Today we bring you a fun snippet. You’ve read a little bit of this before, but this is the whole chapter, so if you don’t want to reread, skip to the new bit. Hehehe.
“Is it haunted?”
Oh, for the love of… “No, Arabella.”
My sister squinted at the monstrosity of a house growing closer as the SUV sped up the gently climbing driveway. “It looks haunted.”
“It’s not,” Bern said.
“How do you know it’s not haunted?” Leon asked from the back.
Because ghosts didn’t exist. “Because Trudy is a nice person, I like her, and she wouldn’t sell us a haunted house.”
“Yes,” Arabella said, “But did you ask if it was?”
“I did, and Trudy said no.” Our poor, long-suffering realtor had answered more bizarre questions in the last couple of months than she had probably done during her whole career.
My little sister whipped out her phone and bent her blonde head over it.
“I heard realtors have to disclose if the house is haunted,” Leon said.
I looked at Mom in the driver seat. She gave me an amused smile. No help there.
“Apparently only four states require you to disclose paranormal activity,” Arabella reported. “Nine states require you to notify the buyer if a death occurred on the premises. And Texas does neither.”
“There were no deaths on the premises. Nobody died in the house, so it can’t possibly be haunted.”
“How do you know nobody died?” Leon asked.
“Because I checked the records,” Bern rumbled.
Clearly, there were two teams in this vehicle: Team Facts and Team Facts Be Damned.
“What if they hid it?” Leon asked.
Bern gave his younger brother a look. When it came to uncovering facts, Bern had no equal. If there was a record of something and that record was at any point entered into a computer connected to the internet, he would find it.
“What’s that building?” Mom asked.
She slowed as we passed a large stone and timber pavilion on our right.
“That’s a wedding pavilion. The beam work inside is really pretty. I thought that if we insulated it properly, we could use it as our office building.”
Leon frowned. “You mean like a separate office building? One where we could conduct business and then leave and not be at work? People have such things?”
“Leon,” Mom said. “She spent the last two weeks trying to get this place inspected. She barely slept and barely ate. As I recall, none of you helped except for Bern. How about you holster that razor-sharp wit and try to be less you for the next hour?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Leon set up straight and appeared to look serious. It wouldn’t last, but it was a good try. My younger cousin was twenty years old and he showed zero interest in changing his ways. And that was fine with me. I liked Leon just the way he was.
“It’s big,” Arabella offered, looking at the walls. “Looks a bit like a Spanish fort with all the towers.”
“That’s a hell of wall,” Mom said.
The ten-foot-high stone wall was positively medieval in its thickness. It ensured that all you could see were the top floor on the main house and some red roofs, so on the drive up, the 21,000 square foot “mansion” appeared neat and orderly. But as soon as you drove through its massive gates into the 16 acres that made up its inner grounds, you realized that it was all a giant scam.
The driveway brough us to the arched entrance that cut through the wall. The huge gates stood open, and Mom guided the armored Chevy Tahoe through them and into the front parking lot on the right side. Alessandro’s silver Alfa Romeo already waited in one of the parking spots.
Arabella and Leon got out.
Bern leaned forward and rumbled, “I like this house.” He paused to make sure his point sank in and followed the others out.
I knew exactly why my oldest cousin liked it. The reasons were many but could be summed up by a single word: privacy.
Mom squinted at the two-story rectangular building in front of us. “What’s that?”
“’Cuartel,’” I said. “According to the listing documents.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Barracks?”
“Yes. The lower level has a kitchen, a mess hall, infirmary, and an armory. The upper level has room for ten beds and a bathroom with four toilet stalls and three showers.”
Normally interpreting Mom’s hmmms wasn’t a problem, but right now I had no idea what she was thinking.
We got out of the car. My cousins and Arabella had walked across the parking lot back to the main driveway. Mom and I joined them. The gate was directly behind us. The parking lot and the barracks were to the right, and the driveway stretched deeper into the estate, rolling between rows of old oaks to a paved forecourt and the two-story Mediterranean-inspired mansion beyond.
“Nice driveway,” Leon said.
“Enjoy it while you can. It’s the only straight road in the place.”
