"This Psychic Fair is amazing," Lila Sims said to Aidan Cates as they strolled along the Barefoot William boardwalk. She rubbed her hands together. "I want to get a reading."
Aidan's gut clenched. He had his own sixth sense, and was pretty damn certain what Lila had on her mind. It involved him, unfortunately, and a walk down the aisle. She was one determined woman. He planned to dodge her bullet.
"What kind of reading?" he asked her, looking around at the numerous booths set up before the multicolored storefronts. Sufficient space separated the umbrella tables so no one felt crowded. He studied a few of the signs. "There's tarot cards, astrology, numerology, palmistry, crystal ball, channeling, clairvoyants, dream interpretation, and animal communication."
The psychic list went on and on, and the lines were long. He figured the wait would be an hour. Time he'd never get back.
He knew Lila well; she wouldn't stop with one reading. If the first psychic didn't tell her what she hoped to hear, she'd find someone who would. Her beauty couldn't mask her stubbornness. She wanted to know her future, and needed validation.
His sister, Shaye, had organized the event. There was no exam to be a reader at the fair. Their aunt was a renowned intuitive with an international following. Madam Aleta was presently in New York City filming a documentary on psychic detectives. She had solved many crimes in her lifetime.
Aleta had recommended several of her colleagues; people with credible and stellar reputations. Twenty psychics were presently in attendance. They'd arrived from the metaphysical heartlands of Sedona, Arizona, Lily Dale, New York, and Cassadaga, Florida. Each had a different talent. The metaphysical vibration was strong. The air was alive with excitement and expectation.
Aidan wanted only to escape. It was the first Sunday in March, and the Florida sun beat across his shoulders. He was feeling the heat. He'd turned his baseball cap backward to protect his neck from sunburn. He would've worn a T-shirt and athletic shorts instead of a long-sleeve white button-down and jeans had he known Lila planned to check out every gift table and booth.
The crystals and gemstones, the New Age books, and the silver, symbolic jewelry all fascinated her. She'd purchased a phoenix rising necklace. She was presently flipping through a pamphlet on being her own psychic. Perhaps she was seeking a career change, although she was well suited for her present position as a society columnist for Sleek, a glossy women's magazine.
She attended major events from the Kentucky Derby, yacht races, and designer fashion shows to pedigreed weddings. Her column reported on American royalty, who wore what and who was seen with whom.
But today was all about Lila, Aidan thought. She was on a mission for a reading. And what Lila wanted, Lila got. The woman knew no compromise.
"Sorry!" A lady bumped Aidan from behind and was quick to apologize. A moment later a man elbowed him in the ribs. No apology there.
Enough was enough, Aidan decided. He moved beyond the crush of the crowd, finding a spot against the blue metallic railing that separated the boardwalk from the sugar sand. Wide wooden steps led down to the beach. Facing the Gulf, he breathed deeply. The scents of suntan lotion, cinnamon incense, and salt air surrounded him. A seagull squawked to get his attention.
He was so damn glad to be home. He'd been away too long. He could understand the tourists' fascination with his town. Here was a vacation spot where everyone exhaled. No one wore a watch. Laughter was plentiful and clothes were minimal.
The crystal-blue water rippled along the shore. Beachgoers sought space, then spread their towels. Those wanting to cool off floated on their air mattresses between the shoreline and the sandbar. The water sports shack was near the pier. Tourists could rent everything from surfboards to snorkel gear, air mattresses to paddleboats. Powerboats cruised offshore, and sailboats drifted with the wind.
William Cates founded Barefoot William in 1906, and generations of Cateses had lived and worked their in heritance. The northern cement boardwalk linked to a wooden pier. Amusement arcades and carnival rides drew a large crowd. The specialty shops sold everything from Florida T-shirts to ice cream and penny candy, sunglasses to sharks' teeth, and shells to hula hoops.
A century-old carousel spun within a weatherproof enclosure. Its walls of windows overlooked the Gulf. The whir of the Ferris wheel was soothing while the swing ride that whipped out and over the waves sent pulses racing.
Neon lights flashed at night and music poured from many of the shops. People danced down the boardwalk, free and uninhibited. Many played blacklight volleyball on the beach. Glow-in-the-dark Frisbees were thrown along the shoreline. A few daring souls skinny-dipped near the pier after midnight. Kisses were stolen at high tide. Barefoot William was as honky-tonk as its sister city, Saunders Shores, was high profile.
Waterfront mansions welcomed the rich and retired to Saunders Shores. Yachts the size of cruise ships lined the waterways. Private airstrips replaced commercial travel. Forbes listed Saunders Shores as the wealthiest resort community in the country.
Despite the hundred-year-old feud between the Cates and Saunders families, Aidan's sister, Shaye, had married Trace Saunders. Aidan's older brother Dune had married Trace's younger sister, Sophie. The controversy had been resolved and peace restored between the families. Life was good. The southern paradise thrived.
