Share Your Gift

All this month, I’ve been making an effort to focus on what I am thankful for. And one of the things I am truly thankful for is the talent of others.

Maybe you’re a math maestro, or you love to paint, or when you play the guitar, you make other people want to get up and dance. Whatever your particular gift is, I hope you will share it with the world—even if what you do isn’t perfect. In fact, especially if what you do isn’t perfect—because perfect can be a little boring, and it’s actually pretty wonderful to watch someone’s gift grow and change and metamorphose into something beautiful and unique. No two butterflies are ever exactly alike, and no one else has the exact same gift that you have.

So I hope you will code, solve problems, invent things, teach others, sing, dance, write, and make other people laugh. Whatever it is that you love to do, share it with us.

Share your gift.

*You probably have more than one gift. I hope you’ll share them all.

Thankful

I’ve made it a point each day this month to think about what I’m thankful for, and I just wanted to share some of the ones that are most important to me.

I’m thankful for family and friends and all of the lovely people I work with.

I’m thankful for a safe place to sleep at night and food in the refrigerator and warmth when it’s cold outside.

I’m thankful for beauty and laughter and kindness.

And I’m thankful for love.

New Release — A Maryland Witch in Arthur King’s Court

A Maryland Witch in Arthur King's Court OTHER SITES

When wealthy retailer Otis Clementine is found dead in his palatial mansion, Chloe Bartlett happens to be on hand. And when the police declare his death to be a homicide rather than an accident, Chloe isn’t surprised—to her it felt like murder all along. And there’s no shortage of suspects—Otis’s many girlfriends, his wastrel sons, and even a disgruntled employee may have done him in—all hoping for a share of his vast fortune.

The handsome, if sometimes infuriating, Professor Mike Fellowes reluctantly helps Chloe investigate—but mostly counsels her to stay out of it.

But Chloe can’t do that because she knows something the police don’t—there’s a magical element to the murder, and as a witch, she’s the only one properly qualified to investigate all the angles.

Besides, Chloe has an additional reason for wanting to look into the crime—the dead man himself asked for her help.

Can Chloe catch the culprit before there’s another murder? Or will bodies begin to pile up on the glittering streets of Arthur King’s Court?

A Maryland Witch in Arthur King’s Court is now out! Read Chapter One below…

Chapter One

“Is that Chloe? I want to talk to Chloe Bartlett.”

The voice on the phone was high and querulous.

I recognized it only too well.

“Yes, Mr. Clementine. It’s me.”

“Don’t you take that tone of voice with me, my girl,” he replied. “I’ve donated a lot of money to that library of yours. If not for me, you wouldn’t even have the lights on in that place.”

That wasn’t quite true, but he had been a generous patron. I took a deep breath and willed myself to be patient.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Clementine?”

I asked the question to be polite, but I already knew what he wanted—it was the third Tuesday of the month.

“Now I want you to take this down,” Mr. Clementine said. “Do you hear me? Do you have pen and paper?”

“Yes, Mr. Clementine. I’m ready to write it down.”

“I want Robertson’s History of Rome, Volume One. That’s Ro-bert-son with an apostrophe ‘s’ at the end. Make sure it’s a history of Rome. Not anywhere else. And I want Volume One, not Volume Two. Do you understand that?”

“Yes, Mr. Clementine.” I glanced at the little clock on the phone. I’d only been talking to him for about sixty seconds, but it felt like ten minutes. “You want Robertson’s History of Rome, Volume One—not Volume Two.”

“I want Volume One,” Mr. Clementine said peevishly, as if that wasn’t what I had just said.

“I understand,” I said. “You want Volume One.”

“It’s important.”

“I understand,” I said again.

“Did you write it down?”

“Yes—I wrote it down.”

“Good. Because you brought the wrong book last time, and that was a complete waste of a day for me. I can’t afford to lose time because of your mistakes.”

I felt myself bristling—I had not brought the wrong book.

But I knew there would be no point in trying to explain that to Mr. Clementine.

He continued. “I want that book. Do you hear me? Bring it by my house today at eleven thirty. Don’t be late.”

Without waiting for a response, he hung up.

“The library doesn’t deliver, Mr. Clementine,” I muttered to myself angrily. “It’s not like ordering a pizza.”

But I realized there was no point in grumbling. I had gotten myself into this situation, and I wasn’t ready to get out of it.

At least not yet.

I was just sighing to myself and checking to make sure that we actually had the book he wanted in the system when I caught sight of a swift movement out of the corner of my eye.

I paused with my fingers over the keyboard.

I turned quickly.

I was just in time to see a tall form disappearing behind the stacks in the graphic novel section.

As I watched, a dark-haired, dark-eyed man peered around the corner of a bookcase.

He saw me looking at him and quickly darted back out of sight.

“Mike?” I said.

I wasn’t supposed to speak out loud in the library unless I was on the phone, but I was so startled that the word slipped out.

The man reappeared and smiled sheepishly.

It was indeed Professor Mike Fellowes.

He was the very definition of tall, dark, and handsome, and my heart gave a little flutter when I saw him.

It had been a little while since we’d seen each other.

He stepped out from behind the bookcase and moved toward me.

“Chloe—” he said.

Even in a whisper, his voice sent a tingle through me when he said my name.

“Chloe, I—”

But Mike got no further.

Another man was also hiding in the graphic novel section, and he stepped out also.

This man was tall, but not as tall as Mike, and he had longish blond hair with streaks of gold running through it. He was tan and athletic, and he wore a tight T-shirt that showed off his muscular torso.

His name was Joe Osgood, and he was often to be found perusing the comic books section and sneaking peeks over at me.

Mike, however, was a surprise.

Joe elbowed his way in front of Mike and walked over to the circulation desk where I stood.

“Hi, Chloe,” he said. “How’s it going?”

I glanced over at Mrs. Ludlow, who was eyeing me severely over the top of her silver-framed glasses. She hadn’t liked my conversation with Mr. Clementine on the phone, and she looked like she wasn’t going to like what was about to happen, either.

For that matter, I wasn’t sure I was going to like what was about to happen.

Joe leaned on the desk, and Mike quickly started toward us.

I wasn’t entirely certain, but I thought I saw Mike’s nostrils flare—something I’d never seen him do before.

A storm was definitely brewing.

Joe was staring at me, and his normally guileless blue eyes held a hint of challenge in them.

But that challenge wasn’t directed at me.

It was directed at the man behind him.

Mike came to stand just behind Joe, and he folded his arms across his chest.

“So how’s it going?” Joe said again.

I drew in breath to say something I hoped would be pacific when Mike interrupted.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded.

There was a clear challenge in his tone, and once again, that challenge wasn’t directed at me.

It was directed at Joe.

Joe slanted a glance back at Mike.

“I’m talking to my girl—my friend. I’m talking to Chloe, who’s my friend.”

“Is that so?” Somehow Mike’s arms seemed to fold even harder.

Joe pushed himself off the desk and turned to face Mike.

I felt an urge to reach out and grab Joe’s arm, but I restrained myself.

“Yeah, that’s so,” Joe said. “Do you have something you want to say about it?”

The atmosphere suddenly grew very tense, and I was aware of the fact that all eyes in the library were turned toward the confrontation at the circulation desk.

“Yes,” Mike grated out. “I do have something I want to say about it.”

“Oh yeah?” Joe said. “Well, I have something I want to say, too.”

Mike arched a mocking eyebrow. He could be very superior and condescending when he wanted to be, and apparently this was one of those times.

“This ought to be good. Go ahead.”

A sneer twisted Joe’s good-natured face.

“July the Fourth.”

He only spoke three words, but the effect on Mike was electric. He turned pale and his mouth dropped open. His arms dropped to his sides, and his hands clenched into fists.

Then he turned without a word and stormed out of the library.

Joe stared after his vanquished foe, and a smirk lit up his face.

“Guess I showed him.”

“Oh, Joe,” I said softly.

I wanted to run after Mike.

But I knew that now was not the time—not yet.

“Well, I suppose I should be going, too,” Joe said. “I’ve got to get some work in today.”

I held out a hand. “Joe, wait. Don’t—”

He paused and looked back at me.

