“Move it a little to the left.” I tilted my head like it would give me a better viewpoint of the large evergreen tree. “No. Come forward a half a step. Then to the right… That’s it!”

Sam, my BFF since we were in diapers, scowled at me. “That is where I had it in the first place,” he said through his teeth. He clenched his fists and his arm muscles contracted as he shifted it again, turning it.

I waved my hand while giving him a scowl of my own. “It’s really not.”

Maybe it was, but I wasn’t about to admit it. “Rotate it? Please. I think that side might be better.” I crossed my arms and studied it as Sam glared at me. “You know how important this is to me.”

Flexing again, he turned the larger-than-him tree around. “I do know how important this is to you. So, keep telling me, I’ll keep moving it, but would it kill you for once to notice how much I’ve been working out?”

He waggled his brows and gave me a cocky grin. Was that why he volunteered for putting the tree in just the right spot under my direction? Of course, it was.

“Uuuuugh.” I went boneless and collapsed on the couch in mock disgust. Of course, I noticed how toned he’d gotten since the last time I saw him before I moved back to Shipton Harbor. But I sure as hell wasn’t going to tell him that. “Does this work on Olivia? I mean, she’s your wife. She has to pretend you’re hot. You do know that?”

Crickets chirped as he stared at me. I hid my smile as he said, “Look, Ava, I get that we’re best friends and like siblings and have been all our lives, but you don’t have to be hurtful.”

Olivia chuckled beside me on the couch. “It does not work.”

With a snort, Sam glared at his wife. “Liar.”

I twirled my finger. “Just turn the tree, muscle boy.” It had to be perfect so that it could be seen from the street, which was down below the house. I wanted tasteful and noticeable décor, without going over the top. A tree through the window was a must.

This was the first Christmas I’d looked forward to celebrating since Clay, my beloved, deceased husband of twenty-one years, left this earth to find a new adventure without me. We were married for twenty-one years. He’d been dead for five. Just wanted to make sure that was clear.

I hadn’t been sure I’d decorate the house this year, but my newfound family, which included Alfred, my ghoul-butler-slash-friend-slash… he’s sort of a pet? And Snoozle, my immortal, very large Maine coon cat, as well as Owen, my needed-a-place-to-live necromancer and sort-of trainer, and Olivia, Sam’s wife—good lord, they’re a mouthful—all insisted that I at least put a tree up. They didn’t say I had to decorate. That was on them.

But believe me, if they decorated the house, they were also taking that shit down in January.

Not that Snooze could put ornaments on the spruce-fir. He was more likely to knock the thing over trying to climb it. 

And not that they’d decorate correctly. I would probably end up redoing everything, anyway. I wasn’t normally super anal-retentive, but hey. It was Christmas. It had to be perfect this year.

The sound of wild animals trampling down the stairs made me turn to investigate. Of course, there were no wild beasts in my house. Just a mini version of Sam running ahead of Alfred, who carried a large box of holiday decorations from the attic. Owen walked slower behind the ghoul with a smaller box in his arms.

Sammie rushed through the room and stopped to stare up at me. I looked back with one brow raised. I tried to keep a straight face but failed miserably when he cracked a snaggle-toothed smile. The kid was too stinkin cute.

After a moment, Sammie folded his little arms over his chest and mean mugged me. “You gonna do magic?” He loved it when I did little tricks for him.

A giggle drew my attention to the brat’s mother, Olivia, sitting on the sofa doing her best impression of a project supervisor. Of course, Olivia had told her son I could do magic, prompting months of him cutesy-ing his way into me coming up with more and more small magic tricks. I just hoped my new best frenemy didn’t tell the five-year-old that I could raise the dead.

Focusing on Sammie, I said, “Maybe. I thought you wanted to decorate the tree.”

Sammie pressed his lips together. “Why not both?”

Chuckling, I waved my finger at the box of decorations that Alfred had carried down earlier, before running up to grab the rest of the holiday loot, and made the lights wrap themselves around the tree and plug themselves in while Sammie cheered and clapped.

“Why couldn’t you do that with the tree itself?” Sam exclaimed.

With a shrug and a grin, I pulled out my phone. “My way was more fun.”

Ignoring Sam’s low growl, I checked my messages. My son, Wallie, was supposed to come home for the holiday break, but he was running late. He was in college at Harvard University studying to be a doctor. Wallie was a bright kid and could do anything he set his mind to. I’d used a huge chunk of Clay’s life insurance to pay for the first four years of Wallie’s higher learning in advance. The less the kid had in loans, the better off he would be.

A weather alert came up on my phone that it would snow later in the evening. Frowning, I went back to the messaging app. Wallie was driving up from Massachusetts. I tried not to worry, but I was his mom. It was part of the job.

On that note, I sent him a text. Are you here yet?

