Granite Springs, Oregon
Thia dreamt of blood.
Oh, sure, there was more to the dream than that. Ancient, lichen-covered megaliths stretching up from a storm-ravaged plain to stab the night sky. The haze of smoke, the crackle of flame. Cries and shouts. Screams. Confusion and terror and loss and the feel of a man, comforting and achingly familiar, coupled with the sound of a raven’s wings.
But mostly she dreamt of blood, and every morning woke and tried to forget.
It had been almost eight weeks since the events at Brodgar. Thia no longer thought of them continuously in her waking life, yet she couldn’t shake the sense of them. Couldn’t shake the fear and guilt, either, no matter how much of the latter might be misplaced. She felt numbed by it all; hollowed out, and despite the supportive company of her friends, isolated. She was going through the motions of her old life while trying to understand her new. Caught between the two, she couldn’t connect with either.
“You are like a pupa, yes? A butterfly in its shell,” Madame Demetka had told her a few days ago at the store. Thia had waited for something like an explanation to follow, but the undeniably odd (and, undeniably, oddly psychic) woman had merely smiled and gone upstairs to prepare for the afternoon’s Tarot Readings.
Well, thought Thia now, if that were true then she wished she would hatch already.
She took a sip of much-needed coffee and, hip against the kitchen counter, continued to watch morning sunlight creep across the wintry garden which, once Lettie’s, was now hers.
Frost dusted what leaves remained and covered the small patch of grass. The ceramic birdbath had a thin layer of ice at the edges, but nothing insurmountable. Southern Oregon could be cold but not so severely that there wasn’t the chance of a feathered visitor. And there were always ravens. The ones here never left, unlike some—or rather, one in particular.
Along with a sudden bitterness, she swallowed the last of the coffee, rinsed the mug before setting it in the drainer.
Cormac was not truly a raven, although he had taken that form when she last saw him, thanks to his being half Sidhe, an Otherworldly being Thia had known little about at the time.
He had been his usual self (or what she assumed to be his usual self) when she’d embraced him for all she was worth, so glad that he was alive—that they had both survived. And then he had pulled away, transformed into a bird, and left her to stand alone on what only minutes before had been a battlefield, its dead and wounded scattered all around her.
For the millionth time, Thia pushed those memories aside. No good came from thinking of that night—or of him.
She bundled herself in coat and scarf, then pulled a quirky knit cap over her shoulder-length auburn hair. Her gloves and keys were on the table in the breakfast nook. The latter looked particularly cozy with the light streaming in through the mullioned windows. She used to enjoy sitting there with coffee and toast, with Lettie apt to join her before they headed out. Now it was simpler to eat at the counter if she bothered with breakfast at all.
At the back door she paused to look the garden over with a more security-conscious eye. Even if Cassie’s threats were not a constant in the back of her mind, her friends had advised her to be vigilant for additional reasons. The power she had gained would not go unnoticed, they had warned. She could expect to be visited by anyone from the mildly curious to the outright hostile. There were people, Otherworldly and otherwise, who would go to great lengths to take it or try to use it through her.
But not this morning. The small yard, so crowded with life in the spring and summer, was empty and still.
She took a slow breath and called on her newfound Sight—the strange and still-developing ability to see things outside of the usual scope. So far, she had only learned how to look for “wards,” as the protective energy fields were called. It was the most basic of skills, and she wasn’t that great at it; but it was something magical, at least, that she could do without risk.
At the property line and extending upward to form a dome, the wards shimmered, translucent and faintly colorful like a giant soap bubble. They showed no evidence of tampering, so she ought to be safe from house to garage, and from there in her car with its own protection wards, the few blocks to her parking spot behind Eclectica.
Putting away the Sight—it helped to think of it like a pair of glasses—she stepped onto the back porch. Her breath was a visible plume. Her muscles clenched with cold.
