The forest of Forgotten Hollow, miles from the nearest town and therefore largely unaffected by light pollution, was the darkest place Jessica had ever been. Other than that time she’d hidden in a crate for half a day to infiltrate that mink farm, that is.
This situation definitely trumped that one; she could move her arms and legs, for one, and she didn’t have an unwashed fellow animal rights activist pressing her against the wall, for another. The tent that she had borrowed from her mother was somewhat comfortable, she had a lamp and she’d even managed to start a fire.
Carefully, of course, because she didn’t want to burn any wildlife.
Jessica had forgotten to bring a chair, but that was not a problem. The mossy clearing had its own natural cushioning and, if previous nights were anything to go by, she’d be fast asleep within an hour or two.
After a few attempts, Jessica had managed to ping the GliTS her co-ordinates – proof that she was completing her initiation task of spending a night in the supposedly haunted and beast-ridden forest – but she was unable to do anything on her phone with the poor signal she had here. Instead, she settled down to some old-fashioned entertainment: to watch the fire flicker and dance.
The swaying movement of the flames as they caught her breath was hypnotic and the irregular crackle of the logs was most soothing. Almost fluid, in a way.
Oh no. Fluid.
She thought back to that day she’d spent in the crate, how she’d had to fight the urge to pee for 12 hours and had managed, largely due to lack of a drink in that time, probably. But now, with the pressure from her budding infant – or was it the hormones? Jessica didn’t know – but whatever it was, she could barely make it twelve minutes without needing to go.
One swift visit to the bushes later and Jessica was back in position at the fire.
Five minutes later, her stomach rumbled and she already felt like she needed to pee again. She glanced at her watch; she’d only been in the clearing for forty-two minutes.
Somewhere in the distance, an owl hooted. Somewhere closer, the shrubbery rustled. Jessica wasn’t truly sure what she believed about these forests, about the reasons people vanished here – if they even did – but she wasn’t afraid of these silent woods.
Even the voices in her head seem calmed by this place; their usual chatter nothing but a hushed, occasional sigh.
It was going to be a long, lonely and boring night.
Wyatt had seemed especially keen to get to the Coven meet; he had even showered. Broof wasn’t sure if it was the promise of what Wartilda was wearing or that, despite his chilled exterior and protests that he wasn’t bothered by being held back, Wyatt Harper, at the grand age of 76, was excited to finally show off his hard-earned hat.
Broof was struggling to keep up. He’d barely slept last night thanks to the presence of a certain bloodsucking creature in his house. The same creature who had been running through his mind all night had taken her breakfast from him and left him a mere shadow of a man today. Her promise to ‘grab a few things’ and come back, for convenience’s sake, coupled with the fact that she was -almost- living proof that his knowledge of vampires was wrong, had planted something in the mind of the bearded witch. Something that felt a lot like rebellion.
He couldn’t wait for this meet to be over. Although that was nothing new.
“Where were you today?” Wyatt called back over his shoulder as he half-ran towards the candlelit clearing. “Chickening outta donating?”
“No. I had a guest.”
“You did, huh?” Wyatt replied, not believing. “A lady guest?”
Wyatt stopped dead and spun on his heel. “Wait, really?”
“Yes” Broof confirmed, watching Wyatt’s face light up with smirk. “But it’s not what you’re thinking.”
“No. It was Lilith.”
Wyatt snorted. “Then it’s exactly what I’m thinking.”
Broof blinked his surprise. “What do you mean?”
“She’s your type, Hoggy.”
“What?” Broof asked, this explanation lost on him. He thought back swiftly over his previous relationships, but nothing really stood out to him as a link, other than they were all female. Maybe in Wyatt’s head, that was a type? “I don’t have a type. Do I have type?”
Wyatt guffawed. “You totally have a type: ‘needs help’.”
“You just made that up. That’s not…” he paused, thinking back over his former loves with a little more objectivity. “All right, I do see what you mean. But even so, you’re reading this wrong. There is nothing between Lilith and me.”
“She turned you down, didn’t she?” Wyatt laughed. “Dude.”
“I didn’t try,” Broof insisted.
“Sure you didn’t.”
“We’re just friends. Sort of.”
“She threw up in my begonias, insulted me, my house and my daughter. I don’t think she likes me. Tolerates is probably more of an apt description.”
Broof tried to stop talking but failed; his explanations turning to bald-faced lies at Wyatt’s raised eyebrow. “I’m not attracted to Lilith.”
“I believe you,” Wyatt grinned, turning back towards the clearing. “Come on! I’m dying to see the look on everyone’s faces when they see how totally cute I look in my hat.”
“I’m not attracted to Lilith,” Broof reiterated.
“Good, ‘cause her brother is already hitched to my daughter – it’s weird enough as it is without you being my… whatever the heck relation you’d be if you married Lilith.”
“Bit of a stretch to get from one night of pity to marriage.”
“Worked with Claudia.”
