“Hullo, darling, I’m sorry I haven’t called already. I think I’m still a bit wiped out . . .” I trailed off as I caught sight of a box at the very back of the top shelf. It was about the size of a shoe box and just the right size for the candle with a swatch of Specialty Books’s signature blue wrapping tissue. Realizing that this soundless voice-mail message was costing me a fortune, I hastily added, “I’ll call again soon. Love you. Bye-bye!”
Unfortunately, Americans believed in building impossibly high closet shelves. Even with the help of a small stepping stool, I had to lean a bit on the shelf to brace myself up. It was at times like this I wished I was telekinetic instead of a witch. Then again, I already had the unstable mother. I didn’t want to risk falling into Carrie territory.
No, wait, I was falling anyway.
“Yipe!” I shouted as my weight shifted forward. Yanking the shelf down with my weight, I tumbled off the stool and onto the piles of boxes, crushing several of them as I landed. Just when I thought I could sit up, the box I was reaching for slid off the tilted shelf and landed on my head. “Ow.”
“Are you OK?” Jane cried, running back into the room.
“I’m so sorry,” I groaned. “I believe I broke a couple of things.”
“Really, it’s not a problem,” Mrs. Jameson told me, helping me to my feet. “It gives me an excuse to throw them out.”
“Clearly,” muttered Jane.
The box that had clobbered me was half open on the floor, the blue tissue spilling over the lid. I crouched over the box, removing the lid carefully. Inside was a long, creamy-white pillar candle, carved with ancient symbols for fire. I checked it over carefully. But I could tell from the pleasant, nearly electric hum I felt coming from the wax that this was the candle in question.
“I found it!” I exclaimed, beaming up at my companions.
I hugged the box to my chest as Jane and Sherry Jameson clapped and cheered for me. I felt like crying and laughing and screaming all at the same time. It was such a relief to know that I was one-quarter of the way to my goal, that the Kerrigans were that much farther away from it. And I’d done it without spending any of the buy money, leaving me that much more to work with for the other three.
Suddenly, the goal of finding all four objects didn’t seem so impossible. It was a bit like fishing. You got one little taste of success and lost all perspective regarding the amount of time or frustration that had led you there. I couldn’t wait to get back to the shop and look for the others.
“I’m very happy for you,” Jane told me, throwing an arm around my shoulder.
“Mrs. Jameson, I’m going to have to take this candle away from you.”
Jane snorted. “Mama, if you let Nola have this candle, I will forget all about the Closet of Misfit Gifts. Also, I will write the remaining thank-you notes for the wedding gifts.”
Mrs. Jameson cried, “You haven’t finished all the thank-you notes yet?”
“Mama.” Jane’s face was passive as she nodded her head toward the mountain of unappreciated presents.
Mrs. Jameson sighed. “Done.” She turned on me. “Now, Nola, are you still hungry? Because I have some leftover pot pie, smothered pork chops, smoked chicken, Salisbury steak, and some other goodies in the fridge. Would you like me to fix you a plate? Or I can just make up a little leftover care package to take home!”
I shot a frantic glance Jane, thinking, Jane, your mother seems to think I’m some sort of goose for the gorge. Could you please tell her that your dad is suffering from a serious toothache? He’s trying to ignore it, but he could end up needing a root canal if he doesn’t get it treated. It might distract her enough to get me out of here.
“That’s what that is?” she whispered, while her mother rattled on.
Jane frowned at me, arching an eyebrow. I added silently, I’ll explain later.
“Actually, Mama, I was hoping to talk to Daddy,” Jane said. “I noticed he was awfully pale earlier, and he wasn’t eating. Has he said anything about his teeth?”
Mrs. Jameson fell on the information like a bloodhound on scent. “No, is he all right? Is this something you picked up using your . . .” Jane’s mother paused and made a face that was half squinting, half constipation.
Jane studied the expression for a moment longer than necessary, I would think. It seemed “Funny Faces with Sherry Jameson” amused her. Finally, she said, “Oh, yes, the mind-reading thing. That’s right. That’s how I picked it up. And he’s trying to hide it from you, hoping it will go away on its own.”
“That man.” Mrs. Jameson sighed. “I swear, you’d think he would be more mature about something like going to the dentist. I had two babies, including Jane and her big ol’ pumpkin head, without drugs, and you didn’t hear me complaining.” She took a deep breath and called, “John, I need to talk to you!”
“You complain about that all the time!” Jane exclaimed as she followed her down the stairs. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t have already come up with the phrase ‘Jane and her big ol’ pumpkin head.’ ”
While Mrs. Jameson started in on poor Mr. Jameson and his dental phobias, Jane turned on me. “I hope we just threw my dad under the bus for a good reason.”
“I think your mother not smothering me with Southern cuisine is an excellent reason for your dad to get the dental attention he needs.”
“You’re going to explain that later,” she insisted. “All I could hear him thinking was that his drink was ‘too damn cold’ but if he said anything, my mom would fuss at him. You owe information, witch.”
“Oh, yes, ’cause psychic powers are clearly something you’re uncomfortable with, mind-reader.”
“Leprechaun,” she shot back.
