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Excerpt for Spinning Tales by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Spinning Tales

By Brey Willows

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2019 Brey Willows

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Spinning Tales

Maggie McShay wants a little magic in her life. Something more than the drab existence of going to work and coming home to a cat that barely tolerates her.


When she spontaneously replies to a want ad asking for someone to take care of a fairy tale cottage, it turns out magic wasn’t as far away as she thought. Maggie discovers she wasn’t who she thought she was either. Recalcitrant fairy tale shepherd and ladies’ woman Kody Wilk shows Maggie a world she knew nothing about…a world they need to save before the villains of the world’s fairy tales take over New York City.


It’s up to Maggie, her grumpy, shape-shifting cat, a dwarf hell-bent on finding romance, and Kody to set the fairy tale world to rights. The big bad wolf has nothing on Maggie McShay.

What Reviewers Say About Brey Willows’s Work

Fury’s Bridge


“[Fury’s Bridge] is a paranormal read that’s not like any other. The premise is unique with some intriguing ideas. The main character is witty, strong and interesting.”—Melina Bickard, Librarian (Waterloo Library, London)



Fury’s Choice


“As with the first in the series, this book is part romance, part paranormal adventure, with a lot of humor and thought-provoking words on religion, belief, and self-determination thrown in…it is real page-turning stuff.”—Rainbow Reading Room



Fury’s Choice is a refreshing and creative endeavor. The story is populated with flawed and retired gods, vengeful Furies, delightful and thought-provoking characters who give our perspective of religion a little tweak. As tension builds, the story becomes an action-packed adventure.The love affair between Tis and Kera is enchanting. The bad guys are rotten to the core as one might expect. Willows uses well placed wit and humor to enhance the story and break the tension, which masterfully increases as the story progresses.”—Lambda Literary



Fury’s Death


“This series has been getting steadily better as it’s progressed.”—The Good, the Bad, and the Unread



Chosen


“If I had a checklist with all the elements that I want to see in a book, Chosen could satisfy each item. The characters are so completely relatable, the action scenes are cinematic, the plot kept me on my toes, the dystopian theme is entirely relevant, and the romance is sweet and sexy.”—The Lesbian Review


“This is an absolutely excellent example of speculative dystopian fiction… The main characters are both excellent; sympathetic, interesting, intelligent, well rounded within the context of their situation. Their physical chemistry is great, the slow burn romance which follows behind is a wonderful read, and a great cliff-hanger to match the will they/won’t they of the Chosen. Whether you like fantasy or not you should give this book a go. The romance is spot-on, the world building excellent and the whole is just speculative fiction at its best.”—Curve

Spinning Tales

© 2019 By Brey Willows. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13: 978-1-63555-315-4


This Electronic Book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, New York 12185


First Edition: March 2019


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Credits

Editor: Cindy Cresap

Production Design: Susan Ramundo

Cover Design By Jeanine Henning

By the Author

Fury’s Bridge


Fury’s Choice


Fury’s Death


Chosen


Spinning Tales

Acknowledgments

Thank you as always to Rad and Sandy at Bold Strokes. I’m always so proud to say that you’re my publishers. Thank you to Cindy for the great feedback that keeps me writing and learning. And thank you to all the readers, reviewers, and other writers who have made this life of spinning tales so much fun. And to my wife, thank you for every minute and for being my biggest cheerleader.

Dedication

To Robyn, who keeps rewriting the fairy tale with me.

Prologue

The door crashed open, ancient wet wood splintering under the glinting axe that split it through the middle.

The woman huddled against the wall, cradling the baby in her arms. Her husband stood in front of them, head held high.

“You didn’t need to make this so difficult.” The captain of the Red Guard looked around the little house and sniffed disdainfully.

“You can’t take her. There are laws—” He backed up when the captain pointed at him.

“We can, and we will. You have no power now, and the laws are being made to suit those of us with more ambition.” The captain nodded at a guard. “Take the child.”

The woman held on to it, nearly curling herself around the sleeping child. “No. You have no right. She’s royalty. How dare you attempt this.”

The captain yawned and motioned the other forward. “Yes, yes. We know. We’ve heard it for centuries. The aos sí are the keepers. The aos sí are in charge. What the aos sí say, goes.”

The guard wrestled with the woman, and the captain pointed his sword at the man’s throat when he tried to help. She cried out as the guard took the baby from her and strode from the house.

“Not only are the aos sí no longer in charge, you’re no longer anything. And when the child is gone, we’ll be free from your kind forever. You can live in your little mud mounds and molder away for all we care. You should have hidden the child when you had the chance.” He turned away as though they were no longer of interest and joined the other guards outside.

The man and woman rushed out after him, and when the woman saw who was holding the child, she nearly crumpled to the ground. He barely managed to hold her up.

The man clad in armor so black it killed the light that touched it was looking down at the child, his heavy gloved hand over the infant’s head.

“Please, don’t.” The man dropped to his knees, the woman beside him. “She’s just a child. She hasn’t done anything wrong. We won’t ever tell her who she really is. We swear it.”

The child looked like a bean in the giant’s hand, and it began to squirm and cry.

“Your kind can’t be trusted. The child can not live.” The gravelly voice was low and hard. His hand, still hovering over the child’s head, closed in a fist.

The crying stopped.

