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She was going to kill that elf.
Her feet hurt. Her cloak was snagged and torn by brambles. Her wings itched. Still, she pressed onward, her wand out of sight but at the ready in case Rumplestiltskin's no-good, great-great grandson had lied when he'd pointed her down the path to her emancipation. The chasm between her world and the next—the so called "real world"—had to be around here someplace. Tatiana had to find the doorway tonight or she'd go mad. If she had to listen to yet another vapid, airheaded princess sing another saccharine aria listing all the impossible qualities Tatiana should find in the "prince of her dreams," she was going to puke a rainbow.
She stumbled in a divot on the uneven ground, caught herself, cursed, then looked over her shoulder at the land behind her. In the far distance, sparks of the golden glow that hovered above her homeland defied the darkness. At one time, she'd thought the place remarkably beautiful—enchanting and full of promise and possibility. Just like her. Four hundred years later, she could hardly picture the girl who'd mused about marrying a prince in order to ascend to the throne.
She had no trouble, however, remembering exactly what she'd felt like that fateful morning when her parents had turned her over to the fairies. And for four centuries, she'd served dutifully. Thanks to her, every one of her nieces had married well, even if she'd had to pawn a few of the less-bright ones off on dukes and earls. And she'd found loyal young ladies for all her nephews. She'd worked her magic for their daughters and sons, and their daughters and sons. Nowadays, some weren't so adamant about marrying onlyfor royal blood or political gain. A few had actually opted to wed for love— and without selling out any of their children in the process.
Not that Tatiana understood the concept of love. As part of a fairy godmother's bargain, her ability to experience romantic emotions like desire, lust or heartbreak had been magically suppressed. But while she couldn't understand the instantaneous spark her charges often sang about, she did find the physical expression of those feelings rather interesting to watch.
There was no rule in the fairy godmother Book of Decrees that said she couldn't learn a few things by observation, but that she'd been reduced to voyeurism did not sit well with her.
After spending more generations than she could count as a spectator, Tatiana was ready to play the game. She'd spent four centuries matchmaking and saving mostly doormat divas from servitude to wicked stepmothers and upstart trolls (or otherwise ill-tempered royal playboys) and Tatiana had had enough. According to Joe Stiltskin, Rumple's equally dodgy progeny, she had only one way out.
Time had not erased her disgust over the bargain her mother had made. Tatiana wasn't about to hoist this job off on some other unsuspecting girl with tiaras in her eyes. No, she was going to get out of the fairy godmother business the only other way that existed—she was going to cross over into the human world and grant the wishes of the first young woman she met.
And she was going to do it without magic.
Because if she could accomplish this task before the next full moon, she'd be transformed into a human herself and would never again have to hear the impossible dreams of another bubbleheaded bride-to-be.
Above her, the moon emerged from behind a blanket of thick, dark clouds. A chill spiked through the cloak and the ground suddenly seemed both rockier and loamier. She closed her eyes tightly, spoke a spell that might have ensured her safety in the world of her birth, then stepped into the dense trees that were the boundary into the human realm.
She stopped twenty paces in and looked around. Other than the fact that it was darker than a witch's soul, she felt no difference. She marched another ten paces into the forest, slapping aside low-hanging branches that in any other forest she'd accuse of trying to cop a feel. The cloak shifted, hanging heavier on her shoulders and the stab in her side from her wand disappeared. The woods were eerily silent—as if no one existed to hear even the whispering whirl of the wind.
She walked for what seemed like an hour until finally, she heard something.
Definitely feminine and definitely distraught.
Tatiana smiled. If there was one sound that was music to a fairy godmother's ears, it was a young girl in misery.
Girls in misery always had wishes they needed granted.
Tatiana hurried forward, stopping short when the same voice started cursing.
"That's an awful lot of crusty language coming from a girl your age," Tatiana said once she found the little slip of a thing stalking around a break in the trees, shaking her fist at the sky.
The girl screamed and turned to run, but Tatiana snagged her by the sleeve of her oversized jacket.
"Who'd you get this from, a giant?" she asked, enjoying the feel of the well-worn leather beneath her fingers. The sensation was surprising. She'd felt plenty of saddles and boots and even a few princely doublets in her time, but none had evoked such an instant warmth.
