Magic. Murder. Mayhem.
Alice’s life just got a lot more complicated…
Grieving the loss of her mother, Alice Lovell is thrilled to learn she has one last living relative in the enchanting town of Widdershins. But Great Aunt Mara and her sassy black cat, Hades, are nothing like she expects.
Within 24 hours of arriving in Widdershins, Alice’s life is turned upside down when Mara unveils a shocking family secret before vanishing without a trace, leaving Alice accused of a chilling murder.
With the relentless local sheriff banging on her door, and Mr. Tall-Dark-and-Serious, a mysterious magical investigator, making himself at home in her head, Alice’s world spirals into chaos. And as if that wasn’t enough, her aunt’s mischievous cat, Hades, is up to something, and it’s got the living AND the dead rattled!
Unsure who to trust and with time running out, Alice has no choice but to find Mara, stop a killer, clear herself of murder, and clean up Hades’s mess!
Hades’s Haunt is Book 1 in the Widdershins Magical Mystery Series, a spellbinding paranormal cozy mystery, where a quirky town, a mischievous cat, and untapped powers converge in a captivating tale of self-discovery and suspense.
Join the mayhem and pick up your copy today!
“There was so much to love in this fun story! You’ll fall in love with Alice like I did!”Goodreads Reviewer
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Watch the trailer of Hades’s Haunt here!
Read the first two chapters of Hades’s Haunt here!
I hadn’t planned any of this. Not one ounce.
I turned the envelope over in my hand again. I had fingered it so much it had become grubby. The corners were crumpled from living in my handbag for the best of three weeks. My mother had scrawled one word—a name—on the front: Mara. A great aunt I hadn’t known existed until Mom passed.
For the millionth time, I considered opening it. But I didn’t. I held it up to the window instead. A pointless effort. Streetlights were few, and when we passed one it offered no clue to the envelope’s contents. I rested the envelope back on my lap and glimpsed my face in the window, drawn and shadowy amongst the tendrils of blonde hair that had escaped from my ponytail. I sighed. The cabby’s eyes met mine in the rear-view mirror, and he arched an eyebrow. I forced a smile.
That’s the way, Alice. Fake it ’til you make it. No point feeling sorry for yourself. Other people have been through worse.
Of course, I agreed with myself, feeling temporarily buoyed by my optimistic inner voice. I mean, I’d only lost my mother … my house … my job …
Boy, the list was getting long.
I straightened my shoulders. Here I was on my way to meet Great Aunt Mara. To my knowledge, my last living relative. While Mom had never mentioned her, she had left explicit instructions in her will that I hand-deliver this letter to Great Aunt Mara. So here I was.
I’d spent a good amount of time over the last few days imagining what Great Aunt Mara might be like. She’d be kind, of course, like Mom. Maybe even spoke in feel-good sentiments like “Happiness is a choice”—one of Mom’s favorites. I envisioned her as every grandmotherly cliché I had seen on TV: a warm smile and plump figure; gray, permed hair; and an apron around her waist marked with flour from where she’d wiped her hands after making cookies. And when she saw me, she’d wrap me in a big hug and invite me to live with her.
Warmth filled my chest at the thought.
The taxi pulled to a stop at an intersection and waited for a car to pass. I glanced at the taximeter, mentally calculated how much was on my card, and swallowed. We had to be getting close.
Come on, Alice. Keep it positive. Not long now and you’ll be with your aunt, sipping tea, snacking on cookies, and laughing and hugging as you share memories about Mom. It was a nice thought.
I caught the cabby’s eye in the mirror again and puzzled for a moment. Why did he keep staring at me like that?
I gave him another wide smile. Kill ’em with kindness, my mother always said.
Shaking his head, the cabby turned his attention back to the road and pulled into the intersection.
It was almost like he was reading my thoughts.
I shifted my focus to the view out my window. For the most part, Widdershins looked how I expected a small village to look at night. Quaint shops nestled up against each other, closed signs hanging in their windows, illuminated by the streetlights. A large sign with a black-and-white cow boasted “The Holy Cow General Store.” Beside that stood various other shops: a florist, a small clothing boutique, an antiques store with an old wheelbarrow planter parked out front.
