Monday, April 18, 2016

Read Chapter 1 of Dangerous Creatures



In Book 3, Dangerous Creatures, Katie finds that she is being stalked by the mysterious ghost girl. Read Chapter 1 below….

Chapter 1.

THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST.

The words were written on a sheet of paper that had been wrapped around a rock.
I looked up and down the street in the gathering gloom. Not only was the street completely deserted, but the neighborhood itself was quiet and still as if no one had stirred in a long time.
I'd been sitting in the living room, staring out the window, watching the sun sinking behind the houses across the street and waiting for William. I'd felt a strange softness in the air, and a sense of peace settled over me that I hadn't felt in a long time. I felt as if I had no need to be afraid.
Though the stars had not yet come out, I'd seemed to see them before my eyes—both above me and below me. I'd felt myself sinking pleasantly into darkness.
Then there had been a sudden, sharp crack at the window, and I'd hurried out to see what it was.
As I looked around now, a sensation stole over me that I had felt once before. I felt as if the silence around me was watchful—as if the very air were holding its breath, waiting to see what I would do.
I shivered.
I looked at the note again. Of course, it was likely just a prank. Tonight was a night that was known for pranks, so there was really no reason for me to read any great significance into the words. I probably hadn't even been targeted particularly. I imagined that someone had simply thrown the rock at the closest house and then run off.
There was no need for me to be worried. Things had been quiet.
But whoever had thrown the rock had disappeared quickly.
I was just turning to go back into the house, when a familiar car turned onto my street. I quickly folded up the note and pushed it into the pocket of my jeans.
The car slotted into place behind my grandmother's red sports car, and William got out. He was tall and lean and dark-haired, and any outside observer would have guessed him to be about eighteen or nineteen years old—but that guess would have been off by quite a bit.
As William walked up to me, he gave me the crooked half-smile that I loved so much.
"Were you waiting out here for me?"
I smiled and tried to push my uneasiness away. "Of course I was."
I glanced down the street. "You didn't happen to see anyone walking—or maybe running—through the neighborhood on your way over here, did you?"
William glanced at me sharply. "No. Is something wrong?"
"No," I said. "I just—no. Someone threw a rock at our window, and it startled me. That's all."
I didn't see any point in mentioning the note—I was sure it was nothing. I told myself that it had to be nothing.
William glanced toward the house. "Are you ready to go? Or should we stop in and say hello to your grandmother?"
"We'd better tell her we're going," I said. "Otherwise, she'll think you've kidnapped me."
"That's a joke, right?"
"Sort of," I said.
William looked at me closely. "Are you sure nothing's wrong? You look rattled."
"No—nothing's wrong. It's just that—I left the front door open. I really should have closed it."
I turned quickly and went into the house with William following me.
GM met us in the hall—a tall, slim figure with folded arms. Her long silver hair was tied back in a braid, and the silver cross she always wore stood out starkly against her black sweater.
"So, you're here now, are you?" she said shortly. GM somehow always seemed to grow more formidable whenever William was around.
"Yes, Mrs. Rost." William, who could look quite formidable himself at times, often seemed to grow less so when confronted by GM.
She sighed. "Well, I hope the two of you will have a good time at the carnival."
"Thank you, Mrs. Rost," William said.
"And don't be out too late. I'll be waiting for Katie's return."
"Yes, Mrs. Rost."
"Well, you may go now. And don't do anything I wouldn't do."
"Yes, Mrs. Rost. Of course not."
"GM, please," I said. "This is starting to feel like an interrogation."
She waved a hand. "I already said you may go."
"We'll see you later," I said, giving GM a kiss on the cheek. "And you don't need to worry. Nothing awful is going to happen. Really."
GM gave me a skeptical look and then walked with us to the door. As we went out, she closed it firmly behind us.
"Sorry about that," I said. "I always feel bad subjecting you to GM's—I don't even know what you'd call it. She just always seems to be in a bad mood whenever you're around."
"It's all right. She isn't entirely to blame for her attitude toward me."
"I know," I said. "I just wish things could be different."
William gave me a wry smile. "I learned long ago that there was no point in dwelling on wishes."
He turned toward his car.
"William, wait," I said. "Do you mind if we walk instead of driving?"
He looked surprised. "You want to walk? It'll be dark soon, and the way over there isn't exactly well lit."
"I know," I said. "I just don't feel as if I can sit still right now. And you can see in the dark, can't you?"
"Okay," William said. "If that's what you want, that's what we'll do."
As we walked down the street, William kept glancing over at me, but he said nothing.
Before long we had plunged into the neighboring woods on our way to Hywel's Plaza. In the winter months, the plaza was largely taken up by an outdoor skating rink. But in the warmer months, the plaza was used for public gatherings—concerts, farmers' markets, art fairs. Tonight, the plaza was hosting the Black Moon Carnival—which was actually a fundraiser for Elspeth's Grove High School. There would be food and games and music, and I'd heard a new statue was going to be dedicated. There would probably be quite a few people in costume, too. Black Moon Night—April 19—was also a local festival apart from the school fundraiser—it was like our own personal Halloween.
As William and I walked through the trees, I was reminded unpleasantly of the day back in November when we had met two unexpected—and unwelcome—visitors in these very woods. Those visitors had come with a warning for me.
Though I tried to suppress it, a shiver ran through me.
William reached out to take my hand, and I was comforted by the warmth and strength of his grasp. But even though William was by my side, I was still uneasy, and I was deeply relieved when we finally spotted the lights of the carnival up ahead.
We broke free of the trees.
As I looked out over the carnival, my mood was lightened by just how bright and cheerful everything was. Strings of lights crisscrossed the entire plaza, creating what looked like a canopy of stars. Under the canopy, a small maze of booths crowded up against a larger-than-life straw figure of a witch, a colorful carousel, and a stage. A large object sat by the stage under an enormous canvas tarp, and I figured that that was the new statue, ready for its unveiling. I could see a crowd of people milling around—some of them in masks and costumes—and music and laughter floated up to me.
I felt myself relax even further—this was just an ordinary Sunday night in a small town. I very genuinely had nothing to worry about.
"What's with all the witches?" William asked.
"Our town founder, Elspeth Quick, was unfairly accused of witchcraft up in New England," I said. "According to the story, she fled south, and guided by a thin, silver thread of moonlight on an otherwise dark night, she found her way to what is now the Old Grove. There she was able to wait out her pursuers in safety—the mysterious thread of moonlight being a sign of her goodness and purity. And even though Elspeth was innocent of witchcraft, Black Moon Night has come to be associated with witches in particular and the supernatural in general."
"It's a little like Walpurgis Night," William said.
"Walpurgis Night?"
"That's when the souls of the dead are released to wander the earth for one night. And it's also associated with witches—it's the night before May Day."
"It's a little early for that," I said. "Besides, don't the dead wander the earth on Halloween?"
"I always thought of Halloween more as a night to honor the departed," William replied. "Walpurgis Night is more like the night when the departed get to break free and revel a little themselves."
"I guess this does look a bit like that," I said.
As William and I walked into the maze of the carnival, I heard a splash, and I turned to look. One of the booths was actually a dunk tank, and the hapless man on the stool had just been dropped into the water by a good shot.
William gave my hand a gentle squeeze. "What do you want to do first?"
"Let's just walk around," I said. "Maybe something fun will jump out at us."
The aisles between the booths were narrow, and with the crowd of people the flow of traffic was slow. As we passed a booth that sold candy apples, William and I crossed paths with a brown-skinned girl with curly black hair, and a tall, pale boy with brown hair that was falling in his eyes—my best friend, Charisse, and her boyfriend, Branden. The two of them were headed the opposite way, and though Charisse saw me and smiled, and Branden nodded at me, neither of them made any effort to stop and talk—nor did they acknowledge William.
Charisse turned her face resolutely forward, and Branden took his cue from her. The crowd eased, and they both moved on without saying a word.
I looked up at William. "They don't mean anything by it."
William appeared unruffled. "I know. They aren't to be blamed for the way they react any more than your grandmother is. They can't really help it."
I was glad that William understood, but at the same time, I wished he didn't have to. I wished we could be like any of the normal couples that had come to the carnival tonight. I wished we actually were what we appeared to be—two ordinary high school students out having a good time.
We continued on through the carnival, and I spotted Irina Neverov, who was out with her new boyfriend, Terrance. Terrance was new in more ways than one—he had just transferred to our school, and he was already a standout on the track team—even though it was the tail end of the season. There were rumors that he was a shoo-in for a starting position on the football team in the fall, too. He'd just arrived, and he was already a star.
Irina and Terrance didn't stop to talk to us, but that wasn't so unusual. Irina and I had been friends once long ago. But the passing years and her love for Simon Krstic—who had also had a crush on me—had driven a wedge between us. There was nothing between Simon and me, and Irina herself had clearly moved on, but even so some constraint still remained between us.
Irina's friends Bryony and Annamaria tagged along behind them. Bryony gave me a long look and seemed to be on the verge of speaking to me, but ultimately, she, too, decided not to stop to talk.
William and I continued on our way, and we were just passing through an area that was full of game booths, when I heard someone call out my name.
"Katie! Katie Wickliff! Katie, over here!"
I turned to see the familiar blond figure of Simon Krstic—he was manning one of the games. He smiled when he realized that I'd noticed him, and he waved me toward his booth.
I glanced up at William. "Do you want to go over?"
"Why not? At least someone wants to talk to us."
Simon broke into a grin as we reached his booth.
"Hey, Katie."
He gave William a brief nod.
I looked around the booth. There were several rows of multicolored balloons affixed to the far wall, and there was a row of stuffed animals and other trinkets sitting on a shelf above the balloons. Simon appeared to be running one of those games in which the player threw a dart at a balloon to win a prize.
