Excerpt: “The Murder Before Christmas”

Chapter 1

“So, Courtney, is it?” I asked with what I hoped was a comforting and nonthreatening smile. I set the mug holding my newest tea blend I’d created for the Christmas season—a variety of fresh mint and a couple of other secret ingredients— down on the kitchen table. I called it “Candy Cane Concoctions,” and hoped others would find it as soothing as it was refreshing. “What can I do for you?”

Courtney didn’t look at me as she reached for her tea. She was young, younger than me, and extremely pretty, despite looking like something the cat dragged in. (And believe me, I know all about what cats can drag in. Midnight, my black cat, had presented me with more than my share of gifts over the years.) Courtney’s long, wavy blonde hair was pulled back in a haphazard ponytail, and there were puffy, black circles under her china-blue eyes. She was also visibly pregnant.

“Well, Mrs. Kingsley,” she began, but I quickly interrupted her.

“It’s Miss, but please, call me Charlie.” Yes, she was younger than me, but for goodness sake, not THAT much younger. Maybe it was time to start getting more serious about my morning makeup routine.

Her lips quirked up in a tiny smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Charlie, then. I was hoping you could make me a love potion.”

I quickly dropped my gaze, busying myself by pushing the plate of frosted Christmas sugar cookies I had made earlier toward her, not wanting her to see my shock and sorrow. She was pregnant and wanted a love potion. This just couldn’t be good.

“I don’t actually do love potions,” I said. “I make cus- tom-blended teas and tinctures.”

Her eyebrows knit together in confusion. “But people have been raving about how much you’ve helped them. Mrs. Witmore swears you cured her thyroid problems.”

I tried not to sigh. “My teas and tinctures do have health benefits, that’s true. Certain herbs and flowers can help with common ailments. In fact, for much of human civilization, there were no prescription drugs, so all they had to use were herbs and flowers. But I can’t promise any cures.”

“What about Ruthie?” Courtney asked. “She claims those heart tinctures you made are the reason Bob finally noticed her.”

I gritted my teeth. When Ruthie’s dad was recovering from a heart attack, I made a couple of teas and tinctures for him. Ruthie, who had a crush on her coworker Bob for years, was apparently so desperate for him to notice her that one day, she decided to bring one of my tinctures to work (I’m unclear which) and slip it into his drink. And apparently, shortly after that, Bob started up a conversation with her, and eventually asked her out on a date.

It didn’t help matters that Jean, Ruthie’s mother, had claimed my tinctures had reignited her and her husband’s love life, which is probably how Ruthie got the idea to try them with Bob in the first place.

Needless to say, that was an unintended benefit.

“I didn’t give Ruthie a love potion,” I said. “I gave her dad some tinctures and teas to help his heart.”

Courtney gazed at me with those clear-blue eyes, reminding me of a broken-down, worn-out doll. “Well, isn’t that where love starts?”

“Maybe,” I said. “But my intention was to heal her father’s heart, not to make anyone fall in love with anyone else.”

“But it worked,” she said. “Can you just sell me whatever you gave her? I have money. I’ll pay.”

“It’s not that simple,” I said. “I really need to ask you some questions. It’s always good to talk to your doctor, as well.”

She bit her lip and dropped her gaze to the tea in her hands. She looked so lost and alone, I felt sorry for her.

“Why don’t you tell me a little bit about who you want this love potion for?” I asked. “That would help me figure out how best to help you.”

She didn’t immediately answer, instead keeping her eyes down. Just as I was starting to think she wasn’t going to say anything at all, she spoke. “It’s for my husband,” she said, her voice so low, it was nearly a whisper.

I could feel my heart sink to the floor. This was even more heartbreaking than I had imagined. “You think your husband fell out of love with you?”

“I know he has,” she said. “He’s having an affair.”

“Oh Courtney,” I sighed. “I’m so sorry to hear that.”

She managed a tiny nod and picked up her tea to take a sip. “Have you two talked about it?”

She shook her head quickly.

“Does he know you know?”

She shrugged.

“Maybe that’s the place to start,” I said, keeping my voice gentle. “Having a conversation.”

“It won’t help,” she said, her voice still quiet.

“How do you know if you haven’t tried?”

She didn’t answer … just stared into her tea.

“Have you thought about marriage counseling?”

“He won’t go.” Her voice was firm.

“Have you asked?”

“I know. He’s said before he thinks therapy is a waste of money.”

“Okay. But you have a baby on the way,” I said. “You need to be able to talk through things. I understand it might be diffi- cult to talk about something like this, but …”

“He’s in love with her.” The words burst out of her as she raised her head. The expression on her face was so anguished that for a moment, it took my breath away.

“But how do you know if you haven’t talked to him about it?”

“I just do,” she said. “When you’re married, you know these things. You can sense when your husband has fallen out of love with you. Hence, my need for a love potion. I need him to fall back in love with me. You can see how urgent this is.” She gestured to her stomach. “In a few months, we’re going to have a baby. I just have to get him to fall back in love with me.”

Oh man, this was not going well. “I see why you would think that would be easier, but the problem is, there’s no such thing as a love potion.”

