Read an Excerpt
“I need your help.”
Looking up, Gemma Dante smiled as her cousin Michael came bounding to the counter of the Golden Bough. As usual, the cozy, welcoming bookstore in Greenwich Village was filled with customers, some browsing among the bookshelves, others lounging in one of the plump armchairs Gemma provided. Soft Celtic music played, while the faint scent of lavender incense filled the air. The sense of serenity had no effect on Michael Dante, however. Right winger for the New York Blades, he was a man always in a hurry, both on the ice and off.
Gemma stepped out from behind the counter to give her cousin an affectionate hug. “‘I need your help,’” she repeated. “I think I’ll have that carved on my tombstone.” People instinctively came to her for aid and advicenot that she minded. She enjoyed playing the part of an offbeat Ann Landers to friends and family.
“Tombstone?” Michael feigned surprise. “I always figured when you went, you’d have some kind of moonlight ceremony where you’d be transformed into fairy dust and returned to the cosmos.”
“Remember that old Squeeze song that begins, ‘If I didn’t love you, I’d hate you’? I think of you every time I hear it, Mikey.”
“And I think of you every time I hear Donovan’s ‘Season of the Witch.’” He glanced around the store. “Not too many freaks today.”
Gemma ignored the crack, returning to her post behind the cash register. “What can I do for you?”
“There’s this new guy on the team, Ron Crabnutt. He was just called up from Rochester and he doesn’t know a soul in the city apart from us guys. He’s dying to go out with a ‘real New York woman.’ So I thought maybeif you had timeyou could break bread with him one night this week.”
Gemma looked dubious. “Are you trying to set me up on a date?”
“No, no, no,” Michael swore. “Wellyeah. It’s an act of kindness, you know? For someone who’s new to town.”
“I thought I was too ‘weird’ for your teammates.”
Michael snorted. “You’re too good for them! If you saw some of the skanks these guys hung out with...” He shuddered.
“Good to know I’m one up on the skanks, Mikey.”
He rounded the counter and gave her a bone-crushing squeeze. “Will you do it? He’s a really nice guy, Gem, cross my heart. And who knows? Maybe you two will hit it off.” He winked.
Gemma chuckled. “I’m not looking for a boyfriend.”
“A relationship would be good for you.”
Gemma changed the subject. “Speaking of relationships, how’s Theresa? The baby?”
Michael smiled giddily. “Both doing great. The christening invitations just went out in the mail. You’re coming, right?”
“Are you kidding? I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“Good. And Crabnutt? You’ll have dinner with him?”
Gemma shrugged. “Okay. What have I got to lose? It might be fun.”
“I knew I could count on you!”
“That’ll be the second line on my tombstone.”
Goddess, why did I let Mikey talk me into this? Gemma thought, struggling to keep her eyes from glazing over. She had agreed to do this as a favor, and because it might fun. Little did she know she’d be listening to someone drone on ecstatically about his screwdriver collection.
“Now, your clutchhead tips have four points of contact”
“Excuse me,” she interrupted Ron Crabnutt politely. “Could we talk about something other than screwdrivers?”
“Sure.” Ron looked wounded. “What would you like to talk about?”
“How about politics?”
“Well, I gotta be honest with you...” A mild grimace tugged at Crabnutt’s lower lip. “I don’t really give a monkey’s hinder about politics.”
Gemma blinked. Monkey’s hinder? “How about music, then?”
Ron’s face lit up. “You like Skid Row?”
“Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of Skid Row!” Ron exclaimed, smacking the table in disbelief. “They’re only the greatest band EVER.”
Maybe talking about screwdrivers wasn’t so bad after all. “I’m more into Celtic music myself. Solas, Loreena McKennitt...”
“Never heard of ’em,” Ron grumbled. “If it doesn’t make your teeth rattle, I don’t want to know.”
Gemma deflated. “Right.” She decided to give it one more try. Perhaps a conversational push in the right direction would reveal unimagined depth to his personality. “Do you have any hobbies besides the screwdrivers?” she asked.
