An Excerpt From Kiss and Spell
They were expecting me, but I didn’t think they’d be expecting this. I arranged myself in the doorway and waited for them to notice me. I was just wondering if there was a sexy way to clear my throat to get their attention when Owen Palmer looked up from his notebook and said, “I’m sorry, but you’re not supposed to be here. I’ll call for someone to escort you out.”
On the one hand, it was nice to know that my boyfriend’s head wasn’t easily turned by every curvy blonde who came along. On the other, his lack of reaction made me wonder if I’d missed the mark. Rod Gwaltney’s reaction was more like it. When he noticed me, he looked like a cartoon wolf, with his eyes popping out on springs and his tongue unrolling to the ground. Yeah, I’d done it right, I thought, ever so smugly.
I dropped my voice down an octave or so and tried to create a hoarse, breathy tone that fit my bombshell exterior to say, “I thought you were expecting me.” I didn’t think that sounded like my usual voice, but Owen frowned in suspicion. Rod was still ogling me. I had to bite my lip to keep myself from smiling. This was too much fun. Then it became absolutely impossible for me to keep a straight face one minute longer, and I dissolved into giggles.
“Katie?” Rod blurted.
“I think she gets an ‘A’ for illusions,” Owen said with a smile as I let my va-va-voom illusion drop. “Nice work. You had us fooled. Where did you get the image?”
“From the Victoria’s Secret catalog, though I added clothing,” I said as I crossed the room and took a seat at the table where the guys were. I conjured myself a cup of coffee, not so much because I needed it but because I could, and that was a trick I never got tired of doing. “And, you know, that illusion stuff is harder than it looks—not so much the magic part as all the stuff that goes with it to make it convincing.”
Rod made an “ew, I just mentally undressed my sister” face but said, “Yeah, the trick to making an illusion work is to create the whole character: the voice, the walk, the body language, the attitude. Once you’ve got all that down, the magic is just the finishing touch.” And he should know, since he regularly relied on an illusion to make himself more handsome. Until very recently, it hadn’t worked on me, but a freak incident had turned my magical immunity into magical powers, so magic now worked on—and for—me.
Which was why I was there in an improvised classroom in the bowels of the Magic, Spells, and Illusions, Inc., headquarters building. Rod was teaching me to use my newfound powers, while Owen was studying me to see how my magic worked. Apparently, my situation was rather unprecedented.
Rod continued lecturing me. “Most situations require only minor disguises, like a different hair color or clothing, but for more extensive alternative identities, I’d recommend creating a few regular characters. Work on those characters before you even add the magic, practice their voices and body language, and then it’ll be easier to pull off the illusions.”
“Not that she’s likely to need to create any alter egos,” Owen said.
“In our line of work?” Rod countered. “You never know when you’ll need a good disguise. Just remember, the attitude—the nonmagical part—is what’s most important.”
“I would think, then, that if you got good at the attitude you might not even need the magical part,” I said with a meaningful look at Rod. He was making improvements and had dropped the attraction spell he used to use along with the handsome illusion, but I still hadn’t managed to convince him that he could be attractive as himself. Although the illusion was better-looking, I missed seeing his real face.
He ignored me and changed the subject. “We should start working on defensive spells. Without your magical immunity, you’re vulnerable to attack spells, so you’ll need to be able to defend yourself.”
“But only in extreme circumstances,” Owen put in.
“That’s so annoying,” I said with a sigh. “I have magical powers, but can’t use them outside this room.” But I knew why. The same incident that gave me magic had restored Owen’s lost powers. Things in the magical world were still too touchy for that secret to be let out, given that Owen’s birth parents had been evil wizards. Our enemies had revealed that fact to discredit him, and now most people in the magical world distrusted him. His life was easier while his restored magic remained a secret, and that meant my newfound powers had to be a secret too.
“I’ve developed a few shield spells that mimic the effect of magical immunity,” Owen went on, passing some handwritten pages to Rod. “They’d block and dissipate any attack spells. The use of magic would be apparent to anyone who’s really paying attention, but in the heat of a fight when there’s a lot of magic flying around, no one should notice.” He gave me the shy smile that always made my knees go weak and added, “After all, us being affected by magic would also reveal more than we’d like.”
