Barbara Bretton

Sneak Peek

Casting Spells: Chapter 2

It was around eleven when we locked up the shop. I said goodnight to both Lynette and Janice then waited until they drove away before I cut across the tiny yard that separated my store from the empty pet shop next door and headed straight for the Inn.

It was one of those crystal clear winter nights that made me glad to be a New Englander. Moonlight bounced off the snowy sidewalks, doing a better job of illuminating my path than our treasured gas lamps. The gas lamps had been converted to electricity some years back but they still imparted a glow rich with nostalgia. The air was crisp and cold, and it carried with it the scent of woodsmoke and pine and something else, something I couldn't identify but understood deep in my bones. It was the smell of my childhood, of home and family, of the place I knew I would never leave.

There had been a time back in our village's early days when someone like me wouldn't have stepped foot outside after dark. The energies had been wilder then. The scent of human flesh triggered visceral hungers that could be satisfied only one way. The old way.

But that was a long time ago. Originally our town had provided a safe harbor for the hunted creatures of this world. While towns like Salem waged an ugly war against perceived witchcraft, our early citizens had opened their homes to strangers whose very appearance would strike terror in most hearts. The risk had been great and there had been losses along the way to understanding but we had not only survived: we had thrived.

Sugar Maple had sheltered Aerynn and her family when they fled Massachusetts and to show her gratitude, Aerynn vowed that as long as females of her line walked the earth the protective charm would keep the villagers of Sugar Maple from harm. Before she pierced the veil, she had poured all of her secrets into the Book of Spells which would be passed down, along with her magick, through her female descendants.

For almost three hundred years the Book helped an unbroken chain of Hobbs women keep Sugar Maple safe from harm and if my mother hadn't fallen in love with a mortal human there was every reason to believe the chain would have remained unbroken for another three hundred years.

But not even Aerynn had been able to foresee the birth of a half-mortal girl who hadn't a drop of magick in her entire body.

When my mother died, she left both the Book of Spells and her six year old daughter in the capable hands of Sorcha, the town healer. Sorcha knew that the magick on those pages was powerful and needed to be hidden away. Until a Hobbs woman with magick at her command claimed the Book, it was vulnerable to darker forces who would use it in ways Aerynn never intended.

"But how will I find it?" I had asked Sorcha when it was her time to pierce the veil. "Where should I look?"

"Have faith, daughter," she said, placing a tender kiss on my forehead. "When you're ready, the Book will find you."

It hadn't been looking very hard if you asked me. Except for a short-lived college career at BU, I've been in Sugar Maple every day of my life. When someone like Suzanne Marsden came to town, the event had my full attention.

I'm not a stalker by nature or even all that nosy about other people's lives, but that night I couldn't seem to control myself. It was like I was starving for a glimpse of how it could be when things were right between a woman and a man. I wanted to see the sparks flashing between them with my own eyes, not read about them in a book.

Osborne is a long avenue that runs parallel to the park. Back when the town was first incorporated, the park had been part of a forest that had long since given way to the demands of modern life. Somehow we had managed to hang onto enough wooded acreage to provide a healthy buffer between Sugar Maple and the next town.

Which, all things considered, wasn't a bad thing.

What moon there was that night splashed a silvery glow across the snowdrifts lining the sidewalk as I neared the Inn. The faint sound of laughter floated toward me and I imagined Suzanne Marsden in her naked dress with the shimmery shawl slipping off her shoulders as she flirted with her boyfriend.

Okay, so maybe I was really imagining myself in that naked dress and the shimmery shawl, perfectly lit by the glow of a half dozen candles, smiling up into the eyes of a handsome homo sapiens who couldn't keep his hands off me.

I never said I didn't have a few issues of my own. (Not to mention some fantasies that were frequently fueled by a box of Chardonnay and sappy old movies on DVD.) Sometimes I had to concentrate very hard to remember my parents' faces, the sound of their voices, but the memory of how it had been between them was crystal clear.

And I wanted that. I wanted to love someone so much it hurt. I wanted someone to love me so deeply that I would believe in forever even if forever could never be.

