Gilmore Girls meets Practical Magic in the latest novel from the New York Times bestselling author of The Chicken Sisters
She gave up on magic. But magic didn't give up on her.
Three generations of magic. Two rogue exes. One Tarot deck.
The perfect recipe for chaos.
Flair Hardwicke knows three things: magic is real, love isn’t, and relying on either ends in disaster. So while she’s grateful for the chance to take over her grandmother’s Kansas bakery after she finally leaves her cheating husband, she won’t be embracing Nana’s fortune-telling side-hustle. Hers is a strictly no-magic operation—until the innocent batch of Tarot card cookies Flair bakes for the town’s Halloween celebration unleashes the power of the family deck, luring Flair’s unpredictable mother to town, tempting Flair’s magic-obsessed daughter, and bringing back Flair’s first love while ensnaring her ex in a curse she can’t break.
Flair’s attempts to control the chaos only make things worse, playing right into the hands of a powerful witch. Suddenly there’s far more at stake than her status as the most reluctant witch in town, and the magic Flair has long rejected becomes the only card she has left to play.
Release date: September 12, 2023
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
Print pages: 352
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Playing the Witch Card
Monday, October 26
Other people, when forced to start over, do so in appropriate places. New York. Los Angeles. Bozeman. Only Flair would wind up in Kansas, dragging a hand-painted, life-sized figure of Jack Skellington into her bakery and wondering where to hide it until the horror show that was Halloween in Rattleboro finally lurched to an end this weekend.
Flair hated seeing even the outside of her tidy space besmirched with the trappings of a ridiculous holiday that invited exactly the kind of chaos that she normally kept firmly at bay. But she'd had to accept it. From the skeleton on the now spiderweb-covered bench to the black-and-orange garlands and the wheelbarrow of painted pumpkins, her precarious new venture had become part of a Main Street so drenched in town-funded Halloween preparations that it was impossible to rest your eyes on a surface not wrapped in twinkle lights or faux-aged into flawless Gothic dereliction.
But Jack eating a slice of bloodred cherry pie was taking it a step too far.
Like nearly everyone, he was taller than Flair, making him difficult to maneuver, but Flair would not let that stop her from ridding her entryway of the blight. She wrestled him through the door and looked around the shop, wondering where she could stash him until the town's Halloween powers that be came to retrieve him in November. Or maybe he could meet an untimely and tragic end before then.
Lucie looked up from one of the white tables where she sat with her ankles wrapped around the legs of a turquoise chair, which she had-under duress-helped Flair to paint before Buttersweet Bakery's opening in August. Ostensibly she was doing vocab, but more likely she was staring into the phone Flair had given her when they moved. Flair's plan had been for Lucie to connect with (and feel appropriately cool next to) her new eighth-grade classmates, but Lucie preferred to use it to complain to her father and her friends back "home" in St. Louis about the cruelty of her mother's decision to move them both to the boondocks.
"Grand is having a show in St. Louis tomorrow," she said. "If we were there, we could go."
"Well, we're not," Flair said automatically. "And Grand's shows aren't G-rated, so we wouldn't be going anyway." Would Jack fit behind the hutch that was very nearly the only thing left of what had until recently been Marie's Teas, or was she going to have to find a place for him in her kitchen? "We'll see her soon."
"That's what you always say," said Lucie, who was clearly gearing up for another monologue on her favorite topic, how you have ruined my life. "But it's been since her birthday two years ago. If we were home, we would at least have dinner or something."
Maybe. Or maybe Cynthia would be so overrun by fans of the bewilderingly successful vampire-and-witch romances she wrote that-darn-she wouldn't be able to fit them in. Flair was relieved when the bells on the door interrupted her daughter before the pointless debate could continue. She tried but failed to hide Jack behind her as she prepared a welcoming, but not overwhelming, smile for what would be her first customer of the day. At 3:30 in the afternoon, but Flair wasn't counting.
Who was she kidding? Of course she was-and the count would still be zero, because unless Renee Oakes had abandoned her distaste for all things Flair and Flair-adjacent, the woman who walked through the door was not and would not ever be a customer. "He's supposed to be outside, Hardwicke," Renee said, pointing to the pumpkin-headed particleboard figure behind Flair. "We put him there this morning."
Flair drew herself to her full height-which had to be at least six inches shorter than the stern blonde in front of her-and prepared to deliver a considered and logical explanation for why this decoration did not represent Buttersweet, even in the context of the all-encompassing town Halloween festival Renee directed with what should have been admirable dedication.
"But he's hideous," Flair said. "His eyes are seriously terrifying, and he looks more like an axe murderer than a friendly Halloween mayor dude or whatever he is. I mean, where did anyone even find this? The drive-in movie theater's dump?"
"I painted it," Renee said.
Oh. Flair turned to look at the creation leering back at her and could think of no way to backtrack over what she'd just said. Life, she thought, not for the first time, really needed some kind of rewind button.
"And you have an obligation to display the holiday decor provided to you by the decoration committee."
