“In the grand Southern tradition, I won’t think about that right now,” I said. “I’ll think about it tomorrow.” I unhooked the bell from its mount and dashed for the back office. I jerked the safe open and eased out the little carrying case.
Behind me, a footstep sounded at the entrance to the office. I turned to find a familiar figure standing just behind me.
“S-Stephen?” I stammered, confused about why someone who was supposed to be in Ireland would be three feet away, holding what looked like a rather large handgun. What was happening? Why would Stephen come here at all, much less armed? He wasn’t even looking at me; his eyes were focused on the little wooden cabinet. Gooseflesh rose on my arms as I stood.
Heart hammering, I nudged the heavy safe door shut with my leg.
“Ah, ah, ah,” Stephen said, smiling blandly as he stopped the door with his arm. He edged me away from the safe, trapping me between him and the bookshelf behind me. He gave me a sly, condescending grin as he surveyed the contents of Uncle Jack’s cabinet. “She knew you would find them. You are such a clever girl, Nola. You know that, don’t you? Far too clever to shut yourself away in that stupid little village for that godforsaken clinic. I meant that. I want you to know that not everything I told you was a lie.”
Realization, cold and heavy, settled against my heart. “Sonofabitch! Did you sleep with me just so you could find the Elements?”
“Well, the lovely sex wasn’t about the Elements,” he said. “That was a special side benefit.” I raised my hand to slap him, but he shoved the gun toward my face, making me cower back. “Let’s just keep those fire-starting hands to ourselves, shall we?”
“You ransacked the shop, didn’t you? You hurt Zeb.”
“And the meathead out by the Dumpster.” He chuckled as I made a strangled gasping noise. “And I strolled into your house anytime I felt like it. Old houses are never quite as secure as you think they are. There’s always a window or door that can be jimmied. It doesn’t take much to slink around this town unnoticed. All it takes is a T-shirt with an inappropriate slogan and a John Deere baseball cap. I’ve been here for weeks, watching you, keeping track of your progress. She wanted to intervene, but why do the work when you’re doing it for us?”
“Why are you doing this? And who is ‘she’?”
There was that wintry smile again. “I wish I could say I was special, like you, that I was trying to restore balance to a family that’s been denied its magic for too long,” he said, his lips twisted into a mocking smile. “But I’ll be honest. It’s the money. The Kerrigans are going to pay handsomely for the contents of this cabinet. I couldn’t have gotten a mint for just one or two of the Elements, but all four together, in a handy carrying case? I’ll be set for life.”
“And how long do you think that life will be,” I asked, “once my family hears about this? Hell, when I tell Jane it was you who hurt Zeb, your life won’t be worth living. You’re going to spend the rest of your days looking over your shoulder for an entire family of pissed-off vampires, not to mention angry witches. I’d almost feel sorry for you, if you weren’t such a prick.”
“Well, I guess we’re just going to have to make sure you don’t tell anyone, aren’t we?” Stephen’s hand tensed around the gun, raising it to my eye level. Panic constricted my throat, but my hands flew up, at the ready. I have no idea what they were ready to do, but it startled Stephen enough to flinch. I snatched up a heavy amethyst geode from Jane’s desk and smashed it against his temple. He yelped, slumping against the wall, swinging the gun toward me. I darted to the side and beat his wrist against the shelves, over and over, until he dropped the gun to the floor. He growled, shoving me back against the desk so my head thunked against Jane’s laptop. The pain of my back colliding with the sharp edge of the desk had me howling. I swung my booted foot up in a vicious arc, connecting with his chin and knocking him back into the shelf, which collapsed, dumping heavy leather-bound books on his head. He sank to the floor, limp and unconscious.
Slowly, I sat up, turning my aching head side-to-side. Stephen was working for the Kerrigans all this time? I felt so completely stupid. How had I fallen for this twice? From now on, I would have to ask Penny to prescreen all of my dates. I cradled my face in my hands, praying for the throbbing to stop. I had to get up. I had to go check on Jed, get him help if he needed it. I just had to make my head stop spinning long enough to stand.
Somewhere in the distance, I heard the floor creak. My head snapped up, making me wince. A woman stepped into view, tall and willowy, with dark hair. For a moment, I wondered if it was a ghost.
“Mom?” I whispered.
“Hello, darling,” she said, smiling sweetly . . . right before she smashed a statue of Bast against my temple. I collapsed to my knees and fell on my face.
Some relationships cannot be fixed, no matter what you do.
—Love Spells: A Witch’s Guide to
Maintaining Healthy Relationships
I woke up with my hands tied behind my back. I was outdoors, in a forest clearing, tied to a tree near a campfire. The full, pregnant moon hung overhead. I could see Uncle Jack’s little cabinet propped against a tree near my head, the drawers spread wide in dramatic “display” fashion. My mother was standing close by, examining the athame in the light of the moon.
“All this fuss over such a little thing,” she mused, holding the athame in her hand.
The years had not been kind to Anna McGavock. The once delicate beauty had a face like a road map, lined and craggy. She tried to hide the damage with heavy makeup, but the eyeliner had smeared and bled into her crow’s feet. Deep, unhappy lines bracketed her mouth, giving her a permanent expression of disdain. Her skin was sallow and had a cheesy sort of sheen. I immediately suppressed any instinct to diagnose what was wrong with her. I didn’t want to know.
