It will be like a mini vacation. What’s the worst that could happen?”
Yeah, right. I was sure Delia didn’t think the worst thing that would happen was murder, but then again, who expected murder around every corner?
I was standing in line, waiting to check into our room at the Charlesbank Hotel in Boston. This “mini vacation” Thea and Delia had talked me into was a conference for small business owners in New England. And that was me, small business owner. I didn’t know what to expect from the weekend. I was hoping to meet more apothecary owners and maybe sell them some of my less magical creations. My shop would benefit from selling more items that I didn’t make as well. I was nervous about spending a weekend away from the shop and my clients, but I was pretty sure they would make it without me for a couple days.
The strap of my heavy bag began to hurt my shoulder, so I set it down. There were hundreds of people in the lobby and it didn’t seem full. It was loud enough that I couldn’t hear the fountain in the middle of the room, and despite the room holding a half dozen couches and many more chairs, there was nowhere to sit.
In the middle of the room was a bar with two very busy bartenders serving the people at the bar and in the lobby.
Conference participants were standing around chatting, and it seemed like everyone knew each other except for me. Part of the weekend was dedicated to meeting other business owners, so maybe I wouldn’t feel so left out by the end of the weekend. I just wished this check-in line would move faster. Every time the hotel doors slid open, the stale lobby air was replaced by the worst parts of low tide and bus exhaust.
I was tired already. Tired of standing in line and tired of holding my mental shields at full strength every second to protect myself from the buildup of ambient magic found in any large city.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around. Joyce Ogilvie, owner of Beach Candles in Rye, New Hampshire, smiled at me. Her dyed red hair looked as unnatural today as it had the first time I met her when she wanted Trina to carry her candles in the apothecary.
“Hello, dear. Have we met before?”
“Yes, Mrs. Ogilvie. I’m Isabella Proctor. I run the Portsmouth Apothecary now.”
She was about to say something when a crash caught our attention. I turned toward the noise and saw one of the conference displays lying on the floor. Next to the display was a flustered-looking Caroline Arneson.
The room was almost silent. “Not as sturdy as it looks,” she said with a little laugh as she picked it up.
“Oh, that woman. My poor dead husband couldn’t stand her, and I see why,” Mrs. Ogilvie said.
I looked back to Mrs. Ogilvie whose smile had changed to a frown.
I wasn’t a fan of Caroline Arneson either. She had been pressuring me to sell my shop from the moment its former owner had died. She claimed she needed the space for her own business and that I would beg her to buy it in a few months when I realized I couldn’t handle the work. In fact, I loved the work, and the apothecary was gaining new clients every week. There was no way I wanted to give up my prime location in Market Square. Not only didn’t I want to sell, but I felt like I would be somehow abandoning Trina’s memory if I relocated the shop.
“She’s an embarrassment,” Mrs. Ogilvie continued.
Caroline Arneson had a hard life, and not many people knew. Her husband beat her and she was unwilling to leave him.
Now that was something I didn’t understand. She acted like she had all the self-confidence in the world. Maybe self-confidence wasn’t what she needed to finally stand up for herself.
I tried to help whenever I could, but she never took my advice seriously. That didn’t stop me from trying though.
“I don’t know, I don’t like to make hasty decisions about people. We never really know what’s happening in someone else’s life.”
Ogilvie pursed her lips. “I suppose you’re right. But still, a little decorum goes a long way.”
“I can help the next guest,” a hotel employee said. I was surprised to see she was speaking to me.
“Good afternoon and welcome to the Charlesbank. Are you here for the small business conference?”
I smiled at the frazzled-looking young woman. “Yes, I am. Isabella Proctor checking in for myself and my two cousins, Thea and Delia Proctor.”
My two cousins who thought it would be funny to let me stand in line while they walked around.
I handed her my freshly minted and possibly not-quite-legal driver’s license and my business credit card.
“One moment, Ms. Proctor, while I check you in.”
It wasn’t that my license wasn’t legal. I got it from the DMV, except I got it after hours from a man who owed my boyfriend a favor.
