Excerpt from Once Wicked: Teas & Temptations Book One
Hazel Hardy’s thighs burned as she pedaled her bicycle up the incline toward the big Victorian manor at the top of the hill. She’d pulled her auburn hair into a ponytail to keep the loose curls out of her face while she rode. Between jeans and her favorite olive-green sweater, along with the exercise, she’d stay warm enough. It was only mid-March, and the days could still carry a chill. Luckily, this year, they’d been blessed with unseasonably warm weather and the sun was out today, bright and warm, so she’d be just fine. She’d tucked tins of her handcrafted teas in the bike’s basket, and they bumped against each other with each pedal, clanging out a metallic tune. She couldn’t picture a more beautiful small town than Stonebridge, Massachusetts, with its tree-lined streets coursing between a mixture of newer buildings and centuries-old rock-hewn churches. For an earth witch, it was perfect. No matter where Hazel went, she always found a smiling face. Her mom had missed the mark completely when she’d warned her a few months back about the town that still harbored hatred against witches going on three hundred years. But Hazel had yearned to learn more about her heritage, and the people she’d met in Stonebridge were as nice as sweetened chamomile tea at bedtime. The cherry on top was that she’d never have to see Victor’s cheating face again. Filling her lungs repeatedly to compensate for her thumping heart, she gave a last burst of energy to wheel up the Winthrop’s driveway. Hopefully all this biking would compensate for her obsession with cherry macaroons and hazelnut cannoli. A loud horn battered her eardrums from behind, sending her into a panic. She turned the handlebars to the right in a quick, knee-jerk reaction to avoid the threat. Her front tire slid sideways as she struggled to keep her bike upright. She wobbled to the left and teetered to the right. When her front tire hit soft gravel off the edge of the driveway, her bike launched her like an angry bull did a novice cowboy. The palms of her hands took the brunt of the landing. She skidded for a moment before rolling to a stop. Unladylike curses hovered on her tongue, and she swiveled her head, ready to unleash her rage. Overweight, gray-haired, and full of himself, Winston Winthrop didn’t spare her a glance as he drove his black Mercedes past her and parked between the sparkling fountain and elegant house. Hazel struggled to catch a decent breath as she got to her feet. She wiped her dusty, scraped up palms on her jeans. Across the drive, Winthrop’s manservant dashed from the house to open his employer’s car door. Up until this point, Hazel hadn’t come face-to-face with her client’s husband. But she was about to now. She’d heard rumors of the self-important, rude man, but she’d had a hard time believing such a man could be married to the sweet and gentle Mrs. Winthrop. Apparently, she’d been wrong. Hazel hobbled to where her bike had fallen after her spectacular dismount, and she lifted it from the ground, inspecting it for damage. Lucky for Mr. Winthrop, her favorite mode of transportation remained intact. She picked up the tin boxes of tea and placed them in the basket, grateful they’d survived as well. She strode toward the house, walking as fast as her tender knees would allow. As she approached, the wealthy aristocrat dropped his keys into the hands of his employee. “Do take care to keep the drive clear, Mick. We wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt.” Hazel opened her mouth to give Mr. Winthrop the verbal lashing he deserved, but Mick shook his head in warning, a lock of the twenty-something man’s dark hair falling into his eyes. Mr. Winthrop walked toward the house, exuding a privileged air. “And do get yourself a haircut,” he called over his shoulder. “We’ve had enough trouble with witches and beggars in the past. I can’t continue to employ anyone looking so unkempt.” Hazel clenched her jaw. “Witches and beggars?” She spat out the offensive words to Mick. If she could make one wish, she’d hope never to encounter the nasty man again. She’d never tell her mother she’d been right about the residents of Stonebridge who still believed those who practiced witchcraft were spawns of Satan, a notion some residents had passed down for generations, since the early colonization of the area. Up until this moment, she hadn’t witnessed evidence of such despicable and unfounded attitudes toward others, and even now, her heart didn’t want to believe it was true. Witches were not the devil’s disciples, and she took issue with anyone who thought they were. Honoring Mother Earth and her gifts was anything but evil. If there was a rotten egg in the bunch, it was Mr. Winthrop. Mick cast a wary glance toward the house and then switched his dark gaze back to Hazel. “Ignore him. He’s an old man out of touch with reality.” She liked Mick Ramsey, though she