Sweet Tea Witches, Book 3
Just when Pepper Dunn starts accepting her ability to communicate with animals she’s thrown for a loop—an egg containing a baby dragon winds up on her doorstep.
Convinced the creature will grow up to become a destructive force of nature, Pepper gives the dragon to the first person interested in buying—a traveling magician named Mysterio, who claims he can communicate with the dead.
Relieved to be free of the creature, Pepper’s world turns upside down when Mysterio reveals that he has a message for Pepper—from her dead mother. Pepper can’t wait to discover what it is. But before she has a chance to find out, Mysterio is murdered.
Left with a set of clues, Pepper is determined to discover the information her mother wanted her to know. But will untangling the mess of clues lead Pepper on the right path, or will it lead her straight into the hands of the murderer?
I stared at the egg laying on my counter. It was a deep plum jewel tone. Beautiful, really. Actually, gorgeous. If the darned egg would just stay that way, beautiful and purple and completely intact, there wouldn’t be a problem.
But there was a problem.
The thing was cracking right open.
That’s right. That thing was hatching as if it was dying of thirst and the creature inside knew I held a glass of the finest sweet tea.
Which I did.
I moved away from the quivering egg. “What am I supposed to do with a dragon?”
Axel Reign, aka Mr. Sexy, wove strong fingers through his dark locks. “Raise it?”
“That’s not funny.”
“I don’t know, Pepper. I guess you’re supposed to sell it to a witch for her familiar. Why else would Donovan have ordered it?”
Yes y’all, that’s right. The name’s Pepper Dunn and I’m a witch. Oh, and I run a sweet little pet shop in the magical town of Magnolia Cove, Alabama. The store’s called Familiar Place, and I specialize in matching witches with their pet familiars.
Not all witches have familiars. I don’t. A lot do, and I realize it’s ironic that I am minus one furry little critter. But oh, well.
I also didn’t always own this shop. My Great-Uncle Donovan left it to me several weeks ago. I’m still learning the lay of the land, and about magic. I had no idea I was related to witches—or was even a witch myself before receiving a letter and moving here. It also started a wild chain of adventures since then. Ending up with a special-delivery of a dragon’s egg.
A large chunk of egg flew from the apex of the shell and landed on the linoleum floor. I gasped. Y’all, I wasn’t trying to hide my fear. I was seriously nervous about a dragon.
I mean, a dragon.
What in tarnation was I supposed to do with a fire-breathing, treasure-stealing creature?
I shot Axel an expression filled with fear. He crossed to me and threaded his fingers through mine. “It’s going to be okay.”
I gripped his hand tightly. “I have a seriously hard time believing that.” A fissure ripped along the side of the egg. “Why would Uncle Donovan have ordered a dragon? A dragon, Axel. It’ll grow a thousand feet high. Destroy all of Magnolia Cove. Eat people. People.”
Axel stroked my arm. “It might be a vegetarian dragon.”
I glared at him and he chuckled. “Come on. It’s probably just like a dog. Could be all in how you raise it.”
“Sure,” I mumbled. “Whatever you say.”
One of the kittens clawed her way up the side of the cage. “What is it?” she said.
“It smells funny,” one of the puppies yipped.
Oh, that’s right. I might’ve forgotten to tell you. I can communicate with animals. It’s part of what makes me so good at matching witches and familiars.
It wasn’t always like that. Before I inherited my witchy powers, I could barely communicate with people, much less animals.
That’s not true. I can communicate with people. Sane ones anyway.
Suddenly half the egg shell blew outward, clattering across the floor. I ducked in fear, and then realized I was being ridiculous.
Axel pulled me up. “It’s just a baby.”
“This could be like in Alien,” I said. “Just because it’s small doesn’t mean it isn’t deadly.”
His lips quirked in a delicious smirk—one that almost distracted me from the scary animal that might want to eat me. “You’re saying you think it’s deadly?”
I clutched his hand. “That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
He smiled as if he was holding in a laugh. “Why don’t you take a look?”