"So how about it, Katie?" Simon asked. "Would you like to give it a try? It's for a good cause."
"What are the rules exactly?"
"You get three darts for a dollar. If you break a balloon, you get a prize."
"That doesn't sound too hard," I said. "Set me up."
But three dollars later, I still hadn't been able to successfully make contact with any of the balloons.
William seemed amused. "Would you like me to try?"
"Katie doesn't need your help," Simon said, his tone unexpectedly sharp. "She's doing just fine on her own."
"I know Katie doesn't need my help," William replied mildly. "I didn't mean anything by it."
"Of course you didn't," I said. "And I'm not offended. Thanks, Simon, for letting me play. I think this game just isn't for me." I glanced up at William. "Maybe we should move on to the next game."
I began to walk away.
"You know, I think I'd like to give it a try."
I turned back. William was staring fixedly at something on the prize shelf.
"Katie said she's not interested in the game anymore, pal," Simon said. "So why don't you just move along?"
"If you want the truth," William said, "it's not for Katie. It's for me."
Simon smirked. "I get it. You're into stuffed animals. I bet you have a whole collection of them at home."
"Something like that. Can I get my darts now?"
"Anything you want, pal."
Simon placed three darts on the counter, and William threw each one in quick succession, breaking three balloons.
"Oh, very impressive," Simon said, clapping slowly. "So what do you want? It's the pink bunny holding the big red heart, isn't it? I bet you had your eye on that the whole time."
"Actually," William said, "I'd like that green stone on that long chain."
Simon raised his eyebrows. "So you're into jewelry? I should have guessed."
He reached over the shelf and pulled a necklace off a nail.
"I'd like to say you have good taste," Simon said, holding the chain up, "but this has to be one of the ugliest things I've ever seen. I suppose you've got just the outfit to wear it with."
"Thanks," William said shortly as he accepted the necklace.
"Would you like to try again?" Simon asked. "We've got a lovely pair of blue plastic earrings here. I'm sure they'd bring out the color in your eyes."
"Simon, stop," I said. "That's enough."
He shrugged. "I'm just trying to give the man what he wants."
"Let's go, William," I said.
William was turning the necklace over in his fingers abstractedly, and he didn't even look up when I pulled him away from Simon's booth.
A few stalls away, there was a gap just big enough for the two of us to fit into, and I guided William out of the walkway into it.
"So what's going on?" I asked. "Why did you want that necklace so much?"
William handed his prize to me. "Do you know what this is? By that I mean, do you know what this is made out of?"
I looked the necklace over. The stone was thick and green and slightly cloudy in color. It was suspended from a black metal chain, and it was set into an intricately worked piece of the same black metal.
"I don't know what this is," I replied. "But I'm afraid I have to agree with Simon—this necklace isn't especially attractive. The stone looks like it's seen better days."
"That unattractive stone is actually an emerald," William said.
"An emerald?" I said. "I thought they were—shinier—than this."
"They are if they're taken care of properly. And one this size would be worth quite a lot. The chain and the setting are both silver—they're just tarnished. This is an antique piece of jewelry that's been moldering somewhere for quite a long time."
"But you aren't interested in this as an antique, are you?" I handed the necklace back to William. "There's another reason this necklace attracted your attention."
"Yes, there's another reason," William said, turning the stone over in his fingers again. "I can't understand what this is doing here."
"So what's so special about it?"
William looked up at me. "Are you sure nothing was troubling you earlier? Did anything strange happen to you today? Anything at all?"
I thought about the note, but I still hesitated to mention it.
"Why are you worried?" I asked. "Is the necklace something dangerous?"
William looked back down at the necklace and didn't reply.
Just then, I heard a brass band strike up, and William turned to look.
"Sounds like they're getting ready to dedicate the statue," he said. "Do you want to go over and watch?"
"William," I said, "what about the necklace?"
He shook his head. "To be honest, I'm not entirely sure what this is, but I think I've seen something like it before. There's no cause for alarm yet."
"Yet?" I said.
William gave me a reassuring smile. "I misspoke. There's no cause for alarm at all. This necklace is just a—curiosity."
"But—"
"Katie, please. I really don't know anything yet." He put the necklace in the pocket of his shirt and held out his hand. "Let's go see that statue."
I wasn't really satisfied with William's answer, but I could tell that he wasn't going to say any more about it at the moment. I decided to let it drop for the time being. With a sense of resignation, I took his hand, and we began to walk.
As I did so, something made me look around, and I caught sight of a familiar face in the crowd—someone I'd never expected to see in this part of the world. It was a silver-haired man—and he was moving quickly through the crowd. He seemed to be headed right toward me.
I blinked and looked again. The man was gone.
William turned and followed my gaze.
"What is it? What's wrong?"
Suddenly, someone careened into me, and I was knocked to the ground.
I looked up to see a skinny young man with long black hair struggling with William.
"I'm so sorry," the man said. There was a noticeable sneer in his voice. "It's entirely my fault."
The man wrenched himself out of William's grasp, and he came away holding the emerald necklace in his hand.
The man glanced at the necklace and then looked up at William in surprise.
Just then, a police officer, burly and paternal, pushed through the crowd and grabbed the young man by the collar.
"All right, son," the police officer said. "I've had my eye on you since you got here."
The officer's eyes shifted to the necklace in the young man's hand.
"Is that yours, son?"
The man simply giggled.
William helped me to my feet.
"Are you all right?"
"Yes, I'm fine," I said. "I'm just a little startled."
The police officer wrested the necklace from the young man's grasp and held it out to William.
"Is this yours?"
William took the necklace. "Yes, thanks."
"How about it, son?" the officer said to the young man. "How did that necklace end up in your hand? You were running through the crowd at a pretty good clip. Was it an accident?"
The man leered. "Come now, officer. I think we both know the answer to that."
The police officer grew stern. "Do you want to come with me to the station?"
The man smirked. "You know, I really think I would like to do that."
If the officer was surprised by the young man's answer, he didn't show it. "In that case, I would appreciate it if you would follow me to my car."
"Of course, officer." The man turned and waved to William and me with a malicious smile. "Goodbye, kids."
The officer escorted the young man away, and the two were soon swallowed up by the crowd.
"What do you think that was all about?" I asked.
"No idea." William glanced at me. "Do you want to stay? Or would you like to go home?"
I thought fleetingly of the man I thought I'd seen in the crowd—there was no sign of him now. Perhaps I'd been wrong about what I'd seen—maybe my nerves were just playing tricks on me.
"It's okay," I said. "I don't want to go home yet. It's still early—the festivities have barely started. We should at least get to see the dedication of the new statue."
William smiled. "Let's go, then."
We continued on toward the stage and joined the crowd that was gathering to watch the unveiling of the statue.
Just as we reached the back of the crowd, the band stopped playing and a spotlight switched on. The mayor of Elspeth's Grove, Patrick Robbins, a bearded, robust man with a perpetual smile, stepped up on stage and walked up to a microphone on a stand. The big mass of the canvas-covered statue loomed behind the mayor, broad and imposing in the artificial light.
The mayor acknowledged the crowd's polite applause and then launched into a lengthy speech detailing the trials and tribulations of Elspeth Quick on her journey to our town. He wrapped up the speech by explaining that the statue represented our town's own journey from Elspeth's original flight to the safe, happy place it now was—a place where children could grow and thrive without fear.
The mayor beamed out over the crowd. "The statue has been named Bridging the Years. May it remind us always of what is best and brightest in the human heart and spirit! Maestro, if you please!"
The mayor lifted his hand, and the brass band seated behind him struck up a lively tune. He then moved toward the statue, taking the microphone with him, and the spotlight lit up the large canvas mass.
The mayor smiled at the audience and then pulled on a rope. The canvas that covered the statue fell away, revealing the large stone figure of a woman. She was standing on a square pedestal with a beatific expression on her gray face. The woman was clearly intended to be Elspeth Quick, and her arms were spread out as if in a gesture of welcome. There was a large stone pool surrounding the figure of Elspeth, and standing in the pool on either side of her was a boy and a girl. The two of them were caught in mid-stride, their hands outstretched as if they were about to take Elspeth's.
The mayor shouted cheerfully over the music of the brass band.
"Let's have the fountain now!"
He raised his hand, and jets of water arched gracefully into the air from the rim of the pool.
A murmur ran through the audience, and there seemed to be some sort of disturbance at the front of the crowd.
"Shut the water off!" a woman shouted. "There's someone in the pool!"
The murmurs in the crowd grew louder, and there were more demands for the water to be shut off.
Two people rushed forward. Then there were others.
"There's a man in the fountain!" shouted a gruff voice.
"No, it's a boy!"
"He's dead!" someone screamed hysterically. "He's dead!"
The brass band stopped abruptly, and the mayor's amplified voice rose above the crowd.
"Ladies and gentlemen, please remain calm! There's no cause for alarm. I'm sure this is just a harmless Black Moon Night prank."
From where I stood, I could see a limp figure being pulled from the fountain. As it was lifted out, there were screams.
"Ladies and gentlemen, please! As I said, it's just a prank!"
"It's no prank!" cried a voice. "It's true! He's dead!"
The entire crowd surged forward then, and William and I were suddenly pushed along with everyone else. Soon I could see the dark shape of a body lying in front of the fountain. There was a thick silver rod protruding from the chest of a teenaged boy—the body was most definitely real, and it was most definitely dead.
The face was turned toward me, and it was a horrifying sight—the eyes were wide and staring, and there was a dark smear of blood in the corner of its mouth. Adding to the horror was a strange, mottled-gray pattern like a spider web that ran all over the body's face and neck and hands.
But the most horrifying thing of all was that I recognized the face.
His name was David Hutchins. And he had gone to school with me.

