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Excerpt for A Garden Dream: The Ashland Witches, Book 2 by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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A GARDEN DREAM

The Ashland Witches, Book 2





Copyright © 2017 Jea Hawkins

All Rights Reserved

This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used, reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

© Cover Art by Satyr Designs

For more information:

www.jeahawkins.com

Jea’s Newsletter



Emma was always one to make sacrifices. The problem was the cost she, and she alone, would bear. – Fiona Shaw



Chapter 1



The storm lashed at the trees, whipping the branches back and forth in the wind. Emma stood at the window, watching the tree limbs sway, dark silhouettes against the sky until the lightning streaked down from the clouds. Nights like this were normal in the Midwest, especially after an intense heat wave. She welcomed the change. It would eliminate the humidity and stuffiness they had suffered through for the past two weeks.

The interior lights flickered and she heard the telltale hum of their old refrigerator cease for a moment before resuming. So it was going to be one of those storms? Closing her eyes, Emma envisioned her roots keeping her firmly in place, emerging from her feet to curl into the warm, welcoming earth beneath the house. Just the very act of the visualization anchored her and she felt safe.

Earth never disappointed, never failed her. It was the one constant in her life that she could trust.

Unlike people.

“Is it bad?” Crystal’s voice sounded far away, even though she stood in the living room just behind Emma. The scent of a lit match drifted on the air. Crystal must have been lighting candles as a precaution against a black-out. They did have a backup generator, but finding their way outside from a dark house would be tricky.

Emma kept her arms wrapped around herself and opened her eyes. But she did not move from her place at the window. “It’s just a storm,” she answered in a monotone.

The best thing to do was assume that Crystal’s question pertained to the weather and not to the status of their relationship. She should already know exactly how bad things were in that department. After all, she had brought months of lingering pain on the both of them with her thoughtless decision.

“Em.” The same pleading tone that had laced Crystal’s voice for the past four months made Emma wince for a moment. If Crystal had cared so much, she wouldn’t have done it in the first place, though, would she? No. Especially not as Emma spent all that time at her mother’s side through everything she was enduring with the surgery, radiation, and chemo.

Why didn’t Crystal just drop it? There was no point in dragging out their mutual pain. They should just pretend it never happened.

Of course, there was no going back to the way things used to be, but Emma decided she could soldier on if Crystal would just. Stop. Reminding her.

She smoothed out her features, finally turned to face Crystal, and reached up to sweep her long bangs off her forehead. Even gathered in a ponytail, her thick, heavy black hair refused to behave as desired.

Like her girlfriend.

Just how hard was it to stay faithful? Really.

“Are we ever going to talk about what happened?” It was the first time Crystal had asked outright since confessing the truth to Emma.

Without even blinking, Emma simply said, “No,” and turned back to watch the lightning illuminate what remained of her once-perfect life.

****

The storm left everything drenched. That included Emma’s potted herbs and she shook her head. There wasn’t enough drainage for the poor things, even with the holes in the bottoms of the pots. Then again, there also wasn’t enough space for a true garden. Resorting to pots was the only solution, but it limited her stock. Many plants did not thrive in containers, even with Emma’s help. She hated feeling so constrained, especially since the earth gave her otherwise limitless power.

And then there was the problem of her girlfriend of the past seven years. Crystal was already at the shop, which gave Emma much-needed time alone, yet the tension from the previous night lingered. The unspoken questions and answers. The accusations Emma bit her tongue against time and time again since Crystal told her the truth.

I cheated on you.”

She shook the memory away and knelt before the row of pots. Emma pushed her emotions aside and focused on what the herbs needed from her. After centering herself, she waved her hands over the plants. They got plenty of sunshine and fresh air on the back porch in their postage-stamp sized yard. But Emma’s herbs were robust because she had no qualms about using her considerable talents to enhance the growing process.

A little earth magick gave everything an extra boost. With just the gentlest touch of shimmering energy, everything looked greener and stood a little taller.

Emma sat back on her heels and worried at her lower lip. She felt so pent-up these days, so full of energy, she thought she would burst. Of course, the one thing she wanted to do was the one thing she shouldn’t do. Or wouldn’t. How could she possibly bring herself to make love to the woman who had betrayed her? Could anything else be done about the excess energy gathering inside her? Making love was one activity that helped to siphon off the excess energy. It was especially effective for Crystal as a water witch since it was far too easy to take in all the emotions around her, but not get rid of them.

But they hadn’t touched one another since Crystal...

“Em, are you here?”

Blinking, Emma leaned back and looked through the doorway. “Yes, I am. Hello, Fi.” Good. Her voice had been steady as usual. No quaver, no indication that she had been caught up in a current of confusing thoughts. She was the coven leader, after all, the earth witch and thus always had to keep her cool.

The redhead strolled through the door onto the back porch, fluffing her short curls as she emerged from the house. As usual, she radiated a sort of relentless energy. Fiona rarely stood still and even when she planted her feet in one place, she fidgeted. It didn’t discombobulate Emma, but her connection to earth was strong enough to withstand even the fieriest energy. It was water that proved tricky these days.

“Did you forget about me?” Fiona asked. “I texted you twice to confirm, but I didn’t get a response.”

Yes. “Of course not. You know​ me.” No one knows... “I was just busy with morning chores, seeing to these little ones. They had a bit too much water with last night’s storm.” Emma gestured to the pots with herbs in various states of growth in them.

Fiona smiled as if reassured and said, “Of course you didn’t forget. It’s thoughtless of me to forget you have priorities other than filling my order. I don’t know why I asked. Is it ready or should I come back another time?”

