Authors: Hailey Edwards
“Tell my folks I would have come home. Can you do that for me?” Harlow’s voice trembled. “Tell them I would have chosen the Mother.”
The Mother. She meant the ocean. She would have returned home to her pod at the end of her year. What kind of human claimed merfolk as kin? What sort of mortal called the sea home? If Letitia had her way, I would never learn the truth of the peculiar little un-mermaid.
I captured her hand between my damp ones.
Unsure which of us I was begging, I squeezed her fist in a silent urge to run far and fast away from me. The harder I gripped her, the better it felt until Letitia radiated from the corner of my eye, and I clenched my hand until Harlow’s knuckles broke.
The girl—Harlow?—cried out.
“Kill her,” Letitia snarled, inches from my face.
The track of my mind skipped and white noise filled my head as Letitia’s fury seeped into my soul. That searing emotion became mine, and it was righteous. The mermaid was of no consequence. She was an obstacle to quenching my desire for vengeance.
Sweet anger flowed through my veins. I punched the girl in the solar plexus, and she shot backward like one of those hinged targets at the baseball toss booth at a carnival. She skidded across the clay, knees bent, and I climbed on her before she could sit upright. I hit her again. Her jaw popped. Again. Her head jerked to one side. Again. Blood cascaded from her nose over her lips.
I swatted my ear.
“Take my advice or you will take her life.”
The nagging voice kept buzzing.
“Shadow and light canno’ exist in ta same place at ta same time.”
I clamped my hands over my ears.
Shadow and light. Shadow and light. Shadow and light.
The echo was maddening.
An image flickered in my mind’s eye, a card drawn from the deck of my memories by the presence somehow rooted in my head. Two identical girls. Holding hands. Plush rabbits tucked under their arms. Matching dresses. Hair ribbons fluttered behind them.
One corner of the image caught fire. Flames engulfed one girl.
. My twin. My shadow.
“Perhaps you’re no’ a waste of oxygen after all.”
The pressure in my skull vanished. The voice did too.
The moment of clarity was brutal. Harlow lay ruined and unconscious between my thighs.
“I didn’t tell you to stop,” the Fury seethed. “You aren’t finished yet.”
Yes, I was.
Lori was never more than a thought away. Not really. No matter how hard I tried to forget the gulf of loss her name inspired. Becoming her such a short time ago only strengthened my bond to her form. I inhaled as Camille and exhaled as Lori.
Harlow’s blood stained the hem of my nightgown. I scrambled off her and hid my face behind my hands. I let sobs crash through me, allowed my shoulders to shake with fear I didn’t have to fake.
A dull thud sounded beside me.
“The hell, Tia?” a man’s voice boomed. “What is she? A kid? You didn’t say nothing about hurting no kid.”
I peeked through my small fingers at him. The man had jumped into the basin to save me—or at least to determine if I deserved saving.
Choking out a cry, I ran to him and wrapped my arms around his legs. He patted my head while glaring down Letitia, who appeared torn too. She didn’t want to hurt a kid, mothers were hardwired that way, and right about now she was thinking of her own rugrats. Even the shadow assigned to me faltered. That hesitation was all I needed.
The man wore jeans smeared with oil and smelling of diesel fuel. I reached up as if to take his hand, fingernail loosening, and pricked him with my spur. His blood sent faint tingles through my palm.
The man yelped and slung his hand in the air. “I think she bit me.”
“No.” Letitia pressed her fingers to her lips. “I saw her. She…”
A wealth of information streamed behind my eyes, years of this man’s knowledge now written on the backs of my lids. A lifetime of magical theory swelled my brain, and the hairs lifted down my arms as I claimed his talents as my own.
Letitia was the first to read the situation.
I flung a hand in her direction, a hex rising to my lips. She fell screaming and writhing. The man beside me I touched gently, and he sank to his knees in submission. The cheering and shouting I had gone deaf to vanished, leaving a void ringing in my ears.
