A Paris, Texas Romance, Book 4
Published 2016 by Book Boutiques.
Copyright © 2016, Dakota Cassidy.
All rights reserved.
“Gus Mortimer, what’s in that cup?”
“Why do you ask, Cozette Meadows?”
“Because it’s a red Solo cup. No one drinks innocuous apple juice from a red Solo cup, which is what I’m serving tonight at rehearsal in matching innocuous plastic cups. Come to think of it, we don’t even have red Solo cups here at the senior center.”
“Maybe it’s grape juice…”
Cozy fought a snicker, pushing her eyebrow to rise in mock suspicion as she stroked the ears of her familiar, Jorge, before setting him down on the ground and adjusting his blue camouflage diaper. “And maybe it’s whiskey.”
“Or maybe it’s gin, so hah!” Gus barked in a “take that” kind of way, puffing his chest out.
She sucked in a breath of the cool Texas night, jamming her hands into the pockets of her jeans as she rocked back on the heels of her boots and used her eyes to warn Jorge to keep his cranky, opinionated yap shut.
Cornering Gus, one of her favorite seniors ever from Hallow Moon Senior Center, she asked, “Gus? Do you want to be angel number five in the Christmas concert?”
“More’n I wanna breathe.”
“Do I detect sarcasm in your tone?”
“Nope. You detect the ‘my youthful dreams of Off-Off-Off-Broadway finally comin’ true’ tone.”
Cozy shook her head with a grin. “Ditch the booze. For me, Gus. Please? How will it look to the Council of Elders when we put this extravaganza of a concert on if you’re lit up like a firecracker on the Fourth of July, buddy?”
“I dunno how it’ll look to those bags of brittle, outdated bones, but it’ll feel a damn sight easier on my ears if I got a little hair o’ the dog in me. So I figure, everything’s better with hooch—especially when the Depends Patrol sings. Because we suck.” He looked down at Cozy’s one-eyed, incontinent Chi/Dachshund for confirmation. “Ain’t that right, Hor-Haaay?”
God. That was true. They did suck. Every last golden-oldie witch and warlock at Hallow Moon Senior Center starring in the Christmas recital sucked. Off-pitch, squeaky suck. But it was the most adorable suck ever.
Jorge let his head drop in disgust before he looked up at Gus, his bulging Chihuahua eyes flashing. “Hey, Papi! Jorge is all one word, you uneducated, hedonistic—”
“Do you need a diaper change, mister?” Cozy narrowed her eyes in warning at him again as she reached down and clamped his tiny muzzle shut.
Jorge sniffed indignantly, but he remained silent.
She rose and made a pouty face at Gus, pinching his weathered cheeks. “You’re going to make a great angel number five. You look so cute in your halo, and Glenda-Jo did shorten the length on the angel costume she made out of a sheet so you’ll stop tripping when you make your big entrance during ‘Angels We Have Heard on High’. That’ll make up for the suck.”
“That’s somethin’ I been meanin’ to ask you, Cozy-Coo. Why did everyone else get Egyptian cotton sheets for their angel costumes and I got smelly old Clive Stillwater’s leftover flannel sheet from nineteen twenty-two?” he asked, running his thumbs under his reindeer-and-mistletoe suspenders.
“Did they make flannel sheets back in nineteen twenty-two?” she asked on a giggle.
She loved Gus Mortimer. He was one feisty elder witch, and he was a handful, but he was her handful, and she intended to take good care of him and all the others while they practiced to put on this holiday show for their families and the esteemed Council of Elders.
He waggled a wrinkled finger at her, his lined face scrunching up. “That ain’t the point.”
“Nope, it’s not, and you’re deflecting. The point was, you were out here sneaking some hootch when you know better than to drink while we’re rehearsing, if at all. If not for Jorge, I might not have found you until you were snockered. Not to mention, Calla would kill me if she found out I didn’t have my eye on you. She’s a werewolf, remember? She’ll eat me for supper. Scotch is bad for your blood pressure, pardner, and you know it.”
Calla Ryder, one of the rare werewolves in a town full of witches and warlocks, ran and owned Hallow Moon Senior Center. It was the place to be if you were a bored, aging witch prone to magical shenanigans, with grown children who didn’t know how to keep up with you during their busy workdays.
The center was designed to keep the seniors active and a part of the community. Thus, the program had spawned a tight-knit group of co-conspirators who were up for almost anything their wands could touch.
Upon Cozy’s return to her high school music teacher job in Paris, after her summer break—or breakdown, depending on how you spun it—Calla had asked her to volunteer her services for the seniors’ Christmas concert, and she’d been all in.
A distraction like this bunch of greased-in-Flexall-454 cats—albeit hysterical, utterly adorable greased cats—was exactly what a girl needed to mend her shattered heart.
They kept her busy and focused and she’d jumped at the chance to fill her long, mostly empty nights after spending all day teaching. If she could just keep her brain busy, her plate full, maybe her heart would finally heal.
Don’t think about the bad past. Think about your bright new future.
“What Calla don’t know won’t hurt her,” Gus said on a charming wink, reminding her why she was here tonight.
“Which is exactly why you’re going to give me that cup or suffer the wrath of my schoolteacher’s propensity for penance.”
“What’re ya gonna do? Make me write my name on the blackboard a hundred times?” Gus taunted as though he were ten and just shy of sticking his tongue out at her.
“Aw, heck no. That’s too easy, Gus. I’m gonna take away your Ice Cream Tuesdays for a month and make you write your name on the chalkboard one hundred times. Plus, if you keep pushin’, I’ll use my magic wand to mete out justice, and you know how unpredictable my crazy wand can be. How do ya like them apples?”
“You’re a hard taskmistress, Cozy-Coo.”
“That’s mistress to you.” She smiled and curtsied before pointing her finger toward the back door of the center with an indulgent chuckle. “Now off with you.”
Gus set the cup down on the wrought iron patio table located just outside the center, where they’d earnestly been practicing three nights a week for almost two months, and backed up a step with his hands raised in white-flag submission.
“Can’t believe you’re making me do this, Teach. That’s some fine booze.”
