As a guild bartender, I can handle pretty much anything—mages, sorcerers, witches, the occasional demon. But show me anything family-related and I’d rather run for the hills. It doesn’t even have to be my family.
So I have no idea why I thought spending the holidays with Aaron’s mom and pop was a good idea.
Meeting his famous parents is already terrifying enough, but I’ve got a bigger problem. Students of his family’s renowned mage academy are being attacked on the grounds—and somehow no one has seen a single assailant? Unexplained tracks litter the nearby woods, rumors of forbidden alchemy are circulating the campus…and Ezra has been acting strangely since we arrived.
Something deadly is brewing in the shadow of Sinclair Academy, and the longer we take to uncover it, the more dangerous it becomes. But no matter the risk, we’ll protect the students.
And Aaron’s parents too, I suppose. If we have to.
Ezra stopped, hands on his hips as he surveyed the lazy slope that swept up to the towering manor. “All right. Time for our final sprint.”
I snorted. “Yeah, uh-huh.”
“I’m serious. We always finish our workouts with something competitive.”
Like competitive pushups. I shivered at the reminder.
“This is the starting line. That tree is the finish. First one there wins.”
“What’s the prize?” I folded my arms, eyeing the distance. Not that far but not twenty yards either. “You, Aaron, and Kai always bet something.”
He rubbed the hint of shadow along his jaw. “Winner’s choice, I guess.”
Ooh, I liked the sound of that. Grinning, I got into a starting position. “You’re on.”
He took the same position. Clearing his throat, he deepened his voice to mimic a sports announcer. “On your mark. Get set. G—”
“What’s that?” I gasped, pointing behind him.
He snapped around to look—and I launched into a mad sprint, arms pumping. Ezra swore and took off after me, but I had a head start. I would reach the finish first and totally win this.
Right as I drew level with the target tree, hands caught my waist. Ezra swept me off the ground, still running—an impossible feat if not for his inhuman strength. He stopped just past the tree, laughing too hard to hold me up. My back slid down his chest and my feet landed in the grass.
“I can’t believe I fell for that,” he said breathlessly. “You’re such a cheater.”
Whirling to face him, I smirked. “I was manufacturing a combat advantage, not cheating. Kai’s been teaching me.”
“A race isn’t combat.”
“Maybe I was running for my life.”
“From me?” He arched a playful eyebrow. “Does that mean you don’t like being chased?”
“Depends who’s doing the chasing,” I shot back teasingly.
“Oh? So is it the chase you prefer, or the catch?”
I tossed my hair with pretend haughtiness. “You think you could catch me?”
“Pretty sure I already did.”
My heart did a crazy tumble through my chest and a grin stretched my mouth. I couldn’t hold it back any more than I could stop the blush heating my cheeks.
“Well,” I began dramatically, spreading my arms as I stepped backward, “do I look—”
My heel caught on a tree root hidden in the grass. Squealing, I pitched over, arms wind-milling. My back hit the ground, the air punched from my chest, and I blinked dazedly at the overcast sky.
Ezra’s face appeared above mine. He crouched at my side, his expression drawn into grave concern. “Tori, are you still with me?”
I choked on a laugh and whispered, “Ezra? Is that you?”
“I’m here.” He took my hand and patted it gently. “Just hang in there.”
I fluttered my fingers. “Everything is growing dark.”
“Go toward the light, Tori.”
My eyebrows quirked. “Shouldn’t I go away from the light?”
“It doesn’t have the same ring,” he decided. “You’ll have to go toward the light.”
“Toward the light it is.” I waited a moment. “Now what?”
He took my hands and folded them on my chest in the classic body-in-casket pose—and I lost it. Cackling with laughter, I sat up and checked the grass stain on my elbow.
“Next time, I’ll make you laugh first,” I promised.
Annette Marie is the author of Amazon best-selling YA urban fantasy series Steel & Stone, its prequel trilogy Spell Weaver, and romantic fantasy trilogy Red Winter. Her first love is fantasy, but fast-paced adventures and tantalizing forbidden romances are her guilty pleasures. She lives in the frozen winter wasteland of Alberta, Canada (okay, it’s not quite that bad) with her husband and their furry minion of darkness—sorry, cat—Caesar. When not writing, she can be found elbow-deep in one art project or another while blissfully ignoring all adult responsibilities.