Gosh – I’ve been so busy lately that I completely forgot to post about last month’s new release! I’m delighted to announce that Book 3 in the Bewitched by Chocolate Mysteries is out now! Available in ebook and paperback (yes, and in Large Print too!):
Witch Summer Night’s Cream
(Bewitched by Chocolate Mysteries ~ Book 3)
Murder, mystery and a chocolate love potion…
Caitlyn Le Fey is looking forward to celebrating Midsummer’s Eve in the tiny English village of Tillyhenge. But when a teenage girl is mysteriously murdered and a priceless love potion goes missing, she and her cousins are plunged into a puzzling mystery.
Is the girl’s death connected to the midnight bonfires at the ancient stone circle? What about the two strangers who recently visited the enchanted chocolate shop belonging to the “village witch”? With her naughty black kitten and toothless old vampire uncle – not to mention the dashing Lord James Fitzroy – all lending a helping hand, Caitlyn sets out to do some magical sleuthing.
But Midsummer’s Eve is fast approaching and spells are going disastrously wrong… Can Caitlyn use her newfound witch powers to find the killer – and maybe even mend a broken heart?
And here’s an excerpt:
“That creepy chap is here again.”
Caitlyn Le Fey glanced up from where she was carefully ladling some rich, hot chocolate into an earthenware mug and looked at the teenage girl across the counter. Though already eighteen, Evie was still gangly-limbed and pimply-faced, with an awkward manner that reminded Caitlyn of a clumsy colt, and an untidy halo of frizzy red hair which defied all attempts to tame it. It was more of a carroty-red—not the deep crimson of Caitlyn’s own hair—but it was the one thing which instantly and obviously connected the two girls, and reminded Caitlyn that they were cousins.
Cousins. Caitlyn smiled as she repeated the word in her mind. It still seemed a bit surreal sometimes. When she had come to England over a month ago to search for her real family, the last thing she had expected was to find her roots here in the tiny village of Tillyhenge, deep in the Cotswolds countryside. And not only had she found a grandmother, an aunt, and a cousin to claim for her very own, she’d discovered that they were no ordinary grandmother, aunt, and cousin either.
They were witches. And Caitlyn was one of them.
It had taken her a while to come to terms with that, to tell the truth. After all, unlike her other, adoptive cousin, Pomona—who had grown up in Hollywood and embraced every New Age fad and occult belief—Caitlyn had never believed in magic. She had always scoffed at things like divination and witchcraft, fairies and spells, and dismissed legends and myths as silly stories. Until she had arrived in Tillyhenge, that is. It had been a shock to discover that magic was real—and that she could harness it to do her bidding.
Well, a little bit, anyway.
Caitlyn dropped her gaze to the ladle, which she had just returned to the small cauldron behind the counter. Casting a furtive glance around, she waved her fingers surreptitiously over the long silver handle. The ladle quivered, then slowly began gliding around the cauldron in a clockwise direction, stirring the hot chocolate by itself. Caitlyn felt an involuntary smile of delight tug her lips.
Of course, enchanting a ladle was beginner’s level stuff. After a week of daily training with the Widow Mags, her formidable grandmother, she should have really been focusing on mastering more advanced skills. But it was all still such a novelty that Caitlyn found herself delighted in being able to perform even the smallest feats of magic. Besides, such small feats are about the only thing I cando with reliability, she thought ruefully. So far, despite repeated attempts and trying very hard, she still hadn’t been able to master the more advanced skills and spells—such as turning something into chocolate and bringing chocolate creations to life.
“Caitlyn, did you hear what I said?”
Caitlyn snapped out of her thoughts and looked up. “Sorry, Evie… um… who’s creepy?”
“Him.” Evie jerked her chin across the room to a man sitting at one of the tables on the other side of the chocolate store.
Caitlyn followed the direction of her cousin’s gaze and narrowed her eyes thoughtfully. “Creepy” wasn’t exactly the word she would have chosen. She saw a thin old man in a shabby tweed jacket, with grey tufty hair that seemed to be sprouting from his ears, as well as his head and eyebrows, and spectacles perched on the end of his nose. His wrinkled face was puckered in concentration as he pored over a stack of books open on the table in front of him and he sipped absent-mindedly from a cup of hot chocolate at his elbow.
“Why do you think he’s creepy?” she asked.
“Well, he’s been coming every day for the past three days. I’ve seen him every afternoon when I’ve come here after school. And he always sits in that corner. That’s a bit weird, don’t you think?”
Caitlyn had to admit that this was true. Bewitched by Chocolate wasn’t exactly what you’d call a “bustling” shop and repeat customers were rare. Partly because most of the people who ventured in were casual tourists who happened to stop in the village whilst touring the Cotswolds. In fact, it was a miracle that they even found the chocolate shop in the first place, tucked as it was at the back of the village, away from the main activity near the village green.
