Enemies wear many faces.
The Here and Meow Festival has finally arrived! Amber Blackwood and her fellow festival committee members still have plenty to do before the celebration of all things feline begins. Even though Amber’s witchy past keeps interfering, she knows the show must go on. Edgehill’s livelihood depends on the festival’s success.
When two incidents involving her malfunctioning products cause her to shutter the doors of her curiosity shop, The Quirky Whisker, only days before the busiest season of the year, Amber thinks things can’t get any worse. An investigation into the incidents reveals sabotage is to blame—sabotage that only could have been carried out by a fellow witch. Things just officially got worse.
With Edgehill overrun by tourists, any unfamiliar face could be a member of the nefarious Penhallow witch family. Though her parents’ grimoires are hidden in a remote location overlaid with protective spells, Amber fears that won’t be enough to deter the desperate and cursed clan from trying to get their hands on a legendary time-travel spell.
As the opening ceremony of the Here and Meow approaches, Amber contends with a nosy lawyer, mysterious government officials, and a charismatic superstar. Through it all, Amber senses the Penhallows have something planned—something big. With her new circle of close confidants by her side, Amber must find a way to thwart the Penhallow family’s scheme before it’s too late. If she can’t, the Here and Meow will be ruined … and Edgehill could be wiped off the map.
Release date: January 10, 2021
Publisher: Ringtail Press
Print pages: 382
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Listen to a sample
Melissa Erin Jackson
Amber reveled in the sound of Jack Terrence’s rhythmic breathing. Her head was propped on the crook of his shoulder, and though her there was a crick in her neck that would bother her all day, she didn’t dare stir. That, and Alley was draped across them both, her head on Amber’s side and her body sprawled across Jack’s stomach.
As comforting as Jack’s presence was, as the last dregs of sleep faded, the events from the day before crept back in. Namely, Kieran Penhallow calling her from his prison cell.
“Something is different now. Before, it almost felt like a rash or like an itch I couldn’t scratch, no matter what I did. And even when I did manage to scratch it, it only itched more,” he had said. “What I had before … was a sickness. It was like a poison that slowly kills its host. I think you cut away the parts that were infected. What’s in its place now feels … clean. Healed.”
Healed! She had no idea what this meant.
“You didn’t take it away, Amber. You gave it back.”
She had worried she wouldn’t be able to sleep last night, but Jack had shown up unannounced with enough Chinese food for an army, not just four people, and they had all sat around Amber’s dining table—herself, younger sister Willow, Aunt Gretchen, and Jack—and had talked about perfectly normal things. They talked about Willow’s job as a graphic designer, about Aunt G’s garden club, about Jack’s plans to expand his business, and about the upcoming Here and Meow Festival. They didn’t talk about magic, cursed witches, or Amber’s ever-evolving powers.
Amber and Jack had curled up on the couch to try to stay awake long enough to get through the next episode of Vamp World. As usual, she awoke once her tiny studio apartment had flooded with early morning sunlight. She woke, feeling grounded, next to Jack. Hearing the soft snores of Aunt G and Willow in the bed on the other side of the apartment had rooted her further.
It was when she was alone that the nightmares pulled her from sleep.
Someone behind her cleared their throat. She rolled over just a fraction and found her sister peering down at her, a wide smile on her face. Willow stood so close to the couch, her knees nearly touched Amber’s back. “You two are so cuuute!” she mouthed.
Amber’s cheeks flamed. She delicately swatted Willow away. It was enough to wake Alley, who in turn woke Jack.
He seemed disoriented at first, then smiled sleepily at her. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Amber said.
“Hey,” Willow drawled.
Jack flinched back, realizing then how close Willow hovered over them.
“Are you staying for breakfast, Jack?” Aunt G called out, then padded for the kitchen. “Growing boys need to eat.”
