“Great galloping goblins! If we must have a cat, it should at least know how to behave.”
Natalie glared at the fluffy black kitten that was half-hidden beneath the lip of the overturned basket of hand-mixed herbal teas. The scent of mint, ginger, and roses wafted upward from broken packages, but she refused to yield to their soothing properties.
Gillian Winterforth slid between them, her chubby body clad in a loose, embroidered white blouse and colorful tie-dye skirt, blocking access to the kitten. She bent over and scooped it up. It batted at her long white braid, and she flipped the plait behind her, removing it from harm's way.
When she was standing again, she rubbed a cheek against the kitten’s glossy fur. “If you were in charge, I’m sure you’d have things running smoothly like in Eunice’s day. Nothing like having an imprisoned citizen inside the cat to keep an eye on things,” she said. Her amused response betrayed a fading English accent.
“Yes, excellent idea,” Natalie responded promptly. “Where is Tom?”
A young female voice sounded from the hallway to the private parlor of the Victorian home that housed Cat’s Magical Shoppe. “Hubby won't be sleeping around town in a fur suit any time soon just to make your life easier, Natalie Taylor. Tom has enough on his hands with his adorable new wife and a mansion to renovate, thank you.”
When Cassie Sanders emerged from the hall, she winked a blue eye at Gillian, who smiled in return. Natalie didn’t respond. They both knew she hadn’t really meant that Tom should continue to fulfill the role of store cat. Probably.
As she bent and picked up the scattered bags of tea and Gillian went for the broom to clean up after the broken ones, Natalie straightened to the tingle at her spine that signaled the near presence of newly created life. She stood up straight again, her heart beating faster; the game is afoot! She said, “You can hear my old bones creaking while I work to put things right, can’t you? But at least, everything—absolutely everything—will soon be back in order again.”
Cassie laughed. “Seriously, only a joyless old crone would complain about a playful kitten. Lighten up, Nat. Cat’s Magical Shoppe has always had a cat, that cat has always been named Cat, and that’s how it will continue. It’s a family tradition.”
“Joyless old crone!” Nat snorted. “My dear, you have no idea. Look to that one,” she gestured with her chin at Gillian, who was capturing the last of the spilled tea in the dustpan, “if you’re looking for a crone. In this trio of witches that’s not an honor I’ll be claiming. And Gillian,” she continued as she rearranged the salvageable teas in the basket, “I’m surprised that you haven’t noticed it, too…how our little trio has changed. A way that will allow us to cast the spell to bring order to my world again.”
Gillian put the broom and dustpan back in the storeroom as she said, “And that change is?”
Natalie’s head shook as she hmphed, then said, “You’re not paying attention, are you?.” She nodded in Cassie’s direction.
Gillian’s eyes followed her nod, and dropped to Cassie’s middle. They lit up with recognition. “You mean she…is she?” Her eyes opened wide.
“There’s definitely new life in the room.” Natalie looked at Gillian meaningfully. “What do you want to bet it’s not us senior citizens who are carrying?”
“What are you guys talking about?” Cassie asked. “And stop staring at me like that. You’re creeping me out.”
Gillian moved to her side. “Sweetie, you won’t mind a little staring if Natalie’s right. If I could just…” Gillian moved a plump hand to Cassie’s stomach. Cassie didn’t flinch away, so Gillian left her hand there for a moment. Her smile turned into an all-out grin.
“Oh, it’s true, all right! Nat, we’re going to be grandwitches.”
Cassie looked down to where Gillian’s hand still rested on her abdomen. “You guys mean?”
Natalie nodded. “I mean that you weren’t a mother yesterday, but you certainly are today.”
Gillian still glowed, but she took her hand away. “Yes, sweetheart, we both know what you and Tom did last night.”
“Yeah, like we don’t do that every night.” Cassie rolled her eyes and giggled. “I mean, guys, we’re still newlyweds. But no matter what we’ve been doing, there’s no way to tell if I’m pregnant that fast.”
