With one last look over her shoulder at the night-shrouded gardens, Ileana eased the heavy window open. Inch by agonizing inch, the space widened until a low squeal issued from the rusting hinges. She froze, her heart kicking against her ribs, the hair at her nape lifting.
Holding her breath, she waited for any sound of alarm—or even curiosity—from within the dark house. She knew she wasn’t the only witch on the property with the ability to see and influence magic, so she didn’t dare use her talents here, knowing she’d be caught for sure if she tried. Instead, she levered herself up onto the window casing with her foot bracing her weight against the old building. Muscles shaking, she gritted her teeth and vowed to find the motivation to drop those five pounds she kept meaning to shed.
She threw one leg over the sill and dropped down silently. The thick rug on the floor muffled her noise and she breathed a little easier, shifting to swing the window closed. She took a precious moment to lock it before turning to the door leading farther into the house.
She pressed her ear to the old wood, ignoring the rough rasp of the ornamental scrollwork etched into the surface. Beyond the barrier all was quiet, the house breathing softly in the night, its occupants asleep.
With less care than she’d used with the window, she eased the door open, secure in the knowledge there would be no more tell-tale squeaks. Not inside, where everything was ruthlessly maintained to the highest standards. After taking off her high heels, she stepped into the gloomy hall and tip-toed over the cold bare stone shining in the dark with centuries of wear.
She moved through the winding hallways of the ground floor and ascended the stairs without incident. At the top, she paused another moment, calming her breathing, clutching her shoes in clammy hands. Still no sound reached her ears and she confidently stepped out of the dark stairwell into a dimly lit corridor paved with a thick runner.
It was always the ground floor that was the problem, not the Family’s private space above. She had good reason to be on the private floors.
She collided with a tall, male body at the first corner. Hard hands gripped her shoulders and immediately gave her a small shake as his reprimand hissed over her.
“Ileana! My God, where have you been?”
She looked up into her brother’s face, so like her own except for the emotion darkening his silver gaze. She tossed her hair over her shoulder and pulled from his hold. “I went out with some friends. What’s wrong with you, Silviu?”
“What friends?” He closed his eyes briefly, shaking his head even as he reached for her again. “Never mind, Grandfather has been looking for you.—”
She jerked back, eyes flying wide. “Why is he looking for me?”
“Eliasz Levy wants to discuss a betrothal—”
“Oh, God, I can’t bear another betrothal, Silviu.” Ileana rubbed her forehead, hoping it would help her gather her thoughts. “Who is Eliasz? I don’t know him.”
“Son of the head of the Levy tertiary branch in Poland.” Silviu latched onto her arm and started dragging her down the hall. “You’ve never been properly introduced.”
“Tertiary? Third branch. Third most powerful,” she mused bitterly. “Well, Grandfather’s pretended to betroth me to much lower ranking sons, so I suppose Eliasz is a step up.”
“A huge step up, Iley.” Silviu put his lips against her ear. “This time, it’s not Grandfather doing the bartering. This might be the real deal. Take this opportunity and run with it.”
“I would love to,” Ileana breathed, her voice as low as her brother’s. “But this won’t go through any more than the last dozen did. This is a game to Grandfather.”
“To him, yes, but to Eliasz? I think not. I’ve met him once. He’s more stubborn than the old man and a hell of a lot more crafty.”
His words sent a lance of anxiety through her, but it was high praise indeed from her brother. Silviu had been trained from birth to be a politician. While their grandfather had focused all his attention on their older brother, the chosen heir to the Family power, their father had meticulously groomed Silviu, his youngest child, for greater things.
It was a small vengeance against the petty patriarch of the Family and a less-than-subtle vote of no-confidence in the heir.
Ileana had—thankfully—been left alone until she was old enough to be used in her role as Family pawn. Then she’d lost all freedoms but those she stole in the dead of night, sneaking around like a teenager to eke out some semblance of a life.
She was watched closely, even suspiciously. The men of her Family were calculating, and she was the best bargaining chip they had—the only daughter of the primary Lovasz branch, the only unmarried female left in any of the small Family’s branches.
Railing against her fate or her place was futile. No one else cared that she only wanted a normal life, a husband, a child. No one else cared that she wanted to go out beyond the walls of the Family’s ancestral home, out among people, dancing and laughing with friends. No one else cared that she was trapped in her role, her Family, their intrigues.
Silviu tugged her on at increasing speeds. Another fifty feet, another corner and she would be safe, no problem. She quickened her steps, her heart lifting with a sense of daring and independence, a thrill at successfully getting around her grandfather’s archaic rules concerning women’s behavior. She and Silviu slipped around the corner, losing all sense of caution in the silent hall.
Only to slide to a quick stop in front of the three men waiting for them. Ileana’s stomach sank to her bare toes and fear convulsed her muscles. Silviu cursed under his breath as he released her arm like it was on fire.
