curtain

Chapter 1

Wishful Thinking

JUSTIN’S GUIDE FOR THE ARTIST: Art, like life, is filled with choices.

Carlsbad, California

Stormy Jones-Smythe winced as the floorboard squeaked under her footstep. Silence was essential.

She checked the archway to the kitchen. No one came through the opening, and the low murmur of conversation hadn’t ceased. Good.

Exhaling gently, she chanced another step. Her barefoot produced no sound. Just a few more yards and she would be on the rug, which would muffle her tread further, and then she could ease out through the front door. Of course, she still had to make it past the kitchen.

A quick dash might work. On three. She held her breath and counted. One . . . two . . .

She stilled as she heard her name. Her fathers were talking about her. Again.

“You’re not disappointed? I know you did the math.” Justin Jones’s usually booming bass voice held a note of softness.

“No. You know I love her just the way she is.” Ken Smythe sighed. “But I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it.”

About what? Stormy leaned against the wall. Eavesdropping was wrong, but curiosity trumped manners. This time.

“She just turned twenty- seven a few days ago,” Justin said. “It might still happen.”

And what did turning twenty- seven have to do with it? God, she hoped they weren’t talking about her getting married. Just because she’d recently broken up with a boyfriend, didn’t mean she would end up an old maid. Besides, there was nothing wrong with staying single. She didn’t need a man to be fulfilled. She twisted her mouth with impatience.

“I hope not. I wouldn’t wish it on her,” Ken said.

Wait. They didn’t want her to get married? She was confused.

“Well, she isn’t, and it’s for the better this way. We wouldn’t want her involved in the whole mess.”

“Absolutely. I’d never stop worrying,” Ken said.

“What kind of life would she have? She could never be normal.”

Her fathers’ words stunned and hurt her. Were they ashamed of her? Her fathers were wizards, Arcani. But she? She was a Groundling. She had no magic. Never had. No number of lessons, tutors, or bribes had produced even a puff of smoke.

Despite her lack of powers, her life was happy just as it was. She had gone to Groundling schools, attended a Groundling college, and majored in fabrics, textiles, and weaving. Her tapestries sold for hundreds, she had collectors talking about her work, and she loved weaving. Loved the feel of the thread in her fingers, creating the fabric, playing with texture. Her life was meaningful and creative, and she was on the verge of major success. And she had believed her fathers supported her in her lifestyle.

Fighting back tears, Stormy sought resolve. She needed time to think. If her fathers believed her so inferior, she couldn’t stay with them. She needed to rethink her plans. And the best place to do that was her studio. Her loom waited. She could send the shuttle through the yarn and organize her thoughts with the repetitive motion.

She turned, prepping herself for the dash past the opening.

Her elbow banged against the wall.

Clearly sneaking wasn’t her forte.

“Stormy? Is that you?” Justin’s voice bounced off the walls.

She cringed and swiped her cheeks. Head held high, she walked into the kitchen. “Yes.”

“Were you listening?” Justin placed his hands on his hips.

“You were talking about me.” Her eyes burned as tears threatened again, and she clenched her teeth.

Ken looked abashed. “Baby, I don’t want you to think that I’m in any way disappointed in you.”

Stormy lifted her hands in front of her. “Well, what did you expect? You don’t want me to get married. Why? You don’t want me to infect children with my inferior genes?”

Her fathers looked at her with matching blank expressions.

Stormy stopped at their reaction. “Weren’t you talking about me getting married?”

“No.” Ken looked at Justin, who shrugged. “What did you think we were talking about?”

“That you’re disappointed I’m a Groundling.”

“You jumped again, Stormy.” Justin said. “What have

we said about not getting all the information?”

“That conclusions are reached by logic, not leaping.” She felt stupid and embarrassed. “So what were you talking about?”

When Ken hesitated, she crossed her arms over her chest. “I am an adult.”

Ken sighed. “Well, there was a chance you might have received powers when you turned twenty- seven. According to Arcani history—”

“Which we are not allowed to tell you,” Justin interjected.

“I know.” Stormy gave a little sniff of a laugh. “I’m a Groundling.”

Ken cocked his head and shot her a pained look.

