Misfiring spells. A gorgeous new boss. Looks like this Christmas will be magic…
The festive season isn’t Mina Rosso’s favourite time of year. It reminds her that as a descendant of La Befana – Italy’s Christmas witch – she’s cursed to forever be unlucky in love… Her plan this Christmastime is to lie low, keeping her secret identity under wraps as usual, and do what comes naturally: spread goodwill.
Unfortunately, the arrival of her boss’s son, Jadon Eder, puts a spanner in the works. Fresh from working in Milan, Jadon’s full of big-city arrogance and plans to overhaul the antique shop Mina loves. Pity he’s also sinfully attractive. Despite her best intentions – and even though he’s human, a no-no in the witchy world – Mina finds herself falling for him.
Then she finds out some bad news. Some of the spells she’s sold online have backfired … horribly. While she’s critical of the dark witches in her neighbourhood, is she really the good witch she thinks she is?
A fresh, funny story of love and the chaos and joy Christmas can bring from the ever-popular Carla Caruso.
Thunder rumbled in the distance and moisture in the air made Mina Rosso’s hair frizz about her face. So typical.
But despite her bad do, and the thrum of rain on the awning above, she felt warm and fuzzy as she peeked through the pizzeria’s window. Sheltering from a shower had never been so fortuitous.
Her gaze was fixed, a few metres away, on table number nine. There, her true love sat, toying with his car keys. Arlo. She drank in his chin-length dirty-blond hair, goateed jaw and bronzed skin. It was hard to believe only a sheet of glass divided them after so long. In the shadows, she pressed a hand to the foggy side-window, like an indoor plant desperate to have the sun’s glare on its leaves.
Behind the glass, Arlo’s face suddenly broke into a grin and Mina’s insides unfurled like the petals of a gelato-pink peony. Still grinning, Arlo got to his feet, stretching out a broad hand … and her magical feeling dissipated.
His hand claimed the pert waist of a new arrival. A brunette who, if her tresses hadn’t been so glossy, her posture so confident and her heels so high, could have been Mina’s double. Slightly younger double. Good thing the pizzeria’s front door was around the corner and the woman hadn’t seen Peeping Mina.
The Other Brunette, also known as ‘Camila’, shook rain off her hair. She looked like an Insta-model rather than the drenched sheepdog Mina no doubt resembled. Arlo leant to kiss her, on the mouth, and Mina licked dry lips, jealousy knifing at her heart. As he pulled back a chair, Mina clocked the little bundle on Camila’s other hip.
The married pair’s adorable baby boy.
A sob caught in Mina’s throat and a sad Andrea Bocelli tune cued up in her mind. She hadn’t seen Arlo since he’d become a dad, maybe because he’d been cocooned in the baby bubble. She flicked up the collar of her pleather jacket, chancing one last look at the picture-perfect family … just as Arlo turned her way. Sucking in a breath, she ducked her head and pelted away on the wet concrete.
The driving rain and occasional spray from a passing car helped provide a reality check. There was no point in lusting after someone she could never keep. Witches and humans didn’t have happy endings—end of. It was why she’d cast a he-loves-me-not spell all those years ago to ensure their relationship stayed broken after their first fight. She’d known there was no advantage in prolonging the inevitable heartache, even if she’d yielded to the madness of love for a short time. Whether he would have dusted his hands of her anyway remained unclear, but it had been self-preservation all the same.
Spying her parked car up ahead, Mina slowed her pace and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. If she really loved him, she should have been happy he’d found another soulmate, another life.
But as Taylor Dayne warbled, back in the eighties, tell that to her heart.
A MONTH LATER
‘I’m having second thoughts.’
Mina baulked as her younger sister, Lotta, twisted about before the bridal store’s gilt-framed mirror. Then understanding seeped in, loosening Mina’s limbs once more. ‘Oh … about the dress?’
