Witches In the Weeds

Elemental Covens, Book 1

Lila Dubois

Chapter 1

Kidnapping someone was surprisingly easy, even without magic, in rural Montana.

When her target walked out of the field of rapeseed, Nimue felt a moment of hesitation. He was big. Bigger that she’d thought. She knew from her pre-kidnapping research that he was five foot eleven, one hundred and ninety pounds. He seemed bigger.

Five-eleven was close enough to six feet that it made no difference, and his broad shoulders and heavily muscled upper body made it clear that those one hundred and ninety pounds were muscle. By comparison, she was five-four and a hundred and thirty-five pounds, though her license said one hundred and twenty.

The sky above him was variegated, indigo in the east, lightening to sapphire, then azure, and finally a cornflower blue in the west, where the sun was just about to slip behind the horizon.

The field of organic rapeseed behind him was filled with millions of small yellow flowers, waiting to be harvested and turned into expensive, organic canola oil. The scent was incredible—a musky smell that reminded her of honey and mustard plants. Research into Barclay Farms, a subsidiary of Barclay Green International, had told her that they were the leading organic farming operation in Montana. Barclay Farms had, until twenty years ago, operated primarily in New York, but they’d expanded their operation to Montana, and more recently, Wisconsin. Many business and agricultural reports credited them with getting the state government to implement organic farming incentives.

None of those reports mentioned that the Barclays were one of the most powerful covens in Saol cabal, that their bloodline, like all covens in Saol, had living-things magic. The Barclays were especially gifted when it came to flora. Other covens within Saol were fauna practitioners. A common campfire story for practitioners was that the witches of Salem had been herbalists and healers from Saol covens.

Nim stayed hunched in the bed of Harris Barclay’s truck. She’d sneered when she’d first seen it, but once she’d climbed in she hadn’t been able to smell gas, only feel the faint hum of electricity. He’d modified it into an electric vehicle.

He was carrying a red toolbox, the same one he’d carried every time he walked out into a field. When she’d been following him yesterday she’d gotten close enough to catch the scent of ozone coming from the metal box. It was a practitioner’s kit, containing the foci and tools he’d need to work magic.

The truck was parked on a dirt road that separated the rapeseed from a field of wheat. They were twenty minutes from the closest town, with no one around for miles.

She had one knee on the bumpy bed of the truck, the other foot braced and ready to push off, to launch her from where she hid just behind a built-in toolbox spanning the bed.

She thumbed the cover off the needle of the syringe she held. She reached up with her free hand and took the cap off the backup syringe clenched between her teeth.

Booted steps made soft thumping sounds against the packed dirt of the road. Ten feet, five feet.

What are you doing? This is nuts. You can’t do this. This is assault. Kidnapping.

That pesky rational voice would not shut up.

She could do this. She would do this. Because when it came to her family, to stopping the curse, she would do whatever it took.

He opened the driver’s door to the truck, his toolbox rattling a little as he slid it across the passenger seat. Damn it, if the sun didn’t set soon she was going to lose her distraction.

The sun set.

The earth sighed, and then seemed to ripple, as if there was a minor wave-like earthquake that originated at the horizon, at the point where the sun set, and spread from there, like ripples in a pond, across the land. In reality she knew that wasn’t what had happened, but that was how her mind, and her magic, interpreted the transition between day and night. She’d experienced this daily since she came into her power, and was able to ignore it, focusing on her objective.

Harris jerked around to look at the field of rapeseed, and she wondered what he saw, what sunset looked and felt like to him.

She didn’t let herself wonder for more than a fraction of a thought.

As his attention was pulled by the setting sun, she leapt, clearing the edge of the bed of the truck. She landed on her feet just behind him, reached up to wrap one arm around his neck, and then stabbed the syringe down into his trapezius muscle, pressing the plunger with her thumb.

Harris reacted faster than she would have liked. He whirled, right arm knocking her back so hard she landed on her ass. The second syringe popped from between her teeth and bounced under the truck.

Nim scrambled backwards in a desperate crab walk. Harris clamped one hand on his shoulder where she’d injected him, and stared down at her.

She’d had plenty of time to get a good look at him while she followed him over the past two days. She knew what he looked like, knew he was handsome, with kind eyes and a ready smile.

The man who looked down at her did not look kind, and he was not smiling. His irises seemed to glow with a golden light. He was drawing in his power.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

It would take anywhere from a minute—if she was lucky—to ten minutes—if she wasn’t—for the drug to take effect. If she’d been able to inject it into a vein it would have been nearly instantaneous, but it was hard to do that on an unwilling victim unless she was willing to try and jab him in the jugular, and risk tearing the blood vessel, resulting in him bleeding out.

She wasn’t. First of all, because killing was bad. Second, because she needed him alive.

Harris looked down at her and blinked several times, the light fading from his eyes. He was trying to tamp down on his magic.

Normally he would have been able to sense that she was a practitioner, maybe even know which cabal she belonged to, but she’d taken pains to hide her magic, and to prevent herself from accidentally using it. Under her sweatshirt she wore a belt made out of polyester, the most unnatural fabric she could get her hands on. The inside of the belt had three sharp pieces of asteroid fasted to it. The not-of-this-earth stone stabbed into her, breaking the flesh and dampening her own magic.

“Uh, sorry. I didn’t mean to hit you.” Harris lowered his hand, then rolled his shoulder, as if trying to get rid of tension. “Are you okay?”

Oh damn it. He was nice.

“Don’t be nice,” Nim pleaded.

“Uh, what?” His words were slow, but she didn’t think it was the drugs.

“I said don’t be nice.”

“Right. Don’t be nice.” He held both hands up, palms facing her, in a gesture that could either be “back off, crazy woman” or “it’s okay, I won’t hurt you.”

She was sitting on her butt, heels of her hands pressed into the ground. The earth was dead under her, and though she knew it was due to the dampening belt, the lack of connection made her feel queasy. Like touching the lifeless body of a loved one. Though she was only twenty-four she’d had plenty of opportunities to grieve over the bodies that had once been loved ones.

Harris hunkered down, balancing on the balls of his feet. “What’s your name?”

Nim sat up, wrapping her arms around her knees. She’d figured she’d start running once she injected him, have him chase her through the wheat until the drug took effect. Falling on her butt had made that semi-impossible, and she hadn’t imagined that he’d be so nice, that he would seemingly not realize that she’d stabbed him. The syringe she’d used lay two feet behind him, so far unnoticed.

“My name is Kim,” she lied. Kim sounded enough like Nim that she figured it was a good name to give him.

Harris opened his mouth as if to say something, frowned and fell forward onto his hands and knees. Dust puffed up around him. Now that the sun had set, it was getting dark fast. His green windbreaker and red and black flannel shirt had been leeched of color, as had his dark mahogany hair. The world was now painted in shades of blue, indigo, and gray.