“Other hobbies.” Ron peered hard at his fork. “Hhmm.”
The longer he took to answer, the more Gemma knew the only depth she’d be exploring would be that of her own despair.
“I like gum,” Ron offered hopefully.
Gum, Gemma thought desperately. I can work with that.
“Collecting it or chewing it?”
“Chewing.” Ron bobbed his head thoughtfully. “Definitely chewing.”
She would have called it a night right then, but she didn’t have the heart. Ron looked so happy. And in the grand scheme of things, what was one night of her life? Sighing, she asked if he was a Bazooka or Juicy Fruit man. Another half hour passed. Crabnutt talked about Teaberry, curling, and then worked his way right back to Phillips cross slot screwdrivers. Not once did he ask Gemma what she did for a living or inquire what her hobbies were. Finally Gemma stifled a yawn. “It’s getting late. I really should be going.” She rose from the table.
Ron followed suit. “This was really fun,” he confessed shyly. Gemma’s heart went out to him. He was boring, but still. Uncomfortable, she peered down at her feet.
“Can I call you?”
Gemma lifted her head and saw Ron nervously pull at his collar. “Sure,” she returned softly, completely against her better judgment. She couldn’t stand the thought of hurting him. Besides, how many guys actually called after taking your number? She gave it to him.
Fastening the front of her cape, she was careful to lift the back of her hair out from under it. Ron paid the bill, and together they walked outside, where Gemma hailed a cab.
“Talk to you soon,” Ron said cheerily as he closed the door of the cab for her.
Once inside, Gemma was glad the turbaned cabbie was blasting the Jets game on the FAN. She’d had enough conversation for one evening.
Early the next morning, Gemma went to meet her closest friend, Francis “Frankie” Hoffmann, for breakfast. New Yorkers knew Frankie as “Lady Midnight,” a deejay whose sexy, deep-throated voice filled the airwaves between midnight and 6 A.M. every Monday through Friday on WROX, the city’s top-rated classic rock station. Gemma often met Frankie for an early-morning cup of coffee. Afterward, Gemma would head to her store in the Village, and Frankie would go home to crash.
Their favorite meeting place was the Happy Fork Diner on Thirty-fourth and Eighth, a twenty-four-hour greasy spoon run by two burly Greek brothers. Pushing through the heavy glass door, Gemma was greeted by the familiar smell of fresh coffee brewing. Sliding onto a booth’s narrow Naugahyde bench, she waited for Stavros to take her order.
“Ah, Miss Gemma.” Despite girth a pro wrestler might envy, Stavros always appeared out of nowhere, the steaming coffeepot in his gigantic, hairy hand dangerously full. “One taste. C’mon. One sip and you will never want to drink that peeswater tea again.”
Gemma clucked with mock disapproval. “You know I don’t do caffeine, Stavros.”
“So?” He jutted his chin out. “I bring you decaf. Best decaf in New York.”
Gemma batted her eyes at him, enjoying their little ritual. “Chamomile tea will be fine, thank you.”
“Bah,” he muttered, turning from the table. “An old lady’s drink.”
He’s right, it is an old lady drink.
Stavros returned with her tea, muttering under his breath in Greek as he served her. Just then Frankie pushed through the door of the diner. On the air, Frankie sounded like a wet dream, her low, husky radio voice and teasing, kittenish laugh the perfect vocal accompaniment for the overnight hours. All the male listeners who called during her air shift begging for a date assumed she was a major babe. In truth, she was tall and painfully thin, with wispy blond hair she had a hard time styling and a spray of freckles across the bridge of her tiny stub nose.
“Sorry I’m late,” Frankie said in her real voice, pure Brooklynese. She slipped into the booth opposite Gemma. “The Rock showed up late.” The Rock, whose real name was Marshall Finklestein, was the jock on the air right after Frankie. He had a chronic problem telling the big hand from the little one.
Gemma squeezed her steeping tea bag before tipping a smidgen of soy milk into her mug. “I listened a bit between two and three. You sounded good.”
