Hands clenched around the steering wheel of her Miata, Stella drove toward Wickwood, the dust of the gravel road billowing out behind her.
She swiped at the tear she’d been trying to hold in, kept telling herself Nana had seemed happy, unbothered she’d been displaced from her house and moved to Cedar Ridge two months ago. She’d smiled when Stella arrived, asked her to stay for tea, asked after Loki and Aubrey.
Stella sniffed, gravel spraying into the ditch when she took the next turn a little too fast. She hated to see her grandmother in an institution. Nana raised her, and had always been a free spirit, so vivacious. This disease was taking her away piece by piece. Cedar Ridge might be one of the better homes in the area, but Stella needed to get her out of there before Nana lost herself completely. What good was being a witch if she couldn’t save those she loved?
With storm clouds gathering above the city, Stella turned onto the main highway. The glow of Wickwood brightened the underside of the tempestuous clouds. As she neared the edge of town, the tension in her shoulders eased. Each mile closer, her grip loosened on the steering wheel.
But even as the soothing energy of her hometown calmed her, it did little to ease her worries. On top of everything, three of her clients dropped her this morning, all in a row, canceling their website development contracts. She had more clients, but it would cut into her bottom line.
At least she’d finished everything at the Granwin house on a high note. She’d completed her final cleanse and ward on the house two days ago. Only positive energy remained on the property.
As the houses on the edge of Wickwood changed to the businesses of old downtown, she slowed her speed. Aubrey would be waiting. They liked to have drinks at Bitters Tavern a couple nights a week if they could, and today Aubrey, her best friend of seven years, had said she had a surprise for her.
Usually, Stella liked surprises, but after the week she’d had, she didn’t know if she could handle it.
Two blocks away from the bar, all the instruments on Stella’s dashboard blinked. “What the?” After holding her breath a moment, everything returned to normal. She kept driving.
One block away from the bar, all the instruments when black. The engine sputtered, then died completely. “Shit.” Shoulder checking to make sure the next lane was clear, Stella thankfully had enough momentum to pull over. Unease coiled in her stomach as she rolled to a stop in a parking spot and shifted into park.
One foot on the gas, the other on the brake, she turned the key.
“Come on, Bessie.” Nothing. The engine wouldn’t turn over. She tried again. Still nothing.
Shoulders suddenly heavy, she rested her forehead on the steering wheel and let out a shuddering breath. Now she’d have another bill, probably something substantial with the way her luck was going. Would this week ever end? At least she stalled near the bar. She could call for a tow and since they lived together, she could catch a ride home with Aubrey.
Inhaling deep, she grabbed her purse from the passenger seat, opened the door, and stepped out into the muggy evening air. As soon as she slammed her door, she felt an unusual presence nearby. She spun around, searching up and down the street. It wasn’t that late, some of the stores were open, and a few shoppers walked the block while cars drove slowly by.
No one looked out of place. No one stared at her or paid her any attention. The feeling someone watched her slowly dissipated, but unease settled in her chest. She locked her car, tucked her purse under her armpit, and headed toward the bar, trying not to brush too close to anyone’s energy as she hurried down the sidewalk.
A crack of thunder made everyone around her dash for shelter. The heavens opened. Running the rest of the way, she was soaked in under five seconds.
Sneakers sloshing, she pushed open the door to Bitters. As soon as she stepped over the threshold, the energy of the people inside punched her in the gut, replacing the unease she’d had outside. She sucked in a breath, closed her eyes, and whispered the quick dampening spell Nana had taught her when she was little. Breathing in and out three times, she opened her eyes again and the vibrations dulled to a manageable level.
Except one particular energy vibration coming from the bar. Sensual and sweet, it was a hot flavor so strong she could taste it on her tongue. She’d never felt such a compelling combination before, and her feet moved toward it before she knew what she was doing, her eyes scanning through the crowd to see who created it.
“Stella!” Aubrey shouted from a booth in the corner.
Stella stopped and blinked. Already halfway to the bar and not realizing it, she forced herself to walk toward Aubrey instead. With one last glance over her shoulder, she wove through the patrons standing at the tall tables in the middle of the room.
