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“And you thought you saw someone around this neighborhood?” she finally said, her gaze boring into me.

I shrugged, uncomfortable. I’d hoped she would laugh this off, as she usually did when it came to my temperamental third eye. That was how it had gotten its name, after all. But this time, she was as serious as the grave.

“I thought I saw movement, or someone darting out of sight,” I said. “And the street was unnaturally quiet.”

“That’s true.” Veronica nodded as she popped another piece of cheese into her mouth. “The street was quieter than normal. Could’ve just been the weather.”

“Did anyone see you try to gun down the man in the street?” my mother asked. The rest of her body stayed frozen. Each word dripped with an anxiety I’d never heard from her before.

Fear unfurled in my stomach. The hair stood up along my arms. “I—I don’t think so.”

Her gaze stayed rooted to mine. “What aren’t you telling me, Penelope Bristol?”

Veronica slowed in her chewing and turned toward me, her eyes wide.

Without meaning to, I blurted out the part about getting out of the car and seeing the men fighting each other with what I believed to be magic.

My mother’s whole body sagged. Worry clouded her eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me last night?”

“I…I sound crazy. It sounds crazy. And someone…someone died. I think. Maybe a few people.” I clamped my mouth shut, determined not to spill anymore.

“You went by there this morning?” she asked.

“Yes. There wasn’t even a trace. But this wasn’t my imagination. It sounds crazy, but it wasn’t—”

Suddenly my mother was striding from the room, her back straight and fire in her eyes. “They will not take my daughter. Not while I walk this earth or beyond. I will be damned if those vultures come for my flesh and blood.”

“Did she just swear?” Veronica asked with cheese still in her mouth, the need to chew apparently forgotten. “What’s happening?”

I shook my head lamely, at a complete loss.

A moment later, my mother strode back in with a worn leather book. She set it on the table with a solid thunk. “They won’t be able to come in here without studying the ward first. Your father was the best around, and all these years, I’ve continuously fed his spell. Those goons will head back to their books, you mark my words. We have some time to figure out how to get you out, Penny. A couple days, maybe. But Veronica’s house will need some protection, too. They’ve seen you two together. She’s not safe. She could be used as bait.” Her brow furrowed as she opened the book. The musty smell of old paper greeted me. The words lining the pages called to me. “I’m not a great mage, but I’m good enough to buy us some time.”

Chapter Fourteen

Had speech been possible, I would’ve broken my mother’s rules and let a whole bunch of four-letter words spew from my mouth. As it was, all I could do was stare. The stare of a child who’d believed one thing her whole life, only to discover her parents had believed something entirely different.

My life hadn’t been a lie. It had been a series of shadows and secrets that I was only now starting to shed light on.

“I’m a little confused. Did you say mage?” Veronica asked with rapidly blinking eyes. “And why am I in danger? Who is out there, Ms. Bristol?”

“We don’t have time for questions, Veronica. Grab some dinner for the road and let’s go. I need to head to your house. Your parents will probably think I’m a little eccentric, but that can’t be helped right now.”

A little eccentric? People had thought she was crazy for years. This would dump her into the “best not to look at her directly” bucket.

“You’re a mage?” I finally got out as Veronica turned up her nose at the overly roasted pork. “Not a witch, but a mage?” I’d learned the distinction from Callie and Dizzy.

“Come on, Veronica, let’s get going. We don’t have much time.” My mother dropped a placeholder in the book and closed it up before motioning for Veronica to get moving. “Come on, come on. Let’s go.”

“Wait. Mother!” I tried to block them from the doorway, but I was still mostly numb from the shock of my world being flipped upside down. Zombies were bad, but somehow this seemed infinitely worse. “Is that a book of spells? You can do spells?”

“Penelope, I do not have time right now to explain your father’s and my reasoning for keeping this from you. Or for keeping you from this. You’ve found out, much later than a curious kid might’ve, and now we need to move forward. Move quickly forward, because we don’t have much time. Veronica, would you come on?”

“I still don’t know what’s happening,” Veronica said, allowing herself to be pushed out of the kitchen by my mother. “Penny?”

I didn’t have any explanation to offer. I’d fallen into this life and all these terms not much more than a month ago. I’d found magic haphazardly, and gone about it the way I went about everything—crashing and burning. To now hear that all these questions could’ve been answered by my own mother was beyond my ability to comprehend. It seemed traitorous, somehow. She could’ve kept me from the zombies. And magical battles. And whatever was happening now.

By the time she returned from Veronica’s house (I wasn’t allowed to go), anger simmered deep in my gut.

“Why did you keep this from me?” I asked, ignoring her tight eyes and the lines of fatigue on her face. “Why have you kept me from anything—everything—concerning witchcraft? Kept me from learning, talking to people…”

“Because you have your daddy’s gift,” she said, grabbing the book on the table and then disappearing again. I longed to reach for it. To open it up and explore its pages. But the situation in the church stopped me. I didn’t want to go blindly into this. I wanted to know what I was getting into. “Maybe more than your daddy’s gift.” She returned with a bottle of scotch that didn’t look as old and dusty as it should’ve for someone who didn’t allow drinking within her house.

She took down two glasses, dropped ice cubes into one of them, and plunked it down in front of me.

“Welcome to womanhood,” she said. “We’ll start by having a drink.”

“I went to New Orleans,” I blurted, wanting to surprise her with my own truth.

She sighed as she poured brown liquid into my glass. “I know. You’re horrible at keeping secrets. Clearly you didn’t get that from me.”

Here came the stare again. My mouth hung open wide enough to catch flies.

“I knew the time was coming, but I’d hoped I had a little longer.” She sat down heavily, and suddenly she looked older. Beaten down. “The simple truth is, Penny, that you have a powerful gift. You have a lot of magic. I don’t know how much, but more than me. You can do things even your father couldn’t do, and you’re not trained. But the magical entity in Seattle has grown corrupt. More corrupt than when your father was working there. Much more. His dying wish was to keep you away from them at all costs. At all costs.” She wiped her forehead. “I should’ve moved, probably. The organization isn’t as far-reaching as they’d like to be. But I stayed, thinking someone would overthrow them. That they’d crumble and rebuild by the time you were ready. You’re past ready, and they are worse than they’ve ever been. I’ve even heard they’ve participated in…” She shook her head as a disgusted look crossed her face. “We’ve run out of time.”

I furrowed my brow, not understanding half of this. “We’ve run out of time for what?”

“They’re lurking around the neighborhood, which means they have an interest in you. It won’t take much for them to figure out who you are, who your father was, and what you might’ve inherited. The fact that I believe you inherited more will… Well. They can be a very charming organization. And when that fails, very hostile.” Moisture glossed her eyes. “I’m not powerful enough to keep you safe, Penny. I have to send you away. Which is fine, but I don’t know who to send you to. But I have a couple days. I’ll find the right fit, don’t you worry. Then we’ll smuggle you out.”

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