â€œAre you sure you want to go through with this?â€ Poppy braced herself for what was coming. Since Drake had found out about the prophecy, he asked her the same question each month.
|The Witching Moon: The Witches of Redwood Falls - Book 1 by Janelle Daniels|
She arched a brow. Again, he wasn't saying anything new. But he was genuinely worried about her so she humored him. "That's not going to happen." "You don't know that." "It doesnâ€™t work like that. Besides, I don't think Alex Schmidt meets the qualifications." His eyes narrowed. "I'm serious, Poppy. And your elementary school bully doesn't live here anymore." In times like these, her heart ached. Besides her family, he was the one constant in her life, had always been there for her. But the prophecy she'd been given as a child was not something she could shake. She felt it, knew it deep down in her bones, that it was true. It was fate. There was a man out there, someone who held magic just like her, someone that she was destined to be with, and she would meet him tomorrow. As much as she wanted him to be, Drake wasnâ€™t that man. "I don't want anything to happen to you." His eyes searched hers. "You mean too much to me." She slid out of her seat, slowly walking over to him before she wrapped her arms around him from behind his chair. â€œEverything will work out.â€ â€œHow do you know?â€ â€œFate hasnâ€™t let me down so far.â€ â€œPoppyâ€¦â€ He loosened her grip before pulling her to his side. He searched her face, but she didnâ€™t know what he hoped to find. After releasing her, his shoulders slumped. â€œWhat is it?â€ â€œNothing.â€ His shrugged. â€œI justâ€¦ hope it works out for you the way you want it to.â€ â€œIt will.â€ Her answer was firm, confident. She could either be uncertain about what to expect and dread it, or embrace it. Sheâ€™d decided to embrace it. It wasnâ€™t always easy. Especially in moments like these. Sheâ€™d never felt closer to anyone than Drake. But they werenâ€™t meant for each other. Not like that. The prophecy was specific, and it clearly stated that her mate would have magic. Drake didnâ€™t. It was hard enough seeing him every day. Hard enough keeping an emotional distance, keeping it purely platonic. Heaven knew how many times sheâ€™d thought of being with him. Of touching him, of kissing him. Deep breath. She focused on her center, clearing out all thoughts like cobwebs. There was only one place where those thoughts led, and it was dangerous to go there. â€œI hope so.â€ She forced a smile for his sake. He worried about her. Honestly, she was worried too. She just had to trust. It was the only thing left she could do. â€œWeâ€™ll see what tomorrow brings,â€ she said, sitting back in her chair. â€œSince itâ€™s Halloweenâ€¦ any plans for the day time? You know, before you meet Prince Charming?â€ She kicked his foot under the table. â€œOh, I donâ€™t know. I donâ€™t think Iâ€™m up for much. Just putting the finishing touching on things, I guess.â€ â€œWant a hand?â€ She knew she should say no. What was the point in torturing herself with someone she couldnâ€™t have? â€œYes. Iâ€™d like that. I could use a friendly face.â€ â€œYouâ€™ll always have one.â€ His words, spoken like a promise played through her head until he left. Closing the door, she sunk to her knees, curling in toward herself, her arms wrapping around her waist. Why was fate so cruel? Halloween morning dawned as formidable as Drakeâ€™s mood. Thunder and lightning pounded the earth as the wind taunted the forest. Leaves scattered the floors, their fall jewel colors signaling the Beaver Moon that would occur in one week. There wasnâ€™t a need for hunters to set their traps to stock up enough fur for the winter, but that didnâ€™t matter. Novemberâ€™s full moon was still called that, and probably always would be. Walking down the street to Poppyâ€™s cottage, he breathed deeply, absorbing the pungent air. He hadnâ€™t bothered with an umbrella. It was too windy for one anyway. The deep hooded coat he wore protected him just fine. Besides, what would a little rain hurt anyway? He could taste magic in the air. Halloween was a day that called for it, for the mystical things of the night to have their time on earth. Heâ€™d been friends with Poppy since childhood, and there was no way he could deny the existence of magic. How could he? It wove through the blood of the woman he loved. It was as much a part of her as the gold in her hair, the moss color of her eyes, the gentleness of her heart, and the quickness of her mind. He wouldnâ€™t change her for anything. Her ancestors were founders Redwood Falls, and their legacy had been passed down from generation to generation. Her power was a gift, but also a responsibility. And Poppy lived up to her birthright. He leaned a hand against a tree, a familiar ache spreading through him. He loved her, but would never have her. Because of magic. Because of the prophecy. He wasnâ€™t fool enough to discount it, but it grated all the same. Magic didnâ€™t rule him. He was a man of this world, a man with passion, with direction, with desire. He knew what he wanted, and that was Poppy. Since heâ€™d been old enough to realize it, it had only ever been her. But they werenâ€™t meant to be. No matter how close theyâ€™d gotten, no matter how much heâ€™d wanted to be with her, sheâ€™d always pushed him away. She was promised to another. It didnâ€™t matter who that person was, it only mattered that it wasnâ€™t him. His fist clenched, the tree scraping his fingers, but he didnâ€™t care. What did that small annoyance matter when it couldnâ€™t come close to the pain in his heart? Why was he even here? Why had he said he would help her today? He should turn around. Just leave. Pack up his stuff and head out of town. He didnâ€™t have to watch this happen, he didnâ€™t have to watch her fall into the arms of another. But he would. He couldnâ€™t leave. Not like this. Not without seeing her taken from him with his own eyes. He wouldnâ€™t abandon her no matter the cost to himself. He pushed from the tree, his steps quick, determined. He may not be her soul mate, but she was his. And no matter what happened, heâ€™d be there for her. He walked in without knocking. The habit so ingrained, he didnâ€™t think about it. Hanging up his dripping coat, he called out, â€œYou in here?â€ â€œYeah, come back to the kitchen,â€ she called out. The air smelled like a mixture of spices, strong, potent, but still pleasant. He couldnâ€™t place which ones they were. Even after all this time, sheâ€™d been unable to teach him. There was history here. With every step he took on the dark wood floor, a memory came to him. His eyes narrowed on the freshly polished planks beneath his boots. Poppy polished the floor four times a year, but it wasnâ€™t time for it yet. He didnâ€™t need to ask why sheâ€™d broken her routine, why the whole house was recently dusted, or why a full bouquet of hot house flowers rested in her grandmotherâ€™s vase on the entry table. She was expecting to bring someone home tonight. His gut clenched. Sheâ€™d bring him here, of course. They couldnâ€™t stand in the circle all night. The thought of them together, here, cut him to the quick. Needing a breath, he leaned against a wall, dragging in air. He didnâ€™t want Poppy to see him like this. To see what a wreck he was. His head jerked up when she peaked through the kitchen door down the hall he was falling apart in. â€œYou coming?â€ â€œYeah.â€ He tried to sound casual as he brushed his hands on his pants. â€œSmells great in here.â€ â€œRaspberry leaf.â€ He raised a brow and she shook her head softly before turning back to her work. â€œItâ€™s calming.â€ She picked up her pestle and crushed dried leaves of some sort into the mortar. He rounded the counter, hunching to see her working beneath a rack of drying herbs. â€œWhat are those?â€ â€œThis and that,â€ she evaded. â€œJust restocking my supplies.â€ He tucked a blond curl that fell forward behind her ear and her motions slowed. She was so beautiful. Her hands were so soft and delicate youâ€™d never imagine the strength they possessed. Heâ€™d imagined them all over him. He closed his eyes, cursing himself. Donâ€™t go there! â€œI didnâ€™t realize you were low on anything. Do you need me to pick something up?â€ he asked, hoping to distract himself. She blushed. â€œActuallyâ€¦ no.â€ â€œThen why are you doing this?â€ She ground a little faster. â€œI just need to keep myself busy.â€ His fist clenched under the counter top. â€œDo you want some help?â€ His voice was hoarse. â€œI donâ€™t mind you putting me to work.â€ She looked at him then. Really looked at him. Her eyes softened. â€œI donâ€™t know what Iâ€™d do without you, Drake.â€ â€œYou wonâ€™t ever have to find out.â€ Heâ€™d said the same things many times, but this was the first time he felt a twinge of doubt. Could he stay here and see her with another man? He wanted to think he was stronger than that, better than that, but he knew it he wasnâ€™t. It would break him to see her with someone else. To see another man hold her, kiss her, as he had never been able to do. Her voice was so soft, he almost didnâ€™t hear her ask, â€œPromise?â€ He turned away, muttering a curse. She gasped and his eyes sliced back to her. â€œIâ€™m not made of stone, Poppy. No matter how much Iâ€™m trying to hide it, this is killing me.â€ Her mouth fell open. â€œI donâ€™t know what to say.â€ He rounded the counter, gripping her arms. â€œTell me you donâ€™t want this. That you donâ€™t want him. Tell me you wished you never heard the prophecy, that you donâ€™t believe it. Damn it! That youâ€™re frustrated and hurting as I am.â€ â€œDrakeâ€¦â€ He jerked his head. â€œNo. Donâ€™t. Just donâ€™t say anything.â€ She rubbed her red lips together, bringing him to his knees. â€œDonâ€™t do that.â€ Her fingers stilled. â€œDo what?â€ â€œYour lips. Iâ€™m barely keeping my hands off you as is.â€ Her mouth dropped open. â€œWhy?â€ â€œYou know why.â€ Her eyes turned wary, but he couldnâ€™t stop the words from coming out. â€œYouâ€™ve always known why. I love you, Poppy. Iâ€™ve loved you forever. Youâ€™re the only woman Iâ€™ve ever wanted and youâ€™re all Iâ€™ll ever want.â€ He grabbed her hand and kissed her fingers. â€œIâ€™ve held back for years because it was what you wanted. But I canâ€™t any more. Tonight youâ€™ll meet him, but you donâ€™t have to. You donâ€™t have to go.â€ She shook her head in denial, but he cut her off. â€œItâ€™s your choice. You can go and meet a faceless man, one you donâ€™t know, one who doesnâ€™t love you. Or you can stay here and be with me.â€ She gasped, trying to yank her hand away, but he held it firm and pressed it against his heart. His eyes blazed into hers. â€œStay with me. Choose me.â€ Her chin shook, tears sprang to her eyes. She tried to turn away, but he held her, couldnâ€™t let her go. â€œI canâ€™t,â€ she cried. â€œI canâ€™t, Drake. I canâ€™t outrun this, I canâ€™t ignore it. Whoeverâ€™s there tonight, heâ€™s the one Iâ€™m meant to be with.â€ â€œYouâ€™re meant to be with me,â€ he growled. â€œNo.â€ â€œHow do you know? How do you know itâ€™s not me?â€ Her eyes searching his face, looking but not finding what she needed. â€œI just do. The prophecy says things about him. Things that arenâ€™t you.â€ Her voice cracked. â€œIâ€™m sorry.â€ His gut twisted. Sheâ€™d never told him exactly what the prophecy said, and heâ€™d never asked. He hadnâ€™t wanted to know any of it. But now he did. â€œWhat does it say?â€ Tears tracked down her cheeks. â€œIt doesnâ€™t matter now.â€ He nodded once. There wasnâ€™t anything else he could say. Heâ€™d given her everything, all that was inside of him, but it hadnâ€™t been enough. It never would be enough. He wasnâ€™t the man from the prophecy. She stumbled away and sagged against the back of a chair once he released her. He looked his fill, knowing she would haunt his dreams forever. â€œGood luck tonight. I hope heâ€™s everything youâ€™re hoping for.