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A NineStar Press Publication

Published by NineStar Press

P.O. Box 91792,

Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87199 USA.

www.ninestarpress.com

The Burning of Arbor

Copyright © 2018 by J.L. Brown

Cover Art by Natasha Snow Copyright © 2018

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any material form, whether by printing, photocopying, scanning or otherwise without the written permission of the publisher. To request permission and all other inquiries, contact NineStar Press at the physical or web addresses above or at Contact@ninestarpress.com.

Printed in the USA

First Edition

April, 2018


eBook ISBN: 978-1-948608-45-9

Print ISBN: 978-1-948608-49-7


Warning: This book contains sexual explicit content, which may only be suitable for mature readers, and depictions of sexual assault and attempted rape, graphic violence, death of an animal.

The Burning of Arbor

The Witches of Arbor, Book One

J.L. Brown

Table of Contents

Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Epilogue

About the Author

Dedication

This book is dedicated to all those who dare to be their authentic selves, to those who defy the naysayers in the tireless quest to realize their dreams, to those who lift others up, and to all those who refuse to be quiet about things that matter.

Special thanks

To all my friends and family, especially Ken, Aiden, Wyatt, Mr. D, Clair, Jenn2, Mike, Laurie, Barb, Erica, and all the amazing women who have my back and inspire me every day.

Chapter One

True magic has thrived in the world long before man documented such things. A spark of magic is present in every wish, at every birth and deathbed. It manifests itself in first kisses and first loves. It animates and inspires us. It abounds in the change of seasons, in the most remote forests and congested steel cities. Magic dwells within the rock of the mountains, and inhabits the waters of every stream and river and ocean. It exists both in the wondrous and mundane of every day. It is neither good nor evil. Magic bears no moral compass. The intention of the practitioner who wields it determines its use, for good or ill. And no one can escape magic’s most essential rule: what one projects into the universe will return threefold.

The Wiccan Rede states, “An ye harm none, do what ye will.”

I chose a different motto to live by. “Harm none, but take no shit.”

I was never good at following the rules, and I learned my lessons the hard way.



Sunday


I refused to cower. I clenched my fists to keep from fidgeting and sighed at the twinge of pain where my nails left half-moon imprints in my palms.

“Isn’t the bank usually closed on your Sabbath?” I asked, maintaining eye contact with the crotchety loan officer across the desk.

The woman could catapult my dreams had she the inclination, and I could tell she reveled in this power over me. My emerald stare seemed to unnerve her for a slim second, but she set her spine rigid. Her suspicious gaze rolled over me, and she twisted her wrinkled lips into a scowl.

“I thought it best not to delay the inevitable, Ms. Clarion. I’ll be brief. You know as well as I that this little scheme will never get off the ground. Arbor is a quiet, wholesome community, not well suited for your kind of… business venture.” She scrunched up her nose as if the notion itself smelled foul. “However, I am nothing if not by-the-book. I reviewed your application, and after considering every factor, I must decline your request. Your excessive student loans, exorbitant debt-to-income ratio, and lack-luster credit history disqualify you for a mortgage loan.”

“What about my savings?” I asked. This isn’t happening. This can’t be happening. Panic spiked my veins, and sweat beaded along my forehead.

“Your… savings?” she snickered. “Woefully inadequate.”

“It’s twenty thousand dollars!” I said, shooting to my feet.

“I am sorry, Ms. Clarion. There is nothing I can do for you.” But she wasn’t sorry. Her smug expression made that clear. She enjoyed withholding the means of my success.

Of course this is happening. The decision shouldn’t have shocked me, but it did, and it hurt. “So, that’s it?”

“I’m afraid so.”

I should’ve known better than to think anyone from Arbor would allow someone like me so public a platform. I might sully the well-crafted image of the town they so carefully portray to the world.

For as long as I could remember, I’d dreamed of owning a place to sell my artwork and designs, somewhere to perform. It would be a gathering spot for the creative, the different, the weird. I’d been saving for years.

This woman thinks she can crush my dreams in a single five-minute meeting? No fucking way. I’ll figure something out.

The glare of the noonday sun blinded me as I emerged from the Arbor Savings & Loan. Squinting, I sat on the bank’s steps to fish my sunglasses out of my bag. Once my vision adjusted, I took in the view along Parson Street, downtown Arbor’s main drag. It bustled with a Sunday afternoon’s lazy vigor. The Rockwellian cafés and shops teemed with the post–church-service crowd. Clusters of believers mingled and gossiped and bragged, decked out in their finest prim and proper attire. Arrogance and privilege marked their manners. Without a droplet of sweat on a single brow, the parishioners seemed somehow immune to the sun’s crushing heat. The air hung stagnant and oppressive in the conservative hamlet, nestled as it was into the base of Gothics Peak.

A piercing “Keeee-aaar” sounded from high above. I looked into the crystalline summer sky at a red-tailed hawk swooping in circles, his wings spread wide. I’d know that bird anywhere. Rocky had been my faithful familiar for almost nine years, since I’d entered high school. Besides his no-nonsense sagacity, Rocky granted me the ability to fly—when he was in close enough proximity for me to feed off his magic. He was the second familiar with whom I’d been blessed. Shasta came to me when I was eight, right after my mother died. Shasta never ventured into town, though. An abnormally large black bear walking amongst the masses wouldn’t go over well.

Your meeting didn’t go as planned, I judge.” Rocky’s sharp, stately voice echoed within my mind.

You judge correctly,” I replied in the same fashion.

That backwards thinking pencil-pusher never had any intention of aiding you, and you know it. I’ll never understand why you bother with the fools in this town. Your talents would shine down in the city. That’s where you need to be.”

You know I can’t leave Maggie.”

No. You don’t want to leave your goddess-mother. Big difference.”

I’m not going to argue semantics. I just want to get home and forget this entire morning.”

Hate to break the news, but unless you plan on riding the wind with me, you face a delay.”

I’ve already exceeded my maximum daily dose of aggravation, thank you very much. I’m done.”

You don’t have a choice. Have you seen who’s planted in your path?”

