At 3 a.m. Gwen Carroway and the chairman of the Company waited in an idling limo on the Embarcadero. To the left, the bay curled around a sparkling San Francisco. To the right, water poured incessantly from Vaillancourt Fountain’s hulking mess of squared concrete tubes. Water everywhere—soothing her, whispering to her, offering her protection.
She peered through the tinted windows. On the opposite side of the fountain, two male figures in dark suits appeared between a line of palm trees. Their steps slowed as they started across the angular half-moon of the plaza.
Her father, Chairman Ian Carroway, stopped poking at his phone and set it on the seat next to his thigh. “You sound a little nervous. Are you?”
She sucked in air through her teeth. “Maybe a little. New client jitters, I guess. It’ll pass.”
His sharp, brown eyes warmed as he patted her knee. “You’ve done this a dozen times. The Company trusts you. I trust you.”
She blew out a breath and tilted her face to the jagged line of city buildings cutting into the night sky. “I know, I know. I just wish it wasn’t so out in the open.”
The phone buzzed and her father reached for it again, thumbs dancing across its face, as he typed one thing and said another. “The location is for their comfort, not ours. You’ll be fine, kiddo.”
Still “kiddo” to him, and she was closing in on thirty.
When he finished typing, he didn’t put the phone down, just held it loosely in one palm. Did he sleep with that thing?
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?”
She waved him off. “Yes. I want to do this myself. But thanks.”
Maybe if the Board saw how ambitious she was—how devoted and beneficial to the Company—they would vote her into their ranks before her next birthday. And wouldn’t that be an accomplishment? Wouldn’t that prove to her people that she’d do anything for them, including committing her life to better theirs?
Because of her gift, she was the only person in the Company capable of making international deals, but she wanted to be so much more. She wanted to lead. She wanted to take what her father had grown and make it even stronger.
Gwen patted the bulge in the pocket of her black blazer and opened the limo door. The dome light illuminated her father, who nodded confidently and shooed her off with a grin. His belief in her gave her strength. She would not let him down. She would not let her people down.
A beige Subaru slowed behind the limo, honked, then swerved around. Gwen hopped onto the curb, suddenly and frighteningly conscious of the way the limo’s interior light cast a spotlight on the important man inside. Secrecy was paramount. She slammed the door, extinguishing the light, and the limo pulled away on silent wheels, leaving her alone in the plaza.
She closed her eyes and breathed, absorbing the combined sounds of the bay’s lapping waves and the roar of the fountain. Opening her eyes, she channeled her father’s panache and squared her shoulders. She walked steadily around the fountain, resisting the urge to tug at the yellow strands of her hair that swirled in the unpredictable breeze.
The new client was Japanese, the Company’s first from that country. The actual buyer was too important to retrieve the product himself, rich enough to send others to do his business, and obsessed with anonymity. Just like everyone else willing to pay the Company’s high price of vanity.
The lead Japanese man approached Gwen with shallow steps. A lock of inky black hair bounced across his forehead, and he used a palm to slick it back. Per the Company’s instructions, he clutched a cheap, nondescript briefcase. His companion, striding with purpose at his heels, stood a full head taller and weighed double.
She walked among Primaries every day. She lived in their city without self-consciousness or worry that they could differentiate her from anyone else on the street. But when deals went down and the Company cracked open the door to their private little world, it was impossible for her not to feel vulnerable. Like she was opening the drawbridge and inviting the enemy inside the castle.
That was the source of her nerves, she realized. She didn’t fear for her own safety or that she couldn’t close the sale. Despite monstrous confidentiality agreements, every deal the Company made threatened to reveal more of themselves to the Primaries, and that scared her more than anything.
There were reasons humans were called Primaries: they were here first and there were far, far more of them.
Even though the wealthiest of the Primaries craved what her people had to offer, they regarded the Company with caution and a measure of disdain. After all, Gwen’s people, the Ofarians, were special. No matter how much money the Primaries threw at the Company, they could never physically possess Ofarian magic.
But the Company could sell it to them in a bottle.