“Sorry, I’m late,” she said, patting the water out of her wavy blonde hair and sliding into the booth. Aubrey already had a lager waiting for her and she took a healthy swig. “I visited Nana before I came.”
Aubrey’s ghost, Finn, was here too, hovering at her side, his energy a light shimmer that Stella had grown used to over the years. He’d been hanging around since they’d met in college.
“How is she?” Aubrey asked, concern furrowing her brow as she played with the straw in her cola.
“Okay, I guess,” she said with a shrug. “I just hate seeing her there, you know?”
Aubrey reached over and gave her hand a squeeze. “I know.” She let go and tucked a strand of her chin-length brown hair behind her ear. “We’ll figure out something better for her.”
Though she nodded, Stella didn’t see any solutions. None of her problems were going to magically go away. That wasn’t the way the world worked.
With the energy from near the bar still pulling at her, she glanced over—but saw only the bartender and a couple of guys with their backs to her.
“Happy birthday!” Aubrey said, recapturing her attention. Her friend pulled out a small package wrapped in silver paper and a bow and placed it in front of her. Grinning, she said, “I know it’s a little early, and this doesn’t change our plans for your actual birthday in a couple of weeks, but I just had to give it to you now.”
Before she could touch it, Stella felt the lure of the thing inside, its positive energy calling to her. “What is it?” she asked, her fingers twitching to snatch it.
“Open it up and see.”
Tentatively, she reached for the box. She touched it, expecting something to happen, but nothing did.
“Come on,” Aubrey urged. “Why are you being so weird? Open it.”
She picked up the package, turned it over, then with one last quick glance at Aubrey, she tore the silver paper to reveal a small, square jewelry box inside. Eyebrows raised, she lifted the lid.
Resting in a layer of white fuzz, a necklace lay curled in on itself. An iridescent sphere, a stone polished to a gloss, hung on an antique silver chain. Flicking her eyes to Aubrey’s excited smile, Stella touched the pendant.
She sucked in a breath. For a moment, the alluring vibration coming from the bar was overpowered by the positive energy exuding off the necklace. Many objects had energy signatures, but never this strong. She lifted it out of the box and her hand shook from the intensity of it.
“Where did you get this?” she asked, not trying to stop herself from putting it on.
“A man came into the store with it the other day and sold it with a bunch of other stuff. It had your name written all over it. I couldn’t fathom selling it to someone else.” Aubrey let out a sigh. “I knew it would look perfect on you.”
The weight of the pendant nestled itself against her heart. This close to her, the energy warmed her whole body. She’d never been in contact with such an object before. Where had it come from?
“Do you like it?”
Stella opened her eyes to Aubrey’s frown, and forced a smiled. “Love it. It’s beautiful and unique.”
“Oh, good. For a second there I thought it made you uncomfortable or something.” Aubrey took a sip of her drink.
With the new energy of the necklace lapping at her, the dampening spell she cast when she entered the bar for its patrons waned, and the vibe from the direction of the bar intensified. Stella took a gulp of her beer.
What was going on with her? She glanced at the bar to see what or who caused the vibration. Nothing had changed, just Cole, the bartender, serving the two guys sitting on stools. Cole had never given off this vibe before, so it couldn’t be him. It had to be coming from one of the other guys.
“What are you staring at?”
Stella’s attention snapped back to her friend. “Nothing. Just distracted. My car broke down a block away from here and I need to get a tow and a mechanic.” She touched the pendant, her fingers tingling. “But this is positively lovely. A thoughtful gift brightening my day, thank you.” She took another sip of her beer.
“Sucks about the car. I thought Bessie would outlive us all. Remember when were going camping that one time and we thought she was dying in the middle of nowhere, but we actually just forgot to get gas? That was hilarious.”
“Ha. Hilarious. Yeah, right. We were sure laughing at the time.” Actually, it had been terrifying, but they were lucky enough to phone a gas station in the next town and a teenager drove a jerry can out to them. They’d been able to continue on to the national park without any further hiccups. “How was work today?”
