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Once upon a time, I thought that being a witch would make everything easier.
There I was on another Friday evening, leaning against the counter in Cake Walk, the Georgetown bakery owned by my best friend, Melissa White. Over the summer, I'd started helping Melissa close up every Friday night, after I left my job at the Peabridge Library. My assistance gave us a chance to catch up on our weeks, and then we conducted always-needed mojito therapy.
I was just waiting until we could turn the sign on the door from Walk On In to Walk On By. I could already taste icy lime juice and rum, mixed with mint and nearly frozen seltzer water in a chilled tumbler. Summer in Washington was always hot, and this late August day was no exception.
I held a glass of iced tea against the pulse point in my right wrist and tried to forgive the bakery's air-conditioning.
After all, it was doing its best to beat back the swampy heat. My red-shot curls frizzed against the back of my neck, and I was pretty sure that my kohl liner had smeared around my eyes. So much for drawing out the emerald glints trapped inside my hazel irises. Anyway, did that stuff ever work outside of fashion magazines?
I probably should have taken a page from Melissa's book and ignored makeup altogether—after all, it was just the two of us girlfriends. The two of us, and a pitcher of icy mojitos.
Since therapy had not yet commenced, however, I took a deep swallow of mango-lime iced tea and tried to explain to Melissa. Again. "I know that it shouldn't matter. I dated Scott for twelve years—twelve years! And I only saw the I.B. for twelve weeks."
I.B. That used to stand for Imaginary Boyfriend. Now, it stood for Idiot Bastard. Or Ignorant Boor. Or Irritating Boil. Get us going, Melissa and me, and we could continue the game for hours.
The I.B. The man I'd set my heart on. My friends and family had all agreed to refrain from using his name. He didn't deserve a name.
I sighed. "It's been ten months. Ten months, and nothing. Not a glimmer of a hint of a scintilla of a possibility on the romantic horizon. I'm never going to date again."
"Jane Madison, never is a very long time," Melissa said.
"I don't think that I can seriously take romance advice from a woman with fifty-two first dates under her belt in the past year."
"Don't exaggerate," Melissa said with a good-natured shrug. "There were only forty-one."
I shuddered. Forty-one. Forty-one nights of sitting at a table for two. Forty-one nights of coming up with witty and compelling Conversation Topics, five per date. (Okay, I knew that Melissa reused many of them, but still!) Forty-one nights of putting on perfect dating clothes, of combing out perfect dating hair, of squelching down perfect dating jitters.
And what did she have to show for it? A Friday evening with me. Me, a DVD of Casablanca,and microwave popcorn.
As if she'd read my mind, Melissa brushed her palms together, a businesswoman ever in charge. "We'd better turn on the air conditioner upstairs, or it will be hot enough to make the popcorn without getting anywhere near the microwave."
Melissa lived in a comfortable apartment above her bakery. Her little home was perfect in every way—except it didn't have central air. In fact, it had a wheezing window unit that was probably Carrier's prototype. You know. Willis Haviland Carrier, the inventor of the air conditioner. I said Iwasalibrarian. We accumulate a ridiculous amount of trivia.
Actually, Melissa's contraption could get the job done, if we gave it enough time. The only problem was braving the oven of an apartment long enough to turn the rattling thing on. She waited for me to volunteer to step into the swamp that was her living room, but I merely shifted my wrist against my icy glass.
"Come on," she finally said. "Rock, paper, scissors." Melissa and I settled all our disputes with the childhood game. We might be immature, but we'd never had a serious fight, not in the twenty-five years that we'd been best friends. Now, we counted to three, tapping our right fists against our left palms, and then we displayed our choices— paper for me, rock for Melissa.
"Paper covers rock," I said, trying not to gloat.
"Yeah, yeah," she said good-naturedly. She turned to the steps in the back corner of the bakery. "Keep an eye on things while I'm upstairs. And don't do anything I wouldn't do."
