Accused of attempted murder in high school, Rayvin Woods left her hometown of Talbot in Northeastern Ontario, hoping to never return. Ten years later, circumstances force her back to face her past, including her former crush Grant Michaels. When the malevolent vampire de Sade emerges from his underground prison looking for vengeance, Rayvin’s magick is all that stands between de Sade and his domination of Talbot, and beyond.
Wind and Shadow: Book One of the Talbot Trilogy, by Tori L. Ridgewood
In his dark, dank, grimy tomb, the vampire waited. He was patient. Pinned down by countless tons of broken rock and jagged boulders, and something else he recognized as mystical but was powerless to destroy, he recognized the futile waste of energy struggling would produce, and bided his time. Small vermin, unwise enough to wiggle through the smallest spaces, fell prey to his single free limb and gleaming, razor-sharp canine teeth. Sooner or later, the foolish mortals would err, and he would be free again to wreak havoc, seeking not just his mate, but also vengeance.
Time was on his side.
The sun was just beginning to set when Rayvin’s beaten red Plymouth Horizon passed the sign indicating the exit for Talbot. Several suitcases and boxes were tied down and tarped on its roof; they weighed down the hatchback, causing the vehicle to fishtail slightly in the thin slush coating the highway as it swerved to make the turn. The loaded small trailer covered with a second tarp and a web of bungee-cords followed suit, wavering from side to side for a moment as Rayvin adjusted her speed. Reaching back to rub the nape of her neck, the back of her hand pushed against the carved hairpin keeping her long, curly auburn hair in its bun; the pin slid free, falling somewhere behind her seat, and the locks spilled down around her shoulders. Sighing with irritation, she changed hands, keeping one firmly on the wheel while the other gingerly patted the boxes and bags crowding the backseat, searching for the hairpin. Her eyes stayed on the road, though she wasn’t concerned about the route. No matter that half a lifetime had passed since she had last travelled this road; she still knew exactly where each hill would be, the precise moment when a curve began and when the pavement straightened again.
Time seemed to have come to a standstill in this relatively remote corner of northeastern Ontario. The environment seemed unchanged in spite of the decade that had gone by after she had thumbed her final ride on the shoulder of this road, determined never to come back to Talbot. Memories came wandering unbidden and unwelcome to the forefront of her mind, as she gave up on the search for the hairpin and draped the length of her hair around the back of the headrest to keep it out of her way.
When Rayvin had hitch-hiked her way out of Talbot, ten years earlier, she had vowed to cut her hair as soon as she had settled. It would be part of her fresh start, her new life; she would change the colour, bleach away the red to platinum blonde, trim the curl down to a sleek pixie — anything but the straggly, flaming mane that, she felt, marked her so clearly as different. It had been a banner, attracting attention — she felt clearly the hostility on people’s faces as she passed them on the main street for the last time, chin high, heading for the beginning of the highway and whichever motorist would be kind enough to help her begin her journey to a new life. She had walked away from the only home she’d ever known with only her backpack, filled to bursting and carving painful red marks into her shoulders. The whispers from onlookers peering out of open shop doors had followed her like the malevolent humidity, both urging her on and dragging her down. Her chest had felt so tight, and her eyes had been dry and burning, when she had passed the boy with the deep brown eyes. If there was anyone would have believed her, she liked to think it would have been Grant Michaels.
They had rarely spoken, but she had liked the sound of Grant’s voice, the things he had said, and the way he had looked at her when they passed in school, with appreciation, interest, and respect. She would have liked to have gotten to know him better, and to have been friends. They might even have dated, were it not for his interfering, perverted friends. But he had turned his back on her, just like the rest, after her disastrous date with his best friend. The appreciation, interest and respect she had felt from him had changed in one night into hatred, anger, and disgust. Maybe even fear. Rayvin had always felt his regard for her in the background and taken it as a comfort; after every thing that happened, she missed it terribly. Without the kindness of a nice boy, her world had felt that much smaller and colder. Not even Andrea, her dearest friend and almost-sister, could fill that sudden emptiness. It felt much like when her mother had died.
In this way, unwanted and under pressure, Rayvin had left Talbot the day after her nineteenth birthday.
In her vehicle, her hands resting on the wheel, she recalled the sudden feeling of liberation as she had crossed the town limits, the glorious rush of hope and freedom that had filled every cell of her body when she had felt she had achieved her escape from accusation, anger, and fear. She could reinvent herself, and she would, in a place where anonymity was a gift. She would start with her hair.
But when the moment finally came, weeks later in the city, she couldn’t do it — her hair was too much a part of her identity. Maybe Talbot was, too, in spite of her history. Her throat tightened as she wished once more that she had some other alternative to coming back, and prayed to Goddess that time had healed what she could not.
It hadn’t been for lack of trying. She had gained her abilities as a healer from her mother. After Jason was hurt, she had at least attempted to do the right thing, but she had forgotten her mother’s final lesson. Some things could not be fixed, with medicine, or with magick. Things like broken vertebrae, and terminal cancer.
“It’s just how things are, my darling,” Rowan Woods had whispered from her hospital bed. She’d looked so small and pale. Her beautiful red hair lay against her scalp in a thin layer, and her thin face had frightened her daughter. “I will miss you growing up. You will need me but I will not be there, physically.”
“We haven’t tried everything,” Rayvin had protested. “There are still a lot of herbs, and spells, way in the back of the book!” The tears filling her eyes had blurred her vision, making her mother appear to be surrounded by a halo.
Rayvin smiled sadly at the memory. Her determination to put a broken body back together had been just as strong in her late teens as it had been when she was seven, but it had taken those two failed attempts at spellwork to make her realize the limits of her power. She still wondered if her own feelings toward the injured had interfered, in spite of her efforts to put those emotions aside. No-one aside from Andrea had known that she had tried to heal Jason. At least the humiliation of her failure hadn’t spread like the other rumours about her. If it had worked, she wouldn’t have had to leave the only life she’d ever known.
She wouldn’t have had to walk away from the woods where her mother had taught her to respect magick. Rayvin had never grown to love the silence and the solitude of the bush, as her mom had, but she had gained an appreciation for it. She wondered if she would still be able to find the trails where her mother had shown her how to recognize helpful and harmful flowers, roots, berries, trees, and herbs.
What would her life have been like, if she’d been able to heal Jason? If he’d never been hurt in the first place? She might still be living in the gable room in Andrea’s house, her door across from Andrea’s door. She might have avoided some of the pain that she was now hoping to leave behind her. She would have tended her mother’s grave as faithfully as she’d once vowed. Andrea had promised to look after it, but Rayvin still felt guilty about abandoning her mother’s remains. Visiting her would be one of her first priorities, once she got settled in.
Lost in her thoughts, the appearance of red and blue pulsating lights in her rearview mirrors escaped her attention for a full five minutes. A brief pulsing siren woke her up. Shock and disbelief exploded in her chest and throat, as much from interrupted anticipation of the journey’s end as from embarrassment. Her heart accelerated with adrenaline, and she had to fight the urge to accelerate. “Breathe, Rayvin,” she told herself, aiming the vehicle for a section of straight road shoulder. Braking carefully, she laughed ruefully — she had never gotten a ticket before. Magick had nothing to do with it; she was simply good and careful. She made it a general rule to avoid problems with civil authorities but here she was, not twenty minutes away from her destination, already being cited or warned or fined or whatever. This was not an auspicious start.
She should have remembered to check her almanac. It was probably a waning moon.