****************

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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Read Chapter 1 of Pure


I'm working on a new short mystery titled 'Winter Trifle,' which I will post soon :) And in the meantime, you can read Chapter 1 of Book 1, Pure, right here:

Chapter 1.

I leaned my forehead against the dark window, welcoming the feel of the cool glass against my feverish skin.
I could feel the night calling to me, though I didn’t exactly know what I meant by that. It had been happening more often lately—it was a strange tugging on my mind.
Something was pulling me out into the dark.
In an unguarded moment, GM had told me that my mother had had visions. The way the night called to me, I wondered if this feeling was the beginning of a vision.
I wished I could talk to my mother. I’d been wishing for that more and more often lately.
I turned away from the window, trying to shake off the feeling that tugged on my mind, and I picked up the framed photograph that always sat next to my bed. In the photo, a man with curly brown hair and a pale, blond woman smiled as they kneeled on either side of a laughing, fair-haired girl of five. The inscription on the back was hidden by the frame, but I knew well what it said. In GM’s busy scrawl were the words Daniel, Katie, Nadya.
My father, me, my mother.
Though the memories were faint, I did remember those early days in Russia. I remembered the big apple tree and the roses that grew at our house. I remembered playing with my red-haired cousin, Odette.
I remembered, too, the day GM had taken the picture. Little had she known then that her son-in-law and her daughter would be dead soon afterward.
My father had died first in an accident in the mountains. My mother died just a few weeks later of a fever, and GM had moved us to the United States shortly after that. We’d been here for eleven years now, and my old life was beyond my reach for good.
I set the picture down.
The darkness continued to call to me, and I tried to force my mind back to reality—back to what was normal and safe and unrelated to the unknown out in the dark.
I thought of my friends—and school—but even as I did so, I felt a sudden, sharp tug on my mind, and I was seized by an irrational desire to run out into the night—and to keep running until I found the source of the summons.
I closed my eyes and willed the feeling away.
After a moment, the night calling began to subside. I concentrated harder, pushing it further away from me. In another few minutes, the feeling was gone entirely. Relief flooded through me.
I was free.
I stood for a moment, breathing hard and looking around at all the familiar objects in my room, as if to reassure myself. Then I climbed back into bed and turned out the light.
I was just drifting off to sleep when I was jolted wide-awake by the sound of a car tearing down our street. The car screeched to a halt somewhere below my window, and then turned sharply into our driveway.
I sat up. I heard the muffled slam of two car doors outside, and I heard GM, who usually kept late hours, hurrying toward the door.
I got out of bed and fumbled in the dark to find a robe. I was puzzled—who could possibly have come to see us in the middle of the night?
As I hurried out of my room, I heard a heavy pounding on the front door, followed by a woman’s cry.
“Anna! Anna Rost! Annushka! Open the door!”
I froze in the hallway. Only GM’s oldest friends called her Annushka—and there were precious few of those.
I heard GM quickly unbolt the door and open it.
“Galina!” GM shouted in shock. Her voice rose even higher. “Aleksandr? Is that you, Aleksandr? How tall you are! I scarcely would have recognized you.”
I wished I could see who was at the door, but I knew that if I went downstairs, GM would just order me back to my room. She clearly recognized her visitors, and they were clearly people she had known back in Russia.
And GM never allowed me to get involved in anything that had to do with the past.
I crept to the top of the stairs but remained in the shadows—the better to hear without being seen.
“Annushka!” Galina cried. She had a heavy Russian accent—much heavier than GM’s. “Annushka! I had scarcely allowed myself to believe that we’d actually found you! Oh, Annushka! After all these years!”
“Hush, Galina, hush,” GM hissed. “You’ll wake my granddaughter. Come in. Quickly, now.”
I could hear the clack of a woman’s footsteps in the hall, followed by a man’s heavier tread. The door was closed and the bolt reset.
GM led her visitors down the hall to the kitchen.
I tiptoed down the stairs and sat on the bottom step. I wouldn’t be able to see into the kitchen from my perch without leaning over the banister, but I knew from experience that I would be able to hear.
GM’s voice floated down the hall to me. “Since you’re here, Galina,” she said, “you and Aleksandr may as well have a seat.”
I heard chairs scraping on the kitchen floor.
“You’re not entirely happy to see us, are you, Annushka?” Galina asked.
“I am happy to see you,” GM said stiffly. “I am not happy about what it is that you bring with you.”
“And what is that?” Galina asked sharply.
“Superstition,” GM said wearily. “I have a feeling that this conversation is going to be difficult. However, we may as well try to be civilized. May I offer you both a cup of tea?”
“Yes, thank you,” Galina said.
I heard water running as a kettle was filled.
A moment later, I heard GM sit down at the table. “I suppose you have a good reason for storming my house in the middle of the night?”
“Annushka, we need your help,” Galina said urgently.
“Then why didn’t you just call?” GM snapped. “Why fly all the way here from Russia? You did come from Russia, didn’t you?”
“Yes, we did.”
GM snorted. “Ridiculous. Again, I say, why didn’t you just call?”
I figured that everyone in the kitchen was too absorbed in the conversation to notice me, so I risked a look over the banister. GM was sitting with her back to me, and I could see that she had pulled her long silver hair into a ponytail that flowed like silk down her back. She was resting her elbows on the kitchen table as she regarded her visitors.
Facing GM was a woman who was young enough to be her daughter. She was blond, and she wore a nondescript beige coat with brightly colored mittens. Next to her was a young man who seemed to be in his early twenties. He was wearing an olive-green military-style coat, and his hair was an odd shade of brown—sort of a cinnamon color. There was a strong family resemblance between the two of them, and I guessed that Galina and Aleksandr were mother and son.
Aleksandr must have felt my eyes on him, for he transferred his gaze from GM to me.
I felt a flash of panic as Aleksandr’s eyes met mine, and for just an instant, a feeling of strangeness—something wildly foreign—washed over me. I quickly pulled my head back behind the banister.
I froze, waiting to hear if Aleksandr would tell GM that he had seen me.
But Aleksandr didn’t say a word, and silence settled on the kitchen. I relaxed.
“Why didn’t I just call you?” Galina said at last, breaking the silence. “I feared you would not listen. I feared you would hang up on me. Was I wrong about that?”
GM did not reply.
“I tried to keep in contact with you,” Galina said mournfully. “You didn’t answer any of my letters or phone calls.”
“I didn’t answer you,” GM said, “because you wanted to involve my granddaughter in your nonsense. You wanted to make her believe that nightmares are real.”
“I wanted to teach her,” Galina replied angrily.
“So that’s what this is all about, then?” GM snapped. “You, in your great wisdom, have decided that the time has come for you to drag my granddaughter into your world of darkness and ignorance?”
“I did not choose the time, Annushka,” Galina said. “It was chosen for me. I feared something like this would happen, and if I’d been working with Ekaterina all the time, maybe we could have prevented this.”
I was startled to hear Galina call me by my Russian name—no one ever did that—it was almost as if the name weren’t even mine. To my family I had always been Katie—my English father had been responsible for that.
“I don’t want to hear your nonsense, Galina,” GM said curtly.
“Annushka, you have to listen!” Galina cried. “He’s free! You know who I mean—”
“You will not speak that name in my house!” GM shouted.
Just then the kettle began to whistle, and I jumped.
I heard GM get up, and the whistling soon stopped. There were other noises as GM clattered around, getting the tea ready.
No one spoke.
“I am sorry,” Galina said softly, after some time had passed.
I heard GM’s chair scrape as she sat down again.
“I will not discuss this if it upsets you,” Galina added.
“You don’t believe in the supernatural, do you, Mrs. Rost?” Aleksandr asked.
GM snorted. “The mischievous spirits and the vampires? No, I do not. Those are just stories designed to scare people—tales about the supernatural are nothing more than a way to spread fear.”
“They aren’t all mischievous spirits,” Aleksandr said lightly. “They say the Leshi, for example, is actually quite a good fellow. Though you make an excellent point about fear—there are darker things than vampires in Krov.”
“You are too young to believe in such foolishness,” GM said wearily. “Why can’t any of you from the old village have a normal conversation? Look at me. I started over here. I lead a safe, comfortable life now. Can’t you do the same?”
“I heard you are a graphic designer,” Galina said.
“Yes, I am,” GM replied.
“I don’t even know what that is,” Galina said, and there was a note of wistfulness in her voice.
“There’s so much that you miss,” GM replied quickly. “How are you doing, Galina? How are you really? Are you happy? You know that in my heart I miss you. And don’t you want good things for your son? How about you, Aleksandr? How are you?”
“Still unmarried. Ask my mother,” Aleksandr said in amusement.
