Authors: Thea Harrison
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Paranormal
To the wonderful women who helped me by beta reading this story: Kristin, Anne, Andrea, Rene and Holly. And to Heather and Amy.
“You need me to stay home from school today, you know,” Chloe mumbled around her last mouthful of homemade blueberry muffin before giving Olivia a sly, sidelong smile. Olivia smiled back at the little girl. Chloe was a tempestuous, high maintenance child, and Olivia adored her.
Olivia might be childless, but not because she didn’t like children. She loved them. Besides, even if she hadn’t liked children, she would have found it hard to resist Chloe’s wily charm.
After Olivia and Chloe shared a smile, they turned to regard one of the most Powerful Djinn in the world. Khalil lounged at the head of the breakfast table like a Pasha reigning over a court of nobles.
Early morning sunlight slanted in the French doors behind him, glinting bright silver sparks off the ocean just on the other side of a wide, sandy beach. The sunlight touched Khalil’s raven-black hair with a knifelike edge of white that gleamed as brightly as his strange, diamond-like eyes.
As the five-year-old squirmed impatiently in her chair, Khalil regarded her, genuine curiosity on his pale, regal features. “Please, do explain. Why do we need for you to stay home from school this time?”
Chloe opened her eyes wide. “Well, obviously, because Olivia has to leave today. It’s the
very last day
of her week. You need someone to play with Max, so you can visit with her while you can.” Her expression turned calculating. “I’d be doing you a favor, you know.”
After having spent a week’s vacation witnessing her friend Grace’s eccentric lifestyle, Olivia had grown quite educated in the dynamics of the household. She sensed a tactical error in Chloe’s last statement, and her gaze swiveled back to the Djinn expectantly.
Khalil raised a sleek back eyebrow at Chloe. “I believe it would be most unwise to become indebted to you. You have picked up the Djinn’s love for bargaining all too well. Grace and I will somehow contrive to manage both Max and a final visit with Olivia. You will go to school as planned.”
Storm clouds gathered in sky-blue eyes. “Max doesn’t have to go to school when company is here.”
With perfect, and yet, perhaps regrettable logic, Khalil replied, “Max doesn’t have to go to school at all, but you do.”
Olivia coughed and pretended to take interest in the contents of her breakfast plate, which held half of a blueberry muffin and a partial slice of bacon.
Her discretion went unnoticed. The storm broke. Chloe shouted, “Horrible! It’s not fair that I have to go to school and he doesn’t!”
The massive Djinn cocked his head as he regarded the small human girl in front of him. He asked gently, “Do you really wish to raise your voice to me?”
Olivia couldn’t control her grin any longer. She picked up her coffee cup to hide behind it. Khalil was completely protective, unfailingly steady and truly loving with her friend Grace’s niece and nephew, Chloe and Max. Otherwise his question might sound ominous, and she could see that it had thrown even Chloe off her stride.
The girl fell silent, frowning as she thought things over. Then she straightened her slender spine, tilted up her chin and said in a firm voice, “Yes.”
“I believe you should take a few minutes to think about that, alone in your room,” Khalil said. “Although I do admire your ability to pick a stance and stand by it. After ten minutes has passed, you will go to school as usual.”
Chloe’s mouth dropped open. She was the very picture of outrage. “Are you giving me a
Khalil snapped his fingers. “Ah yes, that is what it is called. A time out. I never remember, because it makes no sense. There is no such thing as a ‘time out’. The time is the same in your bedroom as it is everywhere else in Florida.”
A snort exploded out of Olivia before she could stop it. She clapped a hand over her mouth and managed to settle her coffee cup into the saucer before she spilled any of the hot liquid on herself.
Chloe wailed, her mouth open wide and delicate complexion turning pink. Blonde curly hair floating around her head like a halo, she turned to stomp down the hallway of Khalil and Grace’s spacious, sprawling ranch home.
While Olivia watched her dramatic exit, Chloe almost ran into her aunt Grace, who limped toward the dining area with Max settled on her hip. Another Djinn, Khalil’s daughter Phaedra, followed on Grace’s heels.
As soon as Chloe saw the others, she wailed louder, dashed around them and disappeared, presumably to actually go to her room as she had been told. For such a strong-willed child, she was remarkably well behaved.
“Funny,” remarked Grace. “I didn’t hear any tornado sirens going off.”
“Why would you hear a tornado siren?” Phaedra asked impatiently. “The sky outside is perfectly clear.”
“I—you—never mind,” Grace said. Olivia didn’t bother to hide her grin any longer as Grace’s dancing eyes met hers. Grace limped to the breakfast table, trailed by Phaedra. She announced, “Phaedra did quite well changing a diaper for her first time. And believe me, Max can produce some stinky diapers.”
“Of course I did well,” said Phaedra with a sharp frown. She crossed her arms. Her physical form stood taller than either Grace or Olivia, and she had chosen to appear in severe black clothing. Her white, regal features were very like her father’s, while the straight fall of her shoulder-length hair was blood red, and black talons tipped her long fingers. “The contents of the diaper were remarkably unpleasant, so I simply stopped breathing until the end of the procedure.”
“Yes, you did great,” said Grace cheerfully. “In fact you did so well, I think you’ll be ready to watch Max on your own in only sixteen or seventeen years.”
“There, you see,” said Phaedra as she turned to face her father. “Your concerns were for nothing.”
Khalil’s eyes narrowed and his expression turned guarded. He looked from his complacent, arrogant daughter to Grace’s compressed, mischievous expression, then to Max. He opened his mouth and shut it again.
