Seven-year-old Peony nearly broke my heart the way she played with her fingers and sniffled so hard her shoulders jerked with each sharp inhale. My heart was safe with thirteen-year-old Clover, but she was trying her darndest to break my spirit. Leaning forward with elbows resting on her widespread knees and a glare on her face, Clover was as defiant a child as I’d ever seen.
I could have said no . . . No, no, I couldn’t have. My whole life, I’d never been able to say no to people. I did need to move this along, though. I had a shop to open and customers to tend to. Something to bake. There was always something to bake.
“We’re so sorry to bother you with this, Reeva,” their father, Alder, insisted.
“We didn’t know what else to do,” added Aster, their mother. “They say it takes a village to raise a child and well . . .”
“It’s fine that you came to me,” I assured with an empathetic smile. “As high priestess, I see my role as being both guide and rule enforcer. Before I say anything to your girls, however, I have to ask something from the two of you.”
They both froze, their eyes wide. If only they could be that in sync as parents.
“I need to know,” I continued, “that you’ll enforce whatever punishment I give. While it does sometimes take a village to raise kids, and you happen to live in one where the residents are always willing to help when there’s a need, ultimately your daughters are your responsibility.”
“Of course.” Alder gave a firm nod, eyes shifting from me to his daughters, issuing a silent warning.
“Whatever you say, Reeva,” Aster vowed, a beat too late. “We’ll follow it to the letter.”
I glanced at the girls perched on my patio bench. For an instant, they’d both become my daughter. Yasmine at seven after getting caught red-handed cutting into the cake I’d told her was for our neighbor’s birthday party that night. Yasmine at thirteen after sneaking in through the front door at midnight when she’d been told in no uncertain terms that she couldn’t go to that party. I didn’t like the authoritarian side of parenting any more than Alder and Aster Flowers did. But oh, what I wouldn’t give to have my girl sitting before me now, alive and well, anxious for the words about to come out of my mouth.
“First, let’s be sure I’ve got my facts straight.” I took a few steps closer to the girls. “Please correct me if I get anything wrong.”
“You’re wrong,” Clover sassed instantly.
“Clover,” Aster snapped, “I swear to the Goddess, if you don’t check that attitude, I’ll triple whatever punishment Reeva gives.”
The girl remained quiet but made a face at her mother. They should have named her Saguaro or after some other kind of cactus flower. The girl was prickly as a porcupine.
“My understanding,” I continued, raising my voice slightly, “is that you broke into a villager’s garden and helped yourself to several plants. And not just any villagers. You broke into the Barlows’ garden. The two most powerful green witches in Whispering Pines.” And the entire Midwest, but that detail wasn’t necessary right now.
“W-we w-were h-harvesting,” Peony stuttered and wiped her nose on her sleeve.
I couldn’t wait, Momma. Your cakes are soooo yummy.
“I’ve spoken with Briar and Morgan,” I told Peony, using the voice that always made Yasmine cringe and me feel like a tyrant. “Harvesting would mean using a set of shears to carefully remove only as much from the plant as you needed. They say you pulled whole plants from the ground—sweet pea, lavender, mandrake, and rue. Doing so upset the other plants around them as well. Is that accurate?”
“W-what are shears?” Peony asked, her legs swinging, her feet not reaching the ground.
“They’re scissors for the garden,” Aster explained as though she was a gardening pro. Ironically, all four of the Flowers had thumbs that were far more brown than green.
Peony shook her head. “W-we didn’t use shears. C-Clover didn’t s-say we had t-to.”
Clover shrugged. “I tried to break off what we needed. Didn’t work, so I yanked.”
You can’t understand, Mom. You’re too old. I had to go to that party.
“I’m not sure that’s quite accurate,” I corrected both the girl before me and the one ever-present in my mind. “I think you yanked because you were afraid that either Briar or Morgan were going to come out and catch you.”
“Because that stupid rooster wouldn’t stop crowing,” Clover blamed.
