One Witch Too Few – Chapter 1

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The business card in Lily Antony’s hand glowed with a gentle purple light. Neon-purple fireworks burst around the edges of the card, lighting up her face with the harmless sparks that escaped. Every three seconds, the gold-trimmed words ‘Le Chapeau Magique’ scrolled across the card, replaced by a new phrase—‘Goûtez à vos rêves les plus extravagants.’

“Taste your wildest dreams,” she muttered. “Why don’t I remember this?”

Across Meeting Street from the parking garage where Lily had been temporarily living out of her 2002 Winnebago Adventurer, a man in a gray business suit summoned a ball of green fire in his palm.

Lily waved a hand over the hunk of broken metal that had gotten into the box of her mom’s things, but her spell didn’t reveal anything hidden there. “Just a piece of junk. But it can’t be.”

The man entered the parking garage, heading right for the RV.

“I know there’s a reason, Mom.” Lily stared at all she had left of the witch who’d given her life and taught her everything about it. “Nobody wants to believe me.”

There was a loud, firm knock on the side door of the Winnebago. Frowning, she put everything back in the box, stuck the lid back on, and shoved it under the bed in her cramped bedroom. The knock came again. “Coming,” Lily called. “I know I’m paid up for parking here. What do they want?”

She crossed the RV and walked down the two steps to open the door. No one was there, even when she stuck her head out to look around. “Hello?” Either kids are dingdong ditching RVs now, or I’m hearing things. The second she stepped both feet down onto the cement floor, she saw the bright green flash on the other side of the garage. And it was coming at her fast.

Lily darted to the side just before the green fireball barreled through the doorway and slammed into the ugly floral couch inside. Her eyes locked onto the man in the gray suit, who stalked toward her with purpose, more green fire already building in his hand.

In broad daylight? Is he crazy? “Hey! You almost—” Another fireball whizzed toward her, and she ducked before it left a charred dent in the outside of the Winnebago. “You got my attention,” she yelled. “What do you want?”

The man’s next attack convinced her he definitely didn’t want to talk. Before he could hurl a fourth blast of green fire, Lily shot a fist at him and opened her hand. Her spell dumped a bucketful of water onto the man’s hand, instantly snuffing out the new flames. He glanced at his dripping palm, then lifted the other toward her. A red, sparking bolt of light shot from his fingertips.

Lily was ready for it. Her next spell deflected his attack with a bright yellow shield halfway before it reached her. The red sparks dissipated, and the man started running toward her.

“Crap, crap, crap…” She scrambled around the Winnebago to put it between them. The whole RV rocked violently when another attack spell hit the other side. “Stop it! I live here.” That’s probably what he came to change. Lily leapt toward the driver-side door, jerked it open, and clambered up into the driver’s seat. The engine started with a quick turn of the keys. As she reached for the door to close it, the man’s hand shot out to grab the edge and held it open.

He sneered at her and cocked his head. “Nothing personal. We’re just cleaning up loose ends.”

Lily’s hand reacted much faster than he did. She let go of the door and shot a shimmering blue wave of a stunning spell right at his head—close enough that she couldn’t possibly miss. The man looked like he was about to sneeze, but his eyes rolled back into his head. Then he fell backward like a stiff board. The crack of his head hitting the concrete floor made her wince. “That was personal. Sorry. I mean, at least you won’t remember the last twelve hours when you wake up.” She pulled hard again on the door to slam it shut, then put the Winnie into reverse and tried to drive like someone who hadn’t just been in a witch fight in the middle of downtown Charleston, where anyone could see.

Almost getting burned to a crisp didn’t exempt her from having to stop at the tollbooth; she owed ten bucks for parking here overnight and half the day. Before the Winnebago rolled out of the garage onto Meeting Street, a shadow passed over the unconscious man in the gray suit. The bird pin on his jacket flashed bright-silver, then he disappeared.

~*~*~

Traffic was light on the quick drive through the heart of downtown. It gave her plenty of time to check her rearview mirror and both side-view mirrors every few seconds—for witches instead of other cars. “That guy came out of nowhere. What did he mean ‘cleaning up loose ends?’”

Only when she pulled onto Ashley Avenue did she realize what she was doing. “Okay, Romeo’s all I have left.” Lily nodded and took a deep breath. “It’s worth another shot now that someone tried to kill me.”

The Winnebago pulled up in front of the house she hadn’t visited for seven years, and Lily cut the engine. After she smoothed the last strands of blonde hair away from her face, she pulled her keys out of the ignition, stuck them in her purse, and stopped. Yeah, I need shoes. She went briefly back to her room, grabbed the first pair she saw, and stuck them on. I’m not gonna hunt for the right pair when now I know someone’s after me. I just hope they didn’t follow me here.  

The RV side door creaked open, and Lily took another quick glance in either direction. Every car on the street was parked, unmoving. The few people out here walking around midday in a Charleston summer were heading away from her. So far so good.

“You can do this, Lily.” She tried to keep it together as she stepped up onto the sidewalk, not wanting to draw more attention to herself than the Winnebago already did for her. Her attempts were successful until she tripped a little on some scattered mulch that had escaped the garden in front of the porch. By the time she stood at the front door, her finger hovering by the doorbell she’d rung hundreds of times as a kid, Charleston’s muggy summer heat had already gotten to her. Her blouse felt damp, and the hair at the base of her neck clung to her skin.