She threw her arms around Ken’s neck and gave him a quick squeeze. “Really, Dad, I don’t mind being a Groundling. I don’t need magic. Why would I when I have you?”

Ken appeared mollified. “Well, in Arcani history, new fairy godmothers are chosen every seventy years. It’s called the Time of Transition. This is one of those years. Two new godmothers were chosen about a month ago.”

Ohhhhh. Their conversation made so much more sense now.

Ken continued. “This time there’s trouble. The aunts have gone against the Council and are considered fugitives, and the two new godmothers have joined them.”

Justin pointed to the Arcani newspaper on the kitchen table. “The paper is calling them dangerous renegades and asking people to notify the Council if they see them. They’re saying the godmothers want to take over the Council.”

That was crazy. The three old women known as the godmothers had brought her presents throughout her childhood. She called them aunts. She couldn’t imagine

them as power hungry or subversive criminals.

“And if you were one of them, one of the new ones . . .”

She took Ken’s hand. “Don’t worry, Dad. No magic here.”

“And I love you just the way you are.”

“Yeah, sorry about that. I love you guys. You are the best parents a girl could have.

Ken placed his hand over Stormy’s. “Yeah, we’re a good team, aren’t we?”

Justin boomed, “What do you mean, ‘good’? We’re the best.”

Stormy chuckled. “Yeah, we are. Now I’m going to my studio before I lose all the light.” Emotional outburst resolved, she still had the desire to create to appease.

“You can’t go out now. Dinner’s in half an hour.” Ken drew his brows together. “I know you. If you start working at this hour, you’ll forget all about the time and work until two or three a.m.”

Thus the reason for her earlier stealth. “I’ll grab a bite when I’ve finished.” Stormy walked to the door.

“Leave her alone, Ken. We told her we wouldn’t bug her if she moved back home. You can’t schedule brilliance.” Justin smiled at his partner.

Ken shot a look of disgust at the ceiling, then muttered, “As if I haven’t put up with enough of this kind of behavior from you.”

Justin just laughed, then turned to her. “I’ll put a plate in the fridge for you.”

“Thanks, Daddy.” She stepped through the back door onto the sprawling property they called their compound.

They were always thinking of her, watching out for her. When she was small and showed no signs of magical ability, they called in experts. And when those failed, they simply shrugged and enrolled her in the best Groundling schools they could. Oh, they had cried a little— she’d heard them— but she never felt as if they loved her any less for being a Groundling instead of an Arcani. Well, until a little while ago. Idiot. She laughed at herself. She was their daughter, and her place in their lives was secure.

Her bare feet slapped the flagstone path to her studio. Shoes were optional in the warm August evening, and she seldom wore them in the summer. Carlsbad had perfect August weather. Air- conditioning was seldom necessary, but she could wear shorts and a tank top without feeling a twinge of cold. Until night, anyway, but she had several hours before she would need her hoodie.

A soft breeze carried the faint hint of the sea to her nose, tinged with the ceramics firing in the kiln on their neighbor’s property. She paused for a moment to breathe it in. Their neighborhood housed seven artists and their families, all Arcani, and they lived like kin in this artists’ enclave.

As usual, she paused before entering her studio door to admire the intricately carved door. She ran her finger over the design. Justin had created it. It depictedthe myth of Arachne. Between the lead filaments of the spider’s web, translucent glass created a window. The door itself was a work of art. To be expected, since Justin was himself a renowned artist. He’d even written a book.

The vast property housed three separate buildings: the house where they lived and two studios, one for Justin and the other for her. Her studio was a gift from her fathers on her twentieth birthday. As she pushed open the door, she smiled. This was her space. A large skylight let natural light pour into the room. Beneath it, she had her looms set up on the gleaming hardwood floor. Racks and bins held her wools, threads, and yarns. Surrounded by shelves that housed her many books on patterns and textiles, a computer desk occupied one corner, and a MacBook sat on top. There was even a small bathroom hidden behind a protruding wall dotted with moving and adjustable pegs. Right now they held a half- finished piece of hand weaving and some skeins of yarn. Had the studio contained a bed and a kitchen, she could have lived in here.

The large loom in the center of the area waited for her. She had set up the warp threads this morning, then had taken a break, letting the idea for her project gel in her mind. Now she was eager to start.

