The Darkest Midnight: Chapter One

Granite Springs, Oregon
18 December

Thia dreamt of blood. Oh, there were other things. Ancient, lichen-covered megaliths that thrust from a storm-ravaged plain to stab the night sky. The haze of smoke, the crackle of flame. Cries and shouts and 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 the Ring of Brodgar. She didn’t think about them all the time; mainly in her sleep, it seemed. But she couldn’t shake the sense of them. The fear and the guilt, no matter how much might be misplaced. She felt numbed by it, 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 the new. Caught in the middle, she couldn’t connect with either.

“You are like a pupa, yes? The butterfly in its shell,” Madame Demetka had told her a few days ago at the store. Thia had waited expectantly—almost hopefully, really—for something like an explanation to follow, but the undeniably odd (and undeniably, oddly psychic) woman had merely smiled and gone upstairs to set up for the afternoon’s Tarot Readings.

Well, Thia thought now, if that were true she wished she’d hatch already.

She took a sip of much-needed coffee and, hip against the kitchen counter, continued to watch morning creep across the wintry garden that, once Lettie’s, was now hers.

Frost dusted what leaves remained and covered the small patch of grass. The 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 wasn’t truly a raven, although he had taken that form when she’d seen him last, thanks to his being half Sidhe, an Otherworldly being she’d known little about at the time.

He’d been his usual self (or what she assumed was his usual self) when she’d gone running to him and embraced him for all she was worth, so glad that he was alive—that they had both survived. And then he’d pulled away, transformed into a bird, and left her to stand alone on what only minutes before had been a battlefield with its dead and wounded scattered all around her.

As always, she pushed those thoughts, those memories aside. No good came from thinking of that night—or of him. No purpose served.

She bundled herself in coat and scarf, then pulled a quirky knit cap over her shoulder-length auburn hair on her way to the back door. Her gloves and keys were on the table in the breakfast nook. The latter looked particularly cozy with the sunlight 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 kitchen counter if she bothered with breakfast at all.

At the door, she paused to look around the garden with a more security-conscious eye. Even if Cassie’s threats were not a constant in the back of her mind, her friends had warned her to be vigilant for additional reasons. The power she had gained would not go unnoticed, they’d said. She should expect to be visited by anyone from the mildly curious to the outright hostile. But not this morning. The small yard, so crowded with life in the spring and summer, was empty and still.

Bracing herself, she called on her newfound Sight—the strange and still-developing ability to see things beyond the usual scope. So far, she had only learned how to look for magic use: When there might be energy fields, she supposed they were (she didn’t understand it all very well…yet). But it  was something magical, at least, that she could do without risk.

Across the yard and extending up like a magical dome, the protection wards shimmered, translucent and faintly colorful like a giant soap bubble. 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 area and double-locked the door. And then, feeling like an overcautious fool, she made her way down the three slick wooden steps to the yard.

At the crack of a twig high in the neighbor’s cedar, she startled and nearly dropped the keys. She looked up in time to see something move along a branch. Shadowed and obscured as it was by the draping needles, she couldn’t make out its shape or even color. And then, 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’d driven herself all the more crazy by seeking out Cormac at every turn. Every unfamiliar face and especially every raven had held a possibility she had longed for. And 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 it was hard, and sometimes she relapsed.

Her hand went to her pendant, found it no warmer than it should have been from laying against her skin. It was an odd looking thing, the representation of a gorgon; and it was an imperfect safeguard, too, as had been recently revealed. But Thia still took comfort from it. It might not detect or ward off every danger, but it had done well enough against a certain individual. And it had been a gift from Lettie.

Chilled, she hurried down the short path to the garage, quickly shut the door behind her to lean against it while her heart pounded.

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 Thia 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. But Thia had thought it part of her great-aunt’s whimsical hobby. Perfectly harmless, like carrying around a rabbit’s foot for luck and not walking beneath a ladder.

How wrong she had been.

