“I had a chat with our lake monster this morning.” Dorcas Lowell gazed at her companions from behind her black marble desk. How she enjoyed dropping bombshells during Monday staff meetings.
Her husband Ambrose and her assistant Maggie Madigan looked gratifyingly shocked. Sabrina, the black cat curled in Ambrose’s lap, sat upright and blinked, which was as shocked as Sabrina ever allowed herself to be.
Ambrose recovered first, and he was furious. “Look, we agreed you wouldn’t –”
“The lake monster speaks English?” Maggie leaned forward in her chair.
“Who cares?” As Ambrose stood, Sabrina leaped onto the polished desk. “You should never have gone there alone. Anything could have –”
“But nothing did.” Dorcas stroked Sabrina and smiled at her husband. He was so cute when he was mad. He would never have approved of her going to see the lake monster alone, but she’d known instinctively that was the way to approach the problem.
Ambrose glowered at her. “You might have been killed.”
“Nonsense.” Dorcas gently extricated her notes from underneath Sabrina’s paws. “Would you like to hear my report?”
Ambrose sat down with a martyred sigh. “Might as well, considering you risked your life to get it.”
“I did nothing of the kind.” Dorcas put on her jeweled reading glasses and consulted what she’d written. “In a nutshell, Dee-Dee is lonely.”
“Hold on, Dorcas.” Ambrose obviously still had his snit going. “Matchmaking for humans is one thing, but we’re not matchmaking for a lake monster. End of story.”
“Why not?” Maggie’s voice quivered with anticipation. “Couldn’t you bring a mate to the lake?”
“Ye, Gods.” Ambrose glared at his wife. “Please don’t tell me you’re considering that.”
“No, sweetie, I’m not.”
Maggie made a sound of protest. “But –”
“Sorry, Maggie. It’s out of the question.” Dorcas turned to her with a tolerant smile. From the moment Maggie had discovered that Dorcas and Ambrose had magical powers, she’d acted like a kid with a new X-box. When she’d moved here from Houston to get married, she’d immediately asked to work for them in their matchmaking business. A non-magical person like Maggie usually thought that witches and wizards could do anything.
“I don’t understand the problem, Dorcas,” Maggie said.
“Transporting a grown male lake monster here would take more powerful magic than Ambrose and I could manufacture by ourselves.”
Ambrose snorted. “You think?”
“But you guys have connections. The Grand High Wizard was just here this weekend. I’ll bet he –”
“He wouldn’t do it,” Dorcas said. “For one thing, it violates the original contract made with Dee-Dee when she arrived here, which says she’s not to have any contact with people, magical or non. Cecil would never approve.”
“But you’ve already had contact,” Maggie pointed out.
“Which I hope Cecil never discovers, but I happen to think this needs solving. Unfortunately, bringing in a mate couldn’t be done without somebody noticing. Imagine a creature the size of the Goodyear blimp cruising over our unsuspecting neighbors. You don’t see that so much here in Big Knob, Indiana. The residents would get hysterical.”
“And then we’d have a monster hunt on our hands,” Ambrose added. “Once they’re alerted to strange creatures in the area, they could easily find George. The only reason they haven’t discovered that a dragon lives in the forest at the edge of town is because it never occurred to them there was one there.”
Maggie nodded. “I see your point. I don’t want to endanger George.”
“Neither do I,” Dorcas said, although most of the time she longed to give that silly dragon a kick in the patoot. If he’d paid more attention to his duties as the Guardian of Whispering Forest, she and Ambrose would be off the job and headed home to Sedona by now. Instead, by order of the Grand High Wizard, they were stuck in this one-dragon town until George earned his golden scales. They’d already waited months for that and there was no end in sight.
“So if we’re not going to find Dee-Dee a mate,” Ambrose said, “what are we going to do about her?”
“I’m not sure yet.” Dorcas tapped her glowing pen against her lips. “She needs more study.”
Ambrose’s scowl had returned. “Next time I’m going with you, and I’m bringing my staff. Did you even take your wand along?”
“I went unarmed, to gain her trust. And you may not come with me next time. This is delicate. Something only a woman would understand.”
