Josh’s face contorted in agony as the flash of blue fire consumed him.
I killed him.
I woke panting, with cold sweat beading my face and soaking the back of my t-shirt.
When is that memory going to stop haunting me?
It had been almost two weeks since Josh and Sam tried to kill Adam and me, and this was the third night in a row that I had been woken by that same nightmare. Every time I fell asleep, it would wake me several times a night.
Leo meowed a protest when I threw the covers off and stood while rubbing my eyes. After rolling around a few times to get my attention, he stopped with his paws in the air and his orange Persian fur sticking out in all directions. I ruffled his fluffy head while I checked the time, 5:00 AM. I was getting used to the lack of sleep. Amazing how that happens—it must be how doctors work all those crazy hours.
There was a chill in my room. My eyes wandered to the balcony. The curtains were open to my French doors, and I lingered in front of the patterned frosted glass for a moment. I watched as the snow flurries landed on a three-foot-high snowdrift and shivered as the cold from the glass doors seeped through my shirt. I pulled the curtains closed and headed to the bathroom.
While showering, I relished the feel of the hot water running over the warm wave of goosebumps along my body and willed the negative remnants of the dream down the drain. I mused about the fact that my talent was still bound. I thought that after the blue fire, my talent would have returned. Apparently, the Fire elemental didn’t think I was ready for it yet. That was fine with me, as I didn’t want to burn anyone by accident.
I’d lost control of my emotions after the death of my parents. I’ve felt like an irrational stranger—out of sorts, hormonal, emotional. Disgusted with myself, I knew I needed to pull it together. I had always been practical and levelheaded. I needed to be that person again.
After dressing, I examined my reflection. I had telltale dark circles under my amber eyes, but aside from that, I didn’t appear too haggard. My wavy chocolate hair was behaving for once, the red strands standing out in stark relief under the bright closet lights.
It was still too early to go downstairs, so I settled comfortably in my chair and read until it was a more appropriate and less suspicious time to go downstairs.
When I finally made my way downstairs, I ran into Angela. “Up early again?” she asked with a concerned frown.
I merely grunted, not wanting to explain my recurring nightmares.
She followed me into the dining room, where Grandma, Grandpa, and to my surprise, Great Uncle Azar sat at the large flame-carved wooden table.
I was beginning to wonder if Uncle Azar had set up camp at the cave since it had been so long since I’d seen him. I think the last time I saw him was the day of the ordeal at the cave.
That’s not entirely true—I did see him briefly from time to time in the last two weeks, here and there walking out the door or coming in late. Always he had this giddy light in his eyes.
Speaking of eyes, they were all on me as I dropped into my chair.
Before anyone could ask, I said, “I’m fine.”
“You don’t look fine. You look like you haven’t gotten any sleep for weeks,” said Grandma.
In true Azar fashion, he groused, “Let the girl be, Etain. Of course, she hasn’t slept. She was almost killed just a couple of weeks ago by her own cousin.”
Flinching, I excused myself while Grandma and Uncle Azar argued. There was no way I could force any food down.
I went back to my room to pack. Today was December 21, the winter solstice and the first day of Yule. School was out for the holidays, and all the elemental families were going up to the lodge for the Yule celebration. Last weekend, when Adam and I had gone shopping for all the Yule gifts, he had given me a rundown of how we celebrate the holiday. For twelve days, we feast, open one gift, and tell stories. Apparently, that’s where the twelve days of Christmas came from.
I couldn’t wait to spend some time with Adam. He’d been so busy the last three days with Youth Committee duties that I hadn’t seen him unless you counted the brief visits between classes, which I didn’t because he was aloof and harried.
When we arrived at the lodge, most of the families were already there. Lily and her family were the only ones missing.
After figuring out where my room was, I headed back down to the main floor.
Vinessa stood in front of the empty fireplace, absently fingering a silver bell that dangled from a white string of garland lying across the mantle, her brow furrowed in thought. I followed her gaze and spotted Adam by the giant white pine tree that reached the second-story balcony. Presents of every color, shape, and size filled the space underneath the full bottom branches.
My face lit up, and I moved toward him, only to catch sight of Bree standing behind a beam, engaging him in conversation. My smile faltered when I realized he was laughing at something she said.
