Fireflies

How do you tell your 12-year-old son that his best friend has died?

When we left Florence the day after Christmas, Colin was doing better. They were weaning him off the ventilator. He was responding to his parents and siblings with smiles and nods. I thought that he might actually beat the odds.

The weekend before Colin got sick, he’d stayed with us. I had noticed, at one point, that he seemed paler than usual. However, he’d behaved normally, rollerskating on Friday night and throwing popcorn at the screen on Saturday during the love scenes of the latest Twilight movie, which he and Ben were required to attend because I’d promised Ben’s sister I’d take her and a friend.

As usual, Colin and Ben had alternated between playing outside and coming in to play video games. Colin’s energy level seemed normal to me, and I was paying attention because his pallor worried me. It was winter, and he was fair skinned, I told myself. Nothing to worry about. But I was wrong.

Although we didn’t know it at the time, Colin had leukemia. When his mom took him for his annual checkup, the doctor gave him a chicken pox booster — recommended at age 12. But because of the as-yet-undiagnosed leukemia, the vaccination overwhelmed his system, throwing him into an extremely rare illness, hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, or HLH. Basically, in HLH, your immune system goes into overdrive, and begins attacking your organs as well as the virus it’s actually after.

But HLH starts slowly. After spending the weekend with us, Colin wasn’t at school on Monday. Via computer, Colin told Ben he had chicken pox. He sent Ben a photo of a few welts. Okay, sometimes a booster will do that. It’s rare, but it happens. I still didn’t worry.

Then Colin went into the hospital. Doctors at McLeod were stymied. His condition worsened. He was transferred to Columbia and placed on a ventilator. The doctors in Columbia finally diagnosed him with HLH. Now, I worried. As a nurse, I knew the odds. I also knew that Colin’s mom, a Pediatric Intensive Care nurse, knew the odds.

But the news was good. They were treating him with chemotherapy. Colin’s condition began improving. They began weaning him off the ventilator. He began responding to his parents and siblings when they spoke to him.

So I thought it was safe to follow through on our after-Christmas plans of a mountain trip. We made it as far as Rock Hill. On Dec. 27, my phone rang. Colin’s dad was on the other end. Colin hadn’t beaten the odds after all.

So how do you tell your 12-year-old that his best friend has died? Colin, the person who got his sense of humor. Colin, the person who said he’d go to IB with him. Colin, his wingman on the soccer field. Colin, his best friend in the whole world.

You go into his room, and you say, “Ben, I need to tell you something.” Then, because there’s no way to soften the blow, you say, “Ben, Colin has died.”

And you hold him in your arms while you both cry.

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Rainbow Risks

There’s always a fad: pet rocks, mood rings, troll dolls, Cabbage Patch dolls … the list goes on. And your kids always want whatever it is.

About 2000 or so, Rainbow flip-flops made it from California to South Carolina and became the latest thing. My children begged for them, but I refused to spend $20 apiece on three pairs of flip-flops that they’d outgrow in a few months.

One late August afternoon, I’d picked them up from after-school care and we were driving home. School had started, summer was ending, and a store we were driving past was advertising a sale on Rainbows. Unfortunately for me, Adam could read.

“Hey, Mom!” he said. “They’re on sale!”

I was in nursing school and I must have been especially tired that day, because I caved. Pulling in to the parking lot, I said, “We’re buying the flip-flops and nothing else.”

As we entered said establishment, I noticed a young man sitting on a bench out front. Tattoos covered each arm, and his facial piercings were numerous. This should have alerted me, but as I said, I was tired.

We entered what appeared to be a surf shop — t-shirts and flip-flops, in-line skates, skateboards, and surfboards surrounded us. They had children’s Rainbows, and we found the correct sizes.

Adam, about 8 years old, wandered back into the t-shirts.

“Hey, Mom, look at this!” he called, holding up a shirt that was entirely inappropriate for his younger siblings to see.

“Adam, put it back,” I said, herding Mary and Ben to the cash register to pay for the three pairs of still-much-too-expensive-but-at-least-on-sale shoes. As I focused on getting out the credit card and signing my name, Mary, age 5, and Ben, age 4, stared into the glass display case in front of us.

“Mom, what’s that?” Ben asked, pointing at something in the display case.

I realized, much too late, that the case displayed rubber body parts with piercings. And there, among the ears and the noses and the eyebrows, was a breast with a nipple ring. Which, naturally, was what Ben was pointing at.