Not anxiety, she told herself before she took another quick scan of the garden and double-locked the door. Only then, feeling like an overcautious fool, did she make her way down the deck’s three slick wooden steps.
At the snap of a twig high in the neighbor’s cedar, she startled and nearly dropped the keys. Shadowed and obscured by the draping needles, something moved along a branch. She couldn’t make out its shape or even color. With a soft flapping of wings, it took off from the far side of the tree, out of sight. Raven? Gone, in any case.
She told herself not to dwell on it.
In her first weeks back, she had driven herself all the more crazy by seeking out Cormac at every turn. Every unfamiliar face and especially every large black bird had held a longed-for possibility. And then each time—each and every time—she’d had to acknowledge his continued absence. An absence that was most likely permanent.
It had become too painful, and so she had forced herself to stop.
Stop looking, stop hoping.
Yet that was hard, and sometimes she relapsed. Her hand went to her pendant, found it no warmer than it should have been for being against her skin. A representation of a gorgon cast in sterling silver, it was an odd-looking safeguard. And an imperfect one, as it turned out, though Thia still found it reassuring. It might not detect or ward off every danger, but it had done well against a certain individual. Also, it had been a gift from Lettie.
Thia hurried down the short path to the garage. Inside, she quickly shut the door, leaned against it a moment to recover. Her hands shook but she couldn’t blame the cold.
To think she used to walk to work at all times of the day or evening with hardly a concern. Now she scurried like a frightened mouse across a fenced-in yard in order to drive.
To think she used to believe that magic was nothing more than fantasy and wishful thinking.
Sure, when she had come to set up and run Eclectica’s online store, Lettie had explained certain practices: Don’t allow an opened Tarot deck to be sold; make sure that the wolfsbane remained in the locked case and never went to anyone not on the approved buyer’s list; and so on. Thia had thought that all part of her great-aunt’s whimsy. Feel-good but essentially needless precautions, like carrying around a four leaf clover for luck and not walking beneath a ladder.
How wrong she had been.
Space in the garage was tight. She brushed against crowded shelves as she skirted Lettie’s older-model Datsun to get to its driver’s side door. The hinges creaked. So did the springs when she settled into the worn bucket seat. Habit caused her to reach for the button on the remote clipped to the visor. She lowered her hand, took a deep breath.
Little things, they’d instructed. Start with little things.
She closed her eyes and then worked to gather what Abby called “the energy of intention” while envisioning the newly repaired main door. White with four horizontal segments and a row of small windows along the top. A system of tracks with a cable and pulley.
Thia waited until she could feel the substance, the reality of it all—along with the uncomfortable prickle as the Cailleach’s power moved from her bones to gather at her palms. Then, with a calm upward sweep of her hands, she pictured the door lifting.
The storage shelves along the walls began to rattle, but she couldn’t risk taking a look. The door, lifting. She needed to maintain the image, the feel of it. She needed to—
The loud pop of something hitting the ground was followed by sounds of breaking glass and scattering metal. Thia’s eyes flew open as, behind her, the garage door crashed down.
“No. Oh, please, not again.”
More and more things toppled from shelves that continued to tremble. Glass jars of nails and screws fell to shatter on the cement floor while a toolbox rattled toward the brink.
“Ah, shit”—She hadn’t called back the power. She’d lost her focus but was still sending. Forcing her eyes closed again, she struggled for calm as—by the great crashing sound of it—the toolbox dropped. Her hands made another gesture, an inward sweep this time with thumb and third finger touching, before she settled them in her lap in a meditative pose.
“To me,” she said, fear and frustration turning what should have been an order into a soft-voiced plea. “In me.”
Gradually the power reversed course, no longer flowing out to her hands but inward from them, back into her bones— where it could remain, as far as Thia was concerned, for the rest of her days, never to be called upon again.
As the undirected power dissipated, the shelving settled.