We started toward the mansion. The dense wall of hedges framed the oaks on both sides, hiding the rest of the grounds. The tree limbs reached to each other above our heads and walking down the driveway was like heading into a green tunnel.
“How many acres did you say this was?” Mom asked.
“Twenty-three point four,” Bern said ahead of us. “Sixteen are walled in, the rest is deer fenced.”
“I saw a metal gate retracted into the wall when we drove in,” Mom said. “How is it controlled?”
“There is a guard room built into the wall. The gate can be opened from there, from the office in the barracks, and from main house.”
“Question!” Arabella raised her hand. “If we buy this, can I get a golf cart?”
“You can buy the golf cart with your own money,” Mom said.
The driveway ended and we walked onto the forecourt.
“The main house is five thousand square feet,” I said. “The bottom floor is split into two wings. Each wing has a master. Four bedrooms upstairs, all en-suite.”
“Four bedrooms?” Arabella asked. “So, Mom and Grandma take the downstairs, and we take the upstairs?”
To say she sounded underwhelmed would be a criminally gross understatement.
“We could do that,” I said, “or we could live in auxiliary buildings.”
Arabella squinted at me. “What auxiliary buildings?”
I turned my back to the mansion and pointed with both hands to the sides.
The family turned around. On both sides of the driveway, separated by the hedges, lay a labyrinth of buildings and greenery. On the left rose a round tower three floors high. On the right, half hidden by landscaping, sat three two-story casitas, each sixteen hundred square feet, joined by a second-floor breezeway. Between them and us, lay gardens, benches, gazebos, and water features. Stone paths, designed by a drunken sailor, meandered through it all, trying to connect the buildings and mostly failing.
Leon spied the tower. His eyes took on a faraway look that usually meant he was thinking of flying ships, winged whales, and space pirates. “Mine.”
“It needs a bit of work.”
“I don’t care.”
Bern started off to the right.
“Where are you going?” Mom called.
She looked at me.
“He really likes the casitas,” I told her. “Runa likes them too.”
My oldest cousin and my best friend were slowly but surely moving towards marriage, and it was harder and harder to ignore Runa slinking to the bathroom across the hall out of Bern’s room in the morning.
I could relate. Both Alessandro and I wanted to stay together and both of us felt awkward about him moving into my room, so we settled for him staying in the side building and me keeping my window open. Him climbing in and out of the window was infinitely preferrable to having to run the gauntlet of my family just to get to my door.
“Where am I going to stay?” Arabella asked. “Am I going to stay in one of the casitas?”
“I think they’re spoken for,” Mom said, watching Bern double time it down the path.
“There’s a shack in the back,” I told Arabella.
She marched around the house. Mom and I followed her along a narrow path, flanked by Texas olive trees, esperanza shrubs, still carrying the last of its bright yellow flowers, and sprawling clusters of cast-iron plants with thick green leaves.
“So Bern and Leon get their picks and I get the leftovers,” Arabella called over her shoulder.
“Yep.” I nodded. “You’re the youngest.”
She mumbled something under her breath. Torturing her was delicious.
“What did you say this place was?” Mom asked.
“A failed bed and breakfast. The first owners built the main house, the Tower, and the bigger casita. Then they sold it to a man who decided to make it into an ultra-secure “rustic” hotel for the magic heavyweights. His website called it ‘a country retreat for the Houston elite.’”
“He owned this place for about twelve years and turned into this, and when his business completely dried up, he sank the last of the money into that wedding pavilion we saw outside.”
“In for a penny, in for a pound?” Mom said.
To add insult to injury, the owner or someone he employed thought he was handy and did a lot of the renovations and maintenance himself. According to our building inspector, his handiness was very much in doubt.
His greatest failure wasn’t his eclectic taste or his haphazard home improvements, however. The previous owner simply didn’t understand the psychology of the magical elite. Weddings between Houses, the most powerful dynasties, served to cement their alliances. They didn’t want a neutral ground for their ceremonies. They wanted a public show of trust. And the visiting Primes didn’t trust third party security. They brought their own.
“How much does he want for this place?” Arabella asked.
“Ha! Ha. Ha.”
“That’s out of our budget,” Mom said.
“It’s not if we get a loan from Connor.”
