CHAPTER ONE

       Amanda confidently breezed off the elevator, her shoulders back, displaying a voluptuous hourglass figure encased in a soft cream dress that caressed her shape and fell above her knees. “If you want to succeed in life, you’ve got to put yourself out there,” she repeated her daily mantra.

       With a flick of her French-manicured finger, she wrapped a stray auburn curl behind her ear and felt her hair bounce against her shoulders with each self-assured step. “Hold on to your dreams, and don’t let anyone or anything stand in your way.”

       Passing the receptionists, Cindy and Misty, Amanda graced them with a quick smile and a brisk, “Good morning.”

       They returned her greeting with open smiles. “Good morning, Miss Santorelli.”

      Amanda continued toward her office. “Believe in yourself. Because if you don’t—no one else will.”

       Entering her office, Amanda found Mark, her boss, poised at the edge of her desk, a rose in hand. The way he greeted her every morning.

       “Good morning,” Amanda said in a low, husky voice. She was drawn into Mark’s embrace as he gave her a light kiss to start the day.

       “Hello, beautiful,” Mark replied.

       A man’s shoulder bumped Amanda, jostling her out of her daydream. People hurried past, totally oblivious to her.

       “Hey, lady,” a gruff voice snapped at Amanda as several curious pairs of eyes turned to critically inspect her from inside the packed elevator. “Move it, sugar, we haven’t got all day.”

       Mortified, Amanda dashed onto the crowded lift, sucking in her stomach as the mirrored doors closed on her. Her cheeks heated at the sound of the passengers’ chuckles.

       Inhaling deeply to calm her nerves, she recognized Mark Abbott’s spicy cologne. Glancing to her left, Amanda found her boss two people over, leaning against the elevator wall, clicking away on his cellphone. Since he hadn’t noticed her grand entrance, she indulged in her guilty pleasure and looked him over.

       Amanda’s gaze traveled upward, past his muscular chest covered in a silver-gray silk shirt. Delicious. Just enough chest muscles to run your hands across. A familiar gray-and-red-striped tie that she wouldn’t mind loosening. She paused at the chiseled cleft in his chin and rubbed her palms against her skirt so she didn’t do anything stupid. She finally peeked at his clear blue eyes, which continued to scan the newspaper articles and totally ignored her.

       Amanda sighed. Oh well, at least she could daydream.

       She caught the bored amusement of some passengers in the mirrored doors and quickly glanced away. “Sorry,” she whispered. She just wanted to blend into the crowd and pretend her impressive entrance had never happened.

       The elevator doors opened, letting passengers off on the third floor, creating some space, only to have the elevator fill up with more passengers.

       Peter from security hopped on. “Made it.” He winked at her.

       He happened to be married to Stephanie, one of her sweetest cousins. Amanda tilted her head to look into his face. She enjoyed his sense of humor and harmless teasing.

       “Hey, gorgeous.” Peter turned to face the mirrored elevator doors and raised his voice to ask, “So, is that boss of yours working you too hard?”

       Amanda elbowed him. “Shush.” She pushed her large-framed glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Of course he isn’t.”

       Mark finally looked up. “Amanda?” His confused expression dissolved into a grin as he pocketed his cellphone. “Peter. Excuse me, please,” he said to the passengers in front of him, and they parted so he could squeeze in next to her.

       “Good morning, Amanda. I didn’t see you there.”

       Was she that invisible? “No problem.”

       With a brief smile, Mark turned to Peter. “I have a couple of questions regarding one of our condos…” he said and continued his discussion above her head.

       Again, dismissed and forgotten.

       Sandwiched between two giants, she followed their conversation and ended up feeling like a spectator at a tennis match. Back and forth. Back and forth. Glancing at the rising floor numbers, Amanda wished the elevator would hurry so she could leave the feeling of being insignificant behind.

       The doors opened on the tenth floor, letting more passengers off the crowded elevator. Only two floors left. When the elevator started again, Mark’s arm brushed against hers. That innocent touch sent her heart pounding. It didn’t help that he was breathtakingly gorgeous. Thank goodness he couldn’t read her mind. She only had to think about him to get embarrassingly aroused. She despised how her insides tightened at his slightest touch. But they always did, while Mark remained unaffected.

       “You okay?” Peter nodded to her flushed reflection.

       Amanda waved his concern away. “It’s just warm in here.”

       Almost there, she thought when she heard an annoyed “Hmm,” from the back of the car. With a quick glance in the mirror, she spotted Agnes. Oh hell, not again. Each time their paths crossed, Agnes either gave her a dirty look or slipped in a snide remark.

       “Good morning.” Amanda smiled at the bitch.

       Agnes looked away and pretended she hadn’t heard. Whatever. If she wanted to play it that way, it was fine with Amanda.

       Hey, it wasn’t her fault she’d competed for and won the position of assistant to the CEO. But Agnes’s antagonism stemmed not from her missed promotion, but because she had a huge crush on Mark. While Agnes had moved on to another company department, Amanda got to work with Mark.

       Amanda inhaled a fortifying breath and slowly exhaled. One of these days, I’m going to tell her exactly what I think of her.

       “Go for it.” Peter must have seen her irritated expression. Bending close to her ear, he whispered like a little devil on her shoulder, “If she gets nasty, you’ve got me as backup.”

       Amanda shook her head.

       Peter shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

       Amanda knew she needed to be more assertive. Hell, her family kept telling her she needed to put more starch into her backbone, but she was uncomfortable with the idea of confronting anyone.

       The very thought made her nauseated. “I wouldn’t want to cause a scene,” she whispered.

       When the elevator doors opened to their floor, Amanda made her escape. “See you around, Peter, and hug Stephanie for me.”

       “Not so fast.” With a hand on her waist, Peter detained her.

       She scooted out of the way to avoid the other passengers.

       “Peter, I’ll talk to you later.” With a curt nod, Mark strolled to his office. The receptionists stopped talking to greet him as he passed.

