About Enchanted Ever After:
Kiri Palger knew the difference between reality—new house, hard work and not too many friends—and fantasy—the fun she had playing online games. So when the chance to work for the best gaming company in the world came up, giving her a chance to merge business with pleasure, how could she not apply?
Suddenly she has more friends, interesting neighbors and an intriguing love interest. But when the game begins to awaken something inside her, Kiri is shocked by the talents she never knew she had…and an evil she’d never imagined.
Her nice, safe life is imploding around her—and if she takes up the mantle of her powers, it will never be the same again….
Mid-September, Denver, Colorado
Life was not a game. If life were a game, Kiri Palger would ace it…or reach level sixty-five with massive amounts of gold, arms and armor, not to mention a fabulous wardrobe.
But real life had no do-overs. She couldn’t go back two years and not take the energy and soul draining computer support job with a national company in downtown Denver. Big mistake. Especially when she trudged home at seven-thirty on a Friday evening too exhausted to enjoy the thought of the weekend.
Though buying this house in Mystic Circle had definitely been the right thing to do.
Her hands were full of keys and key card and she was punching in the security code when her phone rang. She swore and went in, laid the keys and workbag on the rickety console table next to the door.
The phone was not in its proper pocket, but had migrated to mix with stuff at the bottom of her tote. She found her cell after the call had gone to message. Her best friend Shannon had called—all right, her only good friend, someone she talked to a couple of times a week. Kiri could always count on Shannon, and her friend could always give her a lift.
“Hey, Kiri, it’s Shannon. Sucky that you had to work late at the sucky job and can’t play Fairies and Dragons with me tonight. I know how much you want that new job so remember you promised me you’d go to your block party tomorrow and meet Jenni Weavers. Don’t duck out of it! And, no, I can’t make it, Averill has a family thing. Tell us all the deets Sunday brunch. Smooches!”
Kiri’s smile faded. She always liked backup when entering a new social situation. She squared her shoulders. Much as she might want to, she wouldn’t skip the party. It was important on two levels—really interacting with her neighbors and meeting Jenni Weavers, Kiri’s heroine.
Her gaze went to her computer set up in the bump of the side bay window. She’d stay out of the game, Fairies and Dragons, tonight—sometimes the game beckoned more than reality. And once you began spending more time in the game than anywhere else, you were in trouble. Not in control.
She sighed. Her living room was bare—she had a lot of house and not much of anything else, like furniture.
But quiet and peaceful. Her shoulders relaxed more than just from the release of the bag’s weight.
A soft golden sunset slanted through the window. The smack of an early autumn had already swatted summer evenings gone for the year, but there was still enough light to walk around the cul-de-sac, Mystic Circle, to wind down from work. Get the kinks out. She was at the age, twenty-six, where she considered how wide her ass would spread if she stayed in a chair all day long every day.
And she’d check on the fabulous koi in the center park’s pond.
She’d recently moved from concrete and asphalt near Capitol Hill and the beautiful fish captivated her. With a smile, she slipped back out into the cool evening.
Hers was the first house of the cul-de-sac, Mystic Circle number one, located on the southeastern corner. The craftsman bungalow was the smallest home and slightly more than she could afford. But, if she could land that new job, maybe… She wanted to love her work. To live her job, not do it.
Like much of Denver, the homes in Mystic Circle were a variety of styles, each house different. She’d passed the small house named “Fanciful,” the Spanish-influence two-story with orange-tiled roof; the redbrick four-square with the many window-paned porch and neared the top of the Circle and the Castle. She walked quickly, the day dying faster than she’d anticipated with thick gray clouds blocking the sun.
A movement caught her eye and she glanced toward the round center park.
The first thing she noticed about the pale man with the pale hair was that he was tall. The next was that he had pointed ears…like a Vulcan…or an elf. .and a certain shimmer like a famous vampire.
Halloween was a month and a half away.
He stepped from the shadows of the tall pine, almost as if he’d come from the pond, but there was no splashing.
How did he know her name? She hadn’t seen him before, and though she hadn’t met all her neighbors, she knew them by sight.
Kiri scanned the area. No one was around. Mystic Circle was safe, but… He didn’t live here and he’d been lurking in the dark shadows of the park. She backed up to the far edge of the sidewalk. No help from the Castle residents—the owners were never home.
“I was told to approach you tomorrow, but since you’re here tonight…” He shrugged elegant shoulders under a thick capelike coat.
Not overly broad shoulders, a runner’s body. And not threatening, but she’d moved from a rather dangerous neighborhood and was wary.
Should she yell? The houses were old and nearly soundproof. There were lights in several of the homes, and if she zoomed… But the guy had a runner’s musculature. She didn’t think she could beat him.
“Pardon me.” He dipped a hand in his pants pocket. When he brought it out—something funny about his hand, too, like he might have more joints than the norm or more flexible bones—he held out a card. “I’m with Eight Corp. Human resources.”
He put an odd spin on “human.” Had some sort of soft, lilting accent she couldn’t place.
“Eight Corp,” she murmured. The parent company of the game Fairies and Dragons, where she’d applied for the job she yearned for, to create new stories for the game.
He turned his body so he looked at the two-story redbrick Denver square where Jenni Weavers lived. “Jindesfarne Mist-weaver Emberdrake will vouch for me.”
Again the unfamiliar accent.
Jindesfarne Mistweaver Emberdrake? Kiri slid her glance to the house he’d indicated. Jenni Weavers’s house. Did he really know Jenni? Kiri had never heard the “Jindesfarne” bit.
Day had gone, darkness was falling. She wanted that perfect job badly, that career. She wanted to love her work.
