We danced tonight, though many suitors vied for your attention. Take my hand. Let me banish the shadows from your eyes.
September 1st, 1918
Home. Lonnie waved to a neighbor as they turned onto
Broken Bones Lane. She did so love this time of year, especially in Pumpkin. The motor rumbled as they sped past artfully rundown Craftsman bungalows where scarecrows lounged on bales of hay and tumbled headstones jutted from brown lawns. Fat pumpkins squatted amidst pine needles and autumn-colored leaves while spooks, bats and an occasional witch dangled from bare branches.
She tapped her driver on the shoulder and pointed to a farmhouse ordered from a Sears catalog decades before. Generations of Sole descendants had lived in that house. Now it was her turn.
“My heavens!” gasped the diminutive woman on the porch as The Dugan cut the engine. Her age-spotted hands rummaged in the deep pockets of her oversized apron before sweeping her glasses off the short white curls swirling around her head. “Imagine all that power throbbing between your thighs.”
Hopping off the seat, Lonnie winced. Someone must have laced her food with an aphrodisiac—it was the only explanation why her dear, sweet auntie would sound like an article in Penthouse Forum. Lonnie removed her helmet and shook the ringing from her ears.
“The Harley is powerful and noisy, Aunt Olivia.” “Harley?”
“The motorcycle, ma’am.” The Dugan’s dimple winked as
he finger-combed his hair. He spared a wink for Lonnie before striding up the stone path to her porch. “My name’s Nicholas Dugan.”
“Oh, I know all about you, Nicholas.” Red suffused Aunt Olivia’s cheeks when she shook his hand.
His expression blanked. Lonnie tensed. If he said one thing to hurt her auntie’s feelings, he’d find his gas tank full of sugar.
“I’m here to find the Prankster and stop him before someone gets hurt.”
“Of course, Nicholas.” Aunt Olivia patted his hand then leaned closer. “You don’t mind if I call you Nicholas, do you? With the unfortunate connotations associated with your surname, I think it will help our town warm up to you.”
“Only if you’d honor me with your name, ma’am.”
“Oh, you are quite the flirt,” she gushed, like a ten-year- old with her first crush. “Yes, yes, I see how this will work.” Lonnie shook off the image. Auntie was seventy if a day,
and happily married for fifty-odd years. She wasn’t flirting with The Dugan. The very idea was preposterous.
Then why the spurt of jealousy, Lonnie?
She dodged the Styrofoam tombstone listing in her front yard. It wasn’t jealousy; it was envy. Auntie’d had two whole hours to prepare for the introduction. She’d had about five minutes. Introduction. She cringed. She’d better remember her manners before word of her laxity filtered to her mother.
“Aunt Olivia, this is The … uh, Nicholas Dugan. Nicholas, this is my great-aunt Olivia Critchlow.”
“My husband was mayor of Pumpkin until that nice young Tutmoses agreed to do the job.” Auntie’s hands delved into her deep pockets again and removed a can of glow-in-the- dark Silly String. Her slight frame wiggled as she shook the can. “Such a handsome man. Not as good-looking as you, mind, but nice in his own way. He hasn’t married yet. Lonnie wouldn’t have anything to do with him after—”
The gurgle of the spray swallowed the rest. With each sweep of her arm, another ring of spider web stretched from post to eave of her porch.
Lonnie swallowed her sigh. No one needed to know why she and Tut had parted company, especially not Nicholas. He’d already witnessed her rejecting one suitor. If he heard of another, he’d think she was a flirt. Or worse, a tease. Not that she gave a fig what he thought. Still, no one liked to launder her underwear in public, and her family knew more about her than the cut and size of her Victoria’s Secret panties.
“Is Uncle Wen around, Aunt Olivia?”
“Wendell?” She dropped the can in her pocket then pulled out an arachnophobe’s worst nightmare—a black widow spider the size of her head. She wrapped the crepe-paper predator’s legs around the strands nearest the center. “Why, no, Lonnie. Whyever would you think that? You know men can’t be trusted to make the beds properly.” She tapped her chin for a moment. A devilish light twinkled in her eye.
