Eighteen Years Ago
FROM UNDER THE brim of a large straw hat, Melanie Trask glanced at her sister, Marlee, who tackled the weeds in their flower beds like they were vermin that might attack the house at any moment. Mar might not be interested in botany, but she did her part to keep their supply of witch’s herbs healthy and flourishing.
“Tammy Jo, put your hat back on,” Marlee said without looking up.
“Momma, I’m doing something,” the little girl said, apparently oblivious to the blistering effects of the bright Texas sun, which was already blazing at nine in the morning.
“You can twirl around with your hat on,” Marlee said.
“No, what I’m doing is giving the sun a chance to paint me some freckles so I’ll be like a real redhead.”
Melanie cocked her head. Tammy Jo’s hair was the same flame-colored shade both she and Marlee had been born with. But Tammy Jo’s tan skin was something neither of them could claim. They always burned and freckled if they weren’t compulsive about hats and sunblock. It was a constant battle against nature to use creams to fade the light smattering of freckles, since freckles had never been “the thing” when they’d been growing up in England. When referring to red hair, ginger was a term applied with mild distaste or outright mocking.
“You don’t freckle, my darling,” Edie the family ghost said when she appeared. Their great-aunt Edie, who’d died in the 1920s, wore a dress with a sparkling Art Deco pattern and at least a foot of fringe on the bottom. Edie smiled when Tammy Jo clapped her hands and waved in excitement at her arrival. “Your skin goes from ivory to gold like Midas himself touched you.”
“Hi, Aunt Edie! Look what I can do!” Tammy Jo said. She twirled with her arms overhead and then bolted to the ash tree and shimmied up its trunk. She hung upside down from a branch.
“Careful!” Mel said, rising.
“The twirl was nice, biscuit, but what are you playing at now? Monkey life?” Edie asked.
Tammy Jo giggled, letting her arms dangle beside her hair. “Kiss it,” she said.
Melanie bent over and gave Tammy’s upside-down lips a kiss, then reached out to lift her down from the branch.
Before she caught her, however, Tammy Jo had released the limb. Melanie gasped and lunged to break her fall, but Tammy Jo flipped in midair to land in the dirt in a crouch, like a tiny wildcat.
“Ta-da!” she said, throwing her arms out.
“Oh, my God! Mar, did you see that?” Mel asked.
Marlee glanced at Tammy Jo and then at Melanie and gave a small nod.
“Who taught you to do that? You shouldn’t be flipping out of trees without someone to spot you,” Melanie said.
“She’s okay,” Marlee murmured.
Melanie raised a brow. Both she and Marlee were extremely protective of Tammy Jo. Marlee had been excessively worried about the child being abducted from the time she’d been born. Paranoid was the word Edie often used to describe Marlee’s constant concern.
“Aunt Mel, your kiss tasted like watermelon lip gloss. Do you got it in your pocket? Can I have me some of that for my lips?” Tammy Jo puckered her pink lips. She was so cute with her impish face and quirky mannerisms.
“It’s not ‘do you got it.’ It’s ‘do you have it,’” Melanie corrected. They might be raising the little girl in a small East Texas town, but she’d learn to speak the Queen’s English properly if Melanie had her way. “And you tasted like chocolate. Did you get into the Hershey’s Kisses? How did you find them? Were you spying on me when I hid the bag?”
Tammy Jo looked away guiltily and then charged into distraction tactics. “Um, you know what? You didn’t hear me right. I wasn’t asking for a kiss. I said Kissit ’cause I was telling you my faery name.”
Melanie froze. “Your what?”
“My name from the faeries. It’s how come I can flip so good. I learned it in fairyland. The trees taughted me. And know what else? Our trees like the new garden, but they don’t think you gotta be so mean about the little weeds. Those plants got a right to live, too.”
Melanie’s jaw dropped; then she jerked her head to look at Marlee and Edie.
“I told you this town has all the signs of fae infestation,” Edie said. “But you wouldn’t listen. Faeries love boisterous children. And our little girl runs and dances from sunrise to sunset.”
“Where did you see faeries, Tammy Jo? What did they say to you?” Melanie demanded.
“Um, I see them lots.”
“But you know that when you see a faery you’re supposed to pretend you don’t. Remember? Because faeries sometimes steal children,” Mel said.
“Yep, when I see them around town I pretend they’re not even there. Just like the game Momma plays when that Boone who wants to kiss her tries to talk to her in the grocery store and she acts like he’s not there.”
Edie snorted and then said, “They fall at Melanie’s feet and she scoops up the good-looking ones. When they fall at Marlee’s feet, she leaves them there.”
Marlee rolled her eyes at Edie and then looked at Tammy Jo. “If you haven’t talked to any of the faeries, why did they give you a nickname?” Marlee asked.
“Oh, that’s not from here. That’s my name from when I lived with the faeries. When I was real little.”
Marlee’s brows pinched together.
“You never lived with any faeries, honey. You’ve been with us the whole time,” Mel said.
Tammy Jo cocked her head. “Well, I lived there a few times in some dreams I had. That’s when I got a special name. But in the faery town, I don’t got no momma or aunties. I just live by myself with a big man who makes metal suits and horseshoes. Only he makes me nervous on account of he forgot how to smile.”
Mel’s stomach knotted. Were they just random dreams? Or had Tammy Jo’s consciousness actually traveled underhill? Had she perhaps crossed a fae path in bare feet and carried away its magic? Could it be clinging to her even now? “We should move,” Melanie said to Marlee.
“Move?” Tammy Jo cried. “We can’t move! I just got a real good kindergarten class!”
“We’re not moving,” Marlee said. “We’ll brew her a tea to suppress astral projection in case that’s what the dreams were. And we can give her some added protection against faeries. We’ll soak her and her clothes in a bath of oatmeal, Saint-John’s-wort, and four-leaf clovers.”
Melanie frowned. If her sister thought Tammy Jo needed triple protection against faeries, Marlee was worried, too.
“Mar,” Melanie said, her voice full of concern.
“Listen, Tammy Jo won’t be able to see them for much longer. Another year at most,” Marlee said, but Mel noticed the slight shift of Mar’s eyes. Did she believe that wholeheartedly? Or was she just trying to make Mel feel better?
“But this did turn out to be fae territory! We’re witches. We shouldn’t be living in the middle of a town with such a strong fae presence,” Melanie said. “Why were you so set on moving here? And staying here? It’s never made sense.”
“She’s been keeping a secret,” Edie said. “Haven’t you, Marlee?”
“The trees can hear. And so can little ears,” Marlee said. “We’ll talk about it later.”
“But we’re not moving, right?” Tammy Jo asked.
“No,” Mar said firmly. Melanie scowled.
“Hooray! It’s real hot. I’ll help,” Tammy Jo said, grabbing the hose and unspooling it.
