Running a business wasn’t easy.
It had been three months since I inherited the Portsmouth Apothecary from my mentor and friend Trina Bassett. She was murdered by a man who kidnapped the object of his obsession—my best friend, Abby—and was angry at Trina for not making him a love potion.
I ran my hands along the smooth cherry desktop in the office. I’d been working on my laptop for over an hour; there were about a hundred tabs open on my browser and pages of handwritten notes next to the keyboard.
I sat back and threw my pencil on the desk, frustrated about how something that seemed so simple could be so difficult. Birds chirped outside and called my attention out the window to the greenhouse in the courtyard behind the shop. Late spring sun shone on the glass, and one of the ventilation panels on the roof opened. It would be warm inside, and I longed to go walk down the two aisles of plants and breathe in the floral-scented air. Unfortunately, I couldn’t.
Responsibility called, and I needed to choose new suppliers. Every company had different pricing, different shipping costs, and different billing cycles. I was beginning to think I’d need a few college courses, if not a whole degree, to make sure I didn’t run this business into the ground.
I needed a break. I grabbed my green “I’m an herbalist, what’s your superpower?” mug and walked out to the complimentary tea station for more caffeine.
I’d instituted having caffeinated and decaf teas available for customers; today’s tea was mango matcha. I poured more of the caffeinated in my mug and stirred in a dollop of honey. Goddess give me strength to deal with learning almost everything on the job.
I loved my customers, and they made all this work worth it. Mrs. Newcomb’s raspy cough seemed to be clearing up with her new potion, and lately I’d noticed an uptick in first-time customers. Hopefully, in a week or two, many of them would return to be second-time and then long-term customers.
The door chimes rang, and Agatha walked in. Agatha was the only client I felt like I’d failed. Her brown hair was matted, and she was wearing mismatched shoes. Her blouse was half-tucked into loose jeans that hung low on her hips, telling me she hadn’t been eating enough. The voice in her head, Alice, must have been strong. “Good morning, Agatha. How are you?” I asked.
She walked straight to the tea station and poured herself a mug of decaf. “Horrible.”
I said nothing. I knew she’d continue as long as I didn’t interrupt.
“Alice is angry because I keep trying to shut her up, and sometimes she won’t let me take my medicine. She makes me dump it out instead.” She looked from her mug to me, tears welling in her eyes. “I try not to. She’s stronger than me, and when she doesn’t let me sleep, I can’t stop her.”
I put my hand on her shoulder. “Oh, Agatha, how terrible.”
She took a sip of her tea. “I don’t know what to do, and I want to give up. Just let her control the body so I can sleep and not fight for every single thing I want in life.”
My heart broke for her. I hadn’t been able to find a potion that did more than keep some of her symptoms at bay. Honestly, treating mental illness was far outside my abilities, but she refused to get help anywhere else.
“Do you think it’s time to go see my friend, Dr. Rebecca?” I held my hands up to forestall her objections. “I know you don’t want to. I feel helpless, though, and there’s nothing more I can do for you.”
Rebecca Cleary was a local psychiatrist I’d called when I realized my potions couldn’t cure Agatha. She wasn’t happy about Agatha relying on potions and wanted me to bring her in for a consultation. I didn’t want to nag Agatha, because as far as I knew, I was the only person watching her health. If she stopped coming to see me, I wasn’t sure she’d have anyone in her life who cared about her.
“Alice won’t let me.”
“Please. I’ll come with you and make sure nothing bad happens. All we have to do is talk to the doctor for a little bit. You don’t need to take any other medicine, just talk.”
Agatha shook her head and banged her mug down on the tea table. “I need my meds, then I have to go.”
I sighed. “Okay. Take the first dose here, where I can see you.” I’d instituted this rule with her a month ago, hoping it would get her back on the path to taking regular doses. Given the way she looked today, my plan didn’t seem to be working. Before I gave her the bottle, I closed my eyes and used my intuition to make sure the potion I’d made for her was still the right one. All I saw was ashwagandha, which was what was waiting for her behind the counter.
