Although the house wasn’t as haunted as the local kids claimed, it did have a minor spirit hanging about. But it wasn’t a ghost that put Scarlet on edge when she parked her car. One powerless little haint was not the problem. She and the spirit had a deal. As long as it didn’t try to scare anyone into a heart attack, she wouldn’t blast it into oblivion. It sure as heck wasn’t what made her senses tingle with the anticipation of a good fight. She swept a cautious gaze around the lawn before stepping out. Nothing looked out of the ordinary, but that didn’t mean a damned thing in her hometown. Good thing she’d come to check up on the place before her new renter arrived.
Purgatory, Alabama, was a crossroads between worlds. Deep in Fool’s Woods was a portal that connected Earth and another land, Terra. Mirrors of each other, she’d heard it said, yet opposites. She sent back anything unwanted that came through. Well, her and her family, Guardians all.
The small hairs on the back of her neck stood on end when she stepped onto the walk. Something supernatural skulked nearby. She’d known that, but damn it, it was midafternoon and too hot to deal with things that went bump in the night. Though whatever lurked obviously wasn’t limited to darkness.
She took her time approaching the house, letting her senses flare out as she walked. Azaleas created natural boundaries up both sides of a lawn dotted with dogwoods and huge old magnolias. Big terra-cotta pots overflowing with flowering perennials were spaced evenly along the deep front porch. The place was a Southern belle’s dream, built for balls and garden parties. Its utility bills were a cheapskate’s nightmares, though.
Despite the picture-perfect scenery, the prickling on her skin grew as she paced forward. Halfway up the walk, she spotted the culprit, a stout-looking brownie perched under a tree. Unease morphed into irritation in two seconds flat. Damn it, she was wearing a new skirt. And heels. Any other day of the week, she wouldn’t have worn them. She should have known better. Today’s outfit was a far cry from her usual day-job clothes: jeans and sturdy shoes. But it was Monday, which meant a town council meeting, which meant getting lectured by her mother for not taking her duties seriously enough to dress the part. Like she normally went hunting down the creepy-crawlies in anything but jeans and boots?
Too late now. She could hear Momma in her head saying the same way she’d done hundreds of times: as soon as you let your guard down the bogeyman comes out to play. But oh hell no. She was not chasing that little hellion down while wearing heels. Somehow her mother always seemed to pull it off in pearls and fancy shoes and pencil thin skirts, ending victorious with not one hair out of place. Not Scarlet. Even with no chasing she’d probably end up a red-faced, bedraggled mess.
Continuing up the walk, she ignored the brownie, repressing a grin when she felt his spike of temper. Either he didn’t have a clue she was a Guardian, or he was too stupid to care. She voted for stupid.
She’d had a call about her newest listing just that morning. The potential renter was coming in from out of town. She got the distinct impression he didn’t know about Purgatory’s unique status. On the phone he’d sounded like a proper, aging—emphasis on the aging—old-school gentleman. Sharing the place with a brownie might shock him into a stroke. She’d prefer not to have that on her conscience, thank you very much.
She retrieved the key from her jeans pocket, left the door open behind her, and wandered through the rooms. Brownies were notoriously curious. It wouldn’t be able to help itself. It would follow her. She began chanting a freezing spell, softly enough he wouldn’t hear. She knew the spell so well she didn’t actually need to speak it anymore. It was by rote. Habit. Ingrained. She didn’t need to speak to make the power in her mind do her bidding. But the words, the ritual, were natural and comforting. A part of who and what she was.
When she’d gotten out of her car earlier, the brownie had been too far away in the yard to use the spell. She finished it just as she heard footsteps close in behind her. Spinning around she released the spell. The brownie raged, stamping its feet. Its stout little body tottered precariously back and forth, but it was enclosed in a bubble of her magic, unable to escape. She could take it to the portal and toss it through. That’s how she usually dealt with deportations. But she was feeling testy and maybe a little flamboyant. The banishing spell was a bit more complicated than the holding spell. She began it as soon as the spell trapped him. Finally it was finished.
She released her magic, and the brownie disappeared with a booming crack. Satisfied, she dusted her hands together and took a deep breath before continuing through the rest of the house to make sure there weren’t any traps or other surprises lying in wait for her new tenant. Once she determined it was safe, she returned to her car.
Unfortunately the little field trip hadn’t taken long, and she returned to the office driving like her great aunt Cora. As slow as possible. The AC in the building was out. The promised repairman not due for another hour.
It was sweltering inside. The open windows and whirring fans couldn’t keep up with one-hundred-degree heat. It was ridiculously hot for October, even in southern Alabama. The high humidity just added insult to injury. She opened the mini-fridge behind her desk and pulled the tiny icebox door open to grab a frosty Coke. With a sigh of enjoyment, she leaned her head back and closed her eyes, rolling the can over her face, down her throat, and across her collarbone. She was tempted to undo the top couple buttons on her top, too. The bells over the door jangled as someone entered and put a stop to that idea. She didn’t have to open her eyes to know who it was, either. The leather chair in front of her creaked as he sat down.
