HOUSE OF CARDS

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Eighteen-year-old Sherry has just begun her newly independent life in Paris when she is kidnapped by a group of vampires. They hold her hostage in the House of Cadamon, their catacomb lair beneath the city, ruled with an iron fist by a leader known as “the Master.”

The only thing keeping Sherry alive is her ability to tell vampire fortunes through tarot cards, a task she is forced to perform night after night. She finds an unlikely ally in Lucas, a four-hundred-year-old reluctant blood drinker who is as much a prisoner of Cadamon as she is.

Things get even more complicated when Sherry and Lucas begin falling for each other—hard. Will they be able to keep Sherry alive long enough for them both to escape the House of Cadamon? Or will the Master and his band of evil minions succeed in controlling the lives of the young lovers—by whatever means necessary?

With its breathtaking Parisian setting, fast-moving plot, and strong-willed heroine, this paranormal romance will keep you spellbound!

Chapter 1–Meeting

He was getting closer.

She was sure of that now. The boy was moving almost imperceptibly, nearer and nearer to her tarot stand.

The tattered umbrella that had shielded her against the late-day sun impaired her view. Pretending to scan the entire square, she peered over the old folding table, covered in its faded shawl. Each time she glanced in his direction, she could tell that he had gotten closer. But even out of the corner of her eye, she never saw him move. It was unnerving.

He wasn’t much taller than her. But smart-looking. Maybe in his late teens, early twenties. She’d gotten a closer look when making change with another table earlier. He had a long, thin nose and bright, shiny eyes. His mouth seemed soft and kind. He wore his hair in a ponytail, tightly bound at the nape of the neck. His face looked as if it had been carved from granite. Not that it was especially beautiful, just . . . hard. Hard and unyielding. Like statues she’d seen in the Louvre. Even his pores resembled the imperfections inherent in stone. The light blue veins at his temples brought to mind the streaks in marble.

She felt intimidated, yet found herself wishing he would approach her. It was difficult to discern his intentions.

Seriously, did this guy want his fortune told or not?

It had been such a slow day. She could definitely use the cash. Already the evening was beginning to set in. Soon potential customers in Place du Tertre would be off in search of their suppers, and she’d have to pack it in, return tomorrow.

Suddenly, he looked directly at her.

When their eyes met, Sherry’s heart gave a hard thump. It was like someone had struck a gong deep within her chest. The feeling resounded from her very core, spreading all the way through her limbs to her fingers and toes. The sensation—an endless ringing—stayed with her even after the boy went back to browsing the tables. Sherry wondered if he’d had the same reaction.

She looked around the square, trying to distract herself, to ignore how shaken she felt. One particularly loud vendor was hawking his new “I Heart Paris” T-shirts. Vendors in la place had long since learned she was a local, and would not heed their offers of a quick portrait, or cheap trinkets priced twenty times their true worth.

She pretended to stretch her arms and shoulders, faking a yawn. It gave her the opportunity to sneak another glance at the boy. He was even more handsome than she’d realized at first. He wasn’t perfect-looking—a few features in his face, like his mouth and his chin, seemed disproportionate to the rest. But Sherry didn’t mind. It gave him character. She thought that so-called beautiful people all looked the same. It was the little differences that made others distinctive and more interesting.

Was it just her imagination, or was his head tilted ever so slightly towards her, even though the merchandise he was considering was on his other side? He’d separated from the group he’d arrived with, men and women of varied ages, all dressed in dark clothing. She turned her attention back to the opposite end of the square. She didn’t want him to catch her staring.

At least the weather was pleasant enough. The intense heat of summer had finally cooled, and she could enjoy sitting outside again without the feeling of being baked alive. Sherry studied the muted grays and purples of cobblestones beneath the shady trees. The foliage was already beginning to turn shades of orange and red, enlivening the entire look of la place. Soon students would return to school. Sherry was a bit giddy at the thought that, for the first time in twelve years, she would not be among them. Graduation and le bac (an enormous end-of-year test) were behind her at last.

She should see what the cards thought of the boy. She’d put them away earlier, when it looked like rain, and hadn’t had a customer since. Rummaging through her tired old rucksack, she cursed at herself for not being able to find the deck. It was difficult to locate anything in the overcrowded bag. She knew she should be more organized, but somehow, she never found the motivation.

She felt a familiar little flutter of panic. What if they were lost? It was the deck Kaileen had given her before she died. It would be almost as bad as losing her sister all over again. First the divorce, then the drunk driver who murdered Kaileen. The cards were her last link to the best time of her life, before everything had gone horribly wrong. The pictures on them were almost as old as tarot itself. Her and her sister’s magical energies were all over the cards, worn from years of use. It would take her ages to build the same kind of bond with another deck, if she even had the heart to try.