She meant the honeysuckle incense Emma mixed just for her. It wasn’t like the mass produced stuff she sold at her shop. The honeysuckle came from the plant in her yard, grown with a healthy dose of Emma’s earth magick.

“It’s in the mud room. Come on.” Emma walked back into the house and turned toward the alcove where she kept her gardening implements. A thick, wooden shelf at waist height along the wall was the perfect place to mix incense from the dried herbs and flowers hanging from the ceiling overhead.

It wasn’t a room, per se, but it served Emma’s purposes. Her only other option would be to bring all her work to the store, which had more space. But she’d been avoiding the store on Crystal’s work days unless her presence was absolutely necessary. No need to draw out the pain between them at every opportunity.

Handing Fiona a small paper bag with several sticks of incense​, she asked, “How is Gabe doing?”

“Great. She’s excited that her daughter is spending the summer at home with us. She can’t wait to teach her all sorts of witchy ways. Kate is pretty talented when it comes to air magick, just like her mom.” Fiona accepted the bag and turned, but hesitated. “Are you sure you’re okay? I feel like something has been off about you since I moved home.”

“No.” Emma waved her away. Mother figures weren’t allowed to dwell on bad feelings, especially when they led a coven that relied on their earthy strength and nurturing. At least, that was what she told herself when her friends gave her the opening she needed to tell them the truth. If only she would take it… “Don’t you have an article to write or something? I thought writers always lived on deadline.”

Fiona hooked her thumbs in her belt loops, an affectation she had picked up from her girlfriend. Seeing the gesture made Emma’s heart twinge just a bit. “I just finished one and sent it off to my editor. There’s something awesome about that feeling of finishing a job and then taking a day or two off before moving on to the next project, you know?”

Emma knew what Fiona meant, though she had never taken a day off in her life. “You take days off?” she asked with a lift of her eyebrow. Fiona, ever the fire witch, always seemed to be on the go. Even now her entire body radiated heat and energy. An observant person would probably notice the way Fiona shifted her weight from one foot to the other, eager to move. She might have finished her work, but that meant she would find something else to do.

“I guess so, in my own way. Gabe and I were thinking of going to the water park this weekend.” Fiona blinked at her for a moment and then tapped her on the shoulder. “Hey, you and Crystal should come with us. The relief from the storm is supposed to be short-lived. The weekend is going to be a scorcher and wicked humid.”

There it was – one of Fiona’s favorite words, thanks to her Boston origins. Emma laughed and shook her head. “Thank you for the invitation, but I use this time of year to stock up on my herbs and flowers. Maybe another time.”

Maybe never, especially if she would have to find an excuse for not including Crystal.

“Jeez, Em, there will never be ‘another time’ if you use the entire growing season to work.” Fiona’s gaze softened and Emma wondered what she was thinking. Was she worried about her? Did she pity Emma? Of course, she couldn’t answer that question and she certainly couldn’t tell Fiona that there was a problem.

She was Emma, the reliable earth witch. Steady, dependable… Hurting so much inside.

“Maybe next time,” she finally demurred. “We’ve just been really busy with the store, so I can’t guarantee anything.”

“Okay.” Fiona gave her a two finger salute and turned to leave the house. After a moment, she turned back once again and said, “What about our coven’s Midsummer ritual – are you up for that?”

Emma let out the breath she’d been clinging to like a life jacket and nodded. “Midsummer ritual, yes. Tomorrow at your place.”

“Is Crystal coming?”

Every time their circle had a ritual, the girls wanted to know where Crystal was, why she wasn’t there. She was, after all, one of them. Or she had been until she showed Emma that her trust in her girlfriend was completely misplaced.

“No, not this time,” Emma said softly.

“Why not?” Fiona asked. “It seems like she’s never around and the girls said she was always at the rituals you had after we graduated from college. They want to know why she doesn’t come anymore.”

Leave it to Fiona to ask such a sensitive question without warning. Then again, she was a fire witch – direct and to the point. Very little stood in Fiona’s way, including Emma’s reticence to tell the truth.

Still, Emma managed to swallow the words that ached for release and simply said, “We’re just so busy with the shop.”

A lie. The shop was even more concerning than her girlfriend’s infidelity. Summer had been slow and not in an “everyone’s on vacation” way.

But that was another thing Emma wouldn’t burden anyone else with, another rough patch she felt she had to figure out on her own. “Maybe next time,” was all she offered.



Chapter 2



“Hey there. Come on in.” Gabe stepped aside and held the door open for Emma. With a smile, Emma nodded and stepped past her into the house.

“I brought some salad.” Emma held up a lidded glass bowl. This was their first formal Sabbat celebration since high school with the original circle back together, and Fiona had suggested they treat it as a potluck. This wouldn’t just be an opportunity to celebrate the holiday, but also to eat and catch up with each other.

“Oh, salad is perfect. Fiona made something in the crockpot that smells amazing. I’m not sure what it is because she won’t let me anywhere near it.” The stunning blonde gestured for Emma to follow her into the kitchen, where three other women were already milling around.

Emma set the salad on the table as she picked up the scent of whatever Fiona was cooking. Gabe was right – it smelled incredible, like a sweet and spicy barbecue.

Putting on her best “coven mom” smile, Emma turned to her friends. “Hello, ladies.”

“Hey,” Waverly trilled, stepping around the kitchen table to hug her. “This is so exciting. Our first Sabbat together since, gosh, high school.” Waverly’s long brown hair was gathered in a messy bun and she fanned herself, each wave of her hand lifting tendrils off her neck. “Can you believe this heat?”

“Right? I thought the storm would diminish it, but it only got worse,” Avery chimed in. Waverly’s younger sister also had her hair pulled up in a blonde twist at the back of her head. Her red sheath dress wasn’t exactly practical for an outdoor ritual, but Avery caught Emma looking at her and shrugged. “I came right from work,” she explained.