Unfortunately, she couldn’t ignore the power, much as she wanted to. Couldn’t hope to let it lie dormant forever. In the last couple of weeks she had become better at controlling it so that it no longer shot out at unexpected (and invariably destructive) times. But that wasn’t enough. She needed to be able to wield it or she would remain a danger to everyone.
She pressed the button on the remote, stepped out of the car as the garage door rattled upward along the tracks. That was something, anyway. Last week she’d warped it so badly it had stuck halfway. She sighed and then, with cold air rushing in, crunched over nails and glass shards to where Lettie kept the broom.
The last thing the morning needed was a punctured tire. Or four.
Blooms Alley, Granite Springs
He had come early, cloaked in the mist of wintry dawn, as he had every morning since magic’s insistent fingers had begun to prod the blanket of his solitude.
At the time, he had been gathering supplies, stocking up for the cold months ahead. That idea (what he could recall of it) had been based upon the now-failed hope of staying on the mountain until Gwanwyn. Spring. He did not like town.
Fear had demanded he investigate. Self-preservation, too. Never again would he allow himself to be taken unawares.
Never again to be taken.
He shuddered, drew his scarf higher about his face, and then returned his hands to his pockets. Several fingers of his gloves lacked tips. Sunlight’s faint warmth could not penetrate the shadows between brick and metal where he had constructed a shelter of cardboard pulled from the same rubbish bin he sat behind. It and the low-level warming charm he had spell-crafted kept away the worst of the cold, but—by design—not all. Comfort lulled.
He tensed at the sound of a car.
Unmistakably hers, with its 1972 motor in need of a tune-up. It parked in its designated spot. Six meters from the back entrance to the store; three from his cobbled together blind. With the opening of its door came the awareness at the base of his skull, akin to the sensation of hairs standing on end—although, with his hat pulled low and his scarf wrapped high and tight, that was hardly possible.
The sensation was false, but the warning was not.
Power. In great concentration and carrying the too-familiar resonance of the Cailleach.
He listened to the thump of the door’s closing followed by the light tread of her steps on the asphalt as she approached. The sounds of opportunity. In the span from car to the building’s walled terrace, she was vulnerable.
The building’s rear door opened with the click of a latch and a cheery squeak of hinges. But the woman had not yet crossed the halfway point.
His senses, already straining against the leash, surged. His hold began to slip.
“Good morning.” Her voice.
And then the one with the power. “Zoe, here, let me get that for you.”
Both neared, the one coming from the car; the other, from the building.
He held himself rigid, hardly dared breathe while the bin’s lid lifted. Something landed inside. Cardboard, added to the collection.
After the lid was lowered and sounds assured him they were headed for the building, he risked a look. He had the merest glimpse—of the woman with the power and her—but it was enough to stagger. It was as if she were lit from within. If he had but one of her smiles, the ones he had seen her give so freely to others, he would not need a spell-crafted charm to keep warm.
Less than a minute after the building’s door had closed, it opened again. He knew what was coming. Braced for it. Her steps were quiet. Tentative, despite this not being the first time nor even the fifth. She had been doing this for the past week.
Paper rustled and she set something on the ground by the bin’s front bottom corner. He would not risk breaking cover to look. Not at it, not at her. Bad enough that he continued to come here day after day.
Irrationally, he had decided that her knowing that he spent time in this place was not a risk because she did not know why he did so. Nor did she know his identity. She thought he was a transient, someone in need.
She kept leaving him food.
The door closed. She had gone back inside, into the store’s café, and if her routine held, she would not come out again until late afternoon. There would be more recycling to bin. More food. A sandwich and piece of fruit, typically, although yesterday there had been a takeaway container of soup.
After ten minutes, when he was sure no one watched, he pulled in the paper sack she had left.
An onion bagel, lightly toasted. The foil covering had failed to keep it hot, but he could fix that. Two packets, a butter and a cream cheese, along with a plastic knife. Two lidded paper cups. One held the usual coffee. Its aroma cut through even the thickest of the area’s smells. The other cup was heavier, warmer. He sniffed at the lid’s vent, although he figured if she intended to do him harm, she would have done so before this.