â€ Her lips pressed together, and he couldnâ€™t take the stabbing in his heart any longer. He walked away from her, from everything heâ€™d ever wanted because it was what she wanted. He couldnâ€™t force her to love him, to choose him. No matter how much he wanted her, it had to be her choice. And she chose the prophecy. Chapter 2 Poppy readjusted the shawl over her shoulders as she stepped out into the chilly night. The trick-or-treaters stopped ringing her doorbell hours ago. Wind picked up in the trees as she started down the forest path, deeply breathing in the night. It helped soothe her nerves, helped calm her jumpy stomach. Sheâ€™d dreamed about this night since she was a little girl. The moment where she would meet her mate, the man who loved her above all others. The man sheâ€™d bind herself to. But so much was wrong. In those girlhood dreams, sheâ€™d never imagined Drake. Never imagined how much heâ€™d come to mean to her. How much sheâ€™d want him. Breathe. She couldnâ€™t think of Drake now. It wasnâ€™t right. She was going to meet someone else, and she had to push aside her broken heart. If only things were different. If only she had a choiceâ€¦ Then what? Her mind taunted. Would she choose Drake? Would she take his offer and stay with him? Her heart whispered, yes. Why was she tormenting herself? She couldnâ€™t have Drake. He was normal and good. Wonderful. Perfect. But he wasnâ€™t the man from the prophecy. He didnâ€™t have magic. On all Hallows Eve of your twenty-eighth year, when the moon peaks in the forest near, search here for your mate will be, not far from the edge of the sea. Born of magic and marked by the moon, your union will be made soon. He whispers on the wind and the fates obey, for they listen to what he has to say. â€˜Til the next full moon is all the time you have together to forge your union or lose it forever. If hearts arenâ€™t joined by the bright circleâ€™s light, then surrender your love to the dark of night. The prophecy replayed in her mind, torturing her. She didnâ€™t know what it all meant, but born of magic was clear enough. She couldnâ€™t even teach Drake the most basic uses for herbs. He was a normal man. Blissfully, wonderfully, normal. The kind that appreciated the beauty around him, that worked hard, and was kind to others. When given the opportunity, he hadnâ€™t set out to build his fortune, to conquer the world. Heâ€™d stayed, tending the land and stepping into the community with an assurance heâ€™d been born with. He knew where he belonged. Others searched their whole lives for that knowledge. Drake never questioned it. She swallowed hard, slowing her steps. Once the path emptied into the clearing ahead, sheâ€™d see Cloch ChroÃ, the Heart Stone. Sheâ€™d been there more times than she could count, could walk this path blindfolded. Sheâ€™d come here as a child, trying to imagine this moment, but none of those rosy girlhood dreams compared to what she was going through now. Grief weaved through her heart, mixing with a curiosity she couldnâ€™t tame. Who would be there? Would he be waiting for her? Was he expecting to meet her here? She frowned. Sheâ€™d never thought of that before. What if he was just passing through, catching a tourist location before moving on? Granted, it was the middle of the night, but it was also Halloween. It wasnâ€™t unheard of for people to trespass, seeking a moment of terror. Sheâ€™d known about him since she was a child, but he could be completely oblivious about what would happen. The end of the prophecy struck her. Til the next full moon is all the time you have together to forge your union or lose it forever. If hearts arenâ€™t joined by the bright circleâ€™s light, then surrender your love to the dark of night. If he didnâ€™t recognize her, if he didnâ€™t know about the prophecy, he could reject her. He could want no part of this. She could lose him. Just like sheâ€™d lost Drake. No! She couldnâ€™t lose them both. That would mean that sheâ€™d pushed Drake away for nothing. And she couldnâ€™t let that happened. Years of waiting couldnâ€™t have been for nothing. Pushing from the tree, she marched into the clearing, her eyes searching the stones before latching on to a figure leaning against the middle stone. The Heart Stone. Her heart sped up. This was happening. This was real. He was exactly where the prophecy said heâ€™d be. She weaved through the damp, tall grass in the field toward the circle. Toward her mate. She hesitated outside, waiting, watching. It was bright. The moon wasnâ€™t full, but there wasnâ€™t a cloud in the sky. Soft blue rays caressed dark hair, bouncing off broad shoulders to a tapered waist. He was tall, and from only seeing his back, handsome too. He drew her to him. As much as she resented that, she couldnâ€™t deny it. Who was he? â€œHi.â€ She squeezed her eyes closed, wanting to disappear in a hole. Hi? Really? That was the best thing she could come up with? â€œDo I know you?â€ His body stiffened at her voice, then relaxed as he turned. She gasped. â€œDrake?â€ He nodded slowly, his dark brown eyes connecting with hers. Her shoulders fell as the moment deflated. â€œWhat are you doing here?â€ â€œWhat do you think Iâ€™m doing?â€ â€œI have no clue what you think youâ€™re doing. All I know is that you arenâ€™t supposed to be here.â€ His chin notched up as he folded his arms across his body. â€œThis is exactly where Iâ€™m supposed to me.â€ â€œNo. This is where Iâ€™m supposed to be. Where Iâ€™m supposed to meet my mate.â€ She looked around the clearing. â€œHave you seen him?â€ He nodded once. â€œWell, where is he?â€ Her hands rested on her hips. â€œIn front of you.â€ â€œIn front ofâ€¦â€ Her eyes slid over him again. â€œNo. No, Drake. I already told you today. Youâ€™re not him.â€ A muscle ticked in his cheek, but he held his ground. â€œIâ€™m him. Iâ€™m here. Look around us, Poppy. Do you see someone else?â€ She stomped her foot. â€œThis is crazy! Why are you doing this?â€ He stalked her until they were toe to toe. â€œBecause I love you. Because even though you rejected me, I still want you. Because even though you say Iâ€™m not him, Iâ€™m willing to fight to be him.â€ He stood tall and broad, not touching her, but using his body, his nearness to affect her. It worked. She shivered; her hands itched to touch him. But she couldnâ€™t. He shouldnâ€™t be here. â€œDrake, you need to go. Now,â€ she said, looking everywhere but him. He notched her chin up with one finger, forcing her to look at him. â€œIâ€™m not leaving.â€ â€œI canâ€™t meet him if youâ€™re here.â€ â€œNo one else is coming.â€ She pushed away in frustration and kicked the grass. â€œThatâ€™s because youâ€™re here. You changed things. You messed this up. Maybe he came but saw you and decided to leave. Did you think of that?â€ His jaw clenched. â€œNo oneâ€™s been here.â€ â€œHow do you know?â€ â€œBecause Iâ€™ve been here all afternoon.â€ Her mouth dropped open, whatever she was going to say died away. Heâ€™d been here for hours? Why? What was he trying to accomplish? Her mate hadnâ€™t come. She sunk to one of the fallen stones on the ground. This wasnâ€™t how it was supposed to happen. He should be here. They should be happy. What did you expect? She hadnâ€™t planned on love right away, but sheâ€™d planned on being happy at least. She glanced at the moon. Six days. She only had six days to find her mate and accept him. Could he accept her that quickly? It was hopeless. â€œYou donâ€™t know what youâ€™ve done,â€ she whispered. He crouched in front of her. â€œYes I do. Iâ€™m him, Poppy. I know it.â€ She shook her head, but he stopped her. â€œI am.â€ She finally looked at him, truly looked. He believed that, and she wished he was right. But he wasnâ€™t. No magic flowed through his veins, the Fates didnâ€™t obey him, and he hadnâ€™t been marked by the moon. Whatever that meant. â€œLetâ€™s go.â€ She couldnâ€™t stay here. Not even for another second. The empty woods only reminded her of her loss. He helped her up. â€œWe can stay, if you want.â€ Brushing off her pants she said, â€œThereâ€™s no point. He should have been here by now.â€ â€œPoppyâ€”â€ She held up a hand. â€œNo. Donâ€™t say it.â€ He took her hand in his. She didnâ€™t even try to pull it away. It would only hurt him, and after it all, she still couldnâ€™t bear to do that. Him showing up was the worst thing that couldâ€™ve happened to her. Itâ€™d been hard enough that afternoon, but to see him here, to have her heartâ€™s desire within reaching distance, mocking her, it shredded her. â€œI want to go home.â€ â€œAll right. Can I walk with you?â€ She nodded, but didnâ€™t say anything. There wasnâ€™t anything else to say. When he left her at her front door, after forcing a promise from her that theyâ€™d talk in the morning, she went inside and sunk to the floor. And cried. Nothing would ever be right again. When the sun rose the next morning after a long, sleepless night, Poppy knew what she had to do. She packed an overnight bag and loaded her car, heading out of town before the town awoke. In morning light, the emerald hills off the California coast were dramatic. She could see why her ancestors had settled here after leaving their home in Ireland. This land echoed Corkâ€™s green fields, the changeable ocean, the magic in the air. It surrounded her, was a part of her. Her grandmother grew up in the house bordering the forest by Cloch ChroÃ, but passed it on to her daughter once her husband died. And when Poppyâ€™s own parents decided to retire in Ireland, theyâ€™d given it to her. She loved her parents and spoke with them often, but the bond she shared with her grandmother surpassed all other familial ties. Nana said it had something to do with their former lives, and Poppy believed her. Her grandmother was the wisest woman sheâ€™d ever known. If anyone could help her figure out how to fix this mess, it was her. She pulled into her grandmaâ€™s driveway an hour later. From the bamboo shutters on the windows to the straw umbrellas shading lounge chairs sunk in the sand, the modest house on the beach fit her. â€œRight on time, Honey. Breakfast is ready,â€ her grandma said. â€œNana.â€ The relief poured through her. Leaving the bags in her car, she sprinted up the porch and into her grandmotherâ€™s arms. â€œThere, there.â€ She rubbed Poppyâ€™s back briskly. â€œWeâ€™ll figure it out.â€ Poppy wasnâ€™t surprised by her grandmaâ€™s words. Nana was wise in ways that Poppy didnâ€™t understand. She hadnâ€™t been gifted with sight like Nana. â€œWeâ€™ll get your bags later. Letâ€™s get some food into our bellies while we talk it over.â€ The house was relatively small compared to the other homes along this stretch of beach, but it was just enough for her. It was bright, airy, and once inside, it felt bigger than it appeared. The kitchen was quaint, but welcoming, its bright paint reflecting light from a large bay window in the breakfast nook. Her grandma topped french toast with syrup before adding two strips of bacon from a pile cooling next to the oven. â€œBetter eat up while itâ€™s hot.â€ She winked. â€œHow did you know I was coming?â€ â€œOh, well. The same way I always know.â€ She smiled. Poppy cut her food into bite-sized pieces, but didnâ€™t start eating until her grandma sat across from her. The warmed syrup pricked her taste buds. She moaned at her first bite of heaven. â€œWhy are these so good?â€ â€œBecause I added a little magic.â€ Poppy raised a brow before inspecting her food. â€œYou did? Want to share that ingredient?â€ A secret smile crested her wrinkled cheek. â€œMaybe someday.â€ Theyâ€™d had this conversation more times than she could count. Someday sheâ€™d figure out the extra ingredient. â€œThanks for making these.â€ â€œItâ€™s my pleasure, Sweeting. I donâ€™t get to cook for others very often.