WITCH IN THE HOUSE
L ike a lemon drop on speed, the maid of honor darted across the front of the
church, her yellow toe-length dress rustling with every step. The guests‟ heads
swiveled in unison as they tracked her agitated progress through the opposite
archway, after which they turned to each other and resumed whispering. Not calm,
smiling, happy-to-see-these-two-finally-going-to-tie-the-knot wedding speak,
Mason Kincaid, the groom, handled it like a pro; ten minutes earlier, he‟d
retreated to the choir loft in the back of the church. Only his best man knew
where he was, and that was because he‟d followed him. Something about doing his
Mason was standing shoulder to shoulder with Anthony now, feet spread comfortably, hands in the trouser pockets of his tux, watching another lemon
drop rustle across the nave below.
“There goes another one,” he remarked.
Organ music played softly in the background, as if it were quite normal for
bridesmaids and groomsmen to buzz back and forth across the church before the
ceremony, half of them chattering on their cell phones, the other half comparing
notes while frantically waiting for call backs.
“Yellow dresses, black tuxes,” Anthony mused over the swarm of activity.
like a hornet‟s nest, my friend.”
“Please. Don‟t say that in front of Brenda.” Mason raised his arm,
absentmindedly lifting his sleeve and pronating in one smooth motion. “I think you can get tennis elbow from that,” Anthony said.
“Checking your watch every thirty seconds. What? Don‟t tell me you thought Miss
Terminally Late would be on time once in her life.”
“Yes,” Mason said, nodding with absolute certainty, turning the bezel on his
watch, as if doing so would somehow make Brenda more aware of the time. “We
discussed it at the rehearsal last night.”
“And in the car on the way to dinner.” Mason felt the need to substantiate his
statement because Anthony was shaking his head with a look that said, You poor
sap. “On the way home, too. She swore she wouldn‟t be late.”
He never knew whether to worry about Brenda when she wasn‟t on time or wring her
neck when she finally arrived, but constant repetition had dulled the tendency
to worry. Except this time she‟d promised. She‟d never promised before.
All her friends were here. All she‟d talked about for weeks was “her day.” She
loved fresh bouquets, candlelight, and ribbon. Her apartment had turned into a
veritable testing lab for all three in her quest to mix the right sizes, right
widths, right textures, blah blah blah. More than once, Mason jolted awake
thinking he was the star attraction at a funeral.
It wouldn‟t have been so bad if Brenda had consoled him, but forty-two
lonnng days ago she‟d gotten the crazy idea that “waiting until our wedding
night” would somehow make it more special. This, after five years together.
He had to hand it to her, though. Every female guest—and several of
men—stopped in surprise just this side of the door, oohing and ahhing at the end
result. The small, intimate Pensacola church normally inspired hushed hellos and
quiet whispers, but today it was transformed into a vibrant, living hothouse,
plush with cascades of white and yellow roses, mile upon mile of white ribbon,
and row upon row of white tapers.
And just think, after today, life would go back to normal. After a week
sun, and scuba diving, Brenda would move into his condo, not a candle, flower,
or ribbon in sight.
Five forty-five. Fifteen minutes to go. She‟d promised.
Candle flames flickered and fluttered along the center aisle as ushers escorted
a few last-minute, wide-eyed guests to their seats.
Mason‟s four-year-old niece broke out of safekeeping and tore down the aisle,
her new Mary Janes raising a clatter on the narrow wooden steps as she climbed
to the loft. Mason turned toward the uncontrolled sobbing that punctuated each
step before Lily launched herself into his arms and buried her head against his
“Aw, did seeing all those people scare you, sweetheart?” Mason crooned. He
cuddled Lily against his chest, patting her tiny back.
Hand him a Glock and point him in the right direction, and he was a fierce
adversary, a warrior. Hand him Lily, though, all warm and trusting and smelling
of baby shampoo, and paternal emotions arose out of nowhere to throw him a
curve. Every time. When he looked at strangers‟ kids, he didn‟t feel warm and
fuzzy and think about having his own. Not even when he had sex with Brenda.