“Then can I go?” Maggie looked as if she could barely contain herself. She obviously loved being an insider, the only Big Knob resident who knew that Dorcas was a witch and Ambrose a wizard. Even Maggie’s husband Sean didn’t know, although he’d been their first non-magical client. Sean thought they were relationship counselors.
“Maybe you can go,” Dorcas said. “But let’s wait a bit. I wouldn’t want Dee-Dee to think I’m gossiping about her secrets. She’s vulnerable right now.”
Ambrose rolled his eyes. “Nothing that weighs two tons is vulnerable, Dorcas.”
“That’s what you think. Okay, what else do we have this morning, gang?”
“I have something.” Maggie reached into her briefcase, pulled out a folder and shoved it across the desk toward Dorcas. “You both know Jeremy Dunstan. He’s a good friend of Sean’s.” Maggie’s eyes sparkled whenever she spoke of her husband.
As Dorcas thought of the match she and Ambrose had orchestrated between Maggie and Sean, she reminded herself that being sentenced to dragon duty hadn’t been all bad. The Grand High Wizard’s decree had lost some of its sting now that she and Ambrose were using their matchmaking skills on the good citizens of Big Knob.
“Of course I know Jeremy,” Ambrose said. “I was just in his Internet café yesterday, surfing the web.”
Dorcas wasn’t surprised. The Internet was Ambrose’s new fixation. He’d recently created a My Space page for himself. “Does Jeremy want our help?” she asked Maggie.
“Of course he wouldn’t want it,” Maggie said. “But he needs it. I’m sure we can figure out a way to help him without his knowledge.”
Intrigue. Dorcas relished it. Smiling at Maggie, she opened the folder and found a neatly typed prospectus for a new matchmaking scheme between Jeremy and Annie Winston, sister of Melody. Melody was getting married next weekend with Annie as maid of honor and Jeremy as best man. Nice setup.
Dorcas flipped through the contents of the folder. It was a common story. Back in school, shy Jeremy had lost out to the football hero, but now Annie and the football hero were divorced. “Jeremy still loves her?” Dorcas asked.
“That’s what Sean says.” Maggie ran a hand through her short red curls. “I wormed the story out of him this weekend.”
Dorcas continued to read. “Annie was voted Miss Dairy Queen the summer before her senior year. What’s that all about?”
“It’s Big Knob’s annual Dairy Festival that takes place next month,” Maggie said. “It’s the highlight of June around here, and according to Sean, being elected queen is a huge deal. I’m sure Jeremy was intimidated by that, too.”
Dorcas looked at Ambrose. His anger over the Dee-Dee incident seemed to have subsided. Although Dorcas ran the Monday morning staff meetings, Ambrose kept track of appointments, so he would know if they had time for this project.
She closed the folder. “What do you think, Ambrose? Can we fit Jeremy into the schedule?”
Her husband reached for the appointment book sitting beside his chair and thumbed through it. Because matchmaking wasn’t a full-time job in a town with only nine-hundred and forty-eight residents, and because it usually involved unsuspecting clients, they’d decided never to charge for it. To stay busy and bring in a little extra cash, they’d taken on some marriage counseling, as well.
He glanced up. “We can make the time providing you lay off this Dee-Dee situation for now.”
Dorcas recognized blackmail when she heard it. But for now was a vague term, and she could work around it. She scratched behind Sabrina’s ears. “Okay.”
“Then I guess we’re in business,” Ambrose said. “Jeremy and Annie will be our next matchmaking clients. When does Annie arrive in town?”
Ambrose closed the appointment book and stood. “Then we’ll have to work fast.”
“Suck it in.” Melody tugged on the back zipper of Annie’s peach-colored matron of honor dress.
“I used the measurements from when I made your wedding dress,” their mother said, sounding anxious. “But I must have transposed some numbers.”
“It’s not your mistake, Mom.” Annie was too mortified to admit that she was twenty pounds past those old measurements. She’d planned to lose the weight before the wedding. Then Melody had moved up the date by six months.