Nim got to her feet and took several steps back, adding some distance between them. Harris slowly raised his head. In the twilight she could see the faint luminescence in his eyes as he once more started to gather power.

“What did you do to me?” His voice was a menacing growl, as if a bear could speak. The hairs on her arms and the back of her neck stood on end.

He still hadn’t noticed the syringe, but he clearly knew she’d done something.

“No long-term harm will come to you.” She kept her voice strong, no hint of apology coloring her words. She’d thought long and hard about how she’d respond if he asked her that.

His eyes glowed brighter, and it was a sign that he was losing control as the drug took effect. One of the signs of a powerful practitioner was that they could control any outward expressions of their magic. When she’d first jumped him, she’d startled him, but he’d quickly controlled it. Now he was letting the power shine through.

For a moment she was so entranced by the glow of his eyes that she forgot what that meant. He was drawing power.

Shit.

Almost as soon as she thought the curse word, a thousand needles pierced the skin of her right arm and side. She danced to her left, frantically brushing at her right side with her left hand. Her mind conjured images of a swarm of bees or wasps stinging her. She looked down as she continued to brush, and saw dozens of wheat shafts tumbling to the ground. Their pale gold color was transformed to silver by the moonlight that was now illuminating the landscape. A dozen more were stuck in the denim of her jeans, the thick fabric having stopped them from penetrating.

Wheat wasn’t sharp. How had he turned the plant into a deadly offensive weapon? He would have had to stiffen the shafts, then control the plants themselves enough to have them bend back and snap forward, launching the newly formed projectiles. Practitioners from Saol had no power over air—that was the realm of the Scamall cabal, so he hadn’t used air magic to move them. He’d had the plants themselves attack her. That kind of power was…terrifying.

He was perfect.

This time she heard it, the rustle of the wheat in the field opposite the rapeseed. It sounded as if wind moved through the crops, though the night was still. The rustle was followed by an odd popping sound. A fresh set of needle-like flora came at her. It was instinct that had her raising her arms to shield her face. Sharp shafts stabbed her forearms, breasts, and stomach, easily penetrating the soft thermal shirt she’d bought in town in an effort to blend in.

She screamed through her teeth, frantically brushing at the quill-like things sticking out of her. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the blur of yet another set headed her way. She backpedaled toward the rapeseed, then realized she didn’t want to get any closer to those plants while Harris was conscious. She was now about ten feet from the rear of the truck, and Harris was still on his hands and knees by the open driver door. The dome light in the cab, which had provided some weak illumination, timed off, leaving them in the last moments of twilight, before it became full dark.

The fields of wheat and rapeseed groaned and swayed, as if in a stiff breeze.

The air was still.

Shit.

Nim raced for the truck. It meant getting close to Harris himself, but she was counting on the drugs having taken enough of an effect that he wouldn’t be able to attack her.

She scrambled onto the back bumper and then dove into the bed of the truck. The bed wasn’t one smooth surface, but corrugated, and it hurt when she hit it. There was a faint whistle as yet more wheat-quills passed over her head. If he’d had power over wind, he might have been able to get them to make a ninety-degree turn and shoot straight down, but as it was they sailed harmlessly, if scarily, overhead.

Harris groaned, and then she heard a thump.

Nim stayed down but twisted to look around, to make sure Harris hadn’t groaned as a distraction and was even now leaning into the truck and reaching for her. All she saw was the twilight sky, wide and long and endless. She counted to one hundred before she dared to rise.

Bracing her knees on the inside of the bed of the pickup, she peered over the edge. Harris lay facedown in the dirt, one arm outstretched toward the field of rapeseed, the other folded under his body.

His head was turned to the side, a lock of dark hair across his closed eye.

She climbed out and knelt beside him. “I’m sorry.” She brushed his hair back, off his face. “I wish there’d been another way.”

She took a second dampener, this one mounted to the inside of a leather bracelet, and strapped it to his wrist. He groaned a little as the sharp edge of the rock scraped him, but the drugs kept him under.

With his magic disabled, including his passive magical field that all practitioners had around them, she was safe to use her own magic. Raising her shirt, she undid the dampening belt. Her whole body sagged with relief. Unfettered, her magic returned in a wild rush of power, filling her and causing her to use her sight.

The night was no longer dark. The earth itself glowed. Her grandmother had a theory that what they saw was the heat of the earth, and their magic interpreted it as a series of lights, similar to the northern lights, radiating up from the earth about four feet into the air. She rested the tips of her fingers on the bare earth. Power flowed up into her. After several hours wearing the dampening belt, the relief of once more being in touch with magic brought tears to her eyes.

She pressed her fingertips to the earth. Under her hand the hard-packed soil turned powdery soft, and she sank her hand in up to the wrist. She spent a moment reaching down with her senses, down through the layers of topsoil, down to the deep places where man had never touched. She’d touched earth disturbed by mining or fracking before, knew the broken, sickening feel of that. There was none of that here. The deep earth was pulsing with untold ages of power. It hummed quietly, sleepily, almost like a great cat purring contentedly in its sleep.

She brushed her senses against it, a sign of respect, letting the earth know she was there. As she drew her awareness up, through the layers and strata of the earth, she retained awareness of the deep earth. When she hit the upper layers of soil she took a moment to examine the fields, hoping to learn more about the man now passed out on the ground beside her.

The ground where the crops grew was rich. It had been well tended, fed with fertilizer and manure. Still, it was not peaceful ground. It was worked, like a farm animal that pulled a plough or carriage every day, its task relentless and unending. These fields cradled and nurtured crop after crop, never laying fallow for more than a week. The soil was rich with nutrients but lacked any sort of identity.

But the roots of the plants…they glowed with power.

“Goddess,” she breathed. “So much power.”

She turned her head to look at the field of rapeseed. She was still looking at the world through her magic-enhanced eyes, which some called the sight, others the third eye, so the field of rapeseed was alive with brilliant green light. Each leaf and flower was outlined in light, as if they were wired with fiberoptic threads.

She pulled her hand gently from the earth and rose to her feet, looking toward the horizon. The magic-tinged flora stretched as far as she could see. It was am incredible amount of power on display.

She’d never seen anything like the endless fields of magic-touched crops.

Nim looked down at Harris. Probably his family had helped him tend these fields. Surely he hadn’t nurtured each one himself, because if he had…

If he was that powerful, kidnapping him was a very, very bad idea.

“This might be a very bad idea,” she told the unconscious Harris, “but I’m desperate.”

Nim crouched and brushed her hand against the earth, murmuring as she closed her eyes. She envisioned a pillar of earth rising, lifting the man from the ground. The soil below his back rose, tipping him into a sitting position. The rising mound of earth grew until his butt was level with the seat of the truck. Dirt spilled into the truck filling the driver-side foot well. Bit by bit, dirt displaced and Harris was shifted sideways, until he slid smoothly onto the driver’s seat.