“Let’s go,” I said, snatching the bag from the cashier’s hand and hustling Mary and Ben outside. Adam finally tore himself away from the t-shirts and followed us.

Yes, they got their Rainbows, along with an education in body piercings and, um, highly inappropriate t-shirts.

I think now about how we must have looked to the people who worked at the surf shop — young suburban mom, Toyota minivan, three young kids — wandering into the land of body piercings and sex wax.

As I said, I was tired. And the shoes were on sale.

 

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First Love

One of my earliest memories is of wading in the ocean. We were in Wilmington, N.C., to visit some elderly relatives of my mother’s. For whatever reason, we had some down time, so my parents took my brother Rusty and me to the beach to entertain us.

It wasn’t summer, and Rusty and I were dressed in our Sunday best to meet the old ladies. It was probably cold, but I didn’t notice. All I remember is I had to get in the water.

“Don’t get your clothes wet!” my mother admonished. Really, I didn’t mean to! But I couldn’t resist the ebb and flow of the waves. The sound, the movement, the water crashing on the sand, curling into it, then flattening out, receding, only to do it again. And again. I loved it.

I don’t remember meeting the old ladies that day, although I’m sure we did. All I have is that little snippet of time we spent at the ocean.

Looking back, I’m surprised at my love of water. My mother tells me that as a toddler, living in land-locked northern Alabama, I would wake up terrified, screaming about “sharps” under my bed. Now, I wonder how I even knew sharks existed. There was no Discovery Channel. We didn’t even have a TV. “Jaws” hadn’t yet been written.

We lived in the middle of nowhere, and my only social outings were Sunday School and church (my dad was the minister for three small Presbyterian churches in Sumter County, Alabama. Seriously — the middle of nowhere). I don’t remember sharks being the topic of any Sunday School lessons. My parents read Dr. Seuss and Madeline to me in the evenings. But somehow, sharks swam through my nightmares.

When I was six, my family moved from Alabama to John’s Island, S.C. The manse was fronted by Bohicket Road and backed by Bohicket Creek. My dad built a dock. My mom decided Rusty and I needed to learn to swim. She signed us up for lessons at the Y in Charleston.

The high school students teaching the lessons were clueless. I’m sure they were just doing what they’d been taught, but their approach wasn’t reassuring. They took us by the hands, and had us put our heads in the water and kick. The scariest part? As they walked backwards, pulling us with them, they took us into water that was over our heads. Yes, they could stand up in it, but we knew we couldn’t.

At the end of the first lesson, they had us jump off the diving board into the deep end. I was 8, and Rusty was 6. We were both smart enough to know that was a really bad idea for someone who couldn’t swim. We also didn’t know our instructors well enough to trust them to catch us.

I jumped anyway — hey, oldest child, can’t disappoint authority figures, even if it kills me!

But Rusty refused. He also refused to enter the water again, screaming every time anyone tried to pick him up and move him toward the edge of the pool. Both of our parents began to attend our lessons, in an effort to reassure him. It didn’t work.

Eventually, my mother made some inquiries and found a retired Marine sergeant who taught swim lessons in a backyard pool. He was calm, he was competent, and he was patient. By the end of the summer, both Rusty and I could swim and dive.

In spite of that less-than-reassuring introduction to swimming and my early fear of sharks, I was never afraid of the ocean. I loved our summer trips to Hilton Head with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins on my father’s side. I loved camping at Edisto Beach State Park with my parents and siblings as a child, and looking for shark’s teeth on that same beach as a teenager.

I remember running into the waves, ignoring my parents’ directives not to go past my knees. I loved the energy, the sound, the smell of the salt water.

I no longer live on the coast, but I find I need to return regularly to recharge, listen to the waves, and reconnect with my first love — the ocean.

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Shattered

My heart is shattered broken into a million tiny pieces
Scattered on the floor as I gather them
Fingers bleed red drops into glittering chaos
Lives lost to hatred a city struggles
To forgive
A flag inflames danger comes
From within
We raised him we nurtured him his hatred
Is our own we are all guilty
As I mourn strangers dissect me tell me
Who I am what I think
My heart can be mended but
Nine pieces are missing
And home isn’t home any more

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Eat, Prey, Blood

Chapter Twelve

He didn’t mean the school library. He took me to the city library. The building was even more ancient than the school, at least 800 years old. The stained glass windows made it look like a cathedral inside. As it had been part of a cathedral originally, I suppose that wasn’t so surprising.

