Excerpt - Home Sweet Witch | Verso.ink

Excerpt - Home Sweet Witch

Book one of Lily Sweet Mysteries

By Bettina M. Johnson

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Sometimes a little Wicked makes everything good.

Chapter Four

What have I done?

I had already worried most of my nails down to nothing. Now I was gnawing at the skin around my thumb and staring at a man staring back at me who could give Uncle Jesse from Dukes of Hazard a run for his money. I am not into stereotypes, but someone forgot to give this guy the memo.

My truck had decided to give me issues once I crossed over from Otto, North Carolina, into the small tourist town of Dillard, Georgia. I was driving along just fine, Depeche Mode cassette cranked high, straining what life was left in my speakers. Yes, cassette. My truck was so old it didn’t have a CD slot or Bluetooth anything. The cassette head unit was the newest installment that truck had and was probably done in the early eighties. I had just crossed the state line and looked down at the space under my passenger seat and whispered, “You are home, Mom.” That’s when my truck had a fit. Not a good omen. It made a bang sound then started making a repetitive clunking noise from somewhere under it.

I pulled into the gas station with a service shop attached to it and tried to explain to the lone mechanic what I thought might be the problem since I had never heard that noise before, especially coming from my vehicle. He stood there, scratching his head for a long moment, squinting and blinking at me like I had several multi-colored heads and was speaking in tongues. I was apprehensive because while the gas station seemed to be thriving, the mechanic shop looked like it was being cleaned out and closed down.

“You ain’t from these parts none, are ya?” Oh, lovely, the stereotype was indeed alive and well.

“Um, no, I am from New York.” I waited for the commercial for hot sauce to come to life with folks popping up all around me yelling, “New York City?” But nothing else happened other than a wad of tobacco flying out of the man’s mouth and narrowly missing my left boot.

“You know, my great-great-great-grand-daddy fought in The War. Mebbe he met up with some of your kin.” Lovely. I was about to tell Bubba here that I was born in these parts when I remembered at the last minute to curb my revelations in light of me supposing to stay incognito for the time being. I smiled wanly at him instead and said, “About my truck? Do you think that noise means something critical?” I glanced over at his name tag. “Stan? Do you think you could figure out what’s wrong and if I need to stay here, or can I go on to Sweet Briar like this?”

“Name’s not Stan. That was my daddy. I’m Stu.”

Have you ever gotten so frustrated you felt the next thing to set you off would result in you finding yourself in a jail cell once you woke up from having blacked out? The reason you blacked out had everything to do with the fact you were probably bludgeoned from behind by the police because they found you pummeling an idiot repetitively all the while screaming obscenities. No? Huh, must just be me, then. I had an excuse. I hadn’t eaten today…heck, I didn’t even have any coffee because I couldn’t find a coffee shop open since leaving the Asheville, North Carolina, area in the wee hours of the morning, hoping to get to my location by nine. I needed my coffee. I remembered heading out thinking surely someplace would be open twenty-four hours and have decent coffee…nope.

“Okay, Stu, do you think this is serious, the noise…from my car?”

“Might could be.” A long pause. “Might not.”

I turned away and began rummaging through my purse on the front seat and pulled out a Chapstick, which I uncapped and began liberally applying to my lips. Stu did not see that this was a tactical maneuver to keep me from wrapping my hands around his neck. I didn’t think he appreciated just how close he came to death at that moment.

“Well, what is it? Can I keep driving this thing, or should I leave it here and come back for it when you’ve fixed it?” The sheer exhaustion of my trip finally hit me, and I was about to walk away from my truck, Stu, and the State of Georgia and find a one-way ticket to New York State.

However, that’s when a man in a pair of jeans and a plaid shirt that fit him like a second skin, showing off a lithe but muscular frame, came around the building. He had sandy medium blond hair and matching five o’clock shadow. What? I can look. Stu suddenly became animated and rapid-fire explained to the mystery man just what he thought might be wrong with my truck. Huh. Stu almost seemed to know what he’s talking about. Mr. Lithe turned and gave me a friendly once over. No, I was not offended. I mean, I’d just done the same thing to him. I’m not a hypocrite. He must have liked what he saw because he walked right past Stu, heading in my direction. He gave me a flash of a smile, which showed off perfect straight white teeth and a tiny dimple on his cheek, and introduced himself.

