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Jenna McKnight - Witch In The House

By Thelma Edwards,2014-11-04 18:10
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Jenna McKnight - Witch In The House

WITCH IN THE HOUSE

    Jenna McKnight

Chapter 1

    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,

    either.

    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

    job.

    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.

    “Looks

    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.

    “From what?”

    “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.”

    “Uh-huh.”

    “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

    long,

    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 guestand several of

    the

    menstopped 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

of sex,

    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

    neck.

    “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.

They had

    a bond, an obligation to respect each other‟s freedom. They left most

    of the

    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

    break.”

    “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

    minutes

    before the wedding, so I want you to know I‟m resisting.”

    Anthony snickered.

    “Aren‟t you supposed to be supportive today? It‟s, you know, in the job

    description.”

    “Hey, I‟m supportive,” Anthony said. “I‟m not telling the maid of honor

    where

    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

because if

    I‟m supposed to be looking out for you, my friend—”

    “Let‟s put it this wayif she comes after me, you have to throw yourself between

    us.”

    “Take the bullet, as it were?”

    “Absolutely.”

    “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

    below.

    “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

    Kincaid here?”

    “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.”

    “Police departments?”

    “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

the

    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

    let her

    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

    dry tonight.

    “Could be personal.”

    “It sure as hell better be.”

    “All right, all right,” Anthony said, feigning calmness that did nothing

    to

    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.

“She‟s pregnant.”

    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

    speak.

    “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

    off.”

    “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.”

    “There‟s more?”

    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?”

    “It‟s his?”

    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, deliveryhmmm, the sign of things to come. Setup. Who knew he was the

    florist, huh?”

    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

    red.

    “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—”

    “What?”

    “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

    with me?”

    “Where?” Anthony dialed Lily‟s mother.

    Mason stripped off his tie. “The nearest bar. Better yet, I have two

    tickets to

    Aruba—you choose.”

    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

    fireplace.

    “Brenda backed out!” he shouted with unrepressed glee, popping around

    the

    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

    help!”

    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

    to slip

    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.

    He circled

    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

    manner.

    “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

you do.

    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

    trip.”

    “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

    conservatory and—”

    “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

    morning?”

    “Five maybe six, I lost count,” he said, running the words together.

    “Lyle!”

    He grinned. “Sorry. I‟m just so happy.”

    “You have what you want.”

    “Yes!”

    “Right. Then it‟s time to thank the spirits for acting so quickly. Let‟s go into

    the—”

    “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 clientsones not shoved through the front door by well-meaning sistersnever left early. More work needed to be done to ensure Lyle‟s

    success

    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

    their own.

    “It already worked,” Lyle said with finality, clearly meaning case

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