Waiting with her hands on the wheel and looking straight ahead as her driving instructor had advised, so many years before, her eyes couldn’t help but stray to the tall, well-proportioned male figure in dark navy blue striding along the pavement to her car door. The bulky standard-issue padded jacket enhanced his broad shoulders; corded muscle and tendon were thrown into brief relief above the collar as he got closer, and the gun belt slung almost casually around his narrow waist suggested a healthy contrast in size between shoulders and abdomen. Clearly, this was neither a sergeant close to retirement nor a fresh recruit. Then he was there, tapping gently on the glass with the butt of a long-handled flashlight. At his gesture, she lowered the window, squinting against the orange glare of the sunset. Unable to make out a face from the officer’s position, silhouetted against the dying sun, she looked directly at his mirrored glasses. The convex angle distorted her nose and the wrinkle of skin above it, produced by her squinting; she hoped that she didn’t look as hag-like as Smokey suggested, and tried to relax her vision as she asked the inevitable question.
“What’s the problem, officer?
The silence stretched a trifle longer than it should have, and just on the edge of discomfort, the policeman responded. “License and registration, please.”
She shivered slightly, trying to pretend it was only from the chilly air that was quickly invading her car. The presence of the police officer, so close to Talbot, was forcing up flashbacks that were taking her breath away. The strobing lights, primary colours casting shadows against her bedroom walls. The degradation and disgrace of interrogation, first in front of her foster mother in the spacious living room of the house she had come to love after her mother had died. The further humiliation as she was marched out, in handcuffs, and had seen her foster sister’s tearful expression reflected in the hallway mirror. Rummaging through her purse first for her wallet, and then leaning across to the glove compartment, Rayvin fought down rising panic, recalling the glaring, accusatory stares of the neighbours, gathered in little bathrobe-dressed groupings, muttering acidly amongst themselves as a firm hand pushed her head gently under the edge of the car door. The officer shifted his posture, and something metallic clinked against her car door, echoing the cold sound of a key locking her into a sterile, tiny isolation room. Restrained by the seatbelt, Rayvin had to strain slightly to reach the papers she needed; the movement pulled her sweater up her body, a hands-breadth from the waist of her low-rise jeans, and as she wrestled the insurance papers from between maps and Canadian Tire money, she felt a perceptible change in the atmosphere — almost as if the cop had suddenly sucked air through his teeth, and she had heard the slight sound register only in the most primal part of her brain.
Her heart thudded. Magick flooded her body, an instinctual survival tactic. She closed her eyes, pretending to fumble with the document, struggling now for control. Great Mother, if she lashed out now, she’d be back where she’d started in every sense of the term. The radio came to life for a heart-stopping few seconds, crackling with static, as a field of energy built around her and rang in her ears. She trembled with the force of it, and then the momentum ceased as she regained control of her breathing. The yoga classes and meditative visualizations had been worth every penny of her tips, if they helped her to avoid repeating history.
Rayvin swallowed uncomfortably as the officer scanned her papers, pulled a pencil and pad out of a pocket and wrote something down. He shifted his stance, and with an effort, she stopped biting her lip. He was probably trained to see that as an indication of guilty behaviour or something, she thought to herself. Attempting to keep her forehead smooth as she strained to see past the shadows on his face was impossible. Maybe if she appeared to be furrowing her brow in concern he might be more lenient. “What’s the problem, officer?” she finally asked, half-embarrassed at the way the cliche sounded — it felt phony, but the silence had stretched to the breaking point. Mentally running through the last moments of her driving, she recalled the speed limit — she’d been within five kilometers per hour over or under, she was sure — and the last time she’d checked, all her lights were functioning, no dents or broken glass. Her stickers were up to date. Maybe he just had to fill a quota before the end of the month, or something.
An SUV approached from the east, heading in the opposite direction; automatically, she turned her head as it passed. The light from the SUV’s headlamps, just starting to wash the road in the early twilight, passed across the cop’s face, clearly illuminating every feature. Rayvin’s heart skipped a beat. It couldn’t be. Please, please, let it not be true. Let this be a trick of the light. She couldn’t breathe.
Suddenly, everything clicked into place; time seemed to slow down as he tucked the notepad away and folded her papers. The backwash of air from the passing vehicle caused his scent to surround her. She felt heat rising from deep between her thighs, tendrils of warmth sparkling upward through her core, swelling into her breasts and tightening her nipples. No other man had ever made her feel this way, and deep in her heart, she knew no-one else ever would. She had felt this urge to be with him when she was too young to know better, when these feelings had both thrilled and frightened her. She had managed to ignore the strange magnetic pull she had felt then, by ignoring him as much as possible. But it had taken so much strength to stay away from him, to protect him from herself; in this state, she wasn’t sure if she could find it again. Turning to face away, desperate to compose her expression before he saw her, she gripped the steering wheel with both hands, pressing her palms into the raised leather chevrons and curving her fingers until her nails just bit into the sensitive skin folding out beneath the curve at the midsection. Time had passed; they had both matured; she was an adult and could control her impulses. How had she not recognized his voice? It had deepened since the last time she’d seen him, suspicion and hatred rippling from his aura; he’d refused to look at her directly, then, but she’d felt the burn of his gaze against her back. Once more, she could sense him staring at her; how she had blocked his energy before, she wasn’t sure — maybe her exhaustion from the eight-hour drive had something to do with it. But as now she had recognized Grant, and a light was growing inside her that she was powerless to control. Vitality, a powerful earth energy, melded with something not quite tame and entirely masculine, penetrated her awareness, forcing her to concentrate on her own mental and emotional shielding. He was clearly waiting for her to turn and look at him, but in her own vulnerable state, she couldn’t risk looking at him and losing herself. Not again.
“So, where are you headed, miss?” the officer asked gruffly. “If you’re not from the region, you need to be aware of the night dangers this far north.”
“Isn’t that a bit obvious, Grant Michaels?” Ravyin kept her voice low, unclenching her teeth just enough to speak. “Drop the ‘miss,’ you know who I am.”
“Just being professional, Ray. Don’t take it personally,” Michaels replied, leaning down to rest his right elbow on the edge of the window. “But seriously, what are you doing here?”
It was probably driving him crazy, the way she kept her face in profile to avoid looking at him. She remembered how easily he could read truth and lies into a person’s expression; she was denying him the chance to judge. In her peripheral vision, Rayvin saw his jaw clench. He was biting back an urge to order her out of the vehicle, she just knew it. Heat moved through her skin when he finally snapped. “Fine, keep your secrets — that’s nothing new. Ten, eleven years — it’s plain to see you haven’t changed. I’ll find out sooner or later anyway; this isn’t the place you want to be if you want to be left alone. But it’s not like you don’t know that.” His anger stung, but she refused to rise to the bait.
“If I’ve done something wrong, officer, I’m happy to take my ticket,” Rayvin responded. She enunciating each word carefully, her voice filled with ice. “Otherwise, I’d like to have my license and registration back, please, so I can be on my way.”
Silently, without changing his stance, Michaels extended the arm he was leaning against the door, offering the papers just outside of her range of vision so she was forced to turn to see them. She moved to take them, and he pulled them away, just out of her reach. Rolling her eyes, she turned again and lunged, this time catching them firmly.
He didn’t let go.
Exhaling sharply in frustration, she tugged once, and then finally turned her eyes up to his face. Her skin tingled as she took in how very close he was — only inches away, so close she could feel the damp heat of his breath on her skin. The dark brown of his eyes searching her own was nearly irresistible — pulling her in, inviting her even with their fury, or because of it, to explore the passion she could sense just beneath the surface. It was too much. Imperceptibly, he was closing the distance between them, anger turning into something else just as dangerous. Electricity crackled again on the radio, though no power was reaching it from the stilled engine.
