Authors: Jennifer Echols
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary Women, #General, #Paranormal, #Fiction
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Heartfelt thanks to my friends who helped make this book happen: Lauren McKenna, Emilia Pisani, Laura Bradford, Nicole James, Rosemary Clement-Moore, Jeri Smith-Ready, Catherine Chant, and Victoria Dahl.
SEVEN YEARS AGO
Holly Starr wished she weren’t the daughter of a Las Vegas magician. She wished her dad hadn’t changed his name from Stuckenschneider to Starr when he broke into the business. She wished he hadn’t drafted her last autumn to assist him in his headlining casino act. He’d said he wanted her to learn the biz so she could take over as the magician someday. The prospect excited her. But in the meantime, she had to play showgirl, which was not exciting at
. It was mortifying. He made her wear a tacky 1970s-style spangled bikini that matched her mom’s. She was fourteen years old, for God’s sake. Some of her friends still didn’t dare wear a bikini to the pool. Granted, other friends told her (at least to her face) that they’d kill to be on a casino stage six nights a week like her, in the heat of the spotlight and the fever of the adult playground a few miles from their high school. But the more common attitude, especially among the older, cooler kids, children of doctors and lawyers and artists, was disdain for all things Vegas—including Holly, whom they looked down on as a freak with no future, like those double-jointed girls from Bulgaria who hung around the bathroom in the science wing and smoked cigarettes and stuck nails into their noses. She wished she were plain old Holly Stuckenschneider, ninth grader, perhaps a majorette in the marching band, definitely Elijah Brown’s girlfriend. But she wasn’t. She was Holly Starr, magician’s assistant. Her scantily clad likeness was blown up ten times larger than life on a billboard advertising her dad’s act over Interstate 15.
And now she could levitate. It was a bad end to a bad day in her bad life, she thought, as she used her mind to lift her parents’ mod leather couch and matching chairs and rearrange them to her liking as if they were plastic furnishings in a Barbie Townhouse, all from her vantage point floating in the air next to the living room chandelier.
To think, this had started as the best day of her life. First period at school, Elijah Brown had asked her to the ninth-grade prom. All school year she’d looked forward to the bell every morning because Elijah would stumble into the classroom half a second late. His clothes were as consistent as a uniform: faded jeans and a rock band T-shirt. His too-long sandy brown waves were mussed and generally mashed on one side like he hadn’t bothered to detangle them after rolling out of bed. Maneuvering down the row, he would look the guy in the first desk up and down as if he’d never seen him before, and give the same look to the second guy, constantly blinking as if he couldn’t quite wake up. Then he would look at
and his sleepy green eyes would widen, and he’d smile. “Hey, Holly,” he’d say, sending a rush through her as he slid into the desk behind her.
Her friends agreed he was hot, but Holly felt a special connection with him. Elijah’s mom was a blackjack dealer at the same casino where Holly’s dad put on his nightly act. Elijah worked there himself after school, learning the carpentry trade. Holly imagined he understood the casino experience as she did—not as a vice to be pined for, or a sin to be avoided, but a job. He was the only boy in school who greeted her like he was a friend, not a lecher, and never made her feel like a freak for wearing a spangled bikini to work.
And if she’d ever had a chance with him, it was now. The ninth-grade prom coming up in April gave vulnerable fourteen-year-old boys that extra push they needed to ask girls out—even quiet boys, even dreamy boys with green eyes. Finally came the day when Elijah shuffled into the classroom on the bell, gazed at the guy in the first desk, squinted at the guy in the second desk, looked at her, and smiled. This time, instead of saying, “Hey, Holly,” he asked, “Hey, Holly?” He wanted her to go to the prom with him, and he wanted her cell phone number.
In the break between second and third periods, she told her friends she had a prom date with Elijah Brown. They squealed and demanded to know what she would wear. Major dilemma! How could she dress for the prom
avoid looking like she was headed for work? She would need the only prom gown ever made with
At lunch she cheered up, because Elijah texted her.
