Sweet Tea Witches, Book 2
Even the best laid plans of egg-laying chickens can go awry…
All Pepper Dunn wants is a quiet life in the witchy town of Magnolia Cove, Alabama. But when the Cotton and Cobwebs Festival arrives, her dream goes up in smoke. This year, grandmother Betty is determined to win the award for best magical creature against Melbalean Mayes, the contest matron. To win, Betty needs Pepper’s help.
But when Melbalean winds up dead and Betty is accused of the murder, Pepper is thrust into one role she never expected—she must complete a list of chores that keeps her town running.
Pepper has her hands full—she must ensure the safety of her town, try to clear Betty’s name, and make sure no one else winds up a victim of the Magnolia Cove murderer. Can she do it? Or will she become the next victim?
“Be still, dagnabit,” my grandmother said to a box that rattled and shook as if alive.
“Um, what’s in there?” I said, pointing at the cardboard.
It looked completely ordinary, right down to the UPS label on the side. But the fact that the thing quivered like it contained a chest-ripping alien lifeform had me worried.
And the fact was, I wouldn’t put it past my grandmother, Betty Craple, to have such a thing in a box.
“Don’t tell anyone,” she said. We were in the sunny yellow kitchen of her house. She set the box on the table and grabbed a knife from the butcher block. “It just came in today. I’ve been waiting forever for this beauty.”
“It’s not going to kill me, is it?” I said.
“No, but I wouldn’t look at it cross-eyed. They tend to get mad when you do that,” she said.
“What does?” my cousin Amelia said, sailing into the room. She had short blond hair and delicate pixie features. She grabbed the carafe of hot coffee and poured herself a steaming cup. “Want one?” she said to me.
“Yes.” I yawned and rubbed the sleep from my eyes. I took the cup she poured and deciding that it needed some jazzing up, I fisted a handful of jelly beans from a dish and plopped them in.
“You might be making unicorn coffee, but it won’t make you poop rainbows,” Betty said.
“It’s unicorn hot chocolate, not coffee,” I said, blowing in my cup. “And I like jelly beans for breakfast. Now, what sort of monster are you hiding in that box?”
Betty’s eyes gleamed with pride. “For years I’ve been trying to be Melbalean Mayes at Cotton and Cobwebs.”
“Melba toast who?” I said.
“Melba-lean,” Betty corrected. “It’s like two words. First word ‘Melba,’ second word ‘lean.’ Then you put it together. Melbalean.”
I quirked a brow. “Got it. But what’s Cotton and Cobwebs?”
My other cousin, Cordelia, with her flowing blond hair and penchant for no-nonsense, strolled in. She opened the fridge and said, “Cotton and Cobwebs is a county fair slash magical festival that happens here every year at the end of the summer. It’s a big deal.”
“Oh yeah,” Amelia added, her gaze bright. “There’s all kinds of things—rides, contests, magical pie throwing. It’s so much fun.”
Betty sliced the air dangerously with the knife. She wasn’t a very big woman, but what she lacked in size she made up for in attitude. “For years, Melbalean always won the magical animal contest. Always. That old bat likes to think she can grow the best animals, teach them tricks and then have them win that stupid contest. Remember two years ago when she trained that squirrel to bat its eyelashes like a big baby? Stupid thing charmed the whole town.”
“I take it you weren’t pleased,” I said.
“The only reason Melbalean wins is because she wears those pantyhose with the lines in the back. Men can’t resist them.”
I hid a laugh behind my hand. “Pantyhose with a line in them?”
Betty nodded. “Melbalean’s a hussy. If she stepped one foot inside a Baptist church, the place would explode.”
My eyebrows shot to peaks. “Don’t let the Catholics get a hold of her then. But that’s some pretty serious hussiness.”
“You better believe it,” Betty said. “But this is my ace in the hole. Ordered this beauty special delivery and I’ve been waiting weeks to get it.”
“You might want to open the box before whatever it is punches a hole through it,” Amelia said.