Of course, they could have had regular visitors in the local residents, but most of the villagers refused to set foot in the shop. They were frightened of the Widow Mags—the strange old woman who owned the store—and the chocolates, which melted on your tongue and tasted so amazing that everyone whispered: they had to have been bewitched by dark magic.
Caitlyn felt a familiar mixture of frustration and exasperation at the thought of the villagers’ fearful attitudes. It was ridiculous—to be scared of something and think it’s evil, just because it tasted so mouth-wateringly good!
Still, all of this meant that Evie was right—it was hard enough to get a customer to step into the shop in the first place, never mind come back for three days in a row. She looked curiously again at the elderly gentleman. Perhaps he was staying in the village? That would explain his daily reappearance. Though wouldn’t she have heard if there was a stranger staying in Tillyhenge? The village was tiny, with only a smattering of shops and a pub on one side of the village green, and news travelled like wildfire on the local grapevine. Well, perhaps not to me, Caitlyn thought wryly. Her association with the Widow Mags meant that most of the villagers avoided her too and certainly didn’t include her in their inner gossip circles.
“Maybe he just really likes chocolates,” she said to Evie with a shrug. “It’s not a crime to return to the same shop every day and a lot of people have a ‘favourite seat’. As long as he’s a paying customer.” She grinned.
“Yes, but it’s not just that. He keeps asking me all these odd questions too—about magic and fairies and enchanted forests…”
“Well, Tillyhenge does have a bit of a reputation as a village with magical associations, remember? Especially because of the stone circle nearby,” Caitlyn reminded her. “Everyone thinks this place is steeped in witchcraft and you know how much it fascinates the tourists. Maybe it’s just vulgar curiosity—”
Evie shook her head. “No. This is different. It’s not like when tourists ask about local myths and legends—he seems to know all the legends himself already! It’s more as if he’s… he’s searching for answers to something.”
Caitlyn thought for a moment. Tillyhenge had been mentioned a lot in the news and on social media recently. Well, when you had stories circulating about sinister murders and chocolate wart curses, a place was bound to gain some notoriety.
“Maybe he’s a journalist, sniffing around for a scoop?” She looked at the younger girl. “You didn’t tell him you’re a witch, did you?”
“No, of course not!” said Evie. “He asked me what Mum did and I told him she’s a herbalist, which is sort of true.” She paused, then muttered, “I don’t know why I bother, though. I mean, everyone in the village is probably jumping to tell him nasty stuff about us anyway. They’re always talking behind my back.”
Caitlyn eyed the younger girl with surprise. Evie was normally so sweet and cheerful—this bitterness was unlike her.
“Have you been getting teased at school?” she asked gently.
Evie shrugged unconvincingly. “It’s my last year anyway.”
Caitlyn hesitated. She had been home-schooled herself and so had been spared a lot of the usual high school anguish, but she had heard enough horror stories to know how tough it could be, especially if you were “different”.
“You mustn’t let them get to you, you know. They’re probably just jealous—I’m sure lots of girls would secretly love to be a witch.”
“What’s the point of being a witch when you’re not even allowed to use magic half the time?” asked Evie petulantly.
Before Caitlyn could answer, two tourists came up to the counter. Hastily, Caitlyn flicked her fingers at the enchanted ladle to stop it stirring and turned to the two ladies.
“Can we have more of those strawberries with the chocolate sauce?” they asked eagerly.
“More?” Caitlyn looked at them askance. “Um… you’ve already had two dozen. Are you sure you should be having more?”
They bobbed their heads, barely listening to her, their eyes riveted on the beautifully-arranged pyramid of juicy red strawberries standing on the counter. Each strawberry had been drizzled with a rich chocolate sauce which had dried into a glossy dark coat of crisp chocolate lattice around the fruit.
“Uh… okay…” Caitlyn gave them another doubtful look, then carefully plucked a dozen strawberries off the pyramid. She had barely had time to place them on a plate before the two ladies had shoved some money at her, grabbed the plate, and started stuffing the juicy, chocolate-covered berries in their mouths.
“What’s going on with the strawberries?” Caitlyn asked Evie in an undertone as the two ladies moved away. “People have been coming back all day, asking to buy more. I know they’ve always been very popular but this is a bit crazy.”
“I think it’s the new chocolate sauce Grandma made,” said Evie. “I heard her talking to Mum about it. She’s added something special to it and—”
She broke off suddenly, her eyes widening with dismay as she stared at the shop doorway. Caitlyn turned and saw a girl of about Evie’s age step into the store. She had dark brown hair with a blunt fringe, cut in a trendy style, and a superficial prettiness, which was marred by the insolent expression on her face. She sauntered over to the counter, swinging a pink tote bag and lazily chewing on a piece of gum.
“Uh… H-h-hi, Mandy…” Evie stammered, backing away slightly.
