“Your accent,” he said, his forehead creasing. “Boston, right? ‘Pahk the cah in the yahd’?”
I blushed a little and regretted the bitch-brow. I’d forgotten how muddled my manner of speaking was, compared with my new neighbor’s Southern twang. My accent was vaguely Boston, vaguely Irish. Nana Fee had tried to correct my lack of Rs in general and attempted to teach me Gaelic, but the most I picked up were some of the more interesting expressions my aunts and uncles used. Mostly the dirty ones. So I spoke in a bizarre mishmash of dialects and colloquialisms, which led to awkward conversations over what to call chips, elevators, and bathrooms.
“Oh, right,” I said, laughing lightly. “Boston—born and raised.”
Technically, it wasn’t a lie.
Jed looked at me expectantly. I looked down to make sure I hadn’t forgotten some important article of clothing. “If you don’t give me your name, I’m just gonna make one up,” he said, leaning against the counter. “And fair warnin’, you look like a Judith.”
“I do not!” I exclaimed.
“Half-dressed girls who climb me like a tree are usually named Judith,” he told me solemnly.
“This happens to you often?” I deadpanned.
He shrugged. “You’d be surprised.”
“It’s Nola,” I told him. “Nola Leary.”
“Jed Trudeau,” he said, shaking my outstretched hand. “If you don’t mind me sayin’, you look beat. Must’ve been a long flight.”
“It was,” I said, nodding. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll just go back to bed.”
There was a spark of mischief in his eyes, but I think he picked up on the fact that I was in no mood for saucy talk. His full lips twitched, but he clamped them together. He held up one large, work-roughened hand. “Hold on.”
He disappeared out the back door, and I could hear his boot steps on the other side of my kitchen wall. He returned a few moments later, having donned a light cotton work shirt, still unbuttoned. He placed a large, cold, foil-wrapped package in my hands. “Chicken and rice casserole. One of the ladies down at the Baptist church made it for me. Well, several of the church ladies made casseroles for me, so I have more than I can eat. Just pop a plateful in the microwave for three minutes.”
I stared at the dish for a long while before he took it out of my hands and placed it in my icebox. “Do local church ladies often cater your meals?”
“I don’t go to Sunday services, so they’re very concerned about my soul. I can’t cook to save my life. They’re afraid I’m just wasting away to nothing,” he said, shaking his head in shame, but there was that glint of trouble in his eyes again. He gave me a long, speculative look. “Well, I’ll let you get back to sleep. Welcome to the neighborhood.”
“Thanks,” I said as he moved toward the door. I locked it behind him, then turned and sagged against the dusty sheers covering the window in the door. “If there are any greater powers up there—stop laughing.”
I massaged my temples and set about making my tea. Jed seemed nice, if unfortunately named. And it was very kind of him to give a complete stranger a meal when he knew she had nothing but angry forest creatures in her cupboards. But I couldn’t afford this sort of distraction. I’d come to the Hollow for a purpose, not for friendships and flirtations with smoldering, half-dressed neighbors.
Just as I managed to locate a chipped mug in the spice drawer, a loud, angry screech sounded from somewhere to the left of my stove. I turned and fumbled with the locked kitchen door, yelling, “Jed!”
Love affairs between the human and the nonhuman rarely end well for the human.
—Love Spells: A Witch’s Guide to Maintaining Healthy Relationships
By the time Jed had reunited the mama possum and her young, I determined I was far too awake to go to bed. I went through the house making lists of everything I would need to survive here, things such as food, sheets, towels, and mousetraps. Big ones.
I needed to go shopping, but I didn’t have a car, and I thought it would be pushing already-fragile “good neighbor” impressions by asking to borrow Jed’s. And now that I was able to recall more clearly moments from Dwayne-Lee’s drive to the house, I wasn’t about to take the cab service. Iris Scanlon proved that my love for her was not in vain. All it took was one phone call for her to send “more discreet transport” right to my doorstep.
Miranda Puckett was a slender thing, with long dark hair and keen green eyes. What she lacked in size she made up for with the obscenely large black SUV she maneuvered from my driveway to the gravel road with considerably fewer bumps than Dwayne-Lee. Aside from knowing where the all-night grocers were, Miranda was also a veritable font of information about the locals. She’d grown up in the Hollow and was happy to share what she knew of local history and gossip.
For instance, Miranda’s boss was not a freelance miracle worker but ran a concierge service for vampires called Beeline. The special arrangements Iris had been making for me were on behalf of my landlord, a vampire named—of all things—Dick Cheney. Miranda admitted to having a “soft spot” for Dick since he’d served as her knight in shining armor months earlier when she’d had car trouble.
“He comes off like this sketchy con artist, but underneath it all, he’s a marshmallow,” she told me, shifting uncomfortably in her seat. “Totally devoted to his wife, which is a good thing. Otherwise, Collin would really frown on all those book club meetings.”
“Book club?” I asked, my brow furrowed. But Miranda had pulled into the car park of the local twenty-four-hour Walmart Supercenter, so I couldn’t question why a vampire and a chauffeur would join the same book club. Or who the bloody hell Collin was.