“Who else?” I challenged.
hurled themselves at me. Mentally flipping through my options, I hit on a spell to banish darkness and yelled it as the shadows’ murky forms descended on me. An orb of light ignited in my palm. Shocked by its sudden appearance, I hurled it at them before my skin blackened from the heat. Their maws opened in silent screams. Air displaced, and the night depressurized around me. The creatures were gone. When I glanced up, the nosebleed section stood empty. Footsteps and panicked shouts trailed after the cowards.
“Run,” I slurred at them, wobbling on unsteady feet. So much knowledge crammed into a brain not hardwired for casting spellwork was fracturing my gray matter. My knees kept buckling. I was going down if I didn’t get moving.
A fierce howl sent screams tearing through the night, and my heart flipped.
The stream of spellwork flickered and began fading from memory. Every step toward Harlow might as well have been a mile. Legs heavy, I forced my feet forward until I was in touching distance of her swollen cheek. Her secret was laid bare to me now. There was more to her story—there had to be—but for now she was a mortal with life-threatening injuries the witchy man knew how to cure. That
knew how to cure, for a few seconds more.
Cupping her battered face in my palms, I blew healing Words over her face. The exhale drained me. My lungs fought when I tried to refill them. The world tilted, and my head hit the ground. I was stretched out beside Harlow when her eyes opened, and I had a bird’s-eye view while her torn flesh mended.
A heavy thud sprayed dirt over my face. The tiny grains of sand stung my eyes, so I shut them. A rough, wet tongue swept across my lashes. I pretended not to smell the coppery tang on the wolf’s breath as he nudged me under the jaw with his cold nose. He wanted my eyes to open. I wanted them open too, but they were so heavy. The magic was gone. I was spent. I had nothing left.
A harsh grunt. A low groan. A voice strained by change managed, “Ellis?”
“Lori,” I whispered, still trapped in her form.
“I’ve got you, sweetheart.” Fingers trembling from the rapid shift, he clasped hands with me. “Rest. You’re safe. I’m not going anywhere.”
I’m pretty sure I told him
I’m not your sweetheart
before my consciousness slipped, because his rusty chuckles were the last thing I heard.
reams didn’t usually jar
my teeth. The world dipped, and my head banged a hard surface. Light streamed through tinted windows and spilled over my face. The dull jab of a headache set up camp between my eyes.
. I ground my palm into my forehead, gripped the back of a leather seat and leveraged myself upright.
“Where am I?” The question came out of me on a groan.
“An hour outside of Abbeville, Mississippi,” a familiar voice replied on my right.
“Graeson?” I squinted at the blurry outline occupying the passenger seat.
“Call him Cord.” The pale blue eyes of the driver flashed up to mine in the rearview mirror. Strawberry blonde hair sun-bleached with softer highlights. Flawless skin without a hint of makeup. An artful smattering of freckles that could have been hand-drawn for their symmetry. “Graeson makes him sound uptight.”
The uptight warg in question grunted. “Ellis, this is Dell Preston.”
“Short for Adele.” She wiggled her eyebrows. “And
freaky shifter person.”
Irritated prickles swept over my skin, and my fingers dug into the headrest. Too bad it wasn’t Graeson’s skull. “Freaky shifter person?”
“Dell,” he growled.
“What?” Her forehead crinkled. “I’m a warg. You’re a warg. It’s not like shifter is a derogatory term.”
“The freaky part is probably what she’s taking exception to,” he said dryly.
“Oh.” Dell’s lips pursed as she studied me instead of, oh, I don’t know, the road. “Hi, totally
freaky shifter person.”
“It’s fine.” The opinion of a random warg didn’t matter one way or the other to me. “Where’s Harlow?”
“She’s on bedrest for the next twenty-four hours.” He twisted around in his seat. “The magic you used healed her. You saved her life, Ellis.”
“Who do you think escorted her to death’s door?” I mashed my lips into a firm line. “I used to have better control.” Vause was right about one thing, practice made perfect, and I was rusty. Relying on one of my talents to get by led to neglecting the others.
