Sweet Tea Witches, Book 6
It’s Pepper Dunn’s first Halloween in magical Magnolia Cove, Alabama. She can’t wait to experience all her home has to offer—haunted houses, real ghosts, great fried food. And for one night, regular folks are invited to enter this town of witches.
But when Rufus Mayes appears, Halloween looks to go haywire. But Rufus vows not to bother Pepper. Instead, he needs her.
He’s promised a buyer one of Magnolia Cove’s sacred objects, a watch that manipulates time. But the object is too volatile to sell. Rufus needs Pepper’s help to trade a decoy.
When the hand-off goes terribly wrong and the buyer winds up dead, it looks like a murderer is loose in Magnolia Cove.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the watch breaks and Pepper and her family find themselves forced to relive Halloween everyday. Even worse, the murderer is still loose and wreaking havoc in a town that’s already in plunged into chaos.
Can Pepper find the murderer or will she become the next victim? More importantly, can she free Magnolia Cove from eternal Halloween, or will the town be forced to relive the same day forever?
The day started out completely ordinary. Well, if you call being able to communicate with animals and living in a magical town inhabited by witches ordinary, that is.
I consider that normal. Didn’t use to. If someone had told me a few months ago that all those things were run-of-the-mill, I would’ve wondered which cotton-picking loony bin they had escaped from.
But not now. Now I thought flying on a cast-iron skillet, talking cats and baby dragons were as everyday as banana pudding.
Oh, and murder. I just about figured murder was commonplace since it happened almost every other week in Magnolia Cove.
Wait. I’m talking too much, aren’t I?
Let me go back.
No. Let me sum up.
My name’s Pepper Dunn, and I’m a witch, Southern style. Southern as in Alabama girl Southern. Down here we ride cast-iron skillets instead of brooms, snort magic from our noses—at least my long-lost grandmother does—and we toast with glasses of refreshing sweetened iced tea.
I’m involved with a man who’s half wizard, half werewolf. No, he’s not the shifting kind of pup. He’s old-school, must be chained on the full moon or else he’ll destroy things—houses, animals, people.
Yep. You heard that right. He’s a dangerous beast. I know I could use my animal communicating ability to talk to him, reach the man inside the creature. I’ve done it before. Only Axel doesn’t remember.
That’s his name—Axel. Sexy, right?
Just wait till you see him. He’s got dark hair that brushes the tops of his shoulders, smoldering blue eyes that bore right into you—well, me. They make my heart flutter in my neck, my stomach roll over and my nether regions tingle. Seriously. What this guy does to me should be illegal.
Don’t worry, we’re taking it slow. But I can’t help that his touch sends flames licking across my skin.
Before I need to excuse myself into a cold shower, let’s get to where we are.
It’s Halloween. The day before, in fact. I stood in the pet shop I’d inherited from my Uncle Donovan. It’s not just any pet shop. At Familiar Place I match witches with their familiars. Neat, huh?
It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life.
Anyway, Magnolia Cove looked like Halloween had vomited all over it. In a good way. Orange and black streamers hung from the storefronts. They blew in the cool autumn breeze. Purple and green floral arrangements sprouted from window boxes. Life-size plastic skeletons, man-sized inflatable spiders and buzzard-sized bats were all propped along Bubbling Cauldron Road, my town’s version of Main Street.
Y’all, this super spooky town was ready for a great time. Magnolia Cove was so awesome that even the scent of an apple harvest seemed to float in the air.
I’d just accepted a delivery from Magical Services, Inc., an animal shipping company. The crate was supposed to hold a small colony of bats. My uncle had assured me that whenever Halloween rolled around, witches liked to buy bats as familiars.
Don’t ask me why. I was still trying to figure out how to keep a dragon as a pet, much less try to decipher what to do with a bat.
The bell above the door tinkled. Axel Reign entered. My breath hitched at the sight of him. Elephants could balance on top of his wide shoulders, and the heat blazing in his eyes made my cheeks warm in embarrassment.
I glanced shyly at the box.
“Hey,” he said, his voice so low it was nearly a grumble.
