I am a rotten person.
Biting her lip, Cleo Alyssum painstakingly
printed this fact into her journal.
She thought the whole idea of a journal of emotions about as
silly as it got, but if the counselor wanted honesty, that’s what he
would do anything to transform herself into the kind of mother Matty
course, that’s how she’d got into this situation in the first place.
Sitting back in her desk chair, she gazed out the sagging window
panes of the old house she was restoring.
She missed Matty so desperately, her teeth ached, but the court
had set December as the deadline for his return—provided she danced to
the steps the counselor called.
needed security and stability, they said, and her sister provided it.
tried suburban life with Maya, but she just couldn’t hack it.
Trouble found her too easily in crowds.
Out here on the island she could get her head together without
too many people in her face.
She was far less apt to jeopardize Matty’s return if she stayed
away from people.
last few years she’d learned to restore old buildings, turning
decrepit dumps into useful, viable businesses and homes, and she
loved the satisfaction of seeing the visible results of her hard
bad the difference she was supposed to be making in herself wasn’t as
opportunity to buy a small town hardware store had opened up just as
she’d run out of buildings to restore, and at the time, it had seemed
She knew the business inside and out, loved the isolation of the
South Carolina coast, and when she’d found this rundown island
farmhouse for a steal, she’d known she’d found a home.
The beach cottage down by the shore might be beyond hope, but she
hadn’t given up on it yet.
Maya and the kids might visit more often if she could fix it up.
In the meantime, she was diligently turning the main house into
the home she’d never known.
she could only convince her federal supervisor she was a fine,
upstanding citizen, she’d be free and clear soon, and almost in a
normal world for the first time in her life.
a job she could do without hassles from any boss, and a home where she
could lock the doors against the world, she thought she finally had a
chance of living a civilized life.
She wasn’t doing this for the feds, though.
Matty deserved a sane mother, and she was doing her best, if the
process didn’t kill her first.
At least now when he visited on weekends, she could give him her
entire attention, and he seemed to be blossoming into a new kid with the
Even Maya had noted how much happier he was.
ran her fingers through her stubby hair and returned to staring at the
almost empty page of the notebook.
She didn’t think she was capable of verbalizing all her
conflicting emotions about her sister.
Maya could have written an entire essay on how Cleo felt about
would rather hammer nails.
she compared her mothering skills to Perfect Maya’s, she was destined
muffled noise of a car engine diverted her attention.
A fresh breeze off the ocean blew through the windows in the back
of the house, but the only things coming through the floor to ceiling
front windows were flies.
Thickets of spindly pines, palmettos, and wax myrtle prevented
her from seeing the driveway entrance or the rough shell road beyond.
didn’t encourage visitors and wasn’t expecting anyone.
A lost tourist would turn around soon enough.
returned to the blank page of her journal and printed:
People are pains in the a…
She struck out the a and substituted butt.
crinkled her nose at the result.
One word probably wasn’t any more polite than the other.
could write cursive instead of printing, but her letters were so small
and turned in on themselves as to be illegible even to her.
Maybe that was the trick—write illegibly so the counselor
couldn’t read this crap.
smooth hum of the car’s powerful engine hesitated, and Cleo waited for
the music of it backing up and turning around.
Someone took good care of their machine.
She couldn’t hear a single piston out of sync.
rolled her eyes as the obtuse visitor gunned the engine and roared past
the four-foot blinking No Trespassing sign.
One would think a message that large would be taken seriously,
but tourists determined to reach a secluded beach were nearly
was the operative word here.
her bottom lip again, Cleo re-read her two-line entry.
She had to go into town and open the store shortly.
She didn’t have time for detailed expositions if that’s what
the shrink wanted.
It looked to her like a few good strong sentences ought to be
Men are the root of all evil struck her as funny, but she supposed a
male counselor wouldn’t appreciate it.
She left it there anyway.
The counselor had said he wanted honesty.
Of course, she was probably sabotaging all her efforts.
She’d had enough therapy to acknowledge her self-destructive
Now, if she’d only apply that knowledge…
lifted her pen and waited for the car engine to reach the next turn in
the half-mile long lane.
The sound of waves crashing in the distance almost drowned out
the wicked screech of her mechanical witch.
Still, she heard the car tires squeal as they braked.
The battery-operated strobe light was particularly effective at
keeping teenagers from turning this into a lover’s lane at night.
During the day, well…
shrugged and capped the pen.
That was enough introspection for one day.
The counselor ought to know she was a mucked up mess.
She shouldn’t have to lay it out in terms a first grader could
Another thought occurred to her, and she grabbed the pen again.
my soul is not my style.
That ought to be letting it out enough for one day.
head shot up as the car engine drew closer, evidently bypassing the
What was she supposed to do, dump a load of pig turds on him to
get the message across?
That might work if they were driving a convertible.
despised the arrogant, self-confident yuppie asses who thought the whole
world was their oyster.
Didn’t “Private Property” mean anything to them?
car engine zoomed right past the pop up sign she’d rigged in the
middle of the lane.
Forgetting to turn off the system before she’d left for work,
she’d driven around the sign one too many times herself, and the dirt
bypass was clearly visible.