“Well, aren’t you a pretty picture?” Jake Mills, the local police chief, drawled.
Cracking one eye open, she scowled at the man sitting in front of her, but he only looked back with his usual calm and the secret little smile that made her grind her teeth at the same time it made her belly flip-flop. He was too good-looking, especially when he smiled. Good-looking men made her suspicious. Her ex was good-looking. Also conniving, manipulative, lying…
Jake waved his hand in front of her face. “Earth to Scarlet.”
She sat up straight, looked into eyes entirely too blue, and got right to the point. “What do you want?”
“I come on a mission of peace,” he joked, hands held out in mock surrender. “On behalf of my brother.”
Uh-oh. Beau Mills. Popular, heartthrob, football-playing, shape-shifting werewolf. Her twins’ nemesis. He was a younger version of Jake. Broad shouldered and muscled with rich brown hair that framed a chiseled face. He was just as irreverent and flirty as his brother.
“What’s he done now?”
Jake scratched his chin. “I don’t rightly know. All I could get out of him was Daisy and Dixie want his head. Preferably on a spike.”
“That’s not exactly unusual,” she pointed out.
He shrugged. “Consider it a heads up then.”
She narrowed her eyes. Surely he hadn’t come down to her office just for that. Not when he’d see her at the council meeting in a few hours. Jake handled problems with their native residents, but anyone or anything from Terra was Scarlet’s responsibility. Maybe he’d found something she needed to chase out of town. “Anything else?”
“Nope. How ’bout dinner tonight?”
Ah. She understood now and smiled sweetly. “Sorry. I have a rule against dates that go furry.”
He barked a laugh. Standing, eyes gleaming, he set his palms flat on her desk and leaned forward. His broad shoulders blocked the glare, and she had to force herself not to stare, not to show any reaction except irritation or laughter. She enjoyed their verbal sparring, but when he got like this, sexy and amused, she forgot why she kept resisting the attraction that drew her to him.
“One of these days, I’ll change your mind.”
She snorted. “When hell freezes over.”
“Well now.” He gave her that steady measured look she swore he’d patented. The amusement left his expression. “Stranger things have been known to happen around here.”
Wasn’t that the truth? Waving Jake out, she reached for the phone before it rang—she always knew when someone was calling. As her only form of precognition, she felt pretty ripped off.
An hour later her AC was back in order, the building locked up tight, and she headed for the meeting, hoping it would be short and mundane. After that, she imagined a nice, relaxing evening on her back porch. Maybe with ice cream. Definitely with a drink.
She should have known better than to plan for a peaceful night.
* * *
“We can use this one to turn his skin green.”
Oh good Lord, save her from teenaged daughters. Pissed-off, teenaged, witch daughters. She’d adopted them when they were days old, her low-down, cheating ex-husband’s children with Scarlet’s fragile baby sister. Cherry had died shortly after their birth, tearful and apologetic to the bitter end. Scarlet had never discovered how William had seduced her, which was probably for the best. It had taken her mother and her other sister, Ruby, to keep her from murdering the SOB.
Cherry, much younger than her and Ruby, had always been frail and protected. Life hadn’t prepared her to deal with a scoundrel like William. Scarlet felt a familiar punch of guilt for bringing him into their lives. She couldn’t really regret it when she looked at the girls though. They were hers. There was nothing delicate or meek or even necessarily sweet about them. She hoped Cherry approved. Her sister had always wanted to be as brazen and audacious as Scarlet and Ruby. And that was enough depressing shit for one day. It had been sixteen years, the pain and anger long ago faded. She bent and quietly slipped her heels off, sneaked up behind the girls, and peeked over their shoulders.
“Washes off too quick.”
They jumped about a foot in the air, snapped the book closed, and spun around to face her looking as guilty as they no doubt were. Nothing new there. Twin, blonde, blue-eyed little dervishes, they were. Sixteen going on thirty-five. And one with a new, truly atrocious, black dye job. Momma was gonna have a conniption when she got a look at that.
“And who do you believe deserves green skin?”
“Oh, he deserves worse, Momma.”
She wasn’t keen on heaping teenage-hormone-induced angst on top of the day she’d had, but it was much better to head Dixie and Daisy off at the pass.
Disaster had a habit of following in their wake. “Well?”
“You know Beau Mills, right?”
Right. She groaned. She’d even been warned, hadn’t she? She might need a drink for this one. Beau. He was basically a good kid. His brother on the other hand… Nope. Not going there without a gin rickey or a whiskey sour in her hand. She opened the fridge and pulled out a pitcher with maybe three drops of tea in it. She didn’t even have to frown before Dixie confessed.
