c c hunter's shadow falls
C.C. Hunter: When Life Hurts, Love heals.
C.C. Hunter's Books

spellbinder by cc hunter

by C.C. Hunter
© 2015


spellbinder by cc hunter

Chapter One

Miranda Kane lay on the floor of her personal waiting/dressing room. Instead of meditating on the spells that she was about to be forced to perform, she committed murder.

Recently, she'd learned that killing helped calm her nerves. Not anything real, of course. It was just a game. She wouldn't step on a bug. And a Texas-sized roach, the flying kind, had been hovering in the corner of the room as if unsure her "live and let live" policy included him. It did. Every living creature had a right to life.

But watching those imaginary demonic shape-shifters clutch their chests and keel over did a girl's heart good. Especially since Perry, the blond, hot shape-shifter had broken up with her and run off to Paris.

Not only was he not calling her, he wasn't taking her calls. She didn't buy the "you deserve better" line he'd offered. Right now, he was probably French kissing some little Parisian twit.

And the fact that he was so good at French kissing just made it worse.

"Die," she seethed as she took pleasure in running her sword through the belly of the blond demon with bright eyes who reminded her of Perry. "Yes!" She punched the air in victory.

She'd been playing for two weeks, and so far, this Perry-like villain had escaped her wrath. But no longer. "Victory is mine!" she declared in a cold voice.

The swish of the door opening brought her out of the game. Since it was too late to pretend to be doing anything other than killing, she continued to watch the touchscreen on her phone. She didn't even bother straining her neck to see who was invading her privacy.

She didn't have to.

If the sweet perfume wasn't a dead giveaway, the sound of the high heels tapping on the wood floor announced her visitor. And since Miranda knew she was gonna get hell, she figured she should enjoy the win as long as she could. The dying shape-shifter slowly fell to his knees.

His light blue eyes stared up from the screen. They looked sad. In pain. And damn if she didn't feel guilty. No. No. No. This was supposed to feel good. Not bad.

"What are you doing?" her mom asked in a clipped tone.

"Nothing." She groaned when the shape-shifter found a magical bag of healing herbs, preventing him from taking his last breath before she could hit a few buttons and claim it as her own. He healed himself, bolted to his feet, and attacked.

"No!" Miranda yelled.

"No, what?"

Miranda's finger pushed the kill button and her avatar grabbed her weapon, but it was too late. The shape-shifter ran his sword right through her heart, killing her. The screen went red. Red for blood. Red for death.

Her breath caught. Her chest actually burned. Tears moistened her eyes. How appropriate. The real Perry had accomplished the very same thing.

"Since when do you waste your time playing those silly cell phone games?" her mom asked.

"I don't do it all the time." Feeling her mom's stern gaze, she got up, slid her phone into her jeans, and blinked away the beginning of tears. Her gaze shifted to the window, where only recently the sun had beamed into the room.

Now, everything felt dark. She reached for the light switch, but her mom magically turned it on.

"You know, if you used your powers a little more, you might . . ." She paused as if she regretted saying it.

Only then did Miranda meet her mom's calculating stare. Her mother's eyes, the same hazel-green color as Miranda's, were tightened in frustration.

"Are you getting nervous again?" her mom asked. "You can't. You know you always screw up when you get anxious."

No, I screw up because I'm dyslexic. I get nervous because I know I'm going to disappoint you.

After seventeen years, you'd think her mom would have pulled her head out of her butt and accepted the truth. She'd given birth to a screwup. Miranda Kane was a screwup.

"I'll do the best I can, that's all I can do." Not that Miranda's best would be good enough. It never was. Last month, she'd taken third place in the North Texas Wicca competition. It was only because of that fluke that she was in the competition today. You'd think her mom would have been proud. But nope. Third place just means you were the second loser. Ahh, but Miranda wasn't accustomed to being in the top twenty-five losers.

"Have you even practiced your spells at all this morning?"

"Yes." Just one and just once. She didn't know what spells came second and third—but her mom didn't need to know that.

"Why aren't you dressed?" The bright green A-line dress with a flared skirt still hung on the hook on the back wall.

She'd planned on getting dressed. Even a screwup could have good fashion sense. "I've still got thirty minutes."

"Do you know who is in the competition with you, young lady?"

Yikes. The "young lady" tag always came right before trouble. Miranda didn't want trouble. All she wanted was to go back to killing shape-shifters.

"No, I don't know," Miranda said. Nor did she give a shit. She'd been beaten by the best. Even by the not-so-best. Screwups didn't do so well in competitions. Another thing you'd have thought her mom would have learned.

