***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2019 Bailey Cates
Uncle Ben gave one last twist of the screwdriver, removed the electronic bell that had been attached to the front door of the Honeybee Bakery for over two years, and climbed down from the stepladder with a smile of satisfaction. He strode to where Aunt Lucy stood behind the register and kissed her on the cheek. After handing her the small black box, he turned back to retrieve his tools and take them out to his truck in the alley.
My aunt turned to me and held up the box with a grin that gently crinkled the skin around her gray eyes. “I sure won’t miss hearing this every time someone comes in.”
I was restocking the display case with pecan rolls and gingersnaps. “Me, too, but you have to admit it’s a good problem to have,” I said, carefully arranging a row of cookies at the back of a tray. “Being so busy that the bell above the door was always ringing, I mean.”
“A good problem indeed.” She slid the contraption that had chimed thousands of times into the pocket of her hemp apron. “But it was getting to be downright distracting.”
My aunt was originally from the tiny town of Fillmore, Ohio, just like me, but she’d lived in Savannah for decades. Though they were sisters, Lucy was quite different than my perfectly coifed and buttoned-down mother. She looked like the gracefully aging hippy that she was – gray-blond hair stuffed into a messy bun, a brightly embroidered smock from Oaxaca worn over a long cotton skirt, Birkenstocks on her feet, and not a speck of makeup on her cheerful face.
Oh, and she was also a witch.
Then again, so was I. Not that I’d had any idea of my hereditary powers until I’d moved to Savannah from Akron over two years ago to open the Honeybee with Ben and Lucy, but she’d soon filled me in.
That had been interesting.
You come from a long line of witches, Katie. Our family specialty is called hedgewitchery. It’s one of the gentler branches of magic. An affinity for herbal lore, herb craft, and a heck of a green thumb. All of which you possess. Pure magic in the kitchen.
I’d spluttered and denied the very possibility, of course, but after a while I realized my gifts were why I’d always felt a bit different, like an outsider, and I warmed to the idea. Soon I delved into learning more about the Craft and began working with my aunt to add a sprinkle of benevolent magic to our baked goods.
Lucy and I were old-school herbal witches like the women who used to cross the literal hedges that surrounded villages in the old days to gather healing plants for teas and other cures. Hedge was also metaphorical and could refer to the veil between this plane and the next. My aunt had introduced me to a group of women who practiced various kinds of witchcraft, a loose coven of sorts that we called the spellbook club, and they’d graced my life with wisdom, friendship, and support. We actually did meet to talk about spell books each month – and occasionally practice a little magic together, of course. For the first time in my life, I felt like I truly fit in.
Once the display trays were filled for the next wave of treat-seeking patrons, I paused to take a sip of sweet tea from the sweating glass by my elbow and surveyed the bakery. It was the typical lull between the lunch rush and people’s need for an afternoon influx of caffeine and sugar. Only a few customers were avoiding the sticky July heat in the air-conditioned atmosphere.
Arthur, our resident author, stared moodily at his laptop screen and sipped minty green tea over in the corner. Two firefighters in uniform traded sections of the Savannah Morning News back and forth over cups of coffee and plates that now held only crumbs. In the reading area, three women perched on the poufy brocade sofa and chairs, hunched over an array of papers spread on the coffee table and murmuring about budget numbers and fundraising needs. In the window beyond them sat Lucy’s orange tabby – and witch’s familiar. Honeybee the cat had inspired the name of the bakery, and now she lazily watched the pedestrians going by on Broughton Street outside. My own familiar, a Cairn terrier named Mungo, was snoozing in the office off the kitchen, as he did most every day I worked at the bakery.
I went over to the firefighters’ table and gathered up their empty plates. Both men worked at firehouse five, known as Five House, with my fiancé, Declan McCarthy. Randy was the younger of the two, as well as stockier. He was handsome in a chiseled way, with dark eyes and dark hair. He’d been dating one of the spellbook club members for a few months now. Scott, a tall man with salt and pepper hair, a deep mahogany complexion, and a calm demeanor, was his superior officer as well as his close friend and mentor.
