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Casually Cursed

Casually Cursed
Berkley Mass Market Paperback
Southern Witch Series #5
ISBN-10: 0425267830
ISBN-13: 9780425267837
February 3, 2015

Southern Witch series — Book 5

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Read an Excerpt!

Tammy Jo rarely sets a toe outside Texas, but when she learns her mother is in trouble, Tammy is determined to save her—even if it means going to hell and back…

Fresh off her engagement to wizard Bryn Lyons, Tammy Jo is surprised to make another new family connection when she meets the twin sister she never knew she had. After being spirited away to the fae kingdom of the Never as an infant, Kismet has finally escaped, and arrived in Duvall, Texas, with some terrible news: she’s on the run and their mother, Marlee, is a prisoner of the Seelie fae.

Crossing the ocean to battle the fae isn’t Tammy Jo’s idea of a romantic getaway, but Bryn refuses to let her go alone—as do her aunt Edie and her ex-husband Zach. Unfortunately, the witches’ association has its own plans for Tammy Jo and the leverage to send her on a different dangerous mission. As if she didn’t have enough to do!

Torn between the world’s most powerful witches and the ancient race of faeries, Tammy Jo finds herself in an impossible position…

Read an Excerpt


18 years ago

From under the brim of a large straw hat, Melanie Trask glanced at her sister, Marlee, who tackled the weeds in their flower beds like they were vermin that might attack the house at any moment. Mar might not be interested in botany, but she did her part to keep their supply of witch’s herbs healthy and flourishing.

“Tammy Jo, put your hat back on,” Marlee said without looking up.

“Momma, I’m doing something,” the little girl said, apparently oblivious to the blistering effects of the bright Texas sun, which was already blazing at nine in the morning.

“You can twirl around with your hat on,” Marlee said.

“No, what I’m doing is giving the sun a chance to paint me some freckles so I’ll be like a real redhead.”

Melanie cocked her head. Tammy Jo’s hair was the same flame-colored shade both she and Marlee had been born with. But Tammy Jo’s tan skin was something neither of them could claim. They always burned and freckled if they weren’t compulsive about hats and sunblock. It was a constant battle against nature to use creams to fade the light smattering of freckles, since freckles had never been “the thing” when they’d been growing up in England. When referring to red hair, ginger was a term applied with mild distaste or outright mocking.

“You don’t freckle, my darling,” Edie the family ghost said when she appeared. Their great aunt Edie, who’d died in the 1920s wore a dress with a sparkling Art Deco pattern and at least a foot of fringe on the bottom. Edie smiled when Tammy Jo clapped her hands and waved in excitement at her arrival. “Your skin goes from ivory to gold like Midas himself touched you.”

“Hi, Aunt Edie! Look what I can do!” Tammy Jo said. She twirled with her arms overhead and then bolted to the ash tree and shimmied up its trunk. She hung upside down from a branch.

“Careful!” Mel said, rising.

“The twirl was nice, biscuit, but what are you playing at now? Monkey life?” Edie asked.

Tammy Jo giggled, letting her arms dangle beside her hair. “Kiss it,” she said.

Melanie bent over and gave Tammy’s upside-down lips a kiss, then reached out to lift her down from the branch. Before she caught her, however, Tammy Jo had released the limb. Melanie gasped and lunged to break her fall, but Tammy Jo flipped in midair to land in the dirt in a crouch, like a tiny wildcat.

“Ta-da!” she said, throwing her arms out.

“Oh, my God! Mar, did you see that?” Mel asked.

Marlee glanced at Tammy Jo and then at Melanie and gave a small nod.

“Who taught you to do that? You shouldn’t be flipping out of trees without someone to spot you,” Melanie said.
“She’s okay,” Marlee murmured.

Melanie raised a brow. Both she and Marlee were extremely protective of Tammy Jo. Marlee had been excessively worried about the child being abducted from the time she’d been born. Paranoid was the word Edie often used to describe Marlee’s constant concern.

“Aunt Mel, your kiss tasted like watermelon lip gloss. Do you got it in your pocket? Can I have me some of that for my lips?” Tammy Jo puckered her pink lips. She was so cute with her impish face and quirky mannerisms.