“That Fury would have killed her with or without your help.” He placed a comforting hand on my knee and squeezed. “They don’t back down. They’ll self-destruct before stopping a hunt when they feel they’ve been slighted. You did the best you could. Harlow doesn’t blame you, and you can’t blame yourself.”
He was wrong. Blaming myself was something I did very well.
“We got to you as fast as we could,” the redhead offered.
“You were there too?” I searched my memories for a hint of a second wolf but found none.
“Cord was as pissed as a cat with firecrackers tied to its tail when I fished him out of the water. He’d swallowed half the lake, and partial drowning is tough for even a warg to recover from,” she prattled on. A growl rose from the passenger seat, more felt than heard, but he didn’t comment. “Anyway, I overheard the witch talking before y’all vanished. She called the shadow things her pets and said, ‘Let’s go home.’ Graeson said home was Wink, Texas, so that’s where we went. We booked a flight and—” she slapped the steering wheel with her palms, “—rented this big honking thing then went after you.”
“Vanished?” I asked.
“I went to fetch Cord,” she explained. “I didn’t want the witch to get a head start, and I couldn’t leave him behind. By the time we reached the spot where I last saw you, you were all gone. No scent. Nothing.”
Just like in the woods. Either Letitia was an adept witch or she was friends with one to draw on magic so heavily to enact her revenge fantasy. The trip from Alabama to Texas was a long one, and I still didn’t remember a blink of it. She must have drugged me or put a magical whammy on me.
“How did you two…? Are you…?” I stared at his proprietary hand on my knee, which seemed to have put Dell in a smug mood. “Why hasn’t Graeson introduced us before now?”
“I didn’t introduce you,” he grumbled, “because I didn’t know I’d been assigned a babysitter.”
“Our alpha, Bessemer, had concerns about Cord’s state of mind. He asked for volunteers to keep an eye on him, and my hand shot up in the air. I’ve been on his trail for days.” Her grip tightened on the wheel. “Ever since…” A single tear slid down her cheek, glistening in the sunlight. She even cried prettily. “Anyway, I had a charm to hide my scent thanks to the brothers Garza, our pack witches, and I wouldn’t have confronted him at all if you hadn’t been taken.”
. I dedicated the name to memory. One of them must have been the brother-in-law he mentioned, the one with the kids using his body as a jungle gym.
As tempting as it was to ask what Dell’s relationship was to Graeson, why she had been so eager to volunteer to shadow him, it was none of my business if Dell wanted to run around in the middle of nowhere, fishing waterlogged wargs out of lakes in the dead of night like some supermodel superhero.
“Mississippi, huh?” We passed a big green sign announcing we were fifty miles from Abbeville. Mississippi was a long drive from Texas. I recalled what Dell had said and noticed the takeout bags littering the floorboards. “You drove the whole way?”
“You needed rest.” Graeson stroked the inside of my thigh with his thumb. “How much do you remember from yesterday?”
Thinking while he touched me required more mental acuity than I usually had while sleep crusted my eyes, but I didn’t stop him, and I didn’t let his caress unnerve me. Much.
I remembered the lake, the
, thinking Graeson had drowned. I recalled the basement, the igel, and almost ripping Harlow to pieces with my bare hands while trapped in a murderous rage. “All of it,” I said quietly.
“Letitia used a teleportation spell to yank you back to Wink with her, in case you were wondering.” He slid his seat belt down his shoulder so it wouldn’t slice into his throat. “She wears a medallion with a piece of her home’s hearthstone inside. A drop of blood, and bam. She’s back home, safe and sound.” A tight grin stretched his lips. “The marshals figured that part out when she vanished from her holding cell prior to her pat down.”
Well that explained how she managed to snatch Harlow and then me. “How long was I out?”
“Twelve hours,” Dell chirped. “Girl, let me tell you. You snore like a freight train. I live with wolves, and I’ve never heard anything like it. You should look into those sticky things you put on your nostrils to open your airways.”
“Dell,” Graeson rumbled.
“Um, I mean, on you it’s cute.” She flashed a smile. “You can totally get away with sounding like a runaway locomotive.”
