মুখ্য The Wizard Of Seattle

The Wizard Of Seattle

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This is one of the best books I have ever read
27 April 2021 (23:13) 

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আপনি একটি বুক রিভিউ লিখতে পারেন এবং আপনার অভিজ্ঞতা শেয়ার করতে পারেন. অন্যান্য পাঠকরা আপনার পড়া বইগুলির বিষয়ে আপনার মতামত সম্পর্কে সর্বদা আগ্রহী হবে. বইটি আপনার পছন্দ হোক বা না হোক, আপনি যদি নিজের সৎ ও বিস্তারিত চিন্তাভাবনা ব্যক্ত করেন তাহলে অন্যরা তাদের জন্য উপযুক্ত নতুন বইগুলি খুঁজে পাবে.

The Wizard Of Seattle

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Always a Thief

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The Wizard of Seattle


Kay Hooper


New York London Toronto


A Bantam Book June 1993p>

Copyright Š 1993 by Kay Hooper.

Cover art copyright Š 1993 by Alan Ayers.

ISBN 0-553-28999-3

Bantam Books are published by Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Its trademark, consisting of the words “Bantam Books” and the portrayal of a rooster, is Registered in U. S. Patent and Trademark Office and in other countries. Marca Registrada. Bantam Books, 1540 Broadway, New York, New York 10036.

Printed In The United States Of America

This book is for my editor, Nita Taublib, because of her enthusiasm, her honesty, and the sneaky tactics she uses to get me to return phone calls.

This book is for my agent, Eileen Fallon, because she never yells at me, even when I deserve to be yelled at, and because we can talk about anything – even politics.

And this book is for my friend Catherine Coulter, because of something she said in San Diego.


Atlantia – Past

It was near midnight, but the sky remained a deep and pulsing blood red, as if a dying sun lingered long past its time. Directly above the village, above the miles-across natural amphitheater formed by the tall mountains that ringed the valley, the very air was alive with energy, crawling and crackling softly. The small cottages of the village were dark and silent, huddled in among themselves.

If anyone heard the girl, no one answered her cries.

She did not scream hysterically, nor was there any note of hope in her calls for aid. Her wide blue eyes lifted often to the shifting sky that could be glimpsed between the trees, but she spared no glance behind her, where the sounds of pursuit grew louder. After a time she saved her breath for running, knowing only too well that she could expect no help from the villagers.

“Where’d she go?”

“I saw her – “

“There! Quick, cut her off.”

Harsh voices. Three of them. Ruthless male voices containing no pity, no mercy, no emotion save furious urgency.

With the in; stinct of a hunted animal, she evaded their trap, choosing the thickest part of the forest and ignoring the thorns that ripped and tore her white robe as she ran. The sounds of pursuit dimmed, the forest echoing with ghostly epithets no less savage for the distance between them and the desperately fleeing girl.

The stabbing ache in her side forced her to halt when she was less than halfway across the valley. She leaned against a squat and gnarled tree and stretched her right hand up to the sky, as if beseeching some nameless, faceless god to help her. Her only answer came when her feeble energies were turned back on her fiercely by the unforgiving night of Atlantia; there was a flash of dim, grim light and a searing pain in her hand that jerked a moan from her lips. She brought the hand to her breast and cradled it there with her left one, not bothering to look at the new blister that had been added to the others.

At night in the valley, all were powerless.

Especially the women.

Over the sounds of her labored breathing, she could hear her pursuers, closer now, on her scent like a pack of ravenous wolves. They were not wizards. Unlike her, they were not enervated by the heavy pressure of energies lashing in the sky above or unable to use the natural strengths of their bodies and minds. They were not exhausted, or lost, or alone.

And they were not afraid of her. Not now. Not at night.

She pushed herself away from the tree and stumbled on, so weakened now by her useless attempts at defense that she knew she would never reach the slope of the mountain looming ahead.

They wouldn’t kill her, she knew, at least not deliberately. Even in this valley, where she was powerless, they would not dare to take her life. She almost wished they would, for what they intended to do to her would destroy her slowly and in agony. The power she could not use to defend herself would be stolen from her by their greed and lust.

Or so they believed.

She slowed her pace simply because she could no longer run, but continued to make her way through the forest, trying to move silently through the thick undergrowth. She held her seared and blistered hand to her side in an effort to ease the pain in both. She was so tired. So weak. Sanctuary was too far away; the slopes of the mountain ahead seemed more distant with every step she took.

Her terror and hatred, rising from the depths of her soul like some black thing alive and on the wing, blinded her. Her strength almost gone, she plunged through a thicket of brambles, into a shaft of brilliant moonlight – and into the brutal embrace of her hunters.

Two of them grabbed her by the arms, stretching her limbs out from her sides and holding them immobile as if, even now, they half feared her power. They were strong, their work-roughened hands grasping her arms with a force that nearly broke bones. These were farmers, she realized dimly, men who worked exhausting hours to tear crops from the capricious soil of Atlantia. And all three were still young enough to hope for something better.

“Hey, boys, we caught ourselves a wizard,” a third one said with a laugh, approaching her with a caution that suggested both eagerness and wariness.

“Don’t do this.” She felt the rough bark of a tree against her back, and pain stabbed her shoulders as her arms were nearly pulled from their sockets. She didn’t bother to deny her powers, knowing it would make no difference even if they believed her. And they wouldn’t believe her, for she bore the unmistakable sign of a female wizard of Atlantia.

The two men holding her were silent but for their heavy breathing; the third stood before her and looked slowly, insolently, from her wildly tangled hair to the delicate, scratched ankles below the hem of her torn white robe.

“Haughty bitch,” he muttered. “Strutting around in the daylight with your nose in the air like you own the world. Not so proud now, are you?”

Terror, rage, and aching despair welled up inside Roxanne like a tide of anguish. She couldn’t stop this! They would never listen to reason, and they certainly feared no punishment for what they were about to do. She was helpless against them, powerless, without any defense at all. No matter what she said or did, they would be on her like animals, rutting out of hate and ambition and fear and lust. And she couldn’t stop them.

Men. Even women of power were ultimately helpless against them. These valley men who hunted at night with their brutal hands and frightened lust, eager to vent their hate and greed and frustration on vulnerable females. Those male wizards with their lordly palaces high in the mountains and their lies and schemes and arrogance, enacting laws expressly designed to torment and degrade both the women of power they feared and the valley women who served as the vessels for their pleasures and their sons.

With a choked sound she spat in his face.

He stood motionless for an instant, as if he feared her saliva might contain some terrible magic that would melt his flesh. Then a hoarse growl erupted from his throat, and he slapped her, with the full strength of his arm behind the blow. It rocked her head back against the tree; blackness swam before her eyes, and nausea churned in her stomach. As if from a great distance, she heard hollow, echoing, booming voices.

“Bitch! Make sure she can’t move.”

“You gonna plow her standing up?”

“Just hold her.”

Nearly unconscious, Roxanne moaned as the pull on her arms sent spasms of agony through her shoulders and back. She felt the touch of fingers, cold and clammy as they fumbled against the base of her neck, and then there was a sharp tearing sound and the rush of air as her robe and shift were ripped open from neckline to hem. She tried to struggle, but her movements were only weak twitches. Fighting to hold the blackness at bay, she shook her head to clear it and looked up into the feral, feverish eyes of the man.

He was tearing at his own clothing, yanking his trousers open and shoving them down, his lust further inflamed by the sight of her slender body. He half stumbled and lurched closer, his meaty hands grasping and clawing at her naked flesh.

Roxanne made a last desperate bid for freedom, ordering her drained muscles to offer up what strength they had left. But the effort was little more than a jerk, and cost her almost unimaginable pain as the men tightened their grip on her arms.

“Hold her,” the one pawing her grunted as he reached a hand down to guide himself. “Hold her – “

She didn’t have the strength to fight, the breath to scream, or the will to die. The tears she might have shed were burned dry by her hatred before they could escape her eyes. She stared over his shoulder at tiny distant lights high on the highest mountain, and tried to detach her mind from the agony and degradation of what he was doing to her.

They were laughing. The other two, the ones holding her, were laughing and fondling themselves with their free hands, waiting for their turn. They would take turns with her all night, using her again and again until dawn stole their courage and sent them slinking away from what would be left of her.

She couldn’t… couldn’t… Something inside her snapped, and the pain was gone. She didn’t feel anything at all. Or hear anything. Or see anything.

Tremayne drew his cloak about him to protect against the chill of the night air, and leaned against the balustrade. Far below, the valley was spread out in the peculiar flickering darkness of an Atlantia night; up here atop the tallest of the seven mountains that ringed the valley, the air was clear and sharp. Sound carried well up here.

Especially some sounds.

He tried to his mind to what was happening at the other end of the terrace, not so much disturbed as disgusted. His “uncle” Varian – the title was actually one of respect, since their familial connection was distant – was entertaining his favorite concubine, a plump village girl of perhaps eighteen who had already borne him four sons and who was eagerly at work to accept a fifth into her womb. Varian tended to get sons on his women; his favoritism toward the improbably named Virginia stemmed more from her energetic lustiness than her fertility.

They were rutting now on a pile of cushions at the opposite end of the terrace, some sixty feet from Tremayne, and he knew it would not disturb his uncle at all if he went over and pulled up a chair to watch; Varian, upon occasion, enjoyed performing for an audience – usually made up of his sons.

Tremayne, however, was no voyeur. He would have much preferred to go inside, but knew only too well that his “cousins” were engaged in activities similar to those of their sire. He doubted he could find an empty room.

So, dosing his ears to the sighs and moans coming from that end of the terrace, he gazed out over the valley and let his thoughts wander. They were disjointed, as thoughts often are, skipping across his mind like stones on a pond. Occasionally one would drop and cause ripples that circled outward.

The lady. No, don’t think of her. Think of something that won’t drive you mad. Your father sent you back here to Atlantia to find out why the earthquakes have worsened, why the tides are erratic, and why even across the sea the flickering clouds above this continent are visible. All the wizards outside Atlantia are worried – and now you know why.

Yes, he knew why. Because here on this isolated island continent, ambition and greed had ran rampant. An old civilization was splintering, the population teetering on the brink of extinction, the very ground beneath them shuddering in the first throes of death.

The Master wizards here saw themselves as gods. Especially Varian.

After being in this house for several months, Tremayne had come to the conclusion that Varian was a glutton, his appetites insatiable. He was a glutton for food, but since he was also a glutton for sex, perhaps he needed the energy. He was a glutton for power. He was obsessed with the determination to rule Atlantia, whatever the cost – and his frantic begetting of sons on every powerless female capable of bearing them was only one of the strands of his web.