“It’s not ‘do you got it.’ It’s ‘do you have it,’ ” Melanie corrected. They might be raising the little girl in a small East Texas town, but she’d learn to speak the Queen’s English properly if Melanie had her way. “And you tasted like chocolate. Did you get into the Hershey’s Kisses? How did you find them? Were you spying on me when I hid the bag?”

Tammy Jo looked away guiltily and then charged into distraction tactics. “Um, you know what? You didn’t hear me right. I wasn’t asking for a kiss. I said Kissit ’cause I was telling you my faery name.”

Melanie froze. “Your what?”

“My name from the faeries. It’s how come I can flip so good. I learned it in faeryland. The trees taughted me. And know what else? Our trees like the new garden, but they don’t think you gotta be so mean about the little weeds. Those plants got a right to live, too.”

Melanie’s jaw dropped; then she jerked her head to look at Marlee and Edie.

“I told you this town has all the signs of fae infestation,” Edie said. “But you wouldn’t listen. Faeries love boisterous children. And our little girl runs and dances from sunrise to sunset.”

“Where did you see faeries, Tammy Jo? What did they say to you?” Melanie demanded.

“Um, I see them lots.”

“But you know that when you see a faery you’re supposed to pretend you don’t. Remember? Because faeries sometimes steal children,” Mel said.

“Yep, when I see them around town I pretend they’re not even there. Just like the game Momma plays when that Boone who wants to kiss her tries to talk to her in the grocery store and she acts like he’s not there.”

Edie snorted and then said, “They fall at Melanie’s feet and she scoops up the good-looking ones. When they fall at Marlee’s feet, she leaves them there.”

Marlee rolled her eyes at Edie and then looked at Tammy Jo. “If you haven’t talked to any of the faeries, why did they give you a nickname?” Marlee asked.

“Oh, that’s not from here. That’s my name from when I lived with the faeries. When I was real little.”

Marlee’s brows pinched together.

“You never lived with any faeries, honey. You’ve been with us the whole time,” Mel said.

Tammy Jo cocked her head. “Well, I lived there a few times in some dreams I had. That’s when I got a special name. But in the faery town, I don’t got no momma or aunties. I just live by myself with a big man who makes metal suits and horseshoes. Only he makes me nervous on account of he forgot how to smile.”

Mel’s stomach knotted. Were they just random dreams? Or had Tammy Jo’s consciousness actually traveled underhill? Had she perhaps crossed a fae path in bare feet and carried away its magic? Could it be clinging to her even now?
“We should move,” Melanie said to Marlee.

“Move?” Tammy Jo cried. “We can’t move! I just got a real good kindergarten class!”

“We’re not moving,” Marlee said. “We’ll brew her a tea to suppress astral projection in case that’s what the dreams were. And we can give her some added protection against faeries. We’ll soak her and her clothes in a bath of oatmeal, Saint-John’s wort, and four-leaf clovers.”

Melanie frowned. If her sister thought Tammy Jo needed triple protection against faeries, Marlee was worried, too. “Mar,” Melanie said, her voice full of concern.

“Listen, Tammy Jo won’t be able to see them for much longer. Another year at most,” Marlee said, but Mel noticed the slight shift of Mar’s eyes. Did she believe that whole-heartedly? Or was she just trying to make Mel feel better?

“But this did turn out to be fae territory! We’re witches. We shouldn’t be living in the middle of a town with such a strong fae presence,” Melanie said. “Why were you so set on moving here? And staying here? It’s never made sense.”

“She’s been keeping a secret,” Edie said. “Haven’t you, Marlee?”

“The trees can hear. And so can little ears,” Marlee said. “We’ll talk about it later.”

“But we’re not moving, right?” Tammy Jo asked.

“No,” Mar said firmly.

Melanie scowled.

“Hooray! It’s real hot. I’ll help,” Tammy Jo said, grabbing the hose and unspooling it. The summer heat baked the ground, and Tammy Jo haphazardly watered the plants.

“You don’t have to water the stones,” Marlee said. “Rocks don’t get thirsty.”