Halfway down Parson Street, between me and where I’d parked my truck, was a gaggle I referred to as Arbor’s Most Moral. Mayor Doreen Crandall sat at a bistro table outside of Ebenezer’s Café. Beside her lounged Reverend Cudlow—pastor of the First Ecclesiastical Church of Arbor, the town’s only house of worship—and his haughty wife Gladys.

Hurry by them, Evangeline, and do not dawdle. Shasta’s got her fur in a bunch.”

Without waiting for a reply, he caught the wind and headed back to our cottage.

I threw my heels in my bag, grabbed my well-worn paperback of Pride and Prejudice, and jogged down the bank steps. Barefoot, I hurried along the blistering sidewalk. With my head buried in my book, I scanned the lines inked along the faded, dog-eared pages. Keeping my attention fixed on the trials and tribulation of the Bennet sisters gave me the cover I needed to avoid the sneers directed at me by the sanctimonious flock.

“Harlot! Heathen!” Two elderly ladies hissed from the flower shop doorway.

With a quick side-eye glance, I caught their judgmental expressions, brows drawn tight, lips pursed.

My presence alone offended the pious sensibilities of the devout Arbor citizenry. The delicate, black blouson dress that I’d made myself grazed just a bit too high along my pale thighs. Its neckline plunged an inch or two too low for propriety. My tiny naked feet were tipped in black polish, and my long, dark pigtail braids hinted at an innocence my reputation contradicted.

The matriarchs of each clustered brood clutched their pearls and progeny as I passed, as if to shield them from my malevolence. The men’s eyes snaked greedily along my silhouette, but their tongues cursed me. They didn’t label me simply a sinner, but a demon from Hell; a vile deviant sent by the Devil himself to corrupt and defile my good neighbors. No one cared that I didn’t even believe in Hell or the Devil they accused me of worshipping.

Harassment was nothing new. I’d dealt with it since I’d moved to Arbor as a child. Being raised by my goddess-mother—a powerful witch who’d been my mother’s lover prior to her untimely death—didn’t lend itself to a conventional childhood. After so many years, my indifference to the niceties of general society was fixed. I was no wild-woman. I had no lack of sense or intelligence. I simply had no desire to please those who’d as soon see me hanged as prosper.

I increased my pace, my short legs heel-toeing it double-time. I prayed to the Goddess that I could make it past the café without incident.

Keep your cool, Evangeline. I cheered myself on as I tried my damnedest not to take off in a full sprint. “Please leave me alone. Please just leave me alone,” I muttered.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Clarion! How lovely to see you on this fine day,” Reverend Cudlow greeted me with his usual note of sinful sincerity. “I don’t believe I saw you in the pews. I would’ve remembered.” He tipped his sunglasses down the bridge of his nose and looked me over. “Such a shame, really, to deprive the church of your wonders.”

His lecherous smile made me want to hurl. I stepped back, out of reach. “My absence is for your benefit, Reverend, and for the benefit of your parishioners. My presence below your steeple could be dangerous. We wouldn’t want lightning to strike.”

I tried to continue along past him, but he sidestepped me and blocked my path.

“I hope I’ve made it clear that you and your godmother are welcome in our congregation. I’d hate for you not to join us because you felt…unwanted.”

“Because you’re definitely wanted,” a menacing voice rasped from a darkened alleyway beside the café. Stuart Cudlow, the Reverend and Gladys Cudlow’s only son, smirked as he stepped out of the shadows.

Even standing ten feet away, he made me physically ill. I fought my body’s instinct for self-preservation. I refused to flee. I wouldn’t run from this man—if such a beast could be called a man. He was lanky and ginger like his mother, with his father’s unquenchable appetite for sins of the flesh. Since his early teens, Stuart had been groomed to take up the mantle of preacher from his father. Every seminary school he attended, however, expelled him on charges of cruel and licentious behavior.

I knew from personal experience just how wicked he could be. And I knew responding to men like Stuart, whether civilly or with anger, only gave them more power. Any reply would show he’d gotten a rise out of me. And I wasn’t taking the bait.

Ignoring the son, I returned my attention to the father. “Here’s a quick review, Reverend, just to catch you up. I acknowledge the Goddess not your God. Therefore, Maggie is my goddess-mother not my godmother—as you are well aware. So, while I appreciate your invitation to worship, on behalf of myself and my goddess-mother, I respectfully decline. Now, I’m in no mood to spar with you, so please move aside and let me pass.”

But he didn’t move. Not a single wispy white hair so much as quivered upon his wrinkled, pasty head.

“My dear, I have no desire to spar…”

“Don’t bother with that hussy, my dear. She isn’t worth your time…or the Lord’s.” Gladys sneered with a huff, lifting her nose high. The gaunt and florally festooned First Lady of the Church considered herself the town’s preeminent authority on all things moral. “Even the Lord knows a lost cause when He sees one.”

“Correct as always, my good friend,” Mayor Crandall chimed in.

Ah, there she is.

“It isn’t worth bothering the Lord with the likes of Evangeline Clarion, Gladys.”

The voice I dreaded more than any on the Goddess’s great Earth was that of Doreen Crandall, Arbor’s despotic mayor and mother of my sleazy ex-boyfriend, Jay. I represented everything the mayor railed against, or so she enjoyed reminding me. But ever since she kicked off her campaign for the state legislature, her viciousness and disdain for me increased tenfold.

“I knew you couldn’t stay out of such a public confrontation.”

The blonde bureaucrat moved in so close I could smell the chai tea on her breath—and the bourbon it was meant to hide. “I will not let you get away scot-free.”

“Get away with what?” I railed.

“Prancing around town like Jezebel, with a flippant disregard for decency or decorum.”

“I haven’t done a damn thing wrong, and you know it, Doreen.” I refused to back down to the venomous bitch.

“Let me tell you something, little miss,” she said, poking her manicured finger into my chest. “You show me some respect, or I’ll have Chief Harrison haul you down to lock-up before you can say, ‘thank you very much, Madam Mayor.’”

Just as she finished speaking, a sun-kissed hipster burst out of the café door flanked by pastel-clad sorority girls. He’d given one bubbly debutant the privilege of holding his left hand, while he sucked down a green apple slushy in his right.