Pushing off the door, she walked around Lettie’s older-model Datsun to the driver’s side. The hinges creaked, as did the springs when she settled into the worn bucket seat. Habit had her 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, gathered what Abby called “the energy of intention,” while envisioning the newly repaired garage door.

White with three horizontal segments and a row of tiny windows along the top. A system of tracks with a cable and pulley. She 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 slight upward sweep of her hands, she pictured the door lifting.

Slowly.

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—

Something hit the ground with a loud pop of glass and scattering metal. Thia’s eyes flew open as, behind her, the garage door crashed down.

Terrified, she watched more and more things topple from shelves that continued to tremble. Glass jars of nails and screws fell to shatter on the cement floor while a tool chest rattled toward the brink.

She hadn’t called back the power.

She’d lost her focus, but was still sending. Oh, God. Forcing her eyes closed again, she struggled for calm as—by the great crashing sound of it—the chest dropped. Her hands made another gesture, this time an inward sweep with thumbs and third fingers 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 she felt the power reverse course, no longer flowing to her hands but from them, back into her bones— where it could remain, as far as she was concerned, for the rest of her days, never to be called upon again.

As the undirected power dissipated, the shelving settled and she let out a relieved breath.

She couldn’t ignore the power, she knew, much as she wanted to. Couldn’t hope to let it lie dormant forever. There were people, Otherworldly and otherwise, who would go to great lengths to take it or try to use it through her.

In the last couple of weeks she had become better at controlling it, so 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’d 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. Yesterday she’d warped it so badly it had stuck halfway. Still, it was hard to take comfort.

With cold air rushing in, she crunched over nails and glass shards to where she 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 the prod of magic’s insistent fingers beneath the blanket of his solitude.

At the time, he had been gathering supplies, stocking up for the cold months ahead. The 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.

But come into it he had, every day since that unexpected prod of the Cailleach’s power.

Fear had caused him to 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 quickly returned his hands to his pockets. Several fingers of his gloves lacked tips. Sunlight’s faint warmth did not penetrate the shadows between brick and metal where he had created a rough 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 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, much like 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 all-too-familiar resonance of the Cailleach.

He listened to the heavy thunk of the door’s closing, the light tread of her steps on the asphalt as she approached the store. The sounds of opportunity. In the distance from her car to the store, she was vulnerable.

The store’s back 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.

He held himself rigid, hardly dared to breathe while the bin’s lid lifted. Something landed inside. Cardboard, added to the collection.

“Thanks, Thia.”

After the lid was lowered and the sound of their conversation assured him they were headed into the store, he risked a look. He had the merest glimpse before they stepped inside—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’d seen her give so freely to others, he would not need a spell-crafted charm to keep warm.

Less than a minute after the 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 fourth. She had been doing this for the past week.

Paper rustled and she set something down at 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.

Somehow he had decided that her knowing that he spent time in this place was not the same as knowing why. Besides, she didn’t know who—what—he was. She thought he was a transient, someone in need.

Because she kept leaving him food.

The door closed. She had gone back inside, and if her routine held, would not come out again until late afternoon. There would be more recycling to drop off. 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 tinfoil 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 opening, although he figured if she intended to do him harm, she would have done it before this.

Probably.

No. She didn’t have it in her. She was good. Innocent.

Oatmeal. Surprised, 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 at the bottom of the bag. He pulled it out, scooped 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. Malevolence wormed its way through defenses that he had worked long and hard to erect since his release from caethiwed. But his own powers were not what they were. He was fighting an uphill battle and he knew he hadn’t the strength for much of a climb.

He tried. 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 do you want?” he managed, his seldom-used voice strange to his own ears. The cup of oatmeal had dropped from his hands. He would not have noticed but for the wet heat soaking through the leg of his pants where it had spilled. 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 and skill.

He closed his eyes as the tremors increased. His breathing had become choppy, his panic like a living thing. Control slipped, as did his footing in his silent, impossible 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, left the cherished gift of food smeared and scattered about. She was halfway down the alley. A tall woman with hair in a long, sinuous cascade down her back. Swaying hypnotically, it beckoned.

