Chapter One--A Date with Death
It's an odd feeling, knowing the date of your own personal apocalypse.
Biz gazed at the big red X on her calendar with a curdled sense of dread. T-minus three weeks, two days and just under fifteen hours. It loomed in her mind, a dark, bloody blemish on the cool face of winter.
A rebel curl broke free of the scalp-stretching bun restraining her hair, and Biz jammed it back into place. This time she was in control. It would be different this year. No fatalities.
She'd taken precautions. Changed everything about her appearance, the shop and her life. Sucked the joy out of the entire freaking season to avoid sucking the life out of another innocent guy.
Being a magical-type person (okay, a witch) and having a particular affinity for spells of the romantic persuasion, she'd always been quite fond of Valentine's Day. Every February, she would deck out the shop with cheesy crepe-paper decorations and bounce around town with the smug good cheer of a successful matchmaker during the season of love.
Until four years ago. The Year of the Curse. The day when she got drunk, stupid and greedy, and everything hearts and flowers went to Hell in a handbasket.
Biz smoothed her hands over the grey sweater that hung shapelessly from her shoulders. She'd always been a bright colors and free spirits type girl, but if the last three years had taught her anything, it was that following your bliss could get people killed.
So no matter how it went against the grain, she restrained the wild abundance of her curls into a brutal knot, wore tailored pants and dull grey cable-knit sweaters, and micromanaged every tiny detail of her life so no curse-inducing live-and-let-love tendencies could sneak through. Sometimes the universe forced you to become the one thing you'd never wanted to be--which in Biz's case was an uptight Anne Taylor clone.
Behind her, the bells above the shop door jangled cheerfully. At the sound, Biz yanked her eyes away from the calendar of doom and glanced at the clock. Nine fifteen. Gillian was early.
"Why do people take handbaskets to Hell?" she asked without turning, idly doodling red devil horns over February 14th, the Day that Shall Live in Infamy. "Is luggage really a consideration in the fires of damnation?"
She waited for Gilly to come back with some quip about boycotting Hell if she couldn't bring her Gucci handbag.
"I blame the pharaohs."
That isn't Gillian. The yummy masculine rumble of sound tickled the base of her spine. That's trouble.
Biz whipped around on her stool so fast her butt slipped off the edge. Somehow she managed not to faceplant into the incense display and righted herself, adding a casual flip of her hair as if to say, Yeah, I totally meant to stagger drunkenly off my stool and careen into the merchandise.
Or it would have said that, if her hair had been down and flipped properly. As it was, her bun just sort of wobbled and she probably looked like she had a tick. Which was doubly mortifying when she saw the body attached to that voice.
Tall, Dark and Steamy stood in the middle of her shop, his shoulders taking up nearly all the available room. His clothing was tourist casual, like every other day-tripper who took the ferry out to the island, but the dark blue button-up shirt and faded jeans clung to every muscle they were supposed to cling to. The man was pure, sugar-filled eye candy.
Dear God, have mercy.
The universe hated her. There was no other explanation as to why it would send her the masculine personification of temptation right when she couldn't indulge. It was like handing a pint of Ben & Jerry's Phish Food and a spoon to a woman who'd just decided she was on a diet--cruel and unusual.
A five o'clock shadow darkened his jaw, though it wasn't even ten. Dark brown hair curled carelessly over his brow, honey-brown tones appearing when he stepped into the light from the shop's single window.
His lips quirked up at one side, a wry little tilt that only added to his sex appeal--though it probably meant he was laughing at her klutziness. There was simply no justice in the world when a man could look droolworthy while silently mocking you for being a spaz.
"Elizabeth Marks?" Did his voice have to be so delicious? Did his blue eyes have to have that devilish twinkle flashing in their depths? It was almost overkill.
"Pharaohs?" she said a little too breathlessly to maintain any dignity. Did pharaohs have harems? Could she volunteer to be part of his?
"They were all about taking their worldly possessions with them into the afterlife, weren't they? If anyone needed a handbasket to get stuff to Hell, I bet it was the Egyptians."