Chapter One

Wanted: SWF, 52, 4'10", seeking other SWF for 37-hour relationship. Must be 6'2", 140 lbs, with sadistic sense of humor and four cats. Ability to swallow whole pineapple chunks a must. Get in touch after 11p.m. so as not to disturb the alpaca. xxiguanaLady26


Maggie McShay set the newspaper down and took a sip of chocolate tea. The personal ads had long been her favorite reading material. People’s personalities, their quirks and desires, were on display for the whole world to see. And, potentially, to respond to. Would someone who could swallow whole pineapple chunks respond to Iguana Lady? And why twenty-six? Were there twenty-five others ahead of her? What could be accomplished in exactly thirty-seven hours? In an age of social media, where people could connect on a superficial level in an instant, there was something about printed personal ads that felt both antiquated and more intimate.

She’d often considered placing one herself but couldn’t fathom what she’d say. She fiddled with the paper and wrote it in her head.

Wanted: someone who can bring magic to life, who isn’t boring, and makes romance novels pale in comparison. Must like femmes with no fashion sense and who can’t cook. Me: tall, unruly redhead with bad tempered cat and crappy apartment.

She looked at the cat in question and snorted. Great ad. I bet I’d get so many responses I wouldn’t know what to do. The cat farted and snored at the same time, nearly startling itself from its precarious perch between Grimm’s Fairy Tales and How to Be Happy by the Dalai Lama. The cat wasn’t hers, really. It had shown up at her window about a month after she’d moved in and had apparently decided not to leave. It didn’t really like being petted, ate its weight in whatever it could get its mouth on, and walked around looking generally put out by having to share its abode with a roommate. It was a sad testament to her life that the grumpy little bastard was her most consistent company.

Glass breaking on the street below made Maggie move to the window and look down. Old Canker, the man who lived in the bus shelter on 179th, had been on a bender for the last week. He was usually pretty good about not leaving a mess, but it looked like tonight wasn’t going to be one of those nights. She was about to turn away when she heard voices.

“I told you, old man. You asked my lady for money again today, and she felt so sorry for your old ass she gave it to you. Now we ain’t got money for me to go out with the boys tomorrow. If you don’t have it, I’ll take it out of your sorry old ass.”

Maggie looked down again and saw what she’d missed the first time. A big, young guy stood in the shadows facing Old Canker, a broken bottle in his hand.

“Oh hell no.” Maggie grabbed the baseball bat she kept by the door and bolted barefoot down the two flights of stairs. She stormed outside brandishing the bat. “You back off, right this damn instant.” She stepped in front of Old Canker and pointed the bat at his assailant.

“Go away, Red. This ain’t about you.” He crossed his heavily tattooed arms. “’Less you want to give me the money he owes me?”

Maggie glared at him. “Your girl gave him that money because she’s a better human being than you. Instead of bullying him, you should give him some, too.”

He threw back his head and laughed, an ugly, grating sound. “Maybe all you crazy people live over here. But you got some guts, I’ll give you that.” He looked over her shoulder at Old Canker. “Don’t be askin’ my girl for money no more, old man. Big Red here isn’t going to be around to help you next time.” He sauntered off, whistling, his pants sagging below his butt.

Maggie had a desire to take the bat to him anyway but curbed it. Instead she turned to Old Canker. “You okay?”

He shook his head. “Girl, you got to stop stepping out in front of trains like that. One day, you’re going to get run over.”

She rested the bat on her shoulder. “Not today. You eaten?”

He shook his grizzled old head and looked at the ground.

“Good. You can help me eat this.” She motioned at the delivery car that pulled up beside them. When the driver got out she blew him a kiss. “Hey, Rick. Perfect timing.”

He handed over the pizza and took the money she pulled from her pocket. “Good to hear, Maggie. If you ever learn to cook, the business will have to shut down.”

She hooked her arm through Canker’s and turned him toward the building. “Who says I can’t cook? Maybe I’m just lazy.”

Rick laughed as he got back into his car. “No way. No one likes to eat as much fast food as you do if they know how to do something with boiled water.”

He drove off, and Maggie held the door open for Canker. She’d had him over several times before. The first time he’d looked like a bird in a cage and hadn’t been able to settle for longer than it took to scarf down the Chinese food she’d shared with him. After that he seemed to believe it wasn’t a terrible trick of some kind and took the time to actually chew his dinner. Last time, she’d gotten him to take a shower, something that seemed to do wonders for his emotional state. She had no idea why she felt such an affinity for the gentle old homeless man, but she didn’t bother to analyze it. That was the way she did things. She felt them in her gut, and she went with it. It hardly ever led her astray. Except for that girl from the bar who smelled like a coconut ashtray. She shook off the thought. When it came to women, her instincts weren’t always spot-on.

She opened the apartment door, and he waited until she’d set the pizza down on the coffee table. “Come on over. Take a load off.”

He sat on the floor in front of the couch, as he always did. He gave her a soft thank you when she handed him a plate with several pieces of the best greasy pizza to be found in the Bronx. She opened a soda and set it next to him, then dug into her own piece, trying not to drop any of the toppings on her new floral print skirt.

They ate in silence, and once he was done he gave her the special shy smile she always loved to see.

“I met my wife through a personal ad, you know.” He tapped on the newspaper sticking out under the pizza box. “Best three dollars I ever spent.”

Maggie laughed. “Tell me.”

“It was in seventy two. I was posted to a high-end base. One with lots of perks, including a dance hall.” He looked as though he was off somewhere far away. “She was the prettiest thing you ever saw. She had on this blue dress that made her stand out of the crowd like a butterfly among moths. And damn, could she dance. She was so free, so proud. I got two dances with her, and I knew she was something special. But I got orders to ship out two days later, and I didn’t get to see her again. Soon as I got back from overseas, I put an ad in the local paper, mentioning the date and what she was wearing.” He looked at Maggie. “We were married six months later, and those were the best years of my life.”

