Carpathian Mountains, Romania
Christmas Eve, 1811
half mile from their Gypsy camp in the center of a snow-laden forest, a pair of friends found themselves in a predicament.
“For God’s sake,” Constantin Stoica called to Karina Petri. “Jump!”
Standing on a flimsy tree branch, Karina trembled. The adjacent trees were too far to jump to. And the ground below her waved in and out of focus.
Her mouth went dry.
“I’ll catch you,” Constantin called loudly.
At thirteen, he was one year older and wiser. But
didn’t have to leap out of this pine from this terrifying height. “I’ll jump when I’m ready,” she shouted back with indignation.
“How do you get yourself in these situations, Karina?”
She shrugged. “I thought it would be fun to climb up here.”
“And now it’s no fun climbing down, right?”
She flashed him a dark look. Yet, secretly, she wasn’t mad at him at all.
Have his eyes always been that green? Has he developed muscles in the past few months?
He definitely seemed more grown up today. Her cheeks heated.
“You’re twelve years old, Karina. Don’t be afraid.”
“Well, my feet are frozen and I refuse to stand here all night.”
When he began to walk away, Karina panicked. “All right! I’ll jump.”
“Good,” Constantin said, resuming his pose. Outstretched arms. Feet far apart. Head tilted up. Face spread in an encouraging smile.
“Promise you’ll catch me?”
“You’re my best friend,” he replied. “I promise.”
Hauling in a breath, Karina counted to three. Then, with every ounce of courage flying along with her, she fell into his strong arms.
Constantin’s breath was sweet and warm on her face and his chest felt like steel against hers. But that was all she remembered in the split-second before they crashed to the ground. When she heard a loud crack, she realized that the impact shattered Constantin’s leg and split her thigh open.
She lay sprawled on top of him as he managed to grind out, “Karina Petri. You will never be anything but trouble.”
Christmas Eve, nine years later
uch had taken place since the accident at the tree. Constantin had grown into a conscientious man. Karina had blossomed into a curvaceous woman. And their Gypsy tribe had migrated from Romania to England, although Constantin no longer considered himself a member of it.
The worst part was, he hadn’t had a choice in the matter.
Fat snowflakes drifted from the sky and landed on his shoulders. As he stood on the edge of a cliff overlooking a village called Dunwich, loneliness—as thick as the fog rolling in—closed over him.
Selfless. Charitable. Generous
. Words used to describe him as a child could be used to describe him today. He was willing to go the extra mile for others. And because he always strived to make peace, he never did anything amoral.
Today is Christmas Eve.
Selfless, charitable, and generous were adjectives used to describe the spirit of the holiday, too. That’s why confusion filtered through him.
Why do unfortunate things happen to me on Christmas Eve?
Nine Christmas Eves ago, Karina had shattered his leg. Two Christmas Eves ago, his grandmother had passed away. And last Christmas Eve, his younger brother, Viktor, had been caught stealing food from Thorncliff Towers.
Constantin turned and scowled at the very same manor looming on a nearby hill. As punishment for his crime, Viktor had been forced to leave their Gypsy tribe and work at Thorncliff Towers for the house’s owner, Lord Winthrop. In Constantin’s eyes, Lord Winthrop was a bastard—a man Constantin had no pity for, even though Winthrop suffered under a black magic curse. Ironically, the curse had been cast by Constantin’s own Gypsy clan. According to talk around the campfire, Winthrop transformed into a blood-lusting werewolf beneath every full moon. And since he’d had been vicious and half-mad before the spell was rendered, his curse would linger forever, unless he changed his heartless ways.
It had been suggested that Lord Winthrop’s beautiful wife, Isabella, was in the midst of increasing the earl’s capacity to love. But Constantin doubted she could.
Considering his brother to be in danger, Constantin had done everything in his power to persuade Winthrop to allow him to take Viktor’s place. Winthrop had finally agreed—but not without a fight.
“No one steals from me!” the stone-hearted earl had thundered during that confrontation. “I demand that the debt your brother incurred be repaid in full!”
An eye for an eye.
One brother for another.
Two punishments for a single mistake.
That’s what Winthrop had insisted on.
It wasn’t fair
here I am, stuck at Thorncliff Towers . . . risking my own life under the threat of Winthrop’s werewolf shadow.
He picked up a pebble and tossed it over the cliff. There was only one person to blame for his predicament: Karina Petri.
“I’ve always said she was nothing but trouble,” he murmured.
Like day contrasts night, Karina and Constantin were opposites. He wasn’t the most boisterous man in the room, but he was decent and good. Karina, on the other hand, was mischievous, bold, and stubborn.
