As I backed into the shop with a smoothie balanced on my latest bookish obsession, a romance between an owl shifter and a mouse shifter, I was greeted with screams and curses. Not literal curses. These days, I surrounded myself with human women who would clutch their pearls to learn I considered them a part of my makeshift coven. The uncomplicated circle of friendship satisfied the gnawing ache for community bred into all witches, allowing my power to slumber where it couldn’t hurt anyone.
Where I couldn’t hurt anyone.
“Rue.” Arden gripped my shoulders then marched me to the counter. “You ruined my cobwebs.”
“I heard what you did there.” I coughed up a wad of her artificial cotton decor. “What is all this?”
Stretchy cobwebs. Rubber spiders. Ceramic skulls. Foam tombstones.
“Halloween.” Camber escorted a life-size plastic skeleton to the door. “It’s a few days away.”
“I forgot.” As if any witch worth her salt didn’t shiver at the thinning of the veil between worlds on that night. “I also forgot approving this expense.”
They were both in college, happily living off ramen, with no extra pennies to rub together.
The tab for this decorating spree was definitely ending up on my desk. Probably with a thud.
Holiday spirit wasn’t topping my to-do list. Heck, it wasn’t even on my to-do list.
With the shop approaching its five-month anniversary, I was more concerned with keeping the lights on.
“All the other shops on Main Street are decked out for the ghost walk. We need to look spooky to lure in new customers.” Arden returned to futzing with her cobwebs, careful to lock the door first this time. She could unlock it after the way was clear to avoid strangling any potential customers. “We need refreshments too. Mayor Tate expects us to man a table on the sidewalk.”
Mayor Tate and her expectations could kiss my full moon, considering the cost of rent downtown.
The better I fit in, the longer I could stay, and I didn’t just mean in this prime location.
“I have that wonky folding table left over from the grand opening.” I bought it for twelve bucks at a thrift store. “Email me your Pinterest links—” we all knew they had compiled a list for this ambush, “—and I’ll pick up the ingredients.” I also scored a two-dollar glass punchbowl with matching ladle on the same bargain hunting trip. “I’ll make lime sherbet punch too. Or should that be slime sherbet punch?”
The girls routinely flooded my DMs with recipe requests for the long nights when I did my best to stress bake away my insomnia. Mostly food trending on social media. The number of snacks I sent home with them explained why they were cool with living off ramen. Because, really, they weren’t. They were living off me.
And I didn’t mind one bit. I might be cheap, but I was doing okay. I could afford to indulge them.
The urge to mentor, provide, and assist the young was carved into my bones. These girls fulfilled a need in me, one usually satisfied by training novice witches, and I had to keep investing in these girls, in this community, to scratch that itch.
“That’s the spirit.” Camber patted me on the head. “And, yes, the pun was intended.”
“Downtown has its traditions,” Arden agreed. “We need to cater to them to hold our spot.”
Our spot because these girls had worked for me the last four years, ever since I arrived in Samford, Alabama.
The old location of Hollis Apothecary was in my kitchen. This was a definite step up from selling online, though we still offered shipping through the website. Whether I could afford brick and mortar long term was a different kettle of fish, but I had saved up enough for a year at our current swanky location.
Our dream had seven months until its expiration date unless a miracle occurred between now and then.
“Oh.” Arden gusted a dreamy sigh. “Hell-o.”
“I didn’t pay extra for a glass storefront so you could stalk hot guys as they walk past.” I polished off my breakfast smoothie then tossed it in the trash. The romance, I took to my office for later. When I returned, Arden hadn’t budged. “Have you no shame?”
“Let me check.” She patted her pockets. “Nope.” Then pressed her nose to the glass. “I’m fresh out.”
“I wanna see.” Camber set down a bucket of spiders and joined Arden at the window. “Holy Mother.”
Their breath fogged the glass, obscuring my view of this perfect specimen of manhood.
Given their ages, he was probably late teens or early twenties. I owned older T-shirts. That I bought new.
“Crap on a cracker.” Arden stumbled back, bumping into Camber. “He’s coming this way.”
“The way you two were gawking at him,” I said with a snort, “I can’t imagine why.”
Poor guy probably thought they were trying to get his attention, maybe to hand out free samples.
“Everyone.” Arden smoothed the white blouse that topped her smart black trousers. “Act natural.”
Chuckling as they jostled for the prime spot nearest the door, I sat on the floor behind the counter.
“I’m going to inventory the dried flowers,” I announced as I got comfy. “Practice safe sales, ladies.”
Neither laughed at my joke, but I doubt they heard me over their racing hearts.
The frantic ba-bump, ba-bump set my fingers twitching, but I made fists until I got it under control.
Usually, I blocked it out, but the louder their hearts beat, the harder my stomach clenched with hunger.
I’m a white witch. I’m a white witch. I’m a white witch.