       Amanda followed Mark’s progress until he disappeared through the office door. His chiseled good looks made her weak in the knees, but Amanda made sure not to show it. She wasn’t going to place herself at the end of a very long line of women vying for his attention.

       “Oh no, please tell me not you too!”

       Amanda jerked her attention back to Peter and felt her face burn with discomfort. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

       Peter nodded in the direction Mark had gone. “You’ve fallen for him.”

       “Of course I haven’t.” If that was the case, she needed to sound more convincing.

       Peter shook his head. “You’ll have to line up with the rest of the women on this floor.”

       More like the rest of this building. “Exactly.” She pushed her glasses up her nose. “And no, I won’t. Remember, I’m the levelheaded one that everyone comes to for help. His types”—she pointed in the direction of Mark’s office—“are the gorgeous women who parade in here, dressed to the nines and full of confidence.” Everything Amanda wasn’t and had always wanted to be.

       “Have you looked in the mirror lately?” Peter asked, tapping her gently on the nose. “You’re better looking and a lot smarter. All you need are some tips on makeup and more daring clothes, and you’ll knock them dead.”

       “And a personality change.”

       “No, you don’t. If you ever decide to come out of your shell, I’ll volunteer myself and your pregnant cousin to be your bodyguards. With my height and Stephanie’s roundness, we’d make one heck of a barrier. But don’t tell her I said that, or she’ll have my balls.”

       Amanda smiled. “And protect me from what?”

       “Sweetie, from the guys who’ll come knocking on your door.” With a wave, Peter walked away.

       There was no chance in hell she could become the woman Peter had just described. It would be wonderful but utterly impossible. She would need a miracle, and Amanda knew that miracles didn’t happen.

       She passed the semicircular reception area where Cindy and Misty monitored the comings and goings of everyone on their floor. They reminded her of twins, with their short skirts, tight tops, and shoulder-length, streaked blonde hair. “Morning.”

       “Morning,” they chimed as they continued to people-watch.

       It always amazed Amanda how much effort they put into gathering office gossip. If they put half as much effort into their jobs as they did chitchatting, they’d get some work done. With a fortifying breath, Amanda braced for their usual barrage of insincere compliments.

       “I just love that black outfit on you.” Misty smiled, showing off her perfect teeth.

       Amanda smiled back. “Thanks.” Sure she did. It was more like, where the hell did you get such a drab outfit?

       “And the way you twisted your hair up is trés chic,” Cindy piped in.

       “Why, only yesterday, Greg was saying how slim you looked,” Misty said.

       So now she was a fat cow? “How nice of him to notice.” This was great! Even the office playboy had been talking behind her back. She smoothed her skirt over her ample hips and hurried past. “Later.”

       “That’s not what he said!” Cindy’s not-so-quiet whisper reached her. “He said that she was on the chubby side of voluptuous.”

       She wished those two idiots would shut up.

       Misty snorted. “He also said that if she wasn’t such a prude, he’d make a run for her himself. But I know for a fact she’s not his type.”

       As if! That slime bucket wouldn’t make it to first base. She entered her office, glad to leave behind their chattering for the calm, taupe-toned atmosphere of her private space.

       Her feet sank into plush, steel-blue carpet as she circled her desk and dropped her purse under it. Settling into her soft leather office chair, Amanda switched on her computer and started opening her e-mails.

       Mark gave her a distracted nod as he talked on the phone.

       She returned a nod back to him. At this angle, they could look at each other through the connecting door. The setup was great for working but terrible on her nerves.

       The sun shone through the window behind him, illuminating the bronze highlights in his wavy brown hair. The ends curled at his collar. Amanda smiled. He needed a haircut. Conscious that she was staring, she abruptly looked away, not wanting Mark to find her gawking.

       Some mornings he’d follow her progress into the office, while other times, he was so engrossed with his work he didn’t know she was there. It was because he kept tabs on everything that went on in the company that he was so observant.

       She opened a new screen and brought up the day’s agenda. It wasn’t anything personal, his watching her. For Mark, it was strictly business. From the prickling sensation at the back of her neck, Amanda knew she had diverted her attention in the nick of time.

       The guy had radar. It didn’t matter how quietly she entered the room, Mark knew she was there. She could feel his piercing blue eyes locate and zero in on her. Yet, he didn’t acknowledge her presence as he continued to talk on the phone.

       God, she hated when he did that. It was nerve-racking when she caught Mark thinking with that far-off look and staring right through her. It always left her flustered, her palms sweating. She wanted to march up to his desk, wave her hand in front of his face, and yell, Hello? I’m here.

       Mark gave a distracted nod of acknowledgment as he concluded his telephone call. “That was the vice president.”

       Amanda clasped her hands on her lap, giving him a smile her Aunt Lilly would have called “ladylike.” She wasn’t sure what her smile looked like, but it felt stiff. “And…?”

       “He was commending you on the great job you did on developing our last job site. He said if you keep this up, you’d end up as one of the directors.”

       Amanda straightened in her seat and beamed at Mark. “My hard work is finally paying off.”

       At twenty-six, she was the company’s youngest-ever assistant to the CEO. The smile Mark returned looked stiff, and for a moment, Amanda could swear she’d glimpsed bored contempt. Where the hell had that come from?

       “You’ve only been here, what? Little over a year?” He gave her a thin-lipped smile. “And already you’ve rocketed up the ranks.”

       He made it sound like an insult. “Ya… Sure… Eighteen months, but who’s counting?” It wasn’t as if she’d sat on her fat ass and done nothing. Her pleasure quickly evaporated. “Don’t forget, I completed my master’s degree at night school and took courses the company offered.” Amanda had never known Mark to be anything but politely supportive.

       “Very commendable.”

       What was up with him? “Thanks.”

       Mark’s eyes widened in surprise. “That’s it? Any other woman would be dancing in her seat or texting her friends.”

       Confusion and regret warred within her. “I’m not like other women.” Jeez, who spit in his coffee? She focused on her computer screen.