I knew that sooner or later I would have to do whatever was necessary to keep Sugar Maple and her own safe from harm, but I couldn't help hoping that love would be part of the solution. Not just the friendship kind of love I felt for Gunnar, but the real can't-live-without-you kind that turned your world upside down.

But in a good way.

A handful of cars with out-of-state plates were parked in the lot behind the Inn. Two Massachusetts, two New Hampshire, one Wisconsin. Soft grey puffs of apple-scented smoke rose from the twin chimneys on either side of the sloped roof. I moved closer, careful to stay in the shadows, and watched as the Weavers delivered the ultimate country inn experience to their unsuspecting guests.

Renate poured wine for a middle-aged couple and said something that made them both laugh. A trio of businessmen in dark suits talked intently over thick porterhouse steaks. Colm, the patriarch of the Weaver clan, danced attendance on a white-haired woman in vintage Chanel. Bettina, the Weavers' married daughter, sat on a ladderback chair near the hearth, playing the harp while her kids, Athens and Ithaca, bussed the tables.

The diners hadn't a clue that the owners were faerie who lived under the first step of the center hall staircase when they weren't playing innkeeper. Part of Aerynn's protective charm was the way outsiders saw only what they expected to see in Sugar Maple, not what was right there in front of them.

One of the businessmen glanced toward the window. His eyes widened in surprise when he saw me and I hit the snowy ground face first, praying he would blame it on too many vodka tonics and not a dangerously lonely knit shop owner with too many cats.

Talk about a You Tube moment.

"Chloe?" A familiar voice sounded above me. It just kept getting better and better.

Gunnar, my best friend and occasional movie date, was bending over me. The shimmer of transition still clung to him like a fine web of silver-blue stars. Even though I had known him my entire life, there were still times when his fae beauty shocked me into reverent silence.

This, however, wasn't one of them.

I took his outstretched hand and rose to my feet, shaking off the snow like a dog spraying water after a bath. "If you say one word about this, so help me I'll tell everyone about that time down near the Lake when you--"

He gave me that smile of his, the one I wished made my toes curl. He knew his secrets were safe with me. "You want to tell me why you were spying on Renate?"

"You're here too," I pointed out. "Who were you spying on?"

"They had a full house tonight. I helped in the kitchen."

I shook my head in bemusement. "I never understood why Samantha let Darrin talk her out of witchcraft and I don't understand why Renate doesn't just conjure up those delicious meals of hers." She was fae. Her whole family was. They had powers and magick I couldn't even imagine. "If I had even half Renate's powers, I'd never block another shawl." A twitch of the nose, a blink of the eye, and voila! Perfection.

"Magick isn't all it's cracked up to be," he said, brushing glitter from his golden blond hair. "Sometimes I envy you."

"Sure you do," I said with a grin. "Tell me that next time you magick yourself out of paying for bagels at Fully Caffeinated."

"So why are you spying on Renate?" he asked again. For a nice guy, Gunnar could be remarkably determined.

"I wasn't spying on Renate." I brushed snow off the front of my coat. "I was spying on someone else."

He glanced toward the window and grimaced. "Not the guy in the brown suit."

"Give me a little credit." The whole thing sounded so foolish I couldn't wrap my words around it. "A customer locked herself out of her car while she was waiting for the Inn to open. I wanted to see if she found her keys."

"You can do better than that."

"I wanted to get a look at her boyfriend, okay?" I kicked a fine flurry of snow in his direction.

I told him about the naked dress and the Orenburg and the way she lit up the room the moment she stepped into the shop. "And it's not just that she was drop-dead gorgeous or that she had magick like Simone or your mother. I'm telling you, Gunnar, when she was in the room, you couldn't take your eyes off her."

"It's called star power," Gunnar said. "Dane has it too."

I managed to keep my grimace to myself. Gunnar and Dane were twins but, believe me, the likeness was purely physical. They shared astonishing good looks and one set of full fae powers that were unequally divided between them. As beautiful as Gunnar was, his brother was even more so. But fate hadn't been entirely unfair because Gunnar had claimed the lion's share of powers, a fact in which I took wicked pleasure.

