Jael drew an anxious breath as she reached into the black felt bag. Choosing a stone from the wish bag started off as a trivial, touristy thing to do in a Salem witch's shop, but now it felt heavy with importance, as if the choice truly mattered.
The atmosphere of the funky little Wiccan store, Silver Moon Scrying Shoppe, was charged with a strange excitement. She thrust her hand deeper into the bag and allowed a variety of smooth stones to tumble between her fingers.
"Let your fingers do the work." Witch Casey leaned closer to better see Jael's actions. "Don't think about it. Let your heart guide the choice."
Jael closed her eyes to block out the sounds around her and the overt, curious stares of her girlfriends Arcona, Becca, and Devon, who hovered near, watching her every move.
She concentrated on the stones. Casey, a renowned witch of Salem, Massachusetts, had told them they'd know when they found their stone, but Jael had yet to feel that telling inner ping of certainty as she stirred the stones with her fingertips.
A skeptic at heart, Jael wasn't sure she'd believed in the hokeypokey magic of the town prior to coming. It'd been her friends' idea. This minireunion of her three closest college friends had been a big wake-up call. Time was passing. They were all in their thirties now. Seeing them was a sharp reminder of the many dreams she once cherished but had allowed to languish.
In her college days she'd fully believed she'd be a globe-hopping, peer-respected nature photographer by now, but too many mundane obligations, like paying rent and eating, had prevented that dream from materializing.
Her friends thought visiting the town of the famous witch trials and infamous hangings would be a fun autumn trip. It was a weird choice, but they'd been right. There were so many amazing shops where curious souls could get a tarot-card reading or have their palms read. She was desperate to hear a little hint about what her future love life might hold. There wasn't much going on in that department now.
They went on ghost tours, to a museum, and the walking tour was incredible. Jael loved anything historic, so strolling the streets and seeing homes that dated back hundreds of years intrigued her.
The most poignant part, and without doubt the saddest, was the monuments for the men and women who were accused of witchcraft and hanged. The nineteen bench-like stones bore the names of those who'd suffered a horrible death. The cemetery next door added a certain creepiness to the scenery. Jael felt sorry for those who'd lost their lives. She couldn't imagine what it felt like to be dragged out of jail, brought to a tree, and hanged for the town to witness and cheer.
Jael continued to absently stir the cool, clattering stones between her fingers.
"Wow, you're being so picky," Becca teased. "Just choose a stone, already!"
"Choose?" Devon laughed. "Jael doesn't commit. You know how she is. She'll drag this out all day and still not make a clear choice."
"That's not true." Jael jolted back to reality, realizing she'd completely forgotten what she was doing and why. "Don't rush me," she whispered. "This is important. I want to choose the right one."
"You're going to choose just one?" Arcona scoffed with a gentle smile on her lips. "That doesn't sound like you."
"Why are you all ganging up on me?" Jael laughed. "There's nothing wrong with being choosy and having a plan B and a plan C...especially where love is concerned." She refocused her attention on the wish bag. Blindly touching the polished stones and listening to soft clicking sounds they made was almost hypnotic.
"Aha!" Arcona interrupted. "Now we know you're going to use your wish on love. What a shocker."
"Hey, I need it!" Jael dug her hand deeper into the wish bag. "My love life has been bleak." One stone finally stood out from the others. She felt heat cover her fingertips as if she were being drawn to a single piece of hot lava. She wrapped her fingers around the stone and pulled it from the bag with a victorious flourish. "I found it!"
She gazed at the rock lying in her palm. It looked like two stones fused together. The egg-shaped stone was opaque on one side and a translucent purplish on the other. The purple reminded her of an amethyst, while the other was a mottled dusty shade of rose.
"Oh, Jael, that is an odd-looking stone." Arcona reached for Jael's hand to tip the sparkling stone toward the light. "It's beautiful when things you'd never think would fuse together mix." She stared at the stone in wonder. "The world is full of weird stuff, isn't it?"
Jael looked from the two-sided stone to her friend. "It is different." She glanced at Witch Casey to see if she had any advice as to why she'd chosen such a stone.
"Interesting, but not surprising." Witch Casey shook her head with her lips firmly pinched together.
Jael couldn't read the woman's eccentric gesture.
"A dual stone is often attracted to an undecided person," Witch Casey spoke tersely.
"Undecided?" Jael stiffened and crossed her arms in a defensive manner. She'd been often accused of being indecisive in the past, and it hurt. Obviously Witch Casey had been eavesdropping. "Are you referring to me?"
"Of course I'm referring to you." Witch Casey planted her fist firmly on her hip as she confronted Jael. "You're the one holding the dual stone, not me."