Nim released the earth, whispering her thanks.

Nim braced her hands against Harris’s hip and thigh and started shoving him across the seat. When he bumped against the toolbox, she scrambled in, careful not to touch him, then grabbed the handle, and then pulled the toolbox out. Her fingers burned at the contact with another practitioner’s tools. She quickly dropped the toolbox into the back of the truck. A few more pushes, and Harris was clear of the steering wheel.

Standing back from the open door she extended her right hand and called to the soil inside the truck, calling it back to the earth. Every particle flowed out of the truck like sand pouring out of a bucket. When she was done, the truck was remarkably clean. She hopped in and started the vehicle.

She had the truck in gear when she remembered the syringes. Cursing, she jumped out, then wiggled under the truck. She didn’t dare grope for the second—uncapped—syringe, so had to wait for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Once she found it she snatched it up, fished around in the bed of the truck until she found the cap, then secured it. She climbed back into the cab.

Harris looked uncomfortable, with his head lolling forward, chin on his chest. Nim closed the driver’s door, then braced her back against it and pushed, sliding Harris until he was in the passenger seat. There was a spare jacket on the floor of the passenger side. She folded it up as best she could and made a pillow out of it, sliding it between his head and the window.

Nim reached out and once more stroked his hair back from his face.

As her fingers touched his skin, sparks leapt between them.

She sucked in air and yanked her hand back.

She’d never felt anything like that before. Even being near a witch from a different cabal was dangerous, never mind touching them.

She must not have put his dampener on tightly enough. Yanking up her shirt, Nim re-buckled the belt. Her abdomen was a mess—there were tiny puncture holes covering her skin. The black shirt she wore was sticky and stiff with blood. As the meteorite shards pierced her skin three fresh trickles of blood joined what was already there.

Hissing in pain, she yanked her shirt down. The magic was gone again, and she felt slightly nauseous. Around her the landscape was flat and dull, with no telltale magical luminescence. She undid the bracelet she’d placed on Harris’ wrist. There was a small scratch, nothing more. Maybe that explained the reaction—the dampener hadn’t been embedded enough to mute his entire passive field of magic. As long as she was wearing her dampener—and she had enough drugs to keep Harris asleep—she wouldn’t hurt him by resecuring the bracelet.

“Let’s go, Harris,” she told her unconscious victim. “The sooner we get going, the sooner we get to California.”

Chapter 2

Mr. Dixon? I have a client on the line for you.”

Trajan glared at the admin assistant. He hadn’t even set down his duffle bag. He hadn’t even made it ten steps though the front doors. It was the first time he’d been in the office in a week. He was looking forward to sitting on his ass in his seldom-used ergonomic chair and staring blankly at the wall for a few hours before diving into the hundreds of emails he hadn’t answered while he’d been out of town on his last job.

The young man looked apologetic. “They’re a VIP.”

Fuck.

Maybe the admin—what was his name? Trajan wasn’t in the office often, and he was drawing a blank—was wrong. “You checked the VIP list?”

“Yes, Mr. Dixon.”

“We’ve been over this. Please just call me Trajan. Or Tray.” He made sure to emphasize the pronunciations—”tray-jan” or “tray”. “Not Mr. Dixon.”

Dixon Securities had well over three hundred employees, and was still family-owned after nearly sixty years. But Trajan was just one of many Mr. Dixons who worked there. His father, grandfather, uncles, and cousins all worked for the firm. There were even more Mrs. Dixons, though they all went by “Ms.” You only had to meet one Dixon woman to know that they were at least as, if not more, dangerous than the men.

“Yes, Trajan, I’m sure.” The admin raised a brow. “Josh. My name is Josh.”

“I knew that,” Trajan said.

“I’ll take it in my office.” Trajan headed for his office, moving fast. A VIP client was the sort of person he couldn’t keep waiting, no matter how much he longed to swing by the coffee machine.

He tossed his bag onto his desk, then looked at the fancy digital office phone. The readout said Fitz Barclay.

Double fuck.

It wasn’t just a VIP, it was a heavy-hitter VIP. The baron of the Barclay coven was calling him. This couldn’t be good.

He cast one longing glance at his chair, but remained standing and picked up the receiver. “Mr. Barclay.”

“Trajan. My nephew has been kidnapped.”

Maybe he’d better sit down for this. Trajan dropped silently into his chair and jerked a pad and pen from the drawer of the desk. He wanted to ask, “Are you sure?” Even if this caller had been someone other than Fitz Barclay himself, that would have been a dicey question to ask. It was never a good idea to insult a client.

“How long has he been missing?”

“Two days.”

“Please be more specific.”

There was a pause, then Barclay said, “I’m checking with the boy’s father, my brother.”

“I appreciate it, sir.”

The line went quiet for several minutes before Barclay said, “He spoke with his mother on Tuesday afternoon. He was out working the fields.”

It was Thursday morning, meaning the boy had been missing for more than a day, but less than forty-eight hours.

“Who was he with?” Trajan asked.

“He was alone.”

That couldn’t be right. They’d wouldn’t have left a young practitioner to work alone in the fields.

Unless the nephew wasn’t young. Fitz Barclay was in his sixties, but he was the oldest of the Barclay siblings. Trajan had assumed that nephew meant teenager. He knew it wasn’t a child, since they wouldn’t have waited that long to call for help if it had been.

Practitioners’ children usually had more autonomy, earlier, than their non-gifted peers. Teenage antics and destructive behavior weren’t allowed in coven families, since teenage assholeness combined with magical ability spelled disaster. They grew up faster, and were expected to behave as adults, with all the rights and privileges that included. But giving teens autonomy was very different than letting them work the craft on their own.

“How old is your nephew? And what’s his name?”

“Harris. And he’s twenty-eight.”

Trajan set down his pen. “Mr. Barclay, since your nephew is an adult he’s probably fine.” He’s on a bender, met someone, or just avoiding his family.

If it were Trajan, it would be that last one.

“Mr. Dixon, do you think I’m perhaps having a fit of vapors?” Fitz Barclay’s voice was silky-smooth. It didn’t go unnoticed that Fitz used the “Mr. Dixon” instead of “Trajan.”

“That’s not what I’m saying, Mr. Barclay.”

If Trajan had remembered to shut his office door it would have been fine, but he’d forgotten, and it was just his shit luck that his cousin happened to be walking by right at that moment. Tiberius stopped, backpedaled, and stuck his head in the door, eyes wide.

“Barclay? Fitz Barclay?” Tiberius was only six months younger than Trajan. Their parents had been into the idea of names of power around the time they were born, hence them being stuck with the names of powerful Roman emperors.

Trajan glared at his cousin and tried to wave him off while still concentrating on the call. Tiber shrugged and backed out of the office.

