It was only a six-minute commute from downtown Main Street to my cozy house on Filbert Road. As I made my way homeward at dusk, blasting my favorite tunes couldn’t stop my vague dread of Ashlee’s wedding from blooming into a full-on freakout by minute one.
What had I gotten myself into?
Deep down, I hadn’t changed much from that overeager freshman beaming over a pie in the infamous Goody Two Shoes photo. I belonged in my baker’s apron. Kneading my dough. Whispering my spells, spells that made the world a tiny bit better. I did not belong at the Blue Moon Heights Country Club party, mingling with the beautiful people.
I was still panicking when a red light again trapped me outside Java Kitty Cafe.
Their space buzzed with customers, as usual. A fake fireplace in the corner glowed with a bold indigo flame. Laptop workers lounged in white minimalist armchairs arranged around it. Two cats prowled the counter, chasing the barista’s feather-on-a-stick toy with more vigor than any of my cats had ever shown. I shook my head in frustrated admiration at the competition. How did these people do it?
Like any coastal village, Blue Moon Bay had seasonal rhythms. Our tourist season blazed in summer, and shut down after all the leaves had fallen. Sage’s Bakery had switched to reduced Winter Hours weeks ago. Yet here it was, after 6 PM in November and Java Kitty was packed.
I guess I’d underestimated the public’s love of clean modern design.
While I was spying and stewing and fearing for my bakery’s future, a green vintage Mustang eased into the last remaining parking spot. I stared in stinging disbelief at the driver’s long, tangled red hair raging in the wind. Of all the…but why was I surprised?
Loyalty was never your strong suit, was it, Max?
I watched Maxine deKlaw’s long, athletic form jog through the lot in ripped jeans and combat boots, her sweatshirt printed with some math equation. Her goofy expression was typical Max: gaze lost in thought, full lips curved upward in a mischievous half-smile, as if she’d just come up with a cool, crazy idea. One that would get us in trouble for weeks. A nostalgic ache lit up my chest and I looked away.
She has the right to drink soulless coffee if she wants to, I reminded myself. It’s not like she’s cheating on Sage’s Bakery to hurt me. Max was too logical to think in such terms, for one thing. For another, she had a hard time thinking of other people’s feelings, period. Hadn’t I learned that the hard way, so many years ago? Mainly, it was myself I was annoyed with. I thought I’d finally learned not to take Max’s aloofness—her inscrutable Maxness—personally. Where most people craved human contact to be happy, all she seemed to need was her computer and a large mocha, no whipped cream.
The mocha-maker didn’t factor into her equation.
Out of the corner of my eye, the traffic light changed…to red again. I’d missed a whole traffic cycle being so busy glaring at Max’s cluelessly traitorous back. That’s when it hit my nostrils.
The bitter smell of something burning…and it wasn’t coffee. My magical senses awoke as if to a blaring alarm. Go, go, go! Instinct screamed at me.
Trixie peeled out of the lot like a deranged bat, running the red light.
Two in one day.
“Sorry, did I jump the gun?” Trixie asked in her purring voice.
“Not at all, babe. We were on the same page.”
My breathing didn’t slow to normal till I’d rolled onto my own street, Filbert Road, named for the sprawling hazelnut orchard that was cut down to make way for the neighborhood a couple of years ago. My head was still spinning as I tried to make sense of what I’d just smelled.
Witches could always sense when magic spells were being performed around us. Green magic had a sweet, bright scent like freshly-cut grass. Blue Moon Bay had a small community of practitioners who met for a monthly pancake breakfast, and our table always smelled like a spring lawn. Black magic supposedly reeked like burning rubber, but since it was strictly outlawed, I’d never smelled it. The third kind of magic, gray, was considered experimental and not exactly safe, so its use was limited to academic magical settings. Gran had told me, though, that it smelled like burning grass. A crisp, sweetly pungent scent like barbecued lawn. That’s what I was smelling, coming out of Java Kitty.
Was that their secret all along? That whoever ran this place was using an unstable form of magic to make their cafe wildly popular? And if it was true, what could I do to stop their stinky, over-roasted magic before they put us out of business?
In the past, I’d have run straight to Gran. She was my mentor. She always knew what to do…but Gran, much as I hated to admit it to myself, wasn’t the same witch as she was even a year ago. Her magic was gently fading, and today she’d seemed at peace with retirement. Taxing her with this now could be bad for her health.[ maybe this can be called out clearly in chapter 1…taxing magic could cause her health problems ]
No, if I was worthy of becoming a master witch and running the bakery, then I’d need to neuter Java Kitty myself.
Yikes, that sounded way more graphic than I intended.
But I resolved to do it.
