by Elizabeth Bass
I was still humming “Copacabana” to myself when I spotted the mint-green envelope clothespinned to the mailbox. The humming stopped when I turned it over and saw the T in elaborate foil script on the envelope’s flap. T for “Tannith.”
Give me strength. Not today. I didn’t have the energy to deal with Tannith.
It had been a garage-clearing day. Not that I should complain. Garages are the bread and butter of Abracadabra Odd Job Service. Without garages I’d go broke, and I and my two employees would be spending our free time at the unemployment office. And yet . . .
So. Many. Garages. And Mrs. Caputo’s had been stuffed to the rafters with boxes accumulated over decades. Boxes of clothes, quilts, and blankets, ancient kitchenware and dishes, household files going back decades. Boxes of abandoned crafts. Broken sports equipment. Most of all, there were Christmas decorations— cartons stacked halfway to the rafters with broken ornaments and tangled strings of long-dead lights. These sat alongside the towers of disintegrating newspapers and dusty stacks of National Geographic, which she said she couldn’t throw away because they were her husband’s. Her husband died in 1986.
And then there were the shelves of hoarded stuff—jars of rusty hardware, jars of marbles or seashells or pebbles, and sometimes just empty jars; old gardening pots; broken ceramics; yellowing books. For it all, filth was the common denominator. No matter how it was stored, everything was rusty, water stained, or ruined by bugs, mice, and other rodents, or birds. A whole day of work, and we’d only managed to clear out enough space to move things to when we tackled Mrs. Caputo’s attic. Our next task.
After a day of garage cleaning, all I wanted was a soak in the tub and to relax. A letter from Tannith was not going to relax me.
Tannith, with whom I’d been raised, was all right under controlled conditions and in small doses. But that envelope looked like it contained an invitation, and just the thought of an entire future evening devoured by the self-styled Siren of Zenobia filled me with dread. Not to mention, getting Daniel to go would take wheedling, and I hated to wheedle him. I hated to ask anything of him at all.
Daniel, the man I’d been living with for three months, had stated his dislike of Tannith early on: “She’s the kind of woman who can’t stand not to be the center of attention.”
And to think, I’d been worried about introducing them. Physically Daniel was just the sort of man Tannith cycled through regularly— tall, muscular, brainy, but not necessarily worldly-wise. And sure enough, when she’d met him, Tannith had arched a brow at me as if to say, You’re punching above your class with this one.
Which made me do a mental fist pump when Daniel had seemed oblivious to Tannith’s charms, even though she never failed to turn them on full blast when he was around. I loved him for this . . . yet I didn’t quite trust him. How could he not fall at Tannith’s feet like every other man I’d ever encountered?
I let myself into the house and wandered to the kitchen, dropping the envelope on the breakfast table to fix myself a cup of coffee from one of the pods Daniel deplored. He kept pushing them and the machine they belonged to toward the back of the cupboard.
“People made coffee for centuries without creating piles of plastic waste,” he’d lectured me more than once.
He was right. But my pod machine was so handy. Especially after spending an afternoon in a garage full of dust and mouse poop, when I just needed a quick caffeine pick-me-up to handle whatever my witchy nemesis had in store for me. Good to the last drop of guilt.
Anyway, Daniel was not here to scold. Cupping my steaming mug, I dropped into a chair at the chrome dinette to contemplate the green envelope again. It had to be dealt with. If there was a party, Tannith would expect an RSVP yesterday.
I opened the envelope, unfolded the letter, and scanned the message, printed in a fancy font imitating calligraphy. When I reached the end, I frowned, leaned forward, and read it again.
By the time you receive this letter, I’ll be gone. (Put away the smelling salts, Trudy. I don’t mean suicide.) I’m relocating—heading to the Big Apple to seek fame and fortune and all that jazz. Much as I hate to break up our idyllic little cousin coven, I just can’t see moldering away the rest of my life in pokey Zenobia. Strangely, I can envision the rest of you moldering away, which is part of the reason I didn’t want a big goodbye scene. I want to remember you all just as you are in my mind right now. I’m guessing that’s pretty much how you’ll stay forever.
So this is it, friends.
Goodbye, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, etc.,
She’d chosen deep purple ink for her signature. Her handwriting was even larger and more extravagantly loopy than usual. It momentarily distracted me from what came directly after it.
P.S. Oh, I almost forgot. The other reason I didn’t want a big goodbye scene is that my new squeeze is following me to NYC at the end of the week. You know him well—in fact, one of you happens to live with him . . . or did until I charmed him away from you. I’m sorry if it comes as a shock, but as a famous New Yorker once said, the heart wants what it wants. . . .
This was not an invitation. More like a sucker punch.
The “cousins” she’d addressed the letter to were a group of us who all lived in Zenobia. Trudy was the oldest. She was a teacher, a mom, a fabulous baker, and the wife of a history professor at Zenobia College, who was currently on sabbatical. She and Laird had recently become empty nesters when their twin daughters, Molly and Drew, had left for college in California in September. Another cousin in town, Milo, was a year younger than me. He owned his own landscaping design business and lived with his boyfriend, Brett, who was currently running for mayor.
Tannith was a distant relation my parents had adopted, and not a favorite of any of us, but since we’d grown up together, she was included in what we jokingly referred to as our cousin coven—or sometimes the cocktail coven, or the cupcake coven, depending on what we were ingesting. I’d always expected Tannith to leave Zenobia, especially after we finished college and she came into an inheritance from her deceased parents. Instead, she’d stayed, bought a little house in town, shopped, took up various hobbies, and continued to hang out as if she were still a college student.