Maybe Detective Steve Palmer was my boyfriend, but maybe not. I didn’t have a better description for our relationship at the moment. I made him dinner once—grilled cheese and tomato soup. He took me to the park for an evening picnic and to watch a play. Twice that night we almost kissed, but it never actually happened.
It had been over a month since our picnic, and our schedules hadn’t permitted us to spend time together since.
Anyway, he caught me driving without a license over the summer, and rather than arrest a friend, he arranged for his buddy at the DMV to give me one. It wasn’t something I went around telling a lot of people.
“And you’re all set,” the woman said as she handed me back my license and credit card. “You’re in room 498. Take the elevator to the fourth floor and turn left.”
I took the key cards she handed me and smiled. I gave a quick wink to Mrs. Ogilvie as I passed her and went off in search of my cousins.
I found them in the gift shop, looking at a display of high-priced, low-quality tourist merchandise, everything having the word “Boston” slapped across it in one way or another. The shop had the usual eight-dollar mini toiletries, travel pillows, candy, and magazines too.
Thea picked up a snow globe and handed it to me. “Look at the price they’re charging for this,” she whispered.
I carefully turned the globe over to read the price tag. Fifty dollars. I cringed at how little the people who assembled the globes would see of that money.
“Not sure you’ll be able to get the same price in Portsmouth,” I said. I set the globe down and held out their key cards. “I’m going up to the room. Here are your keys.”
“You got through the line already? I thought for sure it would take at least an hour,” Thea said.
“No, it only felt like an hour, talking to the woman behind me and watching Caroline Arneson knock a display over.”
Delia puckered her face up. “Is she here?”
“You heard the crash earlier? That was her.”
“I wonder if she’s here for the conference,” Delia said.
“From the sounds of it, she’s gotten an early start on her weekend. It’s not even four yet,” Thea said.
“It looked like an accident to me. Anyway, I’m headed up to the room,” I said.
“I’ll come with you. We might as well unpack before dinner,” Thea said.
I wish I could say our room was something spectacular, but it was a regular room with two double beds, a bathroom, bureau, and small table. I didn’t plan to spend much time in the room, so I didn’t care.
“Who gets to sleep alone tonight?” Thea asked.
We settled the question with our age-old method of peaceful conflict resolution: rock-paper-scissors.
Delia threw rock, and Thea and I threw scissors. “Yes!” Delia exclaimed as she set her bags on the bed closest to the window.
I unpacked my overnight bag and sat on my side of the other bed. I’d only gone into work for a couple hours in the morning, and wouldn’t be back in until Monday morning at ten. Even though it would be tough schmoozing with so many people all weekend, it was at least a nice change.
It was nice to get away from Proctor House too. My apartment building had over a month of reconstruction work before it was habitable again, and I was counting the days. Don’t get me wrong—I loved my family, and they had made some serious strides in treating me as an adult who could live her own life however she wanted, but living with them wasn’t the same as living on my own. I wasn’t sure I was ever going to be able to pry my cat, Jameson, out of the house though. Everywhere he turned, someone wanted to scratch him, make him a special meal, or ask his opinion on a complicated piece of magic.
Obviously he was not just any cat, he was my familiar. He was over two hundred years old and was absolutely convinced he knew more than the seven Proctor witches put together.
He may not have been wrong.
Jameson stayed in Portsmouth for the weekend, and I already missed him. I didn’t realize how often I turned to him to chat or ask questions. But since he was at home, I also got a break from our training schedule. He made me work hard every night, after a full day at the apothecary, learning new spells and how to enhance them with the amulet from the Sorority of Brigid. He said I was doing acceptably well. I thought he didn’t like to give out compliments and that I was doing great.
“I’m bored,” Delia said. “Let’s go down to the bar and watch people.”
“Okay,” Thea said, and headed for the door.
“Hold on, you’re not wearing that, are you?” Delia asked her.
Thea looked down at her holey sneakers, jeans, and T-shirt. “I look fine.”
“Sure you do, if you’re about to go clean out a musty basement. If you want to make a favorable impression with other tour companies, maybe not.”
Thea sighed. “I didn’t pack much that looks nicer.”