“Shut your mouth, Aleksandr,” Galina snapped, her tone unexpectedly sharp. “Don’t be a fool.”
“Galina, why don’t the two of you move somewhere else?” GM asked.
“We can’t leave—”
GM broke in hurriedly. “I don’t mean leave Russia. I mean leave the village—leave tiny little Krov. Move to Moscow. Or another big city. Russia is such a beautiful country. You don’t have to stay in that dark, tiny corner of it. Move some place where there is life—where there are new things.”
“Though you will not admit it,” Galina said, “you know why I can’t leave.”
Silence settled on the kitchen once again.
“Annushka, there are lights on at the Mstislav mansion,” Galina said after a time, her voice low and edged with fear. “The house has been deserted for a long time. You know when that house was last occupied—it was eleven years ago.”
“Perhaps his son has decided to take over the place,” GM said evenly. “It would be nice for someone to sweep out the cobwebs. It was a grand old mansion, and it should be restored to its former beauty. The house itself certainly never did anything wrong.”
“They opened the old airfield two weeks ago and began fitting up a plane,” Galina said. “That’s what made us decide to come here.”
GM was unimpressed. “So? It would be nice for everyone in the area to have a proper airfield. It might encourage good things.”
“Annushka,” Galina said urgently, “his house is lit up again. And it was his plane they were working on. You know the one I mean—he bought it when he first amassed his fortune.”
“I saw his plane myself,” Aleksandr interjected. “I believe he reached the U.S. ahead of us—it took us time to get our travel documents in order.”
“Quiet, Aleksandr!” Galina snapped. “Annushka, please. It’s him. He is free. And he will seek out—”
“Galina, I warned you not to bring this up.” GM’s tone was sharp.
“Annushka!” Galina cried.
“He’s dead, Galina,” GM said sternly. “Enough!”
“He’s returned!”
“Nonsense!”
“Annushka! How can you say that? He killed your daughter!”
A chair scraped back violently.
“Superstition killed my daughter!” GM shouted.
“Annushka! You must listen!” Galina wailed.
“Get out of my house!” GM cried.
I heard porcelain shattering against a wall, and two more chairs scraped back.
I got to my feet.
I watched in shock as Galina and Aleksandr ran down the hall to the front door. GM came running after them.
Galina fumbled with the locks, and then she and Aleksandr escaped out into the night. GM ran after them.
I quickly followed.
The cold night air cut through my thin nightclothes as I hurried down the concrete driveway in front of the house.
GM was standing in the middle of the driveway, breathing hard. Strands of silver had worked their way free of her ponytail and settled in scattered array around her head, glinting softly in the moonlight.
Galina and Aleksandr jumped into a car that sat just behind GM’s own. The engine roared to life, and the car took off, tires screeching.
I watched the car’s red taillights disappear into the night, and then I glanced over at GM—I had never seen her so angry.
“GM, what’s going on?” I asked.
GM whirled around. She stared hard at me for a moment and then looked down at the silver cross she always wore. She wrapped her fingers around it and gripped it tightly.
“I’m sorry,” GM said quietly. “I wanted to spare you all of that. I never should have let them in.”
“Are you all right?” I asked. “Who were those people? Why did the woman—Galina?—why did she say a man killed my mother? I thought she died of a fever.”
Anger blazed in GM’s eyes. “Your mother did die of a fever. Galina doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
GM’s expression softened as she continued to look at me. “Come back into the house, Katie. It’s too cold out here.”
GM put her arm around my shoulders and guided me back toward the gold rectangle of light that streamed out of the still-open door.
I stopped suddenly. I’d thought for just a moment that I had seen a tall figure standing in the shadows near the house. I blinked and looked again.
The figure was gone.
“Is something wrong?” GM asked, looking around as if she feared that Galina and Aleksandr had returned.
“No, it’s nothing. I thought I saw something, but it’s gone now.”
GM steered me firmly into the house and locked the door behind us. Then she guided me into the kitchen. “How about a hot drink?”
I looked around the room. Three of the kitchen chairs were standing awkwardly askew. On the kitchen table were two of GM’s blue-and-white china cups. One of the cups lay on its side, its contents spilled on the table—a brown puddle on the white surface. I could see shards of a third cup littering the floor, and a brown stain ran down the far wall.
“Did you throw a cup of tea at those people?” I asked.
GM simply made a derisive sound and waved her hand. Then she went over and kneeled down to examine the broken teacup. I knew that she was very fond of that tea set, and she wasn’t the type to lose her temper easily.
“GM, what made you so angry?” I asked.
She ignored my question. “It occurs to me now that it was a bad idea to bring you in here. I’m sorry you had to see this.”
She straightened up and calmly retied her ponytail. Then she put her hands on her hips and looked over at me.
“I think this will all keep till morning. Never mind about that drink now. We’ve had enough excitement tonight. It’s up to bed for both of us.”
“GM!” I cried as frustration welled up within me. “You’re acting like nothing happened!”
GM gave me a puzzled, slightly wounded look, and I felt a wave of contrition wash over me—I wasn’t used to shouting at her.
I went on more quietly. “Why won’t you answer any of my questions?”
“I did answer one—about your mother,” GM replied, averting her eyes.
I wasn’t going to let her get away so easily. “No, you told me something I already knew—my mother died of a fever. You didn’t tell me why anyone would believe she’d been murdered. That is what Galina was saying wasn’t it? That a man from your old village had killed her? And why wouldn’t you allow Galina to say his name?”
GM looked at me, and I could see a distant flicker of pain in her eyes.
She held out her hand. “If you will go upstairs with me, I will tell you a story. It will help to explain.”
I hesitated. Too often, GM had distracted me when I had asked questions like these—she had diverted my attention from the past and sidestepped my questions without ever refusing to answer them outright. I feared she would talk around me again.
My questions would evaporate the way they always did.
“Please, Katie, come with me,” GM said, her voice low and pleading. “You know the past is difficult for me.”
I resigned myself and took GM’s hand.
We went up to my room.
GM switched on the light. The lamp by my bed had a faded shade with yellow sunbursts on it. I’d kept it for years, refusing a new one when GM had wanted to redecorate. My mother and I had painted the shade together one summer long ago.
GM smoothed back the quilt on my bed. “Let me tuck you in.” She sounded sad and tired.
After I had settled under the covers, GM sat down beside me.
“I will tell you something I have never told you before, Katie. The night your mother died—”
GM’s voice quavered, and she stopped.
She composed herself, and then went on.
“The night your mother died was the worst of all—for the fever, I mean. It had raged through her body, and she had reached a point at which she could no longer find comfort of any kind. She couldn’t eat or drink; she couldn’t sleep. She couldn’t even close her eyes for more than a few moments to rest—she said closing them made the burning behind them worse. On that last night, she kept calling for your father, and of course, your poor father was already gone—dead in that terrible accident. She was crying out for him to protect you. Even in her delirium, she knew she wouldn’t last long.”
GM paused again. Her chin had begun to tremble.
She composed herself once more and went on in a low voice. “When I could make her understand who I was—when I could make her understand that I was her mother—she begged me to protect you. She said, ‘Swear to me that you will always protect Katie.’ She need hardly have asked for that—the desire to protect you had been in my heart since the day you were born. But I swore it to her then, and I swear it to you now. On my life, I will always protect you.”
GM stared at me steadily as she said the words, and I felt tears stinging my eyes. Soon they began to fall.
“After I made my promise,” GM said, “Nadya seemed to grow calmer. She asked to see you. I brought you in, and she kissed you on the forehead. You were sleeping and didn’t wake. Then she sang her favorite piece of music—no words, just a hum. Do you remember it?”
I nodded. When I was a child, my mother had often sung the same melody to me. It was from a piece of music by Mussorgsky.
GM went on. “Not long after she finished singing, Nadya was gone. I swore to her that I would protect you, and I have. And I will. That’s why I moved you out of the old village. That’s why I moved you out of Russia right after your mother died. I had to get you as far away as I could from people like Galina. She is a good woman, but her thinking is trapped in the Dark Ages. She would warp your mind as she warped your mother’s. She has nothing for you but superstition and shadows.”
GM rose. “I love you, Katie. Believe me when I say there is nothing out there. There is nothing in the dark.”
She pressed a kiss to my forehead, as she’d said my mother had once done, and then left the room, closing the door behind her. And I was left feeling less comforted, rather than more so.
I was grateful to hear a story about my mother, even though it was painful—I could feel her love reaching out to me across the years. But as I had feared, GM hadn’t actually answered any of my questions—instead she’d left me with more.
Why had she said there was nothing in the dark?
What was she afraid of?

