Instead of the large, perfect fruit shown in the flyer, the Granny Smiths at Budget Foods were small and beaten up—yet another disappointing win for reality over promise. Eva Milaras gazed at the poor things as she tore off the coupon and stuffed the rest of the pages back into her bag. I guess we’re all bruised in one way or another.
Still, she was sure she could find half a dozen decent ones in the stack. She’d get some yams and put them together in a casserole—a tasty and inexpensive declaration that she was now back in charge of her life in spite of being broke.
She’d tough this out with what little cash she had in her purse until the gallery could figure out what was causing the mysterious delay in her payment. They owed her for two large paintings, and that money would be more than enough to get her back on her feet again. It was just a matter of time. She yanked a plastic bag from the dispenser and began picking through the apples.
She flashed on her little studio. It had great light, decent ventilation, and was within walking distance of most everything she needed. So what if she had to maneuver around her bed to get to the tiny kitchen? With Derek gone, it was all the room she needed for her easel and canvases. She’d love to keep it if she could, but the rent was due in two weeks and…well, she’d go to the gallery this afternoon, see what Leslie had to say. She found two more unbruised apples and took them as a sign of better times coming. She really would take charge of her life—simplify, concentrate on her work, and avoid complications like an unemployed boyfriend.
“Pardon, Serenissima.” A strong, warm voice from behind pulled her from her reverie. Turning, she saw a man, early thirties probably, tall and well-built, dressed completely in black. Who wears such an expensive silk shirt and slacks to Budget Foods on a Saturday morning? They had to be club clothes, but he didn’t look like he’d been out partying all night. And what a great face to paint! A delicious olive tone to his skin, deep eyes, strong angular face-planes, so… compelling, framed by black hair that fell unbound, thick and dangerously sexy, past his shoulders. Great shoulders. Lean waist. Yes, he’d make a terrific model. She found herself smiling at him, realizing too late that it probably wasn’t a good idea. He was already standing uncomfortably close.
“Are you talking to me?” She backed away and tilted her head at the apples. “I’m afraid I’ve picked through these already. Good luck finding more decent ones.”
“Forgive my abruptness,” the man said, reaching toward her, “but you must leave this place with me immediately. You are in gravest danger. Please—we must leave this instant to avoid disaster.”
Suspicion chilled the spark of interest she’d felt. “Look, I came here just for apples.” She slid one hand into her purse, locating her pepper spray. “Leave me alone, please, or I’ll call store security.”
She hoped this guy didn’t know that Howard—the entire security staff of Budget Foods currently on duty— was in his seventies and would never be able to stand up to someone like this man, who carried himself with the smooth precision of a dancer or a martial artist. But at least Howard had a radio.
The man dipped his head and upper body in an odd, twisting bow. “Milady,” he said, his voice tight and urgent. “Please, I beg you. Your life is in real danger. You must trust me in this. I will explain later, but first we must flee.”
Flee? Eva looked around at the worn ordinariness of Budget Foods, with shoppers inching their carts along the aisles. There was nothing here to flee from except boredom.
Her finger found the directional notch on the tiny canister in her bag. “Look, I don’t know you, what you’re on, or what your deal is, but you’re scaring me.” She pulled out the spray and held it up. “This is nasty stuff, and I’ll use it on you if you don’t back off—right now.” She backed away from him again and bumped into the stacked apples. Several of them tumbled to the floor—even more bruises, she thought, as if they didn’t have enough already. She kept her eyes on the stranger, wincing as the apples thumped and rolled on the scarred wooden floor.
In a single fluid motion, the man flicked the can out of her hands and wrapped his arms around her, pushing her toward the floor, covering her with his body. Before she could scream for help, an explosion ripped the storefront window open, and she heard the screams of others.
In a strange, time-suspended clarity on the way to the floor, Eva could feel the muscles of his torso flex and twist, pushing hot against her in a symphony of coordinated physical power. How the heck did he know this was going to happen? Her back hit the floor, and her breath whooshed out in a grunt. She looked up into his face. His eyes stared into hers, fierce as a looming storm. Blue gray, she thought. No, slate. He was heavier than he looked, and she needed to breathe. But he had great eyes. “Get off me!” She pushed against him, and he rolled away without protest.
She sat up. Her ears hurt. The store—or what was left of it—was a mess. She could see two, no, three shoppers on the floor, not moving. In fact, nothing moved, and the stillness was horrible.
A soft groan floated through the smoke from somewhere. Still in its pink sweatshirt sleeve, an arm without an owner lay on the floor. And blood. Lots of it. This was so wrong. Oh, my god. She swallowed several times against a wave of nausea. What on earth had happened?
