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The Novels of Nora Roberts Volume 1, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  Hands on her hips, she stood over him, a slim, silver warrior who’d never learned to sample her revenge cold. “I’m a lot of things I didn’t used to be.” Her knuckles hurt like fire, but she used that pain to block another, deeper ache. “Now, you lying Irish bastard, crawl back into whatever hole you dug for yourself five years ago. Come near me again, and I swear, I’ll make you disappear for good.”

  Delighted with her exit line, she turned on her heel, then let out a shriek when Luke snagged her ankle. She went down hard on her rump and before she could put nails and teeth to use, he had her pinned. She’d forgotten how strong and how quick he was.

  A miscalculation, Max would have said. And miscalculations were the root of all failures.

  “Okay, Rox, we can talk here.” Though he was breathless and still in pain, he grinned. “Your choice.”

  “I’ll see you in hell—”

  “Very likely.” His grin faded. “Damn it, Roxy, I never could resist you.” When he crushed his mouth to hers, he tossed them both back into the past.


  1973, near Portland, Maine

  “Hur-ry, hur-ry, step right up. Be amazed, be astounded. Watch the Great Nouvelle defy the laws of nature. For one small dollar, see him make cards dance in midair. Before your eyes, right before your astonished eyes, see a beautiful woman sawed in two.”

  While the barker ran through his spiel, Luke Callahan slithered through the carnival crowd, busily picking pockets. He had quick hands, agile fingers and that most important asset of a successful thief, a complete lack of conscience.

  He was twelve.

  For nearly six weeks he’d been on the road, on the run. Luke had big plans to head south before the steamy New England summer became a frigid New England winter.

  He wasn’t going to get very far with pickings like this, he thought and nipped a billfold from the sagging overalls pocket. There weren’t many of those who had come to ride the Tilt-a-Whirl or challenge the Wheel of Fortune who had more than a few creased dollars on them.

  Now, when he got to Miami, things would be different. In the shadows behind the milk bottle toss, he discarded the imitation leather wallet and counted his take for the evening.

  Twenty-eight dollars. Pathetic.

  But in Miami, that land of sun, fun and high rollers, he’d clean house. All he had to do was get there first, and so far he’d managed to squirrel away nearly two hundred dollars. A little more and he’d be able to afford to take the bus at least part of the way. A Greyhound, he thought with a quick grin. He’d leave the driving to them, all right, and take a break from hitching rides with stoned-out hippies and fat-fingered perverts.

  A runaway couldn’t be choosy about his mode of transportation. Luke was already aware that a ride from an upstanding citizen could lead to a police report or—nearly as bad—a lecture on the dangers of a young boy leaving home.

  It was no use telling anyone that home was much more dangerous than the perils of the road.

  After flipping off two singles, Luke tucked the rest of his take into his battered chukkas. He needed food. The smell of hot grease had been tantalizing his stomach for nearly an hour. He’d reward himself with an overcooked burger and fries, and wash it all down with some fresh lemonade.

  Like most twelve-year-old boys, Luke would have enjoyed a ride on the Whip, but if there was a longing in him toward the spinning lights, he covered it with a sneer. Jerks thought they were having an adventure, he mused while sour grapes stuck in his throat. They’d be tucked in their beds tonight while he slept under the stars and when they woke up Mommy and Daddy would tell them what to do and how to do it.

  No one would tell him any of those things ever again.

  Feeling superior in every way, he tucked his thumbs in the front pockets of his jeans and strutted toward the concession stands.

  He passed the poster again—the larger-than-life-sized picture of the magician. The Great Nouvelle, with his sweep of black hair, flowing moustache, his hypnotic dark eyes. Every time Luke looked at the poster he felt himself being pulled toward something he couldn’t understand.

  The eyes in the picture seemed to look right into him, as if they could see and understand much too much about Luke Callahan, late of Bangor, Maine, by way of Burlington and Utica and Christ knew where because Luke had forgotten.

  He almost expected the painted mouth to speak and the hand that held the fan of cards to shoot out, snatch him by the throat and pull him right inside that poster. He’d be trapped there forever, beating on the other side of that pasteboard the way he’d beat on so many of the locked doors of his childhood.

