Yawning, Lexie strode into her sitting room and ran smack into the lectern. “Why is this here?” She clutched her side. Another bruise to add to the ones she’d collected over the last few days bumping into the new piece of furniture that had appeared from out of nowhere. “I know I moved it to the corner. What’s it doing out in the middle of the room?”
“I believe Octavia wanted to remind you of your duties as incoming High Chair,” Luna remarked. “If you ever get around to working on your Coven manual, it will sit on the lectern.”
Her personal assistant had been nipping at her heels, pushing her to put pen to paper, as if Lexie’s life didn’t revolve around one diversion after another. “I’m adding to the manual every chance I get and I’m still in the process of deciding what needs to go in. It’s… It’s a work in progress.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake. What?”
Luna licked her paw. “For starters, you’re still referring to it as a manual. You need to come up with an appropriate title. Also, you’ve been prodigiously filling page after page in scraps of paper and a generic notebook. This will be your legacy for future Mackenzie Witches, so your entries should be inscribed in a suitable tome.”
“A tome?” Lexie echoed.
“Something leather bound that will age with grace. Oh, and it must have a unique emblem on the cover. Something eye-catching.” Luna tilted her little head in thought. “Perhaps something we could market. I’m picturing the emblem printed on T-shirts. Maybe even coffee mugs.”
“You’ve been watching too much TV. Next you’ll suggest I use a quill pen instead of a pencil.”
“Yes. That would be highly appropriate. Perhaps one with a red feather.”
Rubbing the sore spot on her hip, Lexie strode over to the window where Luna sat. “And where do you suggest I get such a tome and a quill pen?”
“The book will have to be handcrafted.”
“Because the Coven won’t settle for less?” Lexie peered out the window in time to see a couch being lifted up. “What’s going on out there?”
“We have a new upstairs neighbor,” Luna said, “I’ve been sitting here watching her furniture being hauled up. She has some lovely pieces.”
“What happened to the last neighbor? I didn’t even get a chance to introduce myself.”
“The same thing that happened to the previous six neighbors.” Luna looked up at her. “They moved out. These are such small apartments, I assume the average person sees them as temporary lodgings until they can afford to move into—”
“Let me guess. An Upper East Side duplex apartment.” Lexie rolled her eyes.
“Or a Park Avenue mansion.”
“Keep dreaming.” Lexie gave Luna a scratch under her chin. “Have you caught sight of our new neighbor?”
Luna nodded. “Her name is Aisha. I heard one of the movers calling out her name. There she is,” Luna pointed with her paw.
Looking down at the pavement, Lexie saw a tall woman in her mid-twenties, her raven black hair flowing in the light breeze as she talked with…
“Is he flirting with her?” The owner of O’Connor’s Bar, who also happened to be her guardian and chronicler of all her deeds, smiled brightly and gestured up to Lexie’s apartment.
“They appear to be making a connection.” Luna’s whiskers twitched. “How do you feel about that?”
Lexie pressed her hand against her stomach and tried to settle the fluttering sensation and something else… Pangs of jealously?
“I suspect you feel your territory is under siege,” Luna mused. “And I believe your tolerance is about to be tested. I think they’re coming up together.”
Lexie thrust her fingers through her hair. “Is there any point in asking you how I look?”
Luna sighed. “You’ve been wearing the same pair of black jeans all week and you haven’t washed your hair in over two days.”
“I shower every day.”
“Yes, and thank goodness for that. You know how I feel about personal hygiene. But you have other jeans. In fact, that’s all you seem to ever wear.”
“I haven’t had time to do the laundry and the hairdresser told me to stop washing my hair everyday.” She lived on the first floor. She didn’t think Jonathan would drag his feet just so she could have time to change.
“Why not appear in your Coven outfit? Let Aisha see it. It’s rather fetching.”
Her Coven outfit? The one her cousins had given her on her birthday. “I thought only Coven members could see me in it. Is Aisha a witch?”
“No.” Luna nodded. “And anyone you wish to allow to see you in your true colors can see you.”
