USA Today bestselling author Carolyn Haines will once again delight readers with Charmed Bones, the next sparkling Sarah Booth Delaney mystery.
Zinnia, Mississippi is rife with quirky characters, but the arrival of three sister witchesand their intention to open a Wiccan boarding schoolsets the small town on its ear. And bodies begin to accumulate as a result. Faith, Hope, and Charity Harrington are sexy and smart. They’re setting up their boarding school in an old dairya piece of property with tremendous development potential. And they’re standing in the way of “progress,” according to some in the town.
When young Corey Fontana goes missing, Delaney Detective Agency is hired to find the youthwho’s well known as a local hooligan. His mother, Kitten Fontana, who is married to the king of land development, believes the witches have abducted her son and makes no bones about it. She’s willing to pay hard cash to find her son, especially if she can implicate the witches in his disappearance.
When Sarah Booth Delaney and her partner, Tinkie Richmond, find Corey, unharmed, it is only the beginning of a series of events that include midnight dances under a full moon, love potions, and murder. Are the sister witches criminals… or victims? Do they truly have magical powers, as they claim? Sarah Booth and Tinkie must find the answer before more people are harmed.
“A sure pleaser in both the mystery and the romance department…A satisfying cozy Southern whodunit.”RT Book Reviews
About the Author
Carolyn Haines is the USA Today bestselling author of the Sarah Booth Delaney mystery series and a number of other books in mystery and crime, including the Pluto's Snitch paranormal-historical mystery series, and Trouble, the black cat detective romantic suspense books. She is the recipient of the Harper Lee Award for Distinguished Writing and the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence. She is a former journalist, bartender, photographer, farmhand, and college professor and lives on a farm where she works with rescue cats, dogs, and horses.
Read an Excerpt
Tucked under an heirloom double wedding ring quilt on my comfy sofa, I listen to the wind howl outside Dahlia House. A winter freeze is pushing across the Mississippi Delta bringing ice, hail, and frigid, blustery winds. It's a night for hot toddies and a fire — both of which I have. I hope to finish my February indulgence before the ice storm brings the power lines down and renders my television useless. I'm watching a movie from 1939. My favorite movie of all time.
The green face of Margaret Hamilton leers on the screen. "I'll get you, my pretty. And your little dog, too." Even though I'm fully grown and have seen this movie at least a thousand times, I cringe. The witch's malevolence is tangible.
The Wicked Witch of the West disappears in a puff of smoke as I snuggle against Sweetie Pie, my remarkable red tick hound. The Wizard of Oz is an annual event at the house that has sheltered more than seven generations of Delaneys. I always watch it as the February winds blow cold over the raw earth of the Mississippi Delta. When I was a child, I'd snuggle between my parents and drink hot chocolate frothy with marshmallows, safe and secure from the witch's evil intentions.
Dorothy and I share more than I'd ever admit to anyone — a desire to go home. In the movie, she accomplishes that goal. In real life, such a journey is never within reach. Time can never be reversed, and the home of my childhood is far in the past.
On the TV screen, the witch shakes her broomstick and whirls about. The Munchkins cower in the face of such green evil, and I am glad for Sweetie Pie's warm body and the purring of Pluto the black cat, who has my back, literally. It's silly that at my age the witch can still frighten me, but she can.
Not five feet in front of me, orange smoke explodes. In the swirl of vapor, I discern the black and green image of the witch — right in my very own den. She leers at me and shakes her broomstick. "Beware, my fine lady. I may not attend you here and now, but you can't escape me."
I push back against the sofa as the hair on Sweetie Pie's back bristles. She barks and growls. Pluto, on the other hand, jumps from the sofa and saunters toward the witch.
"Away with you." The witch waves the broomstick at Pluto, but the cat is not deterred.
I realize then that Jitty, the resident ghost of my family plantation, has come to devil me again. This is no manifestation from Oz, but the spirit of a former slave who survived the Civil War with my ancestor, Alice Delaney. She is both blessing and curse. "I'm trying to watch a movie," I tell her.