The summer heat baked the ground, and Tammy Jo haphazardly watered the plants.
“You don’t have to water the stones,” Marlee said. “Rocks don’t get thirsty.”
“We like to hear the sizzle,” Tammy Jo said, glancing at the tree. “And it cools the dirt, too.”
“Dirt doesn’t need cooling,” Melanie said.
“The ground likes it,” Tammy countered, a twinkle in her eyes.
“Such unusual eyes. Most McKenna witches have green eyes. All three of us do,” Edie said. “Tammy’s eyes are hazel brown and golden. Like those of a great cat. Are you a little lioness?”
Tammy Jo roared.
“Tammy Jo, where are your garden clogs? Your feet are all dirty,” Mel said.
Tammy’s small feet sank into the muddy ground and she giggled. “My toes like it.”
The laughter was another giveaway, Melanie thought, of the truth they’d suspected, but that Marlee wouldn’t confirm. Even before the child started hearing the wind whisper and the brooks babble, Tammy’s laughter sometimes sounded like wind chimes, musical and pretty, and vaguely unnatural. It sent an electric shock down Melanie’s spine.
“Look at the mess you’re making. You’re dragging the hose right through the mud and getting it all over the cobbles. Hang that up, rinse your feet, and go inside. Edie will have a tea party with you,” Marlee said.
Edie pursed her phantom lips. She hated tea. Of course, as a ghost she wouldn’t actually be drinking it, but on principal she was disinclined to have tea parties. Tea reminded her of their time in England—the worst time in Edie’s life or afterlife, which was saying something, since her life in her father’s house had been no lollapalooza.
“Wanna have a tea party?” Tammy Jo asked, looking up at Edie hopefully.
A branch swayed toward the child, as if beckoning her closer. Edie narrowed her eyes jealously at the old ash tree.
“Yes, let’s go inside,” Edie said. Marlee had never said so, but Edie was certain Tammy Jo was half Seelie fae, likely the child of a warrior, from the hints Marlee had let slip about Tammy’s father. It was the only explanation for why Marlee wanted to live in Texas on top of an underhill Unseelie stronghold. Duvall was the one place into which the Seelie wouldn’t wander and discover Tammy Jo and recognize her as one of their own.
One of their own! Edie’s great-great-niece, a half fae! Edie’s lips curled in distaste. She almost couldn’t bear the thought, but when she looked at the child she felt nothing but love for her. Tammy Jo’s strange pointed features and vivacious urchin ways were appallingly irresistible.
She’s ours. She’s a McKenna witch, Edie thought savagely. I won’t share her with anyone, let alone the Folk. Not that the fae would’ve been willing to share either. If they had known that a Halfling creature born of one of their knights lived with humans, they would have stolen her away. The Folk loved children and their juicy humanity. They also hated witches. How delicious would they find the theft of a bouncy little redheaded witch? Exceedingly so, Edie suspected. Oh, yes, the court would try to take her . . . if they knew.
Edie floated toward the sliding door with one last suspicious look at the ash tree. That tree may know, she thought bitterly.
None of them could understand treespeak. Only the fae and some young children could understand the oldest language of the Earth. Tammy Jo, who was both a faery and a child, heard the trees whisper. If Melanie and Marlee couldn’t suppress Tammy Jo’s fae abilities, Edie would convince the girls to burn the ash tree down.
Edie glanced over at Tammy’s dirt- and chocolate-smudged little face and the small hands that hung the hose on its hook and then began braiding a vibrant green vine through her flame-colored locks.
“Tammy Jo, take that dirty weed out of your hair,” Edie commanded. “Come and wash up. We’re going to have a great party.”
“With tea and red velvet cake?” Tammy Jo asked excitedly. “I love red velvet cake!”
“And I love carrot cake. And chocolate cake. And vanilla cake. And pancakes with syrup and biscuits with honey . . .”
“Yes, you love sweets.” Just like the fae. “Let’s go inside,” Edie repeated, and then lowered her voice to a whisper. “I know where the extra frosting is hidden.”
Tammy Jo beamed, her perfect white teeth offset by rose-petal lips.
“And you and I will throw a real party,” Edie added.
Tammy Jo clapped her hands excitedly, her golden brown eyes sparkling, and Edie couldn’t help but smile. The child really was as sweet as the ghastly cakes she favored so much.
* * *
THE BEADS KEPT dangling over Tammy Jo’s eyes, which made her laugh. In fact, she was giggling so hard the table shook. Aunt Edie laughed, too, and motioned for Tammy Jo to fix the strap of her dress that had fallen off her shoulder again. It was a lady’s dress and much too big for her, but it sure was beautiful with its green and gold beads.
“I wore that dress to a party given by Tallulah Bankhead. A really wild affair. Do you know what she wore?”
Tammy Jo shook her head eagerly. She loved it when Aunt Edie smiled and laughed and told stories. Her stories were like faery tales, because everyone wore sparkly shoes and dresses, like Cinderella. Only the people in Aunt Edie’s stories didn’t end their parties at midnight. They ended only when the police came.
Folks in Duvall, Texas, Tammy Jo’s hometown, never wore beaded headbands or made one curl lie flat to their cheek like a little vine pointing up to the sky. And they sure didn’t live in buildings that scraped the sky. She wondered if the clouds got mad about all that scraping in New York City. The trees in Duvall sure got mad about the cement sidewalks blocking their roots.
“I’ll have another,” Edie said, tipping her fancy phantom glass toward Tammy Jo. Tammy pretended to pour some liquid into Edie’s glass and then did pour a little more into the Velveteen Rabbit’s glass and Winnie the Pooh’s. Pooh was having so much fun, he kept falling out of his yellow chair.
Tammy Jo sat him upright again and adjusted his bow tie and the black jacket she’d borrowed from Momma’s business suit. Momma didn’t work for the bank anymore, so Tammy Jo didn’t think it mattered that a little cranberry juice had gotten on it. Edie hadn’t scolded her when she’d dripped, so it must be okay.
“Tallulah wore a double strand of pearls, a pair of high heels, and nothing else.”
Tammy Jo choked a little. “Nudie Rudy?”
Tammy Jo slapped a bejeweled hand over her mouth and giggled like mad. “You’re fibbing!”
“No. Flappers liked to be scandalous. We didn’t let anyone tell us what to do. There was power in doing whatever we wanted. Especially in coming down a grand staircase naked. Everyone stopped to watch. No one spoke. No one breathed.”
“They were so surprised, I bet. One time Georgia Sue’s brother ran into the living room naked. Our dolls were dancing, and they fell right over when he came out. They were that surprised. But then we laughed, ’cause he doesn’t know better. He’s two. But I guess your friend probably knew better.”
