door that seems to lead out into a service area.

It suddenly opens, and a man in an expensive but still pretty understated suit walks out.

He’s fixing his cufflinks, and he doesn’t even glance my way once.

For some weird reason, my stomach clenches as I see him. He’s not conventionally handsome but… there’s something about him.

He strides confidently toward the dance floor, but just before he gets out of sight, he stops.

He takes a step back and swivels his gaze toward me.

Instantly, I straighten, as if he’s the manager of this place and he doesn’t want louts like me leaning about on his walls.

But that doesn’t account for the way he’s looking at me.

The next thing I know, the door to the lady’s bathroom opens, and out walks Lisa.

She marches up to me and then stops. Her mouth opens, her jaw practically jerking open as she sees the guy.

“Oh my God,” Lisa mutters under her breath, almost squeaking.

Though the guy still has his body angled toward the dance floor, his hands casually in his pockets, his head is firmly directed toward me.

“This is so exciting,” Lisa squeaks to herself again. She clears her throat and takes a confident step forward. “This is an amazing party,” she declares.

The man finally turns all the way to us.

As he does, he doesn’t look away from me – not once.

My skin’s so clammy for some reason, and my heart is beating way too hard. As I’ve already pointed out, this guy isn’t technically conventionally handsome, but he’s still way out of my league. So why is he paying me so much attention?

“I haven’t been here long, but this place has such a great vibe,” Lisa continues.

It’s obvious she’s talking to the man, but it’s just as obvious that he doesn’t care. He’s still looking right at me. His gaze is… disarming. For many reasons. It’s steady, he doesn’t blink, he never looks away, and… it lasts too long. Ordinary people blink or glance away every few seconds.

This guy? He’s as steady as a spirit rule.

Lisa is still practically going gaga beside me. She’s pretty much wriggling on the spot as if she’s an excited three-year-old who is about to meet Santa Claus.

I should really be taking cues from that, but I’m too confused by the way this guy is looking at me.

And confused… by how familiar he seems.

“Oh my God, it is such an honor to meet you,” Lisa says as she shoves out a hand. “My father owns Kilpatrick Financial Consultants. They work with you,” Lisa adds, gushing like a broken pipe.

The guy?

Yeah, he’s still looking at me. And a couple of times, his gaze darts down to the necklace around my neck, then back to my eyes.

Like I’ve already told you, I’m technically a little bit pretty. Not that much, mind you. And I’m usually too haggard and tired to care much about my appearance.

But my smidgen of attractiveness must look like nothing more than a pebble in a glass full of diamonds. The women walking around us are literally models. So why can’t this guy tear his eyes off me?

“My father says you’re categorically the smartest businessman in all of Fairchurch,” Lisa continues, obviously unconcerned by the fact this guy hasn’t looked at her once.

I know that the one rule when I come along to these socialite functions is that I should take cues from Lisa. I’m not a complete bumbling idiot, or anything, but there simply are rules that I don’t know, and it’s safer for her to take the lead.

But there’s… something about this guy.

Something so familiar.

Just staring at him seems to kindle far-off memories. Memories that are locked away by some heavy door, and yet memories I can catch just a glimpse of. It’s enough to pique my curiosity, enough until I let my lips part with a wobble. “Do I know you? You’re so familiar. Have we met?”

Lisa stiffens. She jerks her gaze over to me, her lips stiff. “This is our host, Richard Hargrave,” she points out, her lips barely moving and her teeth clenched.

My stomach sinks.

Great.

Way to go to seem like a real idiot.

“Sorry about that,” Lisa says in her sweetest, saccharine voice. “My friend’s new in town. She also doesn’t have her glasses on.”

Neither of those things is true, but whatever.

I wince and smile, scratching at my neck.

Richard Hargrave?

He takes one last look at my necklace, then clears his throat. “Are you two ladies enjoying the party?”

Lisa goes right back to gushing. And you can guess it – her eyes are sparkling, way more than usual. It’s like she’s shoved tiny firecrackers down her pupils. She claps her hands together, her manicured nails tapping against her chunk of a diamond ring. “Oh my gosh, yes. This club is amazing. The vibe is fantastic.”

Richard nods. He’s only technically looking at Lisa. Okay, that sounds crazy. You’re either looking at somebody or you’re not. But I can swear from the tension around his eyes and the tilt to his neck that he’s still looking at me out of his peripheral vision.

I shift uncomfortably on the spot. Have I really pissed this guy off? Is he the kind of rich lout to hate it when people don’t know who he is on sight?

Or… God, I don’t know. I just can’t shake the feeling I’ve met him. Okay, of course I’ve seen him – Richard Hargrave’s face is always splashed across the newspapers and magazines and online. But… crap, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just tired.

Once Lisa has finished gushing, Richard smiles. Then he nods his head toward the opposite wall. “Perhaps you like to join us upstairs in the private lounge?”

Again, I swear I feel his eyes on me.

Lisa looks like she’s about to explode. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her more excited – from the way she’s wriggling around and bouncing up and down on her heels, to the exact shade of pink her cheeks have turned, despite how much bronzer she’s wearing. “Oh wow. Absolutely. But… can my friend come along?”

It’s a testament to how much Lisa likes me that she would potentially jeopardize an invitation from Richard Hargrave just to ensure that I can come along.

I don’t have long to appreciate that fact.

Again Richard swivels his gaze toward me. “Of course. I’m inviting you both.”

… Is there something slightly off about his tone?

Is there… God, I don’t know, something weird about this entire interaction?

If there is, Lisa isn’t picking up on it. She actually claps her hands together. “Oh wow, thank you so much. How do we get past security?” she asks as she jabs a thumb toward the set of stairs that leads up to the private lounge.

There are three extremely heavy-set, burly blokes protecting the stairs. I imagine that even if a Yeti rocked up and tried to crash the private lounge, the security would have it covered. They look as if they could each wrestle a mountain.

“Follow me,” he says. He pushes forward. There’s one hand still locked in his pocket, and as my eyes trace down his shoulder, along his elbow, and down to his wrist, I swear I see tension. It’s completely at odds with his easy expression and the rest of his stance.

I have a weird feeling in my stomach. Just a pang of something. I’m not really sure what it is. Do I genuinely think it’s going to be dangerous up in that private lounge? No. This is Richard Hargrave, for God’s sake. And this is also a packed event. The press is here, too. The very last thing a man like Richard would want would be for some incident to go down.

But… I don’t know. I try to swallow the feeling as I follow a few steps behind Lisa and Richard.

That’s when he slows down. He doesn’t have to – I think every single other person at the party knows who he is, and as he forges a path through the main room to get to the stairs, they all part before him like waves before Moses.

But he still slows down. He also arches his head over his shoulder. “Don’t fall behind,” he warns.

I just look at him.

… This guy is weird.

And I swear I’ve met him before.

But where?

We make it to the stairs, and as Richard approaches, the three burly security guards step out of the way. They also bow. There’s something kind of semi-regal about it, as if Richard isn’t just a rich dude, but is a king with loyal servants.

I don’t like that. I’ve grown up in a family that prides themselves on recognizing that every single person is equal. It doesn’t matter what your financial situation is. It doesn’t even matter what you’ve done in life. Fundamentally, nobody is better than anyone else, especially if the only thing that sets them apart is a few dollars.

We reach the stairs and start climbing them, and with every step, I want to be here less and less. I start inventing excuses in my mind to get the heck out of here. Maybe I have a stomach ache; maybe I realize I need to get the heck back to my room to study for my midterm.

Or maybe I’m just coming down with something.

Though in ordinary circumstances Lisa would be pissed if I were to back out on her at a party – this is no ordinary party. And now she’s got a ticket up to Hargrave’s private lounge, I’m pretty sure she won’t give a hoot if I head home early.

At the top of the stairs there’s a landing, and on that landing are three more security guards.

It’s overkill. Like I already said – the guys at the base of the stairs are so burly, you would need an actual army to take them on. But there are three more. Which tells me that Richard either wants to be seen as taking security seriously, or he’s just plain paranoid.

One of the security guards peels off and opens the door. To do it, he has to use the security tag tied around his wrist.

I hear a heavy click – even over the pumping sound of the music and the chatter filtering up from the floor below.

Some kind of solid lock disengages from the wall, and the security guard opens the door, waving a hand forward and pretty much bowing as he does. He looks like a footman at a castle.

I don’t need to make up excuses to get out of here anymore – my stomach really is kicking up a fuss. At the sight of all this money and deference, actual nausea is spiking up my throat.

We walk into the private lounge.

It’s stunning.

Though you can’t really tell it from the outside, this club is long and tall, so there’s more than enough space for a huge private lounge.

It sophisticated, the furniture expensive, the lighting perfect, and the feel exactly what you’d expect from a billionaire’s private lounge. There’s a discreet bar at one end, with expensive bottles of alcohol lined up on glass shelves behind it.

I expect to see the place packed – not with as many people as downstairs, but still crammed full of the rich and famous.

It’s not. There are about 10 people in it, tops.

Which makes us stick out like sore thumbs as Hargrave walks in.

I teeter on the threshold of the door, figuring out that if I want to back out, I have to do it now.

Despite the fact Lisa’s eyes practically pop out of her skull at the sight of the private lounge, she notices my hesitancy, and turns to face me, a frown etched across her ruby red lips. “What is it?”

I flop a hand at her. “Nothing much. I’m just… not feeling too great. Stomachache,” I mutter.

She looks disappointed, then she just shrugs. “Okay, I’ll take you home—”

I wave a hand at her quickly. “Of course not. I’ll just call a taxi. You stay. I can make my own way out.”

“There’s no way I’m going to leave you alone.”

I keep waving my hands at her. “No way. You stay. I’ll be fine. I’ll be—”

As loud as a gunshot, a high-pitched scream suddenly blasts up the stairs from the main dance floor.

I jerk my head around just as the three security guards on the landing beside me start thundering down the stairs.

“My God, what was that?” Lisa spits.

There’s another scream.

Though it would probably be sane to shove into the secure private lounge and let the burly, beefcake security guards figure out what’s going on, that is not how I roll. I was always brought up to help.

So without thinking, I turn hard on my foot, my heel grating on the landing as I throw myself down the stairs.

There’s another scream.

I cast my gaze over the packed dance floor.

People are congregating in one area, and I can see a guy running toward the door.

Without exception, the six security guards are going after him.

Me?

Inexorably, my gaze is drawn toward a woman on the opposite side of the room.

I have no idea who screamed, but she’s making her way deliberately toward the back rooms of the club, her movements so quick, I can see her loose hair bouncing around her shoulders from here.

I make a split-second decision.

I throw myself down the rest of the stairs, push through the crowd, and head after her.

Lisa was 100% wrong when she said I was a ninja. Yeah, I’ve done gymnastics and I’ve done karate, but both of those will teach you one thing – you’re only human, and you’re fallible. The best way to prevent injury is not the court it.

But you can’t tell that to the part of me that always wants to intervene in trouble.

I reach a door that obviously heads into the back rooms of the club.

I jerk a hand forward and find it unlocked as I pull it open with a hard tug.

It leads to a long corridor, and at the end, I see the woman.

There’s every chance she just works here and she has nothing to do with what’s going on.

My gut tells me otherwise, and I’ve always been someone who’s followed my instincts.

My heels sound like shots from a gun as I blast down the corridor, my arms pumping.

Though this building is long, it doesn’t take the woman much longer to find a door that exits out onto a laneway beyond. She yanks it open and lurches out.

Despite the continuing kerfuffle going on in the rest of the building, I swear I can hear her ragged breath from here.

She’s desperate and scared.

Or maybe she’s angry.

It’s hard to say until I can properly clap eyes on her.

I reach the same door and throw myself out.

If I were paying attention to anything other than the woman and the chase, I would realize someone else has just entered the corridor behind me and they’re following.

And that someone is Richard Hargrave.

Chapter 3

As I throw myself out of that door, I expect the woman will have already put some distance between us.

That isn’t the case.

As soon as I throw myself out, a well-placed kick slices toward my face.

Something in me expects it before I see it, and I’ve already ducked just in time as it sails past my face.

I instantly bring a hand up, following the movement with my elbow. I jerk out of the door and use my momentum to plow into her with my arm. I catch her right as she brings her leg down – just when she is her least stable.

My move pays off, and as I slam into her, I easily knock her off balance.

Rather than try to land on her and pin her, I roll right over her, push up, and jump several meters away as I reassess the situation.

Fortunately my dress is a stretchy one. It may not be that spectacular compared to the other pieces I’ve seen on display tonight, but it’s functional.

My heels are too as I easily balance and take another step back.

The woman warily gets to her feet. Her move isn’t one of someone who’s scared, though. It’s one of someone who knows exactly how to use their body in situations just like this. She’s poised, she’s balanced, and despite the fact she has a svelte form, I can see she has muscles.

She also knows exactly how to use them as she suddenly launches toward me.

I’ve never been in a real fight. Two hapless dudes once tried to mug me, but even then, that wasn’t like this. That incident was over quickly.

This… shit, this is an actual battle.

I don’t give myself that much time to appreciate that fact.

I shift away from the woman, jerking to the side as she tries to catch me with a left hook.

I haven’t just done karate – I’ve done judo, too. And judging by this woman’s size and speed, it’s that that’s going to come in the handiest.

Sure enough, she launches at me again, and I don’t have the speed to get out of the way. Instead, I round my body, readying for the blow. She strikes me hard, and it’s a brutal, strong, practiced blow from someone who knows exactly how to fight.

But I round my shoulder, shift my weight, use her momentum, and flip her.

And that’s when I hear footsteps.

Somebody races out of the open door from the club. And that somebody calls my name in a gravelly, desperate male voice, “Lydia.”

It’s enough of a surprise that I jerk my head up. Enough of a surprise that it gives the woman time to get out of my grip.

I look up to see none other than Richard Hargrave standing in the doorway, staring desperately from me to the woman.

And the woman reacts.

In the weirdest way possible.

She hisses like a snake.

And then she jerks to her feet. She is far, far quicker than she was before. Quick enough that I can’t keep up. Quick enough that some part of my mind tells me her speed isn’t physically possible.

She yanks something from her pocket.

I don’t see it.

But then she fires it, and I realize it’s a gun.

Something slams out of it, right toward Hargrave.

He ducks to the side just in time, flooring himself as the bullet impacts the door beside him.

The doorway is made out of wood, and it splinters. It explodes as if it’s just been hit by a grenade. Fissure lines even dance down the wall, over the lip of the doorway, and across the pavement.

Some kind of energy discharges from the shot, too. Blue, quick, and crackling like fire.

I have no time to assess it.

That action part of my brain kicks into top gear.

The woman’s got her back to me, and just before she can fire again, I launch forward. I bring an arm around and latch it across her throat, jerking to the side as I snap my knee up and shove it as hard as I can into the small of her back. The move is brutal and hard enough that it jerks her hand off course, and the next bullet – meant for Hargrave as he’s lying in the now totally obliterated doorway – is pulled off course.

The bullet slams into the side of the Sonos wall, instead, obliterating a massive chunk.

The woman shrieks and tries to throw me off.

I’m ready for her move. I deliberately let go of her neck, drop down low, then shove forward with a grunt.

I wrap an arm around her middle, using my other hand as I press my knuckles into a line and shove them as hard as I can into the soft flesh under her arm.

It’s a direct, strong, calculated move, and she loses her grip on her gun.

It clatters onto the pavement and skids toward Hargrave.

The woman hisses again.

And again it sounds exactly like a snake.

I’m not thinking. There’s no time to think.

Because if there was time to think, I’d get stuck on the fact that that was no ordinary gun. I’ve never seen power like that. And this woman has speed that simply isn’t natural.

She suddenly jerks into me with all her force, and though I want to compensate for the move, I can’t. I release her just before she can use my momentum to flip me.

I stagger back, and in the time it takes to do that, she pivots on her foot and runs away.

Before I know what I’m doing, even though it’s suicide, I go to follow.

I’m not a policewoman. I’ve never been in the army. I haven’t been trained for real combat. Nor have I ever taken an oath to say that I will put my life on the line to protect others. But do you think that matters? It doesn’t. The only thing that matters is that pulsing instinct within me that tells me I can’t let this woman go.

But before I can throw myself after her, someone snaps in. Close – right up against me.

It’s Hargrave. He grabs me around the middle and stops me in place. “You can’t go after her – it’s too dangerous,” he snaps.

In the time it takes him to do that, the woman is already out of sight.

For several seconds, Hargrave breathes hard against me, then he releases me, takes several steps back, and half closes his eyes.

I turn over my shoulder to see him, to watch as his gaze locks on me.

He doesn’t say anything.

I hear more footfall, and soon enough, several of his security guards come leaping out of the destroyed doorway.

Hargrave turns to them without taking his gaze off me. “It was a runner. She’s already left. That way.” He jabs his thumb in the direction she disappeared in. Then he turns from them, walks over to the gun – which I still haven’t had a proper look at – leans down, pulls a hanky out of his pocket, then picks the gun up.

He wraps the gun up carefully in that hanky, then hands it to one of his security guards. The guy turns around and heads straight back into the club.

As the seconds pass, reality sinks in with it. And soon I realize what I’ve just done.

I just had an altercation with someone who was trying to kill the richest man in the city.

Hargrave talks to his men for a little bit, and once he’s done, they walk further down the laneway and appear to take up position.

And that just leaves Hargrave to me.

I haven’t moved from where I’m standing. It would take an entire team of removalists to get me to budge a centimeter, let alone walk out of this laneway.

I was just in a fight for my life, for God’s sake.

Hargrave wipes the back of his hand over his mouth, then he approaches me. And as he does, for some stupid, unexplainable reason, it feels like I’m still in a fight for my life.

He walks right up to me. I mean right up close. His head is tilted down, as he’s taller than me, and I can catch the pulsing lights along the street lighting up the hard line of his neck.

He doesn’t say a word for a few seconds.

“…What?” I say, voice shaky from the fight.

His eyes are ticking this way and that, really drinking me in as if I’m some famous painting in a museum.

“What?” I demand again, voice louder and more forceful.

“I was going to leave you until your birthday, but maybe I can’t wait. You’ve really proven yourself today.” He arches a shoulder back toward the doorway, indicating the fight.

His words are like a punch to the gut. I actually l jerk back. “What the hell are you talking about? You were going to wait for what until my birthday?”

The way he’s looking at me is like a farmer sizing up a prize cow at the market. The way his gaze ticks along my face has all the methodical practice of a man who’s used to sizing up something’s worth – whether that thing be a stock tip or a whole goddamn person. “Lydia, you’ve met me before,” he suddenly points out with no introduction and no segue.

The way he says it so out-of-the-blue is disarming, and I take another jagged step back, thankful that my sturdy heels don’t trip me up on the broken pavement. “What?”

Of all the things he could have said, for some reason, this upsets me more than anything. Because it speaks to the niggling suspicion I’ve had since I clapped eyes on him. I have met Richard Hargrave before. I just can’t remember when, and I can’t remember why.

He does it again – flicks his gaze over me as if he’s appraising some new exhibit in a shop – one he’d mighty like to acquire and hang over the fireplace. “I’ve been following you your whole life. Even when I was young, I would be driven to your house. I would show up on birthdays and holidays – at significant events. Just to check on you. Just to confirm that you were fine. But I didn’t expect to see you tonight. And I didn’t expect that you’d already start to show your abilities before your birthday.”

I’m backing away, face as pale as snow. “What… the hell are you on? Is this meant to be some kind of joke? Do you…. Look, this is no time to play games. And you’re an asshole for trying. There could have been a serious violent incident tonight – you think you can lighten the mood by spouting this crap?” My words are harsh, sharp, and fast. They’re also garbled. Because I can feel this dense pressure picking up inside my throat and clamping around my mouth. It’s a pressure that comes from one fact and one fact alone.

The stranger.

The stranger was the name my grandmother would give to the fancy cars that would show up at my childhood home every holiday. I’d pretty much forgotten about the memory until Hargrave stirred it back up. And now I can’t push it away.

It used to freak me out so much as a kid when those expensive cars would creep up to the side of our house, the passenger window would roll down, then the car would drive off.

“You remember, don’t you? I told you we’ve met. Lydia, I’ve known you my whole life – or at least,” he reaches a hand up, clamps it on his mouth, and lets it drop with a satisfied sigh, “I’ve known of you. And now you’re here. Early,” he emphasizes with a breath as again he lets his eyes dart over me like he’s taking my measurements.

This is the part where a sane person would walk away or slap him.

But I mustn’t be sane, because I just stand there and stare, eyes unblinking.

There’s a horrible suspicion forming in my stomach. It has the power of a bear as it grips me and squeezes.

He looks at me, obviously waiting for me to make the next move. But when I don’t, he shrugs expressively. “This was going to happen sooner or later. In many ways, I’m glad it was sooner. Because my problems are mounting. I need your power now more than ever, even if it still hasn’t formed in full.”

Power?

Formed in full?

I do what I should have done when Hargrave first started spouting crap.

I shift hard on my foot, intending to march away. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll run. And if that doesn’t work? I’ll scream at the top of my lungs and call the frigging police.

I don’t get far.

Hargrave darts in and grabs my wrist.

My instincts kick into gear as I twist my thumb toward his, pivoting on my hip and shifting my weight as I shove it into him.

He seems to be ready for my move, and even though I put a lot of strength and practice into the move, it’s like he can read my mind, because he compensates.

He twists around me, and with his hand still locked around my wrist, he brings his other hand up.

I expect the bastard to clamp it over my mouth or try to grab my throat.

He doesn’t. Still keeping me pinned, he just brings his left hand wide in front of my face.

And that’s when I see it. Because I can hardly look away.

Right there emblazoned on the center of his palm is a circle of light. I watch it appear in front of my very eyes. It’s not pen or highlighter that someone’s drawn on his skin.

It’s… flame.

It’s the color of bright blue azure waters – like I’m about to take a dip off a beach on the coast of Tahiti or something.

And it grows, the illumination becoming brighter until it lights up his entire palm.

There’s no one but us and his security guards in this laneway, and the main road is a good hundred meters away.

As for Hargrave’s security guards, they’re politely keeping their distance.

And as for me?

I stop.

I don’t shriek. I don’t ask what the hell is going on and how that magical blue flame is possible.

I just stare at it. Almost as if a part of me expected it would be there.

Don’t get me wrong, fear is still pulsating through me, shaking in my heart like an earthquake down my spine. But at the same time, that terror doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t reduce me to a puddle of tears.

Hargrave doesn’t have a particularly strong grip on my wrist anymore. I’m not fighting him, either. I’m just staring at that blue flame.

“This is your destiny, Lydia. Always has been. It’s mine, too,” he explains. “You’ve been promised to my family since before you were born. Now get in the car, come back with me to my apartment, and I’ll explain everything.”

His chatter is like the inane sound of a mosquito by my ear. I can hear it, but I don’t pay it any heed.

Because I can’t tear a single scrap of my attention off that blue flame.

It… draws me in. Second after second, I go deeper and deeper.

I… it’s like that flame was always meant for me alone. Like it holds all my secrets.

I’ve never fit in, and wherever I’ve gone in life and whatever I’ve done, I’ve always felt like I was floundering.

Or waiting, maybe. Yeah, that’s a better way to describe it. I’ve always had this niggling sense in the back of my head that I’m waiting for something.

And this – the blue light and Hargrave behind me promising that he’s about to explain everything – this is it.

“Come on. The sooner we get off the city streets, the safer it will be. You got that runner, but I know they’ll be more.” Hargrave closes his fingers. And just like that – as if he’s blown on a candle – the flame extinguishes.

