What was the old saying? Lucky in cards, unlucky in love?
Maybe I should hit up a casino, because love wasn’t working out for me. Come to think about it, almost everything wasn’t working out for me right now.
Mackenzie had quit to move to Canada. Jameson was tired of me breaking eggs in teleportation practice and had told me to go back to practicing with pennies. Customers weren’t coming in as often as they had been, and the money I’d saved to expand the business was going to keep the lights on.
And Palmer hadn’t called me. Not once in four weeks. I suppose that was what happened when a couple broke up, but I’d gotten so used to working with him on cases that life seemed boring and dull. I worried too. What if he ran into a paranormal case but didn’t realize it until it was too late?
The apothecary door chimes rang. My mother walked in with my aunts in tow. And they took their spring coats off, so they were going to stay a while. This couldn’t be good. Generally speaking, they didn’t come to the apothecary unless something was wrong. All three of them here at once was a very bad sign. I stood and walked around the counter I’d been sitting at for the last hour. “What is it? Is something wrong with Grandma?”
“Your grandmother is fine,” my mother said. “It’s you we’re worried about.”
I pasted a fake grin onto my face. “Me? Why? It’s been weeks and I’m completely over him. If he can’t take a woman doing the same job he does, then he’s not the man for me.”
Aunt Nadia frowned. “So you’ve said. Repeatedly, but you’re not fooling anyone.”
Aunt Lily looked concerned. “The fact that you know what we’re talking about says you’re not over him yet.”
I knew that, but I was comfortable with the polite fiction that everything was fine. Sooner or later, I’d stop missing him and life would go on as normal. “What gave me away?”
“Jameson. He’s worried enough about you that he came to talk to us.”
Great. Now my cat was getting involved in my love life. He must have been exceptionally worried, though, because it took a great deal of energy for a familiar to talk to anyone who wasn’t his witch. “And did he have any solutions?”
Aunt Lily snorted a laugh. “Yes, but you’d never agree to them, and I doubt they’d even work.”
I leaned back against the counter. “Like what?”
“His first idea was to teleport you and Steven to a deserted island and leave you there for weeks. He’d check in on you and make sure you weren’t starving, but he wouldn’t bring you back home until you’d worked out your differences,” Aunt Nadia said.
Yeah, that wouldn’t work. We were both too stubborn to let a blatant manipulation change our minds. “Anything a little more reasonable?”
“Not really. He didn’t realize arranged marriages didn’t happen anymore. After that, he decided it was a human problem and told us to work it out,” my mother said.
“Work it out? How on earth could the three of you work it out?” I asked. Before anyone answered, I continued. “Never mind. I don’t want to know. I don’t want to think about him, or my love life at all.” I looked at each of the aunts. They had to be here for a reason, and not just to deliver a message from my cat, who I lived with and spoke to every day. “What’s the real reason you’re here?”
They stepped closer to me and enveloped me in a hug. I hadn’t had a group aunts’ hug in a long time, and it felt good having their love directed at me in such a palpable way. They stepped back and my mother said, “Don’t get angry.”
My heart sank. If there was ever a time to get angry, it was probably when someone told you not to. “What did you do?”
“I know it didn’t work out so well last time, but I’ve got a much better idea now of what kind of person you want to date, so I’ve set you up with a very nice young—”
“No,” I said flatly.
My mother continued. “A very nice young man. He’s a witch, Christina’s grandson, and I think you’ll like him.”
What was it about mothers setting up their daughters on dates? My birthday was soon, but I was only twenty-one. I still had six more years to find a husband, get married, and have children. If I wanted to get married—not everyone did these days. And if I wanted to have children. Plenty of women were skipping both marriage and children, and the more I thought about it, the better it sounded.
“Christina is very excited about this date. She also thinks the two of you would make a great couple,” Aunt Lily said.
I squeezed my eyes shut. I was going to have to go on this date, if only to keep the sorority happy. We’d finally gotten to a decent working relationship after their disappointment about some of the familiars moving to California. Rejecting Christina’s grandson without giving him a chance might make the situation difficult. Also, I could play this to my advantage. I opened my eyes. “Fine. But I have conditions.”