couldn’t get a clear reading from his soul. He had many emotional walls, though that alone didn’t make him bad. Sometimes people erected barriers to hide something. Other times, their walls were for protection. She liked to think it was the latter, and he just needed a friend. Hazel snorted. “I’d like to show him reality.” “Wouldn’t we all?” Mick countered. She considered her options. A healthy dose of the itches…in a very uncomfortable place? A potion that would leave his stomach heaving? The thought of Mr. Winthrop trying discreetly to take care of his issues brought a smile back to her face. Mick nodded to the white woven basket on the front of her pink bike. “Tea for Mrs. Winthrop?” She smiled, grateful to focus on something else. “Every Monday. Speaking of which, I’d better hurry. I’m already behind, and the matron of the kitchen, as I like to call her, gets snippy when she has to wait for me.” He laughed and shook his head. “That’s one woman I try to avoid at all costs.” “Mrs. Jones isn’t that bad,” Hazel said, and they both laughed because they knew she was. “Catch you later.” She parked her bicycle alongside the garage and retrieved one of several tins from the woven basket. With her delivery safe in her tenderized hands, she followed the flat stone path around the side of the elaborate home to the back door where she didn’t bother to knock. “Hello?” she called as she entered, and immediately Mrs. Jones, the curmudgeonly cook appeared from inside the pantry. “Good morning, Hazel.” Mrs. Jones graced her with a never-before-seen smile that surprised her. She took a few seconds to recover from the shock. “Good morning to you, too. You seem particularly happy today.” Perhaps she’d misjudged her. After all, working for Mr. Winthrop could make anyone ornery. Mrs. Jones widened her eyes as though also surprised, and the bright aura hovering around her dimmed. “Nonsense. I’m no happier than any other day.” Hazel stared at her for a long moment, sad that the woman had chosen to return to unhappiness. She sighed and held up the tin. “I have Mrs. Winthrop’s tea delivery.” Mrs. Jones jerked her head toward the stove. “Her tea service is ready to go. Just waiting on you. I’ve been keeping the water hot for the past fifteen minutes.” And, just like that, the waspish old woman was back. “Sorry. I stopped at June Porter’s first, and she can…well, you know…” How did she say this without being rude? “She likes her conversation.” The cook grunted. “Best keep your hands on your ears when she’s around, or she’ll talk them off before she sends you on your way.” Hazel smiled in agreement and headed toward the tea service Mrs. Jones had prepared. She could have mentioned her unfortunate incident outside, but she doubted she’d gain any sympathy. “I’ll just wash my hands and head on up.” She hesitated for a moment, reluctant to ask her question. “Shall I put away the remaining tea?” Mrs. Jones lifted a sarcastic brow. “Does anyone touch anything in my kitchen? Ever?” “No.” Hazel answered, the same as she had the other four weeks she’d been delivering tea. It seemed wrong to leave it for Mrs. Jones, but the woman barely tolerated Hazel as it was. Hazel quickly finished her task and headed for the elaborate staircase with the mahogany handrail and turned balusters that she loved so much. The home Hazel had rented was older as well and had retained an air of history with arched doorways and decorative moulding between the ceiling and walls. But where her house was akin to a common person, Mrs. Winthrop’s was the grand lady of the town, and Hazel never tired of visiting. When Hazel’s new assistant at her shop, Hazel’s Teas and Temptations, had suggested door-to-door service to increase her customer base and therefore revenue, Hazel had questioned her sanity. People wanted pizza delivered, not tea. But Gretta had been right to an extent. Many of the fifty and older crowd of ladies of Stonebridge loved the idea of gourmet tea being delivered straight to their doors, especially when they learned Mrs. Winthrop had signed up for the service. Most of these women came from prominent families who had lived in Massachusetts since colonial times, and they had the money to show for it. Mrs. Winthrop’s influence had sent Hazel’s bottom line sailing into the black, and she couldn’t be more grateful. Which was why she’d agreed to also serve a pot of her gourmet tea every Monday to Mrs. Winthrop, allowing time for lovely conversation with a woman who rarely left her house. It was the least Hazel could do to show her gratitude, and besides, she’d found she enjoyed their time together, too. The stairs of the old house creaked as Hazel ascended, a sentry of sorts, announcing her arrival. Hazel followed the now-familiar path she always took to the end of the hall and then knocked on the last door on the left. “Come in,” Mrs. Winthrop said. Hazel balanced the tray on one hand and turned the doorknob. Inside, sixty-nine-year-old