coming June 2013
PROLOGUE – Twenty-seven years ago
Willow twists her fingers into knots. Her mother is going to be so mad at her but it is unavoidable. She has to leave. She can’t live here a minute more.
She has no life. She has no independence. She has no liberty.
She’s a bird yearning to fly and yet trapped in a cage.
Her bags sit packed at the foot of the stairs. It is a light load. She is trading in a lifestyle as restrictive as the embroidered gowns for loose riding pants, warm wool sweaters and adventure.
She doesn’t want to grow old in a damp moldy castle, feasting on her own ambition. She wants sunshine, the smell of sweat and the thrill of the unknown.
“Willow dear, what’s going on?” Queen Vania flows into the entryway, her skirts rustling as she walks.
Willow freezes for a moment, her tongue sticks to the roof of her mouth. She takes a deep breath and slowly lets it out.
“Mother,” she says smoothing her hands against her pants, trying to dry sweaty palms. “I’ve got--.”
“Sweetheart, why are you dressed for riding?” The Queen says impatiently not waiting for her daughter to answer. “We’ve got company coming soon. Don’t you remember? I told you the count and his son are coming for dinner. Run along and get dressed. We don’t want them to see you for the first time like that.”
Queen Vania waves her hand toward the monstrous stone staircase that dominates the room. She dismisses Willow when she turns away.
“Mother,” Willow protests. “I’m not staying for dinner.”
Queen Vania halts and spins around, her face darkening. She’s in a battle stance as if she’d anticipated her daughter’s recalcitrant behavior.
“You are seventeen Willow. People will start to wonder what’s wrong with you if you don’t marry soon.”
Willow bursts out laughing. “I’m not worried about what people think Mother. I don’t want to get married.”
“You have to marry Willow,” Queen Vania says dismissively. “We’ll find a suitable mate who you can control as you come into your powers.”
“I’m leaving Mother,” Willow says gaining courage. She’s had this argument with her mother millions of times before. It always ends the same with her giving in, dressing up like a princess and allowing herself to be paraded around like a prize. No more.
“Leaving? Where will you go?”
Willow smiles. She has no idea where she’ll go but it’s sure to be better than here.
“I have no idea.”
Queen Vania eyes the bags with distaste.
“You can’t leave; you’ll be in danger. I have a lot of enemies that would love to get back at me by hurting you.”
“I’ll be OK Mother; I know how to disguise myself,” gaining confidence Willow’s hands rest on her hips. “What kind of Queen would I be one day if I weren’t strong? You raised me well. And I won’t be travelling with the type of people you associate with.”
Queen Vania freezes. Her face hardens into a brittle mask of anger.
“You can’t humiliate me,” she spits out. “I won’t allow it.”
“This isn’t about you. That’s what you always forget. This is about me, my future. I want to decide what I want or who I want. Not you.”
“I can stop you.” Queen Vania threatens, raising a hand.
“I know you can. But remember, if I don’t leave today. I will another day and next time I won’t say goodbye. You’ll just find me gone.”
“This is outrageous. I won’t allow it,” Queen Vania seethes with anger, her body trembling with suppressed emotion.
Getting angry herself, Willow stomps over to her bags.
“Get over it mother, I’m leaving.”
“I will make you regret this,” she says but doesn’t move to stop her daughter.
Willow picks up her bags and heads to the door. Queen Vania lifts her hand, a ball of blue energy appears. She murmurs something under her breath and throws the energy ball.
Willow stumbles slightly as the energy ball hits her in the back. She doesn’t pause as she walks through the gigantic wooden door that opens as she approaches.
“Now you will feel my pain,” Queen Vania yells as Willow walks out into the gloomy overcast day.
She can feel the curse spreading through her blood, embedding itself into her DNA. She’s not harmed because it’s not meant for her.
Sasha didn’t know two men were following her. If she had, maybe it all would have turned out differently.
It was a Friday and everyone had plans except Sasha. She didn’t mind. She’d rather spend time alone than endure some awkward date with a guy she didn’t really like. She couldn’t bother pretending.
Cady teased her about her solitude. She wanted to know if Sasha was the Unabomber’s sister. Sasha laughed at the joke, although she was slightly disturbed by the comparison. Was she spending too much time alone?