Maggie didn’t have the heart to ask what had happened to her. Or what path had taken him from being a war veteran with a loving wife to an old man living in a bus shelter. She just squeezed his shoulder on her way to the bathroom. She got a fresh towel and threw it to him. “Shower is all yours. Throw your clothes into the hall, and I’ll wash them real quick. Razor is in there too, if you want it.”

He took the towel and lightly touched her arm on the way to the bathroom. “Why are you so good to me, Maggie? A woman like you should be busy building a life with someone. Not having dinner with homeless old men.”

She swallowed the lump of emotion that rose when she saw the raw vulnerability in his eyes. He was more genuine than most any person she’d ever known. “I think building a life where you help people instead of getting drunk and sleeping with strangers is far better. Don’t you?”

He shook his head and headed to the bathroom. “Darlin’, that’s a pretty jaded way to look at what life has to offer. It’s not an either-or situation. You could do both. And more.” He looked at her before he went in. “You could have magic in your life if you wanted to.”

She waved him off. “Magic is for books and movies. Not Q-tip redhead accountants living in the Bronx.”

He closed the door behind him, and she picked up the remains of the pizza, piling it into a plastic container so he could take it with him. She grabbed the clothes he pushed out the door and ran them down to the laundry room. On a quick wash, they’d be done by the time he got out. She’d assured him last time to enjoy it and knew he’d spend plenty of time washing up and enjoying the luxury of hot water. Though he’d been on a bender, he certainly didn’t seem drunk tonight. Her heart ached for him, for all of humanity who so often got looked over or taken advantage of by unscrupulous people. Her ex-girlfriend had said, and not in a flattering way, that Maggie had a hero complex. So what if I do? Better a hero than a villain. Her ex had wanted a sweet, doting femme. What she’d got was a femme who wasn’t afraid to take a baseball bat to some guy’s head when she caught him bullying someone. No wonder it hadn’t lasted. She pulled her hair into a ponytail and put the bat back by the front door.

She thought about Canker’s story of his wife. It was way better, though perhaps less exotic, than the one requiring pineapple chunks. True love. It probably existed for a handful of people in a generation. That kind of magic wasn’t meant for her. But what she was meant for she had yet to figure out. Surely life couldn’t be this gray forever. Some nights she woke with an intense feeling of expectation, like something incredible was just about to burst through the door and sweep her into some kind of adventure.

But it never did, and by morning the feeling was buried under beige oatmeal and burnt toast as she headed to work.

As she made her way back upstairs, Canker’s words came back to her. There could be magic. She shook her head. Not for me.


* * *


Maggie winced and pressed her nose against her forearm to avoid the pungent aroma emanating from the man’s armpit in front of her as they both held onto the metal rail in the subway car. The closest she’d ever come to immersing herself in nature involved Central Park and Coney Island, and right now she wished she was in either of those places instead of on the subway pressed body to body between a guy who clearly spent too much time in front of a mirror and a woman who preferred perfume to air. The moment the door opened at her stop she practically leapt from the car and darted around the hordes of other commuters to get to some fresh air. Lately it was as though the city was beginning to smother her, and it felt like her next move needed to be one away from humanity.

Jostling her way past people in the financial district uniform of gray, black, or blue suits, she made her way to the firm she’d been working at for the last five years. She waved at Billy, the guy behind the lobby’s big, marble, impersonal reception desk, and he waved back as powdered sugar fell from his donut and onto the counter. She pressed the button for the thirtieth floor and grinned as she always did when her stomach dropped at the speed of the elevator launching upward. Anywhere else, seven in the morning would have meant she’d be alone, but in New York, there was plenty of company.

At her floor, she took a deep breath and stepped into the lobby. She kissed the receptionist, Sarah, on the cheek when she put her mocha down in front of her. “Hello, beautiful. Good weekend?”

Sarah sipped her drink with her eyes closed before answering. “Bill and I went to our grandson’s tee-ball game. You’ve never heard so many screaming parents and seen so many miserable little ones. Back in my day, sports were about having fun.”

Maggie smiled. “It’s all about competition and seeing who can be better than the next guy. Better learn early, I guess.” She waved as she made her way through the glass door and into the hub of cubicles. Speaking of being better than the next guy… She sighed as she put her bag and coffee down in her own little cubicle. Figurines from various animated movies were lined up like little sentinels along the edges of her desk. In this gray, intense, competitive arena, the colorful little things made her smile.

She opened her email and quickly deleted the spam and “friendly” reminders about the cleanliness of the kitchen and the ethical issues of eating someone else’s food from the staff room. When she saw one from her sister, she opened it with a usual feeling of wariness.

Hey. Need your address. Not sure where you are these days.

Things great here. Leaving on the yacht next week. Kids at school. Feel free to check on them.

J.

That usual feeling of wariness turned to the usual feeling of being irked. Away on the yacht while her kids were tucked out of the way in boarding school. Maggie loved her niece and nephew, although they were on their way to becoming carbon copies of their parents; they were entitled and living in a bubble only being born into wealth could create. When she spent time with them she tried to give them some sense of the real world, but there wasn’t enough time in the day to deal with what they’d grown up around. She sent a quick message back with her address and to say have a good trip, then put it out of her mind. She’d been in her apartment for the last five years, and there really was no reason her sister wouldn’t have her address.

A flicker of blue popped up in the corner of her screen, and her mood lifted. Only her best friend used this method of social media, and that was one person she could count on to make her smile.