“There was evidence of a struggle at his abduction site.”

Tiber had left Trajan’s door open and was now talking to someone in the hall. Couldn’t he do that somewhere else?

“Missing and kidnapped are very different things, Mr. Barclay. You’re certain he was kidnapped, there was a struggle?” How would someone manage to capture a practitioner?

The powers of the Saol cabal, of which the Barclay coven was a member, were perhaps the least viable as defensive magic. Saol practitioners had power over living things—plants and animals. Individual covens or families each specialized in one or the other type of power. The flora-dominion power of the Barclay coven made them politically and financially powerful, but they weren’t an offensive threat.

At least that’s what most practitioners thought. Trajan had once seen Fitz sparring. The baron had thrown a handful of seeds on the ground and almost as soon as they hit the dirt, tough, woody vines sprouted, wrapping around his opponent.

“Mr. Barclay, may I ask, is Harris a practitioner?”

An angry silence filled the line.

“Oh my god, you did not just ask Fitz Barclay that,” a woman hissed.

Trajan’s head jerked up. Jez—short for Jezebel, which made the name Trajan seem not that bad in comparison—had pushed past Tiber and was now standing in front of his desk. She had the ice-queen looks the women in his family were famous for. Her hair was a blond so light it was white, her eyes a pale, pale blue that darkened to cobalt and glowed when she called her power. She was twenty, and had gotten her first official job at the firm only a few months ago, though she’d grown up haunting the halls of Dixon Securities’ fortieth-floor offices.

She was also a horrible gossip.

Trajan narrowed his eyes at her, then shook his head as menacingly as possible while still holding a phone to his ear.

“Yes, my nephew is a practitioner. A powerful one.” Fitz Barclay, already a little pompous, now sounded as if he had a stick up his ass, and not in the fun way.

“You said there were signs of a struggle?”

“Yes, including signs that he’d used his magic to fight.”

Now that was interesting, and alarming. Out of the corner of his eye, Trajan watched as Tiber tried to wrestle Jez to keep her from running out the door and telling every other coven member in the office who he was talking to.

“No signs of destruction?” Trajan asked.

“No. Whoever took him wasn’t a practitioner.”

When practitioners from different cabals used their magic in close proximity to one another, the result was destruction, usually on a massive scale. Wildfires that inexplicably couldn’t be contained, earthquakes, freak tornadoes on a cloudless day, actual explosions, and animals going berserk were all possibilities. The stronger the magic users, the more deadly the reaction of their magics. The destructive interaction of different kinds of magic had been the impetus for organizing the covens into cabals. But not all magic had deadly interactions. Practitioners with fire or earth magic were able to use magic in proximity to one another. Covens with those gifts were grouped into Salachar. The Scamall cabal included those with air and water magic. The Saol cabal, which had both flora-magic and fauna-magic covens, was the only one that had an obvious correlation.

By law, no practitioner was allowed to use their magic unless they were on land controlled by their coven or their cabal, or if they were sure there was no other practitioner within a one-mile radius of their position. For that reason most large cities were declared the magical equivalent of demilitarized zones. Places like New York City, Boston, and Dallas were so densely populated that there was almost no way for a practitioner to definitely say that there wasn’t another magic user within a mile of them. Practitioners who lived and worked in those cities had to drive to special locations outside the city to use their powers.

However, there were a few major cities that had long ago been declared the territory of a particular cabal or coven.

His coven had controlled Chicago since the great fire, which had been the aftermath of two dipshits from Scamall and Saol getting into a magical pissing contest. The cow wasn’t even a good cover story, but the non-magical population of the city accepted that and ran with it.

Scamall covens had won control of most of the Great Lakes, and Chicago was now the headquarters for several Scamall covens, including his family’s, and the Scamall cabal itself.

And people thought they called it the Windy City because of the politicians or the weather.

The lack of destructive event didn’t mean Harris hadn’t been taken by another witch. It just meant he hadn’t been taken by a practitioner from Scamall or Salachar. The destructive interaction only happened when the practitioners were from different cabals.

“Mr. Barclay, does your coven have any enemies, any other Saol covens you’ve had problems with?”

Another angry silence, though this one only lasted a few seconds.

“Mr. Dixon.” Fitz Barclay’s voice could have cut glass. “I have no idea what you people do in Scamall, but the Saol covens do not attack one another.”

You people?

The wall at Trajan’s back was floor-to-ceiling glass. The view wasn’t anything to talk about, only the street forty floors below and a forest of equally tall buildings. The wind whipped through the urban canyon, howling like a banshee and making the building sway ever so slightly. The plastic of the phone receiver groaned and cracked under his fingers.

“Control yourself.” The phone was yanked from his hand. A slender finger calmly pressed the speaker button.

Trajan pushed back from the desk, turning to look out the window. He closed his eyes, which he was sure held azure fire, and reached out, through the glass, to the swirling air. It danced around him, cold and powerful. He relaxed, and as he did the gusts calmed to the normal Chicago wind.

He turned back around and looked up at his cousin. Iris was a creature of ice and wind, her body seeming to emanate power.

He winced internally. She was family. He shouldn’t think of her as a “creature.”

Her gaze met his, and he looked away first. It was hard to look at Iris. She had one cobalt blue eye, and one black. Not a dark brown, but an iris of true black. The heterochromia wasn’t the result of a genetic mutation. A thin scar ran from just above her black eye, straight up into her hairline, and where the scar touched scalp, a streak of black hair stood out stark against the white-blond of the rest. Her eyebrows were also black, startlingly so against her pale skin.

There was the sound of someone clearing his throat, and Trajan looked back at the phone.

“I’m sorry if I offended you,” Barclay said.

Iris arched one eyebrow, but she was looking at the phone, not Trajan. That hadn’t exactly been an apology. Trajan stayed silent, letting Fitz Barclay either dig the hole deeper or climb out all on his own.

“I called you because you’ve done good work for us in the past. I need Harris found, and found quickly.”

Trajan grabbed his notepad and looked down at what he’d scribbled so far. “Have there been any ransom demands?”

“No.”

“Does Harris have any bad habits?”

“No.”

“Fitz, I know this may not be something you’d want to discuss with an outsider, but if Harris has a drug or alcohol problem, I need to know about it. His disappearance may be related to that.”

“No, Trajan. He does not.”

They were back to a first-name basis, which was a good sign. Iris grabbed the pad from him and scribbled something before handing it back. Trajan took the paper and then read what she’d written. “Please send me the names and phone numbers of the relatives he’s closest to. I’ll need to speak with them directly.”

Another silence, this one tense, not angry. Trajan could feel the baron wanting to say there was no need, that no one in his coven would keep information from him.

Luckily, the man seemed to be a realist, because he rattled off a list of names and numbers.

“Thank you, Fitz.”

“How soon will you get to Montana?”