Delia grinned. “I didn’t think you would. You know how you teased me all the way down about packing too much for one weekend? It’s because I had to pack you decent clothes too.”
Thea rolled her eyes. “Fine. Whatever. You tell me what to wear, and I’ll put it on. But I don’t know if I’ll like it.”
Delia rummaged through her bag and pulled out a navy cashmere V-neck sweater, dark wash jeans, and a pair of black leather flats with a silver toe guard. “Try this. It’s about as plain as I can make an outfit.”
I could tell Thea didn’t hate it, because when she came out of the bathroom she had a tiny smile across her lips.
“Thea, you look great,” I gushed. How had Delia managed to find clothes that fit Thea perfectly?
Delia slipped past Thea and changed into a black dress and cropped green sweater. My heart sank, because she looked great too.
My clothing had been ruined in the apartment fire, and I’d been slowly replacing what I could with thrift store finds. I hadn’t found much.
Delia handed me some clothing. “And in case you thought I forgot you in my great shopping extravaganza, I didn’t.”
I took the bundle and spread them out on the bed. A red sweater that was strikingly similar to my favorite sweater and a pair of black dress pants. “You bought me clothes?”
Delia handed me a pair of short black heels. “And shoes.”
“She’s just embarrassed to be seen in public with us, that’s all,” Thea said.
We laughed and I managed not to smudge my makeup with tears of gratitude. “You’re the best.”
My clothes also fit perfectly, but I knew why once I felt the tingle of magic when I put them on. “You enchanted the clothes!”
“It’s a spell I’ve been working on for a while now. The first time you put the item on, the spell will adjust the clothing to fit you as though they had been tailored. They also won’t stain, and you can brush any dirt off them and they’ll look brand new again.”
“Clever,” I said. “I might never want to wear anything else.”
Delia blushed. “Jameson has been helping me with it. I don’t think there’s a spell in existence that he doesn’t know. And I brought enough for each of us for the whole weekend.”
She was probably right about Jameson. “Okay, let’s go down and meet some boring businessmen.”
“Or at least have a glass of wine before dinner.”
As we rode down the elevator, I considered having a glass of wine. It might be nice to cut loose a little tonight since I wouldn’t be training with my cat.
The door chimed and slid open. While we weren’t the only people with this idea, the lobby was empty enough that we could hear the water in the fountain. “Let’s go sit over there,” I said, pointing to the table nearest the fountain.
We sat and one of the bartenders came to take our order immediately. “Good evening ladies, I’m Marco, your waiter. Can I start you off with a drink?”
“I’d like a glass of Malbec,” I said.
“Same for me,” Thea said.
Delia paused for a moment. “I’d like an espresso martini.”
He flashed us a smile. “I’ll be back in a moment with those and I’ll leave you with our menu.”
“He’s kind of cute,” Delia said.
“You’ve got no chance with him, he’s judging you for that silly drink order,” Thea said.
“It’s not a silly drink. I looked it up, and it’s one of the top ten drinks people order. It’s not my fault if I don’t want a glass of red wine like you two stodgy old ladies.”
Marco returned with our drinks. He also brought us a platter of cheese and crackers. He smiled at Thea. “The cheese is compliments of me. Can I get you anything else to eat?”
Since when do waiters give out free food?
Delia set down her menu. “Can we have an order of the curry chips and an order of the soft pretzels?”
That sounded good to me, so I handed him my menu.
“Ladies, how nice to see you here,” interrupted a short man. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him.
Marco walked off with our order, and the man joined us.
“Mr. Branham, how nice to see you,” Thea said.
Evan Branham, Portsmouth’s assistant mayor. No wonder he looked familiar.
He waved to Marco and made a hand signal for another drink. “Nice to see some hometown businesswomen here this weekend. Of course you’ll say great things about Portsmouth to everyone here, right? We’re ripe for some franchise opportunities in our growing city, and if we can bring in three or four, that will be a good weekend’s work.”
We? Was he expecting us to bring in business?
“Do you want to join us for a drink?” Delia asked.
He took a glass of beer from Marco. “Can’t right now. I’ve got to get to work. We’ll talk later this weekend though.”