"Give me the ruby slippers and I'll let you live."
I know she is a ghost, not a witch, and can't conjure ruby slippers out of thin air, but I pull up the quilt and check my feet just to be sure. Nope. Plain old gym socks stuck on the ends of my legs so that I look like a sad Raggedy Ann doll.
"Get out of here. You're making me miss the Munchkins. The Lollipop Guild is one of my favorite parts."
"Where's that strong lawman? He should be here, protecting you from the big bad witch. Bringing some strong and upright sperm with him."
"Coleman is working." Jitty is right about one thing. It would have been cozy having Coleman Peters to snuggle up to. An armed robbery at a convenience store has him out working late on a bitter winter night. As sheriff of Sunflower County, Mississippi, he doesn't get to pick and choose his hours. He's a 24/7 kind of lawman.
"You should be out in the patrol car with him, ready to shuck off those ugly sweatpants to help him pass the time while he's doing surveillance. You need a job, Sarah Booth, and that would be a good one."
Jitty's goal in life is to get me pregnant so she'll have a Delaney heir to haunt. "He isn't on surveillance; he's investigating. The last thing he needs is some Lustful Lucy trying to seduce him."
"Sarah Booth Delaney, I know you aren't so unimaginative that you can't figure out a way to be useful to the sheriff and get pregnant. Use that thinking cap, Missy. Then use your money maker!"
"Go away." I pause the movie and get up to make more popcorn. It's a futile effort to escape Jitty. She only follows me to the kitchen, where she continues her harangue.
"You were this close to having Coleman," she says, referring to a recent moment when Coleman and I — buck naked — had been headed upstairs to my bedroom. Tinkie Richmond, my partner in the Delaney Detective Agency, slammed through the front door, catching us red-handed and withering our mutual desire. Since then, we've made several attempts to lock out the rest of the world, but life has a terrible way of intervening. The truth is, I'm almost as impatient as Jitty to close the sexual gratification deal — but I'll never let her know it.
"What I need is a new case, not a sperm donor. Now back off or I'll dump a bucket of water on you."
She whirled around once and disappeared in another poof of orange smoke. She was getting way too good at dramatic entrances and exits. The phone rang and I picked it up as I waited for the butter to heat in the bottom of my skillet.
Tinkie was on the horn. "Whatever you're doing, stop! You have to get over to the Sunflower County Board of Education meeting."
"Why?" I paid my school taxes but I didn't have children so I didn't closely follow the issues of the public schools. In Mississippi, those issues were almost insurmountable as the state legislature cut and cut and cut the school budget. Most of the local school board members were good ol' boys who had about as much business dictating school policy as I had flying jets.
"A trio of witches are in the meeting right now. They're applying for state recognition for their Wiccan boarding school, which they are opening in Sunflower County. Folks are all upset."
"What witches?" Sunflower County had a lot of strange inhabitants, but I'd never come across boarding-school witches, not even in the farthest reaches of the cotton fields and brakes.
Tinkie's response left more questions than answers. "What are you talking about?"
"Get your sassy self down to the school board meeting. You are missing the whole thing, so hurry. I have to get off the phone. I think the school board meeting is about to go postal. Man, I have to film this for Cece." She hung up.
I turned off the stove and raced upstairs for my jeans and a warm sweater. If witches had moved to Sunflower County, I wanted to watch the action unfold. Like all small towns, Zinnia had a few people who'd set themselves up as moral leaders and those who knew best for everyone else. The schools had become the battleground in many instances. Witches! It was going to be interesting.
The wind keened around the eaves of Dahlia House as I opened the front door. Sweetie Pie and Pluto, normally my constant companions, each took one look outside and ran back upstairs. It was for the best. I'd have to leave them in the car and it was a bitter night. I locked the door and drove to town.
The school board meetings were held in an old World War II brick building a block from the courthouse, so I wasn't surprised when I arrived and saw a patrol car parked outside. Things must have gotten rowdy in the meeting, and I knew Coleman Peters well enough to be able to predict his ire if the school board attendees had wasted his time with misconduct.
