Alena took a deep breath. “I'm not going on a date with Chad Thurman.”
A deafening silence descended on the dining room. Mother's face assumed a thoughtful expression. No doubt she was already stringing persuasive and weighty logical arguments in favor of the date in her head. To Mother no was simply a yes that hadn't had a chance to hear her out.
Next to Mother, Aunt Ksenia looked aghast. No surprise there. Aunt Ksenia was all about duty to the family. There was no support to be had in her corner.
Behind Ksenia's chair, Cousin Boris checked his mother's face and carefully arranged his face into a mask of patronizing disapproval. If he ever did manage to formulate his own thought, it would likely knock him senseless.
Alena glanced across the table. Her older sister Liz looked troubled, her bottom lip caught between her teeth. Her husband Vik must've found the situation highly amusing, because corners of his mouth crept upward in a half-realized smile. Alena mentally steeled herself and looked to Father leaning against the wall. Alexander Koronov's eyes plainly told he was not amused. Like staring straight into a storm.
“You-” Ksenia began, but Mother raised her hand.
“Why not?” She asked calmly.
Alena knew exactly what would come next: all of her protests would be dismantled to pieces like an old clock taken apart gear by gear, but she had no choice. She had to at least try to put up a fight. “I don't like him.”
Mother rose, took a soup plate from the cabinet, filled it with water, and set it on the table. She touched the surface of the water with her fingertip and murmured a single sharp word. The water surged up and blossomed into an image of Chad in all his glory.
“Could you be more specific?” Mother said. “What exactly don't you like about him?”
Looking at him, Alena had to admit that physically there was nothing wrong with Chad. There was a lot of right about him even. He stood tall, his shoulders wide and thick and his build muscular. His red hair was cropped very short, and he somehow managed to escape the really sensitive skin of most natural redheads. Taken by itself, free of his expression, his face might even be considered handsome, but there was something about Chad, something in the eyes and in the set of his stubborn jaw, that telegraphed “thug” louder than any words.
The city, and Old Town in particular, had long been divided between the prominent magic families into territories. It was customary that young guys from local families banded together to defend their combined neighborhood from outsiders before moving on to real business ventures. It was a right of passage, but Chad really took that job seriously.
“He's…” Alena paused. Chad wasn't exactly stupid. On the contrary, he was quite shrewd at times. Just last week he and his guys trapped some unfortunate kid from the rival clan's territory. They could've beaten the guy and left it at that, but no, Chad had Marky conjure up some rabid looking mutts and used them to chase the guy into the burned out warehouse down on River Street. The guy didn't have enough magic to see through the illusion, but he did manage a panicked sending back to his family yelling that he was being attacked by a pack of wild animals. Chad sat there until the guy's friends came to rescue him and then claimed it was an invasion of Thurman territory. The rival family had to pay restitution.
Chad wasn't dumb and he would do quite well for himself; he just had no interest in whatever she would have to say and she had no interest in whatever he had to do. “He's cruel and dangerous,” she said.
“You're a Koronov,” her father said. “Thurmans respect us. He won't lay a finger on you without your permission. And if he does, you have my permission to do what's necessary.”
Not having permission wouldn't exactly stop her, but pointing that out didn't seem like the smartest move at the moment.
“You grew up together,” Mother said.
“That's exactly the problem! You're making me to go out with a guy I've known since he was seven and I was four. I've seen him wipe his snot on a smaller kid's hair. When I was five, he broke my sleigh going down the stone staircase on Butcher Street and I hit him over the head with it.”
“So you don't want to go out with him because he broke your sleigh twelve years ago?” Mother said slowly.
Alena unclenched her teeth. “No, Mother, I don't want to go out with him because he's a thug. And his family is full of thugs. What would we even talk about? He barely finished highschool. We have nothing in common!”
“You're both young and attractive,” Mother said.
Alena drew back. “So you want me to prostitute myself, is that it?”
Mother arched her eyebrows. “There is no need to be so melodramatic. He's a handsome boy.” She nodded at the watery image. “It's natural that there might be some attraction between the two of you. In fact, I think you do protest too much.”
Alena nearly choked. “Attracted to what? Mom, he carries brass knuckles in both pockets!”
“You will go,” Father said.
Mother shot him a warning glance. “Do you recall how we discussed the purchase of a car last Monday and you told me that it's time you were treated as an adult?”