“I guess that’s today’s lesson.” Instinctively, Lexie swung around and felt the flowing skirt that formed part of her outfit teasing her thighs. In the next instant, she saw it. Then the rest of her outfit materialized. Long striped leggings, black Mary Jane pumps and a corset like top…
Luna sighed. “Black. Aren’t you tired of that shade?”
“What do you suggest I do? It came in black.” Lexie said even as she thought of a rich shade of red.
“Much better,” Luna mused.
Wow. “I can change the color of my outfit just by thinking about it?”
“Yes,” Luna said and rolled her eyes, “You can do just about anything by merely thinking about it. In fact, most of what you do all the time doesn’t require much thinking. Thank goodness. Otherwise you might forget to breathe.”
Hearing voices outside her apartment, Lexi snatched the Pilgrim’s hat that formed part of her official Mackenzie Coven outfit off her head and threw it in the corner.
“How do I look?”
“You always look great in it. And, yes, that means I usually choose to see you in your Coven outfit. There’s only so much denim I can take.”
The door opened and Jonathan strode in followed by Aisha. Catching sight of Lexie, Jonathan did a double take. His smile wavered. When he frowned, Lexie knew he’d noticed her change of clothes. Strangely, he too could see her in her official Coven outfit even when she dressed in her favorite jeans, but he still appeared to be surprised.
Tapping into Lexie’s thoughts, Luna purred, “That particular shade of red suits you.”
Looking past Jonathan, Lexie barely contained her admiration for her new neighbor.
Luna sashayed up to her and murmured, “She’s lovely.”
Lexie had to agree. Aisha appeared to radiate a happy vibe. She had been blessed in the good looks department but her radiance trumped it all.
“Hi, I’m your new neighbor.”
Aisha’s smile held for a second and then wavered.
“Aisha needs your help,” Jonathan said and guided her inside.
Lexie drew out a chair for her guest. “Is she alright?” she asked as she saw Aisha’s eyes shimmering with unshed tears.
“Sorry, I don’t usually break down in front of strangers.”
Lexie wouldn’t exactly call it breaking down. Her smile had only wavered, although, those tears looked about ready to spill…
Aisha buried her face in her hands.
For a moment, Lexie couldn’t tell if she was laughing or crying. When Aisha looked up, she realized she’d been doing both.
“This must seem odd to you. I’m in such a bad situation I can’t help tearing up… but it’s so ridiculous, I can’t help laughing.”
“Okay. That’s always a good sign. You know, like the song says, the sun will come up tomorrow.”
“Exactly,” Aisha agreed with a vigorous nod.
“So… what’s the problem?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you, but Jonathan insists you will.”
Lexie looked up at Jonathan who gave her a nod of encouragement.
Really? Since when? Usually, Jonathan had a laugh at her expense. And, considering the number of strange situations she’d been getting herself into, he tended to laugh at her often.
“Would you like a cup of tea or coffee?” Lexie offered.
Aisha accepted some tea. That gave Lexie some time to get her head around the idea of maybe being able to help someone. She’d never exactly been the go-to person in case of emergencies.
“You’re being hard on yourself,” Luna remarked, clearly picking up on Lexie’s thoughts. “You’ve solved many mysteries and helped people before. Or have you forgotten what you did for Marcela Taggart?”
True. The owner of Gainsborough Mansion had said she’d be forever in Lexie’s debt…
Jonathan joined her in the kitchen. The owner of O’Connor’s Bar sported his usual jeans and T-shirt, his just out of bed ruffled good looks… Never mind that, Lexie told herself. Although… She couldn’t remember being so aware of his easy swagger. Taking a deep swallow, she forced herself to focus.
“What’s all this about, Jonathan?”
“Aisha needs your help.”
“Yeah, that’s the part I’m not clear about. What sort of help?”
“Oh, that sort.” Lexie chortled. “Why come to me?” it occurred to ask, only because she wanted to hear Jonathan’s response. For as long as she’d known him, Jonathan had been a closed book on just about every subject under the sun, including where he came from. Did he know Aisha from somewhere else… or some other time? They’d looked as if they’d known each other an eternity.
Jonathan gave her a wide-eyed look that spoke of disbelief and, curiously, impatience. “At some point, you’ll have to accept the fact you are an incoming High Chair. Aisha needs you—”
“Did you tell her I’m a witch?”
