We liked this beginning but ultimately decided it needs something more. We we’ve cut this scene and reworked it. Here it is, a never before and never again published opening. We tried but couldn’t find the image of the right building available to purchase, so we are linking to it here, because we have no right to display it.
I was swimming through the warm water of the Gulf when someone knocked on the sky. The bright little fishies following me scattered, the crystal-clear water vanished, and I landed on the sand.
The sky above me shuddered. Boom, boom, boom.
The dream tore like wet tissue and for a disorienting moment I didn’t know where I was. Slowly the familiar contours of my bedroom came into focus through the gloom. The alarm clock on my nightstand glowed with bright red. 2:07 am.
Someone was pounding on my door.
“Catalina!” my sister yelled. “Get up!”
The plane. Panic pierced me. I jumped out the bed, sprinted across the bedroom, and flung the door open. “Did the plane go down?”
I sagged against the doorframe in relief. Our older sister, Nevada, her husband, and her mother-in-law were flying to Spain for a funeral. Over the ocean. It caused me no end of anxiety.
“The plane is fine,” Arabella told me.
“Then what is it?”
Arabella’s face was flushed, and her blonde hair stuck out from her head in weird directions. She wore an old, stained Sailor Moon t-shirt and her basketball shorts were on backwards.
“Augustine is downstairs.”
“Augustine who? Augustine Montgomery?”
I snapped out of my relief back into full alert. “Why?” Why in the world would the Head of House Montgomery be downstairs, in the middle of the night?
“He wants to see you. He says it’s an emergency. There is another Prime with him. Hurry up before mom shoots him.”
She turned around and ran down the stairs leading from my loft suite to the rest of the warehouse.
Augustine was absolutely the last person I expected to be in our office at two o’clock in the morning. Something terrible had happened.
I looked at myself. I wore an oversized grey t-shirt that came to my knees and said I ♥ Sleep. No time to change. I ran down the stairs barefoot and followed my sister into a wide hallway. The light in the media room was on, casting a warm electric glow and illuminating the way just enough to see.
Twelve years ago, my father had been diagnosed with MPNST. A malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumor. The disease was incurable, but we tried anyway. As we scrambled to buy him more time, we sold our house and moved here, into a warehouse in an industrial park. Nevada, who was seventeen at the time, took over the family business, the Baylor Investigative Agency, and the rest of us, my mom, Grandma Frida, my younger sister Arabella, and our two cousins, Bern and Leon, did our best to help.
Augustine Montgomery was an integral part of that equation. We hadn’t just sold the house. We also mortgaged our business to Montgomery International Investigations and hid that fact from Dad, because it would’ve killed him faster than any cancer. It took us years to get out from under Augustine’s thumb. He had no business being here asking for me. No matter what it was, I had to send him packing.
The hallway ended in a wall and just to the left a door led to a small section of the warehouse designated as the Baylor Agency’s office. The entire family congregated in front of the door, all except Mom.
Grandma Frida, thin, tan, with a halo of platinum curls, looked worried. Bern, my oldest cousin, resembled a bear awakened halfway through his hibernation, big, muscular, his dark blond hair disheveled. He was holding a tablet that looked too small for his hands. Next to him, Leon, his younger half-brother and complete opposite, leaned on the wall, totally awake. Lean and dark haired, Leon was a ball of wiry energy, his dark eyes alert and sharp. And, he still wore the jeans and t-shirt I had seen him in last night. Either he fell asleep in his clothes, or he felt the need to be fully dressed at two o’clock in the morning for some nefarious reason. Leon didn’t have any other kind of reasons.
Ahead of me, Arabella darted up the stairs and into her bedroom and emerged with a huge Texas A&M sweatshirt. She threw it at me. “Boobs.”
Bern woke up enough to roll his eyes. I pulled the sweatshirt on, hiding the fact that I wasn’t wearing a bra. “Who’s with Augustine?”
