Sorcerer’s Keeper

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Elizabeth Resnik’s urgent need of a home for her two year old daughter, and a job that would keep her close, led her to accept a live-in housekeeping position in the neighborhood “haunted house.” She was determined to make it work.

Brilliant but absent minded physicist Culley Ward did not want a keeper. It wasn’t until Elizabeth knocked on his door, and her daughter called him “Daddy,” that Culley began to feel the depth of his isolation, and an intriguing attraction to this determined woman.

An unexpected truce, initiated by a child and built through the shared knowledge of loss, left Culley wondering if it was fair to take advantage of Elizabeth, but wanting desperately to do so. Would acting on his impulses ruin his second chance at love? Would the “sorcerer’s magic” be enough to heal her heart and win her love?

REVIEWS:
“…absolutely shimmers with beauty and magic.”  ~ROMANTIC TIMES

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Chapter 1

“I’M NOT GOIN’ in there,” the pirate said, shaking his head. “You go.”

The vampire took a step backward. “Not me.”

“Chicken,” said a boy wearing the gold mask and helmet of Solar the Antarian. A keen October wind gave his iridescent cape a swirl, a rather nice, heroic effect that was entirely wasted on his two companions.

The pirate scraped at the sidewalk with his shoe. “I’m not chicken,” he said reasonably. “The gate’s shut. Mom said that means they don’t want any trick–or–treaters.”

“All the lights are on,” Solar the Antarian countered. “My mom says if they don’t want kids to come, they turn the lights off and pretend nobody’s home. I say we ought to go up to the door.”

“Sure is a spooky old place.” The vampire was peering through the wrought iron bars of the gate. The others moved up beside him. There was silence while they watched dry leaves scuttle down the long, curving driveway.

“My mom says a scientist lives there,” Solar the Antarian said.

“A mad scientist, I bet,” the pirate muttered.

“Hey, yeah—Frankenstein!” Getting into the spirit of the thing, the vampire raised his shoulders up to his ears, dangled his arms, rolled his eyes up, and began to walk stiff–legged in circles.

“Maybe he’s a witch!”

“Witches are girls, stupid!”

“Okay, a wizard, then.”

“A sorcerer! Like the one in Mickey Mouse!”

Upon hearing this, the “sorcerer” found it difficult to smother his laughter. He was also having a hard time staying on his perch, which was about six feet above the three boys’ heads, on the limb of a large magnolia tree. His task was further complicated by the fact that he held a very disgruntled tomcat in his arms.

As his burden began to struggle in earnest, he whispered, “Shh… easy does it. Hold on a minute—” And then, “Ow!” That was followed by some sotto voce cursing.

The cat’s side of the conversation lent a great deal to the atmosphere of the evening.

“Well, Albert, I hope you’re satisfied,” Dr. G. Cullen Ward, Cal Tech professor, nuclear physicist of some repute, and potential Nobel prizewinner, said to the cat a moment later as he watched the three boys hightail it down the street.

He really was sorry to see them go. He didn’t get many trick–or–treaters, even when he remembered to leave the gate open, and it looked as if the basket of candy bars his mother had left on the table in the front hall was going to be around to test his willpower for quite some time.

With a sigh, he tucked the cat under his arm and began the process of extricating himself from the tree. The cat, whose full name was Albert Einstein, let him know in no uncertain terms that he considered that sort of cavalier treatment far beneath his dignity.

“It’s your own fault, you know,” the physicist said without rancor as he nursed a scratch on his thumb.

“Next time I think I’ll let you take your chances. Any black cat dumb enough to go out carousing on Halloween night deserves what he gets.”

He pulled the gate open and fastened it back, in the vain hope of encouraging late trick–or–treaters to enter. As he walked to the house, absently stroking the cat’s head, he tried to see his home as the three routed revelers might have seen it. He was sorry the neighborhood children found the place so intimidating; he’d always been fond of it, himself. He’d grown up in the house, lived there all his life, in fact, except for the years he’d spent away at college. He’d brought his bride to this house.

And it had been a happy house, full of warmth and laughter. He’d been an only child, but he’d never lacked playmates. The walls around the estate had given the neighborhood kids, not to mention their mothers, a sense of security, while the woodsy, unmanicured grounds had afforded them freedom to explore and pretend to the limits of their imaginations.

A happy place. As he often did when deep in thought, he forgot whatever else he was doing. He stopped walking, forgot to stroke the cat. When did that change? When did my home become the neighborhood haunted house?

Leaves tumbled over themselves along the path ahead of him as if anxious to be out of his way.

