A Paris, Texas Romance, Book 1
Published 2016 by Book Boutiques.
Copyright © 2016, Dakota Cassidy.
All rights reserved.
“I’m warning you, Winnifred Foster. If you say or do anything today that sends our asses back to the pokey, I’ll zap you bald and give you a cold sore that makes you look like you have three lips,” her best friend Zelda groused as she futilely tried to snatch a pair of scissors from Winnie’s hand to prevent her from giving herself bangs.
Winnie hopped on the sagging mattress of her cot, looking down at her partner in crimes of abusive witch magic and current cellmate in witch jail with an accusatory glance.
She held the scissors up in the air. “I’m sorry, me? As in moi? If I say anything? Er, wasn’t it you who told Baba Blah-Blah she was wearing the wrong color leg warmers for that wart on her nose? Or was I just imagining things?”
Zelda swiped for the scissors again. “It’s Baba Yaga,” she corrected, reminding Winnie she’d purposely twisted their jailor’s name out of spite, and it was one of the reasons they were in magic jail to begin with. “You’d better get that right at Council so we appear respectful.”
“Call her whatever you like, Z, but you insulted her, not me. I love you, and while I totally agreed with your fashion assessment, and she did look hideous, I bet pointing out Baba DooDah’s flaws aren’t going to win us favor at Council today. She’s an elephant, my friend. She remembers everything.”
She hopped back off the cot when Zelda stopped trying to make a grab for the scissors. She was worried. They were up for review for parole today and she didn’t want anything screwing that up. She wanted out of this rank-smelling cell with its gray concrete walls and equally gray sheets.
She wanted to go to parties and laugh and drink champagne like they used to.
Drown herself in luxury and forget Ben…
Their cell was barren of any modern conveniences, especially those they could perform magic with—like mirrors. Locked up in Salem, Massachusetts, like serial killers in an old hotel built in the early 1900s that had been converted to a jail for witches.
Cellblock D was designated for witches who abused their magic as easily as they changed their underwear. Witches like her and Zelda.
It wasn’t hardcore like Cellblock X. That was a nightmare of mastermind witch criminals who didn’t just whip up a stack of money to spend at Neiman Marcus like she and Zelda were known to do—but real freaks who’d put the A in apocalyptic Armageddon.
From the outside, the hotel was glamoured to look like a charming bed-and-breakfast, complete with climbing ivy and flowers growing out of every conceivable nook and cranny. Inside it was barren, cold and ugly, and guarded heavily with magic, keeping all mortals at bay.
At the moment, it was just the two of them in Cellblock D. Just Winnie and Zelda and the humor-free staff of older-than-dirt witches and warlocks guarding them.
Zelda made a face, running a hand through her gorgeous red curls. “So, for the sake of our parole, let’s hope Baba Lamadingdong remembers our good behavior. Like the time you taught Big Sue Moses how to make eye shadow out of baby oil and cigarette ashes. Or when I selflessly gave Chi-Chi Gonzalez my extra Kotex pads so she could make some slippers for those Sasquatch-like feet of hers.”
Winnie smiled at her despite her worry about their sentencing. They’d tried. “We made the best out of our stay, didn’t we?”
Zelda twirled a long curl of hair around her finger as though she wasn’t worried, but her next question was riddled with concern. “Do you think we’ll get parole today?”
Winnie avoided the question—one she’d been avoiding since they found out they were next up on the chopping block. She didn’t even want to consider not getting out of this hell today.
Instead, she pulled her bangs forward again, and murmured, “Look at my hair. It’s touching my nose, Zelda. My nose. I can’t be seen like this if we get out. I’ll just do a little.”
Zelda rolled her eyes. “Winnifred, you’ve never done anything a little. Remember the last time you cut your bangs?”
Winnie winced and mumbled into her collarbone. Okay. Sometimes when she was angry, things happened. “That was years ago. They rebuilt the building, and no one was hurt.”
“Fine,” she snapped. “Cut your bangs, but don’t come crying to me when you look like the dude from Dumb and Dumber.”
It was her nerves. She knew it was her nerves, but she couldn’t help herself. “You know what?” Winnie shouted, brandishing the shears under Zelda’s nose. “We’re in jail because of you! I wouldn’t have had to teach that beast Big Sue anything if not for you. And we’d have Kotex pads for days because guess what? We wouldn’t be in jail having to share anything if not for you!”
Zelda planted her hands on her hips. “Um, no. We’re in here because of you.”
Winnie’s mouth fell open. “No. It was definitely you.”
“Oh, my goddess!” Zelda yelled. “I didn’t sleep with Baba Yaga’s precious nephew. That was you!”
Oh the guilt. And the heartache. But she wasn’t going to tell Zelda how much it still hurt to think about Baba’s nephew Ben.
She’d call her an idiot. And she’d be right.
So she shot Zelda a coy look and batted her eyelashes to hide the hurt. “First of all, we didn’t sleep. We did plenty of things, but shuteye never came into play. And it was amazing. Probably the most amazing sex I’ve ever had. Second of all, how the hell was I supposed to know he was Baba’s nephew?”
Zelda’s eyes went wide with disbelief. “Um, well, let me see…did the fact that the man’s name was Benny Yaga not ring any fucking bells?”
“He prefers Ben and he used Yagamawitz—not Yaga,” Winnie defended, though he didn’t deserve defending.
But she still wasn’t sure if Ben not changing his last name to avoid the notoriety attached to the name Baba Yaga, the most powerful witch in the world, would have stopped her from falling for him.
