Love means….when you’re mated to a witch, you’d better say “I’m sorry.”
We woke to heavy snowfall. After all, it was December in Indiana, and even though we were in the southern tip of the state, on the Ohio River, we still had winter. My SUV plowed through slippery streets, but Raven’s Lamborghini was so low to the ground, it didn’t fare as well. Spellyr Blaster mowed lawns in the summer and did snow removal for winter, and once he cleared the streets, my coven and I sent blasts of warm energy to melt the ice.
I liked Spellyr. He was a kind, pleasant man. When his daughter Bru, along with every other girl in Belladonna’s coven, died from a spell that backfired on them, he and his wife refused to join Blood Sharp’s vigilantes. The parents who did join him killed an innocent man because they suspected him of making the magical pouches their daughters wore that killed them.
Bru was a sad loss for Muddy River. She was young and would have left Belladonna when she older and wiser. I felt sorry for the parents whose daughters had turned to the dark arts, because I knew most of them would have gotten smarter with a little more time.
No one in Spellyr’s family was very powerful, including Bru. He was only one fourth witch, but that didn’t stop him from contributing to Muddy River. I was in the kitchen, pouring coffee for Raven and me, when I heard his snow plow rumbling down Banks Road. He cleared the town’s main streets before working on the road that followed the river.
When he’d almost reached our house, I threw on a coat and boots to carry a few cookies and a cup of hot coffee out to the street for him. He saw me and idled the heavy machine’s engine.
“Thanks, Hester!” He gratefully took a sip of the hot brew. “A couple more hours, and I’ll be done.”
“Take care,” I told him and headed back inside, grabbing the paper on our front porch on my way and carrying it into Raven. “Do you need to go to your office today?”
He was dressed in dark jeans and a lightweight black sweater. When we’d met, he only wore black in reverence to the severity of his job. Either that, or he knew he looked darned good in it. With his ebony hair and tawny eyes, black was a good color for him. He reached for the paper. “I should at least check in to see if there are any messages. Cein’s stopping by today, too, so I can catch up with him.”
I frowned. “Has he moved his furniture here yet from his house in the middle of nowhere?”
“It’s coming today. I promised to help him unload it and settle in.”
“But he’s not crossing our borders to get it, is he?”
Raven gave me an encouraging smile. “He’s staying inside your wards, so he’ll be safe. Well, from the priest anyway. Lust is coming to help him arrange furniture, too.”
I laughed. “Good girl.” She wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to be with him.
“What are your plans for today?” he asked.
“I’m in good shape for Yule Eve, so I thought I’d head to the attic and make more pouches. We’re running low on them.” I went to the pot for more coffee then grabbed a scone I’d taken from our basement freezer last night. Raven grabbed two scones and sat across from me.
He pressed a hand to his pouches, hidden under his sweater. “We don’t want to run out of these.
I didn’t like to run out of any witch protections, so when he left for work, I climbed the steps to my attic workroom and pulled down herbs and plants hanging from the rafters. Claws followed me and sprawled near one of the dormer windows in the pitched roof. Two hours later, I’d ground all of the ingredients and chanted them into power, then filled fabric pouches. As a precaution, I always chanted a spell so that they wouldn’t work for enemies or anyone using dark magic.
Since I was upstairs anyway, I took down a few of my old spell books to look through to study what my mom and grandmother had used when they practiced magic. I had a wall of books and chants from my family and other witches I’d known when they were still alive. When my ancient, good friend Carlotta was with us no more, she’d willed her spell book to me. I liked to page through them occasionally because over the centuries, someone I’d known had encountered just about anything a witch would ever have to deal with and had come up with ways to battle it.
I was jotting down new spells to teach my coven when I heard Raven’s car race down the driveway. And I mean race. Claws jerked his head up to stare at me. I shut my books and put them away. Something must be wrong, so I hurried downstairs to meet my fire demon. He entered the kitchen with Cein close behind him. The Phoenix shifter wore a scowl as dark as my mate’s. Donella followed them inside. When I saw her, my stomach knotted. She was Spellyr’s wife.
I locked gazes with Raven, and he gave a sad shake of his head. “Spellyr never came home today. He started plowing early, and it never takes him this long. He’s always home by now. Donella’s worried about him.”
I would be, too. I turned to her. “Did he stay inside Muddy River’s borders?”
Donella bit her bottom lip. “He talked about plowing the road all the way to the Druid’s village since Aengus was driving here more than usual.”
“That’s not protected.” My voice came out hoarse. We’d been attacked on that road the last time we took it. “Muddy River’s wards protect us, and the Druids’ wards protect their settlement, but we never warded the road between us.”
She wrung her hands. “I told him that. He knew, but when that man gets something in his head, he doesn’t always listen to reason.”
Raven glanced at my coat near the door. “We’re going to look for him.”
“I’ll come with you.” Claws padded by my side as we walked to my SUV. Donatella sat in the backseat with me, with Claws between us, and Cein rode shotgun. He was nearly as tall as Raven, so it was hard to look over his shoulder at the road ahead. And his shoulders were as broad as Raven’s. He kept running a hand through his wavy, mahogany hair. He was as nervous as I was.