Her limited list of friends had never bothered her before she met Cady. She shouldn’t let Cady shake her confidence. She had a nice small circle of friends. That’s all she needed. Anyway, since the appearance of the blue sparks, it was best she made no new friends. She couldn’t even trust her old ones with her secret.
The Second Cup was near her house in the rolling hills of South Austin. South Congress was a funky street with a mix of cowboy boot stores, Mexican restaurants, eclectic clothes, hair salons and coffee shops. Her favorite was the Second Cup with its beat up furniture, wood fireplace and delicious lattes.
She pushed open the front door and scanned the room for an empty seat. While there were usually a slew of modern geeks sipping frothy drinks while swiping tablet screens, tonight the place was empty. Even the modern geeks had dates.
Her favorite seat near the fireplace was available. She was giddy to see a fire roaring in the grate. The January chill made her gloved hands stiff. She shrugged off her coat and tossed it over a broken leather lounge chair.
She picked through her change purse, judging whether she had enough money for a latte. The drinks are good at Second Cup, but pricy.
As she approached the counter, the barista had his back to her. He didn’t look familiar and she wondered if they’d hired new people. She’d been debating whether to apply for a job. Her mother didn’t want her to work.
If she wanted spending money she could help her mother in her real estate business, she’d been told numerous times. Willow Bean was an Austin real estate phenomenon. She could use help answering phones and Tweeting sales. That would mean hanging out with her mother and her odd-ball business associates. No thanks.
The server turned around, startling Sasha. He was young, extremely young compared to the roster of aging hippies who normally worked the counter. What drew her to the guy were his eyes, a startling, sparkling blue. She could get lost in those blue pools. Sasha felt a pang of envy. Her dull brown eyes were just so boring.
Flustered, Sasha looked away and pretended to study the menu. When he turned to wipe a counter, she gave him a quick, discreet once over from the corner of her eye. Or rather she hoped it was discreet.
It didn’t take long for Sasha to decide he was cute. She was a sucker for short hair and of course the eyes snagged her on the first blink. She turned away and ran her hand through her own dark strands trying to get the mess under control. It felt like a bird’s nest. She hoped it didn’t look like that.
“Hi,” she said shyly. She couldn’t tell if he went to her high school or even if he was a high school student. Her school had 2,000 students, so it was hard to know everyone.
He smiled back but didn’t show any teeth. She knew from watching her mother greet clients that smiles without teeth meant the interaction was going to be all business.
She felt slight disappointment in the pit of her belly. Sasha patted her hair again self consciously. Did she look that bad? She glanced at the menu again pretending she didn’t know what to order.
She liked that the Second Cup wasn’t popular with the high school crowd. It was mostly populated with the area’s laid back tech workers and young professionals. The native Texans usually ordered frozen coffee drinks, even when it was cold outside. The students from Sasha’s high school liked Starbucks, which they thought was hipper than the Second Cup.
Sasha disagreed. She liked the character and flavor of the native café. She even knew the owner, a columnist for the local newspaper who lived near the shop. The Second Cup was her hideaway she frequented a couple times a week to get away from her family.
Sasha’s mother asked too many questions about her friends, or lack thereof, and the time she spent solo. Willow Bean wanted her daughter to be happy but didn’t realize nagging wasn’t going to achieve that goal. If anything, it alienated Sasha and made her withdraw.
Sasha pulled out her frequent purchase card. She didn’t have enough cups punched out to get one free. She lifted her bag onto the counter and dug out the change at the bottom. Her hand closed over a fistful of coins.
The guy, wearing a name badge that said Evan, waited patiently at the register. Neither his name nor his face was familiar. Sasha thought it odd she hadn’t seen this guy before. She wondered how long he’d been working at the café.
Sasha usually got a coffee, read a book or surfed the Internet. Nothing too exciting but it helped kill time. Tonight she was just avoiding going home. She’d come from the library and was bored with studying. There was only so much biology she could read before her head exploded with information overload.
While she counted out her change, Evan cleaned the espresso machine, blowing steam out of the spout used to froth milk. He threw a rag on the machine drain and came back behind the cash register.
