My eyes dropped to the wet cement floor, where just a moment ago, I had been sitting. I absently slid a hand across my wet bum while my brain struggled to process the voices around me, still stuck on one word—bonded.
The spot on my hand, where Ryan had touched, still tingled from the electric shock. I hardly felt the dull pain in my lower back from where the cement had jarred me when Ryan dropped me faster than a hot iron.
Desire, that’s what I had felt at Ryan’s touch. I had never experienced that before, at least not to that extreme. Nothing could compare to the electric jolt that shot through me at Ryan’s touch.
He stormed off in the direction of the main house, and I stared at his stiff retreating back until he disappeared through the ornate doors.
Why was he so angry?
I glanced at Sera with Adam’s arm encircling her slender waist. It didn’t seem so bad to be bonded, to have someone who loves you so intensely.
“Don’t worry. He’ll come around.” Adam’s green eyes searched my face.
The heat in my cheeks faded. “Why did he react that way?” I directed my question to Adam.
“Ryan’s . . . complicated,” he said with a little too much hesitation.
Before I could respond, Sera put a hand on my arm. “It’s overwhelming. Just give him time.”
Staring in the direction Ryan had gone, I straightened my shoulders and decided I would change his mind, one way or another.
Lily threw her arms around my neck and squeezed. “We’re going to be sisters.” She looked into my worried eyes, and her expression softened. “He can’t resist you for long.” Her gaze turned mischievous, and she pinned Adam with it. “Just ask Adam.”
Adam flushed, and Vinessa laughed.
Brriiing, brriiing, brriiing. I grabbed my phone and answered it, just to shut it up.
“Hello?” My voice came out morning-hoarse and somewhat irritated.
A giggle from the other end alerted me to Vinessa. “Morning, sleepyhead. I forgot how you liked to sleep in.”
Sleep in? I glanced at the time on my cell—7:30 AM.
I grunted into the phone.
“Get up and get ready. We will be there in a few. We have a lot of work to do.”
My brain did not compute this early without coffee. “What?” I waited for an explanation, but the disconnected silence filled my ear.
Rolling over, I faceplanted into my pillow, and my brain grumbled, What are they up to?
By the time I came downstairs, Bridget, Vinessa, Jasmine, and Lily sat at the dining table. We had all finished our final exams for school and passed all our classes two days before yesterday’s eventful party. Officially, the boys graduated, with the exception of a ceremony. I thought about Ryan’s twin sister, Brook, and wondered how she was.
“Ah, there you are,” Vinessa chirped.
In an attempt at a peace offering for waking me, she handed me a mocha from the café by the docks. I took it gratefully and greedily began sucking it down, burning my tongue in my haste.
“Now that we are all here,” Vinessa pulled out a notebook and continued, “we can start planning Adam and Ryan’s graduation party.”
Snagging bacon from the side table along with a muffin, I sat down next to Bridget. She seemed excited, and I smiled to myself, thinking she’d fit in perfectly with Vinessa and Lily. Now we just had to convince Emily to move to New England.
I missed the manor and my orange Persian cat, Leo. My thoughts strayed to Shandra, and I wondered how they would get along. Then another more terrifying thought occurred to me. What if they got along too well, and I had dragon-cats running around? If Angela hadn’t neutered him yet, I would have to get him fixed as soon as I got home—if I got home.
“Ahem.” Vinessa had my attention again.
She laid out her plans with several interjections from Bridget, and Lily peppered in. Once we got that out of the way, I brought up the dark cloud hovering over us.
“We still need to search the forest and find Bree’s pack with the journal and rose key. Now that we are done with school, we should take a trip out there, A-sap.”
Jasmine nodded. “She’s right. We need to make this a priority. The party isn’t until next week, so we should head out tomorrow, first thing.”
“We’ll meet you here in the morning,” Lily said, getting to her feet and following Vinessa and Jasmine out the door.
After they left, Bridget bounced in her chair. “This is so exciting.”
“What’s exciting?” Adam came up behind me, planting a kiss on my neck and sending shivers down my body.
Bridget and I said, “Nothing,” at the same time.
“Right . . . let me guess, Vinessa is planning a graduation party,” Adam said wryly.
I shrugged, and Bridget changed the subject. “We’re heading out tomorrow to the forest to find Bree’s bag.”
Adam glanced at me. “Okay. That was sudden.”