“Good thinking. It might be hungry too.”
“I hope it doesn’t eat people,” Amelia said.
Cordelia shot her an annoyed look.
Amelia shrugged. “It’s shaking the box like there’s no tomorrow. There’s no telling what’s inside.”
Cordelia looked wary. “Good point.”
Betty sliced the top and set the knife aside. She folded the flaps. A red comb poked out, followed by two black beady eyes.
Betty dipped her hands in the box. “Help me, will you?”
I pulled the cardboard away, noting what looked like a bag of feed in the bottom. Betty tugged, revealing a ball of golden feathers. She plopped the animal on the table and grinned proudly.
“Girls, let me present to you the winner of this year’s magical creatures category at the Cotton and Cobwebs Festival.”
The chicken stared blankly at us. It jutted out its head and flapped its wings. I shot a look to Amelia and Cordelia, who met my gaze.
The three of us burst into laughter.
“Is that a chicken?” I asked.
“No, it’s a Holly Hobbie doll,” Betty snapped.
I laughed again. Once for my stupid question—of course, it was a chicken, but also because Holly Hobbie dolls were so 1975, or whatever, and I was twenty-five. I was surprised I even knew what Holly Hobbie was.
“Laugh, girls. Laugh as much as you want, but I ordered this here chicken because it’s going to win me that contest.”
“How?” Amelia said. “What’s it do?”
Betty stroked the animal’s head like it was a cat. Now, I could talk to animals and hear their thoughts, but all I was getting from this chicken was a low-frequency hum. I’m not saying the bird wasn’t of a high enough intelligence to communicate, because I was still pretty new when it came to animal speak, but I kinda felt like the hen might have fluff in its head.
So I guess what I meant was, I didn’t think the animal was smart enough to communicate with me. Which was funny, because there were birds that chattered to me at the pet shop I’d inherited from my uncle, Familiar Place.
Oh, I guess I haven’t explained all that yet.
My name’s Pepper Dunn and I’m a witch. Found out about that recently, actually. I also inherited from my Great Uncle Donovan what’s supposed to be the most important shop in all the magical town of Magnolia Cove, Alabama—the familiar store, where I match witches with their pet familiars.
If this all sounds confusing don’t worry, I was confused when I first landed in town, too. But I’m getting used to it. Slowly, but surely.
And now I was staring at a chicken that was supposed to be an ace in the hole for some contest.
Betty stroked the bird’s head. “Girls, this bird might not look like much, but I ordered it because of what it can lay.”
“Eggs?” Amelia said.
“Not just any eggs,” Betty said, “but magical eggs.”
I nodded in admiration. “Magical eggs? What do they do?”
Betty smiled widely when she said, “This chicken lays silver eggs.”
There was a long pause in the room until I broke it. “Silver eggs?”
Betty agreed. “That’s right, silver eggs. This year, Melbalean can shove whatever animal she has right up her tush. There’s no way she’s beating me.”
Cordelia studied the bird. “Exactly how much did you pay for a hen that lays silver eggs?”
Betty lifted her chin proudly and said, “Nine dollars and ninety-nine cents.”
Another long pause before the three of us burst into laughter.
Cordelia raked her fingers through her hair. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Nine ninety-nine,” Amelia choked. “Are you sure it doesn’t lay paper eggs?”
Betty glared at me. “And what do you have to say about it?”
I hid behind my coffee, taking an incredibly long sip before I squeaked out, “It does seem a little low. Are you paying that much in maybe five installments? Or did you order the chicken from the As-Seen-On-TV aisle at Walmart?”
“Laugh all you want, girls, but this chicken is going to win me a blue ribbon. Just you wait and see.”
The kitchen door swung open and in walked two towering redheads. Now, I was a redhead and so were Cordelia and Amelia, though they bleached their hair. If Betty didn’t have gray curls she might’ve been one too, but these two women had fiery hair—one had long, voluptuous waves and the other had straight, silky tresses.
“Good morning,” my aunt Mint said. She tucked a wavy strand behind an ear.
