I think my midlife crisis is trying to kill me.
First my ex-husband, who tried to murder me, escapes prison. Then a tree falls on my car - with me in it! Add in a haunting at my new shop, plus a house that's suddenly infested with monsters, and I am in serious need of intervention - or a few drinks. Maybe then I'll understand how I'm able to do magic and see things no one else can.
But it's not all bad. I'm dating someone for the first time in twenty years and remembering what it's like to feel that anticipation before a kiss.
At the same time, maybe I should hold off as the weirdness in my life takes monstrous shape – literally - and I can't help but realize that magic is real. I truly am a witch and I know something bad is coming. Even scarier? I might be the only one who can stop it.
My poor little town is so screwed.
“Hey, what are you doing here?”
Darryl looked good, if different than Kane with his smart suit. Darryl was a workingman with jeans and a T-shirt tucked into them and, over it, a jean jacket he’d left unbuttoned. The hem of his pants slouched over his construction boots, mostly unlaced and scuffed.
“Thought I’d pop in and see how the store was coming along.”
“It’s going great,” I said with a smile and a sweep of my hand. “Tada!”
He stepped in. “It’s looking good.”
“But a bit empty.” What seemed like lots of merchandise when I carted it in now seemed rather paltry spread out.
“Meaning you might have room for more, maybe on consignment?” he asked.
I blinked at the request. “I’d not thought about it, but I guess I could. You got some stuff you want to sell?”READ MORE
He nodded. “A bunch of things in the basement, attic, and even the loft in the garage. Got all kinds of junk. I mean, cool shit. My dad hoarded everything, including things he inherited from my grandparents.”
“What do you want to get rid of?”
“All of it,” he stated with a laugh. “Or at least the stuff you think is worth selling. The rest I can just donate to the church or something.”
I felt a need to be honest. “I don’t know if I’ll sell anything. I’ve never run a business before.” I’d gone on a major limb with this place.
“Which is why consignment works for both of us. I only get paid if you sell. And you’re not out anything to try it.”
He made some good points. “What kind of split are you thinking?”
“Fifty-fifty sound good?”
It sounded too good. I frowned. “That’s too much.”
“Then how much?”
“I haven’t the slightest clue. I don’t know anything. What am I thinking? I can’t do this.” Instant panic hit.
“Calm down,” he drawled. “You’ll be fine. Just pre-opening nerves. If it helps, I usually mark up store product about thirty percent.”
“That sounds more reasonable.”
“Then we’ve got a deal.” He held out his hand.
I wanted to grab it, but instead, I shook my head. “Before I agree to anything, I should see what you’ve got first.” What if it truly was junk?
“That makes sense and is no problem at all. When do you want to come over?”
Glancing around, I made a snap decision. “How about now?” Before I had to replace Marjorie at the diner.
“Uh, sure. I brought the bike. You wanna go for a ride?”
Since I was supposed to be considering taking some of his stuff, I really should bring my car.
My hormones spoke for me. “I’d love that. Just let me lock up.”
There was something satisfying and hot about getting on that motorcycle behind Darryl, a guy who’d gotten more fit since we met, or maybe I didn’t eye him as critically as before. Whatever the case, I enjoyed wrapping my arms around him and leaning my head against his coat and not only because it felt good. The helmet didn’t have a face shield, so I needed him to block the wind.
“Ready?” he asked as he revved the engine.
“Yes.” With my assent, we were on our way.
In the movies, when we see a woman go off with a man to a secluded location, we expect one of two things to happen. A) She gets murdered, or B) she gets laid.
Or in my case C) Darryl actually showed me his damned antiques.
His house proved to be an old farmhouse style. The paint, while not peeling, had certainly faded. He had a wide wrap-around porch with the obligatory pair of rockers.
What I didn’t expect was the dog.
The moment he shut off the bike, I heard it howling and whining. But that wasn’t the freakiest part of it. While I didn’t mind animals, I was still new to them, having only a cat, and cats don’t body slam the door at their person’s arrival.
