Blue Moon Bay’s “antique” cast-iron street lamps were brand spanking new, but you’d never know it to look at the hideous things.
The city’s latest bid to charm tourists, those rustic lamps blazed with an eerie orange glow that did little to ease my anxious mood as I sped past Ocean Street’s deserted bistros, yarn shops, and taffy stands at dawn.
Come hex or high water, I could not be late for work again.
Grandma Sage was counting on me to bake a special cake this morning. Raspberry cremeaux, three tiers draped with glossy fondant. A wedding cake that had to taste like heaven and look pretty enough to grace a magazine cover. Literally, since our bride’s swanky reception would be featured in Oregon Coast Bride.
But baking the cake was…well, cake, compared with the other task Gran expected of me. Like her own grandmother before her, she imbued each wedding cake with a signature magical marriage blessing. As her apprentice witch, it was my job to assist with that challenging spell.
A spell that called for deepest focus.
Bleary-eyed, I guzzled milky coffee from the to-go cup balanced between my knees. No doubt binging on Netflix last night, cuddled up with my boyfriend, was a bad life choice. But Bryson and I had only been dating three months, and the feel of his strong arms wrapped around me could still melt my brains away.
I was still daydreaming about his soft, full lips when Trixie, my ancient VW Rabbit, hit a red light at the corner outside Java Kitty Café.
“Dang, will you look at that,” she exclaimed, speaking telepathically straight to me. “How’s their parking lot full at 6 AM? What are they putting in their coffee, cocaine?”
“I don’t know, Trix.” Just the sight of that pink neon sign—the smug cat outline with winking eyes—sizzled my blood. Ever since their grand opening a month ago, the trendy new café had been a real burr in my boot.
I’d made a point of avoiding the place. Wouldn’t want it to look like I was spying on the competition. But here we were, stuck at the light, and it was hard not to peek through the window…seeing as how the entire wall was window.
Sleek design, I had to admit.
Inside, Java Kitty’s modern-looking dining room bustled with Type A early birds. I was stung by the sight of so many familiar faces—former regulars at Sage’s—happily leaning across modern-looking white counters, typing and texting, petting the resident cats. Morning shows lit up jumbo wall-screens behind them. A smiling barista, gliding by on a hover-board, offered nibbles from a pastry tray. It looked like a party.
My stomach sank. No wonder they were picking off our customers.
“Is it just me or are they opening earlier and earlier?” Trixie asked, sounding impressed.
I gritted my teeth. “Decrease chattiness levels by 100%.”
Trixie went silent. Her personality was hard-wired into the car, though, and I could sense her sulking.
She’d drive passive-aggressively for the next mile.
Trying to calm my heart’s pounding, I averted my eyes from the turncoats—er, customers—back to the street. The blasted light was yellow again.
“Oh come on!” I yelled, Trixie sighed and floored it.
As my front wheels entered the intersection, a flash of khaki uniform appeared on Java Kitty’s patio. Sheriff Gantry’s hawk eyes clocked me from behind his to-go latté cup. Et tu, Sheriff?
Taking over from Trixie, I slammed on the brakes. They screeched. I yelped as hot coffee lurched into my lap, scalding my stomach through my knit top. It rivered down my jean skirt and onto the floor mat.
As I drove the rest of the way to work drenched and coffee-stained, I silently cursed the Third Vow of a Green Witch, “Thou Shalt Not Use Magicks to Augment Thine Appearance.”
The first two were reasonable, by the way. “Thou Shalt Not Use Magicks to Murder Another.” And, “Thou Shalt Not Cause Another to Fall in Love with Thee Through Magicks.” Well, duh. I wasn’t a monster.
I just didn’t see why conjuring a clean, dry outfit should get me bounced from the sisterhood. But whatever, rules were rules.
I was bending over the utility sink in the bakery’s back room, wringing out my sopping skirt, when the savory scent of Granny Sage’s rosemary-cheddar-scallion scones baking in the oven wafted in.
“Hazel dear, you’re late again.”
I looked up to see Gran gazing with apparent concern from the kitchen doorway. Her white hair—silvered on the ends like a raincloud—hung over one shoulder, twisted into its usual side braid. She frowned at the wet spot on my skirt.
“No, I didn’t pee my pants, before you ask.” I squeezed the bottom of my sweater like a sponge. “My coffee spilled in the car, because of…um…a bad driver,” I muttered.