We made our way around a town square—a central park with a grove of tall trees illuminated by the occasional in-ground light. My focus traveled back to the array of shops around the town center. On one corner sat an old two-story, red-brick building with the word “Bank” scribed into the masonry. Farther around the square was a small café with a pale green-and-white striped awning over its door and windows. A sign above the door read “Miss Maisy’s Tea Shoppe.” I suspected the center looked rather charming during the daylight, but at night, the shadows thrown by the streetlights seemed sharp and unwelcoming.
None of that, Alice. There’s no point getting cold feet now.
We turned down a side street and drove through a more residential part of town. Whimsical Victorian cottages with gingerbread trim lined both sides of the street. The farther we drove, the larger the front yards got, setting the houses further back from the road. A mixture of excitement and nervousness bubbled in my chest.
This was by far the most reckless thing I had ever done. I was pinning a lot on believing Great Aunt Mara was a charitable person. I’d had a lot to organize after Mom passed—her funeral and sorting through her belongings. Losing my job hadn’t come as a surprise. What with my mother being sick and not being able to afford care, I hadn’t been the most reliable employee. And when the bank came for the house, I couldn’t do anything. Any inheritance was long ago eaten away by medical bills. So I used my meager savings to put a few boxes into storage. I packed a duffel bag of my own belongings, booked a flight, flew across two states, hired a taxi, and here I was. Moments away from starting a new life.
The one thing I hadn’t done was call ahead. Great Aunt Mara had no idea I was coming.
The executor of the will had given me Great Aunt Mara’s phone number along with her address. Mom’s instructions had been explicit. I was to hand-deliver the envelope. I just couldn’t bring myself to call ahead first. What if Great Aunt Mara told me she didn’t want to see me? That she had no interest in a great niece? No, it was better I just showed up. Once she saw me, of course, she’d want to help me, I reasoned. We were family. And … I had zero back-up plan.
The cabby flicked me yet another look in the mirror. Was he judging me?
I knew it wasn’t possible he was reading my mind, but just in case, I sent him the thought: How long until we’re there?
The car swerved over to the side of the road and pulled up alongside a cobblestone wall overgrown with ivy.
I took a moment to still the sudden hitch in my chest. We were here. Coincidence, that was all.
He was still watching me in the mirror, and his eyes seemed to smile. Then he winked at me.
What the guacamole?!
Refocusing on his meter, the cabby pressed a few buttons on the dash. It spurred me to unbelt and gather my belongings. I hadn’t brought much, just my jacket, purse, and duffel. The envelope still lay on my lap. I reached into my purse and withdrew my bank card after a moment of searching. My heart momentarily stopped when I saw the cost. As I handed my card to the driver through the gap in the seats, I said a quick prayer to whoever was listening.
Once he returned my card, I stuffed it back in my purse along with the envelope. I slid across the seat, dragging my belongings with me.
“Thanks,” I said, exiting the car. The night air was too warm for a jacket, so I tied it around my waist, then swung my purse strap over my shoulder. The cabby said nothing. I’d barely closed the door when he pulled away from the curb and took off down the street. With mixed emotions, I stood there on the pavement, watching the lights retreat. Here I was, at night, alone in a strange place about to meet a long-lost relative who didn’t know I was coming.
Who will be thrilled to meet you, my thoughts tried to console me.
Yes, she will, I thought back in reply.
I turned to survey my whereabouts. A few yards back, a gap showed in the stone wall. Hoisting up my duffel bag in both hands before me, I shuffled my way toward it. Stonework arched over a tall wrought-iron gate. Engraved in the stone above the gate, and barely visible from the light of the nearest streetlamp, were the words Hollyhock Cottage.
Cute, I thought.
I maneuvered my duffel to my left hand and jiggled the gate with my right. It stayed closed. Squinting, I traced my hand along its bars, searching for a latch. Sure enough, I found one. I lifted it, and precariously balancing on one leg, I pushed the gate open with my foot. Its screech set my teeth on edge. A cobbled footpath wound its way through an overgrown garden. A few garden lamps illuminated the path enough for me to see where I was going. I tried to ignore the ominous shadows untouched by their glow.
The path veered to the right, and I hobbled along it, scuffing my feet across the stones under the weight of my duffel. My pulse sped up. I was almost there. I grinned, then quickly smoothed my expression.
Play it cool, Alice.
Not that anyone was watching me.
A sudden unease settled over me. Maybe I was being watched. Yes. I was almost sure of it. A heaviness, like eyes were observing my every move.
