Pepper Reign is only weeks away from giving birth to her first-born child when the biggest challenge of her career rears its head. She’s been charged with finding a unicorn for a spoiled teenager.
Problem is, Pepper’s not sure that she wants to hand over a magical creature to the kid. When she reveals this to Betty, her grandmother, the old woman almost has a cow. Betty tells Pepper that has to find the unicorn, and if she doesn’t, then something very bad will happen in Magnolia Cove.
Pepper is tempted to blow off Betty’s concerns, but when bad things begin to unfold, she realizes that her grandmother might be right after all.
Now Pepper has to find a unicorn and stop an evil presence from taking over her town before the baby is born. Can she do it? Or will Pepper and Magnolia Cove wind up in worse shape than when they began?
Release date: April 25, 2021
Publisher: LADYBUGBOOKS LLC
Print pages: 162
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“And that little rocking horse goes here.” Betty pointed to one corner of the room. “And that picture of a witch flying over the moon goes there.”
Amelia stared from the picture to the wall and frowned. “Are you sure that’s where it goes? I don’t know. I don’t like that wall. I think it needs to go closer to the crib.”
Betty shook her head. “No. That’s where it goes. Right there. Don’t you be sassing me about it.”
“I’m not sassing you. I just think it would look better on the opposite wall, by the window.”
Betty placed both hands on her hips. “And who decided on this yellow for the walls anyway? Everyone knows that witchlings have rooms that are painted green.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose and counted to ten. “I did. It was me. I decided on the color of the walls.”
Betty grimaced. “Yellow is not the color of a witch.”
“Where I come from, it’s the hue we decorate in when we don’t know the sex of the baby,” I explained as calmly as I could even though on the inside I could feel a bomb igniting in my chest. I was an inch away from exploding.
Oh, Amelia and Betty had meant well when they asked if they could come over and help me get the nursery finished up. After all, I was a hair’s breadth away from delivering and could use all the help I could get.
But as soon as they arrived at the house, my family immediately started taking over. Betty reorganized the drawers that I had so painstakingly organized while Amelia (who had made herself a peanut butter sandwich) argued with my grandmother on every decision that she made.
Y’all, I was over it.
I opened my palm and gestured for Betty to hand the painting over. “Thank y’all so much for coming to help, but I can take it from here.”
Amelia dusted sandwich crumbs from her mouth. “I beg to differ, Pepper. This baby’s room is hardly done. You haven’t even put out the little cauldrons that I bought you. Oh, and I brought over a few crows that you can put on the shelves.”
“Good idea,” Betty said proudly.
Who ever heard of crows in a nursery? “Crows?”
Amelia clapped her hands and suddenly, situated on the bright white shelves that my husband, Axel, had just installed, sat hideous black crows with glittering ebony eyes.
I peered closer. “Are those…? Are those taxidermied?”
Amelia knocked a fist against one. A hollow sound came from deep in its chest. “Sure are. Been saving them for an occasion like this. They were in my nursery, and now they can be in yours.” She bent down and spoke to my balloon-sized belly. “You’d like to grow up with little crows looking out for you, wouldn’t you? You would love that.”
Someone save me. I forced a weebly smile. “Amelia, they’re so nice.”
“Aren’t they?” My cousin’s blue gaze stared at them wistfully, as if she was remembering old times spent with stuffed crows. “When I was little, I made them come to life. I would spend hours watching them fly around the room. Mama would hear me giggling. She’d open the door and chastise me for bringing the creatures to life. I couldn’t help it. I loved them so.”
Betty sighed. “There’s nothing like being a baby and working your magic, learning about all the things you can do. Remember that time you nearly burned the house down?”
Amelia laughed. “That wasn’t me. That was Cordelia. But do you remember when I turned my stuffed frog into the size of a dog and it tried to eat people?”
Betty laughed. “We had to stop it from eating Gilda Goldenheart! She looked terrified when the frog got its mouth on her foot. She didn’t know what was going on.”
Suddenly, nausea washed over me. I quickly pushed it aside. They were joking. My family was kidding. These things hadn’t really happened.
I laughed and swatted the air. “That is too funny. Y’all are such kidders. You’re just trying to scare me. Whew. And doing a great job at it. But you can stop now. Don’t give me a heart attack before this little witchling is even born.”
Betty and Amelia exchanged a confused look.
“We’re not joking,” Amelia said. “Just you wait. One day you’ll walk into this room and these crows will be sailing up above your little one’s head.”
“Be sure to close your eyes so they don’t get pecked out,” Betty said nonchalantly.
