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Authors: Patricia Rice

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BOOK: Lure of Song and Magic
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Chapter 3

Oz sat in his Porsche with the engine running, debating the wisdom of giving Pippa James a chance to run and hide. He still had the Nathan contract to finalize and a date to get laid back in the city. He didn't want to sit here, guarding the portals all night. But he didn't want to chase a madwoman down the mountain if she took a notion to flee.

Remembering her cottage had no garage or driveway, he got curious. Releasing the brake, he returned the Porsche to the road in front of the day care. Cruising the narrow two-lane, he located no side roads that would take him back into the area where she lived. No gated drives either. The house was completely invisible from the road. The woman was serious about hiding. No wonder Conan had only found the day care address.

Finally, he settled on a rutted dirt road that was little more than a wide hiking path. He'd bottom out the Porsche on rocks if he was fool enough to drive it. Parking off the pavement, Oz jogged through the piñon and sage, not caring if anyone saw him. He was banking on the lady not owning a gun, although that was probably a stupid notion on his part. Anyone with fists as lethal as hers knew how to kill.

For Donal's sake, he hoped she used her weapons for the purpose of good, not evil.

The path curved at a stone outcropping and then descended at a rate requiring a goat or a helicopter. Oz stood on a boulder and gazed down the mountainside. Amid the rubble of rock and scrub grass below gleamed a white geodesic dome. He knew a music studio when he saw one. Syrene could easily afford her own.

The secluded, soundproof building would also provide excellent concealment for kidnap victims, but he wouldn't go there. The woman he'd met was a head case, but he wouldn't accuse her of crime. Yet.

He headed back to the car, pulling his cell phone from his pocket.

“Conan!” he growled when his brother answered. “I hope I'm interrupting something interesting.”

“Wouldn't tell you if you were.” Computer keys clicked in the background.

His youngest brother was a geek. Oz doubted that Conan ever did anything interesting.

“I've found Syrene, and I want to know more. Where did she come from? Who's her family? Boil down all the gossip into facts. She's a hot wire, and I need to ground her somehow.”

“Why?” Conan asked, not unreasonably. “You can hire any number of other babes. Why a volatile bitch?”

Closer to Syrene's age than Oz, Conan was apparently more aware of her public image. Oz tried to find some way around the real reason for his fascination in the singer/author. His family would call an intervention if they knew his desperation was driving him to follow leads provided by email freaks.

“Just a hunch,” was all he revealed. He had no other good reason for choosing a prima donna for a children's show beyond his stubborn obsession with finding his son. The day care aspect of Syrene's life held possibilities. Maybe she'd seen Donal there.

“She's still gorgeous, then,” Conan concluded. “Wish you well. I'm going out to play now.”

Conan wouldn't, of course. All Oswins were overachievers for a reason—their curiosity, intellect, and energy could not be contained. Conan would be at his computer, sipping black coffee and digging into Syrene's life well into the night, if only to figure out why Oz wanted to know about her.

Such aggressive competitiveness made for intense family gatherings, which might be the reason Oswins seldom bothered to gather. Alys, Oz's late wife, had attempted to reel his brothers in for the holidays the first year of their wedded life. The Christmas tree had ended up lengthwise on the family room floor after an impromptu football pass led to full-fledged sibling rivalry and a flying tackle.

He had belatedly remembered that their mother used to tie the tree to the wall and carried a fire extinguisher all through the holidays.

Alys had died the year after that party, so that had been the last time all the Oswins had been in the same house. He'd been a fool to try marriage, given his family's bad luck in the relationship department, but there for a little while, Alys had made a difference, and he'd had hope.

It was probably smarter that the Oswins each found a different coast or country to occupy than pretending they could live in the same space. Conan was making noises about moving to Hawaii. Their middle brother, Magnus, was currently in Alaska.

Oz made a few more calls before taking the Porsche back on the road. He didn't need Conan's report to know Philippa Malcolm James had trust issues. One of his calls was to hire a grunt to keep an eye on her movements.

His BlackBerry beeped before he turned on the engine. Oz glanced at the incoming message.

Syren must sing Th…

The text cut off. Swearing, Oz checked the call back number, but it was blocked. He tried it anyway and got a disconnect. Swearing, he studied the text again. The sender had used a capital T, as if she was about to name a song. Ten bloody million songs began with
The
.

