Ellaine Greene has simple desires. She just wants to do her best as the event coordinator for the local aquarium, to support environmental conservation efforts, and to keep immature man-children out of her life.
So when a major donor to the aquarium demands Ellaine find a magician for her granddaughter’s birthday party, all she can imagine is a long line of card chuckers and coin flippers wearing cheesy sequined vests.
Instead, she gets Xander Hollatz, a sophisticated, powerful man in a crisp suit, with nimble fingers and a warm smile.
He’s the man for the job, no doubt. And, to her surprise, she realizes he might be the man for her, too. Will she let her doubts get in the way of their feelings for each other?
And when everything goes wrong at the birthday party, will he be able to perform a miracle to save the day?
Sleight of Hand #1: Private Performance is a 17,000-word novella, introducing readers to Ellaine and Xander’s passionate and tender romance, to the fascinating wildlife inhabiting the aquarium, and to the mysterious world of professional magicians.
Waiting for Xander didn’t do anything to relieve her tension either. Between the meeting with Josiah and the three cups of coffee she’d already downed, she couldn’t sit still in her chair. She got up and paced her office, small as it was. She thought about taking a walk around the aquarium, maybe drop in on the octopus for a visit, a creature she found weirdly hilarious. Or she could stop by the coral reef exhibit, which always calmed her and made her a little sad, too, so fragile, so endangered — a strange, surprising, and almost alien beauty in its chaotic structure — but she realized she only had a few more minutes before Xander was scheduled to arrive.
She found herself grieving for the state of the Great Barrier Reef. She began organizing the pens on her desk. I’m going out of my mind, she realized. The room felt stifling all of a sudden. She crossed to the window and lifted it open.
A knock at her open door. She looked over her shoulder. Her breath caught in her throat as she beheld Xander in the threshold. He filled out his suit so nicely.
She realized he was studying her too — then she realized the sun coming through the window was shining through her white cotton blouse, giving him an eyeful. She stepped away from the window, retreating to her desk. Her heart was beating like a terrified rabbit’s.
“Xander,” she said. “Thank you for coming back in.”
“Thank you for the second chance. I’m afraid I didn’t make a very good impression last time.” He walked swiftly to the seat across from hers. “I’d like to apologize for something I said. Last time I noticed you didn’t have any pictures of family on your desk, and I assumed it meant you… preferred animals to people. That was presumptuous of me. I’m sorry.”
The frightened little rabbit inside of her stopped quivering quite so much. His voice was so soothing. “There’s no need to apologize. I do like animals. It’s no big deal.”
He nodded, looked as though he were about to add something. Then he cleared his throat and said, “Let’s jump right in then. Is there… a kind of magic trick you hate less than other kinds?”
“I don’t hate magic,” she told him. “I just… nothing it.” She remembered that Brissa, earlier that morning, had made her promise to be nicer this time, so she added, “I don’t like tricks that go on forever, if that helps. Where the magician tells a million corny jokes?”
He was grinning and nodding. “We call that ‘patter.’ And, yeah, I totally agree. Too many magicians are in love with the sound of their own voice.”
“I don’t mind yours.” She blushed, hard. Why couldn’t she find a happy medium between hard-ass employer and shameless flirt? “I mean, it’s not awful. Is what I mean. To say.”
“I don’t mind yours either.” His eyes were shining with amusement, but she knew he wasn’t mocking her. “Do you sing?”
“Not… no, not since high school.”
“Not even in the car?”
She laughed. “Usually in the shower.”
“For me, it’s the car. Did you do show choir in high school?”
She shook her head. “Church choir.”
“That sounds… less fun,” he ventured.
“Not really any fun at all, no.” They shared a moment, enjoying the mutual agreement. “I’m guessing it was theater, for you?”
Xander laughed. “Everyone always thinks so. Nope, I was a shop class kid.”
“How did you get to magic from shop class? Or were you doing magic before then?”
“Oh, I was doing magic since I was just a little kid. Learned one trick from my uncle, got hooked for life. But a lot of the same things that appeal to me about magic appealed to me as a shop kid. Planning ahead. Taking a picture I have in my mind and making something real out of it. Being good with my hands.”