In a snap, the blue light is lost as if he’s crushed a firefly to death.

He takes a quick step back from me, and I jolt as if I’ve just been slapped.

I’m all cold and am suddenly aware that I’m covered in sweat, from my brow to my shoulders to my palms. I’m shaking, too.

This….

“Get the car,” I hear Hargrave snap at one of his men. “Hurry,” he adds with a terse order.

He turns back to me.

I’m not watching him – even though I can technically see him out of the corner of my eye.

I listen to the sound of his expensive shoes squeaking on the rough pavement. He takes a wary step toward me. “Lydia?” There’s a careful note to his voice – the kind of note you would use on someone you suspected wasn’t coping with the situation. “Like I said, come back to my apartment – I will explain everything.”

Somewhere way back at the edges of my mind I realize I can’t go anywhere with this man. I… have no idea what’s going on, but I… I have to go home. Find safety, find someone to talk to, someone to confide in. But more than anything, I have to close my eyes somewhere safe and figure out what the hell is happening.

When I don’t react, I hear Hargrave let out a powerful sigh. He takes another snapped step toward me and goes to grab my arm.

This time I’m ready for him – even if I am distracted – and I dart to the side.

He goes to grab me again, a terse expression on his face, but I’m too quick, and I easily shift out of the way.

I put a good meter and a half between us as I stare at him coldly. “I don’t know what the hell… just happened,” I gasp through a hard swallow that feels like it wants to tear my throat in two, “but there is no way in hell I’m going anywhere with you. I… need to call the police,” I stutter.

I’m not in my right mind. I just saw impossible blue light pick up over a man’s hand, and all I want to do is run to the cops.

Hargrave shakes his head in disappointment. “It would’ve been easier after your birthday. You wouldn’t have been able to deny it then. But we don’t really have the luxury of hanging out here. And I can’t explain your situation until we’re somewhere safe. So you’re getting in that car one way or another,” his voice drops with obvious warning.

I hear the rumble of a car on the opposite side of the laneway, and it turns in, coming to a stop close by.

Its lights are on, and they catch my legs and the sides of my arms, shining right in my eyes.

I don’t jerk my head away. I clench my teeth. “If you think I’m going to go anywhere with you—” I begin.

Hargrave sighs, his shoulders dropping. Then his chin juts up as he obviously comes to a decision. “Fine. I hadn’t wanted to begin our relationship like this, but I see I have no other option.” He shoves a hand into his pocket. He draws something out.

It’s a glass bead. Or at least, I think it’s a glass bead. It’s the size of a small marble, but it’s glowing as brightly as a torch.

“What the—” I have time to say.

Hargrave brings up the glass bead then squeezes it together with his thumb and forefinger.

It breaks. There’s the sound of thin glass shattering.

Light spills over his hand, or at least something does. It acts like liquid and yet fire at the same time. It seeps over his palm, trickles over his fingers, and leaps high like a crackling fire as it lights up his face.

He brings his lips right up close to that impossible flame, and he blows.

The flame rushes toward me. And as my eyes widen, something strikes me.

Blackness.

I fall.

Right at Richard Hargrave’s feet. Unconscious.

And when I wake, my life will never be the same again.

Chapter 4

I’m bleary as I wake. My eyes don’t really seem to work right. And my body doesn’t feel like it’s mine anymore.

I can’t remember a thing, and I have no idea where I am. But one thing’s for sure – wherever I am, it’s morning.

I’m on a couch – a large one. An expensive one. I can see the carved arms out of the corner of my eye. I can also see a window several meters in front of me. It’s huge and ornate with expensive oak frames.

I must be high up, wherever I am, because I don’t catch sight of buildings or lawns or houses – I see clouds. Just sky with the occasional tip of a building in view.

“What?” I manage as I push up.

My body is weak. A weird kind of weakness. One I’ve never really experienced before. This isn’t the weakness you come down with when you’ve got the flu. It’s not like I’ve exercised too much, either. It’s like… somebody has strings tied around my muscles and I won’t fully be able to move them until they loosen their grip.

My head’s woozy, and I have to keep a hand locked on the edge of the couch as I stand.

That’s when I catch full sight of the room.

I gasp.

It’s massive.

It’s richly decorated. From the polished floors to the expensive furniture to the view – I look like I’m in some kind of penthouse apartment.

But I have no idea how I got here.

“It sounds like she’s up,” I hear a voice from outside. That’s when I realize the door on the opposite side of the room is open a crack.

My heart pounds as the door is thrust open and a man walks in.

It takes me a moment to recognize his handsome features. They’re not conventionally handsome, though. They’re too angular and piercing. But there’s a confidence there, and that, more than anything, makes the guy attractive.

It also makes him Richard Hargrave.

As soon as my memory chances upon that name, it all comes flooding back.

Last night. The Sonos. The woman who tried to kill him.

Then two memories strike me from either side, almost as if they’re an army trying to catch me in a pincer move.

The blue circle in his hand and the glass bead he crushed to knock me out.

I jolt. My heart skips several beats, and I push backward, staggering toward the large window. “What the hell is this place? Where have you taken me? What’s going on?” I begin.

Richard doesn’t say a word. He turns over his shoulder and nods to somebody through the door.

And that person walks in.

It’s my grandmother.

The very last person I would expect.

Though I was ready to run away seconds before, at the sight of her sweet old face, I’m like a deer in the headlights. I can’t even move a muscle.

Richard clears his throat, tugs the cuff-linked sleeves of his shirt up, closes the door, and gestures for my grandmother to take a seat.

I still don’t move. “What… what’s going on here? Why is my grandmother here? Where am I? How do you two know each other?”

“Sit down, Lydia. Come on, dear,” my grandmother says, using that same old caring tone that can soothe me no matter what.

I blink at her in abject disbelief as she takes a seat on the couch I just vacated and pats a hand on one of the plush cushions.

When I don’t immediately jump over and sit on it, she clears her throat and pats harder.

I look from her, to Richard, to the door, obviously making my intentions clear.

Though Richard has taken several steps away from the door, he veers in front of it and clears his throat once more. “There’s nothing to worry about. You’re safe here,” he adds.

My stomach twists, and I clutch my fingers into a tight fist, pressing it hard against my thigh. “What the hell is going on?” I can’t keep control of my voice any longer.

My grandmother sighs, sitting further back in the seat, taking a few seconds to position her old frame until she’s comfortable. She looks up at me. Her expression is one part saddened to one part resigned. “What’s going on, Lydia, is you were promised to the Hargraves before you were born. I assumed we would have longer… until we had to broach the subject. I thought it wouldn’t be until your birthday in two months. But it seems,” she switches her gaze toward Richard, “that things have progressed sooner rather than later.”

I shake my head, my fringe scattering around my face at the hard move. “What?” I choke over the word. “What do you mean I was promised to the Hargraves before I was born? How does that even work? You can’t promise somebody to somebody else. This isn’t the Middle Ages.”

Neither Richard nor my grandmother says a word. They just both stare at me. Though my grandmother’s gaze is unquestionably caring, I can tell that Richard just wants to speed things up. “You should have at least worded her up about the existence of magic and what she is,” he grumbles at my grandmother, never moving from in front of the door, still protecting it warily as if he thinks I’m about to shoulder-slam him and make a run for it.

My grandmother arches an eyebrow. She has an old, elegant face. Graceful in that way you get with women who grew up in the 50s watching all that Grace Kelly. “I do not require your advice. I did what I thought was appropriate.”

“You think this is appropriate? She’s terrified. It’s going to take too long to train her up.”

They continue to have their conversation while I’m standing here, right in front of them, obviously losing it.

My grandmother arches her eyebrow even higher. “I gave her a normal life for as long as I could. And that is no crime. As for the training… that was always going to be up to you, anyway. You Hargraves have always done what you please.”

Richard presses his lips together and smiles, but it’s a forced, polite move. “We have always done what is necessary. I take it you do not regret our deal? I take it you won’t curse your ancestors for the pact? I take it you aren’t going to go back on the protection and money the Hargraves have given you over the centuries?”

I shake my head, harder and harder. It’s like I want to unscrew it and see it spin around the room like helicopter rotors.

My heart’s beating around, thumping against my rib cage, sending pounding jolts up my neck. I’m all sweaty, too.

Because I, fundamentally, have no idea what’s going on here. I have absolutely no clue what they’re discussing.

The Hargraves have been looking after our family for centuries?

There’s some kind of ancient pact?

What the hell are they talking about?

Even though Richard is talking to my grandmother, every few seconds, he ticks his gaze back to me, obviously assessing to see how I’m taking the news.

The answer?

Badly.

It couldn’t be worse. I may not be screaming and trying to throw myself out of the window, but inside, I’m pretty much falling apart.

Which a part of me can appreciate is strange. Because I should’ve fallen apart last night when Richard produced magic.

Shit.

Magic.

Though it sounds stupid, until now, I haven’t really thought about the light in that way. But the way it danced over his palm, lit up his face, and moved like liquid fire was unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the natural world. More than that – that little glass bead he broke and which he used to send me to sleep? Yeah, that should have been completely impossible.

So… it was magic, right?

My grandmother presses her lips together tightly, crumpling them in as if she’s trying to swallow them. Then she lets out a breath. “Of course I’m not going back on the pact. It has… mutually benefited both our families for centuries. I also understand it’s worth,” she says that phrase carefully, almost as if she’s scared to form the words. “All I’m saying is that it was fully up to me how I chose to bring up Lydia. Just as it will be up to you as to how you choose to train her. As long as you do not break any of the rules,” she says, really emphasizing the word rules.

Though my grandmother is unquestionably a calming, graceful woman, when she wants to put her foot down, boy can she put it down. With one tap of her tasteful high heels, she could probably stop a rampaging bull.

And it works on Richard. He takes a sigh, his shoulders dropping a little. Then he flicks his gaze back to me. I watch his eyes tick down my figure, note how tense my shoulders are, then slide over my glistening brow before he gets back to my eyes. “Magic is real,” he says flatly. Then he brings up his hand. It’s the same hand he used last night when he showed me that magical circle on his palm. And again, with a simple click of his fingers, that circle reappears. Except this time it’s brighter. It’s also another color. It’s this gorgeous red gold, and it glows as brightly as a fog lamp.

For a few seconds, the light does nothing but dance above his palm, then it grows up and forms an orb, almost like a basketball.

If I had any doubt that magic existed before, now I don’t. I can’t. Because I can see it right before my eyes. And I can’t deny my senses. The way the air is crackling, that distinct hum, that tingle along my tongue. But more than anything, the light. It pulses as it grows even larger now. Then, like a bubble bursting, the outside of the ball cracks and disappears in a cascade of sparks.

And within the ball I see an image.

The skin around my eyes is now stretched so thin I think it will crack. My eyes are boggling wide, and I can’t take a breath – I don’t dare. I don’t dare move. Heck, I don’t dare think.

Because somehow Richard Hargrave has produced an image above his palm.

I’ve heard of holograms. And outside of science fiction, they require a lot of tech like massive projectors or sophisticated panels. Neither of which are in this room.

It’s just me, my grandmother, Hargrave, and the opulent furnishings.

So this… there’s nothing to explain what I’m seeing on his hand.

And what am I seeing? A perfect recreation of myself.

I take a jerked step backward, my heels snagging against the lip of the rug below my feet. I almost tumble backward, but I hold my balance in time.

Richard jerks a hand out nonetheless. “Be careful. You should be reacting better than this,” his tone changes, immediately going from caring about me to drawing his lips thin with anger. “You saw magic last night. You fought with some, too. This is only a slightly more complicated display. That’s all.” He shrugs toward the magical hologram in his palm.

“What… what the hell is that? Why does it look like me?” I manage, bringing up a hand and slamming it on the top of my chest as if I’m trying to will my heart into slowing down before I have a heart attack.

“This is nothing more than a magical scan of you.”

“Magical scan?” My voice is choppy, twisted, broken.

“With enough magic and certain technological aids, you can take a scan of a person’s physique and their magical capacities. That’s what this is.” He shrugs toward the hologram once more.

I keep swallowing as I stare at myself. That image of me is spinning slowly over his palm. It’s essentially a copy of what I look like right now – right down to the rip in the shoulder of my dress.

I take another swallow. “What… what does it do?”

“It shows me your current capabilities,” he replies.

“Magical scan of my abilities? But… it just looks like me right now.”

Without a word, Richard twiddles one of his fingers, and suddenly the holographic image of me changes. It zooms in until it hits the vascular level. And let me tell you, it’s easily one of the eeriest experiences of my life watching a virtual camera zoom in right through my body.

It makes me jolt. But nowhere near as hard as when I see what I’m looking at.

You’d think it would be blood, right? That’s what’s meant to be within your veins, after all. Problem is, it’s not blood. It’s some kind of… I don’t know, light maybe.

I take a gasp.

Richard continues to twiddle his thumb, twisting it to the side, almost as if he’s thumbing some kind of invisible button.

He focuses on that light. He clears his throat. “This is magic. At least, the potential of magic that is currently trapped in your body. Though it doesn’t look like much,” he slices his gaze over to my grandmother, “considering your family history, it will grow.” There is a definite hard quality to his words as he says will grow.

There’s also a certainty that makes my stomach kick.

It takes me several seconds to get enough saliva in my mouth to speak again. I’m all but shutting down through fear. All the blood is being redirected to my core, and my mouth feels as dry as a desert. “What do you mean potential in my family?”

Richard nods at my grandmother, obviously referring to her.

She clears her throat and stands. She claps her hands in front of herself, takes several seconds to stare at the floor, then finally nods at me. “My sweet child, you come from a very long line of witches,” she says without any segue.

There’s a ringing in my ears as I hear that word. And it’s not just the fear of this crazy situation. Something twists within me, writhes as if it’s trying to die. And it’s all on that word. Witches.

A hard shiver traces all the way down my back and jolts hard into my knees. “What?” I croak again, this time even quieter, as if I barely have the strength to speak anymore.

“Witches,” my grandmother says again, having no trouble whatsoever with that word. It slips off her tongue with such ease, it’s as if she’s practiced saying it her whole life. “Our abilities skip one generation,” she explains, nodding at me. “Your mother wasn’t a witch. I,” she taps her hand on her chest and flicks it wide, “am a witch.”

Just as happened with Richard, flame suddenly dances over my grandmother’s fingers, lighting up the underside of her face.

You’d think I’d stop reacting to magic – considering how much of it I’ve seen, but there is something so disarming about seeing it spark and crackle over my grandmother’s fingers.

I take another hard jolt backward, finally reaching the windows, my back slamming against the glass.

“Steady,” Richard growls. Though there’s an unquestionably pissed off edge to the move, there’s also concern filtering through his tone.

Unlike Richard with his hologram of my so-called bloodstream, my grandmother doesn’t allow the magic to crackle over her fingers for long. With a simple movement of her thumb, it disappears, and she goes back to crossing her hands in front of herself. “Since the very beginning, our family have always been witches. We have had the magic in our bones, in our blood,” she says, voice dipping down low as she emphasizes the word blood with a blast of air. “And that same potential is now in your blood. Richard will teach you how to use it. But,” her voice bottoms out low, and though there was a stern expression on her face seconds before, now it becomes kind and just a little bit broken, telling me my grandmother is about to share something I won’t like. “From now until the day you die, you will technically belong to Richard Hargrave,” she says flatly.

There’s a ringing in my ears. It’s hard and loud, kind of feels as if someone is repeatedly banging on Big Ben right inside my skull.

And as for my mouth, it’s not just dry anymore. It feels like I’ve swallowed iron shavings. “What… what do you mean I’ll belong to Richard?” I can’t possibly keep my voice even on the word belong. You wouldn’t be able to, either. Because this is so wrong. On every level. You can’t own somebody in the modern world. We got over those awful concepts long ago. So what the hell is my own grandmother trying to tell me?

“The word ownership is a technicality,” Richard tries to explain, his words cautious and careful.

“You either own something or you don’t,” I spit back at him, as angry as I’ll ever be. That anger is marching and climbing up my back, stabbing into my heart, telling me this just shouldn’t be happening. It shouldn’t be happening!

“You could’ve made this easier on the both of us if you only told her sooner. If you prepared her,” Richard admonishes my grandmother once more under his breath.

My grandmother simply arches an eyebrow. She turns her gaze back to me. There’s concern flickering in her eyes, and yet, she’s not marching forward, tucking me under one arm, and taking me home, telling me this was all a mistake and she would never, ever give me away like I’m some gift to a billionaire.

No, she sadly has a grim expression on her face that tells me there’s going to be no easy way out of this.

She brings her hands up and spreads them wide. “You have a lot of power, Lydia. It may not have manifested yet, but… with… help, it will. But that power must be used for good, and it must be constrained,” she says. Though she’s spoken passionately before, boy does her voice power out on the word contained. I see a flash of true emotion in her eyes. Fragility, as well. Deep seated fragility. It’s a glimpse of a grandmother I’ve never seen. She’s always been the strong one. Much stronger than my parents. She was always the one I looked up to and confided in, because Grandma Jones always had an answer for everything. But now? She looks undone.

It doesn’t last, though, and she quickly shakes her head, takes a sharp breath, then nods right back at me. “There is a reason we have signed a contract with the Hargraves – one that has lasted many hundreds of years. And that reason is to our mutual benefit. The witches of our family are too strong for their own good. They possess too much power. And until we signed that contract with the Hargraves, every second female descendant who inherited magic either burnt herself to death,” my grandmother spits the word burnt, “or became a target for the unscrupulous. Now we live in relative peace. It comes at a cost. That cost is that you must now work for Richard.” She spreads a hand toward him and nods his way. “You must follow his orders, and you must do as he says. He must, however,” she really spits the word however, her lips jerking hard around it as she locks him in her full, angry attention, “take care of you. He cannot break any one of the rules. He cannot ask you to do anything that is outside the remit of our magical contract. And he cannot constrain your life other than to ensure your magic is contained, that you are safe, and that he, in turn, is safe.”

I shake my head. Part of me is comprehending what she’s saying – that rational scrap of my mind that’s somehow still functioning despite what’s happening. But the rest of me just can’t comprehend how my own grandma could be saying this. In the space of a few hours, I’ve gone from being a struggling but still happy university student who’s trying to figure out her life, to… I don’t know. What the hell is this? What’s my grandmother really saying? That now until the day I die I’ll belong to Richard Hargrave?

Richard clears his throat. He has such a sharp gaze. Like I said before, Richard Hargrave is unconventionally handsome. He doesn’t have that perfect chiseled jaw or that charming smile that you get with a lot of the rich boys I see around town. What he has is something far more intangible. The rugged attractiveness of somebody who knows their mind, and, far more frighteningly, knows precisely how to use said mind to get exactly what he wants.

“You will move in here. I will provide you with money, accommodation, and any reasonable request you have. In turn, you will assist me in my endeavors,” he says the word endeavors carefully.

Though I’m really not adjusting to the situation – as nobody would be able to adjust to this crazy hell I’ve just slipped into – a functioning part of my mind locks onto what he’s saying, and my eyebrows descend with a jolt. “What do you mean endeavors?”

“You must use your powers to protect Richard and his family.” My grandmother looks at me directly. “You must assist him with any security matter. But above all, you must keep him safe,” her voice dips down low in a categorical order.

I just stare at her dumbfounded.

“Sorry? Keep him safe? Security matters? I’m a bodyguard? But I’m just a student. How do you expect me—” as always, my questions come out like blasts. Now the dam of my curiosity has been broken, I need to know exactly what the hell this situation is.

Richard brings up a hand quickly, spreading his fingers wide. “Slow down. One question at a time. The service you will provide me… isn’t technically that of a bodyguard. What you will do for me is… more proactive than that,” he says, carefully picking over every single word as if he’s drafting a contract in his mind.

I take several seconds to breathe, every single breath shaking through my torso like an unsteady hand. “What do you mean more proactive?”

“I will select targets, and you will go out and eliminate them. Most of my personal security is already provided by my employees. And my… enemies,” he says the word carefully, baring his teeth a little as I catch just a flash of white enamel, “would not be so stupid and forward to attack me on my premises or during my ordinary affairs. They would, however, be forward enough to do everything they can to disrupt my activities. And that is where you will come in.”

I swallow. I’m no longer aware of how dry my mouth is. I’m no longer aware of my heart or my sweat or any one of my physiological reactions to fear. The only thing I can feel is this pounding in my head. It has a real ring of finality to it, as if it’s the sound of somebody breaking down my sense of self, one hammer blow at a time.

I take another shaking swallow. “I… you… I’m not going to kill for you,” I spit, voice shaking.

Richard looks from me to my grandmother, then back to me. “Unless an unlikely situation were to occur, I wouldn’t ask you to kill for me. Most situations can be dealt with without… fatal violence.”

I blanch. I’m not exactly a pacifist. As you saw last night, when it’s required, I will go out to bat, even if people get hurt. But there is a big difference between being someone who’s willing to chase after a criminal, to actively going out and eliminating people’s lives.

And it’s a line I won’t cross.

Yet as I stare desperately between Richard and my grandmother, I realize it’s a line they’ve already crossed in their heads.

I start shaking my head, faster and harder, faster and harder. There’s nowhere to back away to, though, so my shoulders just jolt hard into the window. It’s large enough, thick enough, and high enough up that it doesn’t shudder with the move and there’s no chance I’ll shatter it and fall down to the pavement below.

And yet, at the same time, it means there’s nowhere I have to go.

Richard looks from me to my grandmother, but when my grandmother doesn’t pull me into line, he sighs. He shoves his hands into his pockets, his shoulders all rigid and hard with stress. “I’m not asking you to kill anyone. You shouldn’t have to. But… there’s something you need to understand. Your power comes with a lot of responsibility. And it must also… be discharged. If you don’t use it, as your grandmother already said, it will consume you, or… it will attract the wrong kind of attention.”

“So your solution is to use me to go and kill your competition?”

My words shake out, my breath just so many ragged pants.

Richard snorts. Though he looked like he was trying to calm me down before, now he rolls his eyes. It teaches me two things about Richard Hargrave. Though he possibly may feel compassion on certain occasions, he has no follow-through. He’s the kind of guy who wants to appear like he cares about you every now and then, but the kind of guy who couldn’t be bothered doing it all the time because it will simply get in the way of what he really wants. “This isn’t going well.” He places a hand on his brow and speaks through clenched teeth. “And no,” he suddenly adds, his teeth clenched even harder than before, “I am not using you to simply go out and kill my competition. I am not a monster. You may not know much about me, but that is a cruel thing to suggest. I, as a Hargrave, only use magic to help. Nothing more. My so-called competition,” he spits the words with a great deal of vehemence – making it obvious that I really insulted him, “do otherwise. They murder, steal, and do as they please. They also… court destructive forces they should not. You and I are responsible for keeping them in check.”

I want to spit at him automatically that I won’t believe his lies. But here’s the thing. I don’t know what to believe anymore. My head is still spinning. I just want to sit down, close my eyes, and try to make the world make sense again.

“Do you expect me to believe—” I begin.

My grandmother places her hands behind her back and takes a step toward me. She tilts her head to the side, and finally for the first time I see the compassion that has always marked her features whenever she looks at me.

