Charmed and Dangerous

Chapter 1

Where The Appalachians End

 

charmedcoverSeven years later

 

“You have to go back, Callie. You’re in real danger.”

Go back. Danger. For two days the words haunted her. Now she was on the road, the rhythmic sound of the tires on the highway putting her into a trance. Danger, danger, danger. The minute Aunt Mallory opened the letter with an Alabama postmark, everything changed.

She didn’t want to go back. Of all the nerve. She’d been exiled in New Jersey for seven years, and now Mom and Grandma Jo decided she must return at once.

Callie hit the gas pedal. The angrier she got, the faster she drove. What should have been a fourteen-hour drive due south, she’d cut to a mere ten hours. She’d never traveled so far on her own, and convincing Aunt Mallory to let her do it wasn’t easy. Especially since her old Volkswagen convertible, the ‘Dixie doodlebug,’ had over 150,000 miles.

Her heart skipped at the road sign, ‘Welcome to Alabama. The State of Surprises.’ No shit, Sherlock. Not even a mile away was another green and white sign proclaiming ‘Entering Central Time Zone.’ More like the twilight zone.

Callie’s tension eased a bit as she neared Piedmont, the small town bordering Georgia and surrounded by the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. In the gathering dusk, the rolling hills had a magical, ancient vibe. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad here. It’s not like she had a choice anyway. Aunt Mallory made that clear. Mom and Grandma Jo had convinced her aunt she needed to come home where the coven could help protect her.

Callie rubbed her sore face. She’d clenched her jaw so long her temples throbbed. She consciously relaxed her facial muscles and rolled her shoulders. Much better.

The cell phone rang. Aunt Mallory again.

Callie smiled. “What? Are you going to call me every hundred miles?

“Smart aleck. Where are you now?”

“I’m about to enter the huge metropolis of Piedmont. According to its sign, the name literally means; ‘the foot of the mountain.’ Population: 4,964.”

“Great.” Aunt Mallory let out a whoosh. “I’ve been so worried about you falling asleep at the wheel. I still think you should have spent the night somewhere along the way. You remember how to get to Mama’s house?”

“Pretty much. The GPS can help me navigate the back roads if I get lost.”

“Call me if it doesn’t recognize the dirt roads.”

Callie rolled her eyes. “I know, I know.”

Aunt Mallory sighed. “Glad you’re almost there. Tell Mama and Ginnie I said ‘hey’ and call me when you arrive.”

Callie couldn’t speak around her tight throat. I’m really going to see them again. Silence haunted the air.

“It’s going to be all right, Callie. They’re excited to see you.”

Her aunt knew her so well. She cleared her throat. “If you say so. Change of subject. I’ve been finding sprigs of rosemary and basil everywhere in the car. What did you do? Dig up all your herbs?”

Aunt Mallory laughed. “Guilty. We cast a protection spell in the crystal for a safe trip, and you always have your mom’s amber talisman. But a little added herbal charm couldn’t hurt.”

“Better hope the cops don’t pull me over; they’ll think I’m a drug dealer.” Callie missed her aunt already. What would she have done without her all these years? “You’re the best,” she whispered.

The GPS kicked in. “Turn left onto Booger Hollow Road,” it instructed.

“Gotta go, Aunt Mallory.

“Bye. Don’t forget to—”

“—call you. I will. Bye.”

Callie made the turn on Booger Hollow. Cute. Road names in these hills and dales had kept her amused the past hour. The street narrowed then turned to red clay where the pavement ended. Was she still going the right way? According to the GPS, this was correct, but she slowed the car. It was dark, and she had visions of the road ending at someone’s home. Possibly someone with a shotgun. People lived in the middle of nowhere for a reason. They didn’t want strangers bothering them.

She touched the crystal pendant hanging on the interior mirror. Its faint prism glow in the moonlight soothed her frazzled nerves.

The disembodied voice broke in again. “Turn right on Lavender Mountain Road. Destination is .4 miles.”