The other girl leaned against the counter and smirked. “Not peddling potions over at your mum’s freaky herbal shop today?”
Evie flushed and looked down.
Mandy laughed. Then she peered at Evie with fake concern. “Bloody hell, that’s a huge zit on your nose, Evie. Eeuww… and it’s a whitehead! Gross!”
Evie clamped a hand over her nose, mortified. “It’s… it just came up this morning,” she mumbled.
Mandy snapped her fingers. “Oh, but you’re a witch, right? How come you’ve still got a face full of spots? Can’t you conjure up a spell to get rid of your pimples?” She giggled. “Or is your acne too disgusting, even for witchcraft?”
Evie was scarlet now and blinking rapidly, as if holding back tears. Caitlyn felt a surge of anger. She knew girls like Mandy; they were the same all over the world: the “popular” girls, the prom queens and darlings of cheerleading teams, always effortlessly pretty and graceful, with adoring groupies and besotted boys following in their wake—and always picking on those less fortunate. Girls like Evie with her frizzy hair and bad complexion.
“Did you want to buy something?” she asked curtly.
Mandy looked at the chocolate truffles beneath the glass counter and gave a sniff. “Dunno. Are these safe to eat?”
Caitlyn glanced around the store. There were several tourists browsing and she didn’t want to make a scene in front of them, otherwise she would have dearly loved to give Mandy a piece of her mind.
“Yes, they’re fine,” she said through gritted teeth.
“I’ll take some of those, then,” said Mandy, pointing to the display of milk chocolate pralines with peanut butter and roasted hazelnuts. “And those too,” she added, moving her finger to the rows of vanilla mocha ganache covered with crisp, dark chocolate.
Caitlyn grabbed the tongs and quickly filled up a small box, hoping to get rid of the girl as soon as possible. But as she handed the chocolates across the counter, another figure stepped through the front doorway. It was a boy—well, a young man, really—of eighteen, with an open, good-looking face and a thatch of sun-streaked blond hair, which gave him a bit of a “surfer” vibe. He had that lanky, angular look of boys on the verge of manhood, with an Adam’s apple bobbing prominently in his throat and hands that looked slightly too big for his body, but you could see the hint of the handsome man he would become one day, once he grew into his tall frame.
It was Chris Bottom, Caitlyn realised, a local boy who had recently started a summer job at nearby Huntingdon Manor, lending a helping hand wherever he was needed. His lanky figure sitting astride one of the Manor’s quad bikes had become a familiar sight around the village. As he walked in, Evie gave a breathless squeak and turned even brighter red, if that was possible. Mandy glanced at her and a malicious smile touched her lips.
“Ooh, I forgot—you’ve got a crush on Chris, haven’t you, Evie?” she said in a loud stage whisper. She smacked her lips, making mock kissing sounds, and giggled. “Mel told me she saw you writing ‘Mrs Evie Bottom’ in your notebook in Economics class… aww, isn’t that sweet?”
Evie made a choked sound in her throat, her eyes darting wildly from Mandy to Chris, who was still out of earshot, but who would arrive at the counter any moment. She put a frantic hand up to her frizzy hair, trying to tuck it behind her ears.
Mandy looked her up and down contemptuously and said with a snigger, “Better start brewing a love potion, Evie, because that’s the only way someone like Chris would ever look at you!”
Evie’s hands clenched around the handle of the mug she was holding, her knuckles so white that Caitlyn thought she might crack the ceramic. Her chest heaved and she stared at Mandy with a mixture of fear and hatred.
Mandy laughed again, unconcerned, then turned to Chris as he arrived at the counter. She smoothed down her sundress and said, giving him a flirtatious smile, “Hiya, Chris.”
“Hi, Mandy,” he said, blushing slightly. He looked expectantly at Evie and said, “Um… I’m here to pick up those chocolate samples for the Manor?”
Evie stared at him, opening and closing her mouth, like a goldfish gasping its last breath, but no sound came out. Mandy sniggered loudly again. There was a long silence as Chris continued looking at Evie, his easy smile fading into an expression of bewilderment.
Hastily, Caitlyn stepped in and said, “Er… maybe I can help, Chris. Which chocolates are these?”
The boy turned to her gratefully. “They’re for Lisa—you know, the Events Coordinator up at the Manor. She reckons it’d be cool to serve chocolates with the ‘Afternoon Tea’ at the end of the official tour. And, like, if people stay over at the Manor—they can have chocolates in their rooms or on their beds—like in those posh hotels, y’know? And for the weddings and conferences and other events—” He broke off suddenly and sneezed a couple of times. “Sorry.” He sniffed. “Hay fever.”
“Here.” Caitlyn handed him some napkins and waited politely as he blew his nose.
