Authors: Catherine Cerveny
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To Lily and Ellee, with all the love in the world.
I can honestly say I never thought I'd be writing something like this, so I wish I'd kept better track of things along the way. My husband always tell me I should write myself more notes and I mock him shamelessly for it, but in this case, he would definitely be right.
First, I'd like to thank my family for their love and support even if my mom was disappointed I didn't end up becoming a nurse, and my brother kept stealing my diary, reading it, and critiquing my entries. I'd also like to thank my husband, Steve, who reminds me about the mundane things like when it's tub-time, and maybe I should think about getting ready for bed before I get too caught up in a scene and forget I'm supposed to have a life too. He even built me my own library just so I could write in it. Not every girl gets that kind of lucky.
I'd also like to thank friends and family who read early drafts of this story and were generous with both their praise and their feedback: Dawn Gilbert, Tammy Gunter, Yvonne O'Brien, Tara Lynn Garritano, Shannon Henesey, and Tanja Halloran. Extra thanks to Sandra Lena for her endless inspiration and pointing me in the right direction whenever I was stuck on a particular sceneâshe knows which ones. Also a special shout-out to Shannon and Tanja who listened to me complain about everything, and when I say everything, I literally mean
(and I am using “literally” in the correct sense of the word). Without them, I would have given up a thousand times over and don't think I could have ever finished this novel.
Many more thanks than I can possibly give go out to my agent Rena Rossner who saw something in my manuscript, took a chance on me, and then told me how I could make it better. I can't say enough about her dedication and how she worked to make sure this story saw the light of day. And lastly to my editor, Lindsey Hall, who is always full of genuine excitement and enthusiasm every time I talk to her. She has turned the story into something even
didn't envision, and that's saying something.
I've always been a big fan of eyeliner. The darker, the better. Growing up, I'd heard the expression “Pretty is as pretty does” almost every day of my lifeâbut I believe that sometimes pretty needs help. Since I've decided against tattooing my way to beauty or using gene modification; I do things the old-fashioned way. And as one of the only Tarot card readers in Nairobi, I've cultivated a certain look that is as much personal choice as mysterious mask. So the fact that I stood in the tiny bathroom of my card reading shop and scrubbed my face clean, opting for tasteful over flashy, made me feel like I'd sold out.
“All for the greater good,” I mumbled, examining my nearly naked face. “I can look straitlaced and respectable for an hour. Two, tops.”
A quick time check showed it was nearly seven in the morning. It made me glad I'd decided to close up shop early at two and catch some sleep on the reception room couch. At least I didn't look like complete garbage, even if my sleep was more tossing and turning than actual shut-eye.
I hightailed it to the front door. I needed to be on the other side of the city by nine sharp. To do that in an hour using the unreliable Y-Line would take all the prayers and karmic brownie points I had to spare. Maybe if I lit some incense sticks and offered a prayer for guidanceâ¦but no, no time for that.
Then I had to stop, my hand frozen in mid-reach on the way to the doorknob. Standing in the entranceway of my shop was the most beautiful man I'd ever seen. I know it's shallow to focus on looks since they are so easily bought and modified, and yetâ¦
“I'd like a Tarot card reading, please,” he said, his voice so deep, I was certain the windows rattled.
“I'm sorry, but we're closed. I can take your information and schedule an appointment for later this week.” I infused my voice with as much formality as I could muster. Anything to prevent stammering like a drooling idiot in front of such a good-looking man. Even though “good-looking” barely covered it.
“This won't take long and I'm prepared to pay generously,” he said, as if he'd already dropped gold notes into my account. Wonderfulâarrogant enough to assume money buys everything and he thinks his time is more valuable than mine. Well, that was exactly the shot of ice water I needed to break the spell.
“I appreciate your offer, but I'm afraid you'll have to book an appointment.”
Like everybody else.
“Unfortunately, I'm leaving Nairobi today. This is my last stop before my flight. I've heard of your reputation as a card reader. My research says you're quite accurate.”
And just like that, he pierced the proverbial chink in my armor. When people said they'd heard of me, I felt honor-bound to accept. If word got back to the source that I was ungracious or unobliging, I could lose business. Damn it, why had I let my receptionist Natty leave early? She could have dealt with this situation. Oh right, it was so I could sleep and get ready in private with no one the wiser. But why had I forgotten to lock up? I did not have time for this.