My intuition guided me to make the appropriate potions for people. I closed my eyes and thought about the person, then I would see what they needed. I’d made one potion for my grandma without having her with me, and she’d had hallucinations because the formulation wasn’t correct for her. Now I always made sure to check my work with the person in the room.
She rubbed her hands on her pants. “Fine. Whatever.”
“Great. It’s waiting for you at the register.”
We walked to the back of the shop, and I pulled her bottle out from under the counter. I twisted the lid off and held the bottle out to her with a plastic spoon. “Two spoonfuls.”
She frowned as she accepted the spoon and bottle. She poured one spoonful and took it, then the second. “There. Are you happy now?”
I smiled encouragingly. “I am. I worry about you. I’m afraid someday Alice is going to hurt you.”
She took the cap from my hand and screwed it onto her bottle. “So am I,” she whispered before she fled the building.
I rested my head in my hands, wishing I could do something else for her. I’d already talked to Grandma and the aunts, the people I relied on most for advice. Even though they were more experienced witches than me, they didn’t have nearly as much potion knowledge and had no other suggestions.
The nearest potion witch I knew of was Hester Johnson in Sewall, but I hadn’t had time to visit her yet. I needed to make that a priority. If I could get Agatha to come with me, Hester might even be able to find a cure for her.
I looked out the picture window at the people walking by and was surprised to see Caroline Arneson staring through the window at me. She had been standing outside the apothecary intermittently for the last two months, staring in. I didn’t know why; maybe she was trying to intimidate me?
Agatha hadn’t paid me. In fact, she hadn’t paid me for weeks. I took ten dollars out of my pocket and rang up the transaction. My accountant would pitch a fit if he knew I was doing this, so we’ll keep this our little secret.
No sooner had Agatha left than my mother walked in. She was dressed for work at Bayfield Nursery, in jeans and a T-shirt, rather than her usual flowing dress.
“Hi, Mom, what’s up?” There had to be something up for her to stop by before work.
She grinned at me. “I have found the perfect guy for you. My boss’s son has come home from college. His father is worried about him and said he needed a few new friends.”
I rolled my eyes. “New friends, or a girlfriend?”
She shifted her weight from side to side. “I thought the two of you could go on a date, and if that didn’t work out, you could be friends.”
“You realize relationships usually work the other way around, right?”
She blew a strand of hair out of her face. “I let it slip at work that you were single, and Mr. Bayfield thinks you and Geoffrey would make a great couple.”
“How would he know?”
She bit her lip. “I may have talked you up a little. You and your cousins really have to start thinking about settling down.”
I glared at her.
“What? You can’t blame me for being proud of you and how well you’ve handled the curve balls you’ve had lately.”
She knew I was glaring about settling down, but I let it slide. There had never been a doubt in my mind that my mother loved me, but hearing she was proud of me made me smile. “Thanks.”
“Can I give him your number?” she asked.
“Okay. One date is all I’ll commit to. If it doesn’t work out, it ends there.”
“Understood. I’m sure he’ll call soon.”
As my mother walked to the door, Caroline Arneson held it open for her. Caroline’s overly-processed blonde hair had been teased and pulled back into a loose bun, giving her a messier look than I was used to seeing. She was also wearing flats. Was she trying out a more casual style, maybe relaxing a bit? There was no sense in assuming she was here to bully me into selling my shop. After all, she had promised to stop. “Good morning. How can I help you today?”
She lowered her sunglasses to reveal a black eye. Well, I say “black,” but the color was more yellow-green, meaning the bruise was a few days old and healing up. When I questioned her about Trina’s death, Caroline confided that she knew how to handle her husband’s anger. It didn’t seem like she succeeded recently.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Of course I am. I just need something to speed up the healing.”
I frowned. I’d been gathering resources for abused women for months now; if Caroline ever needed them, I hoped I’d have an opportunity to give them to her. “I can help. Can we talk in my office first?”
She smiled. “Are you ready to close this failing business so I can buy your space?”
