CHAPTER ONE – Clementine
Having a pair of ghosts for parents was going to take a little getting used to. Especially as it was becoming clear I was the only one of the three Brodeur daughters to whom Moira and Heriberto Brodeur were willing to reveal themselves. That honor added another sack of rocks to the emotional weight I already carried around.
It would be just my luck that my witchy magic—which involved seeing floating threads that wove themselves into scenes from other people’s lives, put me into trances, and made me lose all sense of time—also made me more enticing to the dead.
I needed to have a chat with my Aunt Maritza. She was a witch and professor of necromantic studies. Her magic also centered around threads, only she used real threads, like the cotton and silk kinds you could buy on spools. Surely, she’d have insight into the whys of my special gift.
I pressed my forehead to the terrycloth robe hanging from the hook on the inside of the bathroom door. I was ready to collapse after a hellacious day. Sleeping standing up was not a viable option. First, I had to let the ghostly manifestations attached to my sides finish their fussing. My dad pointed out I had missed the topmost closure. My mom nudged him away and straightened the silver charms on my necklace.
Because they were ghosts, my parents’ touch was light, like clouds brushing my skin. They’d been missing from my life for so long I enjoyed standing still while they pinched the fold of my collar and tucked my hair behind my ears. Once they deemed me presentable, I felt them lose interest and slink toward the floor. I looked down. Misty, amorphous shapes pooled near my feet and glimmered in the narrow band of muted light coming in through the space at the bottom of the door.
“See you soon,” I whispered, wiggling my toes in their brand-new socks. Laszlo, my mate—my mate, yet another line item on my list of Things for Clementine to Get Used To—had bought these to replace the ones I’d lost during the morning’s melee at a local quarry. I’d been in and out of cold water for a good part of the past twenty-four hours. My bones felt brittle.
I took fistfuls of the bathrobe and squeezed, drawing the thick, sound-absorbing fabric to my chest. Most of what was left of my living family was waiting for me outside this door and in one or two other rooms in the hotel. We—my sisters and my aunt—were going to have dinner together. The men in our lives were adamant we needed to eat.
I needed…uff. I needed to scream. Seven years ago, when I got the news of my mother’s death, I was twenty-one and a recent college graduate just beginning to get my feet under me. Stunned by the sudden loss and lacking guidance, I’d read books and gone to online forums dedicated to coping with grief. I checked off each stage as I left it behind and grew used to not having a mother around.
I tensed my leg muscles to keep me upright and wiggled my toes again. I’d turned the overhead lights off deliberately once I had showered and dressed. Darkness, and soft things like cashmere socks, was easier on my fractured nervous system than the overly bright lights that highlighted every misstep of this day.
My sisters and I were gutted by the chaotic events surrounding our father’s death, and I for one kept thinking I could have stopped the fae who killed him if only I’d been a little less exhausted, a little more alert, a little less focused on hogging a bar of chocolate. I was pretty sure Alderose, my oldest sister, was feeling pretty much the same things.
My father’s ghost re-entered the bathroom. He passed his hands over the sides of my head. He let me know he was…happy. At peace.
I tried to take comfort from his reassurance.
After seven years of trying to cross over on the anniversary of my mother’s death, and being thwarted each time, he was finally reunited with his beloved wife and they were ready to be off on whatever kind of adventures ghosts got up to. Before my dad slipped beneath the bathroom door to rejoin my mom, I made him promise they would return to Northampton once my sisters were ready to see them. First, Alderose, Beryl, and I needed time to mourn individually and collectively. Death changed a lot of things, including relationship dynamics. That much I remembered from my Intro to Psych class.
On the other side of the bathroom door, Laszlo and my aunt were talking, their voices low and conversational. The terrycloth clutched in my hands absorbed a few stray tears, and the timbre of Laszlo’s voice soothed my rising anxiety. I would join them soon.
I just needed a little more time, a little more dark, before I would be ready.
I breathed out. Every exhalation loosened my hold on my former life. The one where I was a single witch on the cusp of her twenty-eighth birthday, blessed with a dog, no job, and no permanent address.
I breathed in. Every inhalation became one more breath planting me in my new reality. I was still almost twenty-eight, still blessed with a dog. But now there was a romantic partner in my life, three lines of work queued up for my consideration, and the possibility I would be residing in both the human and demon realms.
My mother’s former shop, Needles and Sins, was situated on the ground floor of a building a couple blocks away from the hotel. My parents’ apartment took up the entire second floor and mom’s workshop was on the third. Before the weekend, none of us had known about the third-floor workroom, where she created magic-imbued objects, couture-quality clothes and accessories, and met with clients seeking to hire her to find them a suitable mate.
Mom also had a potions lab, something else she kept secret. Hidden in the cellar, the laboratory was only accessible via the elevator located inside the shop’s tiny bathroom. A calcified portal tree was embedded in the wall of a room in another area of the cellar.