“Let go, Michaels.” Rayvin’s voice came out in a whisper, nearly a plea.
His eyes moved to her mouth as she spoke; she saw them widen as she licked her upper lip in nervousness.
For the space of a heartbeat, they were frozen together, a breath from sweet, scorching contact.
Suddenly, he released his grip and stepped back, straightening his posture. Skin burning, eyes prickling in rebellion against her self-control, Ravyin turned away, dropping her identification on the seat beside her. Blinking fiercely, forcing aside the feeling of loss and emptiness threatening to overwhelm her, she turned the key in the ignition. He remained standing sentinel as she turned the key in the ignition, hands clenched into fists. Linkin Park blared from the speakers as she pulled away, building up speed. As much as she did not want to look back, she was unable to stop herself. Her gaze flicked back to watch him in the rearview mirror. She held her breath until he finally turned to march back to the police car.
How fitting that the last person she had looked in the eye thirteen years before in this town, was the first to do so again.
Watching Ravyin twist and bend across the car seat had almost been Corporal Grant Michaels’ undoing. Thank God for the fibre glass door that separated them. Watching her drive away, he couldn’t help visualizing the way her close-fitting violet v-neck sweater had parted from those hip-hugging black denim jeans — Christ, they looked like they’d been painted onto the smooth curve of her thighs and the sumptuous roundness of her bum — revealing a strip of satiny-smooth skin. He’d seen the top edge of red lace panties just peeking over the waist of the pants, and had felt himself harden instantly in pure male response.
He shifted uncomfortably in the vehicle seat, images churning in the back of his brain even as he made note of the stop. A strong gust of wind shook the car briefly.
She was even more beautiful than Grant remembered, which probably meant that she was even more dangerous. Rayvin had figured prominently in all of his teenage fantasies. He couldn’t shake the guilt of wanting her even after she had attempted to kill his best friend. The sight of her should have made his blood run cold.
He had burned for her then, and had known that he would burn in hell for it. Then she had left, arrogantly walking out of town toward the highway without even an apology for what she’d done, a heavy backpack weighing down that sexy strut, and his relief had been mingled with his disappointment. It had taken several years and many relationships — all of them brief — to get her out of his head. She was dangerous, unbalanced, a killer without conscience.
Perhaps that was part of her allure.
Once, she had had the ability to turn him on with just a glance. There was something about the way she carried herself, and the slow curving smile she’d offered him, once or twice, in high school. Even though she was shorter than most of the other girls, she stood out from the crowd somehow, and it wasn’t just the beauty of her long red hair. Sometimes, she wore spike heels or push-up bras, bustiers and short-shorts or goth makeup to accentuate her looks, but she didn’t need any of it.
Her legs were perfect, she was round and luscious in all the right places, her dark blue eyes huge with long smoky lashes. Rayvin was untamed, intelligent, and unapologetic, all of which he’d found appealing, admirable, and incredibly sexy. She had the courage to be different, and to enjoy her difference, which was a rarity in a small town like theirs.
He remembered her saying interesting things, thoughtful things, and wishing he could speak to her in an intelligent way. Afraid he would sound like a fool, he had never attempted to strike up a conversation with her. Rayvin Woods was out of his league, and he’d known it. So had most of his buddies.
But all of her shyness had been a facade, a trick to divert her peers from the truth about her: she was powerful, selfish, cold, and wild, a threat to others. She knew damn well what she could do with those devastating, compelling eyes. Having used them once to her advantage, chances were she would do it again, if she hadn’t already. Who knew what she had done to others since he’d last seen her? Maybe she’d succeeded in a subsequent attempt at murder.
Grant inhaled, slowly, trying to lower his blood pressure. A hint of her scent still lingered in his senses, an intoxicating mix of wildflowers and cedar. The scent of a summer night. He forced himself to lower the window and take a deep breath of crisp night air to clear his head. He still wanted her, and he hated himself for it.
“The more things change,” he muttered to himself, willing his blood to redirect itself to more appropriate appendages.
The moment her little red hatchback had passed him on the highway, the second it had taken to register the sight of her profile, even at 80 kph, all the years since the last time he’d seen her had fallen away to nothingness. Once again he had found himself following her, like a dog in heat.
He would not allow himself to be embarrassed like he’d been in high school, constantly failing in his efforts to have her talk to him, smile at him, or just look at him. The memories of his friends’ taunts and the sting of rejection were still raw. No, he would not let her have any power over him now. He was a police officer, an upstanding citizen. Grant Michaels’ reputation would not suffer because he had a case of blue balls over a chick from high school.
Rayvin’s face rose in his mind. His body rebelliously followed suit. Long, curly hair in all shades and tones of red. Pink lips, moistened with a darker pink tongue. Eyes the colour of water under ice, the blue at the edges darkening to nearly black…
Grant gripped the steering wheel as the past came back to him. Memories of his unrealized plans to get her alone and beg a kiss, to touch her neck with his tongue, nibble her ears, run his hand along the contours of her perfect body. Rayvin Woods — the first woman he had truly lusted after. He leaned his head back against the head rest, recalling how he’d daydreamed that they might have their first time together. At the time, he didn’t know how likely it was that she’d already been with someone.
When he was fifteen, he’d fantasized that he and Rayvin would come together sharing a sleeping bag in a tent somewhere on the shores of Lake Temiskaming, on a hot summer night with the stars blazing above. His imagination had supplied many details: the way she would rise above him, their bodies naked, her fragrant, silky hair tumbling all around him. He’d wondered if her nipples looked like strawberries, and what they would feel like to touch, or to put in his mouth. His fantasizing had not been limited to the privacy of his bedroom, either.
With chagrin, Grant recalled watching her work with clay in an art class and envisioning her hands moving over his chest, her nails raking his back as he made her cry out with pleasure. He’d listen to her responding to the teacher’s questions and imagine the sound of her voice begging him to kiss her again.
Though he’d never practiced his moves, he was confident that she would enjoy having him as a lover. He thought of them in every position, and he dreamed about her almost every night, it seemed. And until Jason got hurt, he had lived for every time she looked at him with her soft, mysterious eyes. He’d struggled to find ways to get her to speak his name or to give him one of her slow, pretty smiles. When she passed and glanced in his direction, his head would swing around hoping for another look. Grant could never be sure if she was actually trying to tell him something. He’d been addicted to the mystery of her gaze.
It might have been easier if he had hooked up with her, then. If they had had sex, he might have been able to purge her memory from his system with another lover. Instead, he still had these goddamned unfulfilled fantasies. She was an addiction he’d never beaten. He had never worked up the guts to ask her out, and after a few years, he figured she thought herself too good for him. Too good for any of them. Or that she was gay. His pride wouldn’t let him see any other alternatives, and the fact that she would have none of him had only turned up the heat of his infatuation.
And then in their final year of high school, the tragedy happened: Jason Lucas, his best friend, voted most likely to succeed, had fallen from a bridge, ending up paralyzed for life, and Rayvin had been charged with his attempted murder. The evidence had been circumstantial. Even though they had been on a date, nobody had actually seen her push him over the rail, but everyone in Talbot knew she was guilty, even if the court had found her innocent.
Finally, he had seen his lust for what it was, a sickness. When he looked at her, passing in the street or in the halls, desire turned to bile. He shared the opinion of the community: Rayvin Woods had no conscience. She had tried to kill someone, and somehow, had covered it up.
