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Madison Jacobson questioned her sanity as she followed her best friend Ellie inside the notorious tea house, which had a wicked reputation for all things supernatural. A wiry woman with piercing, blue eyes and white hair pulled into a loose knot on the top of her head stood beside the reservation desk. Her thin lips turned into a faint smile as she looked at them, over a pair of tortoise-shell, reading glasses perched precariously on her narrow, ski-jump nose. For a moment Maddy felt like a new sales item in a Christmas catalog. Around the woman’s neck hung a magnificent, agate pendant, a talisman believed to have strong metaphysical power.
“You must be my eleven,” the woman said with an exotic accent.
The smell of Earl Grey tea and freshly, baked scones mingled in the air, almost masking another odor. Maddy concentrated on the odd smell. Mold, mothballs and a whiff of cigar smoke? The hair on the nape of Maddy’s neck rose. Perhaps the ghost stories were true.
“She is,” said Ellie pushing Maddy forward towards the hostess. “She’s your eleven.”
Maddy wondered for the hundredth time why she had agreed to come here. It hadn’t been easy for Ellie to talk her into it. She had wined her and dined her and when that didn’t work, she reminded her of their blood oath taken at the age of eight. “It’s destined,” Ellie had said as she closed the deal the night before. “And it’s my Christmas present to you.”
It had to be the most unusual Christmas gift in the world.
Destiny, my foot. Maddy fidgeted as she looked closely at the older woman. A well-educated reference librarian at the local university, Maddy believed in facts, not destiny, psychics or any form of hocus-pocus. How anyone could believe a pile of tea leaves on the bottom of a porcelain cup could predict the future amazed her. They needed their heads checked. And haunted houses? They belonged in Halloween books.
Maddy twisted her neck to relieve tension and focused on the woman with the pendant. “My friend thinks I need your help.”
The woman’s eyes twinkled. “Indeed you do. Follow me.”
The woman led them down a narrow hallway. Faded photographs in old, wooden frames lined the walls, covered in pink flower wallpaper. Pictures of people from years and years ago, probably long forgotten. A chill started at the base of her spine and rose slowly, pushing her creep-meter off its scale. Sheesh. How long would she have to stay in this place to honor her agreement with Ellie? Maddy bit the inside of her mouth.
The woman stopped at the second doorway and turned towards them. She gestured towards it. “This is Lilith’s tea room.” The old wooden floorboards creaked beneath their feet as they walked to the large table set for two in the middle of the room. Smaller tables surrounded their table, but they were not set.
The room had its own charm. Sunlight streamed through a large bay window, giving a natural glow to everything inside. A plump, black cat lay on the window seat, looking supremely comfortable as only a cat can. Maddy’s eyes stayed on the cat for a moment, envying his contentment, until it began to shimmer in the light as if it was a picture out of focus. She blinked and looked again. The cat looked normal. It had to be a trick of the light.
Faded, pink floral wallpaper covered the walls. A mahogany and glass cabinet, filled with well-displayed china hugged the wall opposite the window. It seemed the perfect place for a tea party. If only her stomach would stop twisting.
Weird smells, shimmering cats and an old woman whose behavior made Maddy feel as if she were a demon’s main course. She sniffed. No matter how creepy she felt, she could get through an hour of this. It was a Christmas present after all.
Maddy took a seat on the far side of the table and focused on enjoying the warmth of the sunshine on her skin and the generosity of her friend for taking her out on an adventure. She needed to forget, at least for the time it took to drink a cup of tea, the real reason they had come.
Ellie sat opposite in her crisp, white blouse, unruffled by the strangeness of the place. She had pulled her long, blonde hair into a high pony revealing her perfect skin and high cheekbones. She looked, as always, cover-picture perfect. If they weren’t such good friends, Maddy would have strangled her long ago.
The older woman stood at the end of the table. “I am Madame Azalea and this is my tea-house. Welcome.” She pulled a small, silver bell from her pocket and rang it.
A few seconds later a college-aged waitress with a nose ring, wearing a French maid’s outfit, appeared with a tea tray.
