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A Little Light Magic
By Joy Nash
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2009 Joy Nash
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt's tough being alone in the world, with no family to turn to.
Nick Santangelo double-checked the address. Yep, he was in the right place, but he could hardly believe it. The little pink house was a mess-and that assessment was generous. The only thing it had going for it was its location, location, and location. And that, as they said in the business, was everything.
The property was half a block from the Jersey shore's quirkiest tourist attraction-a 128-year-old oversize wooden elephant affectionately known as Lucy. Luckily for the six-story pachyderm, she faced the ocean, not the neglected property tucked into the downscale alley behind her sizable derriere. His prospect was wedged between a dive bar and a tired summer rental that had surely seen its share of lost security deposits.
He paralleled his truck into a space a foot too short to be comfortable and got out to take a better look, leaving his keys in the ignition and the motor running. The place was twenty feet wide, tops, and maybe three times as deep. Peeling paint adorned the cracked stucco, and the sun shone through rips in a faded green awning. Some kind of formless music drifted through the open bay window. He peered through the dirty screen and made out the shapeof a woman moving around inside.
According to Doris's notes, the owner, a Victoria Morgan, didn't want anything major. Just enough work to allow the front room to open as a retail shop. But she needed the job done ASAP, before the summer season got into full swing. Not much hope of that. Memorial Day had already come and gone.
He looked up, at shingles that were starting to curl. Now, a teardown and rebuild-that might interest him. But a code touch-up on a postage stamp? Why the hell was Doris wasting his time with this? His secretary knew better than that.
He scanned the prospect sheet attached to his clipboard and found his answer. The owner, Victoria Morgan, was the grandniece of Doris's recently deceased friend Millie Whittaker. He vaguely remembered Doris taking a day off to attend the funeral. Apparently, this Ms. Morgan had inherited the old Whittaker place and was in dire need of a contractor.
Dire need. Doris had underlined the words in red felt-tip and added three exclamation points.
Nick snorted. What was he, a freaking doctor?
He tossed the clipboard back into the truck. Lord knew he'd do as much for Doris as he would for his own mother, but the timing couldn't have been worse. He had three crews working overtime on the largest project Santangelo Construction had ever tackled-a job that had fallen behind schedule. No way could he fit this rehab in. Not even as a favor to the world's best office manager.
He checked his watch as he climbed the cracked concrete steps. Five twenty-nine. Right on time, and he couldn't wait long-there was a mountain of paper he had to move across his desk before tomorrow. Mentally, he plotted out his evening. Two minutes to explain he couldn't do the job, five to drive home and grab a sandwich, fifteen to get back to his office in Atlantic City.
He rapped on the frame of a battered screen door.
He pounded again, harder this time. "Hello?"
"What? Oh! Just a minute."
The door opened. "Hi," a breathless voice said. "Can I help you?"
Nick opened his mouth to answer, then took a good look at the woman standing in the doorway and shut it again.
She wasn't at all what he'd expected.
Not that he'd been expecting anything. But if he had been expecting something, it wouldn't have been a freckled pixie with wild black curls and streaks of silver paint smudged across her nose. Her eyes were green, her skin was flushed, and her full red lips drove every thought out of his head and straight to his groin.
Oh, man. This was not good.
Despite his best effort at nonchalance, his gaze flicked to her chest, and, Lord, that was a mistake, because she was wearing a stretchy scoop-necked tee with no bra. Her breasts were just the kind he liked-round and firm, not too big, not too small. Her highlighter green knit top stretched from peak to peak, distorting the lettering on the front.
DANCE AS IF NO ONE IS WATCHING.
Funny, dancing wasn't the activity that immediately sprang to mind.
Jesus. Why the hell had he left his clipboard in the truck? It would have come in handy right about now, positioned strategically in front of his belt buckle....
The object of his unexpected lust tilted her head to one side and touched the tip of her tongue to her bottom lip. He nearly groaned out loud. She blinked up at him, one hand on her hip, the other holding a paintbrush dipped in silver paint. She came up only to his chin, but something about her seemed taller.
He floundered around for his lost professionalism. "Ms. Morgan?"
"I'm Nick Santangelo. From Santangelo Construction. You were expecting me?"
"Oh. Yes! Yes, I was. But not until five thirty."
He checked his watch. "It's five thirty-two."
"It is?" She looked genuinely shocked at the news. "I must've lost track of the time." She kicked a remnant of Sunday's Press of Atlantic City out of the path of the door. "Come in."
He stepped into a minefield of paint paraphernalia and moving boxes. The screen door slammed behind him, making him start. Broken. Well, why the hell not? Everything else in the house seemed to be, from the dented aluminum stepladder to the beat- up folding table, which was flanked by equally decrepit folding chairs that didn't match. A battered CD player-complete with duct-taped cord-was gurgling something that was probably supposed to be a clear mountain stream but sounded more like a running toilet.