Florence Winthrop sat at a Victorian dressing table with several bottles of nail polish in front of her. Patterned gold on ivory walls were the backdrop for the elegantly carved mahogany bed that dominated the room, complete with a gorgeous dusty rose quilt that matched the color of the curtains. “Good morning, Mrs. Winthrop.” Hazel made her way to the small table and two chairs near the window where they always drank tea. She lowered the tray that also carried some delicious-looking blueberry scones and Florence’s joint supplements to the table and turned back to her client. The frail woman graced her with a smile. “Good morning to you, my dear, and, please, call me Florence. We’ve known each other long enough, and calling me Mrs. Winthrop makes me feel old.” “Of course.” Hazel gave her an approving nod. “I’m glad to see you’re up and out of bed early this morning.” Some days, Mrs. Winthrop, make that Florence, had still been asleep when she’d arrived. Her ailments, whatever they were, tired the poor woman something fierce and added a good ten years to her looks though she really wasn’t that old at all. Florence graced her with a smile. “Today is a good day. Hardly any pain at all.” “I’m so happy to hear that.” Hazel found it difficult not to add a little something to her tea to help with those aches and pains, but she’d promised her mother she’d not use any potions or spells whilst in Stonebridge. The whole idea that she’d had to promise to her mother seemed silly, but the town had a history of murdering innocent witches. Long ago, her ancestors had run in the middle of the night to escape persecution. Times had changed, but, apparently not as much as she would have expected. Hazel moved to the dressing table and inspected the array of nail polish. “Looks like you’re planning to get dressed up. Is Mr. Winthrop taking you out on the town?” Florence snorted and shook her head. “No, nothing special. Albert and I haven’t dated in years.” She shrugged. “I just wanted to do something small to feel pretty.” She met Hazel’s gaze with a sad one of her own. “I haven’t felt pretty in so long. If only I could be young again like you and Rachel.” Hazel gave her a kind smile. “You’re a very beautiful woman, Florence. Rachel and I don’t have anything on you.” Though Hazel also envied the Winthrop maid’s figure. She wouldn’t mind having her sleek blond hair, too, as opposed to her own unruly auburn curls that tended to get out of hand at times. Mrs. Winthrop stood and placed a hand on the dressing table to steady herself. “You have your youth, and that’s what men want. That’s what we all want.” She linked her arm through Mrs. Winthrop’s and led her to the tea table. “Be a dear and bring the polish, too, won’t you? Perhaps you can help me paint my nails after we’ve had tea.” Hazel returned and scooped up the six different bottles of polish. One by one, she set them along the side of the tea table before she took her seat. Her so-called tea delivery service had become more of a social service, but she didn’t mind. The ladies in town who chose that service appreciated the company and didn’t mind paying extra for Hazel’s time. Plus, as her assistant, Gretta, suggested, it was a great way to get to know the town’s residents and ingratiate herself with them. “I brought a new flavor today,” Hazel said as she set a tea strainer in Florence’s cup. “It’s a strawberry green tea blend.” The older woman lifted the teacup and held it near her nose. “That smells divine, Hazel. Do I detect traces of grapefruit in there?” “Nose of a bloodhound,” she said with a smile. “No one could get anything past you.” Florence winked and touched the tip of her nose. “Not to say that they haven’t tried.” “A fool’s errand,” she said, and they both chuckled. Hazel poured hot water into both of their cups and picked up a bottle of light pink polish while the tea leaves steeped. “This is a lovely color. May I?” “Certainly. We should both paint our nails before you leave.” Hazel opened the bottle and drew the brush across one of her nails, leaving a lovely shade of pink in its path. “So pretty.” Florence agreed. After they’d finished their tea and blueberry scones that Mrs. Jones had provided for them, Florence lifted a bottle of cherry red polish. “I think I should like this color.” Hazel let out a low whistle and grinned. “Perfect for a sexy siren like yourself.” Florence blushed bright pink. “Stop, young lady. You’ll embarrass me.” “All right.” Hazel didn’t want to tease her too much. “Give me your hand.” The older woman spread a napkin over the gleaming wooden table and laid her hand out, palm down. With careful, precise strokes, Hazel painted bright red on each of the woman’s nails. When she finished, she set back with a smile. “Gorgeous.” A smile crept across Florence’s face. “I used to wear this shade all the time when I was younger, back before this damned disease crippled me.” Hazel yearned to