Bewitched, bothered and…betrothed? THE WITCH IS BACK is a charming, witchy romantic comedy packed full of secrets, unexpected reunions, and high society scheming!
There’s nothing wrong with being a wallflower. Not to Emmaline Bluewater, anyway. Emma may have been born into witch society, but her days of trying to fit in where she doesn’t belong are over — they ended seven years ago, when the man she’d hoped to marry left town without a word. She’s much happier now, living a delightfully mundane human life in Chicago and running her bar, Toil and Trouble.
Until Bastian Truenote walks through the door and announces that he wants her back.
Bastian had his reasons for leaving — even if he can’t tell Emma what they are. Now, to win Emma’s heart, he’s got to face down an adorably goofy dog familiar, a best friend who’s all too eager to hit him with a carefully aimed hex, and a woman who’s far from the meek witch he remembers.
Magical contracts aren’t easily broken, but as far as Emma’s concerned, not even a marriage of convenience will have her falling under Bastian’s spell again…
Emma hated birthdays. And there were very few things she hated.
She had a long list of things she didn’t like. Public speaking, people making fun of her dog for his (lack of) looks, creating curses, horror movies, being late, witch high society, karaoke…they all held a spot on the list. But birthdays held a special spot on another, shorter list. Underlined, written in red ink and with three exclamation points.
Her human friend insisted that she couldn’t hate birthdays. What was there to hate?
Attention, Emma had always supplied. It was an easy answer, one Leah always laughed off. And it was half true. Emma really did hate the attention. If given the choice between everybody in a room raising a glass, all eyes on her, or letting twenty thousand spiders crawl over her body, it was a no-brainer. Come one, come all arachnids.
Witches didn’t celebrate birthdays. Why celebrate a day you were born? Where was the achievement? Witches celebrated magic. The lineage, the strength, the rarity. And despite the debatable achievement of being born into a respectable family, Emma’s magic was less potent than watered-down vodka. Such was the way of younger siblings. Society—followed closely by her mother—had written her off as useless as far as magical status was concerned. No, her usefulness lay elsewhere.
Her other reason for hating birthdays. The reason that had steered the course of her life ever since her mother had seen her playing with a Higher family’s son and seen a golden ticket. There were, after all, two ways a family could rise to Higher family status. One way was to distinguish themselves with magic.
The other was to marry into it.
But that was the past. And now she was here, in Chicago, surrounded by humans and their human preoccupation with being free to live as they wanted, following hearts and passions and squeezing every drop of the lemons life gave them. Which was how Emma found herself reluctantly taking a shift manning front of house at her bar, after their full-time bartender had thrown caution to the excessive wind that gave the city its nickname and followed her boyfriend to Seattle. Well wishes and all that, but damn her for leaving Emma in this position.
Emma wasn’t good with people. She loved watching them, but shove her into a situation where she had to make small talk and be interesting, and it had the same effect as using a sickening curse on a house plant. The leaves would wither and drop off, just like any conversation she was forced to be part of. The fact that she co-owned a human bar sometimes made her question her own mind.
But this wasn’t really her business. It was theirs. Hers, Leah’s and Tia’s—Tia, her best and only witch friend. Gloria Hightower had sure made an elemental mistake the day she’d forbidden her eight-year-old daughter from playing with the lesser Emmaline Bluewater. Anyone could see that forbidding Tia to do something was the quickest way to get her to jump right in. Both feet, no floaties, a daredevil grin on her face.
And thank the Goddess for her—and for Toil and Trouble, which, while not Emma’s first choice of a career, had indisputable fringe benefits. Like how it really, really ticked off her mother.
The thought invariably brought a half smug, half guilty smile to her face.
She’d spent the past hour crouched behind the polished walnut bar that ran the length of the thirty-foot space, checking wine bottle levels and serving the occasional customer. At least the business crowd didn’t expect banter, and since most came in like they were entering Noah’s Ark—two by two—she was pretty much treated as an extension of the bar’s furniture. No complaints here.
Now, finished with inventory, Emma rose from her crouch and placed her notepad on the counter. Her eyes swept the large space, double-checking all was okay. It seemed to be. Suit jackets had come off, ties loosened, heels slyly kicked off under tables. That had been important to Emma, that Toil and Trouble be a place people could relax. Nothing formal, not somewhere you felt judged.
Aside from that, Tia and Leah had taken the reins, from the gigantic wide-screen on the exposed brick wall at one end that silently played the news headlines, across the tables and booths outfitted in wine leather, to the small stage they used for karaoke nights, live music and other live performances. One man had even rented it to ask his girlfriend to marry him, (Emma’s idea of hell). Fortunately for him, his girlfriend had said yes.
Emma just hoped for his sake she’d gone through with it. The fallout otherwise wasn’t pretty.
“Hey, cutie.” Leah’s voice acted like a sudden beam of light, interrupting that dark path of thought. Emma straightened from where she leaned on the bar as her friend bounced up to her. The street doors rocked from Leah’s usual pace of eighty miles per hour.