“Dang tourists.” Gran tsked, hands on her generous hips. “Ruining the town is what they’re doing. Probably demon spawn, half of them.”
Of course she’d blame the tourists. That was, by the way, her catch-all insult for newcomers to Blue Moon Bay. Or, those whose parents had been new. Or grandparents. Yep, Gran could be a touch small-minded when it came to her beloved hometown.
I bit my lip and tried not to think about the fact that Bryson was a newcomer to the Bay himself. I hadn’t introduced him to Gran yet, out of an irrational fear that she wouldn’t like him. Or was it a rational fear? The truth was she’d never approved of any of my boyfriends, and one by one they’d all turned out to be jackwagons. Her judgment was like a cosmic pronouncement. Of relationship doom.
Please, oh please, let Bryson break the loser chain.
“Sorry I’m late, should we get going on that wedding cake?” I hung my purse on its wooden peg between two old broomsticks (ceremonial, not for transport) and offered a placating smile. “And then the blessing spell of course.”
“About that, Hazel dear…I got something to say.” Grandma Sage blew out a sigh, and my heart beat a little faster. Was she going to call me out on all my slacking lately? I deserved it. I’d been letting work take second place to Bryson. I’d been erratic. Unreliable. Frankly, she’d have fired me if I weren’t her granddaughter, apprentice, and sole magical heir. Gran cleared her throat and looked away, like what she was about to say was almost too painful. That didn’t bode well. “We’re skipping the spell today.”
What, no spell? “You mean, we’re not going to bless this marriage? We’re leaving it all up to chance?” My voice had pitched up. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
Gran shrugged vaguely. “It’s not like the bride and groom will even know anything’s missing.”
“Not the point.” Ordinals, non magical people, never knew about our spells but they still benefited from them. The whole community did. “A happy marriage lifts up everyone who sees it,” I began. “You’re the one who taught me—“
“Yes, well, not every marriage can be harmonious.” Gran’s voice turned sharp. “Some have to be below average, by definition.”
I frowned. What had gotten into her? “But if we have the power to make things better, then we owe it to the people of Blue Moon Bay—“
“Yes, well, trouble is, I don’t have it anymore.” Gran exhaled. “The power.”
A chill ran down my back. “Are you saying…?” Gran’s magic wasn’t—couldn’t be—fading, could it? I was nowhere near ready for her to retire. For me to take over.
For the sign outside to read “Hazel’s Bakery.”
“I tried a redecorating spell last night, and broke into hives,” Gran admitted. “Worse, when the furniture rearranged itself it looked dull and sterile, like a dentist’s waiting room. I half-expected to see a tropical fish tank and stacks of Us magazine.”
“You’re scaring me, Gran.” I shivered. “I really thought we’d have more time—”
“Time is nonsense, Hazel dear. Why, I remember my own Grandma Margy saying, ‘Sage, it’s your turn to mind the store.’ Sixty years passed and it only feels like a minute. And now magic’s slowing down, just like hers did.” Her thin white brows knit ruefully.
Suddenly I realized poor Gran was feeling terrible and all I could think of was my own stress. Talk about selfish. “It’s going to be ok, Gran.” I grabbed her trembling hand and squeezed it. How could I not have seen what was happening to her? Answer: I’d been too busy making out with Bryson. I vowed to take this job seriously from now on. I’d have to. There’d be no one to pick up my slack. “You always said when you retired you’d book a Caribbean cruise. Well, I say go for it! Mai Tais. White sands. Shuffleboard. Buy your ticket today.”
“I suppose that’s not a terrible idea.” She squeezed my hand back, weakly.
“I’m here now, and I’ve memorized all of your spells. I’ll mind the store. And one day…” Tears filled my eyes. “I’ll pass it on to my own granddaughter.”
Assuming I haven’t driven the store into bankruptcy long before then.
“I have great faith in you, Hazel dear,” Grandma Sage said as if reading my mind, which she swears is not something our line of witches can do. She patted my hand, but her gaze still looked troubled. “I only I wish I weren’t bequeathing it to you at such an awkward time. Java Kitty Café is, well…”
“Gonna get hairballs from eating our dust.” It was only tough talk, but it made Grandma Sage smile. That’s all I cared about at this moment. She deserved some peace of mind, after pouring her magical energies into this job for sixty years. “Gran, why don’t you work the register while I tackle this wedding cake—including the proper blessing.”
