Alone we are tempting prey. Let us walk through this life’s journey together.
August 25th 1918
Looks like you should have put a bonding spell on your fiancé.” Sarcasm laced The Dugan’s voice.
“What do you know about bondage?” Lonnie swallowed her bite of chicken. Bondage? She had said bondage. She had thought of bondage, of binding him. Red scarves at his wrists and ankles with nothing in between but yards of flesh and her own imagination. She stared at her plate—chicken bones, crumbs and a smear of potato salad. What was happening to her? Plain, frumpy Lonnie never, ever thought such things, and about a Dugan, no less. Then why … ?
She sniffed her plate. Someone must have added an aphrodisiac to her food.
“Something wrong with your food?” His concern jerked her chin up with all the dexterity of a puppetmaster’s fingers.
“Mayonnaise tends to go bad in this heat,” she hedged, dumping her plate atop the flies buzzing around the open garbage can. Was it just her or had she emphasized bad? She wiped her hands on her skirt. Her lunch burbled in her stomach. Maybe she should have resisted the banquet. Answering Orren’s proposal was enough to give her indigestion. Add in the Dugan…
Focus, Lonnie. “What were you saying about bondage, er, bonding spells?”
His dimple winked at her before disappearing in his stern expression.
“I seem to be the victim of bondage.” He held up his wrist. A handcuff dangled from it. Three silver links rested against his corded forearm.
“Why don’t you use your key and undo them.”
“I would, sugar, but I can’t seem to find the keyhole.” “The—” Words stuck in her throat. Surely, she hadn’t heard correctly. He couldn’t have just said he’d lost the keyhole. He better have meant key.
“I’m sorry, Lonnie.” Honey skidded to a stop; her numerous scarves pelted Lonnie’s costume. She eyeballed The Dugan, backed up two steps and fidgeted in her purple boots. “Father Bean made me do it.”
She poked Lonnie’s arm. A silver bracelet hung from her wrist. Not bracelet—handcuff. A match to the one on The Dugan, linked by an invisible chain of magic to his. Moisture evaporated from her mouth.
“A binding spell.” She swallowed. Maybe it wasn’t that bad. The handcuff spun as she twirled her wrist. No keyhole. This was bad.
She had hoped to refuse Orren before he learned about her magical heritage, before anything he witnessed here could lend credence to the rumors in Phoenix and destroy her credibility as a researcher. She ignored the ominous moans welling within her. At least she was home. No fire-and pitchfork-wielding villagers to— She shut out the memories. “How far apart can we be?”
“Twenty feet. Seems you don’t trust the law over there in Pumpkin.”
“We don’t trust those from Holly.” Twenty feet. Bitterness coated her tongue. The Dugan would witness her rejection of Orren’s proposal and his reaction. She glared at him. No doubt the man would not let her forget it, just as with that little slip about bondage. “Everyone in Pumpkin has the utmost respect for the law, both nature’s and man’s.”
“Sure, sweetheart.” He winked.
Lonnie’s irritation melted. The man was flirting with her. Flirting, like she was free to do something about it. Suspicion hissed from the corner of her mind. Cinders and snakes, the man was a cad. For all he knew her fiancé hovered nearby. Wicked thoughts trounced her conscience. Orren wasn’t going to be her fiancé, and The Dugan needed to learn a lesson about flirting.
“Can you undo it?” Honey strangled Lonnie’s forearm. “I would except I promised not to.”
“I don’t know.” Lonnie eyed The Dugan from the corner of her eye. Very slowly, she moistened her dry lips.
His eyes had narrowed.
“I might actually decrease the distance. I mean, we could end up all over each other.”
The Dugan shifted, clasped his hands over his groin. Ha! Now it was his turn to be teased by unattainable ideas. She bit the inside of her mouth to keep from smiling.
“And after that, well, I might very well lose control and take advantage of the situation.”
Red bloomed in his cheeks. A muscle ticked in his jaw.
“What are you talking about, Lonnie?” Honey stomped her foot. “Just undo the spell before Father Bean demands you give him your word that you won’t.”
“Can one witch undo another’s spell?”
