Stranger Than Witches (The Witches of Secret Hallow Book 3) (8 page)

11

T
he next morning
, Kimberly was the first to wake. It didn’t happen often—few did mornings more eagerly than her farmer husband and wild beast of a son. When she did wake up first, she always went into the kitchen to start breakfast so they could eat as a family.

That morning was no different, and going through the motions of preparing everything made her feel better.

It was exactly the dose of reality she needed. This was life: mixing ingredients for pancakes, setting fresh milk out for Keene, arranging the table with fresh flowers for breakfast.

Maddock was the first to wake up after Kimberly. By the time he stumbled into the rest of the house, it smelled of the cooked sausage and the spices she put in the pumpkin pancakes. Kimberly was nibbling on a fruit salad she’d prepared while cooking, smiling at her husband as he came up and kissed her on the cheek.

“Smells wonderful,” he said in his grumbling voice, rough from sleep but warm nonetheless.

Kimberly smiled at him as he took a plate and helped himself to the food that was finished.

Her cooking had been well-timed. As she scooped the last of the pancakes onto a plate, Keene came tearing through the house, yelling happily. Maddock yelled happily in reply as Keene charged him. Father scooped son into his arms and tickled his sides.

Yes. This was reality, this was normalcy.

Who would want a life in the forest, flying a mile above the treetops, when she could be rooted to the earth with her blissful little family?

She waited until the table had been silent and settled for a few minutes before speaking.

“I heard from Jason yesterday,” she said.

Maddock paused where he was eating his food, swallowed, and wiped his mouth off with a napkin before speaking. “Oh yeah? How is he?”

“Good.” She selected her next words carefully, pushing a piece of ripe wintermelon around her plate as she considered. “He heard from Mom.”

Maddock’s eyes went big. “Oh, goblins and cauldrons and everything in between.”

“Maddock,” Kimberly admonished softly, eyes flicking to Keene.

“Goblins!” Keene swore as well, just as brightly.

“Sorry,” Maddock said. “Keene, that kind of language is for adult witches.”

“Oops,” Keene said. “Oh, cauldrons.”

Kimberly chuckled softly, but the mirth quickly faded. “Jason wanted to talk about it, and I do too, so…” She nodded at Keene. “I think the two of us are going to visit my brother. Out of town.”

She had been kind of on the fence about it, even if it had sounded promising, but she’d realized, in those non-sleeping hours the night before, that getting out of town would take her away from the coven’s magic, and it would probably help at least some of the urge to shapeshift. At the very least, it might give her some time to clear her head.

Judging by the sad look on Maddock’s face, he knew at least some of what she was thinking.

“Okay,” he said. “I understand, hon. Do you think you’ll be back before Beltane?”

Kimberly didn’t expect it to take that long—neither she nor Jason were exactly the talkative types—but she couldn’t say for sure. She shrugged.

In truth, it would likely be better for her to avoid all of Secret Hallow during Beltane. It was a powerful ritual of fertility blessings. That much energy flowing through the village—and specifically through her farm—might overwhelm her.

No. If she could stay with Jason, she would.

“I hope you’ll be there,” he said in a quiet voice, reaching a hand across the table. Kimberly took it.

They shared a silent moment as husband and wife, casting meaningful gazes across the table.

Of course he wanted her there on Beltane, the anniversary of their first kiss. Of course he wanted her to be with him on the farm when the entire coven was performing a ritual. The coven was family, but there was no replacement for one’s partner.

Yet he placed Kimberly’s well-being above all else, including his personal desires. If she felt that she would be best off avoiding Beltane, then he would support that.

Maddock was the greatest blessing of all those within Sleepy Hallow.

“Did you hear that, Keene? You and Mommy are going on a trip. You get to meet your Uncle Jason,” Maddock said.

Keene brightened. “Uncle Jason?”

Kimberly nodded.

“What about you? You’re not coming, Daddy?”