She chuckled again and snapped her fingers to make the cup disappear before she made a shooing motion at Gus. “Go! Hurry before Flora tries to steal Clive’s part as the Great Christmas Tree again. She’s always taking advantage of how he nods off. You’re the only one who can soothe those two when they get to fighting, and you know how adamant Flora can get when she doesn’t get her way. No one can convince her she wasn’t born to play the part like you can, Gus.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll go soothe the old bat’s ruffled wings and remind her that being one with the branches on a Christmas tree isn’t exactly gonna win her an Emmy,” he muttered and tugged a lock of her hair with a saucy grin as he made his way back into the center, leaving her with a moment to herself.
She didn’t like too many moments to herself; she liked constant motion, a steady whir of thoughts and activities to keep her from dwelling.
Jorge plopped down on her feet and sighed. “You okay, Jefe?”
She smiled down at her loyal companion. “The seniors are work, huh?”
Jorge snorted, scratching his backend. “All the work. I don’t know how you do it, mi corazon. I especially don’t know how your ears do it.”
“The same way I deal with you,” she teased, nudging his round middle, but he’d drifted off to sleep, his soft snores rising upward.
Cozy took another cleansing breath of the night air, leaning on the railing surrounding the patio to look up at the deep velvet of the Texas sky. Stars filled the ebony Milky Way, clustered and bright, as a cool breeze blew.
She’d missed Paris while she’d been away licking her wounds at her friend’s swanky SoHo apartment in New York. Missed the sounds and smells of Paris. Missed her friends. Missed her community of witches and warlocks, with the occasional werewolf or other supernatural creature thrown in for good measure. Missed her family.
She sighed, preparing to go inside and fill up the empty spaces of her mind with bickering seniors and song-list rearrangement, but a shooting star arcing in a bright sizzle of light across the sky made her stop.
And she found herself closing her eyes and making a wish like she used to as a child.
Dear Shooting Star,
I think there’s some kind of nursery rhyme or something I’m supposed to chant before I make a wish. Like star light, star bright, first star, something, something, something tonight. Wish I may, wish something else…um, have this wish I wish tonight?
I dunno, I can’t remember the whole thing. Despite the fact that I’m a schoolteacher, I’m pretty crappy at keeping my nursery-rhyme stuff straight. Anyway, fancy requests aside, I’d just like to make a wish, if you don’t mind. Let’s call it a Christmas wish, if you will.
So here goes. If Finn Donovan is out there somewhere—you know, the guy who abandoned me the night of our engagement party? Even though he’s a jerkface of the highest order (I realize it’s not terribly mature of me to call him infantile names, but it’s like college level compared to some of the other things I’ve called him since he disappeared), please look out for him. He needs looking out for. Please.
“Did you see that?” Calla asked as she pushed open the door to the center, from which the sound of the seniors barking out “O Christmas Tree” floated to her ears. She came to stand next to Cozy, wrapping her arm around her shoulders and giving her a squeeze.
Calla tucked her long dark hair behind her ear and smiled. “Did you make a wish?”
“Yep. I wished for a Charlie Hunnam—Hugh Jackman sandwich. You’d better get the mustard. They’ll be here any minute.”
Calla laughed but then she sobered. “How are you, my friend?”
Cozy rolled her eyes at her beautiful friend who was newly married, and happily so. All of her married and exclusively dating friends worried way too much about her. Okay, so she showed up at parties stag. Sometimes she felt like a fifth wheel, but she was managing.
But the concern their happiness was somehow going to hurt her—their guilt because of it—was unnecessary.
“Are you checking up on me again, Werewolf? I’m fine. Really.”
She loved Calla, appreciated her worry, but all this hovering over her was getting old. She didn’t want to be babied. She wanted to be better—to feel better.
It was Christmas, for the love of chicken-fried steak. The time for laughter, and sleigh bells, and baking cookies, and white elephants. It wasn’t the time to drag everyone down with her pathetic longing for a man who absolutely did not deserve even a shred of pining.
“I am checking up on you, and I’m going to keep right on checking up on you just like everyone else checks up on you. So will Winnie, and Bernie, and Daphne, and Greta. Because it’s what we do. We’re your friends, and because you’re just not you lately.”
“Really? Who am I?”
Yeah. Who was she? This moping wasn’t like her. She’d broken up with men before. Three, to be precise. It never took this long for her to pull up her bootstraps and get back into the game. But Finn hadn’t been like all those other men she’d dated…
Yet, it had been months since he’d been gone and it still felt as if she’d been run over by a freight train only yesterday.
“You’re not the easygoing witch I used to know. Now you’re all sound and motion and lights, camera, action. You’re working overtime. You’re involved in every volunteer activity known to man in this town. You’re burning the candle at both ends, Cozy. You have to slow down sometime, honey. Or it’ll catch up with you.”
No. That’s why she kept so busy. She never wanted that kind of pain to catch back up with her again.
“I like being busy is all.”
“No. You like to keep the hurt at bay by filling up your days and nights with endless activities. I’m a werewolf, I have super power and gallons of energy, and even I can’t keep up with you. Not to mention, I can smell your sadness—which, upon reflection, sounds creepy when I say it out loud, but it’s true. It’s what we werewolves do. Point is, you’re going to have a nervous breakdown.”
“Bah. Did that in New York over the summer with Stefania. I’m golden now,” she joked, because it was uncomfortable to remember just how hard her summer had been.
Calla gripped her shoulders and made Cozy face her, and she didn’t like what she was seeing on her friend’s face.
“Okay, well listen. Winnie just called me, and I have something to tell you. We wanted to tell you together but she’s too busy threatening Baba Yaga’s life right now to come over here.”
Winnie Yagamowitz and her husband Ben ran a rehabilitation center for witches on parole from magic-abuse jail. A jail Baba Yaga, their current head honcho witch, ran with an iron fist.
Winnie and Ben housed and helped tons of witches who’d committed mostly petty magic-abuse crimes get back on their feet, find jobs, lives and, most importantly, redemption and self-worth.
In fact, Winnie had taken over the rehab house after doing her own stint in jail, with Baba as her jailor. Baba Yaga, aside from being the most powerful witch in their world, and their reigning ruler, was now also Winnie’s aunt via her marriage to Ben. Which had never been awkward until now, apparently.
If Winnie had the cajones to threaten the supreme Baba Yaga, something was awry—very awry.
From the tips of her toes to the top of her head, Cozy knew she was going to regret asking, but ask she did. “Why is Winnie threatening to kill Baba Yaga? Is she insane? Has she lost her will to live? Does she remember what being in magic-abuse prison for six long months was like?”