Zelda nodded, her fiery hair falling around her shoulders. “And with good reason. Who’d willingly admit that throwback-to-the-eighties of a beast was related to them?”
Baba Yaga loved anything that had to do with the eighties—loved it so much, she piped in Take on Me through the prison speakers as their wakeup call every morning at six sharp.
But Winnie wasn’t the only one responsible for getting them locked up, and she was happy to remind Zelda. “Well, you ran over your familiar. On purpose,” she accused, combing her bangs forward again in preparation for blast off.
“I did not run over that mangy bastard cat on purpose. The little assmonkey stepped under my wheel.”
Winnie let one eyebrow lift in that way she did when she was making a point. In the way she knew would make Zelda crazy. “Three times?” she inquired politely, batting her eyelashes again.
Zelda clamped her lips shut for a moment then conceded, “Fine. We’re both here because we screwed up. But I still think nine months was harsh for killing a revolting cat and screwing an idiot.”
Winnie’s gaze became distant and thoughtful. The way it always did when that night with Ben Yaga was mentioned. “He wasn’t an idiot…but I agree. We’re both guilty,” she replied as she went for the first snip.
Zelda held her breath and blew it out when Winnie put the scissors down and changed her mind with a shrug of her shoulders. “I really need a mirror.”
“In an hour you’ll have one, unless we do something stupid,” Zelda soothed.
Without warning, the magic level in the B&B changed drastically—the stench of centuries-old magic drifted to Winnie’s nose. She grabbed Zelda’s arm, her eyes wide.
“Do you smell it?” Zelda whispered, her eyes alert.
Winnie wrinkled her nose, looking around their cell. “I do.”
“Old lady crouch.”
“Old lady what?” Winnie bit down on her lip. Hard. “If you make me laugh, I will smite your sorry ass when we get out of here. What the hell is old lady crouch?”
Zelda’s grin threatened to split her face. Her fear of incarceration was clearly outweighed by her need to make Winnie laugh.
They needed to laugh again. Like they used to before they were subjected to soap-on-a-rope and thicker-than-cement bland oatmeal for breakfast.
“You know, the smell when you go to the bathroom at the country club…powdery old lady crouch.”
“Oh my hell, Zelda.” She giggled and punched Zelda in the arm. “Now I’ll never get that shit out of my head.”
“Only a lobotomy can erase that one,” she said proudly, knowing full well it would take at the very least a lobotomy to rid her of the visual.
“Well, well, well,” a nasally voice cooed from beyond the bars of their cell. “If it isn’t the problem children.”
Enter one of their jailors. The one and only Baba Yaga.
She had to be at least three hundred if she was a day, but witches aged slowly—so she really only looked thirty-five-ish. The more powerful you were, the slower you aged.
And Baba was powerful, beautiful even with a wart on her nose, and had appalling taste in clothes.
She was dressed right out of the movie Flash Dance, complete with the ripped sweatshirt, leggings, and headband. It was all Winnie could do not to clang a cup against the bars and demand to see the Fashion Police.
Baba was surrounded by the rest of her spooky posse, an angry bunch clearly not happy to be in attendance.
“Baba Yaga,” Winnie said respectfully.
“Your Crouchness,” Zelda muttered and received a quick elbow to the gut from Winnie.
Baba Yaga leaned against the cell bars, her torn-at-the-shoulder sweatshirt dipping over her creamy skin. “Zelda and Winnifred, you have served your time.”
“Although, upon your release, you will both have a task to complete with limited magic.”
Winnie gasped and Zelda paled. WTF? They’d done their time. Tasks? Limited magic? What did that mean?
Winnie held up a finger. Hold that thought right there. “But…um, Miss Yaga. That’s not exactly fair. “We paid our dues. I did give Chi-Chi Gonzalez all of my Kotex pads.”
“Quiet!” Baba Yaga hissed, waving a freshly painted nail at them in admonishment. “You two are on probation, and during that probation, you will be strictly forbidden from seeing each other until you have completed your tasks.”
“Tasks?” Winnie muttered, girding herself.
Baba Yaga nodded. “Tasks. Selfless tasks. And before you two get all uppity with that ‘I can’t believe you’re being so harsh’ drivel, keep in mind, this is a light sentence. Most of the Council wanted you two imbeciles stripped of your magic permanently.”
Permanently? What the what? Okay sure, they were selfish witches, and there’d been a mishap or two along the way, especially the one involving Baba Who-Hahs nephew Ben.
But she’d cleaned it up. All of it—every last drop. No one had been hurt.
“I’m not sure I understand,” Winnie said, staring up into Baba Yaga’s flashing eyes.
“Oh, I can help with that,” Baba Yaga offered kindly. “You, Zelda—how many pairs of Jimmy Choo shoes do you own?”
Winnie watched Zelda mentally count in her head. “Um…three?”
Winnie winced. Total lie. Bald-faced.
Baba-Yaga frowned, her eyes flashing with anger. “Seventy-five and you paid for none of them! Not to mention your wardrobe and cars and the embarrassingly expensive vacations you’ve taken for free.” Her eyes narrowed dangerously.
Now probably wouldn’t be the time to tell her Zelda actually had eighty pairs…
“And you, Winnifred. You’ve used your magic to destroy a man’s livelihood, my nephew’s livelihood, never mind my collection of leg warmers, and have incurred millions in damages from your temper tantrums. You’ve obliterated six buildings to date. Can you not see how I had to fight for you both?” she demanded, her beautiful eyes fiery.
“Well, when you put it that way…” Winnie mumbled.