Now she’d finally decided to leave, but she was going in typical Tannith fashion. Causing discord. It had been like this from the beginning. When “my new sister” had appeared in our house, already beautiful and intimidating at eight years old, I tried to make her welcome. My class at school had recently discussed the goodness of sharing, so I’d decided to walk the walk and had handed over half my doll collection to Tannith. For weeks after I would find my poor dolls decapitated in the bathroom sink, buried up to their necks in the yard, or hanging by their tiny ankles from tree branches.
Each time, my parents had reminded me that giving something away meant no longer being in control over what happened to it. Which was easy for them to say. They didn’t have to worry about scooping up their favorite Ben & Jerry’s Brownie Batter ice cream and finding Barbie’s head in the middle of a pint.
Our relationship hadn’t improved much by the time we finished high school. On graduation night, someone sneaked into my room and put Krazy glue on the inside of my mortarboard. I’d spent my last summer before college with my hair buzzed off like a marine recruit.
Things had seemed smoother between us of late, but obviously that was wishful thinking on my part. A strange sound echoed around the room. Was that the wind, or a faint laugh? Hair rose on the back of my neck, a spider sense of being watched. Don’t be paranoid. Causing paranoia was another of Tannith’s talents.
Scanning the kitchen, I pinpointed the sound I’d probably heard: a Kit-Kat Klock in shiny chrome and black. It had been a housewarming present from Tannith when I’d moved in with Daniel. He was picky about what stuff from my old apartment I put around—but for some reason he’d taken a liking to that clock. The tail made a swishing sound as it swept out the seconds.
I focused my attention back on the letter. Whom could Tannith be planning to run away with? Daniel? It didn’t seem possible. We’d only been living together for a few months. We were still in our period of adjustment—although most of the adjusting was on my part, since this was Daniel’s house. He’d lived here all through grad school and for the four years since he got his doctorate and had been teaching and researching at Zenobia College.
But I couldn’t imagine Tannith with Trudy’s husband, Laird. Trudy and Laird had just celebrated their twentieth anniversary. Milo and Brett had been together less than a year, but they seemed happy…
I was so absorbed by the puzzle created by Tannith’s malignant message that my phone’s chirping ringtone caused me to shoot about three feet in my chair. I dove for my purse, extracted my phone, and flipped the cover open. Daniel.
My stomach somersaulted. Was this the end, then? I braced myself to be dumped over long distance.
“Where are you?” I asked without thinking. My brain had almost settled Daniel in the Big Apple with Tannith. Which was ridiculous. Daniel didn’t even like New York City. Or Tannith.
But wasn’t mutual dislike the spark of half of all the romances since Shakespeare?
And hadn’t half of all my own romances ended when my boyfriend got to know Tannith a little better? My first kiss, a wet peck from Josh in eighth grade, had taken place behind the cafeteria at lunch. By three o’clock that afternoon, Josh was walking Tannith home instead of me. In high school, I’d dated Chris Wilson for six weeks before I came back from after-school debate club to discover Chris and Tannith cuddling together on the backyard trampoline. Once a blind date had shown up at the door, seen Tannith standing behind me, and suggested she accompany us. Tannith had, of course, agreed. And then there was the Great Prom Disaster, which was still soul withering to think about. Tannith had stolen my prom date from me during the prom itself, in just the time it took for the DJ to play “Dancing on My Own.”
After a moment of distraction on my part and confused hesitation on his, Daniel’s dry laugh rumbled in my ear. “Hello to you, too.”
He wouldn’t be laughing if he’d run away with Tannith, would he?
Unless he was deliriously happy.
“Right. Hi.” Angst made my voice airy and doubtful. Through the phone, a car horn blared in the background, along with a lot of chatter noise . . . and maybe some kind of music? “No kidding, where are you?”
Are you alone? It was on the tip of my tongue to ask. I needed to play it cool, as cool as Tannith would be under the same circumstances. Daniel, an entomologist, was on a trip to—supposedly— investigate spruce beetles. The specific borer that he was interested in, the red-ringed spruce beetle, was native west of the Rockies, but recently one had inexplicably been sighted in Vermont. In the world of entomologists, that bug had set off a firestorm.
“I needed to stop for coffee,” he said. “There’s a good place here in Brattleboro.”
I glanced down at my cup. They wouldn’t use plastic pods in Brattleboro . . . if he really was in Brattleboro. How would I know? He could be anywhere. Just because he said he was in Vermont didn’t necessarily mean that he wasn’t somewhere else. New York City, for example.
“Gwen? Are you okay?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I don’t know. You sound strange.”
“I, um, have a headache. We cleaned out a garage this afternoon.”
He clucked. “You didn’t wear a mask, did you.”
He was always after me to wear a mask when I cleaned out garages, attics, and abandoned buildings: You never know what’s floating around in the air in those places. Mold alone can make you sick.
His nagging usually annoyed me, but today I found it reassuring. And not just because it demonstrated an ongoing concern for my well-being, but because it was a good reminder of why Tannith would not have run off with Daniel. Tannith might have flirted with him—mostly to piss me off—and might have been physically attracted to him, but if there was one thing Tannith couldn’t stand, it was someone telling her what to do.