Aidan caught a glimpse of platinum blond hair and a red tunic top from the corner of his eye and realized Lila was headed his way. "Hey, handsome, you hiding from me?" she asked, running her finger down the front of his shirt. Her nails were long and painted navy. There were times she wasn't as careful as he'd have liked when she touched him, especially when they were naked. Nails could scrape, score, and leave a man soft. She often scratched more than his ass.
"Not hiding, just needing some space," he told her.
"It's crowded," she agreed.
A successful psychic fair would keep the boardwalk in the black. That was his sister's goal. Shaye ran Barefoot William Enterprises while her husband, Trace, was CEO of Saunders Shores. The couple worked together on many building projects and land renovations. Both towns were flourishing.
Lila curved her hand about his neck and leaned closer, asking, "Do you want to have your aura cleansed?"
He shook his head. He'd taken a shower that morning, which was good enough for him.
"You could have your past lives unearthed."
"No thanks." He was happy with the present.
"Your runes cast?"
"I have no Viking blood."
"There's a psychic painter who can identify and draw you and your spirit guides," she suggested.
He didn't want to be pictured with metaphysical beings looking over his shoulder. It was too damn spooky. "I'll pass," he said.
She pressed a light kiss to his lips; her coral-cream lipstick was non-smear. "There are other choices. What would you like, Aidan?"
He eased back slightly and patted his stomach. "Lunch," he admitted. At least he was honest. The Blue Coconut was four blocks north. The peanut bar catered to a casual crowd. The beer was cold; the foam was as top-heavy as the waitresses. There were baskets of peanuts in the shell on each table. The shells were shucked and tossed on the floor. A jukebox played in one corner, and a life-size, neon Elvis statue leaned his elbow on one end of the bar. Dartboards and pool tables drew customers to the back room.
The bar's menu was limited; the owner served three kinds of sandwiches: pastrami, roast beef, and turkey. All came with potato chips and a jumbo dill pickle. A roast beef on rye sounded good to him now.
Lila sighed, pouting. "How can you think about food while world-renowned psychics are tapping into their powers on your boardwalk? Can't you feel their cosmic vibe? It's calling to me."
Better calling to her than to him, Aidan thought. "We'll get your reading first and then I'll take you to lunch," he conceded. "Which psychic have you chosen?"
She looked over her shoulder and scanned the tables. "The lines are lengthy." She paused, went on to squeeze his arm. "There's a reader available two tables to our left. No one's around her."
No one? That didn't sound good. Perhaps she wasn't a competent psychic. Aidan hated to waste his money on a scam artist, even if his aunt had recommended the woman.
"Hurry, Aidan." Lila took off ahead of him.
He trailed slowly, focusing on the reader as he approached her. She sat in profile to him, a small woman with long chestnut-brown hair wrapped in a green-and-gold paisley bandana. She was casually dressed in a yellow crop top and khaki shorts. She looked like a Gypsy with her large hoop earrings and gold stacking bracelets on each arm. She was barefoot with toe rings.
Lila was quick to introduce herself to the psychic. She then motioned Aidan forward. He stepped up. He was a man who lived by first impressions. The reader touched him in a way that left him uneasy. He felt strangely drawn to her. His breathing deepened. He drew air from his gut, not his lungs. He found her sexy.
She was younger than he'd expected. He placed her in her early thirties, whereas the other readers were in their fifties and sixties. Her eyes were hazel. She had fine features and beautiful skin. Her mouth was full and her lips were parted, as if Lila had taken her by surprise.
Aidan read the printed sign on her table. Aries Martine was clairvoyant. She had the capability to see the past, present, and future. A ten-minute reading cost twenty dollars.
Such a short time wouldn't satisfy Lila, Aidan knew. He'd bet she'd take a half hour. Maybe even an hour. The way he saw it, that was money tossed to the cosmos with no honest return.
Lila settled onto one of the two wooden folding chairs, facing the psychic. She patted the seat on the second chair, requesting Aidan join her. He sat down slowly, stiffly. He sensed his life was about to change, and not for the better.
Aries had yet to speak; had yet to fully close her mouth. He noticed the slight gap between her front teeth, which he found hot. A tiny crescent scar curved at the corner of one eye. He liked a woman who wasn't perfect; she seemed more natural, more real. More approachable.
Unfortunately for him, Aries appeared unsure of herself, which made Aidan uncertain of her. Not a good way to start a reading. Not good at all. Where was her confidence? Her positive energy? Her cosmic reception?
"This is Aidan." Lila was brief. "I'm the one seeking information. He's a skeptic."
"Ah, so you are not a believer," the psychic said to him.
"There's always room for doubt."
She shrugged a slender shoulder. "An open mind allows for new opportunities."
He was open to change, but on his terms.
Lila grew impatient; her future waited. "We're ready whenever you are," she told Aries.