Call me tonight. I want to hear about that blonde you met last weekend. And I need you to tell me if my new hair color makes me look like some creepy kid’s character. Xx.

Maggie made a mental note to call, and then got on with her work. Accounting hadn’t been her first choice, but growing up the way she did taught her that creative jobs were meant for people who didn’t mind scraping by every month, and she damn well wasn’t going to be one of those. She lived well below her means and kept a healthy savings to make sure she’d never have to wonder where her next meal came from again. So instead of painting she’d become an accountant and worked her way right into the comfortable middle ground of doing well but not making it a career. That kind of permanence wasn’t an option. Being tied down that way would be as suffocating as it was on the subway in the summer tourist season. Still, she missed playing with color, mixing and blending and getting messy until something came alive on canvas.

When she got home after a grueling, boring day of crunching numbers, the cat was sitting on the windowsill and barely glanced up at her from cleaning its paws. She dropped her bag and flopped backward onto the couch. She spent entire days in an office full of people, and she spoke to someone all of about three times. Like mice in a maze of desks, they crunched numbers and worked accounts in an effort to be first across the finish line. The thing was, the only prize was getting to come in the next day and do it again.

She jumped when something bumped against her hand. “Hey. I suppose you want to be fed?” The cat bumped her hand with his head again, and she scratched his ears before getting up and dumping some food into a makeshift cat bowl. She grabbed her laptop and a decaf coffee before launching Skype.

“You remembered!” Casey smiled and pushed her glasses up her nose. “I thought you’d forget.”

“I needed to see if you looked like the purple people eater. Now that I know you don’t, I’m going to bed.” Maggie smiled to show she was teasing. “Seriously though, love the color. Nice red.”

Casey studied a piece of her hair as if analyzing it. “It’s called Sensual Merlot Berry. The name bothers me enough I may have to change it on principle.” She dropped her hair and leaned forward. “So, tell me about your date last weekend. Was she hot? Cute? Did you get past your phobia of getting close to people and take her to bed?”

“Phobia firmly in place, sorry. She was about as interesting as cement, and I’m not sleeping with someone who nearly bored me to death over my dessert even if she did have great tattoos.”

Casey sighed theatrically. “Your standards are way too high. Come to London and let me set you up with a nice English butch. Even if she’s boring, you’ll love the accent.”

There was nothing Maggie would like more than to travel the world the way Casey did. They’d met at a book festival when Maggie first moved to New York and had become fast friends. She was really the only true friend Maggie had, and she cherished her even though they saw each other only every few years. “They’d take me for a leprechaun in England. And who dates a leprechaun?”

“Leprechauns are short. And people here love the American accent. You’d get all kinds of play.” Casey laughed when the cat jumped onto the desk in front of the camera. “You’ve still got it. Have you given the poor thing a name yet?”

Maggie gently slid it off her keyboard. “Cat, I guess. You know I don’t get attached. It could leave as easily as it came, and if I name it then I’ll be sad when it goes.”

“You’ll be sad when it goes even if you don’t name it. Cats are picky, you know. It chose you for a reason.” Casey took a sip of some foul-looking green drink. “And not everyone is going to leave you, honey. One day you’ll have to give someone a chance to prove it.”

Maggie sighed and gave in to the cat’s desire to be petted. It purred on her lap and she found it comforting. “Okay. It makes this sound—”

“Can you stop calling it, it? Don’t you know if it’s a boy or a girl cat?”

“That’s very genderist of you. What if it doesn’t consider itself either? Who am I to designate?”

Casey rolled her eyes. “Then we’ll assume it will bite you and pee on your pillow if you’re wrong. Hold it up.”

Maggie lifted it in front of the camera, feeling absurd. There was something about this cat that made her feel intrusive when she bothered it.

“Boy cat. Now what were you saying about the sound he makes?”

It settled back on her lap, looking grumpy as ever. “It’s a kind of hacking, coughing sound, and it goes perfectly with his face. I’m going to call him Blech.”

Casey snorted as she drank her green thing and choked on it. “You can’t name a cat after a gross sound.”

“I can and I have. Right, Blech?”

As though in answer he farted on her leg and jumped down to situate himself somewhere better.

“Any other things to tell me? Any other dates on the horizon? A promotion? A circus you’d like to join?”

“Nothing. I work in an accountant factory that churns out accountants who account things. I live with an irksome cat and have dinner occasionally with the homeless man down the street. Tell me about your life, which has to be more interesting.”

Casey shook her head. “If I lived there, we’d fix that life of yours into something far superior. I’m doing a shoot next week in Morocco, and then one in Iceland the week after.” She held up the bottle of green liquid. “Hence the detox cleansing juice. I need to be on my A game. The models coming in keep getting younger and thinner.”

“Good thing you’ve got that backup degree in ornithology.” Maggie had always thought Casey was the most down-to-earth model she’d ever known, and she knew that although the lifestyle had its glamorous side, it also took a toll on Casey’s mental health sometimes.

“Let me tell you, there are days I’d love to just take off into the woods and do nothing but play with birds.” Casey looked over her shoulder and smiled at the woman who came in, another model who was doing the genderless modeling thing for all the big labels, both male and female. She was hot in a totally unattainable way for the likes of normal looking women like Maggie, and she couldn’t help but be a little envious.

“Sorry, babe, we’re heading to a movie to spend some time together before we head to different shoots.” Her expression grew serious. “Really, Mags. Consider coming my way. Take a break and get away. You need time to figure out your next step. You were meant for so much more. I know it.”