He noticed that while he’d been pondering, dusk had become night. The moon had risen behind the house, not a full moon, but close enough. As a child, he remembered, he’d spent a lot of time wondering about the moon, what it was made of, and what it would take to go there. He’d always expected to go there, and was still vaguely disappointed that, while his mind had frequently gone where no man had gone before, his feet had remained firmly earthbound. He spent his time these days wondering about such things as subatomic particles, quarks, isotopes, and beta decay. The moon held no romance for him now.

But he had to admit there was a certain chilly beauty about the moonlight tonight, the way it threw the turrets and cupolas of his house into Gothic silhouette. It looked… He searched for and finally found the word: Lonely.

Shifting the now placidly purring cat in his arms, Culley, as he preferred to be called, walked on. No doubt about it, the old homestead could do with a few kids running around, wading in the lily pond, chasing squirrels through the woods, building tree–houses. And that was too bad. Because he was a long way from being ready to start thinking about marrying again, much less having kids.

No, Culley told himself, maybe the place looked lonely and haunted, but it suited him just fine. The solitude was what he needed, both for healing…and for other things.

And tonight it was long past time for him to get to those other things. As he went up the flagstone walk, the lighted attic window, the one high up in the steeply gabled roof, stared down at him like an accusing eye, reminding him that he’d left poor Princess Kerissa in the clutches of the dreaded Tularian Bat People.

So it was that Culley’s mind was once more off in an alien world when he passed through his front hallway, which was why he didn’t even glance at the basket of candy bars on the table there, or notice the small white rectangle propped against it. Halloween and trick–or–treaters, as well as virtually everything else of this world, had been left light years behind.

He was vaguely aware of a niggling notion that he was forgetting something, but he got that feeling often, and had learned to ignore It.

He’d taken about two steps up the wide, curving staircase when Albert suddenly sank his teeth into his forearm, bringing him rudely back to earth and reminding him of both the cat’s presence and of his need to be fed. Thankful at least to know what it was he’d forgotten, Culley muttered. “Oops, sorry, old boy.” Then, backtracking, he detoured to the kitchen.

He located a can of cat food and a can opener without too much difficulty, and put one to work on the other while Albert watched with heavy–lidded disdain. “Hah!” Culley announced in triumph as the lid popped off in fine form. Albert sighed and looked away.

“Okay, where’s the missus?” A scratching noise from the door to the back porch answered Culley’s question. With a muttered “Damn!” he went to unlatch the kitty door—something else he’d forgotten. The feeling began to nag at him again, but he told himself if it was anything important, his mother would have left him a note.

A small, cream–colored cat with distant Siamese antecedents shot through the kitty door looking frantic. While Culley was finding a fork and using it to divide the can of cat food between the two bowls on the floor, she wrapped herself around his ankles and complained loudly about her ill–treatment.

“Yeah, Prissy, you’re getting too fat anyway,” Culley muttered when the nagging had been replaced with wet, sticky eating noises. Bending down to give the cat a perfunctory scratch behind the ears, he said, “Better watch it. Albert likes his ladies on the svelte side.”

As he tucked the fork in his shirt pocket and put the empty cat food can in the refrigerator, his mind was already off again, voyaging in alien waters. He gave no further thought to what it was he might have forgotten.

* * *

Elizabeth Resnick peered at the brass numbers on the massive stone gatepost, illuminated clearly by her high beam headlights. Nope, no mistake.

“Why stoppin’, Mom?” Wendy, her two–and–a–half–year–old daughter, had begun to rock impatiently in her car seat. “What you doin’?”

“Having second thoughts,” Elizabeth muttered.

“What?”

“Nothing, sweetie. Sit still, okay?” She took a deep breath, put her ancient Toyota in gear and crept through the gate. It was open, at least, so Dr. Ward must be expecting her. She only wished she knew what to expect. Grace Ward had been disquietingly vague about her son, except to say that final approval, of course, would have to be up to him.

“Gramma’s house?” Wendy ventured, sounding doubtful.

“No, baby,” Elizabeth told her gently, “this isn’t Gramma’s house.” As always, she fought to keep any negative inflections out of her voice when she spoke of the Resnicks; the last thing she wanted to do was let her own fears contaminate Wendy’s love for her grandparents.

The driveway’s gentle curve carried them through trees and shrubbery made spooky by moonlight and suggestion. All Hallows’ Eve. To keep from being intimidated by the grounds around the house, Elizabeth tried to imagine them in daylight with birds singing in the trees and squirrels rummaging busily among the fallen leaves. In the spring, she told herself, there would be crocuses and daffodils. This would be a lovely place for a child to play.