“We can afford to put half down,” Arabella said, “But this place isn’t worth it twenty mil. I mean I don’t even get a house I get a shack…”
We turned the corner and the path opened, the greenery falling behind. A huge stone patio spread in front of us, cradling a large Roman style pool. Past the luxuriously large pool, the patio narrowed into a long stone path that ran down to the four-acre man made pond. Between the pool and the pond, on the right-hand side, stood another three-story tower.
Where Leon’s tower looked like something plucked from a Norman castle, this one could have fit right into the seaside of Palm Beach. Slender, white, with covered balconies on the top two levels and a sun deck on the roof, it had a clear vacation vibe. A narrow breezeway connected its third-floor balcony to the main house. Of all the places on the property, it was the newest and required the least amount of work to be habitable.
“Your shack,” I told her.
Arabella took off across the patio.
Mom and I strolled down toward the pond past the giant pool. The coping and the plaster were in excellent shape, but the water had gone green from neglect. It almost looked like a quiet corner of the Pit. I shivered. I still had the nightmares. Except now when I woke up, Alessandro wrapped his arm around me, and I snuggled into him and went right back to sleep.
“Can we really afford it?” Mom asked.
“Yes. We will put 25% down. It will need a lot of repairs, and our bills will go up. We’ll need to invest in some livestock for the agricultural exemption. The place already has solar panels, so we’ll be saving some money there, but we will need a yard crew and probably a maid service of some sort.”
Mom bristled. “I never needed maids in my life. If you’re old enough to have your own space, you’re old enough to keep it clean.”
“I agree, but the main house is huge, and we have the barracks and the offices. We are all going to be really busy. There will be an army of people to supervise, renovation decisions to be made, and we still have our regular caseload and then there is the warden business…”
Mom hugged my shoulders. “We’ll handle it.”
“Does that mean you like the house?”
Mom sighed. “I haven’t seen the house yet.”
“It’s … interesting.”
“I thought so. We can put it to a vote.”
Arabella burst onto the third-floor balcony. “Do I like it? No. I love it!”
Mom grinned. “Well, you got her vote. Where are you and Alessandro staying?”
“Over there.” I pointed to the left, where a two-story house sat by the lake. “He’s probably over there right now.”
“Is he okay?”
Okay was a complicated concept. “Remember how I told you that his family wanted him to marry an heiress so they could pay off their debts? He’s really hung up on being a good provider. In his perfect world, he would’ve bought me a mansion by the sea without telling me and then dramatically carried me over the threshold.”
As an Artisan, Alessandro could take a job, disappear for a few weeks, and come home with a million in his bank account. But that would mean he had murdered someone. No matter how vile his target would be, murder was still murder. He had decided to leave that life behind. Instead, he hurled himself into Baylor Investigative Agency. He’s been working overtime clearing our cases to bring in “his share” of the money. Unfortunately, his understanding of “his share” involved an unreasonably high number. After he dosed off at the dinner table, I finally gave him an ultimatum and demanded that he sleep for at least seven hours every day or I would lock him out of my bedroom.
I needed to get over to our future house and see if he had fallen asleep somewhere. “Do you need me to walk through the main house with you?”
Mom waved me off. “I’ve got it. Go, go…”
I took the path that would bring me to the two-story house Alessandro and I had picked out for ourselves. It really was the cutest place. Well, it would be cute by the time we were done with it. It sat on the side of the property, facing the pond, and I liked most things about it. It was sturdy and large enough, it had a balcony and a little garden already laid out, and it was equipped with a big functional kitchen in dire need of new appliances and countertops. Best of all, it was far enough from everyone else to guarantee us some privacy. Like Bern, I’d come to value privacy very much over the past couple of months.
The front door stood ajar. I walked up the steps onto the covered porch and stepped into foyer. All the curtains had been stripped from the windows, and the house was full of light. My steps sent echoes scurrying over the travertine floor.
And that was a prime example of what went wrong with the property. The floor had cost a fortune and the money for it had clearly come from the kitchen. I walked into it and stopped. A dozen of blood red roses bloomed in a simple glass vase on the counter. Next to it a bottle of Giulio Ferrari Rose and two wine glasses waited on the counter. Alessandro was here somewhere.