Despite loving lattes, Sasha was undecided on what to order. She loved chocolate but hesitated on drinking caffeine late at night. She’d developed insomnia lately and her mother said it was because she drank too many Diet Cokes. So like any good daughter, Sasha ignored her mother’s suggestion to cut back.
All the same tonight Sasha was tired. She’d been feeling anxious lately. Her birthday was coming up and her mother insisted on throwing her a party. She didn’t have a lot of friends to invite and didn’t want to sit through an evening of forced humiliation.
She knew caffeine would perk her up but she didn’t want to spend the night tossing and turning. She scanned the menu for caffeine-free options that had chocolate.
The guy didn’t ask for Sasha’s order although he was clearly waiting.
“I’m just trying to find a chocolate drink that’s light on caffeine,” she said.
Evan frowned. “I don’t think it exists.”
His hands were poised over the order buttons. She glanced at the clock worrying it was near closing time.
“You have plenty of time,” he said seeing her unease. “We don’t close for another 30 minutes.”
“Fab,” she said rubbing her hands together. “How much caffeine is in a mocha chocolate?”
Evan looked surprised. “Lots,” he said. His lips twitched as if he were holding back a smile.
“I know, stupid question,” Sasha said blushing slightly. Evan was making her nervous. She wasn’t used to a good looking guy waiting on her. He continued to stare at her, although it was clearly professional rather than personal interest.
Feeling slightly stressed, she decided to cope with insomnia. It was Friday. There was no school tomorrow to worry about.
“I’ll just have the hot chocolate please,” she said eyes downcast. She was embarrassed at her silliness. She hemmed and hawed over what to order and then came up with the ever brilliant hot chocolate. He’s going to think she’s an idiot.
Evan pressed a button on the cash register and turned around to prepare the drink. He got the milk out of the bar bridge and poured the white liquid into a frosted metal cup. He added chocolate syrup and then used the steamer spout to heat up the concoction. The noise masked the sound of two men coming into the cafe.
It was late and the only other patrons in the cafe were a couple sitting by the side exit. It looked like they were leaving when Sasha came to the counter to order.
Sasha didn’t realize anything was wrong until Evan stopped working. His eyes grew wide and his mouth gaped slightly. Sasha turned and followed his gaze to see two men wearing black knit balaclavas walk toward the counter.
Sasha had never seen robbers except on television. They were dressed in black and their eyes looked like black holes surrounded by the knit mask.
She froze like Evan, unsure of what to do. She’d never been robbed before. Her biggest irrational fear was that she’d get carjacked when she drove her mother’s car. She’d never been afraid at the Second Cup. It was in a good neighborhood. It was her neighborhood.
The would-be robbers didn’t say anything. Out of the corner of her eye Sasha saw the other couple leave by the side door seeming unaware of the robbery in progress. Obviously they wouldn’t be calling for help.
Evan placed the milk on the counter, freeing up his hands. He moved toward the cash register, appearing to get ready to open it up and give the men cash. It probably wouldn’t be a lucrative holdup. Drinks weren’t more than $5.
Seeing no way to escape, Sasha tried to remember where she put her phone. Was it in the front pocket of her purse? In her jacket pocket? She spied her jacket on the lounge chair by the fireplace. That wasn’t good.
She tried to catch Evan’s eye but he wasn’t looking at her. He was staring at the men. One came up beside Sasha staying about two feet away.
She clutched the shoulder strap of her purse and casually looked around for a weapon. Seeing none, she looked back at the man. He glanced at Evan and pulled a gun from the pocket of his thigh-length leather jacket. It was black and dangerous-looking. He waved it in the air, turned it sideways like some street gangster on TV and paused, the barrel pointed at Evan’s head. Sasha guessed he really wanted money from the register.
But the strangest thing happened. He didn’t ask Evan for money.
“Don’t move,” he snarled his gun focused on Evan, who hadn’t moved since the men came in the café. Sasha hoped Evan didn’t resist. Money was so not worth getting shot, especially money that wasn’t his.
Surprisingly the man turned to Sasha. “Give it to me,” he said in a guttural snarl. She had no idea what he was talking about. Give what?
