THE UNFORTUNATE MISS FORTUNES

Chapter 1

Mare Fortune bounded down the stairs of the family home in her ragged blue running shorts just as the wind caught the front door and blew it open, sending coppery dust swirling in that sparked in the sunlight.  She batted the dust away and looked out, but instead of Mrs. Elder’s beat-up front porch across the street, she saw golden sunshine beating down on a red tiled roof and a fat laughing baby toddling in a dusty road while a tough dark-haired guy chased after it, laughing, too.  She sucked in her breath and thought, Crash, and reached out into the sunlight for him, but he vanished, him and the baby and the red tile roof and the sunshine, and it was just boring old Duckpond Street under cloudy skies in Salem’s Fork, West Virginia, with Mrs. Elder’s peeling porch across the way, and there was no dust at all.  

“Oh,” Mare said, feeling bereft and then feeling stupid for feeling bereft.  He left you, he’s gone, it’s been years, you’re over it.  She turned to close the heavy door with her butt, just as her oldest sister Dee  took down their mother’s jewelry chest from the mantel in the living room.  Beyond  her, their middle sister Lizzie bent over her metallurgy book at the battered dining room table.. 

Big one coming in.”  Mare yanked down on her tank top, shoving Crash and the whole vision thing out of her mind.  “Big old Beltane storm.”  Her tiger-striped cat, Pywackt, padded down the narrow stairs with dignity, and she made kissing sounds at him, which he ignored.  “Lightning on the mountain just for us, Py, baby.”

“Didn’t we throw those away?” Dee said, cradling the brass-bound box in her slender arms as she frowned at Mare’s tattered shorts.

“You tried,” Mare said.

She nodded, looking distracted. “Come on,” she said and turned toward the dining room, her blue wool suit perfectly fitted to her tiny waist. Mare stuck her tongue out at Dee’s sensible auburn chignon and followed her into the dining room where ethereal Lizzie sat hunched over her book in her purple silk kimono, all blonde curls tangled and blue eyes wide, dripping muffin butter onto her notebook as she ate. 

Dee put the jewelry box on the table and said, “Mind the butter, Lizzie,” and Lizzie turned another page, oblivious to Dee, the butter, and the wind whistling outside the open garden windows.

Mare plopped herself down at the table and looked at the muffins.  “They’re all apple bran, Lizzie.  I like blueberry and lemon poppyseed and--”

Lizzie moved her hand over the muffin basket, still not looking up from her book and tendrils of violet smoke trailed from her fingertips

“Thank you.” Mare craned her neck to look into the basket and then went for a blueberry, but Dee moved the basket out of her reach.

“First we vote.”  Dee straightened the jewelry box.

Lizzie looked up from her book. “Now?”

Crap, Mare thought, and looked longingly at the muffins.  Lizzie had made them so they were bound to be munchable.

“Yes, now.”  Dee sat down at the head of the table.  “If Mare’s going to college, she has to register now. Which means we have to decide if we move so she can go to a school we can afford. And which piece of mother’s jewelry we sell to finance it.  And I have to be at the bank in an hour, so we have to do it now.”

Not now.” Mare stared at a blueberry muffin just out of her reach—come here, damn it—so that a couple of dust motes lazing in the air sparked blue.  “Not now, not ever.”  She lifted her chin, feeling the weight of the muffin in her mind, and it rose slowly until it hovered at eye level. 

Mare,” Dee said.  “Not in front of the window.”

Mare grinned and crooked her finger, and the muffin floated toward her, sparking blue once or twice.

“Oh, dear.” Lizzie waved her hands a little, as if to warn Mare off.  Tendrils of violet smoked from her fingertips, and her butter knife turned into a rabbit.

Py sat up and took an interest.

“Easy there, Lizzie,” Mare said, staring cross-eyed at her muffin, now floating in front of her nose. “You know Py and bunnies.”

Dee flushed. “Put down the muffin, please.  Mare, you know how important this vote is.”

