Crystals and Criminals Cover

Witches and Witnesses

Magic & Mystery: Book Nine

Chapter 1 Preview

My stomach had grown so large that if I turned the wrong way, it could block out the sun.

Worse, if I wasn’t careful, I ran the risk of knocking off all the decorations and food Beau had spent so much time meticulously placing on the half dozen tables in our backyard — potentially ruining my baby shower before it even started.

As if the twins sensed my anxiety, one of them sharply kicked, causing an intense pain at the top of my ribcage. I winced and massaged the spot to soothe it, and by the time I re-opened my eyes, Beau was at my side with his hand resting on top of mine.

“Are you okay? What’s wrong?”

“No, no, I’m fine. One of the babies kicked, that’s all.”

“Oh, it must’ve been a hard one then. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you cringe like that. Here, take a seat and rest,” he said and ushered me to the nearest of the dozen plastic chairs he’d set out. He held it still while I squatted down as far as my aching feet and legs would allow, and I collapsed the rest of the way in a big huff of air.

Beau’s hands found my shoulders and began massaging the tight muscles there and at the base of my neck. “Better?”

“Very much so,” I moaned and tilted my head to the left. The bones in my neck cracked one by one like dominoes, producing a sound like a zipper closing as they snapped.

Beau groaned. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that sound.”

“Me neither.” I’d never been a neck cracker until I got pregnant, but since then it happened several times a day and I had to admit the sound was gruesome — but the relief it provided was worth it.

Beau kneeled in front of me and stroked my swollen stomach. “I can’t believe we only have another five weeks to go until our little kickboxers are here.”

“That’s easy for you to say. You aren’t the one who’s been getting their insides pummeled by them for the last ten weeks. It’s a good thing magical babies grow faster. I don’t think I could deal with this for forty weeks. I’m ready to meet the little boogers already.”

“Aw, you’re right. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to minimize.”

I rested my hand on top of his and squeezed it. “It’s okay, I know you didn’t. It’s just my hormones acting up, don’t take it personally. I’m glad you’re with me for this, there’s no way I could do it alone.”

He stood and kissed the top of my head. “You just stay put and rest. I’ll finish getting ready before everyone gets here. There’s not much left to do, and you’ve overworked yourself already today, anyway. Can I get you anything?”

My stomach rumbled, but I hesitated. Beau raised his eyebrows at me. “Okay, look, I know this is gonna sound weird, but I’d kill for a pickle right about now.”

Beau chuckled. “Pregnancy cravings aren’t supposed to be normal, but you’ve got it. It’s a good thing I bought that giant jar the other day when it caught your eye.”

He dashed back into the house for the food and I sat rubbing my stomach and staring out at our small but cute backyard. Beau had taken up gardening and did an excellent job planting various colorful flowers along all three walls of the fence that blocked us off from our neighbors.

Claiming he wanted only the finest ingredients for his kids, Beau had also started a small fruit and vegetable plot in the far-left corner where fresh, plump tomatoes currently dangled from their wire supports. The sight of their swollen red exteriors and the thought of their juicy contents made my mouth water.

The quiet and serenity of the yard might otherwise have been unsettling but given the unprecedented period of peace Moon Grove had experienced for the last ten weeks — which coincided nicely with the timing of my pregnancy — I doubted I had anything to worry about.

Still, I couldn’t shake a constant sense of dread that at any moment the other shoe might drop. Since moving to the magical town nearly a year ago, there’d never been a stretch of time this long in which something major hadn’t gone wrong, so no one could blame me for being nervous.

As Head Witch, if and when the broom hit the wall, it would fall on me to fix it and I could barely take care of myself, much less tend to a major upset. Thankfully, I had my counterpart, Head Warlock Heath Highmore, to deal with anything pressing while I focused on myself and the twins, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted me to take advantage of that support.

“One large pickle, as ordered,” Beau said, startling me out of my daydreaming. He thrust it out to me in one hand, its base wrapped in a paper towel, and I snatched it from him without hesitation. If someone had told me a year ago I’d be pregnant with twins and smashing on pickles like they were the last pieces of food on earth, I would’ve laughed in their faces, but there I was.

I took a giant bite from the side, savoring the satisfying crunch and the sweet and sour taste. “Thankth,” I mumbled through the wad of pickle in my mouth. Juice dribbled down my chin, but I was too focused on eating to care.

Beau bit his lower lip to keep from laughing. “Anything for you.”

The sound of familiar voices drifted from the front of the house, and my furious chewing froze as my heart jumped up into my throat.

“Sounds like the guests are starting to arrive,” Beau said, beaming.

My eyes shot open and I thrust the pickle back at him. “Here, take thith, I don’t want anyone to thee me thith way,” I ordered and leaned sideways to spit out the wad I’d already chewed. Beau took the pickle and grimaced at the gift I’d left. I ignored him and bared my teeth. “Do I have anything stuck in here? Is there any juice on my shirt? Hurry, get me a breath mint before they come inside!”

“Relax, Zo, you look fine. Besides, you’re pregnant, you’re allowed to look a little messy.”

My heart hammered in my chest and I glanced down at my clothes in horror. “Messy?! You’re not helping!”