tell her how sorry she was that she’d been afflicted as she had, but that would help nothing. “Any time you want me to paint them, just ask.” She lifted a bottle of clear polish. “How about a top coat so your color will last longer?” The woman rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Not that one. It works a little too well.” Hazel laughed. “How can it work too well?” “It stays on even after you want it to come off. I don’t want red nails forever.” She pushed the clear coat aside. “Use the other one.” “I understand completely. I once had a beautiful shade of gold polish with flecks of glitter in it. I used tons of cotton balls soaked with polish remover before I could get it off. Such a pain.” “Exactly.” The older woman agreed with a firm nod of her head. Hazel selected a second bottle of top coat and applied it to the woman’s nails. “There. You look like you’ve just come from the beauty salon.” She beamed as she examined her hands. “I do. Wait until Albert sees. Now, finish your nails before you need to leave.” “Yes—” A terrified scream for help cut her short. Her gaze flew to Florence’s. “Someone’s hurt.” Color drained from the older woman’s face as Hazel jumped to her feet. “Good Lord. Go. Please,” she commanded. Hazel dashed into the hall. She followed the sounds of commotion to the opposite end of the floor and entered a bedroom where several people had gathered including Mick and Mrs. Jones. Mr. Winthrop lay sprawled on the bed. His eyes bulged from their sockets as though he, too, was stunned. Their young maid with sleek blond hair sat on the floor near his bed, her nakedness only partially covered by an ivory throw. She’d buried her face against the mattress, but Hazel could see from her shaking shoulders that she sobbed. Hazel’s heart lurched in sickening thumps, and she glanced at the stoic faces around her. “Why is no one doing anything?” She stepped forward. Mick gripped her arm, stopping her. He shook his head. “It’s too late. He’s dead.” Hazel jerked her arm free. “How do you know? If it’s a heart attack, maybe he can be revived.” Rachel sobbed harder. “I wanted to help.” Her words came out between frantic breaths. “But he was frothing at the mouth and convulsing…” She stilled, her dark eyes wet and rimmed with red. “Like a rabid dog,” she whispered. Hazel did take a step back then. She couldn’t imagine what kind of disease or disorder would make a person froth at the mouth, but it couldn’t be good. “What is it?” A feeble voice came from behind them. “What’s happened?” Hazel cringed. Mrs. Winthrop. She couldn’t see this. Not her dead husband that she’d wanted to impress only moments before. Not the naked woman who’d obviously been with him doing things they shouldn’t when he’d died. No wife should ever witness something like this. Hazel turned from the gathered crowd and met Florence in the hall. She took the woman’s chilly hands in hers. “I’m so sorry, Florence.” She would hide it all from her if she could. “It’s your husband.” “Albert?” She shot a frantic gaze beyond Hazel’s shoulder. “What’s wrong?” Hazel closed her eyes for a long moment, not wanting to be the one to deliver the news. Then she met the new widow’s gaze. “He’s dead.” Florence screamed and collapsed against Hazel. “Help, please,” Hazel cried out. Mick emerged into the hall and gathered Florence into his arms. “Let’s get her to bed, and you can stay with her while I call the police.” **** Hazel drew a strand of hair across her lips as she stared at Florence’s slack features and pale skin. The poor woman lay on her bed, passed out from shock, and Hazel couldn’t help but worry. The EMTs who’d come for Mr. Winthrop had checked her stats, said they were fine, and offered to transport her to the hospital if they were still worried. Hazel and Mick had decided to call her doctor instead. Mick had left moments ago to make the call, and Hazel sensed she’d likely be fine. At least, physically. The poor woman had experienced quite a shock, so maybe it was better that she was asleep. What a horrible, horrible morning, and her friend had many long, difficult days ahead of her. Hazel gently took her hand and gave it a soft squeeze. Florence drew in a deep breath that startled Hazel, and her eyes flew open. She stared at Hazel for a long moment as though confused, and then her face crumpled into a mask of pain. “Tell me it was a dream. Please. Tell me it’s not true,” she whispered. Agony emanated from the older woman, and Hazel’s heart wept along with her. “I’m so sorry, Florence.” She shook her head vehemently as though rejecting Hazel’s apology. “How could this have happened? He was perfectly fine this morning, in one of his jovial moods.” Hazel squeezed her hand again. “They think he had a heart attack.” “Heart attack?” she whispered and then nodded. “I told him to slow down. That he’d end up dead. A man his age shouldn’t do half the things he did.” Hazel tilted her head, wondering if she