Maggie smiled and waved as they hung up. She didn’t need to tell Casey she was floundering. They had the kind of friendship that meant a lot of things didn’t need to be said to be understood. She stood under a hot shower before placing an order for Chinese. The silence of the apartment was encroaching tonight, and she considered heading to the bar for some company. But what she’d told Casey was true. She didn’t want to sleep with someone just because she was lonely. She wanted a connection, something real.

When she slid into the cool sheets later, she punched the pillow beside hers before pulling it close. Things needed to change.

Chapter Two

Wanted: SWF for unusual experience. Cottage keeper for fairy tale home in highly desired location. Must be quick thinking and resourceful. All expenses paid first year, along with living stipend, for the right person ready to make a real change. For interview, contact itsyourtime21.


Maggie tapped on the ad while sipping her coffee. The alarm clock hadn’t been necessary today since she’d spent all night tossing and turning. Thoughts of change and what she wanted to do with her life kept her from falling asleep, and when she did drift off, haunting images of forests and red eyes glaring at her through the leaves made her wake, her heart racing.

Now, sitting with her coffee and looking over the personal ads, she kept rereading the strange little ad. Why would you need to be quick thinking to manage a house? Or was it a cottage? Beneath the questions lay a flutter of excitement. Possibility beckoned. She stood and the cat gave a petulant grump when she moved the chair it was sprawled on. “This is ridiculous. Right?” She directed her words at him, glad he couldn’t respond and ask questions she didn’t want to answer. “But if I could have an income and a place to live, maybe I could figure out where I want to go next.”

Blech yawned and rolled over to put his back to her. She saw him eye a mouse who snuck out, grabbed a piece of Blech’s food, and darted under the cupboard. He barely twitched an ear.

“You’re really a piece of work, you know that?” She scratched his head and got the same amount of attention as the mouse.

She grabbed her bag and headed to work, but all day long she couldn’t get it out of her head. By the time she got home she was almost breathless with unexplained anticipation. Instinct led her through the most difficult situations in her life, and now it was screaming for her to pay attention. She flipped open her laptop, logged on to the newspaper website, and sent a reply to itsyourtime21, requesting an interview. Before she’d even checked her social media accounts, there was a reply inviting her to the cottage the next day. She jumped up and looked around, wanting to tell someone. But there wasn’t anyone to tell. It was too late to call London, and her sister was probably off on her yacht or buying clothes or something. Not that she’d be interested.

The excitement waned slightly, but she went to bed feeling more hopeful than she had for a while. She’d been in one spot for over five years, her longest time anywhere since she’d left her adopted parent’s house, and it was definitely time for something new.


* * *


“What the hell?” Maggie followed the directions the ad person had sent over. She loved the amazing number of parks throughout the city and all the tamed beauty they encapsulated, but today she was more interested in trying to understand what she was looking at as she left Roosevelt Park to stand in front of the five-story brick building at 72 E. 1st Street. She reread the instructions and focused on a bit at the end she hadn’t paid attention to before. How did I miss that? Goose bumps broke out over her arms. She paid attention to detail. She couldn’t have missed it…

Have faith. Take the elevator to the penthouse floor. I’ll meet you there.

She shook her head, but the novelty of it had her hooked. She went into the somewhat dilapidated looking apartment building and headed straight for the elevator. No security, nobody at a reception desk. Just a line of mailboxes with mail poking out of some of the slots and a bit of scuffed linoleum flooring. It definitely didn’t look like the kind of place to have a penthouse of any kind, and a niggle of worry ran through her. In her desire for change, had she walked into some weirdo’s trap?

But in the elevator there was a button clearly marked P. Why not? She’d taken plenty of self-defense classes. If it turned out to be something weird she could take care of herself. Somehow, though, she knew it was what she’d been looking for. Whatever that was.

When the elevator door opened, a man in a sharp suit turned and smiled at her. Lines were a roadmap of life on his face, but his pale blue eyes sparkled and he stood straight, though Maggie would have placed him on just the other side of ancient.

“Ms. McShay. Welcome. If you’ll follow me, I think at least a few of your questions will be answered right away.”

She couldn’t place his accent, but it definitely wasn’t East Coast. Or American, even. She followed him down a dimly lit hallway and up a few stairs to a door. He unlocked it with an old-fashioned type key and motioned her ahead of him.

He ran into her from behind when she stopped and stared.

He moved around her. “Unexpected, right? I felt the same way the first time I saw it. And the view. Truly spectacular.”

Maggie turned in a slow circle to take it in. On the rooftop of this old apartment building was the most beautiful little cottage she’d ever seen. It looked like it had been dropped there by accident, like a tornado had picked it up from somewhere else and set it down here. Fortunately, she couldn’t see any witch’s feet sticking out from under it, though that wouldn’t have been out of place. A small turret hugged one corner, and there was even a front lawn with an orange tree. An unobstructed view of Roosevelt Park and the East River far below made Maggie’s eyes water at the beauty of it.

“Would you like to see the inside?” he asked.

“Please.” Something in his tone made Maggie think he knew exactly what she was feeling, even if she wasn’t sure herself. Above the front door hung a small circular plaque with the words Happily Ever After written on it in fancy script, and it made her smile. She followed him inside and he moved to the right and stood with his hands clasped in front of him, like he had all the time in the world. She wandered around, touching furniture that looked more expensive than everything she owned put together. The high ceilings had thick wood beams, and an open fireplace on one wall had two massive overstuffed chairs in front of it. The kitchen was tucked into the curve of the turret, and shiny countertops reflected back recessed lighting.

The back door creaked in a breeze, and she saw that it wasn’t shut properly. She opened it and glanced at the cute little backyard, complete with a wood fence and lots of growing things she couldn’t identify without looking them up. She closed and locked it behind her before continuing her tour.