As he spoke, he took a pack of cards from his jacket pocket. Oh no. Here she was, enjoying his company, and he was about to ruin it by telling her to pick a card.
But he didn’t.
To her surprise, he started building a card castle on her desk. He placed three cards down, all leaning against one another, and then placed a fourth card, an ace, on top of them.
“A table,” he announced with a wry smile.
“You learned that in shop class?”
“In a way. Shop class teaches you to look down, to pay attention to what’s holding everything up. The legs of a table, for instance.” He gestured at the three cards holding up the ace. “Or the foundation of this building, its load-bearing walls. Or the animals at the bottom of the food chain, feeding the animals at the top. How many minnows do you all go through in a week?”
It was a rhetorical question, but Ellaine was disappointed to realize she had no idea. She shook her head. “A lot,” she said, feebly.
“I can’t imagine!” he agreed. She was grateful he ignored the gap in her knowledge. She couldn’t believe she didn’t know the answer to that question. Why didn’t she know? When had she stopped being curious about things like that?
Xander went on. “And yourself, too, and everyone else who works here. You’re all supporting the animals. I want to join you. I want to help you hold the animals up. Like the minnows. Shop class didn’t just teach me to look at what’s holding everything up, but to value it too. To see… a real kind of beauty in it. Before that, I was just doing magic tricks to impress people. To impress girls, frankly. But after I started to see the beauty in the world around me, then all of a sudden I wanted to show people what I could see. And since nobody cares about minnows, since nobody cares about the legs of a table, I show them magic instead. I show them this.”
He swept his hand under the ace, toppling all the cards beneath it.
The ace remained in the air, hovering just a few inches above her desk.
“Every minnow you’ve ever seen is a miracle. Every table, too.”
He snapped his fingers, and the card fell, joining the others on the desk.
“What I do with magic is show people the beauty around them.” Then, gazing into her eyes, he breathed, “Surprising beauty.”
A long, silent moment passed as they studied each other. Then she whispered, “I like this kind of magic.”
“Good,” he replied with a smile. “It’s my specialty.”
Ellaine Greene has a new man in her life, the famous magician Xander Hollatz. He’s ripped, kind, and mysterious — nothing like her ex-husband. He has even volunteered to perform at her aquarium’s annual fundraising gala. But she’s still having trouble leaving the past behind, especially when her ex shows up to beg for money.
Before the new couple knows it, someone’s trying to break into Xander’s mansion to steal the secrets of his many famous illusions. Ellaine’s ex becomes their prime suspect. But maybe it’s actually the up-and-coming street magician they’ve befriended. Or maybe it’s even someone from Xander’s mysterious past.
Whoever the thief is, if he uncovers and reveals the secret of Xander’s newest illusion for the fundraiser, the event will be a disaster. Ellaine may lose her job.
And there’s a still greater question: Is this feeling they share together just lust — or is it something more?
Find out in this 74,000-word book, the second volume in the Sleight of Hand series.
“Do you want to go for a walk? I can walk and perform at the same time. And it’s such a nice day out.”
She nodded. A breath of fresh air would do her good. “I’d like that.”
They strolled side by side out of the offices and into the sunshine. A long winding sidewalk enclosed a picnic area on the aquarium’s front lawn. They followed it, not talking, just enjoying each other’s silence and the mild summer day.
A few families had also decided to take advantage of the weather, spreading blankets and eating lunch out on the lawn. Kids careened across the grassy expanse like wild birds. Ellaine studied Xander as he watched them, with such a simple joy on his face. “Do you want to know,” he said all of a sudden, “why I prefer to do children’s parties?”
She smiled and said, “I do.”
“Kids are always cranked up to eleven. If they’re into the show, they’ll scream and shriek and jump around. If they’re bored, they’ll slump out of their chair and roll around on the floor. Whatever they’re feeling, they’re feeling it intensely. And they usually don’t have any problems expressing it.