I slipped into the overcrowded room and took a seat in the back. Tinkie and Cece Dee Falcon, the best reporter in the Southeast, were in the front and therefore had a much better perspective. The room roiled with tension, and the place was so jam-packed I had difficulty finding the source of all the controversy. When at last I saw the witches, I was a bit disappointed. Three very attractive young women sat at the table with the members of the school board. The women were close in age and as Tinkie had noted, oozed sexuality. Blonde, brunette, and redhead — they covered the range of hair colors. Their sense of style was a little risqué, but there wasn't anything sinister about them in the least.
The brunette stood. "Our paperwork is in order. Renovations on the old dairy are already underway. We anticipate accepting our first-term students in August. As you can see, our curriculum has been approved by the state board of education."
Nancy Cunningham, one of the town's most uptight citizens, rose. "Our county will not tolerate this Wiccan foolishness. You will not receive state funding, and certainly you will not be allowed to use state education vouchers. I will see to it."
The battle lines were drawn.
"You have no say-so," the brunette said. "The Harrington School of Nature and Wiccan Studies has approval. There's nothing you can do to stop it."
"We'll see about that, Ms. Harrington." Nancy's hand swept the air, encompassing all three young women. "We will not have the dark arts in a Christian county."
The other two young women also stood. "Our meeting here was a courtesy. If you'd like to tour our facility, please stop by. Otherwise, stay out of our way and out of our business. We're going to bring education back to Mississippi. Our students will understand the role of nature in the world today. You can thank us in twenty years when the best and brightest begin to rule this country and save our planet."
As they marched toward the door, Kitten Fontana stormed into the room and barred their way. "Sit back down. You aren't going anywhere." Kitten was Snooki with a drawl. She even had the ball of teased hair at her crown and the huge earrings that might pass for skinny girl hula hoops. She was one generation removed from brawling in back alleys with a girl gang, but she was loaded. Or at least her husband was.
"Kitten, just stay out of this." Bob Fontana was chairman of the school board, and Kitten was his wife. Fontana Construction and Development had lately gotten a number of bids for work on school facilities — a conflict of interest that seemed to upset no one but me and my friends.
Kitten had no intention of listening to her husband. She had the floor and knew how to use it. "Corey, my son, is missing." She pointed to the witches. "And you are to blame. What have you done to my baby boy?" Kitten was also well known for hurling accusations without any facts to support them.
The woman beside me mumbled, "Whoever has him will bring him back. That boy is destined for a life of crime." Indeed, Corey had a reputation for bad behavior.
"We don't know anything about your son," the brunette said.
"You have him. I know you do. If one hair on his head is harmed, I'll see that you burn like your ancestors."
"I wouldn't make idle threats against us," the redhead said. "We don't like that."
"I don't give two hoots what you like or dislike," Kitten said. "I want my son. What have you done with him?"
"Asked and answered," the redhead said. She turned away to retrieve her purse. Kitten ran toward the witches and just as she lifted her hand to slap the blond one, she cried out in pain and crumpled. No one had touched her — but something was causing Kitten pain.
"Stop! Make it stop!" Kitten cried out. Suddenly she slumped over as if a hard grip had released her.
"I'd be careful of that tennis elbow," the blond witch said. "Now get out of our way. We don't have a clue what you're talking about. If you can't control your child, you shouldn't try to blame it on someone else. At Harrington School, our children will be accounted for and under control at all times. From what I've heard around town, that boy of yours is a menace. Keep him off our property — or else."
Kitten's face contorted and her hands formed into claws, the red- painted talons of her fingertips extended in a classic cat-fight pose. Bob leaped up from the table and grabbed his wife around the waist. "Kitten, control yourself."
"They have Corey. He went over to the dairy to play a prank and he hasn't come home." Kitten grunted with exertion as she fought against Bob's hold. I definitely didn't want to be near their home when all of this came to a head later. Kitten Fontana brooked no constraints when she wanted to express herself. She'd made a fool of herself numerous times at various board meetings and gatherings, and no one was going to stop her from doing the same here.