Boom. Boom. Scratch. I swear I saw the door shuddering.
“He’ll calm down once I open it.”
Or it would eat us both.
Darryl’s dog, for all it had a big voice, still appeared to be a puppy, a gangly-legged furball that flew out the door and attacked him. At least that’s how it seemed given this massive black beast pounced on Darryl, yipping and bouncing. I didn’t see blood, but there appeared to be a rather long tongue trying to wash him.
The man appeared embarrassed as he tried to pet the dog, muttering, “Calm down, Herbie.”
“Herbie?” I repeated with a giggle.
The mention of its name turned the pup’s attention to me. Its lips peeled back to show some teeth, and it growled.
Oh dear. I took a step back.
“Don’t show fear,” Darryl advised.
Great advice that I might have followed if the rabid beast hadn’t advanced.
I squeaked, “Good doggie.”
That just brought even more rumbling with a hint of a drool. I was close to wetting myself, and not in a good way.
“Herbie, heel,” Darryl barked.
The dog stopped its grumbling long enough to crane a look at its master.
“I mean it. You leave Naomi alone.” Darryl wagged a finger, and the beast whined before it lay down on its paws, glaring at me.
“I don’t think your dog likes me.”
“Don’t take it personally. My dog doesn’t like strangers. So let’s show him that we’re friends.”
“In other words, return when I’ve got a fresh juicy steak.”
He chuckled. “Make that a pair and we’ll barbecue.”
Implying I could come back and we’d have dinner? “It’s getting too cold to cook outside,” I blurted out. Which, too late, I realized sounded like rejection. “We’d be better off doing a roast,” was my lame recovery.
“I love a good roast. I’ll provide the wine.” He was definitely flirting.
“I make a mean apple pie, too.” For people not on diets, at least.
“Can’t wait to taste it.” He grabbed my hand, startling me. The dog sensed it and growled.
“Shut it, Herbie. Naomi is my friend,” he stated, rubbing his thumb over the back of my hand.
I felt tingles. Lovely, lovely tingles. I didn’t resist when Darryl pulled me closer.
“See, Herbie. Friends.”
Did he tuck all his friends against him?
He held me close, his arms loosely laced around me, his chin tucked against my head. I shyly put my arms around him.
The dog stopped grumbling, and Darryl whispered against my ear, “Ready?”
“For what?” I said rather breathlessly.
“Hold out your hand.”
Not what I’d expected him to say. “Why would I do that?”
“So Herbie can get your scent.”
“What if he decides to eat me instead?”
“Herbie won’t eat you. Let him smell you, and don’t show fear,” Darryl advised.
“Don’t show fear, he says. Your dog could take my hand off with one bite.” The very thought terrified me, and at the same time, I could see how foolish I was being. Darryl wouldn’t tell me to do something that would harm me.
If he said the dog wouldn’t devour me a la Cujo, then I should believe him. It helped that Darryl wrapped his arm around my middle.
Doing my best not to cringe, I held out my hand.
The dog sniffed it with more snuffling than was surely necessary before licking the palm. Tenderizing me? Marking the spot he wanted to start with?
The massive puppy head followed, butting my hand.
“What’s he doing?” I asked in a choked whisper.
“Asking for a scratch.”
“Oh.” I dug my fingers into fur and soon had the dog rolling onto his back. I had to crouch to rub his belly. His—because he definitely wasn’t built like a female—four legs projected into the air, and his tongue lolled.
To think I’d been terrified just a moment before.
I eyed Herbie, not recognizing the breed, but then again, I only really knew the basics. “What kind of dog is he?” Because he looked part wolf.
“I’m not sure. The breeder I bought him from likened him to a hell hound.”
“Herbie doesn’t have red eyes.” Only big brown ones that begged me for more scratches.
“Nor does he breathe fire. Guess we’re safe. Ready to come inside?” He swept me around to face the open door.
