Sunlight spilled over a navy sky, unraveling the day between frosty branches. Cole wasnât used to the restless quiet. His footsteps echoed through the sleepy streets. Smoke billowed from chimneys and blinds rustled behind dark windows. Itâd been a long time since he saw Jewel for what it wasâa town too small to be cared for by those who left, but small enough to be loved by those who stayed.
Trees lined the two-lane road. Crisp air nipped his cheeks and the thrum of something not quite lost but not quite found stirred inside him. He adjusted the leather strap curled over his shoulder, messenger bag snug on his hip. Open signs blinked awake and locks clicked. The theater, an old, timely thing, was topped with a vintage light box where black letters sat crooked, spelling out film names and show times. The ice cream shop where his aunt used to work was still there, tucked between a Mexican restaurant and an art supply store.
These streets were watermarked by his childhood, the cage heâd been shipped to when he bared his teeth too often or clenched his fists too hard. An academic household like his, filled with diplomas and success, hadnât made room for a wild card. Ten years later, his family still didnât know what to do with him.
âStill here, huh?â Cole paused at the corner of Oakheart and Foxborough, trailing his eyes over the rickety sign above the window. The Crowâs Nesthad been around for longer than Cole had been alive, a quaint coffee shop known for its lattes and pastries.
A bell jingled when he stepped inside. Tables filled the open space, different than he remembered but just as cozy. Across the room, a barista eyed him from behind the counter, her lips quirked into a friendly smile. âCan I help you?â
âYeah, Iâ¦â Cole cleared his throat. He stepped around a table and set his hands on the counter, head tipped back to read the chalkboard menu on the wall. He noticed the way she postured, glancing at the ink peeking over his wrists. There was something about her, a familiarity he couldnât shake. âIâll take a matcha latte with coconut milk, please. To go.â
âAnything to eat? I just made honey cakes. Theyâre delicious, Iâ¦â She lifted a thick, blond brow. Her eyes narrowed as she leaned closer, gaze drifting from his face to his chest. âAre you, I mean, Iâm pretty sure I know you. Youâreââ
âCole Morrison.â Caution looped through each syllable. He looked at her, really looked, tracing her soft, round cheeks and petite chin. âTara?â
Abrupt laughter tumbled over her lips. âItâs beenâGod, how long has it been?â
âAlmost ten years, I think.â Ten years and two months, to be exact.
Minutes ago, Cole couldâve passed the familiarity between them off as a trick of the light. But now the woman in front of him was attached to the girl from his memories. There was no mistaking her for someone else. He met her cool, gray eyes and remembered whoâd sheâd been, wandering apple orchards with him on sunny autumn days, scooping toads off river rocks and hiding them in his shoes. Her blond hair was longer now, whisked into a bun atop her head.
Theyâd stumbled through adolescence hand in hand, exploring Jewel and friendship, lost to the world but found to each other.
âWow,â she whispered. A wide smile dimpled her cheeks. âYou look different. Howâs life? Still pissing everyone off on the coast?â
Cole masked a cringe, smirking awkwardly at the counter. âPretty much, yeah. How `bout you? Youâre still in Jewel, obviously.â
âItâs home.â Tara tapped on a touch screen register. He handed her his credit card. She flicked it back to him. âItâs on meâdonât look at me like that, itâs fine. How long are you in town for?â
âLilaâs in Cambodia until Christmas Eve, so Iâm staying at her place until then.â He nudged her hand with his credit card.
She shook her head and pushed the card away. âWasnât she, like, in Peru?â
âYeah, you know her. Canât sit still for very long. Seriously, Tara, let meââ
âItâs â She slid a plate across the counter. A plump piece of cake crowned with golden honeycomb sat atop it. âYou said coconut milk, right?â
âYeah, if you have it. So, whatâs new? Are you in school? Married? Kids?â Cole didnât have the courage to ask what he wanted to. The real stuff, boxed away with the rest of their childhood, long forgotten.