No. She didn’t have it in her. She was good. Innocent.
Oatmeal. He pried off the lid, tugged down his scarf. He had not had oatmeal in…He could not remember how long. And he would not try. That would mean thinking though the lost time.
There was a plastic spoon in the bag. He used it to scoop up a mouthful of steaming, cinnamon-spiced wonder. His eyes closed on a sigh.
A woman’s low, seductive voice intruded. “I believe we have something in common. Someone, rather.”
Power, angry and dark. His mind spun, caught entirely off guard as malevolence began worming its way through defenses he had worked long and hard to erect since his release from caethiwed.
His powers were not what they had once been, what they needed to be. This was an uphill battle and he had not the strength for a climb. He did try. Would continue to try until he had nothing left. He shook as the ripples of a compulsion spell licked like the tongue of a slavering beast.
Its fangs would not be far behind.
“What is it you seek?” he managed, his seldom-used voice strange to his own ears. The cup had dropped from his hands. He would not have noticed but for the spilled oatmeal’s wet heat soaking through his clothing. Steam rose like thin, sheer snakes. He looked at them instead of the woman.
He had not heard her approach. Had not felt so much as a glimmer. One moment he had been alone; the next…not.
Power in combination with skill.
He closed his eyes as the tremors increased. His breathing had become choppy, his panic like a living thing. And as his control slipped, so did his footing in the silent, doomed fight against her will.
“Walk with me,” she said, her sickly sweet voice closer than before. She had slipped into the space between the bins. She bent down, level with the entrance to his shelter and looked straight at him. He felt the nip of the beast’s fangs then, the compulsion spell taking hold.
“Follow.” She straightened, gone the way she had come. He heard her walking away.
He stood, abandoning his refuge and the cherished gift of food.
She was halfway down the alley. A tall woman with hair in a long, sinuous cascade down her back. Swaying hypnotically, it beckoned.
Eclectica, Granite Springs
Thia felt a twinge of guilt when she hurried through the café to Eclectica. The decorative interior gate that separated the two spaces was already propped open. The mess in the garage had set her back almost a half hour. The store had already opened for the day.
The café, accessed through the rear door, kept early hours (as coffee shops did). The store’s morning started later, hence the gate—the unlocking of which (along with its door downstairs on Main Street) was something Thia had recently taken upon herself. It helped her to understand that she did, in fact, own what she feared would always feel like Lettie’s pride and joy.
Hugging the stair rail to make way for the people beelining up to the café, she reconsidered her word choice. Fear wasn’t right, since the alternative would be to lose even more of her great-aunt than she already had. She didn’t want that, yet she could not feel like a stand-in forever, either.
Along with this building and the house, she had inherited most of Lettie’s investments and possessions. That included a London townhouse that she had no idea what to do with. Her memories of it, and of the city in general, were not what she had hoped they’d be when she’d set out.
Thia knew what she wanted to do with Eclectica, at least: She wanted to make it a continued success. In theory, that would continue with or without her. Much of it, thanks to its manager, ran like clockwork, and it was already highly popular with locals and tourists alike. Thia’s efforts with online sales had simply built on that.
But it was also, in many ways, like a living thing and therefore not meant to remain unchanged. It could not be kept as a shrine to Lettie, with Lettie’s original decisions cast in stone. If it did, Thia felt, then that stone would become the store’s grave marker. Eclectica needed to stay vibrant, to shift with the combined will of its customers and owner both or it would atrophy and eventually die.
That was where the fear came in. Or, given everything else Thia had to deal with, maybe “moderate apprehension” was more to scale. Dealing with the power she carried, knowing it was only a matter of time before Cassie sought revenge for the deaths of her twin brother and sorcerer-father were far scarier prospects than decisions such as which wholesaler to use for Tara Water or whether to stop stocking crystal orbs now that she knew what they could be used for.