“Don’t go after him,” I finished. “Let Mike leave before you go out there.”

“Don’t worry.” Joe looked very pleased with himself. “I’m sure he got in his car quickly—I doubt he’s even out there anymore. Besides, I won’t rub it in.”

I frowned. “Rub what in?”

But Joe simply smiled and left the library.

If he’d been insinuating what I thought he’d been insinuating, that was probably wise.

I wasn’t some kind of prize to be won.

“Everything okay?” said a new voice.

I turned to see Rita Cavanaugh, the head librarian, walking up to the circulation desk.

Her black hair was pulled back into a chic chignon, and she was wearing a beautifully cut gray dress that was ideal for the hot summer weather and showed off her coffee-colored skin to perfection.

Somehow, even working in a dusty library, Rita always managed to look as if she’d just stepped off the cover of a magazine.

I, on the other hand, had a feeling that I was looking more than a little frazzled.

I could actually feel my curly brown hair frizzing even harder and working its way free of the careless ponytail I’d wrapped it in.

Dealing with three unreasonable men all at once could do that to you.

I blew a column of air up into my hair.

Rita gave me an understanding smile. “Looks like I arrived just in time.”

“Yes, you did,” I said. I glanced at the clock on my computer. “Mr. Clementine just called, and I’ve got to take his book over to him. And then I was just looking the book up when Mike and Joe started to have their thing.”

Rita continued to look calm and unperturbed. “Don’t worry. I’ve got you covered.”

I happened to glance down then and noticed for the first time that she was carrying a book in her hands.

“The Robertson book!” I exclaimed.

I glanced around.

“Sorry,” I whispered.

“I happened to overhear you while you were talking to Mr. Clementine,” Rita said. “So I took the liberty of pulling it from the shelves. It’s Volume One. Just like he wanted.”

She paused significantly. “We have Volume Two also.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’d better take that one, too.”

Rita gave me a conspirator’s smile and then turned to get the second book.

I began to gather up my stuff and glanced at the clock on the phone.

I’d need to hurry if I wanted to get there by eleven thirty.

Rita soon returned with Volume Two, but she hesitated before she gave it to me.

“You don’t have to this,” she said. “We don’t make house calls.”

“I know,” I said.

“Then why do you do it? Why take a book over to that cantankerous, rude old man?”

“I feel sorry for him,” I said.

Rita gave me a sympathetic look, and I accepted the book from her.

Then I left the library.

As I walked out the doors, I was immediately hit by a blast of the July heat.

The humidity was no joke, either, and beads of sweat began to form quickly as I settled into my very hot car and hoped that the air-conditioning would kick in soon.

Then I drove over to Camelot.

Camelot was the housing development, country club, and golf course that Mr. Otis Clementine had built, though it wasn’t really the main source of his wealth.

Mr. Clementine was, as he had said, a generous donor to the library—and to many other institutions and charities besides—and over the course of his life he had amassed a vast fortune.

Most of his money came from the Brian’s Baskets discount stores that he owned all over the country. The stores sold food and clothing, electronics and housewares, cleaners, toiletries, and all manner of products made out of plastic.

He was by all accounts a business genius, and he only dabbled a little in real estate.

So naturally, his dabbling was highly successful.

Mr. Clementine had actually been born and raised right here in Crabtree Bay, and though he certainly could have lived anywhere, he’d always promised himself that he’d build a castle and a kingdom here.

And he’d done just that with Camelot.

As I turned into the exclusive housing development, I could see Mr. Clementine’s house on a hill, dominating the landscape and looking down on all the other houses.

His house was immense, it was made of gray stone, and it even had a tall tower with a pointed roof.

It was, indeed, a castle.

I drove along, wincing just a little as I always did, as I glanced at the street names in the housing development.

Excalibur Avenue.

Round Table Terrace.

Lancelot’s Love Lane.

There was even the inexplicably named Guinevere’s Gauntlet.

And then there was the largest street in the development—the one that led up to the towering stone house on the horizon and had no outlet.

Arthur King’s Court.

I could never figure out why he had chosen to transpose the name that way.

I supposed it was Mr. Clementine’s idea of a joke.

But after having been acquainted with Mr. Clementine for a few months, I had a feeling that the joke wasn’t something others were supposed to laugh at.

Instead, it was likely to be his way of laughing at us.

There was a glint from the tower up above, and I had a feeling that Mr. Clementine was sitting up there, watching me.

I continued on up the hill to the house, and I was surprised as I always was that there was no gate.

On the contrary, the house had a long, wide path up to it with no obstructions, and a circular drive curled around the front providing ample parking and access.

It was almost as if he were inviting people in—although I knew that likely wasn’t the case.

According to his housekeeper, Mr. Clementine very seldom entertained.

I parked the car and went up to the door, and that same housekeeper answered when I rang the doorbell.

Daphne Minton was a plump, middle-aged woman with brown hair cut into the same kind of sleek, shiny bob that I’d always wanted to try, but I knew my curly hair wouldn’t allow.

Daphne also had a good-natured face and a friendly manner that was somehow off-putting at the same time.

She was both welcoming and forbidding—a quality which I imagined served her well when dealing with tradesmen, contractors, or visitors. She always gave me a strange feeling of ambiguity—I never knew where I stood with her.

“Welcome back, Chloe,” she said.

She ushered me into the house and closed the door behind me.

The interior was all wood and stone and sparsely furnished—I supposed to make it look more like an ancient castle. The only real decoration in the vast front room was an enormous painting of the owner of the house that hung on the wall near the door.

It showed Otis Clementine as a much younger man. He’d had sallow cheeks and a deep, defiant cleft in his chin. His rich, dark auburn hair was swept back from his high forehead, and his piercing blue eyes stared out at the world like he meant to rule it all.

I paused to stare at the painting—somehow it made me shiver this morning.

Daphne cleared her throat and then twitched her finger at me impatiently.

“Mr. Clementine is waiting.”

Then she nodded significantly toward the stone staircase on my right.

I sighed. I had a sneaking suspicion that there was actually an elevator somewhere, but I trudged toward the stairs like I always did.

I got the distinct impression that somewhere up above, Mr. Clementine was laughing at me.

Climbing up the first flight was never that bad, and the next floor up actually changed from heavy stone to light, airy, very modern living quarters.

I climbed up to the next floor, and then I had to pause just a moment to catch my breath. The truth was Mr. Clementine’s tower wasn’t really that high up—the slenderness of the tower and the fact that the house itself sat on a hill gave the illusion of greater height.

From the current floor, I opened a wooden door and entered the tower.

Then I climbed up two more flights, pausing once on the landing between them to catch my breath and look out the window at Mr. Clementine’s expansive back lawn.

Then I reached the top and found myself facing a closed wooden door.

I knocked.

Mr. Clementine’s voice floated out, just as high and querulous as it had been on the phone.

“Come in.”

Otis Clementine was in his late seventies, and his once-thick auburn hair—so vibrant in his portrait—had faded to white and thinned considerably. But his piercing blue eyes were just as sharp as ever, and he regarded me with a malevolent twinkle as I entered the room.

“Chloe, my girl! So you’ve finally arrived. Enjoy your walk?”

Mr. Clementine’s witty quip was followed by raucous laughter, and I was more sure than ever that there was an elevator concealed nearby.

Mr. Clementine wiped at his eyes with a slightly shaky hand. Then he fixed me with his sharp blue eyes again.

“Still, you’re young—you shouldn’t mind a few stairs! How old are you?”

The question was impertinent—and delivered that way—but I decided to answer it. The sooner our meeting was over, the better. And arguing with him would just prolong it—I knew that from experience.

“I’m twenty-three.”

“So I was right. Thirty-three! Just like my son Christopher.”

I sighed. Mr. Clementine’s habit of being contradictory was so ingrained that I didn’t even think he realized he did it anymore.

He continued. “He’s the older of the two, too. But insists on being called ‘Christopher.’ Won’t take a nickname and be called Chris like a sensible boy would do. Then there’s his younger brother. His name is Robert, but he goes by ‘Bobby.’ He’s not too good for a nickname.”

Mr. Clementine shot a glance over at me.

