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Dark, Witch & Creamy - Excerpt

Dark, Witch & Creamy - Excerpt

Book 1: Bewitched by Chocolate Mysteries

CHAPTER ONE

“I can’t believe you’re really gonna do this.”

Caitlyn Le Fey looked up from the map she was holding and smiled at the pretty blonde girl who was frowning at her from across the table. Around them, the tearoom buzzed with the hum of conversation and the clink of china, while the gorgeous smell of fresh baking wafted from the kitchen.

“What do you mean?” she asked lightly as she helped herself to the last mouthful of scone from the plate in front of her. She savoured the rich, buttery bread slathered with home-made strawberry jam and clotted cream. Mmm… they said the scones at the Little Stables Tearoom were the best in Oxfordshire and they were right.

Caitlyn licked her fingers clean and smiled. “I’m just going for a drive in the Cotswolds.”

“Not just any drive,” the other girl protested. “You’re driving out to a village where someone’s been murdered by witchcraft!”

Caitlyn stifled the urge to roll her eyes. She loved her cousin, but sometimes Pomona’s wild imagination could get a bit ridiculous. “That man wasn’t murdered by witchcraft.”

“Yes, he was! The papers are full of it!” Pomona picked up a tabloid newspaper from the table and waved it dramatically. “They said he was found by a stone circle!”

“So?”

“An ancient stone circle, Caitlyn! They’re, like, the kind of place where pagan rituals and sacrifices take place. They said he was icy cold to the touch and they couldn’t find a mark on him—”

“Anyone’s body would feel cold if they’d been outdoors all night,” said Caitlyn reasonably. “He probably had a heart attack.”

 “But he’d been fine earlier that evening! Half the village saw him at the local pub. And no one saw him go into the forest. He was a big man—he wouldn’t have been easy to carry—so how did his body even get there?” Pomona leaned forwards and lowered her voice. “Maybe someone transported him there…”

Caitlyn grinned. “You mean, flew him on a broom?”

Pomona made a face and threw her napkin at her. “Ha. Ha. Very funny. Seriously, Tillyhenge could be a dangerous place. Are you sure you should go there?”

Caitlyn reached out a placating hand. “Hey… Pomie… It’s just a sleepy little Cotswold village like any other, except that this one has a stone circle nearby—”

“That’s exactly it!” said Pomona, her voice rising. “Don’t you know that stone circles are sites of great magic? They’re places on earth where the powers of nature come together—they’re connected by ley lines.”

 “Ley lines?”

Pomona nodded earnestly. “Ancient invisible lines of energy. Stone circles are often where the ley lines meet. They’re also places where druids and witches worship and perform their spells and stuff, ‘cos the circles mark the points where you can open a doorway to the Otherworld—”

“Aww, come on,” said Caitlyn, rolling her eyes. “I know you’re really into all this occult stuff—but seriously, Pomie? Witches and druids? Doorways to the Otherworld? We’re in twenty-first-century England, for heaven’s sake!”

“There’s still magic all around us… You just don’t wanna see it,” said Pomona, jutting out her bottom lip. 

Caitlyn gave her an exasperated look. When it came to the paranormal, Pomona had a one-track mind. She was obsessed with witchcraft and magic, pagan rituals and the occult. Maybe it was the result of growing up in Hollywood or maybe it was just growing up with actress Mariah Sinclair for a mother. That lady was almost as famous for her outlandish beliefs as for her glamorous looks. It was no wonder that Pomona still believed mermaids and unicorns were real!

As for herself, Caitlyn was grateful that she’d never lived in Beverly Hills much. Her mother, Barbara Le Fey, and Mariah had been sisters, but although Barbara had been in showbiz as well, the singer had preferred life away from the Hollywood parties and celebrity circuit. Barbara had been a free spirit and a hippy nomad, happiest when she was spending most of her life on the road. Even when she hadn’t been touring and giving concerts, Barbara would choose unusual places to settle for several months, sometimes years—from a jungle villa in Bali to a converted church in the south of France, from a luxury caravan in the Australian Outback to a yacht in Tahiti…

As a child, Caitlyn had sometimes felt like a gypsy, always moving homes, barely staying anywhere long enough to make friends. It also meant that she didn’t know what country to call her own. Barbara might be American but Caitlyn didn’t feel like she belonged anywhere. In fact, the one place she had always been drawn to was England, although she couldn’t explain why. Well, now that she knew the truth about herself, perhaps that made sense…

“Hello? Earth to Caitlyn?”

She blinked and refocused on her cousin. “Sorry, what were you saying?”

“I was saying that it’s not just me. There are rumours going around here too. The locals agree that Tillyhenge has a reputation for being weird.”

“Weird? What do you mean, weird?”

“Like… the weather is always different there. It could be sunny everywhere else but when you get there, it’s grey and misty—or it’s raining all over the Cotswolds but completely dry in Tillyhenge… And if you’re driving, the GPS can’t find it, no matter how you give the directions. In fact, it doesn’t even show up on satellite images—they told me it’s just a green blur, as if there’s nothing there but forest!” Pomona shuddered. “Don’t you think that’s creepy?”

Caitlyn sighed impatiently. “That could just be coincidence. Even back in the States, you’d sometimes get rain in one part of town and not another—there’s nothing weird or spooky about that. Anyway, who told you all these rumours?”

Pomona jerked her head in the direction of four little old ladies who were huddled around a table nearby. “Them. I started talking to them when you went to the restroom earlier. There’s this bossy old hen called Mabel—she told me they know everything that goes on in the area. They’re like the Gossip Mafia.”

Caitlyn gave her a wry look. “Yeah, I know those old biddies. I’ve run into them a few times while staying in Oxford.” She leaned towards Pomona and lowered her voice. “I think you’ve got to take anything they say with a big pinch of salt. They’re known for having… uh… pretty vivid imaginations.”

“Still… Caitlyn, you gotta listen to me. I have a bad feeling about this. And you know I’m slightly psychic, right?”

Caitlyn hid a smile.

“It’s true!” said Pomona. “I have feelings about things. Remember that time when you fell off the yacht and I got my mom to call Aunt Barbara ’cos I knew something bad had happened to you? And the time I warned you about that scary skin rash?”

“You said I had Rocky Mountain spotted fever! It was actually chicken pox.”

Pomona waved a dismissive hand. “Yeah, well, that’s almost the same thing. Anyway, I’m telling you, I have a feeling about this.” She reached out suddenly and grabbed Caitlyn’s empty teacup, turning it upside down to drain the last of the tea away. “Okay, look—I’m gonna read your tea leaves.”

“Pomie…” Caitlyn groaned but her cousin ignored her, peering into the teacup and turning it this way and that.

“Hmm… ooh! Ooh! I see something!”

“What?” asked Caitlyn, curious in spite of herself.

Pomona smiled. “A tall, dark, handsome stranger is coming into your life.”

Caitlyn groaned even louder. “Oh, give me a break—”

“Wait! There’s more!”

Caitlyn gave her a wry look. “What? I’m going to receive a letter? Come into a lot of money?”

“No…” Pomona frowned. She turned the teacup. “It looks like… it looks like a bar of chocolate.”

“Chocolate?” Caitlyn said incredulously. “What, there’s chocolate in my future? Or are you telling me that I’m going to put on weight?” She grinned. “Because I have to say, that’s probably true, but I don’t need some fortune-telling tea leaves to tell me that.” She looked ruefully at the empty plate in front of her, then down at herself. “All this British baking is absolutely delicious but good grief, it’s a killer on my hips.”

Pomona gave her a scornful look. “Huh! You can’t talk about hips until you’ve got hips like mine.”

“Yeah, but you own your hips,” said Caitlyn, looking enviously at her cousin’s full figure. Pomona had a backside that deserved the name “booty” and she flaunted it with pride. Caitlyn wished that she had her cousin’s confidence. Her own figure was what the English politely termed “pear-shaped”—she wasn’t fat, exactly, but no matter how she tried, she couldn’t seem to shift the weight off her hips and thighs.