He bought wine and roses for me.
I leaned against the pantry door and surveyed the kitchen. It was just so badly laid out. The dishwasher was next to the stove, the fridge was all the way on the other side, the lone sink was at the opposite wall, all of it separated by a non-functional giant island with a weird, raised shelf. It was too awkward to cook in here and that island would be the first thing to go. I’d replace it with one half its size, without a shelf but with a sink and an outlet…
A man I’d never seen before stepped out from behind the fridge. In the split second it took me to send a surge of magic toward him, Alessandro loomed behind him like a vengeful ghost, clamped his hand over the man’s mouth, and slid a knife into his side. It was a quick, precise stab, so fast I would have missed it if I wasn’t looking straight at them.
Alessandro twisted the knife. His face was calm and relaxed, his eyes focused, but not frightening. The man’s eyes rolled back, and he sagged slightly against Alessandro. The man I loved picked up his victim like a toddler and neatly placed him on the island, the knife still between his ribs.
A person just died in front of me without making a single sound. If we had been in a crowded train, Alessandro could have stabbed him like this, lowered him onto a seat or wedged him against the wall, and vanished without anyone noticing. It was both beautiful and bone-chilling.
Alessandro smiled at me, his whole face lighting up. “Angelo mio, here you are.”
Don’t you angelo mio me. You just killed a guy in our kitchen.
Alessandro picked the wine bottle off the counter with an elegant flourish and poured the sparkling liquid into both glasses.
“Why the island?”
He offered a glass to me. “You said you liked the floor.”
He put the corpse on the island so it wouldn’t bleed all over the travertine. “You’re so considerate.” I took the glass.
“A toast.” Alessandro raised his glass, looking almost impossibly handsome. “To our new house.”
We clinked our glasses and sipped the wine. It tasted of currant, red plum, and strawberry, at once fresh and delicious, not too sweet or too sour. Exactly the kind of wine I liked.
“Aren’t you going to retrieve your knife?”
Alessandro stared mournfully at the blade. “If I pull it out, he will bleed more. A shame. It’s one of my favorites. Thin enough to slip between the ribs and long enough to reach the heart.”
“I’ll tell Patricia to save it for you.”
Alessandro gave me a dazzling smile. “Thank you.”
“Are you going to tell me who he is?”
“An employee Arkan doesn’t particularly value. Not his top tier.”
Cold rolled down my spine. Arkan was the monster in the closet, the boogeyman under our bed. A former government agent from the Russian Imperium, he had set up shop in North America and built a cadre of assassins around himself. He was so dangerous, the Warden database gave him a black tag, usually reserved for dictators of small countries and heads of worldwide terrorist organizations.
I wanted to kill him because he had stolen a sample of the Osiris serum, the safeguarding of which was the primary duty of the wardens. Alessandro wanted to kill him because Arkan had murdered his father. We had clashed twice, and both times Alessandro and I won. Both victories came at a great price, but the fact remained – we had frustrated Arkan’s efforts and two months ago he let us know he was displeased and delivered a warning. Now the consequences rested on our kitchen island.
Alessandro set his glass aside and wrapped his arms around me, pulling me to him. “Catalina, don’t let it worry you.” His voice was intimate and warm. “I’ve got this. This is nothing.”
He kissed me, hot and deep. For a second the world faded, and there was only Alessandro, tasting like rose wine.
And then I came to my senses. “How many?”
He pretended to not understand. “How many what?”
“How many people has Arkan sent?”
“Several.” He smiled again, subtly turning me away from the body. “But they’re not very good. He’s using me to do some light housekeeping.”
“If you fail too many times, you get sent after the Artisan?”
“Something like that.”
“What do you mean, something? Who is the target?”
“Mostly me. Sometimes it’s you. Sometimes it’s Arabella… No, no, don’t get upset. I’ve got this. You just came in two minutes too soon. If you had lingered, you would have never seen him, and everything would be normal.”
I pulled one arm out of his hug and pointed to the corpse.
“Yes,” Alessandro said, “a little bit upsetting, but again, this wasn’t a serious attempt. This was a tap on the shoulder. He’s letting me know that he’s keeping an eye on us. That’s all.”
