Bewitching Hour

Bewitching Hour

Anne Stuart

November 2017 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-843-1

Something’s coming. And it involves a man.

 
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Something’s coming. And it involves a man.

New age shopkeeper Sybil Richardson loves Christmas – she just doesn’t like the impossibly sexy, incurably grumpy professor who’s come to the tiny town of Danbury, Vermont to debunk all her dearly held beliefs. She doesn’t like his suspicious nature, and she sure as hell doesn’t like the fact that he makes her dissolve into a puddle of lust no matter how much he annoys her.

Nick Fitzsimmons thinks most new age beliefs are nonsense. He has no need to linger in a one-horse town with no cell service and unreliable wifi, but for some reason, he can’t make himself leave the ridiculously gullible woman who is trying so hard to get rid of him.

Christmas is coming, and he knows what he wants under his tree. He just has to convince Sybil that she wants him, too.

Anne Stuart recently celebrated her forty years as a published author. She has won every major award in the romance field and appeared on the bestseller list of the NY Times, Publisher’s Weekly, and USA Today, as well as being featured in Vogue, People Magazine, and Entertainment Tonight. Anne lives by a lake in the hills of Northern Vermont with her fabulous husband.

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Excerpt


Chapter One

"SOMETHING’S COMING.” Sybil Richardson stared down at the tarot cards covering her already littered desk. "And I’m not talking about Christmas. I can’t tell whether it’s nasty or not, but it’s coming, and it’s powerful.”

"Did you try the I Ching?” The older woman looked up from her position on the floor beside the rack of dowsing pendulums. The front rooms of the old house on Water Street in Danbury, Vermont, held the business offices of the Society of Water Witches, better known as SOWW. The back room held Sybil’s occult bookstore, and Leona Coleman was in the midst of unpacking the latest stock of psychic and dowsing paraphernalia. "You know you do best with Eastern forms of mysticism.”

"The I Ching was even more confusing,” Sybil said gloomily. "Why don’t you do a tarot card reading? There should be a new Christmas tarot in that box. You have more talent than I have.”

Leona rose to her full five feet, and her round face wrinkled in disapproval. "You know there’s no such thing, Sybil. We all have psychic ability; some of us are just more in touch with it. And why in the world do you insist on everything under the sun being Christmas-y? It’s just an old-world myth.”

Sybil, who was extremely fond of all holidays, was half-tempted to point out that dowsing, Tarot and most forms of divination were myths, but she tactfully kept silent. "Well,

I’m not within screaming distance of any ability today,” she said, pushing back in her chair and running a hand over her coil of dark blond braids that were, as usual, giving her a headache. "I just have this pre­monition.”

"Then you should pay attention to it,” Leona said firmly. She was a slightly comical figure, like a cross between Yoda and Mrs. Santa Claus, with a round, plump body, a round, plump face, small, dark eyes that looked like raisins in a suet pudding and a halo of untidy white hair. She never told her age, but Sybil suspected that she was somewhere on the shady side of eighty, despite her limitless energy. "Premonitions have a purpose, and it’s risking all sorts of danger to ignore them. You should go upstairs and meditate. I can watch the office.”

"Can’t do it,” Sybil said with a sigh, taking one look at the tarot pack with Santa Claus as the King of Cups decorating the box. She shuddered. She might have gone too far with her Christmas obsession. "The holiday newsletter has to be typed; it’s already December, and it’s two weeks late. And That Man’s coming.”

"What man?” Leona sank down onto a straight chair, her short little legs dangling like those of a child.

"Nicholas Wyndham Fitzsimmons.” Her voice sounded as if she were naming a snake. "The one from Hah-Vahd who writes all those snotty books ridiculing everything he doesn’t happen to believe in. Which ends up being almost everything that matters to us.”

"Oh, dear,” Leona said faintly. "If he doesn’t believe in anything, why is he coming here? Not to write an exposé, I hope.”