Once he walked away, I looked to Thea. “How did you know who he was?”
She rolled her eyes. “He’s been trying to get us to do a tour based on his house and farm for the last six months. He swears it’s a historical landmark but won’t provide any proof.”
“Might be good to have the assistant mayor owe you a favor,” I said.
Delia shook her head. “Spend more than a minute with him, and you want to go bathe. He’s got a way about him that neither of us wants to deal with.”
Marco returned with our appetizers. “We’re closing the outside dining for the evening—it’s just started to rain.”
I hoped the rain would dissipate some of the older magic I could feel.
“We’re happy to pay for the cheese board,” Thea said.
“That’s not necessary. I was hoping to trade it for your number,” Marco said.
I did a double take. Of the three of us, Thea was always last to be asked out. This was a nice change.
She took his phone and put her number in it.
I was about to ask him where the closest drugstore was when I heard a familiar voice across the room. The four of us turned to see Caroline Arneson arguing with Joyce Ogilvie.
Caroline stood up from her table so Joyce was no longer standing over her. “Do you know why I don’t carry your candles? Because they’re cheap, and my customers don’t want them.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me, cheap. Your wax is so full of air that when customers pick the candle up, they know they’re getting ripped off and the candles will be gone in almost no time.”
Joyce looked at Caroline up and down. “Your customers should be used to buying cheap.”
Before they could come to blows, Marco stepped between the two women. “I have a table for you, ma’am, right over here. If you could follow me.” He took Joyce’s arm and escorted her to the table next to us.
Joyce looked at the three of us. “Oh, it’s you again, from the line. Did you hear what that awful woman said to me?”
“Everyone in the lobby heard what the two of you had to say. I hardly think this is the time or place to pick a fight with someone you don’t like,” Thea said.
Joyce didn’t like Thea’s comment, so she turned away from us and didn’t speak again until it was time for dinner in the ballroom. “About time,” she muttered as we made our way through the double doors.
Chandeliers lit the large room, and candles on each table provided a warm glow. Joyce Ogilvie sat at an empty table near the front of the room, so we chose the back corner table. Gray damask tablecloths set off the white china and waiters walked through the room, pouring wine for the seated guests.
A microphone stood on the dais at the front of the room and when the room seemed full, the mayor of Boston used it to welcome us and introduce the first speaker. Over the course of dinner, there were eight presentations from cities throughout New England, each one looking for businesses to expand to their region.
Assistant Mayor Branham did a reasonably good job highlighting the low-tax benefits of business in New Hampshire, along with our increasing tourist numbers and growing population. By the time he was done, I was happy I lived in Portsmouth.
The mayor of Farmington, Rhode Island, on the other hand, did a terrible job when questioned about his city’s crime rate, police corruption, and almost undrinkable water.
I was glad we’d eaten appetizers in the bar, because the phrase “rubber chicken dinner” was an accurate description of our meal. “I’ll never take Aunt Nadia’s cooking for granted again,” I said as I pushed the overcooked zucchini around on my plate.
“Me either,” Delia said.
“At least we’ve got the dessert bar to look forward to later on,” Thea said.
Our agenda said karaoke would follow dinner. To say karaoke wasn’t my thing was a huge understatement. I loved to sing, but couldn’t hit the right notes. Not even by accident, if you believed my high school music teacher.
Once the speakers finished, the three of us left the ballroom and took a seat by the fountain again. We weren’t the only people with this idea, and the karaoke I heard every time the ballroom doors opened told me we’d made the right choice.
We watched the hotel staff set up the dessert buffet and enjoyed the scent of the hot fudge and caramel sauces warming up for the ice cream sundae bar. I wondered if Mr. Rippon’s poison ivy was clearing up, and if I should call him to check in. I closed my eyes and willed the tightness between my shoulders to release. My customers would be okay without me for the weekend. I was here to relax and have some fun with my cousins.
The waitstaff uncovered everything on the dessert buffet, and people began to line up.
“Dessert?” I asked Thea and Delia.
“If we all go, we’ll lose our table,” Thea said. “We should go in turns.”
