Witchy candlemaker Fiona Hart knows that Banshee Creek is the perfect place for her store. Unfortunately, handsome firefighter Gavin MacKay doesn't agree. When a visiting tourist dies using her Sorceress' Best candles, Fiona is on the hot seat and must find out the culprit before the dreaded Banshee Creek Fire & Rescue Department closes down her shop forever.
"THE CHAMOMILE soy candle will bring calm in the evening," Fiona Hart explained as she put her customer's purchases into a pearlescent white bag. "The lavender mint oil will help them sleep at night."
Mike Stone nodded. The handsome former soldier looked haggard and drawn with dark circles under his eyes. His clothes were rumpled and his shirt was stained.
Twin babies will do that to you. Luckily, milk stains washed out.
"Kat gave us some special shampoo," Mike replied. "I think it also has lavender in it."
"I bet it does," Fiona said, hiding a smile. Kat Ramos managed the Banshee Creek Botánica, which specialized in spells and potions. Mike and his wife, Abby Reed, must be truly desperate to resort to spells to calm their rowdy offspring. "You should use it right before bedtime. Try to make it into a routine. There's a handout with instructions in the bag."
"Kat added some instructions for a ritual. It involves singing."
"That sounds perfect." Mike's wife, Abby, was a singer, so lullabies were right up her alley. The candles Mike was buying would help. Fire magic, as Fiona well knew, packed a punch. Kat's lullaby spell would be twice as powerful.
That was Fiona's gift: power. It was both a gift and a curse.
Mike grabbed the bag with a grateful smile. "From your mouth to God's ears." He headed out the store. "Wish us luck."
"You got it." Fiona watched him cross the street, dodge a group of witches in colorful robes, and walk toward a black Jeep Wrangler. He stopped to chat with a group of black-clad bikers Fiona recognized as members of the local ghost hunting group, Paranormal Research of Virginia Enterprises, PRoVE for short. Their biker vests bore the group's yellow all-seeing eye logo and the words latet enim veritas, which Fiona had recently learned meant "the truth is hidden" in Latin.
All in all, a typical afternoon in Banshee Creek, the Most Haunted Town in the U.S.A.
But it was good for business. Her candle making shop, Wicked Wicks, was small in size but mighty on sales. Her Sorceress' Best candle line was almost depleted and her custom oil bar—where you could mix your own scents for personalized diffusion—was a huge hit. Her bestsellers, however, were the new town-inspired jarred candles, or velones, that featured Banshee Creek landmarks like the mansard-roofed PRoVE headquarters, the haunted library, and the Black River Falls bridge. The velones had no magical properties, but the tourists loved them so much that she was sold out of the cake-scented Banshee Creek Bakery candles.
This was a huge relief. She'd sunk every penny she had into the shop. The long, narrow space—formerly a run-down sandwich shop—was the cheapest retail rental in town, but the rent still sucked up most of her budget. Fortunately, the town's Historical Preservation Committee had given her a sizable grant to upgrade the dilapidated locale. She'd been able to sandblast the brick walls and install attractive white shelves to hold her wares. With vintage crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and mirrors everywhere, the place looked positively spacious. A sturdy steel door led to the back kitchen, which was now a candle-making studio, and a white awning in front featured her Wicked Wicks logo—a black pitchfork with yellow and orange flames.
Not bad for a fledgling shop girl, particularly one whose powers often went haywire. Literally. Last year's ill-advised effort to restore electricity to her aunt's remote farm had blown a power transformer and the sparks had set the hay bundles on fire. She'd almost set Central Pennsylvania on fire. If her grandmother hadn't called the rains, who knew what would've happened.
That's when she'd made her vow. No. More. Magic.
Oh, some of it leaked. Her candles and oils were, she knew, far more powerful than the standard, but that was it. From now on, she was no longer Fiona Hart, Fire Witch.