"What do you mean by undecided?" Jael knew where this was going. Witch Casey would now deliver a trite and highly predictable forecast about her future love life. She braced for the safe little cliches she knew were headed her way.
Witch Casey arced her hands dramatically through the air. "Your heart is always in two places at once and refuses to choose a lasting home. Am I right?"
Jael slightly recoiled. Witch Casey was right. The way the woman spoke with utter authority sent a shiver up her spine.
All her life she'd rushed toward one goal when secretly desiring another. She longed for a stable relationship, even a family, but another rogue part of her soul wanted to ditch her responsibilities, pick up a camera, and flee to the exotic wilds of Africa to fulfill her creative dreams. The same went for men. She could never make up her mind. Variety was the spice of life.
"There might be some truth in what you're saying," Jael sheepishly answered Witch Casey.
Witch Casey's eyes flashed. "Might?"
Arcona leaned close to Jael's ear. "I remember our last semester. You were always dating at least two guys at once and trying to keep it a secret. It never stayed secret."
Jael silently admitted her love life was a disaster of indecision. She'd never met a man who fulfilled all her needs. Okay, maybe one man--Roarke, the gorgeous guy at her office, was a thrilling date for a friends-with-benefits type of evening, but a more solid relationship never quite gelled. Deep down she knew why.
They were two of a kind. Roarke was almost as undecided and commitment shy as she was. He would pant after her with lustful looks, coax and almost beg her to visit his apartment. When she gave in, the sex was always hot. Roarke was a total turn-on. Her hopes would rise that maybe Roarke was the one, and then nothing would happen for weeks at a time. No pursuit, no invitations back to his bed. It was as if Roarke would deny himself her company until he couldn't stand it a moment longer; then he would call.
She'd noticed Roarke's nightstand was fully stocked with condoms and every exotic brand of lube on the market, so she had to suspect he enjoyed other lovers as well, which hurt. She wanted to be someone special to him, and apparently she wasn't. Obviously there was another.
"Would you like me to do a card reading for you?" Witch Casey interrupted the silence. "It might clarify a few of those undecided thoughts."
"I don't know..." Jael's gaze darted anxiously between her friends. Their visit was nearly at an end. She wondered if her friends would willingly wait while Witch Casey sorted through the confusing details of her elusive love life. Probably not.
"You should do it." Arcona shot Jael an encouraging smile. "Accept the card reading. Isn't that why we walked in here in the first place--to get a little insight?"
Jael was suddenly nervous and excited to hear what Witch Casey had to say. "Are you sure you don't mind? It really cuts into our last hour together."
"I want you to do it." Arcona wrapped her arms around Jael and hugged her like a loving sister. "And I expect to hear all about it later," she said softly. "Don't hold anything back. Actually I'm thinking of calling it a day. I have an early flight home, so I think I'll say good-bye to everyone now."
Arcona gently released Jael and hugged Devon and Becca as well. "It was so good to be with all of you again. You still feel like sisters." She headed toward the front door. "I need some fresh air. I'm going to walk back to my hotel. It was so good seeing everyone. I love you all!" She waved. "I'll be calling everybody later to hear about exactly what happened after I left."
Jael watched Arcona wander out the door of the Silver Moon Scrying Shoppe, clutching the piece of amber she'd pulled from the wish bag and looking a bit distracted. A part of her worried for Arcona, and she wondered if she'd been unwise to allow her friend to walk away alone.
"Let's sit in the corner where we can have some peace." Witch Casey steered Jael toward a small table set with a melted tallow candle and two chairs. She encouraged Jael to take the chair facing the window.
Jael sat. Her gaze drifted toward Devon and Becca, who were standing on the far side of the shop trying desperately not to look like they were eavesdropping when clearly they were.
Witch Casey sat opposite Jael.
Jael looked closely at Witch Casey for the first time and noticed how beautiful the older woman was. Witch Casey had curly red hair that cascaded to her shoulders and piercing blue eyes swept with a thick fringe of black lashes that looked convincingly real. Something about her crisp profile reminded Jael of the classic beauties of old Hollywood. "You have such a wonderful face. May I ask where you're from?"
"I'm originally from Greece. Do I look familiar?" A brilliant smile lit Witch Casey's face. "I used to be known as the second most beautiful woman in the world."
"Were you a runner-up in a Miss Universe pageant?" Jael asked innocently.
"No." Witch Casey shook her head. "Helen of Troy was hailed as the most beautiful woman in the world, and I don't begrudge her the title. Helen was breathtaking. No one could argue with that. I earned the dismal title of 'Cassandra,' the second most beautiful woman in the world, after I spurned Apollo's amorous advances."