“It’s important to you,” Mare said, concentrating on keeping her muffin afloat.  “It’s not important to me.  As mistress of all I survey, I feel that college would be, how can I put this?  Unnecessary.”  She scowled at Dee—why were they having this conversation again, she was twenty-three, if she didn’t want to go to college, she wasn’t going to go—and her annoyance broke her concentration and the muffin dropped and broke, and Mare uncrossed her eyes and said, “Damn.” She focused on another one, lemon poppyseed this time, making it rise from the muffin basket while Lizzie’s butter-knife rabbit began to forage for crumbs on her notebook page.

At the end of the table, Py began to forage for the rabbit.

“You are not mistress of all you survey,” Dee said exasperated, “you’re--”

“Queen of the Universe,” Mare said.

“—assistant manager of a Value Video!!,” Dee said.

Mare pulled the muffin toward her with her eyes.  “That’s temporary.  It’s only a matter of time until I’m queen of the company.”

“I don’t think Value Video!! has queens,” Dee said dryly.

“I know, they have presidents.  But when I get to the top, that’s gonna change.”

“Well, to become queen of Value Video!! you have to go to college.”  Dee opened the jewelry box. “It was always Mother’s dream that we’d all go--”

Then, she should have stayed with us to see that we went, Mare thought.

“--and it’s your turn.  It’s past time for your turn.  So we vote.”

“I don’t want to,” Mare said.  “Lizzie doesn’t want to vote, either, do you, Lizzie?”

Lizzie looked away from the window.  “What? “

“It’s time to vote,” Dee said gently.

“All right,” Lizzie said, her focus drifting again.

Lizzie!” Mare said.

Lizzie jerked back, startled.

“Lizzie, I’m sorry, it’s okay, it’s okay,” Mare said, but it was too late. Lizzie was raising her hands, fingers waving to ward off Mare’s anger, purple tendrils of apology wafting over the table.

“Oh, hell,” Mare said as lavender smoke rose around them.  

~*~

Lizzie closed her book, letting the purple cloud engulf them. It was so quiet in there.  Two more bunnies popped up, depleting the knife count on the table and drawing Py closer.   She blinked rapidly—it felt as if dust had gotten into her eyes.  For a moment she’d drifted away from her contentious sisters and their tiny living room in Salem’s Fork, and she was in Venice, the water from the canal reflecting on a frescoed ceiling, and she was lying on her back, and someone was leaning over her, and it was…

“Lizzie, honey, take a breath,” Dee said.

“I’m sorry,” Lizzie said to Mare, pulling herself together.  “I wasn’t paying attention.

“It’s okay.” Mare floated a muffin over to her, sprinkling the dispersing fog with blue sparks.  “Dee’s trying to get us to vote and I don’t want to.” 

Lizzie picked the muffin out of the air and sighed the rest of the fog away.  Fog, drifting over the canals of Venice, moody and romantic.  Stop it.   “I’m not sure I want to either.” 

“We’re voting,” Dee said sharply.

She startled the bunny and made it quiver, and Lizzie picked it up and petted it, trying not to quiver herself.  They were fighting again.  She hated the days when they voted. Three more bunnies had popped up on the table during the argument, and Lizzie wondered whether she could take them and sneak back into her room while Mare and Dee glared at each other.

“And just how is ignoring your future going to protect you from Xan the next time she finds us?” Dee said, goaded.

 “What makes you think we need protected from her?” Mare said.  “She’s our aunt. And she hasn’t come after us in years.  I’m not even sure she’s the demon you make her out to be.”  Dee began to protest and Mare overrode her.  “And anyway, I don’t see your college degree getting you much protection or anything else except stuck in that damn bank.  At least I get to watch movies.”

“ I wouldn’t be stuck in that damn bank if you’d grow up and take care of yourself--” Dee stopped.