Pitch, Morgan’s all-black pet, served as an avian version of a watchdog or scarecrow for the Barlow garden. If he spotted anything out of line, he sounded the alarm.
I shook my head. “By the time they heard Pitch, the damage had already been done. They showed me what you did. It was significant.” I set a chair in front of them and sat so I could look them in the eye. “Vandalism is punishable by law. Briar and Morgan could have reported you to Sheriff Reed and asked him to charge you. He probably would have sentenced you to community service. The Barlows left it up to your parents to decide your punishment.” Since Clover was the instigator, my gaze stuck to her as I said, “They seem to be at the end of their rope with the two of you, however, and asked for my help. I know your parents are raising you to follow the Wiccan Rede—”
“What’s a rede?” Peony interrupted, her sniffles finally under control.
“It’s a rule or guideline that Wiccans follow. It states that we are free to do whatever we choose to”—Clover sat taller at this pronouncement—“as long as our actions don’t harm anyone. The problem is that harm can mean different things to different people. Each of us has to decide for ourselves what that definition is.”
Clover, once again fueled by attitude, declared, “I decided that I needed those plants and the Barlows had plenty. We didn’t take them just to mess up their garden. We needed them for spells.”
Alder stepped forward and demanded, “What spells?”
“A girl at school is telling lies about me,” Peony wailed.
“That’s not very nice,” I empathized. “What were you going to do about it?”
“We did tons of research first,” Peony explained and nudged her sister. “Tell her, Clover.”
The teen sighed. “Peony needed sweet pea to make the girl tell the truth.”
Peony nodded. “The book says if you hold sweet pea in your hand, you have to tell the truth. So I was going to make her hold it and ask her why she lies about me.”
For that exact purpose, sweet pea could have come in handy a few times in my life. “And what about the other plants?”
“Clover wants to steal her friend’s boyfriend,” Peony announced.
“Peony,” Clover groaned and looked at me. “That’s not exactly it. He and I like each other, everyone knows that, but this other girl put a hex on me, and now he won’t even look at me. If you put rue in your bath, it’ll break the hex. Rub it on your floor, it sends spells back. If you use a sprig of it to sprinkle salt water, it clears negativity.”
I made a mental note to check my garden for rue. My cottage was full of negativity. “What about the mandrake?”
“Mandrake is good for both things,” she informed as though giving a presentation. “If you wear some, like pinned to your shirt, it attracts love. If you carry it in your pocket, it banishes negativity. Before you can use it, you have to activate it, so you’re supposed to set it someplace it won’t get disturbed. After three days, you put it in water and let it soak overnight. Then it’s ready. You can sprinkle the water in doorways or windowsills or, better still, sprinkle it on the person who’s bugging you. The book says demons can’t stay where there’s mandrake.”
Would it work on personal demons? I had a few of those to banish. Maybe I’d stop by the Barlow’s and get some mandrake. “And the lavender?”
Clover shrugged. “Guys like it. It works great in love potions.”
“Love potions?” Alder cried, and Aster patted his shoulder to calm him down.
I looked down at the girls long enough to make them squirm. “I have to say, I’m impressed with how much you know.”
Peony beamed, and one corner of Clover’s mouth turned up a little.
“Can you imagine, though,” I continued, “how chaotic things would be if everyone decided for themselves what did and didn’t constitute harm? There have to be guidelines for people to follow, and enforcing those guidelines, in this situation at least, falls to me. The two of you have broken the Rede by damaging the Barlows’ plants. That directly causes harm to them because they use those plants in their religious practice. And they sell them at Shoppe Mystique, so this affects their customers as well.”
All four of the Flowers stared at me, ready to hear my decision, but it seemed the girls needed a reminder of the basics first. It couldn’t hurt for Aster and Alder to hear it either.
“The Rede is backed up by something called the Threefold Law. Do either of you know what that means?”