In front of the house the gravel drive made a sweeping circle around a large lily pond with a stone fountain in its center. Elizabeth pulled the car to a stop between it and the front steps, turned off the motor and lights, and sat for a moment, staring up at the big house.

“Trick–’r–treat?” Wendy asked hopefully.

“No.” Elizabeth reached for the door handle. “No more trick or treat. I told you, remember? Mommy has to talk to a man about a job.”

“Talk to a man?”

“Right.”

“Man’s house,” Wendy announced, pointing over her mother’s shoulder as Elizabeth bent to unbuckle the harness of the car seat. “Big house.”

“It certainly is,” Elizabeth agreed, mentally squaring her shoulders. After all, while big meant lots of work, it also meant lots of room. Room for her, and for one very energetic little girl.

Taking a measure of courage from the small hand which had crept into hers, Elizabeth marched up the flagstone walk and pressed the doorbell. For good measure, Wendy pressed it, too. Twin foghorns echoed and resounded beyond the massive wooden door, delighting Wendy, who gave a little gasp and turned a pixie smile upward. The sight of her daughter’s sparkling eyes and open face, still framed by the red hood of her Halloween costume, gave Elizabeth a squeezing sensation in the vicinity of her heart.

“Someone’s comin’,” Wendy said in a breathless whisper.

“You think so?” Elizabeth murmured doubtfully, reaching for the iron knocker. Just as she grasped it, the door opened abruptly inward, yanking her forward over the sill. There was an awkward moment while she struggled for balance, and strong hands reached reflexively to steady her. And then there was silence.

It was the kind of silence that follows lightning—tense, waiting for the clap of thunder. As she stared openmouthed at the man before her, Elizabeth even found herself silently counting: One… two… three…

But except for that, her mind was a blank.

“Trick–’r–treat?”

As thunderclaps go, it wasn’t much, but it did the trick. The world began to turn again. Elizabeth’s mind began to function. She drew breath, felt her heart beating, became aware of an unaccustomed warmth in her cheeks and on her arms where a pair of masculine hands were touching her.

She realized that the man to whom the hands belonged was only a head taller than she was, no more than average height, and that he was surprisingly young. He didn’t look much like her idea of a nuclear physicist, but he wasn’t in any way intimidating. There was no reason why she should have a sudden attack of butterflies in the stomach, or a wildly pounding heart. Perhaps, she told herself, her nervousness had something to do with the fact that his dark brown hair looked as if he’d just gotten out of bed; or the fact that, behind a pair of dark–rimmed glasses, his brown eyes had focused on her with a warm but intent and puzzled stare.

Something about that stare made her feel off balance, uncertain. Fighting to regain the composure she’d lost, she shook her head and said, “Wendy, no—” just as the man ventured, “Trick or treat?”

“No, that isn’t—”

The bewildered look left the man’s eyes; they widened in a look of incredulity and delight that made him seem almost boyish.

“Trick or—hey, that’s great! I didn’t think anybody— Wait a minute now, I know there’s something here somewhere…” He looked around. With a triumphant “Ah!” he snatched up a basket of candy bars, knocking over a white envelope in the process. Without looking at the envelope, he picked it up and stuffed it into his shirt pocket.

That was when Elizabeth noticed the fork. The man had a fork in his shirt pocket. Not a clean one, either; bits of something resembling meat loaf were clinging to the tines.

Of course. A smile blossomed inside her, banishing butterflies. What was it Grace Ward had said to her? “My son needs a keeper.” Not housekeeper. Just a keeper.

While Elizabeth was still gazing in awe at the fork, Dr. Ward dropped to one knee in front of Wendy.

“Well now, let’s see. Are you Little Red Riding Hood?”

Wendy’s head bobbed in vigorous confirmation. “Riding Hood!”

Too bemused, for the moment, to intercede, Elizabeth stared down at the man she’d come to ask for a job. She observed that his hair was in need of a trim. She noticed the way the muscles in his back and shoulders changed shape beneath the fabric of his shirt when he reached to touch her daughter’s cape.

Planting her tongue in her cheek, Wendy took a tentative step forward and touched the man’s face with a chubby forefinger. And somewhere deep in her midsection, Elizabeth felt that warm, squeezing sensation again.

Wendy turned wide blue eyes on her mother and stated with absolute conviction, “That’s a man.

Yes, it certainly was. And to her profound dismay, Elizabeth was beginning to realize that he was a very attractive one, too, something his mother had neglected to mention.

“Daddy?”

