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by Megan Hart
Description: He loves her, or he loves her not. There's only one way to find out-- take a chance. For most people, Arithmancy is no more than a jumble of numbers. For Somnus Keep instructor Elspeth Valerin, those numbers are her refuge, her passion. Her magic--her only magic since a painful incident from her past cripples her ability to unlock the inner power of the thrall. Today her calculations indicate change is in the air. That's not what she smells when she enters The Slaughtered Lamb, though. She smells ale. Smoke. And when she catches a glimpse of the owner of the Lamb, memories. Tonight there's a new face among the regulars in Connell Byrne's pub. The woman he once loved with all his heart--before she left it in pieces. And one thing hasn't changed: she is still clearly--inexplicably--afraid of him. Elspeth's heart is racing. That she and Conn are here at this moment means her numbers were right. Beyond this moment, though, is a fate she cannot comprehend. The one equation she's never been able to calculate. The one outcome she cannot control--love. This title has been previously published under the title Everything Counts. Product Warnings Star-crossed lovers who need a little push to fully understand the phrase, "The whole is more than the sum of its parts." Explicit sex with enough steam to prove the Chaos Theory.
eBook Publisher: Samhain Publishing, Ltd., 2011
eBookwise Release Date: January 2011
2 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [78 KB]
Reading time: 47-67 min.
Change was coming. Elspeth Valerin knew it. She'd seen it this morning in her daily calculations. The date, her name and birthday, the color of the sky and what she'd eaten for breakfast--all had been given a numerical value and figured in an equation along with a dozen other factors.
Everything counts, she thought as she followed Gabriana through the carved wooden door to The Slaughtered Lamb. For most people, Arithmancy was no more than a jumble of numbers. For Elspeth, it was her life.
"I'm so pleased you decided to come out with us tonight, Elspeth," Gabriana said over her shoulder. "We've been asking you for ages. I thought you'd never say yes."
"The stars must finally have aligned," teased Dayla Mornit. Dayla taught Runes at Somnus Keep.
"No," interjected Callis Dardin. She taught Astronomy. "The numbers finally added up. Am I right, Elspeth?"
Elspeth smiled a bit as she followed her colleagues to a table toward the back of the pub. "Something like that."
The scent of sawdust, alcohol and food greeted her, and she paused to look around. Seventeen tables, each with three or four chairs. Six windows. A long, polished wood bar stretched along the left side of the room. Twenty-two stools lined up along it. Toward the back, a swinging door leading to the kitchen, and a hallway. A dartboard with eight darts stuck into the cork. Six musicians in the corner struck up a tune to cheers from the substantial crowd.
She was counting again and took a deep breath to force herself to focus on the quality of the pub rather than the quantity of the items within it.
"I admire anyone who can make sense of Arithmancy, much less teach it," said Dayla. "I can't add the contents of my pocket, much less turn everything I do into an equation."
Elspeth gave a tentative smile. "It's useful to know how to do it. But it's just as useful to know someone who can make the calculations for you."
Dayla stared at her for a moment. "Is it possible our quiet Elspeth has just put me in my place?"
"Oh, no, I--"
"Hush," said Gabriana. "She's teasing you."
Callis laughed, looking at the serving lass headed their way. "Ignore her, Elspeth. She's a sour old biddy because nobody likes Runes either. And good eve to you, Gretel Deloras!"
Elspeth couldn't help staring at Gretel, whose smile was almost blinding in its brightness. Her lush curves threatened to burst the seams of her simple peasant shirt, worn so low off her shoulders the dusky hint of aureoles peeked out from the lace around the edge. A man's hands would easily span her waist, while her hips swelled out below with the promise of sensual delights any man would be unable to resist.
"Who's your friend?" Gretel's voice oozed such blatant sensuality it turned the heads of the men at the next table. She leaned forward to smile directly at Elspeth. "Hello, honey. I'm Gretel."
