He’ll have to win her heart…and save her life.
Oliver Pendragon’s days as the Magician of Wall Street are legendary. When he finds a way to get everything he’s ever wanted—including Abby Daltry—of course he can’t refuse, even though there will be hell to pay if ever Abby found out. But when he discovers his old business partner is out for Abby’s blood, Oliver will do anything to protect her…and win her heart.
New Age bookstore owner Abby is perfectly happy with her life the way it is—the independence, the quirky clientele, and even the occasional tarot card reading—are all part of the charm. But when the cards reveal Oliver is back and bringing danger along with him, she refuses to heed the warning for another chance with the only man she’d ever loved.
As shots fly, the Magician will have to perform his best trick ever if he hopes to keep Abby safe and by his side forever.
Excerpt (source: Entangled Publishing)
© 2012 Minta Hall
Oliver Pendragon opened the door of the Tarot-A-While Bookstore and strode in with more assurance than he felt. Never show weakness. He’d lived by that philosophy for most of his thirty-seven years and saw no need to change it now. Never mind that the object of his quest could toss him out on his butt before he could say three words. Never mind that even if she heard him out, she’d probably ignore everything he said—just as she always had.
Never mind that if he failed, she’d be dead in a week.
He stood by the shop door, eclipsing the sun’s final evening glimmerings, but no one inside took the slightest notice of his entry. A small clutch of women huddled in the far corner. They sat on folding chairs and leaned forward, breathless as they focused on a woman sitting at a rickety card table.
The shop had the paradoxical charm of a little old lady in black motorcycle leather and spike-heeled boots. A bizarre blend of the outré and the merely outrageous cluttered its shelves and cases with no perceptible organization. Healing crystals vied for display space with herbal remedies and crystal balls. Posters proclaimed the virtues of Ouija boards, channeling, and spirit guides, while the atonal chimes of New Age compositions echoed through the store. In one corner a seven-foot-tall wooden statue of a sasquatch stood at stark attention, draped with a gossamer silk sari in peacock blue. A quick glance at the nearest bookshelf revealed an array of books on UFOlogy, astral projection, and extraterrestrial communication. The shelf above offered self-help titles on improving one’s psychic sensitivity, telepathic powers, and psychometric skills.
Despite the store’s predilection for mind-boggling merchandise in confusing disarray, Oliver noticed a state-of-the-art point-of-sale terminal on the sales counter. Through the crystal bead curtains at the back, he caught a glimpse of a computer that wouldn’t look out of place on his own desk, and he never owned anything less than the best.
Yes, this store suited Abby.
Anticipation throbbed through him, but he suppressed it. He’d known for three months that the day would come when he’d at last be free to claim Abigail Daltry again. It had taken him longer than he’d expected, much longer than he’d hoped. But now that he was here at last, he wanted to savor each moment of this long-delayed reunion as much as he wanted to swoop in and whisk her back into his life.
Back into his arms.
Back into his bed.
Oliver took a step forward, still shadowed by the tall shelves, but his curiosity was piqued by the intensity of the group. The woman at the table held a pack of battered, oversize cards and laid them out in a peculiar pattern on the table. For a moment, he thought she was playing solitaire, then realized the cards weren’t standard playing cards.
He took another step closer, then halted. There, seated right in front of the woman with the cards, was Abby. He took a deep breath, fighting for control, and found himself listening with unexpected interest to the other woman’s explanation.
“The Celtic Cross layout is one of the oldest tools of the tarot. The first card, in the middle of the cross, describes the prevailing influences on the person being read.” A twinkle lit her eye as she gestured toward Abby.
“Even if that person doesn’t believe in the tarot?” Abby’s warm, husky voice sent rivers of sensation flooding through Oliver. Had it been three months since he’d heard her speak? A mental clock he’d never been able to turn off corrected him. Three months, four days, and six hours since she’d stormed out of his life.
He tuned back in to the woman doing the reading.
“No, Abby, it doesn’t matter if you believe or not.” She turned over the card. “The Knight of Cups.” A slight frown flickered across her brow. “A messenger comes with unexpected news, someone who deceives. Perhaps even a lover. There is an intensity here, passion and imagination. And great vision.”
