Carly Bell Hartwell’s love potions are always in demand in Hitching Post, Alabama, the wedding capital of the South.…
When Katie Sue Perrywinkle walks into the Little Shop of Potions, Carly is surprised and delighted to see her old childhood friend. Katie Sue fled her hometown and a troubled family over a decade ago. But she’s not back for a social visit. She’s come to settle a score with Senator Warren Calhoun, who is in town for his son’s high-profile wedding.
But before Katie Sue has a chance to voice any objections, she’s forced to forever hold her peace. After finding her friend dead, Carly vows to find her murderer. Were the corrupt Calhouns willing to go to any lengths to avoid a scandal? Did Katie Sue’s family take the term “bad blood” to a whole new level? And why did the bride-to-be come to Carly for a love potion? As Carly gets closer to the truth, a killer is planning a very chilly reception.…
About the Author
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PRAISE FOR A POTION TO DIE FOR
Other Mysteries by Heather Blake
My nerves rocketed to high alert the moment the woman glided into my shop, her eyes masked by a large pair of black designer sunglasses, a gauzy scarf draped theatrically over sleek blond hair and then loosely wound around her neck.
She looked very Jackie O, and in Hitching Post, Alabama, the official wedding capital of the South, people like Jackie O stood out like peacocks among sparrows.
Despite our wedding flair, we were casual folks.
Her peacockiness didn’t explain the jumpy nerves. That happened only when danger was near. My witchy senses—labeled so by my best friend, Ainsley, when we were teenagers—were at work.
The customer didn’t look all that dangerous, but I’d been fooled by people before. Lesson learned. However, I also had to keep in mind that the danger I felt might not be coming directly from her—it could just be associated with her. My witchy senses weren’t finely honed, so I couldn’t tell which it was. All I knew was that this woman meant trouble to me.
Poly, one of my two cats, lumbered over to greet the customer and assess whether the elegant newcomer had any hidden treats lurking beneath the flowing designer caftan that swished dramatically around her thin body. Poly was forever starving to death, as his twenty-five pound frame could attest. Roly, my other (much lighter) cat, stayed curled up on the counter, basking in a puddle of sunshine, preferring naps to treats. The siblings’ breed was of unknown origin, but I suspected a mix of calico, white-and-gray ragdoll, and lethargy. Both were long-haired fluff balls of orange, gray, and white, their diluted coloring more pastel than bold. Besides their weight, another way to tell them apart was that Poly had more orange while Roly was mostly gray. They often came to work with me here at the Little Shop of Potions, and I adored each and every one of their lazy bones.
I wondered what this customer knew of my shop, a place that on first look appeared to be a blend of an herbalist and a bath and body boutique. On a daily basis, tourists wandered inside drawn in by the colors, curiosity, the allure of the window vignette, and the store’s tagline written on the window: Mind, Body, Heart, and Soul.
Early-morning light streamed through the display window, glinting off the treasures I’d collected over the years. The weights and measures, the apothecary scale, the mortar and pestle my grandma Adelaide used in this very store. The sunbeams also bounced off the wall of colorful potion bottles, splashing prismatic arcs across the shop.
I inhaled the various earthy smells from the fresh and dried herbs I used in my potion-making and absorbed the vibrant colors, the simple charm, and the magic in the air.
That was the most important part. The magic.
Most tourists didn’t know that I hailed from an unusual combination of hoodoo and voodoo practitioners, and was a healer who used my inherited magic to treat what ailed. From sore throats to broken hearts, I could cure most anything—thanks to a dose of magical lily dewdrops (Leilara tears) and the recipe book of potions left behind by my great-great-grandmother, Leila Bell.
The customer bent to scratch Poly’s head, and he flopped onto his back to playfully paw her hand. The big flirt. He lacked basic moral principles and would do just about anything for the possibility of a treat.
Another surge of warning tingles crept up my spine and spread to my limbs. Instinctively, I latched onto the engraved silver locket that dangled from a long chain around my neck. The orb was a protective charm given to me when I was just a baby, not to defend me from others but from myself. Being an empath, someone who can experience another’s physical and emotional feelings, was something else I’d inherited from Leila. The locket engraved with two entwined lilies wasn’t foolproof, but in most cases it blocked other people’s emotions so I wasn’t bombarded with everyone else’s feelings. It was also something of a security blanket—offering me solace and comfort when I was troubled.
“Feel free to browse around, and let me know if you need any help,” I offered, though really I just wished she’d walk out the door. I didn’t know what had kindled my witchy senses, but those warnings were rarely wrong. If she stuck around, I had to prepare for the proverbial anvil to drop on my head.
The woman lowered her sunglasses a fraction and peered at me over the dark rim. “Will do.”
A flash of recognition sparked within me but didn’t flame. I had the feeling I knew her somehow, yet I couldn’t place her for the life of me. She certainly wasn’t local.
“Nice shop you have here,” she said, her slow cadence that of a cultured Southern belle, one who’d been raised up prim and proper.