The good people of Talbot had gathered around their best son, casting their own judgement against a criminal who had been able to work the system while Jason, on the precipice of adulthood, had been forced to accept life imprisonment in a wheelchair. Sentencing was swift and complete; the community rallied to show Rayvin that she was not welcome. Conversations ceased when she entered a classroom; hateful eyes followed her every move; clerks refused to serve her when she entered stores. All but one of her friends deserted her. No wonder she had chosen to leave.
The citizens had been pleased at their victory and Talbot had become a peaceful community again.
So why had she come back? She had to know that she would not be welcome in this town, no matter how much time had gone by. Jason was now a prominent citizen, an established contributor to the community. His family and friends were a tightly bound support network. They would, without doubt, remember her on sight. Not a pleasant situation to contemplate.
Could he persuade her to leave again? Disturbingly — did he want her to disappear again?
Grant had always been one to follow his instincts, which were usually correct; listening to his gut had nearly always put him in the right place, at the right time, which was a distinct advantage for a police officer. This time, it told him to follow her, stop her, do whatever it took this time to protect others from her corruption. He would not allow himself to be taken in by her sexuality: She had been dangerous in the past, and from the way he felt his hackles rising, she was likely still dangerous.
The law may not have branded her as a killer, but the law had been known to make mistakes. Whatever damage she had done in the past, whatever she was running from now, she would not do more on his watch. So tonight, as soon as he had recognized her, he had hit the gas, put on the flashers, and pulled her over even though she hadn’t done anything wrong, technically speaking.
Unfortunately, he had needed to give her a reason for his approach. And he had to write something in the report. Technically, he hadn’t been certain that her seatbelt had been fastened, which was a valid reason for a ride check. As she’d waited, her insurance papers held out, he’d taken some perverted pleasure in making her wait with the sun in her eyes. She couldn’t see his face with the light behind him and he took advantage of her confusion. He’d permitted himself a moment. The mirrored lenses of his sunglasses had allowed him the luxury of drinking in the glory of her hair, the highlights glowing like embers in the sunset; the high cheekbones that balanced her heart-shaped face; the flush that was spreading across her fair skin as she waited, biting her lip subconsciously in nervousness. That little nibble had made the breath catch in his throat as an old, familiar ache followed the hear coursing through his midsection to his thighs. Ten years after high school, she was still nearly impossible to resist.
Too bad she was also nearly a felon.
Grant wrote up the seatbelt check, turned off the cruiser’s flashers, and pulled back into the road. Up ahead, he could still see her taillights in the gathering dusk, getting closer to Talbot. He increased his speed with a guilty twinge, until he was about fifteen yards back. Forcing himself to ease off the gas, knowing that tailgating would be a mistake, the slow burn she’d left in her wake flared again as he watched the back end of her car swerve slightly as she took the bend in the road. The spray of slush thrown out by the wheels confirmed that she was driving a tad too quickly for the road conditions. He figured that their encounter had made her nervous. By now, if she was an attentive driver, she was probably aware that he was following her. Well, his job was to patrol the highways; he had just as much right to drive in this direction as Rayvin did. Hell, maybe just a little more, in her case.
Grant cursed under his breath as she swerved again, shaking his head. Desire and anger were cooling now, into resentment and frustration. What was she thinking? How did she dare, after everything that had happened? It had taken years for the community to clean up the mess she’d made; for everyone she’d hurt to put their lives back together. Did she think that it had all been forgotten?
Rayvin’s precipitous return was going to rock the town’s easy atmosphere, an environment he felt was as much his to protect as the people who contributed to it. No matter his personal feelings toward that woman — his physical reaction, he corrected — there were no real feelings to think about. The citizens he had sworn an oath to serve had to come first. He wasn’t an animal; he could control himself, and would.
Of course, how he approached her — or didn’t — would entirely depend on how she behaved herself. If her crazy driving was any indicator, Rayvin Woods had just about as much inhibition as she ever had — which was next to none.
“If you swerve that thing just one more time,” Grant promised himself, muttering, “I swear, I will pull you over again and you will not get off easy.”
The last time he’d seen her, she had been walking away, back bent slightly under the weight of her pack but shoulders still somehow straight. Defiant. Proud. He’d made no move to stop her then, though he had wanted to. To demand the answers no-one had been able to find out — like why she’d tried to kill Jason, for starters. To allow himself to touch her, once, so he could satisfy his own curiosity and finally know what her skin felt like. To take that kiss from her full lips, knowing somehow in his soul that this was his last opportunity. The whole situation, it just wasn’t fair.
His loyalty to his friend had been stronger than his lust for her, and Grant had held himself back. Still, the pain of losing her had been almost physical, even though he knew it was better that she was gone. Rayvin was nothing but trouble, nothing but danger; she aroused him simply because she was forbidden.
Understanding this, he had moved on with his life, his career, and become even closer with Jason and his friends. Her absence should have been a relief, and yet for a long time, it seemed the colour of the world had blanched — no other woman had ever struck him as vital and real as she had.
He’d tried to put her out of his mind, had gone on dates and had a healthy sex life, but every relationship, no matter how extended, was pale in comparison to the fantasies he’d once had about Rayvin Woods. Sometimes he woke up in the middle of the night, body hard to the point of pain, with images of wild red hair sliding across his chest, a curvaceous body in his bed, blue eyes and pink lips smiling at him before they faded into the dark.
It bordered on obsession. Rather than admit it to himself, Grant had chosen distraction as a coping mechanism. He had thrown himself into his work, earning promotions quickly and citations for good service. He had even been offered first pick of a new posting, which he had professionally declined in order to stay in the community he loved.
During his off-time, he had poured that same dedication into his physique, becoming a regular at the local private gym. He could consistently be seen and on the town’s main thoroughfare as he ran for sixty minutes before and after each shift in the cruiser — he particularly enjoyed running in the winter, when the bitterest cold of midwinter tested his endurance almost to its limits. This intense physical program left him more energized now, in his late twenties, than he had been as a teenager; he was proud of his self-control, and the sense of authority he exuded, even out of uniform.
He had become a figure to respect in the community, which was something he didn’t take lightly. Grant was not going to take any chances on losing that position, no matter what some crush from his high school days said or did or looked like now.
Which brought him back to his original curiosity — what was she doing back here? Of all the places that woman might choose, she was setting up housekeeping in the worst possible place; the place where she had been virtually run out of town on rails over a decade earlier. She had to know that, didn’t she?
Grant pursed his lips, considering. It was possible that she was just visiting the few friends he knew had kept in contact with her, though the number of boxes and bags filling up her vehicle suggested otherwise. She had to know that she wasn’t going to expect a warm welcome; if she was smart, she’d keep a low profile to begin with, and let the rumour mill carry the word of her arrival at a comfortable pace rather than shocking everyone with her sudden reappearance.
Rayvin had reduced her speed as the highway became the main thoroughfare. Grant was now less than five car-lengths behind her. She made the sharp s-bend past the first fenced-in historical head-frame that marked the physical town limit; automatically, he steered the cruiser smoothly along the same route. His mind continued to work the problem.
Passing the senior citizens’ residence on the left, Grant checked the building’s visible doors and windows with a swift habitual glance to the side while resolving to keep the whole encounter to himself, barring its inclusion in his report at the end of the shift. If the rumour mill was going to turn, it could do so without his help.