As I pulled into the driveway, the slim blue carbon road bike parked on my thyme and strawberry “lawn” made me grin, despite the several impossible tasks that were on my plate. Because there he was, leaning casually against my cranberry-wreathed front door. His tall, fit body looked divine in jeans and a brown bomber jacket, unzipped over a blue button-down that matched his sea blue eyes.
Bryson. My breathing still changed every time I saw him, even though we’d been dating for three months. Only instead of quickening, it slowed to an instant state of relaxation. That’s how I knew Bryson was different from all my other boyfriends. His presence actually lowered my anxiety.
I turned off the engine and ran straight into his waiting arms. His clean skin and leather jacket scent was pure aromatherapy, even better than my giant herb garden which hugged us on all sides. Bryson’s sandy hair had that slightly messy look going on, probably thanks to the bike helmet that now rested at his feet. Next to it was a bottle of white wine, and a fragrant bag of Thai takeout.
“Thanks for bringing food—and wine.” I murmured into his spicy neck. I wished I could escape into his arms forever, and never have to face the outside world again. “It’s almost as if you knew I was having a rough day.”
“Oh, I knew,” he said calmly. He said everything calmly. “The tone of your texts gave it away.”
I pulled back in surprise and racked my brain to see if I’d said anything off-putting. “Texts have a tone?”
“They do if you know how to read between the lines.”
“You mean…” I felt a pun coming on, unstoppable as a sneeze. “The subtext, if you will?”
Instead of groaning, he high-fived me. As if I needed more proof we were meant to be.
I leaned down to grab the bag and wine bottle. Blue Moon Bay had a negligible crime rate, and I’d finally convinced Bry it was safe to leave his bike outside. “So, what did my subtext say to you, anyway?”
“It said, ‘bring wine, if you’re worth anything as a boyfriend.’”
I batted my eyes at him. “For the record, you’re a prince among boyfriends.”
That comment gave me pause—just for a second. Most men would have sounded annoyingly cocky saying that. Bryson, I decided, pulled it off with his chill vibe. Unflappable was his default state. It made sense that a guy like him would become a professional therapist and life coach. In his calming presence, I felt I could handle anything.
That was it! I had to convince Bry to be my date for tomorrow’s wedding.
I fumbled for my key ring, mentally rehearsing how I’d make my big ask. Be my date for the Blue Moon Heights society wedding of the year? Hob nob with snobs, scarf canapés? Rescue me from loneliness and mortification? Please don’t leave me alone with this, not if you love me…nope, that was right out. We’d not said the L-word. Not yet. Not when everything was going so well—almost too well, given my history of big fails in the relationship arena.
My heart was pounding as I got out plates and silverware and walked them five feet over to the coffee table. My mini-house wasn’t much more than one big room, with a single-burner “kitchen” in one corner, a high loft bed in an alcove, one closet, and a sub-compact bathroom that felt spacious, magically (that spell was Gran’s housewarming gift). Built for one, my place was comfy as heck—and it freed most of my property to be an herb garden. But now that Bryson and I were spending so much time together I couldn’t help but wonder if I…we?…needed a larger space.
He’d peeled off his jacket and was pouring red wine into two long-stemmed glasses. As he handed me my wine, his blue eyes met mine in a loving gaze and a familiar warmth sparked through me. “So,” he said. “How’d it go with that fancy wedding cake you were stressing about this morning?”
“Um…” Last thing on earth I wanted to talk about. “It ended up looking pretty darn good.” On the outside. On the inside it was a useless dud.
Like the bride.
He beamed. “I knew you could do it, Haze.”
“Yeah, well, I’m just glad this long day is over.” I settled onto the couch, unlaced my tall black granny boots, and kicked my socked feet onto the coffee table, on top of a stack of baking and gardening mags. I made room for him to scoot in next to me on the couch.
Bryson threw his arm around me, and I curled my body toward his warmth. Instead of kissing me, though, he just rubbed my back, then grabbed the remote and queued up our Netflix favorites. Did he sense I wasn’t up for a make-out session but just craved some quiet closeness? Darn it, the man was almost too good at guessing how I was feeling.
From the day we met, Bryson was tuned into me in a way no other guy ever had been. I’d even wondered if he might be a witch himself, since male witches tend to be very empathic. But my subtle questioning along those lines, on our early dates, had revealed that nope, he didn’t even believe in magic.
Which meant I had to be very careful about how I brought up this wedding and my reasons for attending.
“Bry? There’s this wedding…you probably don’t want to go.” I sighed. “To be honest, even I don’t want to, but—”
“Babe, I’m in. What’s the dress code?”