I swallowed a giant knot of nerves and glanced over at the egg. A long, reptilian-like tail coiled around a small thick- skinned body. The tail slowly uncurled, revealing skin blotched in green, blue and purple. Two tiny horns erupted from both sides of the head and wide brown eyes blinked slowly at me.
It couldn’t have been any larger than a two-month-old kitten, though it looked to weigh about three times as much.
The animal gazed at me, opened its mouth and grunted out a greeting that only I could understand.
“Mama,” it said, staring at me.
“Um. What was that?”
“What did it say?” Axel said.
I cringed. “It called me Mama.”
I tugged my hand from his and fisted it to my hip. “Just what exactly is so funny?”
He shook his head. “The fact that this deadly creature seems to think you’re its Mama. It’s like a bad Disney cartoon.”
I slanted my head toward him. “And what am I supposed to do with it?”
Axel crossed to the counter, where he’d laid a sheet of paper. “It did come with instructions.”
I rolled my eyes. “Does it explain how to feed it?”
Axel shook his head. “They’re not that thorough.”
“That doesn’t help me.”
I dragged my gaze to the dragon—you know, the creature that’s not supposed to exist.
“Mama.” Thin leather wings unfolded. The dragon leaned forward, stretching its hind legs.
Its big dark eyes continued to stare at me. The creature reminded me of a puppy dog. Its large doe-eyes were sucking me in. Beginning to make me feel responsible for it.
I wanted to extend my hand, but the thing looked scaly and it was also kind of wet from being in the egg. I pressed my lips together and stepped forward. Lifting my hand, I attempted to bring it to the creature, but I was not a reptile person. So as much as I wanted to offer some comfort, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
“Mama,” it said.
Axel swooped in. “Come here, little guy.”
“Are you sure it’s a boy?”
“Most definitely. I got a good look when it stretched.”
He grabbed a clean rag that I kept for wiping surfaces and dried the baby. “There you go. Is that better?”
Axel rubbed behind its ear and the dragon closed its eyes as if enjoying the scratch. Its tongue lolled to one side and I felt a smile light my face.
He picked up the creature and hugged it to his chest. The wings wrapped around Axel and the creature said, “Mama.”
Axel’s blue eyes flared with confusion as he glanced at me. “What is it?”
“He thinks you’re his Mama now.”
Axel frowned. “Definitely not. Here. You want to hold him?”
I shrank away. “Really. I don’t know. It’s not my thing, you know, touching reptiles and cuddling with them.”
“It’s a dragon. How many times in your life are you going to be able to say you hugged one?”
“Well, one. Right now.”
He rolled his eyes. “It was sent to your shop. Just hug it.”
I shook my head and sighed. “Fine. But then I’m calling the place that sent it and returning it. I don’t need a dragon.”
Axel pulled the creature from his chest and brought it over to me, pressing its cold, wet nose into my shoulder.
“What. Are. You. Doing?”
Axel grinned. “Letting this little guy get a good whiff of his mom.”
He heaved the dragon toward my chest. I cringed. Axel scowled. “He needs to smell you. Learn your scent so that he knows who’s taking care of him.”
I shook my head. “That’s not me.”
“You’re the one who speaks to animals,” Axel said.
I shrugged. “So?”
“Will you just take him?”
Axel pushed him to my chest and let go. My arms shot instinctively around the dragon and I clutched him to me. Big weepy eyes stared up at me and my heart broke a little for the reptile. Or mythological creature.
“It may need to eat,” Axel prodded.
I glared at him. “Would you like to feed it? Maybe it likes dog food.”
Axel shook his head. “My guess is he wants something fresh—like a mouse you feed the snakes. But I’ll try kibble while you call the sender.”
I held the dragon close while I riffled through the papers that came with him. I found the invoice with a phone number and dialed.
A gruff man with a thick New York accent answered. “Magical Creatures,” he said in a nasal voice.
“Um. Hello. My name is Pepper Dunn and I own Familiar Place.”
“You must be from down South,” he said.
I cleared my throat. “Yes, I am. We are. The shop’s in Magnolia Cove, Alabama.”
