Ingredients for potions, along with books containing ancient and contemporary spells, littered Becca Salt’s desk at From Crud to Stud, her New Orleans makeover service for supernatural beings.
As a business owner, she had no equal. She’d worked feverishly these last years, putting in the hours and expending the proverbial blood, sweat and tears to grow her company. When it came to management, hiring, promotion or a vision for the future, she had no equal.
As far as magic and attracting guys went, she was a total freaking dud. Love, it seemed, would never come her way. Conjuring, neither.
“Dammit, you can do this.” She was a smart woman, able to rack up a perfect score on the SAT without cracking one textbook, which she’d hated, or cheating with sorcery. Witchcraft should have been a breeze.
If only she could concentrate on this stuff.
Designated Survivor played on her computer screen. Poor Kiefer Sutherland was in a hell of a mess trying to keep the country together while also dodging bullets, conspiracies and backstabbing lawmakers. Her addiction to this show, plus Superstore, The Blacklist, Blindspot and The Good Fight was her downfall. She also sensed being half witch and half mortal had something to do with her difficulty in mastering her craft. If her dad had been a warlock rather than a Democrat and a Teamster, she might have been into this stuff.
Her mom, Rowena, a crackerjack witch from an esteemed covern, hadn’t agreed. “Study more and you’ll do fine,” she’d told Becca the other day. “This stuff’s easier than what you had to do in high school.”
She begged to differ. Dodging the mean girls, being invisible to the guys, navigating each horribly long day without a clique to protect her and looking as she did had been brutal. She wasn’t a ghoul by any means, but she had boobs, hips and thighs like a normal person rather than a high-fashion model.
Countless diets later, here she was, nowhere close to a size zero and desperately wanting a Meat Lover’s pizza chased by a Dove Bar.
Her stomach growled. Frustrated but determined, she waited until the commercial break and tried a simple trick—jerking her finger to open the age-old spells book.
The volume spun, flew across the room and landed on her needlepoint sofa.
“Crap.” She paged through a witchcraft primer the old-fashioned way, like people had to do with print books before e-Readers had come around. Even though Google was supposed to contain all the information in the universe, including how to construct bombs, neither black nor white magic was included in its repertoire.
She rifled faster, her only option. The publication lacked an index and wasn’t organized in any logical manner that she could determine. Whoever put this thing together should be strangled. A page tore. If she’d been at the top of her game, she would have repaired it by wiggling her nose as Samantha Stephens had done in that old TV show Bewitched. More than once, Becca had wondered why even the best witch would bother invoking powers to get material stuff. Next-day Amazon service, delivery drones and credit cards had made these skills unnecessary.
The commercial break ended. Kiefer was back, looking freaked out by the latest disaster but still presidential. She’d reached a page with instructions on how to change channels on a TV or cable programs on a laptop without using a remote, keystrokes or a mouse. At last, something she could use. Before she read details, she checked the copyright date. This baby had been written in the early nineteen-fifties but had regular updates. The last one had happened in the mid nineteen-eighties.
Sorcerers had to get with the times or they’d become as obsolete as looking stuff up rather than asking Siri for data, like a civilized person should.
After scanning the details for changing a show on a computer, she waited until the Designated Survivor credits scrolled down the screen. “Here goes.” She held her breath, religiously repeated the words she needed and moved her finger in a tight circle as indicated in the graphic.
Her laptop shut off, powered back on and opened on a page for an advertisement selling potions at a discount. Even for a witch, there was no relief from pop-up ads.
Footfalls sounded in the hall and rushed toward her office.
Just what she didn’t need, a staff member seeing her struggle with this stuff. Already her screw-ups with magic were legendary. Thankfully, she could count on her mom’s assistance those few times someone needed conjuring that worked. Witchcraft was old-fashioned compared to moonlight therapy for weres, behavioral and aversion treatments for vamps, personality and charm courses for zombies. Nothing but the latest innovations for her clients.
With little time to hide these things the normal way, Becca muttered the words to make junk disappear and waved her hands for good measure.
Several books disintegrated, leaving paper dust in their wake. Others landed in her desk drawers. She could live with that. The potion ingredients settled behind her potted plants. From certain angles they were, indeed, invisible. She burst with pride. After some tweaking on the words and hand gestures, she’d have this spell down pat. Only a zillion others to go.