“We like to hear the sizzle,” Tammy Jo said, glancing at the tree. “And it cools the dirt, too.”

“Dirt doesn’t need cooling,” Melanie said.

“The ground likes it,” Tammy countered, a twinkle in her eyes.

“Such unusual eyes. Most McKenna witches have green eyes. All three of us do,” Edie said. “Tammy’s eyes are hazel brown and golden. Like those of a great cat. Are you a little lioness?”

Tammy Jo roared.

“Tammy Jo, where are your garden clogs? Your feet are all dirty,” Mel said.

Tammy’s small feet sank into the muddy ground and she giggled. “My toes like it.”

The laughter was another giveaway, Melanie thought, of the truth they’d suspected, but that Marlee wouldn’t confirm. Even before the child started hearing the wind whisper and the brooks babble, Tammy’s laughter sometimes sounded like wind chimes, musical and pretty, and vaguely unnatural. It sent an electric shock down Melanie’s spine.

“Look at the mess you’re making. You’re dragging the hose right through the mud and getting it all over the cobbles. Hang that up, rinse your feet, and go inside. Edie will have a tea party with you,” Marlee said.

Edie pursed her phantom lips. She hated tea. Of course, as a ghost she wouldn’t actually be drinking it, but on principal she was disinclined to have tea parties. Tea reminded her of their time in England—the worst time in Edie’s life or afterlife, which was saying something, since her life in her father’s house had been no lollapalooza.

“Wanna have a tea party?” Tammy Jo asked, looking up at Edie hopefully.

A branch swayed toward the child, as if beckoning her closer. Edie narrowed her eyes jealously at the old ash tree.
“Yes, let’s go inside,” Edie said.

Marlee had never said so, but Edie was certain Tammy Jo was half Seelie fae, likely the child of a warrior, from the hints Marlee had let slip about Tammy’s father. It was the only explanation for why Marlee wanted to live in Texas on top of an underhill Unseelie stronghold. Duvall was the one place into which the Seelie wouldn’t wander and discover Tammy Jo and recognize her as one of their own. One of their own! Edie’s great-great-niece, a half fae! Edie’s lips curled in distaste. She almost couldn’t bear the thought, but when she looked at the child she felt nothing but love for her. Tammy Jo’s strange pointed features and vivacious urchin ways were appallingly irresistible. She’s ours. She’s a McKenna witch, Edie thought savagely. I won’t share her with anyone, let alone the Folk. Not that the fae would’ve been willing to share either. If they had known that a Halfling creature born of one of their knights lived with humans, they would have stolen her away. The Folk loved children and their juicy humanity. They also hated witches. How delicious would they find the theft of a bouncy little redheaded witch? Exceedingly so, Edie suspected. Oh, yes, the court would try to take her . . . if they knew.

Edie floated toward the sliding door with one last suspicious look at the ash tree. That tree may know, she thought bitterly. None of them could understand treespeak. Only the fae and some young children could understand the oldest language of the Earth. Tammy Jo, who was both a faery and a child, heard the trees whisper. If Melanie and Marlee couldn’t suppress Tammy Jo’s fae abilities, Edie would convince the girls to burn the ash tree down.

Edie glanced over at Tammy’s dirt- and chocolate-smudged little face and the small hands that hung the hose on its hook and then began braiding a vibrant green vine through her flame-colored locks. “Tammy Jo, take that dirty weed out of your hair,” Edie commanded. “Come and wash up. We’re going to have a great party.”

“With tea and red velvet cake?” Tammy Jo asked excitedly. “I love red velvet cake!”

“I know.”

“And I love carrot cake. And chocolate cake. And vanilla cake. And pancakes with syrup and biscuits with honey . . .”

“Yes, you love sweets.” Just like the fae. “Let’s go inside,” Edie repeated, and then lowered her voice to a whisper. “I know where the extra frosting is hidden.”

Tammy Jo beamed, her perfect white teeth offset by rose-petal lips.

“And you and I will throw a real party,” Edie added.

Tammy Jo clapped her hands excitedly, her golden brown eyes sparkling, and Edie couldn’t help but smile. The child really was as sweet as the ghastly cakes she favored so much.

