Stirring the Plot

Stirring the Plot

by Daryl Wood Gerber

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Overview

Halloween in Crystal Cove, California, is a big deal, involving a spooky soiree where the Winsome Witches, a fund-raising group, gather to open up their purse strings and trade superstitions. But party magicians, fortune-tellers, and herbalists are only the beginning of this recipe for disaster…

Jenna Hart has packed The Cookbook Nook chock-full of everything from ghostly texts to witchy potions in anticipation of the annual fund-raiser luncheon. But there’s one unexpected addition to the menu: murder.

When the Head Priestess of the Winsome Witches is found dead under mysterious circumstances, there’s no logical answer and plenty of blame to go around. With her aunt, Vera, unable to call on her ability to foresee the future, Jenna will have to use more than just sleight of hand and a few magic tricks to conjure up the truth…


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101637593
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/30/2014
Series: Cookbook Nook Series , #3
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 59,857
File size: 2 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Daryl Wood Gerber is an Agatha Award–winning author who writes the Cheese Shop Mysteries under the pseudonym Avery Aames. Like her protagonist, Daryl is an admitted foodie and an avid reader of books, including cookbooks. Prior to writing, Daryl acted on stage and television, including on Murder, She Wrote.

Read an Excerpt

Acknowledgments

 

Chapter 1

A CAT YOWLED. Not mine. Tigger was back at The Cookbook Nook. However, I couldn’t stand for an animal to be in pain. I leaped out of my chair and scanned the garden of the Crystal Cove Inn. At five eight, I could peer over most of the crowd. I looked from booth to booth. The Cookbook Nook was one of many vendors selling its wares at the Winsome Witches Faire on a gently breezy Sunday, all to benefit the Witches’ cause—literacy. I dropped to all fours. I must have looked pretty silly in a black sheath with my rear end in the air and my sandals ready to fall off my water ski–sized feet, but I didn’t care. “Here, kitty, kitty.”

“Hi, Jenna.” Katie, my friend and the head chef at the Nook Café, taller than me and larger all over, arrived with a tray of delectable homemade candies to give away to afternoon customers. “What are you looking for?”

“A cat yowled. Do you see it?”

“No, but don’t worry. I’ll bet it was a mouser. They’re tough. Someone stepped on its tail, that’s all.”

Then why did a shiver run down my spine?

“C’mon.” Katie nudged my knee with her toe. “Lose the frown. Cats are resilient. Remember that litter of six we found when we were kids?”

I’d wanted to bring them all home, but Katie reminded me that my mother was allergic. We put the kittens in a box and went house to house to find them new families.

“You’re right,” I conceded. Not hearing another screech, I scrambled to my feet and brushed off my hands.

Katie pointed at my head and chuckled; her wildly curly hair shook. “Fix your witch hat. It’s lopsided.”

I righted the hat, a little gold number I’d crafted together with felt, ribbon, and wire. Though I wasn’t much of a cook yet, I was an artist. Oil paints and clay were my preferred mediums, but I wasn’t bad with a pair of scissors and hot glue.

“Better.” Katie shoved the tray of goodies my way. “Try one. I’ve brought Iron Chef–inspired maple mascarpone brittle.”

I downed a crunchy piece and hummed my appreciation. “Wow.”

Katie set the tray on the table beside the various Halloween-themed cookbooks, kitchen utensils, and colorful salt shakers and pepper mills I’d brought from the shop. Each year at Halloween, the Winsome Witches—they weren’t really witches—held a number of charity events, culminating in an annual fund-raising luncheon, which was scheduled a few days from now. Throughout the week, the group asked that all attendees open their designer handbags and give, give, give. Prior to the luncheon, the community of Crystal Cove got into the spirit, too. The Cookbook Nook was planning a couple of family events. On one day, Katie would lead a candy-making class. On another, we were featuring a potion-making demonstration as well as a magic show to entertain the kiddies. In addition, the local groomer and pet rescue group sponsored the Black Cat Parade, and each shop in town participated in the annual Spookiest Window Display contest, which reminded me: I needed to get cracking on that. One more thing to add to my to-do list. Swell.

Glass shattered.

I gasped. My heart started to chug. “What now? Is it the cat?”

“Nope.” Katie pointed toward the candle maker’s booth, where a woman was trying to sweep up the remains of an antique mirror. “Poor thing.” Katie tsked. “Like that will do any good. No matter what, she’s got seven years of bad luck.”

“You don’t really believe that, do you?”

“Of course I do. Superstitions aren’t conjured out of thin air. Centuries of folklore create them. Do you remember back in eighth grade how we used to dash past the cemetery holding our breath?”

Did I ever. We believed ghosts would follow us home. I shuddered again. Why was I so jumpy? I shook off the bad vibes and squared my shoulders. “Superstitions, like wives’ tales, are exactly that, fabricated to instill fear.”

Katie lasered me with a cynical look. “Hold on a sec. Aren’t you the one who used to wear only white to take tests in your senior year?”

I grinned. “That was just savvy wardrobe sense.”

“How do you feel when a black cat crosses your path?”

“Lucky.”

“Liar,” Katie teased.

“Let’s end this discussion, okay?” I eyed our display table, which Katie had rearranged to make room for the goodies tray. She could plate food better than anyone, but her display styling left something to be desired. Gingerly, I regrouped the cookbooks and drew the pumpkin-shaped salt shakers and pepper mills to the front. Voilà. Customers started to flock to us.