“Understandable,” Aunt Nadia said.
“One date, here in Portsmouth. No promise of a second date, or that I’ll ever speak to him again. And no setting me up with anyone ever again.”
My mother frowned. “But what if I find someone who’s perfect for you?”
I sighed. “If he’s perfect for me, we’ll find each other.”
The aunts smiled at having got what they wanted. I was sure they thought they’d be able to talk their way around my conditions in the future, but they were underestimating how stubborn I’d be on this topic.
“The shop looks so nice,” Aunt Nadia said. “I like what you’ve done with the candle display.”
It wasn’t as tidy as when Mackenzie was still here, but it was still clean enough. The candle display hadn’t changed for a year, but I appreciated the compliment. “Thanks, Aunt Nadia. Do you set Delia up on dates like this? I don’t recall her complaining about it.”
Aunt Nadia shook her head. “Oh, no. I tried to set her up on a date once, and she didn’t let me hear the end of it for weeks. It’s not worth the anguish. And Lily had to dodge spells being flung at her when she tried to set Thea up with someone.”
I licked my lips. “So what you’re saying is that being nice doesn’t pay? Okay—lesson learned. This will be the last date you ever set me up on.”
They started walking toward the door. “And with the help of the goddess, it will be the last time we’ll ever need to,” my mother said.
After they left, I grabbed the broom and started sweeping. There was no reason I couldn’t keep the apothecary tidier. I tried to remember if Christina had ever spoken about her family before, but nothing came to mind. I should have asked what his name was, but I hadn’t actually cared that much. Whoever this poor guy was, he was my ticket to never being set up again.
I worked in the prep room all afternoon, experimenting with new spring products, hoping to entice my customers back into the shop. At five o’clock my phone rang, and the caller ID told me it was Liam Nyquist calling. I didn’t know anyone with that name, so I steeled myself for an awkward conversation with my blind date.
“Hello, this is Isabella,” I said in a cheerier tone than I felt.
“Hi. Uh . . . my name is Liam, and my grandmother gave me your number.”
Oh goddess, he sounded young. I was so enthusiastic about putting an end to any future blind dates that it hadn’t mattered to me at the time. Now I was worried, because I thought his voice cracked. “Hi, Liam. It’s embarrassing what our families will put us through, isn’t it?”
He chuckled. “It is. You know my Grandma Chrissy, and it’s almost impossible to tell her no.”
Grandma Chrissy? She was so serious in all our sorority meetings that I had a hard time imagining she let anyone call her by a nickname. “You’re right about that. My family is the same.”
“Are you busy tomorrow night? I thought maybe we could have a low-key date, just a walk downtown or through the park. No pressure.”
I liked the sound of that. “If the weather holds out, that sounds good. I’ll be at work until six, so we’ll have almost an hour of sunlight. I work in the middle of town, so why don’t you meet me at the apothecary?”
“Six o’clock tomorrow, then,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
We hung up and I wasn’t sure what to think. I picked up the vial I’d been heating ingredients in and swirled it. Maybe I’d imagined he sounded too young for me. He sounded younger than Palmer, but I was not going to compare the two men. No way. Just because I was beginning to think Palmer and I might have built a life together, that didn’t mean any other person I dated had to be better than he was.
In fact, Liam had a few points in his favor. I didn’t have to explain magic or the sorority to him. He already knew I did dangerous things sometimes and couldn’t claim to be surprised if I came home a little banged up. I nodded to myself. This could work out.
But then I thought about Christina. What had she told him about me? She and I hadn’t started out as friends when I joined the sorority, and I’d had to work hard to earn her respect. Some days, I still wasn’t sure I had. He seemed interested in meeting me, so she couldn’t have told him much that was bad.
I put the vial of goldenrod and lilac back over the small gas flame and heated it. This date was beginning to feel more important to me than I’d been willing to admit, but obsessing over it wouldn’t do me any good.
There had been a lot of important days in my life, but the day I had my date with Liam was the day that changed my life. I didn’t know it at the time though.
