“I’m covered,” Ethan assured me through gritted teeth.

“Don’t be an asshole,” Keane said. “My shield isn’t reaching that far and you know it. Sit next to me and put Dana on your lap.”

At first, I thought Ethan’s macho pride was going to get the best of him and he was going to refuse—at which point I’d have had to resort to drastic measures to make him act like a sensible adult. (Don’t ask me what those measures would have been, because I’m nowhere near as good at bullying as the guys are.) Luckily, Ethan didn’t make that necessary, though he grumbled darkly under his breath as he pulled me onto his lap and shifted reluctantly closer to Keane.

The hail started coming down just then, nuggets the size of marbles pounding onto the ground—and onto Ethan’s right leg and shoulder, which apparently were still outside the shield.

“For God’s sake!” Keane snapped. “I don’t have cooties and I’m not going to bite.”

Ethan probably was going to snap right back, but Kimber shifted on Keane’s lap until she could reach out and put her arm around Ethan’s shoulders, pulling him flush up against Keane’s side. Figuring she had the right idea, I shifted my own weight and grabbed Ethan’s leg, dragging it under the shield. If it offended his manly sensibilities to sit so close to another guy, tough! Even the few hailstones that had hit me while I reached past the shield spell to grab him had stung like hell, and they seemed to be getting bigger.

Ethan was totally fuming, hating every second of being forced to accept Keane’s protection. Keane wasn’t exactly making things easier, but at least he hadn’t hesitated to offer that protection, no matter how he felt about Ethan. I rested my head against Ethan’s shoulder, and when that didn’t lessen the tension in his body, turned my head and brushed a kiss across his neck.

His skin felt warm and smooth beneath my lips, and I heard the way his breath hitched even over the howl of the wind and the pounding of the hail. I kissed him again, a little higher, and the angry tension he’d radiated moments ago dissolved into a different kind of tension altogether.

Yes, I was a little self-conscious with Keane and Kimber right there beside us, but Ethan needed the distraction, and I needed the comfort. I let my kisses travel up the side of Ethan’s neck while he conveniently lowered his head and turned his face toward me.

I was wet, I was cold, sitting outside in a ditch during a dangerous thunderstorm, but when Ethan’s lips came down on mine, it was like I’d been momentarily transported to heaven. I didn’t have a whole lot of experience with kissing, but I was sure Ethan was one of the best kissers in the universe. My traitorous mind conjured the image of the Erlking and the wild, ravenous kiss we’d shared under the influence of magic, but I shoved the thought away. That hadn’t been a real kiss, nor had my reaction been real pleasure, not like it was when I kissed Ethan.

Ethan’s tongue was teasingly licking my lips as his arms crushed me against him. I had no complaints, melting into his arms and kissing him back eagerly. His hand slipped under the hem of my shirt. It was a relatively innocent caress, his fingers touching the skin of my lower back, but I felt a little pang, knowing these innocent caresses were all we would ever have. I told myself to live in the moment and not think about it. But I’m not good at not thinking about things, and though the kiss still felt good, the thrill was suddenly dampened—no pun intended. No, Ethan and I weren’t going to get it on here in front of Keane and Kimber even if the Erlking’s bargain weren’t coming between us, but I couldn’t enjoy even this simple kiss without worrying about everything I couldn’t do.

I think Ethan sensed me cooling off, because he sighed against my lips then pulled away, tucking my head under his chin. My throat tightened and my eyes burned, but I refused to cry. Somehow, I was going to find a way to be happy with what I had rather than pining for what I couldn’t have, but I hadn’t managed it yet.

Ethan went tense under me again, and it was as if our whole little make-out distraction session hadn’t happened. From the feel of his chin on my head, I could tell he was looking at Keane, so I turned to look myself, ready to jump in and stop them from fighting again if necessary.

Kimber was cuddled in Keane’s arms in a pose very similar to my own, her head against his chest. One of his arms was around her shoulder, and the other rested lightly on her thigh. There was a little smile on her face that said she was happy to be there, and I knew she was probably thrilled that Keane was touching her like that. But Keane was barely paying any attention to her and was instead locked in a staring match with Ethan. I wanted to slap them both, but I kept my feelings to myself, because if I opened my big mouth I’d only make things worse. The storm might have been getting a little less savage, but the lightning was still too close for comfort, and I couldn’t risk that testosterone would make the boys do something stupid that might get us all killed. So instead, I took one for the team, grabbing hold of Ethan’s head and planting another kiss on him.

My valiant sacrifice did the trick, and Ethan and Keane didn’t try to kill each other. Considering the absolutely rotten day we’d just had, I chose to take that as a good sign.

*   *   *

By the time the storm died out completely and the clouds cleared, the first hints of sunrise were coloring the horizon.

Keane’s shield spell had more than likely saved our lives. The forest floor was littered with broken branches, some of them slim and harmless, some of them as big as small trees all by themselves. One of those big branches lay across the ditch beside us, where it had come to rest after bouncing off of Keane’s shield spell.