Humming to myself, I tied on my favorite apron, the one with silhouetted witches on broomsticks flying through a navy sky.
Doing the spell by myself would zonk me for the day, but I had the chops.
I was in ninth grade when Gran first recruited me to help her bake a mess of Thanksgiving pies for charity. She could have picked my sister Beatrix, who everyone agreed was more of a people person, or my younger sister Cindra who was creative and original. But she picked me, the middle sister, and my life’s never been the same.
On the fateful day, I donned a festive three-cornered hat and posed with a shy smile, holding the first pie I’d ever baked (chocolate pecan cream), for a Blue Moon Gazette reporter writing a feel-good story. The accompanying photo, which captured my Puritan look, was a real inspiration to my classmates. In particular, it inspired the mean-girl trio of Ashlee Stone, Jenna Jeffries, and Brit Hansen to start calling me “Goody Two Shoes.” Thanks to their being super popular—why are mean girls always so popular, why?—the nickname stuck to me all through high school.
But none of that mattered now. What mattered was, Gran had seen the spark of magical talent in me when no one else could. With each passing year under her tutelage, the flame of my Green magic grew brighter. I may not have been eager to take over for my beloved mentor, but I was ready.
Ready to be, gulp, a master witch.
The next four hours zipped by. While Gran served coffee and pushed fresh rosemary scones on our (sadly few) customers, I got to work whisking eggs, creaming fresh butter and sugar in our industrial stand mixer, and pouring batter into molds. Painstakingly I unrolled thick, satiny fondant. As I stood at the counter chopping up magical herbs for the spell, Grandma Sage watched me from behind the pastry case, a mix of relief and wistfulness in her eyes. And something else, too. Pride.
Her pride in me made me feel warm inside despite my now chilly wet clothing. As soon as this spell was in the bag, I vowed, I’d finally bite the bullet and tell her about me and Bryson.
At 11:03 AM, I inspected the final product. Wedding cakes always brought out my inner perfectionist. I tended to work extra slow, meticulous, obsessing on tiny flaws no guest would notice. But today’s cake was by necessity a rush job, and, to my surprise, I was pleased with my work. Fresh pink roses and strung silver beads made of sugar trimmed the smooth expanses of each tier. Raspberry and vanilla flavor would explode from every bite.
Now for the final ingredient…
“I, Hazel Greenwood, Humble Green Witch, reach out to the universe with both hands open.” Spreading my fingers wide, I rested my right hand over my heart. Then I plunged my left hand in the small bowl of herbs and charged water that I’d prepped while the cake was baking. Instantly my vision blurred. A familiar low rumbling vibrated in my ears, as if an earthquake was in progress. Then the bakery kitchen’s colors grew bold. Vibrant. Boundaries and edges ran like paint, as if real life had slipped on a Van Gogh photo filter. Suspended in mid-air, bright green astral trees and plants bloomed between the physical objects in my line of sight. One hand in each realm. Me the living bridge between them.
Softly, I began to recite the incantation:
Together shall your hearts endure,
Through all of life’s stinky manure,
Including when things get too weird,
When hair grows from his nose and ear.
Or when vacations feel like work
because your toddler’s gone berserk.
Like an acorn planted deep
With roots of patience love will keep
Growing stronger by and by—
“Drat!” Grandma Sage cried out, rousing me from my magical trance. “Hazel dear, I see the bride, she’s walking up now,” she said in disbelief. “She’s half an hour early.”
Horrified, I glanced outside to see a tall blond woman reach for the door handle. High heels tapped a staccato beat outside, growing louder as they approached.
“This can’t be happening. I’m not done yet!”
“Welp.” Grandma Sage sounded as crushed as I felt. “If the marriage is a dud, it could build character.”
Our welcome chimes dinged. Never had they sounded such a mourning tone.
I patted Gran’s shoulder. “I’ll handle talking to her. Can you box up the cake and put it on a dolly?”
This time, she didn’t hesitate but vanished into the back room. Leaving me face to face with the woman whose life I’d inadvertently destroyed.
Guilt scuttled like a roach through my guts as the gorgeous young bride strode up to the counter. Wowzer, that diamond of hers was bigger than a chocolate kiss. I shoehorned on my best “customer service” smile and chirped, “Good morning, miss. Congratulations on your wed—“
“Yeah, yeah, I don’t have time for chitchat.”