She looked me up and down and frowned, as though I didn’t pass muster. “You need a few thousand dollars to revamp your wardrobe. I could help.”
“I’m not closing, and the business is doing fine, thank you. I have something for you in my desk.”
She followed me into my office and sat. I opened one of my desk drawers and pulled out a folder. “I worry about you, since you told me about your husband.” I handed her the folder.
She opened the folder and scoffed. “This isn’t for me. I can handle him.”
She tossed the folder onto my desk.
“Are you sure? Your eye seems to tell a different story.”
She stood up. “You’re just a kid, what do you know? Now, can you sell me anything or not?”
“Yes. I’ve got a nice mixture of aloe, arnica, and bromelain that should do the trick. It’s out in the shop.”
I followed her out of the office.
“Seems like you’ve bounced back from the robbery. It looks good in here,” she said.
I handed her a small jar of a bruise-fading ointment. “Thanks. I’ve put in a lot of work, but I think I’m doing well.”
She inspected the floors, which I’d washed the previous night. “I won’t even need to hire a cleaning crew when I move in here. How much do I owe you?”
I blew my breath out. “Nothing, if you stop asking me to leave the building.”
Her lips quirked into a small smile. “Guess I’d better pay you, then.”
I held out my hand. “Eleven dollars.”
As she fished through her bag for money, I stared at her, allowing my intuition to see if she needed anything else. Of course! The ingredients for Harmony Wash filled my vision: red rose petals, African violets, clover, crocus, elecampane, lemon verbena, and cinnamon. “I have something else for you.”
“For the bruise?”
“No. I’ve got a great floral bubble bath. You look like a relaxing bath would do you good.” I wasn’t really lying to her. It was a floral bubble bath, but if I told her using it would bring harmony to her home, she’d laugh at me and probably not take it. “It’s right over here.”
I led her to the display of bubble baths I’d created over the last month. “It’s a new line of product I’ve created.”
I held out a bottle to her. “On the house.”
She handed me eleven dollars and took the bubble bath from my hands. “Thanks, kid.”
I was about to go back to my computer and the hundred open tabs when my neighbor Mrs. Thompson walked into the store. Without her, we might never have caught Chuck, the man who killed Trina and kidnapped Abby. Since that horrible week this past March, Mrs. Thompson and I had been having tea together a couple times a week. She invited me over at what seemed to be the most random times for a chat. She was a witch, too, although she never told me much about herself. All I knew was that she could track and find people with her magic. She wanted to know about me, my plans, and what I saw myself doing in the future. Some days it seemed like I was in a months-long interview for an unnamed job.
My future seemed set in stone to me: run the apothecary, learn as much as I could about potion making, and help people whenever possible.
She never seemed satisfied with my answer, but didn’t hint about what else she wanted to hear. She also played a mean game of cribbage, and more than once, I wondered if her cards were marked, or if she used magic to win. The number of twenty-four-point hands she got was ridiculous.
Today she was dressed in seersucker Capri pants, boat shoes, and a blue polo shirt. She looked like any other gray-haired grandmother out shopping. I knew better. She had a sharp mind and a dry sense of humor.
“Hey, Mrs. T., how are you?” I asked as she approached the counter.
“Just fine, Miss P.”
She’d asked me to call her Beatrice, but I didn’t feel right about using her first name. She was my elder, and Grandma had made sure we all respected our elders, particularly those who were witches. In retaliation, Mrs. Thompson called me Miss P., rather than Isabella. It was a good compromise.
I searched the shelf of prepared potions under the counter and didn’t see any for her. “Are you here to pick something up?” I asked.
“Oh, no, dear. Jameson is doing fine. Whatever you’ve done to change his tonic has worked wonders.”
Jameson was her black cat. I know, I know, what a stereotype. Then again, black cats needed good homes too. Jameson had kidney problems, and Trina had developed a tonic for him. I made the same potion, and mine seemed to be working better for him.
“What can I do for you?” I asked.