As he followed her down the short, steep hill past the post office, the second of three cordoned-off abandoned head-frames in the downtown core, and a handful of small glass-fronted shops, it was only practiced, well-trained reflexes that allowed him to brake and swerve as a hole the size of a minivan yawned suddenly in the road between his cruiser and Rayvin’s vehicle at the end of the block. Forcing the wheel to the right, heart pounding with the surge of adrenaline, he brought the car to a squealing halt perpendicular to the gap in the pavement. The hole had opened right in front of the town playhouse, a restored 1920s theatre, which had just opened its doors to welcome guests for a costumed dinner party. Within moments, he had hit both his emergency lights on the roof and his siren to alert the rest of the traffic on the two-lane strip.
Grant sat still for the space of a breath, before moving carefully toward the passenger side door — the street just beyond the driver’s side ending abruptly in open space, at least thirty feet deep. He assessed the situation with a practiced eye. Leaving the door open, he was already moving to the trunk as he called dispatch with his shoulder-mount radio. Smoothly lighting the flares he extracted from the cruiser’s emergency kit, he placed the first on the edge of the hole closest to the left rear bumper of the vehicle, and then lengthened his stride to quickly place the second on the farther corner. Straightening, arms out to discourage the theatre patrons who had already started to gather, his voice failed as he suddenly made eye contact with Rayvin Woods.
She had pulled over and gotten out of her own car at the end of the block, probably because she had seen the lights or heard the siren. She was hesitating, standing beside the open door of her own vehicle. He couldn’t look away from the cascade of her hair or the curve of her body, illuminated by the streetlights and the neon store sign behind her. She took a step towards the hole in the road. Towards him.
Meanwhile, the unbroken part of the road was rapidly filling with spectators. The crowd included patrons of the theatre who were attending a fancy dress party, and the array of fantastic costumes added an air of unreality to the scene. Everyone wanted to get a closer look at the sinkhole. Rayvin included, it seemed. The stupid woman would likely be recognized immediately if she came any closer, and that would make the situation worse than it needed to be. There were a number of prominent citizens here who had known her ten years ago. They could turn around at any moment and see her. Psychologically shaken by this event, they would use her to vent their fright and confusion. All hell was about to break loose.
In desperation, he cleared his throat.
“Keep back, please, folks, keep your distance, please,” he called out, and with the second breath, was able to hear his baritone echoing off the fourth story of the office complex to the right of the theatre. “You need to stay back.”
He continued to caution the on-lookers, as they began to gather in small groups and speculation grew louder, he let his eyes fall on Rayvin again. Shaking his head slightly, he tried to communicate a soundless warning to her. Amazingly, something must have gotten through because she stopped in her tracks, a crease forming between her eyebrows. That’s right, he thought, if you’re smart you’ll turn around and get back in your car. This is neither the place nor the time for people who don’t want you here to see you.
Rayvin’s face blanched, as though she’d been slapped without warning. Then, she turned abruptly. As if in obedience to his unspoken order, she got into the car she’d left running, and in a moment, she had driven around the corner, and was gone.
In that same moment, Grant caught himself reflecting contemptuously that the last time there had been something resembling a disaster in this town, Rayvin had been there, and had taken off running then, too. He mentally shook himself, as his fellow officers began to arrive with reinforcements from the fire department. That was a ridiculous connection to make. There was absolutely no way to link Jason’s injury to a hole that had just opened in the street. Logically, he knew that it was probably just the pilings of an old mine tunnel which had finally rotten and given way — in the old days, mine shafts and tunnels had been burrowed under the town as well as in the hills and valleys surrounding it; the miners had followed the veins of silver as far as they could, no matter where they ended up. It was inevitable that something had to open up, at some point.
It was the timing of the event that was nagging at him, even as he was briefing his commanding officer on the situation. Another few seconds, and he would have been driving into open space. An image of Jason’s body, falling helplessly like a rag doll flung into a void, flashed through his thoughts. Was it even possible that Rayvin had something to do with the break in the street?
In his almost ten years as a police officer, Grant had seen some strange events. However, there had always been a logical explanation for the phenomenon he had seen, or that he had investigated for a witness. But even further back…during that brief period when Rayvin had been the unwitting focus of his life…he had seen things that he knew he couldn’t explain, not even if he had had the entire forensics department of the Ontario Provincial Police behind him. His lust for her hadn’t blinded him from noticing paranormal events that tended to occur when Rayvin was around.
Like on their grade eleven geography field trip, when some kid had made fun of her for something trivial, and was pelted by weak branches and pinecones for the duration of their hike through the bush. There had been no wind that day, but the kid had walked in front of him and behind Rayvin; he had actually seen the bits of trees stripping off in her wake to attack the aggressive kid.
In the back of his mind, he remembered that her combination lock always seemed to open of its own accord when she approached her locker, though her hands hadn’t been anywhere near the latch. Snowballs thrown in her direction never hit their intended target, and splashes from cars rebounded as though they’d hit some kind of invisible shield around her body.
Hell, he’d even tried an experiment when he’d felt especially bold one week. His attempt to knock her binders off her desk when he passed had failed. In fact, he’d felt something pass him to pull them back into place. At that point, he’d also come to realize that he’d never seen more than two or three students ever voluntarily talking to her. It was almost as though the entire student body, with few exceptions, had decided to pretend she wasn’t there.
Rumour had it that her mother, who had died of cancer when Rayvin was really young, had not only offered tarot card and crystal ball readings to the public, but also also wandered graveyards at midnight with her little girl in tow. These were activities that fairy tales, Hollywood movies, and small-town gossips had related to witchcraft.
And then there was Jason’s accident. Grant himself had reviewed the file after joining the force. Though in the end, after the charges against her had been dropped, the official report stated that he had tripped and fallen off the bridge in a tragic accident, no-one believed it. The idea that an athletic guy like Jason had fallen on his own was laughable. Someone had to have pushed him, but not one person had been with Jason. Except Rayvin.
Grant shoved his suspicions to the back of his head; he needed his full concentration now. Mulling over the mystery and danger of Rayvin Woods while trying to monitor and coordinate the removal of spectators from a sinkhole in the middle of downtown Talbot was unprofessional and foolhardy. He would take care of this situation, and then take care of her.
Shaken, Rayvin pulled away from the curb. Her eyes strayed to her rearview mirror, at the collection of police cars, ambulance and fire vehicles which had gathered by the gaping hole in the road. A blaring horn caused her to clutch the wheel and bring her gaze properly back to the path of her vehicle. It was bad enough that the street had collapsed just after her car had passed over it, but death by plunging into the void, as uncontrollable as it might have been, would be just as undesirable as death by collision.
She wanted a drink. Not alcohol necessarily, although that would be lovely. Her mouth felt dry. Her hands were trembling. Her glance caught the street names, and Rayvin realized that in her shock, she had driven right past Andrea’s restaurant.
Cursing softly under her breath, she took the next left, and left again. The damn place was right up the street from the sinkhole. The distinctive head-frame poking out of the roof was freshly painted and outlined with glittery white lights, matching those in the large plate-glass windows on either side of the entrance.
She spotted a long opening in the line of cars, between a newer four-door silver Lexus, shining in the streetlights, and a fire engine-red vintage Pontiac Tempest in what looked to be excellent condition. Lovely bookends for her own battered and much-abused vehicle and its burden. Carefully, with many starts and stops, she edged her crowded hatchback into the space, trailer first, while sending a protective shield out and around both of the other cars in an effort to stave off any possible bumps or scratches. The last thing she needed today was to owe someone of wealth a claim on her insurance. Spinning the wheel once more to straighten the tires, she took a deep breath, and wriggled her shoulders to try and release the tension which had been building there since she had pulled off the highway…since she had been face to face with Grant — now Corporal — Michaels…
She knew that if she looked carefully, she would see his tall form silhouetted in the lights of the emergency vehicles clustered not two blocks ahead. “Full circle once again, eh, Samantha?” Rayvin murmured. Her cat poked a questing paw out of her carrier and meowed.