"Apparently the great man believes in dowsing. Real dowsing, as he puts it. The ability to find water using a divining rod or pendulum, and that’s all there is to it.”

"Oh, dear,” Leona said again.

"Exactly. He thinks the be-all and end-all of dowsing consists of old men finding wells, and he’s coming to do research on them. The trustees are in seventh heaven.”

"Well, we certainly have enough of them. As long as he leaves the rest of us alone.”

"Hah!” Sybil said. "I’m sure he’s as obnoxious as his books. He’ll be snooping around, looking down his aristocratic nose at us, and sooner or later I’ll be driven to murder, lose my job, go to prison, and never get Ben and Jerry’s again.” Her morose tone was a sharp contrast to the cheery red and green striped sweater she was wearing.

"Does he have an aristocratic nose?” Leona asked in her most prosaic voice.

"I wouldn’t know. He doesn’t have his picture on the cover of his books. But I imagine he’s extremely aristocratic.”

Leona rose. "Do you have any of his books in the shop? I don’t remember seeing them.”

"I keep them under the counter.” Sybil began shuffling the cards again, frowning once more. "I have to have them in case some poor misguided fool wants to read his venom-dipped prose. But I don’t have to advertise them.” She turned over the Queen of Wands, a dyspeptic- looking angel with a candy cane, moaned and flipped all the cards over.

Leona was looking at her oddly. "The Queen of Cups usually means romance for you. Just how old a man is this Nicholas Fitzsimmons?”

"Ancient,” Sybil said. "All you have to do is read his books to know. He’s a reactionary old poop, a narrow-minded fossil like most of the SOWW trustees. He’ll feel right at home with them.”

Leona breathed an audible sigh of relief. "Good,” she said. "You know how I feel about romance.”

Sybil grinned. "I know how you feel. You have your reactionary moments, too.”

"If you wish to expand your horizons, get in touch with the infinite inner and outer reaches, then you can’t diffuse your energy with sex,” Leona announced.

"I know, you’ve told me that a million times,” Sybil said in a cheerful voice. "Personally I wouldn’t mind a little healthy diffusion. It’s just that everyone here is married, senile or just reaching puberty.”

"And it’s a good thing,” Leona said sternly. "I’ll take these pendulums back to the shop, and then you can sit still and I’ll do a reading for you.”

"Give me one first.” Sybil held out her hand, and Leona dropped a metal, bullet-shaped object into her palm.

"But you hate dowsing,” Leona protested.

"It’s only because I have such lousy results. Every time I try to dowse for what kind of baby someone’s going to have it always comes up with the opposite. But nothing else is giving me any results today. Maybe for once the pendulum will work.”

"It will work if you let it,” Leona intoned. "You mustn’t get distracted by simple bodily urges. Rise above them.”

Sybil watched her sturdy little figure toddle away. "God, would I love to get distracted,” she muttered. She shoved the new cards into her desk drawer, slammed it shut and lifted the small pendulum by its metal chain. She held it up, and it began twirling in concentric circles. "Clockwise for yes, counterclockwise for no,” she informed it. It just kept spinning.

"Okay, pendulum,” she said. "Is something going to happen?” It spun around in wildly clockwise circles. "All right. Is it something good?” The pendulum halted for a moment as if confused, then continued its aimless spin. "Will I like it?” Still clockwise. "So far so good,” she muttered. "Does it involve a man?” The pendulum got quite excited at this point, spinning in an arc that was almost parallel to the ground.

Sybil stared at the exuberant pendulum. "Okay, okay,” she said. "Here’s the hard part. Are my eyes brown?”

The pendulum dropped down, stopping, and then began a slow, counterclockwise motion. Sybil stared at it from her warm brown eyes and cursed. She dropped it into her desk drawer along with the tarot cards. "So much for dowsing.” And she turned to her long-neglected computer.