That’s odd. I continued forward, studying Adam. He gave no sign of irritation or alarm.
When I stopped in front of them, Adam started and exclaimed, “Sera! I didn’t realize you were here.”
Flushed, he leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek. The cheek! What the hell?
“Adam and I were just reminiscing,” Bree said, her brilliant white teeth flashing.
Adam chuckled. “We had some good times.”
Good times? What is going on here? I met his gaze. “Are you okay?”
With a puzzled frown, he replied, “I’m fine. Why?”
“Sera, we put all that nasty stuff behind us. Didn’t we, Adam?” Bree’s silver eyes sparkled when she met Adam’s green eyes.
His look matched hers. “Of course. No use wasting time being angry over trivial things.”
I clenched my teeth and just barely managed not to hiss between them. “Adam, could I talk to you?”
“Sure,” he said as if I wasn’t about to clobber him.
I pointedly looked at Bree. She just stood there in her white silk dress with a hand on one slim hip, and her lips quirked up at the corner.
“Alone,” I snapped.
He glanced at Bree. “Oh, sorry.”
I followed him up to his room, closing the door a little harder than intended.
“What the hell is going on with you? You’re acting really weird.”
He shrugged. “What’s the big deal? Bree apologized, and I accepted.”
“So, everything’s forgiven, just like that?” I tried keeping the incredulity out of my voice. I think it came out a little snarky instead.
With a defensive inflection, he replied, “Yeah.”
“Okay, I can admit her breaking up with you may seem trivial now that we’re together, but what about her trying to force herself on you at the cottage? Not to mention all the trouble she’s caused?” I crossed my arms accusingly.
His shoulders slumped with the sigh he heaved. “Sera, you are being a touch dramatic, don’t you think? She apologized for the way she treated me, and I forgave her. Aside from her kissing me at the cottage, what trouble has she caused? In fact, as I recall, she saved our butts in the cave.” Now he folded his arms. “Cut her some slack.”
I stared at him like he’d grown a second personality. “Are you kidding me?” My hands dropped limply to my sides.
He reached out and pulled me to him, his lips finding mine.
Momentarily distracted, I melted into the kiss. My arms wrapped around his neck, and then he pulled back—something was off. That didn’t feel like any of the other kisses we had shared. It was controlled, normal even. It lacked the fire that always ignited between us.
Before I could comment, he dragged me back downstairs and into the great room. We reached the bottom step just as Lily and her family walked in, bringing a gust of frigid wind with them.
Adam let go of my hand and walked over to greet Ryan. I felt, once again, like I had just been thrown into the Twilight Zone.
I hugged Brook, and while I hugged Lily, she asked, “Where’s Vinessa?”
We glanced around and found her by the enormous side table that housed the overflow of gifts that didn’t fit under the tree. Vinessa stood in front of Bree. Her cheeks flushed as she flailed her arms in the air.
I quickly followed Lily. She reached them before I did.
“—did you do to him?” I had caught the last part of what Vinessa said before Bree stormed off.
“Vinessa, what’s wrong?” Lily asked, her eyes narrowed on Bree’s back.
With a glance at me, Vinessa replied, “Nothing … I don’t know.” Flustered, she strode over to Adam, grabbed his arm, rose to the tips of her toes, whispered something in his ear, and then headed into the kitchen. When he didn’t follow, Lily went after her.
Now, what’s going on?
I wondered if Bree was blackmailing Adam. Whatever it was, I was getting to the bottom of it. I found Vinessa and Lily in the kitchen back by the large pantry. They stopped talking when they saw me approaching.
“Okay, you two, what’s going on?” I zeroed in on Vinessa. “No more secrets.”
She shook her head but answered anyway. “I’m not sure, and I didn’t want to alarm you until I talked to Adam, but I think Bree may have done something to him. He’s been acting really strange the last three days.”
“I know, I just talked to him upstairs, and he told me he forgave Bree because she apologized for everything. He also said to cut her some slack since she saved us in the cave.” My irritation came through loud and clear.
Locking eyes with Lily, Vinessa practically yelled, “See? I told you something is going on with my brother, and I know that silver-eyed witch is involved.”
“Okay.” Lily lifted her hands in surrender. “What do you propose we do?” She glanced between us.
