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About the author:
Bestselling international author of spooky paranormal romance, urban fantasy romance, and fantasy romance, Maggie Tideswell has a passion for romance. She combines things that can't be explained with sweaty bodies and rumpled beds in a way that will make your toes curl and your hair stand on end.
Maggie lives in Johannesburg, South Africa with her husband Gareth and a cat called Auntie. She just can't do without perfume, her tea and the internet. She is nearly as passionate about food as she is about creating alpha heroes every woman will fall in love with, just as she does, every time.
What inspired you to write your book?
I find the trope 'strangers to lovers' fascinating. I wondered what would happen if a man and woman met for the very first time on the chapel steps where they were to be married. Also, actions have concequences and nothing happens in a vacuum. I wondered how such a marriage between complete strangers would affect those around them.
Here is a short sample from the book:
Moonlight slanted across the floor, a gentle breeze filling out the gossamer curtain. Shadows moved across the wall. The sleeper muttered; the bedding rustled as it shifted to the floor.
Down the hall, a few mumbled words as if in reply, then silence returned. The house sighed and creaked as it settled for the night. A dog barked at a shadow down the street—a melancholy sound—joined by another bored canine farther away. An owl hooted in the tree outside the window, its heart-shaped face turning to survey the night before it swooped soundlessly into another dimension.
The sounds belonged in another world, because the sleepers didn’t hear. But someone heard, crouched in the swirling mist, careful not to disturb the shadows on the wall. Breath invisibly plumed in the night.
This is a place that is not a place,
at a time that is not a time.
Please, release me from the dark,
and let me rest in the light.
The clock in the hall ticked down the minutes to midnight. A branch scratched at the glass in the windows, the breeze sighing around the corners piled dead leaves into a doorway.
A mask, a hideous thing used in fertility rites in a remote corner of the world, hung against the landing wall. As if as this precise moment in time the creep became too much for it, it separated from its hook. The racket it made going down the stairs was enough to wake the dead. It twirled on the floor below.
Within moments, they were at the top of the stairs, three wispy figures illuminated by moonlight from the oriel window, bathing the stairwell in ghostly light.
“Something is about to happen,” one of them said, a hand to her throat.
“Big change is coming,” another agreed, grasping for a hand to hold on to.
“We have to prepare.” The third turned into the circle of protection.
Friday, September 18th
Dark moon in Virgo
Ending relationships—Contact with the dead
Attention to detail to make life better
Holly slammed the door, and immediately wished she hadn’t. They surrounded her before the reverberation died had down, their eyes anxious on her face, their hands wringing.
All they needed to do was to start chanting bubble, bubble, toil and trouble for the picture to be complete—and she was being a bitch, she knew it—she couldn’t help herself.
It wasn’t their fault she had a bastard for an ex.
Flinging her purse onto the couch, she sank to the padded seat and covered her face with her hands. “What am I going to do?” she whispered from behind them. “Why is he doing this to me?”
Holly nodded. Nina sat beside her and wrapped her arm around Holly’s shoulders, tucking her hair behind her ears. “It’s her, love, not Donald. I’m sure it’s that person he married who’s making him do it. They can’t be allowed to do this to you anymore. Come into the kitchen. Let’s have a glass of wine and put our heads together.”
“Yes, we’ll come up with a plan. You have to fight fire with fire, sweetie.” Susan got hold of Holly’s wrist and pulled her to her feet. “Nina’s right. They can’t be allowed to get away with this any longer. You are their mother.”
“You know why they are doing it, don’t you?” Blair said over her shoulder as she led the way to the kitchen. “It’s because you’re alone. He thinks he can walk all over you as he pleases, and you won’t do dicky about it. If you had a man to look out for you, he wouldn’t dare treat you like this.”
“I don’t want a man,” Holly muttered, allowing Susan to push her into her usual chair at the table. “Men are nothing but trouble.” Her palm wrinkled her cheek as she parked her elbow on the table to rest her face in her hand. Neither the clinking of glasses nor the sound of them being filled had anything to do with her. She didn’t want any stupid wine—she wanted her children.
Chairs scraped the floor when the other three sat down, the sudden silence in the room deafening. When it turned weird, Holly looked up at them through the blur of her misery.
A creepy feeling started between her shoulder blades and shivered down her spine. The three of them looked as they always did—wild hair, weird clothes, Susan bespectacled—only now they had the same soft little smile around their lips, and they did that nodding thing as if they each knew what the others were thinking and agreed.
Oh-oh, that never boded well.
“What?” She couldn’t help snapping. She was missing something, and she didn’t trust them one little bit. “What?” It took real effort to keep her voice neutral.
“That’s it, isn’t it?” Susan said, the corner of her mouth tweaking.
“Fight him at his own game,” Blair agreed, resting her chin on top of her clasped hands supported by her elbows on the table.
“You have to get married again, sweetie,” Nina dropped the bomb, touching Holly’s arm with cool fingers.