"It's… my… stupid… brother's," the girl answered, tugging hard against Tatiana's hold with each word.
Tatiana released her, which, of course, sent the chippy flying to the ground.
The girl scrambled away from Tatiana like an overturned crab. "Who are you?"
"My name is Tatiana," she said, crossing her arms. "And you are?"
"Harper," she answered, sniffing and wiping her running nose on her hand.
Tatiana waved her hand to produce a handkerchief, but alas, her magic, as Joe had predicted, was gone. Well, that was damned inconvenient. She dug into the pockets of the borrowed cloak and found a wrinkled bandana that smelled vaguely of damp straw. She handed it to Harper and once the girl was sufficiently blown and wiped, extended her hand to help her to her feet.
"I'm not going to hurt you," Tatiana said.
"As if you could," Harper shot back.
Tatiana ignored the child's bravado.
"What's a girl like you doing in a place like this?"
Harper smirked. "Isn't that some kind of old-fashioned pick-up line? You're not a lesbo, are you?"
Tatiana blinked. "You do speak English here?"
"Last time I checked," the teen replied.
"Good," Tatiana said with a sigh. "I know German and French, but I'm a little rusty. So, let's go back to my first question. What is a pretty young thing like you doing out in the forest in the middle of the night?"
"It's not a forest. It's a swamp."
Tatiana gave the air a tentative sniff. "Is that what that smell is?"
"Hey," Harper protested. "This is my home, okay? It's really cool, once you get used to it."
Tatiana eyed the girl suspiciously. She had that whininess in her voice that Tatiana knew too well—the sound of someone trying to convince herself that she liked something better than she actually did.
"Okay, the swamp is… cool," Tatiana agreed, though in her estimation, the temperature was well beyond comfortable and more akin to sultry. "So explain why you were crying."
Harper swiped the residual moisture from her face. "I wasn't—"
"All right, all right," Tatiana conceded, not exactly thrilled with how this was progressing. The girl was inordinately argumentative. And yet, she liked her. "You weren't crying. But you were pretty angry, you can't deny that. So why don't you tell me what I can do to help."
"Why are you going to help? I don't know you. What are you doing here, anyway?"
Tatiana rolled her eyes. Argumentative and inquisitive. She suddenly—and briefly—missed the self-absorbed princesses who accepted her magical presence without questions, told her what they wanted and let her get to work.
"I'm lost," Tatiana answered.
"Oh," the teen replied. Obviously, this answer satisfied her. "That doesn't explain why you want to help me."
"Have you heard of quid pro quo?"
"It's Latin for 'something for something.'"
Tatiana raised an eyebrow.
"My stupid, idiotic, overbearing, asshole of a brother makes me study Latin," Harper explained.
Ah-ha. Tatiana now guessed that said brother was the cause of the girl's misery. But before she set off to right filial wrongs and ensure her freedom from fairy godmotherhood, she'd need the girl's cooperation.
"Well, if you know what it means, you understand why I want to help you. I solve whatever problem has you so angry and you show me the way out of your swamp."
Harper wiped her nose with the bandanna again. "You can't help."
"You don't know that. Just tell me what you need," Tatiana encouraged. "I promise I'll do everything in my power to make your wishes come true."
Jack St. Cloud slammed the door to his sister's room and bellowed for Mrs. Bradley. The cook and housekeeper took a full five minutes to respond, during which time he'd searched Harper's room twice more, called her cell phone and sent her a text message. He was halfway down the stairs when the woman finally rounded the corner, her gray curls webbed by a hairnet and her bathrobe untied at her waist.
"Yes, Mr. St. Cloud?"
He stopped, inhaled and forced his words out slowly and calmly.
"Where is Harper?"
Mrs. Bradley leaned to the side, as if she somehow expected to see the teenager hiding behind him. An ex-pro football player, Jack could indeed shield someone as petite as his sister. If only protecting her was that easy. Only two hours ago, the fourteen-year-old brat had screamed, stamped her feet and pounded her fists on his chest when he'd forbidden her even to think about throwing herself into the sharp teeth and merciless cogs of the New York City theater machine. Which was why, he guessed, she'd run away.
