EXCERPT FROM ILLEGAL MAGIC

Chapter 1

            Every spell has a metaphysical price. Want to blast through a ten-foot concrete wall? Be prepared to spend the next few days in bed, vomiting toads. Aching to spin straw into gold? Great idea, really. Just don't be surprised when all your teeth fall out and you see double for a week.

            Drinking is a lot like using magic. Go ahead and guzzle seven glasses of champagne, four shots of whiskey and … was it three pints of cider and two pints of lager or the other way around? Who cares? The important thing is to have fun. Celebrate! The skull-splitting headache and gut-churning nausea will sort themselves out in the morning.

             Unfortunately, it was morning. Early morning. And my skull-splitting headache was making it really hard to focus on the gut-churning nausea. Which was a shame, since the gut-churning nausea was threatening to erupt in a pretty unpleasant way.

            I groaned. Then, I clapped a hand over my mouth and staggered to the toilet.

            After the worst of the heaving was over, I sat back on my heels and took stock of the situation. I was naked, which wasn't unusual, since I sleep in the nude. There were two hickeys on my inner left thigh and one on my right breast.

            That was unusual.

            I lowered my aching head to see whether I could reach any of the hickeys with my mouth. The one on my breast was do-able, just barely, but the two inside my thigh were impossible. Okay. So someone else was responsible for them.

            I peered through the bathroom doorway into the dimly-lit bedroom. My sheets were rumpled, my comforter was lying in the far corner, and the top mattress was slightly askew. But no one else was in the room.

            At least, not anymore.

            I probed my still-throbbing brain, but all I could access were hazy images. A party. Dancing. Drinking. A bar. Music. More drinking. A tall, smiling man. Dark eyes. Dark hair. More dancing. Laughing. Even more drinking. Kissing. Touching. Heat. Lots of heat.

            I crawled weakly back to bed, the motion making my stomach buck and roll.

            "Stop it," I told my stomach. My voice was hoarse. I dimly recalled whooping a lot during the party.

            I also recalled crying out as I made love to … someone. I groped for a name, but my brain was too busy being in pain.

            I reached the bed and climbed in. I rolled over something that crackled. A piece of paper. It had writing on it.

            My eyes couldn't focus.

            My brain wanted a rest.

            My stomach wanted to lie very, very still.

            I fell asleep again.

***

            When I woke up, the clock said it was a quarter to one. I blinked, pleasantly surprised to find I could focus my eyes long enough to read a clock. I sat up, tentatively, and took stock of the situation. I still had a headache, but it was minor, almost pleasant in comparison to the earlier sledgehammer. My stomach felt weak and sour, but it didn't want to turn itself inside out and leap up my throat, so I counted that as a major improvement, too.

            A piece of paper was stuck to the palm of my hand. I raised it to eye-level and the words swam into focus.

            "Congrats, Sexy Lawyer Lady. I loved your oral arguments. XOXO –F"

            I squinted at the paper, willing the message to make sense, but everything remained vague and confusing.

            I dropped the paper back onto the crumpled sheets and concentrated on getting dressed. A shower sounded good, but I didn’t trust my legs not to collapse under me. I settled for brushing my teeth twice, splashing hot water on my face, and running a brush through my hair before I pulled on a comfy pair of old jeans and a soft cotton tee.

            My teeth still felt fuzzy, my eyes were still more bloodshot than brown, and my hair was still a mess, but at least my hickies weren't visible anymore.  

            My muscles were sore, like I had run a couple of miles and then done a bunch of sit-ups, without stretching first. Which was, odd, because I'm not what you would call athletic. In fact, most people would call me curvy. Mean people might call me chubby. Buying jeans that make my butt look good is a chore, and I can't wear anything strapless, but by and large, I can't complain.

            I certainly didn't remember hearing complaints about my body last night. Of course, I couldn't remember much of anything about last night. 

            I slipped out of my room as quietly as possible, mindful that my brother might still be sleeping, despite the late hour. Drew's door was closed, but I could hear the sound of giggling as I tiptoed past. Four distinct voices, three women and Drew. Not asleep, then. Just busy.

            I rolled my eyes, then breathed a sigh of relief as I realized that for once my brother's man-whore tendencies were working in my favor. Without an orgy to hold his attention, Drew might have noticed me doing acrobatics with an unknown – hot my brain supplied, helpfully – guy.

            Not that Drew would judge. On the contrary, he would congratulate me like I'd finally managed to do magic. Or passed the bar exam.

            Passed the bar exam.

            I'd passed the bar exam!

            It felt like a light had gone on inside my head.

            Four years of college. Three years of law school. Seven years of cramming for tests and researching papers and taking notes. Months of stress and study for the bar exam.