No one knew I’d come here with Darryl. I should have told someone where I was going. Left a note or texted Winnie.
Those were crazy thoughts. Darryl wasn’t a bad guy. I hoped.
I stepped inside a tidy front hall. Tidier than I would have expected for a single man. There was a flat, plastic tray with a pair of construction boots and assorted men’s shoes. Large ones, I might add. A closed bifold door that was probably a closet. The area was enclosed but partially open at the same time. There were wooden pickets starting mid-wall, going right up to the ceiling. Through them I got a glimpse into a living room decorated with lots of plaid fabric and wood.
In order to close the front door, Darryl had to step close to me, his body brushing mine, making me all too aware of him. The dog rushed past, bounding into the hall as gangly as a colt, knocking me into Darryl. I braced my hands on his torso.
When he turned, he smiled softly down at me. “Sorry. He’s still kind of clumsy.”
“How old is Herbie?” I asked, stepping away.
“About six months old.”
“How big is he going to get?”
“Big enough he’ll cost me a fortune to feed,” Darryl joked.
I didn’t even want to imagine the size of its poop. I’d seen what my little kitty could do in a litter box. How something so cute could smell so bad...
“Kick off your shoes. Give me your coat.” Darryl held out his hand.
I slid off my loafers and shucked my sensible canvas jacket. I’d left the helmet outside on the bike and didn’t want to know just how bad my hair looked. Darryl didn’t seem to mind. He smiled every time I glanced at him.
I smiled back.
Stepping out of the front entrance, I noticed the hallway lined with pictures hung atop old wallpaper, the kind with lines rather than flowers. Some of the images appeared old, the paper yellow with age, everyone looking so serious. My house had a gallery, too, but the weird thing was many of its images were recent, and yet, no one took credit for taking and framing them. Probably because they’d done so via stalkerish methods because it certainly wasn’t me or Winnie. Which didn’t leave many other options, unless I believed my house was magical. Ridiculous, right?
“You live here by yourself?” I asked as I glanced into the living room and noted the basket with knitting supplies.
“Yeah. Used to be my parents’ place, but they’re both gone.”
“Guess we got being orphans in common.”
I wrinkled my noise. “I guess we do. I never really thought about it because of my kids.”
“Has your son come to visit yet?” he asked.
Darryl had met Winnie on more than a few occasions. But Geoff… He and I had yet to achieve the kind of relationship I wanted. Heck, I was lucky if he talked to me for more than two minutes during my weekly calls. Weekly because I’d decided it wasn’t up to him to make the effort. And while it was awkward, I hoped that over time it would become easier and he and I could slip into something similar to what I now had with Winnie.
“He’s busy working. And then there’s his fiancée.” I’d finally gotten a picture. Pretty girl, Asian features, her hair cut in a bob, petite beside Geoff.
“Family’s tough,” Darryl commented.
“You don’t have any brothers or sisters?”
“Not anymore.” Rather than explain, he clapped his hands. “Ready for the tour?”
I eyed the stairs leading to the second floor, probably his bedroom. With a bed.
“I don’t know if I have time for a full tour today. I really should get back to the store. I’m supposed to take a shift at the diner around four.”
“In that case, let’s go right to the stash in the basement first. I’ve been meaning to replace the furnace and need to make some room.”
Darryl led the way down the hall and into an old kitchen, the kind with plywood cabinets and red pull handles. The linoleum floor had a checkerboard pattern while the wallpaper border and curtains sported roosters.
A door with a lock on it creaked when he opened it. He reached in and flicked a switch. “Ladies first.”
I eyed the roughhewn wooden steps going down, lit by a dangling bulb. “Oh hell no. You didn’t warn me you had the basement used in every single horror movie.”
The remark made him laugh. “I swear the only scary thing down there is the mess. But if it makes you feel better, I’ll go first.”
He descended without any hesitation, whereas I really questioned my life choices. Going down into a basement alone with a guy, and no one knew I was here.