Aubrey let out a long breath. “Business was pretty slow. I keep waiting for it to pick up. I know I’m not the only antique store in town, but I know mine’s the nicest. I’m waiting for the rest of the city to notice.” She twirled her straw.
Her antique store was the nicest in town. Filled with light, everything Aubrey touched resonated with love and caring. Every time Stella walked into the store she wanted to buy something, and it wasn’t just because Aubrey was her friend. She had an excellent eye when it came to antiques.
Stella touched the pendant at her heart, another testament to her friend’s good taste. “How about I stop by and do another blessing? Maybe a prosperity spell and a good luck spell too.”
Aubrey smiled. “That would be great.”
Stella stole another glance at the bar. Where did that delicious vibration come from? It was hard to think of anything else. And the titillating energy combined with the one hanging around her neck had her nerves twitching. She needed to get to the bottom of this.
“Want another drink?” she asked Aubrey without looking at her. “I want another drink.” She hopped out of the booth, her sneakers still damp from the rain.
“You could wait for the waitress.” Aubrey’s voice followed her to the bar. “And you’ve barely touched your first beer.”
Stella wouldn’t have been able to stop her feet if she’d tried. With her new necklace propelling her forward, she followed the energy wake right to the end of the bar.
She stopped behind the man on the left. The energy came off him so thick it was almost visible. Broad shoulders narrowed into trim hips. He must work out on a regular basis if the muscles in his arms were any indication. His short dark hair migrated into a line of scruff along his jawline, highlighting the strong ridge of his chin. Dense vibrations came off him, washing over her in waves, making it hard to breathe.
Why? She stepped closer, their bodies almost touching, the heat of him complimenting his vibrations. What was it about him that made his energy so potent? She closed her eyes and inhaled. A citrusy spice filled her head. Was it his laundry detergent? Cologne? How could her body be on fire after three seconds of standing next to him?
“What are you doing?”
Her eyes flew open. “What?” she asked, blinking over and over again to clear her head.
He’d turned his body toward her, his brows lowered over copper eyes. “Are you smelling me?”
If she’d thought his energy potent from behind, it was nothing compared to the full force of his gaze. Sun-kissed skin and high cheek bones framed his perceptive gaze, while his rough stubble gave him a slightly rugged appearance. His dark green button up shirt was rolled up past his elbows, revealing corded forearms that made her mouth water.
The middle-aged guy beside him peeked around his shoulder, one eyebrow raised.
She realized then she should probably say something. “Um…” She turned to Cole, who stared at her with his head tipped to the side.
“A lager and a cola, please,” she blurted.
Cole straightened, nodded, and got to work fixing her drinks. Stella let out a breath, hoping that was the end of the awkwardness created solely by her not thinking through a random trip to the bar.
“So, were you smelling me?”
And her hopes were dashed. She flicked her gaze up to the stranger’s face. His eyes twinkled at her, and Stella felt her own smile emerging. “That would be silly, wouldn’t it?” She said, trying to strike a casual pose against the empty stool beside him despite the fact she had been smelling him.
“Lucas,” he said, sticking out his hand.
She stared at his fingers, strong and sure. What would it be like to touch a man who gave off such remarkable energy? After hesitating so long he began to drop his hand, Stella abruptly grabbed it.
Lightning shot up her arm so fast it was like he had a hand buzzer hidden there. His face changed from smiling to serious in under a second, and she knew she wasn’t doing any better. They both dropped hands at the same time. Her heart pounded hard and fast in her throat, her eyes locked with his. What the hell?
Cole set the drinks on the bar top, clearing his throat to grab her attention.
“Thanks,” she said, grabbing the drinks and trying to ignore the man beside her whose energy still made her buzz. How was he doing it? How was he making her every nerve ending tingle? Trying to keep her cool, she gave him one nod, and turned back to her table.
“I didn’t get your name,” Lucas said, stalling her.
