chapter 1: my dream
He knew I was here, the place where I dreamed.
Every night he watched me. Every night he fell in love with me. Every night he lost the courage to speak with me.
How could he earn my trust? He never knew how enchanting I could be. No idea at all. Spell or not, he was going to do it, he was going to tell me how he felt.
I didn’t see him as I danced, my arms raised to the moon as I twirled. He swallowed hard, his hands trembling. With slow lazy movements, he wandered over.
“Winter,” the breeze whispered through his lips. My scent of lilac reached him and he closed his eyes.
I froze, my hair rippling in the breeze. My gaze flew wide and I darted behind a willow, my heart pounding fiercely.
He found me easily enough, a dark shape behind the hypnotic ripple of woven leaves. As he materialized behind me, he smiled. I was as graceful as the tree, my golden hair tumbling to my waist. He lifted his hand, anxious to feel its silkiness in his touch. Not yet . . . He did not want to frighten me.
I spun around and faced him, my lips a surprised “O”.
He tensed under my stunned gaze. The gentle wind kissed his skin and the dancing willow limbs sung a lullaby. Too dazed to care, I basked under his inspection as he did mine: he believed my features fragile, as if sculpted by a capable artist . . . and my lips. His breath caught, he longed to feel their smoothness as he thought of an elliptical sunset, warm and inviting.
He knew my hopes, dreams, and desires.
“It’s you,” I said, my voice gentle, musical, his aura one that I’ve felt before, but couldn’t quite pinpoint where.
He met my stare beneath moon-gilded lashes, and found recognition. He lowered his eyelids, his arms gentle upon my waist as he led me in slow circles. A dance with nothing but night air to hold us.
I sighed; my eagerness reeled him in and he obeyed—his mouth angled down to mine.
* * *
I watched myself through his eyes and something powerful—familiar—whispered to me. His presence felt strongly alluring, and how I fell in love with our very first dream kiss.
I woke with a gasp, my lips tingling, and my heart pounding. His desire was so clear to me, but the more I thought about it, the more it slipped away from my waking mind.
I flipped to my back as dark nothingness reeled me in. Loneliness, cold and hard, drowned my soul. Was it because I knew the boy in my dreams was just that—a boy in my dreams, not existent? My heart cried out, but he felt so real. Our love felt so real, but I knew I’d never have the chance to meet him in real life. Or maybe I was feeling so hollow because Dad died exactly seven years ago on my tenth birthday.
Despair gripped me.
How strange Alex would remind me of Dad. Why Dad, after what he did to us? I frowned, there was no denying it, and I still loved him. I lay there for another few minutes, trying to figure out the connection between Dad and the boy. I laughed at myself.
For some odd reason, my eyes flew to the old necklace hanging from a tack on my wall. A thick layer of web and dust crusted over like a silvery cocoon. I grimaced at its filth. I was too lazy to chuck it. I’ve had it for so long, I couldn’t remember too much about it, only that I made it once upon a time.
My eyes became heavy, and I felt Alex stirring behind my lashes. A thrill of joy washed over me as I thought about being with him again as I began to drift into sweet dreams.
I felt a harsh poke in my stomach and I jumped. “Dang it, Markus! What’re you doing in my room?” I snapped.
“Mom’s calling you.”
I popped up from under the covers. “Not now!” I felt his nose squish as I pushed his face away. After he left, I flopped over to my other side, trying to get back to my dream. I couldn’t stop thinking of that kiss and the love we shared.
After coming up empty and angry alike I tore the blankets off and stomped out of my room. “You called?” I shuffled into Mom’s bedroom. I didn’t care that my hair looked like Medusa’s locks, or if last night’s makeup turned me into the clown from Stephen King’s It. There was no doubt that I looked horrible.
“Winter, happy seventeen!” She always looked beautiful with her dark hair pulled neatly into a ponytail and carefully mascaraed eyes. She took me in with one swift glance. “Oh, darling, are you okay?”
I laughed, not feeling chipper. “Do I look that bad?”
Mom dropped the pair of socks she had just rolled and patted her bed for me to sit.
I shook my head, thinking of Alex. “I just need more sleep, thanks.” I turned to leave. Alex, here I come . . .
“Oh, I have good news for you!”
I paused and turned to look at her, raising my eyebrows. Would I ever see Alex again? Dreamland didn’t want to be kept waiting!
“Your spook house is finally occupied.”
“You woke me up for this?” I shook my head with a scoff.
“You lost this round. Looks like you owe me dinner and a movie.” Mom laughed at my expression. Mom and I have made it a point to bet on taking cookies to new neighbors who’ve recently moved in, loser takes winner on an all-expense paid girls’ night out. That meant I had to double my chores to pay for it. I mumbled and turned to leave.
“Nevertheless,” she said, and I paused at the door. “Wintergirl, we are going to be sweet and neighborly and . . .”
“Aw, Mom!” I whirled around and grew limp against the wall. “Do I have to? I really don’t feel so good.” I gave her my best pouty look. “What does a girl my age and a dinosaur house have in common? Nothing. It’s hideous. Take Kyle, Timothy. I don’t care so long as it’s not me. I don’t want to take them cookies. It’s so embarrassing!”
“I took your brothers the last,” she paused, counting her fingers, “four times. It’s your turn.”
“You never used to do this before,” I interrupted myself, thinking of Dad, but couldn’t bring myself to say it.
