Stranger Than Witches (The Witches of Secret Hallow Book 3) (7 page)

9

K
imberly drove
to the Ash Academy with Rowan and Gemma following in the car behind. They’d offered to carpool so that she wouldn’t have to drive in such an emotional state, but she really was fine.

Well. Maybe not
fine
. But she was okay to drive, anyway, even if there was a hollow place in her chest she couldn’t seem to shake.

And she wanted to be able to get to the Ash Academy as quickly as possible.

Keene had gone to school there today, since Maddock had needed to work and Kimberly had had her own activities to worry about. The weight of her heart made it feel as though she were an orbital body being drawn by gravity to her son, the center of her universe.

She needed to be with him.

She needed to remind herself that she
could
be with him, even though she had changed into an eagle and gone chasing the stags up the mountain.

How could she have done such a thing?

Keene. I need to be with Keene
.

As she pulled up to the curb beside the field, she could see him running around with Fern on the grass. Their shrieks of happiness were muffled by the car door, but when Kimberly opened it, she could hear them in their full piercing glory.

The hollow place in her chest echoed when Keene spotted her. Their eyes met across the grass. It was a tangible feeling, that connection that they made. He shouted, “Mommy!”

He peeled off from Fern and ran her way, and Kimberly had just enough time to climb out of the car before he ran into her full tilt. He packed quite the oomph for someone less than her height who wasn’t even four.

“Hi, son,” Kimberly said with all the warmth that she could muster, scooping him into her arms. She needed to squeeze him tightly against her heart even though he was so much heavier and lankier than a baby. He was still
her
baby. “Are you ready to go home?”

Keene nodded, arms wrapped around her neck, cheek pressed to cheek. “I had so much fun today!” His breath smelled like almond butter and there were flecks of rice cracker on his chin. He’d obviously been snacking recently.

He was fine, well cared for and well fed.

Kimberly saw Rowan and Gemma get out of the car out of the corner of her eye. Logically, she knew that Gemma was going to help with the kids and that Rowan was pulling Siobhan out of her car seat, so they would be too busy to stare at Kimberly. But she still felt the weight of their imagined gazes on her.

They had been happy for her when she’d changed. They didn’t feel a whit of the anxiety that Kimberly did.

But they didn’t know the truth. They had no idea what had happened before, when Kimberly was a girl little older than Keene himself.

Kimberly couldn’t be happy that she’d discovered her magic, or that it was one of the strongest talents any witch could have.

She knew. She would never forget.

She wasn’t going to use magic anymore, so whatever Gemma and Rowan thought about what happened today didn’t affect her one way or the other. Kimberly would still be a part of Secret Hallow, but a non-magical one. She wouldn’t use magic at all. Not ever again. It was a grim thought, but at least Keene would have someone who didn’t use magic to look up to.

At that thought, Kimberly brushed a hand over Keene’s hair. His sharp chin rested on her shoulder. “How are you?”

“Good.”

“Ready to go home?”

Keene nodded, and when she opened the back door of her sedan, Keene climbed in obediently. She helped him latch into his car seat before she took the front seat.

Rowan was definitely looking her way as Kimberly restarted her car. She waved, and Kimberly waved back.

It looked like Rowan wanted to come over and talk.

Kimberly didn’t wait for Rowan to talk to her again. She wasn’t prepared to discuss the emotionally difficult experience she’d sustained, since it would require explaining things too painful to share with others—even those who were in the coven and loved her as though she were a sister.

As she drove back to the farm, she kept looking back at Keene as he played with a couple toys he kept at his seat, making noise that grew progressively louder.

If Maddock had been in the car, he would have gently asked Keene to quiet down. Kimberly, however, let him be as loud as he wanted, even when it hurt her ears.

It was better to fill the silence. His joyful shrieks and rocket noises drove away most of the horrible thoughts ricocheting within her skull.

It was late enough that the sun had mostly set when they made it back to the farm. Not so late that Maddock wasn’t still out taking advantage of the last of the light, but late enough that Kimberly fed Keene, read him a book, and put him to bed without any delay.

