Shanna Swendson: Fairy Tales for Modern Times
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An Excerpt from Once Upon

It said something about how my weekend had gone that I was ridiculously happy when Monday morning rolled around. Sunday was characterized by a nasty headache, grillings from nosy roommates about my date, and a depressing phone call from my mother, who remained convinced that I must be terribly homesick living in the big city. Going to work allowed me to escape all that. It was a relief going to a place where the weird was perfectly ordinary.

Well, there might have been one other reason for looking forward to Monday morning, and he was waiting for me on the sidewalk in front of my building. Owen Palmer perfectly fit the definition of the word heartbreaker, without actually deliberately doing anything to break hearts or even knowing he was doing so. He was incredibly gorgeous, incredibly brilliant, incredibly nice, and every indication was that he’d filed me firmly in the “just a friend” category.

He was also an extraordinarily powerful wizard and a leading fighter in the magical war of good against evil. That may sound sexy and romantic, but in reality I suspected it didn’t make him ideal boyfriend material. Besides, I was happy being friends with him. Really.

He greeted me with a smile. “Good morning, Katie. How was your weekend?”

“Good morning, yourself. And my weekend was okay.” We fell into step together as we walked toward the subway station.

“You had a date with Ethan, didn’t you?” The office grapevine at MSI was possibly the best in history. Or Ethan had told Owen. They were becoming pretty good friends. The casual tone of his voice when he asked about my date with another man was yet another piece of evidence proving he had no interest in me. Not that I was setting out to make him jealous, but would it have killed him to show the tiniest hint of it?

“Yeah. It was nice. The date part was, at least. But there was some other stuff that got kind of strange.”

“Such as?”

“I’ll probably need to talk to you about it at work.” If I was going to have to discuss certain aspects of my dating life with him, I preferred to do it in a business capacity.

“Now you’ve got me intrigued.”

“Trust me, it’s not that interesting. Just something we might want to track. And how was your weekend?”

“Nothing exciting. I mostly rested.”

“Good. You’re not back working on counterspells, are you? The boss said you had to recover fully.” Owen had been more than a little drained and banged up in his last encounter with our nemesis. He still had the faintest traces of a healing black eye, which stood out against his pale skin, and although he no longer carried his left arm in a sling, he wasn’t using it much.

“I’m being good, trust me. I can’t afford to let myself get run-down right now.”

And with that, we’d exhausted our conversational supply. We didn’t really hang out together beyond work-related situations. I didn’t even know if we had anything in common. That didn’t stop me from wanting to sigh dramatically whenever I saw him.

But then I saw something odd enough to distract my attention from the gorgeous man at my side. You see strange things on the streets of New York every day, and I see stranger things than most, but this was really strange. It was like a living skeleton was walking alongside us down the Fourteenth Street sidewalk. Nobody else who passed us seemed to notice anything odd, but with New York commuters, that didn’t necessarily mean anything.

I moved closer to Owen. “You don’t see anything weird, do you?” I asked him.

He raised an eyebrow. “Define weird.”

“Walking skeleton on your left.”

I admired his cool as he barely moved his eyes in that direction. If the wizard thing didn’t work out for him, I thought he’d make a decent spy. He even looked like a young James Bond. “Hmm,” he said after a moment. “There’s definitely something veiled near us. I can feel the power in use. What do you think we should do?”

“You’re the wizard.”

“Well, it might make a scene if I unveiled it in public.”

“If anyone noticed,” I reminded him.

“Oh, right. Well, let’s get him out of our hair.” He mumbled something under his breath and twitched his wrist.

The skeleton creature suddenly flew up against a no parking sign, where it remained stuck and struggling. I almost hit a light pole, I was so busy looking to see what happened while still trying to walk forward and look casual. Owen pulled me out of the way just before I broke my nose.

“Nice teamwork,” he said with a satisfied grin. “You spot ’em, I spell ’em. I wonder how long it will take for someone to realize it’s there and free it.” I didn’t need the reminder that his commuting with me in the morning had more to do with business than it did with affection or even chivalry. It was a form of mutual protection against our enemies. I could spot any magical threats that might have been veiled from him. As powerful as he was, his magic meant that magic could be used on him. Meanwhile, he could defend us against any magical attacks that I spotted. And if the motion of a crowded subway car happened to throw me up against him, well, that was a bonus.

“I wonder what that was about,” I said, but before he had a chance to respond, I already knew the answer. There was a street musician near the entrance to the subway at Union Square, playing the bongos with no sense of rhythm. I grabbed Owen’s arm, for the would-be drummer wearing a brightly colored rasta cap that didn’t go with his otherwise nerdy attire was none other than MSI’s current nemesis, Phelan Idris. I was fairly certain he was using a spell to hide himself from Owen.

“What is it this time?” Owen asked under his breath.

“Let’s just say there’s a good reason that guy playing the drums has no rhythm.”

He gave a weary sigh and walked right up to the bongo player. “Sorry I don’t have any spare change on me,” he said. “I know we messed up your livelihood, but couldn’t you have found something a little less degrading to do? Your lack of talent is embarrassing.”

Idris’s beat got even more off as he looked up at Owen, then turned to glare at me. I gave him a cheery little wave. “So you’re still using your girlfriend’s eyes, huh, Owen?” he asked.

It would have been nice if Owen could have managed a hint of a blush at that point. He was so bashful that it didn’t take much to turn him beet red, and surely if he secretly harbored any feelings for me whatsoever, the accusation that I was his girlfriend should have been enough to make him start glowing. Instead, he remained icily calm. “And you’re still dredging up whatever abominations you can find. Or are you making them yourself? Magical bioengineering isn’t just against the code, it’s a bad idea.”

“Oh yeah, the oh-so-holy code. Well, don’t worry about me. I’ve got plenty to keep me busy, as you’ll see soon enough.”

Owen rolled his eyes and turned to head into the subway, muttering under his breath. I hurried to follow him, but paused to look back when I heard a loud bang. Idris’s drums had exploded in a shower of silver dust, earning far more applause than his playing had. I got the impression that Owen hadn’t been muttering curses. Well, not the obscene kind, anyway.

I caught up to Owen just past the turnstiles. “He’s up to something,” he said, more like he was talking to himself than to me.

“Isn’t he always?”

“Well, yeah, I guess. But sending me a message like this means he’s up to something new, and he wants me to know about it.”

“Doesn’t that sort of ruin the element of surprise? You’d think he’d accomplish more if he didn’t give you advance warning.”

“Yeah, you’d think, but he doesn’t work that way. I suspect half the fun for him is watching us react.” He frowned. “Unless maybe he isn’t up to anything at all, and he just wants us to think he is.”

“Owen, if you keep that up, your brain is going to explode.”

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