A floating staircase led to a large, airy loft complete with a skylight. The turret corner was lined with overflowing bookshelves and even had a window seat with thick cushions. A painting with beautiful, brilliant colors showed a girl on a ladder looking at books, with characters from those books roaming the shelves around her. In the middle of the loft was an honest to God four-poster bed draped with the kind of thin curtains they showed on period TV shows. She’d sink into it and never have to leave.

She gave the book nook one last wishful look and headed back downstairs. She wanted this place with every fiber of her being, but nothing like this came without a high price. The guy who’d let her in was waiting in front of the fireplace. Above it was a piece of carved driftwood with Once Upon a Time carved into the wood in flowing script. He motioned to the chair opposite him and she took it, holding onto the arms to brace herself for the catch.

“I can tell by your expression that you love it.” He inclined his head with a smile. “I’d like to ask you some questions, if I may?”

“Sure. Whatever you like.” Maggie knew better than to hope for something like this. Opportunities like this one were reserved for people with money and connections. She didn’t have either.

“I was hoping you’d say that.” He took out a piece of paper from his coat pocket and put on reading glasses that looked far too small for his face. “Do you have any pets?”

Damn it. First question and I can’t even answer it. “Kind of. I’m not sure.” At his expectant look, she continued. “I have a cat that moved in with me. I don’t know if it will want to come.”

“Perfect. The animal should always decide.” He put his finger on another part of the paper. “Who is your favorite book villain?”

She blinked, taken aback. “Miss Havisham.”

He laughed and nodded. “Excellent choice. A classic, with depth and meaning.”

Maggie couldn’t fathom what that said about her, but he looked pleased and she relaxed her grip on the arms of the chair.

“If you were walking across a bridge in another country and an old woman offered you a cherry, would you accept it?”

The visual of that question was so clear in Maggie’s mind it almost felt like a memory. “Yes?”

He frowned slightly. “Are you sure?”

She knew how to answer regular interview questions, but these weren’t regular, and she didn’t want to put her foot in it. She’d have to trust her instincts. “Yes. As long as she wasn’t wearing a pointy hat and I wasn’t under grim looking trees with crows in them.”

He nodded. “Wise. Very good.”

What the hell is this? He didn’t even crack a smile at her joke. In fact, he looked like he’d taken her answer seriously.

“Do you believe in life after death?”

She stiffened. Was this it? Was it some kind of religious nuttery? He didn’t seem the type, but people could be good at hiding who they really were. Still, she’d come this far. “In a way. I’m not religious. I don’t believe there’s someone up there pulling the strings. But I also don’t think I know everything there is to know about how life works, so I can’t say there isn’t something beyond life. I’m comfortable saying I don’t know.” Did that sound too wishy-washy? Would her unwillingness to make a definitive statement take her out of the running?

He clapped his hands like a happy child. “Excellent answer. You’re not a know-it-all, and you’ve got the sense to know it.” He motioned to the area around them. “That’s exactly what this place needs. If you’d like it, the job is yours.”

The burst of elation was quickly followed by a thump of suspicion. “Can you tell me what the job entails?”

He laughed. “Of course. You look after the cottage. Make sure it’s clean, that any upkeep is done, and the gardens stay kept. Obviously, given the location, you have to keep an eye on it in the winter to make sure the snow doesn’t settle on the grass.”

There it is. “We’re in New York. How exactly do I keep snow from settling on the grass? Who owns this place? Will I be reporting to you?”

He pushed a book on the coffee table toward her. She hadn’t noticed it before, and that unsettled feeling she got when she hadn’t noticed the writing in the email came back to her.

“Everything about the day-to-day running of the cottage is in there. You’ll also learn about the history of it, including who built it and why. You’ll have to entertain the occasional guest, but that will be rare. If an issue with the cottage arises, we expect you to handle it, and if need be, you can always call me.” When Maggie reached for the strange looking leather-bound book on the table, he tapped on it. “There’s time for the dry reading later. If you take the job, you’ll have plenty of time to read. You’ll be paid a monthly amount that equates to two-thirds of your present income, and all bills will be paid, including rent. At the end of the year you’ll be given an option to renew your contract, should you have become a satisfactory cottage keeper.”

He held out his hand and she stared at it. She’d expected to do the interview, get details, and then go away to ponder if this was the right move. She didn’t realize she needed to make a decision right away. “Can I think about it?”

He withdrew his hand and his expression turned sad. “I’m afraid not, Ms. McShay. The cottage is a special place and requires constant attention. I feel that you’re the right person for the job, but if you have any doubts then perhaps I was wrong.”

Maggie looked around to buy herself a moment to think. It was a gorgeous place, something right out of a fairy tale. And she didn’t have to leave New York to get it, and that was beyond awesome. There were oddities, but in this city that wasn’t anything new. She pictured going back to her drab, shabby little apartment, and the decision was made. She held out her hand. “I’m the woman for the job.”

He shook her hand enthusiastically. “I knew you would be. We’ll need you to start right away. Of course, if you have to give notice at your accounting job, we understand, but we’d like you to live here while you finish out your contract there. We’ll pay out the advance notice on your apartment so you don’t have to worry about that, and we’ll send movers to help you get packed and moved in here by the end of the week.”

Maggie got up and stood behind her chair, her stomach churning. “How did you know where I work? Or that I live in an apartment?”

He seemed confused. “We did a background check, of course. Right after we scheduled your interview. We wouldn’t allow just anyone access to the cottage, you know.”