Gillian said, “The child hasn’t quickened, sweetheart, but there’s a tiny set of cells inside you that’s destined to become someone who is part you and part Tom.”
Cassie looked down at her flat stomach again, then up to her friends, her face a study in wonder. “Part Tom. Part me. Omigoddess…”
Natalie raised a hand dramatically to shade her eyes, playful now as she neared her goal. “I shouldn’t have said anything. The radiant output coming from where you’re standing is blinding." She half smiled as she lowered her hand. "Focus please.” She walked behind the counter, squatted carefully with one hand on the counter to steady herself, then unboxed the red vintage purse she’d paid dearly for at auction and hidden in her cubby months ago. Red is so important for an effective ward against the spirits of the dead.
She sent a warning glare to the kitten that had been attracted by the rustling sound of unfolding tissue paper, then set the handbag carefully at her feet where she could snatch it up at the right moment.
When she stood up again, she continued, “I only mentioned it because I need your help. With the three of us: Mother…” she said, putting her hand out gently toward Cassie with a flourish, “…and of course, Maid….” She put an identifying hand on her own chest.
Cassie and Gillian looked at each other quickly, eyebrows raised, and then right back at Natalie with disbelieving eyes.
Natalie knew what they were thinking and scowled. “I was busy. I didn’t have time romantic nonsense.” Her focus moved to Gillian. “Given those circumstances, you can only be the Crone. I think that’s obvious.”
Gillian smiled. “The wisest witch in the room? I agree.”
“Believe what you want about the qualities of a crone.” Natalie twitched her outstretched hand as if flicking away a fly, then let it sink to rest on one narrow hip. No point in wasting time arguing the subtleties. “Let's stop quibbling and talk about the prerequisites of my spell, shall we? I’d like to perform it as soon as possible.”
Cassie was staring at her own stomach again, but she replied, distractedly, “Go on, Nat. Everybody’s listening.”
“It will require extreme focus from all of us…”
Her audience leaned in, but their attention was pulled away again when the shop bell tinkled as the door opened and birthed a gaggle of senior shoppers. They had pocketbooks at the ready, with their shopping bags unfurled, and gabbled at each other like turkeys as they spread out quickly toward the shop’s gaudier offerings.
Cassie looked out into the suddenly crowded shop and grinned. “Oh. That’s what I came to tell you before you guys distracted me—a bus load of tourists just pulled up in the municipal lot. The town’s new publicist has managed to get Giles into the tour companies as a secondary stop to Salem.”
“What good news!” Gillian turned back to Natalie and said, “You’ll have to hang on to whatever you want for later. We’ve got punters!” She spun and bustled toward the clump of customers with Cassie right behind.
Natalie didn’t follow. She folded her hands on the counter and glared. By the time the shoppers cleared out, Cassie would need to be off to her husband, Gillian would need to be off to her partner, and Natalie’s needs would be forgotten. But she was tired, bone tired, of seeing dead people, and even more tired of seeing William, who was the most persistent of them.
She looked down when a brush of movement fluttered her pant leg.
At her feet, the kitten’s head and front paws, so recently covered with the ingredients of subtly enchanted teas designed for healing, beauty, memory, and self control, had disappeared into the open mouth of the purse she’d spent days preparing with complex cleansing rituals. Even she hadn’t dared to put a hand in there for fear of contaminating it before the casting.
Blast the cat! Back to hours and hours of meticulous work before the spell could go forward and she could free herself from the demands and desires of the dead again. The kitten was soon running scared across the shop to hide behind Gillian’s skirt as Natalie picked up the purse, pleased by her show of restraint. After all, the kitten was still alive, wasn’t it?
After clearing up their dinner dishes, Giles’s newest resident watched anxiously as his wife unwrapped the gift he’d bought for her as a housewarming present. He held his breath, hoping for the best, although Gerald Akers knew better than most that hope can be overrated.
