Mystery, Cozy Mystery
Date Published: June 28, 2016
A witch. A murder. A wedding dress?
Dylan Apel is having one heck of a summer. She knows her hand-made clothing is special, but magical? Discovering that she's a witch is bad enough, but when Dylan realizes there are folks who’ll kill to possess her witchy powers— that’s enough to make a girl want to hide out in the back of her boutique. Only problem is, Queen Witch is in town, itchin’ to make sure Dylan learns to cast spells, and this witch won’t take no for an answer.
Dylan must learn fast—someone just killed her best client with a poisoned gown meant for Dylan. Was it the tall, mysterious hottie in black, who's suddenly everywhere she goes? After all, the first thing Roman Bane says is he doesn't like witches. Is he here to save her, or kill her?
Dylan is barely getting a handle on her new powers when she finds herself surrounded by witches bossing her this way and that, local police nosing about, and wary clients—death by clothing is not good for business. And the solstice is coming … a time when witch powers are at their peak. Can Dylan survive the chaos long enough to figure out her new life?
"If that ain't the other side of stupid, I don't know what is."
Reagan Eckhart, all platinum-blonde ninety-eight pounds of her, shoved a newspaper in my face. I winced, barely avoiding a massive paper cut to the nose.
"Those idiots put you in Arts and Leisure. You should have been on the front page of the Birmingham News." She tapped the newspaper with a single red fingernail. "With as much business as you do, Dylan Apel, you should have been the main story of the day."
"Don't you think technically they should have put me in the business section?" I said.
Reagan fluffed the foot of hair teased up at her crown. At least it looked like a foot. Okay, it wasn't a foot—only six inches. But those were a tall six inches. Big enough to practically be their own person. "Whatever," she mumbled.
The debutante was in rare form today. Reagan was dressed to the nines in a black halter top and pants that resembled Spandex. Personally, I was waiting for her to break out into the chorus of “You're the One That I Want,” à la Olivia Newton-John. Harry Shaw, her fiancé—a smallish, bald financial advisor—definitely wouldn't join her if she did. His idea of playing John Travolta probably resembled hot-and-heavy talk about how gross grease and lightning were and why would you want to put the two together?
I grabbed the paper and scrutinized the picture of me and my sisters, Seraphina and Reid. Bright, beaming smiles on our faces, we stood in front of our side-by-side stores—Perfect Fit and Sinless Confections. Seraphina, tall and slender, her hair shimmering like glass in the sunlight, looked absolutely perfect. Even Reid, my eighteen-year-old baby sis, looked cherubic and innocent, her doe eyes and cheeky smile radiating youthful exuberance.
Then there was me. I sighed. It had taken two hours to smooth my hair, and it had still frizzed on the edges. I wasn't as tall or slender as Seraphina. But what I lacked in athletic build, I made up for in curves. Good for me. I might not look statuesque and perfect, but I could put on a slutty dress and have enough T and A to get noticed.
Was that a zit on my cheek?
"When I realized you had this store, Dylan," Reagan said, "and I saw how beautiful the dresses were, I told Harry—I said, 'Harry, that's who's going to design my wedding dress.' Didn't I, hon?"
Harry, nose-deep in the business section, remained silent.
Reagan kicked him.
"Ow!" Harry rubbed his ankle. "What'd you do that for?"
"Didn't I, Harry? Didn't I say that?"
Harry shrank a little, his bald pate looking even balder under the fluorescents. "Yes, of course you did, dear."
Poor guy. He probably wouldn't last a year in the marriage. He'd be whipped, beaten down and likely castrated after two months.
Did I say that out loud?
"Anyway," Reagan continued, flitting about the room. "I told Harry, Dylan Apel and I were best friends in high school—"
"Mortal enemies," I corrected.
"—and of course she's going to be the one to design my dress." Girlfriend didn't miss one beat. I don't think Reagan listened to what people said. Did she even hear them when they talked?
From the corner my assistant, Carrie Dogwood, snickered. I shot her a look of warning. She turned a deep shade of red and pretended to straighten a rack of sequined gowns.