Still alert, I said proudly, “It’ll do.” I just hoped she hadn’t heard about the murder that had taken place in the back room a couple of months ago. There were some things tourists needn’t know. Fortunately, that case had been solved, the culprit brought to justice, my reputation restored, and life went on.
Slowly the woman stood, leaving Poly splayed out on the floor (treatless), his chubby belly the only proof needed that he was well fed. He wasn’t that good an actor to be able to cover the pudge.
Her designer strappy gold high heels clacked on the wooden floor as she wandered over to a display of bath oils and surreptitiously glanced over her shoulder.
Although I usually only read people’s energy to create a perfect potion, I didn’t like waiting for that anvil—I’d had my fill of trouble with that murder and all, thank you kindly—and thought it best to be proactive. I let go of my locket and let down my guard to feel what she was feeling.
I sensed no menace toward me at all, so the danger swirling around was most likely due to the same reason her anxiety level was through the roof. Her stress coursed through my veins, increasing my blood pressure as surely as it did hers.
Taking hold of my locket again, I let out a breath. If she were interested, I had some calming cures and sleeping potions that might soothe her a bit. Temporary fixes to an obviously bigger issue but helpful nonetheless.
As she continued to wander the store, browsing, touching, perusing, and generally acting suspicious, I eyed the big fancy bag on her arm and wondered if she was a shoplifter. Over the years I’d learned that they came in all shapes, sizes, and pedigrees.
When she picked up a handmade soap, I walked over to keep a closer eye on her and said, “The lilac is nice.”
Sniffing a bar of honeysuckle soap, wrapped in a muslin bag and tagged with a custom label, she said, “I prefer the honeysuckle myself. It brings back sweet memories.”
Clear polish coated her short professionally manicured fingernails. She wore only one ring—an enormous pink star sapphire on her right hand—so apparently she wasn’t in town to get hitched this weekend. Most likely she was a wedding guest. Probably the big Calhoun affair. The town was buzzing from the excitement of those nuptials. Especially my mama. She was in a full-blown tizzy because the wedding was being held at her chapel, Without a Hitch.
Mama in a tizzy was quite the dizzying experience—one I’d get to witness firsthand as she’d roped me into helping her get the chapel ready this afternoon for the big to-do. My arm hadn’t needed much twisting. It was, after all, the Calhouns, and I’d have to be dead not to want an up-close peek at the family.
Headed by patriarch Warren (a U.S. senator who had just launched a bid for the White House) and his wife, Louisa, the rich and powerful (and somewhat corrupt) Calhoun family was Southern royalty. They were firmly rooted in politics and had recently branched into the entertainment industry via son Landry, who was a rising country music star. News of Landry’s speedy engagement to recent college graduate and former pageant queen Gabriella “Gabi” Greenleigh had sent shockwaves through the whole country, hitting the front pages of every tabloid in the checkout stand. “Little Orphan Gabi,” as she had been called in the press, was the only child of one of the wealthiest couples in the state, both of whom had died in a tragic plane crash several years ago. Gabi’s father, an oil executive, had been one of Warren’s biggest supporters, and her mother had been best friends with Louisa. After their deaths, Louisa vowed to care for the girl, and took her under her wing. During this past year Landry and Gabi had fallen in love. The picture-perfect couple, America’s newest—and wildly popular—sweethearts, were due to be married right here in Hitching Post in two days’ time, this Saturday.
“Can’t go wrong with either.” I handed the woman a small wooden basket so she could shop. Might as well make some money off this strange encounter.
Turning to face me straight on, she said, “Carly Bell Hartwell, do you remember that one time you dared me to sneak into your aunt Marjie’s yard, knock on her door, and run? Only I got all tangled up in her honeysuckle vines and she caught me? My rear still aches sometimes from the switching she gave me. Despite that incident I continue to love the scent of honeysuckle so don’t be pushing your lilac wares on me.”
In a split second the woman’s voice shifted from high class to a local twang. I stared in shock at her and finally said, “Hush your mouth! Katie Sue Perrywinkle? Is that truly you under all that fanciness?”
Katie Sue whipped off her sunglasses, and familiar blue eyes danced with mischief. Throwing her arms wide, she rushed at me, wrapping me in a tight hug.
We spun in a circle, our squeals scaring Poly out of his stupor. His belly hung low to the ground as he dashed behind the counter.
“Just look at you!” I said. “How long’s it been?”
Without missing a beat, she answered, “Ten years.”
“Tell me everything.” I pulled two stools over to a worktable. “Did you get to college like you wanted? Are you a full-fledged doctor now?”
Laughing, she glanced at her diamond-faced watch and said, “I only have but a minute.”
“Talk fast, then.” So, Katie Sue was back. I’ll be damned.
I drank in the sight of her, trying to note the many changes. Her hair had gone from brown to blond, her skin from deeply tanned to pale cream, and her whole countenance from hillbilly to high society. “I’m so shocked you’re here.” I stumbled for words. “You’re . . . unrecognizable. The hair, the clothes, the accent.”