“Although I’ve never heard of anyone having trouble getting them into one.” She winked at The Dugan before adjusting one of the cream-colored shutters bracketing the front window so that it seemed ready to fall off the house. “Still, find me one who knows how to make proper bed corners, and I’ll marry him.”
“You’re already married, Auntie.”
“Well, of course, I’m married, Lonnie. Fifty-three years this May.” A bottle of window cleaner surfaced from her pockets. A few spritzes and a length of cellophane later, the front window looked like it had been shattered. “Mama insisted we send the invitations to the wedding early. People needed something to celebrate, what with the war and all.” Aunt Olivia’s brown eyes misted as she slipped into the past. “Wendell will be posted three days from now to the Pacific Theater. You know, they make it sound as if Nelson Eddy might make an appearance. I don’t think that place will be as nice as the Crooked Cat Cinema. But I suppose the Marines will teach him how to make proper corners.”
“Aunt Olivia.” Lonnie cupped the older woman’s arm. The timeworn flesh trembled as she pulled her into the present.
“Oh, Lonnie, look how grown up you are.” Confusion softened the time and humor creasing her face. “Why, it seems like just yesterday I was a blushing bride myself and here you are with your new man.”
“I’m not married, Aunt Olivia.”
“Well, I should hope not, as I did not attend the wedding and I would hate to think you shafted your dear auntie.” She stowed her items in her pockets then patted Nicholas on the cheek. “Such a dear boy. Now, Nicholas, I expect you to give our Lonnie lots of babies—boy babies. Do you know how long it’s been since there’s been a son born into the family? Practically forever. But I can see you’re just the man for the job.”
He cleared his throat and avoided Lonnie’s eye. “I’m afraid I’m just here to find the Prankster, ma’am.”
“And you will. I’m sure you will.”
Lonnie bit her bottom lip. Was her dear aunt sure of the Dugan giving her sons or finding the Prankster? One could never tell.
“These things have a way of getting out of control.” Aunt Olivia scratched her pink scalp and glanced around the porch. “And I’m afraid that Frankenstein business was just the start.”
Lonnie’s skin tightened as a car pulled to the curb. A slamming door chided her forgetfulness. Orren. Her lapse of memory confirmed she’d made the right choice in turning down his proposal.
He took his designer sunglasses off and hooked the earpiece over his shirt collar.
“Well, it certainly has the look of a haunted house.” He tiptoed through the weeds, leapt over the tombstone and landed on the bottom step to the porch. Grimacing, he scraped the mud off his loafers. “Good God, Avalon. Can you imagine anyone actually living in this place? Ouch!”
His hand closed around his bicep. The malevolence glowing in his eyes burst Lonnie’s bubble of laughter. Obviously, those five pounds of sugar were destined for another’s tank. But if she acted on her plan, how would Orren leave town? He was hardly the kind of man who walked anywhere.
“You pinched me, you old bat. Do you—”
What had come over him, Lonnie wondered? He had always been unfailingly polite to the geriatric patients at the clinic. Mrs. Allen, Mr. Fitzsimmons and Miss Herbert were far more crotchety than Auntie, yet never once had he raised his voice or threatened them. It had been that very trait that had first attracted her to him. She wasn’t attracted now. In fact, she was more than a little irritated to find Mr. Hyde on her doorstep instead of Dr. Jekyll.
“Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain.” Auntie shook her blue-veined fist at him. “You best remember that, sonny, or I’ll take my cane after you.”
“Listen, you crazy old—”
“Orren.” Lonnie stepped between him and her aunt. Her shoulder bumped Nicholas’s. The contact zapped her control. For an instant, her gaze locked with his, her lungs labored for a breath and the air crackled with awareness. He blinked and sidled away. Definitely an aphrodisiac in her food.