       Outside her office door, the sound of laughter caught her attention. Greg was chatting up the receptionists. He was dating both of them, and neither knew about the other. Amanda wondered when Greg’s two-timing would blow up in his face. She’d love to be there when it happened.

       “Creep,” she mumbled under her breath.

       He might be good-looking, but he knew it and used it to his advantage. Tall and slim, with brown hair and brown eyes, he worked his charm on all the ladies. But the more Amanda got to know him, the more she thought of him as an octopus. All hands.

       At last year’s Christmas party, under the guise of giving her a friendly hug, his hands had brushed her bottom. It had happened so fast she had been uncomfortable about saying anything. It had left her feeling cold. Since then, she’d kept her distance.

       Amanda shrugged, opening an e-mail and efficiently dealing with it. She couldn’t waste her time on insignificant thoughts. Surveying the tall pile of files on her desk, she reached for the first one. “It’s going to be a long day.”

       She knew she’d end up eating at her desk, trying to keep up with Mark. She pushed her glasses up her nose, tucked an escaping auburn curl behind her ear, and began extracting data for a graph she was compiling.

       The next time Amanda looked up at the wall clock from the whirlwind of multitasking, it was five thirty. With a groan, she stretched her arms over her head to ease the kinks in her shoulders and neck.

       “Amanda, once you’ve finished with the account statements, can you start on the progress reports for the job site down by the lakeshore?” Mark asked.

       Amanda jumped, hearing his voice right beside her. Damn, how long had he been standing there? For a big guy, he sure moved quietly. She dropped her hands. “Was there anything else?”

       Mark ticked off some last-minute changes before dropping a file on her desk. “These are the adjusted costs for the complex by the lake. Make sure the appropriate departments get them.”

       Amanda squinted over the top of her glasses. Although Mark had put in a full day’s work, his charcoal gray suit was still perfect, his tie was in place, and she could smell a hint of his cologne and breathed it in greedily. Delicious. She had to crane her neck back to look into his eyes.

       “What if I get to those reports first thing Monday morning?”

       Mark looked at his watch. “Is that the time?”

       “Yes, it is. I was just about to close down my computer.” She hoped he got the hint so she could leave work on time today.

       “That’s no problem. We’ll call it quits. Have a nice weekend.” Mark closed the door to his office behind him.

       Amanda threw a paper clip at the closed door and blew a baleful breath into her bangs. Again, dismissed and forgotten. She was so out of there.

       Disgusted, Amanda grabbed her purse from beneath her desk and dashed for the washroom. Shoving the door open, Amanda caught her reflection and her eyes widened. “Oh God, what a mess.”

       Her hair had escaped its constraints, and her glasses had spent most of the day traveling up and down her shiny nose. Plucking out her pins, Amanda pulled a brush through her stubborn auburn curls before pinning her hair firmly back in place.

       In the mirror, a pair of sad, almond-shaped green eyes scrutinized her. “I’m still a disaster,” she said, her mood souring. “It’s Friday night, no date, and I’m talking to myself.”

       Turning from side to side, she sucked in her stomach and appraised how well her suit had held up. She loved to wear suits that hid her figure, and this was her least favorite. It nipped into her waist, and the straight fall of the skirt emphasized her wide hips.

       She exhaled, and the waistband doubled over again. “Screw it.” She gave her reflection one last critical look. “I’m outta here. Cookie-dough ice cream, here I come.”

       Amanda flung her purse over her shoulder and headed for the elevator. Normally at the end of the day, she took the stairs down as exercise, but today she felt lazy. Passing the reception area, she heard Mark’s and Greg’s voices.

       “You wouldn’t have passed Amanda, did you, Greg?”

       “No, why?” Greg asked in a bored tone. “Did you need to ask her something about work?”

       “No, it wasn’t important,” Mark said.

       That stopped Amanda from revealing herself. She could hear Mark was annoyed he hadn’t been able to catch her before she left.

       “It’s been a breeze settling into this position, hasn’t it?” Greg asked.

       “I couldn’t have done it without Amanda.”

       A self-gratified smile spread across her face as a surge of energy replaced her work weariness. Peeking in, she saw the side view of Greg, seated at the edge of her desk with his arms folded across his chest. Mark leaned against his doorframe with his legs and arms crossed in a relaxed pose.

       “That’s our mouse. Works really hard and you’d never know she was there.” Amanda could hear the disdain in Greg’s voice.

       Amanda gasped as old feelings of inadequacy, left behind by a manipulative ex-boyfriend, overwhelmed her. Tinges of anger and humiliation intermingled. It was the same thing all over again. It didn’t matter how hard she tried, she always came up short.

       Having heard enough, she quickly made a U-turn and rushed back down the hall and through the stair exit. With each step, Amanda’s anger grew. Her speed increased. She held on to the railing as she flew down the flights of stairs.

       “Mouse, ha! There’s only one rodent in this office, you self-centered, good-for-nothing rat!” She was just warming up.

       Abruptly stopping on a step, Amanda placed her hands on her hips. “I should turn around, march right back up there, and confront that overgrown baboon, instead of scurrying away like the mouse he said I was.” She stomped back up the stairs.

       Reaching the exit door to her floor again, Amanda grabbed the handle and froze. Breathing heavily, she squeezed the handle until her knuckles turned white. “Come on, you can do it! Just open the damn door, and tell him what you think.” Her hand wouldn’t budge.

       With a defeated moan, Amanda banged her forehead against the door, turned around, and stomped down the stairs. “I’m not a mouse!”

       Reaching the ground-floor exit door, she gave it a hard shove. It hit the wall with a satisfying bang. “I’m not a mouse!”

       If that was the case, then why was she running away again?

CHAPTER TWO

       Squealing her old Honda Civic into reverse, Amanda changed gears and sped out of the company’s parking lot. She rolled down her windows and turned on the fan full blast, hoping to push some of the hot, sticky air out. Her air conditioner was still broken. Beads of sweat trickled down between her breasts, making her suit stick to her. Making her more uncomfortable, more miserable than she already was.