“You coming?” he shouted up from the bottom.
My anxiety screamed at me to run away.
I straightened my shoulders and lifted my chin. There was nothing to fear but fear itself. I repeated that as I went down the steps, feeling my trepidation loosen as I entered a well-lit basement that was, as he said, full of junk. Or as my sales pitch would refer to it, undiscovered treasures.
The space hadn’t been sectioned off like most lower levels. It had a few metal posts sunk into the cement floor supporting joists. The walls were made of stone blocks, not the earth I’d feared.
Everything appeared dry, and yet I knew to ask, “Ever have water issues?” I crouched to examine a side table with spindly wooden legs.
I ran my hand over the wood and didn’t spot any signs of swelling. As a matter of fact, I didn’t smell any mildew at all, which was impressive. Even my old basement in suburbia had a bit of a scent that no amount of dehumidifying could get rid of.
I moved amongst the items, taking note of the things that I thought might catch buyers’ eyes and the things he’d be better off ditching. At the far end of the basement, a tarp covered a large lump.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“An old hobby of my grandma’s.” He moved past me to grab the covering and yanked it loose.
I gaped. “Is that a pottery wheel?”
Not a modern version, if I went by its appearance. It had a metal seat hinged onto a frame that had a large stone at the bottom, a post running up the middle, and the spinning stone where the magic happened. Pottery magic, not the sparkly kind.
“My grandma went through a period of crafts. Thankfully none of the blobs survived. Only the wheel. You’ll find a ton of archery stuff in the garage from her Katniss phase.”
“Your grandma watched The Hunger Games?”
He rolled his shoulders. “She was pretty hip for an old lady.”
“Mine believed in magic,” I admitted. I’d only ever had the one grandparent. I didn’t recall ever meeting anyone on my dad’s side. Other than grandma and my mom, no family on my matriarchal side, either.
“You don’t believe in magic?” he said.
I wrinkled my nose. “No. It’s just a word people use when they don’t know how to explain a phenomenon via science.”
“What if you couldn’t explain it? Would it be magic then?”
“More likely something we’ve yet to discover.”
“You’re serious, aren’t you?”
Insight hit me, and I blurted out, “Holy cow, you believe it exists.”
“I’ve seen things science can’t explain.”
“Ghosts, for starters.”
“Ghosts aren’t real.”
“Says you and only because you haven’t encountered one yet.”
“And you have?” I scoffed. He had to be pulling my leg.
“Yup. You’ll encounter them most often in places that have been around awhile. Like this house. It’s been passed down quite a few generations and has a history.”
“Your home is haunted?” I couldn’t help my skepticism.
“I don’t believe in ghosts.”
“Does this mean you won’t be cuddling up for safety?” His eyes twinkled.
I snorted. “No.”
“Then how about cuddling for fun?”
“Uh.” It wasn’t just the offer that had me speechless, but the smile. A sexy grin that got closer as he entered my space. His hand reached for my waist and drew me near.
His head was coming down.
Oh geez. He was going to kiss me. I hadn’t brushed my teeth since the morning. What if I had lunch breath or, worse, some salad caught somewhere and it came loose?
I recoiled so hard I lost my balance and fell onto a garbage bag, which split down one side leaving me lying on a pile of dolls. Imagine, if you would, heads of all sizes, some bald with unblinking eyes, some with ringlets and kinky hair, all staring.
“Get me out of this!” I might have panic-whispered the demand as I held out my hand.
Darryl grabbed me and hauled me to my feet easily. He let go and took a step back.
Way to go. I’d made him think he had cooties. Awful schoolyard game, especially since I’d once gotten head lice, and everyone knew because the school sent a letter home to all the parents of kids in my class.
“Sorry. I’m so clumsy. Left-handed,” I said with a nervous laugh, shaking the poor abused limb.
“You don’t have to be afraid of me.” The statement showed I hadn’t fooled him one bit.