The entire time that they prepared, Keene stayed close to Kimberly, hugging her at every opportunity. Sometimes that meant that Kimberly had to pry his arms off so she could do things like put his plate in the dishwasher or brush his teeth, but that was better than the alternative.

She loved how much he loved her. Sometimes it was a little suffocating to have a small child constantly plastered to her side, but she was grateful for it on that day.

Better to be suffocated than to fly into the wilderness and never return.

When she went to put Keene in his room, he grabbed his favorite blankie, a scrap of yellow fabric that was half his size, and said, “Wrong bed.”

“Sorry?”


Your
bed. Not
my
bed.”

“Oh. Okay, son.”

It wouldn’t be the first time Keene shared her bed, not by a long shot. He had slept between Maddock and Kimberly for the first two years of his life, until he had become a “big boy” and insisted on sleeping in a room of his own.

Kimberly often missed sharing her bed with his sprawling, chubby body, though there was no way to recapture the experience of sharing sleeping space with a baby now that he was so tall. Still, she allowed him to sleep with her whenever he asked. It was less often by the day. She dreaded the final night he would want to cuddle in his sleep.

When they reached her bedroom, Keene pulled back the sheets—just like Kimberly did when she put Keene to bed—and pushed gently at Kimberly until she climbed in. He pulled the blankets back over her, with a little of Kimberly’s help, and gently laid his blankie on top.

“Wait a second,” she said. “I’m supposed to tuck
you
in. I’m Mommy.”

“I’m Mommy today,” he declared. “You’re a big boy.”

“Okay. You have to go to bed, too,” Kimberly said, her voice thick with every inch of fondness she felt for her son.

“I know,” Keene said brightly, in an exaggerated whisper, and he climbed in over her and then under the blankets, snuggling in the space between the dents that Kimberly and Maddock had worn in their shared mattress. The bed was the perfect amount of cozy with Keene in it.

She hugged him close, feeling every bit of love that she had for him in every part of her body. It meant she also felt the sharp pierce of fear that came with that love. Nothing good came without the worry that it would go away forever, and at that moment, Kimberly had never loved more or feared more.

Kimberly would never leave Keene.
Never.
Not for anything.

Not even for the joy of flight.

K
imberly was wrenched
out of her head by the buzzing of her phone on her nightstand. She rolled away from Keene so she could check to see if it was Maddock…and it wasn’t. It was her brother, Jason. She wanted to talk to him, but she didn’t want to bother Keene.

“Mommy?” Keene said clearly. He hadn’t fallen asleep yet, though they’d been snuggling under the blankets for several long, cozy minutes. “What’s that?”

“My phone. Hold on, son.” She picked up and climbed out of bed, wincing when Keene made a small noise of protest. “Hello?”

“Kim!”

“Hey, Jason.” She went into her bathroom and closed the door enough that it would block most of what she was saying from Keene’s ears. “What’s going on?”

“You won’t believe this.”

Kimberly laughed quietly. “You’d be surprised.”

“It’s Mom.”

Kimberly’s heart skipped a beat or six. “Oh?” she said, trying to sound casual. “What about her?”

“She’s been trying to get in contact with me.”

A breath escaped Kimberly in a rush. “How?”

“Does it matter?”

Not particularly. She trusted Jason.

“Have you let her talk to you?” Kimberly asked.

Jason laughed a little sadly. “Not yet. I’m not ready! I don’t know what I’d say to her. I was hoping you and I could talk first,” he said. “About Mom.”

That…actually sounded kind of appealing. Kimberly could certainly use some time with her beloved brother, and since Jason wasn’t exactly a chatterbox, the fact that he was calling her at all suggested he could use sister time as well.

“Yes,” she said aloud. “Maybe we could go to your house.”

“We?”

“Keene and me. We’d love to get out of Secret Hallow for a little while to visit with you. I’m not sure when we’ll have time, though. Can I sleep on it?”

“Of course. And you’re all welcome if Maddock wants to come as well.”

Kimberly wasn’t sure how she wanted the whole meeting to look. Just one of the many reasons she needed a little while to consider the idea. “Thanks. I’ll get back to you as soon as I know.”

“Okay. Love you.”

