CHAPTER 1 EXCERPT
(Final Edit To Be Done)
“If you ask me, that witch is a drive-by serial memoirist.” Kimber Leigh Rosethornettle strode over from the refreshment table to offer me a cup of coffee while swigging from one of her own.
“Don’t you mean fly-by?” I grinned, admiring the say-it-like-it-is gumption of the elderly garden witch. Accepting the warm to-go cup, we shared a chuckle and bumped our cups in an agreeable toast.
“To you, Octavia Grimstone. Welcome back.”
“I’ve been around.” I sipped the semi-bitter brew and shrugged as the massive store seemed to shrink with more and more locals joining the new-and-improved bookstore’s first major event.
“I know you didn’t really go anywhere, but not seeing you in town more often meant you were greatly missed.” She winked, her blue eyes twinkling with amusement. “I’d dance a jig in your honor if it weren’t for fear of breaking a hip.”
Our shared laughter was like magic to my weary, fifty-year-old soul.
“And as far as flying,” she added, “I can’t imagine the prim and proper Druchelle Worth piloting a broom over our little town of Nightshade Grove. Wait here. I’ll fetch us some goodies.” Eighty years young, if she were a day, Kimber Leigh cackled and headed back to the refreshment table.
“Thank you,” I said, even though I wasn’t sure I could eat a bite with the sourness of unease at being out and about tonight fluttering in my belly. The several locals huddled while gossiping and tossing curious looks my way only added to my restlessness. Welcome or not, I was rejoining the living, so offering friendly smiles was the least I could do after practically going into hiding.
Not so successfully ignoring the curious glances, I studied the poster-sized headshot photo in a large frame attached to a plexiglass podium on the raised stage. The picture featured the memoir author’s toothy, red dress-wearing image.
Standing just behind the last row of folding chairs, I smoothed my scraggly salt-and-pepper hair and brushed at the droopy lapels of my burgundy business suit jacket. Woefully out of style in the decade-old outfit, I sucked in my midsection against the snugness of the skirt’s waistband and inhaled the addictive smell of ink on pages as if they piped the delightful aroma throughout the store.
With so many witches gathered in one place, magic practically crackled inside the Nook and Quill, and I welcomed the tingle of burgeoning power within the building hosting dozens of witches and non-witches—both supernatural beings and humans—alike.
In many ways, the last few years of my midlife had not been kind, so tonight’s surge of magic due to the number the witches here spurred me to feel more alive than I had in quite a while.
Truthfully, on this solstice night, I had to admit that being reclusive for so long had not been such a good idea. Maybe it was time for me to dance in the moonlight again. I might as well since a good night’s sleep still eluded me. Yet, here I was, a few weeks after my fiftieth birthday, finally out and about and planning my own author event to be held in the not-so-distant future.
Solstice full moon magic, a renovated bookstore, and getting away from the typewriter for a bit… what more could a retired time-caster-turned-writer ask for?
Except for a fresh start as someone who’d used forbidden magic and suffered unintended consequences.
The hum of conversation from the growing crowd stirred tension in my neck and jaw as if I braced against the guilt for what I’d done. No, I wasn’t going to go there tonight. For now, I would focus on being a reclusive, cozy mystery author out on the town.
I stroked my unpolished, blunted fingernails against my chin, resisting the urge to go and explore since Kimber Leigh hadn’t come back. Not surprising because the table filled with cookies, brownies, cake balls, pretzel mixes, sweet and unsweet iced tea, coffee, and sparkling water grew busier as more folks arrived. And from the looks of it, Kimber Leigh had gotten tangled up in the visitor rush to get their hands on the goodies before the reading started.
Such a wonderful thought-out addition to the event.
I eyed my coffee. I definitely didn’t need the caffeine. I probably should have asked for sparkling water, but I’d been focused on the bookstore renovations.
Rumor had it the new shop owner had even added a dressing room behind the black velvet backdrop curtain for the stage. What about a bookstore murder for my next cozy mystery? I tapped the tips of my fingers twitching to get back to the typewriter on the surface of my coffee cup.
Upon Kimber Leigh’s return, I noted the slender fit of her vintage pencil skirt as opposed to the bulky, peach cardigan sweater that went nicely with her alabaster complexion. She stood, stoop-shouldered, her silver hair gleaming under the fluorescent lighting.
Passing me a paper saucer piled high with a chocolate chip cookie, brownie, and trail mix, she aimed her hooked nose toward the stage. “I read her last two supposedly tell-all books, and since she keeps cranking them out, I reckon Druchelle hasn’t told everything just yet.”
“You’re a delight, Kimber Leigh. This looks great.” Her personal effort to serve me goodies reminded me of what Nightshade Grove was all about and that I needed to get out among folks like her more often.
“Shh, don’t let that little tidbit get around. You know, with Druchelle’s mesmerizing abilities, tonight should be a hoot.” She munched on a tiny pretzel. “But I can’t wait for your next book, Octavia, to find out who does whom in and how they try to get away with it.”
