Bared Magic (Woodland Curses Book 1)
© November 2021
A Goldilocks-inspired fantasy romance with just a hint of spice.
The girl with the golden hair…
Siphons are rare creatures, supposedly born of the union of human and fae blood. How she got her ability doesn’t much matter to Wynne; all she knows is it’s a death sentence or worse if the wrong people find out about her gift. It’s too bad she was never very good at minding her own business.
… and the bear who stole her heart
An old curse grows stronger, leaving Callum Bertram sleepless and desperate. He thinks he’s found a temporary solution until a pretty young woman accidentally uses up his sleeping charm. Now, this werebear suddenly finds himself craving something more than a good night’s sleep.
In which Goldilocks discovers a bed that is “just right.”
THE COTTAGE WAS TUCKED SO far back in the woods that she almost missed it. A cheeky ray of sun dared to pierce the thick canopy, bathing the structure’s thatched roof in a wash of inviting, golden light. In that moment, it seemed a sign from the heavens. Wynne veered off the trail, her feet pounding a mad rhythm as she dove through the underbrush. Her hand was just brushing the handle when the sound of her pursuers came crashing down the narrow forest path. She muttered a prayer and pushed on the door.
To Wynne’s immense surprise, the door swung inward with ease. She darted inside and drove the bolt home. Then she pressed her back to the door and listened. At first, it was hard to hear anything over the pounding of her own heart and ragged breaths. She forced herself to take long, slow pulls of air until some of the tension seeped out of her.
“Think the witch went inside?”
All the tension snapped back into her muscles, and Wynne stiffened against the door. She wondered how much protection the stout oak with its iron hinges and its flimsy latch would truly offer. She held her breath as the door suddenly pressed into her back before rattling back on its hinges.
“Door’s latched,” the same voice said, much quieter this time. Wynne could picture the thug’s cruel leer with its yellowed, crooked teeth. He was missing some, if she remembered correctly. Reminders of more than a few barroom brawls. She could almost imagine his ale-soaked breath on her neck as he added, “And I don’t see no keyhole.”
Wynne’s eyes darted around the room, taking it in for the first time. Some spare amount of sunlight filtered in through the gaps in the shutters, which—she noted with some relief—were latched from the inside. In front of her, to the right, was a round dining table with three stout chairs. Beyond that, in the gloom, she could make out an iron stove and shelving that spoke of cooking and herb work.
The wall to the left featured a quaint hearth of river stones with a roughly hewn mantle. Three stools with tripod legs were scattered about a thick rug before the fireplace. There was what looked like fishing gear piled in one corner while a curio cabinet filled the other.
Directly opposite where Wynne stood was a doorway. A woven tapestry featuring a hunting scene blocked the room beyond from view.
“Go check around back,” the thug’s muffled voice whispered to his companion. “There might be a door.”
Panic flooded Wynne’s veins. She forced herself to move towards the tapestry that hid the back of the house. What if there was another door? What if there were open windows?
The room beyond was as dark as the front, perhaps darker. The shutters here were better fitted to the windows. Wynne waited for her eyes to adjust to the gloom. Three large shapes that might have been beds were backed up against the far wall, which thankfully did not appear to have a door.
Wynne’s ears tracked the sounds of the other man creeping around the back of the house. He was quieter than the thug who had tried to grab her at the tavern. His image wasn’t as clear in her mind, but Wynne remembered a vague impression of a weasel. When the small noises of his exploration started back around to the front, Wynne crept back to the door to listen.
“No door. Windows are shut tight, too.” His voice was raspy, like he hadn’t had a drink in a week. “Either she’s in there, or the inhabitants are taking a nice nap.”
“You go back there in case she tries to sneak out a window,” her would-be captor ordered. “I’ll break down the door and drag her out.”
“Are you insane?” his companion hissed. “Do you know who this cottage belongs to? They find out we broke in, and you won’t have to worry about what the chit stole because you’ll be worm food in a shallow forest grave.”
If her heart wasn’t already in her throat, Wynne would have choked on it. Who was the owner of this cottage that they could terrify murderous malefactors like these? Was she jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire?
A guttural curse was followed by fading footsteps. Wynne didn’t believe for a second that they were giving up. She crept to a window. The crack between the shutters and the sill was just big enough to peer out. Both men were visible, standing several yards away and conversing quietly. Periodically, one of them would glance up at the cottage. Finally, they separated, each finding a tree and sitting down with his back to it, eyes glued to the cottage.
The curse escaped with her exhale, and Wynne jerked away from the window. Clearly, they were willing to wait for her or the return of the cottage’s mysterious owners—whichever came strolling into the clearing first.
Wynne crept to the kitchen and examined the contents of the shelves. Perhaps she could learn something about her unwitting benefactors. Maybe she’d get lucky, and the owners of the cottage would forgive her trespassing under the circumstances. It could be that they even had a soft spot for desperate young women. After all, tucked away in the woods like this, the cottage could very well belong to a couple of capable hedge witches. Real hedge witches, the kind with the power to turn those sick bastards outside into frogs.
Nothing on the shelf indicated that anyone more interesting than a talented apothecary was in residence. Ordinary kitchen staples took up most of the space. A bag of flour branded with the mark of the local mill slumped against the wall. Another bag with the same branding proved to be filled with potatoes.
As her terror gave way to curiosity, Wynne noticed a familiar aroma wafting through the whole cottage. Her nose led her to a pot resting on the iron stove. A thick leather mitt lined with quilted fabric sat on the shelf closest to the stove. Wynne slipped it on and lifted the heavy lid from the pot. An initial gust of steam made her recoil, then lean in, breathing deep—venison stew.
Her stomach grumbled.
“In for a penny, in for a pound,” she muttered, setting the lid aside. She whipped off the mitt and turned back to the shelves to see what crockery was available. Three distinct sets of earthenware dishes, each glazed in a different color, sat in a neat row. Each set had a large plate, a bowl, and a mug stacked in that order. A set of cutlery poked out of each mug. Wynne took the bowl and spoon from the stack with a rich forest green glaze.
She took her pilfered meal to the bedroom. Somehow she didn’t think she’d want to be sitting at the table bold as you please eating her unsuspecting hosts’ dinner when they walked in. At least back here, she’d have a chance at hiding the evidence until they agreed to hear her out.
If they agreed to hear her out.
Wynne used one hand to guide her way along the bedroom wall while the other, swaddled in the oven mitt, cradled the piping hot bowl. She felt her way to the furthest bed to the left. It was hard to tell with almost no light, but Wynne thought the bed was a bit wider and longer than a single cot. It was certainly taller. Her hand sunk into the mattress. Featherbed. What an odd luxury to find in a cottage in the middle of the woods.
As soon as she sat down, a strange weariness sank into her like a weight, pinning her in place. Her eyes dropped immediately to half-mast. The bowl in her hands seemed unbearably heavy.
“Maybe I should just…” The thought was cut off by a yawn, and Wynne found herself falling sideways. Her head hit the goose-down pillow at the same time the bowl hit the floor. She should clean that up. She should…