Home > Portals and Puppy Dogs(9)

Portals and Puppy Dogs(9)
Author: Amy Lane

They passed the witch’s cottage with the two familiars on guard, and the four of them did a little head-bob salute. No, there was nothing in the books that said that sort of thing was necessary, but the self-appointed guardians of their cul-de-sac seemed to deserve respect. For their part the two feral cats didn’t so much as hiss at the tiny, ridiculous dog leading the four people around their territory in the dark.

“Cutting it a little close tonight,” Jordan said, not really in reprimand. “You still okay riding your bike?”

Alex grunted. “Yeah. Simon took me out to lunch, and it took longer than I’d planned. I had to make up the work again.” He swallowed, not wanting to talk about that at the same time he really wanted to talk about it. He figured if Bartholomew had been the only one at home that night, they might have cracked a couple of beers, and they could have had one of their quiet conversations about Alex’s odd—and exciting—day.

“Simon? Your boss?”

“Yeah,” Alex said, and there must have been something really off about his voice because Jordan and Kate both stopped at the same time Josh and Alex kept going. Josh did a slow pan backward to see what his girlfriend was doing and then forward to Alex again.

“I’m not a smart man,” Josh said, “but I’d hazard a guess that you just said something significant.”

Alex’s mouth went dry, and he looked over his shoulder. “Uhm, guys? Something I should know?”

Jordan and Kate both turned to him again with eerie synchronicity. “I don’t know,” Kate said sweetly. “Is there?”

Alex fidgeted with Glinda’s leash, and the dear dumb thing just kept prancing, little bug eyes wide and bright, little tongue flopping out of her open mouth, happy to be there in the lowering twilight under the waxing moon.

“He… uh… I didn’t know it when he asked me to lunch, but, uh, it was sort of a…. Well, he wants to do it again.”

“Eat?” Josh asked, and Kate smacked him on the arm. “What?”

“Yes, eat,” Alex retorted. Then he took a deep big-boy breath and tried to speak reason to his friends. “Also, eat with me. As in date. I don’t know. There was… well, I pretty much called him a closed-minded ass, but it didn’t seem to put him off any.”

“There was what?” Jordan asked, because Jordan had the kind of mind that clarified and deduced. Entomologist. Go figure.

“A certain tension,” Alex replied with as much dignity as he could gather. “There was tension.”

For a moment, the only response to his words was the almost uniform sound of his friends as they tromped around the corner of the cul-de-sac and into the neighborhood unaffected by the spell gone wrong. As a unit, the four of them took a deep breath, filling their lungs with air not weighted with magic and worry and uncertainty, all of which had taken over the cul-de-sac they’d once loved so much.

“Good tension?” Kate asked optimistically.

“I don’t know. You’d have to know Simon to know if it was good tension or not. He’s… unusual.”

“I’ve seen pictures from your office parties,” Kate said smugly. “So many men would wish to be that ‘unusual.’”

Alex snorted. “That’s not what I mean.” He shrugged. “I mean, yeah, he’s good-looking. He keeps insisting he’s socially awkward, but he seems to function perfectly normally unless he’s talking to me, so maybe I freak him out.”

“Aw!” Kate put her hand to her heart. “Isn’t that sweet?”

“Isn’t what sweet?” Jordan asked, staring at Alex blankly.

“Don’t you see?” If it was possible for a human to wear hearts as eyes, Kate would be wearing hearts as eyes.

“Babe, I am lost. Like, so lost.” Josh gave one of those dreamy smiles, though, one of the ones that made him less of a meatloaf and more of a big doofus with a heart bigger than his considerable muscles. “But I do wish you’d look at me like that.”

Kate turned her heart-eyes to her beloved. “Every day,” she said simply, and then her gaze sharpened and she was back to looking at Alex. Only now she was looking at him like he was a moron.

“What?” Alex demanded. “What am I missing?”

“You make him crazy!” she said, apparently pulling words out of the air. “He gets all weird and socially awkward around you because he likes you!”

Alex just stared at her.

“Don’t screw your face up like that,” Kate snapped. “You neither, Jordan. I’m telling you, it’s true and real. He’s got the stupids. He’s twitterpated. Alex, you said it yourself—he likes you!”

“I said he sort of wanted to date me!” Alex protested, wondering about Simon’s odd behavior. “That doesn’t translate into total weirdo with one bad lunch date!”

“How bad was it?” Jordan asked.

“So bad,” Alex muttered. “It was my fault. I never should have mentioned the coven—”

“No! You shouldn’t have!” Jordan gasped, horrified. “Oh my God, Alex, why would you do that? What made you think he’d understand?”

“I got irritated,” Alex mumbled, not able to explain the awful gut-churning combination of defensiveness and disappointment when Simon had spoken so dismissively of Wicca. “It… it’s important, and he recycles and he’s super progressive and everything and it just… just hurt that he couldn’t open his mind to this.”

“Hm,” Kate said, and her heart-eyes were coming back.

“Oh God,” Josh said. “Here it comes again.”

“I don’t want to know,” Alex said to Jordan, but Jordan was looking at Kate in curiosity.

“I think we have to,” he said. “C’mon, Kate, what’s your verdict here?”

“Alex likes him too,” Kate said, practically dancing with smugness.

“Oh God,” Josh muttered again.

“This is a nightmare,” Alex said with no irony whatsoever.

“It’s beautiful,” Kate said, holding both hands to her chest this time.

“No.” Alex shook his head. “No. No no no. Simon just didn’t want me to leave the firm is all. I’d put in for a transfer for the one in Orangevale and he wanted to talk me out of it, and, you know, it sort of worked—”

“Wait,” Jordan said, and Alex wanted to clap his hand to his mouth. “You put in for a transfer to Orangevale? Alex, that location is, what? Five, six miles farther away! Do you have any idea how long you’d be on the road?”

Alex let out a pathetic little whine. “Yeah,” he said. “It was a bad idea. Stupid. I shouldn’t have done that.”

“But why?” Jordan asked.

Alex shook his head, but Jordan had that look in his eye, that scientist look that said he wasn’t about to drop this.

“Alex?” he asked, his voice deceptively mild, and Alex pretended that all of his attention was sucked up by the perfectly normal suburban neighborhood they were now walking through. All the landscaping here was gorgeous and understated—topiaries, rock gardens, flower beds, a lot of it professionally done. And if the topiaries had gotten a little gothic recently, a little bit along the lines of bushes being guillotined and rosebush gargoyles, well, it could just be fobbed off as an excess of Halloween spirit. All-Hallows Eve was in, what? About two weeks?

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