“Ooh, how cute,” was a common phrase, and, “Wow, I had no idea there were so many cookbook choices.”

Neither did I until I opted to leave my advertising job in San Francisco and move home to Crystal Cove to help my aunt open a culinary bookshop and café. Best choice of my life. Especially now, after discovering the truth about my deceased husband and his dismal business—life—decisions. I needed family, and I needed friends. To remain in San Francisco, alone with my memories, wouldn’t have been, well, fun. I wanted to move upward and onward. Too-ra-loo, as my aunt would say.

“I love this time of year,” Katie said.

“Because we can dress up?”

Katie rarely dressed simply, preferring checkers and stripes. For the faire, however, she had donned a black dress. She also wore a silver Wizard of Oz necklace. You know the one I mean, with the witch riding the broom.

“No, silly,” Katie said. “Because making sweets is one of my favorite things to do. Chocolate witches. Cinnamon-candied apples. Caramel popcorn balls. Yum.” Katie moved a salt shaker and ogled me, daring me to reposition it. I controlled the impulse. Hard to do. “How about you?” she went on. “Do you like Halloween?”

“Of course.” I treasured fond memories. My mother had loved to make costumes. She would choose a theme. My sister and brother and I were her guinea pigs. One year we were, indeed, that—the three little pigs. I was the bricklayer. Another year, we were characters right out of The Chronicles of Narnia. I demanded to be Lucy Pevensie, Queen of Narnia. My brother was Aslan, the sage lion. My sister was Jadis, the White Witch, which was, I must admit, appropriate. Whitney could be an ice queen.

“What’s your favorite costume ever?” Katie asked.

I didn’t have to think long. “Glinda, the Good Witch of the North.”

“I remember that one. It was so cool.” Katie and I were lifelong friends, although we took a few years off during college for bad behavior—mine, for not keeping in touch. We reconnected a few months ago when I hired her for the position of chef at the Nook. “You had a crown and wore a bubble from the top of your head to your waist.”

I’d looked a bit like a see-through beach ball. Fortunately, my mother possessed enough foresight to cut air holes in the bubble so I could breathe. My crown, which was coveted by my peers, glistened with jewels—stones my mother had gathered on a local hiking trip.

“Don’t you love this inn, by the way?” Katie said.

“I do. It’s got good vibes.”

“Aha. So, you do believe in woo-woo stuff.”

I cut her a wry look. “No, I don’t.”

“Do, too.”

“Don’t.”

The Crystal Cove Inn, one of the original establishments in town, was a charming bed-and-breakfast made of stone and wood. The grounds reminded me of an estate right out of a Jane Austen novel. Like many of the buildings in Crystal Cove, the inn was painted white and sported a red-tiled roof. The hillside behind the inn boasted forests of Douglas fir, oak, and maple trees. The inn’s gardens were filled with azaleas and hydrangeas, though none were in bloom in October. Nestled beneath the plants were masses of blue asters, autumn crocuses, and assorted wildflowers.

Katie gestured to the crowd. “Don’t you adore all the witches’ costumes? Everyone looks so festive.”

Each participant, whether at the luncheon or the faire, had been asked to wear a decorative witch hat.

A pair of women in matching silver witch hats stopped by our booth to purchase a specialty cookbook we had stocked for Halloween: The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook: From Cauldron Cakes to Knickerbocker Glory—More Than 150 Magical Recipes for Wizards and Muggles. Who could resist dining on pumpkin pasties and treacle tart?

The larger woman said, “My nephew is going to love this. He’s so into Harry Potter.”

“Isn’t he twenty-five?” her friend asked.

“He wasn’t a reader until Harry came on the scene. He bought each book the day it came out. You never outgrow your first love of books.”

How true, I thought. I had devoured the Potter books. Spoiler alert, but Ron and Hermione getting married . . . who’d have guessed?

I slipped one of the bookmarks I’d made with a list of the shop’s special events inside the book, offered the ladies a candy from Katie’s assortment, and bid them Happy Halloween. The women moved on, giggling like schoolgirls.

An hour later, after I served our three hundredth visitor, I needed a break. Also, I wanted to check in on my aunt, who was giving tarot readings at the far end of the garden. I asked Katie if she would mind tending the booth. She was delighted. The assistant chef that she’d recently hired was working out great. She didn’t have to return to the café for at least a half hour.

“You’re sure?” I said.

“Absolutely. I can go it alone.” She grasped one of the salt shakers and spritzed salt over her left shoulder.

“Why did you do that?”

“For luck. Other than the broken mirror, no other bad things have happened, but”—she winked—“one can never be too careful.”

*   *   *

I FOUND AUNT Vera beneath the shade of an elderberry tree, sitting at a table giving tarot card and palm readings. She didn’t have ESP, but she loved providing people with possibilities. Though she typically wore a caftan and a turban, my aunt had gotten into the spirit of the event by donning a purple witch costume and purple hat adorned with antique lace and silk flowers. Of course, she was also wearing her phoenix amulet. She never went anywhere without it. Her table looked fabulously exotic, covered with a rich purple cloth, on top of which sat a crystal ball surrounded by an array of polished glass stones and tarot cards.