“If it isn’t Evangeline Clarion, the love of my life!” Jay Crandall bellowed as he flashed his baby blues and his bad-boy smile.

“Jay Crandall, the bane of my existence. My day is complete,” I said, deadpan. “Graduation was two weeks ago. Still dallying with freshmen?”

“Excuse me, I’m a sophomore at NYU cosmetology,” the twit on his arm hissed at me. “Who’s she, baby? I thought I was the love of your life!” She whined as she clung desperately to my ex’s arm.

“Of course, you are…” Jay reached unsuccessfully for her name.

“Lauren.”

“Lauren, yeh, thanks. Don’t know how I forgot that,” Jay said as he leisurely—unapologetically—checked me out. His crooked lips puckered, and I knew some juicy memories of the two of us stormed through his mind.

Jay had a model’s face, an athlete’s physique, and was a porn star in bed. He also oozed hubris from every orifice. I loathed him.

“No. Way!” His arm candy squealed as she looked from him, to me, and back to him, grasping the connection between the two of us. Jealousy flashed in her eyes. She flung her arm out, smacking his, and knocking the green slushy from his hand.

I lived the next few moments in surreal slow motion. The cup and lid flew one way, hitting Mayor Crandall in the head. The contents of the slushy flew the other way, coating me from head to toe. The shock of the bitter freeze stole my breath. The cloying, sticky sweetness tinted my skin green. My sopping dress caused a wet T-shirt effect that only made my endowments more flagrant. Slushy dripped from my braids and splashed into puddles at my feet.

All but the mayor and I burst out in mocking cackles. The sneers and pointed fingers clawed at my thinning self-control, but the mayor’s worries were far greater than snickering townsfolk. As her son’s cup hit her in the head, the press popped out of nowhere, cameras flashing. They swarmed like rats to raw meat, capturing more than one break-the-internet shot of Mayor Crandall. Candidate Crandall.

This sucks for her campaign, and it’s all too much for me. I need to get out of here.

I was lucky. Even though I resembled a drowned leprechaun, most eyes—and lenses—were trained on the mayor. Her mouth popped wide in shock, she clutched her head. A single green trail trickled down her cheek from the straw caught in her hair.

Grateful for the distraction, I headed for my truck.

I barely made it three paces before Gladys Cudlow stepped in my path and shrieked, “Repent!”

“Are you fucking kidding me? What’s wrong with you people?”

I tried to push past the pompous pastor’s wife, but the crowd had swollen. Folks congregated to gawk at the melee occurring between the mayor and the press. I couldn’t duck her.

Gladys’s eyes burned with religious fervor. “Accept Jesus as your Lord and savior or leave!”

“I’m trying to leave.”

“Repent or leave Arbor; you and your godmother.”

“Goddess-mother. She’s my…never mind. Why should we leave Arbor?” I knew it was foolish to encourage the zealot, but the audacity it took to lord over me like some pampered dictator astounded me. “This is our home. Magdalena Maramma and her family have owned that cottage and land for more than two hundred years. It is sacred ground to us.”

Gladys recoiled. “How dare you presume to understand the nature of sanctity!” she spat.

And then, she actually spat. Her thick glob of muddy yellow saliva landed on the cover of my book. My favorite book. And I don’t mean my favorite story. I mean that that particular copy of that book was my favorite; the one that had just miraculously survived a slushy attack. Now Gladys Cudlow’s spit covered Elizabeth Bennet’s face.

I closed my eyes for a moment in an attempt to marshal my rage. No good would come from lashing out, and well I knew it. But I was tired of the bullshit. I’d put up with it for too long. Adelaide Good, high priestess of the coven to which my goddess-mother and I belonged, always said, “Don’t let ’em bait you. Let Karma do the dirty work.” These echoed words gave me focus. A calmness blanketed me. The corners of my mouth lifted into a menacing grin.

Panic spiked across the church lady’s face.

I called on the power within, reached my arms out wide, and recited the spell.


“Upon you I place a karmic debt,

So you will not too soon forget.

All actions, thoughts, and words of hate

Become your own decided fate.

I return your villainy back to thee.

As I will it, so mote it be.”


As I spoke the words, every cruelty Gladys had ever perpetrated, every incident of brutality, every occasion of callousness, played out before her eyes. And I made sure she knew, in her heart, in her blood, to expect swift justice should malice be her guide again.

“Have a lovely afternoon, Gladys. I’ll send my goddess-mother your good wishes.”

Chapter Two

I lived with Magdalena Maramma in a cheerful thatched-roof cottage. It stood on ten acres of fertile land in the outlying rural area of town. Twisted grapevines arched into a fifteen-foot-tall arbor marking our river-rock driveway. Sweeping lavender fields lined a full five acres of the property. Eight beehives capped the end of the lavender. A crooked, gnarly stream snaked along a hundred yards from our violet-stained front door and wound through the dense woods that edged the cottage. Wildflowers and peppermint grew around the perimeter of the cottage’s stuccoed facade. A slate patio, complete with wicker rockers, a wrought-iron table and chairs, and a sage-green umbrella, offered a lovely spot for soaking in the Goddess’s wonders.

When I finally made it home from my trek into town, I collapsed on the sofa in the gallery—what others might call a living room. The room functioned as a library, music room, and art studio. It also passed as a waiting room for the patients who visited Maggie for her tonics and healing touch. The space rioted with a clash of patterns, colors, and textures. With its exposed beams, fluffy pillows, and rich fabrics, it was both lush and comfortable. Haphazard stacks of sheet music and art supplies cluttered the space. Stringed and woodwind instruments, an upright piano, and a varied assortment of other music makers vied for pride of place among the painted canvases and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. The room bubbled over in joyous, creative chaos.

“Hey, Mags,” I called out. “I’m home.”

“I’m in here,” she hollered back. “But you better head to the woods to see Shasta. She’s been in a tizzy waiting for you.”

As it turned out, I didn’t need to go anywhere to see Shasta. I heard her approach outside the cottage door, her teeth gnashing in anxious agitation.

I called out to her within my mind. “Hey there, Momma Bear.” I propelled myself to the door and was snatched up into the bear’s shaggy embrace before I took a single step outside.

