Thursday, August 21, 2014

Preview New Book, Dangerous Creatures

Hi Everyone,

Here's the first ten pages of my new novel, Dangerous Creatures (Book #3, Pure Series):


Dangerous Creatures

 

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 evening, 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.

            There had been a sudden, sharp crack at the window, and I'd hurried out to see what it was.

            As I looked around, 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 hadn't known what the feeling had meant back then, but I knew what it meant now.

            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 well.

            "We're 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 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.  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 I've been kidnapped by you."

            "That's a joke, right?"

            "Sort of."

            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?"  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 less so when confronted by GM.

            GM sighed.  "Well, I hope the two of you will have a good time at the carnival."

            "Thank you, Mrs. Rost."

            "And don't be out too late.  I will be waiting for Katie's return."

            "Yes, Mrs. Rost," William said.

            "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."

            GM 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 wry 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 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?"

            William 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.  In this particular case, 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 that the mayor was going to dedicate a new statue.  There would probably be quite a few people in costume, too.  Black Moon Night 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.

            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.

            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 really can't 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, Terrence.  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 Terrence 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 Irina and Terrence.  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 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 move away.

            "You know, I think I would 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 of 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."

            Simon 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?  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?"

            William 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."

Friday, July 19, 2013

Extended excerpt from Book 2, Firebird

Still making good progress on Book 3, Dangerous Creatures.  I hope to post some excerpts soon.

In the meantime, here is an excerpt from Book 2, Firebird:


Chapter 1.

 

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, blotting 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, where I peered in through the open door.  My grandmother, 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.  I found I couldn't answer my own question.  I just wanted to get away from the silence and the trees as quickly as possible.

            I ran for what felt like an eternity—but was in reality only a few minutes—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 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 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 familiar 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 alarm in it.

            I glanced at him sharply.  There were faint lines of stress around his eyes.  I was late, and that was unusual for me.  But it seemed to me that William's anxiety was over more than just lateness.  Or was it my imagination?  I decided to shrug 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."

            "Well, you're here now."  He held out his hand and we started toward the skate house.  "Were you worried about trying to skate today?"

            I took his hand, 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 was almost always with me.

            "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 rink to watch.

            I had never 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 girls were sisters.

            The two of them seemed so happy and so 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.

            I couldn't help shivering then.  I had been told something similar once.

            That prediction had been wrong.

            "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.  I was determined to have a good time today and to forget about my worries.

            William took my hand again, and we turned 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 that William could hear things I couldn't, and I felt a flash of fear that I quickly pushed aside.  I told my self 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.

            William and I continued on into the skate house and emerged minutes later with skates on our feet.

            There was a gate in the rink that stood open, and I walked over to it.  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.  Though the sun had gone behind the clouds, 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, figures seemed to swim under the surface—dark phantom shapes that twisted and turned, before solidifying into human form.

            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 again.  The strange shapes I'd seen had disappeared.  Maybe William was right—maybe I had just seen shadows.  I decided once again to shrug off my fears.

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

            "You're sure you're a good skater?" I asked.  I had asked William about that when I'd first suggested that we come to the rink.

            "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—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.  Everything seemed so normal and down-to-earth.  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 staring out over the ice with my hands resting on the wall on either side of me.  People skated past me at what suddenly seemed like alarming speed.  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.  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 now."

            William pushed away from the wall and stood easily on the ice, looking at me with amusement.  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.  I even managed to let go 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 to me.

            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.

            "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.

            To any outside observer I would simply be Katie Wickliff, a sixteen-year-old student at Elspeth's Grove High School—an ordinary, very average girl.

            But my family had a past—one that I hadn't even known about until recently—one that was both strange and incredible.

            And my heritage would forever mark me as different.

            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 with my questions.  "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.  He'd once told me that—though the memory was very, very faint—when he'd first encountered human beings, their main form of transportation had been the horse.  So 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 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 GM.

            "It's not GM," I said.

            "But she must have questions by now," William protested.  "She must wonder what my intentions are."

            I couldn't help smiling.  "That 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.  Back in October, William and I had both traveled to Krov, Russia.  We were very lucky to have survived the trip.

            "Why hasn't she had any questions?" 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, his expression angry and 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.  It felt like a solid, tangible thing.  "We cannot go on like this."

            "You've already met her," I said.  "Twice."

            That was true, though my bringing it up was really more of an excuse than anything else.  GM had glimpsed William briefly in our dark kitchen back in October, and he had come to visit us at our house in Russia once all the trouble was over.  It was at that second meeting that William had told me that we would have to part forever.  I had told GM what he had said then—I'd just never told her that he had later changed his mind and come back to me.

            "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."

            "William," I said, feeling panic rising within me, "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."

            I thought bringing GM into things was a mistake—I thought it was too risky.  But at the same time, I could see that I wasn't going to win the argument.

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

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

            William stopped suddenly and glanced around sharply.

            I looked around, too, trying to see what had attracted his attention, but we appeared to be completely alone.  As we stood silently, I noticed that the woods around us 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 met 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 again.  Seeing him once more was like being revisited by a nightmare.

            "Innokenti," I stammered, 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 quickly.

            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 newcomer 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 strange 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 done me any harm—in fact, he had actually given me information that had proved to be very helpful.

            But no matter how hard I tried to calm myself, I remained uneasy.  Both Innokenti and his friend gave off a palpable air of danger.

            As we reached William and the stranger, both of them turned to look at me.  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—"

            "A vampire?" Innokenti asked.  "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 actually lifted my hand with his ice cold fingers and kissed it.  He stared at me as he let my hand drop.

            He seemed to be waiting for a reply.

            I found that my throat was too dry to allow me to speak.

            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 the little one.  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 kindly 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."

            William snorted derisively.  "He's your bodyguard?  What do you need protection from?  Me?"

            "Vampires are strong, but we are not completely invulnerable, William—you know that.  And our mission here is a dangerous one."

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

            "Tell me what you need to tell me.  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 across his chest.  "Say what you have to say, and then get out of here."

            "Very well."  Something steely came into Innokenti's light eyes.  "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 in his tone.  "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 danger.  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 already admitted that Katie owes you no allegiance.  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.  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, and I felt a wave of fear wash over me as I met his pale gaze.

            "I—I want to stay here with William."

            Innokenti displayed little outward reaction at my refusal, but he 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, seemed to vanish into the trees.

            I looked at William.  He was staring at the spot where Anton and Innokenti had just stood.  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."


Chapter 2.

 

William and I walked through the trees in silence.

            I was rattled, and I could tell he was worried.

            Cursed, damned, outcast.

            Those were words that William had used to describe himself on more than one occasion, and words that had floated through my mind back at the skating rink.

            In a way, those same words could be used to describe me.

            I let my mind stray to the words it had shied away from before.

            Vampire.  Sìdh.

            They were words that did not properly belong to this world.  And yet I knew they were part of this world all the same.

            William had been one of the Sìdh once—a race of bright, immortal creatures of great power.  And then he had been attacked by a vampire and turned—though how long ago this had occurred exactly, I did not know.  The Sìdh had cast him out, taken his memories, left him to wander.  He had found an unexpected home with the vampires of Krov, Russia—the village in which I had been born.

            And I myself was a descendent of the Sìdh.  My grandfather had been sent to Krov to found a line of humans with Sìdh blood—something the Sìdh did every so many generations in fulfillment of an ancient treaty.  The children of such unions were gifted with a unique ability, and an obligation, to combat evil spirits of great strength and age—particularly one known as the kost.

            A kost was an evil spirit inhabiting—and animating—a human corpse.

            My mother was the only child of this particular Sìdh union, and like all those before her, she was known as the Little Sun.  She was ordained by her birth to be the protector of Krov, and in this capacity she had fought and imprisoned a kost named Gleb Mstislav in his family's crypt.  And he had worked in secret to poison and kill her.

            My father had died shortly before her in an ordinary accident—he had died while hiking.  And I had been left an orphan in the care of my grandmother, GM, who knew nothing of my grandfather's true nature or my mother's purpose in life.

            And then this past October Gleb had escaped from his crypt, aided by his son Timofei and my own cousin Odette.  Gleb had come after me in Elspeth's Grove, hoping to kill me.  My struggle with him took me to Russia, where William and I had worked together to destroy him.

            On my mother's death, I had become the new Little Sun, though I didn't even know any such thing existed.  And shortly after my sixteenth birthday I had begun to have visions, which I had learned were meant to help me in my battle against creatures like Gleb.  But after Gleb had been defeated, and I had returned to Elspeth's Grove, the visions had stopped.

            I had thought that it was over—that the darkness in Krov was something I had left behind forever.  I had thought that I was free to live in Elspeth's Grove in peace with William.

            But there were vampires from Krov in Elspeth's Grove now, and if they were telling me the truth, there was a price on my head now.

            I shivered as I thought of Anton and Innokenti.  How long had they been following William and me?  How long had they been watching us?  Had they seen me at the house with GM?

            I didn't want her to be in danger because of me.

            "How did they find us?" I asked William.

            William blinked as if I had startled him out of his train of thought.  "What was that?"

            "Innokenti and Anton," I said.  "How did they find us?  I'm sure I never told Innokenti that I lived in Elspeth's Grove."

            William laughed—a strangely humorless sound.  "You need not have told Innokenti anything.  He has ways of finding things out."

            William lapsed back into silence.

            "You and Anton appear to know each other," I said after a moment.

            "Yes," William replied reluctantly.  "He lived in the vampire colony in Krov at the same time as I did."

            "The two of you don't get along?" I asked.

            "No."

            "Why not?"

            "It doesn't matter now," he said quietly.  "And I'd rather not discuss it.  Please don't ask me to tell you."

            There was a note of finality in William's voice, and I knew he would say no more about Anton.

            "What do you think they really want from us?" I asked.  "Did you believe Innokenti when he said that someone is after us, and that he wants to protect us?"

            "No," William said.  "It's a scare tactic.  Innokenti's trying to trick us into doing what he wants.  There's no one after us."

            "Are you sure about that?" I asked.  "One hundred percent sure?"

            William paused for a moment before answering.

            "No."

            I felt a sense of dread settle over me.  "So it's possible that Innokenti was telling the truth?"

            "It is possible—but it's a remote possibility.  You asked me if I was one hundred percent sure it's a trick.  I can't be one hundred percent sure.  But I know Innokenti and the rest of them.  They don't act in the interests of others—no matter what he says.  They only act to help themselves."

            "Why do you think they want us then?"

            William shook his head.  "I think it's best if we don't find out."

            We walked in silence again for a time before I asked the question that was weighing the heaviest on my mind.

            "Do you really think they'll just take no for an answer?"

            William looked at me, and a muscle worked in his jaw.

            He did not reply.

            Soon the trees we walked through began to thin, and we were in sight of my neighborhood.  The thought of vampires lurking near my house left me feeling deeply uneasy.

            I clutched at William's sleeve, and he stopped walking.

            "Do you think Innokenti and Anton will leave Elspeth's Grove?  Do you think they're watching us right now?"

            William took my face in his hands.  "They aren't nearby right now—I would hear them if they were.  And I don't know what they are planning to do, but you and your grandmother will be safe.  I'll see to that."

            "William, if there really is a price on my head—if there really are two groups after me—"

            William interrupted.  "Have I let you down yet?"

            "No, you've never let me down," I said.

            "Trust me—I'll take care of it."  William smiled.  "Now, let's go see your grandmother."

            He took my hand and started in the direction of my house.

            "William, wait."  I said.  "I don't think we can spring your presence on GM like this.  I don't have any idea how she's going to react."

            "Katie, don't be ridiculous," William said, exasperated.  "Our situation is serious—manageable—but serious.  And I need to be around more.  I need to have your grandmother accept and approve of my being here."

            "I know," I replied.  "That's why we can't just surprise her today.  It won't do us any good if she throws you out of the house as soon as she sees you.  Let me talk to her alone first.  Come see me tomorrow at school, and I'll let you know when you can see her."

            William started to protest, but I interrupted him.

            "It will be soon—I promise.  Who knows?  Maybe she'll even invite you to dinner."

            William gave me a tolerant look.  "All right, but make sure it is soon.  The sooner everything is out in the open, the better."

            "I'll bring GM around," I said.  "I promise."

            We started walking again, and we paused at the corner of my street, like we usually did.