Well, that just opened up a huge realm of possibilities, didn't it?
I turned to the gigantic stainless steel sink at the back of the bakery, ready to wash a few dishes and get Cake Walk shut down for the night. It was the least I could do, since Melissa was braving the air upstairs.
In fact, I'd been practicing a water spell; I thought that it would be perfect for a little kitchen cleanup. I'd worked through it with my familiar, Neko, three times in the past week, trying to get my mind around the controlled whirlpool that the magic required.
Not that Neko excelled at helping out with water magic. When I'd first met him, he'd been frozen into the form of a black cat statue. I'd awakened him with my very first spell. He still retained a lot of his feline features, even though he'd remained a f lesh-and-blood man for ten straight months. Okay, not straight months. Not precisely.
Neko had turned my little home upside down more than once with his parties and his exploits and his boyfriends-of-the-week, but when magical push came to enchanted shove, he'd been there for me, helping me to focus my powers and learn new ways to use my gifts.
Even when I wanted to work on water spells.
After a week of practice, I'd succeeded in gathering up water from the faucet, and I could consistently get the miniature windstorm spinning in the center of my old farmhouse sink. Each time I tried to factor in dish soap, though, my concentration fell apart, and I was left cleaning up a froth of bubbles. Or a slick river of soap. Or an ocean of foaming water, ankle deep on my kitchen f loor.
I bet that the Weird Sisters in Macbeth never needed to worry about these things. They just hired some sniveling apprentice to scrub their cauldrons clean. Eye of newt, wing of bat….
I decided that it was wiser to use conventional cleaning methods in Melissa's bakery. No reason to endanger pastries and pottery alike. Shaking my head and promising myself that I would master the spell, I reached for a sponge.
Before I could add soap, though, the bell over the door jangled its jaunty greeting. I turned around with a ready smile; I knew how to treat Melissa's clientele when I was at the counter.
And I almost sat down in the sink.
The man who stood in the doorway was drop-dead gorgeous. I couldn't compare him to a particular movie star— he was like the best of them rolled into one.
He seemed utterly unperturbed by the August heat; there wasn't a hint of sweat on his brow, on his lip, anywhere about him. His short blond hair lay perfectly, each strand cooperating to set off the strong lines of his cheekbones, his jaw. His eyes glinted in the early-evening sunshine, a blue so light that they seemed like glass. He wore a crisp white shirt that looked as if it had just left an ironing board, and his jeans fit well enough that Levi's should pay him for the advertising. His shoulders were broad, and his waist was narrow.
He had to come from the Midwest—corn-fed, small-town, a football quarterback if I'd ever seen one. There were country songs written about this man. He'd dated the head cheerleader; they'd been the prom king and queen. He had wanted to stay on the farm, take over for his daddy, but his mother had presented him with egg money she'd saved through the years, begging him to leave Kansas, to move to Washington for college, for a business degree.
He had broken his father's heart, even as he'd made the old man wipe away a surreptitious tear of pride. He still called home every Sunday afternoon at four, to catch up with his parents after church, after the mid-afternoon meal they called dinner. He tried to describe the big city to them, to fill them in on his life on Capitol Hill, but they never truly understood.
"I say, are you still open?" he asked.
A British accent.
Okay, so maybe I got a little carried away. It could happen to anyone. A Brit, though… That was even better than a Future Farmer of America.
I knew that I was supposed to be a levelheaded woman. After all, I had two graduate degrees—in library science and English. I was supposed to know better than to swoon over a man's good looks, to melt because he smiled at me, to fall at his feet because he spoke the Queen's English.
So shoot me. I was a fool. I'd always had a soft spot for a British accent.
Obviously, plenty of Englishmen were jerks. I knew that, too. But my track record wasn't so great with the standard American issue. And if you asked me to define my perfect man, to write up a quick summary of what I was looking for and place it in an online-dating profile, those crisp consonants and plummy vowels would be near the top of my list.