Bern turned the tablet toward me. On it, security camera footage showed our conference room and two men, both in tailored suits. One, Caucasian, his face shockingly beautiful, with hair such a pale blond, it was almost white, sat in a chair. Augustine Montgomery, Illusion Prime, head of House Montgomery and owner of MII.
Augustine wore a pair of dark pants, a black turtleneck, and a designer black leather jacket. The world had to be close to an end, because I had never seen him without his suit.
The other man, African-American, tall, older, with short curly hair salted with grey, paced back and forth. Expensive black trousers, pale sand-colored T-shirt, loose blue jogging jacket. Everything was of excellent quality and none of it matched. Looked like he got dressed in a hurry and just grabbed the first items he found.
Mom watched them both from the other side of the table, her arms crossed. She chose this spot because that’s where the holster for a hidden gun was attached under the table.
“What’s in the holster?” I asked. Normally it was empty. We didn’t leave loaded guns around the house. But she would have put something in there before letting them in.
“Desert Eagle 50,” Leon said.
The largest legal caliber for a handgun in the US, the Desert Eagle could send a round through a full refrigerator and kill a person on the other side. Mom wasn’t taking any chances.
Bern tapped the tablet and the screen split, the right half showing the feed from the conference room and the left displaying a photograph of the man with Augustine. He looked to be in his mid-fifties, with an intelligent, expressive face, and he smiled at the camera as if he lived a full, rich life and enjoyed every minute of it.
“Carter Anderson,” Bern said. “Psionic Prime, Head of House Anderson.”
That explained the Desert Eagle. Psionics were combat mages with the ability to overwhelm minds. They could make you go blind and deaf, they could force you to flee in panic, or they could subject you to horrible agony. If Mr. Anderson twitched the wrong way, Mom would put a .50 bullet right between his eyes.
“Why is he here?”
“No clue,” Bern said.
“They said they needed to talk to you,” Grandma Frida said. “All the drama. It’s like Primes don’t have phones or something.”
I took a deep breath, opened the door, walked into the office and shut the door behind me. As of two hours and ten minutes ago, I turned twenty-one, reaching the official age of Prime majority. I was now the Head of House Baylor. This was my responsibility. No need to put anybody else in danger.
Anxiety squirmed through me. Augustine was one of very few people outside the family who had seen me use my magic. I avoided displays of my power. My talent was so rare, that when I qualified as a Prime, the Keeper of Records had to create a new term for my power. Almost nobody knew what I did, and I wanted to keep it that way.
A trickle of panic tried to form somewhere deep in the pit of my stomach, a habit born from years of trying to avoid drawing attention to myself. I clamped down on it. I was a Prime and thanks to my Nevada’s mother-in-law, I’d had plenty of instruction on how to handle myself. Time to put those lessons to use.
Think Prime, Head of the House, Victoria Tremaine’s granddaughter, confident, dangerous, not afraid, annoyed… definitively annoyed.
I walked into the conference room with a slightly irritated expression. “Mr. Montgomery, while you’re always welcome in our home, it is the middle of the night.”
“My apologies.” Augustine rose. “This couldn’t wait. House Anderson is in crisis.”
Anderson stopped pacing. “My son is standing on the roof of the Memorial Herman Hospital Tower threating to jump. He is a Psionic Prime. He won’t let anyone near. Augustine says you can get him down.”
Oh good God.
Anderson fixed me with his stare. “What will it take? We’ll give you anything you want. Name it, it’s yours.”
“Mr. Anderson, this isn’t something I do.”
Anderson took a step toward me. “But you can do it.”
“Again, this isn’t something I have ever tried.”
“We are a powerful house,” Anderson said. “We never forget our friends. We honor our alliances and we pay our debts.”
If I jumped on that offer, it would make us look weak and desperate. I had to cut it off and sharply. “House Baylor has no need of additional alliances at this time.”
Behind Anderson Augustine raised his perfect eyebrows.