I stood up. “Good plan. I’ll go first.”
The long table had brownies, eight different flavors of ice cream, more sauces than I could name, and even more toppings to sprinkle on top of the whipped cream.
I took a bowl and one of the waitstaff put a brownie in it. I walked down the length of the table, saying either yes or no thank you to each person. By the time I got to the end of the table, I was pretty sure I had at least two days’ worth of calories in my bowl.
“Is that just for you?” Delia asked.
I looked down at the bowl. “It was supposed to be, but maybe I should just get a couple spoons and we could share.”
Thea looked up from her phone. “What?”
“She’s texting Marco,” Delia said.
“We could order another drink,” Thea suggested.
Caroline Arneson came out of the dining room and sat in our empty chair. She was wearing a red skintight dress with a pair of platform heels and looked like she was here to have fun. “Can you believe how dull that was? I thought I’d fall asleep right there in my salad.”
Maybe if I’d been to a lot of these kinds of weekends, I’d be bored with them too. I would have liked to hear more talks geared to my business, but honestly, if I wanted that, I’d probably have to set up my own conference for magical business owners. “It wasn’t so bad,” Delia said.
“I don’t know, but I’d sure hate to be the mayor of Farmington right now.” Caroline laughed. “He did a terrible job.”
I followed her gaze to a group of older businessmen standing by the bar. “I could have married a businessman. I think my life would have been a lot better. Trust me, girls, never marry a cop. You’ll always come second to the job.”
“Why do you say that? Is your husband really that bad?” Delia asked.
I closed my eyes. I had never told my cousins about the problems in Caroline’s marriage, and I doubted she would want to talk about them now.
“I wonder . . . statistically speaking, half of those men are divorced. No sense jumping ship without someplace to land,” she said.
My grandparents were the only happily married couple I knew. My mother and aunts hadn’t been able to make their relationships with our fathers last, so I felt like I was just as jaded as Caroline. Only our approach was different. She was looking for another man, and I hadn’t even been looking for the one I had. As it was, most people I knew no longer considered marriage a lifetime commitment.
Caroline stood up and tugged at her dress so that it lay flat. “Wish me luck,” she said as she strode over to the bar.
Thea rolled her eyes. “She’s so jaded, she makes me happy to be single.”
“Something must’ve happened to her, most people don’t have such a hard heart,” Delia said.
We watched her laugh and flirt her way into the center of the group of men. Almost immediately, a tall man with an immaculate suit and a hint of gray at his temples touched her arm. She cozied up to him and laughed at something he said. “She’s a grown woman and can do whatever she wants,” I said.
And I really believed that, but I still kept my eye on her.
We weren’t friends, not by a long shot. But I knew her secret, and she was my customer, and somehow that made me feel a little responsible for her.
About half an hour later, another man joined the group. He seemed to be friendly until he grabbed Caroline’s arm.
She winced. “Hey, cut that out! You’re hurting me.”
He didn’t listen to her and pulled her out of the group of men. To my dismay, none of them stepped up to stop him.
He wasn’t steady on his feet and almost fell over when she tried to stand her ground. “I know what you did. Just admit it and I’ll leave you alone.”
She looked genuinely confused. “I don’t even know who you are.”
His face turned red with anger. “I’m Ken MacCormack.”
Rather than cower at his anger, she held his stare. “I’m sorry, have we met? I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Just admit what you did to my brother,” he said.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. We’ve never met before.”
“No, we haven’t. But you’ve met my brother, Lee. And you know exactly what you did to him.”
I could tell by the way she was looking at him that she had no idea what he was talking about. “If you don’t let go of me, I’m going to call the police.”
A few of the men in the group she had been standing in started to drift away. Cowards. I stood up and walked toward her.
“What’s going on here?” I asked, hoping I could sound clueless and defuse the situation before anyone got hurt.
MacCormack’s gaze shifted to me. “You two friends? I’d be careful if I were you, she’ll ruin your business just as easily as she ruined my brother’s.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about. I wasn’t sure it really mattered either. “I can see you’re really upset, but I don’t think this is the right place to talk about it. Why don’t you come back to my table and we’ll try to work it out.”