The ladies watching twittered and chirped while Oliver shifted uncomfortably. He would have sworn that the woman doing the reading—the only one who did not have her back to him—had taken no notice of his presence. Yet her words were uncannily accurate, or almost so. It was true—he wasn’t Abby’s lover at the moment. But he had been. Three months, four days, and six hours ago. And he would be again. Just watching the grace of her pose, the tilt of her chin, had him wanting her with a fire that blazed hotter than the desert in July. He was surprised the shadowy corner where he stood didn’t glow with the power of his desire.
“The second card reflects the forces opposing Abby.” She turned it over. “The King of Swords, ill-dignified.” The frown reappeared, staying a bit longer.
“Can you explain what ‘ill-dignified’ means? Some of us might not know.” Abby’s question echoed Oliver’s own.
“Yes. It means it’s upside down. The cards have different meanings depending on their orientation within the spread.”
“What does it mean here?” Abby asked.
Slowly, almost reluctantly, the woman responded. “The ill-dignified King refers to a tyrant, someone who forces others to his own path. Yet despite his apparent cruelty, he experiences his own pain. He’s almost tortured.”
Oliver shook his head. Where did the woman come up with these statements? Of course, Abby had once told him he was too determined to win at all costs, but that didn’t imply tyranny, did it? No, that prediction had to be a guess…unless somehow his news had already reached Abby’s notice?
Abby tipped her head to the side, and his fingers ached to trace the soft skin he knew so well. Shaking his head, he forced his attention back to the fortune-teller’s words. He’d missed some of her explanation.
The reader spoke more quickly now. “…The ninth card reveals your hopes and fears.” A practiced flick of her fingers flipped the card faceup. Her face drained of color.
Abby leaned forward just as he was about to move. “What’s wrong?”
The reader pointed at the ill-dignified Knight of Swords. Although she seemed calm, something in her manner alerted the watchers that the card presaged bad news. Even Oliver was caught up in the worry that sighed through the group. “Another deceiver, someone with a glib story, but who can unleash untold destruction on your world. It’s located next to the Ten of Swords.” She tapped the card next to the Knight. “That combination means violence and…”
The reader looked Abby straight in the eye and her voice strengthened to take on an ominous note. “And death. Violence and death. Your reading is filled with warnings of a deceiver, a man who is not who he claims, not who you think he is. Beware this man.” With a sure movement but keeping her eyes on Abby, she tapped the last card. “This card shows the final outcome. It reveals the answer to the struggles you face.”
“Turn it over,” Abby said. Oliver couldn’t remember Abby ever having such a harsh, strained note in her voice.
The reader hesitated for a moment, then turned up the card. “The Magician,” she whispered as she looked up, straight into Oliver’s eyes. “Beware the Magician,” she warned, while holding his gaze with a commanding glare.
Abby must have noticed the new focus of the reader’s attention because she turned and stared at him, too, causing the rest of the ladies to turn. He fell under the microscopic survey of a suddenly hostile audience.
Her shock wore off too quickly for him to decipher the emotions that flared in her eyes. He wished he’d learned to read her feelings better. He wished he could understand what emotion raged through her now. Regret? Welcome? Grief?
Visibly gathering her composure, Abby stood and gestured toward him in a mock-courteous introduction. “Welcome to the Tarot-A-While Bookstore, Oliver. Ladies, may I present Mr. Oliver Pendragon? You may have heard of him. He’s known as…” Abby faltered under his glare.
Oliver’s voice felt rusty and his words came out harsher than he intended. “Say it.”
Abby glanced again at the reader and at the cards that accused him from the card table. She reached down and lifted the final card in the layout, holding it out in sardonic offering. “The Magician. Oliver’s called the ‘Magician of Wall Street.’”
How did Oliver manage to do this to her? Abby felt breathless and agitated, a not-uncommon state whenever she was around him. Despite having lived with him for nearly a year, she was still surprised by his skill at keeping her off-balance and a bit out of control. He’d always been able to accomplish the feat without saying a word.
His appearance here was a surprise, but only on the surface. Somewhere inside she’d known that he’d reappear in her world. He just doesn’t like to lose possessions he thinks of as his. When he discovers you’re still determined to keep him out of your life, he’ll give up and find an easier woman.
Nice try, she scoffed. Oliver never gave up. And the rapid thump of her heart owed more to joy over his return than to regret that he was here.