She placed a three-tiered china serving plate, filled with tea sandwiches, scones, and squares, in the middle of their table. A china teacup and saucer and a small plate setting had already been placed in front of each of them. The delicate, green flower design on the dishes looked regal and the food scrumptious.
Azalea poured the tea and then gave Maddy a knowing look. “Drink. I will return shortly.”
Once Azalea had left the room, Maddy put down her cup. “What have you got us into?”
Ellie made mewing sounds as she nibbled on a tiny cucumber and cream cheese sandwich. “You need to try new things.”
“I can do new. This is something else entirely.”
As if in response to her comment, a loud chorus of laughter erupted from the other side of the wall. “That’s a good one,” a man said. And they laughed some more. “I’ll raise you,” said another.
Raise? Maddy looked at her friend. “Are they playing poker in a tea house?”
Ellie shrugged. “Try a cucumber sandwich. They’re really good.”
Maddy reached for a chocolate-covered square instead. “How did you get us a reservation so quickly? I heard you have to book months ahead.”
The way her friend’s face flushed made her feel cold all over. She knew that look. Ellie was hiding something.
“Oh, I guess I got lucky. I phoned and Madam Azalea answered and she said . . . ” Ellie dabbed at her mouth with the white linen napkin.
“What did she say?”
“Okay. All right. It was odd.”
“Ellie, what did she say?”
Her friend looked at the ceiling for a long moment. “That she had been expecting my call and that we were booked for eleven.”
“Uh-huh.” Of course. That made perfect sense. The woman was a psychic after all.
More laughter made Maddy choke on her square. But that did not diminish its rich flavor. Its gooey middle rocked. She leaned back in her chair and wondered how many calories she had just inhaled and how they would look on her hips. But why should she care? She had sworn off men. “You’re an awful liar, Ellie.”
Her friend laughed. “Would you have come if I had told you Madame Azalea expected us?”
Maddy was about to say an emphatic “no.” when more laughter came from the other room. Louder this time. Then came the sound of squeaky door hinges turning slowly. “Shush,” a woman said. It sounded like Azalea. “I have a client.”
Silence, and then the door squeaked open again and softly clicked closed.
A minute later Azalea reentered their room. “Have you finished a cup of tea yet?” Her blue eyes twinkled like stars.
Maddy finished the last of her tea in one gulp. “Yes.”
“Good. Then let us begin.” Azalea sat in a chair at the end of the table and stared at Maddy. “Turn the cup upside down, place it on its saucer, and turn it three times in a clockwise direction.
Trying not to hurt the fine china cup, Maddy followed her instructions carefully. Despite not believing in this whole supernatural ritual, excitement brewed inside her. Maybe the tea house mold had crept into her brain.
“Now flip it up again and hand it to me.” Azalea raised one finger to slow Maddy down. “And make a wish that’s just for you.”
Looking into the cup, Maddy saw wet tea leaves scattered in an odd design on the bottom. It kind of looked like a dragon when she squinted and tilted her head. She didn’t bother making a wish, because this whole thing was nothing more than a soggy tea leaf sham, and besides her wishes never came true.
As she passed the cup to Azalea, and they both had their hands on it, the wish bubbled up on its own: true love. She wished for true love.
Azalea looked intently in the cup, looked up at her, and then she looked back into the cup. “I see,” she said. “It may . . .” –she hesitated– “be possible.”
Maddy’s stomach cramped. “Let me guess. Tall, dark and handsome.”
One side of the seer’s mouth hitched up. “Not exactly.”
The tone in her voice held a coldness that reached right into Maddy’s mind and grabbed at her, leaving her with a cold and empty feeling. What the heck? She had agreed to come here to please Ellie, not to get bad news. The whole point of this fortune-telling trip was to give her hope. Wasn’t it?
Hope for Christmas, the perfect gift for the season.
Ellie grabbed Maddy’s hand and held it tightly. “I’m sure it can’t be that bad.”
Azalea looked at the cup again and sat back. “Your heart is broken.”
Why did Ellie have to go and tell the woman about that? Maddy gave Ellie an angry stare, but she shook her head “no.”
