A Paris, Texas Romance, Book 3
Published 2016 by Book Boutiques.
Copyright © 2016, Dakota Cassidy.
All rights reserved.
“Ah, nope. Absolutely not,” Bernice Sutton said, shaking her head from side to side as she gathered up the few personal belongings she’d accumulated since she’d been in magic-abuse prison, located in chilly Salem, Massachusetts.
There was a long, disgusted sigh from a disembodied voice, the gravelly hiss warring with the flagrant tint to the words that followed. “No’s so harsh, Bernie baby. So final. Why don’t we start with a maybe, Pookie? Just a little one.”
“I say we start with never. A big one. As in no chance in hell.”
“Perfection! It gives me something to aspire to. I love a good challenge.”
“This is not a challenge. I am not a challenge, and I’ve told you a hundred times. I don’t need a familiar. I don’t think I even fully understand what a familiar is. In fact, now that I’m almost free, I still don’t know what I am or what I’m supposed to do about what I am. Why would I drag someone else along with me into the great unknown?”
God, this being a witch was all so confusing.
Miss Fee Line, her self-appointed familiar and wannabe drag-queen cat, appeared out of nowhere. Ten months and a various assortment of spells and wands later, and Fee’s popping up out of thin air—an ability among several he possessed—still never failed to make her jump out of her skin.
Fee swished his tail with the pink bow attached to it in indignation. “You’re not dragging me, Bernie. I go forth a willing participant in your witch journey.”
Bernie shook her head again. “No. No. You can’t come with me. That’s that. Now go harass someone else. I hear Knuckles in cellblock C had her boyfriend sneak in a can of salmon. Everybody’s talking about it. Bet if you offered to wax her upper lip, she’d give you some.”
Fee hopped down off the small table that held Bernie’s few toiletries and stretched his spine with a purr of satisfaction, reaching forward with his front paws. “You know, Boo, I don’t want to point out the obvs, but—”
“Oh you do, too. You love to point out the obvious.”
“Fair enough, but you’d know what a familiar was if you’d shown up to all your classes.”
Baloney. She’d damn well been to all the classes. Every single crazy, mind-bending one. How To Be A Witch In 2015. How To Navigate the Muddy Waters Of Necessary Magic Versus Magic For Personal Gain. How To Control The Urge To Shove Your Wand Up Someone’s Ass.
She’d sat quietly in the back of the meeting room in the center of the prison, her hair hanging over her eyes, her hoodie from a borrowed jacket on her head, as she slouched in her chair like some weird outcast and listened to every “how to” support group the prison offered on everything and anything witch-ish.
She’d been to them all, and she still didn’t understand how this had happened or how she’d landed here—with a bunch of women who claimed they were “her people”.
A witch. She was a witch. Not like the Wicked Witch in Oz, but a white witch.
It just didn’t get any more CW Network than that.
Sure, it explained a lot of kooky mishaps in her thirty years of life to date—things she was still coming to terms with—but even after ten months it was proving a hard pill to swallow.
Bernie narrowed her eyes at the black cat and tugged on his fluffy pink tutu. “I did show up to all my classes. Every single one of them.”
“You did not. Your luscious, curve-riddled body might have been there, but your mind was absolutely not in attendance, honey.”
“That’s probably because my mind was still blown. In fact, if you check the stall in the latrines by the mess hall, there are still bits of it scattered on the floor. You try showing up to anything with your mind when it’s blown to smithereens.”
Fee yawned, his sharp teeth gleaming, as though he were bored with her constant protests. “What part of ‘you are a bona fide witch’ is so hard to grasp, Bernie girl? You’ve known for ten months now. I’d think you’d be long past disbelief.”
Ten long months of reflecting on her life—a life she’d spent a good portion of in trouble. At school. At home. At all fifteen of her eventual jobs. The last being a night security guard at a big law firm.
Bernie pulled the two ends of her ponytail to tighten it. “Well, it doesn’t matter what I believe, now does it? I did my stint for the Council, showed remorse, blah, blah, blah. I’m out. Alone. You hear me, Fee? Like a lone wolf—ahrooooooo!” she howled into her drab gray surroundings.
She didn’t have time for Fee’s nonsense today. Today was for fresh starts and moving forward—oh, and figuring out how not to be a witch anymore.
Cracking her knuckles, she took one last glance around her jail cell and blew out a breath of relief. Almost there, Bernie. Almost there.
Fee hopped down off the table and onto Bernie’s dismally thin jailhouse mattress, where he’d spent every night since she’d arrived, curled into a small ball of tulle and Dollar Store tiara. “And I’m telling you, your journey’s just gearing up.”
“What’s this journey your gums keep flapping about? There is no journey that includes you. I get to leave here today a free woman.”
And go back to what, Bernie? You can’t go back to nothing. You have nothing.
“Oh, girl. You bettah come on back from that trip you’re takin’ at Delusions-R-Us now.”
“Fee? Save the fancy talk and get to the point. What do you know that I don’t know?”
He rolled onto his back, his ebony fur glistening sleekly under the dim light. “You don’t really think once those cell doors open and that crazier-n’-a-queen-at-a-beauty-supply-store-wig-sale Baba Yaga shows up and waves her magic wand that it’s over, do you? Humph. This is exactly why you need me as your familiar—to guide your pathetic ass.”
Right. Familiars were a witch’s advisor. Sort of like high school counselors—only not. If all the crazy she’d been spoon-fed up to this point was true, witches often became great friends with their familiars, and Fee had been first in line to apply for the job.
Bernie balled up the sheets from her cot and threw them in the bag that had magically appeared every three days at her cell door for dirty laundry since she’d arrived. As the hour of her release grew closer, her patience grew shorter.
“Just explain what you mean, Fee.”
“Parole, honey. P-A-R-O-L-E. You don’t just up and skip outta here as if those Kotex-pad slippers were made for walkin’. You gotta do more time on the outside. Prove you’re worthy. Community service. Atone, you know?”
That pulled Bernie up short. Parole? God, she should’ve listened more carefully in Redemption Is The New Black class, but her fellow inmate, Chi-Chi Gonzalez, had been far more interesting. Her story about polar ice caps and what had gotten her five years in magic-abuse jail was more fascinating than anything that screw Halima could teach.
Plus, Chi-Chi had paid good commissary money for Bernie’s special Kotex slippers. They’d lasted longer than Winnie Fosters’ had, according to Chi-Chi—Winnie being the ultimate success story everyone referred to when talking about redemption.
But this was bullshit. “Atone? I did atone—for something I wasn’t even aware I did to begin with. Hell yes, I’ve done my time, buddy. Yes, I damn well have. I did the prison rotation like I was goin’ for the convict gold. I worked in the laundry room for three hellish months with Big Sue Moses breathing down my neck while she practiced putting eyeshadow on me made out of baby oil and cigarette ashes, for shit’s sake—”
“You have to admit, that concoction’s pure genius, and it makes a hella smoky eye that lasts all night.”