Impatient, he motioned with his hand toward her top. He wanted her shirt? She was not going to take her shirt off. Firstly, she was wearing a very old bra. Second, she wasn’t a wet T-shirt kind of girl She didn’t even wear bikinis.
“What are you talking about?” Sasha said shrinking away from him. She glanced toward the side door and figured she might be able to make it before the guy shot her. Then what would happen to Evan?
The man leaned toward Sasha and reached into the neck of her sweatshirt. She was wearing a fitted hoodie that was tight around the neck. He was only able to get a couple of sausage-like fingers in the top of her sweatshirt.
Sickened, she pulled away and his fingers dropped from the neckline of her sweatshirt.
“Listen perv don’t touch me,” she said with false bravado. She was scared to death but disgusted by what this man might do to her. How could she get him to stop?
The man swore in frustration and took a step toward her. “Give me the necklace,” he said spit flying from his mouth.
“What?” She was thoroughly confused. A couple of years ago my mother gave her a pendant hanging from a leather rope necklace. It was junk jewelry, something Willow Bean got at an art fair. Why would this guy want a meaningless piece of jewelry? There was something seriously wrong.
The man reached for her neck again but she stepped back. He grabbed a fistful of her sweatshirt and pulled her toward him. Sasha yanked free and twisted away as the man snatched her upper arm.
“Maybe we should just take her,” the other man said hesitantly.
“Maybe,” the gunman said. “You know what I want. Give it to me.”
She had no idea what he wanted. He drew her closer and shoved his face near hers. He tried to get her to look into his eyes but she turned away. Was he trying to hypnotize her? He wasn’t successful. His voice was so grating it set her nerves on edge. His repulsive breath stank of onions making her stomach churn.
When the man lowered his gun, she saw her chance. She jerked free so violently she stumbled to her knees. She scrambled out of reach and hoped Evan saw her move and found his own escape.
“Come back here,” the man growled. She was only a few feet from him, not exactly a clean getaway. The man turned to Evan, swung the gun up and pointed it in his direction. She froze and saw Evan drop to the floor as the gun went off.
Glass exploded and shards rained over Evan as he rolled across the floor. He came to a stop by a stack of trays and grabbed one. Sasha saw him peer over the counter from his lower viewpoint as the robber lunged at her.
The gunman wrenched Sasha to her feet as Evan vault over the counter and smashed the tray across the gunman’s hand holding the weapon. The man roared as he lost his grip on the gun and Sasha.
She heard the weapon skid across the tile floor. Evan brought the tray up and hit the man in the face. Blood spurted from the man’s nose like a geyser hitting Evan in the chest and face.
Unfortunately the man didn’t go down. He clawed at this face screaming obscenities.
“I’m going to kill you,” he shrieked.
The gunman scrambled around to find his gun while Evan used the bottom of his T-shirt to wipe the blood from his face. He dodged the gunman, grabbed Sasha’s hand and pulled her toward the front door. They were almost there when the second guy jumped in front of them.
This man had no gun that Sasha could see so she kicked his chins while Evan punched him in the gut. The man doubled over and Evan knocked him out of the way. Evan pushed the front door open when the gun went off.
Sasha looked behind her and pieces of ceiling tile floated between her and the gunman. She pulled Evan’s hand to make him halt. With blood still running down his face the gunman pointed his weapon at Evan with his uninjured, trembling hand.
That was when Sasha felt a surge of energy course through her body. It might have been adrenaline or fear that triggered it. She wasn’t sure. She knew nothing about the blue sparks except that they were leaking from her fingertips.
“I’m going to make you pay,” he said as blood ran down his face. He pulled the trigger and smiled.
As if in slow motion, Sasha saw the bullet leave the barrel. It traveled toward Evan’s head at such a slow speed it was as if time had slowed to a crawl. She raised her hand and the blue sparks intersected with the bullet and made it veer over Evan’s shoulder.
The shattering of the glass front door over Evan’s shoulder jolted her alert as if she had been in a trance. She wasn’t finished. She didn’t direct the blue sparks without any real thought. She just wanted the gun disabled. The blue sparks surrounded the gun and melted the end of the barrel. They winked out of existence as fast as they appeared. It happened in the blink of the eye although it seemed longer to Sasha.
They don’t hang around. They run.