Irritation pricked Lonnie’s skin. How had he recovered so fast? Must be from experience. Her earlier erotic thoughts lingered like after-sex cigarette smoke above a rumpled bed. Guess there was something to be said for inexperience.
“Just what did you promise Father Bean?”
“I gave him my word I wouldn’t undo the spell.” Metal jangled as Honey glanced over her shoulder. “I never said anything about asking you to do it.”
“Are you certain?”
The Dugan shuffled closer. “What’s the big deal? People break promises all the time.”
“It’s not the same for us.” Lonnie turned to face him. Despite their magical heritage, the people of Holly and Pumpkin were very different.
“Burn the witches. Burn the witches.” Flames twisted the fear and hate on the villagers faces. Patients who only hours before had been happy for medicine now demanded their blood, their lives.
Lonnie pinched the stench of gasoline from her nose. No one would think to burn someone for celebrating Christmas, even if magic helped reindeer to fly. She must remember that. She must remember who he represented, what his ancestor had done.
“Once we agree to something we are committed to it until the person who received our pledge releases us.”
“What happens if you break a promise? You get a wart or something?” He tapped the end of her nose.
As she wiped off his touch, relief bubbled through her. Smooth skin; no wart. Not that she had expected one. The Dugan’s power lay in knowledge, not spells or curses. Except maybe the Christmas Carol Curse.
“Warts,” Honey snorted. “As if anyone feared warts as much as they feared a visit from the…” She slapped her hands over her mouth. Her eyes bulged in her head from the pressure of the swallowed word.
“The Dugan,” Lonnie whispered. Shame rippled through her. Spiders and frog’s lips, she had done nothing wrong. The legend was firmly rooted in fact. There were seven headstones in the Pumpkin graveyard to prove it.
“That’s the name of Pumpkin’s boogeyman.”
“You use my family name to frighten children?” His voice boomed across the lawn, smashing conversations and destroying appetites. Children stopped their game of tag and ran to their parents. En masse, the residents of Pumpkin shifted away from him.
“What did you expect?” She tossed her weight onto the balls of her feet. This was the Dugan of her nightmares—a bold slash of eyebrow, a slit instead of a mouth, quivering nostrils and a set-in-stone face. Meaty fists dangled from rigid arms. A quiver of fear shot through her. Her careless words had unleashed a creature steeped in rage and bent on destruction. She had to deflect his wrath.
A thin wail rose into the warm air. A mother cradled her baby close before scurrying toward the church. Others quickly followed. Misgiving filled Lonnie. If they were this frightened on neutral ground, how would they react once he was in Pumpkin proper? Father Bean should reconsider his plan, or at least his choice of investigator. The Dugan—
She halted mid-thought. Not The Dugan, exactly, just one of his descendents. Perhaps, if everyone saw she was unafraid of him, they would be, too. She hoped.
“Burnt Christmas cookies.”
A shudder rippled through him, then another. His fists loosened into curled fingers. He stared over her shoulder, his lips forming unspoken words. Lonnie blinked—not words, numbers. He was counting.
“Just give me an hour or so to calm down. It’s not every day you learn you’re the boogeyman incarnate.”
“Maybe a little distance would help.”
“Twenty feet isn’t far enough, sweetheart.”
“I was thinking away from the others.”
“Are you certain you wish to be alone with…” He swallowed hard. “…with me?”
She tucked her hand in his arm and tugged him toward the church gates. His footfalls thudded next to hers.
“I’ve lived outside of Pumpkin for more than a decade—
I’ve learned there’s far worse than the … boogeyman.”
An artery ticked at his temple. Nice going, Lonnie. You were supposed to distract the man. Distract as in the opposite of remind.
“Would you like me to speak of something else?”
“Yeah.” He swatted at a gold aspen leaf fluttering around his head. “That might be real helpful.”
She nodded. Now all she had to do was find a nice safe topic. Ideas flew in her skull like bats in the night, indistinct and fleeting. Well, cracked cauldrons, what did she have in common with the man?
A toothy grin saved her.
“Look.” She pointed to the skeleton sitting on the park bench. Crows perched on the tree limb overhead, eying the doughboy’s helmet tilted on the shiny skull. “Old Reidon is sitting under Deadman’s Tree. I wonder who put him back.”
“Probably the same person who had a vested interest in messing with my crime scene.”
