Authors: Kimberly Frost
Tags: #Paranormal, #Literature & Fiction, #Romance
“Yep,” I said. “It’s a festive festival.” I scanned the crowd incessantly, hoping to spot Sally O’Shea.
Mercutio brushed against me. He wore a collar of jeweled lace for the occasion, as if he were part of an exotic circus come to London. He stuck his tongue out to capture a wafer of snow.
“If you’d like to experience the real thing, I could take you on a vacation. How about a week in the mountains? I could teach you to ski. Or we could go to Connecticut. I’d like to show you where I went to school.”
“Um,” I hesitated. I was crazy about Bryn, but I was trying to take things slow. My relationship with my ex wasn’t resolved, which Bryn knew full well. He just liked to pretend he didn’t. “Maybe someday, but this month I’ve got dozens of holiday parties to bake for. Being unemployed I can’t afford to turn down work.”
“You’re not unemployed. You’re self-employed,” he corrected. “You’re the most talented pastry chef in the region. You’ll always have as much work as you want.”
I smiled. “Well, if you want the talent to be able to afford to buy you a Christmas present, you better not try to tempt me into slacking through the season of pumpkin pies and holiday cookies. Hey, here comes the parade!”
I reveled at the outfits and props: an old-timey fire cart pushed by costumed firemen, marching London bobbies and soldiers, and a procession of lords and ladies in horse-drawn carts passed by.
Sitting on the back of a passing nautical float, a busty woman with a knowing smile caught my eye. Despite her dark lipstick and heavy makeup, she looked . . . yes, she was slightly transparent.
“Mercutio,” I said and inclined my head.
Merc’s sleek stripes bobbed up and down in answer.
“Bryn, I think I see Sally.” I grabbed my skirt and hurried down the street, weaving between vendors, my dress bumping against wide swatches of fabric worn by women in my way.
“Sally! Sally O’Shea!” I called.
She gave me a sharp-eyed look, then her mouth curved into a crimson smirk. With a flounce of phantom skirts, she hopped down from the cart. She sashayed onto the sidewalk and waited.
I hurried to her, Mercutio padding along with me until a rotisserie of smoked sausages on sticks proved too much of a temptation for him and he darted off.
I turned to ask Bryn if he could see the ghost. Unfortunately, I’d managed to lose him in the crowd, too. Men! “Miss O’Shea?” I asked.
“The very same. Who wants to know?” she asked in an accent I hadn’t heard since I saw the Duvall play production of
A Christmas Carol
. Russet curls danced around a face more pug than princess, but she had round, rouged cheeks that made her seem cheerful.
“I’m Tammy Jo Trask. I need your advice.”
“I’d hold half a guinea you don’t. With hair bright as copper and that face, you’ll do fine. Make sure he pays first and keep a maid to knock on the door for more money if he goes over his time.”
“And don’t go giving it away for a bag of crisps like those little things along the boardwalk. A pity that is. You could— Hallo,” she said, smiling past me.
A glance over my shoulder revealed Bryn was standing behind me. “Miss O’Shea, this is Mr. Lyons.”
“Oh ho. Pray, how do you do, sir?”
“Very well, Ms. O’Shea,” he said, extending a hand. Her semitransparent chubby fingers rose so Bryn could kiss them. “And you?”
“Right enough. But I don’t hold with a girl having a male protector unless he works for her, not the other way round.” She looked at me. “You’ll make treble or more on your own, my girl. Look at his fancy clothes. Half your wages will go to keeping him in suits.”
“Pardon me?” I asked.
Bryn’s smile turned grim. “She’s implying I’m your pimp.”
“For the love of Hershey!” I muttered, flushing. “I told you this outfit made me look like a lady of the night! I’m not a prostitute, Miss O’Shea. I’m—” I glanced around, lowering my voice to a whisper. “I’m a witch. I’ve done a spell I’d like to undo, and I’ve heard that you have some expertise in this particular area.”
“A witch,” she said with a skeptical sniff. “There’s always some girl or young man who fancies herself or himself magical and arrives here looking for me, expecting free lessons. It’s why I stopped appearing to tourists except during the Dickens revival. The holidays and seeing the old clothes puts me in a good mood. Don’t take that to mean I can abide having my time wasted. I can’t.”
“Because at this point, your time’s so valuable,” Bryn said, his voice dry as a martini.