Alena hesitated. The sudden turn threw her off balance. “Yes?”
Mother smiled. “Do you know what separates adults from children? Self-discipline. We don't want to go to work, we don't want to do our chores, we don't want to make unpleasant decisions but we do all those things because we're aware of the consequences which will follow if we don't. Now, I will treat you as an adult, since you are seventeen, and I'll be very blunt. Our family was never rich, as you know. However, your Grandfather was a very respected man. Many families owed him a favor. He had a certain influence. When he died, part of that influence died with him. ”
“Your father was your Grandfather's advisor, that's why family invested so much in his education. He was never groomed to be your Grandfather's successor. That role belonged to Uncle Rufus; however, he also died.” Mother threw an apologetic glance at Aunt Ksenia. “The other families in the area are aware of this. Even now, they're moving in on our business interests, in particular on our investments in the water communications. To avoid financial ruin, we need a large loan, which would offset the costs of your Grandfather's funeral and let us settle various smaller debts, making us appear strong and financially secure. All of our business accounts are housed through SunShine Bank. Do you know who owns the controlling interest in that bank?”
Alena shook her head.
Mother's voice held no mercy. “The Thurmans. Now, you can go on this date with Chad Thurman, with no obligation, I might add, or you can refuse this invitation, insult the Thurmans, and destroy our chances of obtaining the loan. Nobody here will force you. We'll leave the choice entirely up to you.”
All arguments died in Alena's throat. She swallowed. Every cell in her body rebelled against going but now refusing would make her look like a spoiled selfish brat. If it meant that much… The future of her family hung in the balance. She would do everything she could to keep it from falling off a cliff.
“I'll go,” she said softly.
“Thank you,” Mother said.
It was all Dennis's fault, Alena reflected, rummaging through the clothes in her closet. She had been seeing Dennis Mallot for about a year, always in public. They hadn't done anything physical like kissing or holding hands. They just met, strolled along River street, gossiped, and told each other how bad their parents treated them. They were friends. She was a nerd, a smart girl, and he was an odd, quiet guy.
Their families didn't mind. Koronovs and Mallots stood close on the social ladder, both solid families with roots in Old Town, both magically adept. With the exception of Grandfather and Uncle Rufus, all Koronovs had graduated well and went on to academies, while most of Mallots made their living in the field of medical magic.
All was going nicely and then Father had a bright idea to send her off to the boarding school for the year to “challenge” her. Squeezing two hundred teenagers into a campus and blocking access to the outside world made for some heavy social drama. After almost a year of watching stormy break-ups and broken hearts followed by clouds of endless gossip, Alena was ready for a real boyfriend. Not a sort-of-boyfriend, like Dennis, but the actual, real, head over heels love. As soon as she got home, she bought a dress the color of dark red wine that left absolutely no doubt that she was female. She curled her dark hair, she put on her make-up, she slipped on criminally high heels, and headed to her old school to catch up with her friends.
Dennis had nearly fainted. Even now, she grinned at the memory: him standing against the wall, his eyes bulging, his mouth slack. It had been the most satisfying moment of her life, a triumph. Everything about her had said, “Yeah, so I'm a nerd, but I clean up nice. See what you've been missing?”
Dennis had called the next morning, inviting her to May Ball, a huge outdoor celebration when recent and old graduates came out for a night-time party. There would be food, bands, and magic shows. Everybody would be there. She agreed.
Then the night of the party came. Perfect hair – check, makeup – check, that same red dress – check, spiked heels – check, Dennis…? Dennis didn't show. She kept walking out on to the balcony, wondering why he was late, thinking she would see him down the street. That's when Chad Thurman had seen her. He was passing by, glanced up, and nearly took a dive onto the pavement. Guess she took him by surprise.
Dennis never did show. The gossip vine said he had gotten drunk with his friend Jeremy instead. She'd felt so stupid and hollow in her perfect makeup and killer dress. So very stupid and pathetic.
The Mallots were told in no uncertain terms that the insult to the family wouldn't be forgotten and Dennis was no longer welcome. But now Chad Thurman had come to cash on her misfortune and the family was only too happy to push her out the door into his arms. And the problem was that if Chad did like her, nobody else would date her either. Chad had the kind of reputation that made rivals run for cover. Still, she would do it. The family needed the loan.