The town matchmakers had done their best to turn our friendship into a love match but finally even the most hopeful of the lot realized we were fatally platonic and tried to hook me up with his brother. I'm not proud of myself but Dane knew how to work that whole faerie/beauty/sex thing and one long ago night I had come close to taking a walk on the wild side.(Believe me, you don't know what seduction is until a faerie turns up the wattage.) Fortunately I came to my senses before I had to disinfect my entire body with Lysol. Call me strange but I like my men a tad less sociopathic.

Still there was something to be said for the chase. Being pursued had its charms. If Gunnar had been able to channel his energies the way his brother could, we would probably be married right now and expecting our fourth or fifth child. And I guess you could say if Dane had been even one-quarter as decent as his brother, I might be living an entirely different life right now.

But cruelty had never been a turn-on for me and I was glad when Dane started spending more time in the faerie realm than the earthly plain doing his mother's dirty work. Their mother, the terrifying Isadora, wielded enormous power in their world and craved it in ours, as well.

Dane was hot-tempered and selfish. Gunnar was easy-going and loyal. Janice once said that I made him sound like a Golden Retriever but that wasn't how I meant it. He had a good heart and a good soul and I would have given all my hand-painted silk to find a way to make it work between us but the hard truth of the matter was I didn't love him the way he loved me and I probably never would.

As the only non-magick tax payer in Sugar Maple, I pretty much operated on a need-to-know basis and that position had served me well when it came to navigating the tricky waters between the real world out there and the world our ancestors had created. They called it plausible deniability in Washington. Up here we just called it common sense.

"Come on," Gunnar said, glancing back toward the Inn. "We'd better get out of here before Colm comes out for a smoke."

We quickly moved across the yard and driveway, then fell into step when we reached Osborne.

"This is getting to be a habit," I said lightly as I pulled my scarf more closely around my neck. "Third night in a row you've walked me home from work."

"Not that you're counting or anything."

"So what's up, friend?" I asked. "Why the escort service?"

Unlike most fae of my acquaintance, Gunnar wasn't good at emotional camouflage. "I heard the banshee wail."

I couldn't help it. I laughed out loud. "You did not." It sounded like something from a cheesy horror movie.

"Last night. Three minutes to midnight."

"After a few margaritas I usually hear U2." He didn't laugh with me so I regrouped and tried again. "You probably were having a bad dream."

"I was wide awake."

"I told you to quit reading Stephen King before bed."

Again nothing. He didn't even crack a smile.

Call me a wimp, but I wasn't a big fan of banshee talk. Things that went bump in the night, horror movies, your average circus clown could all give me the screaming heebie-jeebies. Which, considering where I live, was pretty ironic. "Come on, Gunnar. I know this is Sugar Maple but I don't think anyone here has ever heard a banshee. I mean, are you even sure banshees exist?"

"I heard one the night before your mother died."

"I really wish you hadn't told me that."

"I wish I hadn't heard it." He unwound the cashmere scarf I had knitted for him from around his neck and draped it across my shoulders.

"How far away was it last night?"

He hesitated. "It was windy. I couldn't—"

"Tell me, Gunnar."

"Close," he said. "Very close."

I pulled in some icy air. "Okay, so let's say for the moment that you did hear a banshee's wail. Nobody dies in Sugar Maple, at least not in the mortal sense. That would mean it has to be an outsider."

"Not necessarily."

My heart was pounding so hard I could barely speak. I knew the answer in my bones but I needed for him to say it. "Who else could it be?"

"You're half-mortal, Chloe."

I flexed an imaginary bicep. "I'm healthy as a horse," I said. "I don't ski. I almost never drive. Unless I fall onto a stash of double points, I think I'm good for a few more years." I waited for him to laugh or smile or at least acknowledge my attempt at humor but his expression remained grim. "Okay," I said, "now you're really scaring me."

A train whistle blew in the distance, followed by mournful hooting from somewhere nearby.

