It had been months since I'd needed rescuing from anything--no dragons, hideous monsters from hell, evil wizards, not even a really bad blind date. That was one small benefit I'd gained in moving away from New York City. No matter what else I might say about my hometown of Cobb, Texas (population 2,500), I definitely had fewer threats to my life here than I'd faced recently in Manhattan.
On the other hand, these days I seemed to be doing a lot more of the rescuing, myself.
"Katie!" a voice screeched from the other side of the office door. I took a deep breath and counted to ten as I waited for the inevitable. As I expected, a badly bleached head appeared in my office doorway. It was my sister-in-law, Sherri, otherwise known as The Evil Bitch Queen of the Universe. (And the fact that it was my other sister-in-law, Beth, the one who loves all mankind, who dubbed her that says a lot about Sherri.)
Luckily, I'd dealt with worse than Sherri during my time in New York. When you've fended off not only harpies but also my ex-boss Mimi, Sherri is in the minor leagues of evil. "What is it, Sherri?" I asked with exaggerated patience.
"You'd better go rescue a customer from your brother. I noticed his eyes were starting to glaze."
I wasn't sure what special skill I had that enabled me to take care of this when she couldn't. Considering the way she was dressed--a blouse dipping dangerously low and a pair of jeans that would probably cut her in two if she tried to do something crazy like sit down or bend over--she was well-equipped to create a good diversion so the customer could escape. But that might almost be work, so Sherri had to delegate it to me.
With a deep sigh, I got out of my desk chair and headed out into the store. "I'll take care of it." I didn't have to ask which brother it was, even though I had three of them. Frank, the eldest, didn't usually string together words in groups larger than five, which meant he couldn't trap a customer for long, and Dean, Sherri's husband, was as allergic to work as his wife was, so him tending to customers was highly unlikely.
That left Teddy, the youngest of the boys. Teddy took the feed and seed business very, very seriously. He was always conducting experiments to determine the absolute best fertilizer for each soil type or crop or to figure out which seed got the best results in various conditions. The problem was that he loved to share his knowledge in excruciating detail with anyone who had the bad luck to ask even the slightest question.
Sure enough, he had an elderly man cornered, and the poor man was most definitely in need of rescue from a classic Teddy dissertation on plant nutrition. "Teddy!" I called out as I approached them. I smiled as I took my brother's arm. "Sorry to interrupt, but have you got the network connection up and running again?"
Teddy blinked at me. "Oh, I guess I got sidetracked." He turned back as though to excuse himself from his victim, but the customer had already grabbed some plant food and was headed to the checkout and a put-upon-looking Sherri. I had a feeling she'd soon have to take a half-hour break to recover from the strain of serving a customer.
That was the kind of rescue work I'd been doing lately. Instead of spotting magical threats so my wizard friends could deal with them, I was rescuing customers from my overeager brother, rescuing the cash drawer from my evil sister-in-law, rescuing my brothers from my mother, rescuing my mother from her mother, and generally keeping things relatively sane at home and at our family farm-and-ranch supply store. A few months back here in Texas had made me realize why I'd been so good at juggling all the magical wackiness in my old job: it was downright calm compared to what I had to deal with back home.
"I should have this connection back up and running in no time," Teddy announced as he slid under my desk.
"Great. I have to do orders this afternoon, so I'll need Internet access." That was true, but what I was really desperate for was the lifeline to the world I'd left behind. I got antsy when I had to go too long without news from my friends in New York, especially news about a certain person in New York.
He was the main reason I'd come back home. Not because he'd broken my heart or jilted me or any of the other things that usually send women running for the comfort of home and hearth. No, Owen Palmer had proved his devotion to me to an extent that most men never have the chance to. He'd had to choose between stopping the bad guys and saving me, and he'd chosen me.
While I'm totally in favor of not being burned by magical flames, him choosing me was not a great move for our cause. Not only did it mean that the bad guys got away, but it also meant that they knew for sure what his greatest weakness was. Me. Being the hero's greatest weakness might sound wonderful in a romance novel, but in real life it's not nearly as much fun. For one thing, it tends to make you a target. For another, it means that you can't help but feel responsible for everything the bad guy does, since it's because of you that the bad guy is still on the loose.
So, I'd done what any noble heroine with her eyes on the big picture would do. I'd removed myself from the equation, leaving him free to fight the renegade dark wizard and his cronies without having to worry about me. As a result, I'd broken his heart by walking away. At least, I thought I might have. Not that I'd heard from him. I didn't really see him as the type to beg me to come back, and even if he was, I had a feeling he was under very strict orders from his boss not to go after me, but that didn't stop me from jumping whenever the phone rang or daydreaming about him walking into the store.
The phone rang, and as always my heart started racing, even though I knew there were thousands of other reasons for the store's phone to ring . . . and ring. Sherri had apparently taken that break I'd predicted, so I picked up the call from my desk. "Chandler Agricultural Supply," I said briskly. "How may I help you?"
"Katie, is that you?"
"Marcia!" Marcia was one of my New York roommates, and hearing her voice nearly brought tears to my eyes. Is it possible to be homesick when you're in the place where you grew up, surrounded by family? "What's going on?"
"I tried e-mailing you a couple of times this morning, but it keeps bouncing."
"Yeah, there's something wrong with our server or network, or something."
"It'll be fixed soon," came Teddy's muffled remark from under my desk.
"It should be fixed soon," I relayed to Marcia. "Is there something going on?"
"I had dinner with Rod last night, and I've got a little news." Rod Gwaltney was Owen's lifelong best friend, and he'd started dating Marcia at the start of the year. Considering that his previous relationships could be measured in hours, that meant that this was looking very serious, indeed.
