Naomi had thought of everything. My stomach was full of seafood linguine that had included crab she’d ordered straight from the coast. The cherry-and-chocolate sweetness of the cake she’d arranged lingered in my mouth. Some of the best wine I’d ever drunk had been flowing from the bottles still at the ready on one of the side tables in the Hallowell manor’s huge great room, and the playlist carrying through the speakers set up with her phone was the perfect mix of peppy and groovy. She’d even put up streamers, gold and silver twinkling where they crisscrossed overhead.
And all that didn’t even include the fact that she’d come all the way from New York just to throw this party. Taking it all in from where I’d ended up standing next to her as I took a few minutes’ breather, I couldn’t help saying, “You know you really didn’t need to do this.”
My cousin shrugged with a smile and a bob of her chestnut ponytail. “A witch’s twenty-fifth birthday is supposed to be the biggest deal in your whole life. I couldn’t let you spend it like any other day. Besides, you deserve the chance to make some more good memories after everything you’ve been through.”
I couldn’t really argue with that. The last few months since I’d moved back to my family’s country estate, the one where I’d spent my childhood, had been a roller coaster. The kind where you spend most of it clinging to the safety bar for dear life afraid that the next jolt will toss you right out of the car.
Naomi nodded to the two young women on our temporary dance floor. “Also I figured I really should check in after I started sending witches in need your way. How are they doing?”
I considered the estate’s newest residents. Lesley—twenty-six and recently widowed, prone to hiding behind her fawn-brown hair and rectangular glasses—had turned up at the gate first, about three weeks ago. Imogen—twenty-two and unconsorted, with an almost hyper energy that matched her bright red curls—had shown up a couple weeks later.
“I think it’s going okay,” I said. “It’s awkward, not being able to ask all the questions I’d like to or tell them everything I know, but they were both scared when they got here and they’ve relaxed a lot since then.”
“Have they told you much about why they came running?”
“Some. Lesley’s family started putting a lot of weirdly insistent pressure on her to marry some new guy just a few months after her first consort was in that accident. Which makes me wonder if the accident was even accidental. Imogen lost her parents when she was a kid and ended up with an aunt and uncle. They’ve put a bunch of suitors in front of her in the last year, and she’s gotten a really bad vibe about all of them. I think they just needed some space, somewhere no one would try to force a consorting on them, for them to start to figure things out.”
I rubbed my mouth against the itch to tell her more and the knowledge that if I tried, the oath I’d been forced to take would stop me. Last month, I’d discovered that Charles and Helen Frankford, high ranking witching folk with positions in the Witching Assembly that governed all our society, were the leads of a faction that had been essentially enslaving young witches for their own dark purposes. Dark purposes that had something to do with immense, terrifying creatures they called demons, living in a world the Frankfords had accessed through a portal in a seaside cave.
My own father and stepmother had tried to arrange a consorting for me within that circle—one that would have left me unable to deny their chosen consort’s requests or to use my magic in any way he didn’t approve of. I’d escaped that trap only through luck, a lot of struggle, and the love of the men who’d been my beloved childhood friends. But so many more witches might be caught up in their schemes or about to be.
We’d found plenty of proof. We’d stolen a hard drive from the Frankfords’ estate. Unfortunately they and their allies had caught us before we’d been able to leave with it. I’d been forced to make a deal to save my consorts’ lives. They’d sworn an oath not to do or order harm to our lives, freedom, or happiness—and I’d sworn that none of us would speak of the files we’d discovered or the crimes we’d recently uncovered. The fact that we’d managed to copy over those files before they’d destroyed that hard drive didn’t help with that. I couldn’t mention their contents even to my own cousin.
Lesley’s father and Imogen’s aunt and uncle were named in those files. Only a few times, as minor supporters, but that was damning enough. It was a good thing they’d come to me.
“Do you know if their families were involved with the Frankfords?” Naomi asked. She knew the basics of what had gone on—she’d been with me when I’d gotten the lead that brought us to the Frankfords—but nowhere near the full picture.
“I can’t talk about that,” I said, my stomach tightening.
“Ah.” She grimaced. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have asked about that tonight. This isn’t the time for thinking about that stuff. I know how hard you’ve been working from all the time you’ve spent holed up with your computer since I got here yesterday. Between you and those guys, I’m sure you’ll figure something out. And at least you’re keeping some of the potential victims safe until then.”
“That’s what I keep telling myself,” I said. The pressure in my gut didn’t totally lift.
A mischievous glint came into Naomi’s eyes. “So how has consorted life been treating you now that you can finally settle in without worrying about getting arrested or worse?”
A smile crossed my face automatically as I looked at my five consorts. None of them were witching men, which was bad enough in the Assembly’s eyes, but it was also unheard of these days for any witch to take more than one. I hadn’t been sure it was even possible until I’d managed it. For most of our relationship so far, I’d had to keep our love and our consorting secret.
“It’s nice,” I said. “Just being able to be with them, like normal consorts can.”
“Just ‘nice’?” Naomi said, arching her eyebrows. She’d been alternately amused and fascinated by my expanded consorting since I’d first revealed that secret to her and the rest of my long-dead mother’s family, even though she seemed very happy with her own consort, Gregg.
My smile twitched wider. “Okay, amazing.”
At that moment, my gaze met Gabriel’s across the room. My newest consort grinned back at me from where he was dancing with Imogen. The redheaded girl was boogying down with abandon, but I suspected from the avid glances she kept shooting Gabriel’s way that she might be developing a bit of a crush. He kept a friendly distance between them, his smiles for her warm but mild.