With Mackenzie gone, I had to buy my own pastry and coffee each morning. As I walked to the Fancy Tart, I resolved to start looking for someone to take her place that day. Closer to downtown, the smell of burning plastic and wood on the wet spring air caught my attention. It wasn’t until I turned the corner onto Market Street that I saw what had burned. The Fancy Tart.
Smoke streamed out the broken front windows. Fire and police vehicles surrounded the building, and a crowd of gawkers watched the firefighters’ every move. I froze for a second, hardly able to believe what I was seeing.
I sprinted down the block and frantically looked for someone I knew. Kate was directing traffic around the road blocked by emergency vehicles, and Papatonis was making sure no one entered the cordoned-off area. He might know what had happened and who, if anyone, had been hurt.
“What happened?” I asked him, panting from the short sprint.
“Pretty much what you see here. The building’s burned down,” he replied.
Not very helpful, and I wondered if he was being abrupt with me because Palmer and I had broken up. “I used to work here. Was anyone in the fire? Is anyone hurt?”
He shifted from foot to foot, then looked behind him. “Listen, if Palmer sees me talking to you about a case, he’ll have my hide.”
I gave him a pleading look and didn’t bother to hide the tears welling in my eyes.
He looked behind him again to Palmer, who was facing away from us. “The fire’s been out for about ten minutes, and they’re still looking through the building. We don’t know the cause of the fire. If it means anything, I hope none of your friends were in there. Now could you please go before he sees me talking to you?”
“Thanks.” I walked away, following the cordon toward the building. I could sneak in using any number of magic spells and see what was going on for myself but, if something happened and I was hurt, I might not be able to drop the spell. I shuddered, remembering the cloaking spell I’d used as a child before I knew how to reverse it. And if Palmer caught me investigating in a dangerous area, he’d know he made the right choice to break up with me.
I stood there, straining to see anything happening inside, letting tears run down my face. Eventually, Kate joined me.
“You okay?” she asked.
I took a deep breath. “No. I used to work here. The owner’s a friend of mine.” As I said this, I realized I hadn’t seen Bethany. The police would have called her to come down by now.
“I’ve got to get back to work, but I wanted to say just because you and Palmer called it quits, doesn’t mean we can’t still be friends, right?”
I looked away from the burned building to my friend. “Right. Did someone call the owner? Is she here?”
“It’s standard procedure. I’m sure someone got hold of her.”
“It’s just . . . I don’t see her here, and I’m worried.”
Kate pressed the button on her radio. “Has the owner shown up yet?”
Palmer’s voice answered. “No. She didn’t answer her phone.” He turned, scanning the crowd. When he found Kate and me, he scowled. “Kate! Back to work.”
She gave me a quick hug. “Got to get back. I’ll call you sometime soon.”
Palmer continued to glare at me. I stared back at him. He wasn’t going to use his angry cop face to make me leave. I could stand here all day if I wanted to. He didn’t look away until a firefighter started talking to him.
I looked away and examined the building. There was very little damage to the buildings on either side of the bakery. I didn’t know anything about fires or how to tell if one was arson or not, but this looked suspicious to me.
Palmer cleared his throat and startled me. I had been looking at the burned building so intently, I hadn’t realized he’d joined me. “You should go.”
I gave him my frostiest stare. “I don’t think so. I want to be here when Bethany arrives.”
He closed his eyes for a moment. “Please, for once, just do as you’re told.”
I didn’t know why he thought that would work on me. He and Grandma had commiserated often enough to know I rarely did what anyone told me. “I’ll go when the rest of the spectators go.”
He rubbed his face with his hands. “The coroner will be here any minute now, and I didn’t want you to see that. But hey, if you’re not going to take my advice and leave, fine. I warned you, and I can’t keep worrying about you like this.”
He turned and walked away before I could say anything. The nerve! He couldn’t worry about me? The whole reason I’d insisted on being brought in on cases was to protect him. Worrying went both ways, but I was the only one who could protect from both magic and non-magic threats.