“I’m making a point, Fee.”
“Sorry. Carry on.”
Bernie held up her red, chapped hands. “See these? I peeled a thousand potatoes if I peeled one in the kitchen—even under the hateful glare of One-Eyed Lorraine, who, I might add, pads the orders for pudding then sells the overage to the cell-dwelling nuts in here for a ridiculous price. So the hell I’m giving this bunch of crazyface, pointy-hat-loving, wand-wielding dark overlords another second of my time. I did my ten months clean as a whistle. No isolation. No strikes. No backtalk. That means I’m out the second Baba Yaga decides to put on her leg warmers and show her freakishly age-defying face at that cell door,” she scoffed, thumbing a finger over her shoulder.
Taking in a long breath, Bernie blew it out with a wince. “She’s behind me, isn’t she?”
A tapping of nails on the cell bars made Bernie cringe. “She is, and lucky for you, Bernice, today is Monday, which is ripped-sweatshirt day, not leg-warmer day, thank you very much.”
Whipping around, Bernie was fully prepared to throw herself on a metaphoric sword and apologize in order to keep from doing any more time. Baba Yaga was the witch-in-charge-of-everything witch, and also the warden at jailhouse rock. She couldn’t afford to piss her off—especially not on release day.
Lifting her eyes, Bernie fought the urge to laugh out loud at Baba Yaga’s latest outfit. She was an ’80s fanatic, stuck somewhere between Rick Astley and Debbie Gibson, and sometimes her outlandish reproductions of Madonna a la “Like A Virgin” caught Bernie so off guard, she had to cover her mouth with her hand to keep from snorting.
“Aw, c’mon, BY,” Fee backed up Bernie. “She’s just got some release-day jitters. She can’t wait to get started on making things right, isn’t that so, Bernie?”
Bernie made her eyes round and Thumper-like when she gazed into Baba’s beautiful face. “I’m sorry, Baba. It’s my nerves. I promise to try to curb my tongue. Sometimes I speak out of turn when I’m frazzled.”
Baba adjusted the torn shoulder of her pink sweatshirt and gave Bernie that stern expression she dreaded. “Sometimes you magic out of turn, too, Bernice, which is why you’re here in the first place, isn’t it?”
Bernie fought a hard roll of her eyes. If she ever forgot she’d done something heinous, Baba Yaga was always two steps behind, reminding her she was a shitty witch. But she was determined to get the hell out of here at all costs.
She didn’t know what she was going to do once she sampled the sweet taste of freedom, but anything had to be better than being in here.
Swallowing her pride, something else she’d done more times than she cared to count since her incarceration, Bernie let her eyes fall to her cell floor in contrition. “You’re right. I did do that. I’m sorry.”
Baba snapped her fingers, making the cell doors grind open until they clanked against the walls. “Good to hear, inmate. Now, for your parole hearing.”
“But! First Bernie’d like to thank you for her stay here. It’s been beyond fabulous, right, Bernie? She’s learned sooo much about being a good, unselfish witch. So much, her pretty blonde head’s spinnin’ like the teacup ride at the fair,” Fee said, jumping from the bed to the floor to wind his tail around Bernie’s calves.
If a cat could give side eye, Fee was giving it to her. Which meant shut up. In true applying-for-the-job-of-familiar fashion, in the time since she’d been sentenced, Fee had doled out more than his fair share of witchly advice. Whether she wanted it or not. Though, in all honesty, he was usually right.
Squaring her shoulders, Bernie nodded in silent agreement. Some freedom was better than no freedom.
Instead of railing against parole, she turned off her thoughts about how unfair this all was and followed up with, “What Fee said.”
Baba’s face wreathed in a smile—but it wasn’t the kind of smile that said, “Good inmate.” It was the kind that said, “Nice ass-kissing.”
Baba crossed her arms over her chest, thinning her lips. “Are you ready for your sentencing, inmate?”
Bernie cocked her head. Like right here, right now? “What? No flickering lights and a circle of candles while the wind howls outside and all those old dudes without faces wearing rank-smelling robes mumble to each other?”
“They’re napping,” Baba provided with an almost smile. Then she caught herself. “Those old dudes without faces are your elders, Bernice. You’d do well to pay them some respect, especially on the day of your parole hearing, inmate!”
Fee swished his tail against Baba’s legs, circling her. “She just meant she was missing the ambiance of the old-school hearings at Council. You remember I told you about those, right, Bernie? You know, the hangings. The beheadings. The death by drop from atop Kilimanjaro into a pit of writhing snakes.”
Oh, yeah. Those.
Bernie gulped, tugging at the sleeves of her orange jumpsuit. “I do, and yes, that’s what I was referring to. I guess I just expected…”
More pomp and circumstance, maybe? Like the “more” she’d encountered when she’d first been dragged to this place that, from the outside, was glamoured to look like a quaint bed and breakfast, but was really protected by thick walls of magic.
Like that big, long podium thingy and all those faceless dudes who sat behind it as she looked up at them, their long, musty robes covering their bony limbs, as she stood terrified before them.
She was expecting the ominous but invisible hum of something electric, that strange noise that, out of fear, she’d jokingly asked if it belonged to one of the Council’s life-support machines. Expecting the final sound of the gavel as it cracked on the top of the tall podium thingy when she was sentenced.
That was what she expected now.
Instead, there was nothing but the gloom of her dark prison cell with its sparse furnishings, and Baba, glaring at her.
Baba Yaga’s eyes narrowed. “You know, I can always wait until the elders are up from their nap, Bernice. We can put on the show you appear to crave, if you’d like. Spooky ambiance, smelly robes and all.”
“No!” she shouted then bit her lip and lowered her voice. “I mean, no thank you, Baba Yaga. That’s very kind, but I don’t want to wake anyone. The Council works hard. So hard. They need their rest.” And deodorant.
Baba Yaga sighed her irritation. “You’re a stubborn one, Bernice. And BTW, you’re not fooling me. I know you haven’t come to terms with the magnitude of what you’ve done yet. Not totally. But that’s because you’ve run wild for far too long, like the word is hyphened on your name. How you slipped under the radar for all these years is beyond me. But we’re going to fix that as of now. These are the conditions of your parole, Bernice—heed them. Condition one…”
As Baba Yaga rambled on about the circumstances of her parole, Bernie pondered the word wild.
Wild? God, that was so much bull and shit. She didn’t even know she’d been out of control. In order to claim control, you had to know what you were controlling. Stuff just happened to her. Like things falling from the ceiling without warning whenever she was in a room full of people she felt uncomfortable with.
