FROSTFIRE INN (scroll down for BEWITCHBERRY COTTAGE)
As Lauren Delaney heard the cars pulling into the inn’s parking lot, she remembered she had to get rid of the books in each room. Copies of Death at Summersby on the bedside tables would not be appreciated by the members of the Huntington family. A thinly disguised version of the late Senator Theodore Huntington as a murderer was a guaranteed way to irritate his offspring.
Lauren ran in and out of the rooms grabbing the books in each one. Thank heavens the Frostfire Inn only had ten guest rooms and the Huntington party was just taking six, or she’d never have been able to get them all. She burst into the last room, the Cranberry Suite, just as Maggie Cooper, the inn’s unflappable maid, was placing the floral arrangement on the dressing table. “I need to get the book!” Lauren said, darting around to the small bookcase next to the four-poster, trying not to drop any copies from the stack of books she already carried.
“The Huntingtons are here! I just remembered Barb put a copy in each room.” Even though it had been ten years since the book’s release, Lauren had no doubt both Huntington’s sons not only remembered the book, but hated its author. Her author photo on the back of the book had been of her much younger self, but she knew just changing her hair color from red to brown and letting it grow long didn’t hide the resemblance completely, so she fully intended to stay out of sight of the brothers for the duration of their stay.
Maggie adjusted a branch of holly berries in the vase. “You’re right. Barb did put books everywhere. I didn’t even think of that. Guess it wouldn’t be a good way to welcome these particular guests.” She went over to the window and looked out. “I haven’t seen the Huntingtons in years.” Leaning in even closer, her nose touched the window. “The snow and my bad eyes are making it hard to tell which ones are the brothers.” She turned back to Lauren, shaking her head, “They were good looking as boys, but this whole bunch is one handsome lot of men. They all reek of money with those clothes and those cars. Can you tell who is who?”
Lauren joined her and peered out, hoping they wouldn’t look up. Even though snowflakes were already coating the new guests, and it had been so long since she’d seen them, she recognized both right away. Jackson Huntington had been a senior in high school the year of the murder, and he still carried that look as if he had just stepped off a sailboat, dark blond hair swept back off a thin arrogant face, tanned enough to show he got out of New England in winter regularly. She noticed he still had his trademark smirk. She pitied his bride-to-be, who would have to endure that every day. “There’s Jackson,” she said, trying to find Flynn Huntington in the confusion of men taking out ski equipment. A tall dark-haired man took a pair of skis off the rack on top of a black SUV and turned. Lauren almost gasped out loud.
If Flynn had been a good looking, though somewhat too skinny college senior then, now he was gorgeous. Time had filled out his features and broadened his shoulders. She remembered the deep green of his eyes, the few times she’d seen him up close, back when he’d come into her father’s diner on his college breaks. She’d never admitted to anyone, not even to her best friend Amy, that she’d had a crush on him. Before the murder and the book, she’d fantasized about how some day when she was grown up and sophisticated, she’d run into him in some big city, and he’d be blown away by her, asking her out to dinner then and there. Of course, he never noticed her teenaged self at the diner. She’d been just another waitress in an ugly pink uniform, trying to look older than seventeen by wearing too much makeup.
Jackson looked up at the inn and Lauren ducked back, hoping he hadn’t seen them watching. Maggie obviously didn’t care. She waved.
“Maggie!” Lauren hissed. “What are you doing?”
“Being friendly. He didn’t wave back.” She took on a disgusted expression. “That one would be more handsome if he didn’t look like he thinks he’s too special for ordinary mortals. I remember the boy and his attitude. Quite the snotty one when he’d place his order at the diner, like he couldn’t be bothered to be polite to an old broad like me. I can’t believe he’s actually running for congress. Rumor has it, he’ll run for his father’s old Senate seat as soon as he’s old enough, but to me he’ll always look like a fraternity boy.”
“Jackson’s running for Congress?” Lauren couldn’t believe it. “Why would he do such a thing? You can bet the press will bring up Missy Hine’s murder and Theodore Huntington’s suicide.” That meant Lauren’s book would be back in the news, the book that caused the investigation of Missy Hine’s death to be reopened. She felt a sick feeling at the thought of it all being brought up again.
“The murder and the suicide were a long time ago,” Maggie said. “People don’t care about it any more. But even if they did, I suspect Jackson’s a typical Huntington. If they want something, they go after it, no matter what the consequences. He even opened up his father’s old office on Main Street. With him getting married and renovating the mansion, folks suspect he’ll be around quite a bit.”