Ileana dropped her gaze to the floor, unable to meet her grandfather’s angry silver eyes. Energy crackled and spit over his shoulders, adding to the sudden tension filling the corridor. Anger fed the old man’s magic—already too strong for her to stand against.
“Where have you been, Ileana?”
Her throat constricted, momentarily taking both her breath and her words. She swallowed and risked a quick glance at Silviu. He grimaced, but they both knew he couldn’t save her.
It would cost him too much.
She forced the words out, wincing when they were nearly too breathy to hear, but also knowing that would please the old man. “I misbehaved, Grandfather, and for that, I am deeply sorry.”
“You left this house?” Alexandru Lovasz’s narrowed gaze raked her body. He took in the sight of her little black dress, conforming to her curves with wicked invitation, revealing most of her upper thighs. Disapproval was too mild a word for the emotion hardening his face—hate would be closer to the mark. “In that? Your ass is hanging out of your dress.”
Ileana resisted the urge to run her hands over her bottom, knowing it wasn’t true. “Grandfather, women wear shorter skirts these days, and—”
His voice boomed. Ileana winced and glanced at the man to Alexandru’s left, her father. Vasile Lovasz turned to his powerful patriarch with a blank face and a patient tone. “With every generation, the clothing has gotten less and less. She’s perfectly covered by today’s standards.”
Alexandru turned on his son with the same look he’d bestowed upon his granddaughter. “It is unacceptable.”
“I’m twenty-eight!” Ileana couldn’t hold her tongue, in spite of knowing better. Pure rebellion swirled in her heart, frustration was a living thing just beneath the surface of her skin. “I’m an adult, even by your old-fashioned criteria!”
“You’re an unmarried female!”
“And whose fault is that?” She flung the words at him, ignoring the other’s cringes.
“How dare you?”
“This isn’t the 1950s! It’s not even the 1990s anymore!” Ileana couldn’t stop. The dam had broken and words just kept tumbling from her mouth, her voice rising. “And I’m unmarried because of you! Twice you’ve broken pacts! How many times have you used me as a lure for your alliances? How many times have you used me for your own purposes and—”
“Silence!” Alexandru’s eyes narrowed until they were nearly shut. The snapping energy illuminating his shoulders spun angrily, spitting sparks. His fingers twitched sharply in her direction. Silver flares of magic pulsed from his palms.
Cold pressure wrapped her throat and squeezed, stealing her voice, strangling her. The high heels dropped from her numbed fingers, clattering against the floor. Ileana’s hands flew up to her neck, fingers clawing at her skin, her eyes bulging.
Alexandru Lovasz, powerful witch and Father of the Lovasz Family Coven, used his magic ruthlessly. Somewhere in her buzzing head, Ileana scolded herself for losing her temper, for rousing his patriarchal dominance. He’d never been a man who tolerated a show of temper or independence from any woman.
Least of all one who was supposed to be under his control.
But he was taking it far tonight. The old man had been growing more and more unstable lately, a terrifying prospect as he’d never been level-headed. These days, the only one who could wield any influence with him at all was her older brother, Costel.
She appealed to him as she dropped to her knees, her lungs burning, her head spinning. Costel crossed his arms over his chest and stared at her with dead eyes, leaving Vasile to plead with his father. The old man refused to budge, and Ileana’s heart began to slow under the press of magic. She thrashed on the floor, clawing at her chest, panic setting in.
She couldn’t fight back without losing everything.
Silviu sank into a crouch before her. He reached out, her only friend in the family, the only one Ileana mattered to beyond a pretty bargaining chip. She was the Lovasz Family pawn, but she was Silviu’s sister.
She shook her head, but her younger brother ignored her warning. His warm palm pressed to her chest, easing the cold magic. With a deliberate widening of his eyes, he told her without words that he couldn’t lift the spell completely. That ability would give away too many of their secrets. But his magic took away the worst of the effects of their grandfather’s spell, allowing her to breathe until the buzzing in her head faded and wracking sobs shook her.
Silviu kept his hand on her as he turned to look up at Alexandru. His tone was smooth and reasonable. “Grandfather, I don’t think Eliasz Levy would wish to wed a corpse.”
“You are disobeying me, Silviu,” Alexandru said silkily. “Get away from her.”
Silviu gentled his tone further. “The alliance with the Levy Family would be too great a thing to throw away for her minor crime.”
A tense standoff ensued. Vasile stood still, not yet willing to move against either his father or his favored, youngest son. Ileana hardly dared to breathe, but Silviu was resolute, as hard-willed as Alexandru, much to everyone’s surprise.
Finally Costel bestirred himself. “The Levy Family is widespread, Grandfather. They have powerful branches on three continents, and enough sway with the Council of Covens to push through any number of beneficial policies for us.”
“The boy could have any he wanted,” Alexandru said. “Let him choose another.”
Costel raised his hands. “Eliasz wants Ileana, their territory borders ours and the match would benefit us to no end.”