“Thanks.” He sniffed again, then continued. “Anyway, Lisa wants the Widow Mags to make some special chocolates—just for the Manor—and then she’ll put some fancy paper around ’em, paper that’s printed with the Huntingdon Manor coat of arms.” He rubbed his hands enthusiastically. “James—I mean, Lord Fitzroy—thought it was a cracking idea! He said the Widow Mags can become our supplier and we can tell the guests about the shop here too. Only, he and Lisa weren’t sure which flavours to have, so the Widow Mags said she’d make a few samples and they could choose.”
“Ah.” Caitlyn looked under the counter and spied a cardboard box which had been set aside. She picked it up and opened it to see a jumble of chocolate truffles in a variety of flavours. “This must be it.”
“Ta,” said Chris, reaching for the box.
“Chris…” Mandy purred. “Have you finished your economics project yet?”
“Yeah, I finished it last week.”
“Oh, lucky you…” Mandy pouted. “I’ve still got half of it to do.” She sidled closer to him and put a hand on his arm. “You’re so good with numbers, Chris… Could you help me?”
Chris’s face reddened. “Uh… sure.”
“You’re heading back to the Manor now, right?” she asked, giving him a dazzling smile. “My house is on the way. We can stop off and I can show you what I’ve done so far.”
She started to turn away but Caitlyn stopped her, pointing to the box of chocolates that Mandy had tucked into her tote bag.
“You haven’t paid for your chocolates.”
A look of chagrin and annoyance crossed the girl’s face, but she gave a forced laugh. “Oh… I completely forgot.”
That might have been true but Caitlyn had seen the way Mandy had deliberately slipped the box into her bag when she thought nobody was looking. Caitlyn said nothing, waiting pointedly until the girl had tossed some money down on the counter with bad grace. Mandy scowled, then she darted a look at Evie, who was still standing, tongue-tied, and a spiteful gleam came into her eyes.
“Chris…” she cooed. “Can I ride with you? I’ve been walking all over today and my feet are killing me!” She raised a bare leg and showed off her shapely calf.
Chris looked doubtful. “I’ve only got my normal bike with me—not the quad bike.”
“Oh, that’s all right!” said Mandy. “I can just perch on the handlebars. I’ve always wanted to do that—it looks so romantic!” She glanced sideways at Evie again, a smile curling the corners of her mouth.
“Uh… okay,” said Chris, rubbing the back of his neck and breaking into a sheepish grin.
He allowed himself to be dragged outside and they saw him putting his hands awkwardly around Mandy’s waist to help steady her, as she climbed, giggling, onto the handlebars of his bicycle. Caitlyn glanced at Evie and her heart contracted at the anguish she saw on her cousin’s face. It was cruel, what Mandy was doing—like someone dangling a delicious morsel of food in front of a starving person, then purposefully eating it themselves. She wanted to say something but didn’t know what to say. Instead, they both watched silently as Chris climbed astride the bike and he and Mandy wobbled off together down the lane, out of sight. The sound of Mandy’s shrieking laughter drifted back to them.
“Evie?” Caitlyn said gently, touching her arm.
Evie gave a start, then turned around, her face flushed and her eyes suspiciously bright.
“I hate her! I HATE HER!” she cried, her voice shrill with emotion. “I… I wish Mandy Harper would drop dead!”
An awkward silence descended in the chocolate shop as the remaining customers all turned around to stare. Caitlyn gave them a wan smile, then turned back to Evie and said in a low, urgent voice:
“Evie, you mustn’t let Mandy get to you! She was mad at me for making her pay for those chocolates so she took it out by tormenting you. Besides, I could see that she was trying to push your buttons the moment she stepped in the shop. People like that make themselves feel good by putting others down—”
“But it’s true what she said,” Evie whispered, hanging her head. “It’s true that Chris Bottom would never look at me unless I had a love potion.”
“That’s… that’s not true,” Caitlyn protested.
She looked at the younger girl helplessly, wishing she knew what to say to bolster Evie’s confidence. But to be honest, confidence had never been her strong suit. If anything, Caitlyn could relate to Evie’s feelings of inferiority only too well. She was used to being the ugly duckling in her glamorous showbiz family. Her late adoptive mother, Barbara Le Fey, had been a renowned American singer with a sultry voice and easy natural charm; her aunt—Barbara’s sister—was a Hollywood actress famous for her seductive looks and kooky personality; and her cousin, Pomona, was the classic celebrity princess: gorgeous, confident, and at home in the spotlight.
Caitlyn wished some of their easy assurance had rubbed off on her, but despite growing up surrounded by all these examples of beauty and charisma, she had remained shy and homely, self-conscious about her big hips and nervous about drawing attention to herself.
