If you are fortunate enough to receive a message from the other side, pay attention to it.
—A Witch’s Compendium of Curses
My week started with spectral portents of doom floating over my bed while I was trying to have anniversary sex with my boyfriend. It was all downhill from there.
Stephen had not been pleased when I’d pushed him off of me, rolled out of bed, and yelled, “That’s it! I’m going!” at the image of a half-moon burning against my ceiling. I mean, I guess there are limits to what men are willing to put up with, and one’s girlfriend interacting with invisible omens is a bit out of a perfectly nice investment broker’s scope. He seemed to think I was huffing off after taking offense to that counterclockwise tickle he’d improvised near the end.
Of course, telling him about the increasingly forceful hints I’d received from my noncorporeal grandmother for the last two weeks would have made the situation worse. Stephen tended to clam up when we discussed my family and our “nonsense.” He refused to discuss Nana Fee or the promise I’d made to her that I’d travel all the way from our tiny village to the wilds of America. So I’d tried ignoring the dreams, the omens, the way my alphabet soup spelled out “HlfMunHollw.”
I tried to rationalize that a deathbed promise to a woman who called herself a witch wasn’t exactly a binding contract. But my grandma interrupting the big O to make her point was the final straw.
And so I was moving to Half-Moon Hollow, Kentucky, indefinitely, so I could locate four magical objects that would prevent a giant witch-clan war and maintain peace in my little corner of northwestern Ireland.
Yes, I was aware that statement sounded absolutely ridiculous.
Sometimes it paid to have a large, tech-savvy family at your disposal. When you tell them, “I have a few days to rearrange my life so I can fly halfway across the world and secure the family’s magical potency for the next generation,” they hop to do whatever it takes to smooth the way. Aunt Penny had not only booked my airline tickets but also located and rented a house for me. Uncle Seamus had arranged quick shipping of the supplies and equipment I would need to my new address. And my beloved, and somewhat terrifying, teenage cousin Ralph may have broken a few international laws while online “arranging” a temporary work visa so I wouldn’t starve while I was there. Not everybody in our family could work magic, but each had his or her own particular brand of hocus-pocus.
Although my mother was an only child, my nana was one of nine. So I had great-aunts and uncles coming out of my ears, and their children were the right age to serve as proper aunts and uncles. I had more third and fourth cousins than I could count. Literally—I tried once at Christmas, got dizzy, and had to sit down. They never treated me as if there were any sort of line dividing me from the rest of the McGavocks. So when my mother walked out and I was shipped off to my nana, it was as if the whole town was one very large, very loud family. When Aunt Penny permed my hair, to disastrous results, it was my schoolteacher who undid the damage in her kitchen sink. When my uncles were too traumatized by incidents that shall remain undisclosed to let me get behind the wheel of a car again, it was the postman, Tom Warren, who taught me to drive. They gave me a home I could depend on for the first time in my life. They gave me a family. They gave me back chunks of my childhood I’d missed until then. I would do whatever it took to make sure they were healthy and protected.
Given how Stephen felt about my family, I’d decided it was more prudent to tell him I’d accepted an offer for a special nursing fellowship in Boston. The spot came open when another nurse left the program unexpectedly, I told him, so I had to make a quick decision. He argued that it was too sudden, that we had too many plans hanging in the balance for me to run off to the States for half a year, no matter how much I loved my job.
I didn’t want to leave Stephen. For months, he had been a bright spot in a life desperately needing sunshine, with the loss of Nana and my struggles to keep the family buoyed. And yet, somehow, here I was, sprawled in the back of a run-down cab as it bumped down a sunlit gravel road in Half-Moon Hollow, Kentucky. The term “cab” could be applied only loosely to the faded blue Ford station wagon—the only working taxi in the entire town, the driver informed me proudly. We had a fleet of two working in Kilcairy, and we had only about four hundred people living inside the town limits. Clearly, living in Boston until my early teens hadn’t prepared me for life in the semirural South.
Yawning loudly, I decided to worry about cultural adjustments later. I was down-to-the-bone tired. My skirt and blouse were a grubby shambles. I smelled like airplane sweats and the manky Asian candy my seatmate insisted on munching for most of the flight from Dublin to New York. It took an additional two-hour hop to Chicago and another hour ride on a tiny baby plane-let before I finally arrived in the Hollow. I just wanted to go inside, take a shower, and sleep. While I was prepared to sleep on the floor if necessary, I prayed the house was indeed furnished as Aunt Penny had promised.
While the McGavock clan had collectively bankrolled my flight, I needed to save the extra cash they’d provided as “buy money” for my targets. Living expenses were left to me to figure out. I would have to start looking for some acceptable part-time work as soon as my brain was functional again. I squinted against the golden spring afternoon light pouring through the cab windows, interrupted only by the occasional patch of shade from tree branches arching over the little lane. The sky was so clear and crystal blue that it almost hurt to look out at the odd little clusters of houses along the road. It was so tempting just to lay my head back, close my eyes, and let the warm sunshine beat hot and red through my eyelids.
“You know you’re rentin’ half of the old Wainwright place?” the cabdriver, Dwayne-Lee, asked as he pulled a sharp turn onto yet another gravel road. I started awake just in time to keep my face from colliding with the spotty cab window. Dwayne-Lee continued on, blithe as a newborn babe, completely oblivious. “That place always creeped me out when I was a kid. We used to dare each other to run up to the front door and ring the bell.”
I lifted a brow at his reflection in the rearview. “And what happened?”