With her face fixed in concentration, Aunt Vera addressed a woman whose hand she was holding. “He’s going to love you forever,” she said.

“Really?” Bingo Bedelia was one of my aunt’s longtime friends. She got her quirky name in what my aunt described as a lengthy but funny story; her real name was Barbara. “You swear?”

“On the cover of one of your dusty old Bibles.”

Bingo was the owner of Aunt Teek’s, a popular antiques and collectibles shop near the center of town. She was also the second-in-command for the Winsome Witches’ event. With her ruby red hair pulled off her face and her black witch hat pitched back off her forehead, I couldn’t help but notice Bingo’s very prominent, knobby chin—what many called a lantern jaw.

Bingo frowned. “Don’t lie to me.”

“You know I wouldn’t.”

Bingo, like my aunt, had never married. Neither was a spinster, just unlucky in love. I didn’t know if Bingo had been jilted as a younger woman or whether she had lost the love of her life. My aunt had suffered a double whammy.

“Look here. Your love line is strong.” Aunt Vera drew her finger along Bingo’s palm. “I assure you, he knows you are a treasure.”

Bingo caught sight of me and flushed the color of her hair. “Hello, Jenna. Are you listening in?”

“Trying to catch some tips,” I quipped.

“Whatever you do, cherish your man.”

I had, but he died. There was a handsome guy in town I was interested in, a former chef who switched careers and now owned Bait and Switch Fishing and Sport Supply Store. We’d known each other only a short time, but I sizzled with desire whenever I was around him.

“There are so few good ones,” Bingo added. “Mine”—recently, Bingo had become engaged to a darling pastor everyone in town referred to as the Reverend—“is such a sweetie pie. I don’t know what I’d do without him.”

A plump forty-something woman sneaked up behind Bingo and gripped her shoulders. “You’d die.”

Bingo shrieked.

The woman, Pearl Thornton, cackled; her black witch hat made her hair appear as white as snow. “Did I scare you, Barbara Bedelia?” Pearl was a therapist in town—mine, as well as others’. I was seeing her to learn coping skills. Being a widow, at any age, isn’t easy.

“You know you did, and you’ll call me Bingo, if you know what’s good for you.” Bingo pulled her hand free from my aunt’s grasp and shook a finger at Pearl.

“Or what?” Pearl said.

Bingo popped her finger as if pulling a trigger. “Bang! You’re dead.”

Pearl laughed heartily. So did Bingo. She wasn’t angry. How could she be? She and Pearl were dear friends. Pearl was the High Priestess of the Winsome Witches.

“Do you need me for a prep meeting?” Bingo asked.

“No, relax. Enjoy.” Right after Pearl’s husband died, she founded the Winsome Witches and wrangled her friends to participate. I don’t think anyone had foreseen what a huge success the annual week of events would be.

“Are all of you ready for the”—Pearl rested the tip of her finger to her mouth—“haunted walk on Tuesday?” She teetered a bit. “It’s going to be spoo-oo-ooky.” The event planners had scheduled an evening tour to visit Crystal Cove’s historic sites. “If you don’t watch out, someone might”—she wiggled her fingers in Bingo’s face—“scare you.”

“Stop it.” Bingo batted her friend’s hand away. “What’s gotten into you?”

“Nothing.”

“Have you been drinking?”

“No.”

I wasn’t so sure. Pearl appeared a little off-balance.

Suddenly, she clutched her chest. Her eyes widened. She gasped for breath. Without warning, she crumpled to the ground. Bingo, who had been a nurse before she moved to Crystal Cove to open her dream shop, crouched beside Pearl. She grabbed her wrist. Just as she pressed two fingers against Pearl’s throat, Pearl bolted to a sitting position. Bingo fell backward on her rump.

Pearl roared with laughter. “I’m not dead, you goon.”

Bingo’s mouth fell open. “Why, you—”

My aunt leaped to a stand and said, “What on earth?”

Pearl continued to laugh. “I’m sorry. It’s almost Halloween.”

“Pranks are for April Fools’ Day,” Bingo chided.

“C’mon. Can’t anybody take a joke?”

“Dying is no joke!”

“Of course it’s not,” Pearl stammered. “But you mimed pulling a trigger a second ago, and I thought—”

“You could have given us all a heart attack.”

“But I didn’t, and it’s just . . .” Pearl’s mouth drew into a grim line. Her gaze turned serious. “I apologize. I’m a little punch-drunk, that’s all. I—” She hesitated.

“Out with it,” Bingo demanded.

“I just learned the results of some tests. I’ve been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. I know it’s not life-threatening. It’s all about having the right amount of insulin in my system, but the report sounded so stark. I’ve never watched my weight. I should have”—she patted her plump stomach—“but I haven’t. I simply needed to do something to lighten my day. I didn’t mean to frighten you so much. Forgive me?” She reached for Bingo’s hand and squeezed.

“Are you going to be okay?” Bingo said.

“Of course. I’ve started my medication, and I’m taking the advice I give to my patients. Positive thinking.” She eyed me. One of her favorite mantras was: All things level out in time. She lumbered to her feet and offered a hand to Bingo, who accepted.

Bingo brushed off her dress and said, “Come with me. Let’s get a cup of tea, and I’ll fill you in on some dietary tips. Number one, remember that stress can raise glucose levels.” The pair walked off, arm in arm.

