On September 24th I will be releasing Sprinkles and Sea Serpents, the first book in a brand new series–the Sugar Shack Witch Mysteries. This is the first time I’ve published something not connected back to the Beechwood Harbor world, and I am equal parts nervous and excited! I am truly in love with this new book and hope that you will enjoy it!
Here is the entire first chapter. A little appetizer! Remember, add the book to your Amazon wish list (specially if you’re a Kindle Unlimited reader) or pre-order today!
The silver machine stared at me, cold and unfeeling. In that moment, I would have rather taken on a charging, fire-breathing dragon. Doubt furled into a tight ball in the pit of my stomach as I marched myself towards the building. The man in front of me stepped aside, leaving me to face the computerized beast on my own.
Cringing, I stepped nearer and rammed my debit card into the ATM’s slot. The machine gave a dull beep, like some kind of mocking tone. Almost as though it were asking, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
I didn’t. But I also had no choice. I’d lived in denial for the past week and a half, but now it was time to rejoin the land of reality.
With bated breath, I squinted at the screen and pressed the Check Balance button.
Muttering a string of curse words, I punched buttons and toggled through the menu. I didn’t need to bother checking the savings account. I’d cleaned that out last time I’d braved facing the machine. Another electronic whir and a crisp twenty-dollar bill appeared in the slot under the screen. I shoved it and my debit card back into my wallet, canceled out of the ATM menu, spun on my heel, and stalked across the convenience store parking lot to my 2000 Ford Focus. It was the wagon-style model, painted in a color they called champagne, which was a little ridiculous considering it was more of a beer-budget kind of car, especially by the time I’d purchased it. The thing was on its last legs—or pistons or whatever it was that kept the thing going putt-putt-putt down the highway.
Car stuff wasn’t my forte.
I dropped into the driver’s seat and stared out the windshield. In the passenger seat beside me sat a banker’s box with an assortment of random items. A potted African violet, pads of rainbow-colored Post-It notes, a couple inspirational postcards I’d kept tacked to my cubicle wall, a few outdated magazines swiped from the break room recycle bin, the ergonomic keyboard and mouse that I’d had to pay for out of my own pocket because the company was too cheap to provide proper equipment for their staff—at least, us underlings. Lastly, a silver photo frame containing a picture of my family, taken what felt like a lifetime ago.
The banker’s box was all that remained of my plans. Of my hopes and dreams.
As I sat in the lot and stared at the convenience store, rain splashed down on the windshield. A wry smile twisted my lips. How fitting.
I’d pick up my final paycheck on Friday. Until then, the twenty in my pocket was going to have to see me through.
Rumbling out of the lot, I turned right and headed back to my apartment building. The brown siding was old and faded, the flower beds filled with bark dust and only a few stubby remnants of the flowers planted in spring. The place wasn’t much to look at, but it fit in my budget and the inside of my one-bedroom unit came with a fresh coat of paint and new laminate floors when I’d signed the lease six months ago. A lease that was set to expire in thirty-two days.
Shoving aside that barely pinned anxiety grenade, I parked in the covered spot designated for my apartment and squeezed out of the door, careful not to ding the SUV beside me. Whoever had painted the lines in the complex’s lot must have gone to the same school as whoever was in charge of making airplane seats shrink every year. On more than one occasion I’d been forced to pop my car’s hatch and climb out through the rear because there was no way to get the doors open. Luckily, my neighbor on the other side was still at work, so I was able to retrieve the banker’s box without much trouble.
Sighing, I swung my hip at the passenger door, slamming it shut, then started for the narrow stairway leading to my unit on the second floor of the two-story complex. It was still raining. I stepped out from under the cover of the parking structure and a gust of wind grabbed at my snow-white hair, flinging it into my face, along with a smattering of fat raindrops. I huffed out three quick breaths, trying to clear my hair from my face, but it was no use. I was in the process of balancing the box on one arm when a male voice cut through the bluster.
I blinked a few times and shoved my hair off my wet cheek.
A tall man offered me a crooked smile as he rose from his seat on the second-to-the-last step of the staircase leading to my apartment.
Somewhere in my chest, a knot tightened. “Leo? What are you doing here?”
