I LET MY GAZE SKITTER across the lake and up at the cloud-thick sky as I carried a bucket of cleaning supplies up the boathouse stairs. Everything looked overcast and gloomy, as it had for the last three days. The clouds were the puffy dove-gray kind that blocked most of the sun but didn’t appear to have any water in them, so at least no precipitation had dropped on us. Yet.
“A storm?” I asked the woman who had followed me across the backyard. “What makes you think there’s a storm coming?”
“Told you. I’ve got a headache.” Arden, our fifty-something-year-old housekeeper, had been complaining for two days about a headache that had taken up residence in the indent where her nose and forehead met. “That’s proof enough for me. Also, I’ve lived here for twenty years. Trust me, sweetness, I can tell when the skies over the village are preparing to unload on us.”
“Or,” I began as I opened the door to my apartment, “it’s a foreshadowing of chaos coming over the next few days.”
Arden paused, the color drained from her face, and I realized a statement like that could have deadly connotations in Whispering Pines. With seven unnatural deaths in the not quite six months that I’d been here, the village had developed a rather nasty reputation for death.
“That’s not what I meant,” I assured her. “I meant because Rosalyn is coming. An altogether different kind of chaos.”
And my sister was staying with me. In the boathouse. Normally, every room in our B&B being booked made me happy. I’d gladly take a thousand-dollar loss over the next five days, however, if it meant one of our guests would back out and free up a room for her to use. She and I had been super-close as kids, but our relationship could only be described as strained, at the best of times, for the last seven years.
“She’s your sister,” Arden scolded. “It’s just normal sibling stuff. I’m sure she’s not that bad.”
Right. “Check back with me in a few days.” I glanced around the apartment, noting the grapefruit-size dust bunnies in the corners. I didn’t even want to think about the layer of soap scum in the shower and toothpaste speckles on the mirror. “I can’t thank you enough for doing this for me. Cleaning, obviously, is not a talent of mine.”
The last thing I wanted was for Rosalyn to report back to our mother that we weren’t maintaining the family property, the one I’d begged to turn into a bed-and-breakfast. I wouldn’t put it past my sister to leave a scathing, negative review on our website. Then she’d rally her posse to share that review all over social media. We’d be lucky to ever book a room again. Just the thought of it raised my blood pressure.
“You don’t need to thank me.” Arden smiled at me like a kindly neighbor happy to lend a hand. Then she winked at me. “I’ll be sure to add it to my timesheet.”
We paid our housekeepers by the room rather than by the hour and took deductions if rooms weren’t cleaned to satisfaction. A tip Laurel, the owner of The Inn, gave us.
“No matter how loyal your people are to you,” Laurel had assured, “if they need extra cash, a room that should only take twenty minutes to spruce up will take an hour.”
“I’m happy to pay you for this, Arden.”
I went to my bedroom at the back of the one-room wide and three-rooms long apartment. I’d forgotten to pick up Meeka’s dog cushion. The little West Highland White Terrier had curled up and fell asleep in the two minutes since we’d entered the space. I picked up the cushion with her on it and placed the bundle on my bed. For this, the Westie sneezed in my face.
“Gross, Meeka.” I wiped my face with my sweatshirt sleeve. “Arden needs to get at the floor. Come on, let’s leave her to do her thing.”
Meeka leapt off the bed and trotted to the front door, claws clicking on the wood-laminate floor as she did. She gave Arden an over-the-shoulder scowl as she passed.
“Sorry, your highness,” Arden responded with a little curtsy. The two adored each other but poked at one another every chance they got.
I had just stepped into the bathroom to check for anything that needed picking up and was sure I heard Arden say, “Beware the princess.” I stepped around the corner into the living room and asked, “What princess?”
Arden was standing there, as though frozen, with a dust rag in her hands, then blinked. “What?”
“What did you say about a princess?”
She gave me a concerned look and slowly said, “I didn’t say anything about a princess, sweetness.”
“But—” I let it go. It must’ve been my imagination. Why would she say something like that anyway?
Leaving Arden to work her magic on my apartment, Meeka went off to chase leaves as they fell from the trees, and I crossed the yard to the main house to find my business partner and boyfriend, Tripp Bennett.