“Yo.” Zoe stormed inside. “He’s still not here.”
Becca pulled up Excel on her laptop. “Who isn’t?”
“Our client,” Zoe fumed, looking like a waif from Hell, which she basically was. As a former human turned demon who’d crossed back to the lighter, mortal side, she’d taken to dressing like a Catholic schoolgirl. She wore a green plaid skirt that landed mid-calf, anklet socks, saddle shoes and a long-sleeved white blouse with a Peter Pan collar—a sweet, wholesome image except for her facial piercings. Four studs decorated her lower lip, two graced the bridge across her nose, a ring hung through one nostril and several adorned her dark eyebrows. The metal on her face glinted in the glow from streetlights that streamed through the windows. “The photographer’s waited ten minutes already.”
Ah, now Becca understood. He was here to shoot a demon’s ‘after’ pictures to advertise the service for male shifters, genies, reapers, demons—and otherworldly beings. Every night, the staff whipped those poor slobs into shape so they could suppress their worst otherworldly natures, along with the problems that created, and present to mortal women as hotter-than-hell guys. For the most part.
Restraining all that evil and supernatural power wasn’t easy.
Not even for a trooper like poor Zoe, one of Becca’s BFFs and the best enforcer the service had ever had. If customers got too frisky or refused to do as the other staffers asked, Zoe got on their case and made them obey. Right now, irritation smoldered in her black eyes where sparks built from pinpoints to two wiggling flames. The red-orange color was seriously at odds with her pale skin and demure outfit.
Before Zoe had a literal meltdown, Becca talked fast. “Do we know where he lives?”
Once she had the client’s location, she could send another customer to haul him in. Preferably a zombie. Those guys could give an IRS agent a run for his money. No matter what obstacles zombies faced, they kept coming and coming and coming. Not unlike the Energizer Bunny.
“He gave us an address not too far from here.” Zoe cleared the gravel from her throat that made her sound like the centuries-old demon she was. She crossed her skinny arms over her chest, possibly to control her unruly emotions. Didn’t work. Smoke rose from her long raven hair and shoulders and gave off a nasty sulfur stench. “I’ve called his cell phone twelve times. It keeps going to voice mail.” She huffed. “He was our best freaking success.”
“And we’ll get him here.” In a cage, if nothing else worked. “Tell the photographer to chill. We’ll pay overtime. Then help the staffers with our other clients.”
They filled every treatment room tonight. Their hissing, growls and howls proved mild compared to the raucous outside sounds. Despite being ninety degrees with equally high humidity, this street in the French Quarter boomed with life. Tourists, musicians, locals and businesspeople partied hearty, each unaware of what went on in the salon.
“Okay.” Zoe slumped and eyed the dust pile on Becca’s desk. “Ah…sorry for losing my cool.”
“Not a prob. It’s a very human trait.”
Zoe showed her teeth. For her, that was a grateful smile. Batting smoke away from her face, she trudged to the door, stopped and stared at the ingredients peeking out from behind the potted plants.
She didn’t ask what they were doing there or comment about her boss’s lousy magic skills.
Becca buzzed the reception desk where Heather, another BFF, greeted, scheduled and rang out customers.
“Heather!” Becca wanted her to work on getting the AWOL client here.
Still no response.
Nothing was going right tonight, which made it like the others in their business.
Swearing, Becca hurried down the hall and searched for Heather. She wasn’t in the break room. There, two vampires guzzled bottles of imported blood. Their pasty skin was almost rosy from the workout they’d been through.
The guy on the left resembled a young Brad Pitt. He gave her a thumbs-up. The other one, a dead ringer for Colin Farrell, gave her the finger.
Becca pushed out her lower lip. “Tough night, huh?”
He hung his head. “This shit is so hard.”
“But worth it, right? You said you wanted that mortal babe who lives down the street from you.”
A longing groan poured from him, followed by a gentle sigh. “Unfortunately.”
Vamps were so cute when they craved a woman for companionship rather than her plasma. “Who said love would be easy?”
“It could be.” Hope shone in his pale gray eyes. “All I have to do is turn her then she’d be mine. For, like, always.”
