COME FOR THE ADVENTURE...STAY FOR THE ROMANCE!

BACK TO BLURB

CHAPTER ONE

 

A small shop in Morro Bay, California, on a Sunday afternoon in early January:

“I’m sorry, Kole, but he’s doing it again.”

Alarmed by the anxiety in her assistant’s voice, Kole dropped her clipboard and spun around. She scanned the interior of her shop but saw nothing amiss.

“Jesus, Lynn, can’t you be a little more specific?” Exasperated, she knelt to retrieve her scattered papers. “You sound just like one of my nephews tattling on his brothers,” she said, fishing for wayward pages under the shelves. She straightened up, documents in hand, and began putting her inventory sheets back in order. “And like my sister always tells them, if I don’t know who you’re referring to, I can’t do much about whatever he’s doing again.”

“I’m talking about that awful cop. He’s sitting on the hood of his car outside, shooting dirty looks at our store.”

Kole glanced out the window. Sure enough, there sat Detective Gage Corwin. And every gorgeous inch of the six-foot hunk looked hard and implacable. She suffered a sharp pang of longing as he raked his hands through his thick chestnut hair and shifted his exceptionally fine ass to another spot on the car.

“Has he been here long?”

Lynn hesitated. “Almost an hour. I didn’t say anything earlier because I hoped he’d go away before you realized he was out there. I’m sorry,” she repeated when Kole opened her mouth to protest. “I just hate how his attitude hurts your feelings.” She walked over and rubbed a comforting hand down Kole’s back. “But since the bastard isn’t leaving, I figured I’d better tell you.”

The scowl on Gage’s chiseled face did more than just hurt Kole’s feelings. It gouged holes in her heart that bled her emotions dry. “Has he been questioning all our customers again?”

“No, not all of them this time. Just the women.”

“Maybe he’s looking for a date.” Forcing herself to ignore the pain, Kole went back to checking her stock of love potions.

“Oh, sure. Like, he really wants to date anyone who buys products from you. He thinks you’re evil, Kole. A true daughter of Satan.” When Kole chuckled, Lynn sighed. “Okay, maybe that’s not entirely accurate. But he definitely sees you as a charlatan and a fraud. A criminal.” Bristling with indignation, she tapped her foot on the pale stone floor. “The man has no respect for you or for magic.”

With her hands fisted on her hips, she glared out the window at Gage. “He’s a menace, Kole. Why you don’t just put a spell on him? Or slip him a potion—anything to make him go away and leave us alone?”

“Because the first law of white magic is to harm none.” And because her foolish heart had it bad for the mouthwatering detective. But Kole was determined to keep that dirty little secret to herself.

“What about the damage he’s doing to us?” Lynn demanded. Kole swallowed a laugh. Like a dog with its proverbial bone, her assistant just couldn’t let go. Shaking her head, Kole concentrated on her inventory and let the woman rant.

“Our customers don’t like being interrogated every time they come here, and a lot of them are staying away.” Lynn waved a hand around the store. “We’ve only had a dozen customers since noon. Even our online sales are dropping.”

“Oh, come on, Lynn. That’s not Detective Corwin’s fault.” Kole picked up a bright red bottle of Love Potion No. Two-Fourteen and frowned. The magic was fading. “Been on the shelf too long,” she muttered. “Needs recharging.” She looked over at Lynn. “You know as well as I do business is always slow this time of year. After Christmas, people take a break from the crowds and shopping. Things’ll pick up again by Valentine’s Day.” Slipping the love potion into the pocket of her jeans, she marked its status on the inventory. “Don’t worry. Our customers are loyal. They always come back.”

“Not if that sonofabitiching cop has his way.” Lynn’s lips curved into a sly grin. “You know what you need to do, don’t you?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “You need to slip him some love potion. That’d fix his wagon. He’d be so crazy about you, he’d be willing to do anything for you. Even if what you ask is for him to just leave you alone.”

Kole laughed. “You can’t be serious.” When Lynn nodded, she groaned. “Haven’t you heard anything I tell my customers? Love potions can’t force a man to love you. They can’t take away someone’s choice. The spell doesn’t even work unless there’s already some affection between the two people involved. And then it only lasts for seventy-two hours. After that, the couple’s on their own.”