He followed.

●○●

Eclectica, Granite Springs

Thia felt a twinge of guilt when she hurried through the café to Eclectica’s upper sales floor, its decorative interior gate already propped open. The mess in the garage had set her back almost a half hour.

The café, accessed through the garden and rear door, opened early (as coffee shops did). The store would open later, hence the gate—the unlocking of which (along with the main door downstairs) 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 rail to make way for the people beelining up the stairs 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 couldn’t feel like a stand-in forever, either. She’d inherited Eclectica along with most of Lettie’s investments and possessions, which included the Granite Springs house and one in London 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.

She knew what she wanted to do with Eclectica, at least. She wanted to make it a continued success. It was already popular both in Granite Springs and, increasingly, online. But it was also, in many ways, like a living thing and therefore not meant to remain unchanged. It couldn’t be a shrine to Lettie, with Lettie’s original decisions cast in stone. If it did, Thia had come to realize, then that stone would become Eclectica’s grave marker. The store 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, considering the rest of what Thia had to deal with, maybe it only ranked as “relatively moderate apprehension.” 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 help. The Winslows. Mother and daughter, they co-owned the Bed and Breakfast 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 with them,” said Jeanine, the daughter. “Thanks for getting more in so quickly. We really appreciate it.”

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 (by none other than Thia) and already used to handling such things for the frequently absent Lettie, Abby had been well within her job expectations. But shouldn’t Thia have had some part in it? Or would that be micromanaging?

Dammit. Was she going to second-guess herself with everything? She pulled off her scarf, removed her coat on the way to Lettie’s—toher office, and nearly knocked a menorah from the special Hanukkah display. For as much floor space as the building allowed, the winter holidays took up a great deal more than usual. It was beautiful though, in all its cross-cultural, chaotic glory. Heavily decorated trees (artificial, but who could tell under it all), lights wrapped around or draped over every cabinet and shelf, colorful items that ranged from nutcrackers to wreaths to chocolate-filled advent calendars crowded every surface. And the scents. Thia inhaled deeply.

Previously, the store had held a pleasant aroma of fresh-ground coffee from upstairs and herbs from the well-stocked shelves along the back wall. But winter had brought the wonderful, overriding scents of pine boughs, and pomanders of oranges and cloves.

After setting her things in the office, she went to the counter—or more accurately, counters. Six of them, arranged to form a hexagon in the approximate center of the main floor. After a few close calls with last-minute rushes of customers who needed to get to their afternoon plays at the Shakespeare Festival, it was one of the changes Thia had felt necessary, and a logical expansion of the existing set-up— something Lettie would have undoubtedly approved of had she been able. Along with the increased efficiency brought by multiple cash registers, the glass fronts and interior shelves allowed for more easily-accessed yet easily-secured display space.

Within the configuration, Abby was restocking an arrangement of delicately crafted fairies: Colorful, whimsical creations that Thia had come to understand had little-to-nothing to do with the reality they supposedly represented. Most fairies were not fragile, harmless-looking things. Quite the contrary. Most fairies—or rather, Sidhe—were the stuff of nightmares.

In fact, Thia wasn’t sure that even these (should these porcelain and silk versions prove true to life) would turn out to be as harmless as they appeared.

Appearances, she’d learned all too well, were deceiving.

Thia handed Abby a fairy from the array. “I’m sorry you had to open without me.”

Her friend shot her a concerned look before she looped the fairy’s ribbon over a waiting twig on the display—a large branch stripped of its leaves and set in a sand-filled vase. The fragile creature swayed, the gauzy strips of its costume fluttering gently. “Everything all right?”

“I made a mess of the garage again.”

“The door?” Abby got onto the step ladder, held out her hand for another fairy. Thia chose a brunette with lavender wings and tiny wire-frame glasses.

“Survived.” She steadied the branch while Abby worked with the uppermost twigs. “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 all at once. 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 garage door.”