Sadness crossed her face for a moment, before it vanished. “I have to go on a trip sometime soon, and I wanted to ask you to watch Jameson.”
“Of course.” He and I got along well, and he didn’t even mind moving over to my apartment the other times I’d taken care of him. “Going anyplace fun?”
“Not this time, I’m afraid. I’ve got family business to deal with, and it can’t be sorted out over the phone.”
“No problem. Just say the word, and I’ll be there. How long will you be gone?”
She sighed. “Several days, so make sure you take the food and kitty litter with you.”
She grabbed my hand and squeezed. “There’s no one I trust more with Jameson than you.”
I smiled. “That’s kind of you to say. I think he likes me, too.”
She let go of my hand and forced a weak smile. “Good. I’m glad the two of you get along well.”
I wanted to ask why she looked sad. “Stay for some tea. I’ve made mango matcha, but I can make anything else you want.”
“No, thank you, dear. I’ve got other errands to run before I leave town. And when I get back, you and I need to have a long talk.”
I had no idea what she meant by that. “Sure. About what?”
She frowned. “Your future.”
It was never good when someone frowned when they mentioned your future. She walked out into the sunshine, and a sense of dread washed over me. This trip would not be good for her.
y cell phone rang, and I looked at the screen before I answered. I didn’t recognize the number. “Hello?”
“Hi, is this Izzy Proctor?”
Clearly not a person who knew me. “This is Isabella.”
“Oh, good. Hi. This is Geoff Bayfield. My dad said I should call you.”
“Right, hi. My mother told me you’d call.”
“Great! I was thinking we could go out for dinner. How about tonight?”
I paused for a minute, pretending I was checking my calendar. Did I really want to do this? I mean, how pathetic was it to be set up by your mother? Probably about as bad as being set up by your father. Not nearly as embarrassing as having absolutely nothing on my social calendar though.
“Sure, I’m free. How about seven, at The Rosa?”
“Sounds good. I’ll see you then.”
I stood in the entry of The Rosa Restaurant. No one was waiting for me, so I surveyed the tables in the dining room. No single men there either.
For what seemed like the millionth time, I wondered how I let my mother talk me into this date.
“Table for one, miss?” a host asked.
I turned to face his wedding ring and smirk of superiority. Here was a man who wouldn’t ever have to eat alone if he didn’t want to. And wasn’t that one of my mother’s selling points for dating and marriage? Not that settling down with someone had done her, or my aunts, any good.
Aunt Lily had never married Thea’s father, and whatever happened between them was bad enough that we never spoke of him.
Aunt Nadia’s husband had crept out of Proctor House in the middle of the night, leaving a note and a hundred dollars, as if either were sufficient compensation for abandoning his family.
My parents had divorced when I was three, and I had no memory of my dad—only photos. For most of my life, that was fine. Grandpa was an excellent substitute for our missing fathers during soccer games, father-daughter dances, and when we needed someone to understand when we thought our mothers were being unreasonable.
We were lucky to have him as long as we did, but I still missed him during times like this. I could hear him in my mind, chastising my mother. “Michelle, leave the child alone. Getting married young didn’t do you a lick of good, did it? Let her find her own way in life.”
“I’m waiting for someone. Is there a bar?” I asked.
He frowned, probably impatient at having to watch me think. “Through the dining room and to the left.”
I walked through the dimly lit dining room, tables groaning with all the carbs a person could want—focaccia with herbed dipping oil, lasagna, pizza with any topping imaginable, and a delicious-looking fettucine primavera.
My stomach growled, and I hoped my date was there. The sooner we ate, the happier my stomach would be and the happier I’d be to never have to see him again. I supposed I ought to have given him the benefit of the doubt, but I just couldn’t.
My mother worked in a garden center, mostly for fun, and Geoff was the owner’s son. He was twenty-four, had returned home from college, and was looking to settle down in the Portsmouth area.
How many red flags could one guy wave? Did he really take two extra years to finish college? Couldn’t he find a job that his parents didn’t give him, and didn’t he want to see the world, instead of staying close to home?