‘Of course the dress,’ Lotta huffed, her crop of caramel curls bouncing as she moved. She smoothed her gown’s lacy skirt and eyeballed Mina in the vast changeroom’s mirror. ‘You thought I meant Dino?’
Mina got the subtext: that just because she was resigned to never having the fairy-tale uber-Italian wedding, she didn’t have to sabotage things for Lotta. Plant seeds of doubt just because Lotta was the family’s black sheep for being ‘normal’.
‘I was just mucking around,’ Mina fibbed, her cheeks growing warm. She switched focus. ‘What is it about the dress you’re unsure about?’
‘These drapey bits at my waist.’ Lotta flapped the elegantly folded fabric on the otherwise form-fitting strapless gown. ‘They make my hips look huge.’
Mina choked on a laugh. Everything about Lotta was petite and cute—a boon for Dino, who was also vertically challenged. Meanwhile, Mina regularly felt gangly and awkward beside her sister, though only Italians would consider her tall rather than just a bit above average.
As shopping companions, she and Lotta couldn’t have been more different. She was the night to Lotta’s day with her long black hair and blunt fringe, purplish-blue eyes, and the freckles unexpectedly scattered across her olive cheeks. The only similarity between them was their button noses, but even that wasn’t exactly authentic on Mina’s part.
She tapered her schnoz each month, care of a beauty maintenance spell—the most self-work she could do without being thoroughly drained. Being the sibling to inherit the witch gene had to have some perks. She’d chosen fixing her nose over correcting her short-sightedness. Vanity was a curse. But it was no more trickery than Spanx or lip filler, right? At any rate, she was saving up for laser eye surgery.
Glancing again at her sister, she mustered up strength, in lieu of the sales assistant, uselessly tending to another client in the front room. ‘Nah, the gown looks unbelievable on you, Lots,’ she gushed, ‘and it hasn’t even been properly altered to fit your shape yet. Dino’s eyes will take a stroll down his cheeks when he sees you. You’re the perfect bride.’
She didn’t add that, with the wedding mere weeks away, going cold on the frock was pretty much out of the question.
Lotta’s espresso-brown gaze swept her reflection some more. ‘Hmm … if you say so. Though I seriously hope there won’t be any eye-popping or other funny business when I tie the knot. It’s not too much to ask for one day of normalcy in my entire life, is it?’
Mina shifted her sneakered feet, duly squirming. ‘Nope.’
Just like she couldn’t help her ‘gift’, it wasn’t Lotta’s fault that she was surrounded by the real-life equivalent of Macbeth’s hags. Although, ironically, her sister was getting married on January fifth, the eve of the Italian holiday for Epiphany. A nod to her also being a descendant of the Roman Christmas witch, La Befana, even if she lacked the magical powers. The genetic trait of witchcraft had somehow skipped Lotta and she was all human, like their father—a soccer-mad, chauvinist layabout they’d barely known.
La Befana, meanwhile, was Italy’s answer to Santa Claus but real. In times gone by, Befana would visit all of Italy’s kids on Epiphany Eve to fill their stockings with lollies and presents if they were good, or a lump of coal or dark candy if they were bad. Then, like a good Italian housewife, she’d sweep the floor before she left.
Things, of course, had since changed. These days, loved ones, aided by online shopping, took care of the gifts while Befana descendants across the globe, like Mina, were compelled to spread goodwill in other ways. This urge increased tenfold at Christmastime—the current season—despite witches always getting a bad rap in fairy-tales.
‘Speaking of funny business,’ Lotta pushed on, ‘do you think Mum and Nonna could even behave this Friday?’
Mina stifled a grimace, thinking of the formal meet-the-in-laws dinner. It would go beyond the hurried greetings at Lotta’s birthday-party-turned-engagement-soiree. Following Dino’s surprise proposal, Lotta had organised the wedding at breakneck speed to make Epiphany Eve.