            "At least I know now why you never let me walk you up to your door," William said.  "I realize that I should have been more suspicious."

            "What did you think before?" I asked.

            William shrugged.  "Humans are often uncomfortable around vampires—even incomplete ones like me.  I thought maybe she didn't like to look at me, and you were tactfully not telling me."

            "William," I said.  "I can't imagine anyone not wanting to look at you."

            William shook his head.  But I thought I could see the ghost of a smile on his lips.

            "I'll see you tomorrow at school then, Katie," he said, turning to leave.  "I'll be watching to see that you and your grandmother are safe tonight."

            "William—I have one more question."

            He turned back.

            "What about that last thing that Innokenti said?" I asked.  "What did he mean when he said that 'they' will not allow me to remain with you.  Who are 'they'?"

            William looked away from me.  "As I said, I think this is all a trick.  You don't have to worry about what Innokenti said."

            "But you do have some idea of what he was implying?"

            "I have an idea—but I can't be sure.  In any event, you don't need to know.  I'll see you tomorrow, Katie."

            William gave me a small smile and walked off.

            I stood looking after him with a familiar sense of disappointment.  I wished he had trusted me with his suspicions.

            Once William had disappeared from view, I walked up to my house and went inside.

            I paused in the hall just by the door and tried to figure out how I was going to tell GM that William was in Elspeth's Grove and that I had been seeing him.

            I knew it wasn't going to be easy.

            To be fair to GM, I didn't know for certain that she disliked William.  But the two times she had spoken to him had been difficult times, and William's entrance into our lives had coincided with the return of the past for GM.  My mother, in her short life, had become deeply involved in the supernatural—she'd really had no choice.  And the supernatural was something my grandmother had not believed in until it had burst into her house in October in a way that she couldn't deny.

            Having the reanimated corpse of a man she knew to be dead break into her house was something even GM couldn't ignore.

            But GM was stubborn, and her rational mind had reasserted itself after the initial shock had worn off.  She'd been able to convince herself that all of the bizarre things she'd seen had a perfectly normal explanation.

            GM feared that I would fall under the spell of the supernatural and be consumed by it as my mother had been, and I had a feeling that GM saw William as part of that supernatural threat.  She didn't know who and what he was, of course—to her he was just an ordinary young man.  But he'd been involved in events that she'd rather forget.

            And I was afraid that she would prefer that William were forgotten, too.

            I continued to stand by the door in an agony of indecision, trying to force my mind to work.  I tried to come up with just the right words to convince GM that she had nothing to worry about—that William was beneficial and not a danger.  After a few moments, I began to wonder if GM would come out to see me before I'd come up with a plan—I knew she must have heard me come in.

            But time passed, and GM did not appear.

            I took a tentative step forward.  It was a little unusual for GM not to come see what I was up to as soon as I came home.  But she had been distracted lately, and it was pretty obvious to me that something was on her mind.  When I had asked her about it, however, GM had brushed me off rather expertly—she was very good at side-stepping questions.

            GM had a way of talking around a topic and avoiding it without ever directly refusing to talk about it.

            In a way, it was a gift.

            After another few moments had passed, I decided to take GM on without a plan.  I would just go in determined not to lose.  After all, there was no good reason for me not to see William—he had already saved my life twice.  Surely, I could make her see that we were better off with him than without him.

            I walked through the house, but I didn't find GM in any of the usual places.  Eventually, I found GM in her office where I had left her earlier, which was odd—she didn't usually spend much time there on the weekends.  She said she wanted to keep her home life and her work life separate—even if they co-existed in the same place.

            As I entered the office, GM's head was bent, and I could see that she was pouring over a letter.  GM had been receiving a lot of letters lately—letters that she wouldn't talk about, but would hastily tuck away.  I could see an envelope on the desk beside her.  It had a number of colorful stamps on it—as if it had been mailed from overseas.  I wondered—could GM be receiving letters from Russia?

            "GM?" I said quietly.

            GM turned in her chair, clearly startled.  With admirable economy of movement, she swept her letter back into its envelope, and deposited the envelope into a drawer.

            "Oh, Katie!  I didn't hear you come in.  How was your first time ice skating?"

            "It was good," I said.  "I didn't break anything, and I actually made it all the way around the rink several times."  I paused.  "Did you receive a letter from Galina?"

            GM stood up.  "Letter?"

            "Yes," I said.  "You had a letter in your hand when I came in, and the stamps seemed to be foreign.  I was wondering if maybe you'd heard from Galina.  I know you've been in contact with her."

            Galina Golovnin had been a friend of my mother's.  Although she was the same age as my mother, she had been a teacher of sorts to her—helping my mother to develop and hone her powers as the Little Sun.  When I had encountered her in Russia, she had helped me too.  Galina's life was deeply steeped in the supernatural, something GM had resented bitterly.  But since our recent trip to Russia, GM's attitude toward Galina had relaxed a bit.  She was no longer determined to banish Galina to the past and pretend that she had never existed.

            "Galina?" GM said.  "Oh, no.  No.  I have not heard from her lately."

            I waited expectantly.

            GM, who was always so confident and self-possessed, suddenly seemed very unsure of herself.  She wrapped her fingers around the silver cross she always wore and began to move the charm up and down on its chain in an agitated fashion.  She looked around the room.  Then she looked back at me.

            "Enough about the letter.  Forget about the letter.  Solnyshko, I have something to tell you—to ask you, rather."

            'Solnyshko' was a Russian term of endearment that GM often used for me—one that lots of people used.  Oddly enough the word literally meant 'little sun.'  GM had been using it for me for as long as I could remember.  She had no idea how apt it really was.

            I took a deep breath.  "I have something to tell you, too."

            "Excellent.  Then we have news to share with one another.  Let's go in the kitchen, Solnyshko.  Are you hungry?"

            "No, I'm not hungry," I said, as GM shepherded me out of her office.

            "Some tea, then," GM said.  "It is always good to have tea when one talks."

            I wasn't really keen on the idea of having tea.  I'd lost my taste for tea and for hot drinks in general after I'd discovered that my mother had been poisoned by tea laced with vampire blood.  I had been tricked into drinking some of the stuff myself, and the memory of it was an unpleasant one.  But if drinking some tea would make GM happy, then I would go along with it.

            In the kitchen, GM waved me to a seat, and she put the kettle on.  Then she sat down across from me and gave me a level gaze.  We sat like that for several moments, and I began to shift uncomfortably under her steady stare.

            "GM, let's—"

            "Not just yet, Solnyshko.  Wait for the tea."

            "Would you mind looking in another direction for a few moments, then?" I asked.  "You're making me nervous."

            GM gave me a wry smile.  "My apologies, Solnyshko."  She rose.  "I need to get the tea things out anyway."

            GM got out her blue-and-white china teacups—the same ones she had used on the night that Galina Golovnin and her son, Aleksandr, had shown up on our doorstep to warn us that Gleb Mstislav would soon be after me.  GM had not believed them and had thrown them out.

            But they had been right.

            Soon the kettle was whistling, and GM poured out for us.  I gazed into the golden depths of the tea reluctantly.  I knew it was chamomile, and I knew it was untainted, but I couldn't help thinking again of the poisoned tea my cousin Odette had given me.

            I shivered.

            GM glanced up at me.  "Are you cold, Solnyshko?"

            I gave her a reassuring smile.  "No.  I was just thinking.  You know how sometimes a memory steals over you and catches you in a funny way?"

            "I do indeed," GM replied.

            She sipped at her tea and gave me a look over the rim of her cup.  Then she set it down with decision.

            "Katie, I know we both have things to say, and I hope you don't mind if I go first."

            "Go ahead," I said.

            "Thank you."  GM paused for a moment.  "Do you remember what I said to you in Tblisi?  I promised you that when that whole terrible business was over, that we would do some proper traveling?"

            "I remember," I said.

            GM took a deep breath, as if she were gathering courage.  "What do you think about spending Christmas in Russia?"

            I didn't know what I had been expecting, but that was not it.

            Several memories flashed through my mind—all of them terrifying.

            "Christmas in Russia?" I said.

            "Yes."  GM nodded her head in an encouraging fashion.

            "In Krov?" I asked.

            "Yes."

            My head began to spin a little.  I loved Russia—I really did.  It was the country of my birth, and I thought it was beautiful.  But going back to Krov seemed dangerous at this point—especially since I had just met two vampires who wanted me to do exactly that.

            "Why do you want to go to Krov for Christmas?" I asked.  "Does it have something to do with all the letters?"

            "Letters?" GM asked innocently.

            "Yes, GM," I said.  "Letters like the one you were reading in your office just now.  I've seen you with them before—and the envelopes always have a lot of foreign stamps on them."

            "Ah, yes.  It appears you have sharp eyes, Solnyshko.  You don't have anything to be concerned about.  The letters are not from anyone you know."

            "Who are they from?"

            GM shook her head.  "Sometimes a grandmother needs to keep some things to herself.  Do not distress yourself over the letters, Katie."

            I decided to give up.  Once GM decided she wasn't going to talk about something, she very seldom changed her mind.  I stared back down at my tea.

            "Solnyshko, forgive me," GM said, "but you do not seem very excited about going to Krov.  I thought you would be happy.  I thought we might go to Moscow, too.  You would love all of the beautiful buildings in the great square.  St. Basil's Basilica is a wonder in person."

            I tried to think of how to put my thoughts into words, but what I wanted to say seemed to need more diplomacy than I was able to summon at the moment.  I wanted to tell GM that I wished she would tell me what was going on and who had written the letters.  I wanted to tell her that I had nearly died in Krov, and it was full of bad memories.  I wanted to tell her that we couldn't go back to Krov because the village was crawling with vampires—and some of those vampires were eager for my return.  But the right words just wouldn't come—especially for the last part.  How could I hint at a danger that I wasn't allowed to name?

            GM leaned forward.  "What is it that is troubling you, Solnyshko?  Are you worried about not having a visa?  If that is the case, then you need worry no longer.  I have already obtained visas for both of us.  We can fly directly into Russia."

            I was startled.  When we had gone to Russia in October, we had actually had to fly into Georgia and sneak across the border because Russia required a visa for U.S. visitors while Georgia did not.  If GM had visas for us already, then she had been planning the trip for some time now and had never mentioned it to me.

            "GM," I said, "why won't you tell me what's going on?"

            "It's Christmas, Katie.  I haven't spent a Christmas in Russia in many years.  I miss my homeland."

            I felt a twinge of frustration.  I knew GM was sincere when she said that, and to be fair, the reason she gave was a perfectly good one.  But I couldn't shrug off a suspicion that that wasn't all there was to it.  Then again, I wondered—what exactly was it that I suspected GM of?  I really didn't know.

            "Where are you thinking of staying in Krov?" I asked.  "Odette's house?"

            GM gave me a sharp look.  "So is that what is troubling you?  Your poor cousin?  I can understand that it must be hard for you.  It is hard for me, too, Solnyshko.  You loved Odette and so did I.  And hope is not lost entirely.  People have been restored to their families after going missing for years, and Odette has only been gone a few months.  We may yet see her again."

            Seeing Odette again was one of the things I was worried about—as William had told Innokenti, it was entirely possible that Odette would return.  She had gone missing.  But she was not lost in the way that GM thought she was—in the way that an ordinary human girl would be lost.  Odette had become a vampire, and in October she had tried to kill me.  She had disappeared after that, and her house in Krov had been left vacant.  If we settled ourselves into her house at Christmas, who was to say that she wouldn't return and resent our presence?  I had seen Odette when she was angry—it was a truly terrifying sight.

            So, Odette might come for me, and so might Innokenti and Anton—in fact, I had a pretty definite feeling that the last two would.  If I went to Krov for Christmas, would I ever be allowed to leave again?  Would I even survive whatever Innokenti and his fellow vampires had planned?

            "GM, do we have to go to Russia for Christmas?" I asked uncomfortably.

            GM's face fell.  "I am forgetting how hard that trip was for you, aren't I?  Not only did you lose your cousin, but you were kidnapped by that madman who used to be your teacher.  And then you were in the hospital.  I am sorry, Solnyshko.  We do not have to go to Russia for Christmas."

            I was sorry to see how disappointed GM looked.  I could tell that she'd really had her heart set on going to Russia—but such a trip would be dangerous, and there was no way I could explain that to her.