"You're up against Tabitha Evans—the one you caught spying on you at Shadow Falls? You locked her in a cage?"

Miranda's mouth dropped open. "How did you know about that?" She hadn't told her mom. If there was one thing Miranda prided herself on, it was that she wasn't a tattler.

"I know about a lot of things, young lady. Are you going to let that . . . redheaded twit show you up?"

Twit? Her mom's choice of word seemed harsh. Not for Miranda, she'd called Tabitha a twit and even worse. But for her mom, "twit" felt severe.

Not that Miranda could deny it was going to sting being beaten by Tabitha, her archenemy, but . . . there wasn't anything Miranda could do. The fact that she even had an archenemy blew her mind. She wasn't archenemy material. She honestly tried to create positive energy, put good out into the world, and hope it came back.

For that matter, Miranda didn't even have a clue why Tabitha hated her. Or why her mom hated Tabitha so much. Or Tabitha's mom. What was so dad-blasted important about cookies? Because if her memory served her right, that had been what the fallout had been about.

Miranda and Tabitha had been buddies in kindergarten. Then their moms got into some huge argument about whose turn it was to bring cookies, and the next day, Tabitha, her mom, and her cookies hadn't come to school. Gone. The girl had disappeared from her life.

It wasn't until three years ago when Miranda's mom enrolled her in the competitions that their paths had crossed again. And the girl had been a bitch from the word go.

"Are you going to let her beat you?" her mom snapped.

Did Mom have to rub it in? "I said I was going to do my best." Miranda paused. "You know what I don't understand?"

"No, let me tell you what I don't understand. You turned five goons into kangaroos with a mind-to-pinky curse, but you can't find it within yourself to complete a spell to transform a few apples into oranges."

The tightness in Miranda's throat doubled. "Maybe I was able to do the kangaroo trick because my life, as well as Della's and Kylie's, was on the line."

"And this isn't important?"

"Oh, gosh. How could I forget?" Miranda put on her worst acting abilities. "Winning is everything, right? More important than my life and the life of my friends."

"I didn't mean . . ." Her mom actually sounded remorseful.

Wow, that might be a first. Okay, not really, but sometimes she drove Miranda loony. Wanting to change the subject, Miranda asked, "Did you see Kylie and Della out front?"

"No, I haven't been out front." Her mom paused. "I didn't mean . . ."

"Forget it," Miranda said, afraid this conversation would lead to her mom going into the same ol' spiel. They came from royalty. Her father, who Miranda loved dearly when he found a few minutes to spend with her, was of English heritage and was a descendent of Merlin. Her mom, as well as her grandmother, had reigned as high priestess for several years. Miranda was expected to follow in their footsteps.

So. Not. Happening.

"It's just . . . I thought . . . I thought you'd try harder with the prize being what it is."

Miranda might have, if she knew what the prize was. Then again . . . not really. All she wanted was to be left alone to kill more shape-shifters. Was that asking too much? She moved to the window and looked out. A storm brewed. The morning sky was almost black. Flashes of lightning spidered across the sky.

A strange sensation of doom and gloom did a stroll down her backbone. Probably Tabitha sending her bad juju. The girl was a nut job. A serious nut job.

"I mean, since that boy you've got a thing for is there, I just assumed you might want to go see him. Peter?"

Miranda swung away from the storm and faced her mom. "I don't have a thing for a guy named Peter, his name is Perry and . . . Wha—what—what do you mean ‘go see him'?"

Her mom's mouth thinned. "You didn't read the brochure I sent, did you?"

"What's the prize?"

"Why do I mail you stuff if—?"

"Just tell me!" Realizing she came off rude, she added, "Please."

 

Chapter Two

 

Miranda's mom huffed. "They pay your way to the next competition, which happens to be in Paris, France."

Air swelled in Miranda's lungs. "Who gets their trip paid? First, second, and third, or just first? How many of the finalists get to go?"

"There're twenty girls competing. I think it's the top five who get their way paid to Paris, but . . . you should aspire to win. Who wants to just place in the top five? You want to win."

Win? Miranda didn't give a frog's ass about winning. But going to Paris? Oh, yeah. She could hunt down her own blond, bright-eyed shape-shifter and . . . she wouldn't kill him. Maybe she could make him see reason. Maybe he'd see her and realize he was still in love with her.

Tears filled her eyes. She wanted that more than anything—wanted Perry to love her.

Her mom stared. "I'll tell you what, how about if I sweeten the deal? If you win first place, I'll pay for that rude vampire and that other strange chameleon girl to go with you."

