“Oh, come on!” I cried, throwing up my hands and nearly flinging the bread across the room.
“What?” he asked, crossing to the window and closing the curtains.
“You know what,” I shot back. “When you go out and buy a shirt like that, do you actually calculate the number of bicep curls you’ll have to perform in order to do it justice?”
“I don’t work out that much,” he said as he held my chair away from the table.
I sat down, glaring up at him. “Well, then clearly, you have discovered some sort of magic testosterone tree in the back garden.”
“I can take it off if it bothers you,” he offered, peeling the hem away from a tanned expanse of stomach.
Please, I prayed, don’t let there be such a thing as a magic testosterone tree.
“Stop that!” I yelped, a laugh bursting from my chest as he dropped his shirt back into place. “Why do you think all situations can be improved by the removal of clothing?”
He snickered, taking his own seat and offering me a slice of bread. “Well, first—nah, that’s too easy. Anyway, I do it because it freaks you out, and that’s pretty damned adorable.”
“You are an altogether bizarre personality.”
“Right back atcha, honey.”
I giggled. I couldn’t help it. This strange, thrown-together meal was the first opportunity I’d had to relax since I’d arrived in the States. And here was a beautiful, peculiar man sitting in front of me, who didn’t know anything about me or my family or what we could do. I could be normal with him, or what seemed to pass for normal between the two of us. It was lovely.
“So, I noticed the quote-unquote ‘car’ in the driveway.”
“Hey, it’s transportation,” I protested. “And when I find a job, it will get me there, so I will eventually be able to pay for an upgrade.”
“What brings you down to the Hollow, if you don’t mind my askin’?”
“I just needed a change of scenery. Too many northern winters,” I lied smoothly. “What about you? How long have you lived here?”
“A couple of months,” Jed said, taking a large bite of dumplings. “I’m from a little town in Tennessee, just a few hours’ drive from here. I do carpentry work and general construction, especially in older buildings where the restoration work can be delicate. Jobs in my area were dryin’ up. A contractor from the Hollow put an ad in the paper, lookin’ for people who could handle that sort of work, so I moved. My boss, Sam, was hired to renovate this house. I needed a place to stay, so the owner agreed to give me a break on rent while we completed the work.”
“What does your family think of your moving here?” I asked, trying to avoid questions about potentially angry girlfriends who might not appreciate his constant state of shirtlessness in my presence.
“They’re not happy about it,” he admitted. “We’re pretty close-knit, and I’m the first one to move away in a long time. But it was just somethin’ I had to do. You know?”
“Oddly enough, yes, I do,” I said. “And it’s nice here, so far. The people seem friendly. A little strange sometimes, but I think that’s expected anytime you move somewhere new. That reminds me, have you seen anything weird around the house at night? Like a big dog in the back garden?”
A flicker of surprise warped his features for just a second, before he tamped it down. “No, nothing weird. Unless you count our neighbor Paul, who’s built a full-size wrestling ring in his backyard. He and his friends have ‘matches’ on the weekends.”
Well, that did qualify, I supposed. “Do they wear the spandex and tights?” I asked, struggling to keep a straight face.
Jed nodded. “If he invites you over this Saturday, just say no.”
I shuddered, and we fell into companionable silence as we ate.
“So what’s your deal?” he asked suddenly.
“Your deal,” he said again. “Married? Boyfriend? Vow of celibacy?”
“Do you always pose personal questions so abruptly?”
“You get more honest answers that way.”
“Boyfriend,” I told him.
He nodded. “Is he gonna be movin’ here anytime soon?”
I burst out laughing, picturing Stephen attending the monster-truck rally scheduled at the McLean County fairgrounds that weekend. As much as the “woo-woo supernatural shite” irked Stephen, his apprehension around my family had a lot to do with our “earthiness.” Living in the Hollow would be the equivalent of a permanent migraine for Stephen. “No, I don’t see him moving here.”
Jed shrugged. “I give it six months.”
I choked on a bite of bread and downed a large gulp of water to clear my throat. I spluttered. “What is wrong with you?”
“Long-distance relationships don’t work. And you said yourself, you’re makin’ a life here, and you don’t see this guy movin’ out to the Hollow. So you either didn’t think this move through, which is doubtful because you seem the type to think everything through. Or you did it on purpose, because you knew that movin’ out here would eventually kill off the relationship. You broke up with him without havin’ to be the bad guy.”
I stared at him, my spoon frozen halfway to my mouth. “Are you on medications I should be aware of, or is this some sort of personality disorder at work?”
“Neither. I just don’t like it when ladies use the long-distance boyfriend as a human shield,” he retorted. “Why are you making that face?”
“I’m trying to determine whether this dinner is good enough to put up with your nonsense or if I should abandon my bowl and storm out.”
He nodded and took another bite. “Come to a decision yet?”
“Curse Carol-Anne Reilly and her devil dumplings,” I grumbled into my meal. Jed laughed. “But honestly, you can’t say that sort of thing to people.”
“Why the hell not?”