She plucked several skeins of yarn from pegs and loaded her shuttles. Then taking her seat in front of the loom she touched her feet to the treadles, working out the pattern with her muscles before starting the actual weaving. Closing her eyes, she visualized the image of the fabric as it grew. Her toes danced across the bars of the treadles, her hands twitched in an imitation of sending the shuttle through the shed, then back from the other side.

And then she threw the first row. Strand by strand, inch by inch, color bloomed on the weft. The shuttles flew from her fingers and the cloth grew in front of her. Her fingers barely touched wool or wood, almost as if the loom reacted to her thoughts rather than to her movements. At some point she must have turned on the lights, for the skylight was dark but her studio blazed with brightness. The cloth grew longer; patterns twined in the fabric.

She paused only to reload the shuttles. Her mouth dried out, but she didn’t want to stop for water. She licked her lips instead, which did nothing more than dry them out further. Still she didn’t stop. The pattern spoke in her mind, pressing her onward, pushing her. Energy filled her, drove her, sustained her.

She had never worked like this before, but she didn’t want to question it. She passed the shuttle across the loom again and again.

And then she stopped.

Stormy looked at the fabric in front of her. The colors glowed, and the pattern danced. One more row would complete the work. One less would diminish it, one extra would ruin it. She passed the shuttle through the shed one last time, making sure she missed one thread of the warp on this row. The deliberate mistake was the reminder that no one is perfect.

She stood and stretched. With a shock she realized that the skylight let in a pale pink glow. Had she worked all night? Her neck felt none of the strain of bending for hours over the loom.

“It’s beautiful.”

Stormy yelped and spun around, heart pounding. When she recognized the three women standing in her studio, she let out a breath of relief. “You nearly scared me to death.”

“Sorry, dear,” Aunt Lily said, “but we had to be stealthy.”

They weren’t actually her aunts, but that’s what she called them. “I can’t believe you’re here. I didn’t think I’d see you with all the trouble.”

“You’ve heard?” Hyacinth said.

“A little. I don’t really understand what’s going on. You’re taking over the world?”

“Ha!” Hyacinth barked.

“That’s nonsense,” Lily said, but faint circles under her eyes betrayed the stress of the past month. Taller than the rest of them, Lily stood watchful and graceful. Her iron gray hair was pulled back into a tasteful and neat coil.

“You are looking so beautiful.” Aunt Rose touched Stormy’s cheek and smiled at her. Rose’s bobbed white hair bounced on her head. She usually looked as if she was ready to fl y into the air with joy, but even she looked a little less bubbly today.

Aunt Hyacinth stood beside the other two, her feet splayed as if waiting for someone to push her. Her short- cropped silver hair gave her an air of toughness and practicality that Stormy knew masked a generous and sensitive heart. Hyacinth touched the cloth still on the loom. “You’ve got talent, kid. This is incredible.”

“Thanks.” Stormy yawned. “I think I worked all night on it.”

“You think?” Hyacinth cocked an eyebrow.

“It was really strange. I came out to work for a couple of hours, but I couldn’t stop. It almost felt like the piece was weaving itself.”

The three old women exchanged glances.

“What?” Stormy wrinkled her brow.

“Like magic?” Lily asked.

“I wouldn’t know.” Stormy studied the three women with a hint of misgiving twisting in her gut. Stormy paused for a moment. “It felt right, though. And the piece did turn out well, if I do say so myself. I’ve never captured my vision as completely before.”

“Perhaps there’s a reason for that,” Rose said, her eyes twinkling.

A reason? Her stomach clenched. Stormy didn’t want to explore that idea too deeply. She was afraid she knew the purpose of their visit, and she wasn’t ready to acknowledge it. She shoved her suspicions to the side. “Should you be here? I mean, isn’t half the Arcani world looking for you?”

“Probably,” Hyacinth said. She glanced around the room. “But they won’t find us here. Not yet anyway.”

“And it won’t help you to try to change the subject,” Lily said with a sad smile. “You’ve already guessed why we’re here, haven’t you?”

Attempted evasion: fail. Stormy nodded. “It would be hard not to. Dad and Daddy just told me about the Time of Transition. I’m assuming you’re here for me.”