“I’m glad I’m not staying long then.” Lauren hoped no one in the press would try to track her down. She had no intention of talking about that time at all. Her family had paid too high a price.
“It’s so good to have you back though, even for a little while. We’re all hoping someday you’ll stay for good. Don’t fret about the Huntingtons.” Maggie patted Lauren’s cheek. “What’s past is past.” Going over to the dressing table, Maggie picked up a holly berry that had fallen off the arrangement of winter greenery. “That’s the last of them. I’ll turn on the fire, and then I think everything’s ready. I’m ready for home. Barb did remember to tell you in her notes that we decided to do away with turndown service and chocolate on the pillows after the she found those, um, toys, some previous guests left out?”
“Yes, she remembered. Poor Barb,” Lauren said. “I don’t know if I’d be able to look the guests in the face the next day.” When Lauren had read the manager’s notes, it had taken her a few moments to understand what Barb was really saying. She’d called them toys too and Lauren had puzzled over that until it dawned on her Barb wasn’t talking about building blocks and tiny cars.
Lauren hoped she wouldn’t have to face anything unexpectedly embarrassing while she was filling in for Barb. When the manager had called her in tears explaining about the surgery and the need for her to go stay with her daughter in Florida to recuperate, Lauren had been nearly overcome with worries, worry for Barb and worry at the prospect of taking charge, and most of all, fear at being back in Tanager.
Ever since Lauren bought the inn through a trust to hide her ownership, she’d told herself some day she’d come back and face down the townspeople who still held her responsible for driving Senator Huntington to suicide. Lauren just hadn’t planned on that day coming so soon, and now that she was back in town, she still hadn’t decided if she’d actually tell people who she was. The older staff at the inn knew, and her best friend, but no one else. She couldn’t imagine ever wanting to tell anyone else.
Maggie smoothed the duvet on the bed. “You did a good job redecorating this room,” she said. “It’s nice and romantic and your paintings make it look even better. Too bad I’m an old lady with a husband whose idea of romance is sitting next to me shouting at the refs on television. If I’m lucky, Dan will share his corn chips with me, but that’s as far as it goes.” She looked sideways at Lauren. “Seems a shame this bed will only be used by one man this weekend. It was meant for a couple. Speaking of which, don’t you have a special young man in that faraway place where you work?”
Lauren pretended she didn’t hear her. Maggie was a dear, but she seemed to think Lauren at almost thirty was fast approaching the status of never being able to find a man.
“That’s all of them,” Lauren said, getting a better hold on the stack of books. “No, wait. There’s probably a least one copy of the book down in the library. Great.” Barb had put the book everywhere, claiming guests liked the idea of reading about local scandal. Lauren had gone along with it, though she didn’t know if any guest had ever even picked up the book.
Maggie made a snorting sound. “It doesn’t matter. They’ll be too busy to read, even if any of them are readers. With the skiing and the wedding coming up, I can’t see those kind of men hanging around here reading. I imagine there will be all sorts of fancy pre-wedding doings. My friend Joy says the bride and the bride’s mother are having all sorts of luncheons and cocktail parties at the Glendower, and they keep changing their minds on the menus. It’s driving the chef crazy.”
“I guess we should be thankful we’ve only got the groom’s party. I don’t think I could deal with a demanding bride.” For once, Lauren was glad the Frostfire was considered too rustic for upscale parties. At least the skiers and the weekenders didn’t expect fawning and scraping from the staff.
Sounds of people coming up the stairs alerted Lauren that she should move. “I’ll see you later,” she said, hurrying back out in the hall and up to her own bedroom on the third floor. Once there, she dumped the books onto the narrow iron bed in the corner, thinking she should just conveniently misplace them in a trash can. Maybe Barb wouldn’t notice when she came back.
Checking her watch, Lauren realized she had to get down to the kitchen or her pies would burn. She took the back stairs, wishing she could be invisible over the next few days. Being around the Huntingtons was the last thing she needed.
Down in the kitchen, Lauren found Phyllis, the cook, chopping herbs as she prepped for dinner. “The timer went off on your pies,” she said to Lauren, “so I checked them and took them out. If they taste as good as they look, I predict we’ll be adding a new regular item to the menu. A chocolate coconut cream pie sounds too tempting to pass up.”
“Thanks!” Lauren inspected the pies, deciding to put chocolate shavings on them when they were cool enough. “I’d better get started on the apple crisp if it’s going to be done on time.” She took one of the aprons hanging near the door and tied it around her, liking the thought of another cooking project in front of her. A big bowl of apples on the counter waited to be peeled. One large pan of apple crisp should be plenty, Lauren decided, plenty for a Sunday night with only the Huntington party and the other two couples in the dining room. The restaurant wasn’t open to nonguests for dinner except on Fridays and Saturdays.
