15th Anniversary Edition
Single Witch’s Survival Guide
Alas, Jane never thought teaching a couple of students would be so challenging. And she didn’t expect Hecate’s Court to mandate a Major Working by Halloween. She never imagined her feline familiar would grow disenchanted with all things magical.
Worst of all, though, she never dreamed that she and David would fight about every single aspect of living and teaching together. Before long, Jane wonders if she should ditch her school. But that would have dire magical repercussions—in addition to tossing her love-life in the trash.
Can Jane find a survival guide in time to rescue the Jane Madison Academy—and her relationship with David?
Because, really? It doesn’t take long for things to go sideways. Sometimes, you don’t even realize that the entire world is fracturing all around you, because on the surface everything seems happy and easy and perfect. Spoiler alert: those are the times you really need to open your eyes. Otherwise, it just might be too late.
“Earth to Jane! Paging Jane Madison!”
I shook my head as I looked up from the smooth orb of rose quartz I balanced on my palm. The stone was supposed to represent love and peace and happiness, but I wasn’t getting a hint of spiritual warmth. I was just trying to find a good place to store a rock in the mess that surrounded me. “I’m sorry, Neko,” I said. “I wasn’t listening.”
“Obviously.” My familiar clicked his tongue in disapproval. “What I said was, ‘What are you doing with this garbage?’” He sighed in theatrical disgust as he pinched a slender paperback book between his dainty thumb and forefinger. His disdain harkened back to his feline roots—Neko might present as a human male now, but he’d begun life as a giant onyx statue of a cat. Many days, I was tempted to send him back to that form.
Now, though, I cringed as I glanced at the book he was holding. Better Spellcasting in Seven Days. The title was picked out in a lurid swirl of purple and pink. Neko started to read from the back cover. “Are your spells low energy? Is your astral focus flagging? Looking for a lift in your magical life?” My familiar raised one leering eyebrow. “I didn’t realize you spent good money on magic porn.”
“I didn’t buy that! They just sent it to me. I’ve been on some mailing list ever since I registered the magicarium with Hecate’s Court.”
The magicarium. It had sounded so glamorous when I first came up with the idea: A school for witches, an exclusive institution of higher learning devoted to teaching the extraordinary witch how to access her inner powers. The Jane Madison Academy.
I’d actually shivered the first time I said the name to myself. Problem was, it was a lot easier to complete the Court’s registration paperwork than it was to get the academic ball actually rolling. Eight months had gone by, and I was still settling into my new home, the farmhouse owned by my warder and boyfriend, David Montrose.
(Boyfriend! That sounded like I was fifteen years old. But “beau” belonged in a historical romance, and “lover” left too little to the imagination. “Significant other” might appear on some government form. “Steady”, “sugar”, “flame”… Yeah. Right. My mother called David her sin-in-law, but that didn’t exactly help me. I’d grit my teeth and live with “boyfriend.”)
In any case, the magicarium had been slow getting out of the gate. Here in the Maryland countryside, an hour from Washington D.C., I was still unpacking boxes. Still organizing books and crystals and herbs. Still trying to figure out what I’d do if I ever enrolled an actual student. Or hired an actual teacher. Or, really, did anything substantive to make the magicarium more than a figment of my overactive imagination.
David was losing patience with me. I was losing patience with me. And that was why I’d vowed on the first day of June that I would have the entire basement organized by the end of the month. Two hours a day. That should have been more than enough to bring order to my magical life.
I didn’t need to look at a calendar to know that there was only a single weekend left between me and defeat. No problem. I could pull an all-nighter tonight, and Saturday, too. I could stay down here, working without interruption. Without distraction. Without—
“Come and get it!” David’s voice rang down the stairs.
Fine. I’d start my marathon after dinner. I needed sustenance to work through the night. Neko followed me up the stairs to the kitchen, and I swear I could hear him smirking with every step.