Just a thought, and ugly rashes were known to break out on someone who’d angered her. Sometimes the rash turned into hives or big boils the size of quarters. Items moved without her saying a word, catapulting at the speed of light, aimed directly for her mental victims.
Those were just a few of the smaller incidents she’d experienced since she’d hit the age of thirteen. Unexplained occurrences that left her in a pile of shit at home, at school, at every job she’d ever had.
But this last time? Phew. It had been the mother of all occurrences, and was exactly what had landed her here.
As many times as she’d tried to explain she didn’t even understand what was going on or how she made these things happen was the same number of times Baba Yaga and Bernie’s fellow cellmates had cackled hysterically and mocked her thespian skills.
The witches in cellblock D had actually crafted a makeshift Academy Award out of a toilet paper roll, Q-Tips, and glitter-glue, handing it to her with much flourish in the cafeteria to gales of laughter on SpaghettiOs night.
After that, she’d learned to shut up—quit protesting her witchiness out loud, quit denying she didn’t know thing one about being a witch, and slowed her roll entirely.
She’d gone along with all of it as if she were a secret agent, infiltrating the coven. Like some supernatural Sydney Bristow, pretending, listening, learning.
And still, she was baffled. How could she be a witch if neither of her parents were magically inclined? She certainly wasn’t adopted—a theory she’d toyed with, but only momentarily. Both her parents were gone now, but there was no denying she was the spitting image of her mother, right down to her wide green eyes and strawberry-blonde hair.
Baba Yaga’s voice droned back into earshot, making Bernie stand up straighter when she heard the word “Paris”.
She was going to Paris to do her parole? She didn’t know anyone in Paris. She didn’t know anyone anywhere except in Boston.
And she sure as hell didn’t know French. As if it wasn’t bad enough she was a witch who didn’t know how to be a witch, now Baba and the Council of spooky goons were sending her to a foreign country?
She’d better find her Sydney Bristow pants if she hoped to pull this one off.
“…Texas,” Baba finished with a smirk, her eyes gleaming.
What did Paris have to do with Texas? If ever two words warred with each other…
Bernie squeezed her temples, and asked, “Texas? Like y’all and George Strait?” The connection between the two places just wasn’t becoming clear.
“Yee and haw, motherfluffer!” Baba Yaga shouted before she let her head fall back on her creamy shoulders and cackled.
Wait! her mind said without aide of her mouth. She needed to clear up some things before she was sent off to Paris. Like, how long did parole last? Where would she live?
Most importantly, who was going to keep her from robbing another bank?
But Baba was clearly done talking.
Lifting her arm high, as a wind out of nowhere whipped her hair and the lights flickered, Baba snapped her fingers…
Big and sprinkled with sparse hair, testicles were swaying near her left eyeball.
They were the first things Bernie saw when she opened her eyes.
She’d landed flat on her ass and fallen backward, hitting the hard ground with a bone-rattling dump of limbs and pieces of cat hair she had to spit off her tongue.
She flattened her palms against the surface she’d landed on to find it felt like grass. “Sweet Susan! What the hell?”
A rush of oppressive heat wrapped around her face like a blanket as she lay there, too stunned to move. It coated her, swarming her skin, leaving beads of perspiration forming on her upper lip and forehead.
Fee fell smack on top of her with a yowl, right out of the sky and onto her face.
Bernie spit out a wad of pink tulle and clenched her eyes shut then popped them open again with a grunt. She moved her head to the side to dislodge Fee and looked up at the shadow hovering over her.
The shadow with testicles. How did a set of testicles the size of oranges get in the middle of Paris? Paris had testicles just all out in the open like that?
Of course Paris has testicles, nitwit. They have testicles galore. Testicles belong on men and there are gobs of men in Paris.
Yeah, but those don’t look like testicles from a man. Furthermore, why are they hanging in my face in Paris? I know it’s a pretty progressive place, but I didn’t know everyone went rogue.
There was no way to rationally reason this in her head. Instead, she opted for the if-you-can’t-see-it, it-doesn’t-exist mantra.
“Maybe if I don’t open my eyes, none of this is real.”
“Bernie girl, you’ve spent your entire sentence with your eyes closed. Open them and face the music, Sugarlumps.” Fee tickled her nose with his tail, using his paws to knead her hair.
“Mawnin’, y’all,” a soft voice murmured from above, the timbre deep and rich with southern tinges. A voice that sounded just like Lou Rawls.
Holy shitballs of fire. Lou Rawls was here, too?
Bernie rolled to her side, her eyes wide open now. She grabbed Fee and pulled him close to her chest, her heart pounding so violently, she heard it in her ears. “Who was that, Fee?”
“It was just me, ma’am.”
Bernie’s breathing quickened, but no way was she looking up. “Are the testicles talking, Fee? Please tell me the testicles don’t sound like Lou Rawls and they aren’t talking.”
Fee made a clucking noise while he struggled out of her grip. “Can’t do that.”
“Where the hell are we and why are there talking testicles involved?” Her panic was taking on a new but familiar feel. Much like the panic she’d experienced when the Boston PD had first arrested her after finding her in the bank vault of Boston First Mutual.
Still, the Boston PD didn’t have talking testicles. Well, not technically—maybe metaphorically. This created a whole other level of panic in the pit of her stomach.
“Bernie baby, didn’t you listen to anything Baba Yaga said?”
Fee finally came into focus, his dark fur sitting against a grassy backdrop, with nothing but puffy white clouds above his head and the glare of the angry sun on his glittering tiara beneath.
“I heard ‘you flew too long under the radar, Bernice’ and something about Paris blah, blah, blah and then Texas.” Yep, that was about the gist of it.
Fee fell back on his haunches and blinked at her. “Aw, hell, Bernie. You hafta stop escapin’ to that place in your mind where this isn’t all happening. Because, newsflash, it’s happening. Right here in Children of The Corn country. And the testicles belong to a bull in a pasture that goes on for miles and miles with no freakin’ end in sight.”
A pasture. Okay. That connected with Texas, for sure. “And the bull talks?” She winced at her question.
Of course he talked. Cats talk and wear tutus, and witches exist, Bernie Sutton.
“He does, ma’am,” the quote-end quote bull said, a hint of amusement in his tone.
“Why do the testicles, er…I mean, bull, sound like Lou Rawls?”
The bull chuckled, deep and resonant. “That’s a mighty fine compliment, pretty lady, but most folks just call me Bitty. Good to meet ya. I’d offer ya a hand up, but well, you know, I’m all two left testicles.”
“Hah!” Fee squawked, jumping in the air and rolling to his back. “The testicles made a funny. You know, left feet—testicles? I love it here already!”