My aunt turned to me and kissed me on both cheeks. “Well, that was fun. Not.

I laughed. “I have to say I was shocked Pearl would do something like that, as rational as she always is.”

“Medical surprises can turn a person’s world upside down.” Aunt Vera glanced at her watch. “My, my. Time flies when you’re having a ball. Speaking of which, I’ve been cleaning up at my table. I’ve earned over three hundred dollars for the cause.” She was charging a dollar per palm or tarot card reading. “How about The Cookbook Nook booth?”

“We’re doing great. The Harry Potter cookbook, as expected, is a bestseller, and we’ve sold tons of herbal potion books. I think everyone attending the faire is drawn to the mystical.”

“Wonderful. Now . . . as long as nothing else goes wrong . . .” Her face, normally radiant with hope, turned grim.

A chill ran through me. “Why would you say that?”

“A moment ago, when Pearl arrived, I got the worst feeling.”

My breath caught in my chest. “What kind of feeling?”

“I was all itchy, and the light up here”—she tapped her temple—“went extremely dark.”

“Maybe you were sensing Pearl’s prank.”

Aunt Vera nodded in agreement. “You’re right. Silly me.” She kissed her fingers and tossed the imaginary kiss to the wind, something I’d seen her do all of my life. She said it was a good way to return bad energy to the universe.

In spite of her gesture, an uneasy feeling surged through me. Desperate to shake it off, I said, “It’s a good thing no more mirrors have broken.”

My aunt rapped the table. “Knock on wood.”

Chapter 2

MONDAYS AT THE Cookbook Nook could be taxing because we had so much to do before taking off Tuesday, like inventory, restocking, and dusting.

However, prior to attacking the mundane, I intended to focus on our Halloween décor. I hadn’t finished putting together our window display yet. Time was a-wasting. I was almost done. I had cut out a leafless tree, using brown paper with foam board as backing, and then I’d added a silhouette of a bat hanging upside down and an owl perched on a tree limb. Very spooky. Very cool. Beneath, I had laid a black polka-dot carpet and set out an assortment of pumpkins, each decorated with black felt for the eyes and mouths. In front of a short, white picket fence, I was arranging seasonal cookbooks with lengthy titles like 35 Halloween Recipes for the Faint of Heart: Recipe Ideas for Halloween Parties, Dinner, and Appetizers and Hungry Halloween: Featuring Movie Monster Munchies, Bewitched Buffet, and Dead Man’s Diner. I had stumbled upon the cookbooks when I was playfully searching for a make-a-person-nicer potion, the kind of elixir I could sneak into someone’s iced tea or lemonade. One of the shop owners at Fisherman’s Village, where The Cookbook Nook was located, had it in for my family, but I was determined to win her friendship. Even if I had to coerce her with, ahem, a spirited potion. So far, I hadn’t found a recipe, and honestly, I didn’t believe a potion would work, but I was having fun conjuring up ingredients to include: eye of newt, oil of snakeskin, or essence of Komodo dragon.

“Hey, Jenna, look at this.” My lifelong pal Bailey Bird, whom I had hired to be our sales associate, waved to me from the rear of the store. All I could see was her hand. In addition to the walls of bookshelves that were filled with books and culinary giftware, we had movable shelves in the center of the store. Bailey, who measured five feet tall only because of the high heels she always wore, was completely hidden from view.

I abandoned the window display and hurried to where she was setting out more Halloween-themed cookbooks on display tables, like The Alchemist’s Kitchen: Extraordinary Potions & Curious Notions, which was packed with assorted recipes from ancient glue to herbal tinctures.

“I think I found it.” Bailey waggled The Herbal Alchemist’s Handbook: A Grimoire of Philtres, Elixirs, Oils, Incense, and Formulas for Ritual Use. The dozen bangles on her arm slid to her elbow with a clank. The oversized earrings she wore jangled with enthusiasm. A flash of sunlight through the plate-glass window outlined her and made her spiky, copper-colored hair gleam like polished metal.

“Found what?”

“The potion that we need.”

“Potion?”

“Something we can use on Pepper to sweeten her up.”

Ah, yes. Pepper, the owner of Beaders of Paradise, was the persnickety woman who needed a dash of sugar added to her cynical spice.

Without opening the book, Bailey, who had an eidetic memory, recited, “‘Steeped in mysticism and magick, alchemy is also an ancient path of spiritual purification and the transformation of the spirit.’ You get it, don’t you?” Bailey looked at me expectantly. “We’ll make a potion and hide it in some kind of charm. It’ll be an amulet for Pepper to wear. Hardly anyone says no to a present. We’ll even use some of Pepper’s beads to adorn the necklace. That way we can combine both the plant and mineral sides of alchemy.”

I snickered. “I was just kidding when I said we needed to create a potion. Stop worrying. Pepper will come around.”

“There’s no harm in a little push. What was that campaign you did back at Taylor & Squibb?” Bailey snapped her fingers, trying to summon a memory. She and I had spent a few years at a large advertising agency in San Francisco—I on the creative side, she in the numbers arena. “Oh, I remember! The um . . . um . . . you know which one I mean. I had to hand it to the dancers. They really threw themselves into the routine.” She set the book aside and did a Hokey Pokey–style dance. “Give a little push, give a little shove.”

“Let them know they’re wonderful,” I chimed.