She cut the doodlebug onto the rough, graveled road, relieved to recognize the location. “Arriving at—”

Callie unplugged the GPS and pulled into the long winding driveway where Grandma Jo’s house blazed with lights. Despite the chill of the late December air, Mom and Grandma Jo waited on the wrap-around porch. As the car’s headlights flashed on them, they rose from their rocking chairs, tossing aside quilts wrapped around their legs.

Callie had every intention of guarding her heart against these two. After all, they’d banished her years ago. And they hadn’t come to see her once, only wrote or called. And now when she didn’t want to come home, they’d finally sent for her.

Still, her heart raced with anticipation as she got out of the car.

Callie!” Mom cried, running down the porch stairs to give her a hug. The wind whipped her long silver-white hair into a ghostly mane.

Callie froze at the tight embrace. She stepped back and eyed her MIA mother with wary curiosity. Ginnie Bradford was a pale woman with waist length, silver-white hair. Although a bit too thin and fragile-looking, with worry lines etching her face, it was obvious she’d once been a total babe.

“You’re so . . . grown. Nothing like the skinny child that was all eyes and legs when I last saw you.” The faded blue eyes watered. “I missed out on all your growing up. It’s so unfair!” Her hands fisted by her sides.

Fair? Oh no she didn’t. She was the one on the raw end of the deal. The first few months of separation, she could understand. Mom had some kind of breakdown. But after that, it had been nothing but innuendos that she’d been shuffled away because of some vague danger.

Callie crossed her arms. “How do you think I’ve felt all these years? I’m the one you sent away, and you never once visited.”

Mom hunched her shoulders and dipped her head. “I wrote you every week,” she whispered.

“Big freaking deal.” Those fluff letters full of no real information, empty prattle about her precious animals and her job . . . blah, blah, blah. And she had the nerve to end those letters with ‘Your loving Mom.’ Grandma Jo’s letters were equally as lame, filled with her latest Cause of The Week—campaigns for a cleaner environment, the plight of the polar bears, etc.

Callie wouldn’t have bothered writing back if Aunt Mallory hadn’t thrown a hissy fit. Every month, she made Callie sit down and write a letter. For spite, Callie wrote drivel about schoolwork and how much fun it was living with her new family, and how great it was living in a big city, so much better than the freaking backwoods of Alabama. She signed off her letters with ‘Your obedient daughter.’

Grandma Jo stood at the top of the porch stairs. “Ginnie, why don’t y’all come inside now,” she called out crisply. “Callie’s got to be exhausted from that long drive.”

Grandma Jo walked down the porch steps, calm and collected as always. She certainly looked too healthy and young to be anyone’s grandma. Only her short, spiky gray hair gave away her age.

Gripping her in a firm hug, Grandma Jo said in a strong, clear voice, “Let’s shelve all that unpleasantness until tomorrow. Tonight is your homecoming, and it’s awful good to see you. Now, come on in and tell us all about your trip.”

Callie resigned to play along. After all these years, she could wait one more night for answers.

***

Dinner was simple Southern fare. Grandma Jo baked whole-grain bread, and Callie topped it with homemade ginger peach jam. Beef tips with barley and gravy and collard greens sat on the table in steaming bowls. She eyed the spread with suspicion. Everything in this house was done with intention, and Grandma Jo was a master of kitchen witchery.

Callie plastered on a fake smile. “Let’s see, beef represents motherly love and grounding. Right?”

“An excellent memory,” Grandma Jo murmured.

Callie pointed to the other dishes. “Barley is for reconciliation and gravy for family comfort.” As if. It would take a lot more than a good meal to erase years of neglect. “Collard greens.” Callie scrunched her forehead. “Oh yeah, they’re for protection.” She lowered her voice to a melodramatic whisper. “Guess that’s for the evil menace lurking out there.”

Mom sat down her glass so hard that iced tea sloshed on the table. “The danger is real,” she said sharply.

Grandma Jo lightly tapped her hand. “Not tonight.”

Callie squashed her impatience. She’d corner Mom later. “I could make a meal off the bread and jam,” she said.

Four slices later, she noticed Grandma Jo and Mom exchange glances.

“You won’t want the main course at the rate you’re going,” said Grandma Jo.

“Think so?” Callie loaded her plate.

“You must not have eaten anything on the drive down,” Mom said. “No wonder you’re starving.” She smiled nervously.