“Alabama,” he exclaimed. “That explains it. What can I do for you, dear?”
“Listen, I just received a dragon’s egg in the mail.”
“Let me see…hold on.” I could hear papers shuffling in the background. “That’s right. We got an order for a dragon egg about two months ago from one Donovan Craple.”
“Yes. It’s arrived. Thing is, I don’t need a dragon. Can I return it?”
The man laughed. “Lady, if I had a nickel for everyone who said they didn’t need a dragon, I’d only have one nickel. Everybody wants a dragon. And trust me, Donovan Craple paid top dollar for that dragon. There are no refunds, no returns, no exchanges on live creatures. I’m afraid you’re stuck with it.”
“Great,” I said.
“But if you need help, there’s lots of information on our website about caring for dragons. When they first hatch, they’re hungry. The best thing to do is feed them a small mouse.”
Awesome. I owned a carnivorous beast that would probably eat me as it grew. “I’ll be sure to check the website.”
I hung up as Axel entered with a bowl of dog food. “How’d it go?” he said.
I shook my head. “Not well. It turns out we’re stuck with this guy.”
Axel set the bowl on the counter. I picked up a square of food and placed it in front of the dragon. The little guy sniffed and glanced at me as if asking what he was supposed to do with it.
“Mama,” he said.
I sighed. “I think you were right. We’ll have to give him a mouse. Which you can do all alone,” I said. “I’m not interested in watching.”
Axel laughed. “Okay. But it’s not my dragon.”
An idea hit me. “Do you think Donovan ordered this for someone?”
Axel cocked his head. “Probably.”
“So you think there might be a record of it in his office?”
Axel nodded. “Probably.”
“Great. I’ll start looking.”
Just then, the shop door blew open as if a great gust of wind had pushed it from the heavens. A tall, slender man wearing a black cape strode in. A large emerald clasped at his throat cinched the cape together.
“I am the great Mysterio,” he announced. “I’m in town to show off my magical wonders. I have heard much of this store, Familiar Place, and am in search of my pet mate.”
Pet mate? I’d heard familiars called lots of things—well, not really lots. But I’d never heard them called mates.
I gave him a warm smile and said, “I’d be happy to help you. We’ve got cats, dogs, birds.”
With a flourish of his cape, Mysterio pretty much answered. “I do not want some run of the mill animal. I, the great Mysterio require something much more rare and exotic than that.”
His gaze flashed around the shop until it landed on the dragon.
His voice rose about three octaves. “Is that a dragon?”
Mysterio drummed his fingers together as if plotting his next magic trick, or whatever it was he was going to do in town.
He charged over to the counter. Drool practically dripped from his mouth when he spoke. “That’s it! That’s the most exotic of creatures that I’ve been searching for. My entire life I’ve wanted a dragon, but they’re incredibly difficult to find, much less to grow to adulthood. Is it for sale?”
I glanced at the doe-eyes and sweet little face of the guy who called me “Mama”. My heart jumped a little at the thought of selling him. I glanced at Axel, who shook his head.
“Think about this Pepper. You don’t know why Donovan ordered the dragon.”
I scratched my lip. “I don’t need this thing scaring off customers. Since I didn’t order it, I don’t think it’s my responsibility.”
Axel grazed his knuckles over his jaw. “It’s a mythological creature and it’s in your shop.”
Mysterio wiggled his eyebrows. “I will take the greatest care of this animal. You can trust me.”
I touched his arm. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”
Axel opened his mouth. Shut it. “Do what you want. But I think you should wait on selling.”
He stared at Mysterio as if he were trying to figure out exactly how much pig dung the guy was full of. My guess was one hundred percent.
Mysterio seemed like a swindler, a goofball and someone completely out of touch with reality.
Call it the cape and the fact that he was in a witch town about to perform a magic show, or whatever.
Even given all that, I glanced at the dragon.
Mysterio braced his hands on the counter. “I’ll pay whatever you want for it.”
I inhaled a deep shot of air and said, “Sold.”