It would be nice to spend one night in his own bed. Just one night. “I’ll leave later today.”

Once more Iris grabbed the pad of paper. Trajan glanced at the note and then rolled his eyes. Iris raised her brows and rubbed her fingers together in the universal sign for money.

Trajan cleared his throat. “I’ll send over the contract now, and then let you know my arrival time. I’ll need either specific directions to the location of the abduction, or a guide. Preferably a non-practitioner.”

Most covens had employees or family friends who weren’t. What no one admitted openly was that sometimes those family friends were actually distant relations who were powerless.

“I will send you GPS coordinates when I send back the contract. I trust you’ll be able to find your way on your own?”

“Yes. Please keep your coven members away from the area.”

Barclay hmphed. “Use your skills sparingly; I don’t want our crops disturbed.”

Find my nephew, but don’t mess up my plants while you do it.

Priorities.

“I’ll email you soon, Fitz. Goodbye.”

“Goodbye.”

When the line went dead, Iris picked up the cracked receiver, looked at it, sighed, and then placed it in the cradle. “Expensive phone?” Trajan asked.

“And new, too. All our lines are now digital VPN.”

Iris was unique, remarkable even, in that she was both a scarily powerful witch and technologically savvy. And that was on top of being a skilled investigator, interrogator, and ruthless businessperson.

He knew how she’d ended up like this, but it was still sometimes hard to reconcile the girl Iris had been with the woman she was now.

Trajan nodded sagely. “Ah yes, digital VPN. I was just telling Tiber that’s what we needed.”

“Leave me out of this!” his cousin called from the hall.

“Stop listening at the door, you dumb fuck,” Trajan yelled back.

“But we want to know what’s going on!” Jezebel yelled.

Iris turned and in two steps shut the door. There was a chorus of disappointed sounds from the hallway.

“There are too many cousins,” Trajan said darkly.

Iris smiled as she turned. She wore black pants, a black shirt, and a white jacket. When she’d been younger, before “the incident” as the family called it, she’d favored flowing blue dresses and lots of jangling silver jewelry. She’d looked an artist’s rendering of a Nordic witch, and would occasionally even put a glittery snowflake sticker on her cheek like a beauty mark.

Now she wore only black and white and was the powerful, reserved CEO of Dixon Securities.

“Sometimes it seems that way,” Iris agreed.

Trajan recounted the conversation up to the point that she’d come in and put it on speakerphone. Midway through she relaxed enough to half-sit on the edge of his desk. “It’s odd that he came directly to you.”

“Is it?” Trajan settled deeper into his chair. Since he was going to have to get up and leave it soon, he wanted to make the most of the time he did have with the ergonomic leather beauty. “If the situation were reversed and you needed help from someone outside our coven—hell, outside our cabal—would you use official channels?”

“Fair enough, and you’ve done work for them before.” Iris rubbed the eyebrow above her black eye. “Make sure you charge him appropriately.”

“You mean charge him a lot.”

“Do you like what we pay you?”

“It keeps me in burgers and beer.”

Iris snorted. “Good luck, Tray. You don’t have much time, so have someone help you with your travel arrangements.”

“Fine.” He scowled at the closed office door. “I’ll ask Jez.”

“Not if you need to actually get there today. I’ll send Sarah.” Sarah was Iris’s personal assistant, and a normal human. She’d been hired away from a law firm, promised better hours and more money in exchange for her ruthless organization skills and discretion. Because she worked so closely with Iris, she was well aware that the services Dixon Securities provided relied on some extra-human capabilities. She either didn’t care or had become so jaded by what she saw working with lawyers that a boss who could probably level the city with a windstorm wasn’t even a blip on her radar.

“Thanks, Iris.”

She nodded and walked to the door, placing her hand on the knob.

A gust of wind howled past the building, so strong it sounded almost like a human scream.

Trajan jumped to his feet and whirled to the window, pressing the palm of his hand on the glass. He closed his eyes, reaching out with his senses. A second later he felt Iris join him at the glass.

He quested with his senses, trying to identify who had called that wind. It could be a sign of emotional or physical distress in one of their family members, or an indication that there was trouble brewing in one of the other wind-witch covens in Chicago.

“I don’t feel anyone,” he said aloud.

“No…it’s not coming from someone.”

Trajan turned to look at his cousin. Her head was tipped back, eyes open. She stared skyward, but her gaze was unfocused. Her blue eye glowed faintly.

“What is it?” he asked.

She didn’t respond.

His office door opened and Tiber, Jez, and a few other family members pressed in. He motioned for them to stay back and stay quiet. Finally Iris’s eyes slid closed.

“Iris?” Trajan stretched out his arms, ready to catch her if she collapsed.

She shook her head. “I need to call the High Magus.”

The tense silence that followed rippled with fear.

“What is it?” Trajan asked again.

Iris sighed. “That’s the problem. I don’t know.” She turned to face the family. “It wasn’t anyone in our coven who conjured that wind.”

Jez leaned against Tiber. “An omen?”

“Possibly,” Iris conceded. “I will talk to the High Magus, ask what the Harbingers have said.”

Jez went pale at the mention of the Harbingers.

“Be careful.” Iris pitched her voice so low only Trajan could hear.

“You think this has something to do with the missing Saol witch?”

“I’m not sure, but I think…I think that was a Wind of Change.” She whispered the last words, as if scared to speak them aloud.

A Wind of Change?

Oh. “Oh.”

“Exactly,” she confirmed.

Trajan looked longingly at his chair. The chair he would not spend the day sitting in while staring at the wall. “Well, fuck.”

Iris let out an inelegant laugh that would have been called a snort if she weren’t so ladylike. “Well, fuck, indeed.”

Chapter 3

Well, they weren’t planning to starve him to death.

Harris rolled over in the deliciously comfortable bed and watched as the hatch on the bottom of his cell door opened and a fancy tray was slid into his room. The dishes were covered with silver tops as if it were hotel room-service delivery, but the silverware was plastic.

It was the second such meal he’d received.

After tossing back the covers, he picked up the tray and carried it back to the bed. Whatever drug they’d used when they kidnapped him was finally wearing off.

He propped up the pillows and sat back against them, tray on his lap. Breakfast food, as he suspected. Though there were no windows in the large concrete cell, his internal clock was telling him it was morning. He poked through the scrambled eggs and veggies, but everything had been well cooked and the tomatoes had been seeded. Whoever his captors were, they knew enough about his magic to know that he might be able to coax life from a seed or a raw plant product.

He should probably be more afraid than he was. Right now he was lethargic and hungry. After a few bites of food, he forced himself to stop just lying there thinking. Time to start doing something about his current situation.