She briefly considered using her telekinetic powers to move the cards, wherever they were, toward her hand. She stuck it deep into the sack and concentrated hard.

Nothing. As usual. Her hand was empty—she should have known. She rarely had any true ability where telekinesis was concerned; it only worked during times of great stress. Which her body and mind knew this was not.

Grumbling, she resorted to the old-fashioned method. One by one, she removed each item from the sack, until the only thing that remained in it was the tarot deck. She focused mentally on the boy, shuffled the cards several times, and then drew one from the middle. The Moon. Another: Queen of swords. Weird.

Recently, all her card-drawings were strange and dark when related to her or someone close to her. The Devil kept coming up a great deal. When she looked down at that particular card, she could almost feel the demon’s beady eyes trying to pry into her soul, his claw-covered hands all over her skin. The Devil could mean “watch out for danger.” She’d begun to triple-check the door locks and look five times before crossing the street.

She glanced again at the boy. Now he was just two stalls down from hers, but she could tell he was only pretending to examine the gaudy merchandise for sale. He kept stealing glances in her direction. Only occasionally did he give a nod to the rest of his group.

It was funny. They didn’t look like ordinary tourists. They were too well-dressed, even for the typical wealthy, arrogant visitors who came to her stall, prefacing their request to have their cards read by saying they didn’t believe in them.

And they weren’t . . . doing anything. Not consulting maps and Métro routes. Not looking at the historic buildings and pointing upwards, mouths open in astonishment. Not on their cell phones, trying to make reservations in broken, stilted French.

No, they weren’t tourists. They must be locals. But they weren’t doing the things locals did either. Sharing an easy café au lait on the terraces. Checking e-mail or phone messages. If they had come to Montmartre for a pleasure excursion, they weren’t seeking anything remotely pleasurable. They were just standing in the center of the square, staring at the people around them.

A tall, dark-haired member of the group was giving her a knowing smile. She looked left and right, then pointed at herself, as if to say it couldn’t really be her he was interested in. He gave a slight laugh, and nodded at her. She considered smiling back, but caught herself at the last moment. Something about the man didn’t feel right, even though he was very attractive. She looked back down at her cards, pretending to be thoroughly absorbed. Then she stole another glance at the boy.

He frowned at a trinket, then picked it up and examined the other side. As he frowned, deep wrinkles appeared in his forehead, vanishing in an instant. Strange, the way his features became animated all at once, then just as quickly turned immobile. He continued running his white, slender fingers over the cheap baubles.

His expression touched her. He looked like someone had given him bad news. A bruise-like shade of tan colored his upper and lower eyelids, giving the firm white flesh of his face an even paler appearance. For a moment Sherry thought he was wearing makeup. Which wouldn’t be uncommon for a man to do in Montmartre. But as she studied him more closely, she surmised that he must be ill. Perhaps HIV? God, that would be awful. Maybe that was why he looked so sad. Her heart ached for him.

She decided to take a chance.

“What’s your dearest wish, sir?” Sherry called out to him in English. If that didn’t work, she’d try French next. Sherry was American, but she wasn’t sure of his nationality—it could be almost anything. But somehow, she wasn’t surprised when he turned around.

“Your most secret desire? Your fondest hope? Surely you have an important question that only my cards can answer.” She topped off the sales pitch with her most flirtatious smile. When their eyes met this time, the chest-thumping didn’t return quite as strongly, to her relief. It was quieter now, a persistent tapping.

He gave a smile in return, reserved and polite. “Thank you, Mademoiselle, that is most kind. But I’m afraid I am not one who believes in fortune-telling.”

She feigned shock and indignation. “Not a believer! But surely a creature as sophisticated and enlightened as yourself believes the cards hold a special message for you, an extraordinary destiny! And Mademoiselle Sherry can tell you—for only fifteen euros.”

The boy shook his head. “No thank you, my dear girl. I really must be going.” He turned again and began to walk away.

“Ten euros!” She stood up and called out after him. “You won’t find a better deal anywhere in Paris! Not from one so gifted as I!”

“I have no doubt of your talents. But I simply must be on my way.”

“Five euros!” she offered frantically. “A fraction of the original price—for you and your friends!”

He looked puzzled. “My friends?”

“The group you came with.” She nodded towards the pale companions with whom he’d arrived. They were smiling, beckoning him to join them.