And with that thought came the recognition that she’d been waiting for him for three long, lonely months. Her blood sang with the sheer excitement of seeing him again, smelling that aftershave-and-man scent that recalled every sweet, passionate moment with him.
Oh, she wanted him back all right, almost as much as she feared what having him back would do to her life.
With patient endurance she forced her thoughts away and smiled and chatted through the prolonged leave-taking of the ladies gathered for the weekly tarot reading. She’d started the event as a way to bring more people into the store, and so far it had been a raging success. This week she’d been hard-pressed to find enough chairs for all the attendees. By next week, when word of the spectacular climax of this reading got out, she could picture the store jammed to the rafters. After all, a reader’s predictions rarely came true on the spot.
“Abby, would you like me to stay for a while longer?” Selena Woodhouse, the tarot reader and Abby’s good friend and business partner, glanced at Oliver, who was hovering again in the shadows.
“No, that’s all right. I know how tired you are after a reading. I can handle closing up tonight.” Her composure wouldn’t last much longer. She needed to figure out how she should react to Oliver.
“But I don’t mind. If you think you need someone here…”
“It’s fine, Selena. Really.” She paused. “It’s almost time to close anyway, so as soon as these ladies finish browsing, I’ll lock the door.”
With a sigh of relief, Abby acknowledged Selena’s reluctant nod and watched the other woman gather her belongings and go out the door.
The customers tired at last of fluttering around the unresponsive Oliver and, one by one, left. By the time she’d rung up the final sale and waved the last customer out the door, Abby was more than ready to turn the sign on the door to Closed. Unfortunately, that meant she still had to face the greater trial: finding out what Oliver wanted.
She wondered what he would do if she threw herself at him and demanded that he let her come back to him. Not so whimsically, she recognized that unless she kept herself under stern control, there was a real chance she’d do exactly that.
His first comment startled her into spinning around. With the blinds closed, shadows filled the store interior, casting his hawkish features into a dark, predatory expression. In sunlight his brown hair held the fire of cinnamon, but in the dim light, its firm, controlled wave conveyed the same menace as a panther about to pounce.
“What are you doing here, Oliver?” Her fingers ached from clenching as she willed him to say he’d come back because he couldn’t live without her.
He shoved his hands deep into his pants pockets and took a step forward. The expensive wool of his suit pants outlined his hips and thighs with far too much clarity for her comfort. His body held an allure for her that she could neither fight nor deny. She knew if she let his skin brush hers with even the slightest touch, she’d burst into flames.
“Perhaps I stopped by for a visit,” he said in that mild tone.
“We’re not friends. I don’t think we ever were.”
“No?” The amused skepticism on his face was one of the expressions she hated most. It nearly always meant that she was about to lose an argument. “Perhaps not. But lovers, certainly.”
A bark of laughter burned in her throat. “No. Not even that.”
“Odd. I seem to remember long nights with you in my bed, and days, too. I remember your screams when you writhed in my arms.”
She remembered them, too. The scent of his skin rubbing against hers, musky with a hint of spice. The roped muscles contained by the warm leather of his flesh, muscles that his usual impeccable business attire disguised. His legs tangled around hers, tickling and rasping in equal measure. His mouth, exploring every inch of her heated body, driving her crazy with desire.
Oh, God, his mouth.
She shook her head and backed away a step, then hated herself for revealing how much he affected her. “No.”
“You deny we were lovers?” he asked, wonder in his voice.
“We weren’t lovers, Oliver. We were bedmates. You had sex with me, but it wasn’t making love. It was never love.”
Deny it. Tell me you loved me like I— Abby broke off the thought. Every atom in her shrieked in protest, but he stared at her, brooding. For an instant she thought she’d gone too far, and her breath caught in her throat. Did he suspect the love she’d almost admitted? The last thing in the world she wanted to confess to him—or to herself—was how vulnerable her heart was to him. That vulnerability, so similar to her mother’s pathetic love for her dominating father, had frightened her more than anything else in her life. She never wanted to become the weak, clinging woman her mother had become.
At last he shrugged and turned away. “Perhaps you’re right. It’s a moot point anyway.”
Air hissed out of her as if from a punctured balloon. Had she ever thought that Oliver had cared for her with the intensity she’d loved him?
He stretched a hand out to touch a display of crystals. “Whatever made you open a store like this?”