Bile surged up the back of my throat. There had been no discussions of this. No one had told me the dangers of raising a witchling. This was the first time that anyone had said that my baby’s actions could actually kill someone—me, for instance.
I didn’t exactly want to get eaten by a giant frog or lose my eyes to a stuffed crow.
While I was inwardly dying a slow death, Betty surveyed the room and rubbed her chin. “I still don’t feel like I’m done nesting. There must be more to do.”
“The wall color,” Amelia reminded her.
“Right. And here comes green.”
Betty clapped her hands, and the next thing I knew, the walls—the perfectly beautiful sunny yellow—had transformed into a dingy puke green.
Not only did I want to vomit, but I knew that if I did, it would match the walls.
Betty threaded her fingers together and cracked her knuckles, satisfied with herself. “What’s next? Oh, that’s right. All these yellow clothes have to change, too. We can’t have our little witchling in yellow. Our little wizard or witch needs clothing to reflect who he or she will be. We need them the same green.”
Amelia darted to the dresser, opened a drawer and pulled out a onesy that I had picked out. I’d bought it from a well-established children’s boutique that catered to witches. It was yellow, which proved that not everyone believed witchlings should be showered in English-pea-colored puke.
“Let’s start with this one,” Amelia said.
“Let’s not.” I opened my hand, and the onesy flew from Amelia’s grasp and sailed across the room until it landed in my open palm. While Amelia stared at me in shock, I nonchalantly folded the onesy and hugged it to my chest. “Look, I know that y’all have your witch traditions.”
Betty’s eyes narrowed. She knew a fight was coming. If there was one thing that my grandmother was prepared for, it was battle—with whomever. Didn’t matter. She would take a stance against anyone who looked at her the wrong way.
Okay, maybe I was exaggerating.
No. I wasn’t. Betty was that doggone ornery.
Words spit like nails from my grandmother’s mouth. “These aren’t just our traditions. They’re yours, too, Pepper. You’re a head witch and a leader in our community. You set an example. Do you want folks to come over here and see that the baby isn’t being raised in our Magnolia Cove ways?”
Yes. Yes I do. But seeing as hurting anyone’s feelings wasn’t my intention when I’d invited my family over, I decided to go about this conversation the easy way.
By chickening out.
I cleared my throat, and even though a knot the size of Kansas had formed in my neck, wanting to stop me from taking on my grandmother, I pushed on.
“So, I want to say that I love the green.”
“No, you don’t,” Amelia said curtly.
I shot her a scathing look. “Whose side are you on?”
“Pepper, this is witch tradition. Nobody likes the green. It’s just how things are done.”
Wait. What? A headache bloomed behind my eyes. “Why would people decorate their nurseries in that color if they didn’t like it? And before you say tradition, it can’t only come down to tradition.”
They both shrugged and answered in unison, “Tradition.”
Oh boy, I was in trouble. Time to let them down gently. “Look, I love the crows. And I…” hate? Detest? Loathe? “…think the green is an interesting choice.”
Betty smiled smugly. “It was the color of the first witches’ skin. At least, that’s what they say.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t that someone watched The Wizard of Oz and decided to emulate the Wicked Witch of the West?”
“Who?” Betty asked.
Amelia chuckled. “It’s a human movie. Now that I think about it—yes, there are some similarities.”
That was a moot point. As graciously as possible, I told them, “I love all your help and appreciate it so much. Really. But y’all, this is my baby—mine and Axel’s. I want her or him to come into the world feeling safe. I just don’t think stuffed crows and puke-green walls will give the witchling, let alone me, that feeling.”
Betty wagged her finger like she knew best. “We don’t know what goes on in the minds of babes. Besides, Amelia and I are nesting. Decorating your nursery is part of our nesting process.”
“I don’t think you understand the term ‘nesting.’ It’s something that I do. Me. Not you. I am the mother. I nest.”
Betty threw Amelia a curious glance. “I don’t think that’s right.”
And suddenly I felt my blood pressure spike. The doc had warned me about getting upset. My pressure had been running high. It needed to stay down for my health and the baby’s.
Amelia nodded to our grandmother. “Betty’s right. We’re the ones who nest. That’s how it is with witches. When one of our kin is pregnant, we all feel the urge to nest. That’s why we came over.”
“And I thought it was to drive me bonkers.”
Amelia cackled. “Oh Pepper, you are so funny. No, silly. It has nothing to do with that. We’re nesting, same as you. Now.” She placed her hands on my shoulders and steered me toward the door. “You look tired. Once the baby gets here, there’ll be no rest for you. So why don’t you take a nap now, while you can?”
