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Spellbinder (Chapter 4)

At that moment Thea almost hated her cousin.

But there was no choice. Four pairs of eyes were watching her: Blaise's gray eyes, Vivienne's emerald green, Selene's dear blue, and Dani's velvety dark ones. They were waiting.

Thea got up and began the long walk across the patio.

She felt as if everyone was watching her. She tried to keep her steps measured and confident, her face serene. It wasn't easy. The closer she got to that sandy hair, the more she wanted to turn and run. She had tunnel vision now: everything on the sides was a blur; the only clear thing was Eric's profile.

Just as she got within earshot, he glanced up and saw her coming.

He looked startled. For a moment his eyes met hers: a deeper green than Vivienne's, more intense and more innocent.

Then, without a word, he turned away and walked quickly down a path between two buildings. He was gone before Thea knew what was happening.

She stood rooted to the ground. There was a huge amount of empty space inside her, with only her uncomfortably pounding heart trying to fill it.

Okay; he hates me. I don't blame him. Maybe it's good; maybe Blaise will say we can all forget him now. But when she went back to the shady table, Blaise

was frowning thoughtfully.

"You just don't have the technique yet," she said. "Never mind. I can coach you."

"Viv and I can help, too," Selene murmured. "You'll learn fast."

"No-thank you," Thea said. Her pride was hurt and her cheeks were on fire. "I can do it myself. Tomorrow. I have a plan already."

Dani squeezed her hand under the table. "You'll do fine."

Blaise said, "Just make sure it's tomorrow. Or I might think you don't really want him."

And then, to Thea's immense relief, the bell rang.

"Hawthorne, yarrow, angelica…" Thea peered through the thick blue glass of an unlabeled jar. "Some kind of nasty powder…"

She was in the front room of her grandmother's shop, deserted now because it was closed for the evening. Just being with all these herbs and gems and amulets gave her a feeling of comfort. Of control.

I love this place, she thought, looking around at

the floor-to-ceiling shelves of bottles and boxes and dusty vials. One whole wall was devoted to trays of stones-unpolished and polished, rare and semiprecious, some with symbols or words of power engraved on them, some dirty and fresh from the earth. Thea liked putting her hands in them and murmuring their names: tourmaline, amethyst, honey topaz, white jade.

And then there were the good-smelling herbs: everything you needed to cure indigestion or to call a lover; to soothe arthritis or to curse your landlord. Some of these-the simples-worked whether you were a witch or not. They were just natural remedies, and Gran even sold them to humans. But the real spells required both arcane knowledge and psychic power, and no human could make them active.

Thea was whipping up a real spell.

First, heartsease. That was good for any love charm. Thea opened a canister and fingered the dried purple and yellow flowers gently. Then she dropped a handful of them into a fine mesh bag.

What else? Rose petals were a given. She unstopped a large ceramic jar and got a whiff of sweetness as she sprinkled them in.

Chamomile, yes. Rosemary, yes. Lavender… she twisted the cork out of a small vial of lavender essence. She could use some of that right this minute. She mixed it in her palm with a teaspoon of jojoba oil then dabbed the fragrant liquid on her temples and at the back of her neck.

Blood, flow! Headache, go!

The tension in her neck started to ease almost instantly. She took a long breath and looked around.

Some bones of the earth would help. Rose quartz carved in the shape of a heart for attraction. A lump of raw amber for charm. Oh, and throw in a lode-stone for magnetism and a couple of small garnets for fire.

It was done. Tomorrow morning she'd take a bath, letting this giant tea bag infuse the water while she burned a circle of red candles. She'd soak in the potent mixture, letting the smell of it, the essence of it, seep into her skin. And when she got out, she'd be irresistible.

She was about to walk away when a leather pouch caught her eye.

No. Not that, she told herself. You've got a mixture here to promote interest and affection. It's plenty strong enough just to get him to listen to you.

You don't want anything stronger.

But she found herself picking up the soft pouch anyway. Opening it, just to look inside.

It was full of reddish-brown chips, each about the size of a thumbnail with a woody, aromatic smell.

Yemonja root. Guaranteed to draw an unwilling heart. But usually forbidden to maidens.

Recklessly, not letting herself think about it, Thea transferred half a dozen chips to her mesh bag. Then she put the worn leather pouch back on its shelf.

"Figured it out yet?" a voice behind her said.

Thea whirled. Gran was standing at the foot of the narrow stairway that led to the apartment above the store.

"Uh-what?" She held the mesh bag behind her back.

"Your specialty. Herbs, stones, amulets… I hope you're not going to be one of those chanting girls. I hate that whiny music."

Thea loved the music. In fact, she loved all the things Gran had mentioned-but she loved animals even better. And there wasn't much of a place for animals in witch life, not since familiars had been outlawed during the Burning Times.

You could use bits of animals, sure. Lizard foot and nightingale tongue. Blaise was always trying to get hold of Thea's animals for just that purpose, and Thea was always fighting her off.

"I don't know. Gran," she said. "I'm still thinking."