“Everything,” she said firmly. “It took years, too, with thousands paid to a finishing school, voice coaches, a stylist . . . The list goes on. Oh, and my name’s Kathryn Perry now. I had it legally changed right after I left town.” Her voice dropped to a melancholy whisper. “I didn’t want them to find me.”
My stomach twisted at the old memories. Katie Sue had what my mama would call an “unfortunate” childhood. Her daddy had died in prison after being sent there for killin’ a man in a bar fight. Her mama liked the hooch a little too much, and hadn’t been above raising her hand—or any other object in the vicinity—to keep her three daughters, Lyla, Katie Sue, and Jamie Lynn, in line. And when she remarried? Shoo-ee. Her new husband had an even bigger problem with addiction and a hair-trigger temper. And after one particularly bad fight with each other, the state stepped in and awarded custody of the girls to Katie Sue’s granddaddy, a hardworking man who lived simply and loved those girls fiercely. It was a move that had probably saved the lives of all three sisters, but eventually tore the siblings apart.
Last I heard, Katie Sue’s mama, Dinah Perrywinkle Cobb, and her husband, Cletus Cobb, had been released from the local pen, having served two years each for cooking up drugs in their trailer near the river. They’d been free going on five months now and had so far managed to stay out of trouble.
With wide eyes, Katie Sue glanced around the shop. “I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed this place. It was more my home than that old ramshackle trailer.”
As a young girl Katie Sue had spent hours and hours here, learning about herbal medicine at the knee of Grandma Adelaide, same as I did. Katie Sue would talk on and on about how one day she was going to become a doctor and use the knowledge Grammy had taught her to help others.
Grammy had always encouraged her lofty goals, though truthfully, I’d never thought Katie Sue would leave. Hitching Post had a way of holding on to its own. “Did you get your MD?” I asked, hoping her dreams had come true. With no lack of determination or stubbornness, I imagined she wouldn’t have given up on her goal without a knock-down, drag-out fight.
“It surely wasn’t easy, Carly, and I’m still in my residency down in Birmingham, but I did it.”
She spoke softly, the pride in her voice coming across loud and clear, though I wasn’t the least bit surprised to hear it. Even though hers hadn’t been an easy upbringing, she’d always retained a sense of pride. Almost too much sometimes, not always wanting to accept help when offered. Fiercely independent, she was always determined to get things done—her way. I figured it to be a defense mechanism, an ability to have some semblance of control in an out-of-control environment.
I squeezed her hand. “Good on you.”
Taking another peek at her watch, she said, “I have to get going. I have an appointment. Can we meet up later to continue catching up? I want to hear what you’ve been up to. Anyone special in your life?”
“It’s complicated,” I said.
She lifted both eyebrows. “That sounds like a story. Let’s get coffee later, okay?”
“Are you back in town to see Jamie Lynn?” I asked, referring to Katie Sue’s baby sister. She’d been just ten years old when Katie Sue left. “I heard she’s bad sick.”
Pain flitted across her eyes and she paled.
“You didn’t know?” I asked, cursing the foot I just stuck in my big mouth.
She shook her head.
I should have realized as much. It never ceased to amaze me how money could tear a family apart. Lyla, the eldest Perrywinkle sister, had married straight out of high school and never looked back, leaving Katie Sue and Jamie Lynn to mind their granddaddy when his heart began to fail. Mostly the task fell on a teenaged Katie Sue since Jamie Lynn was so young, and she never once complained about it, though it sopped up what was left of her already pathetic childhood. After the man died, the whole town was shocked to learn that the old coot had been buying stocks and stashing away money all his years. In his will he left all his worldly goods solely to his full-time caretaker—his granddaughter Katie Sue, who at that time had just turned twenty. She inherited almost two million dollars.
No one was more stunned than Katie Sue’s own kin, who crawled from the woodwork without a lick of shame, their palms out. When met with a firm refusal—Katie Sue proclaimed the only other person who deserved a share of the inheritance was Jamie Lynn—her mama and stepdaddy made horrible threats, but it was Lyla who dealt the most painful blow. She filed for custody of Jamie Lynn. The court agreed that the older, married, and more settled sister deserved custody. Katie Sue tried to fight the matter in court again and again, but lost every time.
Eventually, she gave up trying. A heartbroken Katie Sue set up a trust fund for Jamie Lynn to access when she turned twenty-one, and did the only other thing she could think of. She took her share of the money and ran, leaving town and never looking back.
No one in town blamed her. Not even a little.
Katie Sue’s voice cracked as she said, “What’s wrong with her?”
“No one knows. It’s a bit of a mystery illness from what I hear.”
“Why hasn’t she come to see you? At least for a diagnosis?”