“I’m sure she’ll never forget her prison stay, or how she ended up in Paris as a result, but that was a long time ago. Now she’s Baba’s niece by marriage, which I’m praying is going to give her leniency when Baba eats her face off and turns her into a one-eyed wildebeest or something.”
Cozy barked a laugh into the velvety night even as her heart began to race. “So what’s Winnie so upset about?”
Calla’s blue eyes with the most amazing fringe of lashes went soft and sympathetic. “That’s what I’m supposed to tell you, and there’s no easy way to do this. So do you want me to slowly peel the Band-Aid or rip it off? Your choice.”
Cozy stiffened, reaching back to grip the rails surrounding the patio area. “Rip,” she said, fighting a wince.
Calla’s sigh rippled on the light breeze, the gulp she took audible as she grabbed Cozy’s hand and held it tight. “Shit, I hate this.”
“Rip!” she yelped, her stomach a jumble of nerves. “Please…”
“Finn’s back after apparently doing time in magic-abuse jail and Baba and the Council sentenced him to live at Winnie’s rehab and do his parole here at the senior center.” The words flew out of Calla’s mouth with lightning speed, her eyes filled with guilt.
Wow. That’s that. No more wishing on shooting stars for her.
Hey, you up there, Shooting Star. Yeah, I’m talkin’ to you! I just said I wanted him to be okay. You didn’t have to really physically show me he was okay. It was sort of a figurative request. Not literal.
Why you gotta be so mean?
Finn Donovan crossed his arms over his chest and leaned up against the wide entryway wall to his friend Ben Yagamowitz’s house. His former friend’s house, to be accurate—his really nice farm-style house with festive holiday lights draping from window to window and all along the pathway that led to the porch’s stairs.
Warm and inviting, with a Christmas decoration in almost every corner, the house had a wide front porch meant for rocking chairs and lazy nights spent stargazing.
There were pictures colored by, he assumed, Ben and Winnie’s daughter Lola on the fridge in their equally warm and inviting kitchen, with the clapboard cupboards and granite countertops
Ben was labeled former friend because a good, upstanding guy like Ben, chock full of morals and honor, was never ever going to want to speak to a guy who’d up and left his family farm in complete disrepair—and left the woman he claimed to love—for months, without a single word.
Which was likely why the Council of Elders had sent him back to the scene of the crime. To shame him for skulking away like a thief in the night.
He got it. Message received.
“I will not have that man in my house, Baba Yaga! Do you hear me? There’s no rehabilitation for a douchecanoe like him!” Ben’s wife Winnie bellowed from the family room, where she’d marched Baba Yaga by the arm for further discussion on Finn’s rehab stay.
“Honey…” He heard Ben warn.
“Don’t you ‘honey’ me, buddy! That man left his farm, which fell into a shithole his brother Ridge has just finally managed to dig out. Not to mention, he left without saying a word to Cozy. Those two were crazy about each other. Do you remember, honey? Oh, wait. My supreme bad. She was crazy about him. He was just pretending to be crazy about her. The pig! He fooled us all, but he really fooled Cozy. I will not have him here in my home, wandering through my halls, when he hurt one of my closest friends in this town. Someone who was very kind to me as I adjusted to being a wife and mother here in Texas. Absolutely not gonna happen, honey!”
Clenching his jaw, Finn focused on taking steady breaths, trying to block out the mentions of Cozy and his brother Ridge. But their faces popped into his head anyway.
“Winnifred Yagamowitz, you will do as the Council has ordered!” Baba thundered.
Finn imagined their auspicious witch leader pacing the floor in her strange but favored penchant for ’80s garb, her bangle bracelets clanking along her arms as she lectured poor Winnie.
“I don’t like it any more than you do, Winnifred. I don’t want to see all the hard work Ridge and Bernie and the seniors and even the parolees have put into the farm jeopardized. Nor do I want to see Cozy hurt like that again. But I don’t have a choice. The Council voted and this is where they’ve ordered Finn do his penance. There will be no further discussion!”
Cracking the muscles in his neck by tilting his head from side to side, Finn crossed his feet at the ankles and sighed. The Council was making a point. They wanted his public humiliation to be sprawling and large and as painful as possible.
They wanted to see his kind shun him for being such a shitty guy. A coward. Clearly they didn’t much care if, in the end, it only hurt the people they were most trying to protect.
The Council was such a skewed bunch of assholes.
The door to the family room flew open, cracking against the wall as Winnie stomped out with Ben hot on her heels.
She flew up to Finn, her beautiful face wild with anger, her long hair pulled up into a ponytail literally shaking with her rage.
Winnie jammed a finger under his nose, her blue eyes on fire. “You lousy, no-good son of a bitch! If I catch you breaking a rule, one teeny-tiny rule, if you breathe wrong, if you leave one thing out of place, if you have the balls to defy me and my household’s rules, I’ll jack you so far up you’ll feel the effects for years to come, you coward!” she screeched before popping open the welcoming stained-glass front door with the pretty Christmas wreath on it and stomping down her front steps.
Ben eyed him for a moment, his face cold, his lips thin. They were about the same height, Ben being the leaner of the two, but he was powerful and strong. Finn knew because they’d often played football together on lazy Saturdays. Ben had taken him down once or twice, and he’d needed a good massage afterward as a result.
“You listen to me, and you listen goddamn good, Donovan. You fucked up. You fucked up big. I don’t know why, and I don’t care anymore. I got done caring about ten seconds after you slunk out of this town like some yellow-bellied loser. I don’t know why you ended up in jail, and I don’t care about that either. But be clear on one thing—my wife’s unhappy. I don’t like that. Not even a little. I have a family I love who I won’t let you upset. I will personally fuck you up if you cause a single second of grief for any of them. Swear to Christ, I’ll kick your cowardly ass from here to Galveston. And I’d bet I’m not alone. Clear?”
Finn lifted his chin with enough defiance to still keep his man card, but with a decent amount of humility to show Ben he got it. “Clear.”
Ben’s nostrils flared. “Good. Your room’s upstairs and to the right. It’s the pink and purple one with the ruffles. The house is empty of parolees at this point, so the bathroom’s all yours. Showers are timed. Rules for the house and your chores are posted on the back of your bedroom door. There are clothes from the Goodwill you can use in your dresser. Breakfast’s at seven sharp. You have to be at the senior center at eight for your duties.”