“Your hips aren’t the problem,” said Pomona, eyeing her critically. “It’s everything else. Look at the jeans you’re wearing – they must be, like, ten years old!”

“They’re comfortable,” said Caitlyn defensively.

“Honey, you can be ‘comfortable’ when you’re eighty! When you’re twenty-two, you wanna be ‘gorgeous’. And you could be, if you just made a little effort! I mean, look at your hair—you’ve got the kind of red hair that other women can only get out of a bottle and green eyes like—”

“They’re not green, they’re hazel,” said Caitlyn quickly. “And most of the time, they just look light brown.”

Pomona gripped her hand eagerly. “Give me twenty minutes and some mascara and eye shadow, and I’ll give you the most amazing green eyes you’ve ever seen. C’mon, Caitlyn, lemme do a makeover and—”

“No.”

She pouted. “Aww… you’re always saying no!”

“I’m not you, Pomie,” said Caitlyn, giving her cousin a look of mingled admiration and resignation. “I’m no good with things like make-up and fashion. Even if you made me look amazing, I could never keep it up by myself.”

“You could learn! Applying mascara isn’t rocket science!” Pomona huffed in frustration. “You know what your problem is, Caitlyn? You’re afraid of people looking at you. You’re afraid of getting attention. But you can’t go through life always skulking in the shadows.”

Caitlyn sighed. She knew her cousin could never understand. Pomona loved being the centre of attention and revelled in the limelight. She could never relate to Caitlyn’s desire to stay in the background.

“Well, I’m coming out of the shadows now, aren’t I?” Caitlyn said lightly with a smile. “This little adventure to Tillyhenge—”

“That’s different,” said Pomona, frowning. She leaned forwards, suddenly serious. “I can feel it, in here.” She pressed her ample bosom. “If you go to Tillyhenge today, you’ll change the path of your life forever. Things will never be able to go back to what they used to be.”

“Whoa…” Caitlyn leaned back at her cousin’s ominous tone. “Honestly, Pomie, I think you’re over-reacting. I’m just going for a drive and maybe staying a couple of days in a village in the Cotswolds. It’s no big deal. Tourists do it every single day.”

“Well, then go where they go,” said Pomona. “Go to one of the other Cotswold villages where tourists usually visit. Like Burford or Lower Slaughter—or why don’t you stay a couple of days here in Meadowford-on-Smythe? It’s gorgeous. Why d’you have to go to Tillyhenge?”

“Because that’s where I’ll find answers.”

Caitlyn raised her right hand unconsciously to touch the runestone attached to the ribbon around her neck. Her fingers slid over the stone, tracing the symbols carved onto the smooth surface, even though she knew the shapes by heart already. She had traced them a million times, ever since she was a little girl, although she still didn’t know what they meant. It was one of the many mysteries from her past, one of the things she needed answers to.

Pomona dropped her gaze to the stone. “Are you sure the letter didn’t say anything else about that?”

Caitlyn shook her head, thinking about the letter that had turned her life upside-down. She had barely recovered from the news of Barbara Le Fey’s death in a car accident before she had been called into a private meeting with the singer’s lawyers. And there, she had been handed a sealed letter—a letter Barbara had instructed to be given only upon her death—and Caitlyn had opened it to discover that the woman she had called “Mom” all her life wasn’t her mother at all.

To be honest, she had never felt very close to Barbara—something which had always vaguely bothered her, although it was hardly surprising since she had been almost completely brought up by her British nanny. Barbara Le Fey had adopted a child on a whim and had soon lost interest when the novelty had worn off. Oh, she had always been generous and kind, and Caitlyn had never wanted for anything, but Barbara had remained a distant figure in Caitlyn’s life. Still, it had been a shock to discover that Barbara wasn’t her “real mother”.

“I’ve read the letter so many times, I practically know it by heart,” said Caitlyn. “It didn’t mention the runestone, other than to say that it had been around my neck when I was found as a baby by the side of the road—”

“I still can’t get over that,” said Pomona, laughing. “Seriously, it sounds like something out of a fairytale! When you first told me about it, I thought Aunt Barbara must have been joking.”

“So did I,” Caitlyn admitted. “I wasn’t sure what to believe. But then after the funeral, I got talking to Jim Stanton, Barbara’s agent. He’d been with Barbara for years and he told me that he’d been in the car the day she found me. It happened exactly like the letter described. They were on their way to some country house party and they’d taken a detour down a country lane… and then they saw this tiny baby, wrapped up in blankets, propped against a bush at the side of the road…”

“Jeez, you must have only been, like, a few hours old,” said Pomona.

“Exactly!” said Caitlyn. “That’s what Barbara said the doctors thought when they examined me—which means I must have been born around here!”

“Okay, but I still don’t get how that’s connected to Tillyhenge. Why d’you think you’ll get answers there?”

Caitlyn leaned forwards earnestly to explain. “I got talking to a professor at Oxford University a few days ago and he told me that researchers have discovered ‘hidden engravings’ on the surface of the giant stones at Stonehenge.”

“So?”

“So… he said the symbols on my runestone reminded him of those engravings. Don’t you think that’s just too much of a coincidence?” she asked impatiently, as she saw Pomona’s blank stare. “Look, my runestone is engraved with these symbols, which are similar to those carved on Stonehenge, a famous stone circle… but there is a local stone circle near a village called Tillyhenge and I was found in the same area. There has to be a connection and the only way to find some answers is to go to Tillyhenge myself.”

Pomona heaved a sigh. “All right. I can see that I’m not gonna change your mind.” She gripped Caitlyn’s hand tightly. “But promise me you’ll be careful? I don’t want anything to happen to you. You’re… you’re like my sister. The only sister I have.”

Caitlyn felt a rush of affection for the other girl. Whatever else happened, she knew she would always have Pomona as family. They might not have grown up in the same city together and Pomona’s glamorous Hollywood lifestyle was very different to the hippy, nomadic life that Caitlyn had led, but somehow they’d instantly bonded from the first time they’d met. Caitlyn had always looked forward eagerly to the school vacations and holidays when Pomona would join them for a while on the road.

She squeezed her cousin’s hand. “I promise I’ll be careful.” Then she glanced at her watch. “You’d better get going otherwise you’ll miss the train back to London. Don’t forget, you’ve got to go back to Oxford first to catch it.”

“You sure you don’t want me to come with you?” asked Pomona, rising slowly.

Caitlyn hesitated. A part of her desperately wanted her cousin to go with her. She was nervous about what she would find and she didn’t want to face it alone. But she also wanted to keep a low profile, and—with her glamorous looks and flamboyant dress sense—Pomona drew attention wherever she went. Her cousin had already been getting stares the whole time they were in this tearoom.

“No, I’ll be fine,” said Caitlyn, pinning a bright smile on her face.

“Call me tonight and let me know what’s happening,” said Pomona over her shoulder as she headed towards the door. “And make sure you don’t meet any black cats!”

Caitlyn sat for a long moment after her cousin had gone, feeling suddenly very alone. She almost picked up her phone to call Pomona and say she’d changed her mind, to ask her cousin to go to Tillyhenge with her.

Then she took a deep breath, drained her teacup, and stood up. No, this was something she had to do herself. In a strange way, she felt like her whole life had been leading up to this moment, to this journey into the Cotswolds.

 

CHAPTER TWO

Caitlyn got into her rented Volkswagen Beetle and secured her seatbelt, then she paused to look at the map again before starting the engine. Tillyhenge might not have been on GPS but it was clearly marked on the old-fashioned road map. If she just followed this road out of Meadowford-on-Smythe, took the left turn at the first intersection, got onto the A40, turned north at Burford, kept going past Shipton-Under-Wychwood and Upper Slaughter, then she should come to another intersection where—

Rap! Rap! Rap!