By tapping into Jamie Lynn’s energy, I should be able to pinpoint what was wrong. But that didn’t necessarily mean I could fix it. There were some limitations to my magic. “My guess is Lyla. She keeps a tight rein on Jamie Lynn,” I answered. Katie Sue’s older sister didn’t care for me much, knowing how close Katie Sue and I had once been, but she tolerated me just fine when I bought herbs from her massive gardens. Business was business, after all. Plus, she didn’t care much for anyone so I didn’t take her bad attitude too personal.
“But Jamie Lynn’s almost twenty-one and able to make her own choices.”
I bit my nail. “It’s not so easy to break some ties. Especially when it comes to family.”
“Don’t I know it.” Anger tightened the corners of her mouth. “I’ll try to sneak in a visit with Jamie Lynn while I’m here. Do you think you can get her a message without Lyla catching wind of it?”
“What kind of question is that, Katie Sue? Of course I can.”
“Kathryn,” she corrected with a smile.
“That’ll take some getting used to.”
“Try, Carly. I worked too hard to make Katie Sue disappear for her to be popping up now.” She sighed. “It doesn’t help that this town brings back a whole host of bad memories I’d rather forget. Fortunately, my stay is only until Saturday; then I can return to Shady Hollow and go back to forgetting this place even exists.”
I raised an eyebrow at the mention of Shady Hollow. A suburb of Birmingham, it was the wealthiest city in the state. Things sure had changed for her—her determination had paid off big time.
Reaching into her bag, she moved aside a small manila envelope that had a coffee stain on the edge and pulled out a notepad and scribbled a quick letter. She folded the note in half, then in half again. Absently, she stared at it for a second before saying, “When I first left, I set up a PO Box and wrote letters to Jamie Lynn every week for years. They all came back unopened.” Giving her head a shake, she handed the note to me. “I asked her to meet me tonight at six thirty in my hotel room, so the sooner you can get that to her the better.”
“Where are you staying?”
She smiled, and I realized she’d had her teeth corrected, too. They were now perfectly straight, perfectly white, and perfectly perfect. Which described all of her, not just her teeth. It was a little unsettling.
“At the Crazy Loon. I’m fairly sure your aunt Hazel recognized me but couldn’t put a name to my face.”
All three of my aunts, Marjie, Eulalie, and Hazel Fowl (my mama’s sisters), collectively known as the Odd Ducks, owned aptly named inns in town. All four Fowl sisters were matrimonial cynics and weren’t too keen on ever gettin’ married, which was kind of ironic, considering where they lived. My daddy, a hopeless romantic, was still counting on my mama to come around, but so far she hadn’t changed her mind. She was as happy as the day was long to stay engaged forever.
“I’m surprised you got a room,” I said. “Everything’s booked up.”
“Friends in high places,” Katie Sue said in a strange tone.
I took the note. “Well, don’t you worry none. I’ll see Jamie Lynn gets this.” I only hoped that she hadn’t been so brainwashed by Lyla that she refused to see Katie Sue.
“Thank you, Carly. You and your family are the only things that make this town the least bit bearable for me.”
“Quit it now. You know we’re always here for you.”
She gave me another hug, we set a time to meet for coffee at my house, and she headed for the door.
She turned. “Hmm?”
“If not for Jamie Lynn, why did you come back to town?” Now that I knew who she was, I couldn’t help but wonder—and worry—about the dangerous energy she carried.
Something dark flashed in her eyes, and a wry smile creased her lips. “I’ll tell you all about it later, Carly, but for now I’ll say this.” She put on her sunglasses and pulled open the door. “As a doctor I may have taken an oath to do no harm, but as a country girl who’s done had it up to here with that family and their lies, I’m fixin’ to give the Calhouns a taste of their own bitter medicine.”
“What do you know about the Calhoun family?” I asked my best friend, Ainsley Debbs, later that afternoon as she ran a feather duster over the potion bottles. She worked here a couple of days a week, partly as a favor to me and partly to escape her kids, who were known around town as the Clingons. She also held a part-time job at the local ob-gyn’s office as a registered nurse.
Ainsley had already dispatched Francie Debbs, her mother-in-law, to deliver the note Katie Sue had written to Jamie Lynn Perrywinkle. Since Francie and Lyla were in the same gardening group it wasn’t the least bit suspicious for Francie to pay a call on the sisters (and slip the note to Jamie Lynn). Francie was more than happy to help, especially when Ainsley promised her a box of wine and a hangover potion in return for the favor.
She knew exactly how to motivate her mama-in-law.
“You still worrying about Katie Sue?” Ainsley asked.
“I can’t help it.” My skin tingled just thinking about it. The danger surrounding Katie Sue was very real. I had a bad feeling. A mighty bad feeling. No one crossed the Calhoun family without retribution. Everyone in Alabama knew that.
“Did you call Dylan about it?”
Dylan Jackson. As a sergeant with the Darling County sheriff’s office, he needed to be notified that there was danger in the air, and as my twice-former fiancé, he knew to take my witchy warnings seriously. “Not yet.”
A smile quirked the corner of her lips. “What’re you waiting for?”
I narrowed my eyes at her, and she laughed.
