Chapter One

“I come in peace!” Khai announced themself while pushing through the kitchen doors of The Java Tavern. Their hands raised in surrender.

I looked up from the pies I was adding filling to. Metaphorical ice crystals started to form between us. I visualized them growing all around us like large stalagmites.

“Carly let me back here,” Khai quickly explained, “She was going to relay the message for me but a group of teenagers came in with complicated drink orders.”

My eyes narrowed. I put the spatula down and pressed my lips together in a thin line. Crossing my arms over my chest, I waited for what they were going to say.

The Java Tavern staff plotting to get Khai and me back together wasn’t subtle. It almost made me pity Chad. Almost.

Khai will always be more than a customer to the Tavern staff, which includes kitchen privileges. Although Khai wronged me, my staff doesn’t know half of what went on. They think they know Khai. The truth is: no one knows who Khai is. Not really. I just can’t bring myself to shit-talk them to my employees.

I broke things off when I realized Khai was lying and spying. Khai working at The Java Tavern and maybe even our romantic entanglement was all orchestrated by the Maine Coven. Khai swears they defected and is solely on my team now but there is a lot to repair between us before I could trust them again. Feeling like a fool isn’t a pleasant sentiment.

Finding out about Khai’s deceit resurfaced a lot of emotions still lingering in my subconscious about my ex, Lana. She cheated on me every chance she got and I fell for her lies every single time. If I didn’t fall for the sneaking around lies, I fell for the lies that she’d change. She never changed. I thought I was healed from the pain she caused me, but my reaction to Khai shows me that I haven’t moved past the hurt. Although Khai’s infidelity wasn’t a romantic kind, it still scorched the earth between us.

“You haven’t been answering my calls or responding to my texts so I wanted to ask this in person,” Khai cleared their throat, “Would you please join me at The Harvey in an hour? For drinks, I mean. A drink. Just one. One beverage.”

I looked down at my watch. A few minutes after five. Theoretically, if I wanted to go, I could finish up everything and be at The Harvey by quarter after six. Enough time for Khai to squirm a bit.

“Maybe,” I responded a bit quicker than I should have but it was said with a glower.

“Maybe! Risking my life to come back here in person was worth a maybe. Maybe gives me hope that you’ll be there,” Khai held back a little jump of excitement. Khai bit their lip debating on what to say next.

My expression remained skeptical as Khai’s smile illuminated their entire face. My heart squeezed. My body language remained icy.

“You want to go out drinking on a Wednesday?” the judgment oozed from my words. It is hard to be nasty to Khai but I sure put in a lot of energy to make it happen.

“Well, I’d ask you for a coffee but the best place I know could make it awkward for us,” Khai flashed a charming smile while motioning to the walls around us.

Fine. One drink. The Harvey,” I bit the words off abruptly as I picked up the spatula to continue filling pies. The large kitchen space grew frostier as Khai lingered.

Tight rows of aluminum pie pans with pre-baked crusts were laid before me. I began pouring caramel apple filling into them before Khai spoke again.

“Okay. An hour. I’ll see you in an hour,” Khai spoke into the room after I produced no further commentary. They nervously rocked back and forth on their feet. I tried my best not to look back up at them while pouring pie filling.

I fought the edges of my mouth that kept creeping upward in a smile. When the smile refused to give up, I bit hard on my bottom lip.

Over-enthusiastically Khai hovered at the door, rubbing their arms in a hug from the chilly burst of air surrounding them. After a few moments of watching me work, they awkwardly departed from the kitchen.

With a sigh, I put the empty container down to move on to the next filling. My most popular pies this season: Caramel Apple, Pumpkin, and Pecan pie. People have been loving my pecan pie warmed a la mode. I source the ice cream from a local dairy farm.

Today is the last Wine Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Nine very short days away. The Java Tavern continued to be slammed. My profits have almost tripled in the last ninety days. I hate that my success came on the back of a dead man in the dumpster, but I’ll ride the wave for as long as it lasts. I hired an extra employee to keep up.

 Escaping into work is my favorite bad habit. From three in the morning until sometimes as late as seven in the evening I am in this kitchen. There are always things to be cleaned, prepped, or baked. Inventing a new cookie or pastry is my creative outlet when everything else in the world doesn’t make sense.

The population of New Bern swelled considerably with the college kids returning home along with regular holiday tourists. New Bern’s warm winters bring a lot of people down from those tiny snow-covered states up north.

The catering orders for thanksgiving were already to capacity this year. Together I was churning out over a dozen different types of pies in time for holiday dinners and celebrations for the community every day.

If I could just make it to next week, I keep telling myself, I may survive until Christmas.

The Java Tavern’s holiday hours, predominantly posted all over the dining area, let customers be aware of the change. Regular hours for Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday is closed to the public except for catering orders. My staff’s vacation runs from Wednesday through Monday.

The Friday after Thanksgiving is a huge Santa arrival and the lighting of the city’s Christmas tree. Instead of trying to rally the locals for late-night coffee, I host Friendsgiving at The Java Tavern instead. Invitation only.