Oh, Dee.  “I’m sorry,” Lizzie said into the silence, trying to fight the sick feeling inside her.  “Dee, I’m sorry, about the bunnies and I’m sorry about the bank.  I’ll get us money, I’m almost there, I’ve almost got it, I’ll get us the money and you can quit and paint full time, I swear--”

“No, Lizzie, it’s all right.” Dee patted Lizzie’s hand.  She reached out to Mare and Mare pulled back.  “Mare, I didn’t mean it, I’m fine at the bank.  We’re fine.  I just want you to have a future.”

“I have a future.” Mare focused on the muffin crumbs and they piled onto each other in lumpy parodies of muffins, little Frankencakes, misshapen and wrong.

That’s not how you make a muffin, Lizzie thought.  Mare didn’t know how to make things, making things took time and patience and thought and understanding.

Mare shook her head and let them fall apart again. ”You don’t need to work at the bank for me, Dee.  I don’t want college.”

“You haven’t even tried it,” Dee protested.

Mare met her eyes. “What can they teach me that I need to know?  The only one who can do that is Xan. She knows how to use her powers, she knows how to use our powers.  She could teach us, Dee.”

No,” Dee said.  “You don’t know her.  You were too young when we ran, you do not know her.  She’s dangerous.  Tell her, Lizzie.”

“Yes,” Lizzie said. I can’t stand this, she thought, picking up her book again. 

“At least Xan has a good time.” Mare said

 Dee straightened.  “We are not going to Xan, and that’s final.  Now it’s time to vote.”  She turned their mother’s jewelry box so they could see inside. “I vote yes. We use one of mother’s necklaces to send Mare to college.”

“Not the amethyst,” Lizzie said from behind her book.  She could feel the satin sheets against her naked skin, the weight of the stone between her breasts, his breath warm and …  She shook her head.  Not the amethyst.

“Not any of them,” Mare said.  “I vote no.” 

“Lizzie?” Dee said to the cover of the metallurgy book.

Lizzie lowered the book.  “You really don’t want to go to school?” she asked Mare.   

Mare rolled her eyes in exasperation.  “No!

Lizzie looked at Dee. “I’m sorry. I don’t think we should force....” Dee scowled at her and she sucked in her breath. “I abstain.”

Dee drew a deep breath and green fog began to rise, swirling around her.

“Oh,” Lizzie said faintly.  “Oh, no. , , ” 

~*~

Well, that tears it, Dee thought, coughing green fogIt wasn’t bad enough that her head was about to explode,  now the rest of her was, too.  Her skin burned.  Her heart pounded like a jackhammerHer body was in the throes of cataclysmic change, and there wasn’t a damn thing she could do about it.

Couldn’t she just cry when she got upset like other women? Maybe throw a tantrum? Hell, even spinning muffins would be better. No, she had to be theatricalBut God, didn’t the two of them understand?  Did they want to end up stuck here for the rest of their lives?
          She didn’t. She wanted what she’d seen when that damn dust had blown through the door and into her eyes: a high, white studio in Montmartre and  paint on a canvas, and a model she seemed to know. A breathtaking man who smiled as if he’d waited just for her.  . .      

“Oh, Mare,” Lizzie said. 

“I am not taking responsibility for this,” Mare said.

Dee could feel her cells metamorphosing, twinkling into new patterns like the transporter beam in Star Trek. Her throat tightened, her vision sharpened, the colors faded.  Damn it, this was the worst time for this to happen. It was tough enough to get Mare to take her seriously. It was even harder when she was--

Poof!

“An owl!” Lizzie said, as she waved away the green fog. “Oh, dear. Are you a screech owl?”   

“I’m a pissed-off big sister owl,” Dee said, but it came out in screeches and chirps only her sisters could understand.  She wasn’t sitting at the table anymore, she was on top of it, clad in cinnamon feathers and perched on a set of talons, frantically scrabbling for purchase in the nest of her collapsed clothing.