Jonathan shook his head. “Of course not, and you didn’t let me finish.”
“I have accepted my role.”
Jonathan sighed. “I meant, really accept it. Once you do, all your powers will be at your disposal.”
Lexie looked down at Luna who nodded.
“I guess this is today’s lesson number two. This definitely needs to go into the manual.”
“I see you still haven’t come up with an appropriate name for the book,” Jonathan said. “Never mind that. As I was saying, she’s been cursed by a force of evil.”
“Okay. Now we’re on the same page.” She raised her fisted hands and shadow boxed. “Tell me who, what and where and I’ll have it all sorted out in no time.” She kept up the shadow boxing for another minute, and then she stilled and looked at him. “A force of evil. Are you kidding me? I’ve been stumbling into one situation after another and barely coming through it all in one piece. What makes you think I can help her? And… And why did she go to you? Where do you know her from?”
Before the kettle boiled, Jonathan reached inside a cupboard and drew out a mug. “I just met her. Kismet.” He shrugged. “I was walking up to your place and saw her coming out of the building. She looked up. Our eyes connected. We smiled and when I reached her, we started talking.” He shrugged again. “Sometimes things just happen.”
“Okay.” Her gaze danced around his face searching for signs of… She struggled to form the thought in her mind. Lust… At first sight? A feeling of uneasiness swept around her stomach. Then she felt the sensation of a drawstring being pulled and everything tightened.
Luna curled her tail around Lexie’s ankle. “I think it’s just a connection. Like two people hitting it off and becoming best of friends.”
“Okay. Tell me more about this curse,” Lexie said.
“Her last two fiancés have both died right before Diwali.”
“Diwali. It’s the Festival of Lights,” Aisha said as she joined them in the kitchen. “It’s a five day festival celebrated by Hindus the world over. It honors the victory of good over evil and brightness over darkness.”
She’d lost two fiancés? “I guess you haven’t had much to celebrate.”
“And the deaths happened right before the festival,” Lexie mused.
“There’s a connection,” Jonathan said. “I’m sure of it.”
“Tell me more about this festival.” Lexie had actually heard about it, but as it coincided with the run-up to Halloween, she was usually too busy. Although, the previous year, she’d stumbled on a street celebration that had run well into the night. She remembered it had been colorful and magical, especially at night when the entire street had been lit with small clay lamps as well as colorful paper lamps hanging from all the windows.
Aisha nodded. “It celebrates Lord Rama and his wife Sita returning to their kingdom, following Rama and Monkey God Hanuman’s defeat of the demon King Ravana and rescue of Sita from his evil clutches.”
“I see.” Lexie sunk back against the kitchen counter. “A Monkey God.”
Aisha gave a small nod. “Yes.”
“And the evil demon King Ravana.”
Lexie turned to Jonathan. “Am I likely to come up against them? And if I do, how will I defeat them?”
“No, not the Monkey God,” Aisha said, “Hanuman is good.”
“Okay. So, what about the demon?”
Aisha visibly swallowed. “He is extremely powerful and has ten heads.”
“And he cursed you?” Lexie asked.
Aisha’s eyebrows lifted slightly. “No. How could he? He’s not real. Well, he is, but only within the cultural context of deities.”
“So… who put the curse on you?” And how sure was Aisha of the Monkey God’s goodness? He might not be flesh and blood but a god was a god, and she didn’t need to have embraced or acquired all her witch powers to acknowledge that.
“That’s just it. I don’t know. I’ve asked my family but no one has any idea.”
“Can you think of anyone who’d want to wish you ill?”
Aisha looked puzzled and Lexie didn’t blame her. Despite her experience of losing her fiancés, she radiated joy and friendliness.
Luna flicked her tail. “Maybe someone resents her happiness.”
Good point. “Think about the people in your life. Does anyone come across as overly friendly? You know, the type of friendliness that’s forced.” As the saying went, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Someone wishing ill on someone else would pretend to be their best friend…
“Who’s your closest friend?”
Aisha named several dozen people.
“I mean, your one and only closest friend.”
Aisha struggled to narrow the list down. In the end she came up with just over a dozen people. Really? How could anyone be so popular?
“What about your neighbors and people you work with?”