"Oh." Oh, well done, Biz. You sound like a regular Rhodes scholar. He won't be able to resist you now.
Whoa. Resist her? What was wrong with her? She wasn't trying to attract him. Especially not now, less than a month from D-Day.
The last thing she needed was another ghost on her conscience. And in her house.
The three she had were three too many, thank you very much.
Biz cleared her throat and tried to project an aura of professionalism--which had never really been her forte. Magic, yes. Professionalism, not so much. "May I help you find something?"
"Are you Elizabeth Marks?"
"Biz is fine. I mean, yes, I am Elizabeth, but people call me Biz. Just Biz. That's my name. Biz." Shutupshutupshutup.
"Well, if you're Elizabeth 'Biz' Marks, then I've just found what I'm looking for."
Oh, hubba-hubba. Her heart did a slow roll against her rib cage as his sexy-as-sin lips quirked in another little smile. "You have?" The radiator was about a hundred years old, so the temperature in the shop was borderline frigid this time of year, but Biz had to resist the urge to fan herself.
And through it all, a small voice in the back of her mind kept up a whispered chorus of Bad idea, don't flirt, you idiot, Valentine's curse, bad idea, Valentine's curse...
"My name is Mark Ellison. I'm a reporter for the Raleigh Gazette. I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions."
Then he smiled, flashing straight pearly whites, and there, in the depths of his five o'clock shadow, Biz saw them. Dimples.
She was done for. It would take a stronger woman than she not to melt in the face of those dimples.
Then his words penetrated and wariness dampened her infatuation. "Questions about what?"
He leaned one forearm on the counter between them and shot her a deceptively harmless tell-me-all-your-dirty-secrets smile. With dimples. "I'm doing a human-interest piece about the stresses associated with Valentine's Day--"
He knows. Biz's wariness congealed into horror. How could he know? No one knew. Even the people on the island who'd put the pieces together to realize she'd been involved with Paul, Gabriel and Tony didn't think she could possibly have had anything to do with their deaths. Let alone caused them.
That damned curse.
Biz realized the Reporter of Doom was still talking.
"...and I was hoping you might be able to provide some insights. I understand you've had a run of unusually bad luck with the holiday."
Bad luck. That was putting it mildly.
"No comment." Her teeth clicked together when she snapped her mouth shut on the last consonant. Please let him take the hint and just leave. Preferably before the boys realized she wasn't alone in the shop and came down to investigate. Please, please, please.
Unfortunately, her craptastic luck hadn't reversed course in the last five minutes. Mark Ellison stayed right where he was. And kept talking. Mr. Smooth.
"I realize this must be a trying time for you. Losing three men you love in three years, all on exactly the same day, and to have it be Valentine's Day..." He trailed off, inviting her to fill in the details of her story.
It would sound awful if she admitted the truth. That she hadn't loved them. She'd barely let herself know them at all--before their deaths anyway.
But before she could confess the ugly truth, a chill wind shot through the shop, setting the pendants clattering against one another, and a phantom figure appeared, wavering in the air behind the reporter's shoulder.
Trust Paul to be the first to arrive--always the attention whore. Biz glared at his ethereal image.
"Paul Lundgren," the reporter said, and Biz's spine snapped straight.
Could he see Paul? Then she realized he was just listing the deceased, and her heart sank.
He would've been the first to see the ghost. When she'd told people in the weeks and months after Paul's death that she kept seeing him around the house, their eyes would glaze over with pity and they would pat her hand and murmur poor baby. Everyone seemed so convinced it was normal, she'd told herself it was grief rather than haunting.
She'd been good at denial, that first year.
"Out-of-work actor slash bungee-jump technician, moved to Parish Island three years ago January..."
Three years. It felt like a lifetime. She'd been a different person then. Open. Free. Hopeful. When she met Paul, in the twitterpated stupidity of the first blush, she'd thought the love spell she'd drunkenly cast the previous Valentine's Day had really worked.
