Sweet Tea Witches, Book 1
It only takes a second for life to go to heck-in-a-hand-basket!
In less than twenty-four hours Pepper Dunn loses her job, her boyfriend, and her home.
It’s the worst day of her life.
But when Pepper discovers she’s a witch and has inherited the most important store in the magical town of Magnolia Cove, Alabama, she’s as happy as a pig in mud.
Too bad the shop is a familiar pet store and Pepper doesn’t like animals—not even a teensy bit. Determined to sell the shop and get the heck out of town, Pepper’s plans go haywire when she is accused of murder.
Thrust into a magical mystery, Pepper teams up with a mysterious private detective and a cat so traumatized by the murder that she’s not talking—and that cat could hold the key to Pepper’s innocence.
Now Pepper must avoid trouble, solve the mystery, and placate her new grandmother, who keeps a strict ten p.m. curfew that’s enforced by the talking end of her shotgun.
Sounds like a simple day in the life—as if. Can Pepper solve the murder or will she become the next victim of the Magnolia Cove murderer? And most importantly, will Pepper learn to love the animals she’s in charge of?
“I had the craziest dream last night.”
I walked into the bathroom wearing my signature Wonder Woman pajamas and Tweety Bird slippers, perfect attire for my twenty-five years. I found my roommate Sarah in her customized monogrammed pajamas like many good Southern gals owned. She ran a brush through her glossy hair.
I caught a quick glance of my crimson and honey hair as I squirted a line of paste on my toothbrush. Brown eyes peeked out from under my fringe of bangs and freckles constellated my nose. “Like, I’m so not kidding. I dreamed there was this guy, he looked kinda like an eighties rock star—black eyeliner, leather, hair teased up, the works. Anyway, he told me I needed to go with him or else.”
Sarah shot me a long, lazy glance. “Or else what?”
I scrubbed one side of my teeth before spitting in the basin. “Or else he would have to kill me.”
“Freaky,” she said without energy.
“I know,” I said with way too much enthusiasm. “I mean, I’ve never been crazy excited to go to work, but I’m definitely glad to not be dreaming about that psycho killer anymore.”
For a moment the dream took hold of me. The cold clutch of the man’s stare speared my heart. I gritted my teeth and shivered, throwing off the dread that had seeped its way into my bones. Like, freaky seeped into them, y’all.
“Pepper,” Sarah said, her voice thin. “Your rent check bounced.”
I spat again. “What?”
She shrugged, threw me an innocent smile. “Yeah. It bounced. Listen, this is the third time—”
I raised my hand to stop her. “I’m working today. I’ll have the money by the time I come home. I promise.”
“I can’t keep doing this. Covering for you.”
I cringed. “I know. I’m sorry.”
She sighed. “Your mail is on the table.”
“Thanks,” I said weakly.
“Pepper, I’m serious about the rent money.”
I nodded. “I know. I gave it to Caleb to deposit. I don’t know what happened.”
Sarah flipped the ends of her hair. “Maybe that was your problem.”
Caleb, my boyfriend of a whopping three months, was supposed to have deposited the cold hard cash I’d given him. My waitressing shift had such weird hours I wasn’t always able to make it to the bank during normal operating hours, and I didn’t like putting money in the deposit box.
I glanced at my watch. Nine o’clock on a Sunday. No way Caleb was awake so I could call him and find out what the heck had happened to my money. Plus, if I didn’t hurry, I’d be late for opening. So I got my butt in gear and headed to work.
I grabbed my mail, which included a padded manila envelope, and walked to my super cool ’98 Camry.
The super cool part was a joke.
I filled the radiator to the brim, and I crossed my fingers that it wouldn’t overheat on the short drive to Safari Club, the rainforest-themed restaurant where I was waitress extraordinaire.
Well, maybe not extraordinaire, but definitely above average, if I said so myself.
I fired up the engine and drove through the hotter-than-heck September Nashville streets. I was heading to an awesome job where I served up sweet tea, refilled milk in plastic kid’s cups, and magically produced crackers whenever a toddler’s lower lip started to tremble—all while grinning ear to ear, or at least faking it until my grin felt reasonably real.
Bob poked his head out of his office. “Pepper, I need to see you.”
“Sure thing, boss,” I said.
Bob Clements was a total nerd, which made him an awesome restaurant manager—really. With his pocket protector and starched shirts, he was as together as a dessert trifle built out of precisely measured strawberry shortcake layers.
And he was a great shoulder if you ever needed one to cry on. When my father had died of cancer two years ago, Bob’s had quickly soaked with my tears. I confided in him, thought of him as an uncle, though we were about as related as a possum and a raccoon.
Bob clasped his hands on the desk between us. “Pepper, you know that on God’s green earth, you are like a second daughter to me. Or, a first daughter. Heck, you’d be my only daughter. You know that, right?”
I nodded. “Sure.”
He pushed up his nerdy black glasses. “Which is why it hurts me to have to tell you this.”
I sat up straighter. What could be so bad that it would hurt his heart? His pocket-protected heart at that.
“Becky said she saw you spit in a table’s food.”