She knew why. Dylan and I were, as I told Katie Sue, complicated. We were in a strange place, the two of us. Friendly—really friendly—but not quite dating. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go down that road with him again. My brain said no (real quietlike), but my heart was yelling ohhell yes (and that sucker was loud).
“Third time’s the charm,” Ainsley said, stepping over Poly.
“Isn’t doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result considered the definition of insanity?”
She blinked at me. “Says who?”
I shrugged. “Probably some wise person who’d been burned by a relationship one too many times.”
Like I had. Almost literally in my case.
“Sometimes, sugar,” she drawled, “it’s fun when things get a little hot, if you know what I mean.”
I tipped my head. Right about now, a little heat sounded good. Really good. It had been downright glacial in my bedroom for a good long while. “Fine,” I said, reaching for the phone. “I’ll call. But only out of concern for Katie Sue.”
Ainsley laughed again, not buying my excuse for a moment. She knew me too well.
We’d been best friends just shy of forever. Her mama claimed I was a bad influence on her baby girl, but Ainsley and I both knew she masterminded most of our crazy schemes. She’d stuck by me through thick and thin, including my two broken engagements to Dylan Jackson, my arrest (it was a misunderstanding, I swear), and of course when I was suspected of murder. I loved her like a sister and wasn’t sure what I’d do without her.
Many years back she fell hard for a man who didn’t seem to know she existed, so she hatched one of her famous plans to catch his attention. Carter Debbs didn’t know what hit him—literally—when Ainsley ran him over with her car.
It hadn’t been an accident.
After that Ainsley became a somewhat reformed wild child, the change coming about because she decided she needed to clean up her act to be the wife of a preacher man. They’d been married almost eight years now and had three kids. Twin four-year-old boys, Toby and Tuck, and three-year-old hellion Olive (who I thought should have been named “Karma” because she was so much like her mama).
Dylan didn’t answer either of his phones, at his house or his office, so I left a message at both, asking him to call me back. Part of Hitching Post’s quaintness was that it was cell-phone free—there wasn’t coverage within town limits—so getting hold of someone right away was quite the challenge.
“So what do you know about the Calhouns?” I asked Ainsley again, revisiting my original question.
Wrinkling up her nose, her violet eyes sparkled. A lovely yellow sundress accentuated her generous curves. “I know about as much as you do,” she said with a shrug. Her light brown hair had been recently cut into a choppy layered bob that swung as she worked. The hairdo exemplified everything about Ainsley. Refined but a touch untamed. “They’re like the peaches in my backyard. Pretty on the outside, rotten to the core on the inside.”
“Wait a sec.” I studied her. “You didn’t use those peaches in the cobbler you brought in yesterday, did you?”
Mischief twinkled in her eyes. “Why? You been feeling puny?”
This was why she was a somewhat reformed wild child. Every once in a while the crazy popped right out of her, like a jack-in-the-box.
Shaking my head, I nudged Roly off my mouse pad and fired up my desktop computer. She yawned and stretched and gave me a suspicious look while twitching her long whiskers. To reassure her all was well, I ran a hand down her fluffy spine, and she curled into a ball once again.
I wasn’t sure what I could discover about the Calhouns online that I didn’t already know, but I aimed to find out.
“One thing I’ve been wondering on,” Ainsley said, pointing the feather duster at me, “is why Landry and Gabi’s wedding was moved here to Hitching Post. It was supposed to be at a fancy estate down near Mobile, wasn’t it?”
Everyone round here had taken to calling the soon-to-be newlyweds by their given names. The whole Calhoun family, in fact. Warren, Louisa, Cassandra, and Landry. As though we all knew them personally. Thick as thieves. Tighter than ticks. The Calhoun family better watch out, or they might have to set a few more—like a few hundred—plates at the family’s Thanksgiving meal. The town had adopted the lot of them—whether they knew it or not.
“And wasn’t it supposed to be a thousand guests?”
“The Calhouns told my mama that the bride and groom wanted something smaller, quainter, and that Gabi fell in love with the look of Mama’s chapel. The guest list was cut to a measly three hundred.”
“Ain’t no way your mama’s chapel will fit more than two hundred,” Ainsley said. “And that’s only if they’re as skinny as fence pickets.”
My mama would have found a way to squeeze them all in, but she didn’t have to. “The ceremony’s being held outside, around the gazebo.”
“In this heat? Are they crazy?”
“Very possibly. Because it’s a sunset wedding and with the rental of outdoor air conditioners, it probably won’t be the heat that gets to the guests; it’ll be the mosquitoes.”
“Blessed be.” Ainsley laughed and shook her head. “Well, if anyone can pull it off, it’s your mama.”
It was true. There was no stopping Veronica “Rona” Fowl when she had her mind set on something.
Ainsley’s nose wrinkled again. “Why do you think Katie Sue’s dander is up with the Calhouns?”
“I honestly don’t know.” It was hard to even speculate. I didn’t really know Katie Sue anymore, and what I knew of the Calhouns made me worry about her well-being.