She pushed these thoughts aside now as she reminded herself that she was The Older Person here (even if it was only by four years). In fact, in a way, it was nice to feel like the “older and wiser one” for once. She had always felt so gawky and naïve compared to Pomona, who—despite being the same age—was always more glamorous and sophisticated. This was the first time that Caitlyn had someone to “care for”, and she found herself feeling very protective towards Evie. She realised that she should give the younger girl some words of wisdom and try to bolster her self-esteem. That’s what Pomona would do if she was here.
Caitlyn cleared her throat. “I’m sure that if Chris… uh… got to know you better and… um… well, it’s not all about the perfect hair and figure, you know… um… you want to be loved for your inner beauty too… and… um—” she floundered.
Then she realised that Evie wasn’t even listening. The girl had her head down, muttering to herself.
“… so what? I could do it… it would be so easy… he wouldn’t even know and then—”
“Evie?” Caitlyn said uneasily. “What are you talking about?”
The other girl blinked. “About… about making a love potion,” she said in a defiant tone.
“A love potion?” Caitlyn gave a sceptical laugh.
Evie frowned. “What’s so funny? I’m serious! And I’ll bet it’s easy! It’s like making up any kind of potion, really—you just need to have the right ingredients and know the spell for combining them. Then it works like a dream.” She gestured to the chocolate-covered strawberries. “Why do you think everyone’s been going bonkers for the strawberries?”
Caitlyn stared at her, then at the pyramid of red fruit, then back to Evie again. “What do you mean?”
“I told you—Grandma added something special to the chocolate sauce. It makes anything the sauce is poured on absolutely delicious and people can’t get enough of it.” Evie nodded. “I’m sure she added some kind of love potion to the chocolate sauce recipe.”
“Love potion?” Caitlyn said again, still having trouble wrapping her mind around the concept. It was one thing to accept that magic did exist, but love potions seemed to be something from the realm of movies and fairy tales. “You mean… it really works? Really makes people fall in love? But what’s in it?”
“I don’t know,” said Evie. “I heard her say it’s something which only flowers at this time of the year… you know, around Midsummer’s Eve.”
A sound next to them made them suddenly realise that they weren’t alone. There was a man standing next to the counter—the “creepy” gentleman Evie had been talking about earlier.
“I beg your pardon… I came over for another cup of hot chocolate and I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation…” He peered at them through his spectacles and said breathlessly, “Did I hear you say Midsummer’s Eve? And a… a love potion?”
Evie hesitated, giving Caitlyn a guilty look. The last thing she should have been doing was revealing the Widow Mags’s secret recipes to the public. “Well, um… I might have heard wrong,” she said quickly, trying to backtrack. “I mean, there aren’t really any love potions, of course—”
“Oh, but there are!” cried the old man. “In fact, there is a very famous love potion that’s associated with Midsummer’s Eve! Shakespeare himself wrote about it—ah, forgive me. I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Professor Ruskin.” He beamed at them. “I’m a Shakespearean scholar, you see, with a particular interest in AMidsummer Night’s Dream. In fact, I have devoted my life to studying that play and I am convinced that Shakespeare based his story on fact!”
“Er… on fact?” Caitlyn gave him an uncertain look. “The play is about a bunch of fairies—”
“Oh, but fairies are real! It’s just that most of us can’t see them!” insisted Professor Ruskin.
Oh dear, Caitlyn thought. The poor old thing was obviously completely cuckoo. He was babbling on, his spectacles glinting as he bobbed his head.
“…why I’ve come to Tillyhenge. I’m well aware of the reputation of this village and its connections to witchcraft and magic—and what better time to study the source of the story than during the summer solstice! I’m sure I’ll find the proof I need to support my theories—” He broke off as he saw the two girls looking at him in bewilderment. “Ah, forgive me, my dears… I have not told you my grand hypothesis yet, have I? You see, I believe that Shakespeare was inspired by a real-life enchanted forest. Naturally, one would think of the Forest of Arden, the ancient forest which once stood near Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon. But I posit—” he waved a finger excitedly, “—I posit that the forest which inspired A Midsummer Night’s Dream is none other than the one behind this village!”
“You may wonder how I came to this conclusion,” he continued, ignoring Caitlyn’s and Evie’s befuddled expressions. “I devoted several months to the research of ‘enchanted forests’ throughout Great Britain—hours spent in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, examining ancient texts—but I was rewarded for my efforts! There are numerous woods which lay claim to the ‘enchanted’ title, you see, but I have arrived at a definitive answer. It is remarkably simple, really, once one knows where to look. Indeed, Shakespeare laid out all the clues in his own play!”
“He… he did?” said Caitlyn.
Professor Ruskin nodded eagerly. “Yes, yes. There is a passage which mentions cowslips in Act 2, Scene 1. ‘And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear’.”
“Cowslips?” Caitlyn said, completely lost now.
“They’re small yellow flowers which grow wild in the meadows,” Evie spoke up. “They bloom in early spring. You can make wine from the flowers and use the roots in herbal remedies, to treat things like rheumatism. Mum uses it in several of her concoctions.”