       “I’m an idiot to listen to a word Greg says.” She defiantly pulled the pins out of her hair, giving it a shake and letting the wind play with it. With the humidity, it curled into soft ringlets.

       “I act and dress the way I do because it suits me just fine.” She finger-jabbed the air to make her point. “If I wanted, I could wear something risqué just like the best of them. I bet I’d pop some eyes open when they took a gander at mousy Amanda and her cleavage. That would give them a nice wake-up call.” Her words were filled with false bravado.

       Amanda turned onto her street and slowed down. Large oak trees lined both sides, forming a natural canopy. The dense leaves sheltered the playing children, providing a partial shade where the sun’s rays filtered through. Parents sat on the curbs, taking turns watching the kids.

      She sighed. “Oh hell, who am I kidding?” Her anger drained, leaving a heaviness centered around her chest. “I always run in the opposite direction. And I hate it.”

       Driving along the avenue, Amanda let the beauty of the old homes soothe her, and she exhaled a sigh, releasing some of her tension. “God, I love this neighborhood.”

       Over the years, the homes had been renovated, garages had been added, rooms erected. The exteriors of some had been stuccoed. Walkways had been repaved with flagstones, lending the area a more affluent look.

       Front lawns held a profusion of plants and flowers in bloom. A gentle breeze carried the smell of roses and cooled off her heated skin. She inhaled the sweet fragrance and sighed.

       Close to home, Amanda quietly admitted her secret. “I don’t make waves and I wear the clothes I do so I can blend into the background.”

       She turned into her driveway, and a two-story Victorian house came into view behind large weeping willows. A gingerbread scroll accented a charming turret located at the front of the house. Amanda spotted her sister under the covered front porch, relaxing on the wooden swing.

       This late in the day, the side and back covered porches were already hidden under a lazy shade. Yellow and orange groupings of California poppies welcomed her at the front of the house. Amanda drove up the driveway, parked in the garage, and headed back toward Sarah.

       She had one leg tucked under her while the other pushed against the wooden planks. “Come and take a load off your feet,” she said, the swing swaying with a lethargic motion.

       Amanda couldn’t get over how different they were. While she got all her coloring from her Irish mother, her older sister got hers from their Sicilian father. With straight, jet-black hair that hung down her back, and brown, almond-shaped eyes, she reminded Amanda of a gypsy, especially when she wore long, flowered skirts and off-the-shoulder blouses.

       They may have been different in appearance, but they had a very close relationship. They could sense each other’s emotions and finish each other’s sentences. Aunt Lilly said that in one of their previous lives, they must have been twins.

       Walking along the flowered walkway in front of the house, Amanda inhaled the fragrance of English lavender planted along the borders. Wearily climbing the last few steps, she plopped down beside Sarah. The remainder of her energy evaporated. “God, what a day.”

       Leaning her head back, Amanda closed her eyes and enjoyed the to-and-fro motion of the swing and the gentle squeak of the chains. She toed off her shoes and gave a tired sigh. The playful chirping of the birds in the surrounding trees embraced her.

       “Bad day?”

       “Hm.” She didn’t want to talk.

       After a few moments, she straightened, peeled off her hot jacket, and draped it over the side of the swing. Unbuttoning her cuffs, she rolled her sleeves up before reclining in a more comfortable position.

       “Here.” Sarah passed Amanda a tall glass of iced tea. “You can have Aunt Lilly’s glass, since I have no clue where she disappeared to.”

       Amanda pressed the cool dampness of the glass against her temple.

       “You’re home early for a change.” Sarah nudged the porch boards with her foot and rocked the swing.

       “I worked through my lunch hour.”

       “Again? No wonder you look beat.”

       “You don’t have to tell me.” Amanda took a sip of her drink. The cold liquid refreshed her parched throat.

       Sarah narrowed her eyes. “You’re not just tired? Something else is bothering you.”

       Amanda gave her sister a weary smile. “You’re good. What gave it away?”

       “You’re distracted. So tell your big sister what’s bugging you.”

       She might as well unload. “I overheard Mark talking to Greg.” Amanda frowned when she remembered how Greg had sat on her desk and insulted her.

       “Greg Norman?” Sarah snickered. “Let me guess, he was his usual charming self.”

       “Basically.” Amanda pressed the icy glass to her forehead, then down the sides of her face. “He said I was quiet as a mouse, and that I was invisible.”

       “That about covers it.”

       “Gee, thanks.” Anger and regret warred within her. The workday had started off terrible with the insincere compliments she had received and ended with insults she didn’t need to hear.

       “Normally I’d tell you to tell Greg to go screw himself. But this time, in his own petty way, he got it right.”

       “Thanks.” So much for sisterly support.

       Sarah gave her the once-over. “Look at you.”

       Amanda did and shrugged. “I’ve always dressed like this.”

       “Liar. Do you remember that time in college?” Sarah pushed.

       “No,” Amanda stalled. “I don’t remember.”

       “Liar, liar.” Sarah sang as she crossed her arms over her chest. “You finally gathered your courage and wore a miniskirts and sexy top. You looked sensational, and you had a bounce to your step. But when you returned home that night, you were pale; your eyes were wounded.”

       “Yeah, don’t remind me.” That evening had been traumatic for her.

       “Since then, I’ve never seen you wear anything but protective covering.”

       She’d gone through hell trying to fit into her ex-boyfriend’s narrow ideal. Each time she’d tried to step over the lines, she was made to feel like a failure. Fearing rejection, Amanda had kept her voluptuousness and personality hidden, suffocating the vibrant person within, afraid she wouldn’t be liked for who she was.

       On the night Sarah referred to, Amanda had been paraded around the room, told to get drinks, and made to feel worthless. While her ex had laughed with a group of people, she’d grabbed her purse and left.

       Sarah let out a heavy sigh. “You’ve got to stop hiding and learn to trust. Not every man is like that idiot you dated in college. The jerk tried to change you into something you weren’t. I remember how you used to jump when he called. When you finally stood up for yourself, he nearly destroyed you. It took a lot of courage to walk away.”