Holly’s mouth fell open as she gasped for air. “You what? Are you bonkers? I just told you I don’t want another man in my life. Get married—that’s your solution to my problem?”
She glanced from one to the other. The soft smiles had now morphed into open grins, and they nodded vigorously in unison. “And whom, pray tell, shall I marry?” Shock had dried her tears, leaving mascara smudges under her eyes.
Blair tapped a long scarlet nail against the side of her nose. “You must know someone—a friend, anyone nice you could persuade to help you out?”
“Help me out? By marrying me? One doesn’t get married as a favor, Blair. And you know very well I have no friends other than you three. I haven’t met anyone new since the divorce. Our friends are now Donald’s and Gwen’s friends. And at work, there is no one I’d consider marrying.” She flung one leg over the other and crossed her arms. “Grief, I don’t believe you even suggested it. I don’t want to hear another word on the subject, because it is so not going to happen. I am not getting married again, end of.” After glaring at each in turn, she took a gulp of her wine.
Three pairs of eyes met—they were running with the idea. Damn it, she was a divorced mother of two, not their kid sister. None of them had been married before, so what right did they have to push her into it again?
“We could advertise.” Blair shrugged as she twirled a lock of blonde hair around her finger.
Holly choked. Nina patted her back and she had to clear her throat before she could hiss, “Are you crazy?” But Susan’s hand on her arm interrupted the tirade she was about to launch into. “What?” Holly snapped at her. They could not seriously be serious. “What?”
“Hold on, Holly, let’s just work through this calmly, without getting uptight. What do you have to lose? As it is Donald isn’t letting you have the boys. Being married would give you an edge you don’t have now, and you know it. If you had a brother, or if your father was still alive, they could have taken Donald on, mano a mano, and forced him to do the decent thing. But between the three of us, we couldn’t make him listen.”
“That’s a fact. Donald won’t hear you, not even if Heather spoke to him. No one will make him see sense. He would do anything to keep Gwen happy. Only a court of law might make him do the right thing, but I don’t exactly have money for a lawyer.” She took a sip of wine. “A hitman might serve my purpose better and quicker,” she muttered as she wiped her mouth on the back of her hand.
“Yes, and have the kids go into care when you get the chair,” Blair said, delicately choosing a pickle from the dish Susan had put on the table.
Holly shook her head. “It was a stupid joke, okay? Jeez.”
Susan spread her hands on the table, palms up. “Holly, this could really work. All you need is an open mind.” She held up a finger when Holly opened her mouth to interrupt. “Listen for a moment. If we put a very small, discrete advert in the paper, run it only once, and you get no response, you would’ve lost nothing. Then we go to plan B.”
“Why can’t we go straight to plan B?” Holly muttered, her hand now in her hair, her elbow on the table.
She might as well have saved her breath, because Nina took over. “If someone responds to it, you play along, and as soon as Donald comes to his senses, you take off and have the marriage annulled. You walk away with what you wanted, and the man walks away all the richer for having known you.”
Holly leaned both her elbows on the table. “If, and I must say it’s a big if, some poor fool responded to an advert in the newspaper—I mean, who reads newspapers these days? But let’s say some fool did respond, don’t you think he’d expect a proper marriage? That means no annulment.”
“Holly, you’re not listening, love. He won’t expect anything from you if he knows from the beginning it will be a virgin marriage.”
“Oh, get real, will you, Blair. What man would agree to such an arrangement? What would be in it for him?” Holly drained her glass and got to her feet. “I’m not discussing this crap any further. I’m not getting married again, except for love, which makes it doubly unlikely, because there’s no such thing. Love is only another word for stupidity and raging lust.” She thumbed her sternum. “Ask me, I know. Now you must excuse me. I’m going to bed and don’t even try to tell me it’s too early. I don’t care.”
* * *
The light was fading by the time Nicole sat up and reached for her blouse. Bits of hay clung to her tousled red hair. She smiled down at the man stretched out beside her, running her nails over his ribs and solid six-pack. She grinned when his muscles contracted, loving the power she had over him.
Getting to her feet, she shook bits of straw from her blouse, in no hurry to put it on. He was taking her in—she could feel his eyes on her and she didn’t want to end his perusal too soon. She was proud of her body, every inch of her firm and pampered, and she liked him looking at her. He appreciated her.
Ned pushed himself up on their bed of straw, leaning back on one elbow to watch her. “When can I have you alone again?” His voice was still passion-husky.
Pulling her shirt over her head was the natural end to the tryst. “Don’t be greedy. You know what will happen if Daddy finds out about us.” Her mind turned to the visitor she expecting later, now in a hurry to be away. As it was, she barely had time to shower illicit love from her body.
Ned reached for her hand and tried to pull her back down to him, but she didn’t have time to play. “Ne-ed, come on, let me go. Joshua is coming,” she whined.
He instantly released her. Nicole stumbled and had to steady herself on a post. Fine bit of explaining it would take if she were to fall from the hayloft with her backside bare. She quickly stepped into her jeans.
