Two great romantic comedy heroines working together to solve a mystery!
Jane Madison is searching for a job that will fulfill her, enabling her to combine her peerless librarian skills with her witchcraft. Sarah Anderson, clerk of court for the District of Columbia Night Court, is just beginning to figure out what she can do as a sphinx, an ancient protector of vampires. Magic flies when Jane and Sarah team up to track down a rare collection of books. Along the way, both women juggle personal goals, professional careers, and their often-unwieldy love lives!
This novella takes place in Magical Washington—the intersection of the Washington Witches Series and the Washington Vampires Series. Where else can a reader find a novella of witchcraft, vampires, and cupcakes?
Sometimes, cupcakes are the only reason I get out of bed in the morning.
Okay. Cupcakes. And oolong tea. And the chance to talk to my best friend, Melissa White, who just happens to own a bakery providing both of the above.
Most days, I can make do with a scone. Or a muffin. Something that remotely resembles what a responsible grownup eats for breakfast.
But other days, I really, really need a Yellow Brick Road cupcake — golden cake with intense fudge icing. And when I’m having one of those days, I’m always tempted to buy a couple extra, just to lick the frosting off the top. What can I say? They’re small — just a bite or two in each one. That’s what makes them all the more addictive.
Melissa refilled my mug with hot water. “So? When do you need to be out of the cottage?”
I mimed putting my fingers in my ears. “I’m not listening to you.”
“I don’t get it. You’re the one who quit your job at the library to try something new. Why are you getting cold feet now?”
My cold feet couldn’t possibly be because I was one week away from being evicted from my home, from the cottage that had been the only decent perk of the library job I had left behind. And the frost nipping at my toes could not possibly be because I knew I was letting my witchcraft skills lie dangerously fallow, finding it far too great a challenge to summon my familiar from the arms of the man of his dreams. And that icy draft certainly was not because my warder, my astral protector, the man charged with keeping me safe in the physical and magical worlds, had become my true, honest-to-Hecate boyfriend, complete with overnights at his rural home and silly little in-jokes that I was almost beginning to trust.
Almost. But not quite. Not enough to take the entirely reasonable step of moving in with David Montrose and founding the school for witches that had seemed like such a brilliant idea when I’d announced it almost six months before.
Damn. Melissa was still waiting for an answer. I gestured toward my Yellow Brick Road crumbs and tried to put her off with a Shakespeare quote: “He that will have a cake out of the wheat must needs tarry the grinding.”
“Troilus and Cressida,” she responded grimly. “Act one. Scene one. And I wouldn’t use that play as my guiding light for solving life’s problems. How many people do you know who have seen it?”
I had. And Melissa, too. But she had a point; it wasn’t one of the Bard’s best.
I sighed and gestured with my hands, clenching and unclenching my fingers as I tried to explain. “I loved my work as a reference librarian. I don’t want to leave that behind entirely. I don’t want to have wasted all the years I spent gaining that expertise.” I stared over Melissa’s head at the calendar on the far wall, with each day marked off by a tidy black X. I wished that my life could be so perfectly structured, so utterly organized. “I want to do something that builds on my old job,” I said. “Something like… Like consulting for clients with private library collections.”
Ta-da! The words echoed inside my skull, even after I had said them. They resonated like chords on a pipe organ, like an angelic choir reverberating in a massive cathedral.
“That’s it!” I said to Melissa. “I want to be a library consultant! I can help small organizations catalog their private collections. Figure out the best way to present information so that it’s accessible to everyone who needs it. I can identify holes in collections and help owners work to fill those holes.” With every phrase, I grew more excited. I was absolutely certain: I had finally found the right job for me, the one I was born to do.
My best friend made a wry face. “And to think — all it took was a handful of mini-cupcakes and the threat of eviction.”
“And oolong tea,” I said. “Don’t forget the oolong.”
Melissa looked past me, putting on her friendliest smile to greet a new customer. In my excitement over discovering my new career path, I hadn’t even heard the shop door open. “Good morning,” Melissa said. “May I help you?”
I should have been embarrassed that one of Melissa’s customers had overheard my enraptured babbling. Somehow, though, I didn’t think the woman who stepped up to the counter minded. I didn’t think she’d even heard a word.
