I liked three a.m.

I saw it often enough from first planting to final harvest when the land needed me.

I liked three a.m.

I sensed it often where I traveled, when the balance must be restored.

I liked three a.m.

Except when the cat’s claws stabbed into my late autumn’s lazy sleep, kneading frantically into my leg. His normally throaty purr, a low, moaning cry. An irritation to an otherwise pleasant, passing acquaintance with three a.m.

I shifted on my oversized four-poster bed, burrowing into the thick, blue jersey cotton sheets and heavy pile of hand-stitched quilts. Romeo protested being disturbed, but the long, lean black cat settled back against my hip.

There, all made up.

I fluffed my pillow and settled onto its softness. Drifts of sleep carried me until the first jolt hit. I bolted up. My gaze darted around the room, eyes struggling to focus in the dark. My stomach lurched, threatening to bring dinner up as disorientation struggled with vertigo.

I’m a Hedge Witch, dedicated to the protection and preservation of the earth. Maintaining nature’s balance and bounty is my legacy. The land provides my family’s bounty, but its balance is our responsibility. A lineage of Hedge Witches assured my connection, and my ancestors intermarrying with the people of this land assured the charge.

Did the earth shake?

Seconds or maybe minutes later, a second jolt flung me out of bed with hip-bruising force. The land screamed for me. Screamed for help. Romeo squawked and vanished in a puff of black hair.

Crap! That wasn’t my imagination!

Skin vibrating like two bells struck together, I fumbled to engage my mental and spiritual coupling with the land as a third jolt shuddered through the two hundred-year-old plantation house. The whistling wind whipped against the second-story windows, rattling them in their frames. Tremors rolled the landscape, physically and spiritually. Quaking, the earth shivered under the foundation jostling my stomach, muscles cramping in sympathetic response. The old elm floorboards creaked. The bucking land echoed in my brain, my blood and my bones.

Pools of heat raced through my skull as the pressure of a dozen small fissures deep within the earth swelled, pulling at me, demanding. My body echoed the earth’s pain-choked plea for release. Without another channel for the pressure to escape, the mass would gridlock, swell and explode.

My chest constricted under the crushing force of the hot spots. Sweat collided with tears and dripped off the tip of my nose. The earth’s kinetic energy pressed to the bursting point. My heart shuddered.

Must release the pain.

Must release the power.

Must release the pressure.

I struggled against the inexorable force, nudging at the edge of a swollen channel. In Reston, a creek-bed rumbled, thrusting a rock upstream. In Washington D.C., a sinkhole opened draining off the heat. In Manassas, a spout of earth exploded, shooting fifteen feet into the sky.

Muscles cramped, joints froze, organs pounded. I was overwhelmed with icy hot drips trickling away the force of the quakes. Soaking the land with tremors of pent-up emotion.

Too slow. The rivulets clogged with urgency, eyes burning, tears falling, fists clenching. My will collided against the blocked channel of pressure.

Pressing. Pushing. Pulsing.

Boulders cracked and crumbled. The pressure whistled out, wailing and reverberating with wanton force, buckling the Wilson Bridge that connected Alexandria, Virginia to Oxon Hill Maryland. The steel cable snapped.

The Earth wheezed a sigh and another jolt rocked the region.

Time fell away.

When a new fissure screamed for release, I lanced the boil of relentless tension, draining it away to new channels. Energy-swollen rivers spilled into the rocky hills, forests, creeks, the tributaries and the wetlands, leaving debris strewn in the wake of its force…surface damage, containable, controllable, correctible.

Two hours later, I drooped against the side of the bed, too spent to pull myself off the floor into its haven. Drained. Fragile. Spent.

Romeo returned from his vanishing act and rubbed his head against my arm. I rolled to the side, using the bed for support. “A little more warning next time, okay Romeo?” A smile was too much effort for my face.

He purred and leapt on the bed.

Mocking me.

The cat was pushing ten years old. While not extremely old by cat standards, he was no spring kitten. I only hope I am that agile when I stretch the rubber band around middle age.