“But you aren’t making stuff fly off the shelves here anymore.” Abby’s small smile held something Thia hoped wasn’t pity. It probably would be after her next words.

“Not here, no.”

Thia had been wrong. Alarm, not pity, dominated Abby’s expression. “Where?”

“This morning. The garage.” Thia performed her best “no big deal” shrug. “That’s when I lost control of the door. 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 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.”

Maybe not much property, but what about people? They could be broken just as easily. Sweat dampened her palms. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Come on, it’ll be fun.” Abby took up the stepladder in both hands and, on her way by, playfully jostled her elbow into Thia. “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.” Her face lost its smile. “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 use Thia’s love for her friends against her.

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 the man hadn’t 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 carried the ladder away.

At the jingle of the sleigh bells hung on the main door, Thia turned with a practiced smile. Not too exuberant, or the 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 drifted to the right of the door, toward 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 rather close.

Thia’s quick survey of the sales floor showed plenty of available clerks should the handful of browsers need help. She knelt down, disappearing from view, to straighten out the jumble of gift boxes and wrapping supplies. Nearly everyone wanted things gift-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’d 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, the sound masculine and originating above her on the other side of the counter. More tentative than impatient. She arranged another smile and stood.

She found herself looking at the base of a man’s neck where it rose from the collar of a beige and blue checkered shirt. She adjusted her gaze upward to his face. He was taller than expected somehow. Different in other ways, too, although why she’d formed any expectations at all in those few seconds, she couldn’t say.

He was of middle age and on the tall side of average (as she’d already noted) with clean-shaven, pleasant features and a reserved, almost tense expression. His blond hair was neatly trimmed. Everything about him was neat, she 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 made her think of academia. The slight tint of the lenses obscured his eyes a bit, but his irises were most definitely brown.

Her stomach jittered and she felt flushed.

Oh, goodness. At thirty-two she knew all too well the symptoms of acute attraction. She also knew how rare such a thing was for her. Nerves and confusions had her turning up the brightness of her smile. It felt forced. Overdone, but it was too late to dial it back now. “May I help you?

“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 took it as a positive sign. Maybe getting over Cormac wouldn’t be as hard as she’d feared.

“Hi,” she said.

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.”

“You already asked me that.” Sheepish looked adorable on him.

“I did.”

His laugh—a nearly soundless huff of breath—caught her unprepared. So astonishingly familiar.

But his eyes were brown, not blue. Cormac might be able to make himself into anyone in the world thanks to spells called glamours, but he couldn’t change the color of his eyes. She would know them anywhere. Wouldn’t she?

“I need a gift for my…uh…friend,” this man who was not Cormac said. “A Christmas gift. I’m new in town, and this shop was recommended.”

“Welcome to Granite Springs.”

“Thank you.”

“What sort of things does your friend like?”

His expression blanked. “I don’t—I’m afraid that I don’t really know her all that well. It’s…complicated, I suppose you could say.”

“But you want to buy her something.” Thia tried to put him more at ease. “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?” she offered. “Good point. What about something decorative for the home? We have—”

“I might have seen some things in there that looked, uh, pretty.” He pointed to the Glass Tower—a rectangular case near the foot of the stairs. “Could you show some to me?”

“Of course.” Feeling a blush creep into her cheeks at the idea of going with him—(what was she, sixteen?)—she bent to grab the keys from the shelf below 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.

Yet 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 her nerves caused her to set. She felt profoundly self-conscious.

“Have you lived in town long?” he asked.

“Almost a year.”

“And you’re well?” He made a small sound, almost like a cough. “Doing well? It certainly looks as if you are.”

“The store, you mean?” Arriving at the Tower, she went around to the back. He stood at the front, so she saw him through the plate glass. He appeared sheepish again, his gaze darting away and back in turns—and she wondered if maybe he did know what the expression did for him.