"Maybe you heard an owl," I said. "The woods are filled with them."

"Or a lovesick fisher," he said, forcing a smile. "I spotted tracks last week in the woods."

"Lilith said they were repopulating. I'll bet that's exactly what you heard."

He made an upbeat comment about conservation and forestry. I answered with an even more upbeat comment about wildlife and the environment. We both ignored the fact that it wasn't mating season. We were practically back to our pre-banshee comfort level until we locked eyes and a terrible certainty moved between us.

Change was coming. You could smell it in the air.

He walked me to my cottage at the edge of the woods where we exchanged awkward goodbyes. I wanted to throw my arms around my best friend and hug away the worry in his eyes but when your best friend was also in love with you, a woman had to think twice. I squeezed his hand instead.

"It's nothing," I said even though we both knew I was lying. "This time tomorrow we'll laugh about it."

But once I closed the door behind me, tomorrow seemed a very long time away. This was one of those nights when the loneliness cut through me like a well-sharpened knife.

I was glad when a loud meow rang out and my feline family materialized from their various hiding places. After an initial burst of excitement, they assumed their usual looks of disdain and I hurried to do their bidding like a good human.

I spent the next forty-five minutes cuddling, cleaning litter boxes, and opening cans of Fancy Feast. Once I had Lucy, Pyewacket, Dinah, and Blot settled down, I popped a Lean Cuisine into the microwave, pumped myself a glass of red from the box on the counter, then plopped down onto the sofa to get pleasantly buzzed while I waited for my Meat Loaf with Whipped Potatoes to be ready.

I guess I must have dozed off somewhere between my second glass of wine and the bag of Chips Ahoy I'd sworn I wouldn't open until Saturday night because the next thing I knew I was startled awake by one of Renate's beautiful daughters.

Calliope was balanced on the rim of my wine glass, all teeny tiny tattoos, piercings, and hot pink iPod permanently set on Stun.

"Wake up!" she said. "You have to get to the Stallworths' place right now or else."

"Calli?" I stifled a yawn. "What's going on?"

She shrugged and faerie glitter left over from Transition sent the cats running for cover. (That's the thing about the fae: no matter how hard they try, they can't always cover their tracks.) "My mom says you'd better get there fast."

She vanished in another shower of glitter I would be vacuuming up for days.

The temperature had dropped considerably in the last few hours. A wicked northerly wind slashed through my heavy down-filled coat and penetrated three layers of wool and quiviut sweaters. As much as I hated the thought of driving the icy half-mile between my cottage and Town Hall, I hated the thought of walking it even more.

It took forever to warm up my ancient Buick, long enough that I started wondering if maybe I needed Janice to devise a protective charm to keep the engine running one more year. Finally I shifted into drive and white-knuckled my way down Osborne Avenue. I slid to a shaky stop at the corner of Carrier and Osborne and saw the lights blazing at the Stallworth Funeral Home.

Beads of sweat broke out along the back of my neck and I yanked off my scarf and tossed it onto the seat next to me. I told myself that the Stallworths were nocturnal by nature and two a.m. was midday to them but the knot of cars in their driveway wasn't a good sign. I mean, we weren't all vampire in Sugar Maple.

Gunnar's banshee talk swooped in on me like a swarm of bees. Was it possible he had been right and we had lost one of our own? I refused to wrap my mind around the concept. The death of my father was the last true death I could remember. Sorcha didn't die in the traditional sense; she literally passed from this dimension of being into another one. I had been present at the moment she left us and while I had been unable to actually see her pierce the veil, there was no denying the fact that in the blink of an eye, her physical self was gone.

That was how it was with most of the villagers. When they moved into another realm, their physical selves moved with them and there was nothing for the Stallworth Funeral Home to do but organize a gathering in their name. But when those few of us with human blood died, it would be a whole other story.

Could something have happened to Dane? He spent very little time in Sugar Maple these days and not even Gunnar had any idea how he amused himself beyond the mist. Dane had outgrown our village a long time ago. Their mother Isadora probably knew but Dane was her golden child and she held his secrets close.

