An Excerpt From Frogs and Kisses
It was a crisp fall day, the sky was a crystal clear shade of blue, the remaining leaves on the trees in Central Park were a brilliant gold, and I was on a romantic Saturday-afternoon stroll with my handsome boyfriend—fiancé, actually. It was taking some getting used to that. “This is for real, isn’t it?” I had to ask the question. The last time my life had been just this perfect, it had turned out to be a bizarre facsimile of a romantic movie created in the elven realms as a kind of prison.
“I’m pretty sure it’s real,” Owen Palmer said, giving me a smile that made my heart flutter.
“You’re sure we’re not off in elf land?”
“You’d know. You’re back to not having a trace of magic in you, so they wouldn’t be able to sustain the illusion for you. If that’s where you were, it wouldn’t be perfect.”
“Okay, good. Just checking.”
His smile transformed into a mischievous grin as he stopped and released my hand so he could pull me close with his arm around my waist. “Of course, if you want to be absolutely certain, you could try breaking the spell.”
As somberly as I could manage, I said, “It’s probably better to be safe. Just in case. You never know.”
Owen was nearly physically incapable of keeping a straight face. Even if he didn’t smile or crack up, he blushed adorably. “We really do have to remain vigilant.”
Our kiss may have set off a few fireworks, but not the magic kind. Although there was a lot about him that could have come straight out of a dream, he was most definitely right there. When we both came up for air, I said, “Looks like we’re still here. It must be real.”
“Must be. But at least we’re sure.”
“And we should probably check every so often.”
We resumed walking, and I couldn’t resist lifting my left hand to let the sunlight glint on the sapphire in my engagement ring. “You do like it?” he asked, sounding a little uncertain.
“I love it.”
“When Gloria took it out of her jewelry box to show it to me, I thought it was better suited to you than a huge diamond would have been, and I suspected you’d like
having a family heirloom.”
“It’s perfect. Just my style.”
“Speaking of style, have you come up with any ideas for a wedding?”
“I’ve thought about it, but nothing seems quite right. If we have it here, then my family has to travel and we’re throwing my mother in among all the magical people, which we really don’t want.” Both of us shuddered at the thought of that. My mother is as immune to magic as I am, but not in on the secret, and she has odd ways of interpreting the strange things she sees. “If we have it back home, our friends and your family have to travel, and my mother takes over the planning.” We shuddered again at the thought of the kind of wedding she’d want for us. Pink, puffy Southern belle bridesmaid dresses would be only the beginning.
“I’d say that a minister and a couple of witnesses would be the ideal solution, but I know that would hurt a lot of feelings.”
“My mother would disown you before you even joined the family. But not in the fun way where you never hear from her again. You’d still have to be around her.
You’d just never be allowed to forget how you wronged her. It would be a life sentence.”
Maybe it was the mention of my mother, but I was starting to get that weird itching sensation on the back of my neck that told me I was being watched. Of course, we were in Central Park, with much of the rest of the population of Manhattan, out enjoying the gorgeous fall weather, and I was with a guy good-looking enough to stop traffic, so obviously someone was looking at me. The question was whether we were being watched specifically.
I tried turning halfway around, like I was looking at the statue we’d just passed. There were people behind us on the path, but I didn’t recognize anyone.
“Do you feel like we’re being watched?” I asked Owen softly.
He paused a long moment before answering, his dark blue eyes scanning our surroundings. “Maybe,” he said.
The next time the path intersected another one, we veered off in a new direction. “Is it still there?” Owen asked after a few minutes.
“Actually, I think it’s worse.” Or maybe it was just that thinking about it made me hyperalert and it was all in my head. Given the way my life had gone for the past year or so, being vigilant about my surroundings was second nature. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I started noticing things that weren’t there.
Even worse, I was seeing things that were there, things most of the people in the park probably couldn’t see. Magical creatures tended to love nature and draw power from it, and Central Park was the best location for that in the city. As a result, the place was teeming with people with wings and pointy ears. There were small ones in the grass and underbrush, and tall ones walking around us. Ordinary people probably didn’t see the small ones and saw the large ones as normal human beings.
But if I wasn’t imagining things, there were more magical creatures than usual out today. “Are you seeing more fairies than you’d expect?” I asked Owen softly.
“I don’t know. I don’t usually conduct a census. There are always a lot of fairies in the park.”
Even though nothing had happened to us, I felt like a gray pall had fallen on our beautiful day in the park. We turned at the next path intersection, and for a moment, I lost that sense of pursuit. “Maybe they were just going the same way we were for a while,” I said hopefully.
“You can hardly blame us for being paranoid,” Owen said, draping his arm around my shoulders. “Not too long ago, we were kidnapped by elves, and before that, we had just about every magical creature in Manhattan chasing us.”
“Yeah, and then there were all those people working for Ivor Ramsay and Phelan Idris. At least I’m not seeing any of those skeleton creatures or harpies. These seem like ordinary fairies and sprites,” I said.
We reached another intersection in the walking path. To one side, there seemed to be a lot more fairies. To the other, the way was a little less populated with things that looked magical. Without having to consult each other, we turned to the less magical area. I didn’t know exactly what Owen’s reasoning was, but it was easier for me to detect specific sources of magic when there were fewer of them.