Bernie shook her head, using the heels of her feet and hands to scoot backward. “Talking bulls? Not funny, Fee.”
Fee rolled upright to rub up against her side. “Okay, cool your jets. I hear hysteria in your voice and it reminds me that I forget sometimes you’re still not used to our world, where crazy shit happens every day. So let’s talk this out.”
She sucked in air that felt as though it had just escaped an oven. “Talk me down, Fee. Hurry. Before I pass out.”
“Did you even hear the terms of your parole, Bernie girl?”
She pulled her legs close to her chest and let her chin rest on her knees with a sheepish gaze focused solely on Fee. She wasn’t ready to look at Bitty just yet. “Well, not all of it.”
“You heard none of it,” Fee admonished.
Bernie let her head hang in shame. “Guilt be my name. You’re right. I heard none of it. So what happens next?”
Fee turned his back on her and began weaving in and out of Bitty’s legs. “So here’s the deal. I am so your familiar. Whether you like it or not. So sayeth that lunatic with a scrunchie and a ‘Total Eclipse of The Heart’ fetish. No one else applied for the job, so suck it.”
“Aren’t I the luckiest witch ever?”
Bernie actually bit back a smile. She’d never tell him, but she was relieved Fee was here with her, wherever here was, talking testicles who sounded like Lou Rawls and all.
“I could’ve applied to mentor that head case over in cellblock B, you know. At least she’d be grateful.”
“The one who eats toilet paper and hoards her hair from her brush?”
“The one and only.”
Bernie smirked. “God, you’re such a giver.”
“Damn right, I am. Now, the next bit of bizniz. We’re in Texas. Paris, Texas. A town primarily made up of witches and a few werewolves and the occasional paranormal who checks the ‘other’ box. Also home of the infamous Winifred Foster-Yagamowitz you heard so much about from Chi-Chi—and Baba Yaga’s niece by marriage, as well. She and her husband Benjamin run a rehabilitation house for wayward witches like yourself. You’ll live there while you serve out your two-month parole doing community service.
“If, and I stress if, you do your time clean, you’ll have one more hearing, where Winnie, your parole officer, and members of the community give their testimony on how you fared. If all goes well, then and only then will you be free to run amok wherever people like you—who don’t care about the enormous sacrifices their familiars make for them—live.”
Most of Fee’s explanation went in one ear and out the other. Who could think when it was this hot? The one thing she had heard? Community service.
“Community service? What kind of community service? Like chain-gang, pick-up-litter-on-the-side-of-the-highway community service?”
“Horse puckey. Cow patties, too,” someone said. Someone male.
Someone with a voice very different than Lou “Testicles” Rawls, but equally as deep and resonant—maybe even a little shiver-worthy.
Bernie’s eyes lifted as she followed the new, long shadow stretching out before her and blocking the sun.
“Seven hells and an extinct unicorn. If I had opposable thumbs, I’d fan myself! Who are you, Cowboy, and are there more where you come from?” Fee purred the saucy words, deserting Bernie to rub shamelessly up against the calves belonging to the male voice.
“I’m her boss.”
Bernie’s eyes decided finding out what the face attached to the voice looked like was probably prudent, so she let them roam all the way up—past his scuffed brown boots, over his lean hips encased in tight denim, beyond his rippling stomach and along his broad shoulders—until they landed on his sun-weathered face.
And what a face. Deeply tanned, hard-jawed, with clear skin stretched tight over sharp cheekbones. Grooves on either side of a full mouth and eyes so stunningly blue with dark lashes rimming them, she inhaled a breath.
The fringes of his chocolate-brown hair hung just beneath his white Stetson, not quite touching his jaw. His stare was even and steady as a rock. No blinking.
“Ohhh, saints be,” Fee cooed with delight. “We hit the hottie jackpot, Bernie girl!”
“You’re Bernice Sutton,” he said, deadpan, without addressing Fee’s forward comment and minus a single hint of emotion.
She was still trying to formulate her words. Rather than stumble on them, she nodded, her mouth dry.
“I’m Ridge Donovan. Your boss for the next two months. Baba Yaga told me you’d be arriving today. I just didn’t expect it to be out here in the middle of someone else’s pasture.” He scowled down at her as though she had any control over whose pasture she’d landed in.
Fee hopped into her lap and brushed his cold nose against her ear. “Don’t just sit there, Bernie. Get up and greet hotpants right and proper!” he whisper-yelled.
She struggled to her feet, wobbling a bit when the confines of her sticky orange jumpsuit and the heat of the sun mingled, hitting her with their blazing impact.
Licking her dry lips, she wiped her sweaty palm on her thigh and held out her hand. “Yes. I’m Bernice Sutton. But Bernie’s fine.”
Ridge didn’t reach out for her offered hand. Instead, he turned on his booted heel and pointed a lean finger toward a distant dot on the scorching-hot horizon. “The farm’s this way. Better get a move on. The horses’ stalls need cleaning before they get back from their morning walk with the seniors from the center. Oh, and don’t forget your fancy toilet paper roll.”
Her eyes fell to the ground, where her jailhouse Academy Award lay crumpled.
Ridge slapped Bitty on the back. “Good seein’ ya again, old man. Give Nash and Calla a howdy from me, would ya?” Then he stalked off over the brittle grass, his boots crunching a path toward the dot.
“Can do, Ridge,” Bitty responded cheerfully.
Fee took off, skipping his way over the distance between him and Ridge, his tutu fluttering wildly in a pink cluster as he tried to keep up. “Hurry, Bernie!” he called over his shoulder giddily, breathless excitement in his words. “You have shit to shovel!”
Left for a hot cowboy in tight jeans and a Stetson.
Some familiar, her Fee.
* * * *
Bernie fell against the opening to the barn door and gasped for breath, clinging to her crushed award. Cheese and rice, it was GD hot here.
She’d followed the outline of Ridge’s back for what felt like miles, struggling to keep up as they crossed the field, her Kotex slippers tripping over hard patches of thick grass, dying from the heat while the sun ate her face off, only to be told to wait here.
At a big dilapidated barn that looked as if it just might be on its last legs, positioned next to what might have been a storm cellar with two rusty doors. The red paint was peeling everywhere on the face of the structure, the stench coming from inside was enough to gag ten men, and the fence posts surrounding the property were falling down.
Overall, her new gig, though bar-free, was pretty rough.
Though, she had to give it up for the landscape. There were enormous trees everywhere, dirt paths that led to places she’d, under other circumstance, like to explore. Chickens roamed free in a large pen with a small red wooden house, and pigs rolled in a pen full of mud, and cows dotted the outlying pasture, contentedly chewing on grass.
Yep. Bernie Sutton from the city was on a real live farm. Boy howdee.
The shade of the wide entry to the barn did little to cool her off. If anything, the shadows served only to keep her from catching fire.