Now, she was Fiona Hart, shopkeeper. No, better yet, retail entrepreneur.
The front door opened and Kat, a tall, tan woman with curly black hair and dyed red highlights entered the shop. She wore a bright red shirt that read "Baddest Witch in the House" and tight black pants. A green button on her shirt announced "Ask Me About our Hex-A-Life Products."
"Heads up," Kat said. "Fire and Rescue is doing surprise inspections. They just left my shop and headed for the bakery."
Fiona groaned. "Again? They were here a couple of weeks ago."
Kat gave her a sympathetic glance. "I know. I think they have new recruits and they're trying to show them the ropes."
"Awesome," Fiona replied, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "Thanks for the warning."
"Let me know if they find anything. The Historical Preservation Committee has an emergency safety fund, and I can help you with the grant application." She grimaced. "I'll be filing one myself. Apparently, I have to upgrade my sprinkler system."
"Oh, joy." Fiona contemplated her dwindling bank account. That safety grant better be good. "I'll call you. I have a special order that gets picked up soon, but I'm free after that."
"Beltane order?" Kat asked. "We have a lot of rituals this weekend."
Fiona nodded. Beltane, the Wiccan May Day celebration, was a time of purification and protection, and its adherents traditionally lit bonfires to appease jealous spirits. It was also, it appeared, extremely popular in Banshee Creek.
"It's a fire festival," she said. "So I've had tons of orders for my Belenos' Bonfire Bundles. Everyone else has picked their orders up, but these guys are coming from far away, so they asked for late pick-up."
She'd been extra careful with those bundles. Beltane was always a tricky time for her. It made her magic stronger and even more unpredictable than usual.
Kat nodded happily. "I hear there are at least a dozen groups doing fires in Black River Falls Park this weekend. Many of them are into syncretism, so they bought all of my Chango materials. I'm going to have to do some serious restocking after this."
Chango was an African fire god, Fiona recalled. He would be a good match for the Beltane festival. She would just have to take care to stay away from the fire god's devotees.
"They're putting up quite a display," Kat continued. "The grants can wait. Let's go check out the bonfires. I understand Alicia LeFay is bringing her coven to do a ritual, and that's going to be worth seeing."
The name sounded familiar, but Fiona couldn't quite place it. "Who's that?"
Kat looked surprised. "Madame LeFay? The head of the Salem Witch Coven? You've never heard of her?"
"I'm not sure," Fiona replied, confused. Where had she heard that name?
That was the problem with growing up as part of a reclusive witch family. Fiona knew a lot about her own type of magic, but practically nothing about other practitioners. That was one reason why she'd struck out on her own. Finally, she’d get to see the world.
If she didn't set it on fire first.
Kat rolled her eyes. "She's one of the most famous witches in the country. She holds court in Salem, Massachusetts, has her own line of tarot cards, and puts up her rituals on YouTube. She did a live performance on social media that rallied one million participants worldwide. Her books are bestsellers in my store. I can't keep them in stock."
"Wow," Fiona said, impressed. "I wonder if she has a candle line. My store could use a celebrity boost."
"That's the spirit." Kat grinned. "Now we really have to go see the bonfires and Alicia LeFay's Beltane performance. I may even gin up a spell to protect us from the Fire and Rescue busybodies. I'm plenty inspired right now."
Fiona laughed, seriously tempted to give Kat's spell a little extra boost. She quickly pushed the thought away.
That way lay madness. Or at least singed ceiling beams.
"That sounds great," Fiona said instead. "See you then."
"Trust me, it's going to be a blessed Beltane for sure." Kat gave a jaunty wave and left.
Fiona scanned her store, searching for possible safety violations. Her sprinklers were brand new, so that wasn't a problem. Her kitchen had the requisite code-compliant steel door. Maybe there was a problem with her stock? It was all, she admitted reluctantly, highly flammable.