Emma gave her a nod. “Working too hard, as usual.” It wasn’t an unkind comment. Just an observation. Avery offered another shrug and plucked a carrot off the veggie tray at the center of the table. The air witch was the most nonchalant person Emma knew. Everything seemed to roll off her back.

Too bad Emma couldn’t be like that – let everything go. Of course, she did her best to appear to let things go. That was her job, to be the mature, dependable one, the witch everyone could count on in their times of need. Never mind that Emma herself might ever have her own time of need.

“Okay, Fiona has the fire lit,” Gabe said, waving toward the back door. “Let’s get out there. The sooner we circle, the sooner we eat.”

The women laughed as they stepped through the back door, crossed the sun room, and descended the few steps into the backyard. For a moment, their chatter lifted Emma’s spirits. This was as it should be – five friends coming together in celebration of a special day.

But she hesitated at the bottom of the steps and glanced back at the house.

As Fiona had reminded her, Crystal used to attend the circles as well. Now Emma didn’t want her anywhere near her old friends. These women represented her own sacred space. Hers and hers alone. Crystal no longer belonged in that precious circle.

She took her place on the north side of the circle and drew in a shuddering breath. The bonfire in the center emanated a different kind of heat than the summer solstice. It was sharp and crisp, yet it charred at the edges of Emma’s focus, rather than enhancing it.

Closing her eyes, Emma tried to recite the usual words to open the circle. Words that lodged in her mouth and refused to be spoken.

Why?

Because something else was there, something that needed her to release it.

“Crystal cheated on me.”

****

They had missed Beltane and now Midsummer.

“Don’t feel guilty about it,” Gabe chided her as they sat around the table with their meals. “If anything, you’re the last person on earth who should feel guilt over a damn thing.”

“That’s right,” Waverly added, curling her arm around Emma’s shoulders and squeezing her tight. “Forget the ritual. We’ll do the next one. Right now you should just let it all out.”

It was strange hearing Waverly say that. Like Crystal, she was a water sign. Unlike Crystal, Waverly lacked control of her empathy. Emma supposed that, to an extent, she blunted her own feelings, which made it easier for people like Waverly to be around her. Or buried them entirely. So whatever she had to say about how she felt usually came out measured and carefully worded.

But not tonight. Tonight Emma’s shoulders were shaking as she poured all of her unspoken feelings – and about a gallon of salty tears – into her tissue. After a few deep breaths, she opened her mouth to speak, but the tears came once more.

“Is she going to be okay?” she heard Waverly whisper over her head.

“Oh yeah. She’ll be more than okay,” Fiona answered, shoving another tissue into Emma’s hand. “It’s about time she did this. Think about it – have we ever seen Em cry?”

Murmurs around the table told Emma that, no, they hadn’t. Of course they hadn’t. She didn’t allow herself the luxury of opening up like this in front of anyone. Not even Crystal.

No, she bit back every sniffle, tear, or word, until the bitterness of those feelings clogged her throat and there was no more room for them. Until they finally decided they had to break free.

Some earth witch she was, blubbering like a moody water sign.

“It’s… it’s not… Crystal’s…. fault,” she managed to say. With a deep breath, she fought to tame the sobs and sit upright. “It’s not Crystal’s fault,” she repeated.

“Are you trying to convince us or yourself?” Gabe asked. Since Gabe worked as a bartender, Emma knew she had encountered her share of sob stories. Tales of woe were all too common to a bartender’s ears. Gabe had honed her ability to read people and ask the hard questions.

Emma felt her nostrils flare as she clamped her lips together and tried to regain her composure. The truth was out, now. She might as well tell them everything. They wouldn’t judge her, she reminded herself. They were her friends. In a way, though, she didn’t want them to judge Crystal, either. Even if Crystal did deserve their judgment.

“Remember last year when my mother had breast cancer?” she asked softly, a small hiccup making her words come out raggedly.

“How could we forget?” Waverly asked. “You were there for her every step of the way, devoting all of your time and energy to anything she and your dad needed. Didn’t the doctor give the all-clear just this February?”

“Yes.” Emma picked up the paper napkin next to her plate and folded the corner of it over between her thumb and forefinger. “And during that time, I might have been a devoted daughter, but I was not an attentive lover. That’s when it happened, right after Valentine’s Day, which I happened to forget this year.”

She winced at the admission. What kind of person – especially one in a committed relationship, no less – forgot Valentine’s Day?

“Let me make sure we’re hearing this correctly,” Fiona said. “While your mother was dealing with things like radiation and chemo, and you were helping take care of her and your father, your girlfriend cheated on you because you forgot Valentine’s Day? That was her excuse?”

Emma nodded and felt her throat closing up on her again, a fresh torrent of tears threatening to fall. But she swallowed, pushed everything back and said, “It’s not Crystal’s fault. It’s my fault. I wasn’t there for her.”

“Pardon my language, but what the fuck?” Waverly grasped her hand, demanding Emma’s attention. “No, Emma, it’s not your fault. How could you even think that?”

“If I was a better girlfriend, I would have found the time to do something for her.”

“No. Hell no.” Emma had never seen Waverly so angry in her life. Sure, Waverly was usually an emotional mess, awkward and fretful. But angry? This was a first and Emma drew back at the expression on her friend’s face. Waverly’s brows drew together and she scowled as her hand tightened around Emma’s wrist.

“Wave,” Emma began.

“No. Don’t you ‘Wave’ me. How could you blame yourself for this? It was her decision, Em, her decision to screw around behind your back, and what a shitty, shitty time to do it. You spent months and months bringing your mother to appointments, cooking meals for her and your father, just so your dad could keep going to work every day and not have to worry about the little things in life with a sick wife and all. There is absolutely no excuse for someone to do something like that to you in that kind of situation. Why are you still with her?”