Now part of me wonders if that compassion and her preferential treatment all had something to do with this. “Lydia, he speaks the truth. You trust me, don’t you? I wouldn’t lie to you. The men and women Hargrave deals with are not worthy of your compassion. They will continue to, and have always, hurt others. They are the very definition of evil.” Her voice becomes dark on that word. And though I would’ve once said that my grandmother wouldn’t be the kind of woman to see the world in a black-and-white way that would allow for good and evil, there’s no denying how very dark her expression is on that word. “If you can’t trust Hargrave, then trust me,” she says passionately. “And trust in the family pact. The rules will protect you if Hargrave asks you to do anything that’s wrong. But you must help him. You must protect him, and you must protect everyone else.”

Not only is this categorically the most confusing experience of my life, but it's also easily one of the cruelest, too. Because if there was one person I would think would have my back in this crazy situation, it would be my grandmother. But here she is, essentially telling me to hand over my life to this rich idiot.

I can feel Richard’s eyes on me as he clears his throat and finally takes a step away from the door, obviously realizing that I’m now in no condition whatsoever to run. “Justine,” he says, using my grandmother’s first name, “we need to sign documents,” he says stiffly. He reaches a hand into his jacket, pulls open his lapel, and grabs a pen from his inside pocket.

It’s gold and tipped with what looks like, on first glance, a diamond. But as he clicks that tip and the pen nib extends, I see a faint spark of light.

No, not light, magic.

My grandmother sighs as she steps around the couch and heads toward his desk.

Richard follows.

His eyes are on me, though – obviously judging if I’ll take the opportunity to run.

I don’t. I stand there, my world still falling out from underneath me with every second.

I watch in total dumbfounded shock as my very own grandmother appears to sign a contract that will hand me over to Richard. I’m an adult. I don’t need anyone to look after me, and Richard is hardly adopting me. Oh no. Not only is he only a few years older than me, but this is no ordinary contract. As soon as my grandmother signs it, sparks of light wrap around it, zipping this way and that, looking like errant fireflies caught in a strong wind.

Though I’ve seen nothing but magic ever since waking up, I still gasp and let out a soft yelp.

My grandmother ignores me. Richard watches me out of the corner of his eye. And he never stops watching me until the light of the contract dissipates, he returns his pen to his pocket, and he nods hard at my grandmother. “That’s done. Your part of the bargain is now over. You and your family, as always, will be protected.”

My grandmother takes a heavy sigh. It’s sad. The first time she’s shown an emotion other than passion and graceful certainty.

She walks over to me, plucks up my trembling hands, and looks right in my eyes. She takes several seconds to stare at me, almost as if she’s taking the mental equivalent of a photo.

Then she leans in and pats my cheek. I don’t jerk away. I don’t stop her, and I don’t scream at her that this is so unfair. That it shouldn’t even be possible. That I don’t frigging understand. Because the problem is, second by second, I’m starting to understand. A crazy, awful realization is dawning on me. My life will never be the same again. Because now, I’m the property of a billionaire.

Chapter 5

My grandmother stays with me a little bit, explaining all she can about magic and witches and our family tradition, emphasizing over and over again how important it is that I trust Richard and do as he says and learn to use my magic to protect others.

It’s decidedly the most surreal experience of my life. If it weren’t so crystal clear and picture-perfect, I’d conclude that it’s a hallucination. But I’m not that lucky.

Eventually my grandmother leaves.

Richard shows me to a room. My room, apparently. It’s easily five times the size of my room back in my dorm. And it’s easily a hundred times as nice. It’s exactly as opulent as you’d expect from the spare room of a billionaire. It looks like the presidential suite of a 5-star hotel. It’s exactly my style, too. The furniture’s all old, antique, provincial French design, with polished pine tops and distressed white and green paint. The bed’s massive, easily king size, and from the delicate gold thread cushions to the throw, it’s beautiful. It’s the kind of bedroom I’ve always dreamed about.

But it comes with strings attached. Because my life from now until the day I frigging die will come with strings attached.

Richard leaves me alone. Without even a goodbye. As he closes the door, however, he lingers, locking his narrowed eyed gaze on me. Though I’m kind of in my own world of confusion and pain right now, I have enough of a sense of reality left over to realize how calculating Richard is. It’s not calculating in the way he’s wondering how much money he’ll make out of me. It’s different. I don’t get the sense I’m a prize cow he’s sizing up at some village fair anymore. I get the sense that I’m a great big unknown to him. Maybe something he’s been waiting for his entire life. And something he’s struggling to understand now he has me in his grasp.

That’s such a sickening thought. When he finally closes the door and leaves me alone, I just stand there. I stand in the middle of the room, occasionally turning, occasionally clutching my hands over my face and screaming into my palms, practically biting my fingers as my mind struggles to catch up.

Hargrave hasn’t left me without information. There are books piled up on the table by my bed. Notes, too. There’s even an iPad fully loaded with videos.

I want to tell myself that none of this is possible. That maybe I’m just hallucinating; maybe I had a really bad drink at the party and this is the comedown. But with every second that this situation doesn’t change, my body starts to realize this is the truth.

I’ve stumbled into a world of magic, money, and danger, and I will never stumble out again.

Richard doesn’t come back to see me all day. And when it finally comes time to sleep, as soon as my head hits the pillow, all I do is lie there and stare up at the perfect ceiling.

I think of Lisa, my friends, uni, how the hell I’m going to tell them – or what the hell I’ll be able to tell them.

And then finally, as sleep starts to take me, I think of what I should’ve been thinking of the second I realized magic was real.

The power within me.

The fear, too. Fear at the promise that there’s so much magic within me that unless Hargrave can help me control it, it will consume me or it will attract all the wrong kind of attention.

It’s been several days now. And I won’t tell you that my new reality has sunk in – because it hasn’t. But… I’m starting to get used to the fact my life will never be the same again.

I’m lying on my bed, a cushion under my stomach and clutched hard to my chest as I read a book splayed out on the mattress before me. It’s about magic. The exact dynamics of how it interacts with people’s bodies and how it produces power. It’s complicated stuff. Heavy science – chemistry, physics, math. The kind of stuff I’m meant to be good at. But I can’t understand a word.

Though I haven’t had anything much to do with Hargrave for the past several days – as he’s obviously waiting for me to adjust to my new life – I suddenly hear a knock on the door.

I’ve barely left this room, and Hargrave’s staff bring my meals. I’ve got my own bathroom and kitchenette, and there’s nothing I want for.

Well, apart from freedom – but that’s not gonna happen.

Convincing myself that it’s just the staff here to bring me another snack, I don’t bother getting off my bed. I just let out a, “Come in.”

The door opens.

At first I don’t look up, then he clears his throat.

I snap up as I see Richard.

He’s dressed in another imperfect suit. It’s not that they don’t fit him – billionaires don’t exactly have any trouble affording tailors. It’s that… I don’t know, suits don’t suit Richard. I’m not exactly sure any clothes would suit Richard. And that’s not to say that I would prefer to see him naked. It’s that… I don’t know, he’s blazing and strong enough that it doesn’t really matter what he’s wearing. His personality shines through anyway.

He clears his throat. “I apologize for inconveniencing you. However, it’s finally time for you to come out of here.”

Though maybe I should snap up, jump off my bed, and try to look decent, I just stare at him blankly. “What do you mean?” My voice couldn’t be darker. Whenever I’ve seen one of Richard’s staff members, I’ve always been polite. I hate people who are rude unnecessarily. But they’re one thing, and Richard is something else altogether.

The new bane of my existence.

He arches an eyebrow. “I had hoped after I left you alone for several days with sufficient reading material to understand your… particular position,” he takes several seconds to spit that one out, “that you would be easier to deal with.”

For some reason the words easier to deal with feel like they’re a slap to my face. I actually snarl. I’ve never snarled in my life before, but then again, I’ve never been in a situation like this.

I finally push off my bed, but it’s only to get a better angle as I cross my arms hard in front of myself. “We don’t always get what we want, do we? And if you think providing me with this room and all these books is going to make me easier to deal with and is gonna make your ownership of me,” I spit out the word ownership, “easier, then you’ve got another thing coming.”

Richard smiles. At least, technically his lips curl upward. It’s the furthest thing from a warm move I’ve ever seen. It’s the kind of smile you’d offer your enemy before you eviscerated them. “There’s no need to make me into your enemy. Trust me when I say you’ll have your hands full dealing with the real ones soon enough.”

I want to keep hold of my anger. I want to keep spitting at him until I’m blue in the face. But there’s something so… ominous about what he’s promising, that I can’t hide a shiver. And as soon as I shiver, Richard’s eyes lock on the move.

For just a second – a single second – he almost looks compassionate. Then he looks victorious. “I understand that you’re fearful of your new-found position. But the wrong thing to do is to push that fear onto me. Your grandmother explained the situation to you. And now you’ve read these books, you should understand where you stand. I’m not your enemy,” he repeats. As he does, his voice does something different. And the difference is this. It’s the first time I’ve heard him sound genuine. Not like some billionaire bastard who’s used to getting exactly what he wants. Like an ordinary man.

It’s disarming enough that my shoulders loosen. Again he notices. Hell, I swear he sees every single time I breathe, practically notes every time my heart pumps, too. This guy, in other words, doesn’t miss a single beat. Especially when it comes to me.

Though I’m trying as hard as I can to hold onto my anger, the questions come flooding back in again. Yeah, I’ve had several days to get used to the idea that my life has been pretty much eviscerated. But there are still so many questions. And none more prominent than this. What exactly am I capable of?

Everybody keeps telling me I have strong magic – magic strong enough that it has to be contained or it will hurt me and others. But where is it, what is it, and how… how will I learn to control it?

I don’t honestly think that Richard can read minds, but he’s obviously very good at reading people. From my body language to my expression, he obviously picks up on the fact I’m becoming less adversarial.

He takes another step into the room, and there’s no longer anything hard about his expression. It’s easy. Though it isn’t caring anymore. Like I already said, Richard Hargrave only seems to be capable of compassion for a split second or two. His expression is expectant because he’s finally found a way to get through to me. He clears his throat. “If you want your questions answered, then ask them. I will not hold anything back from you. Our… relationship, will be more productive the more you understand of what you are, what you can do, and what you can’t do.” His voice really bottoms out as he says can’t do.

Maybe it’s something I should note, but my head gets stuck on one fact.

He referred to our relationship as productive, as if I’m a dairy cow or something. Or worse, a performing stock.

My features harden, and on cue, he picks up on it.

He sighs, brings a hand up, and starts to massage his brow. “We don’t really have the luxury of time. I need to get you up to speed as quickly as I can so that you can start working. My enemies… never take days off.”

I narrow my eyes at him. “I get it. Between you and my grandmother, it’s pretty clear that… you found me early,” I say, having a great deal of difficulty putting that concept into words. It’s a disgusting concept, after all. One of the worst I’ve ever heard of.

If I’d never gone to that stupid party, I would never have met Richard.

… That’s not true, a little part of my mind points out. I would’ve still met him, just after my birthday.

From what I’ve learned, I would never have been able to dodge this destiny. It was only ever a matter of time.

Richard looks at me evenly. “Nothing ever happens by chance. Not in this world. And you must take every opportunity you get.”

I’m not a fanatic or anything, but I’ve always been particular about the way people use their words. How they use their concepts. I hate it when people mix metaphors, which is exactly what he’s doing right now. I arch an eyebrow. “If you don’t believe in chance, then you don’t believe in opportunities.”

He arches his own eyebrow. Then he sighs. It’s heavy, and it really drags down his shoulders. For the first time, I think I catch a glimpse of a real man underneath that suit and the sharp eyes. The kind of man who – just like every other human on earth – can be crushed by circumstances. It gives me my first glimpse that Richard isn’t all he seems. Under the billionaire, powerful persona, he obviously has his problems.

Though I know I shouldn’t – though I want to hold onto my anger – I swallow.

For some reason his expression underlines one fact – a fact I’ve conveniently pushed away over the last several days – that I don’t know enough about this world to make any conclusions. And the only person I trust the most in this world has told me to trust Hargrave.

I take a breath.

Richard looks at me. “I just want you to trust me for a little, that’s all. Soon enough you’ll understand this world,” his voice drops down on the words this world. “Until then, I’m going to do everything I can to help you,” he emphasizes the word help.

Though I want to spit back that I don’t need his version of help, and all he’s doing is using me, I hold my tongue.

I draw up an image of my grandmother in my mind. Of every time she was kind to me. Of every time she helped me out. For the advice she’s given me over the years.

I hold onto that image as I let out a sigh. “Fine. What do you want?”

He pauses for several seconds, as if he’s waiting for me to change my mind and to continue the argument. When I don’t, he lets out a quiet, relieved breath. “I want to buy you some clothes,” he says.

It’s out of the blue, and all I do is blink slowly like an actor on stage. “Sorry, you want to buy me some clothes?” I bring my hands wide and indicate my jeans. “These are clothes. I found them in the wardrobe. Your staff said I could take them. I don’t need any more. These fit fine.”

He clears his throat. “I see there’s something I’ve failed to explain. I need you by my side,” he says flatly.

My stomach kicks. You know the kind of kick I’m talking about. That specific kind of lurching, tingling feeling you get when the guy you’re interested in finally makes it obvious that he’s interested in you.

But that feeling is so inappropriate. For one, I’m not interested in Hargrave. For another, he technically owns me.

I clamp down on the sensation and frown as hard as I can. “You already own me – I saw you sign that contract. What—”

He brings up a hand. “I can see you’re argumentative. You don’t deal well with situations where you don’t have enough information,” he comments under his breath, as if he’s a psychiatrist noting down my faults. “You will need to remain by my side during the day. Though I will obviously send you on missions as I see fit, you will need to have a significant presence alongside me.”

I blink. All thoughts of my stomach kicking are gone. “What exactly are you talking about?”

“I’ve discussed the options, and I think it will be the most believable if I make you into my PA.”

I stare at him. I don’t think my expression could be any blanker. “Sorry, PA? You want me to answer your phone calls and organize meetings?”

He takes a heavy sigh. He brings up a hand, latches it on his mouth, and slowly lets his fingers draw away. “You will have the appearance of my PA, without any of the duties. Now, please, I don’t have all day. I need to buy you some appropriate clothes. Then work will begin.”

I’m flabbergasted, exasperated, and really, really pissed off. Yeah, I’ve had several days to grow accustomed to the idea that I have magic and that I’ll now be working for this guy. But at the actual prospect of working for him, I feel my gut clench like crazy.

He obviously sees a new blast of anger spiraling through my eyes, because he sighs even louder than before. He clamps his hand even harder around his mouth, his fingers now digging into the light ray of stubble over his chin. “As I have already said multiple times before, I don’t have the luxury of wasting time with you.”

“Then leave me the hell alone,” I spit. “Go find some other witch,” I say.

And as I do, I have a reaction to that word. To the fact I just referred to myself as a witch.

Shit, it’s like I’ve finally accepted that fact.

I feel cold all over, but I don’t stop staring at him like I’m going to stab the guy.

“I cannot. You’re the one who was promised to me. And whether you like it or not, Lydia, we’re going to have to learn to get along. Now, please, just come down and get in the car. And once we are out in the city,” he suddenly makes direct eye contact, and it’s the kind of eye contact a General would make with a misbehaving soldier – one who he’s trying to pull into line one final time, “you won’t speak of magic and witches, or breathe a word of any of this. It is forbidden to share the secret of magic.”

I’ve learned that fact in my books, as well as a lot of other stuff. But that doesn’t prepare me for the vehemence behind his words. Richard’s shown a range of emotions since we met, but this is the first time I’ve seen him truly angry.

“Once we have bought you the right clothes, you will begin accompanying me to certain meetings.”

I’m now holding my arms so tightly in front of myself, I can feel how stiff my neck muscles are becoming. I’m at the risk of giving myself a migraine if I keep this up, but there’s no way I will ever relax in front of this guy. No way I will ever let him think I’m at ease in his presence. Still, what he’s saying puts me off guard. “What do you mean? What meetings? Why wouldn’t I be going to all of them?” I add, as if I’m suggesting I don’t want to be left behind.

He snorts– the first time I’ve ever seen him show humor. “Because I need to get some real business done, and you would only get in the way.”

I stare at him as angrily as I can. “Well—”

He brings up a hand. “Before you say I can just get another witch, I’ve already told you I can’t. It’s time you start to accept your responsibility. You have a lot of power, Lydia, and that power will consume you if you don’t learn how to use it properly. And if you don’t learn to use it for good, others will consume you,” he adds flatly.

It’s the first time I’ve heard him put my predicament in those words, and it’s a brutal way to hear it.

Brutal enough that I blink hard as a pang of fear sails through my gut.

Again he notices it. Shit, even if we had a closed door between us, I get the feeling Richard would still know what I’m feeling.

“As for why I’m going to take you along to specific meetings, it’s because I’m going to need you to vet my clients.”

“What? I don’t have any special skills. I mean, technically, I’ve studied one business unit—”

His hand is still out, and he spreads his fingers wider. “My magical clients,” he adds.

I stop. I stare.

I swallow.

“What do you mean magical clients? Are there… other people out there in the city who practice magic?” It’s a naïve question, and one I already know the answer to. From the books I’ve been reading, it’s been made clear that magic is practiced all over the world. In secret, yes, but it’s not exactly a rare thing. A controlled thing, absolutely. But there’s no reason to believe that Richard, me, and my grandmother are the only people in Fairchurch who practice magic.

“I assume you already know the answer to that. Which is yes. There are many in Fairchurch who understand the craft.”

“And what exactly do you want me to do at these meetings? I don’t know how to—”

“Before you point out the obvious – that you don’t know how to use your powers – please stop. I will teach you.”

I pause. The fire in the pit of my belly tells me to keep pushing. But something else controls me. The fact that this is real. This isn’t some fantasy, some crooked dream. Whether I like it or not, a billionaire socialite is soon going to teach me how to use magic.

And I have no idea what that will entail, but I can guess that it’ll mean we’re going to get pretty close.

I swallow.

His eyes are darting over my face – they do that all the time, as if they’re continuous scanning beams that want to pick up any single change in my expression, any micro movement, any minute alteration in blood flow. Anything to suggest I’m changing my mind or – heaven forbid – getting angry again.

When I don’t show any sign of anger, Richard nods. It’s a firm, direct move. And it has a note of finality. “Come on, Lydia. It’s time for things to begin.”

With that, he turns and walks out. Reluctantly, I follow.

Chapter 6

I don’t want to be doing this, but what choice do I have?

The answer is I don’t have a choice.

I can sit there on my bed riling against Richard Hargrave and his tyrannical rule all I want, but it isn’t going to change anything.

Plus… there’s something I can’t deny.

Curiosity. It’s been billowing in me ever since this mess began. And one promise more than any other has snagged hold of my heart with all the grip of a chain.

Just how much magic I’ll be capable of.

I won’t lie to you, I’ve always felt weak. That’s stupid, right? As I’ve already pointed out, I’m practically the modern equivalent of a ninja. Yeah, I’ve got a black belt in karate. And yeah, I did gymnastics up until a couple of years ago. I know how to use my body. But I still know my limitations. And more than anything, I know what really matters in life. It doesn’t honestly matter how good I am at throwing a punch or dodging a kick. What matters in this world is how much money you have, where you were born, and who you have on your side. Apart from my grandmother, I’ve always pretty much been alone.

But at the prospect of magic… I dunno.

I follow Richard several paces behind as he leads me through this massive building, down an elevator, and into a car park at the base of the building.

Predictably, he motions me over to an extremely expensive car.

Just as predictably, he doesn’t get in the driver’s seat. No, he has a staff member for that. Because it seems that Richard Hargrave has a staff member for everything.

I’m hustled into the back seat alongside Richard. The car isn’t exactly a limo or anything, but it’s big and spacey, and there’s a full arm-length between me and Richard.

He appears to ignore me entirely as he pulls out his phone and begins working on it.

We drive out of the car park and into the city. And that’s when it hits me.

As we drive through downtown and I recognize all my usual haunts and favorite places to shop, I appreciate that I’m never going to be able to live a normal life again.

I get a real rush of blood to the head as I think about Lisa and the rest of my friends. What have they been told? Have they even been told anything? Or do they think I’m a missing person?

I grip my seatbelt harder with every second, my fingers really digging into the tough fabric until pain shoots down my nails into my knuckles.

We drive for several blocks until Richard turns his attention over to me. He clears his throat when I don’t immediately lock my gaze on his. “As I’ve already told you, it’s important to maintain a sense of discipline when outside. The very last thing you can do,” he warns through stiff, clenched teeth, “is let your secret out.”

It takes several seconds to gather the gumption to turn and stare at him. And when I do, I know my expression is unchecked – my gaze is as wild as that of a trapped animal. “Yeah, you’ve emphasized that. I get it already. But… what the hell do I do if I meet somebody I know? What exactly am I meant to tell them?”

He looks at me evenly, his expression completely nonplussed as if my pertinent question was nothing more than the squeak of a mouse. “You tell them what I’ve already told you. That you’ve accepted a job, and you’re now my PA. There’s nothing suspicious about that.”

I clench my teeth together. Richard Hargrave has this unusual ability to turn my abject fear into irritation. Which is actually something I need right now. Because the more I concentrate on how screwed up my life is, the more I lose it. But the more I concentrate on how irritating Richard is? The more I just want to scream at the guy.

It’s my turn to clench my teeth and slowly pare my lips back. “So what exactly have you told my friends? Are people looking for me? I mean, aren’t people going to be pretty suspicious if I started working for you a single day after I met you?”

“Firstly,” he places his phone on his lap with a long, measured sigh – the kind of sigh you would give when you realize you have to deal with the juvenile beside you because she sure as hell doesn’t have the adult life skills to process her emotions on her own, “it hasn’t been a day. It’s been several days. Secondly, no one is looking for you,” he says that bit gently. At least more gently than his usual snaps and grunts. “Your grandmother has already informed your friends that, due to financial issues, you have dropped out of uni to find employment. There’s nothing suspicious about that.”

My stomach twists. Yours would too. Here Richard is telling me that between him and my grandmother, they’ve completely destroyed and dismantled my old life. With no input from me whatsoever.

But I latch onto one concept. “You really think that’s understandable? That a couple of days,” I emphasize the word couple, “after meeting you, I would suddenly become your PA? Exactly what kind of PA skills do I have? Anyone who knows me knows I’m not the most organized soul out there. Plus, presumably you already had a PA.”

He takes another long-suffering sigh, one that pushes his chest against his shirt. Though he’s not wearing a full suit at the moment, and is only dressed in a white shirt and chinos, they don’t suit him, either. Which backs up my original proposition that clothes don’t suit Richard Hargrave in general. His face and demeanor are simply too damn intense. All you really need is a close-up of his eyes and stiff-lipped mouth, and everything else is irrelevant.

“I have a reputation in this town for doing exactly as I please. I also have a reputation for hand-picking my staff. Not necessarily based on their skill set,” he emphasizes the word skill set, “but on what I think they are capable of. I already demonstrably showed… interest in you,” he picks over the words interest in you carefully, his tone suggesting this is nothing more than business, “at the party. So no. I can’t agree with your conclusion. I think it would be perfectly understandable to your friends and associates that I employed you. So I suggest you put this behind you and concentrate on what will come next.”

I want to hit him. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to hit someone more in my life. And that’s saying something coming from me. I’m a disciplined mind when it comes to violence. I may not be when it comes to studying and organizing the rest of my life, but when it comes to training, I know that you have to control violent urges. It’s not just that they will get you in trouble; it’s that in a real fight they’ll often be what defeats you. It’s the ability to keep a cool mind and see opportunities when they come that ultimately leads to victory.

But all that goes out the window when I look at Richard Hargrave. Because he’s in control. And he knows that. He doesn’t care about what I’m feeling or experiencing – all he wants is for me to be malleable to his will, like I’m some jar of Playdough and he’s a three-year-old who wants to fashion me into whatever he pleases.