“Your crime scene?”
“You said someone had taken him from his usual perch and put him up that tree.” The Dugan shook off her arm and strode over. He shaded his eyes from the afternoon sun and peered into the branches. Emotion drained from his features. Impersonal, distant. Cop mode. “Of course, if you’re willing to confess, then I imagine folks in Pumpkin will sleep a whole lot happier knowing their boogeyman is far away.”
Lonnie tucked her hair behind her ears. Okay, sure. It was a shock to learn generations of townsfolk had been terrorized by the mere mention of his name, but the Dugans were hardly blameless in the whole affair. They were the ones who had told of the covens of witches along the Rim.
“I’m sure you’ve told similar things about the folks from Pumpkin. Admit it. I’ve seen the looks. Little Holly-ites are just as afraid of me.”
He tugged a notebook and pad from his shirt pocket.
“It might be the outfit.” His cobalt gaze roamed over her body before settling on her face. “Or the wart at the end of your nose.”
“When was the last time you had custody of Old Reidon?” “Custody?” she snorted. “He is—or was—an adult.”
“I’m trying to establish a time line. Someone had a motive for messing with the scene of the crime.”
“Give me a break. Anyone could have done it. The whole of Pumpkin walked right through here to get to church.” She was back to being a suspect.
“Exactly what I was thinking.” He squatted down, his blunt fingers walked over the brittle grass.
His answer simmered in her mind. Had he found something to give direction to his investigation? She inched closer. Their investigation. Brown-and-yellow grass dotted with the occasional bird dropping. Nothing suspicious there.
“So, when was the last time you had him?” He straightened and strode to the lowest tree limb to test its strength with his weight.
“At the buffet. Tut took him to get some pie, although Honey thought he should have some supper first. And I think Aunt Olivia had him for a bit.” Lonnie shrugged. “He kind of got away from me after that.”
“He seems to do that a lot for a dead guy.” The Dugan ended his inspection of the tree limb and surveyed Old Reidon.
“Dead but not at peace.” Lonnie sauntered to his side. Goosebumps raced over her arms. “He died under this tree, you know. Broke his neck falling off his horse, or so the story goes. We bring him back every year to watch over his farm.”
“It’s not morbid.” She picked up the polished mahogany cane and set it across the boney knees. “Old Reidon was a war hero. Wounded twice in France during the Great War, he survived an influenza epidemic on the hospital ship bringing him back to the States.”
“Where he was thrown from a horse and broke his neck.”
“Most people die within a mile of their home.” Sadness settled in her gut. The handsome war hero had been loved and respected, yet he had died alone on a foggy October night. It didn’t make sense, she thought with a sigh, but then, death rarely did. “Are you ready to talk about it now.”
“Can one witch undo another witch’s spell?”
She shrugged off the twinge of disappointment. So he had arrived at the same conclusion—their alliance wouldn’t work. It was just as well. This attraction shimmering between them could only mean trouble.
“Yes. No. I don’t know.”
“But one witch can undo another’s curse or spell, right?”
“It depends on how powerful one is in comparison to the other.” Lonnie glanced at the solid circle of stainless steel. Not a fissure of weakness to be seen. “I’ve always been able to reverse Honey’s spells—she’s not very powerful. Then again, I haven’t practiced in a while.”
“So you can break it.”
“No, she can’t.” Tut buttoned his suit jacket as he walked over to them. His dark-brown hair lay neatly against his head. Concern settled in the shallow wrinkles in the corner of his eyes. “This truce is fragile, and quite frankly, there are plenty of folks gunning for my head so, no, she can’t break the binding spell. I’ll have your word on this, Lonnie.”
“Couldn’t I just increase it to thirty or fifty feet?”
“No.” Tut shook his head, “Absolutely not.”
“Lonnie.” Firm hands settled on her shoulders, shook her gently. “Think of the children.”
“Fine.” She batted his hands away. “You have my word that I will not try—”
Tut cleared his throat and arched an eyebrow. The sun-
warmed air filled her lungs. That was the problem with small towns. Everyone knew everyone else’s tricks.
“That I will neither try to break nor break the binding spell.”