Caitlyn started and looked up. A pair of rheumy eyes above a long pointed nose peered at her through the glass of the driver’s window. They belonged to a stooped old man dressed in a dusty black suit. He was beckoning her to get out of the car. Caitlyn hesitated a moment—the man looked a bit odd and the suit he was wearing looked like something out of the early nineteenth century, with long black tails and a white shirt with ruffled collar underneath—but it wasn’t as if he was a tattooed gangster in a hoodie. Besides, he was an old man. Perhaps he was lost or needed help. She unclipped her seatbelt, opened the door, and got slowly out of the car.

“Can I help you?” she asked hesitantly.

The old man teetered to one side as he attempted to sweep her a gallant bow. He looked about a hundred years old and Caitlyn had to resist the urge to grab his elbow to prevent him from toppling over.

“I am your vampire uncle,” he said, like someone turning up on your doorstep and announcing: “I’m your plumber.”

“I’m sorry—what?” Caitlyn stared at him, sure that she had heard wrong.

“I am your vampire uncle,” he said again, sounding slightly tetchy now.

She couldn’t help it. A giggle burst from her lips.

“What is so funny?” He glared.

Caitlyn struggled to keep a straight face. “Nothing… Sorry… It’s just… Well, vampires don’t really exist.”

“Of course, they exist!” He bristled. “There may not be so many of us left but we are still here.” He scowled. “Of course, the younger ones, these days—they are too busy wasting their time on things like sparkling in the sun and falling in love… Bah!” He waved a contemptuous hand, the force of the gesture sending him teetering in the other direction. “They do not understand the important role we vampires have as Ancient Guardian Protectors. It is left to the few of us who still believe in the old ways, in duty and honour…” He puffed his bony old chest out proudly, then his brows drew together again as he saw Caitlyn’s expression.

“You still do not believe me, eh? Look, I will prove it to you.” He opened his jaws and pointed into his mouth. “Gooka…mai…keeghs…”

Caitlyn hesitated, then leaned forwards and peered cautiously into his sunken mouth. Before she could see anything, something fell out. She glanced down. A pair of yellowed fangs lay on the ground.

“Ah… confounded garlic!” cried the old man, scooping them up hastily. “These cursed fangs! That dentist swore that he had fixed them.” He glowered at her. “Impossible to find a good dentist these days.”

“Oh… uh… right,” Caitlyn said. Poor old dear. He obviously had a screw loose. Several screws, it looked like. Maybe he had wandered away from a nursing home nearby? She looked around, wondering if he was with a group. Perhaps there was a seniors’ outing in the village?

“So, when do we leave?”

She turned back in surprise to see the old man trying to open the car door.

“I’m sorry, I think there’s a misunderstanding. I’m not part of the tour. You need to find someone else to take you back to the nursing home.”

“Nursing home? How dare you!” His pale face became suffused with colour. He drew himself to his full height. “I am Count Viktor Dracul and though I have many years on me—six hundred and thirty-four to be precise—I certainly do not require any nursing!”

Caitlyn blinked. “Er… o-kay. But you can’t come with me—”

“I will not take up much room,” he said. “Indeed, in my bat form, I shall occupy only a very small area of your vehicle. I can even ride in the boot if that is more convenient.”

Caitlyn took a deep breath. “Look, Mr… er… Dracul—”

“You may call me Viktor… Or Uncle Viktor, if you like,” he said graciously.

“Um… Right. Look, Viktor, I really can’t help you. I’m not heading back to Oxford or anywhere like that. I’m going—”

“Yes, I know. You are making your way to Tillyhenge.”

Caitlyn stopped and stared at him. “How did you know?”

“I have been watching, waiting for your return.” He gave her a toothless smile. “I have been waiting for you a long time, Caitlyn.”

“How did you know my name?” demanded Caitlyn, starting to feel creeped out.

She glanced nervously around, wondering if there was a policeman—a local village constable—in the vicinity. Still, she felt a bit embarrassed at the thought of having to admit that she couldn’t deal with one frail delusional octogenarian on her own. And besides, in spite of everything, she liked the old man. He was nuts, but he was a funny character. She didn’t want to get him in trouble.

“Look… um… it’s been nice chatting to you but I really need to go now,” she said gently, easing between him and the car. “If you’re lost, go to the tearoom at the bottom of the High Street. They’re really nice in there and they’ll help you get back home. Bye!”

Before he had time to respond, Caitlyn yanked the front door open, slid into the driver’s seat, and slammed the door quickly after her. Then she started the engine and pulled away from the curb, driving as fast as she dared through the narrow village street. 

She glanced in the rear-view mirror and breathed a sigh of relief. She’d half expected to see a scrawny old man chasing after her, his dark coat flapping behind him, but there was no one. The street behind her was empty. Caitlyn shook her head and laughed to herself. Today seemed like the day for weird things to happen.

And it’s not over yet, she reminded herself as she turned onto the main road that would take her north-west, deeper into the Cotswolds, and towards Tillyhenge.

 

***

 

The drive was beautiful and Caitlyn soon found herself forgetting all about her worries as she enjoyed the scenery. It was June and the English countryside was in full bloom, with wildflowers edging the roads in a stunning array of colours: bright daisies and butter-yellow cowslips, big blue flowers of meadow cranesbill and delicate white blossoms of cow parsley, also known as Queen Anne’s lace… and every so often, a burst of fuchsia from tall columns of swaying foxgloves.

Swallows swooped through the high blue sky and creamy white butterflies fluttered along the hedgerows. In fields, bordered by ancient drystone walls, cows chewed cud and ponies flicked their tails, whilst sheep grazed contentedly on sloping pastures. The car motored along winding open roads and through narrow country lanes, passing stretches where the trees spread their branches in a graceful arc overhead, turning the road into tunnels filled with dappled sunlight.

 Caitlyn felt as if she was driving into another world. Her previous short visits to England had always been limited to London—Barbara Le Fey had preferred shopping, fine dining, and nightlife to rural pleasures—so Caitlyn had never had the chance to explore the English countryside. She’d heard a lot about the beauty of the rolling Cotswolds hills but she had no idea that it would be so glorious. She was so engrossed that she almost forgot about the reason for her drive. It was only when she switched on the radio for a bit of music and heard the newsreader mention the “Tillyhenge murder” that she was suddenly jolted back to reality.

 

“…police are still investigating the murder of Stan Matthews, local gamekeeper for the Huntingdon estate, whose body was found by the stone circle near the village of Tillyhenge. Due to the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death, the inquest has been adjourned, pending further investigation. Matthews was last seen at the local village pub just before midnight, on the night of his murder, and the police are appealing to anyone who might have information to come forward.

In other news, the Oxford City Council believes that plans for a new car park…”

 

Ugh. Hastily, Caitlyn switched the radio off but it was too late. The spell was broken. She remembered now that she wasn’t just on a pleasant drive through the Cotswolds. In fact… she glanced at the map on the seat next to her and frowned. Surely she should have reached Tillyhenge by now? Perhaps she had overshot the turn-off for the village? She slowed as she approached an intersection, did a quick U-turn, and headed back in the direction she had come from. She found herself almost back at the last village before she slowed the car again, biting her lip in vexation. She should have seen the turning for Tillyhenge on the way—could she have missed it again?

Making a U-turn once more, Caitlyn drove back down the same stretch of road for the third time, taking it slower and scanning the verge on either side for any sign of a turn-off. She had almost reached the intersection again and was about to give up in frustration when she saw it.

There.

An old post with a crooked wooden sign at the top and the words “Tillyhenge” etched onto the worn surface.

It stood out clearly at the side of the road, leaning over slightly. Why hadn’t she seen it the previous two times? Caitlyn frowned as she turned into the narrow side road, which sloped downwards into a heavily forested valley. Trees closed in on either side and the air felt suddenly dank and cool. Caitlyn shivered as goosebumps rose on her arms; she stared through the windscreen ahead: was that a swirl of mist lying across the road?