I no longer clutch the seatbelt. I let my hands draw into my lap, and I pull my fingers into my palms one by one, as if I’m slowly gripping an invisible sword with both hands. “Where exactly do you get off—”

“Here.” He brings up a finger and points across the road as we suddenly draw into a park. “Now,” he pulls his lips around the word, and they practically twang with frustration. He also leans in, planting a hand on the seat between us and drawing his face close until it’s right up near mine.

Though I’m not the kind of person to get uncomfortable when someone’s specifically trying to rile me up, my stomach clenches. “You will act normally when we go in there. You understand that, don’t you? I… appreciate that on some level this must be a difficult situation for you. And I would’ve preferred for it to be smoother. Believe you me. The fact of the matter is, you are a witch,” he says flatly, pulling no punches, “and you do have power that must be contained. I will help you to contain it. This is not a situation that has been engineered to harm you, Lydia. It’s here to help you. The pact between the Hargraves and the Golds has existed for centuries. It has been productive for centuries. Countless lives have been saved. And you,” his lips do it again, pretty much twanging around his words, “can save more. But you have to trust me. Now, get out of the car.” He transitions so smoothly from begging me to trust him to giving me a categorical order that I almost feel like I’m about to get whiplash.

He places his phone diligently back in his pocket, smooths down the fabric of his pants, undoes his seatbelt, and gets out of the car.

He leaves me there blinking, wondering what the hell just happened. But when he clears his throat and makes it clear that I’m wasting his time, I finally undo my own seatbelt and jump out. I’m so frustrated and angry I almost jump right in front of a taxi. The guy’s on the ball, though, and he swerves out of the way. He honks his horn, leans out of his window, and swears at me.

I mutter a sorry as I duck onto the pavement.

Richard is staring at me with daggers in his eyes. “Though I’m sure you’re keen to test the strength of your magic, trust me when I say that you do not have the strength to deal with a car yet. Now come along.” He almost pushes out a hand to grab my wrist. I can see the reflexive movement of his fingers, but then it’s as if he realizes he’s out on the street, so he allows his hand to veer as he pats down his pocket, clears his throat, and motions toward a store in front of us.

I look up to see one of the most expensive stores in the city. Designer and extremely, exorbitantly overpriced. The kind of store where you walk in and they have merchandise like tote bags that sell for about a grand each.

I instantly make a face.

“Be polite,” Richard warns as he nods forward.

He pulls his phone out of his pocket again and starts texting on it.

I catch a glimpse of it over his shoulder, and I realize he’s organizing some kind of meeting for tonight. For some reason, my stomach clenches as I see that, and my intuition plays up.

I have an ambivalent relationship with my intuition. Sometimes I trust it – because sometimes it works great. But other times – in fact, most of the time – it leads me on wild goose chases.

That’s the thing about relying on your gut instincts rather than facts. Sometimes your gut instinct is nothing more than hunger.

But now I have to reassess this, don’t I? Because now I’ve learned one extremely important fact about myself. Somewhere kicking around my bloodstream is magic. Magic that’s just waiting to be let out.

My stomach gives another kick as I follow Hargrave into the store several steps behind him.

As soon as he walks in, it’s like God has ascended into the Vatican. Every sales assistant – despite who they were helping – rushes over. They even line up and bow as if they’re greeting a king.

Richard flashes them a smile – a disarming, charming smile that he’s no doubt practiced his whole life considering he was born rich. He nods toward me. I say nod, but it’s more of a dismissive arch of his neck. “Can someone assist my new PA? I have an important meeting tonight, and she needs to look the part. 10 or so outfits will do. Including evening wear,” he adds, and he turns on his foot and heads toward one of the customer lounges.

Though a customer was about to sit on it with their bags, one of the shop assistants actually scurries in and shoos them away.

This is the rich-guy effect. I’ve seen it with Lisa’s friends. I hate it. I completely despise it, in fact. Just because Richard earns more than these people, they treat him as if he’s so much better than them.

I stand there for several seconds, seething, until two beautiful sales assistants come up and lead me away.

Though all I want to do is go over there and strangle Richard with one of the thousand-dollar tote bags, I hold my tongue and I follow.

What happens next is exactly not what you would expect. I’m not so pissed off at Richard and this situation that I don’t appreciate that this entire scene feels exactly like it’s out of a romantic movie. You know what I’m talking about. Pretty Woman and all of those other girly flicks that tell you the greatest thing a rich dude can do for you is buy you clothes.

It’s meant to be a turning point in the two protagonists’ relationship.

Yeah, well it is with ours, too. Because as the two sales assistants keep plying me with clothes and I catch sight of the exorbitant, crazy prices, I hate Richard more and more.

And more and more, I start to question what the hell this pact could be about.

Yeah, I’ve seen magic. I can’t go back on that realization. I can’t simply sweep it away and pretend it never happened. It did. From Richard to my grandmother, I’ve seen the power they can produce. Worse… I think I can almost feel it starting to bubble up in my veins, too.

But does that really justify what Richard’s doing? Worse, could it possibly ever justify the fact that I’m meant to be with him for the rest of my life?

Though at first the sales assistants try to engage me in conversation, when I keep my lips pressed closed and my expression perfectly sour, they give up.

I hear them bitching about me outside of the changing rooms, their voices low but carrying considering I have pretty good hearing.

They say all the predictable stuff. That I don’t fit the part – that I don’t look like I could possibly be the PA of somebody as rich and attractive as Richard. I want to snap at them that he’s not attractive – he’s destructive. And as for being rich? The more I put my mind to it, the more I realize that’s probably got something to do with his magic and my family.

By the time I have my outfits, a good hour has passed.

And in that hour, I’ve had time to think.

I’ve gone from wanting to strangle Richard, to wanting to go straight to the police. Not, of course, that my rational mind thinks there’s anything they can do for me. But… a tiny fragment of hope is spreading through my heart. Maybe there’s some way to get out of this. A contract can be broken, can’t it? A pact can be reversed. I just have to find some clause, some reason to break it.

If that doesn’t work?

As the sales assistants busy themselves with packaging my clothes, I stand in the corner of the store and I stare down at my hands. I flick my gaze from my left palm to my right as I slowly shift my fingers up and down.

Just how much power am I meant to have, anyway?

“Lydia?” someone says from beside me.

I jerk my head around. It’s Catherine, one of Lisa’s friends. Or should I say, one of Lisa’s acquaintances. Lisa’s very strict about differentiating exactly who is a friend. And I understand why. The politics of forging relationships between people who have money are extremely complicated. Most of the time, people will only hang out with you because there’s a distinct business advantage to do so. If you fail to be advantageous, they’ll drop you like a mob victim into the river.

Catherine has only ever acknowledged me around Lisa to win points with her.

Now she’s staring at me, her confusion playing over her face as her eyebrows contract and her lips draw wide. “What exactly are you doing in this store?”

I blink. My back starts to itch as a cold rush of nerves shoves hard through my gut. Though Richard has already told me that between him and my grandmother they’ve spread the news that I’m working for him, Catherine and her other associates aren’t friends.

I draw a hand up uncomfortably and lock it over my neck. “Just browsing,” I lie. I’m in no mood to try to explain to her what’s going on.

She gets that expression. If you’re a poor person who has hung around with rich people before, you know what that expression is. It’s the expression that’s halfway between pity and amusement. The kind of expression that always accompanies a fake, “Poor you.”

The kind of expression that tells me that, in Catherine’s eyes at least, I’m scum at the bottom of a toilet.

“Don’t you think this is a little out of your price range?” She smiles. Maybe she thinks it’s meant to look kind, but I can see way too much of her teeth, and her lips curl way too high.

I’m just not in the mood for this.

On any other day, maybe I’d be able to go toe-to-toe with Catherine, but today? I look at my feet.

And that’s when someone clears their throat behind me. “It’s not out of my price range. I can assure you of that,” someone says from behind Catherine.

Her eyes blast wide before she turns, making it clear that she can recognize Richard Hargrave based off the deep timbre of his voice alone. Sure enough, as she sees him, she gets that expression. This isn’t the expression rich people use on those poor dopes who can’t afford to shop at Tiffany’s and have to buy bags other than Gucci. Nope. This is the very specific expression socialites get when they see somebody who is higher than them on the ladder.

Catherine actually splutters as she brings up a perfectly manicured hand and pats her chest. “My God, Richard. What are you doing here?”

“Purchasing Lydia clothes,” he says smoothly. Though it’s not exactly smooth. His tone is even, sure. But the intensity behind his eyes suddenly doubles. There’s a stiffness about his body. For some reason it puts me in mind of a whip that’s about to crack.

Catherine swallows. She kind of looks like a fish who’s just seen a shark. “Sorry… why would you—”

“She’s my new PA,” Richard brings up a hand and scratches his chin. “She has impressive skills. Now, if you don’t mind, we’re busy.” With that, Richard waves me forward.

I don’t move. At least not for several seconds. I seethe.

If this were a romantic movie or some kitsch romantic drama, this would be where I would fall to my knees. Swoon at the fact that Richard swooped in to save me.

But he didn’t save me.

He just embarrassed me further.

I don’t need a man like him—

“Lydia,” Richard says, voice dropping down low in clear warning.

Catherine is staring at me, her mouth agape.

I shove my hands into my pockets and curl them into fists, finally taking a step toward Richard.

And that’s when I stop.

Without realizing it, my fingers start to draw back and forth along my palms, almost as if I’m trying to scratch through the skin to get to something within. And that something… is a sense that starts to grow in my heart. It’s like a storm that’s suddenly been crammed into my chest – hundreds of clouds and billions of raindrops all pushed in between the muscles of my heart, and all of them pregnant with a sense of warning.

I’ve never felt anything like it in my life.

It’s—

I look up, right over Richard’s shoulder, and I make momentary eye contact with someone on the opposite side of the room.

It’s a woman. She doesn’t have any features that set her apart. Nor are her clothes that stunning.

In fact, she looks normal in every way. Almost as if she’s been engineered to appear that way.

But the feel of her? Puts me in mind of a spike. One that’s about to stab right through me.

Before I know what I’m doing, I unconsciously take a step around Richard. The move is hard, graceful too, and I draw on my training and strength.

“Lydia?” Catherine asks. “I can’t believe how lucky you are. You really should’ve told me. You should invite me—” she begins. She also reaches a hand out to me.

As quickly as I can, I shift out of her way. I’m not always graceful. At least not when I walk. But with my training in gymnastics, I know how to use my body when I need to. So it’s easy as pie for me to push up onto the tip of my toe and to shift around her, the movement light like wafting silk.

The woman on the opposite side of the room has switched her gaze to Hargrave, and I can practically feel her anger from here. Which doesn’t make any sense. Because from her expression to her body language she looks easy. She appears to be nothing more than somebody browsing through the shop.

But within?

I get this sudden sense of chains that are about to break. A bomb that’s about to explode. A storm that’s about to thunder down.

Before I know what I’m doing, I push into a run.

I feel Hargrave’s tension beside me. I feel Catherine’s surprise and the shock of the shop assistants. But more than anything, as I dart toward that woman, I feel her anger.

God, I can’t explain it to you. But as I concentrate on her, I get this sense of darkness that’s about to explode.

“Hey,” I begin.

The woman tears her gaze off Hargrave and locks it on me. Her eyes widen. There’s recognition there.

Recognition of what, I don’t know – but my instinct tells me it’s magic. Almost as if with a single glance, she realizes what I am.

Suddenly she twists on her foot, throws the outfit she was looking at right at me, and heads for the door. Her movements are snapped, so fast she looks like sped up footage from a movie.

I catch the clothes, then promptly dump them, jump over them, and head for the door. Though she tries to slam it closed, I get my fingers in just before she can, and I wrench it open, the door creaking under my forceful move.

She hits the pavement outside, spins on her flat shoes, and jerks forward. There are a lot of people walking along the street, as this is downtown in a busy shopping district. The woman shoulders past them, shoving several over, showing her strength, despite her diminutive form.

There’s a chorus of shouts as people hit the pavement, but nobody can stop the woman.

Me – I just jump over the people she’s pushed over, land lightly, and sprint.

Maybe I hear Hargrave behind me calling my name. I don’t stop.

I can’t.

I’ve never been drawn toward much in my life. Hence the fact that – before I met Hargrave – I was pretty much floundering. Sure, I did have a dream – to do something with my life – just no specifics.

I’m not the kind of person who was born with passion. Born with purpose. I didn’t hit high school and know that I wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or a politician.

I’ve never had a particular vision for my life.

So I can’t really understand the sensations pulsing through me. They’re telling me to throw myself forward and catch this woman, no matter the costs.

But far in the back of my mind a question arises. Whether what’s going on – the sense I got back in the shop and what I’m doing now – are the beginnings of my magic.

The woman continues to sprint down the packed streets, turning down another block. Whenever she sees people, she deliberately shoves into them, felling them like trees in a forest.

I gracefully dart by, hurting no one, but not stopping to help, either. Because picking people up is going to waste time. I can’t do that.

I think I hear Hargrave calling my name again, but he’s so distant, and I’m so focused. And as I’ve already said before, this is such an odd sensation for me. It’s like somebody has deliberately broken up the distractions in my life, carving them away from me like a butcher trying to get to the best bits of meat on a carcass.

It’s called tunnel vision. And it’s locked on the woman.

We run another few blocks, and despite how quick I am, she’s always just a few meters in front of me.

A part of me that isn’t completely, mind shatteringly drawn on by this chase realizes this could be a trap.

The rest of me doesn’t care.

But I should care. Because I’ve just entered a world I do not understand. And though Hargrave has explained a little to me, and I’ve learned a lot in the books, there’s one glaring omission.

I still have no idea how to use magic.

Before I realize what she’s doing, the woman has led me further through town. Though the newer sections of downtown are built logically with big blocks, this is the old city, and it’s like a rabbit warren. Though there are large main streets, between them are these tiny twisting alleyways and laneways.

Despite the fact the city’s pretty populated, even at midday, some of the laneways around these parts are bare. They don’t lead anywhere – there aren’t any attractions or shops. They’re just twisting little roads in between old brick buildings.

The woman throws herself down one of these lanes, and I follow.

I get halfway down it, and then something slams into me. Not a bullet – not magic. A sense. Before I know what I’m doing, I crumple to my knees and I fall hard on my side. I control the move, ensuring it doesn’t hurt me. It saves me. For something suddenly slams over my head.

It’s a charge of magic.

A bolt of light with crackling waves of energy that slice an inch above my face, cutting off several strands of my glossy dark hair. The bolt of magic sails into the building by my side and discharges. It doesn’t crack the stone and shatter the base of the building, causing the place to crumble. No. It simply turns into the equivalent of water, rushing down the side of the building as if someone’s thrown a bucket onto the brick.

My body lets me rest there for half a second, my mind exploding with fear. Then I shove up. That same sense that told me to buckle at just the right moment tells me to lurch to the side. And again another wave of magic slashes right into the position where I was lying.

I see that magic change right before my eyes. In one second, it’s like a knife made out of light, and in another, it turns into water, discharging as it slaps against the pavement.

A part of me that isn’t completely overcome by what the hell is happening realizes it’s the perfect kind of weapon to use in a packed city where you have to be careful to hide your magic. If the police kept coming across completely trashed buildings and broken pavement, they’d start asking questions.

But with magic like this – that can change forms, or elements, if you will – you can do whatever you please.

I scamper backward, planting a sweaty hand on the pavement and pushing up.

I’m wet all over. Though I managed to dodge the majority of the magic, as it turned into water and splashed against the walls and pavement, several drops splashed over me.

I catch sight of the woman. She’s standing a good 10 meters away from me, her hands held out wide, her thumbs touching and her fingers pressing up in straight lines as if she’s pointing to heaven.

Her expression is one of hard hatred.

I catch another glimpse of that same sense I got in the store. The sense that when I look at her, she’s a bomb of pure darkness that’s just getting ready to explode.

I’ve always lived my life with the assumption that true evil doesn’t exist. It’s the kind of categorical concept that the Church relied on for years to get people to behave. That’s all. It’s a tool to ensure people can chart a moral path through life. But why is it that when I look at this woman I have to reassess that conclusion? Why is it that when I look at that darkness within her, it feels like it’s something so antagonistic to life that it will never be able to exist alongside the living?

The woman pares her lips back, grunts, then sends another charge of magic toward me.

Somehow, I’m ready for it. I know exactly when to dodge. I throw myself into a flip. Not the easiest thing to do from a standing position, but I’ve got strong legs and I know exactly how to use them. I flip right over her magical shot, land, fall to my knees, and roll.

I know that if I have any chance of getting out of this fight, I’m going to have to figure out how to beat this woman.

The problem is, I don’t even know where to begin.

Instinct pulled me into this fight, but without help, I’m nothing but a sitting duck.

She sends another shot my way, and again I dodge it, but only just in time, and it catches the edge of my jacket, slicing it right off. The fabric is completely burnt up. There’s no ash, no scraps, no nothing. It’s like it’s been obliterated completely.

My body’s only just keeping up with the fight. I doubt my heart could beat any harder, and my breath is ragged. I’m fit. And yet, that fitness cannot stave off the awful pain and weakness that’s now marching through my form.

“You won’t fight me? Then you’ll die,” the woman says. Her voice is… shit, I’ve never heard anything like it. It’s hissing, sharp. Sounds like a rasp over metal. In other words, it distinctly doesn’t sound human.

And it sends such a cascade of nerves over my back, it’s like I’ve jumped into ice melt.

I jerk back, my muscles weak this time. Even though my instinct tells me to shove to the left, I just don’t have the speed.

I see it in her eyes – triumph. The anticipated victory of somebody who doesn’t care how much they have to destroy and how many people they have to crush to get what they want.

Just as the realization that I’m about to die hits me, something else does. I feel an arm wrap around my middle, and the next thing I know, I’m pulled right off my feet. That charge of magic sails over my shoulder, cutting off a few more slices of my hair before the magic turns into water and gushes over the pavement.

I hear the woman give a shriek. I look up to see Hargrave. His arm is flexed and strong, his bicep locking me against his chest.

His face?

Oh, his expression is pissed off. Pure anger.

He’s also glowing. His eyes are, at least, and there are lines down his skin. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s like his very veins have been injected with bioluminescence.

The woman takes a staggering step back, but before she can lurch around and run away, Hargrave goes on the offensive.

He never drops me. He keeps that contracted bicep pressed right up against me, almost as if it’s a chain locking me to his chest.

He has the inherent physical strength to move despite the fact he’s lugging my form around. He has magic, too – which helps.

I hear him spit out a certain word. I don’t catch it, but boy does it have an effect on me. It has an effect on everything around me, too. The air charges and crackles with it. The ground moans and shifts with it. I swear clouds even dart over the sun at its mere utterance.

With his free hand, Richard makes a specific motion with his fingers, and magic shoots from his palm.

It pushes out in a great arc, slicing right toward the woman.

She’s fast, and she manages to dodge, throwing herself onto her back. But in the time it takes her to roll, Richard attacks again.

He mutters another dark word that has just the same effect on me and the rest of the world, and a massive charge of crackling white-yellow magic slams into the woman. This time there’s nothing she can do. It hits her, and it’s brutal.

Though on the face of it, she looks like an ordinary person, as soon as the magic slams into her, her appearance changes. Her body is replaced with nothing but blackness. Not the color, mind you. It’s as if she’s a being made purely out of the absence of light. She writhes on the spot as the magic continues to crackle over her body.

But she doesn’t make a sound. She doesn’t scream, and nor do her flailing limbs hit the ground with thumps.

The eeriest sense I’ve ever felt picks up through the air, climbs over my back, and stabs into my heart.

It’s like I’m looking at a demon, like I’m looking at the antithesis of life.

“You brought this on yourself. There’s no going back for you,” Richard mutters under his breath, the first words he’s said in English since the fight began. He sends one last charge at her. This one’s bright yellow. It puts me in mind of the sunniest summer day. And it has the nicest feel to it. Like being cradled.

But as the light slams into the woman, it… illuminates her. It’s like it and her darkness can’t exist at the same time.

She instantly loses her form, and whatever made her up – whatever substance she’s actually made of – explodes. The last traces of her turn into little black droplets of oozing liquid that disappear through cracks in the pavement.

And me?

I finally scream.

It’s delayed. It’s weak. It doesn’t last. And it’s accompanied by tears streaming down my cheeks.

Richard?

He sighs, his chest pushing against me. “I guess this was always going to happen. Welcome to the world of dark magic. Now, Lydia, it’s time to go home.”

Chapter 7

All thought of fighting Richard has completely gone. All of the arguments that have been playing in my head about how unfair this is have completely withered up and died.

I’ve just been left with… hopelessness.

I’ve never been a particularly depressed soul. Despite the fact I haven’t had much verve in my life, I’m not somebody who thinks existence is pointless.

But as I sit on the edge of my bed, shoulders crumpled in, sweaty hands clamped in my lap, a sense of pure, soul-shredding dread wraps around me.

I feel cold. So cold. It’s not the coldness of the body so much as a coldness that invades every experience I’ve ever had and everything that makes me who I am. Maybe that sounds crazy and you can’t understand what I’m talking about, but try. What I saw this morning has canceled out every belief I’ve ever had. My natural sense of order, of rule. That sense that lets people live their lives and gives them hope that tomorrow will be a better day. Yeah, it’s gone now.

I don’t even bother to rub my hands up and down my shoulders. What’s the point?

My door is open, and I can hear Richard talking on his phone to somebody. He periodically pushes the door a little further open, checks me, then goes back to what he’s doing.

His expression is grim. It’s been grim ever since the fight.

During the car ride back, he didn’t speak to me once. Which is saying something. Because I could tell from his expression that he wanted to admonish me for running out of the store like that.

Now it’s obviously the furthest thing from his mind. Because now I can see his concern.

Richard continues his conversation for a few more minutes, then finally hangs up.

I hear a creak as he pushes the door all the way open. He stands in the doorway, trying to make eye contact with me.

I don’t look at him. I continue to stare at my hands.

He lets out a sigh. It’s different to the long-suffering, frustrated sighs he’s been giving me all day. There’s a saddened edge to it. “Look, I know you want to know what happened back there, and I want to tell you, but you need to… understand how dangerous that was. And you need to promise me one thing,” he says, leaving his question hanging.

It finally does it – finally gets me to look up at him. “What?” I croak.

“You will never do something as dangerous as that again. I understand that you’re confused. Understand that you don’t know how powerful your magic is yet,” he says through a hard breath, “but you need to be patient. You need to trust me,” he emphasizes, “and you need to learn.”

Though that god-awful dread is still marching through me, undoing every positive belief I’ve had about myself and the world, there’s something in his tone.

It ignites my frustration again. My bewilderment, too. I look up at him, tears forming in my eyes and yet anger sparking through them, too. “You asked me to learn – promised that you would start teaching me. And yet you took me out there today with no warning. You can’t throw me into these situations and hope for the best.”

He opens his mouth, obviously to admonish me, but then maybe he hears what I’m saying, and he sighs again. “I guess… you have a point.”

I’m so flabbergasted by the fact that Richard Hargrave himself has just agreed with me, that I stop picking at my fingers and I let them fall beside me. “You do?”

He shrugs. “I suppose. But I still need that promise,” he says, voice hardening again.

I haven’t forgotten what he asked.

I take a breath, open my mouth, and go to promise him what he wants, but I pause.

I look away, squeezing my teeth into my lip.