Ned knew she was going to marry Joshua someday. He didn’t have to get childish every time Joshua’s name was mentioned. They could fool around, as long as no one knew about it. It meant nothing. She pulled her jeans over her hips and flung her flipflops to the shadowy floor below. Without looking at him again, she started down the ladder.
About halfway down, she heard him roll to the edge of the loft and looked up. Supported on his elbows, his hands dangling over the edge of the platform; his muscular chest gleamed in the gloom.
“What if I got you pregnant?” A shaft of hay dangled from between his teeth.
Nicole froze mid-step. Her eyes nearly popped from their sockets when she saw the glitter in his eyes, a soft smile curving his lips. The corners of his eyes crinkled. He was devastatingly attractive, his blond hair as tousled as hers. What a pity he was a nobody.
She didn’t return his smile. “Have no fear, Ned, I wasn’t born yesterday. You’ll never be master here,” she gritted through her teeth, continuing down the ladder, and barely paused to get her flipflops onto her feet before running from the barn into the last of the day’s sunshine.
Trust a man to make something sweet and temporary a problem.
Halfway across the yard her steps faltered, a crease pulling her brows together.
No, surely not.
Cold washed through her. She broke into a run and hit the kitchen steps at full speed. The housekeeper turned from the stove where she stirred a pot when Nicole stormed past her. She didn’t see the cringe when she slammed her bedroom door behind herself.
In the bathroom, she flung the medicine cabinet open with such force the top hinge ripped from the wood but she didn’t even notice the door hanging drunkenly against the wall.
Without touching it, she stared at a strip of oral contraceptive and the evidence she’d forgotten to take it for the past week. Her period wasn’t due for another two weeks. She was ovulating and they hadn’t used a condom.
Oh, Lord, no!
Ned might get his wish through her own stupidity after all.
There was a knock on the door, and when she left the bathroom, pale-faced and shaky, her father filled her room with his bulk. He looked out of place amongst the fluff and frills.
“Nicole, what’s going on with you? Martha told me about your unladylike dash through the house. What’s eating you, girl?”
“Daddy, I’m so angry I could spit,” she said between clenched teeth. Tears gathered behind her lids, but she batted her eyes rapidly to clear the moisture. In this instance crying wouldn’t have the effect she wanted. Her father’s temper didn’t scare her; being pregnant did.
Magnus wrapped his arms around her. “I can see you’re upset about something, baby. You know you can tell Daddy anything, don’t you? How can I help you?”
Nicole pushed herself away from him. She was a grown woman, yet her father still treated her like a toddler. “No, I have to deal with this myself, Daddy.”
“Nicole, tell me,” he thundered, making her jump.
“You can’t help, Daddy. It’s just boys. Some push their luck more than others would dare. I know I shouldn’t get upset, that it is a harmless game, but sometimes I can’t help getting livid. Maybe I should go back to town for a while. I think I’ve outgrown farm life.”
“Nicole, this is no ordinary farm. It’s a wine estate, and your inheritance. We were so pleased when you moved back home. Mother will be heartbroken if you left again so soon. Tell me who bothers you, and he won’t be here in the morning. I want an answer, now.”
She took a deep breath. He was right—it had only been a month since she’d returned home, and only because she’d noticed Ned in the winery the weekend before. It hadn’t been difficult to seduce him. There wasn’t a man alive who could resist her for long. If Daddy sent Ned away, Willowgrove would lose its appeal again.
Was she ready to see him go?
Yes, damn it.
The audacity of the man for possibly getting her pregnant was enough reason to get rid of him, as soon as possible, before anyone knew what she’d been up to with him.
“It’s that new man in the winery, Ned something or other. He gives me the creeps and he has no respect. I should go to the city until he’s moved on. I wouldn’t imagine his type stayed in one place for long.”
Sniffing loudly for her father’s benefit, she turned her back on him, chewing her lip. She couldn’t be pregnant. Pregnancy ended a woman’s life and ruined her figure forever. This was all Ned’s fault.
“I won’t allow anyone, least of all someone I employ, to drive my only daughter from her home.” Magnus turned to the door. “I’ll have a word with him.”
Nicole stared at the closed panel, listening to her father’s receding footsteps. A private conversation between the two men could be dangerous, because Ned might spill the beans. Would her father believe him over his own daughter?
She was going to have to be extra nice to Joshua. It had been too long since he’d made love to her.
* * *
Gwen cuddled into Donald’s side and trailed her finger along the line of his jaw. “How long are you going to keep this up?”
He turned his head away and got up from the sofa. Gwen collapsed against the padding with a heavy sigh, watching her husband’s restless pacing around the room. She had to do something, and fast, before everything went pear-shaped.
“Darling, you shouldn’t be upset. It was her own fault. Why can’t she move on with her life and leave us be?”
Donald splashed several fingers of whiskey into a glass without offering her any. He said nothing, keeping his back to her. Gwen got to her feet and wrapped her arms around his waist, her cheek between his shoulder blades. “Let’s go to bed, my love. I can make you forget her pitiful face,” she coaxed.