“How were your scones?” I asked.
Randy leaned back and grinned at me. “Awesome, like always.”
Scott nodded. “Good stuff.”
“Can I bring you anything else? More coffee?”
The older man shook his head and stood. “Thanks, but I’ve got to get going. Better load up a box with a dozen assorted pastries. We just finished our forty-eight, but I’ll drop it back by the station for the new shift.”
I grinned. “Deal.”
“I’ve got it,” Lucy said from behind the counter, and began to fill a box with an assortment of baked goods.
Scott went to pay, and I asked Randy, “How was your shift?”
“Boring. A minor wreck, a kitchen fire, an elevator rescue, and a bunch of building inspections.” Then he brightened. “But there was that dumb guy who set his siding on fire when he was barbequing hot dogs.”
“Glad you got in a little excitement.”
He didn’t seem to notice my wry tone. A boring shift was what I hoped for every time Declan went to work.
The two men left, and I cleared their table, wiped it down, then went to retrieve my sweet tea.
Standing beneath the tall blackboard where we listed our menu selections for the day, I inhaled the scents of sugar and spice, hints of rosemary and cheese, fresh sourdough bread, and beneath it all the undercurrent of coffee beans. Fans hung from the high ceiling, lazily moving the cooled air around a bit more. Ben had chosen the music for the day, and Ella Fitzgerald quietly drifted down from the speakers up in the corners. Behind me, our part-time employee, Iris Grant, hummed to herself over the bowl of muffins she was mixing.
Well, she wasn’t exactly humming. She was murmuring a gentle incantation to invoke the benefits of the spices in the recipe. Fresh out of the oven, those muffins would join the other pastries in the case for the afternoon surge of customers, and, like the other pastries, would offer a little extra oomph – in this case physical and mental energy from the burst of fresh ginger they contained. Just the ticket for making it through until five o’clock.
Iris wasn’t exactly a witch, per se, but she was learning. In training, you might say. Her feet shuffled in a subtle two-step, which told me she was in a good mood. She was eighteen and a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Her chin-length hair boasted mermaid purple and yellow streaks, and a series of piercings ran along the outer edges of her ears. The moment I’d met her, I’d recognized her innate power.
Almost everyone has the power to work magic. Spell work is simply a way to harness one’s intuition and intention in a focused way. But Iris was an old soul, and I felt she had more of a gift than most. The other members of the spellbook club had agreed. When she’d asked for a job at the Honeybee, taking her on as an apprentice was a no-brainer.
I took another swallow of sweet tea and allowed my eyes to close in contentment as the syrupy liquid spread coolness down my throat and into my chest. A sense of peace settled over me and—
My heart stuttered as my eyes popped open.
“Wake up, honey! I need my daily sugar fix! And I want to hear all about how your wedding plans are coming along. Is your mother still in town?”
“Hello, Mrs. Standish,” I managed with a glance at the now silent front door. Maybe getting rid of the bell hadn’t been such a good idea after all. She had been one of our first customers and was still possibly our best, but with her huge personality, swirling caftans and loudly printed turbans, Edna Standish took a little getting used to.
“No, Mama left last week.” I stopped there and tried to keep my smile from looking too tight.
My mother and I had clashed repeatedly over details of my wedding in another month. She’d tried to convince me to have the same color scheme, flowers, and even bridesmaid dress design as the last wedding she’d insisted on planning for me – the one that fell through at the last minute when Andrew-the-jerk came down with an incurable case of cold feet. Thank goodness he had, of course, because Declan and I were far better together than Andrew and I ever could have been. But no way did I want anything about my actual wedding to reflect my almost wedding.