“And the cowslips of the Cotswolds are particularly renowned for their beauty,” said the professor. “So you see, it all fits! The village of Tillyhenge, deep in the countryside famous for its cowslips, with an ancient forest at its back that’s known to have connections to magic… an ‘enchanted’ forest…” He whirled towards Evie, his eyes feverishly bright. “And now I hear a local talking about a love potion! That can be none other than the same potion used by Puck the fairy in the play. Oh, my dear—I had dreamt that such a potion could exist and now I find that it is true!” He gripped her arm, his fingers digging into her skin and making Evie wince. “Do you have it here? Can you show it to me?”
“N-n-no,” said Evie, trying to pull her arm out of his grasp. “I… the potion isn’t real!”
“But I heard you talk about it just now!” the professor insisted. “You said your grandmother—the dear lady who owns this chocolate shop—used it herself in her chocolate sauce recipe.”
“I… I was joking,” stammered Evie. “It’s not… there isn’t any love potion.”
Professor Ruskin frowned, his face darkening. “You are lying to me,” he said, advancing towards her.
“N-no, I’m not,” said Evie, backing away. “I honestly don’t know… I was making it up…” She shifted around the counter, trying to put it between herself and the old man, but he followed her.
“You must tell me the truth!” Professor Ruskin pleaded. “This is my life’s work! This is—aarrgh!”
Evie’s hand, which had been groping behind her, found the door behind the counter which led to the rooms at the rear of the cottage. She pushed it open, but before she could step through, a tiny ball of black fur shot out, colliding with the old man’s ankles. He cried out and pitched forwards, sprawling on the floor in a tangle of bony legs and arms.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” cried Evie, kneeling down to help him.
“Nibs!” shouted Caitlyn, diving to grab the kitten, but the little cat evaded her grasp and darted between her legs, causing Caitlyn to stumble and almost fall over herself.
“Meew!” said the kitten cheekily, and he scampered out into the front of the shop. The tourists turned and saw him.
“Oh! Look! A baby kitty! How adorable!” cooed one woman, tugging at her husband’s sleeve.
“Crikey! Something just tripped me… hey, is that a cat?”
“Mummy, look, there’s a cat!” A little boy pointed.
Two French women whirled around. “Ah! Un chat! Comme il est mignon!”
“NIBS!” Caitlyn shouted above the commotion. “Nibs, come back here!”
“Meew!” squeaked the kitten, running in circles around the tourists.
Caitlyn lunged for him and missed, but her move had forced him to double back towards the counter. He scampered past Evie and Professor Ruskin, who was still sitting on the floor, slightly dazed, and ran behind the counter. Caitlyn chased after him but Nibs dodged her again, this time diving through the partially open door back into the rear of the cottage. Panting, Caitlyn rushed through the door as well and into the kitchen. The kitten scrambled onto one of the chairs at the wooden table and turned around to face her, his eyes bright with mischief.
“Nibs, you—” Caitlyn broke off as she suddenly realised that there was somebody else in the kitchen.
A man was standing frozen in the doorway of the old pantry, now converted to a stillroom, and he had a guilty expression on his face.
“Who are you?” Caitlyn demanded. “What are you doing here?”
The man hastily stepped out of the stillroom and came towards Caitlyn.
“Dennis Kirby,” he said, holding a hand out to her. “I have an appointment to see the Widow Mags.”
Caitlyn frowned. He looked vaguely familiar—had she met him before? That sandy hair, combed over to one side, the narrow face with those calculating brown eyes and limp moustache… Then she remembered. He had been here earlier in the week: a local businessman of some kind, come to see the Widow Mags with an offer. He had been closeted with the old witch in the kitchen for a long time. Caitlyn didn’t know what they had talked about but, whatever it was, it obviously hadn’t gone as Kirby had planned. He’d left with his mouth set in an ugly line and his face like thunder.
Today, however, his face was plastered with an oily smile. Caitlyn didn’t take the hand he offered. Instead, she asked again:
“What are you doing in the kitchen?”
“I was waiting for the Widow Mags,” he said smoothly. “I arrived a bit early and found the back door unlocked, so I thought I’d wait in here.”
Caitlyn glanced at the back door, which was slightly ajar, and had to admit that he could have been telling the truth. The Widow Mags and Bertha, Evie’s mother, had gone out to the forest earlier to gather wild herbs, and they could well have left the door unlocked. Tillyhenge was still the sort of place where most people knew everyone else and hardly anyone locked their doors in the daytime.
Still, she didn’t trust him. “You weren’t just waiting, though—you were snooping around in the stillroom,” she pointed out.
The man gave her an innocent look. “The stillroom? What’s that? I was… uh… looking for the toilet, actually.”