Then there was movement. All around her, shards of glass began to twitch and shift, becoming dark red scorpions scuttling toward them—dozens of them, different sizes, all the same. Glass shouldn’t do that, she was certain of it.
“Do not move, Serenissima,” the stranger commanded, his voice icy. He turned his back to her, putting himself between her and the scorpions. She stared at his back. He’d been hit by several pieces of glass—two of which stuck partway out of his flesh. All of those would have hit her if he hadn’t thrown himself over her. What the hell is going on?
His hands glowed, and pale fire flowed from his fingers in dancing streams—first carving a circle around them, then striking out at each scorpion. As his fire hit each one, the creature sparked into smoke and dropped, again becoming an inert piece of glass.
What did he just do? Eva looked around, trying to locate her pepper spray, but couldn’t see where it had rolled. She needed to get out of here. But her body was too heavy, felt too far away to respond.
“I don’t know how,” the man growled, “but your enemies have discovered who you are, milady. Now you will have no peace until you reach your Ceremony or they have destroyed us both, for I swear I will not outlive you.”
He stood, bending down. His hair tumbled forward, as if reaching to touch her. “I apologize, Highness, but I have no choice but to carry you to safety. With or without your permission.”
Why is he calling me these strange names? As he reached for her, Eva saw another shard of glass sticking out of his arm. Blood drenched his shirt down to the cuff. His hand dripped red, but he seemed oblivious of the injury. Still dazed, she felt him reach under her shoulders and knees and pick her up as if she weighed nothing.
He was kidnapping her. “Stop!” she screamed. “Put me down! Help!” She twisted against his iron-hard grip and grabbed a coconut from an end display as they passed. Eva pounded it against his chest and face, but he didn’t even look at her as he strode through the carnage to the rear of the store, kicked open the warehouse doors, and jumped off the loading dock to the ground.
On the other side of the alley sat a sleek limousine with darkened windows. As they approached, a passenger door swung open. The man deposited her inside, wrested the coconut from her, and tossed it away. He climbed in opposite her and pulled the door shut, wincing at the reach. The limo began to roll.
Panic tackled her—she was trapped in a stranger’s car. “You can’t do this!” This was so not good.
She forced herself to deepen her breathing, get grounded in her body again. She needed to get out of this car and looked for anything she could use as a weapon. There was nothing but smooth luxury all around her.
Eva rubbed her arms as she scanned the compartment, grateful for the comfort of her own touch. Her hands were ice-cold against her skin, but still reassuring. Maybe he left the door unlocked!
She lunged for the door and pushed it open, prepared to leap. But the city of Roanoke was hundreds of feet below them. Inexplicably, they were airborne. The river was a sparkling blue ribbon wandering past the rail yards. This is really wrong.
The man scowled at her and gestured at the door. It swung shut against all the resistance she could muster.
“You can’t fly in this thing, there’ll be radar—” Eva realized she had no idea of what she was talking about. “Or something. Homeland Security… You’ll be tracked down.” Maybe she could bargain with him. “Take me back now, and I promise not to file a complaint.”
The man grunted, his face a pain-filled grimace as he unbuttoned his bloody shirt. “No one saw us on the ground, or since, milady. We are enshrouded in magic which makes us invisible to others.”
What the hell does that mean, enshrouded in magic?
This wasn’t supposed to happen when someone walked two blocks over to Budget Foods to buy apples. But it had. She wanted this to be a dream but knew it wasn’t. She’d left butter on the counter at home. In this heat it would be a puddle by the time she got back. If she got back.
The man smiled at her—or maybe it was a wince— as he used his uninjured arm to peel his sodden shirt from his back. He obviously worked out. A lot.
So this is what cognitive dissonance feels like. “You know how serious a crime kidnapping is, don’t you? Besides, I’m broke. I have nothing for you to demand in ransom. I’m not the one you want. You’ve made a mistake.”
The man’s smile was grim as he shook his head, saying nothing as he dropped his bloody shirt on the seat beside him. It made a heavy wet plop against the leather.
“Answer me!” she shouted. “What the hell is going on here, and where are you taking me?”
“I take you to safety, Serenissima,” the man said with an apologetic dip of his head. “I ask for your forgiveness, but a longer explanation, which you most certainly deserve, must wait while I attend to my injuries. They require my most urgent concentration.”
Eva watched as he arched his back and reached behind him. He’s flexible enough to hold a difficult pose, she thought, and then laughed aloud at herself in disbelief. This man had probably saved her life, kidnapped her, shoved her into an invisible flying limousine going gods knew where, and now sat half-naked across from her, bleeding all over the cream leather, and all she could think about was how good a model he might be. But he really would make a terrific model.