“You’re in? Oh my god, you’re in.” I sighed with a relief so deep that my dread of the wedding vanished like magic. “Suit and tie,” I said, remembering his question. “Or a tux if you own one. It’s at the Heights Country Club.”
He pulled out his cellphone and hit the calendar app. “Cool, what month?”
His eyebrows went up. “Tomorrow?”
“I just got the invite.” I shrugged helplessly. “These are the rich customers whose wedding cake I made. Grandma Sage really wants me to to go because…ah…they invited me.” Sure, it would have been easier if I could have told him about the cake spell I was charged with completing, but that was the thing about dating a non-magical person. Telling him about that part of me would change his life forever. I figured we needed to be dating for at least six months before I rocked his entire worldview.
“Ok, where exactly is this country club?” He sounded wary at this point, and I didn’t blame him.
“High in the hills, where the air is thin but perfumed with diamond dust. Here.” I reached for my purse, which was on the floor, and pulled out Estelle’s invite.
“Whoa…” He stared at the card as if it were a newspaper announcing war had broken out. “So I guess engraving’s still a thing.”
“You really don’t want to go to this with me, do you?” I hated the insecure sound of my own voice. “You’d rather do something more fun tomorrow. Or you don’t own a suit. Or…”
You don’t love me. Damn it, I asked for too much. Too soon. My fault. I ruined everything as usual.
“You know what? Let’s just forgot the whole thing. More Thai green curry?” I gestured to the takeout boxes on the coffee table, eager to change the subject. “I think there’s still some coconut rice left…”
“Haze, look at me.” He tipped up my chin with his hand. “The only thing I want to do tomorrow is put on my one suit and go to some rich stranger’s fancy wedding. With the woman I’m falling in love with.”
I must have looked pretty flabbergasted, because Bryson was smiling all the way to his eyes when he kissed me gently. My lips responded to his touch, and I unconsciously leaned toward him. His hand reached out to smooth my hair, sending warm tingles through my scalp and down my spine. He pulled back from the kiss, still caressing my hair, and looked into my eyes, his own no longer laughing but sincere and serious.
“Phew. I’ve been wanting to say it for weeks.”
“I…” I was too stunned by his words to manage any of my own. “Ah…”
“It’s ok.” He lightly kissed my cheek and murmured in my ear, “I’m not one of those impatient guys who needs to hear it back right away. Just wanted you to know how I feel.”
“Ah…Er…” I wanted to cry with happiness.
“Here, let me distract you from the awkwardness of this moment with a dramatic reading.” He grabbed the invite off the coffee table and read it in a silly pretentious accent: “Ms. Ashlee Marie Stone and Mr. Frederick Andrew Kensington the IV request the pleasure of your company at their marriage, Saturday the Eighth of November at 6 o’clock PM in the evening…like, who didn’t know that was the evening?”
I giggled. Then I looked up and saw that Bryson’s face was twisted with conflict. “What’s up?”
“Crud, I just remembered. I’m signed up to be at a continuing ed workshop for therapists all weekend. In Portland.”
Portland was a couple of hours drive to the North. There was no way he’d make it back in time. It stood to reason, I told myself. His saying the L-word and going to the wedding would have been too good to be true. Something had to be subtracted to balance the universe.
I’d have to cowgirl up and face this hexed wedding alone.
Bryson kissed the top of my head gently. “Sorry I can’t be there for you while you upstage some poor bride.”
I’m pretty sure Ashlee would have laughed her head off at the idea of being upstaged by me, but Ashlee luckily wasn’t here. I’m not even sure what I said in response, because his skin smelled so good that it turned my brains to mush.
Maybe it was just as well I was dateless tomorrow. I’d need my wits about me if I had any hope of completing this spell. Giving Gran, and myself, confidence that her magical legacy was in good hands.
As Bryson tilted my head back to kiss me, my phone buzzed on the side table. A minute later I had one missed call from Max. The ache returned to my chest from when I’d seen her at Java Kitty, but I turned my phone over and went right back to spooning with Bryson.Â
Funny how, mere months ago, a call from Max would have made my world complete. Now I had a very fresh memory of being let down by her. Sure, the rational part of me knew grey magic was probably the real culprit,Â this timeâ€”but what about all the other times? I was tired of making allowance for her quirkiness. She flat-out wasn’t a good friend to me.Â
Hadn’t been a good friend to me since…well, there was no point in rehashing ancient history.
Maybe I didn’t need Max-related drama in my life anymore. Plus, reclining in a blissed-out state on the couch with a gorgeous guy who, it turned out, loved me, didn’t make me feel like rushing to respond.
In fact, maybe I’d take a page from Max herself and make her wait approximately ten years.