He couldn't curse away the spookiness of the message. Did the sender know where he was? Know he'd met with Syrene? Why had they cut off so abruptly?

He waited to see if another message would come through. The phone remained silent. Maybe the message was too long to text and the sender had given up and decided to email.

Oz checked his email online. Just the usual work messages. Nothing from the Librarian.

Apprehension niggled at his gut. The person who knew he was hunting Syrene had been interrupted trying to reach him. After these last few years fraught with disaster, disconnects left him itchy.

Trying to work out the knots of tension, he rotated his shoulders and rubbed the back of his neck. The damned black shirt was fine for the air-conditioned office but too warm for the sun.

Why would singing a particular song help find Donal? He assumed that was what the Librarian had been trying to tell him. Would the song somehow lure the kidnapper from his lair?

His phone number and email address were on his website, so it wasn't difficult for every nutcase in the universe to reach him. But there was something more urgent about these Librarian messages…

Of course, part of the problem awaited him just a few yards ahead. Mothers were already slamming the doors of their SUVs, picking up their toddlers at the day care. The sight of all those tiny, helpless little kids had him breaking out in a cold sweat. Donal couldn't defend himself. That had been Oz's job. And he'd failed.

The images of what could be happening to his boy had given him ulcers and kept him awake at night. He'd never sleep until he knew Donal's fate.

The contract and his hot date could wait. Oz called the office and told them to let the accountants review the documents and he'd be in to sign them tomorrow. He left a message on Rita's machine and then blocked her calls. She wouldn't take kindly to being stood up, and he didn't have the patience for more tantrums today.

His hired grunt would go to work in the morning, keeping an eye on the singer so she didn't escape. Tonight, Oz would cover the bases.

Releasing the parking brake, he turned the Porsche onto the road, back into the tiny town of El Padre. He'd seen a B&B sign when he'd driven through earlier.

***

Tossed to the red mat in her family room, Pippa retaliated by lashing out with her heels. Lying with her back to the mat, she caught Park in the abdomen and tossed him over her shoulder with her legs. Her quads were stronger than her biceps.

As their instructor gracefully rolled into a ball and sprang back to his bare feet, Lizzy clapped. “You got some hostile mojo working for you tonight, girl!”

Park, their five-foot-four instructor, bowed in agreement. He was nearly seventy, but until Pippa's day from hell, he'd easily kept his students in line. “Miss James is ready to teach her own classes.”

“Not me.” Winded from the moves Park had put her through, she sat cross-legged on the mat. “I'm not trustworthy.”

At Park's puzzled expression, Lizzy explained. “She's afraid she'll beat the crap out of her students if they don't behave.”

Pippa enjoyed Lizzy's blunt honesty. Her friend's brashness could be painful, but Pippa always knew where she stood with her, and that made it easy to relax in her company. Liz was nearing thirty, divorced, mother of two toddlers, and thought she had life figured out. Pippa didn't disabuse her of the notion.

“My temper is not trustworthy,” she amended, for Lizzy's sake. “And teaching a class would be a responsibility I'm not ready to assume.”

“Like making a TV show?” Liz asked, feigning wide-eyed innocence.

Pippa threw one of her floor pillows at her. “Bertha doesn't know the meaning of quiet.”

“Television pays very well,” Park said, rolling up the mat. “But you are not an actress.”

“You're a man who knows how to be polite.” Pippa unfolded from the floor and drifted to the bar where she'd left a prepared vegetable juice and ice cubes.

“But he's wrong,” Liz said. “You put on a clown act for the kids, a sophisticated one for the mayor, a strong one for me and Park, and the list goes on. You were born an actress.”

No, those were all hard-earned lessons—like not arguing with friends. Pippa sipped her drink and hoped the conversation would move on.

“Real acting requires exposing emotion,” Park argued. “Dressing in costumes
hides
the heart. But why would a TV producer expect a children's author to act?”

“He doesn't. He wants me to read my books, but that's idiotic. I write books for toddlers. They would sound ridiculous on TV. Besides, writers weren't meant to be on stage. We're introverts.”

“He's awful cute,” Liz said suggestively. “You could at least talk to him over drinks, pretend you're considering the idea.”

“You were at work today. How could you have seen him?” Pippa curled up on the sixties Danish modern couch she'd rescued from a garage sale. She'd had the upholstered cushions refurbished in bright sunset colors. She liked giving new purpose to old things.