A metallic rattle brought my head up, but I couldn’t see the entryway over the counter.
“What in the…?” Arden groaned as if the world was ending. “I forgot to unlock the door.”
Metal clicked, and the door jiggled, but the lock was bad about jamming.
Getting that fixed really was topping my to-do list.
“Get out of the way.” Camber’s low heels clicked on the linoleum. “Let me do it.”
Focus on that.
Not their rising panic Mr. Perfect would give up on them and leave before one or both got his number.
They kept disappearing from under the register. I trusted Arden and Camber, but I would have to check the security feed, see if I could figure out who, or what, was helping themselves to those specific items.
Glass rattled when the knob smacked the pane beside it, and I crossed my fingers neither one cracked.
“Hello,” the girls chorused. “Welcome to Hollis Apothecary.”
“The sign says you’re open,” a silky voice spilled into the store. “I’m not interrupting your break, am I?”
A hard thud shook my ribs, and all of a sudden, the only heart I heard was my own.
Ba-bum, ba-bum, ba-bum.
Murmuring a soft spell under my breath, I forced my pulse to slow and match Camber’s less frantic beat.
“Interrupt me anytime.” Arden hiccupped with nerves. “I’m Arden.”
“I’m Camber,” her best friend cut in. “You didn’t interrupt our break.”
“I was decorating—” Arden hiccupped again, “—for Halloween, you know? I was working in the entryway and forgot to unlock the door after I finished. I’m so sorry for any inconvenience.”
A midnight chuckle caressed my ears as he humored the girls. “Does Rue Hollis work here?”
“She’s our boss.” Camber took over the awkward exchange. “Let me get her for you.”
“We have a new line of hand lotions.” Hiccup, hiccup, hiccup. “Would you like a sample?”
Poor Arden fumbled her sales pitch while Camber, who could usually be counted on to rescue her from a bout of anxiety, rounded the counter and cut her eyes at me.
“Who is he,” I mouthed. “Get his name.”
“I forgot to ask,” she called out, all smiles. “Who should I tell her is here?”
“Asa.” His footsteps thumped closer, until I smelled the sweet-burning smoke of rich tobacco and almost tasted the bite of ripe green apples. “Montenegro.”
The blood drained from my face in a dizzying rush, and I shook my head once.
“Be right back.” She strode into the office, waited to the count of ten, then returned. “She took an early lunch.” She held up a note I wrote earlier in the week. “I’m so sorry, sir. I didn’t hear her leave. She must have gone out the back.”
“Can you give her my card and have her call me at her earliest convenience?”
“Of course.” She resumed her post beside me. “I’ll pass it on as soon as she gets back.”
“I’ll be in town for twenty-four hours,” he murmured. “Can you tell her that too?”
“Sure.” Camber dialed up her sincerity five degrees. “I’ll do that.”
His footsteps receded, and I took my first easy breath since I heard his voice.
“Rue,” he whispered for my ears alone. “You can’t run forever.”
The door opened, triggering a chorus of ghostly moans Arden must have rigged, then shut behind him.
Only after Camber gave me the all clear did I draw my legs into my chest and rest my face on my knees.
Slender arms encircled me as Arden knelt beside me. “Who was that guy?”
“The boyfriend?” Camber sat across from us and rested her hand on my thigh. “He found you?”
Of all the lies I told when I moved here, I regretted spreading the story about running from an abusive ex the most. The cover had done its job, rallied my neighbors behind me. They looked out for me, giving me extra eyes on strange vehicles spotted on our dirt road, lurking near my house, or passing through town.
Their aid allowed me to stay in one place, to put down the shallowest of roots, but it wasn’t freely given.
I had stolen it, and I couldn’t give it back.
The store had been a mistake. I saw that now. I thought I was safe. Clearly, I was wrong.
“He left you this.” Camber passed me the card. “It’s blank.”
Black ink spilled across its face in curling handwriting for my eyes only.
Special Agent Asa Montenegro
Black Hat Bureau
“You’re shivering.” Arden put her arm around my shoulders. “This is our fault, isn’t it?”
“We pushed you into a physical location.” Camber lowered her head. “That’s how he found you.”
“We don’t know that.” I used the counter to pull myself to my feet. “Girls, this isn’t your doing.”
I ought to have known better, I did know better, but I also wanted to pretend this was my real life.
“What will you do?” Camber stared out the glass storefront. “What should we do?”
“I’m going to pretend this didn’t happen.” I shredded the card into tiny pieces to void its tracking spell. A fire would have worked best, but the agent already knew this location. The trash was safe enough. “That goes for you too.” Black Hats were forbidden to harm humans. “He said he’s in town for the day, right?”
“Yeah.” Arden shuffled in place. “You should go home once the coast is clear. Maybe stay there a few days.”
