The women at the voodoo village only practice good magic, but it still makes Raven and Hester nervous.
Raven and I ate breakfast in silence until he finally looked at me and said, “I’m sorry. Yule is something you look forward to, and you’ve done a lot of work to make it special for everyone, then I brushed it aside as if my investigation is more important. Spellyr’s dead, and there’s nothing we can do to change that. We could have waited two days to visit the voodoo village.”
I swallowed down some of my hurt. “It will make Donella feel better if the women can tell her Spellyr’s spirit is free, but I already know it is. The priest can only control bodies, not peoples’ wills or spirits.”
He nodded, looking nervous, a rare thing for him. “I thought a long time before I fell asleep last night. And since we’ve mated, you’ve gotten people to help you cover teaching whenever I go out of town on a case and might meet an enemy. You cook for me every night after you’ve worked all day. I don’t take that for granted. I appreciate it. But I’m so used to doing things my way, I didn’t stop to think about putting off my work for Yule. I’ve never given it much thought, but it’s important to you, and I should have taken that into consideration.”
I grimaced. How could I stay mad at him? I went to wrap him in a hug, and he breathed a sigh of relief.
“I love you, Hester.”
I rested my head against his strong chest. “I love you, too.”
“Are we okay now?”
“We’re always okay, but we’re not always going to agree. That’s impossible. We’re two different people.”
“I’m fine with that, but I don’t want to aggravate you just because I’m thoughtless. If we butt heads on something, that’s a different matter.”
I glanced up at him and rubbed his cheek, he looked so troubled. “Raven, we’re just people. We’re going to mess up, even if we have magic. That doesn’t make us perfect.”
He snorted. “Sometimes, I think it makes things harder.”
So did I. What had my grandmother always told me? With great power comes great responsibility. Everything had a trade-off. I stood on tiptoe and kissed him. “Lighten up, fire demon. Let’s put this behind us. Our friends are going to be here soon, and you always get uptight when we visit the voodoo community.” We both did. Their magic was similar to witches’ but different enough to make us wary.
He dipped to kiss the top of my head. “I’ll be extra wonderful at Yule this year to make up for making you miss it tonight and tomorrow.”
“I’m holding you to that.” But the man was pretty wonderful, as was. “Now let’s get ready.”
We bustled around for the next few minutes cleaning up our breakfast things and pulling on winter boots. Claws kept coming to rub against our legs, happy we’d made up. He didn’t like it when we argued. When Boaz and Cein pulled in our drive, we were ready to go.
Once we left Muddy River, the roads had been plowed, but they were messy. If Raven were driving his Lamborghini, it would be splattered with sludge and filthy by now. He’d hate that.
Cein quirked an eyebrow at me. “Looks like you two have made up. Are you okay with missing Yule Eve?”
What a sweet man. He’d caught my mood and cared. I smiled. “I’m fine, and it won’t happen again.”
The Phoenix shifter chuckled. “It’s fun watching you two. You’re about evenly matched, aren’t you? You must be on a pretty even footing.”
“That, and we respect each other.”
I didn’t tell him, but if he mated with Lust in a few years, they’d be equals, too. But then, so were Boaz and Melodia. Most of my witches had married equals. We followed the river until we came to the bridge that crossed into Kentucky. Then we drove through Drago’s settlement and past that to the voodoo village.
As we drove between the bare, gnarled trees that led there, Boaz and Cein frowned, growing nervous. The tree branches arched overhead, blocking out the sky. They couldn’t see the houses until we drove into open space again, and then they stared. Every single home was gray with a gray shake roof and a black door. The bog stretched behind them, and the cemetery and church painted black with bloodred doors sat off to the side. We could already feel the change in the air, the magic that made us squirm, and by the time Raven parked in front of Jamila’s long, narrow house, we were all on edge.
I kept reminding myself that these women only practiced good voodoo, but even that was built on a base of blood, unlike ours. And it tainted the vibes that permeated their area like a dark aura.
As soon as Raven turned off the vehicle’s engine, Jamila opened the door and motioned us inside. As always, she was dressed in a long colorful skirt and a turban. A strand of silver hair escaped from it, and she pushed it back. Her skin was smooth, ageless. She narrowed her eyes at us. “Why are four nice people like you driving all the way to see me on your Yule Eve?”
We might not know much about her magic, but she knew about ours. Raven told her about the voodoo priest and the undead he was creating and finally, about Spellyr.
When he finished, she turned to Cein with an appreciative eye. “And you? Why’d you come?”
Cein looked taken aback. “One of the witches the priest kidnapped spelled a tattoo on my arm to send her dreams to me. When I saw them, I knew I wanted to help her.”
Jamila glanced at his ring finger. “Not married?”
Frowning, he studied her. “No. Why? I’m not a virgin if you need a virgin sacrifice.”
Jamila threw back her head and laughed. “I like you. We don’t use peoples’ blood for our magic. But I can feel your power, and you’re nice to look at it. I offered my girls to Raven, but the demon turned me down. Mostly women live here. We don’t marry often, but we do want children. You can have your pick to spend the night with, one of them or all of them. Then you can return to Muddy River.”
He jerked away from her, looking shocked. “Not my thing. If I had a child, I’d want to be part of its life.”
She sighed and shrugged. “Tell the others in Muddy River. We’re looking for powerful men to make babies. We’ll welcome them, pleasure them, and then send them away.”
Cein glanced at Raven, unsure what to make of the offer, but Raven raised his eyebrows. “She means it. No strings attached.”