“Good morning, Lynette,” she said in passing at the bottom of the stairs and then waved at the customers the clerk was on her way to assist. The Winslows. Mother and daughter, they co-owned the Victorian inn across the alley. Both smiled, waved back.
“More ornaments?” Thia was surprised—but pleasantly so. The week before, they had bought the entire stock of glass pickles.
“We like to put one in each room for guests to take home with them,” said Jeanine, the daughter. “Thanks for getting more in so quickly.”
Thia felt another twinge of guilt. She’d had nothing to do with the quick reorder. “I’ll let Abby know.”
Newly promoted to manager and already used to handling such things for the frequently absent Lettie, Abby had been well within her job expectations. Should Thia have known, at least, that a new order was being made? Or maybe that would be micromanaging.
Dammit, enough. Was she going to second-guess everything now? She pulled off her scarf, removed her coat on the way to Lettie’s—to her office—and nearly knocked over a menorah from the special Hanukkah display. For as much retail space as the building allowed, winter holidays took up a great deal more than usual. Beautiful, though, in all its chaotic, multicultural glory. And the wonderful scents. Thia inhaled deeply. Usually, Eclectica held the aromas of fresh-ground coffee and scones from the café along with those of the bolder-scented of the herbs sold on the main floor. Winter had added pine boughs and pomanders of oranges and cloves.
After the office, Thia went to the counter—or, to be precise, counters. Six of them, arranged hexagonally at the center of the store. After too many close calls with last-minute groups who needed to get to their plays at the Shakespeare Festival, this was one of the changes Thia had instigated.
She found Abby there, preparing to use a bare branch in a sand-filled vase to display a new shipment of fairy figurines. Made of porcelain and silk, they were colorful and whimsical and sweet—and looked entirely harmless, which Thia now knew had little to do with reality. Most fairies (aka Sidhe) were the stuff of nightmares.
On second thought, should these likenesses prove accurate, their subjects would likely turn out to not be just as violent and frightening as the rest. Appearances, she had learned all too well, were deceiving.
She handed Abby a fairy from the array on the counter. “I’m sorry you had to open without me.”
“Everything all right?”
Thia was spared a concerned glance before Abby looped the fairy’s ribbon over a twig. The winged figure swayed, its silk flower-petal costume fluttering gently.
“I made a mess of the garage again,” Thia admitted.
“The door?” Abby climbed the two-step ladder, held out her hand for another fairy.
Thia chose a brunette with lavender wings and tiny wire-frame eyeglasses. “Survived.” She steadied the branch’s base while Abby worked. “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, I really don’t. I’m never going to get this.”
Abby stepped down, collapsed the ladder. Her unruly hair had slipped mostly free of its clip. With one hand, she swept the dark curls out of her face. “Nonsense. These things take time. And you’ve been given a shitload of power to deal with. You can’t just expect to be thrown in the deep end of the pool one morning and swim laps by the end of the day.”
“It’s been weeks. Six weeks, to be exact, and I can’t even lift a stupid door.”
“But you haven’t made anything fly off Eclectica’s shelves in over a week.” Abby’s small smile held something Thia hoped was not pity.
“Not here, no.”
“Where?” Whatever Abby’s expression had held, it switched to alarm.
“The garage. This morning, with the door.” Thia shrugged, then admitted the rest. “Last night it was the kitchen. I’m not trying stuff at home anymore.” She wadded up the tissue that the fairies had been wrapped in and chucked it into the wastebasket under the counter. “Not by myself, anyway.”
“I’ve got time after work tonight. How about we go out to dinner, do some exercises after?”
It was an offer Thia knew she should take. But knowing and wanting were two different things. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
“If you’re worried about damage, we could do it at my place. There’s not much to break in the drying shed.”