I groaned. The clock read five-thirty, now. Three a.m. might be a pleasant repose, but five-thirty made me downright cranky.

Betty!

Crap! Get up. Get up. Get up.

Go check on Betty!

My bruised hip complained as I grabbed a fistful of quilt and hauled myself up. Wobbling, I pulled on some Eeyore pajamas and stumbled in the half-light toward the door.

The knock sounded three heartbeats before I got to the door.

“Are you all right, Betty?” I yanked open the door. Betty Sullivan, the elderly woman, an old family friend, served as both my landlady and surrogate grandmother. She was a stout, seventy-five year old with blue-gray hair. This morning it was set in sponge rollers. She wore a familiar soft blue caftan. That she was knocking on my door rather than the other way around spoke volumes. Guilt slunk through me.

“I’m fine. I was asleep when it started and then just stayed put.” She gazed at me, curiosity and concern wrinkling her cheeks. “Are you all right Chance? That was an awful long time for the tremors to continue. I kept thinking they would stop or you would come down. You look terrible.”

I can only imagine how wild I looked, sweaty, exhausted, and my brown hair sticking up in places. My typically blue-grey eyes burned and were probably smudged with shadows, announcing that beauty sleep was a necessity in my world. My bones throbbed. Sore, aching and bruised from nature’s punishment.

“I think so.” The words lacked power. They did not offer comfort. They did not offer conviction. They did not offer confidence. I caught Betty’s hand, squeezing it, ignoring the throbbing in my hand and tried to inject emotions I didn’t have the energy to feel. “It’s been a long time since tremors that strong shook this area—a very long time in fact.”

“But one this bad, Chance? I don’t remember any this fierce in your lifetime.” Betty’s concern wrapped around me like a warm shawl.

“No, but I usually wake up while they are still tremors and can offset the force. Having it toss me out of bed was pretty unexpected. It’s okay now. I’ll be fine.” The mild understatement wasn’t exactly a lie, but I didn’t want Betty worrying either.

“Are you sure?” She still didn’t look convinced.

I straightened, sifting through the dross of my depleted reserves and smiled. “I’m positive. A shower and some coffee and I’ll be as right as the garden after a spring rain.”

“Hmm, maybe you should go back to bed. For a little a while at least.” The tension in her tone tugged at my heart.

“You know, that’s not a bad idea, but I’m up. You’re up. Let’s have coffee and maybe a cinnamon roll or three?” Baking was the panacea of all things topsy-turvy in the world. In Betty’s house, baking and extra pounds often followed calamity and crisis.

“All right. Take your shower. Then we can watch the news to find out what they are saying. I am sure those geologists will have something to say.” I loved the emphasis that Betty gave to those geologists. She’d known my grandmother and me for so long she didn’t believe the scientists could possibly know more than we did.

I laughed. In comforting me, Betty would be comforted. Asking for the cinnamon rolls was the right call.

Despite how spry Betty appeared, I lingered at the door until she’d made the last step. Every muscle in my body hurt. The wood floor seemed to slap at the bottoms of my feet despite my sliding shuffle toward the bathroom, exhaustion trailing my steps. The last thing I wanted was cinnamon rolls, conversation, or CNN, but if I didn’t go downstairs, Betty would worry more.

No rest for the heroic—or Hedge Witches, for that matter.

Romeo paused mid-preen to give me an owlish look from the center of the bed.

“I’m not going to disturb you. I don’t get to take a long leisurely nap.” I wrinkled my nose at him.

He considered me for a moment before returning to his personal grooming.

Dismissed by the cat.

I turned on the water in the shower and sagged against the closed bathroom door, exhaustion leaving my muscles loose and rubbery. I focused my attention on the familiar clanks and complaints of the pipes rather than my wound-too-tight-to-tick insides. It would take exactly two-point-four minutes before the freezing cold well water heated up to something tolerable to human flesh.

I shoved away from the door, stumbled the half step to the sink. I went through the motions of brushing my teeth, washing my face, brushing my hair. Mechanical, methodical, mundane it helped me get a grip on the worms of worry niggling their way through my brain. I dropped the pajamas on the floor and slid under the heated water, hissing as it pounded against my flesh.