The other vamp nodded in encouragement.
Becca got tough. “Doing that wouldn’t be playing fair. That’s why you’re here.”
Although these sorry souls could force mortals to their side for whatever they wanted, including adoration, love like that wasn’t earned. It never satisfied for long. Doing things the human way by wooing the girl and winning her over with nothing except their innate charm was more intoxicating than every power the mortal and paranormal world offered.
Becca had witnessed it first-hand with her parents. Years ago, her mom could have cast a spell to snare Wade Salt, the only man she’d ever loved, but she’d let nature take its course. Next month, they’d celebrate their thirtieth anniversary.
A sweet and lasting romance Becca would have liked for herself with a one-in-a-million guy. Wasn’t in the cards. When it came to males, she always struck out whether they were paras or human. “I would hope you’re not thinking of turning a woman against her will.”
The vamps shot guilty looks at each other.
They needed additional workouts. Becca made a mental note to have Heather book them every night next week. She pointed at their bottles. “Don’t waste a drop of that stuff. It’s expensive.”
The one on the left read the label. “Little wonder. Comes from European aristocracy.”
If that were true, then Becca was Chaz Bono and Paris Hilton’s love child. “Only the best for you guys.”
She rushed down the hall. Emblazoned on the walls was the company name, From Crud to Stud. Beneath those words the advertising motto read ‘Suppressing the Beast’.
A creature snarled from behind a door on the left.
Heather moaned and made pained noises. “Oh, no. Really no. Please no. Try to relax.”
Snapping noises answered her. Skittering sounds followed.
If Becca had to guess, Heather had put distance between herself and the guy’s teeth.
Zoe’s distinctive growl sounded from inside the room. “Stay over there.” Something slammed into the wall. Possibly her fist. “I’ll handle him.”
A wise plan since Heather was a good fairy whose only power lay in healing. She knew to wait until Zoe had muzzled the guy before fixing whatever he’d hurt.
Wanting Heather out here, Becca raised her fist to knock.
The front door swung open.
Heat and humidity poured inside, along with racket from the street party. Drunken voices mingled with throaty laughter, pounding drums and trumpets. The instruments reached and held their highest notes.
A guy slipped inside. At least six-three, he had an athlete’s build—lean and muscular, his shoulders broad, hips narrow, thighs powerful.
Becca’s pulse thumped in her ears, drowning out the other sounds. She stepped closer.
Classically handsome, he wore his hair preppy-style, longer on the top, shorter on the sides. Those locks were a warm chestnut brown streaked by the sun and tousled, begging for a woman to smooth them back.
Becca lowered her hand. She hadn’t intended to lift it.
His golden complexion spoke of days spent outdoors, perhaps from skinny-dipping in a pool, water streaming over his firm pecs and abs, the dark curls between his legs trapping the moisture, his rock-hard cock jutting out, inflexible as iron, sleek as a spear.
She suppressed a delighted shiver.
He wore leather loafers, beige khakis and a white dress shirt opened at the collar, the sleeves folded back to mid-forearm.
Masculine yet civilized.
The staff had done an outstanding job on this guy’s makeover. No wonder Zoe had suggested him for the advertising pieces. A fat raise for everyone was in order. Maybe even part ownership in this place. They’d made this dude over to the nth degree from…
Becca wasn’t certain what kind of demon he was or his level in Hell. She’d never met him before. Maybe he’d taken so long to get there because he couldn’t pull himself away from the god he now saw in his mirror.
He regarded the reception area as one would when seeing it for a first time or through different eyes…a reformed demon’s eyes. Potted plants and feathery ferns abounded. The faux brick floor, coral walls and gas wall fixtures radiated warmth and an earthy, sensual feel in keeping with the area’s culture.
It was also romantic.
That was why most paras signed up for the ordeals they’d face here. They were having problems with babes and wanted a solution, even if it was painful.
Hissing noises flowed from a room on the right. On the left, muffled groans sounded faintly sexual.
Could be that was why this guy was late. He’d already seduced a new lover and had been reluctant to leave her.
The thick ridge behind his fly held enormous promise. Some women had all the luck. Becca, on the other hand, had a business to run.
Reining in her desire, she joined him in the reception area. “Do you have any idea how late it is?”