“It’s hideous! What were you thinking?” Caroline shoved the still half-wrapped picture away from her at the table, knocking over her gin so that it spilled into the tissue wrapping and threatened to encroach onto the framed watercolor. She shoved away from the table as it fell, likely worried about ruining her expensive Carolina Herrera dress, but with no regard for the expensive artwork.
Gerald reached out for both the glass and the gift, righting the tumbler before all of its contents escaped. With his other hand, he rescued the picture. It was an abstract portrait of an intriguing woman, hair piled on the top of her head, her face painted with vivid, brilliant colors in places, pastel in others. Gerald thought he could see straight through to her soul. Or, more accurately, that she could see into his.
He saw himself reflected back in the frame’s protective glass; acne scars, gray hair, and accountant’s glasses ruined the view. Even though he kept himself fit and strong with a daily running and weight lifting regimen, he had never had a face anyone would look twice at.
He held the image to his chest, glad it was safe. “It reminded me of you when you were younger. It’s beautiful. Delicate. A little bit dangerous. You could hang it in your room. Until you’ve forgiven me for moving us out here and come back to our room, I mean.”
Caroline rolled her eyes. “Just get me another drink.” He jumped to her command, as he always did, and shot to the counter where the bottle sat waiting. He leaned the picture against the ice bucket on the dark wood bar while he set about his assignment.
She continued talking, more to herself than to him. “I’ll return it and buy myself something suitable tomorrow if I can find a decent jeweler anywhere near this backwater town. I still can’t believe we sold our beautiful condo for this.” She looked around at the newly refurbished family room, her expression telling him she found nothing there she liked. “It’s horrid here, just horrid. These yahoos think my bringing a few buses loaded with senior citizens into their dreary town will save their puny economy. I should be in Boston, publicist to movers and shakers instead of new age shopkeepers.”
“You know how much fitting in here means to me. Can’t you try? This is exactly what I wanted from my retirement, the exact place I’ve wanted to retire, and I’m still young enough to enjoy it, due to my smart investments. You could learn to like the peace and quiet. I know you could.”
“And you could learn to be as quiet as this stupid town, you pathetic little man.”
He felt his face redden. “I could have come on my own. I’m sure you would have found someone else to take care of you as well as I do while you play at being a publicist.” He was going to pay for that crack, he was sure of that. She would never accept their new lifestyle; he should have left her. But he couldn’t. He loved her. He always had. But sometimes he just…
He pulled back from the urge to throw the drink in her face and set it down carefully in front of her. He’d pledged to her for better or for or worse, and he’d meant it. She was the only woman he had wanted on his arm when he arrived triumphant in Giles to buy one of the finest houses on the lakefront. He wasn’t just one of the summer people now. He belonged. He and his beautiful wife. He took the platinum card from his wallet and laid it down in front of her by the glass. “Take the Mercedes into Boston tomorrow and find yourself something nice.”
She barely acknowledged him. She snatched up the card and her drink and stalked out to the porch that overlooked the lake. The sliding glass door rattled as it slammed behind her.
Natalie unlocked the door and hung her keys on the hook just inside it after crossing the threshold. Things had turned out exactly like she'd predicted they would after the influx of tourists at the shop. There had been no time for her to finish her appeal to her fellow witches; it was just another in a series of delays before she could complete the spell to repel the residents of Giles that only she could see.
She meant to sigh, but it came out like a groan. It would be good to get out of her not-at-all-sensible-but-amusing cartoon-witch black high heels. Their turned-up, pointy toes added just the right touch of irony to her classic, fitted black pantsuit, but they made it even more urgent that she slide her aching feet into a warm tub of water spiked with Epsom salts and herbs and just a touch of healing magic. She had retired from nursing at 65, so why was she behind a retail counter at 74 wearing nonsensical shoes? Ridiculous.