Everything was too sensitive. Despite what I’d said to Betty, I was in worse shape than I’d imagined. Unfortunately or maybe fortunately, considering the water stung like nettles drawn across my skin my water heater wasn’t up for more than fifteen to twenty minutes of shower time.

The shower helped, despite the aches. I settled for loose sweatpants and an oversized shirt, the weight of which sat heavy on my throbbing bones. I skipped shoes and makeup, unwilling to inflict more pain than necessary. Romeo darted ahead of me to the door.

I let him out and he took the stairs in three leaps.

Yeah, what I wouldn’t give to be that agile. I followed behind at painfully sedate pace, one step at a time, hand firm on the railing.

In Betty’s living room, an on-scene reporter one I vaguely recognized from a major network reviewed the damage reports coming in related to the earthquake. Morning stubble and tie askew, he probably wasn’t ready to be up this early, either. I paused, feigning interest so I could take a break.

“The U.S. Geological Survey Hazards Commission and FEMA are reporting that the earthquake, felt throughout the region in the pre-dawn hours this morning, measured five-point-two on the Richter scale. Damage in the District appears to be limited to a few areas around the Capitol Mall…” The camera panned from the heavy-lidded reporter to show cracks in the National World War II Memorial fountain. Water trickled from the cracks. Heavy benches lay strewn on their sides, toppled as though made of plastic rather than cement.

“Sinkholes have closed intersections near K and Seventeenth and Constitution at Fourteenth. Engineers are inspecting the White House and other landmarks. We expect to have more information on these later. Meanwhile, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge remains closed until further notice.”

The scene segued to the Channel Four air-cam bobbing from a helicopter over the bridge. Snapped cables dropped like a weeping willow branches toward the water below.

Well, that can’t be good.

~ * ~

The phone rang half an hour after my first cup of coffee. Betty flicked a patient glance over the top of her glasses toward the phone.

“Want me to get it, again?” I’d already obliged her twice when both her grandchildren called to make sure she was all right. The earthquake in Virginia was national headline news. At least this time, my mouth wasn’t stuffed full of cinnamon roll.

Betty sat in her wing back armchair, a picture of relaxation in her caftan and slippers, a pile of knitting spread across her lap. She smiled, the knitting needles clacking away. “If you wouldn’t mind?”

I picked the phone up on the fourth ring and took a sip of coffee before dredging up a cheerful, “Hello?”

“Chance?”

My heart didn’t skip a beat. My heart didn’t catch in my throat. It thumped like a puppy’s tail.

Jack, long time best friend, one time lover, currently a question mark in my life and heart. Inescapable, incomparable, invaluable, Jack.

“Hey, babe.” I grinned at Betty and mouthed Jack’s name. She nodded  and went back to her knitting. “How’s sunny California?”

“It’s raining. I just caught the news. Are you okay?” I pictured Jack sitting in bed in a hotel in Sacramento where the Bureau dispatched him to investigate corporate improprieties. It’s the latest rage sweeping the country, you know, corporations screwing their investors.

Big shock, that.

It was eight in the morning, which translated to five in his time. “I’m fine. The house shook, but the crystal didn’t break and we didn’t get any significant damage.”

“Not the house, Chance.” Exasperation echoed in his tone. I imagined him scrubbing a hand across the morning stubble on his chin. “I meant you. Are you all right? What happened to you?”

“Me?” The question caught me off-guard. My heart stuttered, tripping my voice. “I busted my ass a little falling out of bed. Otherwise, it’s all good.”

“Chance?” His tone sharpened as if sniffing a lie. Bullshit meter alert.

“It’s all good.” I repeated it, keeping my tone light, unhurried, aware of Betty’s not-so-subtle observation. “It was pressure building up in some fissures in the plates. That’s all. The earth was trying to release itself. Most quakes occur at the edges where these boundaries rub up against each other like a pair of hostile alley cats. A lot of hissing and caterwauling before backing off again. Annoying…unusual, but annoying.”