It didn’t take long to get the apple crisp was in the oven, and then Lauren did whatever task Phyllis assigned her, both of them chatting away. Mostly Phyllis chatted and Lauren listened. Lauren had never met anyone who managed to be as consistently kind and happy as Phyllis, nor anyone who seemed perfectly content with her place in life. Phyllis’s world revolved around her family and her volunteer activities in the town, and she talked all about them, making every one sound interesting.
When it was time for dinner to start, Lauren couldn’t help but sneak a look out into the dining room, hoping to get another look at Flynn. She was disappointed to see he wasn’t at the table, though it looked like most of the rest of the party was already there. Hearing the phone in the kitchen ring, she hurried back inside. It was on the same line as the front desk, since Phyllis acted both as day manager and cook. Phyllis picked it up and Lauren could hear a loud excited voice on the other end.
Phyllis listened and the said, “I’m so sorry. We’ll take care of it right away. Don’t worry, he’s harmless, wouldn’t hurt a fly.” She hung up the phone. continued….
Emily Martin would have enjoyed watching the man climbing the tree in her front yard if she hadn’t been imagining dollar bills flying out the front door to pay the bill. She’d been shocked to learn it cost as much to cut down a dead tree as it did to make a down payment on the new car she desperately needed. Paying for the tree would leave her with a pile of firewood and her old clunker of a car. Not much of a deal, because she couldn’t exactly drive the tree stump that would be left behind.
Just because the arborist, Tom Cavanaugh, was easy on the eyes didn’t make up for the fact she’d have to dip into savings yet another time. Worst of all, the tree was only the first on the list of everything that needed work. When Emily had inherited Bewitchberry Cottage from her godmother Lucinda, she’d been so excited that she and her daughter Mia would finally have a place of their own, she hadn’t thought to consider all the expenses of home ownership. No one knew where all of Lucinda’s fabled wealth had gone, but it certainly wasn’t in a bank account for Emily’s home repairs, and she hadn’t found a hidden treasure chest in the attic.
Before Emily could get too discouraged, she reminded herself that it was worth the effort to sit in her own kitchen and be able to look out the window at the bright blue sky and the leaves changing on the mountains that surrounded Tanager Valley, away from the noise and commotion of the city. The scent of the pumpkin bread baking in the oven added an extra layer of comfort to the atmosphere, and if it turned out to be edible, Mia would be overjoyed at their first successful foray into baking. The thought popped into Emily’s head that the only way to make it more perfect was if Emily had inherited Tom Cavanaugh with the house. She could just imagine Lucinda’s attorney, who was also the executor of the will, presenting her with the key to the cottage and her very own handyman. Instead, she and Mia had inherited Lucinda’s black cat, Kiki, with the cottage. The cat did provide a little warmth on cold nights, but not nearly as much as the man outside would have.
Earlier in the week when Emily had asked her friend Alicia at the coffee shop who she could hire, Alicia had given her a sly look while she poured the coffee. “Oh, you need Tom Cavanaugh. Once you see him, you’ll be finding extra work for him. And when he smiles at you, you’ll want to hire him as a live-in handyman.”
“I don’t want to hire someone who thinks I’m going to come on to him,” Emily protested. “I just want the tree cut down before it falls on the cottage.”
“He’s good at his job even without the looks. But now that you own Bewitchberry, you might find some of Lucinda’s love potions hidden away. She was rumored to make them, and I don’t think Tom will ever be caught by anything but magic. Come to think of it, you and Tom would make a good couple.”
“What are you? The town matchmaker?” Emily knew Alicia had a good heart, and she was grateful the coffee shop owner had taken her under her wing, but she didn’t want her new friend managing her love life. “I don’t want to ‘catch’ Tom Cavanaugh. And I doubt very much if he wants to be caught by a geeky college professor. I’ve never exactly have men knocking down my door.”
“Who knows? Maybe you’re exactly what he’s been looking for all along. He has certainly had his pick over the years, and he’s never found the right one. Lucinda wasn’t exactly geeky, but she was pretty quirky, and she managed to marry someone who could have had his pick. I’ve heard her husband was from one of those wealthy Boston families, and he was incredibly handsome to boot. Maybe that’s how she got started making her witchy potions.”
“I have no idea how that witch rumor got started,” Emily said. “I didn’t find anything that makes me believe Lucinda Lovett was a witch. She was just an eccentric old lady with quirky hobbies. From what she left me in the cottage, she spent all her time furnishing dollhouses, not practicing witchcraft. We have eight beautiful dollhouses filling up the place, but no witchy things.”