You never said goodbye before you left this morning. I’ve been on pins and needles. Rocky wouldn’t say a word. But I feel your disappointment. Things went poorly at the bank?”

It didn’t go well.

Shasta lifted a large, black paw to stroke my cheek. “This is not what I wished for your birthday.” She tilted her broad head, and her rounded ears bent with concern.

Well, you can’t always get what you want…” I said with a smirk.

But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.” Shasta was a huge classic-rock fan. “Tell me, what is it you want, more than anything?”

I thought for a moment. “The Goddess blessed me with the ability to create. I’m an artist, a designer, a musician. I can’t be content with creating in the shadows. Selling my work at the Arbor Community Market isn’t enough. So, I guess, to answer your question, I want what every artist wants: to make a living, to make a life doing what I love.”

You have spoken your will, and so it shall be. Today’s troubles are just that, today’s. Tomorrow brings new opportunities.”

And new troubles.

Things will work out, dearie. You mustn’t lose hope…. Trust me.”

Always. Love you, Momma Bear.” I squeezed her tight, buried my face into her fur, and breathed in her familiar musk.

I love you, too. Now go to Magdalena. Let her be a balm for your spirit. Off with you.” Shasta dropped down on all fours and barreled into the woods.

The decadent aroma of dark chocolate led me by the nose into the cottage’s rustic kitchen. A cast-iron caldron hung, bubbling in a fury, from a river-stone hearth. Across from it blazed a brick oven. A twelve-inch-thick butcher block, concave from decades of use, sat beside a 1910 Bridge Beach & Co. antique cookstove. Culinary, medicinal, and magical herbs hung drying from the rafters and filled hundreds of glass jars in the well-stocked pantry. There was echinacea, St. John’s wart, and ginseng root that went into the tinctures and salves Maggie prepared for the sick. We used the likes of henbane, mugwort, elderflower, and angelica root for potion making. Marjoram, basil, thyme, and at least thirty other cooking herbs were available to make any cuisine imaginable. All told, more than a hundred herbs, spices, roots, and flowers crammed Maggie’s pantry stores. Homemade pastries and Mason jars of honey filled the wrought-iron baker’s racks that lined the far wall. In the center of it all, I found my goddess-mother with her steady hands clasped around a piping bag. The blue apron she wore over her boho-chic dress was splattered in puffs of flour. Shafts of afternoon sunlight pierced the kitchen window, illuminating Maggie’s wild waves of blonde hair, ice-gray eyes, and lean figure. She formed a striking vision.

“Oh, Eva!” She gasped with a guilty grin and jumped to hide a delicately decorated dark-chocolate cake. “You weren’t supposed to see it yet. I wanted to surprise you.” She leaned down and kissed my cheek. “Happy birthday, sweetheart.”

“Thanks. Cake looks amazing.” I swiped a finger along its bottom edge. “Tastes divine,” I mumbled as I savored the chocolate.

“Thank you,” she said and paused. “So…”

“So, what?”

“Buttons.” She couldn’t help herself. “Are you going to tell me why you’re all sticky? And green?”

I filled Maggie in on my adventures with Arbor’s Most Moral and Jay’s cosmetologist as I washed the slushy from my hands and face in the porcelain farmhouse sink.

“I feel every slight like a lash on my back, but there’s nothing they can do to me that I won’t take into myself and use as fuel,” I professed.

Maggie shook her head in frustration. “Sometimes, I think I’ll never understand this town. Most folks are kind and good-natured when we chat one on one. But when they get together…forget it. And why should they hate us? We’ve never sought to convert them. We’ve never ridiculed their faith. I quite like their Jesus. I wish they acted more like him.” She smiled softly and brushed my hair away from my face. “I’m sorry you had to go through this on your birthday.”

I wasn’t alone in attracting the contempt of our Arbor neighbors. Maggie had her own set of allegations with which to contend. Her “homeopathic remedies” were celebrated throughout Arbor and the surrounding county for their efficacy. So many folks in the area were opposed to signing up for government-run healthcare, that they were left without the ability to visit a doctor or hospital. This put Maggie in high demand. She made no promises of miracle cures, but Arbor’s Most Moral, and the sheep who followed them, denounced her as a charlatan and a snake-oil salesman. They wanted to see her shut down for good or, preferably, locked up. Through it all, Maggie remained perpetually optimistic. She chose to care for those who condemned her.

“The pain they endure must be great for them to exude such hatred,” she said.

“I marvel at your level of empathy.”

“Walking a mile in another’s shoes is the only way to understand their motivations.”

“Know your enemy.”

“Something like that,” she grinned. But the joy quickly slipped from her face. “You haven’t mentioned your meeting at the bank. Should I take that as a bad sign?” she asked, concern wrinkling her forehead.

“What do you think?” I snapped and immediately regretted it. “According to the Arbor Savings and Loan, the twenty thousand I’ve saved is still not enough cash on hand. My credit’s mediocre. And I owe too much in student loans. So, no mortgage, no property, no gallery.”

Maggie lifted my chin. “Let me help. The cottage and acreage are equity. You’ve got a much better chance of getting a mortgage approved if I cosign.”

“You know I can’t do that.” I shrugged my chin from her hold.

“Of course, you can!” she said as if it should be the most obvious thing in the world. “You will be a monumental success. As I will it, so mote it be.”

While I trusted Maggie’s wisdom and appreciated her faith in me, her blind optimism seemed naïve. “Even if I was able to get the property, there’s a snowball’s chance in hell the zoning board would approve my plans for the place. The bottom line is they’ll never let me open a gallery in Arbor.”

We brooded in silence for a few moments until Maggie nudged me with her elbow.

“You could always look somewhere else.”

“And leave you? No.”

“Sweetheart, you don’t need to look out for me. I’m a big girl.” She winked.

“Whatever I decide, I’m going to do it on my own. It’s my dream, and I’ll either make it happen or I won’t. But thank you. I love you for offering to help.” I shot her a pathetic excuse for a smile. “So, how’s Adelaide?” I asked, changing the subject.

“She says she’s fine.”

“But…”

“She’s not.”