Miranda stood in shock. Thunder boomed in the distance. She pushed away the doom and gloom feeling again and stared at her mom in disbelief. The only thing better than going to see Perry, was going to see Perry with her two best friends, Kylie and Della, there for support. Miranda grabbed her mom by the arm and walked her to the door. "You should leave now."

"Why?" her mom asked.

"Because I gotta practice and get dressed. Oh, and go ahead and buy those tickets. I'm winning!"

***

The bell rang, announcing they had five minutes before the competition commenced. Panicked that she'd only practiced the first apples-to-oranges spell, and clueless to what the second and third spells might be, she let out a moan. But no time to whine. She bolted from the chair, slipped her feet into her green heels, and gave herself one quick final check in the mirror.

The dress fit like a glove. A tight glove. Too much breakup ice cream. She recalled Della telling her she was going to get fat and stomping her ice cream into the floor. At the time, Miranda had been super pissed, but now . . . She supposed she should tell the vamp thank you, or she'd be arriving in front of the council in her fat jeans right now.

She grabbed her brush from her purse and ran it through her long strawberry-blond hair. While she'd gotten her mom's eye color, she'd taken those red highlights from her father. As the strands fell together on her shoulders, the streaks of green, pink, and black framed her face.

Staring at her image, she recalled that in the past, the judges—nothing more than old-fashioned biddies—had made negative remarks about her hair and even docked her a few points. Miranda had thumbed her nose at their opinion and fuddy-duddy sense of style.

Now she dropped her chin to her chest in resignation. Her thumbing days were over.

At least for this competition. Because holy hell, she wanted to win. Had to win.

Their opinion could keep her from the thing she wanted more than anything. Paris with Perry. Paris with Perry, and Della and Kylie as her emotional backup.

Closing her eyes, she held out her pinky and whispered, "Hair, color of three, turn back to the color that is just boring ol' me."

Opening her eyes, breath held, praying she hadn't screwed up, she found the streaks were gone. A good sign that maybe her other spells would be just as successful. But seeing herself without her trifecta of color for the first time in two years had her breath hitching in her throat.

A crazy sensation swept over her. Who was she? Without her trademark streaks of color, without Perry, she felt hollow, lacking a sense of self.

A sad thought hit. Was she the type of girl who solely defined herself by her hair color and a boyfriend? Was she that shallow?

Needing a confidence booster, she grabbed her phone off the table to call the person who always seemed to say the right thing. The man who called her angel and never led her to believe she'd let him down. Her daddy.

But right then, another bell rang, giving them a three-minute warning. The Wicca council, standing as judges, was not tolerant of tardiness. You'd either get docked points or thrown out of the competition altogether.

Reaching back into her purse, she pulled out her necklace—her Alchemy absinthe spoon pendant, a wearable token of her Wicca heritage. The triangle-shaped emerald-green Swarovski crystal hung right below her neck and matched her dress perfectly.

"You can do this," she whispered to the stranger in the mirror and set her phone back down. "You want Perry back, right?"

When the young woman in the mirror didn't answer right away, she wanted to scream. Now you start doubting?

Standing straight, she cleared her mind. She did want Perry back, didn't she? The two-minute warning bell rang.

No time to self-analyze, she turned, opened her door, and stepped out. When her feet hit something warm, gooey, and disgusting, she glanced down.

"No!" She'd marched right into a big—seriously big—pile of horseshit.

Fresh manure covered her feet up to her ankles. Giggles exploded at the end of the hall.

Fury, building at the speed of light, had Miranda staring daggers at Tabitha and her sidekick, Sienna, another regular competitor.

Miranda held out her pinky, thinking pimples, thinking hooked noses, and boobs of a ninety-year-old woman—the kind of boobs old women could flash people with by pulling up their skirts. These two girls deserved floppy tits.

Then bam!

Right before she let the thought slip from her mind into her shoulder and travel down her arm to escape from her pinky, she remembered. Any spells placed on other contestants cost points.

Precious, precious points. Points Miranda couldn't afford to lose.

She dropped her arm. With the stench billowing upward, she tried breathing through her mouth. Tabitha and Sienna continued to giggle. Oh, this was sooo funny.

Not!

Miranda squared her shoulders. "Why does the perfection of this spell of yours not surprise me?" She aimed her words at Tabitha, knowing it had been her idea. "Oh, wait, I know. Because you are so full of shit!" she seethed.

The one-minute bell rang. The two girls ran out to take their places.

Miranda had less than thirty seconds to make the circle on the stage. No time to conjure up a cleansing spell, she held her head high and walked out on the stage, pretending she wasn't up to her ankles in horse crap.

Crazy idea?

Yes.

Stupid?

No.

Was she mortified?

Absolutely.