“And she wasn’t shy? Or afraid she’d get in trouble? At my school, if you don’t wear clothes, they send you home and you don’t get cookies.”
“Tallulah got plenty of cookies.”
“And nobody yelled at her or covered her up?”
“No, it was a different time.”
“But I thought you said there was snow and ice by your house. If she was naked except for necklaces and shoes, wasn’t she real cold? You said you wore fur coats over your dresses because of all that cold stuff. How could anybody go naked?”
“I imagine the gin warmed her up.”
“The gin?” Tammy Jo echoed, chewing on her lip, which tasted funny on account of the bright red lipstick she’d applied. Tammy dipped a finger into Rabbit’s glass. It was plenty cold. She gave Edie a skeptical look that made Edie laugh.
“It only works if you drink it,” Aunt Edie said. “That’s part of the magic.”
Tammy Jo grabbed the glass and gulped it down and decided Aunt Edie was right about that warming-up effect, because it burned her throat. She exhaled, surprised that no flames came out.
Edie laughed, but shook her head. “You shouldn’t have done that. You’ll get us both in trouble.”
“I don’t care,” Tammy Jo announced. “I’m Talulli Bankle. Let’s do that dance again.” Tammy Jo jumped up and started the old record player. The record was scratchy, but she liked the songs on it anyway.
She shimmied and knocked her knees together so the dress’s beads and fringe danced, too.
Then the door opened, and Momma and Aunt Mel peered in.
“What are you listening to?” Aunt Melanie asked.
“What are you wearing?” Momma asked.
“What are you doing?” Momma and Aunt Mel asked at the same time.
Tammy Jo giggled uproariously. She laughed so hard she spun sideways and tripped over the bottom of the dress and fell onto a pile of pillows and stuffed toys.
“Tamara Josephine! Are those bottles from the liquor cabinet?” Momma asked.
Tammy Jo laughed harder, but then Aunt Melanie turned off the record player and Tammy Jo remembered that she was supposed to be the hostess.
She bolted up and returned to her position at the head of the table. “Welcome to my cocktail party, Momma, Aunt Melanie. Won’t you sit down?”
They stared at her. The beaded headband sank forward, half covering her eyes like a blindfold. Tammy Jo shoved the headband up with determined fingers.
“A cocktail party? Edie, a cocktail party?” Momma demanded.
“That’s right,” Tammy Jo said, motioning to the bottles and empty juice boxes. “I’m a singular sensation, Momma. Nobody in town throws a decent cocktail party. This is the best one of the year. Aunt Mel, would you like a sidecar?”
“Oh, my God. A drunk flapper at five? That’s the best alternative to gardening you could come up with?” Momma asked Aunt Edie.
Edie flashed a smile and sipped from her martini glass. “I have to go now, precious,” Edie said, blowing Tammy Jo a kiss. “You were marvelous. Don’t believe anything different.”
Tammy Jo waved. “If you see Tabulli, tell her I said hi. And if she’s naked and cold, loan her a coat!”
Edie disappeared, and Tammy smiled up at her momma and aunt Melanie. They were so pretty with their swirly magic and bouncy hair.
“If you don’t like sidecars, Momma, I can make you a martini.”
IF I INVITED a Hatfield to dinner, I wouldn’t invite a McCoy. It’s not something that most books on entertaining really talk much about, but it’s common sense. Besides the basic gunfire and bloodshed that can result from having sworn enemies over to the house at the same time, there is also the problem that they’ll be distracted by the company and won’t be able to really appreciate what’s being served. And if there is one thing that I care about, it’s that people take the time to enjoy food prepared in my kitchen.
In small towns, there are always feuds. Sometimes long-standing and bitter ones. I try not to take sides, and I definitely try not to get in the middle of them by inviting the warring people to my house on the same night. But my current houseguests weren’t neighbors or friends. They were a fae knight and a half-fae, half-witch girl. The Halfling girl was just like me . . . because she was the long-lost twin sister I hadn’t even known I had!
Getting a twin for a Christmas present should’ve been cause for celebration, but there was a catch to my sister Kismet’s arrival: She was being hunted. And if we didn’t agree to go home to the Never, the knight who’d been hunting her said that our momma would be killed. I’d never been on an overseas vacation. I’d have been excited to go if there hadn’t been the risk of imprisonment and death. To think, I’d once thought expensive plane tickets were the biggest obstacle to my traveling the world!
I glanced at the oven timer. Only three minutes before the biscuits would be ready. Kismet had asked if I knew how to make biscuits from scratch, which tickled me. My specialty is pastries, but I can cook pretty much anything. I’d been making biscuits since I was about seven years old. At twenty-three, I could make them without measuring the ingredients. I just shook and poured the items into a bowl and could tell by the color and texture as I stirred when the batter was right.
“I’ll have another blended,” Crux the Seelie knight said, his breath against the back of my neck.
I jumped, gooseflesh rising. I pointed a butter knife in his direction. “Don’t sneak up on me.”
He smirked. “It’s impossible not to. You are completely unaware of your surroundings.”
“I’m making strawberry compote and whipped cream for my sister’s biscuits.”
“That sounds good. I’ll have biscuits, too.”
“You had cake, pie, and an entire blender full of brandy Alexander ice-cream drinks. Now you want biscuits?” I asked skeptically.
“Don’t forget the chocolate. I had six of those,” he said.
Right, he’d eaten an entire tin of liquor-infused dark-chocolate truffles of the bourbon, coconut rum, and Frangelico varieties. I looked him over. He was tall, lean, and golden hued. There was no excess fat, only taut muscle and high cheekbones. He could have been a model in a fashion magazine. But I knew better than to let his nice looks distract me. He could be cunning and violent. He and I had had a couple of fights already, but since he wasn’t holding that against me I was trying not to hold it against him either.
Kismet’s reaction to Crux made me extra leery of him, though. She eyed him like he was a raptor who might move in a blur of speed at any moment to attack us. It had me on edge. But so far I couldn’t think of a way to get rid of him. Also, if I did go to the land of the faeries I would need every ally I could get. So I hoped to win him over, which is why I said, “But if you’re still hungry, you can have biscuits, too.”
“And another blended?”
I had to smile at his calling the drinks “blendeds” instead of by their name, which I’d told him several times.
“Yes, sure,” I said, dragging the blender to me.
He smiled. “Offer to bake for her first thing. She’ll be intrigued, and when she tastes your sweets, you’ll have value.”
I peered closely at his face, which glowed more than usual. From the alcohol? I wondered. Were the fae susceptible to drunkenness? That would be useful to know.
“You mean the queen? I should offer to make pastries and candy for the Seelie queen?”
“Yes. The more value you bring underhill, the less likely she’ll be to punish you if you make a mistake while there.”
He talked like it was a sure thing that I’d be going to meet his queen, even though I’d told him that, being American, I don’t recognize the authority of kings and queens, especially ones who aren’t even part of my normal world.