Bales of hay lined the entryway to the horse stalls, the stink heightened and cloying from the muggy heat. Fee hopped up on a block of compact straw and settled back on his haunches. “So yammer at me, Bernie.”
“About how ssssinfully hot Ridge Donovan is.”
“Hell yeah, I’m drooling. He’s hotter n’ habaneras and Chris Hemsworth.”
She wrinkled her nose and wiped the sweat from her brow. No drooling over men. A man was part of the reason why she was in this predicament in the first place. If she’d just gone with her gut, she wouldn’t have ended up in a bank vault with fistfuls of cash and no recollection of getting there.
“That’s not why I’m here, Fee. I’m here to do my time. I have zero interest in anything else.” And from the looks of Ridge Donovan and that stone set to his jaw, he had nothing else in mind either.
“Doesn’t hurt to look.”
She rubbed her temples with her thumbs and squeezed the beginnings of a rousing headache. “Are you advising, as my thrust-upon-me familiar, that I should ogle my boss while I’m on parole? I’m pretty sure that breaks some enormous parolee rule.”
“Excuse me, I wasn’t thrust upon you. I was chosen, thank you very much. You know, like by a panel of celebrity judges for the Miss Familiar Pageant?”
Bernie almost grinned, but couldn’t manage it because it was too hot to move her facial muscles. “Is ‘chosen’ the new word for ‘begging and scraping until Baba Yaga gives in’?”
Fee’s straight back slumped a little as he sank into the hay. “I only scraped a little, you dreadful beast. I needed a new gig after…”
“Yeah. You know, I’ve been meaning to ask you, Fee. Why did you need a new gig anyway? I thought witches were immortal and they kept their familiars forever?”
She’d always wondered what had drawn Fee to her—what had made him stick around even when she’d ended up sedated after he’d first “spoken” to her at morning exercise.
He lifted his chin haughtily. “Why didn’t you know you were a witch?”
“Still not ready to share your secrets with me, are you?”
She rolled up her sleeves and crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m not ready for anything else but doing what needs to be done for my surprise parole so I can get the hell out of this place and go back to Boston. It’s scorching and it smells like a hot brew of sewer and toxic waste in here.”
“That’s good to hear,” Ridge said, strolling toward the opening to the barn, all big and muscle-y. “If you’re in the mood to make good on your parole conditions, it’ll make your time go that much faster. Idle hands, as they say.” He held out a rusty shovel.
Fee collapsed on the hay and let out a soft and, if Bernie wasn’t mistaken, flirty meow.
Bernie fought a roll of her eyes. Okay, so Ridge looked good, even sweaty and dirty. In fact, he smelled good, too. Like hard work and fabric softener. There was no denying his enormous frame was easy on the eye.
But freedom was easy on the eye, too, and that was the prize she was focused on.
She pointed to the shovel. “For the horse puckey?”
He gave her a curt nod, his gaze eating a hole right through her bruised soul. “For the horse puckey. Lunch is at twelve sharp. You’ll meet Greta, your parole office then. Be on the front porch to the big house or miss your meal entirely. Fresh water is in the cooler by the pigpen. Follow your nose and you’ll know where to find it. If you need to use the facilities, there’s an outhouse over there.” He thumbed over his left shoulder. “Any questions?”
Because he made the asking so approachable…
Rocking back on her heels, Bernie shook her head. Say as little as possible and suck it up, Buttercup, had been her motto from the moment she’d realized no one believed she didn’t know she was a witch.
She’d gone from wigged-out, anxiety-riddled Bernice Sutton to reliable, dependable, model inmate in less than two weeks. If she could do that behind bars, she could do that here in Catch Fire-Ville.
Taking the shovel, she didn’t even think twice about her shredding Kotex slippers as she pushed off the side of the barn. “Not a one.”
Ridge tipped his hat and sauntered off into the blazing mid-morning sun without another word.
Fee blew out a breathy escape of air. “Isn’t he just the shiznit, B?”
“Oh totally,” she muttered, stomping her way toward the farthest stall and unlatching the hinged door. “He’s like fuzzy kittens and Yanni’s pan flute playing in the background all rolled into one nurturing bundle of shiznit.”
Fee padded toward her, scurrying and weaving as he went. “Don’t be so grudgey. It could be worse, you know. You could still be that nutball KiKi Lemieux’s prison pet.”
She was getting testy and she knew it. She’d fought hard to maintain her cool all while she’d absorbed this witch thing in prison. But it was starting to eat its way through her gut. Add to that her stiff upper lip was on fire, and she was a hotbed for a meltdown.
“You’re so right, Fee. I could still be in a nice, cool prison cell brushing KiKi Lemieux’s hair for her, instead of here in Boiled Alive Landing in the middle of August, mucking horseshit. How ungrateful of me.”
“There’s the pity party I’ve been waiting for!” Fee swished his tail and a festive party noisemaker appeared out of thin air, sounding off in the general vicinity of her ear.
Bernie jumped as the abrasive noise intruded on the quiet of the barn. “Knock it off, Fee!” She swatted it away with an irritable hand—only to hear a crackle and a sharp pop, leaving the scent of smoke wafting to her nose.
Her eyes went wide when she looked down at her feet and saw the now-blazing party favor fall to the ground, hitting a bale of dry hay.
Fee squeaked and jumped up onto the stall door when the embers ignited in a dry huff.
“Water, Fee! We need water!” she yelped as the entire bale of hay began to burn in an orange and blue blaze.
Her eyes flew around the enormous barn, one that was so old and decrepit, if she didn’t do something it would surely go up in flames from so much dry wood.
She ran for a thick blanket draped over a stall door and grabbed it, her heart throbbing against her ribs, thick smoke making her eyes tear. “Fee! Make it rain or something!” she bellowed, her makeshift slippers sticking to the dirt floor.
Fee hopped around as the fire began to spread. “I suck dirty ass at elementals, Bernie! But if you listen to me, you can stop this!”
Lunging for the rapidly spreading fire, she threw the blanket on it, hoping to tamp it out, but that only made everything worse as the blanket caught fire, too.
Acrid smoke began to fill the barn in thick clouds of black. Rather than risk smoke inhalation, she scooped Fee up and ran for the door.
“Bernie!” he yelled, clawing the front of her jumpsuit. “You have the power to make it stop. Just concentrate!”
Bernie chose to ignore his advice, running straight for the door. She wanted no part of this witch business, and even if she did, at this panic-filled moment, she couldn’t parse frog sweat from the tears of a Dutch maiden to mix up a spell that would douse the fire anyway.
Smoke continued to billow in thicker clouds, moving upward toward the ceiling as the flames rose.
She couldn’t see a damn thing as she tripped and stumbled toward what she assumed was the front of the barn.
