I lifted my brows. “Everyone gave you their gifts?”
“He’s the only one who can be trusted not to snoop,” Mor explained.
I looked toward Azriel.
“Even him,” Amren said.
Azriel gave me a guilty cringe. “Spymaster, remember?”
“We started doing it two centuries ago,” Mor went on. “After Rhys caught Amren literally shaking a box to figure out what was inside.”
Amren clicked her tongue as I laughed. “What they didn’t see was Cassian down here ten minutes earlier, sniffing each box.”
Cassian threw her a lazy smile. “I wasn’t the one who got caught.”
I turned to Rhys. “And somehow you’re the most trustworthy one?”
Rhys looked outright offended. “I am a High Lord, Feyre darling. Unwavering honor is built into my bones.”
Mor and I snorted.
Amren strode for the nearest pile of presents. “I’ll go first.”
“Of course she will,” Varian muttered, earning a grin from me and Mor.
Amren smiled sweetly at him before bending to pick up a gift. Varian had the good sense to shudder only when she’d turned her back on him.
But she plucked up a pink-wrapped present, read the label, and ripped into it.
Everyone tried and failed to hide their wince.
I’d seen some animals tear into carcasses with less ferocity.
But she beamed as she turned to Azriel, a set of exquisite pearl-and-diamond earrings dangling from her small hands. “Thank you, Shadowsinger,” she said, inclining her head.
Azriel only inclined his head in return. “I’m glad they pass inspection.”
Cassian elbowed his way past Amren, earning a hiss of warning, and began chucking presents. Mor caught hers easily, shredding the paper with as much enthusiasm as Amren. She grinned at the general. “Thank you, darling.”
Cassian smirked. “I know what you like.”
Mor held up—
I choked. Azriel did, too, whirling on Cassian as he did.
Cassian only winked at him as the barely there red negligee swayed between Mor’s hands.
Before Azriel could undoubtedly ask what we were all thinking, Mor hummed to herself and said, “Don’t let him fool you: he couldn’t think of a damn thing to get me, so he gave up and asked me outright. I gave him precise orders. For once in his life, he obeyed them.”
“The perfect warrior, through and through,” Rhys drawled.
Cassian leaned back on the couch, stretching his long legs before him. “Don’t worry, Rhysie. I got one for you, too.”
“Shall I model it for you?”
I laughed, surprised to hear the sound echo across the room. From Elain.
Her present … I hurried to the pile of gifts before Cassian could lob one across the room again, hunting for the parcel I’d carefully wrapped yesterday. I just spied it behind a larger box when I heard it. The knock.
Just once. Quick and hard.
I knew. I knew, before Rhys even looked toward me, who was standing at that door.
Silence fell, interrupted only by the crackling fire.
A beat, and then I was moving, dress swishing around me as I crossed into the foyer, heaved open the leaded glass door and the oak one beyond it, then braced myself against the onslaught of cold.
Against the onslaught of Nesta.
Snow clung to Nesta’s hair as we stared at each other across the threshold.
Pink tinged her cheeks from the frigid night, but her face remained solemn. Cold as the snow-dusted cobblestones.
I opened the door a bit wider. “We’re in the sitting room.”
Conversation, tentative and halting, carried to the foyer. No doubt a noble attempt by everyone to give us some privacy and sense of normalcy.
When Nesta remained on the doorstep, I extended a hand toward her. “Here—I’ll take your coat.”
I tried not to hold my breath as she glanced past me, into the house. As if weighing whether to take that step over the threshold.
From the edge of my vision, purple and gold flashed—Elain. “You’ll fall ill if you just stand there in the cold,” she tutted to Nesta, smiling broadly. “Come sit with me by the fire.”
Nesta’s blue-gray eyes slid to mine. Wary. Assessing.
I held my ground. Held that door open.
Without a word, my sister crossed the threshold.
It was the matter of a moment to remove her coat, scarf, and gloves to reveal one of those simple yet elegant gowns she favored. She’d opted for a slate gray. No jewelry. Certainly no presents, but at least she’d come.
Elain linked elbows to lead Nesta into the room, and I followed, watching the group beyond as they paused.
Watching Cassian especially, now standing with Az at the fire.