“We can’t wait any longer. Now that I have my mom back and the summer solstice is just around the corner, we need to get moving on finding the cave, but first, we need the rose key to open it,” I said in one breath in hopes of staving off an argument.
Grunting, Adam just shook his head at me. “Fine, tomorrow then.”
“What’s tomorrow?” Emily asked, entering with my mom, both of them smiling like they had been swapping secrets.
They seem chummy.
I spoke up before anyone else could. “We are going camping for our end-of-the-school-year celebration.”
“Where?” Emily asked, suspicion creeping into her voice.
Glancing at Bridget, I answered, “The forest in Wales where we were before.”
“The same place Allen was attacked by a mountain lion?” Emily asked stiffly.
Bridget rolled her eyes. “Mom, that was a fluke.”
“This time, we won’t be caught off guard,” Adam added.
I could tell by the way Emily narrowed her eyes and flattened out her lips that she wasn’t going to let Bridget go without a fight.
“Maybe we could talk about this later. After we are done with breakfast,” my mom suggested.
Emily let it go for now, but she wasn’t finished with it if her scowl was any indication.
After breakfast, Bridget went off with Emily to talk her into letting her go camping with us, while Adam went home to monitor Vinessa and attempt to rein her in on the party planning. That left my mom and me. We talked for hours about things that happened in Gorias and ideas about how to stop Air.
Several hours later, we found ourselves in the secret library. I spent a lot of time catching my mom up on the progress we had made: The passages, Uncle Azar’s journals, riddles, and books that revealed new information. We both avoided talking about Uncle Azar—too painful.
“This book in Welsh is the latest find?” Mom asked.
She didn’t even finish the thought before the book that Mero had given me popped into my mind. “I’ll be right back.”
I hurried up the stairs to snag the book, and on my way down, I ran into Gem. “Perfect, just the person I wanted to see.”
His eyebrows raised in question.
“Follow me.” I tugged his arm.
He trailed behind me without protest. Curiosity burned in his bright green eyes as we entered the Secret library. My mom still sat at the wooden table, bent over a book.
I set the book of prophecy on the table in front of her and watched Gem’s face. His eyes widened a little, and he slowly reached for it while my mom and I studied his awe-instilled animated face.
He picked it up reverently and opened the cover. “How?” He swallowed and finally looked me in the eye. “How did you come by this?” His veneration came through loud and clear.
“You know what it is?” I asked.
He nodded, and his gaze traveled back to the pages as he hesitantly flipped through it. “This is one of the lost books of prophecy.”
“Lost?” When he didn’t move his eyes from the pages, almost like they transfixed him, I added, “Mero gave it to me. He was a librarian for the Air court or something.”
That caught his attention. “Mero, the banished fae who Air cut—?”
“Yes,” I interrupted, not wanting to think about that horror, “but Air made them grow back, and now Mero and his girlfriend live in the fae realm.”
Gem rubbed his chin in thought. “Tatia—that was her name—if memory serves. Air tricked Queen Titania into sleeping with him, and Tatia resulted from that union.”
My mom stood and peered at the open book in Gem’s hands, bringing his attention back to it.
“Can you read it?” she asked.
Gem frowned. “Some, it is the language of the elementals, very ancient. Fire would be able to read it.”
“I guess I’ll add that to my list.” I sighed. “I’ll take it with me next time I go to Finias.”
Gem sat with the book, setting it carefully on the table. “Do you mind if I look through it? It has been a long time since I have seen one of the books in person.”
“Go ahead. I need to go pack for our camping trip.”
As I left the library, I heard my mom asking Gem about Mero and Tatia.
I went to my room and packed my bag. Finished with my packing, I sat on the end of my bed, staring out the window. Big fat raindrops pelted the glass, running down it in rivers. The damp smell of wet stone and wood tickled my nose, producing a sneeze.
Sniffling, I rubbed my nose and sent a silent plea that it wouldn’t rain while we were camping.
The morning turned out to be clear and sunny.
While pulling on my hoodie, a sneezing fit hit me.
“Allergies?” Bridget’s voice carried into the closet.
I walked out, wiping tears from my eyes and sniffling. “Not unless I just developed them.”
She dropped onto the couch in a huff. “Looks like I won’t be going with you guys. My mom is standing firm on me not going.”
My hoodie gave me grief as I settled it into a comfortable position, tugging at the hood at the back of my neck until it felt right. “Just as well, it will probably rain,” I said, grabbing my backpack.