"The Apollo!" Witch Casey looked scandalized. "My goodness, there's only one. I must say, being hailed as the king of the gods, driving a golden chariot, and having grabby hands are a bad combination."
"You mean Apollo, the Greek sun god?"
"Yes, Apollo. Who else would I be talking about? Apollo came on too strong, and I rejected him. In different but certain words I told him he was a jerk! I'm one of the few women who did and lived to tell the tale. He's a vain and vengeful man, and of course he punished me for my honesty. When Apollo granted me the gift of prophecy, he meant it as a curse. I'm cursed to tell the truth to all I speak to, whether they want to hear it or not. Over the years speaking the truth certainly has cost me friendships and ruined a few wedding receptions. I won't deny prophecy can be problematic. But little did Apollo know that I would learn to make good use of the gift and prevail."
Jael's heart dropped. She was wasting her time sitting with some crazy lady. Damn. It was too late to get up and run, though she wanted to. She hoped against hope that even a madwoman might have some insight into her chaotic love life. It could happen. Sometimes the insane did speak lucent moments of truth. "What tarot card deck do you use--Rider or Thoth"
"No cards." Witch Casey wagged her raised finger in the air. "I've changed my mind. I'm going to use a more precise divination tool."
Witch Casey reached under the table and withdrew a round, tightly woven basket the size of a small pumpkin, removed the lid, reached inside, and pulled out a wriggling snake.
"Whoa!" Jael gasped and bolted backward as a speckled gray snake hissed and slithered across the tabletop directly toward her.
"Oh my God!" Devon and Becca burst into shocked laughter and rushed behind the counter to escape the snake.
Witch Casey glanced around in alarm. "You're not afraid of reptiles, are you?"
"No, but you should have warned me!" Jael leaped against the wall as the snake slithered closer, flicking its blue tongue at her.
"You are afraid of reptiles." Witch Casey lifted her chin. "It's a shame, because reptiles are such lovely creatures. People fear them for no proper reason at all. For instance this snake is completely harmless, unless you're a mouse." She looked Jael up and down. "You're clearly not a mouse, so there's nothing for you to worry about. Please, sit and listen with reverence to what this cunning little snake has to say to you."
Holy crap, this woman is wacko. Jael bit her lower lip. "No more slithery surprises?"
Witch Casey pronounced with certainty, "If your future is half as bizarre as I suspect, there will be many shocking surprises!"
Jael swallowed a tense breath. "What do you mean?"
Witch Casey picked up the snake and brought the wiggly creature to her ear. "The snake is telling me that you have a date with an ancient destiny. This is so refreshing." She sat silently for a moment as if she were listening intently to the snake. "I've never heard talk quite like this. The snake says the lovers who are coming into your life are old souls you've agreed to be with in this life, and the best part is..." She giggled as the snake's flicking tongue tickled her ear. "Oh, you wouldn't believe what this snake is telling me. This is utter madness!" She burst into a fit of giggles. "Coming from me, that's saying a lot." She seemed to struggle to compose herself and spoke with a sense of importance. "The snake says you shall come to love the scaly ones. You will be bound to them in fortune and blood. Isn't that sweet? You're going to be a reptile lover after all!"
Jael was flummoxed. "Is that all the romantic advice I'm going to get? Love the scaly one?"
"Not one. There will be two masters of your heart." Witch Casey's demeanor sobered. "Two equals shall claim you as their own, and you mustn't resist. This love was meant to be."
Jael rolled her eyes. "Two snakes are going to fight over me? Terrific, I can't wait. No more lonely nights for me."
"No!" Witch Casey crossed her hands over her heart and sighed. "It's not what you think. I'm cursed to speak like a madwoman, but I do speak the truth! In a hot and ancient land, where beasts roam free and the grass sways above your shoulders, you shall know ecstasy with a race of men who once soared above the earth in great numbers. It is your privilege that you shall love the best of the high plains Marduko."
Jael shrugged impatiently. This was complete bullshit. "What's a Marduko?"
"Ancient royalty from the Draca constellation. They were exiled here many millennia ago and forced to survive on their wits."
"Oh, those Marduko." Jael played along. "I understand now. They're not really snakes, are they? They're more like handsome princes, am I right?" She tried desperately to get Devon and Becca to look her way and signal for them to rescue her from the madwoman.
"Yes, exactly. That's a better way to say it. The Marduko are like handsome princes." Witch Casey enthusiastically nodded in agreement. "With wings and scales."