Another hand settled atop Waverly’s, this one a little paler. “You need to let her talk,” Avery said, curling her fingers around her sister’s hand and removing it from Emma’s wrist. “She has something to say. Let her say it.”

Emma looked at her and tried to smile. “Thank you, Avery. And you’re right, Waverly. I know you’re trying to validate my feelings, but I don’t even know what my feelings are right now.”

“Blaming yourself is normal,” Gabe said as she poured glasses of wine and served them around the table. “Even if you don’t deserve part or any of the blame, it’s human nature to look at how we might be culpable for our own circumstances.” She sat on the other side of Fiona and they exchanged a look Emma remembered well.

It was the kind of look she and Crystal used to give each other until real life had crashed in on them.

“Okay, so how are you going to figure out your feelings, and what are you going to do about this?” Waverly asked.

“I don’t know, but I do know this isn’t our only problem.” Emma took in a shuddering breath and looked around at the circle of familiar faces. Trusting them usually came easily, but sharing her problems was an entirely different matter. She was the person they came to with their problems. How could she turn around and dump hers on them? What kind of leader would she be if they realized she wasn’t perfect?

“Do you want to tell us what else is going on?” Avery asked.

No. “All of it is failing.”

“What do you mean?”

Emma wanted to close her eyes, to not see their expressions when she admitted the truth, but she forced herself to look at her friends as she spoke. “Everything in my life, my relationship, even my shop. It’s as if life and work are reflecting the way my relationship has come crashing down around me.”

“Well,” Fiona said after a heartbeat, “that makes sense. All of it is intertwined, after all. You live and work with Crystal, so any negativity between you two is just going to resonate in a ripple effect. Not only that but, and no offense, you hold everything inside. So that kind of frustration just builds up until it has to find a way out. It will find the path of least resistance and then destroy whatever it encounters. That’s what holding onto negativity does to us.”

Emma knew Fiona spoke from personal experience. After all, it was that kind of resentment that had worsened her father’s condition until he passed away in a drunk driving accident.

“What do you want to do about it?” Gabe asked.

It was a question typical of an analytical air witch, and Emma shook her head. “I’ve been asking myself the same thing for months now and I just don’t know. I think… I don’t know, but I think I need to do something wild.”

“Wild? You?” Waverly snorted and picked up her wine glass.

Emma ignored the attitude. She knew Waverly didn’t mean it. Mostly. “Yes, something to shake things up. I feel stuck in everything I do. I’ve never really done anything crazy. I live across the street from my parents, for goodness sake. And I’ve been with the same woman for seven years. I might as well be married.”

The word brought tears to her eyes again. They had talked about that in the past, but never quite gotten around to making a decision. Now she had an entirely different decision to make about her future, and that was whether or not she wanted to continue to share it with Crystal.

Chapter 3



Emma knelt in the garden and went through the motions of her usual morning routine. Check the plants, make sure they had enough water, ensure they were growing well and facing the right direction to get the best sunlight, give them a magickal boost, and move on to the next one.

The routine was like everything else in her life – reliable, steady, safe.

Boring.

She reached up and rubbed the back of her neck. Last night certainly hadn’t been boring, though she wanted to forget any of it happened. Now there were four other people outside of her and Crystal who knew the truth. Every word had tumbled out of her unintentionally, but she had been powerless to stop the story.

Plants, at least, weren’t complicated. They just needed the sun, water, and a little attention. Why couldn’t people be that easy?

What a fool love had turned Emma into. From being so sure of herself and how to care for others, to this mess of unfamiliar emotion. Before she knew what she was doing, Emma was sitting cross-legged on the ground and staring at the blossoms on the roses.

The roses existed on this property before Emma purchased it. At first, Crystal had been overjoyed to see them. Their petals were pure white and almost appeared to glow at night. Emma didn’t mind that they couldn’t grow much here because Crystal loved the roses so much.

But this year the roses didn’t have the same pure, fragrant blooms. They seemed to be in distress and no amount of Emma’s magick since spring had perked them up. The blossoms and leaves were droopy, as if they had just given up.

“I’m sorry,” Emma whispered, reaching out to touch one of the flowers, “but I just don’t know what else to do.” The thought that her emotional negativity was affecting the land was like a fist to the gut and she felt tears burn at her eyes again. All of this was her fault.

After a heartbeat, she heard footsteps crunching along the dirt path toward her. She wasn’t expecting anyone and she would know that energy anywhere.

Emma blinked back the unshed tears, rose to her feet, and brushed the dirt off the back of her jeans. When she turned to face Crystal, she saw that her girlfriend’s arms were folded and she was frowning.

“They aren’t getting any better, are they?” Crystal asked.

Emma looked at the girl standing before her and tried to remember how she used to feel about her. How she felt when they first met. Something.

What had drawn her to Crystal? Sure, she was beautiful, but that never mattered to Emma. She was a witch, certainly a plus. But what spark had ignited between them that made Emma decide Crystal was the one?

The fact that she couldn’t remember made her wonder if Waverly was right to question why they were still together.

“No.” Emma realized her throat was dry and tried to speak again. “No, they aren’t. I’m trying, but it’s just not working.”

“I guess I’m not surprised.” Crystal ran her fingers through her long, golden blonde hair and shrugged. “At least you tried. Maybe we just need to accept that this is the end. They’re done. Just tired of growing year after year. Things just reach the end of their natural lifecycle and we can’t do anything about it.”