That made sense, and yet the fact that they knew that information about her after only a day made her decidedly uncomfortable. “Sure. Okay.” It was all going to happen so fast. Usually she took her time when she made big decisions, weighing out the pros and cons before taking the next step. But there wasn’t much to weigh here. She hated accounting and was ready for a change. This would give her the time to do it, in a place she could never afford on her own, and she wouldn’t have to touch her savings. It would work.

He ushered her out of the house, and she followed him back to the entrance to the apartment building. With a last look over her shoulder, she hoped it wouldn’t all be a weird dream. Back in the elevator, she asked, “How do you keep people from going up there? I mean, there’s no security downstairs.”

He handed her an old-fashioned skeleton key. “That, too, will become clear when you come back with your things. When you get back you’ll need this to take the elevator to the roof. Any questions, check the book. Any true emergencies, give me a call.”

The elevator door opened and they stepped into the foyer, the fluorescent light flickering and casting strange shadows on the unkempt area. She shivered at the difference between the ground floor and the open area on the roof.

He turned to her and gave her a sudden, unexpected hug. He smelled of old pine and memories.

“Good luck, Maggie McShay. May the next year be all you want it to be. We’ll be counting on you.” He squeezed her shoulder and turned away, whistling a happy tune as he walked around the corner.

Maggie stood bemused on the sidewalk. She realized she hadn’t even gotten his name or how to contact him. She looked up to see if she could spot the cottage, but it looked like an ordinary apartment building surrounded by cafes and shops. There was no way someone on the ground would ever know that beautiful gem was sitting up there like the frosting on a cupcake. My cottage. She wanted to jump around and cheer and yell. But she also didn’t want to look utterly insane. Instead, she ran across the park to the subway, excitement frothing in her system like an ocean whipped up by a storm. She had a new life to begin, and she wasn’t going to waste a second getting it underway.

Chapter Three

Wanted: Employees who know what customer service is really about. Must be either above or below average height (over 6 ft or under 5 ft) and blond. Excellent hearing a must. Intelligence unnecessary but ability to keep a secret essential. Reply to bridgetofallenplaces1.


“Look. I don’t know who you think you are. I don’t even know why you chose me. But I feel responsible for you. So either get in, or I leave you behind.”

Maggie was in a standoff with Blech, and the cuts from his claws burned on her hands and arms. The moving guys shifted boxes efficiently around her, staying well out of the way of the argument. Maggie had tried putting the cat in the carrier and succeeded only in pissing them both off. He darted around her to the open window and jumped onto the fire escape.

“Fine. I’ll come back in a few days to see if you’ve changed your mind.” She slammed the carrier door closed and shoved it out of the way against the wall. The week had been a whirlwind of packing and giving notice, and her job had only asked for two weeks so she could pass her clients on to someone else. After five years, there was barely a nod to her time there. She wouldn’t be missed, and she sure as hell wouldn’t miss them.

It took less than an hour to pack her life into the moving van, and when the last box was gone she stood in the empty apartment and looked around. It had been a stopgap place, and she didn’t feel any particular emotion about leaving it. That wasn’t unusual, though. She rarely bothered to develop feelings about a place she was living, since she knew full well she’d be moving on. She shut the door behind her and loped down the stairs to the moving van. When she got in, Blech was curled up in the middle of the bench seat.

“You’re a little shit.” She nodded at the driver, and they set off. She wouldn’t have spent the money on movers herself, but it made the whole process far less painful than moving everything on her own. Definite perk of the new job. As they drove off she kept a lookout for Old Canker. She’d wanted to let him know she was moving, but strangely, she hadn’t seen him all week. She’d just have to come back to chat with him and make sure he was okay.

After they’d navigated the traffic to the East Village, she jumped out in front of the apartment and entered the foyer. Once again, she stopped and stared. A little person sat behind a polished reception desk, her big smile welcoming. The scuffed linoleum had been replaced with what looked like real slate flooring and the lighting was soft.

“Ms. McShay, welcome.” The woman came around the desk and shook her hand. “I’m Brenda, and I’m your gatekeeper, so to speak. If you have any guests or if there’s something I can help you with, just shout.”

Maggie smiled, but she was baffled. “This doesn’t look anything like the place I visited a week ago.”

Brenda laughed and lifted herself back onto the chair behind the desk. “Of course not. We wouldn’t want a cottage keeper who made decisions based on surface appearances, would we?”

“So it was a test?” Maggie thought of the strange interview questions, and that didn’t seem like an impossibility.

Brenda gave her a knowing look. “When it comes to the cottage, most everything is a test.” The movers began bringing in boxes. “If you’ll insert your key into the hole there next to the elevator, they can pile the boxes in and you can unload them at the top. Obviously, they can’t go up with you, so you’ll need to do the unloading on your own.”

Maggie hadn’t considered that, but it made sense. The cottage was a secret kind of place, and they didn’t want knowledge of it getting around. Though why it would matter she didn’t yet fathom. “Sure, no problem.”

She went to the top, unloaded the first batch of boxes, then sent the elevator down for the next batch while she moved her things into the cottage. Part of her was relieved the cottage was just as sweet and welcoming as she’d left it. After only three trips, all the boxes were unloaded. The cottage came furnished, and she was fine with leaving behind the few pieces she’d bothered to buy for the apartment. She went down to thank the movers and sign the paperwork, and Blech sat at her feet.

Brenda peered down at him over the desk. “So he decided to join you after all. Not surprising, really. But you never know when it comes to the animals who choose us. They can be fickle.”

Blech turned away and walked to the elevator, where he sat cleaning his paw.