Yet logic trumped embarrassment. The judges docked points for tardiness; she'd never heard of them docking points for horse dung.

***

Soft music echoed from the loudspeaker as Miranda took her place. She stood ramrod straight. Murmurs of discontent echoed from all directions. The witches on both sides of her in the circle put hands over their noses. Tabitha, one person to her right, held a slight smile on her lips.

Oh, what Miranda wouldn't give to turn and make huge dollops of horse manure rain down on her.

The twelve judges sitting at the end of the stage behind a long wooden table waved their hands in front of their faces. The front-row audience of the dome-shaped auditorium squished up their noses as if the stench was just now invading their air.

What a way to start a competition. Especially one she was damned determined to win.

"Ms. Kane?" one of the judges snapped after the one beside her pointed to Miranda's shit-covered feet. The music came to an abrupt halt.

"Yes, ma'am?" Miranda answered, her voice magically projecting through the entire auditorium.

"Do you lack so much respect for this competition that you would walk on our stage . . . like that?"

"No disrespect intended," Miranda answered, praying her voice didn't crack. "I'm simply trying to honor your promptness rule. I wasn't expecting to find . . . excrement waiting outside my dressing room door."

"Are you implying that someone here did this?"

"It would appear that way," she stated, realizing her dilemma. Their next question would probably be for her to identify the person responsible for the horseshit.

Miranda was not a tattler. Nope.

"I am tired of these childish games," a different judge spoke up and she held out her finger, giving it a good wiggle. The dung on Miranda's shoes and on the floor vanished.

"Who is responsible for this act?" the witch asked. "They will pay for this with a ten-point deduction."

Just ten? Surely, equine dung came with a higher consequence? "I . . . I'm afraid I didn't see the spell being placed." That was the truth.

"Do you suspect someone guilty of this crime?" another judge spoke up.

Miranda could feel Tabitha's and Sienna's gazes on her. Were they afraid? They should be. "I . . . I can't really say."

"Can't or won't?" the woman questioned.

Miranda's gaze shifted to the audience, where she saw her mom sitting in the second row. She was nodding her head as if telling Miranda to spill her guts.

Her hesitation provoked another judge to speak up. "This is silly. Your silence will cost you ten points. Now tell us and let's get moving."

Just tell them, a voice whispered inside her head. The two witches deserved it, but to do so went against her moral compass.

She opened her mouth to do just that, but when she did, she saw who sat behind her mom. Kylie, a light blonde who was . . . as perfect on the outside as she was on the inside. Sweet as apple pie. And Della, with her almost-black hair and dark eyes, eyes that barely slanted upward, that hinted at her half-Asian heritage. No one would call Della sweet. Not to her face anyway. And yes, in truth, Della could be a tad standoffish, and feisty, but it was mostly an act. Miranda couldn't have a more loyal friend. Both of them were . . . her support team. Her best friends. Two girls she looked up to, admired.

What would they do?

The answer resounded back with clarity.

 

Chapter Three

 

Miranda would stand her moral ground. "I will take the deduction in points," she said, decision made, but her fury again rising.

"So be it," another judge said and slammed her gavel down on the wooden French farm table.

Miranda refused to look at Tabitha for fear she'd lose it and send her own horseshit spell the girl's way.

Not only was the witch getting off without being punished, Miranda was being punished for her actions.

Not that she was throwing in the towel on winning. It simply meant she would have to work harder. It meant she'd have to pull off each and every spell without one hiccup.

Could she do it?

***

A tiny drop of sweat collected between Miranda's boobs.

"Sienna Banker." The name of the eighteenth contestant was called. The order in which they were to perform was decided by random drawings. That meant the only ones left were Miranda and Tabitha.

It only added to Miranda's pressure.

She stood on wobbly knees, watching the B with an itch move in front of the table. The girl extended her hand, her pinky twitching. The spell spilled from her lips. "Apples to apples . . ."

Miranda purposely tried to not listen to the spell.

Part of her problem in competitions was simply repeating bad spells. She'd managed to change the apple into an orange twice in her dressing room. She had the spell down, she didn't need to screw with it.

"Oh, orange of mine," the girl continued.

No. No. No. Do not listen. Miranda cupped her hands at her sides and mentally hummed the "Yankee Doodle" song. She'd picked up that song and the act of humming when nervous from her dad. Her gaze cut to the audience for a second. Not that she expected him to be out there. For some reason, even when he was in town, he never attended the competitions.

Applause erupted from the audience.

Miranda stood stoic at the girl's success. She wished no one failure, but their victory added to her problem. Another drop of sweat crawled down her cleavage.

Suddenly, a dark mood, the same one that had appeared when she'd studied the storm, whispered across Miranda's soul. She shot Tabitha a frown.

