Welcome to the First Annual Willow Hollow Bake-Off! The banner over the entrance of the Conjureth Community Center held promise for locals dressed in fantasy costumes and decorating cakes at the round, waist-high tables with specialized spinning tops. If only visiting tourists who thought actors shared a faux magical experience realized the truth. In reality, actual witches, trolls, shifters, fae, and other supernaturals competed in the highly publicized competition.
I searched beneath table after table in the middle of the slate-gray concrete floor. Pulling aside the hems of white tablecloths, time and time again, I looked for my missing familiar.
“Here, kitty, kitty, kitty. Bub, where are you?” I whispered. Crouching, I lifted the skirt of a cloth-covered rectangular display table featuring handouts and framed photographs of examples of elaborately decorated cakes. Only a box containing contest rule flyers, a stack of clipboards, and a plastic bag of writing pens rested beneath the table, with no black cat in sight.
Finally, returning to my station, I re-situated my pointed witch hat, dropping to all fours to recheck beneath the table. Something spongy smashed beneath my palm, and I lifted my hand to find a piece of pink-dyed fondant stuck to my skin. No, I wasn’t the best at cake decorating, but the skeleton face I’d fashioned on the side of my cake by molding fondant looked cute and creepy.
With Aunt CeeCee on her honeymoon, representing the Taste of Magic Bakery was up to me. Yet I cringed at the sight of pink smudges I’d left on several tablecloth skirts. By all that was witchy, my flubs didn’t bode well for how the rest of the night and tomorrow night’s judging might go. Neither did Bub going missing on a night when he could voice all his complaints about the entire previous month.
“He always has a lot to say,” I muttered, rocked back, and sat on my heels. Where could he have gone?
“Is there a reason you left your assigned spot?” The faerie contestant at the table beside mine stared down her narrow, upturned nose. “You’re supposed to showcase your skills. Although your flowers are crude, they work with the skull, but you could do better than a skeleton face on the side.”
I swiped my hands with a wad of paper towels. “Sorry, but my familiar—”
“Has nothing to do with why you’re going to lose this contest since my meringue-shaped ghosts will win, hands down.” She tapped her nametag, which read Lorelai Rosepebbles.
“Cute idea, Lorelai, but doesn’t meringue shrivel eventually? I may be a mere baker’s assistant, but even I know that.” I strode down the line of decorating tables, craning my neck to look again for Bub.
If I were lucky—I believed in conjuring my own—perhaps no one would notice my fingertip smudges. I paused before Lorelai’s cute chocolate-frosted cake with the fast-shrinking ghosts on top.
“Harper Dade, you’re a joy thief.” The faerie, her blond hair clasped in an updo at her nape, groaned and gestured toward her cake, causing the wings covered by her jacket to shift above shoulder level. “Looks like I’ll have to replace them right before the judging. It’s all about timing, you know.” She wrinkled her nose, which caused the slightly pointed upper part of her ears to curl as she studied my pink cake, which definitely made a spooky statement.
Proud of my efforts, I glanced both ways down the aisle to glimpse a cat’s tail sticking out from beneath a table.
No such luck.
“Since you’re with Taste of Magic, you should know I will open a competing bakery on the other side of town once I win this contest. There’s not room for two bakeries in Willow Hollow, so may the best fae win.” While reapplying her lipstick, the thirty-something faerie swiped her pinky along the outer edges of her plump lips.
“A second bakery? I thought there was a rule about not duplicating local businesses.”
Lorelai huffed. “Such antiquated regulations. I suspect my uncle, the town’s lead councilman, will make an exception because I intend to open in a few weeks. Ask permission afterward and all that.”
“I don’t think that’s how business permits work.”
“Did you know there was one for building as well? Silly rules, but I’m sure my uncle will make it happen. It’s all about whom you know. Having returned to your hometown amid chaos, you should know that.”
“I’m doing my best to represent the bakery.” I eyed my cake sitting there, just waiting for its finishing touches.
“And I am representing my soon-to-be bakery, so I suppose we’re the battle of the bakers.”
“There’s no reason to be so snarky. We both want the same thing.”
“I don’t think so. I intend to beat you and run you and your whacky aunt out of business. She may be the shifter sheriff’s wife, but that doesn’t make her untouchable.”
Mouth opened to defend Aunt CeeCee, I popped my lips together as Sis Sims, the owner of the local antique store, approached carrying a tray of white fondant sheets.
“Lorelai, did I overhear you threatening my dear friend CeeCee and her business?” Sis held up the tray. “I’d watch my words because in a supernatural tourist town, saying such things might come back to bite you.”