Turns out my mother was a master at keeping secrets. I still didn’t understand why. It’s not like she had non-magical progeny; my sisters and I all had powers. I for one chose not to use mine all that much. Truth be told, that was mostly because I didn’t fully understand how to use my ability to see moments from the past in any kind of organized, income-producing way.
Warmth from my exaggerated breathing fanned across my face. I couldn’t stay pressed against the bathroom door forever and hope to solve the mysteries surrounding me and my sisters.
Also, I was hungry. Really hungry, as in the left side of my stomach was gnawing on the right side. Pangs emanating from my belly made me wince. But it wasn’t hunger for food that motivated me to turn the door handle; it was the more personal, more intimate part of my legacy.
I had been blessed—or cursed—by a phenomenon known as the Demesne. Passing through generations of my mother’s side of the family in an endless, uncuttable ribbon of connection, the Demesne was like fated mates, but for witches. The force of it arising had sent me and Laszlo to our knees within moments of our first encounter. We later learned the same instantaneous attraction had happened when my aunt met her lover, Alabastair. And decades earlier between my mother and father.
It was the lure of my mate and the primal need to satisfy the Demesne’s imperative that I connect with Laszlo physically—and soon—that made me squeeze the handle and tug open the door.
My demon was waiting for me in the narrow, carpeted foyer. The mirror on the sliding door of the closet opposite the bathroom reflected his muscular backside. I hugged his waist and admired the view. A thick braid of silvery white hair hung to his lower back. Over a wrinkled white shirt, a black leather vest sculpted his midsection. He’d left the vest’s lacings loose and tucked his tuxedo pants into scuffed combat boots. Though I couldn’t see his weapons, I knew they were hidden in the pockets and pleats of his masculine finery.
“Are you okay?” he asked, nuzzling the top of my head and gently enfolding me into the cool expanse of his chest. Laszlo’s parents were fire demons. He’d become an ice demon at his mother’s behest. Considering his mother was Queen of the Reformed Realm, I assumed he hadn’t been given much of a choice.
Experiencing the Demesne with me was yet another life-altering event forced upon him. Though he was being very gentlemanly about the change to his relationship status, we had to talk. I loosened my hold, lifted my heels, and reached up. The reassuring comfort of his horns filled my grasp. Solid and slightly cooler than his skin, they nestled snugly against the sides of his head and were partially covered by his abundant hair.
“I’m starving,” I said.
“We can have dinner here in town or at my home in my quarters realmside, or anywhere in the world you’d like, Clementine. Paris. Santiago. St. Petersburg.” He kissed the top of my head and slid his hands to my shoulders.
“I should check in with Beryl and Alderose. We were supposed to have dinner together. All of us.” Was it too soon to confess to Laszlo that, now that he had his arms around me, I wanted more of exactly this?
“Let me text my brother,” he said, keeping one strong arm curled around my shoulders. I rested the side of my head on his chest and listened to the steady beat of his heart. “He says they’re all exhausted and plan to order room service. We’re invited to join them.”
“Can you ask him to let Beryl and Alderose know I’ll…I’ll text them in the morning?” Maybe food and rest and time apart would be good for us all.
“Sure. Do you have much to pack, if we decide to head out of town?”
“No.” I pointed to the small rolling suitcase he’d retrieved from the other room, the one Beryl rented on Friday night. “Everything’s in there. I think. Let me check.” I popped the suitcase onto the luggage rack. Inside, the few clothes I’d brought were in a jumble. I unzipped the toiletry bag. Toothbrush, toothpaste, all the essentials. At the sight of the tube of my mother’s magical mascara, I knew I had to have more of her belongings with me: her shop coat, her favorite pair of scissors, and a snippet of the spelled threads guarding the entryway to Needles and Sins.
Laszlo rubbed the back of my neck. The ease of touch between us continued to surprise me. “There’s someone your aunt wants you to meet.”
Bouncing my forehead against the center of his chest, I murmured a reluctant “Okay” and turned to meet our mystery guest.
Light from a single table lamp topped with a bell-shaped shade infused the room. I blinked. A stranger was seated on the end of the single bed closest to the curtained window. My aunt sat diagonal from the young woman in one of the low-backed upholstered chairs. She had her hand on the stranger’s knee.
Laszlo guided me into the stuffy room. Gray, wispy bits clinging to the visitor made me wonder if she was a water mage, like the one I had met over the weekend. But something about her subdued demeanor swept that notion away. She was definitely a Magical, but she didn’t exude the palpable power of a mage.
I sat near her, on the edge of the other narrow bed, and extended my hand. “I’m Clementine Brodeur.”
“Pleased ta meet yeh, Clementine. My name is Fentress. Most folk call me Fen.”
Her touch was a cool, ephemeral invitation to give in to the pull of an invisible undertow. I found the sensation unsettling.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, drawing my hand away.
Fen shrank into her thick, felted loden green coat and woolen leggings. “Your mother was the one who saved me.”
One of my mother’s magic-imbued threads floated near the crown of Fen’s nut-brown cloche. I reached into whatever accompanied Fen’s delicate touch.