The girl stood frowning in return, looking uncomfortable in her own skin. Was Tabitha doing this to Miranda? She didn't appear to be casting a mood spell.

But it had to be her, didn't it?

"Tabitha Evans," the judge spoke up.

Friggin' great. Miranda was going to be last. Swallowing down a lump of fear, she mentally went back to humming. Yankee Doodle went to . . .

Tabitha stepped up to the table where a fresh apple had just been placed. She repeated a few words, twitched her pinky, and a perfectly round, juicy-looking orange appeared.

Her orange was removed. Another apple took center table.

"Miranda Kane." Her name set a gang of butterflies loose in her stomach.

She stepped up to the table, now closer to the audience. Her mom's face stood out. Then Kylie's and Della's. You two are going to Paris with me.

Raising her arm, she recited her spell. "Apple, oh apple, fruit of the tree. Grant me this spell, I place upon thee. An apple no more, an orange you shall be."

When the piece of fruit didn't transform immediately, murmurs of defeat could be heard from the crowd. Time held its breath.

A second before accepting her failure, a light cloud of magical fog appeared hovering over the table. The apple disappeared and an orange, a bright, perfectly round orange, proudly took its place.

A light applause echoed from the crowd. The tickle of victory filled her chest. One down, two to go.

***

Given a five-minute break before the second part of the competition, Miranda ignored the increasing sense of lurking danger and darted off the stage. She refused to let Tabitha's silly hex distract her. Determined, she hurried back to her room to study the competition brochure and hopefully discover what the next spell entailed. If she worked quickly, she might even fit in one practice.

Face it. If she wanted to win, she could use a little practice.

She shut her door, ran to the small table where the brochure had been left unread. The small print seemed to try to push in her brain at the same time. Damn dyslexia. Closing her eyes, she tried to concentrate. One line at a time. One line at a time.

Opening her eyes, she moved down to the second paragraph and ran her finger under the line she needed to read: The second spell will be altering . . .

The door to her dressing room shot open, slamming against the wall. Turning, she glared at the intruder, certain it would be her mom, probably to yell at her about the horseshit.

Not her mom. But the horseshit maker herself.

"Stop it!" Tabitha seethed.

"Stop what?" Miranda asked.

"You know what," she accused in a serious voice. She walked off, slamming the door so hard Miranda's eardrums flinched.

"No, I don't know, bitch," Miranda muttered in a sneer. Then, determined to focus on the competition, she pushed all curiosity about Tabitha's little tantrum into a mental vault, and stared back at the brochure.

The second spell will be altering live DNA. Each contestant must transform a feline into another animal—the animal of the contestant's choice.

A smile lit up Miranda face. What had she done for karma to smile down on her like this? Of course, she could only hope the judges meant it when they said the animal was the contestant's choice. Odds were, most of the witches would take the conventional route and go with a dog or rabbit.

She bit down on her lip and did a little victory dance. She'd never been accused of being conventional. It was then she saw her reflection in the mirror. No streaks in her hair. She looked content. Maybe those streaks didn't define her after all. Did that mean Perry didn't define her either? There was only one way to find out. Go to Paris. Find answers.

She looked back at the brochure. Confidence made the air taste sweeter. She was no stranger to altering DNA. This happened to be the spell she'd once attempted, failed at miserably, but had finally conquered.

All that practicing, week after week, had left that spell tattooed on her brain. She could only hope she got this feline turned and turned back before trouble arose. But again, the judges docked you for not completing a spell, not for being skunked.

The three-minute warning bell dinged. She moved to leave. Only this time, she looked down and up before she stepped out. Noting the hallway was crap-free, with poise giving her steps some pep, she headed back to the stage.

***

Miranda found her place with the other girls forming a circle center stage. Flanked by a set of identical twins, whom she'd run across in several competitions, she offered them each a nod. Candy and Sandy Gleason were tall blondes who'd both won more competitions than they lost.

One of the judges stood up to address the crowd. "No animals will be harmed in the competition. All felines have been blessed, and a superior spell has been placed on them so in ten minutes, no matter what their state of being is, they will be turned back into cats."

Miranda had expected nothing less from the council, especially since two years ago, the Wicca council had been sued by the Wicca-affiliated Animal Rights Association because a frog had accidentally been left as a prince longer than he'd agreed.

Miranda looked up and saw Tabitha standing directly across from her. The girl scowled. Miranda ignored her and the lurking feeling of danger Tabitha had obviously brought on.

Sienna's name was called first. Miranda sighed with relief. The only thing she hated more than going last was going first.