I was substantially underwhelmed.
To be fair, how did I look in a quick three-sentence description? I didn’t even go to college, I came from the “weird” family in town, and I had a tendency to find dead bodies.
Yeah, I wasn’t sure I’d date me either.
I took a seat at the bar and ordered a seltzer with lime.
“Starting a tab?” the bartender asked.
“Yes. I’m meeting someone for dinner.”
The clock behind the bar said it was seven, so in one more minute, he’d officially be late. Was there an appropriate amount of time to wait for a date? Could I leave after five minutes? Ten?
I looked past the bartender and into the mirror behind him. A tall blond man with a linebacker’s shoulders walked into the bar, looked around, and made a beeline to me.
“Excuse me, are you Isabella?” he asked.
I turned to face him. A smile crept onto my traitorous lips. I didn’t want to enjoy the date, but goddess, was he easy on the eyes. “Yes. Geoffrey?”
He returned my smile. “Do you want to eat here, or would you like a table?”
“Definitely a table,” I said.
Once the surprised host seated us, we started in with the awkward, first-date questions. I’d pay good money for a way to skip right to the fifth date, where you already knew each other and didn’t have to endure this stilted small talk.
“Your mother tried to explain what you do for work. I didn’t really understand. You’re a barista, right, only with tea instead of coffee?”
I couldn’t imagine any way my mother would describe making potions to sound like a barista.
“Not really. I make herbal remedies—balms, tinctures, and teas—to heal people, relieve their stress, and help them enjoy life more.”
“You’re a doctor? That’s not at all what she said.”
“No. I’m definitely not a doctor. My title is herbalist, and I spent a year as an apprentice before I started working on my own. I use plants to help heal people.”
“You only spent a year in college? Totally unfair. My dad made me spend four—okay, five and a half—for a business degree, and I’m still stuck in the warehouse driving a forklift.”
I smiled to disguise my dismay at his intellectual wattage. My mother definitely didn’t warn me that he sounded like a stereotypical business major. One more try. “I make things like tea, from plants, for people.”
His face lit up. Maybe something had sparked in his brain.
“Oh, like weed! I get it, you work in a dispensary. That’s cool. Do you work in Maine or Massachusetts? Or do you work in an illegal New Hampshire one?”
I sighed. “None.” I pulled out one of the twenty business cards I’d had printed and handed it to him. I wasn’t sure he was the best use of my limited card stash, but I couldn’t explain my job any differently. “You should come visit; you’ll get a better idea of what I do if you see the apothecary.”
He put the card in his wallet. “Cool. My new girlfriend has business cards.”
I opened my menu to cover my eye roll. He opened his, and we spent a few blissful minutes not talking.
I set my menu down. “I’ll have the pasta primavera. I saw someone in the bar with it, and it looked delicious.”
He frowned. “I can’t eat that many carbs. They’ll kill you, y’know. I’m having the antipasto and meatballs.”
I like appetizers as much as the next person, but I also liked a real meal. “Anything else?”
He frowned. “Too many carbs. I like to save them for the weekend.”
Who was I to complain about his dietary restrictions? They were clearly working for him.
He set his menu down. “You’re into natural living, right?”
Was I? Probably not as much as you’d expect from an herbalist. I liked a good can of store-bought soup, and life wouldn’t be worth living without hot dogs cooked over a fire at least once in the summer.
“Sort of. I guess it’s a process. What do you eat for your weekend carbs?”
He grinned. “I save them all for beer.”
“That’s a lot of beer, isn’t it?”
He leaned forward. This was clearly a topic he loved to talk about. “Not as much as you might think. I don’t eat carbs during the week. Tonight is special because we’re here. The antipasto platter has vegetables, so I budget about 16 grams of carbs in my food, leaving me enough left over at the end of the week for about thirty-five light beers.”
My eyes widened. Thirty-five? One short of six six-packs? I wished we were in a brighter restaurant, because I had the urge to check his eyes for a yellow color indicating alcoholic hepatitis.
“That seems like a lot,” I said.