“Don’t just stand there hovering in the doorway, girl. Come in and have a seat. I want to have a look at my book—make sure you’ve brought the right one.”

I was reluctant to enter the room, but I stepped forward.

As I’d counseled myself before, the sooner I got this over with, the sooner I could leave.

“So you brought the book, did you?”

“Yes, I did,” I said as I sat down.

Mr. Clementine held out a slightly trembling hand.

“Give it to me.”

I passed over the book.

Mr. Clementine’s eyes were a bit weak, and I waited while he looked it over. I happened to notice a magnifying glass resting on a beautiful, ornate box decorated with sunflowers. I thought of offering the glass to him, but I figured he knew it was there and would use it if he wanted it.

As he continued to look the book over, a spiteful gleam came into his eyes.

But this time—thanks to Rita—I was ready for him.

“Nope,” Mr. Clementine declared emphatically. “This isn’t the book. This is Robertson’s History of Rome, Volume One.”

“Yes,” I said. “That’s the book you asked for.”

“No, it isn’t. Not a bit of it. I distinctly asked for Volume Two. Volume One is no good to me.”

His eyes glittered in triumph.

I felt a twinge of irritation, even though I was expecting that answer. Mr. Clementine always did this. No matter what book I brought over, he always said that I had to return tomorrow with a different one.

But this time, I simply reached into my bag and pulled out the other book.

“As it so happens,” I said sweetly. “I also have Volume Two right here.”

Mr. Clementine’s triumph turned to astonishment as I handed the book over.

As he examined the book, his astonishment turned to anger as he realized that I had indeed brought him Volume Two also.

“Confound you, girl!”

Realizing he’d admitted to his little scheme, he quickly covered his ire.

“Thank you for the book. Yes—this is the one I wanted.”

He cast another one of his piercing looks my way.

“You’re a clever one, aren’t you? You remind me of my wife, Clytie. Not in looks or coloring, but in cleverness. Clytie always was a sharp one. She knew how to think circles around me.”

Mr. Clementine paused and his expression grew dreamy.

He ran his gnarled hands over the box with the sunflowers, and it seemed for a moment that he forgot I was there.

Then a malicious twinkle lit up his eye.

“So tell me, clever girl, do you know what the name ‘Clytie’ means?”

“Yes,” I said.

Mr. Clementine looked startled. “Yes?”

“Yes—it’s a Greek name. It means ‘lovely one.’ The Clytie of Greek myth fell in love with Apollo, but he didn’t love her back. So she turned into a—”

“Sunflower,” Mr. Clementine said.

“In the later versions, yes. But in the earliest stories, she turned into a heliotrope.”

“Nonsense. It was a sunflower. The sunflower turns to follow the sun—just as Clytie turned to follow Apollo wherever he went in the sky. My Clytie went to follow the sun, too.”

“Sunflowers don’t actually do that,” I said. “That’s just an old wives’ tale.”

Anger flashed in Mr. Clementine’s eyes. “Chloe’s a Greek name, too. Did you know that?”

“Yes. And so’s Daphne for that matter.”

“Daphne? Who’s Daphne?”

“Daphne—your housekeeper.”

Mr. Clementine gave a bark of laughter. “Old Minton? Now there’s an old wives’ tale. She couldn’t be less like Clytie if she tried. My Clytie was a blonde—a beautiful blonde. I never did care for brunettes.”

He shot me another look, and I could tell he was baiting me.

He reached for a magazine that was lying near the sunflower box and pushed it over to me.

“That’s my kind of girl. In fact, that is my girl—Heather.”

On the cover of Eastern Shore Today, a beautiful girl with close-cropped blond hair and a dazzling smile cavorted on a beach in a white sundress.

“She’s lovely,” I said. “Is she your daughter?”

Mr. Clementine sputtered. “My daughter? She’s my girlfriend. I’ve got all boys—four of them. She just had my latest one a year ago—Jaden.”

“Oh,” I said, startled. “She’ll make a beautiful bride.”

“Bride?” Mr. Clementine sputtered even louder. “Clytie was my only wife. I’d never marry that girl. She can’t hold a candle to my Clytie.”

I felt vaguely embarrassed. I wasn’t really interested in Mr. Clementine’s personal life. The white dress must have suggested the idea of a wedding to me.

That, and Mr. Clementine’s constant use of the word “wife.”

He continued. “No—Clytie was my only wife. But I lost her.”

I felt a rush of sympathy for the combative man in front of me. “She died?”

“She did eventually—at least according to the media. But I lost her when she left me. She was only twenty-two. She took off to follow the sun—just like her namesake did with Apollo.”

Mr. Clementine ran his hands over the box again.

“She ran off to Italy. Became a successful actress. She took my son with her. She’d be about fifty-seven now if she’d lived.”

“Your son?” I said.

Mr. Clementine had so many sons that it was getting hard for me to keep track of them all.

“Brian,” he replied curtly.

“Brian?” I said. “As in—”

“Brian’s Baskets. Exactly. I built that business up for him. And someday I’m going to give it to him. I’ve just got to find him first. He’d be about thirty-six now.”

Mr. Clementine looked up at me. “I only saw him once, you know, when he was a baby. But he was just like me. Just like me! He had my ambition, my drive—my everything! And someday I will find him. He left a trail of breadcrumbs—”

His voice trailed off.

“Do you know the tale of Hansel and Gretel, my girl?” Mr. Clementine asked abruptly.

“Yes, of course.”

“They left a trail of breadcrumbs, too, and I mean to follow them all the way to my son.”

“But—” I began.

“Yes? Out with it!”

“The trail of breadcrumbs didn’t work for Hansel and Gretel,” I said. “The birds ate the breadcrumbs up, and they couldn’t find their way back home again.”

Mr. Clementine stared at me for a long moment.

Then he gave a short bark of laughter.

“You have an answer for everything, don’t you, girl? Like I said, you’re a smart one. Just like my Clytie. Someday you’ll find out that I’ve—”

He stopped. “But that won’t be for years now. I’m hale and hearty. Strong as a bull. That day’s not coming for a long time.”

Before I could ask what he meant, Mr. Clementine thumped one of his hands on the book in front of him.

“Thank you for the book. You may go now.”

I stood up, ruffled by the abrupt dismissal, and headed for the door.

“And, Chloe—”

Mr. Clementine’s words drew me back, and I turned.

“Don’t think I’ve forgotten,” he said.

“Forgotten what?”

“The others are starting to forget. But I haven’t.”

Mr. Clementine leaned forward and spoke the words distinctly.

“I know you’re a witch.”

I turned on my heel and left the room.

Mr. Clementine’s laughter followed me down the stairs.

******************

Thanks very much for reading! A Maryland Witch in Arthur King’s Court is now available on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited.

Book 1, A Maryland Witch, is also available on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited.

Maple Syrup Magic — New Short Story

Maple Syrup Magic Cover

Maple Syrup Magic

Catherine Mesick

Afterwards, she was never quite sure why she’d thought of it.

As Beth Taggart sat in her tiny kitchen, gazing out the window on one frosty Tuesday morning in November, she suddenly thought of brownies.

She wasn’t actually thinking of baked goods—instead she was thinking of the pixies or imps or whatever they were that her grandfather had told her about when she was a child.

According to Granddad Ian, if you left milk out for the brownies overnight, they would be very grateful and clean your kitchen and do your household chores in return—particularly ones that involved caring for the animals in your barns.

Granddad Ian had emigrated from Scotland, and he’d said that the brownies had followed him. But Beth had never seen any sign of them, and there weren’t any animals in her barn—at least not yet.

She smiled as she sipped at her coffee.

A man came into view, and Beth caught her breath. He had sandy hair and an honest, open face, and he looked very sturdy in his flannel shirt and jeans as he trudged across the backyard carrying a toolbox and a big block of wood in his ungloved hands.

Beth knew it was cold outside—very cold, in fact—but the man wore no coat and didn’t seem to feel it.

He paused and smiled at two men who came up behind him and then nodded his head briefly in greeting.

He was young—about Beth’s age—and she knew his first name was Dean—she’d heard some of the other men calling out to him.