Sure enough, that overall tingle that made me aware of magic soon eased. I found myself breathing more easily, and there was less tension in Owen’s arm around me. We were in my favorite part of the park, along the lake and near the picturesque Bow Bridge. This really did feel like the setting for a romantic movie, probably because it had been used in so many of them. “Maybe we should test our reality again,” I said to Owen. “You know, just in case.”
“Hmm, do you hear jazz standards or pop songs in your head?”
“There doesn’t seem to be a soundtrack at all.”
“Then I’m pretty sure we’re not acting out a movie again.” We stopped at the apex of the bridge’s arch and moved closer to the railing so we weren’t blocking the way for others. “But we should probably test it to be sure.” His lips had barely touched mine—with no accompanying background music to emphasize the surging emotion—when I couldn’t help but twitch. “What is it?” he asked.
“I’m feeling it again. Someone’s watching us.”
“We’re making out in the middle of a bridge. That tends to draw attention.”
“No, I feel magic.”
He stood very still for a moment, and then the twinkle in his eyes faded. “You’re right. I feel it, too.” He released his hold on me and took my hand. Together, we hurried off the bridge.
But when we left the bridge, we soon found ourselves in the Ramble. It was easy to get lost in there, though I supposed it was also easy to lose someone in there. I didn’t know if the magical creatures who lived there would still help us when we weren’t carrying an enchanted brooch, but once we were out of public sight, Owen could draw on his power to defend us, if it came to that.
When we rounded a corner and found ourselves face-to-face with a familiar woman, I immediately moved to stand in front of Owen, blocking him from her as well as I could.
“It was my ancestor who frogged Philip Vandermeer, not me, so you can relax,” Sylvia Meredith said. I didn’t think that made things much better. She may have been only the descendant of the person who’d stolen my friend Philip’s family business a century ago after turning him into a frog, but she’d been using that business to fund the bad guys we’d defeated recently.
“You herded us here!” I accused.
“Some friends helped, but you made it awfully easy.”
“What do you want?” Owen asked, stepping out from behind me.
“I need to talk to you.”
“To me in particular, to us, or maybe to the people I work for?”
“Both of you. And MSI in general. And your boss, if you can get him.”
“What do you want to talk about?” I asked.
“Some things you need to know.”
“I’m not sure there’s anything we want to hear from you,” I said.
“You’re going to want to hear this. Have you heard of the Collegium?”
Owen frowned slightly. “I thought it was just a story. Maybe it was real once, but it hasn’t been around in ages.”
“That’s what you think. We’ve been more quiet and subtle in recent years, but that’s about to change.”
“You’re with the Collegium?” Owen said, raising a skeptical eyebrow.
“What’s the Collegium?” I asked.
She said to Owen, “Do you want to explain it, or do you want me to?”
“The stories say they were a cabal of sorts, a coalition of certain magical families, though no one was sure which families were really involved,” Owen said.
“Supposedly, they had some legitimate businesses in the magical world, but their primary function was to destroy or take over any competition, and they then used their position to gain power elsewhere.”
“Like a magical mafia?” I said. “Only instead of giving people concrete shoes, you turn them into frogs.”
“We very rarely resort to that these days,” Sylvia said. “Now, before I tell you anything else, I need your promise of protection.”
“Protection from what?” Owen asked.
“From the Collegium, of course. You don’t talk about them to outsiders and stay off a lily pad for long.”
“Then why are you talking to us, if it puts you in danger?”
“Because I’m already in danger. I’m considered high-risk. I was the scapegoat for what happened with Ivor Ramsay, and they’re probably going to get rid of me to avoid connecting that affair to the Collegium. So I thought my only chance was to trade the information I have for whatever protection you can offer me. And believe me, what I’ve got is worth it.”
“What have you got?” Owen asked.
“Nice try, handsome, but you’ll have to guarantee protection for me. You talk it over with your boss, and then I’ll talk.”
“How will we let you know?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be able to find you.”
“Do you have a deadline?” I asked, but there was no reply. A dense mist suddenly arose, so that I could no longer see Sylvia—or anything else more than about two feet away in any direction.
“Can you see anything?” Owen asked.
“It’s a real fog, not an illusion,” I replied. We didn’t dare move, given the steep hills and rocky ground in that area. Owen waved a hand and murmured a spell, and the fog gradually dissipated, but by the time we could see our surroundings again, Sylvia was gone.
“Okay, that was weird,” I said.
“For us?” Owen said with a wry smile. “Very low on the weird scale, but I’ll agree that it’s somewhat odd.”
“There’s a magical mafia? How did I not know about this?”
“I don’t know much more than that, and I’m still not convinced it’s real.”
“Philip was turned into a frog so his business could be stolen,” I pointed out.
“A hundred years ago.”
“And the family that did that was still running it until earlier this year.”
He nodded. “Good point. But that doesn’t mean it was a vast cabal. It could have been just the one family of crooks. We should probably talk to Philip about this, and
then we can bring it to Merlin to see what he has to say.”
Yes, Merlin is my boss. And yes, it’s that Merlin. I work for a company called Magic, Spells, and Illusions, Inc. They do pretty much what it says on the label, but they also function as a kind of de facto authority in the magical world, since the magical Council that’s supposed to run things isn’t all that effective. “Sounds like a plan to me. Now, shall we get back to our perfect fall day?”