       Amanda took another sip of her tea and listened to the ice cubes rattle in her glass as her sister continued to talk.

       “After that night, it was like the other Amanda never existed. You just packed her away, along with your one colorful outfit. I would love to see you wear something like that to work,” Sarah said.

       Amanda pushed against the wooden porch and set the swing swaying. “People don’t wear clothes that daring to work.” From Sarah’s skeptical look, Amanda knew she wasn’t buying it.

       “Girlfriend, where have you been? Haven’t you seen what the women at your office wear? Loosen up a little.”

       Amanda undid the top buttons of her shirt. “Oh, I know you’re right. But I hate skirts that are short, because they reveal my hips. And tops that even rest close to my curves have the unpleasant effect of drawing unwanted attention to these.” Amanda cupped her breasts.

       “I wish I had some of those,” Sarah said and looked down at her smaller curves.

       “Thanks, but no thanks.” She was certain she would be self-conscious and uncomfortable wearing anything like that at work. “Besides, I’m not you.”

       “What’s that supposed to mean?”

       “Look at us. We’re totally different people.”

       Sarah’s tall, willowy physique was the total opposite of hers. Although Amanda tolerated her own curves, she wouldn’t have minded some of Sarah’s height so she could distribute her weight more evenly.

       Sarah gave Amanda an encouraging smile. “That’s the whole point. They’d finally get to see what a knockout you really are. Just say the word, and I’ll take all those old clothes and hide them somewhere you’d never find them again.”

       People would notice her. “Don’t you dare touch my clothes.” Amanda swatted a fly away. “I can’t wear attention-grabbing clothes like you.” Besides, she preferred the safety of her big suits, where no one could guess what she really looked like underneath.

       “Says who? You remind me of an auburn-haired Marilyn Monroe waiting to happen.” Sarah chuckled. “I’d love to see their faces when you walk into the office. So let me take you shopping.”

       Amanda’s resolve weakened. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate your offer. I do.” She would love nothing better than to toss the old Amanda out and let a brighter, livelier Amanda step forward. “It’s just that I like the way I dress.” Boy, she was getting good at bullshitting.

       “Really?” Sarah wasn’t buying it.

       “Honestly.” Thank God her sister couldn’t see inside her head.

       She dreaded what Sarah could do to her wardrobe. It wasn’t that Sarah had bad taste in clothes. It was that Amanda couldn’t visualize herself in the clothes her sister wanted her to wear. Amanda really didn’t have to think about it. She already knew the answer. No.

       “Girls, where are you?” Aunt Lilly called from inside the house.

       “We’re on the front porch,” Sarah yelled back.

      Her aunt’s heavy footsteps descended the stairs a second before the front door burst open. “Delicious, simply delicious.” Her aunt stepped onto the porch.

       “What’s delicious? And why are you covered in grime?” Amanda asked.

       Spider webs clung to her gray hair, which stuck up in every direction, and the flowered dress covering her short, round proportions was caked in dust.

       “I was puttering in the attic and found a wonderful surprise.”

       Aunt Lilly’s angelic smile didn’t bode well. It always meant she was hatching one of her scatterbrained plans. Amanda couldn’t figure out how a woman of Aunt Lilly’s advanced age could get into so much trouble.

       “Look.” Aunt Lilly presented the girls with an old, dust-covered book. “I found this by chance.” She blew on the cover, sending puffs of dust into the air. “It’s fate, I tell you.”

       Amanda coughed and waved her hand in front of her face. “A family album?” She wasn’t sure why her flustered aunt was so excited.

       “Oh no,” she said, her eyes dancing with glee. “Something much better. It’s a book of spells that belonged to my dearly departed sister, Matilda.” Aunt Lilly clasped the book to her chest. “Mattie always brought some interesting things back from her travels.”

       “I’m sure she picked it up at a tourist shop,” Amanda said, holding out her hand for the book. “Why don’t I return it to the attic?” She’d make sure to hide it in a safe place so her aunt wouldn’t find it again.

       “Absolutely not.” Aunt Lilly hugged the book tighter. “Tonight, I’m going to cast a spell.”

       Amanda could already see the wheels turning in her aunt’s head. “Please don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “Why would you want to do such a thing?”

       “So that you can get your life in order, and to help you find the man of your dreams.”

       “Me? Why me?” Amanda’s heart jumped. “What about Sarah?”

       Aunt Lilly snorted. “Sarah doesn’t need my help. You do. She attracts men like bees to honey.”

       “I’m quite content with the way my life is.” It might be boring, but at least it was safe.

       “Really? When was the last time you got lucky or even went out on a date?”

       Tell me about it. Amanda narrowed her eyes at the magic book and tried to figure out a way to get it out of her aunt’s hands.

       “I know you mean well, but do you really believe in that hocus-pocus stuff?” Sarah asked.

       “I’m always open to new ideas. I’ll get everything set up, and the two of you will make sure nothing goes wrong.” Aunt Lilly moved toward the door.

       “Nothing?” Amanda asked skeptically. “Like the time you tried making Italian rice and accidentally added a bottle of vanilla bubble bath, thinking it was extra virgin olive oil? The kitchen overflowed with bubbles.”

       Aunt Lilly frowned. “The bottles looked the same to me.”

       “Or the time you ‘fixed’ the vacuum cleaner and made it work in reverse? It looked like we had more dust in the house than we had snow outside that entire winter,” Sarah said.

       “Piffle. What are a couple of slipups to a seventy-five-year-old woman? With both you girls there, what could possibly go wrong?”

       Amanda still didn’t like it. “Is there anything I can say to change your mind?”

“Nope. I’m off to round up all the things I’ll need. While I do that, why don’t you girls take a nice long shower? It always relaxes you after a hard day’s work. And after dinner, I’ll cast my spell,” Aunt Lilly said, dashing back into the house.

       The bang of the door vibrated around Amanda, sending cold shivers along her heated skin. An uneasy feeling settled in the pit of her stomach. “I don’t like this.”