I chewed the corner of my mouth. The trouble was that the queen had special leverage. Unfortunately, when Crux had announced that the fae monarch would execute momma if we didn’t go underhill, my new sister had shrugged it off. She had escaped the Never and didn’t intend to go back. That was one of the reasons I wasn’t trying to kick Crux out of my house. I might need him to lead me into the Never. Of course if given a choice, I would much rather have had my sister’s help.
I went out to the backyard. The bespelled bluebells that sounded an alarm when the fae were nearby rang, but not loudly. I looked around, then up. The light through the kitchen windows shone on the branches of the ash tree. My sister reclined on a tree limb with her back against the trunk.
“Hello. Are the biscuits ready then?” she asked in her lilting Irish accent.
“Just about,” I said.
“You’re an apple darling for making them,” she said with a musical little laugh, and then rolled off the branch, flipping in the air to land on her feet in a crouch . . . like an acrobat. Or an ocelot. My feline companion and friend Mercutio made those kinds of moves.
I had a flash of memory . . . me as a little girl flipping from the tree in exactly the same way. Aunt Mel’s surprised face. Kissit, I’d said. Kismet, I’d meant. I shivered.
“What’s surprised you?” Kismet asked, rising from the crouch in a fluid movement, as if her spine were made of rubber and silk. Crux had that same grace.
“It’s the way you have for getting down from a tree. People can’t really do that . . . most can’t. I think when I was little I could. I think . . . I felt you. Like we shared a connection back then where I could see through your eyes and learned things from you when you did them. The way I’ve been able to see and feel you lately.”
When she passed by me, her pinkie caught mine and curled around it. My own pinkie curled too without my even thinking about it. Clasping her finger was like shaking hands or hugging: When the other person does it, you just automatically do it back.
For a couple months I’d had the feeling something was missing—until Kismet arrived. When her pinkie linked mine now, I felt like a missing piece of my soul returned to me. Joy rippled through my whole body, making me want to laugh and dance. Since I didn’t want to startle Kismet, I just grinned at her.
She returned my smile and winked. “I’ll teach you for real,” she said. “To climb trees and to flip out of ’em and how to get them to lower a branch to swing you up. In return, you teach me to make biscuits and cakes.”
I didn’t hear Crux approach, but I knew he was behind me by the change in her expression. The sunshine of her smile disappeared. Her head didn’t turn. Only her eyes moved, and they were a cool, deadly green. She might look like me, but in the moments when she faced Crux, she reminded me of Mercutio, a natural-born hunter who would fight whatever needed fighting, no matter how big or how deadly. My sister was not intimidated by the famous Seelie knight, but she was wary of him. She moved between us, shielding me from him.
“You’d best go,” she said to him in a low voice. “I won’t be taken back alive. And you know that to kill me is no easy thing.”
“Of course I do.” He smiled at her over the top of his glass.
“I don’t think she’s kidding about being ready to have an all-out fight. My cat gets that exact same look, and when it comes to fighting, Merc doesn’t play,” I said, letting go of Kismet’s pinkie so I could turn to face Crux.
“I remember,” Crux said before he chugged the last of his shake.
“That’s right. Mercutio took a bite out of your neck that one time.”
“It’s a wonder he didn’t retch his stomach out at the taste,” Kismet said with a little smirk.
Crux’s smile never faltered. “I don’t know why you say it’s a wonder. You’ve tasted my blood. It didn’t make you sick.”
Her smile faded till it was gone. “I may yet, you know.” She paused. “Kill you.”
He shrugged. To me, he said, “If she planned to kill me, she’d have done it.”
“I can change my mind. Free will,” she said.
His smile finally disappeared. “You’d have to answer for it. You’re Seelie fae. Inside the Never and out of it.”
Kismet replied, “I don’t bow to the queen’s will anymore. And never shall again.”
He sighed. “You’re born of the blood. She’ll always be your queen.”
The oven timer rang. “Come on,” I said. “Don’t argue.”
“My sister’s a peacekeeper. She cares for people. Be glad her goodwill leaks all over me when I’m around her, or I might have challenged you to a death match.”
She’d said it so casually, it was kind of unreal. I blinked, then swallowed.
“Um, well, death matches are illegal in the state of Texas, which is where we’re standing. In fact, fighting to the death is illegal all over the United States. Canada, too, and probably Mexico. In the Old West, there were gunfights in the streets to settle disagreements and all, but that hasn’t been allowed for a long time. At least a hundred years.”
Crux cocked a brow. “A hundred years is a long time?”
“Yep. In human years that’s a real long time. So c’mon. The biscuits are done. And everything will seem better with a belly full of biscuits.”
Most times an announcement like that would be met with skeptical chuckles from people, but these two just turned and went inside, like they understood the truth about the fortifying power of biscuits. I frowned. There were moments when I felt my own Seelie roots.
I’d been raised by witches and hadn’t known I was half fae until a couple months earlier. Momma, Aunt Mel, and my double-great-aunt Edie had all kept my magical mixed race a total secret, even from me, because the World Association of Magic was against the fae in every way.
It was possible that the Association would lock me up or kill me if they found out I’d used fae magic on occasion. It wouldn’t even matter to them that I hadn’t meant to or tried to. In some ways, that would make it worse. I had powers that I couldn’t control and that they wouldn’t be able to control either. They wouldn’t like that. And when they didn’t like something . . . well, they weren’t nice about how they dealt with problems, or witches who caused them.
Inside, the house smelled like melted chocolate and spiced vanilla with just a faint note of pine needles from the tree. After putting the biscuits and fixings on the table, I raised the volume on the country Christmas music, hoping to put everyone in a festive and friendly mood. Kismet’s shoulders bobbed in time to the beat as she broke her biscuit in half down the middle and dipped the right half in a circle of berry compote and then in a dollop of whipped cream. A jolt of recognition ran through me, leaving me tingling and smiling. I’d eaten biscuits that way a thousand times. When I’d been little, Momma and Aunt Mel told me over and over, “Use a knife and cut them in half the other way. Spread whatever you want on the bottom half and put the top back on, like a sandwich. When you dip, you make such a mess, and half the time the biscuit crumbles and you get your fingers sticky by going after the lost pieces. Little ladies have better table manners.”
Little faeries apparently didn’t. Neither did big ones.
A small chunk of biscuit fell onto the dish. Kismet retrieved it and dipped it and the tips of her fingers into the crushed berries. She dropped the morsel in her mouth and licked the sweetened fruit from her fingertips.
“That’s delicious, delectable, and divine,” she said.
I chuckled. “We’re sisters, all right.”