This time around, I was ditching tradition whenever it didn’t fit with what I wanted for my big day. A few of my attendants were married, and a local judge would marry us instead of Pastor Freeman, who, believe it or not, Mama had actually offered to fly to Savannah. As for my attendants’ dresses, they were all free to wear the colors and design they wanted, with the caveat that those colors be on the pastel side. Since the ladies I’d chosen ran the gamut from a pregnant twenty-something to an octogenarian, one design for all would have been folly.
If I hadn’t converted my unused, fluffy-white wedding dress into a zombie bride Halloween costume a couple of years earlier, I wouldn’t have put it past Mama to suggest that I wear that. As it was, I’d chosen a simple form-fitting design made of pale plum-colored lace and opted out of having a veil. The shade suited my auburn hair as well as subtly tapping into the notion of royalty. After all, what woman doesn’t want to feel royal on her wedding day?
Gossip extraordinaire, Mrs. Standish didn’t need to know all of that, however. And she didn’t need to know my father was flying into Savannah the next day, either.
The Honeybee typically had two kinds of customers. There were the hit-and-runs who came in for a goodie and a drink in a to-go cup, and there were the loungers who stayed a while. Edna Standish was a bit of both. A prodigious eater, she came in nearly every day for a bag of something sweet to take home, but she typically stayed to chat for anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. I personally thought she tried to time her visits for when we were slow, so she and Ben, both extraverts to the max, could gossip and chat without interruption.
Now Mrs. Standish stood with her hands on her hips surveying what we had on offer. Slightly behind her and to her left, her companion, Skipper Dean, hovered in the shadow of his considerably taller paramour. He sketched me a smile as she boomed, “We’ll take a half-dozen of the daily special to start. I wish you had those red velvet whoopie pies on the menu all the time.”
I raised an eyebrow at Lucy, who nodded. We’d been talking about adding them to the daily roster just that morning.
Ben had returned from stowing the ladder and now stepped forward with a waxed bakery bag in hand. Our logo of an orange tabby cat was printed on the side. He smoothly put her order in the bag and held it out. “Here you go, Edna. What’s new?”
Lucy and I exchanged another glance. How much could be new since their half-hour-long conversation the day before?
“Well, I tell you, Ben,” she said in her voice that was designed more for outdoors than indoors. “I’m feeling a little down. This is the anniversary of my poor husband’s death.”
My uncle nodded, sympathy all over his face. “Oh, my dear. I’m sure it’s a very difficult day. Will you be visiting his grave?”
“He’s in the family tomb over at Bonaventure Cemetery. And yes, the skipper and I stopped by this morning to leave flowers.” She sighed. “So sad that he was taken so early.”
Skipper Dean patted Mrs. Standish’s arm, and she leaned into him. He subtlety braced himself with one leg to keep from being knocked over as she smiled down at him. “Thank goodness I found love with this sweet man.”
I stifled a smile. Some vanilla scones from the Honeybee had paved the way for their meeting. Not a love potion – we didn’t do that kind of thing. Our spell casting had been more in the way of opening a door for love and companionship to enter Mrs. Standish’s life when she had been feeling particularly lonely.
Lucy cleared her throat, which had its intended effect of bringing me back to the problem at hand. Or rather, Mrs. Standish’s current problem and our ability to mitigate it.
“We have some chocolate mint cookies right out of the oven,” I said. “Would you like to try one?” The cocoa nibs in the cookies would help ground her, while the crunchy bits of peppermint candy and a healthy dose of peppermint extract would help lift her spirits.
“Would I!” She eagerly took the proffered treat and took a big bite. Her eyes grew round. “Oh, my. You ladies have outdone yourself with that recipe. Fresh, light, and not too sweet.”
“Perhaps you’d like a glass of jasmine sweet tea,” Lucy suggested. “I can whip some up in a jiffy.” Jasmine was a good antidote to stress of all kinds.
However, Mrs. Standish shook her head. “No, thank you dear. We really must be going. But I’ll take half a dozen of these delectable specimens as well.” She crunched into the cookie again with vigor.