“I screwed up the lead-in to ‘Layla,’ but oh well. Win some, lose some.” Her gaze turned quizzical as Gemma’s words sank in. “What were you doing up between two and three?”
“This and that.” She proceeded to tell Frankie all about her riveting evening with her blind date, Big Red. Frankie kept a straight face as long as she could. But when Gemma got to the part where Crabnutt expounded on the virtues of chewing gum as opposed to collecting it, she lost it. She burst out laughing, and so did Gemma. There were tears rolling down their faces by the time Gemma was done.
“Oh, Lordy,” said Frankie, swiping at her eyes. “I needed that.”
“So did I.”
“So, why the insomnia?” Frankie still wanted to know.
“I don’t know.” Gemma looked genuinely baffled. “I guess the date just got me thinking. Suppose I never find anyone?”
“I’m insulted you would even think that.”
Gemma laughed. When she and Frankie were teenagers, they’d vowed that if they were both alone when they were old, they’d move in together. They’d rent male strippers, sunbathe nude, and ride motorcycles.
“You know what I mean.”
“You’re not going to be alone forever,” Frankie consoled.
The sympathetic tone acted as a tonic to Gemma. It always did. She and Frankie were as close as sisters. Then Frankie took a deep breath and said, “Okay, let me ask you something.” Gemma stiffened. “Okay, let me ask you something” was Frankie’s standard windup to hitting Gemma between the eyes with the brutal truth.
“Can’t you cast a love spell for yourself?”
Gemma squirmed uncomfortably in her seat. Of course she could. But to her, witchcraft was a path centered around the reverence for nature she’d carried deep within her since she was a child. It was not about trying to bend nature to your will.
“Well?” Frankie prodded.
“I suppose I could.”
“What’s the point of being a witch if you don’t use it to help yourself?”
“Maybe I’ll do a spell tonight.”
“Can I watch?”
“Sure. As long as you don’t interrupt.”
“I won’t, I swear!” The look of excitement in Frankie’s eyes faded, replaced by one of unmistakable distraction.
“Nothing,” Frankie murmured dismissively.
“Tell me.”“I’ve been feeling kind of confused lately. Plus, I have this.” She pushed up her shirt sleeve, revealing a blister on her left forearm.
“Necrotizing fasciitis. Flesh-eating disease. I have it, Gemma.”
Gemma sighed deeply. To say Frankie was a hypochondriac was an understatement. Over the past year alone, Frankie had diagnosed herself with a brain tumor, West Nile virus, Crohn’s disease, and a host of other ailments, all of which mysteriously faded in their own in time. Gemma rued the day she’d bought Frankie The Merck Manual as a joke.
“You do not have flesh-eating disease,” Gemma said patiently.
“Oh, no? Two of the symptoms are mental confusion and blisters, both of which I have!”
“Are you sure you didn’t burn your arm taking something out of the oven?”
“Then call up Dr. Bollard and make an appointment.”
“I’m going to.”
Gemma knew Frankie wouldn’t call. She never did. Instead, she’d walk around convinced she had flesh-eating diseaseuntil new symptoms appeared and then she’d move on to her next self-diagnosed ailment.
Frankie leaned toward Gemma eagerly. “So, do I get to be your assistant tonight? Hand you your eye of newt or whatever?”
“I’m a witch, not a magician! I don’t need an assistant. All I need from you,” she added under her breath just as Stavros approached to take their breakfast order, “is to send positive thoughts my way while I work the spell. Think you can do that?”
“If you promise to make me black bean tostadas for dinner.”
Gemma extended a hand across the table for a shake. “Done.”
Gemma got home from work itching to cast her spell.
“Just let me get changed,” she told Frankie, who’d been waiting for her in the lobby of her building, eager to begin.
Frankie nodded, following Gemma into her bedroom as she changed into sweats.
“I still can’t believe how gorgeous this place is,” Frankie marveled.