Donald flung the whiskey down his throat and untangled her arms to face her. “She isn’t pitiful, Gwen. She loves her children, and this is hurting her more than any mother deserves.”
“Of course, she deserves it. She deserves it for boring you to tears all those years. You said it yourself, if she’d been a better wife to you, your eye would never have strayed. You and I, on the other hand”—she flapped her finger between them—“were made for each other. Deny it if you can. We belong together.”
Donald turned back to the decanter. “There’s more to marriage than sex, Gwen.” He poured another liberal drink and stepped around her to sip it in front of the French windows, staring into the darkening garden.
“What are you saying, Donald? Don’t I do it for you anymore? Do you want her back?” Gwen’s voice rose steadily as she glared at the back of his head. She couldn’t help herself. Her world was seriously cracking, and she would not have it crashing down around her ears.
“No, Gwen, I didn’t say that. I just don’t feel right about what we’re doing to Holly. I don’t see why we can’t carry on the way we were in the beginning.” Donald faced her with the glass in one hand, the other in his pocket. “I don’t want to hurt her anymore, that’s all, and keeping the kids from her, hurts the kids as well. It bothers me a hell of a lot.”
Gwen smiled, tracing his lips with a forefinger. “Are you sure that’s all that is bothering you? We can let her see the boys next week, if it will make you feel better. Can we forget about her now, please?”
Donald returned her smile. “I’m sure it would be all right. No last minute backing out, though. Let’s not make an issue of this. Holly should see the kids regularly. Then I’m sure she’d find someone else and move on.”
Gwen’s smile slipped when a shadow passed over his eyes.
She knew it!
He didn’t want Holly to find a new man. That was why she couldn’t risk Donald seeing Holly every second week, however briefly. It was too dangerous. Two years have passed since the divorce, and nearly three since she’d met Donald. The next six months were crucial, when her work would finally have no more effect and Donald’s true feelings would come out.
Let him believe she’d let Holly have the kids soon. Next weekend was a long way off, and a lot could happen before then. For now, a lesson seemed to be in order.
“I don’t suppose you feel like making love to me, being in the mood you’re in, so I’m going to read in bed. The spare room is made up and ready. G’night.” Slanting him a look, she sashayed from the lounge, exaggerating the sway of her hips.
By the time she reached the bedroom, Gwen had worked up a good head of steam. This was a ridiculous situation, and she would not allow it to continue for a moment longer. Holly was Donald’s unfortunate past, and it was time they both realized she, Gwen, wasn’t a woman to be trifled with.
What could she do to snap the bond between them once and for all? Bad marriage indeed. A bad marriage didn’t leave lingering affection in its wake.
She stamped her foot before flinging herself across the king-size bed. As she landed with a bounce, a thought popped into her head.
Why hadn’t she it realized before? The playing field had changed. Until now, she had aimed the energies at Donald, turning his head and considerable lust to focus on her. But the time had come to go for the jugular, a psychic attack on Holly, the pathetic creature.
That the other woman was at an emotional low did not elicit sympathy from her. Instead, she recognized pathways that could only aid her cause.
She smiled even as a shiver of apprehension tiptoed down her spine. This was something she had never attempted before, but the challenge sent a thrill shivering through her. In her excitement she had to start right away.
Slipping her dressing gown around her shoulders, she tiptoed past the lounge arch, barely glancing at Donald nursing yet another whiskey.
* * *
Donald saw Gwen from the corner of his eye but pretended not to. He knew when he was being manipulated, and although he very much needed to make love with her tonight, a man had his pride.
What she was forcing him to do to Holly was wrong, it went against his grain. She had no reason to resent Holly for having been his first wife and the mother of his children, and he had to battle his guilt alone.
He refilled his glass and sat down, his legs stretched before him, one arm draped over the back of the sofa. He shouldn’t have discussed the details of his first marriage with Gwen, but in the beginning, it had been so easy to open to her, and he’d wanted no secrets between them. But mostly he’d needed to vent, to soothe the guilt threatening to overwhelm him by having someone agree with him. In the end, he’d told her far more than he’d intended.
Drinking deeply, he relished the burn of the whiskey in his throat. If he was completely honest with himself, he had to admit his dissatisfaction with life in general was largely due to regret—he regretted replacing Holly with Gwen.
Maybe an apology, and honesty, could have made a difference at the time. Holly would have forgiven his indiscretion, but instead he’d gone and married his indiscretion. Mature, yes, that was the way. Now he sat with the regret.
This evening, when she’d stood at the door, the urge to take her into his arms and bury his face in her soft neck, to feel her body against his, infusing him with her warmth, had been so strong he had to hang onto the doorpost to stop himself from touching her. She’d looked so tiny, vulnerable, fragile and gorgeous, her little pointed chin quivering with distress while tears rained down her face.