“Use a little love.” Bailey clapped her hands. “I adored that commercial. What was it for?”

I gawped. “Really, you don’t recall?” The whole point of making a catchy commercial was so folks would remember it and either purchase the product or enroll in a plan. If someone who worked at Taylor & Squibb couldn’t remember its purpose, I had truly failed at my job. “A Dieter’s Dream,” I said.

“That’s it. It would’ve come to me. I loved the junk food flying out of the cupboards and being replaced with wholesome foods.”

I was proud of the campaign. The outfit that had hired us consisted of a group of dedicated dieters. All had succeeded on the diet, which included a lot of spinach. No fad foods. All natural. Last I’d heard, the sixsome were writing a cookbook.

Bailey set aside the alchemy handbook and offered me a stack of cookbooks. “Help me arrange these.”

“Can’t. I’ve got to finish the window display.”

“Do that later.” Bailey planted her fists on her hips.

“Who could say no to such a lovely offer?” I teased. As I set out books, I said, “How’s the new apartment?” When Bailey moved back to Crystal Cove, she settled in above The Pelican Brief Diner, her mother’s restaurant that overlooked the bay. Free rent. Free food. What more could a girl want? But Bailey, like me, was nearing her thirtieth birthday and craved to be independent again. I totally understood.

“Superb. No aromas of fried fish making me want to binge-eat.” Bailey would never have a problem with weight. She might be short, but she darted around like the Energizer Bunny. “All the furniture I kept in storage in the City fits perfectly.”

The City. San Francisco. I missed living downtown. There were restaurants up the wazoo—a gourmet’s haven—museums, art galleries, and so much more, but I was happy with my choice to return to Crystal Cove. We had plenty of delicious restaurants from which to choose, lots of shops to browse, and my aunt had offered me the cute cottage beside her seaside home. I relished the sound of the surf.

“I’m going to paint my new place blue and pink,” Bailey said.

“Pink? You hate pink.”

“Okay, coral. Something very beachy. However, I don’t have a view, so I was thinking of commissioning you to do a picture of the ocean for me. I could hang it over the fireplace and imagine I lived in your cottage.”

“You know that if I had the room, I’d invite you to move in.”

“Are you kidding?” Bailey said. “The two of us living in the same apartment? Ugh. No, thanks. Girlfriends should never do that, if you ask me. It’s the little petty things that start building up, and wham, you’re no longer friends. All I want is a painting.”

I grinned. “I’ll paint it for free in my spare time.”

Bailey cleared her throat. “Um . . .”

“What?”

“No dancing ballerinas, please.”

I gave her a bemused look.

“I know how much you love your Degas period,” she added.

My mother used to take me to the beach to paint. I would watch other little girls, like me, dancing across the sand, and I dreamed of becoming the next famous ballerina painter. Didn’t happen. I was good, just not great.

“No ballerinas,” I agreed.

“Thank you.” Bailey clenched me in a hug that took my breath away.

I felt a wisp of warm fur bat my bare leg. Tigger, the ginger kitten I found the week I arrived in Crystal Cove, meowed. I broke free of my ecstatic pal and scooped him up. “Feeling neglected, Tig-Tig?” I’d dubbed him with the same name as the Disney character because the little guy could bounce and pounce with the best of them. I nuzzled his neck and set him back on the floor. “You have treats. Go find them. I’m busy.” He meowed again.

A group of mothers and children entered the store. One of the moms held up a cute black cat vase filled with orange gerbera daisies. “Yoo-hoo, Jenna, I found this on the doorstep.” She offered it to me. “I think it’s from a secret admirer.”

I checked the note looped to the cat’s tail. From the one who adores you. Sweet. Rhett, the guy I was occasionally dating, must have left it earlier in the day and I missed seeing it as I entered. Tigger butted my ankle. I crouched down to him. “Hey, pal, fresh humans,” I whispered. “Go get ’em.” He bounded toward the children. Squeals of delight followed.

“Nice flowers,” Bailey said. “Which reminds me, are you ready for the Black Cat Parade?”

“I am. I have Tigger’s costume set to go.” For the parade, cat owners were encouraged to dress up their furry friends. One would win an award. I had made Tigger a gold witch hat to match my own. I didn’t think I could get the squiggle worm into anything more elaborate. I set the flowers on the counter and glanced again at the romantic message. “By the way, how’s it going with your Latin lover?” Bailey’s boyfriend, a hunky South American aeronautical engineer, was working as a paddleboard instructor while updating his citizenship status.

Bailey screwed up her mouth. “Fine, I think. Do you ever know with men?” She wasn’t a commitment-phobe, but she hadn’t had a serious relationship for a long time. “We’ll talk one day and then three days will pass before we talk again. Weird.”

“Give him breathing room.”

“That’s what Tito said.”

“Where did you see him?” Tito Martinez was a reporter for the Crystal Cove Crier. He reminded me of a boxer, the middleweight-athlete-of-the-dog-world kind.

“At Latte Luck Café.” Bailey had tried to give up caffeine a month ago; she’d lasted only a few days. “You know, the guy isn’t half bad when you get to know him.” Most often, Tito loved to brag and seemed totally self-absorbed, but recently I’d been hearing other people say good things about him. For example, he volunteered at the high school to teach adults English as a second language. I guess you never know about people until you discover the layer beneath what they present on the surface. Bailey said, “I think he’s lost a little weight, and he might be getting smarter.”