“I know.” Gemma loved this apartment now just as much as she did the day she moved in. Rather than selling, her cousin Michael’s wife Theresa decided to rent her beautiful two-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side. It had shining parquet floors, high ceilings, and a wall of windows looking out on the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge. It was by far the best place Gemma had ever lived in.
“Now what?” Frankie asked excitedly as Gemma headed back out to the living room.
She led Frankie into the spare room, which had built in floor-to-ceiling bookcases lining three walls that Gemma had already filled to overflowing. French doors led out to a small terrace where she grew her herbs. In the center of the room were three standing candelabrums, each with four tapers, and a low round table draped in purple velvet cloth. The table held a small vase of fresh flowers and an old cracked pentacle. To the left of the vase were a gold candle, a ritual knife, a censer for incense, and a bowl of salt. To the right were a white candle, a silver chalice, and a bowl of water. A small silver plate held a few pins, matches, and various cones of incense.
“Now what?” Frankie asked again, eyes fixed on Gemma’s altar.
“I’m going to light the candles. You sit over there.” She pointed to one of two meditation cushions on the floor. Were she alone, she would probably cast a more elaborate, intense spell. But since Frankie had the attention span of a three-year-old on Christmas morning, she decided some simple candle magick would suffice.
Frankie did as she was told, slipping off her shoes before twisting her gangly legs into a modified pretzel position. Gemma lit the standing tapers. The room blazed to life around them.
“Now what?” Frankie whispered.
“Now you stop asking, ‘Now what?’” Gemma whispered back, amused. She settled down on her meditation cushion opposite Frankie, large red candle in hand. She lit it, placing it on the floor before her. Closing her eyes, she struggled to concentrate. The sound of snarled traffic drifted up to her ears, but she blocked it out. She waited until she felt absolutely centered before opening her eyes and speaking softly.
“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re both going to stare into the flame of that candle. In my mind, I’m going to think about the man I want to be with. You can do the same if you want.”
Frankie wrinkled her nose. “Think about the man I want to be with, or the man you want to be with?”
“Can it be someone famous? Like Russell Crowe?”
“It can be anyone. Russell Crowe. Russell Stover. Just concentrate.”
“Okay.” Brows furrowed, Frankie stared hard into the candle while Gemma did the same.
Describe the man you want to be with, Gemma.
It took a few seconds, but then the words came to her: I want someone confident, smart, honest, hardworking, and strong. Someone who loves nature the way I do. Someone loyal and sensitive, who’ll respect who I am and what I do. Someone who’ll love me just as I am.
She poured herself into these thoughts until she ran out of words to describe her dream man. The next step was to picture him.
“Picture him,” she whispered to Frankie.
“Who?” Frankie whispered back.
“Russell Stover,” Gemma replied impatiently.
This was harder. In her mind’s eye, Gemma saw the hazy outline of someone tall, but when she tried to fill in the details of his face, she couldn’t. The only thing she saw were his eyes. They were green...no, blue. Blue and wise and full of compassion. She still couldn’t see his face, but now she could hear his laughdeep, heartyand delight swept through her. She wanted someone who laughed often. Someone unafraid to feel.
“I keep trying to picture Russell Crowe, but the only man who keeps coming to mind is Damian.”
Gemma shuddered. Damian was Frankie’s ex-husband. “Concentrate harder.”
“I can’t,” Frankie said helplessly.
“Then concentrate on someone for me.”
They sat a few minutes more in silence. Gemma kept trying to picture more details of her dream man, but none were forthcoming. She glanced at Frankie hopefully.
“I see...I see...a big, steaming tostada on a plate.”
“What about you?” Frankie wanted to know. “Anyone?”
“Someone tall, with kind blue eyes and a really good laugh.”
Gemma reached forward and gently snuffed out the red candle.
Frankie looked disappointed. “That’s it? No incantations? No flying monkeys? Nothing?”
“Feel free to say an incantation if you want.”
“That’s your realm, Glinda, not mine.”
“Then I guess the spell is complete.” Gemma hugged her knees to her chest. “Let’s just hope it worked.”