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Halfway Hexed

Halfway Hexed
Berkley Mass Market Paperback
Southern Witch Series #3
ISBN-10: 0425267571
ISBN-13: 978-0425267578
March 4, 2014

Southern Witch series — Book 3

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Duvall, Texas.
A small town that’s about to be in some big trouble.

Pastry-chef-turned-unexpected-action/adventure heroine Tammy Jo Trask is finally ready to embrace her mixed-up and often malfunctioning magic. Too bad not everyone wants her to become all the witch she can be.

First, there are the local residents who form a scripture-spouting posse and kidnap Tammy to “defend” Duvall against witchcraft. Next, someone saddles her with a secret package chock full of dangerous visions, just as the president of WAM—the World Association of Magic—arrives with his entourage to investigate her. And who worse to examine Tammy’s entanglement with off-limits and drop-dead gorgeous wizard Bryn Lyons than his ex-girlfriend? Not to mention that the clash between the locals and the magical visitors leads to a series of unnatural disasters that may doom them all.

Will Tammy Jo’s magical synergy with Bryn be enough to help her save the town or will her enemies succeed in putting Tammy out of commission for good? One thing’s certain: this would-be witch is ready to rumble, Texas style…

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The reason I don’t normally bother to plan my schedule is that something unexpected always seems to come up and throw it off. That Friday when I got kidnapped was a prime example.

It was only four days after I’d almost been incinerated and drowned, but I was hopeful that I could balance my new life as a witch with my old life as a pastry chef. I’d accepted a commission—my first ever—from an accountant who donates her time to the Texas Friends of Fish and Fowl. As a celebration of their third anniversary, they were holding a regional fund-raiser in Duvall, and the centerpiece was to be a chocolate sculpture designed by yours truly. They wanted it to involve birds and fish, which was a bit of a challenge to my creativity because although fish are tasty—as anything but dessert—I just don’t see them as art.

I was hard at work on a woodland scene with fish popping out of a brook when the bells chimed, announcing that someone had opened the front door to Cookie’s Bakery. I glanced at the clock. It was twelve twenty, so Cookie hadn’t returned from her lunch break yet. In the bargain we’d struck, Cookie would let me use the bakery, if I covered her lunch hour and one Saturday.

I wiped my hands on a rag and walked out to the glass counter to find my mailman, George. Technically he’s not mine. He belongs to the town, but he’s delivered the mail to our house since I was five, and his route always seems to be expanding. Truth be told, George would like to be the only mailman in town. He considers postal work a calling.

“Hey, George. Are you in the mood for a cinnamon roll or a caramel pecan one?” I asked with a smile.

His bushy silver eyebrows rose. If a hedgehog ever mated with a hobbit, George could’ve had a twin. “I’m not on a break, Tammy Jo. I’m here on official postal business.”

I smiled a little wider. “Okay, then. I’ll take the bakery mail,” I said, holding out my hand.

“No need,” he said, rounding the counter to set the mail into Cookie’s straw mail basket. That was George. Mail delivery with military precision.

“All right, have a good day on your route,” I said, moving toward the back.

“Just a moment, young lady.”

“Yes?” I said, turning to face him again.

“We’ve got to discuss the situation at your house.”

I frowned, thinking about our family home, which had sustained fire damage and was under repair. I was staying at my ex-husband Zach Sutton’s house while he was out of town. I’d had my mail forwarded there. “Well, the situation at my house is being handled. Between TJ’s construction crew and Stucky’s brother-in-law, Chuy Vargas, who’s the best carpenter in a hundred miles, they’ll put it to rights. Chuy did the built-in bookshelves at Bryn Lyons’s house, and I can tell you firsthand, he does the most beautiful work you’ve ever seen.”

“That may be the case, but that still doesn’t address the situation I’m talking about.”

“I had my mail forwarded, George. Filled out all the paperwork two days ago, and the mail already came yesterday. You guys are a top-notch operation.”

George rattled off Zach’s address with a frown.

“Right, that’s where I’m staying.”

“It’s not on my route.”

My jaw dropped a little. “Right, but I’m not moving off your route permanently. It’s just until my house is fixed.”

“Shoreside is on my route. Highest tax bracket in Duvall, and I’m on that route by request. I believe you could stay there if you wanted to.”