His heart had swelled with love, and another part of him with need for her. The urge to say sorry and beg her to come home nearly overwhelmed him, but with Gwen hovering around them, he’d had to suppress his desires. Holly was his wife—he didn’t want her to be with another man, because he wanted to be the only man in her life—ever.
He’d made a big mistake and the only way to fix it, was for Gwen to leave. Then he, Holly and the boys could be a family again, happy as they had been before Gwen had wormed her way between them.
They could have couples therapy, he would submit to anything, if Holly was back in his arms where she belonged. He didn’t love Gwen enough to sacrifice everything for her.
* * *
Magnus stomped down the steps to the yard, deeply troubled. On the veranda, he lit a cigarette. If what Nicole had told him was true, this could become a serious situation, and it could escalate if he didn’t handle it right.
Ned was a good worker, well-educated and pleasant to have around, and popular with the rest of the staff, too. Boys will be boys, but Nicole was his daughter, and he wouldn’t have her at risk of the workers’ lusts running amok. He needed to set an example. A pity it was Ned she’d pointed out, though, but he’d get to the bottom of it before deciding what to do.
Flicking the butt away, he watched it until it landed in the nearby shrubs. Nicole was a handful, as everyone knew, but she was his only child, and if there was any truth in what she’d told him, he had to be seen to back her up.
As he crossed the yard, Joshua came galloping into it. Magnus turned to wait for the younger man to dismount. A fine figure of a man, honorable, and their next-door neighbor.
Magnus clasped his shoulder. “I need to speak to you, son.”
“Sure. What’s on your mind, sir?”
“I was wondering what your intentions are. I think Nicole has had enough time to play, don’t you? It’s time she were married. A couple of kids will settle her down.”
“I agree, sir, but Nicole is the one stalling. If it were up to me, we’d have those kids by now. She just won’t commit and set a date. I’ve started to think she doesn’t want to marry me at all.”
“You’re cynical, and I can’t say I blame you. She needs a firm hand, and maybe the time has come for drastic action. I’m sure you can think of something suitable. She’s talking of going back to her place in Cape Town. I don’t want her to do that, and her mother won’t like it, either. Whatever you decide to do, you know you have my full support, my boy. Just marry the girl as soon as possible. Just let me know what the plan is.” Magnus sighed deeply. “You’d better go in now; she’ll be waiting for you.”
Magnus felt Joshua’s eyes on his back as he continued in the direction of the staff quarters. This was not something Joshua needed to know.
Before he knocked on the door of the last cottage in the row, he took a deep breath, his hands in his pockets. Nicole, his troublesome daughter, whom he loved more than anything—except the land.
At his knock, Ned swung the door wide. “Sir?”
“Relax, man.” Magnus ducked his head as he entered the cabin and lowered himself into a chair with a groan. He studied the young man before him for a moment before glancing about the tidy room.
He provided comfortable accommodation for the people who worked in his winery. But this far from town and any action for the young, he well understood the restlessness in a man like Ned.
Wearing only a pair of shorts, Ned planted his bare feet and crossed his arms over his chest when Magnus turned his eyes back to him. Muscles bulged under his tan.
Magnus cleared his throat. “Ned, son, I’ll come straight to the point. My daughter has lodged a complaint against you. Damn it man, she is my daughter, and she is promised.”
Ned didn’t bat an eye. “Excuse me, sir, what exactly was her complaint?”
Magnus’ brow lifted. “That you behave inappropriately toward her.”
“My behavior is inappropriate? Anything specific? I don’t recall doing anything Ms. Jones could complain about.” Frowning, he sat on the edge of a chair opposite Magnus, his eyes steady on his employer’s face. Exhaling softly, Ned said, “I take it you want me to go. Would first light be soon enough?”
Magnus held the young man’s eyes. They didn’t waver. “Aren’t you going to say anything in your defense against her claim?”
“What can I say, sir? With respect, it will be my word against hers, and we both know whom you’d believe.”
Magnus eyed him thoughtfully. A solid young man, his eccentricities aside. Each to his own, and Magnus wished him luck in finding what was chasing him all over the world. “First light would be fine. I couldn’t throw a man out in the dark. It’s for the best, though I am sorry to lose you, Ned. Good men willing to tolerate the isolation here are hard to find.”
He held out his hand, pulling the lad into an embrace. The surprise on the man’s face was classical when he sat down again. An hour later, he took his leave. By then, both men frowned.
* * *
Nicole sauntered the length of the porch to where Joshua leaned against the railing, watching her hip-swaying approach. She was beautiful, sultry, with just the right amount of decadence to whet a man’s appetite.
But time was marching by, and soon she wouldn’t be the young belle anymore. Already, fine lines gathered at the corners of her eyes, and the shadowy light on the porch accentuated the brackets running from her nose to the corners of her generous mouth, all evidence of years of hard play. Even the color of her hair was a more vibrantly auburn than it used to be.