“Smarter?”

“You know, savvier. Between you and me, I think he’s going to therapy.”

“Really?”

“He gave me basic psychobabble tips regarding Jorge. He said, get this, ‘Be sure to practice good self-care.’ That’s shrink talk, right?” Bailey eyed the black cat vase. “Enough about my sorry life. I’m assuming it’s going well with Rhett if he’s sending you flowers.”

I nodded. “We’re going on a date tomorrow night.”

“He’s taking you on the haunted historic walk? Ooh, snuggle close, girlfriend. Be daring.”

Daring. Right. Rhett and I had kissed. Briefly. I’d cut that short. Not because I wasn’t attracted to him. I was. Totally. The man created more heat in me than a steam engine. Whoo-whoo! But I wasn’t ready for a deeper relationship. Yet.

I started for the window display and paused. “I almost forgot. Speaking of daring, I’m going to throw a Halloween party.”

“Get real,” Bailey said.

“And I’m cooking. By myself.”

Bailey snorted.

“That’s enough out of you.” Okay, so I wasn’t the world’s best cook, but a few weeks ago, I’d added learning to be a good cook to my bucket list. Sure, I needed lessons, and I needed practice. But I adored Halloween. Why not start there? The shop had some wonderful Halloween cookbooks. One, for kids, was called Our Favorite Halloween Recipes Cookbook: Jack-o’-Lanterns, Hayrides and a Big Harvest Moon . . . It Must Be Halloween! Find Tasty Treats That Aren’t Tricky. It had simple, easy recipes, perfect for the novice like me. One of the recipes was for spider pizza. How hard could that be?

“Costumes required,” I said.

“I’ll be there with eerie bells on.”

Chapter 3

ON TUESDAY EVENING, about fifty of us met in the parking lot of Fisherman’s Village to get on a bus for the haunted tour. Winsome Witches board members and their guests planned to visit a number of historic places around the area, including the first graveyard, the first garden, and the first mansion in Crystal Cove.

Our initial stop was to the one and only lighthouse. The building was constructed to ensure that ships didn’t hit the prominence of land that jutted out at the northern tip of town. As a kid, I had learned about the shipwreck that occurred in 1890, but to hear my aunt—the leader of the tour—tell the lighthouse’s history of treasure and woe gave the place a whole new twist. By the end of the trek, I had to admit my legs were tired; I definitely needed to add some stair climbing to my exercise routine. Perhaps I should have worn tennis shoes on the tour instead of my fancy thong sandals. So much for fashion.

Ten minutes after climbing back on the bus, we reached the cemetery. “This way, everyone,” Aunt Vera said as she led us inside.

Silky, decorative ghosts hung from tree branches; black wreaths adorned headstones. Small candles lined each pathway. The entire scene, especially with the influx of cool fog, felt spooky.

All of the tour attendees, each of whom carried battery-lit candles, were dressed as witches, including Rhett and me. Thankfully, although he possessed a wicked sense of humor, he didn’t go with the wizard-in-the-goofy-hat look. He wore a black shirt, black jeans, and boots. Vampire-like makeup finished the costume. With his shirt unbuttoned halfway and his manly chest partially exposed, he looked like a guy you’d see on the front of a romance novel—downright sexy.

“This is the first graveyard ever established in the area,” Aunt Vera said.

Crystal Cove was a lovely California seaside town, rich with history. Rolling hills bordered the town to the east; the ocean lay to the west. Settlers moved into the area in the 1850s, but the town was officially founded in 1883.

“Rumor has it”—my aunt lowered her voice—“that every year Old Man Carlton, the first settler in Crystal Cove and a moral soul, rises from his grave and flies over the town to make sure no evil lurks within.”

A teenaged girl at the front of the pack uttered an unnerving, albeit sarcastic, wail.

“Don’t disparage rumors, young lady.” My aunt shook a finger as she neared a crypt. “Nor superstitions, for that matter. Some may consider them irrational or false conceptions, but I happen to know”—she raised her arms overhead—“that we believe what we will because of surprising occurrences.”

Suddenly, a skeleton leaped from behind the crypt. It swooped toward the teenager, who shrieked. As fast as it appeared, the skeleton ducked out of sight. People erupted into giggles. The girl, who was accompanied by another teen, punched her friend. I wondered which Winsome Witch had dragged them along.

“Scared?” Rhett said.

“Not with you nearby,” I murmured. Following Bailey’s instruction, I snuggled into him. Delicious desire coursed from my head to my toes. “By the way, thank you for the flowers.”

“What flowers?”

“The gerbera daisies. In the black cat vase.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You left them on the shop’s doorstep. The card said they were from”—I gestured with quotation marks—“‘the one who adores you.’”

“Sorry. I didn’t send them.” His mouth quirked up on the right. “Should I be jealous?”

“No, of course not,” I sputtered. If Rhett hadn’t left the gift, then who had?

“Just to be safe . . .” He brushed his lips against my forehead.

As he did, I caught a couple of women in the group eyeing me with envy. Let them, I thought, though heat warmed my cheeks. My deceased husband hadn’t been one for public displays of affection. It appeared Rhett was, and I liked it.

“Say, is that Dr. Thornton?” Rhett whispered.

