Stranger Than Witches (The Witches of Secret Hallow Book 3) (9 page)

13

K
imberly was paralyzed
by self-doubt, instantly transported to her childhood.

To a moment she had struggled not to think about for years.

It had been a summer day, relentlessly hot in the early hours of morning despite the fact that the O’Malley family was living in the shelter of a mountain. Their home hadn’t been too dissimilar from Secret Hallow, actually. Except that there had been four proper seasons instead of constant autumn.

Kimberly had woken up knowing something was wrong, though she couldn’t have put her finger on what at the time.

She had climbed out of bed and slipped from the bedroom she shared with Jason. She’d had the top bunk, so she was careful not to disturb her brother.

There had been audible voices in the hallway. Kimberly hadn’t been able to make out the words, but she’d made out the emotion.

Her father had been sad.

Kimberly stopped in the doorway to the living room but her dad was alone. Whoever he’d been talking to was already gone. The door to the back yard had stood open, giving Kimberly a view of the trees beyond, much like the view she had in Jason’s home now.

She had glimpsed a furred body, four legs, a tail.

Then her dad had shut the door. When he’d seen Kimberly, he’d stood up straighter, spoken more gruffly. Asked her why she had gotten out of bed.

“Where is Mommy?” she had asked.

And her father hadn’t responded.

It had taken a few days to realize that Mary O’Malley wasn’t coming back, and many years after that to wrap her mind around the implications.

In truth, Kimberly still wasn’t confident that she understood the implications. And she was an adult now. Much older, with a son of her own.

Now her mother was back.

For the first time in twenty years,
she was back
.

And she was clad in her wolf skin.

“It would be easiest for you to go outside to speak with her,” Kimberly said. “You’ve already made contact with Mom…Mary? Mom?

“Mary,” Jason said, as he went toward Keene’s playroom. “It’s what I used when I spoke with her.”

He didn’t look inclined to speak with her again, though.

Kimberly could hardly blame him.

In any case, Mary’s presence was part of the reason Kimberly had left Secret Hallow, wasn’t it? She must have realized, on some level, that she would most likely encounter Mary O’Malley if she visited her brother.

This was what she had wanted.

As Kimberly opened the back door, she felt a spark of magic in the air. Her mother was turning back into a human.

Kimberly hadn’t been able to see her own transformation, so she watched Mary’s change with interest.

It was magical, not physical. The air shimmered around her as though an invisible veil were passed between wolf and Kimberly. It looked a bit like a waterfall.

Once the energy cascaded away, Mary stood from a kneeling position.

Mary had somewhat more finesse than her daughter, probably because she’d had more practice. She fussed with her dress for a moment, showing more worry over it than Kimberly would think anyone living in the forest most of the time would spend caring about clothes. She also dusted dirt off of her knees and palms.

When Kimberly stepped down the stairs, Mary opened her arms.

“Kimmy,” she said, face brightening into a smile. Her voice was familiar and strange all at once. Actually, that was true for everything about her; the years that had passed since Kimberly had last seen Mary hadn’t gone unremarked on her body.

Her hair was gray now, as gray as the wolf she had become. Age weighed heavily on her features.

But those sharp, piercing eyes hadn’t changed. They were the same eyes that Kimberly saw in the mirror every day. The same eyes she saw in her son.

“Kimberly,” she said. “My name’s Kimberly. No one calls me Kimmy.”

Mary’s smile faded and she let her arms drop to her sides. “It’s good to see you again.”

Kimberly nodded.

“Can I come inside?”

That didn’t require even an instant of consideration. “No.”

“Oh.” Mary looked away from Kimberly and swallowed hard. Kimberly didn’t feel guilty in the slightest. Kimberly still didn’t know how she felt about seeing her mother again, so she wasn’t ready for Mary to meet Keene. “I wanted to talk.”

“We can talk here.”

Mary met Kimberly’s gaze, smile slightly less firm than before, but it was definitely there. “I’ve missed you. And Jason, too.”

Kimberly nodded in acknowledgment.

“I know it’s been a while…”

Maybe Kimberly would have stopped the scoff that escaped her mouth if she knew it was coming, but she couldn’t quite feel sorry it had happened.

Mary didn’t seem to notice. “I lost myself to the wolf for years, Kimmy. Kim.”

“Kimberly.”

“Kimberly,” Mary echoed. “I’m back to myself, though. As you can see.”

She spread her arms, like her Stevie Nicks look was somehow proof that she’d regained control of her human form. Maybe that she had a coordinated outfit
was
proof that Mary was doing better. Long before Mary had fled to the forest, she had become scattered. She had worn nothing but scraps around the house most of the time, unable to organize enough to form a wardrobe.

Thinking of Mary’s wardrobe reminded Kimberly of all the other ways Mary had fallen down before vanishing.