Peony’s hand shot into the air. “It means that whatever you do will come back to you three times. If you do something bad, like run your bike into someone else’s bike, your bike will get a flat tire, you’ll lose your bell, and you’ll forget the code to unlock your bike from the stand. That happened to one of my friends.”
“A perfect example.” I reached out and laid a hand on her shoulder. “While not one of our guidelines, we also do all that we can to live in harmony with nature. We respect what it has to offer, and in return, it provides us with many treasures. Food, shelter, water, and medicine for example.
“So, how many bad things are gonna happen to us?” Clover asked, a tiny tremor of fear laced into the defiant question.
“How many plants did you disrupt?”
Peony counted on her fingers. “Four.”
“Four times three times two Barlows.” I met Clover’s stare. “That’s a lot of bad. Since the two of you committed this infraction together, I want you to work together on your punishment. Under the Briar’s and Morgan’s supervision, you need to clean up the mess you made in their garden. Since you enjoy doing research, I’d like you to learn how to properly care for each of the plants you harmed and then write a paper detailing those steps. As magical properties appear to be of special interest to you, include those too.”
Aster had taken a small notepad from her purse and scribbled every word I said. She tapped it with her pen and announced, “I’m taking notes, girls. Don’t think you’ll be able to say you forgot—”
I cleared my throat, and she stopped talking.
“To end the paper,” I continued, “I want you each to include a paragraph that explains why what you did was wrong. Make two copies. Give one to me and one to the Barlows. Before doing anything else, you need to apologize to them face to face.”
They nodded but didn’t say a word.
I turned my attention to the older girl, who seemed to have lost a bit of her bravado. For a moment, she was Yasmine again. Then she turned into my sister. Her attitude was so much like Flavia’s at thirteen it scared me.
“Clover, I’m concerned about the path you’re leading your little sister down. Your role with her is like mine with the coven. You should be guiding her in directions that will be helpful and positive. Right now, she looks up to you. Trust me, the day will soon come when she won’t anymore.”
Memories of growing up with Flavia skittered through my brain. Her wicked side first came out when she was old enough to realize she had to share our parents’ time and attention with me. If I’d done more to lead her down the right path when she was Peony’s age, things might have turned out better. For all of us. The guilt over that still ate at me.
“Clover, I’d like you to write an additional paper on the role siblings play in each other’s lives. I expect both papers to be well thought out with perfect spelling and punctuation. Think of it as a final exam that will allow you to pass on to the next grade at school. If you fail the exam, you’ll need to repeat it until you get it right.”
Peony looked excited to be working on this project with her big sister. Still so innocent and malleable. Clover looked miserable, which meant she would likely learn the most from this exercise.
“Aster? Alder? Any questions or concerns?”
Taking on a sort of tough-guy role, Alder crossed his arms and, in an all-business tone, asked, “What’s the due date on this assignment?”
“They need to clean up the garden, per the Barlows’ directions, immediately. They can take the time they need with the papers. I’m more concerned that they learn from this rather than getting it done by a specific date. Sometime before the end of summer is sufficient.”
“Did you hear that, girls?” Aster asked. “Head straight over to the Barlows and you can bet I’ll be checking with Briar later.” To me, she added, “This is so embarrassing.”
We watched the girls head to the dirt road that crossed in front of my cottage. It would take them straight to the Barlows.
The university is only two hours away. You’ll see me all the time, Mom.
I blinked away yet another memory flash and turned to Alder and Aster. “I’m glad you’re both behind me on this. Lessons learned this way aren’t easy, but they often have the greatest impact.”
“Cleaning up the garden is a must,” Aster began. “I’m a little surprised about the papers. That will certainly take a chunk out of their summer.” She paused as though thinking I might change my mind. “But, as you said, this lesson will really be driven home.”
Alder shot his wife a disapproving look. “Better than if Sheriff Reed charged them with a crime and made them do community service all summer. I agree with Reeva’s decision.”
“Well, I do too,” Aster insisted. “Just saying it’s a shame. Summer should be time for them to relax and play.”