Bridget trailed after me while I made my way downstairs.
I tossed my pack on a chair in the sitting room on our way to the dining room.
Bridget settled into a chair at the dining table while I piled fruit and bacon onto a plate. Her melancholy green eyes watched me pour my coffee, following me until I sat down.
“Is it bothering you that badly?” I asked, munching on bacon.
She sighed. “It isn’t that—it’s Ryan. How long can he avoid me? I only gave into my mom when Jasmine said Ryan wasn’t going to the forest if I was, and she said you guys needed him.”
“Oh.” I thought she had given in too easily. “He’ll come around.”
Her eyes flashed with irritation. “When? When I’m thirty?” At my expression, she added, “Jasmine told me all about the bond.”
“Did she also tell you how irresistible you are to him?”
She grunted. “What good does it do if he avoids me?”
“He can’t avoid you forever, and don’t worry, we will all make sure that he has plenty of opportunities to see you.” I winked.
A slow smile formed on her lips. “Promise?”
Placated, she got up and grabbed a muffin. “Let me know how the trip goes.”
She started for the doorway. “Wait, where are you going?”
“Shopping for skimpy clothes,” she answered with a sly grin.
I laughed as she disappeared into the other room.
My mom came in as another sneeze hit me.
“I hope you aren’t catching a cold,” she said, her brow wrinkling with worry.
I frowned. “I don’t have time for a cold.”
She laughed. “That’s the best time to get one.”
A piece of fruit hung inches from my mouth, and she caught my eye with a sad look I knew mirrored my own. My dad used to say he didn’t have time to get sick, and she would always say, that’s the best time.
Slowly, I lowered the strawberry to my plate. Just those few words took away my appetite.
The sharp stab in my heart hadn’t lessened since the day I found out my parents, or rather my dad had died. “I thought time healed all wounds. It still hurts as bad as the day I lost him.” Almost a year ago. I met my mother’s pained eyes.
She leaned back against the coffee bar, maybe to steady herself. “Pain from loss never goes away. It just . . .” She cleared her throat. “You just learn to live with it, and it changes over time, but it never truly goes away.”
Grunting, I slid the strawberry from the fork back onto the plate.
Mom turned to the coffee bar. “Maybe I should come with you guys,” she said over her shoulder while she poured cream into her coffee, trying to lighten the mood. She never did like melancholy. My dad was the same way.
Almost choking on my coffee, I said, “I’d prefer you didn’t.”
I thought about how awkward that would be with Adam there.
A slow, knowing smile lifted her full lips.
“Funny,” I retorted.
She set her cup down and said, “I hope you’re being safe.”
“Mom!” Right on cue, Adam strode in, unaware of the reason for my burning face.
He paused in the doorway. “Am I interrupting something?”
“No!” I said too forcefully.
My mom smiled over the rim of her mug.
“Okay.” Adam snagged a few pieces of bacon from the side table before sitting next to me. “Are you ready?”
I glanced at my mom with her head cocked to the side. “Yes,” I answered.
She snorted a laugh. Her grin widened when I glared at her.
“Please, let’s go.” I stood abruptly.
My mom’s laughter followed us out to the sitting room, where I left my backpack.
Safe in the car, Adam glanced at me. “What was that all about?”
“My mom teasing me.” When his expression turned quizzical, I elaborated.
His booming laugh filled the car.
“Glad you’re amused,” I groused.
My cheeks were back to their usual paleness by the time we reached Lily and Ryan’s.
Vinessa, Jasmine, Lily, and Gem walked through the double wooden front doors with mermaids carved into each of them. Vinessa and Lily handed Ryan their packs, and he shoved them in the trunk then closed it.
Jasmine and Gem rode with us while Ryan, Vinessa, and Lily followed in Ryan’s vehicle.
After stopping for lunch around noon, we arrived at the forest parking area.
It rained a little, but the sun shined through the clouds every so often, leaving it warm enough not to be chilled to the bone.
By the time we reached our old camping site, it was close to 5:00 PM.
I was banned from tent duty after I stabbed Ryan in the leg with a tent pole—twice.
After eating my packaged dinner, I used the designated bathroom in the trees. I followed Ryan’s raised voice back to the camp. “So I’m the bad guy because I don’t want my free will taken away?”
“Oh please, like you haven’t been doing the same to females for years, serves you right,” Lily reprimanded her brother.
Ryan snorted. “It’s not the same, and you know it, they all had a choice. I can’t help it if females succumb to my natural charms.” He flourished his hand, indicating himself.
