Crystal Cove by Lisa Kleypas


  “Why not?”

  “It’s a quiet life,” he said. “Isolated. You live on an island with no more than eight thousand year-round residents. You must get bored.”

  “Never. My entire childhood was spent moving from place to place. I had a single mom who couldn’t stay put. I love the comfort of familiar things … the friends I see every day, the pillow that feels just right under my head, my herb garden, my mountain bike. I’ve run on the same trails and walked on the same beaches until I can tell whenever there’s the slightest change. I love being connected to a place like this.”

  “I understand.”

  “Do you?”

  “Yes. The Japanese believe that you don’t choose the place, the place chooses you.”

  “What place has chosen you?”

  “Hasn’t happened yet.” By now it wasn’t likely. He owned a condo on San Francisco Bay, an apartment in New York, and a lodge on Lake Tahoe. Each of them was beautiful, but none had ever given him a feeling of belonging when he walked through the front door.

  Justine stared at him speculatively. “Why did you go to the Zen monastery?”

  “I needed the answer to a question.”

  “And did you get it?”

  That brought a faint smile to his lips. “I found the answer. But also several more questions.”

  “Where did you go after that?”

  Jason lifted his brows into mocking arches. “It’s not on my Wikipedia page?”

  “No. Your life is a big blank for a couple of years. So what were you doing?”

  Jason hesitated. The habit of protecting his privacy wasn’t easy to set aside even when he was willing.

  “I signed a massive confidentiality agreement,” Justine told him. “You can spill your guts and I won’t say a word.”

  “What happens if you break the agreement?” he asked. “Jail time? Monetary damages?”

  “You don’t know? It’s your contract.”

  “We have three versions with different fine print. I want to know which one Priscilla gave you.”

  Justine shrugged and grinned. “I never read the fine print. It’s always bad news.”

  Her unguarded smile went through him like slow-motion lightning.

  He hadn’t expected her effect on him. He’d never felt anything like it before. Something about her had set his nerves on tripwires, unknown feelings ready to be sprung. Carefully he closed his fingers around his second shot of vodka and drank it in a practiced gulp.

  Justine tilted her head, studying him. “Why did you go into the video-game business?”

  “I started as a game tester when I was an undergrad and wrote a couple of simple 2-D games. Later a friend of a friend was setting up a studio and needed someone to help with designing and programming. Eventually I was hired to launch the gaming division at Inari.”

  “That explains how you got into the business,” Justine said, “but I’m curious about why. What is it about video games?”

  “I’m competitive,” he admitted. “I like the aesthetics of a well-designed game. I like world-building, setting up challenges, pitfalls…” He paused. “Do you like gaming?”

  She shook her head. “Not my thing. The couple of games I’ve tried are complicated and violent, and I really don’t like the sexism.”

  “Not in the games I produce. I don’t allow story lines that include prostitution, rape, or demeaning language toward women.”

  Justine seemed unimpressed. “I’ve seen some of the ads for Skyrebels—that’s one of yours, right?—and most of the female characters are dressed like space hookers. Why do they need to wear leather minis and boots with five-inch heels to fight off an attack of armored soldiers?”

  She had a point. “The teenage male demographic likes it,” Jason admitted.

  “Thought so,” she said.

  “But no matter how they’re dressed, the female characters are just as tough as the males.”

  “Sexism is about presentation and tone as well as actions.”

  “Are you a feminist?”

  “If you define a feminist as someone who wants to be treated with equality and respect, yes. But some people tend to think of feminists as being angry, which I’m not.”

  “I’d be angry if someone sent me to war in five-inch boots and a leather mini.”

  Justine burst out laughing and poured more vodka. She took a sip and nibbled at a big green olive. As Jason watched the movements of her mouth, her lips pursing around the plump swaddle of the fruit, he felt a deep, disconcerting tug of response.

  “Have you ever played truth or dare?” Justine asked, setting aside the pit.