The man in front of me leaned closer. “It is within your power. All I ask is that you try. That’s all.”
His tone was persuasive, his expression reassuring. He must’ve realized that emotional appeal was his only option. His son was about to die, he was desperate, and he was using all the force of his personality, all his charm, all his confidence and authority to convince me.
“Please try to save my son. He is fifteen. His name is Caden.”
He held out his phone. On it, a skinny teenage boy smiled into the camera. “He likes video games. He has a dog, a chocolate lab. He likes the dance show, the Dance World Tournament.”
The desperation in his eyes was so raw, it hurt to look at him. “He’s a freshman in high school. I love him very much. His mother loves him very much. Right now, she’s standing by the tower, praying she doesn’t have to watch him fall and break like a doll on a hard pavement. He…”
I held up my hand. I couldn’t take anymore. “I don’t know if I can help you.”
His words came out ragged. “But will you try?”
If I tried and failed, there would be two grief stricken Psionic Primes who could turn all their agony and rage onto me. This was suicide. I didn’t even know them.
Somewhere in the city, a boy stood on a ledge, all alone and in the dark. So desperate and tired of life that he was willing to end it in the most painful way possible.
“Yes. I will try.”
“Are you sure?” my mother asked.
“Take Leon with you,” she said.
“No.” If this situation turned ugly, I didn’t want him getting hurt.
“I will bring her back safe and sound,” Augustine promised.
My mother gave him her sniper stare. “You do that.”
Augustine’s silver Bentley Bentayga sped south on Gessner road, guided by the chauffer in a black suit. It was after two a.m. and even the Houston roads were nearly deserted. The chauffer was squeezing every drop of speed out of the heavy armored car. Normally, the trip to Memorial Herman would take at least fifteen minutes. We would make it less than half of that.
Augustine rode in the front passenger seat, presenting me with a view of his blond head. I wasn’t a violent person by nature, but I really wanted to reach over and thump his thick skull. Because of him, I was now riding in a car in the middle of the night with two Primes wearing a sweatshirt over my sleepy t-shirt and a pair of sneakers. No socks. They were counting on me to save their child and I had no idea if I could do it.
Next to me, Mr. Anderson projected superb calm and confidence, none of which he probably felt. He reminded me of an older version of my brother-in-law. Rogan broke each crisis into manageable chunks and devoted all of his energy into overcoming them one at a time. Mr. Anderson solved the immediate problem – he convinced me to come with him – and now he was in a holding pattern until the next chunk of the crisis required his efforts.
I turned to him. “Before Mr. Montgomery volunteered my services, did he explain the side effects of my power?”
“I told him that Caden would be distraught when you left,” Augustine said.
I thought as much. I turned back to Anderson. “I will use my magic only as a last resort. If I do use it, Caden will need to be sedated immediately after. He won’t be distraught when I try to leave. He will be heartbroken. If you restrain him, he will fight you. He will fight your wife. If he sees me get into a car and leave, he will run after the vehicle until he dies or passes out.”
Anderson stared at the rearview mirror.
“Not to worry,” Augustine said. “It’s temporary. He’ll be fine.”
Such an expert on my powers. “Even if I manage to get him down safely, he will need immediate treatment. This is a one-time only rescue. The next time he sees me, there won’t be an element of surprise and he’ll likely jump.”
“It would help to know why he is up there.”
Anderson took a long moment, then answered. “He is having difficulties adjusting to high school. His middle school was small, exclusive, with an emphasis on nurturing the student’s individual strengths. His new school places emphasis on academic excellence and athletic achievements.”
“Is it Crownover?”
Anderson gave me a surprised look. He must have done a brief background check on me and hadn’t expected me to know what Crownover was. My family didn’t do elite schools. I graduated from Placeholder High just like other normal people.
“Yes, it’s Crownover.”
So, in other words, they took a fifteen-year-old boy, who already likely had emotional issues like most boys his age, out of a school where he felt safe and probably knew everyone and dropped him into a pool of hungry sharks.