I ate a biscuit, dipping it into butter, then the fruit compote, and licking my fingertips in the bargain. Then a key in the door’s lock announced that Aunt Mel had arrived. My shoulders stiffened and my smile dropped. I loved her dearly and couldn’t wait to see her, but there was so much I had to tell her. And none of it would make her happy.
WHEN I WAS eleven years old, Edie told me that if we’d all been drinks, she’d have been a whiskey sour, I’d have been a gin fizz, Momma a maiden’s prayer, and Aunt Mel, sangria. I hadn’t understood her at the time, but now I did. Edie’s sarcastic wit had a tart bite. I was bubbly. Momma was soulful and mysterious. And Aunt Mel loved exotic men and places, and she lived in pursuit of things that made music play in her head.
Upon entering, Aunt Mel called out my name and then strolled in wearing a fitted dress that had alternating indigo and mint-green horizontal stripes. She wore dark blue platform heels and a mint-colored scarf around her ponytail. She was thirty-nine, but looked twenty-nine, and her style was as young and fresh as springtime.
She’d come in with her hand outstretched to present me with a small wrapped present, but her arm dropped when she saw the visitors in the kitchen. Her lips parted slightly in surprise, her gaze jerking from Crux to Kismet and me and then back.
“What’s going on?” she asked, moving slowly away from Crux. She clutched my forearm and looked at Kismet. “You’re . . . Who are you?”
“You must be the mother’s twin. Melanie, you’re called,” Kismet said.
“This is our aunt,” I said, nodding. “Aunt Mel, you won’t believe it, but I’ve got a twin sister, too. This is her. Her name’s Kismarley, but she goes by Kismet. Isn’t that pretty? I like it a ton.”
There was a stunned silence, and Aunt Mel pursed her pale pink lips.
“I don’t know how that’s possible,” Melanie said. She stared at us. I had dark red hair like Momma and Aunt Mel, while Kismet’s was strawberry blond. I’d gotten hazel eyes that were mostly light brown and flecked with green and gold. Kismet’s eyes were much greener, like theirs and Edie’s. “She died,” Melanie whispered. “You died. We had to—” Melanie swallowed.
“It was a changeling who died. I was taken underhill. I guess he decided one for the fae and one for the witches.”
“He who? Caedrin? He made the swap? He stole you from Marlee? When? How?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Kismet said. “I was young at the time, being an infant.”
Melanie looked at Crux, and her eyes narrowed. “What’s he doing here? Why did you bring him? Can we count on him to keep Tammy Jo a secret now that he’s seen her?”
“No, we can’t count on him,” Kismet said. “He’s here to take me back. And he wants her, too. But he can’t have us.”
“No, he can’t!” Melanie said, her voice rising.
A knock on the front door made my head jerk toward it.
Bryn’s my boyfriend. Actually he’s more than that. A lot more.
Still, I didn’t think he would come over without letting me know. I’d insisted I wanted to talk to Aunt Mel alone about some news that would shock her. Bryn agreed to wait at his place while I did. And since he and I had some big news of our own, I wasn’t ready for him to arrive yet. One big surprise for Aunt Mel at a time.
“I don’t know who that could be,” I murmured. “But I’ll check.”
“Let’s both go,” Melanie said, hooking her arm through mine. When we reached the front hall, she whispered, “As soon as we get to the door, you run. I’ll do whatever I can to slow Crux down. You go to Bryn Lyons’s property. I’m sure his fortress of a house has some weapons you can use against the fae and—”
“Aunt Mel, we can’t. And especially you can’t go up against Crux with your magic not even working.” Aunt Melanie had been in the land of the faeries looking for Momma, but later, when she’d come out, she’d gotten in trouble with the World Association of Magic. They’d bound her powers with a curse and she was supposed to stay in the United Kingdom and make amends. If she’d done as she’d been told, they would’ve given her magic back. But I’d been in trouble, and she’d come home to help. So if she didn’t find a way to lift the curse, it would prevent her powers from working for seven whole years. It was a mess.
Melanie said, “Don’t worry about me. If I don’t attack him, Crux won’t kill me without orders from the Seelie queen. You just go—” She pulled the front door open, but the path wasn’t clear. Standing on the front step was the body of my friend Evangeline Rhodes. She reached for the knob, but paused when she saw us.
My jaw dropped. Vangie’s looks had been transformed. Her former long, often disheveled hair had been cut to medium length, dyed from plain brown to sable, and smoothed until it shone like patent leather. Bright green eyes greeted us. The eyes of our aunt Edie.
“Melanie’s home. Hello, darling,” she said.
“Um . . .” I said, ready to explain that when Vangie got herself murdered, Aunt Edie’s ghostly spirit inhabited Vangie’s body to help me. When I killed the wizard we were fighting, Vangie’s soul had been set free as a ghost, but Edie had stayed in the hijacked body and was still there. One look at Aunt Mel’s slack-jawed expression, though, told me she recognized the sly tone and smile.
“Edie?” Aunt Mel finally whispered, cocking her head.
“In the flesh. Again,” she said with a smirk. “Hello, biscuit,” Edie said to me. “Did you tell her yet?”
“I didn’t get a chance. She just got here and you showed up,” I said.
“Not about me,” Edie said with a wide sweep of her arm, dismissing her resurrection as though it weren’t a hot topic. Edie strolled in. Her silky black coat swished behind her, as did the fabric of her dark purple dress. Her crystal-encrusted heels matched a beaded comb tucked elegantly into her hair.
“Where did you get that outfit?” I stammered.
“I bought it at a boutique. I’d admired it.”
“The town’s shops are closed. It’s a holiday!”
“One thing you should understand,” Edie said, nearly gliding into the room. “Any locked door can be opened with the right inducement. Charm, magic, money, or some combination therein always does the trick. This time it was charm and money.”
“You can’t spend Vangie’s money! It’s not yours!”
“What shall I do with it? Put it in an empty coffin and bury it in her body’s place?”
“No,” I said. “But it’s not right for you to spend it. She might get back in her body sometime and then need her inheritance.”
“There will still be plenty. She has a great deal of it in her accounts. I don’t intend to spend it all. At least, not right away. Do we have champagne in the fridge?”
“Nope,” I said. “Hang on.” I reached for her as she sailed past, but I only caught rustling air.
“We should always have at least two bottles chilled. Reasons to celebrate and fabulous company can turn up at the most unexpected times. I’d have loved a glass tonight.” Edie strode to the liquor cabinet and poured herself a gin and tonic. “To celebrate us all being together. If only Marlee were here, too. We need to get her home. Even if it calls for trickery. It would be for her own good, and she’d forgive us for deceiving her, because we’re us, her precious family,” Edie said. “Do we have lemons or limes?”
“We do have to bring Momma home,” I said. “And sooner rather than later!”
“Why?” Edie asked, her green eyes turning sharply to my face at my raised voice.