  Because the idea gave him the willies, Luke curled his lip. “Magic’s bunk,” he said, but he said it in a whisper. And his heart pounded hard as he dared the painted face to challenge him. “Big deal,” he went on, gaining confidence. “Pulling stupid rabbits out of stupid hats and doing a few dumbass card tricks.”

  He wanted to see those dumbass tricks more than he wanted to ride on the Whip. More even than he wanted to stuff his mouth with ketchup-dripping fries. Luke wavered, fingering one of the dollars in his pocket.

  It would be worth a buck, he decided, just to prove to himself that the magician was no big deal. It would be worth a buck to sit down. In the dark, he mused as he drew out the crumpled bill and paid the price. There were bound to be a few pockets he could slip his nimble fingers into.

  The heavy canvas flap swung shut behind him and blocked out most of the light and air from the midway. Noise battered against it like rainfall. People were already crowded on the low wooden seats, murmuring among themselves, shifting and waving paper fans against the stifling heat.

  He stood in the back a moment, scanning. With an instinct that had been honed sharp as a switchblade over the past six weeks he skipped over a huddle of kids, crossed off a few couples as being too poor to net him anything but his admission price and cagily chose his marks. The situation called for him to look to women, as most of the men would be sitting on their money.

  “Excuse me,” he said, polite as a Boy Scout, as he squeezed in behind a grandmotherly type who seemed distracted by the antics of the boy and girl on either side of her.

  The moment he was settled, the Great Nouvelle took the stage. He was dressed in full formal gear. The black tux and starched white shirt looked exotic in the heat-drenched tent. His shoes gleamed with polish. On the pinkie of his left hand he wore a gold ring with a black center stone that winked in the stage lights.

  The impression of greatness was set the moment he faced his audience.

  The magician said nothing, yet the tent filled with his presence, swelled with it. He was every bit as dramatic as his poster, though the black hair was shot with glints of silver. The Great Nouvelle lifted his hands, held them palm out toward the audience. With a flick of his wrist, his spread, empty fingers held a coin. Another flick, another coin, and another, until the wide vee’s of his fingers were filled with the gleam of gold.

  Luke’s attention was snagged enough for him to lean forward, eyes narrowed. He wanted to know how it was done. It was a trick, of course. He was all too aware the world was full of them. He’d already stopped wondering why, but he hadn’t stopped wondering how.

  The coins became colored balls that changed size and hue. They multiplied, subtracted, appeared and vanished while the audience applauded.

  Pulling his eyes from the show was difficult. Lifting six dollars from Grandma’s purse was easy. After tucking his take away, Luke slid out of his seat to move into position behind a blonde whose straw purse was sitting carelessly on the floor beside her.

  As the sleight of hand warmed up the audience, Luke pocketed another four dollars. But he kept losing his concentration. Telling himself he’d wait before hitting the fat lady to his right, he settled down to watch.

  For the next few moments, Luke was only a child, his eyes wide with amazement as the magician fanned the cards, passed his hand over their tops, and his other hand
over the bottoms so that the spread deck hung suspended in the air. At a stylish movement of his hands, the cards swayed, dipped, turned. The audience cheered, wholly intent on the show. And Luke missed his chance to clean house.

  “You there.” Nouvelle’s voice resounded. Luke froze as he felt those dark eyes pin him. “You’re a likely-looking boy. I need a smart . . .” The eyes twinkled. “An honest boy to help me with my next trick. Up here.” Nouvelle scooped up the hanging cards and gestured.

  “Go ahead, kid. Go on.” An elbow rammed into Luke’s ribs.

  Flushing to his toes, Luke rose. He knew it was dangerous when people noticed you. They would notice him all the more if he refused.

  “Pick a card,” Nouvelle invited as Luke climbed onstage. “Any card.”

  He fanned them again, outward to the audience so that they could see it was an ordinary deck. Quick and deft, Nouvelle shuffled them, then spread them on a small table.

  “Any card,” he repeated, and Luke frowned in concentration as he slid one from the pile. “Turn toward our gracious audience,” Nouvelle instructed. “Hold the card facing out so all can see. Good, excellent. You’re a natural.”