* * * * *

The beads kept dangling over Tammy Jo’s eyes, which made her laugh. In fact, she was giggling so hard the table shook. Aunt Edie laughed, too, and motioned for Tammy Jo to fix the strap of her dress that had fallen off her shoulder again. It was a lady’s dress and much too big for her, but it sure was beautiful with its green and gold beads.

“I wore that dress to a party given by Tallulah Bankhead. A really wild affair. Do you know what she wore?”

Tammy Jo shook her head eagerly. She loved it when Aunt Edie smiled and laughed and told stories. Her stories were like faery tales, because everyone wore sparkly shoes and dresses, like Cinderella. Only the people in Aunt Edie’s stories didn’t end their parties at midnight. They ended only when the police came.

Folks in Duvall, Texas, Tammy Jo’s hometown, never wore beaded headbands or made one curl lie flat to their cheek like a little vine pointing up to the sky. And they sure didn’t live in buildings that scraped the sky. She wondered if the clouds got mad about all that scraping in New York City. The trees in Duvall sure got mad about the cement sidewalks blocking their roots.

“I’ll have another,” Edie said, tipping her fancy phantom glass toward Tammy Jo.

Tammy pretended to pour some liquid into Edie’s glass and then did pour a little more into the Velveteen Rabbit’s glass and Winnie the Pooh’s. Pooh was having so much fun, he kept falling out of his yellow chair. Tammy Jo sat him upright again and adjusted his bow tie and the black jacket she’d borrowed from Momma’s business suit. Momma didn’t work for the bank anymore, so Tammy Jo didn’t think it mattered that a little cranberry juice had gotten on it. Edie hadn’t scolded her when she’d dripped, so it must be okay.

“Tallulah wore a double strand of pearls, a pair of high heels, and nothing else.”

Tammy Jo choked a little. “Nudie Rudy?” “Yes.” Tammy Jo slapped a bejeweled hand over her mouth and giggled like mad. “You’re fibbing!”

“No. Flappers liked to be scandalous. We didn’t let anyone tell us what to do. There was power in doing whatever we wanted. Especially in coming down a grand staircase naked. Everyone stopped to watch. No one spoke. No one breathed.”
“They were so surprised, I bet. One time Georgia Sue’s brother ran into the living room naked. Our dolls were dancing, and they fell right over when he came out. They were that surprised. But then we laughed, ’cause he doesn’t know better. He’s two. But I guess your friend probably knew better.”

“She did.”

“And she wasn’t shy? Or afraid she’d get in trouble? At my school, if you don’t wear clothes, they send you home and you don’t get cookies.”

“Tallulah got plenty of cookies.”

“And nobody yelled at her or covered her up?”

“No, it was a different time.”

“But I thought you said there was snow and ice by your house. If she was naked except for necklaces and shoes, wasn’t she real cold? You said you wore fur coats over your dresses because of all that cold stuff. How could anybody go naked?”

“I imagine the gin warmed her up.”

“The gin?” Tammy Jo echoed, chewing on her lip, which tasted funny on account of the bright red lipstick she’d applied. Tammy dipped a finger into Rabbit’s glass. It was plenty cold. She gave Edie a skeptical look that made Edie laugh.

“It only works if you drink it,” Aunt Edie said. “That’s part of the magic.”

Tammy Jo grabbed the glass and gulped it down and decided Aunt Edie was right about that warming-up effect, because it burned her throat. She exhaled, surprised that no flames came out.

Edie laughed, but shook her head. “You shouldn’t have done that. You’ll get us both in trouble.”

“I don’t care,” Tammy Jo announced. “I’m Talulli Bankle. Let’s do that dance again.” Tammy Jo jumped up and started the old record player. The record was scratchy, but she liked the songs on it anyway. She shimmied and knocked her knees together so the dress’s beads and fringe danced, too.

Then the door opened, and Momma and Aunt Mel peered in.

“What are you listening to?” Aunt Melanie asked.

“What are you wearing?” Momma asked.

“What are you doing?” Momma and Aunt Mel asked at the same time.