I blinked. “Oh, ok, sorry.”
She waved me away with her sparkly hand. “You can go on and fetch my cake now. That is your job, right?”
I gritted my teeth. I was not used to rude customers. In a town as cozy as Blue Moon Bay, most people knew better. Heck, even tourists knew better. “Hang tight, miss. We’re boxing up the cake for you now.”
“Cool, I love waiting around for stuff I’ve already paid for.” She pouted with full, juicy, raspberry-hued lips. “I shouldn’t even be here, you know. This is all my personal assistant’s fault, for quitting on the day before my actual wedding—can you imagine?”
“N-no?” I stammered, because I couldn’t imagine having an assistant in the first place. Was rude lady a celebrity? She did look weirdly familiar.
Especially her eyes. Mean, green, hungry eyes. They looked me up and down appraisingly. “I don’t suppose you’d want a job?”
“I…have one?” I stammered.
“I mean a cool job. Not a hairnet job.” The blinged goddess wrinkled her perfect nose and smiled down at me. More like a sneer. And the sneer looked extremely familiar. “I cannot function without an assistant. My life’s too complicated. I need a team member on hand twenty-four-seven. What do they pay you here? I’ll double it.”
“You want to poach me from Sage’s Bakerie.” I laughed, even though something about this imperious woman made my palms sweat like nothing had in years. Since high school, really. “Thanks, but it’s a family business.” Chosen for me by destiny and magic. “You could say I’m invested.”
The mean bride gasped. “You’re old lady Sage’s granddaughter, aren’t you? Knew you looked familiar…” A leer twisted her Angelina Jolie lips. That leer haunted my dreams. “How’s it going, Goody Two Shoes?”
It was Ashlee Stone. Popular, mean Ashlee Stone, my old bully. She’d brightened up her dishwater-blond hair to platinum, slimmed down her nose, and puffed up her lips (among her other assets). But though she was now more silicon than woman, her meanness hadn’t changed. I swallowed. “My name is Hazel, Ashlee.”
“That’s right, sweet little Hazel.” Ashlee slipped on a fake smile. Apparently I was worth one, now that I’d been upgraded from clerk to classmate. “So. What’s new and exciting in your world? Anything?”
She sounded doubtful, but it wasn’t a nakedly mean question.
I decided to answer honestly. “I’m in a good place, thanks. I love my job.”
She let out a squeal. “Oh, that’s amazing! That someone actually ‘loves’ working in a bakery, I mean. You’re as adorable as ever.” She glanced at my bare finger. “And as single as ever, I see. Your life must be so…uncluttered.”
Helpless anger welled up in me. It was disappointing sometimes, how little people changed. Rumors had flown after high school that Ashlee had moved to Los Angeles, failed at modeling, and drifted into despair and meth. Yet everything about Ashlee screamed success—screamed it right in my face. My former bully wore a beige designer bandage dress, nude stiletto heels, and three tons of diamonds set in platinum. And the way she was eyeing my coffee-stained sweater made it clear she understood and relished the pathetically huge gulf between us. Just like always.
But Ashlee wasn’t just my bully now. She was my customer. I forced myself to keep it professional.
“Yep, that’s me. Uncluttered. I’m even my own personal assistant, haha. But back to you, you’re getting married tomorrow! Sooo great.”
“I know, right?” At her queenly smile, I congratulated myself on not letting her jerkiness get to me. Much. Then Ashlee added with a coy look, “So what it’s like, working for that whacky old crone?”
Oh she did not. “Excuse me?”
Ashlee’s smile was as sweet as one of those new diet sodas that you just know will turn out to cause cancer. “You heard me, Goody Two Shoes.”
I leaned forward so our faces were inches apart. Ashlee’s floral perfume made me dizzy, but I forced myself to meet her dazzling wolfish eyes, the way I never could in high school. “It’s my privilege to learn from one of our town’s living legends,” I said, as calmly as I could, and added under my breath, “They say that marriage changes a person, so congrats in advance to your fiancé.”
Ashlee’s eyes darted from size to side as she tried to figure out exactly how I’d insulted her.
Before she could huff out a rejoinder, a refined alto voice called out from behind her, “Having a good gossip, schoolgirls? There’s nothing like catching up with an old friend, is there?”