We went downstairs, to the rare books room. Marc showed his ID, and the librarian unlocked the door and let us in.

He took down a large leather-bound volume, hand-written and hand-illustrated. He handed me a pair of white cotton gloves. I looked at him, my eyebrows raised.

“We wear gloves so that the oils from our skin don’t touch the pages as it speeds disintegration,” he said. I put them on.

I turned the pages slowly, watching the history of vampires in Europe unfold in front of me. The book was mostly drawings, with the occasional phrase in Latin, which Marc translated for me. The most important part was the prophecy, which strangely enough, was written in English.

I looked a question at Marc. He shrugged.

“No one knows when this book was written, or by whom,” he said.

“Then why does everyone take it so seriously?” I asked.

“Read it.”

Child of Darkness, Child of Light;
One consumes, one burns bright.
Fates intertwine, paths cross at last;
Reshape the future from the past.

“Huh. That doesn’t sound so bad,” I said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that a Stregoni-Garda child will end the Velathri’s rule. In fact, it doesn’t even mention the Velathri.”

“That’s not how the Velathri have chosen to interpret it,” Marc said. “One thing that’s clear, though, is that this person brings change to the established order.”

“So they’ve killed all these children based on their interpretation of some ancient rhyme,” I said. “What if they’re wrong?”

“They don’t really care. As long as they’re in power, and remain in power, they don’t care who they hurt. Or kill,” Marc said. “Either way, it’s worked so far.”

I thought of the children who had died. I thought of Marc’s parents, and my grandparents. More than ever, I appreciated my parents’ efforts to keep me safe. And I decided that I couldn’t let more people die. I might not be the answer to the prophecy. In fact, I really didn’t think I was. But I refused to let these guys kill more kids. Starting with me.

I turned to Marc. “So what do I do?”

“First? Learn to fight. Ready to go back to work?”

Back to the gym we went. We spent another two hours sparring before we stopped for the day.

“Keep it up,” Marc said, “And you just might survive.”

“Gee, thanks,” I said, wiping my face with a towel.

“Tomorrow, we move to the dagger and the staff.”

“The what and the what?”

“You need to know how to fight up close. That’s the dagger. And you need to know how to grab whatever’s at hand – that’s the staff. Don’t think you’ll always have a sword when you need it,” Marc said.

We walked back toward my dad’s house in silence. As we walked past a tourist information office, Marc stopped.

“Let’s go in here,” he said. “We need a map of the original city walls for you.”

Inside the small office, Marc looked carefully at the maps.

“Here,” he said, pulling one out of the pile. He paid the woman sitting behind the counter, and we continued our walk around the city’s center – where the original city walls had once stood. My dad’s house backed up to the boundary I couldn’t safely cross.

At the front door, Marc bowed, kissing my hand.

“I thought we were dispensing with the niceties,” I said.

“Touche,” he laughed. “See you tomorrow.”

“Katie?” my dad said as I entered the house. He’d gotten back before I had. That was a first.

“It’s me!” I called as I walked down the hallway to my room. “I’m going to shower and change, okay?” I asked.

“Sure, fine,” he called.

I took off the black outfit and took a hot shower. I put on the t-shirt and shorts I’d started out in that morning, and headed to the kitchen. Johan and his parents were sitting at the table.

Oh. This was not how I’d envisioned my reunion with Johan. And I hadn’t even had time to think about our relationship, or how it might be changing. I was make-up free, with wet hair curling around my shoulders. But he didn’t seem to mind.

“Katie,” he said, standing up and reaching for me. I ran into his hug. It felt so comfortable, so familiar to be in his arms. I leaned my head on his shoulder, so happy and relieved to see him I didn’t even think about the fact that my dad and Johan’s parents were in the room.

“Katie?”

I jumped back, letting go of Johan so fast I stumbled.

“Dad?”

“How was your training?” Dad asked, looking from Johan to me. Johan’s face flamed red, and I’m sure mine did the same.

I tried to gather my thoughts.

“Fine,” I said. “I learned a lot.”

I didn’t feel it was necessary to tell him that I’d learned he was still keeping secrets from me. I was grateful to Marc for telling me the truth, even if it had been hard to hear.

“Great,” Dad said, still eyeing Johan. “Dinner’s ready.”

We sat down to another of my grandmother’s recipes … shrimp scampi, Italian style. Everyone enjoyed it, although everyone except me drank “tomato juice” with their meal.