She’d plant a palmetto there tomorrow.
the notebook into her desk drawer, she picked up her purse and donned
She hadn’t quite perfected the mechanism to shut the swinging
post barrier on the access road.
She hated the idea of erecting a fence across there.
The moron would simply have to drown if he insisted on using her
A bad undertow past the jetty made this a dangerous strip for
swimming, but she supposed the “No Swimming” signs wouldn’t stop
the nematode either.
she could rig a siren to a motion detector.
There wasn’t any law out here for it to summon, but tourists
wouldn’t know that.
out her truck keys, she almost didn’t hear the purr of the engine
turning into her drive, but the shriek of a hidden peacock warned of the
Did the jerk think the house deserted?
Admittedly, she hadn’t bothered painting the weathered gray
boards and the sagging shutters, but she kind of thought them
And it wasn’t as if she’d not littered the place with warning
If the town council insisted on encouraging film crews to work
here, she’d be prepared to keep them out.
She hadn’t traveled an entire continent to have that California
lifestyle follow her.
waited as the barking guard dog yapped through its entire routine.
A real dog would scare the peacocks, but the tape recording was
Amazing how many people were frightened of barking dogs. The
mailman had quit delivering to the door after he’d heard it.
sighed as the driver shut off the car engine instead of turning around.
Only Maya and Axell ever got this far past her guardians.
She could slip out the back way, but curiosity riveted her to the
She knew she was far enough back not to be seen, but she had a
partial view of the walk and porch.
She couldn’t wait to see how her intrepid guest reacted to her
burglar alert system.
chewed on a hangnail as a pair of long-legged, crisply ironed khakis
appeared beneath the porch overhang.
She should have known.
Men had to prove themselves by showing no fear.
It didn’t seem to matter if they showed no intelligence while
they were at it.
admired the lean torso decked in a tight black polo appearing next.
She was sick of looking at fat slugs with pooching white bellies
and hairy, sunken chests cluttering the view from the beach.
At least this ape strode tall and straight and…
stopped chewing her finger to relish the loose-limbed swing of wide
shoulders and a corded throat topped by a long, angular face with more
character than prettiness.
He was all length—arms, legs, nose, neck—but they all fit
together in a casual sort of package.
He had his hands in his pockets as he gazed up at her mildly
eccentric porch, so she couldn’t see his fingers, but she’d bet they
were a piano teacher’s dream.
sable hair fell across a tanned brow, and she was almost sorry she’d
left the security system on.
If he was selling insurance, she wouldn’t mind listening to his
pitch just to hear what came out of a package like that.
aviator sunglasses were a downright sexy trim for this parcel.
are under alert!”
The loudspeaker blared as soon as the intruder hit the first
She’d used an army drill sergeant for that recording.
It would scare the pants off any normal person.
This one halted and removed his sunglasses now that he was in
shade, but his gaze traced the bellowing voice with curiosity and not
This is your only warning!”
bit back a sigh of exasperation as the jerk bent over to examine the
step for wires.
Did he think her an idiot to put wires where someone could cut
location has been verified, and you are now under surveillance.
Put up your hands, or we’ll shoot.”
man straightened and seemed to be whistling as he craned his neck and
surveyed the underside of the covered porch from the step.
her head, Cleo reached for the “off” switch, but she waited for his
reaction to the final performance.
Sure enough, her visitor disregarded the warning and fearlessly
breached the porch gate.
Sirens screamed, strobe lights flared, and a fedora-hatted
skeleton dropped down between him and the front door.
McCloud came eyeball to eye socket with a six-foot bag of bones baring a
smirk through a cigar clamped between its teeth.
He’d been given enough warning to expect it, but he couldn’t
help grinning in appreciation of the coup de grace.
At night, with the shrieking siren and strobes, it would have any
would-be thief shitting his pants.
to meecha, Burt,” he murmured, inspecting the wires which must have
held the freak to the porch roof.
He didn’t know anything about mechanics, but he knew an
overactive imagination when he saw one.
“Guess this means the old witch isn’t at home.”
it means the old witch is on her way out.”
blinked at the apparition in the doorway.
He hadn’t heard the door open.
Shouldn’t the hinges of a place like this creak eerily?
smiled in satisfaction at the full impact of the skeleton’s creator as
she emerged from shadows.
Far from being an old witch, she was his newest dream of
Not too tall or too short but sturdy, she packed a lot of punch
into a compact, sexy bundle.
Her knee length man’s brown flannel shirt effectively disguised
the best of her curves, but he loved exploration and discovery even more
than having it all laid out for him.
women didn’t appreciate being ogled, so he respectfully raised his
gaze to absorb the rest of the glorious sight. Rumpled short hair
revealed roots of auburn beneath a mousy brown dye job.
Tinted half glasses attempted to hide eyes of a spectacular
green—not contacts, either.
He could see specks of brown in them.
thought he was in love.
course, he’d been in love last week and the week before and mostly, it
was a major distraction he didn’t need right now.
