The house was straight out of a Grimm fairy tale. Its stone chimney and weathered gingerbread frame were charming and spooky and exactly what the tourists expected when they came to have their cards read by a mountain witch. The owner had even placed a handmade ash broom to the side of the front door, and a rickety rocking chair sat on the front porch.
Wren Davies knew a fraud when he saw one. The quaint old shack was brand new, the worn and weathered wood chemically treated to look rustic. They’d purchased the broom from an Appalachian tourist trap just outside Watcher’s Bend, and that rickety rocking chair had come from Deacon Pilcher who imported them in bulk from a supplier in China. It was all for show.
He fought the urge to pound his fist on the steering wheel cognizant of Neoma sleeping in the passenger seat beside him. This had been a mistake. Nobody there could help him. He looked at Neoma, her brows furrowed, face pinched in sleep. He wondered what she dreamed. She always seemed eerily serene when she was awake.
He couldn’t afford these kinds of setbacks. Soon, his father would realize Wren had Neoma, and the hunt would be on. He had to put as much distance between them and this town as he could. His hand was on the truck’s key when somebody rapped their knuckles against his window, startling both himself and Neoma.
Wren hesitated for only a moment before rolling down the window. It was a young girl of maybe sixteen or seventeen with sallow skin, sunken eyes and snarled hair the same color as the mud on her bare feet. She wore a short flowery dress with buttons down the front and a mutinous expression on what had probably once been a beautiful face. “You don’t belong here…wolf.”
Wren hid his surprise. “I’m looking for Granny.”
“We didn’t do nothin’. You just leave us be.”
“Wylodene, you hush. Come inside, boy, and bring the young’un.”
The elderly woman stood in the doorway of the tiny gingerbread house, hands on her hips and a dishrag clasped in her hand. She was tall and slender, and her mustard colored dress hung shapeless on her narrow shoulders. She had hair like steel wool that she wore unbound, and even from this distance, Wren could see the crags and lines of her face. She watched him with suspicion.
That had to be Granny.
Wren did as she asked, the humidity hitting him like a wet blanket as he helped Neoma out through the driver’s side door. He wasn’t letting her out of his sight for even a minute; he couldn’t risk it. Even now, his father could be looking for him. He glanced upwards. There was a storm rolling in, the thick black clouds obscuring half of the bright blue sky overhead. If Wren believed in omens, he would take this as a bad one.
The inside of the house was just as staged as the outside. A fire roared in the stone hearth despite the scorching summer heat outside. There was a handmade quilt tacked on the wall with iron nails and another thrown over the battered chair in front of the fireplace.
She gestured to a deeply scarred round wooden table with a satin purple cloth in the center, scoffing when she saw Wren’s eyes wandering, waving her dishrag around the room. “Don’t pay none of this no mind. This is for the gentrified folk. Don’t you be judging me for it neither, them tourists pay my bills.”
Wren shook his head, holding his hands up in surrender. He didn’t care how she paid her bills if she could help them. He pulled a chair out for Neoma, taking the seat next to her.
Granny took the seat across from Neoma, pulling the purple cloth from the center, revealing a flat circular mirror that drew Wren’s gaze like a magnet. “Whatcha need, wolf? You don’t look the type who’d come for a readin’. You got a problem with the haint?” Wren’s head jerked up at that. She leaned forward. “Yeah, I know you, Wren Davies. I know your pa too. Meaner than a striped snake, that one an always startin’ trouble.” She wasn’t wrong. “Two dead witches and a dead wolf? Mayhap this time, troubles comin’ for you? Sometimes the dead don’t stay dead.”
Wren wished this were simply a haunting. “No, ma’am. It’s not my dead that’s the problem, it’s the living. I’m here for a spell.”
She hummed at him, eyes narrowed. “Mayhap you is, mayhap you ain’t. We’ll see.”
She gazed into the mirror before her, muttering words Wren had never heard before under her breath. She stared at its surface for a solid minute. Wren stared too, seeing nothing more than the three of them reflecting back at him. Neoma watched the proceedings with the same casual disinterest she gave most things lately.
When Granny finally looked up, she curled her lip in disgust. “Whatcha done to this young’un? Thrice spelled? I’ll not spell her again.”
Wren frowned. Thrice spelled? What the hell did that mean? “What?”
She leaned across the table, snatching Neoma’s hand before he could stop her. “What’ve they done to you? Speak up, child, you’re safe here.”
Neoma’s gaze wandered as Wren’s temper flared. “Don’t talk to her, talk to me? What do you mean thrice spelled?”
She clucked her tongue. “This child’s so wrapped up in magic, I cain’t tell where one spell ends, and another starts.”
Wren scrubbed his hands across his face, trying to think. What was he missing? How could so much have happened while he was gone and nobody told him? He expected this kind of thing from his father, from Dylan, but his mother? His sisters? How could so many people have betrayed her? Betrayed him? “I need your help, please? We need your help. I need to get her away from my father, today. I need you to cloak us from any location spells he might use.”
“You ‘spect me to go up against your pa? After what he did to my Ruby Jean?”