  “Not since high school,” he said. “I can’t say I’ve missed it.”

  “Me, neither. Still … want to play a couple of rounds?”

  Settling back in his chair, Jason gave her an assessing glance. No doubt she thought it would disarm him, coerce a couple of answers he wouldn’t have given otherwise. But it would work both ways. “I never take dares,” he said.

  “Okay, then for you, it’s all truth. Now, about limits, I think we should—”

  “No limits. It’s not worth playing otherwise.”

  “No limits,” Justine agreed, a new and faintly wary edge to her tone. “What about penalties?”

  “Whoever loses a round has to remove an item of clothing.” He had the satisfaction of seeing Justine’s eyes widen.

  “Okay,” she said. “I’ll start: Tell me your idea of true happiness.”

  He reached for a small white paper napkin and folded it diagonally, using the flat of his thumbnail to sharpen the crease. “I don’t believe in happiness.” Turning the napkin over, he folded it into a small square. “People think they’re happy when something like a box of doughnuts, a Lakers win over the Spurs, or a sex position with a Latin name causes certain chemicals to attach to receptors in the brain to stimulate electrical impulses in neurons. It doesn’t last, though. It’s not long-term. It’s not real.”

  “What a downer,” Justine said, laughing.

  “You asked.” He folded the sides of the napkin inward to form a compressed triangular base. “Next round: truth or dare?”

  “Truth,” she said promptly, watching the careful, deliberate movements of his hands.

  “Why did you break up with your last boyfriend?” He began to fold and crease the flaps of the triangle.

  A swift tide of pink swept up to her hairline. “It just … didn’t work out.”

  “That’s not an answer. Tell me the reason.”

  “Sometimes there is no reason for why people break up.”

  He paused in the middle of folding the points of the paper shape and gave her a mocking glance. “There’s always a reason.”

  “Then I don’t know what it is.”

  “You know what it is. You just don’t want to admit it. Which means you lose the round.” He looked at her expectantly.

  Frowning, Justine wriggled her foot out of a delicate white sandal and pushed it toward his chair.

  The sight of her bare foot, beautiful and long-toed, the nails painted with glittery pale blue polish, seized Jason’s attention.

  “Your turn,” he heard her say, and reluctantly he dragged his gaze back to her face. “Where were you during those two years after you left the monastery?”

  He peeled the edges of paper away from the folded model until they resembled flower petals. “I went to stay with relatives in Okinawa. My mother was half Japanese. I’d never met any of her family, but I’d always wanted to. I thought it would help me feel closer to her.” Before Justine could respond, he gave her the finished origami.

  She took it hesitantly, her eyes round and wondering. “A lily.”

  “Yuri,” he murmured. “The name comes from a Japanese word that describes how the flowers move in the wind. Truth or dare?”

  She blinked, caught off guard. “Truth.”

  “What caused the breakup with your last boyfriend?”

  Justine’s mou
th dropped open. “You already asked me that.”

  “Still not going to answer?”

  “No.”

  “Then hand over another piece of clothing.”

  Indignantly Justine removed her other sandal and flipped it to him. “You’re going to keep asking the same thing over and over, aren’t you?”

  He nodded. “Until you’ve answered, or you’re naked.”

  “You can’t think of anything else you’d like to know about me?”

  “Afraid not.” He tried to look contrite. “I tend to hyperfocus. One-track mind.”

  Justine gave him a fulminating glance. “Next round. You said you went to the Zen monastery to learn the answer to something. What did you find out?”

  “I found out,” he said slowly, “that I have no soul.”

  Six

  Justine stared at him in astonishment. “You mean like … you’re no good at dancing?”

  “No, then I would have said I have no rhythm. Which is also true. But I meant it literally—I have no soul.”

  “If you didn’t, you couldn’t be sitting here and talking to me. You wouldn’t be alive.”

  “What do you think a soul is?”