The last thing he clearly remembered was working with a field of rapeseed. That had been Tuesday just before sunset. He looked down at his half-eaten breakfast. Was it Wednesday morning? No, that didn’t seem right. More time had passed. There were other things he remembered, though those were hazy and he wasn’t sure what was a memory and what had been a dream. He’d slept deeply and soundly last night, an experience that was novel for him.

The more he thought about it, the more he was sure that he hadn’t been gone for a single night. It had been longer. He’d been in a car, then a plane. Or had that been one of the dreams?

Another hatch in the cell door opened. This one was midway up, and square, unlike the large rectangular one near the floor.

“Can I get you anything, Mr. Barclay?”

That voice. He recognized that voice. Who was it?

The girl.

He was ninety percent sure that the girl had been real. If his memory could be trusted, she’d run into him when he walked out of the rapeseed. He remembered feeling something sharp near his neck and spinning around. She’d fallen back, a slender young woman with dark hair and pale gray eyes the color of slate.

He’d dreamed about her.

Considering his current predicament, she probably hadn’t run into him, but rather attacked him. That stabbing feeling must have been a needle. She’d drugged him.

“Is there any point in asking you to let me go?” He put some eggs onto a bit of waffle and then dunked the whole thing in syrup before eating it. No one could see what he was doing, so he could go nuts.

“I want to let you go, and I will, if you help me with something first.” Her voice was contrite and soft.

“If you wanted my help, kidnapping me may not have been the way to go.”

There was a pregnant silence, and when she spoke again her voice had lost most of the contriteness. “I’m sorry, but I think you’ll understand why it had to be this way, for both our sakes.”

Harris shrugged, aware she couldn’t see him, and took another bite. He should probably be more freaked out than he was. He’d been kidnapped, after all.

Except the cell they’d put him in was designed for comfort. There was an en-suite bathroom. The bed was more enjoyable than what he had at home, and there was a small bookcase filled with reading material and a nice arm chair.

If not for the fact that he’d been sleeping most of the time he’d been in this room, he would have practically considered it a vacation.

“What day is it?” he asked.

“It’s Thursday. I’m sorry about that. You reacted to the medicine we gave you more strongly than anticipated.”

“Medicine. Right.” He ate more eggs.

“I’m sorry, Harris.” The woman was back to sounding genuinely worried. “I couldn’t risk you attacking me again. I had to keep you asleep.”

“Attacking you?” Even as he asked the question he remembered more about that night.

Holy crap, he’d used magic to attack her.

“Are you okay?” He set the tray aside and went to the door, bending to peer out the hatch.

Outside his cell door was a concrete hall. More artificial light. Nothing living, except the woman, who must have been standing off to the side, just out of sight. He was able to pinpoint her because of her voice.

“Don’t,” she pleaded.

“Don’t what?”

“Don’t be nice.”

Harris rubbed his head. “You’ve said that before.”

“How much do you remember?”

“It’s coming back, bit by bit. What did you give me?”

“Ketamine.”

“Horse tranquilizer?” His voice was pitched a bit higher than normal.

“Only a little bit.”

“Oh, well, in that case.”

The apology disappeared from her voice. “You were smiling the whole time.”

“I was high as a kite. No wonder I’m so relaxed.” And no wonder he’d had such vivid dreams.

“You’re relaxed?” Now she sounded relieved. “That’s good.”

Harris leaned against the wall, starting to enjoy the conversation. “Don’t get me wrong, I’d still prefer not to be a prisoner.”

“Right.” Her tone firmed. “Let’s talk about that. I need your help. Agree to help me and I’ll let you go.”

“I want to believe you.” He retreated to the bed and went back to eating breakfast.

“But?”

“But you kidnapped me instead of asking me for help.”

“I had to. For both our sakes.”

“You kidnapped me to help me?”

“Yes.”

Harris laughed. “Maybe I’m still a little drugged, but I’m having a hard time taking this whole situation seriously.”

“Please, Mr. Barclay, this is very serious. It’s life or death.”

Harris’s fork stopped halfway to this mouth. Life or death? He looked down at the food. Had she poisoned it? Maybe she had, and she’d give him the antidote only if he helped her.

“Wait! Wait, that’s not how I meant it.” She made a frustrated sound. “For me it’s life or death. All I need is a little bit of your time, and your magic.”

Harris took a sip of water from the bottle included on the tray. “Magic? Lady, you must be high—there’s no such thing as magic.”

“Mr. Barclay, I know.”

Harris sighed. It had been a weak attempt at secrecy. The magical community didn’t actively try to hide. There was no need. Most of the population was so unwilling to even entertain the idea of magic that they would never believe it, even if they saw it happening before their eyes. Oh, sure, people enjoyed illusionists and stage magic, but deep down they knew it was a trick.

Humanity’s willful ignorance aside, that didn’t mean it was a good idea to go around making full-grown trees spring up in the middle of a parking lot. One of his cousins had done that.

“Harris,” he said. “Call me Harris, and you’re…Kim, right?”

“You remember.”

“So, Kim, you know about magic and you kidnapped me.” As soon as he said it, another possible explanation for what was going on occurred to him. He softened his voice. “Magic isn’t, well, magic. I can’t make you rich or cure cancer. I’m sorry if that’s what you were hoping for.”

“I know you can’t cure cancer, but you can cure my crops.”

That got his attention. “Your crops?”

“Yes. There’s a blight attacking them. I’ve done everything I can, but nothing is working. It’s spreading.”

“Diseased crops need to be tilled.”

“That’s not an option. I don’t have time.” Her voice was firm.

Harris loved talking about plants. They were his passion and his job. He went into lecture mode. “If it’s a naturally occurring disease, there’s a reason for it. Most times nature has a reason.” Harris’s family had, a generation ago, fought to stop park rangers from putting out small, naturally occurring fires in the redwood forests. The park service hadn’t understood that the fire was necessary to the growth of new redwoods. The fires cleared the forest floors and let the saplings get light.

“This isn’t naturally occurring, Harris.”

It was a bit startling to hear her use his name. “How do you know?”

“I know.” Though parts of the last few days were fuzzy, he now remembered most of the kidnapping, including a little spark when he’d touched her.

Maybe she’d used a Taser on him, and that was the spark he was remembering, though from the YouTube videos he’d seen, Tasers weren’t exactly a little spark.

There was another possibility. A far more dangerous one.

He closed his eyes and felt the air, trying to sense the presence of another practitioner. There was a tingle of what might have been magic, but it didn’t feel the way he was used to, when sensing another witch’s passive field of magic.

Maybe he was wrong.

But there was another damning piece of evidence—her insistence that she’d kidnapped him for both their sakes.

Harris put his empty tray on the floor. “Any chance I could get some coffee?”

There was a pause before she said, “Oh, sure, hold on.”

He listened to her footsteps, then raced to the door, sticking his arm out through the four-by-four-inch hatch she’d left open. He felt around for the door handle, and encountered a padlock. He pulled his arm back through, leaving a bit of skin in its wake, and retreated. It had been a long shot, but worth a try.

