Dead on Arrival Cover

Dead on Arrival

Visions & Victims: Book Three

Chapter 1 Preview

As a witch, I never would’ve dreamed that my biggest adversary would one day be a particularly stubborn weed — but there I stood with my wand clutched in one sweaty palm, its tip aimed at the heart of a bundle of sinister green, thorny leaves.

“Concentrate, Selena. You know the spell and you know the wand movement. You’ve got this,” my aunt, Blair, encouraged me softly from behind.

I also never would’ve dreamed that she would be using gardening as an exercise to teach me magic, but stranger things than that had happened in the weeks since I’d started working at Kindred Spirits Inn, the paranormal bed-and-breakfast Blair owned and ran with her wife, Kiki.

“And if you mess it up, we’ll just grow more weeds. So, you know, no pressure,” Jadis, my best friend and co-worker at the inn, chimed in.

I whirled on her with a disgruntled look. “This would be a lot easier without all the comments from the cauldron gallery.”

To her credit, Jadis’ face flushed, a stark contrast against her pale skin and lavender hair. “Sorry.”

“Just ignore her. I believe in you, Selena,” said Thorn, the newest employee at Kindred Spirits. He flashed me one of his warm, toothy smiles, and pushed his flop of brown hair up over his head, making me blush so I whipped back around before any of them could see it.

I still wasn’t sure how I felt about Thorn — he was certainly charming, and we’d been spending a lot of time together since Blair hired him to run the inn’s PR after he’d lost his job working for Starfall Valley’s premier magic school — though he’d made no secret of the crush he had on me, a fact Jadis had been all too quick to pick up on. The last thing I wanted was to give her more ammunition to tease me.

Instead, I re-focused on the dastardly plant in front of me and said the spell several times under my breath while visualizing the pulling motion I had to make with my wand. So far in my informal magic training with Blair, I hadn’t really had to work very hard learning any of the various spells she’d shown me — an inborn talent, according to her — but for some reason, the summoning spell was a different story.

 “Okay, here goes nothing,” I said and closed my eyes, imagining the root rocketing from the ground and into my free hand to help. “Devoco!” I shouted, yanking my wand toward my body as if I were keeping something out of a child’s reach. My eyes shot open and, to my amazement, the weed plucked out of the ground and flew toward me like a fish pulled from the sea on a rod. I snatched the plant from the air and spun to hold it up triumphantly, sending clods of dirt flying everywhere. “Yes!”

“Way to go!” Thorn congratulated me and rushed forward to throw his arms around me. I locked eyes with Jadis, who made a disgusted face at me that quickly turned into a smile. She’d never let me hear the end of this.

“See? I knew you could do it,” Blair said, beaming. “Even so, and I mean no offense, at this rate we might just be better off hiring someone to do the garden work for us.”

When Thorn finally released me, I glanced around the sprawling grounds surrounding the castle-like inn and had to admit Blair was right. Spring had definitely begun to bloom in Starfall Valley, and without a dedicated staff member to tend to the weeds and flowers in the weeks since the snows had stopped, the vegetation had taken over. Even if all five staff members spent the day beating back the springtime assault, we’d barely make a dent.

Despite that, as I continued taking stock of the grounds, I had to admit they were surprisingly beautiful. Due to its mountainous location, and since I’d moved to Starfall Valley in the middle of the winter, all I’d really seen of the area was snow, snow, and more snow. Now, however, was a totally different story.

From its position perched high on a flat portion of mountain above Starfall Valley, Kindred Spirits and its guests had the luxury of one of the best views in town, with the exception of the one from the ski resort further up the mountain. While there were usually too many clouds and a blanket of snow blocking the vista, as I glanced at the neatly arranged rows of cottages and small businesses nestled in the valley below, it occurred to me just how little I’d actually seen of my new home.

“If you’re serious about hiring someone, I know just the guy,” Thorn said, and I realized I’d blanked out of a huge portion of the conversation while I admired the scenery.

“Really? Who?” Blair asked.

“An old classmate and good friend of mine. You might know him, actually. His name is Oliver Pollock. He owns the Petals & Potions apothecary in town with his colleague, Giles Norwood.”