"Um, yes," I said. Brilliant. Witty. Yeah, that's me.
"Have you any Lust, then?"
He winced and then smiled ruefully. "A friend sent me. She said that you sell Almond Lust, and that I couldn't walk by without trying a piece. In fact, I'm to buy up all you have and bring it to a dinner party this evening."
Oh. Almond Lust. One of Melissa's specialties.
Well, maybe in some cultures a stinging crimson blush was considered attractive. After all, those British women were all fair skinned. My dream man was probably used to a gentle companion who blushed the color of a summer sunset. I could hope.
"Of course," I managed to say. I pointed to the pottery plate of shortbread confections, their thick chocolate layer covered with toasted, sliced almonds. At least my Code Red nail polish was smooth and unchipped. Chalk one up for the colonial team. "We have four left."
Again, that f lush spread to my face. Pastry, I reminded myself sternly. He was only commenting on the pastry.
I found a paperboard box beneath the counter and began to transfer the Lust. "Do you work around here?" I asked, intent on drawing him out before he walked through the door, before he disappeared from my life forever. "I do now. I've just accepted a new position in Arlington." Arlington. Just over the river. Not in my backyard, but close enough for me to imagine seeing him again. "What do you do?"
"I'm in acquisitions."
Acquisitions. A lawyer, then. My skunk of an ex-fiancé, Scott Randall, had been a lawyer. I felt my shoulders stiffen, but I ordered myself to take a deep breath, to smile, to act like lawyers were my favorite people in the world. After all, if I was going to hate all lawyers, I'd have to move out of Washington.
I punched a few keys on the cash register and announced the price. My British friend reached into his pocket and pulled out a money clip. A money clip, with stylized art deco lines that made me think of the statue of Prometheus in Rockefeller Center, the golden god delivering the torch of knowledge to all mankind. I'd never seen an American man use a clip. I bit back a heartfelt sigh.
"Blasted American bills," he muttered with good humor. Blasted! He said "blasted"! You couldn't get any more British than that!
He shook his head as he slipped off the clip. "You Americans don't have the sense to make your money different colors. Force a poor sod to sort through every last bill to find the right one."
He'd complicated his task by forcing the money clip into double duty; he had at least a dozen slips of paper tucked next to his cash. He smiled at my quizzical look. "Receipts. I'm terrible about filling out my expense account."
I smiled, anxious to keep even this stilted conversation going. "Receipt!" I exclaimed, like a parrot that had mastered a new word. "Do you need one?"
"That would be lovely, actually." I pressed a button on the register, and it spit out a curl of paper. By then, my Brit had finally found the appropriate bill. I calculated his change, wishing that I could think of something else to say.
Monty Python. Upstairs, Downstairs. Pride and Prejudice. Bridget Jones. I didn't think that any of those was likely to spark a deep and meaningful conversation. Certainly not enough of one to get him to ask for my phone number.
And so, I collected his change from the register. I counted it into his palm, and no one could really blame me if I let my fingers slip against his. The touch lingered only a moment, just long enough for him to curve a smile and say, "With these coins?"
I had no idea what he meant, but I was eager to prolong the conversation. "Pardon me?"
"It's an old nursery rhyme. Mother Goose, I think. 'With these coins I find you. With these words I bind you. Keep our secret, silent be. Speak to no man, not of me. Diddle dum, diddle dee, fi, fo, fum.'"
When all I managed was a puzzled smile, my mysterious Brit laughed and shrugged at the same time, saying, "I suppose our nurseries had different rhymes." He shot his cuff and glanced at his watch, clearly eager to be heading out to his dinner party. Reluctantly, I made a show of tucking in the lid of his paperboard box. I took a printed sticker from the roll that Melissa kept by the register and pressed it onto the box for good measure. At least all the guests at his dinner party would know the source of the delectable treats he carried.