Rose clapped her hands together. “Isn’t it exciting?”

“Honestly?” One corner of Stormy’s mouth drew up. “Not really.”

Rose’s eyes widened. “Why not?”

“You can’t blame the girl,” Hyacinth said. “This isn’t exactly the celebration it’s supposed to be. Not now.”

“Well, no, but that doesn’t mean it’s not exciting.” Rose’s whole face crinkled in joy. “And Stormy is the perfect candidate.”

“That is why the Magic chose her,” Lily said.

Yeah, lucky me. But Stormy didn’t speak. She gazed at her studio, the place where she had spent so many satisfying hours. Would she have to give up her weaving? Dumb question. Of course she would. Especially with the trouble the godmothers were in. “Do I get a choice?”

Lily said, “Certainly, but you must consider the consequences carefully.” In a smooth movement, Lily brandished her wand.

Any unsuspecting Groundling would have flinched at the display of the magical implement, but Stormy had seen similar flourishes from her fathers for years.

Lily flicked her wand. A slim case appeared in her free hand. “You can turn this down, but the Magic picked you for a reason.” She opened the case.

Stormy stared at the supple length of ebony that lay in the case. The dark wood gleamed under the lights of her studio and the rising sun. Silver filigree encased its handle, and geometric shapes in the pattern allowed the wood to peek through. Here and there round diamonds added a sparkle to the handle. Stormy caught her breath. She couldn’t explain it, but the wand called to her. She wanted to hold it, to grasp it in her hand. Her fingers twitched in anticipation of touching it.

Hyacinth placed her hand on Stormy’s shoulder. “You don’t have to choose this life. We would all understand if you didn’t want to.”

“Boy, you guys are sure making this easy.” Stormy let out a mirthless laugh.

She stared at the wand. Her fathers had never pressured her to do anything that she hadn’t wanted, but neither had they let her ignore what they considered her duty as a member of humanity. How could she ignore what the Magic had planned for her simply because it meant her life would become complicated?

The fabric on the loom almost glowed under the growing light of the sun. As she looked at it, she realized why it was so vibrant, so perfect. Magic. She had poured parts of herself into this piece that she hadn’t even known existed.

Her heart sped up, and excitement bubbled within her. Although she had found her way in the Groundling world— attending school, making friends— not having magic troubled her. She had wanted to be like her dads. Oh, she had accepted fate, but when she was younger she had borrowed her fathers’ wands and tried more than once to do a spell or two. With zero success. Now she had the chance.

Hell, she had always enjoyed complicated. It made life fun.

She reached for the wand.

“Wait.” Rose placed her hand over Stormy’s.

Startled, Stormy jerked back from the case.

“Sorry, dear,” Rose said. “But as soon as you touch the wand, the Council will find out who you are.”

“What do you mean?”

“As soon as you choose the wand, your name will appear on the wall of the Council Hall, and they’ll send someone to try to catch us.” Lily sighed.

“They’ll fail, but they’ll try.” Hyacinth grinned.

“You really need to know what’s happening before you accept.” Lily shook her head. “The newspapers haven’t exactly been accurate.”

Hyacinth snorted, and Lily sent her a chiding look.

Hyacinth didn’t look the least bit sorry. “It was either snort or cuss, and I thought the snort would bother you less. Those idiots are just printing what the Council tells them to.”

“Be that as it may, we still need to tell Stormy our side,” Lily said.

“You mean you’re not trying to take over the Council?” Stormy nearly smiled. The idea that these three sweet old ladies were the most dangerous threat to the Arcani was preposterous.

Lily’s somber expression checked Stormy’s levity. “Part of the story you’ve heard is true. Someone is trying to overthrow the laws and rules we’ve lived by for centuries.”

“But it isn’t us,” Rose said.

“No, it’s a scumbag named Lucas Reynard.” Hyacinth chuffed out a breath. “He wants the Arcani to reveal themselves and essentially rule the world as the superior beings.”

“But that’s . . . that’s . . .” Stormy sputtered for words.

“Barbaric,” said Hyacinth.

“Ridiculous,” said Rose.

“Impossible,” Lily said. “And that’s the point. The Groundlings would react with fear, and some Arcani with arrogance and glee, a sure recipe for hostility. He’s going to drag our worlds into a conflict that will make both sides suffer.”