She glanced over her shoulder, taking in his facial features one more time. “Stella,” she replied, trying to keep her voice even, then continued to the booth where Aubrey waited, her eyebrows raised under her bangs.
“What was that all about?” her friend asked when she slid her drink to her.
Stella barely restrained herself from taking another peek at him over her shoulder. Had he watched her as she walked back to the table? It felt like he had.
“Oh, yeah. He’s definitely watching you,” Aubrey confirmed without her needing to ask.
She felt his eyes on her. This was silly, she needed to get herself under control. Stella closed her eyes and redid the dampening spell. When she opened them, she could breathe easier. “Tell me when he stops looking.”
“Sure,” Aubrey said, taking a sip from her new drink. “Are you going to tell me what happened there?”
Stella didn’t know where to begin and shook her head. “Maybe tomorrow when I can think everything through with a clear head.” She took a swig of her new beer, abandoning the old one. “You were supposed to tell me when he stops looking.”
“He hasn’t stopped looking yet.”
Throat working, she swallowed hard. She had to see for herself. A glance over her shoulder revealed that sure enough, Lucas watched her, a frown wrinkling his brow—which transformed into an easy smile the second her eyes met his.
She whipped her head back to Aubrey. This was too much. Her dampening spell weakened at an alarming rate. Lucas’s energy and the energy of the pendant around her neck competed for her attention, and every other energy vibration from every other person in the bar pulled and slapped at her in a way that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.
She took a deep breath, needing to regain control. “I might be ready to head home. I’ve had enough of people for the night.”
“Sure. No problem.” Aubrey frowned, but knew her well enough not to force her to stay in a crowded room. “Want to call a tow truck for your car?”
A long breath escaped Stella. She’d already forgotten and didn’t really want to deal with it right now. She wanted to go home, have a salt bath to cleanse herself from everyone’s energy, and go to bed. “I’ll call one in the morning.”
The next time a waitress came by, they paid their tab. Leaving their unfinished drinks on the table, they headed out. As they neared the doors, Stella couldn’t resist once last look over her shoulder.
Lucas still watched her, his smile creating a dimple in his right cheek. Her stomach did little flips. She turned away quickly and inhaled a deep breath when they stepped into the night air.
She might have left the competing energies of the people inside the bar, but the unease she’d had earlier returned. Was someone waiting for her outside? Watching her? She scanned the sidewalk up and down, but there was no one around.
Aubrey glanced down the street. “Where did your car die?” The rain had stopped, leaving large puddles, cars making splashing sounds as they hit them.
“This way,” Stella said, cocking her head to the right. “Where did you park?”
“Same way,” came the quick reply.
As they walked side by side, Stella’s unease slowly unfurled, and once her car was in sight, she squinted at it. The lights were on. Everything had been dead when she left it. When she realized the car was running, she stopped in her tracks, her heart leaping in her throat.
“I thought you said your car died,” Aubrey said, pausing beside her.
“It looks like its running.”
“It does.” Stella kept walking toward it. It wasn’t an apparition. It looked like her car had fixed itself. She stood there staring at it for long minutes. “I don’t understand this.” The key wasn’t even in the ignition. It was in her purse.
“What’s there to understand? Now you don’t have to call a tow truck and now you won’t have a repair bill to pay.”
Stella blinked. “I guess.” But could she trust Bessie after this? Maybe it would be a good idea to get a mechanic to check it over anyway. Maybe Zack, one of the paranormal investigators she worked with on a regular basis, would take a look? She knew he was handy with cars.
“Okay, I’ll follow you home just in case it acts up again,” Aubrey said, jogging to her station wagon across the street.
“Good thinking,” Stella agreed, unlocking her door. The car kept running, purring, like it normally did. Was her baby turning into a high maintenance vehicle because of its age?
Sinking into the comfort of her bucket seat, she closed the door and put her key in the ignition just to be safe. This had been one weird day. And she was kind of used to weird days, so that said a lot. She touched the pendant at her heart, liking the zing it gave her fingertips.
She closed her eyes and exhaled one slow breath. Things are going to be okay, even if I should consider renaming Bessie to Veronica.