“Those layers are too thick. I’ll roll out my own, thank you.” Lorelai barged away toward the icing, frosting, and fondant creation station.
Sis, her mouth tugged to one side, eyed my cake. “Good job, Harper.”
“Of alienating a fellow contest participant? Aunt CeeCee wanted me to make friends and win over people.”
“I think there’s a book about that. Have you chosen the magic gift you will share with the cake?” Sis grinned. “What about imbuing it with the sounds of a music box? Then you could send them to look at my real-deal antiques.”
“Always working an angle. I haven’t decided.” Loud voices drew our attention, and I glanced at the fondant creation area. “But I promise to keep an antique twist in mind.”
“That fae woman is trouble, Harper. You best steer clear of her. She’s a vendetta against CeeCee. I doubt your aunt would have shared, but Lorelai was supposed to come to work at Taste of Magic before you and your aunt decided you would join her. It’s sour grapes, but if that faerie doesn’t watch it, we will steep her in metaphorical witch’s brew before she knows it.”
“I didn’t realize. If Lorelai thinks I took her job, then I can see why she has an attitude toward me.” Again, I looked around. No whiskers poking out from under nearby tablecloths. “Have you seen Bub? He’s gone missing.”
“On a full moon night. That’s unheard of, but we’ll get relief from his off-the-chart riddles and jokes. You know, those aren’t too bad. His butchered lyrics of classic television theme songs grate me the most.”
“I know. The one about the sheriff going fishing was his favorite last month.”
“I’ll keep an eye out for him.” She studied my cake. “Want me to dye more dusky pink fondant?”
“Why? I thought the skeleton looked pretty good.”
“It does, but to keep it from slipping toward the next layer, you’ll need to cover it with a second layer and shape the fondant around the skull’s face.”
“Excuse me,” Lorelai’s tone spiked from the fondant roller area, “but I need the organic purple food coloring to add fondant accents to my cake. You have no right to hog that color.”
Norvellus Westervelt, a former chef and Willow Hollow’s newly elected mayor, wriggled his upper lip to make his small mustache dance above his scowl. “I’ve told you twice already that I used a small amount of blue and added pink to get just the right shade of lavender, and now I’m rolling my petals into shape.” He held up a small tool with a nob atop a handle. “You’re welcome to mix your own.”
Lorelai shook her head. “It takes forever to mix the color in, so adding two just takes more time.”
“Welcome to the world of baking.” Norvellus sighed. “Aren’t you the one who wants to buck the rules and open a second bakery? Your attitude doesn’t bode well for someone who wants to run a local business.”
“And yours won’t last long when my uncle has your election recalled, and they recount the votes. He’ll be mayor of this Podunk town, and my bakery will be top of the line because of his financing.”
“Look, young lady—”
Breath held, I leaned forward and listened harder.
“Don’t call me that,” the fae contestant hissed. “You can’t get away with lying to me about mixing colors. I need the organic purple. Don’t you get it? If I do what you suggest, I’ll end up with a gray glob. You and your town of witches are trying to keep me from winning.”
The mayor scoffed. “The fae have just as much chance of winning as other entrants. Willow Hollow welcomes all, which is why we’re the top tourist attraction in the state.”
“Can you believe her attitude?” Sis whispered.
“There’s more to magic than witchiness.” Lorelai stomped to the mixing part of the area.
Arms crossed, I edged closer to peer within the square of tables on the off-chance Bub might scope out the sweetness. Not seeing him, I said, “Lorelai, not that you asked, but if I were you, I’d come up with a better idea for your ghosts. Despite your attitude, here’s a tip. You might try marshmallow fluff atop your creamy frosting. You could dye the marshmallow different colors.”
Pursing her mouth, the fae woman darted a side look at the mayor and glared at me. “Are you trying to trick me?”
“Sounds as if Harper’s trying to help.” The mayor scowled. “As a former pastry chef, I agree you’ll get more with sweets atop your cake instead of tasteless lumps.”
“Huh?” Lorelai gaped.
“Never mind, young lady. If you want this shade of purple,” the mayor chuckled and patted her arm, “you’ll want to use two drops of blue and three of the red.”
“I’ll figure it out on my own.”
“I’m sure you will, and for the rest of us locals, sooner rather than later.” He harrumphed and, carrying a tray of different colored fondant layers between sheets of parchment paper, headed back to his table. “Carry on.”
As Lorelai mixed her fondant, grabbing colors of dye seemingly randomly, I continued searching for Bub. Still, by the night’s end, my familiar remained missing. Finally, as the evening decorating session wrapped up, I left, with Bub’s absence weighing heavily on my witchy intuition.