Then there was the whole scorpions-from-glass thing. Maybe she’d been drugged and was hallucinating. Maybe. That would be the best answer possible, but this felt horribly real.
The man let out a sharp grunt. When she could see his hand again, it held a red-stained shard of glass, which he tossed into a corner on the limousine floor.
He blew onto the tips of his bloody fingers and murmured words she didn’t understand. His fingertips glowed again, just like in the store. This time the air filled with the scent of lilacs, or maybe honeycomb— yes, honeycomb. He reached behind him again, and there was a sharp hiss.
Her kidnapper took a deep breath, arched, and reached behind him again. He scowled, and this time his hand returned empty.
“Forgive me, milady, but would you be willing to draw a piece of glass from my back? I would be most grateful.” He lifted his shirt to his mouth, bit down on the torn sleeve, and ripped away a small strip. He offered it to her. “If you grasp the glass with this, you can get a safer grip.”
“You want me to help you? Oh, right!” She glowered at him. “There’s nothing to stop me from pushing it in the rest of the way, is there?”
“Nothing at all.” The man smiled, affable and grim. “And I might die. But whether I live or die, this car’s course is already set, and it will take you to its destination. Without me to protect you when you arrive, you most certainly would die as soon as your presence was discovered. Quite unpleasantly.”
He dipped his head, as if apologizing. “So, as distasteful as it may be to you, I represent your very best chance of survival.” Again he proffered the scrap of cloth.
She was in a flying car and had no idea where she was or where she was going. So not in control of her life, just when she’d sworn to take charge and never give it up again. Hallucinating or not, survival sounded good to Eva.
“Damn.” She took the scrap from him. It was the thickest, richest silk she had ever felt. “I have to tell you I don’t do well with blood.”
“Most grateful, Highness. But I beg you, please pull straight out, rather than up or downward. It is in a delicate place. I can reach it, but I cannot pull it straight out.” He turned sideways. The shard stuck out of his right trapezius, she noted with an artist’s anatomical eye, between the thoracic spine and scapula.
When she pulled that thing out, there was going to be more blood. It would come spilling out of the wound and… She fought down her squeamishness and folded the cloth between her thumb and forefinger. “Brace yourself,” she said, talking more to herself than to him. “This is likely going to hurt.”
“Pain does not matter. I am certain you will succeed beautifully. Just pull straight out, if you please.”
Just as she grasped the shard, the limo lurched. “Sorry!”
“You are not at fault, Serenissima,” he said through a clenched jaw. “We have entered the threshold.”
“I wish you’d stop calling me those names. It makes me nervous.” Again she squeezed the glass and pulled. As it slid out, she saw it was much longer than she’d expected, and curved like a small exotic dagger. It was a miracle that it hadn’t killed him. A thick rivulet of blood sprang from the wound. Nausea pushed up her throat and she tasted salt, but damned if she was going to throw up in front of her captor.
She dropped the bloody glass on the floor. She tried to look away, but couldn’t. “It’s bleeding—a lot,” she said, holding the scrap of shirt against his flesh. “I’m supposed to press on the wound, but I don’t think I can.”
“I am indebted to you forever, milady,” he said, his voice tight. Eva watched him blow onto his fingers, muttering the strange words again. Again his fingers glowed in a nimbus of blue light, and he reached behind him to touch the wound. There was another sharp hiss, and Eva watched the flow of blood stop as the heavy fragrance of honeycomb swirled around her. The gash sealed to a thin white line.
Even through the blood drying on his back, Eva could see that it was not the only such scar. There were easily half a dozen others, some much larger than the new one. No wonder he was so calm about it all. But regular people didn’t do what he’d done.
The man was occupied with his wounds—this was her chance. She lunged forward to get to the controls of the car—but there weren’t any. Where a steering wheel and dashboard should have been, there was nothing but elegant wood-burl paneling and leather. How the hell did this thing work, and how was she supposed turn it off? Eva grabbed the seat back facing her, dizzy and frantic. This was all so horribly real, but surreal, as if she had been forced into someone else’s life. Something had gone terribly wrong. These events had to belong to someone else.
She sagged back into the soft leather of her seat, calming her stomach, and studied her captor. She couldn’t help it—with his intense eyes and sexy angular face, he really would make an incredible subject. She pushed the thought away. He was her captor.
“Okay. I need answers now.” She scowled, hoping she looked fierce. “Who are you, what’s happening, and why do you keep calling me ‘Highness’ and ‘Serenissima’?” She focused again on his face. “Start with you—who are you?”