A large black cat appeared on the table. It raised its paw and let out a slow meow. Sienna closed her eyes, raised her hand, her pinky twitching. She started her spell. "Cat to dog. Man's best friend . . ."

Miranda purposely stopped listening, not wanting her words to influence her spell. The cat vanished . . . or half-vanished. The creature standing proudly was part gray poodle part black feline.

Murmurs erupted in the audience. The judges started whispering amongst themselves. The voice of the group stood up. "You have accomplished your task, but with defects. You get only fifty percent of your points."

Sienna nodded, lifted her pinky, and changed her creature back into the cat. When the girl moved back into the circle, Miranda saw the sheen of disappointment in her eyes. Miranda didn't particularly like Sienna, but having been in her shoes so many times, she felt her pain.

Ten more girls were called forward to cast their spell. Only three got the whole one hundred points. Six had simply failed altogether. Miranda felt the blow for each and every one of them, too.

Hence one of the reasons Miranda hated competitions. Winning felt good, watching others not win always stung a little.

"Miranda Kane."

Hearing her name fill the silent auditorium had her earlier confidence leaking from her pores. She stepped forward. Taking a deep breath that filled her chest to the brim, she held out her arm and began . . . "Cat, oh feline friend of mine, find your true colors of black and white, turn to creature that lurks at night—one that no one dares to anger thee, or skunked they will be." One twitch of the pinky and the thought ran amuck in her head. It's in the bag. In the bag.

The cloud of magic surrounded the black cat. Then faded. Miranda's breath hitched when she saw what she'd done. Oh, shit!

 

Chapter Four

 

There, on the table, sat a burlap bag. In it, something wiggled and rolled. Soft growling noises came from the cloth sack.

Voices of confusion arose. Stepping forward, praying her only screwup had been invoking the bag, Miranda loosened the string. The room fell quiet. Not even the air stirred. A black pointed nose appeared, and then the beautiful black-and-white skunk emerged in all his glory. It pranced the length of the table and then back. Then turning away from the judges, it raised its tail.

Soft laughter pushed away the silence.

"Change it back. Now!" one of the council insisted.

Reciting the reverse spell, the skunk returned to feline form. Miranda waited to hear if her bag would cost her any points. With her ten-point deduction for not tattling, she really needed to ace this one.

The unhappy-looking judges whispered amongst themselves.

Even the air Miranda breathed quivered with nervousness.

Finally, the head priestess leaned forward and locked gazes with Miranda. "You accomplished your task, and while the bag was extra, we vote not to deduct points."

Miranda held her exhilaration in check, but heard a loud victory whistle coming from the audience. Her gaze cut to the crowd and she saw Della standing up, one fist pumped in the air, and a huge best-friend smile on her face. Kylie sat beside her, tugging at her shirttail, as if trying to let her know that cheering wasn't common practice at Wicca competitions.

"Please, no outbursts," said the ol' biddy judge, staring into the audience.

Silence filled the room. Miranda, not at all upset at Della, bit her lip to stop from smiling. But Della had just earned herself a big hug. Sure, the vamp claimed she didn't like hugs, but Miranda knew better.

"Tabitha Evans," a judge announced, moving the competition along.

The name of her nemesis brought Miranda back to the present.

Tabitha shot Miranda a scowl as she moved forward. Right then, it occurred to Miranda what Tabitha might have meant by "Stop it." Did she think Miranda was creating the mood spell? If so, that meant that Tabitha hadn't set it. Was real shit, not just horse crap, about to hit the fan?

No, Miranda seriously doubted it.

On the wave of that thought came another trickle of danger and impending doom. Cutting her eyes around at the other girls, she tried to see if any of them wore a mask of guilt. Was one of the other competitors doing this? But if this was a true mood spell, why wasn't everyone reacting?

Sure, mood spells could be cast on individuals, but it took a pretty strong spell to target it like that. And if targeted, then why her and Tabitha? And if it wasn't a mood spell, but actually Miranda's gift of forewarning, then why was Tabitha reading it as well?

Miranda's ability of forecasting trouble, inherited from her father's family, wasn't that common. Ha, wouldn't it totally suck to find out that Tabitha was some distant cousin?

Actually, more sucky, would be if the foreboding were real. Her gaze shifted to the audience and to Della and Kylie. If trouble plopped its butt down on her, at least she'd have help. Man, she'd lucked out getting those two best friends.

Tabitha began to speak. Her words rang loud and with confidence. "Feline of black, feline are you, change now to resemble Pepé Le Pew."

Miranda frowned. She didn't have a copyright on skunk transformation, but why her archenemy cared to mimic Miranda's spell was disconcerting.