Just my imagination, I consoled myself. An overactive imagination.
I rounded the corner, and the feeling intensified. Security cameras, maybe?
A rustle in the undergrowth to my left made my heart leap into my throat. Paralyzed, I scanned my surroundings. Just a bird or a mouse, I reasoned, before continuing down the path, the weight of my duffel dragging at my pace.
A yellow moon peeked out from behind the branches of a tree, still not offering enough light to see into the shadows. A wave of relief washed over me as the cottage grew clearer. It was nothing like I had expected. Its style predated the Victorian era, and instead of wood cladding and gingerbread trim, the cottage was a hodgepodge of cobblestones. A steeply pitched roof of slate-colored shingles allowed for tall gables, giving the cottage a witch’s hat appearance. Small rectangle windows with wooden trim and lead crosshatching were illuminated from within. Someone was home. I exhaled sharply.
I could still feel eyes on me, making my skin prickle. I did one last scan of my surroundings before taking the last few steps to the door. And there they were, two amber eyes blinking slowly at me. A cat. A black cat perched on a stone pillar at the end of the garden. A nervous giggle escaped.
“Hey, puss-puss,” I cooed at it. I had never been a cat person, but if it belonged to Great Aunt Mara, then it made sense to be nice.
The cat stared, unmoving. For a second, I wondered if maybe, in the dim light, I’d mistaken a statue for the real thing. A cat statue was no weirder than the gnomes or flamingos I’d seen in gardens before. The statue blinked, and a flicker of its tail corrected me. It was very much alive. After slowly tracking its eyes up and down my body, it haughtily put its nose in the air and turned away.
“Well, nice to meet you too,” I said.
With a tail swish, the thing lackadaisically stretched and jumped down from its pedestal. Obviously unfazed by my being there, it sauntered past me toward the front door of the cottage.
Juggling my duffel in one hand again, I repositioned the strap of my purse on my shoulder. Time to meet my destiny. I sucked in a deep breath, planted a wide smile on my face, and set off after the cat.
A lantern hanging in the corner illuminated the front entrance. The door appeared to be made of solid slabs of wood, railroad crossties maybe, with a large iron ring hanging in the center as a knocker. I followed the cat up the few steps and placed my duffel on the ground, readying myself to knock. The cat barely even paused before placing its right paw on the door close to the doorjamb and, to my surprise, pushing it open, just enough for the strange feline to squeeze through. A ray of amber light from inside stretched across the portico to meet my sneakers.
A flicker of unease passed through me. Why would an elderly woman leave a door unlocked at night? And not just unlocked, but not properly closed either? How else would the cat have been able to open it? I gave my head a quick shake, trying to dispel an onslaught of bad thoughts.
Grasping the cold iron doorknocker in one hand, I rapped three times and listened with pricked ears for a sign of life within. Nothing. My heart beat a little faster. Maybe I should have called? I still could. I pulled at my purse and rummaged for my phone. It would be a bit awkward, wouldn’t it? Calling while I was literally on the doorstep. No less awkward than just showing up, I argued back.
I scrolled through my contacts until I found Great Aunt Mara. My finger was poised to tap the call button when a noise sounded in front of me. I jumped, and the phone flew from my hand. I made a fumbled grab for it, but I was too slow, and it hit the stone pavement at my feet. I scrambled to pick it up, relieved to notice its screen remained uncracked. When I stood up again, a woman faced me in the doorway. My eyes widened, heat rising in my chest.
She was slightly shorter than me, her countenance stern. With short, spiky, salt-and-pepper hair, she appeared to be in her fifties. Her lips were painted a matching shade to her knee-length, red-sequined dress. She crossed her arms across an ample chest and arched one thin eyebrow in calm amusement.
I couldn’t say a thing. Words failed me.
“Well, close your mouth, child, or you’ll be catching flies,” the woman said, dropping her arms to her sides and smoothing the fabric over her wide hips.
My mouth snapped closed, jarring me to my senses, and I mumbled an apology. Any confidence I might have had combusted into flames, making my cheeks feel like they were on fire.
“You certainly took your time,” the woman said, tapping one emerald pump impatiently on the stone floor. “But you’re here now. In you come.”
She turned her back on me and started down the hallway.