I wiggled out of his arms. He let me go.
We had to kill Arkan. Until he was eliminated, we couldn’t be happy.
“We should have more wine.” Alessandro put a full glass in my hand.
“It upsets me when you hide things from me.”
“You’re busy. You have so much to worry about. This is just a minor inconvenience, and I’m taking care of it for you, like a good fiancé should.”
The last couple of words took a second to penetrate. “Fiancé?”
Alessandro’s expression darkened. “This didn’t quite go the way I wanted to.”
He went down on one knee.
What… Oh. The wine. The flowers. The new house. Oh.
A small box appeared in Alessandro’s fingers. He opened it. A gold ring rested on black velvet, crowned with a large oval ruby. The stone glittered like a star caught in a drop of blood.
My brain screeched to a halt.
“This is not an heirloom,” Alessandro said with grim sincerity. “I didn’t take it from my family. I designed it for you and had it made. Nobody else has ever worn it and if you say no, nobody ever will.”
I understood the words. I just couldn’t quite grasp the meaning.
“You know who I am. You know what I’ve done. There are better men out there, kinder men, cleaner, richer, but none of them will love you as much as I do.”
He fell silent, and I saw uncertainty flicker in his eyes. He didn’t know what my answer would be. All of my life and all of his life crystalized into this single fragile instant, and one word would change us forever. This was the part of the road where our two paths converged or parted. The moment was so deeply intimate that it almost hurt.
“It’s just the two of us,” Alessandro said, “and the body on an island in the kitchen of the house we don’t own. And if you say yes, our life together will be just like this.”
I put my hand over my eyes. “You were doing so well.”
“I’d rather be honest. When we are together, this is who we are. Will you marry me, Catalina?”
I took a deep breath. “Yes.”
He surged up to his feet, picked me up, and spun us around the kitchen, his face glowing, his magic swirling around us sparking with orange fire. I kissed him and for a few breaths we were one.
Ten minutes later we left the house, him with his arm around me and me wearing the engagement ring on my finger. The sunlight filled the stone, and it shone, just like Alessandro’s magic, deadly, complicated, but so beautiful.
“Do you like it?” he asked.
I would have liked it if it was a piece of coal wrapped in floral wire. “I love it.”
He smiled. He looked like I felt, perfectly happy.
I pulled out my phone to text Patricia about the body. Our chief of security would be thrilled.
There is a body in the two-story house by the pond. Please remove it from the kitchen and dispose of it. Please save Alessandro’s knife. Please don’t tell my mother.
The reply was almost instant. Remove corpse, save knife, don’t tell mom. Got it.
“Are you worried your mother won’t like the house because of the murder?” he asked.
“I want her to be objective. If she knows Arkan sent someone here to taunt us, she’ll want to buy the property just to spite him. She doesn’t react well to being threatened…” A horrible thought occurred to me. “Alessandro, not a word to Arabella. Please. You have to promise.”
“I wasn’t planning to tell her but why is it so important?”
“Because she thinks the place is haunted and I told her that it couldn’t be because nobody has died here. Do you know what my sister likes more than anything?”
A good guess. “No. She likes to be right. She lives to be right. If she knows somebody was murdered here, she’ll be insufferable. There will be no living with her, and I have a mountain of work to do if we decide to close on this place.”
I showed him my pretty ring. “You’re laughing, but you’re not just marrying me. You’re marrying into my family. It’s not too late to change your mind and take this back.”
He stopped and looked at me as if I had missed something simple and obvious. “Catalina, it’s been too late for that.”
“Since that time you told me to stay in the car and look pretty.”
“When did I do that?”
“We were going to see Dennis Moody, who used to be Runa’s mother’s accountant. We knew it was a trap. You were so scared, you gripped the steering wheel until your hands went completely white. I told you to stay in the car. I was going to go in and get it done. And you told me to stay in the car and take pretty selfies, and then you got out and marched, in that way you do when you’re mad, to the building. That’s when I decided I would marry you.”
“It was the pretty that did it, wasn’t it?”
He grinned at me. “What can I say? I am a shallow, vain man.”
I wrapped my arm around his and we walked together to the main house following the excited voices of the family.