Varian, Tremayne had realized, intended quite literally to people the wizard population with his offspring and eventually crowd out all other male wizards. He was confident of his ability to control his sons – with some justification, Tremayne thought – and equally scornful of the other Master wizards’ less energetic reproductive abilities. As for the female wizards, he was plotting even now to find a way to destroy their Sanctuary and them.

He’d steal their powers if he could – and he hasn’t given up the idea of that yet. He hates and fears them, but he can’t help wondering… It’s all that’s forbidden to him, taking a woman of power into his bed. One day his lust may overcome even his fear of vulnerability, and he’ll risk his life to satisfy his urges.

Somewhat grimly Tremayne wondered if Varian had considered the fact that by slaughtering their female infants and busily using the available powerless women as broodmares, he and his male offspring were steadily destroying the balance of the population. Probably not. Though there was a certain cunning in his nature, Varian’s appetites overwhelmed any rational overview of the future. His obsessions were blind, deaf, and mute.

“Alone again? God rot you, Tremayne, it isn’t natural for a man your age to ignore bitches the way you do!”

Tremayne glanced briefly aside to find his uncle, stark naked despite the chill of the air, staring at him with a frown.

“Didn’t you take a fancy to that black-haired bitch who was twitching her teats at you during supper?” Varian asked, leaning an elbow on the balustrade as he looked at the younger man.

Tremayne had once objected to his uncle’s degrading terms for women – powerless women were bitches to him, and female wizards were whores – but Varian had only laughed at him. Having always considered himself rough-mannered, Tremayne knew that here in his uncle’s house, and perhaps in Atlantia itself, he was by comparison a veritable gentleman.

“No,” he said finally, his voice even. “She was very pretty, but I won’t bed a child half my age.”

Varian looked surprised. “A child? Fifteen’s a bitch all filled out and haired over. Why, I got a boy on her… let’s see, must be a year ago. You have to get ‘em while they’re fresh, man, not dried up and stretched out of shape.”

For a brief moment Tremayne felt curiously detached. He was, he realized, listening to a Master wizard, probably the most powerful one in the world, and this supposed giant had absolutely nothing on his mind except breeding. Varian was barely forty, just ten years older than Tremayne. He had more than sixty of his sons in residence (those deemed too young to be sexually active occupied a house nearby), triple that number of girls and women in various stages of being impregnated, a home that was a virtual palace, and any luxury he could wish quite literally his for a snap of his fingers.

Tremayne imagined Varian and his offspring breeding like rabbits for another thirty years, and into his mind crept the dear, cold awareness that they would have to be stopped. Somehow. Before Atlantia broke under the weight.

“You worry me, Tremayne,” Varian said.

Tremayne looked at him, not for the first time grateful that his own considerable abilities shielded his thoughts from even a Master wizard. “Would it ease your mind if I told you I kept a mistress in Sanctuary?” he asked dryly.

Varian’s frown cleared, though the twist of his full lips indicated scorn for a man who could be satisfied with only one woman. “I suppose that’s where you were all afternoon?”

“Yes,” Tremayne answered, not lying. He had been in Sanctuary, though there was no mistress; if Varian dared show his face in the city, he would realize that the laws there prohibited any male wizard from so much as touching a female, with or without power, unless she was his legal wife. And since none of the male wizards in Atlantia had ever married, all the women of Sanctuary were completely off-limits to them. But few males of power ventured inside the walls of Sanctuary, and few atop these mountains knew or cared what laws prevailed there.

Tremayne knew the laws well. He had spent much of his time these last months exploring the city, taking extreme care to give no offense and wearing the mark of power without either shame or arrogance. He had learned a great deal.

Varian shook his head almost pityingly. “You’re too damned choosy, Tremayne, that’s your trouble. And a fool to keep your bitch in the city. Her place is here, warming your bed. Is she breeding yet?”

“No,” Tremayne replied. Again no lie. She was not pregnant, the woman he wanted; at least she showed no sign of it. And he had hardly gotten close enough to be responsible if she were. She had proven elusive; he hadn’t been able to find her since that brief meeting more than a week ago that had struck him with such numbing force, he still felt shock when he thought about it.

“My Lord?” Ginny’s voice was almost a wail, bereft.

“She’s ready for another ride,” Varian said to his house guest with a wide smile, and turned away to stride back along the terrace.

Tremayne didn’t linger to hear the noisy coupling. He descended through the gardens rather than returning to the house. It would be dawn before he reached the valley floor, but he was restless and, more than anything, had to get away from his uncle’s house.

Thoughts of the lady pushed every other aside, and he felt again that strange, wrenching shock inside himself. He didn’t know if she was a wizard or powerless; their meeting had so affected him that he had been blind to even that most basic of questions. He knew only that he wanted her. She had been slight and rather fragile, but not childlike; hers had been the ripening body of a young woman. Golden hair escaping the net into which she had carelessly bundled it, wide blue eyes in a heart-shaped, delicately lovely face. The grace of a young doe. The innate wariness of a woman of Atlantia.

He didn’t know who she was. Or what she was. But he knew he had to find her.

It was past dawn when Tremayne reached the valley floor and took the road to Sanctuary. The Curtain was dispersing as the first rays of the morning sun reached over the mountaintops. And it had been many long hours of torment since Roxanne’s final, hopeless cry had echoed through the forest beside the road. If he glanced to the left, he might see something like a pile of soiled laundry against the base of a tree no more than thirty feet away.

He didn’t look.

Seattle – 1984

It was his home. She knew that, although where her certainty came from was a mystery to her. Like the inner tug that had drawn her across the country to find him, the knowledge seemed instinctive, beyond words or reason. She didn’t even know his name. But she knew what he was. He was what she wanted to be, needed to be, what all her instincts insisted she had to be, and only he could teach her what she needed to learn.

Until this moment she had never doubted that he would accept her as his pupil. At sixteen she was passing through that stage of development experienced by humans twice in their lifetimes, a stage marked by total self-absorption and the unshakable certainty that the entire universe revolves around oneself. It occurred in infancy and in adolescence, but rarely ever again, unless one was utterly unconscious of reality. Those traits had given her the confidence she had needed to cross the country alone with no more than a ragged backpack and a few dollars.

But they deserted her now, as she stood at the wrought-iron gates and stared up at the secluded old Victorian house. The rain beat down on her, and lightning flashed in the stormy sky, illuminating the turrets and gables of the house; there were few lighted windows, and those were dim rather than welcoming.

It looked like the home of a wizard.

She almost ran, abruptly conscious of her aloneness. But then she squared her thin shoulders, shoved open the gate, and walked steadily to the front door. Ignoring the bell, she used the brass knocker to rap sharply. The knocker was fashioned in the shape of an owl, the creature that symbolized wisdom, a familiar of wizards throughout fiction.

She didn’t know about feet.

Her hand was shaking, and she gave it a fierce frown as she rapped the knocker once more against the solid door. She barely had time to release the knocker before the door was pulled open.

Tall and physically powerful, he had slightly shaggy raven hair and black eyes that burned with an inner fire. For long moments he surveyed the dripping, ragged girl on his doorstep with lofty disdain, while all of her determination melted away to nothing. Then he caught her collar with one elegant hand, much as he might have grasped a stray cat, and yanked her into the well-lit entrance hall. He studied her with daunting sternness.

What he saw was an almost painfully thin girl who looked much younger than her sixteen years. Her threadbare clothing was soaked; her short, tangled hair was so wet that only a hint of its normal vibrant red color was apparent; and her small face, all angles and seemingly filled with huge eyes, was white and pinched. She was no more attractive than a stray mongrel pup.


The vast poise of sixteen years deserted the girl as he barked the one word in her ear. She gulped. “I… I want to be a wizard,” she managed finally, defiantly.


She was soaked to the skin, tired and hungry, and she possessed a temper that had more than once gotten her into trouble. Her green eyes snapping, she glared up into his handsome, expressionless face, and her voice lost all its timidity.

“I will be a wizard! If you won’t teach me, I’ll find someone who will. I can summon fire already – a little – and I can feel the power inside me. All I need is a teacher, and I’ll be great one day – “

He lifted her clear off the floor and shook her briefly, effortlessly, inducing silence with no magic at all. “The first lesson an Apprentice must learn,” he told her calmly, “is to never – ever – shout at a Master.”

He casually released her, conjured a bundle of clothing out of thin air, and handed it to her. Then he waved a hand negligently and sent her floating up the dark stairs toward a bathroom.

And so it began.




“Ten bucks says you can’t do it.”

Serena Smyth lifted an eyebrow at her friend, her catlike green eyes alight with amusement. “You’re on.”

It was one of many bets between the two young women since they had met in high school years before, lighthearted and, as usual, challenging Serena’s uncanny ability to get information, or anything else she wanted, from a man.

Jane Riley, an attractive and vivacious brunet, giggled, but then suddenly looked nervous. “I don’t know. Maybe this isn’t such a good idea. Serena, Jeremy Kane uses his column to trash anybody he hates, and since that model broke up with him, he hates every woman still alive and breathing. There’s no way he’ll dance with you, let alone spill the beans about the grant. And if he realizes you’re just after information, next week’s column will make you look like the whore of Babylon.”

“He’ll never guess what I’m after,” Serena retorted confidently.

“Oh, no? Look, friend, we both know he’s virtually pickled after years of drinking, but he was a crackerjack investigative reporter once upon a time, and some of the old instincts might still be there.”

Serena shrugged. With the frankness that often startled people because her appearance made them believe she was too elegant and haughty to ever speak bluntly, she said, “I don’t think he could find his butt with both hands and a flashlight.”

Jane, knowing her friend rather well, began to regret her own impulsive challenge. “Serena, why don’t we just forget the bet this time? If you go and do something crazy, Richard will never forgive me.”

“Forgive you? Don’t be silly, he knows me too well to ever blame anyone else for my tricks. Besides, you know you’re dying to find out if Seth gets the grant.”

Jane couldn’t deny that. Seth Westcott was her live-in lover, an artist with a difficult temperament, and Jane knew their cluttered loft would be much more peaceful if she could tell him that the fifty-thousand-dollar grant from Kane’s newspaper was going to be his. More peaceful for a while, at least.

But she hesitated, mostly because of Serena’s uncle and onetime guardian, with whom her friend still lived here in Seattle. Richard Merlin had always made Jane feel just the tiniest bit uneasy, though she couldn’t have said exactly why, since he’d always been perfectly pleasant to her. It might have been his dramatic appearance; his slightly shaggy black hair, austere, rather classical bone structure, and startling black eyes gave him the appearance of a man who might have been anything from a poet or maestro of the symphony – to a serial killer.