Used to have sex, he amended.
“Tell you what,” he said softly, aiming to console the little girl. “You don‟t
have to walk up that big, long aisle if you don‟t want to.”
Quietly, Anthony sang, “Brenda‟s gonna kill you.”
“She‟s only four.” Mason fell into a slow, automatic sway, soothing his
nap-deprived little niece. “You‟d better let my sister know I have her.”
Anthony handled that by cell phone, ending the conversation with, “He‟s right
beside me. Really. He‟s fine.”
“Don‟t tell me. She was afraid I took off.”
“She says it‟s in my job description to make sure that doesn‟t happen.”
Mason grinned, as if Anthony would even try. After all, they were guys.
a bond, an obligation to respect each other‟s freedom. They left most
this-is-for-your-own-good bullshit to parents and siblings. “Hate to disillusion you,” Mason said, “but I believe you‟re supposed to ensure
a clean getaway if I change my mind.”
“No way, man. Brenda‟d hunt you down like last time.”
“She didn‟t hunt me down. And what do you mean, like last time? We were on a
“She did hunt you down—you‟re just too stupid to know it. She found out where
you‟d be and paraded another man in front of you. I warned you; you told me to
stuff it. You fell for it hook, line, and sinker. This ringing any bells?”
Mason tugged at his collar, thinking it was awfully tight and maybe he should
have rented a larger size. No way Anthony was right.
“I‟m guessing it‟d be bad luck to throw my best man off the balcony
before the wedding, so I want you to know I‟m resisting.”
“Aren‟t you supposed to be supportive today? It‟s, you know, in the job
“Hey, I‟m supportive,” Anthony said. “I‟m not telling the maid of honor
you‟re hiding. Geez, does Brenda know about her?”
Mason cast a nervous glance toward the steep, narrow stairs guarding him from
his fiancée‟s girlfriend. Women threw themselves at him every day; he could
handle that. But Brenda‟s best friend? That was murder waiting to happen. He
just wasn‟t sure whose.
“Relax, she‟s up front with the others,” Anthony said. “Oops, looking this way.”
Mason stepped back from the rail, hoping he‟d been quick enough to elude her
sights. “Go tell her you couldn‟t find me.”
“She saw you.”
“She can‟t see fifty feet without her glasses.”
“Is that in my job description? You have to let me know these things
I‟m supposed to be looking out for you, my friend—”
“Let‟s put it this way—if she comes after me, you have to throw yourself between
“Take the bullet, as it were?”
“Like when that moray eel came at us, and you ducked?”
“I was diverting its attention.”
“From you maybe.” Anthony raised his hand briefly to acknowledge someone
“Relax. Ken just told her it‟s me up here.”
At six o‟clock, Lily got a second wind. She wiggled out of Mason‟s arms and
scampered off to watch the organist.
At the same moment, in the nave below, a skinny, uniformed courier marched up
the center aisle between the tall, beribboned candelabra. In a nasal, high-pitched voice, he called out, “Message for Mr. Kincaid. Is there a Mason
“Uh-oh,” Anthony intoned. “Another eel.”
Mason cocked his head, assessing the situation in about one second flat. “You
don‟t suppose emergency rooms send couriers, do you?”
“Don‟t think so, buddy.”
“There isn‟t a cop alive who‟d be caught dead in that getup.”
“Morgues? Why are you looking at me like that?”
“I‟m waiting to see if you duck again or see what it says.”
“Oh, I can guess what it says.”
Mason stared at Anthony until he finally sighed and said, “You want me to get
that for you?”
“If you wouldn‟t mind.”
“Okay, but don‟t kill the messenger. Meaning me, not him.”