The condensation of the spell descended from the ceiling. It swirled around the feline, stopped, and then started again. When it evaporated, a skunk . . . well, a skunk with tall, skinny feline legs, centered the table.

Tabitha's sigh of discontent came just before the murmurs of the audience.

The judges leaned toward each other to compare notes. When they settled back in their seats, the spokeswoman stood and addressed Tabitha. "You will only receive seventy percent of your points. Let this be a lesson to you to use your own spell and not borrow the creativeness of others."

Miranda should have been happy about the girl's comeuppance, but nope. Screwing up in front of your peers and an audience was bad enough. One didn't need to be chastised as well.

Ten minutes later, the second round of competition was over. Only the top ten finalists would move forward. The judges read out their tallies. Miranda's stomach knotted when she heard she fell into fifth place and the four ahead of her held perfect scores.

Normally, she'd have been thrilled, but it meant Miranda would have to get 100 percent on her next spell and everyone else would have to be docked points, to take first place. For once she was channeling her mother, and not accepting anything but a complete win.

***

Miranda had barely gotten to her dressing room for her four-minute reprieve, when a loud knock sounded at her door. Was it Tabitha again? What was it with that girl?

She ran to the door and swung it open. "What the hell is wrong with . . . you?" She spit out the last word, even though she'd been mistaken on the identity of the knocker.

Or knockers.

Both Kylie and Della stood perched at the door.

"Nothing is wrong with me," Della smarted back. "You, on the other hand, have got problems! You should have handed them that girl's head on a platter."

Miranda pushed her sassy remark aside and went right in for a hug. "This is for cheering for me." She tightened her embrace. "Gawd, I've missed you. How are things at home?"

Della wiggled out of Miranda's hold. "The same."

Della had gone back home last week due to her father being arrested for the murder of his sister. She swore her father wasn't guilty, and it appeared as if it was his twin brother, who was more than likely a rogue vampire, who'd really done the killing. With the help of the FRU, they were trying to solve the cold case.

Miranda couldn't blame Della for going home, but no one could blame Miranda for wanting her to get her butt back. Shadow Falls wasn't the same without her.

"Thank you both so much for coming." Miranda hugged Kylie next.

When she pulled back, the three-minute warning bell rang.

"Shit," Miranda muttered.

"You're doing great," Kylie the optimist said.

"I have to," she said. "I don't have time to explain it in detail, but the top five finalists get their way paid to the next competition and it's in Paris."

"Paris?" Kylie said. "Wow. And that just happens to be where—"

"Perry is. I know," Miranda said, and looked at Della. "I'm trying really hard to win so I can go shake some sense into him. He'll take one look at me and realize how much he loves me." So she did want him back, she realized.

"Okay," Kylie said, but she didn't sound overly confident.

"Screw Perry," Della said. "Do you know who's here?"

Miranda scowled and ignored the vamp's comment. "And the best part is . . . and this is really good, guys . . ." She paused to add drama. "If I win first place, you two get to come with me. Mom's agreed to pay."

Kylie and Della stood there dumbstruck.

"Isn't that great?" she asked.

Della started shaking her head, and Miranda spoke up again. "Duh, have you forgotten, Steve's in Paris, too." Steve being Della's almost boyfriend.

"But—"

"Just for a few days," Miranda added.

Della frowned. "I can't run off to Paris. I've got to help my dad."

"Please," Miranda pleaded. "I need you two there. You are my champions. I'll screw it up without you two."

The one-minute bell rang. "I gotta go. Just think about it. You can't let me down. You can't."

***

Miranda rushed out and stood in the circle of ten . . . and felt it immediately. Her palms itched with nerves. Not just from the competition or the sense of trouble. Though those both added to her level of anxiety. But now, accompanying that unease, was the sensation of being singled out—studied.

Searching the crowd, she spotted her mom, and even Della and Kylie settling back into their seats. None of them were causing her this discomfort. She let her gaze shift around, when all of a sudden, she saw a curtain to a doorway to the back auditorium flutter closed. Instantly, the feeling faded. Someone had been watching her. Could it be the same person casting the mood spell?

She probably should have mentioned that to Kylie and Della, but her mind hadn't gone there.

Inhaling, Miranda realized that Tabitha—frowning—stood beside her. Was Tabitha feeling any of this? The temptation to lean in and whisper the question bit hard.

But then a judge stood to address the crowd. Miranda pushed past the unease to listen. The last spell had purposely been left out of the brochure—a test of their spontaneity. Miranda sucked at spontaneity.

"Today, we have decided to test the contestants' ability to call upon one of the elemental powers."