The sound of knocking echoed through the house and drifted out into the backyard. “Knock, knock!” Heath called, and I thought I was going to die right then and there.

“What if they come around the side of the house? Hurry, intercept them!” I ordered, and Beau dashed through the back door toward the front. I dragged the back of my hands across my face and chin and breathed a sigh of relief when both came back clean.

I couldn’t have gotten out of the chair even if I’d wanted to, so instead I straightened my shirt and stretched it out to keep my stomach from looking as monstrous as I feared it did. I’d just gotten settled when a hand found my shoulder and jolted me.

“There she is, the witch of the hour,” Heath’s honeyed voice said as he stepped in front of me, but the gesture was far from comforting. I glanced over my shoulder and found a trail of my friends and colleagues pouring down the back steps, some of which I hadn’t seen in months.

Holly Craft, my new secretary, led the charge, followed by Raina Woods, my magical mentor and Headmistress of Veilside Academy. They entered the yard and Mallory Crane, my best friend and partner in crime during my own time at the Academy, dashed past them toward me in a whirlwind of untamed brown hair.

“Zoe, girl, you look like you’ve seen a ghost. None of us are dead, or at least as far as I know,” Mallory quipped as she hurried to throw her arms around me, and I tried not to laugh as her wild curls tickled my nose.

When we parted, I spotted a shoddily wrapped square in her hand. She raised it to me and smiled. “I couldn’t come without a gift.”

I glanced around at everyone else as they filed in around me, and my heart fell when I saw that they’d all brought boxes or bags. “Oh, you didn’t have to do that, any of you,” I grumbled. Clearly, all my insistence that none of my shower guests bring gifts had worked.

“It’s not a baby shower without presents!” Flora, my fairy ex-roommate and colleague at the Moon Grove Messenger, shouted. Her four wings fluttered gleefully as she came to hug me, and when she stepped back, I found Ewan Barrett, her werewolf boyfriend and Moon Grove police officer, waiting for her.

“It’s good to see you,” she said as she linked her hand in Ewan’s.

“Staying out of trouble, Zoe?” Ewan asked with a wink and a twinkle in his eye.

I rubbed my stomach. “Trying to for the sake of these two.”

“Smart witch.”

“Why do you think I hired her?” A gruff voice asked, and I whirled in my chair. Mitch Harris, the surly werewolf and editor-in-chief of the Moon Grove Messenger, stood with his hulking arms crossed over his chest.

“Mitch!” I shouted and tried to push myself out of the chair to hug him but couldn’t. It’d been so long since the last time I’d seen him I’d lost track. Beau seemed to tense at the sight of him, but the tension quickly passed. Whatever disagreements they’d had before I entered the picture had taken a backseat.

A smile split Mitch’s face as he approached. “Stay seated, little lady. There ain’t no rush to hug a mutt like me, anyway.”

“Thank you for coming. I didn’t know you would.”

Mitch scowled. “Of course, I would. Just because you don’t work for me anymore doesn’t mean I don’t care about you. Though I gotta say, I think you looked better the last time I saw you.”

I glared at him but couldn’t help laughing. “Gee, thanks.”

“Carrying two little ones around for a few months will do that to you.”

“Now, now, let’s not beat up on my future daughter-in-law too much. This is her special day, after all,” a voice that sounded remarkably like Beau’s said as a man that looked like his spitting image emerged from the house. It was Sam, Beau’s father, and his gorgeous wife Michelle followed with Beau bringing up the rear.

My heart slipped at the sight of him — not because of him, but because that meant there wouldn’t by any other guests. As much as I should’ve been happy to have so many loving friends and family members around, there was one painful, noticeable absence: Grandma Elle. Heath said he’d tell her the news about my pregnancy and the baby shower, but maybe he hadn’t been able to reach her.

I didn’t know exactly how the Witches’ Protection Program worked, but the idea was to make sure no one but Grandma’s fairy guards knew where she was at any given time to protect her. After a couple of heinous vampires had targeted her a few months ago to hurt me, she’d had no choice but to enroll, but surely something as major as my pregnancy meant she could at least come back for a short visit, right?

I forced a smile to cover up my disappointment. I didn’t want anyone who’d come to think I wasn’t grateful. “Thanks for being here, everyone. We really appreciate it.”

As if he’d sensed my pain, Beau worked his way to my side and wrapped an arm around me. “Well, how about we get this party started with some food? You can help yourselves to anything you like. We made something for everybody, even the vegetarians,” he said and flashed a smile at Flora, who returned it. “Oh, and if you brought gifts you can put them on the empty table there. We’ll get to them in a bit.”

While the guests set their things down and picked over the food, Beau kneeled at my side. “Everything okay? You seem upset.”

I shook my head. “I’m fine. It’s just, well, I really hoped Grandma would—”

Another knock on the front door interrupted me, and Beau flashed me a devious smile. “Hold that thought,” he said and whisked away to answer the door. I twisted toward the backdoor and sat on pins and needles while I waited, rudely ignoring the other guests, and when I spotted a familiar flash of white curls of hair, I let out the breath I’d been holding.