“Nothin’,” he said, shrugging. “No one lived there.”
I blew out a breath and tried to find the patience not to snap at the man. Dwayne-Lee had, after all, been nice enough to make a special trip to the Half-Moon Hollow Municipal Airport to pick me up. Dwayne-Lee had been sent by Iris Scanlon, who handled various business dealings for my new landlord. Dwayne-Lee’s skinny frame was puffed up with pride at being tasked with welcoming a “newcomer” as he’d handed me an envelope from Iris containing a key to my new house, a copy of my lease, her phone number, and a gift certificate for a free pizza delivered by Pete’s Pies.
Anyone who tried to make my life easier was aces in my book. So from that moment on, I was a little in love with Iris Scanlon. Less so with Dwayne-Lee, who was currently nattering on about the Wainwright place and its conversion to a rental duplex after Gilbert Wainwright had moved closer to town years before. I closed my eyes against the sunlight, and the next thing I knew, the cab was pulling to a stop.
Wiping furiously at the wet drool on my chin, I opened my door while Dwayne-Lee unloaded my luggage from the trunk. Separated from the other houses on the street by a thicket of dense trees, the rambling old Victorian was painted a faded robin’s-egg blue with sun-bleached white trim. The house was two stories, with a turret off to the left and a small central garden separating the two front doors. Given that the opposite side of the front porch seemed occupied with lawn chairs and a disheveled garden gnome, I assumed that the “tower side” of the house was mine. I grinned, despite my bone-aching fatigue. I’d always been fascinated by the idea of having a tower as a kid, although I’d long since cut my hair from climbing length.
The grass grew scrabbled in patches across the lawn. A section of brick had fallen loose from the foundation on the west corner. Knowing my luck, there was a colony of bats living in the attic, to complete that Addams Family look.
“I’ll have bats in my belfry.” I giggled, scrubbing at my tired eyes.
“You feelin’ all right, ma’am?” Dwayne-Lee asked.
“Hmm?” I said, blinking blearily at him. “Oh, sorry, just a little out of sorts.”
I pulled a wad of cash from my pocket and handed him enough for my fare and a generous tip.
Dwayne-Lee cleared his throat. “Um, ma’am, I can’t take Monopoly money.”
I glanced down at the bills in my hand. I was trying to pay Dwayne-Lee in euros. “Sorry.”
With Dwayne-Lee compensated in locally legal tender, I took my key out of Iris’s envelope, unlocked the door, and hauled my stuff inside. My half of the old Wainwright place consisted of two bedrooms and a bath upstairs, plus a parlor and a kitchen downstairs. It was a bit shocking to have this much room to myself. I was used to living in Nana Fee’s tiny cottage, where I still whacked my elbows on the corner of the kitchen counter if I wasn’t careful.
The house appeared to have been decorated by a fussy old lady fond of dark floral wallpaper and feathered wall sconces. The house was old, but someone had paid some attention to its upkeep recently. The hardwood floors gleamed amber in the afternoon light. The stairs were recently refurbished and didn’t creak once while I climbed them. The turret room turned out to be a little sitting area off my bedroom, lined with bookshelves. I ran my fingers along the dusty shelves. I loved a good book. If I stayed long enough, I could put a little reading chair there . . . if I had a reading chair. I’d need to do something about getting some more furniture.
Despite Aunt Penny’s assurances, the rooms were furnished in only the meanest sense. There were a table and chairs in the kitchen, a beaten sofa in the parlor, plus a dresser and a bare mattress in the front bedroom. Sighing deeply and promising myself I wouldn’t mention this to my aunt, I drew the travel sack—a thin, portable sleeping bag for people phobic about touching hotel sheets—over the bare mattress. The travel sack was a Christmas gift from Stephen. I smiled at the thought of my dear, slightly anal-retentive boyfriend and resolved to call him as soon as it was a decent hour overseas.
I found blankets in the bottom drawer of the dresser. I wasn’t too keen on using them as covers, given their musty state, but they would make a good shade for the window so the sun wouldn’t keep me awake. I boosted myself against the dresser to hang one . . . only to observe that some sort of Greek statue had come to life in my back garden.
He was built like a boxer, barrel-chested and broad-shouldered, with narrow hips encased in ripped jeans. Thick sandy hair fell forward over his face while he worked. His sculpted chest was bare, golden, and apparently quite sweaty, given the way it glistened while he planted paving stones near a pristine concrete patio.
I wavered slightly and grabbed the window frame, my weakening knees caused by more than jet lag. Was this my next-door neighbor? I wasn’t sure if I was comfortable living with a he-man who could lift giant stones as if they were dominoes. And when had it gotten so bloody hot in here? I hadn’t noticed that I was warm in the cab . . . Oh, wait, it was time for the he-man to take a water break. He took a few long pulls off a bottle from his cooler and dumped the rest over his head.
My jaw dropped, nearly knocking against my chest. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Just then, he looked up and spotted me ogling him from above. Our eyes connected . . .
And he winked at me like some Lothario gardener out of a particularly dirty soap opera! I spluttered indignant nonsense before tucking the blanket over the window with a decisive shove.
I pressed my hands over my eyes, trying to coax some moisture around my dry, tacky contact lenses. I didn’t have the mental reserves for this. I needed to sleep, eat, and bathe, most likely in that order. I would deal with the man reenacting scenes from A Streetcar Named Desire in my back garden at a later date. My shoulders tense and heavy, I crawled onto the mattress, bundled my shirt under my head, and plummeted into sweet unconsciousness.