“There is no other way to put it,” she snapped as her mystical lynch mob nodded like the bobble-headed dorks they were. “Zelda, you’ve used your magic for self-serving purposes, and Winnifred, you have a temper that, when combined with your magic, could be deadly. We are White Witches, ladies. We use magic to heal and to make Mother Earth a better place. Not to walk the runway and take down cities.”
“So what do we have to do?” Winnie asked, a tremble in her tone.
Baba Yaga winked. “There are two envelopes with your tasks in them. You will not share the contents with each other. If you do, you will render yourselves powerless. Forever. You have till midnight on All Hallows Eve to complete your assignments and then you will come under review again with the Council.”
“And if we’re unable to fulfill our task?” Winnie asked, wanting to get all the facts up front.
“You will become mortal.”
On that alarming and potentially life-ending note, Baba Yaga and her freaky-deaky entourage disappeared in a cloud of old-lady-crouch smoke.
“Well, that’s fucking craptastic,” Zelda said as she warily sniffed her envelope—one that appeared out of thin air and landed right between her fingertips.
Winnie nodded. “You took the words out of my mouth.” She stared down at the thin envelope then set it on the cot, almost afraid to touch it.
“Can you even believe this shit, Winnie?”
No. She couldn’t believe it. “So that’s it? We just do whatever the contents of the envelopes tell us to do, but we can’t do it together? Jesus, Z. Okay, so we’re a little self-absorbed, but I don’t just use my magic for selfish reasons. I’ve used it to heal. Remember when you got that paper cut at Office Max? I totally healed it because it was bleeding all over your cute sundress.”
“I get the feeling that’s not the kind of healing magic Baba Yasshole means,” Zelda answered.
“You know what? Screw Baba Ghanoush!” Winnie yelped, grabbing the envelope and waving it in the air.
Zelda sighed, putting her hand on Winnie’s arm to prevent her from doing any damage to their ridiculous task. “Yomamma. It’s Baba Yomamma, Winnie, and seriously. What choice do we have at this point but to do what she says? You don’t want to stay in here, do you? We only have so many Kotex pads between us. So let’s yank up our big girl drawers and get this over with. Deal?”
Winnie made a face, but she nodded. “Baba Wah-Wha said we couldn’t share the contents of our envelopes. But I know us, and we won’t be able to keep our traps shut if we open these envelopes together…”
Zelda sucked in her cheeks. “Yeah. She must want this to hurt, because we always share everything.”
“Well, we can’t share this or we’ll be sharing immortality.”
Zelda shuddered beneath her orange jumpsuit, fingering her envelope. “Fuck that. Okay, so now what?” she asked.
Winnie squared her shoulders. “We suck it up, Z. If we can survive teaching Big Sue how to apply makeup and scaling those calluses on her feet with a fork we snuck out of the kitchen, we can survive anything.”
Zelda grinned, as beautiful as always. “So we walk outta here on three?”
Winnie hesitated, but only a moment. She hated leaving Zelda. Hated that they weren’t going to go the distance to the end of this nightmare together.
But losing their immortality? She knew Z almost as well as she knew herself, and she knew losing their magic would be like losing a vital organ.
Magic was who they were and jail really was as bad as Orange is the New Black made it seem.
So Winnie smiled back at her and held up a fist for her to bump. “Yep.”
Zelda bumped it and they both took a deep breath before she counted out, “Then one, two, three…”
The doors of their cell popped open the moment they approached them, clanging and creaking.
Winnie gave Zelda one last smile before she made a left, heading down the winding concrete path leading out of their cellblock, dimly lit with only torches.
And Zelda hung a right until she was nothing more than a curvy dot.
Winnie reread the note inside the envelope again, squinting in the dim light of the prison’s hallway to make sure she didn’t screw this up.
A driver awaits you in the parking lot. Light a fire under your ass or you’ll miss your ride.
Not Baba Ghanoush
Winnie’s feet began to move without thought. If there was nothing she wanted less, it was to stay in witch prison and make more Kotex slippers for Chi-Chi Gonzalez.
Rounding the corner of the last corridor, she hobbled along, cursing the fact that her own feminine-product slippers were sticky side down, impeding her progress.
She tore ass around the corner, sliding like she was A-Rod skidding into home base, hopping on one foot and almost falling head first into the door to the parking lot.
Pushing it open with a shove, she spilled out into the lot, taking her first gulp of freedom. Winnie inhaled long, her breath rasping as she rested the heels of her hands on her knees and her chest screamed a fiery revolt.
A horn blared before the words to I’ll Make Love To You by Boyz II Men sang in her ears.
Winnie’s head snapped up just as Chi-Chi Gonzalez rolled up next to her in a rusty, orange Datsun pickup with the passenger-side window down.
She waved, a wide grin on her cherry-red lips. “Hurry the hell up, Winnie. I have to be back before dusk or I’m gonna lose dessert for a week. And you know what Baba Yaga’s like—she’ll snatch that pudding from my tray faster than you can say The Breakfast Club just to torture me.”
She couldn’t hide her surprise as she gaped at her fellow inmate. Why did Chi-Chi get special privileges? Winnie had never even been allowed to leave the damn prison yard, and she hadn’t done anything as bad as Chi-Chi. And she wasn’t just leaving the suffocating prison cells, she was driving.
Sure. She’d taken a building or two down in her struggle to manage her anger. But she hadn’t turned the polar ice caps into a seaside resort, complete with wave pool and grass huts. Taking out Benjamin Yaga’s warehouse hardly compared to a global-warming event.