“I should have the book finished soon.” Sadly, the novel was on its third rewrite since I struggled to line up believable alibis for the current list of suspects. I managed a half-smile.
Bumping shoulders with me, Luke Sinclair, my late husband’s friend and my volunteer chauffeur for the night, joined us. “Is that coffee? How about I grab a cup of sparkling water, and we trade?”
“You don’t drink coffee, Octavia? Why,” Kimber Leigh saucered her gaze, “that’s sacrilege.”
“Sleep issues, so I’ve cut out caffeine. Not that it’s helped much.”
“Shae might have some herbal tea bags stashed somewhere,” she called after Luke. “To me, those herbal teas taste like flavored grass.” She grunted and eyed Luke as he wove his way to the table. “Odd, how Luke knew you gave up coffee.”
“That’s her,” said a man claiming a seat along the back row to three people sitting along the row beside him. They dressed in black and wore silver earrings and piercings, and the distinct musky smell of moss and earth revealed they were werefolk rather than witches.
I sniffed to place their scent. Perhaps part of a bored wolf pack on a small town Thursday night?
The grunge-dressed man, reminding me of my dear wolfish Charles in his younger years, shot a look over his shoulder. With his lip curled in outright disdain, the thirty-something stared down his nose. “I hear the old biddy used her time casting magic to kill her werewolf husband. Yeah, she made him suffer and got away with murder.”
Ah, the crux of my seclusion and the reason I turned to mystery writing was revealed for anyone within earshot to hear. After all, if they accused me of murder, I might as well write about it.
I handed off the coffee cup to Luke as he returned with a steaming cup of tea and exclaimed, “I really shouldn’t have come.”
“Shae kindly found some raspberry leaf tea bags.” Luke pulled up as if his tea offering were off base.
“It’s not that, Mayor Sinclair.” My old friend, Kimber Leigh, looked as if she might toss her coffee in the gossipy werefolk man’s face. “That young whippersnapper—I certainly won’t call him a gentleman—insulted Octavia.” She scoffed. “Under the pretense of stage-whispering to his cohorts.”
I held out the saucer of snacks to Kimber Leigh. “Regardless of how. It worked. I really need to go.”
What had I been thinking coming here?
“You’re not causing trouble, are you?” Luke strode over to the group. “Surely not, because there’s tea and coffee and other refreshments. You can’t beat a chocolate chip cookie for taking the edge off.”
“He’s not running for office again for another two years.” Kimber Leigh sniffed. “Those werefolk tend to stir up trouble.”
“It’s fine. Truly.” A sinking sensation swelled under my rig cage. “I thought I was ready to come out and about, but I think I should go.”
Luke clutched his lapel and posed as if he were stumping a political speech. “You folks wouldn’t want to end up in her next novel, would you? Octavia writes mysteries, and she’s really good at it. She’s always on the lookout for her next victim.”
A stir of amusement eased the tightness in my chest, and the corner of my mouth quivered. “I write,” I said as my voice wavered, “a witch of a mystery.”
“Maybe the aroma of the coffee, brownies, and cookies messed with your sense of smell.” Kimber Leigh shook her finger at them. “Surely, you sniffed out she’s not only a witch but a powerful one?”
The haughty fellow’s flesh turned gray, and his Adam’s apple jiggled. Finally, with a lazy smirk, he shared a two-fingered salute from his forehead. “Apologies, ma’am.”
“Thank you.” I looked around to gauge the distance to the bookstore exit.
“Octavia, here’s your tea. Take a sip and stay a spell.” Luke took me by the elbow and guided me to a seat at the end of the row. “I don’t think my ol’ buddy Charles would want you to hide away forever.”
“You were cleared of any wrongdoing.” Kimber Leigh held onto the back of the chair. “Drink your tea.” She made a face filled with distaste, and her nostrils quivered. Then, with a lift of her chin, she glared toward the werefolk.
“Being cleared legally didn’t clear up the rumors or accusations.” I sighed, retook the snack plate from her, and nibbled the chocolate chip cookie, hoping it might share some of the properties Luke suggested. “I couldn’t miss the new and improved Nook and Quill’s first author event, and honestly, I didn’t want to stay cooped up any longer.”
Kimber Leigh eyed the growing number of visitors filling up the fold-up chairs. “This new book of hers could have used more editing if you ask me.”
“I heard that Kimber Leigh Rosethornettle,” Druchelle approached us from behind, and we startled. “And no one asked you.” Dressed in a bright red dress with a long jacket with a knee-length hem, the sixty-plus-year-old author picked at the dome of her grayish-purple helmet hair. Offering a tight-lipped sneer, she paused in pushing an empty book cart past the seating area toward the store’s side door. “Kimber Leigh, it’s not like you’ve ever written a book, but then again, you couldn’t fill a page, let alone write three memoirs and counting.”
