Claws stayed close to my side as we crossed the field to the forest. The narrow path didn’t allow for Raven to walk beside us, so he took the lead. I could swear the temperature dropped the closer we got to the trees. Not from the welcome coolness of shade. The place got its name because the old trees grew so tall and so close together that they blocked out any sunlight once you walked beneath them. But this chill was more forbidding, as though the forest itself was offended and unwelcoming.
I didn’t come here often, but when I made the trip to search for unusual fungi, the forest usually welcomed me. Not today.
“Any idea of where to start looking?” Raven asked. He started to lean against a tree to let his eyes adjust to the dimness but thought better of it. He felt the offended vibes, too.
I held up my palm and scanned for magic. “That way.”
He let me lead this time. Claws stalked slightly ahead of me. The ocelot sniffed the air often and kept glancing around him. He meant to protect me.
I veered slightly to the right as I made my way over fallen logs and around patches of raspberry bushes and briars. It was a convoluted course, but eventually, we stepped into a small clearing. The odious smell of black magic made me turn my head and try not to gag.
Raven wrinkled his nose. “How could the girls stand practicing here?”
“They carried the same scent. They became nose blind to it.”
“And no one noticed it?”
He had a lot to learn about magic. “They bespelled themselves so the odor went unnoticed.”
His scowl deepened. “They can do that?”
“You’d be surprised what a witch can do.”
The thought obviously bothered him. He looked at me uneasily. I enjoyed myself a little too much. It was fun to tilt him off balance.
Putting his hand over his nose and mouth, he started forward. “Let’s see what they were up to.”
We walked to their circle of magic together. A crude altar of stacked stones stood in its center, and animal bones surrounded it. The top of the altar was stained with dried blood. The rotting carcass of a fawn lay crumpled on the ground.
He grimaced. “Looks like they’d been playing with Black Magic for a while.”
I couldn’t hide how frustrated I was. “I taught the girls the danger of the dark arts over and over again. Black Magic is as happy to harm the users as the victim they aim it against.”
“Would they have mixed their magic herbs themselves, hoping to harm someone?” he asked.
“I hope not. I covered every magic herb and what it did in my classroom. They should have known better.”
“But obviously, they decided to break the rules.”
I stopped to consider that. “Some of these herbs aren’t found around here, though. They’d have to buy them from someone, and I don’t recall anyone coming through town who sold them.”
“But it’s possible.”
I shrugged. “I suppose so. After all, I taught them not to use the dark arts, too. It opens a door you can’t always close again.”
He scanned the area. “What now?”
“We have to bury every bone and carcass and cleanse the circle or the forest will brood for a long time.”
“Did you bring shovels?”
“I always carry them. I collect a lot of plants and foliage for my spells. This forest is kind enough to grow certain herbs for me, so I do my best to keep it happy.”
“I’ll go fetch them. Do I need a key?”
“It isn’t locked.”
He opened his mouth to scold me but stopped. “It has wards, too?”
I smiled. While he went after the shovels, I searched for wild sage and fennel. I gathered the fennel stems into a bundle and tied them together to place in the crotch of trees. Fennel forced harmful spirits away and served to cleanse an area. I was building a small fire to throw sage leaves on when Raven returned with the shovels. His brows wrinkled when he looked at my fire.
“Sage? Tastes great in stuffing.”
I shook my head. “The smoke works as a disinfectant. It will remove most of the foul odors here.”
“After we bury the bones and bodies, I’ll help you gather more if you need it. In case you want to use it when you cook for me.”
I rolled my eyes. “I grow it in my garden.”
The man was persistent, I’d give him that. I grabbed a shovel and followed him to the altar. We dug hole after hole until every last sacrifice was put to rest. When we finished, sweat made our T-shirts stick to our bodies. Raven seemed to enjoy the effect as much as I did. Muscles rippled each time he moved. For his part, he had to yank his gaze away from my breasts. I’m five eight and willowy, but I do tend to be bosomy.
I put a hand to the small of my back and straightened up. Digging was hard work. It took me a minute to realize that the day had grown quite warm, and the horrible smell was gone. “The forest’s clean again.”
He sniffed, too. “I was beginning to worry I’d just grown used to the smell.”
Claws lifted a paw to lick. I nodded toward him. “He wouldn’t grow immune to it, and he’s all right now.”
“Good, because I don’t really want to have to search for more herbs or carcasses.”
We turned as one to walk back to the SUV. On the drive to town, we sat in companionable silence. When we approached Solstice Street, he broke it.
“Let’s start with Noira. We’ll question her first.”
He caught me by surprise. “You still need to talk to her, even after we found Belladonna’s coven practiced black magic? There wasn’t enough wood betony in the pouches to harm the girls. I’m guessing they tried to perform a spell that backfired on them and killed themselves.”
His jaw set. “Two of your girls didn’t come when you called for them last night. You told me you could only find wood betony in warm climates. Noira’s mom moved to New Orleans with her new mate. Noira just returned from a two week visit with her. I talked to a few people this morning before I came to your house. I’ve heard that Noira and Sugi—the other girl who failed to respond to you—didn’t like Belladonna and her coven. They even threatened them. So, yes, I want to question them.”
I pulled to the side of the road and glared at him. “You found out all of this before you came to my house and didn’t say a word? I’ve shared everything I know with you, and you held all of this information back?”
“You already knew Noira went to visit her mom in New Orleans. You just didn’t think it through.”
Anger simmered to the surface. He’d made me feel like we were a team, diving in together to find the truth of what happened. Obviously, working with Raven was a lopsided affair. I felt betrayed, like he’d played me. “I wish I had thought it through more. I wouldn’t have told you about wood betony.”
The black brow rose again. “You’d have protected someone you thought might be guilty?”
“No. I don’t think Noira’s guilty. I think you’re focusing on circumstantial evidence.”
His lips quirked. “Circumstantial, huh? Where else would the wood betony have come from?”
“I have no idea, but that doesn’t mean Noira brought it home with her.”
“We’ll soon find out, won’t we? Is there something wrong with asking her?”
“Yes, because even if she tells you she didn’t bring it, you won’t believe her.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Your personality.” I pulled from the curb and turned toward Noira’s house on Moon Boulevard, averting my face so I didn’t have to see him, not even in my peripheral vision.
“Does this mean you’re not inviting me to supper?”
“After today, I don’t ever want to see you again.”
He crossed his arms and turned his head, too. When we pulled to the curb in front of Noira’s house, I waited for him to start up the walk and then followed behind him, Claws by my side. When he reached the front stoop, he stepped to the side to let me knock.