Don’t be ridiculous! She gave herself an internal shake. It was all Pomona’s crazy talk stirring up her imagination. How could there be mist on the road in the middle of summer? And of course it would be cooler here in the shade, deep between the trees. Once the road passes out of this section of forest, I’m sure things will return to normal, Caitlyn thought as she pressed down firmly on the accelerator.

But when the road emerged at last from the thick of the woods, Caitlyn was surprised to see that the previously blue sky had turned a cloudy grey. Pomona’s ominous words about the inexplicably “different” weather in Tillyhenge came back to her but she pushed the thought away. The car rolled gently down a street lined on either side with old stone cottages and came to a stop beside a large triangular patch of grass which served as the “village green”. Slowly, Caitlyn got out and looked around.

Now that she was here, Tillyhenge didn’t look that creepy or unusual. In fact, it looked like a dozen other little English villages featured in tourist books and travel guides. There were the winding cobbled lanes between the limestone cottages, the ancient village pub squatting proudly on one side of the village green, the quaint craft shops and local food stores, and even a few tourists wandering around, snapping shots with their cameras. The only thing missing was a church. Caitlyn scanned the surrounding rooftops but she couldn’t see the familiar steeple or bell tower.

She felt slightly at loss. She had been so focused on just getting to Tillyhenge. Somehow, she had thought that all she had to do was arrive and everything would be waiting for her. Now she chided herself for being so silly. Of course it wouldn’t be that easy! What had she expected? A sign welcoming her to the village, depicting a pointing hand and saying: “Caitlyn Le Fey—answers this way”?

She would simply have to walk around and get chatting to the locals, see if she could pick up some information. And perhaps it would be a good idea to look for a place to stay, at least for the night. Caitlyn grabbed her handbag and locked the car, then paused to rub her temples, wincing slightly. The intense concentration during the last part of the drive had given her a headache and now her head was throbbing.

She looked around again, hoping to see a pharmacy where she could pick up some painkillers. Slowly, she wandered down the widest street leading away from the village green. It looked like the “main street” in Tillyhenge, with a motley assortment of shops that included everything from an organic butcher to a traditional shoemaker. But no pharmacy.

Caitlyn rubbed her temples again, wondering whether to walk to the end of the street before turning back. A young man was coming in the opposite direction. He had a camera slung over one shoulder and at first she thought that he was a tourist. Then she realised from the size and sleek, professional look of the camera that this was no average visitor. In fact, she’d seen his air of predatory alertness before, from her experience with the paparazzi. This was a reporter on the hunt for news. Considering that there had been a recent murder in the village, it probably wasn’t surprising to find the media here. Still, the last thing Caitlyn wanted was to catch their notice.

Too late. Before she could cross to the other side of the street and avoid him, the young man came up to her.

“Hey… I’ve been here the last few days and I haven’t seen you around. You new to the village?” He gave her a cocky smile.

“Yes, I just arrived,” murmured Caitlyn, trying to brush past him.

“Thought so! I would have remembered a gorgeous redhead like you,” he said, giving her a wink and barring her way. “Fancy a drink at the pub?”

“No thanks,” said Caitlyn, attempting to edge past him again.

“Hey, no need to be so snooty! Where’re you from? You American? I think I can hear a hint of an American accent—” He narrowed his eyes suddenly and leaned closer. “Hang on a minute… do I know you? You look kind of familiar…”

Caitlyn stiffened.

The reporter snapped his fingers. “You’re some kind of celebrity, aren’t you? What are you doing in Tillyhenge?”

 

CHAPTER THREE

“I… I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Caitlyn, stumbling backwards.

With Barbara Le Fey’s nomadic lifestyle and avoidance of celebrity socialising, Caitlyn had led a pretty quiet life, out of the public eye. She didn’t think most people in the street would recognise her. But the media was a different kettle of fish. They had access to old photos and archives, and she knew they were experts at sniffing out a story. The paparazzi had been out in force at Barbara’s funeral and she knew that there had been a lot of speculation about the car crash. The last thing she needed was for this reporter to recognise her and wonder what she was doing in Tillyhenge. She wouldn’t put it past him to link the recent local murder with Barbara’s death in some lurid way, and splash it across the front page of local papers. Anything for a story.

Quickly, she whirled and ran down the street, turning into a side lane and ducking into an open doorway. She found herself stepping into a soothing interior of warm wood and soft greens. It was some kind of natural therapy store, selling scented candles, aromatherapy oils, natural creams, and other herbal remedies.

Pomona would love it in here, thought Caitlyn, as she walked between the shelves displaying bottles of natural shampoos and organic lotions, and piles of goat milk soap, scented with English country herbs like sage, rosemary, and thyme. A soft, sweet fragrance permeated the whole store and Caitlyn felt her headache lift slightly.

“Hi! Can I help you?”

Caitlyn turned around and found herself facing a fresh-faced young girl of about eighteen, who was smiling at her eagerly.

“Um… I don’t suppose you sell any paracetamol? Or aspirin?”

The girl shook her head vehemently. “Oh, no! We don’t stock any of that nasty chemical stuff.”

Caitlyn massaged her temples. “Oh. Well, have you got any… um… natural remedies for a headache?”

The girl looked around, then lowered her voice. “We’ve got some herbal balms that you can rub on your temples and there’s also willow bark tea but—if you’ll let me try it on you—I’ve got something that’ll work much better.”

“What’s that?”

“A Migrainus Disposa spell! I’ve just learnt it and I’ve been practising all week.”

“A what?” Caitlyn was sure she had heard wrong.

“Don’t worry—you just need to close your eyes. It’ll be brilliant! You’ll see!”

Caitlyn hesitated but the girl was looking at her like an eager puppy and she didn’t have the heart to say no. Besides, it was probably just some more New Age nonsense—like that time Pomona insisted on cleansing her aura and made Caitlyn sit in a saltwater bath for hours until she was wrinkled like a prune. It probably wouldn’t do any real harm.

Obediently, Caitlyn closed her eyes. She felt the other girl’s fingers lightly on her temples and heard her muttering something under her breath. The next moment, a gust of wind whooshed around her and Caitlyn opened her eyes in surprise.

She saw the girl staring at her in horror.

“Oh my Goddess… Okay, okay… Don’t worry… I can fix it—”

“Fix what?” said Caitlyn. She groped around her temples and gasped as her fingers felt something leafy growing out of her ears. “What have you done?”

“Nothing that can’t be fixed! It was just a small slip-up… must have got the words in the wrong order… But don’t worry, I’ll fix it in a jiffy! Just close your eyes again!”

She grabbed Caitlyn’s ears with both hands and yanked her head closer, then muttered some more unintelligible words under her breath. Caitlyn felt her ears go hot, then cold, and then another gust of wind envelop them. She opened her eyes to see the girl slowly opening hers too.

“GAAH!” The girl jumped backwards, clamping a hand to her mouth, her eyes on Caitlyn’s face.

“What? WHAT?” said Caitlyn, starting to feel really panicked now.

She looked frantically around and spied a mirror on the wall nearby. She rushed over to take a look, then shrieked. Her eyebrows had turned into a giant monobrow, joined in the middle like a big hairy caterpillar crawling across her forehead.

She turned back to the girl. “What have you done to me?”

“I’m so sorry!” cried the girl, wringing her hands. “But don’t worry—there’s no need to panic. I can fix it. I just need to do a spell to reverse it… Now, was it ‘Frown begone, brow unjoin’? Or was it ‘Frown begone, brow undone’? Maybe I should—”

“EVIE!”

The girl cringed as a plump, middle-aged woman dressed in a bright purple kaftan hurried up to them. Her frizzy red hair peeked out from beneath a purple turban, and her eyes were framed by purple wire-rimmed spectacles, but her eccentric appearance was belied by her kindly face. She looked at Caitlyn in horror.

“What have you done to the customer?” she demanded.

