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Brutus blinked up at me with overly innocent eyes.

‘You do remember what the signal is, right?’ I tugged on my right earlobe. ‘When I do that, you spring into action. Got that?’

‘Food.’

I counted to five in my head. ‘Do this for me, Bruty baby, and you can have all the food you want. I promise. I’ll even make the trip to that shop on the other side of town to get those fishy treats you like so much.’

Brutus didn’t say anything else but he gave a loud purr. That was the best answer I was going to get.

Winter popped his head out of the door. ‘We’re all good,’ he said. He held out his arm. ‘You’ll love my family, Ivy.’

I took his arm. Mmm. I had my doubts. If I made it out of here without any more bruises, I’d count that as a win. I shook out my hair, drew in a deep breath and walked into Winter’s ancestral home with my head held high. It couldn’t be that bad.

The first thing I noticed upon crossing the threshold was the smell: old-fashioned beeswax mixed with the aroma of home-baked bread. I swallowed. The kind of person who kneaded their own dough was not the kind of person I normally had much in common with. Didn’t Winter’s parents know that supermarkets sold bread in handy sliced loaves?

The floor – a heavy cream carpet that my feet immediately sank into – was spotless. Winter gestured at my shoes and started taking off his own. Cool. It might ostensibly be to avoid tracking in dirt but the action made me feel more relaxed. Perhaps I should have come in my pyjamas.

There was a great deal of shiny mahogany, from the ornate banister framing the staircase to my right to an old-fashioned bureau and various side tables on my left. Yes, there was a lot of furniture but this was a big house; there was no sense of stark bleakness as there had been in Blackbeard’s place, but this place didn’t seem cluttered either. I thought of my own wobbly pieces, most of which had been flatpack and inevitably had several screws missing, and grinned to myself.

A couple appeared. It didn’t take a genius to know who they were. The man possessed the same stiff spine that I’d often observed in Winter, coupled with a moustache which had been waxed to within an inch of its life. Although he was retired, his smartly pressed jacket still bore the medals that he must have won during his military career. The woman had the same brilliant blue eyes as Winter, together with a remarkably unlined face. Either she’d been dedicated enough to use cold cream every day since she was about three years old, or I could look forward to Winter’s skin remaining soft and fresh whilst I gradually got more and more wrinkled. Then I blinked as I realised what I’d been thinking. I completely certain we were going to grow old together. Well, well, well.

Winter’s mother held out her arms. ‘You must be Ivy. I’m so thrilled to finally meet you. I’m Sophia. This is George.’ She drew me into a tight hug which, I had to admit, was not what I’d expected. ‘Raphael has told us so much about you.’

My stomach dropped. Which parts exactly? Had he told them that I was often too lazy to walk to the end of the road to buy milk, so I had an arrangement with one of the kids who lived in a nearby flat? Had he mentioned that sometimes I turned my underwear inside out so I could wear it for another day without washing it? Maybe, I thought worriedly, he’d told them about the time I’d watched five episodes of Antiques Roadshow in a row because I didn’t know where the remote control was and I couldn’t be bothered to look for it.

I forced a smile. ‘All good, I hope!’

She smiled back and said nothing. Uh oh.

George, Winter’s father, obviously wasn’t the hugging type. I supposed I should be grateful he didn’t salute; instead, he offered me his hand and, when I took it, squeezed mine until I was certain it was about to drop off. ‘So,’ he said, ‘you’re a witch.’

Retrieving my poor fingers from his grip, I managed a nod. ‘Yes.’

‘But you’re not in the Order.’

‘No.’

He regarded me with sharp eyes. ‘You couldn’t handle the discipline?’

‘Father!’ Winter said, his brow creasing.

‘Something like that,’ I murmured.

By my feet, Brutus let out a small miaow. George glared icily down at him. ‘That is not Princess Parma Periwinkle.’

‘No,’ Winter said easily. ‘She’s off running an errand for me. She can sneak into hard-to-reach areas so I’ve sent her off to get some milk thistle. There’s a particular strain I’m after which I think will work wonderfully in a new spell I’m developing.’

‘This creature is not running an errand for you?’ George asked me.

I tried to imagine what Brutus’s response would be if I asked him to hunt for a particular herb in some godforsaken corner of the country. He’d probably return with a pile of stinging nettles and leave them in my bed so he could piss himself laughing when I tried to go to sleep. ‘Uh no. I don’t tend to use herblore much. I’m more of a rune girl.’

Winter’s father looked distinctly underwhelmed.

Sophia cleared her throat. ‘Let’s all go and sit down, shall we? Ivy, would you like a cup of tea? Dinner won’t be for another couple of hours yet.’

The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. ‘I would bloody love a cup,’ I said. Then, rather belatedly, I winced. ‘I mean, that would be lovely. Thank you.’

She quirked an eyebrow in a mannerism I instantly recognised. Unfortunately I couldn’t tell whether she was amused or horrified because she was a lot harder to read than her son. And a whole lot scarier too. I think it was because she kept smiling at me.

We were led into what I think was a drawing room. I’d never been in a drawing room before but, now that I was standing in one, I had no doubt that is what it was. Carefully taking a seat in a high-backed chair that was considerably older than all of us in this room, I felt incredibly uncomfortable – but I still couldn’t prevent myself from letting out a groan at taking the weight off my feet.

‘Make yourself at home,’ George said, flicking his hand in the air.

Thank goodness. I slumped back and began to raise my legs to tuck them underneath me. When I saw the expression on his face, I changed my mind. That hadn’t been a literal ‘make yourself at home’; I couldn’t get cold pizza out of the fridge and demand to know where the television was.

I tried to ignore the fact that Winter’s shoulders were shaking with silent laughter and looked round for Brutus. When I saw him poised to sharpen his claws on what looked like a very expensive chest, I sprang to my feet and grabbed him. He writhed in my arms and reached up with one paw to scratch my cheek. Fortunately, Winter was also standing and took him from me before I strangled him right then and there.

‘Your familiar is … interesting,’ George remarked politely.

Brutus’s head shot up and he glared at him. With one twist of his body, he leapt out of Winter’s arms and sauntered over to George. ‘Pet,’ he demanded.

Winter senior raised his eyebrows. ‘Very interesting.’ He leaned over and looked Brutus in the eye. ‘I will pet you if you behave.’

Cat stared at man and man stared at cat. I had the uneasy feeling this was going to end badly. However, Brutus flopped onto his back and presented his belly. Winter’s father did indeed reward him with a stroke. Okay, then.

Sophia bustled back in, carrying a silver tray. She set it down gently on a table. Seeing doilies and delicate china, my heart sank.

‘How do you take your tea, Ivy?’

‘Milk and four sugars.’

‘Four sugars?’ she asked, as if I wasn’t sure of my own preferences.

‘Yes.’

She pressed her lips together. I resisted telling her that I needed the energy after what Winter and I had been through. Given the visible bruises we were both sporting, our recent experiences were obvious but his parents had not commented on them. It made me wonder what Winter normally looked like when he showed up for formal dinners.

Sophia poured tea and passed me a cup and saucer. I generally like my tea in gigantic mugs I can wrap my hands around. This dainty little thing seemed like it would snap if I looked at it for too long and contained little more than a mouthful of tea. Great. I tried not to look too disappointed and murmured my thanks.

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