“You’re my driver?”
Chi-Chi nodded, glancing at herself in the rearview mirror and checking her lipstick. “Surprise.”
Winnie’s eyes narrowed and her temperature rose. Despite the chilly air, her cheeks began to warm and her fingers tingled. “Did you get paroled too?”
Chi-Chi smacked her lips and made a face. “Aw, hell no, Winnie. I have another three years. Baba Yaga’ll never let me forget the stinkin’ wave pool. Every stupid therapy session is about the wave pool. You’d think I whipped up a volcano and dropped virgins into it, for Jesus sake.”
“You do realize what the polar ice caps do, don’t you?”
Chi-Chi rolled her eyes. “Are you kidding me? I could build a polar ice cap for all the shit I know about them after Baba Yaga got her hands on me. I know all about how what I did made the Earth too hot and believe me, I know all about the complaints. I get it, Wikipedia.”
“Complaints? Chi-Chi, you nearly killed everyone in California, it got so hot. The ice caps keep the Earth cool—”
“I get it, Winnie!” she yelped, hitting the steering wheel with the heel of her hand. “Save the sermon, Miss Blow Up A Building. You’ve got no room to talk.”
Leaning into the window, she rolled her eyes at Chi-Chi. “It was just one stupid building, and not a soul was in it. How was I supposed to know Ben housed Baba Yaga’s stash of eighties paraphernalia in his warehouse?” she lied.
Winnie rolled her shoulders and forced herself to remember the technique Baba Yaga had taught her to calm her angry impulses. But it was damn hard where Ben was concerned.
Because it still hurt. And it had endured nine long months in magic jail, festering, reminding her of just what a fool she’d been.
“Hey, Firestarter, are we comparing the magnitude of our magical misdeeds here? Sort of like my wand is bigger than yours? Or are we hittin’ the damn open road?”
“I’m just pointing out that I didn’t set people on fire when the temperatures hit one hundred and twenty in Idaho—in January,” she reminded.
“Right. You’re just pointing out that I’m a bigger magic abuser than you. Got it. Now get in and hurry up. I’m not missing chocolate pudding for a week because you won’t lay off the preaching.”
Winnie halted, alarm bells ringing distantly in her head. Wait one second. Think before you act, Foster. “Oh, I get it. This is a test, isn’t it? Like I get into this deathtrap when I know full well you shouldn’t be out running loose and bam—I’m punished for not using my common sense. Common sense tells me Baba Nah-Nah would never let you drive a vehicle or let you out of here without supervision.”
Take that, Baba Daba Doo. You’re not fooling me—not this time. She wasn’t giving that woman a shred of a reason to slap her back in jail.
She was feeling pretty proud of herself for being one step ahead of her jailor until Chi-Chi put the Datsun in park, popped the cassette tape out, and held up a Kotex-covered foot wrapped in duct tape.
A glittering, purple ring surrounded her ankle. “See this? This is my house-arrest anklet. She dipped it in magic. If I get too far away from this dive, it goes off and Baba Yaga comes huntin’. Now get in this truck or I’m going back in there and telling those creepy cohorts of hers you won’t make nice.”
She shuddered. No more creepy cohorts. Winnie yanked on the door handle, pulling it open to a creaky groan, and hopped in. She folded her hands in her lap and smiled at Chi-Chi. “Okay, so where are we going?”
The airport? “Like airport-airport? Wings and vroom-vroom-in-the-sky airport?”
“One and the same. Now be quiet and let me listen to my Boyz. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to listen to anything but those dumb, mystical monk chants Baba Yaga claims are supposed to help our abusive urges.” She pushed the cassette tape back into the player and took off.
Two hours later, they came to a screeching, grinding, death-defying halt—in yet another parking lot.
Winnie let go of the passenger door handle with stiff fingers, fingers she was convinced had kept her from nailing Chi-Chi with a spell to improve her driving, and scanned their surroundings. “This isn’t drop-offs for departures.”
Chi-Chi rolled her tongue along the inside of her cheek and yawned. “This is where Baba Yaga said to ditch you, Firestarter. So, this is where I ditch you. Get out.”
Winnie turned to gaze at Chi-Chi. “I don’t get it.”
“I don’t either. I don’t want to. I’m just doing what I was told to do. Baba Yaga said parking lot A, here we are. Parking lot A.” She lifted a slender finger to point to the sign. “Now get out. If I’m lucky, and I don’t hit any traffic, I can make it back ten minutes early.”
Suddenly, Winnie felt very alone. She hated alone. Hated not having Zelda with her to cook up a plan for what to do next. She turned in the seat and opened her arms. “Can I at least get a hug goodbye?” They had been cellblock mates for nine months. That had to mean something…
Chi-chi crossed her arms over her orange prison sweatshirt and shook her gorgeous head of dark curls. “No. No, you definitely can’t. There isn’t enough therapy in the world that’ll turn me into a hugger. I’ve tried to tell Baba Yaga that, but she refuses to listen. Stuck her damn fingers right in her ears and sang Flock of Seagulls when I tried to explain.”
Defeated, she reached for the door handle then hesitated, turning back to find Chi-Chi’s eyes flashing with irritation. “I’ll make this quick. I know chocolate pudding’s at stake, but I don’t know what to do next, Chi-Chi. Where do I go from here?”
“Not a clue.”
“Why are you so mean? I did help you make slippers.”
“No. Zelda helped me.”
“But I taught her how to make them. It was my idea.” That had to count for something.
“I don’t care.”
“Didn’t you learn anything in Witches Helping Witches group?”
