Emmy Harlow is a witch but not a very powerful one—in part because she hasn't been home to the magical town of Thistle Grove in years. Her self-imposed exile has a lot to do with a complicated family history and a desire to forge her own way in the world, and only the very tiniest bit to do with Gareth Blackmoore, heir to the most powerful magical family in town and casual breaker of hearts and destroyer of dreams.
But when a spellcasting tournament that her family serves as arbiters for approaches, it turns out the pull of tradition (or the truly impressive parental guilt trip that comes with it) is strong enough to bring Emmy back. She's determined to do her familial duty; spend some quality time with her best friend, Linden Thorn; and get back to her real life in Chicago.
On her first night home, Emmy runs into Talia Avramov—an all-around badass adept in the darker magical arts—who is fresh off a bad breakup . . . with Gareth Blackmoore. Talia had let herself be charmed, only to discover that Gareth was also seeing Linden—unbeknownst to either of them. And now she and Linden want revenge. Only one question stands: Is Emmy in?
But most concerning of all: Why can't she stop thinking about the terrifyingly competent, devastatingly gorgeous, wickedly charming Talia Avramov?
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The Prodigal Witch
As soon as I crossed the town line, I could feel Thistle Grove on my skin.
That I was in my shitty beater Toyota made no difference; maybe the town could sense one of its daughters coming home, even after almost five years away. A swell of raw magic coursed into the car, until the air around me nearly shimmered with potential, bright and buzzy and headier than a champagne cocktail. As if Thistle Grove's own magical heart was pulsing eagerly toward me, welcoming me back. No hard feelings about my long absence, apparently.
Made one of us, I guess.
The onslaught of magic after my dry spell was so intoxicating that I hunched over the steering wheel, taking shallow breaths and wondering a little wildly whether you could overdose on magic after having gone cold turkey for so long. From the passenger seat, Jasper cast me a glinting, concerned glance from beneath his silvery fringe and shoved a clumsy paw onto my thigh.
"I'm okay, bud," I murmured to him through a thick throat, reaching over to stroke his warm neck. "It's just . . . a whole lot, you know?"
That was the thing about growing up with magic. Until you left it behind for good, you had no idea how incredible it felt just to be around it.
And it wasn't only the air that seemed different. Through my spattered windshield, the night sky had changed, snapping into Ÿber-focus like a calibrated telescope. Above Hallows Hill, the unlikely little mountain the town huddled up against, a crescent moon hung like a freshly whetted sickle. Waning crescent, my witch brain whispered, already churning up the spells best cast in this phase. Its silhouette looked like it could carve glass, impossibly perfect and precise, the kind of moon you'd see in a dream. The constellations that surrounded it like a milky spill of jewels were arranged the same as on the other side of the town line but better somehow, more intentional, clear-cut and brilliant as a mosaic set with precious gems. So enticing, they made me want to pull the car over and tumble out, head hinged back and jaw agape, just to watch them glitter.
This fucking town. Always so damn extra.
With an effort, I resisted the temptation. But when the orchards that belonged to the Thorns appeared on my left, I gave in just enough to roll down my window.
The night air gusted against my face, smelling like an absolute of fall; woodsmoke and dying leaves and the faintest bracing hint of future snow. And right below that was the scent of Thistle Grove magic, which I've never come across anywhere else. Spicy and earthy, as if the lingering ghost of all the incense burned by three hundred years of witches had never quite blown away. A perpetual Halloween smell, the kind that gave you the good-creepy sort of tingles.
And fallen apples, of course. The Thorns' rows and rows of Galas, Honeycrisps, and Pink Ladies, sweet and cidery and indescribably like home.
It all made the part of me that used to adore this place-oh, cut the shit, Emmy, the part of you that still does, the part that will never, ever stop-throb like first-love heartache. My eyes welled hot with sudden tears, and I knuckled them clear more violently than necessary, angry with myself for sinking into nostalgia so readily.
Sensing my mood plummeting, Jasper gave an aggrieved snort, tossing his regally mustachioed snout at me.
"I know, I know," I groaned, dragging a hand over my face. "I promised not to get too in my feelings. I'm just tired, bud. From now on, it'll be all business till we can get out of here."
He huffed again, as if he knew me much too well to buy into my stoic crap. I might be back here only because Tradition Demands the Presence of the Harlow Scion, but nothing in Thistle Grove was ever that simple. Especially when it came to the heir of one of the founding families.