David was honing a butcher knife against a steel, all of his attention focused on the precise angle of the blade. The overhead light danced off the silver at his temples, mellowing his black hair. His dark brown eyes glinted as he concentrated, relaxed but alert.
A pottery serving platter rested on the center island, cradling a massive grilled steak. Ears of corn nestled in a pottery bowl, their husks perfectly charred, hinting at the roasted kernels inside. Another bowl held thick rings of sweet onion and strips of Anaheim pepper, all speckled with black, testifying to the time they’d spent kissed by fire. A bottle of pinot noir was breathing nearby.
The food was perfect, as much a symphony for my eyes as my nose. Neko clearly thought so as well; a small whine escaped the back of his throat. The sound was matched perfectly by Spot, the oversize black Lab who watched longingly from his plaid bed in the corner of the kitchen.
David laughed. “You,” he said to the dog, “have already had your dinner. And you,” he nodded toward Neko, “can take down a plate and join us.”
Neko sighed dramatically. “I can’t. Jacques and I are going to a party.” Nevertheless, he leaned in as David made the first cut into the porterhouse, and he stole the end slice with nimble fingers. Moaning in culinary ecstasy, he began to angle for another piece.
“Back, thief!” David said, angling the knife in a mock threat.
Neko pouted, but he edged away. “You could always save us a bite or two…” he bargained.
“You could always grill your own steak,” David countered evenly. “One that you purchased, using your own money, during your own trip to the grocery store.”
The grandfather clock in the hallway began to toll, and Neko looked shocked at the time. He gulped, “Jacques is waiting for me in the city. We have a birthday party to go to, and our costumes aren’t even close to finished.”
I felt a little guilty; he’d kept me company all afternoon, and I didn’t have any significant magicarium progress to show. I tried to make up for the wasted time by issuing a witchy command: “Go!” I pushed a little power into the word, astral energy that Neko immediately caught up and spun to his best advantage. Without so much as a shimmer, he disappeared from the kitchen. I could give him a magical command to return him to the pied-à-terre the guys kept in town, but on the costume front, he was on his own.
I sighed as I retrieved a couple of wine glasses from the cupboard. I really had started the day with the best of intentions. I’d imagined I would make it through half the boxes down there, organizing the books, finding appropriate shelves for all the crystals, my runes, a handful of rowan wands.
Discouraged, I poured the pinot with a generous hand and began to serve up our feast. While I alternated slices of ruby steak with onions and peppers, David shucked the roasted corn. He made short work of it, slicing off the stem end with his sharp blade, then slipping the ear free from silk and husk at the same time.
“Don’t burn yourself!” I said.
He grinned. “We’re a good month into corn season. I’m an expert by now.”
Conceding David’s point with a smile, I carried our plates to our cozy kitchen table. Our plates. Our kitchen table. I could hardly believe how easily those words came to me. A lot had changed in the three years since David first appeared as my warder. The first night I met him, I’d thought he was as headstrong and obnoxiously proud as Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester. To this day, I’d never quite summoned the courage to ask what he’d thought of me on that literally dark and stormy night.
In the intervening years, we’d had a few bumps in the road—failed romances (mine), misapplied witchcraft (mine), dysfunctional family follies (mine). Okay. I’d had a few bumps in the road. But David had always been there for me, patient and understanding. And when he’d invited me to move in the previous October, I hadn’t hesitated a heartbeat.
“What?” he asked, settling his napkin in his lap.
“You were smiling.”
I glanced down at my plate, suddenly shy. I had been smiling. But that didn’t mean I was going to tell him precisely what I’d been thinking. There was no reason to inflate his self-esteem quite that much. I cut a bite of steak, taking care to add the perfect accent of charred onion. Before I could figure out a reply I was willing to share, the phone rang.
“Saved by the bell,” David said wryly.
I glanced over my shoulder and squinted at the Caller ID. CLARA SMYTHE. My mother was the last person I wanted to interrupt our dinner. I’d prefer a million relationship conversations with David over five minutes of Clara’s craziness. “Let it go,” I said.