"Very well," Aries agreed. "Allow me to center myself before we get started." She closed her eyes and drew in consecutive breaths, releasing them slowly.
Aidan stared, appreciating the rise and fall of her chest. Her breasts were full, firm, and held by a sports bra; the outline was visible beneath the cotton of her shirt. The depth of her breathing pulled the hem of her crop top high on her stomach. Her skin was pale. Sunshine had yet to kiss her belly. He liked her gold navel ring.
There was something about the Gypsy psychic that held his interest, for the moment anyway. Beside him, Lila anxiously tapped her fingertips on the tabletop. The noise was annoying. Distracting. Inconsiderate.
He glanced at his watch and wondered if Aries charged her clients for the time it took her to get focused. If so, she'd racked up a quick four bucks at two dollars a minute.
Blinking her eyes, Aries gazed at Lila. "How can I help you?" she asked. "Are you looking for an overall general reading or something more specific?"
Lila didn't hesitate. "Specific, please. Aidan and I have dated for six months now and I'd like to know where our relationship is headed."
Cosmic hell. He'd known this was coming, but had no way of stopping her, other than making a scene. He turned to Lila, keeping his voice low and even. "This is a personal matter, and not for the universe to decide. We've already discussed—"
Lila waved her hand dismissively. "Our conversations are one-sided. They satisfy you, but not me. I want to know our future."
He clamped his jaw. "You think Aries knows better than me?"
"She has powers."
Lila's persistence was not attractive. He was stuck at a table with a marriage-minded woman and a clairvoyant who could make his life miserable. Living for today worked for him, yet Lila wanted his tomorrows. They'd found no middle ground. He hoped that Aries wouldn't announce their engagement to the entire boardwalk. Perhaps if he left now—
"Sit down," Aries said in a calm but firm voice when he started to rise. "Skeptic or not, you may be interested in what I have to say."
He could leave, but something in her tone stopped him. Her voice hinted of a secret. He was suddenly curious.
He dropped back onto the folding chair and it creaked. The chair wasn't made for a big man. Aidan was six-four and weighed two-twenty. He was surprised the wood hadn't split.
"Fine, I'm listening." He forced himself to be polite.
"Your hand, please," Aries requested of Lila, extending her own. Lila was quick to grasp it. "Now yours." She wiggled her fingers at Aidan, encouraging him to take hold.
"Why do you need my hand?" he wanted to know.
"I want to feel the heat of your aura and see how it affects Lila. I can sense if you're her soul mate."
Heat of his aura? He didn't believe her for a second. He was a warm-blooded male. Her touching him would prove nothing. Lila wasn't the love of his life. His heart told him so.
Glancing down at her hand, he noticed she wore several hammered gold rings. She had a small half-heart tattoo on her wedding-band finger. Her nails were short and rounded with clear polish. The inside of her wrist had pale blue veins.
"Aidan"—Lila's whisper was sharp—"do as she says."
He felt very uncooperative at the moment. He wasn't willing to twine his fingers with the psychic's, so instead he laid his palm flat on the table. Aries covered the back of his hand with hers. Her touch was light and warm. Her skin was soft.
His attention was riveted on her; on the shimmer of sunlight at her back that gave her an ethereal glow. She appeared otherworldly. He hated the fact he was being drawn into a reading that would give Lila false hope for their future. He'd never led a woman on; he refused to do so now.
"Look," he stalled once again. "I value my privacy—"
"Yet you're getting a public reading," said Aries.
"Not by choice."
"Life is as you choose to make it."
She rode his last nerve. Several of his relatives passed by his table and slapped him on the back. His older brother, Dune, a retired professional beach volleyball player, stood off to the side and smirked. His sweet wife, Sophie, was wide-eyed beside him. This was not good. The Cates had a grapevine for news. Word would quickly spread that he'd gotten a reading. He felt silly taking part, even though the psychic fair was a major fund-raiser for his family.
Aidan glared at Dune until his brother and Sophie moved on. He didn't need them overhearing every word Aries said; especially if the psychic started humming the wedding march.
Aries dramatically cleared her throat. "Let me get a sense of each of you first," she said. "You mentioned dating for six months, but it does not appear that you know each other well. You spend more time apart than together. Is this a long-distance relationship?"
Lila's eyes rounded, and Aidan's narrowed. "You are correct," Lila said in awe. "We met at a black tie Paws and Claws Fundraiser last fall. The event benefited the humane society. I own a house in Tallahassee and Aidan sublets a condo. Sadly our work separates us often."
Aries nodded, looking sage and solemn. Serious. "Lila," she continued, "I see you attending parties and galas along side a photographer. You mingle with the guests, taking mental notes." She paused, and her brow creased in concentration. "Are you by chance employed by a magazine or newspaper?"
Lila covered her heart with her free hand. "You are amazing! I'm a columnist for Sleek."
Aries pursed her lips. "You have the opportunity to travel."
"My editor sends me to Europe several times a year," Lila confirmed.