In actuality, he was a businessman, involved in various real estate ventures, and both well known and highly respected in the city. A rather ordinary kind of career, certainly, and he had never done anything to call undue attention to himself or any of his actions. But Jane still felt curiously in awe of him, and it always made her nervous when Serena cheerfully did something they both knew her uncle would not be happy about.

Shaking her head, Jane said, “Of course I want to know if Seth gets the grant, but I’d rather not see your name in bold print in Kane’s column.”

“Oh, that’ll never happen.” Serena spoke absently, her attention elsewhere as she scanned the well-dressed crowd. The occasion was a dinner-dance charity benefit, and since the charity was a good one, the crowd was happy to be here. Both the food and the band were first-rate, and the party was being held in a hotel ballroom, so none of the guests felt the automatic constraint that came with being in someone’s home.

The huge room was very noisy.

Serena finally found what she’d been looking for: Richard’s tall form on the other side of the room. He was talking to the mayor, his attention firmly engaged, and was unlikely to notice what she was up to.

“If you’re so sure Richard won’t care what you’re going to do,” Jane said suspiciously, “then why did you check first to make sure he was across the room?”

Serena rose to her feet, leaving her wrap over the back of the chair and her evening purse on the table. She was a bit above average height and slender, but by no means thin. In fact, she could have earned a healthy income posing for the centerfold of any men’s magazine, and the backless emerald green evening gown she was wearing displayed that eye-catching figure to advantage.

The gown also set off her bright red hair, currently swept up in an elaborate French twist, her translucent complexion, and her vivid green eyes. She was a beautiful woman, her features exquisite and deceptively haughty, and a considerable intelligence made her able to hold her own in most any situation.

Smiling, she looked down at her friend and said, “I never said he wouldn’t care. I just said he wouldn’t blame you.”

Watching her friend move gracefully among the tables toward her intended target, Jane felt a brief, craven impulse to find Seth in the crowd and announce that she wanted to go home. But he’d be suspicious, and she’d have to confess she had dared Serena to do something dangerous. Again.

It had been fun during their teenage years, because Serena had accepted even the wildest dares and because peculiar things always seemed to happen when she did.

Like the time Jane had dared her to approach the famous rock star who’d been performing in Seattle. Serena had gotten past the guards at the stage door with incredible ease, emerging in triumph ten minutes later with an autograph. She had been wearing a stage pass, impossible to buy or fake, and had only laughed when Jane had demanded to know how she’d gotten it.

Later Jane had heard an odd story. The sprinkler system backstage had been acting up just when Serena had been there, going on and off in different areas randomly, drenching equipment and driving everybody nuts.

Serena, of course, had come out perfectly dry.

And there had been another occasion Jane had never forgotten. A mutual friend had taken the two girls out on a fishing boat, and he had bemoaned the fact that the small family fishing businesses such as his were a dying breed; they simply couldn’t compete with the huge commercial operations. He was on the verge of going under financially, he had confided, and during this particular week the catch had been truly abysmal.

Jane had happened to look at Serena just then, and she’d been struck by her friend’s expression. Gazing out over the water, Serena had chewed her bottom lip in a characteristically indecisive gesture and then, looking both guilty and pleased, had nodded to herself, her eyes very bright.

There had been no opportunity to ask her friend what was going on, because their host had begun to haul his nets in. To his obvious shock, the catch was the best of the season, incredibly good; the boat rode low in the water with the weight of the fish. It seemed his luck had turned. In fact, after that day he had only to cast out his nets to be rewarded by all the fish he could handle.

Jane had never asked Serena about that, just as she’d never asked her about a few other peculiar things, such as why light bulbs had an odd tendency to blow out near her and computers often went haywire, or why she couldn’t wear a wristwatch (they went crazy or simply died on her), or why the weather always seemed to be good when she wanted it to be. Jane simply accepted the good fortune of Serena’s friends and privately decided that she was three parts witch.

But she was nervous about this bet, and watched anxiously as Serena reached Jeremy Kane’s table. The newspaperman had been drinking steadily all evening, and had more than once gotten so loud that those at nearby tables couldn’t help overhearing him as he caustically held forth on a number of subjects. But he hadn’t left his table even once to dance.

Jane saw her friend lean down to speak to Kane, but she didn’t get the chance to observe his reaction, because her own date returned to their table just then.

“Sorry to be so long, honey,” Seth said as he sat down beside her. “Thompson’s wife had to tell me in great detail how she wanted her portrait to look.” He was a tall, very thin man with average looks and deceptively mild brown eyes, and possessed only two unusual physical characteristics. His voice was so beautiful, it was nearly hypnotic; and his hands were incredibly graceful and expressive.

Jane had no trouble in fixing her attention on Seth; she was absolutely crazy about the man. “Megan Thompson? If she has any sense, she’d just ask you to make her look like somebody else.”

Seth grinned at her. “Meow.”

“She has mismatched eyes,” Jane insisted. “Besides that, her ears are set too low, and she has dark roots.”

Leaning back away from her in exaggerated caution, Seth said, “Whew – what’s with you? If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were jealous. But I do know better, so I has to be something else.”

“I just wish you didn’t have to take commissions from people like that,” Jane muttered.

Seth frowned suddenly. “I know that’s the way you feel, Janie, but it isn’t what’s bugging you now. You look guilty as hell. What’ve you done?”

A sudden burst of laughter that was audible even over the music drew Jane’s attention, and she saw Serena dancing quite gracefully in the arms of Jeremy Kane, even though he was indisputably drunk and loudly amused about something.

“What’s Serena doing with Kane?” Seth wanted to know.

“Dancing, obviously.”

“Smartass. You know damned well what I meant by that. It’s bad enough that the man’s a mean drunk, he also happens to write a syndicated column that’s nothing less than a weekly character assassination. Serena’s got no business anywhere around that son of a bitch.”

Since Seth had seen his character assassinated in Kane’s column some years previously, his bitterness was understandable.

Jane cleared her throat and tried not to look even more guilty. “Well, Kane’s on the committee handing out that grant, you know.”

Seth closed his eyes briefly and shook his head. “You dared her to go pump him for info, didn’t you?”

“I didn’t mean to, it just slipped out. Seth, do you think maybe you should go get her?”

“Why?” he asked, surprised.

“If she’s in over her head – “

With a short laugh Seth said, “Janie, you ought to know your friend better than that. With the possible exceptions of Richard and myself, Serena can wrap any man in the room around her little finger – including Jeremy Kane, drunk or sober.”

“Then why’d you say she had no business anywhere around him?” Jane asked, a bit indignant.

“Because it’s true. I don’t doubt she’ll get whatever she’s after from him, but she may be opening Pandora’s box to do it. In case you haven’t noticed, almost every curious eye in the room is on them. After the little stunt she pulled with that actor last year, her reputation isn’t exactly the greatest. Flirting with Jeremy Kane won’t help.”

Ever loyal, Jane said, “I still say it wasn’t Serena’s fault that guy fell for her and made a fool of himself. What was she supposed to do when his publicist kept slyly hinting there’d soon be wedding bells?”

“She might have just waited until it all blew over,” Seth noted dryly. “But, no, not our Serena. She had to take matters into her own hands. Calling a press conference to announce in no uncertain terms how hilarious she found the very idea of marrying the poor guy wasn’t exactly subtle.”

Jane started to respond, but changed her mind. Though she’d never said so to either Serena or Seth, Jane had the odd idea that some, if not all, of Serena’s very public “affairs” during the past few years had been nothing more than a whole lot of smoke disguising little or no fire. As if she had quite deliberately painted the portrait of a woman who enjoyed men without getting serious about any of them.

That press conference, for instance – Jane found it completely out of character. Serena was a private woman, yet she had deliberately sought out public attention and had presented herself as, at best, a woman careless with both her good name and the feelings of others. It was a wildly inaccurate characterization, as any of her friends would have attested, yet Serena had seemingly cultivated it.

For some reason known only to herself, Serena coolly and methodically sacrificed her reputation in order to protect something more important to her.

That was the feeling Jane had, but as close as they were, Jane had never challenged her friend on that point. Serena had a way of laughingly, but quite firmly, discouraging questions about topics she preferred not to discuss, and her love life was definitely hands off even to her best friend. Yet Jane wouldn’t have been terribly surprised if Serena had confessed to being a virgin; there was a look of innocence in those bright green eyes, something unawakened, untouched.

Probably what attracted men so wildly, Jane had decided.

“Look at that,” Seth was saying disgustedly. “She practically had to pour him into his chair. Huh. She has muscle under that lovely skin.”

Jane wasn’t dismayed or made jealous by the remark; she had learned a long time ago that Seth’s appreciation of other women was aesthetic and impersonal.

“D’you think she’d sit for me?” he asked absently as he watched Serena coming toward them. That this sudden interest in Serena had come about because she had surprised him was characteristic of him. He generally preferred to paint people he didn’t know rather than those he did, claiming that foreknowledge of a subject clouded his artistic perception.

“Only if you appeal to her sense of self-discovery, not her vanity,” Jane advised. “Tell her you can show her something about herself she can’t see in a mirror, and I’d bet she wouldn’t hesitate to sit for you.”

Seth nodded slightly and rose to hold Serena’s chair for her, but when he spoke, it wasn’t to entice her to pose for him. “It would serve you right if he drooled all down your neck,” he said severely.

With a low laugh Serena said, “Well, he didn’t. I’ll have a slight bruise on the rear where he pinched me, but otherwise he was almost a perfect gentleman.” Then she lifted an eyebrow at Jane. “You owe me ten bucks.”

“What did he say?” Jane asked, forgetting everything but her eagerness to know about the grant.

Serena looked at Seth with a smile. “Congratulations.”

His thin face lit up, but he shook his head. “How much faith should you place in the word of a drunk?”

“Very little,” Serena agreed. “Which is why I’m glad he has the rough draft of the announcement in his pocket. The grant’s yours, kiddo.”

“I’m gonna go find some champagne,” Seth said delightedly. He kissed Serena’s cheek, then strode off in search of a bottle to celebrate his good fortune.

Jane had a streak of uncompromising logic in her nature, and that made itself apparent when she asked, “Why would he have a draft of the announcement in his pocket? It won’t be made until next week.”

“I don’t know,” Serena said, totally unconcerned. “But he has.”