Paul was funny and charming--sure, he was unemployed and tended to be reckless and irresponsible, but no one was perfect. They'd met on February fifth and by the seventh were knee-deep in fizzy infatuation. The next seven days had been pure, foolish bliss.
The Reporter of Doom made a sympathetic face. Behind him, Paul made a much less mature face. "Such a sudden, unexpected sky-diving accident," Mark Ellison intoned.
Is there any other kind of sky-diving accident? Biz bit her lip on the urge to snark. Women whose lives were defined by beige and grey did not snark about tragic passings of might-have-been loved ones. And she was going to be beige if it killed her.
That other Biz, the colorful, playful, impulsive one, was the one Paul had felt compelled to jump out of a plane on Valentine's Day to demonstrate his love for. When a stray wind had carried his chute into some power lines, she'd been crushed, but more by the tragic loss of one so young and vibrant than the soul mate she'd fleetingly fancied him to be.
She'd attributed the fact that she kept seeing him to misplaced guilt rather than the loss of her one true love--until she'd realized her guilt wasn't altogether misplaced.
Right on cue, Bachelor Number Two wailed eerily down the stairwell. Gabriel had always had a distinct flair for the dramatic.
"Professor of American Literature, moved to Parish Island in November of that same year..."
Serious and intense, Gabriel had been Paul's polar opposite in every way. At the time, Biz hadn't suspected the curse was responsible for Paul's death, but she'd still been cautious about handing out her heart. She'd let Gabriel's dark, poetic soul romance her over two slow, guarded months. By Valentine's she was almost ready to give him a slice of her affections--
--when he drove out into a dark and stormy night, and straight off a cliff.
The moaning and wailing had started in the house the very next week. Mournful songs played on the piano at all hours, doors creaked no matter how she oiled them--Gabriel had taken his haunting in a rather gothic direction.
By then Biz knew better than to tell people she was hearing Gabriel and seeing Paul.
And she'd known something about her love spell had gone horribly wrong. Yes, it was against the rules to cast love magic on your own behalf--one of the few ironclad don'ts her grandmother had given her--but she hadn't for one second suspected how badly it would backfire. Or how it would lash out at those around her, twisting into a terrible curse.
"And then there's Anthony Gable."
Biz sighed. Poor Tony.
She sank back onto her stool--which she'd stepped away from. She would have landed flat on her butt in front of the hot reporter, but a firm phantom hand caught her arm and steadied her, sliding the stool beneath her so she sat with barely a hitch.
Wonderful, considerate Tony.
"Successful Raleigh restaurateur, moved to Parish Island the following July..."
She'd resisted him from day one. An up-and-coming chef who moved to the island to take a break from the stresses of being disgustingly successful, she hadn't been able to figure out why a charming, together guy like him wasn't off the market already--and why the heck he'd be interested in a mess like her.
And she had been a mess by that point. Barely holding it together as she searched her grandmother's library for something, anything to undo the curse.
When she'd flatly refused to date him, Tony had said they could be friends. He told her he just needed someone to try out new recipes on. Bit by bit, he snuck into her life. He spent so much time in her kitchen he'd practically moved into her house--and her heart--by the time Valentine's rolled around. She hadn't really thought they were dating, hadn't ever thought of him as her boyfriend and had been very, very careful not to even think the L word, but the curse hadn't cared.
"Food poisoning. February fourteenth."
It had to be some kind of record. Biz was officially the world's unluckiest girl in love. With three oh-so-eligible ghosts haunting her house.
See no evil, hear no evil and...touch no evil?
Except she knew better than to blame it on luck. She'd done this. Her stomach roiled with guilt.
And now someone knew. Somehow this supernaturally hot reporter had put together the pieces and seen that no coincidence was that coincidental.
What was she supposed to say? Lock me away for irresponsible magic use? That would go over well. Though maybe the curse wouldn't be able to reach her inside an asylum.
Biz ducked her head, smoothing her scalp-tingling bun. "I'd rather not talk about it." I can neither confirm nor deny the allegations against me at this time...