“Is it time to go?” Tripp asked as I entered the kitchen. He was at the kitchen island, lining up mixing bowls of different sizes. He’d started wearing his shoulder-length blond hair in a stubby ponytail with a bandana around his head when he cooked. He said it was to keep it out of his eyes and out of people’s food. I thought it was cute.
“Not yet. We don’t have to be there until noon. Besides, we have to wait for that family to check in. Have our other guests arrived?”
“The guy who reserved The Suite called to say he won’t be here until tomorrow.”
“You explained that—?”
Tripp held up a hand. “I didn’t have to tell him anything. He told me he understood he would still have to pay for tonight and was fine with that. He sounds familiar. Couldn’t place him, though. Guess I should’ve asked. Anyway, the group renting The Side are coming up from Milwaukee and said they won’t make it until later tonight. Sometime around eight, they thought.”
We’d given every other room a cutesy name, and thanks to Arden, all the rooms now had little hand-painted nameplates—oval plaques with calligraphy text and pine boughs with pinecones at the top and bottom. Very cute. We couldn’t come up with a name for the room at the far end of the house between my dad’s old room, The Alcove, and the room on the front corner that only had views of trees, The Treehouse. We kept referring to it as the side room and eventually just The Side. We’d come up with something better eventually.
Tripp chuckled. “The people from Madison? The shop owners? They’re hilarious. They want to open a New Age shop, once they find the ‘perfect’ location, and heard about Morgan and Shoppe Mystique. They couldn’t wait to get over to the village and meet her.”
“Nothing like learning how to run a Wicca shop from the best Wiccan witch in all of Wisconsin.” I giggled at my unintended tongue twister and watched as Tripp dropped measures of different ingredients into the bowls. “What are you doing?”
“Pre-measuring ingredients for the bread. I’m going to be baking all night.”
“You don’t have to bring bread,” I reminded him. “It’s not too late to change your mind. Wouldn’t muffins be easier?”
“Yes but I already started.” He gestured at the bowls. “Why didn’t you tell me to bring muffins earlier?”
“Because you’re the Carb King of Whispering Pines and you immediately said ‘I’ll bring bread’ at the feast planning meeting. Everyone cheered. They love your rustic bread.”
Whispering Pines ran on the Wiccan calendar, meaning our new year started with Halloween or Samhain—pronounced sah-win not sam-hain as I’d been told by numerous villagers. I thought we were pushing our luck to plan a feast outside at this time of year, but the tradition was an outdoor feast starting as soon as the sun set on October thirty-first.
I couldn’t wait. Morgan explained that folding tables and chairs would be set up all around the commons area. Then white or black dishes and silver flatware would be set out on black—
“Tablecloths!” I blurted.
“You forgot to look for them, didn’t you?” Tripp asked as he placed lids on his bowls.
“It’s because I don’t have enough to do.”
Whispering Pines had officially entered the off-season. I was super busy all summer long, but now that there were hardly any tourists in the village, I was having a hard time filling my days. One of the challenges of being the sheriff of a village of fewer than a thousand people.
“Everything for the attic renovation is being delivered on Monday,” Tripp told me for probably the twentieth time. “There are still a few boxes of your grandmother’s things up there. Why don’t you bring them out to the garage? That’s probably where the black tablecloths are as well.”
“They are. I even know which box they’re in, I just never went to get them.” Thinking of what else was on my too short to-do list, I remembered, “Halloween decorations!”
He laughed at me. “You didn’t finish putting them out?”
I hung my head in shame. “I really need a hobby. What am I going to do in the middle of winter when I can’t even leave the house?”
I looked at my bandanaed boyfriend and a few ideas came to me. Oh my.
“Why are you blushing?” he asked with a grin.
I went down the short hallway to the dining room at the front of the house where the boxes of decorations had been waiting for me since yesterday. We had already decorated for autumn—gourds, pumpkins, small bales of hay, and wreaths and garlands made of fall leaves—so for Halloween I felt like a touch here and there was best. I was spreading a deep-purple runner embroidered with black cats and witches’ hats down the center of the dining room table when the front door flew open and a little girl burst through screeching at the top of her lungs.