â€ â€œYou arenâ€™t lonely here are you?â€ Why hadnâ€™t she asked that before now? Was she so selfish, so wrapped up in her own life that she wasnâ€™t able to see the needs of someone she loved? â€œOh, now. None of that,â€ Nana scolded. â€œYou have enough on your mind without adding misplaced guilt to the mix. Iâ€™m perfectly happy here. I have friends. I have a life. I could use a great grandchild or two, but first we need to fix the matter of their father.â€ Poppyâ€™s fork clattered on her plate. â€œDeep breath, Dear.â€ Poppyâ€™s hand shook as she reached for a glass of orange juice. â€œSo, you know?â€ Her lips pinched. â€œItâ€™s not hard to tell. Youâ€™re up here after All Hallows Eve on your 28th year. Iâ€™d have to know something went wrong.â€ â€œBut I think you know more than that.â€ â€œPerhaps,â€ she nodded thoughtfully. â€œDid you see it? What happened?â€ â€œOf course.â€ Her hand shook as she set down the cup. â€œHow could this have happened? It wasnâ€™t meant to be this way. The prophecyâ€”â€ â€œProphecies turn out the way theyâ€™re supposed to.â€ â€œI donâ€™t understand.â€ Her grandma dabbed her lips with a white napkin before pushing out of her chair. â€œCome with me. Thereâ€™s something I want you to see.â€ Poppy didnâ€™t question her. She rose, immediately following her grandmother into one of the small spare bedrooms that doubled as an office. Her grandma opened the door to the tiny closet, the hinges squeaking from misuse, before she pulled out a large leather-bound book. She couldnâ€™t remember ever seeing it, but for some reason, it felt familiar to her. â€œWhat is that?â€ A wrinkled hand caressed the front. â€œThis book holds all the important visions Iâ€™ve had in my life.â€ Poppyâ€™s eyes latched on to the cover. That book not only held secrets of her grandmotherâ€™s life and every one in her family, but could easily hold secrets the world wasnâ€™t ready for. Her grandmother was the most powerful seer of her time. No one, not even in her motherâ€™s generation, nor hers, compared. â€œWhy have I never seen it before?â€ â€œBecause you werenâ€™t ready.â€ Her eyes slid to her grandmotherâ€™s, the light green color identical. â€œI donâ€™t know if Iâ€™m ready now.â€ A chuckle eased from her lips. â€œYou arenâ€™t. At least not for most of it. I donâ€™t know if you ever will be. But your prophecy, the one about last night, is in here.â€ The page was bookmarked, and Poppy wondered how long her grandma knew sheâ€™d be coming. Poppy scanned the familiar words, written in the looping script. She read it slowly the second time through, but there wasnâ€™t anything new here. It was the same exact prophecy sheâ€™d memorized. The one sheâ€™d been thinking of her whole life. â€œI donâ€™t understand.â€ She looked up questioningly. â€œThereâ€™s nothing new there.â€ â€œRead it one more time.â€ Her eyes slipped over the words, instead of reading them, she felt them. Deep within her. â€˜Til the next full moon is all the time you have together to forge your union or lose it forever. If hearts arenâ€™t joined by the bright circleâ€™s light, then surrender your love to the dark of night. The words sent chills through her. The full moon was five days away. She had five days to find her mate, to make him accept her. Or else all was lost. â€œThereâ€™s not enough time,â€ she whispered. â€œFor?â€ â€œTo find him.â€ â€œWhat makes you think you havenâ€™t already?â€ She pushed away from the wall. â€œDrakeâ€™s not the one. Heâ€™s not magic. He hasnâ€™t been marked by the moon.â€ Her grandmotherâ€™s head cocked. â€œAre you sure?â€ â€œIâ€™ve known him for years. I think thatâ€™s something Iâ€™d know. Besides, I told him the same thing. He didnâ€™t admit to having magic.â€ â€œOnly you will know who it is. You have to decide.â€ Her lips firmed. â€œItâ€™s not that simple.â€ Her grandmaâ€™s mouth opened, but she closed it slowly, shaking her head. â€œWhat?â€ Her grandma tapped her lips, hesitating. â€œI canâ€™t say more. This is for you to decide, for you to work through. Go home. See what happens. Nothing can be accomplished while youâ€™re here. Time is going by, and you donâ€™t want to waste it. I love you. Youâ€™ll figure this out.â€ Her grandmotherâ€™s faith in her did little to sooth her worry. She didnâ€™t know if she could figure this out. Didnâ€™t know if there was enough time. But what else could she do? She couldnâ€™t run from this, couldnâ€™t hide. If her mate was out there, he was around her home, and thatâ€™s where she needed to be as well. If Drake screwed up her fate, she needed to trust that fate would step in once again to fix the mess. All hope was not lost. Chapter 3 Drake liked to think that if another man had shown up last night, heâ€™d have stepped aside and given Poppy what sheâ€™d needed. He was grateful that theory hadnâ€™t been tested. She mattered to him, more than anything, and he wanted her to be happy. He didnâ€™t know much about the prophecy. Only that she was supposed to meet her mate at the circle that night, and that there was some sort of time limit. He needed to know what the rest of it said and clear away any lingering doubt she may have. She hadnâ€™t taken his appearance at the stones well, but heâ€™d prepared for that. He had to make her come around. And he would, he promised himself. Heâ€™d be patient, heâ€™d wait, he'd do whatever it took to win her. Because she was it for him. With a deep breath, he knocked on her door. It was late morning, the dew not completely evaporated off the burgundy mums in the front planter, but Poppy was an early riser. When she didnâ€™t answer, he knocked again before checking her windows for movement. Nothing. He went around the side and peaked into her garage, frowning at the empty space. Panic fluttered in his chest, but he tamped it down. She was safe, she had to be. Heâ€™d walked her home last night and made sure she was secure in her house before leaving. Plus, he knew she protected her house with more than the shotgun she kept loaded above the china cabinet. Where could she have gone? Had she ran away? No, he discarded the idea almost immediately. It wasnâ€™t like her to run away from something. She was strong, a fighter. When things didnâ€™t work out, she pushed through. It was a trait he loved about her, something they had in common. Neither of them ever quit. He strode through the gate, latching it before sitting on the half wall surrounded another garden bed. He didnâ€™t know how long sheâ€™d be, but he wasnâ€™t in a hurry to leave. It was peaceful here, calm. He breathed deeply, smelling the pungent earth and the tea roses behind him. It smelled like her, he realized as he dragged in another breath, holding the perfume in tightly before releasing it. A car rumbled down the road, the occasional kick letting him know that it was Poppy. He really needed to fix that for her. If only sheâ€™d let him. He didnâ€™t stand as she drove onto the driveway, wanting her to make the first move. He wouldnâ€™t push, wouldnâ€™t force. She didnâ€™t respond well to that, and he knew she would only push back. Their years of friendship aided him. He knew her better than he knew himself. He smiled at her once she climbed out. â€œHi. Nice drive?â€ â€œYeah.â€ She shifted the keys from hand to hand, but he didnâ€™t remark on the nervous gesture. â€œReally nice actually. I visited my grandma.â€ His brows rose. â€œIâ€™m surprised youâ€™re back already. You must have left early.â€ â€œI didnâ€™t get much sleep.â€ â€œMe either.â€ She eyed him warily, and his conscience pricked. He hated to see her distressed. â€œDo you want to come inside? I can make some coffee.â€ â€œSure.â€ He fell into step behind her, wanting to soothe her rigid shoulders, rub her stiff neck. But he knew he couldnâ€™t touch her. Not yet. She needed space, needed to come around to the idea of them together. He could wait. For now. But as he sat at the table in her small kitchen, watching her bustle around, keeping busy, her hips swaying gracefully, he wasnâ€™t so sure. Heâ€™d wanted her for so long, needed her. It was everything he could do to stay in his seat, to not reach out, to not touch her. â€œHere. Just how you like it,â€ she said, placing black coffee in front of him. He smelled roses as she brushed past him, his eyes hooding at the scent. His fingers itched to reach out to her. So close! â€œThanks.â€ â€œI hope you werenâ€™t waiting long.â€ He sipped the biting brew. â€œOnly a few minutes actually. Iâ€™m glad I was able to catch you.â€ She nodded, choosing a seat on the opposite end of the table to sit. She couldnâ€™t be farther away, he thought. He set his cup down. â€œLook, Poppy. I know this is hard, but we need to talk about it.â€ â€œOkay,â€ she said before taking a sip. Her shoulders straightened as if preparing for battle. He could easily imagine what she wanted to say, but he didnâ€™t have a desire to hear that it was impossible to be together. â€œWait.â€ He held up a hand. â€œPlease.â€ Her mouth closed slowly as she leaned back into her chair. â€œMay I say something first?â€ â€œAll right.â€ â€œI know what youâ€™re thinking. I know that you think this isnâ€™t right, that we canâ€™t be together.â€ He waited for her nod. â€œI donâ€™t know everything about the prophecy, so I canâ€™t argue any points there, but I do know one thing and itâ€™s the same thing I said last night. No one will ever love you like I do.â€ She gulped. â€œYou donâ€™t know that.â€ His nostrils flared. â€œI do.â€ â€œDrake, pleaseâ€”â€ â€œAh.â€ He held up his hand. â€œThereâ€™s more.â€ He checked the smile tweaking his lips. She was so adorable when annoyed, but grinning would only piss her off. â€œI know you donâ€™t agree with me. And I donâ€™t want to force you into anything. I donâ€™t want to take away any of your options.â€ â€œThen why were you there last night?â€ â€œBecause I wanted to make it very clear that I want to be one of your options. I wanted you to know that I want you, that Iâ€™m fighting for you.â€ She shifted in her chair. â€œHereâ€™s what Iâ€™m proposingâ€¦â€ Her eyes bulged. â€œNo. Iâ€™m not actually proposing here, but I have a proposition. Date me. Go with this whole thing as if I really were your mate. If some guy shows up, one with all of your qualifications from the prophecy, then I will step aside.â€ â€œYouâ€™ll really step aside? Completely?â€ He swallowed hard, hoping his voice wouldnâ€™t crack. â€œYes. Iâ€™ll step aside so you can date him, can figure out if heâ€™s what you really want. But Iâ€™ll still be here, still hoping that youâ€™ll realize itâ€™s me. I donâ€™t want to force this on you, Poppy. I want you to choose me. But Iâ€™ll be doing everything I can to persuade you.â€ She stirred her coffee absently now, eying him. â€œAnd what would â€˜datingâ€™ entail?â€ â€œThe usual stuff. Going out to crappy movies, sharing a fancy mealâ€¦ necking in the car.â€ He grinned at her blush. She was gorgeous when color kissed her cheeks. â€œI donâ€™t know about the make-out part of the plan, but Iâ€™ll go with the outings. The rest of itâ€¦ weâ€™ll just have to see.â€ â€œTotally fine,â€ he quickly agreed. In truth, he was relieved that sheâ€™d agreed to any of it. â€œOh, and Iâ€™m not holding back any more.â€ â€œWhat do you mean?â€ â€œIâ€™ve had to hold back my feelings for years. I want to hold your hand, kiss you, and say whatâ€™s on my mind. Every thought or feeling I have from now on, Iâ€™m going to express. Iâ€™m not hiding anything because of the prophecy or from worry that youâ€™ll run away.â€ She swallowed hard, then cleared her throat. What was she getting herself in to? â€œSo, when do you want to start?â€ â€œWhy not today? Now?â€ â€œOkay.â€ She breathed shakily. â€œBut thereâ€™s something Iâ€™d like first.â€ â€œWhatâ€™s that?â€ Her eyes narrowed. â€œYou arenâ€™t getting a kiss, so donâ€™t even try.