~ Chapter 1~
On the sidewalk in front of the bakery, I clutched a small can of gold paint and tightened my grip on a detail brush.
While my aunt set up for the monthly Cupcake Creation Class, my current job was to add a name to the glass door.
Even as the Main Street businesses closed for the day, a few tourists strode along the sidewalks.
I waved at the ladies from the craft store.
They returned the gesture and then stuck their heads close together.
No, I couldn’t hear their words from across the street, but my mere presence seemed to be the talk of the town.
Since my return, Taste of Magic’s business continued to pick up. Yes, my aunt’s magic-imbued baked goods were in high demand, but the chance to find out about my move back to my hometown served as an unexpected draw.
Perhaps I should take out an ad in the local newspaper, with the headline:
Witch jilted. Ditched. Rejected.
Or the new Willow Hollow Gazette owner could write an entire article about my recent breakup.
One Monday morning, my ex emptied our bank account of the inheritance from my parent’s estate. After which, he fled the country with his executive assistant, who allegedly returned the next week. Minus her life savings and with enough woman-done-wrong baggage to last her for the rest of her regret-filled life.
I harbored no ill feelings toward the woman. After all, thanks to my ex, she and I were both in the same sinking boat.
My ex hadn’t known about my legacy, but he’d taken advantage of my lack of social savvy to woo me and sweep me off my sensible, court-appropriate heels.
Add poor decision-maker to my list of accomplishments.
That and baking cakes that refused to rise.
“Are you one of them?” Two little girls, an eight or nine-year-old and the other around twelve, skipped close. “Are you a real witch too?”
Cheek muscles aching, I forced a smile.
I existed as the witch that couldn’t. Couldn’t perform magic. Couldn’t cast a spell. Couldn’t fit in. I wasn’t even able to decorate a mini cupcake to the level of looking appetizing at my new bakery job.
Although I came from a long line of witches, I had never wielded magic.
“My aunt is a true witch. She adds magic to her cinnamon rolls first thing in the morning, if you and your parents would like to stop by.”
“I don’t think so.” The older girl tugged her little sister toward their parents. The couple studied the display window of the antique store next door. “Come on. I told you, silly. Witches aren’t real.”
Ah, but they were.
Willow Hollow, Tennessee, where witches lived in harmony with supernatural powers and tourists. while my nonwitchy life remained filled with cannots.
Week three of life after divorce, and here I stood painting stenciled lettering on the glass:
Harper Dade, Assistant Baker
At least I hadn’t messed that up. I exhaled a derisive snort.
That last batch of chocolate brownie crisps I charred would disagree.
Bending down, I squinted to make sure I layered the yellow-gold paint in an even thickness on the final letter. At least, I paid attention to detail. Which is why my father’s sister claimed I would be an amazing cake decorator.
Making those icing flower petals? Forget it. Even the rosebuds looked like chubby snails crawling along a cake top. And that piping thing? The more I practiced, the worse the jagged and bumpy icing strings became. Not to mention, the end results featured a funhouse carnival slant.
A knock sounded. From the other side of the taller letters of Taste of Magic Bakery, my aunt shared a thumbs up.
CeeCee Dade wore a white bibbed apron. While my red hair resembled my mother’s, CeeCee’s strands held more of a chestnut hue. Tresses stuffed under a hairnet, she remained attractive with flour smeared on her cheek. With a wide smile, she waved and stepped back into the quaint walls of the aged building.
Kind, and yet southern bless-your-heart honest, Aunt CeeCee made a great role model. Especially, for a newly divorced woman starting over.
Yes, CeeCee Dade was a good witch.
My sigh fanned paint fumes.
Once upright, I craned my neck and glanced down our own little stretch of Main Street.
The sidewalk frontage featured the bakery on the corner. Next door, Mystic Antiques & Collectables featured a Come Again Tomorrow sign. The Potions & Tea Room and Café Caldron took up the next block in the other direction. Two blocks further down, the Bespelled B&B featured brick and barn-wood frontage. Next, the Charmed Blossoms flower shop added to the downtown appeal.