  Chuckling to himself, Nouvelle picked up the discarded pack, manipulating it again with his long, clever fingers. “Now . . .” His eyes on Luke, he held out the deck. “Slip your card in anywhere. Anywhere at all. Excellent.” His lips were curved as he offered the deck to the boy. “Shuffle them as you please.” Nouvelle’s gaze remained on Luke as the boy mixed the cards. “Now.” Nouvelle laid a hand on Luke’s shoulder. “On the table, if you please. Would you like to cut them, or shall I?”

  “I’ll do it.” Luke laid his hands over the cards, certain he couldn’t be tricked. Not when he was so close.

  “Is your card the top one?”

  Luke flipped it up, grinned. “No.”

  Nouvelle looked amazed as the audience tittered. “No? The bottom one, perhaps?”

  Getting into the spirit, Luke turned the deck over and held the card out. “No. Guess you screwed up, mister.”

  “Odd, odd indeed,” Nouvelle murmured, tapping a finger to his moustache. “You’re a more clever boy than I imagined. It seems you’ve tricked me. The card you chose isn’t in that deck at all. Because it’s . . .” He snapped his fingers, turned his wrist, and plucked the eight of hearts out of thin air. “Here.”

  While Luke goggled, the audience broke into appreciative applause. Under the cover of the sound, Nouvelle spoke quietly.

  “Come backstage after the show.”

  And that was all. Giving Luke a nudge, Nouvelle sent him back to his seat.

  For the next twenty minutes, Luke forgot everything but the magic. He watched the little redheaded girl dance out on the stage in spangled tights. Grinned when she stepped into an oversized top hat and changed into a white rabbit. He felt adult and amused when the girl and the magician staged a mock argument over her bedtime. The girl tossed her curling red hair and stomped her feet. With a sigh, Nouvelle whipped a black cape over her, tapped three times with his magic wand. The cape slithered to the floor, and the child was gone.

  “A parent,” Nouvelle said soberly, “must be firm.”

  For a finale, Nouvelle sawed a curvy blonde in a skimpy leotard in half. The curves and the costume had elicited a great deal of whistling and cheers.

  One enthusiastic man in a paisley shirt and starched bell-bottom jeans leaped up, shouting. “Hey, Nouvelle, if you’re done with the lady, I’ll take either half!”

  The divided lady was pushed apart. At Nouvelle’s command, she wriggled her fingers and toes. Once the box was pushed back together, Nouvelle removed the steel dividers, waved his wand and threw open the lid.

  Magically reassembled, the lady stepped out to a round of applause.

  Luke had forgotten all about the fat woman’s purse, but decided he’d gotten his money’s worth.

  As the audience filed out to take a ride on the Loop De Loop or gawk at Sahib the Snake Charmer, Luke sidled toward the stage. He thought maybe, since he’d been a kind of assistant for the card trick, that Nouvelle would show him how it was done.


  Luke looked up. From his vantage point, the man looked like a giant. Six feet five inches and two hundred and sixty pounds of solid muscle. The smooth-shaven face was as wide as a dinner plate, the eyes like two raisins stuck slightly off center. There was an unfiltered cigarette dangling from the mouth.

  As ugly went, Herbert Mouse Patrinski had all the bases covered.

  Luke instinctively struck a pose, chin jutted forward, shoulders hunched, legs spread and braced. “Yeah?”

  For an answer, Mouse jerked his head and lumbered away. Luke debated for less than ten seconds, then followed.

  Most of the tawdry glamour of the carnival faded to gray as they crossed the yellowed and trampled grass toward the huddle of trailers and trucks.

  Nouvelle’s trailer looked like a thoroughbred in a field of hacks. It was long and sleek, its black paint gleaming in the shadowy moonlight. A flourish of silver scrolled on the side proclaimed THE GREAT NOUVELLE, CONJURER EXTRAORDINAIRE.

  Mouse rapped once on the door before pushing it open. Luke caught a scent that reminded him oddly and comfortingly of church as he stepped inside behind Mouse.

  The Great Nouvelle had already changed out of his stage tux and was lounging on the narrow built-in sofa in a black silk dressing gown. Thin plumes of smoke curled lazily upward from a half a dozen incense cones. Sitar music played in the background while Nouvelle swirled two inches of brandy.