Finn looked directly into Ben’s anger-filled eyes. “Got it.”
“Then get the hell out of my sight,” Ben ordered with a curt hitch of his jaw before he went out the front door, probably to find Winnie.
Baba Yaga swept out of the family room in all her ’80s fanfare. The ’80s had been her favorite fashion era, and she proudly sported an off-the-shoulder, torn pink sweatshirt, zebra Spandex leggings and her obnoxious neon-green legwarmers.
She gave him the look—the one that said she was as disgusted with him as the rest of the world.
Her dead stare captured his. “I’ll warn you only once, Warlock. I don’t know what the Council was thinking, sending you here. I tried to sway them, believe you me. But this is my family. As much as I love my witch community, I love my family more. Don’t mess with mine and I’ll let you keep your bloody head, Finn Donovan,” she seethed up at him before she snapped her fingers, disappearing in a cloud of pink smoke to the faint tune of a Prince song.
This is what it sounds like when doves cry…
This was going to be ugly.
But he had no choice. He had to do his time.
He’d done four months in Baba’s magic-abuse prison. Four long months with a psychotic warlock named Petite Pete who was at least six-five, three hundred pounds, and liked to trim his toenails with a pair of pliers.
During that time, he’d been force-fed the ways of the warlock in group therapy, owned up to a bunch of shit like all good inmates should, kept his room on par with a military inspection, and made sure his nose stayed clean.
He figured his sentence would be over after he’d served his time inside, and he could get back to doing what he’d been doing before he’d been incarcerated.
But Baba had swept into his cell just this morning and informed him the Council was meeting on his behalf and he still had to face a parole sentencing.
When the lot of those bags of dusty bones had sentenced him to three months in rehab, Finn had nearly reached over that imposing podium they all sat behind while they dictated his life and attempted to choke out the old robed bastards.
This would delay him much longer than he could afford.
But when they’d sentenced him to do his parole in the very town he’d vanished from—when they’d sentenced him to do his time in the very witch rehab one of his ex-fiancée’s best friends ran—he’d decided their idea of punishment made it seem as though they were playing right into his hands.
Yep, he’d have to see Cozy at some point.
Yep, he’d have to face his brother Ridge, too.
Yep, he relished the very thought.
Welcome back to Paris, Texas, Finn Donovan.
So glad y’all came back so soon.
* * * *
The next evening, Jorge lifted his tan head from his orthopedic dog bed set atop the piano Cozy stood beside and groaned long and loud as Flora Watkins approached them.
“Oh look, another festive doggie diaper from the knitting club. How in the spirit of giving,” he remarked in his typical dry tone.
“You hush, my little outspoken Spaniard,” Cozy whispered-yelled, giving him the eye. “They do it out of love. Besides, it’s not like you couldn’t use another diaper.”
Flora, another one of her favorite feisty seniors, sidled up to Cozy and patted her on the back with a warm smile.
“Is this a bribe, young lady?” she asked the senior teasingly. “I’m sorry, but you still can’t be the Great Christmas Tree, Flora. Yes, your epic recreation of branches on a Noble Fir is undoubtedly on par with Meryl Streep’s performance in Sophie’s Choice, but Clive was given the part because he picked it out of the hat. You guys decided how the picking would go. So, fair is fair. But remember, you make a mean angel number two. No one could play the part quite like you. Everyone says so.”
Flora shook her head and gave her arm a squeeze, handing her the red-and-green doggie diaper with intricate snowflakes knitted into the band across the waistline.
“Even though I’d make a far better Christmas tree than ol’ Clive, and it’s true, you’re keepin’ me from winning an Academy Award—”
“Okay, then also no ‘A Very Zombie Christmas’. It was a great idea, Flora, but I think the vote from the other seniors said it all, don’t you? Also, some of the Council is part zombie. They have to be, to be as old as they are and still manage to roam the earth. I’m convinced they eat brains to keep them upright,” she joked. “We don’t want to offend our core audience, do we? What would that do to our demographic?”
Flora chuckled at Cozy’s poke at the Council then suddenly sobered. “That’s not why I’m here, honey.”
Cozy set her clipboard down on the piano, positioned in the middle of the rec room of the center, and tilted her head. “Is everything okay?”
She pointed to the diaper. “We hope Jorge likes it.”
Ah. More diapers. She’d grown so used to keeping the seniors from going to battle over their parts in the pageant, she’d forgotten how sweet they could be.
Cozy grinned at Flora and held up the diaper for her familiar to see. “Look, Jorge! Christmas diapers. Aren’t you the luckiest familiar in the world to have so many people who love you and want to keep you dry? Say thank you,” she prompted.
If Jorge could roll his eyes she was sure he would have. Instead, he stretched his stout, ironically long body and muttered. “Gracias, mi amiga. I can’t tell you how over the moon I am to have yet another way to advertise my incontinence to the general public in bright, festive colors that not only enhance—”
Cozy wrapped loose fingers around Jorge’s muzzle, effectively cutting him off. His incontinence was a sore subject all the snazzy diapers in the world weren’t going to make better.
She turned and smiled at Flora. “Jorge says thank you and Feliz Navidad. So are you ready for rehearsal? Got your vocal chords all flexed and ready to rumble?”
Flora’s weathered face grew hesitant. “I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. Now, aside from the new diaper we knitted for Jorge, and before we get going, I want to be sure you’re okay, sugar.”
She fought the shortness of breath she’d been fighting for almost twenty-four hours since she’d found out Finn was back in town. One day later, and a slew of pep talks to herself in the mirror, along with one from Winnie, who’d called to profusely apologize, and she was pretty sure she had a handle on it.
“You mean Finn, right?”
Flora’s eyes grew fiery as she tucked her hand-knit, baby-blue sweater around her middle. “I do. He’s a dirtball, scum-sucking, douchenozzle pig.”
Cozy barked a laugh. If she couldn’t count on the seniors to defend her then she couldn’t count on anyone. The moment they’d heard Finn was back, they’d rallied, circling their wagons like warriors, assuring her they’d stake him at dawn if he so much as looked at her wrong.