       “Look on the bright side,” Sarah said.

       Amanda stood up and stretched. “Which is?”

       “At least this time, we’ll be there to make sure nothing goes wrong.” Sarah picked up the tray of glasses and followed her to the door. “Relax, it’ll be a piece of cake. Knowing Aunt Lilly, she’ll light one or two candles, recite a poem, and the dear will go to bed happy.”

       “You make it sound too easy.” Amanda opened the door and waved Sarah through. “And we both know there’s nothing simple about the nut job that is our darling aunt.”

       “What’s the worst that could happen?”

       Amanda stepped into the house’s cool interior, letting the door close behind her. “If you have to ask, then we’re already in trouble.”

 

CHAPTER THREE

       The back kitchen door slammed against the wall, heralding Aunt Lilly’s entrance into Amanda’s neat kitchen. Her face beaming, her arms were piled with flowers. “Quit stalling, and come into the front room,” she called over her shoulder as she rushed into the hallway.

       “Be right with you.” Amanda continued to wipe the spotless table, channeling her nervous energy. Why couldn’t people understand that she liked her life just way it was? Boring.

       She scrubbed the kitchen while Aunt Lilly prepared for the spell she was determined to cast. She cleaned and polished until all the dishes were put away and the almond-lacquer cabinets gleamed.

       “Hey, chicken,” Aunt Lilly yelled from the front of the house. “Get your ass in here, and quit stalling in the kitchen.”

       She glanced over the crown moldings, pilasters, and carved corbels, checked that the granite floors were spotless and gave the granite countertops one last time, then launched her towel into the sink.

       “Amanda Santorelli! Don’t make me come get you…” Aunt Lilly’s unfinished sentence held unspoken repercussions.

       “I’m coming.” Amanda let out a resigned sigh. “Might as well get this over with.” Wiping her hands on her old shorts and baggy top, she grabbed a container of chocolate chip ice cream from the freezer and a spoon, and headed for the parlor.

       With each cautious step, Amanda swallowed a spoonful of ice cream. Sarah was right; nothing would go wrong. Amanda stopped in the doorway and glanced around the front room.

       She loved this room. Its old-fashioned ambience embraced her, with its deep-red walls and antiques. Red-velvet sofas flanked an ornate marble-top table in front of the cast-iron fireplace. The ceiling moldings were elaborately carved with vines and birds, glazed in the same light gold as the ceiling.

       It reminded her of a high-class gambling saloon or bordello, with its crystal chandelier and cherry-colored upright piano against one wall. In front of two tall, lace-covered windows was a small, round table, crowned with a Tiffany lamp and flanked by two gold, deep-buttoned medallion Queen Anne armchairs, where men could have awaited their pleasures.

       For this auspicious event, Aunt Lilly had set the table by the fireplace with a crystal ball that rested on a golden, scrolled base, a couple of stuffed crows—they had better be stuffed—and a large assortment of colorful candles. Everywhere you looked, the room was packed with crystal vases filled with flowers.

       “Oh good, you’re keeping it simple.” Amanda’s sarcasm went right over her darling aunt’s head. Aunt Lilly had changed into a man’s red smoking jacket and had wrapped a white silk shawl around her head, turban-style. Both long-lost remnants from the attic, Amanda suspected. All she was missing was her wand, and she wouldn’t put it past her to pull one out of her apron.

       “Of course I did,” Aunt Lilly replied and placed a marble bowl on the coffee table in front of her.

       Amanda turned to Sarah with raised eyebrows. “Two candles, you said.”

       Wearing a blue silk kimono and a towel wrapped around her damp hair, Sarah lounged in one of the chairs in front of the open window. “Just humor her.”

       Sitting in the other chair by the window, Amanda held the container of ice cream on her lap. “Aunt Lilly, is that exactly what you needed for your spell?”

       Aunt Lilly continued setting up more candles around the marble dish. “No, not exactly.”

       “What do you mean, ‘not exactly’? Aren’t you supposed to do things the way it says in the book?” Sarah asked.

       “I think the book said to light a yellow candle for personal power, a red one for love, and a green one—or was it blue? —for clarity.”

       Amanda gave her sister an anxious glance. “Aunt Lilly, why didn’t you follow the instructions?”

       “Because the spell book was too complicated for me,” she said. “It wanted you to use different flowers for each spell and to light the candles on different days of the week and only if the moon was in a certain phase. I don’t have time for that nonsense. So I made things simpler.”

       Amanda eyed the overabundance of flowers and candles. “How?” This was what her aunt considered uncomplicated?

       “I gathered all the different candles we had in the house and an assortment of flowers from the garden. I figured that if I lit all the candles at once and cast the spell, I’d cut the risks of anything going wrong in half,” Aunt Lilly said.

       Sarah raised her eyebrows. “Now there’s a thought.”

       This was just great. Amanda’s stomach knotted just thinking of the possibilities. She already had all the bad luck she could handle. She didn’t need her wacky aunt adding to it. She wanted to put a halt to things, but she could see that Aunt Lilly was really getting into her role.

       “With the moon being full, think of the success rate I’ll have. And to top it all off, I’ve written my own spell.”

       “Let me see it,” Amanda said, rising from her chair, but her aunt waved her away.

       “Later,” she said, tapping the spell book in front of her. “I wrote it on one of the blank pages in here. You’ll have plenty of time to look it over.”

       “Do something,” Amanda pleaded with Sarah. This was getting out of hand. Her stomach clenched as she watched her aunt fret over her display.

       Sarah waved Amanda’s concern away. “Take it easy. There’s no such thing as magic. Since it’s all nonsense, what difference does it make if she does it her way or not? She’s harmless.”

       Amanda scooped a spoonful of ice cream into her mouth for courage. “You’re no help,” she said and turned back to her aunt. “Weren’t there any spells in the book that you could have used?”

       Aunt Lilly grunted away Amanda’s suggestion. “Sure there were, but they had no kick to them. So I chose the sentences I liked and spiced them up a little.”

       “This is great,” Amanda said, spooning another mouthful. “Just great.”