“Because Crux the faery says that if I don’t go to the Never, the Seelie queen will kill her.”
“That bitch,” Edie hissed.
“Crux is lying,” Aunt Mel said. “Ghislaine won’t kill Marlee. Mar and Caedrin have done everything imaginable to appease the queen. They—”
“Not everything. Caedrin’s broken faith with our queen,” Crux said, leaning against the kitchen door frame.
“Broken faith how?” Melanie demanded. “I don’t believe it.”
“He has. And at Marlee’s urging.”
“Never. She wouldn’t risk the queen’s wrath. The only thing she cares about is being allowed to stay with Caedrin,” Melanie said.
“She would and did risk the queen’s wrath. And she’s brought it down upon them,” Crux said.
“How?” Melanie snapped, incredulous.
“Ask your niece.”
“For the love of Hershey, how would I know?” I demanded, throwing up my hands.
“Not that niece,” Crux said, tilting his head toward the kitchen.
Kismet stepped into the doorway, shoving the golden knight aside. “Stop causing trouble.”
Edie’s glass slipped, but she caught it by tightening her grip. The liquor swished and a few drops splashed out onto her slim fingers. “Who’s this?” Edie asked, her voice low and cool.
“She’s my twin,” I said, going over to Kismet. I tried to take her arm, but she pulled back. “It’s okay,” I told her. “That’s our aunt Edie. She was a ghost, but now she’s a girl again. Sort of.”
“Witches by the houseful,” Kismet whispered, wrinkling her nose.
“Well, yeah,” I said. “Momma’s people are all witches. You knew that, right?”
“I knew,” Kismet said, her green eyes like tinted ice.
“What happened in the Never?” Edie asked, taking a slow swig of her gin and tonic. “You convinced Marlee to do something for you? Or she was forced to do something to protect you?”
“I don’t need her protection,” Kismet said.
“But she helped you,” Edie said with a calculating look. “Didn’t she?”
Kismet fell into a stony silence for several moments. I looked at Crux, but he didn’t speak.
“If something happened, you can tell us about it. We’re your family,” I said, giving Kismet’s arms a squeeze.
Kismet looked at me, ignoring everyone else. “I didn’t ask that witch for her help. I wouldn’t. She can’t even help herself in there.”
“But you might’ve needed help escaping,” I whispered, looking into her eyes. “If you had to be sneaky about it?”
She bit the corner of her lip for a moment.
“She bites her lip like Tammy. See that?” Edie asked.
“Yes,” Melanie said. “They’re so much alike.”
Kismet’s expression flashed triumphant and then defiant when she looked at Aunt Melanie and Edie. “She and I are the same. Exactly. We’re not like the faeries. And we’re not like you either. We’re our own breed. Just us. Just we two.”
“Darling, really,” Edie said. “You’re sisters, not lovers. It’s not like you can start your own tribe and populate the world with a mixed magical race. Calm down. Have some gin. We’ll sort this out.”
“We won’t sort it out, and you won’t want me to drink with you when you realize I’ll never do what you want.”
“What is it that you think we want?” Aunt Melanie asked.
“You want us to sacrifice ourselves to rescue her,” Kismet said.
“No,” Melanie said. “We don’t want that. No.”
Kismet’s brows rose. “Even if the queen kills her because we won’t go back?”
“Tammy Jo would not be going ‘back.’ She’s never even been. And we don’t expect either of you to go underhill. There will be some other way to save Marlee. There’s always a way. What does the queen want? There must be something she values more than Marlee’s life,” Aunt Mel said.
“Yes, there is. Me,” Kismet said. “She values what I can do.”
“What is it that you can do?” I asked.
“I can pass in and out of the Never, even with the witches sealing the gates closed.”
“That’s not all,” Crux said.
“Why is that so important? You’re a spy for the Seelie queen?”
“Sometimes,” Kismet said quickly, and then glared at Crux, who grinned.
I glanced at him, hating the smirk on his handsome face.
“She’s the queen’s secret weapon against all foreign enemies. Kismarley is an assassin. She hunts her quarry all over the world. And a better killer you’ll never see.”
My stomach lurched, and my face fell. It was one thing to kill someone in self-defense or even to keep him from kidnapping you, but to track creatures down to kill them? To hunt people? That was totally different.
I turned to Kismet, hoping she would deny it.
TWIN SISTERS DON’T grow on trees, even if they do sometimes climb and flip from them. And my sister had helped me. She’d saved my life. That much I knew.
“You didn’t have a choice? You had to kill people?” I asked softly.
She gave a sharp little nod.
“You don’t have to anymore,” I whispered, catching her hand and lacing our fingers together. “I’ll help you get a job. You can live with me wherever I live.”
The corners of her mouth turned up. “Let’s live in the mountains, where the woods go on forever up one side and down the other.”
I shivered. “Um, well, I bet that would be real pretty, too. But see, when I said wherever I live, I meant wherever I live in Duvall.”
Her face leaned close to mine, her mouth by my ear. “We can’t stay here. The fae will find us. I could kill Crux, but they’d send someone else after me eventually.”
“No killing,” I whispered back. “Not even Crux.”
“Is there anyone you won’t defend?” she asked with a smirk. “I felt it halfway around the world. All those feelings! It’s exhausting. But it’s also—”
“Engaged!” Aunt Mel cried, making both Kismet and me jerk our heads in her direction.
I flushed as Edie saluted me with her glass. I frowned at her and then gave Aunt Mel a sheepish look. “It happened kind of unexpectedly, but yep. I’m gonna get married again.”
Melanie sank down onto the couch. “He’s really good-looking, Tammy Jo. And charming, but you know he’s—”
“Yes, a Lyons. I’m aware. It wasn’t my idea to get so involved with him, but love happens. Like a hurricane—”
“And other disasters,” Edie said dryly. “Or like a dreaded disease, where this family’s concerned.”
“Not a dreaded disease! But it’s true, love’s kinda like a—what do you call it?—an affliction. There’s no vaccine against it, and no cure for it.” I shrugged with a small smile. “When you’re completely in its grip and there’s a marriage proposal, you gotta say yes.”
“And suffer the consequences,” Edie said.
I frowned at her, but nodded. “Yep. Maybe.” There was a family prophecy that warned us not to get involved with a Lyons. “But I’m pretty sure the prophecy’s already played out. Ninety to ninety-five percent sure.”
“Didn’t you nearly fail every math class you ever had?” Edie asked, mock curious.
I wanted to throttle her. Having a person know all your business when you’re trying to argue something is a real problem.
“Bryn won’t betray me on purpose. If he does it by accident, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
“If you survive,” Edie said, mixing herself another drink. “He’s nearly gotten you killed—”
“Wrong! I’ve nearly gotten him killed. Lots. He’s saved my life. More than once.”
