“Hey, the nice man in the unmarked panel van said the nudity will be tasteful!” I exclaimed, making him laugh.
“Well, congratulations on your new Internet porn job,” he said. “Do you want to come over for dinner tomorrow night to celebrate?”
“I have plans tomorrow night.”
I really did have plans. I had to retrieve my car keys and make up for lost research time. But he didn’t need to know that.
“Plans.” He frowned. “Like a date? So the very serious boyfriend crashed and burned already?”
I had to bite my lip to keep from smiling. Why would he be worrying over whether I was dating? Unless . . . “You like me!”
“Me? Like you?” He shook his head. “Can’t prove it.”
“You like like me,” I singsonged.
“Now you’re just being ridiculous,” he said, scowling as he stepped forward, trapping me between his body and the wall. I could smell that forest-and-field scent rolling off of him, and the heat of his skin made me feel as if his hands were rubbing against my arms. He bent his face toward mine, and warm, minty breath feathered over my cheeks. “If I like liked you, trust me, you would know it.”
My eyes locked with his, light meeting dark, and I couldn’t move. This was completely unfair. He was a human thought scrambler, sent to make me lose all semblance of dignity. His lips were just a few heartbeats away from mine.
“I don’t have a date. I’m working,” I told him softly. Sorting through the contents of an occult shop to find magical knickknacks could be considered working, right?
The crescent moon rose slowly over his shoulder, giving him a faint halo around his shadow-cast face. I shivered. He looked down at me for a long, silent moment. I could feel his breath moving against my cheek like a caress. I honestly thought he was going to kiss me. And then he gave me one of those warm molasses smiles. “Well, good luck to you.”
He stepped away and sauntered back to his door. He knew what he was doing, walking like that. It was patently unfair to leave a girl high and not quite dry and then walk away with his buns twitching under skintight denim. I called after him. “Thanks.”
He waved his hand over his shoulder without even looking back at me.
Over the next week or so, I fell into a routine. I worked at the clinic each day until five and then researched at the shop until just before sunset to avoid uncomfortable interactions with certain vampire landlords. Then I hightailed it home, leaving Jane detailed notes on what I’d searched through that day and any materials I’d taken home for the night. Occasionally, Jolene would drag me out of the shop to Southern Comforts, the vampire-friendly restaurant she managed with her friend, chef Tess Maitland. Jolene was apparently worried that I wasn’t getting enough smoked pork in my diet. I’d discovered that this was a grave concern for Kentuckians.
I enjoyed working at the clinic. I’d tamed the chaos of the front desk and organized the patient records into a more user-friendly configuration. I wore scrubs for the first time since nursing school, as Dr. Hackett didn’t believe jeans were a professional look for a medical setting. I had to pass a background check, which was disturbingly easy considering that I hadn’t lived in the country for more than ten years.
I explained my dilemma to Dr. Hackett, and he helped me apply for the paperwork I would need in order to help people rather than just run the office. Until my papers came through, I would not be responsible for patient care. It was just too risky. In the meantime, he was happy to listen to my “instincts” about a patient’s condition based on my observations and the intake questionnaires. After hearing him referring to some of his contemporaries as hippies, I decided not to bring up my diagnostic abilities. But if I noticed something about a patient, say, black radiating pain flaring out from his stomach, I would advise Dr. Hackett that the patient was most likely suffering an ulcer.
It was a little bit of a relief, not being entirely responsible for treatment. And I found I had a talent for the administrative duties that I wasn’t allowed to do back home.
After hearing so many “free clinic” jokes over the years, I expected to see nothing but patients with questionable rashes. But each day was much like the first: sick kids and overwhelmed adults. There were a lot of young mothers with children who didn’t have health insurance. And seniors who couldn’t afford to see doctors without the free services Dr. Hackett provided. Like any other doctor, he had “regular” patients he saw frequently, and their files were kept in a special filing cabinet separate from those of the walk-in patients. It was a sad commentary on the state of the health-care system, but I was glad that the patients were getting the help they needed.
The job was tiring, and Dr. Hackett was right when he’d told me he wouldn’t be able to pay me much. But it was rewarding, and it was nice to take my mind off of the Elements for a few hours each day.
I arrived home around the same time Jed did nearly every evening. Sometimes he was waiting on the porch with a beer for each of us. (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that we would call that stuff water back home.) Other times, we just had some brief conversation about the house or work before retiring to separate corners. He was always flirty and mildly inappropriate, but he never took it past that level. He moved in close but didn’t touch beyond the occasional casual brush of the arm. He spent half of our conversations staring at my mouth but never so much as kissed me on the cheek.
And it was driving me bloody insane.
Jed was an enigma. He was a prime specimen, but he never dated. He was clearly intelligent, although he tried to play it down with Southern-fried, aw-shucks-ma’am charm. He was friendly and warm, and then, when he decided our conversation was over, he ran. What sort of man flirted like that and then managed to turn it off completely and walk away? Was there something wrong with me? Was I too much of a Yankee? The wrong size? The wrong gender? Was he doing this on purpose? And if he was, was he aware that he was the biggest tease in the world? Was he trying to drive me round the twist?