Ouch. “Who needs enemies with friends like you, Wy?”
Broof couldn’t see Wyatt’s face, but he knew that he was grinning. “These are the words of a true friend, Hoggy,” he insisted. “Just remember that if you piss this one off, she could literally eat you; Latrodectus-style. Nom nom nom.”
Broof swallowed a lump in his throat. Thankfully, before he could explore the many gruesome thoughts that stemmed from his buddy’s suggestion of arachnid sexual cannibalism, a sweet little voice sang out over the hum from the clearing.
“Wy!” Alyssa called. “You’re here! Wait – oh no! They gave you a hat!” She said the last word as one might announce that they’d stepped in dung; a sentiment shared by the other little witches who all made over-the-top noises of despair.
Beside Alyssa, her dramatic best friend, Trish made a face of utter disgust. “You’re all grown up now? But who will make stink bombs for us? Ugh! And I really need to bring Max down a peg or two! Darn poosticks!”
“Language, Trish,” Leo – nominated childminder – said calmly, winking at Wyatt. “I didn’t hear that about the potions. That Villareal kid could do with a few if you ask me.”
Wyatt, who was usually dumped in the kid’s circle at each meet due to continuously acting like one, seemed genuinely disheartened to be leaving them behind.
“Traitor,” Alyssa whispered as he walked away.
“Hey,” Broof smiled, giving Wyatt’s arm an affectionate thump. “It’s OK. They’ll all be getting their own hats in, ooh, a year or two.”
“Rub in it, Spidey,” Wyatt huffed, looking around the clearing. “Looks like HP’s not here yet. Who shall we mingle with?”
Broof shrugged. He was intending to chat to Moon at some point, but she was currently engaged in conversation with Sage.
The mini witches were now being told a dramatised story about potion misuse by Leo.
Wartilda was boring her sister and friend over by the pond.
And a small selection of witches were having a serious-looking talk near the shrubbery.
“Anyone but Claudia,” Broof whispered.
“You can’t avoid her forever.”
“I can try.”
He had whispered it but she had heard her name anyway, glancing in his direction. Broof swiftly turned away lest her gaze turn him to stone, but Wyatt wasn’t quick enough.
“Oh, shoot, I made eye contact,” he mumbled.
“You made eye contact,” Broof repeated. “Why’d you do that?”
Wyatt made a noise akin to a balloon deflating. “Damn, she’s coming over, Hoggy.”
“Wouldn’t happen to have any stink bombs on you?”
“No, I left the last one in Mum’s… um… no.”
“Oh, Wyatt!” Wartilda called. “Over here, baby! I saved you a seat!” she turned to her sister and hissed. “Move over, Toady.”
“Saved by the ‘missus’,” he muttered, making a motion towards Wartilda. “Looks like there’s only one seat though. Good luck, Hoggy.”
“You twat,” Broof hissed to Wyatt’s retreating back. “You did that on purpose! I’m going to— Oh, hey, Claudia,” he said, his voice changing instantly from an angry hiss to the kind of tone you might use on a temperamental dog. “Good to see you. How are you?”
“Broof,” Claudia addressed him with that slightly haughty and yet fundamentally immature voice he’d grown to hate so much. “It’s been a while. Thought you’d abandoned us altogether.”
Claudia pouted, glancing over Broof’s shoulder. “I’m glad you’re here—“
“You are?” Broof asked with some trepidation. Her words had sounded remarkably sincere. And loaded. “Is… is everything OK?”
Claudia laughed, cocking her head and grinning. “It could not be better! I have the best news,” she goaded. “You ready for it?”
Broof wasn’t immediately sure what it was. Perhaps it was her inane smile or the casual way she’d slotted herself back into his space like she’d never left, without even asking how he was.
Or maybe it was what she’d said. I have the best news.
“How could you?!” he spat, interrupting her self-obsessed flirting. She pouted in that irritating way she did, and rolled her eyes up to him in a way that he used to think was cute.
“Yes. News,” she repeated. “What am I missing?”
“The news!” Broof repeated, like a lunatic. “You spoke to the news about me!”
“Oh, that,” Claudia said in a bored way. “Yes. Anyway—”
“Yes that. You lied to them about me, Claudia!”
“Ugh.” Claudia rolled her eyes. “I didn’t. I shouldn’t have spoken to them. But y’know they offered me a little cash and I really thought I was helping you—“
“Helping me? They thought I’d abducted April and you told them that I’m sex-crazed, Claudia? That I have a thing for blondes?”
Claudia chewed her lip, glancing repeatedly over Broof’s shoulder. “Calm down. I— they twisted my words.”
“They did,” Broof said, disbelieving. “So what did you say, huh? That I’m hex-crazed with a thing for wands?
“No. I’m not stupid,” she insisted at Broof’s snort. “You know the news channel; they’d flog their own grandmother for a story. Besides,” she added, quickly diverting. “It’s yesterday’s news, today’s news is—“
“It’s still today’s news to me,” Broof snarled. “My reputation is ruined.”