The hammering of Emma’s heart inside her chest took her breath away and she closed her eyes. If she couldn’t recall why she fell in love with Crystal, why did her words hurt so much? The ground spun when she opened her eyes, so she closed them again and crouched to keep from falling over. After another breath, Emma reached forward and pressed her hands to the earth.

That grainy feeling beneath her palms helped her breathe, calmed her heartbeat, and soothed her senses. “And sometimes,” she whispered, “the life cycle reaches its end before we are ready to let it go.”

She heard Crystal scoff and scrape the sole of her shoe over the dirt path. “And sometimes there are people who are happy to just let it die off without even making an effort to see if it could thrive with the right care.”

It was the closest either of them had come to an accusation of wrong-doing on either side. Emma pushed herself to her feet and finally faced Crystal. She knew this was a long time in coming, but it was still hard to look her girlfriend in the eyes.

“I am doing everything I can, Crystal. I don’t want to let them die, but they’re done.”

“Fine. I guess roses are like animals and children. They can sense what the adults around them are thinking and feeling.”

Did Crystal blame her for the negativity? Emma bristled and clenched her fists at her side. “I’m sorry I let you down, but you’re right – we just need to accept that this is the end. Maybe it’s better this way.”

Crystal stared at her, hazel eyes wide and shimmering with tears. Emma supposed that even if she expected to hear that declaration, it still hurt. Goodness knew it hurt her to acknowledge it out loud, but there it was. Even this balmy, honeysuckle-scented day, which should have brought back memories of their wonderful summers together, couldn’t mitigate the damage they had done to one another.

“So that’s it.” Crystal’s voice trembled. “We’re really done?”

“Isn’t that what you wanted?”

During a minute that stretched into eternity, Crystal shook her head, open-mouthed. “No,” she finally said. “That’s not what I wanted. I wanted you to always love me. I know I screwed that up, but I didn’t come here to talk you into ending it. I came here to talk to you about it, to acknowledge that I did something wrong, and see if we can figure out how to let go of it.”

“How can you possibly expect me to let go of it?” Emma pressed her hands to her chest and felt her heart beating beneath them. “I’ve tried. Believe me, I’ve tried, but I can’t keep doing this. Every time I bury my feelings, they just take me under with them until I forget when it’s fine to be angry and sad, and when it’s the right time to be happy.”

Crystal’s head and shoulders drooped, and she twisted her foot back and forth, digging her heel into the dirt of the path. Then she covered the shallow divot and raised her gaze back to Emma’s. “I still want to work it out, not end it. I came here to say I think we should see a relationship counselor. Both of us need some help in this department.”

Now it was Emma’s turn to scoff. She folded her arms and shrugged. “I’m not in the habit of telling people my sob stories. You know that. Besides, I’m not sure I want to hear details about what happened. Knowing it happened is enough for me.”

“Look, Em, I love you. That hasn’t changed. Even when I was doing something stupid and hurtful, I still loved you. What’s changed is I did something I regret, because it hurt you. That’s something I never wanted to do to you.”

Then why did you do it?” It seemed like a logical question to ask, except it was the one question she still didn’t want to put out there. She could think of any number of responses Crystal might have. Because Emma was too busy for her, because Crystal couldn’t take the burden of having a close family member with cancer, because she’d needed an escape, because she’d needed Emma to drop everything and just be with her. The pendulum of blame could swing either way.

Crystal twisted her hands together in front of her and Emma could see her struggling with how to say what was on her mind. It was so confusing, she realized, because she could see both sides. She could see how it was Crystal’s fault for cheating, as well as her own fault for not being there for her. Sure, Emma had an excuse. She was caring for her mother through a difficult time, a mother she could have lost. But that didn’t mean she didn’t bear at least some responsibility for neglecting her relationship.

“All of it is failing,” Crystal pointed out with a toss of her hair. “Not just our relationship, but our business, even our roses. Fucking roses. You can’t even take care of them anymore because you’re so upset, but you won’t talk about your emotions, will you? No, you just bury them, like you bury everything else.”

“That is not the point,” Emma answered evenly.

“It’s very much the point. I should know plenty about emotions because, hello, I’m the water witch here. My life is nothing but absorbing what everyone else around me is feeling and having to shield myself from that. Meanwhile, you just trot along like everything is fine, just fine. You could be sitting in a burning room and as long as everyone else got out, you’d think it was okay. But it’s not okay, Emma. It’s not okay that you can turn a blind eye to how everyone else around you feels and just take everything as it comes without so much as batting an eyelash. Sometimes people…”

The way Crystal pressed both her hands to her chest and leaned forward, Emma wondered if she was going to fall over. But her girlfriend just blinked rapidly and shook her head.

“Sometimes people need more than that, Em. Sometimes they need more than old faithful, little miss reliable. They need passion and connection, and to know the other person shares their feelings. I strayed. Both of us know that and I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re the only two people in the world who know. You won’t even tell your friends things that matter to you. I know, because I used to be one of those friends – used to come to circles, but you’ve cut me out of them ever since. But I remember sitting there with people who used to be my friends too, wondering if you would say anything about what you were going through with your mother. And you didn’t. Not once did you complain.”

Emma lifted her chin a fraction and braced her hands on her hips. “Because complaining about something over which I had no power wouldn’t have changed it,” she answered, the words halting as if they didn’t want to be spoken. “My mother had cancer. She needed care. What good would complaining have done me?”

“A lot of good! People need to vent, Em!” Crystal held her hands in front of her and her gaze locked onto Emma’s. “People need to vent. It’s human. Our emotions are sometimes too much for us to handle and there is nothing wrong with that. Why can’t you let that be okay for you?”

“So you cheated on me because I don’t express my emotions?” Emma shrugged one shoulder and looked back at the wilting roses. “That’s a ridiculous excuse and I don’t accept it as a logical reason.”