She gave Flora’s cool hand a squeeze. “It’s okay, Flora. I’m a big girl. I can handle it. Besides, we probably won’t see each other at all. Calla made sure he’s here during the day doing cleanup, and I’m here at night to rehearse with you guys well after suppertime. I think all parolees have a curfew or something. We probably won’t ever even cross paths—”
“Clive, get your Tiger Balm out and warm up those old fingers. We got a jackass walking!” Gus shouted from somewhere in the back of the room by the air hockey table.
Perfect. From the tone of Gus’s voice, apparently, Disappearing Spice had arrived.
Cozy’s heart punched the inside of her chest with a right hook. She didn’t want to turn around, but if she didn’t, Finn would know he’d broken her, at least for a little while anyway. No way was she going to allow him the upper hand.
This was her damn town. She’d lived here almost all her life, just like him. She wasn’t the one who’d left her family farm in disrepair and skulked off into the night without a solitary word.
She wasn’t the one who’d duped everyone.
And she wasn’t going to wander around like the victim. No more poor, poor Cozy Meadows, dumped by gorgeous, stupidhead Finn Donovan.
So she had two choices. Turn around and face the music, head held high. Or run.
Far. Fast. Away.
Her feet and her bruised heart liked option number two. But her pride and her grit said, “Blow me, Donovan.”
Composing herself while the seniors gathered in clusters just waiting for her to fall into a puddle of her teardrops, she squared her shoulders and turned around.
She waffled momentarily because she’d forgotten how utterly gorgeous Finn was. He never failed to steal her breath with his deep green eyes and hair the color of a starless Texas night.
He stood there by the Christmas tree they’d all decorated as a group just a week ago—as breathtaking as always.
Okay, maybe she’d forgotten his amazing body and the ripples of muscles beneath his comically small, very pink T-shirt that read, “Keep Calm And Paint Your Nails”, and only came to about an inch or so above his waistband, or his bulging thighs encased in a pair of plaid golf pants clearly too tight for him.
But the hell she’d let it show.
He leaned against a broom, crossing his bunny-slipper-clad feet at the ankles while waiting for her to speak first.
“Nice outfit. You shopping blindfolded these days?” she asked, pointing a finger at his shirt.
The seniors snickered.
But he grinned. The bastard. He had the gall to grin—perfect, devastatingly handsome, dimples and all.
“You don’t approve? I picked out this shirt from the bin of Goodwill donations at Winnie and Ben’s with you in mind. I know how much you like to get your nails done in the color pink. I’m a little hurt you disapprove.”
No. Nada. Nope. He would not remind her how turned on he claimed to get whenever she talked about her love of all things girlie. Finn had always said it made him hot all over just thinking about her pink-dipped nails wrapped around the handle of a hammer. He’d loved that she was both handy and feminine to the core.
Instead, she stared at him with a blank expression. She’d read somewhere, if you didn’t want your nemesis to know you gave a shit, be indifferent. It was like death to someone trying to get a rise out of you.
Indifferent girl was indifferent.
Finn’s eyes searched hers as though he hadn’t a care in the world.
“What? No witty retort? No saucy banter?” he asked, jamming his hands into his plaid pants with an innocent tilt to his head.
Rather than engage, she decided it was a better idea to be clear about her feelings. Not the old torn-to-shreds feelings. The new ones she was going to work like a dog to cultivate.
“Do you have a minute?”
Finn raised a lone eyebrow and shot her a lazy smile. “For you? I have a lifetime.” His deep voice resonated in her ears, making her fight a shiver.
Gritting her teeth, Cozy pointed to the dimly lit hallway leading toward the kitchen without looking back at him.
His heavy footsteps behind her reminded her of the hundred and one times he’d chased her down the hall of his family’s ranch house as they raced to his bedroom to make love.
And even as her heart crashed in her chest and her legs felt like so much butter, she whipped around and pointed a finger at him and his stupid pink T-shirt that was too tight across his chest and showed off every muscle he owned.
As he leaned the broom against the wall as if they were going to have a casual conversation about where to eat for dinner, Cozy attacked.
“Let’s be really clear on one thing. You’re a bag of dicks. A tried-and-true snake. You left here without a word on the day we were going to announce our engagement. I don’t want to remind you of not just the work the people of this town went to in order to throw us an engagement party, but the feelings you trashed in the process by callously skipping on out of here like you’d found the secret hangout for unicorns. You suck. You suck so many hairy balls your cheeks look like the pouch of a greedy hamster. You deserted me. And I defended you. In fact, most of your closest friends did, too. We rallied. We searched. We called. We all but sent in the rescue ninjas—”
“Rescue ninjas? We have those now? I was only locked up for a few months, but boy have things changed. You crazy witches, always with the latest trends,” he joked, clearly amused before he took a step closer, the scent of his freshly washed hair wafting to her nose.
“Shut. Up!” she hissed, stomping her foot. “Don’t speak another word. You’re not allowed to speak—not ever. Not to me, not to the people who clung to the hope you were alive for two agonizing months until someone saw you in a bar in Galveston, throwing back a bottle of whiskey next to a hot blonde with big poofy lips. You hurt me. You hurt me bad. I trusted you. I loved you. But I don’t anymore. In fact, I’d rather have my fingernails pulled out one by one than so much as glance your way.”
Finn’s mouth began to open in protest, but she clamped his perfect lips shut with two fingers.
“So now you’re here in Paris again. Ironically working off your time where I spend at least three nights a week, rehearsing with the seniors. I don’t have any say in the matter. If I did, I’d never have to look at you again because I would have waved my fancy magic wand and shipped you off to the farthest point of the earth. So that said, because I don’t have a choice in this, stay the hell away from me, Finn. Don’t talk to me. Don’t try to worm your way back into my good graces with your stupid jokes and your stupider charm. Don’t pretend nothing horrible happened between us. Just leave me in peace and I’ll do the same for you. Got that, Fugitive?”
Finn stared at her for a moment—one that felt like forever, his eyes penetrating hers, deep and intense, making her cheeks flush.
And before she even realized it was happening, Finn snaked his strong arm around her waist and hauled her close until every inch of her was pressed to every inch of him, making her nipples tighten and her breath catch in her throat.
He wasted no time pressing his talented lips to hers and soundly kissing the life out of her, slipping his silken tongue into her mouth and stroking her own before letting her drop to the ground with a thunk of her heels.