  “The thing that makes your heart beat and your brain work and your body move around.”

  “Actually, the human body runs on thermoelectric energy. About a hundred watts—the equivalent of a standard lightbulb.”

  “Yes, I know that,” she said. “But I’ve always thought of the soul as the power source.”

  “No. The soul is something separate.”

  She looked bewildered and troubled as she contemplated Jason, absently tapping a forefinger against the tip of her nose. Abruptly she asked, “What do Buddhists believe about the soul?”

  “That speculation is useless … that when you focus on the idea of self, and the pleasure of self in heaven, it blocks your view of truth and the eternal.”

  “Oh.” Her forehead smoothed out. “So for all you know, you might have a soul.”

  He gave her a neutral look and didn’t reply.

  “You are an interesting guy,” Justine said, in a way that didn’t sound remotely like a compliment.

  “Next round. You know the question.”

  She was starting to look nettled, uneasy. “You’re going to ask me the same thing about my boyfriend again?”

  “You could lie,” he suggested.

  “I’m a bad liar. Ask me something else.”

  He shook his head.

  “Then give me a dare.” She paused and added with difficulty, “Please.”

  Another negative shake. And he watched every visible inch of her skin turn pink.

  “Why is it so tough to answer?” he asked.

  Although he was pretty certain he already knew.

  Justine stood and went to a nearby cabinet, pulling out a roll of plastic wrap. She tore off lengths of wrap with agitated movements, covering the cold plate. “Your question has to do with something I hate talking about, so naturally I’m reluctant.”

  “It appears to be more than simple reluctance,” he said, reaching beneath the plastic wrap to steal one last olive. “It seems more like something you can’t talk about.”

  Justine picked up the plate, took it to the refrigerator, and shoved it onto a shelf. “I’m going back to my cottage. I have to get up early, and I still have a couple of things to do tonight.”

  “Such as?”

  “None of your business,” she said curtly. “Leave the kitchen, please, so I can turn out the lights.”

  Jason stood, bringing the vodka bottle and the shot glasses to the counter. “You’re going to bail before the game is finished? You owe me an answer … or you have to take the penalty.”

  “Well, I can’t answer. And since I didn’t dress in layers and you’ve already gotten my shoes, I can’t take the penalty. It’s a no-win situation.”

  They both knew she wanted him to let her off the hook. A gentleman would have.

  “We agreed to the rules,” he reminded her.

  “Yes, but the point was to get to know something about each other, and … pass the time in a friendly way…”

  “What should I have asked you? I’m interested in what makes you uncomfortable.”

  “At the moment, that would be you.”

  Jason approached her, his gaze flickering to the visible pulse at the base of her throat. Quietly he said, “If you won’t give me an answer, ante up.”

  Justine faced him fully, pressing back against the countertop as if she needed it for balance. Her eyes were huge, depths of bittersweet brown swirled with dread and curiosity. As he stood close, he became aware of her trembling.

  “Touch me and I’ll sue you,” she said gruffly.

  “I’m not going to take your dress.” Slowly Jason lifted a hand and ran his fingertips along the side of her neck. Her skin was silky and impossibly fine. He let his thumb dip gently into the hollow at the front of her throat, where panic throbbed.

  Justine stiffened, her face filled with rioting color. “I’ll do it,” she muttered, evidently having come to some conclusion. Reaching beneath the shoulder of her sleeveless dress, she hooked her thumb around a slender white bra strap and pulled it out. With a hasty wriggle, she tugged her elbow through. After repeating the procedure on the other side, she delved beneath the neckline of her dress, unfastened the front closure, and fished out a white bra.

  “Here,” she said, a defiant flash in her eyes as she gave him the bra. “Game over.”

  Jason took it automatically, his hand closing over the unlined elastic fabric, straps dangling between his fingers. The garment was still permeated with the warmth of her body.