She slogged through the intense emotion to find the pedestrian thought.
“Orren, this is my Aunt Olivia. Auntie, this is Orren Prior.”
“Weak chin and squishy about the edges.” She jerked her head in Phoenix’s most eligible bachelor’s direction. “What’s he for, bait?”
“I’m Avalon’s fiancé.”
“Nonsense.” She dismissed him with a flick of her apron. “No relation of mine would have you. Unless it was to dissect you and grind your bones for bread.”
“Is that a threat?” His voice climbed several octaves before snapping at the end.
“It will be in a minute,” Lonnie stepped between her aunt and her unwanted suitor. No one would want to eat Orren bread. It was bound to cause indigestion.
“Ms. Olivia…” The Dugan stepped forward. “Will you escort me inside?”
“Of course, Nicholas. I made up a bed for you and aired out your room. It’s next to Lonnie’s.” She tucked her arm in his. Her chin rose a notch as she sailed past Lonnie. “Pompous little popinjay. Hope she gives him the boot before I’m forced to do something drastic.”
“Now, ma’am.” Nicholas bent his head toward the white- haired one as he opened the screen door. “As an officer of the law, I won’t allow you to incriminate yourself.”
“Ha! Like to see a lawyer try to prove I’d given that stinker boils and pustules.”
“And I’d like to find a jury to convict you after hearing him speak.”
Heat raced up Lonnie’s arm. The handcuff jerked on her wrist, she turned the motion into a quick wave. Had he forgotten about the binding spell?
“Uh, Mr. Dugan—don’t go far.”
The man’s silhouette pressed against the screen. “Avalon.”
“Orren, I—” Lonnie swallowed the rest of her sentence. She couldn’t come out and tell him to leave town. Yet, if he stayed, he would discover she was a witch. Ice slipped down her spine. Being exposed would end her credibility; all her research at the clinic would be lampooned. She shook her head. She had witnessed what the rumors had done to her mother’s career. She swallowed. They had barely survived the last time rumors of witchcraft that followed them into the field.
“You don’t have to apologize for her.” He clasped her hands, rubbing his thumbs across her knuckles. “We won’t live here; and at her age, I doubt she’ll visit us in Phoenix.”
“This isn’t going to work. We’re not going to work, Orren.” “You just need time to—”
“I hadn’t counted on there being two men when I made
my fabulous lasagna.” The screen door banged against the clapboard siding of the farmhouse. Nicholas shrugged as Auntie shuffled outside. Ice clinked in the pitcher of tea and glasses on the tray in her hands. “Uninvited company doesn’t matter to the iced tea. I made two pitchers.”
“I’m sure we’ll make do.” Nick held the wrought iron table steady as she set the tray down. “Although I do love lasagna and have been known to eat enough for two men.”
“Father Bean made a wise choice, Nicholas.” Auntie beamed as she handed him a glass.
Lonnie tensed. Auntie had made Orren a glass of tea, and everyone knew that sweet tea was perfect for masking the taste of the potion that caused boils and pustules. She would have to intercept his glass and either drink it herself or toss it in the garden.
Auntie eyed Orren as she reached for another glass.
“Woman!” Heavy boots scraped the stone path. “If you ever hare off like that again, I’ll paddle your behind, just see if I don’t.”
“Oh, Wendell, you’re always promising such things.” Aunt Olivia beamed at her husband.
“This time I mean it.” Lonnie’s uncle winked at her as he leapt onto the porch. With a practiced motion, he raked his baseball cap off his bald pate then hooked his thumbs through the straps of his overalls. “You the Dugan?”
Lonnie’s breath caught in her throat. Uncle Wendell’s aunts had died that night; his mother had survived but had never recovered from the loss of her three sisters. Anger, hatred and revenge—he was entitled to all of them. She strummed her bottom lip through her teeth. The town would support him if he decided to give vent to his wrath despite Tut’s promise of protection.