I didn’t worry about him texting and driving. He was bringing a girl friend with him so she would reply to my text. My Wallie was a responsible driver. And he knew I’d kill him and cut off all financial help if I caught him texting and driving. About an hour away.

That was not my Wallie who replied. The lack of sarcasm was my main clue.

Tell Dr. Wallie to drive carefully. It’s supposed to snow later tonight. Call me if you run into trouble.

Wallie’s female companion replied with, Will do.

Great. His friend, who happened to be a girl, was going to think I was an insane, nagging mom.

I wasn’t. I was a cool mom. I raised the dead and was the master of a ghoul. And possibly had turned my cat into one by accident. Oops.

Texting Wallie again?” Olivia asked as I sat back on the sofa.

Yeah.” I sat the phone on the arm of the couch. “I wish I knew more about this friend he is bringing. He wouldn’t even tell me her name.”

Really? Why?”

Sam snorted and answered for me. “Because Ava would dig up information on the poor girl and text Wallie nonstop about things she found.”

I huffed and crossed my arms. “Not true.”

Sam mimicked my pose. “Really? What did Aunt Winnie do when you started dating Clay?”

Umm. Yeah. Aunt Winnie drove me crazy with the stuff she supposedly dug up on Clay. Half the crap, I swore she made up. 

Sam added, “I just hope the poor girl is magical in some way so she can fire back with all the overprotective witchy games your kind plays.”

I stuck my tongue out at him and stood. As if on cue, Snooze trotted into the living room from the kitchen, licking his lips. Did ghoul kitties need to eat? Or was the fat cat just addicted to food?

Alfred glanced at the cat as he set his box down in front of me.

“Thank you, Alfred.” I bent down to open the box while Owen set his down next to it. Meeting Little Sammie’s gleeful gaze, I asked, “Which is, little man? Magic or are you going to decorate the tree?”

He pressed his lips together and tapped his chin. I laughed so hard at the cuteness that I had to clutch my side.

Smirking, the little monster put his hands on his hips. “Both. You use magic for the area I can’t reach.”

Smartie pants. That’s what he was. “You got it.” I scooted forward. “You tell me what to do and when okay?”

“Wait!” Sammie held out his hands as if to stop all motion in the room. “I want to put the star on top.”

“Err.” Did I have a star? Yaya used to put a voodoo doll on top as a joke. The thought made me snort out a laugh. Then tears formed and rolled down my cheeks as I remembered this Christmas, in this house, would be without Yaya, who died when I was nineteen, or Aunt Winnie. She died last year, and I’d moved back here a few months ago to sell the house. But then, I ended up falling in love with my family home again and decided to stay. Plus, I had a menagerie of misfits here, all counting on me.

“Ava.” Sam touched my shoulder, his voice soft with concern.

I waved him off. “I’m good, I’m fine. This is part of the grief process.” I sniffed and stood up. “Remember the voodoo doll?”

He burst out laughing. “Is it in there?”

Rifling through the smaller box, I shrugged. “I don’t know. We’ll find out, I guess.”

Olivia sat up straight. “Share the inside joke with the rest of the room.”

Instead of telling her, I dug through the boxes until I found the doll.

Holding it up for all to see, like one of Bob Barker’s ladies on the Price is Right, I explained. “So, this thing was Yaya’s favorite Christmas decoration. She liked to use it as the star on the tree.” I smiled thinking about my Yaya. She’d been gone for over twenty-four years now. Way, way too long.

Olivia giggled. “She put that on top of the tree?”

Nodding, I smiled through the tears. Even after all these years, it hurt to think about her, albeit in a better way now than it had in years past. “Yaya was my mother’s mom and also an earth witch. I think she did it to annoy the coven. Yaya loved and accepted my dad, but the coven shunned him for being a necromancer. It was a different time back then.”

The latter didn’t matter to me. Some of the same witches were still part of the coven that had voted to not allow dad, or later me, into their sacred club. Hence the reason I wasn’t going to pay them any visits. 

“That would do it,” Olivia said. “I’m sorry I never got the chance to meet her.”

Olivia and I hadn’t liked each other when I lived in Shipton Harbor before. We’d been enemies, of a sort. I couldn’t stand her, was what it had boiled down to. 

But she’d changed dramatically since then. “Me, too. She would’ve loved you.” The new Olivia, anyway. She probably would’ve hexed the old Olivia. I’d considered it many times myself.

Maybe that was why Yaya had gotten along with Dad so well. They both had a dark streak mixed in with their magic.

Handing the doll to Sammie, I smiled at the thought of Yaya hexing Olivia. Maybe some itching spell. “The doll goes on top this year. In honor of Yaya, Aunt Winnie, Mom, and Dad.”

This Christmas was going to be different and memorable. I couldn’t wait to start making memories with my newfound family.

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