Dean was there with Ashe Construction Company to refurbish her barn. It was nearly two hundred years old, and it wasn’t really fit to house animals in any longer—the roof leaked in more than a dozen spots, and the wind whistled through the walls as though there wasn’t any barrier there at all.

Besides, Beth needed something more than an ordinary barn. She intended to keep animals from her practice there—the ones who were sickest and needed the most care—and she needed proper heating in the winter and cooling in the summer—not to mention excellent lighting, ventilation, and floors and surfaces that could be kept properly clean and sanitary.

Bales of hay and straw-covered floors wouldn’t be enough for her patients.

Dean turned abruptly and began to walk back toward the house. As he did so, he happened to glance toward the window, and his eyes met Beth’s.

Beth started and nearly ducked down below the edge of the window, but she stopped herself just in time.

Dean smiled and nodded his head at her, and Beth raised a hand in greeting.

Then he continued on past her and disappeared from view.

He’d probably forgotten something in his truck and was just going to get it.

Beth could feel a blush rising to her cheeks, and she berated herself for acting like a schoolgirl with a crush, but she couldn’t help lingering by the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of Dean when he returned.

He did indeed return after a moment, this time carrying a bucket that had the block of wood sticking out of it, and Beth stood by the window and angled herself so she could watch Dean without his seeing her.

As he walked away from her, Beth realized that there was something about him that reminded her just a little of her granddad. Dean didn’t look anything like him, of course—Granddad Ian had had coal-black curls that Beth herself had inherited, and a long, rangy frame that was quite different from Dean’s sturdy muscularity—but there was something there.

Somehow, Dean gave her the same sense of safety and serenity that her grandfather had once given her—even though she’d barely spoken four words to him.

Dean disappeared into the antique barn with the other men, and Beth sighed softly to herself.

She’d give a lot to be able to talk to Dean.

But she just didn’t know how.

Beth finished her coffee, and as she was putting her breakfast things in the dishwasher, the phone rang.

She answered on the second ring, and a breathless, panicked voice poured out of the little device.

“Dr. Taggart? Is that you?”

Beth recognized the anxious tones of one of her clients—it was Mrs. Davis, the owner of a cat named Bluebell, who had just undergone surgery.

“Yes, Mrs. Davis, I’m here.”

“How is Bluebell? Is she okay? Did she survive the night?”

Beth’s voice was soothing. She calmed Mrs. Davis’s fears and promised that she was going in to the office to check on Bluebell right now.

Then Beth said goodbye to her own cat, Peyton, and her English bulldog, Growler, and hurried out to her car.

As she drove, she thought of the brownies again. She didn’t know if Dean’s vague resemblance to her grandfather had put them in her mind, or if she simply wanted something else to care for while she waited for her animals. She had Peyton and Growler, of course, but they were both hale and hearty and didn’t need her medical expertise at the moment.

But brownies were mysterious and shy—maybe she could draw them out.

She didn’t need any housecleaning done, but she could test her granddad’s stories—see if she could catch sight of one of the little creatures.

Beth smiled to herself. She knew very well nothing would come of it, but she resolved to put out a little dish of milk that evening anyway.

She would do it in honor of her granddad.

Somehow the idea made her laugh, and she was in excellent spirits as she arrived at the office.

She went first to check on Bluebell, and the blue-gray cat blinked blearily and yawned, showing a pink tongue, when Beth turned on the light.

A dog in a nearby kennel began to bark excitedly, and Beth went to check on all of her overnight patients.

Beth was able to call Mrs. Davis and reassure her that Bluebell was doing well. But she cautioned her that the patient needed to stay in the office for one more day—first, so that she could get proper rest after surgery, and second, so that Beth could keep an eye on her feline charge.

She didn’t expect any complications, but she wanted to be sure.

And that was really the purpose of the barn at her house—she could keep surgery patients and difficult cases out there. That way she could check on them late at night and first thing in the morning.

She might even move her whole practice out there eventually and give up the office space she was renting.

But that was a little way in the future yet, and right now, Beth needed to work.

She put on her white coat and looked over the day’s appointments.

She had a thriving practice, and as soon as her doors opened in the morning, people and animals started to stream in.

Beth loved her work, and she got ready to start another enjoyable and fulfilling day.

That evening after the practice was closed, Beth was met at her house by her cousin, Rosalie. Rosalie was a tall, striking brunette with thick, lustrous hair that bounced and gleamed like she was in a shampoo commercial, even when she was doing something as simple as getting groceries out of her SUV.

Beth and her cousin loved to bake, and the two of them were planning to cook up a storm for the local community center’s bake sale. As the two of them walked toward the house, Beth caught sight of a burly construction worker heading toward her barn.

Rosalie cast her cousin a slyly inquiring look. “So who’s he?”

Beth frowned a little in thought. At one time or another she’d caught the name of just about everyone who was on the crew.

“I think that’s Lyle.”

“And who’s Lyle?” Beth cast an appreciative eye over him.

“He’s helping to fix up the barn—get it ready for my patients.”

Rosalie continued to watch him. “He’s working late. Any particular reason?”

“Yes—he is working late. They start early in the morning and keep going until well after dark. I think their owner might be pushing them to work around the clock.”

Rosalie’s eyebrows rose. “Their owner?”

Beth felt herself blushing. “Sorry—I think I’ve got my mind too much on work. I mean, the guy who owns the construction company might be pushing them.”

“And why would he do that?”

Beth could feel her blush growing redder. “I think maybe he likes me.”

“Oh—oh—” Rosalie made the word one long singsong syllable. “And what’s his name?”

“His name is Leo Ashe. But there’s nothing there,” Beth said hastily.

And there really wasn’t. The two of them had met at a fundraiser for a local animal shelter, and then at a few other events, and while Leo had clearly been interested in her, Beth couldn’t say that the feeling was mutual.

At that moment, Dean walked by, and he glanced over at Beth.

He gave her a shy smile, and she raised a hand in an equally shy, silent greeting.

Then he walked on.

Rosalie eyed her cousin. “And who’s that?”

“That’s Dean.” Beth felt herself blushing again. “I’m sure I told you about him. He kind of reminds me of Granddad Ian.”

Rosalie watched Dean as he disappeared into the barn.

“I can see it. He doesn’t look anything like him, but I get the vibe. Kind of old-fashioned.”

She cast a speculative eye over Beth.

“For a girl who claims to have her mind on work, you sure do seem to have been paying a lot of attention to this construction crew.”

Beth blushed yet again.

The two cousins soon got to work in the kitchen. After a long night of baking, they had a kitchen table full of cooling cookies, cupcakes, and both Rosalie’s famous pumpkin pies and Beth’s equally famous maple scones.

They put everything into plastic containers once it was all cool enough, and Rosalie gave Beth a hug before she headed for the door.

“I’ll be back tomorrow night to help you cart all this stuff over.”

Then she departed.

Beth stood looking over their handiwork, and Peyton and Growler came to sit by her feet and stare up at her.

“Nothing for you guys here,” she said. “You’ve got a well-balanced diet already. The last thing you need is too-rich people food.”

Growler licked his nose expectantly, and Peyton simply continued to stare up at her with his big yellow eyes.

“All right, you two. It’s time for bed.”

Then Beth paused—she’d nearly forgotten about the brownies.

She smiled to herself as she poured out a shallow bowl of milk and placed it on a high shelf.

“Okay, guys,” Beth said. “This is for the brownies. Promise me you won’t touch it.”

Growler licked his nose again and gave a soft whine. Peyton continued to stare.

Beth wasn’t actually worried about the two of them getting to the milk—the shelf was so high and awkwardly placed that even Peyton couldn’t get up there.

She turned out the light and went to bed.

In the morning, Beth was up before dawn as usual, and as she went out to her car, she caught sight of Dean.

He paused. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Beth said.

Then the two of them stood, staring at each other uncertainly.

Eventually, Dean raised one ungloved hand and turned toward the barn.

As Beth watched him walk away, she berated herself for her shyness.

Then she drove to work.

The day was a busy one, and Bluebell, along with a little terrier named Sancho, were now well enough to go home, much to the delight of their human companions.

The day flew by, and before she knew it, Beth was heading home to meet her cousin.