The Hollow, Miranda informed me as we shopped, had become quite the vampire-friendly place since the vampires had emerged from the shadows in 1999. That was the year a Milwaukee-based vampire named Arnie Frink demanded that his employers change his work hours to lessen his chances of bursting into flames. But seeing as they were as blind as the rest of the world when it came to the existence of vampires, the human resources department insisted that Arnie keep bankers’ hours. Arnie’s counterproposal was a massive lawsuit, claiming that he suffered from porphyria, a painful allergy to sunlight, and the company was not accommodating him. When the allergy discrimination argument failed to impress a judge, Arnie had a hissy in open court and declared that he was a vampire, a medical condition that rendered him unable to work during the day, thereby making him subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Although Arnie won his case, the first year or so afterward was a dark time indeed. For the Irish, who had always kept folk tales close to their hearts, it was no surprise to hear that one of many beasties they’d been warned against was an actuality. For the McGavocks, it was even less so. We knew witches were real, so why not vampires, werewolves, and any number of fairy folk we knew to be dancing in the hedgerows? Still, it was a shock to watch the scenes of destruction play out on TV. Here in America and across Europe, mobs of people forced vampires out into the sunlight or set about hunting them for no reason other than that they existed. More often than not, the hunters were injured in the process.
Once they had quelled their fury at being launched from the coffin, an elected contingent of ancient vampires officially notified the United Nations of their presence and asked the world’s governments to recognize them as legitimate beings. The World Council for the Equal Treatment of the Undead also asked for special leniency in certain medical, legal, and tax issues that were sure to come up. Oh, and for humans to stop dragging them from their homes and turning them into kindling . . . or else.
And so humans had to adjust . . . or else. For a small town, the Hollow had adjusted rather admirably. The local Council office had taken every step to ingratiate itself with the local human population, all the while doing the sneaky, slightly underhanded errands necessary to monitor and govern its undead citizens. A local woman had even opened the town’s first vampire-oriented restaurant recently, after winning a cooking contest sponsored by a synthetic-blood company.
Knowing that the town was paranormally liberal did not prepare me for the grocers. While I found everything on my list, the products and the packaging seemed garish and bright under the sickly green fluorescents. The sheer amount of nacho-flavored food available on each aisle was staggering. And there was the spectacle of the other shoppers—some without shirts and others trying to pass off other clothing as shirts. Honestly, who leaves the house wearing an athletic bra and a pair of bicycle pants?
Somehow, through this whole excursion, Miranda managed to keep up a steady stream of chatter. She talked like my uncle Jack after a few pints. Words spilled from her lips at such a clip that one wouldn’t dare try to ask questions—all this despite the distinct throbbing pain radiating from her left side. She was working hard to disguise the hitch in her gait by using the shopping cart handle for support, but the ache was obvious to someone with certain sensitivities, such as myself. So I worked around her, discreetly trying to keep her from having to lift or bend.
By the time I picked up all my essentials—specifically, a teapot, some passable Earl Grey, and some industrial-sized pest traps—I was a bit dizzy, both from the strain of Miranda’s discomfort and the information she had shared. And then there was the small matter of Miranda’s knocking a bottle of dish liquid off a shelf as I was bent over the cart, rendering me temporarily senseless. Given the way she managed to pick up the conversation after she picked me up from the floor, I suspected this sort of thing happened to her frequently.
“Well, this took less time than I expected,” I marveled as she unlocked the car. When a grimacing Miranda lifted a bag of groceries from the carriage to load into the back of the SUV, I gently took over the task.
“God bless the cultural amalgam that is the superstore,” Miranda said, keeping a hand pressed tightly to her side. “Some might object, but personally, I like being able to buy my underwear and antifreeze in the same place.”
“Would you like to talk about your ribs, or are you going to continue ‘playing through the pain’?” I asked.
Miranda blushed. “That obvious, is it? I thought I was doing a better job of covering.”
“Oh, you were the soul of discretion,” I assured her. “I’m just a bit sensitive to these things.”
She chuckled, wincing as her stomach muscles tightened. “I guess you would be, being a nurse and all.”
I nodded, smiling blithely. Now was definitely not the time to try to squeeze “I have an extrasensory perception that allows me to feel your pain” into the conversation.
“Would you like me to take a look?” I asked.
“Why not?” I chuckled, stepping closer. “Want to tell me how this happened? And why you haven’t been to see a doctor?”
“No and no,” she said, shaking her head.
I held my hands over Miranda’s shoulders. While the pain throbbed steadily with every breath, her lungs felt clear. There was no puncture there, but her ribs were thoroughly bruised. It felt like some sort of side impact, as if she’d been thrown into a corner or a piece of furniture.
“Miranda, did someone hurt you?” I asked, feeling a sudden urge to find this “Collin” and introduce him to an old-fashioned Kilcairy arse-whipping.
Miranda closed her eyes, her face flushing red. “No,” she groaned, clapping a hand over her face. “As usual, I have no one to blame but myself. Let’s just say that when one is having athletic makeup sex with her vampire boyfriend, she should hold on for dear life. Particularly when there is a pointy nightstand nearby.”