Ellison's smile ratcheted up a notch in sympathy and trustworthiness--which only made her trust him less. "Lots of people struggle with depression and self-doubt around this particular holiday. It makes them feel less alone when they know there are other people out there struggling too. A story like yours--"
"Is nobody's business but mine. Sorry."
"After all you've been through, to tell people you still believe in love--"
"I don't. Sorry."
The moaning and creaking in the house around them grew louder. Paul made a rude gesture at Ellison's back and even Tony got into the action, slamming the door behind Biz in an attempt to scare off the pest.
And the reporter was oblivious to it all, his eyes twinkling away, as tenacious as he was attractive. Dangerous combination.
"It must be hard for you, coping with Valentine's Day on your own in this funny old house. Sharing your story could lighten your burden--"
"Wanna buy a charm?" Biz snatched a crystal necklace off the rack to her left and held it up between them, letting it dangle between her fingers. "No? Are you sure? It's a great charm. You'll love it. Everyone around you will love that you have it. You need it, for the good of humanity. But don't buy it for them. Buy it for yourself." She glared at him, no longer at all enchanted by his gorgeous dimples. "See how annoying that is? Stop trying to sell me. I'm not buying."
His bullshit trust-me grin cracked as a real one split through it. His dimples flashed at her. "Was I that obvious?"
"You were trying for subtle? Oh, honey, that's just sad."
He gave a rusty laugh that was oddly appealing. It was the first thing about him that wasn't so practiced it seemed oiled to a slick shine. "Too much too fast?"
His lazy grin invited her to laugh with him at his own expense, and her irritation folded. Damn. He was good. He hadn't missed a beat before shifting over to a new tactic.
She leaned against the shelf at her back, absently swinging the crystal charm. "We run on island time around here. Diving right into it was a dead giveaway that you're a day-tripper from the city."
"And that's a bad thing?"
"Absolutely. All city folk are here to exploit us, steal our women and rape our cattle."
His rough laugh grated out again, and Biz had to bite back the urge to smile at the jagged sound. "I promise I have only virtuous intentions toward your cattle."
"I notice you didn't say anything about your intentions toward our women."
Wicked promise filled his eyes. "Haven't made up my mind about my intentions toward you yet."
Her knees wobbled. Oh, baby. That's trouble.
He was flirting with her. Tall, Dark and Steamy was so far out of her league it was laughable, but he actually appeared to be flirting with her.
A rack of runes crashed to the floor and reality crashed in on Biz. Thank you, Tony, for the wake-up call.
Biz straightened and dropped the charm onto the counter. "I think you should go."
Tony had been out of her league too, but the curse hadn't cared. The damned love spell had sucked him in and tricked him into thinking she was a goddess. The spell was the only explanation for why Mark Ellison would be twinkling and dimpling and flirting with her. She had to get him out of here pronto.
The reporter with a death wish leaned forward. He should be running for the door, but he was swaying toward her, his eyes twinkling. The idiot.
"Can we start over? I'm Mark. You're Biz. I just want to talk to you."
"No. You have to leave."
As she spoke, the bell over the door jangled and Mrs. Kent, the busybody who owned the B&B across the street, poked her head inside, the rest of her compact figure quickly following. "Leave? Biz Marks, don't you tell me you're shooing off our first winter visitor in weeks. Shame on you, dearie!"
"Mrs. Kent, he isn't a tourist--"
"Don't you listen to a word she says. Everyone who visits Parish becomes a tourist. They can't help it. You just stay as long as you please, Mister..." She trailed off, extending her hand and beaming at the Reporter of Doom. Her eyes gleamed with the fervent light of a hostess scenting a tourist in the off-season.
Mark Ellison flicked a brief, triumphant look at Biz then turned to smile down at the petite picture of Parish hospitality. "Mark Ellison, ma'am. A pleasure."
Mrs. Kent twittered girlishly, instantly smitten--damn those dimples--and latched onto his hand with a death grip worthy of a boa constrictor. "Promise me you won't go rushing off now."
Ellison twinkled. "Oh, I promise."
Biz wondered if this was how people on the Titanic felt when they saw iceberg chunks floating past their stateroom windows.