“Lydia?” he half growls.

“I didn’t want to follow that woman,” I admit. “I… just did.”

I haven’t had a chance to process what happened in the store. Fair enough – my mind has been locked on what I saw, instead.

But now I remember just how drawn I was to that woman. Just how compelled I was to chase her. To stop her. As if something within me recognized what she was, even if my mind had never truly seen something like her.

Richard looks uncomfortable. He straightens, not to say that he was slouching before, but to say that now it looks as if someone’s stuck a steel pole up his spine. “What?”

“I just… I saw her, and I had to chase. That’s it. I can’t really explain it. I… I think I recognized something in her,” I say. My voice is staccato, coming out in blasts of emotion. A part of me doesn’t want to be saying this to Richard, and yet, a part of me gets a thrill by confiding in him. “I think… maybe it was magic?” I say out of the blue as I snap my gaze up to him again. My eyes had drifted back down to my hands, but now I clamp my fingers on the side of the bed as I finally stand.

The prospect that what happened to me back there was magic – the first hints of my prophesied power – is the only thing that can push away the dread.

Richard looks at me evenly, obviously assessing something. He also brings up a hand, clamps it on his mouth, and lets his fingers trail down his chin. He eventually lets his hand drop. “It was magic. But there’s something you need to understand.” Though I can tell he’s trying to keep his voice even, even it is not. It shakes, shifting up and down as if this bastard is capable of true emotion after all. “You have come to me early. You won’t inherit your true full power – no matter how much I train you – until your birthday in two months. So you can’t do that again. No matter how… compelled you feel to chase after those creatures, you mustn’t. You were lucky today. If I hadn’t been there… you would have been consumed. Burnt up,” he adds.

It’s the second time somebody has referred to me being burnt up. My grandmother said that the other witches in the Gold family who couldn’t learn to control their powers were burnt up, too.

At the time, I didn’t really pay it any heed. But now I can’t get the image of that woman turning into that black creature and being consumed by Richard’s magic out of my mind.

I’m still cold, but at least I’m standing. “What do you mean by that? What even happened to that woman? What was she? What’s going on?” One question is enough to break the dam holding back my fear and uncertainty.

I want answers. Need answers. Now. Because maybe answers can give me back the sense of stability I just lost.

Richard goes to clamp a hand over his mouth again, but he stops. He looks right at me. “Come with me,” he suggests out of the blue, gesturing over his shoulder.

I stare at him, surprised. “Sorry? Where? You’re not gonna take me out—”

He looks at me evenly. “You’re not going to leave the building. And no, I have learned that I will not take you out on the city streets until you fully understand your situation and learn to… control your compulsions,” he says carefully.

I take a step toward him. “So where are you taking me, then?”

“To train,” he answers evenly. He gestures toward himself once more, then he turns and walks away.

He doesn’t wait for me.

So for a few seconds, I don’t follow, looking from the doorway back to my bed. Though I’m not usually the kind of girl who runs back to her bed and tries to hide under the covers when she faces adversity, this isn’t any ordinary adversity. And right now what I want is comfort.

But what I need?

Are answers.

So reluctantly, I turn, and I follow.

I haven’t really explored this building. I haven’t had a chance to. I know Richard’s primary sitting room, and I know my bedroom – with a few corridors in between.

But that’s it.

As Richard leads me forward, I get distracted by staring at the place, and my eyes are quickly drawn to the view out of a window to my side.

I frown as I realize I have no idea where this building is located.

Which is weird. I’ve lived in this city my entire life. I know the horizon line off by heart. But as I catch a glimpse out of one of the windows beside us, I just don’t understand where we’re located. I know the buildings I’m staring at, and I know from the vantage I have over them that the building I’m in has to be tall.

That sense of confusion distracts me until Richard leads me to a room.

The door is closed, and for some reason, it looks older than the other doors we’ve passed. Almost as if it comes from another time.

I frown at him, look at it, then look back at the side of his face.

There’s a fixed look of concentration pressing his brow down, and he’s muttering something under his breath.

I go to ask him a question, but as soon as I open my mouth, he brings up a hand, spreading the fingers wide, obviously asking me to pause.

Though before what happened this morning I would’ve taken the opportunity to snap at Richard that he doesn’t have the privilege of telling me off, now I press my lips closed.

I wait.

I don’t know what Richard’s muttering under his breath. Maybe it’s a prayer. Maybe it’s some secret magical spell to get the door to open, but it only lasts another minute. And when it’s done, he confidently reaches out a hand, grabs the handle, and opens the door.

We walk into a dojo.

I’ve seen enough to recognize them.

Problem is, it’s really big.

I don’t quite have a sense of spatial dynamics in regards to this building – considering I haven’t explored much of it – but the dojo just seems too wide somehow.

And… God, I don’t know, as soon as I take a step into it, it feels like I’ve been transported to Japan. Like the dojo isn’t located within the building, but somehow it’s high in the foothills of Mount Fuji. There’s a door on the opposite side, and I get the weirdest impression that if I were to walk over and open it, it would lead out into a cherry blossom garden with maple trees.

I can feel Richard’s gaze on the side of my face, and as I look at him, there’s a soft smile spreading across his lips. “Magic,” he explains without explaining anything at all.

I blink at him.

We reach the raised section that leads onto the training mats, and Richard takes off his shoes.

I do the same, lining them up neatly.

I walk up onto the mats.

There’s no decoration in the dojo. Just the training mats. But on the far wall, I see there are some cupboards. I can guess that’s where Richard keeps weapons.

Richard strides across the mats.

I don’t follow. I stand there, hands pressed in front of myself as I look around.

If there’s one thing that can cut through the sense of dread seeing that woman caused, it’s this.

This place seems… I dunno, trustworthy, somehow.

I’ve always found dojos and gymnasiums safe havens. Places where I can explore my abilities and train my body in peace. I get that same sense now times by a hundred.

“Lydia, come over here,” Richard says, his voice almost polite.

I do as I’m told, jogging over the mats until I reach him.

The cupboards on the opposite side of the room are wooden, and the two primary ones are locked with ornate brass furnishings.

Again Richard starts to mutter something under his breath for about 30 seconds until he reaches forward and opens the doors.

I think I hear something disengage with a click.

And then?

I see something that shouldn’t be possible.

Judging by the size of the room and the furnishings, what should be inside that cupboard shouldn’t be that much more than a few kendo sticks and practice swords.

The cupboard is more of a doorway, one that leads to an actual armory. The kind of armory you’d get out of some kind of sci-fi novel.

It’s decked out in clean white metal, and there are rows upon rows of weapons lined up on neat shelves.

Naturally, I gasp, shoving a hand over my mouth.

Richard arches an eyebrow. “Out of everything you’ve seen today, I would’ve thought this wouldn’t impress you that much.” With that comment, he walks in through the cupboard door, ducking his head down as he bends his whole form in half.

For several seconds, I just stand there and stare.

If I felt completely at home in the dojo, then in the armory it’s exactly the opposite. It hammers home that I have zero idea what’s going on in this world.

Richard walks over to the first row of weapons and clears his throat when I don’t follow.

“What… exactly is this stuff?” I say as I look down at the weapon in front of me. I kind of recognize that it’s a dagger. But it’s too ornate. And the blade doesn’t look right. It’s too thin – as if it’s made out of nothing more than a thin shaving of glass.

“This is a water dagger,” he says as he reaches a hand forward, does something with his fingers, then picks it up.

I can feel the thing’s power from here. I think I can hear it, too. This distinctive sound, almost as if it’s playing its own song.

I blink and push a breath hard into my chest as Richard turns around and carefully hands the dagger to me.

I don’t accept it. I just stand there and stare.

Richard slowly arches an eyebrow. “You can take it. It won’t hurt you. You don’t know how to use it yet,” he comments.

Begrudgingly, I accept the dagger, wincing as he presses it into my hand.

As soon as I grasp it, all that fear washes away.

Literally. It’s as if I can feel water rushing through my body.

I stand there and blink, pretty much incapable of breath as I feel the distinct, unique sensations rushing through me.

This dagger feels like water. There’s no other way to describe it.

Richard has a soft smile on his face, but as I dart my gaze up and lock it on his mouth, he instantly hides it. He clears his throat. “As I’m sure you can feel, this water dagger is water. Magic is elemental. Roughly speaking, at least. At the base of magic is the same force. It is expressed in different ways. And the different elements have different characteristics. It is learning those characteristics and how to combine them that will make you into an effective witch.”

I nod. Not that I understand.

Everything is moving fast again. But at least I’m getting answers. More than that? At least I’m getting my first glimpse of power.

I think finding my own power is going to be the only thing that’s going to wash away the shock of what happened this morning. Because every time I go to close my eyes, I see it again.

That woman turning into darkness. Then disappearing. Being completely broken up like space being eaten by a black hole.

I shiver.

Richard notices. He darts in and takes the dagger off me, placing it respectfully back where he found it.

“Why did you do that?” I ask.

“So you don’t drop it.”

“I thought you said it wasn’t dangerous? I thought you said I wouldn’t be able to use it if I didn’t have any magic?”

“Indeed. But I don’t want you to mark my floor.”

… Really?

Just when I thought Richard was being half decent, he turns back into the rich, spoiled brat I’ve always known he is.

But that feeling can’t last. He takes me down the rows of weapons, showing me specific ones in turn.

There’s the water dagger that felt exactly like water.

There’s the fire whip that feels exactly like fire. Then there are the earth guns, and finally, the air sword.

It’s decidedly comic-book. Or at least it would feel that way was it not for the reverence with which he passes me each one of the weapons. I also can’t deny the unique sense I get as I hold all of them.

I’ve never been a particularly superstitious thinker. Which is what you have to be if you believe in elements. Come on. Humanity got over that theory during the Enlightenment.

Yeah, there is earth and fire and water and air. But they are made up of molecules. They don’t have their own essence or power. You can choose to see the world as consisting of elemental forces, but that’s nothing more than a quaint, outdated superstition.

Once Richard has finished showing me the weapons, he takes me back into the dojo.

He makes me sit down, just as a master would, and he sits down, his legs crossed in front of me. He looks at me for several seconds.

It’s disarming. Not in the same way it was the first time I clapped eyes on Richard, but in a new way. In a way that’s telling me if I allow it, something else will pass between us other than frustration and anger.

He takes several breaths. “I’m going to show you how to find magic. To do it, you’re going to need to go deep inside. Now, close your eyes.”

These aren’t suggestions. They’re orders. Nor is he saying that I might be able to access my magic if I go deep inside. It’s just a statement.

I don’t question. Because now I’ve seen those weapons and felt that power, I want to do this. I want to travel inside and find my power. And, more than anything, I want to be able to protect myself if I ever face another one of those creatures.

Richard doesn’t guide me in meditation or anything. In fact, he doesn’t say anything at all. He just sits there and appears to do his own thing.

Though I want to point out that he’s a terrible teacher, I take the opportunity to just breathe. Which is kind of nice considering the morning I’ve had.

And after a while, my mind starts to wander. Though I know that’s the worst thing you can do when it comes to meditation, I don’t stop myself. My thoughts quickly lock back on my fight this morning. On the way I dodged. But, more than anything, on the way something within me told me when and how to get out of the way.

I wasn’t on my own during the fight. I had this sense. And it was that that helped me. Without it, I wouldn’t be here.

My thoughts lock on it, becoming hazier, as if I’m somehow walking through fog.

I’ve never been a particularly spiritual person. And when it comes to meditation, I can bet you’ve already figured out that I’m the least capable meditator in the world. Come on, my mind is too scatty. I just can’t focus like that. But as I think that, I remember how damn focused I was as I chased that woman. I lock my attention on that sensation. And I let it pull me in.

And that’s when I see it. Something pulsing. I actually see it. This isn’t an impression. It’s a genuine vision. It’s like a waking dream.

This pulsing light, beating in and out, almost as if it’s a heart made out of flame.

One that’s inside me.

I… it promises me something I’ve always wanted. Something that has always been within me. That cannot be removed.

This force. This power.

Though at first I’m content to just watch it, the more I experience it, the more I want it. That’s when I try to grasp it, catch it like you would a bird on the wing.

And that would be when I feel Richard’s hands suddenly wrap around my shoulders and pull. It’s a jolting move. He’s not trying to wrench me to my feet or anything. It’s the kind of move you’d use on someone who’s deeply asleep.

My eyes blast open wide. The breath is practically knocked out of me, but as soon as it returns I let out a pissed off, “Hey. I almost had something—”

His expression is as stony as a wall. “I didn’t tell you to grab hold of your magic. I told you to find it. You need to learn how to follow instructions,” he admonishes me harshly.

In a split second, I go from trusting him to hating him again.

The effect of being pulled out of that meditation, of being pulled away from my power, is an enraging one.

Maybe Richard sees something in my eyes, as he quickly pushes to his feet. “I know you don’t want to hear this,” he says quickly with a punching breath.

“It’s exactly what you told me to do. You have no right—”

“I have every right. You don’t know what you’re doing, Lydia. If you grab your power too early,” he says, lips moving hard around his teeth, “you will only do yourself damage. Follow what your grandmother said. Heed her advice. The Gold family require us Hargraves to… modulate their power. Because without us, you will burn,” he says flatly.

I want to hit him. I want to push away what he’s saying. But, more than anything – more than anything – I want him to be wrong. Because his promise is so terrible, and the look in his eyes is equally as ominous.

I stare at him with clenched teeth, but I can’t say a word.

He lets out a sigh. He brings up a hand, rubs the center of his head, then lets go. He looks at me evenly. “You need to learn to control yourself before you can embrace your power. And even then, you must never do it fully. That is why this contract exists. It’s why you must allow me to dictate where and how you will use your skills.”

“I don’t care about anything like that,” I snap, completely incapable of washing away the anger that’s still pulsing through me. It fired up the moment Hargrave snapped me out of my vision and pulled me away from my magic.

I’ve never been a particularly angry soul. I’ve always known how to modulate what I’m feeling. I can’t do it now. No way, no how.

I jump to my own feet, my arms held so stiffly by my sides, I’m like a rigid A-frame. “Just tell me what you mean, already,” I snap. “You keep saying I’ll be burnt up. What the hell—”

“You saw it today,” he says flatly. He doesn’t pull any punches. Even though I can tell from his wary expression that he knows his words will hurt me.

And hurt me they do. Because an image of what happened to that woman slams back into my mind.

Despite my anger, I draw in a hard, grating breath.

Fear flickers through my eyes, too. Richard would be a fool not to see it.

He takes a calming breath. “The process wouldn’t be exactly the same, but it would be similar. Potentially more painful, too. Unchecked power can easily lead to a cascade.”

“… Cascade? What do you mean?”

I hate one fact more than any other. That I can go from hating Richard to relying on him in a single second. That this situation is dictating how I treat him rather than my own wishes.

“Magic comes at a cost. All things in life do. The more magic you have, the costlier it will become. And the more basic that magic is, the harder it will be to control.” His voice does something very specific on the word basic, making it clear that the concept is important. It’s not just some throwaway word.

My eyebrows contract low. “What do you mean basic?”

“Perhaps fundamental would be a better word. I mean magic that cuts to the very heart of reality. Something that is,” he pauses, giving great effect to his lips as they move when he finally says, “fundamental.”

I shiver.

“General practitioners of magic practice magic at different levels. They can access different stages of power. Some practitioners are limited to certain elements that match their capabilities. Some,” he nods at me, “can access all elements and even the two that go beyond.”

I open my mouth to ask what the heck he’s on about. Two that go beyond?

What elements could those be?

He speaks right over me, though. “And you, Lydia, and the other witches of your family, have access to those elements. As I’ve already said,” he presses in a little closer – not enough to invade my personal space, but enough to get my attention and hold it, “can access those levels. But they come at the cost of your sense of self. If you do not learn to control them – if you embrace your power too early – it will consume you. Body, heart, and soul,” he adds, his teeth gritted.

I hate this. Every second. Every word.

Every time I feel like I’m constructing a sense of reality in this crazy situation, Richard says something or does something to completely undermine me.

It’s my turn to bring up a hand, flatten it over my lips, and breathe. But no number of breaths is going to change what’s happening.

“Now,” he takes a sigh, indicating that part of the conversation is done, “that you have felt your magic, you must learn how to control yourself.”

My hand is still clamped over my mouth. I draw away. I don’t snap at him. I don’t ask any more questions. I just sit there. Because I am way, way out of my depth.

And I hate to admit it – I hate it with everything I’ve got – but he’s right. The only way out of this confusion and dread is if I trust him. I just hope that trust won’t come at the greatest cost of all – my life.

Chapter 8

Richard doesn’t keep me in the dojo that much longer. He teaches me a few concentration techniques – nothing I’ve never been taught before – then tells me to practice them.

He doesn’t further his conversation about magic, nor does he give me a date when I’ll finally start to practice with the real stuff. Nope. He just sends me back to my room. But he does give me work. You see, even if I am still learning and he clearly considers me a liability, I can tell he’s still greedy for my power. Though I’m not entirely sure greedy is the right word. The more I learn about the chaos that’s meant to be in the center of my heart, the warier of it I become. But the point is, Richard wants me to work tonight. He has a specific task for me. I’m meant to go join a meeting with him. But I’m not to say a word, not to do anything, and I’m sure as hell not to run after any magical creatures if I see them. All Richard wants me to do is sit there and feel. Those were his exact words. And he emphasized them in such a punching breath that I’d say half the city heard.

I stand there in my room, patting down my outfit, staring at my reflection glumly. It’s not that I don’t look good. I look great. There’s something to be said about buying expensive clothes. They sure are fancy.

My grim expression has way more to do with the fact that I have a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I need to face a certain possibility.

That from now until I finally come into my true inheritance and control my power, I will be completely at the whims of Richard, waiting on his every breath until he finally tells me what to do. And that terrifies me. Not just because it means I have to get close to him, but because it means he’s going to pretty much get to dictate my personality going forward.

I hear a knock on the door and walk out.

A staff member leads me to a room. Again I get to see more of the building, though it’s not much. I’m led to an elevator then up to a floor that looks as if it’s full of meeting rooms.

I’m left in a large, commanding room with a huge desk. I awkwardly sit at the far end where there are a pen and pad of paper waiting for me.

I wait.

And wait.

I resist the urge to drum my fingers on the table as the seconds tick by.

Fortunately there’s no one in the room. Yet. A few minutes ago I saw Richard finally walk up with a man by his side. I can see them both through the glass windows that give a view of the corridor.

My back is itchy. All hot. I swear there’s a rash climbing up my neck.

I feel – quite rightly – entirely out of my depth.

I don’t understand why Richard has dragged me along here. Considering my incident this morning, I would imagine he would’ve locked me in my bedroom and never brought me out again. But here I am. Waiting.

As I resist the urge to drum my fingers, I make a mental list of all the possible reasons Richard would want me here. As he’s already told me multiple times, I can’t practice magic yet. And worse – it’s not like I should try.

I’ve always been the kind of girl who doesn’t like to be afraid. It’s not just that I deliberately avoid frightening situations – it’s that I construct reasons and explanations to dismantle potential fears.

But here’s the thing. You tell me how I’m meant to be anything other than completely out of my depth right now?

A few seconds later, the door finally creaks open, and Richard walks in first. Immediately, his eyes are on me. Though I can’t read minds, I swear I can read his. From the exact press of his lips and flash of his eyes, it’s clear he’s reiterating his earlier point – that I’m simply to sit still and watch.

Why do I get the impression that Richard is luring me into a trap somehow? This is more of an opportunity for him to see how I’ll react and not to use me as an observer in this business meeting.

Whoever Richard was talking to out in the corridor takes his time. But with the crunch of shoes on the floor, the guy finally walks in.

And me?

I stare.

Because the man who’s just arrived is more than easy-on-the-eyes.

Perfect in every damn way.

While Richard is just intense, and his attractiveness comes from that intensity and confidence, this guy – whoever he is – is attractive down to the very last ray of stubble along his chin.

And that isn’t to say he doesn't have intensity. He does – and it’s intensity that can almost match Richard’s. It’s different, though. Feels more liquid, if that makes any sense. Richard feels like fire. And I know – from experience – that if I get on the wrong side of that fire, I get burnt.

This man is a hell of a lot smoother. He feels kinder, too. And more genuine about it. Richard only ever has his small, momentary flashes of kindness, and they never, ever last.

This guy—

Richard clears his throat as he sits alongside me.

I feel his eyes on me as he clears his throat once more. “Stanley,” he says to the man, “this is my secretary, Ms Lydia Gold.”

Stanley flattens his tie down as he sits on the opposite side of the table. His eyes skip over to me. Wait, skip isn’t the right word. It’s a much more deliberate move than that. It’s also somehow watchful and knowing, as if those two words – Lydia Gold – have ignited some kind of recognition within Stanley.

Which is crazy – as I’ve never met this guy. Trust me, I would remember. Like I said, he’s Adonis.

I press my lips together and mutter a quick, truly pathetic, “Nice to meet you.”

Stanley continues to look at me for several seconds, then slides his gaze over to Richard. “A new PA, ha? So soon,” he adds.

I blink.

It’s a weird comment, after all.

Richard sits back in his seat, rests his hands in his lap, and shrugs. It’s an easy move. Or at least, it’s one of those feigned easy moves tough guys always give when they’re trying to show that they are completely in control.

It’s Stanley’s turn to sit back in his seat. “Why exactly do you need a PA for this meeting, anyway? I thought we were just finalizing contractual details of the new development,” he says smoothly.

Though he’s not looking at me, I get the impression – just like I did with Richard in the Sonos – that Stanley is very adept at watching people out of the corner of his eye without them knowing. And the only reason I suspect that is that a distinct nervous feeling is plucking up my spine.

I scratch distractedly at my shoulder, realizing this is one of the most uncomfortable experiences I’ve had in a long time – and that’s saying something, considering my morning.

But this is uncomfortable in a completely different way. This makes me feel like I’m on display – like I’ve just been hung in a museum.

“Lydia’s new. She only started recently. She needs to learn the ropes. I want to get her up to speed as quickly as possible,” Richard says, ticking off his reasons so quickly, it’s clear he doesn’t have to think hard for the excuses.

Stanly presses his lips together and nods. He has long-ish golden brown hair that cuts down to his jaw. He has a beard, too – or at least a shadow of one. And judging by the rest of him, it’s clear he’s the kind of guy has to shave twice a day if he wants to keep that beard away.

It does nothing against his attractiveness, though. In fact, it adds to it.

Stanley is the very definition of rugged. But at the same time, with his piercing blue eyes, high cheekbones, and muscular build, and expensive clothes, he could easily fit in on the pages of any fashion magazine.

He looks at me for several seconds, and there’s something… calculating in his gaze. Then he leans even further back in his seat. “Indeed. Who am I to tell you how to run your staff? So, what exactly do you want to discuss?”

Richard shrugs. “Your terms,” he says blankly. “I have to say, I’ve gone back and thought about it, and I don’t find our previous terms… mutually beneficial,” he says after a significant pause.

Stanley stiffens. Only a little. It’s only in his face. If you judge his physical reaction based on the rest of his body, you’d assume he was perfectly fine. But from the tiny micro movements of the skin around his eyes, to the line of his lips, it’s clear he’s unhappy.

He clears his throat, and it’s his turn to clap his hands together in his lap. He looks around the room for several seconds, almost as if he’s sizing the place up. And for several of those seconds, he looks right at me.

I’m sitting straight now, practically perched on the edge of my chair, one hand on the table, the other clutching my pen way too tightly.