“Name’s Jake. I don’t know much about fixing trucks, though. I’m from Sweet Briar, a few towns over. Stu tells me you are new to our area?” He said this as he peered over the top of his sunglasses, giving me a peek at his light baby blues. Well, there was a God if this was what the men of Sweet Briar, Georgia, were made of.

“Um, yes. Lily. Lily Hogan.” I had decided to use Molly’s last name for the time being to remain anonymous since I didn’t know who a relation might be. “I’m down from New York State looking for a change of scenery and thought this part of the country would have what I need for my art. I’m an artist.” I knew I sounded like a dork, but I couldn’t help myself since I suddenly morphed into a teenage girl swooning over the cute jock. Shoot me now, please.

“An artist? Nice. What media do you work in?”

Oh, good looking and had some depth. Most people would just ask what kind of art I did…but media? That’s got intelligence written all over it. Of course, now it made me feel self-conscious because even the most enlightened people gave me strange looks when I told them I scoured garbage bins and flea markets. Not to mention that I went through people’s garages and even drove around picking up random crap on the sides of the road to turn into sculptures and whatnots. It wasn’t that I was embarrassed about what I did; I just had a hard time with people’s perceptions and prejudices. Some people warmed to my work right away and saw the beauty and hard work I put into it, while some people wrinkled their noses and asked, “You make actual money with that stuff?” Yeah, those folks had given me a bit of a complex.

“I sculpt. I actually do modern pieces out of found things.”

“Well, that sounds like a fun profession.” Jake smiled, and I felt a bit dismissed until I realized he was distracted by a U-Haul pulling in when he said, “Now, here is someone who can help you with your truck issues. That’s Lorcan Reid. He owns a mechanic shop in Sweet Briar. If he can’t figure it out, it’s time to call in the wrecking crew.” Another handsome man with dark brown hair and abundant laugh lines started walking toward us. I felt a fissure and chalked it off to the sight of another hunk in my presence. He, too, filled in what he was wearing nicely, a pair of jeans and a simple black t-shirt. Yeah, there was a God.

I could immediately feel a bit of tension in the air between the two men, though, and Stu actually looked a bit nervous. Interesting.

“What lies have you been telling this lady about me, Carter? Whatever he said, it isn’t true.”

He directed that last bit down at my five-foot three-inch frame with a smile and extended his hand, which I was surprised to see was smooth and clean. Bad me for immediately assuming all mechanics would have greasy, stained hands like my buddy Stu. We shook, and I looked into his warm brown eyes. He really did seem like a lovely person, but I couldn’t deny that charge in the air between the men.

“No lies. Just told Miss Hogan here, who is visiting from New York State, that you were the best mechanic in all of Sweet Briar, if not the state of Georgia.” Even with that glowing accolade, both men stared a long minute at each other. I supposed there was definitely some unpleasant history between them. Lorcan smirked and looked away first, back at me. Stu looked between the two men and nervously mentioned hub bearings and tie rods and differentials, which was all Chinese to me. Lorcan held out his hand, and for a minute, I thought he wanted to hold mine. Down, girl. Then I realized he probably wanted my truck keys. I knew I was blushing and ducked my head while I dug through my bag again but was unable to find them. I heard a throat clearing.

“You might want to try the ignition. It’s where ye left ’em.” Stu chose that moment to contribute and just added to my embarrassment, for I was most definitely flustered by all this testosterone floating around. Jake and Lorcan’s, anyway. Stu could keep his testosterone to himself.

I moved out of the way of the driver door and sheepishly smiled up at Lorcan while motioning that he should get in. As he climbed into my truck and turned over the engine, he paused and looked at me as if to say, “Coming?” I scrambled around to the other side, embarrassed when I realized I left my giant bag of black jellybeans open and had managed to spill a plethora of the little buggers everywhere as I drove and munched. Lorcan didn’t seem to notice, though. I put on my seat belt and made a little wave toward Jake and Stu and prepared myself for the clunking racket that freaked me out.