            "I'm sorry, GM," I said.  "I just don't think I can do it."

            GM reached across the table and patted my hand.  "It is all right, Solnyshko.  I hadn't quite realized how difficult this would be for you.  We will not go."

            "Now," GM said briskly, as if she'd completely banished the topic from her mind, "I believe you said you had something to tell me, too?"

            Suddenly, I felt even worse.  First, I'd ruined GM's Christmas plans.  Now I was about to give her more bad news.

            I had developed no clever plan of attack, so I decided just to plunge ahead.

            "GM, please get too worked up over what I'm going to say."

            GM raised one silver eyebrow.  "Your tone does not inspire confidence, Solnyshko."

            "Do you remember William Sursur?" I asked.  "He got us out of the house that night when we were forced to flee to the airport.  And he got me out of the Mstislav crypt in Krov.  He also came to see us at the house in Krov right before we left."

            GM's expression grew carefully blank.  I knew that look—it was one she wore whenever I brought up a topic she didn't want to discuss.  It was as I had feared—GM did not approve of William.

            "I remember that he was very handsome," GM said.

            "He meant a lot to me, GM."

            "I also remember that he said the two of you could not be together.  After all, he lives in Russia, and you live here."

            "That's just it," I said.  "William doesn't live in Russia anymore.  He lives here."

            GM was clearly startled.  "He lives here in the United States?"

            "He lives here in Elspeth's Grove."

            GM's eyebrows rose.  "What is this that you are telling me?"

            "GM, are you angry?"

            "That boy lives here now?  He has followed you?"

            "Why don't you like him?" I asked.

            GM's voice rose.  "You cannot see him.  I don't want him in this house!"

            "GM, please!" I cried.  "He saved both our lives!"

            GM fell silent.

            "Why don't you like him?" I asked again.  "What has he done?"

            GM looked away.  "I don't know anything about him.  And he appears to be mixed up in some pretty dangerous things."

            "Things he was trying to stop," I said.

            GM looked at me.  "What exactly is it that you want me to say?"

            "Please don't be like that, GM.  William is here in Elspeth's Grove.  I like him.  And he's really helped me.  I want to see him.  And if it's okay with you, I would like William to come over here, so you can talk to him and see that he's a good person."

            GM looked down at her teacup, and she didn't say anything for a long time.  I began to hope that she was wavering.

            "There is something in what you say," she said at last.  "You are a good girl.  I suppose I can trust your judgment."

            She looked up at me again.  "I confess that I don't entirely know my own mind in this case.  Perhaps the problem is that I just don't want you getting any older."

            As I looked at GM, I felt tears stinging my eyes.  "GM, you don't have to worry that you're going to lose me.  You have to know that I will always love you.  Nothing will ever change that."

            GM stood and walked around the table to me.

            "I know, Solnyshko.  I will always love you, too.  I have been both your grandmother and your mother.  And it is sometimes hard for a mother to see her child grow up."

            I hugged her back tightly.

            GM straightened up and brushed a hand over my hair.

            "When would you like your William to come over?"

            I didn't want to rush things, but I knew the appearance of Innokenti and Anton had made it necessary for me to get William on good terms with GM as soon as possible. 

            "Is tomorrow okay?"

            GM blinked.  "Tomorrow?"

            "I know it's sudden—"

            GM waved a hand.  "It is all right, Solnyshko.  Invite him over for dinner.  I will make pasta.  Everyone likes pasta."

            "Thank you, GM.  Thanks for William and thanks about Russia."

            GM pressed a kiss to my forehead.  "Anything for you, Solnyshko."

            GM cleared away her cup and left the room.

            I was left with my full cup of tea and a sense of relief.  I was very happy that William would be able to come over tomorrow—though I realized that I didn't know if he actually ever ate anything or not.  I supposed we would think of something if he didn't.  And now that GM would allow William to be in the house, it made me feel a bit better about the fact that Innokenti and Anton were lurking out there somewhere.  I wished William had told me how he knew Anton.  Anton seemed much more dangerous than Innokenti—and Innokenti didn't seem safe.

            I stood up and poured my tea into the sink.  I had homework to do, but I wandered into the living room where I knew I would find a picture of GM and my grandfather.

            The picture I was looking for stood on a table with other pictures of family and friends—a number of them featuring me.  Some of the people were unknown to me, but the pictures of my parents and my grandparents sat side by side next to one another right in the center.  The picture of my parents was from their wedding—my mother, pale and blond like me, my father just a little darker with light brown curly hair.  Both of them were beaming, and my mother was holding a single flower.  It was curious that no one else seemed to be in attendance.

            And then there was the picture of my grandparents.

            I picked their photo up.  My grandmother had been blond when she was younger, as had my grandfather.  They looked like a perfectly normal couple—it was hard to believe that my grandfather had truly been one of the Sìdh.

            As I looked at my grandfather, I wondered what he was like.  GM believed that he had died, but Galina told me that he still lived and that he had gone back to his people.  I wondered if he knew that GM lived in another country now, and if he ever saw her—even if she didn't see him.  GM didn't speak about him very much, but I knew that she had loved him.  And she'd told me that I would have loved him too.

            I set the picture down and walked up the stairs to my room.

            I did have homework to do—if I could keep my mind on it.  I told myself to firmly to forget about GM's letters.  And I told myself not to think too much about Anton and Innokenti.  They hadn't actually threatened me directly, and I knew William would watch over the house.  Maybe he was right—maybe the presence of the two vampires in town was just a scare tactic.

            I was still just a little too wound up to get to work, so I wandered around the room, straightening things up.  As I walked past my dresser and the large mirror over it, I thought I saw something moving in the mirror—something that wasn't my own image.

            I stopped, startled, and peered into the mirror.  I saw only my own face and the room behind me.

            I told myself I hadn't actually seen anything out of the ordinary.

            I shrugged off my nerves and went to my desk, determined to finally get to work.

            As I opened my books, however, I couldn't help thinking of the mirror, and an image flashed in my mind of what I had seen.

            There had been a second image in the mirror.

            I had seen a shadow walking behind me.


Chapter 3.

 

I had seen shadows in the mirror before.

            As I got ready for school the next morning, I stood looking into the mirror, thinking back to what I had glimpsed last night.

            The shadows I had seen before had turned out to be miniature visions of William—I'd seen his face in the mirror before I'd met him.  After I'd met him, the visions in the mirror had stopped.  They had been replaced by full-fledged visions—images that appeared before my eyes with the sharpness and clarity of reality, blotting out what was actually in front of me while they lasted.  But those visions had stopped now too—and I had no idea why.

            As I thought back to it, the shadow from last night was not like any of the visions I had had before.

            Of course, it was possible that my eyes had just been playing tricks on me.  I had been a little wound up at the time, so I could have just imagined the shadow.

            I resolved not to worry about it.

            I looked down at the charm William had given me—I very seldom took it off.  It was an iron cross, roughly hewn, but strangely pleasing to the eye and cool to the touch.  William had given it to me for protection—but despite the shape of the charm, it wasn't any defense against vampires.  The charm was actually a defense against the kost—it scrambled the creature's senses and made the person who wore it difficult to track.

            I didn't actually fear being attacked by a kost on my way to school—I just liked wearing the charm.  Something about it always gave me a sense of peace and calm.  And it also reminded me of William.

            I went down to the kitchen where I ate a quick breakfast with GM.  Then I went out to begin my walk to school.

            The morning was chilly and windy, and there was a light dusting of snow on the ground.  I walked down the driveway past GM's red sports car, which nestled comfortably under a black cover and a thin layer of snow.  I had to smile—GM was a speed demon, and I had a feeling that she was the only grandmother in town with such a high performance vehicle.

            I made my way to school, and as I reached the schoolyard, I could see that it was all but deserted.  On days when the weather was more warmer, the schoolyard was packed with students, many of whom had favorite spots that they had staked out—my friends Charisse Graebel and Branden McKenna had a picnic table that they had been able to claim.  But today only the hardiest students were out braving the wind and the cold.

            As I entered the yard, I spotted a familiar blond head—two of them, in fact.  Simon Krstic and his brother, James, stood with their shoulders hunched against the wind.

            James turned and saw me first.  He nudged Simon with his elbow, and then nodded in my direction.  Simon turned expectantly.

            They had clearly been waiting for me.

            James was the taller and older of the two, and his typically sullen expression had grown softer lately.  James had been something of a troublemaker once, but this year he had begun to turn things around.  And then he had been kidnapped by Timofei and Gleb Mstislav and dragged to Russia where they had intended him to be a sacrifice to Gleb.  James only seemed to have the vaguest memory of what had happened.  Luckily, what he had been through didn't seem to have been knocked him off the good path he had been on.  The ordeal with Gleb actually seemed to have mellowed James even further.

            Simon, by contrast, had always been good-natured and responsible.  The two of us had been friends ever since I had moved to Elspeth's Grove when I was five years old.  Except for Charisse, Simon was probably the best friend I had ever had.  But back in October, just before the trouble with Gleb had begun, Simon had revealed to me that his feelings for me had deepened into something more serious.  Despite my affection for him, I had found myself unable to return those feelings.

            But my feelings of friendship for him still remained and were strong.

            Simon saw me and waved, and James turned and walked off toward the school.

            It was clear that Simon wanted to talk to me alone.

            As I reached him, Simon gave me a smile and a tolerant look.  I began to feel a sinking sensation.  Something about his expression made me feel defensive.

            "Hey Simon," I said.

            "Hey, Katie," he replied.  He almost looked like a parent preparing to have a conversation with an unruly child.  "Can I talk to you for a minute?"

            "Sure," I replied.  "Do you mind if we go inside?  It's a little cold out here."

            "Yeah, yeah.  Of course," Simon said.  "Let's go in."

            We went into the school, and I started toward the cafeteria, where most people went to hang out when it was cold outside.

            "Uh, Katie?"

            I stopped and looked back.  Simon was not following me.

            "Katie, let's not go to the cafeteria.  I want to talk to you alone."

            "Okay," I said.  The feeling was growing on me steadily that the conversation we were about to have was going to be a chore.

            "Let's go to the hallway by the library."  Simon indicated the direction with a nod of his head.  "It's usually pretty empty there."

            Simon led the way, and we were soon standing in the library hallway.  The library took up one full side of the hall, and its outer wall was glass, giving the two librarians an unobstructed view of everything that happened outside it.  That last fact was why the hallway was usually deserted in the morning.

            The other side of the hallway was taken up by display cases full of trophies and photographs.  Simon drew me over to the display cases.

            He stood for a moment, looking at me, and I could see uncertainty creep into his eyes—I could tell he was nervous now.  His nervousness reminded me of my own anxiety when I had had something to tell him back in October.  Back then, I had told Simon that a dead man named Gleb was after me, and that I needed his help to investigate what was going on.

            I'd also told him about William for the first time then—William was part of the evidence of my claim.  Of course, I hadn't told Simon anything about William's true nature.  I'd just told Simon the information I had learned from William.

            And Simon knew now that I was in love with William.  That hadn't sat too well with him.

            Simon had been extremely skeptical of my story, but to his credit, he had agreed to help me.  But shortly after that, GM and I had been forced to flee to Russia.  Despite what had happened to his brother, Simon knew very little about what had taken place in Russia, and the two of us had never spoken about Gleb again.  I wondered if he'd believed anything I'd said then—or if he'd thought I'd gone temporarily insane.

            Simon continued to look at me nervously.  Eventually, he looked down and scuffed a shoe on the linoleum floor, producing a sharp sound that echoed noisily in the empty hall.

            He took a deep breath and gave me a resolute look.

            "People are saying that you were out with that guy again this weekend."

            "That guy?"  I didn't want to be offended—Simon was my friend—but I couldn't help resenting the tone of his voice.

            "You know—the one you were dancing with at Irina's Halloween party."

            "His name is William—I told you that."

            "Yeah—William.  You were seen with him at the skating rink yesterday."

            "I was 'seen'?" I said.  "You make it sound like some kind of horrible secret."

              I winced a little on the inside as I said the words.  My meetings with William had been a secret from GM.  I hadn't kept them a secret from anyone else, though.

            Simon ran a hand over his hair.  "Katie, please just listen.  I didn't come here to offend you.  I'm talking to you about this because I'm worried about you—I care about you.  It's just that this guy William has been seen all over town, and nobody knows much about him.  He's even been seen here at school a couple of times, and I'm pretty sure he isn't actually a student."