The girl stammered, “N-nothing, Mum… She… she had a headache and… well, I was trying out—”

“Evie, what did I tell you about performing spells on the customers?” the woman said severely. “If she had a headache, why didn’t you just give her the Peppermint & Lavender Soothing Head Balm? Or the Willow Bark Tea?”

“Well, magic works so much better…” Evie said sullenly.

“Not when you don’t know how to use it,” the woman snapped. “You could have shrunk her head or even blown her up!”

“Er… I’m still standing here, you know,” said Caitlyn, raising her hand.

The woman turned back to her with a bright smile. “Oh, yes! Hello, dear. I’m Bertha and this is my daughter, Evie. Welcome to Herbal Enchantments. We stock a range of products made from the finest natural ingredients, based on traditional English remedies that have been handed down through generations.”

Caitlyn stared incredulously as the woman continued beaming at her. “Uh… that’s great. But what about my eyebrows?” She looked at Bertha anxiously. “You’ll be able to fix this, right? I won’t have to go around with a monobrow for the rest of my life?”

“Hmm? Oh, oh yes, of course…” Bertha snapped her fingers. “Visago Revertus!

Caitlyn felt a whirl of air around her and something scraped across her forehead. She rushed back to the mirror and sighed in relief. Her eyebrows were back to normal.

“Now, let me give you something for that headache,” added Bertha with a smile.

“Oh no, no, that’s okay,” said Caitlyn hastily. “Thanks all the same but I’ve got to go now—”

Somehow, a small tray had appeared on the counter next to them. Bertha lifted a teapot from the tray and poured some steaming liquid into a mug, which she handed to Caitlyn.

“Drink this.”

Caitlyn hesitated. The last thing she wanted to do was try anything else from this store. But Bertha’s kindly face and air of quiet authority invited trust. Cupping the mug in her hands, Caitlyn raised it to her lips and sipped carefully. The drink had an unusual flavour she had never tasted before but it was quite pleasant, with an earthy aroma. She took a few bigger gulps, then looked back up.

“It’s willow bark tea,” Bertha said in answer to Caitlyn’s silent question. “It’s an old traditional remedy for headaches. Feel better?”

Caitlyn started to give a fake polite answer, then stopped in surprise. Actually, she did feel better. In fact, her headache had completely lifted!

“My headache’s gone!”

“Good.” The older woman smiled, then looked at her curiously. “Are you visiting Tillyhenge?”

“Yes. I just arrived.”

“And where are you from?”

“Um… well, my… uh… my mother was American, although we hardly lived there. She was a singer and we moved around a lot, lived in different countries.”

“Really?” The other woman kept looking strangely at her until Caitlyn began to wonder if something else was growing out of her head.

“Is something the matter?” she asked at last.

“Oh no. It’s just that… well, you look a lot like… someone I used to know.” The older woman blinked and shook her head. “Perhaps it’s my imagination.”

The other woman’s staring was making Caitlyn uncomfortable and she hurried to change the subject. “Um… I don’t suppose you know of a place I could stay for the night? Is there an inn or bed and breakfast in the village?”

“No,” said Bertha regretfully. “The only place that has rooms to board is the pub but I believe both their rooms are taken. We don’t normally get many visitors to stay in Tillyhenge…”

“There’s Grandma’s place!” Evie spoke up. “She’s got that attic bedroom, remember? We were telling her she should let it for some money.”

“Hmm…” Bertha looked unsure. “Well, I suppose…”

“Does your mother have a house nearby?” Caitlyn asked.

“A shop, actually. She lives at the back of the shop herself, but she does have an empty room upstairs.”

“Oh, that’s great! Can you give me directions to her place?”

Bertha hesitated again and Caitlyn looked at her curiously. Why was she so reluctant? It was almost as if she was nervous about something. 

Bertha frowned. “Maybe I ought to come with you—explain things to Mother…”

There was a bustling in the doorway of the store and two tourists came in. Evie went eagerly towards them and Bertha glanced anxiously after her.

“You’d better go and look after your customers,” said Caitlyn hastily, not wanting others to suffer the same fate she had under Evie’s hands.

Bertha hesitated again, then sighed and said quickly, “It’s the chocolate shop at the edge of the village. Take the street opposite the pub, from the village green, and follow it to the old water pump, then take a left and then a right, and you’ll find yourself on a narrow lane leading out of the village. The chocolate shop is at the end of that lane.”

“Thanks.” Caitlyn gave her a wave and left the store.

She went back to her car to retrieve her overnight bag, then followed the directions to find the chocolate shop. On the way, she mulled over what had just happened in Herbal Enchantments. How had Evie managed to make those things grow out of her ears? And fuse her eyebrows? And how had Bertha changed her eyebrows back to normal? It must have been some kind of prank, Caitlyn decided. Like an elaborate hoax. The gust of air could have been done with an electric fan. And maybe Evie had stuck something on Caitlyn’s forehead when her eyes were shut… or maybe… maybe the mirror was rigged to show a fake image… Yes, that must have been it. And all that talk of spells… well, it was probably all part of the hoax, the kind of thing you said to hook gullible tourists…

It couldn’t really have been magic… because magic didn’t exist, right?

Caitlyn realised that she had been walking around in circles for a while and still hadn’t found the chocolate shop. For a tiny village, Tillyhenge sure had a lot of winding lanes and alleys, all twisting together like a rabbit warren. She had lost all sense of direction now and wasn’t even sure she could find her way back to the village green. Then to her relief, she saw an elderly lady coming towards her, pulling a wheelie shopping trolley behind her.

“Excuse me, can you tell me the way to the chocolate shop?”

The old woman gave her a look of fear. “You don’t want to eat anything from there!”

“Oh, no, I’m not interested in the chocolates,” Caitlyn explained. “I just need a place to—”

“I wouldn’t touch anything from the Widow Mags! Not if you paid me all the money in China!” The woman hurried off, her shopping trolley rattling behind her.

Caitlyn watched her go, bewildered. Then she spied two more figures walking towards her. They were a mother and a little girl of about six years old. The woman gave her a friendly smile as she approached.

“Excuse me, do you know the way to the chocolate shop?”

The woman’s face changed. “The chocolate shop?”

“Yes, I was told that there might be a room there. I need somewhere to stay for the night.”

The little girl tugged her mother’s hand urgently. “No, Mummy! Don’t let her go to the chocolate shop! The witch lives there!”

“Hush!” the woman admonished. She looked back up at Caitlyn with an embarrassed smile. “Er… perhaps it would be better for you to find another place to stay. I don’t think the chocolate shop is the most… er… hospitable.”

“Oh. Well, is there anywhere else in the village you can recommend? I was told the pub is fully booked.”

The woman gave her a regretful look. “Sorry. Yes, you’re right—the only other option is the pub and the reporter and that South African gentleman are staying there. I suppose you’d have to go to the next village?”

Caitlyn bit her lip. She was tired and didn’t want to drive anywhere else that day. Besides, after all the trouble she’d taken to find Tillyhenge, she was loathe to leave again so soon.

She gave the woman a determined smile. “I’m sure the chocolate shop will be fine for one night. Can you please tell me how to get there?”

Reluctantly, the woman turned and pointed down the street, giving Caitlyn directions.

“What’s the shop called?” asked Caitlyn.

The woman hesitated, then said, “Bewitched by Chocolate.”

“Oh!” Caitlyn smiled. “That’s a lovely name.”

“Er, yes…” The woman looked uncomfortable.

“Have you tried any of the chocolates?”

“Once.” The woman looked scared. “They… they taste amazing. Almost too good to be real. You wonder what the Widow Mags puts in them.”