Even though it was early morning, the customer looked exhausted. She was about the same age as Melissa and I, but at first glance she looked about ten years older. Her makeup was worn, as if she had never gone to bed the night before. Her green eyes were bloodshot. Nevertheless, her auburn hair was neatly brushed, and her Ann Taylor suit fit her precisely. She wore a coral ring on the middle finger of her right hand, and a hematite bracelet on her left wrist.
Even as she set down one of Melissa’s menus and lined it up precisely with the edge of the counter, something about her jangled. Something about the way that she carried herself. Something about that jewelry.
I closed my eyes, as if that would help me to remember some fact I had momentarily forgotten. The information I sought was there… Somewhere… Just beyond my conscious thought…
I heard the woman order a slice of Almond Lust, with a couple of Peppermint Clouds on the side. Melissa made small talk as she boxed up the baked goods. Apparently, she knew the woman, had seen her in Cake Walk before. The register chirped, and money changed hands. Melissa offered a receipt, which was rejected.
The customer collected her sweets, but she hesitated before walking away. She shifted the golden elastic band on her box of goodies, settling the bow in the precise center of the box. The motion was tight, automatic, as if she regularly imposed order on the chaos of the world around her.
And somehow, it made my thoughts tumble into place.
“Purification!” I said, as if I’d been in the middle of a conversation. Melissa looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. “The coral ring,” I said, pointing at the customer’s hand. “Coral is an ancient source of purification.”
As soon as I said it, I knew I was right — there was something special about the ring, something charged. For that matter, the hematite bracelet was sparking as well, urging me to acknowledge its own unique magical properties. I smiled at the customer, surprising a look of comprehension on her face.
“Precisely,” she said, pinning me with a sharp gaze. “Most people aren’t aware of the old meanings.”
She was testing me, and I knew it. “Some of us see more than others,” I said, deliberately keeping my words vague but hoping she would understand.
And my response seemed to push her toward some decision. She raised her chin, almost as if she were defying me. “I overheard you talking a moment ago,” she said. “I happen to be looking for a library consultant, and I think you might be the perfect woman for the job.”
* * *
That evening, I found myself deep in the heart of the District of Columbia courthouse, meeting with my first consulting client. Sarah Anderson, she had introduced herself back in the bakery. Clerk of Court for the District of Columbia Night Court. Well, that explained the tired look on her face that morning — she had just come off a full night of work when she dropped by Cake Walk. We had agreed to meet in the evening, after she’d had a chance to sleep.
I had taken advantage of my otherwise quiet day to do some research in the multiple volumes that still lined the basement walls of my soon-to-be-forfeited home. I had remembered correctly — coral was known for its ability to purify all forms of contamination. It was also useful in taming tempers, subduing rages, and controlling compulsive disorders.
As long as I was reading, I looked up hematite as well. The heavy, shiny stone harmonized mind, body, and spirit. It protected against negative energy, making it an excellent stone to wear during rituals. Its magnetism created a bond between friends.
Of course, none of that explained the frisson I had felt when I saw Sarah’s jewelry. None of it said why the ring and the bracelet had drawn me in, called to me as strongly as the magical tools in my basement.
Sarah’s smile was worried as we walked down a long marble hallway. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with me this evening. I know that most people are closing up shop by this time of day.”
“No problem,” I said. “It must be odd for you, working the night shift.”
She gave me a sideways glance. “You have no idea.”
We stopped in front of a metal door, one that looked like the dozens we had already passed. “I hope you don’t mind stairs,” Sarah said apologetically.
I assured her I did not. Nevertheless, she frowned as she unlocked the door, revealing a concrete stairwell lit only by a single dim bulb. Silently, we started down the steps — one flight, two, three. There were five in all, and the weak light from above barely let me make out the heavy iron key that Sarah used to work a massive lock on the lower landing.
She reached around to palm on a light switch, and I flinched as bright fluorescent bulbs sprang to life. “Please,” she said. Or rather, she attempted to say. She needed to clear her throat — twice — before she could force out the single word of welcome.
I shivered as I stepped into the room.
For just a moment, I thought she had made some mistake. The floor here was battered hardwood. In the center of the vast space was a boxing ring, surrounded by bright blue mats. A Universal gym gleamed beside stacks of free weights, and a full set of gymnastics equipment was laid out.