It took me a second to realize what was going on. Oh, Alice, you’ve got the wrong address, I chided myself. For one, this woman was much younger than Great Aunt Mara would be, and two, there was no way Great Aunt Mara was expecting me.
“Come on, no time for dillydallying,” she said over her shoulder as she moved farther away from me.
Too stunned to argue, I grabbed my duffel to follow her. Maybe she knew Great Aunt Mara or could point me to the right address.
As I entered the house, a tall sideboard stood to my left, holding an ornamental bowl of colored rocks. The hallway had a slate floor and ended with stairs going up to another level. Candle-like sconces cast a yellowish glow on the walls. A large painting of what might have been the cottage and its gardens hung above it. There was little time to take it all in. I was already losing sight of the woman as she turned into a room near the end of the hall on the right. I quickly closed the door behind me and hurried after her.
The cat was perched on one of the newel posts at the bottom of the staircase. It watched me, unblinking, before flicking its tail and narrowing its eyes.
So it’s going to be like that, is it?
“Leave your bag at the foot of the stairs. You can take it up after,” a distant voice called out.
I wasn’t going to argue. I was done with lugging it around. I’d collect it on my way out again. After plonking my bag at the foot of the first step, I left my jacket on top, all the time staying out of paw’s reach of the cat in case it took a swipe. With the way it was eyeing me, it seemed like something it might do.
I entered the room on my right. Before I could take in my surroundings, a disembodied voice called out from an adjoining room.
“Chamomile or peppermint?”
Chamomile or peppermint what?
I was standing in what looked to be a family room. The room was cozy. A couple of wingback chairs flanked a heavily cushioned three-seater couch, between which two small side tables held stained-glass lamps with dragonfly motifs. A coffee table sat in the middle, atop an oval oriental rug. The focal point of the room was an open fireplace with an ornately carved wooden surround and a solid mantel full of photo frames and candles. It took me a moment to recognize that the carvings on each side of the fireplace were phoenixes rising from the ashes. On the left of the hearth sat a cast-iron pot akin to a cauldron.
“Well?” the voice called back. “Chamomile or peppermint? I have no plans on giving you anything stronger or you won’t sleep.”
Holy cheese. Was this woman expecting me to stay?
Come on, Alice, make your apologies, explain you’re not whoever she thinks you are, and be on your way!
Where? I argued back. Where would I go?
“Chamomile, please,” my voice squeaked, cringing at my cowardice.
Unsure of what to do with myself, I moved closer to the fireplace mantel to inspect the photos. I caught my reflection in the glass of one and saw I was chewing my lip. I stopped and tried to focus on the pictures before me. One photo caught my attention.
The photo was black and white of two women with broad smiles in old-fashioned swimsuits and floppy wide-brimmed hats. Between them was a girl of maybe eight or nine years of age swinging on their arms. The girl’s head was tilted back in laughter, her blonde hair flying out behind her. Small waves hit the shore in the background and a seagull flew overhead.
It was the quintessential picture of a perfect beach outing, and yet my stomach flip-flopped as I took in all the details. The young girl seemed so familiar. Frighteningly familiar. She looked like me. Only I had never been to the beach. Not as a child. The first time I felt sand under my toes was on my sixteenth birthday, when Mom and I went on a road trip to celebrate.
“You look like her.”
The cat had reappeared and was winding between the woman’s legs as she walked into the room holding a tray with two steaming teacups. How did she not trip in those heels?
“Still catching flies, I see.” She gave a sigh, placing the tray on the coffee table.
I snapped my jaw shut, heat returning to my face.
The woman gestured for me to take a seat on the couch while she took the wingback. She crossed her legs and showed way more thigh than I’d hoped to see on someone of her age.
Now’s the time, Alice. Tell her who you are and that you’re at the wrong address. Then go do what you set out to do. Find your Great Aunt Mara.
“You’ve found her,” the woman said. She lifted a cup from the tray and gently brought it to her lips.
Had she read my mind? What did she mean I had found her? I glanced around the room, trying to get my thoughts in order.
The cat jumped up onto the arm of the couch, settled onto its belly, and crossed its front paws, watching me as if I were its entertainment for the night.
“Really, Alice. Sit down before you faint away. Perhaps you can tell me why it took you so long to get here?”
Holy cheese. Was the room swaying? How did she know my name?
On wobbly legs, I took the few steps to the couch, plonking myself down before my legs gave out. I swear the cat shook its head at me before closing its eyes to sleep.