I gasped. “Never. I would never do that.”
Bob shrugged. “Pepper, I know you wouldn’t. Problem is, Becky’s already taken the complaint to the district manager. The whole thing is out of my hands. Safari Club can’t take an accusation like that lightly.”
A bead of sweat trickled down the slope of my nose. It dangled from the tip until I wiped it off with the back of my hand. “I would never do that. Becky’s got it out for me. Ever since I won the contest to see who could wear the most buttons.”
I gestured at my green shirt with the giant parrot stitched on the boob. About a dozen buttons with slogans from Life’s a Beach to the ever-winning I Need Vitamin Sea were splattered all over my clothing.
Bob sighed. “Listen, Pepper. There’s nothing I can do. I have to let you go.”
Tears swelled in my eyes. Holy crap. This was rent money. This was student loan money. This was all money.
Me, being the optimist, when I entered college, I’d signed up for a major in English Literature, not realizing that a degree in said major didn’t qualify me to do squat. And now I owed money for it.
Yeah, I agree, it had been a stupid choice in a degree, with little more than offering me a job as an administrative assistant.
I made more money waiting tables.
Well, not anymore apparently.
Bob patted me awkwardly on the shoulder as way of goodbye. I left his office and headed to my locker to grab my purse. Becky the Liar eyed me as I strode past. I ignored her and grabbed my bag. I slammed the steel door to my locker, but it caught my thumb, sending a jolt of pain radiating up my arm.
“Smooth move,” Becky said.
Anger flared in me. Now, being a nice girl, I wasn’t prone to saying mean things. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all, my father had told me my whole life. So I didn’t say anything to Becky—not about how she’d lied, about what an evil person she was, about how I thought she grew horns on her head when people weren’t looking.
Nope. I kept my mouth shut and locked my feelings in my chest.
I stuck my throbbing digit in my mouth, grabbed a cup of tap water and headed out past the animatronic gorillas pounding their chests and cheery-eyed kids watching them in awe.
When I reached my car, I popped the hood and poured the cup into the radiator. Last thing I needed was for my Camry to strand me on the side of the road.
Because I was out of a job and had no way to pay for repairs.
My mind raced. What were my options?
I glanced at my watch. It was almost eleven in the morning. Caleb should be up. Maybe I could find out about the rent, weep desperately on his lap about losing my job, about how horrible my life had become in less than an hour.
Sounded like a solid plan.
I slammed the hood. A cat with stiff, gray fur padded on top of my car. I shooed the animal away. “Scat, cat. I’m allergic. Go away.”
The animal blinked at me and jumped to the ground. It’s not that I don’t like animals; it’s more that I don’t care for them.
They just weren’t my thing, y’all. They made me sneeze, made my skin erupt into hives, made my throat swell. Let me just put it this way—if hell was a day at the zoo, I’d be stuck there for eternity.
I threw my purse in the seat and cranked the engine. It spat to life. The car rocked as it idled.
I fished my phone from my purse and dialed Caleb’s number.
“Hey, babe, what’s going on?”
“I just got fired.” I held back the tears that threatened to rush from me.
“Oh, babe, that’s horrible.”
“Yeah.” I waited for Caleb to tell me to come over. After all, we’d been dating three months and I was clearly subliminally requesting a shoulder to cry on. This was the time when he needed to be my rock and I could find out about the stuff our relationship was made of.
“Yeah, babe, I’d ask you to come over, but football’s going to be on soon and I’ve got my fantasy team to keep an eye on.”
I swear I heard a record scratch somewhere. You know, the kind of scratch that plays in movies when the main character doesn’t get the answer they’re expecting.
What was that he said?
“So I can’t come over?”
“How about we meet up later?”
I nearly yanked my hair from my head. “Sure. I’ll come over later.”
So I’d been fired for something I didn’t do, and my boyfriend didn’t give a rat’s behind because clearly fantasy football was more important than me.
What else could go wrong with today?
Oh wait. It had already gone wrong.
“Sarah said my check bounced. You deposited the money I gave you, right?”
“Umm…oh sure, I did that. I may not have done it right away, but I did do it.”
I groaned. Great. So the check might not clear for another day. What was I supposed to tell Sarah?
A limp, “Thanks,” was all I could think to say.
I hung up and headed for the apartment. Sarah was a friend of a friend. The arrangement worked out okay except for today, apparently. She wanted to be a singer, which were a dime a dozen in Nashville, and I wanted to be a, well…I didn’t know what I wanted to be yet. I was still trying to figure that out.
But I knew for sure one of the things I didn’t want to be was homeless.
My mind whirled on the drive home. I thought about the man in the dream. About his streaming black hair and dark eyes.
I passed an abandoned building, and for a moment I thought I saw him. My head whipped back to look, but nothing was there except a lone newspaper blowing in the wind. I reached my building and slid into an empty spot.
My gaze danced around the car until it landed on the padded envelope.
I crossed my fingers. “Please be a million dollars in large bills.”
I crushed it between my hands. “Doesn’t feel like cash.”