Having reached a state of overwhelm, I quickly wagged my head and met Druchelle’s gaze. “There’s no need—”
Kimber Leigh raised her chin and stared hard at the self-appointed, memoir-writing queen. “I’ll have you know that I’m one of the dozen or so people who bought your last book.”
“Well, this one will jump off the shelves. Guaranteed. It’s quite a tell-all, you know, especially when I add a bit of mesmerization.” She wriggled her fingers and widened her eyes in an exaggerated fortune-teller spellbinding gesture. “You might want to grab another coffee, sit down, and listen for a spell or two.”
“I saw your daughter setting up the stage for you. Why don’t I get you and Elwin a coffee?” She exchanged a long glance with Druchelle. “It’s going to be a long night, so I’m sure, unlike Octavia, you two could use the caffeine jolt.” The elderly witch placed her snacks and coffee cup in the seat on the far side of me. When she brushed against me, a light purple flower petal dislodged from the yarn weave of her sweater.
“I appreciate you being here, Octavia,” Druchelle said. “I know getting out isn’t easy for you. You being here means a lot to me.”
Unsure how to make a graceful exit with Druchelle seemingly needing moral support, I stood and tugged down the hem of my jacket and hunched my shoulders. If only I could fit more comfortably in the outfit and tonight’s situation.
Whatever was going on between Kimber Leigh and Druchelle, what was up with the look the two witches exchanged and the two of them suddenly becoming friendly in a blink?
“Kimber Leigh’s ever the cantankerous garden witch,” Druchelle shook her head, dipping the outer edges of her mouth low. “Thank you,” she called after Kimber Leigh. “I would appreciate those coffees, even though I’m already jittery.”
“You certainly are.” I patted Druchelle’s arm and huddled with her near the cart as others brushed by us to get a good seat closer to the stage. “I know I haven’t been a regular at our writers’ group meetings over the last few years, but if there’s something I can do….”
I frowned as Kimber Leigh helped the mayor serve the likely werewolves drinks and snacks, blinking against the sight of what looked like Kimber Leigh dropping a single drop in each of their drinks behind their backs. “What’s Kimber Leigh up to?”
“Maybe a calming potion for the weres? But there’s no telling.” Druchelle’s heavy sigh and exaggerated eye roll made her feel more approachable.
Clearing my throat, I said, “I know we’ve not been close friends for quite a while, but I do care, and you seem out of sorts.”
“I’m just on edge because of tonight’s activities.” She nodded at a passerby and re-gripped the cart handle. “Welcome, one and all,” she called out to dozens of people claiming their seats. “I’ll take the stage shortly.” Finally, she turned back to me, her expression growing serious. “I should have reached out to you. I know this has been a difficult time for you. Rumor has it you haven’t magicked since your husband passed. Surely,” she whispered, “you haven’t lost your abilities.”
“It’s for the best. I’ve missed the two of you, and it makes me sad to see you bickering.” Slipping my free hand into my jacket pocket, I cupped the metal and glass of my grandfather’s pocket watch. The time instrument warmed beneath my touch, and the tingle of magic rimmed my fingertips. “I haven’t,” my tone grew husky, “seen the need to time cast in quite a long time. I know how the rumor mill turns, but there’s no deep, dark secret about my not using magic.”
But if there were, it was mine to keep.
Within my pocket, I gripped the watch so hard my hand shook, yet welcomed the stir of magic that hit so hard my breath caught.
Several witches and even a few werefolk looked my way as I struggled to tamp down the energy surge.
“Octavia,” Druchelle, instinctively leaning away from me, said, “there’s something you should know about Mayor Sinclair.”
Struggling to steady my breathing, I cleared my throat, shoved the watch into the deep recesses of the pocket, and slipped my hand out. “About Luke, there’s nothing—”
“You need to listen to me,” Druchelle’s voice spiked.
“Shh.” I literally shuffled my feet as I measured the distance to the exit. “There’s no need—”
“Please don’t shush me,” Druchelle said, while her tone projected louder.
I ducked my head closer, studying my fellow author’s expression to discern the reason for her drastic change in attitude since I had spent time with her. Beneath the caked-on makeup, I hoped to find my old writing buddy.
“Maybe,” Kimber Leigh, massaging her hip and back, toddled back over, “you should do as Octavia asks and keep your voice down.”
Druchelle huffed. “Have you ever considered, Kimber Leigh, that you’re getting too old to witch?”
With a cringe, I reached for a coffee for comfort but then recalled that the coffees were for Druchelle and her daughter.
With the two fresh cups in hand, Kimber Leigh paused to study Druchelle’s stiletto nails with gleaming diamonds embedded in her index fingernails. She skewed her mouth to one side, examining her own ragged, garden-dirt-stained ones. “At least, even at my advanced age, I don’t mind hard work for the sake of others. Enjoy your coffee, Druchelle.” She set both cups on the empty book cart. “You never know when it might be your last.”