She should have said no to it when Cassie asked. But if she had, Gillian would be alone most days to keep up with the latest gossip and goings-on in the magical community. No, she couldn’t saddle a friend with such a burden; Natalie would have to be there to assure someone accurately took the pulse of the town.
After all, it had only been a little over five months since an ancient Egyptian demon-goddess had nearly sucked the town into the rift she'd created between the little town of Giles and the Summerlands. The town had survived, but who knows what the long-term consequences of tearing the veil between the land of the living and the land of the dead might be? They’d gotten through the winter without much trouble, but with spring now making itself known, there was no way to predict what might appear as the last of the snow melted.
Even though the goddess Anat was now bound and buried in a three ton block of concrete, Natalie remained on guard. After all, Anat had possessed Eunice Grandby, Cassie’s grandmother, for fifty years without anyone in town catching on. She wasn’t convinced that all of Anat’s magical machinations had been trapped with her. No, it was best to be right there in the middle of things if the whispers started.
The sweet-smelling zing of ozone that always accompanied the entry of a spirit into the living realm alerted Natalie that one of them had entered the room behind her. She knew who it was without looking; William had been showing up more and more frequently since her ward had been destroyed. Sometimes she wished she’d run in the other direction and let the town disappear into the breach.
She steeled herself to turn, knowing the increased visits might be her own fault. Sometimes, if she didn’t look at him directly, his company was reassuring, like he’d never left her. Truth is, she’d missed him, and then, after the Witching Faire, there he was again: smiling, disarming her, looking like he did the first day they’d danced, the first day they’d kissed, the first day he’d told her he loved her.
Looking just like he did now, she thought, as she faced him. He was impeccably dressed, as he was at all times, in tan pants, a crisp, white button-down shirt, and his favorite argyle sweater vest. His hair, not long enough for a DA but not short enough for a crew cut, was slicked to the side with the slightest wave at the front. Her old heart squeezed in her chest like there was a fist around it.
She’d always hated that sweater vest, but she could never bring herself to tell him.
He moved toward her, reaching his hand out for her arm. It felt cold against her skin as he tried to settle it there, and then it went through, breaking the illusion.
“Lolloping lizard lips! Get off me.” She stomped to the kitchen where she kept a tub under the sink to soak her feet after a day of too much standing. “Go away, William. I don’t want you. The dead should be dead. They shouldn’t continue walking around to harass the living.”
Despite her protest, he trailed after her. “Are you sure you don’t believe I killed those people? That was why you made the ward, wasn’t it? And now you’re trying to make a new one.”
“No, I never believed it, even though my mother and grandmother did. We had bitter fights about you.” She placed the foot bath under the hot water tap and turned it on, testing the water with her hand as she said, “Help me find your body, William. When I find it, it can lay all those old rumors to rest. I’ll prove you weren’t a killer who ran away, that you were dead before the final murder. And then I’ll help you pass to the Summerlands. You’ll have your peace, and I’ll have mine. Now go! I don’t have the patience for this today.”
He reached a hand out to caress her face as he had done hundreds of times when he was alive. All she felt was a chill; there was no substance. Her neutral expression insisted it didn’t mean a thing to her. Then, he was gone.
Natalie stood for a while with her eyes closed and raised a hand to her cheek, a sad smile on her face, while the stream of hot water she’d forgotten about dissolved the last of her mineral salts and overflowed with them down the drain.
There was no way Taniqua “Twink” Johnson was going to go live in boring old Giles with her mean old aunt. No way. Did any normal people even live in Giles? She sure hadn’t seen any during visits. Even the names of the shops were weird. You’d have to be a freak to buy your food at the Decent Food Mart, which was the only grocery store for miles. Too bad her opinion couldn’t stop her cousin’s car from driving steadily onward with Twink captive in the passenger seat.