“I’ll load Stu’s things into the U-Haul then drive him back to town in my Mercedes. You got this?” Jake called out as we began rolling. Lorcan nodded yes and waved out the window. “I’ll leave the U-Haul key with the attendant!”

Jake smiled at me, and I thought, He drives a Mercedes, nice.

As we eased out of the parking lot and onto the roadway, Lorcan reached out and patted the dash. “This is a sweet ride you have here. Sixty-seven?”

“Sixty-eight. I got a great deal on him two years ago and have been keeping him going with religious oil changes and prayer.” I smiled and fondly patted the dash myself. “He’s a good truck, but I don’t think he was quite prepared for an eight hundred and eighty-odd mile journey south.”

“He?” Lorcan smiled to let me know he wasn’t belittling me.

“His name is George. It’s a good solid name for a Ford truck, I think.”

“George it is, then. Is your family into the hardware business or some such? I noticed the logo on your truck.” I chuckled and informed him that not only was I probably the second or even third owner of the truck, I didn’t think Scramble Hardware even existed anymore in New York. But I liked the old-timey look of it painted on the doors.

“What part of Upstate New York are you from?” Lorcan was a stranger who seemed nice enough, but I didn’t feel I should give him too much information, especially since I didn’t know who in these parts might know my mother and where she ran off to, so I thought it best to fudge a little.

“Oh, the Catskill Mountain area, a small town no one has ever heard of. What about you? Have you lived in…what was it called? Sweet Briar? Have you lived there your entire life?” Lorcan nodded yes and went on to tell me that he inherited his mechanic shop from his father Henry, who inherited it from his father Malcolm. Henry was retired, driving his mom, Eileen, nuts, and spending most of his days fishing. His dad was good enough in his hobby to have some for his mom to clean every night if she wanted—she didn’t. I laughed along with Lorcan’s description of both of his parents and the trials and tribulations of retired life. It sounded idyllic to me, who had only known what it was like being with an undemonstrative parent and no close relations.

“And your name, Lorcan, that is a different one I’ve not heard before. Gosh, and I am sorry if that was a rude thing to say!"

There I went embarrassing myself again. Maybe it was a family name or had special meaning, and here I was making what could be construed as a negative comment about it, however unintentionally. But Lorcan just laughed and didn’t seem all that upset about my asking.

“It’s Irish. It means ‘Little Fierce One,’ or so my mother insists. She is Irish, and I think she named me that just to vex my Scottish dad. They’ve had this hilarious rivalry going on for as long as I can remember. Besides, he wanted to name me Angus.”

“Oh, that just would not do. You definitely do not look like an Angus! Lorcan suits you!”

“Does that mean I look fierce?” His eyes crinkling in the corners made me see this was just friendly banter and that he was teasing me. Wait, was he flirting with me? I was so out of practice with men and flirting. Even just talking to people had been limited. I’d been sequestered away in a hospice, and I didn’t have many deep conversations with my coffee customers. They were all in such a hurry to get to their jobs in the morning and get their java fix.

“You look…nice.” Oh, mental palm slap to the forehead. Good one there, Lily. Such. A. Dork.

My truck saved me from more embarrassment by making its loud, nerve-wracking noises and distracting Lorcan into what I assumed was diagnosis mode. He pulled over to the side of the road, got out, and dropped to the ground, rolling under the back end and staying there for quite some time. I waited for a few minutes then undid my seatbelt and hopped out of the passenger side, wandering over to where his legs were poking out from under my truck. He made some mechanic “hmmm” and “huh” noises then crawled out from under it. When he came back up, he had a bit of grease on his forehead as if he swiped the lock of hair that kept being unruly back in place. Hey, I noticed these details!

“What engine do you have in this baby? Do you know?”