            Simon stopped and gave me a level stare.  "How much do you actually know about this guy?"

            "I know enough," I said.

            I couldn't admit to Simon that I knew very little about William.  William's stolen memories were partially to blame for my lack of knowledge, of course.  But there was no reason why William couldn't tell me about his life since he'd moved to Elspeth's Grove.  There was no reason, for example, why he couldn't tell me where he lived.  But as he had done yesterday, William always claimed that he was keeping me in the dark for my own protection.  I found his silence very frustrating.

            "You know enough?"  Simon was incredulous.  "Katie, this guy—"

            "William," I said firmly.

            Simon sighed.

            "William," he said, speaking the name very deliberately, "sounds like trouble."

            I bristled.  "William is not trouble.  He's the best thing that ever happened to me."

            A look of pain came into Simon's eyes, and I regretted having spoken so quickly.  I didn't regret the words themselves—I meant them very sincerely.  But I could have spoken to Simon more carefully—it hadn't been that long since he had had his crush on me.

            I looked at Simon closely then.  He had seemed to accept that the two of us were better off as friends, but was it possible that he still saw me in a romantic light?

            "I don't think that he's good for you, Katie," Simon said.  "He's been filling your head with crazy stories—telling you that there's a dead guy after you.  It's like he's got some kind of hold on you."

            I sighed inwardly.  So Simon did remember what I'd told him back in October.  There was a lot more I could tell him now.  But I knew he wouldn't believe me, and none of it would make him like William any better.

            Simon continued.  "That—William has also been seen wandering around in the Old Grove.  And you do know a girl was attacked there last night, don't you?"

            "No," I said, startled.  "What happened?"

            The Old Grove was south and east of my house—in the opposite direction of Hywel's Plaza.  It was the place where our town's founder, Elspeth Quick, had supposedly hidden from pursuers who had wanted to burn her for witchcraft.  It was a place that was reputed to be the site of hauntings and other supernatural activity.

            "Some weird guy grabbed her, tore her neck up," Simon said.  "Travis Ballenski told me.  His dad's a cop.  The police haven't released the girl's name yet, but Travis did tell me that she's going to be okay.  She's still in the hospital right now.  You know, you have to be really sick in the head to do something like that.  They don't know who it was who attacked her, but, Katie, I wouldn't be surprised to find out it was this William guy."

            I suddenly felt chilled.  I knew that William wasn't guilty.  But what Simon described did sound like a vampire attack, and I had a pretty good idea who was behind it—either Anton or Innokenti—or possibly even both of them.  I was glad the girl was okay, but I was alarmed by the attack—very alarmed.  It meant that the vampires had not left—they were still hanging around town.

            Simon continued.  "Katie, you should take a warning from this.  Like I said, how much do you actually know about this William guy?  He kind of seems like a drifter.  And drifters aren't usually good news."

            "William is not a drifter," I said angrily.

            Simon ran a hand through his hair in frustration.  "I don't seem to be getting through to you.  I don't know what I have to say to you to get you to be concerned about your own safety."

            "I'm perfectly safe with William," I said.

            Simon hung his head for a moment, and then looked up at me.  "What does your grandmother think of him?"

            Simon knew GM well, and I knew he liked and respected her.

            "GM has invited William over to dinner tonight," I said.

            Simon threw up his hands.  "Then I give up.  Just promise me that you'll be very, very careful."

            "I will," I said.

            The warning bell rang, and Simon looked around.

            "I guess we'd better get going," he said.

            Simon really didn't look too pleased about the idea—he looked as if he would prefer to stay with me and argue about William.

            People began to file into the hallway, and we joined the crowd.

            The two of us walked together in silence until we arrived at my classroom.

            "I'll see you at lunch, Katie," Simon said, and he looked so worried that I felt very genuinely sorry for him.

            I wished I could reassure him, but I had a feeling that nothing I could say would make him trust William.

            I went in to homeroom.

            I sat through the announcements, and then went on to first-period Social Studies.  I tried to pay attention to the lecture, but I couldn't help thinking about the girl who had been attacked.  I had a terrible feeling that she wouldn't be the only one.  I was glad I'd asked William to come see me at school today.

            I needed to tell him about the attack.

            Eventually, the bell rang, and I moved on to second-period English.  My friends Charisse and Branden were both in the class, and I spotted them as I walked in.  Charisse had dark brown skin and black hair was arranged today in a cluster of curls on top of her head.  Branden was pale, tall, and long-limbed, and his brown hair was, as usual, falling in his eyes.

            It was unusual for the two of them to have arrived in the classroom ahead of me—they had a tendency to linger in the halls.  Right now they were standing together and talking in low, serious tones.  The two of them were dating and were really happy together—though they didn't look terribly happy at the moment.

            I said hi as I walked past them—they looked like they didn't want to be disturbed at the moment—and Charisse reached out to grab my sleeve.

            "We need to talk after class," she said.

            "Okay," I replied, a little surprised.

            Charisse smiled her thanks, and I moved on to my desk.

            Mrs. Swinburne, our substitute teacher for the rest of the year, was seated at her desk, calmly sorting papers into neat piles.  After our original English teacher, Mr. Del Gatto, had disappeared, a sub named Mr. Hightower had been brought in.

            I felt a wave of revulsion wash over me as I thought of him.

            Mr. Hightower had been sleek and superficially handsome.  He had also been Gleb Mstislav's son Timofei, in disguise.  Timofei had been responsible for Mr. Del Gatto's disappearance and eventual death.  After Timofei—as Mr. Hightower—had gone missing himself, Mrs. Swinburne had taken over as the sub.  And then, after Timofei had followed me to Russia and had met with his own death there, Mrs. Swinburne had been asked to remain until the year was out—and it was hard to think of someone who was more of a contrast to Timofei.  Mrs. Swinburne with her permanently prim expression and cloud of fluffy brown hair was eminently respectable.  Timofei had been all flashy disingenuousness.

            I heard fierce whispering nearby, and I looked around.  Irina Neverov, her glossy dark hair pulled into a smooth ponytail, was giving her friend Bryony Carson a sibilant harangue.  I thought for a moment that Irina might be talking about me—she often was—but this time she didn't appear to be paying any attention to me.

            I watched them for a moment.  I wasn't surprised to see that Irina was doing all of the talking—Irina was clearly the leader and Bryony and her other friend Annamaria were her faithful followers.  I seldom saw the three of them apart.  But I was surprised to see that Annamaria was not in her usual spot at Irina's side, and both she and Bryony looked tense.

            I had a feeling something was wrong.

            As I watched the two of them, Irina glanced up and glared at me.  I looked away quickly.

            Irina and I had been friends a long time ago when we both were small.  But as we'd entered high school we had most definitely grown apart—until we'd reached a point at which Irina wouldn't speak to me unless she absolutely had to.  Things had thawed between us after Irina had been kidnapped and both of us had been trapped down in the tunnels that stretched under the Mstislav mansion.  Irina's memories of the event were hazy, but her ordeal had changed her for a time.  She had even gone so far as to invite me to her father's Halloween party—the same party where I was reunited with William.  But things had gone sour again between Irina and me shortly after that, and I wasn't entirely sure why.  It seemed that we were once again not on speaking terms.

            When the bell rang to signal the start of class, Mrs. Swinburne rose and closed the door.  I happened to glance back at Charisse, and she gave me a significant look.  I could tell something was going on with her—this wasn't a typical talk she wanted to have later.

            After class, Charisse appeared at my desk and waved to Branden as he left the room.

            I picked up my things quickly, and I stood up.  "What's up?"

            Charisse smiled and shot a glance around the room.  "Not in here.  Let's talk out in the hall where we'll be a little more anonymous."

            I nodded, and we moved out into the hall.

            With students chattering all around us, Charisse dropped her smile.

            She lowered her voice.  "It's my mom."

            "Your mom?" I asked.  "Is she sick?"

            "No."

            Charisse seemed hesitant to go on, but she had said that she wanted to talk—so I waited patiently for her to speak as we walked.

            "My mom is dating again," Charisse said after a few moments, and her voice shook just a little bit.

            I was startled.  "She's dating?  Already?"

            "Shhhh!" Charisse hissed.  "Not so loud.  And yes."

            "But what about the divorce?" I asked.  "It can't be final yet."

            "It isn't," Charisse replied.  "But she said that the marriage is as good as over, and that the official end is really just a technicality."

            "I suppose that's true," I said.

            I was trying to tread very carefully here.  Even though we were best friends, Charisse was not big on opening up to people, including me.  Charisse's parents had separated in October just before all the trouble with Gleb had started.  At the time, Charisse had claimed not to be bothered by the impending divorce—however, she'd also suddenly decided to run away to New York to become an actress.

            Charisse had since called off her New York plans, but she'd continued to say very little about her parents and the divorce.  I had a feeling that it troubled her a lot more than she would say, but I never said anything about it unless she brought it up.  I hoped she knew that I would support her and not judge her.

            Charisse lapsed into silence once again, and I could see signs of strain around her eyes.  I wasn't entirely sure how to help her.

            "Does your dad know?" I asked after a moment.

            "I don't know," Charisse replied.  "I don't know if it would make any difference if he did."

            Charisse stopped suddenly and closed her eyes tightly.  Then she shook her head.

            I stopped beside her, concerned.

            She opened her eyes and the look she gave me was full of fear.

            "This guy my mom is seeing is strange—really strange.  And someone needs to talk to her about him.  She won't listen to me about him at all.  She gets really stubborn.  Once upon a time, my dad was the only person who could talk to her when she got that way.  But now, of course, he's out of the picture.  And even if they were on speaking terms, which they aren't, she would hardly take his advice on romance."

            I suddenly felt chilled, though I didn't know why.  Surely, it wasn't unusual for a child, even an older one to feel uneasy when a newly single parent started dating—so Charisse's anxiety was probably perfectly normal.  But all the same, there was something very convincing about her fear.

            Charisse was genuinely worried.

            "What do you mean this guy your mom is dating is strange?" I asked.  "Strange in what way?"

            "I don't know exactly."  She gave me a glimmer of her usual smile.  "Maybe it's nothing."

            "Charisse," I began carefully, "you shouldn't force your feelings underground.  If something feels off to you, you should talk about it."

            Charisse frowned, and then gave me an oddly desperate look.  "I don't know what it is, Katie.  I really don't.  He certainly hasn't done anything wrong.  And it's not anything he's said, either—in fact, he's very charming and polite.  I can't actually pin anything on him, and yet—"

            She paused, and when she went on her voice was small and frightened.  "Katie, I think this concerns you too.  Would you—that is, I need you to—"

            Charisse stopped suddenly and drew back as if she'd been caught at something.  She looked around and gave me a small smile.  "This is my hallway.  I'd better go.  You should forget what I've said.  I really shouldn't have brought this up at all."

            She turned to go.

            "Charisse, wait," I said.

            She turned back and waved, but she kept going.

            I had no choice but to hurry on to class.

            I was growing increasingly anxious to see William.  I never knew when or where he would show up when he came to see me at school.  I just hoped he would appear soon.  I needed to see him—I needed to hear him.  I clutched my charm—it made him feel nearer somehow.

            Third period and fourth period passed, and I didn't see William.  I went to lunch, and I sat with Charisse, Branden, and Simon like I usually did.  All traces of Charisse's earlier uneasiness seemed to have vanished—she and Branden were teasing each other back and forth.  Simon seemed to be working harder than usual to make me laugh, but I wasn't in a terribly humorous mood.  I was beginning to worry that maybe William wouldn't show up today.  GM would be really unhappy if she agreed to have him over for dinner and then he didn't show.

            "So how about it, Katie?"

            I glanced up.  Simon was looking at me expectantly.

            I realized that I hadn't heard anything he'd said in the last few minutes.

            I blinked.  "Sorry, Simon.  What did you say?"

            "I said, how would you like to go ice skating with me this weekend?  I thought it would be fun for you—especially since it seems to be something you're into now."

            A familiar feeling of guilt settled over me—it always seemed to come up with Simon.  It was beginning to be clear that what I'd suspected earlier was true—that Simon's romantic feelings for me were returning.  Perhaps they had never really left.  I really liked Simon—I really cared about him.  But what I felt for Simon was nothing like what I felt for William.