“It’s one of many excuses if that’s what you want to call my reasons for doing something so stupid.” After another heartbeat, another moment of silence, Crystal turned and stalked back toward the house. “Fine, if you don’t want to work it out, we won’t work it out. Whatever. I can’t believe this is where we are now. I’ll start looking for a place of my own and try to get out of your hair as soon as I can.”

As soon as Crystal disappeared into the house, Emma covered her face with her hands and let out a deep breath. She couldn’t believe it, either. Not after seven years of what seemed like a pretty good thing. The idea of Crystal getting her things and leaving made her heart lurch.

Still, what could she do? Crystal had betrayed her and there was no fixing that.



Chapter 4



“S-so, the two of you are done? Just like that? But how could that be?” Waverly poured a cup of tea and slid it in front of Emma, then glanced at her sister.

“No, it’s not ‘just like that’ and you know it,” Emma answered gently, watching how the sisters exchanged looks. “I’ve given it a lot of thought and reasoned that if there is no trust between us, it’s better for us to break up.”

“That’s a very logical way to look at it.” Avery ran her hands down the front of her suit and then combed her fingers through her long blonde hair. “Well, I think you made the best choice for you, Em. Just let us know what you need from us. For now, I have to get going to work. Wave, try to remember to lock the door when you leave.”

After Avery strode out of the apartment, briefcase clutched in one hand and purse in the other, Waverly sat across from Emma at the table and sighed. “I guess it’s logical, like she says, but is it what you want?”

“What I want?” Emma narrowed her eyes and took a sip of the tea. She supposed she should have known better than to go to another water witch for commiseration. But Waverly was also the most likely to show sympathy and try to soothe her.

Because, like it or not, Emma needed that. Every single fiber of her being felt raw after last night’s confrontation. She didn’t know how things had gotten so bad, so fast. It wasn’t just the cheating that hurt – it was the fact that she was to blame for the end of her relationship.

“What I want,” Emma finally said, “is someone who doesn’t need constant attention, and then who will wander if they don’t get it.”

Waverly reached out and rubbed her arm. Emma wasn’t much for physical contact, but she knew it was as much for Waverly as herself. Out of the entire circle of friends, Waverly was the hugging type.

“I don’t think that’s the way Crystal is,” Waverly said, and then hastened to add, “Not that I’m taking sides, but I think her reasoning had nothing to do with needing constant attention.”

“What, then?” Emma asked.

“Well, you know emotions are very important to us. As water witches who feel everything around us, feelings that are positive and uplifting can really help us get through the day. You were bringing home a lot of negative juju from dealing with your mother’s cancer, and rightfully so. Crystal probably went looking for something to balance all of that out. It doesn’t justify what she did, though. She should have talked to you about what she needed.”

Emma thought about her relationship with Crystal over the years. They had never really talked about feelings or needs. She simply met Crystal one day in Ashland and…

…well, that was it. It felt right, like they were the only two people in the entire world. There was a bond between them that Emma had thought was unbreakable. At the time, it felt like everything around her had shifted and then righted again. She saw Fiona go through the same thing when she realized Gabe was the one.

But clearly, Emma had been wrong about Crystal.

“Are you saying lack of communication killed our relationship?” Emma finally asked.

“I think that’s the reason why most relationships end, yes, including yours. Then again, there are people who communicate too aggressively. At least you weren’t yelling at each other.” Waverly propped her chin on her palm and pursed her lips. “I mean, have you been yelling at each other?”

Emma scoffed, blowing out a breath. “Of course not. You know me – even-tempered all the way. I don’t yell and neither does Crystal unless she’s too frustrated to hold it in.”

“So, is she moving out?”

The teacup felt smooth between Emma’s hands and she shivered as her palms encountered the warmth. How could she feel chilly in the summer? “Yeah, she’s trying to find a place. Once she does, I’m supposed to lend her a hand with packing, but I don’t want to. It just doesn’t feel right to split up everything we’ve accumulated together. It’s not like I kept track of what belonged to whom, you know?”

“Of course.” Waverly looked around the room and then shivered visibly, as if her body had picked up on whatever made Emma do the same only a moment before. “It doesn’t feel right because it isn’t right, Em. She’s not meant to leave you. Can’t you see that?”

“Well, I never knew I was meant to disappoint her, but it happened.”

“Is that what you think – that this is somehow your fault?”

Emma didn’t answer that question. Instead, she sipped at the tea again. It was English Breakfast Tea and sweeter than she cared for, but she didn’t say so. What was an extra teaspoon or two of sugar in the grand scheme of things? There were more important matters to resolve, like how she was going to pare down her life from two people to one. Always doing everything for two. Cooking for two. She couldn’t imagine making that kind of shift.

“Okay, you can’t keep playing the stoic with me,” Waverly said, her gaze hardening. “Do you seriously think you caused this… this rift between the two of you?”

“She made it sound like I did.”

“That’s just a BS excuse on her part, then. Remember when you first got together? She adored you. She thought the sun shined out of your ass.”

That was certainly true. When they first met, Crystal had been in awe of Emma’s magickal abilities with plants. In fact, she had been incredibly cute the way she jumped up and down saying, “Show me again! Show me again!”

It wasn’t long after Crystal moved in that Emma realized the rosebush was blooming for the first time, as if it had waited, dormant until love came along to awaken it. After that, she and Crystal settled into a happy routine of working and practicing ritual together, and everything was wonderful until Emma found herself giving her mother constant care through her illness.