“And how did you find it, pull it out, and read it while you were dancing without making Kane just a tad suspicious?” Jane wanted to know.

Serena widened her eyes innocently. “Isn’t it a good thing he’s so drunk, he never even noticed?”

Jane didn’t completely buy the answer, but as with so many of Serena’s answers, she found herself accepting it against her better judgment. She did want to ask if Serena was sure Kane wouldn’t figure out what she’d been after once he eventually sobered up, but Seth came bounding back to their table just then with champagne, and she let the subject drop.

Serena didn’t drink often, so perhaps the champagne went to her head. At least, that was her defense later.

It had all started innocently enough with the bet. Kane had been ridiculously simple to manage while they were dancing, drunkenly talking about how he’d written the draft of the announcement awarding the grant. It had been easy – once she’d gotten the address of his apartment out of him – to send for the paper and have it appear in Kane’s pocket.

That trick was so elementary, she’d been able to do it before she hit her teens.

Having brought the announcement to Kane, she’d had only to put her hand over his breast pocket to know what it said. And once she’d poured Kane back into his chair, it had seemed only humane to put him to sleep so he wouldn’t spend the rest of the evening offending people and pickling his liver.

She should have stopped there. Actually, what she should have done was skip the champagne, because it always made her reckless. But she had to toast Seth’s good fortune and share Jane’s happiness, and one thing led to another…

It was nothing major, she assured herself at various points throughout the evening. Just simple little things that hardly mattered. Besides that, a lot of these people were her friends, and friends helped each other.

So when one friend, while dancing with her, complained of having lost a treasured heirloom ring the day before, she sort of found it for him and placed it in his pocket – and hoped he’d check the pockets before he took the tuxedo to be cleaned. And when another friend talked to her about a very important business meeting she dreaded attending on Monday, Serena gave her a small gift of confidence.

Several other friends received modest gifts, as well, ranging from a boost of willpower to help a smoker kick the habit to the deft manipulation of a virus to keep another friend from becoming ill in the coming week.

Healing was by no means Serena’s strong suit. In fact, it had only recently been introduced into her potpourri of skills, and she had mastered just the rudiments. So the practice couldn’t hurt, she thought.

By eleven-thirty that evening Serena had consumed three glasses of champagne and had bestowed a number of “gifts.” She was standing alone near the bar, and was just about to send another little present winging across the room when a hand closed gently but firmly around her upraised wrist.

“No, Serena.”

The hand, large and long-fingered, was a powerful hand, a beautiful hand, and quite distinct. She would have known it anywhere.

She lifted her gaze to the man’s face, making her eyes wide and guileless. “No?”

“No.” His voice was deep, calm, resonant. A voice that made people sit up straighter and listen to whatever he had to say. “I believe you’ve done quite enough for one night.”

“I didn’t do anything major, Richard,” she protested.

Richard Merlin shook his head slightly, his lean, broodingly handsome face holding a touch of wryness. “No, of course not. You never do. They’re playing a waltz, Serena. Dance with me.”

Her wrist still held captive, Serena followed him out onto the dance floor, a bit amused that he hadn’t waited for her response. But then, why would he? He hadn’t asked – he’d commanded. As usual. Given their relationship, it wasn’t surprising, but Serena bore the seemingly high-handed attitude only because she knew very well Richard intended no domination of her personality when he commanded.

Both skilled and graceful, they danced well together and made a striking couple. It was rare they appeared as a couple at any social function; both usually brought dates to this kind of event. In fact, their public relationship as uncle and niece was so solid, few had ever questioned it – and those few were merely vaguely skeptical without being truly suspicious.

“I really didn’t do anything significant,” Serena insisted as they danced.

“Serena, how many times must I tell you that everything is significant? Every action, no matter how minor, could have unimaginable consequences.” The statement held the sound of a litany, often repeated, patient and unwavering.

She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, right, I know. Because the powerless people might notice, and they’d probably see us as a threat to them. And then it’d be the Salem witch hunts all over again, except that they’d use psychologists and scientists to try to dissect and denounce us instead of priests with dunking stools, thumbscrews, and the rack.”

He looked down at her for several beats, then said, “How much have you had to drink?”

“More than usual,” she admitted cheerfully. “Seth wanted to celebrate, and he kept filling my champagne glass. I could hardly say no.”

Merlin nodded. “Now I understand why you were dancing with Jeremy Kane earlier – to find out about the grant. I gather it will be awarded to Seth?”

“Yes, isn’t it great?”

“He deserves it. But did you have to pick a man like Kane from whom to get the information, Serena?”

“There was nobody else here who’s on the committee,” she explained ingenuously.

Merlin’s mouth twitched slightly, but his expression remained forbidding. “It’s never wise to tempt the fates, and ensnaring a newspaper reporter, even a drunk, is asking for trouble. How did you do it?”

She answered readily. “He said he’d typed up the rough draft of an announcement about the grant and left it at his apartment, so I just sent for it to come to his pocket.”

“And did you also send it back where it came from?”

Serena shook her head guiltily. “No, I… I forgot. I was so excited about Seth winning…” She turned her head to search the room. “But I left him at his table, so – “

“He’s gone.” Merlin sighed. “Guests who pass out at these functions are usually discreetly removed and sent home in a cab; Kane was carried out an hour ago.”

“Oh.” She cleared her throat. “Well, still, it won’t matter. He was so drunk, he’ll never be sure he didn’t stick the announcement in his pocket himself.”

“I hope you’re right,” Merlin murmured.

A bit unsettled by his frown, Serena said, “Richard, Kane’s a long way from the reporter he used to be. He hasn’t broken a story in fifteen years; I doubt he’d recognize one if it stood in front of him waving its arms. There’s no way he’ll get suspicious of me, I promise you.”

“I hope you’re right,” Merlin repeated.

The music changed smoothly just then, from a waltz to a much slower and more intimate beat. It enticed the dancers to move closer and speak in murmurs. The lights in the huge room, already fairly low, dimmed even more.

Merlin automatically shifted his hold on Serena, drawing her a bit closer as their steps slowed. No observer was likely to have mistaken them for lovers even then, but their nearness made Serena struggle inwardly not to tense in his arms. She tried to avoid situations such as this one, maintaining their necessary charade in public by treating Richard exactly as a niece would treat the uncle who had virtually raised her, with affection and the gentle mockery that came with it.

She was usually successful.

Now she spoke quickly to keep her mind off the sensation of his hand at the small of her back, and his body too close to hers.

“I’m surprised Kane’s the one you’re worried about, actually. I did a few other things tonight, you know.”

“Yes, I know,” Merlin replied dryly. “Remind me to keep you away from champagne from now on. I’ll remind myself to keep a closer eye on you.”

It was Serena’s turn to frown. “I don’t like the sound of that at all. I’m not a child anymore, Richard.”

He didn’t meet her eyes, but gazed past her, and when he spoke, there was an odd note in his voice she couldn’t define. “Yes, I know that, as well. But you still lack control. Self-control, perhaps.”

She felt ridiculously sulky. “I just wanted to help my friends. What’s wrong with that?”

The childishness of her words and tone drew his gaze back to her face, and he smiled. “In the general scheme of things, nothing at all. But you can’t help everyone, Serena. Besides that, people are meant to solve their own problems, to use their own abilities, skills, and intelligence. I’ve tried to teach you that. I’ve tried to make you understand that we can’t cure the ills of the world.”

Serena knew she still looked petulant; she could feel how far her bottom lip was sticking out. But she was honestly perplexed. “I don’t see why we can’t try. I mean, what’s so awful about me finding a lost ring for Thomas, or… or boosting Maggie’s confidence before a big meeting, or fixing it so that Chris doesn’t get the flu next week?”

Only the last part of the demand prompted Merlin’s concern. “The flu? Serena, you aren’t ready to heal yet.”

“I didn’t do anything major,” she repeated for what seemed like the hundredth time this evening. “And it wasn’t really healing, since he isn’t sick yet. I just made the virus inert, that’s all.”

Looking stern, Merlin said, “You must promise me to never again attempt any kind of healing until I say you’re ready. It’s the most complex skill you’ll ever learn, and demands a great deal more knowledge of human biology than you have yet.”

Sobered by his grave tone, she nodded. “All right, I promise.”

He relaxed visibly. Though she was a sometimes difficult pupil, Serena’s word was as good as gold.

“But what if I’ve already screwed up?” she went on, worried now. “I might have given poor Chris the bubonic plague or something even worse.”

“I doubt it. But I’ll check him before we leave, just to make sure.”

The band finished with a flourish then, and they went back to their table. Seth and Jane had disappeared, undoubtedly to celebrate further their good fortune, and Serena felt a stab of pure envy. Even with all the occasional hassles and confusions, their lives seemed so simple to her, and their relationship was so clear – and normal.

She wondered, not for the first time, if her friends could even begin to imagine how different her life was.

“I see Chris near the door,” Merlin said, draping Serena’s glittery evening shawl around her shoulders. As she turned to face him, he added slowly, “I don’t think…” He went very still, his black eyes almost glowing, they were so intense.

The look was familiar to Serena, but each time she saw it she felt respect and wonder and a great deal more, because at such times the incredible power in him was literally tangible. She stood gazing up at him, waiting, unaware that her heart was in her eyes for that brief moment, and that anyone who saw would have known a truth she had spent a great deal of effort to obscure.

Anyone would have known her secret – except the man she was looking at.

Merlin relaxed, then looked down at her. His eyes were still vibrant, though they no longer radiated so much of his inner power. “Chris is fine, Serena. You did turn the virus inert.”

She drew a quick breath. “Good. You had me worried there for a while. I sure won’t forget my promise, you can bet on that.”

He took her arm and began steering her toward an exit. “No, I’m sure you won’t.”

Serena looked up at him with curiosity as they wended their way from the ballroom and toward the front of the hotel. She kept her voice low and chose her words carefully, conscious of the other departing guests all around them. “You’ve never asked me to promise not to… urn… practice what you’ve taught me. The way I did tonight. Why not?”

Merlin didn’t answer, not until the valet had delivered his car and they were on their way home. Concentrating on the rain-slick streets as he handled the big Lincoln, he said slowly, “How could I ask you to promise you’d never use any of your powers without my approval? It would be like asking a young bird to promise not to fly. But I can insist that you learn the dangers of flying, along with the necessary skills needed to fly well. And I can do my best to guide you through the hazards.”

Serena didn’t respond to that out loud, but she thought about his words all the way home. Perhaps the effects of the champagne were wearing off, but in any case she felt decidedly guilty about her indiscriminate use of her powers.