“The warm, squishy one where I learn how to read your emotions and body language?”
“Yeah. That’s the one. Are you reading that I’m a little freaked out right now and I could use some support?”
“Nope because I skipped it and went to Witches Don’t Whine group instead. I learned a lot there. Like how to spot a whiner when they’re sitting across from you in a Datsun pickup truck that’s older than Baba Yaga.”
“That’s not even a group, and you know it, Chi-Chi.”
“Um yeah. And I don’t care. Now get out.”
Winnie popped the door open and slid to the ground, her Kotex slippers latching onto the loose gravel of the pavement.
She made her eyes round and sad like the cat in Shrek when she turned back and said over her shoulder, “Well, take care, Chi-Chi. I hope the pudding is worth leaving me here all alone to fend for myself—”
The rumbling gunning of the Datsun’s engine mixed with the vestiges of Boyz II Men’s End Of The Road rang through the air.
Excellent. Alone. Again.
Stumbling to the curb, Winnie used her hand as a visor and assessed the parking lot with a shiver.
The wind picked up then, bringing with it the scent of old lady crouch and a vague hint of Love’s Baby Soft perfume.
“Now I give you the rest of your task,” Baba Yaga said, appearing out of thin air. She put her hands on her slender hips, the row of multi-colored bangle bracelets on her arm sliding down to her wrist. Today must be Pretty in Pink day if the dress made from her office curtains was any indication.
Winnie breathed a sigh of relief. She’d never admit it, but she was currently happier to see Baba Yaga than she was when she saw the exit sign for the mall. So happy, she almost wet herself. “I’m ready.”
Baba Yaga tightened her neon-pink scrunchie around the straggly length of her mullet and shook her head. “No, you’re not.”
This was a test. This was only a test. If she kept reminding herself everything was a test, a means to an end, she’d manage to make it through this with her immortality intact.
She rolled up the sleeves of the thermal shirt she wore beneath her orange jumpsuit, indicating she was ready to pay for her sins by getting her hands dirty. “But I am. I really am, Baba Yahoo. Where am I going and what do I have to do to prove I’m worthy of using my magic again? Lay it on me.”
“You’re going to Paris.”
Winnie kept her expression placid, but her stomach pirouetted like a ballerina. Shut the front door. Her task was in Paris?
Act like it’s no big deal. You’ve been to Paris before. Okay, you got there by zapping your own private plane into being and making a mess of international airspace, if you listened to air traffic control carry on about it, but it all turned out okay.
But holy shopping! Paris? Had Zelda gotten as lucky as she had?
Baba Yaga held up a set of shiny keys, glinting under the fading sun. “Take these.”
Winnie cocked her head. “Keys?” Did planes use keys to start them?
“What are stupid questions for one hundred, Alex? Yes. Keys, Winnifred. Take them,” she snapped, holding them out to Winnie and jiggling them under her nose.
She was all about being tested. In fact, she welcomed it if it meant she could get on with her life, but even Baba Yaga couldn’t expect her to drive to Paris without using her magic. “Do you need keys to start a plane?” she asked tentatively.
“Nope, but you need them to drive.”
Winnie laughed out loud, slapping her thighs. “You can’t drive to Paris, Baba Yaga. You’ve been around for centuries—did you miss that history lesson?”
Baba Yaga’s eyes narrowed, glittery and angry.
Ohhh. Bad Winnie. Hush before you end up in Cellblock X.
“I didn’t miss a thing, Winnifred. Literally or figuratively. The keys are for your car. See that rusty pink bubble with the Summer’s Eve advertisement on it?” She pointed all the way to the far end of the parking lot.
Winnie squinted into the setting sun, her stomach sinking. Indeed, there was a pink Pacer, professionally wrapped with a picture of an enormous feminine product on the side of it. “Yeah…”
“That’s your chariot, cookie. There’s a GPS system in there with the coordinates for Paris.”
She was obviously missing the boat here. You couldn’t drive to Paris, for seven hells’ sakes. Not even in a car with a big douche on the side of it.
Baba Yaga lobbed the keys at her with an evil grin slathered over her ageless lips. “Oh, and in case you’re wondering. That’s Paris, Texas. Not Eiffel-Tower, Champs-Élysées Paris,” she seemed to take great pleasure in sharing before she was gone in a puff of pink curtains and matching scrunchie.
Yanking open the door of the Pacer, and ignoring the strange glances she was garnering from a stuffy-looking guy in a business suit, she climbed in and assessed her sweet, sweet ride.
Fuzzy green dice hung from the rearview mirror, swishing in the cold breeze while she used all her strength to pull the door shut. The interior was littered with crushed Schlitz Malt Liquor cans and smelled vaguely of Cool Ranch Doritos.
Determined to get on with this, Winnie settled into the seat, a hard spring poking her in the ass as she looked at the GPS mounted on the dashboard. Pressing on, she sat back and waited for her directions.
“Bonjour, Weenie! Please make yourself comfortable then turn right out of ze parking lot!” a French-accented, way-too-cheerful voice encouraged.
Funny. So funny. Not only wasn’t she going to the real Paris, she had a constant, painful reminder of Baba Yaga’s idea of a joke.
Winnie jammed the key into the ignition and turned it, listening to the clunky engine cough, sputter then finally turn over.
“Turn right out of ze parking lot, Weenie,” the GPS intrusively demanded again.
She glared at the navigations system, flicking it with her fingers. “I heard you the first time.”
“Tsk-Tsk, Weenie. Don’t be so crankeyyy!” the GPS chided.
