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If she'd aged naturally, Amber Sarga would have been twenty-six. But her gift for curse breaking cost her days, weeks, months years.
She'd found another gray hair today. Gray hair on a gray day.
Amber was taking a break from her home genealogical business to prepare a flower bed. Halfheartedly she stuck the big trowel into the dirt. An odd scent drifted to her and she straightened. There was something in the air. .
When her yellow Labrador puppies, Baxt and Zor, went into a barking frenzy, she turned. And saw a small brown being in her garden. Her mouth fell open.
He was plucking a bloom from the heavy mass of her violets and dropping the flower into a jar.
He was nothing human. Small, under three feet, thin, triangular face and large triangular ears, he was definitely magic. Over the past few years, living in Mystic Circle's cul-de-sac, Amber had gradually become aware that there was true magic in the world, and magical people.
Although they tried, the puppies couldn't get near him. They bounced off some sort of force field. He wore boots and sturdy pants and a shirt. All brown.
Amber swallowed. "What are you?"
"I'm a brownie," he grumbled.
She had a brownie in her garden. She swallowed again. "And you are, uh, harvesting violet blooms?"
His brown slit-pupil gaze fixed on her trowel, he gave a short nod. "You have good stuff here." He sniffed. "Much better than Jenni's few plants."
He must mean Jenni Weavers, her neighbor to the south. With enough spit to speak again, Amber said, "Thank you. And you need the blooms for.?"
"Going to crystallize them as a candied accent."
"Ah." Amber nodded. It didn't seem strange that a magical being would eat violets. "I have a chocolate pie recipe with crystallized violets."
The brownie's large eyes grew huge, seeming to take up more space on his face. "Chocolate pie," he breathed, clutching his jar. Then he offered it to her. "Chocolate pie." The tips of his ears quivered.
Ah, so he loved chocolate.
"I could make a chocolate pie for you. And maybe you could help me with my magical gift."
His mouth pursed as he scanned her from top to toe. "One of the Cumulustre human offspring. Gypsy strain?"
"Huh? I'm Amber Sarga."
He scrinched his boney shoulders together and kept his mouth shut.
The puppies' yips increased in volume. With a flick of his fingers and a guttural mutter, the brownie cast something fine and silky at the pups. They abruptly collapsed into snoring sleep. Then he glanced at her from the corner of his eyes and bent down to caress another violet bloom. "I can candy them for you for the chocolate pie."
"When will you make it?"
Amber raised her brows. "I'll shop for the ingredients today and the chocolate pie will be done tomorrow afternoon." Every time she said chocolate pie the brownie's catlike pupils dilated a little more.
Again with the mournful eyes. He was better with the appealing look even than the puppies.
He said, "All the chocolate in Jenni's house disappeared."
Into a round brownie tummy, Amber figured.
A shiver ran along the ground under Amber's soles. Her ears popped as a female brownie appeared. "What are you doing here, Pred?" She put her hands on her hips and tapped a tiny foot on the yellow grass. Her flexible triangular ears rolled close to her skull and up again. She glared at the man. "You knew she has enough magic to see you, and that she believes in magic. Why didn't you turn invisible?"
The guy threw out his chest. "She's Jenni's friend and our neighbor. If she can see magic, better that she sees me than violets being plucked and vanishing."
With a huff of breath the woman shook her head. "We agreed that we wouldn't contact her. You know the consequences."
"What consequences?" asked Amber.
The female brownie sniffed lustily in Amber's direction. "As we thought. A descendant of the air-elf Cumulustre family." The tiny woman frowned. "Cadet branch. Strain of Romani blood."
"Not enough for the gypsies to claim me," Amber said, barely able to speak for the words buzzing in her brain: Descendant. Elf. Cumulustre. Elf!
"Now we've met her, we can't ignore her," the little woman continued, staring at Pred. "You will have to inform the great brownie Tiro that he is not free. His geas to serve the human branch of the Cumulustre family is still in effect."
The guy cringed, shoulders up, ears down. "Tiro will be angry."
"Were the violets worth it?" the woman asked.
Standing tallnearly three feetthe guy hissed, "Yesss. She is going to make us chocolate pie with the violets. Anything else is not our problem."
"Chocolate pie." The woman stilled. Weakly she said, "Well, I suppose the damage is done." She took the jar from the guy's limp fingers, sprinkled fizzing magic on it and the violets candied.
"This enough?" asked the man.
"Yes," Amber said automatically.
The brownie woman sighed. "Maybe, if we are careful, we won't have to say anything to Tiro for a while." She put the jar on the ground, linked elbows with the man, muttered, "Cumulustre" and they both vanished. Probably to next door. Amber's next-door neighbor, Jenni Weavers, was not quite human. Amber wasn't exactly sure what Jenni was, but the woman had a way with fire.
Amber sat down hard, and the puppies, now released from the sleep spell, bolted over to her and tumbled into her lap, licking her face.
Rafe winced as his friend's fist hit the top of his car. No way to treat a Tesla. Rafe said nothing. Conrad had just watched his wife divorce him and the judge give custody of his son to his ex.