"She's not in her room?" Mrs. Bradley inquired.
Jack willed himself to remain calm. Four years ago, when Harper had turned ten and developed a penchant for playing her stereo at eardrum-destroying decibels, both Mrs. Bradley and Harper had begged—no, pleaded—for privacy. Reluctantly, he'd allowed the housekeeper to move out of the adjoining bedroom where the older woman, who'd acted as a nanny, had lived since Jack took over Harper's guardianship when she was two. Now, he regretted that decision very much.
"If she were in her room, would I have called you?" he asked.
"Did you check her studio, sir? She puts those headphones on and turns up the volume and you could scream yourself hoarse—"
Another concession he'd made in his quest to keep Harper happy—turning Mrs. Bradley's old room into a music studio. He'd thought buying his sister all the latest in sound and video technology would quell her insatiable desire to run off to New York and become the next big Broadway star. Potential speculation in the gossip rags flashed across his mind. Harper St. Cloud, ingénue daughter of the famous (and now quite dead) Marina St. Cloud, debuts on the Great White Way. Will the sky be the limit for this St. Cloud? Will the bright bulbs of Broadway burn her out like they did her mother? Will her brother's sacrifice of a championship NFL career to care for his orphaned sister turn out to be a complete waste of time and talent?
Okay, Jack doubted Page Six would care much about his football aspirations, but damn it, he cared. He had not quit at the height of his profession just to watch his sister get fried to a crisp the way their mother had been. He'd promised himself as much after their mother's suicide. With their father already dead from a heart attack at forty, he'd had no choice.
Now that Harper was missing, Jack might suffer the same fate as his parents. Though his heart was slamming against his chest, he was in perfect physical shape. Mentally? That was up in the air when Harper got into one of her moods.
The wily little pain in the ass had put the equipment he'd bought her to good use all right. She'd created an audition tape for Broadway producers who now wanted to meet her in person. Only four hours ago, they'd called to seek Jack's permission for his minor sister to try out for the part of Cinderella in a revival of Rogers and Hammerstein's titular work. He, of course, had said no.
She'd claimed she was adult enough to audition.
He'd forbidden it.
She'd insisted that this was the role she was born for and that if he didn't let her try out, her entire future would be just as sad and empty as his.
He'd unplugged her phone, disconnected her stereo and grounded her for two weeks.
And now she was missing.
"I'm sure she's just gone out to cool off," Mrs. Bradley said calmly. "This isn't the first time she's run into the bayou for some peace and quiet after you two had a row. I'll turn on the outdoor lights and get dressed."
Damn, damn and triple damn.
"No," Jack said. He walked down two stairs, sat, and shoved his hands through his hair. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Bradley. I shouldn't have woken you. Harper is my problem, not yours."
The older woman crossed her arms over her chest. "Well, she is that, sir. Your problem, I mean. Because with everyone else in the world, she seems to get on just fine."
"That's because everyone else gives her what she wants."
"She's charming," Mrs. Bradley said. "Like her mother."
"Which is precisely why I have to put limits on her."
With a weary sigh, he stood, stretched out his long legs and tugged at his sweatpants. "Please hit the spotlights," he asked the housekeeper. "Then go back to bed. I'll find her."
"Try the boathouse first," Mrs. Bradley suggested before breezing off toward the kitchen.
Despite the inherent dangers of living in the middle of nowhere, Mrs. Bradley was right to be relatively unconcerned. Once the location of an old hunting cabin built by their great-grandfather, this land was in their blood. After becoming Harper's guardian, Jack could think of no better place to live to protect his sister from the swarms of people anxious to exploit the tragic little heiress foisted on a brother who had no idea how to raise a kid.
But at least he'd made sure that Harper could navigate the acreage around the bayou as easily as she could her bedroom, which, with piles of clothes, books, CDs, the occasional half-eaten box of Cap'n Crunch with Crunch Berries, and mounds of various teenage-girl detritus, could prove just as perilous.
As he turned to his wing of the house, the walls of windows that made up the entire first floor gleamed with bright white light. Anyone within a mile radius would think it was noon and not two o'clock in the morning.