His face darkened. “They are not my friends.”

Sherry was confused. “But you came to the square with them, didn’t you?”

“Yes, but . . . they are not my friends.”

“Well, do you think they’d want a reading? Do they believe in the tarot?”

“No. They don’t believe. They don’t believe in anything.” He sounded disgusted.

“Let me at least do yours then. Three euros, final offer. And I’m really punishing myself, giving away my services like this.” She leaned over and patted the folding chair across from her, looking up at him. She wasn’t letting this one get away.

“Well . . .” He looked askance at the rickety seat. “All right.”

In one fluid motion, he took three shiny coins out of his wallet and handed them to her. She placed them in the pocket of her jeans and set the deck before him.

“Now,” she said pleasantly, “do you know how this works?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“You think of a question, or a problem, and shuffle the deck. Concentrate as hard as you can on your question, otherwise it won’t work. When you’re ready, stop shuffling the cards, and draw three of them. Place them in a row. Then I’ll turn them over and interpret them.”

“All right.” With smooth, elegant hands, he began to shuffle the deck, then stopped abruptly.

“Ah, do I need to tell you my question?”

Sherry shrugged. “You don’t have to. As long as you’re thinking of it, the cards will answer. It may help, though, with the interpretation. You can tell me after I’m done reading them, if you like.”

This answer seemed to satisfy him. He shut his eyes tightly and pressed his lips together.  Oddly enough, he had no trouble shuffling with his eyes closed. Most people handled the cards awkwardly even with their eyes open.

When he was finished, he looked at her and said, “Any three cards?”

Sherry smiled back at him. “Any three cards.”

He nonchalantly drew the first three off the top of the deck, and placed them in a row before her.

She turned over the first one. It was the Moon. The first card she’d drawn when she’d asked about him. Even though she should be used to her gift by now, sometimes it still sent shivers down her spine. This was one of those times.

She cleared her throat and began her speech. “The Moon. A card of the Major Arcana. Signifying great changes in life and love. The importance of dreams, psychic gifts, and female intuition. Romantic troubles. Great emotional turmoil.”

He looked at her, but his expression gave nothing away.

“This could indicate the way you feel right now, or events that will occur shortly in your future. If you don’t mind my saying so, I have a sense that emotional turmoil is part of your inner landscape at the moment.”

He nodded. “True, but that could be said of many individuals.”

“Let’s take a look at the other cards then, shall we?” She turned over the second one.

It was the Queen of Swords.

She sucked in her breath.

“Ah, yes. Ah—the Queen of Swords, yes. A card of the Minor Arcana. More trouble. Trials and tribulations. But there is a glimmer of hope within the sorrow. You will meet a woman, or you may already know her. She is middle-aged, or elderly, or she may be a younger woman with an old soul. She has a source of power that you need. You must be patient in your dealings with her, for the time when she can be of help will come, just not right away. She has borne sorrow before, and can bear it again. This strength will be of great use to you.”

The third card. She turned it over.

Please don’t let it be the Devil, she prayed.

It was Judgment.

Her face brightened, but she saw the boy’s go dark.

“Judgment,” he said. “That doesn’t sound good.”

She explained, “No, no, common misconception. Judgment is another Major Arcana card, and is actually a very good one to get. It doesn’t mean someone is judging you, or that you’re going to be punished. It calls to mind a reckoning of accounts. A wiping clean of the slate. If you are looking for a solution to a problem that has long eluded you, this is the card for you. I think you and this woman will endure a great struggle together, but in the end, you both will triumph.”

He looked intrigued. “Really?”

“Yes, absolutely. The cards never lie. Unless you doubt their guidance, of course.”

He looked deep into her eyes. “No. No, I am willing to keep an open mind.”

The drumbeat began resounding deep in her heart, once again. She only hoped he couldn’t hear it from across the table.

“So are you satisfied with your reading? Did it answer your question?”

“Yes, in a way, I think it did.”

“Would you mind telling me what it was? You don’t have to, but I’m rather curious.”

“Certainly. I simply asked what was in store for my future. Rather vague, but there you have it.”

“Well, I hope it’s a good future for you. If you can be strong, and show courage with whatever situation you’re facing, I’m sure it will be.”

“Thank you, your assistance is most appreciated. I suppose I must go join my—my friends now.” The group was still waiting for him. The women were tapping their feet impatiently.

“Have a pleasant evening!” she called out after him. He gave a little wave, and walked silently back towards his companions.

After the group was gone and she started shuffling her cards again, she found them. Three crisp, brand-new bills on the table. All of them five-euro notes.

***

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