“Hurumph.” Her uncle unhooked one thumb and offered his hand. “Don’t hold your great-grandpater’s faults against ye, but there’s some what do. Just thought to warn you.”
“Now, Wendell, don’t go scaring the lad off.” Aunt Olivia kissed her husband’s cheek. “He’s got work to do afore he can leave.”
Lonnie collapsed into a chair before her knees gave way. No rants, no curses, just a simple extension of friendship. Perhaps they could work together to find the Prankster.
“Uncle Wen, would you care for some tea?” She grabbed the nearest glass and offered it to him. Auntie pried it from her fingers and tossed the contents into the bushes.
“No time for that, dear,” she said, setting the empty glass on the tray. “I think we should be getting home,” she told her husband. “Someone might be looking for you, and I doubt anyone would think to look here.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Liv.” Her uncle snorted. “The whole town watched me go, and I’ve no doubt they’re betting on me returning, too.”
“Oh, pooh. There’s nothing to fear from Nicholas.”
“Nicholas. That your name? Well, I guess that’s all right, then.” Uncle Wendell reached for the last full glass. After a nod from his wife, he downed the contents.
“I told you it would be, dear.”
“You told me that soap was safe to use, too, Livvy, and I still have spots on my sitting-down place.” Uncle Wendell returned the glass to the tray and rubbed his bottom for emphasis.
“Christ, like I needed that mental picture.” Orren jumped and clutched his shin. “Ouch.”
Aunt Olivia handed her husband his cane. “Didn’t you use the lotion?”
“Couldn’t find the blame stuff.”
“Then we’ll go right home and take care of it.” She laced her fingers through his and pulled him off the porch. “Lonnie, you’ll have to make up a room for the Hades-bound boy—and don’t let him touch my lasagna. That’s for you and Nicholas only.”
“Like I’d want to eat it,” Orren leaned over the porch railing. “You probably poisoned it,” he muttered.
“That would be a waste of good herbs,” she spat back.
Uncle Warren pointed his finger at Orren. Wood screeched as the railing gave way. For an instant, he hung suspended. A blink later, and he dangled over the rosebushes, his weight pivoting about the post he clutched. He reeled himself upright. Spit foamed in the corner of his mouth.
“You just better watch it, you old witch!”
“Orren!” Lonnie stomped her foot. “That is my aunt. My favorite aunt.”
“She started it.”
Immature. Spoiled. Rude. Adjectives blossomed around him. What had she ever seen in him? Beyond his shoulder, the streetlight flickered on. Well, she was stuck with him until she could send him on his way in the morning.
Pink-and-purple clouds scuttled across the horizon. Morning was a long way off. Her gaze slid down the towering pines and landed on the Harley. And tonight had issues of its own.
“We may have a problem.”
“I’d say you have lots of problems.” Orren rocked back on his heels. “Broken windows, an overgrown yard and spiders.”
Broken broomsticks, if he kept tossing out asinine comments this night would last forever.
“That’s just for show, Orren. I’m talking about Nicholas’s bags—or lack thereof.”
“Not a problem.” Nicholas’s dimple twinkled. “I have clothes in the side compartments.”
“Were you going somewhere?” Visiting someone? A girlfriend, perhaps. Her gut clenched. His affairs weren’t her business, but she wanted them to be. She wanted him. There—she’d said it. Now what was she going to do?
Nothing. He’s a Dugan, Lonnie. A betrayer to her people. Yet Uncle Warren had forgiven him…
“I was going camping.”
She forced her attention onto their conversation. She wasn’t the only one unwilling to trust her partner. And if the Prankster was a witch?
“You were going to camp in the woods and see if you could catch the Prankster.”
“Or at least prove he wasn’t from Holly.” He rested his hand on the small of her back and guided her toward his Harley at the curb. Warmth radiated from his touch.
“So, where is your stuff?”
He snapped open the seat and tugged out two flat plastic bags. Socks, matches and underwear pressed against the compressed plastic. The man preferred briefs. Black briefs. She smiled. Although there was a pair of red ones, too. Who said men’s underwear couldn’t be sexy?
