Cake, Crystals and a Crime
A long-awaited wedding. A happy event. Until Harper Dade, a witchy amateur sleuth, discovers the best man face-planted in the groom’s cake.
With Harper’s best friend’s fiancé, a possible target as well, the wedding’s on hold.
But while on the run, the would-be groom holds on to his secrets like a dog—or in this case werewolf—guarding a bone. Thwarted at every turn, Harper struggles to come to terms with her past when her lowlife ex invades Willow Hollow.
Unless she solves the murder before the wedding cake goes stale, there may never be a magical happily ever after.
“Harper,” I lowered my voice an octave as I placed gourmet cookies on a silver platter, “had better watch her back because trouble’s on its way.” With each repeated word, my shoulders hitched a little closer to my ears.
Even my speaking in a poor imitation of Sebastian Grainger’s voice caused me to cringe.
On a Friday night, Bub, spelled germ- and shed-free while at the bakery and events, sat on the dessert table. He twitched his whiskers and flicked the tip of his tail. “Yep. That’s exactly what I remember the parrot saying. And Tootie,” Bub leaned back and widened his feline eyes, “always repeats exactly what she hears.”
“I know. That’s why I’ve been more than a little off since the most recent murder case. Hearing my ex’s voice—even if it were parroted by an actual parrot, no less—has caused me to be on edge for the last few weeks. The trolls’ parrot lives at the mine, visits the woods, and flies into town every once in a while.” Forcing my shoulders downward and stretching my neck side-to-side, I sighed. “Which means my ex must have been somewhere nearby for Tootie to have heard him.” I retrieved a second box of cookies from Taste of Magic’s delivery cart. “But I won’t allow my worry to affect tonight and tomorrow’s festivities.”
Inside the special events tent at the edge of the fairgrounds, the yellow-tinted miniature lights strung overhead imitated the stars decorating the East Tennessee night sky. Tonight’s catered rehearsal dinner theme even featured fruit-topped funnel cakes in honor of Willow Hollow’s ongoing Fall Fantasy Festival.
As our 9:00 PM serving time fast approached, I quickly filled a second tray with custom-designed, frosted sugar cookies with Bethany & Tate piped in deep lavender on the tops. The gold frames I added around the edges of each cookie looked especially neat and appetizing.
While I still struggled with witching, maybe I was finally getting the knack of baking. I inhaled the robust smells of the evening meal provided by Café Cauldron and the sweetness of the treats from my aunt’s bakery, grinned and stepped back.
“I’m not so sure about the purple icing.” Bub lifted his nose as if he too scented the air. “Do you think she’d notice if you didn’t wear the poofy dress?”
“I’m the maid of honor. I have to wear the gown the bride selected for the ceremony.”
His black fur gleamed under the glow of thousands of tiny lights. “You’ll look like a giant grape.”
“You are a cat and a familiar, not the fashion police.”
“Mrof, but one who can now talk because it’s the night of the full moon.”
“And since you can—and aren’t I a lucky witch?—I’m sure you have lots to say.”
“Which is that purple is so not your color.”
“Harper, there you are!” Bethany, her usual ponytail curled in a delicate bun on the crown of her head, rushed over to the dessert table. “CeeCee’s setting up the cakes. I’ll meet you at the bakery later to finish decorating the actual wedding cake. Thank goodness the fire damage to the bakery’s kitchen didn’t take long to repair.”
“Aunt CeeCee was able to sell her antique potion bottle, minus its renewal elixir of course, so a lot of the money from the sale went toward the repairs. Considering the loan situation, the extra money helped a lot.”
“It means so much that Taste of Magic is part of our getting married. I’m so excited.” She paused to suck in a breath.
“Isn’t Tate the most handsome groom-to-be ever?”
“For a wolf shifter.” Bub, raising onto his hind legs from the tabletop, placed his paws along my ribs.
I took him into my arms. As he used my shoulder for leverage and pawed at the overhead strings of lights, I glanced at Tate and his best man. The two rugged men stood shoulder to shoulder as if plotting a raid on the Café Cauldron-supplied buffet. I said, “Both Tate and his friend are strikingly handsome.”
“Yeah,” Bub snickered, “the wolfy twins are cute, but what I want to know is where’s the catnip-flavored dip?”
Bethany smoothed the sides of her floor length, figure-hugging gown—smoky deep purple, of course—and giggled.
“Silly kitty, there’s no catnip-flavored anything on tonight’s menu.”
“Especially,” I added, “not for you on the night of the full moon.”
“But I kind of liked having green fur.” He seated himself on the ridge of my shoulder.
“Don’t they look great in their matching suits? Both are so handsome and intelligent.” Bethany lowered her voice.
“Smart is the new sexy, you know. Bryce is single and is a lawyer. With your paralegal background, the two of you would surely have a lot to talk about.”
“While I appreciate the thought, I’m still not ready to date.”