“I get it, for Pete’s sake. Give me a minute to get situated, oui?”
“You don’t have a lot of minutes to spare, Winnie the Pooh,” a new voice said—definitely not a French one.
Her eyes went wide with fright and she froze momentarily. Voices. She was hearing them. No one had called her Winnie the Pooh in forever. Not since her mother had died…
It was stress. She was tired and worried about finding her way to Paris, Texas, in a pink Pacer with a product for douching plastered on the side. Her mother had been dead since she was four. She was just hearing things.
“Turn right out of ze parking lot, Weenie! Do eet now!”
“Winnie, listen to the man. Turn right out of the fucking parking lot or Jacques is gonna shit a croissant here,” a dry voice laced with sarcasm said.
She turned her head toward the sound of the voice—then cringed, trying to make herself small against the car door. She closed her eyes, scrunching them shut, blocking out what she’d just seen.
Pushing a fist in her mouth, Winnie fought a scream of hysteria.
“Oh, c’mon, Pooh Bear. It’s just me. You know, Icabod.”
Her breathing grew shallow as she fought off a wave of panic. “You’re not real.” You’renotrealyou’renotreal!
“I am, Weenie. Open your eyes and see.”
Gripping the steering wheel, her eyes grazed the passenger seat then slammed shut again. She gulped back her sheer terror. “What are you?”
“I’m your Cabbage Patch doll, Win. Don’t you remember me? Your mother gave me to you when you were four…”
Oh, she remembered. She fucking remembered all too well. But her mother hadn’t given her Icabod. This doll was the reason her mother had never come home again. Because she’d gone out in a blinding snowstorm to pick up her daughter’s Christmas gift, swerved on some ice into oncoming traffic and T-boned a tractor-trailer.
She’d overheard her father, Amos, tell her nana about the details of the accident, and even at the tender age of five, she’d understood. Her mother had found the doll Winnie had begged her for months to buy at a department store—she’d had a friend who’d worked there and had managed to get her hands on the elusive doll, tucking it away.
It was a Christmas present, and she’d told Amos there was no way, after all the hunting she’d done, that she was going to disappoint her Pooh Bear come Christmas morning. Winnie would have the doll to open if it killed her.
And it had—at least in Winnie’s small mind.
And when her mother was gone, all Winnie’s rage, all her sorrow, was directed at Icabod, the name her father had later given the doll as a joke.
If she were to pinpoint it that was probably when she could first remember experiencing the emotion anger. When she’d first struggled with her impulse to act out, knowing she’d be punished and not caring.
Sure, tears came, too, after a while; long nights of gulping sobs. But when she’d first heard her mother was never coming home again, and her father had given her the doll that sad Christmas morning, she’d been pissed off—so filled with rage—she’d blown up her Easy Bake Oven by snapping her fingers.
And then she’d turned that misplaced rage on the symbol of her mother’s death. Icabod became the reason she’d never have another tea party in her mother’s lavish gardens. So she’d torn her beloved Cabbage Patch doll’s head off.
Well, almost. Her father had caught her before she’d clawed the doll’s head off all the way, and she’d been rightfully punished for treating her toys like some budding serial killer, but she remembered how good it had felt to release that hurt.
How easy it was to take the pain and fear of losing her mother out on a token that represented their relationship and was a painful reminder of how much she missed her.
She’d stuffed the doll away when her dad had given it back to her, only to have him find it again when she was seventeen and packing for college.
He’d jokingly dubbed him Icabod, after the headless horseman, and told her to take it with her to school as a way to remember her mother and just how much she’d loved her. How proud she’d be that Winnie was fulfilling the dream her mother had always wished for her.
Amos had handed her that doll as though he were handing her the last memory of her mother, his age-lined eyes watery, and she didn’t have the heart to refuse.
So she’d thrown it in the attic just before she’d left and never looked back.
And now it was here. In the passenger seat of this stupid, stupid fucking car, his head hanging crookedly to the left side, his single tuft of black, looped-yarn hair on top of his otherwise bald head tattered and ratty.
Talking to her.
Aw, hell no.
She reached over, now that she was beyond the horror of a talking doll from her past, and pushed his head up on his neck, leaving it only slightly sagging. Because it looked sad and reminded her of how out of control she’d once been.
His blue eyes stared blankly up at her, unblinking. “So, road trip, Weenie?”
She pressed her fingers to Icabod’s plastic mouth. “Say another word and it’s lights out for you. Not a single one or I’ll boot your semi-headless self outta here so fast, you’ll have blacktop in your plastic ass for decades. Now, buckle up, Trilogy of Terror.”
Seven hours later—seven long hours of compressing her lips together to keep from asking Icabod how he’d come to be—and Jacques spoke up, breaking the silence between she and creepy doll. “Weenie! Make ze left off the Interstate!”
She turned her signal on and continued to ponder what was waiting for her in Paris, and what she’d have to do to get the hell out.
And she thought about Baba Yaga’s nephew Benjamin while stabbing pains of longing pierced her heart.
The son of a bitch.
Dark and gruff, he was the epitome of hard, chiseled edgy-hot. Six-foot-four, two hundred and forty pounds of solid, dusky muscle with a dimple in his chin, and from the moment she’d met him at some witch mixer Zelda had put together, she’d wanted him with a sharp ache.
And she’d gotten him, but not before she’d fallen deeply, madly in love with him. She’d done things the right way for the first time with Ben. No hijinks, no love potions, no games—complete honesty. Ben was responsible, hardworking and never used his magic for ill-gotten gains. Meaning, his successful business had been earned through elbow grease, and after hanging around a crowd of people who used their abilities to conjure cars and luxury trips, Winnie found him even more attractive.