Ten minutes later, I pulled into my parents' oak-lined residential neighborhood, rattling onto their cobbled driveway. My chest clenched at the sight of my childhood home, fisting tight around my heart. It was a perfectly nice house, though not all that impressive as founding family demesnes go. The Blackmoores had their palatial Tintagel estate, the Thorns had Honeycake Orchards, and the Avramovs the rambling Victorian warren of a mansion they insisted on calling The Bitters, because they thrived on such old-world melodrama.
And we, the Harlows, had . . . lo, a house.
A stately three-story colonial almost as old as the town itself-though you wouldn't know it, to look at its magically weatherproofed exterior-Harlow House has never had a fancy name, thereby upholding the timeless Harlow legacy of being both the least pretentious and least relevant of the founding families. As always, a candle burned in every window; thirteen flames, for prosperity and protection. The flying owl weather vane spun idly in the night breeze, and the dreamcatcher windchimes hung by the front door clinked delicately against one another. A plume of smoke coiled from the brick chimney in a curlicued wisp before vanishing into the velvety dark above.
It looked like a storybook house belonging to your favorite no-nonsense witch-which, come to think of it, sounded like both my parents.
And it was all like I remembered, except that the thought of going inside made me feel painfully stripped of breath. There was an invisible moat of hurt surrounding my former home, years of unanswered questions. Restless water, teeming with the emotional equivalents of piranha and stinging jellyfish.
I couldn't do much about the hurt, and "because Gareth Blackmoore ruined this town for me" still seemed like a shitty answer to the question all the others boiled down to, which was: Emmy, why haven't you come home all this time?
So I turned the car off and just sat with my head bowed, listening to the ticks of the engine settling and Jasper's low-grade whine, focusing on my breath. When I'd collected myself about as much as I was going to, I lurched out of the car on travel-stiff legs and let Jas out to baptize the quiet street, then hauled my battle-scarred suitcase and gigantic duffel bag out of the trunk. By the time he came loping back, I'd managed to wrestle everything up onto the columned porch with an admirable minimum of cursing.
I still had my key, but it seemed horribly rude and presumptuous to use it after a five-year absence, so I knocked instead. When the door swung open, I managed to flinch only a little, blinking at the warm light spilling from within.
"My darling," my mother said simply, stepping out to greet me. Her voice was characteristically composed, all British stiff upper lip, but her green eyes-my eyes-were suspiciously shiny. Glossed with the same stifled emotion that burst at my own seams.
"Mom," I half whispered, a lump rising in my throat.
It wasn't like we hadn't laid eyes on each other in five years, because this was the twenty-first century. Even a magical haven like Thistle Grove got decent reception and Wi-Fi most of the time, barring the odd magical tantrum disrupting coverage. But seeing her face on a screen wasn't the same, not even close. When I leaned forward to wrap her in a hug, it took all I had not to whimper at her familiar smell, lemon and wildflowers. Though we were nearly the same height, the years between twenty-six and six abruptly melted away. For just a moment, I was small again, and she was the mummy I used to call for in the night after a bad dream, who soothed me with her gentle hands and infinite catalog of lovely British-inflected lullabies.
Then the awkwardness seeped back in between us, like an icy trickle of rain sluicing past your collar. When I pulled away from her, clearing my throat, she bent to offer Jasper the back of her hand.
"A familiar, really?" she said, smiling up at me as he gave her a subdued sniff. "I confess, I'm a bit surprised."
"Ah, no, actually. Jas is just . . . your average cute pup," I said brightly, quelling a spurt of irritation that I somehow hadn't seen this coming. Only in Thistle Grove would your mother assume that your well-trained standard schnauzer must obviously be a familiar. "He usually has more pep to him, too, but he's a little wiped out. Actually, we both are, do you think we could . . .?"
"Right, of course," she said hurriedly, reaching over to wrench my back-breaking duffel across the threshold before I could stop her. "You've both had a terribly long drive, haven't you? Let's get you settled."
Inside, the smell of home hit me like a sucker punch: lemongrass floor polish, tea leaves, the melting sweetness of beeswax candles. I abandoned my monster suitcase in the foyer, shedding my denim jacket and hooking it on the coat tree before trailing my mother to the darkened kitchen. Instead of switching on the overhead light, she flicked her hand at the clusters of pillar candles set on the table and granite countertop. Their flames sprang obediently to life, illuminating the cozy breakfast nook with its vase of peachy tulips, yellow curtains, and my old cat-shaped clock on the wall with its swinging pendulum tail. Lighting candles was a small, homey sort of magic, the kind even Harlows could easily do.