“Can you please just sell me what you made for Ruthie’s dad? So I can at least try?”

“Whatever happened between Ruthie and Bob had nothing to do with one of my tinctures,” I said flatly. “I don’t want to give you false hope. I really think your best course of action is to have an open and honest conversation with him about the affair.”

She was noticeably disappointed. It seemed to radiate out of every pore. I hated being the one to cause that, but I also wasn’t going to sell her anything that could be misconstrued as a “love potion.” Not only for her sake, but my own. The last thing I needed was lovesick women showing up at my door to buy something that didn’t exist.

“Okay,” she said quietly as she ducked her head so I couldn’t quite see her face. “No love potion. How about the opposite?”

I looked at her in confusion. “The opposite?”

“Yes. Something that would kill him.”

My mouth fell open. “Wha … I’m sorry, could you repeat that?” I must have heard her wrong. She was still talking so quietly, not to mention hiding her face.

Courtney blinked and looked up at me. “I’m sorry?”

“I didn’t hear what you said. Could you repeat it?”

“Oh. It was nothing.” She offered an apologetic smile.

“No, really,” I said. “I thought …” I laughed a little self-consciously. “I thought you said you wanted something to kill your husband.”

She blinked again. “Oh. Yeah. It was just a joke.” “A joke?”

“Yeah. I mean, you know. Sometimes married people want to kill each other. No big deal.” Now it was her turn to let out a little twitter of laughter. “Have you ever been married?”

I shivered and put my hands around my mug to absorb the warmth. “No.” Which was true. I had never been officially mar- ried, but that didn’t mean my love life wasn’t … complicated.

Nor did it mean I didn’t know exactly what she was talking about.

“Well, you know, sometimes married people can just get really angry with each other, and in the heat of the moment, even want to kill each other,” she explained. “But they don’t mean it. It’s just because they love each other so much that sometimes that passion looks like something else. In the heat of the mo- ment, in the middle of a fight, you can say all sorts of things you don’t mean. But of course, they wouldn’t do anything about it.”

“Of course,” I said. I decided not to mention that when she said it, she wasn’t actually arguing with her husband. Nor did I bring up how perhaps she was protesting a bit too much.

I gave her a hard look as I sipped my tea.

She kept her gaze firmly on the table, refusing to meet my eyes. “Did I tell you how wonderful this blend is?” she asked. “It’s so refreshing. Reminds me of a candy cane.”

“Thanks. It’s called ‘Candy Cane Concoctions,’ actually. I created it for the holidays,” I said.

“It’s wonderful.” She took another hurried drink and put her mug down, tea sloshing over the side. “Are you selling it? Could I buy some?”

“Sure,” I said, getting up from my chair. “Hang on a minute. I’ll get you a bag.”

She nodded as I left the kitchen to head upstairs to my of- fice/work room. Although, to be fair, it was so small, it wasn’t uncommon to find drying herbs or plants throughout the house.

I collected a bag and headed back to the kitchen. When I walked in, Courtney was standing up, fiddling with her purse. I instantly felt like something was off. Maybe it was the way she was standing or the bend of her neck, but she oozed guilt.

“Oh, there you are,” she said, fishing out her wallet. “How much do I owe you?’

I told her, and she pulled out a wad of cash, handing me a twenty.

“I’ll have to get you some change,” I said.

“That’s not necessary,” she said, taking the bag. “You were so helpful to me, and besides, I need to get going.”

“But this is way too much,” I protested. “Just let me find my purse.”

She waved me off as she left the kitchen and headed for the front door. “Nonsense. Truly, you were very helpful. No change is necessary.” She jammed her arms into her coat, and without bothering to zip it up, opened the front door and headed out into the cold.

I closed the door after her, watching her through the win- dow as she made her way down the driveway and into her car. She didn’t seem very steady on her feet, and I wanted to make sure she got into her vehicle safely. After she drove off, I went back to the kitchen to look around.

Nothing appeared to be out of order. If she had been dig- ging around looking for something (like something to kill her husband with), it wasn’t obvious.

Still, I couldn’t shake that uneasy feeling.

I went to the table to collect the dishes. Midnight strolled in as I was giving myself a pep talk.

“I’m sure she didn’t mean it,” I said to him. “She was prob- ably just upset. I mean, she wasn’t getting her love potion, and clearly, she was uncomfortable having a conversation with her husband. Although you’d think that would be a red flag.”

Midnight sat down, his dark-green eyes studying me.

“Of course, that’s hardly my business,” I continued. “She’s upset with him, and rightfully so. Who wouldn’t be? Even if she wasn’t actually joking in the moment, she was surely just letting off steam.”

Midnight’s tail twitched.

“Maybe this was even the first time she said it out loud,” I said as I moved to the sink. “And now that she said it, she realized how awful it was. Of course she would never do anything like that.” I turned to the cat. “Right?”

Midnight started cleaning himself.

“You’re a lot of help,” I muttered, turning back to the sink to finish the washing up. As strange as that encounter was, it was likely the end of it.

I hoped.

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