Authors: Maureen Child,Kathleen Kane
Wish Upon a Cowboy
by Maureen Child
"Walnuts are hard, but rocks are harder. We need some food to fill our larder."
Hannah Lowell kept her green eyes tightly closed and whispered her incantation one more time, just for good measure. Then, with a wave of her hands, she smiled to herself and opened her eyes to look at the still-empty shelf.
Her shoulders slumped in defeat. An all-too-familiar sinking sensation filled the pit of her stomach. Hopeless. That's what she was. Absolutely hopeless.
For most of her life, she'd been trying and failing to live up to the sterling reputation her family held within the Crafters' Guild. Why, it was a wonder she hadn't been drummed out of the Guild entirely. Instantly, visions of some of her more memorable catastrophes filled her mind. Like the potion she'd blended to help Sally Carruthers catch the eye of the local blacksmith. But even as she thought about it, Hannah dismissed that particular failure. After all Sally's vision had cleared in only a week, so there'd been no permanent damage. And Peggy Ryan wasn't supposed to use the freckle cream every day. No wonder her skin turned red. As for Mr. Carruthers's pig… well he'd been destined for Sunday supper anyway.
Oh, it was mortifying to admit to being so untalented.
It was getting so she was embarrassed to face people. She just knew that everyone in town looked at her and wondered how a Lowell could have sunk so low.
"Maybe it's my rhyming," she muttered desperately, tapping her fingertip against her chin. "For pity's sake, what else could it be?" She had the bloodlines. Heaven knew she'd been practicing magic most of her life. There had to be an explanation for her lack of skill.
Frowning, she lowered her gaze to the yellowed pages of the book lying open on the kitchen table. Running the tip of her finger over the faded printing, she clucked her tongue as she once again read the proper ritual. "It's all right there," she told the little white cat perched on the corner of the table. "It should have worked. Hepzibah."
The cat lifted one dainty paw and began grooming itself, apparently bored with the conversation.
"Why didn't it work?" Scowling, Hannah looked back at the bare pantry. If she couldn't whip up a few sacks of flour, how could she hope to solve the problem facing them all?
"Hannah?" The feminine voice drifted to her from the front of the house.
"In here, Aunt Eudora," she called distractedly. Then to herself she muttered, "It has to be the rhyme. Never was very good at poetry."
Sure she'd hit at the answer, Hannah closed her eyes again, concentrated, and tried something different. "Sugar's sweet and vinegar's sour, please send Hannah a bag of flour." She winced slightly and hoped she hadn't sounded as whiny as she thought she had. After all when you're trying to cast a spell you should sound confident, not desperate.
Eyes closed, she heard her aunt come in behind her.
"Hannah… what are you doing?"
"Almost finished, Eudora. One more minute." Then, just for luck, she repeated her spell.
An exasperated chuckle sounded out behind her.
Eudora was fond of saying that magic wasn't to be found in a book, but in your heart. She had always tried to convince Hannah that her talents would reveal themselves one day. She simply had to be patient.
But there was no time for patience anymore. Hannah couldn't keep on waiting for her abilities to improve. She needed help now.
Concentrate, she told herself. See the flour in your mind. Picture it on the shelf. Another long minute passed. Behind her, Eudora's toe tapped gently against the kitchen floor.
When she couldn't put it off any longer, Hannah sucked in a deep gulp of air and slowly, hopefully, opened one eye. She gasped and clapped her hands. "I did it!" she shrieked and stared at the single ten-pound sack of flour as though it were a pirate's treasure. Spinning around, she grabbed her aunt and swung her in a wide circle. "My spell worked!"
"Well, of course it did, child," Eudora said as she lifted one hand to hold her red velvet hat down on her head. "You're a Lowell aren't you?"
Grinning now, Hannah released her aunt and reached up to push her long, blond hair back from her face impatiently. "I am indeed! Although," she added with a wry grin, "I was beginning to wonder if maybe the Lowell blood had thinned out in my case."
"Nonsense," Eudora said, giving her niece a pat on the cheek. "I've always told you that your magic would come, given enough time and patience."
"At least it worked today. Just look at that flour, Eudora," she went on, walking closer so she could stroke the cloth bag reverently. "Enough to make a dozen cakes at least!"
"Yes, dear." Eudora said and took a seat at the table. "It's very nice."
Something in the older woman's tone finally caught Hannah's attention and she turned from the scene of her triumph to really look at her aunt. At sixty, Eudora was as beautiful as ever. Although her once black-asÂmidnight hair was mostly silver now and even her soft blue eyes seemed somehow faded, she had an innate dignity and elegance that could never be touched by the years.
At least she had until recently.
Worry slithered up Hannah's spine as she watched Eudora take off her hat and set it down onto the scrubbed pine table.
"What is it?" she asked. "Bad news?"
Heavens, she hoped not. It seemed as though in the last year all they'd had was bad news. Starting with the arrival of one Blake Wolcott.
The Englishman had oozed his way into every corner of life in Creekford, up to and including the Crafters' Guild. For more than a hundred years, the tiny town of Creekford had been a haven, a sanctuary for witches and warlocks. Founded by a handful of crafters running from the witch trials and ignorant outsiders, Creekford drew crafters from all over the world. It seemed that all witches were interested in finding a safe harbor in which to practice magic without fear.
Not that Creekford's citizens were unsociable. There were dances and county fairs and barn raisings to attend in neighboring towns. But there were no non-witches living in Creekford. Hannah wasn't sure if the people in the surrounding areas actually realized that witches and warlocks were living in their midst, but there'd never been any trouble.