She finished putting a final coat of gloss on her already shiny lips, then shoved the visor with its mirror back up flat against the roof of the car. It’s not like the sunset would blind her, since the sun hadn’t bothered to come out from behind the clouds all day, pretty much like every late March in Massachusetts. She’d much rather have ear plugs than eye protection. Her cousin Daria, who used to be cool, had been lecturing her non-stop since her mother had shoved her into Daria’s tiny toy car and hustled back into the house without even saying goodbye.
Things had been bad, but she didn’t think they’d been that bad. And it wasn’t her fault. She hadn’t meant to start the fire. It was like the flame jumped out of the lighter and lit what it wanted to light instead of the candlewick she was aiming for. And who cared if a bunch of stupid silk flowers got burned up anyway? She’d stopped it from getting to the couch.
Plus, she hadn’t broken any of the things her mother said she had. It was like stuff just decided to commit suicide when she walked in the room. Why else would a brand new 50-inch plasma TV screen crack all the way down its face when she wasn’t anywhere near it? She’d been with Marcus when she heard the sound of fracturing glass from the living room. She’d had nothing to do with it.
But she couldn’t tell her mother she’d been sitting on her bed, leaning in for her first kiss when the new TV—the thing her mother seemed to care the most about, more than she cared about Twink, that’s for sure—bit the dust. It wasn’t anybody’s business what she and Marcus did. He was the one person who always knew when she was in the room, and she wasn’t going to let anyone interfere.
“Are you listening, Twink?” Daria asked, taking her eyes off the road just as they passed the green sign with an arrow pointing straight ahead: Corey Woods Campgrounds. Whatever she was looking for from Twink, Twink didn’t think she’d found it. Daria put her eyes back on the road as she said, “Well?”
“How could I avoid hearing you?” Twink answered. “It’s a small car. It’s not like I had time to grab earplugs while my mother was shoving me out of the apartment.”
Daria kept going on and on the same way she had been for the last half an hour. It was getting old. “I’m telling you, my mama doesn’t put up with anything. Anything! If you pull what you’ve been pulling with your mama, you’ll find yourself out on the street. I’d put you up if I had a bigger place, but my efficiency isn’t even efficient enough for me. So it’s not an option. You…you gotta behave, Twink. Where you gonna go if mama throws you out? Keisha, maybe? No, that wouldn’t work. She got a roommate for her extra room. Oh, I just…”
Twink tuned her out and looked out the window again, taking in the last of the woods and then the tidy, older houses on the edge of town. Great. Out in the boonies. Livin’ large. Land of split rail fences and lawn jockeys.
Wait a minute…was that a sheep in that yard? Or just a really big, fluffy dog? And did it even matter? It was all too rural for her. She’d never even had a cat because their place was so small, and who wanted to trap a cat the way she was trapped, anyway?
Twink pretended to be fascinated by the scenery passing by on her left because she didn’t want to risk Daria catching her eye again, not when there was a big, fat tear in it. It was the same old, same old. Nobody wanted her. How could the stupid little town of Giles be any kind of place for a girl like her?
Cassie was feeling drowsy after one of Tom’s amazing dinners that would probably someday make her as chubby as Gillian. Not that Tom cared. He loved her appetite. All of her appetites. Plus, even though his marriage to Gillian ended when he was trapped inside the store’s cat for over four decades because she thought he’d abandoned her, Cassie knew he still thought Gillian looked just fine the way she was. Nothing to get jealous about though. That was ancient history. Tom had only aged by a couple of years while enslaved. He was way too young for his ex now. They were good friends and cared about each other, but there wasn’t any chance of romance between them.
She snuggled closer to him on the only modern piece of furniture they’d bought since Tom had won the Stanford mansion in the town raffle. It was comfortable, too, but not comfortable enough for her to ignore the sound she’d heard in the hall. She startled and sat up abruptly. “What was that?”
Tom pulled her back, inviting her to lay her head against his shoulder. She resisted him. “No. Didn’t you hear that?” She stood up and walked across the large sitting room furnished in well-maintained furniture that was the height of fashion in the late 1800s. “Something fell over in the hall.”