Tammy Jo giggled uproariously. She laughed so hard she spun sideways and tripped over the bottom of the dress and fell onto a pile of pillows and stuffed toys.

“Tamara Josephine! Are those bottles from the liquor cabinet?” Momma asked.

Tammy Jo laughed harder, but then Aunt Melanie turned off the record player and Tammy Jo remembered that she was supposed to be the hostess. She bolted up and returned to her position at the head of the table.

“Welcome to my cocktail party, Momma, Aunt Melanie. Won’t you sit down?”

They stared at her.

The beaded headband sank forward, half covering her eyes like a blindfold. Tammy Jo shoved the headband up with determined fingers.

“A cocktail party? Edie, a cocktail party?” Momma demanded.

“That’s right,” Tammy Jo said, motioning to the bottles and empty juice boxes. “I’m a singular sensation, Momma. Nobody in town throws a decent cocktail party. This is the best one of the year. Aunt Mel, would you like a sidecar?”

“Oh, my God. A drunk flapper at five? That’s the best alternative to gardening you could come up with?” Momma asked Aunt Edie.

Edie flashed a smile and sipped from her martini glass. “I have to go now, precious,” Edie said, blowing Tammy Jo a kiss. “You were marvelous. Don’t believe anything different.”

Tammy Jo waved. “If you see Tabulli, tell her I said hi. And if she’s naked and cold, loan her a coat!”

Edie disappeared, and Tammy smiled up at her momma and aunt Melanie. They were so pretty with their swirly magic and bouncy hair.

“If you don’t like sidecars, Momma, I can make you a martini.”


Chapter One

If I invited a Hatfield to dinner, I wouldn’t invite a McCoy. It’s not something that most books on entertaining really talk much about, but it’s common sense. Besides the basic gunfire and bloodshed that can result from having sworn enemies over to the house at the same time, there is also the problem that they’ll be distracted by the company and won’t be able to really appreciate what’s being served. And if there is one thing that I care about, it’s that people take the time to enjoy food prepared in my kitchen.

In small towns, there are always feuds. Sometimes long-standing and bitter ones. I try not to take sides, and I definitely try not to get in the middle of them by inviting the warring people to my house on the same night. But my current houseguests weren’t neighbors or friends. They were a fae knight and a half-fae, half-witch girl. The Halfling girl was just like me . . . because she was the long- lost twin sister I hadn’t even known I had!

Getting a twin for a Christmas present should’ve been cause for celebration, but there was a catch to my sister Kismet’s arrival: She was being hunted. And if we didn’t agree to go home to the Never, the knight who’d been hunting her said that our momma would be killed. I’d never been on an over-seas vacation. I’d have been excited to go if there hadn’t been the risk of imprisonment and death. To think, I’d once thought expensive plane tickets were the biggest obstacle to my traveling the world!

I glanced at the oven timer. Only three minutes before the biscuits would be ready. Kismet had asked if I knew how to make biscuits from scratch, which tickled me. My specialty is pastries, but I can cook pretty much anything. I’d been making biscuits since I was about seven years old. At twenty- three, I could make them without measuring the ingredients. I just shook and poured the items into a bowl and could tell by the color and texture as I stirred when the batter was right.

“I’ll have another blended,” Crux the Seelie knight said, his breath against the back of my neck.

I jumped, gooseflesh rising. I pointed a butter knife in his direction. “Don’t sneak up on me.”

He smirked. “It’s impossible not to. You are completely unaware of your surroundings.”

“I’m making strawberry compote and whipped cream for my sister’s biscuits.”

“That sounds good. I’ll have biscuits, too.”

“You had cake, pie, and an entire blender full of brandy Alexander ice cream drinks. Now you want biscuits?” I asked skeptically.

“Don’t forget the chocolate. I had six of those,” he said.

Right, he’d eaten an entire tin of liquor-infused dark-chocolate truffles of the bourbon, coconut rum, and Frangelico varieties. I looked him over. He was tall, lean, and golden hued. There was no excess fat, only taut muscle and high cheekbones. He could have been a model in a fashion magazine. But I knew better than to let his nice looks distract me. He could be cunning and violent.