I cracked a grin at her rambling. For someone so polished on the outside, Dell had no trouble sticking her paw in her mouth once she started talking. “So what’s in Abbeville?”
“The next victim,” Dell answered.
Gorgeous and psychic too? Fate wasn’t that cruel. Oh wait. Yes. It was. “Graeson?”
“I told you my brother-in-law is a witch.” A frown touched his lips. “He’s been casting divinations.” He finally seemed to notice his hand was still on my knee, but he didn’t move it. “We suspected Mississippi would be the next state targeted. Using the scale I found at the Brushy Creek scene as a focal point, he crafted a spell to pinpoint where the kelpie will strike next.”
Not a bad plan, but it made no sense. “If it’s that easy, then why didn’t the conclave try it?”
Dell clicked her tongue. “We were wondering the same thing.”
A chill settled in my bones. “You think they knew some of the locations prior to the attacks?”
“You said yourself that you expected the calls like clockwork. The conclave moves fast to cover fae tracks, but this would be record speed. The locations are remote, the search areas broad, and there aren’t enough eyes on the ground to find the bodies on any type of schedule.”
“It sounds like you don’t trust the conclave,” I said slowly, “so what am I doing here?”
Graeson withdrew his hand but left his fingers dangling over the console between the front seats while he watched my thoughts churn.
. He still wanted to use her—
—to lure the kelpie.
I pressed my back against the seat. The absence of his hand left a chilly outline of his broad fingers through the fabric of my pants. “Does Vause know where I am?”
“Nope,” Dell answered for him. “The less she knows the better.”
I touched my pocket and found it empty. They had taken my phone. “Does that mean I can’t check in?”
Graeson’s mouth pinched. “We would prefer if you stayed out of touch for the next couple of days.”
I pegged him with a glare. “You kidnapped me.”
“We need your help.”
“What about my family?” Pressure built behind my breastbone. “If the conclave can’t locate me, they’ll call my aunt.” I gripped his wrist. “After what my family went through with Lori, I can’t—I
—let them think they’ve lost me too.”
“Cut the girl a break,” Dell murmured. “I mean, you did abduct her while she was unconscious.”
“I brought her carry-on and laptop. I even grabbed that bag thing with the makeup in it.” He made it sound like he’d done me some huge favor by not leaving my belongings to get stolen from my hotel room.
Dell sounded pained.
“I’ll let you call your aunt if you can keep a lid on your location,” he agreed with reluctance.
“Great. I’m glad we got that settled. Any other orders you’d like me to follow? No, don’t answer that. Of course there are.” I resisted the urge to cross my legs in the confines of the backseat. “Does this mean I have to ask for permission to use the restroom too, ’cause I have to tell you, I’m about to pop.”
“No.” His gaze tagged Dell. “We have that covered.”
“I inherited your babysitter.” I huffed. “Great.”
“Sorry.” Dell hunched her shoulders. “For all of this.”
“We have reinforcements meeting us in Abbeville,” Graeson pressed. “You won’t be operating alone. We won’t let you get hurt.”
“Reinforcements.” It was too much to hope he would reach over Vause’s head to ask the conclave for support. “I assume you mean your pack.”
“Six of my best wolves.” Pride warmed Graeson’s voice. “You couldn’t ask for better backup.”
Eight wargs against one spellworking kelpie. “Your alpha doesn’t mind that you’re all off playing vigilante?”
“Bessemer obtained permission from the local alpha, as well as an offer of aid should we need more hands to take this thing down.” Graeson twisted forward and gave the windshield his attention. “No one wants a creature who’s preying on supernatural children loose in their backyard.”
“Good. Fine. Whatever.” I slumped against the door, propped my elbow on the armrest and peered through the glass. Nothing but trees, trees and more trees. “I was serious about the bathroom.”
Dell applied the brakes and guided the SUV onto the side of the road. She leaned across Graeson, jerked open the glove box and fisted a handful of fast food napkins. She pressed them into my hand and disengaged the child safety locks I hadn’t realized were on. “That ought to do it.” She flicked her hand in a shooing gesture toward the tree line. “Go mark some territory, girlfriend.”