Axel strode over. The air around him crackled with energy. There was something naturally electric about him. It surprised me that touching him didn’t make my hair stand up as if I’d pressed my finger into an electrical socket.
Axel leaned on the counter, placing himself in my direct line of sight. His gaze drilled into me, sending my stomach quivering. My knees liquefied. In fact, I think every bone in my body dissolved.
“Get me a present?”
I tucked a strand of hair behind an ear in a pathetic attempt to hide my body’s reaction to him. Right. He’d never notice my burning cheeks or that I was avoiding his gaze because I wanted to pounce on him.
“Um. Yeah. If you consider about a dozen bats a present, then they’re all yours.”
He slid his rear onto the counter and drummed his fingers on the glass. “I was hoping it was more along the lines of one of those boxes you get for the man in your life. You know, the ones containing barbecuing equipment, survival stuff, that sort of thing.”
I grabbed a crowbar and proceeded to jack it under the lid. “You think very highly of yourself.”
He laughed. “I think very highly of you. Here. Let me help you with that.”
I handed him the crowbar. “Thank goodness. Opening crates is not something I’m good at. But I bet with all your muscles you could make short work of it.”
“As long as it’s not magically locked, this should be easy.”
Axel popped open the lid. As if a thousand pounds of pressure were building beneath, the top blew. A plume of smoke shot to the ceiling. Fog spilled out into the room, billowing along the floor.
I coughed and waved the air. Axel pulled me to the side. “Get back, Pepper.”
“I didn’t know bats needed dry ice,” I croaked. “That company’s going to get an earful from me.”
But Axel didn’t look amused. His jaw clenched, and his fists were tight by his sides. Not to mention his thighs seriously bulged in his jeans. Sorry. Couldn’t help but look.
Axel raised a hand. A sudden burst of air whirled from his palm. The fog contracted and then parted like a knife had sliced it.
A form rose from the smoke. He wore black leather pants, a dark shirt and an ebony duster. Could have been made of leather. Could also have been pleather. It was hard to tell.
Chains dangled from his belt and boots. Long dark hair rolled down his back, and black eyeliner rimmed his eyes.
“Rufus,” I said, shocked.
How the heck had he gotten into Magnolia Cove?
Rufus Mayes was my sworn enemy. Not because he wanted to be a rock star and wasn’t. No. I wish it were that simple. Rufus Mayes had a nasty habit of trying to steal my powers.
Okay, he’d only sort of succeeded once, but that one time wreaked absolute havoc. The werewolf inside Axel had been unleashed. The police chased him down while my family and I tried to stop Rufus from stealing a bottomless bag and using it to swallow the town.
Yes, I know it sounds crazy, but cross my heart and hope to die, that’s what happened.
Axel kept his hand raised. If Rufus made one move, I knew Axel would blast him into next week. “You’re not supposed to be here. The police find out about this and you’ll be arrested. Thrown in jail.”
Rufus smiled smugly. “I wish it was that easy. You see, I’m here because I need your help.”
Axel scoffed. “You must be mistaking me for someone who was born yesterday.”
Confusion crossed Rufus’s face. “You’re too old to have been born yesterday.”
“It’s a saying,” Axel growled.
“Right.” Rufus stepped forward. He moved like a serpent. Or a panther. Yeah, more like a panther. He was a predator. I shivered, thinking that I was his prey. After all, I’d been the reason that he’d appeared in town before.
I am what’s called a head witch. My magic comes from my mind. Supposedly what I can accomplish is limitless, but yada, yada, yada, I don’t really care. I had enough going on just feeding and watering the animals in Familiar Place. I didn’t have time to master telekinesis or whatever it was I could do.
Rufus’s gaze speared me. His lips parted slowly. My stomach churned. “I’ve come to warn you. If you don’t help me, all of Magnolia Cove might be in danger.”
Axel and I exchanged a look that seemed to last forever. I wanted to grab Rufus by the collar and say, What? Are we in danger from you? That’s usually who causes all our problems.