The kind I used to be able to do almost without thinking before I left.
But I hadn't been able to coax so much as a flicker from a candle for almost four years now, and the ease with which my mother did it sent a well-worn ache of loss rolling through my belly. That was why members of the founding families rarely ventured far from Thistle Grove; any amount of distance attenuated our magic. The longer you stayed away, the fewer spells you were able to manage, until your abilities eventually huffed out altogether the way mine have.
I still felt the pain of their absence like a phantom limb, a hollow throb of yearning that never really faded. Seeing even this tiny spurt of magic happen in front of me only reignited the craving.
But, I reminded myself firmly, this was part of the price I'd agreed to pay for my new life. My real life, with my real job, real college degree, and unfortunately extremely real assload of student debt. This was the trade-off that I chose-the loss of magic, in return for a life that I could mold into a shape that actually fit.
"You've missed dinner, I'm afraid," my mother said, leaning back against the counter and crossing her arms over her slim middle. I sank down into one of the wooden chairs by the breakfast table, Jasper sprawling out next to me on the travertine tiles, and made an apologetic face in response, as if I hadn't timed my arrival precisely to avoid an hour of mandatory social entrapment with my parents before I had a chance to decompress.
"And your dad's gone back to the shop for a few hours to get the ledgers in order," she added. "The Samhain bedlam seems to set in earlier each bloody year. We're swimming in tourists already, and you know what that does to your poor father's peace of mind."
"I can imagine," I said, wincing in sympathy. "Think of all the strangers he has to talk to, the utter horror of it all."
Thistle Grove kicked into high gear every spooky season, starting the beginning of October and sometimes lasting well into mid-November. It was a Halloween destination the rest of the year as well-though of course the tourists had no idea just how deep, and very real, the town's "mythical" magic ran-but quiet enough to be less of a nightmare for my introverted father.
"But if you're hungry, I could make you a sandwich?" my mother offered, wilting a little when I shook my head. "A bit of tea, then? I could use a cup myself."
I'd been driving for hours, and would much rather take a steaming shower and dive directly into bed before facing any further scenes from the prodigal-daughter-returneth playbook. But she looked so hopeful at the prospect of sharing a cup of tea with me that I couldn't bring myself to say no.
"Tea would be wonderful, thanks," I relented. "And could I have some water for Jasper?"
"Of course. What a terribly polite fellow he's been, too." She squinted at him thoughtfully, cocking her head to the side. "Are you quite sure he isn't a familiar?"
"Stone-cold certain, Mom."
I watched as she moved purposefully around the kitchen, all deft hands and competence, her periwinkle cardigan swirling around her, glossy dark braid swishing over her shoulder. When she set my favorite old mug, oversized and painted with a gold foil dragonfly, in front of me, she tapped the side lightly with an index finger to cool it to the perfect temperature. It was a little Harlow party trick, a pretty lackluster one as affinities went. My mother, Cecily Fletcher Harlow, hadn't been born a Harlow, of course; but marrying into a founding family was kind of like marrying into royalty. Only instead of a lifetime of fascinators, anemic finger sandwiches, and wearing nude pantyhose in public, you got to become a witch yourself.
"So, darling," she began, wrapping long fingers around her own mug as she sat down across from me. "Tell me how you've been."
"Really good," I replied, relaxing a little as the rooibos steeped into my chest and loosened some of the underlying tightness. I'd forgotten how medicinal my mother's brews could be. "I, um, even got promoted a few weeks ago. I didn't want to mention anything until the ink was dry, but yeah. Officially creative director at Enchantify now."
"My goodness, that's wonderful!" She beamed at me, though I could see the slight tightening at the corners of her eyes as she registered that this was the belated first she'd heard of my good news. "Congratulations, sweet. What a coup for you."
"Great timing, too. Gave me some leverage for requesting such a long sabbatical."
"And such a treat for us, more than one whole month with you! To be frank, I rather doubted you'd be able to come at all."
I chewed on the inside of my cheek, a little taken aback by such uncharacteristic bluntness. We weren't usually like that with each other, the Harlows. Not insular elitists like the Blackmoores, chaotically codependent like the Avramovs, or nearly empathically linked like the Thorns. We preferred to give the difficult stuff a wide berth, leave each other abundant room to breathe.