  Luke tucked his suddenly nervous hands in his pockets and gauged his surroundings. He knew he’d just walked into a trailer but there was a strong illusion of some exotic den. The scents, of course, and the colors from the plush, vivid pillows heaped here and there, the small richly woven mats tossed helter-skelter over the floor, the draping silks over the windows, the mysterious dip and sway of candlelight.

  And, of course, Maximillian Nouvelle himself.

  “Ah.” His amused smile half hidden by his moustache, Max toasted the boy. “So glad you could join me.”

  To show he was unimpressed, Luke shrugged his bony shoulders. “It was a pretty decent show.”

  “I blush at the compliment,” Max said dryly and waved with the back of his hand for Luke to sit. “Do you have an interest in magic, Mr . . . . ?”

  “I’m Luke Callahan. I figured it was worth a buck to see some tricks.”

  “A princely sum, I agree.” Slowly, his eyes on Luke, Max sipped his brandy. “But a good investment for you, I trust?”

  “Investment?” Uneasy, Luke slid his eyes toward Mouse, who seemed to be hulking around, blocking the door.

  “You took several more dollars out with you than you came in with. In finance we would call it a quick upward turn on your money.”

  Luke resisted, barely, the urge to squirm and met Max’s eyes levelly. Well done, Max thought to himself. Quite well done.

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I gotta take off.”

  “Sit.” All Max did was utter the single syllable and raise one finger. Luke tensed, but sat. “You see, Mr. Callahan—or may I call you Luke? A good name that. From Lucius, the Latin for light.” He chuckled, sipped again. “But I digress. You see, Luke, while you were watching me, I was watching you. It wouldn’t be sporting of me to ask how much you got, but an educated guess would put it at eight to ten dollars.” He smiled charmingly. “Not at all a bad turn, you see, on a single.”

  Luke narrowed his eyes to slits. A thin trail of sweat dribbled down his back. “Are you calling me a thief?”

  “Not if it offends you. After all, you’re my guest. And I’m being a remiss host. What can I offer you as refreshment?”

  “What’s the deal here, mister?”

  “Oh, we’ll get to that. Indeed, we’ll get to that. But first things first, I always say. I know a young boy’s appetite, having been one myself.” And this young boy was
so thin Max could all but count the ribs beneath the grubby T-shirt. “Mouse, I believe our guest would enjoy a hamburger or two, with all the accompaniments.”

  “ ’Kay.”

  Max rose as Mouse slipped out the door. “A cold drink?” he offered, opening the small refrigerator. He didn’t have to see to know the boy’s eyes cut to the door. “You can run, of course,” he said casually as he took out a bottle of Pepsi. “I doubt the money you have tucked in your right shoe would slow you down very much. Or you can relax, enjoy a civilized meal and some conversation.”

  Luke considered bolting. His stomach rumbled. Compromising, he slid an inch closer to the door. “What do you want?”

  “Why, your company,” Max said as he poured Pepsi over ice. His brow lifted a fraction at the quickly smothered flash in Luke’s eyes. So, he thought as his own mouth grimaced. It had been that bad. Hoping to signal the boy that he would be safe from that sort of advance, Max called for Lily.

  She stepped through a curtain of crimson silk. Like Max, she was also in a robe. Hers was pale pink and trimmed with fuchsia feathers, as were the high-heeled slippers on her feet. She tapped over the scattered rugs in a wave of Chanel.

  “We have company.” She had a pippy voice that seemed to be stuck in perpetual giggle.

  “Yes. Lily, my dear.” Max took her hand and brought it to his lips, lingered over it. “Meet Luke Callahan. Luke, my invaluable assistant and adored companion, Lily Bates.”

  Luke swallowed a hard knot in his throat. He’d never seen anything like her. She was all curves and scent, her eyes and mouth exotically painted. She smiled, batting incredibly long lashes. “Pleased to meet you,” she said, and snuggled closer to Max when he slipped an arm around her waist.


  “Luke and I have some things to discuss. I didn’t want you to wait up for me.”

  “I don’t mind.”

  He kissed her lightly, but with such tenderness, Luke’s cheeks went hot before he looked away. “Je t’aime, ma belle.”