****************

Thanks very much for reading!

This is the official description of Pure:

Sixteen-year-old Katie Wickliff lives quietly in the small town of Elspeth's Grove, unaware of the troubled past that forced her grandmother to flee Russia with her when Katie was only a child. When people in the town begin to disappear, and Katie's own home is attacked by a terrifying creature, Katie and her grandmother return to Russia to find answers.

Pursuing them is the handsome William – who just might be a vampire. Katie discovers that William is indeed partially a vampire, but he is also one of the Sidh, an ancient clan whose members are gifted with great power – a clan to which Katie's deceased mother also belonged.

Soon, Katie discovers that her mother's seemingly natural death was actually murder, and she is forced to confront the question she wants to face the least: Is William her otherworldly protector, or is he the dark creature who killed her mother eleven years ago?


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Monday, March 28, 2016

Spring Into Reading Giveaway

Spring Into Reading Giveaway!
The Spring Into Reading Giveaway runs until June 20!
Enter to win a copy of Book 1, Pure, or lots of other great books and prizes :) Simply scroll through to see each author's giveaway...
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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Read Chapter 1 of Firebird

Hi everyone! I'll be posting a new short story soon called Winter Trifle—it's part ghost story and part mystery. And in the meantime, I've posted the first chapter from Book 2, Firebird...


 


It was Sunday morning, and I was going to meet William.

And I was nervous.

A feeling of uneasiness had been growing on me steadily within the last month, and just as steadily I had pushed it aside. But the feeling was stronger than ever this morning, and this time I couldn't block it out.

And so I hesitated before the door.

Things are normal now, I said to myself sternly. You no longer have visions. All of that is over.

I wasn't having a vision, but there was a feeling—a barrier—something solid but invisible standing in my way. The way this strange feeling overwhelmed me reminded me of how I had felt when I had had visions—it overpowered my senses and threatened to blot out the reality in front of me.

This particular feeling warned me not to leave the house.

But I was determined to go—I wasn't going to let fear run my life—no matter what had happened in the recent past.

All the same, I couldn't help stepping quietly back to my grandmother's office at the front of the house and peering in through the open door. GM was sitting with her back to me, her head bent as she perused a letter, her long silver braid flowing like liquid silk down her back. I had already said goodbye to her, but I had a strong urge to say it again—as if it would be the last time I would ever see her.

Don't be ridiculous, I said to myself. What could happen in a sleepy small town like Elspeth's Grove?

But my own memories of a little more than a month ago rose up like an uneasy spirit to answer me.

I saw a livid face, burning eyes—I heard inhuman cries—

I shut my mind against the memory and hurried out the front door before I lost my nerve.

The morning was clear and cold—it was just past Thanksgiving—and a brisk wind kicked up, whipping my hair across my eyes. I pulled the strands of hair away from my face carefully.