“A pretty tongue you have, sharp as a blade,” she said, leaning close to him. “Have a care, love, or you’ll find yourself haunted.”
“Not likely. My property’s warded with stronger magic than you could overcome.”
“Bryn, don’t be rude.”
Her eyes narrowed. “So you think you’re a wizard, too, do you? What sort, then?”
“Celestial,” he said.
“A stargazer?” she asked, then shook her head slowly. “You don’t look it. You’ve the look of water about you. Shiny as a—” She paused scrutinizing him and then me. “My girl, where do your people come from?”
“I’m from Texas, born and bred. But my momma’s family’s from New York and Great Britain a ways back. My daddy’s from Scotland or thereabouts, or so I’m told.”
She studied me, taking a deep breath so her big bosom wobbled in her low-cut dress. “You’ve done a spell you said. What manner of spell?”
My furtive glance darted to either side and over my shoulder before I loosened the purse strings. I rolled the opening down an inch, and the wild-haired head of Jenna Reitgarten popped up.
“Help!” she wailed.
“Oops,” I squeaked, clapping the top together and cinching it closed.
“Lucky stars above,” Sally said with a throaty laugh. “The genuine article. Tell me your name again.”
“It’s Tammy Jo. Do you think you can help me?”
“It was the spring of hope,” Bryn murmured, frowning at my eagerness.
“Call me Sal. We’ll help each other,” Sally said.
“It was the winter of despair,” Bryn added.
I beamed at Sally then turned to Bryn. “Don’t be negative,” I said, giving his arm a pinch. “Call it the winter of hope. And the Christmas of relief!”
“I would,” Bryn said. “But somehow that’s never the way the story goes.”
“On the whole, I don’t believe corsets are proper adventure attire.” I twisted, trying to stop the corset’s bones from poking me. The shifting worsened things and I had to stop and stand up straight, which made me feel dizzy. Sally had sent us on a mission. But it turns out I can’t walk very fast when my torso’s in a straitjacket.
“Are you all right?” Bryn asked.
“As right as I can be in underwear that could double as a torture device,” I said, huffy. We passed a worn building that housed a flea market antique store.
Sally had sent us to steal sea creatures from a fountain, and a bunch of questions kept swishing through my brain. How did they survive away from the ocean? What did they eat? If the owner used chemicals to treat the water, did it make them sick?
Sally had said we’d need to use a spell to attract them. “Why would fish be drawn to magic?”
“They wouldn’t be,” Bryn said.
“You’re saying Sal lied?”
“I know it’s hard to imagine. A prostitute who lies, alert the media.”
“Sometimes you sound just like your dad,” I said, frowning. Lennox Lyons was the most sarcastic person I’d ever met. “If I poured some sugar water over you, I could make lemonade.”
“Great. We’ll have something to drink in jail.”
It should’ve been a sobering thought, but instead of worrying me it made me giggle.
“It must be this way,” I said. “I know Mercutio was having fun on the Strand with all those people feeding and admiring him, but I’m surprised he didn’t come with us.”
“He recognizes a fool’s errand when he sees one.”
“Are you saying my cat’s smarter than us?”
That made me laugh again.
“Is this right?” I mumbled, straining to see the street sign. To say the house was a faded beauty was putting it mildly. Paint peeled off the walls and backyard weeds grew taller than me. Several of the downstairs windows were boarded up.
“Yes, this is Postoffice Street. In Sally O’Shea’s time, this was the red-light district.”
“Oh,” I said. A few months back, I hadn’t known what a red-light district was, but apparently it’s the place where the houses of ill repute are clustered together.
“There was a row of female boarding houses. When a prospective customer was shopping for company, it was called ‘going down the line.’” The ones at the end of the street were more opulent and therefore the girls were more expensive. The last house was called the ‘top of the line.’”
“Is that where that expression comes from? No! I say that all the time. It started out as a description for whorehouses?”
“I don’t know whether that’s the actual origin.”
“Here,” I said, going down the alley to the back gate. A small white sign announced
I tried to open the gate but found it was locked.
“Bryn, could you use a spell to get us inside?”
“Breaking and entering is illegal. I could lose my law license.”
I sighed, knowing perfectly well he wasn’t really worried about his job. He was just against going on this mission.
“We’re not going to break anything. We’re just going to enter. Plus, we’re not fixin’ to get caught, are we?” I leaned against the gate, and a strand of ivy draped down my shoulder like a curl. I caught the edge of Bryn’s waistcoat and tugged him to me. “Sal would probably suggest using feminine wiles to convince you.”