“My name, milady, is Talak.” He smiled, looking apologetic. “There is no need for you to attempt my family names, as you would find them tediously long and hard to pronounce. I am your guardian.”
Relief flooded through her as she laughed, giddy and gloating. “I knew you had the wrong person! I don’t have a guardian—both my parents are still alive. You’ve screwed up big-time, mister, so take me back right now.”
“Not legal guardian as you know the meaning.” He gazed at her, his eyes patient. “I am quite certain that you have strange dreams sometimes, perhaps often, as if you are in a completely different world. A beautiful world, with rather dark undertones.”
Eva stopped breathing as dread seized her. How could he possibly know about those? She’d never told anyone of her dream world, even though it was where she often drew inspiration for her paintings. Against her will, she nodded slightly, breathing again, but already feeling cornered.
“They are not just dreams. The world you dream of is as real as the one you are familiar with, Highness. Two worlds occupy the same physical space, this same planet, if you will. Although they occupy the same space, they are for the most part separate, joined only at particular threshold points. One world you know well. The other world is mine—and yours, if you wish it.”
Perspiration tickled her neck. This was going to get worse, she could feel it coming.
Talak knelt before her on the limousine carpet, lifting his hands, palms upward. “That other world is a realm of magic, developed and practiced just as widely as lesser technology is in yours. Although the practice of magical craft is everywhere in that world, all the nations are ruled by members of a single royal bloodline who for some genetic reason are impervious to magical spell- work. They are an imperfect lot, our royals, and given to their own deadly intrigues, but they provide our only check against chaos. They maintain an order that could not be sustained in a realm of unchecked magic.”
Eva’s head spun. The man kneeling in front of her, this Talak, had to be insane. But then there was the scorpion thing and the healing thing. To say nothing of the fact that they were in a flying limo with no steering wheel. This had to be a dream, and it was a doozy. On the flying highway to crazy.
She tried not to believe him, and failed. And he knew about her dreams—that was more frightening than anything else. “Even if what you say is true, what does all that have to do with me?”
Talak bowed his head toward the floor, and his voice floated up from the stained carpet, past his dark hair and a shoulder crusted maroon-black with dried blood. “Years ago, one of the Clans Royal crossed a threshold to choose a breeding partner. Once every other generation, they do this to avoid the dangers of inbreeding, for the royals mate only with themselves in order to keep the purity of their blood line, to preserve their immunity to magic. In this particular case, she chose your father to sire her child. You, milady, are of the Blood Royal.”
“What? My parents would surely have told us something about this if it were true.”
“No. They would never have known. Or at least remembered. Your parents would have been ensorcelled. The royal who bore you would have been accompanied by a magician of great skill who would have bound them in spells of unknowing. The man and woman you think of as your parents would have believed completely that you were their own progeny, just like your two siblings. But the woman you think of as your mother never bore you. Your real mother came from the world you are now entering.”
Eva fought vertigo. “Maggie and Johnny, too? All three of us? And get off the floor.”
“Thank you, Highness.” Talak rose and sat again on the seat opposite Eva. “You are the only one. Your older siblings are not of your mother. Even if they were, the genetic condition is not always predictable, which is why those who carry the Royal Immunity are so important to us. You—and your offspring to come—are essential to the survival of our realm and our way of life.”
He smiled apologetically. “I am mortified to cause you such distress and confusion. I did not intend that you should learn these things so suddenly, without any preparation. I expected to have more time.”
“Well, I expected to buy apples and then paint all afternoon.”
Talak looked out the window as if he could see through what seemed to be fog. “I expected you to do that, too. Your identity as a royal was supposed to be kept secret until you could be properly educated and protected by your Ceremony of Recognition. I was assigned by our queen to be your guardian four years ago, when…when something terrible happened to your blood mother. But your identity is known now.”
He made a face as if he had just tasted something rotten. “At the grocery store, you were the target of an assassination attempt, most likely mounted by some of your more unscrupulous and ambitious relatives. I have no doubt some of them see you as unwelcome competition for position and power.”
“Well, they can have it all. I’m not interested.”
“They would never believe you. It’s all that matters to them.”
A wave of helplessness washed over Eva. She shouldn’t be in this limousine and this shouldn’t be happening to her, but she couldn’t find any rational way out. “Where are we going? And why can’t I see anything through the windows?”
“There is nothing to see outside at present, Serenissima. We are between the worlds. We travel to your Ceremony of Recognition.” Talak smiled, and Eva was sure he meant it to be encouragement. It felt like sadness. “After your Ceremony you will be safe.” He lifted his shoulders, apologetic. “Well—safer, at least.”