Sugar Maple, Vermont - Sticks & Strings
Do you know the recipe for crazy?
Take one picture postcard New England town with a magickal secret, add busloads of crazed yarnaholics on a mission from Elizabeth Zimmermann, fold in a steady stream of walk-in knitting groupies seduced by the 30% off sign in the window of the most popular knit shop in the northeast then mix them all together with a hormonal sorceress-in-training and trust me when I say that anything can happen.
I'm Chloe Hobbs, the very pregnant owner of Sticks & Strings and, believe me, I was knee-deep in crazy and we were still five hours away from closing. I'd been up since the crack of dawn, rearranging stock, fixing displays of knitted garments, entering new prices into the computer, and reining herd on runaway magick. In the old days, before magick and pregnancy took over my life, I looked forward to our Black Friday sale the way a kid looked forward to Christmas. With nothing but Red Bull and Chips Ahoy, I juggled runaway yarn, crazed customers from all points on the compass, and still managed to keep Sugar Maple's secrets safe from prying eyes.
Who knew that pregnancy and magick would be such a volatile combination? My half-human hormones were running amok while my sorceress-in-training magick followed right behind. I cried crystals during an episode of Mad Men. I hiccoughed soap bubbles. I accidentally locked a platoon of pixies in the freezer and had to warm them up in a nest of orphaned toe-up socks. And there was the time I broke out in spells and sent two customers from Idaho on a wild ride up the Green Mountains clinging to a giant yarn swift. I won't tell you how many favors I had to call in that night to undo the mess but the ladies went home to Boise with nothing more than a slight headache and five pounds of six-ply cashmere.
The trick today was to stay calm and count on my inner Zen master to get me through the chaos of our Black Friday sale without sending any more customers on unscheduled sightseeing trips.
But after eight months of putting out magickal fires I was exhausted and the urge to curl up in the corner, any corner, and catch forty (or four hundred) winks was downright irresistible.
"Don't even think about it," my friend Lynette Pendragon said as she bustled past with an armload of swirly-soft angora in saturated Easter egg pastels. "You can nap later."
I shot her a fierce look. "I thought you were a shapeshifter, not a mindreader."
"Honey, you know your face gives you away every time. You were looking at that sofa the same way you looked at Luke when he first came to town."
Luke was the man responsible for the baby girl due to join our family on January first. He was not only the love of my life, he was also our chief of police and only resident full-blood human, a fact that still kept some of our villagers looking over their collective shoulder.
Over three hundred years ago my ancestor Aerynn had led the exodus of magickal creatures from Salem to Sugar Maple to escape the all too human devastation caused by the infamous Witch Trials. Before she pierced the veil many years later she cast a protective spell around her beloved town that would shield it from human mischief as long as one of her descendants walked the earth.
This time last year it had looked like that moment was about to arrive. Without a daughter to continue the Hobbs lineage, the buck stopped with me and so would our one of a kind security system. Sugar Maple's true nature would be revealed for the entire world to see and we all knew that would be the end of us.
Let me spell it out for you: I was a tall, skinny, single half-human/half-magick cat lover who hadn't been on a second date since high school. Grim didn't begin to cover my prospects.
The residents of Sugar Maple cast a wide net that pulled in every unattached vampire and werewolf, selkie and troll in our dimension. Who would have thought there could be so many Mr. Wrongs in one little town? When my closest friends started hinting that Fae bad boy Dane might be the answer to my prayers, I was ready to join a convent. Forbes the Mountain Giant was a better choice.
Their best attempts at hooking me up with someone—anyone!—had only sent me deeper into Top Model reruns and embarrassing encounters with boxed wine and Cherry Garcia as the town spiraled closer to disaster.
And then Luke walked into my life and in an instant, everything changed.
I loved Luke and he loved me back. The magick I had waited my entire life to possess was growing stronger. The town I cherished was once again at peace and thriving. My baby girl shifted position inside me and I smiled. As far as I could see, our future was golden.
But that still didn't mean I could take my eye off the ball. Magick was all well and good but sometimes you needed a little hands-on human intervention.
"Not so fast, Lynnie." I reached over and plucked a fluffy yellow feather from her shoulder. "Fourth time this week."