            All that hard work had culminated in a swearing-in ceremony yesterday afternoon at the courthouse downtown.

            It was supposed to be a simple ceremony. A few remarks by a judge. A bunch of newly-licensed attorneys raising their right hands and taking an oath in unison. Some stale cookies and weak coffee afterward.

            I was pretty sure that wasn't what had actually happened, though.

            I frowned and rubbed my temples. I really wanted to remember the ceremony. After all, becoming a lawyer was my greatest dream. In fact, it was pretty much my only dream, since my original dream – of becoming a powerful sorceress – hadn’t panned out. That ceremony had been the culmination of years of hard work, and it was a shame I couldn't remember it.

            On the other hand, maybe I didn't want to remember it. Maybe my brain was blocking out what had happened as a protective measure. Maybe if I remembered, the shame and horror would drive me insane.

            No, that was ridiculous. Nothing that bad could have happened. It was a swearing-in ceremony, for crying out loud. All I had to do was put on a suit, make small talk with people who remembered me from law school, and listen to a few dull speeches.

            Preferably without loss of life or limb. Or dignity.

            I was still alive and my arms and legs were all attached, albeit a bit rubbery. But according to the grainy snippets of memory now floating around my brain, my dignity had taken quite a beating.

            I couldn't say I was surprised. When my friends and family get involved, someone's dignity is bound to get a little beaten-up. Usually mine.

            Don’t get me wrong. My family and friends are great: warm, caring, funny, kind, loving. All the good adjectives. They’re also brilliant sorcerers, and they have absolutely no inkling that a swearing-in ceremony is a solemn event where everyone stays fully-clothed and no one offers thanks for passing the bar exam by tossing a thousand silk scarves into a carafe of dragon fire.

            I'd concocted a foolproof plan for ensuring that my swearing-in ceremony went off without a hitch. I hadn't breathed a word about it to any of my friends or family.

            I said it was a foolproof plan, not a complex plan.

            Unfortunately, it wasn't foolproof enough, because somehow they'd found out.

            And they'd arrived in a puff of lavender smoke, like a crazy loving, magical carnival.

            It happened so quickly I didn’t have time to react. One minute, the keynote speaker, an appellate court judge, was droning about the value of public service. The next minute, there was a flash of purple smoke, and a burst of chimes.

            Then, the world turned inside-out.

            My fairy godparents – all six of them – led the procession in a tiny golden carriage drawn by flying ponies, swathed in a cloud of glittery golden fairy dust. My mom and dad followed. Mom's jewelry was glowing lavender as she activated the magic in her enchanted necklaces, bracelets, rings, and earrings. All around her, music swelled and people began to smile and tap their feet. The courtroom windows flew open and birds swooped inside, whistling a tune that sounded suspiciously like 'Celebration.'

            Apparently, that's what Mom thought the cool kids were listening to nowadays.

            Dad wandered in next, muttering under his breath. I was touched to see that he was wearing a rumpled suit for the occasion and his beard looked freshly trimmed. But his hair was its usual mess, uncombed and sticking up at odd angles. And his spectacles were bent, giving him a slightly tipsy look. The overall effect was that of an absent-minded professor.

            He wasn't absent-minded, though. He was casting spells, left and right. The plain wooden benches were replaced by embroidered chaise lounges, the electric lights were transformed into candelabras, and where the judges' bench used to be there was now a sapphire-blue pond. As I watched, a trio of lithe blond women rose from the depths of the water and began tossing a golden ball around. The iridescent scales on their muscular tails flipped and splashed in the water as they played.

            My brother, always a show-off, was flying above Mom and Dad, shooting tiny purple bolts from his fingertips. That explained why no one was gasping, shrieking or crying. Drew was casting a calm-down spell. I felt some of my own tension seep away, either because of the spell or because I now knew there wasn't going to be mass panic.

             Behind my family was a huge cake, floating through the door of its own accord. It was a gorgeous concoction, four tiers high, decorated with impossible swirls of icing. As the cake bobbed into view, the modest snack table in the back of the room exploded into an enormous buffet, laden with steaming platters of appetizers and sugar-glazed sweets. The punch bowl transformed into a champagne fountain, and assorted trays of hors d'oeuvres began to float around the room.

            I wasn't surprised to spot a mop of dark curls just beyond the cake. My best friend, Kalvin, is a baker, and he conjures up food like no one else. 

            I barely had time to absorb the music and food and mermaids before flowers began springing up everywhere. The walls morphed into vine-covered trellises, and the floor sprouted a carpet of delicate red and yellow blossoms. The scent of roses wafted through the staid old courtroom as petals began to drift softly from the vaulted ceiling.