But his hands were in his pockets now and the card seemed to be floating in midair. He puffed a breath and it drifted toward her.
She blinked and blinked again and the evening was just dark enough that she wasn’t sure she saw what she’d seen. She hadn’t been in the game; this shouldn’t be a game, but reality…but…
One too many too weird items. Kiri whirled and trotted home, her feet slapping concrete, her breathing ragged. She hopped up the stairs to the porch. Sticking the key and key card in the slots, she swept through the door of her home, slammed the door. She stood sucking in breaths in the entry-way on smoothly finished honey-colored wood floor. Walls safe around her.
He hadn’t tried to stop her. Might even still be where she left him. She wasn’t going to look.
Instead, she yanked on the cord that drew the thick burgundy curtains over the front window and hustled past the bay window bump with her home office setup and into the tiny bedroom. Safe.
The man had been too fascinating—compelling—and he was so not her type, urbane and with the runner’s body. She liked men burlier. Overtly muscular. No, this man wasn’t what she wanted. Really.
He said he was from Eight Corp. The company that was looking for a story developer and writer for Fairies and Dragons. Everything she’d ever wanted. She sniffed, realized her nostrils were straining to get the last whiff of the guy’s scent. A fragrance she couldn’t pin down, just like all the rest of him. Sweetly musky? With a faint sharp tang? His skin had seemed to shimmer. That couldn’t be good.
Would she really see him tomorrow?
Lathyr Tricurrent watched Kiri Palger hurry back into her home. She seemed odd even for a human, the waves of her personal field resonating in ways that he recognized—Kiri had a potential for magic.
It was that potential vibrating around her, bending the light into tiny rainbows enveloping her, that had drawn him out.
He’d underestimated the charm of this place and of Kiri herself.
In the spring, more magic had graced the world and much had changed for the Lightfolk. Lathyr was one of those who had begun to experience new powers. And the Meld—merging magic and human technology—had rapidly increased.
Some humans could actually become Lightfolk, transform into magical elemental beings.
Lathyr was one of those who could sense such potential in certain humans—his new talent. He’d been unsure whether to be pleased with this or not.
He was not quite a full Merfolk; there was the slightest trace of elf in his background, enough to give him a point to his ears.
And the highest Lightfolk did not value anyone who wasn’t pure Lightfolk—or purely of one element. He’d been abandoned by his mother, no family claimed him, he had no home. He’d mostly lived on sufferance as a servant at the royal palaces or a guest of lower nobles, forced to be a drifter, and he hated it.
He could never reach the highest status, or even be awarded a tiny estate by the eight who controlled all the true domiciles under the ocean. He wanted a home of his own, not a rough cave.
He wouldn’t have had a chance at that home before the infusion of magic that had given him his new power.
But a notion was edging into his mind that the stratified lines of rank and status were cracking…becoming as fluid and as new as the Meld. Great change brought new opportunities.
In the spring, a halfling—half-human and half-Lightfolk—had become a Princess of the Lightfolk, a Fire Princess. Unprecedented.
He glanced toward the abode of Princess Jindesfarne Mist-weaver Emberdrake. He didn’t need to see the light in her office window to know she was home. The waves of magic—human and Lightfolk and from the Treeman who was her husband—blended and flowed to him, like the taste of rich chocolate on the air. She’d summoned him because she thought the human residents of Mystic Circle could become magical. She was right.
People with such potential—as well as other Lightfolk—had migrated to the cul-de-sac because of Jindesfarne’s powers.
Evil magical ones, Darkfolk, could not live in Mystic Circle, and Lightfolk magic even kept wicked humans from the neighborhood. Too bad Kiri Palger didn’t know that—yet.
Princess Jindesfarne—Jenni Weavers Emberdrake—had been right. Lathyr should have waited until the next day to approach Kiri Palger. But Mystic Circle’s cul-de-sac threw all his talents, not only his new ones, off. He’d never been in a place so rich with magic where all four elements were balanced. When balanced, magic was so much easier to do, to experience.
Balanced magic made living heady, and he’d felt the rush when he’d coalesced from a cloud to the pond in the park a few minutes before. The richness of the place and Kiri had made him act impulsively, speak when he should have stayed silent.
Now Lathyr could feel the minor earth elementals who were attached to two of the households—brownies—running through the tunnels they’d carved under his feet.
Even as he thought of them, one of the brownies popped out of the ground before Lathyr.
“You have any chocolate?” the small man with wrinkled face and large triangular ears asked.
Lathyr frowned. “You should be able to smell that I don’t.” He’d heard the brownies in this area were out of control in their demand for the rare sweet.
The brownieman sniffed lustily. “I smell drying merskin. You go back to your pond. There’s nothing for you here, now.” The less-than-a-meter-high being glanced at Kiri Palger’s shut door.
Lathyr set his teeth, let his lower lip curl.
“When you come back tomorrow, bring us chocolate.” The little earth elemental frowned, looked up at a sky full of dark clouds and shivered. “Darkfolk are very aware of Denver, now. Glad I am here, safe.” He vanished with a discourteous pop.
And Lathyr had to face facts.
He’d liked the looks of Kiri Palger, had wanted to impress her and show her real magic. He’d floated his card to her. That had not gone well.
He’d failed at first contact with the human in a project that might bring him the chance his birth had denied him. A chance to provide outstanding service and be rewarded with an ocean home, some small ocean valley with an acceptable current. The stability of not having to move every few months. He aspired to more than a cave in the ocean or a house on land. He wanted a real home, a place where he could—per-haps—start a family or at least secure his future.
With this project, with Kiri Palger, he could get it. Gaining the notice of a high noble like Princess Mistweaver Em-berdrake was the first step.
That was worth any cost.