â€ He snorted. â€œI didnâ€™t figure or Iâ€™d alreadyâ€™ve had one.â€ He leaned across the table toward her. â€œI want to know what the prophecy says. All of it.â€ Her lips firmed as she shook her head. â€œNo. I donâ€™t think so.â€ He gulped coffee. â€œI think itâ€™s only fair. Youâ€™ve rejected me once over it already. How am I going to persuade you that Iâ€™m the guy if you wonâ€™t tell me what it says?â€ â€œSome other way. I canâ€™t tell you. Iâ€™m sorry.â€ Realization cut through him. She didnâ€™t trust him. Heâ€™d shown up at the stones when he wasnâ€™t supposed to and she thought heâ€™d manipulate her with the rest of it. He couldnâ€™t blame her, not really. Because if he knew what it said, heâ€™d have figured out a way to make it apply to him. â€œHow about thisâ€¦ I already know thereâ€™s a time limit. Could you at least tell me how much time weâ€™re dealing with?â€ She debated for a minute before her shoulders fell. â€œLess than a week.â€ If felt like heâ€™d been hit by a brick. â€œA week?â€ he croaked. â€œYes. Well not even that. Thursday. The full moon.â€ â€œOf course.â€ He only had five days to convince her that he was the one for her. It was everything he could do to gulp down the rest of his drink without choking. â€œGuess thereâ€™s no time to lose.â€ â€œAnd this is your idea of a date?â€ Drake asked, scanning the mountain of junk she was accumulating as she pulled out more stuff from her cabinets. â€œOrganizing your kitchen?â€ She bit back a grin. She really couldnâ€™t help herself. Holding a bundt pan, she turned back to him with innocent eyes. â€œYes. Iâ€™ve been putting it off far too long. Would you rather not be here? I could do it myself, but you did want to start dating me right away and since you gave me dibs on planning the first date...â€ â€œI do want to be with you. But just know, youâ€™re fired from date planning.â€ She couldnâ€™t hold back her laugh any longer. â€œFine. I guess I had that one coming.â€ â€œAfter this? Absolutely.â€ He grinned. â€œThank you for helping me though. Itâ€™ll go a lot faster with you here.â€ â€œJust tell me what to do first.â€ He rubbed his hands together. She eyed the opened cabinets, scrunching her nose at the dust, crumbs, and heaven only knew what else, littering the bottom of each. She plopped a wet sponge into his hand. â€œScrub.â€ â€œAnd what will you give me?â€ He tossed her a saucy wink. She loved to see him like this. Care free, relaxed. This was a side of him that heâ€™d hidden all this time. At least since he found out the prophecy. The dimple that crested his cheek had always been adorable, but there was more to it now. His green eyes twinkled, and her stomach fluttered. It wasnâ€™t fair for any man to be that handsome. How was she supposed to keep an emotional distance from him over the next few days? His offer surprised her. She knew what he wanted, what he was trying to do. And she appreciated it. Heâ€™d given her an out that would help her let him down easily when her mate showed up. But when she glanced back to that dimple, she swallowed hard. She wanted to kiss it. She cleared her throat. â€œAh. What do you want?â€ â€œI think you know.â€ She couldnâ€™t help it then, laughter roiled out when he wiggled his brows. All unease fled and the comfort sheâ€™d always felt with him return. He was her best friend. Had been for years. She couldnâ€™t let the prophecy take that away, couldnâ€™t let it change anything. She couldnâ€™t bear to lose him. â€œYouâ€™re incorrigible.â€ â€œBut you like me this way.â€ â€œI do.â€ She couldnâ€™t lie to him. Not about this. â€œYou were never like this before.â€ â€œI couldnâ€™t be.â€ A slice of guilt ate at her. She took up her own sponge and reached on her tip toes to a top shelf. Sheâ€™d never meant for him to stifle anything of himself. She didnâ€™t want that for him. To think heâ€™d had to hold anything back, hurt her. â€œIâ€™m sorry. I didnâ€™t realize.â€ His fingers brushed her hair over one shoulder, exposing her neck. A shiver coursed through her. What was happening to her? Sheâ€™d never wanted to arch into his touch, to beg for more. But one small brush of his fingers had her whimpering inside. â€œI had to hold it back. After you told me of the prophecy, I knew there was nothing I could do to convince you to be with me. I knew youâ€™d never accept it.â€ â€œAnd I will now?â€ Her voice was breathy, but she didnâ€™t care. â€œYes. I was the man at the stones.â€ His fingertips glided over her neck and her thoughts blurred. What had he said? He turned her to face him and her stomach did one quick flip when she met his hungry eyes. He wanted her, and she felt an answering curl in her belly. She jerked her head to the side when he leaned down, but instead of getting frustrated, he sifted his fingers through her hair, breathing in her scent below her ear. â€œYou smell incredible. Like your tea roses. I could smell you forever.â€ She wavered in his touch. â€œIt is roses. Howâ€™d you know?â€ â€œI smelled them in your garden this morning. I didnâ€™t know you used them for anything other than decoration.â€ He massaged her scalp. Her eyes shuttered closed on a moan. How could something feel so good? She was grateful his other arm held her around the waist, supporting her. She wouldâ€™ve melted to the floor without it. Her head lulled back onto his hand and her eyes fluttered open. His lips were an inch from hers, but he didnâ€™t take, didnâ€™t demand. It would have been easier that way. She wouldnâ€™t have had a choice. But he wasnâ€™t going to do that. She could see it in his eyes. He wanted her to choose. He wanted her to make the choice to kiss him. Her tongue wetted her lips. His eyes followed the movement, mesmerized by the action. His eyes darted back to hers, darker, deeper, and she knew he was at his limit. As her body burned, she forgot why sheâ€™d held back, why sheâ€™d denied herself all this time. All she could think, all she wanted, was him. Her arms snaked up around his neck, and she saw victory in his eyes. Longing. Desire. They surged through her like live wire, waking up parts of her body long gone dormant. â€œPoppy,â€ he groaned, molding her body to his. She gasped at the contact. He lowered his head to meet her lips. Knock, knock. They froze. Several more knocks, more forceful than the first. â€œYouâ€™ve got to kidding.â€ He swore as she untangled herself from his arms. She felt empty from loss of him, but she couldnâ€™t ignore the knock. It jarred her out of the moment, waking her up from a hazy dream. Another frantic knock. â€œIâ€™m coming,â€ she called out, stumbling toward the entry. Cracking open the door, her neighbor stood on the other side, her eyes puffy as they darted to the opening. â€œHelen?â€ â€œPoppy!â€ She latched onto her arm once Poppy opened the door all the way. â€œThank heaven youâ€™re here.â€ Poppyâ€™s heart sped up. â€œWhat happened? Whatâ€™s wrong?â€ Helen burst into tears. â€œItâ€™s Molly. Sheâ€™s gone.â€ â€œWhat do you mean gone? Where did she go?â€ Helenâ€™s sweet four-year-old daughter was quiet and bright. She always had a big smile for Poppy when she saw her, waving to her from her motherâ€™s car as they passed. â€œSheâ€™s lost. She was playing in the yard. I had to go inside. Just for a minute. Sheâ€™d been talking about taking a walk through the woods, but I told her that we couldnâ€™t today. She was fine. Seemed fine. But when I went inside, she must have decided to go on her own.â€ An eerie calm settled over Poppy. It was always the same. She could feel it moving over her, through her. She knew what had to be done. â€œHow long has she been gone?â€ â€œA few hours now. I called the police. Theyâ€™ve been searching. Weâ€™re rounding up everyone to look for her. If sheâ€™s still lost once it gets darkâ€¦â€ Helenâ€™s eyes widened in panic. Poppy patted a slim shoulder. â€œThatâ€™s not going to happen.â€ Drake stepped up from behind Poppy. â€œHere.â€ He helped her put on her coat. His jacket was already zipped up, and his mouth was grim. â€œWe shouldnâ€™t waste any more time.â€ â€œI thought,â€ Helen said, grabbing Poppyâ€™s hands. â€œI thought you could help.â€ â€œOf course! Weâ€™re coming with you. We wonâ€™t stop until we find her.â€ Helenâ€™s eyes shifted. â€œI meantâ€¦ maybe thereâ€™s something elseâ€¦ something moreâ€¦ you could do.â€ Poppyâ€™s eyes softened. She didnâ€™t openly discuss what she was with others in town, but her family had been there for generations. Even if she didnâ€™t talk about it, the town members were aware of her abilities. â€œIâ€™ll do everything I can.â€ â€œThank you.â€ Helen squeezed Poppyâ€™s hands. â€œEveryoneâ€™s meeting at my house in fifteen minutes.â€ Drake nodded. â€œWeâ€™ll be there. Iâ€™ll make a few calls to see if we can get more people.â€ Poppy ran to her kitchen once Helen left, gathering items sheâ€™d need for a location spell. â€œI have to find her.â€ Drake stood quietly behind the counter. He was calm, supportive, and she felt so lucky to have him in her life. â€œYou will. We both will. Together.â€ Her eyes locked with his, and they connected. They were one. They had one purpose, one goal. He was her rock, her support, and it robbed her of speech. What was she going to do when fate corrected their mistake? Chapter 4 The sun stretched toward the horizon by the time Drake and Poppy parked at Helenâ€™s house. The street swarmed with people from the town whoâ€™d come to help find Molly. They vaulted out of the car, ignoring the deafening noise from the crowd around them. Confusion abounded as information was traded like baseball cards. No one knew much, just snippets theyâ€™d heard from others, but the one thing they did know was that a little four-year-old was lost. Drake held her arm, guiding her through the crowd. â€œWhat do you need?â€ â€œSomething of hers. And somewhere quiet.â€ Ted Sommers, the town sheriff, blocked the group of searchers from entering the house. â€œWe need to get inside.â€ â€œDo you see Helen?â€ She craned her neck searching through the shocked faces. â€œSheâ€™s probably inside.â€ He maneuvered around groups, his arm protectively around her as he declined conversations as politely as he could. â€œSheriff Sommers.â€ Drake nodded in greeting. â€œDrake, can I help you with something?â€ The middled aged manâ€™s voice was hard. Drake stepped aside so Poppy had more room when she answered. â€œHelen asked me to come.â€ Sheriff Sommersâ€™s eyes darted between the two before nodding in understanding. â€œWe have things well in hand, but if Helen wanted you hereâ€¦â€ he shuffled aside, letting them pass into the house. â€œWeâ€™re happy for anything you can do.â€ â€œIâ€™ll try,â€ she whispered. Drake squeezed her hand. She wasnâ€™t alone in this. She had an ability, one that could help them find the girl. It had to weigh on her. If she failedâ€¦ No. She was strong, capable as she strode through the house, surveying pictures, studying the toys strewn across the floor as if Molly had just ran away from playing with them. She could do this. It was eerie. He didnâ€™t have magic, but he could sense the girl here. Could sense her in every fiber of the house. She was a part of it. â€œCan you help me?â€ Helen stumbled to Poppyâ€™s side, wrenching her hands. â€œIâ€™ll try, Helen. Iâ€™ll do everything I can.â€ â€œWhat do you need? What can I do to help you?â€ â€œCould you show me her room?â€ Helenâ€™s eyes widened. â€œOf course. I should have thought of that.â€ They walked down the narrow hall to the second room. â€œIâ€™ve been meaning to have her clean it.â€ Helen sniffled as her eyes teared at a memory. â€œShe always fights me on it.â€ Drake reached out to the woman, his hand resting on her shoulder. â€œWhat kid doesnâ€™t?â€ â€œSheâ€™s a good girl.â€ A raspy chuckle escaped her. â€œShe just canâ€™t keep her room clean.