Her smile dropped, she knew exactly what I was going to say. “That was seven years ago, Winter. This is now.”
I muttered under my breath an hour later with a plate of warm cookies in hand. The old house came into view as we rounded the corner. The same old tired tree sagged in the same old front yard, its same old branches snagging my hair as we walked through the same old charming garden of weeds.
Mom looked at me and clucked her tongue. “Winter, you really should’ve worn a tank top underneath; I can almost see your . . . and your hair! It looks like you just woke up.”
“Mom!” I nudged her away. So what if I looked like a slob? This was my peaceful way of protesting.
“And don’t chomp on your gum like that.”
I moved my lips in motion to her words, wishing I could toss the cookies. I followed her along the strange pathway of flat rocks and stared at the house. What kind of people would want to live in a house with old, curling shingles, dark plaster rather than siding, wooden shutters, and a tower with a cone top? It was so Victorian Gothic—whatever.
“Look, no doorbell,” I said pointedly, glaring at her. I hoped she would see reason and go back so that I could try to finish my dream.
Mom tapped the knocker and I cringed.
The door creaked open and out stepped a tall woman. “Oh, Nancy! How very nice to see you!”
I didn’t have time to think of how weird she looked when I heard what she said. “What?” I turned to Mom and she gave me a guilty smile. How did this woman know my mom’s name?
“Good morning Wanda. This is Winter. Winter, I’d love for you to meet Wanda Stormhold.”
My face got hot and I bit my lip. And here Mom made me think this was her first visit. Why would she do that? Avoiding Wanda’s eyes, I stared at her bare feet instead and wrinkled my nose. That’s it, I’m not staying for some freak show. I turned around, but Mom’s hands clamped over my shoulders.
Wanda dipped her head. “Winter, darling, how nice to meet you at last. Happy birthday, too!”
I scowled at Mom, but she kept her eyes fast on our new neighbor.
“Nancy, these look tastier than the ones you brought last week, thank you.” Wanda took the cookies and gave me a quick hug.
She felt like a cold breeze, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Mom’s secretive act. I laughed, not amused, and tried to give Mom a face. Last week?
“Come in, come in!” The woman stepped aside and Mom nudged me forward. “Please forgive how dark it is in here. Sensitive eyes.”
I moved slowly, but tripped anyway and luckily Mom caught me.
“Careful for the rugs, darling. Come, do not be shy. Sit.”
After my eyes adjusted, the first thing I saw was a huge fireplace snapping with fire life. In June? Too many candles flickered in their sconces along the walls. I thought they didn’t make furniture carved with grapevines and ivy anymore, much less with clawed lion feet? I searched the vaulted ceiling and fell in love with the grand staircase that swept down to meet us. This place was straight out of an old Victorian romance novel! Gone was my cynicism, I was actually impressed. I whistled.
Once she had seen to our comfort, Wanda turned over her shoulder and called, “We have guests, min søn.”
Taking advantage of her distraction, I asked Mom, “Who are these people?” The sound of rattling dishes stopped me and I clamped my mouth shut. I turned around just when Mom forced me to sit. I landed with a grunt.
Wanda swept into the seat beside me and that’s when I spotted her collar. It was a black pearl, resting on her pale chest. The dark chain’s links brushed along her collarbone. I tilted forward, sure that my eyes were big.
“I love your choker!” I blushed, I sounded like a little girl gushing over a Barbie. How embarrassing!
“Oh, I wear it for protection against the Shadoweaver.” Her hand patted the chain.
I blinked, curious as to what she meant, but I didn’t ask.
“Winter, have you met my son?” Wanda asked, her dark eyes dancing.
“Uh, no.” I laughed, didn’t she know this was my first time here? Wanda was as strange as her house with her long black hair parted down the middle and her heavy black dress. I smirked. Did I want to meet another person just as strange as she was?
“I apologize for Jareth’s absence, he is out running errands for me,” Wanda said as she gestured to someone who moved beside her.
I turned to look at his feet and almost giggled at myself. Here I was, expecting mysterious shining black shoes to go with a scarlet velvet robe. Instead, I found sandals and hairy legs. His shorts reached to his knees and when I finally looked at his face, I forgot how to blink. My heart stopped; my thoughts stopped; even my blood stopped. My piece of gum flew to the back of my throat, making my eyes water. I clamped into a fit of coughs. Had my world stopped?
“Winter, darling, I would like for you to meet—oh goodness!”
“Winter!” Mom pounded between my shoulders.
I wiped the tears away and fought to stay in control, taking many deep gulps. It can’t be! How was this possible?
Once I gathered my bearings and my gum returned from my throat, I straightened in my seat. I was barely aware of Mom and Wanda fussing over me. It was just me and him. I made myself gaze into those eyes, my heart lurched. Emotional tears blinded me and my hands shook.
His intense gaze captured me from toe to head, and I couldn’t help but stare at his beautiful face—the sharp angles of his jaw, the soft curve of his lips, the fiery depth of his hazel eyes. I recognized the knowing spark in that gaze, and he held mine so deep and so wide, I felt him in my mind.
It was just a dream . . . wasn’t it?
No, it was real, a voice replied.
I couldn’t think of anything brilliant to say. I just sat there and gaped while he munched on a cookie. So the beautiful boy from my wild dream was warm and alive, and oh so kissable.
A boyish smile touched his lips, his eyes shy. His familiar voice melted me as he spoke, “Happy birthday, Winter.”