The far corner of the room was given over to a cage — floor to ceiling bars as dark as iron, spaced at four-inch intervals. Something about the enclosure raised the hairs on the back of my neck. For just a moment, I thought that I shouldn’t have come on my own. I should have brought David. I should have let him protect me from whatever lurked in this underground lair.
But that was absurd. I didn’t need my warder. Not here. Not when all the other walls were lined with books. Not when the air was redolent with the smell of leather, of parchment. Not when a massive table crouched by the shelves, hosting dozens of volumes that looked as old and as valuable as the witchcraft books that filled my own basement.
“What is this place?” I asked.
Sarah rubbed her arms, as if she were cold. “It’s called the Old Library.”
I smiled, trying to put her at ease. “Well, that sounds right up my alley.”
“I hope so.” She cast another nervous glance at the door. I began to wonder if she wasn’t supposed to be here, if she didn’t have permission. That didn’t make sense, though. She had known precisely which door to open in the long marble hallway. She had carried the heavy iron key. No one could have found this room by accident.
I squared my shoulders and put on my best professional smile. As if I interviewed clients all the time, I asked, “What exactly are you trying to accomplish here?”
Sarah led me over to the shelves. At first glance, the volumes were neatly ordered. The books were “dressed to the front”, lined up with military precision along the leading edge of each shelf. Bookends had been placed liberally, so that no volumes tumbled to the side.
Nevertheless, there were gaps on the shelves — open areas where a dozen or more titles had clearly been removed. The metal frames that should have listed call numbers for each shelf were empty, and there was no overall guide for anyone who wanted to locate a specific volume. I cast a questioning glance at Sarah and got her tight nod of approval to lift the nearest book.
Sekhmet’s Children, the spine said in writing so ornate I almost couldn’t make out the first word. I opened the volume carefully, supporting the spine with wide-spread fingers. It was heavy for its size, and I realized that the covers were thin sheets of leather-covered wood. The pages were thicker than paper, thicker even than parchment. I saw the tell-tale lines of horizontal and vertical fibers, and I looked up at Sarah in awe. “This is papyrus.”
She nodded. “It’s a translation from the ancient Egyptian. Or so I’m told.”
I pulled another volume. The Vampire and Other Poems, by Rudyard Kipling. I turned to the title page and realized I held a first edition.
“These must be worth a fortune,” I breathed.
Again, Sarah nodded. “And they’d be a lot more useful if I could just get them organized.”
“What’s the problem?”
Sarah gestured to the spine of the ancient volume. “Some of the works have catalog numbers, but I’m not sure how they work. It’s obviously not the Dewey Decimal System we used back in high school. And a lot of them aren’t labeled at all. I have no way of knowing if I have everything I’m supposed to have. If all of it is here.”
Despite the distress in her tone, I bit back a smile. This was precisely the sort of project I had envisioned in my flash of inspiration that morning — a straight-forward use of my librarian skills. Something mundane. Something far removed from the world of witchcraft.
But there was one thing that made no sense at all. “I’m sorry,” I said to Sarah. “I don’t understand what these books are doing here. I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but these don’t seem to have anything to do with the District of Columbia court system.”
Sarah rubbed her hands down the sides of her skirt. She glanced toward the cage at the far end of the room, and she licked her lips. “Well, that’s the thing,” she said. “This isn’t official D.C. court business. This is sort of an … extracurricular activity.”
“Extracurricular?” I prompted.
Now she ran a hand through her hair, mussing the perfect fall of those auburn strands. Given her otherwise immaculate appearance, I knew she’d be upset if she realized that the action made her look disheveled. “I really can’t explain the details. They’re confidential. But I can pay you! Cash. You won’t have to wait for ages, like you would if you were an independent contractor for the Court.”
I had spent years talking to nervous patrons, assuring them that I could help with all their reference needs. I knew how to assist customers when they were at their distracted worst. “That’s fine,” I said, pitching my voice low to soothe her. “I can definitely help.”
Her relieved smile was as bright as a desert sun. “Thank God,” she said. “I was so afraid that —”
But I never got to learn what had made her so afraid.
Before Sarah could complete her sentence, the door to the Old Library crashed open. As the heavy metal slammed off the wall, I was scarcely able to register the form that flashed into the room. It was tall and lean, and it moved with devastating speed. I caught my breath, trying to summon a protective spell. Before I could frame even the first word, though, icy fingers closed around my arms, and I found myself up close and very personal with the sharpest fangs I had ever imagined.