No. Now was not the time or place to think about that. Her plan, in all its incarnations, had always had the same starting point: Get into Talbot, find her former foster-sister and best friend, Andrea Renaud. After that, she could figure out what else to do. At least the first part was turning out to be the easiest — aside from that minor hiccup on the road. And in the road, spookily enough.
As she prepared to leave her vehicle, gathering her coat, scarf, and purse, she saw movement at the corner of her eye: many of the restaurant’s patrons had emerged as word of the near-catastrophe spread, and at the back of the group, Rayvin could just see Andrea’s golden curls bobbing around in the warm yellow light spilling from the windows, door, and illuminated sign.
She sighed with relief as she finished buttoning her mid-length, dove-grey felt trench coat, folding the belt into place around her narrow waist. Quickly twisting the length of her hair out of the way and into a french knot, she secured it to her scalp with a pencil as a makeshift hairpin. Then she looped her soft ivory silk scarf around her neck against the chill night air. She drew in a deep breath, appreciating the scent of dried and burning leaves on the air, somehow as comforting as the knowledge that a safe haven was so close by.
Now she didn’t even have to ask at the cash register for Andrea’s whereabouts, which would have been slightly awkward if the person behind the counter was someone she had known…before.
Suddenly, the same familiar odour of autumn leaves felt strangely ominous. Where a moment before there was comfort, now Rayvin experienced a shadow of fear — as though the night air was tainted with something foul and unnatural passing by her in the darkness, just beyond the streetlights.
Locking the door and shivering in the slight breeze that had come with the dark, Rayvin sprinted across the road, making straight for the beacon of golden hair that announced the presence of the only person she trusted. Dodging around a hefty man in a bright orange hunting jacket and matching hat, and sidestepping a shrunken elderly lady with a cloud of fine white hair under a finely crotched burgundy beret, she came upon the tall, slender figure of her friend. Andrea was standing with her back to Rayvin, talking animatedly with a gruff-looking middle-aged minister in a grey cardigan; she had wrapped herself in a moss-green knit shawl over black slacks, and what Rayvin could see was a black cowl-neck sweater, with her yellow-blonde curls tumbling over the top of a perfectly bound chignon.
Rayvin immediately felt some of the tension in her shoulders start to melt away just being in the presence of a friend, someone who cared for her. The love in that woman’s aura was as soothing as sitting with a cup of hot chocolate by a campfire. Homey. For a moment, she could believe that everything truly would be okay again.
And then the minister saw her, waiting patiently, just beyond Andrea’s shoulder, and the good, relieved feeling was gone. If she had been a cat, her hackles would have risen immediately with the look of hostility and suspicion that came over his face upon his recognition of her.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same, indeed,” she muttered to herself, smiling brightly.
Andrea turned to see the object of the old man’s glare, and rewarded Rayvin’s patience beyond her expectations. Her clear, blue-grey eyes lit up as her generous lips opened with a shriek and a grin. She opened her arms and gathered Rayvin to her in a tight embrace.
“Oh my god! You’re here!” She bounced in place, nearly lifting Rayvin off her Keds. “I’m so happy! You’re home, Rayvin!”
She squeezed even tighter, and then pushed the smaller woman back by the shoulders, to look her up and down in a motherly way. “Oh, you’ve lost weight again, you shouldn’t have done that, you’re just skin and bones now. No wonder, with what you’ve been through.” Andrea pulled her back into another hug, rising onto her toes to rest her chin on Rayvin’s shoulder and rub her back. “I missed you so much.”
Rayvin closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, enjoying the mingled scents of rosemary, thyme, and lilac that Andrea had worn since she had discovered herbology at the age of sixteen. For the second time in the space of an hour, tears filled her eyes; she leaned into the hug, relaxing completely in her friend’s arms. There was so much she wanted to tell, that she needed to say, but this wasn’t the moment. Confirmation of that instinct came with a dry, rattling cough behind them. Andrea released her, but kept an arm around Rayvin’s shoulder, turning to face the dour old man with a smile and eyes sparkling unashamedly with tears.
“Father Jonas, you remember my dear friend, Rayvin?”
He frowned. “Yes, Miss Woods. I remember you. How kind of you to visit us. And what interesting timing you have, what with this incident down the road — you were lucky not to be killed.”
His eyes bored into hers. Instinctively, she threw up a psychic shield against his hostility. Blinking, he looked away, murmured his apologies to Andrea, and turned to find someone else in the crowd to talk to.
“Oh, now, why did you do that?” Andrea whispered, hugging Rayvin’s shoulder. And then she turned to look more closely.
“Oh, my God, are you okay? That must have been terrifying for you, you’re probably going into shock or something; I know I would be if it were me. Come on inside, we’ll get you something to drink, maybe some really sugary tea, it’s too cold for anything fizzy and carbonated…”
Gratefully, Rayvin allowed herself to be led inside to the warm, yellow light of the restaurant. After the crisp, slightly damp darkness of the autumn night, the eatery was an oasis. Sitting on the cobalt blue leather banquette that Andrea indicated before disappearing into the kitchen, she slid deeper into the booth so she could see without being seen.
If her best friend had done the decorating of the place herself, she definitely had a talent, Rayvin thought to herself. The furnishings were tasteful, cobalt and navy blues accented with shades of green and hints of gold. It was clear that several tables had been occupied just moments before Rayvin’s untimely arrival, and the strange appearance of the gaping hole in the street.
Classic chairs upholstered in cobalt blue leather, like the banquettes, were set around tables draped with crisply starched, pristine charcoal tablecloths. The tables were in turn set with gleaming, dark green ceramic chargers, spotless tableware and glassware, professionally-folded napkins, and tidy bowls of creamers, sugars, and sweeteners spaced evenly around each table’s autumn-themed centre-piece. Explosions of colourful leaves, marigolds, daisies, and other seasonal floral and fauna in hand-made pottery vases whose colours ran in rings of shading from rusty brown to light grey to dark blue. Tea lights in small glass holders ringed each centrepiece for an added sense of intimacy and peacefulness.
The floor was stained dark mahogany, and shone with polish and care. Roman blinds in cobalt blue, flecked with gold and green, offset the charcoal grey front wall, and complimented the surprisingly urban accent wall of naked brick, against which Rayvin was leaning. Floating wood shelves, stained mahogany like the floor, were staggered on the walls for interest, displaying framed 4 x 6 black and white photographs with wide white mountings. Each frame was unique — some were trendy, thin and box-like; others were clearly vintage finds, but all were painted gold and distressed for effect. Between each shelf was a vertical column of mirrors, in various sizes and shapes, all frameless. Two doors on the back wall, tastefully disguised with standing ferns, led to the kitchen and the toilet facilities.
A chalkboard on the wall near the door listed the evening’s specials — salmon chowder was offered, she saw, with a salad of winter greens, and sweet potato medallions with sautéed carrots. Kitty-corner to her booth, a shining glass display counter invited drooling with its selection of tempting desserts below the beverage counter and cash register. She could see six-layered chocolate cakes topped with strawberries, fat sugar-dusted pastries oozing with sweet jellies and cremes, moist cheesecakes dribbled with chocolate syrup. Her stomach grumbled slightly, reminding herself that since she’d started driving, she’d only stopped for pretzels and coffee in her hurry to escape the city and its memories.