As she stood in the kitchen, looking over the table full of baked goods, she suddenly noticed that the baking pans she’d left to clean in the morning—and had forgotten to do—were somehow sparkling clean and sitting in the dish drainer.

Beth frowned.

Maybe she hadn’t forgotten to do the dishes—maybe she’d just forgotten that she’d done them already.

She thought then of the brownies and climbed up on a step stool to retrieve the bowl of milk.

But to her surprise, the bowl she expected to be heavy and full was actually light and empty—and very clean.

It looked as if it had been washed.

Beth climbed down and looked at Growler and Peyton, who were sitting on the floor by the stool and staring up at her.

She tipped the clean bowl toward them.

“Do you guys know anything about this?”

But the dog and the cat just stared at her innocently.

The empty bowl was soon forgotten, however, as Rosalie bustled in, and she and Beth bundled almost everything up and drove over to the community center.

Beth got to keep one of Rosalie’s pumpkin pies as a thank-you for the use of her kitchen.

Later that night, Beth returned home happy but exhausted.

As she prepared to go to bed, she thought once again of the empty bowl and eyed her furry companions.

Growler, she knew, was completely incapable of climbing up onto that high shelf—he was broad and squat and climbing really wasn’t his thing. And Beth had believed that Peyton was also incapable of climbing up onto that shelf, but it seemed to her that she must have been mistaken—the cat clearly could reach it despite its awkward position.

She decided to put out something she knew Peyton wouldn’t touch, and this time she knew it would still be there in the morning.

Beth got out a dish and put a scoop of peanut butter in it. Peyton hated peanut butter and would wrinkle up his nose and run away from it. A little voice in Beth’s head reminded her that mice loved peanut butter, but she pushed that objection aside. Then a sudden thought made her get out another bowl and pour a little maple syrup—left over from the scones—into a thin layer on the bottom.

“The brownies will love this,” she thought to herself, and then she pushed that idea aside also.

The point was that Peyton wouldn’t love it, and it would still be there in the morning.

Then she placed both bowls on the high shelf and went to bed.

In the morning, Beth hurried to get the dishes.

The bowl with the scoop of peanut butter was untouched, and Beth smiled in satisfaction to herself. But as she lifted down the bowl of maple syrup, she saw that it was empty—and scrupulously clean. As Beth glanced down, it seemed to her that the kitchen floor was shinier than usual, too.

She stepped down and set the two bowls on the counter, and stared at the empty syrup bowl again.

Then she turned to Peyton and Growler, who were once again watching her with interest.

“I know you guys didn’t do this,” she murmured to herself. “And if a mouse had gotten to the maple syrup, surely it wouldn’t have left everything so clean.”

The empty bowl, however, couldn’t give her any more answers, so she set it in the sink and got a quick breakfast for herself and her pets.

Then she stooped down to scratch Growler and Peyton behind the ears, and then she was out the door.

Dean happened to be passing, and Beth wondered if he knew what time she usually left the house—he often seemed to run into her—and she thought—hoped even—that it might be on purpose.

She hoped even more when he stopped and looked her full in the face.

Dean smiled and Beth could see that his eyes were green. She could also see that they crinkled nicely when he smiled.

“Hi, Beth,” he said. “It’s nice to see you. How are you this morning?”

Beth gasped—that was the most he’d ever said to her.

“I—I’m good—great,” she replied. “How are you?”

“Good.” Dean hunched his flannel-clad shoulders against the early morning cold and put his hands in his jeans’ pockets.

He seemed to be waiting expectantly.

“Well, I—I—” Beth racked her brains, but she couldn’t think of anything to say.

“I—should be getting to work,” she concluded.

Then she turned to her car and drove off, burning with embarrassment.

Dean was so handsome, so confident, so perfect, she lamented to her cousin later that day at lunch—was it any wonder that she hadn’t known what to say?

“Oh, just ask him out already,” Rosalie said.

“Ask him out?” Beth squeaked.

“Yes—do something low-key, like go get coffee.”

Beth shook her head. “I can’t. What if he says no? What if he doesn’t like me?”

“Oh, he likes you all right. From what you’ve described he’s trying to talk to you, just like you’re trying to talk to him. You’re both shy.”

“I don’t know,” Beth said. She knew Dean’s smile was a little shy, but she really couldn’t picture him being nervous about anything—or even picture herself ever talking to him again after that disaster.

But Rosalie made her promise that she would at least consider it.

The rest of the day was busy for Beth, and she stayed late to soothe some ruffled patients.

When she finally got home, the construction crew had left for the night, and Beth didn’t have a chance to see Dean.

She was relieved—she’d have the night to rest up before she tried talking to him again.

But before she went to sleep that night, she put another dish of maple syrup up on the high shelf.

Beth was wondering if the previous night was just a fluke—or if something would make the contents of the bowl disappear again.

She went to bed, and her last thoughts were of Dean—and whether she would see him tomorrow.

Somewhere in the middle of the night, Beth woke up in her dark room.

“Thank you for the dark syrup,” whispered a voice. “We love it. We didn’t like the sticky paste so much, but the syrup is wonderful—we’ve never tasted anything like it. And we’d like to offer you a gift in return.”

“How about you send me a friend?” Beth murmured.

She smiled dreamily—she knew which one, too.

She fell asleep again.

In the morning, Beth had a vague recollection of a tiny voice in the night—but now she doubted it.

As she took the bowl down from its shelf, however, she saw that it was empty once again, and her heart fluttered just a little.

Maybe she’d get that friend after all.

But Dean wasn’t outside when Beth left the house, and she even hung around outside for a few minutes trying to spot him.

Eventually, she had to give up and go to work.

Her day was busy in the best kind of way—everything seemed to go right—and she found herself in the unaccustomed position of finishing all of her appointments early. She sent her staff home, and made sure to forward the office phone to her cell—in case of emergency.

Then Beth went home herself.

Since it was still daylight, she had a look around outside the house, hoping to spot Dean—but she didn’t see him.

Disappointed, she went inside.

Beth was just fixing herself a cup of hot chocolate when there was a knock on her door.

She caught her breath—it was Dean. She just knew it.

She hurried to the door and opened it.

But instead of Dean, it was a different familiar figure.

It was Leo Ashe, the owner of the construction company Beth was using.

He gave Beth his smarmy smile, and she had to sigh in disappointment.

Then Beth upbraided herself—his smile wasn’t smarmy, and she shouldn’t be judgmental—many women in town found Leo extremely attractive.

But as he continued to grin at her, Beth couldn’t help but feel that there was something insincere about him. She’d met him at a number of charity functions, and despite his obvious interest in good works, his mind always seemed to be on money—and appearances. Beth got the feeling he did charity work because it made him look good.

She chastised herself again for her decidedly uncharitable thoughts. She didn’t know anything of the kind, and she didn’t have any right to judge him like that.

She didn’t really know what he thought.

“Hi, Beth,” Leo said. “How have you been?”

And then there was that voice—it made shivers run down her back, and not in a good way.

Leo’s voice was deep and rich—and also oily and unctuous. He’d asked her out before, and she’d turned him down because of it.

She couldn’t trust anyone with that voice.

Beth caught herself being judgmental again, and she made herself stop.

She didn’t have to go out with him—he probably just wanted to talk to her about the barn.

She made herself put a pleasant smile on her face, and she prepared to answer him politely.

But Leo went on before she could say anything—it was almost as if he hadn’t noticed her lack of response.

“How do you like the progress on your new medical wing?” Leo asked.

“It’s wonderful,” Beth replied. She’d gone out every night after dinner—and after the crew had left—to inspect the barn. It did indeed look wonderful—and it looked like it was nearly finished.

“Yes, it is marvelous,” Leo said, “even if I do say so myself.” He gave his wide grin again. “I’ve got my men working around the clock, just for you.”

“Thank you. Thank you all.”

“Of course, I choose good people, and they benefit from my leadership—and my expertise. As good as they are, I doubt they could do a thing without me. It’s almost as if I’ve done the whole thing myself.”

“Ye-es,” Beth said. She wasn’t so sure about that. “Well, thank you again. I’m sure my patients will appreciate it once it’s done—and I know I will.”

Leo continued. “That’s what I like about you. You’re an entrepreneur like me, and you’re expanding your business.”