“You sound like a screech owl.” Mare shoved her chair under the table.  “Not that you don’t most of the time anyway.  I have to run.  You have a nice, uh, flight.”

She did not always screech.

“You’re not going anywhere until I return to form,” she screeched.

Mare bent down, so that she was eye to eye, which made Dee blink. “You look very Disney, all ruffled up like that. You should have a perky little musical number with the other forest creatures coming right up. Call me if the urge to sing sweeps over you.”

“Go on and run like the dog you are,” Dee said. “But I’ll be here when you--”

The doorbell rang.

For a second, they froze, looking at each other.

“I’ll get the bunnies,” Lizzie said.

“I’ll check the window,” Dee said.

“I’ll get your clothes,” Mare said and scooped up the nest out from under her. 

Lizzie shoved the bunnies into the kitchen. Mare tossed Dee’s clothes into her room.  Dee focused on the view out the front window, which revealed nothing more than the jungle of flowers that was their front yard and the picket fence that contained it.

“One person at the door,” she said. “No official vehicles at the gate.”

Lizzie sat back down and tried to look calm. Dee tried to look as normal as an owl could under the circumstances. They all nodded to each other, and Mare opened the door.

“Well, hi,” a baritone voice said. “You must be Moira Mariposa Fortune.”

Mare’s mouth dropped open.  Dee’s dropped even farther. That man. The

one she’d just seen in the dust: she swore it was him. Tall, lithe, and dark, his sable hair just a little too long, his leather jacket a little too worn, and his battered jeans way too tight. In short, as wicked as sin. Especially when he smiled. When he smiled he was Dennis Quaid in Daniel Day-Lewis’s body. And he’d smiled at her.

Mare finally snapped her jaw shut.  “What’s it to you?”  

“Well, if I’m right,” he said with a big smile, “it means I can stop tramping across this town like a door-to-door salesman.”

“Then move on, Willie Loman,” Mare said and tried to shut the door.

The guy stuck his  foot in her way. “If you’ll just listen….”

Dee’d listen all right. She’d nestle against his neck and trill in his ear.  She might be the oldest virgin in North America, but she wasn’t a dead virgin . And she could swear she knew what every inch of him looked like without those clothes.

“Good heavens,” Lizzie whispered from behind her. “You’re preening.”

Good heavens, she was. Fluffing her feathers and twitching her tail and tucking her head, as if the guy standing in the door was a big barn owl.

“Did you know you have a screech owl on your table?” he asked Mare.

“No,” Mare said.  “I hadn’t noticed.”

“Get him out of here,” Dee begged.

It came out as a descending carillon of chirps. The guy on the other side of the door lifted amazed eyebrows. “And I think she likes me.”

Leave it to her to turn into an owl in front of an ornithologist. Well, at least she was already changed. Considering how excited this guy was making her, it didn’t even bear thinking about what else she could have turned into.

“You think wrong,” Mare said.  “And good-bye.”

She began to close the door. He flashed that smile again, and Dee almost slid completely off the table.   

“Wait,” he said. “Please.  I’m looking for Moira Mariposa, Elizabeth Alicia and Deirdre Dolores Fortune. I’m researching a book.”

“Our name’s O’Brien.”  Mare stopped with the door half closed.  “A book?”

He nodded. “About Phil and Fiona Fortune.  That’s your real name, isn’t it?  You just took O’Brien as an alias when you moved here.”

Dee shut her eyes, suddenly sick. Oh, hell. Didn’t it just figure? She couldn’t even have a decent fantasy without it blowing up in her face.

“No, our name really is O’Brien,” Mare said, trying to close the door. “And we’re orphans.   Would we lie to you?”

“Since your parents are still alive, I’d say that’s a yes,” he said, his foot still in the way, perfectly calm for all the disaster he was unleashing. “I was at least hoping to talk to your oldest sister, Deirdre.”

“She doesn’t want to talk to you,” Dee chirped. “Get rid of him.”