Melanie clasped her hands together so tight her nails indented the skin, whitening it. “I chose the wrong man plenty of times, but never anyone from the list.” She glanced up. “You met Incendio. You know that Marlee can’t come home and might be in deadly trouble because she’s tied herself to the wrong person. And those weren’t even names with a prophecy of disaster attached. How much worse will your consequences be? Can’t you learn from our mistakes?”
“Apparently not,” I said with a shrug.
“Why should you rush into marrying him? Is he pressuring you?”
He had, yes. But I’d liked his pressuring me. I loved his earnest romantic side as much as his clever sarcastic side. “We both decided. We fell in love, and we can’t stand to be apart too much, so it just makes sense. I’m not fixing to shack up with him, am I? You know what kind of gossip that would lead to.” I’d already been married and divorced, and I was only twenty-three years old. That had set plenty of tongues to wagging. It was already a big enough shock for most people to see me moving on from one of the town’s favorite sons. My ex, Zach, had been a much-beloved high school football star who’d gone on to play for the University of Texas. A terrible knee injury had ended his football career, so we’d come home to Duvall, where he became a sheriff’s deputy who always helped anyone who needed it.
Bryn Lyons, on the other hand, was a lawyer, so of course anyone would have reservations about trusting him. Plus, he’d gone to school on the East Coast, was rich, and had originally come from a foreign country. That was a lot of different for a small town to swallow. But he’d been committed to a life in Duvall, and he’d put his time and money into helping the town develop into something even better than it had started out. He had people’s respect for sure. They just didn’t know him as well as they knew Zach. When you’re born in a place and all your people live there . . . well, you’re part of the town and it’s part of you. With Bryn, there was always a nagging feeling that he might take off for somewhere else. He already had an office and a law practice in Dallas as well as Duvall. And people probably thought Dallas suited Bryn better. That place was as shiny and cosmopolitan as he was. But Duvall had two things that Bryn wanted: A magical tor. And me.
Of course, we would be able to settle down in town and build a life together only if I could make it back from the Never . . . assuming that I actually had to go.
“Kismet, did our dad help you escape the Never?”
Her face went blank, as if she were playing poker. She could’ve been holding a full house or nothing at all by that expression.
“C’mon. Tell me the truth.”
“It doesn’t matter. It was owed to me. Whatever effort he made was the least he could do. For so long he did nothing to help me.”
“And why do you think he decided to help you now?”
She pursed her lips and then shrugged.
“Can’t you guess?” I asked. “I bet Momma told him to. Don’t you think? She saw you were unhappy, and she told him to help you get out even if they got caught. Even if it risked their own lives. Don’t you think?” I asked.
She swallowed. “No, I don’t think so. Whatever made him do it, it wasn’t our mother. She doesn’t care about me.”
I clucked my tongue. “How can you say that?”
“I can say it easily, since I’m just repeating what she said.”
“She would never have said that.”
“She did. I heard her with my own ears,” Kismet said bitterly. “I don’t care. She’s nothing to me. Just as I’m nothing to her. And if she’s been blamed for my escape, well, she’ll have to talk her own way out of it.”
My jaw dropped, Aunt Mel gasped, and Edie rolled her eyes.
“This one is going to take some work,” Edie murmured. “Melanie, give me Lenore’s locket.”
Aunt Mel put a hand over the front of her shirt, pressing the locket underneath. She paused for a moment and then lifted the chain. The antique locket that Edie’s soul had been linked to from the time of her death in the 1920s appeared as Aunt Mel raised the locket over her head. She held it out and Edie took it. She smiled, admiring it.
“My twin sister wore this locket every day. We were together. Always. Not even death could separate us. That’s blood and loyalty,” Edie announced.
Kismet leaned over Edie’s shoulder to get a better look at the necklace. “That design was an interesting choice,” Kismet said.
Edie arched a brow, glancing at the starburst pattern of diamonds on the front. “In what way interesting?” Edie asked.
“Front door,” Kismet said. She flipped the locket over in Edie’s palm. The smooth gold of the back was without a pattern. “Not there. On the inside?”
“What?” Edie asked.
The hinge of the locket had grown stiff over the years, and we’d always hesitated to oil it for fear of damaging the pictures inside.
Kismet reached over and tried to force it open. When it didn’t budge, Kis pulled out a pin and started to jam it in, but Edie pulled the locket to her chest and closed her hands around it. “No. I’ll do it. Or a jeweler will.”
“Is there a pattern on the inside?”
“There are pictures inside. One of me and one of my sister.”
“Under the pictures?”
“I don’t remember. If I ever knew. The pictures were already inside when Lenore showed it to me. She gave me a matching locket. Mine was buried with my body.”
“I never knew that,” I said.
Edie shrugged. “There was no magic attached to mine, but I like that a little piece of Lenore’s creativity and her image were buried with me. Together forever. Twins.”
Kismet glanced at me. “Aboveground and below. Twins together, not allowing anyone to come between them. What do you think of that?”
“Sisters should be close,” I said.
“Closer to each other than anyone else? Even than a parent? Or a lover?”
“Um, I don’t think there’s a reason to rank people by how much you love them. You can love lots of people.”
“But someone has to be loved the most.”
My phone chimed, telling me I had a text message from Bryn. Speaking of people I loved like crazy. I snatched the phone from the counter and opened the message.
How’s it going?
I’d called Bryn earlier to tell him about my visitors and the possibility that I’d be going to the land of the faeries. He was understandably impatient to know what was going on. So was I, actually.
We both had concerns about my going into the Never, and not just because faeries were dangerous creatures. In the past, when my witch magic had been drained away by spells and I’d become more fully fae, I’d changed. My conscience—and my humanity, I guessed—had faded away, too. I’d become numb to my feelings and memories. Bryn loved me for my regular Tammy Jo self, who cared a lot about the town and everyone in it, especially him. He worried that one day I might change into full faery and not change back. I’d be lost to him then.
I didn’t think that could ever happen while I lived in Duvall. I loved it too much. But inside the Never, who knew? I recognized the hard edges that I’d felt as a full fae in Kismet. A coolness emanated from her when she faced off with Crux. What if I entered the Never and stopped caring about rescuing Momma? I wouldn’t do anyone any good if my heart turned to stone in my chest.
Glancing down at my phone, I thought, That’s why I need Bryn. Once I’d stood on a faery path in full fae consciousness, and all I’d wanted in the world was to follow that path into the Never. Bryn, who’d been standing off the path, had reached out to me. Wanting him was the only thing that had drawn me back to the human world.
The corners of my mouth tipped down as I typed, Things here sure are a mess. Come over if you want. I could use the help.