We’re still friends. Lily nodded at herself and rang the doorbell. Maybe this time, he’ll want to see me. I really need him to see me.

Footsteps grew louder from inside the house, and the next second, Lily was peering through the screen door at a man she almost didn’t recognize. Then he opened the screen door too and stared at her. “Lily,” he said, and he definitely didn’t sound happy about it.

“Wow.” She swallowed, looking him up and down. “Hi. You look…” Amazing. Dark, curly hair almost fell into Romeo’s hazel eyes. There was a lot of muscle in his tan arms and not much left to the imagination beneath his white t-shirt, and he was probably a foot taller than the last time she’d seen him. “It’s been a while, huh?”

Romeo chewed on the inside of his cheek and glanced across the street. “What are you doing here?” he asked.

“I…” Lily forced a smile, then turned around to double-check the street again. “Can I come in?”

Now Romeo was looking her up and down too, and a small frown flickered over his eyes. “Yeah.” He held open the screen door and stepped back to let her inside. They used to come crashing through this door together when they were kids. Now she had to turn sideways just to skirt past him. He took a few more seconds to peer out into the street, then turned to look at her. “Did you see anyone get out of that Winnebago?” He jerked his head toward the open door.

Lily’s eyes widened, and she lifted her chin. “Uh… yes. Yes I did.” Romeo cocked his head in confusion, so she added, “It was me.”

She expected him to laugh, but he just frowned at her and slowly licked his lips. “Not really your style these days, is it? 

“Well, no. It’s—”

Romeo let the screen door bang shut and closed the front door again. Then he stepped past her into the living room and plopped down on the couch. Lily followed, scanning the pictures of him and his family still on the mantle over the fireplace. The brown and green dartboard still hung on the wall beside it too. “Have a seat,” he told her.

When she chose the other side of the couch, he scooted away a little and draped his arm over the armrest. Maybe I should’ve picked the La-Z-Boy…  

“How’ve you been?” Lily asked. Romeo took a deep breath through his nose, watching her and waiting, so she decided just to dive right in. “I wanted to call first, but I guess your parents got rid of the landline, huh?” He blinked at her. “Romeo, the last couple months—”

“Did you get my letters?”

She froze. “What?”

“I know I sent them to the right address,” he said, frowning at her. “I double-checked.”

Lily sighed. “Yeah, I got your letters.”

“Did you read them?”

“Romeo—”

“Did you?” He dipped his head toward her, staring at her so intensely, she couldn’t even think of anything to say.

She glanced down at her lap. “Yeah, I read them.”

“So you know they put me in jail for something I didn’t do, right? And you know that I spent months in that jail trying to clear my name. My dad spent almost all his retirement money on a good lawyer to get me out of there, and you just… what? You couldn’t step out of your fancy colonial to help a friend?”

“Okay, I didn’t come here to start a fight.” Lily took a deep breath. “But don’t pretend that what you did was my fault.”

“I wrote you five letters,” he added. “I remember that because they sell stamps at the commissary five at a time on a little strip. And that was all I could buy if I wanted paper, too.” Then he huffed out a breath of disbelief and ran his hand through his dark curls. “I know we haven’t seen each other in a long time, but you were the only person I wanted to talk to when I thought I was gonna be locked up for five years. For something I didn’t do. I needed you, and you just…” He shrugged, then dropped his hands into his lap with a thud. “Did you just not care?”

“Of course I cared,” Lily said, her nose burning now. Why is he doing this? “I still care.”

“Then where were you?”

“I was there, Romeo.” This time she shouted, because he really seemed upset. If he’d actually wanted me there, she shouldn’t have turned me away. “No, I didn’t get your letters right away. My mom and I were…” She swallowed. “We were helping out some fairies at a shelter for displaced magicals up north.” And that was the last real quality time I spent with her. “Your letters were waiting for me when we got home, and I drove right up to County to see you.”

Romeo blinked. “No you didn’t.”

Lily’s cheeks were hot. “Every day for two weeks. They kept telling me you hadn’t put my name down on the visitor’s list. I don’t know why you wrote me those letters if you didn’t really want me to come. No, I didn’t show up when you sent the first one, but I swear I would have if I’d been home. Two weeks is kind of a long time to punish me for that, don’t you think? So I stopped trying.”  

His jaw clenched and unclenched over and over as he stared at her. Snorting like an angry bull, he shook his head. “It takes so damn long for anything to process in that place.”

“What?”

“I filled out two requests to put you on that list. Because I wanted you there.”

“You did?” She let out a breathless laugh when he pressed his lips together and nodded slowly. “I thought you just changed your mind. Or that you were still… angry because I couldn’t spend as much time with you as I used to.”

It took him a minute, but he finally leaned toward her and didn’t look so reluctant about it. “You think I grew up and suddenly became a jealous person out of nowhere?”

“I didn’t know what to think. Romeo, I am so sorry that you had to go through that on your own.”

He chewed the inside of his cheek again. “None of it was your fault. I can’t believe you made that drive every day for two weeks.”

Lily chuckled and shrugged. “I really wanted to be there—” A car door slammed outside, jolting her back into the reason she’d come here when she still thought he hated her. Her head whipped toward the front door.

“What’s going on?”

“Well…” Biting her lip, she hesitantly turned back toward him and tucked her hair behind her ear. “I’m hoping you’ll believe me, because this time, I was actually attacked by the people I think are trying to keep me from the truth.”

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