“Oh, yes, Mr. Pollock! He’s a bit of a local legend, isn’t he? I’ve never been to his shop, but I’d love to visit when I actually have the time.”

“It’s quite the experience,” Thorn said, and Blair laughed.

“That’s what I’ve heard.”

“What do you mean by that?” I butted in and Thorn smiled at me.

“The mix of flowers, colors, smells, and chemicals can be a little much for some people. Oliver isn’t really known for being subtle about, well, anything.”

“Do you really think he’d be interested in weeding our grounds, then? That sounds a little beneath him, doesn’t it?” I asked.

Thorn chuckled and tossed his hands in the air. “Hard to say. He loves to collect all kinds of plants and their components, so he might jump at the chance to raid Kindred Spirits. Who knows what’s growing out here, anyway?”

“Certainly not us,” Blair said. “But then again, there’s apparently a lot of things happening out on these grounds we don’t know about,” she continued, and I followed her gaze to the blackened square several hundred feet away where our garden toolshed had stood until a particularly vindictive witch burned it to the ground.

“True. That’s probably another good reason to hire someone to keep an eye on things, even if it’s only part time. A sprucing up would be good for our image, too,” Thorn said.

“Good point. Well, why don’t you and Selena head into town and see if you can convince Mr. Pollock to at least consider it? You can take my car, so long as you promise not to use it to fly.”

My eyes shot to hers and my stomach flipped — because what she was proposing sounded an awful lot like a date.

“Oh, that’s a great idea!” Thorn said, overjoyed, and Blair cracked a smile at me.

“Besides, you haven’t even gotten to see Starfall proper yet, Selena, so I’m sure Thorn can show you all the highlights.”

“But what about the work around here?” I asked, desperate to find a way to poke holes in the plan. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to spend time with Thorn, it was just that, well, I didn’t want things to move too quickly. Or at least not any quicker than they’d already been moving.

“I think Jadis, Kiki, and I can handle turning over a few dirty rooms. We’ve got plenty of experience by now,” Blair said and winked at me. We’d just had several guests check out and, at least for now, there was only one person staying at the inn, an out-of-towner vampire named Dominique, who’d come to Starfall for business. “Go on, enjoy yourselves. There’s plenty to see and do.”

“Yeah, enjoy yourselves,” Jadis echoed tauntingly and stuck her tongue out at me; she was lucky I didn’t know any hexes yet, otherwise I might’ve used one on her.

“You’re more than welcome to join us.”

“That’s okay. I wouldn’t want to interrupt anything,” Jadis answered with a devious smile and a wiggle of her eyebrows.

“Ugh, don’t do that,” I groaned and turned to Thorn. “You know what? Let’s just go already.” Without waiting for him to agree, I stormed away to Blair’s old VW station wagon parked in the drive nearby and realized, to my dismay, that the passenger side door was locked.

“Selena, wait!” Thorn called and thudded over the gravel to the car, Blair’s keys jangling in his hand. “Are you okay?” he asked as he unlocked the car.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I lied and climbed into the passenger seat, though the idea of spending all day sightseeing with Thorn made me feel anything but fine.

Thorn plopped into the driver’s seat and turned the key in the ignition, then paused with both hands on the steering wheel. “If you don’t want to join me, I can go alone,” Thorn said, and the hint of defeat in his voice crushed me.

I turned to him, chewing my lower lip. “No, it’s not that. I want to see the town and everything with you, it’s just…”

“It’s just what?”

“Well, you know… This,” I said, gesturing at the air between us. Thorn raised an eyebrow at me. “What exactly are we doing here, Thorn?”

“That’s a good question,” he laughed. “Look, I know this has all the earmarks of a date, but it doesn’t have to be that if you don’t want it to. I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

“You aren’t, and you don’t. I guess I’m just confused, that’s all.”

“So am I. But you know what? This is only awkward if we make it that way. Let’s just have a good day on the town as friends and leave it at that. Sound good?”

“It does. Thanks,” I said as relief washed over me. Though I couldn’t fathom telling Thorn, or at least not yet, a large part of my reticence about what was developing between us stemmed from my complete lack of experience. During school, I’d written dating off as a distraction and stayed focused on my grades — partly due to pressure from my overachieving pair of doctor parents, but also partly due to a lack of interest from me — so I’d never had a boyfriend.