When you are invited to partake in the rituals of supernatural creatures, it’s best to follow the lead of the closest human—if that human seems sane and somewhat likeable.
—Miss Manners’ Guide to Undead Etiquette
Using Jane’s computer, I sent a short e-mail to Penny reporting on my progress: “Fire’s lit. Update soon.”
The problem was that now that I had one of the Elements, I didn’t have a place to store it safely. My uncle Jack had built a canny little storage cabinet to keep the items “clean” once they’d been found and purified. The cabinet had arrived in Seamus’s shipment earlier that afternoon, along with what Penny called an “emergency witch kit”: an athame, incense burners, candles in various colors, tiny vials of herbal oils, a silver altar pentacle, and a carved wooden box (also Jack’s handiwork) that doubled as an altar.
But I didn’t have a safe location to store said cabinet. Considering its vulnerabilities to local angry wildlife, I didn’t think I could trust the house.
Jane’s shop had an old-fashioned heavy-duty safe. After I completed my “dance of joy” in her mother’s guest room, she offered to let me store my things there. Although I’d only known her a few days, I trusted Jane. She didn’t have to tell me her mother had the candle. She seemed content helping me complete a task that was important to me, because I would have been important to Mr. Wainwright.
Penny had highlighted purification rituals in Witchcraft for Total Morons for me, which I would have found insulting if not for the fact that it had so many helpful illustrations. After enclosing the candle in its compartment full of sea salt and securing the cabinet in Jane’s safe—along with Nana’s sketches—I went back to the Wainwright house and collapsed.
Jed’s windows were dark, and for that I was grateful. The man was an unpredictable, sexy storm cloud. I never knew if he was going to make pretty shapes or rain all over my parade.
I climbed into my bed and slept soundly for the first time in weeks, without benefit of herbal tea or soothing pharmaceuticals. I slept deep and dreamless for about an hour before my mobile rang. Grumbling murderous threats against humanity at large, I slapped my hand around on my nightstand until I closed my fingers around my phone.
“Jane, if this is you, I am not responsible for your father’s dental bills. I merely pointed out a problem. I never told your mother to take him to an all-night dentist,” I growled into the phone.
“Darling, how are you? Why are you threatening random callers? Is it that awful and primitive there?”
I bolted upright. “Stephen?”
“Don’t sound so surprised. I have left messages.”
“You have no idea how good it is to hear your voice.” I sighed. “I’m sorry I haven’t called, Stephen. I just didn’t expect the travel to be so hard on me,” I said, allowing a yawn to escape through and emphasize my “delicate” constitution. “Delicate” was a far more desirable quality in a girlfriend than “deceitful and forgets to call.”
“Well, you are a bit of a homebody,” he said. “So how are things there in the wilds of America? Do you need me to send you anything? Soap? Magazines? Cigarettes?”
“Stephen, I’m overseas, not in prison! And Boston is one of the largest cities in the country,” I reminded him. Of course, I wasn’t actually staying in Boston, but that was beside the point. “And it’s very pleasant, actually. Warm, nice people, interesting tea.”
“Interesting as in strangely prepared, or interesting as in that time your aunt Maisie gave me tea that made me see butterflies fluttering out of my own arse?”
I suppressed a giggle. Aunt Maisie had never warmed to Stephen, but she did love creative herbalism.
“The first one,” I said, remembering that Bostonians had probably never heard of sweet tea. “They steep it right in the cups, can you imagine?”
“Well?” he said expectantly.
“Don’t you miss me?”
“Of course I do,” I protested. “I’ve just been busy. That’s all. New apartment, new job, remembering to drive on the right side of the road.”
Again, I judiciously edited, because I didn’t think Stephen would be impressed by my finding long-lost vampire relatives or making friends with mercurial construction workers.
“Well, I miss you terribly,” he said. “Nothing is fun without you. There’s no one to put her ice-cold feet on the backs of my legs while I’m sleeping. No one keeps up a steady stream of trivia and interesting facts while I’m watching films. I actually had to resort to watching a DVD with the director’s commentary. It was demoralizing. And the bread! I’m wasting the heels of my bread loaves shamelessly without you around to toast them.”
A pleased, sweet warmth flooded my chest. Stephen was always noticing little things like that, which gave him considerable skill when it came to date planning. He knew exactly how far to push the gooshy romantic factor before it became too saccharine to tolerate.
“The heels make the best toast,” I told him, my tone soft and amused. “The outside crust forms a protective layer to hold more jam.”
“When are you coming home?” he asked.
“Soon,” I promised him. “It’s just a few months; it will be up before you know it.”
“It’s not fair to put our lives on hold for that long, Nola. I’m holding off on this move for you, you know.”
“I didn’t ask you to do that,” I reminded him. “You could pick a flat, move in, and get settled. I’ll meet you there when I’m done.”
“I don’t want to make those decisions without you there. What if I pick the wrong place? I don’t know why this fellowship was necessary.” He sniffed. “You could have earned the same credentials here at home if you’d only looked. Every time we get close to moving in together, you find some way to sabotage it. Or your family does. I’m starting to think you’re happy living in that backward little town.”