The empty cupboards because Mary forgot to go to the grocery store.

The dirty floors that Kimberly had cleaned because her mother lived outside and didn’t care how clean it was within.

All of the parent-teacher meetings that Mary had missed.

Yes, Mary was looking better now, if only to the extent that she was wearing something relatively clean. Kimberly suppressed a shudder. It was hard to think there had been some benefit to Mary’s absence, but maybe Kimberly had been spared the worst of it.

“Tell me everything,” Mary said. “I want to know about your life.”

Kimberly could have laughed. How was she supposed to summarize twenty years?

“Are you married?” Mary asked.

Kimberly nodded.

Hope filled her eyes. “Children?”

Again, Kimberly nodded.

Mary clutched her heart as though it ached. “Tell me.”

“A boy. Keene. He’s three.”

“Keene. What a perfect name for a perfect boy.”

As if Mary knew.

She was right, though. Keene was truly perfect. Just as perfect as Maddock. And Jason. And all the other people Mary didn’t know at all.

“Did you become a singer?” Mary asked.

Kimberly had forgotten that she had ever aspired to be a singer. It had been a fleeting fancy, the kind of passing fantasy that wee children enjoyed, much like the desire to become a dinosaur.

Frankly, she was surprised Mary remembered that, either.

“We have a farm,” Kimberly said.

“Wonderful,” Mary said. She seemed to mean it. “I have little to add. I’ve wandered through the wilderness so long, seen so many seasons…” She cast a glance back toward the trees. For once, it didn’t look as though Mary longed to run away. She was only remembering. When she returned her attention to Kimberly, she asked, “Have you discovered your magical talent?”

Kimberly’s stomach lurched.

Mary might not have wanted to go wild again—not right at this instant, anyway—but the mere mention of Kimberly’s magic sent her mind to the sky, floating through the clouds effortlessly on broad wings.

Fortunately, she was too far from the Samhain Grove to easily fade into her eagle form. The urge was strong enough that she might have transformed if she’d been home.

At Jason’s house, she was safe.

“Maybe,” she said.

“I want to be back in your life. Jason’s, too.” Mary bit her lip. “I want to be part of the family again. I
can
be.”

It was everything Kimberly had wanted to hear since she was young and without her mother.

Well. Maybe not everything. But Mary was acknowledging that things had gone wrong, and she said she was ready to make amends. That was big.

But.

There was no reason to believe that Mary could actually handle life with the Leifs. Did Kimberly want to reopen those wounds and, worse, possibly expose Keene to a taste of what she’d dealt with? He was still so young.

And not dependent on his grandmother in any way
, Kimberly reminded herself.

It would take some time to form an attachment to Mary, and even if he did and Mary did something to hurt him, Keene would still have Kimberly and Maddock.

There was a traitorous part of Kimberly’s brain trying to remind her of her own desire to fly away. She was doing her best to banish it, but…if she was separated from Keene, wouldn’t she welcome the chance to make things right? Wouldn’t she do whatever if it took?

Mary was waiting, eyes roaming like she was searching Kimberly’s face for her impending answer.

Kimberly sighed. It looked like that was the best sign that Kimberly was going to get about Mary’s willingness to try.

Finally, she said aloud, “I live in Secret Hallow, and the coven’s having a gathering for Beltane. If you go, you can meet my family. Those who are related to me by blood, and the coven who has taken me in as though we are all cousins.”

“I will go,” Mary swore. She strode across the yard to take one of Kimberly’s hands in both of hers and held it firmly. Kimberly resisted the urge to pull it back. “I’ll be there, I swear it.”

Kimberly didn’t bother saying that Mary’s word didn’t mean anything, since the one it would hurt most if Mary didn’t show up was Mary herself. Or that was what Kimberly was hoping, anyway.

14

M
ary left not long
after that. It was no surprise that she would vanish. It was more surprising that she had been capable of standing still and holding a real conversation for longer than five minutes.

As far as Kimberly knew, that was the first and only time that had happened in her entire life.

Jason and Keene were playing quietly when Kimberly returned inside, watched by a half-dozen cats. It was impressive how many cats Jason managed to keep in his home while maintaining such a tidy environment. Keene was rapidly changing that, though. He’d already scattered toys across the carpet, which a pair of kittens pawed at curiously.

When Kimberly entered, Jason gave her a level look.

“I’ll make dinner,” Kimberly said softly.

He nodded, understanding.

The three of them cooked together. Jason had clearly gone to the grocery store just to make sure he had child-friendly foods, including chicken nuggets and hot dogs. Their presence instantly made Jason into Keene’s favorite person on the planet. They ate almost exclusively farm-produced foods at home, which Keene willingly did, but he was as fond of over-processed meat as any child.

Keene filled the silence by babbling excitedly about the cats. Jason brightened when talking about his felines. He clearly adored them and enjoyed his appreciative audience.