Then we settled down to the lessons. Owen was developing spells for me to learn, but Rod handled the teaching. It had turned out that Owen, while being an expert in the science and theory of magic, wasn’t a very good teacher. He used magic instinctively, so he was impatient with anyone who didn’t automatically grasp it the way he did, and he didn’t understand the need to break it down into steps. Instead, he studied the way my magic worked while Rod worked through preschool-level magic lessons with me.
Or maybe elementary-level. I must have worked my way at least to second grade by now, which was pretty good, considering I’d only been working at it for a few weeks. My job for the time being was to learn enough to be useful and play guinea pig for Owen’s research while still putting up a front of doing my old marketing job at the company.
Rod jotted a few notes on Owen’s spell—probably adding those necessary steps that Owen forgot to mention because they were instinctive to him—then said, “Yeah, I think this’ll work. Let’s see what you can do. Owen, I’ll need you to provide an attack in a second.”
I listened as Rod talked me through the combination of words, mental images, and magical control needed to carry out the spell. I had to memorize and then internalize the words so that all I’d need to do was think them to make the spell work. Once I got that down, the rest was easy because the magic just flowed for me. I was having more fun learning magic than anything else I’d ever studied. It was truly awesome.
“Okay, I think you’re ready to test it,” Rod said with a satisfied nod when I’d mastered the magical manipulations. “Owen, something relatively harmless and visible, please.”
I maintained the spell while Owen sent a ball of light flying at me. I fought not to duck and to focus on my spell as the ball came toward me and then fizzled harmlessly a fraction of an inch away from me.
The guys turned to each other. “Whattaya think?” Rod asked. “Did it look like a shield to you, or just like magical immunity?”
“It looked like a shield, but only because I know what to look for. In a real-world setting with a fight going on, I think it should be okay. They’re not going to just use fireballs, and it’ll be less obvious in blocking other spells.”
“So while I’m doing this, no one can turn me into a frog?” I asked.
Owen grinned. “No, you should be safe from that.”
“Then why don’t I just keep this shield up all the time? And why don’t you people shield yourselves all the time?”
“People would notice the magic,” Owen said. “And it’s an energy drain. If I did some tinkering, though, it might be commercially viable as a shield for certain situations, like the magical equivalent of body armor …” His voice trailed off as he started mentally developing the idea.
“I think we’ve lost him for the day, and he may have just made his next million,” Rod said with fond amusement. “Now, let’s see how fast you can put that spell up.”
He drilled me in spells for the next hour while Owen scribbled frantically in his notebook, occasionally mumbling things to himself. I knew I should have been exhausted by the time the lesson ended, but I was exhilarated. I felt like I’d finally found something I was really good at. “You’re a natural,” Rod confirmed with a proud smile.
“Not too natural,” I said. “More like a freak of nature.”
“That just means you’re special,” he said, patting me on the shoulder. “Now I’d better get back to work. I’ve got a ton of paperwork waiting for me that I wish I could magic away. It’s strange how many people are just not showing up to work these days. Same time tomorrow?”
“Yeah.” I shot him a grin over my shoulder as I headed out of the room. “And you never know who’ll show up.”
Owen joined me on the way out, and as soon as we were out of earshot of the schoolroom, he said, “Although that illusion was nice work, I like what’s behind it a lot better.”
“Oh, you charmer,” I teased, though inwardly I really was quite pleased. It had taken me a long time to get used to the idea that a guy as movie-star handsome as Owen—and a powerful wizard on top of that—was into me, when I’d always thought of myself as ordinary in a forgettable way. Owen was a certified genius, so it was unlikely that he was wrong. I still wouldn’t turn heads on the street unless I put on my lingerie-model illusion, but I didn’t need to if Owen liked what he saw.
“Rod’s right, you really are a natural. I don’t know if you’re picking magic up so quickly because you’ve been around us enough to absorb some things or if you inherited more from your grandmother than you realized, but your progress is rather astonishing. You’ve already mastered the basics, and soon we should be able to figure out where your particular talents lie.”
“Not that it’ll do me much good if no one can know I have talents,” I grumbled.
“The further we get from that incident, the less likely it will be for people to suspect your new powers might also mean my powers are back.”
