Southern Hauntings

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Southern Hauntings

Sweet Tea Witches, Book 11

When Pepper Dunn purchases a cat figurine at a yard sale, she has no idea what she’s in store for. First, a crazy woman tells Pepper that owning the item will get her killed, then Pepper discovers the item is haunted by the spirit of a dead cat.

As if things couldn’t get worse, when a murder is traced back to the cat figurine, it looks like owning the object may in fact, get Pepper killed. But Pepper is no coward—she won’t back away from a situation simply out of fear.

But life becomes more complicated when Pepper’s personal life gets out of whack. Turns out Grandma Betty has a secret admirer and Betty is intent on discovering that person’s identity, even if it means she’s tracking a killer.

Then Axel makes a proposal that freaks Pepper out. Will she finally accept the fact that she and Axel are meant for happily ever after? Or will solving a murder not only get in the way of her happiness, but also get her killed?

Chapter One

“Why exactly did you drag me here?”

I stared at a lawn sprinkled with knickknacks, figurines, cabinets, musical instruments and other various garage sale items.

It looked like the house had gotten tired of all its belongings and decided that in order to start fresh, the best thing would be to vomit out its insides.

“I thought you’d want to see something.”

My grandmother, Betty Craple, had called me back from clear across the state in Haunted Hollow, Alabama, to come behold the magic of a witch yard sale.

Not that I’d seen anything magical—unless you counted a fish-shaped, copper-colored mold that smelled strangely of vanilla. That seemed pretty magical.

Betty tugged at her head of white curls. Her beady eyes sparked with mischief. “I call this magical.”

She dipped a hand into her purse. The whole time her gaze darted around to make sure no one caught her sneaking something out.

My cousin Amelia bounced up. She had a blonde pixie cut and a heart-shaped face with delicate features. She winked at me and said in a loud voice, “What’s that you’re hiding?”

“Dagnabbit, Amelia,” Betty snapped. “I’m trying not to draw attention to myself.”

Amelia plucked at her hair. “Oh, sorry.” She smiled at me. “I didn’t mean to intrude.”

Betty’s fingers were curled around an object. They opened to reveal a small golden cat figurine.

Betty smiled brightly. “See? Isn’t this wonderful?”

I scratched my head. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but I didn’t understand why this little hunk of metal was worth secreting away in her purse.

My other cousin Cordelia drifted over, her arms full of yard sale treasures. “Is that what I think it is?”

Betty nodded proudly. “It sure is.”

Cordelia leaned in to trace her finger over the delicate ears. “Wow. I never thought I’d see one of those while I lived.”

Amelia dipped her nose between Betty and I. “Oh wow. Y’all are right. Wow. I never thought I’d see one, either.” She elbowed our grandmother. “Where’d you find it?”

Betty pointed to a table filled with curiosities. “Right over there.”

Okay, the suspense was definitely killing me. “Would someone like to tell me what it is?”

“If I’m not mistaken, that is a critterling. Some folks also call them critter carriers, but I believe critterling is the term we use in this part of the country.”

The new voice came from behind us. I turned to find a man in his early thirties with sparkling blue eyes and a hint of mischief in his smile as he patiently studied us. His strawberry-blond hair was brushed off his forehead and clipped neatly over his ears. The young man wore khakis and a blue button-down that made him look more like a big box store employee than someone trolling a yard sale.

“Howdy, y’all. I’m Charlie James Hix.” He splayed his fingers over his heart. “But you can call me CJ for short.”

I extended my hand. “How do you do, CJ?”

He took it like a gentleman and held it in his for a moment before gently releasing me. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“I’m Pepper Dunn, and this is my grandmother, Betty Craple, and my cousins, Amelia and Cordelia.”

Everyone said hello, and CJ replied with “ma’am” and “nice to meet you.”

I bit back a smile. CJ was nothing if not ridiculously charming in a boyish way. Dimples peeked out from his cheeks, and the spark in his eyes made him seem friendly. But the best thing about him was that CJ’s voice held a tone of goofy that I’d never heard rivaled.

He watched with interest as I took the figurine gently from Betty. “What’s a critterling? That is how you said it, right?”

“Right. Think of it as two words—critter, for animal, and ling…which isn’t really much of a word but more of an add-on.”

He smiled. “Simply put, a critterling is a familiar holder. It’s a way to carry your familiar’s spirit if you’re traveling and can’t take your animal with you,” he explained. “They’re very rare, and I’m surprised I didn’t come across this little beauty earlier. I tell you, if I had, I would’ve bought it up.” He placed a hand beside his mouth as if about to reveal a deep secret. “Half of the Magnolia Cove Familiar Society would’ve been fighting over it like cats and dogs.”

I frowned. “Magnolia Cove Familiar Society?”

He fisted a hand to his hip and wagged a finger, playfully chastising me. “Now, Miss Dunn, don’t tell me you haven’t heard of us? Why, I thought every witch in these parts knew about our little club.”

So, let me go back. In case y’all were wondering, my name’s Pepper Dunn and you guessed it, I’m a witch. Oh, and I live in a magical town called Magnolia Cove. Only witches live here, and generally only witches can find the place, except for a couple of days a year that are freakish anomalies.

Okay, maybe they’re not freakish, but they are outliers and not exactly worth mentioning at the moment.

I stared at the delicate gold feline. Eye sockets plugged with emeralds glinted in the sunshine. The figure was long and delicate, reminding me of an Egyptian cat more than something I’d find in Magnolia Cove.