“Let me know if you see something you want me to model.” His husky voice lapped at her concentration.
“I’ll do that.” Ignoring the blood rushing to her cheeks, she deliberately turned her attention to the other bag. Black, red and blue flannel shirts and two white sleeveless T-shirts were squashed inside.
He shoved the bags into her stomach then unstrapped the bedroll lashed to the back of the cycle and hoisted it onto his shoulder.
“Shall we take these to my nice clean room and try out that bed made just for me?”
Never met a man who had difficulty getting into bed. Aunt Olivia’s words echoed the hum in Lonnie’s veins.
“I … I…”
“For God’s sake, Avalon, you sound like you have verbal epilepsy,” Orren snapped. “Just tell him where to go so we can talk.”
She’d like to tell him where to go. As for The Dugan, the binding spell deprived her of that option.
“That wouldn’t be proper, Orren. This way.” The screen door swung open on well-oiled hinges. The scent of mothballs and dust hung on the stale air. Faded quilts, worn steps and dried herbs—the familiarity welcomed her. She should have come home sooner. This house was meant to be lived in.
She guided them across the marble entry to the cherry staircase. Overhead, boards creaked. A muffled thud followed. Something large slid across the floor. Night pressed against the windows.
“Is anyone else here?” Nicholas stopped her with a hand on her arm. The sound had caught his attention.
“Aunt Olivia must have let Boo-Boo and Fraidy inside.”
Orren sneezed. “Why would she let strays inside the house?”
“They’re not strays; they’re my—”
“Kitty cats?” Nicholas said, half statement/half question.
Lonnie nodded. She wasn’t surprised he had caught on to the names—Boo-Boo Kitty and Fraidy Cat. But her feline friends couldn’t have made that racket. Something else had. Cold air stung her face; the hair at her nape stood up. Something wasn’t happy about their arrival. Her gaze flicked to her new partner. His arrival. After all, this house had once belonged to one of The Dugan’s victims.
They reached the landing. The hall runner swallowed their footfalls. Nothing seemed disturbed; dust coated the side table evenly. The leaves of the potted palm stood motionless. She sniffed the air. Ozone—the telltale sign of two worlds colliding.
She steadied her shaking hand on the cold doorknob to the spare bedroom. Nicholas’s bedroom.
“Is it locked or something?” Orren’s whine scratched her ears.
She twisted the knob, and the door swung open. The afternoon light gleamed on the clean lines of the pine Shaker furniture. Grandma’s favorite quilt covered half of the crisp white sheets on the twin bed shoved against the wall on their left. A light breeze stirred the yellowed lace curtains and mixed the sharp scent of lemon furniture polish with the bleach odor wafting from the open Jack-and-Jill bathroom door at the foot of the bed. Lonnie blinked. Whatever had caused the noises hadn’t emanated from this room.
Nicholas sailed into the room. He dropped his bedroll onto the crazy quilt, scanned the room then strode to the open door. Chrome and porcelain gleamed in the connecting bathroom.
“Where’s your room?”
“Through that door. Uncle Wen converted the closets and part of the landing into a bathroom when Mom was a baby. My bed is in the alcove on the other side of this wall.”
He marked off the paces. “It’s going to be tight.”
“But manageable.” Lonnie nodded, but unless she planned to share his bed…
Erotic thoughts flooded her brain. Share his bed? Share The Dugan’s bed? Get a grip, Lonnie.
“Does the TV have a remote?”
“If you want a remote, take a room at the hotel,” Orren snapped.
She shook the images from her head, tossed the plastic bags on his bed and sprinted from the room. Seven steps down the hall and she threw open the last door on the landing. Nicholas followed his arm out of his room and leaned casually against the doorframe.
“Orren, you can have the guest room. It has its own bathroom.”
He brushed past her to fill the doorway. “You can’t expect me to stay here,” he scoffed.