“Um, so where’s Mom? And Claire? And her parents … um, I mean Adam and Ariel?” I asked as we cleaned up the kitchen.

“They’re on their way,” Edward said. I didn’t miss the sympathetic look Juliana gave me.

“What are you not telling me?”

Juliana raised her eyebrows and turned toward my dad.

Dad sighed. “We’re not sure what’s happening,” he said. “Your mother should have already been here. I can’t imagine what’s keeping her.”

“Can’t you?” Edward asked sharply.

“Yes, she is Garda, but Katie is her daughter,” Dad said, his own voice tense.

Adam turned to me. “Adam, Ariel, and Claire took the other book to Rome for safekeeping. We think your mother may have gone with them.”

“But weren’t we supposed to bring both books here?” I asked. “And why Rome?”

“Because that’s where the Garda Council is located,” Dad answered.

“Really?” I asked. “What about Ireland?”

“The Council moved from Ireland to Rome at the height of the Roman Empire,” Dad answered. “They felt it was important to be at the center of civilization.”

I thought for a minute. “So why would they take the book to the Council, rather than bringing it here?”

Dad sighed. “Because, Katie, the Council is rethinking its treaty with the Stregoni Benefici.”

“Oh. And what does that mean?”

“It means that if there is a war between the Velathri and the Stregoni Benefici, the Garda will sit it out.”

“That’s bad, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Katie, very bad. One of the reasons there hasn’t been all-out war before this was that with the Garda as our allies, the balance of power was in our favor. The Velathri weren’t willing to take us on with such powerful beings fighting with us.”

“So … what changed?”

“Fergus the Fierce is missing.”

“Um, wouldn’t he be dead by now?” I asked, confused. I thought the story Dad had told me happened hundreds of years ago.

“Katie, vampires don’t die of old age,” my dad said.

“Oh, right.” I thought for a minute. “So do you think someone – or something – killed him?”

“We hope not,” Adam answered. “We hope he’s in hiding. But right now, we don’t know. And the Garda don’t know, either. As they made original agreement with him, they’re reconsidering it now that he’s missing.”

“And what about the book?” I asked.

“I’m not sure what they plan to do with that. One of us will have to travel to Rome to speak with them,” Dad said.

“I’m leaving tomorrow,” Juliana said. “I’ve been friends with Libby since before Katie and Johan were born. I need to find out about the book, but I also need to make sure she’s safe.”

“Johan and I will stay here,” Edward said.

I looked around at my dad’s small house. “Where will everyone sleep?”

Edward laughed. “We own the house next door. We’re not moving in with you!”

Whew. That was good. Five people in this house would be close quarters. There were the two bedrooms downstairs, and a large room upstairs that was part library, part archaeologist’s workroom. It used to be my grandmother’s sewing room, but now was my dad’s home office.

And then there was the one bathroom. There were some modern American conveniences I missed … like multiple bathrooms in a house. Dishwashers. Air conditioning.

“Johan will take classes with you, and I’ll help your dad on his dig,” Edward said.

“Um, what exactly are you looking for?” I asked. “You already found the two books.”

Dad looked uncomfortable. Apparently I wasn’t supposed to go there.

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Dad?”

“There’s supposed to be a third book,” Dad said. “The book you have gives a history of fairies in Ireland. The book Claire has is a history of vampires. There have been rumors throughout time of a third book, which outlines a new order.”

“Tell me the whole story, Dad. I can handle it.”

“Okay. Legend has it that the third book, when joined with the other two on a specific date, will give us the ability to create a new world order – one where the Velathri don’t rule all magical creatures by fear, one where children of fairies and vampires don’t have to be hidden to survive to adulthood, one where werewolves and witches and fairies don’t have to hide, living in forests and small villages and underground, so the Velathri don’t hunt them down and kill them.”

“I thought the books were all in Pompeii at the same time,” I said.

“They were,” Dad answered. “But I guess it wasn’t time yet.”

“You know the date?”

“Again, it’s just legend. But the date predicted is the summer solstice the year the new leader turns 17.”

“Who’s the new leader?”

“That’s not clear,” Dad said, grimacing. “The Velathri think it has something to do with the rhyme Marc showed you today, and that’s why they’ve worked so hard to make sure the children of fairies and vampires don’t survive. Sadly, those children might have united us even without a third book, if they’d been allowed to live.”

“So the Tuatha didn’t – don’t – trust vampires. And apparently for good reason,” I said.