“She’ll just call you on your cell.”
“And I’ll let that one go to voicemail, too! Stop! Your dinner will get cold!”
“Steak’s good at any temperature,” David said as he snatched the phone from its receiver on the last ring. I knew he’d grab it. He had to. David was my mother’s warder, as much as he was mine.
“Clara!” His voice was soft with a smile. “What a pleasure to hear from you. No, no, we aren’t doing anything at all.”
I gesticulated toward our plates of food. We were doing something. David only shrugged, obviously amused by my mother’s so-called offbeat charm. I grimaced.
“Of course,” he said. “She’s right here. Just a moment.”
After he passed the phone to me, I covered the receiver. “You could have told her we were eating dinner!”
“And then she would have called back later. When you didn’t have an excuse to get off the phone so quickly.”
Well, when he put it like that…. I made a quick vow to follow his lead, to be more accommodating, more accepting of the woman who had given birth to me. “Mother!” I said, forcing myself to smile as I spoke.
So much for smiling. I reminded her tersely: “Jane.” My mother was the only person in the world who called me Jeanette—the name she’d bestowed on me right before she handed me off to my grandmother and walked out of my life for over two decades. Yielding to Gran’s fierce determination over the past few years, Clara and I had reached a sort of detente, a necessary compromise because all three of us held witchy powers. Those powers, though, apparently did not extend to my own mother remembering my preferred name for longer than twenty-seven seconds.
“I hope it’s not too late to call, Jeanette.” Clara had a casual relationship with time zones. On one call, she was likely to think our Maryland home was six hours ahead of her Arizona retreat. The next time, she’d count in the wrong direction, calculating that we were three hours behind.
“Of course not,” I said. “In fact, we were just eating dinner.” I shot David a dirty look as he took an enthusiastic bite of steak. He didn’t even bother to look abashed while he chewed and swallowed.
“Ah…” Clara sighed with obvious distress, as if I’d just told her about some wicked man who spent his days kicking kittens. I could picture her as she exhaled—flyaway hair more red than my own, bright hazel eyes glinting beneath an oil slick of dramatic gold eyeshadow. She certainly wore one of her caftans, its long silk panels carefully chosen to complement her current aura. Or to counter the energy of the Vortex being out of balance. Or whatever other crazy idea she was playing with in Sedona that day. “I thought you might be doing a working. Something for the Academy.”
“Not tonight,” I said, squelching another flicker of annoyance at the unsubtle prod. If she truly believed I might be in the middle of a magical project, then why was she interrupting?
“Hmmm,” Clara said. “I take it my present hasn’t arrived yet.”
“Present?” I had no idea what she was talking about. I raised an eyebrow toward David, but he only shrugged.
“Your birthday present,” Clara said, as if that made perfect sense.
“Birthday?” I was starting to feel pretty stupid here.
“Your natal anniversary, Jeanette. The one you use as the basis for all of your astrological readings.”
I wanted to remind my mother that I didn’t do astrological readings. Spells, yes. Runes, sure. Drawing on the powers of plants and crystals, of the entire natural world, those were all parts of my magic. But I’d never given credence to the supposed magic of the stars, even though—maybe because—astrology was high on Clara’s personal list of witchy pursuits.
“Jane,” I corrected her again. “And, um, my birthday was in January.”
David was obviously following enough of our conversation to be amused. He reached for the wine bottle and added a bit to his glass. He filled mine as well—I wasn’t aware that I’d emptied it. I flashed him a grateful smile as Clara tsked. “Well, of course your birthday was in January. What kind of mother would I be if I didn’t know that?” What kind, indeed? “I’ve sent you a gift for this coming January. Two gifts, actually. To make up for missing this past year.”
I used my free hand to snag a few curls at my nape, tugging hard as a reminder to keep my temper. “You didn’t need to do that.”
“I know, Jeanette. But sometimes you find the perfect thing, and you just can’t help but send it along.”