Jael huffed in disbelief. "Gee, I hope I recognize my mystery dates when I meet them."
"That's the funny part." Witch Casey cheered. "You probably won't recognize them at all! The Marduko are a secretive race. They've had to be to survive. Their lives are constantly at risk. To this day they are hunted by a secret order of knights, and any woman they choose to love will also be asked to put her life on the line. The Marduko can appear completely human, and indeed, they all have human mothers. A casual observer would never notice them as anything unusual. Marduko males would never reveal themselves to any but the truest of hearts."
"Yes, all Marduko are male. They select female mates from other intelligent species to strengthen the bloodline; that is when they do mate, which is very rare indeed."
Jael stood. "That's very interesting. Thank you so much for all the very interesting information that was so interesting to hear and truly piqued my interest." She backed away from the table in horror. What a colossal waste of time this was.
"Wait!" Witch Casey commanded. "We're not finished."
"Umm," Jael stalled. "I think we are."
"You don't even know what a Marduko looks like." A serene smile lit Witch Casey's face as she strode toward the shop's window display and picked up a carved African mask and turned it toward Jael. "This is a Marduko, and this is what you're looking for."
Jael's mouth gaped wide at a large, rough-hewn wooden mask bristling with rusted nails and inset colored beads. At first she thought she was looking at the angularly chiseled face of a man, but on closer inspection she saw it was actually two dragon profiles facing each other to form a single male face. "Really? That's him?"
"Them," Witch Casey gently corrected. "Marduko males mate in pairs."
"Okay." Jael moved closer to the door. "That's what I thought. I just wanted to be clear." She turned toward Becca and Devon and mouthed the words, Let's get out of here. This woman is bonkers. But her girlfriends didn't notice. They seemed enthralled by something the other witch, Dame Bishop, was telling them.
"This isn't the reaction I was expecting from you. You should be joyful. You've been chosen from among so many others." Witch Casey tilted her head to the side to better study Jael. "I would have guessed the idea of sharing your life with two lovers would greatly appeal to you."
Jael froze. Witch Casey was right. Sometimes she wished she could have a harem of lovers to fill her heart and serve her darker sexual fantasies, which always involved at least two lovers. Deep down she had to admit, a staid marriage with one partner might not work out for her so long as the larger part of her soul longed to be shared.
"You want your wish granted, don't you?" Witch Casey stepped uncomfortably close and held the grotesque mask in front of Jael's face. "You must return the stone to nature for your wish to come true," she declared. "And not just any place will do. This stone must be returned to its home in Mother Africa."
Jael let out a nervous laugh. "Africa is huge continent. Could you be a bit more specific?"
"You find this funny? Your fate depends on it!"
Great, she'd pissed off the witch. Hopefully Witch Casey didn't put a curse on her or something. This lady was just too weird, but how the hell did Witch Casey know about her aspirations to visit Africa as a wildlife photographer? "I'm sorry if you've mistaken my nervousness for laughter. I'm afraid to return this beautiful stone to nature the wrong way. I'm not sure what will become of my wish."
"You must wish for the life you were meant to live and then find the courage to embrace that life. The wish will become yours. The stone will guide you toward your goal. It knows where it wants to be, and it will lead you there if you keep an open heart. Remember on the deepest soul level, you've already chosen this fate. Now you must accept it."
Jael balked. "I could run into a lot of trouble blindly going to Africa without any sort of plan except for following an open heart."
"That's not what I meant. An open heart will guide you toward your goal. Act on your dreams."
Jael slung her heavy purse over her shoulder, preparing to dash out the front door. "My dreams are my tour guides?"
"Yes!" Witch Casey laughed. "Dreams are your tour guides. That's an excellent way to phrase it. You'll know exactly where to go and what to do. After all it's your destiny to claim. No one else can do this. Return the stone to nature, and you'll find the love of your dreams."
An odd chill shivered over Jael's skin as Witch Casey spoke. For a startling moment she stopped resisting what she was hearing and allowed her defenses to fall. Was this madwoman actually saying something important? It certainly felt that way. Despite the ridiculousness of the message, a weird wave of emotion rippled through her and left her knees trembling. She was almost light-headed. "I think I need to sit for a moment."
"Please do." Witch Casey busied herself wrangling the wayward snake that now slithered across the floor, back into its basket.
Jael lowered herself into the chair, her legs shaking as the energy seemed to drain from her body. She suddenly felt hollow. What if an open heart, a trip to Africa, and a stone could lead her toward happiness? Maybe this was her time to find and have real love in her life. She wanted to believe it but couldn't afford the travel fare. It would be so wonderful for once in her life to be decisive and live with certainty. She knew it would be a godsend to relax her usual skepticism and accept a little guidance into her confused life. She had to admit she wasn't doing so great on her own.