Aisha smiled. “They’re all lovely.”
Lexie wondered if Aisha actually had the ability to tell when someone wasn’t being entirely… sincerely nice. She looked down at Luna to see if her feline companion had any suggestions.
Knowing only Lexie would hear her, Luna said, “You could try to be nasty to Aisha and see how she responds. Maybe she simply doesn’t see the dark side in people.”
Nasty? Lexie supposed she could… criticize her… Ugh! She couldn’t think of anything negative to say to her.
“Tell her she has big feet,” Luna suggested.
But she didn’t. In fact, Aisha had the prettiest feet Lexie had ever seen.
Luna purred. “That doesn’t matter. People who criticize often project their own shortcomings.”
Lexie frowned. Did Luna mean to imply she had big feet?
“Try it,” Luna encouraged.
Okay. “Perhaps someone resents your happiness. Do you have to be so… in your face happy? Honestly, no one can possibly be so happy. You must be faking it.”
“Ouch,” Luna purred. “You certainly know how to show your claws when you want to.”
Aisha smiled. Brightly. “But why wouldn’t I be happy? The happier I feel, the more reason I have to be happy. At the end of the day, I go to sleep feeling happy and grateful and I wake up to more reasons to feel happy and grateful.”
Well… “How’s that really working out for you? You’ve lost two fiancés.”
“Yes, I did. But they are in a happy place so I have to feel happy for them.”
“When you lost your fiancés, did you spend any time feeling sorry for yourself? After all, you must have been in love.”
Aisha pressed her hands against her chest. “I loved them with all my heart. I lost them, yes, but I only thought about the good times I’d had with them and how they had moved on to a better place.”
Okay. Chocolate covered Aisha couldn’t see any gray areas. She was pure sweetness. “Does anything make you unhappy?”
Aisha seemed to give it some thought, and then she shook her head. “No, there’s always a bright side. A silver lining. Even the direst circumstances can change from one moment to the next. It’s all up to the individual and how they perceive those moments.”
“How about waking up in the morning and finding you’ve gained a pound and your favorite jeans no longer fit? What do you do?”
“I wear a dress.” Aisha shrugged. “I choose to go with the flow.”
Lexie tapped her chin. “Tell me about your dead fiancés. Did they have any enemies?”
Another shake of her head. “None that I know of. They were like me.”
“If she’s cursed,” Luna purred, “You’ll have to find a way to break it. She can’t go on like this. At some point, her bubble of joy will burst. We need people like her to bring happiness and joy to the world.”
Which meant she’d have to do a crash course on spells. Lexie clicked her fingers. “Why did you move out of your previous apartment? Were you unhappy with your living situation or your neighbors?”
“I’ve always wanted to live in the Village.”
Someone wanted to darken sugarcoated Aisha’s life and they were doing it through her fiancés. “How exactly did your previous fiancés die?”
“They both died of natural causes.”
“So why are you convinced you’re cursed?”
Aisha sighed. “Both deaths happened right before Diwali. And now, we’re only a few days away. I’m starting to worry something will happen again. I need this curse lifted.”
“Doesn’t that make you unhappy? You know, worrying about this curse.”
“Oh, no.” Aisha gestured to Lexie and Jonathan. “I’ve met two new people and you’re both wonderful. And I know you’ll help me.”
“What about being cursed? Surely that has to annoy you.”
“I am only concerned about those who’ll be harmed because of me.” Aisha dropped her gaze. “My fiancé—”
“You’re engaged. Again?”
“Yes, he is wonderful. I wouldn’t want anything to happen to him but I can’t help feeling the curse is too strong and will have its way again.”
Luna leaped up onto the counter. “We’re clearly dealing with a dark force. This is right up your alley.”
Lexie swallowed hard and wondered if there might be a way to expedite her training. She could do with a few more tricks up her sleeve.
“Will you help me?” Aisha asked.
Lexie didn’t even consider saying no. Even if she tried, she didn’t think she could say no to Aisha. “I’d like to meet your current fiancé. Perhaps he might be able to help us.”
“Yes. Of course. He’s—”
A hard thump followed by a loud crash had them all looking up.
“He’s… He’s upstairs.”
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