â€ â€œWeâ€™ll bring her back,â€ he reassured her. There wasnâ€™t much he could do, but if he could bring this mother even a tiny hint of hope, he would. Poppy drew her attention again. â€œIâ€™ll need a minute, Helen, if you donâ€™t mind.â€ With a jerky nod, Helen said, â€œIâ€™ll just be out in the front room. Let me know if you need anything.â€ She closed the door softly on her way out. Drake waited a moment, not wanting to interrupt Poppyâ€™s thoughts. â€œDo you want me to leave?â€ he asked softly. She closed her eyes, breathing deeply. â€œNo. Stay.â€ Her eyes pleaded into his. She needed him, his strength. And his heart answered for him. Always. â€œIâ€™ll be right here.â€ Poppy scanned the room, letting calm settle over her mind and heart. She could feel Molly here, in the clothes spilling out of the drawers, the unmade bed, the half eaten cookies by her tea set. Sheâ€™d been happy here. Loved. And the child had always known it. This was her refuge, the place where she could go play, or calm herself. It was safe. It was secure. The room echoed that. Thereâ€™d been tears here. Scrapes and bruises from a growing child, but nothing had tainted her. Nothing had truly hurt her spirit. Poppy brushed a hand over a frazzle-haired doll perched at a small table. â€œHold on, sweetheart. Just a little longer.â€ She needed something of Mollyâ€™s, something she loved. A stuffed animal or blanket she favored. Poppy lifted the covers and revealed a scraggly bear, its matted multi-colored fur detracted from the missing eye, but just barely. There were large stitches where someone, most likely Helen, had reattached his legs, arms, and head, mimicking a colorful mini Frankenstein. Looking at the sad toy, most people wouldnâ€™t see its value. But Molly did. Poppy stretched for the mangy bear. Fur crunched under her hand, and she couldnâ€™t imagine what had dried on the toy. â€œYouâ€™re just what I need.â€ She hugged the bear before turning to Drake. â€œCan you clear off the table?â€ He didnâ€™t question her. He moved quickly, efficiently, sliding stuffed animals off the chairs, and carefully placing the china tea set on the dresser before brushing crumbs off the table. A dark lock of hair fell over his forehead, and breath stole from her chest. For the first time, she could lean on another person. She didnâ€™t have to handle everything on her own, or hold it all in until she collapsed from both worries and exhaustion after a spell. He was there, silently supporting her in whatever she needed. She was scared this was something she could get used to. Something she couldnâ€™t live without. Fishing a map out of her back pocket, she spread it over the table, eying the layout of the forest. It wasnâ€™t the largest park in the area, but it covered miles of rough terrain. Placing the bear on the edge of the map, she lifted a chunk of amethyst that rested on the end of a chain from her shirt. She held the chain dangled from one finger. â€œIf this is going to freak you out, you should step out now.â€ â€œIâ€™m staying.â€ His jaw was set, his eyes determined. Thick, muscled arms crossed in front of him. He knew what she was. There was no way around that. Theyâ€™d known each other for too long. But knowing something and seeing it were two different things. Sure, heâ€™d seen her mix a few potions, dry herbs, gather materials, but that was preparation for her craft. This was different. Personal. No one outside of her family had seen her practice, and to let him in now meant something she wasnâ€™t ready to acknowledge yet. â€œIf you faint, youâ€™re on your own.â€ His lips twitched. â€œI think I can manage.â€ Deep breath, she closed her eyes, stilled her heart. Focused. Her breathing deepened as her mind sought out Mollyâ€™s. Poppy gasped as she connected with the girl. Molly was scared, cold. But safe. For now anyway. She wandered around, tears spilling at her feet as she tried to navigate a forest that looked the same everywhere she looked. Poppy cleared all thoughts, envisioning a white canvas in her mind. Her finger curled around the chain, harnessing it before she twirled it. The stone swirled beneath her closed eyes. She didnâ€™t need to watch it. She could feel it. Her mind rushed from white into the thick green of the forest as she searched over hills and valley. There was so much ground. So many places for a little girl to hide. â€œHelp me, sweetheart. Come on.â€ She felt the first trickle of recognition as Mollyâ€™s mind latched on to hers. The amethyst swung wide, arching across the page before the point planted into the map. Breath Whooshed from her lungs as her eyes fluttered open. â€œFound her,â€ she whispered as the energy that charged her fled, leaving her weak. She glanced to Drake, using precious energy she needed to conserve the first moments after a spell. His eyes were wide, locked onto the gravity defying stone. â€œIâ€™ve never seen anything like that before.â€ Her gut clenched. Was he repulsed? She should have sent him away, shouldnâ€™t have let him see what she was. She hadnâ€™t been thinking straight, she scolded herself. Sheâ€™d gotten too comfortable with him. â€œThat was the most incredible thing Iâ€™ve ever seen.â€ He brushed his hand against her shoulder. Power flowed back into her, staggering her with its strength. She sunk to the ground, holding a hand to her head to stop her vision from spinning. What was that? Her mouth fell open as she shifted, all weakness in her limbs gone. How was this possible? It normally took her days to fully recover from a spell like that. He knelt in front of her, his eyes filled with worry. â€œAre you all right? What happened? You went completely pale.â€ â€œIâ€™m fine.â€ Deep breath. More than fine. â€œI get a little shaky after spells. It will pass.â€ It wasnâ€™t a lie. Thatâ€™s normally how it worked. She didnâ€™t know why power had surged back into her, but until she figured it out, she wanted to keep it quiet. He helped her up, leaning her body against his, but she didnâ€™t protest. She didnâ€™t need his assistance, although normally, it mightâ€™ve been necessary. Instead of balking at their closeness, she relished the feel of him against her, the strength that surrounded her. Helen jumped from the couch when they came into view. â€œDid you find her?â€ Reaching out, Poppy smiled. â€œYes. Sheâ€™s okay. Sheâ€™s about a mile southeast.â€ Helen burst into tears before lunging into Poppyâ€™s arms for a hug. â€œSoutheast?â€ Sheriff Sommers scratched his chin. â€œEverything indicates that she headed north.â€ â€œSheâ€™s southeast. Youâ€™ll find her by a small creek.â€ Sheâ€™d barely finished speaking before he was barking orders into his radio. â€œThank you, Poppy. Thank you.â€ Poppy shook her head. â€œYou donâ€™t need to thank me. Iâ€™d do anything to help find her.â€ â€œBless you.â€ Helen gripped her hand one last time. Fifteen minutes later, a cheer rang out when news spread that Molly had been found alive and well. â€œYou did it,â€ Drake pressed a kiss to her forehead. â€œYou saved her.â€ A blush crested her cheeks. â€œI didnâ€™t do much.â€ He cradled her face. â€œYou did it all. Iâ€™m so proud of you. Come on, letâ€™s head home.â€ She nodded, emotionally drained from the experience. He was quiet on the short drive home, allowing her to think about Molly. For a brief moment, her heart eased, a feeling sheâ€™d gone without for too long. Sheâ€™d made a difference, and right now, with Drake by her side, she reveled in who and what she was. Moonlight lit the street when Drake parked in front of Poppyâ€™s house. Sheâ€™d left a light on inside the living room, a beacon in the dark. Drake exited the car, rounding the vehicle to open her door. He held it open, waiting, watching. She shivered under his gaze, his eyes caressing her, possessive, intense. She wasnâ€™t afraid of it. It wasâ€¦ delicious. Taking her hand, he slowly drew her out of the car and into his arms. â€œThank you for letting me stay with you today. Iâ€™ll never forget it.â€ Her heart raced at his touch. With Mollyâ€™s disappearance, she hadnâ€™t thought about what had almost happened in her kitchen earlier. What was happening now. Awareness prickled her skin as he rubbed his cheek against her hair, breathing deeply. Her belly flipped and energy hummed along her skin. This was power. Pure, raw, power. It surged through her during spells, filling her until it left her bereft. Feeling Drake around her, holding her, it was the same heady sensation. Greedy for more, she pressed into him, relishing the hiss that escaped his lips. â€œI needed you there,â€ she said. In magic, sheâ€™d never needed anything. Had never leaned on anyone. Sheâ€™d always been enough. But Drake had given her something that sheâ€™d lacked. Sheâ€™d felt confident, secure. The tendrils of doubt that normally bound her were absent. She tilted her head back so heâ€™d see the truth in her eyes. â€œI needed you.â€ Fire lit his eyes as he pushed her against his car, capturing her lips the moment her back hit metal. Breath whooshed from her as her senses reeled. Too much, too quickly, the world swirled away, leaving only Drake. His lips molded hers, pinning her to the car with both his body and her need. She felt treasured, secure. Desire rushed over her, stripping her of any hesitations. His mouth teased her, coaxing her, taking until she opened for him. He moaned against her mouth at his first taste, his hands diving into her hair, anchoring her. Shivers skated along her skin. He didnâ€™t tempt her with his kisses, didnâ€™t beckon. He consumed her. This is Drake! Not the man from the prophecy. But she didnâ€™t care. He was her best friend. A man sheâ€™d loved and respected for longer than she could remember. She didnâ€™t want to think about someone else. Drake was here, with her. And she wanted to be with him. Not because the prophecy dictated that it should be so, but because it felt right, because after all these years, she wanted a part of him that no one, not even fate, could take from her. Her arms snaked around him, gripping his hard body to hers. She relished the bunched muscles in his shoulders. He was hard, sturdy, and sheâ€™d never felt more feminine. One of his hands trailed down her body, fisting at her hip before he ripped his mouth away from hers, trailing hot kisses down her neck. Her eyes rolled back, her head rolling to the side, offering him full access, silently begging him to take more. To take everything. Sheâ€™d been kissed before. This wasnâ€™t a kiss. This was a full-bodied experience. He awakened parts of her that sheâ€™d never felt, all from tiny scrapes of his teeth. Her hands clenched his shoulders, needing to get closer. Needing more. He groaned, burying his face in her neck, holding her as they shook in each otherâ€™s arms. â€œIf I donâ€™t stop now, I donâ€™t think Iâ€™ll be able to.â€ She swallowed nodding. She couldnâ€™t think, didnâ€™t want to. She only felt. He didnâ€™t step away, didnâ€™t release her. He held her in his arms as if he could absorb her. She felt cherished, needed for something other than what she could give. For the first time, she was enough. Just Poppy. Not the witch, but the woman. He leaned back, smoothing hair back from her face. â€œCan I see you tomorrow?â€ His voice was hoarse, but his eyes never left hers. Her body ached, pleaded for more of his gentle assault. But it was more than how he made her feel. She wanted all of him. â€œYes.â€ She shook her head, remembering. â€œNo, wait. I have to work. A client needs more stock.â€ â€œWhat do you need to do?â€ â€œI need to make more bath products. Lotions, soaps, shampoo.â€ â€œWell, can I help you?â€ A smile curved her lips. â€œIâ€™d like that.â€ He nuzzled a soft kiss against her lips. â€œIâ€™ll be here.â€ Setting her away in degrees, he released her. Walking to the door, the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. She turned, catching his eyes devouring her in greedy gulps. It helped soothe the ache in her heart now that heâ€™d let her go, but just barely. â€œKeep walking, sweetheart. If you stop, I might not let you go again.