“How do you know my name?” I croaked.
“Because, Alice.” The woman sighed as if it really was quite logical. “We’re family. Your mother must have finally accepted that too. It’s hard to argue with facts when you’re dying.”
I swallowed back a lump in my throat.
“Now, now, no point crying about it. We all have to die someday. Drink your tea. It’ll make you feel better.”
The woman picked up her cup, leaned back in her chair, and took another sip. She nodded, encouraging me to do the same.
My head spun with a million questions. Was this woman Great Aunt Mara? Had the executor of the will called ahead to say I was coming? Not knowing what else to do, I picked up the remaining cup of tea. I focused all my attention on steadying my hands so as not to spill the hot beverage.
The cup was warm in my hands, and I paused. This woman said we were family, yet how was I to know she was telling the truth?
The warming scent of chamomile filled my nostrils as I lifted the drink to my lips. The liquid ambrosia slid down my throat, melting away my tension, and I sank further into the couch cushions. I’d had chamomile tea before, but nothing like this.
“It’s a special blend,” the woman said, her eyes sparkling. “Now, I suppose you have some questions for me. However, let’s start at the beginning, shall we?”
I nodded dumbly, more relaxed than I’d felt in a long time. Had I been drugged?
The woman rolled her eyes. After another sip of her tea, she pointed at the photo I’d been studying on the mantle.
“You look like her,” she said, “because that precocious little cherub was your mother. The woman on the left is Isabella, your grandmother, and if you haven’t put it together yet”—she arched an eyebrow, and I shifted a little in my seat—“the other woman is me. Mara.”
She took another sip of her drink, allowing time for the bomb she’d dropped to settle.
“Great Aunt Mara?” I questioned.
She tsk-tsked. “I hardly think I need such an aging title. No matter how great I might be, Mara is fine. Thank you very much.”
My cheeks flared again.
“Now it’s your turn. Hades and I”—she nodded in the cat’s direction—“were expecting you weeks ago.”
“How?” I asked.
“Because,” Aunt Mara said, drawing out the word as if she were trying to teach a very complicated math problem, “when one’s mother dies, one generally seeks family. Oh, don’t look at me like that.”
I bit my lip to ensure my mouth hadn’t fallen open again.
“I knew your mother wasn’t going to keep you in the dark forever. I assumed she’d make some mention of me in her will at least.”
If it hadn’t been for the envelope I’d been entrusted with delivering, I would still be in the dark. Saying nothing, I tried to take it all in. Great Aunt Mara was nothing like I expected—though I hadn’t had long to expect anything. Not even on her deathbed had Mom mentioned living relatives. Were there others? Was my grandmother alive too?
The cat opened one eye and watched me. Judging me, I bet.
“Your grandmother died before you were born,” Great Aunt Mara said matter-of-factly. “You and I are the last of the Lovell lineage.”
I swallowed hard. I hadn’t asked anything aloud.
“And if we’re to get along, Alice, you need to call me Mara. Or Aunt Mara, if you must. But no more of this Great Aunt malarky.”
It was like the woman was in my head. “How?” I half whispered, my brain cartwheeling, and my tongue suddenly feeling thick and sluggish.
Aunt Mara started swinging one foot, her frustration evidently building. “She really told you nothing?”
Hades closed his beady little eye again, as if unsurprised by my ignorance.
“Oh, never mind. There’s time enough. But any more insinuations that I’m old”—she paused for dramatic effect, gesturing her teacup at me—“and you’ll come to realize I’m not always Glinda the Good Witch.”
My thoughts crashed together in a jumble. I scanned the room, taking in details I hadn’t registered before: the crystals and incense holder on the sideboard, the deck of tarot cards on one of the side tables, the broomstick standing in the corner of the room. Suddenly the cast iron, cauldron-like pot sitting on the hearth and the moody black cat beside me implied something a whole lot different.
Aunt Mara let out a laugh, not exactly a cackle, closer to a chuckle, her eyes twinkling. Maybe she really could read my mind. I no longer cared if my jaw was hitting my knees. It was completely ridiculous. Impossible. Unfathomable. And yet …
Hades stood up, arching his back in a stretch before repositioning himself on the couch arm and crossing his front paws. And then, I swear it, he winked at me.
What exactly was in my tea?