"Elspeth," she stammered, overwhelmed by Gretel's presence.
Gretel laughed, tossing back her mane of blond curls so they fell down her back. "Welcome to The Slaughtered Lamb, sweet thing. What can I get you? We have everything you could want and probably some things you don't."
Elspeth hated the heatroses that bloomed in her cheeks and hoped the pub's dim lighting hid them. At the school she managed to maintain the near-constant cool and collected demeanor necessary to keep her students in line. Here she was out of her element, unused to the attention and uncertain how to react.
Gretel took their orders and glanced again at Elspeth, her bright blue gaze lingering. "Sure I can't bring you something strong, sweetheart? You're a mite pale. Maybe an ale would do your blood some good."
"All right," she answered, surprising herself. "Ale would be lovely, thank you."
Gretel raised one perfect golden eyebrow, as though Elspeth's politely phrased response had surprised her, but she smiled. "Grand, lass. I'll bring your drinks right over, ladies."
"Sweet Astria, if I looked like her, I'd never get out of bed." Callis shifted in her chair, watching Gretel sashay away.
"You wouldn't?" Elspeth turned to look at the Callis. "Why not? She's beautiful."
Callis looked perplexed for a moment before laughing. "Oh, Elspeth, you're such a dear."
Damn. She'd said the wrong thing. Again. 'Twas a talent, she supposed, to consistently come out with the wrong words.
Gabriana came to her rescue again. "Callis didn't mean she'd stay abed out of grief, Elspeth. She meant that if she looked like Gretel, she'd have so many lovers, she'd never get out of bed."
Again, Elspeth blushed. "Ah. Of course."
In a world where lovemaking was as practiced a pastime as playing a sport or taking up a hobby, the subject of sex was not one that ought to have brought such heat to her cheeks. Yet of course it did, because though lovemaking was considered not only an enjoyable part of life but a necessary one, Elspeth did not partake.
Her colleagues wouldn't have known that, of course. It wasn't good manners to ask, and she doubted they'd assume she was celibate. She was a magicreator after all. An instructor at Somnus Keep. Arithmancy, the study of numerical values used to make predictions, meant she rarely had to harness the power of the thrall. Nobody had to know her control of it was flawed, that though she could sometimes form an orb of power, she could never sustain it or make it do anything more than look pretty sitting on her palm. She was a magicreator who could not control the high magic and therefore could not use it. She was a failure, and worse than that.
Elspeth Valerin was a fraud.
"Here we go, ladies." Gretel returned bearing a tray of glasses she set down in front of all of them with the unerring memory of a good server. "Ale for you, my lovely."
Gretel smiled and put her hand on her ample hip. "Anything else I can get for you, loves?"
"This will do for now." Dayla sipped from her glass, the foam from the ale coating her upper lip.
Gretel moved away, and Elspeth watched her work the tables. She flirted with the men, and if her obvious pleasure at their attention was false, she did a fine job of making it believable. Envy, fierce and shocking, made Elspeth gulp her ale. A woman with control like that over her body could do anything.
"Two sevendays of freedom!" Gabriana crowed. "What will you do with it?"
"Sleep in!" Callis wriggled with a gleeful sound.
"Stay up late," Dayla countered.
"What about you, Elspeth? Have you any grand plans for the holiday?"
Elspeth intended to do the same thing on her holiday she did all the rest of the time--study, read, knit. Perhaps continue to work toward advanced certification in her field.
She opened her mouth to answer, but before she could, Callis pointed discreetly and gave a whispered giggle. "There he is!"
"Who?" Elspeth asked, even as she followed Callis's pointing finger with her gaze.
"The owner. Conn." Dayla giggled too. "I forgot you've never come with us before. Isn't he beautiful?"
Conn. The name was not uncommon. Hundreds of mothers must have named their sons the same. The man who owned this pub, the beautiful man who had all the ladies giggling and pointing, did not have to be the same Connell from her past.
But he was.