“Y’all are up early,” my other aunt, Licky, short for Licorice, said.
Betty jabbed a finger at them. “You two, get out. Whatever mischief you have in mind, you can just scat right now. I don’t want any part of it.”
Mint splayed a hand over her heart. “Mama, is that any way to greet your children?”
Betty hugged the chicken to her chest. “If by children you mean you two troublemakers, then yes. I want you out before lightning strikes my house or the earth eats it alive.”
“You mean like in Carrie?” Amelia said.
“Hmm? What?” Betty said.
I shook my head. “I don’t think she knows that reference.”
“Oh,” Amelia said, “I can tell you all about Carrie if you want me to.”
Betty ignored her. “Like I said, trouble follows you two around like stink on poop. I don’t know what you need, but it better be quick and then y’all can be on your merry way.”
Aunt Licky looked at Mint. “Do you think we’ll really be merry? That’s a pretty jovial word.”
Mint looked happy. “I think we’ll be merry.”
“Knock it off, you two,” Betty said.
When I first arrived in Magnolia Cove, my aunts had been on an around the world trip that apparently Amelia and Cordelia had sent them on because these two grown women were serious troublemakers. But now they had returned and had barely been in town a month. Every time they stopped by, Betty was convinced the house was going to get hexed, so she shooed them right out the door before they had a chance to catch their breaths.
“Mama,” Mint said, “We’re here on official town business.”
“At seven am on a Saturday?” Betty said, “I seriously doubt it.”
Licky hiked up onto the counter and sat. “Oh, it’s true. Official business.”
Betty wagged a finger at her. “Don’t you go getting germs all over my clean kitchen.”
Licky rolled her eyes and dropped to the floor. “We’re in charge of the Cotton and Cobwebs Festival.”
Betty fisted a hand on her hip. “Now why would anyone put you in charge of anything?”
Mint smiled brightly. She spoke with an enthusiasm that bordered on childlike glee. “We convinced the committee that we’ve changed. We no longer bring chaos wherever we go.”
Betty rolled her eyes. “I’ll believe it when I see it. Besides, the festival isn’t for another month.”
“Not anymore,” Mint countered. “The festival starts today.”
Betty nearly threw the chicken in the air. “What?”
Mint nodded. “Yep. We decided we couldn’t wait another month for all the fun, so it officially opens at noon. We came to deliver your welcome package.”
Betty snatched an envelope from her hands. “This chicken won’t be ready. You two,” she snapped at her daughters. “Always making my life difficult. If this chicken doesn’t lay an egg at the festival and Melbalean wins, you owe me my money.”
Licky crossed her arms. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.” She rubbed her fingers over the dimple in her chin.
Mattie, the talking cat, sauntered into the room. She had short gray fur and bright green eyes. “What’s all the commotion in here? Cain’t a cat get some sleep?”
The chicken took one look at the cat and apparently thought predator. She flapped her wings so hard that she flew right out of Betty’s hands and landed on the linoleum in a flurry of feathers.
“Get that bird,” Betty yelled.
Mint and Licky screeched as the chicken clucked and strutted. Betty lunged for the hen, but the animal dodged right as if she was a trained escape artist. The bird ran circles around the table, kicking up a stew of feathers. I could’ve made a pillow out of what was molting into the air.
“Ah, all the feathers,” Amelia choked. “I need air.” She flew to the door and pulled it open. She inhaled a deep breath. “That’s better.”
“The chicken,” Betty yelled.
The magical silver-egg-laying hen flapped her golden wings. She flew straight up, sailed over the table and headed through the open door.
We all stared as the chicken disappeared from sight.
Betty pointed in the hen’s direction. “Well? What are y’all doing catching flies with your open mouths? We gotta go out there and get my chicken.”
I stood dumbstruck for half a second before I toed on a pair of sneakers I’d laid by the door. Wearing my housecoat and armed with a cup of coffee, I marched outside to catch a hen.
Just another day with my family.