Willow turned toward their aunt. “What a weird thing to say, Aunt G! He’s in his thirties. He’s not a boy.” She peered down at Amber and Jack again. “You are in your thirties, right? You have one of those very appealing faces that makes you look like you could be anywhere from twenty to forty. You haven’t turned my sister into a cougar, have you?”
“Oh my God,” Amber muttered, burying her face in Jack’s shoulder. Her forehead bounced as he laughed.
“I’m thirty-five,” he said to Willow. Then, louder, he said, “No thanks on the breakfast, Gretchen. I have to get to Purrcolate soon to help Larry open.”
Aunt G appeared suddenly at the head of the couch. “Did you want coffee before you go? I suppose you don’t want our boring old coffee when you own a coffee shop. But Willow and I could go downstairs to start a pot on the little hot plate and kill some time if you two need some alone time to … hmm … what do the kids call it these days?” She glanced over at Willow, who still hovered at Amber’s back. “Tonsil hockey?”
Willow snorted. Jack cracked up. Amber wished she had an invisibility spell in her repertoire.
“Oh my God,” Amber muttered again. “Get out of here! Both of you!”
Aunt G and Willow, still laughing, headed for the stairs. Amber sat up once she heard the Employee Only door close, signaling that her horrible aunt and sister had shut themselves in the shop below. Jack sat up, too, using the armrest to prop himself up.
“I’m sorry about them …” she started, but he cut her off by brushing a wayward lock of hair—a matted clump, really—out of her face.
“They give you a hard time because they love you,” he said. “But, for the record, I’m totally okay with some tonsil hockey before I have to get to work.”
She laughed. He cut it off with a kiss.
They broke apart after a minute, but Jack kept a hand pressed to the back of her neck. He rested his forehead against hers. “I really do have to get going, though.”
“Boo,” she grumbled.
He kissed her forehead. “I agree.”
While he used the bathroom and collected his things, Amber fed Tom and Alley. As they munched happily on their breakfast, Amber walked Jack down the steps, across the shop, and to the front door of The Quirky Whisker.
Aunt G and Willow offered wolf whistles when Jack kissed Amber goodbye.
“Have a good day, ladies,” he called, then headed out the door.
Amber whirled on her family, hands on hips. “You’re both awful.”
“I’m glad to see you happy, little mouse,” Aunt G said.
Amber flushed. “Thanks.”
With that, she hurried back upstairs to change and get ready for the day. She couldn’t wipe the smile off her face.
~ * ~
A few hours after opening, Henrietta Bishop walked in. The shop was bustling with customers as usual during the week before the Here and Meow Festival. After helping a little girl decide that she would like the raccoon animated toy instead of the badger, Amber met Henrietta near the counter that ran along the right side of the shop.
Henrietta was a forty-year-old divorcee who had moved to Edgehill, Oregon, several years ago because she wanted to fully embrace the “Crazy Cat Lady” lifestyle. She was a lithe redhead with a mass of curls that hung to her mid-back. The curls never were truly contained, no matter what she did. Amber was always reminded of the young girl from Brave when she saw her.
Over the years, Amber had gotten to know Henrietta a little better. Recently, she’d joined the Here and Meow Committee in Marbleglen as a volunteer with the parade floats, and she had joined Amber and her friends during the recent town hall meetings. But Amber had been seeing the woman weekly for over a year, namely because Henrietta was addicted to Amber’s signature “sleepy tea” blend. It was a creation Amber made in-house, with a bit of sleep tincture mixed in. Though Amber was abysmal with tinctures, her sleepy tincture was the only one that hadn’t ever let her down.
Henrietta swore by it. “I really wish you’d tell me what you put in this stuff,” she often said. “It works like magic!”
Over the last month, Henrietta had been coming in on an almost daily basis to purchase more tea, and the quantity had gone up, too. Two boxes here, five there. When the purchases of the sleepy tea increased tenfold over a short window of time, and Henrietta’s bright green eyes were droopy more often than not, Amber found herself wishing she were better at being a nosier person. She loved gossip just as much as the next Edgehill resident, but as the former reclusive weirdo in town, Amber understood keeping secrets close to the vest.