            "What about Irina?" I asked.

            At the beginning of the year, Irina had made no secret of the fact that she liked Simon.  And as the weeks had gone by, she had only seemed to like him more—and she had been even more unpleasant to me than she usually was.  After Irina and I had returned from Russia and our relationship had thawed, there had also been a warming up of the relationship between Irina and Simon.  The two of them had seemed to be getting along well for a few weeks—they even seemed to be well on their way to becoming a couple.  But lately, it seemed that they had begun to drift apart.

            I drew in my breath sharply—I should have seen it before.  Irina had realized that Simon was interested in me again long before I had.  That's why she was angry again.

            For his part, Simon ran his hand over his hair.  "Irina, yeah."

            Simon looked away.  I could see that he was trying to work out what he wanted to say.  I wanted to tell him that he didn't have to explain anything about Irina to me—that I would actually be really happy if he liked Irina.  But I had a feeling that telling him all that wouldn't make any difference.  So I waited.

            Simon gave me a serious look.  I was reminded suddenly of the one time we had kissed—here at school in a deserted hallway.  I should have realized that his affection for me wouldn't fade so easily.

            "Irina is a great girl," Simon said at last, "but she's not you.  And I know you think you like this William guy, but Katie, I'm telling you he's not good for you."

            I realized then that Charisse and Branden had stopped talking and were watching us closely.  I suddenly felt very uncomfortable.  Charisse and Branden didn't know much about William, but I had an unpleasant feeling that they disapproved of him too.

            Simon continued.  "I'm sorry I've spent so much time with Irina lately.  As I said—she's a great girl.  I like her a lot, and I wanted to like her more—mostly because it seemed to be what you wanted."

            I felt a little pang of guilt when Simon said that.  I certainly hadn't meant to push Simon into a relationship that he didn't really want.

            "But Katie, I soon realized that I could never feel anything more for Irina than friendship.  And I also realized that it wouldn't be fair to her to pretend that it was possible for me to feel otherwise."

            I sighed.  I was certainly familiar with that sentiment.

            "And I have to tell you," Simon said, "that it's almost like you're under some kind of spell lately.  Things were going great between us until this William guy showed up.  And you know, I blame myself for some of this."

            "Simon, that's crazy," I said.  "You have absolutely nothing to be sorry about—"

            Simon interrupted.  "But, I do.  I really do.  I was hanging out with Irina, but the whole time I was worried about you.  I knew that you were in trouble with this—this William, and I did nothing.  You needed me, and I wasn't there.  And now you're in over your head with some shady guy from who knows where.  I've failed you, Katie.  And I'm sorry about that."

            "Simon, you've got this all wrong," I said  "I don't want to hurt you, but I'm really happy with William—no one could make me happier."

            Simon gave me a skeptical look.  Then he shook his head and smiled.

            "Okay, Katie.  I'll humor you.  For now."

            I looked around at Charisse and Branden.  Both of them were staring at me, clearly concerned.

            "So what about you guys?" I asked, though I feared I knew the answer.  "What do you think about William and me?"

            Branden looked away.

            Charisse pursed her lips.  She started to say something, then stopped.  She was silent for a moment, and then her words started to tumble out.

            "Katie, as much as I hate to say it, your situation is reminding me of my mom's.  I wanted to say something before, but I couldn't.  Some guy breezes into town out of nowhere and suddenly the two of you can't be separated.  You don't spend time with your friends like you used to, and you seem to be in a dreamy fog all the time.  And Katie, to be honest the few times I've been around William, I've gotten a really funny feeling around him.  It's a lot like the feeling I have around my mom's new boyfriend.  I think William is trouble too."

            "What can I do to reassure you guys that everything is okay?" I asked.

            "Listen to your friends," Charisse said quickly.  "Listen to the people who care the most about you."

            I felt frustration welling up within me.  That was not the kind of answer I wanted.

            I looked around at the three sets of worried eyes that were turned toward me.  "Can we change the topic, please?"

            All three sets of eyes wavered—I saw disappointment and fear flash across the faces that were turned toward me.  Charisse, Branden, and Simon all became carefully polite, even conciliatory.

            "Yeah, sure, of course," Branden said.

            "If that's what you want, Katie," Simon said.

            "Don't get angry, Katie.  We're just trying to look out for you," Charisse said.

            But I was angry with all of them.  William was different, and he couldn't settle into the normal patterns of the community for very good reasons—reasons I could never explain to them.  I supposed that if the situation were reversed and one of them was seeing someone who seemed mysterious—and possibly dangerous—that I would be concerned, too.  They were only being so pushy because they cared about me.

            I told myself to be calm.

            "I appreciate your concern, I really do," I said.  "You'll all just have to trust me on this one."

            In return I received three nods and three polite smiles.  But I had a feeling this argument was far from over.

            The rest of lunch was rather strained as we all made small talk, and I was relieved when the bell rang.

            We all got up, and Branden and Charisse headed off together, like they usually did.  I turned to say good-bye to Simon, but instead of turning toward his hallway, he moved to follow me.

            "I'll walk you to class," he said.

            I stopped and stood still, even though doing so meant that I was blocking other people who were trying to exit the cafeteria.

            Simon stopped then, too, making the problem worse.

            "Simon—" I began.  I was suddenly nervous.  I didn't want Simon following me.  I was still waiting for William to show up, and I didn't want him to step out of the shadows when I was with Simon.  Simon, though he pretended otherwise, still seemed pretty worked up.  I feared what would happen if he saw William.  I didn't want a confrontation—especially not at school.

            "Out of the way!" someone shouted.

            Simon and I drew apart from the stream of traffic and stood by the wall.

            "Simon—" I began again.

            He interrupted.  "Katie, we're not done talking yet."

            "Simon, please," I said.  "I don't want to go over all that again—"

            "Katie, you never answered my question."

            I blinked.  "What question?"

            "Will you go ice skating with me this weekend?"

            I looked up into Simon's face.  Despite everything I had said, he looked really hopeful.  A terrible feeling of guilt settled over me once again.

            "Simon, I like you.  I really do.  And we've been friends forever—"

            "So, is that a 'yes'?"

            I closed my eyes.  "Simon, please just listen."

            He remained silent, and I looked up at him again.  "I want to stay friends with you, and I don't mind doing things with you as a friend, but somehow going ice skating feels more like a date.  And as much as I like you, I can't go out on a date with you."

            "Because of him," Simon said.

            "Because of William," I replied.

            Simon nodded, then he looked up at me.  "I'm not going to give up, you know.  You think that he's right for you.  But I know that I am.  I'm in this for the long haul.  You take all the time you need to moon over the wrong guy.  But when he's gone—moved on to the next town or whatever it is guys like him do—I'll still be standing here.  I'm the one you can depend on."

            Simon backed up a few paces.  "I'm not giving up, Katie.  I promise you that."

            Then, he turned and was gone, disappearing into the crowd of students.


Chapter 4.

 

After Simon had disappeared, I stood for a moment, feeling more than a little overwhelmed.  Then I turned to go to class.  As I did so, I found that someone was standing in my way.

            I looked up and saw with relief that it was William.

            "Was that guy bothering you?"  William nodded his head in the direction of the now-vanished Simon.  His tone was light, even joking, but I thought I detected an undercurrent of anger.

            "Your hearing is pretty good, isn't it?" I said ruefully.

            "Yes," William said, giving me his little half smile.

            "How much did you overhear?" I asked.

            "All of it," William replied.

            "So you know that Simon is unhappy about you and me."

            Simon and William had met on a few occasions—neither one had seemed to take to the other.

            "Yes," William said, "and I think your friend has a lot of nerve.  But because he's your friend, I decided not to make an issue of it."

            "Thanks," I said.  "Simon—"

            I realized I didn't know quite how to finish the sentence.  I wanted to say something soothing.

            "Simon means well," I said at last.

            William didn't seem to like the topic very much.

            "You have to get to class, don't you?" he said.  "Lead the way."

            We walked through the crowded hallway together, and I couldn't help wishing that William could actually go to school with me—then we could spend time together every day.

            "Did you talk to your grandmother?" William asked.

            "Yes, I did.  She said you can come over for dinner tonight."

            "Tonight?" William said.  "Are you serious?"

            "Yes, I'm serious.  I wouldn't joke about something like this.  Besides, it's not like she knows you're a—"

            I stopped abruptly.  The hallway was not the place for unguarded talk.

            William gave me a wry smile.

            "So can you come over tonight?" I asked.

            "Of course.  It's what I wanted—or don't you remember?"

            "GM said that she's going to make pasta or something like that.  Do you—you actually eat anything?"

            "I can," William said.  "It won't be a problem."

            I realized that I'd never really asked William about his diet.  I did know that he didn't drink human blood—he'd reassured me on that score—but I didn't know what he actually did consume—if anything.

            "So what do you eat—drink—whatever it is you do?"

            William glanced around.  "I don't think this is quite the place for that discussion."

            "Sorry," I said.  "GM is going to ask you questions, too.  She'll want to know a lot about you."

            "I'll answer her questions," William said.

            "You will?"

            "Of course."

            I was stunned.  "But you almost never answer questions when I ask them."

            William shot me an amused glance.  "You're exaggerating."

            "No I'm not.  You never tell me anything.  Why will you answer questions for GM and not for me?"

            "Don't you want me to answer questions for your grandmother?"

            "Of course I do."

            "Then you'll find out some of the things you want to know tonight."

            Somehow that wasn't exactly an answer to my question.

            My irritation seemed to amuse William further.

            "What time is dinner?" William asked.

            "Six-thirty."

            "I'll be there then."

            He smiled and turned as if he were about to leave.

            I reached out and grabbed him by the sleeve.  "William, wait.  There's something else I have to tell you."

            He turned back, and we started walking again.

            I glanced over my shoulder, and then lowered my voice.  "This may not be the best place to discuss this, but we won't be able to talk about it at dinner, either.  I heard this morning that a girl was attacked last night in the Old Grove.  From the description of the wounds, it sounds like a vampire attack."

            William looked at me sharply.  "You don't need to be worried, Katie.  I'm keeping an eye on the situation."

            "You already know about the attack?"

            "Yes."

            "Are Anton and Innokenti responsible for it?" I asked.

            "I'm fairly sure it was one of them—but I don't know for sure which one it was."

            "So they're going to hang around town?"

            William was grim.  "It looks likely."

            "What are we going to do?" I asked.  "If they stay here there will be more attacks."

            "We aren't going to do anything," William said firmly.  "I'll take care of those two."

            "What happened exactly?" I asked.

            "The incident occurred around midnight.  The victim was a girl from this school—her first name is Annamaria."

            I drew in my breath sharply.  I realized now why Bryony and Irina had looked so worried.

            "Do you know her?" William asked.

            "Yes," I said.  I felt light-headed.

            "From what I hear, she's going to be okay."

            "I know—I heard that too.  It's just—"

            I had to stop.  A terrible thought had just occurred to me.

            "Katie, I'm going to look out for you and everybody in this town."

            William's tone was reassuring, but I was too rattled to be soothed.

            William stopped walking.  "If I'm not mistaken, this is your classroom.  You should go in.  The bell is about to ring."

            I clutched at William's sleeve again.

            "What about Annamaria?" I asked softly.  "Is she safe from—"

            I glanced around and lowered my voice further still.  "Is Annamaria going to become a vampire?"

            "No," William replied, "she isn't."

            "Are you sure?" I asked.  "Do you really know that, or are you just trying to make me feel better?"

            "I went over to visit Annamaria this morning," William said.  "That's why I was a little later meeting up with you than I intended to be.  I asked her a few questions.  She isn't in any danger."

            "William, how does it happen?  How does someone become a vampire?"

            "Katie—"

            I clutched his arm more tightly.  "William, don't put me off.  I need to know.  I won't go to class unless you tell me."

            William did not look happy, but after a quick glance around, he answered me.

            "You have to be bitten by a vampire.  Then you have to drink his blood in return.  Then you have to die.  Typically, death occurs because the vampire continues to return and drain his victim night after night.  The human body can only handle so much blood loss.  Annamaria hasn't consumed any blood, so she should be safe.  The vampire who attacked her is unlikely to be able to get her in the hospital—and I doubt he wants to anyway."

            "So—"

            "Katie, I've answered your question.  Now go to class.  I'll see you tonight.  It really will be okay."