Day in and day out, Emma didn’t stop to take care of herself, let alone her girlfriend. Every ounce of energy was focused on ensuring her mother’s comfort, well-being, and – she hoped – recovery. It was only after her mother received an official diagnosis of being cancer-free that Emma realized there had still been a casualty of the illness: her relationship with Crystal.

“She’s right,” Emma whispered. “I do bear everything, to the point where I forget anyone else who needs me. My mother took priority in my life above everything when she got sick and I didn’t stop once to think about what I needed. Or what Crystal needed. I simply chose to step in and help my mother through the worst time of her life, because that’s how I am.”

“Is that what she said?” Although Waverly looked concerned, she also looked… relieved? Did she agree with Crystal’s assessment?

“You think she’s right,” Emma said. “You think I bury my feelings and just focus on what’s right in front of me, instead of thinking of anyone or anything else.”

Waverly had the good grace not to look away, but instead to hold Emma’s gaze and nod. “That’s how you are, the person always there when someone needs her.”

“I’m the one you can rely on.”

“Always,” Waverly agreed. “You’re that safe person, the one who will always keep promises and do what’s right and expected of her. But that also means you put on blinders and forget everything else around you. You’re so set on making things ‘right’ when it happens, that you shut the rest of us out, including Crystal. You spend so much time taking on huge responsibilities in life, that we wonder if you’ve ever considered taking a chance instead.”

“A chance on what.”

“Jeez. Anything.”

Anything.

Emma looked down into her teacup and wondered if it might tell her something. She was clairvoyant, after all, but when it came to herself, she saw nothing. Sure, she was a great one for giving other people advice about their path, but her own path? When had it become so muddled?

Her phone vibrated on the table and she flipped it over to look at the notification. “Oh darn,” she muttered.

“What is it?” Waverly rose from the table and went to the cabinet to get another teabag.

“It’s my reminder about that garden show we were supposed to go to in Arizona.”

“Garden show?” Waverly put the teabag in her cup and added hot water from the kettle on the stove. “Why were you going to that?”

“For new ideas and the workshops, but the hotel room is in Crystal’s name. So I’m sure she’s going to want to cancel. Can’t say I blame her.” Emma turned her phone screen-down again and drank the last of her tea.

Waverly sat at the table and looked at the phone, her gaze betraying her curiosity. “Where in Arizona is the show?”

“Near Sedona, of all places. She registered us for it earlier this year. Thought we might get some inspiration, you know, and then visit Sedona – check out the New Age stuff.”

“And maybe get some crystals for Crystal?”

“Ha. You’re funny.” Emma went to the trash to dispose of her teabag and then rinsed her cup in the sink. To her surprise, her hands were shaking. The more she tried to forget the garden show, something she’d been looking forward to since they booked the hotel and registered for the conference, the more her heartbeat became frighteningly erratic.

“Maybe you should still go.”

“Huh?” Emma turned and leaned back against the sink, clutching the counter behind her. “Why do you say that?”

And then the entire world went sideways as she slid to the floor. Waverly was beside her in another moment, fanning her and clucking a bit like a mother hen. “This is why – because you run yourself ragged doing everything you think you ought to do and forget how to take care of yourself and the people you love.”

“I do it…” Emma pushed herself up into a sitting position and swatted Waverly’s hand away. “I do it because I’m taking care of the people I love.”

“Yeah, but how can you take care of anyone else if you don’t take care of yourself?”

Emma scowled but didn’t say anything. How could she argue with that logic?

“What was that I just saw? An emotion? Ta da, you can feel!” Waverly hugged her so tight, Emma couldn’t breathe. But when her friend drew back, everything made sense.

“You’re right. Being the safe person – the one who fixes everything and takes care of everyone – is holding me back. But, Wave, I don’t know how to be any different. This is me.”

“I don’t think anyone is asking you to change. I just think this is a reminder that you need to get back in touch with that which gives you strength in the first place.”

Pressing her hands flat against the floor, Emma felt a surge of power. “The earth,” she said, “which allows me to stand strong for everyone else, but only if I take what I need, too.”

Waverly cocked her head to one side and smiled. “Seriously. Think about taking this road trip. It might not be too late after all.”

When Emma returned home, it was later than she expected. She walked through the house and into the garden. The moment her foot touched the path, she felt it – that something had changed.

Lifting her gaze, Emma looked across the yard at the rose bush. The way it drooped, completely wilted, brown and devoid of any color, made her wince. How could she have failed? How could even her own earth magick not save them?

With tears in her eyes, Emma turned and ran back into the house. She pulled her cell phone out of her purse and pulled up Crystal’s number. Even though Crystal was just down the street, running the shop, Emma didn’t know if she could face her just yet.

Instead, she wrote, I think we should still go to the garden expo in AZ.

It wasn’t subtle. Then again, neither were they.

A few seconds later, she got Crystal’s reply.

Road trip? One last hurrah before we bury this relationship? Let’s do it.



Chapter 5



Crystal hefted a suitcase into the back seat of the pickup truck, then turned and stepped aside for Emma. As Emma shoved hers in, she couldn’t help but feel that all of this was surreal. They were hardly speaking to each other, yet going on a road trip together to a conference they had planned to attend as part of their business growth for the year. How this would solve anything, she couldn’t even begin to guess.

Then again, Waverly hadn’t said anything about this helping her relationship. At least, not directly. At the time, it seemed like her concern was more for Emma stepping out of her comfort zone and doing something for herself. Including Crystal didn’t really make sense.

Emma was too sensible to believe a road trip would change anything between them. She knew she didn’t want Crystal to move out, but she also knew she wanted to figure out how to make them work again, like the old days. This seemed like an escape, not a solution.

Still, the idea of getting on the road, just the two of them, exerted a strange pull on her. It was an uncomfortable sensation, something in the pit of her stomach telling her this was the beginning of the end.