As though manna from Heaven, a weak shaft of light poked through the thick smoke to the barn entry and Bernie aimed for it, holding her breath and running with Fee tucked under her arm like a quarterback at a homecoming game.
She barreled outside to the front of the barn, only evident due to the harsh beat of the sun and her first intake of steamy air.
Fee slipped from her grasp as her eyes began to water and she hacked, falling forward into a hard wall of flesh.
“What the hell have you done to my barn?” someone roared, catching her in a pair of strong arms, preventing her from collapsing to the ground.
Bernie winced as more tears squeezed from her eyes.
Ridge. That was Ridge yelling. Appropriately named, too, for all the ridges his hot, muscled body sported—so sayeth her body, smashed against it.
And then before she could clear her vision enough to get a grasp on her footing, another voice piped in—an elderly one at that. “Break out the marshmallows and weenies, Poise Pad Wearers, and I’ll get the beer—it’s barbequin’ time!”
Bernie groaned on a cough.
Yee and haw.
As some of the seniors and Calla Ryder, the director from the senior center, hosed the inside of the barn, Ridge eased Bernie out of his arms and toward an old, rotting barrel. Likely one of the very barrels his brother had used to store some of his infamous hooch.
Setting her down, he fought not to bellow a scream of frustration—not so much at Bernie, but at the way shit had piled up here.
Goddamn it. He didn’t need one more thing to add to the list of things that needed doing for his ailing legacy.
The farm. His parents’ pride and joy and, at one time, proudly called Donovans’ Crest.
Cue the beating of his father’s fists to his chest in caveman fashion.
Nowadays, it was more like Donovans’ Disaster. In full-on disrepair and in need of more work than even he, as a warlock, was capable of handling alone. With his brother Finn on the run from the Council, Ridge was totally solo in this and it was all he could deal with.
And Baba Yaga’s order that he take on Bernice Sutton to help him clean the place up as her community service left him resentful and pissy as all hell. But no one said no to Baba, the head witch in charge. Not if you liked living.
It wasn’t that Baba was a bad ruler over witchdom. In fact, he rather liked her at a party. She did a hella sprinkler to just about any ’80s tune the DJ played. But she was a pushy, interfering queen when not in a social setting.
Pushing him to come back to his parents’ defunct farm…pushing him to fix the place up even though she knew it was mostly immune to any type of laborious magic after a spell his father had placed on it so his sons would learn the value of hard work.
Which left him unable to snap his fingers and restore it to its former beauty well enough to suit Baba Yaga.
He’d looked high and low for anything his father might have left behind—an incantation scrawled in one of his many journals, a book of magic—anything with the key to breaking the spell so he could clean it up and go back to his life in Dallas. At this rate, it would take a full year to just get things up and running again.
No one else’s magic worked on Donovan land, either. Sure, he could whip up some candlelight, make a meal appear on the table, but the nitty-gritty of the farm work, like tending the animals, fixing broken fencing, baling hay—that was all manual labor.
His father had been a stickler for keeping the farm a place primarily magic-free, following the old order of rules, wherein being found out by humans was unthinkable.
He’d wished his father had lived long enough to catch a few episodes of iZombie or Lost Girl for a more enlightened take on living as a warlock in the twenty-first century.
But Ramsey Donovan often said nothing could replace sore muscles and gritty eyes after a hard day’s work on the farm, and he wouldn’t have fluffy magic wands and pansy-ass spells taking their place.
For the most part, Ridge agreed with his father, and if he ever had children, he wanted to raise them in just the same way. He’d learned how to fare, and fare well, in the human world because he knew the lesson that hard day’s work offered.
Except for right now. Right now, he’d give his left arm and a lung to be able to snap his fingers and fix this.
Finn had left the old homestead a goddamn mess, taking off without a word and leaving the few horses and livestock in peril, meaning Ridge’d had no choice but to come back and handle the aftermath.
Today, looking at this Bernie Sutton—her cheeks a mixture of red from the heat and black from the soot, her hair plastered to the side of her face with sweat—he wanted to haul Finn’s ass back here and hold his head under in the water trough until he screamed uncle.
But despite his resentment, there were the older witches and warlocks from Hallow Moon Senior Center to consider. They loved this place, and when Calla, his old buddy Nash’s wife, had asked if she could bring them out here for some daytrips to spend time with the animals and on the trails bordering the farm, he couldn’t say no.
Then add in the pressure from Winnie Foster-Yagamowitz, who ran a rehabilitation house for the parolee witches with her husband Ben.
Winnie, who, with pies and casseroles and fancy double talk, had convinced him to help his community by employing some of the women she housed, and he found himself with a bunch of seniors and ex-inmates at one point or another every day.
Winnie and Calla were already a force of charm and persuasion. Stir into the mix Winnie’s daughter Lola, irresistible in her own six-year-old right, and he’d been doomed from the word jump.
Most times, the aging senior witches and warlocks were less help, more shenanigans, but they made him laugh, something he realized he sorely needed these days.
What he didn’t need was some crazy witch on parole, burning his barn down because she was angry about serving her parole shoveling horseshit.
Clive Stillwater clapped him on the back, his craggy face lined like a road map to his long life. “Where the hell’s my buddy Petey gonna sleep tonight if some crazy ex-con’s burnin’ down his stall?”
“The fire was more bark than bite, Clive. Petey’s gonna be just fine,” Ridge reassured.
“Damn women,” he spat. “Should be in the kitchen makin’ sandwiches, not bonfires.”
Flora Watkins dug a knuckle into Clive’s side, her gray hair still in the neat bun she’d arrived with despite the heat and the dry winds coming in from the north. “You mind yourself, Clive. If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, I’ll make you a sandwich outta your limp burrito if you keep talking about my persuasion that way! Now take your wrinkled old butt on over to the bus where it’s cool or you’ll have us missin’ Judge Judy with our lunch because you passed out from this bloody heat.” She pointed a knobby finger toward the senior center bus and scowled at Clive.
Clive flapped his hand at her, but he was moving his wrinkled butt in the other direction and far away from Flora’s glare of death as he retorted, “Bah, you women. All so damn demanding. Pushin’ us around like we ain’t got no say in anything.”
Ridge shook his head with a chuckle. “Now, Clive, you be nice. Miss Flora’s just looking out for your health.”
Flora gripped Ridge’s arm. “The fire’s out and it doesn’t look too bad. So go easy on her, will you?”
Ridge grunted, scanning the last wisps of smoke coming from the barn. “The parolee?”
“You know exactly who I mean, Ridge Donovan. Yes, the parolee, and she has a name. Her name’s Bernie, and I hear she claims she didn’t even know she was a witch.”