He looked at Caroline and then back to me.
“Wouldn’t that be better than making a scene here?” I asked.
He scowled at her but dropped her arm and stormed off.
Before she could walk away, I put my hand on her arm. “Listen, this is the second argument you’ve been in today. What’s going on with you?”
“I can’t help it if people are jealous when my business is more successful than theirs. It’s not my fault that horrid Ogilvie woman uses aerated wax, and it’s not my fault the Old Port Confectionery was selling candy that had bugs in it.”
Now I knew why he was so angry with her. Old Port Confectionery was the shop on the other side of hers. In her quest to expand her business, maybe she’d indulged in a few dirty tricks to get them to close.
How long would it be before she tried that with mine?
“You didn’t . . . ?” I asked.
“I made him the same offer I’ve been making you. But no, I didn’t put bugs in his candy.” She frowned at me. “What kind of woman do you think I am?”
She polished off her drink. “Seriously, though, thanks for saving me from that jerk. I’m going to go get a little fresh air outside and then rejoin my friends.”
Not much in the way of friends if they all walked away when she was in trouble. “Be careful,” I said.
I noticed she stopped at the bar before going outside. I went back to sit with Thea and Delia, thinking Caroline would come in soon, because as much as I may not like her, she at least had enough sense to come in out of the rain.
“What was all that about?” Delia asked.
I rolled my eyes. “She’s walking trouble, but she looked like she might have been in a little danger from that guy. I couldn’t just sit and watch.”
We watched hotel security escort MacCormack to the elevator. I was too far away to hear what the guard said, but my guess would be he told Ken to go sleep it off.
Maybe I was young and naive, but it seemed to me the entire purpose of the evening was to drink a lot. I looked at my glass of water that I’d brought out of the dining room with me. I was definitely not holding up my end of the quota, and that was fine with me.
“She’s horrible to you. Why do you bother to look out for her?” Thea asked.
I sighed. “It’s complicated.”
“What, you two have a love-hate relationship?” Delia asked.
“No, nothing like that. She’s got problems in her life that make her difficult to get along with. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about her well-being, even if she is trying to force me to move.”
“You’re definitely the right cousin to be the herbalist—if someone treated me as badly as she treats you, I’d have sat here and enjoyed the show,” Thea said.
“Seriously, what happened that has you feeling so protective of her? It’s not just because she’s your customer, is it?” Delia asked.
“I’ll tell you, but it can’t go any farther than the three of us.”
Delia and Thea leaned in so I wouldn’t have to speak so loudly.
“Her husband doesn’t treat her well. She’s had to buy bruise-fading cream from me.”
Delia’s eyes went wide. “That’s horrible. How can we get her out of there?”
I shook my head. “We can’t. Believe me, I’ve tried. I gave her everything I could think of that would help, including the new Harmony Wash bubble bath.”
“Did it work?” Thea asked.
“I don’t know. It’s not like she confides in me or anything. I can only gauge how she is when she comes to see me. Anything more, and she’d know I was trying to keep my eye on her.”
I shifted in my seat. “If a woman doesn’t want to leave her abusive husband, there’s nothing you can do but hope she realizes she’s better off without him, and be there when she’s ready.”
My cousins nodded at the wisdom of this statement. I wished I could claim it was mine, but it wasn’t. What could I say? Sometimes Jameson had good advice.
I waved to Marco, and we ordered a round of drinks. Another espresso martini for Delia, a margarita for Thea, and a chocolate martini for me. We relaxed and tried to guess what businesses people were in until we finished our drinks.
I was getting tired, but Delia kept coming up with more hilariously unlikely businesses, and we were too busy laughing to care about sleep. Stuffed animal grooming, water slide tester, and professional bridesmaid were my favorites.
A man in a gray suit and a woman in a green dress walked through the door to the outside dining area, and I realized I hadn’t seen Caroline come back in yet. I shrugged, thinking I must have missed her, or she had decided to call it a night once she’d gotten some air.
A scream echoed through the lobby and we all turned to see the woman in the green dress, pale as a sheet, pointing at the door.