“That good? Perhaps I should try one, then.” A man I hadn’t seen – or heard – stepped out from behind her. Kensington Bosworth wore a light linen suit, a pale-yellow shirt open at the collar, and huarache sandals. An oversized gold ring flashed as he removed the pair of round wire-framed sunglasses that perched on his button nose to reveal small, pale eyes peering at us all with interest.
“By all means, Mr. Bosworth.” I handed him a mint chocolate cookie with a quick glance at the door. Not having the bell ring every time someone came into the bakery was going to take some getting used to. “Skipper Dean?” I asked, offering Mrs. Standish’ companion one as well.
He shook his head and patted his middle with a smile. “Thank you so much, darlin’, but I have to watch my girlish figure, you know.”
Mrs. Standish hee-hawed a laugh at that and gave him a squeeze.
Kensington Bosworth took a bite of cookie and gave her a sideways look that didn’t hide his disapproval. She grinned at him, and I realized she was aware of her effect on his more delicate sensibilities and found it amusing.
“So good to see you, Kensington,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “Did you ever follow up with Randy Post? For your security system, I mean.”
He nodded gravely. “Indeed. He has already completed the work. Most satisfactory.”
“Hmm. Good to hear that.” She gazed at him serenely.
After several seconds, he cleared his throat. “Well, then. Yes. Thank you for the recommendation, Edna.” He turned to Lucy. “I came in for a loaf of your most excellent sourdough. I’ve asked my housekeeper to make a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup for my supper this evening.”
“Of course,” my aunt said. “Let me just wrap one up.” She bustled into the kitchen.
Iris passed her and came out to stand by Ben at the register. “Hi, Mr. Bosworth.”
He blinked at her, then he allowed a smile. “Good afternoon, Iris. You’ve changed your hair again.”
Her hand crept to the pastel streaks. “Do you like it?
“Indeed. Very festive.”
“Thanks.” Blushing, she fled to the kitchen.
Ben asked, “Will the sourdough be all, or can we interest you in a bit of lemon cake or fruit tart for your dessert this evening?”
“I don’t eat dessert. That one cookie was an aberration.” Bosworth drew out a leather wallet and carefully extracted the amount of his bill. “Though I must admit it was tasty enough.”
Ben took the money, chatting along in his charming way. That was why he was the customer service guy, while I generally stayed in the kitchen. Right then, though, I was observing how Mrs. Standish looked at Mr. Bosworth with a mix of mild dislike and speculation.
“Thank you very much, Mrs. Eagel,” he said to Lucy. “This bread will no doubt elevate my simple evening meal to something sublime.”
A movement over his shoulder drew my attention. A helium balloon in the shape of a dragonfly bobbed by the front window, its string presumably attached to a child too short to be seen. My stomach gave a little twist.
A dragonfly? Now?
Surely it was a coincidence.
Please, please, please let it be a coincidence.
Lucy said, “Well, Katie is really the one responsible for the sourdough—”
“Mr. Eagel.” He cut Lucy off and nodded to Ben.
Ben nodded back, then put his arm around my aunt as we all watched Kensington Bosworth march to the door and go out to the street without a backward glance.
“Well!” Mrs. Standish said in a whoosh of air. “That man. I swear. One of these days.”
Before she could throw out any more cryptic non-sentences, I asked. “What was that about a security system? Did you recommend Randy to him? He was just in here for a scone after his shift.”
Nodding her head vehemently, she reached inside her bulging bag of baked goods, drew out another whoopie pie, took a bite, then nodded her head some more. “Oh, my yes,” she said after an audible swallow. “Mr. Post did such a nice job at our humble abode, I just had to pass his name along to Kensington when he mentioned he was worried someone might break into his house.”
Edna Standish and Skipper Dean shared a home a few blocks away in Savannah’s historic district that was anything but “humble.”
“Never mind that he’s not a real security expert,” she added.
Ben laughed. “I wouldn’t say that. He just happens to also be a real fireman, too.”
“Oh, gosh, Ben, I didn’t mean…well, you know what I mean.”