Ms. Morgan circled her paintbrush at the walls. "What do you think of them?"
He guessed she meant the clouds. They covered all four walls of the twelve-by-twenty room, painted in billowing silver on a field of electric blue. Overhead, faceted crystals hung from the ceiling like stars.
What did he think of it? He looked at Ms. Morgan and entertained a few doubts about her sanity.
He cleared his throat. "It's ... bright."
"Thanks. I thought so, too."
"Look, Ms. Morgan-"
"Call me Tori."
"Okay. Tori. I-"
She turned and started across the room, weaving between the boxes. "I don't really need much work done. It's just that the building inspector says I can't open Destiny's Gate in the front room while I live in the back without making a few fire code upgrades first." She bent at the waist to dip her brush into a can of paint. The zigzag hem of her skirt rose, giving Nick a glimpse of smooth skin and a Celtic-knot anklet tattoo.
With an effort, he refocused on a cloud. "Destiny's Gate?"
"That's what I'm calling my shop."
"Um ... what do you plan to sell?"
She sidled back into his line of vision and started dabbing paint on the very cloud he'd been staring at. "Oh, tarot cards, crystals, runes, books." She paused. "I'll do divination, too. People need to know what the cosmos has in store for them."
"Divination? You mean like fortune-telling?"
"Some people call it that. I like to call it future sight."
"You're kidding, right?"
She frowned at him over her shoulder. "No. Why would I be?"
"Because you can't seriously think to sell that woo- woo stuff around here. Summer people come to Margate to take their kids to the beach, not to get their fortunes told. You'd be better off selling wave boards. Or Italian ice."
Her answering scowl sent him rocking back on his heels.
"Hey," he protested. "Don't go getting all mad. It's good advice. And it's free."
"Yeah. If you want to tell fortunes, you should set up shop on the Ocean City boardwalk. That's where the tourists go when they're looking to throw away money."
Ms. Morgan-Tori-abandoned her cloud, her chest rising on a quick intake of breath. Nick tried not to look down, but, Jesus, it was a lost cause. She marched right up to him and halted so close he could practically feel her breasts in his hands.
A jab of her brush near his nose brought his attention back to her face.
"I'll have you know fortune-telling is a valuable art, not a waste of money! And I can't go anywhere else. I have to open Destiny's Gate here, in this house."
"You inherited the place recently, right?"
The light in her green eyes dimmed. "Yes. From my great-aunt. It's been a summer rental for the last seventeen years, since she moved into a nursing home."
"Well, maybe now that it's yours, you should think of selling. This close to the beach, you'd get a great price."
"But the new owners would tear the house down!"
"Well, yeah, obviously. The value's all in the land."
She shook her head. Nick was momentarily distracted by her glossy dark curls stroking and sifting over her shoulders. His palms started to itch.
"No," she was saying. "I can't let that happen. Aunt Millie left so much positive psychic energy in these walls."
Positive psychic energy?
She shot him a disgruntled look. "You know, I didn't ask your opinion."
"What?" Nick said. "I didn't say anything."
"You didn't have to. But it doesn't matter, because I'm not looking for your advice. I just want to hire you. And there's really not much work here. You can probably finish it in a day or two."
"Well, about that," he said. "I only stopped by to-"
"Do you want to see the list?" She moved closer and he caught her scent. Something old-fashioned and flowery. Calm. It seemed an odd choice for her. From what he could see, standing still wasn't something Tori Morgan knew how to do.
"I don't think-"
"Wait. It's around here somewhere."
Huh? A conversation with this woman shifted as quickly as sand in a storm. Bemused, he watched as she sank to the floor, her gauzy skirt swirling as she rifled through a stack of papers shoved into a cardboard box. Her paintbrush, seemingly forgotten in her left hand, dripped silver onto the floor.
"Here." He grabbed the brush before it could do any more damage. "Let me take that."
She blinked up at him, then frowned at the brush. "Oh. Thanks. I know I put the building inspector's list in here somewhere."
He set the brush in one of her four and a half open cans of silver paint. "Look, don't bother. I can't take your job anyway."
She stood up so fast she nearly lost her balance. Nick caught her upper arm, then immediately wished he hadn't. Touching her wasn't the best idea. The urge to drag her flush against his body was entirely too urgent. What had gotten into him? He couldn't remember the last time he'd had such a sudden, overwhelming response to a woman.
She stared up at him with eyes the exact color of the ocean before a storm. She was so close now he could see that the green of her irises was touched with subtle flecks of blue. Her cheeks were flushed. And her lips ...
"... do it," she said breathlessly.
What? He stared down at her.
"You have to do it. You have to take my job."
Oh, right. The job.
Nick released her and took a step back. "Look, I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I won't be able to help you out. My company doesn't do small projects like this. Doris should have told you when you called."
"Oh, she did. But she also said you might be able to squeeze it in if I couldn't find anybody else."