But fat or skinny, Annie looked hellacious in peach, which might be why Melody had chosen it, the little snot. The bridesmaids would be in pale blue, but Melody had saddled Annie with a contrasting color, a color that made her skin look sallow and her blonde hair brassy.
Annie held her breath, closed her eyes and prayed the damned zipper would close.
When Annie opened her eyes, Melody and her mother stood looking at her. They were in identical poses, hands on hips, gazes scanning the dress. Neither of them seemed pleased.
That made three of them. Annie could imagine the picture she presented stuffed into this tight dress – like a shrimp ready for the barby.
“Too much cleavage,” her mother said.
“My thoughts, exactly. Maybe a brooch.” Melody walked over and tried to drag the edges of the neckline closer together.
Annie stepped back. “I wouldn’t do that if I were –” The sound of popping seams said it all.
“Oh, dear.” Her mother hurried over and touched the splitting side seams, as if she could work some healing magic by a laying-on of hands. “Faulty thread. I must have used faulty thread and I just didn’t notice.”
“The problem’s me.” Annie couldn’t bear to have her mother take the rap for this. “I’ve gained a little weight.” Thumb screws wouldn’t get her to admit how much, though.
“And it looks good on you,” her mother said with characteristic loyalty. “You were always too thin. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of the dress.”
“Yeah, mom can fix it,” Melody said. “She’s a genius when it comes to letting things out. She fixed Sharon Fugate’s prom dress so nobody could tell Sharon had gained thirty pounds.”
“I haven’t gained thirty pounds.” Actually, she had, but she’d shaved off ten in the past three months. She’d counted on having more time to unload the rest.
“My mistake.” Melody was clearly loving this.
Annie longed to grab her sister around the neck and give her a knuckle rub like the ones they used to inflict on each other in the old days. But she couldn’t blame Melody for enjoying this moment.
Everything had come so easily for Annie. She’d been an honor student and an athlete, the school softball team’s best pitcher in Big Knob’s history and a whiz at her SATs. No one had been surprised when Annie had collected the coveted title of Miss Dairy Queen, a scholarship to Northwestern, a wedding ring from Zach Anderson, and an on-camera job at WGN News in Chicago.
A little sister who’d struggled in Annie’s shadow for years could be forgiven for gloating now that Annie’s lucky star had lost its glitter. The divorce from Zach had been humiliating, followed by the loss of her glamour job at WGN. Unfortunately she’d discovered that in a pinch, food could take the place of love and fame.
Now she looked less like the Dairy Queen and more like the Dairy Cow. It wasn’t Melody’s fault. The peach dress, however, was Melody’s fault. Melody just hadn’t realized it would be overkill.
“Let’s get that dress off and let me work on it.” Annie’s mother unzipped the dress with much less effort, now that the seams had given way.
“I’m thinking a lace shawl, to cover your cleavage,” Melody said.
“I’m thinking duct tape, to cover your mouth.” Annie couldn’t help it. She was trying to be charitable, but she had only so much patience, especially because she’d been starving herself ever since Melody’s phone call four days ago announcing the new and exceedingly imminent wedding date.
Melody’s chin lifted like it used to do when she was five. “It’s my wedding!”
“It’s my cleavage!”
“Girls, girls.” Annie’s mother bundled the dress up and took it over to her sewing table. “You’re too old for this kind of nonsense.”
“And too busy.” Annie reached for her clothes. “I have to get going.”
“Where to?” Her mother spoke around a mouthful of pins.
“That new Internet café of Jeremy’s.” Pulling on her black slacks (slimming) and buttoning her cream-colored blouse (flattering), she slipped on her shoes and grabbed her trench coat.
The trench coat had been a silly purchase, now that she thought back on it. But after she’d left WGN, the reporting job at the Chicago Tribune had been a welcome lifeline, a way to salvage her pride. In celebration, she’d bought what she considered the ultimate journalistic badge, a black trench coat. Besides, it helped cover the added weight.
Fortunately, Big Knob’s May weather was still cool enough to justify wearing the coat. Annie wondered how Melody would feel about having her matron of honor walk down the aisle with it on. The trench coat would look a hell of a lot better than that peach number.