“Grandma!” I shrieked, gripping the arms of the chair. “You came!” Once again, I tried to force my way out of the chair but only made it an inch or two before I fell back down.

“Oh, come on now, hold your horses, Sugar. You ain’t seen me in months, another few seconds ain’t gonna kill ya,” Grandma said, her southern drawl and slang like honey in my ears, and I couldn’t hold back the tears anymore.

She stepped down the back stairs and a collective gasp rippled through the guests. “What are y’all starin’ at? You didn’t really think you were gonna get this party started without me, did ya?” Grandma asked, her arms wide open.

“Welcome home, Eleanor,” Heath said, speaking the words I couldn’t seem to summon. For a moment, I couldn’t believe Grandma Elle really stood in front of me, mostly because I barely recognized her. I had no idea what she’d been up to since she’d disappeared on her tour of the magical universe months ago, but she looked radiant. She’d lost weight, and there seemed to be a sort of glow coming off her.

Grandma walked over and kneeled in front of me, and the nostalgic scent of sweet tea and sugar cookies that wafted off her overwhelmed me. “Zoe Clarke, Sugar, how many times do I have to tell you to keep that lemon-suckin’ look off your face?”

I threw my arms around her and bathed in her hearty laughter, wishing the moment would never end. I’d always known I’d see Grandma again, but I still couldn’t believe she was in my arms. “I’ve missed you so much,” I sobbed into her shoulder and she patted my back.

“I missed you too, Zoe, more’n you’ll ever know,” she whispered. The warm, wet feeling of her tears soaking my shirt melted me. “But pull it together, girl. All your friends ain’t here for a waterworks show.”

I laughed but refused to let her go. She worked her way out of my grip and reached into the pocket of the black robes I hadn’t even noticed her wearing. “Forgive me if I’m actin’ outta turn here — I know you’re prolly gonna do gifts later — but I made somethin’ for ya and I just can’t wait.”

She handed me a long, thin velvet box that resembled one a necklace would come in, but all I could do was stare at it. “You… Made this?”

“Quit bein’ so dramatic, Sugar. Open it already,” she insisted, though she smiled.

I lifted the lid of the box, and the hinge binding its halves squeaked. Inside lay a sparkling silver chain attached to a circular pendant. An image of an ember had been etched into its surface. My heart skipped a beat as a realization struck me — Ember was my mother’s name.

“It’s beautiful,” I whispered as I lifted the necklace from the box to admire it.

Grandma beamed. “And it’s functional. Go ahead, put it on and you’ll see what I mean.” She lifted my flaming red curls off my shoulders, and I looped the chain around my neck to fasten it. As soon as the pendant rested against my chest, a warm, soothing feeling spread over my body like I’d sat down in front of a campfire.

“It tingles. What is that?”

“The charm’s enchanted. As long as you wear it, the maternal magic I put in it will keep you and the lil’ rug rats safe from any magical mischief that comes your way. And if I know you, that’ll happen, well, about any second now,” Grandma quipped.

“You enchanted it?” I asked, too stunned to acknowledge her joke. The last time I’d seen Grandma, she’d barely been able to use her magic at all. The fairies must’ve been working hard with her.

Grandma beamed and raised her chin proudly. “You bet your keister I did. You didn’t think I’ve just been sittin’ around on my hands while I was gone, did ya?”

I laughed and pulled her in for another hug. “Thank you, I love it.”

“You’re welcome, Sugar. This way you’ll always have a part of me and your mother with you.”

Heath cleared his throat. “Well, I don’t think any of us will be able to compete with a gift like that, so maybe we should just leave ours and let these two catch up?” he suggested, reminding me that there were other people present.

“Oh, Lilith, I’m sorry, everyone! No, you don’t have to go,” I insisted. “Beau has games for us to play too, so please, have a seat.”

“She’s right! Don’t go scurryin’ away like scared bugs on account of me. I ain’t goin’ nowhere for a while. Zoe and I will have plenty of time to talk,” she said and paused. “Er, assumin’ it’s alright with you and Beau if I stay with y’all for a while?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, of course you can,” I said and reached for her hand.

Grandma smiled and nodded. “Well alright then, let’s get our game on!” she said and headed to the table where Beau had placed all the supplies. “Oh, I know this one. Who Knows Mommy Best is a classic,” she said and picked up a stack of clipboards equipped with pens and sheets of paper and passed one to everyone but me. “It’s easy enough. I’ll ask y’all a question about Zoe, you write your answer on the paper, and whoever gets the most answers right wins.”

Everyone pulled up a chair to form a circle around me, and Grandma sat right next to me. We started the game, but I couldn’t focus on any of the questions or answers. The only thing I could see and think about was Grandma.

I reached for her hand, determined never to let her leave me again, no matter what. She’d raised me from the time I was five after my parents died, and I wanted my kids to have the same gift of her presence in their lives.

“Well this one oughta be easy,” Grandma said as she held up the piece of paper with all the questions. “Who’s Zoe’s favorite person in the world? Besides Beau, of course.” She winked at Beau and his face flushed.

A chorus of voices screamed the answer: “Grandma Elle!”

They had no idea how right they were.

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