Finn grabbed the broom he’d leaned against the wall and winked. “Damn, I’ve missed you, darlin’. It’s daggone good to be home,” he said before sauntering off to the kitchen, the bunny ears on his slippers flopping as he went.
“Depends Patrol!” she heard Clive Stillwell yelp from the other end of the hallway, where everyone had gathered in a cluster to watch the big showdown. “Let’s take him out!”
Cozy instantly flapped a hand up to stop them, inhaling deeply and trying to find her center. “It’s okay, guys. Really. I’m fine.”
“Yer cheeks sure don’t say yer fine,” Clive remarked, the pine tree branches in the pocket of his plaid flannel shirt—so he could properly get into character—askew.
Cozy’s shaky hands flew to her cheeks in guilt. “It’s just warm in here. Really, guys. I’m fine. It’s like it never happened.”
Glenda-Jo Ledbetter smoothed her hands over her graying hair before pulling the top of her housecoat outward and fanning herself. “Well, I’m glad somebody’s okay, because heaven and the sweet baby J! Phew, that man does things to my insides he shouldn’t be doin’ at my age.”
Flora nudged her hard with a disapproving scoff. “Hush, Glenda-Jo! He’s a dickknuckle. No swooning over the jerk or you’re betrayin’ our girl here.”
Glenda-Jo narrowed her eyes at Flora and planted her hands on her plump hips. “I never, not for one cotton-pickin’ second, thought he left without a dang good reason. Don’t know what the reason is, just know it was big. Feel it in my gut. Y’all will see. Mark my words. That hunk’s here to prove me right, too, and it’ll be just like a Christmas miracle. Until then, I’m gonna keep right on swoonin’ because he’s worthy o’ my undivided swoon.”
Gus made a disgusted face at Glenda-Jo and wrapped an arm around Cozy’s waist, pinching her cheek with grizzled fingers. “S’all right, Cozy-Coo. If ain’t none o’ these hens got your back, me and Clive do. You want we should shoot the bastard? Clive’s still real good at turnin’ a spell. You can still do the one where ya give him a goat’s head and the legs of a stork, right?”
Clive blustered, his weathered face sheepish as he smiled at Cozy with a raised fist. “Darn tootin’, I can. I’ll make him so sorry he ever thought ’bout doin’ ya wrong.”
Flora bobbed her head, her smile sly, her eyes narrowed. “Just this mornin’ I made sure I ‘accidentally’ spilled my whole lunch tray right at the foot of his ugly bunny slippers. Got creamed corn and mashed potatoes all over the dang place.”
“Yeah,” Norman Biddles agreed, pushing his Coke-bottle glasses up on his long nose. “And if you want? I can make sure my spastic colon kicks in. He’ll be cleanin’ the toilet for days!”
Cozy fought a giggle, still trying to keep her insides from jiggling out of control. Clapping her hands, she hitched her jaw toward the rec room.
“All right, you bunch. I appreciate the gang-like support. It means everything to me. But no animal mashups and men’s room mishaps, okay? I’m fine. Swear it on my hairspray and new lipstick. Now let’s get a move on and go get some more practice in. We really need to work on ‘Mele Kalikimaka’. The chorus is still a little rough. Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters would have apoplexy if they heard us mangle that song,” she reminded them.
“That’s cuz Gussie here can’t pronounce the words,” Clive said on a chuckle, giving Gus a playful elbow to his ribs.
As they made their way back into the rec room, Cozy paused for a moment and fought the urge to cry.
She would not cry over this man. She would not investigate why such a snake could still stir up so many deep emotions in her heart. He didn’t deserve that.
No more tears.
“So, let’s talk about this,” Jorge encouraged in his light accent as he trotted slowly beside her on their walk back to her basement apartment, his diapered belly scraping the ground.
“Talk about what?”
Jorge sighed. “Let’s not beat around the bush, Jefe. We’ve been together a long time—”
“You mean since that dark and scary night when I saved you from that knife fight in the middle of the mean streets of Tijuana,” she reminded him with a snicker.
“Yes, yes, my hero. Thank God for you and your magical time-stopping abilities or I’d have ended up either dead from the cold blade of El Guapo’s knife or in some dreadful puppy mill. I’m not worthy. You’re so courageous. It was fate that you happened to be lost while you were on vacation and ran into helpless me. This is me all attitude and gratitude. Blah, blah, blah. Now, the point here is this, you were wrecked over Finn. In fact, I’d say you still are. How do you feel about him being here now?”
She shrugged and hauled her favorite red purse over her shoulder, the bells attached to it jingling. She couldn’t address the freshly opened wound just yet. Not even with Jorge, who’d been through it all right by her side, steadfast and true.
Instead, Cozy replied with a monotone, “I feel fine.”
Jorge stopped right in front of Mrs. Meacham’s picket fence, decorated with blinking colored lights. “You lie. Tell me how we’re going to get through this. It was pretty obvious tonight that he still has feelings for you.”
“Uh, no. That was Finn trying to get a rise out of me, which I refuse to give him. I haven’t seen him in months and he saunters back in here like this is some big joke and lays one on me as though we’re still engaged? Like he didn’t hurt people? No. No amount of charm and gorgeous flashes of his perfect teeth are going to make this right. He disappeared, Jorge.”
“End subject, amigo, or I’ll make you wear that diaper with the fancy glittering snowmen on it all season long.”
She picked up their leisurely pace again, keeping her eyes on the ground to combat her hot cheeks and the rushing pound of her pulse in her ears. Damn Finn. Why did he have to come back now? Just when she’d settled into her routine, jam-packed as it was. Things were a helluva lot better than they’d been in months.
“It still hurts like hell, doesn’t it?”
“Like a knife to my gut—over and over.”
“Can I ask you something I’ve wanted to ask you since this all went down?”
“I have no secrets from you.”
“Why didn’t you stop time that night Finn didn’t show up for your engagement party? Maybe you could have found out what really happened.”
“Shhh! You know I’m not supposed to talk about what my magic can do. Using those skills goes against everything we’re taught. It’s not allowed. I only do it in dire circumstances, and that means almost never.”
“You did it in Tijuana for me,” he prompted. Though his voice was softer and sympathetic now.
She stopped walking again and looked down at her beloved familiar, his round, pudgy face at constant war with his long, even chubbier body. She loved Jorge something fierce; seeing him so helpless that night had made her do something she could end up in big trouble over. But in that moment, nothing had mattered but saving him.