“I can’t move in with Bryn Lyons just so you can deliver my mail!”

“You’ve got a package all the way from London, England. Airmail. Express with insurance attached. You going to trust something of that nature to the likes of Jeffrey Fritz?”

“I’ve got a package from England?” I asked, half amused that George couldn’t stand for a high- priority package to be delivered by his rival. “I haven’t ordered anything. And I don’t know anyone there.”

“International mail,” George said with a solemn nod.

“Sounds important. Do you happen to have it on your truck?”

“In my bag,” George said in a grave whisper, as if the package contained state secrets that spies in foreign countries had lost their lives to bring us.

“Well, that sure is convenient. Do I need to sign for it?”

“No. I’ve got my computer. I’ll take care of everything,” he said. He took out the small package and scanned its label, then handed it over. “Zach Sutton’s mailbox isn’t large enough to hold that.”

“George, how did you know I’d be here today? I didn’t arrange with Miss Cookie to use the bakery until last night. I can’t imagine who even knew I’d be here.”

“You’re part of my route,” George said crisply.

I laughed and couldn’t help wondering whether George might have one of the town ghosts as some sort of spirit guide. No one was better informed than the Duvall ghost network.

With his sworn duty fulfilled, George marched out of the bakery, head held high.

I took a pair of scissors and carefully opened the box. There was a double layer of bubble plastic, which I unfolded to find a disc-shaped object, heavily wrapped in white foam packing sheets, making it about three inches in diameter. I raised it. Concealed underneath was a folded piece of thick stationery. I lifted the corner to read the note.

Never let it be taken from you. Keep it secret. Keep it safe.

A chill ran down my spine. I turned the paper over. No signature. Nothing written on it besides the three sentences in fancy black script.

I flipped up the box flap to look at the label. No return address. I set the note down carefully and returned to the mystery object. I pulled off the tape and slowly unrolled it. Peeling away layer after layer, I finally uncovered a beautiful antique cameo brooch. It was about two inches tall. The carved white image of a young woman’s profile stood out from the pinkish-red background. There were flowers tucked into her upswept hair, and she had delicate features, angelic and pretty. The oval rim of the brooch was laced in gold and dotted with the tiniest pearls I’d ever seen. So many precious details. It made me feel like factory-manufactured jewelry ought to be outlawed.

Could Momma or Aunt Melanie have sent it? If so, why hadn’t they written a longer message? And why would they be in England? Or, if it wasn’t from them, who else in the world would have sent it to me?

I reached down to touch it, and a jolt of electricity shot up my arm. My brain seemed to rattle in my skull for a moment and then my vision blurred, the bakery receding.

I staggered, blindly catching myself on the counter just as she appeared. A woman with thick chestnut hair and high cheekbones. Her disheveled clothes, a blouse and skirt, flared out as she ran. I heard her panting breath, the clicking of her heels, and I smelled damp, rain-soaked streets. The haunted look in her wide eyes made my heart contract, and her fear consumed me. I reached out to her, to rescue her, but she went past me and disappeared.

I stood, staring at the spot where she’d been, but there was only black. Trying to catch my breath, I sank shakily to the floor.

Who is she?

The darkness faded, and the bakery reappeared around me. The smell of melted chocolate and baking bread. The ticking of the wall clock that was shaped like a country apron. I shook myself. I was safe at home in Duvall. The girl had been part of a premonition—my first ever. Were they always like that? Yikes. I hoped not.

And who or what had been chasing her? She’d been terrified, running as if her life depended on it. I’d felt what she was feeling. I wasn’t sure if that was normal with psychic visions or not, but it didn’t really matter. Only one thing was important; I had to find out who she was so I could save her from whoever or whatever was chasing her.

Chapter Two

I shook the brooch gently, trying to get the vision to play again, but nothing happened. Turns out, magical brooches aren’t as reliable as DVD players. I was just getting up and dusting myself off when Cookie returned from her lunch. She’s as tough as gristle but has a good heart. At work she wears crisp white shirts with cotton pants under one of her twenty different aprons, and today was no exception. She looked me over with a questioning expression as she grabbed the top apron from the hook and slipped it over her head.

“Good lunch?” I asked, closing the box’s lid on the brooch.

She nodded. “What have you got there?”