Maybe one of those businessmen I had seen choking down porterhouses the size of my Buick had keeled over at the table after Gunnar and I left. It could be anything, I told myself as I turned into the circular driveway and glided to a stop behind our only school bus.

Janice, wearing a plaid flannel nightgown and Uggs, was waiting for me at the door. "The blond woman who bought your Orenburg is dead."

I stopped unbuttoning my coat. "What?"

"She's dead." A blaze of color stained her cheeks. "Paul Griggs and his sons were coming out of the woods on the north side of the skating pond and they saw something on the ice—"

Janice kept talking but her words were lost to me. I felt like the oxygen had been sucked out of my lungs. "It's a mistake," I said. "You saw her: she was meeting her boyfriend for dinner at the Inn. She wasn't exactly dressed for ice skating." The skinny heels. The naked dress. That beautiful, vibrant woman . . .

"Colm said she waited two hours for the guy to show up but he never did. She paid her bar tab then left around nine o'clock. That was the last time anyone saw her alive."

"You don't know that. You're guessing. You don't know anything."

"She's here, honey. She's in the—" She stopped and looked away, clearly searching for the right words but there weren't any.

Slowly the rest of the room came into focus. Paul and his sons Jeremy and Johnny were slumped on the sofa against the far wall. They still bore the marks of transformation on their forearms and along their jaw lines, dark wiry tufts of grey-brown fur that always reminded me of steel wool. His normally rambunctious sons stared down at their bare feet. The powerful claws were almost fully retracted but what remained glittered brightly in the overhead lights. All three were swaddled in huge white blankets with bright yellow daisies embroidered in each corner. I had tried repeatedly to woo Midge Stallworth over to knitting but she was staunchly in the embroidery camp as evidenced by the profusion of daisies on every textile she owned.

"What are we going to do?" Midge cried the second she saw me. She was a small, round, motherly woman whose high color was the result of a recent feeding and not blusher. "We haven't ordered supplies in at least ten years. By the time we get a delivery, she'll be so stiff we won't be able to--"

The next thing I knew, I was looking up at the ceiling through a grayish mist. The voices were familiar—Janice and Paul and Jeremy's croaking adolescent tenor—but the faces weren't. I closed my eyes again, willing myself to pull the disparate images back into focus. When I opened them this time, everything was as it should be.

Except for the fainting part, that is.

"It's her blood sugar," Midge was saying as she drizzled Dr. Pepper into my mouth. "They're always having trouble with their blood sugar." Midge blamed all my problems on being a non-magick human.

"It's not my blood sugar." I pushed the soft drink away. "And don't talk about Suzanne like that. She's not even cold yet."

"Oh, she's cold," Paul volunteered from the sofa. "She was near frozen when we pulled her out of the water."

The room started to spin again but this time I managed to keep myself from fading.

"I want to see her."

They exchanged looks.

"I want to see her," I repeated, rising to my feet. "We can't just leave her alone in that room while we try to figure out what to do next."

The rituals surrounding human death were alien to all of us but I knew her passage had to be marked even if the thought of actually seeing Suzanne Marsden's corpse was making it hard for me to breathe.

Midge led me down a flight of carpeted stairs and through a maze of dimly lit corridors painted an eerie silvery grey. Every ten feet or so a huge steel door with a tiny electronic locking system broke the monotony. Music, so quiet it was almost subliminal, softened the hard edges but as we moved deeper into the core of the house my fear of the unknown began to override my sense of what was right.

When Midge stopped in front of the last door and pressed a series of numbers on the keypad, it was all I could do to keep from running.

Stay, daughter. Sorcha's voice filled my head. You are doing what you are meant to do.

I turned to Midge. "Did you hear that?"

Midge frowned as the keypad beeped its disapproval. "You made me punch in the wrong number," she chided me.

"Are you sure you didn't hear anything?" I persisted.

"Only my creaking knees," she said as she punched in the code again.

There's nothing to fear. Sorcha's dear familiar voice hummed against my breastbone. Do as I would do and with a full heart.