“He was leaning against his Porsche in the parking lot, working his CrackBerry, when we came in.” Liz added a swig of rum from her flask to her juice glass. Pippa's guests were accustomed to bringing their own alcohol. “Nice abs. I didn't think TV producers worked out.”

“He's what?” Pippa slammed to her feet and strode to the window, but of course, she couldn't see beyond her courtyard wall. “Now? He's out there now?”

Unusual for him, Park lingered after rolling up his mat. “He bowed to us. He has had training. Do you have reason to fear him?”

Yes, but Pippa couldn't say that aloud or she'd have to explain why. She paced between the two open rooms, swearing inwardly. “I told him no. I told him in no uncertain terms. He should be back in L.A. What is he doing out there?”

“Protecting his investment?” Liz suggested helpfully. “Bring him over to the Blue Bayou and let him woo you with pretty promises.”

“So you can tell the entire town that a famous TV producer is here and have them all crowding into the bar?” Pippa knew her friend's ways too well. “And encourage drunkenness? Let me just give you the hundred bucks you'll profit. I don't need the bad karma.”

“This is a farm town,” Park reminded her. “Men like that have much money that would go far here.”

“He doesn't want to film me here,” Pippa protested. “He wants me to go to L.A. And I can't. I won't.”

The very idea was sufficient to send her running for the hills. But she heard the longing behind her friends' words. Wealthy people might have homes hidden in the hollows and hills above L.A., but they rarely spent their time or money in farm towns like El Padre.

Liz shot Pippa an angry glare for the blow to her pride and ambition. She'd inherited the Bayou. It was her only income. Park didn't need money, but he had a large family who did. And they all had friends who were struggling.

Pippa was the only rich person in town, although most people didn't realize why. They just assumed writers made money. That was a joke.

“Talk to him, Pip,” Liz urged. “Maybe he'd film here if you insisted. He could rent out the church hall during the week, and maybe they'd make enough to repair the roof. And his people would eat at Dot's and stay at the B&B.”

Pippa wanted to tell her that wasn't how the entertainment world worked, but she couldn't tell her how she knew. Even her best friend didn't know about her Syrene past.

But Pippa had a feeling the good-looking surfer boy wouldn't give up, and she needed all the defenses she could summon—if only to keep from killing him for doing this to her. She'd already decided on the challenge she meant to present him if he returned. Adding another obstacle to his goals ought to really test his mettle. Why should she be the only one to suffer?

Draining her drink, Pippa nodded. “I'll think about it.”

Chapter 4

Oz's vigilance was rewarded the next morning when Pippa James emerged from her hideout and strolled down the town's main street to Dot's Café for breakfast. This morning she was wearing a diaphanous caftan of swirling pinks over a loose, white, ankle-length dress that might as well have been a burka except it had spaghetti straps. She'd covered her amazing eyes with rose-colored glasses.

After spending six hours in the B&B's rock-hard, antiquated double bed, Oz figured he deserved this prize. Instead of heading for his Porsche, he fell into step with her.

“Good morning…” He hesitated, hoping she'd supply the name she preferred. When she didn't, he smoothly continued, “Shall I call you Pippa?”

“That's my name,” she replied curtly, not breaking her long-legged stride.

He refrained from arguing the point. “Do you mind if I join you? I have a meeting later, but I wanted to give you time to consider my offer.”

“You have a pretty face, Mr. Oswin,” she acknowledged, entering Dot's Café, “but you're slime underneath. I should have you arrested for stalking.”

“I see you wake up snarling. Let me buy you some caffeine.” Catching her elbow, he steered her away from the counter she'd been aiming for and toward a booth. He did so cautiously, ready to drop her arm if she whacked him again. “A double shot of espresso, maybe?”

“I don't drink coffee. Back off, Mr. Oswin, or I'll scream the house down. As you may have heard, I have a powerful voice.” Fortunately, once she'd jerked her arm from his grip she didn't appear prepared to create a public scene. She slid into the booth and sat primly, hands crossed on the table, glaring at him through the ridiculous pink glasses that somehow worked with her red spiky hair.

“I apologize if I'm invading your space.” He took the seat across from her and mentally prepared his arguments while verbally smoothing the waters. “We're a little more touchy-feely in the city.”

He glanced up at the waitress pouring tea into Pippa's mug without being asked. Tea from a teapot, not a tea bag. She obviously ate here regularly, and they catered to her preferences. He nodded toward the coffeepot in the waitress's other hand, and she filled his mug without a word.