Lynette blew out a sigh. "Now you know why I never wear black."
Although she refused to admit it, Lynette had a slight problem with transitioning. She was a brilliant shape shifter but not so terrific when it came to reclaiming her natural form. If I had a dollar for every time Lynette had landed on my stove top or in my sink during the final stages of transition, I'd be driving a new Rolls-Royce instead of a last-century Buick. Her husband Cyrus had been trying to convince her she needed glasses but she was having none of it. I was afraid nothing less than singeing off her tail feathers in a Samhain bonfire would convince the vain shape-shifter that it might be time to embrace middle age.
At least I thought she was approaching middle age. In Sugar Maple, age was anybody's guess. We had adapted to the world of humans but we still weren't part of it. Our internal clocks followed a very different schedule. In human years, one of our pre-schoolers might be eligible for AARP.
Poor Luke was still having trouble with that and so was I. Up until recently I had been aging on a human scale but now that my magick had finally kicked in my lifespan was anybody's guess.
Lynette thanked me then disappeared back into the crowd of shoppers. She and Cyrus owned the Sugar Maple Play House and were currently in rehearsal for their annual Presentation of A Christmas Carol. The fact that she'd given up part of her holiday weekend to help out at Sticks & Strings meant the world to me.
In fact a lot of my townie friends had volunteered to lend a hand. Lilith, a gorgeous Norwegian troll with a heart of gold, helped me open before she dashed across the street to unlock the doors to the library. Paul and Verna Griggs, a long-married werewolf couple, sent their strapping teenage sons over late last night to move the Dumpster behind the shop in order to free up a few more parking spaces. Fae innkeeper Renate Weaver's married daughter Bettina was tucked away in a corner with her glorious harp, playing music so beautiful it could charm the credit card from the tightest purse. Even vampire matriarch Midge Stallworth, who never showed her plump and rosy face before dark, promised she'd come by at four-thirty to help me close.
They weren't my family by blood but they were definitely my family of choice.
My sentimental reverie was interrupted by a piercing yelp, followed by the cry, "Put down that fleece, beyotch, or I'll--"
If you're a knitter, you'll understand why I wasn't going to wait to find out what she had planned. Even crocheters knew bloodshed and fiber don't mix.
A spinner I recognized from one of last summer's classes was in a stand-off over a scruffy but luscious Blue-faced Leicester fleece I had yet to clean or card much less price. Unfortunately she wasn't in that stand-off with another spinner, she was going mano a mano with Elspeth, our houseguest from hell. The older woman looked flushed and frantic as she clutched the filthy fleece to her capacious bosom while Elspeth tried to pry it away from her.
You remember what Benjamin Franklin said about houseguests? "Guests, like fish, begin to stink after three days." He must have shared a house with a troll like Elspeth.
Elspeth didn't stink in the literal sense (even though Luke said she smelled like stale waffles) but before she'd been in town a month, the aged troll had managed to alienate everyone in town and most of my customers. Believe me, I would have sent her packing from Sugar Maple if I could but she was surrounded by some seriously powerful magick that rendered her untouchable.
So Elspeth pretty much did what she wanted whenever she wanted to with no thought for the rest of us. Mild-mannered Bettina had suggested that perhaps we could pool our magick and render Elspeth speechless for a month or two but Samuel, my ancestor and her protector, had apparently considered the possibility of combined forces when he set the spell in motion and so we were reduced to wearing headphones and cranking up the Led Zeppelin to drown out her endless complaints.
You can imagine how much Luke enjoyed sharing our cottage with her.
"Elspeth!" I barked like a Rottweiler.
"I claimed it first," Martha, my customer, announced as I approached. "This . . . this Betty White lookalike came out of nowhere and tried to get it away from me!"
I thanked the gods Elspeth had remembered to show herself in human form because the sight of a three-hundred-something year old troll might not be good for business.
"Let go, Elspeth," I said, trying not to sound as crazy as I was feeling. "Martha's one of my favorite customers."
Not that Elspeth would care about something as mundane as commerce but I could hope.
