The first Sister Witches Urban Fantasy series concludes with book #4 – BEGUILED, BEWITCHED, & BROKEN – coming out on July 16, 2020.
Read the first chapter here.
Beguiled, Bewitched, & Broken
I left the water in the tub when I finished bathing—there was no drain that I could see—and wrapped one linen towel around my torso and draped the other over my shoulders. Koz hadn’t returned from checking on Clementine and seeing about getting us a pitcher of water.
Anxiety roiling in my empty belly replaced the earlier cold. The sky beyond the small, square windows was pitch black and starless, and I couldn’t get a solid read on whatever kind of magic inhabited the body of Château du Blanc. As in what was bred, carved, and hammered into the centuries-old beams and uneven floorboards, and mixed into the rough stucco covering the walls and ceilings. Everything, even the glass in the windows, the braided rugs, and the carved bed frames, had a palpable presence.
The combination of knowing old magic was present, and sensing it was just…waiting, watching, was unsettling. I wasn’t going to turn off the lights or get into bed until Kostya got back. I dried off, got into my nightshirt, and slipped my feet into the smaller pair of slippers.
Perched on the edge of one of the single beds, I touched the polished antler tip of my wand to the center of my forehead and reviewed the past hours. Step by step, from the moment we arrived in Chamonix and got our bearings and our instructions. We had to trust and follow the druid we’d just met, who was brought into our mission with my uncle’s and Alabastair’s highest recommendations. Cataloguing every detail I could recall would contribute to a fuller de-brief, which I knew my uncle would want and which we could be called upon to produce at any time.
The little bed jiggled and rocked. My eyelids flew open and I quickly jerked my feet off the floor and tucked them under me. Magic rippled through the room, like someone or something big had slammed against a far-off door .
Kostya ducked his head in and paused on the threshold to our room. “Did you feel that?” he asked.
“I did. Any idea what it was?”
“No. Though Laszlo said he heard things while he was in the infirmary with Alderose. I think the repercussions of our rescue mission have begun.”
“Are we in danger?” I asked. I tucked my wand between my breasts and drew the threadbare coverlet tighter around my shoulders.
“Yes. And no. Tanner’s promised we’ll have a detailed meeting once the sun’s up and we’ve been fed. Oh, and he sent a message along with Laszlo. He wants you and Clementine to meet someone called le Crone after you’ve had some sleep.”
“Did he say who this ‘le Crone’ is and do you really think any of us is going to sleep?”
“No, he didn’t, and yes, we have to, darling.” Kostya pressed his shoulder to the door to get the latch to snug tight before he ducked into the bathroom. I nabbed the glass with two toothbrushes encased in cellophane, and the jar labeled Poudre dentrifice-menthe off the bedside table and followed. I wasn’t excited about being in left alone the room when there was a lingering sense of awakened, and curious, magic.
“Do you think we could push the beds together?” Sharing a bed would help me sleep better.
“Your wish is my command,” Kostya said. “Stay awake until I’ve had my shower?”
“Yes.” I ran my hand across the small of his back and stood on tiptoes to kiss his jaw. In the middle of forcing myself to tear my gaze off his incredibly fine chest, I managed to spill half the pot of tooth powder in the sink.
True to Kostya’s usual style, he was finished with his shower in minutes. A few droplets of water clung to his chest, and the room’s low light made the rose gold bars in his nipples, and the rings in his ears and horns, glow. I had to force myself to pat the side of the nearest bed and stick to my plan. “Come on, the sooner we get these pushed together, the sooner I can tell you a story.”
Kostya moved the table, lifted one of the beds and the other, set the table back on the far side of our makeshift accommodations, and swept his arm in an arc.
“After you.” I took the side closest to the wall. He shifted onto his hands and knees, crawled over to me, and lowered his head. My nipples pebbled in anticipation of what was coming next. My demon had a ritual he followed most every time we slept together. If we followed it now, I’d lose my momentum.
I pressed my hand to his chest. “Can you save that for later?” I asked. “Otherwise you’re going to distract me.”
“Would that be such a bad thing?” He nuzzled the side of my neck and took my earlobe between his teeth while his hand found one of my breasts and explored its fullness. I had to scratch my nails up his sides and push him away to get him to take my request seriously. He gave me a playful stink eye before making a lot of noise fluffing up his covers and punching his pillow.
“You have my complete and undivided, not at all sexual, attention,” he said, resting the side of his head in his hand. My palms went sweaty. Kostya had a high opinion of me, one I wanted to maintain. I took a deep breath and tucked the covers around my hips.
“Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Beryl. She was a middle child, she was a witch, and she could be very bossy.” Narrating in third person put necessary distance between me and—me.