“So, um, eccentric.” He glanced at her. “You have to admit the merchandise here is a little bizarre.”
“Bizarre is in the eye of the beholder. I acted like any good businessperson should. I found a need in the marketplace and filled it.” She would never admit that her choice of store had been dictated as much by rebellion against her father—who even now tried to control her life—as by a desire to help her friend Selena. And a strong dose of rebellion against Oliver, too.
It was quite a change from her former career as a portfolio manager, first for her father’s investment firm, then for Oliver’s. She’d been good at that job, very good, in fact, but it hadn’t been what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. The unspoken expectations of both men had shoved her into the niche. Only when desperation drove her to break free had she indulged her own inclinations.
When she’d run from Oliver’s penthouse, her safe haven had been across the country, at Selena’s La Jolla condo. Her childhood friend was on her own and running a failing bookstore. Selena knew she didn’t have the business acumen or the desire to acquire those skills to make it a success. Abby’s desire for a change had meshed with Selena’s plans. Now they were partners. Abby handled the business aspects, and Selena provided the artistic spirit of the store.
Abby felt as if she’d stumbled into the perfect profession: owner of a somewhat offbeat store in an unfashionable suburb of San Diego. The odd thing was that despite it being her first venture into small-business ownership, this store had already proven a good investment. Though she’d only been running it for a couple of months, she’d already turned it around so it was no longer bleeding red ink. By the end of the year, she thought it might even show a solid profit, which would be an unusual accomplishment for any new business. More than that, however, Abby discovered she loved the store. Unlike the impersonal world of financial management, her customers were people to her—funky, a little offbeat, but human and caring, too. They were like family—but much better than her real family.
“I see,” Oliver said, still studying her “bizarre” merchandise.
Abby waited for him to say something more. His hand disappeared into his pocket and he rocked back and forth on his heels, seemingly content to inspect the store for the next hour.
She’d had enough. She turned away from him as she gathered up some papers. “Oliver, if you’re not going to tell me why you’ve come—”
“I need to talk with you about something very important.”
She spun to face him. “What’s wrong?” she asked, then wanted to kick herself for the implicit concern in the question. No matter how much she cared, she didn’t want to hand him another tool he could use to manipulate her.
He didn’t seem to notice her slip. He stared at her, and she wondered just what could make this self-confident man hesitate so much over his words. He looked oddly vulnerable.
“Abby, a situation has developed that you need to know about,” he said. “I decided I should tell you in person.”
“What kind of situation is that?” With an effort, she kept her face and voice expressionless.
He didn’t quite meet her eyes. “It has to do with Gil.”
She couldn’t restrain her grimace. Gil was Oliver’s business partner and someone she’d known since high school. She’d casually dated him off and on before she met Oliver, whenever either of them was between relationships and needed a companion to some function. He was a charming escort on occasion, but she’d never wanted a more permanent relationship with him, mostly because she knew too much about him. Once Gil had introduced her to Oliver, of course, there was no question of her dating Gil again. “What about him?”
“Hell. There’s no way to say this but to say it.” He gripped a nearby shelf with white-knuckled strength. “He had a scam going on the side.”
Her mouth opened but no sound emerged. Her mouth closed as she thought about it. It wasn’t beyond understanding. In high school he’d always been the one who pushed the rules to the limit, and sometimes beyond. “What kind of scam?”
“He was using the company to run a Ponzi scheme and I didn’t know it.”
“A Ponzi scheme?” Abby had studied Ponzi schemes in business school. They were scams in which investors were lured by the promise of high returns, and the money put in by the later victims paid off the early ones. The only ones who ever grew rich were those who arranged them.
“Yeah. Gil wasn’t even very clever about it. He kept most of the money himself, paying out just enough to keep people from getting suspicious. The whole thing blew up a couple days after you left.” He grimaced. “I was in Washington, if you remember, at the time.”
“I see.” This was the kind of thing that happened only to other people, and she’d already had her share of drama. “I suppose you’re sure? You’ve got proof?”
“Gil confessed. He told me he was doing it for the thrill and to see how long it would take me to catch on to what he was doing.” Oliver’s voice rasped like gravel against asphalt. “He used my company for some petty revenge.”
“For what?” Abby asked, though she was afraid to hear the answer.
