More Than Magic

First Book of the Kindling

Excerpt #1

MoreThanMagic72lgGrace’s breath caught in her throat as she emerged onto the edge of the silvery meadow and saw the lanky figure standing there in the grass, unmoving, gazing raptly up at the stars. He seemed barely tethered to the earth—poised to launch himself into the sky. She had the strangest feeling that if he opened those tightly clenched fists, he would fall upward.

Apparently this was their unwanted guest—standing in the damp grass next to his SUV. It was surprising that he would stop to watch the stars cross. Most of their city visitors were so utterly earthbound that they had to be told to lie down in the grass before they noticed the majestic dance above them. Yet he stood there, as unmoving as a statue.

Trish was right. It was clear even from here that he had just recovered from an illness of some kind. And it had left its mark—sculpting hollows on his face and leaving his clothes hanging a bit loose on his tall frame. His hair looked dull even under all that luminescence.

She reviewed all the viruses, cuts and scrapes, and near-broken bones that she had dealt with up here over the last few months. She could manage something bigger. Especially since he had recovered from it. Whatever it was. But that was the whole point, wasn’t it? Control. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to be cautious.

Putting on her gloves, she slipped back into the trees and made her way gingerly down the hill. She certainly didn’t want their guest to spot her spying on him.

By the time the dark SUV crested the hill and drove into the graveled lot, she was standing next to the basket at the end of the path up to the cabins.

When he got out, the solar lights in the parking area and up the walkway didn’t reveal much more than she had already seen—tall, pale skin, short dark hair, slim build. He was almost gaunt, if what she could see of his face in the shadows was any indication.

He lifted his hands in the air, eyeing the shotgun slung over her shoulder, but smiling in spite of it. “My receipt for a week’s cabin rental is in my back pocket,” he said. “Your agent can verify—”

“She did. Don’t worry,” she cut in. “The gun’s for other dangerous critters that might wander in, not you. Can’t be too careful up here.”

He looked around and lowered his hands. “I see. Well, sorry for the late hour. The trip up here took a bit longer than I expected.”

His smile broadened as he spied Pooka. The hound looked up at Grace for permission, and she nodded. She watched Pooka advance, tail wagging slowly. Instead of sticking his hand into Pooka’s face as most people would, their guest stood still, inviting Pooka to approach. Well, he got some points for knowing how to greet a strange dog, anyway.

“What breed’s this fellow?” he asked as he stooped to greet the dog.

“Plott hound.”

“Plott hound?”

“The state dog of North Carolina. Bred to hunt bear and wild boar,” she replied. “Which still wander by now and again.”

“Bear and wild boar, huh boy?”

Pooka grinned as only Pooka could and nearly wagged off his tail as Mr. City Man ruffled first the fur on his shoulder and then his back.

Mr. City Man’s smile was bright and genuine. And there was at least one dimple too, hidden in a slight shadow of stubble. Coal black hair, now that she saw him a bit closer.

“And what do they call you, boy?”

It was a nice voice, Midwestern, or perhaps further north than that. Cultured and metropolitan, for all that he was trying not to sound citified. But a nice voice nonetheless. Pooka liked him too, butting his head against the man’s hand for more stroking.

“Oh, he gets called all kinds of names, some of them not repeatable in decent company, but he goes by Pooka most of the time,” she said. “Although some of our youngest guests insist on calling him Poo.”

There was a stifled snort of a laugh and she realized she was failing miserably at scaring him off.

“Can’t say I know him well enough to lay that on him. And since he hasn’t sniffed me properly yet, he doesn’t know me well enough either. We have to do all the rituals, don’t we boy?”

Grace watched with admiration as he earned Pooka’s total adoration with a quick rake of fingers down his back and a thorough butt scratch, allowing the dog to sniff his trouser leg and the arm of his jacket. Pooka knew better than to sniff anywhere else.

“You’re better trained and more polite than most city dogs. But then, I understand completely, seeing who likely trained you.” The last was a husky whisper right in Pooka’s ear, but Grace felt it tingle in her own.

His eyes slid up to hers. Soft gray, like unpolished pewter. She stepped back as he stood, extending his hand.

“Nick. Nick Crowe.”

“Y-yes. Nice to meet you Mr. Crowe.” She held out her hand.

He grasped the leather-covered hand firmly in his own. “Please, call me Nick.” His smile quirked sideways and that dimple appeared once more. “Unless there’s some ritual involved before we can use our given names?”

She pulled her hand away, nearly losing the glove when she did.

“Quite a hunk”, Trish had said. Quite a hunk indeed.

“I’m Grace. Grace Woodruff.”

“Woodruff. So you’re—”

“The owner. Yes. As Ms. Moore probably told you, we’re on a skeleton staff right now.” A skeleton consisting of one bone. Oh yes, and Jamie, and Pooka. Two bones then.

“Trish explained all that. I’m afraid I twisted her arm a bit to get up here, but— Well, this place is perfect for my purposes. Did she tell you I was writing a book?”

“Yes she did.” And I bet you charmed the socks right off of our Trish, Mr. City Man. Grace pressed her lips together, trying not to smile. “She also said you had recently been ill. I hope you’re feeling better.” There, that was circumspect.

“Yeah. Well, it’s kind of obvious, I guess.” He gestured to himself apologetically. “I picked up this nasty parasite in Colombia while I was down there working on the book. It took a lot out of me, but we beat it down. I figured staying up here a while could only do me some good and the docs agreed.”

Parasite. Columbia. What the hell kind of book are you writing Mr. City Man? “A parasite. How interesting. Do you happen—”

He grinned, waving his hand. “Trish warned me you might give me the third degree, but to be honest, I have no idea. Can’t pronounce it. Don’t want to. I’m just glad to be rid of the thing.” The gray eyes seemed to dance a bit. “But if you want to try some of your famous herbal medicine on me, I’d be glad for any help putting on some pounds.”

Grace assessed the man before her. He did look like someone debilitated by an exotic fever of some kind—nearly burned out and left a husk. There was evidence the man took good care of his body, or had before something nearly killed him. His eyes seemed clear though.

“So, any remedies to recommend?” His voice was teasing and Grace realized she had been staring a little too long.

“I hesitate to recommend anything without the details,” she said, looking away. She gestured to Pooka who trotted obediently to her side. “But your doctors were right. Simple food, good clean air and water, mild exercise, and sound sleep should speed things along. If you remember the name of the parasite and any details of your treatment, I’d be glad to make some suggestions.”

“Well, since I’m doing a good job of forgetting the whole experience, I may have to stick with the simple food, clean water and sound sleep approach.” Nick looked around at the trees. “But I should’ve brought a white noise machine, I think.”

She frowned. “For what? We don’t have any loud machinery here. And there are certainly no traffic noises.” She waved toward the house. “Our chickens are quite a ways downslope beyond the solar array and the greenhouses, and the rooster—”

“Whoa!” He laughed. “That’s what I’m talking about. It’s too quiet here.”

Cocking her head, she listened. Oh.

It was the deep quiet of the woods readying itself for the darkest days of winter. The peepers and bull frogs and assorted musicians of the forest symphony were all tucked away in their beds for their icy winter hiatus.

A deep breath of moist air, redolent with the pungent smell of decaying leaves, reminded her again that she had missed her favorite season entirely.

“Yes. Well—” she cleared her throat, “you will hear some rather loud noises out there. Falling trees and branches are the loudest, but there are owls, foraging deer—” She recalled her objective almost too late. “Coyotes, bears—”

“Wild boar?” he asked solemnly, but she could swear a smile was tugging at the corner of his mouth.

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