Ahead of us, Pearl walked with Bingo. They were deep in conversation.

“I barely recognized her,” he said.

As High Priestess of the Winsome Witches, Pearl had dressed accordingly. Her floor-length black gown and pointed hat were covered with sequins. She nearly glimmered in the moonlight.

A few weeks ago, Rhett had confided that he’d met with Dr. Thornton to deal with his fear of fire. He left his job as chef of The Grotto when the restaurant burned down, due to arson. His takeaway from his sessions—takeaway was a term Dr. Thornton used—was that Rhett had to deconstruct the lies so he could get to the truth. “See the sunrise, not the sunset,” he whispered.

That was another of Pearl’s, um, pearls of wisdom.

“You know”—I bumped him with my hip—“in this quiet-as-a-tomb environment, we can invoke the cone of silence. Care to tell me more about you?” I wasn’t one for keeping secrets. I’d learned way too late that my husband had kept loads of them. He stole clients’ funds and he hid gold coins in a statue, to name a couple. In the few months since I’d met Rhett, I had gleaned a bit of data about him. He lived in a cabin, he owned his own business, and he had attended culinary school years ago. He loved to fish and whittle, and he liked to read many of the same books I did. But I wanted to know more. Heck, I wanted to know everything. Did that mean I was ready for a deeper relationship after all?

“For instance?” he asked.

“Parents?”

“What about them?”

“Do you have them? Are they—” I paused awkwardly.

“Yes, they’re still alive.”

“Where do they live?”

He hesitated. “Napa Valley.”

“What do they do?”

“Dine on fine French food.”

I poked his rib cage. “Don’t be cryptic.”

“They’re in the business. They own a restaurant.”

“Really, which one?”

“Intime.”

I gasped. “You’re not fooling?”

“Nope.”

Intime—in French it meant “intimate”—was a renowned restaurant in the wine country, second to the French Laundry; both were located in Yontville, north of Napa. I had eaten there twice. I remembered a lovely woman, the owner, who had reminded me of my mother, tall and slender with dark curls feathering her face. She had beautiful blue eyes. Now looking at Rhett, I could see the resemblance. Honestly, I would melt into his eyes if he’d let me.

“Why didn’t you tell me that before?” I said.

“My father . . .” He worked his tongue inside his cheek.

“Strapping guy. Very tan.” He looked like the kind of man who could have run a huge vineyard or ranch. “Sort of stern.”

“That’s him. He disinherited me.”

“Why?”

“Because I eloped with the daughter of his best friend. Within the year, we were divorced. Her choice. Heartbroken, I entered culinary school, but when I didn’t pursue the art of French cooking, which further incensed my father, I became the black sheep.”

“How did your mother feel about your father cutting you off?”

Rhett had risked his life to run back through the fire in The Grotto to save his mother’s prized recipe box. Now I understood why he had taken the risk. Those recipes were not merely family keepsakes; they were the essence of a successful business.

“She wasn’t pleased, but she wouldn’t buck him. We communicate via my sisters.”

“You have sisters?” I had no idea I would get such a rich account. Maybe having a secret admirer was the impetus. Yay for me. “Do they have names?”

“Scarlett and Ashley.”

I grinned. “Your mother loved Gone with the Wind.”

“She adored it. Doesn’t every young girl?” Rhett toed the ground. “My father wanted a partner in the family business. He didn’t expect my sisters to comply. I sorely disappointed him.”

“Does he know what happened to you? Your career? The fire?”

“He does.”

“Hasn’t he tried to mend fences?”

Rhett shook his head, then pressed a finger to my lips. “No more talk of him.”

“My aunt intimated that you had some run-ins with the law.” She hadn’t revealed more. She believed all people should tell their stories in their own time.

A moment passed before Rhett said, “About a year ago, when your aunt insisted on giving me a palm reading, I let slip that I’d stolen a car. That wasn’t entirely true. When I eloped with Alicia, I borrowed my father’s car. He reported it stolen. In the dead of night, I returned the car, and Alicia and I hitchhiked for a month. To look for America.”

“Like the Simon and Garfunkel song.”

“Pretty much. I don’t have a police record.”

“Back to the buses, everyone,” Aunt Vera said. “Jenna, Rhett, don’t lag.”

I squeezed Rhett’s arm and said, “At some point, you’re going to tell me about Alicia and any other ladies in your past.” My aunt had also warned me that Rhett was a bit of a rogue. What did that mean? Was I falling in love with a man who would one day break my heart?

As we neared the bus, Rhett said, “Who’s that?” He pointed at a freckle-faced woman climbing out of a Corvette.

Emma Wright jammed a witch hat on her short-cropped hair and blew a kiss to the driver, her husband, Edward. Whenever I saw the man, I winced. He was fairly attractive with his lean Nordic look, chiseled jaw, and rock-hard eyes. His blond hair was a little slicker than I liked on a man, but that had nothing to do with my reaction to him. No, I winced because he was a dentist. The sound of the drill. The masks. The smells. The phantom pain. Yes, I went to a dentist—not Edward—but only because I wanted good teeth and not dentures when I entered my golden years.

Edward gunned the sports car and sped away. Emma watched him leave, her expression pinched, but she quickly put on a smile and joined Bingo and Pearl.

