Illinois attorney Keli Milanni has a truly unique side practice—as a Wiccan. But as Midsummer Eve approaches, she's not quite feeling the magic. With trouble brewing at work, she needs her inner Goddess more than ever.
The family of a recently deceased client is blaming Keli for the loss of a Shakespearean heirloom worth millions. And clearing her name by finding the real culprit won't be easy. With both a Renaissance Faire and a literary convention in town, Edindale is rife with suspicious characters.
Keli weaves a tangled web when her investigation brings her up-close and personal with her suspects—including sexy Wes Callahan, her client's grandson. The tattooed bartender could be the man she's been looking for in more ways than one. Now Keli will need a touch of the divine to bring her world, and her heart, back to a state of harmony.
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Midsummer Night's Mischief
By Jennifer D Hesse
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Jennifer David Hesse
All rights reserved.
Four days earlier
The soft breeze caressed my shoulders like a lover, and I slowed my steps to enjoy it. I had shed my blazer the minute I left the office, had tucked it over my purse strap, and had traded my heels for flat sandals. I was cutting through Fieldstone Park. The air was fresher there under the trees. The breeze carried the scent of roses mingled with the spicy-earth aroma of mature pines and flowering shrubs. I inhaled deeply. Summer had come early this year.
Just above the horizon, a vivid crescent moon, larger than life, began its nightly ascent. All around me, the first fireflies flickered in the dusky shadows, while hidden crickets chirped a timeless serenade.
As a matter of fact, the evening was so damn romantic, I couldn't take it anymore. I stopped in my tracks.
"Come on!" I said out loud. "What are you trying to do to me?"
A startled skateboarder skidded to a stop next to me, stamping one foot on the ground.
"Not you," I said. "Her! This!" I flicked my wrist, waving a hand at the trees, the sky, the beauty. "Oh, never mind," I muttered.
The skateboarder rolled his eyes and sped off. I sighed and continued down the path. I strolled past Memory Gardens and around Wedding Cake Fountain, breathing in the sultry fresh air. It was peaceful, for sure, but I felt restless. As I gazed around the park, I couldn't help feeling it was a setup. The Goddess was putting on a spectacular show tonight, and it was all for me.
My bag suddenly felt heavier, and I shifted it to my other shoulder. Why did I feel so irritated all of a sudden? The slender headband that earlier had reined my long locks into a sleek retro bouffant now felt like a vise on my temples. The flower-scented air, now humid and dense, was suddenly cloying. The whole world pressed in.
Despite this momentary unease, I still loved it here. Honestly, I loved it all: the big park, the small town, the perfect evening. After all, Edindale wasn't called the Eden of Southern Illinois for nothing. Yet, it was times like these that made me feel the most alone. That was it, I realized. The lovelier the night, the more deeply I felt my heart ache.
When I rounded a bend and caught sight of a dreamy-eyed couple heading my way, hand in hand, I decided I'd had about enough. I veered to my left, cut across a grassy stretch, stopped for a quick second to break off a purple stem from a riotously abundant bush clover, and then stepped onto the sidewalk toward home.
A few minutes later I climbed the steps to my cozy brick row house. Luckily, there was no sign of my neighbors, a happy older couple on my right and newlyweds on my left. Normally, I didn't mind chatting with them, but I wasn't in the mood just then. Even before my atmospheric walk home from work, I had been too painfully aware of my decided singleness today.
It had all started with the new client who walked into my office that morning. And it had ended when I flipped the page of my wall calendar and saw what I knew to be true but wanted to forget: My birthday was coming up in two weeks. I would be thirty.
I entered the row house and headed to the master bedroom. After shedding the suit and the headband, I pulled on yoga shorts and a soft old T-shirt and set about my usual evening chores. I seemed to have fallen into quite the domestic routine lately. First, I watered all my plants — the potted flowers on the front stoop, the hanging ferns in my front window, the herbs in my kitchen window boxes, the potted vegetables and palms and flowers on my back deck, and the houseplants throughout. Then I made myself a quick but tasty dinner consisting of granola cereal topped with fresh strawberries and organic almond milk — my go-to meal on nights I didn't feel like cooking — and sat down in front of the computer in the den to browse online dating profiles.
"Cute ... nah. Nice ... or not. Hot, but ... nah." I found a reason to reject each one. The whole process seemed so shallow and hokey. These dating services might be helpful for some people, but they didn't feel right for me. They seemed to lack that almost magical element of serendipity in meeting people the old-fashioned way. This way felt too contrived.
Speaking of old-fashioned, I found my mind wandering back to the new client I had counseled today. Her name was Eleanor, and she was about the sweetest old lady I'd ever met. With her short gray hair, polyester slacks, and embroidered top, she was the picture of grandmotherly. In fact, what with her twinkly blue eyes and soft plumpness, I had had to resist the urge to hug her as we said good-bye.