“Chance, cut the earth science crap. I want to know about you. Are you all right? A five-point-two can’t be good for you.” The phone didn’t blunt the razor edge of his words.

“No, it isn’t. But I promise. It’s. All. Good. Scout’s honor.” I chuckled and stole another sip of coffee. I cut a glance at Betty’s reflection on the television screen. Her attention was evenly divided between my half of the conversation and her knitting.

“You were never a Girl Scout.” Jack grumbled but his tone eased, relaxing from Rottweiler stance. “Betty’s right there, isn’t she?”

“Yes, sir.” Thank you, Jack.

“All right. Yes or no. Are you okay?”

“Yes.”

“True or false. Did you get hurt?”

“True.” Not going to lie to Jack in FBI mode.

“Bad?” The word rode the exhale of his breath.

“No.”

“Promise?”

“Cross my heart.” My bones ached. I imagined this was how it felt to be horse-dragged, but I wasn’t going to tell Jack that. It would worry him more.

Silence hummed along the connection. The quiet pressed down on our words. He didn’t believe me.

“Thank you for being okay.” But he didn’t argue with me.

“You’re welcome.” Warmth spread through my limbs, soothing the aches and pains.

“I figured if anyone would feel an earthquake, it would be me. You know the one in California?” His tone, softer now, coaxed me to play.

“Me, too. Not my idea of a good three a.m. wake-up call.” I leaned back into the overstuffed loveseat and stared up at a ghost or two of cobwebs that decorated the ceiling corners. Note to self: take care of those for Betty later.

“I can only think of one good three a.m. wake-up call.” Playfulness nipped at the heels of his sentence.

“Oh?”

“Not in mixed company, sweetheart.”

Oh. My heart thumped.

“So.” Jack drawled into my silent pause, teasing. “Back to safer topics. The quake hitting so early is a good thing if what CNN is saying about the Wilson Bridge is true.” I heard a bed squeak on the other end of the phone and pictured Jack leaning back against the headboard.

“Yup. Most sane people are asleep at that hour so there were very few traffic accidents reported. People are a bit spooked, but you can’t really blame them for that. How’s your trip going?”

“Corporate politics are terrible but we’re making headway. We’ve served several warrants and the SEC is opening up investigations all over the place. It’s going to be a paperwork nightmare.” Jack complained, but excitement filigreed the edges of his voice. He thrived on his work, especially when it came to putting the pieces of a puzzle together.

I listened to him with half an ear describing the days at the various corporations. It wasn’t that I didn’t find it interesting— something niggled at the back of my mind, gnawing on my concentration. Something about the earthquake this morning and relieving the pressure on the fissures. It was normal enough, but something about it still bothered me.

Some geological specialist was being interviewed on CNN and he discussed the earthquake in technical terms. The damage in the area was limited. He quoted the figures related to earthquakes and their seismic effect, dry as autumn kindling.

Blah. Blah. Blah. I tuned him out.

The anchor asked the expert about the foreshocks and what they measured, but Jack was talking again and I missed the answer. Thankfully, CNN replayed the same material several times so if a viewer missed it the first time, they could catch it on the next pass.

“So, that’s all there is to it. I could be stuck out here for another two weeks or two months, it depends on how cooperative they all are.” Jack dragged out the words in a sigh. “Think I can have a rain check on that date?”

“Of course.”

I winced at his chuckle. I shouldn’t have said that. “I guess I should have asked what date.” I replayed the conversation in my mind.

Jack and I were sort of dating. “Sort of” being the key phrase because Jack insisted on calling our excursions dates. I’m not sure what to label them. In fact, I like avoiding labels altogether.

“The date I am going to ask you out on when I got home.” Jack’s voice flirted with an I-have-you-now grin. “Dinner at the Melting Pot in Reston.”

My stomach growled.

“That’s evil.”

Trapped. Tickled. Tormented.

Dinner at the Melting Pot? The romantic restaurant was one of my favorites, not for the atmosphere but the food. A little bit of heaven, the fondue restaurant let guests cook their own food in steaming pots of bouillon or Coq Au Vin. But the dessert—oh the dessert was my favorite. Just imagining the warm pots of steamed chocolate with amaretto for dipping strawberries, bananas, pound cake, or cheesecake made my mouth water.