I couldn’t really blame anyone for crushing on him. Gabriel had always been the leader of our little group when we were kids, and he still exuded that confident charisma. The striking combo of dark red hair and bright blue eyes with his handsome face didn’t hurt either.
Kyler, my tech-fanatic, had managed to get reserved Lesley dancing too. The slim guy laughed as he tried to pull off an ambitious spin, his tawny curls swaying as he had to catch himself. His playfulness had gotten Lesley smiling, so I figured that was a win.
Not far from them, Jin, my artist, had managed to drag Kyler’s more stoic and more brawny twin Seth away from where he’d been watching the festivities from the sidelines. Jin obviously knew his moves. He whipped around in time with the beat, so gracefully it was difficult not to watch. The blue streaks in his smooth black hair glinted under the chandelier’s light.
Seth stepped and dipped with the music, his movements a lot more awkward, but the expression in his gray-green eyes was amused. As long as my consorts were all having a good time, I was happy.
It was hard to tell with one of them. Damon was skulking near the wine table, nursing a beer he’d grabbed from the fridge rather than bother with fancy glasses and vintages. His jagged dark brown hair shaded his eyes, and the set of his shoulders suggested he was missing the protective shield of his leather jacket.
He caught me looking at him, and one side of his mouth curled up. Setting down his beer, he sauntered over to us. “Doesn’t seem right that the birthday girl is stuck playing wallflower,” he said.
“I was just catching my breath,” I said. “Are you asking me to dance?”
“It’s not really my scene, but I can’t let you go ignored, angel.”
He held out his hand, and I took it. Naomi raised her wine glass to us as he pulled me into the middle of the floor. Damon leaned close, his bitter chocolate smell drifting over me as we started to move together. His hand was hot on my waist, his dark blue eyes even hotter with the promise of all the things he’d like to do when we had more privacy.
I gave myself over to that heat, to the music, letting the buzz of the wine I’d drunk take the edge off my nerves. We had a long way to go before we could hope to cut the toxic elements out of the witching community. Our progress so far had been slow. But at least I had my guys here with me, free in a way we’d never been before to love each other with every bit of our hearts.
It was getting late. After a few more songs, I noticed Lesley yawning. Naomi moved to the table to start clearing the wine. I stopped the music and said my goodnights to the two witches I was sheltering. As they headed to the guest bedrooms I’d offered them, all five of my consorts gathered around me.
They were ready to say their good-byes too. There was room for all of them to live on the estate with me, but small-town gossip traveled fast, and the unsparked employees on the estate would have noticed their constant presence pretty quick. While we figured out the best way to navigate the minefields of their regular lives, where our relationship wasn’t all that usual either, Gabriel had still been acting as the garage manager, living in the apartment overtop that building. Seth had moved into the house he’d renovated just beyond the Hallowell property, where we all sometimes met up and spent the night. And the other three guys had kept their apartments in the town that was a fifteen-minute walk down the highway from here.
But tonight was special. Tonight marked the birthday when every young witch came of age, when I would have taken control over this estate if I hadn’t displaced my father from it to the Hallowell home in Portland as part of my deal with the Frankfords.
I was Lady Hallowell in every way now. And I wanted to keep celebrating that with my consorts.
“Stay the night?” I said.
Kyler’s face brightened eagerly.
“Of course,” Gabriel said, taking my hand and squeezing it.
“Whatever the lady desires,” Jin murmured with a wink and a little bow.
We’d gotten up to an awful lot of fun of various sorts in the master bedroom’s king-sized bed. This night, I found when we reached the room that I really just wanted to cuddle. To soak up all the affection between us in one peaceful heap.
My resolve was tested momentarily as Damon helped me peel off my dress. The brush of his fingers down my sides sent a warm shiver through me. He pressed a kiss to my back.
“In the morning,” I said, touching his cheek.
He tucked his chin over my shoulder with a wordless grumble. But his voice was pleased when he said, “I’m looking forward to it.”
It was a tight fit, all of us piling together on the bed, but we’d had a fair bit of practice now. Lots of different blankets—that was the key. I ended up partly sandwiched between Gabriel and Seth, with Jin’s hand on my hip and Damon’s on my calf, and Kyler sprawled at the end of the over-long mattress in the vicinity of my feet.
With all of them there with me, all that love around me, I’d thought I might get to skip the dreams I’d been having lately. No such luck. Somewhere in the middle of my sleep, images rose up from our confrontation with the creatures in the Frankfords’ cave. That huge demonic face loomed through the portal, leering at me with a flick of its forked tongue. Then a massive arm reached out, and another. The monster pulled its torso through, its burning gaze fixed on me.
Heart thudding, I spun to run for it, and found myself surrounded by a crowd of witches in pale consorting dresses, their eyes wide with fear. “Stop it from taking us!” one cried, and another clutched desperately at my arm. A sharply hot breath gushed over me from behind.
I couldn’t save them. I couldn’t save any of them. I wasn’t even sure I could save myself.
The demon swiped its clawed fingers right at me—and I jerked awake in my bed. The room was dark, everything still and quiet except for the murmur of the summer breeze through the trees outside. A clammy sweat had broken over my skin. My pulse was still thumping.
“Hey,” Seth mumbled, sounding still half asleep. He hugged me tighter where his arm was looped around my waist. “S’okay. We’ve got you.”
I relaxed back into the warmth of my consorts, letting my eyes drift back shut. But the horror of the dream didn’t quite leave me.
It wasn’t okay. That nightmare might not have been real for me, but it was real enough out there on Frankford’s seaside property. Real enough for the other young witches his faction might be dragging out there to do whatever it was they’d wanted me to do before I’d wriggled free from their clutches.
We had to save them. The question was how.