He was the portrait of relaxed, an arm braced against the carved mantel, his wings tucked in loosely, a faint grin on his face and a glass of wine in his hand. He slid his hazel eyes toward my sister without him moving an inch.
Elain had plastered a smile onto her face as she led Nesta not toward the fire as she’d promised, but the liquor cabinet.
“Don’t take her to the wine—take her to the food,” Amren called to Elain from her perch on the armchair as she slid the pearl earrings Az had given her into her lobes. “I can see her bony ass even through that dress.”
Nesta halted halfway across the room, spine stiff. Cassian went still as death.
Elain paused beside our sister, that plastered-on smile faltering.
Amren just smirked at Nesta. “Happy Solstice, girl.”
Nesta stared at Amren—until a ghost of a smile curved her lips. “Pretty earrings.”
I felt, more than saw, the room relax slightly.
Elain said brightly, “We were just getting to presents.”
It occurred to me only when she said the words that none of the gifts in this room had Nesta’s name on them.
“We haven’t eaten yet,” I supplied, lingering in the threshold between the sitting room and foyer. “But if you’re hungry, we can get you a plate—”
Nesta accepted the glass of wine Elain pressed into her hand. I didn’t fail to note that when Elain turned again to the liquor cabinet, she poured a finger of amber-colored liquor into a glass and knocked back the contents with a grimace before facing Nesta again.
A soft snort from Amren at that, missing nothing.
But Nesta’s attention had gone to the birthday cake still sitting on the table, its various tiers delved into many times over.
Her eyes lifted to mine in the silence. “Happy birthday.”
I offered a nod of thanks. “Elain made the cake,” I offered somewhat uselessly.
Nesta only nodded before heading for a chair near the back of the room, by one of the bookcases. “You can return to your presents,” she said softly, but not weakly, as she sat.
Elain rushed toward a box near the front of the pile. “This one’s for you,” she declared to our sister.
I threw Rhys a pleading glance. Please start talking again. Please.
Some of the light had vanished from his violet eyes as he studied Nesta while she drank from her glass. He didn’t respond down the bond, but instead said to Varian, “Does Tarquin host a formal party for the Summer
Solstice, or does he have a more casual gathering?”
The Prince of Adriata didn’t miss a beat, and launched into a perhaps unnecessarily detailed description of the Summer Court’s celebrations. I’d thank him for it later.
Elain had reached Nesta by then, offering her what seemed to be a heavy, paper-wrapped box.
By the windows, Mor sprang into motion, handing Azriel his gift.
Torn between watching the two, I remained in the doorway.
Azriel’s composure didn’t so much as falter as he opened her present: a set of embroidered blue towels—with his initials on them. Bright blue.
I had to look away to keep from laughing. Az, to his credit, gave Mor a smile of thanks, a blush creeping over his cheeks, his hazel eyes fixed on her. I looked away at the heat, the yearning that filled them.
But Mor waved him off and moved to pass Cassian his gift; but the warrior didn’t take it. Or take his eyes off Nesta as she undid the brown paper wrapping on the box and revealed a set of five novels in a leather box. She read the titles, then lifted her head to Elain.
Elain smiled down at her. “I went into that bookshop. You know the one by the theater? I asked them for recommendations, and the woman—female, I mean … She said this author’s books were her favorite.”
I inched close enough to read one of the titles. Romance, from the sound of it.
Nesta pulled out one of the books and fanned through the pages. “Thank you.”
The words were stiff—gravelly.
Cassian at last turned to Mor, tearing open her present with a disregard for the fine wrapping. He laughed at whatever was inside the box. “Just what I always wanted.” He held up a pair of what seemed to be red silk undershorts. The perfect match to her negligee.
With Nesta pointedly preoccupied with flipping through her new books, I moved to the presents I’d wrapped yesterday.
For Amren: a specially designed folding carrier for her puzzles. So she didn’t need to leave them at home if she were to visit sunnier, warmer lands. This earned me both an eye roll and a smile of appreciation. The ruby-and-silver brooch, shaped like a pair of feathered wings, earned me a rare peck on the cheek.
For Elain: a pale blue cloak with armholes, perfect for gardening in the chillier months.
And for Cassian, Azriel, and Mor …