“Oh, good, you’re awake.” She tittered, tucking the athame back into the cabinet and draping the box in a white sheet. She wiped her hands on too-tight jeans that exposed everything between her belly button and her bony, protruding hips. She’d paired those with a thin black tank top and a lacy red bra. Her hair fell in a dark tangle down to her waist.
“You’re supposed to be dead.”
“I ran into a little trouble in Florida. I needed to disappear, and there are plenty of disposable people when you know where to look. My business associates stopped looking for me when the body turned up, and no one was the wiser.”
“You let your own mother think you were dead. She mourned you. She thought about you every day.”
“Oh, spare me. I came to your stupid little dirt patch a few weeks before the old lady died,” Mom spat. “I was going to confront her, once and for all, to demand answers. But she wasn’t there. So I looked around. I figured everything in that dinky little cottage should have been mine, anyway, so what was the point in leaving it there to rot?”
And suddenly, the silver that had come up missing shortly before Nana’s death made so much more sense. “She saw you?”
“Well, she didn’t exactly serve me tea. She saw me coming out of the house. I was in my car and down the road before she put two and two together.”
I thought back to the night just before Nana died, how she’d urgently whispered, “Your mother,” before drifting off to sleep. And then, when Nana was speaking through the Ouija die, she’d said, “Mother.” She was trying to tell me my mother was alive.
When this was all over, I was going to contact Nana through the Ouija die, and we would discuss her cryptic and unhelpful postmortem transmissions.
“Why would you come to the house but not see me? Did you consider for one second that I might like to know that you were still alive?”
Wait, this was my mother I was talking to. Normal maternal, or even human, standards didn’t apply.
She smirked at me. “I dropped by to look through the papers she kept buried under that mattress. I found the address for the Wainwright house. And I was able to make a deal with the Kerrigans. I bring them all four Elements, I get paid. Handsomely. I am finally going to get my due, after putting up with so much bullshit over the years. Wainwright didn’t give me anything in life, not even his name. Now he owes me the Elements.”
“They weren’t his to give!”
“Why shouldn’t I have them?” Mom demanded. “Why shouldn’t I decide what to do with them? They’re mine, by blood and by right. I’m my mother’s only child. I’m the heir, the rightful matriarch of our family.”
“You were never Nana’s heir. And you couldn’t get the family to follow you out of a burning building.”
“And whose fault is that?” She sneered. “Always the favorite, always kissing up to my mother. You think I didn’t know what you were up to? You wanted everything for yourself; you wanted to shut me out, starting with your father. I got tired of being second best, second fiddle, so I got out, but oh, it was like I was some sort of demon for leaving you. My own mother never forgave me for it, did you realize?”
“Never forgave you? Why do you think she gave you money every time you asked? Never reported it to the police when you robbed her blind? She loved you!”
“But not like she loved you!”
“Because I loved her in return!” I shouted back. “You wouldn’t know what that is. You’ve never loved anyone as much as you love yourself. Nothing was ever as important as what you wanted, what was best for you. How could you do this? Do you know what’s going to happen to your family if you do this? To the village?”
“You think I owe loyalty to that bunch of lunatics?” she asked. “They’re no more my family than your father was.”
“Well, who the hell is your family?” I demanded. “I would really like to know. Dad wasn’t enough. I wasn’t enough. Nana, the aunts and uncles. Is there anybody in this world you care more about than you?”
“Not really,” she said, placidly examining her manicure. She stopped suddenly, giving me a satisfied smirk. “Do you want to know what I find funny in all of this? It was your boyfriend Stephen who was so helpful. I told him all about you, you see. I arranged for the two of you to meet. I even provided him with a little liquid love potion to slip into your tea when you didn’t respond the way a normal woman would.”
I stared at her for a long moment. Love potion. That explained the ambiguous distaste I’d felt for “ideal boyfriend Stephen” since I moved to the States. He wasn’t around to refresh the potion or maintain the thrall. It explained why I couldn’t seem to remember all of the things we had in common or the reasons he was so bloody perfect. I wasn’t a bad girlfriend. I just had a fecking terrible mother.
Who was still monologuing, it seemed. “He’s been here all this time, didn’t you realize? He followed you just a few days after you arrived. We’ve been inside your house, rifled through your sad clothes and your sensible shoes. The only time he’s been in Ireland in the last few weeks was to pump your idiot cousin for information. Thanks to some herbal additions I put in a box of chocolates, your darling Penny spilled every secret she’s ever held in that empty head of hers. And I helped him ensure that she would never remember talking about you.”
I deeply regretted not whacking Stephen harder with that geode. Suddenly, my spontaneous nude snuggling with Jed didn’t seem so bad by comparison.
“Stephen was a tool,” she said. “A useful tool but a tool all the same.”
“I won’t argue with you there,” I muttered.
“You don’t think I know you, but I do. You want normal. You want to pretend you’re just like everyone else. It’s a criminal waste of talent. You didn’t think twice about meeting some nice little broker at a business meeting. You wanted that so badly you didn’t even question it. I would pity you if it wasn’t so damn pathetic.”