“Do you have to go right now?” Melody said. “Georgia and Carol are coming over to help me with the favors. We could use an extra pair of hands.”
“I’ll help when I get back.” Annie grabbed her purse and started for the door. “The first installment of my Life in a Small Town series is due in an hour. Thank God Jeremy has high-speed access in that café he opened a couple of months ago.”
“Just don’t miss dinner,” her mother said. “I made apple pie.”
Annie knew that. She’d smelled it baking the minute she’d arrived this afternoon and figured the pie was in her honor. Joy Winston was famous for two things, her seamstress skills and her apple pies. Her talent with a needle had kept the family afloat after Ralph Winston had died from an undiagnosed heart condition when the girls were six and four.
Ralph had been an insurance agent who’d sold plenty of car and home policies but had never believed in life insurance, not even for himself. His financially strapped widow had sold the agency and opened the Knob Bobbin Sewing and Fabric Shop. After sewing had become a job instead of a hobby, she’d used her baking to relax after work.
That apple pie cooling on the kitchen counter would taste like ambrosia, and Annie didn’t dare eat a single mouthful. “I’ll be home for dinner,” she said. “But I’m not really all that hungry these days, so don’t expect me to eat much.”
Melody rounded her eyes at Annie. She wasn’t fooled, not for a minute. She knew Annie was dieting like crazy.
Annie’s mother glanced up and took the pins from her mouth, always a signal that she had something important to say. “You’re beautiful just as you are. I never liked how you had to worry about your weight because you were on camera all the time. Plus Zach was too obsessed with your weight. You look better this way. Healthier.”
“Thanks, Mom.” Annie smiled at her and wished, just a little bit, that she could come back home to live in her mother’s nonjudgmental circle of love. Six months ago, when she was going through the divorce, phone conversations with her mom had been her lifeline. But she was a big girl – a little too big at the moment – and she couldn’t come running to mommy, who would feed her apple pie and insist she wasn’t fat, just healthy. “See you guys later.”
* * *
Word traveled fast in Big Knob, so Jeremy knew that Annie had arrived at her mother’s house at approximately one-forty-five this afternoon. Although outwardly he seemed calm as he dealt with customers at the Click-or-Treat Café, internally he was wrecked, wondering how soon he and Annie would run into each other. In a town this size, it wouldn’t take long.
As he moved through the café late in the afternoon, the crowd was mostly teenagers doing homework. Normally he got a kick out of their wacky brand of humor, but today he was too distracted to appreciate it.
“Hey, dude, you keep crashing into poor Megabyte.” Seventeen-year-old Tony Gambino looked up from his keyboard. “Good thing that dog has a forgiving nature or you’d be missing a leg by now.”
“Yeah. Sorry, Meg.” Jeremy leaned down to scratch behind the Irish Wolfhound’s ears. Stumbling over Megabyte was easy to do considering the space she took up as she sprawled on the floor, but normally Jeremy was more careful.
Not today. Annie was in town. Originally the wedding had been scheduled for October, months away. Jeremy had counted on having time to get himself mentally prepared. But plans had changed.
Until last week, the groom had worked in Evansville, which was only a short commute. Then his company had abruptly transferred him to Waikiki, which made for a slightly longer commute. Melody and Bruce had decided to bump up the wedding to this weekend so they could begin their life together in Hawaii.
Jeremy couldn’t be happier for both of them, except that now his reunion with Annie, a woman he still had hot dreams about ten years after they’d graduated, was suddenly upon him. No official wedding festivities including him and Annie would take place until the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner on Friday night, but he’d see her before then, guaranteed.
The possibilities were endless. They could accidentally meet in the Hob Knob Diner during lunch, or at the Big Knobian Bar at happy hour, or while strolling around the town square window shopping. No, wait. He never window shopped. But they could bump into each other buying Bradley’s famous chicken salad at the deli. Then again, Jeremy might take his kayak out on Deep Lake at the very moment she went there to watch the sunset.
Or she could walk into his café right this minute and take all the guesswork out of it. Jeremy almost dropped the carafe of Jumpin’ Java Blend he’d been about to pour into Tony’s mug. Everyone got free refills on the flavor of the day, but as an employee, Tony got free refills all the time, anyway. Tony probably had way too much caffeine in his system.