Eleanor was my favorite kind of client. I loved helping nervous people navigate the legal intricacies that went along with so many momentous life events. Some such events were happy, like adoptions and real estate closings. Others, like divorces, could be contentious or sad — or joyous, depending on the client. My firm handled all sorts of family law issues, but I'd come to specialize in trusts and estates. Oftentimes, people put off preparing a will, not liking to face the idea of their own mortality. And sometimes they were distrustful of lawyers. Eleanor was like that at first, but it didn't take me long to put her at ease.
Plus, she was nearly bursting with excitement about her secret. Besides her daughter, Darlene, and the expert who had appraised her find, I was the only one to know that comfortably middle-class Eleanor was about to become a very wealthy woman.
I had learned this morning that Eleanor's husband, Frank, had died four years earlier, with a simple will that left everything to his wife. She had avoided having a will herself, thinking, like a lot of people, that however her assets were distributed by law when she was gone would be just fine. Besides, she'd thought she didn't have much — certainly nothing worth fighting over. But that had all changed last week. Going through some of her late husband's things in the attic with her daughter, Eleanor had made an astonishing discovery: a rare book in excellent condition. And not just any book. She had found one of the most valuable books in all the world: a 1623 compendium of Shakespeare's plays. It was the first ever Shakespeare publication, called the First Folio.
Eleanor knew what it was. Still, she was stunned to find it in the attic. Frank had inherited the prize from his great-uncle, an antiques collector, decades ago. Family lore had it that the book had been lost under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Some said it had been destroyed in a fire; others claimed the book had been stolen or maybe lost in a bet. Nevertheless, here it was, tucked in the bottom of an army trunk, under some olive-drab wool blankets.
Eleanor didn't know if Frank had even known the book was there, and she'd probably never know. Regardless, she realized that her estate would be significantly bigger now than she had ever dreamed. It was her daughter who had got her thinking about bequests and had encouraged her to see a lawyer.
I smiled to myself as I remembered how excited Eleanor was at the prospect of leaving substantial gifts to causes near to her heart — her alma mater, her favorite museum, the local animal rescue shelter — not to mention individual gifts to her family members. Eleanor had two children and five grandchildren, plus an adorable new great-grandbaby, whose photo Eleanor had proudly showed me. She also had a brother who was still living and several nieces, nephews, and cousins. It was quite a big family.
A big, loving, supportive family.
I came from a pretty big family, too. I had a mom and dad, two older sisters, and an older brother. But they were all miles away and not really a part of my daily life anymore.
My house seemed exceptionally quiet.
I got up and took my bowl to the kitchen, washed it, and put it away. Then I threw in a load of laundry and generally puttered around, all the while feeling lower and lower. At one point I flipped on the radio and promptly shut it off. "What's the deal with the mood tonight? Is there something in the air?" Sometimes I spoke to the Goddess, like Bewitched's Samantha Stephens called out to her mother in an empty room. Of course, on the TV show that was usually because Endora was up to some new high jinks to trouble Samantha's boringly mortal husband.
I laughed in spite of myself and shook off the gloom. There was something I could do, I knew. I didn't have to pine around, a victim of unalterable circumstances. I could take matters into my own hands. I had the means; I had the power.
But should I do it?
I felt a little sheepish, even though no one was around to know.
I went back to the kitchen and poured a glass of Merlot. Then I walked around the house, drawing the shades.
What I needed was a man. Strike that. I didn't need a man. Still, I longed for a partner. And not just any partner. I stopped, with my wineglass raised halfway to my lips, as the realization sank in. I was yearning for my soul mate.
I went back to the kitchen and pulled out containers of herbs and spices from the corner cabinet. Then I got out my mortar and pestle and started mixing in a bit of this and a dash of that: patchouli, rose hips, cinnamon and basil, rosemary, jasmine, and a touch of hot chili pepper. I wasn't following any particular recipe, but experience and intuition told me what to add.
Grinding the dried leaves and powders was like a meditation. As I breathed in the heady aroma, I thought about the idea of having a soul mate. Was there one person out there meant for each of us? Was I truly incomplete without my missing other half? The thought of needing another person, especially a man, made my fiercely independent self bristle. I could take care of myself, thank you very much.
Still, people needed people ... obviously. Community and cooperation were pretty much the last, best hope for this calamitous world. Or so I'd heard.
Besides, even if there was not one particular person destined for another, I did believe in balance. Like work and play, yin and yang, and the two broken parts of a heart-shaped locket, one without the other just wasn't right. Plus, you needed two to tango. I was looking for my perfect dance partner.
I spooned my herbal concoction onto a piece of cheesecloth, brought up the four corners, and tied it with a red thread. Then I poured another glass of wine and took it to my bedroom upstairs.
There's nothing wrong with what I'm doing, I told myself. Why was I so nervous?
I set the herb pouch on my antique console table, next to the sprig of bush clover I'd picked at Fieldstone Park. Then I gathered some candles and arranged them in a circle on the Persian rug before the console. I placed a large vanilla-scented pillar candle in the center, and on that candle I carved my name within the outline of a heart. I lit the candles.