A little bit of heaven.

“I know.” Jack sounded inordinately pleased with himself. “You’re not going to say no to that, are you?”

“You could look like a six foot, ground-burrowing rodent with the B.O. of a skunk and I’d still want to go!” Sadly, I was being honest. My stomach was exactly that shallow.

“Good thing I’m not a rodent.” He sounded even more pleased, if it was possible. “Well, I need to shower now. You take care of yourself and give Betty a kiss for me.”

“I will. Take care of yourself, too. Don’t get sucked into Bill Gates hell.” I grinned and finished the goodbyes before hanging up the phone. I caught Betty’s assessing gaze and rolled my eyes. “Jack sends you a kiss.”

“Of course, he does. I’m glad he’s thinking of you while he’s so far away.”

“Betty,” I warned. “Please don’t start on that again. Jack and I are friends.”

“But you could have so much more, Chance.” She admonished me and to my surprise, she set aside the knitting briefly to stare at me with purpose. “You’re too alone these days. I know you’re busy with your work and it keeps you occupied, but humans need companionship. Your grandmother would tell you the exact same thing.”

“I have companionship.” I defended myself as Romeo popped up on cue to sit on the arm of the sofa. “I have you and Sydney and, you know…others.” Care to vague that up a little more, Chance?

“Yes, but you don’t have anyone like Jack.”

Betty didn’t appear willing to be dissuaded.

“I’m not getting any younger. You need someone who can look after you and who you can look after.” She held up her hand. “Don’t start that independent nonsense with me young lady. I listened to all three of my daughters go on and on about that for years. What did that get them but divorce each for two of them and two divorces for my oldest, child support and a lot of stress? We’re all only human. Yes, we need to be independent but independent doesn’t mean lonely.”

I sighed and set my empty coffee mug on the table. “Betty, I’m not lonely. Really. Jack and I are friends, and I like our friendship. It means a great deal to me. I’m not willing to screw it up.”

“How is enjoying his company screwing it up?”

“It’s the labels.” This rang very true right after I said it aloud. I ran a hand through my now dry hair and pushed it away from my face. “If we’re dating, dating means a relationship that has commitments and expectations.”

“And?” Betty asked dryly. “There’s something wrong with that?”

“If it doesn’t work out, we’re not just friends anymore. There’s all this stuff between us.”

Betty laughed. “Chance, my darling, there’s all this stuff between you now. You’ve still managed to be friends. But that boy wants more and I think you do, too. You’re very good for each other when you’re both not acting like a pair of hide-bound idiots. Don’t spit in the face of opportunity.”

Have I ever mentioned how difficult it was to argue with an old lady? No? Well, let me tell you, it was. You can’t just look them square in the eye and tell them to fuck off and mind their own business. Why? Because you were their business. The business of the old was to look after and shepherd the young. Unfortunately, I was the only young around for Betty to shepherd and look after. Her own grandchildren were too far away to suffer from a similar malady.

“I’ll try,” I conceded. “I like Jack.”

“Love.” Betty corrected.

“Fine, yes, I love Jack. I just don’t know if I love Jack that way.”

“There is no this way or that way, Chance. There’s only love. You just have to be willing to open yourself up to the possibilities of it and to let Jack love you.” Sage and very simple advice—unfortunately my life was neither filled with the sage or the simple.

“I said I’d give it a chance.”

“Then I can’t ask for anything more than that.” Betty retrieved her knitting and settled back to work.

Case closed. For now.

I slumped into the sofa and idly petted Romeo’s silky fur, the soft clicking on Betty’s knitting needles rhythmically relaxing the tension threading through my shoulders and neck. I’d been thinking about something before Betty launched into her pleading of Jack’s case, but whatever it was, it was gone now.