“Nothing much. I’m going to step out, but I’ll be back for my meeting with the Fish-and-Fowl ladies,” I said, grabbing my tote from the back and hurrying outside. I glanced up at the overcast sky. It looked and smelled like rain. Just like in my vision. Except there was something that made me think that the woman in the premonition wasn’t going to be chased through the streets of Duvall. Although, if she did come to town, it would be a lot easier for me to help her. But what if she didn’t? What then?

I paused for a moment. Why did I feel so strongly that I had to help her? She was a stranger. Presumably wherever she was, she had family, friends, and a local police force. Her problems didn’t have to become my problems . . . but I couldn’t shake the feeling of a bone-deep connection to her. Could she be a distant relative? Some second cousin that I’d never met or heard of?

I drove to Zach’s house and tucked the box under his bed. I could’ve left it in the car, but I didn’t think that was a good idea since I was headed to Bryn Lyons’s mansion for advice. When the note said to keep the brooch secret, I assumed it meant keeping it hidden from Bryn, because he and I were the only magical people in town at the moment.

I pressed the security button at Bryn’s gate and waited.

A voice that I didn’t recognize said, “Can I help you?”

“Sure can. Can you open the gate for me? I’m Tammy Jo. Mr. Lyons probably has me on the list as Tamara, even though no one but him calls me that,” I said, slightly disgruntled at the fact that I’d lost the battle with Bryn over my first name. “My last name is Trask,” I added.

The gate swung open, but I didn’t drive in immediately. Instead, I pressed the button again. “Hello?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“You’re new, huh? Are you Steve’s cousin?” Steve was night security at Bryn’s, and I remembered that Bryn had planned to interview his cousin for the day post.

“Right. I’m Pete.”

“Nice to meet you, Pete. Steve’s a good guy. Maybe he told you that we’re kind of friends?”

“He mentioned you. He said that letting you sneak into the house was how the last daytime security officer got fired.”

That was what Steve had told him? All he’d told him? What about the fact that I’d saved Bryn’s life. Twice! Once from poison. The second time from a flame-throwing warlock. Steve should’ve practically considered me his assistant when it came to safeguarding Bryn and his property. Unless you counted the cars I’d wrecked, which I didn’t think anyone should, considering what we’d been up against. I couldn’t believe Steve had told his cousin about my brief stint as a persona non grata at Casa Lyons. I frowned.

“Well, me being off the list and sneaking in—those were unusual circumstances.”

“Let’s hope,” Pete said.

I huffed and drove through. I parked on the circular drive near the mansion’s front door and rang the bell.
Mr. Jenson, Bryn’s elderly butler, opened it and greeted me warmly.

“Is he here?”

“In the dining room. He’s just sitting down to lunch. Have you eaten, Miss Tamara?”

“Breakfast a few hours ago.”

“Very good. You’ll dine here then. We have a special guest chef for the day.”

“He had you bring in a guest chef?” I smiled and shook my head. “Being rich isn’t the worst thing in the world is it, Mr. Jenson?”

“It has never appeared to be,” he said with a conspiratorial smile. I followed him down the hall, and he opened the door to the dining room.

If anybody could’ve resisted thinking wow, it sure wasn’t me.

There were antique mirrors on one wall and two crystal chandeliers overhead. The wall opposite the mirrors was all windows, showing off the landscaped grounds. The enormous dining room table could’ve comfortably seated fourteen.

Bryn sat at the head of the table closest to the door. He was take-your-breath-away good-looking, but I mostly pretended not to notice. Bryn looked up when Mr. Jenson announced me, and then stood, matching the room’s formality. Mr. Jenson pulled out a chair for me.

“She’s agreed to stay for lunch,” Mr. Jenson said before slipping out.

“That explains the memo I got about hell freezing over,” Bryn said dryly. He’d invited me over for dinner every day since our near-death Halloween night. But I hadn’t been to his house since then, because I’d been working a lot . . . and because I’d been avoiding him. We’d gotten pretty close, which made me nervous. Bryn, of course, never got nervous about anything, even when he had good reason to.

“I’ve been crazy busy, but here I am now, and it’s real good to see you.” I gave him my sweetest smile.

He appraised me with a look that said he wasn’t going to be taken in by a pretty smile. “I’m glad to see you, but dropping by for lunch isn’t the same as accepting a dinner invitation, and we both know it.”