“Love you too.”

10

K
eene wasn’t entirely asleep
when Kimberly came out of the bathroom, cell phone clutched in her fist. However, he was asleep enough that he didn’t ask her what was going on in specific words; he just made a sleepy, questioning noise.

“Don’t worry,” Kimberly said quietly, climbing back into bed with him.

Instantly, he went from semi-awake to breathing loudly in his sleep. Kimberly envied him that.

She waited a few minutes in the darkness of her bedroom to make sure Keene was asleep and that she wouldn’t disturb him by leaving. She took the opportunity to admire his pale face in the nighttime gloom: the upturned point of his nose, the fullness of his lips, the rounded chin that looked so much like Maddock’s. His cheeks were still rounded by baby fat.

Kimberly smoothed the bangs off of his freckled forehead and pressed a kiss to his brow. He still didn’t stir.

His skin smelled like all things little boy: dirt and crunched-up leaves and the musk that came from getting most of his baths in the nearby ocean.

The sweet-but-gross baby scent of spoiled milk and sweat was long since gone, though it seemed so recent that Kimberly had nestled his pliant body at her breast as a newborn. Time moved with surrealistic haste. Those early nights when he had been fussy and small had been endless. Yet when she stretched her mind back to them, they’d lasted barely a blink.

That chubby baby had learned to roll, to stand, to walk, to talk, and now he was resembling a little boy.

Time moved too quickly.

Kimberly couldn’t blink without missing a new development.

What would happen if she flew into the mountains and missed it all?

Her eyes burned as she pressed her lips to his forehead again, and then the tip of his nose. His breath breezed across her lips.

“Love you, son,” she murmured.

Kimberly shifted away carefully when she was relatively sure he was very asleep, and he didn’t budge. She continued to stare at him a moment, overflowing with bittersweet fondness, before she left for the rest of the house.

Maddock wasn’t inside. She could see him out back through the sliding door, sitting on the back step. He liked to look at the stars on the cloudless nights, and Kimberly often liked to join him. Her current dark mood changed nothing. She wanted to be with her husband the way that her lungs wanted oxygen.

She allowed herself a moment to study him through the window.

Keene wasn’t the only one who had changed in recent years. When Maddock and Kimberly had met, he had been a much leaner man, barely more than a boy himself. He hadn’t even been capable of growing a proper beard, so he had shaved it into a funny goatee that Kimberly hadn’t been able to resist laughing at. His hands and feet had always seemed too big, and his arms too long.

Now he had grown into his physique. If he had been a shapeshifter—which he most certainly was not—Kimberly had an easy time imagining him turning into a bear.

More than growing, he was aging. The hints of red and blond in his beard were starting to go silver in several places.

He was every ounce as handsome as the day that Kimberly had met him. A glance from his sharp eyes still made her heart flutter like a bird trapped within a cage.

She poured two glasses of mead and stepped through the back door.

He brightened when she joined him outside. “Kiddo asleep?”

Kimberly nodded.

“Sit next to me?” He patted the step, and Kimberly lowered herself onto it, folding her limbs into an awkward seated position. It felt like she didn’t have the right appendages. She’d shed the body of the hawk, but not entirely the mindset. He took the mead from her and sipped it, savoring the sweet taste before he continued to speak. “Nice night for stargazing since the moon’s barely a sliver.”

Indeed, the moon had waned so that it was but a fraction of a crescent—what Keene called a Cheshire Cat smile. The stars were vivid in the absence of its light.

She leaned against Maddock without saying anything. She let the silence sit between them as a third party, content to have it that way until Maddock started the conversation.

Of course, he did. “How did today go?” he asked after a few minutes of quiet.

“I flew.” Her voice sounded odd to her own ears. More emotional than she would have expected. “Changed entirely. Thorn and I flew together.”

“Wow.”

Kimberly nodded. “And then I…I lost it, and I fell. Rowan caught me before I had any injuries.”

“I didn’t believe for a second that you could have gotten hurt.” Maddock rested his head atop hers. “So how much practice do you think you’ll need before you can go out without Rowan waiting to catch you?”

“Maddock.”