"Reagan, do you want to see your dress again?" I asked.
"Of course," she squealed. "I can't get enough of it."
Carrie crossed to me. She leaned over, kept her voice low. "Wonder what she'll complain about this time."
I turned away from Reagan. "Hopefully nothing," I whispered. "Can you grab the dress?"
An unfinished blue gown caught my attention. The color of a robin's egg, the dress would be the envy of the Silver Springs solstice banquet, what with its deep vee neckline and overlay of chiffon. I needed to finish it before the dance, which was barely two weeks away.
I sighed. I'd been working a lot lately, thanks to Reagan's never-ending changes to her gown. There was less than a week until the wedding, and after that I'd have plenty of time to work on my own dress. That is, if I survived Reagan for a few more days.
I stared vacantly at the gown until a bodiless hand thrust the newspaper into my face once more. Reagan popped up in front of me and wiggled the now crumpled article. "But this reporter nails it. She absolutely gets it right. I could have gone anywhere for my dress, but there's just something about your gowns and your sister's food. It's like I'm transported to another place. I don't know how to describe it."
I had heard the same mantra over and over from clients. There's something about your clothes that I can't put my finger on. It's almost like they're magical.
Yeah. Right. Not that I didn't appreciate the compliment. Believe me, I did. So did Sera. If it weren't for the folks in our lakeside community of Silver Springs, Alabama, we'd be beggars. Hoboes maybe. Vagabonds most likely. And not the good kind. Not the sexy kind you see on the covers of romance novels.
Wait. There weren't hoboes on those. Well, anyway, we'd be dirty, covered in rags that smelled of oil and sweat, with grit under our fingernails that not even the best manicure technician could lift.
"Here's the dress," Carrie said.
Reagan's smile vanished. "Oh."
My dreams, my hopes, my wishes for a beautiful future crashed and exploded like a car careening off a cliff in a 1970s B movie. What could possibly be wrong this time—the hundredth time? I swear, every occasion this girl saw her dress, she found something to criticize. It was a wonder I hadn't strangled her before now.
I smoothed the lines of frustration that were forming on my forehead. "What's the problem?"
Reagan wrinkled her nose. "It's just…well…that's a lot of sequins."
I took a deep, cleansing breath and thought happy thoughts. "Last week you wanted more sequins. You said it didn't have enough bling."
Carrie bit back a giggle.
I flashed her a seething look. I mean, seriously. I knew it was funny, but it was only good service not to laugh at the customer while she's standing right in front of you. At least wait until the door hits her backside as she's leaving.
"Well," Reagan said, "last week there weren't any sequins. What were there? Like five on the whole thing?"
I steepled my fingers beneath my chin. "There were two hundred."
"Oh. How many are there now?"
"It's too many. Listen, Dylan, just because we were best friends in high school—"
"Mortal enemies," I said.
"—doesn't mean you can take advantage of me. If this dress isn't to perfection by Saturday, then I'm getting it for free. Right?"
Whoa, Nelly. "I'm sorry?"
Reagan batted her fake eyelashes. "That's just plain old good business. The customer is always right. I mean, we go way back. Too far back to let a little disagreement over some sequins ruin what we had."
I poked the air with my index finger. "Once again, we were mortal enemies. Reagan, you have brain damage when it comes to what high school was like."
A tittering laugh escaped her throat. It sounded like a thousand butterflies taking flight. That was right before I lifted my imaginary rocket launcher, aimed high and fired, sending the beauties crashing to the ground in a blazing explosion.
"You're so melodramatic, Dylan. We had a little disagreement about prom; that was all."
I crossed my arms. "Reagan, let me remind you of exactly what happened in high school."
"Why don't you do that, since you're so convinced we had nothing to do with each other." Reagan pulled one of her eyelashes. Ouch. Didn't that hurt?
I shook my head and said, "You had Colten Blacklock ask me to prom for the sole purpose of standing me up the night of." I pointed to her and then to me. "You and I—we were never friends, and I'm not giving you this dress for free. We've done a dozen fittings, and you've found something wrong with each and every one. You can either take it or leave it."