Flair knew that. Renee had already given her a "reference" copy of the building's covenant, which also required that she maintain the window boxes, whose riot of fall foliage and flowers threatened daily to overwhelm her entrance, as well as the paint and the trim (in approved colors only) and all the rest of the landscaping. She felt her resolve weakening. "But I don't even serve pie."
"I'll put it back outside," Renee said, taking the decoration from Flair and lifting it easily. She glanced around at the empty tables and the full pastry case before giving Flair a pitying look. "Maybe pie would help."
Renee marched out the door, Jack under her arm. Flair could see her through the windows, standing him prominently on the sidewalk in a way that would effectively deter any potential customers.
She looked at Lucie, hoping for some sympathy-Jack Skellington was truly dreadful-but Lucie was stuffing the worksheets Flair didn't think she'd so much as glanced at into her backpack. "I'm going home," Lucie said. "Unless you want to give me a ride."
"It's four blocks."
"Yeah, but it's not like you're doing anything."
Flair pointed to the door. Lucie went out as Loretta Oakes, the only member of the Oakes family Flair regarded fondly at this point, came in. At least Lucie managed to return Renee's mother's greeting politely. Either she did have some manners, or she was, like everyone else in town, both terrified by and in awe of Loretta. Flair would take whatever she could get.
Unlike Renee, Loretta embraced Flair, bringing with her a spicy, faintly floral scent that tugged at a memory Flair preferred to leave unpursued. Loretta also brought with her a comforting sense that here, at least, was someone who was happy that Flair was back in Rattleboro.
"My usual, please," Loretta said, taking a seat at the table closest to the counter. "And join me, if you can."
Flair appreciated the suggestion that she might suddenly be overwhelmed with customers, although Loretta must know as well as she did that it was unlikely. Obediently, Flair took up her place behind the case full of scones and cookies and flaky croissants, all lined up on their trays, swiveling the portafilter into place and waiting for the grinder's familiar growl.
Her occasional assistant, Callie, whose wages she really could not afford, had suggested renaming things "in the holiday spirit" and had gone as far as "Spooky Scones" and "Devilish Danishes" before Flair shut her down. Flair's baked goods weren't the kind of thing you bought in a plastic clamshell at Dillons. They were award-winning pastries that deserved better. On the cover of Bon Appétit once, she reminded herself. Featured in Martha Stewart's Holiday Cookies issue three times: see also the triptych on the wall. Midwest Living said, last year, that even if David's Table ran out of steak and couldn't fry another frite, it would still be worth the wait for Flair's Pavlova bars alone.
But after two solid months of effort, she couldn't seem to entice anyone in Rattleboro to try one. If today was anything like yesterday, Loretta would be her only patron. And she'd clearly noticed that not one thing on the carefully arranged trays had been disturbed.
"Slow day again?"
"Things will pick up," Flair said, repeating what she'd been telling herself for weeks. "Getting started is always tough."
"I think it's been more than tough," Loretta said. Flair hid her face behind the espresso machine while she prepared Loretta's favored macchiato so that the other woman wouldn't see how closely her words hit home, or how much her sympathy affected Flair. She'd grown up spending summers in Rattleboro. Her grandmother had run Marie's Teas in this spot for fifty years. It wasn't that she'd expected a parade, but she had thought she could make a go of it here. That she'd be at least sort of welcomed. Instead, other than her best friend and once-again next-door neighbor, Josie, Rattleboro seemed to have shut her out, and it was almost as if the shop were invisible.
"I'll be fine," she called. But when she looked up, Loretta met her eyes with an expression that made it clear she didn't buy Flair's cheery words.
"This is not fine," she said with the quick lick of her lips that Flair had learned was characteristic when Loretta spoke. "We need to do something to get you involved. And I have the perfect thing. You know about the Rattlebones Trail, of course."
It wasn't a question. No one could spend any time at all in Rattleboro without hearing about the Rattlebones Trail, and Flair was scarcely a stranger. Every summer she'd spent here had been punctuated by stumbling into macabre scenes in Nana's neighbors' garages and sheds in preparation for the event, an elaborate outdoor haunted attraction that had been a tradition for over a hundred years and had become famous not just in the Midwest but across the country. The trail, run by the League of Kansas Craftswomen, was legendary for its artistry and its scariness and for being something just a little bit more than what even the average horror fan was going for.
A few actors and performers had appeared as guests years ago, and a famous director had once taken it over, but for as long as Flair had known it, the trail had been masterminded entirely by Loretta, long the head of the league, micromanaged by Renee, and "haunted," in the town's parlance, by the same families again and again. Tickets, which sold out fully a year in advance, were distributed through a wildly complicated, untransferable system, and newcomers to town waited years to be initiated into the preparation.
"Of course," Flair said.
"Then you'll know what it means to become a part of it."
Flair stopped short, then quickly resumed adding foam to Loretta's drink, trying to hide her surprised dismay. She'd known she couldn't avoid the town's festival, with its crowds of costumed families. That was going to be bad enough. But the trail took place in an unusually thick wood just on the outskirts of Rattleboro, and given the competition to participate, Flair had expected the trail itself to be easy to avoid.
This was a hard no, and Flair was about to say so, delicately, when she heard a sharp rap on the door-the back door, which opened onto the alley that ran behind every building on this side of the street.