âSchool, no. Married, no. Kids, hell no.â Tara flashed a fanged grin. Steam scented like green tea and cloves billowed from the barista station. âIâm a hair stylist Monday through Wednesday at the little salon off Pine Street. Iâm here most mornings, sometimes swing a few nights at Rickyâs.â
âRickyâs? That place is still around?â
âDive bars never die,â Tara said. She handed him a beautifully crafted latte topped with a rippled leaf. The bell sounded, followed by creaky hinges and shoes shuffling across the floor. Cole thought of the promises theyâd made to each other. Tara stood on her tiptoes and glanced over Coleâs shoulder. âWeâll catch up, right? Like, weâll get drinks or something?â
âSure, yeah, we can do that. I might hang out for a bit, actually. If thatâs okay.â He gestured to his messenger bag. âAny outlets next to the window?â
âYeah, take the booth in the corner. Itâsâ¦â She shook her head, eyes roaming his face. âItâs really good to see you, Cole. Seriously.â
âIâ¦ Yeah, itâs good to see you too, Tara. Thanks for the latte.â
She winked. âAnd the cake.â
Wet shoes squeaked on the floorboards behind him.
âAnd the cake.â Cole smiled again, a foreign expression after three days spent forcing niceties to cousins and uncles and grandparents who had flinched whenever heâd moved too quickly.
He thought back to Thanksgiving. The moment his father had asked if he was being truthful on his job applications, Cole had stopped pretending to be approachable. Before he could bite back, his aunt, the only other oddity on the Morrison family tree, put herself between them, hands firm on Coleâs chest, and said, âBaby, take the keys to the cabin and go. Stay through the holidays, feed the birds, keep everything safe. Iâll pay you before I leave.â
Cole had left before the tea was served. His sister followed him to his car, shouting about helping himself, how they all loved him regardless, that he could get back on his feet if he actually tried.
Running was all he knew, but he never thought heâd run into Tara Foster.
What would she think of him now? Life at a crossroads. The word clasped tightly around his neck like a choke chain. He scrubbed a hand under the back of his black beanie and opened his laptop, attempting to focus on the unread e-mail bolded on the screen.
From: Lila Morrison
Subject: Cabin Stuff
Family is the only thing harder than love. Sometimes they know best and sometimes they donât. Sometimes itâs easy to love them and sometimes itâs not. Donât turn off your phone, okay? My brother will kill us both if Claire canât get a hold of you.
The number for the hostel Iâm staying at is below. Same with the emergency vet in case something happens to the birds. My favorite Thai place (they deliver) is on the fridge next to the pizza coupons.
Watch for raccoons. They get in the trash.
Maybe try sending your dad a message. An olive branch, you know?
Keep your chin up.
âAn olive branch,â Cole mumbled. He rolled his eyes and logged out of his e-mail.
Lila was the only person who remotely understood how he felt about their family. But sometimes he thought his aunt had forgotten just how ruined things were. How the awkward rift between him and his sister had cracked and shifted, as if being unable to fix Coleâs brokenness invalidated Gingerâs psychology degree. How his grandmother had only called to ask if heâd spoken to his father, even though his father refused or write or visit.
Three years in a cell was a lonely thing, but his family made the outside lonelier. The soft acoustic music inside the cafÃ© was a nice change. Same with the sweet cake he forked into his mouth, the twinge of hope in his chest at the sight of Taraâs smile, and the white trees outside.
Cole curled his fingers around the steaming cup, lifting it carefully to his mouth.
As the morning stretched, people came and went, dipping into the cafÃ© for pastries and warm drinks. Hushed chatter drifted from occupied tables and fingertips tapped on keyboards. He sipped his latte and scrolled through Facebook, clicking on names he barely knew anymore. Friends from high school. Extended family. Sandra went to grad school. Grayson was still in Venice, dating someone new. . He browsed through Gingerâs albums, pausing over photos from her wedding, and wondered if one of the Morrison seats had been left empty on purpose.
He closed his laptop and slouched in the seat, eyes tracking cars as they rolled through downtown. How would he frame the last decade of his life when Tara inevitably asked about it? The truth was a misshapen thing, and he didnât know if he had the heart to explain every mistake and wrong turn that came with it. He gripped his cup tighter. The last time Cole had seen her, theyâd been kids, fifteen maybe, and heâd made a promise he couldnât keep.
Loud laughter sparked near the counter. ââ¦we just didnât click, thatâs all. No, Tara, câmon, heâs your little brother, I wouldnât lie to you. He was nice, dinner was nice, butâ¦â A customer barked out another laugh and Tara responded in kind, letting her head fall back, shoulders shaking and eyes squeezed shut.