Gwen stopped near the lip of the fountain, where the tangle of concrete and rushing water guarded her from the intermittent headlights on the Embarcadero. She let the clients come to her. The smaller Japanese man walked determinedly, with a laser-like focus. His bodyguard made sweeping assessments of the surroundings with his eyes.
Go ahead, she thought. You won’t find anyone but me.
The men pulled up a few feet away. The shorter man passed the briefcase to his bodyguard and retrieved a business card from his pocket. Presenting it with both hands, he bowed and spoke in quick Japanese. “I am Yoshi. Mikatani regrets being unable to come personally.”
“Yoshi.” She handed him her own card in the same way and bowed deeper. Japanese spilled off her tongue, coming as easily as her native language. “We spoke on the phone.”
As Yoshi straightened, he looked pointedly over her shoulder. “Your chairman could not make it?”
She dipped her head. “It seems both our employers are busy. I assure you your business is safe with me.”
“Gwen Carroway. Vice President, International Relations.” He smiled as he read her card aloud, though the smile was oily and unforthcoming. She didn’t like him at all. When he looked up, the gush of the fountain reflected in his night dark eyes. “Your Japanese is excellent.”
“So is my Greek. And twenty-two other languages.”
Another smile, this one wider and slimier. His teeth looked like they’d been knocked out and shoved back in by a third grader. She understood very well that she was in the business of lies, but she was supposed to sell them, not buy them. She desperately wanted out from under his stare; she wanted this deal done.
“Do you have the remainder of the payment?”
Yoshi gestured to the briefcase. “Do you have the product?”
“Of course.” The subtle lift of her shoulders, the overly casual demeanor—she’d stolen them both directly from her father.
Reaching into her pocket, she withdrew a shiny, graphite-colored box the size of a cigarette pack tied with a red silk bow. The name Mendacia wrapped around the package in silvery embossed script.
Yoshi’s eyes clamped on to it. He licked his lips. “Does it really work?”
They’d been out in the open for a while now and the covetousness in his expression set her on edge. Her knees locked and she prayed he wouldn’t notice her legs shaking. Maybe she should just walk away from the deal . . . except that the Ofarians depended on her and her sales, not only for the money Mendacia brought in, but also for the jobs and security it provided.
“After Mikatani-san’s foot is amputated, use this potion as directed and no one will be able to tell. His body will seem whole. To anyone watching, he will walk without a limp.” She tilted her head, another trust me gesture borrowed from Dad, the king of sales, the master of persuasion. She couldn’t resist needling Yoshi; he rubbed her wrong in so many ways. “But I have already convinced Mikatani. I don’t need to sell it to you.”
Another swipe of Yoshi’s palm across his forehead. At last he ripped his gaze from the box. “No, of course not. I just find it hard to believe. A potion to cure what the most advanced diabetes doctors cannot?”
She jiggled the box, the bow flopping from side to side. “Not cure. Appear to cure. To hide.”
She anticipated his reaction. Expected to see disbelief cloud his expression. That usually happened with first-time clients. Only Yoshi didn’t indulge. His black eyes narrowed in a way that suggested pleasure, not doubt. “Is that all it can do? Make ailing octogenarians save face in front of their investors?”
Mendacia was far more than that. It was the Ofarians’ honor. Only the most gifted of her people were selected to learn the craft, and it was the hard work of those chosen ones who essentially supported the entire race.
The Primaries would never know that. They’d get what they paid for. Nothing more.
“It’s glamour,” she said, taking care not to look away from Yoshi’s eyes. “It can do almost anything.” Related to the user’s personal appearance, that is.
She raised the box and made an obvious glance at the briefcase. “The instructions to activate the spell are inside the box. I personally translated them and wrote out the words phonetically using Japanese pronunciation. If Mikatani-san has any questions or concerns, please call me directly.”
The errant lock of hair fell over Yoshi’s forehead again. This time he didn’t shove it away. “That’s exactly what I wanted to hear. I’ll take the Mendacia now.”
She extended the box, the red bow a splash of color in the dimly lit, deserted plaza. Yoshi hurried forward and snatched it a little too greedily. Sweat beaded on his skin underneath the flap of hair.
A chill raced over her. The air around them screamed in alarm.