A toilet in the kitchen? Yeah, right. It was obvious that he was lying. And she had the feeling that Dennis Kirby knew exactly what a stillroom was, although he was certainly putting on a good act. She wondered what he had been searching for. She knew that the Widow Mags distilled her tonics, tinctures, and cordials, and stored her dry herbs and other ingredients in the stillroom. Before she could question him further, however, they heard the sound of voices approaching the back door and, a minute later, two women stepped into the kitchen.
One was a plump, middle-aged, motherly figure clad in a voluminous purple kaftan, with a large wicker basket over one arm, filled with flowers, grasses, and herbs. Aunt Bertha. She had frizzy red hair just like Evie’s and a kindly face with a gentle smile. She put her basket on the counter and bent down to pat Nibs, who had scampered over to her, his little tail up in the air.
The other was an old woman with a hunched back, hands gnarled with arthritis, fierce, flashing eyes, and a large hooked nose—the classic image of the “witch” seen in so many books and movies. It was easy to see why the Widow Mags instilled fear and suspicion in the villagers. Not that her grandmother’s manner helped matters, Caitlyn reflected ruefully. Blunt and cantankerous, the Widow Mags certainly didn’t make it easy to like her.
“Widow Mags!” said Dennis Kirby, hurrying forwards with his hand thrust out. “How nice to see you again! I suppose you’ve been out enjoying the fine weather? A remarkably good summer we’re having, isn’t it? I was just—”
“What do you want?” the old woman snapped.
Kirby faltered to a stop, then his expression hardened and he said, “Have you thought about my offer?”
“I have. And the answer is still no.”
“What do you mean, ‘no’? I’m offering you good money!” Kirby said angrily. “Are you holding out for more? Is that it? Well, I’m telling you, you won’t get another penny from me so don’t think you can—”
“I told you, it’s not about the money.”
He gave a patronising laugh. “Of course it’s about the money. It’s always about the money. I’ve negotiated with much tougher customers than you, Widow Mags, so don’t think you can get me to raise my offer by digging your heels in.” He leaned forwards and changed his voice to a cajoling tone. “Come on, I’m making you a good offer here—a more than generous offer. And with my factory manufacturing the product, you could have the chance to get your chocolate sauce into every household in England! Look, I’ll even put your name on the label—how’s that? ‘The Widow Mags’s Special Chocolate Sauce’… got a nice ring, eh?” He gave her a winsome smile. “All you have to do is tell me the recipe. In fact, I don’t even need the whole recipe. I’ve worked out most of it already—it’s just this last ingredient. What is it? What makes it so that everyone can’t get enough of your chocolate sauce?”
His tone became more urgent as the Widow Mags didn’t respond. “All right, I’ll raise the money. Double. There. I’ll pay you double what I was offering. All you have to do is tell me the secret ingredient.”
The Widow Mags looked at him impatiently. “I told you, I’m not interested in your money.”
Dennis Kirby flushed with frustration. “I’m not giving up, you know,” he blustered. “I’ll be back here next week—and the week after—”
“You’d be wasting your time,” said the Widow Mags. “The answer will still be no.”
“Why you—!” He broke off as Nibs scampered up to him with an expression of curiosity on his whiskered face.
“Meew?” said the kitten.
“Get away from me!” snarled Kirby, making a kicking motion with his foot. “Filthy little beast!”
Bertha gasped in outrage, scooping up Nibs quickly. “He’s just a baby.”
The businessman gave her another disgusted look; then, clenching his fists, he turned and stormed out of the kitchen.
Widow Mags snorted “Good riddance!” and hobbled out to the shop at the front. Caitlyn hastily followed as she remembered with a guilty pang that she had left Evie outside on her own. She was relieved to find that the tourists had calmed down and that Professor Ruskin—together with his mad theories—had left for the day. They closed the chocolate shop soon after and retired to the back of the cottage, where Bertha rustled up a simple dinner of succulent honey-glazed ham and English mustard, fresh asparagus and watercress salad, home-made relishes and a large loaf of crusty country bread, all finished off with a delicious gooseberry tart.
As they were licking the last of the creamy tart from their dessert spoons, Evie spoke up:
“Grandma, will you make more of the chocolate sauce?”
The Widow Mags looked at her in surprise. “There’s still some left, isn’t there?”
“Not much. All the chocolate-drizzled strawberries sold out and everyone was asking for more. They even wanted chocolate sauce on their cakes and fudge. And they were buying the jars to take home too.”
The Widow Mags nodded. “I’ll make some more first thing in the morning,”
“Um… well, I really wanted to watch how you do it,” said Evie quickly.
The old woman looked at her in slight surprise—Evie had never shown much interest in chocolate-making before— then she nodded again and lifted Nibs from her lap. The little kitten had curled up in one of his favourite positions—on the Widow Mags’s lap, under the table—and blinked sleepily now, mewing in protest as she rose and gently deposited him on her chair. Then she gathered a few ingredients and cleared a space at the other end of the long, wooden table.