She turned the key, pulled open the door.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t talk to people much. In my line of work, that is. I meant—well, I meant that you seem…happy. Are you?” He let out a tense breath. “Happy?”

Oh. Her mind flashed to the morning’s garage disaster. and she felt her carefully crafted mask of retail salesmanship slip if not drop entirely.

The man put his hands in his pockets, tucked his head. “I’m sorry—again. I’m making a mess of this. Forget I said anything, would you? That’s a nice piece there.” One hand immediately left his pocket to point.

“The butterfly?” She reached for the delicate figure made of silver and glass. One of her favorites.

“Yes.”

“It’s funny,” she said, removing it. “A friend of mine—of sorts—mentioned butterflies to me just the other day. This one is beautiful, isn’t it?” She held it out.

“It is.”

In taking it, his fingers skimmed the backs of her hands, and the light touch was like an electric shock. Thia’s 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 faceted, clear segments glinted and played with reflections, giving the impression of life caught and held within.

“Thank you,” he said. “This is the one.” Lowering it, he looked at her. Brown eyes, she reminded herself. Not blue.

“Great!” Too exuberant. Awkward. She was such an idiot.

He could have started walking to the counter to make the purchase, but he didn’t. As before, he waited. For her?

“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.

Other than give him a hug—completely inappropriate— she didn’t know how else to offer comfort.

So she walked past. “Let’s go ring it up, then.”

On the way, she caught Lynette’s attention, asked her to fetch the butterfly’s box from the back.

“It’s a limited edition,” she 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.”

“Sure.”

She entered it into 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 one more elaborate.”

“No, thank you.”

●○●

She was nattering on about gift boxes and paper and it was all Cormac could do not to launch himself 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? His first sighting of her had been in a photograph of Leticia’s (he’d been breaking-and-entering at the time). He had noted Thia’s auburn hair, her oval face with, granted, its bright smile and intelligent gaze—and he had thought her of little more than average looks. It was perhaps a matter of the difference between a still image and the animated, real thing. Much more than the sum of her parts. At this moment, in motion and in person, those parts were 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’d be right.

Are you happy? He couldn’t believe he’d 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 near the front of the store, standing in the window display to fetch a stuffed bear for a waiting customer; Abigail Collins, he’d learned since Orkney. She had gone to Thia’s aid, fought alongside the Brigantium and Murphy’s people. Had probably helped Cormac kill his father.

Unwanted emotion crested, and he let it break, crashing down like an icy wave. He ignored it. Felt nothing. What he didn’t acknowledge couldn’t hurt.

Abigail, or Abby as she preferred to be known, eyed him with distrust—exactly what he was worried about. He suspected she had the gift of empathy. And an unusually (and, to his purposes, inconveniently) large gift at that.

“Actually,” he said, returning his attention to Thia as she rang up his own so-called and damnably expensive gift. Of course he couldn’t have happened upon something more reasonably priced. Or something that didn’t require a lot of fuss. “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 pretty 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.”

He pulled out his billfold. Her eyes widened with something like surprise when he laid several big bills on the counter. Well, it was a lot of cash to be carrying. But credit cards could be trouble. None of the ones he had with him were in his name, but that didn’t mean that someone with the right skills—and the right organization behind them—couldn’t trace them to him eventually. He couldn’t risk it.

He cleared his throat, surreptitiously wiped a damp palm on his coat. “That’d be perfect. Thank you.”

“No problem.” She set his change and receipt on the counter. “What name can I put on it? 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,” he told her. 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 knew them intimately. And yet her, hardly at all.

He couldn’t tell if she was being polite or if she looked forward to their next encounter. He couldn’t tell if he’d 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.

He made a small nod in passing—his best attempt at appearing unexceptionable. Although he probably had “Big Spender” suspended above his head after that foolishness with the butterfly.

For which he would have to come back later. It was both a problem and a welcome opportunity: Another chance to interact with Thia. 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. And she hadn’t once appeared to suspect that, behind the lenses of his glasses, he had worn 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 both 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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