He positioned himself by the door, heart starting to pound as he thought about that spark and her words. Both pointed to the same conclusion, but surely he was wrong. No one would be so insane or reckless.

“Here you go.” Kim held a large white mug halfway through the open hatch.

Time to test his theory.

Harris took a breath, then moved fast. He grabbed the mug with his left hand and pulled hard. As he’d hoped, she instinctively kept ahold of the handle for a moment, and her hand was drawn through into the cell. He grabbed hold of her wrist with his right hand.

The earth shook. Not in a metaphorical sense. An earthquake made the ground buck and roll, strong enough to knock Harris to his knees. Kim screamed at him to let go, but he was blinded and nearly deaf from the pulsing magic that accompanied the quake. It was a wave of colorless light and soundless noise.

Kim wrenched her wrist from his hand. The light and sounds quieted, though it took a moment for the earth to settle. There were cracks in the concrete walls of his cell, and water was spraying in the bathroom, probably from a broken pipe.

“You idiot,” Kim snapped.

Harris looked at the door, outraged. “I’m an idiot? You’re a practitioner.”

“Yes.”

“From an earth coven?” His voice rose to a yelp at the end of the question.

“Yes,” she snarled.

“You’re a member of the Salachar cabal!” he yelled.

It hadn’t been a question, but she answered as if it had been. “Yep.”

“Are you crazy?”

“I’m desperate.”

That stopped Harris’s next words. The earth rumbled with an aftershock. He forced himself to calm down.

“We shouldn’t be anywhere near each other.”

It was forbidden for two practitioners from different cabals to be within a mile of one another. Her statement that she’d kidnapped him for both their sakes had been what got him thinking about the possibility that she was from a different Saol coven, a coven who couldn’t publicly hire him, or ask for his help. It had never occurred to him that she was from a different cabal.

“I have a dampening belt.” She was panting a little, and cursed once or twice.

Harris carefully braced his hands on the door, then peered out the hatch. Kim knelt on the floor in the concrete hall. The earthquake hadn’t been the only reaction to their touch. Wild roses had sprouted through a crack in the wall opposite his cell door. Where there had once been nothing, there was now a briar of pale pink roses. Kim knelt among them, bound in place by the thick, thorny stems, which had wrapped around her like ropes.

She was held in a position that was a near mirror of his own. Her right hand was about two inches from the door, while her left was bound to her side. She was on her knees, her head tipped back so she was looking up at the ceiling. A thick rose stalk had wound around her neck and a two-inch-long thorn protruded from it, the tip pressed into the underside of her jaw. A thin line of blood ran down her neck.

“Uh…” Harris looked at her. “Well, it could be worse.”

“It could?” The words were a bit garbled, since she was speaking through clenched teeth.

She had long dark hair as he’d remembered, and a copper skin tone. He couldn’t see much of her face, but from what he could see, and what he remembered, she seemed young. Roses had wound through and bloomed in her hair, so she seemed to have a crown of pale pink flowers. She wore all black—leggings and a long tunic.

“It could,” he assured her.

“But I’m wearing a dampening belt.”

That made him pause. “An earthquake and a briar from one touch, and that’s with your magic muted?”

“Goddess.” She breathed the word, a prayer, a plea. “I thought we’d be safe with the dampening belt.”

Harris swallowed. “There shouldn’t have been a reaction. Maybe it’s not working.”

He lived in rural Montana, so bumping into people wasn’t something he worried about, but in larger cities that weren’t held by a particular cabal, there were plenty of practitioners who lived together peacefully. No one used magic, and nothing blew up. Usually practitioners could feel one another’s passive magic, and could therefore avoid one another.

Surely if a simple touch could cause this kind of reaction, the cabals would have put other restrictions in place. What happened if practitioners from different cabals shook hands? Before now Harris would have said there would be a small spark of magic, similar to what he’d felt that first night.

“I’m going to reach through and try to get the thorn out from under your chin,” he told her.

“Don’t touch me,” she warned.

“I won’t. I have no desire to repeat that.”

He shoved his arm through. It would have been simpler, and more satisfying, to call on his power and coax the plant into easing away from her, but using magic was out of the question.

He managed to wrap one finger around the thorn under her chin without touching her bare neck, and with a small apology to the plant, he broke it off. He pulled his arm back through the hatch.

Kim sighed in relief and lowered her chin.

Their gazes met.

Goddess, she was beautiful. He hadn’t remembered that. Or hadn’t seen her well enough to notice. She had high cheekbones, a narrow jaw, and the most kissable lips he’d ever seen. Her eyes were, as he’d remembered, a lovely silver, rimmed with dark lashes. They seemed startlingly pale in the darker skin of her face.

Maybe he had Stockholm Syndrome, and that’s why he was thinking about kissing her.

“How do you want to play this?” he asked.

Kim pursed her lips. “I can get out of here on my own.”

“You could,” he agreed.

“It will take some time.”

“Yes.”

“And it will hurt.”

“Probably.”

She sighed. “I’ve been poked full of more holes since I met you…”

“Met me?”

“Okay, fine, kidnapped you.”

For some stupid reason he smiled. “You dampening your power right now?”

“I am.”

That meant that he should be able to use his own power, as long as he didn’t touch her. “The other option is for me to help you, but if I do, you have to let me out.”

“I’m not letting you out until you agree to help me.”

Harris reached back through the hatch and lightly stroked the rose vine closest to him. Kim cried out in pain.

Damn, he hadn’t meant to hurt her that badly. But the lack of reaction meant he’d been right. He could use his magic without causing a reaction, as long as she was dampening her own, and he didn’t have skin-to-skin contact with her.

“Don’t do that,” she gasped. “I might not be able to stop myself if it hurts any more.”

“I thought you had a dampener.”

“It’s not a perfect system,” she snapped.

“A few little thorn pricks won’t—”

“There’s a thorn stabbing into my left calf, another in my right thigh, and one that may or may not be jabbed into my kidney.”

“Oh.”

Kim sighed. “It hurts, but not enough to make me let you go.”

Harris regarded her through the small hole in the door. “I could make your current situation worse.”

Her lips formed a thin, flat line. “You could. But if you do I might use my magic, and then we’re both fucked.”

“True, but I’m a captive. Maybe it’s worth it to me, in order to get free.” Harris found himself enjoying the conversation far more than he should have.

Kim made a frustrated noise, and he noticed something: she was scared. It was there in her eyes. Scared of him?

“Yes, I’ve totally abused you,” she snarked.

“You can’t kidnap someone and then give them nice sheets and pretend that makes kidnapping okay.”

“Those are thousand thread-count sheets,” she shot back.

“Still kidnapped.”

Now she looked irritated, which made him want to smile. But the fear was still there, in her eyes. She wasn’t afraid of him—she was afraid of something else.