“Silence is a wise choice,” Grace said to him. “She’ll figure it out eventually.”
Olivia burst out laughing. Exhausting though it could be, she loved this wacky household. It was completely different from her quiet life back in Louisville. Her job was demanding and she enjoyed her life, but the most exciting thing that happened in her house was when she gave catnip to her nine-year-old cat Brutus.
Khalil held his hands out for the baby. Max had jammed a forefinger up one round nostril. He stuck out his tongue and, grinning, blew a raspberry as Grace set him on his feet. Then Max high stepped his way over to Khalil, who swung the baby into the air and settled him in his lap.
Olivia noted fondly, and not for the first time, how much Max had changed in a year, but then they all had. Max was twenty months old, a healthy chunk of boy. At five years old, Chloe had started kindergarten, and normally she loved it, except when something exciting was happening at home.
But the biggest change Olivia saw was in Grace. The previous year, when she and Grace had become friends, Grace had been pale and tense, with shadowed eyes and lines of pain and exhaustion on her face. Grace was a good ten years younger than Olivia, but a year ago she had looked older.
Last year, Grace and her niece and nephew had lived in their old family home in Louisville, Kentucky. She had been recovering from the same car crash that had killed her sister and brother-in-law and left her with a permanent disability. She had also been struggling to come to terms with the Power of the Oracle, which she had inherited when her sister died, along with a mountain of debt.
Now Grace had regained her health. She would never lose the limp. Her knee had been too badly damaged, and at the time of the injury, she hadn’t had access to high cost, premium magical health care. But despite that challenge, she looked happy, truly happy. The hollows in her face had filled out, and she was vibrant with color, with strawberry-blonde hair, sparkling hazel eyes and lightly suntanned skin.
By comparison, Olivia felt as if she looked like Grace’s older, duller sister, with her short chestnut hair, gray eyes and pale skin that did not suntan well. It wasn’t that she looked bad, she thought. All of her features were regular sized and in the right place, and while she had a sprinkle of freckles across her nose and cheekbones, they were acceptable enough. She just didn’t look interesting, not like Grace’s colorful, fiery blaze.
It seemed a metaphor for the difference in their lives. Even though she was young, Grace had already lived a life filled with heartache and drama, and she was involved with Khalil in a seriously smoldering love affair.
Olivia had lived a perfectly normal childhood. Her parents had paid for her to go to college. She did well, garnered some scholarships, studied magic, and directly out of school she had walked into an excellent job as a reference librarian at the Ex Libris Library in Louisville. There was nothing wrong with any of that, just as there was nothing wrong with her looks, except she had the nagging suspicion that she lived a boring life, and that she herself was a boring person.
Olivia didn’t know all the details, but somehow Grace’s troubled finances had smoothed out too. As Oracle, Grace had received a large cash contribution from a petitioner, and she received a regular monthly stipend from the new consulting agency that the Wyr gryphon Rune Ainissesthai and his Vampyre mate Carling Severan had established. All Olivia really knew was that Grace and the agency had worked out some kind of sliding scale fee system, so that she could still act as Oracle for those who did not have the ability to pay while the agency collected fees from those who could.
All of that translated into a sprawling ranch house on the beach, with a fenced in yard so the children could play in safety. And there was love in this house, so much love, Olivia felt privileged to witness it. Grace and Khalil’s relationship was so strong she could only imagine what it must be like to have such a relationship in her own life. They doted on the children, who thrived under such care. Their house seemed constantly full of Djinn, who either visited, brought gifts or bargained for healing that only Grace could give them.
Even Khalil’s daughter Phaedra, while spiky and unpredictable, seemed to relax and enjoy the atmosphere and the children when she came to visit. Olivia wasn’t sure what she thought about Phaedra, but at least the Djinn treated Max and Chloe with gentleness.
While Khalil bounced Max on his knee and Grace helped herself to breakfast, Olivia ate the last of her muffin. Phaedra stood nearby, her head cocked and diamond eyes piercing as she watched them.
Grace had told Olivia about the first time she had met Phaedra. Her eyes had been as black as twin oubliettes. The Djinn had been tortured and confined by her mother for so long, it had twisted her spirit. Now, thanks to the help that Grace had given her, her spirit was healed and straight again. But that didn’t make her any easier to get along with.
Grace said to Phaedra, “You can sit down, you know. Eat something. Drink some coffee. Pretend to enjoy it, join in small talk.”
Phaedra gave Grace a baffled, bored look. She said, “I have no interest in talking about little things.”
“Oh, I don’t know why I bother,” Grace said. She turned to Olivia. “It’s been so much fun to have you visit. I wish you could stay for longer than a week.”
“I haven’t enjoyed myself so much in years,” Olivia told her. “Thank you for having me. I’m so glad you invited me for a visit before this new job starts.”
“I’m just glad you could take the time,” Grace said. “I’m going to miss you when you leave.” She leaned forward. “Are you still excited? What am I saying, of
you’re still excited.”
“I can’t wait.” Olivia hesitated for a moment, then confessed, “I’m also really nervous.”
Phaedra glided to the breakfast table, pulled out a chair and sat. Every move she made looked lethal and inhuman. “Why are you nervous?”
Olivia studied Phaedra, wondering what had sparked the Djinn’s attention. Perhaps Phaedra was interested because she and Olivia were going on the same expedition.
Olivia explained. “I get to help pack and move one of the world’s most legendary magical libraries, owned by one of the world’s most legendary witches. This is a once in a lifetime experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if every symbologist in the world had applied to go on this expedition, but only three were picked and I was one of them. That’s exciting. It’s also a bit nerve-wracking.”