“The usual, Dot,” Pippa said in the polite tones she reserved for everyone else but him. “How are the twins?”

“Doc says they'll survive to wreak havoc another day. O'course, I'm gonna have to feed the doc for free for the next year to pay his bill. Pity I can't do the same with the hospital.” The waitress turned to Oz. “And what's your poison this morning?”

Assuming a Spanish omelet was out of the question, Oz ordered eggs over easy, bacon, and hash browns, keeping his eyes and ears open to the interaction between the two women and the other customers entering. There were things to be learned by observing people in their natural habitat.

Every customer noted Pippa's place in the room when they entered. She acknowledged no one. Oz could attribute that to her being out of her usual place and curiosity about him. He supposed the buzz as people wandered about, gossiping, might be normal, but he was picking up vibes that said otherwise. Awareness in here was thicker than the coffee he was drinking.

“They all know what we're discussing, don't they?” he asked after Dot departed with their orders.

She tilted her head in curt agreement. “You're sitting there in a jacket that would feed their kids for a month while wearing a watch that would pay their mortgages for a year. And they're wondering how they can get some of what you have. It's human nature.”

He hadn't brought a change of clothes with him and knew he was grubby and wrinkled. He'd bought a cheap razor at the drugstore and still didn't feel shaved. But the town had already seen dollar signs? Interesting.

She lifted her mug and sipped her tea with a half smile that was all cat in cream. That's when the message clicked. She knew what the town wanted already, and she was preparing a bombshell that every person in here probably already knew about. Oz hated surprises.

He did a mental tally of all the possibilities and hit the most likely one immediately. “You want me to film the series here,” he stated without question.

He swore that her rose-colored glasses twinkled. She merely continued sipping her tea. “Rethinking your offer, Mr. Oswin?”

The computer he called a mind knew the numbers could work, but people were the flaw in any math. The best people for the project weren't likely to spend half the year away from their homes, out of their sophisticated milieu in the city. Not for the shoestring budget the children's network expected.

Besides, how would staying in this Podunk town help him find Donal? He didn't mind ferreting out her secrets from the comforts of L.A., but his business would go south fast if he was stuck up here too often with no freeway to the office.

Yeah, he was rethinking his offer and resenting every minute that she forced him into this corner. But dammit, it was a good concept. And if she was as treacherous as she seemed right this minute, then she might very well know where his son was. He didn't have time to follow his logic while she wore that smug expression.

“If you will read the books so I don't have to hire an actress,” he retaliated, “it might be doable.” He disliked being manipulated. Let her be the one responsible for letting down an entire town if she refused him. See how she liked it.

The waitress brought a bowl of sliced lemons. Instead of dropping one in her tea, Pippa squeezed one with her teeth, as if it were an orange slice. Oz suffered an erotic vision of what else she might do with that lovely wide mouth and pink lips.

She didn't seem aware of the implication of her action. She stared over his shoulder, fondling a second lemon slice. “I come with a high price,” she conceded. “I doubt that you can meet it.”

He was actually anticipating her reply. He hoped she wouldn't disappoint by naming something trifling like a Ferrari. “You're a very clever woman, Miss James. I'm interested in hearing what you want, since you claim it isn't fame or fortune.”

Dot returned with their orders. “I talked with Brother Frank. He said the auditorium is available,” the waitress said, apropos of nothing. “The church has a better sound system than the school. And Henry said he can operate it. He's been out of work since the radio station shut down.”

She hurried to her next customer, apparently not expecting a reply to her enigmatic declaration.

Oz bit into his toast and raised his eyebrows questioningly. Miss Pippa's serenity didn't seem to be disturbed by Dot's announcement. He wondered if she had drifted to another planet.

He admired the flawless skin and distinctive high cheekbones she tried to disguise with the abominable pink glasses. Even the frames were pink. With seashells on the corners. Where in hell did she find rose-colored glasses?

Which was when Oz realized she was the
perfect
person to read her damned books. She
was
the characters she wrote about. He didn't know if she'd help him find Donal, but she was about to make him a shitload of money.

“I want you to find my family, Mr. Oswin,” she said, without any inflection to indicate whether this was as impossible as joining her on whatever planet she was currently inhabiting.

“Your family?” He halted with his toast halfway to his mouth.