The mayor nodded his approval. Great, now she was reduced to the role of juvenile by a man not only two weeks her junior but also one she had taught how to French kiss.
“Not that I planned to, anyway. I trust Father Bean’s judgment.”
“Not to mention he usually has a good reason.” Tut fished in his pocket and pulled out a miniature coffin. Gold, silver and copper keys tumbled out of the box, filling his palm with the colors of autumn. “Here are the keys to the town.”
“Gee.” Nicholas frowned. “I feel so welcome.”
Tut dropped the lot into her hands. “There’s the Haunted House key as well as some of the other attractions. It might help to have a professional eye look them over before the crowds start arriving in earnest.”
“A professional?” Nicholas stuck his hands in his pocket and rocked back on his heels.
Lonnie poured the keys back into the coffin. He was angry again, not that she could blame him. Leave it to Tut to praise the man and insult him in one breath. Well, she refused to apologize for the mayor’s bumbling. This adventure would be fraught with enough crow-eating possibilities of her very own making.
“Father Bean says you were with the county when that scandal broke.”
Scandal. Nick donned his “I don’t give a rip” mask. The scandal was bound to come up. They had to have known—the case had made national headlines. Still, the very mention of the events five years ago touched a nerve still throbbing in his abraded flesh. Three men had died. Three of his friends had rotted in an unmarked grave while a corrupt sheriff and his lackey deputies counted their millions.
Power was a dangerous thing, especially when it resided in the greedy hands of the unchallenged or the untouchable.
He looked at the handcuff on his wrist. An hour into his investigation, and he was shackled to another by magic. Magic he was powerless to fight. Father Bean had promised he wouldn’t be harmed, and he trusted Father Bean. Except the old hippie had also insisted on the binding spell.
Expectation hung on the air. Nick sighed. They were waiting for a reaction—everyone wanted dirt on the scandal.
“When it affects those you know,” Mayor Russell corrected, “it might as well have been yesterday.”
Nick stared at the departing man’s back. Was that a threat or a warning? What did it matter? He had more important things to do than puzzle through the mayor’s enigmas. He also had a partner he didn’t trust but wanted. He glanced at her breasts. One situation was so much easier to deal with than the other.
“You sure do make the men pant, sweetheart.” Perhaps he should scratch his itch before the investigation intensified.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Her chin rose a notch. A lone black curl bounced against her forehead.
“You have a fiancé who drives all the way up from Phoenix to see you. The mayor practically drools in your presence, and you were flirting with me.”
“I was not flirting with you.” One chipped fingernail poked his chest. “You were flirting with me.”
Nick resisted the urge to smile. Her response meant she, too, had impure thoughts. At least his partner was not afraid of him. Kris Kringle! They thought he was the boogeyman. Him, the peacemaker of the Dugan brood. He would have laughed if it had been funny. On the positive side, though, she had already thought of him while she was in her bed. Now all he had to do was get there.
“I wasn’t the one batting those big brown eyes at me, or patting my hair, and I certainly wasn’t shoving breasts in my face.” His gaze returned to her chest. Lush and perky. Maybe he shouldn’t have complained about that part. Resting his head against those firm little pillows had been worth a bump on the head.
“I was attempting to discern the extent of your injuries.” “Afraid I’d sue for malpractice?”
“I’m not that kind of doctor,” she sniffed.
Ice filled his veins. Not that kind of doctor. “What other kind of doctor is there?”
She shook her head and tried to look at the back of her skull. “Obviously, your head was the safest place Old Reidon could have landed. You already have brain damage.”
Brain damage. The lady was quick with the comebacks, but she would answer his question.
“What kind of doctor?”
“I have a Ph. D. in botany, okay?” She grasped hunks of her hair and flattened them against her scalp. “Look this isn’t going to work.”
“Why not?” Nick rolled his shoulders. Time for the boogeyman to let her know where she and her friends stood. “Are you afraid I’ll discover one of Pumpkin’s elite is really the Prankster?”
“No.” She tsked. “It’s because we can’t seem to be together without making some snotty remark. And I would hate to hurt your feelings again.”
His feelings? He wasn’t the cook suffering from heat exhaustion. Not that she was going anywhere. Aside from this shared attraction, she was his one shot at breaking the curse on his family.