Lucy got out of the coroner’s van with her assistant. They retrieved a gurney from the back and checked in with one of the firefighters, who led them into the building. I pulled out my phone and called Bethany. Her phone went straight to voice mail, and I wondered if it had been destroyed in the fire. Next I called Omar.
“Yeah?” a groggy voice answered.
“Hey, Omar. It’s Isabella.” I gave him a moment to wake up before I continued. “I’m at the bakery, and there’s been a fire.”
“What? Is everyone okay?” he asked.
I sighed. “I don’t think so. The coroner just went in. I tried calling Bethany, but she didn’t pick up.”
“Don’t go anywhere, I’ll be right there.”
I looked at the time on my phone. I still had an hour before I had to open the apothecary. I was tempted to follow Lucy into the building, under a cloaking spell, but Omar would be looking for me in a couple minutes. Instead, I focused on the remaining firefighters and police, trying to read their lips and figure out what was going on.
I needed Jameson to teach me a spell to hear people when they were far away, because I couldn’t make out what anyone was saying.
I saw Omar striding toward me and waved. He waved back, and I walked to meet him. I waited by the coroner’s van so I could ask Lucy a question before she left.
“Do you know who was working this morning?” I asked.
“It might have just been Bethany. Andrew’s been out sick for a few days,” Omar said.
My hopes for Bethany were vanishing. If Andrew had the day off, then she would have been in early to do the baking. There was a very good chance that the body they brought out would be hers. My stomach clenched, afraid of what I would see. I couldn’t look away, though. I had to know if it was Bethany.
Omar put his arm around my shoulder. “We don’t know anything yet, let’s not panic.”
I looked to the building then back to Omar. The small crowd that had gathered gasped as I heard the wheels of the coroner’s gurney. They were bringing out a body. I turned to look as Palmer unzipped the body bag. His grim expression made my knees buckle.
“Hey, hang on there,” Omar said. “Let’s find you somewhere to sit.”
He moved his arm to support me around the waist. He walked me across the street and leaned me against the Irish knitwear store’s wall. “I’ll ask who they found. You wait here,” he said.
I slid down the wall until I was sitting on the sidewalk. Bethany didn’t deserve to have her building burned down. I watched Omar cross the street to speak to Palmer. Palmer shook his head but when Omar pointed to me, Palmer said something. They both joined me, and Palmer crouched down to be at my eye level.
“You have both worked at the bakery for a long time. Do you feel up to identifying the body?”
No. Absolutely not. I did not want to look at another lifeless body of a friend or acquaintance.
“I’ll go,” Omar said.
“The sooner the victim is identified, the sooner we can focus our investigation,” Palmer said softly.
I choked back a sob and looked away from him. I needed the Palmer that cared about me, but he was all business, not even giving my hand a quick squeeze. “Thank you for letting me know.”
Palmer stood and the two men left me on the sidewalk. Palmer led Omar into the coroner’s van. I stood so I could see Omar better, and I caught a flash of Bethany’s blonde hair. Omar nodded and his face went pale.
I walked across the street to Omar and Palmer.
“It’s her,” Omar whispered.
I took his hand in mine. “I know. Are you okay?”
He took a shuddering breath. “I will be.”
Palmer turned to Omar. “I’d like to talk to you about Mrs. Swift. Can I give you a lift home?”
I looked from Omar to Palmer. Palmer wasn’t looking at me. Was he avoiding me as best as he could? And did he suspect Omar was involved in the fire? Other than an interrogation room, there was no better place to ask people questions than while you were in a car together. The awkward silence that comes after a question has most people rushing to speak.
“I’ll come with you,” I said, in case Palmer was trying to question Omar.
“No. That’s not necessary. I may need to question you later, so don’t leave town without telling me first.”
My eyes widened. Don’t leave town? Was I a suspect too? “I won’t, Detective. But if you can’t locate me, my family always knows where I am.”
I tried not to scowl at him, but I was pretty sure I failed. “Thank you, Miss Proctor.”
Oh goddess, I was in trouble. If we were back to Detective and Miss Proctor, then he must have known something I didn’t—something that made me look guilty.