More to the point, Tannith wasn’t Daniel’s type. He’d told me as much.
“She’s so obvious,” he’d said after the first time the three of us had met for lunch. “She can’t stand it if men don’t think she’s the hottest thing in the room.”
Honesty had forced me to point out the depressing truth: “She usually is the hottest thing in the room.”
“If you like that type.”
“What type do you think I am?”
He made the universal helpless gesture of a guy worried he’d strayed out of his depth. “You know, natural.”
I shook my head at the memory. Poor, oblivious dope. Did he really think perfect highlighted streaks appeared in nature? Did he not have an inkling of the amount of moisturizing, plucking, and concealing that went on in their bathroom every morning? Did he think I kept cosmetics around just because I liked to collect little bottles and tubes?
Maybe he did, and I never corrected his misperception that I was some kind of au naturel, cosmetic-shunning purist. Why disillusion him? I’d thought at the time.
Now I worried I’d been living a lie. Daniel might accuse Tannith of being fake, but she never hid her artifice. She was a genuine fake person.
His voice startled me. “Here!” It sounded like I was answering roll call.
“For a second I thought we were cut off. Seriously, are you okay?”
“You sound odd.”
“Listless? Monosyllabic? Maybe you should see a doctor. No telling what you inhaled in that garage. You know, bubonic plague is—”
Not plague warnings again. “Have you heard from Tannith?” There. I’d spoken the dreaded name. Now I awaited his reaction. It was too long in coming for my liking.
“Uh, no, not since . . .” After a pause, he reversed course. “Why?”
“I just got a weird letter from her.”
“What other type of letter would you get from Tan?”
Tan? He was calling her Tan now? “She’s moving. To New York.”
He cleared his throat. “I knew that, actually.”
“Since when?” Maybe since he started calling her Tan.
“I think she mentioned it at one of those endless evenings at your cousin Trudy’s.”
Daniel rarely even went to parties with the cousins. Although, now that I thought about it, he’d been there one evening not too long ago when we all played Clue. Of course Tannith had cheated—she’d been cheating since our Candy Land days—and then Milo had attempted to cheat in retaliation, to the effect that the cards for both Colonel Mustard and Mrs. Peacock ended up in the solution envelope, which caused Trudy’s husband, Laird, to have a snit fit, chuck the tiny lead pipe at us all, and stomp off. We’d all laughed and ended up in two chat klatches—Milo, Brett, Trudy, and me . . . and Tannith and Daniel.
Tan and Dan.
That had been back in September.
“She told you about New York?” Over a month ago?
“Yeah. We talked about it.”
“You mean you were over there having a heart-to-heart with Tannith?” And I didn’t notice?
“Must have been the appletinis.”
Trudy had perfected drink mixing from two decades of faculty dos. Cocktail coven provided her a chance to experiment or revisit favorites. Appletinis were always a hit. Apparently they’d been a good tongue loosener that evening, too. At least for Daniel and Tan.
“So you sat there listening to Tannith’s life-changing plans?”
“At the time it seemed preferable to hearing Milo talk about the mayoral campaign.”
Milo was helping manage Brett’s campaign against Karen Morrow for mayor of Zenobia, so the campaign was a natural topic of conversation.
“Did Tannith mention anything else about leaving town? Any pertinent information involving other people, for instance?” When he didn’t answer right away, I felt sure he knew something about which of the cousins’ partners intended to join Tannith in her New York love nest. Either that or he himself was guiltily planning to do so. I took a deep breath. “You can tell me, Daniel.”
“I think she said she was going to put off selling the house for a few months even after she moved. Something about waiting until the market got hotter.” His voice sounded befuddled and maybe a little bored, but that didn’t surprise me. His enthusiasm and intensity were reserved for insects.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this?”
“About the housing market?”
“About Tannith leaving.”
“I didn’t think you’d care.”
“Of course I care.” Especially if she’s running off to New York with you.
“Or maybe I assumed you already knew,” he added.
“If I had, I would have told you.”
“Right, but I might not have been paying attention, so . . .”
I sucked in a breath. Okay, so now he was saying—implying, at least—that I gabbed at him so much he didn’t listen to half of what I said. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Daniel always thought it was strange that my cousins and I had such an endless capacity to chatter. If nothing new was happening, we would just retread past events. He laughed at us for finishing one another’s sentences and talking in unison.
Tannith was the least gabby of the four cousins. Maybe that would appeal to strong, silent Daniel. I also recalled a clue she’d dropped in that letter: the word charmed. . . . Until I charmed him away from you, she’d written. That indicated that she’d used witchcraft to lure him—whoever it was—away.
Even if she could do that, did she actually think she’d get away with it? Back in 1930 the Grand Council of Witches had issued an edict forbidding any of my great-great-grandfather’s descendants from practicing witchcraft. This had been a harsh, almost unprecedented ruling; then again, my great-great-grandfather seems to have been an especially incompetent witch. Blundering and witchcraft don’t make a good combination. Whether intentional or not, his sorcery had resulted in the Dust Bowl, which had ravaged a huge swath of North America. Of course the history books and PBS documentaries don’t mention my ancestor— they’ve come up with all sorts of scientific rationalizations for it—but every witch in the world is taught my family’s sad legacy of epic disaster. We are held up as the ultimate example of enchantment gone wrong.