“Sorry. I thought there was more in it.”
Scarlet had thought she’d broken them of that habit. It drove her up the wall when they left something mostly gone in the fridge instead of pouring it out and making more. This Beau Mills business must be sixteen-year-old it’s the end of the world serious. Whatever that was. She frowned.
“Was Momma here?” The second pitcher wasn’t where she’d left it last night. It couldn’t have been the girls. In their current moods, even if they’d been brave enough to filch gin rickey, they’d have left the empty pitcher right where they found it.
“Yes,” Daisy said. Scarlet waited for more information.
“She said she’d call later.” Her face took on a mulish expression Scarlet knew well.
“Didn’t like the hair, huh?”
“She had a total fit,” Dixie snickered, quickly dodging the apple core Daisy threw at her. “Hey, I told you not to do it.”
She sighed. “Girls. Could we get back on track here?”
“Oh sure,” Daisy started. “See, Beau asked Mary Kate to Homecoming.”
Mary Kate was their best friend. Scarlet already knew about the date, but she didn’t bother to remind them. She had been surprised when the girl accepted the offer. She’d been almost sure Mary Kate had better sense.
“And then he dumped her,” Dixie finished.
Beau had a death wish. It was the only explanation. No one with a working pair of eyes could miss the fact Homecoming was only a week away. She drove by the high school on the way to work every day. The students had the place tarted up like a whore on Main Street, and every other conversation in her house revolved around who was wearing what. She might just hex the boy herself. Speaking of school dances.
“You are going to fix that hair before the dance, aren’t you?”
“No. I’m going as Goth Barbie.”
She squeezed her eyes shut and counted to ten. It didn’t help much. “It’s a Homecoming dance. Not a Halloween party.”
Daisy just grinned. Pick your battles, she reminded herself. As far as rebellion went, black hair dye wasn’t that big a deal, right?
“Fine. It’s your dance.”
She bit her lip to keep from laughing when she saw Daisy’s crestfallen expression. She’d clearly been hoping for more reaction to her little rebellion. Scarlet picked up the grimoire, a book of magic they knew they weren’t supposed to touch, and carried it back to her office-slash-workroom, both girls trailing behind her. The room was spacious. The walls were lined with shelves holding books and supplies ranging from candles to herbs. She had a desk and a long table she used for mixing potions. There were also two deep leather chairs. She walked to the tall chest where she kept the books that contained dangerous spells. After the grimoire was back in its place, with an extra protection spell this time, she faced them, arms crossed over her chest with what they called her mean mom look.
“Y’all know better than to play pranks with magic.”
She held her hand up. “No buts. Remember what happened last time?”
Two contrite expressions. They’d traumatized poor Tina Birdley when she’d discovered a storage room full of toads at her grocery store. Scarlet still got dirty looks every time she walked in the place. She didn’t even remember why they’d done it, but it had involved a boy too. Of course.
“OK. No pranks using magic,” Daisy relented, which wasn’t very reassuring at all.
“No pranks at all.” She gave them a severe look. “I mean it. Did y’all do your lessons?”
“Yes, Momma,” they chorused in put-upon unison.
“Suck it up. You want to use magic you have to be able to do the simple stuff without even thinking about it.” How many times did she have to tell them that? How many times had Momma told her and Ruby that? It was too depressing to even think about. “What do y’all want for dinner?”
“Can we stay at Mary Kate’s tonight? We’ll eat over there.”
The request made her mother radar ping. Still up to no good?
“Can you stay out of trouble?”
“Of course.” She didn’t buy the innocent looks for one second.
“Fine. But if you need bailing out I’m sending your grandmother.”
They winced. Grandma Rose was five feet two inches of Southern belle dynamo. Throw in being a witch, and she was more than a little scary when she went on a tear.
“We’ll be good,” Daisy said.
“We swear,” Dixie added.
Maybe they would.
But she wasn’t holding her breath.
When they’d gone, she changed into cut-off shorts and a tank top, grabbed the bottle of bourbon from the kitchen and a glass, and headed to her back porch. She turned on the ceiling fans and sat in one of the rocking chairs then poured a drink. She sipped before leaning her head back and waiting for the phone to ring. The shrill summons started right on time, but she ignored it and what would no doubt be a lengthy lecture on her girls’ improper behavior. She was not up for that tonight. She wanted to sit outside, relax, and enjoy the late-summer evening. Now that the sun had set it had cooled down from intolerable to balmy. She sipped at her bourbon and groaned when her sister stepped out of the woods. Great. Just what she needed. She knew there was something worse than a depressed, suicidal vampire, but she had no idea what that would be.
Learn more about The Southern Belle's Guide To Witchcraft here.