“What she said about giving them a taste of their own bitter medicine makes me think they did her wrong in some way,” Ainsley said.
Poly hopped onto the counter and waved his tail under my nose. I rubbed his ears and scooted him out of the way of the computer screen. “Could be they did.”
“But how does she even know them? She’s Katie Sue Perrywinkle from itty bitty Hitching Post, Alabama, and they’re”—her forehead scrunched as she searched for the right word—“famous.”
“Well, she’s not Katie Sue anymore, remember. She’s Kathryn Perry, MD, and she has loads of money. Maybe she’s a political supporter.”
“Even still.” Ainsley dragged the feather duster across a shelf. “Do you think the bitter medicine she talked about is literal? That it’s actually a hex? Maybe she’s been to see Delia.”
Delia Bell Barrows. My cousin and former nemesis. We’d managed to stick a bandage on our broken relationship, but underneath old wounds ran deep. Because we practiced very different types of magic, I couldn’t fully trust her. And wasn’t sure I ever could. But that being said, we’d recently reunited and were trying to get to know each other as friends rather than rivals.
Though we both called ourselves witches, the term wasn’t quite accurate but was used for lack of a better one. People around these parts didn’t care a whit what we were labeled as long as our magic worked when they needed it.
Our family tree had been split down its middle by mine and Delia’s births. One side opting to use white magic for good (my side). The other choosing to practice black magic (her side).
Fundamentally our beliefs were night and day. Healer versus hexer. Good versus evil.
Delia sold hexes at her shop Till Hex Do Us Part, located across the Ring, the town center, and it was just the place for Katie Sue to scare up a bottle of revenge or a pox on the Calhoun family. “Maybe so, though the old Katie Sue would never touch a hex in a million years. She was all about healing.”
“But you said she changed.”
I couldn’t argue that. Maybe her transformation ran deeper than hair color and speech patterns. I called up my favorite search engine and typed in the Calhoun name. Loads of information filled the screen.
“Find anything interesting?” Ainsley asked after a minute.
“Not really.” Warren and Louisa had been college sweethearts, though rumors swirled of Warren’s various affairs throughout the years. Seemed to me Louisa turned a blind eye to his dalliances, whereas if he were my husband, I’d be poking his eyes out with my handy-dandy pitchfork, my favorite weapon of choice.
The couple had two children. At age twenty-nine, Landry, the groom-to-be, was the youngest child and a classic ne’er-do-well. Three years ago, during one of Warren’s reelection campaigns, several gossip magazines reported that Landry had been caught cheating during his final year of law school and that Warren bought him out of trouble. The family denied everything, but Landry never graduated and Warren’s poll numbers tanked until not long after when tragedy struck the family. That’s when Landry’s older sister, Cassandra, had been hit by a car while crossing the street near her daddy’s Washington, D.C. office, where she worked as an aide. She survived, but a broken back left her paralyzed from the waist down. The doctors were hopeful at first that she’d walk again, but it wasn’t to be, and she was still bound to a wheelchair. Heartbreak for the family, but the sympathy vote bumped Warren’s numbers through the roof.
I was about to click off the search engine, when a location caught my eye.
It was where Katie Sue mentioned she lived—but it seemed the town was also home to the Calhoun family. On a whim, I typed in her new name along with “Calhoun” and was surprised to see her pictured at several Calhoun fund-raisers over the past couple of years, often framed in the same shot as Warren himself.
“Looks like Katie Sue is one of Warren’s campaign donors.” I showed Ainsley the photos.
“Or she’s one of his mistresses,” she said, her eyebrows raised and wiggling. “It wouldn’t surprise me none with Warren’s reputation.”
It was a theory I couldn’t dismiss even though I wanted to. Warren was known for chasing after young, beautiful, accomplished women.
“And if she recently found out he has himself another woman on the side . . . Shoo-ee. She might have gotten a hex from Delia to make his willie fall off or something.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “I didn’t need that image in my head.”
But the more I thought about Katie Sue and Warren being together and her strange warning about bitter medicine, the more worried I became. Mercy. How’d I get mixed up in this mess? “I’m calling Delia. If she’d sold Katie Sue a revenge potion, a warning to the Calhouns might be in order.”
“I don’t know,” Ainsley said. “I think it’s high time Warren’s willie shriveled up. If I were his wife, I’d be buying that hex myself. Cheat on me, will he? I don’t think so.”
I studied my friend. “Carter knows about the vigilante side of you, right?”
Shaking my head, I grabbed up the phone and punched in the numbers I now had memorized. Delia answered on the second ring, and as soon as she realized it was me, she said, “I was just about to call you.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked. The tone of her voice immediately set me to worrying.
A dog barked in the background—Boo, Delia’s little black puppy. “You’re not going to believe the—”
I glanced up as the bell jingled on the door, and a woman came inside. Ainsley shot me an incredulous look, her eyebrows practically in her hairline.