Lily rolled her eyes.
“Being bonded isn’t like that,” he continued on a more somber note. “It takes away your will to choose.”
“It’s not like that,” Adam said so softly I almost didn’t catch it.
I watched from the shadows as Ryan turned on him and retorted, “Really, it wasn’t like that with Bree?”
Adam’s lips flattened into a hard line, and I quickly stepped into the ring of logs and sat next to him, taking his balled fist in my hand before he did something he regretted.
“Bridget isn’t Bree,” Jasmine said from the other side of the fire. Her eyes smoldered at Ryan, daring him to defy her.
Gem, sitting next to her, kept quiet, but there was a warning in his eyes that said volumes; if Ryan were to do anything that upset Jasmine, there would be retaliation.
Ryan sighed and threw his wrapper in the flames. “I’m going to bed. Feel free to talk about my bondage amongst yourselves.”
Adam glared after him, and when he moved to stand, I tugged him back. “Let him go.”
The firelight sparkled in Lily’s blue eyes as she watched her brother climb into the tent, a worried expression on her perfect face.
Morning came too early. I woke to a cold sleeping bag bereft of Adam. I quickly changed inside the sleeping bag to conserve heat—no easy task.
I glanced around at the empty sleeping bags as I pulled my shoes on and opened the flap.
Vinessa handed me a cup of coffee.
“Thank you.” I held it a moment, allowing the warmth to bleed into my cold-stiffened fingers before taking a small sip.
Adam stood from the log he had been sitting on and handed me a bowl of hot oatmeal. My stomach grumbled in reaction.
“Thank you.” I took it gratefully.
The smell of damp earth surrounded me, and I rubbed at my nose, holding back a sneeze. I sat on the log Adam had just vacated and sighed at the lingering warmth. He sat next to me after making himself a bowl of oatmeal.
I set my coffee between my legs and dug into the oatmeal.
A quick look around told me Ryan was missing. Adam noticed me noticing and said, “He went to scout ahead.”
“Is that wise with mountain lions lurking about?” I asked.
Lily emerged from the woods, and having heard my question, she answered, “Jasmine and Gem are with him.”
We ate in silence, and I thought about the last time we were here. An involuntary shudder ran through me. We were just on the other side of the ravine from where we had fought Air in Bree’s body. Another shiver surged through me as I remembered her lifeless body lying at the bottom of the ravine. Adam placed a hand on my thigh, and I jerked, startled.
“Sorry,” we both said at the same time.
Adam met my eyes. “Are you okay with this?”
“Do I have a choice?” I gave him a weak smile.
I knew he wanted to say more, but I stood up and threw my paper bowl in the fire. Downing the last of my coffee, I tossed the paper cup on top of the burning bowl.
Making my way to the edge of the ravine, I gazed out over the expanse. Warmth pressed against my back, and I leaned into Adam’s strength. His arms circled me, and I closed my eyes.
“We should get moving,” I said.
His lips sent shivers down my neck. A different kind of heat flooded me, and I let out a little moan.
Spinning around, I kissed him and felt his surprise at my intensity. He kissed me back, crushing me to him.
“Ahem.” Vinessa appeared next to us. “Get a room.”
My cheeks burned. I don’t know what got into me. I just needed to feel the spark between us that hummed to life whenever we touched, to remind me I was alive.
Vines shot out of the ground and wrapped around Vinessa’s ankle so fast she didn’t have time to react. She screeched and made them fall away, too late. Her knees hit the ground, and she jumped back to her feet with a shriek.
With her knees caked in mud, she shot daggers at Adam. “Adam!” She seethed.
He tugged my hand, chuckling. Pulling me along with him into the woods, we followed the ravine.
“That wasn’t very nice,” I said, unable to contain my laughter.
The smile on his lips made me forget everything else.
We finally came to the area that we had crossed last time, and I paused. When he glanced at me, I steeled myself and forged ahead. Climbing the other side, I focused my attention on finding the backpack.
We walked along the top of the ravine where Bree fell to her death, and I talked to keep my mind off it.
“You know she is going to retaliate,” I said, referring to Vinessa.
A smile tugged at my lips, and I trailed after him into the woods.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
Adam glanced over his shoulder at me. “I’m heading to the spot where we had seen smoke last time we were here.”
A twig snapped to my right, and I spun to face what I imagined was a mountain lion.