Her bluntness shocked me. “Compared to your average eighty-year-old, Adelaide’s in astonishing health.”

“She can hardly be called average.”

Adelaide Good was spunky and outspoken and widely judged as one of Arbor’s great eccentrics; a designation she wore with pride. Her quirks and idiosyncrasies were tolerated, but most folks considered her a joke. The Adelaide I knew was a bad-ass witch. She could manipulate nature, conjure elements at will, and coax glimpses of the future from her scrying mirror. When added to her irreverent wit, Adelaide was a force few on Earth could best. As the high priestess of our coven, a decline in her power would be devastating.

“What are you sensing?” I asked.

“She’s slowing down. There’s a shaking in her hands, and maybe some arthritis in her fingers. A deterioration in her motor functions could affect her spell casting. Adelaide’s potent magic doesn’t only improve her mortality rate with its many gifts. That level of power requires an equal measure of energy from the witch in return. I’ll give her a check-up after your birthday dinner tonight if she feels up to joining us.”

Blood or not, Adelaide was family, so I hated the thought of her health weakening. I hated that she insisted on living alone in her cramped apartment downtown, instead of with us. And as childish as it was, I hated that she might miss my birthday dinner. The day wouldn’t be complete without her. Although, it had been fourteen years since I celebrated my birthday with much enthusiasm.

My mother, Lavinia Clarion, had died when I was eight. We’d celebrated my birthday the night before her passing. As usual, Maggie joined us for the festivities. My home had never looked more cheerful, strewn with balloons and streamers, with presents piled high. My mother had been young and healthy, but when I stepped off the school bus the next afternoon, she was gone. I had no interest in knowing her manner of death or the reasons behind it. I’d lost my mother. Her lilting voice would never again lull me to sleep. I’d no longer feel the strength of her hands as she brushed and braided my hair. Never again would I witness my mother’s breathtaking, unparalleled magic. Since then, my birthdays were less about celebrating a new chapter in life and more about reflecting on whether or not I lived up to the mother I’d lost.

But Adelaide never let me wallow in the pain of the past. She taught that life was meant to be enjoyed and savored—in all its sweet bitterness.

“Adelaide is going to be just fine. As I will it, so mote it be,” Maggie said, willing the words into being with serene confidence. “What about the boys? Are they going to make it for your birthday dinner?”

“No, unfortunately. I talked to Ethan this morning. He’s got a few more performances before his summer break, so he’s barricading himself in the dance studio to practice. Gregory is the guest chef at some Michelin-starred restaurant down in the city for the next few weeks, and the brothers are in San Diego. Nicolae’s attending a conference, and I assume Luca is breaking hearts. I don’t think we’ll see any of them until Litha.”

The boys, as the coven referred to them, were powerful witches in their twenties. Every one of them was drool-worthy in his own magnificent way. Ethan, who was believed to be part fae, was lithe and graceful with silver hair and sharp features. He could sweep a person off their feet, whisk them away, and have them forgetting their own name. Gregory descended from an ancient line of Druid priests. He was an imposing, seductive figure whose very presence could intoxicate. He wore his flaxen hair dreaded and his beard long, and the pungent scent of marijuana followed him. The Romani brothers, Nicolae and Luca Loveridge, were olive skinned with onyx hair and eyes. There wasn’t a soul alive who could withstand Nicolae’s powers of persuasion, and no one who could hide their truth from Luca. I’d known the boys since I’d worn diapers. Growing up, we all participated in the festivals and rites celebrated by the coven, and they visited the cottage often. My close friendship with the boys helped create my loose reputation in town.

Maggie dropped her pastry bag on the counter and wrapped me up in her arms. “I’m sorry, sweetheart,” she said and kissed my forehead. “They all love you.”

“I know. I love them too.”

“Our Midsummer Litha celebration is only a few weeks away. We’ll see the boys soon enough,” Maggie said.

“I know. You’re right,” I agreed without much conviction.

“Now,” Maggie began as she pulled a to-do list from her flour-splattered apron and handed it to me, “I need you to give me a hand with the chores this afternoon.”

“Of course. Whatever you need.”

“Excellent,” she said with a sharp nod. “Give to the earth, and the earth will give back to you. Sustain it, and it will sustain you.” She recited her personal motto as she nudged me out the back door and into the gardens.

A bit of everything needed tending. The first item on the list was jarring honey and caring for the beehives. I slipped into the white protective overalls, jacket, and helmet necessary for beekeeping—not that Maggie ever wore them. She held a deep affinity for the bees that kept our little slice of earth buzzing along. The queen bee, Hanna, was Maggie’s familiar. The abilities Hanna gave to Maggie epitomized the phrase “busy as a bee.”

The next task was weeding, pruning, and harvesting the small but bountiful vegetable garden that grew just outside the kitchen. Then I bundled herbs, reciting the uses of each as I worked. As much as I appreciated the importance of herbology, I preferred playing music, sewing, painting, and drawing. Magic worked differently through me than through Maggie. She was a great healer, whereas I was a catalyst for creation.

After the chores, I took a long shower. I let the stinging spray wash away the remnants of green slushy stickiness—and my ill temper. Once I freshened up, I made my way back out to the kitchen. I stopped short when I overheard Maggie speaking with someone. At first, I assumed she was on the phone. There were no other voices. But, no. She was curled up in her favorite armchair, staring out of the window and talking to my mother.

“Oh, Lavinia, my love,” she said, releasing a deep sigh. “You’d be so proud of our girl. Twenty-two today, can you believe it? I wish you could see her magic. She’s even more powerful than you were at her age. And there’s a real fire churning within her. I think she’s happy—most of the time. But there is something missing from her life. Adelaide believes it’s a man. I think she’s a flower hidden beneath a rock. She needs space to bloom, and the sun to illuminate her beauty. Please, guide me and guide our girl. We both miss you terribly.”

Magdalena and my mother, Lavinia, grew up together from childhood, and they loved each other deeply. Together, they practiced their craft, tying the spiritual with the powers of the natural world, honoring and celebrating the Goddess, the Universal Energy that created all in existence. The magic they made together sang with the harmony of night and day. And although my mother no longer lingered on this plane, her spirit lived within us, those she loved most.