“I have to call you back, Delia,” I said in a whisper.
“I’ll call you right back.” I hung up in a hurry.
The customer was Gabi Greenleigh, Landry Calhoun’s intended. Oh, she tried to hide behind a big straw hat and sunglasses, but there was no concealing a beauty like hers. Tall and lithe with sleek auburn hair spilling down her back, I could see why she’d been crowned Miss Alabama two years ago.
“Hi there,” I said. “Come on in, take a look around, let me know if you need any help.”
“Thank you,” she said softly as she approached the counter. Nervously, she bit her lip. “I do actually need some help. I hear you make potions.” Her brow wrinkled; then she smiled, and it lit the whole room. “Your mama sent me over. She’s ah . . . something.”
It was a statement I heard often. “That she is.”
“She said your potions are magical. Is that true?”
“Guaranteed to fix just about anything,” I said. “You have something that needs fixin’?”
Glancing over her shoulder, she turned back to me and said, “Kind of.”
Ainsley, never one to willingly be left out of a juicy bit of gossip, leaned on the counter. “Wedding day jitters? You need a calming potion? Carly can whip one right up. You’ll be positively Zen in no time at all.”
Gabi sighed and slipped off the sunglasses. “Poor excuse for a disguise, I suppose. You know who I am?”
“Your wedding’s kind of a big deal round these parts,” Ainsley said, putting it mildly.
Gabi stared at the counter for a second, then looked me dead in the eye. What I saw in her gaze near to broke my heart. The sadness was all-consuming.
Gabi rubbed Roly’s head and took a moment before saying, “I need one of your magic potions.”
“What kind?” I asked. “For the wedding jitters?”
“It’s not jitters, I have,” she said.
Ainsley patted her arm, consoling. “What is it you have, sugar?”
From the way Gabi was acting, I expected an answer along the lines of an STD or somesuch. Tears filled her big green eyes and pooled along dark lashes.
“What I have,” she said, “is a man who doesn’t love me. I need a love potion. The sooner, the better.”
Ainsley tsked sympathetically. “What do you mean he doesn’t love you? Of course he loves you, sugar. He’s marrying you Saturday in front of God and everyone, ain’t he?”
Gabi sniffled and mumbled, “He doesn’t love me. But that’s okay. For now I love him enough for the both of us.”
Ainsley tipped her head. “Is he gay?”
I shot her a look.
“Well, I mean, look at her!” Ainsley said.
I rolled my eyes.
Gabi snuffled—she even did that prettily. “I—I don’t think so.”
“Is there another woman?” Ainsley asked, tsking again. She turned to me. “Remember that time Widow Harkins started sweet-talking Carter? Asking him over to help her with this, fix that, stay for some fresh-made cinnamon rolls? And him being a pastor and all couldn’t rightly say no, could he? Lordy be. She was lucky I didn’t pull her hair out by their bleached roots.” She harrumphed. “And I still can’t abide looking at cinnamon rolls to this day.”
“You did pull her hair out by the roots,” I pointed out. “Left her with a bald patch the size of a MoonPie.”
“Oh, that’s right. I did.” Ainsley winked. “Accidentally, of course.”
Gabi’s eyes went wide.
I said to her, “Widow Harkins took to wearing wigs and suddenly started going to church in Huntsville.”
Ainsley said, “You just don’t go stealing another girl’s man without consequences. Know what I’m sayin’?”
Gabi laughed nervously and nodded. “Why are women so sneaky? It just ain’t right.”
“Well,” I said, “sometimes wanting something so badly makes you forget right from wrong. Especially when it comes to matters of the heart.”
“Kind of like knowing it’s wrong to slip Landry a love potion, but I’m going to do it anyway?”
I smiled. “Kind of. But there is a hitch with my potions that you should know about.” I hated to tell her about the Backbone Effect, one of the supernatural rules that governed my potions. It prevented someone from being duped by a potion by taking their free will into consideration. Whoever the potion was intended for had to want—consciously or unconsciously—the potion’s result. It was especially important for love potions.
Twin vertical lines creased the smooth plane between her eyebrows as I explained, but then disappeared by the time I finished saying my piece.
“That won’t be an issue,” Gabi said. “He wants to love me . . . he just doesn’t.”
“Is there another woman?” Ainsley asked again. “You never did answer.”
Gabi blinked as though never truly considering the notion. “I don’t think so.”
Ainsley slid me a what-the-hell-is-going-on-here look. “Then why is he marrying you if he doesn’t love you?” she said, sounding truly puzzled by the notion.
Tears puddled again. “He’s only marrying me because his daddy is forcing him to. Some sort of political ploy, an agreement they made years ago.”
Dang. That was low, even for Warren Calhoun.
“You’re okay with that?” I propped a hip against the counter. “With marrying a man who doesn’t love you? Seems like you’re borrowing trouble, and I don’t think that’s the ‘something borrowed’ meant for your wedding day.”