"Well, you've got time-but not too much," her grandmother said, walking slowly toward her. Edgith Harman's face was a mass of creases, she hunched, and she used two canes-but that wasn't bad for a woman over a hundred who ran her own business and tyrannized every witch in the country.

"Remember, you've got some decisions to make when you hit eighteen. You and Blaise are the last of our line. The last two direct descendants of Hellewise. That means you have a responsibility-you have to set an example."

"I know." At eighteen, she would have to decide not just her specialty, but which Circle she would join for life: Twilight or Midnight. "I'll think about it, Gran," she promised, putting her free arm around the old woman. "I've still got six months."

Gran stroked Thea's hair with a veined, gentle hand. It chased the last of Thea's headache away. Still holding the mesh bag behind her back, she said, "Gran? Are you really mad about having us here for the school year?"

"Well, you eat too much and you leave hair in the shower… but I guess I can stand it." Gran smiled, then frowned. "Just as long as you stay in line until the end of the month."

There it was again. "But what's happening at the end of the month?"

Gran gave her a look. "Samhain, of course! All Hallow's Eve."

"I know that," Thea said. Even the humans celebrated Halloween. She wondered if Gran was having one of her vague spells.

"Samhain-and the Inner Circle," Gran said abruptly. "They've picked the desert for their ceremony this year."

"The desert-you mean here? The Inner Circle is coming here? Mother Cybele and Aradia and all of them?"

"All of them," Gran said. Suddenly her wrinkles looked grim. "And by Air and Fire, I'm not having them come here just to see you girls screw up-1 have a reputation, you know."

Thea nodded a little dazedly. "I-welt no wonder you were worried. We won't embarrass you. I promise."

"Good."

As Thea discreetly tucked the mesh bag under her arm and started for the stairs, the old woman added.

"You'd better toss some plantain into that mix to bind it all together."

Thea felt herself blushing furiously. "Uh… thanks, Gran," she said, and went to look for plantain.

Above the shop were two tiny bedrooms and a kitchenette. Grandma had one bedroom and Thea and Blaise shared the other. Tobias, Gran's apprentice, had been bumped to the workshop downstairs.

Blaise was lying on her bed, reading a thick book with a red cover. Poetry. Despite her frivolous act, she wasn't stupid.

"Guess what," Thea said, and without waiting for Blaise to guess, told her about the Inner Circle coining.

She watched to see if the news would scare Blaise-or at least alarm her into good intentions. But Blaise just yawned and stretched like a well-fed cat.

"Good. Maybe we can watch how they summon the ancestors again." She raised her eyebrows at Thea meaningfully. Two years ago in Vermont, while the human world was trick-or-treating, they'd hidden behind maple trees and spied on the Samhain summoning. They'd seen the elders use the magic of Hecate, the most ancient witch of all, the goddess of moon and night and sorcery, to bring spirits across the veil. For Thea it had been scary but exciting, for Blaise just exciting.

Thea gave up on trying to alarm Blaise.

Thea looked at the three star-shaped blue flowers lying on her palm. Then, one by one, she ate them.

"Now say 'Ego borago guadia semper ago,' " Selene instructed. "It means, 'I, borage, always bring courage.' Old Roman spell."

Thea muttered the words. For the second day in a row, she was on the patio looking at a sandy head across the room.

"Go get 'im, tiger," Blaise said. Vivienne and Dani nodded encouragingly. Thea squared her shoulders and started across the room.

As soon as Eric saw her coming he went down the side path.

You idiot, Thea thought. You don't know what's good for you. Maybe I should just let Blaise have you.

But she followed him. He was standing just beyond the buildings, staring into the distance. She could only see his profile, which was nice-clean and somehow lonely.

Thea swallowed, tasting a lingering sweetness from the borage flowers. What to say? She wasn't used to talking to humans-especially human boys.

I'll just say "What's up?" and be casual she thought. But when she opened her mouth, what came out was, "I'm sorry."

He turned immediately. He looked startled. "You're sorry?"

"Yes. I'm sorry I was so mean. What do you think I was following you for?"

Eric blinked-and Thea thought his cheeks colored under his tan. "I thought you were mad because I kept staring at you. I was trying not to get you madder."

"You were staring at me?" Thea felt a little flushed herself. As if the herbs from her bath were steaming fragrantly out of her skin.

"Well-I kept trying not to. I think I've got it down to one look every thirty seconds now." He said it seriously.

Thea wanted to laugh. "It's okay. I don't mind," she said. Yes, she could definitely smell the love potion now. The heady floral scent of rose and heartsease, plus the spice of yemonja root.

Eric seemed to take her at her word. He was definitely staring. "I'm sorry I acted like such a jerk before. With the snake, I mean. I really wasn't trying to feed you a line."

Alarm whispered through Thea. She didn't want to think about what had happened in the desert.

"Yes, okay, I know," she said. He was watching her so intently, his eyes such a deep green. "Well- you see, the reason I wanted to talk to you was… you know, there's the Homecoming dance this Saturday. So I thought we could maybe go together."

She remembered at the last instant that in human society boys frequently asked girls to dances. Maybe she'd been too direct.

