It’s coming! MAGIC’S CROWN will be here forthwith! And by forthwith, I mean at the end of February!

Wanna see some of it?

Of course you do!

Chapter One

This was going to be the easiest job ever.

Stacks Acosta-Campos scratched his best friend and fellow veteran, Lando, behind the ears. “Remember, you’re supposed to look pitiful.”

The dog hunched away from him with a glare.

“I know where she’s going to stick that thermometer, man, but you’ve got to take one for the team. You know the plan. The doc falls for your sweet puppy dog eyes, then she listens to our story, then we take her back to Volshev, where Ms. Young pays us a stack of cash that’ll keep you in kibble for a very long time. The good kind, not the scary stuff off the bottom shelf at the Dollar Store.”

Stacks hadn’t run a con in years, but it was coming back to him. He didn’t want to strong-arm his mark unless there were no other options. All he had right now was a picture and a location, plus a very direct instruction from Bobbie Young, the woman who’d been running Volshev since God was a little boy.

“Bring her back, unharmed, in three days. Try not to frighten her too badly.”

Ms. Young was all heart.

Lando whimpered, but relented, jumping easily out of the back of the battered Jeep that Stacks had bought used when he got out of the Air Force. The Belgian Malinois dropped his ears and his head, slinking behind his owner in a truly inspired display of doggy digestive distress.

The young woman at the front counter frowned in sympathy when they walked in five minutes before the office was supposed to close.

“Oh, poor thing. He looks unhappy. Did y’all have an appointment?”

Stacks let his shoulders drop like his dog’s. “No, we’re new in town – just passing through, really – and Lando started feeling off. I was hoping you could fit us in.”

The dog whined, just a little, and that sealed the deal. “Dr. Theron should be finishing up with her last appointment any minute. I’m sure she’d be glad to see you.”

As he filled out the forms she gave him, he figured he was equally sure that by the time this assignment was done, Dr. Theron would be glad never to see him again. Oh well. The money he was being offered would go a long way toward easing the dying twinges of his conscience. And buying his dog a steak and a toy shaped like an Oscar award for this performance.

A puppy came charging out of the examination room, dragging a woman at the end of the leash.

“Daff… Daffodil… Dang it, Daffy! Quit pulling!” The woman had absolutely zero control over the pup, a ball of black-furred energy with a tiny ruff around its shoulders, claws that were leaving scrapes in the tile floor, needle-sharp teeth, and eyes that glowed green.

A hellhound.

He wished her luck.

Lando had perked up in interest at the puppy, but put his ears back when another woman came out to the lobby. The dog nudged his knee and he looked down to find that his hand had clamped down on the leash so hard, his knuckles were white.

“Mr…” She consulted the sheet he’d filled out. “Acosta-Campos, and Lando. Nice to meet you. I’m Dr. Theron.”

The picture Ms. Young had given him didn’t do her justice.

Medina Theron was a fairy princess, but not the cute Disney kind. She wasn’t blond and sparkly and slender. Oh no. Wildly curling dark hair was pinned back ruthlessly, with only the tips of her pointed ears covered by the locks her hairpins couldn’t control. Wide eyes dominated her heart-shaped face, and it took him a moment to figure out what was striking about them. Her right eye was the color of hot, black coffee, but her left eye was a piercing green, pine-dark at the outside edge, and lighter toward the pupil. Her pointed chin and soft, pink lips, devoid of lipstick, finished the picture.

The white lab coat she wore over her neat, professional clothing was there to protect her from pet grossness. He knew that. But he didn’t like the way it hid her figure from him. Still, he could tell from the way it hung that she was no wispy sprite. Back in the day when he didn’t have as much self-control and not nearly enough respect for the opposite gender, he’d have bitten a knuckle and groaned out, “Ay, mami!”

Yeah, she didn’t need that. And guessing by the growing fire in those gorgeous eyes, she wasn’t going to put up with him just staring at her like an idiot for much longer, either.

Ay, mami.

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