“Well, I’m not exactly expanding it—I’m just trying to make my patients more comfortable—and I’d like to be able to keep an eye on them overnight.”

“Exactly right. You’re thinking of the customer experience.”

Beth stiffened just a little. “They’re not customers—they’re my patients. I’m a doctor of veterinary medicine.”

Leo smiled. “Yes—a businesswoman and a doctor. You’re absolutely perfect for me. Which is why—”

He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out two paper tickets. “I’d like you to go with me to the Harvest Ball next week. It’s for a good cause, and we’d look great together.”

Beth groaned inwardly. The Harvest Ball was a fundraiser for the local children’s hospital, and she already had two tickets herself. She hadn’t been planning to go—but it was, as Leo had said, a good cause—and she’d bought the tickets just to support the hospital.

She groaned because she felt bad about turning down an invitation to a charity ball—and she felt bad about turning Leo down—again.

But she had to do it.

Good cause or not, she just couldn’t go out with him.

“Leo,” Beth said. “I’m really sorry. I just can’t—”

He held up a hand. “Swamped with work. I understand. But you haven’t seen the last of me. I’ll be back again, Dr. Beth Taggart.”

As Leo walked away, he looked back at her and winked, and there was a twinkle in his eye.

Beth felt herself groaning inwardly again.

As she watched Leo disappear, she felt another eye upon her. She looked up to see Dean standing a few feet away—and he didn’t look happy.

Beth wondered if he’d heard the whole conversation, and she hoped he had—then he’d know that she’d turned Leo down.

But Dean gave her a glance that looked suspiciously like a glare and then slouched off toward the barn.

Beth thought about going after him, but then she stopped herself. She’d barely spoken to Dean, and she had no real reason to believe he might be jealous—or to believe he might want to go out with her himself. Maybe he just didn’t like his boss.

If so, Beth couldn’t blame him.

She caught herself being judgmental yet again, and turned and went into the house.

That night, as Beth was clearing up the kitchen before she went to bed, she paused as she held an empty bowl. She considered filling it with more maple syrup—again for the brownies—and then she wondered what she was doing.

First of all, brownies weren’t real—something else must have drunk the syrup.

And second, they’d sent her the wrong “friend.”

Beth shook her head. She was crazy to even be considering this. But she filled the bowl with a shallow layer of maple syrup and climbed up to reach the high shelf.

“You brought me the wrong one,” she whispered fiercely.

Then she set the bowl down.

She climbed down and headed to her room with Peyton and Growler following at her heels.

It was Friday night, but Beth didn’t feel like attempting to go anywhere. Instead, she watched TV for a little while with her two furred companions, and then, feeling tired and irritable, she went to sleep.

Somewhere, in the middle of the night, Beth woke up, and she thought she heard a tiny voice whisper in her ear.

“No, we did not!”

Beth went back to sleep.

In the morning, she was pleased to see a light dusting of snow on the ground, and after Peyton and Growler were happily chowing down on breakfast, Beth got herself a cup of coffee and went to stare out the kitchen window.

The snow was white and clean and perfect—as yet untouched by the events of the day—and the first golden rays of the morning were breaking out of a rosy sunrise.

There was a bird feeder by the window, and Beth was glad she’d remembered to fill it last night. A tiny little flock of yellow-and-black birds was feasting at the feeder, and one little guy had strayed away from the others and was perched on the windowsill.

Beth soon saw why—across the thin white coverlet of snow that blanketed the windowsill was strewn a line of birdseed—little kernels of red, yellow, and gray.

The lone bird had them all to himself, and he hopped amongst the little colored nuggets, choosing the red ones and leaving the yellow and gray ones behind.

Beth suddenly felt a lightbulb go on in her head.

The bird was choosing which seeds it wanted…

Just as the brownies had chosen maple syrup over the peanut butter…

And now she had a choice, too.

Dean had been around every day for weeks, and she hadn’t been talking to him. She didn’t know how long the brownies had been observing her, but even if it was only a few days, they would have seen Beth passing by Dean, just as they had passed up the peanut butter.

So they had brought someone else.

Beth suddenly realized how crazy her thoughts were, and she glanced behind her as if Growler and Peyton could tell what she was thinking.

But they, of course, were occupied with their food, and they had no idea that their legal guardian was a crazy lady.

Maybe she was crazy. But crazy or not, she would choose.

The weekend went by more slowly than she would have liked, but eventually Monday morning rolled around.

Beth waited by the window in the kitchen until she saw Dean’s flannel-clad form—still without a coat—appear.

Then she hurried out into the cold.

“Dean!” she cried. “Dean!”

He stopped and turned toward her.

His face was wary—even suspicious.

“Dean!” Beth said. “I need to talk to you!”

He waited where he was, and Beth rushed up to him.

“Your boss—Leo,” she said breathlessly. “He asked me out on Friday.”

Dean’s expression tightened just a little, but he said nothing.

Beth continued. “He asked me out to the Harvest Ball. But I don’t want to go with him. I want to go with you.”

A look of astonishment spread over Dean’s face.

Then a smile quirked at the corners of his mouth, and a twinkle gleamed in his eye.

Beth felt relieved—and elated.

Dean wasn’t unhappy at all—he was pleased.

Beth took out the tickets that nestled in her coat pocket.

“I’ve got tickets to the ball, too. It’s next week. And I’d like you to go with me. What do you say?”

Dean’s face went very blank, but there was still just a hint of a twinkle in his eye.

“I thought you’d never ask.”

Beth found herself smiling in response.

She liked his sense of humor already.

The two of them ended up going out for coffee after Beth finished at the office and Dean got off work for the night.

The low-key date was a success, and after Beth got home, she left out a slice of Rosalie’s pumpkin pie for the brownies.

She felt they deserved it.

******************

© 2019 by Catherine Mesick

Image by Piviso/Pixabay

******************

Thanks very much for reading!

Spooky Tricks — New Short Story

Spooky Tricks

Spooky Tricks

Catherine Mesick

On Halloween night, there was a knock at the door.

This wasn’t unusual—there had been knocks on the door all evening.

I stopped at the mirror in the hall, adjusted my tall black witch’s hat to a more rakish angle and smoothed the tresses of my long, black wig.

“Johanna, you are one terrifying witch,” I said to myself.

I adjusted the wart on my nose for good measure and then grabbed up my bowl of candy and hurried to the door.

I threw the front door open and gave my best witch’s cackle.

But instead of a group of trick-or-treaters in adorable costumes, there was a grown man standing on my porch, apparently all alone.

I stared at him.

He was tall with thick dark hair and very dark eyes. He was wearing black jeans and a very tight T-shirt that showed off his muscular physique.

Not that I noticed.

“Hi,” he said. “I’m Dave.”

“Hi, Dave,” I replied. “You look a little old to be trick-or-treating.”

He appeared to be about my age—in his mid-twenties—and though he definitely wasn’t old, he was too old to be going door to door for candy.

“Oh, no—I’m not trick-or-treating.” His smile was boyish, and it lit up his whole face.

He paused expectantly, and I tried not to get distracted by that smile while I racked my brain trying to figure out what this handsome stranger was doing on my porch.

He was good-looking, so it was possible he was selling some product or other. Or maybe he was stumping for a political candidate.

Whatever he wanted, I wasn’t interested in buying anything.

Reluctantly, I began to close the door.

“I’m sorry. Not today—”

Dave held out a hand. “Wait! I—I’m Dave.”

“You already said that.”

“But I thought you would understand.”

He stepped closer and lowered his voice. “I’m a witch.”

He smelled really good—like the woods and the outdoors—but I ordered myself not to be distracted.

“You’re Dave the witch?” I said.

“Yes.”

“Oh—okay. I get it.” I opened the door a little wider and stepped out onto the porch.

This was clearly some kind of prank. He was some teen’s older brother or somebody’s uncle or something.

“Very funny, kids!” I said. “You can come out now!”

As I looked up and down the darkening street, I could see the pink and orange of the setting sun, and a few streetlights were popping on. There was no one on my street at the moment, but I could hear the shouts of children in the distance. My lawn was strangely full of fireflies, but other than that, there was nothing out of the ordinary.