As Thorn backed out and turned the car around, I cringed to myself even thinking the word “boyfriend” because it sounded so juvenile. Thorn wasn’t my boyfriend, though I didn’t doubt he’d like to be, and while I wasn’t opposed to it happening someday, I wasn’t sure I was ready for it yet. After all, in just the last few months I’d dropped out of college, found out I had an aunt I knew nothing about, and that I was a witch. It was a lot to deal with, and further complicating things with romance seemed like a recipe for disaster.

“I can’t believe you haven’t been to town yet,” Thorn said, mercifully changing the subject as we rolled down the drive.

“Honestly, neither can I,” I laughed. “I’ve been here for what, three or four months now? But then again, when you’ve got everything you need in one place, there isn’t much reason to leave.”

“True. Plus, you’ve been pretty busy giving the police a run for their money,” Thorn quipped as we passed the remains of the toolshed, and I shivered at the memory of what’d happened inside. “Hey, speaking of, have you given any thought to what Officer Aimes said about joining the force?”

I laughed and shook my head. “Not really, no. Law enforcement isn’t really my thing.”

“Well, until recently, you didn’t think magic was either. Things change, that’s all I’m saying.”

“I’ll keep it in mind, then,” I said and smiled at Thorn. I wasn’t lying when I said I hadn’t thought about Officer Aimes’ offer to put in a good word for me at the magical police academy because it seemed so farfetched to me. Before I’d dropped out of college, I’d been studying to be a nurse, so talk about a career change.

“For what it’s worth, I think you’d be good at it. You’re approachable and you have a certain way of getting people to tell you things they shouldn’t,” he said and looked away as his cheeks flushed.

“Being psychic definitely helps.”

“I don’t doubt that’s why Officer Aimes brought the idea up,” Thorn said as we wound down the increasingly narrow and twisty drive toward town. Judging from the whiteness of his knuckles, Thorn wasn’t having fun navigating the terrain, so I decided to distract him with conversation — mostly because I realized how little I actually knew about him.

“So, are you from Starfall originally?”

Thorn nodded. “Born and raised. I’ve toured around a few of the other big magical meccas — Moon Grove, Fort Fang, you name it, I’ve been there — but none of them felt like home to me in the same way Starfall does.”

“It’s hard to leave the place where you grew up. I know that better than anyone,” I said, still embarrassed at how I’d had to leave my hometown and move to Denver thanks to the shame of dropping out of college brought on me and my family. I didn’t think Thorn knew that about me yet, and I didn’t have any intention of telling him.

“Especially when you’re moving to a magical community. I can’t even imagine how much of a shock it must’ve been for you to come here.”

“Funnily enough, it was in this car. Blair drove it right off a cliff without giving Jadis and I a bit of warning.”

“What?! Seriously? That’s nuts.”

“You’re telling me. My whole life flashed before my eyes, but then when I re-opened them, we were flying high above the clouds and mountains like we weighed less than air.”

“That’s one heck of an introduction to magic, but it definitely sounds like something Blair would do.”

“Exactly,” I laughed. “She’s not really known for her understatement either.”

“How did you two keep in touch before you moved here?”

I hesitated, unsure how much to reveal. “We didn’t. I had no idea Blair even existed until she showed up in the coffee shop where I was working at the time.”

Thorn fell silent as he turned one last corner and breathed a sigh of relief when he realized we’d finally reached flat earth again. The car rolled forward gently on what appeared to be the only road that led from Kindred Spirits to town, and Thorn shot me a curious look. “How’s that possible?”

I shrugged. “My parents told me she’d died in a car crash when I was young, and I never had a reason not to believe them until Blair came to find me and bring me back here.”

Thorn drummed his fingers against the steering wheel while he chewed on what I’d shared. “Wow. I can’t believe they’d do that to you. That seems… Cruel.”

“The two of them have a bit of a mean streak, that’s for sure. But anyway, none of it matters. I’m just glad Blair found me and that I’m here now.”

Thorn shot me one of his heart-melting, face-spanning smiles. “Me too,” he said, and I couldn’t help looking away as my cheeks tingled — because the truth, as much as I didn’t want to admit it, was that hearing it from Thorn thrilled me.

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