“…no word yet on damage in outlying areas. In case you just tuned in, you should remember to avoid damaged areas, check on friends and relatives, particularly the elderly or those who may be prone to falling. Power and phone lines may be down in rural areas. Residents should be careful when opening cabinets, closets and other storage areas as contents may have shifted during the quake. Inspect your utilities, particularly gas lines. If you smell gas contact the local utility authorities and move to safer location…”

Eyes closing, I let my mind drift to the drone of the reporter’s advice.

~ * ~

“What?” I glared at the stack of mail on my desk, cradling the phone between my ear and my shoulder. Instead of going back to bed like any sane person, I’d forced my aching body to sit at the desk and sort through my bills.

“I need someone for the North Quarter,” Sydney Jump repeated the words in her soothe-the-six-year-old-hopped-up-on-sugar voice. Sydney Jump was my best friend. We’d known each other since kindergarten, but bonded in the hellish universe known as high school. She was convinced we’d been sisters in a previous life, but I was happy to have her in this one. Her grandmother and my grandmother knew each other from way back, and while our paths diverged during college, we’d kept in touch.

Sydney was a more typical witch, dabbling in spells, foresight and castings like her mother and grandmother.

“You’d be perfect. Please say yes, Chance? We’ve been planning this ceremony for weeks, but Hannah’s sick and she can barely talk, much less summon a quarter.”

“Sydney, I’m not even Wiccan.” I didn’t quite mask the vague sigh of capitulation in my voice. I used the end of the pen to scratch at the side of my head, wincing at the tenderness tingling along my scalp. Car payment, insurance, and health insurance were all paid and up to date. That just left the cable and my part of the power bill. Not too bad. I would have some money left over to start early shopping for Christmas.

“So?” A wealth of meaning resonated across the line. Sydney’s impatience was a physical presence in the conversation. “It’s Earth, Chance. Name me someone better to summon Earth into our Circle?”

Dammit. “You’re not going to take no for an answer, are you?”

“No.” She replied with a similarly triumphant smugness that seemed to decorate Jack’s voice earlier in the day. “It’s Samhain. You’ve been to our Samhain circles before and you’ve enjoyed yourself. You believe in a greater force in the universe and you know how powerful the Earth is. You’re absolutely pitch-perfect for calling the North quarter.”

“Are we going to be naked?” I grumbled.

“So, you’ll do it? That’s fabulous! We’re all set for this weekend. We’re going to be in Morven Park up near the Equine Center. They’ve agreed to let us use one of the groves. There’s going to be, like, two or three hundred people there.”

“Sydney.” My pulse ponged in my eyelid. “Are we going to be naked?”

“It’s called sky clad and of course not. There will be too many people there who don’t know each other. They wouldn’t be comfortable.”

“I’d be one of them.” Yes, I am irritated. I dropped the pen and shoved the chair back.

“You’ve got a great body. Might even catch a guy or two.”

“Sydney, don’t start. I swear, all of you think I’m a celibate nun who wouldn’t know how to catch a guy if I tried.”

“Betty giving you hell about Jack again?” Candy corn sweetness coated her tone. If I didn’t know better, I’d say a conspiracy was afoot.

“Yes, so I don’t want to hear it.” I snatched up the pen and tapped it against my knee. “When is this thing and what do I need to bring?”

Sydney must have known I would say yes or she wouldn’t have called. Sydney’s particular gift, well, her entire family’s gift was one of foresight. They could tell if you were going to say yes or no, just by thinking about it, most of the time. Not that they were one hundred percent accurate from moment to moment. Anyone with any experience in the area of forecasting the future will tell you that a lot depends on the moment itself and one moment is not the next or the one after that.

It’s really very confusing, but the same principle applied to the idea that you could never visit the same river twice. The river changed as it flowed, the water continuously eroding away at the banks and channels it flowed down. The area might look the same, but in essence, it wasn’t.

Frankly, it gave me a headache.

“It’s Saturday night. You just need to bring yourself and a robe, if you have one. Something in earthy colors would be good. I have one or two you can borrow if you want to come by and try them on. We’re about the same size and if you could bring some of Betty’s cakes for the offering, that would be great.”