“That would be the first suggestion of hers that appealed to me.” Bryn’s fingers gripped the bars behind me as he leaned close.
“But I wouldn’t feel right doing something of that nature. I do have a point to make, though.”
“You smell like cocoa,” he murmured.
“If Jenna and Lucy were regular size, we could let them go. They could call Boyd from the lobby of the Tremont House and he could come get them.”
Bryn taste-tested my neck. “Cocoa and something else. Don’t tell me. I like to do my own research,” he said, the tip of his tongue touching a spot just south of my earlobe. I shivered. “It could be cinnamon.”
My mouth moved to his ear. “This is shortsighted,” I said, my voice breathy.
“Ginger. You smell like chocolate sprinkled with cinnamon and ginger.”
Even through our clothes, I felt his heat and magic soak my skin.
“We can kiss all night if you want,” I said.
“It was the best of times,” he whispered.
I smiled. “But out here, that’s all we could do.”
“It was the worst of times.”
I laughed softly. “I’m trying to tell you something.”
“You have my undivided attention, sweetheart.” He kissed me, and magic rode his breath as I inhaled.
I sagged against the gate, dizzy from being trussed up and trapped between Bryn and a set of iron bars.
I put a hand against his cravat and pushed him back an inch. His uneven breathing matched my own. “If Jenna and Lucy were full-sized we wouldn’t have to babysit them anymore. And if I know Mercutio, he’ll be out all night, exploring the island. So you and I could have the hotel room to ourselves.”
“Here, sweetheart, stand over here. Let me have a closer look at the gate. I bet it’s unlocked.”
Bryn whispered a spell, and there was a bright spark and a loud pop. “Damn.”
“Too much enthusiasm,” he said, unhooking the broken lock. “I’ll send the owner money to cover it.”
I held my breath as he opened the gate and we tread softly into the yard toward the sound of gurgling water. Sal had told us to bring a plastic bag that wouldn’t leak. She said we’d know the fish she wanted when we had them. If we succeeded in the mission and proved our magic worthy of her time, she’d share the spell we needed.
My skirt caught on an oleander bush, and I slowed, not wanting to snag my pretty gown. A few steps behind Bryn, I let out a low gasp. There were lots of odds and ends in the yard, but two focal points froze me in my booties. A wooden woman, her form half rotted away, decorated the prow of a ship, which thrust up from the ground. It pointed like a hunting dog at a fountain. The prow had probably been salvaged from a ship that had been retired and used for scrap wood years ago, but my imagination slips its leash sometimes and I pictured the rest of the ship submerged in the yard, sunken in the dirt with only the tip of its front aboveground where it could be seen.
The fountain was much less dramatic, which if I’m being honest, disappointed me. I’d imagined something fancy, like bathing sea nymphs carved in white marble, but it was nothing more than a large greenish-brown basin with a small pillar in the center where the water rose in a column and then spilled over.
Bryn and I strode to it. He used his phone as a flashlight. The murky water churned, and it was too dark to see whether there were fish. He shrugged off his snug coat and handed it to me, then rolled up his puffy sleeve.
“Give me the plastic bag.”
“Hang on,” I said, dipping into my purse to retrieve a plastic bag that earlier had held eight truffles from La King’s Confectionery, a shop that had been around since the 1920s and that sported some hundred-year-old candy-making machinery in its kitchen. I held out the empty bag to Bryn.
“What did you do with the rest of the candy?” he asked.
“You had one, and Jenna and Lucy split one. Then I ate the leftovers.”
“You ate six truffles on the fifteen-minute walk over here?”
“If the walk took fifteen minutes, then yep. That’s why I taste good. I probably got ginger and cinnamon on my neck when I pushed my hair back.”
“Tied up tight in that dress, your waist is so small I can practically circle it with my hands. I don’t see how there’s room for half a dozen truffles in there.”
“Oh, Bryn,” I said patiently. “There’s always room for truffles.”
He chuckled. “And you don’t feel sick?”
“No way. This is the best I’ve felt all day. Chocolate fights depression, you know. And dark chocolate fights radical oxygen.” I cocked my head because that wasn’t quite right. Oxygen radicals? “It’s a, what do you call it? Antioxidant? Whatever that is. . . . Something good.”