Her heart was slamming against her tiny chest. Her head threatened to explode again. It wasn’t fair. They’d run so far, hidden so well. And here was the man of her dreams—well, her dust-- blithely threatening to do a great big Geraldo on them.

“Thanks,” Mare said, “but no thanks. Now if you’d move your foot so I could close this door--”

He just kept smiling. “That’s what I was told you’d say.”

“Really?” Mare asked. “And here I thought I was being delightfully unpredictable. Go away.” 

“Find out who told him who we are,” Dee begged.

“How about we start over?” he asked, putting out a hand. “I’m Danny James. Like I said, I’m researching a book ---“

He never had the chance to finish.  Mare kicked his foot out of the way and slammed the door. Then she turned and looked at her sisters. “Well, this is another fine mess the ‘rents have gotten us into.”

Dee was frantic. That was disaster standing on their front porch. How could Mare just dismiss it like an inconvenient Mormon on a mission?  “We have to find out what’s going on,” she said. Flapping her wings, she swooped over to perch on the living room windowsill. 

“I don’t have to find out,” Mare said. “I don’t care.  I got rid of him.  He’s gone.”

“I don’t have time,” Lizzie said, picking up her book.  “I have work to do.  I’m really close to a breakthrough.”

“Well, I have time.” Dee stared out the front window where she could see Danny James pause out by the curb. “What if she sent him?”

“Who?” Mare asked.

Dee glared. “Xan.”

Mare shook her head. “She’s your nightmare in the closet.  Let it go, Dee.”

“Open the door.” Dee ruffled her feathers, preparing to fly. “I’m going after him. Somebody has to keep an eye on him. I can do it without being caught.”

“You really don’t think he’ll find an owl on his ass suspicious?” Mare asked.

“He’ll never see me.”

“How about when you change back to human form in the middle of the sidewalk and you’re naked?”  Mare stopped and looked thoughtful.  “Actually, men usually don’t ask questions about naked women, so you might actually get away with that one.”

Dee ruffled her feathers again.  “I have clothes stashed all over this town. Nobody’s going to see me naked.  And anyway, we have to know.  I can at least see where he goes before I have to be at the bank.”

“Couldn’t he just be what he says?” Lizzie asked. “A book researcher?”

Dee inched her way to the edge of the table.  “Maybe, but we need to make sure. Last time we almost didn’t get away before Xan found us.  Open the door.”

Lizzie and Mare looked at each other.

“Maybe we should vote on it,” Mare said.  “Just because Dee is over twenty-eight, that doesn’t mean she gets to choose her own life--”

MARE!” Dee screeched, and Lizzie slipped around her and opened the front door.

Dee shoved off the dining room table and launched herself past them, out into the morning sky.

~*~

Xantippe Fortune put aside her silver spell bowl, the coppery dust of the True Desire spell gleaming in the bottom, and then wiped her see glass clean while the short, dark-haired woman next to her looked defiant but nervous.  Very nervous.

Good, Xan thought and settled into the silver brocade wing chair, the folds of her red gown falling smoothly over her wrists.

It was hell finding competent help for a supernatural power heist in the twenty-first century, especially in a place as small and clueless as Salem’s Fork.

“All I did was sneeze,” Maxine said, smoothing down her polyester peasant blouse.

Fashion always tells, Xan thought.  “You sneezed on a magic glass, Maxine.  Twice.  The first one blew the front door wide open, which made the sisters close it instead of leaving it open to the screen door, which made it impossible to hear what was happening in the front of the house.  The second sneeze almost made them close the garden windows and if they had, I would have lost the dining room conversation.  Because you were never taught to use a handkerchief, they think a hurricane is coming.  Plus it’s unsanitary.  You just bought a diner, woman.  I shudder to think what happens in your kitchen.”

“I’m going to call it Maxine’s,” Maxine said in a dreamy voice.