Callie shrugged. “Actually, I ate several donuts for breakfast, had a supersized lunch at McDonalds, and then snacked on bags of trail mix to keep me fortified along the way.”

“You’re joking,” Grandma Jo said, spooning a large helping of collards on her plate.

“Nope. There’s no use lying about my huge appetite. You’re bound to notice all your groceries rapidly disappearing while I’m here.”

“How do you stay so thin?” Mom asked.

“A dynamite metabolism and high energy levels. Or don’t you remember how active I used to be?” Callie let a tinge of resentment slip through her voice.

Mom’s cheeks reddened. “Yes, but I thought you would have outgrown that by now.”

“That’s part of your special Gift,” Grandma Jo cut in quickly. “All that energy, when you learn to focus it, will make powerful magic. Do you still sleep only a few hours at night?”

“‘Fraid so. I’ll do my best not to wake you up.” Since when was being energetic a Gift? Didn’t seem like a witchy talent at all. Whatever. “If you want, I can read in bed by flashlight when I get up before y’all.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Grandma Jo said in her no-nonsense way. “As long as you don’t turn on rock music at full blast, we can survive your early morning wanderings.”

Grandma Jo thought anything recorded after the 1950s was rock music. “Deal.”

“But you’ve got to be tired tonight after driving all day,” Mom said.

Like you care. Callie clenched her fork and stifled the words. She’d have it out with Mom soon enough, preferably without Grandma Jo around to run interference.

“Not really.” Callie finished the last of her beef tips. “Any dessert?” She raised her empty plate.

They stared at her in surprise.

“Okay, just kidding. Sort of.”

“Why don’t I fix us some hot chocolate, and we can sit on the porch a spell.” Grandma Jo rose from the table, her charm bracelets clinking. Somehow, when she made suggestions, there was never any question about following her lead.

The three women began clearing the table. Callie noticed the kitchen counter was stuffed with cakes, cookies and pies. “You baked all week or something?”

“Those are from your coven,” Grandma Jo said. “Check out the fridge.”

Callie opened it and grinned at the dozens of congealed salads. Yum.

“They’ll visit before long. I told them to give us a couple of days alone first.”

Mom peered at her timidly as she stacked plates in the sink. “You used to love your grandmother’s hot chocolate, remember? She melts real cream and chocolate together, none of that store-bought junk.”

“Sure. I remember everything. Unfortunately.”

Mom’s smile faltered. “As long as you don’t forget to always carry the amber I gave you, that’s all that matters. Did you bring it?”

Callie patted the back pocket of her jeans. “Right here. I have it on me all the time. Just like you told me to do before you . . . went away.”

Grandma Jo came between them. “Callie, get a quilt and go on outside. You’ve had a long day, and it’ll do you good to relax.”

“I could run a marathon right now. Sitting in a car all day was torture.”

“I don’t know how you did it,” Mom said, shaking her head. “I can’t imagine taking such a long trip alone, especially not in one day.”

Callie believed her. Mom hadn’t changed much. Callie strode past her and went out on the porch, wrapping up in one of the abandoned quilts. Mom had always been on the timid side. Callie used to shield her from any kind of stress, even did most of the housework. But it wasn’t enough, and Grandma Jo moved in permanently to help out. Which was a good thing since it got worse after the night of the Ouija board incident. Mom quit her job and sat all day and night vegging out in front of a TV shopping channel, although Callie never saw her order anything.

The porch door opened, interrupting the unhappy memories.

“Here you go,” said Grandma Jo, handing her a small demitasse cup.

Cocoa and sugar for love and sweetness. Callie accepted it and tried to relax.

All three started rocking in syncopated silence. Each sipped their hot chocolate and gazed at the moon. Here, in the moonlight, with the forested mountains in the background, she was in tune with nature’s energy. Aunt Mallory always claimed that Piedmont, where the ancient Appalachians gradually bottomed out, was a special place filled with secrets, whimsy, and mountain lore of old customs and old ways.  Callie could almost picture fairy rings deep in the piney woods.

“This is awesome, Grandma Jo. It has a hint of mint or some kind of herbal taste.”