It wasn’t long before Keene wound down, though. He was almost asleep by the time Jason scooped him from the table and set him in bed.

Kimberly’s heart warmed at the sight of her brother rubbing Keene’s back as he fell asleep.

Why should she pine for family who hadn’t wanted to be in her life when she had been blessed with family as wonderful as Jason?

He emerged once Keene was asleep.

Together, they sat on his back porch, watching the forest fade into night. Crickets sang softly. Rain pattered on the leaves.

They didn’t speak for hours. They didn’t need to.

She got the sense that Jason appreciated it just as much as she did.

“I invited her to my house,” Kimberly finally said.

Jason nodded once, slow and considering. “Good.”

He took her hand.

The rain continued to fall.

T
he next morning
, Kimberly loaded Keene in the car again and drove back to Secret Hallow.

She was relieved to feel easy access to her magic returned, though the fact that she felt that relief was worrying in its own way. She’d only been away from the ability to shapeshift for a day, but she had already felt hungry for an opportunity to float away in Thorn’s mind again, if nothing else.

Of course, the biggest relief was when she pulled into the farm in the afternoon and was welcomed by her husband’s embrace. Maddock was laughing with delighted surprise as he hugged Kimberly and Keene; it sounded like the deeper-voiced version of Keene’s excited laugh. It was a little goofy on a man as burly as Maddock, and Kimberly found that incredibly endearing.

“You’re back early!” Maddock said when he let them go. “I’m so happy to see you!”

“Couldn’t tell,” Kimberly said fondly. “Jason says hi.”

“Did you have a nice time seeing him?”

“I did.” It was a relief that she could say that honestly. The rest, on the other hand… “Keene, can you go play inside? Maybe take Poke back to your room?”

Keene brightened. “Come with me, Daddy!”

“For a second,” Maddock agreed, and Kimberly followed them inside.

Keene was actually very tired—he hadn’t napped on the car ride back home—so he raced around with Poke for only a minute before he yawned and rubbed at his eyes. He climbed into bed willingly. Kimberly understood the impulse. Much like her son, she wasn’t an easy napper, but it was nice to have your own bed back again.

“What is this miracle?” Maddock whispered as they left Keene’s room. “Did Jason teach him how to nap without a fuss?”

Kimberly chuckled as they walked into the living room. “I wish. I think it was just a lot of excitement.”

“So keep Keene excited. That shouldn’t be hard.” Maddock wiped his hands as he went for the kitchen. “You wanted Keene to not hear us talk earlier.”

“I wanted to talk about the other visitor to my brother’s house.” Kimberly followed him into the kitchen and leaned against the doorframe. “
She
showed up.”

Maddock paused in front of the fridge. “Your mother?”

“Mary O’Malley. Yeah.”

“What did she want?”

Kimberly felt the spark of Thorn in her head. He was paying attention to the conversation, too. It was good that he was listening: it meant she would only need to relate the story once, and therefore relive the discomfort of speaking to her mother once. “Mary wants to be back in our lives, apparently. I didn’t let her meet Keene.”

“Good,” Maddock said, voice dark.

“I said I’d introduce her if she made an appearance at Beltane.”

Maddock nodded and turned away from the fridge. Kimberly met him halfway for another hug.

“Was it a mistake?” she asked.

“No, I trust you’ve made the right choice, as you always do,” Maddock said, rubbing circles over her back.

She held to him tightly, and for the first time since seeing her mother, she let the implications of inviting her for a visit sink in. It was easy to envision now that she was standing in her home. In the warmth of her kitchen, with her view of the fields outside, and the sparkling, eternally autumn leaves of Secret Hallow, not far from Thorn’s nest.

Her mother might be there.

Kimberly couldn’t begin to imagine what it would be like to speak to the wolf herself in that comfortable kitchen. It was her haven, her place of safety. Her mother was antithetical to all of that.

“What have I done?” Kimberly whispered.

“I won’t let her hurt you or Keene,” he said. “I won’t let anyone hurt you.”

In Kimberly’s head, Thorn agreed.

T
he days leading
up until Beltane, while generally unremarkable, weren’t much fun.

Kimberly was staying away from her magic—besides staying in touch with Thorn—and trying to homeschool Keene. Since her son longed for Fern and his school friends, and Kimberly just wasn’t suited to be a pre-K teacher, the effort was intensely unpleasant.

She was accustomed to her home being a place of peace. At least, as peaceful as it could be with Keene flying around and shrieking, which was pleasant if not quiet. The amount of effort it took to get Keene to study his letters was not peaceful. Not at all.

Kimberly hated it.

But she forced herself through it. She was a strong woman. Strong enough that she had survived twenty years without her mother, Mary O’Malley, and strong enough that she could resist her magic.