Anthony thumped down the stairs, with purpose if not speed. As he entered the
nave, a hush fell over the church. You could hear a boutonniere drop as
everyone, guests and wedding party alike, held their breath and craned their
necks for a better vantage point.
The hell with reflecting. Mason was on the move now, nervously pacing
limited space in front of the choir benches, watching everyone below like a
condemned man contemplating the crowd circling his gallows. The wedding party
grouped into a tight pack near the altar, a couple of whom whispered into their
cell phones, though who was left to call was anyone‟s guess.
The guests scooted along the pews, sliding toward the center aisle in their
Sunday best, cramming together so they‟d miss nothing. And when Anthony accepted
the envelope from the courier and glanced upward, all heads turned toward the
rear of the church. All eyes raised to the loft. And just as quickly, upon
seeing Mason, everyone turned back around, their whispers more urgent. Mason no longer cared if they saw him. He‟d done everything Brenda had asked.
He‟d committed to taking their relationship to the next level. He‟d learned to
navigate through the disarray in the apartment without complaint. He‟d
have her six weeks of chastity. He‟d agreed to no more than four dives while
they were on their honeymoon. After all that, he damn well didn‟t deserve
getting stood up on his wedding day!
When Anthony stopped before him and proffered the envelope, Mason couldn‟t bring
himself to touch it. “Read it,” he said, already planning which bar he‟d drink
“Could be personal.”
“It sure as hell better be.”
“All right, all right,” Anthony said, feigning calmness that did nothing
reassure Mason. “Just remember what I said about killing the messenger. No
throwing me over the rail or anything.”
“Would you just get it over with?”
Anthony slipped his finger under the flap and pried it open. He pulled out
several pages, looked them over, and said nothing.
“To me,” Mason snapped.
That knocked the wind out of Mason. He‟d thought he‟d known what was coming, in
spite of all the time and expense and planning Brenda had put into the scene
below, but pregnant? That sure as hell wasn‟t it.
He slumped onto the first choir bench. He had trouble catching his breath to
“But we—We were careful, you know. We—”
They‟d talked about kids. They hadn‟t agreed on how many; that was a topic for
down the road. Neither of them had said, “But if we get pregnant soon, it‟s all
“She‟s feeling sick, is that it? Just can‟t make it today?” Mason hated the
hopeful tremor in his voice, because he knew in his heart that a little nausea
didn‟t justify a courier instead of a phone call.
Anthony shook his head. As the quiet stretched between them, he asked, somewhat
hopefully, “You want me to go? You know, give you some space?”
If she didn‟t want him, fine. But she wasn‟t taking his child, maybe a little
girl as sweet as Lily, and—“So why isn‟t she here then?”
Anthony sighed, guyspeak for “Don‟t make me tell you this.”
Anthony nodded, stepping away from the edge of the loft, strategically keeping
the stairs at his back for a quick getaway. “Remember Lyle Thomas, the guy
Brenda paraded around to make you jealous?”
Mason accepted that with mixed feelings, a small part relief, a large part anger
at Brenda for toying with him. One second he thought he was going to be a
father, the next he wasn‟t. One minute he was about to be married, the next he
wasn‟t. He eyed the rest of the pages in Anthony‟s hand, and when he spoke next,
any hint of a tremor was long gone.
“I‟m guessing that‟s not all. Hell if I can imagine what‟s left, though.”
“His bill.” Again, Anthony proffered the pages.
“He‟s billing me for knocking up my fiancée?” Mason bellowed, forgetting what
great acoustics the church had. As his outrage permeated the far corners, it set
off a riptide of two hundred guests snapping around in their seats. “No, idiot. Well, I don‟t think so.” Anthony shuffled through the pages quickly.
“Flowers. Flower arranging. Candles—ooh, that could be code, you think? Ribbon.