“Oh, she dabbled in witchcraft all right,” Alicia said. “Everybody knows it. Some of the plants in her garden are so strange, people can’t identify them. She used them in her potions. And the cottage is supposed to be haunted. Have you seen any ghosts?”
“You’re teasing, right? Anyway, the cottage is so small, if there were any ghosts, we’d be constantly tripping over them. I think a person needs a mansion for real hauntings.” She didn’t mention the one oddity of the place, the tree in the back yard that made faint singing noises. Her daughter Mia was convinced it was haunted.
“Well, if you do find anything labeled a love potion, I call dibs on it. I could use a date.” Alicia sighed and pulled a chocolate chip cookie off the shelf. “For Mia. It’s on the house. If you get Tom to come to your house, you should take the opportunity when it’s right in front you, potion or not. I know you think you have to be serious to be taken seriously, but a little flirting never hurt.”
Emily told herself she was too busy for any opportunities. When Tom had arrived at the house that morning, she’d been friendly enough, but business-like, trying not to notice his easy smile and the width of his shoulders underneath his well-worn jacket. He wasn’t even her type. His sandy blond hair was a little long, and he had that trendy light stubble she’d seen on musicians and actors. She’d always been suspicious of men who were too good-looking, sure they weren’t made for serious relationships. She did feel a twinge of guilt at even noticing he was actually as handsome as Alicia had said. It hadn’t been that long since Emily had given back the ring to her fiancé.
The sight of Tom outside made it tough for Emily to concentrate on her Art in the Renaissance class notes, so she decided she’d take a break and hem her new dress for the upcoming performance. At the last performance of the historical dance society, the beautiful dress she saved so long to buy had turned out to be just a little too tight to make breathing easy, much less dancing. The new one fit better, and even though it wasn’t as elaborate, she loved it. Her eyes were her one vanity and she knew the dark blue velvet of the dress made them seem all the more blue. The bands of gold brocade on the bell sleeves and on the neckline added just the touch of richness and color to bring the dress from somber to stunning.
The dress was laid out on her bed and she slipped it on, twirling around to make sure the hem was pinned to the right length. Mia had helped her pin it the day before, and the little girl’s enthusiasm meant there were at least three times as many pins as were needed.
She was just about to take it off when the sudden absence of sound made her aware Tom’s chainsaw had stopped. She glanced out the window to see Mia herding a group of children up the front walk. They stopped halfway and Mia pointed at the tree. Mia’s voice came through the open window. “That’s not the most haunted tree. The haunted one where the ghost sings is in back. This way now. Stay together.”
Emily had a feeling she didn’t want to know what Mia was up to. In the three years since she had adopted Mia, she’d come to the conclusion Mia was like the real life female version of the cartoon character, Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes. Her brilliant ideas were often disasters in the making unless Emily caught them in time.
The front door slammed and Emily heard a boy say, “This doesn’t look like a witch’s house. You’d better show us some stuff to make this worth a dollar.”
“Just wait,” Mia said. “You’ll see.”
Emily groaned and headed for the stairs, knowing she should make an appearance, though she didn’t know how to handle her daughter charging for tours of the house. Mia’s antics were never covered in any of the many parenting books that filled one of the bookshelves.
When she came down the stairs, one little girl with pigtails let out a squeak of surprise at the sight of her as if a ghost had just appeared. Emily wondered what stories Mia had told them on the way to the house.
“That’s just my mom,” Mia said. “You don’t need to be scared of her.”
“Hello,” Emily said. “Mia, what’s going on here?”
“Nothing, Mom. I’m just showing my friends around.” Never had a child sounded so innocent.
“It’s a nice day. Wouldn’t you have more fun outside?”
“We’ll only be in here a few minutes. I promise.” All the children nodded their heads in unison, angelic expressions on their faces. Emily wasn’t fooled.
“It would be polite of you to introduce your friends.”
“Oh, this is Simon.” Mia motioned to the only boy in the group, who wore an interesting combination of plaid shorts and a long-sleeved striped tee shirt. “And this is Katie and Lucy.” Katie and Lucy were obviously twins, though only one of them had the pigtails. Mia’s introduction didn’t tell Emily which was which.
“Are you Katie or Lucy?” Emily asked the girl with the pigtails.
“Lucy,” the girl whispered, still apparently terrified by Emily’s presence.
“I’m Katie,” the other girl spoke up, confidence ringing in her voice.
“Nice to meet you all,” Emily said.
“You can go back to work now,” Mia said.