Certainly she would be strong enough to homeschool a tantruming three-year-old.

Strength of will did not equate to enjoying the exercise, unfortunately.

On the bright side, it gave her plenty of distraction from her mother’s potential visit.

Mary O’Malley would be arriving in Secret Hallow on Beltane.

In theory.

And Kimberly only allowed herself to fret about that in the dark hours of night after Keene and Maddock were asleep, when Thorn was nestled with his mate, when she was alone with the moonlight.

Her one other escape from forcing herself to work on school was cleaning the house in preparation for Beltane. She had help from Keene and Maddock, but it wasn’t exactly a fun activity, either. Keene ended up running away with Poke more often than not, and Kimberly wouldn’t say she was jealous, exactly…except that she was completely jealous and wanted to run away with Thorn.

Shame that the house wouldn’t clean itself.

Normally, the arrival of Beltane would have been a relief, but the day brought Nana Winterblossom and Garrett to the farm much earlier than the rest of the coven was due.

It wasn’t a good sign.

Nana Winterblossom descended in a whirl of owl feathers and the scent of pumpkin spice. She wore a witch hat, much like the Ash sisters often did, and was draped in layer upon layer of colorful, hand-spun cloth made within the village. She wore enough coins on her belt and bracelets to signal her arrival well before she came within sight of the barn, too.

“How does Garrett look to you?” Nana asked, barely waiting for greetings to be over before she pushed him forward.

Kimberly glanced between Garrett and Maddock. Garrett looked apologetic, and Maddock looked baffled. He didn’t understand Nana’s question any more than she did.

“Uh,” Kimberly said.

“Look at his eyes!” Nana Winterblossom cried.

His eyes…were red and puffy, like he hadn’t gotten much sleep. He barely suppressed a yawn with his hand.

“He looks tired?” Kimberly asked.

“Exactly.” Nana Winterblossom put her hands on her hips triumphantly. “Rowan and Siobhan are worse than he is! It can’t be helped. The baby’s teething.”

Kimberly remembered those days without fondness. “I’m sorry,” she told Garrett. “Have you tried rubbing her gums with sweet-potion?”

Nana Winterblossom cut her off with a sharp gesture. “I didn’t bring him here for remedies. Rowan’s magic is all over the place, and she simply cannot lead the coven. We need to talk about who can run the Beltane rituals.”

“Caedmon McFarland,” Kimberly said automatically.

Caedmon was the third most recent addition to the village before Siobhan and Garrett. He had transplanted from another witching village in the hopes of becoming high priest, which would have been fine, if his power had “clicked” with the Elder Tree. But it hadn’t. The Samhain Grove had wanted none but the youngest adult daughter of the Middlebrook family, Rowan.

He had stuck around after failing to take over the coven, though. Mostly because he was in love with Orianna Westerly. There had been no union yet, but murmurs around the village suggested a handfasting wouldn’t be long in coming. Caedmon had moved into the old Westerly apartment above The Books of Shadows store, and the way he looked at Orianna reminded Kimberly much of Maddock.

Surely Caedmon would be thrilled to lead the village through a sabbat.

“He’s out of town,” Garrett said. “Visiting his home village for Beltane. He won’t be available.” Garrett yawned widely, failing to smother it with a hand.

“In that case, Nana, it should be you who runs Beltane. You’re the village’s honored elder,” Kimberly said. It was true: Nana Winterblossom had helped run the coven since TVs had only come in black-and-white, and she had lost none of her fire in the years since. She was certainly strong enough to wrangle the most powerful of coven rituals.

“Tired parents need my help more than the coven needs me to run spellwork,” she said primly. “Not to mention that high priestesses of rituals can’t drink much of Adora Glenn’s mead! It dulls the senses! No, I don’t like that solution.”

Maddock stepped forward, raising a hand like he was in school. “We can run the ritual that night.”

Nana Winterblossom looked pleased. “That’s what I was hoping you’d say. Since this is happening at your farm…well! Perfect. Quite convenient. We have some last-minute preparations to make, so we’ll be back later to assist with decorations. Let me know if you need anything.”

With that, she dusted her hands off and swept an exhausted Garrett away.

Kimberly couldn’t believe he’d ultimately won the argument against Rowan acting as high priestess…but then, it probably didn’t feel like much of a victory to him, since they weren’t sleeping.

“Why did you volunteer us, exactly?” Kimberly asked Maddock.

“Better than arguing with Nana,” he said. “And it would be a nice excuse to evade certain visitors, should
she
happen to visit. It’s harder to be cornered if you have major responsibilities to deal with, isn’t it?”

He had a point.

“Okay,” Kimberly said. “But you need to handle all of the magic.”

“Of course. That’s what I was expecting.”

Kimberly nodded in acknowledgment, but it didn’t stop her from feeling a bit jittery.

At least it would be over in a few hours.

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