“Truce then.” He offered her his hand.
The skin of her hand was smooth and soft in his. How would the rest of it feel sliding against his, lubricated by sweat and perfumed by desire? He would find out soon enough. Hopefully, when there was a bit more privacy.
Focus on the curse, Nick. At least until you’re somewhere twenty feet is a huge distance. Like a bedroom. Or a livingroom. Or a shower.
“What makes you think it’s someone from my town?”
“You grew up here. You know what the high school seniors do. Heaven’s angels, it’s almost like a rite of passage to to switch out jack-o-lanterns, change signs or swap Santas for scarecrows. That Haunted House business is different. Someone actually went into a building. I would have heard about it—no teen would resist bragging.”
Doubt hung on the corners of her mouth. “Maybe it was an adult.”
“No adult sets foot in Pumpkin.” Conviction filled him. the Prankster was local and not from his town. “Deadman’s Farm is the boundary and has been since—”
Orren the Borin’ tiptoed across the dead grass. Nick stared at the tree branches. One. Two. What did she see in the fellow? Three. Four. He knew fine ladies less feminine than that guy.
“I know some people find these things quaint, but a picnic?” He swatted at a fly. “I was going to ask if it was catered but no cook in their right mind would make a wreath- shaped Jell-O mold. What could they have been thinking?”
A pansy with bad taste in fine dining. Someone must have hexed the witch if she thought this one was worth keeping. Good thing for her Nick Dugan was about to show her the error of her ways.
“I imagine my mother thought something cool and sweet would be welcome after the town meeting.”
“Yes, well.” Borin’ cleared his throat. “I hope you’re ready to leave now. I’m quite anxious to meet your parents, Avalon. And I’ve brushed up on my reading. You must have inherited your astounding botanical abilities from your talented mother. Did you know the number of papers that reference her works is well over ten thousand?”
Botanical abilities. Nick stepped backwards. The shadow of the dead oak fell over him. All the better to spy on you with, my dear. Borin’ noticed the movement and drew Lonnie farther away. The increased distance jerked on Nick’s wrist, heated the metal cuff. So that’s what happened if they were separated.
“Orren.” Lonnie tossed Nick a warning glance and hid her handcuffed wrist behind her back. “My parents left for the airport this morning.”
Could it be that Orren the Borin’ didn’t know his fiancée was a witch?
“Oh, well, that’s good.” He smoothed his lapels. “It will give me time to finish reading some of her more, hmm, lengthy papers.”
Her brown eyes narrowed in suspicion. “How many have you read?”
“No need to be jealous, love. Do you know, some researchers actually believe intelligence is inherited from the mother? It’s nice to know our children will be brilliant.”
“I doubt that’s the only thing her children will inherit,” Nick muttered.
“Are you still here, Sheriff?”
“This investigation has me on a short leash.” Nick gave up his hiding place. This binding spell could quickly become a nuisance.
“I hope that doesn’t preclude us from getting a little time together, Avalon. I was hoping to have a quiet dinner and formally propose. I mean, when I heard you were leaving and I thought I would never see you again…”
Borin’ cleared his throat while his hands fumbled in his pockets. Deer droppings, the man was going to propose. Now. In front of the man who planned to bed his fiancée.
“I didn’t want you to think that my proposal was a spur-of- the-moment thing. I’ve been considering it for some time, and I want to do it right.” He tossed his handkerchief onto the ground and dropped to one knee. His fingers strangled a small black velvet-covered box.
Bile burned Nick’s throat. If he had to listen to those two knocking the headboard against the walls, he’d chew off his hand.
“I hope you have thick walls in your house, sweetheart.”
“I hardly think Avalon’s walls are any of your business, Sheriff.” Borin’ rose to his feet, the velvet box tucked in his fist.
“I’ve invited him to stay with me.”
Nick caught the look she tossed at him. Was it his imagination or did she actually seem relieved?
“What! God, Avalon. You are taking your civic obligations too much to heart.”
Borin’ latched onto his fiancée’s arm and dragged her away from the tree. Nick followed, rubbing at the bracelet on his wrist. Not that he had any choice in the matter. At least no one could accuse him of eavesdropping—he was duty-bound to her side. He hid a grin behind his cough. Maybe he’d exaggerated the nuisance of the spell, especially since he could fulfill duty and curiosity concurrently.