“Afraid not, kiddo. The farm needs tending, and with the Beltane festival…well, I have things to do here. Maybe I’ll go during another trip.”

Keene considered it for a moment. “Can Poke come?”

“Of course,” Kimberly said. “As long as he agrees to wear his seat belt.”

Keene frowned a little more for a moment, but his face finally cleared, and he nodded. “Okay.”

“Okay,” Maddock said, smiling at Kimberly. She shook her head, but she smiled, too.

I
t later occurred
to Kimberly that Poke might be able to come to Uncle Jason’s house, but Thorn was going to have to stay in Secret Hallow. It wouldn’t be the first time that they’d traveled separately from one another; Thorn’s hunts often took him into the depths of the mountains, beyond the boundaries of even Kimberly’s senses for her familiar. She was always lonely without him, though. She couldn’t bring herself to leave without connecting with him for at least a few minutes, dangerous as it might have been for her magic.

She could feel him in the back of her head, doing a morning hunt, and she tentatively reached out.

Thorn reached back for her.

Kimberly could feel him combing the thoughts that were hovering near the surface of her mind.

She wasn’t sure he’d ever known about her mom; although Kimberly shared most things with everyone close to her, that was one of those things she’d always kept to herself. Or, really, she wasn’t entirely sure that it was one of those things that mattered to eagles. Predatory birds liked to keep to themselves, didn’t they? Stake out their own territories?

She felt Thorn look very closely at that thought, and seconds later, she was seeing out through his eyes, riding around in his mind.

They were looking at treetops for several minutes before Kimberly realized what had happened. She hadn’t tried anything with her magic.
Thorn
had been the one to draw her in. It had happened in the blink of an eye.

It was startling, but Kimberly couldn’t help but marvel. There was so much she didn’t know about her magic and Thorn.

The two of them could have a lot to explore together, if Kimberly allowed it.

That thought came from Thorn, too.

She pulled gently away from their bond, urging him to separate. She had only wanted to connect briefly before leaving. She hadn’t wanted to go soaring with him in such a way, high above the mountains. It was too alluring. Too close to the magic she was attempting to avoid.

Thorn didn’t let her go. He wrapped her mind in the tight embrace of his and carried her with him.

There was nothing confrontational about it. Nothing emotional at all. There was no fighting against the calm certainty of Thorn’s intent.

Kimberly was flying with him, and that was that.

She wasn’t given time to wonder where he was going. Kimberly spotted the nest long before they landed on the branch that supported it. There was another eagle inside, eyes closed.

If Kimberly had been in charge, she would have turned around immediately. Thorn had a mouse in his claws, and another eagle in his territory could spell nothing but trouble. But Kimberly wasn’t in charge, and Thorn ignored her concerned feelings in his direction.

When Thorn landed on the branch, it stirred the sleeping eagle. The other eagle’s eyes opened, and from under their wings, a few smaller heads poked out.

Thorn brought the food forward, offering it to the nest. It was like he was saying
See?
in his eagle-ish way, and it was then that Kimberly understood.

She was seeing Thorn’s family.

Kimberly hadn’t had any idea he’d even
had
a family, but there they were, nestled together in a loving pile.

He had been working with Kimberly and helping her as her familiar, but he still had a mate and hatchlings as well.

How had he managed such a life of his own, and still engaged in magic?

This was something Thorn wanted her to see very much. She wasn’t sure she understood why, but she knew it was important to him.

His hatchlings were very young. Barely more than puffs of down hugging their mother’s underbelly. Thorn glowed with pride at seeing them, and Kimberly shared in the sensation. She knew exactly the feeling. It was similar to what she felt every time she saw Keene.

Kimberly retreated from Thorn’s mind, leaving him alone with his nest. It was a private, sacred thing, that life he had.

She felt so blessed that he had shared it with her.

Kimberly’s mind returned to her body.