Her smile was beatific. “Exactly. I'm an orphan. I have no idea who my parents are. If you cannot accomplish that, then you'll have to hire an actress. Either way, I'll only agree to the show if it's filmed here. Are we clear?”

She'd just kneed him in the groin and knew it. But he had an ace named Conan up his sleeve that she didn't know about. Oz loved negotiating, especially when his opponent was tall and gorgeous. Here was the jaded, bottom-line woman he'd originally expected.

“I already have this project approved. The network is desperate to fill this time slot,” he warned her. “I work with them regularly, so they're willing to slot me in without a pilot. They trust me, which means I have to deliver, which requires filming now. I'll send my engineers up here to check the feasibility of using your auditorium and start hiring set decorators and script writers. But you won't get paid until the film is in the can.”

“You can't put me on television until I'm paid,” she insisted.

“We'll do your bit on green screen and substitute someone else if the deal falls through. Can I go back to town and call your agent?”

Whoops, he could see her eyes glaze over at that. He'd moved too fast. And brought up a topic she hadn't considered. So, she wasn't as experienced at this kind of negotiating as he'd hoped.

“I'll call him. We'll work out a deal,” she decided. “I'll have him call you when he's ready. But you can't just foist off anybody as my parents. It has to be the real deal. I want documentation.”

“Even if you won't like the result?” he asked warily. “What if they're druggies living in squalor in Hicksville, Alabama?”

“Even if they're dead and in a cemetery. But in that case, I want to know who their families are so I can try to talk with them.”

“That's pathetic, you know.” He took another swig of his coffee, but it was lukewarm. “You are who you made yourself. The sperm that created you only explains your eye color.”

She removed her glasses and forced him to meet her eyes.

“These aren't contacts, Mr. Oswin. How many people have you ever met with eyes this color?”

***

No one had turquoise eyes, Pippa already knew. And she knew of no one who had a Voice that could kill and maim, either, but she wasn't about to reveal that nasty little bit of information. She needed to know if she was a true freak or if she had family out there who were just like her.

When she'd been little, she'd hoped people would notice her eyes and say they knew someone with eyes just that color, but it had never happened. When she'd agreed to go on stage and television, she'd done so in hopes of a phone call claiming she looked just like someone's niece or daughter. That hadn't happened, either, but she still hoped that was because of technology and not because her family was in a graveyard.

Some producers had said her eyes were freaky and told her to wear contacts. Most people didn't even notice the weirdness. They thought her eyes were green or blue and didn't see how the colors blended together.

Oz saw it, though. She watched his nonchalant expression sharpen with interest. She had his full attention now. She didn't even need to mention her Voice as another means of identifying potential family.

“I thought they were contacts,” he admitted. “That doesn't mean the color breeds true. The color could just be some genetic fluke.”

She nodded acknowledgment. “I was three when I was left at a fire station. Someone might still remember me. The color doesn't come through on film, but if you can get me close enough to a place where my family lived, I can go from door to door if I have to.”

“I'll admit I'm intrigued. Why haven't you paid someone to do the research for you before this?”

Pippa allowed herself a smile. “I have. They've all failed.”

Finishing her last swallow of fresh orange juice, she rose from the booth and walked off, leaving him to chew on Dot's tough bacon.

Outside, she almost came apart at the seams, but she held herself together long enough to walk back to her sanctuary. She waved at people as if she were registering their presence, but she wasn't. She was shivering so hard she was barely functioning.

She'd just agreed to step on a stage again.

In the church, she reminded herself. The church was safe.

She would be Out There, in public. People might recognize her. Maybe remember the psychotic Syrene who had destroyed her husband and lives untold. The gossip sheets would have a field day. The paparazzi would be camped on her doorstep—

No, Oz would never succeed. He was no wizard. But he'd have to come up here, spend money, help people until he realized that he would have to walk away without her. She was doing the right thing. Surely.

She bolted the gate behind her and settled on her meditation bench.

She hadn't hurt the kids at the day care with her Voice. That was her mantra. She hadn't hurt them. She wouldn't hurt them. She couldn't hurt them.

She wouldn't sing. She would just read. Calmly, carefully. She'd practiced. She'd be fine.

If she didn't fall apart. It all depended on whether she could tame the virago who lured men to destruction and keep her cool under stress.

Knowing nothing would come of her performance, she should be safe.

Safe, please, O Powers that Be.
Don't let her kill again.

BOOK: Lure of Song and Magic
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