As the snows fall and hearths burn, four stories of Midwinter beginnings prove that love can fight its way through the chillest night…
THE DARKEST MIDNIGHT, by Grace Draven: The mark Jahna Ulfrida was born with has made her a target of the cruel and idle all her life. During the long, crowded festivities of Deyalda, there’s nowhere to escape. Until a handsome stranger promises to teach her to save herself…
THE CHOSEN, by Thea Harrison: In her visions, Lily sees two men fighting for her tiny country’s allegiance: the wolf and the tiger, each deadly, each cunning. One will bring Ys chaos and death, one a gentler path—but she’s destined to love whichever she chooses. The midwinter Masque is upon them, and the wolf is at her door…
THE STORM, by Elizabeth Hunter: When her soul mate died in a massacre of the half-angelic Irin people, Renata thought she’d never feel happiness again. She’s retreated to the snowy Dolomites to remember her hurts—until determined, irrepressible Maxim arrives to insist on joy, too. And before she can throw him out, they discover a secret the Irin have to know…
THE SNOWS OF WINDROVEN, by Jeffe Kennedy: As a blizzard threatens their mountain keep, the new Queen Amelia of the Twelve Kingdoms and her unofficial consort Ash face their own storm. Ash knows a scarred, jumpy ex-convict isn’t the companion his queen needs. But when a surprise attack confines them together in their isolated sanctuary, the feast of midwinter might tempt even Ash into childlike hope…
“If there is some fire-breathing dragon beneath Windroven, maybe we won’t need much wood for the fireplaces—natural heat!” Ami cast me a brilliant smile from the back of her horse. Probably hoping I’d be so dazzled by her playfulness, the mischief of her joke, that I wouldn’t notice she was bent on cozening me into being happy about going to Windroven. I’d agreed—I had no choice, as there would be no winning this argument with her—but I wouldn’t give in and let her charm me. This was a bad idea, and we all knew it.
I glanced back at the men-at-arms following in our compact procession, though Lieutenant Graves could no more change Ami’s mind than I could. Even the twins, with terrible timing, were docile for once, providing no distraction from Ami’s determined flirtation. I’d argued for a carriage for Ami and the toddlers to ride in for the journey from Castle Avonlidgh to Windroven, but Ami had dug in her heels. On that and everything else.
She might be my lover, but as the newly crowned Queen of Avonlidgh, she outranked me.
Stella rode in front of her mother in the saddle, the two of them wrapped in matching furred cloaks against the winter’s chill—though the little girl kept pushing the hood back impatiently—and Astar rode in front of me, doing his best to drive my horse crazy by pulling at his mane by the fistful. During my time in Annfwn, the magic-filled homeland of my late father, who’d been full Tala, I’d learned a little mind-magic. As a part-blood I wasn’t capable of much, but I had enough ability—I was strongest with animals—to keep a thread of soothing control on the horse’s mind, despite Astar’s worst efforts.
If only my internal beast could be so easily calmed. And if only I were better at steeling myself against Ami’s gift for persuasion. In truth, she did dazzle me—simply by existing—much as I worked to toughen my hide against her charms. When she put real effort into it, I was a lost man. Redundant, as I was a lost man regardless.
Lost and broken beyond repair, even before Ami danced her way from my fantasies into passionate reality.
The old tales warn of the dangers of a man obtaining his heart’s desire, how his fantasy should never come true lest he find his tragic fate in it. I’d thought I’d been careful, that I’d reminded myself enough times that Ami could never truly be mine, not for more than a brief while. But clearly my heart hadn’t absorbed the lesson of those cautionary tales.
The story of my fucked-up life—I seemed to be determined to take the hardest road despite all warnings and good sense, every time.
“Glorianna willing,” Ami continued doggedly, now pursing her rose-petal lips with sensuous intent, and sidling her steed closer to mine, “a dragon resident could melt all the snows and we’d have no winter at all! Wouldn’t that be lovely?”
I resolutely looked away from her and her fierce beauty. Ami possesses Tala blood, too, though the royal kind, and though she can’t shapeshift or perform sorcery, her magic manifests in her inhuman loveliness. She burns brighter than the sun, and if I allowed myself to fall into admiring her, my hapless brain tended to be seared of all rational thought.
“Good!” Ami chirped, an edge beneath the music. “I take it from your non-response that you’re in total agreement with my plan. I’m so glad to hear it.” The Three curse it, now she’d cornered me. I couldn’t leave it there.
“Going to Windroven is a terrible idea and you know it,” I replied, studying the road ahead. We’d had fair travel thus far, but with all the strange monsters appearing around the Thirteen Kingdoms, it paid to keep alert. “Adequate firewood and snowfall will be the least of our worries.”
She waved that off with a flick of her gloved fingers. “You only say that because you’ve never witnessed a Mornai storm at Windroven. They’re spectacular. They blow in off the ocean, full of sea moisture. When the cold winds of the Northern Wastes hit them, the clouds turn heavy-bellied as a nine-months-pregnant woman—and just like that poor woman, they dump out snow in a torrent of afterbirth, deeper than a man can stand.”
I swallowed the laugh that wanted to rise and gave her a stern look. She wasn’t going to draw me out that way. “That’s disgusting—and crude.”
She blinked at me in contrived innocence, that practiced flutter of rose-gold lashes over the deep twilight blue of eyes the poets never seemed to tire of describing. “This from the man who taught me every crude word I know.”
I sighed for the truth of that. “I’m well aware that I created a monster. But you’re not distracting me. There’s no reason we couldn’t have stayed at Castle Avonlidgh, spent the Feast of Moranu there. The whole winter, even.”
“Ugh. I hate that place. I’m glad to be free of its gloomy walls. I handled the governmental minutiae and now court is on hiatus. Everyone is going home to spend the Feast of Moranu with their families and that’s what I want, too. Andi is in Annfwn and Ursula is still off in the Nahanaun Islands, helping Dafne free her own dragon and whatever else all those letters are so carefully not saying. I might as well be in my own home.”
“Castle Avonlidgh is as much your home now as Windroven.”
“That’s just not true.” Ami’s voice had gone serious, steel in it that so belied her frivolous exterior. “I don’t expect you to understand, but from the first time Hugh brought me to Windroven, I felt at home there. He would have wanted the twins to winter at Windroven. It’s their family’s ancestral home and if all had been as it should, they would have spent their infancy there, taken their first steps on her stones, as all Avonlidgh’s heirs have.” Ami turned her smile on Stella, stroking the toddler’s wild, dark curls. “Hugh might be gone, but I owe it to his memory to raise his children as he would have, had he lived.”