Reagan's mouth fell. She swung to Harry. "Are you going to let her talk to me like that?"
Harry squashed the grin on his face and cleared his throat. "Ahem. Well. You have tried the dress on a lot, and Miss Apel has been more than accommodating."
Reagan stomped her foot. "You," she said, wagging a finger at him. "You wait until we get home."
Oh no. I didn't want Harry to be in the dog house because of me. I reached out and rubbed Reagan's arm, trying to soothe the savage bridezilla. "Reagan, I'll lose some of the sequins. Stop by tomorrow and see what you think."
She flashed a tight, bitter smile. "What you have better be good, or I'm taking my business elsewhere. And that means your sister won't be doing the catering, either." She squared her shoulders, swiveled on her heel and stormed out of the shop. Harry gave me an apologetic smile and followed. The little bell above the door tinkled as they left.
"Do you think she'll back out?" Carrie asked.
I shook my head. "Of course not. Not unless she wants a dress off the rack and a cake from Walmart."
Carrie laughed. "She's something else, isn't she?"
"She's certainly something.” I rubbed my neck. Tension latched to the cords of muscle. I'd have a headache pretty soon if I didn't take an ibuprofen. Extending my palm, I gestured for Carrie to hand me the wedding gown. "I guess I'll alter her dress."
Carrie stuffed the layers of silk in my hands and nodded to the blue cross-necked dress. "But when are you going to finish that one?"
I peeked out from behind the mass. "I don't know. We have, what? Two weeks until the summer solstice? I'll work on it soon."
The bell above the door tinkled. Seraphina crashed in, a whirlwind of flour following her. Her blue eyes sparkled with delight. How I envied those eyes. Mine were poo brown. Some said chocolate, but I knew better. Those folks were just being Southern polite.
"Oh my God! Did y'all see the article?" She waved the paper like a flag of surrender.
"It's incredible. The reporter went so far as to say our work is, and I quote…" She scanned the article. "Where is it? Where did that passage go? Oh, here it is." She jabbed it. "She said our work is 'inspired by the gods themselves.' Ha! You couldn't pay for better advertising."
"You probably could," I said.
Carrie flipped the ends of her chestnut hair. "Listen, y'all, I just got this new gel manicure machine in the mail. Do you mind if I go freshen up these bad boys?" She wiggled her perfect coral nails. To my eyes, they needed no refreshing. But hey, every girl has some sort of vice. Carrie's happened to be that she was ADD about her nails. In the three years she'd worked for me, I'd never seen one chip. Ever. Mine, on the other hand, looked like Godzilla had tried to paint them—there were broken wedges of color that Carrie would have deemed unforgivable.
"Go ahead. We'll be here," I said. She picked up a shipping box and exited to the back.
I hung Reagan's wedding dress on a rack and brushed my hands of any rogue sequins that hadn't been sewn on properly, which was actually impossible since I'd done the work myself. But my grandmother had always taught me to be humble, so that was my attempt.
Sera chewed her bottom lip. "The reporter says, 'Dylan Apel's dresses will transport you to another time and place. A claim I can attest to personally, for I experienced this peculiar phenomenon first-hand when I tried on one of her gowns. When I saw my reflection in the mirror, for a split second I was taken back to the cotillion ball where I met my husband thirty years ago. If that wasn’t enough to put a spring in my step, one bite of Seraphina's baked treats and I was back in my grandmother’s kitchen as she created confections on the stove. Truly a magical experience.'" Sera paused, looked up at me. "Seriously. That's some good stuff."
"Yeah, it’s good,” I said. But the reporter’s description about trying on my clothes bothered me. I shrugged off the uncomfortable feeling and smiled. "Though I have been accused on occasion of drugging my clothes."
Sera frowned. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."
The bell tinkled. I stepped forward, my most welcoming smile on my face.
My sister glanced at me. "You look like a piranha. Tone it down."
I settled into a half smile. "Good morning! Welcome to Perfect Fit."