â€ Her heart thrilled at his words, at the truth she saw echoed in his eyes. She crossed into her house, closing the door quietly behind her and listened as he drove away. All she could think about were his words, his praise, his kiss. They were drugs to her, and she flew high off of him. Chapter 5 Waking with the sun, Poppy still glowed from Drakeâ€™s kiss. Sleep had come easily, and sheâ€™d savored the wicked dreams sheâ€™d envisioned during the night. But with morning came unpleasant thoughts as well. As wonderful as last night was, as much as sheâ€™d enjoyed being with Drake in that way, he wasnâ€™t her mate. No matter how much she cared for him, longed for him, nothing could change that fact. Drakeâ€™s proposal was sound. She didnâ€™t know who her mate was, how to find him, not even what he looked like. Until she did, sheâ€™d enjoy her time with Drake, because for once, sheâ€™d do what she wanted. Something selfish. Something that wasnâ€™t dictated by a cosmic force. After years of fighting it, this was her chance to be with Drake. Not wanting to think of it any more, she set a kettle on the stove for tea and organized all the ingredients sheâ€™d need to make lavender lotion. Sheâ€™d been gifted in herbs, and sheâ€™d worked to hone their uses, not only in magic but in therapy as well, since she was a girl. If she happened to add a regenerative spell, or a touch of something for relaxation to aid the herbs, well, so much the better. She financially supported herself with her concoctions and was grateful sheâ€™d been able to. By the time Drake arrived, the ingredients lined her counter as neat as any surgeonâ€™s tools. His muscled body leaned against the door frame, a brow raised at her supplies. She tried not to drool. â€œI thought you were going to wait for me.â€ She shrugged playfully, lightening her mood. It was either that or jump him. â€œThatâ€™s what happens when you sleep in.â€ He snorted. â€œI hardly think 8:30 in the morning is sleeping in since Iâ€™m here and dressed.â€ â€œHave you eaten?â€ â€œI was hoping youâ€™d feed me.â€ He grinned wolfishly, stalking toward her. â€œI can tell you exactly what Iâ€™m in the mood for.â€ She gasped when he lunged for her, wrapping her in thick arms. His kiss was hot, possessive. Everything sheâ€™d dreamed. Everything that had tormented her during the night. She arched against him, relishing his touch, his taste. He came up for air, tucking her head under his chin. She grinned at his racing heart. â€œNow thatâ€™s the way I prefer to say good morning.â€ â€œGood morning,â€ she breathed out. He released her, even if he did so reluctantly. â€œCome on. Letâ€™s get started or else weâ€™ll never get it done.â€ A grin cracked her face. He was adorable. He valued her for who she was, not just for how she made him feel physically. After being friends for so many years, sheâ€™d known this, but loved that nothing had changed in the last few days. â€œWhere do you want me to start?â€ She tossed her head to the counter. â€œSlip around to the other side by the pestle. Iâ€™ll have you start on the lavender sprigs. Iâ€™m running low on lavender oil, and Iâ€™ll need to replace what weâ€™re about to use.â€ â€œYou make your own oils?â€ He ground the herbs she placed in the stone. â€œHow did I not know this about you?â€ â€œGuess you donâ€™t know everything.â€ â€œGuess not. Anything else I should know?â€ He wiggled his eyebrows at her. Snorting a laugh, she shook her head. â€œJust keep grinding.â€ â€œI take it thatâ€™s a yes?â€ â€œWho knows? Iâ€™m a mystery, apparently.â€ He eyed her slowly from her head to her toes, awakening each inch of skin his eyes caressed. He finally nodded. â€œYou are. But I look forward to learning all your secrets.â€ Color flushed her cheeks, only making him grin. â€œI donâ€™t think Iâ€™ve made you blush since we were teenagers.â€ She turned away, clearing her throat, blindly reaching for an herb to crush. â€œIt still happens sometimes.â€ â€œYouâ€™re beautiful.â€ Her mouth dropped open as her eyes darted to his. He set the pestle aside. â€œYouâ€™re beautiful, Poppy.â€ She shifted. â€œWhatâ€™s wrong?â€ â€œNothing. I justâ€¦ nothing.â€ She squirmed under his knowing gaze. She felt raw, exposed. Like he could see all the way to the depth of her soul. Maybe he could. Could he be her mate? This connection between them was too strong, too meaningful. There had to be a reason. As she watched him, she started to believe that he might be hers. â€œHas no one ever told you how gorgeous you are?â€ He whispered. â€œHow incredibly graceful, strong, and sexy you are?â€ She shuttered a breath, shaking her head. â€œNo. Well, yes, Iâ€™m sure my parents and few others have mentioned I was pretty. But, it didnâ€™t feel like this.â€ Her words lit up his eyes. â€œYouâ€™re mine, Poppy. Mine. You just donâ€™t know it yet.â€ She didnâ€™t know what to say. She wasnâ€™t ready to agree with him, to concede. Still, her heart recognized his words as truth. The realization shook her. As if sensing her struggle, he turned a back to grinding. â€œDo you need the powder finer than this?â€ He angled the stone toward her. â€œNo.â€ She cleared the lump in her throat. â€œNo, thatâ€™s perfect.â€ She poured the powder into a cloth, tightly securing the material before setting it in boiling water. â€œThatâ€™s all you need?â€ â€œYes. Itâ€™ll boil for several hours and then dry out before I can finish the process.â€ She threw on a stained red apron, the ruffled pockets holding oils sheâ€™d need. â€œLetâ€™s start with the first batch of lotions. Theyâ€™ve ordered ten more eight-ounce bottles of lavender lotion, a variety of soaps, and more rose shampoo.â€ â€œLike the one you use?â€ â€œYes. Itâ€™s quite popular.â€ â€œI didnâ€™t know you sold that.â€ She sent him a wry smile. â€œI told you, Iâ€™m a woman of mystery.â€ â€œYou did.â€ He grinned, leaning over the counter to watch her mix the ingredients. Occasionally she needed something from his side and heâ€™d hand it over to her. It was easy, right, being here with him. Itâ€™d always been comfortable to be around him. They understood each other on so many levels, but this was new. This awareness of him. As she stirred the mixture over the stove, she studied him from the corner of her eye. The sunlight that filtered in through the kitchen window teased red highlights from his hair that sheâ€™d never noticed. His fingers were smooth, long. Manly. She could imagine them on her body. â€œPoppy?â€ â€œHmm? What?â€ She tore her eyes from his hands to his face. â€œYou were staring at my hands. Is everything all right?â€ â€œOh.â€ She rubbed her cheek, hoping her blush didnâ€™t give her thoughts away. Her attempt at discretion had failed. â€œYes. Iâ€™m fine. Just lost in thought for a moment.â€ â€œAnything you want to share?â€ She sighed at the glimmer in his eye, at how it affected her. Did he have any idea what was going on inside her body at that moment? She hoped not. â€œI was just thinking that you had nice hands. Theyâ€™d be good for casting.â€ â€œCastingâ€¦ spells?â€ She bit her cheek. â€œYes.â€ â€œYeahâ€¦ I donâ€™t think so.â€ He shifted uneasily now. â€œIâ€™d have no clue what to do. I think Iâ€™ll just sit and watch you if thatâ€™s all right.â€ â€œCome on.â€ She set her bowl aside, the contents mixed together. â€œWeâ€™ll do this together. Can you grab those empty lotion bottles over there and line them up here? Itâ€™s easy to pour them assembly line style.â€ He did as she asked, and she divided the warm mixture into the bottles. Once full, he moved to cap them. She stayed his hand. â€œNo. Not yet. It needs a little something extra.â€ â€œWhatâ€™s that?â€ She grinned slowly. â€œMagic.â€ â€œYou put magic in your products? Does it make people buy more?â€ he teased. She smacked his arm. â€œI wish there was a spell for that. Iâ€™d be rich, and trust me, Iâ€™d buy myself a bigger place somewhere much more glamorous than here.â€ His head shook softly. â€œNo you wouldnâ€™t.â€ â€œNo?â€ â€œYou love this place. Youâ€™ll never leave.â€ Her hand stilled, all joking left. â€œHowâ€™d you know that?â€ â€œBecause I know you, Poppy. Have you not heard anything Iâ€™ve told you lately?â€ â€œOf course.â€ She dusted off her apron, not knowing where else to put her hands. She was worried if he came closer to her, that sheâ€™d launch herself into his arms. â€œI just didnâ€™t know, didnâ€™t realize, that you knew those things. Most guys donâ€™t pay attention to things like that.â€ â€œWhen it comes to you, I pay attention to everything.â€ Her mouth went dry. â€œCome on,â€ he nodded at the bottles. â€œLetâ€™s finish this so we can drop them off. Then youâ€™re all mine.â€ His eyes warmed on hers. Her heart fluttered as desire wove through her. She couldnâ€™t fight this. She needed him, wanted him. Desired him. â€œTake my hand.â€ He took it without question. â€œClear your mind. Repeat my words in your mind. Focus channeling your energy through your hand and into me. Visualize it. Ready?â€ At his nod, she closed her eyes, her face tilting up. Words floated from her lips like silky wind, calming, soothing the tension in her body. It floated in the air, diffusing in the light, and when it pulsed into the opened containers, she knew sheâ€™d succeeded. At the end of the incantation, power surged through her arm and filled her. She gasped, breaking contact with Drake. â€œPoppy?â€ He gripped her arms, keeping her upright. â€œWhatâ€™s wrong? What happened?â€ â€œI donâ€™t know.â€ Her hand went to her throat, struggling to balance her center. â€œI donâ€™t know. Something happened. I felt this surge of power whisk through me, amplifying the spell.â€ His mouth was grim. â€œAre you hurt?â€ She tested her weight again, relieved that she was all right. â€œFine. I guess it just startled me.â€ He still gripped her as if he was worried sheâ€™d fall. â€œIâ€™m really fine now. You can let go.â€ He lifted one finger from her at a time. â€œWhy did this happen?â€ She did a mental check over her body. She wasnâ€™t hurt. In fact, she was great. Any depletion she normally felt after a spell was gone. She felt stronger, healthier... just like yesterdayâ€™s spell. What was doing on? â€œI donâ€™t know. Maybe it has something to do with the prophecy and the full moon coming. Maybe my powers are changing.â€ â€œDoes the prophecy say this will happen?â€ Her lips pursed. â€œNo. But I donâ€™t understand what all of it means.â€ â€œAnd you still wonâ€™t tell me what it says?â€ She wanted to tell him. Wanted to confide everything she knew about it. But something still held her back. She shook her head. He gripped the back of a chair, but he nodded. â€œIs there anything else we need to do for these?â€ He waved at the bottles. His hands shook. He was upset. She couldnâ€™t blame him. If their positions were reversed sheâ€™d be mad too. She trusted him. She just wasnâ€™t willing to tempt fate again. â€œNo. Those are finished. The store needs other items, but I have some extra stock in the bedroom I can give them. I can make more later.â€ He turned from her then, and it cut her deep down. She wanted to reach out to him, explain herself, but what good would that do? She still couldnâ€™t tell him what the prophecy said. He repacked the bottles into a box and took them out to the car. What was wrong with her? Why was she doing this to him? To them? Why couldnâ€™t she just accept this, accept him? As they drove in silence into town, she lashed herself with the same questions. Why couldnâ€™t she just follow what felt right? Because doubt ate at her. What if he wasnâ€™t her mate? What if her mate showed up and sheâ€™d already committed herself to another? That would only end up hurting both men. Why was this so hard? Sheâ€™d always taken comfort in the prophecy. Itâ€™d given her hope that there was someone out there just for her. All she had to do was bide her time and heâ€™d come to her. How naive. Life was never that simple. Sheâ€™d been a fool this whole time. Waiting for some knight to show up and sweep her off her feet when sheâ€™d had this amazing, sexy, caring, wonderful man in front of her all along. After juggling boxes into the store, chatting briefly with the clerk, she marched back outside. She needed to end this limbo for them both. To tell Drake that she was all in. That she was sorry for being an idiot. â€œDrake.