“Hello, Joshua,” she purred, kissing him on the lips. Her body lightly brushed his before she stepped away to sit in one of the Adirondack chairs, crossing her legs. “Come sit down. Martha is bringing the drinks.”
He perched on the edge of the other chair, clasping his hands in front of him, elbows denting his knees. What was wrong with him? He knew how old Nicole was, and a few wrinkles weren’t important. Yet a moment ago, when she’d first flung the screen door wide, the ravages of time had been all he could see.
The housekeeper appeared, interrupting his thoughts. After she’d deposited the tray on the table between them and left, he cracked his beer and poured it into the glass.
“Nicole,” he said after a long sip. “I’m not staying long tonight.”
“Aw, Joshua, why?” she pouted prettily.
He wasn’t in the mood for her games. Being in her presence oppressed him tonight and he couldn’t wait to be gone.
She batted her lashes, slanting him a glance. “Don’t you want to go into the barn for a bit?” She ran the tip of her tongue along her bottom lip. “You seem tense.”
He turned away to study the dark vineyards, then dragged a deep breath in through his nose. “No, I don’t. We need to talk. I want to know two things from you. First, I’d like to know if you have any intention of marrying me at all.” He held up a hand when she opened her mouth to interrupt. “And secondly, when you foresee that happy event taking place.”
“Joshua, are you trying to be funny? Aren’t we engaged to be married?” Grinding her teeth, she jumped to her feet, her red curls bouncing. “You know, we never do anything together anymore. There is only this perpetual animosity between us about getting married, and I’m sick of it.” There was nothing left of the flirty vixen in her demeanor now. “Why are you pushing so hard, Joshua? Why don’t you wait for it to happen when it is meant to?”
Joshua dumped his glass on the table and got to his feet. He was not in the mood for a sulky Nicole. “When it is meant to? Can you give me an indication as to the timeframe we’re looking at? I’m sick of this waiting game you play with me while you act the social butterfly in Cape Town. I feel sidelined, as if I am of no importance to you. Neither of us is getting any younger, Nicole, and I’d like a couple of kids before I’m in my dotage.”
Nicole stamped her foot. “That does it, I’m going back to Cape Town tomorrow. If having kids is the only reason you want to marry me, you’d better start looking for another brood mare.”
He gripped her upper arms before she could storm into the house. “It isn’t the only reason and you know it. Do you even love me? Do I have any place in your life or thoughts?”
Tossing her hair, she shook his hands off and turned to the door. “You tell me—you seem to think you have all the answers.” Turning back, she planted her fists on her hips, her eyes roaming the dark vineyards. When she looked at him again, her eyes were hard. “This country-bumpkinness is getting me down. I hate to be squeezed into a little box.”
“I’m not trying to hem you in, Nicole. I only want to know where I stand with you. We have been engaged a long time. All I’m saying is that it is time for us to tie the know. I’m ready, but I’m not at all sure if you are, or if you will ever be.”
“Charming, coming from my fiancé.” She dropped her arms and stared at her feet before meeting his eyes. “You shall have to wait until I’m bloody good and ready to marry you.” Her lips curled into a snarl, and with a toss of her head, she spun on her heel and stormed into the house, leaving Joshua alone on the veranda.
He sighed from the depth of his soul.
* * *
Heather turned the third card over and placed it to the right of the two crossed cards. Her hand hovered over the deck but didn’t touch the next card. She stared at the three already on the table. There was a disturbance in her soul, and she hoped the reading would give her the answers she needed to understand. The cards have never failed her.
The first card was The Lovers. It was high time Holly found someone of her own to love. She would have to do a reading for him when she met him, to see if he was worthy of her Holly, but at this time a new man in Holly’s life wasn’t what bothered her.
It was the second card that had quickly followed the first.
The Empress. A pregnancy? Was Holly pregnant? The card was reversed. Did that mean the pregnancy couldn’t come to its natural conclusion? Yes, but it wasn’t Holly who was pregnant, she felt that in her bones.
A frown pulled Heather’s brows together. A pregnancy, not Holly’s, but one that was going to affect her in some way.
She stared at the third card. The High Priestess assured her that the truth would be revealed, that all secrets would come to light. She hovered her hand over the card to test its vibrations. It had fallen in the position of the distant past, which meant something mysterious was at work in Holly’s life.
What? Oh, Goddess, that wasn’t good.
Turning the fourth, fifth, and sixth cards over in quick succession, she placed them below, above and to the right of the spread before studying them closely, and when she did, she sucked her breath in sharply when the power of the cards lifted the hair off her face.
The Moon in the fourth position confirmed that something hidden was at work, something potentially dangerous to her sister. The man Holly loved? No, instinct told her it was more than that, deeper, directed from afar, like a restless spirit breathing in the night.
The Two of Cups had fallen in the best outcome position, reassuring Heather that the new man was going to be good for Holly, but until Holly introduced brought him to her, she wouldn’t worry about him—other forces at work demanded immediate attention.
Death in the position of the immediate future predicted major change very soon, within a week or two.
