Anathema (Causal Enchantment #1)


by K.A. Tucker

Prologue

“Trust me,” Sofie whispered, her delicate hands sliding up Nathan’s chest to slip behind his neck.

“And if you’re wrong … ?” Nathan began but, unable to finish the sentence, his voice trailed off.

“I’m not wrong!” she snapped.

He pulled away and moved to stand before a nearby window, his arms crossed over his chest.

“Let me prove it to you.” She glided over to his side, and lifted a finger to push a stray lock of chestnut brown hair off his forehead.

But Nathan ignored the affectionate gesture, focused now on the bustling nightlife beyond the walls of his chateau. Rarely did he envy humans. Tonight, though, as he watched horse–drawn carriages roll along Paris’s cobblestone streets, carrying passengers on their way home from frivolous celebrations and too much wine, his jaw tightened with jealousy. Why couldn’t his problems be so trivial?

He saw a man stumble out of a tavern and fall to the ground in a drunken heap, directly in the path of two draft horses, and his eyes widened. The idea of witnessing a man trampled to death lifted his spirits. That human’s problem would rival his own … He gripped the window frame in anticipation, watching the beasts’ mammoth hooves trotting toward the man’s limp body, seconds away from squashing his head as if it were a ripe melon. At the last moment, two men grabbed the drunk by the heels and dragged him to safety. The horses continued on, undisturbed. Damn those good Samaritans.

Nathan scanned the streets for another person in a predicament worse than his own, knowing the chances were slim. His attention landed on a young couple in the midst of a lovers’ quarrel, one that quickly escalated from shrieks and hand gestures to a swift knee to the man’s groin. The growing crowd of spectators around the couple erupted in laughter as the young man crumpled to the ground, writhing in pain. Despite the situation, Nathan chuckled, aware that his redheaded spitfire may react in the same fashion momentarily.

Sighing heavily, Nathan dropped his eyes to the oak tree beneath his window, its leaves a rich golden hue with the change of season. It was to be Sofie’s burial spot.

That day couldn’t be today, though. He wasn’t ready.

Nathan shook his head. “No … I cannot bear the risk.”

Sofie didn’t respond immediately. When she did, it was with the sharpness of a well–honed blade. “Fine.” The silk layers of her evening gown rustled noisily as she stalked toward the door.

Before she reached it, Nathan was across the room, his hand barring her exit. “Please don’t ask it of anyone else,” he pleaded. He knew the request was useless, though. She stared back at him, her olive green eyes blazing in defiance, her intentions clear. She would find someone—someone who didn’t care whether she survived. He couldn’t allow that.

Another heavy sigh, this one in surrender. “You’re impossible, woman,” he whispered, shutting his eyes. There was no hint of anger in his tone.

Sofie’s throaty laughter filled the room. Victorious, she stretched up to lay an intense kiss on his lips. A farewell kiss, if this failed …

Taking her hands in his, he pulled her to the center of the room where the kerosene lamp burned, the only source of light in the spacious master bedroom.

“No,” she protested, scowling, as he reached for it.

“I’m not compromising on this,” he answered firmly.

After a second of deliberation, Sofie nodded, relenting—knowing better than to press him further, knowing she had won the war. She lifted her hands to pull her loose hair up off her neck.

Nathan shut his eyes, mentally preparing himself. He trusted her abilities. If anyone could solve this problem, it was his Sofie.

But if she was wrong …

He opened his eyes to see Sofie’s dazzling, confident smile. How he would do anything to see that smile for eternity!

In one fluid motion he extinguished the lamp, plunging the room into darkness.

Sofie’s chest heaved as she inhaled deeply, trying to regulate her pounding heart. She had worked tirelessly for this moment, to allow for this possibility—pushing her mind to the brink of sanity, drawing on her skill until she’d drained every ounce of energy.

It was finally happening.

Or was it? Anticipation turned to panic as the seconds stretched to minutes with no signals from Nathan. She stood in silence, her eyes searching the darkness in vain, fighting against the urge to speak out, to plead with him. What if he had changed his mind? What if he had left the room? What if—

Pain. All concern vanished.

Sofie regained consciousness on the bedroom floor. The room was still absolutely dark, yet her eyes darted wildly around, taking in every picture, every fabric pattern, every crack in the ceiling as if sun streamed through the windows. Exhilaration flooded through her.

With only a thought, she was on her feet and standing in front of a mirror. She gasped at the reflection. The eyes staring back were no longer her lackluster olive but a mystical pale mint. Her hand flew to her neck. No puncture marks. Not even a scratch. The only evidence was some dried blood on skin that was now creamy and pale. A slow sigh escaped her lips as the crushing fear of failure lifted from her chest.

It had worked.

She began giggling.

“What in God’s name are you so happy about?” a voice boomed. Her head whipped around. Mortimer stood in the doorway, a look of sheer horror splayed across his face. “Do you realize what you’ve done?” he yelled, slamming his fist against the solid wood door. Splinters flew from the blow.

Sofie twisted her mouth in annoyance. “What are you talking about? It worked!”

“You call that success?” He gestured to Sofie’s left, his eyebrows raised mockingly.

She turned curious eyes to follow his hand. Her stomach dropped when she saw the body lying motionless beside the bed. “Nathan!”

She flew across the room with inhuman speed, dropping to her knees to clutch Nathan’s beautiful face, needing to see his rich chocolate–brown eyes gazing adoringly at her. She released a sharp gasp when she saw the vacuous gray of death staring back at her.