She reined in her temper. Everyone stayed in the guest bedroom. It was the biggest and nicest room in the house.
“I’ll clean it later.”
“Maybe you should bomb it and start over.”
Lonnie looked into the room. Organized chaos reigned. The
mattress, box spring and bed frame were shoved in the corner. The dresser, armoire and overstuffed chair were smashed against them. The spirits had targeted Orren’s room, not Nicholas’s. Had they known who would be staying here? Maybe they found her stubborn suitor more troublesome than Nicholas.
Speaking of whom…
“Maybe I could unpack now?” He glanced in her direction and subtly shook his wrist.
“Why don’t you do that? Please.” She shut the guestroom door, moved a few steps back down the hall and leaned against the wall. As long as he stayed close to the landing, they’d be within the limits of the binding spell.
“Look, Avalon, I know you have things in your past that maybe you don’t want me to know, but I want you to know that you can trust me.” Orren placed his hand over his heart. “With anything. And as my wife you’ll have the protection of my name, my family’s heritage. With the clinic standing behind you, you can research in peace. I want you to marry me.”
Protection. Lonnie sucked on her bottom lip. Hadn’t that been the very reason she’d accepted the job at the Prior-Tea Clinic? What better cachet than the name of a prestigious clinic next to hers on a professional paper?
“You’re offering me the protection of your name?”
“Yes. My name. My family name—no one would dare question a Prior.”
She nodded. But protection wasn’t love. Small wonder she had run after his proposal. Here, surrounded by generations who had endured the unbearable, his omission was blindingly clear. He hadn’t said the one thing that would make everything okay: he hadn’t said he loved her. Sorrow filled her. She couldn’t say the words either.
“I can’t, Orren.”
“Can’t or won’t, Avalon?”
“Both. I don’t love you, Orren.”
“Of course, you do. You always laugh at my jokes, smile
when I take you to lunch.” He took her into his arms, pressed damp lips against her forehead.
This was wrong. So very wrong. Lonnie shrugged out of his embrace.
“We enjoy the same movies and theater.” He frowned at her. “I’ll admit your taste in music is a bit banal but we are perfect for each other. Your talent and my family name. It’s an unbeatable combination.”
The phone shrilled. She started, lost her balance and toppled backwards as the door opened. Strong arms caught her, helped her to her feet. Nicholas. Her heart bucked in her chest. Right embrace, wrong man. What was she going to do?
“I think someone needs to get the phone.”
“Why don’t you make yourself useful, Sheriff?” Nicholas’s hand skimmed her thigh as he moved around
her. “Because the phone is downstairs, Borin’.”
“Did he just call me boring?”
Borin’. She coughed up her amusement. The nickname fit.
Almost as well as The Dugan’s jeans.
“I’m certain he said ‘Orren.'”
The ringing phone ended the impending argument. “Lonnie, I’m two steps down.”
“I’m coming. I have to answer the phone.” She glanced at Orren. Aunt Livvy was right, he was squishy about the edges, and his morals probably weren’t much better.
He stayed her with a hand on her arm; his fingers bit into her flesh. “Just promise me you’ll think about what I said.”
“Yes.” She shook off his touch. Her wrist began to warm. “Yes, of course.”
“I’m on the sixth step.”
She sprinted down the hall, hopped down every other step and slid across the wood planks to plaster herself against his back. Not a bad position to be in—one could detect the crispness of the outdoors underlying his Old Spice aftershave and be warmed by his body heat. She slowly eased away. Of course, from the way he acted, women were always plastering themselves against him.
He winked, spun the crank of the National Telephone Company telephone with a whirl, whirl, whirl then lifted the receiver. “Lynch home, resident boogeyman speaking.”
“Cracked cauldrons, Dugan.” Tut’s growl reached her. “Do you think you could answer with something less antagonizing?”