Cole looked closely, searching for another hint of familiarity, and came away with none. Finely sculpted bones pressed against the strangerâs skin, carving a sharp jaw into a heart-shaped face. Dark hair was swept back, sheared close to the skin on the sides and kept longer on top. A high-necked sweater clung to his lean frame, the sleeves bundled in his palms. Cole hadnât realized heâd been staring until he met wide eyes looking back at him from behind silver reading glasses.
âJesse, do you want soy or almond milk?â Tara said.
Once Jesse turned his gaze to the floor, Cole cleared his throat.
âWhoâs that?â Jesseâs voice came out hushed, but the Crowâs Nestwas too small for privacy.
âOh, thatâs Cole.â Tara swiveled around the glass case to look at him. âHey!â Cole immediately whipped toward the window, pretending to busy himself with birds or trees, something, else. âCole, come on, donât be like that.â
He turned to face them and forced a pained smile. âYeah, hi. ItâsâIâm Cole.â He braved a longer look at Jesse, whose freckled cheeks were tinged pink.
Tara pointed at him with her pen. Her grin widened again. âHeâs an out-of-towner. Old friend of mine; we used to hang out when we were kids.â
âOh.â Jesseâs throat bobbed when he swallowed. âThatâsââ
âItâs been a while, ten years, honestly. He could be a serial killer for all I know.â
Cole rolled his eyes, but a laugh snorted out of him anyway. â.â
âGreat, awesome, thank you for making this interaction entirely too awkward to deal with,â Jesse hissed, bashful smile masked by a nervous adjustment of his glasses. He grabbed the travel mug from the counter and darted out the door. âSee you around!â
Cole watched him through the window, how he walked with his shoulders back, his profile crisp and pronounced. Jesse tipped his chin and met Coleâs eyes for a fleeting moment, mouth twisted into a crooked smile, before he stepped past the window and was gone.
âWait, Jesse!â Tara held a paper bag in one hand, craning over the desk. A group of customers arrived and she paused, biting her lip before she narrowed her eyes at Cole. âCâmere.â
Cole frowned. âNo.â
âCome on, I need a favor!â She flashed a smile at the customersAnother pointed glare at Cole. Her lips formed silent words.
Cole shook his head.
Once Tara finished taking orders, she shook the bag at him. âYouâve ghosted me for a decade. You owe me.â
âSo, you mad.â Reluctantly, Cole walked to the counter.
âOf course, Iâm mad. Are you kidding me? Ten years, asshole?â She chuckled under her breath. âNot, like, mad.â
âMad enough to extort me for it.â
â extortion.â She gestured to the bag. âCan you take this to Jesse? He runs the apothecary next door.â
âThe guy you just royally embarrassed me in front of? No, Tara, come onââ
âExcuse me, but my best friend vanished into thin air ten years ago and I bought him breakfast,â Tara said matter-of-factly. She rushed around the barista station, steaming this and pouring that. âHeâs real sweet, okay? Just a little skittish.â
âAnd he runs anâ¦an apothecary? Heâsââ
âCute? Yeah, I know. He makes wreathes, candles, lotions, potions, all of it. Local witch, local sweetheart, local .â She set her palms on the counter and tilted her head, blowing a strand of hair off her brow. âIn case you were wondering.â
Cole didnât know what to say to something like that. He blinked, surprised, and scoffed. âStill playing matchmaker, Foster?â
Tara scoffed back at him. âMaybe. You scared of a cute guy, Morrison?â
Cole rolled his eyes.
âIâll sweeten the deal. Iâm making almond muffins tomorrow.â
âAnother free breakfast?â He shook his head, trying and failing to suppress a grin. Some things never changed, and Tara, thank fucking god, was who sheâd always been. Haughty and confident and strong in every way Cole could never be.
But this tasted like forgiveness. Like beginnings, maybe. An olive branch he could actually hold on to.
Tara balanced mugs on a black tray. âFree breakfast a free latte. Deal?â
Cole snatched the paper bag off the counter. âDeal.â
Breath fogged the air in front of his mouth. He adjusted his beanie, tugged at his jeans, smoothed his palms down the front of his jacket. Cute people existed. He used to interact with them daily. Smiled. Didnât trip over himself. Spoke, even. But for some reason, the idea of walking into the apothecary next door made his chest tight and his throat dry. Maybe it was the witch stuff. Maybe it was being on his own for the first time in years, able to make his own decisions, forge his own path. Maybe it was being back in Jewel, directionless and alone.