“Uh huh, I see. You’re just inviting me so you can get Betty to do some cooking. I see what you’re up to now!” Reluctant laughter dispelled my pangs of irritation. Sydney was Sydney. I couldn’t escape that fact even if I wanted to. What else was a best friend for, but to drive me crazy?

“Absolutely!” Sydney’s glee bubbled to effervescence in her voice. “Betty makes great apple cakes. This is our new-year festival and the night of the dead, Chance. Time to say goodbye to the old and put the past to rest.”

I frowned slightly and this time I did hold the phone away from my ear. Was everyone worried about how I am coping with my life? I didn’t think I’d made that much of a mess of it. I put the phone back to my ear and pasted on a smile. “All right, Syd. I’ll ask Betty to make the cakes, and I think I have a robe or two that will do. What time do you want me there?”

“We won’t get started until late, but go ahead and show up by sevenish. That way we’ll have time to catch up, and I can bring you up to speed on the ceremony.” She sounded genuinely pleased. “And thank you, Chance. It means a lot to me.”

“I know, I know. Glad to help.” No, I wasn’t lying. I really was glad to help even if I was not familiar with the ceremony or anything like it. Sydney was right. I’d been to their circles several times and the gatherings were always warm and moving. The companionship and camaraderie among the people at her gatherings enchanted me.

The mead wasn’t half-bad, either.

“I will text you the directions.”

“Sydney, I know where Morven Park is.”

“Okay, then I’ll send you a reminder¾”

“I already wrote down seven o’clock.”

“I can count on you to be there, right? I can call you the day before, the day of¾whatever you need.”

“Yes, I will be there and before you ask, no, I won’t forget. And, yes, you can even call me the night before to remind me and the afternoon—oh geez, Syd, hang up the phone already.” The laughter trembled through me, aspirin for the soul as Sydney disconnected.

I glanced out the window, peering through the slats of the blinds. The sky darkened to a steel gray, warning of imminent rain—not unusual this time of year.

I eyed the stack of mail on the desk. I’d written all the checks, addressed all the envelopes, and put stamps on them. They could wait until tomorrow to be mailed. A yawn cracked my jaw, reminding me of my rather rude awakening early this morning and a nap sounded good.

I padded away from the roll-top desk and into the bedroom. Romeo sprawled across the pillows, but his eyes slitted open at my approach. “Scoot,” I ordered him. He obeyed, after a good, long, lazy stretch and a half-meow of protest. I slid under the covers and tried to remember where my dreams before the quake tossed me gracelessly out of bed. Romeo kneaded at the comforter until I settled before he took up his customary place against my leg.

Closing my eyes with a sigh, I relaxed into the concept of a long afternoon nap, listening to the pitter-patter of the rain as it tapped against the windowpanes. Romeo purred against my thigh, a vibrating ball of contentment. I let go of my irritation at Sydney’s badgering and Betty’s lecture. They loved me and just wanted me to be happy. Even if I didn’t always agree with the methods, I appreciated the sentiment. I drifted in peaceful twilight—that place just before slipping into the real throes of sleep, when the answer to the problem niggling at me all day hit me. I swallowed back a wave of nausea.

The lack of foreshocks before that five-point-two was not only odd, it reeked of intervention. I bolted upright in the bed, peace forgotten as my heart thrummed in my ears. Romeo let out another squawk of protest and leaped nimbly from the bed.

“Oh, hell.” Even in Virginia, in the middle of the North American plate, I should have felt that buildup of pressure before it threw me out of bed. The faintest of tremors may not disturb others, but they should have tweaked me, like a misplaced grope in a bar.

So why hadn’t I sensed something?

The answer cramped my insides.

I chewed at my lip and wished, not for the first time, that Gran were still around. She would be my first phone call. She would know what was going on. If Gran were still here, she would still be the bound witch. She would have sensed it. Right?

She would have sensed it and she would have known what to do. I hugged my knees to my chest. The loneliness of her absence echoed with fear, worry and, if I were honest with myself, a little trepidation that I wasn’t up to the task. Earthquakes were marked by their shocks. Foreshocks. Aftershocks. 

What if that had been the foreshock?