That perked me up. “How much longer, do you think?”
“I don’t know. A month or two, maybe? By the time we figure out your strengths and start specializing your training, certainly.”
“So, maybe a few more months in marketing?”
“Let’s say the first of next year.”
It was October, so I thought I could survive that long. “Do you have any idea what my strengths might be yet?”
“It’s hard to tell from the basics. You do seem to be pretty analytical with the spells, so you might be able to help me in Research and Development.”
“I think I could cope with that. And I happen to be on the boss’s good side.” I smiled at him. “In fact, I think I might already have him wrapped around my little finger.” I wasn’t normally a flirt, even with my boyfriend, but having magical powers had done wonders for my confidence levels. I hadn’t realized how unequal I’d felt in this company and with Owen. My previous magical immunity had been special and valuable, but being magical was something else entirely. Now I felt powerful. Being able to make myself look like a lingerie model had somehow made me feel like one, even when I wasn’t using the illusion.
“Since I’m not your boss yet, would it be improper for me to invite you over to dinner tonight?”
“Considering that my grandmother is cooking it, I think it counts more as a family thing. Is she driving you crazy yet?”
“No, not at all. It just feels weird for me to come home to a home-cooked meal when it’s your grandmother doing the cooking.”
“I’m sure she won’t be around much longer. Just be sure to remind her how well my lessons are going so she’ll know she doesn’t have to make sure I learn to use my powers the right way.”
We reached the point where we had to go our separate ways to return to our respective offices. “Okay, then, I’ll see you after work,” he said, taking my hand for a quick squeeze before heading off.
I walked with a jaunty spring in my step back to my office, feeling like I should have a perky pop tune following me on the soundtrack. Not too long ago, I’d hated my job and had despaired of ever finding my place in the company. Now I was having a blast learning to do magic.
True, I still hated my job, but that job was now a cover story, so it was less painful to face. I didn’t know where my eventual place would be, but still, magic! That made it a lot easier to get out of bed in the morning.
I bounced into my office and asked, “Were there any messages for me?”
My assistant, Perdita, looked me up and down, smirking ever so slightly. Only then did I realize that returning to my office after a long “meeting” with a bounce in my step, a glow about me, sparkling eyes, and a flushed face probably gave entirely the wrong impression, especially since my boyfriend worked at the same company. I immediately imagined that she was picturing Owen and me in a janitor’s closet somewhere, and that mental image made my face flush even more, which made me look even guiltier. I wondered if I could get Rod to give me a signed note saying that it really had been a meeting with the Director of Personnel. After all, training did count as a personnel matter.
“No messages,” she said, raising one slanted elven eyebrow.
“Good, thanks,” I said. “We’re making real progress on that magical training program we’re putting together. I mean, Rod and I are putting together. That’ll be our next big launch.” Feeling my face grow warmer and warmer—which was infuriating, since I didn’t have anything to feel embarrassed about—I made a beeline for my private office.
Then I realized that something was odd. Perdita had said only two words to me, which was very much unlike her. In fact, those had been the only two words she’d said to me all day. She hadn’t said anything when she’d arrived that morning, and she’d only nodded an acknowledgment when I’d left for my training session and told her when I’d be back. Normally it was impossible to stop the flood of words from Perdita, and she drove me crazy from offering to do things for me.
I stopped and turned back. “Is everything okay?” I asked.
She shrugged and didn’t quite meet my eyes. “I’m fine,” she said before bending down to focus on the doodle-covered notepad on her desk.
I knew that was the international sign for “no, things are definitely not okay,” but it was also the international sign for “I don’t want to talk about it,” so I decided not to push. “Well, you know my door is always open,” was all I said before I went into my office. I figured she must have had a fight with her sister or been spurned by her latest crush. She’d probably snap out of her mood by the next morning.
One nice thing about spending several hours a day in those training session “meetings” was that I was a lot less bored heading an ancient near-monopoly’s marketing program. I wasn’t any busier, but I had fewer hours to fill. Even with stuff to do, I was tempted to practice magic tricks during breaks between tasks, but since Perdita was a very reliable member of the grapevine, that would be like telling half the company.
She left for the day without a word, which worried me, and I must have still been frowning when Owen came by to pick me up to go home because he asked, “What’s wrong?”