Ileana said nothing, showed no surprise. She didn’t sag in relief that Costel had finally stood up for her. She showed no exasperation that, in this modern era when everyone else was concerned with business ventures, politics and technological innovation, her grandfather would be swayed by an old-fashioned concern for land. She fought not to show her frustration at having no say in her own future.
She was only a female, after all.
She’d been properly betrothed twice, complete with signed agreements. Countless times, she’d been promised to some son or other, without written agreements, only to have her hopes of freedom from the Lovasz Family dashed without warning.
She was a laughingstock in the witching world.
With a considering glance at Costel, Alexandru shrugged his shoulders. The spell fell away from Ileana’s body completely. A ragged moan ripped through her vocal cords, but Silviu pressed his hand hard against her breastbone, stopping her from speech.
Alexandru turned on his heel and stalked down the hall, throwing his command over his shoulder. “Come.”
Vasile and Costel hurried after the old man as Silviu helped Ileana to her feet. A little more slowly, they made their way down the hall. She let him comfort her with a small squeeze, his arm around her shoulder as he leaned in close. A silent minute later, they followed their Grandfather into his office.
Alexandru settled himself behind his massive desk and nodded at Costel as the younger man slid into one of the two chairs before it. Vasile remained standing. Silviu and Ileana didn’t dare take more than a few steps inside the oppressive room—just enough to allow the door to close behind them.
A lamp on the desk was the only light, casting Alexandru’s features into harsh relief, a demonic illusion. “Have you met Eliasz Levy, Ileana?”
“No, Grandfather, never.” She bit back a whimper when Silviu released her and took a step from her side, but it would only incite a fresh wave of wrath if they huddled together.
“How does he know of you?” Alexandru shifted forward, his face paling, his words roaring past them all.
Vasile flinched but answered calmly. “He saw Ileana at her betrothal celebration four years ago. He’s now looking for a wife and knew that betrothal was broke—uh, was inadequate for our Family’s needs. He suggested he would be a better choice for alliance.”
Alexandru’s sharp-eyed glare didn’t leave Ileana’s face. “You’ve never spoken to him?”
Ileana shook her head desperately. “No, sir.”
Silviu shifted, drawing their grandfather’s attention. “Sir, Ileana’s a female. What would she know of developing a political alliance?”
Ileana ruthlessly tamped down a flare of outrage and forced back the hot streak of rebellion snarling in her soul. In spite of being her future they discussed, the men of her family wouldn’t tolerate her interference. She didn’t think her brother believed his own words, but his arrogant statement had the desired effect on their grandfather.
“True.” Alexandru leaned back in his chair, dismissing her from his thoughts as his gaze transferred to Costel. “What say you, boy?”
Of Vasile’s three children, Costel was, by far, the slowest in understanding wider political ramifications. He always took his time in speaking as he ordered his thoughts. “They are a very large coven, sir.”
“It’s a preposterous suggestion,” Alexandru said. “An initial meeting and, if all parties are satisfied, an immediate betrothal agreement, followed directly by a wedding.”
Vasile and Silviu exchanged a glance Ileana read easily. The Levy Family didn’t want to risk any broken agreements, something her grandfather was famous for.
Costel, however, didn’t follow as easily as his sister. “It is curious, Grandfather. I wonder what their game is.”
“There isn’t one,” Vasile insisted quickly. “I believe that Eliasz very much wants Ileana, and he recognizes, as we do, that any alliance between our Families could only be beneficial to us all.”
“He wants her in his bed.” Alexandru ran his gaze over Ileana’s body, the calculating gleam in his eyes making her skin crawl with fear. The need to tug at her clothing was overwhelming.
“Very probably.” Vasile grimaced but gave a quick nod. Then he rushed to add, “The Levys have both money and power, Father. Eliasz has a decent standing in his Family and among the patriarchal covens.”
Alexandru’s expression smoothed out and everyone in the room held their breath. It was the old man’s thinking face, and any who interrupted his thoughts was likely to be lashed. Tension soared, a tangible current over Ileana’s skin. Her fists clenched and she locked her knees against the tremor threatening to weaken her stance.
She prayed her grandfather would agree to the match. Ileana wanted freedom from the old man. If she had to marry the Christians’ Devil to gain it, she would gladly slit her own throat to seal the betrothal in blood.
Finally, Alexandru nodded. “All right. Vasile, you will contact the Levys and agree to meet them.” His tone and the wicked glint in his eye told Ileana he was up to something beyond her comprehension. He looked at Silviu when he said, “But we will only go if the Davenold atrocity is included.”
Silviu’s spine snapped straight hard enough that Ileana heard the soft popping of his vertebrae. She struggled to keep her own reaction hidden, even as Vasile stiffened, his eyes locked on his father’s smug smile as the ability to speak deserted him.
“If we go to meet Ileana’s potential husband, we might as well have Silviu’s inferior bride there, as well. After all,” Alexandru’s voice went frighteningly soft, “she’ll be Family, too, one day.”
Vasile cleared his throat. “Of course. I’ll deliver the invitation myself.”