My dad nodded.

“So … why are they okay with you having the books?”

“I have the skills to find the books, and I promised to make copies, so each group – Garda, Tuatha, Velathri, and Stregoni – have a set,” Dad said. “This means power is balanced, and no one group has an advantage. But the Garda apparently have decided to take things into their own hands.”

“It’s okay, though, right?” I said. “You were going to give them the book anyway.”

“It’s not okay,” Edward said. “Your dad still needs to make copies. And we’re still looking for the third book.”

“I contacted the Velathri as soon as I found the first book,” Dad said. “I asked permission to have copies printed before returning it to them. I received permission last week, which is why I asked Claire to bring it to Italy.”

“You asked their permission? Why?” My brows drew together as I tried to figure that one out.

Dad sighed. “Because, Katie, the Velathri are, for lack of a better word, our bosses.”

“But … I thought you were here to control them. To keep them from harming humans.”

“In a way. The Velathri make the rules. And they are very strict about enforcing them. The Stregoni Benifici are here make sure the Velathri follow the rules.”

I stared at him blankly.

He looked thoughtful.

“Okay. Let me try to explain in human terms. I guess you could say we’re kind of like game wardens. We protect the game in our forests from hunters, but we still answer to the government that appointed us, even if members of that government are hunters themselves. Does that make sense?”

Wow. This was all more complicated than I’d thought.

Suddenly, I remembered something. I thought back to the conversation in my mom’s kitchen the last night we spent in Charleston. It was only three days ago, but it felt like a lifetime.

“Wait. Adam and Ariel didn’t know Claire had the book until three days ago,” I said. “She had hidden it in her closet.”

“Hmmm. I wonder if Adam and Ariel took it from her,” Edward said.

“Why didn’t they take the book I have, too?” I asked.

“Because it has a spell on it,” Juliana said, smiling. “Remember? It chose you. If they’d taken it, it would have just disappeared and reappeared somewhere else.”

I jumped up. “Let me give it to you now, Dad,” I said. “I really don’t like having it in my backpack, even if we are inside the city walls.”

I went to my room and dug the book out of the bottom of my backpack. I looked down at the book in my hand as I handed it to Dad. Such a small thing to cause so much trouble.

“So we have the Garda’s book, and they have the Velathri’s book. This feels like a stand-off.”

Dad frowned. “Both the Garda and the Velathri agreed. I don’t understand what’s happening now.”

I was relieved to have the book out of my possession.

“Why didn’t you ask me for it earlier?” I asked Dad.

“Because,” he smiled. “The spell means you have to give it to me freely, without prompting. Otherwise, it just disappears again.”

“Even if you’re the rightful owner?”

“Even if I’m the rightful owner.”

“So who put the spell on it?”

“A woman I know here in town.”

I narrowed my eyes. “Her name wouldn’t be Natalia, would it?” I asked.

My dad raised his eyebrows. “How do you know Natalia?”

“She stopped and said ‘Hi’ today when Marc and I were eating lunch at the plaza,” I said. “She seemed to know you really well.”

“Who’s Marc?” Johan said at the same time my dad said, “Not really.”

“Marc is my – I guess our – tutor,” I said to Johan.

“Why were you eating lunch together?” he asked.

I stared at him. “Because it was lunch time.”

But I had more important things to worry about than Johan suddenly thinking he owned me. I turned back to my dad.

“Really?” I asked him, going back to Natalia.

“Really,” he said. “I asked her to cast a spell that would keep the book out of the wrong hands. And of course I paid her. Witches don’t work for free. I didn’t mention you. I didn’t say I was taking the book to Charleston. I have no idea how she bound it to you.”

“She almost got me killed,” I said. “The Velathri would have never even noticed me if I hadn’t been carrying the book.”

“Tony,” Juliana said gently. “You should have known better than to trust a witch. Their ‘help’ always comes with conditions. You know that.”

Dad looked frustrated. “I had no idea she even knew Katie existed. Natalia has only recently moved here, and it’s been seven years since Katie visited Montepulciano. I’ve been careful not to return, too, until last year.”

“I wonder where the witch got her information,” Adam said thoughtfully. “I think it’s more important than ever that Juliana find out what the Garda are thinking.”

“Then,” Juliana said, standing up, “I need to go home and get ready. I have to leave early tomorrow to catch the train to Rome.”

Edward and Johan stood, too. “We should all go,” Edward said.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Johan whispered as he passed me.