“I think I pissed off Perdita.”
“I would have thought that would be really difficult to do.”
“Yeah, me too. I wonder, did I forget to have her conjure some coffee for me this morning?” Finding magical approximations for coffeehouse concoctions was one of Perdita’s prized specialties and her biggest value to me, other than her ability to send and receive gossip. “I’ll need to be more careful about that. It’s not just about not doing magic around others. I also can’t change my habits.”
“I’m sure it has nothing to do with you,” Owen reassured me as he helped me put on my jacket. “She may have just had a bad day—probably a fight with her mom.” From what Perdita said about her mother, I got the feeling she was a lot like mine, in which case I sympathized.
As we headed out of the office building, a voice on the awning over the entrance said, “Psst, you two!”
We looked up to see Sam the gargoyle, MSI’s head of security. “Hey, Sam, what is it?” I asked.
“Watch yourselves, okay?”
“I don’t need to watch myself,” Owen said. “I’m being watched.” He gave a friendly wave to his unseen surveillance team. Since I’d lost my magical immunity, I couldn’t see them anymore because they tended to veil themselves magically, but Owen knew he was being watched by official and unofficial monitors from various groups who still weren’t convinced he wouldn’t turn evil and try to take over the world with dark magic.
“That’s not what I meant,” Sam snapped with uncharacteristic tension that made me wonder if there was something in the water or perhaps a city-wide spell making usually cheerful people into grouches. It wouldn’t be the first time someone had tried casting a broad spell like that. “Just be careful. This is a big city, you know.”
“The crime rate here is actually a popular misconception,” I pointed out. “Things happen, but if you stay in the right neighborhoods, you’re safer than in a lot of cities. We’ll try to avoid the crack dens.”
“Hey, just lookin’ out for two of my favorite people. What, you don’t like me carin’ for you? Be that way and see if I do it again.” I waited for a second for the “just kiddin’, doll” I was sure would come, but he flapped his wings and resettled himself so that his back was turned to us.
Owen and I exchanged an uncomfortable glance and departed. “Maybe we should check the top of the Empire State Building,” I said as we walked to the nearby subway station. That was where the bad guys had broadcast the last spell to hit the whole city. “Someone’s put up a grumpy hex.”
“Or maybe something is going on.”
“Something’s always going on. And, let’s face it, we like it that way.”
Once we were in the station, he took my hand and I closed my eyes for a second to enjoy the little magical tingle that sent through me. I’d been able to sense the presence of magic even when I was immune, but now that I had power, myself, I’d learned to pick up on nuances. There was something about the way Owen’s magical field meshed with mine that sparked something. I didn’t know if it was because we were magically compatible or if it was because Owen had drawn on my latent power in the past, but it was extremely sexy, whatever it was. We’d made a good team when I was immune and he was magical, but there was a lot to like about sharing magic with him.
“I wonder if we could find a garden club for Granny to attend every so often,” I mused out loud after we’d boarded a train and were standing close together. It was a real pity to have this magical connection and no chance for solitude. I had three roommates and my grandmother had moved in with him. We had more privacy on a rush-hour train than we had at home, since no one on the train noticed or cared what we were up to.
“In Manhattan?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
“There are gardens. Community gardening is very big, and there are rooftop and container gardens. She could teach them a lot of things, I’m sure.”
“Maybe we could get the boss to invite her out for dinner.”
“Bite your tongue!” I snapped, getting queasy at the idea of my boss and my grandmother getting cozy. They already seemed to like each other more than was comfortable for me.
“They don’t have to date. They could just spend time talking shop.”
“But what if something did happen and she decided to stay permanently? Even if she moved out of your place, she’d still be around, meddling.”
“Okay, then, garden club it is. We’ll do an Internet search and ask around the office tomorrow.”
I couldn’t help but smile at the idea that he wanted alone time as much as I did. I was still grinning when we reached Union Square and left the train. My grin faded when he whispered, “Don’t turn around, but try to look around casually the first chance you get.”
I gulped. “You mean Sam was right about watching ourselves? Does he have some kind of precognition?”
“I don’t know. It’s hard to tell if you’re being followed in a place this crowded, but I have a funny feeling.”