“Don’t you know Emma?” I said. “She’ll be the newest inductee to the Winsome Witches. She owns Pet Taxi, the service that shuttles animals to the vet or the groomers.” Emma, like my pal Bailey, was blessed with boundless energy and enthusiasm. “She can talk a blue streak.” Maybe that was why she spent most of her daylight hours with non-human-talking pets. I wondered how her husband dealt with that. Dentists did all the talking in their profession. I’d heard Edward was a cave explorer in his spare time; maybe he communed with bats. “You’ve never used her service?” I went on.

“I take Rook to all his appointments myself.” Rhett owned a Labrador retriever. He liked big dogs. “He won’t get into a car with a stranger. I’m not sure what happened to him before I found him at the pound, but I’m pretty sure it was something awful that involved cars.”

“Poor pup. Do you happen to know Emma’s husband?”

“Edward. Sure. He’s a weekend spelunker. He comes into Bait and Switch a lot. Long neck.”

“Really? That’s all you remember? Edward has a long neck?”

“I’m a guy. What more do you want?”

Our next stop on the tour was The Enchanted Garden nursery, one of my favorite places to visit in Crystal Cove. I could spend hours browsing the plants and glazed pots. Recently I’d purchased herbs for my front porch: basil, parsley, mint, and thyme. Some weren’t doing so well, although the parsley was thriving. I supposed even I, who didn’t have a green thumb, couldn’t kill parsley.

On the other hand, the owner of the shop, Maya Adaire, was skillful with a garden. Her shop, which was the first established in town, teemed with plants and beautiful ironwork sculpture. She offered many of her homegrown vegetables for sale: heirloom tomatoes, exotic mushrooms, zucchini, and pumpkins. A daily dose of mushrooms, she advised, could cure cancer. As if the rest of her accomplishments weren’t enough, Maya had also penned a cookbook of healthful vegetarian recipes.

As we entered The Enchanted Garden’s main shop, I inhaled. The scent of fall flowers filled the air. The interior was aglow with tiny white lights. Strands of orange pumpkin cutouts hung from the coarse wooden beams overhead. A blessing broom, which was hand-wrapped with ribbon, leaned against the checkout counter. A sign posting the way to Salem and Sleepy Hollow stood in the center of the garden near a birdbath waterfall. Maya had cleverly placed decorative art and bird feeders throughout the shop. Bowls of wrapped Halloween candies sat on wrought-iron tables and potting étagères.

Maya, a slender, almost ropy woman, her lean look the result of a vegetarian diet, greeted us as we entered. She wore a witch hat decorated with black satin and white bell-shaped flowers. She had woven the flowers into her curly tresses, as well. As we entered, she handed each of us a business card. I already had one, but I didn’t decline. I loved the lily of the valley logo. I remembered doing an advertising campaign for an online florist. Unlike my typical humorous ads, the LOV ad—that’s what we had called it—featured what I believed was every schoolgirl’s dream wedding: exquisite bouquets of lily of the valley with their pretty white bell-shaped flowers and streamers of white chiffon blowing in a gentle breeze. On a previous visit to The Enchanted Garden, I had asked Maya about the logo. I learned her mother had named her Maya Lily: Maya for May, and Lily for her mother’s favorite flower, which bloomed in May. How sweet was that?

“This way, y’all,” Maya said with a subtle Southern accent. She was born in South Carolina but had migrated to California after college. As she led the way, she rubbed her hands like a witch beckoning Hansel and Gretel into her cottage, which made me giggle. All part of the act, I assumed. “On your right, you’ll see a number of unique plants that might benefit you, should you be so inclined. Jacob’s Ladder, otherwise known as Ladder to Heaven, can increase your mental abilities as well as your joie de vivre. Lavender, I’m sure you all know, attracts affection. It is especially good when used in love-type potions.”

A few of the visitors giggled.

“Think about adding some dried lavender whenever you’re writing a love note. Y’all still do that, don’t you? Write?”

More laughter.

“In addition, the aroma of lavender encourages long life. Some people carry lavender in order to see ghosts. Have any of you seen a ghost?”

No hands shot up.

Maya grinned. “Me, either, but I hope to someday. Now, sage”—she fingered a grayish-green plant—“is wonderful when added to a bath. It can purify you of all past evils and negative deeds. If you burn sagebrush, sort of like burning incense, you can drive away malevolent forces.” She moved on to a section of trailing plants. “Rosemary, when burned, is powerful, as well. Pay attention: if you place a sprig of rosemary beneath your pillow, you’ll get a good sleep. It also”—she beckoned us near, then whispered—“attracts elves.”

“Jenna has seen elves,” Rhett joked. “The Keebler kind.”

I knuckled his arm.

Emma, who had been hanging back with Pearl and Bingo, sidled up to Maya. “Tell them about the history of this place.”

“Didn’t you tell them, Vera?”

My aunt shook her head.

Maya offered a mock scowl. “Fine. Leave the heavy lifting to me. The main building of The Enchanted Garden was erected in 1901. The garden shop was passed down from generation to generation, until the last of the family died, with no survivors. Some believed the original owners were witches.”

“No,” someone from the back of the pack said.

Maya raised a finger. “Aha, I hear disbelievers among you. It’s true. Witches dwelled in Crystal Cove. The bay has mystical properties.”

My aunt clucked her tongue and winked at me.

“Really?” a teenage girl asked, not the same one who had yowled in the cemetery.

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