A perky blonde human in jeans, a peacoat and a Cubs cap, Leah radiated vitality. If the humans ever wanted to solve the energy crisis, they could hook her up to the grid and have done with it. The woman lived at breakneck speed and figured she had two hands and twenty-four hours in a day for a reason.
Emma adored her. “What are you doing here?”
“What a welcome. All it needs is a party popper and some balloons to be complete.”
“I just meant, I thought you were at the shelter today.”
Leah’s grin was easy as she slid onto a bar stool. “I finished my shift and thought I’d swing by, see how you were doing.”
In addition to co-owning the bar, Leah volunteered at a local animal rescue shelter. It was actually where she and Emma had first met. Emma’s dog, a mixed breed—the polite way of describing Chester, who seemed to take traits from a dozen dogs—had been Leah’s recommendation. They’d been fast friends, with Emma also taking some shifts with Sloane, her half sister, when she had spare time.
“Fine. Good. It’s been slow.” Which had been the idea behind the three of them deciding to stick Emma on afternoons. Less need to banter.
Leah spied her notepad. “You know, it’s amazing.” She pulled the notebook and pen toward her and began to doodle a broomstick. “All that power and you still use a pen and paper.”
The hair on Emma’s neck prickled. “Leah.”
“Please.” Leah waved away her concern, even though she did lower her voice. She began on a cauldron. No matter what Emma and Tia told her, Leah refused to believe cauldrons weren’t a part of witch culture. “Nobody’s going to take me seriously.”
Still, Emma tamped down the urge to check the compact in her stowed purse. You never knew who could be eavesdropping through a mirror. “It’s not good to rely on too much magic.” She mouthed the last word.
Leah leaned in. Her voice, though quiet, brimmed with bottled enthusiasm. “And why is that? If I was a witch, I’d so abuse my powers.”
Emma’s fingers tap-tap-tapped on the counter and she gave Leah a pained glance. It was forbidden to reveal to any human that witches existed, except if given permission by the High Family. Any witch that broke that law found themselves on the nasty end of a curse. And that didn’t even take into account what they did with the human.
Leah caught the look, held up her hands. “All right, fine. I’ll stop. With that. And now I get to focus on the real reason I came by.” She dug in her bag and withdrew a sequined party hat. It was pink and ferociously ugly. “Happy birthday!”
Holy… Emma blanched. “I’m not wearing that.”
“Oh, come on. It’s fun.” Ignoring her weak protest, Leah stood on the stool’s rungs to attach the hat to Emma’s head.
The elastic dug into her chin. She sulked. “You know I don’t like my birthday.”
“C’mon. I’ve let you ignore all your birthdays thanks to your weird aversion—”
Emma choked. “Let me ignore them? You hired a stripper for my birthday last year. And you forgot to pay him.” She’d had to suffer walking through town in mortified silence with a half-naked firefighter to the nearest ATM.
“You could’ve just spelled him to forget.”
She could have tried, but mind magic had never been her forte. Ask her to nurture a plant to health, she was your girl. Complicated spells that dealt with memory were a whole different ballpark. She could’ve ended up trapping him in his own mind or making him fall in love with a lamppost. Better a little humiliation for her than trying to detach a human from an inanimate object.
Leah rolled her eyes, either too naïve or too human to grasp the magnitude of what mind magic really meant. “Anyway, not the point. Let’s celebrate another year of you.”
Ugh. “How long do I have to keep this on?”
“Until you get a birthday kiss.” Leah waggled her eyebrows. “And I know just the man.”
Emma’s groan was heartfelt. Leah had the worst taste in men, and Emma knew some pretty terrible guys. Warlocks took arrogance and polished it to a high shine. She didn’t have that much experience, having only really dated in the past couple of years when…well, when he hadn’t come for her. But dates seemed like a lot of work.
Men expected her to be pretty and laugh at the right time and toss out witty comments that edged on flirty. Unfortunately she was all-around average—brown hair, brown eyes, brown personality. Too timid, too shy. Too serious. Even the nice guys had barely restricted their yawns behind their menus. Any witty comments were kept to herself for her own amusement. As always.
And then there was the other factor. Bastian.
The name sent a ripple of emotion through her. None of it good. And much too complicated to explain.
“I don’t want to date right now” was all she said to Leah’s expectant expression.
“I swear, I am going to drag you out of the nest, Emma Bluewater, whether you like it or not. At some point in your life, you are going to have fun on your birthday.”
“I’m meeting Sloane for a movie tonight. You know I can’t cancel on her. Even if I wanted to ditch her for a man.”
Leah sighed, adjusted her cap. A lock of sunny hair drifted out to curl against her cheek. “You really crush the dream I’m nursing that male witches,” she mouthed, “are good lovers. They can’t be if you’re this against dating. Or maybe they are and that’s why. We don’t measure up.” She gauged Emma’s expression. “Are they? You’d tell me, right?”