Mina thought of her bleached-blonde painter mum, who favoured fishnets and poppy-red lipstick over acting her age, and her grandma, whose Isabella Rossellini-like elegance had been overshadowed by a poor memory and mismatched shoes. She had a bad feeling the occasion would be as colourful an experience as Meet the Fockers but she wasn’t about to say so out loud.
‘I’m sure things will go swimmingly,’ she lied before glancing at her vintage bracelet-like watch.
Eek. The end of her lunchbreak was fast approaching, and she still had heaps to do at work—an antiques and collectables shop. In under a day, her scary new boss would arrive. The usual chief, the kind old Mr Eder, was recuperating after breaking his leg in a ladder fall. So, his mysterious son was sweeping in to run things in the interim. Apparently, this son was taking a sabbatical from working as an exec for a luxury furniture brand in Milan. Mina presumed he’d followed Mr Eder’s long-gone ex-wife overseas. He’d also been schooled abroad. All very hoity-toity.
Lotta’s pleading voice cut into Mina’s thoughts again. ‘Do you think you could talk to the olds before the dinner, just in case? You’re always better at getting through to them. I just want us to look like a normal family for once … you know, only minus a dad.’
‘I’ll have a word,’ Mina promised, calculating that she had just a few days to try. Unfortunately, what her elders considered ordinary behaviour was different to most. ‘But, back to the dress, no more doubts?’
Lotta pirouetted in front of the mirror. ‘I’m coming around again. I did want something unique. And you’re right, it’ll probably make a difference once the seamstress has made her last tweaks. Can you take my picture, though, so I can see it from another viewpoint?’
Mina rummaged in her handbag. ‘A photo I can do.’
Lotta’s beam for the camera phone outshone the room’s twinkling chandeliers. As Mina snapped away, she felt her stomach twinge, knowing she wouldn’t ever experience the same loved-up happiness.
As the long line of women behind her were a testament to, witches always wound up alone. They could marry—sometimes several times in her mother’s case—and bear children, but eventually the romantic magic wore off. Because who wanted to stay with someone who could trap them in a retro terrarium paperweight for the smallest slight? Besides that, who could be certain their love for a witch was real and not just the product of some spell?
Mina dropped her phone-wielding hand to her side. Her lingering heartache over Arlo was like a reminder tattoo on her wrist: to never make the same mistake of falling in love again.
‘Madonna santa!’ Mina held her feather duster aloft, staring at a pot plant that’d been tipped sideways on the shop floor. A gust through the window was to blame, the aisle now scattered with soil and ceramic shards … though she’d just spent an eternity cleaning that shadowy corner near the shopfront.
A clean-up incantation hovered on the tip of her tongue. But Sutton, her wannabe Wiccan colleague, was within hearing range, and she’d die if she ever found out that Mina was a real witch. Then there was the risk of Gardenia at the luxury real estate office across the road catching Mina using her abilities in broad daylight … While Gardenia was of the dark witch variety and Mina the good ‘red’ kind, there was still a code. Finding the dustpan was safer.
Ditching the feather duster, Mina leant to close the window. Along with the shop having cold spots, her hometown of Hilforest generally had one season: winter. It didn’t matter what was happening in the rest of the state, in the Adelaide Hills spot it was always several degrees cooler, as well as being a magnet for drizzle and mist. Little wonder witches flocked there. Not that Mina had anything in common with the kind who did, her family aside.
She readjusted her green knitted shawl and went in search of a dustpan. Wandering through the shop’s various ‘rooms’ of retro treasures gave her the usual thrill. Sale items ranged from artfully worn leather couches to quirky vases and old-fashioned bar carts. Being surrounded by so much aged wood was also the closest Mina could get to hanging out in an actual forest all day.
Sutton was busy serving a red-haired woman at the counter. To Mina’s eye, the woman’s buy—a wooden jewellery box—now emitted a joyful pink glow; a huge improvement on the melancholic blue aura it’d come in with. (Seeing auras in furniture was another witch ability she’d acquired.) The piece had found a happy new home. Yay.