“I don’t understand,” she whispered, tears welling in her eyes.

“You have no idea what you’ve done to us,” Mortimer answered through gritted teeth. It was obvious that Nathan’s death was the least of his concerns.

1. Sofie

“See you tomorrow, Betty,” I called out to the shelter’s evening receptionist as I passed the front desk. The plump, middle–aged woman responded with a gentle smile and a quick nod before turning her attention back to the homeless man standing beside her.

I held out my hand as I stepped onto the dimly lit sidewalk, testing for rain, expecting it. A relentless, bone–chilling drizzle had laid siege to Portland for the month of September—the kind of gloomy, wet weather that made a person dream of hibernating under a heavy blanket until spring.

To my pleased surprise, my hand encountered not a drop—no rain yet, anyway. I tucked my umbrella under my arm and began walking toward Congress Street, a nightly ritual after finishing my volunteer shift at the shelter. There was something therapeutic about wandering through the city’s Art District, admiring the hopes and dreams of local artists on display. More importantly, it dragged out the inevitable trip home before curfew. I was never in a rush to get back to my foster home.

Half a block up, I found a scruffy old man lying across the sidewalk ahead of me. “Evening, Eddie!” I called, smiling gently. Eddie split his time between the shelter and a nearby alley. “I’ll bet Betty can find you a nice, warm bed tonight.”

Eddie clambered to his knees with surprising agility and, seizing the corners of my navy raincoat with his grimy hands, began a recital of complete gibberish, his fervor increasing exponentially as he rambled on. “Oh, chocolate pools flatter my wretchedness. Yours is the face of an angel, complete with heaven’s cream and a halo of spun gold. You are a goddess!”

There were random moments of lucidity with Eddie, days where we could chat normally about trivialities like the weather and local politics. Other days I found him perched on a makeshift pedestal, ranting about giant beasts lurking in the shadows. Then there were days—like today, as he made my dull brown eyes, pallid complexion, and blonde hair sound like gifts from the gods—when he was a whole new kind of crazy.

“No, Eddie. I’m not your goddess, but thanks … I’m flattered.” I gently patted his hand.

Three drops of water landed in quick succession on my nose, then the rain began to fall. Drat. “Do you need an umbrella?” I eyed the roof of Eddie’s home in the alleyway behind him—a cardboard box cleverly shielded by the four umbrellas I had provided for him over the last two weeks.

Eddie responded with his familiar vacant stare, placid eyes indicating he was now there only in physical form. Reaching down, I gently tugged at his arm. His body resisted, as unyielding as a concrete statue. I knew it was hopeless. “Oh, Eddie,” I sighed. “You’re going to catch pneumonia if you stay out here.” I popped open my own umbrella and wrapped its handle within his hands, hoping it would keep him dry until his mind returned and moved his body indoors.

Wrapping my arms tightly around my chest, I set off at a brisk walk. I could handle a little rain. As if Mother Nature were privy to my thoughts, the sky suddenly opened up and the light drizzle evolved into a monsoon, pouring buckets of water onto my head. I began running blindly, seeking shelter.

Guilt welled in the pit of my stomach as I ran, picturing Eddie sitting on the sidewalk with one measly little umbrella to protect him. I should go check on him. Maybe the cold rain snapped him out of his daze, and I can convince him to stay at the shelter tonight. Yes, that’s the right thing to do. It’s only a few blocks back, if I turn around now—

My shin collided with something solid. I stumbled, executing an awkward cartwheel before crashing facedown in a puddle on the concrete sidewalk.

How long I lay in heap on the sidewalk, disoriented, faintly aware of rain permeating my clothes through to my skin, I couldn’t say. I regained my senses when I couldn’t hear drops pelting the sidewalk anymore. Crawling to my knees, I wiped the mucky water off my cheek and checked for blood. None. No scrapes or cuts. My shin didn’t appear to be broken or even hurting, though it should by all accounts be shattered. Maybe I’d earned a bruise at least. Otherwise, miraculously, I was fine.

The victim of my inattentiveness was not so lucky. I groaned, my hands flying to my forehead in dismay as I appraised what looked to have been a lovely and expensive stained–glass object, now scattered in dozens of pieces. I leaned over to begin collecting the shards.

“You’ll cut yourself,” a woman’s silky voice called in a French accent.

I looked up. A stunning redhead stood in a doorway, regarding me with eyes that were the most peculiar shade of pale mint green—so pale, they appeared inhuman. She has a good point, I realized as I regarded the jagged piece of glass in my hand. “But I can’t just leave it here. Someone may hurt themselves on it.”

“And what do you plan on doing with all the pieces?” she asked, lifting a brow in query.

“I don’t know … glue them back together?” I said with the certainty of a gas station attendant asked to perform solo brain surgery.

The woman smirked. “I bought that lantern in France. It’s one of a kind and it certainly can’t be glued back together,” she informed me, her tone cool, yet serene.

Oh no. This was hers. “I’m so sorry. There was so much rain! I was distracted and I just … hit it. I’m so sorry. I’ll pay you for it.”

“You have ten thousand dollars?” Those haunting eyes gazed down at my rain–soaked department store clothes with amusement.

I felt the blood drain from my face. “No, but—” The ground swayed, and I tasted bitter bile forming in the back of my throat. I didn’t have ten thousand dollars. I had exactly forty–seven dollars in my bank account and no job.