Nobody Flair wanted to see came to the back door without letting Flair know they were here first. Loretta lifted her chin in the direction of the noise as the rap came again. "I can wait if you need to get it."
"No, that's okay." Flair didn't pause as she added a drizzle of chocolate over the drink. "Probably just a delivery." It wasn't, and she knew it. She wasn't expecting anything, and she could feel the urgency of the knock from here.
The knocking continued. Flair forced herself to move calmly as she placed Loretta's drink in front of her, the coffee beautifully serene in its white mug on an accompanying plate, tiny complimentary madeleine beside it. As much as she wanted to ignore the interruption, whoever it was, wasn't going away. "I'll just go take care of it."
She made her way through the swinging door into the kitchen quickly, intent upon putting a stop to this, now. Teabag, the toy poodle who'd been the first thing Flair inherited from her grandmother, was up and staring at the door.
Flair yanked it open to a woman in a long coat, hood pulled up, hand poised to knock again. She peered around Flair.
If Halloween had arrived at the front door, its pagan sibling Samhain would come in through the back.
Flair shook her head, glancing over her shoulder to make sure the kitchen door had swung shut. "Not here."
"But I need her," the woman at the door said, stepping forward as if to charge past Flair. "And I'm out of tea."
Most people knew Marie was gone by now. Most people had already been convinced that coming to her granddaughter instead wasn't going to do them any good.
But Halloween had nearly arrived, bringing strangers to Rattleboro with it. For once, Flair wished that there had been more than the most minimal press coverage of Nana's accident. But her grandmother's fame was not of that kind, and this visitor was not Flair's first and wouldn't be her last.
"I'm sorry," Flair said, blocking the entrance. "Ms. Hardwicke died last year."
The woman stopped looking into the shop and stared at Flair instead. Marie had been small and quick, with long braids and blue eyes that had grown no less intent with the passage of time. Flair, with the same small stature, blue eyes, pointy chin, and pale cheeks, was obviously her kin, even though the wavy hair that fought to escape tight braids was blonde rather than silver.
"Then you have to help me," the woman said, her voice rising as she reached for Flair's arm. Flair slid away with a practiced move, avoiding contact. Need surrounded her visitor, looking for a point of entry that Flair refused to give. Teabag barked once, a sharp yap of reproval, although whether for Flair or her unwelcome guest, Flair had no idea.
"I'm afraid I can't," she said, keeping her gaze firmly on the edge of the door between them, a metal door, red paint peeling. "We don't sell loose tea. Just coffee. And pastries." No tea except brewed, served only in bags. No candles, no tinctures, nothing to suggest Flair could, would, or might ever offer the services Nana had specialized in.
"Flair?" Loretta's voice, from the shop, and the click of her boot heels. "Is everything all right back there?"
Flair tried to shut the door, but the woman put out a surprisingly strong hand and bent just enough to force Flair to catch her eyes.
"But you are Marie," she said. "Or you could be. I can feel it. Can't you- I don't need the tea. I just need to know what I should do."
Flair heard the kitchen door open behind her. With a great summoning of her own will, Flair refused to see or feel anything in the gaze that so insistently met hers. She kept her voice carefully even, neutral. "I’m sorry," she said. "You’ve made a mistake."
Teabag brushed against her ankle and barked, startling the woman. Flair used the moment to push the door shut, but she still caught the woman’s parting words.
"I haven’t." she insisted. "Maybe you have."
Flair slammed the door with more force than she had intended. The walls around it quivered in sympathy and to Flair’s dismay, a crack appeared in the paint at the corner of the doorjamb, the white wash splitting to reveal the old wood underneath as Flair turned to smile at Loretta, who was peering into the kitchen.
"Everyone misses Marie," she tried to say brightly, but she heard a crack in her own voice to match the one in the paint.
"I have missed Marie for a long time," Loretta said. She stood for a moment, her eyes on the closed door. Flair held her breath, searching Loretta’s face for any sign that she’d been aware of the second and probably more lucrative business her grandmother had run out of the shop. Thankfully she found none. Loretta couldn’t have heard much from the other room. Maybe she wouldn’t ask.
She didn’t. Instead, she gestured for Flair to return to the front room, continuing their earlier conversation as though there had been no interruption. Teabag trotted after them.
"We do one stop on the trail that provides a 'treat' to give travelers a little breather. I’ve chosen you to provide the treats."
Loretta resumed her seat and took a sip of her drink while Flair hesitated, looking for the most politic way to refuse. She had the faintest memories of standing behind a steaming cauldron while her grandmother ladled something into cups, delighted with the black lace and tulle that made up her costume, her hair hidden beneath one of Nana’s glittering scarves. She remembered an evening that stretched on and on, dancing, the night sky seeming to lower itself to meet them, a sense of anticipation satisfied that she had never experienced before or since.
But her grandmother had let go of whatever role she once played in the trail long ago, and Flair’s single experience as a trail "traveler" was one she tried to forget. When she’d made the decision to return to Rattleboro, the Trail—and all the Halloween madness that went along with it—was the one thing she hadn’t looked forward to.
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