THE specter came out of nowhere.
A moment ago, Briony Dubois had been utterly relaxed as she spoke with one of the managers running Full Moon Brewery about adding small amounts of her hangover potion to their brews. Jerry cringed when she listed the ingredients involved, but she was confident she could win him over.
Just when she would have told him what a small amount of the potion each beer would require, a screaming ghost flew at her, his mouth gaping, his unblinking eyes wide.
Briony didn’t shrink away from the creature. She was used to ghosts and haints targeting her, and refused to show them her fear. They could use the emotion to track her as accurately as if they’d placed a GPS on her back—she couldn’t live with the dead stalking her to those places she considered safe.
That would be her undoing.
Certain Jerry thought she was ignoring him, she waited until the ghost’s wails faded, the spirit’s energy drained, to meet the human’s gaze and assured him that her herbs’ not-so-delicious flavors would be amply hidden by the sour beer they were developing.
She smiled through her sadness. The ghost was so tortured, stuck in an in-between place with the realm he was used to so close to his grasp. He could hardly get back into the realm every few days or so, and only for mere moments at a time.
The rest of his time was spent yearning for those few minutes, stretching and straining against forces he had no control over.
Had her most cherished ability, one she’d inherited from her late mother, not been taken away from her, she would have freed the poor man to the realm in which he belonged. He would be scared, but he’d be able to find peace after years of torturing himself.
Each time she’d freed a spirit before, she could feel tranquility enter the ghost or haint, like a child finding his parent after becoming separated in a crowd. Giving them freedom had been her most treasured gift, despite its penchant to draw the dead to her like a magnet, because she knew she helped those who needed it.
Now she could only sense their despair, unable to give them any relief.
“Briony?” Jerry placed a sturdy hand on her shoulder, his mustache twitching downward in concern.
“Let’s try a small batch,” she told him, shaking off her distress for the ghost. There’s nothing I can do now.
How she hated telling herself that.
“If Sebastian gives me the go-ahead, let’s do it.” There was slight irritation in the quirk of the man’s mouth, but his eyes also held a fondness that reminded Briony of why she liked Full Moon so much. There was a sense of family wrapped firmly around each employee, comforting them even if they didn’t realize it. In the past month, since she’d started working at the brewery, she’d found herself being pulled into those ties willingly.
“If I give the go-ahead for what?” Sebastian loosened his silk tie while he walked toward them, curiosity glinting in his eyes. Like Jerry, Briony sensed no annoyance in the tall, auburn-haired man. Only affection.
“In small amounts, my hangover prevention potion would add no taste to the sour beer.” Briony smiled at Sebastian’s grimace. Obviously he remembered the bitter tang of her potion, which he’d drank by itself not too long ago.
He swept a glance around the room bustling with workers measuring and tasting. “Has anyone heard your discussion?”
Briony and Jerry shook their heads.
“Brew it her way, but tell no one. If everyone still loves the flavor, we’ll sell it that way.” Sebastian’s words were for Jerry, but he stepped closer to Briony, taking her hand and tugging. “I need a date for the rehearsal dinner tonight—will you come with me?”
Warmth chased away her surprise, and she knew the glow was shining through her skin. Wearing many of her emotions on her sleeve was a part of being a witch; most of her race had some sort of window into their hearts. Harry, one of the youngest witches in her coven, had vividly colored hair that changed with his mood.
Lundie, another witch, automatically conjured weapons when she felt threatened.
Now, Briony was anything but threatened. She was elated. For weeks, she’d heard about the upcoming nuptials between the Alpha of Sebastian’s werewolf pack, Raphael, and his mate, Mary. Having spent a lot of time at the firehouse where most of the pack lived, she had a kinship with the weres while she hadn’t known them long enough to be involved in the wedding.
It was nice to be included, but the sincerity emanating from Sebastian thrilled her more. He genuinely wanted her there, by his side. She squeezed his hand. “I’ll go with you.”