Mina had no luck finding the dustpan, but she did unearth the broom, appropriately, in the broom closet. Returning to her window spot, she began to sweep, humming along to Monster Mash on the radio. A fringed lampshade to her left randomly flickered—
‘What the hell is this?’
Mina swung around at the sound of the gravelly voice behind her. Goose-bumps broke out all over her skin. A guy in his thirties, clad in all black—designer black—towered in her path. He had unconventional good looks: tousled brown hair, heavy brows, and a bristly cleft chin. Woody cologne also now permeated the air. Shame about his turn of phrase.
Her gaze dropped to the blue kyanite in his hand. She’d left the crystal atop an apothecary cabinet, from a divorce settlement, to clear it of negative energy.
‘Um … it’s just decoration, really.’ She attempted her best customer-pleasing smile while still clutching onto the broom. ‘Pretty gem, isn’t she?’
Grimly, the guy returned the ocean-coloured rock to its home. Maybe his lack of a smile hid bad teeth … He swivelled around, now gesturing at Mina’s plant stand by the window. She’d rescued all the plants, abandoned by their previous owners on the footpath for others to ‘adopt’. This included the one that’d just tipped over. Mr Eder had always been happy for her to sell them in-store.
‘Why are these plants here?’ the guy demanded. ‘They’re not antiques.’
Mina frowned; she couldn’t help it. What was this guy’s deal? Was he, like, a mystery shopper, checking out their level of customer service, or just someone determined to take his bad day out on everyone else? His rugged good looks were being tainted by the microsecond.
Gritting her teeth, she tried her best lure-a-bug-into-her-silvery-web approach. ‘No, they’re not antiques, but science shows greenery makes us happier. And doesn’t everyone need a pot plant or five in their life?’
The scowl hadn’t left the guy’s face. Some days she liked the challenge of a tough customer, but this wasn’t one of them. Mr Entitled now strode over to a bookcase, where one of Sutton’s hand-poured soy wax candles—her colleague’s side hustle—was adding a nectariney sweetness to the air.
The guy’s hazel gaze narrowed further. ‘Are you aware this is a fire hazard?’
Mina’s mouth fell open. She hadn’t noticed the bloke borrowing her broomstick to shove up his arse! As her brain formed a veiled gibe in response, Sutton sprang into view. As usual, she looked both ethereal and goth with her green-streaked blonde bob, sooty eye make-up, and septum piercing.
‘Mina!’ Sutton widened her eyes, on repeat, behind the guy’s back. ‘I see you’ve met Mr Eder’s son, Jadon. Our new boss.’
Holy cats. Mina’s chest tightened. ‘Oh … ha.’
Their new boss, a day early … while she grasped a broomstick and sported a shawl like a total craggy witch! He must have snuck in after the jewellery box customer! If only Mr Eder had flashed around a photo of his son, or she’d dared google Jadon in readiness. All her nightmares about Mr I-Work-in-Milan had come true. Why couldn’t Mr Eder’s fall have happened in-store? Then she could have (discreetly) helped him with her sorcery and not been stuck with his unfairly handsome offspring.
Somehow, she managed to properly introduce herself to Jadon. Not that he seemed interested one iota. Instead, he glanced around the place like he’d sniffed out a dead possum.
‘Thought I’d duck in on the way from the airport,’ he clipped. ‘But, be prepared—tomorrow I’ll hit the ground running and be looking to make changes ASAP. Improve this store’s figures. The place looks like a freaking hippie shop.’
Then he turned on his leather brogues and strode away, leaving Mina reeling. Niceness definitely didn’t run in the family (nice looks didn’t count). Jadon had only just arrived and was already throwing his weight around with a planned shop overhaul.
Welcome to Mina’s even more cursed life.
The Christmas Witch by Carla Caruso will be available from the 4th of November 2019
Find it here