Oddly, we all did. Randy and all of Savannah’s other firefighters worked one forty-eight-hour shift each week, living and sleeping at the station during that time, but the rest of their time was their own. Some, like Declan, picked up extra hours here and there in the department doing routine inspections, fire safety classes, and school visits, but many firefighters worked second jobs. Randy’s was installing security systems for a local company.
Though ever since he’d started dating my coven-mate Bianca Devereaux, he’d spent a lot more time squiring her to art openings and the symphony than filling his hours away from the fire station with other work.
“It was nice of you to recommend him,” Lucy told Mrs. Standish.
“Nice, heck! A man needed something done, and I knew another man who could do it. Though I do hope…” Mrs. Standish trailed off.
We all waited expectantly. She looked around at us, then said. “I do hope Kensington was pleasant. And that he paid Mr. Post whatever they agreed upon up front.” She licked her lips then leaned forward. Suddenly her voice was lower than I’d known it could go. “That man has always been a bit odd. Old money, you know. A staple of Savannah society, as was his father and his grandfather before him. Wonderful philanthropists, all. Or at least until lately.” She scanned the almost empty bakery, and her voice dropped still further. “All I know is that he doesn’t contribute to the animal welfare charity that I head, not like he used to. It all started a couple of years ago. I’ve heard rumors, of course.”
“Of course,” I murmured. Rumors were her bread and butter.
Then I remembered the dragonfly balloon that had bobbed by the window. “Like what?” I asked.
Lucy frowned. My aunt disapproved of gossip – most of the time, at least.
“About how he’s been—” She seemed to catch herself. She straightened and flashed a big smile at Skipper Dean. “Listen to me go on and on. You’d think I had nothing better to do than talk out of school. Shame on me.”
I bit off a comment about her sudden reluctance to engage in what I’d thought was her favorite activity.
“You all have a lovely afternoon, now. Thanks to you, I feel much better on this sad, sad day.”
Our good-byes and good wishes followed the pair to the door. When they’d left, Ben went behind the coffee counter and started setting things up for the customers who were beginning to trickle into the Honeybee. The ladies in the reading area put away their paperwork and rose with empty cups and plates in their hands. They deposited their dishware in the tub by the door, and I thanked them. Then I grabbed the half-full tub and took it into the kitchen for Iris to load into the dishwasher.
As I was walking back out front, Lucy reached out and touched my arm. I stopped, knowing what was coming.
“Did you see the dragonfly?” she asked.
“It probably didn’t mean anything,” I said in a deliberately light tone.
“You should know better than that by now,” she said. “Dragonflies always mean something with you.”
She was right. Dragonflies were my totem. It was a witchy thing. Whenever I saw one, I knew to pay extra attention. Lucy described it as a kind of metaphysical tap on the shoulder.
And seven times, that metaphysical tap had warned of death.
I gnawed on my lower lip, then caught myself and stopped. “Okay, so maybe it’s a sign. But of what? There have been false alarms before.”
I sighed. “There’s just too much going on now to have to deal with some magical emergency.” I couldn’t keep the frustration of my voice.
Ignoring it, Lucy said, “More than regular magic.” She was referring to my being a catalyst and lightwitch. The first meant things tended to, er, happen around me. The latter referred to what a former mentor, now deceased, had decided was a calling for righting magical wrongs. Fighting dark magic with light magic, if you will. He’d told me I had no choice, but of course, it turned out I did. We always do, more than we realize. Yet sometimes having a choice makes it harder rather than easier to do what’s right.
I tried again. “Exactly. Things are too crazy for more than my regular spell casting right now. There’s the wedding coming up, dealing with my mother, my dad coming tomorrow, the renovations of the carriage house are way behind schedule, not to mention—”
“I know, honey,” she interrupted with real concern. “Believe me. I’m hoping it’s nothing, too.” Then she stepped forward and gave me a hug as the door opened and the first two customers of the afternoon rush entered the Honeybee, chatting animatedly as they approached the counter.