The old Victorian house welcomed them with a number of lamps left burning. Most of its rooms were decorated with style and simplicity and were hardly different from any of the neighboring houses. The rooms that were different were kept locked whenever they had guests, and not even Merlin’s longtime housekeeper was encouraged to enter them.

Merlin strode toward one of those rooms as soon as they entered the house. His study. “We should work tomorrow,” he said to Serena, loosening his tie as he paused at the door and looked at her.

Answering the implicit question, she said, “I don’t have any plans for the weekend, so that’s fine.”

“Good. I’ll see you in the morning then.”

Serena said, “Good night,” but found herself addressing the dosing door of his study. She stood there for several moments, slowly removing her shawl. The house was very quiet.

It wasn’t unusual for Merlin to shut himself in the study and work far into the night, especially during recent months. Since his “normal” life and business occupied a great deal of his time during the day, his real life’s work had to be scheduled for odd hours, weekends, holidays, and vacations.

After nine years Serena no longer questioned his dedication, his strength, or his stamina. Whatever time and effort it took for Richard Patrick Merlin to make his unusual life succeed, he was prepared to give it. And then some. So he bought, sold, and developed real estate during the day, and with all his free time he worked to perfect his art.

It said much for his skills in both areas of his life that he had attained the level of Master wizard, the highest level possible, years before. In fact, long before Serena had come to study with him. At the same time, he had achieved a high degree of respect and esteem within the powerless community of Seattle.

None of whose citizens had any idea that an ancient art was practiced in their midst.

Serena gazed at the door for a few moments more, then went up the stairs to her bedroom. She undressed and changed for bed, took her makeup off and her hair down. She turned on the television to catch the late news, but paid little attention to the program as she moved restlessly around.

How much longer could she go on? The simple answer was – as long as necessary. Like Merlin, she grudged no time or effort in her quest to become a Master wizard; that had been her ambition from earliest childhood. But unlike him, she was constantly distracted and disturbed by… other matters.

Other matters. How laughably inadequate that phrase was, she reflected somewhat bitterly.

His powers set him apart from most men, and Serena thought her knowledge of his difference made him often seem somewhat remote, even with her. At least she hoped that was it.

He was the most powerful wizard to walk the face of modern-day earth, and that had to be a kind of burden even as it was an accomplishment matched by very few in all of history. Serena had long wanted to ask him if it was a burden, but she had always hesitated. She had, over the years, learned not to pry, not to ask personal questions. It was useless in any case; what Merlin chose not to answer, he simply ignored.

And so, wholly occupied with perfecting his art and passing the knowledge on to her, his Apprentice, he rarely, if ever, saw her as a woman. At best she was a young student with a great deal to learn, at worst a bothersome child.

Serena had learned to live with that, or thought she had. Nights like this one made her doubt it. There was a strong part of her, intensifying year by year, that demanded she make Merlin see her as the woman she was, and that part often let itself be known. But each time it happened, she sensed something in him she didn’t understand, something she couldn’t put a name to and was frightened by.

She had felt it in him tonight, so briefly, when she had reminded him she was no longer a child. And, as usual, she had reacted immediately and out of sheer instinct to right things between them once again. She’d felt driven to retreat, to reclaim childhood or at least a childish mood, to make him forget that he had glimpsed a woman.

The moment always passed, and with it that indefinable tension she felt in him. But more and more, Serena was left frustrated and bewildered, angry at him for some failing she couldn’t understand or even describe clearly to herself.

What was it? Was it something in Richard, as she sensed – or something in herself?

In the nine years of her apprenticeship, she had come to know him probably as well as anyone could. Publicly he had been her uncle and guardian; privately he’d been much more. He had been her parent, brother, teacher, companion, her harshest critic, and her best friend.

She had, at sixteen, fallen wildly in love with him. A natural enough thing to happen. That he seemed unaware of her feelings had puzzled her, but she had eventually come to understand that his ignorance stemmed from the same reason he had so instantly accepted a ragged, hungry, rain-soaked sixteen-year-old orphan as his pupil.

Her mind was completely shielded from him.

In time Serena was sincerely grateful for that innate protection. Merlin often knew what she was thinking for the simple reason that she tended to blurt out her thoughts, but he couldn’t read her mind. And aside from the benefits of hiding her childish fantasies from him, she also learned to respect the shield itself, for she discovered through Merlin’s absent remarks on the subject that few living souls could hide their thoughts and feelings from a Master wizard. It was a sign of great potential power, and not to be taken lightly.

But if her shield hid from him the chaotic emotions he evoked in her, it did nothing to help her cope with them. And because of that failing of his – that lacking, that missing something that made him refuse to see her as a woman – she had the added burden of feeling in limbo, suspended in some bewildering emotional purgatory between woman and child.

So Serena returned to the question once again. How much longer could she go on? The pressure was building inside her; she could feel it. She thought he felt it, too; his occasional business trips out of town had been more frequent with every passing year, and she had to believe the trips had something to do with the increasing tension that lay just under the tranquil surface of their lives.

If he had not been so often remote, especially in recent months, she might have gathered courage and brought up the subject. But he had been.

She couldn’t risk it. What she feared most was being sent away, being banished from his life. He was capable of such a merciless act, she thought, given a good enough reason. Though he had never been cruel to her and she had seen no evidence of it, she sensed a streak of ruthlessness in him – perhaps the price he paid for the incredible power he wielded.

Serena was too familiar with the scope of that power to have any wish to put her fate to the test. She wasn’t that desperate, not yet. But time was running out. The pressure was building, and something had to give.

Still ignoring the television that was now broadcasting some old movie with melodramatic music, Serena went to one of the windows and stared out. She felt very much alone, and oddly afraid.

It was raining again.


The blinding flash of pink, purple, and blue sparks was wrong, all wrong, and Serena winced even before the deep voice, coming from a dark corner of the room, could reprimand her.

“You aren’t concentrating.”

“I’m sorry, Master.” The proper humility, apology, and respect were present in her voice, but all were belied by the wry amusement shining in her vivid green eyes. In deference to him she was obedient to the longstanding rules governing the behavior of an Apprentice wizard – but only in this workroom. And only when he was teaching her.

From the very beginning she had refused to assume any kind of subservient manner, and Merlin had been wise enough not to insist on many of the ancient and decidedly outdated customs between Master and Apprentice.

“Why aren’t you concentrating?” He emerged from the shadows where he’d been observing and stepped into the candlelight, showing her the lean, handsome face and brooding dark eyes of her Master wizard.

“I just have a lot on my mind, I guess. The party last night, for instance,” she explained, gesturing idly with one hand and jumping in surprise when a thread of white-hot energy arced from her index ringer to ignite a nearby lampshade.

Merlin hastily waved a hand, and both watched as water appeared out of thin air to douse the tiny fire. The Master turned to his Apprentice in exasperation, and Serena spoke quickly.

“I didn’t mean to do it.”

“That,” Merlin said witheringly, “is the whole point.”

Gazing in admiration at the dripping lampshade, Serena ignored the point. “Why won’t you teach me to summon water? I can summon fire so easily, it’s only logical that I should learn to put out my mistakes.”

Ignoring the request, Merlin said, “Stop saying summon, as if the elements are lurking about just waiting to be called to heel.”

Serena bunked. “I thought they were.”

“I know. But they aren’t.”


A brief spasm of frustration crossed Merlin’s face. “Serena, I can’t seem to get it through your head that wizards create. This is what sets us apart from witches, warlocks, sorcerers, and the other practitioners of… magic.” The definition was wholly unwilling; Merlin hated putting labels on anything, particularly his art. “We create. We do not need to harness existing elements. We are not limited to that.”

“All right. So teach me to create water.”


Serena sighed with regret and unsnapped the Velcro fasteners of her long, black Apprentice’s robe. Sweeping it out behind her, she sank down on one of the cushions scattered over the floor and contemplated her jean-dad legs. “I suppose you have a reason?”

Merlin, wearing his midnight blue Master’s robe, moved about the dim room, blowing out their working candles and turning on several lamps. Their workroom, tucked up on the third floor underneath the rafters of the house, was always dark owing to the fact that the small, narrow windows were always shuttered. So even though it was the middle of the day, some artificial light was necessary.

The candles were used during work for two simple reasons: they provided a more organic light; and the energy expended during the practice of the wizard’s art, particularly when the wizard was an Apprentice and lacked perfect control, tended to cause any nearby light bulbs to burst. In fact, those energies tended to play havoc with anything electrical, which was one of the reasons Merlin had chosen this attic room in which to teach Serena; it was as far as possible from most of the modern appliances in the house.

“Yes,” Merlin said in answer to her question. “My reason is a vivid memory of what happened the first time I allowed you to try and create fire.”

Her lips twitched, and Serena sent him a look from beneath her lashes. “That was years ago. I was just a rank beginner in those days. And besides, you put the fire out before it could do any serious damage.”

“True. However, I doubt my ability to hold back the floodwaters of your enthusiastic creation.”

Merlin unfastened his long robe and hung it over a stand in one corner of the room. like Serena, he wore beneath it jeans and a sweater, which revealed a tail, broad-shouldered form that held the considerable strength of well-defined muscles as well as might from less-obvious sources. Serena couldn’t help watching him, her expressive eyes still guarded by lowered lashes.

Though he might have been any age and looked to be about thirty-five, he was certainly in his prime. Still, Serena would not have dared to guess how many years – or lifetimes – he had put behind him. In response to a long-ago childish question, he had said with a grimace that he was quite mortal. She hadn’t believed it then, and wasn’t sure she did now.

He was a compelling man physically, attractive to women of all ages. The young ones found his face exciting, and the older ones imagined tragedy in his black eyes and thought he needed taking care of.

Serena knew better.

“I wouldn’t create a flood,” she assured him. “Maybe a little waterfall, but not a flood.”

Merlin gave her a look and opened his mouth to respond, but before he could say a word, the bulb in the lamp nearest Serena exploded with a pop. Only the shade kept her from being pelted with shards of glass.

“Serena, turn it off!”

“I know, I know.” She closed her eyes and concentrated on corralling her wayward energies, drawing them in, tamping them down, erecting a kind of barrier inside herself to hold them in. It was something that tended to happen after a lesson, this “spillover” of her energies, particularly when her concentration was erratic.

Merlin had repeatedly tried to teach her that there was indeed a “switch,” that she would someday be able to “turn off” her energies – something he had perfected long ago – but it was one skill Serena had failed to master.

She had, however, learned to restrain and cloak her energies well enough that she usually didn’t explode light bulbs or cause other electrical problems merely by walking past.