Lonnie reached for the phone. Nicholas caught her hand and pressed it flat against his chest. Their bracelets clinked together. His heartbeat raced under her palm. He wasn’t as unaffected as he wanted everyone to think.
“Well, Mayor, I just wanted to let everyone know who was currently shacking up with their favorite daughter.”
“Who else would be? That pompous prick from Phoenix has a reservation at the Rest Your Bones.”
Lonnie winced. Had Orren planned to stay with her, or was the hotel reservation in case she rejected his suit?
“Is that a funeral home or a cemetery?”
“It’s the hotel. Put Lonnie on, will you?”
Nicholas shrugged before pressing the earpiece into her
hand. “Your boyfriend wants to speak to you.” “Hello?”
“I thought you were going to the Haunted Hotel?”
Lonnie stared at the spiderweb in the corner of the entry. This must be the day when all her ex-boyfriends turned cranky.
“We made a stop.”
“Yeah, well, you’re just about to make another.” Rustling filled the line then a woman’s voice, soft, muffled. “Someone’s vandalized the cemetery.”
She pressed the phone closer to her ear. Who was with Tut? Honey? “The cemetery?”
“Yep, best start there. I’ll have Pettebone meet you at the gates.”
The line went dead. Lonnie stared at the phone, willed it to give up its secrets. Honey and Tut—not impossible, but surely one of them would have said something. Sure, Lonnie and Tut had dated in high school, but that was a long time ago.
“What’s this about a cemetery?” Nicholas took the earpiece and set it back in its cradle.
Honey could have Tut. Lonnie gazed at Nicholas’s broad chest. There were other fish in the sea, and she was bound to one of the tastiest specimens.
“The Prankster struck again.”
Pumpkin was seriously whacked. Nick ignored the neon skeleton climbing into bed on the hotel’s sign and focused on the wrought iron gate in front of him. The cemetery was the town square. A twisted metal gazebo hunched in one corner, the spider-body canopy motionless on its eight legs. Underneath, orange-and-purple banners fluttered in the night breeze. Fat pumpkins, bundles of haystacks and tipsy scarecrows crowded the dance floor. The town invited folks to waltz over their dead.
Dead, but not at peace. Nick watched as fog crept between the tombstones like lost souls looking for a resting place. Who could rest in this place? He peered into the shifting mist. Soon Dracula and the Wolfman would begin prowling for their next meal.
“Well, we’re here,” Borin’ huffed. “Where is the mayor?”
Nick peeked at Lonnie. She had taken her boyfriend’s rudeness well. Maybe she regretted not letting him drink her auntie’s brew. Then again, she might be planning something other than boils and pustules.
“Mr. Pettebone is to meet us.”
“What’s the padlock for, anyway?” Borin’ flicked the lock. “Who’d want to break into a cemetery?”
Of course, if she was looking for suggestions, he would recommend something to strike at either his love for his face or the sound of his own voice. “Maybe the padlock is to keep folks in.”
“Either way, you can’t expect us to wait out here.” Borin’ stomped his feet. “I don’t suppose this place has a pub?”
Chortling cherubs, the man was a pompous ass. Nick counted to ten. Well, heck, why was he struggling to control his temper? Lonnie didn’t want the man around anymore than he did.
“You could have stayed at Lonnie’s house.”
“You might not be so far off the mark, Dugan.”
Nick’s heart slammed in his ears as someone stepped from
the shadows. A scarlet-lined cape swirled around the mayor’s ankles. His eyeteeth glistened in the moonlight. Vampires do not exist. Vampires do not exist. Nick resisted the urge to click his heels together and wish himself back in Holly where the biggest danger was a skateboarding elf with a sugar buzz. Vampires could exist in Pumpkin. So could werewolves, mummies…
“Although, in this case,” Tut Russell continued, “the lock is to keep out Miss McKinley.”
“Is she the local graverobber?”
Orren’s scoff shut down Nick’s musings. He had a job to do, a Prankster to catch, a witch to seduce and a curse to break. No wimp, vampire or mummy would keep him from his duty.