At the moment, Jeremy didn’t have the brain cells available to cope with Tony’s caffeine problem. He was too busy trying not to stroke out at the sight of Annie standing just inside the café’s front door. She was ten times more beautiful than he remembered. The black trench coat gave her an X-Files look that he found wildly exciting. Then again, Annie would look wildly exciting in a faded flannel shirt and baggy overalls.
“Hi, Jeremy.” She smiled and walked toward him.
“Hi.” Brilliant, Dunstan. Surely you can do better than that. “Long time, no see.” No, apparently he couldn’t do better than that, not when he was looking into those incredible blue eyes.
“It has been a long time.” She glanced around the café. “Nice place.”
“Thanks.” He liked her hair like that, chin-length and sleek.
“Didn’t this used to be Billie’s Bobble-Head Shoppe?”
“Right. Billie decided right after Christmas to downsize and move to a house two blocks from the square. The timing was perfect for me, so here I am.” And here you are, standing in my café. He still couldn’t believe he was face-to-face with the woman of his dreams.
“Is that your dog?”
“Yeah. That’s Megabyte. She’s sort of a mascot for the café.”
“And harmless.” Jeremy couldn’t stop looking at Annie. Her skin glowed, just as soft and touchable as he remembered. Even softer, maybe. The new job with the Tribune must agree with her. She seemed more cuddly than before. Not that he’d ever had the chance to –
“Hey, can I get my refill?” Tony asked.
“Sure.” Still staring at Annie, Jeremy tilted the carafe in the general direction of Tony’s coffee mug.
“Hey, dude, watch out!”
Jeremy glanced down in time to see a stream of hot coffee headed for the computer keyboard, a keyboard missing its plastic cover because Tony had taken it off after complaining about a sticking key. It was one of those slow-motion moments in which all the ramifications flashed instantly through his mind – the coffee splatters on Tony, the ruined keyboard, and, most of all, the humiliation of having Annie there to see it.
But the coffee never reached the keyboard. Instead it defied gravity, reversed direction, and ran backwards into the carafe. Jeremy gazed at the carafe in stunned silence.
Tony’s mouth dropped open. Then he laughed and began clapping. “Excellent trick, dude! Hey, people, you won’t believe what I just saw our man Jeremy do. He’s a freaking magician!”
Kids left their computers and clustered around, asking questions and wanting a repeat. Even Megabyte lumbered to her feet and cocked her head at Jeremy.
“I have no idea what happened.” Jeremy looked at the carafe. Had somebody tampered with it? Switched it with some trick model?
“Sure you do. Don’t be modest.” Ambrose Lowell appeared at his elbow looking more trim and sophisticated than most fifty-something guys. “That was amazing. One of the best tricks I’ve seen in ages.”
Jeremy hadn’t heard him come in, but then it had been really noisy right after the incident with the coffee. “Seriously, you guys. I swear I don’t know what –”
“That was very cool, Jeremy.” Annie gazed at him with interest. “I don’t know how you did it, but what a realistic performance.”
Jeremy glanced at her. He didn’t know what the hell had just happened, but Annie had never looked at him that way before, like he was someone to be reckoned with. Only a fool would keep insisting he was clueless.
“Thanks.” Then he finally remembered his manners and introduced Annie to Ambrose. She was such a big celebrity in town that everyone else already knew her.
She shook hands with Ambrose, and Jeremy was a little jealous that Ambrose got to do that. Sure, Ambrose was old enough to be her father and happily married to Dorcas, but some women were turned on by that graying-at-the-temples look.
Too bad Jeremy and Annie had the kind of in-between relationship where they knew each other too well to shake hands but not well enough to hug. That meant he didn’t get to touch her at all. Bummer.
The other kids begged Jeremy to do the trick again, but when he refused, they eventually headed back to their respective computers. Megabyte resumed her spot on the floor. Only Ambrose and Annie continued to hang around.
“Your carafe stunt was great,” Annie said. “I desperately needed something like that.”