Making sure I input ur # right? Im in algebra. Have a good lunch. Tip: mac & cheese / strange consistency / plz avoid.
Holly’s mom didn’t give her lunch money. She made Holly bring yogurt and a banana from home. Warily Holly eyed the mac and cheese on someone else’s plate, then texted Elijah back.
# is right! Thx for checking. Stick w me: I am going to be a magician someday & I will teach u to change mac & cheese into Fritos.
Every day after lunch she looked forward to waving at Elijah as their paths crossed in the hall. She usually stressed out about the encounter and checked her makeup in her compact, letting her friends think she was vain in general, not for a specific guy. Today the bell rang to end lunch before she was ready. She probably had granola in her teeth. She hugged her friends good-bye and stepped alone into the cacophony of the hallway—
—and there he was, already walking toward her and grinning. His friend walking beside him was still talking. The friend hadn’t figured out yet that Elijah’s attention and his eyes were on her. Now the friend realized he’d lost Elijah and started pulling at him, teasing him.
Without looking at his friend, Elijah extended his arm—the sleeve of his T-shirt fell away to show Holly the toned biceps he’d developed working out for the high school lacrosse team—and shoved his friend into the crowd, where he was swept away by the current of students headed to fifth period. Elijah leaned against a locker in front of her.
“Hey, Holly,” he said. “I didn’t know you wanted to be a magician.”
She smiled so wide that the corners of her mouth ached, as if she were onstage. But for once, her smile wasn’t fake. Heart racing, she backed against the locker, too, and asked, “Do you like magic?”
He pursed his lips, suppressing a smile, and said coyly, “I’ve never seen any magic.”
“You’ve never come to my show?” she exclaimed, feigning outrage. She
a little hurt that he’d worked at the casino at least as long as she had, yet he’d never sought out her performance, such as it was. The next second she realized she did
want him to see this unfashionable holdover that should have been canceled about the same time the Stardust casino was demolished, and she should not have called it
show. She hadn’t meant to claim ownership of her parents’ old-school charade.
“I’ve wanted to,” he said, “but the guys at work won’t let me.” His half smile told her he was teasing her just a little, but he seemed so focused on her and so earnest that she knew he was telling her the truth. “We’re allowed in shows when a prop needs fixing. Yours is the only show at the casino that’s never broken.”
“Ha! Irony. It’s broken, all right, but we make and repair everything ourselves because my dad doesn’t want to give away any of his trade secrets.” She wiggled her fingers spookily on
because her dad talked about them like they were the Headless Horseman. “But if you want to see some magic . . .”
“I do,” he said quickly. He kept smiling at her, but a blush crept across his cheeks, as if he really liked her but was afraid of looking too eager because then she wouldn’t like him as much—exactly what
was thinking about
She inched closer, feeling her own face grow hot. “The other shows around town send my parents complimentary tickets. Sometimes I take my girlfriends with me to the matinee on Saturday, but if you’re not working—”
“You’re working?” Holly asked, determined to stay cool through her disappointment.
“No! Yes.” He closed his eyes and swallowed. When he looked at her again, his bravado was back. “Yes, I would love to go with you on Saturday. Are you doing research for your future act?”
“Yeah, well . . .” She glanced sidelong at him. He was still listening. “I start talking about this and I feel like the youngster at the family cheese business who’s going to implement all these newfangled, more efficient manufacturing practices and ultimately ruin the family’s tradition of handcrafted cheese. But I swear, my parents are doing essentially the same act they’ve been performing for a decade and a half. Audiences keep paying to see it because nobody can figure out how my dad levitates. He gets written up in the guidebooks as one of the ten biggest mysteries of Las Vegas.”