“I’m certain no one expects you to shack up with him.” “I’m afraid there’s no choice.”
Halfway to the paved road, Lonnie jerked her arm free and stopped. Anger lit fires in her cheeks. Nick halted two yards away. Now she’d let Borin’ have it. First, he’d lied about reading her mother’s papers, then he’d fobbed her off with some lame excuse about heredity and now he’d tried to publicly propose. The sniveling lout was about to get a verbal kick in the balls. Nick popped a piece of cinnamon gum in his mouth. And he had a front-row seat.
“This is a big tourist time for Pumpkin,” she said. “The hotel’s always booked solid this time of year.”
“Surely they’d make an exception for you, Avalon.”
“I understand if you don’t wish to stay at my grandmother’s place, Orren. I mean, it has been closed up since she died almost forty years ago.”
“I was talking about him.” Borin’ jerked his head in Nick’s direction.
“Nicholas is staying with me.”
Pleasure whipped though Nick. With her. He liked the sound of that. Maybe too much. She was still a witch, and a witch had cursed his family. A crow cried out behind him. The caw chilled his bones. A witch had powers he couldn’t fight.
“Perhaps you underestimate your family’s influence. Half the town is employed at your family’s factory, aren’t they?”
“How did you know about my family?”
Nick’s tucked his doubts aside. The tone of the conversation had shifted, misting the atmosphere with tension and frost. Orren the Borin’ was ignorant of Lonnie’s abilities. A situation she undoubtedly worked hard to preserve.
“Naturally, we had to investigate the products you were testing at the clinic.” Borin’s gaze shifted farther down the road. Lonnie wasn’t the only one with secrets. “Prior-Tea Clinic must maintain its reputation. As a researcher you know that credibility is everything. It is why you chose my family’s clinic, isn’t it?”
“Orren, he’s staying at the house.”
“I must protest. How would this look, Avalon? You’re a future Prior—”
“No, I’m not.” Eyes wide in her chalky face, Lonnie slapped her hands over her mouth. “I’m sorry, Orren. I really am, but I don’t think I could make you happy or … or be the wife you deserve.”
“I’d like to see the Haunted House before midnight, Lonnie,” Nick interrupted. Borin’ proposed, she refused—case closed. One case, anyway. They still had the Prankster to consider, his family curse and her seduction. He buttoned his half of the handcuff under his sleeve.
“All right. All right.” She glared at him, but her body jerked between the two men. “Geez. We’ll go now.”
“My car is this way.” Orren reached for her again. “We can talk in the car.” She dodged his touch but fell into step beside him.
She ignored him and continued marching beside Borin’. No flipping way he was going to be led around on a leash. The bracelet jerked on Nick’s wrist. Dangling doorbells, his brother’s dog Pete didn’t tug this hard. He held his ground. She jerked to a stop and stared at her wrist.
“We’ll take my motorcycle.”
“Your motorcycle?” She glanced at the bracelet than him. “I left my horse at home.”
“We’ll take my car.” Borin’ wedged himself between them and slowly pushed Lonnie backwards. “You can follow.” Nick’s hand rose. He was going to look foolish in a minute
“Stop it. Stop it.” His partner shoved Borin’ out of the way and came to stand by Nick’s side. “Cinders and snakes, I am not a wishbone.”
“I can’t ride by his car. The road is too narrow.”
“Yes, fine. I’ll ride with you.”
“I’m riding with him, Orren. Follow if you want or don’t. The choice is yours.” She stomped toward the church.
Nick resisted the urge to gloat. “I’m glad we got that settled.”
She rounded on him, planting her index finger in the middle of his chest. “Let’s get this straight, buddy. My personal life is not your concern, got it?”
“No. No uh-huhs. Say it.”
She drove home her point with a soft jab. Dang, the woman needed to work on her sense of humor.
“Your personal life is not my concern. Okay?”
Her gaze raked him from head to toe. “Okay.”
Her personal life wasn’t his concern. YET. Once the curse was lifted, the Prankster caught and relations restored between their two towns then all that wonderful sex he planned to have with her might turn into something else.