I studied him. He wore reflective sunshades that prevented me from getting the full picture, but there were still plenty of other clues to give me a sense of what I was dealing with. A well-cut carbon gray suit and scuff-free shoes screamed gold notes and good taste. He was tall, very tall. His fashionably scruffy thick black hair brushed his suit collar and nearly met his very nicely broad shoulders. He was clean-shaven, with chiseled cheekbones and a slight tan that had to be Tru-Tan since no one exposed themselves to the sun anymore. Good tans cost a fortune. But his accent was the real giveaway. His deep voice carried a lilt that made it clear he was from the Russian Federation of Islands. In a wordâmoney. Lots and lots of money.
But I wouldn't reschedule my appointment for all the money, contacts, or goodwill in the tri-system. I gestured toward the door, intending to walk him out. “I'm sorry, but perhaps next time you're in town.”
He looked as if he hadn't the slightest intention of leaving. “If you're concerned about the time, my people can ensure you arrive at the fertility clinic before nine this morning.”
I froze. “Excuse me, but that information is classified.”
“And so it will remain. It would be a shame for One Gov to learn the true nature of your appointment, after all.”
My eyes narrowed. “It's just a routine fertility consultation.”
“Of course,” he agreed. “I ask only for a brief reading. Surely you can spare a moment?”
I should have been both angry and terrified that he knew my plans. Hell, I hadn't even told my boyfriend, Roy! His words stopped just short of blackmail. And yetâ¦I found myself intrigued, damn it. What would this Tarot reading show me? I had that odd feeling againâthe one that hit deep in my gut and paid no attention to what I had lined up for the rest of the day, let alone my life. It demanded I follow through on whatever happened next. Over the years I'd learned never, and I mean
, to ignore that feeling no matter how pesky it might be.
He removed his sunshades and I was snared by blue eyes so intense I wondered if he had to hide them or risk turning people to stoneâor women to mush. I peered closer, considering the whole package. The looks. The play of his muscles beneath his clothes when he moved. The symmetry. I wasn't sure why I hadn't caught it earlier: His MH FactorâModified Humanâwas turned up high enough to scorch.
Out of my mouth came: “I can fit you in now with a short reading.”
“Wonderful.” He offered a smile that had no doubt removed numerous panties. Nice to know one of us was having a good time.
“I don't see many advanced stage Modified Humans in my shop. Are you fifth generation?” My question was beyond rude. Asking about genetic modifications was worse than asking how much money someone made. But if he knew my business, I didn't see why I couldn't know his. “I heard it's less invasive to upgrade technological modifications later in life rather than opting for full pre-birth gene manipulation. The t-mods are supposed to be less expensive too.”
“Perhaps it depends on how many gold notes exchange hands and how natural you want it to look,” he said, noncommittally.
So there was some genetic manipulation involved. I knew it! But how much? Some people went overboard with their upgrades and the results weren't always as advertised.
I waited for more follow-up from him. Instead, the silence stretched. Okay, then. “Is there a particular aspect of your life you want to know about? Or an issue that's troubling you?”
“I'm concerned about a meeting and its success. Should I continue on my current path, or cut my losses and run? You no doubt receive many similar requests.”
He was right; I'd built my business on less. I had a steady clientele including a few minor celebrities, but nothing had really launched my career. Not that I wanted to be a card reader to the stars, but I definitely wanted to ensure I never had to worry about money.
“Follow me,” I said, and with those words went my last lick of common sense.
I removed the c-tex bracelet I'd put onâso that no one could accuse me of skimming the Cerebral Neural Net and faking a readingâthen led him through the shop. Gentle lighting flicked on as we entered the back room. Soft music began, the automatic soundtrack set to a Mars chill funk vibe. The room was decorated with thick Venusian carpets, decadent pillows on velvet chaise lounges, and paintings of exotic Old Earth terrain and new-world Martian landscapes. Rich colors that begged to be touchedâa tactile experience for the senses. Customers had certain expectations as to how a Tarot card shop on Night Alley, the most exclusive and decadent street in Nairobi, should appear. If my Russian stranger had been there the night before when business was in full swing, he would have seen my designer silk print dress and makeup just this side of too much, instead of the prim beige knee-length skirt and sky-blue blouse I now wore. I looked overdressed, conservative, and slightly out of style.
Oddly, the idea that he'd caught me this way made me feel vulnerable, like I'd allowed him to see the real me instead of the persona I wore when I cast a reading. That woman didn't care what her clients thought because she knew they were all in awe of her. In those silk dresses she was untouchable. She held their future in her hands. This stripped-down me was too exposed, too likely to get caught up in things that didn't concern her. Well, too bad. I wasn't letting a hot guy and an off-the-chart gut feeling get the best of me. What I wore now was just another disguise. After all, how could I convince the Shared Hope program's fertility Arbiter I should be allowed to have a baby if I didn't look like a respectable member of society?
