Ellaine Greene has simple desires. She just wants to do her best as the event coordinator for the local aquarium, to support environmental conservation efforts, and to keep immature man-children out of her life.
So when a major donor to the aquarium demands Ellaine find a magician for her granddaughter's birthday party, all she can imagine is a long line of card chuckers and coin flippers wearing cheesy sequined vests.
Instead, she gets Xander Hollatz, a sophisticated, powerful man in a crisp suit, with nimble fingers and a warm smile.
He's the man for the job, no doubt. And, to her surprise, she realizes he might be the man for her, too. Will she let her doubts get in the way of their feelings for each other?
And when everything goes wrong at the birthday party, will he be able to perform a miracle to save the day?
She hovered by the door as he started unpacking. She could not take her eyes off his body, particularly his pressed trousers as he leaned over and bent to reach into his trunk.
“I’m… I’ll be in my office,” she said. “Just down the hall. Come and get me when you’re done.”
He raised his eyes from his work. “Sure. I’ll come find you when I’m ready.”
She felt hot underneath her clothes. She retreated to her office. If she’d been wearing layers she’d strip down now, but all she had on was a skirt and a thin blouse. She helped herself to a bottle of water from the mini-fridge she shared with Brissa.
She’d just begun to regain her composure when he entered the room.
“Ready when you are.”
But why? Why was she so ready? More to the point, why was her body so ready for him? He’d said a few nice things to her, and looked real good. That just about summed up their relationship. So why was her skin humming for him? Was she that lonely? Ready and willing for the first good-looking guy to come along and treat her well?
Ellaine got mad at herself. She did not like that self-image.
But she did like the image where he slowly lowered himself into her. She liked that one very much.
All these thoughts crowding her head, she sat down in the front row as he took his place in front of a plush black curtain he’d set up, his signature embossed on it in silver thread. In front of him sat an elegant wooden folding table, with a rich dark polish. She wondered if he’d made it himself.
His voice filled the room. A Performance Voice. It grabbed her attention without startling her, soothed her without lulling her to sleep. She even sat up a bit straighter.
Then he dropped back to his normal speaking voice and said, directly to her, “’Everyone’ meaning ‘everyone at the party, of course.’”
“Maybe I have multiple personalities,” she suggested.
“Don’t we all?” Before she could ponder that, he added, “Should I perform as though everyone’s here, for the party? Or would you prefer if I didn’t pretend? If I performed just for you?”
She knew the correct, professional choice.
But she said, “Just me.”
His eyes twinkled. He said, “Hello, Ellaine.” She gave him a small wave. He grinned. “I’m glad you could be here tonight. I have a few things to show you. The first one is this coin.” He held up a large coin — a half-dollar — between his thumb and forefinger. He showed her his other hand, empty. Then he reached up and — twisted the coin. She saw it bend, just for an instant, then in its place, between forefinger and thumb — a strawberry.
He let the berry drop into his cupped hands and held it out to her.
She leaned out of her chair. He let her take it. It wasn’t made of rubber or sponge, no. It was real.
Or felt real, anyway.
“Take a bite, if you want,” he told her, as though reading her mind. “Don’t worry, I washed my hands.”
She smiled. “Did you wash the coin too?”
He laughed. “Actually I did. They look better on stage when they’re clean.” Then he plucked the coin out of the air. It shone between his fingers.
“Is it real?”
“Very.” He tossed it to her.
It vanished in midair.
She gasped, dropping the strawberry on the floor.
“Now it’s definitely dirty,” he said, a little sadly.
“How did you…?” She shook her head, as if waking up from a dream. “Sorry about your strawberry,” she said, feeling foolish.
He chuckled. “No problem.”
“I was actually looking forward to eating it.”
“Hmm… I’m going to… do something magicians aren’t supposed to do. I’m going to show you that trick again.”
“Only if you’re serious about wanting another strawberry.”
She smiled. “I am.”
He came closer. He crouched in front of her, bringing his face level with hers. He held up the coin.
She fixed her eyes on his fingers.
He reached up. Twisted the coin.
Revealed the berry.
He held it out for her again. She took it, gingerly. Nibbled the tip.
“It’s real,” she whispered. “How — how did you know I’d drop the first one? Wait, you didn’t just give me the one that fell on the floor, did you?” She looked down. No. The first one was still there.
He was laughing. “I would never give you a floor berry.”
He held her gaze. Her mouth watered.
“Let’s see some more,” she said.
Ellaine Greene has a new man in her life, the famous magician Xander Hollatz. He's ripped, kind, and mysterious -- nothing like her ex-husband. He has even volunteered to perform at her aquarium's annual fundraising gala. But she's still having trouble leaving the past behind, especially when her ex shows up to beg for money.
Before the new couple knows it, someone's trying to break into Xander's mansion to steal the secrets of his many famous illusions. Ellaine's ex becomes their prime suspect. But maybe it's actually the up-and-coming street magician they've befriended. Or maybe it's even someone from Xander's mysterious past.
Whoever the thief is, if he uncovers and reveals the secret of Xander's newest illusion for the fundraiser, the event will be a disaster. Ellaine may lose her job.