Grabbing her child’s hand, she turned and hurried away. Caitlyn stared after her. In her mind’s eye, she suddenly saw Pomona again, sitting across the table from her back at the tearoom in Meadowford… and her cousin eagerly reading the tea leaves and telling her that there would be “chocolate” in her future… Her spine tingled. Then, brushing the memory away, she began making her way to the chocolate shop at the edge of the village.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

Caitlyn looked up at the shop in front of her. Bewitched by Chocolate was housed in a traditional Cotswold cottage, but unlike the cottages usually seen in postcards and travel guides, with their glowing honey-coloured stone walls and pretty thatched roofs, the walls on this one were crumbling, with a greyish-green tinge, and the thatched roof looked ragged and sagging. The windows were dark and covered with cobwebs, and the front doorway yawned like an open mouth, dark and foreboding.

Caitlyn shivered, rubbing her arms. She hadn’t seen a place look less inviting. Did she really want to spend a night here? Wasn’t she better to drive on and find a B&B in another village?

Just as she was about to turn away, something wafted out of the doorway of the shop. Caitlyn froze in her tracks as the wonderful rich aroma of chocolate filled her senses. Dark, sweet, and heavenly, Caitlyn could almost taste the creamy confection melting on her tongue. Her mouth started watering. Almost against her will, she stepped through the darkened doorway and walked inside.

Slowly her eyes grew accustomed to the darkened interior and she looked around in wonder. The place was like Aladdin’s cave—if Aladdin’s cave had been filled with gourmet chocolates and cocoa delights, instead of gold and jewels. Boxes of crunchy, chocolate-coated nougat and soft, buttery caramels filled the alcoves in the walls, next to smooth, creamy fudges and jars of rich chocolate sauce. Solid chocolate bars in milk, dark and white chocolate decorated the shelves, their smooth surfaces topped with crispy cocoa nibs, whole almonds, zesty orange peels, and crunchy toffee pieces.

On the counter that ran along the back wall were various bowls of cocoa-dusted coffee beans and succulent chocolate-dipped apricots and strawberries. And beneath the counter, just visible under the dusty glass pane, was an array of chocolate truffles and luscious bonbons, gleaming and oozing with delectable flavours.

The shop seemed empty, however. Caitlyn frowned as she approached the counter, wondering where the Widow Mags was. There was a small alcove behind the counter—what was obviously the original fireplace—and Caitlyn was surprised to see a cast-iron cauldron hanging over an open fire, filled with a dark molten liquid that was bubbling away merrily. Chocolate. Caitlyn inhaled deeply. Yes, the whole shop smelled amazing but that cauldron was the source of the most incredible aroma of rich, dark chocolate.

Suddenly, a dark shape heaved up from behind the counter. Caitlyn caught a glimpse of a hunched back, wild grey hair and a large hooked nose. She jumped and screamed.

The old woman behind the counter yelped and jumped too, sending cocoa beans flying everywhere. They scattered across the counter and rolled onto the floor.

“What are you doing, girl? You scared me half to death!” the old woman snapped.

Caitlyn choked. “Me? Scare you?”

“Yes, what was all that screaming for?”

“You just appeared out of nowhere and I thought you were a wi—” Caitlyn bit off the word just in time. “Uh… I guess you just startled me.”

She leaned back and took a better look at the Widow Mags. She realised that the hunchback impression was due to a dowager’s hump—something a lot of older women with osteoporosis were prone to—and the wild grey hair was simply wispy ends that had come loose from the bun at the nape of the old woman’s neck. Her nose was quite large and hooked, yes, but the thing that had looked like a wart on the end was actually a blob of chocolate, dried into a funny shape.

In fact, on closer inspection, the Widow Mags looked like nothing more than an old woman with a faded shawl around her shoulders and skinny chicken legs peeking out from beneath the hem of her ragged black dress. A grumpy old woman, at that. She was scowling now as she peered at Caitlyn from beneath her wrinkled brow.

“What are you staring at?”

“Oh, n-nothing,” said Caitlyn, hastily averting her eyes.

The old woman growled, “If you want to buy some chocolates, hurry up and tell me what you want!”

Good grief. No wonder there was no one in the store. The old woman’s customer service manner seriously needed work.

“Actually, I’m not here about the chocolates. I came to ask—” Caitlyn broke off as she saw the Widow Mags stoop painfully to collect the spilled cocoa beans. The old woman fumbled as her gnarled hands—the fingers stiff with arthritis—struggled to grip the beans and pick them up.

“Here, let me help you,” said Caitlyn, dropping to the floor beside her.

“I can manage!” the old woman snarled. 

Taken aback, Caitlyn was tempted to stand up and leave the cranky old biddy to her own devices. Then she felt a wave of compassion. She recognised pride when she saw it: like many senior citizens who had once been proudly independent, the Widow Mags was having a hard time now that she was getting older and could no longer do the things she used to do. She needed help but didn’t know how to ask for it—or even how to receive it graciously.

Caitlyn took a deep breath and smiled at the old woman. “Yes, I’m sure you can—but I’d still like to help.”

The Widow Mags hesitated, then said, “Well, fine… Make sure you don’t miss the small ones.”

Quickly, Caitlyn picked up all the spilled cocoa beans and returned them to the bowl.

The Widow Mags mumbled, “Thank you… not that I couldn’t have done it myself, mind you.”

Caitlyn stifled a laugh, wondering if anyone had ever been thanked so grudgingly.

The old woman flung an awkward hand towards the display of truffles beneath the counter. “Have a taste of my chocolates.”

“Oh, no, that’s okay. I wasn’t expecting—”

“Choose a chocolate!” snarled the old woman.

Quickly, Caitlyn grabbed a chocolate truffle at random and stuffed it into her mouth. Whatever negative feelings she might have felt towards the old woman disappeared as soon as the truffle melted on her tongue. She closed her eyes in ecstasy. A velvety soft ganache cream centre, blended with buttery caramel, covered with rich dark chocolate and dusted all over with pure cocoa. Heaven.

Caitlyn opened her eyes. “That… that was incredible! What did you put in it?”

“What do you mean? Are you suggesting that I spike my chocolates with something?” demanded the old woman.

“No, no, it’s just that they’re so delicious! I’ve never tasted chocolates like these—and believe me, I’ve eaten a lot of chocolates.”

The old woman’s face softened. “Harrumph… well, thank you,” she said gruffly.

Caitlyn gave her a smile. “I’d love to buy some to give my cousin—can I get a box made up?”

The old woman softened even further. “Of course. Which ones would you like?”

Caitlyn looked down helplessly at the rows and rows of gorgeous truffles and chocolate bonbons. She had no idea how to choose—they all looked delicious.

“Taste them,” the Widow Mags suggested. “That’s the best way to choose.”

“Okay,” said Caitlyn, not about to turn down an offer to have more chocolate! “But you must let me pay for the ones I taste as well,” she insisted.

The old woman didn’t answer, but nodded again towards the display. Caitlyn began selecting various pieces at random and popping them in her mouth, sighing with pleasure as the rich creamy flavours melted on her tongue.

There was a velvety chocolate ganache with freshly-roasted, chopped hazelnuts, covered in a crisp milk chocolate coating… a dark chocolate truffle cup infused with fragrant Madagascar vanilla… a cluster of crunchy English toffee dipped in hand-made dark chocolate… a creamy milk chocolate shell with a salty-sweet peanut butter centre… a refreshing white chocolate truffle with a zesty lemon ganache centre topped with a candied lemon slice… followed by an intense espresso truffle cup filled with mocha ganache and decorated with dark chocolate shavings…

Her appetite was going to be completely ruined for dinner but Caitlyn didn’t care. She felt like her head was swimming with the amazingly rich, intense flavours of the chocolates that she had eaten.

“How many is that?” she asked at last. So far, she had picked every single one she had tasted.

“Twelve,” said the Widow Mags.

“Okay, I’ll take two of each and make up a box of twenty-four. Pomie’s going to go mad for these.”

As the Widow Mags began filling up a shallow box, Caitlyn heard a step behind her and turned to see two figures hovering in the doorway of the chocolate shop. She recognised them as a couple of tourists she had seen earlier on the village green. They were peering into the dim interior, looking uncertainly around.