Merlin, alert in case she needed his instruction, waited until she relaxed and opened her eyes, signaling her success. He went to get a replacement bulb from a well-stocked closet. Serena watched him dispense with the broken pieces of the exploded bulb with a flick of his finger, then screw the replacement into the socket.

She couldn’t help smiling, reflecting silently that wizards were strange creatures, an odd mixture of ancient and modern. At least he was, and she seemed to be, as well. They used their powers in a peculiar patchwork of ways, often for the sake of convenience and yet in no recognizable pattern.

Serena herself had made up her bed with a sweep of her hand this morning, not because she was lazy or in the habit of doing it, but because she’d overslept and was in a hurry.

Physical gestures were not necessary to spell-casting, Serena had been surprised – and a bit disappointed – to learn; but the motions of the hands did tend to help focus concentration and were generally used, unless the wizard was in public or had some other reason for wishing to be inconspicuous. In any case Serena liked the ancient gestures.

They made her feel like a wizard.

As the new light bulb glowed to life, Merlin said almost absently, “Your powers are growing.”

She knew they were; she could feel it.

“Which makes it all the more vital that you learn to find the switch, Serena,” he continued, facing her again with a slight frown. “This spillover of energies – “

“I know, it’s a waste and a danger,” she recited.

Merlin’s frown deepened, but he shook his head a little in the traditional reluctant acceptance of teachers everywhere when they recognize a lack of attention in their pupils. He glanced at his watch – unlike Serena, he could wear one, and did, even though one of his many talents was a constant and perfect awareness of time.

“It’s almost noon; you wanted to break?”

“Yes.” Serena got up, shrugged out of her robe, and hung it near his. “Lunch. Rachel left a casserole for us, and I put it in the oven before we started this morning.”

Merlin tended to forget about unimportant things like eating when his mind was occupied with his work, but between them, Serena and their housekeeper kept most meals on a fairly regular schedule. Rachel came in daily except weekends, and kept the freezer well stocked with quick and easy-to-prepare meals for the days Richard and Serena were on their own.

It was up to Serena to make sure they observed regular meal times on weekends, and since she was almost always hungry, she rarely needed reminders herself. One delightful bonus of being a wizard, she had realized long ago, was an unusually high metabolic rate; expending as much energy as they did, both she and Merlin could eat anything they pleased, and tended to require more calories than normal people just to maintain their weights.

“Are you going out tonight?” she asked him as they descended the stairs.

“Yes. Dinner and a concert with Lenore Todd. How about you?” His tone was casual.

“No. I’m going to stay blamelessly at home tonight and study that manual of incantations you added to my reading list,” she replied lightly.

“Study but don’t practice,” he reminded her more or less automatically.

Serena didn’t say I know again, contenting herself with a nod. She was tired of saying it. She had been warned so often about not practicing new skills without Merlin’s being present that it was beginning to annoy her. He just couldn’t stop treating her like a child, she thought.

It didn’t help that she had felt a stab of jealousy about his date, even though she knew that he dated for the same reason she did – to maintain a normal appearance for friends, neighbors, and the rest of the society in which they lived. The importance of that appearance, made up of normal jobs and regular social activities and all the other trappings of an ordinary life-style, was something Merlin had explained to Serena when she had first come to study with him and they had created the fiction of blood relation and guardianship.

Serena had long ago come to the conclusion that her Master wizard was too obsessed with his art to be concerned with lesser pursuits. Besides, since so much of his energy was focused and quite literally expended on perfecting that art, there was undoubtedly little left over for women and sex.

That was what she had told herself at sixteen, and his habits over the years seemed to bear out that deduction. If he had affairs, there was certainly no sign of them, and since he tended to date women who were in Seattle only temporarily – for business or pleasure – gossip could only speculate on his prowess as a lover.

Serena refused to speculate. As an adoring teenager, she had convinced herself that he was a monk with his mind on a much higher plane, and nothing had happened to destroy that creation.

So there was no reason for her to feel jealous about Lenore Todd. The woman would be in Seattle only a week or so for an environmental seminar, according to what Merlin had told Serena when he’d met her a few days ago. He always told Serena about the women he dated, because she always asked, and there was always an indifferent note in his voice when he answered.

Serena listened for that indifference. And heard it this time. But the increasing tension and frustration she felt made it difficult for her to be reassured.

Though her turbulent emotions had made the previous night a rather miserable one, she had managed to sleep, and today she had managed – more or less – to assume her usual relaxed attitude toward Merlin. It was getting harder, though, for her to act as if nothing had changed, as if she were still that obsessed child who had crossed a country to find him, wanting nothing in life except to be a wizard.

Because something had changed. In Serena. Her determination to become a Master wizard had not lessened, but she had grown up these last years, and she had come to the realization that there was much more to life. To her life, anyway. She was a wizard, yes, but she was also a woman, even if Merlin couldn’t see that was true.

And it was getting very difficult for her to fight the resentment she felt every time he treated her like a child.

It was nearly noon on Saturday when Jeremy Kane fell off his couch. He struggled up, using the cluttered coffee table to lever himself back onto the cushions, and sat there for several minutes with his head in his hands. It was a familiar pose, his dizziness a familiar sensation, and he waited grimly for his head to stop spinning.

When it eventually did, he got up slowly and made his way into the narrow alley kitchen of his apartment. Mixing tomato juice and a few other ingredients, he made his usual pick-me-up and drank it down, then fixed another and carried the glass back into his cramped and messy living room.

He sat down on the couch again and pulled his loosened tie off, fumbled for the remote, and turned the television on. He switched to CNN out of habit, just in case anything interesting had happened in the world while he had been passed out. It took him three tries to wrestle his jacket off, and the sound of paper caught his attention even as he wondered at the unusual brevity of his hangover.

The dizziness had faded almost instantly, the nausea he usually felt was totally absent, and his mouth didn’t feel or taste like the bottom of a bird cage. Even though his pick-me-up was good, it wasn’t that good.

“What the hell?” he muttered, bothered, as always, by anything out of the ordinary. Even his voice sounded better than it had any right to, only a little raspy. Then he pulled the neatly folded paper from the inside pocket of his tuxedo jacket, unfolded it, and stared at it.

It was his rough draft of the announcement awarding the newspaper’s grant. When he had gone to the party last night, he had left the draft in his old manual typewriter, he was sure. Looking across the room to his small desk, he could clearly see the top of the typewriter even over the usual clutter of newspapers, magazines, an empty pizza box, two cracked mugs half filled with cold coffee and cigarette butts, and the remains of a two-day-old microwavable dinner.

There was no paper in the machine.

Kane might have been a drunk, and he might have lost or squandered most of the raw talent that had made him a nationally recognized name at the tender age of twenty-five nearly two decades before, but he was not a stupid man, and he did not doubt either the evidence of his eyes or his memory – neither of which had ever failed him. And he had never drawn a blank after a night of drinking, even on those frequent occasions when any merciful God would have spared him the memories.

So he remembered the previous evening, and the only unusual thing he could call to mind was that Serena Smyth had asked him to dance. She had never done that before, even though they had been introduced years ago, and though he saw her at many of the high-ticket social and charity events in Seattle.

She had asked him to dance. And while they danced, she had sweetly encouraged him to talk about himself and what he’d been doing lately – a sneaky tactic if he’d ever seen one. She had even casually asked the address of his apartment, he recalled, which had made him grow an inch or two and had filled his head with something besides brains.

And then… And then he had a vague memory of leaning heavily on her as he staggered back to his chair, and falling into the sweet blackness of unconsciousness.

Had Serena brought him home? Why on earth would she? Just to get her hands on this announcement? There didn’t seem to be any other reason. She certainly hadn’t stripped him, had her way with him, and then put his clothes back on before leaving. He would have remembered that even if he’d been nearly dead.

No; it had to be the announcement. But why? She was friendly with Seth Westcott and his girlfriend, Kane knew that well enough, but it didn’t seem likely she’d go to so much trouble just to find out what would be announced in a few days. And if she had brought him home to get an early peek at the announcement, then what would possess her to remove the draft from his typewriter and leave it in his jacket pocket – where he could hardly fail to find it?

Jeremy Kane didn’t like puzzles, and though his instincts might have dulled over the years, he could still recognize something that didn’t make sense. He also had so little going on in his life that even a minor mystery was a welcome thing – though that was something he didn’t like to think about. So he decided it wouldn’t hurt to find out more than he already knew about Miss Serena Smyth.

He placed a call to a private investigator in Seattle who owed him a few favors, and was lucky enough to catch the man in his office on a Saturday afternoon.

“Taylor, I need a favor,” he announced without preamble.

Brad Taylor groaned. “I’m not gonna dig up any more dirt on politicians for you, Kane,” he said quickly. “I’m sick of wading through the muck.”

“This is no politician, believe me. She’s sort of a society deb, near as I can figure. If you find even a few little bones in her closet, I’d be surprised. And don’t forget how much you owe me, Taylor.”

“Okay, okay. What do you need?”

“Everything you can find out about this woman. Her name is Serena Smyth.” He spelled it briskly, then added, on impulse. “And whatever you can find out about this guy she lives with, supposedly her uncle…”

Following an afternoon’s work, Serena took advantage of Merlin’s absence on Saturday evening to relax her guard somewhat, which was a relief. Since she never minded being alone, the quiet of the big house didn’t bother her, and she was perfectly happy fixing herself a light dinner, taking a long bath, and then curling up on her bed with the television turned low and a big, very old leather-bound volume of incantations open before her.

She was tempted to practice a few of the more interesting spells, but contented herself with memorizing those she especially wanted to remember. After all, you never knew when you had to tame the wildest animal or turn an enemy into a toad.

The book was so fascinating that Serena passed a pleasant evening, and since she was tired by the long day of honing her abilities, she went to bed before midnight – and long before Merlin came home.

The next day was virtually a repeat of Saturday, with lessons in the attic workroom in the morning, a break for lunch, and then more lessons in the afternoon. Nothing out of the ordinary happened until they were eating supper early that evening, at the kitchen table rather than in the more formal dining room, since it was just the two of them.

Serena brought up the subject, having come across at least three incantations regarding the control of weaker minds in her studies the previous night.

“I thought you told me that mind control was beyond our capabilities, that we could only do fairly simple things – boost willpower or self-confidence or induce sleep, but never truly control the mind of someone else.”

“Gray’s Spells and Incantations!” Merlin said, naming the book she had studied.