Emily supposed this wasn’t the right time for a talk with Mia on the ethics of fleecing acquaintances of their allowance. She’d do that after the children left. Trying to sound stern, she said, “Just a few minutes. Then you need to take your friends outside.”
“Okay.” Mia beamed at her, but didn’t move. “You can go back upstairs or into the kitchen.”
Knowing Mia was trying to get rid of her, Emily gave a warning look and repeated, “Just a few minutes.”
Thinking she could overhear them better in the kitchen, Emily went back to her notes on the kitchen table.
“Your mom kind of looks like a young pretty witch with that black hair and that dress,” Lucy said. “Is she one?”
“She didn’t use to be, but the house may give her special powers once we live here long enough.” Emily wondered where Mia had gotten this idea. Her daughter was going to be disappointed when Emily never managed to get a broomstick to fly.
“My mom said the lady who lived here was super rich and had lots of fancy jewelry,” Katie said. “Can we see the jewelry too?”
“She put an invisibility spell on it. We haven’t figured out how to break the spell, but we will.” Emily was amazed at how believable Mia sounded. The girl might have a career in acting.
“Wow, a real spell? Do you think you can break it?”
“Sure,” Mia said. “Now over here are the dollhouses I was telling you about. You can look but don’t touch.”
“Oooh, how fancy!” Lucy squealed, her terror forgotten.
Emily though they were probably looking at the formal dining room in the most elaborate dollhouse, a Victorian mansion. Lucinda had set it up like dinner party was in progress, with a table laid for twelve. It even had crystal chandeliers above the table, and two silver candelabras on it that were made of real silver. It felt like something out of a novel, where the guests would sit down and partake in witty conversation and good wine for hours. She supposed that was the fun of the miniature rooms, imagining the lives that could happen within them.
“It all looks so real,” Katie said.
“It looks real because all the stuff in the rooms was big once,” Mia said. “Lucinda had magic spells to shrink big things down to make them tiny. That’s how she got all this stuff.”
“She did not!” Simon made a snorting sound. “You can buy those little things in stores.”
“Not these,” Mia said. “They are all really old. There weren’t any stores when she made these.”
Emily sighed, thinking she’d have to talk to Mia yet again about imagination and reality. In Mia’s mind, if she wanted something to be true, she didn’t understand why it couldn’t be. Mia loved the tiny rooms, and Emily had made up a bedtime story about Lucinda using magic to make them. She’d thought Mia understood it was just a story. The dollhouses were so incredible though, she couldn’t blame Mia for thinking them magical. Lucinda had spent hours and hours on them, making some of the pieces, embroidering most of the chair covers, and even painting some of the paintings.
The cat interrupted her attempts to listen in on the group, appearing from one of her mysterious hiding places to jump onto Emily’s notes. “No way, Kiki, get down,” Emily ordered. Kiki sat down instead and bathed a paw. Emily sighed, picking up the animal and putting her on the floor. “Find somewhere else to take a bath.” Of course Kiki didn’t take her suggestion, deciding to go investigate the noise in the living room instead.
“That’s Lucinda’s familiar,” Emily heard Mia say a few seconds later. “Her name’s Kiki.”
“What’s a familiar?” Lucy asked.
“It’s a witch’s companion animal who has special powers. Kiki can be invisible when she wants.”
Emily had to muffle a laugh. She had teased Mia about Kiki disappearing into her hiding places, but hadn’t thought Mia would embellish on that. Having apparently seen all the living room could offer on the tour, Emily heard the children going up the stairs. She wondered how Mia was going to show them anything interesting enough in the two bedrooms and the bathroom to convince the three the house had a dollar’s worth of spookiness. Emily wasn’t able to afford to change much in the house, and there was no need for change. Lucinda had a wonderful mix of beautiful antique pieces and comfortable furniture, so Emily had just added just a few of Mia’s and her cherished possessions.
Glancing back outside, Emily saw Tom getting more equipment out of his truck. Now she wished she had asked Alicia more about him. Not that she was ready to jump back into dating. Phillip had been a mistake, and she’d let herself be dazzled by his wealth, his confidence, and his determination to exactly what he wanted out of life. Emily had struggled so much in her own life that she had very little confidence anything would go the way she hoped. At least she finally had a job where she could use her education. It was only an adjunct position without much hope of being hired fulltime, but it was teaching, and she did love it.
Before she could get back to her lecture notes, screams rang out and footsteps came pounding down the stairs. “Mom! Mom!” At the sound of Mia’s voice, Emily ran into the hall to see the visitor children bolting out the front door, Lucy screaming her head off. CONTINUED…