Impulsively, Caitlyn stepped forward and gave them a warm smile. “Come in! Come in and have a look around.”

The couple came in, responding to her smile with ones of their own.

“My wife and I were wandering through the village and came down this lane. We could smell this wonderful—”

 “Oh, you must try some of these chocolates!” said Caitlyn, grabbing the half-filled box of chocolates out of the Widow Mags’s hands and thrusting them in front of the tourists. The man and his wife looked down at the truffles, their faces brightening. They each selected one and Caitlyn watched their eyes glaze over as the delicious flavours hit them.

“Oh, these are absolutely divine!” cried the wife. “Ralph, we’ve got to get some for the girls!”

“How much are they?” asked the husband, greedily helping himself to another.

Caitlyn threw a glance at the Widow Mags, who was looking dumbfounded, then blurted, “We’re doing a special at the moment. Three for the price of two.”

“That sounds like a great deal,” said the husband. “We’ll take six boxes.”

Caitlyn glanced at the Widow Mags again. The old woman was staring, open-mouthed. Hastily, Caitlyn slipped behind the counter herself and took the tongs from the old woman’s nerveless fingers. Quickly, she filled up six boxes of chocolates, while the couple browsed around the shop. By the time they left, they’d also bought several chocolate bars, a bag of chocolate-dipped strawberries, and a jar of decadent chocolate sauce.

Caitlyn felt a ridiculous sense of pride watching them carry their purchases out of the shop, then she remembered belatedly that it wasn’t her store. She looked uncertainly at the old woman.

“Er… I hope I didn’t step out of line, offering that special deal. I know you didn’t really have one but I just thought—”

“That was more money than I’ve made all week,” murmured the Widow Mags, looking gobsmacked. Then she added quickly, “But you must take half of it for your efforts—”

“No!” said Caitlyn, taking a step backwards. “No, no, I won’t accept anything. It was no big deal and it was fun.” She gave the old woman a smile. “I’ve… uh… never really had a job and it’s nice to… well, to feel a sense of achievement.” She paused, then hurried on, “But there is something you could do for me in return, if you really want to thank me.”

The Widow Mags looked at her questioningly.

“I’m looking for somewhere to stay and your daughter, Bertha, told me that you might have a room to rent?”

The old woman scowled. “That Bertha. Meddling in my business again. Always fussing over me and worrying about me. I told her I was managing fine—I didn’t need her to pay my last electric bill! And now she’s going around touting my home out like a bloody bed and breakfast. Humph!

“But it does seem silly to waste the chance of earning some money when you’re not using the room anyway,” Caitlyn pointed out. Then she remembered the old woman’s pride and added quickly, “And it would be doing me a big favour…?” She trailed off hopefully.

“It’s very basic. Nothing fancy,” the Widow Mags growled.

She led Caitlyn through a doorway behind the counter and into a small hallway behind the main shop area, with three doors leading off in different directions. Straight in front was an open doorway to an enormous kitchen; to the left a closed door led to what was obviously the Widow Mags’s private quarters; and on the right, another open doorway showed a narrow spiral staircase curving upwards. The Widow Mags pointed to this:

“Up the spiral staircase. Take a look yourself.”

Caitlyn climbed the circling steps and found herself on a small landing which led into an attic bedroom with sloping ceilings and a tiny dormer window. A single brass bed stood in one corner, next to an old chest of drawers with a chipped washbasin and old-fashioned water jug stacked on the end. A wooden chair with crooked legs was the only other furniture in the room.

A door on the landing opposite the bedroom led into a cramped bathroom. Caitlyn turned the taps at the cracked porcelain sink. Rusty brown water gushed out, taking several minutes to run clear. She tested it with her fingers. The water was icy cold. She swallowed and shut the taps, then went back to survey the room. “Basic” was right. She had never stayed anywhere as rustic as this—but she wasn’t going to allow herself to be daunted. A bit of dust and cold water never hurt anyone, right?

She walked over to the window, opened it, and looked out. The room faced the back of the shop, with a view of the empty expanse of hill behind the cottage. A stretch of forest hugged one side of the hill, starting from the edge of the cottage backyard and following the slope upwards until it reached the top of the hill, where the slope met the horizon.

Caitlyn took a deep breath of the fresh country air and smiled to herself. Rough and basic as it was, there was something homely about the room and she found herself feeling strangely at peace. Giving the view a last look, she turned and headed back down to tell the Widow Mags that she had a new lodger.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

Caitlyn moaned in her sleep and moved restlessly. The air was hot and stifling, and her legs tangled in the blankets as she thrashed around in the bed.

Then suddenly, she was awake. She sat up, breathing quickly. She had been dreaming of fire: vivid orange flames crackling with heat and licking their way towards her, threatening to engulf her…

Caitlyn gave her head a sharp shake. It was a dream, that was all. Probably the result of eating too much chocolate, she thought with a wry smile. She lifted the blankets away, grimacing slightly. She was drenched in sweat. Sighing, she pushed back the covers, then made as if to lie down again. But her gaze went to the open window. She could see light flickering on the bedroom wall next to the window and realised that the source was coming from outside.

Curious, Caitlyn padded over to the window and peered out. She had left it open before going to bed, because of the warm night, and now she leaned out as far as she dared to look around. She could see nothing in the dark shadows around the back of the cottage, but in the distance, at the top of the hill, was an orange-crimson glow which lit up the night sky.

Caitlyn frowned. Someone had built a fire on the hill—and not just any small campfire either. No, that kind of glow had to be coming from a huge bonfire. She glanced at the clock on the wall behind her. It was just past midnight. Who on earth was out there in the Cotswolds hills, building a bonfire in the middle of the night?

A breath of air came through the window, bringing with it the faint smell of smoke. And was that music she could hear, almost imperceptibly, on the wind? Caitlyn strained her ears. No, perhaps it had been her imagination. She stared at the glow on the horizon for a moment longer—it seemed to be ebbing now; the fire was dying, perhaps it had been put out—then she eased herself back into the room and shut the window firmly behind her. It would be hotter and more airless with the window shut but she felt better having some sort of barrier between herself and the dark wilderness outside.

Walking back to the bed, Caitlyn stripped off the blankets and lay down on top of the sheets. She closed her eyes, although she didn’t think she’d be able to go back to sleep. In her mind’s eye, she kept seeing that orange glow on the horizon, flickering and shifting like a living thing. Who would build a bonfire in the middle of the night and why? Was it some kind of gathering? She couldn’t help remembering Pomona’s words about Tillyhenge and the strange rumours surrounding this village. It was just the kind of place where she could imagine pagan rituals still taking place…

The next time Caitlyn opened her eyes, it was morning. She sat up slowly, rubbing her eyes, surprised that she had fallen asleep again after all. Her gaze went to the window and she got up and flung it open. What she saw was a perfectly normal view of the English countryside, with everything looking just the way it had when she first looked out yesterday. An early morning breeze rustled through the trees and she heard cows mooing softly in the distance.

Caitlyn scanned the horizon. There was nothing—no wisps of smoke or any other sign of a fire. She rubbed her eyes again. Had she dreamt the whole thing? Feeling slightly silly, Caitlyn retreated from the window. She washed as thoroughly as she could in the tiny bathroom, gasping as the icy water stung her skin, then she put on fresh clothes and hurried downstairs. The chocolate store was still closed, and when she knocked on the door leading to the Widow Mags’s private quarters, she got no answer.

Caitlyn hesitated, then wandered into the kitchen. She noticed that the rear door was unlocked—perhaps the Widow Mags had gone out for a walk in the woods behind the cottage? Anyway, she could find the old woman later. For now, she wanted to get some breakfast. Making up her mind, she turned and went out the front of the chocolate shop. She would head to the village green and hunt down the local bakery. Her stomach was rumbling and she couldn’t have chocolate for breakfast—although she was sorely tempted!