“I think that’s everything.” Crystal finally broke the silence, pulling Emma from her thoughts. Emma turned to look at her.

The blonde was stunning in a white off-the-shoulder top, cut-off jeans, and cowgirl boots. She leaned back against the pick-up truck looking like something out of a country music video and her sculpted eyebrows lifted as Emma appraised her.

“Do you like what you see?” she drawled, jutting her hip out just a bit more to the side. Crystal was more slender than curvy, but she certainly knew how to pose her body at a flattering angle. Briefly, Emma’s memory of the last time they had sex surfaced. It had been too long ago for them.

Damn it. Emma didn’t want to be caught looking, let alone thinking about Crystal, so she turned back to the truck and went through a mental checklist. They had their suitcases, a cooler full of drinks, and two grocery bags overflowing with road trip snacks. They couldn’t be more ready if they tried.

Except emotionally.

There was no way Emma could sit in an enclosed space with Crystal for nineteen hours and not wonder if it would be the end of their relationship. For whatever reason, Crystal agreed to stick to their original plans to go to the garden expo together. There hadn’t been much discussion about it beyond the text message. Just confirmation that they were both still willing to attend.

She said it herself – she didn’t want things to end. Right, and Emma didn’t either, but that didn’t mean this was for the best. How could two people who obviously belong together have gone so wrong? What happened to us?

Emma turned and walked to the front of the truck, looking at the tires and the windows as she did. Anything to keep her from running through a pointless list of rhetorical questions in her mind.

They didn’t have any pets to worry about. Emma had already asked her friends to take turns checking in on her mom and dad, just to make sure they were doing okay with her gone. As for the store, she hated closing it for a whole week. But she also hated leaving it open with her out of town. No one knew the business better than herself and Crystal.

However, she trusted Fiona to handle things while she was gone. The store would only be open for limited hours during that time and Fiona could call her with any questions. After a crash course in retail, Fiona wasn’t ready to handle everything on her own, so Emma was glad Gabe would be there too. Gabe was really the better choice to substitute in at the shop, but she already worked four nights a week. Still, between the both of them, Emma knew they could handle it. It was only for a week.

Things can’t get much worse anyway.

“I’m sorry?”

Emma turned to Crystal. “What?”

“Did you just say things can’t get much worse?” Crystal’s smile faltered and she stared at Emma with wide eyes.

Oops. With a wave of her hand, Emma said, “I guess I did. If that’s everything, we can lock the door and go.” She knew she sounded dismissive, even a bit bitchy, but she hated it when her emotions decided to join the party.

She liked to leave the whole heart-on-the-sleeve schtick to Fiona and Waverly. Emma was supposed to be better than that. Calm, steadfast, and predictable, like the earth itself.

Emma watched as Crystal shrugged, climbed up into the passenger side of the pick-up truck, and leaned back in the seat. Hiding her scowl, Emma turned to the house and locked the door. Waverly already had the key and would handle checking on the garden. All their bases were covered.

When she turned back to face the truck, her legs felt heavy and her feet dragged a bit as she approached the vehicle. Nineteen hours on the road with Crystal there, nineteen hours on the road with Crystal back. Thirty-eight hours in an enclosed space with her. Even though Emma couldn’t foresee her own future, she imagined the trip ending with Crystal running off to the airport just to get away from the tension. What was the point of even making the drive?

Stop worrying about whether not something is worth it and just follow your heart.”

It was her mother’s voice, her mother’s words echoing in her mind. When her mother chastised her, it was usually to remind her that she was human and allowed to have all the failings of one. Emma bit her lower lip. As much as she wanted to tell the memory to piss off, she didn’t have the heart. After all, she had nearly lost her mother, the woman who taught her everything she knew about earth magick. Emma wouldn’t dare disrespect the woman who passed on all of her knowledge of the family tradition of witchcraft to her.

If anything, Emma wanted to be like her mother – calm, steady, and wise. Well, she had certainly failed in that. All those messy emotions she could no longer hold inside…

She pulled herself up into the driver’s seat and shut the door. At least it was a gorgeous day – only in the seventies and enough clouds to keep the sun from baking them as they drove. Emma navigated onto the highway with Crystal’s help. They had both agreed on not using a GPS or cell phones to get to their destination.

“We need to make this an old-fashioned road trip,” Crystal had told her. “That means using maps and middle-of-nowhere rest areas. No research, no planning.”

Emma didn’t mind too much. If it had been Avery, she would have given a lecture on the importance of planning and laid out in detail exactly how their trip would go. From the fastest route to the best places for rest stops, Avery would have everything planned to ensure maximum efficiency.

That was why Emma didn’t exactly get along with air signs. Oh, they were lovely people. She admired their intellect and logic, and how they put reason before emotion. But life could be unpredictable. Even the best-laid plans might go awry, and Emma would rather have a stable foundation than plan her every move. That way, she had a secure place to return to when things went wrong. Whether it was family, home, or a significant other, having that solid footing meant she could always go back to it when shake-ups occurred.

Almost as soon as they were on the highway, Crystal twisted in her seat and reached for a snack. “Do you want one?” she asked, waving the bag of trail mix next to Emma’s head.

“Already?” Emma blinked and tried to remember the first interchange or exit they were supposed to take. “We have over eighteen and a half hours of driving ahead of us, and you’re already digging into the snacks?”

“Sure. We had breakfast two hours ago.” Without another word, Crystal unbuckled her seatbelt, turned, and leaned between the seats to open the cooler.

“That’s not safe.”

Crystal chuckled as she pulled a can of soda out of the cooler, shut it, and buckled herself back into the seat. “No worries. Really, Em, if something was going to happen, you would tell me.”


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