It was just an all-round bad day, she thought four hours later when she finally pushed her rolling chair away from the aging keyboard with half the letters worn away. The trustees were notoriously parsimonious, and they refused to update the machine so it could run software developed after 1998. She switched it off, then cast a cursory glance around the deserted office, uneasy, then shivered as she looked out at the snow-covered road. It was early December, dark at four-thirty, and it snowed or sleeted almost every day. November averaged less sunshine than any other month, but this December was giving gloomy November a run for its money. They’d had thirteen days without sunshine, ending with freezing rain last weekend, making travel impossible. The road still had a solid coating of ice beneath the fresh snow, and Sybil had every expectation of sliding home, even with the blessed amenity of studded tires and four-wheel drive.

Still and all, the weather had its compensations. The roads were too bad for her to drive to the Burlington airport and fly down to see her family in Princeton. She could spend a few more weeks without the doubtful pleasure of her family’s disappointment and well-hidden disapproval. Now if the fates could only come up with a blizzard on Christmas she’d be safe until one of her overwhelming family risked allergy and asthma to visit her. She might even make it till spring.

Not that she didn’t love her family. Her father was bluff, kind and tactless. He was also the president of a bank. Her mother was clever, loving and concerned. She was a corporate vice-president. Her older sister, Hattie, was a gynecologist, with a solid-gold practice of rich, grateful patients and a national reputation; her middle sister, Emmie, was a lawyer in one of Philadelphia’s most prestigious law firms; and her baby sister, Allison, was a career diplomat, on special assignment for the State Department. They were all very bright, very accomplished, very competent, astonishingly attractive and very kind. And then there was Sybil.

She couldn’t be around them without feeling like a changeling. Their determined kindness only made it worse. Because Sybil had no great gift, no great talent, no frightening intellect that made strong men weep. She was just an ordinary sort of woman, with an ordinary amount of brain power that carried her through Bennington College with accept­able grades. She knew she was passably attractive, with thick brownish- blond hair, warm brown eyes and regular features that were pleasant enough. Her body was average height, average size, with an inch too much around the hips, but then, who didn’t have that? Not her family, of course, but most mortals.

In any other family she would have been a more than acceptable member. But in the Richardsons, women conquered empires, ruled worlds; they didn’t like to bake bread. In the Richardsons, women gathered advanced degrees as if they were collecting china figurines; they didn’t have gardens and bumper zucchini crops. In the Richardsons, you strove until you dropped and the honors were piled at your feet. You didn’t make a disastrous marriage to an unimaginative banker, leave him instead of having children and run away to Vermont, of all places. And you certainly didn’t get involved in flaky organizations like the Society of Water Witches.

But thank God, all Richardsons had money. Their maternal grandmother had been the first female self-made millionaire in the New York stock market, and she’d left all her money to her granddaughters. When Sybil could finally take no more of her rigid married life in Scarsdale, she had packed her clothes, left Colin an apologetic note and taken off for the family home in Vermont. Her first act had been to acquire two springer spaniels, which quickly became six.

The dogs had kept the Richardsons at bay. Along with all their otherqualities, all the Richardsons, except Sybil, suffered from intense aller­gies. They couldn’t be in the same room with a dog without wheezing and coughing and resorting to inhalants. It had worked out beautifully.

And she didn’t have to feel guilty. They hadn’t used the house in Vermont for years anyway; it was only opened on an occasional Labor Day weekend, and even then half of the family couldn’t make it. So it was Sybil’s and she reveled in it, with her six dogs and her solitude and her fresh-baked bread that was directly responsible for that extra inch around her hips. Fortunately, the zucchini crop helped to take it off.

No, if it weren’t for the lack of eligible men, her life in Danbury, Vermont would have been absolutely splendid. She didn’t really know if she wanted a man, she just wished she had the option of turning one down. But she had a job she enjoyed, friends and creative outlets that turned her family pale with horror. She was blissfully content, even on such a dark, gloomy, snowy day, if it weren’t for this damned premoni­tion.