The front door opened and she looked up, expecting to see the Fire & Rescue inquisition standing on her doorstep. Instead, she saw a handsome, middle-aged woman with curly blonde hair. She was wearing an old-fashioned tie-dye t-shirt and well-worn Birkenstock sandals.
"Hi," the woman said. "I'm here to pick up our fire starters."
Fiona smiled. "Of course. What name is on the order?"
The woman's eyes twinkled. "That would be Alicia LeFay, Salem, Massachusetts."
Fiona's smile grew wider. That's why the name sounded so familiar. The famous witch was a client. "Of course, I'll get it right away."
She walked to the back of the store and picked up a heavy burlap bundle. "Here we go. Fifteen Beltane fire starters made of soy wax and hawthorn branches."
The clean, fresh scent of chamomile and sage rose as she carried the merchandise to the front counter. She was very proud of this product. It was attractive, with chamomile flowers and sage leaves embedded in the clear wax, sweet-smelling, and perfect for the holiday. She set it on the butcher block countertop, untied the rough rope that held it together, and opened the burlap.
Madame LeFay beamed at the contents. "These are beautiful. Thank you. My coven members will love them. They're much nicer than our usual herb bundles."
"I'm glad you like them."
"I certainly do. I love all of your products. The Sorceress' Best line is fabulous. They're the only candles I use now."
Fiona grinned. "I'm honored. Remember, there are safety instructions inside the bundle. The fire starters should not be used all at once."
Alicia nodded. "Our ceremony is very long, so that shouldn't be a problem. Each coven member gets an herb bundle and walks between the two bonfires. The whole group focuses its power on cleansing and strengthening that person. It's a very impactful event."
"It sounds lovely."
"Doesn’t it? It's one of my favorite rituals because it brings the whole coven together." She sighed. "Sometimes group politics can be very draining."
"I bet," Fiona commiserated.
Alicia glanced around the store. "Are you a sole proprietorship?"
Alicia's eyes twinkled as she signed her receipt. "Good for you."
They both laughed. Alicia picked up her package and headed for the door.
Fiona then set to work. She walked through the store making sure all her safety warnings were in place. The guys at Banshee Creek Fire & Rescue were safety-obsessed and they required that all local shops conform to a Draconian safety code. They'd made her add a section of shudder—flameless pillar candles to give her customers a safer alternative. As if that weren't enough, they demanded she place signs next to all her products, detailing how unattended lit candles could be household hazards.
That last requirement had made her blood boil. Who would want to shop in a store full of ugly warning signs? She'd compromised by putting the signs in silver picture frames that matched the shabby chic decor. The signs now blended into their surroundings.
She was pleased with the result, but had the feeling Gavin Mackay, the fire chief, would not share her enthusiasm. The head fireman did not do subtle. He didn't even like the vintage wood cabinets, which were original to the kitchen. With a coat of white paint, they matched the store's quaint look perfectly, but Chief MacKay still referred to them as "kindling in search of a match."
She moved the signs to the front of the shelves, making sure they were clearly visible. Then she went to the framed chalkboard that greeted visitors as they entered the store and erased the "Happy Beltane" she'd written in that morning. Picking up a piece of white chalk, she carefully wrote a new announcement: "Flameless Candles on Sale! Stay Bright and Stay Safe!!!" She even added extra exclamation points.
There, that should make Chief Mackay happy.
She'd barely finished when the door opened and the Fire & Rescue squad walked in. Her heart skipped a beat when dark-haired Gavin Mackay entered the store flanked by Deshawn Sanders and a new guy she didn't know.
The Banshee Creek Fire Chief was tall and almost too good-looking with piercing brown eyes and, rumor had it, a dimple on his left cheek. The dimple, like the town's famous devil monkeys, remained unverified. Chief Mackay seldom smiled.
But he was, Fiona had to admit, handsome enough to justify a Banshee Creek firefighter calendar. He could carry every single month.
Too bad he was also evil incarnate.