Maddy folded her arms across her chest and nodded. “Yeah, my handsome prince turned out to be a horny toad. You know, the usual story.”
Azalea’s finely manicured eyebrows rose. Clearly, she wanted details.
“A month ago I found Kevin, my lawyer boyfriend of five years, on our sofa kissing a cheerleader for the local football team. I threw him out. Two weeks ago he sent me a text from Hawaii telling me he was sorry, but he had found his true calling as a surfing instructor. Later that day I discovered he financed his trip with the money we saved in a joint account for our wedding. When I sent him a scorching text, he replied. ‘Babe, I got to live my dream.’”
Azalea wiggled her nose. “No matter how awful you feel right now, my dear, know this: he is the fool. Not you. You are better off without him.”
Many people had said this or something similar since the break-up, but Azalea’s deep voice had a resonating quality that made her words sound truly wise, and well . . . prophetic. Despite not wanting to believe in the woman, Maddy warmed to her words.
“So do you see another man in my future?”
The woman toggled her head from side to side. “Two actually, and that’s what gives me pause. You look like a woman who would prefer one.”
“Well yes. That’s exactly what I want, one true love to spend the rest of my life with.” Was that too much to ask?
Azalea looked at the china cup again. Her blue eyes glazed over. “Spirits, speak to me.” Her voice sounded other-worldly now as if it came from a distance, from beyond. The table shook.
Ellie’s eyes widened and she tightened her grip on Maddy’s hand. Maddy’s mouth went dry.
“You signed up with a dating service.”
“Yes, I signed up for MeetYourMatch dot com,” Maddy said as she popped another chocolate square into her mouth.
Azalea nodded. “The first man is charming.”
“Is he the one?”
Azalea’s head tilted.
Laughter erupted in the next room again and she grumbled. “Oh, I do apologize. My brother has his friends over to play poker and sometimes they get carried away.”
“The man. The one in my cup. Tell me about him.”
“Well, you like him because he’s fun and kind and treats you with respect.”
“But there is this other man who lights you on fire. You know what I mean. He literally takes your breath away and you wonder how you ever could have lived without him.”
“I’ll settle for respect if the first guy is faithful.” She didn’t need to lose her head over a guy with good moves. Never again. Nu-uh.
“Yes, well both men are intriguing in their own way. And handsome.”
“How handsome?” Ellie said, putting down her napkin.
“Give me a second.” She closed her eyes. “I can’t get a clear fix on them for some reason.” The table rumbled again. She opened her eyes, looked in the cup and tilted her head as if the angle helped her read the tea leaves.
“I don’t really need a hot guy,” Maddy lied. She actually had never had hot, because hot wasn’t safe. But she had dreamed of hot. Hell, yeah, she had dreamed of hot. And two hot men! Her chest swelled with excitement. Now that was something to imagine.
Azalea smiled at her. “Broad shoulders, six-pack abs, slender waists and one wears a kilt.”
“A kilt?” Maddy choked on her chocolate dessert. She loved historical romances.
“Yes, a kilt, but I should warn you, a man can appear differently in this realm than in real life. He may just have Scottish heritage.”
“Is he the one? The Scottish guy?” The words flew out of Maddy’s mouth, demonstrating once again that even at her mature age of twenty-five, she still believed in white knights and fairy tale endings.
Wait. Wait just one minute. She firmed her lips. Holy tamole, hadn’t she just decided that she could live the rest of her life quite contentedly without a man? They complicated everything. Her plan was to live with her dog for the rest of her life. They could take nice walks.
After a long minute, Azalea said, “They will love you as no other man has ever loved you.”
“They will go to the ends of the earth for you.”
She waved her finger in the air. “But you will have to choose one.”
“So he is the one.”
The table jumped and the china on top of it rattled. What in the world?
Azalea sighed. “Maybe, but you need to be careful . . .”
Bang. A gunshot sounded from the next room. Azalea flew out the door. Ellie and Maddy grabbed their purses and ran for the car. What kind of tea house has a gunfight?