Henrietta hadn’t talked much about her divorce; all Amber knew was that it had been contentious. That had been Henrietta’s word, not Amber’s. Even the gentlest of pressure to ask more probing questions on the topic often made Henrietta close up like a flower deprived of sunlight, so Amber had stopped asking.
Yet, when Amber met Henrietta at the counter that morning, Amber blurted, “Hen, are you okay?”
Even the woman’s signature, vibrant curls looked dejected. The bags under her eyes were more pronounced than they had been a week ago. She wore black leggings, a black tank top, and a slightly ratty oversized green sweater. It reminded Amber of the last day she’d seen Melanie, who had come into her shop looking uncharacteristically like a hot mess.
Henrietta had always given the impression that her divorce settlement had been as good for her financially as it had been bad for her emotionally. She hadn’t been the type to flaunt her wealth, but Amber was fairly certain the woman hadn’t been employed the entire time she’d been in Edgehill, and yet her attire had always been immaculate.
“I’m hanging in there, I guess,” Henrietta said. “Actually, I wanted to ask if you were hiring?”
Amber’s brows shot toward her hairline. “I’m not at the moment. Sorry, Hen. I just hired Ben Lydon. I could possibly offer you a seasonal position, but I can’t guarantee how long it’ll last.”
Henrietta sighed, waving away Amber’s apology. “Oh, that’s okay. What I need to do is dust off my résumé. It’s been a while,” she said. “Anyway, I’d like three boxes of the sleepy tea again. The stress I’m under right now can only be combatted with that tea of yours.”
Amber plastered on a strained smiled. She excused herself to grab Henrietta’s order. She had set it aside for her that morning, anticipating the woman’s arrival. After grabbing the boxes for her from one of the cubbies at the base of the apothecary wall behind the counter where Daisy Bowen was ringing up customers, Amber handed the tea over.
Henrietta clutched the boxes to her chest. “Thanks.” She started to turn away, as if heading for the checkout line, but then turned back. “Say, I purchased some sleepy tea from the drugstore the other day and that one wasn’t nearly as effective as yours. Do you think it’s the valerian root in yours that does the trick?”
No, it’s the sleep tincture, Amber wanted to say. “You know I don’t share my secrets,” she said playfully instead, “but yes, the valerian root is essential.”
Henrietta nodded, but the usual banter they shared was missing today. “I really appreciate you, Amber. You know that, right?”
Head cocked, Amber said, “Sure, Hen, I know that.”
Tapping one of the boxes she held, Henrietta offered a small smile, then walked away to get in line. Amber knew her good friend Kimberly Jones would be able to tease out Henrietta’s secrets in a matter of seconds. Betty Harris across the street in Purrfectly Scrumptious would look at Henrietta with her kind brown eyes, cluck her tongue and say something like, “What’s got you so down, sugar?” and Henrietta would likely blab all her worries.
Amber, however, merely stood by and stared at Henrietta, frowning. Before she could get up the nerve to ask Henrietta if she needed anything else, another customer came through the door.
Lily Bowen was tending to a couple of customers at the back of the shop, and the other patrons currently seemed to have their browsing under control, which left Amber to attend to the newcomers. She had just rounded one of the freestanding pyramid-shaped bookshelves when she came up short.
Just inside the door stood Connor Declan and Molly Hargrove. Connor worked at the Edgehill Gazette, while Molly worked at the Marbleglen Herald. Despite being from rival towns, and the fact that Molly was known far and wide for being a snake, Connor and Molly had been working together on stories a lot lately. It still wasn’t clear if their continued partnership was strictly professional or if it had spilled over into something else.
“What is he doing here?”
Amber flinched. Willow had materialized beside her. Willow and Connor had been close friends in high school, but their friendship had never progressed into anything more. They both clearly still held a torch for each other, but as adults, they still danced around the “what if” of it all.