Purples, oranges and blacks took the lead as the bright colors of the signage featured a touristy flavor.
No surprise there since the local businesses were witch-owned and operated.
“Great job there, Harper. I hear the locals are happy to have you back in the fold or coven or whatever you folks call it.” Dressed in a fuchsia pantsuit, a tall, stocky woman approached. From beneath bleach-frizzed hair, she grinned from a flushed face. “If I weren’t Lewanda Gail Troutmeyer, I’d want to be one of you too.”
“Please, Miss Lewanda will do.” Her fake eyelashes spidered toward thickly drawn eyebrows. “But Lewanda Gail’s even better.”
I clutched the plastic guide in my hand and fingered the handle of the paint brush. For a moment, I considered how one of her eyebrows tilted off at an odd angle and that she might benefit from using a similar stencil.
My lips wavered amid a weak smile.
“I hope I don’t make you uncomfortable talking about magic. The supernatural twist in the town keeps my tour guide business going, and you wouldn’t believe the interest in the sordid pasts of the witches here. Why, the Wicked Witches of Willow Hollow tour is my top seller. With the Haunting of Willow Hollow in close second.” Her laugh rolled from her roundish middle in a ripple. “You should join us later this evening.”
“My allergies are the worst today.” The woman leaned in and brought with her a strong floral scent. Swats of mascara-clumped lashes fanned her red-rimmed eyes. “Tell me. What’s it like being a witch, who, you know, can’t?”
The paintbrush handle popped under the pressure of my thumb. With the handle broken, the brush part spun off, bounced from the glass surface and fell to the sidewalk.
On the door glass, a gold smear slashed through the letter ‘R’ I just painted.
While I used the hem of my polka-dotted blouse to wipe away paint, I flashed a lopsided smile. “I suppose those not from around here find our quaint town interesting.”
“I’ll let you join the tour for free if you’ll share some of your childhood witchcraft stories with us. I can bill you as an outsider on the inside. And I can always use the new material for my future tours. I’d like to add a Magic on Main Street walking tour. If that one is a hit, I could make fewer delivery side jobs.”
With such a loud voice, did she even need one of this walk-around microphone systems for her tours?
Lewanda Gail nodded and grinned. “So, who’s already here?”
“I thought I saw someone duck around the building when I first came out, but I’m not sure who.”
“Well, hopefully, that Delfiend woman won’t show.”
“Don’t you mean Delphine? Mrs. Higginbotham seems nice.”
“Well, of course, she is. With all that honeyed southern charm, how could she not be? It’s that real estate woman you’d better worry about. She’ll kill you with kindness faster than a fly stuck in molasses.” Her face flushed ruddier as she chuckled. “Whew, I wasn’t sure I could make it tonight, but sometimes things just work out. Should I go around to the side door?” She dabbed at her tearing eyes with a wadded tissue. “Getting inside will surely ease these allergy symptoms.”
“Please, if you don’t mind. I have one more letter to go.”
As the tour guide walked away, I caught sight of the sunburn along her forearms.
Since we’d done a lot of cleaning and maintenance, I hadn’t had time to get outdoors much. And, from the bright redness on Ms. Troutmeyer’s arms, that was likely a good thing.
With the cleaning cloth I should have used in the first place, I scrubbed the glass.
I jumped and swiped my cloth-covered finger across the word Magic.
“Great. Just great.” I tore my glance from the mess and zeroed in on the culprit heading toward me.
Bethany Abbott jogged down the sidewalk from the café. With her blond ponytail swaying behind her, she looked like a waitress who’d made her escape from a long shift. Actually, the café was family owned, and she was the youngest generation of the Abbott clan. They were one of the founding families of the town. “Oh no. Did I cause you to do that? I’m so, so sorry.”
“No worries.” I once again dabbed at misplaced paint. The lettering that was already there seemed to fade under my quick strokes. “This is so not going well.”