“The bounds of common courtesy?” I proposed. “Conversational filters that most people grasp by the time they’re ten?”
“Your prim Yankee voice sayin’ ‘common courtesy’ while you look over the top of your little wire-rim glasses is doing strange things to me,” he said, grinning impishly. “Do you think you could put your hair up in a bun when you say that?”
“Of course.” I sighed. “You have a librarian fetish.”
He shook his head, all innocent brown eyes and choirboy smiles. “Not a fetish, more like a fascination. So what do you say?”
“I really don’t want to ruin our burgeoning friendship by reacting honestly to that.”
“Fair enough,” he said, offering me another slice of bread and none too subtly moving the knife to his side of the table. “So where do you think you’ll look for work?”
And that was the end of the confrontational portion of our conversation. Jed seemed to sense how far he could push me. All discussions of Stephen were off-limits from then on. We talked about his hometown of Hazeltine and about his family, which seemed almost as large and “colorful” as my own. I got the impression that there was a lot of information he was leaving out. That was fine, since I gave him a heavily edited version of my own childhood—growing up in Boston, the only child of Anna McGavock and her physician husband, moving in with my grandmother after my father died.
Jed was a good listener, although there was a lot I couldn’t tell him. I could have said that my parents had divorced but not that when my dear departed mother met Martin Leary, an American medical student touring through Dublin, she assumed she would be marrying into money. In her mind, “doctor” equaled “rich,” although Dad was traveling as cheaply as possible. Dad’s parents, who had died when I was a baby, had saved for years to send him overseas as a graduation present.
Getting pregnant with me as quickly as possible seemed like the best way to secure her future, or so she thought. She wasn’t counting on marrying a student who was working his way through medical school while bartending. Dad said the look on her face when he brought her home to his tiny walk-up apartment over a pizza shop had been priceless.
I couldn’t tell Jed about my mother’s meager magical gifts, how she saw them as a natural advantage over regular people. That she would take the neighbors’ wives for their pin money by offering tarot readings, telling them what they wanted to hear, even if she saw trouble in the cards. I couldn’t tell him about the irresponsible fertility rites, the love spells on Dad’s coworkers, just for her own amusement, or the money spells my aunts and uncles were smart enough not to try that she did two or three times a year. Her “prayers” always created a windfall, but then we would end up with a major car repair or a cracked foundation at our new house or some disaster that sucked up whatever money she’d gained and then some. I couldn’t tell him about her abandoning us, about the years of absence and that final explosive argument before she left for good. This was definitely not appropriate getting-to-know-you banter.
Clearly, being irritated and sharing personal history were not a good combination. I hadn’t thought about my mother this much in months. But now that I knew a bit more about Nana Fee, it was ironic that my mother did just as Nana had, seducing the first American tourist she came across. Mother just did it a bit more permanently.
Dinner was followed by pecan pie, prepared by yet another church lady. I helped Jed clear the table and looked up at the clock on the microwave. How could it be eleven o’clock already? Between my confessions to Jane and Andrea and trying to keep up with Jed’s abrupt directness, I was exhausted.
“Thank you for dinner,” I said, moving toward the door. “It was an experience.”
“Anytime,” he said, throwing a dishtowel over his shoulder as he followed me through the living room. “I, uh, I’m sorry if I threw you with the questions about the boyfriend.”
“Were there questions?” I chuckled, opening the door wide. The moon had risen, bright and full, casting silvered light across the dark expanse of lawn. “I thought it was mostly insulting assumptions and forecasts of impending doom.”
“I did feed you,” he noted, eyeing the door warily. He stepped back toward the kitchen. “That has to count for something.”
“It does,” I assured him. “Next time, I’ll make dinner, so I can demand extremely personal information from you.”
“Me?” he scoffed. “I’m an open book.”
An open book who seemed to have some serious issues with being outdoors after dark. He seemed absolutely incapable of stepping closer to me as long as the front door was open. What was his issue? Was he phobic? Did he owe vampires money? I opened the door a bit wider, and he immediately took another step back.
“Somehow I don’t think so. Good night,” I said, slipping into the moonlight and closing the door behind me.
Dream journeys are rare and beautiful gifts. If you are blessed with a spirit guide, it’s best not to sass him.
—Have You Ever Seen a Dream Walking:
A Beginner’s Guide to Otherworldly Travel
The judgmental panda bear was not amused by my rich fantasy life.
I was in the middle of one of my usual “Daniel Craig is hypothermic and needs your body heat to survive” dreams when, suddenly, Daniel morphed into Jed. And in my subconscious, a low-core-temperature Jed is a randy Jed. Sadly, my neighbor and his pouty, slightly blue lips disappeared before things could get interesting. I was left wearing some strange, quilted clothing, walking up the foothills of a densely forested mountain. But instead of trees, I was carefully picking my way through bamboo stalks two and three stories high. The air was cool and fragrant with the green scent of growth and turned earth. To my left, a fat panda sat hunched against a rock, munching on a stalk of his favorite green treat and giving me a look that said, “Like you would have a shot with Daniel Craig, you silly twit.”