Not much property, maybe, but what about them? People could be broken just as easily. Sweat dampened her palms. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Come on, it’ll be fun.” Carrying the stepladder with both hands, Abby playfully jostled her elbow into Thia on the way past. “I’ll see if Kendra can come, make it a night out. There’s no way anything can go wrong with both of us there with you. Come on,” she repeated, but without humor. “You need to do this. It won’t be safe for you until you can—”
“—control the power, I know. Believe me, I know. It won’t be safe for any of us.” Because a powerful, vindictive woman wouldn’t hesitate to weaponize Thia’s love for her friends.
That night in the Ring, Thia had killed Cassie’s brother and contributed to the death of Cassie’s father. It didn’t matter that the former had been unintentional or that neither would have happened if they themselves had not set the entire chain of events in motion. Cassie’s final words to Thia had been of revenge, and the inevitability of that threat had hung over her head ever since. Over all their heads, really.
“It’ll be okay,” Abby said quietly and then went to put the ladder away.
At the jingle of the sleigh bells hung on the door, Thia put on a practiced smile. Not too exuberant orthe prospective customer could be put on edge. No one wanted a pushy salesperson, and certainly not before ten in the morning.
A vaguely familiar woman smiled in return and went to the table of boxed holiday cards. With only three days left before Solstice, and Christmas only a few days after that, she was cutting things close.
A quick survey showed plenty of available clerks should the handful of browsers need help, so Thia dropped out of sight behind the counter to organize the jumble of gift boxes and wrapping supplies. Nearly everyone wanted things wrapped lately. And why not? The season was stressful enough without the added pressure of trying to tie a perfect bow.
They were almost out of small handle-bags. She would need to get on that before the lunchtime rush. A stack of folding boxes insisted on sliding every which way, and she searched in vain for something to serve as a prop. The back of her neck tingled.
A throat cleared. Masculine and tentative rather than impatient, the sound originated above Thia from the other side of the counter. She arranged another smile and stood.
She had misjudged the man’s height; her gaze was level with his neck at the collar of his beige and blue checkered shirt. She had anticipated someone a bit shorter, although why she had formed any expectations at all, she couldn’t say.
On the tall side of average and middle-aged, he had clean-shaven, pleasant features. Their current expression was one of tense reserve. His blond hair was neatly trimmed.
Everything about him was neat, Thia realized, from the line of his brown corduroy jacket to the drape of his wool scarf. The tortoise-shell frames of his glasses completed the image and brought academia to mind. The slight tint of the lenses obscured his eyes some, but their irises were most definitely brown.
Thia felt flushed. Nervous. Oh, dear. At thirty-two she knew all too well the symptoms of acute attraction. She also knew how rare such a thing was for her. Flustered, she tried to hide it by turning up the brightness of her smile. Mistake! It felt forced. Overdone, but it was too late to dial it back now.
“How may I help you?” she asked through what might have resembled a rictus grin.
“Hello,” he said. And then made a visible effort to relax. His smile was charmingly shy. “Hi.”
She felt a surge of delight that was completely out of scale for the situation. And to think she’d worried that she would have a hard time getting over Cormac. “Hi,” she said back.
And they proceeded to stare at one another like fools.
He must have realized it was his turn. “I was hoping you—that is, wondering if you could help me.”
“Yes,” Thia said, amused. “Of course.”
He cringed. “Right. You already asked me that.”
His rueful laugh—a nearly soundless huff of breath—caught Thia unprepared. So astonishingly familiar, that laugh.
But this man’s eyes were brown, not blue. Cormac might be able to use magic to make himself look like anyone else in the world, but due to a particular quirk, he could not change his eyes. Thia would know them anywhere.
“I need a gift for…a friend,” the man who was not Cormac said. “A Christmas gift. I’m new in town, and this shop was recommended.”
“Welcome to Granite Springs.”
“What sort of things does your friend like?”
His expression blanked. “I don’t kn—that is, I don’t really know her well. It’s…complicated, I suppose you could say.”
