Ivy shook her head, the end of her ponytail gliding across her shoulders as it swished back and forth. “It’s missing something. I like it, but it’s not quite there.”
I looked down at the pint-sized sous chef. “What are you thinking?”
She grinned mischievously. “More sugar.”
A laugh bubbled up out of me. What seven-year-old didn’t want more sugar? Then again, it was candy, so maybe she had a point. I tried a piece myself—okay, a second piece—and agreed with her. “Hear that, Bryan? More sugar.”
“You got it.” He scooped out another quarter cup.
Ever since Trudy, Sam’s grandmother, had given me the recipes for all the candies she used to make in her shop, I’d been regularly experimenting on Wednesday afternoons, our slowest day in the bakery. Each of the bakers on my team, including the newest, Brittni, had been rotating one late shift to try their hand at candy making. Although I still planned on hiring someone whose everyday responsibility would be making candy, I wanted everyone to see how they liked it and also to gain some understanding of the various confectionary processes. I’d made it a point to have everyone in the kitchen trained across disciplines, from decorating cakes to folding pastry dough to making the simplest cookie recipe. Candy would be no different. Besides, what if someone here excelled at candy far greater than someone I could hire? So far, it hadn’t happened, but the experiment in rotating candy shifts had been worth doing.
Today we were attempting a recipe for peppermint wafers, and we had to add sugar “to taste.” But whose taste?
That’s where Ivy came in. One of Trudy’s favorite things had been seeing the kids in town come into the shop and delight at her treats. Ivy certainly would have been among them back then. So on Wednesdays, she got dropped off by her babysitter after lunch to hang out with me, Sarah, and whoever else was working. Ivy would then be our taste tester and helper until her dad, Ken, arrived to pick her up. It had started out of necessity as her babysitter’s sports practice had picked back up in anticipation of the school year starting, and Ken needed someone to fill in for a few hours as a result. Ivy and I had been getting along great since our initial misunderstanding when they moved here in April, so I was happy to offer Ken the bakery as an option. He’d agreed to it as a temporary measure, and although this was only our second week doing it, Ivy coming here had been working out so great that we’d decided to keep the arrangement even after Ivy went back to school on an as-needed basis.
Sarah popped her head into the kitchen. “Ken’s here.”
I glanced at the clock on the wall. “He’s early.” Although he was working shorter days for the summer to enjoy more time with Ivy, a trade off of having to work events on some weekends, he was nearly a half hour earlier than expected.
“But we haven’t perfected the recipe yet!” Ivy half-whined.
Not wanting to disappoint Ivy—or worse, have her go into a tantrum over that disappointment—I gave Sarah a small shrug before looking back at Ivy. “Send him on back. We can have two taste testers today.”
Ivy bounced up and down, cheering, and didn’t settle until her dad walked in.
He headed over to me and kissed my cheek. “Meeting finished early, so I figured I’d surprise you both.” Then he mussed Ivy’s hair. “How was your day, kiddo?”
“Good!” she chirped and took a deep breath.
Before she launched into a play-by-play, I told Ken to grab an apron. Although I was used to getting all sorts of things on my clothes when I baked, I’d hate to see his button-up and slacks get ruined by an errant drop of chocolate or caramel.
As he headed for the closet, Ivy started in on her description of the day’s events as Bryan and I whipped up our next batch of peppermints. Usually Ivy would add an ingredient or two, but she was so thrilled to have the extra time with her dad that I didn’t interrupt until it was time to taste test.
“Here you both go,” I said dropping a chocolate-coated peppermint wafer into each of their hands. “On the count of three.”
The four of us lifted the candies to our mouths and then each took a bite.
Through a chorus of mmms, Ivy said, “Much better. I think you’ve gotten it to taste now.”
“I agree,” Ken said, popping the rest of his peppermint into his mouth.
I clapped my hands together in excitement. “Great! It’s settled. We can let everyone know tomorrow morning that there will be a new item on the menu.”
Bryan nodded, then began cleaning up the candy making station we’d set up not too long ago. It made things even tighter back here, particularly in the morning with everyone in the kitchen while Brittni was training with everyone. Once Sam left for school, we’d get some room back. But if the candy making continued to do as well as it had been, I’d have to consider some sort of alternative spacing.