In another circumstance, Amber might have lovingly shoved Willow in Connor’s direction—especially after the teasing Willow had participated in this morning with Jack—but Molly’s presence added a new wrinkle.
And by wrinkle, Amber meant napalm thrown on an open flame.
Connor and Molly had moved to the animated toy section on the left-hand side of the shop. Connor held a horse in front of his face, scrutinizing it from every angle. He was speaking to Molly, but she only had murderous eyes for Willow.
Molly Hargrove was five foot nothing, had hair so light blonde it was almost white, and could hold a grown man captive with just her intense focus.
Willow crossed her arms. “That’s Molly, right?”
Amber forgot that the two hadn’t formally met in person yet. “Yep.”
“Let’s go say hi,” Willow said, and marched toward the couple, but her tone said, “Let’s kick Molly in her shins.”
Amber scurried after her sister, if only so she could stop a fistfight from breaking out in her shop. “Hi, you two!” she awkwardly called out just before Willow reached them.
Connor glanced up from his examination of the toy horse and visibly swallowed as he realized Willow and Molly were sizing each other up. “Hey, uh … Amber. Hi. Willow. Hello.”
“Is there something in particular you two were looking for?” Amber asked.
Molly’s piercing blue eyes swiveled to Amber. “I realized today that I hadn’t been in your shop in a while. Con and I were just about to grab lunch down the street and I thought we should pop in to have a look around. The Quirky Whisker is an Edgehill institution, after all.”
Amber’s brow creased.
“Right, uh …” Connor put the horse back on the shelf. “I’m also looking for a gift for my mom. She really likes tea. I was wondering if you had any recommendations?”
Willow piped up. “I’d be happy to help you find something for her. Follow me.”
Connor smiled weakly at Molly and then followed Willow, leaving Amber alone with the snake.
“And what about you?” Amber asked when Molly just stood there glaring after the retreating pair.
Molly snapped out of it and scanned the shelves around her. “Did you inherit this place from your parents?”
“Uh … no,” Amber said. “A woman named Janice Salle owned it before I did and she left the place to me in her will.”
Molly’s nearly white brows arched. “You must have been very persuasive to convince her to leave it to you.”
Amber pursed her lips. She’d only just met Molly recently, when Amber had gotten pulled into a murder investigation in Marbleglen last month. She hadn’t come to like Molly over that time, per se, but she’d respected the woman’s tenacity for finding out the truth. That tenacity was just … a lot when it was aimed directly at you. “I didn’t persuade her to do anything; I was just as shocked as anyone when I found out she’d left me the store.”
“Did you choose to work here because Janice didn’t have any living relatives?” Molly asked, running a finger along one of the pyramid-shaped bookshelves. “Like how young busty women ‘fall in love’ and marry old rich men with one foot in the grave? Grandpa drops dead and then Candy gets a mansion?”
Amber gaped at her.
A man nearby coughed in an effort to cover up a laugh and quickly walked away.
What on earth did Connor see in her? Amber had to assume Molly had a nice side. Amber had yet to see it.
Amber crossed her arms, taking on a stance that had no doubt mirrored Willow’s from earlier. “Is there a destination for this very rude line of questioning?”
Molly shrugged. “Just making conversation. I’m sure your parents would be proud of all you’ve accomplished over the years.” She picked up the horse Connor had been eyeing earlier. “The way you’ve honed your skills in such a unique way, you know?”
Connor, sans Willow, reappeared then. He held up a bag with The Quirky Whisker logo on the front. The bespectacled top-hat-wearing cat winked at Amber. “Got a really good selection.”
Molly put the toy back. “Nice talking to you, Amber.”
Connor led the way out the door. Willow joined Amber a few seconds later, and they watched as the pair walked past the front windows of the shop. They were headed in the opposite direction of the restaurants on Russian Blue Avenue, as well as the parking lot. Molly was speaking a mile a minute while Connor listened intently. Neither one glanced back.
“What was that about?” Willow asked once they were out of view.
“I have no clue.”
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