Thia tried to set him more at ease. “But you want to get her something. That’s very thoughtful. We’ve got a nice selection of jewelry—I don’t think there’s a woman alive who doesn’t like jewelry.” She tapped the counter glass. Below were several velvet-covered boards of necklaces and pins.
He leaned away in subtle but definite rejection. “That feels rather….”
“Personal? Good point. What about something decorative for the home? We have—”
“I might’ve seen some things over there which looked, uh, pretty.” He pointed to the Glass Tower—a rectangular case near the foot of the stairs. “Could you show them to me?”
“Of course.” Feeling a blush flame her cheeks, she bent to grab the keys from beneath the counter. When she straightened, she found him waiting at the narrow pass-through.
“It’s just over there,” she said. Good grief, as if he didn’t know that.
Instead of preceding her, he gestured for her to lead.
She did, but he stayed close, catching up to walk beside her despite the unusually rapid pace set by her nerves. She felt profoundly self-conscious.
“Have you lived in town long?” he asked.
“Almost a year.”
“And you’re well?” He made a small cough. “Doing well? It certainly looks as if you are.”
Arriving at the Tower, Thia went around to the back. “The store, you mean?”
She looked at him through the cabinet glass. He appeared sheepish again, his gaze darting away and back. Maybe he did know what the expression did for him. It made him seem…endearing. She turned the key, pulled open the door.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m not used to small talk. I meant—well. I meant that you seem…happy. Are you?” He let out a tense breath. “Happy?”
Oh. Thia’s mind flashed to her morning disaster, and she felt her carefully crafted mask of retail salesmanship slip.
The man put his hands in his pockets. “I’m sorry—again. I’m making a mess of this. Forget I said anything, would you? That’s a nice piece.” One hand immediately left his pocket to point.
“The butterfly?” Thia reached for the delicate figure made of silver and glass. One of her favorites.
“A friend of mine—a sort of friend—mentioned butterflies to me just the other day,” she said, removing it. “This one is beautiful, isn’t it?” She held it out.
In taking it, the man’s fingers skimmed the backs of Thia’s hands; the light touch was like an electric shock. Her heart leapt, a clumsy start to the race that followed. Her gaze automatically sought his, but he was intent on the butterfly.
His expression grave, he lifted it. The wings caught the light and took it from beautiful to exquisite. Blue became vibrant cobalt while the faceted, clear segments glinted and played with reflection, giving the impression of life caught and held within.
“Thank you,” he said. “This is the one.” Lowering it, he met her gaze. Brown eyes, she reminded herself. Not blue.
“Great!” Too exuberant. Awkward. She was such a fool.
He could have started walking to the counter to make the purchase, but as before, he waited.
“Was there something else?” She turned the key with a hand that only shook a little.
“No. No, this should do it.” He seemed almost sad.
The impulse to offer comfort was overwhelming, and totally out of place. She walked past him. “Let’s go ring it up, then.”
On the way, she caught the clerk Lynette’s attention, asked her to fetch the butterfly’s box from the storeroom.
“It’s a limited edition,” Thia told the man as she stepped behind the counter. “The number is on the base—as is the artist’s signature. Bella Smythe. She’s local. The box is made specially to fit, so you’ll want to hang onto it.”
She opened a new sale on the register. “Would you like me to gift wrap it for you? We have some standard papers, or you can choose from our selection for purchase over there”—she gestured—“if you’d prefer a more elaborate design.”
“No, thank you.”
She was nattering on about gift boxes and paper and it was all Cormac could do not to lunge over the counter. She was right there, so close he could grab her and hold on tight and maybe never let go. He had missed her.
He was surprised—and embarrassed—by how much.
Had she always been so lovely? Cormac had first seen her in a photograph at Leticia’s London townhome (while he had been breaking-and-entering). He had noted her auburn hair, her oval face with, granted, its brilliant smile and intelligent gaze and he had judged her of having little more than average looks. It was perhaps a matter of the difference between a still image and the animated, real thing. She was much more than the sum of her parts, and at this moment, in motion and in person, every one of those parts was stunning.