“A critterling,” I repeated.

He smiled again. “That’s what it is. The owner of the house recently passed away.” CJ pointed to a name tag across his chest that read REALTOR. “I’m the Realtor on the estate. Mr. Albod was a distinguished wizard when it came to familiars. He never left home without one—unless he towed his critterling with him, that was.”

CJ glanced whimsically into the distance. “I remember his little familiar Peaches. She was a wonderful feline. But alas, we can’t all live forever.”

He snapped out of his reverie and shivered. “Golly gee! Just thinking about it gives me the willies. Anyway, what do you do here in town, Pepper Dunn?”

It was my time to shine. Not that I wanted to shine and steal anyone’s limelight, but my profession was important to me. “I own the familiar store in town, Familiar Place.”

CJ gasped. “Now how could I not have known that? Being a member of the familiar society and all. You would think I’d be much more informed on who owned the shop. But really, those of us in the familiar society don’t buy familiars; instead we work to strengthen the connections we have with our current animals.”

“That sounds wonderful,” I said honestly.

CJ tapped the gold statue. “But this little guy was very loved. Mr. Albod wouldn’t have given it away for anything. After he passed, his family took what they wanted and decided to sell the rest.” CJ opened his arms and gestured to the covered lawn. “So we’re having this sale.”

I stared at the figurine. “So your familiar’s power can transfer into this little nugget, and then you travel without the body?”

He clapped his hands. “Now don’t ask me how it works because Mr. Albod was close with his secrets. But if I knew Mr. Albod”—he leaned over conspiratorially—“and I think I knew him fairly well, then that there critterling should still work beautifully. Granted that you know how to use.”

Betty nudged me. “Well? You gonna get it?”

I wrapped an arm around Betty. “Of course I want it. It’s beautiful. Thank you for finding it.”

CJ clapped Betty on the shoulder. “I should congratulate you for finding this treasure. It was one of Mr. Albod’s favorites.” He rubbed his chin. “I wonder if I should take you with me around the rest of the sale, see what other important objects we can find.”

Betty pulled her corncob pipe from a pocket and clamped it between her teeth. “No thanks. I’ve found one for today. That’s enough.”

I pulled money from my purse and handed it to CJ.

“Now where is someone with change when you need it?” He shook his head. “Let me find one of the cashiers.” He craned his neck to get a better look at the folks sprinkled about the lawn. “I swear, there’s just never the right person at the right time around here.” He smiled gently. “But no worries, I’ll get it fixed. I wanted to wear a fanny pack and hand out change, but the Albods wouldn’t let me. ‘No, no,’ the kids said, ‘just help folks.’”

CJ spotted someone and pointed. “Oh! I found her. You just hold on to your hat, Miss Dunn. I’ll be back in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”

Betty brushed her hands. “My work is done here. You got what you came for, Pepper.”

I shook my head in confusion. “I didn’t come for this. You called me, remember?”

“Same thing.” She flicked her head toward Amelia and Cordelia. “Come on, girls. I saw someone selling funnel cakes in the house. What d’you say we grab one?”

Cordelia smirked. “Do they have calories?”

Betty grinned liked the devil. “How about I promise they won’t?”

Cordelia charged forward. “Sounds perfect to me.”

Amelia nudged my shoulder. “You want one?”

“No thanks. I’ll get my change and be right up.”

As soon as they were gone, an old woman wearing a flowing tie-dyed dress approached. Tangled hair sat in a messy bun atop her head. I waited to see if a bird would pop out.

I was wondering if I should keep a hand on my wallet when she pointed a gnarled finger at me.

“Be careful, girl,” she whispered.

I glanced over my shoulder, looking to see who this woman was speaking to.

She reached her twisted fingers toward the critterling. “You must be careful.”

I shrank back. “Oh. Okay.” I wasn’t an expert on dealing with crazy.

Now that I thought about it, I was at a yard sale. This was as good a place as any to encounter crazy, wasn’t it? Maybe I should be more realistic.

Or at least lower my standards when it came to the types of folks I expected to find hiding in a lawn sprinkled with knickknacks.

Yes, the second option made a heck of a lot more sense.

The woman’s dark eyes shifted right and left. “Be careful, girl. That cat holds strange power.”

Okay, so crazy was definitely talking to me. Great. I peered around her looking for CJ, but he was embroiled in a conversation with a man wearing a mustache like Colonel Sanders.

She reached another gnarled hand for the figurine. I dodged her grasp.

“Okay, well. Thank you for the warning about it, but I’m just fine, okay? I know what it is. I know I can place a familiar’s power in it. Not that I know how,” I mumbled more to myself than her, “but I’ll figure it out. It’s not like I started working craft yesterday.”

Yesterday wasn’t too far off the mark, actually. It had been many months since I discovered I was a witch and my powers were getting stronger, but there was still a world of knowledge to learn.

The woman’s raspy voice snapped me back to attention. “I’m not talking about the familiar power it can hold, girl. I’m talking about it—the figure.”

She poked her gnarled nose toward me. “Whoever owns that cat is cursed.”

“Oh, well. A curse.” I grimaced. “That can’t be a good thing.”

She raised her hands to the sky. “It isn’t.” Her voice deepened, taking on an ominous tone. Her eyes squinted, and her mouth twisted in a snarl. “Whoever owns that cat is cursed to die!”