Overall, Yasmine had been a good kid, but that didn’t mean parenting wasn’t a challenge. I empathized with the Flowers and was glad that they asked for help rather than giving up and letting their daughters run amok. Lately, though, they had been turning to others first when the girls needed disciplining. That needed to be their last resort rather than the go-to item on their list.
“Am I safe to assume you’re both committed to Wicca?”
“Of course,” Alder stated.
“Absolutely devoted,” Aster added.
“Great, because I also have a little assignment for the pair of you.”
Like a sunset fading beneath the horizon, the color drained from their faces.
“I’d like you to work together on a plan for how you will enforce the Rede and Threefold Law with your girls. Give me plenty of details. Tell me how you’ll teach them to be intentional every day. List activities you’ll do together, such as full moon or new moon rituals either with the coven or on your own at home. How you’ll celebrate the sabbats. Those types of things.”
I nearly laughed at their shocked expressions, but this wasn’t funny, and I was dead serious. The residents of this village had lived far too many years with Flavia thinking she could do as she pleased. I was determined to not let someone else pick up where she left off. This wasn’t the first time Clover had been in trouble. She was looking for attention and wanted it from her parents, not other people.
Aster’s jaw dropped. “I don’t understand, Reeva. We didn’t do anything wrong.”
“You didn’t, and I don’t want you to think I’m punishing you. Instead, look at it as another tool for your parenting toolbox. It’s an exercise that’s almost guaranteed to help your family. You came to me for help, and I’m happy to do so this one time, but it’s up to you as their parents to ensure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again. If it does, I doubt the next punishment will be up to me. Sheriff Reed will almost surely step in at that point.”
Worse, karma was waiting to see if they kept their promise to abide by my decision. The last thing I wanted was to get between someone and their karma. Never again.
Despite the early-morning intervention with the Flowers family, I still made it to my shop by shortly after eight o’clock. Plenty of time to perform my morning tasks. This meant starting with anointing the outside of a white pillar candle with a drop of my Blessing oil—four parts grapeseed oil and one part each of sandalwood, rose, and frankincense essential oils. I used only white candles in the shop because, among other things, white symbolized peace and protection, which was exactly how I wanted my customers to feel. Peaceful and protected.
As I lit the candle, I whispered, “Light my way.”
Hearth Witch Tip
Use unscented candles in the kitchen to prevent unpleasant aroma combinations.
Holding the candle in both hands, I stood in Hearth & Cauldron’s kitchen, the center of the building where I did demonstrations and held classes. With my back to the front door, I closed my eyes, took a deep cleansing breath, and then envisioned a bright light flowing like a mist from the pillar. Turning in a slow widdershins or counterclockwise circle, I said, “Protect my shop and all who enter it. Fill it, them, and me with creativity, curiosity, and positivity.”
I paused my rotation to allow the mist to flow into the dining room to the left of the kitchen. I paused again when I faced the retail room on the right. When I’d completed the circle, I set the candle on a silver plate on a high shelf and placed a clear glass hurricane around it. I always used a candle that was big enough to last all day. That way, the flame could continue its magic from open to close. This meant I had a box full of hockey puck size candles that would only burn for a couple of hours. When I had enough pucks, I’d melt them down and make a fresh candle.
The other part of my opening process was to record the previous day’s sales in my ledger. I found this was a task best done with a rested mind, and I was always tired at the end of the workday. When the clock ticked over to 9:00, I finished my last sips of tea and closed the doors of the long, narrow coat closet I’d converted into an office. Many mornings, shoppers were already on the front porch waiting to be let in.
“Blessed be,” I greeted. Or, “Merry Meet.”
My assistant, Bee Wallace, arrived at ten o’clock and would stay until three five days a week—she had Sundays off and didn’t come in until noon on Mondays. Whenever Bee wasn’t there, I handled things on my own. I needed to hire another assistant. Ten or eleven-hour days, seven days a week, from Memorial Day to Samhain took a toll on even the youngest, spriest villagers. But Hearth & Cauldron had been my dream since I was a teenager. It was my passion so that helped on those extra-tiring days.