“Oh boy.” Laughing apologetically, Elizabeth drew her daughter close against her legs. The man stood up, looking understandably taken aback. Elizabeth held out her hand. “I’m sorry, she’s at that age. Dr. Ward, I’m Elizabeth Resnick.”

The warm, yet puzzled frown was back again. The hand that closed around hers was reassuring, but reserved. “Elizabeth?”

“Elizabeth Resnick. Your mother sent me. It’s about the housekeeper’s job. She said you’d be expecting me.”

What Grace had actually said to her, Elizabeth remembered, was, “I’ll tell him you’re coming, but he will undoubtedly forget. I’m afraid you are apt to be on your own.”

Dr. Ward closed his eyes for a moment and let go of an exasperated breath. “So that was it,” he said under his breath. “I knew there was something. Grace—my mother—did mention you. But she usually leaves me a note. I don’t know—”

“Perhaps,” Elizabeth suggested gently, “that’s it in your pocket.”

“Ah.” He smiled apologetically, patted his pocket, then carefully removed its contents. After glancing at the fork without much surprise, he laid it aside on the table and opened the envelope. A moment later he dropped his mother’s note on top of the fork and dragged a hand through his hair, a gesture which certainly explained its state of disarray.

“Look, uh, Elizabeth, I don’t know about this housekeeper business. It’s a big house, but with just the two of us living here, there really isn’t that much to do. A cleaning service comes once a week to take care of the heavy stuff, and my mother—”

“Your mother mentioned she was going to be away for a while. A cruise?” Elizabeth was wondering how to tactfully explain that it wasn’t the house Mrs. Ward was concerned about.

“Yes, that’s right. But it’s only a temporary situation—just a month or so. Did my mother explain that?”

“Oh yes,” Elizabeth said. “She did indeed.”

“Life is short,” Grace Ward had told her. “My dear, I’ve always wanted to see the world, and I’m not getting any younger. If you work out as well as I think you’re going to, when this cruise is over, I might just hop a freighter and keep right on going.”

“Well, I… Frankly, I would think in your situation, you’d be wanting something a little more permanent.” The scientist looked pointedly at Wendy, who flashed him a heartbreaker’s smile from behind Elizabeth’s legs.

Quite suddenly, Elizabeth knew that in spite of her situation she wanted very much to become Dr. G. Cullen Ward’s housekeeper. Without being able to explain why, she knew that she would feel good being here. It felt…right. The house needed her. Dr. Ward needed her. And the house was perfect for Wendy. The stone walls that made the estate seem so forbidding also made it a safe, secure place for a child to play. It was a nice area, and Dr. Ward was highly respected. Not even the Resnicks would be able to find fault with this environment.

Taking a deep breath, she said firmly, “Dr. Ward, for reasons I’ve discussed in full with your mother, but which I’d rather not go into right now—” she nodded meaningfully toward her daughter, who had ventured away from the sanctuary of her legs “—this job would suit my needs perfectly. Wendy and I are in urgent need of a place to live, and I need a job that will allow me to spend as much time as possible—”

“Live? You mean here?”

Clearly, the fact that a live–in housekeeper usually does just that hadn’t occurred to Dr. Ward. The look of consternation on his face would have made Elizabeth laugh, if winning his approval hadn’t been so important. Instead she murmured tactfully, “Yes, of course, that was the arrangement as I discussed it with your mother.”

The scientist’s fingers made another destructive foray through his hair.

“She assured me you had plenty of room, even if you don’t have maid’s quarters, as such.”

He shot her a distracted look. “Maid? Good Lord. No, no it isn’t that. It’s just that this isn’t exactly a house for children. I mean. It’s…well, the stairs—”

With faultless timing. Wendy sang out, “Mommy, Mommy. Look at me!”

Both adults turned to stare at her. Near the top of the great curving staircase, Wendy was grinning at them through the balusters like a monkey through the bars of a cage.

“You were saying?” Elizabeth murmured, fighting back laughter.

G. Cullen Ward shot her a helpless frown. “Shouldn’t you—Won’t she—”

Elizabeth sighed. She knew Wendy was in no danger of falling, but it wasn’t a good time for a demonstration of typical two–year–old behavior either. Hoping for the best, she tried a coaxing tone. “Wendy, come back, now. What are you doing up there, sweetheart?”

Climbin’,” Wendy announced, an intrepid expression on her face.

“Honey, this isn’t Gramma’s house. You come on back down now, okay?”

“No.”

The scientist’s eyebrows went up. Elizabeth’s heart sank. It was going to be one of those times.