“Would it be so bad to explore the world with Thorn? Even if it’s for a few days?” Maddock looked at her, his face shadowed in the night. “It would be like going camping.”

“You don’t understand,” she said, her voice just as emotional as it had been before. She set her glass of mead down on the step beside her with a solid
thunk
. “Do you think that would make me happy?”

“It wouldn’t?’

Kimberly looked away. She didn’t look up at the sky; the ground seemed safer. It was certainly less appealing, and that was the entire allure.

“I haven’t told you much about my mother, have I?” she asked quietly. She knew the answer. Even Maddock, who knew almost everything about her, didn’t know that part of her life. It was too painful to share.

“I know she wasn’t in your life since childhood,” he said. “You’ve never told me why.” And he’d made it clear that he didn’t need to. He loved Kimberly for who she was now, as a product of her past; the details of what had come before were irrelevant to him.

Now it was time to tell him. She could feel the weight of truth bearing down on her soul. It had festered within her for so long, and it used to seem preferable to leave it hidden in the dark, moldy corners of memory, but now she needed to air it out in order to heal.

Kimberly took a deep breath to brace herself.

“My mother could change shapes, too. She’s the only other person I’ve known who could do it.” Kimberly rubbed at her arms. The night was a little chilly, and she hadn’t grabbed a sweater. “But she changed into a wolf instead of an eagle. It was kind of fun at first, for both me and Jason. We were only kids. Having a mom with fur and a tail…can you imagine how Keene would feel about that?”

“He’d like it,” Maddock agreed, pulling Kimberly closer. He was so much warmer than the night around them.

Keene would indeed like it. He so loved Poke, spending nearly every waking moment with his stuffed eagle. Even Thorn had allowed Keene to caress his feathers once or twice, tolerating his clumsy baby hands better than he tolerated anything else. For his mother to grow wings and tail feathers—Keene would have been
delighted
.

But in order for that to work, she would have to be there. A presence in his life.

It couldn’t go both ways.

Kimberly felt her throat go thick with unshed tears. She swallowed hard and spoke around them as best she could. “The wolf ruled my mother. She couldn’t think of anything else. Even when she was human, I could tell that she wanted to be out running in the woods.” There had been a look to her face. Something distant, longing. Kimberly had been young, but she’d known that her mom had wanted to be away.

Jason and Kimberly hadn’t mattered as much as their mother’s animal. Her freedom.

Kimberly trailed off for a while. Maddock didn’t say anything; he just rubbed her arms and waited. Kimberly didn’t have the words to say how lucky she was to have him and Keene, but she could share with her husband. She could tell him that part of her life.

After a deep breath, she managed, her voice breaking a bit, “So she left us. Me and Jason. Turned into a wolf and never came back.”

Maddock sucked in a surprised breath beside her.

“I can’t stop thinking about flying,” Kimberly said, regaining some composure as she kept talking. “But I’m not going to fly again. I’m staying. I
want
to stay.”

“I know you do,” Maddock agreed in a low voice. “Which is why it’s okay for you to go for a day or two. I know you’ll always come back.”

How could he be so sure when Kimberly wasn’t? She had seen with her own eyes what this power had done to her mother.

The magic of shapeshifting—the magic of the animal—was a thousand times stronger than the comforting normalcy of a human life.

“I know what you’re thinking, wife of mine. It’s not true. You would never leave us permanently. I wish you could trust yourself more.” He hugged her close and kissed the top of her head. “You aren’t your mother, Kimberly.”

She gently broke away and got to her feet. She picked up both of their glasses. Only Maddock had drained his; she had barely taken a sip. “I’m tired.”

Maddock nodded and stood as well. “Let’s go to sleep, then.”

He offered a hand, and she took it without hesitation.

They went back into the house and slipped into bed. In Kimberly’s absence, Keene had spread out, but he curled in when Kimberly gently rolled him toward the middle. Maddock took his other side, and in the bed, with her family beside her, she felt complete.

But she didn’t fall asleep right away, and she couldn’t help but notice she didn’t feel particularly grounded. Complete, yes, but distant somehow.

When Kimberly finally closed her eyes, she dreamed of flying.

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