Finished with the love potions, she moved on to the health remedies. “It doesn’t have any effect on strangers. And it certainly won’t work on enemies.”

She paused, sensing a presence close by. But when she looked around, all she saw was Gage, still leaning against his car, his striking amber eyes glaring at her store, his full, sensuous lips pressed into a hard, thin line. Was it just his negative emotions she’d felt? She shook off her unease, telling herself she was being paranoid.

“And in case you hadn’t noticed, Lynn, that man out there really hates me.” Lynn’s shoulders drooped. “You’re probably right,” she said, her words coming out in a huff. “Too bad there isn’t really a Cupid with his magic bow and arrow. Corwin would make the perfect target.”

Kole winced. She knew there was a Cupid—and her heart would love to have the little God aim an arrow with her name on it at Gage. But her head knew better. Cupid was a capricious God, and He didn’t take requests from mortals. Not that she’d ever ask. She wouldn’t really want Gage to love her unless he chose to do so of his own free will. And that would never happen.

“While it pains me to admit it,” she said, “the man despises me so much, I doubt Cupid’s arrow would have any more effect on his granite heart than my love potions would.” She fought back the tears that threatened to give her away, disgusted with herself for letting Gage get to her like this. “After all, Cupid’s not a very big God, and I can’t imagine He’d be powerful enough to overcome all the hostile, male aggression that makes up Detective Corwin. Besides—”

She glanced over in surprise as the bell on the shop door jingled. Strange. The door hadn’t opened. And the windows were closed, so there wasn’t any breeze. Only she and Lynn were in the shop, and neither of them had gone near the front door. So who, or what, rang the bell?

A sudden chill skated down her spine, and she trembled with the knowledge her life was about to change. Irrevocably. She squeezed her eyes shut in dismay. Although she hadn’t gotten a sense of dread to go with the premonition—this time—she was too much of a realist to believe whatever was coming might be a change for the better. Her life just didn’t work that way.

***

Gage raked his hands through his hair, then shifted his body against the fender of his car, trying to find a more comfortable position. Not that there was one. Sighing, he rubbed at the tension in the back of his neck.

What the hell was he even doing here? On one of his rare Sundays off work he should be home catching the game on television. Or down at his favorite watering hole. Hell, anyplace but here. So why was he giving himself a sore ass trying to interrogate the customers of Trillion’s Magic Closet? Because the woman’s a crook, you dumbass. That’s why. Gage knew it. Knew Kole was a fraud and a con artist. He just couldn’t prove it. Yet.

She posed as a witch—a white witch, of course. Gage rolled his eyes. Obviously the woman knew people would assume white magic was better than black. As if any type of magic even exists. It amazed him that so many people in this day and age swallowed such hogwash.

Kole sold love potions, for Christ’s sake. And people not only bought them, they claimed the damned things worked! As hard as he’d tried to pin down a single dissatisfied patron in Kole’s steady stream of customers, not one of them would admit to being hoodwinked. Instead, they kept coming back for more. And they insisted she was the real deal—a good witch.

Yeah, right. Oh, he didn’t doubt she was a witch, but just the kind that brewed up evil schemes to separate naïve fools from their money. She had to be one hell of an actress, though. She’d conned even his normally shrewd and sharp-minded partner, Jeff Fox. And that wasn’t easy. Gage might’ve been impressed—if he hadn’t been so angry.

Frustrated, he jammed his hands in his pockets. Jeff was now married to Missy, a woman who’d actually confessed she’d used one of Kole’s love potions on him. Not only did Jeff claim to love the conniving wench, he swore up and down the so-called magic potion had worked for three days and then worn off. And when it did, he realized he was in love with Missy and had been for months.

“Missy.” Gage snorted. “What kind of a name is Missy?”

She had to be in league with Kole. The two of them must have planned the whole thing. But how could his levelheaded partner have fallen for such an obvious con?

People could be incredibly gullible. Or maybe they were just too embarrassed to admit they’d been taken. He’d have gone with door number two, except none of Kole’s customers seemed the least bit embarrassed. Not even Jeff.

Gage could have understood it—if it had just been the men who refused to cooperate with his investigation. Kole was a real looker. No question. With her lime-green eyes, abundant red hair, luscious curves and mile-long legs, she didn’t need witchcraft to charm a man. Hell, the very thought of her filled Gage with lust.