And there's a still greater question: Is this feeling they share together just lust -- or is it something more?
Find out in this 74,000-word book, the second volume in the Sleight of Hand series.
“Do you want to go for a walk? I can walk and perform at the same time. And it’s such a nice day out.”
She nodded. A breath of fresh air would do her good. “I’d like that.”
They strolled side by side out of the offices and into the sunshine. A long winding sidewalk enclosed a picnic area on the aquarium’s front lawn. They followed it, not talking, just enjoying each other’s silence and the mild summer day.
A few families had also decided to take advantage of the weather, spreading blankets and eating lunch out on the lawn. Kids careened across the grassy expanse like wild birds. Ellaine studied Xander as he watched them, with such a simple joy on his face. “Do you want to know,” he said all of a sudden, “why I prefer to do children’s parties?”
She smiled and said, “I do.”
“Kids are always cranked up to eleven. If they’re into the show, they’ll scream and shriek and jump around. If they’re bored, they’ll slump out of their chair and roll around on the floor. Whatever they’re feeling, they’re feeling it intensely. And they usually don’t have any problems expressing it.
“Early on in my career — way early on — a kid caught me palming a rubber ball. And when kids catch you out, they don’t react like grown-ups do. An adult might roll their eyes, might tell their friends. They might just walk away. That’s embarrassing enough. But a kid will flip out. They’ll point and scream, ‘It’s in his haaaaaaand!’”
Ellaine laughed in surprise. “And you… like that?”
“Absolutely. It’s such a rush. Every time I perform for kids, I feel like I’m gonna start sweating bullets. Some of the toughest crowds I ever had were rooms full of five-year-olds. Real trials by fire. Jet-setting around the world, entertaining CEOs — that’s profitable. Fun, too, don’t get me wrong. But even while I was doing big corporate events I’d still try to sneak a kid’s party into my schedule here and there. I never felt more alive than when I was performing for kids.”
Then why’d you stop? she wanted to ask. But then she realized the question answered itself: He didn’t want to feel alive anymore.
She went pale.
Xander didn’t notice. He’d gone back to watching the kids. He had crinkly lines at the corners of his eyes, and she couldn’t tell whether he was smiling, shielding his eyes from the sun — or about to cry.
“You should show those kids something,” she suggested.
“Oh, they’re playing a game right now,” he replied. “I don’t want to interrupt. I don’t wanna be that guy. But I’ll do something for you, and if they see it and come over, I’ll do something for them too.”
He reached into his jacket and produced three large steel hoops. She laughed as soon as they came out. “You’ve been hiding those the whole time?”
“Ehhh, magic jacket something something.” He shrugged. “You know how I feel about lines.”
“You have some good lines. In my opinion.”
He eased into a shy smile. “Here,” he said, handing her the hoops. “I’m no good at buying jewelry. But I tried!”
She accepted them. “Yeah these aren’t gonna fit.”
“Oh I can get ‘em resized.”
She giggled. He took them back. He was about to go into the trick when she said, “Oops. Was I supposed to be inspecting them?”
“Yeah. For magician-y stuff.”
“One of the rings has a gap in it,” she said with a shrug. “Doesn’t everybody know that?”
“Only novices use a ring with a gap in it.” He gave the rings back to her. She inspected them more closely this time. Tugged on them. Picked and prodded. But they were solid all the way around.
“They’re just rings,” he said with a shrug. “Nothing magician-y about them.”
She narrowed her eyes. “There’s no way there’s nothing magician-y about them. I just can’t find it,” she replied as she handed them back to him.
“You handled them yourself.” He held one ring in each hand, tucking the third under his arm. He raised them aloft, right between his face and hers. He knocked the rings against each other with a loud clank, once, twice. “Either it’s the rings that’s playing tricks on you… or your eyes.” He knocked them together one more time — then let go with his left hand.
They were linked together.
“How did you—”
He held up a hand to stop her. “It’s a secret,” he said. “But here’s the thing. If you ask me… I’ll tell you.”
He reclaimed the third ring from under his arm, smacked it against the ring dangling from the one in his right hand. Clank, clank —
Then it, too, was suddenly dangling, linked to the ring above it.
“I will tell you if you ask me. But don’t ask me unless you want to know.”
She met his eyes. “I want to know.”
He held her gaze. A moment passed. And then he opened his hand and exposed the method.
Her mouth fell open.
“But… but I looked at the rings. It wasn’t like that when I looked.”
He showed her.
Suddenly, two children, a boy and a girl, bounded up to them. “Are you doing magic tricks?!” the girl shouted. Xander closed his hand around the ring again, smiling at Ellaine and raising a fingertip to his lips.
Then he turned to the kids and said, “I am! Do you like magic?”
“Is it okay with your parents if I show you this magic trick?” he asked, glancing up at the grown-ups sitting nearby on a blanket. They waved and nodded.
“Okay!” Xander said, “Here, you take this ring, and you take these rings. Look at them all over!” Joy was written in all his features.
Ellaine looked at him. Studied him.
Ached to touch him.
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