“You did?” Fulfilling her desperate needs was a long-time fantasy of his. He’d just never expected to do it with a coffee carafe.
“My editor wants me to write a series of pieces on the joys of small-town life. I told him there wasn’t a whole lot to write about in Big Knob, but he insisted. You’ve just given me the lead for my first story – Tired of big-city bustle? Try some small-town magic.”
Letting her believe what she wanted was one thing. Having her write a story for the Tribune claiming he was a magician made Jeremy uncomfortable. “Just so you know, that was a complete –”
“Tour de force,” Ambrose said. “I consider myself a minor talent in the field of illusion. If you’re willing to divulge some of your secrets, I’ll divulge some of mine.”
Jeremy had no secrets, and he definitely had to put a stop to this. “The thing is, I don’t –”
“I think magic is fascinating.” Annie gave Jeremy another admiring glance. “I’m sure you don’t want to give away any tricks of the trade, but can you tell me where you learned how to do stuff?”
“If he’s anything like me, he’s self-taught,” Ambrose said. “Right, Jeremy?”
“Right.” Frantically Jeremy tried to remember if he knew any magic tricks. There was one having to do with cards that Sean used to try on people, but Jeremy couldn’t remember it.
“So do you put on performances here in town?” Annie asked.
“No. In fact, I –”
“I get it,” Ambrose said. “You’re still in training, aren’t you?”
Jeremy met Ambrose’s gaze. It was as if the guy sensed Jeremy’s dilemma and was trying to help him out of a jam. What if he took lessons from Ambrose? Jeremy could trade him computer time for it.
Oh, who was he kidding? With only a few days to work with, he’d never become polished enough to convince Annie he was a true magician. He’d be exposed as a fraud and that light in her eyes would disappear.
“Okay, I have my angle,” Annie said. “Internet café owner by day, aspiring magician by night. Even your café name, Click-or-Treat, fits right in.” She dug a flash-drive out of her purse. “I need a computer. I have thirty minutes before deadline. Where do you want me?”
Right here, next to me, forever. “Over in the corner there is fine.” He gestured with the magic carafe. She was on a tight deadline, and what kind of guy would sabotage that by convincing her she had no story?
Of course, he was allowing her to write something that wasn’t true, and that wasn’t good, either. What a mess. But his moral angst didn’t stop him from wanting to watch her take off her trench coat before she sat down in front of the computer.
As she slipped the coat off her shoulders and hung it over the back of the chair, he gulped. Her body was as voluptuous as ever. More so, if you asked him.
“What a babe,” Tony murmured. “I like older women. I could sure see myself – ”
“Watch it,” Jeremy said.
Tony put up both hands. “Sorry! Didn’t know you had dibs. Say, could you do that trick again?”
“Then how about my coffee?”
Jeremy looked at the carafe, not sure what to expect from the damned thing. “Let me get a fresh pot. Ambrose? Coffee?”
“You bet.” Ambrose followed him over to the counter.
Jeremy walked around it and took a full carafe from under the coffee machine spout. Placing a mug on the counter, he poured it full. “I’m not a magician, Ambrose,” he said in a low voice.
“So what do I do about that? I can’t turn into one overnight.”
“Not overnight, no.” Ambrose picked up his mug. “But come by the house tonight after you close up. Maybe I can teach you how to fake it.”
“I don’t know. That sounds risky. I could screw it up royally.”
“True. But do you want the girl or don’t you?”
Jeremy blinked. “Look, Ambrose, I’m not about to become one of your matchmaking clients. That was fine for my buddy Sean, but I prefer to blunder through on my own.”
“Suit yourself. But if you ask me, you could use a little magic.”
“I’ll just tell her the truth. I’ll take her some coffee and then I’ll let her know that there’s been a misunderstanding, and I’m not a magician.”
Ambrose pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket. “And to ease your confession, which will ruin the story she’s writing for her paper and possibly get her in trouble with her editor if she ends up with no story at all, you can give her this rose.”
“This one.” Ambrose flicked the handkerchief and produced a red rose glistening with dew.
Jeremy stared at it. Then he glanced at Ambrose. “Okay,” he said. “Your house. Nine o’clock.”