After the initial round of early birds, I announced, “I’m going to step outside for a few minutes.”
“Take your time,” Bee sang out from the retail room. “We need to take advantage of every minute we can get outside on days like this.”
Whispering Pines was tucked into a dense forest in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. The darker, colder months were long and quiet. The lighter, warmer months were glorious but crazy busy once the tourist season started.
I met my best friend, Ruby McLaughlin, right where I expected to on the wooden Fairy Path that wound through the pines. As I gave her the shortened version of the Flowers’ intervention this morning, she fiddled with the crescent moon pendant nestled at the base of her throat and stared at me, head tilted to the side.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Was I missing an earring? Did I button my blouse wrong? Was there a smudge of jam on my chin? Speaking of which, I was down to my last two jars of raspberry. I needed to make more soon.
“Something’s different about you, and I’m trying to figure out what it is.”
That was a widely cast net. I’d always been different in nearly every way. Although, this was true for most of the residents of Whispering Pines. The village was known as the place where All are welcome and those in need may stay. Also A place for those who don’t belong. In other words, if a person didn’t fit in anywhere else, this was the perfect place for them.
I grew up in the village—was one of the Original families, in fact—but I lived elsewhere for many years. Those villagers who had been here since its inception fifty-some years earlier or those who had seen me leave and come back a few times considered me an outsider. No, not even an outsider. For some, I simply didn’t belong anymore.
After another few seconds, Ruby snapped her fingers. “It’s the apron.”
“Do you like it?” I smoothed my hands over the pale-lavender cotton apron currently covering my jeans and black blouse. “Are you ready to be impressed?”
She shook her head, still studying. “No, that’s not it. I mean, it is, but it’s more than just the apron. Did you say impressed? Why should I be impressed?”
Pushing my shoulders back, I proudly told her, “I made it myself. Remember that bolt of cotton muslin I bought from you a few months ago?”
“Forty yards of midweight white. So many uses for that. I ordered a bolt of heavyweight for myself at the same time and made a slipcover for that beat-up armchair I love so much. I’m thinking about coordinating café curtains to keep LaVonne LeBeau from peeking in my windows. Why can’t she just ring the bell like a normal person?” She mimed peering into a window and knocking on the pane. “Wait. Your apron isn’t white. It’s purple.”
“I made a dye with red cabbage.”
Ruby’s mouth dropped open. “You what? But you’re not the crafty one.”
“I’ve also got a beautiful light-gold one I dyed with onion skins.”
“What a great idea for a class.” Ruby ran The Twisty Skein, the village hobby shop, a few yards up the path from Hearth & Cauldron. “Fabric dying can be messy when only one person is doing it. If there’s a group, it’ll be best to do it outside. Perfect now that the weather has warmed up.” She circled me, inspecting my creation. “Nice even color. Oh, a cross back style.”
“I prefer aprons that just slip over my head. No straps to snag on drawer pulls or dangle in the batter bowl.” A white cat with startlingly azure eyes was currently weaving a figure eight around my feet. I bent to pick up Blue before he tripped me.
“Or catch fire because you stand on a stool to get something in the cupboard above the stove and got too close to the burner flame. Don’t ask.” She returned to her inspection. “Great deep pockets. Straight even seams. Perfect. I give you a B-plus.”
Blue purred as I dug my fingers into the thick fur by his ears. “If it’s perfect, why don’t I get an A+?”
“Because crafts are my domain. Stay in your lane, witch.” While a smile stayed on her mouth, the sparkle faded from her eyes. Witches could be so territorial. Even when it came to their best friends. “Don’t worry, I’ll give you credit for the idea when I teach the class, which I think should last two days.”
“That’s about how long it took me,” I agreed. “Two days.”