Why the hell couldn’t he shake the memory of her from his mind?
Because they’d been friends since they were children, that’s why. Karina always claimed Constantin was a stick-in-the-mud that never bent the rules. And he would tease
that her knack for trouble might land her in prison one day. But the teasing was always done in jest. They’d been best friends, comrades in adventure. At one point, he’d considered making Karina his girl.
At remote Thorncliff Towers, Constantin missed her dark, flashing eyes, her beautiful face, and the excitement she brought to every situation. More than that, he missed their strong friendship. For years they’d shared a bond of trust.
All of that had changed when Karina talked Viktor into stealing food from Lord Winthrop’s kitchen.
Constantin shook his head. “Forgiveness” was one notion that couldn’t be likened to himself and Christmas.
There was a gentle tug at his coat hem. He looked down. “Grace Ann!”
An adorable six-year-old girl smiled up at him. He smiled back.
“Hello, Constantin.” When she reached her chubby hands toward him, he picked her up and gave her a cuddle.
“Whatever are you doing out here, my dear? And without a coat.”
“I just had the most delicious hot cider.” She dropped her grin a moment later. “And the most disgusting fruitcake.”
He laughed. “Usually Mrs. Tidwell is a better cook than that.”
She hugged him tightly around his neck. “I do like her game hens. I’ll miss them when I leave next week.”
“Yes.” He pushed a lump down his throat. “Back to London it is, eh?”
Grace Ann nodded. “I’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss you, too.”
“You and Lady Winthrop are the only nice people here.”
“I was nice enough to give you horse riding lessons, wasn’t I?” he teased.
“Oh, yes! Thank you for letting me practice on Sugarplum.”
Constantin’s lips quirked. The horse’s real name was Dante, but Grace Ann insisted on calling it something sweeter. “You’re welcome.”
Bundling her in one arm and leaning on his cane, he headed back to the house. “Did Lady Winthrop help you trim the tree?”
“The decorations are hung but I want you to help me put the angel on top.”
“You know I’m not allowed in the drawing room,” Constantin said. “Lord Winthrop’s orders.”
“Lord Winthrop is a mean old man.”
“Old? He’s not even thirty!”
“Well, he acts as though he’s old.”
“And how do old people act?”
“Crotchety and impatient.”
“Then you’re right. He’s very old.”
“You’re not like him,” she said.
“Thank heavens!” he whispered in her ear, making her giggle until her face turned red.
“Constantin,” Grace Ann rested her golden curls against his shoulder. “I wish you could be my new father.”
Tears rimmed his eyes. He’d lost his parents when he was five—the same age Grace Ann was when she lost her mother and father in a carriage accident. Now the girl’s grandmother cared for her.
“I’m sure your papa was a good man,” he said kindly. “Do you miss him?”
“Not so much when I’m with you.”
Trekking over patches of snow, he reached the rear door of Thorncliff Towers.
“My visit here is almost over,” she said. “Please tell me the story, Constantin.”
“Yes. I never grow tired of it.”
“Just like you never grow tired of sweets?”
He drew in a breath. “Very well.”
Gingerly, he set her at the kitchen table and poured more hot cider.
The moment he sat across from her, he began. “Once there was a beautiful princess, with long, ebony hair and eyes the color of melted chocolate. She was an exciting and playful princess, but she was also a bit naughty. One fateful day, she got stuck in a tree.”
Grace Ann’s eyes widened. “Oh, this is my favorite part!” She slurped her cider and listened.
“From high in the tall tree, the beautiful, dark-haired princess called down to her prince.” Constantin paused to stretch his leg out. The bitter cold made it ache fiercely.
Folding his hands, he continued. “ ‘Jump into my arms, princess,’ the prince called up to her. ‘Do you promise to catch me?’ the beautiful princess asked. The prince answered, ‘I promise. ’ ”
Grace Ann set her cup down with a thud. Cider sloshed on the table. “Then the brave princess jumped, the strong prince caught her, and they both lived happily ever after!” She finished the tale for him, with glowing cheeks.
He smiled ruefully.
Grace Ann cocked a tawny brow. “Is it a true story, Constantin?”
“Part of it is true.”
At that moment, Grace Ann’s governess appeared and led her away. Constantin watched the shadows envelope the little girl’s ruffled dress and golden curls. Then he murmured under his breath, “Definitely not the part about the prince catching the princess properly. And certainly not the part about the princess being an
princess.” He paused. “In reality, she’s a Gypsy witch.”
Karina looked out the window of her caravan wagon. Her heart sank. They’d put it up. A purple sash wrapped around the ladder of Papa Stoica’s wagon.