"This weren't for sale," Elspeth said, her bony jaw jutting forward. "She opened one of those cupboards and swiped it sure as I was standing there." She pointed at my not-for-sale closet near the work room. "Saw her with my own eyes I did."
"Maybe I did, maybe I didn't," Martha said. "That didn't give you the right to assault me."
Oh great. That was all I needed. An assault and battery charge leveled against the shop.
I had to think fast. I flashed Elspeth a look that could stop a buffalo in its tracks.
"This was tucked away for a reason, Martha," I said, running my hand along the dirty fleece and making a face. "Do you really want to deal with cleaning and carding?"
"It's Blue-faced Leicester," she said. "How often do you find a BFL fleece this size?"
"I have a cleaned BFL tucked away that I was saving. It's thirty percent larger." I paused for effect. "What if I offered it to you for the same sale price as the dirty one?"
She dropped that fleece so fast I almost laughed. "I'd say you had a deal."
It wasn't the Helsinki Accord but I had learned to take my victories where I found them. I wrote up a sales ticket and sent Martha marching off to the register. Then I wheeled on Elspeth.
"What are you doing here?" I demanded. "You said you were going inter-dimension to visit friends today." Both Luke and I had been looking forward to a day without her constant grumbling and griping.
"My comings and goings be none of your business, missy."
"You lied!" I'm not sure why that came as a surprise. "You had no intention of going anywhere."
She maintained an aggressive silence which pushed me the rest of the way over the edge.
"When I tell you to stay away from the shop I mean it. You don't get into arguments with my customers. That's not exactly good for business."
"She be nothing more than a thief."
"Martha is not a thief. She's . . . enthusiastic." Fiber lovers were a fierce group who believed possession wasn't just nine-tenths of the law, it was everything.
"She went where she had no business going."
Look who was talking. I wasn't going to try to explain Black Friday mania to her. It would be like explaining a DVR to a box turtle.
"You can't stay here, Elspeth."
"You need keeping after."
"What I need is for you to go back to the cottage and quit picking fights with my customers."
"I take no orders from you, missy. I was sent here to stay the forces of doom."
I was about to remind her that I wasn't a big fan of the doom talk but to my surprise she turned on her heel and melted away.
Damn her. I'd warned Elspeth about using magick in public but she knew better. I supposed I should be grateful she hadn't showed up at the shop looking like the three-foot, butter-yellow haired troll she actually was. Okay, so maybe the Betty White disguise was a little much but fortunately nobody seemed to notice.
I tucked the fleece away where marauding spinners wouldn't find it then went back to sorting through my remaining stock. Penelope, store cat and Hobbs clan familiar, peered up at me from her usual spot atop my basket of self-replenishing roving. Penny had been with me all my life and with my mother and my grandmother before me, all the way up the line to Aerynn, the mother of us all.
"Everything's under control." I bent down as far as I could and gave her a skritch behind the left ear. "Go back to sleep."
The Noro was all gone and so was the Malabrigo. We still had a box of Tilli Tomas, some Debbie Bliss, a fair amount of Cleckheaton and Jamieson. Even the splitty acrylic I refused to list on our website was flying off the shelves like fugitives from maximum security. Unless I missed my guess, we'd be out of sale stock long before closing time.
I had barely settled back down to tagging more stock when Janice Meany popped up at my side. Janice and I had always been close but after the adventure in Salem last spring our bond was unbreakable. She owned and operated Cut and Curl, the full service salon and day spa next to the library, and in her spare time took care of a husband and growing family.
"Don't look now," she whispered in my ear, "but you're being stalked."
I groaned and slapped a price sticker on my next-to-last skein of Noro Silk Garden. "Believe me, if you can't knit me, spin me, or felt me nobody in this shop is interested." The only thing being stalked was the legendary Wollmeise I had hidden inside the shop refrigerator behind the turkey sandwiches.
"No, really," Janice said, angling her body so her back was turned to the selling floor. "This grey-haired chick has been standing over there near the Ashford wheels for five minutes and I swear she hasn't blinked once."
I slapped a sticker on a sparkly skein of Disco Lights. "People zone out in yarn shops." I grinned up at my red-haired friend. "Personally I think it's the fumes but don't tell our dyers I said so."