He was making a hash of the conversation, he knew, but it was a miracle he could formulate words at all, let alone whole sentences. She probably thought him shy.
She would be right.
Are you happy? He couldn’t believe he had blurted it out like that. Morrigan’s cloak in a twist, this was not going well.
And it was taking too long. He eyed the tall, dark-haired woman who had gone into the front window display to fetch a stuffed bear for a waiting customer; Abigail Collins, he had learned since Orkney. She had fought alongside the Murphy’s people and the Brigantium. Had probably helped Cormac kill his father.
Unwanted emotion crested. He let it break, crashing down like an icy wave, and allowed himself to feel nothing. What he did not acknowledge could not hurt.
Abigail, or Abby as she was known, kept looking over at him with distrust. He suspected she had a talent for empathy, and an unusually (and, to his purposes, inconveniently) large one at that.
“Actually,” Cormac said, returning his attention to Thia as she rang up his damnably expensive purchase. “I’m in a bit of a hurry. Does it really need the box?”
She looked at him as if he were a simpleton. Spoke as if he were one, too, although kindly. “It’s rather fragile, so it would need some sort of box, yes.” She kept her hand near it on the counter as if she feared he would snatch it up and cram it into a pocket. “Will you be in the area later? I could pack it up, even gift-wrap it if you’d like, and have it here for you.”
Cormac took out his billfold. Her eyes widened with something like surprise as he laid several large bills on the counter. It was a lot of cash to be carrying, true enough, but credit cards could be trouble. None of the ones he’d brought were in his name, but that didn’t mean that someone with the right skills—and aided by the right organization—could not trace them to him eventually. He couldn’t risk it.
He cleared his throat, surreptitiously wiped a damp palm on his coat. “That would be perfect. Thank you.”
“No problem.” Thia counted out his change. “What name can I put on the gift? In case I’m not here.”
Was that a hint of suspicion he detected? He pocketed the items, decided he was being paranoid.
“Connor Michaels.” If he felt uncomfortable about the lie, he ignored it. “Thanks, again, for your help. I’ll—well. I’ll see you later, won’t I?”
“Yes. See you later.” She smiled, drawing his attention to her lips. He those lips intimately. Her, he hardly knew at all.
He couldn’t tell if she was being polite or if she really was looking forward to their next encounter. He couldn’t tell if he had made any impact (other than financial) on her at all.
She used to be easier to read.
Or was he letting his concerns, his feelings cloud his view? Aware that he lingered overlong, he forced a smile and made his way to the door.
It took him past Abby, in discussion with the customer by a table-top display of holiday items. Snow globes, stockings large enough for a full-grown ogre, ornate peppermint striped candles, and the like. She studied him far too intently, and he made a small nod in passing—his best attempt at appearing unexceptionable.
His foolishness with the butterfly had likely rendered that impossible. At the very least, he had marked himself as a “Big Spender.”
And he would have to return. It was both a problem and an opportunity: Another chance to interact with Thia; another chance to be recognized despite his disguise. He stepped out of the store and onto the main, retail-centric street.
What to do next?
Given its reported population, Granite Springs boasted an astonishing number of coffee shops, including the one inside Eclectica. But he was so keyed up already, caffeine would be a mistake. After so many weeks, to have spoken with her, to have stood so close—and then that one, jolting contact. She had looked at him directly, and he, her.
She hadn’t appeared to suspect that, behind the lenses of his glasses, he wore colored contacts.
Something pinged on the edges of his awareness. Something decidedly unfriendly.
He scanned the area, saw nothing to account for it other than Thia and her empathic friend watching him through the front window.
Minor and transient.
He shrugged it off and began his walk to the hotel. Might as well take care of another bit of business sooner rather than later.
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