She was already working out the ingredients she’d put in a few sachets to scatter around the restaurant. I’ll need bamboo for protection and luck, apricot for love, and ylang ylang for anxiety. She didn’t consider tampering with the bride and groom’s temperaments, but she wanted to address common problems couples would face the day before their wedding. Maidenhair fern. The herb would make Mary feel beautiful, and Raphael particularly handsome.
Along with a few other herbs, the fern would ensure no unwanted blemishes would appear on the big day.
Briony looked up into Sebastian’s almost-green eyes. “Pick me up in two hours?”
He glanced at his ten thousand-dollar watch, something Briony would have normally found to be silly. The silver piece appeared at home on Sebastian, a sleek strip of shining metal to represent the success he’d earned. If he lost the Rolex, Briony would buy him another just to see him smile.
“That should get us to Commander’s Palace in plenty of time,” he murmured. He met her eyes. “I’ll see you then.”
Resisting the urge to trace the point of his chin with her finger, Briony nodded and turned away. She waved goodbye to Jerry and Harry, who were talking across the room.
Outside, she hopped into her brown pickup truck. It had so many spells cast upon it, she sometimes forgot about them until they kicked in.
The other day, when she’d forgotten to slow down in front of a particularly large pothole, the truck stopped altogether, slamming her against her seat belt. Then, it only moved forward when she pressed the gas gently, allowing the truck to creep over the hole tentatively.
She really should make a list of what her truck would put up with.
It was a quick drive to her house on Dauphine, across the street from a restaurant called Horn’s. Normally, she would have gone inside and bought a Bloody Mary, but tonight she was someone’s date.
She hadn’t been on a date in five years, since the last few times Radburn had taken her out. Considering she was still betrothed to the man—no matter whether she wanted to be or not—she hadn’t allowed herself to have much of a romantic life once she left him. It wouldn’t be fair. How could anyone compete with a spelled betrothal?
He didn’t know it, but Sebastian had beaten all of Radburn’s magic the moment she first saw him.
She quickly showered, using all of the best-smelling soaps and creams a witch in her coven made, and wrapped a fluffy pink towel around herself as she contemplated what she should wear. She didn’t want to embarrass Sebastian, who was easily the best dressed were in his pack—unlike the others, he wore a perfectly tailored suit almost every day.
His idea of casual was khakis and a button-down.
Her casual was a pair of sweatpants covered in a glittering My Little Pony print. She’d rather blow up an anti-aging potion, which burned, than let him see her that way.
After a few minutes of deliberation, she chose a powder blue dress with lace lining its modest neckline. Lace also covered the tiny off-the-shoulder sleeves and crawled up from the hem hanging barely a centimeter from the floor. She ran her hands down the soft cotton. It hung straight, highlighting her curves without clinging to her.
She’d never liked her clothes to stick to her body, much preferring the materials to freely move around her. Briony especially loved the feel of lace against her skin, and the familiar swish as it twirled in layers around her legs.
Using a pin tipped with a bejeweled flower, she pulled back a section of her waist-length, chestnut-brown curls, clipping it away from her face. Done. Rarely did she care about what others thought of her looks, but tonight she hoped she passed muster.
This was her first date with her mate, after all.
Radburn had taken away her power to free spirits, but he’d left her the secret gifts he didn’t know she had, and there were many. She could sense people through their auras, seeing their personalities, the scars from their pasts, and also upcoming danger, or the disturbances of undiagnosed diseases.
Before she met Sebastian, she’d never guessed she would sense the man meant to be her soulmate. Had she known, she would have never dated Radburn or anyone else—she would’ve waited for Sebastian.
The moment she saw him his spirit reached for her, and hers held out a welcoming hand. Then, she hadn’t been able to keep from touching him, protecting him against the women who’d been screaming at him. He’d been in so much emotional pain, the dark colors tearing through his aura, she’d wanted to wrap herself around him and make everything right.
This was the man who would complete her, the only person she could trust to fight Radburn and win. It was task she couldn’t do, one she wouldn’t ask anyone in her coven to do…because she knew they wouldn’t survive it.
Neither would she—Radburn made sure of it. He took the Rule of Three, a tenant witches had believed in for thousands of years, and turned it from a belief into concrete reality. The Rule states that the energy a witch puts out into the world comes back to him or her threefold, and was used to encourage positivity and kindness toward others.