“No, you are not,” Xan said.  “You are going to do nothing to call attention to yourself or to the fact that you have suddenly acquired enough money to buy a diner.  Our arrangement was that I would give you the money to buy the diner in exchange for your clandestine services for the next three days,  but you must not call attention to yourself.  That’s where the clandestine part comes in, Maxine.  Until Monday, the Greasy Fork stays The Greasy Fork.  Do you understand?”

“There are gonna be big changes,” Maxine said, looking off into the distance at her magnificent future. 

Maxine!” Xan snapped, and Maxine jerked to attention.  “What are you going to do for the next three days?” 

“I’m gonna watch the Fortune sisters and not make any big changes because I’m clandestine,” Maxine said.

“And?”

“And I’m gonna keep an eye for the three men who come for them.”

“And?”

“And I’m gonna tell you everything.”

Xan settled back into her wing chair again.  “Good, Maxine.”

“And then I’m gonna sell martinis at the Greasy Fork.”

Maxine!

“But not until Monday,” Maxine said hurriedly.  

When hunting season comes, Xan thought.  I’m going to turn you into a rabbit.  “Good, Maxine.  You may go.”

Maxine looked around the room.  “How do I--”

Xan waved her hand and Maxine vanished, only to reappear in the see glass, behind The Greasy Fork’s dumpster, looking dizzy and slightly nauseated.  

I know how you feel, Xan thought.  The whole town makes me feel that way.

Then she turned her attention back to the Fortune house, her heart beating a little faster now that her plan was in motion.   She’d cast one spell and brought the sisters’ True Loves to Salem’s Fork, then cast another and the sisters had seen their True Desires.  Now Danny James had met Dee and Dee was on her way after him.   Lizzie was about to turn around and meet . . . well, somebody amazing.   And Mare--

“Xantippe?”

Xan sat bolt upright as Maxine stood before her.  “How the hell did you get back here?”

Maxine blinked.  “The portal by the dumpster was still open.”

Xan closed her eyes. If someone breathes in natural psychic energy her entire life, Xan told herself, even if she’s a dolt, she’ll pick up some basic skills.  “Yes?”

“Danny James just checked into The Lighthorse Harry Lee Bed and Breakfast Inn.”

Xan nodded.  “Thank you.”

Maxine nodded back.  “About the martinis, I--”

“Maxine, do you have any idea how powerful I am?”

“No, Xantippe.”

Xan waved her hand and Maxine became a mouse, frozen in terror on the floor, the only part of her left that resembled Maxine her tiny horrified beady black eyes.  Xan waited a beat and then waved her hand and Maxine stood before her again, shaking so hard, her head bobbed.

“Never forget, Maxine,” Xan said gently, “that I turned you back by choice.  The next time, I may leave you turned.  And you might not be a mouse.”

Maxine sucked in a terrified breath.

“But of course, I won’t,” Xan said.  “I need you, Maxine.  You’re my friend.”  She smiled into Maxine’s eyes, radiating hypnotic goodwill, and after a moment, Maxine relaxed.

“Good one,” Maxine said, still a little rocky.

“Go watch the girls.”  Xan waved her hand and Maxine disappeared, only to reappear in the see glass, next to the dumpster again, stumbling as she landed.  “Next time, it’s in the dumpster, Maxine,” Xan said to the glass, closed the portal, and sat back, catching sight of the sisters in another angle of the see-glass: Dee flying away in the shape of an owl and Lizzie and Mare in the doorway, talking. 

Xan leaned closer to the glass and whispered, “It’ll be a fair trade, darlings, those spells were true,” and Lizzie looked up startled and said something to Mare, who looked stolid as ever, shaking her head and then pounding off down the pavement like the draft horse her nickname said she was. 

They didn’t know it, but they were lucky to have Xan looking out for them.

Especially Lizzie, Xan thought, feeling a pang of jealousy as Lizzie turned to go inside.  

Especially Lizzie . . .

 

 
 
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