“Just because Crank Cranson was forced to hole away at his mechanic shop to recharge his wizardry ability doesn’t mean you can’t go out with others in the meantime.”
Warmth seeped up my neck and into my cheeks. “Maybe Crank’s self-imposed magic renewal time turned out for the best. I mean, my divorce was only this past spring, and what with regaining my magical abilities and all the other excitement here in town, I’m still adjusting to a single witchy life.”
“It’s been months.” Bethany sighed. “And there’s nothing wrong with a fresh start. Especially, since your curse didn’t cause the chaos we once thought.”
“So, forcing me to date is part of your Harper’s fresh start plan?”
“Something like that.” Upon catching sight of her mother on the serving side of the buffet table, she sighed. “She cares so much and wants everything to go well. I wish she’d take time to enjoy being the mother of the bride.”
As Aunt CeeCee wheeled in a cart containing a three-tier floral decorated cake and a two-tier square cake, she waved.
“My aunt and your mom wouldn’t be who they are if they didn’t bake and cook while adding a little magic.”
“If only they didn’t have the whole loan thing hanging over their heads when it comes to the bakery and the café.” Bethany hooked her arm through mine and steered me toward the buffet. “Come on. You have to hear Bryce’s story about when the two of them were pups and decided to chase a porcupine.”
From atop my shoulder, Bub sighed. “Why don’t you drop me off near the soup bowl. There has to be creamed something on the menu.”
Although I initially pressed my heels against the wooden floor of the permanent special events tent, I followed as Bethany patted my hand in gentle persuasion and tugged me, with Bub still atop my shoulder, along.
“Hello, my husband to be.” Bethany neglected to release her hold.
Perhaps she feared I might flee.
“Harper,” she whispered, “just for tonight and tomorrow, please put your search for answers on hold. I want you to enjoy yourself. Please.”
Yet the mere existence of the music box and childhood keepsake box, discovered during our most recent mystery and stored in my bedroom on the second floor of Taste of Magic, weighed on me. Taking her cue, I forced a smile and took a deep breath.
Not waiting for my reply, Bethany turned aside. “Bryce, you’ve met Harper. I hinted about your porcupine story. I’m sure she’d love to hear about the entire adventure directly from you.”
Broad-shouldered, with a perpetually mussed boyish look, the groom-to-be, Tate Winthrop, slapped Bryce’s shoulder, hung his head and grinned. “Even the retelling is painful.” He winked. “What do you say we rescue your mother from the serving line and head outside for the fireworks?”
While the two scurried away, Bryce, Tate’s best pal since they were pups, lowered his eyebrows and lifted one side of his mouth to reveal the cutest little dimple in his cheek. “Could they be any less subtle?”
Bub leaned out and sniffed in several directions. “Talk about subtle. I haven’t caught a whiff of catnip. There’s not one snort in the whole place.”
When I set the cat down to go exploring, Bryce stepped close. “Harper, since you were involved in some of the town’s latest dealings, it’s best you know Tate’s brought in my firm to try to dig up more information about the umbrella company which bought out the local business loans.”
“I’m sure Tate and the other business owners very much appreciate any assistance you can give.”
“They might, but I’m not sure everyone will.” The wolf shifter, his reddish-brown hair tousled skillfully along his forehead, frowned. “You see, I brought in a forensic financial investigator, and it looks as if, though indirectly, you might be involved.”
“What?” At the stares from those near the tent flap and heading out to watch the special synchronized fireworks display, I spoke in a hush, “Excuse me?”
“My apologies for bringing this up tonight. I thought, from what my investigator found, you would be some sort of conniving witch.” He held up a hand. “But after everything Tate and Bethany told me about you and after meeting you, I can see you’re an upstanding Witch of Willow Hollow.”
“Thank you.” I scrubbed my palms along the thighs of my dress pants. “I think.”
“You know, I visited a few times as a boy with Tate. There’s a sense of community here that’s missing in a lot of places nowadays. Believe me, as a prosecuting attorney, I see the underbelly of society far more than I’d like to admit. This place is refreshing and gives a shifter the feeling of coming home, even if he’s not from around here.”
“Yes,” I managed to choke out on the heels of a pinched swallow, “when I returned it was like I was truly coming home. But about what you said. How could I possibly be involved?”
“We’ve traced the money trail back to accounts connected to you.”
“But that makes no sense. I don’t even have a checking account.” A tightening sensation crawled over my scalp, and I sucked in a sharp inhale. “Your investigator likely came across my former joint accounts, so the trail leads back to my ex-husband. Is that what you’re telling me?”
“Our inquiry is still underway, and I’m taking a more aggressive approach when I get back to my office.” Bryce’s expression drooped, and his eyes dipped at the outer corners. “I have to be honest, it’s highly likely Sebastian Grainger is involved in the loan takeovers. With the layers of financial maneuvering going on, the outcome for business owners who took out those loans doesn’t look good.”