If he didn’t finish the piece of idiocy they called a
screenplay by December first, he’d be in breach of contract. Another
failure and his name would be crap, even if the last failure was more
the fault of death-by-committee than anything he’d done.
agent was already antsy over the cancellation of the comic strip by some
backwoods string of newsrags claiming his teenage nerds had become
It had been quite a few years since he’d been a teenager, but
from his current outlook, that’s what teenagers were—tiresome.
of that seemed relevant to the moment.
“Name’s Jared Mongomery.”
He smiled with as much charm as he could summon.
Maybe this was a young relative of the old witch the kids had
warned him about. “I’m
looking for Cleo Alyssum.”
said that so promptly, Jared figured this had to be her.
Curiouser and curiouser.
produced a business card from his pocket with his hotel phone number
scratched on the back.
“I’ve been told Miss Alyssum is owner of the beach property
back of here, and I’m interested in leasing it. I’m prepared to make
a generous offer.”
From the look of this run-down sprawling plantation-era
farmhouse, she could use the cash.
took the card and dropped it into her shirt pocket.
“She doesn’t like neighbors.”
Turning around, she shut and locked the peeling white door, and
did something that reeled the skeleton upward like a collapsing party
car’s blocking my drive,” she said curtly as he moved aside to let
“And you’re trespassing, in case you didn’t notice.”
a smile, not a dimple, not a look of interest crossed her stoic
Jared shrugged and ambled back toward his Jag.
Women usually liked him, and he couldn’t see that he’d done
anything to tick this one off.
No trespassing signs applied to salesmen, not legitimate
visitors, as far as he could see.
Surely she hadn’t really thought to scare him off?
you have some idea when Miss Alyssum might return?”
He played along with her gag and cast her a sideways look to see
if anything registered in her expression.
She had a short, finely-honed aquiline nose with a sprinkle of
freckles across it, and a mouth drawn too tight to reveal any trace of
He wouldn’t call it a friendly face by any means.
He could cut timbers with the sharp edge of her voice.
won’t be interested.
As I said, you’re trespassing.
I’d advise you to turn around before the police arrive.”
She headed for a beat-up black Chevy pick-up, opened the door,
then waited for him to move his car.
didn’t even show an interest in his antique Jag.
That car drew more comments than honeysuckle drew bees.
Was she blind?
had to be some way around her.
He’d never accepted “no” as an answer in his life.
Not that many people told him no in the first place.
He wasn’t an unreasonable man.
She had a rundown beach shack going to waste.
He wanted to put it to good use.
He couldn’t see the problem.
can afford whatever price Miss Alyssum thinks the property is worth.
I’ll buy it if she’d rather not lease it.
Just pass the message along, will you?”
He leaned against his car door and watched her climb into her
truck without replying.
she was a witch, but she had all his incorrigible pheromones
He sighed as she cranked the truck to life without looking back.
He’d better move the Jag or she’d drive over it.
his tires in the soft sand, he edged out of her way and let her fly off
down the lane.
He wondered if signs would pop out of the road and witches fly
from the trees as she left, or if they were rigged only to greet
sure did like the way her mind worked.
Wonder if she could rig up some of those spooks for him once he
figured out how to obtain the beach house?
the Jag over a timber barrier, he drove down toward the beach to inspect
the house he’d only seen from a distance.
The real estate agents had said there was nothing available out
here in the middle of nowhere, but a friend of a friend in L.A. had told
him about this island.
The film business was a small world.
place should be ideal.
He could feel it in his bones.
None of his friends or family would go out of their way to reach
this remote spot.
Surely, once he cleared his head, he would be able to think
Surrounded by all this peace and quiet, he’d cruise right past
the roadblock in his mind that had prevented his coming up with any
fresh ideas lately.
witchy landlady would be a distraction, but one distraction against the
many his places in New York and Miami offered seemed a fair trade.
His fingers itched for the computer keys already, just thinking
about the sand and the waves and the peace.
with one hand, he idly swatted at something tickling his ankle.
He’d have to remember insect repellant.
Beaches were notorious for bugs.
house ought to be just beyond that curve in the road ahead, if he’d
He didn’t know the name of the scrub brush blocking his view,
but it grew in heavy thickets neither man nor beast would dare enter.
He’d have plenty of privacy.
with the witch’s mechanical guardians blocking the way.
he could grin at the thought, an eerie high-pitched shriek shattered his
eardrums, and an object the size of his mother’s frozen Thanksgiving
turkeys smashed into his windshield, scattering brilliant blue-green
plumage across the glass, obstructing his view with an iridescent
swiping at the irritating tickle crawling up his leg, cursing the
Technicolor windshield, he slammed the brakes.
The car’s rear end resisted stopping and the tires swerved
wildly in the soft sand.
Up his leg.
desperately to the wheel for control, Jared glanced downward.
shiny black snake’s tail whipped his leather moccasins.
The head had disappeared up the leg of his khakis.
the spinning steering wheel while cursing frantically, Jared
lost control as the car veered sideways on the soft shoulder.
low-slung chassis hit the ditch at the side of the road, sailed upward,
and landed, roof down, in the wax myrtle thicket.
© 2002 Patricia Rice