“Yes,” Holly said proudly. “He is number four. But at some point, my parents have got to update their act, make it more hip and stylish. Otherwise the crowd will start skipping magic altogether in favor of Cirque du Soleil. But my parents won’t listen to me. When I have my own act, I can do what I want, and it will be
He narrowed his eyes at her, as if squinting would help him see her more clearly.
“Does that make sense?” she asked, losing her confidence.
“Yeah, but I don’t think it’s like cheese.” He grinned.
As the bell rang to tell them they were late for class, they said a quick good-bye and dashed in opposite directions. Scooting down the hall to math, she marveled that the entire population of the school had cleared out and settled into their desks without her noticing because she’d been so absorbed in Elijah’s gaze. He seemed too easy, standing so close over her, looking so hot, saying such perfect things. She was in heaven. More of his texts floated her through school, through the ballet class her mom insisted she attend to improve her poise onstage, and through her homework, reading the last act of
Romeo and Juliet
It was Monday, her family’s one night off from the casino. Her parents had plans for dinner at an expensive restaurant where it was nearly impossible to get reservations, then cocktails at a high-end club that Holly’s friends would have killed to sneak into. But the Starrs were down-to-earth. Her mom had sighed when she came in from tending the desert garden around their mansion to get ready for the outing. Her dad had been pissed when he realized he would miss the Lakers game. They dressed up in public and occasionally made appearances like this because looking like they were made of money was good for the magic business.
Before they left, her mom made Holly’s dinner (salad with edamame for protein, whole wheat toast, no butter—“We showgirls have to watch our figures, you know”) and sat down with her to make sure she ate it.
“How was school?” her mom asked conversationally as she frowned at her manicure, touching red polish to nicks in her long nails.
Holly swallowed a bite. What she wouldn’t give for a hamburger for dinner, just once! But even edamame tasted okay on the best day of her life. “Elijah Brown asked me to the ninth-grade prom.” She tried to say this casually. She didn’t want to let on how much she liked him, lest she earn herself a lecture on Safe Sex while trying to down her rabbit food. “Maybe you know his mom? She’s a dealer at the casino. He’s so cute and really nice, Mom. Could you pleeeease take me shopping for a prom dress next Saturday morning? And I invited him to go with me to the show that sent us tickets for the matinee, if that’s okay.”
Holly’s mom was younger than Holly’s friends’ moms. The downside was that Holly’s friends wanted to know whether her mom had been an Unwed Pregnant Teen. Holly thought this was likely, considering how often she got the Safe Sex lecture. But she didn’t know for sure. Her parents refused to talk about that or where they came from or anything concerning their family’s origins. They fostered the notion that they were magical gypsies who’d materialized out of thin air—and they
as far as Holly knew. On the other hand, the upside of having a young mother was that she was still very pretty, if you could see past her thick showgirl makeup.
Now, for the first time, Holly’s mom looked old. As Holly watched, her mom’s face fell into wrinkles Holly had never noticed. Then her mom shouted, “Peter!”
“What?” Holly’s dad walked in, his muscled chest bare.
Without taking her eyes off Holly, her mom said carefully, “Elijah Brown asked Holly to the ninth-grade prom, and she invited him on her own date.”
Holly’s dad’s hands balled into fists. “You’re not going,” he boomed.
Holly was shocked. She’d half expected the Safe Sex lecture. She definitely had
expected this decree, as if she’d done something wrong. She’d never gone on a real date before, but she had to go
. “Yes, I am,” she insisted.
“No, you’re not,” her parents said simultaneously. Her dad added, “Not with Elijah Brown, you’re not.”
“What’s the matter with Elijah Brown?” Holly had never heard a single bad thing about him.
Her parents looked at each other.
“Just what you said.” Holly’s mom twisted her largest diamond ring around on her finger. “His mother is a dealer at the casino. We can’t have you fraternizing with the son of a dealer. We have a certain image to uphold.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Holly said. “The diamonds, and the date at the fancy restaurant, and your matching fur coats in March—all that is for the cameras, for the public. It’s not
. Elijah is