            With that, he was gone.

            I walked into class and sat down.  I was really shaken up by the fact that it was Annamaria who had been attacked by a vampire.  I tried to pay attention in class, but my thoughts kept wandering back to her.

            What if she was only the beginning?

            The rest of the day passed in a blur, and I felt a sense of relief when I heard the final bell ring.  I hurried to my locker, and when I shut my locker door, Charisse was standing on the other side.

            I couldn't help jumping a little.  "You startled me, Charisse."

            Charisse was grim.  "I want you to do something for me.  This has gone far enough."

            "Is something wrong?"

            "Katie, I want you to come home with me right now."

            "Ordinarily, I'd be glad to," I said.  "But I have to get home.  William is coming over for dinner tonight.  GM and I have to get everything ready."

            "Your grandmother won't mind if you're just a little late," Charisse said firmly.  "I just need you to see something.  Then I'll drive you right home.  It'll only take a few minutes—I promise."

            I was puzzled.  "You want me to see something?  What is it?  Can't you just bring it in tomorrow and show me then?"

            Anger flickered in Charisse's eyes.  "I can't bring it in tomorrow.  And I can't tell you what it is—you have to see it to understand.  This is really important to me.  And it's important to you, too."

            I felt a flash of irritation.  "Charisse, tonight is important to me.  I want this dinner to go well.  I want GM and William to like each other."

            Charisse just stared at me steadily.  She continued to look angry, but there was something else there too—was it fear?

            "You're sure it will only take a few minutes?" I asked.

            "I'm positive," Charisse said.

            I sighed.  "Fine."

            The day had grown even colder since the morning, and as I followed Charisse out to the student parking lot, our breath rose up into the air as frosty white vapor.  We got into her car, and I shivered in the car's frigid interior.

            Charisse started the car and pulled out onto the road in silence.

            I glanced over at her as we drove.  There was tension in her hands as she gripped the steering wheel, and her lips were pressed into a grim line.  I felt myself growing concerned for her.  What could be at her house that had her so upset?

            We pulled into her housing development, and she parked the car in a cul-de-sac.  I glanced around—we were several streets over from her house.

            "Why are we parking here?" I asked.  "Is there any reason we can't park at your house?"

            "Leave your stuff here," Charisse said.  "It'll be safe.  I'm just taking my keys."

            She got out of the car, and I followed her.

            "We're going to have to sneak up to my house" Charisse said grimly.  "Just follow me and try to be quiet."

            "Charisse, are you okay?" I asked.  "You're acting really odd."

            "I'm acting odd?" Charisse's lips curled into a mocking semblance of her usual smile.  "You should see what's going on at my house."

            Charisse led me across several streets and then into someone's backyard.  She crouched down against the side of the house and motioned for me to do the same.  We could see into Charisse's yard from our vantage point.

            "Charisse, what are we doing?" I whispered.  "Why don't we just drive up to your house like normal people?"

            "I don't want my mom to know I'm home yet."

            I was puzzled.  "What's your mom doing home this early?"

            Charisse's mother was an attorney, and I knew she usually worked long hours.

            "Lately, my mother is home all the time," Charisse whispered.  "It's really not normal.  Just watch for a moment and don't say anything."

            I waited silently, just watching as Charisse had instructed, but nothing happened.  Just as my legs were starting to cramp, Charisse rose a little.

            "It looks like the way is clear," she whispered.  "Come on."

            Charisse hurried over to her own backyard, still crouching down.

            I hurried after her.

            Charisse stopped just underneath a large window.  I had been to her house many times, and I knew that that window looked in on her kitchen.

            I crouched under the window beside her.

            "I'm going to look in," Charisse said, and she lowered her voice so much that it was barely audible.  "I'll let you know when it's okay for you to look too."

            Charisse reached up to grab the ledge, and inch by inch she raised herself up till her eyes were just high enough to look in.

            "It's okay to look in right now," she said in the same almost-inaudible whisper.  "But be ready to duck down if I give the word."

            I reached for the ledge and pulled myself up slowly just as Charisse had done.

            The scene that met my eyes was not out of the ordinary.  Mrs. Graebel was seated at a table that I had sat at many times myself.  Her black hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and she was wearing a pink turtleneck sweater.  She held a mug in her hands, and I could see that she no longer wore her wedding ring.  But there was nothing unusual about that—she was in the process of getting a divorce.

            As I watched, Mrs. Graebel lifted her mug and took a drink.

            I dipped back below the ledge.

            Charisse frowned and slipped down beside me.

            "What are you doing?" she hissed.

            "What am I doing?  What are you doing?" I whispered back.  "I feel really weird spying on your mom like this.  Was it really necessary to drag me over here so that I could watch her have a drink at her own kitchen table?"

            Anger flashed in Charisse's eyes.

            "Look at her," Charisse whispered.  "Really look at her.  Think about what you know about my mother, and then tell me what you see."

            I started to raise myself up again, but Charisse pulled me back.

            "Wait," she whispered.  "I'll have to look to make sure the way is clear again."

            I suppressed my irritation as Charisse slowly pulled herself up and looked into the kitchen once again.  After a moment, she waved me up.

            I was really anxious to be done with the whole thing, but Charisse was my friend, so I pulled myself up beside her.

            Mrs. Graebel was sitting as before, sipping from her mug.  I felt ridiculous, peering in at her without her knowledge, but I tried to evaluate the scene before me.  Charisse seemed very sure that something was wrong.  Had I missed something?

            I examined Mrs. Graebel's expression as best I could.  She certainly didn't look unhappy—in fact, she looked calm and peaceful—almost dreamy.

            It was true that Mrs. Graebel wasn't the dreamy type—she was very energetic and no-nonsense.  But perhaps the end of her marriage had taken some pressure off of her.

            As I continued to look at Mrs. Graebel, I realized that there was something a little careless about her ponytail—and I had never seen her less than perfectly groomed.  I had also never seen her wearing anything like the slouchy turtleneck she was wearing.  I almost invariably saw her in suits, even on the weekends, and on the rare days when she took off and wasn't in suits, her taste was fashionable and somewhat severe.

            I frowned.  The turtleneck looked like it was too big for her.  Had Mrs. Graebel lost weight?

            "You see it now, don't you?" Charisse whispered.  "You can see that she's changed."

            "Your mother doesn't like pink does she?" I whispered back.

            "No, she doesn't," Charisse hissed.  "Her favorite color is black—followed closely by gray."

            "I don't know, Charisse," I whispered.  "One pink turtleneck doesn't really seem like the end of the world to me."

            Out of the corner of my eye I could see something move in the kitchen, and Charisse tugged fiercely on my coat sleeve.

            "Duck!" she hissed.

            We both dropped down below the ledge, and Charisse continued to stare upward as if she wished she could see through the wall.

            "What is it?" I whispered.

            Charisse gave me another sharp tug on my sleeve and pressed a finger to her lips.

            After a moment, Charisse motioned firmly for me to stay put.  Then she crept slowly up toward the window, till she could see in once again.

            I watched as her eyes narrowed.

            "I knew it," she hissed.

            I looked at her questioningly.

            "I knew he was coming over to the house while I was gone," she whispered.

            "Who?" I asked.

            Charisse ducked down beside me, her eyes blazing.  "It's Joshua—the guy my mom is seeing.  He's never around when I get home, but I always have the feeling that he's only just left.  I see now that I was right.  This is what you really need to see."

            She moved up to the window and watched again.  Then she motioned for me to join her.

            I peered into the kitchen, and this time I could see a man sitting at the table across from Mrs. Graebel.  He was blond and good-looking, and he rested his chin on his hand as he gazed at Mrs. Graebel.  For her part, Mrs. Graebel's expression had grown even dreamier.  She had set her mug down, and she was leaning on her elbows, gazing back at the blond man.

            I ducked down below the window ledge again.  I didn't feel like watching any longer.

            Charisse glared at me.  "What are you doing?"

            "This is weird," I whispered back.  "I don't want to do this anymore."

            Charisse dropped down beside me.

            "Katie, this is exactly what I brought you to see," Charisse whispered fiercely.  "You have to see the way the two of them interact.  It's just not normal.  It's like my mom's under a spell."

            "I'm not going to spy on your mom and her boyfriend," I whispered back.

            "But you have to see them."

            "I've seen enough," I said.

            "Well?" Charisse demanded.

            "Well, what?" I asked.  It was cold, and I was getting tired of crouching down below the window like some kind of criminal.

            "What do you think about the two of them?  Don't you think there's an unhealthy atmosphere there?"

            "I think maybe it's—"

            "Yes?"

            I hesitated.  I'd almost said 'love,' but that seemed a little too strong, and such a term would surely upset Charisse.

            I tried again.  "Maybe they're—happy."

            Anger flashed in Charisse's eyes.  "Happy?  You call that happy?"

            I tried to choose my words carefully.  "I know it's hard to see your mom dating again—"

            Charisse cut me off.  "'Dating' is not the issue.  My mom is home when she should be working.  She's not acting like herself.  And that man is with her when I'm not around.  Something's not right."

            "I don't know why your mom is home when she's usually at work, but—"

            "Katie, you know, there's more than one reason why I wanted you to see my mom today, and I'm glad you got to see her with Joshua—that's the way you look when you're with William."

            "You're really not helping your case with that," I said.

            "It's true," Charisse hissed furiously.  "That's the same dreamy, lost look you get when you're with William.  William and Joshua are both the same.  They're both trouble.  And I heard William was seen with you at school today.  He's got no right to be in our school."

            I very nearly jumped to my feet, but I stopped myself in time—Mrs. Graebel and her boyfriend would surely see me.

            "Charisse, I'm going back to the car.  I'm not doing this anymore."

            "Don't you dare leave!" Charisse hissed.

            But I was already moving along the back of the house, still crouching down.  I didn't care particularly if Charisse was following or not.  I would wait by the car, and if she didn't show up, I would just walk home.

            But as I reached the end of the wall, someone stepped into my path, and I was forced to stop short.

            I looked up.  In front of me was the blond man from the kitchen.

            Charisse ran up beside me and grabbed me by the arm, pulling me back.

            "You leave her alone!" Charisse shouted.

            I turned to look at her.  There was a look of genuine fear on her face.

            "Hi, ladies," the man said pleasantly.

            I turned back to look at the man before me.  He smiled, and it gave him a youthful, boyish look.

            He was wearing a coat, and he held out a gloved hand to me.  "Charisse I know already, but I don't believe we've met.  I'm Joshua Martin."

            I reached my hand out automatically to take his, but Charisse grabbed my arm and pulled it back down.

            Joshua gave Charisse a rueful look and pulled his hand back, brushing it over his hair.

            "What are you doing out here?" Charisse asked.  She continued to grip my arm and her eyes were wary.

            "I might ask you two the same thing," Joshua said lightly.

            The words were clearly intended as a joke, but I felt Charisse stiffen.

            Joshua looked down, and then gave Charisse another rueful look.

            "Okay," he said.  "I can see this isn't going too well.  Let's start over again."

            He turned to me and put a hand to his chest.  "I'm Joshua Martin.  I'm a friend of Charisse's mother."

            "I'm Katie Wickliff," I replied.  "I'm a friend of Charisse's."

            "It's nice to meet you, Katie," Joshua said.  He pointed a thumb over his shoulder.  "It's pretty cold out here.  Would you girls like to come inside and have something hot to drink?"

            "No, we wouldn't," Charisse said sharply.

            Joshua nodded his head and looked around.

            "Just out of curiosity—what are you two doing out here?"

            "Why do you want to know?" Charisse snapped.

            Joshua spread out his hands.  "Well, you know, it's just a little weird, Charisse.  You and your friend here are hanging out beneath the window instead of coming into the house like normal people—"

            "How did you know we were under the window?" Charisse interjected sharply.

            "Water vapor, Charisse.  We saw your breath rising up past the window.  Your mom asked me to come outside and see what was going on.  And then, I see the two of you sneaking along the back of the house here."

            Charisse bristled.  "You have no right to ask me what I'm doing at my own house.  You don't belong here.  Come on, Katie.  We're going back to the car."

            Charisse tugged on my arm and pulled me around Joshua, giving him a wide berth.  She dragged me into the neighbor's yard.

            I looked back.

            I saw Joshua throw up his hands in frustration.