“Early on in my career — way early on — a kid caught me palming a rubber ball. And when kids catch you out, they don’t react like grown-ups do. An adult might roll their eyes, might tell their friends. They might just walk away. That’s embarrassing enough. But a kid will flip out. They’ll point and scream, ‘It’s in his haaaaaaand!’”
Ellaine laughed in surprise. “And you… like that?”
“Absolutely. It’s such a rush. Every time I perform for kids, I feel like I’m gonna start sweating bullets. Some of the toughest crowds I ever had were rooms full of five-year-olds. Real trials by fire. Jet-setting around the world, entertaining CEOs — that’s profitable. Fun, too, don’t get me wrong. But even while I was doing big corporate events I’d still try to sneak a kid’s party into my schedule here and there. I never felt more alive than when I was performing for kids.”
Then why’d you stop? she wanted to ask. But then she realized the question answered itself: He didn’t want to feel alive anymore.
She went pale.
Xander didn’t notice. He’d gone back to watching the kids. He had crinkly lines at the corners of his eyes, and she couldn’t tell whether he was smiling, shielding his eyes from the sun — or about to cry.
“You should show those kids something,” she suggested.
“Oh, they’re playing a game right now,” he replied. “I don’t want to interrupt. I don’t wanna be that guy. But I’ll do something for you, and if they see it and come over, I’ll do something for them too.”
He reached into his jacket and produced three large steel hoops. She laughed as soon as they came out. “You’ve been hiding those the whole time?”
“Ehhh, magic jacket something something.” He shrugged. “You know how I feel about lines.”
“You have some good lines. In my opinion.”
He eased into a shy smile. “Here,” he said, handing her the hoops. “I’m no good at buying jewelry. But I tried!”
She accepted them. “Yeah these aren’t gonna fit.”
“Oh I can get ‘em resized.”
She giggled. He took them back. He was about to go into the trick when she said, “Oops. Was I supposed to be inspecting them?”
“Yeah. For magician-y stuff.”
“One of the rings has a gap in it,” she said with a shrug. “Doesn’t everybody know that?”
“Only novices use a ring with a gap in it.” He gave the rings back to her. She inspected them more closely this time. Tugged on them. Picked and prodded. But they were solid all the way around.
“They’re just rings,” he said with a shrug. “Nothing magician-y about them.”
She narrowed her eyes. “There’s no way there’s nothing magician-y about them. I just can’t find it,” she replied as she handed them back to him.
“You handled them yourself.” He held one ring in each hand, tucking the third under his arm. He raised them aloft, right between his face and hers. He knocked the rings against each other with a loud clank, once, twice. “Either it’s the rings that’s playing tricks on you… or your eyes.” He knocked them together one more time — then let go with his left hand.
They were linked together.
“How did you—”
He held up a hand to stop her. “It’s a secret,” he said. “But here’s the thing. If you ask me… I’ll tell you.”
He reclaimed the third ring from under his arm, smacked it against the ring dangling from the one in his right hand. Clank, clank —
Then it, too, was suddenly dangling, linked to the ring above it.
“I will tell you if you ask me. But don’t ask me unless you want to know.”
She met his eyes. “I want to know.”
He held her gaze. A moment passed. And then he opened his hand and exposed the method.
Her mouth fell open.
“But… but I looked at the rings. It wasn’t like that when I looked.”
He showed her.
Suddenly, two children, a boy and a girl, bounded up to them. “Are you doing magic tricks?!” the girl shouted. Xander closed his hand around the ring again, smiling at Ellaine and raising a fingertip to his lips.
Then he turned to the kids and said, “I am! Do you like magic?”
“Is it okay with your parents if I show you this magic trick?” he asked, glancing up at the grown-ups sitting nearby on a blanket. They waved and nodded.
“Okay!” Xander said, “Here, you take this ring, and you take these rings. Look at them all over!” Joy was written in all his features.
Ellaine looked at him. Studied him.
Ached to touch him.
About the Author
Reese Galloway loves great magic tricks, animals and bars of fancy soaps. Actually, his soap obsession is getting a little out of control.