I woke up bleary and disoriented, unable to figure out where the hell I was. Why was it so dark? Was I too late? Were they here already? Where was my family? Why couldn’t I hear anyone talking? I lurched up from the mattress and snagged the blanket from the window, letting in the weak twilight.
As soon as I saw the paving stones, I remembered the flight, the mad taxi ride, and the Adonis in the back garden.
“Oh.” I sighed, scrubbing my hand over my face. “Right.”
I stumbled into the bathroom and splashed cool water on my face. The grimy mirror reflected seven kinds of hell. My face was pale and drawn. My thick coffee-colored hair was styled somewhere near “crazy cat lady,” and my normally bright, deep-set brown eyes were marked with dark smudges that weren’t entirely composed of mascara. I had my grandfather’s features, straight lines, delicate bones, and a particularly full bottom lip. Of course, that meant I looked like my mother, too, which was not something I liked to dwell on. I swiped my hand across the fly-specked glass, smearing the haggard image.
I stripped out of my clothes, standing under the lukewarm spray and letting it wash away the grime. The heavy claw-footed tub actually wobbled a little when I moved, and I worried that it was going to fall through the floor. Long after the water cooled, I climbed out of the tub, only to remember that I hadn’t thought to bring any towels into the bathroom with me. Aunt Penny had stuffed a few into my suitcase because she knew the house wouldn’t have them. But my suitcase was downstairs, next to the door. And I was stark naked.
“Moron.” I cursed myself as I made a shivering dash across the bedroom to retrieve my jacket. I took the stairs carefully—because I wasn’t about to die in a household accident wearing only an outdated rain jacket—and carefully avoided windows as I made my way to my luggage. The towels, somehow, still smelled line-fresh, like the lavender and rosemary in Nana Fee’s back garden. I pressed one to my face before wrapping it around myself toga-style.
I mentally blessed Penny for packing some ginger tea in my bag, which was good for postflight stomachs. I retrieved the tea bags and cast a longing glance at the kitchen. Did the “furnished” bit include dishes and cups? I could function—I might even be able to dress myself properly—if I just had some decent tea in me. Even if it meant boiling the water in a microwave.
I shuddered. Blasphemy.
If I set the water to boil now, it would be ready by the time I picked out clothes. Multitasking would be the key to surviving here. There would be no loving aunties to make my afternoon tea, no uncles to pop into town if I needed something. I was alone here with my thoughts, for the first time in a long time. And considering my thoughts of late, that could be a dangerous thing.
“Staring into space isn’t going to brew the tea,” I chided myself. Securing my towel, I made my way to the stove, careful to avoid the windows. I didn’t know if my neighbor was doing his sweaty work out in the yard, and I didn’t fancy being winked at while wearing this getup.
After setting the tea bags on the counter, I began rummaging through the cupboards, finding dirty, abandoned cookware but no kettle. I sighed and thunked my head against the cupboard. I just wanted some tea. Just a little tea, and I’d be right as rain . . . as right as rain could be.
I was starting to sound like one of the less sane characters in Alice in Wonderland.
I could take the risk of heating it by less conventional means. Honestly, I’d been on a plane for hours. It had been days since I’d used any proper magic—or improper magic, for that matter. Maybe the hiatus and the change in environment would help with my little . . . problem. Maybe, for the first time in months, I would have a handle on it.
I took a deep, cleansing breath and filled a ceramic mug with tap water. After glancing around, as if some random stranger might be pressing his face to the window to catch me using illicit, magical tea-brewing techniques, I wrapped my fingers around the mug and imagined energy flowing from my hands, into the ceramic, into the water. I closed my eyes and pictured heat growing between my hands into a glowing ball of energy that slipped between all of the tiny molecules in the water and got them moving, got them hot, got them boiling. I pictured how good it would feel to get dressed, put my feet up, and have a nice cuppa. I felt the smooth material grow hot beneath my fingertips and the steam rising from the cup, curling around my face. But too quickly, the pleasant, soothing heat turned volcanic. I hissed, yanking my hands away from the burning-hot mug, watching with resigned frustration as it cracked down the middle and spilled boiled water all over the counter.
Dodging out of range, I scrubbed a hand over my face in defeat. Clearly, my self-imposed ban on nonessential magic was for my own good, in addition to that of the general populace.
I tossed the remains of the destroyed cup into the sink and tried to mop up the water with the corner of my towel. I grabbed another mug, opened the top cupboard nearest the refrigerator, and—
“ACCCK!” I shrieked at the sight of beady black eyes glaring out at me from the cupboard shelf. The furry gray creature’s mouth opened, revealing rows of sharp white fangs. It swiped its paws at me, claws spread, and hissed like a brassed-off cobra.
I let loose a bloodcurdling scream and ran stumbling out of the kitchen, through a screen door, and into the moonless purple light of early evening. With my eyes trained behind me to make sure it, whatever it was, didn’t follow me, I slammed into a solid, warm object. The force of my momentum had me wrapping my arms and legs around it as I struggled away from the fanged menace.
“Oof!” the object huffed.
The object was a person. To be specific, the shirtless, sweaty person who’d been standing in my back garden earlier. Dropping a couple of yard tools with a clank, he caught my weight with his hands, stumbling under the impact of struggling, panicked woman. Certainly as surprised to find me in his arms as I was to be there.
Slashing dark eyebrows shot skyward. The full lips parted to offer, “Hello?”