“Have a seat.” I directed him to one of the chaise lounges with an ornate gold-leaf table beside it. A chandelier that appeared to drip with gemstones, but were really artfully colored glass, hung overhead.
“Interesting dÃ©cor,” he said.
“Would you be as impressed with a rickety table and some collapsible benches?” I asked as I took the chaise across from him.
He laughed. “I suppose not. I understand the need for showmanship. At times, it can be as important as the act itself.”
“Hence the dÃ©cor.” I gestured around us.
I smiled, so did he, and suddenly the table between us seemed ridiculously small. The feeling in my gut grew, paired now with a growing sense that this man, whoever the hell he was, held some significance for me. It hung in the air.
I took a breath to center myself and refocused on the box in the middle of the table. Whatever designs were once painted on its black lacquered wood surface had long since faded. What it contained was easily the most valuable thing I owned.
I opened the box and removed the Tarot cards. They'd been in my family for generations, dating back to a time before the Earth's axis shifted thanks to a series of massive global quakes, polar melts, and then the two wars of succession that followed. Family lore claimed they came from the Old Worldâan all but forgotten place that existed only in history books and on the bottom of the ocean floor.
“Since we're pressed for time, I'll do a five-card spread using only the Major Arcana,” I explained. “They are the heart of the Tarot. Each card represents a different state of being. I'm forgoing a Significator since you're asking about yourself, but I want you to select five cards from the deck which represent what may or may not happen, what will prevent it from happening, why you're in this situation, what you can do to either encourage or change it, and finally, depending on the steps you take, what will happen.”
As I shuffled, I fell into my usual banter where I reassured the client they were in capable hands. Its familiarity made me feel more secure. I could do this. No need to panic because I was looking into the bluest eyes I'd ever seen. Once done shuffling, I fanned out the cards, let him pick his five, then arranged and flipped them over.
I'd been doing this too long to gasp, but that was what I wanted to do. I had a bizarre affinity with this set of cardsâmore so than anyone in the family according to my dearly departed Granny G. In fact, the cards had bypassed two disgruntled and pissed off generations of Romani to come directly to me, per her wishes. So when I examined the cards, I never lost my smile, even though I'd cast this identical reading for myself only an hour earlier.
I've always believed that things happen for a reason, and when the universe taps you on the shoulder, you pay attention. This was the equivalent of the universe punching me in the face.
He leaned forward. “What does it mean?”
“This is the Emperor, reversed.” I pointed to the first card. “You have goals, but waste energy on pointless things that get in the way. You have the will and strength to fight, but aren't using those gifts properly. Next, the Moon. You want to shape events, not be shaped by them. You need to learn to read what's happening around you and act accordingly. However, you also need caution. You have hidden enemies who've yet to reveal themselves. The third card is the Falling Tower. It's the destruction of everything you've built because of your own misunderstanding and lack of judgment. Your bad choices may have put you in a situation where you could lose everything.”
The man laughed. It didn't sound forced nor did he look worried, but at the same time, I could tell something was going on in his head. “So far it appears I shouldn't have gotten out of bed this morning.”
“It's not all bad,” I said consolingly. “Fourth is the Lovers. It could mean attraction or love, but given the other cards, it appears to be a partnership and mutual commitment. This connection will help you overcome your difficulties and further your control of the events. Lastly, the Judgment. It represents the end of an old life, and the beginning of a new one. It's a radical change, but one you will need if you are to overcome your situation.”
When I looked up, he was gazing at me with such an intent expression that I worried I'd offended him. Well, I didn't have time to couch the reading in the prettiest of terms; he got what he got. He had to smarten up or he'd lose everything. Sadly, the same applied to me as well. Quickly, I swept the cards back into their box.
“I hope you found it useful.”
“Very. I appreciate you making the time to see me.”
He was still looking at me. I mean,
looking. Looking at me the way a man did when he wondered how a woman looked naked or was considering ways to get her naked. I wondered if he was thinking about the Lovers. Or maybe I was the one thinking that? My throat went dry. I hadn't been studied like that in a long time and it felt better than it should. Even if I didn't have an active MH Factor, I was no slouch. My almost-black hair reached mid-back, my olive skin held tones of Old World ancestry, and I could make my green eyes pop by dressing in shades of blue-green. My figure and height also fit One Gov's genetic specification guidelines, hence putting me in the Goldilocks zone: just right.