Janice didn't laugh which definitely caught my attention. Anyone who says tenth generation witches don't have a sense of humor has clearly never met any of the Meany women. Besides, I could always make my friend laugh.
"Okay," I said, putting down my roll of stickers and giving her my full attention. "What makes you think she's stalking me?"
"Because she's looking at you like you're two hundred grams of qiviut, that's why."
"She probably never saw anyone this pregnant and she's about to text the Guinness Book of World Records."
No joke, I looked like I was carrying a football team. I mean, I was huge. Luke thought I looked womanly but I was reasonably sure that was a euphemism for fat.
Not that I minded. I loved being pregnant. Okay, so maybe I didn't love that I found out I was pregnant from a bad-tempered troll who had dropped into our lives the way Dorothy's house dropped on the wicked witch of the west or the morning sickness that lasted all day but I definitely loved the knowledge that every day that passed brought me twenty-four hours closer to meeting our daughter.
And, let's be honest, bigger boobs didn't hurt either.
Janice, who had five kids of her own, wasn't interested in my musings on motherhood.
"You're going to think I'm crazy," she said, "but I'm pretty sure I've seen her before."
"That's because you probably have," I pointed out. "Sticks & Strings has the most loyal clientele in the northeast." I was going to say "in the world" but I figured I'd save the hyperbole for my next email blast. On second thought, who needed hyperbole when your in-store workshops are booked a year in advance and you're known across the internet as the shop where your yarn never tangles, your sleeves always match, and you never, ever drop a stitch.
Janice shook her head. "She's not a regular customer." She paused for a moment, brow furrowed. "Damn, where have I seen her?"
"Don't ask me," I said with a shrug. "I'm eight hundred months pregnant."
But Janice had piqued my curiosity and I cast a quick glance toward the woman she had spotted lurking near the Ashfords. She was maybe five-two, small-boned with a comfortable amount of cushioning. She wore a shiny purple down vest over a fancy navy jogging outfit, and dark green clogs, all the better to show off her yellow argyle socks. Her grey hair was cut in a no-nonsense bob. Her only jewelry was a plain gold wedding band and a pair of pearl studs in her ears.
All things considered, a short, grey-haired white woman in a northern New England yarn shop wasn't exactly a blue whale sighting in Snow Lake but I had to agree with my friend.
"You're right," I said. "She does look familiar."
"And she can't take her eyes off you."
The woman nodded and smiled at me. I nodded and smiled back at her as a tiny prickle of apprehension moved between my shoulder blades.
"Salem," Janice said. "That's where I saw her."
The prickle of apprehension spread to my spine. "I wish you hadn't said that." Our trip to Salem had tested all of us in ways I never wanted to be tested again. I wracked my brain in an effort to place the woman in time and space. "Maybe she was the desk clerk at the motel."
Janice shook her head. "Luke checked us in. We stayed in the car."
Across the room, the grey-haired woman's smile widened and she started pushing her way through the crowd of yarnaholics as she headed straight for me.
"Oh crap," I said. "She's coming this way."
The magick side of my DNA equation was up for anything but the human side was screaming for me to get out of Dodge. Adrenaline could be every bit as powerful as a major spell.
"Watch the shop," I said to Janice as I struggled to slide my currently enormous butt off the stool where I'd been perched. This had trouble written all over it. The thing to do was run.
Unfortunately I was too late.
"Chloe?" The woman looked at me the way my cats did when I brought out the Fancy Feast. "It is Chloe, isn't it? Luke mentioned you owned a yarn shop and I was hoping--" She stopped as her gaze moved down from my face to the ginormous belly that not even an industrial strength work bench could hide.
"Oh!" It was amazing just how much you could pack into one tiny word.
For a crazy second I considered whipping out the magick and wiping her Chloe-specific memory bank clean but with the store this crowded, that would be asking for trouble. I was still learning my way around the world of spells and potions and even though I had developed into a pretty darn good sorceress, I had a long way to go. One little slip and the entire shop could find itself turned into a clan of quilters who were allergic to wool.
"Eight and a half months," I said before she had a chance to ask. "And no, I'm not carrying twins." I paused for a moment but she was still transfixed by my bump. You would have thought I had a flat screen TV strapped to my belly. "And you're--?"