It wasn’t meant to become a hex.
Radburn cursed her so the powers or strength she used, for whatever reason, came back to her times three. Normally it wouldn’t be a problem—when her hangover potion came back at her, multiplied, she’d felt more alive and healthy than she ever had the morning after a night of drinking.
But if she hexed someone, or even punched someone, the impact would come to her threefold, no matter her intention. Her every move was magic—it ran though her veins, seeped from her pores. She had to be cautious of her every action, simply so she wouldn’t accidentally kill herself.
Her only respites were the loopholes she’d found. If she hit a wall, it wouldn’t affect her because it couldn’t feel the punch. Also, if she undid her actions quickly enough, she wouldn’t hurt herself. The time she’d stepped on a lizard, she had to heal him rapidly, using every trick she knew before she found herself pulverized.
She was certain she would be dead if she’d acted a moment slower.
Briony didn’t plan to tell Sebastian any of this, although he already knew about her betrothal. She’d told him a month ago, when he’d wanted her to work for the brewery developing new flavors for beers and increasing production. All she’d wanted was to be free of Radburn, so they’d struck a deal: if she helped out at Full Moon, he would break her betrothal to Radburn.
What she wouldn’t tell him was the way they were fated for one another. We’re soulmates; want to make out? seemed like a terrible way to begin a long-term relationship.
She needed to see if he felt that same pull toward her, if he had to refrain himself from touching her as much as humanely possible as she did him.
Tonight might be the night I find out.
Just as she pulled on a pair of heeled navy booties, the man in question knocked on her door. Footsteps sounded downstairs, telling her he let himself in. She quickly put the herbs she’d considered earlier in a few sachets, tying them tight while Sebastian’s irritated voice rose up the stairs.
“Why the hell don’t you lock your door, Briony?”
Smiling at his greeting, she swiped on some pink lip balm, grabbed her purse and coat, and made for the stairs, stopping when she saw him.
Although used to his suits, she’d never seen him in this one. A dark shade of navy, its lighter pinstripes made his eyes glow. A seafoam green tie was knotted perfectly against his neck. How can I see his muscles through all these layers? It was a question she’d asked herself often. She recognized that most people couldn’t see much of her body’s shape through the loose layers of lace she typically wore, so how was it possible she could tell Sebastian had a body honed in a gym merely by seeing him in a suit?
Yet the proof was in front of her, raking his gaze over her. “You look…” He trailed off, stopping his own words.
I look what? she wanted to shout. Instead, she smiled. “Is this appropriate?” She did a spin, allowing Sebastian to observe her from every angle.
Heat darkened his eyes, taking some of their green away. Around him, his aura was muted, a side effect of someone trying to keep their emotions hidden. She didn’t mind—Briony wanted physical proof of his attraction to her, not evidence she’d garnered using her powers.
“Yes,” was all he said, his voice strained.
Nodding, she walked toward the door. His large, warm hand on her arm stopped her before she opened it. “What was your door doing unlocked?” he growled.
“It wasn’t.” Turning around, she realized he was standing barely a foot away. She could feel his body heat, and see the waves of hunger rising from him.
He wants me!
Sebastian only looked at her, waiting for an explanation.
“My doors and windows, everything is spelled so only certain people can come in without knocking. Whenever I meet someone I trust, I add them to the spell.”
His hand dropped from her arm. “You trust me enough to let me come into your house whenever I want to?”
She shrugged. “You’d probably break your own leg before harming me or anyone else I’ve seen you around, so yes, I do.”
A slow, satisfied smile spread across his face. Briony took a step back. He followed, bringing himself closer to her than he ever had before. She wanted to arch into him but kept her base urges at bay. I need to see how he feels.
“I don’t know what it is about you, Briony,” he whispered, playing a hand through the curls she hadn’t pinned back, “but I know I’ll take advantage of free entrance to your house.”
She shivered, but she was nowhere near cold.