Leona hadn’t been able to come up with much in her tarot reading. She’d refused the Christmas pack, preferring her ancient Aleister Crowley deck. The slightly evil-looking cards were being contrary, offering more vague warnings about diffusing her energies, warnings Sybil took with a grain of salt. It had been three years since her divorce, three years of celibacy, and her psychic powers didn’t seem to be increasing. If Prince Charming happened to show up it might be worth trying a new tack.

But it was Nicholas Wyndham Fitzsimmons who was going to show up. He had to be seventy if he was a day; the board of trustees didn’t trust anyone under sixty-five. The last thing she needed was a gold-plated academic. Her ex-husband had been aristocratic enough. No, what she needed was some earthy, sweating hunk to warm her through the long winter nights, or, failing that, at least someone who didn’t make her feel as inadequate as her family did. Someone to drink hot chocolate with and listen to the sappy Christmas music that played on her car radio from the middle of November.

All her partially formed instincts and psychic powers told her it was going to be a completely uneventful winter, with no more passionate diffusing than went on in a convent. With her usual good humor she banished the incipient gloom that crowded around her at the thought. There was a great deal to be said for peace, even at her miserably advanced age of thirty.

Her only problem right now was having to wait for the old man. The snow was coming down with more enthusiasm than she cared for, there was the monthly meeting of the psychic group to contend with, and by the time they were finished it would take her ages to get down the narrow road to her cottage. Damn the man, why couldn’t he be there on time? If he didn’t arrive by six, she’d leave him a note and he could find his own way around. Flicking off the desk light, she headed for the small bookshop at the back of the building.

NICHOLAS WYNDHAM Fitzsimmons’s dark green Jaguar XJ6 slippedsideways on the snow-packed road. With deft precision he turned into the spin, gently tapping the responsive brakes, and felt the tires regain their traction and their forward momentum down the icy road. It was the fourth time he’d nearly lost it in the last half hour, creeping over the secondary roads from St. Johnsbury and I-91. Despite the loose clasp of his leather-gloved hands on the steering wheel, he was in the worst mood he’d ever been in. He’d been cursing steadily for the last ten miles, peering through the whirling, blowing snow for signs of his destination. It was with only a faint lessening of temper that his headlights illuminated a white painted sign that announced he was now entering Danbury, Vermont, established in 1793, home of the Society of Water Witches. Nick’s lip curled as he slowly, carefully negotiated the left hand turn onto Water Street. It had been a stupid time of year to come up for research, but he hadn’t had much choice in the matter. He was due in England by the end of January, and he had to have his information well in hand before he went. But damn, he wished he were back in his cozy little apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Even through the blowing and drifting snow he didn’t have any trouble finding the old white farmhouse that held the society’s head­quarters. It was already decorated for Christmas—tiny white lights out­lined ever multi-panel window, and a massive wreath covered most of the front door. A single light was burning in the front of the building, with more in the back, and one snow-covered Subaru was parked out front. At least the secretary had stayed to welcome him. What was her name—Sybil something? He knew just what to expect. Some wispy spinster in her fifties, with filmy trailing garments, vague eyes and the IQ of a toaster. He pulled the Jaguar to a stop and had the distinctly unpleasant experience of having it slide two feet more until it bumped gently against the snowy retaining wall. With a savage curse, he turned off the key and bounded out into the night air.

The door was unlocked. For a moment he just stood inside the hall, letting the heat and light surround him. There was no one in the darkened office, but he could hear music from the back of the building. Or at least, he thought it might be music. Shaking the snow off his head, he ducked under the low doorway and headed toward the noise.

SYBIL SAT BACK on her heels, surveying the display of dowsing rods with a critical air. Her last order had definitely been misguided— pendulums with shiny glass ornaments instead of steel pointers were distracting. She liked the traditional small brass ones best—they could fit in someone’s purse and be ready for any likely occurrence, but they didn’t fit the rack she’d built for the longer, L-shaped rods, and she didn’t want them just huddled together on the counter. She picked up a pair, hefting them lightly in her hands. She had somewhat better luck with rods than with pendulums, but not much.