It must have shown on my face, because Anderson said, “It’s a fine school. I went there, and my father was one of the first three black students there.”
Caden was a legacy, and of course, the rest of the students would find out about his grandfather and figure out a way to torture him with it. Crownover was the “it” high school for the children of Houston’s magical movers and shakers. My brother-in-law was over six-foot-tall, trained in martial arts, handsome, athletic, with a talent that was off the charts and wealth that made him one of the richest men in the state. Rogan had survived war, capture, and torture. But when he mentioned Crownover, his face kind of hardened. Augustine was also an alumnus and he wasn’t contributing to the conversation, which was rather telling.
“Caden said some things to his therapist,” Anderson added. “It was decided that it would be best for him to spend a night under observation.”
Except he was a Psionic and in emotional distress, and he ended up on the roof instead.
I glanced at the windshield and saw the futuristic crown on top of the Memorial Herman Tower, outlined with glowing red, white, and blue triangles shining against the ink-black sky. We were almost there.
The car pulled into the parking lot. A Hispanic man, his face frantic, ran to the car and swung Anderson’s door open. A blast of icy January air hit me. A cold front had come through and the temperature had dropped down to below thirties. My bare knees shook.
For an instant, Anderson’s expression was pure fear. “Did he?”
“Come on.” Anderson jumped out of the car.
I scrambled out of the vehicle, and Anderson flanked me, looming over me, as if afraid that I might run away. Wind tore at me.
Augustine caught up with us and we charged at a near run through the doors. A group of people waited by the bank of elevators, some in scrubs, others in professional clothes, and all wearing the same panicked expression. They saw us and squirreled out of the way, leaving behind a beautiful black woman in her forties wearing mismatched sweats. Tears streaked her face.
She saw us and met Anderson hallway. “You found her.”
“I did.” Anderson put his arms around her.
My phone chimed. I glanced at it. A screen shot from Bern. He’d found Caden’s story on Herald, the social network devoted to magic users. The last entry said, “My parents are getting a fucking divorce.”
Well, that explained it.
“Are you having a divorce?”
The Andersons started at me, shocked.
“What?” Mrs. Anderson asked.
“Your son thinks you’re divorcing.”
“We had a fight,” Mr. Anderson said. “About his school. There is no divorce.”
“Oh sweet Jesus.” Mrs. Anderson put her hand over her face.
Caden probably wouldn’t believe me if I told him.
“It’s time,” Augustine said, holding the elevator open.
I really wanted to turn around and run away and keep running into the night all the way home. But Caden was alone on the roof, I stepped into the elevator instead. The door slid shut. The last thing I saw were the Andersons looking at me like I was the answer to all of their problems.
The elevator hummed, carrying us forward, brightly lit and perfectly normal. I caught my reflection in the mirrored wall. I looked like I had just rolled out of bed. There was a touch of surreal in it all: me in my sweatshirt, standing next to impossibly perfect Augustine in an elevator of mirrors and electric lights. Maybe I was dreaming.
“When the doors open, turn left,” Augustine said. “Go to the door marked EXIT, and up one flight of stairs. There will be a metal door that will give you access to the roof.”
“And he’s just going to let me on the roof?”
“He is a line of sight psionic. He has to see you to target you, and he isn’t expecting a beautiful girl in her night gown, so you will have a brief window.”
“That is a terrible plan,” I told him.
“Caden is a gentle child,” Augustine said. “He will hesitate to hurt you. If he does, I’ll be there, and I will help.”
“If he sees you…”
“He won’t see me.”
The elevator doors swung open with a soft chime. I made a right and followed the hallway to the exit door and up the stairs. My hands shook.
The metal door handle felt ice cold under my fingertips. I pushed it and stepped onto the roof. The dark sky unfolded above me, impossibly huge and black, with the crown glowing against it. The frigid wind pierced me, going straight through me all the way to the bone.