            "I wouldn't do anything to hurt your mother, Charisse," he called after us.  "I wouldn't do anything to hurt you, either."

            Charisse continued to pull me along by my arm.

            Joshua shouted after us again.  "You know, it's not so terrible if your mother relaxes sometimes."

            Charisse drew in her breath sharply.  She broke into a run, dragging me with her.

            We ran until we reached Charisse's car.  She scrambled to pull the door open and jumped inside.

            I hurried into the car.  Charisse quickly locked the doors.

            She twisted around and searched the street behind us.  Then she fell back against her seat.

            "He didn't follow us," she breathed.  She closed her eyes.

            I glanced back.  The street behind us was indeed empty.

            I turned back to Charisse.  "What is going on with you?"

            Her eyes flew open.  "Are you serious?"

            "Yes, I'm serious.  You're acting crazy."

            "You really didn't hear that?" Charisse demanded.

            "Didn't hear what?"

            "Katie, Joshua said it wasn't so bad if my mom relaxes sometimes."

            "So?"

            Charisse's eyes blazed.  "So?  Katie, he could hear us."

            "When we were whispering beneath the window?"

            "Yes.  He heard me complaining about the fact that my mom wasn't at work like she should be."

            "I don't see how that's possible," I said.

            "Then how did he know?" Charisse demanded.  "I never talk to him.  I certainly never spoke to him about my mom's work."

            "Well, of course you never talk to him," I said.  "You told me he's not usually there when you get home.  You can't talk to him if you don't see him."

            "Katie, he comes back later in the evening to pick my mom up so they can go out.  He tries to talk to me then.  But I have absolutely nothing to say to him."

            "Maybe you said something to your mom, and she mentioned it to him."

            Charisse shook her head.  "I don't talk to her these days, either.  It's like she barely even knows I'm around."

            "Okay, let's say he's weird and your mom's distant.  I still don't see what your point is.  What do you think is going to happen?"

            "Joshua is not normal.  He could hear us talking—I know it.  And I think that's why he's gone when I get home—he can hear my car coming, so he leaves.  He's trying to pretend like everything's normal, but it isn't."

            I didn't reply, and Charisse lapsed into silence.

            "I guess I don't know what my point is, either," she said after a moment.

            She started the car.

            "You probably want to get home."


Chapter 5.

 

Charisse left me at my front door, and then sped off.

            I knew she was angry—she had maintained a stony silence during the drive to my house.  But I didn't see that there was anything either one of us could do if her mother liked Joshua Martin.  Maybe Charisse had noticed something strange about him—but I hadn't.

            And it seemed to me that if anyone could recognize trouble, I could.

            Just as I was getting out of the car I had asked Charisse to tell me if anything new developed—anything truly out of the ordinary.

            Charisse had not replied to that.

            I supposed I couldn't really blame her.

            So feeling out of sorts, I watched Charisse's tail lights disappear.  Then I went into the house and on into the kitchen.

            A pot of water was boiling vigorously on the stove, and GM was sitting at the kitchen table reading a letter.  The letter seemed to absorb her completely—so much so that I could tell she didn't know that I had come into the room.

            I stood for a moment watching her.

            My eyes dropped from her rapt face to the piece of paper in her hand.  I squinted at it, and I realized that I could just make out the dark outline of the words she was reading.  I wondered if I could read the words backwards.

            GM looked up suddenly and jumped when she saw me.

            "Oh, Katie!  I didn't know you were home!"

            She folded the letter up swiftly and swept it into an envelope that had been lying face down on the table.  Then she hurried out of the room.

            It was pretty clear to me that she was going to her office to hide her letter.

            Sure enough, when GM returned a moment later, her hands were empty.

            "Sorry I'm later than usual," I said, as GM moved to the stove.  "I stopped by Charisse's house."

            GM was measuring orecchiette pasta into the boiling water and looked around at me.

            "It is of no consequence, Solnyshko."

            She turned back to the boiling water and threw in a pinch of salt.

            It was unusual for GM not to require me to account for all of my time.

            "GM, who was the letter from?" I asked.

            GM waved a hand airily.  "No one."

            She smiled at me and moved to the refrigerator.

            I felt a flash of frustration, but I tried to keep my voice even.  "A letter can't come from no one.  Someone has to write it and send it."

            GM shut the refrigerator door and turned back to me.  "It's not from anyone you know."

            I persisted.  "Is it from the same person who sent you all the other letters?"

            "What other letters?"

            "GM, please.  You know I've seen you with the other letters."

            GM's face went carefully blank.

            "This is my private correspondence, Katie.  It has nothing to do with you."

            I decided to drop the topic.  GM was clearly getting ruffled, and I didn't want her to be in a bad mood when William arrived.

            "Is there anything I can do to help with dinner?" I asked, changing the subject.

            "The sauce is made already," GM replied.  "You can chop up this basil."

            She handed me a bunch of the herb.  "When you're done with that, you can cut some slices of bread."

            GM and I worked on dinner after that, and before long, I was running up the stairs to get ready myself.

            I changed my clothes quickly and pulled a brush through my hair.  Then I stood before the mirror surveying my reflection.

            I was starting to get nervous now, and I ordered myself to be calm.

            I really wanted this evening to go well.

            As I turned away from the mirror, I thought I saw a flutter of movement out of the corner of my eye.

            I turned back quickly and searched the mirror, but there was nothing in it that shouldn't have been there.

            I turned away again, but as I did so, I got the strangest feeling that someone in the mirror had turned away also.

            I resisted the urge to look at the mirror again and shrugged off the feeling—surely it was just my nerves getting the better of me.  Or was it just nerves?  A horrible thought occurred to me, and I resolved to ask William about it.

            I hurried downstairs.

            I found GM in our seldom-used dining room, lighting candles.  The table was set and all the food was out—GM had made a few extra dishes that she hadn't told me about.

            "It looks beautiful, GM," I said.

            "I used to do a lot of entertaining once," GM murmured, almost more to herself than to me.  "I gave a lot of big parties.  I know how to turn out a good table."

            I was caught by the tone of her voice—it was faraway, even wistful.  I was on the verge of asking her a question when there was a knock at the front door.

            I glanced at GM nervously.

            "You will give William a chance, won't you?"

            "Of course I will give him a chance.  I've done all this, haven't I?"  She waved a hand at me.  "Now, go.  Say hello to your young man."

            I hurried to the door and opened it.

            William gave me his crooked smile.

            I stood for a moment just looking at him—I had a strong desire to throw my arms around him, but I figured that really wouldn't help my case with GM. 

            GM walked up behind me.

            Suddenly I felt strangely shy.

            "Katie, aren't you going to invite your friend in?" GM said.

            "Won't you come in?" I said to William.

            "Thanks."  He stepped in, and there was a bottle in his hand.

            GM glanced disapprovingly at the bottle—I imagined she thought he was sixteen as I was.  I supposed I should have warned him not to bring something like a bottle of wine.

            "GM, you remember William Sursur from Russia," I said.

            "Yes, I remember him," GM replied shortly.

            "It's good to see you again, Mrs. Rost," William said.  He held the bottle out.  "This is for you."

            GM accepted the bottle and glanced at the label.  The corner of her mouth quirked up.

            "Sparkling apple juice.  Thank you."

            The three of us went into the dining room.  William held GM's chair out for her.  Then he did the same for me.  GM seemed amused.

            William sat down, too, and we started on dinner.

            "So, William," GM said, "do you attend school with my granddaughter?"

            "No, I don't."

            GM seemed surprised.  "Where do you go to school, then?"

            "I don't go to school," William replied simply.

            GM shot me a disapproving glance.  "I see.  What do your parents think about that?"

            "My parents are no longer with us."

            I glanced at William sharply.  GM, no doubt, would assume from that that William's parents were dead—I wondered, though, if he actually knew anything about them.  It seemed to me that William might not know where, or even who, they were.

            But I could hardly question him about that in front of GM.

            GM herself seemed momentarily stunned by William's reply and something like sympathy flickered in her eyes.

            She soon shook off the emotion and returned to her questioning.

            "Do you work?" GM asked.

            "Yes."

            "What do you do?"

            "I work freelance.  I'm a software engineer."

            "You are quite young to have a job like that."

            "A lot of computer geniuses started young."

            GM's eyebrows rose.  "So, you are a genius, then?"

            William's face was suffused with color.  "No, that's not what I meant at all."

            "Why are you here in Elspeth's Grove," GM asked.  "Is it for work?"

            "No," William replied.

            "You came here to see my granddaughter?"

            "Yes."

            GM was holding a fork in her hand.  In that moment I wouldn't have been surprised to see her snap it in half.

            "You sound to me like a reckless, irresponsible young man," she said in a voice of iron.

            "GM—" I began.

            "Hush, Katie," GM snapped.  "You stay out of this."

            She turned her attention back to William, and her eyes blazed.  "You admit that you came here to stalk my granddaughter?"

            "I can appreciate your concern, Mrs. Rost."  William replied mildly.  "And I'm very grateful that you invited me over here tonight.  I wanted you to see me.  I wanted to talk to you, and I wanted you to know more about me.  I did move here to be near Katie—I admit that.  But I can assure you that I have not come here to stalk her.  I only want to see Katie as long as she wants to see me."

            GM seemed incredulous.  "So, if Katie were to ask you to go—to leave Elspeth's Grove entirely, what would you do?"

            "I would leave," William said.

            "Just like that?" GM demanded.

            "Just like that."

            GM stared hard at William for a long moment, and he calmly returned her gaze.

            William was the one who eventually broke the silence.

            "I hope you'll forgive me for saying this, Mrs. Rost, but I am much happier here.  Things are difficult for me in the town of Krov.  I believe that is something you can understand."

            GM seemed to consider William's words.  After a moment, she sighed.

            "It is true, what you say.  I love Krov, but I could never live there again.  I, too, am happier here.  Krov is hard on her children."

            GM didn't seem entirely sold yet, but the tense lines in her face had relaxed.

            "Where do you live, William?" GM said.

            "I have a house in the Old Grove."

            I gave him another sharp glance.  He had already told me that he would answer GM's questions—even though he wouldn't answer mine—but somehow the fact that he had answered this particular question so easily rankled.

            I felt for just a moment as if the two of them were united against me.

            "Do you rent or do you own?" GM asked.

            "I own the house."

            "And your freelance work—is it full time?"

            "Yes."

            "It is strange," GM said.  "You are almost like a full grown man, dating a high school student."

            William didn't have an answer for that.

            GM was suddenly fierce.  "I want it to be clear that I will allow nothing and no one to harm my granddaughter.  Neither you, nor anyone else, will jeopardize her future.  Katie will finish high school and go on to college.  She will have a flourishing career in whatever field she chooses.  She will not run away with you and elope.  The two of you will not decided that you can 'live on love.'  And if you were to attempt to abscond with my granddaughter, I would hunt you down and murder you myself.  Do you understand that?"

            William blinked and sat back in his chair.  I had never seen him look intimidated before.

            He was intimidated now.

            "Yes, ma'am.  I understand that," he said.

            GM nodded.  "Good."

            Something in William's answer must have satisfied GM, because her sudden anger seemed to subside.  After she had regained her composure, her attitude became less confrontational.  She began to ask William about the company he was currently freelancing for.  When GM discovered that she had done projects for the same company, the two of them began to talk pleasantly.

            I was relieved that the grilling was over.

            The rest of the evening seemed to go well, and GM was almost friendly when she said goodnight to William.

            As William left, I followed him outside and closed the front door behind us.  I'd been turning something over in the back of my mind, and I had to ask him about it.

            I glanced back at the window in the front of the house uneasily.  I knew I wouldn't have much time, and I knew GM would be watching.  I just hoped she couldn't overhear us.

            "I think this went well, don't you?" William said.

            "It does seem like this was a good idea," I replied.

            "I'd kiss you good night, but I have a feeling that your grandmother would storm out here and forbid me ever to return."

            "William," I said quickly.  "I have some questions that I need to ask you."

            "More questions?"  William was amused.  "I would have thought we'd both had enough of those at dinner."

            "I need to ask you about Anton and Innokenti," I said.

            "You don't need to know about those two," William said.

            "I know you've said that before," I replied, "but there's a lot I don't know about—about—"

            I stumbled over my words, afraid that GM was listening.

            "I need to know about them," I said at last.