A few minutes later, we sped through town. Twenty minutes later, we saw Spellyr’s snowplow half on, half off the road. Raven pulled up behind it, and we got out to check the area. Lots of footprints trampled the soft, white blanket of snow at the road’s shoulder. Then we saw blood. Too much blood. Claws followed the tracks and scents over the field and through a wood until we came to another road. It wasn’t plowed, so we could see one set of wide, thick tire marks that stopped nearby and then did a U-turn heading west.
“Someone drove a heavy truck of some kind to drop people off and pick them up,” Raven said.
We returned to the SUV and found the road with the tire tracks, then followed them until we came to a highway. It had been plowed. There was no way to follow them anymore.
Spellyr was gone.
Tears streamed down Donella’s cheeks as Raven returned to the snow plow. The keys were still in the ignition. Cein got out to drive it home, and we waited to make sure the plow started before we followed him back to Muddy River.
Once again, we trudged into Derek’s bar and people came to hear the news. As it spread through town, Prim walked into the bar and took a stool. The lovely Fae reached for Derek’s hand. “Are you okay?”
Our vampire bartender bristled with anger. His fangs sprang past his lips and his wife stroked his arm as he fought for control. Finally, he nodded. He and Spellyr had been friends. Spellyr mowed around the bar and plowed the parking lot. He even cared for Derek’s yard and drive at his home.
Birch came and pinched her lips into a fretful line. She looked at me. “What if he’s not dead?”
I’d thought of that but didn’t want to upset Donella. Her face crumpled, and she cried harder on the stool next to mine. I rubbed her back.
“What if they made him one of them?” Donella sobbed. “An undead?”
I didn’t know what to say to comfort her. Finally, I said, “The priest will only have his body. His spirit is already gone.”
“Are you sure?” She wiped her eyes, but more tears came.
I glanced at Raven. “Tomorrow’s Yule Eve, and then we’re celebrating Yule with friends. But the day after that, we can drive to Drago’s settlement and ask the voodoo women who live there if Spellyr’s spirit is free.”
Before Donella could finish nodding, Birch said, “We’d all understand if you postponed the get-togethers for a day or two, Hester. Will the food you made keep if we put the celebrations off a bit?”
Put off Yule? It was tradition. “The food’s not a problem, but everyone’s counting on. . . “
Meda stood at the table she shared with Brown, Gray, and Syn. She looked around the bar. Most of the witches in my coven had come when they’d heard about Spellyr. “What do you say, guys? Can Hester check on Spellyr first?”
The entire bar nodded in agreement. Syn grinned. “It’s not like witches or supernaturals believe in Santa. We celebrate the spirit of the season—giving and caring. How can we celebrate until we know Spellyr’s spirit is safe?”
Raven nodded, weighing in with the others. “Every family can celebrate on Yule, but we’ll postpone our get-togethers until after we visit the voodoo village.”
I felt my body tense. Energy prickled over my skin. I’d worked so hard to get everything ready, I felt letdown. I didn’t like it, but what was I going to do? I’d been outvoted. I didn’t have to be graceful about it, though. I didn’t say anything, and Birch squirmed nervously. So did Meda. The members of my coven wouldn’t meet my gaze. Finally, Raven glanced at me then looked away. Next year, they could organize Yule Eve and Yule.
Speedy came out of the kitchen to take food orders and Derek started pouring drinks, but no merriment filled the bar. The crowd sat subdued by Spellyr’s death and my silence. I knew I was being a downer, but I didn’t care.
Cein leaned his elbows on the bar to tell Raven, “I’m coming with you. If anyone tries to surprise you, you might need backup.”
Donella gave a raspy sigh but shook her head. “I should go, too, but I’m sorry. I want to know, but the voodoo women terrify me.”
Raven glanced at me to comfort her, but I turned my head. He’d made a decision without asking for my input, he could deal with whatever came up. “We’ll tell you as soon as we learn something,” he promised.
There’d be no we about it. He could call her with the news.
Lust frowned at her father, and Boaz said, “I’m coming, too. If you meet a mob, another ally might prove useful.”
The man didn’t have much choice but to volunteer, or Lust would never let him hear the end of it. She turned sixteen soon, then it would only be two more years before she was legal mating age. She meant for Cein to survive until then.
Raven made desultory conversation as we ate our meals, trying to include me a few times, but I ignored him. Our food finished, we all scattered close to the same time. We drove Cein and Donella home before heading back to our house.
“On a scale of one to ten, how mad are you?” he asked.
“Eleven.” I turned away from him. The rest of the drive was in silence. Claws slunk into the kitchen with us, feeling our tension.
When we crawled into bed, I faced one direction and Raven the other. When he tried to move closer, I put an invisible shield between us.
“How long are you going to stay mad?” he asked.
“As long as I want to.”
He sighed and moved farther away from me. “Are you going to the voodoo village with us tomorrow?”
“I might as well. There’s nothing to celebrate here.”
“If we’re under attack, will you protect me or join the undead?”
“Don’t tempt me.”
He moved away a little farther. If I was lucky, he’d fall off the edge of the bed. But as I fell asleep, I stared out the window at the tiny slice of moon before it completely disappeared. No silver beams tonight. Somehow, that seemed appropriate.