But what would Sorcha do? She had left me on the night of my twenty-first birthday and not a day went by when I didn't think of her with love. She had taught me many of the healing arts but not how to cope with the end of human life. We had never faced anything like this before. No tourist or non-villager had ever died within our township limits. Aerynn's spell had made sure of it. Everyone was looking to me for answers but I hadn't a clue.

If I had ever doubted that the spell was spinning to the end of its life span, I didn't doubt it any longer.

I couldn't turn to Midge and her family for help. Most of what the Stallworths knew about the mortuary business they had gleaned from repeated watchings of CSI and Six Feet Under. Faced with reality, they were as much in the dark as the rest of us.

Janice. Renate and Colm. Manny and Frank from the Sugar Maple Assisted Living. Lilith. Lynette and Cyrus. Not even my best friend Gunnar. There wasn't a single soul in town who would be able to guide me through this maze. I was going to have to trust myself and pray that Sorcha's wisdom would somehow give me strength to make the right choices for all of us.

The keypad emitted a series of three beeps then swung open. Midge took my hand and squeezed. "Not to worry," she said. "It happens to all of you sooner or later."

Suzanne lay face up on a gurney in the middle of the room. A harsh puddle of fluorescent light washed over her leaching out what was left of her color. Midge had wrapped her body in a pale pink blanket edged with embroidered violets and pansies. The naked dress was draped over the back of a metal chair in the corner. The Orenburg scarf lay in a sodden heap on the floor.

"Isn't she beautiful." Midge made one of those clucking noises that reminded me of a brood hen about to lay an egg. "If only Paul and the boys had come out of the woods a moment earlier." She shook her head. "Such a shame. We could have helped."

I knew what she was thinking. There was life as Suzanne and I experienced it and there was life the way the Stallworths knew it. If there had been time, they could have offered Suzanne the kind of choice most people believed existed only in fiction.

Eternal youth and beauty were powerful incentives but I didn't think a shadow life would have been enough for a woman like Suzanne.

Then again, maybe she would have jumped at the offer. I had to remind myself that I'd known Suzanne Marsden for maybe ten minutes. There wasn't much you could learn about a woman in six hundred seconds.

Midge took my hand and squeezed. "Honey, don't be scared. There's nothing to fear."

Easy for her to say. She had been part of the living dead since 1793. But even Midge had her limitations and sunlight was one of them. Dawn wasn't far away. We needed to get on with it.

I forced myself to really see what was in front of me.

"You're right," I said as I approached the body. "She's still lovely."

"I told you." Midge gave me one of her 50s TV-mom smiles. "It's all a part of the Great Plan."

Whatever that was.

Someone had smoothed Suzanne's wet hair back from her face, exposing her perfect bone structure. She looked like a porcelain doll. All of the fire and flash she had brought with her to Sticks & Strings existed only in my memory.

"It's the soul," Midge said with a sigh. "It makes all the difference."

Surprising talk from a vampire but this was Sugar Maple where nothing was like it seemed.

I struggled to find words to convey what I was feeling but I failed. The realization that if I had magick, this wouldn't have happened filled me with remorse.

I stayed with Suzanne until daybreak. I tried to think deeply spiritual, philosophical thoughts about life and death and the hereafter, but my mind was a blank. I wished I had brought some knitting. Would Suzanne have minded? I didn't think so but I was only guessing. Had she been a church-going Catholic, a lapsed Episcopalian, an observant Jew, a questioning agnostic? What prayers or rituals were part of her heritage? I had nothing to offer her but my physical presence, no blessings or incantations meant to ease her way between worlds. Her own people would have to see to that when they came for her.

I wondered who her people were. Did she have a family whose hearts would be broken when they got the news? What about the boyfriend she had worn the naked dress for, how would he feel when he heard? Did she have children, a job, friends who depended on her for laughter and support? Who was out there waiting for the call I would make as soon as the sun rose?

I didn't have any answers, only the certainty that like it or not we were going to have to let the world in, if only for a while



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