He hooked his thumbs into the loops on his jeans and glanced over at Bernie, sitting quietly on the barrel as her outspoken familiar circled her feet. “Says who?”
“Says rumor. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s been spreading all over town like the black plague.”
“And you believe that story? Who doesn’t know they’re a witch, Miss Flora?” She couldn’t have pulled that one over on Baba Yaga. No way would that fly with someone as travel weary as her.
“I’d believe anything at my age. Which is somewhere around two thousand. I think. Have to check my iPad calendar app the kids installed for me.”
Ridge sucked in his cheeks and narrowed his gaze. “You suppose she knows she robbed a bank?”
Miss Flora pursed her lips. “Don’t be persnickety with me, boy. I just think there’s an explanation we haven’t come across, is what I think. If you ask me, she looks a little lost. So maybe don’t be mean Ridge today. Cut her some slack?”
“Mean Ridge? Why, Miss Flora, I’d be insulted if not for the fact that I know you’re sweet on me. Gus told me so.”
She scoffed, her eyes twinkling as she drove her hands into the pockets of her denim skirt and rocked back on her pristine-white orthopedic shoes. “Who isn’t sweet on cloudy Ridge Donovan? Not one witch as far as the eye can see, that’s who, mister. All crazy women like men who brood and pout. It’s like flies on manure to a girl, brings ’em all to your yard. They think it’s sexy. They want to fix you. But I know the real Ridge, and he’s only standoffish at first because he’s busy assessing you, and he forgets he’s wearin’ his poker face when he does it.”
That was his business face, and it was true, he was assessing. He spent a lot of time reading body language as part of his job as a securities consultant.
Sometimes, you had to really dig to find out why a client needed a bodyguard to begin with, and he was good at parsing the crappy dangerous gigs from the current-visiting-pop-queen security job.
Still, he widened his eyes in teasing mockery. “Me? Standoffish?”
Flora wrinkled her nose and poked him in the ribs. “Yep, you, with that sourpuss and that frown. Keeps people at a distance, which I’m supposin’ you like until you can size ’em up right. All I’m saying is, give this one a chance. She seems like a nice kid who’s just pretty lost, and she doesn’t need your scary face in hers, glowering down at her and makin’ it worse.”
“And you know this after seeing her for all of five minutes?”
Flora began to wander toward the bus. “You forget who you’re dealing with, Broody McBrooder. I read auras, buddy, and yours is all pink and fluffy on the inside!” she teased.
Yeah. Fluffy. He raised a hand to wave to Flora as he picked his way past the lingering seniors toward Bernie.
She popped up from the barrel, reaching a hand backward to steady herself. “I’m sorry, Mr. Donovan. I’m really, really, really sorry. Sometimes, this magic…er, my magic just happens. But I promise to work harder to control it, and I’ll clean the mess up. All of it.”
He paused a moment, remembering what Flora said. Did women really find him attractive because he came off brooding and sullen? Was he really scary?
Still, Ridge found himself relaxing his face in light of Flora’s words, shifting his jaw back and forth as though doing so would wipe away the scary.
He didn’t want to frighten her. He just didn’t want to have to deal with her or any of this when everything was already in such disarray.
“Something wrong with your face?” she asked, her thickly fringed eyes peering at him.
“I’m fine. This will all be fine, Bernie. Nothing was really damaged that can’t be cleaned up. And you can call me Ridge, by the way.”
She finally lifted her eyes, so green and round, so full of all sorts of things he found himself wondering about. “Mr. Donovan’s fine. I’ll go start cleaning up,” she said stiffly, wiping her brow with the arm of the burned fabric of her prison jumpsuit.
Brrrr. She was freezing him out—and he found that disturbed him. “Why don’t you go grab some lunch first?”
“Is that mandatory?”
“It’s not mandatory, but it is necessary. Look, Bernie, you’ve had a long morning. Go and catch your breath then we’ll meet back here for cleanup. I hear it’s tuna casserole day. Wash it down with some of Winnie’s homemade lemonade and you’ll be good as new.”
She blatantly ignored his mention of tuna casserole. “Is that an order?”
What the hell? Why was she suddenly so defensive? He put his consulting hat back on and took control. “If you choose to put that slant on it, so be it. I don’t want you passing out from lack of nourishment and dehydration in this heat on my watch. So go get lunch now, Sutton.”
Without another word, she smoothed her tangled hair back, pivoted on her makeshift slippers and headed toward the farm, her fancy familiar hot on her heels.
And with no warning at all, he chuckled.
Because if she could get a tiny glimpse of the mess she was right now, her jumpsuit clinging to her back, her strawberry-blonde hair sticking out at odd ends all over her head, those crazy shoes flapping up dust, she’d probably be pretty pissed.
He’d bet she was damn cute when she was pissed.
* * * *
“I don’t need lunch,” she muttered under her breath, stomping her way toward the rambling white house with the enormous front porch and a row of dead hanging plants swishing in the wind.
“Were you trying to take ‘burn this mother down’ to a whole new level, Vigilante Barbie?” Fee teased as he ran beside her, hopping over tall clumps of sun-dried grass.
Remorse twisted her insides. “Did you hear what that one senior Glenda-Jo said about the barn?”
“You mean that it was where Ridge’s parents got married?”
She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from crying. “Yes, and it was his mom’s favorite place to read so she could be by the horses. Shit, Fee. I’ve been here twelve-point-two seconds and already I’ve screwed up something of sentimental value. I didn’t mean to do it.”
“I know, I know. Take the heifer of all chill pills and relax. I was just bustin’ your balls. Speaking of chill pills, what the hell was all that about with Ridge?”
“I don’t know what that was about. It’s too hot to think clearly.”
She knew damn well what it was about. It was about landing in those arms—those thick-with-corded-muscle arms of Ridge’s—and feeling safe, comforted.
It had set her on an already slippery slope, right at the tip of a ledge she didn’t want to venture any farther out along.
Fee hopped in front of her when they hit the flagstone path leading to the porch steps. “Stop right there and take a minute. You were downright rude to him. You’re being petulant and spiteful to the guy who’s gonna be your boss for two months. Like it’s going to be some skin off his nose if you don’t eat your parolee vittles? Not coolio, Fruit Cup. He reports to your parole office. You need all the good reports you can get if you want out of this mess come time for your hearing.”
“I wasn’t being spiteful. I just wanted to get on with it. I don’t need to eat. I need to make that barn right.”
“You won’t make it right if you pass out because you haven’t had anything to eat or drink since this morning at six before Baba The Horrible showed up. Besides, you heard the hunk with the sweet, sweet tuchus. It’s tuna casserole day. Turning that down is just plum es stupido. This isn’t about the suggestion of lunch, Ray of Sunshine, and we both know it. Now what’s got you so vexed?”