â€ His name felt right on her lips. She stepped in front of him while he leaned against a light pole. â€œIâ€™m sorry.â€ â€œFor what?â€ â€œForâ€”â€ â€œPoppy, is that you?â€ The question, uttered from someone on the sidewalk, jerked her out of the moment. Her mouth dropped open as the world spun. â€œZander? What are you doing here?â€ He laughed, racing toward her before swinging her up into a hug. â€œI knew that was you.â€ Once he placed her back on solid ground, her wide eyes glanced from Drake to Zander. â€œI canâ€™t believe youâ€™re here. When did you get into town?â€ â€œHalloween actually.â€ He grinned. â€œI couldnâ€™t resist visiting for the holiday. Brings back fond memories.â€ He finally nodded to Drake, reaching out his hand. â€œDrake. Itâ€™s nice to see you. Itâ€™s been a long time.â€ Drake swallowed hard before shaking Zanderâ€™s hand. â€œIt has. Whatâ€™s brought you back after all this time?â€ â€œOh, you know. It was passed time for a visit.â€ Zander eyed Poppy and Drake. An awkward silence descended. Zander had been here. On Halloween. And he was a descendant of a founding member of the magic community. All the pieces fit. â€œWhat did you end up doing on Halloween? Anything fun?â€ Drakeâ€™s eyes darted to hers, his jaw clenching. She couldnâ€™t help it. She needed to know. â€œNot much really. I visited with family earlier on and passed out candy. After that I took a walk in the forest. Iâ€™d forgotten how beautiful it was.â€ â€œThe forest?â€ she choked. â€œYeah.â€ He rubbed the back of his neck, chuckling. â€œI thought Iâ€™d go see the stones. It was All Hallows Eve after all. It seemed fitting.â€ The bottom dropped out of her stomach. â€œBut you didnâ€™t end up going?â€ He shrugged. â€œI heard some people there and didnâ€™t want to disrupt them. It sounded serious.â€ â€œNo kidding?â€ Drake finally reentered the conversation. â€œYeah, well.â€ He shrugged. â€œAnyway, I have to run. Tell your grandma I said hello.â€ â€œI will. Will you be staying in town for long?â€ Drake shifted his weight. â€œI donâ€™t have any solid plans.â€ Drake took Poppyâ€™s arm as he said, â€œWell, weâ€™ll see you around then.â€ Poppy said her goodbyes to Zander and stumbled away with Drake. Why was this happening to her? Sheâ€™d just started to feel like something was there with Drake. Sheâ€™d begun to accept it. She may not fully understand the prophecy, but then again, what else could born of magic mean? You either had magic or you didnâ€™t. Unfortunately, Drake didnâ€™t. But Zander did. Heâ€™d attended ceremonies when they were younger. What heâ€™d done in the last eight years, she had no idea. But did it even matter? He had magic, he was in town on All Hallows Eve, and heâ€™d gone to the stones. Her heart cracked. He had to be the one. It lined up. It made sense. But why did it hurt so much? Her hand fisted at her stomach as bile rose. She had to see this through, had to let go of Drake. She had to fulfill her destiny and accept her mate. Drake let go of her arm at his car, but he didnâ€™t say anything. He stood there, waiting. Watching. Sheâ€™d never been a coward, but she struggled to meet his eyes. When she did, there was pain there, and it lanced through her as well. â€œDonâ€™t do this, Poppy,â€ he begged. She shook her head, her eyes filling. â€œYou know I have to, Drake. We talked about this.â€ He raked a hand through his hair. â€œI know what I said. But you have a choice in this. Just like you did before.â€ He gripped her hands in his. â€œI love you. Choose me. Pick me. I want to spend the rest of my life with you.â€ Her mouth dropped open as the first tear fell. â€œI canâ€™t do this, Drake. You know I canâ€™t turn away from the prophecy. I canâ€™t. He fits. It all fits. I canâ€™t walk away from this.â€ â€œWhat do you want me to do then? Just sit here and let you go? Itâ€™d be easier to rip out my heart.â€ â€œIâ€™m sorry for that. I never wanted to hurt you.â€ She stroked his clenched jaw. â€œBut I have to. We agreed on this.â€ â€œWe did.â€ He backed away from her, breaking all contact, and that one little move cut her to the quick. â€œI promised that Iâ€™d step aside, that Iâ€™d let you do what you needed to, that Iâ€™d let you figure it out.â€ He shook his head. â€œBut I wonâ€™t stay here and watch you. I canâ€™t.â€ His eyes pleaded, and her heart answered. But she couldnâ€™t give in. This was too important, and there so little time. His eyes traveled over her as if committing her to memory. The thought chilled her. â€œIâ€™m not saying this is a sure thing or forever, Drake. I just need to figure this out.â€ He swallowed hard, nodding. â€œI understand, Poppy. I really do.â€ â€œWhy donâ€™t you go on ahead? Iâ€™m going to stay in town for a bit and walk home when Iâ€™m done.â€ Drake looked in the direction Zander had gone, eyes lit with understanding. He nodded once, turning on his heel before climbing into the car. A smile wobbled on her lips when he gazed at her one last time before driving away. When she could no longer see his car, air wheezed out of her lungs and she sunk to a bench. She didnâ€™t want this. Any of it. She didnâ€™t want to hurt Drake, but she didnâ€™t have another choice. Drake had to know that. He was her best friend. She couldnâ€™t bear to lose him over this. But the reality was, he didnâ€™t have magic. And her mate did. Swiping a tear from her cheek, she breathed deeply. This is how it had to be. Sheâ€™d talk to Drake later, and theyâ€™d work it out. They could get passed this, could go back to how they were before. I love you. Heâ€™d said the words, but he didnâ€™t really mean them. At least not in the way he thought. Theyâ€™d loved each other for a long time. How could they not? Theyâ€™d been together too long, been through too much together to not care deeply about one another. In time, Drake would realize that they werenâ€™t meant to be together. He had to. As she wandered down the street, she wasnâ€™t sure who she was trying to convince anymore. Chapter 6 Drakeâ€™s jaw clenched as he stomped through his house with no direction in mind, only needing to move. To not to feel. Sheâ€™d chosen someone else. All frustration whooshed out of his body, despair settling in its place. Sheâ€™d chosen Zander, and if Zander wasnâ€™t the one, then sheâ€™d do it again when another man with magic showed up. He couldnâ€™t fight it, couldnâ€™t argue. Because she was right. Heâ€™d made a promise to her that if someone else showed up, heâ€™d step aside. It was killing him to do it, to move back and let another man have the one person he loved above all. But he had to. For her. She was with Zander right now, and the knowledge sliced through him. Zander would take her. Who wouldnâ€™t? She was the most caring, generous, and beautiful woman heâ€™d ever met. Any man would be thrilled to have her, to touch her, to taste herâ€¦ He groaned. No. He couldnâ€™t do this. He couldnâ€™t sit here, thinking of her with someone else. Heâ€™d keep his promise. Heâ€™d keep his distance while she figured out if Zander was her mate, but that didnâ€™t mean he had to stay and watch. He didnâ€™t have to see them together. Didnâ€™t have to sit on the sidelines as everything heâ€™d ever wanted was ripped from his hands. Without finesse, Drake threw clothes into a worn duffel bag. Heâ€™d take off for a few days. He knew there was a time factor here, and heâ€™d be back for the deadline. He couldnâ€™t write her off, write off them, when there was still a chance. Even if it was only a small one. When she decided he wasnâ€™t the one then, then heâ€™d leave. Maybe for good. What would staying here accomplish? To see her for the rest of his life and never have her, never hold her, never touch her. He couldnâ€™t think of worse torture. His movements slowed. Watching Zander touching her, kissing herâ€¦ he realized there was something worse. With renewed vigor, he zipped the bag closed. He strode to his desk, penning a note for Poppy. He couldnâ€™t leave without telling her. He sealed it in an envelope and wrote her name on the front. Heâ€™d drop it off on his way out of town. It was the only thing he could do. Poppy jogged down the street, grateful when she spotted Zander through the window of a bookstore. She hadnâ€™t lost him. She marched into the store, cornering him as he paid for a book. â€œZander?â€ â€œPoppy? Is everything okay?â€ He glanced passed her, no doubt looking for Drake. â€œYeah. Um, I was hoping you could talk, grab some coffee or something.â€ â€œSure.â€ He nodded his thanks to the cashier. â€œHow about Shirleyâ€™s? If itâ€™s still around.â€ Her shoulders relaxed now that heâ€™d agreed. She knew it was a long shot that heâ€™d be able to talk now, but Poppy couldnâ€™t wait. She needed to find out if Zander was the one without dragging it out. â€œSure is. And it still has the best coffee.â€ â€œGreat.â€ He held the door open for her, gesturing for her to take lead once they were outside. They caught up on town gossip until their drinks were ready and took a seat in one of the cozy corners in the shop. â€œThanks for coming with me,â€ she finally said. â€œI didnâ€™t mean to seem like a crazy person.â€ He laughed, deep and rich. â€œHardly. Itâ€™s nice to see an old friend.â€ She searched his slate-blue eyes, looking for something, anything. Where was the mystical connection? Did he feel anything for her at all? If so, she couldnâ€™t see it. He was friendly, at ease. Like heâ€™d be with any friend. â€œI have to ask, but you can ignore me if youâ€™d like.â€ She crossed her legs, leaning forward. â€œWhyâ€™d you come back?â€ â€œAs I said, it was time for a visit,â€ he said easily, but his eyes shifted away. â€œAnd thatâ€™s it?â€ His brow lifted, and she muttered a curse. â€œI know Iâ€™m being incredibly rude, but thereâ€™s a good reason. I just need to know if thereâ€™s anything else.â€ â€œI came to see someone from my past. To settle things.â€ â€œBut Iâ€™m not that person?â€ â€œNo.â€ He cocked his head. â€œWhatâ€™s going on, Poppy?â€ She slumped in her chair. What was she doing here? With Zander, as nice of a person as he was, there was nothing there. Her heart didnâ€™t race just being near him. There was no peace in her soul from his presence, no deep seated joy because he was her best friend. Nothing like how Drake made her feel. Sheâ€™d hurt him, and for what? Because she was scared and unsure? Scared that there was someone better out there who could love her more, that was destined to be with her? There wasnâ€™t another Because she loved Drake. She whimpered into her drink. Sheâ€™d been an idiot. No matter what the prophecy said, no matter when she was supposed to meet her mate, or what he was like, none of it mattered. She loved Drake. And she always had. Sheâ€™d just finally realized that she always would. â€œPoppy?â€ She shook herself out of her thoughts. â€œSorry.â€ She closed her eyes hard. â€œIâ€™m really sorry, Zander. For all of this. Iâ€™ve been an idiot.â€ â€œNow Iâ€™m intrigued.â€ He set his cup on the table, leaning forward. â€œThere was a prophecy about me, about my mate.â€ â€œAhhh.â€ His eyes lit with understanding. â€œI remember.â€ â€œYou know about it?â€ He ducked his head. â€œMy mom told me about it a long time ago. I was learning about prophecies and she brought it up. All Hallows Eve right?