Emma smiled and took back the pen and paper to cross out the witch doodles. “Any new rescues today?”
Leah gave her a speaking look but surrendered with good humor. They chatted about the shelter for a bit—well, Leah talked and Emma listened—and whenever anyone came up to the bar, Leah distracted them with cheerful small talk while Emma filled the order. Must be her birthday, Emma thought wryly. Usually she was pushed to “put herself out there.”
“Before I forget,” Leah added as a woman paid for her two Cokes and carried them off. “You, me, Tia, drinks tonight. After the movie,” she said when Emma opened her mouth to counter. “I know I’m working, but Tia promised to mix us up something special.” A set of dimples appeared. “Something witchy this way comes.”
“Last time Tia made drinks, I ended up with pink hair.”
“And you looked so cute. A little fun is just what you need. Drinks,” Leah commanded with a firm nod. “We’re doing drinks. And I will finally get a potion right.” Even though she was human, Leah was convinced she’d one day master the art of potion-making. Or the perfect witchy cocktail, in any case.
On that topic, she cocked her head. “We still got any of that powder you mixed up last time? You know, the one that tasted like raspberries and lost fantasies.”
Emma gave in as always with a grin at Leah’s romantic description. “Falayla root. It’s in the storage room.” And packed one hell of a punch when added to cocktails. For a witch, it gave a nice, dreamy buzz. For a human, it hit like five shots at once.
“I’ll check if we’ll need more for the drinks I’m planning.” Leah winked and jumped off the stool. “Hold tight.”
Emma watched her friend walk off, watched the men in the room watch her go. Leah had that essential feminine something that men seemed to react to, a sway to her hips that drew attention, even with the cap. Maybe the cap helped. Maybe men liked seeing a sports team on a woman’s head. Emma certainly wasn’t an expert.
Seeing nobody else to serve, she dragged over the box of bottles she’d carried up earlier and bent to restock the under-the-counter fridge.
Splitting her attention between the job in hand and the mirror behind the bar, she’d unloaded all the white and was starting on the pink stuff when a draft that whispered winter was on its way snaked around her ankles. A shiver worked down her spine and she shrugged her shoulders out, sliding a bottle into the fridge. Odd she’d feel the draft down here.
She slid another bottle next to its sibling when movement in the mirror distracted her. Reflected, a man stood near the register, half turned away as if looking back at the doors.
Something struck her as oddly familiar about his stance, the exact detail of his face in profile. Intuition made her chest tighten as she stared at the mirror.
That was when he swiveled and said, “Hello?”
Emma’s heart thumped so hard against her ribs she could’ve sworn she heard them crack. When wine spilled over her fingers, she realized she’d snapped the wine bottle’s neck. She’d lost control of her magic.
He’d always had that effect on her.
No. It couldn’t be him.
But she found she couldn’t move from her crouch, even with the wine and blood mixing until her cuts stung like crazy.
Turn, she willed, stomach squeezing as she caught a quick flick of his eyes in the mirror. Blue.
“Hello?” he repeated. “Is anyone here?”
That masculine voice, whiskey-rich silk, hit her in the gut. A thousand thoughts pushed forward as black sparks fizzed and popped in front of her eyes. Oh yeah. The whole breathing thing. She inhaled. Exhaled. It didn’t help. She wondered what her odds were of creating a portal where the customers wouldn’t see it.
The idea slapped her back. Where the hell had her backbone gone?
She pushed to her feet, holding tightly to a neutral expression like it was a life preserver in the middle of the ocean.
Captain, we’re going down.
Not on my watch, she told herself, bracing as she cleared the counter.
Her gaze tangled with his immediately. Like a piece of weather magic, a lightning bolt shot through the center of her, sizzling her skin with an almost painful intensity. His gorgeous face had only ripened with time, the cheekbones sharp, the lips soft in all that masculinity. He wore a shadow of dark honey stubble, his hair the same shade cropped close but with enough thickness to have locks brushing his forehead. That beautiful, undeniable face, like the navy eyes, revealed nothing except a flash of something she couldn’t define. Just one more question left unanswered.
The first one being where he’d been for the past seven years after he’d run out on her without even a note.
She fisted a hand, the one that had smashed the wine bottle. Focused on that small pain instead of the hurt that throbbed at her center. “Bastian.”
For a moment, they took each other’s measure before he offered one of his practiced smiles. “Emmaline. It’s you.”
Her throat felt thick, blocked. “What…” She swallowed, took a breath. It didn’t help. “You’re here.” In her bar. In her haven.
“I’m here,” he confirmed. His smile turned teasing, though it didn’t reach his eyes. “C’mon, is that any way to say hi to me?”
In her head she saw it, her hand shooting out, a poison ivy spell flying free to wrap around him. Not deadly, but oh-so-painful. It was so satisfying she almost believed she’d done it.
“Hi.” The word was toneless, not that he noticed.
“Good start.” He winked. Held out his arms. “Now, how about a hug for your fiancé?”