The return address was labeled Magnolia Cove, Alabama.
I’d never heard of such a place.
I ripped open the top, thinking that maybe if it was a million dollars in large bills, I could buy myself a new boyfriend, one who cared.
When I didn’t see any money, my hopes crashed and burned. I dug in and pulled out something wrapped in bubble packaging. I tapped it into my palm. A golden key slipped out. A large red stone, one I almost wanted to believe was a ruby, sat fixed in the handle. Curling scrollwork etched the shank. The biting end, the part that got inserted into a lock, was thick and well-worn.
“What the heck is this?”
I reached into the package again and found a slip of paper.
My dear Pepper,
Though we’ve never met, I’ve come to understand that you’re my one relative able to accept my gift. Keep it safe and it will treat you well.
Uncle Donovan? I didn’t have an uncle named Donovan. Well, that may or may not have been true, actually. My father had told me that my mother died when I was born, but he didn’t talk about her family.
And he never mentioned an Uncle Donovan.
My gaze flickered from the package. A gray cat that looked exactly like the one from earlier sat on my hood.
I beeped my horn. “Scat!”
The cat jumped off, and I pushed open the door, dreading the ascent to my apartment.
Sarah would be there. She’d want to know things. Like when I’d be able to pay the rent.
And I wouldn’t have answers.
It was all very ugly.
And the worst of it was, I wanted to be responsible. Heck, I didn’t want to screw people out of money. I was a good person, one trying her best, but sometimes…
Sometimes life just threw turdballs at you when all you were trying to do was paint freakin’ rainbows.
Could someone please just give me a new palette of paint?
Anyway, I dragged myself up the stairs to my apartment. I fiddled with my keys until I found the right one and pressed it into the lock.
Only it wouldn’t fit. Or turn. Or do things that it’s supposed to—like work.
The knob twisted from the opposite side. Sarah stood in the frame, her big, bulky boyfriend, Bruce, beside her.
A stray red hair fell into my face. I brushed it back and smiled, even though my stomach was souring by the moment. “Something happen to the locks?”
Sarah twirled a strand of curly brown hair around one finger. “Bruce decided he should just move in and take your place. Unless you have the money. Do you?”
I rubbed the back of my neck nervously. “Okay, yeah, about that. I don’t.”
Sarah glanced at Bruce. He shook his head. “Wish you could stay, Pepper, we do, but it doesn’t look like this is gonna work.”
I threaded my hands together and brought them to my chest. “Please, I was just fired.”
Sarah and Bruce exchanged a glance.
A glance that said that now I definitely wouldn’t be able to afford rent.
“Sarah, please. I’ll get you the money.”
She shook her head. “Sorry. I can’t let you in. You’ve got to find another place to live.”
“What about my stuff?” I said.
Sarah puckered her lips into an O. “Once you know where you’re going, I’ll let you in to move it all out.”
My jaw dropped. “What? Where am I supposed to go?”
Bruce pushed forward, blocking my path. “Not our problem. You should’ve thought of that before your check bounced.”
With that the door slammed shut, sealing them inside with my meager belongings.
I’d lost my job, my boyfriend cared more about fantasy football than me and now I was homeless—like, officially.
Oh, had I forgotten to mention that yesterday was my twenty-fifth birthday?
Yep, this year was just looking better and better every moment.
Not. Like at all.
I fisted my hands, trying to shove away the geyser of emotions threatening to surface. I could stay and pound on the door, begging Sarah to let me in, or I could head to my car.
I scuffed my feet all the way down the stairs. Outside sat that darn cat. It licked the tip of its tail. When it saw me, the cat stopped.
It was like the darn thing was waiting for me.
The glass door to the outside screeched as it opened. The cat dodged getting hit, scampering around and out in front of me.
“Scat, cat,” I said. “I’ve already told you I don’t like felines. Or dogs. Or any animals in particular.”
I rounded the corner to find a man perched atop my car. My knees locked.
It was the man from my dream. The death-metal dude who looked like he was about to croon out some Motley Crue with a pinch of Slash on the side.
I cocked my head and blinked.
He was squatting when I first saw him, but then our eyes speared and he straightened. He wore black from head to foot. His long, ebony hair flowed down his back and he wore clunky silver rings on his fingers and eyeliner rimmed his eyes.
Again, same dude from my dream.
My heart knocked against my ribs.
I opened my mouth to ask him where his band was playing that night and if I could have a free ticket, but then he snapped his fingers. A shimmering blue light flickered atop his hand.
“Pepper Dunn,” he said. His voice dripped like velvet smog rolling over a lake.
A chill swept up my back. There was no reason for it to, but something about this guy gave me the heebie-jeebies. “Who wants to know?”
He ignored the question. “You need to come with me.”
I quirked a brow. Okay, so I might be a failure when it comes to picking boyfriends, but something told me this guy was trouble, and I mean TROUBLE, all in caps with an exclamation point at the end.
“What if I don’t come with you?”
I was afraid to hear him answer, because he’d already proclaimed it in my dream.
He narrowed his gaze. His voice rumbled when he said, “Then you die.”