BRYN ARRIVED WEARING trousers as black as his hair and a red shirt that made the blue of his eyes even more vibrant. For a moment I just stared at him, because he has the ability to stun a person with his good looks. Then I remembered that I was going to marry him and really needed to get over those looks, or who would keep him in line? Not that Bryn’s the kind of guy who takes orders. But sometimes, when he gets ruthless with his enemies, he needs me to remind him not to go overboard. Just because someone tries to kill us doesn’t mean they’re all bad. And the good guys, which we are, can’t go hog wild with revenge if they want to hold on to their white hats.
I glanced over my shoulder. Aunt Mel stood in the foyer, waiting to greet Bryn. Behind her, Edie opened drawers in the foyer chest, searching it.
“What are you looking for?” I asked Edie as Aunt Melanie stepped forward.
“Hi, Bryn. Merry Christmas,” Aunt Mel said. She and Bryn exchanged a hug. “I’m surprised about the engagement. And worried. I hope you guys won’t rush the wedding. . . .”
He remained silent.
“Getting married or even falling in love with you could be putting our girl at major risk. You know that, right?”
Being a good lawyer, Bryn never changed his expression. He wouldn’t let her bait him into agreeing to a long engagement.
“You love each other so much there’s nothing to do except get married?” Mel asked, raising her brows in question. “You’re sure?”
“Absolutely sure,” Bryn said.
Melanie sighed and shrugged. “All right. Then I’m behind you.”
Edie glanced up. “I’m behind you, too, Lyons. With a club and bad intentions. Watch your back,” she said in a saccharine whisper. Returning to her search of the chest, she added, “I’m looking for the extra bottles Marlee used to keep in here. Is there really not a single drop of brandy or cognac left in this house? For pity’s sake, Melanie.”
“I used up the brandy in the brandy Alexanders,” I said.
“Well, what am I supposed to do for a sidecar then? Go to the Paris Ritz, where it was invented? We’ve got to keep this house better stocked. It’s beyond the pale.”
“Why do you need brandy?” I scoffed. “You’re drinking gin and tonics.”
“We’re out of gin. There was only a splash left.”
“There was more than a splash.”
“Well, it went down like a splash,” Edie said. “And I haven’t had a sidecar since the week before I died. Don’t you think ninety years is long enough to wait?”
“Ninety years isn’t very long,” Crux said, appearing at the end of the hall.
“Fae,” Bryn said, narrowing his cobalt eyes. “Crux, I presume.”
Crux inclined his head, saying, “Wizard.” Crux stretched. “You’re not wanted here. You should retrieve your rings and go.”
I glanced at the canary-yellow diamond solitaire that sat big as an egg on my left ring finger. And the magical band on my right middle finger. Both were from Bryn, symbols of our romantic and magical connections.
Bryn’s gaze assessed Crux for several long moments. Crux leaned against the wall.
“Don’t tax your brain, wizard. Even full of sweetened spirits, I could kill you with a motion so fast and smooth that the curtains would barely sway.”
I glanced at the sheers hanging over the window next to Crux.
Crux added a couple words I didn’t know. It sounded like Gaelic, and Bryn who speaks lots of languages, flicked his gaze past Crux.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“He said, ‘Come out, deadly lovely.’ I presume he wasn’t talking to me.”
I saw the fingertips then. It was all that showed of Kismet, and they twitched, beckoning me. I took Bryn’s hand so that our rings connected. He wore a band on his left middle finger that reacted to the one on my right hand. Magic, which already flowed between us, spiked.
Kismet’s face appeared then, her expression curious. She stared at Bryn for several long moments and he stared back.
“Hello,” he said. “I’m Bryn. Tamara’s fiancé.”
Kismet’s gaze flicked to my face. She whispered something, also in that foreign language.
“Yes,” Bryn said, pleased. “I’m the love of her life. And she’s mine.”
Kismet’s eyes never left mine. “You won’t want to go without him. So wherever we go, he can come.”
“I tire of this,” Crux said. “The queen extended no invitation to this wizard, and there is nothing of his in the Never. He’s not welcome.”
“I’m—” I began, but Crux cut me off.
“No,” he said with finality. “A man can’t claim from the human world that which did not belong to it. You’re fae.”
Bryn was part fae himself, but we sure weren’t going to admit that to Crux.
“If it will complicate things, I won’t travel into the Never with her,” Bryn said, lying to Crux so smoothly that for a second I was shocked that he’d changed his mind about letting me go alone. Lawyers! They’re trickier than faeries sometimes.
“But Tamara’s safety is important to me,” Bryn said. “She told me her sister’s not convinced they should go. Let me listen to Kismet’s reservations. Because if Tamara is traveling underhill without me, I want her sister with her.”
I glanced at Kis, who was eyeing Bryn suspiciously. Exactly, I thought. What was Bryn up to?
I gave Kis a reassuring smile and nod, knowing that whatever Bryn did, it would be in the interest of trying to protect us.
Maybe he wanted to avoid a conflict with Crux so that he could get close enough to see his weaknesses? If so, that was a good idea. Except I wasn’t sure that Crux had a lot of weaknesses. Even if Bryn had an iron weapon, Bryn couldn’t take Crux in a hand-to-hand fight. Faeries can move like lightning. At their fastest, you can’t catch them unless they want you to. But I presumed Bryn knew this. He wouldn’t try any straightforward attack. Bryn was strategy . . . and magic. Bryn could wield power like a weapon. Would witch magic be strong enough to stop a faery knight’s arrow? If the answer was no, I didn’t want to find out.
Crux said nothing. He watched Bryn, and I wondered whether he was wondering the same things I was. Then Crux shrugged.
“By sunrise we’ll be under way, or I’ll send word that you’re stalling. Your resistance is an insult to the queen’s offered hospitality, and I’ll suggest that your mother should pay the price for your insolence.”
“He’s lying,” Kismet said.
Crux narrowed his eyes. “Test me. I’ll let you hear the message I give to the nymph.”
“I’m in earnest. You’ll both come, or there will be blood in payment.”
All Crux’s earlier cheer was gone. In his darkened mood, even his golden glow seemed burnished to bronze. I recognized this side of him. He’d used a rose stem as a switch on my back for defying him. The wounds had healed quickly, but not the nastiness of the attack.
“Let’s sit and talk,” I said. “One of us is better than none. If Momma’s in trouble, I’ll go with you. The queen doesn’t know yet that you found Kismet, does she? You can take me and then say you still have more looking to do.”
“No!” Kismet said. “She could keep you prisoner. Don’t you see? You can’t go in alone. You won’t know how to manage in there.”
“But it’s the best we can do.”
“I won’t let you go alone,” Kismet said, her expression fierce. I didn’t know if that meant that she was promising to go with me or promising to stop me from going.
“Kismet, if the queen makes a promise that she won’t punish you for leaving, would you return home willingly?” Crux asked.
“She won’t make that promise,” Kismet said. “No defiance goes unpunished.”