He smiled at her invitingly from the couch, patting the place beside him that she’d just vacated. “Stop jumping at every sound. This is an old house. They make their own music. Just learn to groove with the beat and you’ll be fine.”
Cassie looked into the hall and then darted out, returning quickly with an old fashioned letter opener in her hand. “See? I told you. This fell off the hall table.” She shook it at him. “It's heavy. It didn’t leap off that table on its own. We need to get Natalie in here to check it out. Do a clearing or something. This place is too spooky.”
Tom moved to her, gently pushing her brown hair out of the way behind her ear so that it fell down her back in a long cascade and then placed his hands on her shoulders. “Sure,” he murmured as he bent to sweep his lips along her neck. “We’ll have the place checked.”
Most days, she would melt and forget everything else when Tom’s lips met her neck, but not today. “Especially the kid’s room at the end of the hall upstairs. It’s so…I don’t know. Sad. And creepy. It feels like everything is waiting for a lost little one to come home. I mean, leaving the house to the town in furnished condition is one thing, but leaving everything in place for the kid to return….” She shuddered, dislodging his lips.
“I can see there’s no distracting you tonight,” he said. “So should I tell you the story about that room? Everybody knew about it when I was in high school. It was the story we told around the campfire. If you’d gone to school in Giles when you were young, I bet you would have heard it too.”
“There’s a story about it?”
He took her hand and led her back to the couch. She almost wished she’d given in earlier now that she had a clear view of his tight backside in his tight jeans. It did nothing to help the situation that his longish brown hair looked like he’d just gotten out of bed and needed to get back there. Maybe she should let him take her…. No! She wanted to know about the creepy room. She might be bringing a baby into this house soon. She needed to know everything about the place.
When she sat next to him on the couch again, she turned toward him with her bare feet in front of her and her arms snugged around her crossed her legs, subtly putting up a block to prevent any stealth moves he might try. He’d have no choice but to tell her about the house.
“There are lots of stories about the Stanford place. Why do you think the town was so happy to get rid of it? Who knows which ones are true. But old lady Stanford was one weird chickadee, last of her line after her brother William disappeared. And William…now there’s a story. That was his room upstairs. I’ve checked. There are still undershirts lined up in the drawer with his name sewn into the tags. They must have been from when he was in school. He disappeared in his twenties. Apparently, he was one bad guy. He’d make our old buddy Kevin look like a sweetheart.”
Cassie winced. “Don’t bring Kevin up. Just don’t. He’s not worth mentioning. If William Stanford was worse than a guy who poisoned people, he must be really bad. Even Robert never mentions Kevin.”
Tom shrugged. “He does, but not around you. He understands how you feel, and he respects it. But he was the guy’s father, so he’s not going to never talk about him. So I get that. There’s something strong between fathers and sons for good or for bad. That’s just how it is.”
Cassie hid her smile from him as she thought about how he might be a father soon. But it was too early to tell him the good news just based on the assessment of elderly witches. It’s not like they were infallible. Natalie, especially, had been scatter-brained since the Witching Faire. And she always had an excuse whenever they invited her to the new place. It was hard to read her, but Cassie was pretty sure something was wonky in Natalieville; Nat never refused a hand of poker or a free meal or a free anything, really. Gillian even said she’d caught her arguing with herself out loud at the shop when she thought Gillian was out of the room. But even if there was something wrong, Nat never accepted anyone's help. It wasn’t in her to admit weakness.
To Tom, she said, “Yeah, I know. Robert’s the best, he is…it’s hard to understand how such a good man got such a big fail at parenting.” She clutched at her tummy protectively, then realized she’d done it and forced her hand to her side. “Just…tell me about the room upstairs.”
“I don’t know…you might want to turn a few more lights on. It could get intense in here…”
She leaned forward to slap him playfully on the shoulder, then lay back against the pillowed arm of the couch and put her bare feet in his lap. He rubbed them as he dropped into storyteller mode.