Richard told me to make notes – told me not to look too conspicuous. But here I am looking extremely frigging conspicuous.

Because it’s clear Richard brought me here for another reason.

Just as it’s clear that somehow this Stanley guy knows who I am.

Wait. Not who I am – what I am.

A sudden thrill passes through my gut and jumps into my heart like an electric charge. Fortunately it doesn’t catapult me off my seat, but it sure does ignite one burning, blasting question in my mind.

Could Stanley be magical?

And could he somehow have sensed that in me?

Maybe that’s why he recognized my name.

That thought stills me.

If the Hargraves have had a pact with the Gold family for centuries, that surely would be known by other practitioners in the magical world, right?

I’m trying to hold it together, but I probably look as if I’ve just remembered I’m in a room with murderers.

I know there’s a light, glistening sweat picking up across my brow, and I’m probably as stiff as a starched sheet.

As for my breathing, I’m pushing it out of pursed lips that can barely move around my clenched teeth.

If Richard notices, he doesn’t look my way. And as for Stanley, he does look my way – methodically. Every several seconds, as if he’s checking I’m still here and I’m not some apparition that’s about to disappear in the blink of an eye.

“I see. When I left our previous meeting I thought it was made clear that,” Stanley leans forward, clamping his forearm on the table and shifting as close to Richard as he can – despite the fact Richard’s on the opposite side of this large table, “our terms were about as beneficial as they were going to get.”

“Like I said. I’ve re-thought the deal. I believe I’m in a far stronger bargaining position now. So,” Richard clamps his forearm on the table and leans close, “if you wish to go ahead with this proposal, I suggest you find it in your heart to review this.” Richard shoves a hand down his lapel and pulls something out of his inside pocket. It’s a rolled-up piece of paper. Don’t ask me how it remained uncrumpled inside his jacket. That’s not the important part. The important part is the look flashing in Richard’s eyes as he slams the paper down, presses it against the table with one finger, then flicks it.

The paper scoots across the polished surface of the table until it stops in front of Stanley.

Stanley slowly reaches a hand out and plucks it up, his movements pregnant with the same slow warning of a lion about to pounce.

He fixes his gaze down to the contract, then once more over to me.

Why is he looking at me all the time?

… Or should the answer to that question be clear?

Should the answer to why I’m at this meeting be clear, too?

Is Richard using me as some kind of bargaining chip?

If Stanley recognizes my name and knows what I am, is Richard displaying me like a new weapon in his arsenal?

I’m still scared. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still perched on the edge of my seat, and sure as hell my brow is still glistening with sweat.

But I’ll tell you what – a spark of anger is igniting in the pit of my belly.

Every time I think I can start trusting Richard, this situation twists on me like a snake curling up.

I clench my teeth even harder, so hard, I’ll probably have dental work done by the end of the day.

It’s that or I’ll start screaming at Richard and run out.

Stanley looks from me back to the paper, and though it’s clear he’s read the contract and doesn’t like the terms, it’s just as clear from his body language that he’s not about to tear the paper up and chuck the tiny bits back in Richard’s face.

Stanley settles a hand on the table and starts to drum his fingers, back and forth, back and forth. “I see,” he says simply. “But there is a distinct time limit on this development. If you fail to meet it,” he says. Then he stops. Midway through his sentence. There’s no segue; there’s no pause. He just stops.

It’s clearly a threat.

Now Richard has scooted the contract across the table, he sits back in his seat, and again he takes up that languid, easy position that tells me he’s feigning disinterest. He shrugs. “There can always be a new development. When you’re willing to change the terms, contact me.” With that, Richard stands. He nods at me, then pushes toward the door. There’s a very strict edge to his movements – as if he’s a sergeant and I’m his soldier he’s calling into line.

Though all I want to do is sit there and tell him he’s a prick for using me like this, I still stand.

I stand, because with every movement I make, Stanley’s gaze always ticks back to me.

I’m not a woman who’s particularly comfortable with attention. I can brush it off most times, especially if it’s negative. But here’s the thing – I don’t know what kind of attention Stanley is giving me. It’s way too direct, for one thing. And whenever I catch sight of his piercing blue eyes, it makes me wonder exactly what he’s thinking.

Stanley clears his throat, remaining seated for several seconds, then he stands. Specifically, he stands when I walk around behind him to get to the door.

He instantly ticks his head toward me.

He’s much taller than me. He’s got a large build, too.

I can also tell with a single glance that he knows how to use himself. It’s the way he’s poised on the balls of his feet, the way his arms are held loosely by his sides, the ease and yet strength in every muscle.

Richard has already made it to the door, but he ticks his head toward us, a quickness to the move. “Lydia,” he says. “Hurry up. We have somewhere else to be.”

I go to shift past Stanley, but that’s when he shoves his hand out.

Before I know what he’s doing, he grabs my hand and shakes it.

I blink in total surprise.

Then I start to feel… his grip.

It’s strong. But there’s more than that. It has a specific kind of heat about it. And have you forgotten when I said that Richard is like fire and Stanley is like water? Yeah, I get the distinct impression of that right now. Because as Stanley shakes my hand firmly, it feels like he has the power of every ocean behind him. It gives me the sense that he’s the kind of guy who will flow around any problem. If that doesn’t work, he’ll use his combined power to crash into it like a tidal wave.

He isn’t using that kind of strength on me, though. But there’s a certain kind of promise in his crystal blue eyes. One that draws me in—

I hear Richard clear his throat. Despite the fact I didn’t hear or see him move, he’s only a couple of steps behind me now. “Lydia,” he says simply. “We have another meeting to get to.”

“Richard, no need to rush matters. I’m just introducing myself to your PA,” Stanley says, really emphasizing the word PA, and there’s a distinct derogatory note to his voice. But there isn’t a derogatory look in his eyes as he looks at me. Hell no. There’s just intense curiosity with an edge of… God, I don’t know, almost desire.

I’ve already said that I’m not the prettiest woman in the city.

And that’s never bothered me.

I know my limitations. Someone like Stanley is way out of my league. I’d never question that. But now I have to question why he’s looking at me like that and why exactly he keeps holding onto my hand for so long.

Richard clears his throat really hard now. “Lydia,” there’s a quick sharpness to his words. He reaches over, claps a hand on my shoulder, and actually yanks me back. “You’re going to need to learn not to waste my associate’s time,” he says.

As soon as my hand is broken from Stanley’s grip, I lose all sense of that water. That malleable power.

Of his special kind of hate.

It takes me a blinking second to come back to earth, and as I do, I slam down.

Instantly, I shrug Richard’s hand off. It’s a body reaction. A result of all my training. I can also blame it on the fact that Richard is a total prick.

He’s the one who brought me here. He’s the one who used me, and now he’s the one tugging me around like a dog on a chain.

My move is direct, strong, and well-timed, and suffice to say, I easily shrug out of Richard’s grip.

I’m half turned toward him, but I can still see Stanley out of the corner of my eye. And it’s enough to note a small smile spreading Stanley’s lips.

He claps his hands together. “No need to be like that, Hargrave. It’s always important to know the competition.” With that, Stanley nods at me, his smile widening, then he shifts toward the door. “I’m sure we’ll see each other again.” He makes it out of the door, flattens his tie once more, and is soon out of sight.

Which just leaves me alone with Richard.

His cheeks are stiff, his jaw even harder. It takes several seconds to pull back his lips, and they look like two thin white strips. “I told you just to observe. Not to make any—”

“You think I grabbed his hand? Were you even present? He grabbed mine. And I’m pretty sure you didn’t want me to end that incident by throwing him onto the ground. So how about you don’t snap at me?” I shoot back.

Several days ago, when I just met Richard and the fact of magic was raw in my mind, I wouldn’t have had the balls to snap at him like this. But I’ve had a hard day. And I’m starting to get thoroughly sick of the fact that Richard is holding all the cards.

He opens his mouth automatically, obviously to continue the argument, but then he pauses, probably appreciating that I have a very good point.

He clenches his teeth together and takes a hissing breath through them. “Fine. But you should have… extracted yourself sooner. It’s dangerous to spend—” he stops abruptly.

It’s obvious he was about to tell me more than he wants to. But even though I am thoroughly pissed off at Richard right now, my eyebrows clamp down in interest. “Dangerous to what? Why exactly did you bring me here, anyway? It was obvious that this wasn’t some observational mission for me,” I say, really stressing the words observational mission. “It was clear you were using me to intimidate him. He’s a magician or something, isn’t he? He can clearly practice magic,” I say, fumbling over the terms awkwardly, but my interest arching up with every word. “And he… recognized me, didn’t he? Especially when you told him my name. You were using me as some kind of leverage, weren’t you?”

I can see that Richard is uncomfortable. He’s gone from being angry at the fact I let Stanley shake my hand for so long, to shutting down.

He takes a hard step away from me, and then, like clockwork, he brings his hand up, clamps it on his mouth, and lets his fingers draw down his chin. Though I’ve only known Richard for a few days now, it’s clear this is his go-to-move when he’s stressed. And it’s just as clear from the rest of his body language – from his tight shoulders, to his clenched jaw and his blazing eyes – that he’s very much stressed right now.

He goes to turn away.

So I just take a hard step in front of him.

Stanley thankfully closed the door on his way out, so our argument isn’t echoing down the corridor.

“You keep telling me to trust you – so you should start earning that trust. You brought me here to intimidate him, didn’t you?”

Richard has only half turned away, and I can see his shoulders arcing up with tension with every second. Until finally, like a straw breaking, they drop down. “Fine. Yes, I did. I have my reasons, though.”

“I’m sure you do,” I spit bitterly. “But I would’ve liked to have known exactly what this was before you dragged me here. Just as I want to know – now – who the hell that guy is.” My tone’s all wrong. All twisted. Like someone’s wrapping wire around my throat.

Though Richard has half turned away from me, I can still see the side of his face, and it’s just enough to note that his eyes are half closed. “He does practice magic. You… did well to pick up on that.”

I don’t want to lose any of my intensity, but just for a fraction of a second, I do. Because a spark of hope travels hard through my stomach.

This morning I was completely out of my depth as I fought that… thing. But now, at Richard’s admission, I feel as if maybe there’s a way to get through this crazy situation.

“And yes… I brought you to this meeting so that Stanley Phillips knew that… I acquired you earlier,” he spits the last words out quickly, almost as if he doesn’t want to admit to them.

Which is a decent thing. Because they are nasty words to admit to.

My stomach feels like it flips on the word acquired. And though all I want to do is pick the table up and chuck it at him, I stand my ground. I take a hard breath. “Why? He’s obviously your competition,” I point out. “But… what kind of man is he?” I say, the question coming out of the blue. There are so many other questions I need to know the answers to, but that one springs from my lips without thought.

Because my mind ticks back to the quality of Stanley’s grip. The way he looked at me, too.

It’s distinctly different to the feeling I get around Richard.

It’s… more welcome, I suddenly conclude. And then that opens up a floodgate through my imagination. It tells me that if this situation were flipped, and I hadn’t been inherited by Richard but had rather been inherited by Stanley, I wouldn’t be feeling like this right now.

Richard finally turns all the way to me, his gaze searching as his eyes flick from left to right over my face. He takes his time, really looking at me, almost as if he’s trying to extract something from my mind.

I just look back at him.

“Stanley Rogers is a dark practitioner,” he says blankly. “He is precisely the kind of man you are going to have to help me to fight.”

I don’t react. I just look at Richard. “He didn’t seem that bad,” I say blankly.

Out of all of the things I could say, this is obviously the worst. Because Richard goes from looking controlled, to looking exquisitely angry. Seriously, the way his eyebrows crumple and the way his eyes widen – it’s like he’s a volcano that’s about to explode. “Trust me,” he presses the words out of his lips, “Stanley is as evil as they come,” he really emphasizes the word evil. “He is precisely the kind of man the Gold contract with the Hargraves is in place to stop.”

Again I don’t react. I should – because there’s no denying Richard’s intensity. But my mind simply ticks back to the feeling I got off Stanley. “So why did you bring him here? Why did you talk to him? Why are you,” I shrug at the table, “even doing business with him?” I emphasize the word business, spitting it out like it’s an insult.

Richard presses his lips together for several seconds. “This is a complicated world,” he begins.

I snort. “Great explanation. I’m sure it’s really complicated. If you’re the kind of man who can make money off of somebody who is meant to be evil,” I spit the word evil, “then that makes you—”

Richard takes a sudden step toward me. It has all of the unexpected quality of a clap of thunder on a bright blue sunny day. It’s enough to still me, enough for my lips to wobble to a standstill.

He takes a hard breath. “Don’t judge me,” he says. His tone sounds flat, but what it is is muted. Almost as if he has had to reach in and turn down the volume on his own voice so he doesn’t end up screaming through the building. “I have done what I have had to to survive and to ensure others survive.”

I really want to spit back at him that I’m not going to let him control this conversation through his emotions, but I can’t quite control my mouth right now. He’s just too damn intense. It feels like I’m about to be encompassed by wildfire.

Richard obviously tries to get a hold of himself as he swallows and takes a small step back. He’s still invading my personal space, though. Something which he obviously has no trouble doing. “I know you have questions about this world,” he suddenly adds, his tone different now, with just a fraction of a caring quality infiltrating it. “Much of what you will have to learn will have to come later. You need to understand the basics before you can… comprehend just how twisted a man like Stanley Phillips is,” he really snarls out the words Stanley Phillips.

I look at Richard. I try to put myself in his shoes – even though that’s the last thing I want to do now.

But that’s what my grandmother always told me to do. If you can’t understand a person’s intensity – if you keep getting drawn into arguments with them – take a step back and put yourself in their shoes. Understand your problem from their perspective, and it might help you find a way to move around it like water.

But as soon as I think that – I think of Stanley and the fact that I probably wouldn’t be having an argument like this with him.

Richard lets out another breath. “Look. I… admit that I used you during that meeting. But like I said, I had my reasons.”

I’m still thinking, still trying to come up with a plan of action, still trying to decide just how much I hate Richard. But there’s one thing I need to know. So I look at him directly. “And how many times, exactly, do you plan on continuing to use me?” I emphasize the word use.

My voice is quiet, but my sentiment is strong.

It has an effect on Richard.

For the first time, his eyes widen. It’s not with anger; it’s not with intensity. It’s almost like a door finally being thrust open – one I can see through to catch a glimpse of the real man within.

A man who is far, far more complicated than I could’ve ever imagined.

He goes to bring up a hand and clamp it on his mouth once more, but stops halfway through. He lets his gaze drop, and he looks at the ground – the very first time he hasn’t been able to make eye contact with me. Which tells me what’s coming is important. “Lydia, I didn’t ask to inherit you,” he says, his voice dropping down all the way low until I can barely hear it on the word inherit. “And this is as… new to me as it is to you. I’m still getting on my feet. But at the same time, I must navigate an increasingly difficult situation in the city. More and more magical practitioners are being drawn toward the dark arts,” he says, his voice twisted on the term dark arts. “And there will be more… incidents like you saw today. The ancient shadow will consume those who have come too close to it. My family has been charged from ancient times to ensure that doesn’t happen. And that is no easy task,” as he speaks, slowly his gaze ticks up to face me. It’s almost like I’m watching dawn rise. His gaze doesn’t flicker or jerk; he just lets his eyes swing up like a gentle caress.

If there was anything that could modulate my anger, it’s that.

Because there’s real sincerity behind his gaze.

“You want to know why I’m doing business with Stanley. I’m doing business with him, because I have no option but to. He has more resources, more money, and more… magical practitioners at his aid.”

My eyebrows clunk down low. “So what…? Is this some kind of… aggressive merger or something?” I say, drawing on my very thin knowledge of business tactics.

Richard shrugs. “I suppose you could refer to it like that. But you must understand, it is further complicated by the fact that this is a magical deal.”

I don’t understand. And I make no attempt to show that I do.

Richard gives another sigh. “Stanley has been systematically attacking my businesses since he arrived in the city. He has never made it a secret that he intends to completely dismantle the Hargraves.”

“So what – he’s giving you no option but to do business with him?” The question’s leading, and all emotion is gone from my tone. I’m honestly just trying to figure out what’s going on right now.

Richard shrugs. “Something like that. But as I said before – this matter is further complicated by the fact that we are both magical. Stanley has been attacking me from every angle at every chance. It is my belief that the woman you prevented from murdering me at the Sonos was one of his agents.”

That’s a revelation. For more than one reason. That completely changes my point of view on Stanley – as men with warm, comforting grips shouldn’t be murderers. But it also reminds me of how this all began.

Considering all of the craziness I’ve had to put up with over the past several days, I’ve barely thought of that woman with the strange gun outside the Sonos.

I stiffen, and again Richard notices it with his eagle gaze. And again – if only for a second – it ignites the compassion that always hides deep in his heart.

He lets out a sigh, and his shoulders drop down even further. “The reason I brought you to this meeting was to show Stanley that I’m no longer… a pushover,” Richard admits.

It should be a weird thing for a man who seems as powerful as Richard to admit to. But here’s the thing – I’ve seen on multiple occasions that his power and confidence are more appearances than realities.

I take a breath. I really let it settle in my chest and chase away the last of my anger. And I tilt my head up and look at him firmly. “So what is it, exactly, Richard, that I’m meant to do next?”

Maybe he senses something in my tone and my expression – maybe he feels that I’m softening. Because the very last of his tension is eked away as he lets out one more belly-shaking sigh. “Next we must train you up so that you can stop Stanley’s agents.”

I nod. You would think that would mean that I understand – but I certainly do not understand.

It’s more that I… I’m willing to try to understand Richard in the future. In other words, I’m happy to give him another chance.

But if he breaks my trust again?

… Who knows what will happen.

Chapter 9

It’s been three weeks.

Three full weeks.

In many ways, I can’t believe it. In other ways, I can’t even remember my old life.

Fortunately Richard hasn’t completely cut me off from my old friends. I’ve still been able to contact Lisa, though I’ve only been able to see her a handful of times. Even then, the interactions have been controlled, with Richard nearby.

Suffice to say, she is completely flabbergasted by the fact I’m now working for Hargrave.

I managed to curb her enthusiasm. But in part, it’s kind of nice. Seeing things from her angle – that I just lucked out and I’m now working for a billionaire – helps me to forget how frigging serious the situation is.

Because it is serious.

I learned several things over the past three weeks.

I’m not only coming to terms with my own magic and my skills – I’m coming to terms with Richard, too.

He hasn’t betrayed my trust again. Mostly because he’s controlled every single interaction I’ve had with people outside this building.

He’s brought me along for several more meetings, but I’ve primarily been an observer. And I haven’t seen Stanley again.

As for actually getting out on the street and doing what my grandmother promised me I was meant to do – fighting?

Yeah, we haven’t got to that stage yet.

I’ve mostly been training.

And I’ll admit one thing. Richard has a different personality when he’s training me.

All that angst and confusion goes away as soon as his bare feet hit the dojo mats.

I’ll admit this freely, too – most of mine goes away, as well.

I always slip easily into the role of the pupil.

Richard doesn’t need to train me that much when it comes to physical strength and agility. My past has done that amply. But when it comes to controlling and modulating my magic, yes, I do need to rely on him.

And yeah, he’s an okay teacher.

Good enough that I’ve really advanced in the past three weeks.

I am nowhere near the stage where I can call magical flame with simply a click of my fingers.

But I have broken through an important barrier.

Richard’s standing there with his arms crossed in front of himself, but his expression is easy. “I think you’ve finally earned it,” he says.

I’m all sweaty from the training session, but my back is still strong and my stance is easy.

I look up from under my eyebrows. “Earned what?”

“A weapon. Soon enough, you’ll be able to go out there,” he says, not bothering to explain what out there is.

He doesn’t need to.

He means the city.

Two things happen in me as he says that. Fear and excitement. They are equally matched emotions, and they form a really weird concoction in my stomach. One that tells me I should be utterly terrified at the fact that Richard is almost ready to use me as his own private weapon. But at the same time, I… I can’t deny that I want to get out there. These last three weeks have really settled my mind when it comes to magic. I’m no longer freaked out about it. And as I’ve started to learn more about my powers, I’ve also wanted the opportunity to push the limits of that said strength.

Richard keeps his arms crossed in front of himself. “I thought long and hard about it, and I think I’ve finally figured out the perfect weapon for you.”

I bring up a hand and scratch my nose. “Weapon? Do I need a weapon?”

“Until you learn to fully control your magic – which presumably won’t happen before your birthday in a month – yes, you need a weapon,” he says flatly.

Though I will admit that I still have arguments with Richard – pretty much all the time when we’re not in the dojo – I’m not as quick to bite back at him.

Sometimes – like right now – I can let his sharp tone go.

I shrug. “What kind?”

He reaches a hand behind him and pulls something out of his belt. We’ve been training for the last hour – and I know there’s nothing tucked into his belt. And yet, that doesn’t stop him from plucking out the water dagger. It’s the same dagger he first showed me when I saw the armory.

My eyes instantly lock on the almost glass like blade.

I see it differently now. Back then, it was a curiosity – something to be afraid of.

Now?

The part of my body that’s opening up to magic recognizes it. It almost sings the exact same unique song that’s locked inside the dagger.

A song of waves, of rain, of oceans.

The more I’ve learned about magic, the more I realize that the sensations and feelings I get within myself cannot be ignored. They’re a mind-body connection to power. If I follow them in the right way, then they’ll help me. But as Richard has warned, if I follow them in the wrong way – if I become greedy and grasping and try to hold onto my power – that way darkness lies.

I shiver at that concept, despite the fact the rest of me is distracted by the presence of the dagger.

Because the last three weeks have taught me something.

Evil does exist. At least, dark magic does.

Richard kind of tried to explain the concept to me. It’s basically this. Though there are six elements, there’s technically a seventh that sits beneath them. It’s not one practitioners should be able to access, though – because it’s a destructive force that specifically exists at the beginning and the end of the universe. The force that brings things into being and destroys them completely. It’s the same force that obliterated that woman I fought with after Richard took me shopping.

Point is, when a magical practitioner gets desperate for power, they can try to summon that force and call it into their lives. And if they do, things will be destroyed. That’s the cost of ancient magic – or the darkness, as Richard puts it.

If a dark practitioner summons those forces, they must sacrifice living beings and objects to keep the dark force satiated. If they don’t – it will go after their bodies.

And that’s what it means to be burnt up.

I know all this stuff now – but I’m having a hard time coming to terms with it. Most nights when I go to sleep, especially after a hard training session, I have a few minutes of fear. That heart-stabbing, gut-punching kind of fear you have when you worry there’s an enemy right outside the door.

Or in my case, one trapped inside my heart.

Or at least, my blood.

While part of me wants my magic to come to fruition sooner rather than later, the rest of me is still scared. Scared that if Richard can’t help me contain it, I’ll burn up too. You see, the witches of the Gold family have a unique ability to call on the darkness.

And that’s just as terrifying as it sounds.

“Though I’m going to give you this weapon, I don’t expect you to use it,” he says firmly. “It’s simply a precaution.”

He still hasn’t handed it over, even though I’ve reached out a hand to accept it.

Slowly, I let my hand drop. “Then why are you giving it to me? I mean, it’s not like I’ve gone out of this building in the last several weeks—”

He looks at me purposefully. “From now on, you will. Because it’s time you make more of an… appearance by my side,” he says carefully.

My stomach kicks. It’s a faint move, though. And it’s from the old me. The me who felt the minutest grain of attraction toward Richard when she first met him.

But any hint of attraction for Richard has been well and truly burnt up in the last three weeks.

