Mattie Carver has relinquished the world of magic, with all its dark temptations. In six weeks, she’ll marry Ben Ward and claim the safe, small-town life she craves. But Mattie’s talents as a reliquary—someone able to smuggle magic within her body—make her a valuable commodity, even to those she trusts the most. Forced out of retirement by a painful betrayal, she must seek the help of the man she’s tried desperately to stay away from: Ben’s estranged brother, Asa.
Asa, a sensor and magic dealer, may have saved Ben months ago, but he’s complicated Mattie’s life beyond imagining. Trailed by lethal mobsters through Chicago’s seamy magical underbelly and an eerie traveling carnival, Mattie struggles to endure the priceless magic she’s holding and her feelings for Asa. Once, she thought she’d chosen her path. Now the only option may be to succumb to the destiny that’s choosing her, and hope she’s strong enough to survive.
By the time I reached the front door of the cottage, I could already smell dinner. Onions, garlic, bacon. “Ben?” “Kitchen,” he called. “My afternoon splenectomy got canceled.” I frowned. The patient, a nine-year-old schnauzer mix named Gordon Lightfoot, had been diagnosed with cancer of the spleen just a few days before. “Why?” “They decided they wanted to put him down instead,” Ben said as I joined him in our kitchen. He handed me a glass of merlot. “They took him home and are spending the weekend with him. He’ll come back on Monday.” My throat got tight at the news, but Ben looked unruffled. He’d had longer to process the decision. “You could have saved him.” He nodded. “But it would have been expensive. They said they couldn’t afford it.” “Couldn’t you have . . .” I took a quick sip of my wine. I’d been about to suggest he offer to do it for free, or for a much lower fee, something he used to do all the time. But we were still repaying the debt he’d racked up with his addiction to Ekstazo pleasure magic . . . and to other types of magic as well. He used Knedas juice on you, didn’t he? Asa whispered in my memories. I squeezed my eyes shut. “That’s too bad. Are you okay?” “Just part of the job.” His fingers caressed my cheek. “You look tired, babe.” I let out a weary chuckle and set my wine glass on the counter. “Isn’t that a socially acceptable way of telling someone she looks terrible?” He took my face in his large, warm hands. “You look as beautiful to me as you ever have, Mattie.” Liar, I thought. But I stayed quiet. He kissed my forehead. “I came home early to cook dinner for you. Bucatini with bacon, tomato, and onions. Something hearty to put some meat back on your bones.” I pulled away from him. “My mom called you, didn’t she?” “Am I not allowed to talk to my future mother-in-law? She wanted to make sure you had a nice, relaxing evening. Said you’d had a busy day filled with hair and dresses and tricky flower arrangements.” That would be what my mom told him. No matter how bad things were, she’d embroider the edges of the truth with a pretty silver lining. It was like she believed that naming a bad thing gave it power, but if we just talked around it, maybe it would simply go away. “Yeah. Who knew wedding planning was so exhausting?” Hey, I’d learned from the best. Ben ushered me onto the screened porch, where we could see the emerald buds dotting the branches of the trees that lined our yard, the daffodils poking their little green heads through the soil in the flower beds. We ate our dinner in near silence, him gobbling down pasta while I picked at my food. It smelled good, but I already felt full, like my stomach had been stuffed with something huge and brittle and too much weight would cause it to splinter. After we were finished, we did the dishes together. Ben’s hands snaked around my waist as I dried my hands with a towel. He bowed his face into my hair. “You didn’t believe me when I told you that you were beautiful to me.” I folded the towel over the edge of the dish rack. “I never said that.” “You don’t think I know you well enough to tell? Come on, Mattie.” His fingers spread, stroking across my ribs. I fought the urge to pull away, knowing he could probably feel each one. “I never said that, either.” A breath of laughter warmed the top of my head. “Because you don’t say much of anything these days.” “I’m stressed out. It’s no big deal, just a lot of details to manage.” “Then let me help. I’ll take time off—” “You can’t, and you know that.” He sighed. “I know.” He was determined to pay off the debt to the contractor who’d renovated the vet clinic, and he wanted to get it done before the wedding. “But I want to do something for you.” He tilted his head and kissed the side of my neck. “I love you so much, and I just want to make you happy.” His hand slid around to my stomach and began to dip into my pants. I grabbed his wrist. “Not tonight, okay? I’ve had a really long day.” His hand stilled, but he continued to nuzzle the side of my throat. “I’d be happy to relax you.” I closed my eyes and tried to summon my desire, but all I could find was a wary exhaustion. “You’re so sweet, Ben, but I’m just not up to it.” “I’ll do all the work—I promise.” While I lay like a rag doll beneath him? The idea—just another reminder of how much I’d changed—made my stomach turn. “No.” His tongue slipped along my skin. “Come on. It’s been months . . .” I leaned away from him. “It hasn’t been that long.” He pulled me against him, letting me feel his arousal. “It’s been twelve weeks and three days.” “You’ve been counting?” I ducked under his arm and took