“Just got back into town, from London, and I was on the plane and I was thinking about—” Leo trailed off as he glanced down and studied the contents of the box. “Ella, is this—did you—”
“Yes!” I snapped before dragging a hand across my face to clear the lingering strands of hair and the rain. I likely smeared my mascara and eyeliner in the process, but I was already running unopposed in the drowned-rat look-alike contest, so what did it matter?
Leo, on the other hand, looked handsome and polished as ever. He stood six feet two inches, with a lean, athletic build. He wasn’t super muscular, but he wasn’t a beanpole either. He was somewhere in between, with tanned skin that went even deeper in the summer, thanks to his Italian heritage. His dark brown eyes were flecked with gold, and shone even brighter when he smiled—which was almost always.
He wore a pair of designer jeans, with sneakers that had likely cost the same as my rent, with a persimmon-colored sweater under his black jacket. I knew the sweater well. It was the one I’d given him the year before, as a Christmas gift.
“What happened, Ella?” Leo prompted.
“They canned me,” I said, wrapping both arms around the box like it was some kind of teddy bear.
“Come on, let’s get you out of the rain,” Leo said, taking the box from my arm before I could object.
“Leo, I—” My protest died quickly as his warm arm looped around my shoulders and he shepherded me into the covered breezeway between the first-floor units.
He leaned over, put the box on the ground at his feet, and then gathered me in close. That was right about the time the little knot in my chest broke into little pieces like an explosion of really depressing confetti, and a sob escaped.
“Oh, Ella,” Leo said, squeezing me tighter. “I’m so sorry. Do you want to talk about it?”
Debating my answer, I blinked away the tears and realized there was a small carry-on suitcase sitting to the left of the stoop where he’d been sitting. “Leo?” I asked, taking a half step back from the embrace. “What are you really doing here?”
Leo turned slightly, following my gaze. A flush of color appeared along his defined cheekbones. “Well, like I said, El, I just got off a plane from London, and I uh—well, I wanted to see you.”
My heart sank even lower. “Leo, we said we would stop doing this. It’s been over for months. There isn’t anything left to talk about.”
Leo’s signature half-crooked smile returned as his deep brown eyes shifted back to mine. “We could skip the talking part, if you’d prefer.”
I laughed, the first honest-to-the-goddess laugh I’d had in weeks. It felt good. Still smiling, I leaned over and retrieved the box of my belongings from the cement walkway. I knew I should tell him to go home, back to his fancy high-rise condo on the other side of town, but the truth was, I didn’t want to be alone. I didn’t want to spend the night staring at the ceiling, delaying the inevitable. I already knew what was coming next. There weren’t any other options.
But that could wait till tomorrow.
“Come on,” I said to Leo as I started up the stairs. “I’ll at least let you buy me dinner.”
My apartment stood in stark contrast to the place Leo and I shared during the majority of our relationship. The place he still called home. It had been my choice to move out. Leo had offered to let me stay in one of the other bedrooms, and I had, for a time, but we both knew that eventually one or both of us was going to want to start dating again, and trying to bring someone new into the situation wasn’t going to turn out as cute and clean as in a soapy rom-com.
Our relationship—our engagement—had ended on friendly enough terms. But in some ways that only made it more difficult. Every time we got a little distance from each other, we’d slip right back into pining for the way things used to be, when we were together. Then we’d end up right where we were now, sharing a meal, trying to avoid prolonged eye contact, all the while wondering why we couldn’t make it work.
But the truth was, we just couldn’t.
Especially with what was coming next. I’d made a decision that would throw ice on the tiny embers of hope for ever making things work with Leo. He just didn’t know it yet.
After tonight, everything would change.
“Start at the beginning,” Leo prompted once we’d ordered some delivery Tex-Mex. “Why would they fire you? You’re the best beat reporter they’ve got.”
“Well, they don’t see it that way.” A rueful smile tugged on my lips. “In fact, it’s worse than that—they think I’m a plagiarizer.”
Leo’s mouth fell open. He sputtered, trying to find the right words. “But that’s—I mean—you—of all—how could they think that?”
“Oh, they had a little help,” I replied dryly as I crossed to the fridge. I yanked open the door and almost closed it right away. I didn’t want Leo to see how bare it was. There was nothing but a six-pack of hard ciders and a few jars of condiments. Angling my body to block most of it from sight, I grabbed two cans and closed the door again. “You remember that big story I was working on? About the Beaumont family?”