As if on cue, Andrea, sans shawl, reappeared with a loaded oval serving tray and strolled confidently across the floor in three-inch black heels. She handily kept the tray aloft while using one hand and her shoulder while she picked up a tray-holder Rayvin hadn’t seen tucked behind the banquette. Then she professionally slid the tray into place. Placing a polished cream-coloured ceramic teapot on the table, she laid out two flared rose-coloured teacups and matching saucers, and — heavens above — a large plate of samples from the dessert display.
“Oh, you darling,” Rayvin exclaimed, wiggling her fingers over the assortment. “You always seem to know exactly what I need. Are you sure you’re not psychic?”
Andrea dimpled; it had always been their little private joke.
“Do you have time to sit? I’ve worked in restaurants, it’s usually go, go, go, isn’t it? I’m sorry, that sounded like a criticism.” Rayvin selected cream puff not much bigger than her thumb and popped the whole thing in her mouth. She allowed her eyes to roll back slightly in pleasure as the light flakes of pastry dissolved on her tongue and the thick filling pleasured her tastebuds.
Andrea shook her head, opening a creamer. “No, I’ve got all the time in the world. Thirty seconds!” She laughed, cheerily but tiredly. “It’ll still be a few minutes before the excitement dies down and everyone comes back in. The staff in the kitchen, the waitresses, they’re all really good; sometimes I honestly feel like I might be in the way. It’s not a problem. Right now, my focus is you.” She sipped from her cup, gazing at Rayvin. “We didn’t get much of a chance to talk on the phone, I want to hear everything.”
Rayvin stared down at her tea, watching the shapes in the steam curl and unfurl themselves. A mild current stirred the tinted brew, creating a miniature whirlpool before she realized what she was doing. Blinking, she refocused, letting the whirlpool calm itself again. She hadn’t realized how hard it was going to be to talk to her friend. Instinctively, she glanced over her shoulder, and leaned forward. Even though she knew her private business would never go beyond the woman with the good heart sitting before her, she’d learned painfully to be wary of listening ears.
Uncertain of how to begin, even with her oldest and dearest friend, Rayvin picked up her fork and used it to comb a thin slice of cheesecake. The flavours and texture were comforting, but made her feel wistful. Home was a place where a person was supposed to feel safe from betrayal, or to heal a heartache. She could recall learning about this particular recipe from her mother, giggling together in the kitchen as they took turns running their fingers along the mixing bowl and licking them clean. Had she fooled herself into thinking that Talbot would be a real haven, somehow?
“I – I can’t think of where to start. It’s not like it was terribly tragic. I was lied to, and I was manipulated. It could have been worse; there could have been violence. I was lucky, in a way.” She shook her head, and took another bite of cheesecake. “Gods, this is good.”
A bell over the door tinkled as a few customers drifted back in from the chill, finding their seats as they chatted excitedly about the break in the street. Rayvin heard someone joking about it being the town’s largest pothole. She shook her head before sipping at the liquid that was now just cooler than scalding.
Andrea, undeterred, leaned forward, and covered Rayvin’s free hand with hers. “Lucky?” she repeated, “Honey, I wouldn’t count having a lover who would take all of your money, and stalk you, and threaten you, as lucky.”
“I know, I know, but I think it’s all relative, to be honest.” Rayvin blew through pursed lips. “What I had to deal with was hard, yes, but it could have been worse.”
She thought back to the ordeal of the past twelve months. To the relationship she had thought was going to end in her happily-ever-after. Andrea was a good listener — she always had been, Rayvin reflected — as she explained more of her predicament to the friend who had invited her, without any strings, back into her life.
Two years earlier, she had fallen for her landlord, Warren, a cute guy with sparkling brown eyes and a winning grin. They had really hit it off while she was moving into her apartment. She had been carrying one too many boxes up three flights of stairs, and when they were about to topple, he had rescued her. After dating for a few months, he had wanted her to move in with him. They liked each other, she found him intriguing and interesting, but she resisted his offer. Something about him always left her slightly on guard.
Eventually, they had agreed to keep the relationship platonic, and still got together frequently after the romance had ended. She would meet Warren for coffee in the morning, on her break from the publishing house where she worked, or they’d get together for drinks in the evening. Sometimes, she’d introduce him to her man of the moment, though a pattern quickly developed which took her months to recognize: as soon as her date had met her good male friend, the new guy would quickly find an excuse to avoid her.
Rayvin hadn’t always followed her instinct in the past, which was why it took her so long to really recognize that the creep was stalking her. She placed wards around her apartment, quietly replaced her landline with her mobile, and started watching the signs around her. Once she had confirmed that he was following her to work, lurking outside her door, and even opening her mail, she knew she had to move. She could have placed a binding or a banishment spell against him, but given her disastrous history with magick, she had tried going the mundane, legal route instead. She had no wish to cause harm to anyone. So Rayvin had documented his stalking religiously, notified the police, and finally taken out a restraining order against him. After a few confrontations, she had made it to her final moving day. Her concerns about being harassed, or worse, turned out for the better. In fact, the experience was anti-climatic. Warren had stayed out of the way, and she had left in peace.
Or so she had thought.
Little did she know what that man was capable of.
Within a week of her move, Warren had issued a lawsuit against her. His complaint to small-claims court was that she had reneged on a rental agreement with him, and owed him eight months of rent. At first, she was speechless when she read over the document after the process server had made his hasty exit down the suddenly windy stairs of her duplex. Instead of feeling safe, Rayvin had suddenly felt as though she were truly under attack. And she knew she was in trouble, because their relationship had been so amicable at the beginning, she had never requested receipts from Warren for her rent, and had always paid him in cash, which was his own preference. She had never missed a payment, but had no proof. Her one visit to a lawyer — the first hour being free, she made sure it did not go past sixty minutes — confirmed her worst fears. “You have to get him to admit on the stand that you paid him, and he’s lying,” counselled the young attorney assigned to her. “Just keep at him, and at him; ask him over and over why he’s not being honest. But I’m afraid it’s going to come down to your word against his.”
The night before going to court, Ravyin sat in her living room, pacing back and forth, trying hard to keep breathing, to stay positive, but her fear was so great that she couldn’t even summon the strength to light a candle for a spell. She managed to charge some magickal stones to carry in her pocket, just before going to bed, but knew in some part of her that it was not going to go well for her. And that part questioned whether it would go poorly because she wasn’t strong enough to think positively. At any rate, it did go badly for Rayvin in court: Not only did she have no evidence to prove that she had indeed paid all of her rent on time, the bastard also brought a quartet of other tenants to testify on his behalf. They had always paid him in cheques, they had always paid on time, and had always been given receipts.
The worst part was not even when she had opened the ruling which had come in the mail, detailing the determination of her guilt and the amount of money she had to pay him — triple what was in her savings. As bad as that was, what came next was nearly inconceivable and revealing of the man’s malicious conceit. The low-life had somehow obtained her cellphone number, called her at work, and suggested that, given her financial situation (which, stupidly, she had opened up to him when they had been friends and she had trusted him), she might consider working off the money with him.
“This is really a sign that we’re meant to be together,” he’d suggested, his silky tones making her flesh crawl. “If you’d sleep with me, I’d call the payment made. Come over to my place, we can — negotiate. You never know, you’d probably enjoy it.”
She’d hung up on him, and when he called back, dropped the phone in a pitcher of water.
Andrea was biting her manicured thumbnail, by the time Rayvin finished her story. “Oh, Ray,” she moaned, eyes glistening with sympathetic tears as she used her childhood nickname, “I can’t believe him. What an asshole! Why didn’t you spell him?” Too late, she checked around her for listening ears, but no one had paid attention. Rayvin smiled wryly.