Whatever it was, Cole had to figure it out. Quickly. .
Because Jesse stood on a metal ladder, struggling to drape garland across the brick face of the shopfront. His handsome brown shoes arched, tiptoes clinging to the second-to-last step. A curse fluttered from him and he wobbled just enough to tip backward.
Cole caught the small of Jesseâs back. âIâve got youâIâm sorry,â he blurted, trying his best to lift all five fingers away from Jesseâs sweater while steadying him at the same time. âYou okay?â
âIâd be better if I had an extra set of hands,â Jesse said. He glanced over his shoulder, cheeks blotched red from exertion. âCan you hold the ladder steady for a minute? Iâm almost done.â
âYeah, sure, Iâmââ
âCole. I remember.â
Cole set his cup and the bag down, and gripped the ladder with both hands. He swallowed, watching Jesseâs shoulders roll as he tucked the garland over long, rusty nails. Like this, with Jesseâs heels at eye level and Coleâs head tipped back, he could appreciate the way Jesseâs jeans wrapped around his calves and thighs andâ
âThere,â Jesse said. After the garland was situated properly, Jesse climbed down and Cole took a quick step back. The ladder squeaked. Jesse sighed and smacked his hands together, brushing dust and glitter from his palms. âThink it needs anything else? More pinecones, maybe?â
Cole chewed on the inside of his cheek, eyes darting from Jesse to the garland. Pinecones clustered in the corners, bundled with red ribbon and brushed with gold foil. Tiny bells hung from green stems and delicate lace curled into bows at each end. âItâs pretty,â he said, and grabbed his drink from the ground. âBut Iâm not very festive, so.â
âNot festive, huh?â Jesse opened the apothecaryâs wooden door and spoke over his shoulder. âAnyone who comes to Jewel on purpose during the holidays has to be a little festive.â
âYeah, well, guess Iâll break the mold on that one. Do witches even celebrate Christmas?â
Jesse snared him in a hard look. Muted sunlight caught the gold in his chestnut eyes. âDo you even believe in witches?â His mouth lifted into a small smile, voice rasped and dismissive. Before Cole could answer, the door closed.
. Cole squeezed the top of the bag. He wasnât good at thisânot the talking part or the making friends part or the being in Jewel part. All he had to do was deliver Jesseâs bagel, start over with Tara, and be on his way.
Cole shouldered the door open. The space was smaller than he expected. A sign above the register read . Shelves lined the walls, crowded with vials and jars filled with powders and herbs. Bundled lavender hung upside down from a rope strung across the ceiling. Light beamed through the windows, creeping over hanging caladiums, giant ferns and potted plants.
It was unmistakably beautiful. Mysterious and quirky, and warm in a way Cole couldnât place.
Candles were everywhere, tucked on the windowsills, displayed on a long, rustic table, and perched on shelves where old books slouched together. Some were violet, accented by dried flowers, others were mint green, flecked with herbs and tea leaves. He set the bag down and plucked a candle from the table. Dried pieces of rosemary were folded into the wax. Rose petals. Pine needles. He dragged his finger over the wick, touched the glitter brushed across the top.
Jesse cleared his throat. âOhâ¦you followed me. Isâ¦ Can I help you with something?â
Cole glanced around the apothecary. âTara mentioned you were artsy. What is all this stuff?â
âThe thing youâre holding is a ritual candle.â Jesse turned, eyes flicking from the candle to Coleâs face. âOrganic, made with soy wax, essential oils and dried herbs, then consecrated under a full moon. The color, flowers and scents all do different things, so each individual batch has a unique purpose.â
âRitual candles, like, for witchcraft?â
âNot necessarily.â Jesse pulled long-stemmed dandelions from a drawer behind the register, laying them out in a line across the desk. âLots of people have their own day-to-day rituals. Baths are rituals, exercise is a ritual, cooking can be a ritual. Those candles,â he squinted, âspecifically the one in your hand, is for cutting cords. It encourages self-care, redirection, and helps with radical change.â
Heat rushed into Coleâs cheeks. He immediately set the candle back down. âTara wanted me to bring you this.â He held the bag out and walked toward him. âI think itâs a bagel, maybe. Whatever you ordered. She told me youâre a witch and I didnât really know what to make of it, especially since I havenât seen her inâ¦ Itâs just, itâs been a while since Iâve been back here, butâ¦ That doesnâtâyeah, that doesnât matter. Anyway, sorry if I offended you with the Christmas stuff, I justââ
Jesse gasped. Scissors clattered on the desk amidst flowers and ribbon. âWatch for Waffles!â
âWatch for whaââ
A small, beige blob darted from beneath the table and ran through Coleâs legs. He sidestepped to avoid it, but a basket full of bath bombs got in his way. He stumbled, latte in one hand, bag in the other, and crashed into a display.