“He was threatening to kill you, Jorge. I couldn’t let him take out a helpless animal who couldn’t fend for himself.”
She’d never forget the night she’d met her beloved familiar fifteen years ago. Lost in the streets of Mexico, a little panicked, she’d landed smack-dab in the middle of a brawl between two men over a beautiful, sultry witch by the name of Mariah.
Jorge ended up an unwilling hostage, his plump body pressed up against the sweaty drunk’s T-shirt as he held a knife to his throat and Jorge’s stubby hind legs dangled helplessly.
“I ate a lot of enchiladas that day. Otherwise, I’d have outrun the lowlife cabron.”
Cozy smiled an indulgent smile. Every time he told the story, it got bigger and more dangerous.
“Is that the current story? The last time you told it, you were preparing to eat your way through his chest after you’d wrestled the fifty-inch knife from him.”
“It was a long time ago. My memory’s hazy.”
“The point is, I’m not supposed to use my ability to manipulate time. You know it, and I know it. If I get caught, I’ll end up in magic-abuse jail just like Finn did. So no, I couldn’t use it that night he left. I guess my fear of authority is bigger than my curiosity.”
But it hadn’t been because she wasn’t tempted—it had been because she was afraid to find out exactly what had happened. Of the million scenarios running through her brain on that horrible night, the worst was that he’d fallen out of love and had cold feet.
She didn’t want to know that, to feel it, hear it—worse, see it. And then she’d heard about Galveston and the blonde and voila, mystery solved.
“Have you wondered why he was in jail?”
Of course she had. Incessantly since she’d found out he was back. “Nope, and I don’t intend to give it another thought. He got there by doing something shady, I’m sure. He’s clearly not above shady if he could stand up a town full of people who were ready to toast his engagement just two hours before the actual event.”
Can’t wait to celebrate with the world that you agreed to be my wife. I love you, beautiful.
That’s what his text had said just hours before he’d gone missing. She’d saved it on her phone for months until, in the angry, final stage of her grief, after she’d heard about the blonde in Galveston, she’d deleted it.
“I was there when he stood you up. I remember that night like it was yesterday, Cozy.”
Knife meet heart.
She swallowed hard. “Well, he can’t stand me up any more. So the subject of Finn Donovan is closed. I don’t want to talk about him. I don’t want to hear his name. I don’t want to talk about feelings that no longer exist. Comprende, mijo?”
The soft purr of a car met her ears as it pulled up beside them. Finn leaned out the window, his dark hair high on his head in a manbun, his sharp cheekbones glinting beneath the Christmas lights on the quaint houses lining the street.
“Bonjour, Cozeee! It ees so good to see you! You are pretty as always!” called out Jacques, the talking GPS system in the Pacer that Winnie loaned to her parolees for their transportation to and from jobs.
She closed her eyes and prayed for the earth to open up and swallow her whole. “Hi, Jacques. Good to see you, too,” she called as she began walking again with Jorge glued to her calves.
“Your hair’s pretty like that. It’s longer now. I like it.”
“Hair grows. That’s what happens when you’re gone for months.”
“Can I give you a lift to your place?” Finn asked as he rolled along beside her at a slow pace, the Pacer’s tires crunching the gravel.
Can I punch you in your perfect face with my fist? “No, thank you. We’re fine.”
“I wouldn’t mind a ride,” Jorge replied on a moan. “My feet are killing me, mi corazone.”
Finn braked the car to a stop and popped open the creaky door of the Pacer, still wrapped in an advertisement for a douche product from the days when Winnie was forced to drive it as part of Baba’s punishment while she was on parole.
Winnie often told the story about why she’d kept the Pacer, not just because she loved Jacques but because it reminded her of how far she’d come and how grateful she was to Baba Yaga for showing her the error of her ways.
It would be comical, like rolling-on-the-ground belly-laughing, with Finn in his ridiculous pink shirt and bunny slippers, hopping out of a car that sported a big douche on the side of the passenger door. But none of this was amusing.
She just wanted him to go away. Disappear so he wouldn’t be close enough to touch—close enough to prod for answers. She didn’t want to know the details about Galveston and blondes; it would only serve to torture her.
“Hop in, Jorge.”
Cozy gave Jorge the look. “If you get in that car, I’ll put you on the biggest diet of your life, pal. It’ll be kale and carrots for the rest of your days. You’ll never see a drop of gravy again.”
Jorge grumbled, his sagging double chin quivering. “You heard the boss. I think she’s just being petty. I mean, I feel like we can bridge this gap, can’t we, Finn? Make nice for the sake of the season? For the sake of the potential debris y’all will leave in your wake if you ever properly duke this out. Whaddya say, Jefe?”
“I’m willing if you are, Cozy,” Finn rumbled deep and sexy, sending a tremor of awareness through her limbs.
“Not in a thousand lifetimes,” she volleyed from behind her clenched teeth, pivoting on her toe and stumbling over Jorge, dropping her clipboard, her purse and her sheets of carefully ordered music.
The papers scattered along the sidewalk, picking up gusts of the light breeze and flying in all directions.
Finn jumped out of the car, ready to lend a hand, grabbing as many papers as he could manage.
It was then everything hit her all at once, as she watched all the efforts she’d made to keep her life in a nice, neat package fly wildly across the road. The contents of her purse scattered about the sidewalk, her clipboard on the edge of Roscoe Brown’s dried-up lawn with the inflatable waving Santa.
Her anguish over Finn’s disappearance, her frustration once she’d learned he hadn’t been hurt at all but rather, was perfectly fine. The endless nights of deconstructing their relationship to look for flaws she might have missed, only to put it back together again so she could relive some of the best memories she’d ever made with another individual.
The war—the unmerciful, Godforsaken internal war—she had with herself for still loving Finn so much, she ached, even after all these months.
It all caught up with her. Right there on the corner of Hexed and Toiled-Trouble lanes. Tears began to seep from the corners of her eyes and her shoulders began to shake as she dropped to her knees to gather sheet music.
“Cozy,” Finn whispered, pulling her up from her knees and brushing a lock of hair from her face with gentle fingers, his eyes soft and sympathetic. “Don’t cry. Please.”
Yanking her arm from his, she stared up at his beautiful face, swiping angrily at her traitorous tears and her far too willing body.