I cleared my throat to announce my presence. Maggie jumped a bit and hid her face to wipe away tears.

“Hey, sweetie. Thanks for helping with the chores. I know it’s your birthday, but nature cares nothing for these celebrations.” She looked at me tenderly. “Are you ready for your birthday dinner?”

“Sure…but where is it?” I asked, eyeing the empty kitchen.

“Outside, of course.”

A patchwork blanket stretched out on the bank of the stream that ran along the edge of the cottage’s front yard. On it sat a large picnic basket overflowing with all manner of savory delicacies. Alongside the basket were bottles of Prosecco and Lemoncello and Maggie’s exquisitely decorated birthday cake.

“Oh, Mags, this is amazing, thank you.” I reached up on tiptoe to kiss her cheek. “There’s just one flaw in your plan.”

“And what’s that?” Maggie asked cautiously.

“There’s so much food, we’ll end up too full to touch that mouthwatering masterpiece you’ve been working on all day.”

Maggie’s eyes lit up. “Then it’s a good thing a few friends dropped by.”

From the side of the cottage emerged Shasta, Rocky, Hanna, Adelaide and her familiar Fledermous the bat, and my best and only mundane friend Gwendolyn Reed—aka Bunny.

“Surprise!” the humans shouted. “Surprise!” the familiars echoed in my mind.

A joyous sob burst from my throat before I could bite it back.

I was promptly tackled around the neck by my bubbly, blonde friend. Then she grabbed my face and slathered sloppy smooches over my cheeks. Some called her my shadow. She reminded me more of the Energizer Bunny, always going, always banging that damn drum; hence the nickname. Bunny never cared about my unconventional beliefs or the inexplicable happenings she witnessed when we hung out. She never looked too close or asked too many questions. That was how we’d stayed friends for so long.

“Hey, crazy lady,” I said with love, and returned her affection with a small peck on her heavily made-up cheek. “I didn’t think I’d see you for a couple days. You threatened—” I cringed at my slip. “I mean, you promised to take me to the spa and do some shopping later this week.”

“Oh, don’t you worry your wicked little head. I have oodles of plans up my sleeve. Your birthday week will be epic!” she squealed.

And that was just Bunny’s way. She dragged me to every party and community event—decked out in her characteristic pastel hues, with her teased-out blonde curls and generous breasts bopping beside me. And the girl could work a crowd. Her bright smile and bubbly disposition drew a smile from one and all. Bunny’s exuberance pulled me into the world, to live fully and with enthusiasm…just like Adelaide taught.

Yet I groaned inwardly at the thought of a birthday week full of Bunny.

“Epic. Yeah,” I said with little enthusiasm.

Our relationship had turned stale of late. We’d never been thick as thieves as childhood friends. I’d never confided my deepest truths to her. A divide would always exist between us. Lately, however, I grew increasingly irritated in Bunny’s company. She’d prattle away about local gossip and her ill-informed news of the day, and all I could think about was how tiresome and insipid it all was, how devoid of depth. Still, I understood that these were my issues, not hers. Bunny had always been a steadfast friend.

I kissed her cheek and thanked her before greeting another dear friend.

“You didn’t have to come tonight, you know,” I said to my high priestess, who’d somehow managed to blend into the surroundings despite her soft strawberry-orange curls frizzed out from the humidity and her unusual sense of style shown off with pointy-heeled Victorian boots, a long skirt, and bulky sweater. She’d been watching my exchange with Bunny with a curious expression that evaporated as I kissed her on each cheek. “Maggie said you’re not feeling well. You should be resting. It would’ve been okay. I would’ve understood.”

“You’re a good girl, but no, no. I wouldn’t miss your birthday for all the gin in Georgia. My old age does get the better of me on occasion, but I’m not ready to turn in my party hat quite yet.”

“Here,” Adelaide said, handing me a package wrapped in orange organza. “Happy birthday! Welcome to a new year of life! May all your days be joyous and all your nights hot.” She shimmied her shoulders and raised a toast with an invisible glass and a celebratory smile.

What a strange bird you are, I marveled. Like an Aunty Mame.

Unwrapping my birthday gift revealed a three-inch oval amethyst, polished to a high shine, hanging from a slender silver chain. Amethyst provided serenity, a sense of balance. It also encouraged and enhanced matters of the heart.

“It’s lovely. Thank you.”

“Wear it well and wisely,” she said with a wink.

The familiars all greeted me with birthday wishes. And when I embraced Shasta and Rocky, I felt my connection with them deepen further than ever before. They’d helped me survive and thrive another year on the earth, and I felt truly blessed to have such loyal companions.

I grabbed ahold of Maggie last and squeezed her tight. Every brittle, chaffed emotion in me went into that hug.

“Thank you—for the cake, for the dinner, for the surprise, for everything,” I said with a tearful grin.

“You’re very welcome,” Maggie said and handed me a fork. “Now let’s eat.”

Chapter Three

Monday


I woke early the next morning. The larks hadn’t yet begun stirring in their nests, and the dew still clung like glitter on the grass. The screeching cicadas promised a scorcher of a day. After making myself some coffee, I grabbed my laptop and checked my messages. The boys all sent birthday wishes, apologies for missing my dinner, and promises of expensive gifts to make it up to me.

When I clicked over to the online version of our local newspaper, The Messenger, the headline and photo almost knocked me on my ass. The image showed a horrified Doreen Crandall with that straw stuck in her hair and a dribble of green slushy running down her cheek. Jay and his ladies stood beside her, laughing and pointing. Over it, the headline read:

Cold Crandall Iced By Petulant Playboy

Shit. This is not good.

There was nothing I could do about it, however. I had work to do, and neither the mayor nor the press was going to pay my bills. So I finished my coffee and got ready for the day.

Less than an hour later, I had loaded up my truck with boxes of my handmade clothes, half a dozen paintings, jars of honey, and bushels of dried lavender bundles. Then I headed to the Arbor Community Market. Maggie and I ran a stand at the open-air marketplace. I usually worked the stand, but Maggie lent a hand when she wasn’t tending to the cottage gardens, beehives, and lavender fields, or caring for the sick. The market offered me the opportunity to display my talents and earn a little money. The pragmatist in me was grateful for the modest opportunity. The artist within was left woefully unfulfilled.