Not as in or . Coleâs back hit the shelves and they caved in, jostling the jars above his head until they fell. Pain throbbed between his shoulders. His boot slipped through splattered lotion and he tumbled to the floor, smacking his elbow as he went. Something heavy hit his knee, sending a hot jolt through his shin and into his foot. Products and mason jars and candles spilled around him, shattering and cracking.
Jesse stood with both hands clasped over his mouth, wide-eyed and perfectly still.
From the floor, Cole spotted a floppy-eared rabbit seated next to Jesseâs feet. âYou must be Waffles,â he said through a groan.
âHoly shit, are youâ¦â Jesse stepped over the mess and offered Cole his hand. âAre you okay?â
âIâm fine,â Cole grumbled. He let Jesse help him to his feet and looked from broken jars to ruined merchandise. Anxiety crawled into the base of his throat. âIâ¦Iâm so sorry, Iâll payâI mean, I donât have the money right now, but Iâll pay for all of this, everything, I just need some time to get it figured out.â
Jesse shook his head but stayed silent.
This was a disaster. A fucking catastrophe. The only money he had was the money Lila had given him to watch the birds, and that certainly wasnât enough to replace all this. Cole grabbed whatever looked intact: a couple candles, a jar filled with flowers, some bars of soap. Jesse still hadnât moved and Cole couldnât get his thoughts straight. Panic fluttered in his chest, a reminder that he wasnât freeânot completelyâand an accident like this could cost him the little room he had in the world.
âLook, this is gonna sound weird, but can weâ¦ I know people file reports for stuff like this, damages, insurance, lability, butâ¦â He rubbed his palm over the stubble on his cheek. âIâll fix this. Will you take my word for it?â
âWhy would I do that?â Jesseâs brows knitted.
Coleâs heart thundered. His lashes fluttered, shame and uncertainty blooming deep in his stomach. âBecause my parole officer will kill me if he finds out,â he said softly.
Jesseâs mouth clamped shut with an audible click. He gave Cole a slow once-over. âOh,â was all he said, a quick, small thing, before he stepped backward and scooped Waffles into his arms. There was a pause, as if the gentle trance music in the background went quiet, and flames popped curiously on their wicks. Everything in the shop leaned closer, waiting for the inevitable. Anger or tears or something worse. âThis isâ¦ This is worth of work. I donât think you understand what exactly goes into creatingâ¦â He toed at some broken glass and the spices scattered around it. âProducts like these.â
Something terrible lodged in his throat. , he thought. Even here, in this tiny mountain town, Cole couldnât go a single day without ruining something. Tara would surely find out about this. Which meant the whole town would know about it sooner or later. theyâd say. Jesseâs eyes searched the floor, mouth pinched. He looked far away, somehow. Not entirely disappointed, but hurt, almost. As if those candles and shampoos and potions could never be replaced. Cole licked his lips, breath stunted and heavy. âJesse, seriously, Iâm good for it, I swearââ
âYouâre Taraâs friend, right?â
Cole chewed on his bottom lip. âI was. But that was a long time ago.â
âShe trusts you?â
âYouâd have to ask her that.â
Jesseâs lips hovered apart. He tracked Cole with slow glances, shoes to face, face to shoes, over and over. âI need an assistant,â he said. His pale cheeks were pink again, freckles dark where the heat hadnât yet reached. âHelp me make new products, run the shop, gift wrap, assist customers and clean. Youâll be free after Yule. Deal?â
A long, relieved breath flowed over Coleâs lips. âYes, yeah, deal.â
âGood,â Jesse whispered. He cleared his throat and scratched behind Wafflesâ ears. âYou start today. Letâs get this cleaned up.â