            Speaking of the ceiling, it was gone, replaced by a starry night sky, lit intermittently with the flare of sparklers. All of this was obviously the work of my other best friend, Dara. I caught a glimpse of her golden hair, gleaming in the starlight and smiled in spite of myself.

            How can you stay angry at people who throw you a party?

            The room was overflowing with assorted friends and relatives, all of them dancing and laughing and drinking, and kissing and hugging me. It seemed everyone I knew had donned their finery and come to wish me well.

My fellow newly-sworn-in lawyers and their guests were caught in the web of magic, like fish in a net. The lovely music enchanted them; the air grew thick with magic; a shimmering veil of enchantment swirled around the entire courthouse. People began to laugh, to dance, to embrace one another. The appellate court judge jumped into the pond and began frolicking with the mermaids, heedless of his dignity. A group of young men in somber blue suits sang along with the birds, enthusiastically belting out the lyrics of Kool and the Gang.

            The formerly sedate crowd became a rollicking, laughing, dancing mob. I caught a glimpse of one of the senior partners at Wilkens, Jorgensen, & Chauncey, the law firm where I was scheduled to begin work on Monday. He had loosened his tie and was grinning ear to ear as he danced something suspiciously resembling a jig. He had to be at least seventy years old. I fervently hoped he wouldn't drop dead of a heart attack.

            A trio of guitar-toting pixies roamed through the crowd, trails of silvery dust floating from their tiny fingers as they plucked strings and fingered frets. The valedictorian of my law school class, Sally Henderson, was turning cartwheels, heedless of the fact that her racy red panties were flashing the crowd.

            Who would’ve guessed Sally Henderson wore racy red panties?           

            “Congratulations, Lani!” Mom called, blowing me a kiss. I blew one back. She meant well. They all did.

            After all, I was the first person in my family to go to college, let alone law school. Everyone else was a sorcerer.

            Except for cousin Ernie, who was a wizard. 

            “I hope you built a forgetting component into this spell!” I whispered to my brother as he boogied past me, a pretty girl in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other.

            “Of course we did!” he shouted back. “Relax, Lani. Enjoy your party!”

He had a point. It would be rude to reject a party thrown in my honor. I grabbed his glass and took a big gulp. From across the room, Kal and Dara raised their own glasses in a loving toast.

            I’m pretty sure it was the best swearing-in ceremony, ever.           

***

            I sagged against the living room wall as the memories came flooding back. We had partied for hours. And then, Kal and Dara and I had gone to the Goat & Chicken to continue drinking. I rubbed my temples as more fragments of memory floated to the surface.

            There had been a band at the tavern. A good band. The lead guitar player had been hot. After their set, I bought the guitar player a drink. I'm pretty sure I bought the whole band drinks. Come to think of it, I might have bought drinks for everyone in the Goat & Chicken.

            The rest of the evening remained kind of blurry. Except for the guitar player. His name was Fallion, and my memories of him were surprisingly detailed. I told him I loved his – eyes, lips, hair, hands, butt – music. He laughed and – kissed me – brushed my hair back from my face. We – drank, laughed, danced, kissed, kissed, kissed – talked. He walked me home. I invited him in for – groping, kissing, pressing, undressing, biting, wrestling, mind-blowing sexa drink.

            I flushed as I remembered Fallion pressing against me in the dark, his mouth hot, his hands gentle. I remembered the urgency and the joy and the dizzy soaring intensity of the night before.

            No wonder I felt sore. It was a miracle I could even walk today. If I hadn't been absolutely certain I didn't have any magical talent, I would have sworn we'd levitated, soul-morphed, and done a few other magical things there weren't yet words for.

            But that was impossible, because I didn't have a magical bone in my body.

            You had a magical bone in your body last night, my dirty, indecent brain taunted me.

            Stupid, sophomoric brain. How the hell had it gotten me through law school?

            I wanted to feel mortified. I had picked up a guy in a tavern and done things with him I couldn't pronounce. After all the grief I'd given Drew, it turned out I was just as big a whore as he was. I was Slutty McSlutslut, the queen of Slut Town.

            I didn't feel like a slut, though. I felt pretty damn good, headache and nausea notwithstanding.

            In fact, I was pretty sure last night had been the best night of my life.

            And then, it all came crashing down.

            "He left a note," I whispered in horror as the realization hit me. "He left a thank you note."

            It had been a while since I'd had sex, but I didn't think the etiquette had changed radically. When you liked someone, you were still there in the morning when they woke up. You didn't disappear in the middle of the night. And you certainly didn't leave a thank you note.

            I groaned and stumbled out of the house. Coffee. I needed coffee.

            A lot of coffee.