She closed her eyes and swallowed, trying to wipe out the memory of all those people on the horses staring at her in horror as she’d burst out of the barn and fallen into Ridge’s bulky frame.
Fear welled inside her. More fear than when she’d found herself in a bank vault with fistfuls of cash and absolutely no clue how she’d gotten there.
“I set a barn on fire, Fee. On. Fire. With just the flap of my hand. A barn that holds importance for someone. It’s not like I have any warning it’s going to happen, either. It’s not like there’s some feeling that accompanies this when I wave my hands of mass destruction. It just happens. I’m going to hurt someone. What if one of those seniors from the center had been in the barn? I’d never be able to live with myself if one of them ended up hurt because of me.”
Somehow, she’d managed to escape doing any serious harm up to this point in her life, but for how long could what little luck she had hold out?
Fee’s tone softened. “You didn’t do it on purpose. It was an accident, Bernie. Just an accident.”
“Yep. So was the Titanic. But people still died.”
Fee snorted. “They sure did. Leo’s death was downright outrageous. How hard would it have been for Kate Winslet to make room on that damn raft for his fine ass?”
“Fee! The point is I’m dangerous. I shouldn’t be around people or livestock or anything with a pulse. Maybe Baba Yaga can give me a different job. In a closet. With padded walls and no lights.”
“Jesus and a sleigh ride. When are you going to catch up to the rest of us, Bernice? That’s why you’re here. To learn. There are people here who can teach you how to do this and do it right. For Christ’s sake, Winnie Foster’s one of the most powerful witches on this plane and she runs the rehabilitation house you’re staying in. Who better to mentor you than her? All ya gotta do is open up.”
Winnie-Schminnie. She’d heard a lot about Winnie and how she’d come to Paris on parole and turned her life around. She was the example Baba used ad nauseam when it came to lemons and lemonade. There was even a Winnie life chart with circles and arrows and all sorts of depictions of a woman saved from the wreckage of excess.
When Chi-Chi had first mentioned her, Bernie hadn’t paid much mind, but she’d learned quickly that Winnie was like some sort of bad witch gone good—a shining example of how you could turn your life around if you just applied yourself.
She’d be happy to do that if just one person believed her story.
“Baba thinks I’m lying about not knowing I was a witch.” There. She’d spent ten months in denial but if she kept that up, someone could end up injured. She needed help.
“BY likes White Snake, too. Which proves she’s not always right on the money.”
“You don’t like White Snake? How can you deny the appeal of Tawny Kitaen and all that hair on the hood of a hot car?”
“Hair-schmair. Who needs hair when there’s more than enough Streisand to go around?”
Glancing down at Fee, she cocked her head. She’d never asked him if he questioned her story because she almost didn’t want to know, but if she was going to be stuck here, shoveling horse dung and playing milkmaid, she needed someone to talk to, an ally.
“Do you believe me, Fee?”
Fee sat back on his haunches, lifting his small muzzle, the pink bow on his tail swishing in time with his tail. “Keepin’ it one hundred?”
Brushing her forearm over her the side of her face, she nodded. “Absolutely. Total honesty.”
“At first I thought you were crazier than when Brit-Brit shaved her head. But the more I watched you go all wonky-eyed whenever one inmate would zap another inmate with a spell behind the screws’ backs, the more I believed you. I thought you were gonna lose your shit all over the cafeteria after that greasy—not to mention volatile—beast Veronica conjured up all those spiders in Petunia’s split-pea soup.”
She shuddered at the memory, but then relief settled in her bones, almost melting them. At least someone believed her. But then the reality of her situation, the one where she had to confront this if she planned to learn how to get along in this life, slapped her in the face.
“But here’s what I want to know, and you’re not going to like it, but we have to discuss it sometime—sometime soon. For the love of a coven, how the hell could you not know you’re a witch, Bernie? You do have parents, they had to be witches—at least one of them did. Care to embellish? Because it makes no GD sense, and I’ve got all sorts of theories and plots running through my head about how you didn’t know. So feel free to set me straight. Like anytime soon.”
Rather than address Fee’s questions, ones that mirrored her own, she said, “I don’t think I want to be a witch, Fee.”
But she’d sure like to know how she’d become one. This damn parole was putting off her search to discover how this had all happened. The plan had been to figure it out the second those cell doors clanked open. Now she’d have to wait another two months before she could tackle the biggest dilemma of her life.
However, the moment she had a chance, she was going to that storage unit where her parents’ boxes had sat unopened for almost two years, and she was going to dig until she found an answer.
Fee stood on his hind legs and pressed his front paws to her knees, stretching his spine. “Well, ain’t that just too damn bad for you, Bernie girl? Because you are a witch. So suck that rotten egg. And rest assured, the parental-unit conversation isn’t over—just tabled for the momentito. Now, buck up, buttercup. There’s tuna casserole and lemonade right up those stairs. Let’s get you fed and then we’ll clean up that barn—together.”
Driving her hands into the pockets of her jumpsuit, she had to smile. No matter how unwilling or difficult she’d been these last ten months, when Fee had decided she was his, he’d curled up at the end of her cot every night and he hadn’t left her since.
Reaching down, she scratched the spot under his chin. “You’re a peach, Fee.”
“I’m a moron for putting up with the likes of ungrateful you, B-Bop. Now move along, little doggie. I smell tuna-tuna-tuna!” he sang, dancing the conga up the steps.
The clean white door to the house popped open then and a woman, dark-haired with laughing eyes, stuck her head out. “Bernice?” she asked with a wide smile and a honeyed voice.
She shrugged her shoulders, unsure about such a warm welcome. She was an ex-con, after all, but this woman was behaving as if she was welcoming her into The Secret Witches Club fold.
Peering up, she assessed this beautiful, friendly creature in a cute floral-patterned sundress, her lightly tanned shoulders exposed, long raven hair hanging down her back in a riot of curls, and muttered again, “Just Bernie is fine.”
“Well, c’mon in, Just Bernie! You look whipped. I’m Winnie Yagamowitz, and I have a plate of tuna casserole and some fresh lemonade with your name on them.”
Fee squealed as he raced up the steps and slipped through the old screen door and Bernie followed him, her Kotex pads so shredded, she might as well have been barefoot.
Winnie looked down at Bernie’s feet with a grin and asked, “Chi-Chi Gonzalez ring any bells?”
“You really did sell her sanitary-napkin slippers?”
“Like a snake oil salesman in a dusty western town.”
Bernie genuinely smiled this time, in spite of the heat, in spite of her sticky jumpsuit and the fact that she’d just set a barn on fire promptly two minutes after she’d arrived at her destination.
Maybe a little tuna casserole and some lemonade with someone who didn’t fashion shivs out of a pork chop bone wouldn’t kill her.