Boaz grinned. “Where were you when I was childless and single? I roamed this area for a while before I settled in Muddy River. I was all into fun with no commitments.”
“And now?” Jamila asked. She laced her long fingers together, tilting her head while she measured his worth.
“I mated with a siren and have a daughter—half siren, half vampire. A little frivolous fun isn’t worth my life.”
Her dark eyes lit with amusement. “I’ve heard sirens can be jealous.”
“You heard right.” Boaz gestured to me. “But Hester didn’t give up Yule Eve to listen to us flirt and haggle. She came to ease Donella’s mind, to let her know Spellyr’s spirit is free, that the priest doesn’t control it.”
Jamila’s expression turned serious. “If not for Hester, the priest’s spies would have come into our village, and he’d have sent his undead here for us. What can I do to help you, friend?” She turned to me.
“Can you call Spellyr’s spirit and send him on his way?”
With a nod, she went to get her coat. “Come with me.”
We followed her into her snowy backyard and walked to the end of her long garden, lying dormant. A chicken coop was behind her garage, and she stepped inside its fence, grabbed a chicken, and wrung its neck. Then she shut the gate, walked to a tree stump and grabbed an ax from a nearby woodpile. She chopped off the chicken’s head and chanted, sprinkling its blood over a small altar under a trellis. I’d thought it was a bench, but after I saw the stains, knew better.
When the chanting stopped, she called “Spellyr! Come.”
A breeze blew, and a spirit flew toward us. It circled us a few times before slowing and forming the shape of our dead friend. When he saw us, he smiled.
Cein’s hands clenched, but he stayed his ground. Boaz shifted nervously from one foot to another.
Jamila nodded toward us. “Spellyr, your friends are worried about you. Your time here is short before you have to move Home. Are you all right?”
He took a step toward us, and it was all I could do not to take a step back. “Free my body,” he pleaded. “I don’t need it, but I don’t want the priest to use it to kill more innocent people. I never hurt anyone while I was alive. I don’t want to now that I’m dead.”
Raven nodded. “We’ll do everything we can.”
“That’s enough.” His image started to glow, growing brighter. “You’ll find my body and release it.” He grew so bright, I had to turn my head, and then he was gone.
Jamila smiled. “He could go home now. You lifted his burden.”
We stared at each other, feeling awkward. She gripped the chicken’s legs and started into the house. “Supper,” she said, smiling.
We walked to the door with her, then paused. “Thank you for helping us,” I said. “Is there anything you need?”
“A strong, handsome man for three nights if you can find one.” Then she chuckled. “And more pouches if you have them. Two more women joined our settlement. And a new baby was born.”
Nodding, I went to the SUV, the men following me. I grabbed a half dozen leather strands with pouches and carried them back to her. Then we hugged, and I joined the others to start home.
As we sped past open fields covered with snow, Boaz shook his head. “I know those women are our friends, but Jamila freaked me out. So did seeing Spellyr. I know death. I’m a vampire. My master drained me before he fed me his blood and changed me over, but somehow even that’s not as creepy as women who chop off chicken heads and call spirits.”
Raven smiled. “Maybe you freak her out as much as she does us.”
“Maybe.” But Boaz didn’t sound confident of that.
“The thing I don’t understand,” Raven said, “is why the priest went out of his way to antagonize us again. He knew we’d kill whoever he sent on the road from Muddy River to the Druid village. He took a chance sending a small army for one person. Why?”
I pursed my lips, thinking. “Maybe this is a dare. Maybe he wants us to track him to his new location. He must think he can defeat us there.”
“Then I’m coming with you,” Cein said.
“So am I,” said Boaz.
“I promised the three witches who stayed in Muddy River after we rescued them that they could join us when we went to battle him,” Raven said. “They’re not happy they weren’t with us the last two times we fought his undead and dark witches.”
I knew Raven had been sharing everything that had happened with them. And I knew they’d stayed just to battle the priest. “Do you call them when we meet everyone at Derek’s bar?” I asked.
He grimaced. “I just tell Brown, and he passes it to the people who are on our phone chain. I forgot to add them, but I will tonight. Remind me.”
I nodded. The priest had held them hostage a long time and then left them to die. They deserved to know.
We made small talk the rest of the way home. When we were almost to town, Raven sighed. “I’d stop at Derek’s for supper, but he’s probably not open. Want to come to our house, and we’ll make something simple to eat?”
Cein shook his head. “Derek told me to stop. Since we weren’t doing Yule Eve at Hester’s, he said he’d keep her hours and stay open tonight, then close when she has her coven over for their get-together.”
“Nice.” Raven turned onto Main Street and parked in the bar’s back lot. Only a few cars were there. “Looks like a small crowd,” he said.
But when we walked inside, every table was full. People stood and cheered, “Happy Yule Eve, friends!”
I blinked, surprised, and then I saw every member of my coven in the crowd, and my throat closed. Raven looked stunned, too.
Meda laughed. “I know we screwed up your get-together, so Birch and I wanted to make up for it. This isn’t the same, but it has to do for now. We all brought party food. We love you guys, and we want you know it.”
My eyes misted and I blinked back happy tears. “Thank you.”
Our friends held up noise makers and blew into them, and the party started. No, it wasn’t Yule Eve. For me, it was even better. I loved my coven, and I loved almost every person in Muddy River. This was a wonderful surprise. Even the three guest witches and Flint were there.
By the time we left and headed home, I was on a happy high.