We were lucky not to be expelled from Wiccan society altogether. My great-great-grandfather had nine children and thirty-one grandchildren, so that would have created quite a band of outcasts. Maybe the possibility of a rogue witch clan was what the Grand Council of Witches worried about. Instead, their edict punished our family for one hundred and fifty years. This was year ninety-one so there was still quite a while to go. The Council didn’t simply trust that members would follow edicts, either. They sent anonymous snitches called Watchers to ensure we did.
If Tannith was practicing witchcraft, she’d have to be secretive about it. Could she really have progressed to the point that she could successfully cast a love spell? Those were supposed to be difficult.
If Daniel was her victim, it would be an ironic twist. Daniel never believed my talk about my family’s supernatural lineage. He considered witchcraft as unscientific as crystals and healing with magnets.
Something odd had happened with our phone connection. Daniel was murmuring to someone as if he were holding his hand over the receiver. No one did that with cell phones, though, so he must simply have been holding the phone away from his body. I strained to hear what was being said—was that a woman who was replying to him? All I could make out was Linda Ronstadt singing in Spanish in the background. Linda Ronstadt’s voice could cut through anything.
Was Linda Ronstadt something a coffee shop in Brattleboro would play?
If he actually was in Brattleboro, and not in, say, New York.
“I need to go,” Daniel told me. “My sandwich is here.”
“Your sandwich.” Sure.
Or, like a cigar, maybe a sandwich sometimes really was just a sandwich.
His voice turned more serious. “Gwen, we need to have a talk when I get back.”
My stomach felt as if I’d swallowed a bowling ball. “About what?”
“I don’t want to discuss it over the phone. I has to do with my future. Yours, too.”
And there it was. His future. And mine. Not ours.
Damn it. I’d just settled in. I thought I was happy. Why had he asked me to move in if he was just going to go and get enchanted away from me by someone as obvious as Tannith?
Okay, maybe that wasn’t fair. He couldn’t help being the victim of a love spell . . . if that’s truly what had happened. And maybe I’d been more enthusiastic about moving in than he had been. But it was so frustrating. I’d gotten rid of so much stuff from my old apartment. All my furniture, lots of knickknacks, kitchen stuff . . .
I looked up at the Kit-Kat Klock. Tannith’s housewarming gift. Its stupid grin was mocking me.
“I’ll call you later, okay?” Daniel said. “After I get to the lodge.”
After he ended the call, I started to press the icon next to Trudy’s name on my contact list. I stopped before my index finger could touch the screen. No doubt Trudy and Milo had received the Tannith letter by now. But on the off chance that Trudy hadn’t, maybe I could get to her place in time to save her the agony of opening that mint-green envelope and being blindsided by its poisonous contents.
The aroma of vanilla that greeted me when Trudy opened the door made me forget momentarily why I was there. I crossed the foyer feeling like one of those old cartoon figures that float through the air sniffing their way toward food by its smell. In this case, the scent originated with the cupcakes sitting on the counter of the open-concept kitchen visible from the front door.
After I got a look at the living room, though, even the draw of freshly baked cupcakes couldn’t hold my attention. Trudy lived in a renovated 1920s Craftsman house in one of the older neighborhoods in Zenobia. The décor of the place had always seemed minimalist to me—until tonight.
Gone were Laird’s leather chairs and the backbreakingly stiff couch that had been there forever. In their place were a new sofa and two chairs in eye-popping colors, one with a matching puffy ottoman. A bright rug splashed cherry red and yellow across the floor. Although she was the only cousin with children, Trudy’s living room had always captured the vibe of a psychiatrist’s waiting room. Now, after decades of being in a family home, the room finally looked homey. The couch, a solid green, was strewn with bright tasseled and fringed throw pillows . . . and my cousin Milo. Wearing a BLAIR FOR MAYOR T-shirt, he was huddled against the cushions, shoes off, staring intently at his phone. Trudy’s family’s pet rabbit, Peaches, nestled in his lap.
“It’s about time you got here,” he said.
“Milo’s looking up Tannith’s profile on Cackle to search for clues,” Trudy told me.
So much for warning them. They’d both obviously seen the letter.
Cackle was Twitter’s social media equivalent for witches. Participating on it was risky for us, because of the Edict. You never really knew whom you were communicating with online.
A mixed drink and a vanilla cupcake with sprinkles sat untouched on the coffee table in front of Milo, though he’d taken the mint sprig out of the highball glass and was feeding it to Peaches the rabbit. “Peaches is my emotional support bunny tonight,” he explained.
I was on the verge of asking why he needed emotional support, but the living room’s appearance sidetracked me. “What happened to your furniture?” I asked Trudy.
“Laird wanted to move some things down to his basement office, so I found these chairs and a sofa to replace the old stuff. The rug was an impulse buy. Isn’t it cute?”
I sank into one of their chairs. It was pure bliss compared to the torture chairs that had been there before. “Yes. It all looks great. So—vibrant.”
Trudy beamed. “That’s what I wanted. Liveliness!”
Milo shook his head at us. “How can you two talk about home décor at a time like this? Don’t you care that Brett has left me?”
“Brett hasn’t left you,” Trudy and I said in unison.
I did a double take at her, but Trudy had gone back to her crystal pitcher to pour a drink for me. From the ingredients on the bar and the looks of Milo’s glass, tonight was a purple-hazecocktail night—vodka, cranberry juice, and blackberry liqueur. And from the purple-haze glaze in her blue eyes, I guessed Trudy had already gotten a head start on us. It wasn’t like her to overindulge.
