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My mind was whirling. Thoughts wouldn’t stick. I choked down the scotch and barely tasted the overcooked roast. After dinner, I trudged up to my room, barely able to keep from crying. I wasn’t sad or hurt, just…frustrated. I’d spent my whole life thinking I was supposed to be the same as my peers, that some quirk of fate had made me different. It turned out that I was not supposed to be the same. I was supposed to be different. And that difference would’ve been celebrated by a certain magical group.

I plopped down onto my bed, thinking things through. My mind flitted back to the mages from New Orleans, and how hard they’d tried to get me to train with them. Were they part of this organization that my mother feared? That my father wanted to keep me from?

The scene last night replayed of its own accord. The stranger demanding the name of the person who had killed his brother. No, wait. That was wrong. Who had ordered his brother killed. Those were two very different things.

Organizations ordered people killed. Mobsters and the like. Was that what I was dealing with?

And did that mean the stranger was on the right side of the divide?

But what if there were no lines at all? Just a mess of murkiness I’d never be able to navigate.

I was too gullible. Too easy to prey upon. Just look—my whole life I’d been bullied and badgered by my mother, and I hadn’t rebelled or pressed for the truth. The woman swore, drank, and had powerful magical volumes hidden around the house. I’d spent years blindly following rules she didn’t follow herself. Living in the dark.

I blew out a breath and pushed myself up off my bed. What better time to morosely stare at the rain? I was approaching the window, planning to stew in my sullenness for a moment, when I caught sight of a person walking down our side of the deserted sidewalk.

I dropped low, all my grievances instantly forgotten.

Peeping out of the corner of the window, a place that would be nearly out of sight from down below, I studied the passerby. The man was lean, wearing a black coat with the collar turned up. He had a bowler hat on his head and his hands in his pockets. No umbrella.

To say he stood out on this drizzly night was to say a shark stood out in a shallow pool. This man did not belong.

I clutched the window frame. My breath came out fast and shallow.

He turned and stared at the house, his toes only a foot from our grass line. A long moment passed. Silence stretched like taffy.

He tore his hands out of his pockets and threw them forward. A flash of purple sparkled along an invisible wall on the edge of our property. The patterns and colors I’d come to expect from magic flashed into view, the weave artful and delicate, though not nearly as tightly woven as the stranger’s.

A boom sounded from somewhere within the house. I jumped. A slice of yellow cut through the front yard.

“You got business with me?” My mother trudged into my line of sight. In her hands, held like she’d been born with it, was a shotgun.

“Holy crap-shack,” I said, pushing forward until my forehead was pressed against the glass. “Where did she get a shotgun?”

“I have the right to shoot you. Try me!” she boomed.

The man started and jerked back.

A light clicked on across the street. Lewis must’ve fallen asleep in his chair. Soon he’d see the spectacle. Then call the cops.

At least this time it wouldn’t be our fault. Kinda.

“That’s right. You better run. I know what you’re about.” My mother stalked out a little farther, staring at the retreating man in the raincoat.

I shrank back from the window so she wouldn’t see me. I was supposed to be sleeping, conserving my strength. Though I clearly wasn’t the one who needed it. Not that she’d let me tell her that.

Minutes passed, the curtain across the street rustled, and my mother wandered back into the house.

The street fell into an uneasy quiet.

For now.

Chapter Fifteen

I blinked my eyes open and slid the back of my hand across the drool lining my chin. With a start, I realized there was soft light shining through the window. I peeled my face off the window frame and adjusted my butt, still asleep, on the chair I’d dragged over to the window.

Some sentinel I was. I hadn’t even properly lain down and I’d still fallen asleep.

With the pad of my finger, I wiped away the crust in the corner of my eyes and pushed closer to the window again to make sure all was clear.

A jolt coursed through me. I sucked in a breath.

On the other side of the street was a figure. His broad shoulders strained the T-shirt stretched across his torso. Tall and built, he emanated strength and power in repose as he stared up at my window.

It was him.

The stranger.

I shrank back. Had he seen me? There were no lights on behind me, and the glare of the sky should coat the glass, preventing the ability to see in. But then again, my face had nearly been pressed against it. He might’ve identified a cheek and some smushed lips.

Leaning closer again, I saw that he was now looking at the corner of the yard. His gaze roamed and his long arms stayed at his sides, thankfully with nothing between them.

A glance at the clock said it was five thirty in the morning. There was no telling how long he’d been standing there.

He stepped forward, into the street. Without looking left or right, he stalked across it with determination. Up on our sidewalk, he stood right in front of the house.

Then glanced up at me again.

Our gazes connected. Something inside of me did a little dance, a remembrance of the time he’d touched me and electricity shocked through my body. That had been fairly awful and painful, but this was more along the lines of pleasure.

Because I was crazy. That was the only explanation.

He spread out his hands in front of him. Rain fell, hitting a bubble around his body like it had the other night. Falling away without soaking him. It had to be some kind of magic, but I didn’t see the weave. Just like I couldn’t see the weave of the ward.

His fingers waggled slowly. A blast of light materialized on our property line, where I’d seen the purple wall earlier, and slapped into his palms in midair.

He stepped back and dropped his hands a bit as a little grin lit up his face.

His gaze hit mine, and though I couldn’t see detail, I knew he thought I’d put up that bit of magic.

After resuming his original place, he lifted his hands once again. A moment later, strings of various colors, textures, and patterns rose from the yards next to mine and the one across the street. They rose from his boots. Twisted out from his clothes. Wafted from the sidewalk. From everywhere. They all met up at his waggling fingers, and were then directed into an extremely intricate weave.

His posture, expression, and the playful drift and dance of the magic made the process look effortless. Beautiful.

The weave plastered itself along the invisible wall my father had created before converging into a diagonal line. Cracks formed along the surface, and then the whole place lit up. What had once been invisible became a gorgeous tapestry of color.

I watched in awe as he called up another weave, this one solely from his pocket. He tapped the wall with his finger. The magic broke like shatter-proof glass, raining down in pieces.

The stranger had cracked the ward. It hadn’t taken a couple days of study. It had taken a couple hours at the most. Ten minutes at the least.

The now-familiar surge of adrenaline ran through me. Fight or flight, and closets wouldn’t help me. I had to fight!

I pushed away from the window and grabbed out the scariest thing I could find: a tennis racket. “I need to try harder.”

I threw open my bedroom door, going for the biggest, loudest, craziest weapon in the house.

“Mother!” Rounding the corner into the stairwell, I took the steps two at a time, missed one toward the bottom, and tumbled down the rest. After a grunt, I picked myself up off the ground and snatched up the racket again. It might not help, but we were in this together now. “Mother, it’s the guy. The stranger. He just got past the first ward. Where’s that shotgun?”

I found her on the couch, struggling up to sit and blinking puffy eyes. Her hand slapped down next to her. Onto the gun. “I’m awake.”

“I’ll get a sword.”

“Get King Arthur. It handles the best.”

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