“Where are you off to, Alicia?” Aunt Millisandra asked as Leesha Middleton sidled past on her way to the door.
“A party,” Leesha said, purposely vague. “I’ll be back late.”
“Is the party here in town?” Aunt Millie asked. “Will there be drinking? Will you be careful?”
This was unusual. Aunt Millie wasn’t a particularly intrusive chaperone, given that she had a very clear memory of what it was like to be young, and a very poor memory of anything that had happened in the past year.
“The party is at Seph McCauley’s house,” Leesha said. “I don’t know about the drinking, but I’m always careful these days.”
Aunt Millisandra looked over the rims of her reading glasses. The glasses weren’t functional—they had no glass in them. Aunt Millie didn’t love the way the glass reflected, but she liked the look otherwise. “You look ravishing, my dear. It must be a very fancy party. I haven’t seen you wear that dress before. And the leather goggles—is that a new fashion?”
“It’s a costume,” Leesha said, brushing at her vampish dress. “For a Halloween party.”
“A costume,” Aunt Millie said, emitting a shower of sparks, signifying delight. “Is it really Halloween?” She looked around wildly. “Is it beggars’ night? Should I have candy? Oh, dear.” She brightened. “I did make muffins the other day. Maybe we can—”
“No, Aunt Millie,” Leesha said, batting out the sparks that landed on the settee. “It’s not beggars’ night. No worries. I’ll, ah, bring home candy.” Aunt Millie had many stellar qualities, but she wasn’t much of a cook. The muffins could have stood in as hockey pucks. Leesha had diverted them into the trash almost immediately. Living with a wizard who was a few cards short in her mental deck wasn’t always easy.
Blessedly, Aunt Millie moved on. “What are you supposed to be?”
“I’m a—a sort of Victorian vampire,” Leesha said.
“It’s quite fetching, dear,” Aunt Millie said. “Especially the décolletage. But...” She pressed her lips together in disapproval. “You have such lovely jewelry, Alicia; why is it that you always wear that snake pendant?”
Leesha touched the pendant nestled between her breasts. It was a gold snake eating its tail. A talisman against evil. “It’s a reminder to be careful who I partner up with.”
It was also a reminder of the cost of betrayal. She’d betrayed Jack Swift to the White Rose warriormaster Jessamine Longbranch. She’d partnered up with the wizard Warren Barber, whom she hated, and betrayed Jason Haley, whom she loved. Now Jason was dead, cut down by the wizard Claude d’Orsay in a battle between the underguilds and their wizard oppressors.
Nearly two years had passed, but there would be no do-overs.
Fortunately, Aunt Millie again meandered onto a new topic. “It makes sense to be choosy, especially if you plan on biting anyone. Or being bitten. The human mouth is one of the most—”
“Not going to happen,” Leesha said, cheeks burning. “I’m just hanging out with some friends.”
Aunt Millie’s face settled into disappointed lines. “I had hopes,” she said. “You haven’t had a gentleman caller since you misplaced that young man I found for you.”
“I didn’t misplace him,” Leesha said sharply. “I’ve told you. He disappeared while we were out walking in London. Maybe I’m not as charming as I thought.”
“Alicia Ann Middleton, you are the most charming young lady I know. No young man would willingly leave your side.”
Unless he was attacked and dismembered by the walking dead. Leesha shuddered.
No! I’m not going to think about that. That never happened. Why can’t I develop amnesia like every other victim of trauma?
“His family hasn’t seen him since either,” Aunt Millie said. “They’ve been terribly persistent. Why, they’ve even made some rather nasty accusations about you, dear. I think they should look closer to home for culprits. London can be a dangerous place, what with all those graveyards and barrows and ley lines.”
Right. Ley lines, Leesha thought. “Let’s not talk about that, Aunt Millie. It doesn’t make sense to dwell on things you can’t do anything about.”
That was her new rule, and it seemed to apply to so much of her past. I used to be so coldhearted and ruthless. What’s happened to me?
As if she’d overheard Leesha’s thoughts, Aunt Millie said, “I’m worried about you, Alicia. You haven’t been yourself since you went to London.”
I haven’t been myself since Jason died, Leesha thought. “I’m fine,” she said aloud as she wrapped a black velvet cape around her shoulders. “Don’t wait up. I’ll be back late.”
Trinity, Ohio, was a small town (!), so Leesha walked the few blocks to Seph McCauley’s house. The house actually belonged to his mother, the enchanter Linda Downey, but lately his parents, Downey and Leander Hastings, the wizard, had been spending most of their time in Europe. At one time, Leesha would have envied Seph, living on his own, doing as he pleased, but right now she welcomed the distraction of having Aunt Millisandra around. The constant risk of incineration kept her on her toes.
You need something to do, Leesha thought. Something to do besides mope. A quick fling might be just the ticket. Her heart beat faster. Maybe she would meet someone at this party. Someone who’d never heard of the pathetic Leesha Middleton. Who wouldn’t want to rehash old news or dig up the bodies of the dead.
She needed someone fresh.
The McCauley-Downey-Hastings home stood in a lakeside neighborhood of Victorian summer homes, built in an era when the rich birthed cottages like a cat drops kittens. Cars already lined the narrow streets nearly all the way to Aunt Millie’s. Leesha heard the party long before she saw it: usually a good sign.
Leesha’s former boyfriend, the warrior Jack Swift, was directing people in the foyer. He was co-hosting the party, along with his soul mate and sparring partner, Ellen Stephenson. Jack wore a leather vest, velvet pantaloons, and tights that showed off his warrior build.
“Looking good, Jack,” Leesha said, flouncing her skirts, showing her glamoured fangs. Sliding easily into her usual role. “Care to expose your jugular?”
Jack took a step back and raised his weapon for a two-handed sweep—it was a pear-shaped stringed instrument.
Leesha couldn’t help laughing. “What are you supposed to be?”
Jack sighed. “I’m a minstrel,” he said glumly. “Not my idea.”
Leesha could guess whose it was. “Hmm. Well, maybe you’re a warrior pretending you’re a minstrel,” she said. “Maybe that’s how you get inside the castle walls.”
Jack snorted, but the corners of his mouth twitched. Leesha knew he liked that idea.
She greeted a few Anaweir high school friends who’d either stayed in the area or come home for what promised to be a stellar Halloween party. Scanning the crowd, she saw that it was mostly people she knew, a handful of non-magical Anaweir mixed in with the younger generation of gifted Weir from all over the world. The gifted belonged to one of the five magical guilds: warriors, wizards, sorcerers, seers, and enchanters. They were like five feuding gangs linked together by their dependence on the Dragonheart, the well of power controlled by Madison Moss, a.k.a. the Dragon. She’d been ruling in absentia for the past two years while attending art school in Chicago.