Stormy would have fallen into a chair had one been near. The consequences already whirled in her head. Even if they wanted to, the Arcani didn’t have the numbers to defeat the Groundlings. While magic was powerful, using it cost energy. More than one Arcani had died by using too much magic— her fathers had told her that much. And dead was dead; she’d learned that when she had begged them to bring a beloved dog back to life. If they started a battle and lost, the Arcani world would be exposed, and the Groundlings would hardly allow them a peaceful existence. History had proven that. Hell, the fairy tales proved that. And the Salem Witch Trials, and God knew how many more examples there were. The Arcani world and the Groundling world didn’t mix well.

She looked at the three godmothers.

“Godmothers have gone bad in the past,” Rose said. “You shouldn’t believe us just because you know us.”

“You need to see for yourself and decide for yourself,” Lily said.

“And the Council will try to persuade you that we’re crazy and the other two godmothers are dangerous,” Hyacinth added.

Stormy didn’t know why the mention of the other two new godmothers surprised her. Her fathers had told her about them. “Will I meet them?”

“In time,” Lily said. “First you have to practice your magic.”

Questions whirled in Stormy’s head. She settled on one. “You’re telling me there’s some guy trying to take over the world?”

“Lucas is growing in power daily. But we might still be able to stop him.” Hyacinth’s gaze bored into hers.

She looked again at the fabric she had just woven. Hard to believe that last night her greatest concern was making the pattern come out right. Now she was supposed to step into some sort of conspiracy theory?

The wand still waited for her.

She took a deep breath and decided. Her fathers had not raised a coward. She took the wand into her hand. The handle fit into her palm as if molded there. Her hand blazed with a comforting heat that spread through her as if infusing her every cell with power. She smiled at the exuberance that filled her. She lifted her arms and let the feelings trickle through her.

Rose clapped her hands. “I may cry.”

“Don’t you dare,” Hyacinth said, her own eyes already brimming with tears.

Stormy laughed and hugged Hyacinth. “You fraud.”

“Harrumph.” Hyacinth squeezed her.

With a smile on her face, Lily said, “As happy as I am right now, I need to remind you that the Council is probably on their way. We have to get going before they arrive.”

“Be careful if you meet a man named Luc LeRoy. That’s the name Lucas was going by last we heard,” Rose said. “I hope you don’t run into him.”

“She will,” Hyacinth said.

We’ll try to keep in touch,” Rose said.

Try? Stormy drew her brows together. “Can’t I call you?”

Hyacinth shrugged. “Sorry, girl, we’ve given up our cell phones, and since we’re in hiding, it’s best you don’t know where we are. That way you don’t have to lie. Yet.”

“We’ll come again soon,” Lily said. “Until then, work on your magic. You’ll need it.”

Hyacinth glanced toward the door. “Our time is up here, ladies.”

Stormy looked through the glass to see several figures approaching. “But what about—”

“Trust in yourself, Stormy,” Lily said.

The three women bunched together, and a moment later they vanished from the room. Stormy stared at the spot where they had stood and then at the wand she still clutched in her hand. A mix of elation and trepidation churned in her. What had she gotten herself into?

“Stormy?” Ken’s voice called through the door. “Are you in there?”

She crossed to the door and opened it. Dad, Daddy, and five other men stood on the flagstone path. Four of them were huge. Two of the large ones pushed into the studio, wands drawn, and searched the room.

“If you’re searching for the godmothers, they aren’t here any longer,” she said.

The smallest of the unknown men stepped forward. “We knew there was only a slim chance we’d catch them. Go see if you can find their trail.”

The two men nodded and transported on the spot. For an instant, the air shimmered in a ghostly footprint of their presence.

Stormy looked at the three remaining strangers. Who were they? The small guy seemed kind of wormlike compared to the other two. One had a grin on his face and looked like a beach bum. The other’s dark, intense gaze never left her face. She shivered.

Ken’s brow furrowed, and then his eyes grew wide as he saw the wand in her hand. “It’s true then. My baby girl’s a godmother.” Apparently his earlier qualms had disappeared.

Justin stepped to her and pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. “And these three guys are here to talk to you about it.”