Raising her voice to a no–nonsense level, she said, “Wendy, you come back here now.”

Her prospective employer folded his arms on his chest and leaned against the newel post, looking expectant.

“Bye bye.” With an impish wave, Wendy turned and continued on up the stairs.

Elizabeth muttered “Damn!” under her breath. There was a muffled sound from Dr. Ward. Suspecting that he was beginning to enjoy her discomfort, she threw him a look of exasperation. He gazed placidly back at her, his expression solemn, only a certain gleam in his eyes confirming her suspicions.

She shook her head and released her breath slowly. “I’m sorry, Dr. Ward. I guess she’s going to be stubborn.” Wendy, you little monster, don’t do this to me—to us. You’re blowing it!

Wendy had reached the top of the stairs and disappeared. Elizabeth cleared her throat. “Well, I guess I’d better go and—“

Dr. Ward straightened and gestured with exaggerated courtesy. “Please, by all means, be my guest.”

Sighing in resignation. Elizabeth started up the stairs after her daughter. Without a word, G. Cullen Ward stuck his hands in his pockets and fell in beside her. Elizabeth glanced at him, swallowed, and said, “I’m really sorry. She’s just at that age.”

The scientist uttered a noncommittal “Hmm.” He appeared to be deep in thought. Elizabeth studied his profile, searching for some sign there might still be hope he could be convinced to hire as his housekeeper a woman who couldn’t even manage her own child. It didn’t look promising. The profile was undeniably attractive, but the high forehead was furrowed, and the jaw and mouth were set in what looked to her like uncompromising lines.

To fill the silence, and to forestall the comments she knew must be straining the limits of his self–control, Elizabeth said, “You were a child in this house, weren’t you?” Taking his grunt for confirmation, she went on, brightly, “I’ll bet you had fun playing on these stairs. Sliding down the banister.”

This time the muffled sound he made was definitely one of amusement, and when he turned to look at her, a smile was tugging at one corner of his mouth, deepening the crease there. Again he had that engaging, boyish look. Elizabeth found herself afflicted with sudden shortness of breath and tightened her grip on the cherry wood banister.

“Yes,” he said, “I suppose I did.”

He paused in the middle of the staircase. One step above him Elizabeth did the same, bringing her to his eye level. Their eyes met in one of those rare moments of understanding between strangers that transcends verbal communication. For just a moment. And then he moved on and so did she, climbing the stairs side by side, at once more relaxed with each other and more aware.

“Goodness, how many bedrooms are there?” Elizabeth asked in dismay when they reached the top of the stairs and Wendy was nowhere in sight. A long hallway stretched ahead of her, with several open doors offering possibilities to tempt an inquisitive child. Her heart sank; Wendy’s favorite game at the moment was hide–and–seek.

Her host was frowning again. “Six…no, seven.” He shifted uncomfortably. “Listen, it’s not that there isn’t room for you and your daughter. Tell me honestly—can you imagine one little girl being happy in this mausoleum?”

Oh yes, Elizabeth could imagine one little girl being happy in this great stone house, with arched windows to let in the sunshine, a long banister to slide down, and a dozen rooms to play hide–and–seek in. Just as she could imagine one rather serious, very intelligent little boy being happy in this house. The fact was, she could imagine a whole troop of children laughing and roughhousing in the hallways. The house yearned for children.

When she didn’t answer, he went on, speaking slowly, deliberately. “It isn’t that I have anything against children. I don’t. Really. But you see, I have my office upstairs, and I’m afraid that—”

“Your office? But I thought you worked at Cal Tech.”

“I do. I do.” His hand raked his hair into new disarray. “But I, um… I do research here. Experiments. Things like that. And I really need solitude for my work. Peace and quiet. I’m sorry, it’s nothing personal to do with you or your daughter. She’s a cute kid. But I just think—”

He was going to turn her down. She didn’t know why she minded so much; surely there were other jobs, other solutions to her problems. If this didn’t work out, she wasn’t going to be out on the streets, for heaven’s sake. But there was a lump in her throat the size of a golf ball.

“She’s in bed by seven o’clock,” Elizabeth said, trying to keep her voice from wobbling. “She wouldn’t disturb your work. Dr. Ward, I promise. Please, give me a chance. I…I really need this job.”

The scientist was staring down at his folded arms. Elizabeth followed his gaze and saw her own hands resting on his shirt sleeve. She could feel the firm warmth of muscle through the fabric. Her mouth dropped open, and so did his; but before either of them could comment, they heard a sound that transfixed them both.

From somewhere down the long hallway came the anguished sobbing of a heartbroken child.