But women could usually see right through other females. So why did they defend her, too?

He heaved another sigh and levered himself off the fender. Accosting her customers in front of the shop wasn’t getting him anywhere. He’d wasted over an hour already today and accomplished nothing. But he’d get her. He’d subpoena her customer list and interview every damn one of them in their homes until he found one who’d admit to being conned. Then he’d convince whoever it was to press charges.

He reached for the driver-side door handle then jerked back as an enormous house cat jumped on the hood of the car, landing with a thud.

“Hey! Get off my ride, you big oaf.” Big was almost an understatement, since the animal probably weighed twenty-five pounds. “Christ, what’re they feeding you?” he growled, checking his hood for dents. “Stray dogs and small children?”

With a twitch of its tail, the pure black creature strutted across the hood, up the windshield and onto the roof, leaving a trail of muddy paw prints in its wake.

“Figures.” Gage shook his head. “After all, I just washed the damn thing.”

He cursed and fisted his hands on his hips, trying to look intimidating. The cat responded by sitting on its haunches, curling its tail around its feet and glaring at him with its evil-looking yellow eyes.

“Where the hell did you come from, anyway? And how’d you get mud on your paws to track all over my car? It hasn’t rained for days.” He made a grab for the little monster, but it scooted just out of reach, sat down again and blinked one golden eye. “Get off my car, you dumb piece of shit,” he shouted. “Or I’ll pull out my gun and blow your worthless ass away.” “No, don’t hurt him!” Gage spun around as Kole rushed out of her store, her beautiful green eyes filled with horror.

“Shit.” He hung his head and pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. I should have known. A cat this ornery could only belong to her. “I wasn’t going to shoot your cat,” he muttered, raising his hands to show her they were empty. “I was just trying to scare him off my car.”

“Boo’s not my cat,” she declared indignantly. “He’s a familiar. So save your threats and bullying. They won’t have any effect on him.”

“Boo, huh?” Gage snorted. “Should’ve guessed. What else would a witch call her black cat?” Taking a deep breath, he struggled to control his temper—and his libido. “So then, if my methods won’t work, what would you suggest for getting this behemoth off my car? You wouldn’t happen to have a broom I could borrow, would you?”

“Cute.” Her voice was ripe with sarcasm. “I don’t suppose it occurred to you to try asking nicely.” “You’re joking, right? You seriously think dipshit will leave just because I make it a request instead of an order?”

“You’ll never know unless you try. Of course, if it’s too much of a strain on your ego to ask politely, you could just wait until he decides to move on his own. But I warn you, that might take hours. And his name’s Boo, not dipshit.”

“Whatever.” Might as well humor her, he decided. He turned back to the cat. “If it’s not too much trouble, Boo,” he said, giving him a small bow, “could you please get your big ass off my car?” Glancing over his shoulder at Kole, he added, “Sorry, but that’s about as polite as I can manage without—”

Movement out of the corner of his eye drew his attention back to Boo. The beast stood up, yawned, stretched and and walked regally back down the windshield to the hood. Then he jumped to the ground and sauntered over to Kole.

“Way to go, Boo,” she whispered, picking him up and nuzzling him. With the cat in her arms, she headed back to the shop, pausing on the threshold. “You’re welcome to come in and check out my store, Detective, if you think it will help with your investigation.”

“Yeah, right,” he scoffed. “I’m sure you’re smart enough not to make an offer like that unless you’ve already destroyed all the incriminating evidence.”

Heat flared in her eyes, igniting a fire in Gage’s loins.

“There wasn’t any incriminating evidence in the first place.” Her face hardened. “Investigate all you want, Detective. But be careful how you do it. If you harass my customers too much, I can’t be responsible for the consequences.”

“Oh boy, I’m really shaking in my boots now.” He gave a mock shudder. “What’re you going to do, turn me into a toad?” “Well, I would,” she agreed with the barest hint of triumph in her smile. “But somebody obviously beat me to it.” “Ouch. Guess she won that battle,” he muttered as he got into his car to drive home. “But the war isn’t over yet.” Kole may have covered her crimes well, but the evidence against her had to be out there. And he’d find it. Soon.