I don’t see him that way anymore… at least I’ve told myself that so firmly that my body is finally starting to agree with me.

But at the same time, my stomach still kicks at his comment.

I reach a hand up and hook my hair around my ears, catching a few stray strands that have come loose from the tight bun at the base of my neck. “You mean you want to intimidate Stanley again?”

Richard shrugs. He takes several seconds, letting his gaze tick back toward the water dagger. “I mean… things are heating up in the city,” he says.

I press my lips together. “Right. So… what exactly do you want me to do?”

“You can start by heading back to your room and putting on a dress,” he says flatly with no segue at all.

I arch an eyebrow. “Sorry? Are these clothes not good enough for training anymore?” I comment. It’s a testament to how far I’ve come with Richard that I can banter with him so easily.

But even though my comment is smooth, inside, my stomach does it again – twists as if I’ve just received a compliment. Or worse. An offer for a date.

But the rest of me – the smart part that has nothing to do with the nerves skipping through my stomach – knows full well that this is not a date. It’s a mission. Presumably my first.

Richard brings up his hand, locks it on his mouth, then lets his fingers trail down.

Instantly my eyes lock on the move. I know exactly what it means.

Richard is afraid. “There’s a function tonight. It’s being held by Stanley Phillips,” he says carefully, as he speaks, his eyes are on me. In fact, they’re all over me. They tick down my body and across my face, then lock back on my eyes. He’s not checking out my figure, though. He is very much checking out my reaction.

I hold myself in.

Even though I’ve been… curious about Stanley ever since that meeting, I’ve told myself firmly that he’s a bad guy.

I’m starting to believe that.

I take a breath. “Right. You want me there to intimidate him?” I say the word intimidate carefully, a part of me not really believing that it’s true.

Which is stupid. Because I am strong, I am quick, and as my magic starts to grow within me, I am powerful. Enough that I can give Richard a run for his money some days – even though he usually trumps me at my training sessions.

“In a way. I also need you to… open up your mind.”

Richard isn’t telling me that I need to be more tolerant. Nope. He’s giving me mission parameters.

That’s another thing I’ve learned in the last three weeks. You see, I have a unique ability as a Gold witch to… track magic, if you will.

Though Richard and other strong magical practitioners with certain technology can scan for magic, I can… feel for it.

You know those impressions I get? Like how I felt that Stanley was an ocean and that Richard is a volcano?

Yeah, it’s that. If I half close my eyes around somebody with magic – even if it’s the tiniest hint – I can get a sense of it. How large it is, where it comes from, what kind of element it is.

If I track and follow that sense, I can find out more information.

And that’s what Richard obviously wants.

I take a step back from him, bring a hand up, scratch my temple, then shrug. I nod. “Okay. I think I’m ready,” I say.

I wouldn’t have been able to let those words slip from my lips three weeks ago.

I was too scared for that. I was too unsure of what I could do. And even though I still have no idea about the full extent of my magic yet, I’m starting to learn. There’s something more – I want to get out there. Even though I’m kind of scared of the dark arts, I want to… see the world again. And more than anything, explore its magical underbelly.

Richard continues to look at me – and from the exact look in his eyes I can tell that he’s assessing me from every angle.

So I straighten up, as if I’m on parade.

This does it. Richard nods. He finally hands the water dagger over to me silently.

I accept it, holding it exactly as I have been taught to. I look up at him. “Where exactly am I meant to hide this, though?”

He arches an eyebrow. “Thumb the water symbol on the hilt.”

I frown, turning the dagger over carefully as I finally see the water symbol.

Richard has been teaching me about all of the arcane traditions of magic – including the unique symbology that comes along with every element.

With a frown still etched over my lips, I brush my thumb over the symbol. I feel the symbol as I do. Because it’s not just a written form of language. It’s… like a concentrated mark of water itself. As I touch it, I can practically hear a waterfall echoing in my ears and feel waves brushing against my legs.

And as for the dagger?

Yeah, it turns invisible. Just like that.

Though it’s a surprise, I’m not stupid enough to yelp and drop it.

I blink quickly like the shutter lens of a camera.

I look up at him.

And Richard? He smiles at my surprise. Which is saying something, because Richard Hargrave very rarely smiles. He never seems to have the opportunity to. He’s always got a lot on his plate.

But his smile… it’s nice. The way his lips curl, the way his cheeks light up. More than anything, the way he looks at me.

But it doesn’t last. “Don’t drop it,” he snaps.

Way to go to ruin the moment. I press a sarcastic smile over my lips. “I clearly haven’t dropped it, have I? And a heads-up would’ve been nice.”

“You need to learn to roll with the punches,” he replies automatically. “And you also need to learn to sense what a magical object can do,” he continues the lesson in that god-awful dictatorial tone I hate so much.

Though I want to snap at him that he’s being a prick, I keep that sarcastic smile pressed across my lips. “Indeed, sensei. But as you keep telling me, I won’t come into my full skills until my birthday in a month. So let’s keep our eyes on the prize, shall we?”

Richard gets a specific kind of look that tells me I shouldn’t be telling him what to do. But fortunately he doesn’t snap at me. He nods toward the door. “There’ll be a dress in your room. Put it on. Get ready. And meet me at the car.”

I arch an eyebrow. “How long until the function?”

“Two hours. But we will need to investigate first.”

“Investigate?”

“I have… a suspicion,” he admits.

I couldn’t be frowning harder now. “What are you talking about?”

“As I’ve already explained to you, the more a practitioner slips toward the dark arts, the more they must sacrifice.” Richard’s lips move hard around the word sacrifice. I can see his disgust. I can practically feel it. It’s washing off him like flames from a recently lit fire. “You remember this, don’t you?”

I don’t have to pause. I nod. It’s a vehement move. “Of course I remember it. What’s your point?”

“My resources suggest that Stanley Phillips is about to make a… push into the city,” he says.

My eyes narrow again. “Push? What do you mean?”

“If my sources are correct, Stanley has acquired a new book,” he says carefully.

“What are you talking about?”

“This book has a… shall we say, recipe,” he says the word carefully, “for far stronger dark arts magic. But to enact it, he will require many sacrifices,” Richard says, his disgust clear. And fair enough, because it’s an utterly disgusting concept.

One that makes me sick to my stomach.

I bring up a hand and clamp it over my mouth. “Right,” I say through pursed lips. Then I swallow again. “You mean… he has… victims at his building or something?”

“Perhaps. We will simply have to investigate,” Richard points out again.

I still feel sick, but now there’s a strong edge to it.

An edge that wouldn’t have been there three weeks ago. The edge of a woman who’s made up her mind.

Yeah, I didn’t sign up to be Richard Hargrave’s witch.

But I am now, and I’m going to make the most of it. If it means helping people, then I’m going to help.

Chapter 10

I’m in a dress.

It’s a great dress. Of course it’s a great dress. Richard has been true to his word. Ever since he inherited me, he has been looking after my every need.

But I’m not entirely sure I need a $10,000 dress.

That being said, I keep getting distracted as I glance down at it.

It’s gorgeous.

It’s black, soft, and comes right up high at the throat, finishing in a collar that ties behind my neck.

The back plunges low, but it’s not low enough that anyone can see my butt crack or anything.

It’s cut low to the floor and has a suitably wide skirt that, if I were to need to kick – which is a high likelihood – I would be able to without breaking a seam.

I’m in some nice high heels, too.

They’re sturdy, thankfully. As the last thing I need is pencil stilettos.

But who really cares what I’m wearing? The most important part is this is my first genuine mission. It’s not my first fight – I’ve had two of those so far – but this will be different.

My stomach twists into a knot. The kind of knot that makes you feel as if it’s gonna take the rest of your internal organs with you like it’s some kind of black hole sucking you up from the inside out.

Richard’s with me. Not that he is technically present. You know when someone can be right by your side but that doesn’t mean they’re actually aware of you?

It feels like he’s in his own little world.

And it gets me wondering something – something I’ve been thinking of for a while now. If Richard was born into this world of magic – and the responsibility of the Hargraves – he doesn’t know anything else, does he? Yeah, sure, he’s technically a rich brat. He probably owns a yacht, even. He could pretty much afford to do whatever he wants, were it not for his responsibility and the fact his every waking moment is spent defending other people.

It’s a sobering thought. One that should be all too easy to push away considering my continued complicated feelings for the guy. But as I stand there in front of the expensive building, watching Richard out of the corner of my eye, that notion simply won’t be pushed from my mind.

It’s like a thorn that’s slowly pushing into my heart.

I bring a hand up and check my hair for what feels like the thousandth time.

I’m seriously body-conscious tonight, which is stupid.

I’m not here for anyone to check me out.

I’m here to… what? Break out a whole bunch of sacrifices before Stanley Phillips can use the energy of their bodies to feed some ancient destructive spell?

Yeah. I shouldn’t have to tell you how stupid it sounds to repeat that notion in my head. At the same time, I can’t dismiss it as one of pure fancy.

Because my body can feel it.

It’s practically aching with the need to go out and do something.

The water dagger is holstered on my hip.

No, I’m not wearing a holster over my fancy $10,000 dress.

The holster, like the dagger, is invisible. I can feel it, though. Pressing against my hip with every step I take. You can’t see it rumpling the fabric, however – which is some seriously fancy magic. Yet more evidence that this magical world is incredible. And yet more evidence that I seriously don’t know enough about it.

Richard continues to remain distracted. He’s doing something on his phone. At first I think he’s texting or checking some messenger app, then I catch a glimpse of the screen and realize I have absolutely no idea what he’s doing. There’s a softly pulsing light, and that’s it. It’s almost like he’s watching a heartbeat on an ultrasound.

I clear my throat to question him, but he suddenly jerks his head up, letting it tip all the way back as he lets his eyes dart up the side of the building and lock in one of the rooms above. “There,” he says under his breath, his words quick like a whip.

A thrill chases up my back, rides high over my head, tickles along my scalp, and jumps into my cheeks as they pull my lips open. “What? What have you found? The… victims?”

Richard ticks his head toward me quickly.

We’re not alone out on the pavement. People are walking past. Some of them are in evening wear. Despite the fact we’re early to this function, I guess other people don’t want to be late, either.

Richard gives me a look that tells me exactly what he’s thinking.

He wants me to keep my damn mouth shut.

I bring up a hand and flatten my bun again, the move reflexive as I try to work the nerves out of my body.

“Come with me. And for the love of God, stay quiet,” Richard says through stiff lips.

I follow several steps behind him.

Despite the fact I should really be distracted by what we’re about to do and just how tense Richard is, my body is locked on his body. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking – that statement doesn’t make any sense. My gaze could get locked on his body, but how exactly could my body become so?

It’s my feeling. The base of my magic. The fact that when I look at someone or something that holds an errant charge of power, I can feel it. And the more I follow that feeling, the more I start to see things in my mind’s eye.

You know how before I said Richard Hargrave was a volcano? He’s much more complicated than that.

He’s like a match. One that can be lit at any moment, and one that can produce any grade of flame. Right from the most powerful destructive wildfire, down to the quietest, gentlest, warmest flickering candle flame.

That’s a suitably distracting thought, one that keeps me thinking as I walk in through the atrium of the building.

It’s some kind of office block. It’s new. And weirdly, I’ve never paid too much attention to it. I’m not saying somebody built it overnight or anything. I’m just saying that it’s the kind of building you could easily walk past from the outside without it impressing upon your mind. Which is stupid. Because it’s nice. A great example of modern architecture that doesn’t look like just a lump of steel and glass.

And from the inside? It’s breathtaking.

So why the hell have I never noticed this place?

Like I said before, other guests have gotten here early, so at least it makes it less obvious as Richard and I walk into the large atrium.

Though I could easily get distracted by the other guests – from what they’re wearing, to who they are, to where I’ve seen them around and to just how much they’re worth – I don’t.

My mind is stuck on this building. The way it feels is… I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s almost like it’s evading me every time I go to grasp it.

“Careful,” Richard suddenly warns me, his voice low and grating. And though he’s a good meter in front of me, for some reason it sounds like he’s whispering right in my ear, and the harsh push of his breath even sends a few scant hairs tickling over my neck.

It’s surprising enough that I stop.

“Don’t make any sudden movements. I’m communicating with you remotely. Now, I brought you here to help me. To observe. But don’t follow your magic too far down the rabbit hole,” he warns again. And again his voice sounds out right beside my ear.

It is categorically the eeriest experience of my life. It’s like a disembodied head is next to my shoulder, pressing close. That, or a ghost.

Though all I want to do is shiver and bat a hand next to my face to push the sensation away, I know that will bring too much attention to me, and that will really piss Richard off.

So I clench my teeth hard and follow Richard.

He’s already shoved his phone back in the pocket of his suit jacket.

I shouldn’t have to point this out – as I’ve already done it three times – but the suit doesn’t suit Richard. In fact, compared to the other ill-fitting suits he wears, this one’s worse.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s categorically one of the most expensive pieces of clothing he’s worn yet – which is saying something. But it just looks… out of place. It makes him look out of place, too.

I swear Richard Hargrave doesn’t really belong anywhere. Nothing can compete or distract from his sheer goddamn intensity.

Though Richard has gone over the plan with me several times, I keep ticking over it in my mind, repeating it like a mantra so I don’t get a single aspect of it wrong.

Not, of course, that he’s given me much information. Though I want to be snide and point out that he’s deliberately trying to keep me in the dark, I recognize he doesn’t have much to give.

Because there’s something I’m starting to understand. Something that’s truly uncomfortable. Something that – if you were to have posited it to me the day I found out about magic – I would’ve laughed in your face at.

Richard is nowhere near as powerful as he seems. In fact, the more I learn about magic in this city – Stanley Phillips included – the more I realize Richard is very much on the back foot.

He doesn’t have as many resources, he’s not as bold, and it seems as if he’s being squeezed from every angle, every second of every day.

Which means this mission is probably gonna end up being far riskier than he suggested.

As I follow him toward the elevator on the opposite side of the room, I resign myself to that fact. And it’s a pretty weird fact to resign yourself to.

A month ago, I was just a simple university student. The most I had to deal with was trying to cajole myself into studying. Now I have to be aware of the fact that before tonight’s over, this party will probably go south. Far south.

In other words, trouble is very much knocking on my door.

We reach the lift, and as I walk inside and the doors close behind me, Richard finally makes eye contact.

It’s wary.

I can see it there, flickering in his eyes – fear.

Though I’ve asked Richard plenty of questions about magic so far, there are still more. And right now I want to know just how many witches he has under his command. Or maybe it’s just me. Do the rest of his staff know about magic? If so, how much?

Or is Richard really on his own?

And how much does he honestly need me?

I don’t get the chance to ask these questions.

The lift starts to ascend.

I open my mouth to say something to him, but it’s almost as if he can guess what I’m about to do. He simply shakes his head curtly. Then I hear it next to my head again. A hush of fabric, the sound of someone opening their lips. I straighten up as I hear him whisper, “You can’t say a word. And before you ask, nobody can hear my voice but you. Until you learn how to communicate like this, on missions, you must remain silent. What happens next is going to be critical,” he adds.

At that promise, nerves dart hard into my gut, almost making me want to buckle over.

It’s so cruel that I can’t reply – that I can’t ask what the hell he’s talking about.

Here’s the thing – something I should’ve recognized before I agreed to this mission. I have to trust him now. Because I’ve got no one else. And you know what? He’s got no one else, too.

The lift continues to ascend. Where to, I’ll have to find out.

Chapter 11

There’s something in the pit of my stomach. It’s fear. It’s fear like I’ve never experienced it. It’s denser. Feels like I’ve swallowed a stone that’s covered in ice. It’s so cold I swear it’s gonna freeze me until I break.

The lift finally arrives at its destination. Just as it does, and the doors begin to open, Richard suddenly darts forward and jams his thumb as hard as he can into the door button.

I’m surprised by the move, and I blink. But just as I go to open my mouth and ask what he’s doing, I remember his warning, and I press my lips closed.

I watch as Richard pumps his finger back and forth into the button, and I finally see a few charges of errant magic dart from his nail and escape down into the button.

I’m not expecting it – despite the fact I’ve seen nothing but magic for the last three weeks – and I almost gasp. I press my lips closed in time and practically swallow them as I watch that magic shoot through the button and into the electronic panel behind.

There’s this strange groaning sound. It’s like somebody’s trying to roll a massive boulder up a hill.

Then the elevator shudders. It’s violent, and I’m thrown to the side. I have to shove a hand out and press it against the railing so I don’t fall on my ass.

Fear jolts through me.

The elevator doesn’t suddenly lose hold of its wires and fall down the 50 floors to the base of the tower below.

Nope. The doors open.

I caught a small glimpse of the floor before us before Richard jammed his thumb into the door button. And it was different. It was just an ordinary office floor.

But as the doors open now?

There’s a flicker. Almost like a light turning on and off rapidly.

I see something discharge – like a force field out of a sci-fi film.

“What the hell?” I stutter, completely incapable of going through with Richard’s order and keeping my mouth shut.

This is crazy.

There’s a distinct hum in the air, the kind of sound like I’m too close to a helicopter that’s about to take off.

There’s also a charge of energy – like I’m stuck in a thunderstorm and I’m about to be struck by lightning.

Richard shoots me a terse look but doesn’t say anything as he gestures at the doors, making it clear it’s time to go.

I am wholly aware of my dagger stashed in my holster. So aware, it feels like the rest of the world has been whittled down to me, the doorway, and my only weapon.

Richard takes a steady, stiff breath, then walks out into the corridor.

As he does, he walks through the remnants of that field. It discharges around him, a few charges of magic darting over his shoulders, zipping down his sides, and discharging into the floor.

I freeze in the doorway, incapable of taking another step until I hear Richard’s disembodied voice right beside me, the press of his breath harsh as it sends my hair scattering over my neck and cheeks. “Come on, Lydia. We don’t have much time. Things could be much worse than I feared.”

I do it. With one more final breath, I push myself forward, shunting out of the elevator doors.

And as I do, I walk straight through that magical field.

Just as happened with Richard, it discharges around me. And it’s the strangest sensation I’ve ever felt. It’s like walking into a sheet of electricity. It doesn’t electrocute me, though. And it doesn’t send jolting power slamming through my limbs and jaw. Instead, it’s like walking through a waterfall filled with tiny hands.

I almost want to giggle.

When I make it to the opposite side of the field, I exit into a hallway.

It’s kind of underwhelming. It looks like just another block in an office.

Excuse me if I assumed I’d see something far more impressive, considering what we just went through.

“Come on,” Richard says, this time using his mouth and foregoing the disembodied whisper right by my ear.

Even though Richard has told me to keep quiet, screw that. I take several steps in until I’m close by him. “What the hell is going on? What was that?”

“Security field. When I messed with the elevator’s controls, it allowed me to get to this floor.”

“This isn’t an ordinary floor?”

“Not technically.”

“What exactly do you think is on this floor?”

“We’re about to find out,” Richard says. I want to say that his voice is smooth, but to be honest, it’s the furthest thing from smooth. Sure, it comes out quickly, and his lips barely move, but it’s ragged, almost as if his throat is a washboard and his voice is cloth he’s dragging over it.

Richard rushes now, and his heels thump as I struggle to keep up.

He suddenly stops in front of a door, freezing so abruptly, he almost skids into the wall.

I come to a stop beside him, heart pounding in my chest.

Though I’m fearful, I’m nowhere as fearful as I should be.

That realization strikes me right on the base of my skull.

I’m… getting used to this world, aren’t I?

Sure, there’s always more to learn. And, absolutely, I still don’t really know what I’m dealing with. But slowly the brunt of my fear is being worn away like somebody chipping at an ice block to get to what’s frozen within.

For some reason, that feels like a terribly apt explanation – one that explains not just my fear, but my magic.

I know Richard has told me until he’s blue in the face that I’m not to push my magic – that I’m not to grasp for it. That doing that is a slippery slope.

But… I’ll have to do it one day, won’t I?

And that day is coming soon.

I have precisely four weeks until my birthday. And it’s on that day, apparently, that I will fully inherit my abilities.

Maybe now is no time to think about that. Especially considering how stiff Richard’s shoulders are as he barely brings a hand up and extends his fingers toward the door handle. He doesn’t grasp it. He simply gently rests his short nails against the metal handle.

He half closes his eyes. He starts to mutter something under his breath. I know now that what he’s doing is chanting a spell.

I don’t dare breathe a word. I just stand there beside him, keeping an ear and eye out.

Eventually, when he’s done, with a snap of his hand – as if it’s been deployed from a cannon – he snatches hold of the handle and wrenches the door open.

I have no idea what I expect to see inside.

Maybe Richard does, because he doesn’t pause – he rushes in.

I finally catch sight of what’s inside. I almost scream. Gagging fear climbs up my throat, wrapping around my neck like a hangman’s noose.

There are people inside, and they’re trapped in pens, like animals at a zoo.

I catch sight of Richard’s face, and it’s reflecting the exact same gut-wrenching disgust that’s tearing through my expression.

“Richard?” My voice shakes.

He’s pale – as pale as newly fallen snow. But then he takes another step into the room.

The people are unconscious, lying at the bottom of their cages.

I don’t know if they’re alive or dead. But judging by their color – hopefully some of them, at least, are still alive.

Richard shows no fear as he continues to walk into the room.

Me?

I’ve ground to a halt. It’s like somebody has tied chains around my ankles and pinned me to the floor.

Richard swivels his head to face me. He appears to come to a quick decision. “I want you to guard the door. I’ll get these people out of here. Just tell me if someone comes, okay? I’ll be no more than five minutes.” With that, Richard spreads a hand toward me, his thumb and pinky finger extending as wide as they can, almost as if he’s trying to pick up a basketball with one hand.

“What?” I begin.

But then the door starts to close of its own accord.

I’m still standing out in the corridor, and by the time I jerk forward to grab the handle, the door is already half closed.

“I’ll be five minutes. If I’m more than that… come look for me,” he says.

The door closes with a click.

Though I want to immediately jerk forward and open it, I don’t.

I take a step back, the click of my high heels on the floor the only sound.

I bring a hand up slowly and clench it over my mouth, my fingers really pushing into the skin, shaking with every breath.

I’m usually good at keeping time, but right now it trickles through my mind.

I force myself to take another step back, and I close my eyes.

I wait.

And I wait.

Has it been three minutes?

Four?

I keep waiting.

I know how important it is for me not to jump the gun. Richard said five minutes, so I continue to hold my post.

And soon enough I start to frown.

It has to have been more than five minutes now. Maybe seven, maybe eight. I hold out for another full minute until I finally dart forward, set my hand on the door handle, and try to open the door.

… And that’s when it swings open to an empty office.

I gasp, the sound echoing down the corridor and through the unfurnished office.

There’s nothing in here. Previously, when I caught glimpses of this place, it was a large concrete expanse with at least 20 cages in it. Now? It’s just an office. Maybe 5 m x 5 m. There isn’t even a desk.

There’s a window, though, and it stares out onto the horizon line beyond.

“What the hell?” I press my hand over my mouth as I spit that word into my sweaty palm.

Then I let my hand drop.

I teeter in the doorway, hand still locked on the handle, but body swaying back-and-forth as if I can’t make my mind up about which direction to go in.

Then I take a breath. “Richard?” I ask, but my voice is quiet, small. I don’t want it to carry too far in case I catch anyone’s attention further down the corridor.

But when Richard doesn’t answer, my heart finally starts to beat harder as I appreciate that he’s just not here.

“Richard?” I ask again, voice arcing up higher.

Still no reply.