“No, she’s a reporter.” The mayor patted his breast pocket. Confusion rippled his forehead. “The daily sent her to cover the festivities that open tomorrow. I had to escort her off the premises before she messed with the scene any more than she already had.”
“Where’s Mr. Pettebone?”
Moonlight bathed Lonnie’s face. High cheekbones, wide brown eyes and lips that begged for his kiss. He swallowed his groan. He needed to become more proactive on this attraction or his penis would turn into a flippin’ compass needle constantly pointing in her direction.
“He was supposed to meet you here.” Mayor Russell snapped his fingers. “Of course, you have the key.”
“I don’t think I’ll go with you, Avalon.” Borin’ glanced from the cemetery to the hotel. “Indeed, I have a room at the hotel. I wouldn’t want to add anything more to your work. The hotel does have a bar, doesn’t it?”
“Yes.” Russell smiled. “Fully stocked for the season.”
Nick shook his head. The mayor could have saved his breath—Lonnie’s ex-boyfriend was halfway across the street before he even spoke. Metal scraped metal then screeched as the gates parted.
“So, what’s the Prankster done this time?” Gathering his courage, Nick stepped into the cemetery. He was under a vampire’s protection and partnered to a witch. What more could happen to him?
“He’s robbed two graves and vandalized the crypt.” Russell jerked his head toward a square shadow squatting in the mist.
“Robbed? Why? People aren’t buried with their valuables anymore.” Lonnie strode ahead. Of course, she’d be comfortable. She probably strolled through the town square/cemetery every day of her life.
She paused by a praying angel, rested her hand on its sandaled feet. “What’s the matter, Tut?”
“One of the graves robbed is your great-grandmother’s.”
Possibilities turned over in Nick’s mind. Was this vandalism motivated by revenge? An attempt to hurt Lonnie for bringing The Dugan into Pumpkin? She hadn’t had a choice, he mentally railed. Father Bean had forced her.
“I didn’t know her, Tut, she died…”
He felt their glances bounce off him. Had he been quiet for too long, missed an opportunity to speak? His gut told him different.
“She died before I was born.”
“I know. And to make matters worse, the others … the others who died that day are buried in the catacombs beneath the crypt.”
One grave, one crypt. “Whose was the other grave?” Nick asked.
“You won’t believe me.”
“Mayor Russell. Mayor Russell.” Two thin girls flanked a stalwart matron standing by the cemetery gates. “I wish to have a word with you.” Two more of the town’s residents joined her. “We’ve heard about the vandalism.”
“Now, ladies,” Russell placated, “I’m certain there is no reason for concern.”
“Concern! Those innocents have suffered enough and now you’ve allowed—”
“Come along.” Lonnie tugged him deeper into the cemetery.
Nick glanced over his shoulder. “Something tells me they don’t blame the Prankster for this bit of mischief.”
“I guess Borin’ isn’t the only one who needs to worry about boils and pustules.”
“You’re under the mayor’s protection. No one would dare do anything to you.”
“Seems to me if one witch can undo another’s spell then one determined person can undermine the mayor’s protection. Power corrupts. And you must admit a witch has a lot of power at her disposal.”
“It’s not our power.” She stopped, turned and faced him. “It’s our ability to tap into the power that runs through every living thing. We don’t do things willy-nilly. Most of the time we are asked to intercede on someone’s behalf.”
“I did not ask to be bound to you.” He held up his manacled wrist. “That was against my will.”
“Well, my great-grandmother didn’t ask to be killed by a fool’s indiscretion.”
Shock lanced him. “What indiscretion?”
“You what?” Nick resisted the urge to shake her.
Obviously, she was debating whether or not to tell him. He could practically hear the argument raging within her. His ear twitched. He could hear something, but it wasn’t coming from her.
The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. He turned, following her line of sight. A small lantern stood on the ground and cast its light on the dirt-encrusted hands clawing their way out of the open grave.