“Um, I think it still has the original Ford 300ci six-cylinder engine in there, but that’s as much as I can tell you. I only know that because my friend back home is dating a guy who is a car and truck nut, and he kept saying how impressed he was that it had the original Ford engine in there…and that it is knocking on two hundred ninety-eight thousand miles.” At first, Lorcan seemed impressed with my knowledge, then his eyes dulled a little as I went on and on with my explanation. I got it, a chick who knew nothing about cars, sue me.

“At least it’s not a Caterpillar engine. I’ve spent the last two weeks fighting with one before it finally gave up the ghost.” Lorcan laughed a little, shaking his head at the memory, so I guessed it was some battle he wrought against it.

“There ain’t nothing like a Caterpillar engine.” Where did that come from? I really needed to stop my mouth from inanely running like it was. “Jack Crews, aka Patrick Swayze, Black Dog, 1998.”

Whoa. That was the fastest anyone ever came back with an answer after I made one of my lame movie quotes, and Lorcan was one hundred percent correct.

“I’m impressed, sir. That was an obscure quote from an even more obscure movie that wasn’t a hit or anything.”

Lorcan smiled with a flash of white teeth. “Yeah, but they filmed part of it down the road a bit in Cleveland, Georgia, and my cousin Fred got to be an extra in it and everything. Did you know that?”

I smiled right back at this man who was truly easy on the eyes and stated, “Heck, I didn’t even know there was a Cleveland, Georgia, let alone that a movie was filmed there. And I don’t know your cousin Fred!”

That got a full-on laugh out of him, and we both stood there a minute smiling at each other. Okay then, I deduced I wasn’t too bad at this communicating with another human being stuff. At least he found me somewhat amusing; it could be worse.

“Here, let’s get back in your truck. These mosquitos are eating me alive!”

I agreed and turned to hop back in when I saw my Pisces charm had fallen out of my pocket and was lying on the ground. I made a small “Eep!” sound and bent over to retrieve it then continued to my seat, slightly embarrassed, although I didn’t think Lorcan noticed. It was a little girls’ charm, and I felt a bit foolish carrying it around, but…well, it was a link to my past. A past I had forgotten. Lorcan joined me in the truck cabin, put his seatbelt on, and turned my truck on.

“Well, I have good news and bad news, and I won’t beat around the bush about it and keep you in suspense. The bad news is you seem to have an issue with your driveshaft, looks to be a u-joint has worn out. That’s what’s causing the noise, and before you ask me, yes, it can be fixed. The good news is I can take it to my mechanic shop and would be happy to take care of it for you if you tell me where you are heading to. I can at least try to get you settled in…unless you want it towed somewhere else?"

I blinked up at my hero and told him my plans. “Well, you are heading my way, in fact. I am heading to Sweet Briar to scout some areas for a possible art studio since I’ve been considering a permanent move there if I like what I find.” I wasn’t sure what I said wrong, but Lorcan’s eyes clouded over, and he began looking at me with some suspicion. What had I said wrong to break the convivial mood we were sharing? I opened my mouth to say more, but Lorcan stopped me with a dire statement.

“What are you up to, miss? When we just spoke a minute ago, you pretended not to know the name Sweet Briar. Now you tell me that was your destination all along. Moreover, no one heads to Sweet Briar to move permanent like. Not without being invited first.”

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About Bettina M. Johnson

I always knew I wanted to write. As a kid, way before the technology age had hit, I'd be stuck in the car with the folks as we drove from our home on Staten Island, NY, where I was born and raised, to our family property in the Catskill Mountains. To drive away boredom, I would sit, staring out the window, and create adventures in my mind.
As the years passed, I'd start writing a book, then stop, then start again only to let life get in the way, until one day I treated writing as my career. I was afraid, if I didn’t, the wonderful characters in my head would never be heard. Once I started, it became apparent nothing would ever stop me again.
I live in the North Georgia mountains on what I like to call a farm, with my husband and almost adult kids, a Cairn Terrier, a bunch of cats, and fish. Occasionally other critters show up to keep things exciting (don't ask about the rat snakes. I'm cool...let's just say the husband isn't and leave it at that!).

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