Ten minutes before she was supposed to be at dinner, Rose still had no idea what she should wear. She dumped her suitcase full of clothes onto the hotel bed and pawed through them one last time, hoping something beautiful and elegant would magically appear. It didn’t. Seemed the fairy tale she’d stepped into wasn’t the sort that provided eveningwear. As far as she knew, no mice had turned into horses yet, either, but the night was young.
An informal dinner, the invitation had said. An opportunity for introductions. As far as who Rose was being introduced to…the note hadn’t been clear. Her potential employers? Her fellow applicants? All Rose knew was that this was the beginning of the strangest and possibly most important interview in her life.
Informal? Maybe. But not jeans-and-a-t-shirt informal. Not when they’d brought her all the way to Russia, to St. Petersburg, and put her up in what was—as far as she could tell—the fanciest hotel in the entire universe. Not when her suite—yes, a suite!—included a giant marble bathtub with gold fixtures and her own robe and slippers in the closet and velvet, floor-length curtains over the giant windows that offered what had to be an expensive view of the cathedral next door.
Hard to believe that only a week ago she’d been alone in her tiny apartment in Phoenix, surfing the internet for jobs, while she tried to calculate how many years it would take her to pay off her student loans at a social worker’s salary and if she could afford to even think about grad school. Rose had resigned herself to a future of Ramen noodles and Kool-Aid when her phone had rung.
A job offer. More than a job offer. An all-expenses paid vacation, including first-class plane tickets and a hotel suite all her own, just to listen to a pitch. Their pitch, as in they wanted her, and not the other way around. This luxury, the posh surroundings—all for Rose.
Not because of her freshly earned degree. No, Rose wouldn’t have trusted any of this if the voice on the phone had ever once mentioned social work. He’d known—somehow, he’d known—about her other skills. The ones no school in the world taught. The ones Rose would never have dared put on a resume. For that fact alone, Rose would have made this trip, even if she’d had to pay for the travel herself.
Now here she was, due at dinner in this fancy hotel and, not for the first time, considering that she might be in over her head.
Rose dug out a skirt still wrinkled from packing and a matching pair of leggings. Whoever waited for her downstairs, they’d just have to take her as she was. If they were looking for sophistication and polish, Rose was simply out of luck. With one final look in the mirror to make sure nothing was sticking up or out, she made for the elevator.
The early-evening traffic in the Astoria’s lobby was enough to distract Rose from her worries. To the naked eye, the few people scattered throughout the gold and marble hall were pleasantly cheerful, smiling and chattering away. But Rose knew the truth behind the tableau. She felt the desk clerk’s impatience, the tired despair of the man waiting by the door, the dishonest smiles of the pretty young couple walking hand in hand, the woman fuming with resentment and the man burning with jealousy.
This was Rose’s gift, her special talent. A sense beyond the usual five. This was why the man on the phone had asked her to come.
After years of running different phrases through Google, Rose had found the corners of the internet that seemed genuinely aware of the supernatural. Even then, it had been a challenge to sift through stories and claims and supposedly true accounts to find a handful of people like herself.
In those groups and on forums and half-paranoid email chains, sensitive was the label bandied about, and, oh boy, were they. Everyone Rose had talked to—at least, the ones she believed—had seemed damaged. Paranoid, terrified, angry, depressed, writing angst-laden Facebook posts about crying into their pillows, and withering away year by year. Young or old, as far as Rose could tell, all sensitives broke down sooner or later, as the constant press of other people’s problems became overwhelming.
She wanted to believe she was different: stronger, better, more resilient. She wanted to tell herself she’d never become like that—battered and broken by a world she couldn’t shut out. But those times she had to be honest, she knew the trap, the danger her gift presented.
This trip, this late-night invitation and mysterious meeting, was the first time her gift had earned her an opportunity, and Rose was eager to see where it led.
From the moment her plane set down, Rose had been trying to figure out why someone who knew what she was would have brought her here. Because one thing Rose knew from her first breath of air here: St. Petersburg was wrong. It was broken. Even with people around her to focus on, Rose felt the city’s roiling malaise like a blanket trying to smother her. A blackness so deep it overwhelmed her othersense, so aggressive it felt alive. It threatened to darken her vision and dampen her hearing until the physical world around her became a dream and the tenebrous sadness intensified to become her only reality.
Which, in a way, could work to her advantage. If the people who brought her here were looking for a sensitive, they couldn’t have a lot of qualified applicants willing to stay. St. Petersburg was no place for a sensitive sensitive.
A tall, elegantly dressed gentleman disengaged from the concierge desk and intercepted her. “Miss Daziani,” he said. Rose loved the sound of her name in his thick Russian accent. “Your party waits. This way, please.”
Rose followed him to a conference room that tonight served as a private dining room. An elegant meal was set out, spread across a lacy white cloth and accompanied by delicate china and spiral-stemmed crystal—definitely the prettiest arrangement Rose had ever seen. But despite Rose’s earlier concern about being out of place in this high-class environment, it wasn’t the fancy dining table that stopped Rose in the doorway. It was the men who sat around it.
In the course of her research, Rose had found tantalizing hints of a greater supernatural world. Other sensitives had talked about people who looked no different from anyone else, but felt so different on the insides they might as well be aliens. Rose had always thought that was exaggeration, overreaction. Because Rose had never met anyone so shockingly different that it stole her breath and froze her mind.
Three men. All normal enough on the outside. No tentacles or fangs or any other visible signs of danger. But something in her lizard brain responded to what was coming through her othersense, and that something was telling her that these men were danger.
The concierge spoke over her shoulder, making her jump. “Mr. Rutledge, Miss Daziani is here.”