As I did so, I stopped, arrested by the sight of my own pale hair in the sunlight. Without warning, a fleeting image from my childhood in Russia popped into my mind. On a windy day, shortly before my mother's death, I had gotten my little fingers tangled in her long hair. We had both laughed.

You are so like your mother, GM was fond of saying whenever she was in one of her rare contemplative moods.

As I pulled my unruly hair back and secured it, I wondered what advice my mother would have given me on a day like today—a day on which, if I admitted it to myself, I could feel danger in the air.

I tried to close my mind to it, but the strange feeling remained.

I hurried on toward Hywel's Plaza, which was surrounded on all sides by trees, and as I entered the wooded area, I was struck by the eerie calm of the place. There were no sounds of birds or other animals—it was as if the woods were watching, waiting for something. There were no people or houses nearby, and I broke into a sudden, panicked run.

What do you think is in these woods? I asked myself, and I found I couldn't answer my own question. I just knew that I wanted to get away from the silence and the trees as fast as I possibly could.

I ran for what felt like an eternity before breaking out suddenly upon a clearing.

Stretched before me was a vast sheet of ice, surrounded by a low wall. A roof made of pipes and angles, supported by thick metal poles, extended protectively over the ice, and black matting had been laid down between the ice rink and the skate house. The rink was brand-new and had only been open for about a week.

Loud, cheerful music suddenly filled the plaza, and I could see that skaters were already out on the ice. All of the sound and motion was a pleasant contrast to the watchful silence of the trees. As I stood looking out over the big white sheet of ice, the sun dipped behind a thick bank of solid gray clouds, and its harsh glare was blunted, suffusing the area with a muted, gentle glow.

The area around the rink was fairly crowded, and the atmosphere was cheerful, happy, relaxed. And in the midst of the crowd I spotted a familiar, well-loved figure.

I hurried forward.

William turned and smiled his crooked half-smile.

A casual observer would describe William as tall, lean, dark-haired—maybe eighteen or nineteen years old. The only thing that might be said to be unusual about him were his eyes—blue was not an unusual color, but the intensity of the color in his eyes was not quite human. There were other words, too, that had been used to describe him—cursed, damned, outcast—words that had real, if melodramatic meaning. There were still other words that described him—fantastical but real nonetheless. On this particular morning my mind shied away from that last group of words—as if thinking them could somehow bring about disaster.

“You had me worried, Katie,” William said as I reached him. His voice was colored as always by an accent that I could never quite place. “I was beginning to think you weren't coming.”

His tone was light, but there was an undercurrent of tension in it.

I glanced at him sharply, and I could see faint lines of strain around his eyes. I was late, and that was unusual for me—but it seemed to me that William was anxious over more than just my lateness. Or was it my imagination? I shrugged the feeling off—I figured I was just projecting my own recent paranoia onto him.

“Sorry,” I said. “I just got started a little later than I meant to.”

William held out his hand, and I took it, marveling anew at the tingle that ran through me whenever he touched me. His skin was warm, and his hand was pleasantly calloused. I didn't want to think about anything but how wonderful it was to be with him. As I had done for the past month, I decided not to tell him about strange feeling of dread that had stolen over me.

We started toward the skate house.

“Were you worried about trying to skate today?” William asked.

“No,” I said, making an effort to be relaxed. “I wasn't worried about skating.”

A strong gust of wind swirled around us then, causing me to stop and turn toward William. William slipped his arms around me, and I leaned against him.

There was laughter out on the ice, as skaters found themselves pushed around involuntarily by the wind.

We stood together until the wind died down, and then I went closer to the ice to watch the skaters for a few minutes—I had never actually been ice-skating before.

A little girl with braids and red mittens went flying by on miniature skates, her cheeks flushed with happiness. An even smaller girl with equally pink cheeks gave a tiny shriek and chased after the bigger girl. I wondered if the two of them were sisters.

The atmosphere at the rink seemed so happy and normal that it was hard for me to credit my fears of only a few minutes ago. Surely there was nothing dangerous in the woods that surrounded us.

“Do you think you can do that, too?” William had come up to stand beside me, and he was smiling at me now.

I glanced back at the two little girls who were now on the other side of the rink.

“I think so,” I said, smiling back at him.

William took my hand again, and we turned once more toward the skate house.

As we reached the door, William stopped and looked around suddenly, as if he'd heard something. His eyes narrowed warily.

“What is it?” I asked. “What's wrong?”

“It's nothing,” he said. He gave me a reassuring smile.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I'm positive—it's nothing.”

I knew William could hear things I couldn't, and I felt a flash of panic that I quickly pushed aside. I told myself to relax—just because William had heard something that had distracted him, didn't mean it was something dangerous. I would have to make an effort to get my imagination under control.

We continued on into the skate house and emerged a short time later with skates on our feet.

A gate stood open in the rink, and I walked over to it and paused with one hand resting on either side of the gate. The ice stretched out in front of me, white and unforgiving.

Now that I was about to step onto it, the rink suddenly seemed much bigger than I had realized, and the ice itself seemed to glow faintly, as if it were pulling all available light into its depths. It almost didn't seem real.

I was seized powerfully by nerves.

At the same time, I felt something like relief. The fear I was currently feeling was born of the moment—it had nothing to do with the fear that had very nearly prevented me from leaving the house that morning. It was a perfectly normal fear.

As I stared at the ice, however, I suddenly saw a dark figure appear within its depths—right by my feet. The figure was black and shifting and vaguely human in form. It looked like a human shadow, but it was not mine—and it was definitely something that should not have been there. At first there was only one—and then there was another and another. The figures seemed to swim under the surface of the ice itself—dark phantom shapes that twisted and turned, as if they were trying to escape.

I backed away from the ice.

William was standing right behind me, and I bumped into him.

“Are you all right?” he asked. He took my arm, and we stepped away from the gate.

“There's something out there—under the ice,” I said. “I can see—things.”

“Those are just shadows,” William said reassuringly. “It's nothing to worry about. The ice can play tricks on your eyes if you're not used to it. You'll adjust.”

I looked back out over the ice again, and the strange shapes I'd seen had disappeared, leaving only a plain white sheet. Maybe William was right—maybe I'd just seen shadows.

“Go on out, Katie,” William said. “Don't worry. I'll be right here to catch you if you fall.”

But I was feeling a little disoriented, and I moved further away from the ice.

“I just need a minute,” I said. I tried to focus on what was right in front of me—what was real and tangible. I looked up at William, who seemed calm and relaxed by my side—all trace of his earlier tension was gone.

“You're sure you're a good skater?” I asked.

“Yes, I'm sure I'm a good skater,” William replied.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“I came out here a few days ago and tried it out—it turns out I'm good at it.”

“You didn't tell me you'd been out here already,” I said.

“I thought it looked like fun, and I wanted to bring you here,” William said, smiling. “So, of course, I had to test it out for myself. I had no idea that you'd suggest it on your own before I got a chance to ask you.”

“Where did you learn how to skate?” I asked.

Pain flashed in William's eyes, and his smile faded.

I immediately wished I hadn't asked the question. Silently, I berated myself for my thoughtlessness.

“I'm sorry,” I said. “I shouldn't have asked.”

“It's not your fault,” William replied ruefully. “I just wish I could answer you.”

I felt a rush of feeling for him that was far more profound than sympathy—William had been through something I couldn't begin to fathom. His memories of his past life had been taken from him. He had little idea of who he truly was.

He had been left with just enough to let him know what he had lost.

William had his recent memories, of course—there was nothing wrong with his short-term memory—but his memories of his life before he had been changed were gone. And it wasn't amnesia or any kind of human ailment that he suffered from. William was not, in fact, human.

I wrapped my arms around him and leaned against him.

William rested his chin on the top of my head and pulled me closer.