Miranda's breath caught. Not fire. Not fire. Please not fire. The one thing she sucked at more than spontaneity was . . .

"Fire." The high priestess held up her hand and a flame came out of her fingertips.

Heavyhearted, Miranda considered walking off the stage. Her inability to control this particular elemental power had left a mark on her, or rather it had left a mark on her father.

She'd been eight and mortified when her attempt to light a candle had created a fireball running amuck around the house. Running until it found her father's backside. The poor man hadn't been able to sit down for a week. Not that he had punished her. He'd simply laughed, saying his mooning days were over. Unlike her mom, he never seemed to care that she wasn't perfect.

Looking around again, she questioned her reasons for putting herself through the embarrassment of trying and failing.

The answer came back. For Perry.

"Our first contestant is . . . Tabitha Evans."

Miranda heard air leave the girl's lungs as she walked up to the front of the stage.

A fireplace magically appeared on her left, and on the right was a stand with a small candle perched on top. "Each shall light the candle, then move the flame to the fireplace." The judge's explanation was exactly what Miranda had feared. What if her fire strayed from the given path?

"Each contestant will be allowed three tries to complete her spell. Points will be deducted for each failed attempt," the judge continued. "For safety's sake, a magical bubble will be placed around each performing contestant."

Miranda's panic eased. The only person she could hurt playing with fire this time was herself. That she could risk.

"Fire, oh heat, I ask of ye . . ." Tabitha lit the candle right away, but her tiny ball of flame kept losing its power and fading to smoke. On the third try she did it. The second, third, and fourth girls didn't make it at all. Candy got it in two tries and her twin did it in one. Sienna took two. The next two girls failed. Then it became apparent that she was going to be last. Again.

Waiting for her name to be called, her heart raced. Even with the magic bubble, the room's temperature rose. The sensation of being the target of someone's direct stare picked up again. She wanted to glare at the audience to see who had her under such intense scrutiny, but she needed to focus. Focus on fire.

"Miranda Kane." Her name rang loud in her ears. Too loud.

She moved forward. The magic bubble, invisible with the exception of a light blue tint, started to enclose her. The sounds became muffled. Even her own thoughts seemed too loud. Her first impulse was to escape while she had a chance. Air hitched in her throat. Her palms grew damp with sweat.

Right before she felt the invisible walls seal together, an odd wash of calm hit her chest.

You can do this. You can! She thought of seeing Perry. Of having Della and Kylie at her side.

She extended her hand. "Spark of flame, dance of heat, light this wick, then follow me." Her thoughts became jumbled. She wiggled her pinky.

Nothing happened. The candle's wick remained unlit.

Desperation rose inside her. She felt the audience's anticipation of her failure. She started to lower her arm and ask for her second attempt, when a surge of calm, of clarity, rose inside her again.

Her breath caught as the tranquility filled her lungs. The realization hit. This . . . whatever it was, had not come from within her. Someone . . . someone was manipulating her powers.

She went to push the aid away, but too late. The wick of the candle sparked to life. The flame rose from the candle and grew to a perfect orb of fire. It floated in midair, waiting for orders.

Was this her spell, or the work of the foreign source?

"Go." A simple hand motion sent the fire into the fireplace and the kindling embraced the heat and a fire with blue flames built inside the hearth.

The bubble around her slowly started to ebb away like fog. The applause echoed louder. Her gaze shot to the audience. Who had done this? She turned to direct the council to this mishap in their rules, but before the words left her lips, screams echoed behind her.

Swinging around, she saw the huge orb of fire soaring from the back of the stage. Had she done this? Oh, shit, she probably had.

The circle of blue-and-red flames flew forward toward the line of her competitors.

No! Miranda refused to let her stupidity hurt anyone else.

Without thought, she rushed forward, calling the flame toward her with an inward plea. If you are gonna burn anyone's ass, it's gonna be mine this time. The sphere hung in place for a second. Then, spitting out embers, it began rotating, flames flickering from the circle. It must have heard her plea.

With fire racing toward her, she swept her arms out and over her head and asked with all her soul for the magic to reseal the protective bubble. The invisible barriers rose around her, trapping her and the orb of fire in their own prison.

The heat in the enclosure stung her skin to the point of pain. Gray smoke thickened the air and burned her lungs.

Screams from outside of her confinement filled her ears. "Help her! Somebody help her."

The invisible bubble shook from the attempted spells slamming into the wall. The spellbound bubble couldn't be breached.

"Somebody do something."

They couldn't save her.

It was up to Miranda. All up to her.

With the orb of fire hovering right above her, she raised her hand, calling forth the element of water. Her words had no more left her lips when she felt her knees give. Everything went black.

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