I could hardly imagine what would count as “perfect” in Clara’s book, but the doorbell rang before I could select the words for an appropriate lie. Its chime was deep and sonorous, and I leaped to my feet as if I were late for church. “Whoops!” I said into the phone. “There’s someone at the door. I have to run.”
“Happy, happy birthday, Jeanette.” Clara sounded so satisfied, I actually forgot to correct her about my name. Instead, I hung up the phone and looked across at David.
“Expecting anyone?” I asked.
He scowled, all of his good humor about Clara evaporating. “Absolutely not.” He pushed himself back from the table with a muttered curse.
“Steak’s good at any temperature,” I reminded helpfully as I followed him down the hall. Spot padded beside me companionably, clearly not taking his job as watchdog very seriously.
David peered out the window in the top half of the door. Through the rippled glass, I could just distinguish a vague shape in the darkness. Two vague shapes, I corrected after David palmed on the porch light. He opened the door with a tight smile. “May I help you?”
A blast of humid summer air rolled over the threshold. The two women on our porch looked rather the worse for wear.
The taller one was dressed all in black, a peasant skirt with a handkerchief hem and a clingy top that left absolutely nothing to the imagination. Her hair was dyed to match her attire—long waves that tumbled to her waist, with a single streak of purple flashing above her right eyebrow. Her makeup was pasted on to emphasize her cheekbones, and her lips were slicked with enough gloss to last me for an entire year. A half dozen silver rings twined around her fingers and thumbs, and a matching pendant glinted in the hollow between her ample breasts.
She looked like a refugee from a Seventies party, by way of a pagan convention. Despite all that vintage attire, though, she extended a smartphone toward us, obviously using the device to film our encounter. She backed up a half-step as I came to David’s side, and she nodded at the image on her screen before extending her free hand in the universal sign for stop. “Just a moment,” she said, still not taking her eyes from the camera. She gestured toward me impatiently. “You. Turn off the light behind you, the one in the hallway. It’s giving a silhouette effect, and I really want to get this greeting right.”
She spoke with the supreme confidence of Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock, obviously positive that she would be obeyed. In fact, her certainty was so complete that I found myself responding without thinking. My fingers were halfway to the light switch before I realized how absurd her demand was. David reacted more promptly than I; he extended a hand to block her filming.
Clearly annoyed, the woman clicked her tongue and touched something on the phone’s screen. Lowering the camera, she shook her head and struck an indignant pose, jutting hip and all.
I blinked hard, half expecting her to disappear like the figment she seemed to be. She didn’t, though, so I turned my attention to her companion. The second woman was dressed almost like a normal person—khaki shorts, a matching shirt. She looked a bit like she was going on safari, and I wondered if she had a pith helmet slung across her back.
In the meantime, Camera Girl was looking David up and down, her eyes flashing appreciatively. Without making a conscious decision to act, I settled a proprietary hand on David’s biceps. Camera Girl smiled knowingly as she raised her gaze to mine and asked, “Jane Madison?”
“Um, yes,” I replied, even as David stiffened. He didn’t like strangers talking to me. Especially strangers who knew my name when I—when we—didn’t have the first idea who they were.
“And this is the Jane Madison Academy?”
My throat went dry. “Yes,” I said, without any conviction at all.
She extended her hand. “I’m Raven Willowsong. And this is my sister, Emma.”
“Emma Newton,” the blond woman said, apparently discovering her voice. Her very formal, very British voice, completely out of keeping with her sister’s flat midwestern tones.
David still blocked the doorway. He obviously didn’t trust these women.
And Emma, at least, was sensitive enough to recognize that. “Oh bother,” she said. “This is a bit of a sticky wicket, isn’t it? We should have been here hours ago, but we missed a turning in D.C. and the roadworks were awful getting out of town. A crash on the motorway held us up for ages.”
I followed her vague gesture toward the driveway. A burgundy minivan was clearly visible in the light of the full moon. Its engine ticked as it cooled down.