I wanted very much for William to be happy. But I knew that peace of mind was something he struggled to find. Such a thing was hard for him—he believed himself to be permanently and irreparably damaged.

There was more laughter from the ice rink, and I looked around. Out on the ice there were parents helping their young children, older children racing each other, smiling couples holding hands. Everyone and everything seemed so normal and down-to-earth that I wanted to join them.

I wanted to be one of the normal ones.

“I think I'm ready to go out on the ice now,” I said, though I was reluctant to leave the circle of William's arms.

“That's too bad,” William replied, brushing his fingers over my cheek. “I was just thinking that I wouldn't mind standing here like this all day.”

We walked back to the gate, and I stood once again staring out over the ice. Two skaters suddenly zipped past me at what seemed like alarming speed, and I felt a little tingle of nerves again. I told myself I would be fine as long as I didn't see any more dark shapes in the ice.

“Like I said, I'll be right here to catch you,” William murmured.

I waited till the way was clear, and then I put first one foot, and then the other out onto the ice. Almost immediately I began to slip, and I grabbed frantically for the wall, catching it just in time to prevent myself from falling.

I clung to the wall, my heart pounding.

William glided around to my side and leaned against the wall, his lips twitching suspiciously.

“You're laughing at me,” I said.

“No, no, I'm not,” William said, but his smile grew broader. “I'm not laughing at you, really.”

I continued to cling to the wall, and William continued to smile at me.

“So, what do I do?” I asked, after my panic had subsided a little. “I don't actually know how to move away from here.”

William reached over and helped me to prize my hands away from the wall. Then he pulled me to a standing position and helped me to get my feet underneath me. As he did so, I noticed with some irritation that his shoulders were shaking with silent laughter.

Over the next hour—with William's help, and with much stumbling on my part—I managed to make it all the way around the rink several times—and I even managed to move away from the safety of the wall. We kept going, and eventually, I raised my head and looked around. I realized I was moving along with everyone else on the ice and having a good time.

William gave me his crooked smile. “You're glad you did this now, aren't you?”

I could feel the cold air nipping at my cheeks, but the rest of me was comfortably warm. And William was beside me.

“Yes,” I said quietly. “I'm happy I did this. And I don't just mean the ice-skating.”

William bowed his head, so I wouldn't see his expression, but I could tell he knew what I meant.

William and I were together now, but it had not been easy to get to this point—and we had not been together for very long. But even though we were officially a couple, he kept limits on our time together. I still didn't know very much about him, and that included the things he could tell me—I didn't even know where he lived.

But he was here now—and that was all that mattered at the moment.

When William and I were done out on the ice, we went into the skate house and sat down on the benches to unlace our skates.

I could feel William's eyes on me, and I looked up at him. There was something forlorn in his expression.

“You don't want me to go, do you?” I said.

“No.” His voice was quiet.

“We can spend more time together, you know.”

“No, we can't.” William was suddenly stern. “We have to limit our time together. No matter how much I wish things were different.”

“Because you think you're cursed,” I said.

“Because I am cursed,” he replied. “All I can do is savor the time I have with you before you find someone of your own kind.”

“My own kind,” I said, shaking my head. What was my kind exactly? William insisted on seeing me as a normal girl—but I was far from normal.

The two of us put our shoes on and walked out into the cold. I was warm from my recent exertions, but a gust of wind kicked up, and I shivered. William put his arm around me.

We left the rink and entered the woods nearby. Another shudder ran through me as I thought once again of the fact that I didn't know where William lived. What if he had no home? What if he slept outside in the frozen night? Of course, I didn't know if William ever actually had to sleep. And I didn't know if he felt the cold—though somehow I doubted that he did. But I still didn't like the idea of William's not having a proper home.

“William, why won't you tell me where you live?” I asked.

“Because you don't need to know.”

I felt frustration welling up within me—William always gave me that same answer whenever I asked him anything about himself. I knew today would be no different, but I suddenly felt very stubborn.

I persisted. “Do you have a job? Where do you go while I'm at school?”

“Katie, it's not important for you to know these things. You know we need distance. You're too young to get deeply involved. Leave the heartache to me.”

Though William did appear to be roughly my age, he was actually far older. And William was not just older—he was older by the span of more than a few lifetimes. Our age difference was one of his main arguments against our love lasting. He said that I didn't truly know what love was yet—that someday I would leave him and that he was doomed to heartbreak.

I knew he was wrong.

“William, answer my questions,” I said. “Answer just one. Tell me what neighborhood you live in.”

William dropped his arm from my shoulder. “Katie, we've been over this territory before. Why are you bringing all of this up again?”

“I worry about you, William,” I said. “I want you to live somewhere safe and comfortable. I want to know you're okay.”

William gave me a searching look. “It's your grandmother, isn't it? She's uncertain about me. You must have told her by now that I don't go to school, and she wonders what I do with my life. She must wonder if I'm good for you.”

I felt a brief stab of guilt when he mentioned my grandmother.

“It's not GM,” I said.

“But she must have questions about me after all this time,” William protested. “She must wonder what my intentions are.”

I smiled. “That's a very old fashioned phrase, William.”

William did not seem to share my amusement. “Are you telling me that your grandmother has never had any questions about me?”

“I wouldn't say she's never had any questions about you,” I replied. I was feeling worse and worse about the turn the conversation had taken. “But she hasn't had any questions about you since we returned from Russia.”

My mind slipped back briefly to a dark crypt—a crypt that William had rescued me from—and I pushed the memory away quickly. Both of us were very lucky to have survived that night.

“Why hasn't she had any questions about me since we returned from Russia?” William demanded.

I took a deep breath—I had a feeling William wasn't going to like the answer. “Because GM doesn't know you're in Elspeth's Grove. She thinks you stayed in Russia.”

“What?” William stopped walking and stared at me, incredulous.

He continued to stare at me, and I began to feel distinctly uncomfortable.

“Your grandmother doesn't know I'm in Elspeth's Grove,” he said slowly. “So she doesn't know that we've been meeting?”

“No—I was afraid she would forbid me to see you.”

“Katie, I insist upon meeting your grandmother.” William's anger seemed to swell up and surround both of us. “We cannot go on like this.”

“You've already met her,” I said. “Twice.”

That was technically true, though my bringing it up was really more of an excuse than anything else.

“Katie, you know what I mean,” William said sternly. “I want to see your grandmother. I want her to know I'm here. I don't want to see you without her knowledge.”

I felt a flash of panic. “You know how she feels about you. What if she says I can't see you?”

“We'll deal with that if it happens,” William replied firmly. “But it's best for her to know. She loves you—she wants to protect you.”

“Bringing GM into things is a mistake,” I said. “It's too risky.”

“Katie!”

I sighed. “All right. I'll see if I can set something up.”

Anger flashed in William's eyes again. “Set something up? Katie, you're not taking this seriously—”

William stopped suddenly. He turned to look behind us.

I turned too, trying to see what had attracted his attention, but we appeared to be completely alone. William held up a hand.

As I stood looking around me, I noticed that the surrounding woods were quiet and somehow watchful—just as they had been when I had walked through them earlier.

I thought once again of the fact that there were no houses nearby.

William continued to stare at a fixed point somewhere off in the trees.

“William, what's—”

“Katie, get out of here,” William whispered. He didn't turn to look at me.

“William?”

“Katie, go! Run!”

I turned to do as he asked, panicked by the tone in his voice.

I had not gone very far when someone stepped out of the trees and blocked my way.

I looked up and found myself staring into the calm, pale eyes of a vampire.

His name was Innokenti, and I had last seen him in the Pure Woods in Krov, Russia.

He was friendly. Sort of.

“Hello, little one.” His voice, as I remembered only too well, was silky and just a little superior. His brown hair fell in a straight line to his chin, and his clothes were as picturesquely antique as they had been the last time I had seen him—he appeared to have stepped out of the Middle Ages.