It had been so long since she’d allowed a man into her life, her feelings felt foreign. The only reason she wasn’t petrified was the bone-deep knowledge that she was his mate, and he hers. He would never betray me.
If Radburn ever found out she had soulmate, he’d kill Sebastian. If they were to have a relationship, she’d have to tell him, to warn Sebastian of the danger she’d put him in. The thought of her placing Sebastian and his pack in danger was enough to make her growl, especially when they’d just leapt over such a great hurdle barely a month ago.
Then, a group of Scottish werewolves had been determined to kill Heath while the Fey were driven to murder his mate, Sophia, due to a mark a Fey woman had placed on her. Sophia was Sebastian’s twin sister, and Sebastian had almost been killed while he fought the Fey who’d invaded their firehouse looking for her.
The New Orleans werewolf pack was technically a clan prohibitum, a sort of prison for convicted weres. Decades ago, all five of the werewolves in the pack had been stripped of their elemental powers, the abilities that made weres so lethal to all other creatures.
Now their Alpha, Raphael, was an Omni, or a werewolf with all four of the elements: fire, water, earth, and air. Heath had mated with Sophia, freeing his water powers as well as a rare, deeply hidden air ability. Most recently, Briony’s grandmother, Big Mama, had freed Sebastian’s bound fire powers, leaving only Alexandre and Cael with their abilities bound.
She didn’t know about the other weres in the pack, but Sebastian never should have been sent to the clan prohibitum. His sentence was the result of defending his twin sister against a soldier from their previous pack in Halifax, Canada. From what Big Mama had said on the matter, Sebastian kicked the man’s ass after he’d tried to rape her, coming perilously close to killing him.
She wasn’t fond of violence, but Briony thought Sebastian’s actions were more than justified.
While she felt for the last two members of the pack being stuck without their powers, she knew their times would come soon. Neither of them was surrounded by auras of impending danger, or worse, fury over their situations. Rather, ever-growing hope followed them, feeding from their packmates’ happiness. For Alexandre, it was hope for himself and Leila, his banshee girlfriend. Cael, however, only felt hopeful for his packmates, having given up on himself.
He possessed more self-hatred than anyone Briony had ever met, making it difficult for her to be in his presence. Normally she wouldn’t have minded his stubborn loathing so much, but she could see the way it affected the shapeshifter who obviously loved him. The way Cael acted hurt Aiyanna, bringing rarely awakened anger in Briony.
The two reminded her of herself and Radburn. He never cared about the way his actions hurt her. He was so inflexible there was no stopping him from committing the crimes against their race that made him a warlock rather than a witch. He’d chosen to be a warlock with no consideration of the pain it brought her.
“Stop, Radburn! Stop it, now,” she’d cried when she found him cutting into a young female vampire, drawing her blood into a large goblet.
“She’s young and strong—she’ll live through this.” He’d glanced back at her, his eyes manic with excitement while he broke one of the pinnacle laws witches followed: never harm another creature when creating a spell or potion.
The vampire hadn’t lived. She’d been too young to understand that only silence would keep her alive, and Radburn knew the moment she told her family of what he’d done. That day, he’d killed the entire family of vampires in their home in Metairie.
The little girl’s name had been Allie, and her parents were dentists who worked with both humans and creatures. Briony had attended the funeral, silently weeping amongst those who’d lost a family they loved.
“What’s wrong?” Sebastian’s touch was feather-light against her cheek. His expression was tender, concerned and surprised—she rarely showed her emotions to others, despite her glowing skin and the subtle changes in her eyes.
She wouldn’t lie to him. She never lied, to anyone. “We’ll talk about it after the wedding,” she told him, pulling forth her happiness over her friends’ nuptials. “Tonight and tomorrow are about Mary and Raphael. I won’t bring negativity into their time.”
To her surprise, he pulled her into a tight hug, leaning over to press his cheek against hers while he rubbed her back. She saw no reason to stop herself from pressing a kiss to the side of his neck. He shuddered under her lips, and when they broke the embrace, he was smiling.
“Ready to go?” He held out his hand to her.
“Yes.” She took it, and when he guided her outside into the biting December air, she felt only warmth.