A towering redhead sauntered into the store. Bangles covered both her arms, clinking pleasantly as she walked. Emerald-green eyes fixed on me and Sera. I squirmed. Couldn't help it. At five-five I wasn't short. Not by any means. But this was a tall woman. Five-ten easy. And all that hair. A cloud of silky crimson and honey curls cascaded down her back. I don't even think she had any product in it. It was a totally natural head of hair.
I hated her.
Kidding. But envy did surface.
She smiled brightly. My envy turned into instant like. "Mornin'. I wanted to try on some clothes," she said in a throaty voice, the kind that drove men mad. I'd never seen her before, and Silver Springs was a minuscule town. From the look of interest on Sera's face, I guess she hadn't seen this woman before, either.
I stepped forward. "Absolutely. What are you looking for?"
"Just some regular day-wear stuff."
My time had arrived. I had a knack, a sixth sense really, about clothes and people. In one try I could create an entire body-fitting wardrobe and not even know the size of the person. What can I say? It came naturally to me.
"Are you looking for sportswear or business?"
Cha-ching! "Let me pull a few items and see what you think."
"I'm gonna head back," Sera said. "I'm sure there's something I need to make."
I waved. "Bye."
She waved back and left, leaving me to focus on my client. Five minutes later I had two armfuls of pants, jackets, and blouses. "Let me get you in a dressing room. After you're done, come out and see what you think in the three-way mirror."
None of my dressing rooms had mirrors. People thought it weird, but I wanted to be around when my clients saw themselves in my clothing for the first time.
The woman disappeared behind the door, a roomful of clothes at the ready. Two minutes later she reappeared in a pair of jeans and a loose blouse.
"Take a look."
She stepped forward. The air contracted as if the very atmosphere had been sucked away. The mirror shimmered, and the woman's image bowed and straightened. It happened fast, so fast no one ever noticed. No one except for me.
So, this is where I tell you what that's all about. I would if I could. The easiest explanation is that my clothes make people feel great. From what Sera's told me, putting on one of my garments reminds you of an amazing time in your life. For instance—you're a fifty-year-old woman buying a dress for your daughter's wedding. You try something on and poof, you're transported back to the wondrous feeling you experienced at senior prom. Of course, that would be you, not me. My prom stank thanks to Reagan Eckhart.
At least, that’s what I’d always thought. It’s also why the reporter’s story bothered me. She saw her younger self in that mirror. That had never happened before—at least not that I knew of. My clothes blanketed clients in a wondrous feeling. They didn't make anyone see visions.
Sera's baked goods do something similar. Every time I eat something she's made, I feel amazing, like I could take on the world. One bite of a buttery croissant and I'm totally superwoman. Minus the red cape. And the tights. Now that I think about it, I wouldn't be caught dead in that outfit.
But why are we like that? We're gifted; that's what our grandmother always called it. We have a gift.
"What do you think?" I asked.
She stared at her image. After a long moment her lips curlicued into a smile. She licked the bottom one, her eyes shining.
"Your clothes are breathtaking."
Thirty minutes and three hundred dollars later, I placed the last package in the redhead's hands.
"How'd you hear about us?" I asked.
"I saw the article in the paper."
I clicked my tongue. "Wow. News travels fast." Sweet. Today might be a crazy, busy day.
She smiled, her eyes glittering. "You don't even know the half of it."
She pinched her brows together, giving her a dark, ominous expression. "In one week I guarantee you won't recognize your life."
An awkward laugh escaped my lips. "Oh. Ha-ha. I hope it's all good."
She shook her head. "That little article that came out about you? The one that was supposed to help your business? Well, you just did the opposite. You stirred up a bed of fire ants." She leaned forward and gave me a stern look. "And in case you need remindin', the sting from a fire ant lasts a long time. Take this as your warnin'."
I was so confused. "What do you mean, a warning?"
"Watch your back."
With that she left, her cloud of hair billowing behind her. I stood stone still. Numb shock tingled over my body, filtering down into my fingers and toes.
What the heck just happened?
After living in Chicago, Louisville and New York, Amy Boyles finally settled in North Alabama with her husband.
Along with writing, she has a passion for cooking ridiculously fattening food and complaining about weight gain. She loves to connect with readers.