Her home didn’t look so different from Thorn’s nest, even though she and Maddock and Keene were in a house instead of on a branch in the woods. Her men were working at the sink, and in between scrubbing the dishes and placing them in the rack to dry, there was splashing and giggling and smiling faces.

Kimberly wasn’t sure if she was still feeling the love coming from Thorn when looking at his nest or her own love.

Maybe she didn’t have to choose.

Maddock looked over his shoulder as they finished—it seemed they had done most of the work while Kimberly had been flying with Thorn—and smiled at Kimberly. She had been gone while they did all the work, and he wasn’t perturbed in the slightest.

He obviously understood.

12

I
t wasn’t
as much fun to travel as a human as it was while in eagle form.

Yes, Kimberly loved having Keene with her, which was something she couldn’t do in her shifted form. He was her hatchling only in the loosest sense of the word. He couldn’t fly beside her even if she wanted to do it. She still wasn’t ready to surrender to her eagle, but after a few hours in the car with the antsy Keene, she thought she might have chosen to fly if that were an option. At least flapping his wings would have drained his energy.

Even if hours in the car with his shrieking started to wear her down, it was better than the alternative, by far.

Easier to be an eagle, yes.

Better, no.

She wouldn’t be like her mother. She wouldn’t let the alluring ease of the wild draw her away from her family.

Kimberly wasn’t going to miss a single moment with Keene.

That said, she was grateful when he hit his limit and napped. Kimberly could look back in her mirror and see his face, relaxed and sweet.

Silent, sleeping Keene was a happy Keene.

Even when he wasn’t thrashing in his car seat, though, driving a car wasn’t the same as soaring above it all. Kimberly longed to skip the traffic and the noise and the roads and aim straight for her destination.

That longing didn’t fade even when her connection to her magic did. Kimberly would have been a witch regardless of where she was located, even if she had somehow gotten to the Moon, but being in Secret Hallow made everything much stronger. Proximity to the Elder Tree opened the tap on the coven’s magic so it flowed strong.

That flow reduced to a trickle with every mile she put between herself and Secret Hallow, until she thought she wouldn’t have been able to shapeshift into an eagle.

She couldn’t even feel Thorn anymore.

That made her saddest of all. She hoped his hatchlings were as happy as Keene was in his carseat, blissfully asleep.

Kimberly pulled into Jason’s driveway while Keene was still asleep.

She seldom visited Jason’s home, but she still was warmed by the sight of his tidy yard, his understated lawn decorations, his car in the garage. Jason was a steadfast, comforting soul, and it radiated from all his belongings.

Jason opened the front door as Kimberly was freeing Keene from his car seat. Their eyes met over the roof of the car and understanding crossed between them.

He didn’t say a word as Keene climbed out of the car and ran up to him; he just hugged Keene and held out a hand to take one of Kimberly’s bags. He also accepted a hug from Kimberly, even though they really hadn’t been those kinds of siblings when they were kids. Somehow, they’d both evolved that way.

Still, Jason was a loner, so even though he had his own house, he didn’t take up much room in it. Its interior was decorated as sparsely as the exterior. He had a few black and white photographs, an altar with colorful river stones scattered across the surface, and shelves of candles. The furniture was small and modern. He didn’t even have a television.

It was all very
Jason
.

“Show me stuff!” Keene said, hanging off of Jason’s arm. Jason was strong enough to lift the boy one-handed, biceps flexing as he hauled his nephew high enough to get his feet off the ground.

Jason showed them around in his way, which was to walk from room to room so they could see things. The mud room, which was dominated by a cat tree and litter boxes. The back yard, which had a giant greenhouse filled to the brim with leafy green plants. His library, which had another altar and more books than a single soul could read in a lifetime, though Jason would certainly try.

The sparseness of his furnishing had allowed him to leave a dedicated space for Keene as well. He’d decorated the guest room with toys and a car-shaped bed. It wasn’t necessary for him to be so accommodating, and Kimberly would have told him so if it wouldn’t have seemed ungrateful.