It was the first time she’d wanted something more than endless parties and hiding from the Council, so they wouldn’t catch her turning abandoned buildings into luxury condos or buying a Jag with money she’d snapped into existence with her fingers.
In her attempts to impress Mr. Straight and Narrow, she’d set out to live a clean life, only using her magic for good, just like all White Witches were taught from birth.
She’d even gotten a job as a receptionist at a gynecologist’s office so she’d look like a real grownup with real responsibilities. She’d seen plenty of erroneous vagina by accident in her quest to impress Ben-effin’-Yaga.
They’d dated for three months before they’d done the hokey-pokey. Three long, excruciating, lust-filled months, and the result had been magical. The most magical night of her life, bar none. Hot, passionate, long overdue. They’d made love until she’d seen fireworks behind her eyelids.
And then it was over. He’d ended that incredible night with a tender kiss on her lips and the promise to call her the next day so they could set up a time to have lunch together.
But Ben never called.
In fact, he didn’t call and couldn’t be reached for almost three solid days. Wherein, she’d fretted and cried on Zelda’s shoulder until she couldn’t take it anymore.
She’d called his offices, lodged in a warehouse where he was the cofounder of a software company, and no one, not even his receptionist, would tell her anything.
Instantly, the insecure mess she was, she’d jumped to the conclusion everything Ben had told her that night before leaving was a lie and he was just avoiding her.
After two buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken drumsticks and a Frosty from Wendy’s, totally super-high on sugar and grease, she and Zelda had concocted a plan. A plan to show Benjamin Yagamawitz—the name he went under to keep his true Yaga identity a secret—what was what.
No one bed and shed Winnie Foster without hearing about it.
Winnie had gone to his warehouse, where she was sure he was hiding like the coward he was, only to run into Baba Yaga—who was not only surprised Ben was dating her, but also made her disapproval crystal clear.
And during their angry exchange, Winnie had blown up the warehouse.
She hadn’t exactly meant to blow up the entire warehouse. Only Baba Yaga’s stupid eighties collection.
But her rage had a life of its own, and she’d lost complete control of it.
And it was the last straw with the Council. She’d been before the Council before, and this time, like so many before, she was sure she could worm her way out of it. She’d smile, maybe give them her coy, misguided gaze with her big blue eyes, and everything would be fine.
But Baba Yaga, Benny’s aunt, had nixed that notion in the bud. Nobody messed with her nephew and her pile of ugly leg warmers and MC Hammer pants. Turned out, it wasn’t so fine.
“Thinking about Ben?”
Icabod startled her, dragging her from her thoughts. “I thought I told you to shut it the entire trip?”
“You don’t mean that,” he condescended.
“But I do mean that.”
“But aren’t you curious about why I’m here—now—after all these years in an attic at your father’s?”
Fair enough. Sure, she was curious. Creeped out but curious. “Fine. I’ll bite. Why are you suddenly here?”
“Not a fucking clue.”
“Good answer. Now can it.”
“But don’t you want to know how I know about Ben?”
Another fair question. “Last time I’m biting. How do you know about Ben?”
“I heard your father talk about him after you called to tell him you were in love. The insulation in your father’s house is shit. I can hear everything. He’s dating, you know. That nice Mrs. Lingenfelter down the road. She brings him pineapple upside-down cake—among other things.”
The suggestion in Icabod’s voice made her shudder. “Stop,” she gritted out. “No more.” Though she was happy to hear her dad was finally getting out, she didn’t want to hear about his love life.
“One more thing?”
“One more, then you zip it until we get to Texas.”
“Could you push my head back up on my shoulders? The view from here sucks. I’ve seen nothing for the last hundred miles but crushed Schlitz Malt Liquor cans and a package of beef jerky that’s turning green.”
Winnie used her fingertips to prop Icabod’s head up and went back to her driving, occasionally looking in the rearview mirror to watch the Pacer eat up the blacktop mile by mile.
“Hey, I know. Wanna sing ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall?”
“You’re a Cabbage Patch doll, what do you know about beer?” It was just this shy of indecent to hear this innocent doll from her childhood swear and talk about beer.
“Yeah,” he groused. “But I’m an old Cabbage Patch doll. I’ve been around the block.”
“You’ve been in an attic, not on a block.”
“In an attic in a house you lived in. You took me around the block, sister.”
Winnie winced. Her teenage years had been rough for all parties concerned. Mostly her dad, who, while he’d cried genuine tears when she’d left for college, had probably breathed a sigh of unbelievable relief when she’d moved out. He’d borne the brunt of her shenanigans for years. He deserved a break.
Choosing to ignore reliving her past through a Cabbage Patch doll, she reached for the sack of purchases she’d made at a convenience store.
Popping open a bag of pork rinds, she held it under Icabod’s nose. “Pork rind?”
“Jesus, that’s shitty.”
Icabod grumbled low, “I’m a damn plastic doll. I can’t eat, and you know it.”
Winnie eased back into the seat and pushed the pedal to the floor, trying to lose herself in the rhythm of the road beneath her.
“You can’t treat me like this, Pooh Bear. I won’t allow you to steal my last shred of dignity.”
Winnie reached over and flicked Icabod’s head back over to the left with two fingers. “Consider it stolen.”
She arrived in Paris just after noon the following day, exhausted, in need of a shower, still in her orange jumpsuit.