She pulled her gaze away and struggled to regroup. "I'm Fran," she said as if that should mean something to me but I hadn't a clue. "Fran Kelly. We met back in April when you and Luke were up in Salem." She paused while I wracked my brain for the missing data. "Walmart . . . near sporting goods."
This was getting more embarrassing by the nanosecond.
"I worked with Luke when he was with the department." She forced a short laugh as she cast a sneaky glance toward the Welsh gold circlet I wore on the middle finger of my left hand. "Not that I want to take credit for this or anything, but I'm the one who told him about the job opening here."
The entire awkward encounter in the center aisle of the discount store came rushing back to me. Not only had Fran worked with Luke in Boston, she was also good friends with his brother Ronnie the Realtor and probably the rest of the MacKenzie clan as well. Luke had been ducking dinner invitations from his family for months with lame excuses about his work load and my store hours. Even worse, he hadn't shared our good news with anyone beyond the Sugar Maple town limits.
I'd warned him repeatedly that we needed to let his family know about the baby before she started college but he did that guy thing I hated and went selectively deaf every time I brought it up. He had his reasons but even I knew you couldn't keep a secret like this from your family forever.
"Fran," I said with a great big smile that I hoped covered my embarrassment. "Luke will be so sorry he missed you."
She laughed merrily. "We didn't expect to find him in the yarn shop. We'll pop into the police station next door and say hello after we leave here."
"He's not there either," I said, feeling my cheeks burning red hot. I gestured toward Janice who was hanging on our every word and heard myself babble something about helping Lorcan Meany weatherize their boat. Which was, of course, a total lie but telling a human that her old friend was seeing a selkie off on his annual aquatic renewal wasn't an option. "He won't be back until late afternoon, but if you'd like to hang out here and wait, you're welcome to stay."
Okay, somebody stick a cuff-down sock in my mouth. The last thing I wanted was for Luke's nosy human pal to stick around and observe the proceedings. I'd rather be trapped in a wind tunnel with Donald Trump's hair.
You wouldn't think things could get any worse, but you would be wrong.
"Wait a second." I struggled to keep my heart rate under control. "Did you say we?"
Fran's eyes cut to her left and I followed her gaze. "Bunny had the feeling Luke was hiding something but I don't think she figured on this. We thought we'd combine some shopping with a little snooping."
Bunny was Bernadette MacKenzie aka Luke's mother. The same woman he had been ducking since the plus sign appeared on the pregnancy tester. Bunny and I had spoken a few times, your basic chit-chat about the weather and Luke's whereabouts, and each time we did, I hung up feeling like a rat for not telling the woman that I was carrying her grandchild.
It seemed to me that was the kind of thing you shared with the people who loved you. The people who brought you into the world and guided you through infancy and childhood and the wild waters of adolescence.
But then what did I know? To me, family was a mystery wrapped in an enigma buried in kettle-dyed merino. I had spent most of my childhood wishing Cliff and Clare Huxtable would adopt me. I probably stood a better chance of understanding quantum physics than the workings of your average human family.
A sixtyish blond woman of medium height was slowly making her way toward us. Her eyes swept the displays on either side of her with metronomic precision. She paused once at a gathering of laceweight suri alpaca, dallied momentarily over a basket of angelic angora, exchanged commentary with two body builder types who had been looming over some mohair for at least a half hour.
She gave off a kind of sugar-cookies-with-a-gin-chaser vibe that I could sense across the room. She wore neatly pressed jeans, Skechers, and a simple top-down raglan in teal blue. Her arms were piled high with Cascade 220 and a sprinkling of Madelinetosh and she had that don't-mess-with-me air some women grew into as they got older. Deep grooves of worry bracketed her wide mouth but they were offset by the spray of laugh lines at the outer corners of her dark green eyes.
She scared me more than any army of Fae warriors ever had.
If I knocked Fran down then scrambled over the work table I stood a fifty-fifty chance of making it out the door before she zeroed in on me. But I was eight and a half months pregnant and barely mobile so I did the next best thing.
I set her yarn on fire.