“I’m not afraid of you. It’s just—”
Someone dared ring the bell, and the dog went nuts.
“Shit, someone’s at the door. I’ll be right back.” I didn’t realize I held on to his arm until he tugged it free.
Darryl took the stairs two at a time, yelling at his dog. “Herbie. Calm down, dude. It’s just the fucking door.”
I let out a breath. Probably a good thing he’d left. I needed space. A second to think. A quick peek at my chompers to check for food. The closest thing I could find for a mirror was a tarnished platter, which showed my teeth were lettuce free. A Tums pilfered from the bottom of my purse crunched and gave me a minty taste to my mouth. As I wandered through the stacks of items, I thought about what I’d say when Darryl returned.
I could go with the truth. Hey, so the only man I’ve been with for twenty years was my ex-husband, and it’s been awhile for me. If I ignored my hot and heavy session with Kane.
Expressing myself would be the mature thing to do, and then we could talk about it like grown adults and ease me through this weird transition. It sounded pathetic even as I thought it. I couldn’t admit to him that I was a nervous wreck who was worried that he’d kiss me and be disappointed.
What if we had sex and I was just bad at it? Heck, what if Darryl sucked? We lived in the same small town. We’d constantly be running into each other, avoiding each other’s eyes because we’d have seen ourselves naked.
I glanced down at my body hidden by the oversized sweatshirt that camouflaged my wrinkly belly. I couldn’t let Darryl see it.
How would he feel about making out in the dark?
I blinked at the sudden lack of light. What the heck? Were they on some kind of timer? The open basement door spilled a bit of illumination. I headed for the stairs, only to squeak as the door slammed shut.
Pure darkness reigned. I couldn’t even see the hand I waved in front of me. I swear if I’d touched something, I would have uttered the scream of all screams.
I could hear the cooling tick of the bulbs and nothing else. I didn’t like it one bit.
“Darryl?” Was he playing a prank on me? He’d better not be. I pulled my phone out and it lit for a moment, long enough for me to see it say “low battery,” before shutting down.
Just my freaking luck. The pressing blackness all around stifled me and roused a bone-chilling fear.
I took a shuffling step in what I thought might be the direction of the stairs, and immediately slammed my shin into furniture.
“Ow. Damn. Fuck.” The rare expletive slipped from my lips. Feeling around, I grasped the contour of a chair and sat down, rubbing my leg. “Stupid basement. Should have gone upstairs where it’s nice and sunny,” I grumbled.
The ghostly echo froze me.
It took a second before it repeated. “Hello.”
Definitely not an echo.
“Darryl, that better not be you.” The man was obviously trying to scare me. First his story about his house being haunted then pulling this childish prank.
“Darryl.” The voice sang the name. “Darryl. Darryl. Darryl.”
What if he hadn’t lied and his house truly did have poltergeists? I’d never asked if they could hurt people.
My breathing came quicker. “Who is that? What do you want?”
“Who. Who. Who.”
The word came from everywhere, left, then right, and finally in front of me on a ghostly waft of air.
“Make me.” The cold breath of the words hit my nape, and I was out of the chair like a shot.
“Stay away.” I stumbled amidst the furniture, banging and scraping.
Even through the noise I made, I heard it singing and giggling, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
“I’m not a witch.” I hollered the words. A witch wouldn’t be scared. She’d have a spell to fight the nasty voice and light the wretched basement.
“The only thing worse than a witch is a liar.” The frozen syllables blew into my face, and my teeth chattered.
“Who are you? What do you want? Show yourself, coward.” I shook like a leaf in a storm on the inside, and yet my voice never once faltered. I sounded strong. Confident.
The voice mocked me. “Are you afraid of the dark?”
“No.” A lie but I wouldn’t admit to being weak. “So you can stop this, right now. Whatever joke you’re playing with Darryl, it’s over.”
“It will never be over because if you fail then there is always your child.”COLLAPSE