Betty waved at me. “Let us finish up here. By the time you wake up, we’ll have everything in order. Just go set a spell.”
Amelia was shoving me out the door. I braced my hands against the frame. “Y’all don’t understand. I’m not going anywhere. You’re not listening to me.” My cousin’s grasp on me loosened, and I whipped around. Heat flushed my face. My pressure really rocketed now. “This is my nursery. If I want to decorate it in bloodred, I will. I don’t, but I will. I want the yellow. And that’s how this is going to be. If the two of y’all can’t accept that, then you can leave.”
Betty smiled warmly. “Now, now. You’re just hormonal. Amelia, take her downstairs.”
That did it. “I am not hormonal. I am perfectly sane, but you two are about to drive me crazy.”
Amelia shook her head. “She doesn’t mean it.”
“No, she doesn’t,” Betty agreed. “Pepper, you just go on and let us do our nesting.”
My lungs filled like a balloon, and the words bellowed from my chest before I could stop them. “For the last time, I’m the one who nests!”
Their jaws dropped. Betty started to speak, but I cut her off.
“Now get out,” I screeched. “Get out before I come over to your house and turn it puke green and put live crows in your soup! Get out of my house and let me decorate it the way I want!”
Betty and Amelia exchanged a look. It was my cousin who finally spoke. “Do you think we should go?”
Betty pulled out her pipe. Before she could light it, I gritted my teeth. “If you even think of filling this room with smoke, I will snatch that pipe right from your mouth.”
It disappeared from Betty’s hand. “I see how it is,” my grandmother said, sharp as a knife. “Amelia, I think it would be best if we left.”
“Pepper.” Amelia’s voice begged me to change my mind, not to shut them out. But I had tried to be nice. I had attempted to be cordial, kind and everything else a good old Southern witch should be.
And they hadn’t listened.
I shooed them with my hands. “It’s time for y’all to go. I’ll call you later.”
Betty’s eyes narrowed. “You better just hope that you don’t do permanent damage to your witchling by going against tradition.”
I folded my arms and glowered. “On the contrary, I’ll be raising a well-adjusted baby.”
Betty lifted her nose in the air and sniffed. “We’ll see about that.”
Her attitude made my blood turn to lava. “Go home! Now! And I don’t want to see either of y’all snooping around here changing things.”
Betty grabbed Amelia’s hand. “I know when we’re not welcome. Come on, Amelia. Let’s go home.”
Betty snapped her fingers. A wave of smoke billowed around them, thick as fog. A moment later it disappeared, and Betty and Amelia vanished with it.
I exhaled a deep breath and sank onto the rocking chair. With a snap of my fingers, the walls returned to their sunny yellow and the crows disappeared. My gaze bobbed around the room, taking in all the objects and decorations that I had so lovingly set out.
“Knock, knock.” Axel appeared in the doorway, a smirk plastered on his beautiful face. A V made of sweat from jogging marked his T-shirt, and he held a bottle of water, half of it gone. Black hair brushed his chin, and his blue eyes sparked in question. “Did I hear shouting?”
Too embarrassed to tell him the truth, I scoffed. “No. I was just…talking to myself and psyching myself up for the birth.”
He looked as if he did not believe me. I doubt that I would have believed me, either. “You sure about that? It sounded like Betty was here.”
“No, she wasn’t.”
His gaze wandered the room. “Nursery looks great. Not like other witches’.”
Still raw from the confrontation, I said defensively, “Better? Worse?”
I exhaled a breath that I didn’t know I’d been holding. What was wrong with me? This was just a nursery. It wasn’t like the world depended on what this room looked like.
Axel sucked his water, emptying the bottle. “Oh, on my run I ran into a woman. I didn’t catch her name, but she wanted to meet with you at Familiar Place.”
Finally. Something to talk about other than the nursery. “About what?”
“Said she’d e-mailed you. She’s looking for a unicorn.”
Right. Several weeks earlier I had received an e-mail from a witch searching one out. I’d meant to reply to her, but with the baby and all, it had slipped my mind.
“I forgot about it,” I admitted.
“Well, she’s downtown now. Waiting for you.”
I grabbed the arms of the rocking chair and used them to hoist myself to standing. Axel moved to help me, but I gestured that I was okay.
“And I’m supposed to conjure a unicorn from thin air?” That was the problem. I hadn’t contacted the woman because I had no idea where to find said creature.
Axel slid his arms around me and kissed the tip of my nose. “You can find anything. I know it.”
I threw my head back and laughed. “One unicorn, coming right up.”
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