I waited for David to say something, but he was taking his time, studying our visitors. His gaze was less obvious than Raven’s camera had been, but I was certain he was recording every detail: The necklace—a pentacle, I could see now—that nestled perilously close to Raven’s cleavage. The earrings that pierced her lobes—matching figurines of cats. The collection of silver rings that decorated each of her fingers and one thumb, moonstones competing with images of the sun, the green man, stars, and the moon. By contrast, Emma wore only a watch. A gold one, with a Burberry band.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “No one told us you were arriving.”
“But Clara said—” Raven at least had the good sense to cut off her words at my sharp intake of breath.
I should have put two and two together faster. My mother was responsible for this. “What exactly did Clara say?” I asked warily.
Raven recited, “We’re perfect for the Madison Academy. She said our auras make us an exact match for the classes you’re going to teach.”
“And you believed her?” My voice ratcheted up an octave. I couldn’t help myself. Even if these women were witches, even if they had some actually affinity for magic, I could hardly welcome them into my not-quite-existent magicarium if they were naive enough to believe Clara’s claptrap about auras.
Emma cleared her throat before she said, “This is a clanger. But Clara Smythe said we’d fit right in here. She even offered to pay tuition for our first year of classes.”
So, that was my birthday present. Two new students, with tuition all paid up. Except, in classic Clara fashion, she hadn’t actually sent along the money. She probably never would. I started to issue a tart explanation, but Emma cut me off.
“I can see you weren’t expecting us, and I’m truly sorry about that. But you have to understand. We’re desperate. We’ve nowhere else to go.”
She made the statement without any melodrama, but I could taste the anguish behind her proper British accent. There was need there, and fear, all marinated in confusion.
And, in a flash, I understood. Emma’s magical powers, and Raven’s, too, had not come easily. Magic had brought the women no joy. Emma’s face was grave as she confirmed, “We both have powers. Skills, anyway. Some … affinity for witchcraft.”
“But why come all the way out here? There have to be covens in Sedona. Or wherever you two are from.”
“Sedona,” Emma confirmed, nodding. The name of the southwestern city sounded strange on her tongue.
“The Oak Canyon Coven has jurisdiction there.” David’s voice was low, challenging. He might have been willing to give me the lead in speaking to these women, but he wasn’t about to stand down entirely.
Emma’s face clouded, but Raven threw up her arms in exasperation. “Oak Canyon didn’t have the first idea what to do with us.”
“Why not?” No one could have mistaken David’s inquiry for a casual conversational gambit. Cold steel sliced beneath his question.
Raven re-jutted a hip and tossed her mane over her shoulder. The gesture made her skin-tight shirt ride up high on her belly, and she looked like the cover model for every terrible urban fantasy novel ever written (and a few really good ones, too). I wondered how long I’d be in traction if I attempted the same pose. She pouted as she said, “The Oak Canyon Coven isn’t open to new ideas.”
David might have been blind, for all the attention he paid to Raven’s posturing. “Susan Parsons is usually quite reasonable.”
“We don’t know any Susan Parsons,” Raven snapped, raising her chin defiantly.
Emma responded more calmly. “The Oak Canyon Coven Mother is Maria Hernandez.” Her precise British enunciation left no doubt that she understood she had just been tested.
So. David had not quite believed that these women were from Sedona. Maria’s name, though, was apparently correct, because he released a tiny fraction of his tension. A casual viewer would not see a change in his jaw or his stance, but I knew.
“Maria Hernandez has always welcomed new witches in the past,” David said evenly. Certainly, he would know. He’d attended Coven meetings with my mother, supporting the more conventional aspects of her witchcraft.
Raven apparently took my warder’s statement as a challenge. She raised her camera and started filming again, launching a somber narration: “Maria Hernandez has strict rules for her witches. All electronic devices are banned from gatherings of the Oak Canyon Coven. What is the Madison Academy’s policy on modern communication?”