Innokenti's presence here in these woods was deeply disturbing. I had believed that I would never see him again after I left Russia—and I certainly hadn't expected him to show up in my own small town. Seeing him again was like being revisited by a nightmare.

“Innokenti,” I said, taking a step back. “What are you doing here?”

He bared his teeth in a smile that was far from reassuring—especially since it allowed me to see the unusually sharp outline of his teeth.

“My friend and I,” he said, “have traveled thousands of miles to pay you and William a visit. How fortunate we are to find the two of you together.”

Innokenti sent a significant nod over my shoulder, and I turned.

Standing next to William now was a man I didn't recognize—young, tall, dark of hair and eye, dressed all in black. William was staring at the young man with dislike, his body tense, his expression set into harsh lines. For his part, the newcomer was smiling malevolently at William.

Innokenti gestured to the young man. “Shall we go over so I may make introductions?”

As Innokenti and I walked over to them, I had to remind myself that Innokenti had never actually done me any harm—but no matter how hard I tried to calm myself, I remained uneasy.

As we reached William and the stranger, I could see a muscle working in William's jaw, and the stranger's smile deepened as he looked me over with unpleasant scrutiny. His eyes met mine, and I was startled by just how dark they were—they were eyes with the depth of night in them.

“Innokenti, get out of here,” William said angrily. “And take him with you.”

“Now, now, William,” Innokenti replied mildly. “This is a friendly visit.” He gestured to the stranger. “The two of you know each other, of course. But introductions are in order for the young lady.”

Innokenti gave me another one of his unnerving smiles. “Katie Wickliff, may I present my associate, Anton. You'll have to forgive us—we don't go in for surnames much in our community. Many of us do not like to dwell on the past.”

I looked to Innokenti. “Is Anton a—”

“A vampire?” Innokenti said. “Yes.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Katie,” Anton said. His voice was dark and smoky, and I had the feeling that he was laughing at me. He lifted my hand with his ice cold fingers and kissed it, and then he stared at me steadily as he let my hand drop. He seemed to be waiting for a reply.

I found myself momentarily at a loss for words.

Anton's amusement deepened. “Too stunned to speak? I have that effect on a lot of women.”

William grabbed Anton's coat and shook him. “Leave her alone.”

Malice lit up Anton's dark eyes. “I'm simply saying hello.”

“Gentlemen, please,” Innokenti said. “I believe you're upsetting young Katie. Our mission here is a benevolent one. We should all be pleasant to one another.”

William pushed Anton away and rounded on Innokenti. “Why did you bring him? If you wanted things to be pleasant, you should have left him at home.”

“William, your attitude isn't very charming,” Innokenti admonished gently. “You should put your antagonism aside as Anton has done. This mission we are on is one of the gravest importance. Anton knows that, and that's why he very graciously volunteered to come with me.”

“Why did he have to come at all?” William said angrily. “If you truly need to speak with me, you should have come alone.”

“William, you weren't listening,” Innokenti replied patiently. “We have come here to see you and the little one, and this is no routine visit we are on. I am a messenger here. Anton has accompanied me in order to look out for my welfare.”

“He's your bodyguard?” William said derisively. “What do you need protection from? Me?”

“Vampires are strong, but we are not completely invulnerable, William—you know that. And the situation is a dangerous one—for both of you.”

William's face grew grim, and he moved swiftly to stand in front of me.

“Say what you need to say. But leave Katie out of this.”

I looked around William's shoulder. Anton gave me an unpleasant smile, and Innokenti spread out his hands apologetically.

“I'm afraid I can't leave Katie out of anything,” Innokenti said. “Katie is involved no matter how much we all might wish otherwise.”

William folded his arms. “Make this quick. Then get out of here.”

“Very well.” Innokenti's pale eyes grew hard. “You both have your duties, and you are both avoiding them. This is unacceptable.”

“Unacceptable to whom?” William asked. “To you?”

“William, you know I do not speak for myself,” Innokenti replied. “I speak on behalf of others. You, William, belong in Krov. You belong with us in the vampire colony there. You are valuable to us. You have special abilities—you alone amongst our number can fight the kost.”

“Are you being troubled by a kost at the moment?” William asked.

Innokenti gave William a mirthless smile. “No—not at the moment. But our kind grows thirstier. You know what that means.”

Innokenti's pale eyes shifted to me. “And you, little one, you too, have a purpose. You are the Little Sun, and you are also destined to fight the kost. You owe us no particular allegiance, but your heritage confers certain obligations and responsibilities—ones that cannot lightly be ignored.”

“Little Sun?” Anton said with a mocking lilt. “So you're the one. How about I call you 'Sunshine'?”

“You say we have duties,” William said, ignoring Anton. “What do you want from us?”

“I propose that you and Katie return with me now,” Innokenti replied. “You can return to the colony, William, and Katie can live in the house that was vacated by her cousin, Odette. You can live near one another, and possibly even work with one another whenever a kost rears its ugly head. But I would recommend that you put an end to all romantic involvement. Such a relationship will not meet with much approval.”

“And what if we refuse to go with you?” William asked.

Anger flashed in Innokenti's eyes. “I would advise against it. But in the event that the two of you refuse, I would return to the colony and explain to them, with a heart full of regret, that I was unable to make you see reason.”

“You would not attempt to force us to return with you?” William asked.

Innokenti's eyebrows rose. “William, we are vampires. We are not savages.”

William stared at Innokenti for a long moment and then shook his head. “I don't understand what's going on here. You've admitted that the kost is not an immediate threat. And I can return to Russia any time I wish—you know that. There's no need for me to be in Russia on constant patrol. And you've also admitted that Katie owes you no allegiance. So what does it matter to you where she lives? This must be about something else. There's something you're not telling me.”

Innokenti looked off into the trees and then fixed William with a piercing stare.

“William, you may not believe this, but you mean something to us—to the whole colony—something that has nothing to do with your unique talents. You are one of us—and we know that this human girl here matters to you. Anton and I are here to ensure your safety and hers. Forces we don't entirely understand yet are gathering. And the two of you would make convenient pawns.”

William was unmoved. “Then tell me what you do know. Give me all the information you have, and maybe I'll consider coming with you. Katie isn't to be involved in this—at all.”

Anger flashed once again in Innokenti's cool eyes. “Katie will be involved in this no matter what you want. There's a price on the girl's head, and there are two separate groups after her. I am telling you that she is not safe.”

“Who's after her?”

“I cannot tell you that, William. I am merely a humble servant of a greater power—and I have told you too much already. I have only been authorized to tell you that it's in your best interests to return with us.”

“Then the answer is 'no,'“ William said. “I'm not going with you and neither is Katie.”

Innokenti's eyes flicked to me. “Perhaps you should let the little one decide for herself. After all, she is the one in the greatest danger.”

William took a step toward Innokenti. “I won't allow Katie to be tricked into anything by you. That cousin of hers that you mentioned so cavalierly a few moments ago tried to kill her. If Katie goes back, her cousin may return, too, and try to finish what she started. Krov is far too dangerous for Katie. She's safer here with me.”

“What do you say, little one?”

There was a strong hint of warning in Innokenti's voice, but I met his pale gaze unflinchingly.

“I want to stay here with William.”

Innokenti suddenly seemed to radiate rage. He turned toward William.

“I'll give you one last chance. The girl doesn't really know enough of the world to make a reasonable decision, but you know something of the true darkness that exists out there. If you don't care about your own safety, then you should at least consider hers.”

“We're not going with you,” William said curtly.

Innokenti spread out his hands in a gesture of surrender. “As you wish, William. But remember this: I tried to help you.”

Innokenti backed up a few paces, and his eyes flicked to me once more. “You cannot remain with him, little one. They will not allow it.”

He melted into the woods. Anton gave me a wink and a smile, and then he too vanished into the trees.

I looked up at William. He was staring at the spot where Anton and Innokenti had just stood, and his face seemed set in stone.

After a moment, he looked around at me.

“We need to go to your house now. I need to be able to protect you.”
****************

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