Then I took off my clothes.
It was time for a serious love spell.
* * *
Afterward, I sat quietly on my deck, listening to the crickets and katydids and breathing in the night air. The slender moon was now completely overhead, and I basked in the soft glow while I came down from my psychic high. Spell casting could be a pretty intense experience. Even after sending the energy I raised back to the earth, I felt as if my cells were vibrating.
Not for the first time, I pondered what my friends and family would say if they could see me. What would they think if they knew I was a Wiccan?
Actually, I could imagine what they would think, which was why I couldn't tell them. Not that I was ashamed or anything. In fact, I was quite comfortable with who I was. I was secure in my identity and confident in my spiritual path. This particular pursuit of mine was probably the one area of my life where I harbored no dissatisfaction or misgivings whatsoever.
That is, as long as no one found out.
My Irish Catholic grandmother would blame my father and his whole side, and my Italian Catholic grandmother would blame my mother and her side. At worst, they'd all think I was mixed up in a cult of devil-worshipping crazies, worse even than my aunt Josephine, who ran off and joined a hippie commune back in the day. At best, they'd worry for my immortal soul. Or, more likely, they'd fear this would damage my chances of marrying a nice young Christian man.
As for my friends, they might just think I was a bit flaky, even weirder than they already knew. My current friends, anyway, already called me a hippie chick — not even knowing about Aunt Josephine — given my dietary leanings and other earth-friendly tendencies. But my old friends, from high school and earlier, would likely be surprised to learn I'd never actually grown up. It was with them, all those years ago, that I had first learned about Wicca and the exciting world of Goddess worship.
That was back when witchcraft was über-trendy. We watched The Craft and Charmed and read books like Teen Witch. We wore lots of black, painted our fingernails black, drew tattoos on our hands and ankles with permanent marker.
I smiled as I recalled our secret "coven meetings." We collected crystals and stones, wore pentagram jewelry, and read each other's palms. There were spells, of course, incantations read from books to curse our enemies and attract our crushes. Then again, there was also a good amount of high-minded antiestablishment, feminist rebellion. In spite of my affection for Bewitched, we were not the daughters of housewife Samantha Stephens.
But before long, hot-blooded vampire romance edged out witchy girl power, and my friends pretty much lost interest. Not me. The Goddess had taken hold and wasn't letting go. My teenage experiment had morphed into a real-life spiritual journey. And it was a spiritual path that suited me perfectly: there was no dogma, no fearmongering, no judgment. There were no authoritarian gatekeepers standing between me and the Divine — the Divine was already in me. And in the trees and the trails, the rivers and streams, the birds and the bees. It was a beautiful religion.
Unfortunately, Wicca was not exactly an accepted, let alone mainstream, religion.
Which was another reason I had to keep this part of me under wraps. If anyone at work were to find out — or anyone in the community — it could cost us clients. And that would cost me my job.
I started to feel chilly sitting on the deck, and my stomach began to growl, chastising me for the too-light dinner. I had just gotten up and gone into the kitchen to scrounge up a bedtime snack when my cell phone buzzed from the counter where I'd left it. I glanced at the caller ID and picked up at once.
"Hey, groovy chick!" I said brightly.
"Hey, chickie mama. What's shaking?"
"Not a whole lot. You back?"
"Not till tomorrow, but save your evening. There's a band we gotta see and men we gotta meet."
I grinned. Evidently, my fun-loving friend Farrah was "off" again in her longtime on-again, off-again romance. That suited me fine. I had a spell to test out. And meeting men with Farrah was the best test method I could think of.
Somewhere out there was the answer to my prayer.CHAPTER 2
"I'll have a large coffee and a blueberry ... No, make that a cranberry-walnut muffin." I dug into my purse, fumbling for some money, thoughts fixated on the delicious energy surge I'd soon be sinking into. The voice behind me, grating in its nasal familiarity, quickly burst my bubble.
"Tsk, tsk, tsk. Coffee and a muffin? Not quite the breakfast of champions I'd expect from someone as purportedly health conscious as young Ms. Keli Milanni."
I forced a polite smile before turning to face my tormentor, the tall, stiff, ginger-haired thorn in my side.
"Good morning, Crenshaw."
He followed me to the condiment station. "I'd expect a super-vegan marathoner like you to be ordering wheatgrass shots at the juice bar. Not coffee and a muffin."
"It's all about balance, Crenshaw. You know, throwin' in a little sweet with the spice." I edged toward the door. "Besides, this is a vegan bakery. It's all good."
At least it was until you arrived, I thought. What was he doing here, anyway? And why was he hovering over me instead of ordering his own breakfast?
"How many miles will you have to run to work off that muffin? It must be at least three hundred calories, no?"
I took a sip of my coffee to avoid answering the inane question and promptly scorched my tongue. Damn!
Excerpted from Midsummer Night's Mischief by Jennifer D Hesse. Copyright © 2016 Jennifer David Hesse. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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