Leo nodded and accepted the can of hard cider. “Sure.”
“I submitted it last night to my editor, and this morning, I got called in to speak with her about it.” I laughed, the sound hollow. “I actually thought it was going to be to tell me I’d finally be getting the promotion to editor. I’d get my own desk. I’d get to actually write, instead of just dig up facts and hand them off to someone else. I thought my years of gofer work had finally paid off.”
Leo cast a dark look at the pull tab on the can before cracking it back.
“Instead,” I continued, the word pointed, “I was informed that I’d lifted big chunks of the piece from one of the other reporters trying for the editor position.”
“What?” Leo hissed. “But how is that even possible?”
“Yasmine swiped it from my computer, changed a few things to fit her style, and submitted it the night before I turned my version in. She’s getting the job, based off the work I did while she was out downing bottomless mimosas at brunch and refreshing her mani-pedi on the weekends.”
“Can’t they call and see who submitted the piece? Or, you could show them your revision history on the file on your computer! That would prove you were the author.”
“It’s all gone,” I said. “Poof. It’s not on my computer, it’s not on the cloud. It’s just gone. And, since I was keeping it so close to the vest, I hadn’t even submitted partial drafts to my editor. I was too proud. I’ve spent years having every story critiqued and torn to shreds before I even finished the first draft, and I’d finally reached a place where Sabrina trusted me. She left me alone until I had the whole story written.” I rubbed my fingers along my forehead, staring at the cabinets lining the wall. “Stupid. Arrogant.” I punctuated the words with jabs at my forehead.
“Hey, hey,” Leo chided, gently taking my hand away. He clasped both of his around it and kissed the back of my knuckles. “You’re not stupid, Ella. And you’re far from arrogant. In fact, you’re one of the most humble people I know, especially in this business. I spent two years begging you to see your own talent and to stop beating yourself up and comparing your work to people who’ve been at this for decades.”
“It doesn’t matter now,” I said, shaking my head. My lips pressed together as I fought back another round of tears. “I’m blackballed. No one will hire me now. My resume is forever marred, and even if I could prove that I wrote that piece, the rumors are going to follow me everywhere I go.”
“Come on, babe. This just happened. Let’s take a couple days and figure out a plan. We’ll call a couple lawyers, you know they have people who can find anything. They’ll do their digital-detective thing and get you your job back. Hey, you can probably sue Yasmine for damages! That might be fun. Right?”
My shoulders sagged. “I can’t afford a lawyer, Leo.”
The image from the ATM screen appeared behind my eyelids when I blinked. I barely had enough to buy a decent combo meal at a fast-food joint. If not for Leo showing up, I’d have spent my evening at the dollar store around the corner, filling a basket with bricks of ramen and bags of stale tortilla chips.
“I’ll pay for the lawyer,” Leo said. “I can cover it.”
I shot him a look. “I can’t let you do that, Leo. We’re not even together anymore, and it would just—”
A pained look flashed across his face. “What if we were … together?”
“Leo,” I groaned, pacing a few feet away before turning back to face him. “I can’t do this right now. I can’t have this conversation again.”
“Ella, I know we’ve gone through this before, but when I was in London, all I could think about was how you should have been there with me. Just like we always talked about. You could go to a café or bookshop and write, while I was out doing a shoot, and that night, we’d get together at some fancy restaurant and drink and talk about the day—”
I squeezed my eyes closed, trying to block out the images he was painting. We’d been down this road too many times, and it always looped back around to the same destination.
The doorbell rang, announcing our food delivery, and my eyes popped open. Leo’s gaze locked on mine for a heart-stopping minute, before he relented and went to get the door. His shoulders sagged slightly as he turned away, and my heart twisted. I didn’t want to hurt him. It was the last thing I would ever want to do, but there were things I couldn’t tell him. Huge chunks of my life that I had to keep hidden. My family, my past, the way I’d been raised. All of it was locked in secrets and half-truths, forming a huge impenetrable barrier between us.
Sighing, I leaned against the counter. It was over now. I couldn’t fall back into Leo’s arms and let him carry me away. Not this time. This time I had to go back to the one place I swore I’d never go again.
Next week, I’d load up whatever belongings I couldn’t sell off, and I’d make the drive up to Winterspell Lake.