I glanced at the oriental place setting and the white potbellied teapot. “I don’t see what the difference is,” I fibbed. “Mr. Jenson said there’s a guest chef here today, and this dining room’s as fancy as any restaurant. So, what’s for lunch?”

“Sushi,” he said. “My favorite.”

“Makes sense that that’d be your favorite,” I said.

He drew his brows together. “Why?” he asked.

“Your selkie genes.”

After a moment’s contemplation, he burst out laughing. A few days earlier we’d figured out that we’re each part magical creature.

Bryn continued smiling. “I guess that’s one possible reason for my preference, but let’s not spread that theory around.”

I glanced at the empty chairs, then to the room’s corners. “I thought the video surveillance of the downstairs didn’t include sound.”

“It doesn’t, but now’s an excellent time for us to practice concealing our secrets.”

Thinking of the brooch, I agreed, though we clearly had different secrets in mind. “Why?” I asked.

“Several members of the Conclave are en route to Duvall.”

The blood drained from my face, and I braced my hands on the table. The Conclave was supposed to be the World Association of Magic’s version of the CIA and FBI, but the only Conclave guys I’d met had been more into lawbreaking than law enforcement. Plus, the people on the way were sure to be angry and suspicious because of the recent deaths of their colleagues.

“When will they be here?”

“Tomorrow, according to my sources.”

“Well, what should we do? Leave town? Move into a cave or a jungle hut? Somewhere without telephones or ley lines?”

Bryn and I had broken WAM’s laws. We weren’t supposed to associate with each other or to share magic, and all they would have to do to find out Bryn and I had spent time together last week was to ask Bryn’s neighbors. Then the Conclave could lock us up. Or worse.

Bryn reached into his suit coat and slid out a piece of paper. He set it in front of me.

I opened it. It was a fax dated the day after the WAM wizards had come to town. It said that Bryn had won the appeal against the injunction that prevented us from seeing each other. I was shocked. All the sneaking around I’d done was for nothing?

“Why didn’t you show me this last week when it came!” I bit off the rest of what I was planning to say when the door opened. Mr. Jenson came in with lunch and a place setting for me. I glared at Bryn, who was as calm as ever. I clenched my fists in my lap until Mr. Jenson left. “Well?” I demanded.

Bryn poured me tea and said, “You’re going to tell them that I did tell you about this back then. That’s why we’ve been seeing each other, because as far as we know, it’s perfectly legal for us to do that.”

I cocked my head. On the one hand, it was a nice simple solution to our problem. On the other hand, I couldn’t understand why he hadn’t told me about the ruling earlier. I glanced at the signature on the bottom. John Barrett. The president of WAM. A guy that hated Bryn for interfering in his politics and for stopping him from getting too much power. Barrett had sent wizards to get evidence against Bryn—and to kill him. Why would Barrett have sent the letter to clear Bryn of wrongdoing? Had someone made him do it?

“Did he have to sign this because you won the appeal?”

Bryn smudged some ginger on a California roll and shook his head.

“So then why did he send it?”

“He didn’t. It’s going to be proven a forgery.”

My jaw dropped.

“But we’re going to lie convincingly about it, or we’ll end up in jail.”

“Can’t we just say that the wizards they sent were homicidal maniacs and that we did what we had to do to survive?”

“We’ll say that, too, but it wouldn’t be enough. There are proper channels—”

“But I don’t know the proper channels!” Could the wizard government really be so rigid that they wouldn’t take into account extenuating circumstances? People had been trying to kill us! The town had been under siege! There’d been no time for magical red tape. I wanted to explode with fury and couldn’t understand how Bryn could sit there so calmly.

“Right, but I do know the protocols, and they’ll say I should’ve used them, whether I suspected internal corruption or not. They’ll claim there are safeguards to ensure that any communications reach headquarters intact. So if there was a problem here last week, I should’ve reported it and asked for assistance, rather than breaking laws to handle it myself. I wasn’t supposed to be interfering in what happened to you.”

“Right. You should’ve just let me get killed or whatever.”

“The documents that have been filed so far don’t reflect that you were in danger. The ones I sent apparently haven’t made it to the WAM offices in London.”

My eyebrows shot up. Intercepted? Stolen? Destroyed?