“What do you want from me?” he asked.

“I told you, I want your help with my crops.”

“And that was worth risking all this? Either you plan to kill me after I help you and cover your tracks so they never figure out what happened to me, or you’re going to do what you said and let me go. If you do that, there will be hell to pay for you and your coven.”

“Not my coven. Just me. They don’t know anything about this. You have to tell the High Magus that.”

Harris raised his brows. “So you are planning to let me go?”

“Of course. I’m desperate, but not a murderer.”

“Why are you so desperate to save these plants?”

“They’re my family’s livelihood.”

Now that he understood, but it didn’t quite add up. “You caused that earthquake. That means you’re a Salachar witch…and you make your living off agriculture?” That was, as far as he knew, exclusively the domain of the covens of Saol with an affinity for plants.

“Yes, but it’s not a crop your coven grows, and I grow it on Saol land.”

Harris considered her. “You know you’ll be held accountable for this. My coven will notice I’m gone.”

She nodded, though very lightly, since her hair was still tangled in roses. “I’d hoped to have you back before anyone noticed, but I knew it was a long shot. I’m prepared to pay for my crimes, as long as you help my plants.”

“And what’s in it for me?” he asked.

Now she arched a brow. “Freedom?”

He shook his head. “Now that there’s something living near me, I could get free. It might take me a while, but I could do it.”

“A deep desire to help a fellow practitioner?”

“Yeah, no. The kidnapping.”

“Still hung up on that?” she asked with mock exasperation.

That startled a laugh out of Harris. He was enjoying this conversation, and this situation, far more than he should be.

“The plants,” she said. “Do it for the plants. Something is eating at them, something I can’t stop. They’re suffering.”

“Low blow, Kim.”

“Did it work?”

“Damn you, it did. I’ll help you.”

Her eyes closed in such obvious relief that he felt bad for not agreeing sooner.

“Can you control your magic long enough for me to use power and pull the roses back?” he asked. He’d used a bit of power moments ago, but nothing like what he’d need to free her.

“I’m not sure. My dampening belt wasn’t on very tight. I think that’s why there was a reaction. I wouldn’t bet on it. Can you reach my necklace?”

He looked at the gold chain around her neck. The pendant hanging from it was a long dagger-like piece of jagged rock nearly as dark as the black tunic it rested on.

“Yes.”

“Take it and pierce my skin with it. It’s an emergency dampener.”

“How do I keep it in place?”

“Can you hold it?”

“One way to find out.” Harris pulled the cuff of his shirt down over his hand.

She was far enough back from the door that he had to stick his arm through past the elbow, which meant he couldn’t also look out. Plus, his arm was jammed in the door hard enough that he was a little worried about getting it out again.

He tried grabbing for the pendant with his shirt-covered fingers.

“Stop trying to cop a feel.” Her words were wry.

He gave up on covering his hand, and settled for hoping he didn’t accidentally brush her skin. Once his fingertips were bare he was able to run his hand across the front of her shirt—he was not copping a feel, at least not on purpose—until he felt the chain. He grabbed the pendant. The rock felt heavy and dead.

“What the hell is this?”

“It’s a piece of meteorite.”

“Not of this earth.”

“Exactly.”

He trailed the rock up the front of her shirt until he felt the change. The rock was no longer snagging on cloth, but gliding against skin. He was careful to hold the pendant by the gold mounting at the top.

“You have to pierce my skin with it.”

“It’s not very sharp.”

She sighed, as if resigned. “Sharp enough.”

“Damn it, I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Your roses have me pinned like a butterfly to a board. I’m still covered in punctures from the wheat-missiles. Another hole isn’t going to make a difference.”

Harris stiffened. He’d hurt her that much? “Kim, I didn’t mean…”

“I know you didn’t.” Her voice lowered to a whisper. “And I’m so sorry that I did this to you. I know it’s not an excuse, but I’m desperate.”

Harris wanted to look this woman in the eye without the barrier of the door. He wanted to hold her and kiss her.

First of all, clearly he had Stockholm Syndrome. Second, he could never hold her or kiss her. It was forbidden, and for a damned good reason, as they’d just proven.

Harris pulled his hand back and then slashed the pendant against her skin, holding it in place once he heard her cry out.

He felt it the moment the dampening took effect. Some of the electric charge in the air faded, and she made a small, helpless noise.

He closed his eyes, though he couldn’t see her anyway, and reached out for the roses with his magic. It would have been easier if he could touch them, but he was strong enough to work by proximity. He could have forced them forward in their own life cycle, or forced them to go dormant and wither, but instead he took the more difficult route. He coaxed them to move, to shy away from Kim. He made her a dark, sunless spot, full of aphids. A place they didn’t want to be.

He heard the rustle of leaves, and soft sounds coming from Kim. The roses recoiled, and he kept the pressure up until he heard the rustling stop. Then he released the pendant, careful to keep his hand away from Kim.

“Thank you,” she gasped.

It took him a minute, but he was able to pull his arm back through the hatch.

Curious and anxious, he looked through the opening in the door. The roses had pulled away from Kim and now clung to the walls and ceiling. The effort of moving them had caused the main stalk to thicken, widening the crack in the wall.

Kim knelt on the floor, hunched over. Her hair hung about her face, tangled and messy after having been occupied by roses, and a few pink petals stood out sharply against the dark strands. There was blood on her collarbone—that’s where he must have jabbed her with the stone. There were other trickles of blood he could see, the one under her jaw from the large thorn, and a few smears on the floor that must have been from where thorns punctured her legs.

He watched her slowly gather herself, rising to her feet and then straightening. Once she was standing he could no longer see her face, but he was able to watch her turn and walk away.

He snarled and banged his hand against the door. He was an idiot. He should have let the roses hold her. A cataclysmic event would have been noticed. They might not have survived it, but at least his coven would know where to look for him, and her coven would be held responsible.

That reminded him of what she’d said—that her coven knew nothing about it. That she alone should be held responsible. Why wasn’t she scared of the repercussions, of the punishment that would be coming her way?

The sound of footsteps had him looking out through the door. She was coming back, and she held a small silver key in one hand.

There was the click of a padlock opening, and then the sound of metal slapping against metal as she undid the fastening that held the door closed.

Harris climbed to his feet.

Kim swung the heavy door open. She was smaller than he’d thought, coming up to his chin, and slender.

Harris stepped out, and she retreated a step, swallowing.

He took another step, and once more she matched the movement.

He backed her up until she brushed against the roses. She jerked around to look at them, then sprang forward at the same time he took another step. She smacked against his chest. Harris caught her by the upper arms, careful to touch her only where clothing prevented flesh-on-flesh contact.

Kim tipped her head back, looking up at him. “Please, Mr. Barclay.”

“I told you not to call me that.”

“Please, Harris. I need your help.”