"Oh, do tell. The kind of news that involves jewelry?"
"What? No! God, no. We're still not even calling each other boyfriend or girlfriend. Talking about rings would really send him running."
"Wow, you do have him figured out."
"Owen's been coaching me some."
My heart started pounding again, and I got a funny feeling in my stomach. "So you've seen him? How is he?"
"My, but someone sounds eager. I'll tell you if you stop asking questions."
"Sorry! Go on. I won't say another word."
"So, as I was saying, I had dinner with Rod last night, and I have a status report for you." I was dying to ask questions, but I bit my tongue because I knew I'd get the answers quicker if I kept my mouth shut. "There's been no news on the bad guy front, to the point that it almost looks like they've gone underground. Owen thinks something big's about to happen, and the bad guys are changing gears."
"Yeah, that's usually how it goes. Do they have any idea what might be coming?"
"Not yet, but Rod's getting worried about Owen. He's working really hard. He's not getting enough sleep, and while we're all trying to make sure he eats, I think he's losing weight, and you know he wasn't a huge guy to begin with."
That answered any question I might have had about his dedication to the cause. "Has he said anything about, well, you know, me?" I cringed inwardly at how pathetic I sounded, but I had to ask.
"Not really. Sorry. But you know, he doesn't say much about anything." I wasn't sure what I was looking for there. I knew I couldn't go back unless the bad guys were well and truly vanquished, no matter how much he begged, and I knew he wouldn't beg. That didn't mean I didn't miss him.
"Thanks for the update," I said with a sigh. "Keep up the good work and keep me posted about him . . . and about you and Rod." Marcia had only recently learned about the magical world, but she'd proven herself a gung ho sideline participant in the efforts to stop bad magic from spreading, even if her role thus far seemed to be relaying messages and making sure overworked wizards got a good meal every so often.
"Don't worry, I think you'll know if Rod makes a move toward commitment. Heaven and earth might be rent asunder. Not that I'm looking for a deep commitment at the moment. We're having fun. We have plenty of time to worry about getting serious. Besides, I'm not even sure I want to hook up with a wizard on a more permanent basis. That may just be a lot of hassle."
"Yeah, you could be right about that." I knew from personal experience that dating a wizard had its complications, especially if he was leading the fight against dark magic. "But keep me in the loop. I miss you guys."
As I hung up, I remembered that my brother was still under my desk, tinkering with modems, servers, and whatever else he had rigged together to create a computer network for the store. I didn't think I'd said anything that gave away my magical connections from my side of the conversation, and besides, Teddy was probably the best brother to talk around. If he was focused on solving a problem, World War III could have broken out in the office without him paying much attention.
Even if Marcia was right about wizards being trouble, she could walk away from all things magical if she wanted to. I wasn't sure I could. She wasn't magical, one way or another, while I was in the special class of people who are immune to magic. The fact that magic has no effect on me under most circumstances made me a valuable player in the magical world. I'd been recruited by a company called Magic, Spells, and Illusions, Inc., to help them detect magical trickery in their business dealings, which ended up putting me in the middle of the ongoing fight against a rogue wizard and his mysterious supporters. I wouldn't claim to have actually saved the world, but I had helped prevent some pretty bad stuff from happening.
But if I was so valuable, what was I doing running the office in a small-town farm-and-ranch supply store? This town was so utterly nonmagical that I hadn't learned about my magical immunity until I'd moved to New York City. There had to be a way I could help the cause beyond simply staying out of Owen's way. I couldn't imagine sitting on the sidelines with a magical war on the horizon.
A bell sounding from the front counter interrupted my brooding. Sherri should have been back from her break, but this was Sherri I was dealing with. I pasted a smile on my face and went out to ring up the customer. Then another customer needed help making a decision about the right soil additives for her rosebushes. It wasn't my area of expertise, but I'd absorbed enough over the years that I probably had fertilizer in my veins.
I returned to the front counter to find Dean toying with the cash register. "I think it's broken," he said.
"Why, what's wrong with it?"
"The drawer won't open." He tugged at the cash drawer to demonstrate.
"That's because it doesn't open unless you've made a transaction."
A flicker of irritation crossed his green eyes. "Oh. That would explain it."
"Was there something you needed?"
"Nah. I guess I should get the money out of petty cash, anyway." In other words, Mom's purse, since I wasn't letting him near the store's petty cash, and he knew it. Still, that didn't stop him from trying. He gave me his most charming smile. "You could spot me a twenty, couldn't you?"
"Sorry, Deano, but I'm immune to your charms." When you've spent enough time around a wizard like Rod, who used every trick in the book to charm people, normal smooth-talking loses any impact it might have had.
He shrugged. "Hey, it was worth a shot. You seen Sherri?"
"She's been taking a break for half an hour. If you see her, maybe you could tell her she needs to get back to work."
I barely made it into the office before the phone rang again. This time I answered it on the first ring. "Hey, girl, can you get away for lunch?" the voice at the other end of the line asked. It was Nita Patel, my best friend from high school.
"You're working days again?" She worked in the motel her family ran, and she was even more trapped by the family business than I was. At least I'd made an escape, no matter how temporary, to New York.
"Yeah, something happened last night that really spooked my brother, so they freaked out and put me on days. Now I'm stuck here at the front desk all day. It's not like anyone's going to check in anytime soon. But it would really brighten my day if you could pick up some lunch on your way over and join me."
A glance at the front counter assured me that Sherri had finally returned. "That sounds like a great idea. What are you in the mood for?"