I studied her to see if anything else was out of the ordinary, but she had on her usual baking attire—knit pants and a flowing tunic covered by a pink apron with her Enchanted Cupcakes logo on it, a cupcake whose iced hat had tulle coming off the top like a princess’s hennin. Trudy and I were alike in one respect: our business names were the only vestigial signs of the supernatural in our lives.
“How is it that my clothes are the only ones that don’t advertise anything?” I wondered aloud as Trudy handed me a drink and placed a cupcake on a plate on the side table by my chair.
Milo quirked an eyebrow over his phone. “Nothing except your need for a new wardrobe.”
Ouch. But looking at the old work cardigan I was still wearing, I couldn’t argue too strongly. I picked up my cupcake and inhaled half of it. Another thing I could blame Tannith for—a nightnof stress eating.
“Why would you think Brett’s run off with Tannith?” I asked Milo. “Brett’s in a race for mayor. He won’t leave Zenobia.”
“He has left Zenobia—on a ‘business trip.’” Milo used air quotes. “And he’s been totally ignoring my messages.”
“He’s probably just in a meeting,” I said.
“All day? And guess where he is?” Milo didn’t wait for us to guess. “New York City.”
For heaven’s sake. Brett worked in a bank. “New York is a banking center,” I pointed out. “And I’m sure bankers can have all-day meetings.”
“Forget that. He’s been shopping.”
“How do you know that if you haven’t talked to him?” I asked.
“Because there have been new charges on his credit cards.”
He bristled defensively. “Can I help it? His passwords are taped on the keyboard drawer of his desk. That’s more than reckless— it’s like a cry for help.”
“Right.” I shook my head at him. “You had no other choice than snooping into his financial data.”
“He took off the same day Tannith sent us that note,” Milo said, not backing down. “I’m not only his boyfriend, I’m also running his campaign. I need to know if he’s bugging out on everything.”
“He’s not,” I said.
“Then who’s he buying jewelry for?”
That tidbit brought Trudy and me up short. “Jewelry?” she asked.
“Tiffany’s. Eighty-two hundred dollars.”
That . . . was a lot of money.
“It might be a present for his mother,” I suggested.
“Or for himself.”
“Mr. Frugal, splurge on himself? Or jewelry for anybody? This is the man who for my last birthday gave me a contribution to my IRA.”
Oof. “That’s worse than Daniel giving me a DivaCup for my birthday.”
“No, it’s not,” Milo and Trudy said at once.
No, it wasn’t.
“Believe me,” Milo said, “the only reason Brett would spend that much money on something that doesn’t pay dividends would be if Tannith put a spell on him.”
There it was. Milo suspected an actual love spell, too—and from Trudy’s nod, I could tell she did, as well.
No one had to say it, but the idea of Tannith’s going rogue frightened us all. When she wanted something, she usually got it. She didn’t always get to keep it—or even want to keep it once it was in her grasp. But she was clever, and she knew just how to mess with people’s heads. That letter, for instance, was a masterstroke. She knew it would be just like poking a stick in an anthill. We were the ants.
“Where would she have learned to cast spells like that?” I wondered aloud. Witches usually apprenticed under other witches. Because of the Edict, we’d all been denied that opportunity.
“Cackle’s a good start,” Milo said. “Or Witchbook. They’ve got all sorts of groups even isolated witches can join. And you can find out how to do anything on BrewTube.”
“Right, but if any of us started chatting with one of the Council’s Watchers, we could wind up in big trouble.”
At least, that’s what my parents had always warned. Once when my mother had found me levitating my Barbie, I thought she would have a heart attack. As far as I was concerned, I was just doing what came naturally, but my parents acted as if they’d caught me in the middle of something shameful. They were normally so mild mannered that their horrified response startled me. I’d only strayed back toward witchcraft once or twice since. Teenage shenanigans, mostly. Time-savers. Nothing anyone would ever find out about.
I’d assumed Tannith was the same. I should have known better. She’d inherited money from her birth parents’ estate when she came of age, and she hadn’t had to work. That must have given her a lot of time to dabble in witchcraft on her own. Could she really have honed her powers to such an advanced degree that she could cast a love spell?
“Why is she doing this?” Milo asked.
That was easy to answer. “Because she’s Tannith. Causing mayhem and unhappiness is what she excels at. That, and cheating.” Cheating at games, cheating at love—it was all the same to her. The Great Prom Disaster leaped into my memory.
“But she’s one of us,” Milo said.
I had to bite back a retort. My parents had raised Tannith and treated us like sisters. But I’d never been fooled. Not really. Tannith and I were the same age, and Zenobia, New York, was a small world. We went through school together and our circles of friends had overlapped. Hanging out together had been unavoidable, but I’d always known that Tannith saw herself as different. Special. Just like recently. She’d joined in our cousin-cocktail-cupcake coven for grins, but I often got the sense that she saw herself as an alien observer sent to study lesser creatures.
And all this time, unbeknownst to us, she’d been flouting the Edict, sharpening her craft. Getting ready to inflict a final blow to me. It had to be Daniel she was running away with.
We need to talk when I get back, he’d told me. I couldn’t bring myself to confide in my cousins. I hoped I was wrong. But if I was wrong, that meant Tannith intended to sink her claws into either Brett or Laird, and for Milo’s and Trudy’s sakes, I didn’t want that, either.