“Uh-huh. According to him, it’s fairly easy to control another mind, especially a weaker one. But he seems to have his doubts about making people do something that’s completely against their core morality. Sort of like the limitations people believe about hypnosis, I guess.”

Merlin nodded and said, “I did tell you we could never completely control another mind, which is quite true. Momentary control is possible, at best, but it’s almost always imperfect. The human mind is too complex to be fully controlled. And it’s a dangerous device to use without great care.”

“Is that why you haven’t taught me?”

A bit dryly Merlin said, “Alphabetically, mind control comes after invisibility, which is what we were working on yesterday and today.”

Unwilling to let him get away with that, Serena said, “You called it vanishing, and so did my manual, which puts me near the end of the alphabet – and well past M or C.”

Merlin sighed, giving up the attempt to placate her. “It’s a difficult device, Serena, and I just don’t think you’re ready yet.” He often used the word device when referring to a spell or incantation; it was another way he had of avoiding magical terms for their art.

She looked down, pushing creamed corn around on her plate and feeling annoyed. It was easy for her to get annoyed these days, and knowing her irritation stemmed from other things did nothing to lessen it. “Yeah, I’m not ready for anything challenging, according to you.”

“You couldn’t vanish,” he murmured.

Serena didn’t look at him. He sounded amused, and if she looked at him and saw him smiling, she would either say something she’d undoubtedly be sorry for later or throw her corn at him, she decided mutinously. “It was my first lesson,” she said. “Give a girl a chance.”

After a moment of silence he spoke in a very conversational tone. “Can you read my mind, Serena?”

She did look up then, startled out of her funk. “I don’t know. I’ve never tried.” Oddly enough, she really hadn’t.

“Do so.”

Obediently, Serena put down her fork, folded her hands in her lap and closed her eyes, and rather hesitantly sent her mind wandering. She fully expected to find herself blocked by Merlin’s mental shields; just as her powers guarded her thoughts from even a Master wizard, so would his screen his mind from her probing. At least that was what she expected.

She felt nothing for a moment, but then, as if a curtain blocking her mind’s eye were suddenly swept aside, she saw herself. Sitting. Eyes closed, face calm. And she felt a peculiar, unfamiliar spring-coiled vitality in her lean body. A different weight distribution. A consciousness of muscle and sinew and incredible, living power contained by a strong, masterful, and confident hand. Her eyes widened, but they weren’t hers somehow. There was surprise, yet it wasn’t hers, either. There was a feeling of being enclosed in a strong, warm embrace, and seeing through black eyes…

Get out, Serena.

Steely. Polite.

Hastily, she climbed back into her own body, confused. What on earth had she done? Her eyes – her own eyes – opened slowly, cautiously. He was watching her with an intent, searching stare, and despite his composed expression, she had the notion that he was deeply shaken.

“What… what did I do?” she asked uncertainly.

“You didn’t read my mind. You were in my mind. Inside my head, my consciousness.”

She blinked. He didn’t sound angry, only thoughtful. Apparently his shield would allow her in, and even allow her to sense some of his emotions, while still protecting his thoughts. “I was? Did you… um.. , could you…”

“Read your thoughts? No. As always. I merely felt your presence, curious and – ” He broke off and looked away from her, leaving the rest unsaid. “Interesting,” he murmured finally.

Serena tried and failed to read his expression, but she had that feeling again, the perception of a sudden withdrawal in him. She had surprised him, somehow unsettied him, and as usual he was pulling away, closing himself off from her as if she posed some kind of threat.

She was positive that if she were to try now to read his mind, she would find no way in at all.

She wanted to confront him right then and there, to tell him she felt his remoteness, and to demand to know what caused these swift, silent retreats of his. Had she somehow reminded him she was no longer a child, or was she entirely wrong about that being the cause of his withdrawal? What’s wrong with me? What am I doing to make you go all cool and distant?

But she didn’t confront him. Instead, as always, she instinctively tried to find some cautious path back to the comfortable and familiar relationship they had established over the years.

In a light, wry tone she said, “If you were trying to make a point, you succeeded. Obviously I’m not ready for any kind of mind skill.”

“One step at a time, Serena.”

She didn’t wince because she had her features under control, but the aloofness in his deep voice cut her like a knife. Holding her own voice as steady and light as before, she said, “And patience is a virtue, I know. Well, I’ll just concentrate on vanishing until I’ve mastered that.”

Merlin rose to carry his plate to the sink. “A good idea. But no more studies tonight, I think. Don’t you have an early meeting tomorrow?”

Serena’s “normal” job was as an assistant office manager at an engineering firm, which she found pleasant enough but not especially challenging. She could have been a part of Merlin’s real estate business – he had left it up to her – but she had reluctantly decided to avoid the appearance of being always in his company.

“Yes, at eight,” she answered.

He nodded and said, “There’s some work I should finish up in my study tonight.” Then, rather abruptly, he added, “I have to go out of town for a day or two, probably tomorrow or Tuesday. Will you be all right?”

“Of course.” It wasn’t unusual for him to go out of town, and as for as she knew, he always went alone. Serena had asked only once where he went; he had ignored the question, and she had never asked again. She could only assume he had business of some kind, or that, perhaps, his trips concerned activities known only to Master wizards.

“Good. I’ll see you in the morning, Serena.”

“Yes.” She remained there at the table, reminding herself steadily that his remoteness would likely be gone by morning. Or, at the very latest, when he returned from his trip. Then things would be back to normal between them.

After a while she got up and carried her plate to the sink. She straightened up the kitchen, then went to her room. It was far too early for sleep, but Serena got ready for bed anyway, and curled up with the book of incantations once again. But this time the book failed to hold her attention – until she idly looked for some reference to what she had experienced in the attempt to read Merlin’s mind.

Nothing. As far as Gray’s Spells and Incantations was concerned, inhabiting the mind of another individual didn’t seem possible. There was no spell, and no mention whatsoever of the trick, which left Serena puzzled and uneasy. Was that why Merlin had been upset? Because she had inadvertently done something objectionable or unique?

Serena fully intended to ask him about that, but when she went down to breakfast early the next morning, he had already gone.

“He said he’d be at the office for a few hours, and then off on one of his trips,” Rachel said placidly. Middle-aged and utterly unflappable, she had been Merlin’s housekeeper for years; exactly how many she never said, and she’d only smiled when Serena had asked her bluntly.

“He said it would just be overnight,” Rachel continued, “to expect him tomorrow evening, probably in time for supper. Did he tell you?”

“Yes. But he wasn’t specific about when he’d return.”

“I imagine he didn’t know for sure himself last night,” the housekeeper offered tranquilly as she set Serena’s breakfast in front of her.

“No, I guess not,” Serena responded a bit hollowly. She couldn’t help thinking that Merlin had known, that he had decided on this trip simply because his mental and emotional withdrawal from her hadn’t allowed him enough distance. And she still didn’t know what she had done wrong’…

His fingers touched her breasts, stroking soft skin and teasing the hard pink nipples. The swollen weight filled his hands as he lifted and kneaded, and when she moaned and arched her back, he lowered his mouth to her flesh. She tasted faintly of salt, but more of woman, a taste that aroused him further and yet drew a hazy curtain across his mind. He stopped thinking. He felt. He felt his own body, taut and pulsing with desire, the blood hot in his veins. He felt her body, soft and warm and willing. His mouth toyed with the beaded texture of her nipple, sucking as if commanded by instinct. He felt her hand on him, stroking slowly, her touch hungry and assured. Her moans and sighs filled his ears, and the heat of her need rose until her flesh burned. His hand slid down her rippling belly to cup her, fingers probing her swollen wetness, testing her readiness. The tension inside him coiled more tightly, making his body ache, until he couldn’t stand to wait another moment. He spread her legs, positioning himself between them. Her hand guided him eagerly, and the hot, slick tightness of her sheath surrounded him. He sank his flesh into hers, feeling her legs close strongly about his hips. Expertly, lustfully, she met his thrusts, undulating beneath him, her female body the cradle all men returned to. The heat between them built until it was a fever raging out of control, until his body was gripped by the inescapable, inexorable drive for release and pounded frantically inside her. Then, at last, the heat and tension drained from him in a rush, and he heaved at the intense pleasure of pouring himself into her…

Serena sat bolt upright in bed, gasping. In shock, she stared across the darkened room for a moment, then hurriedly leaned over and turned on the lamp on the nightstand. Blinking in the light, she held her hands up and stared at them, reassuring herself that they were hers, still slender and pale and tipped with neat oval nails.

They were hers. She was here and unchanged. Awake. Aware. Herself again.

She could still feel the alien sensations, still see the powerful bronzed hands against paler, softer skin, and still feel sensations her body was incapable of experiencing simply because she was female, not male –

And then she realized.

“Dear God… Richard,” she whispered.

She had been inside his mind, somehow, in his head just like before, and he had been with another woman. He had been having sex with another woman. Serena had felt what he felt, from the sensual enjoyment of soft female flesh under his touch to the ultimate draining pleasure of orgasm. She had felt what he felt.

She drew her knees up and hugged them, feeling tears burning her eyes and nausea churning in her stomach. Another woman. He had a woman somewhere, and she wasn’t new because there had been a sense of familiarity in him, a certain knowledge. He knew this woman. Her skin was familiar, her taste, her desire. His body knew hers.

Even Master wizards, it seemed, had appetites just like other men.

Serena felt a wave of emotions so powerful, she could endure them only in silent anguish. Her thoughts were tangled and fierce and raw. Not a monk, no, hardly a monk. In fact, it appeared he was quite a proficient lover, judging by the woman’s response to him.

On her nightstand the lamp’s bulb burst with a violent sound, but she neither heard it nor noticed the return of darkness to the room.

So he was just a man after all, damn him, a man who got horny like other men and went to some slut who’d spread her legs for him. And often. His trips “out of town” were more frequent these last years. Oh, horny indeed…

Unnoticed by Serena, her television set flickered to life, madly scanned through all the channels, and then died with a sound as apologetic as a muffled cough.

Damn him. What’d he do, keep a mistress? Some pretty, pampered blond – she had been blond, naturally – with empty, hot eyes who wore slinky nightgowns and crotchless panties, and moaned like a bitch in heat? Was there only one? Or had he bedded a succession of women over the years, keeping his reputation here in Seattle all nice and tidy while he satisfied his appetites elsewhere?

Serena heard a little sound and was dimly shocked to realize it came from her throat. It sounded like that of an animal in pain, some tortured creature hunkered down in the dark as it waited helplessly to find out if it would live or die. She didn’t realize that she was rocking gently. She didn’t see her alarm clock flash a series of red numbers before going dark, or notice that her stereo system was spitting out tape from a cassette.