The two girls watched, fascinated, as she placed chunks of gourmet dark chocolate together with fresh cream into a deep copper pot, which she heated above a cauldron of simmering water until the chocolate melted into the cream in beautiful, dark swirls. Then she added a knob of butter, a generous helping of cocoa powder, some sugar, a pinch of salt, and a dash of vanilla, stirring continuously until the dark, molten mixture became thick and glossy.
Caitlyn could feel her mouth beginning to water as the heady fragrance of rich, decadent chocolate filled the kitchen. When the Widow Mags finally lifted the pot off the fire and brought it to the table, she couldn’t resist reaching out a finger towards the dribble of chocolate sauce on the side of the pot.
“Wait… there is one more ingredient,” said the Widow Mags.
Evie watched avidly as the old woman walked to the stillroom and paused just inside the doorway. A locked cupboard was mounted high on the wall. The Widow Mags waved a hand in front of the cabinet door and muttered: “Aperio!” The door swung open and Caitlyn saw various miniature bottles and vials, each with paper labels tied to strings around their necks. The Widow Mags lifted a small glass vial off the top shelf and returned to the table.
“Is that… Grandma, is that the love potion?” asked Evie breathlessly, staring at the vial.
Bertha answered, “Yes. I helped to brew it—from the juice of the ‘love-in-idleness’ flower.”
Caitlyn gave a disbelieving laugh. “What? The same flower as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? But that’s… that’s just something Shakespeare made up!”
The Widow Mags raised an eyebrow. “Is it?”
“Are you telling me that the story is true?” said Caitlyn incredulously. “That Cupid really shot an arrow which missed its target and landed on a purple flower instead—and the juice from that flower can make people fall in love?”
Bertha chuckled. “As to that, we don’t know. The truth has been lost in the mists of time. But there really is a flower called ‘love-in-idleness’—it’s more commonly known as the wild pansy.”
“But… pansies grow everywhere,” Caitlyn protested. “Surely if its juice could be used as a love potion, people would have realised by now.”
“Ah, but the juice for the potion doesn’t just come from any wild pansy,” said Bertha. “It must be extracted from a particular variety that only blooms a few days before Midsummer’s Eve. It takes great skill to recognise those special flowers—skills which only witches possess.”
She reached across and picked up the vial, holding it up to the light. Caitlyn saw that it was a third full with some kind of clear liquid.
“This potion is made up of juice extracted from flowers we harvested last summer. Mother and I have been searching for the last few days but we haven’t found any ‘love-in-idleness’ blooms yet.” Bertha sighed. “With Midsummer’s Eve just two days away, time is running out. If we don’t pick new flowers this year, I won’t be able to make a fresh batch of the potion and this—” she gave the vial a little shake, “—will have to last us until next summer.”
The Widow Mags took the vial and pulled out the stopper. “Fortunately, you only need a tiny bit for this recipe,” she said with a smile as she tipped the vial over the pot of chocolate sauce and carefully poured out one drop.
There was a hiss and a cloud of purple steam rose from the pot. The Widow Mags stirred the chocolate sauce and chanted something softly under her breath—so softly that Caitlyn couldn’t hear the words. It must have been an incantation of some kind, however, because the chocolate sauce began to glimmer. A soft moonlight glow rose from the pot, then faded slowly. The Widow Mags dabbed a finger against the side of the pot, lifting up some of the rich chocolate sauce. She licked her finger, then nodded.
“I think that’ll do.”
Picking up the vial, she sealed it again and returned it to the stillroom cupboard. Caitlyn saw Evie watching the Widow Mags wistfully. Then a sound outside the kitchen window caught her attention. She glanced across, frowning. Had she imagined it? It had sounded almost like a thump followed by a muffled curse… She crossed swiftly to the open window and looked out, half-expecting to see someone crouched there.
There was no one. And yet…
Caitlyn leaned out and strained her eyes to see in the gathering darkness. It was nearly ten but the sun set late in June and there was still enough twilight, as well as the glow from the rising moon, to make out faint shapes: the vegetables, flowers, and herbs growing in the cottage garden, the silhouette of the trees standing beyond, the gentle slope of the hill behind the cottage, rising up to the horizon, with the forest sweeping up over one side, like a dark green blanket covering half the hill. And there—just at the edge of the forest beside the cottage—was that a figure? Caitlyn peered harder but couldn’t make out what it was before it disappeared through the trees.
She turned to see the Widow Mags, Bertha, and Evie all regarding her quizzically.
“Is something the matter?”
Caitlyn hesitated, then smiled and shook her head. “No, nothing. Just… my imagination, I think.”
Nevertheless, she reached out and pulled the window shut, latching it firmly before stepping away.