Quickly, I went back to the kitchen to grab more coffee mugs for Ben. Lucy and I’d had this conversation more than once before.
All I could do was wait and see what happened.
“Come on, big guy.” I opened my tote bag on the office floor and moved to switch off the computer monitor on the desk.
Mungo jumped down from the club chair where he’d spent most of the day snoozing. He’d taken a break to go out to the reading area of the bakery, beg a few bites from regular customers, and then curl into his bed on the bottom shelf of the romance section.
It was a hard life for a witch’s familiar.
When I turned back, he’d nestled deep into the bag for the trip home. His dark brown eyes gleamed up at me, almost lost in the black fur of his face.
“The bakery’s closed. You don’t have to hide,” I said.
When my dog had first started coming to work with me, I’d been worried that the health department wouldn’t approve. Over time, I’d realized that as long as he wasn’t actually hanging out in the kitchen, it was fine.
He blinked but didn’t budge.
I shrugged, picked up the tote that was part purse and part dog carrier, and hefted the strap over my shoulder. “Suit yourself.”
Out front, Ben and Lucy were turning off the lights, music, and fans. I took one last look at the kitchen for the day and saw that Iris had left it sparkling and ready for the next morning’s baking.
“Will you be picking up Skylar in the morning?” Ben asked me as he locked the door behind us.
I shook my head. “Declan is on days off. He’ll pick up Dad and bring him by the bakery before they head to the carriage house. Dad’s itching to take stock of the situation there.”
“I bet he can get the workers back on schedule,” Lucy said.
“There’s only so much we can do on that front,” I said. “It’s not even the workers’ fault. There were just some unforeseen difficulties, you know? Permits from the city taking longer than we thought, the wrong tile came for the bathroom, and we had to wait for the right kind, the drywaller had a family emergency…” I trailed off, feeling discouraged.
“In other words, the usual sort of stuff,” Ben said with a smile. “Don’t worry. Sky will be able to help.”
I nodded. “You’re right. Turns out owning the only hardware store in Fillmore has made him a bit of an expert on everything.”
“Yup. Your dad’s a Jack of all trades all right,” Ben said, then. “He and Declan get along well.” It wasn’t a question.
I smiled. “They do.” My mother had met Declan before we’d even thought about marriage, but Dad had only met him after we’d gotten engaged the previous Thanksgiving. They’d hit it off immediately.
Lucy and Ben veered off toward their vehicle, and I carried Mungo to the parking structure where my Volkswagen Beetle was parked. Once we were both belted into the Bug, I steered to Abercorn Street, around a few of the historic squares in Savannah’s historic district, and continued toward Midtown.
Traffic was lighter than usual, and soon I was pulling to the curb in front of the compact house I’d bought when I moved to Savannah. Declan’s big king-cab pickup was parked just ahead, and a paneled work truck with LINCOLN BARD CONSTRUCTION on the side took up most of the small driveway.
The carriage house was the last remnant of a large estate, the rest of which had long been obliterated by my pleasant suburban neighborhood. The house had been converted to a one-bedroom, one-loft, one-bathroom home with a charming, postage-stamp living room and a kitchen so tiny only two people could eat at the table.
I adored it more than was remotely reasonable, but it was awfully small for two people. After we were engaged, Declan and I had looked all over Savannah for a new place where we wouldn’t be bumping into each other whenever we turned around. Nothing had felt right. The solution had come to us in an unexpected way, and now I was about to have the best of both worlds. My old home was being updated and expanded to be our new home.
The problem was, if our luck didn’t turn, the updates wouldn’t be done in time for the wedding, which was supposed to take place in the backyard with a combination reception and housewarming to follow afterwards. The invitations had already gone out, and it was way too late to book a different venue in Savannah.
Somehow, we had to make it work.
Mungo tumbled out of the car and trotted to the middle of the lawn before lying down and rolling over three times. He sat up and gave me one of his best doggy grins, then did it again. I laughed at his antics. He wa...