Oh, saints and angels, I was doomed. He was even better-looking up close. Tawny, whiskey-colored eyes. A classic straight nose with a clear break on the bridge. Wide, generous lips currently curved into a naughty, tilted line as he stared up at me.
Focus, I told myself. There’s a mutant rodent in your cupboard, waiting to devour your very soul, then terrorize the townsfolk.
“In my kitchen!” I shouted in his face.
“What?” The man seemed puzzled, and not just by the fact that I seemed to be wrapped around him like some sort of cracked-up spider monkey.
“In. My. KITCHEN!” I yelled, scrabbling to keep my grip on his shoulders while leaning back far enough to make eye contact. Despite my all-out terror, I couldn’t help but notice the smooth, warm skin or the tingles traveling down my arms, straight to my heart. He smelled . . . wild. Of leather and hay and deep, green pockets of forest. As my weight shifted backward, his large, warm hands slid around my bottom, cupping my cheeks to keep me balanced against him. “Th-there’s a creature!” I cried. “In my kitchen! Some demon rat sent from hell! It tried to bite my face off!”
The fact that his hand was ever so subtly squeezing my unclothed ass managed to subdue my mind-numbing terror and replace it with indignant irritation. I didn’t know this man. I certainly hadn’t invited him to grope me, spider-monkey climbing or no. And I had a perfectly lovely boyfriend waiting for me at home, who would not appreciate some workman’s callused hands on my ass.
“You can move your hand now,” I told him, trying to dismount gracefully, but his hands remained cupped under my left cheek.
“Hey, you tackled me!” he protested in a smoky, deeply accented tenor.
I narrowed my eyes. “Move your hand, or I’ll mail it back to you by a very slow post.”
“Fine.” He sighed, gently lowering me to my feet. “Let’s get a look at this creature in your kitchen.”
Struggling to keep my towel in place, I led him into my kitchen and tentatively pointed toward the home of the Rodent of Unusual Size. I could hear the beast hissing and growling inside, batting at the closed door with its claws. I was surprised it hadn’t managed to eat its way through yet. But somehow my would-be rescuer seemed far more interested in looking around, noting the pile of luggage by the door.
“Haven’t had much time to unpack yet, huh?” he asked. I glared at him. He shrugged. “Fine, fine, critter crisis. I’m on it.”
He opened the cupboard door, let out a horrified gasp, and slammed it shut. He grabbed a grimy old spatula I’d left on the counter during my rummaging and slid it through the cupboard handles, trapping the monster inside. He turned on me, his face grave while his amber eyes twinkled. “You’re right. I’m going to have to call in the big guns.”
He disappeared out the door on quick, quiet feet. I stared after him, wondering if I’d just invited help from a complete lunatic, when the early-evening breeze filtering in through the back door reminded me that I was standing there in just a towel. I scrambled over to my suitcase and threw on a loose peasant skirt and a blue tank top. I wondered what he meant by “big guns.” Was he calling the police? The National Guard? MI5?
I was slipping on a pair of knickers under my skirt just as my bare-chested hero came bounding back into the kitchen with a large, lidded pot and a spoon.
“Are you going to cook it?” I gasped, ignoring the bald-faced grin he gave my lower quadrants as the floaty blue skirt fell back into place.
“Well, my uncle Ray favors a good roast possum. He says it tastes like chicken,” he drawled, holding the lid over his thick forearm like a shield as he tapped the spatula out of place. “Personally, I have to wonder if he’s eaten chicken that tastes like ass, but that’s neither here nor there.”
I darted away as he opened the cupboard door. A feral growl echoed through the empty house as he maneuvered the pot over the front of the cupboard. He used the wooden spoon to reach over the grumpy animal and nudge the possum into the pot. Slapping the lid over it, he turned and gave me a proud grin.
“Thank you.” I sighed. “Really, I don’t know what I would have done—”
The giant rat began thrashing around inside the pot and making the lid dance.
“I want that thing tested for steroids!” I yelped.
“It’s just a baby,” he said, placing one of his ham-sized hands on the lid. “These things burrow in pretty much wherever they want to, doors and walls be damned.”
“This is a baby?” I peered down at the dancing pot. “How big do the mothers get?”
He shrugged. “Better question: where is his mama?”
“Oh,” I groaned as he opened the back door, crossed the yard, and gently shook the possum out of the pot and into the tall grass near the trees. I called after him, “Why did you have to say that? I have to sleep here!”
Climbing my back steps, he looked far more relaxed than he should have been after evicting a vicious furred fiend from my kitchen. Shirtless. “I have to sleep here, too. And if it makes you feel better, there’s a good chance that the mama could be sleepin’ under my side of the house,” he told me. “I’m Jed, by the way.”
I giggled, a hysterical edge glinting under the laughter, as he extended his hand toward me. “You’re kidding.”
He arched a sleek sandy eyebrow. “I’m sorry?”
I cleared my throat, barely concealing a giggle. “No, I’m sorry. I’ve never met a Jed before.”
He chuckled. “I’d imagine not, with that accent and all.”
Now it was my turn to raise the bitch-brow, a super-extension of the eyebrow combined with one’s best frosty expression. He of the sultry backwoods drawl was mocking my accent? That was disappointing. Since landing in New York, I’d worked hard to control whatever lilt I’d picked up in the fifteen years I’d lived with Nana Fee. It wouldn’t do for the locals to know where I was from.