“No, you know I don’t do that. And I never want to be accused of it again, either. Actually, that was one thing I was really smart about. I never let down my guard in Warren’s presence quite enough to let him see my magick. Not after the last time — remember when I got dumped because of that? Seems like every man I meet gets cold feet as soon as they realize I’m different — that I can do things that they can’t explain. Magick freaks them out. I don’t even like to think of what he might have done if he’d known — he’s the type of sleaze who’d try to profit from it, by calling a talk show or something. Start videotaping me secretly to get filmed proof for the National Enquirer or something, stupid ideas like that.” She sipped the last of her tea, and out of long habit, swirled the cup three times before tipping it over the saucer to let the dregs settle into a pattern for divination.
“So that’s when I called you. Warren actually destroyed most of the friendships I had developed in the city with his poison. I couldn’t stay there. I had to extend what’s left of my credit to the max just to get here, and without your help in finding a house, I’d be homeless right now.”
Andrea laughed softly, “Gee, thanks for making me your first choice!” She squeezed Rayvin’s hand. “I understand why you were reluctant to come back here. But I’m still glad you did.”
Rayvin smiled grimly. “Well, you’re the only one who will be, I think. I already ran into Grant Michaels. I think that pleasant little encounter gave me a really good idea of how I’m going to be accepted in this town. Which is going to be, not at all.” She briefly outlined their uncomfortable meeting on the highway, tapping the bottom of her cup occasionally with one narrow fingertip. Andrea hummed and gasped at all the appropriate places, shaking her head with disbelief. Rayvin sighed at the end of the tale, linking her fingers to stretch her arms out under the table, palms down.
“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate everything you’ve done to help me. I wish I was here under different circumstances. I know a lot of people are not going to like me being here, though. And if I can help you with your restoration project, help get this place going again the way my mother always talked about, then maybe there’s a higher reason for coming back.”
She picked up her cup to glance inside, but before getting a really good look, a shadow loomed over their table, making it impossible to see the contents. She could tell by the energy flooding her aura, before shielding herself, who had joined them. Well, by that and the scent of his skin, which she supposed had never really left her body’s memory. She had never met another man who smelled so good. And she had tried.
“Michaels,” she stated, raising her head slowly and leaning back in the seat. She slowly put the cup down, crossed her arms, and narrowed her eyes at him.
Grant Michaels had the classic policeman’s stance as he glared down at her, arms folded and feet planted at shoulder width, or perhaps just wider. Though he continued to stare her down, he greeted Andrea instead.
“Hey, there, Andrea. Any reports of unusual tremors in here?”
Andrea shook her head, and wriggled to her left to offer him a seat, but he remained standing.
“No, not since the crew finished their blasting early this morning. It was all controlled, inspected thoroughly.”
Rayvin’s confusion forced her to relinquish the staring contest. “Blasting?”
Andrea nodded. “It’s all part of the restoration of the old mine shaft that was built under, and into this building. This space next door was constructed as part of a head frame, and both are about eighty years old. This part of the building is a bit younger. The idea is that within the next two to three years, tourists will be able to ride a protected elevator down to the original tunnel, once it’s reinforced and safetied and everything. Like the Big Nickel mine in Sudbury, only on a smaller scale. We wouldn’t have had to do any moving, except for an accident about a year ago that brought down the ceiling of the main tunnel. My friends Pike and Charlotte were checking it out when it happened, though why they’d decided to cozy up in some damp and dirty tunnel is beyond me.” She shuddered, shaking her head, and pulled a small envelope out of her pocket.
She continued speaking as she shook out a small, golden ankh on a fine gold chain, letting it fall gently onto the table. “It was a miracle they weren’t killed. They’re on a working honeymoon abroad for the moment, looking at the mining industry in Peru, but they should be back in a few weeks. It’s thanks to Pike that this town has a future again. He was the one who started the diamond boom around here. And Charlotte is a fantastic artist; her work is in the gallery, I know you’ll appreciate her talent as soon as you see her paintings. You’ll just love the two of them, they’re good people.
“Anyway, I actually think this necklace is hers; the crew found it down there, before they started setting up for the blasting to get rid of the rubble down there. I have to remember to give it back to her — I’m surprised Charlotte didn’t say anything about losing it. If there’s a chance that the shaft underneath us is connected to the mine that collapsed the street, it may be a blessing in disguise. The reconstruction will actually give us a chance to reinforce the tunnel really well, which will make our insurance people very happy.”
Rayvin grinned, leaning her chin on her hand; Andrea had always been an incurable optimist.
“The empty storefront next door, in the original building, will be the principal entry to the museum and main attraction. It’s a good thing I’m a woman, there is a ton of money available from the government for projects like this, but they’re mostly for female entrepreneurs — poor saps like Grant here are left hoofing it in public service, eh, bud?”
She punched him playfully, and he grabbed her fist before it made contact. Then he grinned down at her. Rayvin felt off-balance — why did she wish he’d smile at her that way? Grabbing a vacant chair nearby, Michaels spun it on one leg so its back was to their booth, and straddled it with surprising grace for such a big man.
“Yeah, yeah, just keep talking, Andy, and one of these days your foot is not going to make it back out.” His dark green eyes were shining, and he kissed the blushing woman’s cheek. “I can’t believe you’ve gotten this whole thing as far as you have. It’s really going to bring the town back, I know it. Once this mine tour is up and running, you’re going to have what — an art gallery, small boutiques sharing space in the larger empty store fronts, and a book store?”
“That’s right, plus a photography studio, ice cream parlour, an antique store, costume rentals… Rayvin’s going to have that studio up and running before you know it.” Andrea smiled confidently, face flaming with pride and pleasure. “She just came out of a professional photographer’s business, she knows all the ins and outs.”
“Really,” murmured Michaels, looking back over at Rayvin. Why did she feel like he was checking her out? His eyes, which hadn’t gone lower than the tabletop, instinctively made her stomach tighten as they appeared to see more than was visible to the naked eye. “All the ins and outs? And how long, pray tell, does this wise, experienced professional think it will take?”
The contempt in his voice turned the growing heat in Ravyin’s belly to ice. Oh, yes, she reminded herself dully. He hates me. Pulling on her last reserves of strength after the long drive, and even longer year, she slid forward out of the seat, and faced him on her own feet. She concentrated on making her tone forceful and cold to match his. “In my professional estimation,” she enunciated, “it’s probably going to be six months to a year to get started, make back the initial investment, and then a second year to make it stick. And then, Corporal, once I’m confident it’ll go, back I will go to urban culture, and it will be Andrea’s turn to come visit me.”
Her voice softened as she glanced at Andrea; she hadn’t meant to sound harsh. But really, she had no intention of staying any longer than necessary to get back on her feet. There was no use pretending that her move back was permanent.
“I’m sorry, Andrea, I’m really exhausted, and running out of patience. Mind if I come back tomorrow morning, and we continue our chat then? In private,” she emphasized, gathering her things. “Say, around nine?”
“But you’ve only been here forty-five minutes,” Andrea protested, sliding out of the booth as well, “at least stay and have a proper meal.”
Rayvin smiled as she pulled on her coat and scarf. “No, I’ve got my cat in the car, she’ll be getting cold. And I know, I could probably bring her in if she’s in the carrier — you’re so sweet.” She cupped Andrea’s cheek across the chair that Michaels had quickly risen from. “But I’ve lost my appetite.” She flicked her gaze toward him. His mouth was pressed into a thin line.