It meant imminent death.
Sorrow rising within her, Karina pulled the curtains closed.
Constantin’s grandfather was gravely ill—and he was asking for Constantin.
Time to prepare my potion.
Moving to a small cupboard in the corner of the wagon, Karina extracted the required ingredients: plant seeds, a small animal carcass, mistletoe, wine, berries, and the skin of a snake. Placing the items in a mortar, she reached for a pestle and started to grind the ingredients into a liquid tonic.
Sounds of crunching and smashing filled the wagon. Karina frowned.
She was the last person Constantin wanted to see. And considering the promise he’d made to Lord Winthrop to stay at Thorncliff Towers indefinitely, coming back to camp was the last thing he was supposed to do.
That’s why she must go to Thorncliff Towers armed with the magic elixir. If she could get Constantin to drink it, it would allow her to command him without his knowledge. He would have no idea that she was directing his actions—directing him to come and say good-bye to his grandfather on his deathbed, when he wouldn’t have the opportunity otherwise.
Could she heal Papa Stoica? Only if Constantin gave her permission to do so. Constantin was his grandfather’s eldest living blood relative—and he needed to be present for the healing.
, Karina thought as she ground some more,
I’m going to Thorncliff Towers with a more selfish reason in mind. Maybe I can get Constantin to fall in love with me.
Karina had fallen in love with
at age twelve. The day she leapt from the tree, in fact. She could have put a bewitchment spell on him in their youth, but it was his absence this past year that convinced her to try now.
She set down the pestle. How he looked that day she jumped from the tree rose to mind. Green eyes full of hope. Face awash with an admirable sense of compassion. Strong arms offering help—as they always did.
Then she’d leapt, landed with the force of a cow, and shattered his leg in a dozen places.
Thank God he forgave me for that!
Karina stirred the elixir. What Constantin hadn’t forgiven her for was persuading Viktor to steal from Thorncliff Towers.
Standing over the potion, she murmured a chant. Then she carefully poured the red liquid into a vial, sealed it with a cork, and slid the vial into her bodice. The potion was powerful stuff—able to shut down a child’s system if ingested. But Karina planned on being cautious. Perhaps she wouldn’t need the elixir to persuade Constantin to come back to camp. However, judging from the harsh words they had exchanged the last time they saw each other, he wanted nothing to do with her.
With her heart in her throat, Karina reached for one more object before she left the wagon. A ring—a special band the official witch of the Szgamy tribe had passed along to her. Bearing a worn, blue stone and the symbol of the tribe, it possessed secret powers . . . among them the power to capture someone’s love.
After she put the ring on, Karina grabbed a shawl and a satchel and escaped into the freezing afternoon. Braving the heavy snow, she headed toward Thorncliff Towers. When she reached its property line, she frowned at the jagged cliffs of the North Sea. The land surrounding the estate grew more treacherous than the flat woodland she’d just emerged from, and the wind thrashing along the coastline blew her hair askew. Shivering, she was half relieved and half panicked when she spotted Thorncliff Towers’ turrets rising above a cluster of trees.
Like the gingerbread house that beckoned Hansel and Gretel, the aroma of Christmas Eve supper had lured Karina here one year ago. She had vowed never to return, but she was willing to eat her words for Constantin. Last Christmas Eve, Karina had smashed a window and snuck inside the manor. When she’d reappeared with mounds of cooked goose, baked bread and sweet plum pudding, she had passed them to Constantin’s younger brother, Viktor, who stood outside the window. Just then, a servant rounded the corner of the house. Viktor realized he’d been spotted, so he urged Karina to run. Panicked, she jumped out the window and escaped into the shadowed forest.
Once she turned around, Lord Winthrop appeared. The cruel earl wasted no time in taking Viktor gruffly by the ear and leading him into the house.
Memories of that night churned disgrace and guilt in Karina even now. She shouldn’t have felt entitled to the opulence she saw at Thorncliff Towers. Nor should she have stolen into the kitchen like an uncontrolled child. But she
wanted to help their people.
Still, her actions made Constantin hate her. He’d come to Thorncliff Towers hell-bent on taking Viktor’s place as a stable hand. She hadn’t seen him for an entire year.
Grasping the front gates made Karina’s knuckles turn white. With its stacked stone walls draped in garland, the manor reminded her of a fairy tale castle. But she remembered that the master of the house was no Prince Charming. He was a werewolf.
It’s imperative that Constantin leave this place.
After sucking in a breath for courage, she slid past the gates. As she scurried around a line of carriages in the pebbled driveway, she heard voices. Apparently, the Winthrop family was receiving guests for a Christmas Eve celebration.