Tinkie edged up beside me. Cece was snapping photos. "Who are these witches?" I asked.
"Hope, Faith, and Charity Harrington. They're sisters. And powerful witches." Tinkie sounded like she was reading a fairy tale.
"Get real." I'd been inoculated from such foolishness by Jitty.
"They're allegedly very powerful. And they cast spells and sell potions."
Three days ago, I'd noticed a little shop that had opened on a country road where Musgrove's Dairy used to sell whole milk and homemade butter and cheeses back in the 1970s. As far as I knew, the dairy had been out of business a long time, and the eccentric owner, Trevor Musgrove, a renowned artist, was a recluse in the old manor house that was part of the dairy. As I thought about it, I realized the dairy and manor were a perfect setup for a boarding school and gift shop. The Harrington sisters might not have witchy powers, but they had something better — brain power.
"Tomorrow, let's stop by Pandora's Box and buy some spells." Tinkie was as wide-eyed as Dorothy in the Emerald City.
"I wonder if they have Corey Fontana somewhere on the premises. The boy is a juvenile delinquent who's never paid a price for his destructive behavior. Kitten always buys him out of trouble." I'd heard gossip about some of Corey's activities, such as tossing watermelons off the overpass onto cars. He'd nearly caused several wrecks, but the Fontanas' expensive lawyer had managed to keep him clear of punishment.
"One day he'll get into something she can't get him out of." Tinkie had been a child of privilege, but she'd been held accountable for her conduct.
"Let's meet at Millie's Café for breakfast and we can take a jaunt out to the old Musgrove dairy and see what's what." It was time to leave the school board meeting. The fireworks were over and the board would be back to dull issues like school bus routes and leaky roofs.
As we made our exit, we were joined by the Harrington sisters. I took a moment to introduce myself, discovering that Hope was the brunette, Faith the redhead, and Charity the blonde. They had come to Sunflower County via Lafayette, Louisiana, where they'd run a very successful Montessori school, which had whetted their appetites to try something bigger with more potential impact.
"Mississippi gives any school with a religious foundation the right to apply for state vouchers. I don't think they were anticipating a Wiccan school, but we are a recognized religion. No different from the Baptists or Catholics." Charity flipped her silvery blond hair over her shoulder. "I just have to wonder how some of these people get elected."
"The younger generation has no connection to nature," Hope said. "We have to reconnect or the attacks upon the planet will continue and the future of the human race will be in jeopardy. Without clean water and air, we have nothing."
"Wouldn't a science-based boarding school create less ... controversy?" Tinkie was always the peacemaker. "Folks around here get a bit uptight about religion. And witches."
"Contrary to what is currently being taught in public schools, religion, nature, and science aren't in conflict. The Wiccan religion is very loving and based on the science of balance with nature. It's not like we worship the Dark Lord and say the Bible backwards." Charity had a merry laugh that matched her blond curls. I couldn't tell if the vivid array of hair color among the sisters came from bottles, but the shades complimented each woman's complexion. And possibly her personality.
"If you don't worship the Dark Lord, what do you worship?" Tinkie asked.
"So glad you want to know." Faith opened her huge purse and pulled out printed material. "This is the Wiccan Rede. It's the basis of our beliefs and a call for ethical and careful behavior. We believe in protecting Nature and the helpless. We believe in sisterhood, the moon, the power of white magic to heal and help, and the benevolence of the Goddess. We can cast spells, but only those that bring light. We make potions, but only those that bring about love and healing."
"Think Glinda," I said to Tinkie. My viewing of The Wizard of Oz had been interrupted, but now I found myself in a real-life confrontation of a trio of sexy witches.
"Do we look like Glinda?" Hope asked.
"Maybe if you traded in your leather miniskirt for a ruffled pink gown ..." I smiled to let them know I was teasing. These were modern witches, and as Tinkie had described them, sexy. They wore black leggings, skinny jeans, miniskirts, and the latest provocative styles. I could definitely see where they might cast a spell on a man.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Charmed Bones"
Copyright © 2018 Carolyn Haines.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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