a few steps back, crossing my arms over my chest. He ran his hands through his light-brown hair, shot through with golden strands. “Can you blame me? I’m dying here, Mattie.” “You’re dying? Way to make me feel guilty.” He let out a long breath. “I only meant that I want you. I miss you. I love you, and I want to be close to you. Can you blame me for that?” “No,” I said quietly. “I love you, too. But I haven’t felt like myself lately, okay? Just give me a little time to pull myself together. I’m getting there. And you deserve the best of me.” “I deserve all of you!” He moved toward me, his arms out as if to enfold me, but I put my hands up to keep him back. He stopped and his expression hardened. “Goddammit, Mattie, what the hell is wrong with you? It’s like you want to be sick. Like you’re using it to keep me at a distance. Why don’t you just admit it?” “Because it’s not true! I’m trying to get better.” “Oh, really?” His honey-brown eyes flared, and he walked over and opened the cabinet above the coffeemaker. He reached in and took out a pill bottle. “I counted these. You haven’t taken a single one in the last two weeks.” “Because they don’t help. The attacks still come. And they make my thoughts all fuzzy.” He slammed the bottle onto the counter. “Don’t tell me you’re trying to get better if you’re not even willing to follow your doctor’s advice.” He grimaced. “Especially after what we’ve spent on copays and prescriptions over the last nine months.” When he saw my stunned look, his shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry. That came out all wrong.” “Or maybe you said exactly what you meant.” “I’m just tired. Maybe we can talk about this tomorrow when my head’s on straight.” He turned and trudged toward our room, but paused and looked back before he entered. “I’m going to get make it an early night. Join me?” “I’ll be there soon.” His jaw clenched, but he nodded and disappeared into the room, leaving me standing in the kitchen. I carried the pills into the living room and sank into the couch, cradling the gently rattling bottle to my chest. The eerily familiar noise was like a fuse sparking to life, burning down until it triggered the explosion of memories. Pockets full of magic disguised as the most mundane things—floss, baby oil, Pez. They rattled when he walked, when he ran, when his legs flopped to the bed the one time he was too sick to take care of himself and let me do it for him. Come with me, Mattie. We’re a good team. We can figure this out. Together. I hadn’t asked him just what he wanted to figure out. How to get away from Frank Brindle, the boss of the West Coast? How to get Ben free without giving up our freedom in return? Or how to figure out the tangled, messed-up, inevitably doomed thing the two of us were together? “You know very well what I meant, Mattie,” Asa whispered. My eyes flew open, and there he was, sitting on the rug, a lean arm slung around his bent knee, looking relaxed even though he’d apparently just broken into my house. “I don’t have any idea,” I replied. “And how did you get in here?” “You let me in.” He rolled his eyes. “How is it that you can deal with a shitload of ancient Strikon pain magic inside your chest but not be able to deal with your own heart?” “You helped me with the magic. This is different.” He crawled toward me, predatory and smooth in the darkened room. My heart lurched as he came closer, but I was like prey, paralyzed by the look in his eyes. He stopped only when his face was an inch from mine. “No, Mattie. It’s exactly the same.” His mouth descended on mine, and a flash of relief lit me up. But the moment our lips touched, the pain stabbed straight through my chest, from my breastbone to my spine and everywhere in between. I gasped, jerking up, my eyes flying open, air squeaking from my throat in hitching breaths. I was alone in the room, alone with myself, alone with so much hurtful truth that I couldn’t contain it all. I doubled over, desperate to stay quiet so Ben wouldn’t hear. But it was all I could do not to scream as the agony radiated down my spine and up my neck, threading searing pain across my breasts. I clamped my hand over my mouth and drew my knees to my chest as a dark knowledge shifted and turned inside me, cutting my insides with its jagged edges, forcing me to look, as much as I wanted to go on pretending it didn’t exist. I hadn’t let go of Asa. Somehow, he’d stayed with me, haunting me. Because I’d let him. Because a part of me missed him, wondered where he was and what he was doing, wondered if he ever thought of me, wondered if the life he’d offered was something I should have explored. And it was ruining me, body and soul. I managed to sit up. Fumbling, I unscrewed the cap of the pill bottle and let two pale blue ovals fall onto my palm. I tossed them into my mouth and swallowed, then winced as they slowly slid down my dry throat. “I made my choice,” I whispered. Yes, it had been tempting. And yes, so was Asa himself. Painfully so. But I was never meant for a life like that or for a man like him, both endlessly complicated in ways I’d only just begun to understand. And if I didn’t move on, I was going to lose the life I had. “I’m not going to let that happen.” I pushed myself off of the couch and headed for the bedroom.
The Reliquary Series
About Sarah Fine
Sarah Fine was born on the West Coast, raised in the Midwest, and is now firmly entrenched on the East Coast. When she’s not writing, she’s working as a child psychologist. No, she is not psychoanalyzing you right now.