“How do you know?” I asked.

Bryn didn’t answer, which was probably for the best. I didn’t need the names of the people who spied for him.

“Look, it’s your choice,” he said. “This is dangerous business. If you tell the truth and agree to do whatever Barrett says, they’ll probably let you off with a warning.”

“But you couldn’t get off with a warning, and I’m the reason they’re coming. My using magic is what started all this.”

“You didn’t know what you were getting into. Now that you do, I’ll understand if—”

I held out a hand. There was no way I would let Bryn go down alone for helping me. Not if I could prevent it. “You showed me the letter last week.”

The corner of his mouth curved up. “You should bind yourself to me, Tamara. If you’re going to take risks with me, you might as well reap the rewards.” He ran his fingertip over my left ring finger. Warmth and magic danced up my arm and seeped into the deepest parts of my body.

I shivered, trapped for a moment in his dark blue gaze. I can’t. “That would be crazy. We barely know each other.”

“We know each other in the way that counts most.”

I blushed, drawing my hand away from his. Not that I really wanted to pull back. What I really wanted was for him to keep my hand and to take the rest of me along with it. Except I wasn’t supposed to let him have any part of me. I tightened my muscles and looked away from his face. “What else do I need to say about the last couple weeks?”

“There are two things that you have to remember and never waver about. First, that you saw the letter saying I’d won the appeal. Second, that the curse from the wizards caused the pixie-dust spill. You can’t let it slip about your fae ancestry.”

“I won’t.”

He had another bite of sushi while studying me. “Do you know how lawyers help witnesses prepare to give testimony?”

I shook my head.

“They practice with them. After lunch, why don’t we spend a few hours getting you ready for their interrogation? I’ll play a Conclave member and ask you questions. You can try to evade the traps I set for you.”

“I have to go back to the bakery for a little while, but I can practice until then, and I’ll come back afterward if you think I need to.”

“Good. Let’s plan on that.”

“Let’s see first how the afternoon goes. I’ll be back tonight if I need to practice, not just because you want me to come over.”

“Oh, right. Thanks for setting me straight.” The sarcastic edge to his voice caused a stab of guilt to shoot through me. He’d done a lot for me, and we both knew it. I should’ve been sweeter to him, or at least more gracious. And honestly, I wanted to be. That was the trouble. I couldn’t trust myself around him, so I was doing my best to keep us apart.

“I wasn’t—it’s not that I don’t want to see you, but you know things are complicated,” I said.

“Because you allow them to be. And, since we’re setting the record straight, if I wanted to use coercion or trickery to get you here, I would’ve already done it.” I saw the calculation in his eyes and wondered what things he’d contemplated doing to draw me to him. Not for the first time, I felt a little out of my league.

“Well, I appreciate your restraint,” I said with an exaggerated drawl. “I know it must be tough not to use coercion and trickery. Probably goes against all your lawyerly tendencies.”

“Tamara.” The one word was a warning.

I smiled at him, and he rolled his eyes, but the hint of a smile curved the corners of his lips. The man had a lot of patience.

“With Barrett’s entourage on its way, the other thing that I should do is reinforce the protective wards on the property. Unfortunately, I’m still tapped out after the Valley of Death spell. The easiest way to amass power would be for me to do a spell that includes you,” he said.

“And then you’ll hold on to the magic we generate? Mine and yours?” I asked, thinking that I wanted to cast a spell on the brooch to find the woman from the vision.

“Is that a problem?”

I didn’t answer.

“Why would that be a problem, Tamara? You’re not planning on casting any spells, are you?”

“Well,” I said, trying to decide how much to tell him. I needed his advice on what kind of spell to try, so I’d have to tell him something. “There’s a premonition that I want to learn more about.”

“What premonition?”

I folded my hands on the table. “My great-great-grandma Lenore had a lot of visions, and she was an expert at interpreting them.”

“So?”

“She was Edie’s twin sister.” Bryn frowned at the mention of Edie’s name. He and the family ghost didn’t get along. “And the reason my family doesn’t want me to have anything to do with you is that your last name is on a list. Lenore’s List of Nine. Getting involved with you is strictly forbidden.”

“She made the list based on a dark vision she had?”

“Yes.”

“Did the Lyons premonition pertain to you and me specifically? Or to your family and my family in general?”