"I'd really like to help, but I'm overextended as it is. I can't possibly take this on."
"But that's not right! The cards said that you'd help me."
"Cards? What cards?"
She pointed at the folding table. "The tarot. I did a reading after I talked to Doris. The outcome was favorable."
"I see," Nick said slowly, pacing toward the table. The cards spread out there weren't the regular playing kind, but some sort of fortune- telling cards.
"Favorable." He slanted her a glance. "But not, I take it, definite?"
She grimaced. "Well ... no. Not exactly definite." She tapped the closest card. "I drew the Moon. That always denotes a time of uncertainty."
He smiled. "There you go, then. That proves I'm not your man."
She looked up just long enough to send him a scowl. "It does nothing of the kind. See this card? The Four of Wands foretells success in new ventures. I can't have success if I can't open. That means you're going to take the job."
"And besides," she pressed on, "you're my last hope. My only hope! You can't even imagine how many contractors I've called. Not one will even give me an estimate before August. But when I looked into my crystal, I saw the work completed before the solstice."
Nick couldn't believe his ears. "You've got a crystal ball that tracks construction projects? You know, I could use one of those at the office."
"No," she said seriously. "It's not a ball. I can never get a good reading on a curved surface. I use a prism."
Nick shook his head. Time to go. Because, clearly, this woman had already left the building.
"Tell you what," he said, angling toward the door. "I'll ask around. Maybe one of my subcontractors will be interested."
He left before she could launch another protest, relieved to trade the whirling clouds and flashing crystals for the comforting solidity of his Dodge Ram four-by-four. Tori Morgan might turn him on like crazy, but no way was Nick going to follow his little head on this one.
Tarot cards. Positive psychic energy. Visions in crystals.
The woman was out of her freaking mind.
Tori hurled an extremely negative thought at the arrogant contractor's retreating back. She almost launched a can of paint after it. The broken screen door slammed on her last hope with all the finality of a shattered scrying mirror.
Well. Didn't that just suck the big lollipop?
She plopped down on a folding chair, then jumped up again when the broken leg gave way. Drumming her fingertips on the side of her thigh, she tried to figure out just where she'd gone wrong with the tarot reading. She'd been so sure Doris's boss would take the job.
Nick Santangelo certainly fit the image of the Knight of Swords, the card representing the immediate future. The Knight was dark and confident. Doris's boss had been that and more. Tori didn't think much of his attitude, but she had to admit the man was hot. He was in his midthirties, maybe, but not going soft like a lot of men his age were. His chest was solid, his hips lean. His tanned forearms were sprinkled with dark hair.
And he had very nice hands.
It was a thing with her-guys' hands. She always noticed them. Nick Santangelo's were large and capable, with long, graceful fingers. She puzzled over that for a bit. Hands like his belonged to an artist, not a tradesman.
He didn't wear a wedding ring.
She had no business noticing that. He wasn't her type at all.
But he'd been checking her out. No way she could have missed it. For a while there, his eyes had been glued to a point about eight inches below her chin. And she hadn't missed the look on his face when she'd explained about her crystal vision.
He thought she was a kook.
Not that she cared. Truth be told, she was used to it. A lot of people-okay, most people-didn't see life the way she did. Part of her was glad the man had turned down her job. He was entirely too appealing on a physical level, and she wasn't looking for a quick hookup. That was how things had started out with Colin-they'd hooked up, and before she knew it, pow! She was in love and changing herself to suit his moods.
She felt a twinge of pain in her midsection. She laid her hand over her stomach and blinked back tears. No, she wasn't looking for quick sex and all the heartache it brought.
But she was looking for a contractor. She couldn't open her shop without one. Too bad every Jersey man who knew how to use his nail gun was booked solid through September.
Maybe another tarot reading would shed some light?
Then she thought of the last Weird Zone tour she'd led with Colin before things went sour. They'd been camping with a group of vampire wannabes near a decrepit Louisiana bayou mansion. Weird Zone's local sources insisted the house was a vampire sanctuary. The whole thing turned out to be a hoax, but the trip into the swamp hadn't been a total loss. Tori had discovered a Cajun witch living in the mansion's gate house, and the old woman had taken a liking to her. She'd shown up at the campsite the morning Tori and Colin were packing the tents, insisting that Tori accept a gift: a bundle of seven hoodoo candle magic spell kits the witch had assembled and blessed herself.
The spells would keep their magic no more than a year, the witch had told Tori. Tori had promised to use them before their power faded. She'd given the old woman her sincere thanks and packed them away. That had been last September. Soon after, all the drama with Colin had begun, and the old witch and her gifts had slipped Tori's mind. Until she was packing for Aunt Millie's funeral and found them stashed in the bottom of her spare backpack. (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Little Light Magic by Joy Nash Copyright © 2009 by Joy Nash. Excerpted by permission.
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