Only when the overhead light suddenly exploded was Serena jarred from her misery. With a tremendous effort she struggled to control herself.

“Concentrate,” she whispered. “Concentrate. Find the switch.” And for the first time, perhaps spurred on by her urgent need to control what she felt, she did find it. Her wayward energies stopped swirling all around her and were instantly drawn into some part of her she’d never recognized before, where they were completely and safely contained, held there in waiting without constant effort from her.

Moving stiffly, feeling exhausted, Serena got out of bed and moved cautiously across the room to her closet, trying to avoid the shards of glass sprinkled over the rug and the polished wood floor. There were extra light bulbs on the closet shelf, and she took one to replace the one from her nightstand lamp. It was difficult to unscrew the burst bulb, but she managed; she didn’t trust herself to flick all the shattered pieces out of existence with her powers, not when she’d come so close to losing control entirely.

When the lamp was burning again, she got a broom and dustpan and cleaned up all the bits of glass. A slow survey of the room revealed what else she had destroyed, and she shivered a little at the evidence of just how dangerous unfocused power could be.

Ironically, she couldn’t repair what she had wrecked, not by using the powers that had destroyed. Because she didn’t understand the technology of television or radio or even docks, it simply wasn’t possible for her to focus her powers to fix what was broken. It would be like the blind trying to put together by touch alone something they couldn’t even recognize enough to define.

To create or control anything, it was first necessary to understand its very elements, its basic structure, and how it functioned. How many times had Merlin told her that? Twenty times? A hundred?

Serena sat down on her bed, still feeling drained. But not numb; that mercy wasn’t granted to her. The switch she had found to contain her energies could do nothing to erase the memory of Richard with another woman.

It hurt. She couldn’t believe how much it hurt. All these years she had convinced herself that she was the only woman in his life who mattered, and now she knew that wasn’t true. He didn’t belong only to her. He didn’t belong to her at all. He really didn’t see her as a woman – or, if he did, she obviously held absolutely no attraction for him.

The pain was worse, knowing that.

Dawn had lightened the windows by the time Serena tried to go back to sleep. But she couldn’t. She lay beneath the covers, staring up at the ceiling, feeling older than she had ever felt before. There was no limbo now, no sense of being suspended between woman and child; Serena knew she could never again be a child, not even to protect herself.

The question was, How was that going to alter her relationship with Merlin? Could she pretend there was nothing different? No. Could she even bear to look at him without crying out her pain and rage? Probably not. How would he react when she made her feelings plain, with disgust or pity? That was certainly possible. Would her raw emotion drive him even farther away from her? Or was he, even now, planning to banish her from his life completely?

Because he knew. He knew what she had discovered in the dark watches of the night.

Just before her own shock had wrenched her free of his mind, Serena had felt for a split second his shock as he sensed and recognized her presence intruding on that intensely private act.

He knew. He knew she had been there.

It was another part of her pain, the discomfiting guilt and shame of having been, however unintentionally, a voyeur. She had a memory now that she would never forget, but it was his, not hers. She’d stolen it from him… And of all the things they both had to face when he came home, that one was likely to be the most difficult of all.

The only certainty Serena could find in any of it was the knowledge that nothing would ever be the same again.


Tuesday was a very unsettling day for Serena. Preferring to keep busy, she went to work as usual, despite her shortage of sleep. But she couldn’t keep her thoughts off Merlin and what had happened the night before. Still, she had years of practice in maintaining a normal facade, and that enabled her to get through the day without disgracing herself by bursting into tears or snapping at everyone she encountered.

At least the “switch” she had finally discovered remained firmly off, which kept her inner turmoil from manifesting itself in another dangerous release of unfocused energies. For that she was grateful.

But a bad day was made immeasurably worse when she found Jeremy Kane waiting in the lobby of her office building.

“Hello, Kane.” Everyone who knew him, even women, called the reporter by his last name.

“Serena.” He was smiling. “If you have a few minutes, I’d like to talk to you. There’s a coffee shop just across the street. Shall we?”

His manner was less abrupt than usual, and all her instincts went on alert. She didn’t like his uncharacteristically pleasant smile, and there was a gleam in his eyes that made her want to hold on tight to her purse. But Serena knew she had taken a risk on Friday night, and if there was going to be fallout, she intended to deal with it herself.

The last thing she needed right now was an I-told-you-so from Merlin.

Besides that, she was curious about what the reporter had in mind, so she willingly accompanied him into the coffee shop. They were shown to a booth in a corner, fairly private in the less-than-crowded shop, and Kane talked desultorily about the weather (overcast, as usual), politics (screwed up, as usual), and the latest best-seller (his name wasn’t on the cover, so he hated it) until their coffee came.

“What’s on your mind, Kane?” Serena asked after the waitress left. Ordinarily she would have let him get around to it in his own time, but she wanted to hurry home and see if Merlin had returned.

Kane sipped his coffee for a moment, pale blue eyes fixed on her face. He wasn’t a bad-looking man, but the wear and tear of nearly twenty years of a downhill slide was stamped into his. features, lending them an oddly blurred, indistinct appearance that was a bit unsettling.

“Did you take me back to my apartment Friday night, Serena? After our dance?” he asked finally in a very casual tone.

As she assumed an expression of surprise, her mind worked very swiftly, examining the question and recalling every one of her own actions. Of course she knew why he was asking: because he had most likely found the draft of the announcement in his pocket and, obviously remembering she’d been with him before he passed out, had concluded that she was somehow responsible. The most logical answer, naturally, was that she had accompanied or followed him home and had, for some reason, left the paper in his pocket for him to find.

“Why would I have done something like that?” she asked in a puzzled voice.

“Never answer a question with a question.”

“No, I didn’t take you back to your apartment. I repeat, why would I? A dance is one thing, Kane, but we certainly don’t know each other that well.”

He didn’t lose his smile. “Why did you ask me to dance, by the way? I’m hardly your type.”

Gently, Serena said, “Somebody dared me to, Kane. Sorry about that, but I’ve never been able to resist a dare.”

“And did this somebody also dare you to ask me what my address was while we danced?”

So he remembered that, too, dammit. “Your address,” she replied, “is in the phone book. I looked it up months ago when I was chairing that committee and needed a speaker. Don’t you remember?”

Judging by his tightened lips and narrowed eyes, it appeared he had forgotten that. So had she, as a matter of fact, until just now.

Going on the offensive, Serena shook her head and said, “I don’t know what you’re after, Kane, but if this is the way you react after a woman asks you to dance, it’s no wonder you don’t get invited very often.”

He ignored the latter part of her statement. “What I’m after? Answers, Serena. I’m a very curious man. I’d like to know, for instance, just who you are. You certainly weren’t born Serena Smyth – that much I’ve found out. I believe you took the name, legally, at sixteen. That was after you came to Seattle, of course, and moved in with Richard Merlin.”

She allowed one of her eyebrows to climb in mild amusement. “You make a perfectly innocent and commonplace act sound criminal, Kane. So I changed my name – big deal. If you must know, after my drunken father wrapped his car around a telephone pole when I was six and made me an orphan, I was passed from relative to relative for ten years. That was when I ran away.”

“To Merlin,” he said in a silky tone.

Serena ignored the tone. “To Richard. I decided to change my name, since I was old enough and since I wanted nothing further to do with any of my other relatives.”

“Other relatives? So you still claim he’s an uncle?”

She smiled. “No, he’s actually some kind of third cousin. But calling him an uncle simplifies matters. Are you planning a story for the tabloids, Kane? One of those juicy headlines like, ‘Uncle and Niece in Incestuous Relationship’? Why don’t you just write that I’m going to have Elvis’s baby? Or an alien’s, maybe.”

He flushed an ugly red. “I think the society page would be interested in the story,” he said tightly. “Wouldn’t all your tight-assed friends just love to know the real relationship between you and Merlin?”

Serena couldn’t help it; she giggled. “Sorry, Kane, but you seem to have lost track of what really matters to people these days. Do you think you’re the first to suspect Richard and I are lovers? Don’t be ridiculous; those rumors pop up about once every year or so, as regular as clockwork, until something else comes along to stir up interest.” Because she made very sure to distract anyone who suspected the relationship was in any way unusual.

“Can you deny it?” he snapped.

She looked him straight in the eye and replied with a calmness that was far more convincing than histrionics would have been. “Of course I deny it. Richard has been a lot of things to me, but never my lover.”

“Maybe not,” Kane insisted, “but there’s something screwy in your relationship. What name were you born with, Serena? The court documents are sealed, oddly enough.”

“Oddly? You know, for an investigative reporter, you seem to have a blind spot regarding facts. I was a minor; of course the court documents are sealed. The name I was born with is no longer mine, and is certainly none of your business. As for my screwy relationships – with Richard or anybody else – they also are none of your business.”

“I’ll find out what I want to know,” he warned her softly. “Sooner or later I’ll find a way through all the walls I keep hitting in Merlin’s background. And it’s just a matter of time until I figure out all your secrets. There’s a story here somewhere, Serena. I can smell it.”

Serena slid out of the booth and smiled pleasantly at him. She had kept her cool easily until he mentioned a search into Merlin’s background, and then she had felt a surge of anger mixed with worry. That was all she needed, to have unintentionally put this story-hungry reporter onto Merlin’s trail.

“The only story here concerns a desperate search for lost glory, Kane,” she said. “And it’s a bit pathetic, you know. If you can’t find something a hell of a lot more important than us, then it’s no wonder you’ve fallen so far. Thanks for the coffee, and don’t get up.”

She walked away without a backward glance, which was a pity. If she had looked back, she might have seen the look of obstinacy on his face. And it might have warned her.

Serena got home to find that Merlin had not yet returned. She changed out of her business suit and into slacks and a sweater, went into the kitchen long enough to say hello to Rachel and fix herself a glass of iced tea, then wandered back to the entrance hall. Merlin’s study opened into this foyer, and Serena headed toward it, intending to look for another of the books on her reading list.

Two feet from the door she suddenly stopped as though she’d run into a wall.

The study was always locked except when he was in it, but Merlin had never barred the room to his Apprentice. The lock was easy for her to undo, since it was intended only to keep out Rachel and any visitor to the house who might find the contents of the room a bit odd. But the door was blocked now by something a great deal stronger than the impotent man-made lock. And no Apprentice wizard could breach that barrier.

After several moments Serena retreated to the stairs and sat down on the third tread, staring toward that solid oak portal and fee