“You’ll get over it,” Claudia insisted. “Now, Broof, can you just listen for a moment please?”
Broof knew he was being a bit of, as April might say, a dickhead, but having this witch brush him off again was simply too much.
“Claudia. Get it through your thick skull. I might never work again.”
“Then I’ve done you a huge favour,” she sighed. “You’ve been living like a human. Waiting on humans. Ugh. So, as I was saying before you so rudely interrupted. I have BIG news.”
It was like talking to a wall. Broof conceded with one last jab, “Let me guess, you’re pregnant? Or are you simply getting fat?” It was beneath him, certainly, but something in Claudia always bought out his worst.
“Oh frick and beans,” Claudia whispered. “Is the bump obvious? Dave said this dress covered it.”
Broof blinked; the only response his body seemed to have in it.
“I am,” she confirmed. “I wanted to tell you before I told everyone else, but I guess I look like a fat cow already.”
“No, you don’t I… pregnant?” he repeated dumbly.
“Isn’t is wonderful?” she sighed wistfully. “I didn’t think I’d ever get another chance.” After screwing you over.
Claudia hadn’t spoken these last words, but she may as well have. The heat from the nearby bonfire surged through Broof; at that moment, he could have ignited every candle in the world.
“Is it his?” he asked unkindly, pointing behind him to where he knew Claudia’s husband would be watching.
Claudia shifted uncomfortably; her eyes fixed on her husbands’ face and her voice barely above a breath. “Now you’re just being horrible.”
Broof could tell from the gentle roll of Claudia’s eyes that someone was approaching them and he didn’t need to turn around to know who it was. Claudia’s husband and pasty, ginger man mountain, Dave, sidled up beside his wife and placed a possessive hand at her waist.
“Everything all right here?” he asked, not really a question and despite looking straight at him, it was not addressed to Broof.
“It’s fine,Dave,” Broof insisted. “Claudia was telling me her – your – wonderful news.”
Dave scanned Broof from head to toe, finding nothing he saw redeeming. “I wasn’t talking to you, Hogwash,” his voice softened to a purr as he turned his attention to Claudia. Broof watched her melt into him, heard her sigh softly. “You OK Pookie-Pie?” Dave asked in sickeningly sweet tone, placing a delicate hand on Claudia’s barely-there belly.
Claudia nodded. “There’s nothing like a reminder of your past to make you appreciate the present, is there?”
Damn it all. Tact was never Claudia’s strong suit, especially when she was pissed off. Dave rounded on Broof in an instant, standing tall and foaming at the mouth like a rabid Pit bull. Broof’s heart thumped hard. If Dave were to duel him now, Broof would be outed as powerless, in front of the whole coven. Claudia’s hand at his chest was likely the only thing stopping Dave from doing Broof some serious molecular damage.
“Haven’t you hurt her enough!?”
Broof could see other members of the coven glance their way, a few of them twitching in his direction as if poised to intervene. He gently shook his head, but salvation came from a surprising source.
“Shnookums,” Claudia purred, wriggling into Dave’s embrace and brushing the tip of her nose against his strange moustache, distracting him completely. “It’s fine.” She replaced his hand at her abdomen and smiled up at him. “We’re both fine.”
Anyone else standing before their ex-husband and amongst a group of people who relied on them to be pragmatic would have likely exchanged a swift, short kiss at this moment, if anything. A little reassurance to their suspicious significant other and then back to business. But Claudia wasn’t like ‘anyone else’.
Twice, Dave tried to pull away and twice, Claudia pulled him back, tilting her head just right so Broof could see her tongue dancing in the mouth of her new husband, watch the father of her new baby cradle her, witness the evidence of her new life.
He wanted to leave but he couldn’t.
Sense or realisation finally caught up with Dave and he forced his overly-eager wife away.
“I’ll be over there,” he mumbled breathlessly, clearly affected by his enthusiastic kiss. “I’m watching you, Hogwash.”
Broof wished he could think of something witty to say in retort, but only a slightly terrified noise escaped his lips. He kicked himself that he would probably think of the perfect cutting insult a few hours later when it meant nothing.
“Was that necessary?” he asked when once again alone with Claudia.
“No, but I hope it made the point – we’re never going to get back together.”
He snorted. “Good.”
She shook her head, but instead of her usual pout, she simply looked sad. “I’m happy with Dave and I’m thriving, meanwhile you are constantly nipping at me, digging up skeletons and for what? Does hating me help you move on, Broof?”
“Or does it give you a reason not to?”
Broof swallowed back the huge lump in his throat, stumped for the second time in as many minutes for something to say. It was rare that Claudia offered any great insight and this was no exception. Claudia, like the others, thought he was still hung up on the passing of their little girl and Claudia, like the others could not know the truth.
With a dozen sets of watching eyes and the threat of being sent skywards on the wave of Dave’s power, there really was only one thing to say.