       Sarah yawned. “Will you stop worrying? Like I told you, she’s going to light a couple of candles and recite her incantation, and that’ll be the end of it. Then we’ll hit the sack.”

       Amanda lifted her spoon to take another mouthful, but dropped it back down. She was starting to feel sick. She wasn’t sure if it was from nerves or from the amount of ice cream she’d eaten. “Do I have to spell it out for you? We’re talking about Aunt Lilly here.”

       Aunt Lilly clapped for attention. “Ladies, please. I need quiet to begin.”

       Amanda perched on the edge of her seat. “I wouldn’t get too comfortable if I were you,” she said with a glance toward Sarah.

       It bothered her that Sarah wasn’t taking this more seriously. How could she just sit there, carelessly lounging, while Amanda was so wound up? The apprehension settled in the pit of her stomach.

       With cold fingers, Amanda placed the container on the small table and surrendered to her fate. “Okay, Aunt Lilly, cast your spell.” Taking a deep breath, she hoped this would go quickly.

       Aunt Lilly gleefully rubbed her hands together and lit the candles. She then placed a pair of Amanda’s gold earrings in a bowl. “This is so exciting.”

       “Lucky you.” Sarah smirked at Amanda.

       Aunt Lilly raised her hands over the assembled candles and began her incantations.

       “What is asked is what you’ll say,

       For the spell to work this way.”

       A sudden puff of wind rushed through the open windows, making the drapes flap madly. It sounded like loud applause announcing the arrival of a presence. Swirling about, the current of air caressed the room and traced goose bumps up Amanda’s arms.

       What the hell? Amanda rubbed her arms as a shiver shook her. It had been a clear night. Perhaps a storm was coming. Amanda debated whether she should get up and close the window but didn’t want to interrupt her aunt.

       “Right or wrong, express your right,

       All your thoughts are brought to light.”

       The candles flickered, casting strange shadows on the walls. The storm must be getting closer. Wrapping her arms about her waist, Amanda wished her aunt would finish with the dramatics.

       “Show the one that you desire,

       How to light your inner fire.”

       The force of the wind increased, making the chandelier clink loudly as it swayed from side to side. Prisms of light danced around the room.

       A rumble sounded in the fireplace as the gust of air escaped up the chimney. Was that thunder? Amanda hoped her aunt would finish before the storm hit. Otherwise, the carpets would get wet.

       “Once everything is said and done,

       Then you’ll find your only one.”

       Candles rocked and toppled over, scattering flowers. A doily caught fire.

       “Oh my God!” Amanda exclaimed, grabbing the ice cream container, and, with hands that trembled, she doused the flame with spoonfuls of ice cream. “I knew something like this would happen.”

       Sarah yanked the towel off her head and smothered the fire. “Nice one, Aunt Lilly,” she said before collapsing back in her seat.

       Amanda’s heartbeat hammered in her ears. She waved at the smoke in front of her and coughed. “Oh Lord, she’s done it again!”

       When the air cleared, Amanda stared at the toppled flowers and candles. Colorful splatters of wax mixed with large blobs of sticky ice cream, dripping from the table onto the floorboards.

       Amanda tried to catch her breath as shock waves of disbelief and something that felt like an electrical charge crept up her back, making the hair on her arms stand on end. “What just happened?”

       “Haven’t got a clue.” Sarah looked as dumbfounded as Amanda felt. Her aunt, on the other hand, was thrilled.

       Aunt Lilly put her hands on her chest. “Oh my, wasn’t that something.”

       Amanda slumped into the chair next to her sister. Her energy dissipated, leaving her limp and tired. Above, the chandelier continued to sway gently. Where the hell had that wind come from, and where had it gone?

       “It was something, all right,” Sarah said.

       There had to be a logical explanation for what they had just witnessed. “The wind was a fluke, right?”

       Sarah gave an uncertain shrug. “Beats me.”

       Amanda couldn’t handle any more upsets. Her life was difficult enough without other forces interfering.

       “That, my dears, is the power of magic.” Aunt Lilly dropped onto the velvet sofa beside the fireplace and fanned her flushed face.

       “That’s it.” Amanda pushed herself out of her seat. “There’s no such thing as magic. I’m tired, and it’s late.” With agitated movements, she tidied up. “Let’s clean this mess up so we don’t have to look at it in the morning.”

       The quicker she got rid of this disaster, the faster she could put it out of her mind. “I mean, magic? Really.” She’d chalk it up to another of her aunt’s escapades. “There’s no such thing.”

       “Sure. Anything you say.” Sarah stared incredulously at the candles.

       “Well?” Amanda planted her hands on her hips. “Are you going to give me a hand?”

       “Sure,” Sarah said but didn’t budge.

       Amanda glowered at her aunt. “This is another of your catastrophes,” she said, scraping the melted wax off the table with the tip of her nail.

       “Hey, you don’t have to be so abrupt with her.” Sarah got up and gathered the flowers into her arms. “She was only trying to help.”

       Amanda pointed to her aunt and glared at her sister. “Now you’re starting to sound as logical as she does.” Amanda was not in a charitable mood. She lived with two women with loose screws.

       Sarah snorted. “When have you ever been anything but logical?”

       Amanda flushed with resentment. “Well, someone has to keep things running smoothly around this crazy house.”

       Aunt Lilly’s gruff voice cut in. “Girls! Listen to you! You sound like a pair of hens fighting over the rooster.”

       Amanda gasped. What was wrong with her? She’d never snapped at her sister like that before. “Oh hell, Sarah. I’m so sorry.” She was overreacting. There was absolutely no reason why she was behaving so badly.

       Sarah shifted the flowers in her arms. “Don’t mention it. Aunt Lilly, I can honestly say this was your best blunder yet.”

       From Sarah’s uneasy stare and the hollow sound of her laughter, Amanda wasn’t sure that her sister had meant that as a compliment.

       Amanda gathered most of the candles. “You just have to take what happened with a grain of salt. We’re just three silly women with overactive imaginations and a house that smells of burnt wax and the sweet smell of melted ice cream.”