There’s a dense ringing pressure in my head, and it’s spreading down into my body, stiffening every limb and making me feel as if my bones have been turned into steel sticks.

I finally let go of the door handle and gather the gumption to walk into the room. At the same time, despite the fact I’m hardly a trained officer, my hand instantly goes for the dagger at my hip. I don’t pull it out – I just let my fingers hover over it, my nails occasionally brushing against the cool metal as it reminds me that the weapon is just there, just within my reach.

I take a tour of the small room, even bring out my spare hand and rap my knuckles on the walls to check if they’re sturdy.

They are. They aren’t paper or some illusion.

They’re real walls.

That pressure continues to build through my skull, making me feel as if I’ve crammed a balloon into my noggin.

I finally stop in the center of the room. I’m surprised when a tear or two streaks down my cheeks. I don’t launch into a full crying fest or anything, but I can’t deny as the tension and fear rack my body.

It’s been well over 10 minutes now. If Richard were to reappear, he would’ve appeared by now, right?

So where the heck could he be?

I go to jerk out of the room, to head back into the corridor as if somehow I’ve got the wrong doorway and he’ll be out there waiting for me.

But that’s when I stop.

It’s like I feel a faint, ghostly, tiny hand spring out from nowhere and clutch hold of my shoulder, begging me to stop.

It’s really the smallest of sensations – practically indiscernible.

But it’s enough to get my attention.

Enough to make me pause if only for a second.

And in that pause, I feel it. The magic in this room.

It’s chaotic.

Richard has been getting me to sense various types of magic as he trains me. From the elements to what happens when they’re mixed. He says that most of my use to him will come down to my ability to track different types of magic and figure out who’s casting what.

And right now, as I close my eyes and concentrate on this room, I can’t help but lock my mind on it and use my training.

I get images of water. Not flowing water, mind you. Stagnant pools of fetid water. From cesspits to swamps.

Then I get a view of clogged drains, of broken pipes.

The flashes don’t last long. And it’s not that I see the images perfectly in my mind’s eye – they just sweep by like impressions. And everyone that sweeps by, I follow. And every time I follow it, it takes me to a new place.

Soon enough I realize I’ve walked back out into the corridor. My eyes are half closed, and as I open them, I turn hard on my foot and find myself heading toward the left, back toward the lifts.

I reach them with several quick steps, pause, and walk right through that magical field. This time I don’t even bother to shiver as the magical energy discharges along my shoulders, snakes down the silk dress along my back, and escapes through my heels into the floor. I just grit my teeth, a conclusion forming in my mind. I call the lift, jump inside, and then pause. I flatten a hand on the panel full of buttons. I make an educated guess.

I follow those images of broken water pipes and stagnant streams. Of dried up oceans and deserts.

And before I know it, my hand moves naturally on its own until my finger depresses one of the floor buttons.

The lift kicks into action with a shudder.

I open my eyes, jerk my hand back, and let it fall by my side.

My breathing is ragged, irregular, but the same time, I’m not falling apart. At least, a part of me isn’t falling apart. And that part is the faculty I have to follow magic. To sense it out. To treat it like it’s a faint hand leading me forward by the wrist.

I’m not stupid enough to find a phone and try to call Richard. Hey, I didn’t even bring one with me. And I really doubt he’d just have wandered off and got distracted while he was trying to save all those kidnap victims.

No. By the intensity of the magic I felt in that office, it’s clear that something serious is going down.

Which means Richard could be in danger, right?

That prospect does all the strangest things to my stomach. I feel so much fear, yet at the same time, a dark part of myself that I didn’t even know existed questions whether this is a good thing.

Because isn’t this a get-out-of-jail-free card?

I hate Richard. Though he taught me a lot, he still owns me. He still lords that over me.

So isn’t it better for it to end like this?

I shake my head as the lift finally arrives at its destination and the doors begin to open.

It’s true, I hate Richard – but I will not allow that hate to turn me into a monster. I’m not the kind of woman who’s gonna wish someone will die just so she can become free.

As the doors open, I walk out into a packed hall.

I don’t know how much time has passed, but it really couldn’t be more than 15 to 20 minutes. We arrived at the function an hour early. Unless my eyes deceive me, this is the function – and it’s in full swing.

Fortunately most people have their backs to me, so as I walk into the hall, there’s no one to see my expression of abject fear.

It takes me a few seconds to swallow it, to smooth a fraction of calm over my face.

I start to press through the crowd, keeping to the edges, but at the same time, doing my best to scan everybody.

I’m doing two things. And only one of them is conscious. Consciously, I’m looking for Richard – any sign of him.

Unconsciously? My body is still scanning for magic. And before I realize what I’m doing, my legs swivel to the left, and I stop.

Because I feel it.

A very distinct sensation indeed.

Oceans and rivers. Lakes and streams. Gushing, flowing water sweeping around obstacles. Water that cannot be stopped, cannot be contained.

Slowly, I turn my head over my shoulder to see none other than Stanley Phillips walking toward me.

I get the impression of a tidal wave slamming toward shore.

Though his stance is easy and his expression is welcoming, deep there in his deep blue eyes I see something else entirely.

I stiffen, and my left hand instantly goes to my side, my fingers creeping toward the water dagger holstered at my back.

Though there are still many things that Richard hasn’t told me about this weapon, at least I had the foresight to question whether other practitioners can see it when it’s holstered on me. The answer is no.

As long as I don’t pump any magic into it or pull it out, other practitioners shouldn’t be able to know I’m armed.

I just hope like hell that’s true as Stanley finally comes to a stop in front of me.

He ticks his head to the side, and slowly a smile spreads his lips. “Lydia, isn’t it? A pleasure to make your acquaintance,” he says as he sweeps one of his large hands toward me.

I look at it and up to his face.

We’re already drawing a crowd. Fair enough, Stanley is the host. And out of nowhere, he stopped talking to some seriously important guests, picked me out of the crowd, and marched up to me.

Like I was a guest of honor or something.

He keeps his hand out, and he keeps his smile pressed across his face.

“You’ve already met me,” I point out, not accepting the hand. Which is hard. For some reason, I feel like I’m being compelled to shove forward and place my hand in his.

And that compulsion? It feels distinctly like a raging river sweeping around of boat and pushing it toward some object.

I take a breath. “Sorry,” I look deliberately at his hand, “my hands are cold and clammy. And like I said, we’ve already met,” I add.

“I see. Indeed, we have already met. However,” he finally lets his hand drop, but his smile remains precisely in place – almost as if somebody has carved it into his cheeks or soldered it onto his lips, “I thought it proper to meet again. It wasn’t exactly as if we had the opportunity to get to know each other last time.”

I look at him. It’s a calculating look. I’m no Richard Hargrave. I don’t have a gaze that’s got the combined intensity of several nuclear blasts. I’m just learning. But right now I can’t back down.

If I do, not only will Richard be on the line – but those 20 other people in the cages will be too.

I really let my mind lock on them as I look directly at Stanley. “I wouldn’t say we didn’t meet properly before. But I guess it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance again,” I force myself to say.

I’m looking at him with everything I have. I’m not the best at reading people’s body language – and have never been that great at trying to read what people are thinking. But you know what? Now I have a secret weapon. And it’s time to rely on it.

Though it’s hard, as I converse with Richard, at the same time, I try to feel him. No, I don’t suddenly jolt forward and grope the guy. I’m talking about my magical senses. I follow that impression I get of water rushing over a crag – of violent, powerful waterfalls slamming against rocks below.

Though it’s powerful and pretty terrifying, I don’t give up.

Though Stanley smiled at me as he marched up, the quality of that smile suddenly changes. The look in his eyes grows all the deeper, too. He arches an eyebrow. “I thought he said you were new to this?” he points out out of the blue.

I stiffen. I instantly stop trying to sense him, too. Though I don’t know exactly what that comment means, it seems clear he’s talking about this – me and my ability to feel his magic.

I straighten. Though I want to take a step back, I’m intensely aware of the fact that all eyes are on us. And I’m just as intensely aware of another fact – that I mustn’t ever let my magic be known.

I’ve never been good at playing games. I like to be a straight shooter – someone who talks directly. I’m not one for intrigue, and I seriously hate all of the shenanigans you have to play as you climb up the social ladder.

But there’s no getting out of this now.

Stanley appears to be having fun. The time of his life, in fact. That look in his eyes keeps deepening.

You know how I said back in the meeting room when I first met this guy that he gave me the impression that he just stumbled upon a treasure and that treasure is me?

Yeah, I get that impression more and more. My back itches as the skin crawls.

But I won’t allow myself to be distracted by the sensation.

Nor will I allow myself to stop.

Though I’ve already been caught tracking down his magic, I start doing it again.

And that smile creeps further across his lips. He takes a step toward me, a certain look in his eyes.

But just as he does, someone comes rushing up through the crowd.

Richard arches his head to the side, the move quick.

The guy must be a member of his staff, as he has no trouble wading through the crowd, reaching Stanley, and calling Stanley to the side.

Reluctantly, Stanley follows.

Though I keep my ears peeled and try to pick up what they’re saying, there’s no possibility that I can discern their words.

So I throw myself into my task completely.

I don’t think I’ve ever thrown myself into anything this much before.

I push every single sense I have into my magic – into following Stanley’s water.

At first it’s terrifying – like I’m jumping headfirst into a dark pool of water – one which I have no idea how deep it is and how long it will take to drown in.

Though that’s terrifying, I finally catch sight of something.

Call it a river, if you will. One that’s wending through the hall and out into the rest of the building.

One that – for the craziest reason – reminds me of Richard.

Maybe it’s a clue.

Maybe I’m just making this up.

And maybe I don’t have the time to question.

I turn hard on my heel and shift through the crowd.

I dart through it, not around it, using everybody else as cover as I make my way back toward the elevators.

If Stanley sees, he doesn’t have the time to stop me.

I’m focused on my task, too.

Though I’m still terrified by the prospect of Stanley and his power, the more I concentrate on it, the more distinct that impression becomes in my mind. I can literally see a river flowing through the room now. It’s faint, but it’s there. This errant twirl of magic.

I keep my senses locked on it until I finally reach an elevator.

I dart in just as it opens and several guests walk out.

I close the elevator before another guest can reach it, muttering that I can’t wait.

My heart thumps in my chest, pulsing like a battering ram trying to break through my rib cage.

I don’t pay any attention to the button I press. I just jam my finger into the button then keep my attention locked on Stanley’s magic.

I know that if I let go of it, I won’t be able to grasp it again – not without seeing Stanley once more. And that will ruin everything.

“Come on, just be okay, be okay,” I find myself muttering under my breath, my thoughts dancing back to Richard.

I hate the guy. But I don’t hate him so much that I want him to die at the hands of Stanley.

The elevator pings and opens to another floor.

It’s pretty nondescript – just like a standard office floor. Before I can jerk out of the lift, I stop.

I concentrate.

I have no reason to suspect there’s a booby-trap or another one of those magical force fields, but something tells me there is, so I pause.

As I carefully reach out a hand, I can start to feel a distinct charge of magic in the air.

I jerk my hand back, clench my teeth, and think as fast as I can.

Before too long, a plan forms in my head.

I reach around behind my back and grab my dagger. I pull it out and thumb the on button.

It appears in my hand, visible for everyone to see – but fortunately it’s just me, as the rest of this floor is empty.

I concentrate exactly the way that Richard taught me, and I slash the dagger forward.

Instantly that translucent glass tip slices into an invisible force field. And as the blade drags across the force field, it’s like space itself is ripping. This blue, charged line appears in the air. I swear under my breath. Then I slash once more. And that’s all it takes.

The magical field is obliterated. It’s like a sheet of energy is falling from the sky – like a line of lightning.

I take a step back into the elevator, the move jerked as all of the magic discharges and crackles over the floor.

Then I jerk forward, trusting that my high heels will keep me safe from the last charges of energy sinking into the concrete.

I throw myself forward.

Despite the fact I was pretty distracted fighting that magical force field, I always kept half of my mind locked on Stanley’s magic.

And I continue to track it through the building.

It looks like the translucent track of a snail. That or the luminous single thread of a spider trailing through space.

I let it lead me, keeping the dagger in my hand, knowing there’s now no point in holstering it.

I’m no genius – I seriously don’t know enough about magic to understand how one of those magical force fields works – but I can guess that Stanley has been informed of what’s happening, wherever he is.

I can also guess I barely have minutes, if that.

I run as fast as I can, skirts swirling around my legs as several strands of hair undo themselves from my bun.

Finally I see that translucent thread push through a closed door.

I come to a stop.

I jerk my hand toward the door, but again I pause. It too will have security precautions – I can guarantee that.

Just as I can guarantee that I don’t have time to unpick them.

So I slash forward with my water dagger again.

The blow’s direct, and as that glass tip trails across the door, something snaps. It sounds like bone. As if someone has just jumped off a two-story building and their legs have been shattered.

I shove forward, grab the handle, and shoulder the door open.

I jerk into a room.

I swear it’s the same room Richard entered. Same dimensions – same drab concrete.

And importantly?

Same 20 people in pens.

No.

There are 21.

Richard.

He’s in a cage right in the center of the room. There are two men guarding it.

As soon as I run in, they turn over their shoulders.

They’re big, burly, exactly the kind of men you would think would work a security detail for a man like Stanley.

But then they move, and I swear they’re a hell of a lot less like men and more like mannequins.

It’s in the jerking movements of their limbs. They look as if they’re being controlled by electronic joints.

I catch sight of their eyes.

They’re hollow.

They don’t have eyeballs.

I want to shriek – gag, throw up even.

I want to jerk the hell away, close the door, and run back home.

I don’t have that option.

At the sight of Richard, something twists inside me. It feels like it shatters.

I don’t know what that thing is, but it’s so fundamental to me – so important – that it’s as if someone has taken my heart from my body.

I can’t describe the sensation, but I can describe what it makes me do.

I throw myself into the room, my dagger at the ready.

The two mannequins look at each other, then turn around and walk toward me.

They’re not sauntering – they’re movements are too uncoordinated for that. They are certainly unhurried, though.

I dart my gaze down to Richard.

Unlike the other people in the pens, he’s not conked out unconscious on the floor. He’s leaning against the metal bars of his cage. His shoulder has a massive gash in it, and there’s blood covering his suit.

There’s a massive gash above his eyebrow, too, and blood oozes down and trickles down his cheek.

But none of that takes from his intensity as he locks his gaze on me.

Fear blast through his face. His lips open. “Lydia – get out,” he begins.

I don’t get out.

I don’t have the chance.

Though those two mannequins were perfectly happy to saunter toward me before, suddenly – without any warning – they both put on bursts of speed. And their speed is inhuman. Unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s like footage that’s been sped up to its maximum pace.

They go from being about 10 m away, to being right beside me. The next thing I know, I can feel a punch connecting to the side of my face.

I go flying.

Not back out the door, but against the wall next to it. As my back impacts the unyielding plaster, the wind is knocked out of me.

I don’t have the time to get to my feet.

I feel two steel-like hands lock around my ankles and pull me forward.

My dress is hooked up around my thighs as I’m dragged over the concrete.

Then the mannequin who has hold of me yanks me up.

He throws me into the air as if I’m nothing more than a ball he’s tossing to a dog.

I’m pulsating with fear. My mind barely works anymore. I’m just adrenaline.

But something within me remembers my gymnastics training, and as I’m launched into the air like a ball from a cannon, I tuck my body in, round my shoulders, and take control of the move.

Rather than being thrown against the floor, I pull into a flip, land, and push into a roll. It’s enough that as one of the mannequins tries to grab me from behind, I dart out of their way.

And this time, I come out attacking.

I don’t bother trying to put some distance between us. That’s not going to work. These guys are far too fast. Putting distance between us would just give me the false sense that I can predict what they’re doing.

Instead, I slash wildly. First in an arc in front of me, then down in a slash.

It’s an uncoordinated move, and it’s random – and that’s the point.

Just as one of the mannequins goes to grab my ankle again, I catch the side of his arm.

There’s a hiss as if I’ve broken a pipe and steam’s erupting from it.

I expect to see blood – as you would if you just slashed someone’s arm with a dagger. I don’t. I actually see air. Steam escapes from the guy’s wound as if he’s nothing more than a blowup doll.

I don’t bother asking what the hell is happening. I go at him, lunging with all my strength. When someone has more speed than you, the best thing you can do is pull them into a wrestling match. Yeah, it’s clear I don’t have as much strength as these guys. But you know what I do have?

My water dagger.

And I swear I merge with it – swear I become one with the tip. It’s like my mind has extended right down into it. And as a consequence, my magic has, too.

I slash out once more, and just as the mannequin tries to wrap his arms around my back and crush me, my dagger swipes across his chest.

This time the blow is brutal – not just some slash along his arm. If he were a person, this would be fatal.

And even though he’s not a person – and is some kind of twisted magical equivalent I can’t even begin to understand – he can’t recover from this move.

He staggers back. And then his chest opens.

It’s not like I just split the rib cage of a carcass. It’s way freakier than that. Light begins to spill out of his torso. Then his head jerks back, his mouth opening wide and his empty eyes even wider. It’s like the hollows where his eyeballs should be are hands.

And as they open, more and more light spills out of him.

Then the next thing I know, he just disappears. He’s eaten up from the inside out by that distinct black shadow I remember seeing when Richard saved me from that woman.

And it is just as terrifying to witness as it was the first time.

It almost knocks the breath out of me – almost makes me stare in shock.

But the battle part of my brain knows how to be prepared for an attack.

And just as the remaining mannequin throws himself at me, I slash wildly to the side.

I don’t catch him in a fatal blow – but I do slice off one of his thumbs just as he locks his hand around my shoulder.

He jerks into me, pushing against me with all his weight. And though I try to accommodate the move, I can’t. The next thing I know, he slams me onto the ground and jumps onto my chest. He digs his knee hard into my abdomen, forcing me down even further and knocking the breath out of me until it won’t come back.

I think Richard’s still calling my name – it’s hard to tell. A distinct, heavy buzzing is echoing in my mind, crowding out every other thought.

I can start to see blackness well in my vision, too. It’s marching around me like an army getting ready to sweep in.

I catch sight of the mannequin’s hollow eyes. It’s like I’m staring into two pits of nothingness. They remind me of the shadow that consumed the other mannequin.

And that is such a chilling thought.

Anything related to that soulless blackness is terrifying.

The mannequin still has one hand pinned on my shoulder, then he brings the other up and forms a fist.

Though he’s as fast as a bullet from a gun, I’m faster. My desperation sees me act before my mind figures out what I’m doing.

And my magic?

It surges out of me.

Out of the dagger. Like I said, I’ve practically become one with the tip of that dagger. And as a scream parts my lips – both in anger at what’s happening and in horror at what that shadow did to the mannequin – magic spills from the dagger.

I don’t just bring it up and slice it through the mannequin’s chest. No – the jagged dagger jerks itself up. And at the same time, a slice of water powers from the tip. It plunges through the back of the mannequin, slices out the side, and slams into the ceiling. It has enough force that it hollows out a hole and keeps on going.

Drops rain down like a torrential downpour has started inside.

And the mannequin?

Collapses.

All his joints and limbs lose whatever is holding them together, and they dash against me.

I freak out, screaming, both at what’s happening to the mannequin and what just happened to me.

Magic. Roar, pure, simple, fundamental. It blasted out of me. Came from somewhere within—

I remain there, screaming, freaking out, trying to understand what just happened to me. Then I hear footsteps. They’re outside the door. Then a hand’s on the door – the handle rattling.

“Lydia,” Richard screams at the top of his lungs, “release me. Open the cage. Do it now. You’re running out of time. Now!” he screams.

I pull myself up. Fear is pulsating through me – but I still do it. I lurch to my feet, throw myself forward, reach Richard’s cage, and slice the metal bars.

He ducks back to the opposite side of the cage just in time as my water dagger completely obliterates the metal.

The metal rungs fall around me.

And the door behind? It opens.

Stanley roars as he lurches into the room.

And just as he shifts toward me, Richard throws himself forward.

Before I know what he’s doing, Richard grabs me around the waist, hauls me to my feet, and wraps both his arms around me. He even nestles his head against my shoulder as if he’s claiming me like a Teddy bear.

Phillips lets out a scream.

Richard?

He does something.

A single word – muttered right next to my ear. Then I feel magic cascade over him – see his light.

It swamps over us, collecting around us like we’ve walked into the center of the sun.

And the next thing I know?

His magic consumes us completely.

Just before I can see Phillip’s hand reached toward me.

Just in time.

Epilogue

I’m sitting on the floor, dress torn and burnt, hair a mess, face awash with tears. I’m in precisely the position Richard dumped me after we transported.

Because that’s what that was. Richard just performed a transport spell.

I can tell it’s taken a great toll on his body. But unlike me, at least he’s on his feet.

Somehow, he managed to transport us out of Stanley’s tower and back to Richard’s penthouse.

We’re in Richard’s office.

Richard is standing several meters away, his hands clasped against the edge of his desk, his body practically bent double as he breathes and tries to catch his strength back.

Me?

I don’t even bother to move.

I just stare at the floor.

I dropped my water dagger when we transported, and it’s half a meter away, the blade turned toward me.

I stare at the tip, my eyes unblinking.

I hear Richard finally shift up. He takes a staggering step toward me. Then he realizes what I’m staring at. He takes a careful breath, turns, leans down to one creaking knee, and picks up the water dagger. He takes a step toward me.

Slowly I tip my head back, finally wrenching my gaze from the position where the water dagger fell.

I look at him.

Tears are streaming down my cheeks. “What… happened?”

“I underestimated Stanley. Underestimated how much he was willing to sacrifice to get what he wanted.”

“What… about those people? Those people in those pens? Did you manage to save them too?”

Slowly, Richard shakes his head. There’s such a somber quality to it, and I see a flash of tears in his eyes.

My stomach kicks. I feel like I’m going to throw up. But at the same time, I just don’t have the energy. It feels like somebody has raked the blood from my veins.

I look down at my hands.

And I remember.

I produced magic.

Maybe Richard sees something in my gaze, because his eyes widen. He also clears his throat. “You shouldn’t have done that,” he says, his voice quiet, timid almost.

“What?”

“Magic. You shouldn't have produced magic.”

“I didn’t mean to—”

“I know,” he says, voice getting lower by the second. He is weary – and from the look of him, he’s barely holding himself together.

He stands there for several more seconds, staring down at me. And as I look up at him, my chin tilts, revealing the long line of my neck, and I wait.

Richard takes a breath. Then he extends a hand toward me. “Get to your feet,” he says softly.

“I don’t think I can stand.”

“Then I’ll help you. Just try.”

There’s something in that comment. Something in the offer flickering through his eyes.

We were just routed. And there are so many reasons for me not to accept his hand.

Richard is clearly much weaker than I thought he was. He’s also clearly the kind of man who routinely underestimates his enemies. But that’s not the point.

The point is, I stare at the hand, and before I know what I’m doing, I reach out and accept it.

He pulls me to my feet. I stagger close, my arm brushing up against his.

I look into his eyes again.

I watch Richard breathe, his throat constricting, his eyes dilating.

It doesn’t last.

He shakes his head, brings his spare hand up, locks it on his chin, and lets his fingers trail down. “This isn’t over, Lydia,” he comments.

I look right at him, and I nod. “I know. Just the beginning, right?”

From somewhere, he finds the strength to smile.

And from somewhere, I find the strength to smile, too.

Because I’m right. This isn’t over – it’s just beginning.

The end of the Billionaire’s Witch Book One. The Billionaire’s Witch Book Two is currently available.