I jotted the sugar amount we’d settled on in the margins of Trudy’s grimoire. Now that things had quieted down with all the ghosts, I’d pored over the book. In the last few weeks, I’d written several notes in the cookbook, adding my handwriting to at least three others contained within the pages.
Since Chelsea and David’s wedding, my run-ins with wayward spirits had been mostly routine, like seeing Arthur Miller in the park when I sat outside for lunch. The only surprise encounter with a spirit had been learning Cindy at the cider mill in Bug Creek had been a ghost the entire time I’d known her. But fortunately that discovery hadn’t resulted in my needing to solve any great mystery. In fact, it had probably been my easiest one since all of this started, and I’d even gained a new community partner out of it, although we hadn’t formally announced the business relationship.
That reminded me…
I slid the cookbook back onto the shelf of my workstation, where I kept it during the times we weren’t actively using it. For weeks I’d been bringing it back and forth from my house to the bakery, feeling it too precious a gift to leave behind, but lately it seemed to belong here more than at home. Especially now that we were selling candy to our customers. So today I was going to leave it here overnight and see how things went.
“Back in a moment,” I told the three in the kitchen as I wiped my hands on my apron. Already deep in cleaning, Bryan grunted in acknowledgement.
Ken glanced up at me as I passed by. “Are we all done for the afternoon?”
“Just about. If you want, you two can take off your aprons and follow me.” I continued into the bakeshop, followed a moment later by Ken and Ivy.
“How’d it go?” Sarah asked once we were all together.
“It was great!” Ivy chirped. “It’s going to be on the menu tomorrow!”
“Wonderful!” Sarah’s enthusiasm matched Ivy’s. It was hard not to be swayed by the little girl’s emotions. “I’ll make sure to try one then.” Although Sarah had been my original taste tester, she gladly gave the title to Ivy once she started hanging out here on Wednesday afternoons. Sarah had told me that she was worried about what all of the extra calories were doing to her figure and preferred to give up the trial sweets instead of her specialty drinks from Leafs and Grounds. Getting a tasty coffee had become a near-daily treat for her. And to think she’d once been avoiding them because the owner of the coffee shop, Gary, had a crush on her. I was pretty sure she had one on him too.
“I think we’re finally getting the hang of this whole candy-making thing,” I said.
Sarah nodded. “You’re starting to get as much of a reputation for your peanut butter cups as your cookies.”
It probably helped that my peanut butter cups were four inches in diameter, only a little smaller than my typical cookie. They were not your average peanut butter cups that came wrapped in a two pack.
“And I don’t mean just because of their size,” Sarah added as if knowing what I’d been thinking, one eyebrow raised to hint at what she was really insinuating. It made me wonder if her being my familiar created some sort of a psychic connection to what I was thinking so we could be a more efficient team. This wasn’t the first time she’d practically responded to my thoughts.
Had it been anyone other than Ken and Ivy or my baking team in here with us, I would have rolled my eyes at Sarah’s veiled comment. But everyone currently in the bakery knew what I was and what I could do. Ken had known since April. Ivy since May. I told the rest of my staff right after my gram visited in July. But Sarah had known all along, since before I even met her, although we had only formally been a witch and her familiar since the last full moon.
“Well, let me know if it goes beyond the usual.” Rumors about me and my abilities were nothing new. They’d started almost as soon as I arrived. Partially because the small town always talked about its newest residents—Ken had quickly earned the moniker of “hot doc” when he first arrived because he worked at the hospital despite not being a doctor—and partly because my first match struck within a week of being here. By the end of my first year in Heartwood Hollow, two of my couples were engaged. That, plus the way my baked goods made people feel after eating them, gave people a lot to talk about.
Who knew the rumors about my being a witch would turn out to be true?
I sure didn’t.
At least no one was talking about my ability to see ghosts. Then again, I kept that secret to myself as much as possible. Outside of Sarah, Lily, Ken, and Ivy, no one here knew. I hadn’t even told the paranormal support group about that particular skill.
“So dinner tonight?” Ken asked, casting me from my thoughts. Behind him, Ivy pressed her hands together. I smiled as warmth spread into my cheeks at the sight. How could I say no to that?