The sprawling locale at the end of Parson Street was more than a humble farmer’s market. High-end antique dealers and artisans of every medium regularly drew thousands of deep-pocketed shoppers from all over the state. The market boasted more than two hundred permanent vendors, and another twenty booths were open to nonprofits and political organizations. Groups with broad appeal like the Red Cross were tolerated, but the conservative leaning of the town welcomed Tea Partiers, climate-change deniers, creationists, and end-times prophecy proponents with open arms.

I’d just finished setting up my stand when I noticed some commotion coming from a nearby booth. Doreen Crandall stood before an ostentatious display of political propaganda. Banners, ablaze in red, white, and blue and baring her visage, waved from every spare surface of the mayor’s campaign booth. The slick politician descended upon the unsuspecting market patrons to press the flesh. She shook every hand that passed by and cooed at every baby. She laughed along with the children who played at her feet. She even answered a question or two. I had to hand it to her. The mayor almost came across as genuine. Her bid for a seat in the state legislature amped her up like nothing I’d seen before. As much as I abhorred the woman, I couldn’t deny she was a damn good politician.

As usual, the mayor’s most loyal acolyte, Gladys Cudlow, glommed onto her side. Gladys appeared downright maniacal, with her eyes bugged out and bloodshot and her fuchsia-slicked lips stretched into a devious grin. She rubbed her hands together feverishly as she hissed into the mayor’s ear.

Before long, the nature of their conniving became clear. Gladys set up a podium and microphone in front of the mayor’s booth and lined up a group of supporters behind the podium. Once the reporters converged upon the market, the mayor got down to business.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you all for joining me on this glorious morning. As you know, I’ve had the privilege of being the mayor of Arbor for over five years. I am now fighting for the opportunity to bring the same grit and dedication to the state legislature that I’ve brought to our fine community.

“I am no meek maiden. I understand campaigns can be cutthroat. That’s exactly why I’ve come before you today. I am compelled to address a scandalous report that a certain publication chose to splash across their front page this morning. I must set the record straight!” She pounded on the podium.

The Messenger professed with great aplomb that I was cold-natured—which, as anyone who knows me would attest is simply hogwash. And they accused my only son, my flesh and blood, of being a petulant playboy. This is nothing more than slander and disgusting, irresponsible journalism.”

At this, the assembled press grumbled their disapproval.

“So let’s clear things up, shall we? Yesterday afternoon, my son and I, along with Reverend Cudlow of the First Ecclesiastical Church of Arbor, his wife Gladys, and their son Stuart had just come from church services. We’d stopped to enjoy a respite at one of Arbor’s delightful eateries. Members of the press happened upon us while we were being harassed by an unfortunate member of the Arbor community, a young woman by the name of Evangeline Clarion.”

The locals in the crowd shot wary glances in my direction before returning eagerly to the mayor’s speech.

“This disturbed individual accosted us with her vile professions of witchcraft and devil worship. The heinous female’s blasphemy so overcame my deeply devout son that he lost control of his beverage. That’s the ‘why’ behind that silly photo. Now, I enjoy a good joke as much as the next gal, but I refuse to have my name, or my son’s name, besmirched by so-called journalists hankering for a juicy story.”

Again, the press muttered.

“But there is a wretched tale in all of this that must be told; one so pervasive it is even found here in our upstanding community of Arbor. Witchcraft. It has vexed us since our forefathers stepped foot on our nation’s soil, and it is as prevalent today as ever. More so even because of the ease of indoctrination via e-books, movies, and the internet.

“The woman who accosted us after our church services, this Ms. Clarion, has a long history of contemptible behavior, specifically a history of corrupting and tempting men. Yet she is but one godless heathen among the many who have infiltrated communities across this great state in an attempt to bring more souls to Satan. It is just such evil I vow to battle in the legislature should the citizens of our fair state elect me to do so.

“To attest to the level of depravity to which Ms. Clarion is willing to stoop, is our own Gladys Cudlow.”

A smattering of polite applause introduced the reverend’s wife.

Gladys stepped to the mic, her face a mask of serene piety. “Good morning, my dear friends. Just last week, my husband and I were the unfortunate recipients of a disturbing report. It was a tale no parent wants to hear. Our poor son Stuart barely escaped the talons of this wicked witch, thanks to his inability to maintain an erection. She did everything she could to seduce Stuart, to stoke his manhood. But thanks to his deep devotion, Stuart was able to remain flaccid and thus survived her siren song.

“The seduction of our men by Jezebels like Ms. Clarion is an ever-growing threat. But I have faith that with prayer, the men of Arbor—and all men throughout this great state—will be able to overcome these temptresses just as my son has.”

The crowd’s hysterical peals of laughter drowned out my own gagging disgust at having the horrific incident she referenced so nauseatingly misrepresented. The real truth behind Gladys’s tale was simple. Stuart had assaulted me. I’d given him no encouragement, no reason to believe I was interested. I hadn’t been intoxicated in any way. I could say I wasn’t dressed provocatively, but my view of what was and was not risqué vastly differed from that of most people in town. None of the callous excuses so many use to blame victims of sexual assault could be applied. Stuart cornered me, backed me against a wall. He crushed me, grinding his skeletal frame against my body. He forced his hands up my shirt and groped my breasts. His rancid, panting breath clogged my nose.

No intrinsic powers came to my aid. No magic saved me. At that moment, I wasn’t a witch. I was just a woman, shocked immobile. My brain shut down. The fact that Stuart had no opportunity to continue was only due to Gladys arriving on the scene. Stuart cursed me and pushed away quickly as if I’d been the one on the attack. But before he fell dutifully in line behind his mother, he had vowed to finish what he’d begun.

Mayor Crandall again took the mic. “Thanks to the good Lord, Gladys’s son was saved from the town slut, unlike so many others. And thanks to the good Lord, she doesn’t have to be shackled with the knowledge that that piece of trash soiled her sweet boy.”