Modern communication? I hadn’t exactly put the finishing touches on my student handbook. I knew I wasn’t happy with a camera shoved in my face, though. And I certainly didn’t like the way Raven swooped forward to press her point.
“You do realize,” she insisted, “that modern witches need to find a balance with contemporary electronics, don’t you?”
“I—” I stammered, but I wasn’t sure how to finish the sentence. Of course I believed in balance—essential fairness and equity were central to my powers. But those powers were based on the natural world. How did a camera fit in?
“Ms. Madison,” Raven continued, sounding precisely like she was interviewing me for some gotcha reality show. “My sister and I were under the impression that the Madison Academy is on the leading edge of magicaria. We were assured that our instruction would be provided by witches who understand exactly what it means to live in the real world. The modern world.”
“It will be!” I said. “It is!” My heart pounded as I fought to reassure her, and myself as well. I started to run my fingers through my hair, but I stopped, fully aware that the gesture would make me seem weak to Raven’s viewers. A trickle of sweat slipped down my spine.
Raven pounced on my weakness. “Where are those instructors, Ms. Madison?”
“They…” I trailed off, resisting the urge to turn to David. I didn’t want to admit I was the only instructor, at least for now.
The quaver in my voice only poured new energy into Raven’s inquisition. She thrust her camera closer with a vehemence that actually made me take a step back. “Our viewers are waiting, Ms. Madison. We are on the grounds of the Jane Madison Academy, aren’t we?”
“Well, yes, but—”
“What was that? Speak up for the camera!”
I was still trying to summon a coherent answer when David interrupted, closing his fingers over the phone and twisting sharply. Raven yelped as if he had flung boiling water on her bare flesh. At the same time, she clutched the device to her chest, cradling it against her pentacle pendant. Her motion was violent, rough enough that she had to take a couple of steps back to steady herself. Her left heel teetered on the edge of the wooden stairs, and her head snapped back.
I started to cry out, but David took the necessary action, grabbing her arm tightly and hauling her forward so that both her feet were firmly on the porch. His gesture was harsh, but it was brutally effective.
Even so, Raven cried out in a mixture of surprise and pain. She yanked her arm free, swearing loudly and succinctly, even as she thrust the camera toward her sister. “Record that, Emma! I’m going to have bruises in the morning, and I want everyone to know where they came from.”
David growled deep in his throat, snatching the smartphone out of Raven’s hand before Emma could decide whether to join the recording party. I was certain he was going to fling it to the floorboards and grind it into electronic dust beneath his heel. Raven must have thought so, too, because she screamed. Her wail was high and wordless, a banshee’s screech that raised the hairs on the back of my neck. She launched herself at David, clawing at his hands and face, clearly desperate to regain her phone.
Emma shouted her sister’s name. Spot chimed in, hulking close to the floorboards and voicing a low, constant growl. His lips were pulled back over his teeth, and his eyes followed Raven as if she were a particularly toothsome rabbit.
I was helpless to do anything. Even in his fury, David had juxtaposed his body between Raven and me. He was protecting me, keeping me safe. He was my warder first and foremost.
But Raven was a witch as well. Raven had a warder, too.
In the scuffle on the porch, none of us had heard the side door of the burgundy minivan slide open. But we couldn’t ignore the sudden sword in our midst, gleaming like silver in the liquid moonlight. It carved out a perfect arc of protection for the wide-eyed, panting Raven.
The man who held the weapon planted his feet in a determined warrior’s stance. His chest heaved beneath his white T-shirt as his baritone challenge rang out: “Halt! This witch is under my protection. Draw back or I will slay you all, in the name of Hecate and all her daughters!”
Love may be blind, but making this relationship work is a real eye-opener!
Plus-size Amber Bergen thinks dating apps are a waste of time. Vampire Trevor Keene never imagined he’d be matched with his best friend’s little sister. But one kiss later, this life-long friendship is changing into something more…