“Beryl lived with her mother and father and her two sisters in an old Victorian house on the outskirts of Northampton, Massachusetts. There were other old houses lining their street, with lots of maple trees between them and lilac bushes that made perfect hiding spots. Beryl’s house had a backyard with a sandbox and a swing set, a tool shed and a chicken coop, and a thicket of overgrown raspberries.
“Beyond the berries was a forest. Beryl thought the forest went on forever and she was very intimidated by its size. To calm her fears, she made up stories about the creatures that lived among the tall pine trees and the clumps of wild blueberries, and the patches of swamp grasses and skunk cabbage.
“One day, when Beryl was seven, she was playing in her sandbox. It was a very sunny afternoon and her mother was with her in the backyard, hanging laundry to dry on the clothes lines that stayed up all year round.”
I darted a glance at Kostya. He’d rolled onto his belly and bunched his pillow between his arms. He was wide awake and staring at me.
“Little Beryl heard a sound in the woods. She was feeling brave that day. Adventurous. So she brushed sand off her hands and walked to where the grass met the beginning of the woods. She didn’t say anything to her mother, she just…got up and walked. And before she stepped over the property line and into the woods, she held out her arms and opened her heart. Whatever creature was making those sounds seemed very, very sad.”
Memories of that moment fluttered up the front of my chest, of seeing my mother’s silhouette make elongated shapes behind the big sheets she was trying to wrangle. I dropped the pretext of telling my story as though it had happened to someone else. “My parents set perimeter wards to keep us safe and contained when we were kids, kind of an expandable outdoor safety gate. I remember I would feel a gentle zap any time I got too close. That day, right on the other side of the wards, four or five of the most adorable fox kits were rolling all over each other. They couldn’t come onto the lawn, so I went to them.
“Though I barely felt the wards as I passed through, I did feel another layer of magic working to warn me away. I had second thoughts and turned to go back, but I was quickly overwhelmed by the kits. I was small for my age and they were very, very bouncy. I stumbled. And then I started to cry because the foxes wouldn’t leave me alone. They kept licking me and nipping at my legs and my elbows like I was one of them. They were so cute, but they scared me and made me cry.
“I managed to crawl away but because of the protective wards, I couldn’t get back to my yard. I ended up running the other way, deeper into the woods. The foxes thought I was playing a game and they chased me, and the more they chased me, the more lost I got.
“I finally stopped running and curled into a ball. The kits snuggled around me and shared their warmth. And then both our mamas found us at the same time.”
Kostya stroked my knee. “Is that the whole story?”
“No,” I whispered. “After my mom brought me back inside the house, she made me tell her what I’d done to make the kits want to follow me. I—I told her they were crying and seemed so sad and lonely. I admitted I’d ignored her verbal warnings and the wards. She didn’t have much to say other than to remind me never to go into the forest without her or my dad. But the foxes kept returning, every single day. And every single day I kept wanting to disobey my mom, whether I was in my bedroom or in the sandbox or standing as close to the invisible line as I could get without getting zapped.
“Until the day the foxes didn’t show up. And it was my turn to be sad. I asked my mom why they had disappeared. She didn’t give me a satisfactory answer. A couple days after my dad put up an actual fence and completely enclosed the back yard.”
Kostya traced my kneecaps under the blanket with the tip of his finger. “So is that the entire story?” he asked. “The woman I love had a thing for foxes long before she met me?”
“I wish,” I said, watching him continue to explore the contours of my leg. “Fast forward seven years. I was fourteen. My mom always made me go with her when she ventured onto the college campus near our house. The school had one of those beautiful, old glass and iron greenhouses and there were a lot of tropical plants and trees growing inside. A few of those provided ingredients required for certain potions. My mom needed the components to be fresh, and she didn’t have the proper growing environment at our house, so she’d go on these foraging missions.
“I’d act as a distraction so she could harvest or dig for what she needed, and then we would go.”
Realizing I was getting wound up and long-winded, I stopped and took another deep breath. Kostya had closed his eyes and rested the side of his face on his arms. I stroked his wavy hair and traced the arc of his horn. “I’m listening,” he assured me. “I’m still enjoying the image of you playing with a bunch of cute little foxes.”
“That day in the greenhouse, my mom made me stand guard at the interior glass door to the room with the big banana tree. She was taking a long time, I got bored, and so I made up a game. I timed how long it took me to walk the path inside the adjoining room, and I kept doing it over and over, faster and faster, trying to beat myself.
“I was pretty far from the door I was supposed to be watching when I heard metal hinges squeak, and then I heard this boy’s voice calling. I couldn’t stop myself from careening around the corner and whipping out my wand to scare him away.