I knew this wasn’t really my problem. I had more pressing matters to worry about. It was a waste of time to spend my nights wondering what the hell was going on inside Jed’s head. His dense, beautiful head.
One not-so-special evening, I was searching through Jane’s sales records from two years ago and found a thread of old ritual items sold to a collector in upstate New York that looked promising. Gabriel was hanging another photo on the wall, a shot of a Halloween party in which Jane and Tess Maitland were dressed as Elvira and Wonder Woman, respectively. The Mistress of the Dark herself sat discussing new titles at the coffee counter with Andrea. Dick was absent. The girls claimed he was on another business trip, but given the way Jane’s mouth quivered when she said it, it seemed a little suspicious.
Neither Jane nor Andrea was thrilled with the news about my hiring at the clinic. The idea of my working seemed to make Jane feel guilty. She twisted a tea towel between her hands and shot Gabriel distressed looks as I described my evening at the clinic. “You’ve got too much on your plate already, Nola. What if I gave you an allowance from your fair share of the shop?”
“I can’t take money from you, Jane.”
Jane scoffed. “Why not? This is money I wouldn’t have had without Mr. Wainwright leaving me the shop. And if he’d known about you, I’m sure he would have wanted you to have a stake in the store. I thought about it when your great-uncle Emery came to town, but he was a gigantic douchebag.”
“You mentioned him before,” I said as Andrea’s lips peeled back from her teeth in a growl. And after hearing Jane’s succinct explanation of my great-uncle’s time in the Hollow, I couldn’t blame her. The moment Emery had rolled into town, he’d started sifting through the stock, stalking Andrea, and generally annoying the hell out of Jane. They’d found later that he was a mole sent by another vampire trying to steal an important book from Jane’s collection. This vampire had turned him in exchange for his service, and he had kidnapped Andrea and turned her against her will. Jane had taken great pleasure in turning Emery over to the Council for punishment.
“Hell, if that was the precedent set, I’m surprised you let me through the shop door.”
Jane gave a sincere shudder, her mouth crimped into an expression of distaste. “The point is, you’re here doing something I’m sure Mr. Wainwright would have wanted you to do. There’s no way I’m going to let you spend valuable time waiting tables when you could be looking for these artifact thingies.”
“I’m working at a medical clinic. I’m hardly slinging drinks,” I protested.
Jane gave me an expression she called the “stink-eye.” I returned it with the bitch-brow. And we sat back and let the two expressions battle it out.
“What do we do now?” Andrea whispered to Gabriel.
“Stay still and try not to attract their attention?” Gabriel whispered back.
Eventually, Jane won the staring contest, because I’m pretty sure she never had to blink. I hated to admit it, but Jane had a point. I wouldn’t be making much at the clinic. In fact, I would make more money waiting tables, but it made me feel better to know that I was doing something I was (sort of) qualified for, and I was helping people. Also, it gave me something to think about besides the search. It couldn’t be healthy for me to obsess over it every minute of the day.
But I knew I would probably have to get another part-time job, in addition to the clinic, to make ends meet. It would be terribly convenient to spend those working hours here in Jane’s shop. I blew out a breath and thought about what Nana Fee would say. McGavocks had their pride. But if she thought that my pride was keeping me from fulfilling my purpose, she would probably whack me one with her walking stick and tell me to stop behaving like the back end of a mule.
I growled in defeat, holding up one hand and giving her a stern glare. “Agreed, but I’m keeping my job at the clinic and you’re not giving me anything. I’m earning a wage. I don’t know what I’ll do for you, but it will be an honest day’s work.”
“OK, I hereby appoint you director of magical artifact location.” Jane shook my hand, her tone prim.
She gave me a “job” doing exactly what I was doing anyway. “You’re a smart-ass, Jane Jameson.”
I barely noticed Andrea’s grumbled “I will never be as smart as Jane Jameson-Nightengale” from the end of the bar.
“See, you’re adjusting to the corporate culture already,” Gabriel said brightly, tossing me a midnight-blue Specialty Books T-shirt.
“I’m glad we have that settled.” I sighed, leaning back in my chair. Jane gave my shoulder a little squeeze and handed me a cup of chamomile tea. “But it doesn’t get me any closer to finding the other Elements. And I’m running out of places in the shop to look.”
“Well, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that,” Jane said. “I thought we might try asking Mr. Wainwright.”
“The deceased Mr. Wainwright?” I asked while Jane cringed and nodded. “I swear to all that’s holy, you lot, if I find out that Mr. Wainwright is a vampire, or in the witness-protection program, or any condition other than dead, I will throw a hissy and destroy that very expensive display of crystal figurines over there.”
“See what happens when you hire people without a background check?” Andrea asked Jane.
“Shut it, you,” I retorted.
Jane was back to twisting the tea towel between her hands. “Look, I wasn’t quite sure how to tell you this, but your grandfather only moved onto the next plane a few months ago.”
Jane nodded, clearly trying to choose her words carefully. “He died here at the shop. I found his body a few hours later. His spirit was already haunting the shop. He said that he was far too interested in what was happening here on earth to move on just yet. Of course, I didn’t know at the time that part of ‘what was happening’ was his dating my aunt Jettie, who was also a ghost.”