“It’s Brett, I know it,” Milo lamented.
I frowned. “Brett is gay, though.”
“Bi. He had a girlfriend in college. In the picture I saw of her, she even looked a little like Tannith. Dark hair, killer figure . . .” Milo sank down, depressed. “They would make a great-looking couple.”
“You and Brett are a great-looking couple,” I pointed out.
In no mood to be consoled, Milo was glued to his phone again.
“If Tannith has a Cackle profile, I haven’t found it yet.”
“How do you have one?” I asked. Technically speaking, someone from our family should have been blocked from downloading the Cackle app. We were discouraged even from being on Witchbook.
“It’s not hard to do if you set your mind to it and do some creative maneuvering.”
I looked over his shoulder to see his profile. “Warlock Holmes?”
Alter ego exposed, he smiled sheepishly. “Since I’m doing detective work here.”
While I was staring at his Cackle feed, a rabbit hopped into the room. I glanced back at Milo. Peaches was still in his lap. This second rabbit had the same beige fur with gray-tipped ears, although it was slightly plumper. I frowned at Trudy. “You adopted a new bunny?”
Trudy had been exasperated with having to care for the rabbit her daughters, Drew and Molly, left behind when they went to college. I couldn’t believe she’d adopted another one on her own.
She swirled her drink in her glass. “He’s company for Peaches.”
Peaches, still munching Milo’s mint sprig, didn’t seem at all interested in this new companion.
“What’s the new one’s name?”
Milo laughed. “Peaches and Herb. Perfect.” He lifted Peaches and did a couple of bars of “Shake Your Groove Thing.”
“I meant it to stand for Herbert Hoover,” Trudy said, “but it works both ways.”
Herb hopped closer, gazed straight at me, and thumped his back leg so purposefully that I recoiled. “Don’t they do that to signal danger?”
“Do what?” Trudy asked.
“Thump their back leg like that.” Not that I was an expert. “Everything I know about rabbits I learned from Watership Down.”
Milo sent me an amused glance. “You’ll be stunned to learn that they don’t actually talk.”
Trudy downed the end of her cocktail. “Thank God for that.”
The rabbit thumped again.
“I might have to put him back in his cage.” She glared at the rabbit, which hunched defensively. The standoff over, Trudy fiddled with an internet radio, and soon the room was filled with Rosemary Clooney singing “Come on-a My House.” Trudy poured herself another drink, sank into her new chair, kicked off her shoes, and propped her feet up on the ottoman.
I felt the same frisson on the back of my neck that I’d experienced at my house. I tilted my head. “Have either of you had the feeling you’re being watched?”
Milo and Trudy aimed curious gazes at me.
“When?” she asked.
“Today, when I was opening that letter. It was like someone was laughing at me. Like Tannith.”
Now that the words were out, they made me sound paranoid.
“Of course she’s laughing.” Trudy swizzled a toothpick around in her drink. “She probably thinks it’s hilarious to panic us all.”
“You’re not panicked,” I pointed out.
“Of course she’s not. You think Tannith would run off with Laird?” Milo moaned and face planted into his support rabbit.
“What am I going to do?”
“It’s not Brett,” Trudy and I responded together.
I looked around. “Where is Laird? Isn’t that music going to bug him?”
Milo and I exchanged glances, which didn’t escape Trudy’s notice.
“Not run-away-with-Tannith gone,” she assured us. “He’s off on another research trip.”
“For the book that will never get written.” Milo took a sip of his purple haze. The words were harsh, but probably true. Laird had been working on his great oeuvre, a biography of Herbert Hoover, for at least a decade. And apparently he was still collecting research.
We all sat ruminating as Rosemary Clooney gave way to Nat King Cole singing “When Your Lover Has Gone.”
“Not comforting, Nat,” Milo admonished the radio.
The timing of Tannith’s letter struck me as particularly diabolical. “Tannith picked a week when all of our partners were out of town to drop her bomb.”
My cousins leaned forward. “Daniel’s not in town, either?” Trudy asked.
Their alarmed gazes made me self-conscious. And more defensive than I expected to be. “He’s checking on a beetle in Vermont.”
Milo laughed. “That’s what they all say.”
“It’s true.” I took a sip of my purple haze and wished for a splash more vodka. “I think it’s true.”
“Of course it’s true.” Trudy smiled at me. “Daniel’s not a cheater.”
“But if it’s not Brett, and it’s not Daniel . . .” Milo glanced back at me and explained, “And of course it’s not Daniel, because Tannith would tire of Bug Boy even before the train pulled into Grand Central Station,” before returning to Trudy with “You can’t think Laird has run off with Tannith.”
“I know he hasn’t,” she said.
Milo gasped. “How do you know?”
Trudy opened her mouth to answer, but whatever she was about to say was cut off by the doorbell. She bolted out of her chair and turned down the radio. Then she stared wide-eyed at the door. “Who could that be?”
“You could always answer it and see,” I suggested.
Setting her mouth in a determined line, she marched to the door. Milo and I exchanged another puzzled glance. What was up with Trudy?
We couldn’t see her face when she opened the door, although I could just glimpse the stranger standing there. The man seemed to be around thirty, had curly brown hair cut short, and bright eyes behind round glasses. “Hi.” His voice sounded cheerful, as if he was certain we’d all been expecting him. “Wow, something sure smells delicious.”