  He couldn’t keep from glancing at the front of her dress, where the tips of her breasts pressed distinctly against the thin cotton. The small act of uncovering something private, holding an article of clothing that had just been stretched intimately around her, stirred the most profane thoughts in him. He wanted to touch her, tease her. He wanted her under him, flushed and writhing. Arousal dilated his veins, his flesh thickening. It was going to become obvious in a few seconds, if he didn’t put an end to this.

  He went to the table, bent to scoop up her discarded sandals, and brought them back to her, along with the bra and the folded origami flower.

  “I was only going to take down your hair,” he said blandly, which was the truth, and she gave him a sullen glance, her cheeks bright.

  “Good night.” She pointed to the door leading back to the hallway. “You’ll have to find your room by yourself.”

  He bit back a grin, enjoying her discomfort. “Are you going to bring up my health shake in the morning?”

  “No, I’ll give it to Priscilla.” She paused at the back door, her free hand hovering near the light switches. “Go.”

  Obligingly he went to the opposite threshold. “Good night,” he said, just as the lights switched off and the back door closed firmly.

  Jason went back upstairs at a slow pace, his mind occupied with the revelation of Justine Hoffman.

  He had already known more about her than she would have guessed, certainly more than she would have preferred. It had been easy to uncover the basic information: date of birth, past places of residence—of which there were many—level of education—a degree in hotel management from a community college—financial situation—modest and carefully managed.

  But that skeleton of factual knowledge couldn’t begin to convey the uniqueness of a woman like Justine. Vivid, glowing, with the raffish spirit of an adventuress. And yet there was something agreeably settled about her … she had found her place in the world, and was happy in it.

  Happy, but not altogether content. He wanted, on the most instinctual level, to fill that space between what she had and what she needed.

  It was an unwanted complication, this compelling attraction to her. It made him regret the necessity of having to use her, to take what she valued most.

  But he needed magic in the
most literal sense, and it could only come from a witch, a spellbook, and a key.

  * * *

  Justine felt shaken and hollow as she went into her cottage. She wasn’t entirely certain what had just happened, only that she had started a casual game and Jason had turned it into something threatening. Something sexual.

  Her gaze went to the clock on the wall. A quarter to midnight.

  Just enough time to prepare for the spell.

  All thoughts of Jason Black fled from her mind as she glanced at the shadowy space beneath her bed, where the Triodecad waited.

  Am I really going to do this?

  She had to try. There was no choice, now that she knew about the geas. She couldn’t rest until it was broken.

  She went to her bedroom closet to pull out a besom broom with a cedar handle. Cinnamon fragrance flourished upward as she began to sweep the floor in a counterclockwise direction, widdershins as it was called in the craft. The ritual broom would whisk away negative energies.

  After a few minutes of vigorous sweeping, Justine replaced the broom in the closet and stood on her toes to reach the top shelf. She took down a Mason jar filled with a mix of stone and crystal … quartz, calcite, pyrite, obsidian, agate, turquoise, and other varieties poured around a candle in the center. After lighting the candle, Justine set the jar on the floor. The last necessary element for spell-casting was to create a protected area. She retrieved a bundle of soft hemp rope cord from the closet and unwound enough to form a large circle on the floor.

  She retrieved the Triodecad from under the bed. The book felt warm and vibrant in her hands. Unwrapping the book from its linen covering, she carried it to the center of the circle and sat with it in her lap.

  She grasped the fine chain around her neck, withdrew the key from beneath her shirt, and unlocked the spellbook. It opened immediately to page 13. Justine stroked her fingers across the parchment as words appeared. She had always wondered why anyone would cast a spell that had been predestined to end in disaster, and now she understood: Sometimes you wanted something so much that you didn’t care about the consequences.

  She concentrated on the candle flame, the flick of blue at its heart, the radiant yellow outer layer, the dancing white summit. Her mouth was dry. She was nervous. Not because she was afraid the banishment would fail, but because she knew it was going to work. And nothing would be the same afterward.

 
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