But I didn’t. Instead I gave Axel a small nod. He lowered his hand and took a protective step in front of me.
“Talk, Rufus. Tell us what’s going on.”
Rufus smirked like he’d just won a Price Is Right trip to Cancun. I ground my teeth. “This better be legitimate. If it’s not, we’re going to send you back to whatever hole you crawled out of. And it might not be in one piece.”
“Testy, testy, Pepper Dunn. I don’t know what I did to be the recipient of such venom.”
“You don’t know what you’ve done? You spelled me so that I couldn’t work my magic without you taking possession of it.” I shot him a look full of daggers. “You know exactly what you’ve done.”
He raised his palms in surrender. “Okay, so I do know what I’ve done. I’m sorry. Listen, we need to let bygones wash away.”
“Cut to the chase, Mayes,” Axel snarled. “Before I lose my temper and kick you out of town. Literally.”
“Very well.” Rufus strode to a stool and sat. “Can I sit down? It was very cramped in there. You wouldn’t believe how hard it was to bribe a deliveryman to stick me in a box.”
I wagged a finger at him pathetically. “You owe me.”
“Put it on my tab.” He clasped his hands over one knee. “Shall I explain, or would we like to play round-robin for the rest of the afternoon? Sun is setting, wolf. Full moon is rising.”
“That’s not for two nights.”
Rufus raked his fingers through his hair. “All right. If you must know, I may or may not have told someone that Magnolia Cove houses one of the most guarded magical objects in the country, if not the world.”
I rolled my eyes. “Any numbskull knows we have the Vault.”
The Vault was a building that housed rare and potentially dangerous objects of power. They weren’t necessarily dangerous because of the destruction they could cause, but because of what they could gift to people.
For instance, one of the objects was an energetic baseball that always scored home runs. Can you imagine the havoc it would wreak if a professional sports team got hold of it?
And let’s not even think about the government. No telling what they’d do if they knew about half the objects we stored.
Rufus tapped the air with his finger. “Ah, but I’m not talking about any object. I’m talking about the time watch.”
Axel’s eyes flared. They burned bright blue. “The time watch?”
Rufus smirked. “Yes. You know, the kind that fits in your pocket?”
“I realize what you’re talking about. It’s a myth.”
Rufus slowly shook his head. “Not a myth. Very much not a myth.”
“How do you know?” I said.
His eyes danced with amusement as he leveled his dark gaze on me. “I’ve seen it. When I went after that ridiculous bottomless bag, I saw the thing.”
The two men stared each other down like they were in a no-blinking contest. Axel broke first. “You’re sure that’s what it was?”
I fisted a hand to my hip. “Do one of y’all mind telling me exactly what’s going on? I’ve been advertising bats for weeks, and now I won’t have any for the influx of folks coming to town tomorrow for the Halloween weekend.”
Axel started. “The time piece isn’t an ordinary pocket watch.”
“I gathered that.”
“There are rumors.”
“All true,” Rufus said.
Axel scowled. “There are rumors that the time watch gives the wearer the ability to move through time.”
I paused. My gaze darted from Axel to Rufus and back. “You mean, like a time machine.”
“Bravo,” Rufus said, clapping. “That’s exactly right.” He leaned over and held my gaze with eyes glimmering so bright my breath hitched. “And the biggest, meanest baddy you will ever meet is on their way to get it.”
“Who?” I said, figuring that since I’d been in Magnolia Cove, I’d met werewolves, gangsters and vampires. They were all scary, but I doubted anyone that Rufus could throw at me would fill me with a worse fear than I’d already felt.
Rufus didn’t answer, so I nudged him. “Who? Who’s so scary?”
“Not a who, a what.”
I rolled my eyes. “Okay. What’s so scary?”
I frowned. “A gorgon? For some reason my brain isn’t working. What’s that?”
Axel raked his fingers down his jaw. “Think snakes for hair and the ability to freeze men with one look.”
Cold fear rolled down my back. “You can’t be serious. Are you talking about Medusa?”
Rufus nodded. “That’s exactly right. One wrong look and you’re dead.”