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From Chapter One of Atone: A Fairytale
Becca tried the phone number that Dr. Gagnon had given her. It didn’t even ring, just went straight to an automated voicemail. She didn’t bother leaving a message. Somehow she doubted that Nicholas would just call her back for a friendly little chat.
Nicholas’s house was way up in the hills. As in the very nice, very expensive hills. Becca got more and more annoyed as she drove up the winding streets and past gated houses that cost more than her entire family would amass in their lifetimes. How in the heck did Nicholas live in such a nice area? Was he independently wealthy or something? And if so, why in the world had he been working at the Gem and Mineral Museum of Los Angeles for so many years on what had to be a pittance of a salary?
She had been telling the truth to Dr. Gagnon—she really didn’t have any idea about Nicholas’s family. Maybe his parents were wealthy. that could explain why Nicholas acted as if the world owed him something. The road kept winding up, higher than Becca had expected. She began to think that her GPS had completely misled her when she finally found it. Another small street branched off from the main road, and at the end of that, completely isolated from all the other multi-million dollar homes, was a large, older looking mansion separated from the street by a large wrought iron gate.
“You’ve got be kidding.” The house—at least what she could see of it—was ridiculous. It was set back from the street by a huge expanse of emerald green lawn. A long, tree-lined drive ran between it and the front gate. More trees obscured most of the front, but she could tell it was huge. As in an-entire-apartment-building-plus-could-fit-inside-it huge. It was designed in what Becca would classify as a “Tudor Revival Meets Hollywood Golden Age Set Designer” style. Houses like this really could only exist in Southern California.
There were no cars in the drive, but one had to assume a mansion like this would have plenty of garage space. There didn’t seem to be any movement or sign of life on the grounds. A house like this took people to keep up. Like servant-type people. Becca snorted at the thought of Nicholas having servants. Poor schmucks. She hoped he at least paid well.
Becca pulled her car up to the front of the gate, rolled down her window, and pushed the call button on the intercom. No response. In fact, there was no indication that the system was even operable.
She jabbed the button a few more times, just for good measure, before pulling the Jetta back out and parking it along the curb. Maybe no one was there. Or maybe Nicholas was laying dead of a premature heart attack somewhere on the grounds and no one would ever find him. Or maybe someday they would find his body and then find all of his weirdo files on Lilia and start asking questions. And maybe he wasn’t dead, but just holed up in there with said weirdo files, in which case she’d off him herself and make sure to wipe her fingerprints off the intercom on her way out.
She wasn’t usually prone to homicidal thoughts, Becca admitted darkly as she got out of the air conditioned car and back into the heat, but Nicholas had always been a special case. As she examined the front gates, she pulled her long hair up off her neck and into a sloppy ponytail.
The wrought iron gate was at least twelve feet tall and rather intimidating. “Hello?” she called as loudly as she could through the bars. She didn’t really expect a response, if anyone was in the house, it was too far away for her to be heard. The intercom was obviously a newer addition. The gates seemed to be as old and over-styled as the rest of the house.
“Whoever built this thing must have had a serious royalty complex,” she muttered to herself as she measured herself against the gaps between the bars. The gate definitely qualified in the ornate and pretentious departments. They had been designed more for looks than actual security, and by twisting just the right way she was able to slip through.
Halfway up the drive it occurred to her that maybe she should let someone know where she was. She paused under one of the large elm trees that shaded the drive and texted Lilia the address.
– Don’t ask. Complicated. I’m at this address. If you don’t hear from me in 20 minutes I want you to call the police and tell them where I am. –
Becca continued her walk toward the mansion. She was less than surprised when her phone buzzed with an incoming call a second later.
“Are you insane? What kind of a message is that? Are you in trouble?”
“Hey, Lilia. No, I’m not insane. Well wait, maybe I am. I’m at Nicholas Hunt’s house; he may or may not be here. I’m checking on him for Dr. Gagnon. Just thought someone should know where I am.”
There was a shocked silence on the other end of the phone. “Are you serious? I thought that man was in France.” “So did I. I guess not. I’ll tell you all about it tonight.”
“And you want me to call the police in twenty minutes if I haven’t heard from you? That does not make me very comfortable.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“If he is there and he threatens you in any way, knock him out and we will deal with it later.”
Becca laughed in spite of herself. Lilia’s answer to the problem of Nicholas hadn’t changed much in two years. When he’d proved less than helpful, wanting to exploit the fact that Luke had awakened the enchanted Lilia and magically taken her place asleep on that crazy, spell-laden bed in the museum, Lilia had responded with a sleeping curse of her own. They’d stuffed Nicholas in a storage room and set about figuring out how to break Luke’s enchantment by themselves. None of the girls had been very impressed with their advisor at the museum not only failing to come to their assistance but trying to use the unusual circumstances for personal gain. Even Alex, who’d had a crush on Nicholas, had her eyes opened to his true personality rather quickly.
“Will do. Not sure I’ve got the sleeping spell mastered quite like you, but I’ll give it a go. I’ll call you in a few.” Becca shoved her phone back into the back pocket of her jeans once Lilia had said goodbye. The walk from the front gate had taken longer than she expected, but she was finally facing the imposing front doors of this mausoleum that Nicholas apparently called home.
Becca could hear the doorbell echoing throughout the house, but there was no answer. She knocked, loudly, on the wooden doors. Still no response. “This is moving past dumb to plain old stupid.” She fanned her face with her hand. It was hot. Really, annoyingly hot. Nicholas obviously either wasn’t here or didn’t want to be bothered. “I should just turn around and go.”
Instead of walking back to her car, Becca tromped around the outside of the house. It was built almost right up against the hill and far enough away from other houses that she couldn’t see them. The trees made it seem even more isolated. From the west side of the house there was a spectacular view down the hills and over the city of Los Angeles. On the other side the trees thinned out and a large lawn rolled out for what seemed like forever.
There was a detached garage at the end of the driveway. Planters full of flowers were pressed up against the sides of the garage; she could spot the violets even from this distance. For some reason it annoyed her that Nicholas had her “emblem flower” as Lilia called it—the flower that responded best to her magic, on his grounds. The front door of the garage was open and she could see a dark, sporty looking BMW. It wasn’t the same car that Nicholas had driven when he worked at the museum, but that was two years ago. He could have easily bought a new car. Becca walked back down the driveway toward the house, thinking that she must be coming up on her deadline to call Lilia back. She’d just pulled her phone out of her back pocket to text Lilia when she felt it.
There was magic coming from the house.