Startled, I looked up to see a jovial older woman standing tall in the doorway. She wasn’t just standing tall. She was tall, towering nearly a foot over me in her sturdy high-heeled riding boots. From her smooth gray pageboy to her taupe suede car coat to her Louis Vitton handbag that contained a tiny, fluffy, white dog, Estelle Kensington looked every inch the affluent matron whose family milestones were documented by local media. Seeing her in person always made me feel starstruck. Maybe it was because I’d grown up seeing her portrait on display every time I walked into the town library, which she and her husband Frederick built in honor of their son Drew.
Widely known as the most eligible bachelor in town, dark-haired, broad-shouldered Drew was the closest thing we had to a local prince, and even I’d indulged the odd fantasy of landing…oh my gods. Ashlee was marrying Drew? That alone was proof life wasn’t fair.
“Mother Kensington!” Ashlee’s voice honeyed as she rushed over to exchange air-kisses with Estelle. “Such a lovely surprise. I’m honored that you came. Hiya, Jitters, nice puppy.” The lapdog yipped indignantly as she stroked its ears with her ice-pink shellack manicure. Was Ashlee faking her deference, or was was it possible even she felt cowed by the level of wealth and power she was marrying into? The Kensingtons dominated the elite Blue Moon Heights Country Club set. Now Ashlee would too. As the future queen of Blue Moon Bay’s high society, I thought darkly, she’d probably outlaw libraries and museums from town.
Leaving only lash-extension salons and Botox clinics. Maybe the odd Sephora.
Granny Sage took that moment to emerge pushing a dolly stacked with three neat, white bakery boxes. Mrs. Kensington and Ashlee crowded around it to peek inside at the cake.
“Such a timeless work of art.” Mrs. Kensington gushed, as if it were a Renoir. To Ashlee she added, “In this vulgar age it’s hard to find a classic design like this anywhere but at Sage’s Bakerie.”
“Yeah, um, super classic, right?” Ashlee echoed, sounding like a moron.
She was just shamelessly sucking up to her future mother-in-law, I told myself, but the rain of compliments from them both still made me squirm with guilt. I knew the truth about that cake, even if they never would.
It was unblessed.
I was relieved when Mrs. K finally stopped praising me and turned to Ashlee. “I never did get the story on this lovely friendship.” She smiled and gestured to the space between me and Ashlee, as if there was something good there. “Out with it, I know the look of two old pals catching up. Did you two ride horses together as young girls? Ballet school? Tennis camp?”
Ashley snorted softly under her breath. For once I didn’t blame her. The thought of us being friends and doing rich-kid stuff together was pretty funny.
Ashlee had grown up on an ordinary street with modest ramblers and overgrown backyards. I know because it was my street. She’d moved in when we were eighth graders for the most unglamorous of reasons: her mom was online-dating a townie and they’d decided to shack up. By graduation that romance was long dunzo, and Ashlee and her mom headed back to California. Forever, I’d assumed.
And fervently hoped.
“We were classmates, ma’am,” I said. Hoping that made it clear we weren’t especially close.
It didn’t. Estelle Kensington was just too unflappably positive to glean that my friendship with Ashlee wasn’t a thing.
“In that case.” Mrs. K reached into her Louis Vitton bag and presented an engraved card on plush, cream-colored paper. “Hopefully you can make it to our little reception tomorrow?”
I gulped. “Um, wow. I really couldn’t—“
“Mother Kensington, you are too kind. Too, too kind. But I’m sure Hazel must be very busy.” Ashlee shot me a murderous look. I almost chuckled at her desperate need to keep plebs like me away from her exclusive party. As if she had anything to worry about. I had zero desire to buy my ex-bully a wok, waffle iron, or fondue set. She’d proved herself to be the same shallow mean girl as ever. All those nasty barbs.
Especially about Gran.
Gran, who at this very moment was fixing me with a pointed look. Eyes wide. Gray head nodding. Eager for me to say yes, to pick up the engraved card Estelle Kensington was holding out to me.
The blessing spell. If I went to the wedding, I’d have one final opportunity to stand over the cake for a few solid minutes (without anyone noticing, somehow) and complete the spell. To give her peace of mind in her retirement.
Ashlee Stone was glaring daggers at my head.
I took a deep breath. Hex my life. “Ashlee, I’d be honored to attend your wedding tomorrow.”