Caleb was standing on the very edge of the roof, a thin figure in faded jeans and a hoodie, balancing on a concrete ledge. He seemed so very small against the night, like an ant on a skyscraper.
He turned and looked at me, his face lit by the neon glow of the crown. I saw certainty and relief in his eyes. He wasn’t relieved to see me. He was relieved because he made up his mind and decided to jump. I had no time.
“Tell mom I’m sorry—”
I hit him with everything I had.
When the Keeper of Records named my magic, he called me Siren, which fit me well, because like the sirens of legend, I called people to me and they couldn’t resist. And like ancient sirens, I had wings, beautiful wings nobody could see. They snapped open behind my back now, as the focused torrent of magic drenched Caleb.
He froze. His heels protruded an inch over the ledge. One slip and he would die.
“Caleeeeb,” I called him, turning his name into a sing-song lure.
He licked his lips nervously. “Hi.”
“Hello. My name is Catalina.” Magic stretched from me to him now and I wove more and more of it around him with every sound.
“You’re so pretty,” he said.
“Thank you. It’s cold and dark. Do you think we could go inside?”
He nodded, fascinated.
I held out my hand. “It’s scary up here. Will you hold my hand?”
He moved, stumbled, teetering on the edge, his arms waving… My heart jerked, trying to leap out of my chest.
Augustine materialized out of thin air next to Caleb, grabbed a handful of his hoodie and yanked him back onto the roof. Caleb landed onto concrete.
Holy crap. My knees almost gave out.
Caleb righted himself, walked over, took my hand, and offered me a shy smile.
I smiled back. “Let’s go inside.”
We went through the door and down the stairs with Augustine bringing up the rear. Sweat sheathed his flawless forehead. He was breathing like he’d ran up all thirty-three floors to the roof. Augustine Montgomery could turn himself invisible. Nevada would lose her mind when I told her.
We boarded the elevator. Caleb was holding my hand very gently, as if my fingers were made of glass. It wouldn’t last.
Most magic users had to put some effort into doing magic. I was the opposite. I had to hold mine in. My magic ruined lives.
When I was born, a nurse tried to kidnap me. In the years that followed, before I learned to control it, perfectly normal people would grab me and try to run away with me. Other children were encouraged to be cute, to perform for adults. If I smiled, the adults became mesmerized, and if I wanted them to like me, they would love me with obsessive intensity. Other children would cry hysterically when I left the playground.
Right now, Caleb loved me, madly, beyond all reason. Soon touching me wouldn’t be enough. He would want to hold me, crush me to him, rip out a lock of my hair to smell and taste. He’d want a piece of me to stroke and to bite.
The Keeper might as well have called me Orpheus. Sooner or later those who tasted my magic would want to tear me apart and they would love and worship every precious drop of my blood as they killed me. Only my family was immune. I didn’t need to magic them. They already loved me.
Augustine’s face jerked. The perfect mask faded slightly and beneath it I glimpsed a hint of a different face… The illusion snapped back in place. Augustine had reasserted control.
The elevator stopped. The doors swung open and Mrs. Anderson lunged to hug her child. Her arms closed around him, breaking Caleb’s hold on me.
Caleb screamed as if cut. It was a raw animal sound. His stunned mother let go and he dived at me and clamped my hand in his.
I really hit him hard. Normally I was much subtler, but I had no choice.
A man shouldered his way through the crowd, carrying a small medical case.
“Caleb,” I called.
He gazed at me with adoration in his eyes. I knew it was temporary, but even so, it made me cringe.
“That gentleman is going to give you a shot. I’m scared of shots. Are you?”
“No.” He shook his head. “No, I’m brave.”
“Will you show me how to be brave, Caleb?”
He held his arm out, his gaze fixed on me. I watched the needle go in. “You’ll feel a little sleepy in a minute. It’s okay to fall asleep.”
“I won’t leave,” I promised. “I will stay here and hold your hand.”