“I was hoping to volunteer to help with the cupcake baking and decorating class this month. There are always free samples.” The freckles across the bridge of her nose and cheeks sparkled as the young witch bounced on her heels. “I love that they make it a contest and that the customers get to buy the cupcakes the next day and vote for their favorites.”
I nodded. “The categories seem interesting. There’s like Most Tasty and Fail to Success.”
“The last one means that the cupcakes turned out way yummier than they looked.” Bethany hugged my shoulders from the side.
I edged away from the tingling sensation her nearness sent over my flesh and scalp. Witches sensed the presence of other witches. It was part of being a witch. Which meant, at least in that respect, I was one of them.
As my reunited friend’s freckles faded in a slight blur, I sighed. “I like your freckles. You look so wholesome and happy.”
“Sorry, I’ve been practicing glamor spells, and it’s become second nature. I don’t even realize I’m doing it. I want to keep my conjuring sharp.” As she had when we were small, she patted my shoulder. “I don’t mean to, well, you know. I wouldn’t hurt your feelings for the world.”
“You didn’t. Not at all.” I shrugged. “You’re used to performing magic, I’m not.” An ever-present, letdown feeling expanded under my ribs.
“I know this has been quite a change for you. I mean, it’s not like we’re little girls anymore, but I’m excited you’ve returned.” Bethany glanced down the street toward her family’s café. Her sidelong look trailed the sidewalk and returned to the bakery. “Look, Harper, there’s something I need to tell you.”
“Sure.” Now what? I worried my lower lip between my teeth. “I’m paint smeared but all ears.”
“You know as well as anyone that this town thrives on secrets, right?”
“I realize that true magic isn’t something the outside world is ready to accept.”
“No, not that kind of secret.” She glanced up and down the block. “The ones we keep from one another inside the town boundaries.”
“You’re welcome to share.”
From inside the store, a muffled scream echoed.
For a stalled second, we froze in place and stared at one another. At the same moment, we lunged for the door. Our splayed hands took out most of the newly painted letters in wide swipes of burnished gold.
With Bethany on my heels, I rushed into the bakery.
The display area, the small dining area, and the sales floor appeared drama-free.
Across the room, one of tonight’s cupcake creators clutched a loaf of sourdough bread to her chest. Ruby Mae Ledbetter, the owner of the local inn, faced the sales counter and stared toward the main kitchen. Her chin quivered so that the crepe-like wattle beneath jiggled. “In the kitchen. Something’s amiss.”
Another screech gouged our ears.
When I skidded to a halt just inside the chrome-heavy kitchen, Bethany bumped into me. As if someone shoved her, we both stumbled into a soupy mess of broken eggs and the strong musk of vanilla extract.
Grabbing one another to keep from falling, I teetered as someone latched onto the neck of my top.
A stout grip steadied us from behind.
“This does not bode well.” At six-feet tall, Sis Sims yanked us both backward. She held on until we swiped enough goo from our feet to regain our balance. “I had just left the antique store when I heard someone scream.”
On one side of the kitchen, Norabelle Rutledge aimed a finger. The wife part of a real estate team shook her head, pointed and mewled.
By my side, Bethany followed the angle of Mrs. Rutledge’s finger with the turn of her head and gaped. She squeaked.
On top of the wooden prep table, the overturned, dry ingredient mixing bowl gleamed silver. Flour and sugar spread out over the floor in layers of stark white.
Pink tinged one area.
I followed the deepening color with my gaze.
The trail led to where Lewanda Gail Troutmeyer lay on the floor.
Two other things drew my attention.
First, a chocolate frosted cupcake rested icing side down in the middle of Lewanda Gail’s face. Next, a wooden rolling pin, smeared with a splotch of crimson, lay in a pillow of flour nearby.
Aunt CeeCee stepped out of the stairwell that led from the upstairs living quarters. “Ready yourselves, witches. Murder has visited Willow Hollow.”
~ from Cupcakes and a Casualty, Taste of Magic Book 1 (Copyright Kat McGee)