Jael closed her fingers around the stone and thought of another man who worked with her--Kypton. Kypton was quiet and aloof with most everyone in the department, but his gaze followed her longingly every time she walked past.
When she told her friends she liked the manager of the IT department, they teased her relentlessly. They couldn't picture her with a computer geek. Thing was, Kypton was the furthest thing from a computer geek. She understood why they immediately thought of someone with glasses, a shirt buttoned up tight to the neck, and a pocket protector sticking out of his shirt pocket. That wasn't Kypton.
What her friends and others in her office seemed to miss was that beneath the subdued exterior, Kypton was smoking hot with pale blond hair and baby blue eyes. His voice carried the softest hint of northern Europe. He pronounced e's as a's, and she wondered if Kypton had gone to school in Switzerland or lived near there as a child.
Occasionally she was fortunate enough to peek down his collar and glimpse the silky blond hair on his chest. His broad shoulders and well-defined chest stood out in anything he wore. His arms looked like he frequented the gym, and those fitted khakis he favored as office wear gave her a view of a sexy, tight ass. A hint of smoldering physicality simmered just below the surface as if he were completely capable of picking her up, carrying her into a quiet storage room, and banging her senseless. At least that was what she hoped. She concluded the other women in her office must be blind or foolish not to notice Kypton's potential.
Kypton seemed thoughtful and sensitive too, which was a huge plus. He'd jumped in to help her on numerous occasions, often staying late at work to do so. He also avoided all office gossip or conflicts and went out of his way to help others before he was even asked, which she found pretty damn attractive.
All in all Kypton was a dreamy guy, even if he might appear a bit sedate.
Only problem was Roarke attracted her too.
Roarke was Kypton's opposite. Roarke was outgoing and authoritative. When he entered the room, others stopped what they were doing to listen. Though he was a manager, he had an artistic, wild vibe about him that was exciting to be near. He dressed well in bold colors like earthy orange or rich purple. It was a treat to watch him walk past her desk and catch a whiff of his subtle citrusy aftershave--that was, if he ever really shaved. His square jaw seemed perpetually stubbled in a grainy, sexy sort of way.
Roarke had coppery skin and the swarthy good looks of a Barbary pirate chief. She half fantasized he was the son of some powerful khan and his mother was some delicate-boned beauty. Roarke was both puzzling and stunning to look at. His sleek nose and chiseled bone structure made his origins difficult to guess. She wondered if there was a tribe of exotically perfect people hiding somewhere on a long-forgotten island, who sneaked away from their hidden paradise now and then to work as office managers.
As a natural leader, Roarke drew people to his side with ease. He spoke passionately with his expressive hands and cognac-brown eyes as much as he did with words. Anything earthy and creative interested him--nature, movies, paintings, or books, he loved them all. His apartment contained a dazzling array of fine books and an impressive collection of beautiful artifacts displayed in lit niches.
A visit to his apartment was not only a physical thrill; it was mentally stimulating to the artist in her to look at the many things he'd collected over the years. Roarke seemed to live in such a different world from the average person, and she longed be to invited in.
Roarke worked as a manager in the human resource department of International Explorer magazine and network. He was well respected and very much in demand.
She'd foolishly told Roarke on the first date she had no intention of getting involved with a coworker, so maybe some of the distance between them was her fault. She wanted to take it back. What a dummy she was for saying that.
That wasn't to say nothing had happened between them. It had. Twice after a dreamy museum date or trip to the movies on Roarke's birthday, the date had ended with both of them unable to keep their hands off each other.
Roarke had picked her up, carried her into his bedroom, tossed her onto his amethyst sheets, and lavished her with the best oral she'd ever had. Roarke was a total sensualist and seemed to know exactly what she needed to come hard. She'd loved every second of writhing in his firm but loving grasp and was eager to reciprocate.
She just wasn't sure where she stood with him. A date once in a while was for chumps. Maybe he was waiting for her to admit that she did want to get involved with a coworker before pursuing her a little harder.
"Never underestimate the power of love." Witch Casey winked as she popped the captured snake back into the basket.
Jael turned her attention to the woman standing in front of her. Had she been reading Jael's mind?
"Your dilemma will not be hard to decide. You already know exactly what you want, and you don't have to choose."
Jael's eyes widened.
Dear God, she can read my mind. I wonder if she saw the naughty thoughts?
"I did, dear." Witch Casey shrugged. "But your secrets are safe with me. Besides, no one believes me anyway."