“I hit the gravel walkway the moment I saw him. I skinned my knees and shredded my tights and because I had no idea what was happening, why I had this overwhelming urge to…to absorb him, I tossed out a spell, one I’d been practicing on the mice in the toolshed.
“The spell was meant to stop him, not—” I clenched the hemmed edge of the bedsheet and stuffed it into my mouth. Kostya sat up and slowly pried my fingers apart.
“Not what, Beryl?” he asked, rubbing my icy hands.
“Not turn him to stone,” I said.
Once I got going I couldn’t stop. “He turned to stone, Koz, right there on his knees in the middle of the doorway to the tropical greenhouse. I remember seeing ripening cacao pods hanging from the trunk of the tree behind him and some other monster purple flowers near that. I think I screamed, because next thing I knew my mom was trying to pick me up and I couldn’t unbend my arms or my legs. I felt so…so heavy.”
“Did your mom fix it, fix you?”
“No.” I was having a hard time looking at Kostya. I sat up and hugged my knees to my chest. “She couldn’t fix it. Him. Not then. Not…there. The first thing she did was hide me under one of the potting tables in the room where I’d been racing. She found the boy’s mom—whom it turned out she knew—and together they were able to pick him up and hide him under the table next to mine until they could figure out what to do.”
I had frozen in place, my knees and elbows locked in reaction to what I had done, and I was the lucky one. I could still feel how my heart had beat so hard against chest and recall how I convinced myself the poor boy next to me couldn’t feel his own heart. How could he? He was stone. He looked like he’d toppled into the greenhouse from a year-round perch in the nearby bank of flowering shrubs. The only thing missing were patches of lichen on his shoulders and knees.
“It was the Demesne, Kos. Both times. First with the foxes, and then with the boy. I have Binder magic like my mom and Maritza and Clementine, only mine is a very tricky, very dangerous variation. My magic created this relationship to the Demesne, this—anomaly which meant that any living being I felt attracted to could bring me to my knees.
“And which meant the opposite was also true, that any living being attracted to me could end up on their knees, wanting nothing more than to be with me forever.”
I relaxed my legs, let go of the covers, and made my way off the mattress. I had to give Kostya the real story about my ever-present corset. “My mother eventually found a solution to my problem. Which was for me to wear this,” I said, pulling off the cotton top I’d worn to bed and pointing to the stretchy material covering my midsection, from underneath my breasts to the widest part of my hips, “or never let me out of the house.”
Kostya uncrossed his legs and sat at the end of the bed. He pulled me over, positioned me between his knees, and ran his fingers lightly over the nearly invisible covering. He’d only ever seen me mostly naked but for a fancy corset or one of my numerous stretchy camisoles. I’d covered the truth by saying I had a thing for expensive lingerie.
“What is this, B?” he asked, exploring the bottom edge of the garment. Like me, he could pull the fabric away from my skin slightly. The moment he let go, the material sighed and reclaimed its hold on my ribs, waist, and hips.
“It’s a corset designed by my mom and created by a sea witch to keep my magic contained. As I got older and could understand more of the Binder’s magic, and the Demesne’s power, and how the two had become interwoven inside me at the cellular level, I—” I shook my head and rested my hands on the rounded part of my belly. “This protects the world from me and me from myself.”
“Any chance you’re leaking some of that power?” Kostya smoothed the curve of my hips and pulled me close enough he could kiss my chest.
“Yes,” I whispered. I pointed to the barely visible, four-inch tear. “See this? It’s from the jaguar shifter that clawed me back in your realm. The other rips fixed themselves, but this one won’t fully close and I can feel magic leaking out. I’ve got to get this sealed back up before you and I have sex again. If we can even have sex again.”
“What do you mean, ‘if we have sex again’, babe?”
I cupped his sculpted jawbones in my hands and stared into his trusting brown eyes. “I would never forgive myself if the reason your wings were trying to explode out of your back was because my magic is making them do that, not you wanting to be with me and me wanting to be with you.”
Kostya circled his arms around my lower back. “Beryl, how long have we known each other?”
“Have you had other relationships in those ten years?”
“Yes.” I stroked his horns to their tips and delighted in the way my demon melted into my touch.
“I’ve had other relationships too. And every time you and I have gotten together, even if it was only our annual weekend in July, I’ve felt like I was home.” Kostya released me enough he could trace the barely visible tear in the corset with his hands and his gaze. His voice went softer, deeper as he spoke. “When your uncle offered me the promotion that would give me more authority and keep me based on the east coast, I didn’t think twice about accepting. Being closer to you carried far more weight in my decision-making than a bigger pay check and greater responsibility within the Board of Magical Governance.”
“I still think we should wait,” I said, gasping as the demon lines on his arms lit up. The coppery fire reflected across the front of my body and up toward my throat.
“And I think we should get creative.”