He watched her go still, like a rabbit sensing a predator. Damn, that analogy was really annoying.
“So. Are you?” He kept both his expression and tone totally neutral.
“Am I what? A witch?” Her voice was high and brittle, her cat’s eyes wide.
“Sure. It’s a simple enough question. Are you or aren’t you a witch?”
While Mel drummed her fingers on the table, Joe let his gaze trail from her sultry mouth down to her sturdy, calloused hands. Odd, he usually liked the refined, perfectly manicured type, but somehow he couldn’t resist the image of those strong, supple fingers splaying across his flesh.
“I guess that would depend on how you define the word witch.” Her shrug almost managed to convey the nonchalance she was obviously striving for. Joe had to grant her points for trying.
“I think the more important question would be, how you define it. Tell me, Melissa. By your own definition, are you a witch?”
He watched with preternatural intensity as she inhaled deeply, gathering her courage. Then she looked up from under her thick fringe of lashes to gaze directly into his eyes.
“Yes. By my definition, and probably most others, I am definitely a witch.”
Her honesty was unexpected. “You mean you’re a Wiccan, right?” That would mean she practiced the ancient religion of witchcraft, without implying she had any actual powers. It seemed like the obvious explanation and had been what he’d expected to discover here in Sanctity.
“No.” Once again, her answer took him by surprise. “I’ve never been into organized religion.”
He suppressed a laugh, wishing once again that his research subject wasn’t so appealing on so many levels. He needed to keep her talking. “So then, what makes you a witch?”
“Magic of course.”
Joe managed not to choke on his burrito. Barely. The heavenly taste in his mouth had suddenly turned to sawdust. “Magic?”
“Umm-hmm. Spells, potions, visions. About what you’d expect.” She calmly forked up another bite of Spanish rice.
Spells? He swallowed forcibly. Potions? This was perfect. Not only did the woman admit to thinking she was a witch, she actually admitted using spells and potions, and to a virtual stranger. This was going to be the easiest research of his career if a little disappointing in the personal arena. Obviously she was flakier than he’d thought.
“I wasn’t going to say anything, because I know it sounds crazy, but I’d rather you heard it from me than from Phil Mercer at the grocery store, or Justine Flannery at the post office.” She shrugged, and the neckline of her peach knit top dipped, dragging Joe’s attention away from witchcraft and onto creamy skin. “It’s not a big secret or anything. The whole town knows, anyway.”
“Black hat and broomstick sort of witch?”
Joe knew as well as anybody, better, in fact that there really were more things under the heavens than were dreamt of in any philosophy. He’d seen things during the course of his research that absolutely defied any rational explanation. He’d run from vampires in Rumania, fought mummies in Egypt, and those were just the tip of the iceberg. He’d spoken with the three-hundred year old descendant of an elf queen. He believed, totally, in the paranormal. It just seemed incongruous to him that the petite, feminine creature across from him could state such a thing so matter-of-factly.
“Not exactly.” She licked a dab of sour cream off the corner of her lip, and a bolt of pure lust shot straight to Joe’s groin. “I mean, I make potions and stuff, but I use herbs, not bat wings and eye of newt. And I practically never cackle.” Her grin turned slightly lopsided, making it all the more engaging. “No flying about on cleaning equipment either, I’m afraid. More’s the pity. I’d save a fortune on truck maintenance.”
“You’d save an even bigger fortune if you’d invest in a vehicle that isn’t older than you are,” he returned dryly, not liking the thought of her old clunker letting her down on some dark and snowy night, far from help. Damn, this protective instinct was really getting to be a nuisance.
“So how did you get to be a witch?” He clung to the possibility that she was just a wanna-be. Television shows like Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer had really popularized the occult lately. His own books hadn’t hurt the phenomenon.
“I didn’t exactly have much choice in the matter.” She sighed. “It’s a hereditary thing.”
“Of course you have a choice,” he disagreed. “Even if you inherited certain—abilities, you can always choose not to use them. We’re ultimately responsible for our own actions if not for our DNA.”
“Really? I suppose you’re right. When I find a sick animal in the woods, I could choose not to help it. When a friend is hurting, I could simply walk away. I just don’t think I could look at myself in the mirror afterward. I didn’t ask to be a witch, but I am, and with power comes responsibility.”