Why was Holly so stubborn? Why did she go into hiding whenever she needed her sister the most?
Heather breathed deeply through her nose. There were several ways to interpret the cards, depending on the positions into which they were drawn and the relation between them, and she won’t get a clear picture until she had all of them in front of her. She couldn’t even begin to understand what action was needed before she understood the whole problem.
If only Holly would contact her. Until she did, there was only one thing Heather could do, and that was to finish the reading.
The seventh card she turned over was the Nine of Swords. Heather sucked her breath in until her cheeks were hollow. Oh, no, just when she thought Holly’s future looked quite rosy, that grim card came up. It could refer to either death, miscarriage, deception, or despair. Which applied?
Was the baby that wasn’t Holly’s and could not be born going to die? Or was this a reference to Holly being in mortal danger?
In the external influence position was the Queen of Pentacles, reversed. An evil woman, well aware of what she was doing. Who was she? Could she be Donald’s second wife? Holly wasn’t a threat to her, unless Holly hadn’t told Heather what was going on between her and Donald these days.
But as she knew her, Holly would never interfere in a marriage, not even her ex-husband’s. Whoever the woman was, Heather knew for certain she meant Holly harm in some way.
The card Heather turned over in the hopes and fears position, The Tower, predicted change due to an outside influence over which Holly had no control.
The final card was not the one Heather would have hoped for. It confirmed her fears for Holly, as the Seven of Swords indicated that Holly should be careful who she trusted.
* * *
Gwen stood for a moment in the absolute dark of her private domain. It enveloped her like a lover’s embrace, the familiar smell of herbs and incense soothing the trepidation inside her. She was going to need all the help she could get in this, and the only help available to her was her Book of Shadows.
She lit the candles in the sconces along the walls before she reached for the thick leather-bound grimoire on the shelf. Shifting shadows played on every surface. She bit her lip. Admitting she wasn’t comfortable doing this didn’t help, because there was nothing else she could do to save her marriage. Hugging the book to her, she breathed in and out slowly a couple of times, concentrating on grounding herself.
Balancing the book on its spine on the table, her hands flat against the front and back covers, she licked her lips. Rolling her eyes to the ceiling, she implored the Goddess for help, although she doubted guidance would be forthcoming for what she was about to attempt.
Returning her attention to the book, concentrating hard on her purpose, she snatched her hands away, allowing the book to fall open where it would. Well-used pages fluttered before settling down. The answers she needed would be on either of the two pages the book opened for her.
Taking another deep breath, she leaned over the open book. The candles cast unstable shadows over the text. The book had fallen open on a page describing a rather interesting ritual.
Yes, that was how she could remove the negativity Holly had brought into her life and marriage, and to break the bond between her husband and his ex-wife. This was a good cause, she assured herself—her own happiness was as worthy as a reason as any.
Holly wouldn’t come to any harm, not lastingly, anyway. As soon as her influence over Donald was broken, her silly life could continue as before, only without Donald and the boys in it.
Gwen’s finger ran down the page as she read through the ritual to see what she needed.
Hours later she pulled the door to her shed closed behind her and listened to the locks engage when she turned the key. The weather had closed in, and the sky was dark and starless, the city lights reflecting off the low-hanging clouds.
She didn’t feel good about what she had done, and the feeling settled heavily in the pit of her stomach.
In the kitchen, she scrubbed her hands over and over, as if the soap and water could erase the imprint of the crucifix on the palm of her hand. Trying to ease the guilt in her mind, she assured herself that, as her heart had not been in it, nothing would come of it. All the same, she knew every time she thought of Holly, she’d see the red drop forming at the bottom the cross, held like a knife in her hand.
She didn’t fully understand parts of the ritual, but it had never been her intention to harm Holly physically, nor, the Goddess forbid, that she should actually die. As it was, Donald had a bleeding heart for the woman and her death would not benefit Gwen’s cause at all.
She soaped her hands again, telling herself she was being irrational, that it would be the last time she washed. Yet the smell of the burning herbs remained in her nostrils, and her nails appeared discolored from its sap, her hair smelling of the pungent smoke.
She made a solemn promise to the Goddess never again to dabble in things she didn’t understand.
Little did she realize that it was already too late, yet she would never know how much tonight’s work was going to affect Holly.
* * *
A pale hand pushed the branches away, careful not to dislodge the drops clinging to them. Don’t make a sound. Everything looked the same in the sporadic light—glittery wet, dark, menacing. There was no way of knowing how far she’d come or where she was, exactly. She might be going around in circles for all she knew.
Which way next?
She covered her mouth to smother her rasping breath. A muddy smear stayed behind on her cheek. Crouched low in the undergrowth, the wet denim stretched tight around her thighs.
Where was it?
What to do. Oh, what could she do to get away from something she couldn’t even see?
Her head whipped around at the sound of the rain pattering on the thick mulch behind her. She had to go, immediately. It was on the move, and she had to keep ahead of it.