“I know I should have more pride, but he’s just . . .” Her voice trailed off, and her eyes once again filled with a sadness so deep it nearly broke my heart. “He’s everything I want.”
“Is he?” I asked softly. “Truly?”
Gabi looked between us, and I knew instantly the moment she realized she’d said too much. A cloud crossed her eyes—a flash of panic—before she slipped on a mask of indifference.
“You didn’t hear any of that from me,” she said. “I should go.”
The door swung open and Caleb Montgomery came into the shop carrying a cardboard tray filled with coffee cups and a take-out bag from Dèjá Brew. “Carly Hartwell, just for you I snatched the last fudge brownie straight off the plate of some national news reporter from who-knows-where who then called me a two-bit hillbilly.” He snorted and set the bag on the counter. “I’m worth at least four bits. I mean, come on.”
Divorce attorney Caleb Montgomery was one of the town’s peacocks and was probably the least hillbilly of anyone in Darling County, with his fancy clothes and haircut, which cost a lot more than four bits. We’d been friends since second grade.
Gabi quickly set her hat on her head. “Look at the time. I best get going.”
“What about your potion?” I asked. “It’ll only take a second. . . .”
Emotion tumbled across her beautiful features. “I should go. Thank you for your time and for listening to me go on and on.” She dashed out the door.
Caleb lifted the tab on his coffee cup and an eyebrow at the same time. “Something I said?”
“Just your usual way with women.” Ainsley dug into the bag and pulled out a chocolate cookie.
Caleb smiled at her jab, taking it in stride. He was used to it. “At least I don’t have to bribe my mother-in-law with hooch to watch my kids.”
Ainsley bit into the cookie. “Not yet, leastways. Your time will come.”
A look of pure terror crossed his face—I wasn’t sure which comment hit him like a two-by-four. The fact that he might some day have a mother-in-law . . . or kids. He was a confirmed bachelor and liked it that way just fine. I, however, was determined to set him up. I had someone in mind, too, but getting them together was easier said than done considering they couldn’t abide being in the same room.
“Was that . . .” He gestured toward the door.
Crumbs littered the floor as Ainsley nodded and spoke around the cookie she was chewing. “Poor girl.” Poly happily pounced on the crumbs, lapping them up with a swift pink tongue. “If I were her I’d run and never look back.”
Caleb looked between us. “I give them six months. If that.” He had an uncanny knack for predicting how long a marriage would last. I’d never had the nerve to ask him if he thought Dylan and I could make it to happily-ever-after. There were some things this witch didn’t need to know.
“Only because she left without a love potion,” Ainsley said.
Poly stared up at her, hoping for more crumbs. He was out of luck.
“She was looking for a love potion?” Caleb set his coffee on the counter and leaned forward. “Spill.”
Ainsley and I filled him in on the strange visit—and on Katie Sue’s return as well.
His eyes widened. “I can’t believe Katie Sue is planning on going up against the Calhouns. It’s akin to playing with fire.”
“Maybe Katie Sue’s the one holding the matches,” I said, thinking about her possibly being a woman scorned. My skin tingled again. Trouble was in the air, and it swirled around Katie Sue like a mini tornado.
“Or she’s the one who’s going to end up in ashes,” he said, then added a dramatic “Duhn-duhn-duhhhhn.”
“Stop that,” I said, swatting him.
But he was on a roll and couldn’t be deterred. “Seems I’ve heard Warren Calhoun has a reputation for getting rid of people who cause him trouble. Isn’t that so, Ainsley?”
Her eyes alight, she nodded eagerly, a willing accomplice to his theatrics. “I heard that, too.”
Caleb said, “Didn’t he poison a rival who was inching too close in the polls?”
“That was a rumor,” I said. “That guy died of a heart attack.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” He tapped his coffee lid. “How about his campaign manager who vanished and still hasn’t been found?”
“He was found. In Switzerland with a lot of the Calhouns’ money.” I wrapped up my brownie and stuck it back in the bag. My stomach churned.
“Oh right. I forgot.” He winked. “Well, I’m sure I’ve read in the tabloids that his former mistress went missing.”
“Mistresses,” Ainsley cut in. “Plural.”
There was a playfulness in their eyes that told me they were teasing. But this all felt too real to me. “Alleged mistresses,” I said, feeling a lump growing in my throat.
“All I’m saying,” Caleb leaned in, “is that Katie Sue best be careful . . . or else.”
I could easily picture the “or else.” I had a good imagination.
Ainsley, however, apparently decided to act it out.
She staggered around making choking noises. Slamming shut her eyes, she stuck out her tongue, and collapsed into a spasmodic bundle, her yellow dress billowing about until she finally settled in for her eternal rest.
Her little death scene was loud and dramatic. Much like she was.
Caleb laughed as the ever-hopeful Poly tiptoed forward to sniff Ainsley’s outstretched fingers.
My stomach twisting, I said, “Don’t even joke about it.”
Excerpted from "One Potion in the Grave"
Copyright © 2014 Heather Blake.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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