Now their pleasant little town was no longer their own. Wolcott made the decisions these days. Since he arrived, Hannah's friends and neighbors, shoulders hunched as if expecting a blow, scuttled fearfully along the village streets. Outsiders were banned. And socializing with the neighboring towns was cut off.
At first, Creekford had welcomed Blake as it had all witches and warlocks before him. But soon enough, the man had made it clear he wasn't there to make friends.
What he wanted was a kingdom, and he didn't care what he had to do to get it.
And no one was strong enough to stand against him.
Eudora sat down, stared at her clasped hands for a long minute, then glanced up at Hannah. "You remember Mr. Tewkesbury?"
Instantly, the man's cherubic face rose up in Hannah's mind. A traveling tinkerer, Jasper Tewkesbury had been stopping in Creekford to sharpen knives and repair pots and pans for as long as she could remember. "Of course I do," she said. "Is he here?"
"He was," Eudora said and lifted one hand to cover her mouth.
A flicker of foreboding rippled along Hannah's spine. "Was?"
Steeling herself, Eudora inhaled sharply and said, "Jasper refused to leave when Blake ordered him out of town. Claimed he'd been coming for years. It was his right to do business here."
"It used to be."
"What always happens?" Eudora said stiffly, squaring her shoulders and shooting Hannah a wild look. "Blake Wolcott removed Jasper."
Hannah swallowed heavily and dropped into a chair. "He's gone?"
"Vanished," Eudora said, her voice a pale whisper. "Like every other non-witch Blake's found in town."
Not many outsiders lingered in Creekford, thanks to the protective spell woven around it years ago by the founding fathers. But the few who did had never been in danger. Until recently.
"We've got to do something." Hannah muttered, shaking her head. Glancing at her aunt, she asked a question she'd asked countless times over the last year. "Surely if we all band together…"
"No." Eudora shook her head. "Perhaps, if we'd acted in the beginning… but who could have guessed we were welcoming a snake into our little Eden?" The older woman laid both hands flat on the tabletop. "You know as well as I what's happened to the people here."
Yes. Beaten down by fear and by the slow draining of their power, the citizens of Creekford were no match for a warlock bent on enslaving them. Hannah's stomach churned. Even escape wasn't a real option. The last man to try to leave was hunted down by Blake's men and dragged back to the town square, where Wolcott and his small band of supporters made an example of him.
Donald Southern had paid the ultimate price for defiance and his death hadn't been an easy one.
"There's something else." Eudora said quietly, catching her niece's attention.
Hannah looked at her aunt, caught the glint of determination shining in her eyes, and knew.
"You found him." It wasn't a question.
This was it, then. Hannah would have wished for more time. Time to strengthen her skills. Time to gain confidence. Time to think of another way. But there was no more time to be had. It was now or never and both women knew it.
Eudora had been studying her glass for weeks now, searching for the one man who could help them. But it was as if he hadn't wanted to be found. Clouds of vapor befogged the glass ball and Eudora had had to ease her way through countless cobweblike layers of mist to reach her goal.
"Where is he?"
"On a cattle ranch." Eudora said and reached across the table to take Hannah's hand in hers. "In Wyoming."
"Wyoming," she whispered. The West. Unsettled, wild and open. She gave a quick glance around the familiar, cozy kitchen. "It's so far away."
"Not so far," Eudora told her and gave her fingers a squeeze. "You can be there in just a few days."
"So soon?" Her stomach twisted and Hannah swallowed heavily. She'd known this was coming, but somehow, illogically enough, she hadn't really expected it to arrive. "I can't leave," she let the sentence drift off as she looked into Eudora's determined blue eyes.
"Of course you can," her aunt countered briskly, before adding, "and must. Right away."
"How many times have you told me over the years that running from your problems isn't an answer?" There, Hannah thought. She had the older woman with that one.
"If you're running to a solution," Eudora said, shaking her head, "it's the only possible answer."
"Slippery, that's what you are," Hannah muttered and leaned back in her chair before crossing her arms over her middle. She was caught and she knew it. She had a responsibility to her family. To the Guild.
To the town and the people she loved.
"Hannah, we've been all through this many times."
"I know," she said. "But there must be another way."
"We could try."
"We have tried." Eudora shook her head again firmly. "Now we've run out of time. We need help, Hannah. We need him."
A flash of irritation shot through her. Heaven knew she was willing to do whatever she had to protect Eudora, the only family she had left. But at the same time, she realized if her aunt didn't, they had no guarantee that this man in Wyoming would be willing—or able—to help them.
"You mean to fight the devil we know with the devil we don't."
Eudora smiled, transforming her solemn features into the pleasant, loving expression Hannah had known most of her life. "The Mackenzie isn't a devil."
Hannah wished she could believe that. But no one in Creekford had seen or heard about the Mackenzies since the little family had left town more than twenty years ago.
"Then why isn't he here when we need him?" she asked.
"Be reasonable, Hannah. How can he know that the Guild is in trouble?"
She didn't want to be reasonable. Reasonable meant she would have to leave the only family she had ever known and travel halfway across the country, alone, looking for a man she wouldn't recognize if she tripped over him.
No. It made much more sense to stay right here and try to find another way.
But before she could say so one more time, the back door flew open with a crash as it slammed into the wall. Hannah jumped up and turned to face the intruder. Eudora kept her seat, only the whitening of her knuckles betraying her emotions.
Blake Wolcott entered the small neat kitchen and the door swung closed behind him. Tall and broad shouldered, wearing an expensive, well-tailored black suit, he seemed to fill the tiny, whitewashed room with dark waves of power that shimmered in the air around him.
His brown hair swept back from a wide forehead, his equally dark brows lowered over mud-brown eyes. He graced both women with a tight smile, then turned his steady gaze on Hannah. "I've come for your answer," he said, his voice rich and deep.