Bitterness filled Oliver’s face. “You,” he said softly. “Gil wanted revenge for you.” A sour laugh broke from him. “And the funny thing is, you’d already left me. By the time his little plan came to fruition, you were gone. No matter how much I wanted to come after you, I was up to my ass in alligators.”
The pain inside him showed in the careful blankness of his eyes. She had to steel her heart against the urge to comfort him. Ever since their breakup, she’d avoided the financial and business news reports in the paper or on television. It had hurt too much for her to hear his name or watch him in an interview. She’d recovered from her fatal attraction for a man who could never love her.
Of course, if she believed that, maybe she should start making her living writing fantasy tales.
“And you didn’t know about it?” she asked to get her mind off that thought. A dark, angry flush raced up his neck and over his face. “No, you didn’t.”
“I’m flattered by your faith in my integrity.”
“Oh, it’s not that,” she blurted before she thought better. “If you’d run the scam, it would have been set up so it wouldn’t have collapsed. Gil doesn’t have your brains.”
Implacable shutters slammed down, covering the brief, baffled look that flickered over his face. “Thanks. I think.” His laugh held no amusement. “Remind me not to give your name to the SEC as a character witness for me.”
Suddenly, she was embarrassed by her comments. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”
Silence cloaked the shadowed shop for long moments. Abby struggled to find something to say. This had to mean Oliver’s company was endangered. Financial management companies relied on their reputations to keep their clients. Involvement in a scandal like this one would have tarnished the company’s standing in the financial world almost beyond redemption.
She tried, but she couldn’t imagine him without his company. His business persona was so much a part of him that it had embedded itself within his very soul. His total devotion to his company had sparked many of the problems in their relationship because his priorities, and most of his attention, were with work instead of with her. At least that was how it had seemed to her.
A final gleam from the setting sun broke through a warp in the blinds, spotlighting Oliver’s face. For the first time, she saw him clearly, and the change in him shocked her. He looked stressed. She couldn’t believe it. Oliver was always so much in command of himself that frustration seemed an unlikely companion. Her old urge to soothe him rose up, but she tamped it down. She’d learned her lesson. Never again would she batter her heart against a man with a heart harder than diamonds.
She stirred. It was time to conclude this discussion and get Oliver back out of her life before she did something silly. Like let myself love him again? “Look, I’m sorry about Gil. I didn’t realize. I never would have wished this on you.”
“Thank you for that, at least. I wasn’t sure if you’d find this all amusing.”
That flash of vulnerability in his voice frightened her more than anything. Vulnerability would tempt her to trust him again with her heart. Vulnerability in him made her vulnerable, too.
She hardened her defenses against him. “I would never wish you harm.” Hurt by his cynical comment, she struggled to regain her composure. “As I said, I’m sorry. But this has nothing to do with me. You have nothing to do with me. Why come all this way to tell me about it?”
Oliver stared at her. “I’m afraid you’re wrong about that. It does concern you.”
“How? I know nothing about Gil’s schemes.”
He hesitated, and she had the sudden intuition that she wasn’t going to like whatever he said. “When you walked out on me—”
“When we broke up, you mean.”
“I didn’t tell Gil. All he knew was that you’d left your job at the company.” He hid his embarrassment as he looked away. “So Gil thought we were still together when I figured out what was going on. He thought he could use you, and my feelings for you, to keep me under control.”
“I’d have expected better from Gil.”
Oliver’s expression was indecipherable, but he didn’t rise to her bait. He drew a deep breath. “I told him I was going to blow the whistle on his scheme. He said if I did, he’d see that something…bad happened to you.”
“You don’t need to worry about me; just do what you think you have to do. Are you going to turn Gil in?”
“You don’t understand.”
“Sure I do. You felt you had an obligation to warn me before you turned him in.”
“Abby…” He didn’t bother hiding his frustration. “I’ve been working to collect the evidence I needed to prove I wasn’t the one behind everything. I turned Gil in as soon as I collected the documentation the SEC and the FBI need to prosecute him.”
Her brow cleared. “Oh. Sorry. I see.”
“No, you don’t see. Gil told me he’d destroy everything I hold most dear. He’s already ruined my company. I had to sell out. But after I gave the authorities the evidence they needed to prosecute him, he escaped before they could arrest him. Now I have reason to think he’s going to try to kill you.”
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