“I wouldn’t want that creep to catch you out in town,” Camber agreed, “or to follow you home.”
Closing my eyes, I pictured my go bag, the one I kept in the closet by the front door. I had money in the front pocket, three changes of clothes, a pair of shoes, an athame, a spell kit, and pollen for my familiar.
I could rush home, pick it—and her—up, and disappear again.
All it would cost me was everything I had built in the last four years.
“I need to think.” I had to settle on an exit strategy if this went south. “Can you guys handle the store?”
“Weird that you should ask.” Camber tilted her name tag toward me. “It says here I’m a manager.”
“Whoa.” Arden flashed hers at me. “I got one too.” She dropped her mouth open. “We must have both put quarters in the same bubble gum machine.”
“Maybe it was a misprint,” I countered, “and your boss was too cheap to correct the problem.”
“Then our boss really shouldn’t have cut us both keys too.” Camber shoved me toward the back. “Shoo.”
“Go home,” Arden urged me. “Take a bubble bath, drink some wine, and think about next steps.”
Wine was the last thing I ought to reach for in this mood. I wouldn’t stop chugging until I couldn’t think.
Maybe she was on to something.
“Thanks.” I grabbed my book then lingered on the threshold to the rear exit. “Call if you need me.”
“We will,” they chimed, lying through the perfectly straight teeth I helped finance.
Crossing to the shopping center’s dedicated employee parking lot, I made it three steps before rock-hard arms encircled me, lifting me way too high and leaving my shoes dangling a foot above the pavement.
A scream lodged in my throat, and magic singed my tongue in a spell I could spit at my attacker, but there was a familiar weight to the careful hands linked at my navel. “Clay?”
Stones tumbled in his throat as he spun me toward him. “Miss me, Dollface?”
The smile cutting his rough-hewn lips forced mine into an unwilling curve to match.
“Nice rug.” I rang my fingers through his short blond wig. “Still using Gorilla Glue?”
The unique texture of his skin required an industrial-strength bond to keep his hair in place.
“I had to look good for my best girl.” His grin kept growing wider. “It’s been too damn long.”
“I just finished breakfast.” I covered my mouth. “Maybe put me down if you don’t want to wear it.”
Seven feet tall. Four hundred pounds. Arms like tree trunks. I wasn’t going anywhere unless he let me.
As a joke, he named himself Clayton Kerr when the Black Hats swore him in. He was a golem and molded from, well, clay. Ancient magic animated him, and enchantments gave him the look and feel of a human.
A bald human.
Beauty stores stocked fewer wigs than he rotated through during any given week.
Colors to match his every mood. Styles to fit any occasion. And their little travel boxes. So many boxes.
Vanity, thy name is Clayton Kerr.
That was before you factored in the company uniform, which was very Men in Black.
Expensive black suit, simple black tie, shiny black shoes, starched white dress shirt.
“Ace catch up to you yet?” He didn’t release me. “He’s not you, no one is, but he’s a decent partner.”
The unintentional dig slid between my ribs, right into my heart, but I had my reasons for going AWOL.
“He checked out my store, exploded the ovaries of my shopgirls, and left me his card.”
“You hid from him?” Clay’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “You?”
The power I once wielded stirred, blinking awake, rattling the chains I used to bind it within my skin.
But I was stronger than the hunger. I controlled it. It did not control me.
A roughness sanded the edges of my voice from the effort. “Rue Hollis hid from him.”
“Rue is a white witch,” he murmured, understanding what that meant. “How many years?”
“All of them.” From the day I cut ties with Black Hat to this one. “Put me down, Clay.”
“Not until you talk to Ace.” Regret pinched his lips, but he didn’t loosen his hold. “Director’s orders.”
Golems with Clay’s agency were so rare as to be unheard of, which was how he ended up at Black Hat. Most of his kin were mindless dolls who followed instructions to the letter, but Clay had full autonomy until his free will smashed face-first into the brick wall that was a direct order from his current master.
By choice, he wouldn’t hurt a fly, but he had done things under orders that twisted even my stomach. It shouldn’t have been held against him, shouldn’t have landed him in Black Hat, but he was only as moral as his current master allowed him to be.
“I understand.” I bent as if to kiss his cheek but licked his forehead instead. “I’m sorry, Clay.”
The magic animating him shorted out, his eyes clouded over, and he froze as solid as a statue.
The only way to best a golem was to smudge or erase the shem, one of the Names of God, written on his forehead. Any imperfections disrupted his flow of power, immobilizing him. And yes, they were all male.
Only someone he trusted would get anywhere near it, which made my betrayal cut both ways.
I broke his grip with a twist, hit the pavement with a grunt, then walked to my car with a slight limp.
Unless I wanted to run again, I had no choice but to retreat home, where I was safe.
There were absolutes for people like me.
Black Hat’s arrival in town had just proven that.