“I don’t know. That’s what I need to find out.” It sounded like the truth because it was the truth. The thing I didn’t say was that I had no idea where to begin to get a glimpse at one of double-great-grandma’s premonitions. So I needed to start with something that I hoped would be easier—like the brooch. “I remember Momma said that premonitions are natural windows into the future. Some witches just get them, like Lenore did. But other witches without the gift of sight can unlock glimpses of the future through divination.”

Bryn nodded.

“You said you use a kind of tarot card reading, right? That’s how you knew to give Mercutio to me?”

“Yes, cartomancy, but that won’t show any visions.”

“I know, but what would?”

“There are a lot of approaches, depending on your magic. Lampadomancy, radiesthesia, capnomancy—”

“Hey, I didn’t go to wizard summer camp, remember? And Momma and Aunt Mel sure didn’t use all the formal names for stuff when they talked about magic.”

“Maybe it’s time you did learn the terms. An informal education works for some things, but when there’s a vast amount of information, getting it in a haphazard way just makes it harder to understand and remember. I’ve offered to teach you anything you want, if you’ll—”

“No. No strings that tie us together. Especially not before we know what that prophecy says.”

“It’s a catch-22. You want my help to find out whether you can accept my help.”

I huffed in frustration. “You were willing to share power. You break the rules well enough when it suits you.”

Bryn smiled. “I can take power from you and use it because I’m allowed to use magic. I’m trained. Unlike you. It’s not legal—or wise, for that matter—for me to give you information or spells that you go off to use unsupervised. You, better than anyone, know how spells can go wrong.”

Okay, he had a small point there. I’d only come into my magical power in the past two weeks, and, since then, when I tried to use it . . . mostly disaster. Though sometimes, when I really needed magic to work, it did. And the brooch made me feel compelled to try more spells.

“Look, I’m curious about your ancestor’s list, too,” he said. “But if the premonition’s almost a hundred years old, I think it can wait until after we’ve dealt with the Conclave investigation,” Bryn said. “Also, it may have already happened and then we won’t be able to see it anyway.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the gift of sight is always foresight. Once something happens, the energy that created the vision is expended, and the actual events become part of memory. The memories belong to the people who were part of the event. Memories aren’t accessible through divination.”

“Well, if whatever’s supposed to happen already has happened, then I don’t care about it. It might have been your dad stealing my family’s locket. If so, there’s nothing wrong with me being friends with you now that that’s over.”

“No matter what your great-great-grandmother saw all those years ago, it wouldn’t make sense to let it come between us. Magical synergy is incredibly rare, but we have it. There are witches who would kill for it, you know. It’s not something to be squandered. Think about what we’ve already done and the possibilities of what we could do—”

“Stop! Don’t tempt me. I’m already tempted enough just looking—never mind. Listen, this synergy stuff, it’s not going to go away, is it?”

He shook his head.

“So if there’s an emergency, I will share power with you. But I won’t do it just for fun or as a precaution, because I don’t want to be low on power either. I might have to cast a spell in a hurry when you’re not around.”

“To cast a spell that will probably go wrong, since yours often do. I can use the power to protect both of us.” When I didn’t respond, Bryn frowned. “You’re not being reasonable.”

I tipped my head slightly so that some of my red hair shielded me from him. “Is being reasonable what I’m known for?” I asked.

Bryn narrowed his eyes. “I don’t always agree with your logic, Tamara, but I can usually follow it.” He continued scrutinizing me. “What aren’t you telling me?”

“I’ve told you all I can,” I said. I took a bite of sushi. It was the freshest I’d ever tasted. “Wow, this is good. That guest chef’s worth whatever you’re paying him,” I said to change the subject. “Why don’t you start asking me Conclave questions now? We don’t have that much time before I have to leave.”

Anger flashed in his beautiful blue eyes, but he didn’t say more about sharing power. Instead, he launched into the practice interrogation. Over the next couple hours, he trapped me dozens of times in contradictions. He did it so smoothly that it was a little scary. It was also extremely annoying since I’m pretty sure he enjoyed tangling me in knots.

Chapter Three

My head ached by the time I got back to the bakery. If I ever give up being a pastry chef, don’t put me down for becoming a politician or a criminal or anything that requires me to be questioned by a smug and annoyingly handsome lawyer with an axe to grind.