“Cupcakes.” Trudy didn’t step aside to let him in.
Stranded on the outside doormat, the visitor shifted feet.
“Right! I’ve heard about the cupcakes. . . .” The guy’s face finally registered that he wasn’t going to be welcomed with open arms. “This is Laird Webster’s house? Professor Laird Webster?”
As if there were more than one Laird Webster in Zenobia, New York.
“Yes . . .” A hint of doubt crept into Trudy’s voice.
“I’m here to see Professor Webster. Laird, I mean. He told me to call him Laird.”
Trudy just stared at the guy.
“He’s expecting me. I’m Jeremy, his new graduate assistant?” He poked his head through the door and peered around. “Didn’t he tell anyone I was coming over?”
“Laird’s on sabbatical,” Trudy said.
Jeremy nodded. “I know, but I was in a class of his last year and he said I could work for him while he was drafting the Hoover book. Research and stuff. He suggested I come over tonight. He didn’t mention a party, though.”
Trudy stood her ground. “He’s out of town.”
Jeremy’s brow creased in confusion. “He is?”
“He went to Iowa. I forget the name of the town.”
“West Branch?” Jeremy guessed.
She snapped her fingers. “That’s it.”
“Hoover’s birthplace. That makes sense.” He tilted his head. “Funny, he didn’t mention it to me when I was talking to him the day before yesterday.”
“It was a spur-of-the-moment trip,” Trudy explained.
Jeremy darted a glance around her and scanned the room. His gaze landed on me. “Looks like you have company anyway. I don’t want to interrupt.”
“I’ll tell Laird you came by,” Trudy said.
“Thanks, but that’s not necessary. I’ll text him.”
“Perfect.” Trudy was already swinging the door shut. “Good night, Jamie.”
“Jeremy” was all he managed to blurt out before the door closed on him.
For almost twenty years, Trudy had been a faculty wife, hosting parties and putting up grad students who for whatever reason found themselves temporarily homeless. She was the soul of generosity, a natural den mother. I’d never seen her shut the door on someone’s nose.
“Laird didn’t tell his graduate assistant that he was going to Iowa?” I asked.
Blowing out a breath, Trudy made a beeline for the cocktail shaker. “Laird thinks he’s so important, he assumes everyone will somehow know all about his schedule by osmosis.”
“Well, at least if he’s gone to Iowa, you know he’s safe from Tannith,” Milo said. “I can’t see her following him there.”
If Laird really was in Iowa. Doubt kindled in my mind. Something was not right here. “Tannith’s letter said that the man wasn’t going to follow her until the end of the week,” I reminded Milo.
“That’s right.” He looked at Trudy. “Laird might be back by then.”
“Doubt it.” She poured herself another drink.
Milo brought the Cackle screen up on his phone again. “We can’t let Tannith get away with this.”
“It takes two,” Trudy pointed out. “Whoever’s running away with her is also to blame.”
Milo shook his head. “Not if he’s the object of a hex.”
“Do we even know where Tannith is?” I asked. “The letter indicates she’s already gone, and when I drove by her house on the way over, there were no lights on. Her car wasn’t there, either.”
“If she’s hexed one of our men,” Milo said, “we have to counterhex. Justice demands it.”
How could we do that? None of us had honed our powers. In fact, we’d pointedly avoided it. We were babes in the witch woods.
“First we have to find out who her victim is,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter,” Milo said. “The counterhex would be against Tannith.”
“How many drinks have you had?” I asked. This was Witchcraft 101, the kind of stuff even we outcasts were allowed to learn at Camp Walpurga. “To counter a hex you have to focus on the subject of the hex. So we do need to know who her victim is.”
Milo laughed. “All right, Miss Witch Genius, share more of your expertise with us.”
“You were the one just telling us we need to counterhex, Warlock Holmes. Besides, it’s witchcraft, not rocket science.” Just because our families had been forbidden didn’t mean we didn’t have the gift. “Think of Great-Uncle Onslow. Family lore says he’d never cast a spell in his life and he still managed to turn a barrel of cream into a butter sculpture of a cow overnight.”
“And what good did that do?” Milo asked. “He came in third at the county fair.”
“I saw a picture. It didn’t even look like a cow.” Trudy sighed. “I think we should sit tight for a while and see what happens at the end of the week.”
The wait-and-see approach didn’t appeal to Milo. “Until it’s too late, you mean.”
“Until we find out whether that letter was even true,” she said. “Tannith might be winding us up, playing a big practical joke.”
I bit my lip. “That letter didn’t sound like a joke to me. It was malicious.”
At the memory of it, Milo scowled. “What does she mean, we’ll never change? Are we that predictable?”
No one said anything.
Then we laughed.
* * *
Later, outside Trudy’s, Milo and I lingered on the sidewalk.
“What’s going on with Trudy?” I shoved my hands in my jacket pockets against the chilly autumn evening. “I’ve never seen her acting so manic. Impulse-buying furniture, adopting another bunny? And there was something odd about the way she talked to that graduate student, too. She looked as if she’d tackle him like a linebacker if he tried to set foot in the house.”
Milo didn’t seem all that curious about what was amiss in the Webster household, though.
“I have a job for Abracadabra,” he said, changing the subject. “But I need you to take care of it personally.”
I had two perfectly able if slightly sluggish employees, Taj and Kyle, but it wasn’t unusual for me to do smaller jobs on my own sometimes. “What do you need done?”