But Keene was excited by the sight of it. He immediately jumped on the bed with a piercing giggle.

The wee boy quickly grew serious again and looked up at Jason.

“Do you have a bird?” Keene asked, clutching Poke to his chest tightly.

Jason shook his head. “Cats live here. See? There’s one.”

A tortoiseshell darted behind Kimberly’s feet, and Keene’s delighted face was so bright it almost hurt to look at. He cackled happily and chased it down the hall.

“Will the cats be okay?” Kimberly asked Jason.

“They’re fast,” he said. “And there are many places they can hide.”

Obviously, Jason had thought ahead.

Kimberly smiled as he led her into the kitchen, which was open to the living room. The rear wall was glass and looked into the very green backyard. (There were seasons outside Secret Hallow. Kimberly had almost forgotten.) A couple more cats sat on the backs of Jason’s couches, which meant Keene appeared before long, eyes bright and focused.

Kimberly and Jason enjoyed each other’s silence as Keene pretended to stalk the cats through the room. (The cats, looking sleepy, mostly ignored him.) Jason held up a coffee mug, and Kimberly nodded; he remembered how to make her coffee.

He let her drink—and got a snack for Keene—before he said anything.

When Jason finally did speak, what he said was, “So.”

Kimberly nodded and set her mostly-empty mug down. “So.”

“Mom.”

“Has she contacted you a lot?”

“Enough,” Jason said. He ran a hand through his hair, which was the shorter version of Kimberly’s. Both of them had dark reddish hair, not entirely unlike the russet color of red-tailed hawk feathers. “She left a note. Wants to make amends.”

Kimberly didn’t say anything. She gazed into her coffee’s murky black fluid, willing answers to appear to her, as though in a crystal ball.

Making amends wasn’t possible. The idea of it was ridiculous.

Their mother had missed so many things. So many birthdays, graduations, and sabbats.

What had changed? Why did she want to be part of their lives now when it had mattered so little to her in the past?

Should Kimberly even care?

“I don’t know what to do,” Jason admitted, leaning on the counter. He was broad-shouldered and grizzled, strong enough that he didn’t have any trouble accommodating the two cats that leaped onto his shoulders simultaneously. “It’s been almost twenty years. I’m a different person now.”

“We were both children,” Kimberly said quietly, looking toward the room Jason had set aside for Keene. Keene had wandered in and started playing with the dolls he’d found, talking for them in tiny little voices. Several cats hung out around him, watching with golden-eyed interest.

Jason nodded. “There’s no changing the past.”

For better or worse.

Neither Kimberly nor Jason could magically make a mother appear in the parts of their childhood that didn’t have her in it, but…it hurt to think about. If there was the chance to have her around at a later point in Kimberly’s life, should she take it? Should Jason?

And what role could their mother play in Keene’s life?

Kimberly’s heart ached with the idea she might be able to get help with her shapeshifting abilities from her mother. It was silly, of course. Her mother could teach her nothing except how to surrender. But surely she must have picked up a few tricks of control by now if she was back in touch.

“Can I forgive her?” Jason was talking quietly, more to the tabby cat on his right shoulder than to Kimberly. “Should I?”

Kimberly had no answers. She wished she did, for both their sakes and for Keene, who had never met his grandmother.

A yowling cat broke her from her reverie. She jumped once, and again when a second cat joined it. She looked at the cats, but Keene wasn’t the source of their distress; he was still in his designated room playing nicely with the dolls while babysat by several chubby kitty-cats.

Kimberly looked toward Jason, brow furrowed, but he wasn’t looking at her or the cats.

He was looking out the glass wall toward the large wolf in his back yard, framed by the surrounding trees like she was meant to be there.

It was a wolf with a name.

“Mom,” Jason said quietly.

Mary O’Malley had returned.

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