The name sent a shock of recognition through him, but he couldn’t say why. “Ruby Jean?”
“My grandbaby. Got involved with that pretty talkin’ brother a yours, then she just plum disappeared.”
Would Dylan ever stop being the bane of his existence? Three weeks dead and still making his life harder. “Ma’am, I didn’t know your granddaughter, and if my father or my brother hurt her in any way, I’m truly sorry, but I’ve been gone for a long time…I made a mistake. I never should have left her behind with those people.” He looked at Neoma, her hand still clasped with the old woman’s. “If I don’t get her away from my father, today, I have no idea what will happen. He’s down two witches, but that won’t last for long. If I know my father, he’ll have another one under his thumb before the sun sets. We need to be long gone and on our way to someplace safe.” She watched him warily. “Please, I’m trying to protect her.”
“You’ve seen a lotta death, huh, boy?” she asked inexplicably.
He didn’t deny it. “More than anybody should see in a lifetime.”
“But you haven’t let it harden you.” It was a statement not a question, so Wren held his tongue. “Give me your hand. I wanna show you somethin’.” Wren didn’t hesitate, placing his palm against hers. She needed to trust him, or she’d never agree to help. Her gnarled fingers closed around his, her hand cool against his overheated skin. “Look in the mirror at your young’un.”
Her words felt heavy, like a lead weight in his stomach. He did as she asked, leaning forward and peering into the glass. His first glance had him fighting not to recoil as his brain struggled to make sense between what he knew and what he saw. His eyes met the old woman’s, and she gave a firm shake of her head, glancing towards Neoma reminding him that she was observing his reaction. He leaned closer.
Neoma’s mirror image wore her same pale blue dress and the same white bow in her hair, but scars riddled this Neoma’s skin. There was barely an inch of her flesh not covered in the puckered pink marks. Wren stared at the jagged bite marks at her throat and along her arms, the claw marks on her wrists and legs, strange holes at the bends of her arms. “What the hell is that?”
“That’s the real her. My mirror don’t lie. She’s glamoured.”
How could somebody have enough magic to hide this kind of damage. Why hadn’t she said anything? “Neoma? Was someone hurting you?”
Neoma blinked at him, that same serene expression on her face that she’d had for the last several days. “She ain’t gonna tell you. She cain’t. I told you. She’s spelled.”
“Somebody’s been hurting her but spelled her to forget and then hid the scars?”
“Not somebody…somebodies,” she corrected. “By my count, three somebodies.”
“Can you break the spell?”
She scoffed. “I ain’t that kinda witch. You need a spirit witch, a healer.”
“Do you see now? Do you understand why I need to get her away from here? Away from him?”
She stared at him a long time. “You cain’t outrun your pa, not forever. He’ll find a way to find you. But I can give you ‘til the next full moon.”
That was only seven days away. What good would running for seven days do? It might give him time to regroup, to come up with a plan to get out of his father’s ultimatum.
“There’s a spirit here, whispering in my ear. Said to tell you, Belle Haven. You know what that means?”
Wren sucked in a breath. Yes. He suddenly wanted to kiss this woman, and whatever spirit had sent the message. How could he have not thought of it before? Belle Haven was the answer to his problems. “Yes, ma’am, I think I do. If you can hide us for seven days…we’ll take it.”
“Then I guess we best get started.”
This time when she lowered her head, Wren felt the energy as she spoke her words of protection, felt the air stir around them, felt the charge of her power as it rose into the air, surrounding her.
When she finished, she opened her eyes, gasping at something in the mirror, shoving away from the table. She looked at Neoma then, hands trembling. “You’ve got a passenger.”
Neoma stared at her calmly, but Wren stood, leaning forward, looking into the mirror, trying to see what the woman saw. “What? What does that mean?”
Suddenly, the old woman was gasping for breath, clawing at her throat with her nails. “What’d you bring to my house, wolf?”
The girl from outside came running through the open front door. “Granny!” She stared at Wren in horror. “What did you do to her? Why cain’t you just stop hurting us? Get out!”
Her scream was like a physical blow, shoving Wren towards the door. He snatched Neoma from her seat, lifting her into his arms and running towards his truck. He turned the key, the diesel engine growling low as he threw it into drive.
Wren didn’t let himself think about what happened until they were on the highway, heading towards Florida. On the surface, he was calm but, inside, his wolf raged. He had no claim on Neoma, she wasn’t his blood, but she was his just the same. He’d left her in the care of his family, and they’d allowed some monster to sneak in and hurt her.
Neoma looked at him and smiled. “It’ll be okay,” she said, without prompting, pulling her corn husk doll from her bag and straightening its dress. Wren hoped that was true, but he just couldn’t be sure. It was hard to look at Neoma and not see the damage somebody had inflicted on her. He was going to find whoever did that to her and rip their beating heart from their chest, that was a promise.
He flipped on the radio, scanning the channels until he found a channel playing classic rock, relaxing as the music filled the silence. He needed to think. He had seven days to convince an alpha werewolf to marry him and less than twelve hours to come up with a plan.