As she pulled into a parking lot, her gaze traveled upward to Paris, Texas’, version of the Eiffel Tower. Topped with a red cowboy hat, it glowered down at her, mocking her in the stream of hot sunlight pushing through the windshield.
She was thankful the tower was deserted—no one to see her shame or her crazy talking doll. Her eyes went self-consciously to her prison clothing and her hair, greasy and clinging to her forehead with perspiration.
She needed bangs.
Right. Because that would make her look more presentable, rather than like some nutbag who’d managed to break free of the loony bin and steal a car.
“So we’re here, I presume?”
“Thank the goddesses.”
“Yeehaw!” Icabod exclaimed dryly, his head still sagging to the left.
“Yep. Me, my wrapped pink Pacer, and my creepy talking Cabbage Patch doll in Paris, Texas. Isn’t it romantic?”
“Why do you insist on calling me creepy? I’m hardly creepy. I’m a harmless doll who was tragically maimed in an act of catastrophic rage. So who’s the creepy one here?”
But Winnie wasn’t listening to him. She had a task to perform before Halloween, and she was damn well going to do it. Where to go from here?
Yanking on the door, she tried to push it open. She needed air, and space to think. But the door wouldn’t budge. Without thinking, she snapped her fingers, smiling at the sound of the door’s screech of metal as it opened.
Then she cringed and waited for a thunderbolt of lightning or frogs to rain down on her head because she’d used her magic to prevent breaking another nail. Sliding out of the car, Winnie waited, letting the oppressive heat of the day wash over her.
When silence prevailed, she stood beside the open door, facing Icabod, and stretched her arms upward, bending forward at the waist to ease the ache in her lower back.
“Turn around, Weenie,” Icabod mocked in a French accent.
She lifted her head from her bent position. “Look, I’ve been mostly decent, but if you don’t want to lose one of your stumpy, stuffing-filled arms, shut up, okay? It’s been a long trip.”
“Okay, but can I just say one more thing? It’s very important.”
Winnie rasped a sigh. “One more thing then no more things. Got it?”
“Got it. Okay, so because you’re mean and petty, and you tipped my head back over to the left, I have a certain vantage point, if you will. Meaning, I can see things you can’t.”
She let her head fall back down between her shoulder blades, utterly fed up. “Make that point, Ic.”
“Look between your legs.”
Winnie frowned but she looked anyway—and found a pair of muscled calves, sprinkled with dark hair.
“It’s a man, right? A man staring at my ass covered in this ugly orange jumpsuit.”
“Uh-huh. It’s definitely a man,” Icabod confirmed.
Her internal antennae went up. “You say ‘a man’ like you know him.”
“This is only supposition on my part, but from where I’m sitting, he looks a lot like the description you gave your father on the phone once. Kind of Manu Bennett with maybe just a hair of Charlie Hunnam thrown in for good measure. Super hot, by the way. Nice going.”
A cold chill of dread swept over her even though the temperature felt like a hundred degrees. How could that be? “No,” she growled. Nononono.
“I know what you’re thinking at this exact moment, Pooh Bear. So let me clear this up for you. Yesyesyesyes!” Icabod singsonged.
Winnie grimaced as the blood rushed to her cheeks. She rose to a standing position and stared off into the flat distance of the landscape for only a moment before she turned around to face the music.
“If it isn’t the Unabomber. Right here in Paris, Texas,” a gravelly, sinfully whiskey-dipped voice said.
Nice. If it isn’t the only man I’ve ever loved who ditched me after making my eyeballs roll back in my head, not once, but four separate times in one night.
Winnie straightened her shoulders, running a hand over her hair to smooth it, desperately trying to figure out what road to take with him.
The “Hey, it’s been a long time. Good to see you again. You meant nothing more than a disposable wet wipe to me” shtick?
Or the ever-popular “Fuck you and your magic hands” angry, bitter, dumped cliché shtick.
“Unabomber. Hah!” Icabod snorted from inside the car.
“Shut up!” she hissed from the side of her mouth.
Ben tucked his tanned forearms over his broad chest and scowled at her beneath the burning sun, his beautiful eyes hidden by his dark sunglasses.
He’d obviously been running, rivulets of perspiration ran down the side of his tanned face, and his wife-beater shirt, accentuating all of his amazing muscles, clung to his pecs.
She sucked in a shaky breath and waited for him to skewer her.
“Two minutes into seeing each other again after all this time and you’re already telling me to shut up, Winnie? You could make a guy believe you weren’t glad to see him.”
Winnie wet her lips, keeping her fingers in a tight ball on either side of her body, her inclination to zap him the hell to Mars and back strong. It was either that or knock him down and have her dirty girl way with him. Because even though he was a dog, he was a hot dog.
“What are you doing in Paris, Texas?” he demanded, his jaw tight and unyielding.
“Just got out of prison. But you knew that, right? Doesn’t Baba Ghanoush keep you abreast, no pun intended, of all the women you’ve dated?” Then dumped after you ravished them completely, ruining them forever for any other man.
He smiled then. Delicious. Dimpled. Swoony. Nipple-hardening “Haven’t heard from Aunt Yaga in quite some time. I imagine she was busy keeping tabs on you.”
That was it. She was just going to cut to the chase. “So is this some kind of joke? Why are you here, Ben?” Why now? Just why?
He rolled his tongue along the inside of his cheek and pulled the earplugs from his ears, letting them dangle to his chest. “Because I live here, Winnie.”
“In Paris?” she croaked.
As she processed that information, that stunning, life-altering revelation, Icabod’s demonic cackle rang in her ears.