            "Katie, they aren't nice—'people.'  I'll call them that for lack of a better word."  William glanced up at the window as if he too, feared that GM could hear him.  "You really don't want to know about them."

            "I don't mean that I need to know about those two as individuals."  I dropped my voice nearly to a whisper.  "I mean I need to know about vampires."

            William winced and shot another glance at the window.

            I expected another protest from him, so I went on quickly.

            "I have a specific reason for wanting to know," I said.  "I've—I've been seeing strange things, and there are two of them in town.  I don't know what I can believe about them and what I can't.  For example, in popular folklore, crosses can ward off vampires, but in actual fact, crosses have no effect on them, right?"

            "That's true," William said.

            "Those are the kinds of questions I have."

            "What do you want to know?" William asked quietly.

            "Are they hurt by garlic or holy water?"

            "No."

            "What about sunlight?"  I remembered that Odette had disappeared during the day.  "Will sunlight kill them?"

            "No.  Like many night creatures they are sluggish during the day—it's when they are most vulnerable.  They do tend to hide from sunlight.  But it won't kill them."

            "Can they enter a house without being invited?"  I was getting closer to the question I wanted to ask the most.

            "Yes," William said.

            I was a little startled by his answer.  "Yes?"

            "Yes."

            "But I invited you into my house."

            "You didn't need to.  And if you'll recall, I entered your house when Gleb broke in.  You didn't invite me in that time."

            "So, Anton and Innokenti can walk into anyone's house any time they want to?"

            "They can.  But I'm watching your house.  They won't get past me."

            Suddenly an image flashed in my mind of Anton walking around in my living room, his eyes alight with malice.  He picked up one of my family photos and examined it.  Then he turned expectantly, as if someone had come into the room.

            The image faded quickly, and I staggered.

            William reached out a hand to steady me.

            "Katie, are you alright?"

            I wasn't sure if what I had just experienced was a vision or not, but the image that I'd seen had been unnervingly clear.  Somehow, however, it didn't feel like a vision.  Maybe it had just been my subconscious fears bubbling up to the surface.

            I knew one thing for certain—no matter what I had seen, Anton was not in my house right now.  William would have known if he were, and he would have rushed in to stop Anton.  So I took a few deep breaths and decided to ignore the image and focus on what was bothering me the most—the topic I hadn't brought up yet—my mirror.

            "I'm okay," I said to William.  "They—people like Anton and Innokenti—they're fast, aren't they?"

            "Yes, they are."  William searched my face as if he still feared that something might be wrong with me.

            "Can they be seen in a mirror?" I asked.

            "Of course," William replied.

            I felt a chill spread through me.

            "I've been seeing things in my mirror again," I said.

            William knew all about my history with mirrors and visions.  He also knew that my visions had stopped.

            "But what I'm seeing now is different from what I've seen before," I said.  "Now I see something fluttering—just a little motion out of the corner of my eye.  Could I be catching glimpses of a vampire?  Could they be hiding in my room, but moving so quickly that all I see is a little flash in my mirror?"

            "I don't know what you've seen in your mirror," William said firmly, "but neither Anton nor Innokenti has been in your house.  I know that for certain."

            "They're fast," I murmured.  "They have keen senses, too, don't they?  And they have the power to control people's minds—to persuade their victims to do what they want.  Odette used that last one on me."

            I shivered.

            "You shouldn't think about things like that," William admonished gently.  "You're going to upset yourself, and you'll have trouble sleeping tonight."

            "How can I not think about things like that when Annamaria was attacked, and I've been seeing strange things in my mirror?" I asked.

            "Annamaria will be okay.  She's safe in the hospital.  And like I said, neither Anton nor Innokenti has been in your house.  I promise you that you haven't been seeing them in your mirror."

            William paused.  "You do believe me, don't you?"

            "I believe you," I said.  "I just wish there was something I could do to get the two of them out of town.  I won't feel really safe until they're gone."

            William ran a soothing hand over my hair.  "I'll worry about them.  You don't need to."

            "How do you kill them?" I asked suddenly.  "Will a wooden stake work?"

            "Katie, I'm not sure a discussion like that will do you any good."

            "Will a wooden stake work?" I repeated.

            "Wood has some effect, especially if the vam—"

            He stopped and glanced over at the window.  "Especially if one of them is already weak.  But it won't work on all of them.  Typically, the older they are, the stronger they are.  Sometimes all that will work is beheading and fire.  And it wouldn't hurt to scatter the ashes too."

            "That doesn't sound very easy."

            "It isn't."

            "If they're so hard to kill, why aren't we overrun by them?"

            "They aren't completely invulnerable," William said.  "And fire is effective—especially, as I said, when combined with a beheading.  Also, there aren't very many of them—humans outnumber them by a wide margin.  And most humans have a natural aversion to them and do tend to attack them—you know, crowds with pitchforks and torches and all that.  And they fight amongst themselves a great deal."

            "What about—"

            "Katie, please," William said.  "This conversation is getting a little dark.  You won't need to destroy any of them tonight.  This house is safe, and I mean that.  You should go inside now.  Before your grandmother gets too anxious and runs me off."

            I still felt uneasy.  "Will you come to see me at school tomorrow?  I still have some questions to ask you."

            "I will come to see you tomorrow if you will go inside now and stop worrying."

            "I'll go inside now," I said.

            William gave me his little half smile.  "Then I will see you tomorrow."

            As always, I was reluctant to see William go.

            I sighed unhappily.  "Good night."

            "Good night, Katie.  And no more thoughts of dark creatures.  You can always call me you know."  He disappeared into the night.

            William wasn't talking about an ordinary call on a cell phone or a landline—I didn't actually know if he had either one of those, though presumably he did since he ran a business.  The type of call he was talking about was something different—it was an incantation—something he had granted to me that would summon him to me from wherever he was.  He could be at my side instantaneously from anywhere in the world.

            All I had to do was say the right words, and he would appear.

            So I supposed I was safe enough.

            I turned and went into the house.

            GM met me at the door.

            "You were out there with him for quite a long time."  GM wasn't angry, but there was something very stiff about her posture.  Her face was carefully blank.

            I was a little confused by her manner—she had seemed to warm up to William during dinner.

            "Do you like William, GM?"

            GM folded her arms.  "He seems pleasant enough—it is not a question of liking him."

            "But something about him bothers you?"

            "I am allowing you to see him, aren't I?"

            "But something does bother you?"

            GM shrugged, her arms still crossed.  "It's just that he seems to have appeared out of nowhere.  Despite his readiness to answer questions, he remains mysterious.  I don't like that."

            GM's pointed comments from earlier in the evening suddenly came back to me.  She had mentioned eloping.  She had mentioned living on love and giving up a promising future.  I thought of the photo in the living room of a young couple in a bare room with a single flower.

            "Did you like my father?" I asked suddenly.

            GM blinked at me in surprise.  "Your father?"

            "You're wearing that expression," I said.  "The expression you wear when you don't want to discuss the past.  Does William remind you of my father?"

            GM threw up her hands.  "I suppose that's possible.  Your father seemed to come out of nowhere, too.  He just appeared in our little town."

            "Did you like him?" I asked again.

            GM pressed her lips together.

            "You should not ask me a question like that."

            I felt panic rising within me.  "Why not?"

            "Oh, Katie, don't look at me like that.  I'm sorry, child.  I don't want you to think I didn't like your father.  I did like him.  But I'm not sure I trusted him."

            "Why?" I said.  "What reason did you have not to trust him?"

            "Please do not panic, Solnyshko.  Your father was a good man.  He meant well.  But his head was full of superstition.  Your mother seemed to attract people like that.  I think sometimes he might have influenced her the wrong way."

            GM reached out and touched a lock of my hair.  "Such a pale gold," she murmured.  Her eyes roamed over my face, and they tightened at the corners.  "You are so like your mother."

            "But I'm not my mother," I said quietly.  "And William is not my father.  He knows all about the superstitions of Krov, and he wants me to stay away from them."

            William's insistence on my staying out of everything was typically something that bothered me, but in this case I knew GM would find it reassuring.

            "Well," GM said, looking mollified.  "That is certainly a point in his favor."

            I felt again for a moment like they were united against me.

            GM turned as if she were going to go into the kitchen, and I knew I had to stop her.  She was in an unusually talkative mood—perhaps because the evening had been a little unsettling for her.  It seemed to have shaken her usual control and left her vulnerable.

            "GM," I said quickly, "you said it seemed like my father appeared out of nowhere, but he came from the U.K., didn't he?"

            GM turned back.  "Yes, he did."

            "Then why did you say he came out of nowhere?"

            GM shrugged.  "It was never clear to me exactly why he had come to Russia, or how he had found our little town of Krov—it's an isolated place in many ways.  We certainly never received many visitors.  He didn't seem to be there for work or family, and he seemed to have come there specifically to find your mother.  It was an unusual situation to say the least."

            "I can see now why William reminded you of him," I said.  "What explanation did my father give of himself when you first met him?"

            "He didn't give any account of himself when I first met him.  He was presented to me as a fait accompli," GM said curtly.  "My daughter introduced him to me as her husband."

            I was startled.  "They were already married when you met him for the first time?"

            "Yes," GM said.  "They married without telling a single soul beforehand.  I never did find out how long they'd known each other before they came to that decision."

            I knew now why their wedding photo was so Spartan—apparently my mother, like her mother, was fond of her secrets.

            I felt myself growing concerned about the mother I'd barely known.  "Did my father have job?" I asked.

            "No," GM replied.  "But he did seem to have a lot of money.  He said he'd inherited it.  He never said from whom."

            "And my mother didn't have a job, either?" I said.

            "No," GM replied shortly.

            "If my father had a lot of money, why did you all live together?" I asked.

            "We lived in my house.  I insisted on it.  To my surprise, they agreed.  I don't know that I could have prevailed upon them if they hadn't—they were both so willful.  But they weren't interested in a home of their own—or in material goods in general.  Their minds were all full of their spiritual quest.  They believed they were both put on this earth to fight the powers of darkness."

            A note of despair had crept into GM's voice.

            "It was all nonsense, of course," she said.  "And they both paid for it in the end."

            I looked at GM sharply.  "What do you mean?"

            GM shrugged—not so much as if she didn't care, but as if she were pushing away difficult emotions.  "Your mother, you know, exacerbated her fever chasing after phantoms.  And she didn't survive."

            I nodded.  That was the version of the story that GM knew.  I knew the reality—that she had been systematically poisoned.  But the truth was something that she would never believe.

            GM continued and some acidity crept into her tone.  "Your father supposedly died in a hiking accident.  But your father never had any interest in hiking or any other kind of outdoor sports.  I think he was doing something else—chasing after some foolish fantasy.  And whenever one of your parents when chasing after a fantasy, they seemed to run afoul of criminals like Gleb Mstislav and others of his ilk.  I think your father upset someone he shouldn't have upset.  And then that someone had him killed."

            I felt a chill run through my body—a chill that ran so deep it seemed to freeze my heart.

            An accident was a terrible thing.

            But a murder was even worse.

            GM caught sight of my face.  "I see I have upset you, Solnyshko.  This is exactly why I do not like to talk of the past.  Perhaps it is best if we end this conversation."

            I felt suddenly as if an important opportunity were about to slip away—that as painful as the topic was, I had to keep GM talking or I would lose the chance to find out something very important.

            I felt frozen, though.  I couldn't think of anything to say that would keep GM talking.

            As I continued to struggle, GM ran a hand over my hair.

            "I am sorry about what I said, Solnyshko.  I should not have said those things about your father's death.  It was tragic, but I'm sure it was nothing it shouldn't have been."

            I pushed myself to speak.  "No—no—you should say what you think.  I don't want you to keep things from me—even if they're painful."

            GM shook her head.  "I spoke out of turn.  And speculation about your father's death will change nothing—he is gone regardless.  All this discussion will do is hurt you.  I will say nothing more about it."

            I tried to think of a way to counter that—to come up with the argument that would change GM's mind and keep her talking, but I could tell from her expression that the topic was closed.

            "Your parents were good people," GM said softly.  "Dreamy, yes, but good.  I did not mean to say anything that would tarnish their memory."

            She smiled sadly.  "It must be hard for you—very hard.  You barely knew your parents.  I am sorry about that, Solnyshko."

            GM brushed a hand over my hair once more, and then she left the room.

            I had let the moment slip away.