“It’s a little late for that.” She shook her head as though she could shake off the pain he was causing by showing back up here—sentenced to do so or not. “Leave me be, Finn. Go away. Go back to Winnie’s, do your time, and then go away. Please.”
And still he said nothing. Offered no explanation, not a single word of apology. But his eyes…his eyes roamed her face, picking up the lights on the festively decorated houses.
It was as though he were sending her some kind of signal—the way he used to when he was caught in a conversation with one of the seniors who liked to gab too long. The “help me” signal.
But he blinked and they shuttered, glazing over until he had that half-cocky, half-amused expression he’d worn so well earlier today.
“It doesn’t have to be like this, Cozy.”
Her expression went from pleading to flabbergasted. “It doesn’t? How should it be, Finn? Should I forget what you did to me? Should we start hanging out at Skeeters and share a bucket of chicken wings and a beer? Maybe we could sit up and talk all night about prison life and the benefits of co-showering? How exactly is it supposed to be, Finn?” she rasped.
He clenched his jaw, the muscles in his arms flexing with tension. “I don’t know. Just not like this.”
“Tell you what, Fugitive, when you figure out how it’s supposed to be, you let me know. Until then, it’s nothing. Absolutely nothing. I don’t want your rides, your jokes, your presence. So if you’ll excuse me, I have music to reorganize.”
Snatching the sheets he’d gathered from his hand, she turned her back and began to walk as quickly as she could until she hit the corner, where she made a mad dash for home, Jorge huffing and puffing behind her.
And as the wind began to howl and leaves scattered across the street, she had to stop and ponder the kind of constitution she apparently possessed.
What woman in her right mind would still want to be held, kissed, touched by the man who’d left her high and dry without so much as a glance over his shoulder?
What did it say about her fortitude that she wasn’t repulsed by the very sight of him?
* * * *
Finn held the disposable phone he kept hidden under the bushes at Winnie and Ben’s up to his ear. As he sat in the parking lot of Paris’s version of the Eiffel Tower with the red cowboy hat on top and waited for the voice at the other end to pick up, he took a moment to allow the tightness in his chest to ease.
Thankfully, the parking lot was deserted. Rolling down the window, he leaned back in the seat of Winnie’s ridiculously wrapped Pacer and exhaled long and slow.
This was damn well killing him. He’d only seen Cozy twice now, and it was as though she’d sawed his heart right out of his chest and crushed it on the ground.
Her beach-blonde hair had grown longer, falling to well below her bra strap, lengthy curls the color of a white-hot summer sun, soft and wavy, hair he wanted to run his fingers through just one more time.
She was still as much of a girl as she’d ever been, and it still turned him on just as much as it once had. Nails painted red, white-lace fitted shirt beneath a short denim jacket he distinctly remembered her calling a shrug, and jeans that hugged her rounded hips and long legs. Shiny gold hoop earrings had fluttered in the breeze against the lightly tanned column of her neck, paired with a thin gold chain attached to a locket her parents had given her.
When her blue eyes had looked up into his after he’d kissed her, confusion, anger, raw pain in them, he’d almost broken right there.
And all he’d wanted to do was haul her to him, crush her against him. Hear her call him honey while she rested her head on his shoulder and drove her arms up under his because she was cold.
His mouth grew to a thin line when he finally heard the voice on the other end pick up.
“Why so long to pick up? What the fuck are you doing, your hair and nails?”
“Sorry, brother. Busy night,” the gruff voice answered.
“Did shit go down?”
“Shit’s always going down. Tonight was just the tip of the shit. Whaddya need, man? My hands are full here.” There was a grunt and a loud thwack that sounded like a fist hitting flesh before silence and nothing but the static on the line.
“Tell Pembroke I’m in for now. Also tell him I want out. Soon.”
“Donovan, don’t be a goddamn pansy. You were the one who offered to take the hit. It’s been a long shit-eating road, but we’re so close. I can taste it. You knew what we needed. You’re our best shot at this. Just keep trying to get in touch with them for a little longer.”
“She’s killing me, Orson. I knew it would be a bitch, but I didn’t know it would screw with my head like this. She’s damn well killing me.” He rubbed his aching chest as though there were a gaping wound.
Orson barked a laugh into the phone. “All broads’ll kill you eventually, Loverboy. That’s what they do. Did ya talk to Ridge yet?”
Finn gritted his teeth and squeezed the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white. “He’s next on my things to do.”
“That oughta be a real cheerful conversation. Sorry I’m not going to be there to see Ridgie-boy smash your face in. What about the people in town? Everyone hate your bloomin’ yellow guts?”
“Like I gave them all the damn clap. Especially the seniors at Hallow Moon, where, in case you were wondering, I’m cleaning toilets, you bunch of shits.”
“And wearin’ pink like a fucking prom queen, Petunia. We got eyes on ya. Don’t think we haven’t spent a solid couple of minutes almost pissing our pants laughing about your new ex-con wardrobe.”
“You all suck.”
“Donkey balls, buddy. Look, I gotta go. I blow slimy chunks at this therapy thing, right? Call Weaver the next time you need somebody to wipe your tears. He’s sensitive.”
Now Finn barked his own laugh. “Fuck you, Orson.”
“Ah! There’s my boy. Now go get ’er done and quit dickin’ around in the lady pool.”
“Later.” He clicked the phone off and popped open the back, yanking out the sim card and setting it on the dashboard.
He used a hard fist to crush it, sweeping up the leftover tiny pieces and stuffing them in the pocket of his pants to dump down the toilet at Ben’s.
As he wondered where to ditch the phone, he thought about Cozy. About how much he loved her and about how much he wanted all this to end.
When he turned the key in the ignition, Jacques sprang to life, almost making him smile. “Bonjour, Finn Donovan! Take ze left out of ze parking lot and onto…”
He tuned Jacques out and headed back to Winnie’s before he broke curfew. If the way she’d given him the death-wish glare this morning over breakfast was any indication, she’d meant what she said about sticking to the rules. He’d hate to break one and find out what she was really capable of.
Turning onto Ben and Winnie’s road, he drove slowly, soaking in the Christmas decorations and remembering how he and Cozy used to do their annual seasonal walk through Paris to see all the lights. Then they’d hit the diner in town and have hot chocolate and her favorite blueberry scones.
Fuck, he missed her.