She ticked off the steps on her fingers. “Scour and mordant the fabric, create the dye, color and rinse the fabric the first day. Cut out the pieces and sew the apron on the second. Or they can take the fabric home with them and use it for whatever they want. Or they can buy pre-dyed fabric from me and attend the second-day apron assembly class without dealing with the dye mess.”
“Or you could do a long one-day class,” I suggested. “Prepare the fabric in the morning and assemble in the afternoon.”
Ruby blinked as though realizing I was still there. She tended to get lost in her thoughts when a new idea struck. “Now, as much as I love that you made your own aprons, back to the matter at hand. Something’s different about you. You wear a chef’s coat at the shop. You only wear aprons at home. And why is Blue letting you hold him? He never lets anyone hold him.”
I gave the cat a final ear scritch, set him on the ground, and he immediately trotted into the woods. Blue was a community cat. He appeared a few years ago, belonged to no one, and lived in whichever villager’s home suited him best at the moment.
“Guess he likes me,” I replied with a shrug. “He pops over to play with Dot every few days. When we had that intense cold snap in February, he stayed for two weeks.”
Ruby crossed her arms. “You’re avoiding my observation.”
“I’m explaining your observation about Blue. As for the first, I decided that a chef’s coat is too pretentious. When a customer enters Hearth & Cauldron, I want them to feel like they’ve stepped into my home. Most people don’t wear chef’s coats when they cook in their homes, they wear aprons. I’ve decided it’s time for a life reset, and pretty new aprons sounded like a fun way to start.”
“A reset?” Ruby declared, hands over her heart. “I love that, Reeva. More than anyone I know, you’re entitled. And this is the perfect time.”
It was because it wasn’t just a matter of wanting something new for myself, I needed it. The difference between a perfect cake and one fit only for the garbage bin could be a matter of a minute or two too long in the oven. Some days I felt like my life’s timer was ticking perilously close to the crumbling, overbaked cake stage.
While far from my first attempt at a reset, this time was different. I felt like I had time to hop on a path and meander to the end without feeling like I had to rush to the finish line. Or I could take a turn at an intersection and go in a different direction. I loved Hearth & Cauldron and my home, but an infusion of excitement would be very welcome. The question was, would a reset even work for me? Or would something happen, once again, to destroy my plans?
Ruby asked, “Is this why you asked the coven to meet at your cottage tonight?”
“Pretty much. The moon is full, and my cottage is filled with shadows. And not the kind cast by light. I want to solidify my intention for a fresh start by having the coven bless my home and property.”
“Nice,” she approved and then nodded toward the east. “Uh-oh. Trouble’s coming.”
For a heartbeat, I thought she meant Flavia. I still worried I’d bump into her while strolling through the village. Turns out, bruises received over a lifetime took longer than two weeks to heal. Instead, I found Tripp Bennett coming our way. He looked relaxed as always in cargo shorts, a Pine Time T-shirt, and flip-flops. His blond waves were loose instead of tied back in the ponytail he wore when cooking.
“Not trouble.” I waved at him. “He’s here to pick up aprons.”
Ruby blinked at me. “How many did you make?”
“I’m not sure, but I spent every night this past week dyeing and sewing. It was very therapeutic.”
“Planning to sell them in your retail side? Let me know and I’ll add your logo using my embroidery machine.”
I glanced down at my creation. “That’s not a bad idea. I’ll monitor customer interest for a day or two, but get ready to order more bolts of cotton. And I’ll need to get more produce for dye.”
She gave me an over-the-shoulder finger wave as she headed back to Twisty, pausing to say a few words to Tripp as she passed him.
“Hey, Reeva.” He kissed my cheek in greeting, a habit he’d started a few months ago. Charming and chivalrous. Qualities I highly approved of. “Is this one of the aprons?”
I did a slow spin. “This one is mine, but the others are this style. They’re hand dyed and hand sewed, so no two will be the same.”
“Reeva originals. Can’t wait to see them.”
“Let’s go, then.”