“You get used to it.”
Why? Why would anyone want to get used to so much beer?
“What else do you do on weekends?”
“My weekends are sweet! I leave work at noon on Friday, pick up the beer and head to a buddy’s house. Me and the guys spend the weekend there, watching sports, drinking beer, hanging out.”
My mind couldn’t help doing the math. Thirty-five cans of beer in 60 hours. Not too bad, if he didn’t sleep, maybe?
Before I could come up with a comment, our waiter came. “Are you ready to order?”
I handed him my menu. “I’d like the pasta primavera, please.”
Geoff set his menu on the table. “Antipasto and meatballs, as a meal.”
“Very good. Anything to drink?”
I had planned to have a glass of wine, but was suddenly conscious of all the carbs in my dinner. “Seltzer with lime, please.”
The waiter looked at Geoff, who finally said, “Better save the carbs for the weekend. Just water.”
Our waiter left, and I decided to turn the conversation to something we had in common. “I inherited my business a few months ago, and running it is a lot more difficult than I anticipated. A business degree might be useful, although it’s tough to squeeze in classes when you’re the only person running the shop as well.”
“What do you think?” I prompted him.
“When I finally inherit the nursery, I’m going to relax. My dad does a lot of the work himself. I’m going to hire people to do all the hard stuff, so I can chill out and rake in the money.”
“Do you have any siblings that can help you?”
He grinned. “Nope. I’m an only child. It’s great not to worry about splitting up the inheritance.”
“Does the business make enough that you can hire more people?” I asked.
He looked at me like he hadn’t considered that. “I don’t know. I guess if it doesn’t, I’ll sell more stuff. As for going to business school, I guess it might help. I didn’t actually learn too much. Like the guys in my fraternity said, it’s all about the connections, and as long as the GPA winds up at 2.0, they can’t refuse you your diploma.”
I looked around the restaurant, hoping to see a friend, an enemy, a fire in the kitchen, anything that could get me out of this date. Why hadn’t I set up an emergency call with Delia?
“You know, if you’re having problems with your business, I can come by and give you some advice.”
I turned my attention back to Geoff. “That’s thoughtful of you. You sound busy at your own job, that forklift isn’t going to drive itself, and I don’t want to take you away from it.”
He smiled. “Nah. I’m the boss’s son. If I want to take an afternoon off, no one will rat me out. They wouldn’t dare.”
Geoff changed the topic abruptly. “So how about you? Do you have any siblings?”
“Yes, and no.”
“Doesn’t it have to be one or the other?” he asked.
“I had a twin who died as a baby.”
“Way to bring the room down,” Geoff said.
Wow. I already had low expectations for this date, but I guess maybe a little empathy would have been nice. “I also have two cousins who are my age, and we were all raised together. They feel like I imagine having sisters would be like.”
Mercifully, our orders were delivered before we could delve further into my family history.
My pasta looked delicious. I closed my eyes and inhaled the aroma. When I opened my eyes, Geoff was already eating his meatballs.
At least he wasn’t talking with his mouth full.
We ate in silence for about fifteen minutes. He finished before I did and watched me eat my last few bites.
When I finished, he shook his head. “So many carbs.”
I set my napkin on the table. “Well, Geoff, this has been a lovely dinner, but I need to call it a night.”
“Oh,” he said. “I thought we could go for a walk after dinner and talk more.”
I didn’t think he wanted to walk, or talk. I was getting more of a make-out-in-an-alley vibe from him. “I can’t. I’ve got a busy morning and need to get home.”
“At least let me drive you,” he offered.
“That’s not necessary. I’ve got paperwork to catch up on in my office. It’s only a couple blocks from here, and I’d like to walk.”
I stood up and walked toward the exit. After a moment he followed after me. I made it out the door before he caught up to me.
I walked toward the apothecary, which was also the way home. I had no plans to stop at work, but there was no way I wanted him to know where I lived.
“Kiss goodnight?” he asked my retreating back.
I pretended I didn’t hear him and kept walking.
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