“The first body turned up just inside the tree line by the lake in Corey Woods. Not drowned. Strangled. They were all strangled.”
“All?” Cassie asked. Her shoulders tensed.
“There were three of them that year. Each of them done in with a long length of rope that the killer left behind. And each of them was found with a plastic toy in their hand. And how did the Stanfords make their money? They owned a chain of upscale department stores in the Boston area. William had just taken the job of buyer for the toy departments.”
“Oh…that’s why there are so many toys. It wasn’t a kid’s room, was it?”
“No. William was the younger of the two kids, but he was in his twenties when he disappeared. My mother gave my father a good tongue-lashing a couple of times for scaring me with stories about how William had a special toy in his room for me if I didn’t behave…and let me tell you, even though I was in my teens, that was a much scarier threat than a lump of coal in my stocking had ever been.”
Cassie pulled her feet out of his soothing grasp and sat up, leaning in to him. She settled a kiss on his cheek. “Poor thing.” She pulled back and laughed. “Now finish the story! Don’t get me all worked up and then leave me wanting more.”
“Like there’s any danger of that.” Tom grinned, then added of pinch of bedroom eyes.
Cassie rolled her own eyes in response. And tingled a little. Not enough to want to interrupt the story, she thought. Maybe just enough to want to hurry it up. “Just go on.”
“It was an open and shut case. They found an identical rope in one of the out buildings behind the house, and all those toys in William’s room. It wasn’t hard to put it together. And he didn’t have an alibi for any of the nights the bodies were found. His sister Letitia said he was here all night, but the servants sang another tune. He was out of the house each of the nights there was a murder.”
“So, they left his room that way when he went to prison?”
“He didn’t go to prison. He disappeared. There was never a trial. He could still be out there somewhere picking off victims one by one.” Tom leaned closer. “In fact, he could be out in that hall right now.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Stalking us. Waiting until we’ve fallen asleep…” Cassie breathed in with a small, sharp intake of breath. And then she forgot to breathe when he continued, “…dragging his toy train behind him on a string…ready to railroad us to hell on the end of a wet rope…”
“A wet rope?” She squeaked.
“Yeah. A wet rope. No one ever figured that one out.” He moved his head then, quickly, cocking one ear toward the hall. “Did you hear that?”
Cassie’s eyes grew round. She cocked her head too. “Hear what?”
“It was like a…a wet rope dragging along the hallway floor…”
Cassie hit him a little harder on the shoulder than she meant to. She wasn’t feeling the least bit tingly anymore.
Rain sheeted down the plate glass windows of Cat’s Magical Shoppe, shadowing the bottles of colored potions that lined the display window shelves. Despite the rain, the sun tried to shine through the clouds and made a dappled effect on the polished wooden floor. Cat leapt from light spot to light spot, trying to catch the shimmering patch that always disappeared when he landed.
Natalie was glad of the weather. She hoped it would prevent marauding tourists from spoiling her plan to enlist her friends’ help a second day in a row.
“It isn’t about young or old, being the Maid,” she told Cassie. “It’s about being open to the big world that’s out there before your options close around a man and children.”
Cassie looked at her sideways, her head askew at a disbelieving angle as she passed her hand over the charms she was preparing. “Still can’t see how that’s you, Nat. Other than avoiding the marriage and kids thing.”
“Can’t you? The Maid gathers the makings of life. She sees the dreams, the ideas, the wanting. But she’s impatient. There’s so much to learn and do. So she gets things started and moves on.”
Cassie grinned at the counter where her hands were busy making charms, as she said, “Okay, I can see it now. The impatient part for sure.”
Gillian opened the front door and stuck her head in before Natalie could fire back. Her yellow rain hat and slicker dripped onto the cement entryway floor. “Be there in a tick. This had better be important, Nat, to make me come in early when it’s pouring down rain like this.” Gillian propped the door open with her body as she shook off her wet items.