Not to mention the fact that former wife, infant son and her attorneys vanished as soon as they'd left the courtroom. No sign of them, hide nor hair.
Rafe dreaded the words Conrad would say pretty damn soon.
"It's the curse," Conrad said.
Those words. Everything in Rafe stilled. Or maybe his muscles froze and his blood pumped hot. One of the strange things that had brought them together in college, the fact that they both came from "cursed" families. Weird in the modern world.
Conrad fumbled his key chain. Rafe jostled Conrad, snagging the door opener when it dropped from his fingers. "You're riding. I'm driving."
Grumbling, Conrad shambled to the passenger side. As soon as he was strapped in, he repeated, "It's the curse."
Rafe stopped checking the rearview for the progress of the huge SUV inching out into the lane behind him. He looked at Conrad, who was as pale as the white shirt he wore with his gray suit. "You can't believe a guy you saw once," Rafe said.
"The guy was my father, and he was right. We Cymblers love and lose. Lose our sons, too. Soon after we find the kid again as an adult, we die. Has been happening for generations. He left a family tree. You saw it."
"You shouldn't believe an alcoholic."
"That's brutal, Rafe. You're just in denial of your own damn deadly curse."
Rafe started the car. "I'll get you home and we'll check in with the private investigative firm I hired to keep track of your wife."
"Wait. Rafe, just wait a damn minute." Conrad sounded drunk. He hadn't been sleeping well, Rafe knew that, and Conrad was probably hanging on to the last shred of his control. Hell, the man was desperate.
Rafe flexed his fingers on the steering wheel. Nice machine. He preferred Italian, but this electric vehicle was excellent. "What?"
Conrad said, "I'm thinking we need to try more unusual avenues to get rid of our curses."
"What are you talking about?" The SUV was finally gone. Rafe reversed.
"I've got the name of a curse breaker." Conrad tapped the nav and a map showed up. "That's the way."
Snorting before he grimaced, Rafe said, "This is stupid."
"Humor me." Conrad's voice cracked.
"Yeah, right." Rafe waited a beat. Conrad said nothing more. Rafe could understand pride. "Okay." He scrolled the map so he could see the whole thing, then back at the route. Rafe hadn't been in Denver for a while, but he was good with maps.
A lot of cops were in the vicinity and they eyed the hot red Tesla roadster. Rafe drove carefully to the street.
Before he could say anything, his cell rang with a familiar tone. "That's my detective. Pocket of my jacket. Put it on speaker." A cop was tailing him, watching. He'd mind his manners.
Conrad snatched the phone, thumbed it on. Through the static, Rafe heard, "Davail, this is Her-rera at Ace Investigations."
"Yeah?" Rafe asked.
"We lost them," reported the private detective Rafe had hired.just in case.
"Find them. Money is no object." He jerked his head at Conrad, who turned off the phone. Then Rafe accelerated on northbound Speer and kept to the posted, low speed limit on the elevated bridge.
Conrad said, "Thanks, bro. I'll pay you back." He rolled his shoulders. "Now it begins, the search" he waved "everything else. At least I know I'll live until I see him again. Not like your family death curse. You really think you're going to last eight months to your thirty-third birthday?"
Rafe ignored the fast clench of his gut. "For sure. Don't worry about Marta and Dougie. We'll find them. This P.I. firm's the best."
Conrad shook his head again.
A few minutes later they'd pulled up and parked in front of a brick Victorian house, complete with turret. The place was tucked away in a quiet cul-de-sac.
"This is such a stupid idea," Rafe said.
Conrad said stiffly, "She's the real deal, a gypsy and a curse breaker. I got her name a while back from a Romani psychic."
Conrad had always believed more in the "curses" than Rafe. Believed enough to research them a little, visit a psychic or three, line up experts, "keep his options open." Rafe had ignored his friend's quirk then. Now it was a real pain in the ass. More, Rafe was worried that some wacko would latch onto Conrad's hurt and fear and milk it for all he was worth. Which was considerably less than it had been since Marta had wanted a lump sum settlement and Conrad had paid it.
But Conrad still had a couple of million to attract leeches of the worst sort.
Conrad closed his door, glanced around. He rolled his shoulders. "Don't need to lock the Tesla. Lots of good energy."
Rafe winced, but Conrad loved his car. Seemed to Rafe that was a good sign they wouldn't be staying long. The sooner he got Conrad back to the home he'd inherited from his mother, the better.
"I'll know if the woman's a fake. I always know," Conrad said.
Rafe shrugged. Conrad had always said that, Rafe had always doubted the whole thing.
"There's a certain something about a woman with psi." His mouth twisted. "Marta had it, a strong gift." Conrad cocked his head. "Do you hear voices?"
"Kids," Rafe said. The tones had been high and piping, but were lost now in wild puppy barks. Reluctantly he followed Conrad as the man ignored the front concrete sidewalk and went around the south side of the house to a six-foot iron-post gate.
"Hello, Amber Sarga!" Conrad called.
Two young golden Labs raced from the back to jump on the other side of the gate. A frowning woman appeared a few instants later, not looking anything like the image Rafe had imagined. He'd visualized long dark and curly hair, and her wearing gypsy garb like he'd seen in films.