“There’s someone I want you to shadow.”
Alarm bells sounded in my head. It wasn’t hard to see where this was leading. “No.”
“How can you refuse? You don’t even know who it is yet.”
“I’m not going to spy on Brett.”
“Who said anything about spying? I’m not asking you to go through his Visa bill.”
“Of course not. You’ve got that covered yourself.”
“I just need you to watch him.”
“Milo, that’s spying.”
“Okay, maybe it’s a little bit like spying, but mostly it’s just making observations, right? Just to see what he’s up to . . . and if he’s getting up to it with Tannith.”
He stepped closer. “Please?”
“Spying on Brett’s not going to help matters.”
“We have to figure out who Tannith has in her clutches. Trudy doesn’t care because she’s married to Laird, and we all know Tannith wouldn’t gloat about stealing away with Mr. Herbert Hoover. Even if she did, for Trudy it would mean blessed relief.”
That wasn’t true. “Trudy and Laird have been married for twenty years.”
“Exactly. Would you want to be staring down year twenty-one with Laird?”
No. I wouldn’t have married him in the first place, though. “She’s acting so strangely. Subconsciously, she must be nervous that Laird is the one Tannith’s targeted.”
Milo sighed. “I don’t want to be blindsided by this on Friday.”
“Will having a few days’ notice make it any better?”
“It might.” He pinned an imploring gaze on me. Milo had expressive brown eyes. He’d always been a heartbreaker, and he was hard to say no to. Those eyes had gotten me into trouble more than once, from the usual spring-break shenanigans to convincing me it would be perfectly okay to paint a dorm room turquoise, to plant theft from a city park that resulted in a night in jail, a fine, and forty hours of community service.
Those eyes were probably about to get me into another scrape. “I’m not a detective.”
“But you could do it. It’s an odd job.”
I shook my head. “You said Brett’s in New York.”
“He’s coming back late tonight, and being Brett, he’ll be at his desk tomorrow morning, daisy fresh. Unless, of course, he’s already moved to New York. But he wouldn’t do that.”
“Of course he wouldn’t. Not when he’s running for mayor here. Not when he has you.”
“No, I mean he wouldn’t because in her letter Tannith specifically mentions that the person will be joining her at the end of the week. She’s not the type to let anyone change her plans.” When I didn’t answer, he pleaded, “Just watch him for one morning.”
“Because he has work or campaign events most evenings and afternoons. If he and Tannith are going to have a clandestine meeting, it’ll be in the morning.”
I did not want to do this. I’d almost prefer cleaning another moldy garage.
“I’ll pay you time and a half.”
“You won’t pay me anything, because you know I wouldn’t take it.”
He grinned. “Great. I’ll pay you triple, then.”
I laughed. “I’m worried, too, you know.”
“Fine. You watch out for Brett, and if everything seems to be copacetic, I’ll trot off to Vermont to return the favor. I just can’t spy on Brett personally because he’d consider that a sign of distrust.”
“But hiring someone to spy on him isn’t a sign of distrust?”
“He’ll never find out, because you’ll be super-sleuthy about it. You read all those books when you were a kid, remember?”
“Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden never faced a foe like Tannith.”
“Just consider it a fact-finding mission.”
It would be good to narrow down whom Tannith planned to run away with. Not that I wished bad fortune on either of my cousins, but if Brett was going to run off with Tannith, then I at least wouldn’t have to worry about Daniel.
I let out a long sigh. “I’m a pushover for a cousin in need.”
He gave me a quick hug. “He’ll be at the bank tomorrow. The one—”
“I know where Brett works. It’s my bank.”
“Good. Then you’ll have a cover story if he catches you.”
I had a sinking feeling I was going to need that cover story.
Bewitched meets Practical Magic in this bubbly, quirky romantic comedy with an enchanted twist from acclaimed author Elizabeth Bass. When romance problems cause their powers to go berserk, a trio of witches whose family was banned from practicing magic risk getting in serious trouble with the Grand Council of Witches. Can they get their magic—and their love lives—in order before it’s too late?
“An enchanting paranormal rom-com…Fans of Practical Magic will be delighted.” —Publishers Weekly
In the sleepy college town of Zenobia, New York, the only supernatural trace on display is the name of Gwen Engel’s business—Abracadabra Odd Job Service. But Gwen’s family has some unusual abilities they’ve been keeping under wraps—until one little letter spells big trouble…
Nearly a century ago, Gwen Engel’s great-great-grandfather cast a spell with catastrophic side-effects. As a result, the Grand Council of Witches forbade his descendants from practicing witchcraft. The Council even planted anonymous snitches called Watchers in the community to report any errant spellcasting…
Yet magic may still be alive and not so well in Zenobia. Gwen and her cousins, Trudy and Milo, receive a letter from Gwen’s adopted sister, Tannith, informing them that she’s bewitched one of their partners and will run away with him at the end of the week. While Gwen frets about whether to trust her scientist boyfriend, currently out of town on a beetle-studying trip, she’s worried that local grad student Jeremy is secretly a Watcher doing his own research.
Cousin Trudy is so stressed that she accidentally enchants her cupcakes, creating havoc among her bakery customers—and in her marriage. Perhaps it’s time the family took back control and figured out how to harness their powers. How else can Gwen decide whether her growing feelings for Jeremy are real—or the result of too many of Trudy’s cupcakes?