“One of my special concoctions,” she answered, flashing a look at Mom.

“You’ll have to teach me to cook while I’m here.” Callie straightened in her chair. “Speaking of which . . . how long are you expecting me to stay?”

The question startled Mom, who looked to her own mother to answer.

“At least for a semester or two at the junior college,” Grandma Jo said with her usual calm. “I know we can’t force you at your age, but I promise we have your safety at heart. For tonight, let’s just enjoy being together.”

They all raised their cups for a toast.

“I’ll drink to that,” Callie said, feeling a bit light-headed.

A few more minutes of rocking and moon gazing, and her limbs grew heavy with an unfamiliar lethargy. She shook her head to clear it, but it became harder and harder to keep her eyes open. It was a pleasant drowsiness, like a clock winding down. Her hearing and sight became paranormally acute. Each night sound was amplified, and the waxing moon was extraordinary, a beautiful coral orb.

“What did you put in that drink?” she heard Mom whisper to Grandma Jo.

“Just a little something extra.”

No wonder she felt so strange. Indignant, she stood to give Grandma Jo a piece of her mind. The sudden movement left her dizzy, and she swayed like a drunken sailor.

“Let’s help her to bed,” one of them said.

Callie tried to protest, but her body and mind weren’t in sync.

She leaned on two sets of arms as she wobbled to her room. Someone removed her shoes, and the warmth of a quilt settled around her body. They tucked her in bed like a helpless toddler. They had no right to treat her like she was still a kid. And she would tell them so as soon as her brain functioned again.

***

Six o’clock a.m.

Callie stared at the alarm clock in surprise. She’d slept a good ten hours. Quite unusual. Then she remembered. Her own grandmother had drugged her. A fine welcome home.

She sat up and looked around her old room curiously. It was unchanged from when she’d left seven years earlier. Several prints of ballerinas in lavender tutus hung on lavender walls. The lavender and pink patchwork quilt matched the same color theme. Evidently, at age twelve, she’d been into lavender in a major way.

Callie got out of bed and tried to unpack her suitcase and hang her clothes without waking everybody up. Normally, she started her day with Tai Chi, and today she was even more eager to exercise after being stuck in a car all yesterday.

She had no idea when the others would be up, so she dressed quickly and stepped out of the house. The air was heavenly-cool, fresh mountain air. She took a deep, cleansing breath and scanned the backyard for the trail to Lavender Mountain. It would be perfect for a morning hike. The exercise would calm her down, and she’d be prepared to confront Mom.

***

A slight movement and the glint of sunlight on honey hair stopped him in his tracks as he neared the top of Booze Mountain.

Although she was a good two miles away on a rock outcropping on the next mountain, James’ supernatural vision zoomed in on the girl.

She was doing a combination of martial arts and yoga, moving from one pose to another in a fluid, graceful pattern. Even in the crisp, wintry air, she wore only a close-fitting tank top and yoga pants. What a body! Her muscles rippled with each movement. Her high kicks showed off the nice curve of her hips. The hair was a mass of waist-length curls, pulled into a ponytail.

He had to get closer to see her face; sure it had to be as striking as the rest of her.

Damn, she was hot. When did she move in town? James realized he was standing still as a stone. He didn’t move, though he knew no human eye could detect him from this distance.

After about fifteen minutes, the girl stopped and sat on one of the boulders. She appeared to be meditating. Then, with no warning, she jerked as if startled. The girl raised a hand up to her eyes, shielding them from the sun, and looked straight at him.

James instinctively stepped behind a large tree. How could she know he was here? He waited a few seconds then looked again.

Nothing. She had vanished.

Disappointed, he ran a hand through his hair. Unless she was an immortal too, she couldn’t have seen him. As far as he knew, there were only a couple of immortal females anywhere near this area.  Females were rare and all immortals immediately sensed when one of their kind was present.  It was a primitive, animalistic instinct that prepped them for either self-preservation mode or a battle for power. He sensed nothing from her.

A foolish grin split his face. It was a coincidence she’d looked his way. But for some unfathomable reason, he had to see her face, had to know if she was the complete package. Tomorrow, his morning jog would be on Lavender Mountain. With any luck, she’d be back.