“So what?” I said exasperatedly to mask my fear. “If you guys can’t come up with something, there’s no hope for me figuring it out, so why are you telling me this?”

“Because I want you to be safe,” he said. “You don’t have to trust me in order to at least listen to what I’m saying and do what you have to do to protect yourself. Henry’s cut off every method the killer’s used to attack before. All that means is they’ll try something else. Henry knows it, we all know it, and you should as well.”

“Great,” I said, rolling my eyes. “So instead of poisoned food, I should be on the lookout for a swarm of killer bees? An anvil that’s about to fall on my head? What?”

“Anything,” he said. “Anything out of the ordinary. And if you ever suspect something might be up, get out of there, okay? I don’t care how much they seem to like you. Someone in that place wants you dead, and if you want to have any chance of survival, you can’t ever forget that.”

I didn’t respond. I’d adjusted to living in Eden Manor, and while it wasn’t perfect, at least I wasn’t miserable anymore. But the thought that the person who was trying to kill me might’ve been someone I knew—and knew well—shook my confidence more than I wanted to admit. For the first time, I really understood that it wasn’t just my mother’s life and Henry’s life on the line. Mine was, too.

“Why are you telling me this?” I said quietly as thunder shook the air. “If I die, Henry will fade, and you’ll get everything you want.”

He stared at the ground. “Not everything.”

Before I could contemplate whether he meant losing Henry or losing me, the sky opened up, and for the first time in my dreams, it started to pour.

“Promise me you’ll stay safe,” he said over the rain. “Promise me you won’t do anything reckless.”

I nodded. No matter how desperate I was to find some small piece of happiness in the remaining shreds of my life, I wasn’t willing to die for it. For my mother, yes; but not myself.

“Thank you,” he said, his shoulders sagging with relief. “I’ll see you in the spring. And Kate?”

I looked at him, silent as the park began to fade.

“I am sorry,” he said, and it was the last thing I heard before the darkness closed in around me.

Even though I was still furious with James, when I woke up gasping alone in my bed, I couldn’t help but think that while I was fighting so hard to save my mother’s life and Henry’s, maybe all James was trying to do was fight to save mine.

Christmas was the one holiday my mother and I celebrated, and it was always festive. Back in New York, our tiny apartment could barely hold a tree, but we’d shoved one into the corner of the living room anyway and spent hours decorating it. A little piece of nature in a metal jungle, she would say as we stood back to admire our efforts after we were done.

The towering Christmas trees spread throughout Eden Manor made our apartment trees look like twigs. Almost overnight they seemed to crop up all over the manor, and for weeks the smell of sugar cookies lingered in the corridors. The staff was giddy with excitement, and there was a sense of joy in the air that I couldn’t shake, even on my bad days. I’d expected them to celebrate the winter solstice instead, but Ella made it clear they would celebrate Christmas for me.

It didn’t escape me that none of the other girls had survived past Christmas, and despite how angry I was with James, I made an effort to never be alone. But the closer Christmas came, the scarcer Henry became, and that made it difficult. During the autumn, he occasionally joined me around the manor, but now the only time I saw him was in the evenings. Even then, things were as bad as ever, and despite my mother’s advice, for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how to give him the purpose he needed. Survive past Christmas, I hoped, but there was no guarantee that would work. I didn’t allow myself to consider the possibility that I might not make it.

But I did know I wanted him to have a happy Christmas. The entire household was supposed to have dinner together, and while that was a nice start, I wanted to show him the kind of Christmas my mother and I had together. Maybe if I invited him into a private part of my life, he would return the favor—or at the very least not scowl at me anymore. And, selfishly, I didn’t want to spend Christmas alone.

On Christmas Eve day, a giant tree showed up in my room while I was eating breakfast, along with two large boxes of decorations. My lessons were canceled due to the holiday, so I dragged Ava into my room to help me before we both had to get ready for dinner. When Henry wasn’t around, she was the only one I trusted enough to be alone with for any length of time. After all, she hadn’t been there for the other girls, and I was reasonably sure she wasn’t going to try to kill me for not accepting Henry’s offer on the autumn equinox.

Come early afternoon, however, I was beginning to regret inviting her.

“If I’m late for my date with Xander tonight, I am personally blaming you,” said Ava grumpily as she tugged at a tangled string of lights. Nearby, my puppy, now called Pogo, watched us both with interest.

“Don’t pull so hard,” I said, bounding over a pile of tinsel to save the lights from Ava’s brutality. “They’re delicate. And you won’t be late—I thought you were dating Theo?”

“Not anymore,” she said in a singsong voice. “I got back together with Xander, and he invited me to his room for our own private party instead of the banquet.”

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