I did remember that there was a hiding place nearby, however.

I turned to Dave.

“Are they under the porch?”

A look of bewilderment crossed his handsome face.

“Is who under the porch?”

“Your accomplices.”

“My—what?” He shook his head. “I’m Dave. I’m a witch.”

He said the words as if they explained something.

“All right, Dave the witch,” I said. “I can’t figure out what’s going on here, so I’ll take the bait. What do you want?”

It was a night of fun after all—I figured I could play along a little.

Dave’s eyes roamed over my face, and I found myself wishing that I wasn’t wearing green makeup and a fake wart.

“You really don’t know, do you?” he said softly.

“I’ve got to go with no,” I said.

Dave sighed. “I just assumed. I thought you would be one of—”

He sighed again. “Never mind. I supposed I should begin with an introduction. I’m Dave Crespo.”

He held out his hand.

I took it. It was warm and strong.

I hesitated for just a moment, but Dave didn’t seem threatening—just intriguing.

“I’m Johanna Bee.”

“Bee?” Dave said.

“Yes—it used to be something much longer and hard to pronounce, so my grandfather cut it down to just the first three letters. Now it’s just ‘Bee.’ ”

“I see.”

I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not, so I just waited for what he would say next.

Dave seemed lost in thought.

“Johanna,” he said at last, “could I tell you the whole story? It’ll be quick, I promise. And maybe you could help me make sense of it all.”

I glanced around. A group of kids that had already been to my house ran down the street—I recognized the little girl with the elaborate, orange-and-white Bride of Frankenstein hairdo. Behind the children came two moms pushing strollers.

“All right,” I said, closing the door behind me. “I have to admit I’m interested now. And I guess I’ll be safe enough with you out on the porch.”

“Of course you will. I’m a witch and a gentleman.”

I glanced at Dave’s face to see if he was kidding, but he seemed to be perfectly serious.

“No spooky tricks?” I said.

“No spooky tricks.”

I took my candy bowl and sat down on my porch swing.

As Dave settled his sleek, black-clad form next to me, I wished I weren’t wearing such a ridiculous costume.

I thought longingly of the skimpy, sexy costumes I’d seen hanging on pegs at the Halloween store.

I wished now that I’d bought one of those.

Almost.

As surreptitiously as I could, I removed the wart from my nose.

Then a sharp breeze kicked up and swirled around us, and I was glad I wasn’t wearing a tiny, barely there outfit. We’d been lucky enough to have a pleasant Halloween night, but it was still October, and it wasn’t exactly balmy—plenty of the children were wearing jackets over their costumes.

Dave shifted a little, causing the swing to creak, and I glanced at his marvelous, T-shirt-clad torso.

“Would you like a blanket or a jacket or something?”

Dave shrugged. “I’m good. I spelled myself against the cold.”

“Naturally.”

Dave sighed. “So here it goes. I’m a witch—”

“Which you said already.”

He shot me an irritated glance.

“Sorry,” I said. “No more interruptions.”

“So to make a long story short,” Dave said, “there’s a curse on my family, and I came here tonight to break it.”

I frowned. “A curse?”

I was startled—that wasn’t at all what I’d expected to hear. I didn’t know what I had expected, but somehow that wasn’t it.

Dave nodded grimly. “A curse was placed on my great-grandmother many years ago. Any witch in our family line is incapable of falling in love.”

I was startled again.

“You can’t fall in love?”

Dave shook his head. “I have no idea what it feels like.”

“So you can’t get married?”

“Oh, we can get married—we just won’t be in love.”

I blinked. “That’s awful.”

Dave simply nodded.

“What about your parents?” I said. “Weren’t they in love?”

“My dad is most definitely—at least he says he is. But he’s not the witch—my mom is. And I know she likes my dad. ‘Like’ is something I can understand—and she can, too. But she’s always said she wishes she could be truly in love with him.”

“Are you sure—” I said suddenly.

Then I stopped.

“What?” Dave said.

“Are you sure it’s actually a spell and not just something normal? Unfortunately, there are a lot of couples in which one partner is more invested than another. Maybe they just need some counseling.”

Dave shook his head vehemently. “No. It’s a curse—like I said. Another witch—a male witch—placed a curse on my great-grandmother when she spurned his advances. He said if she didn’t love him, she would never love another—and neither would her children. There was a hole in her heart ever after that. She knew something was missing. They all did—and so do I. I can feel it right now—it’s like something I’ve lost that I desperately need.”

“All right,” I said. “I believe you.”

And I really did. There was a desperation—and a desolation—in his eyes that was hard to discount.

He truly did believe he was missing something he needed.

And he still didn’t seem dangerous—or crazy—just intriguing.

In fact, he was just the type I usually fell for—soulful.

Or not so soulful, since he couldn’t fall in love.

I sighed. “So what makes you think I can help you?”

Dave gestured to the lawn.

“Well, the fireflies.”

The front yard was indeed still full of fireflies—and none of the neighbors’ houses were similarly lit up.

“Walk me through it,” I said. “Just in case I don’t get the fireflies thing.”

“I went to a seer—someone who can see things that are…beyond.”

“Like the future?”

Dave nodded. “Yes—the future sometimes and also the past—and the present. Someone who can see truths in a realm beyond this one.”

“I see.”

Dave gave me an ironic smile. “I can see that you don’t. But let’s just say the seer has mystical powers.”

“Is she a witch, too?”

“No. A seer can be a witch. But in this case she isn’t.”

“And your seer saw fireflies?” I said.

“Yes, she did. She said I should follow the trail of them. They led right from my house to yours.”

Dave frowned. “You’re not a witch, are you? Despite the costume.”

“No, I’m not a witch.”

“You see, this complicates things. The seer said I would find someone at the end of the trail tonight who could help me. And then she said, ‘Someone must sacrifice for a witch.’”

Dave turned to look me full in the face. “I thought that meant you would be a witch, and maybe you would sacrifice something, like a crow.”

I made a face.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said quickly. “I didn’t like the idea, either. I’m not the kind to sacrifice anything—not even birds. I definitely don’t do that stuff. But the curse was placed by dark magic, so I thought maybe dark magic might be required to lift it. Or, if not dark exactly, then at least murky.”

He gave me a small smile. “I was hoping for murky rather than dark.”

“Well, I can’t do anything like that,” I said. “Fireflies or not. So what do you suggest?”

“Maybe you could show me what love is.”

“That is the worst pick-up line ever.”

But his face was sincere, and it seemed to me that it grew a little red.

“So you can feel embarrassment,” I said.

“Of course I can feel embarrassment,” Dave said. “And—other things. Just not love.”

I sighed.

“Maybe I can help you think of something tomorrow. Perhaps over coffee or lunch?”

Dave shook his head. “It has to be tonight.”

“Why?”

“Tonight is a special night. Many things are possible on Halloween night that aren’t possible at other times. The spiritual energy is different tonight—more powerful. If the curse is to be broken, it must be tonight.”

He paused. “Can you help me?”

I didn’t see how, but I felt a strange tug toward this so-called witch.

“Well,” I said. “I do have a yard full of fireflies. Let’s see if we can come up with something together.”

Dave smiled.

“So what next?”

I glanced around. “I doubt we’ll solve much of anything sitting on my porch. Let’s go for a walk.”

The two of us left the swing and the porch, and as we walked down the short path to the street, I had a sudden urge to take his hand.

But I didn’t.

The fireflies still glimmered softly in my yard as we began to walk, but the sunset was fading fast and the sky was rapidly deepening to black.

There was plenty of light, however, as the streetlights were coming on, and each one threw out a welcoming arc of illumination.

The light apparently wasn’t quite enough, as Dave soon stumbled on a crack in the sidewalk, and nearly tumbled face-first into the street.

I held out a steadying hand. “Careful.”

Dave quickly righted himself, but he looked shaken.

“Thank you, Johanna. I, uh, I don’t usually—”

“No explanation necessary,” I said. “Sometimes accidents happen.”

He grinned sheepishly. “They do indeed.”

I happened to notice once again that he had an extraordinarily nice smile.

“So is there anything else you can tell me about the curse?” I asked as we started walking again.

“Like what?”