I mixed food coloring with melted white chocolate to make green chocolate paint for my hummingbird. When I finished adding decorative details, I rested the bird on a sheet of wax paper and checked my tree bark. There were a few pieces that were still a bit loose, so I used some melted semisweet as glue to secure them.

Cookie called out from the front that she was leaving for the day and reminded me to lock up after my meeting. As if I’d forget, I thought with a roll of my eyes. I glanced at the clock and wondered if Mercutio, my feline supersidekick, was awake yet. As an ocelot, Merc’s basically nocturnal, so he’s only up during the day on a need-to-fight basis. When I’d left in the morning, he’d been asleep in a tree in Zach’s yard. Since it was quarter to five, Mercutio was probably awake and hunting by now. I hoped he didn’t leave Zach’s. I didn’t want a lot of neighbors seeing him. Jenna Reitgarten had had it in for Merc ever since he helped me burgle her house—which I should add we’d had a really good, life-and-death reason for doing. Not that I could explain that to Jenna. Not that I wanted to explain. The less I ran into her, the better.

I moved quickly around the display table, wiping away excess chocolate. I arranged the sculpture so that it was perfectly centered, then admired the brook. I’d dusted sugar crystals on the white chocolate, so the faux-white water sparkled. It looked magical, and I hadn’t even used magic. I couldn’t help but smile. I was sure they were going to love it. I took off my soiled apron and tucked it away before I washed my hands. I was just finishing when I heard the bells.

Here we go.

I poked my head out. “Come on back,” I said to the first woman through the door. She was tall and built farm-girl solid with close-cropped auburn hair. I recognized her face from around town and wondered if she was Sue, the accountant, who’d called to hire me. I eyed the sculpture once more. The base was three feet in diameter, and one of the tree trunks was almost two feet tall with a pair of sparrows on one branch and a blue jay on another. I’d handcrafted each piece of chocolate bark, each stone, each flower, and each patch of moss and grass. It was a masterpiece.

As the ladies filed in, I smiled and stood up straighter. Then I spotted the pair bringing up the rear. Lucy Reitgarten, who still had a henna stain on her forehead from when I’d had to save her from a passionflower-potion poisoning, stalked in with her sister-in-law Jenna. They each wore a polo shirt and khaki pants. They also wore matching scowls. I exhaled heavily, my moment of triumph melting like semisweet chips in a double boiler.

“Hi, there,” the leader of the group said. “I’m Sue Carfax. This is Mindy, and I think you know Lucy and Jenna.”

I nodded to the group, looking them over. Jenna was blonde, and if she wrote a cookbook it would be called The Anorexic’s Guide to Not Eating. Her sister-in-law Lucy had high cheekbones, thick eyebrows, and dark brown hair peppered with gray. Mindy was a dumpling with legs, and her cherubic face should’ve been cute except for the small, unfriendly eyes. She must’ve been a Fish-and-Fowl member from one of the neighboring towns because I didn’t recognize her.

“This is quite a work of art,” Sue said with false cheer.

I took a few steps back so they could circle the sculpture. The silence dragged on for several moments, then they began murmuring to each other. Behind my back, I clenched my fists. If they made up some excuse to not pay me or were overly critical, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to keep from shouting at them. My run-in with Jenna two weeks ago over the price of a cake I’d made had already cost me my job.

“Well, it’s really lovely,” Sue said. A little of the tension in my shoulders eased. “That’s a great catfish,” she said, pointing.

“Thank you,” I said with a careful smile.

“Did you go to one of the creeks around here for inspiration?”

“Nope. Zach’s got copies of Field and Stream at the house. And I used the Internet.” I went to my tote and took out my file of clippings and pictures. They passed them around.

“So, what’s your plan for this hummingbird?” Sue asked, tapping the edge of the wax paper.

“I’m going to tack a piece of clear fishing line into its back and suspend it from this branch,” I said, indicating the lowest one. “The beak will point down into this blossom.”

“Makes sense,” Mindy said. “But we were wondering . . .”

“Yes?” I asked, nodding encouragement.

“Is there another way you could make the bird airborne? Not for the public to see, but for us—right now.”