“If you need any help unpacking or if you have any questions, I’m here to help. But I leave at 4:46 each day, and I don’t work weekends.” Brenda picked up a book that looked like it had been read many, many times, with a cover of a man with flowing hair holding a Barbie doll type woman in old-fashioned clothing.

Feeling dismissed and slightly disgruntled, Maggie waved and got in the elevator with Blech. At the top, he headed straight for the front door and once inside, went directly upstairs to the bed, where he curled up and went to sleep. Maggie watched him, equally irked that he made himself right at home and amazed that he didn’t seem at all interested in his surroundings. “Thanks for your help, butthead.”

She spent the rest of the day unpacking, and her belongings took up hardly any space, something she noted with pride. If and when the time came to move on, it wouldn’t be a hassle. When she was done she found herself at a loss. She spent time opening and closing every door and drawer she came across, looking at the books on the shelves, and wandering through the back and front yards, both of which had fruit trees of various kinds. The backyard made her shiver. She didn’t know if it was the way the shadow from a building nearby fell on it, or if it was something else, but it almost felt as though there were things lurking in the shadows, under the plants or behind the trees, just waiting…for what, she didn’t know. She shook the feeling off and went back inside to the warmth and safety of her new home. The cottage had everything she could possibly need and plenty of things she’d never touch, mostly in the kitchen. When she was done exploring, she grabbed her keys and headed back downstairs.

Brenda wasn’t there and Maggie checked the time: 4:48. Wow, she wasn’t kidding. She left and locked the entry door behind her with the same key she used for the elevator and the front door of the cottage. The mailboxes she’d noticed when she’d first come were still there, and she wandered over to have a look at the names. But there weren’t any. They were all blank. More questions. I need to read that book when I get home. She filled up on groceries at the market and indulged in extra snacks. With the money she’d be saving on bills and rent, she could afford to splurge a little. She bought a few microwave meals too. She’d have to find out who delivered in the area, although the Boilermaker next door smelled divine. She could always find room for a good burger.

Once she was back home and the groceries were unpacked, she lit the fireplace and snuggled down in the overstuffed chair. She picked up the book that was supposed to have all the answers and sipped her premade mojito. It had seemed like an alcohol kind of night, a celebration of new beginnings. She opened the book, and a piece of paper fell out.

Dear Ms. McShay,

Congratulations on your new path. Please note that the book must never leave the premises, and if you’re going to have company, please use the apartment on the floor below yours marked MM rather than using the cottage. Your key will fit the lock to that apartment. Once you read about the cottage, this stipulation will make sense.

Please take the warnings in the book seriously. This is your duty as the cottage keeper, and life as we know it may depend on your diligence.

All the best,

Shamus

Warnings? Apartment? She jumped up, grabbed her keys from the hook by the door, and took the stairs down to the floor below. Sure enough, there was an apartment marked MM and her key fit easily.

It’s like I’ve gone to some New York version of Wonderland. The apartment was the opposite of the cottage. Black, white, and chrome everything made it an ultra-modern showroom. Black glasses with a bottle of wine sat on a bar beside a black leather sofa. Floor to ceiling windows looked out over the East River, and a king-size bed with a black and white tiled headboard was the focus in the huge bedroom. It wasn’t anything like Maggie’s taste, but what did it matter? They didn’t want strangers in the cottage, but they’d given her the means to have people over anyway. It was a hell of a deal. If she had any friends, they’d have been impressed. Casey certainly would be, if and when they finally managed to talk again.

She locked it up behind her and went back to her seat at the fireplace. Blech lay stretched out in front of the fire, all four paws in the air. She was glad he was there as a kind of reality anchor. Otherwise everything might have felt just surreal enough to make her think she was in a coma or drugged in some alley. She reopened the book, and the opening paragraph wasn’t exactly a welcoming beacon.

The back door must always be shut and locked. Do not leave the back door open. If you do so, you are responsible for what comes through, and it is your responsibility to return what and whoever comes through to its rightful place.

She thought back to her tour around the place when she’d first seen it. The back door had been open. She’d locked it behind her, but… What the hell would come through the back door when I’m on a rooftop? Can a skunk scale an apartment building? Maybe it means pigeons? She hadn’t heard any animal sounds coming from anywhere, but then, she hadn’t spent the night yet. Maybe it was something nocturnal.

That definitely didn’t feel like what the book meant. Maybe she’d learn more. She picked up her drink again and kept reading.

Now that you know about the back door, let’s begin. The cottage you’re in has been here since before New York came to be. The city grew up around it, and the cottage simply became incorporated in the way it was needed to.

Maggie set the book down with a sigh. Much like the questions she’d been asked at her interview, the book made no sense either. You didn’t build an apartment building under a cottage. Physics prevented that kind of thing. She’d hoped for answers but so far hadn’t gotten anything more than a cool new apartment. A yawn overtook her, and she glanced at the clock. It had been a full day, and she was exhausted. Maybe she’d have more patience for riddles and weird theories in the morning. She headed to bed, and was surprised when Blech followed her up the stairs and curled up at the foot of the bed. Maybe he wasn’t feeling so certain of himself after all.

She sank into the huge bed, pulled the thick comforter over herself, and was asleep within moments.


* * *


Moonlight broken by dark branches passed over her in bouncing slices, making her dizzy. Someone carried her, their raspy breaths showing in the freezing night air. Fear raced along with them, though there were no sounds of them being followed.

Hurry. We’re almost out of time.

The sound of that voice…the music of it, the despair and love combined to provide a cloak over her. She knew that voice.


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