“Like—did the seer tell you anything else about how to break it?”

Dave shook his head. “Her advice was basically just to find you, and then—”

He shrugged. “Well, I was kind of assuming you would know what to do.”

“I see,” I said.

“But there is one other thing. The seer didn’t tell me about it, though. It was my grandmother.”

“What is it?”

“My grandmother heard it from her mother—my great grandmother—the one who was originally cursed. She said that the curse can be broken retroactively.”

“What does that mean?” I said.

Dave frowned. “Maybe I’m not phrasing that properly. If the curse is broken tonight, it will be broken all along the timeline. All those relationships in my family in which one person was in love and the other wasn’t will be fixed. All those marriages will become true love matches. And my mom will finally be free to love my father for real.”

“Wow,” I said.

“That’s why I have to do this,” Dave said. “It’s not just about me. I’ll be saving generations of my family.”

“Wow,” I said again.

We walked on, and Dave suddenly tripped once more. This time I didn’t see a crack in the sidewalk—it looked perfectly smooth and even. But Dave went tumbling face-first and nearly cracked his head on the concrete.

Luckily, he took a few stumbling steps and put out a hand just in time.

I hurried over to him, alarmed. “Are you okay?”

Dave reddened and straightened up. “Yes, of course. I just—”

He glanced back and saw, as I had, that there was nothing on the sidewalk to trip over.

“I guess I just tripped over my own feet,” he finished.

“Please be careful,” I said. “That’s the second time you nearly face-planted into the ground.”

Dave grew even redder and then he went unexpectedly pale.

He stopped walking, and his face was serious in the lamplight.

“There’s one other thing. Something my grandmother and the seer both said.”

“What?”

“They said the curse will seek to protect itself. They said it knows when one of our line is working to end it, and it will work to destroy us rather than allow itself to be broken.”

I felt a chill run through me.

“I’m sure that’s not true,” I said quickly. “I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

But Dave and I turned as one to look back at the smooth, unmarked sidewalk.

“We’ll both be more careful from now on,” I said. “I’m sure it won’t happen again.”

We walked on.

“So what’s in your repertoire?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“When you’re not guarding yourself against the cold and following fireflies, what kind of spells do you do?”

“Well, I’m on level three of my training. I guess that wouldn’t mean much to you since you’re not a witch, but it means that I’ve advanced to learning the highest level of magic my particular group practices. I’m adept at potions, incantations, rituals, and spells involving the use of wands and familiars. I’ve even begun work on levitation and psychokinesis.”

“Levitation? Psychokinesis?” I said.

“You know—using my mind to move myself and other objects.”

“Sounds useful.”

“It is. But I’m only just beginning.” Dave glanced at me. “Why the interest in my spells?”

“Since I’m the chosen one,” I said, “at least for the night, I thought I should try to figure this out. Maybe find out what’s in your arsenal that we can use.”

Dave looked startled. “What do you mean for the night? I am a witch and a gentleman. I don’t go in for casual…anything. You were chosen because you’re special. And you have a special purpose far beyond tonight.”

He looked at me, and his face was again serious.

“If not for this curse, I could see myself—”

He broke off.

“It’s just that I find myself drawn to you in more ways than one—”

He stopped again.

“But you couldn’t love me?” I said.

“No. Johanna, I—”

“Yes?”

“I should tell you—there’s another reason why this is so important tonight. I can’t—I’m not like the others in my family. I’m not even like my parents. If this doesn’t work out—if this curse can’t be broken, then I’ll never get married myself.”

“Never?” I said.

“No. I can’t get married if I’m not in love. Even if I don’t actually know what that is.”

“I can understand that.”

Dave looked at me. “You can?”

“Yes. And you—and I—are not alone. There are other people like that. They’re called hopeless romantics.”

Dave chuckled. “I’ve heard of those.”

“So let’s say this does work out tonight,” I said. “And somehow we manage to break the curse. How will you know it’s broken?”

“Both my grandmother and the seer said there will be a sound like the breaking of chains.”

I smiled. “And then you’ll be free to fall in love with the first person you see?”

Dave smiled back. “Something like that. Actually I wouldn’t mind if—”

There was a breaking sound then, and I looked around, startled.

But it wasn’t a curse breaking. Instead, the glass in the streetlamp next to us suddenly shattered, and the bulb inside it shattered, too.

Glass shards flew everywhere, and Dave and I turned to shield our faces.

Then there was an ominous creaking sound.

Dave had just enough time to jump out of the way before the entire lamppost came crashing down toward him.

“Whoa,” he said.

He was visibly rattled.

I rushed to his side.

“Are you okay?”

Dave nodded. “That was just—unexpected.”

I placed a comforting hand on his arm. “That’s certainly something you don’t see every day.”

I looked down at the fallen streetlamp, and an unpleasant thought popped into my head.

“It’s the curse,” Dave said, giving voice to my fears. “It’s trying to protect itself.”

“No,” I said hastily. “It was just a really strange accident.”

Dave looked at me. “You think it’s the curse, too. I can see it in your eyes.”

“No—” I said again.

But Dave gave me a wry smile.

“At least I know you believe in the curse now.”

“Maybe we should get off the street,” I said.

“I think that would be an excellent idea,” Dave replied.

“Let’s go to a coffee shop or some other public place,” I said. “I feel like the curse is more likely to attack if we’re isolated. A crowd might be safer.”

I glanced around. There were fewer and fewer trick-or-treaters all the time, and other passersby were becoming rarer, too.

Dave looked a little embarrassed. “I, uh, didn’t drive here—I actually walked.”

“That’s okay. We’ll go back to my house, and we’ll take my car. I’ll get my phone, too. Maybe we can do some internet research on how to break a curse.”

Dave paused in a driveway we were passing and looked at me in the lamplight.

“I really do appreciate this. You don’t know me, you don’t know anything about me, and you’re still going to help me—even though this whole curse thing is new to you. I have to say—”

There was a screech then as a car came careening around the corner.

It was headed straight for us—and more specifically toward Dave, who was still standing in the driveway.

The car surged toward him, and he seemed rooted to the spot, staring at it.

The car’s headlights made right for him, and I acted without thinking.

I pushed him out of the way.

I watched the headlights zooming up to me.

And then they suddenly stopped.

I glanced over.

Dave was standing with his knees bent and his arms outstretched.

He appeared to be under great strain.

“Hurry,” he gasped. “I can’t hold it much longer.”

I glanced at the car—it was completely motionless, just a few bare inches away from me.

I quickly scrambled out of the way.

Dave pulled his hands back, and the car leaped forward, bouncing over the driveway and careening over the lawn of a nearby house.

Then the car lost its momentum and came to a stop.

There was no one inside.

“What?” I said. “How did you—what just happened?”

At the same time, there was a tremendous cracking sound.

Dave rushed toward me and grabbed me in a hug.

He spun me around.

“You did it!”

“Did what?”

Dave set me down, and I stared at him breathlessly.

His eyes were shining, and there was a glow about him that hadn’t been there before.

He looked like a man transformed.

I looked back at the stationary car.

“Dave, what’s going on?”

“You did it! You broke the curse! The curse threw everything it had at me, and your sacrifice shattered it.”

“Sacrifice? What sacrifice? I’m fine.”

“Yes—but you’re only fine because I saved you right back. You pushed me out of the way when I surely would have been killed and saved me. And you put yourself in harm’s way. You sacrificed yourself—for a witch. Just like the seer said.”

“But then—” I was still having a hard time wrapping my head around what had just happened.

Dave took my hands. “You did it. You really did. You’ve saved me and my entire family.”

“The curse really is broken?” I said.

“Yes.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

“But how do you know?” I said.

“Because I feel like I’m in love right now.”

He looked at me in the lamplight, and there really did seem to be love in his eyes.

“But how can you be sure?” I said. “Especially since you’ve never felt love before?”

Dave grinned. “I know it—I really do. And I’m perfectly willing to take a chance that I’m falling in love with you.”

“You are?” I said.

“Yes. I’m totally sure about that.”

“No spooky tricks?” I said.

“No spooky tricks.”

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© 2019 by Catherine Mesick

Image by Irina Alexandrovna/Shutterstock

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Thanks very much for reading!