He and I had had a couple of fights already, but since he wasn’t holding that against me I was trying not to hold it against him either. Kismet’s reaction to Crux made me extra leery of him, though. She eyed him like he was a raptor who might move in a blur of speed at any moment to attack us. It had me on edge. But so far I couldn’t think of a way to get rid of him. Also, if I did go to the land of the faeries I would need every ally I could get. So I hoped to win him over, which is why I said, “But if you’re still hungry, you can have biscuits, too.”

“And another blended?”

I had to smile at his calling the drinks “blendeds” instead of by their name, which I’d told him several times. “Yes, sure,” I said, dragging the blender to me.

He smiled. “Offer to bake for her first thing. She’ll be intrigued, and when she tastes your sweets, you’ll have value.”

I peered closely at his face, which glowed more than usual. From the alcohol? I wondered. Were the fae susceptible to drunkenness? That would be useful to know.

“You mean the queen? I should offer to make pastries and candy for the Seelie queen?”

“Yes. The more value you bring underhill, the less likely she’ll be to punish you if you make a mistake while there.”

He talked like it was a sure thing that I’d be going to meet his queen, even though I’d told him that, being American, I don’t recognize the authority of kings and queens, especially ones who aren’t even part of my normal world. I chewed the corner of my mouth. The trouble was that the queen had special leverage. Unfortunately, when Crux had announced that the fae monarch would execute momma if we didn’t go underhill, my new sister had shrugged it off. She had escaped the Never and didn’t intend to go back. That was one of the reasons I wasn’t trying to kick Crux out of my house. I might need him to lead me into the Never. Of course if given a choice, I would much rather have had my sister’s help.

I went out to the backyard. The bespelled bluebells that sounded an alarm when the fae were nearby rang, but not loudly. I looked around, then up. The light through the kitchen windows shone on the branches of the ash tree. My sister reclined on a tree limb with her back against the trunk.

“Hello. Are the biscuits ready then?” she asked in her lilting Irish accent.

“Just about,” I said.

“You’re an apple darling for making them,” she said with a musical little laugh, and then rolled off the branch, flipping in the air to land on her feet in a crouch . . . like an acrobat. Or an ocelot. My feline companion and friend Mercutio made those kinds of moves.

I had a flash of memory . . . me as a little girl flipping from the tree in exactly the same way. Aunt Mel’s surprised face. Kissit, I’d said. Kismet, I’d meant. I shivered.

“What’s surprised you?” Kismet asked, rising from the crouch in a fluid movement, as if her spine were made of rubber and silk. Crux had that same grace.

“It’s the way you have for getting down from a tree. People can’t really do that . . . most can’t. I think when I was little I could. I think . . . I felt you. Like we shared a connection back then where I could see through your eyes and learned things from you when you did them. The way I’ve been able to see and feel you lately.”

When she passed by me, her pinkie caught mine and curled around it. My own pinkie curled too without my even thinking about it. Clasping her finger was like shaking hands or hugging: When the other person does it, you just automatically do it back. For a couple months I’d had the feeling something was missing—until Kismet arrived. When her pinkie linked mine now, I felt like a missing piece of my soul returned to me. Joy rippled through my whole body, making me want to laugh and dance. Since I didn’t want to startle Kismet, I just grinned at her. She returned my smile and winked.

“I’ll teach you for real,” she said. “To climb trees and to flip out of ’em and how to get them to lower a branch to swing you up. In return, you teach me to make biscuits and cakes.”


I didn’t hear Crux approach, but I knew he was behind me by the change in her expression. The sunshine of her smile disappeared. Her head didn’t turn. Only her eyes moved, and they were a cool, deadly green. She might look like me, but in the moments when she faced Crux, she reminded me of Mercutio, a natural-born hunter who would fight whatever needed fighting, no matter how big or how deadly. My sister was not intimidated by the famous Seelie knight, but she was wary of him. She moved between us, shielding me from him.

“You’d best go,” she said to him in a low voice. “I won’t be taken back alive. And you know that to kill me is no easy thing.”

“Of course I do.” He smiled at her over the top of his glass.