The first store Caitlyn encountered was the village post shop, a few doors down from the pub. She stepped inside and found that it was filled with a large group of middle-aged women gathered around the postmistress, who was standing behind the counter by the cash register. They had their heads together, obviously busily gossiping.

“… it’s Matthews’s wife, I’m sure it is,” said the postmistress, nodding knowledgeably.

“Amy Matthews? She’s a little mouse! I can’t imagine her killing her husband!” a woman with a purple rinse cried.

The postmistress shook her head. “It’s the quiet ones that are the worst.”

A large woman with an ample bosom put a hand on her hips. “Well, I, for one, wouldn’t be surprised if his wife murdered him. Did you know that he was beating her? I saw her the other day, with a bruise the size of Africa on one side of her face. Tried to tell me she walked into a door—hah! I know the signs of domestic abuse when I see it. Matthews had a foul temper when he was drunk.”

“They think he was poisoned, don’t they? She could have slipped something in his supper—”

“Where would she have got the poison, though? It was an extract from a herb, wasn’t it?”

“Belladonna, they call it. Grows really easily around here.”

 The postmistress nodded. “Yes, and I’ve seen it growing in one particular garden.”

“You have?”

“Where?”

“Down behind the chocolate shop.”

Gasps. “The chocolate shop! You mean, the Widow Mags?”

“I always knew there was something evil about that woman,” said the woman with the purple rinse.

“Yes, me too! They say she’s a witch—she and that batty daughter and granddaughter of hers, who run the herbal store.”

“We ought to tell the police.”

“What, tell the police that she’s a witch? They’d never believe us. They think she’s just a harmless old woman.”

“Harmless old woman? Have you seen those chocolates of hers? Enchanted by the devil, they are!” said the woman with the large bosom.

More gasps. “Really? How do you know?”

“I tasted them, didn’t I? There’s no way on earth they could taste that good, not unless there’s magic in ’em. Dark magic, if you ask me.”

“Oh my goodness, yes, I had some once too and they made me feel… oh, I can’t describe it but it was downright sinful!”

The postmistress leaned forwards. “Well, like I said, I’ve gone into the cottage garden a few times when no one was looking—not that I was sneaking around or anything, of course—and I saw, with my own eyes, belladonna plants growing there, bold as you please! And I’ll tell you something else. I saw Amy Matthews down at the chocolate shop several times in the last month. Thick as thieves, those two are. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Widow Mags is involved…”

“Do you think she cast a spell on him?”

A new woman spoke up in the group: “My nephew went up with the other men of the village to help bring the body back. He told me that Stan Matthews was stiff as a board, with his body all contorted and his fingers curled up like claws. And his eyes! They were open and staring and black as night. Stan Matthews had blue eyes—but when they found him, his eyes were black.”

Gasps and shudders all around the circle.

“Witchcraft! It has to be!”

“Oh my…”

“Fair gives you the shivers, it does!”

“I heard that—” the postmistress broke off as she looked up and saw Caitlyn. “Oh, hullo, miss! What can I do for you?”

The talking ceased as everyone turned to look at Caitlyn. She flushed slightly under their unabashed stares. She knew that life in these small villages revolved around finding fodder for gossip and, as a newcomer, she was “fresh meat” for all those poking noses and wagging tongues.

“Oh… um… I was hoping to pick up some breakfast…”

“The bakery’s just around the corner,” said the postmistress. “I’m afraid we don’t stock any fresh baking here. We do have milk and you can buy a bottle and have it with some cereal, if you like. All the cereals and biscuits are down there.” She indicated the aisle next to the counter.

“Thanks… I think I’ll get something from the bakery. But while I’m here, I might take a look around…” Caitlyn wandered down the aisle, marvelling at the range of things on the shelves. Like many village post shops, the place was tiny and yet crammed with goods, selling everything from postcards to pasta, toothpaste to wine, USB sticks, gardening gloves, local cheeses, dry-cleaning, fresh flowers, maps…

“Are you looking for something in particular, miss?” asked the postmistress, leaning over the counter to watch her.

Caitlyn smiled. “Oh, no… not really. I’m just browsing.”

“You American, miss?” one of the women spoke up.

Caitlyn hesitated. She didn’t feel like giving the long answer. “Um… yes, sort of.”

The other women pressed forwards eagerly, questions tumbling out of their mouths.

“Which part of America, miss?”

“Er… my mother’s from California. But I… I didn’t really live there much myself.”

“Where did you live?” another asked.

“Um… all over the world really. My… um… my family moved around a lot.”

“Got brothers and sisters, have you?”

“No, I’m an only child.”

Several women shook their heads, clucking their tongues. “Aww… now that’s a shame. Must have been lonely growing up.”

Caitlyn smiled wanly. “I managed okay. I have a cousin that I’m really close to.”

“You travelling alone, then? No nice young man?” One woman gave her a coy look.

“No,” said Caitlyn, slightly taken aback at her nosiness.

“Well, plenty of time for that. Maybe you’ll find a nice British chap.” Another coy look.

“Er…”

“You sure you’re American?” said the postmistress with a chuckle. “Funny—you don’t sound like the other American tourists. Your accent… it sounds quite English to my ears, although you say some words the American way…”

“Oh, I had a British nanny growing up—I was home-schooled and I spent most of my time with her. I guess I picked up her accent.” Caitlyn hesitated, then taking a deep breath, she added, “And actually, I was born in England. In this area.”

“In the Cotswolds?” Several eyebrows shot up. Caitlyn saw the women practically perk up their ears, like foxhounds who had scented a rabbit. They all eyed her with avid curiosity.

Caitlyn nodded, then she added casually, “By the way, I’ve been hearing a lot about a stone circle near the village?”

The postmistress nodded. “One of our local attractions, it is.”

“I’d love to see it—is it easy to get to?” asked Caitlyn.

“It’s up the hill at the south end of the village, miss,” said the postmistress. “You go down the lane by the water pump and when you get to the bottom, you’ll see a chocolate shop. Go round that and up the hill behind it. The stones are at the top of that hill, just on the edge of the woods.”

“Oh!” Caitlyn stared at her. “I think I know—in fact, I think someone was lighting a bonfire there last night.”

The women went still. The atmosphere in the room changed.

Caitlyn looked at them curiously. “Did any of you see it?”

“A fire, you say?” said the postmistress with forced indifference. “Can’t say I’ve heard anything about it. Are you sure you weren’t mistaken?”

“Yes, I saw it from my bedroom window. I’m staying at the chocolate shop and my room faces the hill and the woods behind the cottage. I woke up in the middle of the night and saw the glow on the horizon. It was just after midnight.” Caitlyn looked at the woman closest to her. “It had to have been a large bonfire—I wondered if it was some kind of special gathering?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, miss,” said the woman, avoiding her gaze. The rest of the women shifted uncomfortably and several began whispering to each other.

“I think you must have imagined it,” said the postmistress. “Perhaps it was a dream and you woke up confused… That happens to me sometimes. Why, I remember once when I was on holiday down in Bournemouth—”

“No, I saw it,” insisted Caitlyn. “It was exactly where you say the stone circle is. In fact, aren’t stone circles believed to be places of powerful magic? Perhaps it was some kind of pagan folk ritual—”

“I’ve never heard of anything like that around here,” interrupted the postmistress.

“No, certainly not,” said the other woman firmly.

The atmosphere was decidedly chilly now and several of the women were eyeing her in an almost hostile manner.

“Oh.” Caitlyn looked around the group of women. She was puzzled by their manner. They had seemed so chatty, so interested in her background… then she realised that it was the mention of the mysterious bonfire that had made them clam up. Why?

She cleared her throat. “Um… well, perhaps you’re right and I did imagine it.” She gave them all a bright smile. “I’ll head on over to the bakery now. It was nice meeting you.”

Turning, she walked slowly out of the store, conscious of the eyes boring into her back as she stepped out into the street.