â€ â€œOn my twenty-eighth year,â€ she muttered. His eyes softened, reaching out to her. â€œIâ€™m not him. Iâ€™m sorry.â€ â€œI know. I really do,â€ she added again when he searched her face for the truth. â€œI know who it is.â€ â€œDrake?â€ She gasped. â€œHowâ€™d you know?â€ He laughed. â€œIt wasnâ€™t hard to see. There were sparks flying everywhere.â€ He sobered. â€œSo if itâ€™s Drake, then why are you here?â€ She wiggled in her seat. â€œWellâ€¦ I had to be sure.â€ â€œAbout him or me?â€ â€œBoth. There are some things that donâ€™t match up with the prophecy.â€ He whistled softly, shaking his head. â€œI wouldnâ€™t think too much about that. Iâ€™ve come to realize that prophecies arenâ€™t road maps. They only make sense after theyâ€™ve happened.â€ â€œNo kidding.â€ If only sheâ€™d realized that sooner. Sheâ€™d wasted so much time with Drake, not to mention the anguish sheâ€™d put him through. She ached to make it up to him, to make this right. A weight lifted from her chest just thinking about him. She needed to get back to him, to throw herself in his arms and tell him what an idiot sheâ€™d been. That no matter what the prophecy said, no matter what she might have thought, he was the only one for her. Sheâ€™d never been surer about anything in her life. â€œGo ahead.â€ He nodded toward the door. â€œI can see youâ€™re gone already. Go to him.â€ â€œAre you sure?â€ She flushed. â€œI feel awful ditching you after I basically dragged you here.â€ He chuckled. â€œIâ€™ll be fine. A cup of Shirleyâ€™s is never a waste.â€ She grinned. â€œYouâ€™re the best.â€ â€œAlmost makes you wish I was the one, huh?â€ She belly laughed. â€œAlmost, but not quite.â€ He sighed playfully. â€œYour loss.â€ â€œSomeone elseâ€™s gain,â€ she assured him as she stood. â€œYouâ€™ve been great. Really. Youâ€™ve helped more than you know.â€ â€œIâ€™ll see you around.â€ â€œI hope so.â€ Without glancing back, she walked out of the shop, a little bounce in her step. She loved Drake. Knew it without a doubt, and he loved her. With two days before the deadline, sheâ€™d seal her fate within the hour. Sheâ€™d tell Drake she accepted him, that she loved him. Her heart racing, she dashed to his house. He didnâ€™t live far from town, only a short fifteen minute walk and she was grateful for the short distance. Her stomach flipped as she climbed his porch steps. Deep breath, she threaded a hand through her hair, hoping it didnâ€™t look as frazzled as she felt on the inside. She rang the bell, her body tense as she listened for him. She rang again, waiting. Her shoulders fell, the smile faded from her lips. He wasnâ€™t home. How could he not be here? Where would he have gone? Unease wound through her. He must have just run out. Or gone somewhere after their conversation with Zander. He would be back soon, she assured herself. But even as she made excuses, her legs carried her farther down the road to her house, her body pumping harder the closer she got. When her house came into view, she knew something was wrong. And then she saw the note propped up on the patio table, her name neatly written on the front in Drakeâ€™s handwriting. Fingers numb, she reached out for the creamy envelope, carefully opening the paper as dread settled in her stomach. She gasped, reading his words. The paper fell from her hand, landing softly in the afternoon light. Poppy, I promised you that Iâ€™d step aside. And Iâ€™m sticking by that. I love you, but I canâ€™t be here. I canâ€™t watch as you choose someone else. Drake She sunk to the ground. He was gone. Heâ€™d left so that he wouldnâ€™t have to see her with someone else. She did this. She could only blame herself. Sheâ€™d been stupid, unsure, and instead of following her heart and accepting Drake, the man she loved, sheâ€™d tossed it aside. Because of fear. A tear trailed down her cheek, quickly followed by a second and third until she couldnâ€™t hold them back any longer. Sheâ€™d lost him. Chapter 7 When all of her calls went straight to voice mail, Poppy knew Drakeâ€™s phone was off. On the night of the full moon, she dialed his number one last time, hoping that sheâ€™d finally be able to speak with him, to tell him how much she loved him. Voice mail. She lowered the phone to the table, breathing deeply. This was out of her hands now. She done everything she could. He wouldnâ€™t pick up his phone, and his parents didnâ€™t know where heâ€™d gone. She had to accept it. It was over. Her heart ached for him. Heâ€™d left, but she still needed him. It all started at Cloch ChroÃ and that was where it would end. She gathered items slowly, her movements calm as she prepared herself. The moon was low in the sky, but it was bright enough to light her path without a flashlight. An animal rustled in the brush beside her, but her steps remained steady. An owl called out somewhere in the distance, but she didnâ€™t answer. Life had gone on for all these creatures, just as her own would once the night ended. But it would never be the same. Not without Drake. Fog sifted through the stones, moonlight reflected in its depths. It was an image straight out of a horror film, but it didnâ€™t frighten her. Sheâ€™d woven through the stones too many times as a child to let it bother her. They were a part of her. She walked to the center of the stones, drawing her circle. Sending up a prayer of gratitude, she poured out the love and the heartache sheâ€™d experienced. Even though sheâ€™d lost it all, sheâ€™d known love. Sheâ€™d always be grateful for that. â€œSend my words in the air, that he may know how I careâ€¦â€ Stepping from the shadows, Drake entered the stone circle. â€œI heard.â€ â€œDrake?â€ she gasped, wiping tears from her eyes. â€œYouâ€™re here?â€ He didnâ€™t answer, only stepped closer to her. â€œLet me in.â€ He eyed her circle. He didnâ€™t need to come in. She could easily come out. She wanted to. All she could think about what racing into his arms, about pouring her heart out to him. â€œItâ€™s okay. Iâ€™ll close it.â€ â€œI donâ€™t think so. I need to come in.â€ She didnâ€™t know why he was pushing for it, but she didnâ€™t care. If it meant that much to him, sheâ€™d open it for him. Sheâ€™d give him anything. Chanting, she reached out of the circle, grasping his hand before pulling him in. Light arced from the ring, swallowing the forest. Her hair shot into the air as wind tunneled through the circle. Power surged around them, through them. And she knew. It was from him. â€œHow?â€ She searched his eyes. â€œI donâ€™t know.â€ He lifted the back of her hand to his lips, brushing a tender kiss there. â€œBut I suspected as much after the last spell we did together.â€ Heâ€™d had magic all along. â€œI donâ€™t understand.â€ But she didnâ€™t need to. She didnâ€™t care. All she cared about was that he was here. With her. The prophecy didnâ€™t matter. None of it did. â€œYou came back,â€ she whispered. He wiped a tear from her cheek. â€œIâ€™ll always come back.â€ Her eyes scrunched closed. â€œI thought youâ€™d gone for good. I thought Iâ€™d lost you.â€ â€œDid it matter?â€ â€œOf course!â€ She stilled his hand, wanting his full attention on what she was saying. â€œIt will always matter. I donâ€™t care about the prophecy. I didnâ€™t care whether or not you had magic. I needed you. You are my mate because I choose you. Because I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I determine my own fate.â€ She shuddered. â€œI thought it was too late.â€ â€œItâ€™s never too late.â€ â€œIf youâ€™d come tomorrow it wouldâ€™ve been.â€ He laughed softly before sobering. â€œBut Iâ€™m here now.â€ The air was still in the circle as if waiting for her answer. â€œI love you, Drake.â€ When relief flooded his eyes, she couldnâ€™t hold her feelings back any longer. â€œI love you so much. I need you. I choose you. Now and forever. I accept you as my friend, my mate, and my love. No matter how much I put you through, you still wanted me, still fought for me. And even when it hurt you, you stepped aside and gave me what I needed. Iâ€™ve been selfish.â€ He tried to cut in but she pressed her fingers to his lips. He kissed them, but remained silent. â€œI have. Iâ€™ve been selfish. I was so focused on what I needed, who I needed, when I needed them. I put myself first, but thatâ€™s over now. You come first in my life. Now itâ€™s us. If you accept me, I swear Iâ€™ll spend the rest of my life loving you and working to make you happy.â€ â€œYou finished?â€ Before she could answer, his arms dove around her, pulling her into his body. His mouth captured hers, tasting of possession, of longing, and her whole body responded in kind. She couldnâ€™t get enough, couldnâ€™t get close enough. She wanted to melt straight into him so that they never parted again. â€œI love you, Poppy,â€ he whispered between kisses. â€œItâ€™s only always been you for me. I love you.â€ Her chin shook as they kissed again, but her heart lightened. She hadnâ€™t lost him. â€œI need you with me, always. I want you in my life. I want to help you make shampoo and cook witchâ€™s brew on the stove until the house reeks.â€ She laughed. â€œI want to make love to you, I want to watch you wake with the sun, I want to raise a family with you, and I want to grow old with you.â€ Her chest fluttered as his words weaved a spell over her heart. â€œI accept you.â€ Wind tunneled through the circle, slamming through them before dissipating once more. â€œItâ€™s done.â€ She viewed the silent woods in awe. This circle was sacred, special, and it was respected. But this was the first time sheâ€™d felt bone deep reverence within it. They were joined. Never to be parted from one another. Drake gathered her up in his arms, and she closed her eyes, tilting her face toward the sky. â€œThank you,â€ she whispered. He notched her chin up with his finger. His eyes searched hers. â€œYou havenâ€™t answered my question.â€ â€œWhich question?â€ â€œThe one I didnâ€™t get to ask before the wind almost took us out.â€ She bit her lip. â€œOh, that one.â€ â€œWill you marry me, Poppy?â€ â€œYes. Oh, yes.â€ She threaded her hands through his hair, pulling him down for a kiss. â€œAlways yes.â€ He kissed her until her head spun. She closed the circle, giving a final blessing before wrapping her arm around him. She was ready to go home. Before they started down the path he asked, â€œYou arenâ€™t going to change your mind if another guy with magic comes into town are you?â€ â€œNo way. Youâ€™re the only one for me.â€ â€œSo, can I know the prophecy now?â€ She hesitated. It didnâ€™t matter what the prophecy said. Sheâ€™d made her choice and he was her mate. Still, he had a right to know. She told him the rest of it. He laughed so hard it echoed through the trees. She crossed her arms over her chest. â€œWhatâ€™s so funny?â€ When he caught his breath, he wiped a tear from his eye. â€œSweetheart, I could have eased your mind long ago had you told me.â€ â€œWhat do you mean?â€ â€œMarked by the moon. Do you know what that means?â€ She shook her head. â€œDoes that mean something to you?â€ It was the only part of the prophecy she hadnâ€™t understood. He grinned before lifting his shirt. Just above the waist of his jeans was a crescent birthmark. â€œThe moon,â€ she breathed. â€œMy father has it. My grandfather too. Itâ€™s passed down from father to son.â€ Her mouth fell open. â€œIt must be linked with your line.â€ He shrugged the shirt back down. â€œWeâ€™ll have to find out. But that makes sense.â€ Laughter floated from her lips. And just like that, everything made sense. All the years of preparation, of worrying about who her mate was, had been for nothing. Because heâ€™d been by her side the whole time. The prophecy was true. Her mate had claimed her at Cloch ChroÃ. Fate had guided her all along. She looked up into the smiling eyes of the man she loved. Sheâ€™d never doubt Fate again.