Vinessa’s eyes narrowed. “I propose we spy on her. Lily, you keep her busy, and I’ll go through her room. Sera, be my lookout in case Bree breaks away from Lily. You’ll intercept her.”
We wandered back into the main room. I stopped next to Adam while Lily confronted Bree. Adam was telling Ryan about his new state-of-the-art snowmobile.
When Ryan noticed me, he gave me a big hug. “Hey, there you are. How are you?”
“I’m okay, and you?”
He kissed my cheek before replying, “I’m always good.”
While we pulled apart, Adam went to say hello to Brook. Ryan watched him go with a frown.
I put a hand on Ryan’s arm, getting his attention. “Have you noticed anything odd about Adam in the last several days?”
Ryan’s eyes shifted from me back to Adam. “Now that you mention it, yes.” He scrutinized my face. “Why? Is something going on?”
“The girls and I think that Bree did something to him. He is acting bizarre, and now he’s suddenly friends with her? It doesn’t make sense.”
Ryan’s gaze involuntarily snapped to Bree. We both noticed Adam’s attention kept straying in that direction as well.
“I’ll see what I can find out. In the meantime, act normal. If Bree is up to something, we don’t want to alert her that we know.”
“Easier said than done,” I mumbled under my breath as Ryan went back to talking to Adam.
I jumped when Vinessa came up behind me.
“Anything?” I asked, almost desperate.
Vinessa shook her head. “Don’t worry. We’ll keep looking. If we have to search her house, we will.”
Over the next few hours, Adam kept to himself as we ate dinner. My anxiety reached a new high, and I had to keep reminding myself to act normal. I would have to wait until later to figure out what was going on.
After dinner, Grandma made a show of lighting the ceremonial Yule log. At first, flames danced on the huge log, then the fire took form and became dancing figures until the log was a blazing inferno. Now I understood why the fireplace was so massive: it needed to house a bonfire for Yule.
Next, we all sat around opening gifts. Vinessa picked mine, the green Earth vase I had purchased from the little art boutique at the small town down the road.
While opening the gift that I had chosen from the large pile of presents, I couldn’t keep my eyes from straying to Adam, who was watching Bree.
Something dropped into my lap, and I tore my gaze from Adam to see what it was. I picked up a two-inch statue of a phoenix carved from a clear red glass substance. I hadn’t even looked to see who it was from, I realized, embarrassed.
Just as my hand reached for the discarded wrapping paper in search of the tag, Angela said, “It was your mother’s—a phoenix cut from a rather large ruby. I thought you might like it.” Her voice wavered as she added, “It was her favorite treasure.”
Blinking away tears, I hugged her and choked out a thank-you before pulling away.
After all the gifts were opened, we gathered around an enormous water basin. I sat next to Adam with a question on my face. This was something he hadn’t explained.
He grinned mischievously. “This is the storytelling part.”
Settling in, I frowned at the water that Lily’s mother—Mrs. Ainsworth, or Pearl—kneeled in front of. Just before the lights went out, the adults were given spiced wine and the underaged—spiced cider. I wrapped my fingers around the hot cider and inhaled the spicy scent. It reminded me of Adam.
The fire cast shadows across Pearl’s face, and as she spoke, her voice echoed up into the rafters.
“As you all know, it is tradition to tell the story of the two great kings on this day, the winter solstice. For tonight, the Oak king rules anew.”
Music filled the air, and the water in the basin began to swirl as she started the story.
Lily hovered over the basin and poured different colors—of what looked like food coloring—into the water, along with colored sparkles, then settled back into her spot.
When a figure of a man with holly berries in his hair and beard, with a crown made of pointed holly leaves, formed out of the water, I leaned forward. On the other side of the basin sprang forth a younger man with oak leaves for hair.
I watched avidly as the colors and sparkles settled in their leaves, berries, and clothes.
Lights flashed on, illuminating the old Holly king and the young Oak king from below, bringing them to life.
They stood about a foot-and-a-half tall, and each one held a staff made from their own wood. An acorn topped the Oak king’s staff, while a spiked holly leaf adorned the Holly king’s staff.
Pearl’s voice rang loud and clear, echoing off the rafters overhead once again. “Every turn of the wheel, on December 21, the Oak and Holly kings battle for rule over the next six months. The Oak king wins every winter solstice, bringing the return of the sun.”