With a sudden, uncanny movement the twin rods shifted to the right, moving with precision and coming to a full stop. Sybil’s brown eyes followed their path to discover they were pointing at a pair of snowy feet standing in the doorway. Slowly her eyes moved upward, way upward, past long, jeans-clad legs, past a fisherman knit sweater with melting snow glistening on it, way up to a face. She uttered a tiny sound of complete panic. She felt as if she were looking into the face of the devil himself.

He was standing motionless, watching her, and the eerie stillness of his long, lean body added to the sensation. She stared back, mesmerized, unable to move. He had a narrow, dangerously beautiful face, with a thin, sensual mouth and the most disturbing eyes she’d ever seen. They were a golden topaz that seemed to glow with an unearthly light as they stared down at her. His hair was black, unfashionably long, and he had a widow’s peak in front. His eyebrows were equally black and sharply defined, emphasizing those strange, otherworldly eyes. He stood there without saying a word, and those eyes seemed to hypnotize her.

She stared up at him, unmoving, and gulped.

"I suppose you’re Sybil.” The vision shimmered, altered, moved and dissolved. The man standing in the doorway walked into the room, and she could see that he was only a man after all, albeit a good-looking one. Also an extremely bad-tempered one. "Don’t they ever salt the roadsaround here? I’ve been sliding on sheer ice for the last thirty miles.”

"Salt is bad for the environment,” she said absently. "Yes, I’m Sybil Richardson. Who are you?” It was a stupid question. She didn’t need psychic powers to guess, and to know that all her previous suppositions had been dead wrong.

"Nicholas Fitzsimmons. You were expecting someone else on a night like this?” he snapped. Even in temper it was a charming voice, she had to admit that. Low-pitched, musical, as mesmerizing as his golden eyes had been, except those eyes were so bad-tempered and blazing they no longer had any effect on her except irritation.

"Hope springs eternal,” she said cheerfully, dropping the brass rods back onto the shelf and rising to her full height. On top of everything else her entire family was taller than she was, most of them topping five feet ten, and the lean giant in front of her brought out her usual feelings of inadequacy. A short, sweating hunk was what she wanted, she added to herself. "I’m sorry about the roads, but as I expect you realize, they’re not my fault.”

For a moment he seemed to collect himself. "No, you’re right,” he said grudgingly. "They’re not your fault.”

"Besides,” she added with a trace of mischief, "they’re not really that bad.”

"When were you last out, Miss Richardson?” he demanded in a voice as icy as Route 15.

"An hour ago,” Sybil lied blithely.

"Then why were there no tire tracks in the snow?”

She grinned. "I did what I always do in bad weather, Mr. Fitzsimmons.I levitated.”

"Very funny,” he said sourly.

Finally Sybil took pity on him. "You’ll get used to them sooner or later,” she said, flicking off the lights and moving toward him, forcing herself not to react to his intimidating height. "And you’ll feel better after you’ve eaten.”

He was still watching her warily. "Deke Appleton said you’d make arrangements for me?”

She smiled, only a twinge of guilt marring her composure. "And I have. First you’re coming to a meeting of our psychic group. It’s the best way for you to meet everyone, and we’re having a potluck supper so you’ll be well fed. You’ll be spending the night at Deke’s, and tomorrow we’ll get you settled into the old Black Farm.”

"What’s wrong with the old Black Farm?”

She looked up at him. She was sure her voice had sounded completely normal when she’d mentioned it. "Why, nothing at all. It’s got all the amenities, including electric heat if you get tired of dealing with the wood stoves. You’ll be very comfortable.”

He just looked at her, and those topaz eyes glowed slightly in the dimly lit room. "Maybe,” he said. His voice sounded low, sexy and very skeptical.

Sybil, remembering the Black Farm’s history, merely smiled.


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