“I don’t think she’s kidding about being ready to have an all-out fight. My cat gets that exact same look, and when it comes to fighting, Merc doesn’t play,” I said, letting go of Kismet’s pinkie so I could turn to face Crux.

“I remember,” Crux said before he chugged the last of his shake.

“That’s right. Mercutio took a bite out of your neck that one time.”

“It’s a wonder he didn’t retch his stomach out at the taste,” Kismet said with a little smirk.

Crux’s smile never faltered. “I don’t know why you say it’s a wonder. You’ve tasted my blood. It didn’t make you sick.”

Her smile faded till it was gone. “I may yet, you know.” She paused. “Kill you.”

He shrugged. To me, he said, “If she planned to kill me, she’d have done it.”

“I can change my mind. Free will,” she said.

His smile finally disappeared. “You’d have to answer for it. You’re Seelie fae. Inside the Never and out of it.”

Kismet replied, “I don’t bow to the queen’s will anymore. And never shall again.”

He sighed. “You’re born of the blood. She’ll always be your queen.”

The oven timer rang. “Come on,” I said. “Don’t argue.”

“My sister’s a peacekeeper. She cares for people. Be glad her goodwill leaks all over me when I’m around her, or I might have challenged you to a death match.” She’d said it so casually, it was kind of unreal. I blinked, then swallowed.

“Um, well, death matches are illegal in the state of Texas, which is where we’re standing. In fact, fighting to the death is illegal all over the United States. Canada, too, and probably Mexico. In the Old West, there were gunfights in the streets to settle disagreements and all, but that hasn’t been allowed for a long time. At least a hundred years.”

Crux cocked a brow. “A hundred years is a long time?”

“Yep. In human years that’s a real long time. So c’mon. The biscuits are done. And everything will seem better with a belly full of biscuits.” Most times an announcement like that would be met with skeptical chuckles from people, but these two just turned and went inside, like they understood the truth about the fortifying power of biscuits. I frowned. There were moments when I felt my own Seelie roots.

I’d been raised by witches and hadn’t known I was half fae until a couple months earlier. Momma, Aunt Mel, and my double-great-aunt Edie had all kept my magical mixed race a total secret, even from me, because the World Association of Magic was against the fae in every way. It was possible that the Association would lock me up or kill me if they found out I’d used fae magic on occasion. It wouldn’t even matter to them that I hadn’t meant to or tried to. In some ways, that would make it worse. I had powers that I couldn’t control and that they wouldn’t be able to control either. They wouldn’t like that. And when they didn’t like something . . . well, they weren’t nice about how they dealt with problems, or witches who caused them.

Inside, the house smelled like melted chocolate and spiced vanilla with just a faint note of pine needles from the tree. After putting the biscuits and fixings on the table, I raised the volume on the country Christmas music, hoping to put everyone in a festive and friendly mood. Kismet’s shoulders bobbed in time to the beat as she broke her biscuit in half down the middle and dipped the right half in a circle of berry compote and then in a dollop of whipped cream. A jolt of recognition ran through me, leaving me tingling and smiling. I’d eaten biscuits that way a thousand times.

When I’d been little, Momma and Aunt Mel told me over and over, “Use a knife and cut them in half the other way. Spread whatever you want on the bottom half and put the top back on, like a sandwich. When you dip, you make such a mess, and half the time the biscuit crumbles and you get your fingers sticky by going after the lost pieces. Little ladies have better table manners.” Little faeries apparently didn’t. Neither did big ones.

A small chunk of biscuit fell onto the dish. Kismet retrieved it and dipped it and the tips of her fingers into the crushed berries. She dropped the morsel in her mouth and licked the sweetened fruit from her fingertips. “That’s delicious, delectable, and divine,” she said.

I chuckled. “We’re sisters, all right.”

She grinned.

I ate a biscuit, dipping it into butter, then the fruit compote, and licking my fingertips in the bargain.

Then a key in the door’s lock announced that Aunt Mel had arrived. My shoulders stiffened and my smile dropped. I loved her dearly and couldn’t wait to see her, but there was so much I had to tell her. And none of it would make her happy.