Shooting to her feet, her haste undermined her speed when her mud-caked sneakers slipped from under her. Hands automatically reached out to steady her without breaking her stride. When the ground fell away, she skidded down a bank, desperately trying to keep her feet under her. At the bottom of the ditch, she lost her balance and fell onto her back, hitting her head against the ground hard enough to jar her teeth. The air whooshed from her lungs.
Silence—she had to be absolutely quiet.
Heavy breathing vibrated around her, enveloping her. That was all there was to her existence, breathing that did not belong to her. Should she call out for help even if there was no one to hear?
Better to keep quiet and move.
Heaving herself up the opposite bank by the branches around her, she didn’t notice thorns piercing her skin. The thing was behind her and all around her. It seemed to know exactly where she was.
How long can I keep this up?
Her lungs were screaming for rest, but she daren’t pause again. The last one had cost her too many valuable seconds.
Moments before lighting flooded the forest floor with blinding white light, she flung herself sideways to her knees in the gap between two large tree trunks. She kept still, ignoring whatever was digging into her knee and the coarse bark rubbing her cheek. Rolling her eyes in their sockets, she searched for movement in the fading light. The rain dripped steadily around her and onto her. Blocking out the discomfort was the only way to survive.
Bone-chilling minutes later, she had to take a peek. If she could make out anything to identify the thing in the dark, she’d know how to defend herself.
What will it do to me if it caught me?
She needed to know.
From her lowly position, the forest was only that—a wet forest. Not good enough. She had to know exactly where the thing was. Carefully pulling one foot under her and then the other, she slowly straightened her legs. Peering around the bole of the tree, she bit her lip in time to stifle a gasp.
It was right in front of her!
The thick mist swirled as if something had passed through it. An indistinct black smudge preceded the turbulence and continued past her hiding place.
It took so much effort to keep still, pressed up as she was against the trunk of the tree, she might have become one with the tree. If she didn’t move, the thing wouldn’t be able to see her. A few seconds more and it would be gone, and then she could go home.
Steeling herself, she concentrated on relaxing her straining muscles, on keeping her burning breath steady. Her lips silently prayed for strength not to desert her, for the thing to abandon the chase and leave her alone.
Wisps of mist swirled in the path snaking between the trees. It refracted the next flash of lightning. Not daring to make a sound, she had to clench her jaw to stop her teeth from chattering.
This was ridiculous, hugging a tree in the rain in the middle of the night. Enough playing the thing’s game. She was going home, and it was welcome to come chase her around her own warm bedroom, if it wanted to.
Decision made, she pushed away from the tree. Doubt followed uncertainty of finding her way home. She didn’t have a clue in which direction home was. Turning her head from side to side, a bold approach seemed best. That was to cut directly across the path behind the smudge.
But before she could action the plan, it was back, blocking her way. Dark tendrils reached for her.
No! It wasn’t to touch her!
Spinning the other way, she ran blindly into the woods, wet foliage slapping her in the face and ripping at her clothes. The very forest seemed to conspire with the thing against her.
It isn’t fair!
She should have stayed where she was until morning. Glancing over her shoulder, her wet hair stuck to her face and obscured her vision. The black smudge, though without substance, breathed in her neck, hovering above the uneven ground. The forest bent out of its way to clear a path.
She kept running; she wasn’t brave enough not to.
In the next instant, she had reason to wish she had stopped when she careened headfirst into the trunk of an ancient oak. It absorbed the impact better than her body did. Pale fingers dug into the bark when her knees buckled, the horror fading from the outside in. A smell, sickly sweet, like a long-remembered perfume, invaded her head.
It was over. The black thing had won.
Moonlight slanted across the bed, the drapes billowing in the gentle breeze. Dancing patterns of light and shadow decorated the walls. Eventually the light woke her, although it took a few minutes before her surroundings made sense to her.
She knew where she was, but not how she got there. The last thing she remembered was the thing looming over her and the heavy, sweet smell filling her head.
Had it really only been a dream? It had seemed so real—the rain, the burning in her lungs, the fear, the nauseating smell.
Pushing herself up against the headboard, she winced and turned her hands over. Both palms were lacerated—the legacy of the thorns she had pulled herself up the bank by.
But dreams didn’t leave marks that were still there when one woke.
Then she caught sight of herself in the vanity mirror.
Her hair was a tangled mess, her face dirty and scratched, her clothes damp, filthy and wrinkled. She’d never slept in her clothes before.
Kicking the bedding aside was harder to do than it should have been, and she soon discovered why—she was still wearing her muddy sneakers.
She had really been out there in the night, in the rain, in the forest.
Horrified, she fell out of bed. Sitting on the floor with her head in her hands, the room tilted precariously. “What’s happening to me?” she whispered to the empty room. “Is it starting again?”
But it wasn’t quite the same as before. Her dreams had never punched through into reality.
Fingers pressed to her temples in an effort to make sense of what was happening, and instead found the edge of the lump on her forehead. She glanced at her image in the mirror.
“Oh, God. No!”