Labor, delivery—hmmm, the sign of things to come. Setup. Who knew he was the
Mason snatched the bill out of Anthony‟s hand and quickly scanned to the last
page, where Brenda‟s flowing script instructed him to pay the bill in full
within thirty days. Underlined, for God‟s sake. And then circled in
“That‟s it. I‟m outta here. See that Lily gets back to her mom, okay?”
“Sure, but, uh, I think—I mean, it‟s my job to remind you—”
“Mason, you have to go downstairs and tell the guests.”
“I think they heard.” Mason ripped the bill down the middle and tossed it in the
air. Torn pages floated over the wall to friends and family below. “You coming
“Where?” Anthony dialed Lily‟s mother.
Mason stripped off his tie. “The nearest bar. Better yet, I have two
Late the next morning in northeastern Missouri, Lyle Thomas ran through the
front door of Jade Delarue‟s historic home and made a beeline for the nearest
“Brenda backed out!” he shouted with unrepressed glee, popping around
walnut-paneled study like a live wire, brushing snow off his butt and legs
because he‟d slipped and fallen on the way in. “Can you believe it? I can‟t
believe it. I get another chance!”
“So, no wedding last night,” Jade said, grinning at his exuberance.
Lyle‟s excitement was catching, even though she‟d expected this very outcome.
Unlike Harry Potter or Samantha Stevens, Jade didn‟t wave a wand around or
twitch her nose, set things on fire, or summon quirky physical manifestations
that talked back, but she did know her stuff.
Lyle threw his arms around Jade and hugged her soundly. He lifted her off the
carpet and swung her in a circle.
“She called last night and said she loves me and she was crazy to think she
should go back to Mason. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I am so happy my
sister dragged me here and made me tell you everything and made me let you
When Lyle set Jade back on her feet, she ran her fingers through her hair,
attempting to restore some kind of order to soft, dark spirals that seized any
opportunity to go their own way.
“That‟s great news, Lyle. Now we should—”
“I didn‟t want to come, you know. I kicked and screamed all the way from
Hannibal, but Mary kept saying that if I didn‟t want my one true love
away, then a road trip to see you was just the ticket. She said I had to be
straight with you, or you wouldn‟t have anything to do with me, and I was.”
There was no stopping him. It was as if he‟d come to life overnight.
the room, pausing only as he noticed the decorations for the first time. “You people celebrate Christmas?” he asked with surprise.
Jade wasn‟t offended; unlike many, Lyle didn‟t utter you people in a negative
“We call it Yule,” she explained.
“Oh. Don‟t worry, by the way. Mary told me most people think you‟re just an
herbalist, and I can‟t ever tell anybody otherwise—you know, about what
Though why you do it here is beyond me. If my parents hadn‟t gotten married in
January forty years ago this weekend, I sure as heck wouldn‟t be back here now.
Not in Missouri in the middle of winter, no way. I would‟ve begged off this
“Come on,” Jade urged. She turned toward the door in an attempt to move Lyle on
to the next step, as there was still work to be done. “Let‟s go into the
“But what was the point in staying in Pensacola if Brenda was marrying that
lowlife, right?” Lyle motored on, then shot his arm in the air, and shouted,
“Mason Kincaid, eat your heart out!”
Jade‟s lips twitched with amusement. “How many cups of coffee have you had this
“Five maybe six, I lost count,” he said, running the words together.
He grinned. “Sorry. I‟m just so happy.”
“You have what you want.”
“Right. Then it‟s time to thank the spirits for acting so quickly. Let‟s go into
“Can‟t. I‟m on my way to the airport now.”
“Oh,” Jade said, taken aback. Generally clients were awed by her skills and
followed directions without question. Some out of gratitude; some a little bit
afraid of her, though no one ever said so. “But we‟re not finished.”
Regular clients—ones not shoved through the front door by well-meaning sisters—never left early. More work needed to be done to ensure Lyle‟s
in the relationship department. It was precisely why Jade preferred working with
fully committed guests, the ones who made their own reservations and arrived on
“It already worked,” Lyle said with finality, clearly meaning case