But he looked-well, extremely pleased. "You're kidding! You're serious? You'd go with me?"

Thea just nodded.

"But that's terrific. I mean-thanks." He was as excited as a kid at Beltane. Then his face clouded over.

"I forgot, though. I promised Dr. Salinger-that's my boss at the pet hospital-that I'd spend the night there Saturday. Midnight to eight a.m. Somebody needs to watch the animals that stay overnight, and Dr. Salinger's going to a conference out of town."

"It doesn't matter," Thea said. "We'll just go to the dance before midnight." She was relieved. It meant less time play-acting in front of Blaise.

"It's a date, then." He still looked so happy. "And, Thea?" He said the name shyly, as if almost afraid to use it. "Maybe-maybe we could do something else sometime. I mean, we could go out, or you could come over to my house…."

"Uh…" The yemonja smell was really making her dizzy. "Uh… well, this week-I'm trying to get adjusted to the new school and all. But maybe later."

"Okay. Later." His smile was unexpected, astonishing. It transformed his face, turning the sweet, serious shyness into charismatic radiance. "If there's any way I can help, just ask."

Why, he's handsome, Thea thought. She felt a sort of tug at her insides, like a bird being charmed out of a tree. She hadn't realized how attractive he was, or how the gray flecks in his eyes seemed to catch sunlight….

Stop that! she told herself abruptly. This is business, and he's vermin. She felt a flush of shame at using the word, even in thought. But she had to do something. Without meaning to, she'd moved closer to him, so she was looking up into his face. Now they were only inches apart and she was feeling distinctly giddy.

"I have to go-wow. I'll see you later," she murmured, and made herself back up. "Later," he said. He was still glowing. Thea fled.

Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, she tried to ignore him. Avoided him in the halls, acting as busy as possible. He seemed to understand, and didn't chase her down. She just wished he wouldn't look so dreamy and happy all the time.

And then there was Blaise. Blaise already had a couple of husky football players who followed her everywhere, Buck and Duane-but neither of them was invited to the dance. Blaise had a unique method of choosing a partner. She told them all to go away.

"You don't want me," she said to a gorgeous Asian-American guy with one earring.

It was lunch break on Thursday, and the witches had a whole table to themselves: Vivienne and Selene with Blaise on one side; Dani with Thea on the other. The gorgeous guy had one knee on a chair and was looking very nervous.

"You can't afford me, Kevin. I'll ruin you. Better get out of here," Blaise said, all the while looking up with sleeping fire in her gray eyes.

Kevin shifted. "But I'm rich." He said it simply, without affectation.

"I'm not talking about money," Blaise said. She gave a deprecating smile. "And anyway, I don't think you're really interested."

"Are you kidding? I'm crazy about you. Every time I see you… I don't know; it just makes me crazy."

He glanced at the other girls and Thea knew he was uncomfortable at having an audience. But not uncomfortable enough to stop talking. "I'd do anything for you."

"No, I don't think so." Blaise was toying with a ring on her left index finger.

"What's that?" Vivienne interjected nonchalantly.

"Hm? Oh, just a little diamond," Blaise said. She held out her hand and light scintillated. "Stuart Mac-Ready gave it to me this morning."

Kevin shifted again. "I can buy you dozens of rings."

Thea felt sorry for him. He seemed like an okay guy, and she'd heard him talk about wanting to be a musician. But she knew from long experience that it wouldn't do any good to tell him to get out of here. It would only make him more stubborn.

"But I wouldn't want a ring from you," Blaise was saying in a soft, chiding voice. "Stuart gave this to me because it was the only memento he had of his mom. It meant everything to him-so he wanted me to have it."

"I'd do the same thing," Kevin said.

Blaise just shook her head. "I don't think so."

"Yes, I would."

"No. The thing that means the most to you is your car, and you'd never give that up."

Thea had seen the car. It was a silver-gray Porsche. Kevin lovingly touched it up with a chamois in the school parking lot every morning.

Now Kevin looked confused. "But-that car's not really mine. It belongs to my parents. They just let me use it."

Blaise nodded understanding. "You see? I told you that you wouldn't. Now, why don't you go away like a good boy?"

Kevin seemed to collapse internally. He stared at Blaise pleadingly, not making a move to go away. At last, Blaise tilted her head at the football flunkies.

"C'mon, man," one flunky-Thea thought it was Duane-said. They took Kevin by the shoulders and propelled him away. Kevin kept looking back.

Blaise dusted her fingers off briskly.

Selene pushed back pale hair and drawled, "Think he'll cough up the car?"

"Well…" Blaise smiled. "Let's just say I think I'll have transportation to the dance. Of course, I'm still not sure who I'm taking…."

Thea got up. Dani had sat silently through lunch, and now she was watching Blaise, her velvety dark eyes half horrified and half admiring.

"I'm getting out of here," Thea said significantly, and was relieved when Dani stopped staring at Blaise and stood up.

"Oh, by the way," Blaise said, picking up her backpack, "I forgot to give you this." She handed Thea a small vial, the size that perfume samples came in.

"What's it for?"

"For the dance. You know, to put the boys' blood in."

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