       “Rats,” Aunt Lilly said, slumping against the sofa.

       “We’ll come back for the rest of the candles. And while we dump this mess in the trash, don’t even think of moving,” Amanda said and hurried for the kitchen.

       When Amanda and Sarah returned, they found their aunt staring sadly at the remaining red candles. They sat beside her and stared at the burned remains of their aunt’s disastrous attempt at magic.

       Dejected, Aunt Lilly gave a heavy sigh. “Damn.”

       Amanda patted her aunt’s knee. “You gave it your best shot.” She was relieved nothing had turned out as planned.

       “Amanda, do you feel any different now that Aunt Lilly cast the spell?” Sarah asked.

       “Nope.” Amanda relaxed against a sofa cushion. Thank God, Aunt Lilly’s hocus-pocus nonsense was over and she hadn’t ended up another of her aunt’s casualties.

       Sarah placed her elbows on her knees and held her chin. “Well, that sucked. I was kinda hoping she’d really work some magic for you. Instead, we ended up with a bunch of wax splatters and blobs of ice cream. Now we’ll never know if it worked.”

       “The magic?” Amanda laughed. “Well, of course it didn’t work.” The evening had been mildly entertaining, and no harm was done.

       Aunt Lilly wrung her hands together. “Maybe I could try again?”

       “No!” Amanda sat up. “And have you blow up the house? Forget about it.”

       Aunt Lilly gasped.

       “Hey! Aunt Lilly would never intentionally blow up the house,” Sarah said. “And that wasn’t nice.”

       She hadn’t meant to hurt her aunt’s feelings. Amanda gentled her voice. “There’s really no need.” She glared at the candles sitting on the table. She’d get rid of the last of them, hide the crows and crystal ball, and make sure nothing and no one would interfere in her life.

       A soft puff of air lifted the hair on Amanda’s arms, sending shivers down her spine. “Did you feel that?”

       Her aunt and Sarah nodded; their eyes rounded as they scanned the room.

       Amanda flinched when the candles started to quiver. “Oh God, not again.” She sat back and stared in transfixed horror. “What the…?”

       The candles flared back to life.

       “Shit!” Amanda jumped up from her seat. She moved so quickly that the room swam before her eyes as sheer black fright swept through her making her drop back down again.

       Aunt Lilly clapped her hands. “Well, I’ll be damned. I knew I could do it!”

       “Aunt Lilly, cut it out!” Amanda exclaimed, edging her way along the sofa, away from the candles. “Please tell me you switched the candles with those gag birthday ones when we left the room? You know the ones I’m talking about. Each time you blow them out, they light up again.”

       Aunt Lilly glared over her glasses. “I most certainly did not.”

       Amanda pointed to the candles. “Well then, who’s doing that?”

       The flames flared and fell, taunting her.

       “It’s magic. You’ve already shown wonderful changes by speaking your mind.”

       “What changes? I always snap at the two of you when I get angry.”

      “Since when?” Sarah asked.

       “Since now.” Amanda couldn’t stop herself from answering. That was strange. Maybe she was overtired.

       Aunt Lilly leaned forward and smiled at the blazing candles. “Tonight has been very illuminating, don’t you agree?”

       The candle flames swayed back and forth in agreement.

       Amanda clutched her stomach. “I think I’m going to be sick,” she said as she and her sister continued to stare in stunned silence.

       “Simply divine,” Aunt Lilly said with a satisfied smile, blowing out the candles. “I’m off to bed.” Pushing herself off the sofa, she toddled out of the room.

        Two incredulous gazes followed her.

       This was absolutely ridiculous. What could her aunt be thinking? “Of course it didn’t work. Right?” Amanda asked.

       Sarah simply shrugged.

       There was no such thing as magic. “By tomorrow morning, we’ll laugh at how silly we were to even believe in what we thought we saw.”

       “Do you think it worked?” Sarah asked.

       “What worked?” Amanda put on a brave face as her stomach burned with acid. “The disaster we just witnessed?” Her smile felt stiff; her insides shook.

       Sarah’s expression brightened. “So there’s a logical explanation?”

       “If there is, I’d sure like to hear it.” Amanda took a deep breath and tried to relax. “Maybe Aunt Lilly didn’t blow out the candles properly, and they smoldered back to life.” And pigs flew.

       “You really believe that’s a possibility?”

       “I’m hoping it is.”

       “If that’s the case, then the spell was a hoax, and the worst that happened was Aunt Lilly burned her doilies. Which isn’t so bad, because she’ll be crocheting for a while.”

       Amanda’s spirits picked up. “That’s good, actually. It’ll keep her out of trouble.”

       “However, if the spell worked, you have to figure out what it meant and prepare yourself.”

       “Do you remember what Aunt Lilly recited?” Amanda asked.

       “No.” Sarah glanced at the ceiling. “I was distracted by the swinging chandelier.” A visible shiver shook her sister. “It looked like ghosts were having a party up there.”

       “I’m not sure, but I think she said something about saying what I feel, or was it answering what is asked?” Amanda rubbed her pounding temples. She wanted this day to end. “So the worst that could happen is I become more outspoken.”

       “That would be a big improvement.”

       “Yes, it would be.” Amanda shrugged. “If the spell works to my advantage, then who am I to complain?” Not that she believed it would. N…ot one bit.

       Sarah crossed her arms over her chest. “So you wouldn’t mind, then?”

       “It would be quite nice.” Her tension drained away. “You’re right; this could work to my benefit,” Amanda said, her smile widening into a grin. “Let’s hit the sack.” With a final look at the propitious candles, she stood and left the room.

       “Wait up!” Sarah switched off the lights and chased after her. “Don’t leave me here alone!”

       “Then keep up.” Amanda took the stairs two at a time. On the upstairs landing, she glanced one last time at the darkened room and crossed her fingers. Now that Aunt Lilly had gotten her bright idea out of her system she prayed that that was the worst of it.

 

 

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