should bring up Rachel’s presence in his room when he’d died, wondered if Florence knew about his indiscretions. “How do you mean?” she asked instead. “Drinking. Smoking that cigar. Driving like a maniac. The man was seventy-four years old. He should have acted like it.” Florence’s ire dissolved into a puddle of tears. “He can’t really be gone. I need him, Hazel. I need him here with me. How will I go on without him?” Heart-wrenching grief poured from the woman, and Hazel fought to remember the skills her mother had taught her to help others rid themselves of negative emotions without her absorbing the same. Not as easy as it sounded. She gave the woman’s hand another squeeze and stood to escape the overwhelming emotions. Guilt jumped like a boogeyman from the shadows, but she refused to allow it into her space. Hazel grabbed several tissues from the container on the antique table near her bed and handed them to Florence. “Mick is calling your doctor to ask him to prescribe a sedative and to stop by if he thinks it’s necessary.” Florence nodded and released another sob. Despair tore at Hazel. She needed to help the woman, but how? From the corner of her eye, she spied the tea service at the table where they’d sat not long ago, before the world had crashed down upon them. Tea. In her world, that fixed everything. Especially if it was the right tea. Her mother’s warning jumped in her mind like a glaring red flag. Don’t give them a reason to hurt you. Hazel shook it off. No one in Stonebridge would hurt her. First, none of them would ever know she’d added a little something to Florence’s tea, and-- Another wail left her cringing. She couldn’t let the poor woman suffer. With her back to the bed, she dumped Florence’s cold tea into her own cup and refilled the now-empty teacup with fresh hot water. She pulled her personal blend of chamomile tea that had been helping many of the ladies in Stonebridge sleep better, and, with a few whispered words, she added a little extra magic to quicken the effect and help it last longer. She stirred with a spoon and took the cup to Florence’s bedside. “Here, dear. Drink some of this. My own personal blend guaranteed to help calm your nerves.” Gratitude floated in the woman’s tear-stained eyes, and she took the teacup with shaking hands. “Thank God you’re here, Hazel. You really are the kindest person.” A stuffy nose distorted most of her words, but Hazel still understood. “I’m glad I was here, too. Don’t worry. You won’t have to endure this alone.” Tears started again, but Hazel shook her head. “Drink.” Florence did. Several sips. And then several more. Her breaths grew more even, and the twisted tension in her face eased. “It’s very good.” “Thank you.” She smiled. A touch of magic helped so many things. “I’ll bring more when I visit again.” Florence’s eyelids drooped, and Hazel rushed forward to reclaim the cup before it tipped. “Here, let me sit this on your table. Close by in case you want more.” “Yes.” She nodded and blinked several long, slow times. “I’m feeling very tired now.” “That’s good.” Hazel took her hand again and was relieved the anguish in her soul had dropped several levels. “Sleep is the best thing for you right now. You’ve had quite a—” Florence’s loud snore cut off her last word. “Okay, then,” Hazel said and smiled. “Sleep tight,” she whispered as she backed away from the bed. That concoction should keep her out for a couple of hours. By then the doctor might have prescribed sedatives. They wouldn’t work as well as her tea, but that’s the way the world wanted it. At least the little town of Stonebridge did. Hazel gathered her bag and zipped the internal compartment closed before she slung it over her shoulder. She sent off a quick text to her assistant, telling Gretta she’d been delayed and that she’d explain everything when she made it to the shop. With that, she quietly slipped out of Florence’s bedroom and closed the door. As she turned, a man in a black jacket appeared directly before her. She slapped a hand over her mouth to muffle her cry of surprise. Hazel found herself face-to-face with one of the town’s police officers, Officer Parrish if his name badge was correct. She dropped her hand from her mouth to her throat. “Oh, Blessed Mother, you scared me.” She exhaled a deep breath that ended on an embarrassed chuckle. She’d noticed the handsome and impressive man with dark, wavy hair in town before but had never met him. “Blessed Mother?” Devastatingly green eyes sparked with interest. She inhaled, realizing the blunder of using a phrase common among witches and not so-common among the witch-fearing citizens of Stonebridge. She forced another laugh and waved away his concern. “A silly phrase my college roommate used all the time, and it stuck with me.” He arched a serious brow, bringing her attention to the long lashes framing his beautiful eyes. “Was she a witch?”
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