Some in the crowd shouted, “Praised be!” But others seemed deeply disturbed by the mayor’s blunt accusations. Her words smacked of bitterness, considering the locals all knew her son Jay and I had once been a couple.

How long will it take that little nugget to find its way to the press?

“So, you see, there is the truth of it,” the mayor announced as if she’d bleached away the newspaper’s headline—and its backlash. “I have no doubt the press will be diligent in rectifying these onerous falsehoods. I thank you for allowing me the opportunity to set the record straight. Now, all that remains to be said is…vote Crandall!”

There was no way in hell I could allow those women to twist my assault into a tool to tear me down. I couldn’t let them humiliate me in public—and to the press!—without repercussion. I flicked my wrists discreetly and whipped the light summer breeze into a torrent. Aiming the gust with pointed fingers, I sent the whistling wind sweeping toward them. Gladys’s enormous floppy hat lifted off her head. She tried in vain to catch it as it skipped along down the rows of tables. Mayor Crandall’s political propaganda flew from her fingertips. The banners blew away. Her bumper stickers and campaign buttons scattered and were trampled by the bustling market crowd. But when the mayor’s skirt caught the wind’s upward draft, wrapped around her face, and flashed her granny panties, my revenge was complete and satisfying. And the cameras caught it all.

The press is going to have a field day with those shots. I knew it was an inappropriate use of my magic, but I felt, naively, that it was worth the risk.

Not wanting to attract any additional embarrassing attention, the mayor waited until the press and snickering spectators moved on before berating me.

“You think you’re so damn cute, don’t you, Ms. Clarion? Your wicked behavior and flagrant disregard for propriety demonstrate precisely what is wrong with society today,” she ranted. “Well, I’ve had it with your games. I refuse to put up with your tricks while I’m in the middle of a campaign. I will not permit my agenda to be derailed by the very evils I’m fighting against parading right under my nose. If that Sapphic heathen you call a goddess-mother is unable to rein you in, I will be forced to take action myself. For once, do what’s right and stay the hell out of my way.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, mayor,” I said with a straight face.

“Don’t play coy with me,” she scowled.

“Are you accusing me of manipulating the wind? I wasn’t aware that you believed in magic, Mayor. I’m sure that’s something the voters would love to know.”

I smiled as she squirmed. The ridicule that would bloom in the wake of such an accusation would forever remove her name as a serious candidate for any office. And she knew it.

“Don’t push me, missy.”

“Just for you, and for the sake of your campaign, of course, I’ll keep my shenanigans to a minimum.”

Crandall stormed away with her head high and a simpering grin plastered from ear to ear. I marveled at her ability to go from fire-breather to people-pleaser in two seconds flat.

Thankfully, once the mayor took off, the day passed at a quick clip. The steady flow of customers either didn’t know or didn’t care that I was the witch the mayor had just railed against. They bought most of the dried lavender and honey, as well as a few of my pieces, including two small oil paintings.

Adelaide stopped by, and it relieved me to see her out and about and up to no good. As always, she boisterously admired my creations for all the market to hear. She made sure any and all passersby knew just how spectacular she thought my creations truly were. She was particularly drawn to a thick violet shawl and insisted on paying me more than it was worth. Adelaide owned more of my creations than I did. She was my biggest fan.

She expressed her opinions about the spectacle I’d caused with equal sauce, although she turned down the volume. A bit.

“I enjoyed your work with Doreen and Gladys. Impressive nature manipulation, and so inconspicuous. I wouldn’t have known you had a hand in it if I wasn’t so terribly clever. Next time, I’d go for the full monty with the mayor, if I were you. No one in their right mind would elect someone so incredibly droopy.”

“Adelaide!”

“Oh, don’t pretend to be so missish. You know it’s the truth. And that malicious old bag has it coming to her. I’d have done her in myself long ago if I wasn’t so content with my idleness. I mean, seriously, who has the time or the muscle to hide a body these days? Not to mention the fact that Magdalena would be heartily disappointed in me. For some reason, she thinks I’m a good person. I’d hate to disavow her of that belief.”

“Oh, Adelaide…”

“Oh no you don’t. Don’t you ‘Oh, Adelaide’ me. At my age, I can’t afford not to say what’s on my mind. Neither can you, for that matter.” She smiled kindly. “I hope you’re not overly offended by the mayor’s libelous tirade. Not that I’m defending her, but I do understand her motives.”

“You do? Because I sure as hell don’t.”

“Come now, think. That nasty headline and photo splashed across the news this morning undermined the mayor’s ambitions. You and I know damn well none of it was your fault, but she needed a scapegoat to deflect attention away from herself. And you, my dear, are an easy target.”

“I see your point.”

“And let me give you one last piece of unsolicited advice. From now on, you stay as far away from the Crandalls and Cudlows as possible. They’ve made you their patsy, and they’ll continue to do so if you give them a shred of ammunition.”

“I have no trouble making that promise.”

“Just keep it.”

“I will,” I vowed.

“Fine. Fine. Just fine.”

“Mmm, honey,” a male voice said behind me.

I couldn’t stand that men thought they could call you whatever pet name popped into their heads when they caught a glimpse of a nice ass or a little cleavage. “What the hell did you say?” I snapped as I rounded to face the offender. “Dear Goddess…”

Even Adelaide was struck dumb by the Adonis who stood before my booth. Draped in the scent of leather and sandalwood, he had me salivating. The dangerously stunning creature loomed over me at an easy six foot. His dark, hooded eyes captivated me from behind the chestnut waves that licked his jawline.

Oh, to be a lock of hair… I thought I’d spoken to myself.

When his eyes widened suddenly, however, I realized I must have spoken my private thoughts aloud. A knowing smirk overtook the corners of his mouth, adding mischief to his already striking features. There was an ease about him, a simplicity in his stance, a quiet confidence that could only be described as cool. A simple white tee showed off the strength of his arms and stomach. Baggy cargo shorts fell low on his hips. My fingers itched to touch the scruff along his cheeks and chin. And he was barefoot, which I found sexy as hell. They didn’t grow males like this in Arbor. I was shamelessly enthralled.

He was fully aware that I was checking him out and reciprocated in kind. Smiling softly, he held up a jar.


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