I cocked my head. “What did you have in mind?” Clear fishing line would be pretty much invisible. I supposed a thin wire could be used, but I didn’t think it would be as good.

“We were thinking you could do a trick,” Lucy said.

“A trick?” I echoed.

Four pairs of eyes stared at me, and I felt my face warm.

“A magic trick,” Mindy said.

Uh-oh.

“Or maybe you’d call it a spell.” Jenna’s voice rang out clear and sharp. An accusation.

They know! No, they can’t. They suspect. Don’t panic, I thought, panicking. “It’s a chocolate bird,” I said slowly and carefully. “It doesn’t fly.”

“Couldn’t it levitate? If you helped it?”

“No, it couldn’t! I’m a pastry chef, not a magician.” My heart thumped in my chest.

“We want you to try,” Jenna said, taking a step toward me. Lucy moved, too. I stood my ground, refusing to let them back me into a corner.

“I’m not trying anything. You hired me to do a chocolate sculpture. That’s it.”

“Look,” Lucy said. “Jenna saw you practicing with a magic wand. And I remember you chanting when you threw that mixture on us—”

“My brother works at Glenfiddle, and he said you shouted some weird poem before splashing the poison on him,” Mindy said. “Then he passed out. What was in that Tupperware?”

“Was it blood-based?” Sue asked.

“Blood?” I asked, wrinkling my nose. Why would they guess there’d been blood in it? Had they done research? I needed to throw them off-track. But how?

“Witch’s herbs?” Lucy asked.

This is not good. My mind reeled. I saved lives. I shouldn’t end up in trouble for it after the fact. More evidence—as if I needed any—that life isn’t fair. What would Bryn tell me to do? “Look I really can’t talk about that night.”

“Are you in league with the devil?” Sue demanded.

I gasped. “Of course not!” That was going too far. God and I are on good terms.

“Satan, be gone!” Sue said, taking a menacing step forward. I pushed her away.

Lucy thrust a small gold cross at me and shouted, “That it may not hear the voice of enchanters casting cunning spells!”

“Oh God, my lord, smash their teeth—” Mindy said.

“Smash their—all right, that’s enough. Get out!” I said, pointing to the door.

“Get her!” Jenna ordered. Then they knocked me down and piled on top of me.

“The fallen shall not rise,” Sue said.

“I didn’t fall. I was pushed!” I snapped. We were a mass of scratching fingernails, kicking legs, and tangled hair. I didn’t want to hurt any of them, so I didn’t actually hit anyone with a closed fist. In retrospect, that was a mistake. I should’ve treated them like any killer werewolf or vicious faery that I’d fought the past two weeks. But hindsight is twenty-twenty and foresight is more like twenty-two-hundred.

With my wrists, ankles, and lips duct-taped, all I could do was glare at them when they picked me up and carried me to the back door.

I shouted against the tape. It came out sounding something like, “Mm-errrr-mum-hu-mmurma.” Predictably they ignored my garbled protests. I squirmed and struggled until they dropped me, making me bang my butt and left elbow on the tile floor. Scowling and snarling, they picked me back up.

“Stop moving! You’re only hurting yourself,” Lucy snapped.

“That chocolate sculpture is really great, by the way. It’s going to make a wonderful focal point for the fund-raiser,” Sue said.

What the fudge? They were still expecting to use my work? Not if I had anything to say about it. Unfortunately, at the moment I really didn’t, but I shouted against the tape anyway.

“If you cooperate, maybe you’ll be free in time for the fund-raiser. Wouldn’t that be nice?” Mindy said, sweet as a Stepford wife.

I flailed until they dropped me again. My left butt cheek was going to be one big bruise tomorrow.
Jenna leaned over and grabbed my arm, squeezing hard. “That’s enough,” she hissed.

I glared at her.

“You brought this on yourself, you know,” she said as they lifted me again. “We’re taking you into custody on behalf of DeeDAW.”

Who? “Uutt?”

“Defending Duvall Against Witchcraft. DeeDAW,” Jenna said triumphantly as they dropped me into a car trunk. “Now be quiet in there.” With that, the lid whumped shut and plunged me into darkness.

My very first chocolatier’s commission, and the clients turned into witch-hunting kidnappers! Apparently, my plan to keep my regular life as a pastry chef separate from my new life as a witch wasn’t going to work out as well as I’d hoped.