Yoshi grinned, slick and crooked. “And I’ll take you, too, Gwen.”
The goon behind him whipped out a gun—metal flashing like fire, barrel aimed straight at her. Think, Gwen. Think. How can you turn this asshole’s hubris to our benefit?
She took too long. Griffin burst like a kraken from Vaillancourt Fountain.
Water gushed upward from the low pool, assuming the strong, lean shape of Griffin’s human body. Translucent waves flowed over the valleys of his stomach muscles. White froth cascaded over his square jaw and the hard cut of his arms. His torso darkened, solidified. Water droplets skittered across his skin, soaking in. From the waist down he remained a brilliant, shimmering waterfall balancing on the fountain’s bubbling surface. Frighteningly beautiful, unmovable as rock.
Time slowed as Griffin’s furious dark eyes met Gwen’s. They spoke paragraphs in that moment. She had no time to be pissed off he’d interfered before she’d called for backup. Together they silently assessed the danger. Made plans. Then time caught up, resumed normal speed.
One of Griffin’s arms went liquid and shot out, fast as a bullet, to wrap around the stunned bodyguard and yank him forward into the fountain. Griffin’s watery legs flowed over the Japanese goon, holding him under the surface. His chest and shoulders heaved with channeled fury.
Griffin, Gwen’s personal protector. Griffin, the man the Board wanted her to marry.
The bodyguard thrashed facedown in the shallow pool. Griffin allowed him to break the surface and breathe. Just long enough for him to plead for his life in Japanese. Gwen didn’t translate.
She transformed her own arm into a liquid whip and snapped it at the Mendacia box sagging in Yoshi’s fingers. Reversing the suction, she peeled it from his grasp and flung it back into her own hands. As her arm returned to solid, she felt the familiar, cool tingle of ebbing waters.
Yoshi made a strangled, squeaking, unmanly sound in the back of this throat. His empty hands shook.
She walked to the edge of the fountain, where the briefcase of money floated. Under Yoshi’s bug-eyed stare, she plucked it from the water and spoke the Ofarian words to dissolve every molecule of water from its surface and the stacks of money inside.
“Something tells me,” she swiveled back to Yoshi, “that Mikatani isn’t aware of your actions tonight.” No response. “Let me guess. You had a better offer? Thought to take me along with the Mendacia? Force me to change the command words to make it do whatever your new clients wanted?” Yoshi gulped, defeated. “You do realize that by violating our contract you’ve just single-handedly forfeited fifty-one percent of Mikatani’s holdings to the Company?”
Yoshi sagged as though his own body were made of water. “Please. I beg you. He’ll kill me . . .”
She set the briefcase on the fountain’s lip and ran her fingers along its edges. A great surge of anger and confidence bubbled inside her. She wondered if that was what drove her father and the rest of the Board day in and day out. That feeling of secret superiority and advantage. How dare a Primary think he could pull one over on the Company?
She knew what she had to do.
She looked to Griffin, whose eyes were almost as tortured as their captives’. A muscle in his jaw twitched. “Gwen,” he said through clenched teeth. “Just give the order.”
Usually the Board collectively passed down the sentence. She’d been in the boardroom in the past, when they’d decided a Primary should die for knowing too much, but she’d never been the one to slam the gavel.
It was Ofarian law and it was necessary, but that didn’t mean she had to enjoy it.
Plus, there were two offenders. Griffin couldn’t handle both of them at the same time and she . . . well, maybe here was where her cowardice finally showed its ugly face.
She faced Yoshi. “I’m sure the death Mikatani will give you will include pain. Humiliation. I understand saving face is very important to your people. It’s why you’re here in the first place, isn’t it?”
“Please . . .” Yoshi begged.
“I’m willing to give you a choice, Yoshi. I can let you go and you can try to run from your boss—which I’m sure will be impossible—or you can die right here.” She glanced at the bodyguard still gasping in the water. “If you go now, your man dies. I’ll trade your life for his. Who’s it going to be?”
Yoshi, made all the more tiny by his round-shouldered fear, pointed one shaking finger at the goon gurgling beneath Griffin’s liquid legs. “Him.” Then he turned and ran.