“I don’t see why not. I’ll meet you at your place when I get done here, and then we can figure something out.”
“All right.” Ken put his hand on Ivy’s shoulder. “How about we get out of here so Joanie can start wrapping up?”
Ivy grabbed her bag from underneath one of the tables, where she had tossed it when she got here. “Okay, Daddy. Bye, Joanie! Bye, Sarah!”
The two headed out the door, and once it was closed, Sarah turned to me. “Did you ever ask her about the missing crystal from your yard?”
I shook my head. “I haven’t given it much thought, actually. It kind of went out of my head that night after getting the coven’s invitation. I’ll ask her tonight and get it while I’m there.” The smoky quartz sphere was one I had buried in the front yard to cleanse and charge it over the week after the full moon, per my gram’s instructions. But when Sarah and I went to dig up all of the crystals, that one had been missing. Ivy finding it seemed like the most logical explanation. Who else would take it?
“Oh, Zeke called earlier when you were making the peppermints. I figured you wouldn’t want to interrupt what you were doing with Ivy.”
She was right about that. Wednesday afternoons were our time now. “Thanks. Did he say what he wanted?”
She shook her head, then ducked into the kitchen.
I grabbed the phone, realizing I likely already knew what he had to say. He’d been worried about not being able to find someone to help him at the Corner Bakery. His nephew, Tyler, still made an appearance occasionally, but he, like many others in town, would be going off to college soon.
Zeke picked up on the third ring while trying to stifle a yawn. “Corner Bakery. Zeke speaking.”
His phone mannerisms had improved greatly since I’d been forced to work there as my bakery underwent renovations. Before he’d just say hello, leaving a customer questioning if they’d reached the right place. “Hi, Zeke. It’s Joanie.”
“Wondered when you’d return my call.” Clearly he wasn’t fully reformed on his phone etiquette, but tired Zeke wasn’t the Zeke I’d enjoyed working with and who would turn his bakery around.
I tried to sound cheerful. “How are you doing today?”
“Would be better if my only help wasn’t leaving in two weeks.”
“I hear ya. I’m losing Sam soon.” And I still had to figure out a going away party for him.
Zeke let out a small snort. “But you’ve already gone and found someone else.” He had me there. “And I’m sure with your candy expansion, you’ll be looking to add more people to your staff.”
Also right, but I wasn’t going to pile onto his stress by confirming that I’d have another opening soon. “Well, Brittni was a special case. She came to a cookout at my house with cookies.”
“That’s a bold move.” I could easily hear how impressed he was.
“So why were you calling?” Normally I wouldn’t mind chatting with the other baker in town now that we were on friendly terms, but I wanted to start my closing routine so I could go have dinner with Ken and Ivy.
“You already answered my question. I was trying to figure out about your new girl. Find out if she applied and if maybe you had other applicants who you could let know I was looking. But since she magically fell into your lap, then I guess that’s not in the cards for me.”
“I wouldn’t say magical…” And I knew a thing or two about magic now. “She’s one of Sam’s friends, so he set up the whole thing.”
“Well, if you do hear of anyone—”
“I’ll send them your way. Have you thought about putting out a Help Wanted sign?”
“Bah! That’s just one more thing I have to do. And I hate how those things look in a window. But I’ll think about it.”
“You have a good night now, Zeke.”
Zeke mumbled a reply that I couldn’t quite make out but thought I might have heard “you too” amongst whatever else he’d said.
As I hung up the phone, the door opened to who I hoped would be my last customer for the day.
The girl approached me with an uneasy look, her eyebrows pinched softly, and it appeared she was biting the inside of her lower lip.
I gave her what I hoped was a comforting smile. “Hi, can I help you?”
In a quiet voice that matched her nervous expression, she asked, “Are you Joanie?”
“I am.” My gut was telling me that she wasn’t here for cookies, although having one might make her feel better. I didn’t recognize her from the paranormal support group meetings, but that didn’t mean she was unaware of who I was thanks to the rumors that had circulated about me since moving here. “Are you okay?”
She nodded in short, quick movements before stopping herself and shaking her head. “I need help. My ghost is missing. Can you find her?”