As she regaled us with the tale, the water kings fought, and when their staffs clashed, water spritzed us.
In the grand finale, when the Holly King was defeated and turned into a holly tree, water sprayed my legs, and an involuntary squeak tore from my throat.
Lily laughed in delight at my reaction. I had almost forgotten Adam’s strange behavior. When I looked up at him, he was focused on Bree, and he was laughing.
After that, I sat stiffly, watching a new tale unfold in water and light.
When the clock struck midnight, everyone drifted off to bed.
I trudged up the stairs to my room, and as I turned around to close the door, I jumped.
Vinessa stood in the hallway.
Clutching at my heart, I asked, “What are you doing?”
“I want to try something.” She came into my room and closed the door. “Do you have a gift for Adam?”
Nodding, I riffled through my bag for Adam’s one gift that I hadn’t put under the tree. I handed over the small, silver gift-wrapped box. She took it, set some mistletoe on top, and positioned my hand over the mistletoe. She laid hers above mine and spoke in another language. Old Welsh, I think. I didn’t want to interrupt her by asking.
When she was done, I felt an odd tingling sensation from the box. “What did you do?” I stared at the small gift in fascination.
“A spell. I got to thinking when I was rummaging through Bree’s room and found nothing. I think maybe she cast a love spell using her bond to Adam. I want to see if he acts differently when you give this to him.” She dropped her hands to her side. “If he does, then we will know for sure that Bree cast a spell on him.”
The mistletoe leaf floated to the floor, and a memory of a café with Bree standing on the opposite side of the door, at the counter ordering mistletoe, flooded my mind—her smug smile seared into my memory.
Bree’s smile was replaced with Vinessa’s frown.
Shifting under her scrutiny, I asked, “What is mistletoe used for?”
“Love spells, mostly.” Suspicion crept into her voice. “Why?”
I made a point of looking her in the eye. “When I ordered this gift for Adam, I stopped by the café, and Bree was there ordering mistletoe.”
“Well, that explains it. You couldn’t mention that sooner?” She waved her hand at my protest. “Never mind. Just give this to Adam.” Vinessa opened the door, impatiently ushering me out.
I knocked on Adam’s door after trying the knob. It was locked—that hurt. The door swung open, and Adam filled the doorway—in nothing but his boxers. My pulse picked up, and I had to remind myself why I was there.
“Hello. What are you doing here?” He looked unsure. He glanced down the hall as if expecting someone else.
Before I lost my nerve, I answered with, “Can I come in?”
“Sure.” He held the door open a little wider for me.
When I slipped past him, I caught a whiff of his earthy-spicy scent. He closed the door. I stopped in front of the bed and turned back to him. I held the little package out for him.
He smiled wide and came forward. “What’s this?”
“Open it and find out.”
Taking the gift from me, he tore into it.
The second his fingers ripped the paper, his eyes flashed a bright green, and he paused. He put a hand to his forehead and groaned. When he swayed, almost dropping the box, I reached for his arm. His eyes met mine, and they were darker.
“What the hell happened?” he asked in a gruff voice.
I let out the breath that I had been holding. “You don’t remember?”
He scowled at the door. “Bree,” he growled. “I’m going to kill her.”
That was my Adam. “I think she cast some kind of spell on you, using mistletoe, and who knows what else.”
The expression on his face made me hurry on, “Are you going to finish opening it?” I didn’t want to deal with any apologies for things that were out of his control.
Adam reluctantly looked away from my face and opened the wooden box. Inside was a Steven Kretchmer Inner Glo Polarium necklace. He twisted the bail, popping the two pieces apart to reveal the words Fire on one half and Earth on the other. An orange diamond was flush set next to the Fire and a green diamond after the Earth. He smiled, letting them seal magnetically back together.
I took it from him and clasped the chain behind his neck. He captured my lips when I let go. Heat raced through my veins. I felt his control slip, and I gave in, deepening the kiss. He lifted me, pressing me tight against him, and dropped me under him on the bed. As his fingers slid up my side, a knock at the door startled us both.
He sat back, panting, and ran a hand through his hair. His voice was husky as he called, “Who is it?”
There was a pause. “Bree,” said a female voice.