Monday is for everyone to recover while I change the decorations from cozy fall vibes to yuletide cheer in the dining area. Volunteer hours only to help me. Typically, the whole staff shows up for at least part of the day.

 Santa sets up shop next door to Pretty in Pink Boutique at The Berne Square. The same small Square where a police car collided with a killer in pursuit of me in September. Since I donate cookies that Santa gives out to the first three hundred children or so the city lets it slide that I close my doors during the event for my staff.

My employees come with their friends to escape their families for a few hours to have some free drinks and food as a thank you for their hard work. Friendsgiving always ends up being quite the party every year.

Having Gregor during this heavy baking season has been a blessing direct from Hecate. I might be able to get a full breath in before I have to start churning out Christmas treats this year. My planner is stuffed full of events that I have agreed to be a part of.

Networking is required to survive in a small town. With all the publicity I’ve been getting these last few months I’m receiving far more invites than years previous. I’m required to show up to these frivolous events because you never know who might take it offensively that I’m not there. At least Phoebe has gotten a lot of the same invites so I won’t be facing these social nightmares alone.

My new delivery van is parked out back but I am too overwhelmed to figure out how to utilize it for Thanksgiving orders. The van has been in my possession for less than two weeks. It doesn’t have the marketing wrap on it yet so it’s just a plain white van. I feel too much like a creeper driving it unmarked.

I’ll deal with the van in time for Christmas. I am already having regrets about promising free deliveries to some of the catering orders in December but I have to start somewhere, right?

I loaded the pies into the fridge one by one, taking care not to spill them. They will be baked fresh as needed.

The timer beeped for the last batch of pumpkin cheesecake crescent rolls. I turned the oven off. Pulled the crescent rolls out, carefully transferring them to the cooling rack.

Inhaling deeply through my nose, my eyes scan the chaotic kitchen. I see no dough misplaced or opened containers of filling. Just stray ingredients splashed here and there that would need to be cleaned up.

By the time on my watch, it was already over an hour past. A quarter past, even. Oh well, Khai would wait thirty minutes for me instead of fifteen. Fixing my make-up would take priority over cleaning up the mess in the kitchen.

 I pulled off my apron tossing it into the laundry basket before washing my arms up to my elbows. I could feel thick sugar crystals in my hairline. I tried my best to pat out the flour from the thick bun on top of my head. My black shirt and leggings were smeared with butter, flour, and various types of icing.

I quickly refreshed my makeup due to vanity but I didn’t want to appear like I was trying to impress Khai. I wasn’t the one working on getting us back together because I wasn’t the one who screwed things up, simple as that.

“I’m going to go for a little bit. I’ll be back in time to clean the kitchen. The crescents are done they’re just cooling. For when you run out,” I informed Nellie over the roar of people in the dining area.

I spotted Carly sweeping up someone’s broken plate across the dining room. I’d deal with her later. She shouldn’t have let Khai ambush me like that.

“Got it, Boss,” Nellie said with a nod.

“We can handle it,” Myles, my newest employee briefly looked up while wiping down the barista counter. Myles is my youngest employee, a highschooler, and works only a dozen or so hours a week.

I went back through the kitchen to grab my bag and keys. I looked down at my icing-smudged thighs. I can’t go out like this. With slight hesitation, I decided to run upstairs to my apartment.

Leaving through the employee door in the kitchen I approached the apartment stairwell access to my apartment. I noticed something strange sticking out of the middle of the door.

Cautiously I walked over to the long skinny object holding a piece of paper gently swaying in the breeze.

The note was very short with only two words on it:


 Written in red permanent marker, the words were hastily scribbled on a piece of computer paper. The paper was secured to my door by a switchblade-style knife.

I rolled my eyes as I yanked the paper down. Without much thought, I balled the paper up with one hand while I used the other to pull the knife from my door. The knife looked brand new. Tiff’s donation to my arsenal of weaponry was especially dumb. It was hard to take her threats seriously.

Khai’s ex, Tiff, despised me. Even with Khai and I not on good terms. Maybe she was pissed that Khai didn’t go running back to her? I’m not sure. She technically quit her job at the Tavern so she can’t be mad at me for losing her job.

Whatever her reason was, she left me little memos similar to this one quite often. A few days ago, my large potted rosemary plant was kicked over. The word ‘Bitch’ spelled out with rosemary trimmings at the door base. A day later someone returned to smash the thick concrete planter it was in with a hammer. Just kicking it over didn’t give them enough satisfaction, I guessed. I replaced the planter with a much thicker marble urn that would be much harder to kick over or damage.

I tossed the crinkled piece of paper and folded knife into my oversized canvas bag as I ran up the stairs.

After I changed my clothes, I checked myself out in the full-length antique mirror in the corner of my bedroom. I looked comfortable but not overdone in an oversized sweater over a fresh tee shirt and black jeans. I applied perfume to lessen the scent of butter that seemed to cling to me no matter how often I showered.

Running late or no, freshening up was required before heading out. This is more for me than Khai’s benefit, I attempted to convince myself. I tried not to think too much about the extra care I took to beautify myself for someone who deceived me.

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