I smiled, but didn’t answer. If he was worried about Marc now, just wait until he saw him. Tomorrow should be interesting.

I stood up to go to my room.

“Wait, Katie,” my dad said. “I have something for you.”

I waited while he went into his bedroom, returning with a black case in his hands.

I stared. “Is that … what I think it is?”

“Yes, it’s a laptop,” he said, smiling. “I know you had to leave your computer in Charleston, and I thought you might miss it.”

“Wow, thanks, Dad,” I breathed. “It’s perfect.”

I opened the case, pulling out the silver laptop. I couldn’t believe it. The desktop in my bedroom in Charleston was old and slow. Using this would feel like driving a Ferrari after a VW Beetle.

“There’s wireless upstairs, in my study. I’ve already downloaded the software you need,” Dad said. “All you have to do is turn it on.”

“This is great,” I smiled, kissing him on the cheek. “I’m going to go use it right now!”

“Don’t stay up all night,” Dad said, smiling. “Remember you have training in the morning.”

“Right, Dad, no problem!” I answered over my shoulder as I bounced down the hall to my room. My own laptop. And the first thing I planned to do was a little research … on my own mother.

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Eat, Prey, Blood

Chapter Eleven

I finished my meal and sat there while Dad, still chuckling, washed the plate and put it in the drain rack. Apparently dishwashers weren’t in every kitchen here in Italy like they were in the U.S. I’d never noticed that when I was a little kid.

Finally, Dad sat back down.

“I believe you have more questions?”

“I do. So many, I don’t know where to start.” I pressed my hands to my temples, trying to organize my thoughts.

“First, when do I get my suitcase?”

“Tonight. I’ve sent someone for it already,” he said.

“Who?”

“Marc. One of my co-workers on the dig.”

That was easy enough. What else?

“How do you and Mom and the Corbetts and the Meyers know each other?” I asked. “Start at the beginning.”

“The beginning is a long time ago,” he said, looking at me seriously. “Because our association begins not with us, but with our parents. And really, even before them. But it’s time you know.”

He took a deep breath.

“About 500 years ago, the Velathri had nearly wiped out the Stregoni Benefici in Italy. Most of us had scattered, immigrating to other countries in Europe, or the U.S. and Canada. We didn’t dare live together in groups for fear of drawing attention to ourselves.

“One group of Stregoni Benefici was able to thrive. They had fled to Ireland, and remained safe for several generations. But eventually, the Velathri found them. In desperation, Fergus the Fierce, head of the Irish Stregoni Benefici, approached the Tuatha de Dannan and proposed a collaboration. An alliance, if you will.”

“Wait! Claire told me about the Tuatha de Dannan – she said they’re her cousins,” I interrupted.

“Yes,” Dad said. “They are. But I’ll get to that. Both groups called the Velathri enemies, although the Tuatha had never considered Stregoni Benefici allies. We were just more vampires to them. However, the Tuatha Council heard Fergus out, and agreed that a merger would be beneficial. The two groups began working together to contain the Velathri.”

He paused and took a sip of blood.

“Eventually, some vampires and Tuatha married. Your grandmother married your Uncle Alex’s father when she was young. But as you’ve seen, it’s difficult to maintain a relationship between two such disparate beings. Your grandmother and Alex’s father eventually divorced, and her second marriage was to a fellow Tuatha – your grandfather.”

“But what about the Garda? How do they fit in?” I asked.

“Some of the Tuatha rejected the treaty with the Stregoni. They retreated into the hidden areas of Ireland. Those who remained above ground, living among humans, began calling themselves Garda.

“Fergus and the Garda Council hoped there would be many Stregoni-Garda children born, strengthening the bond between the two groups. But so far, in 500 years, there have been only two. Your Uncle Alex, and you.”

“So why have I never met him before?”

“He was born 100 years before your mother, and raised in Europe,” Dad said. “Your mother was born after your grandparents left Europe for the U.S. Alex was an adult by then. He’s Claire’s husband, by the way.”

“What?!? …” So Claire was my aunt. I was beginning to get more than a little angry at my “best friend.” She’d kept so much from me. And I’d told her every thought in my head. Suddenly, I remembered Johan’s arms around me, and my reaction.

Which brought me to my next question.

“What about the Meyers?”

“They’re old friends of mine. They were already in Charleston when your mom and I married, and when we divorced, I asked them to keep an eye on the two of you,” he said. “Luckily, Juliana and your mom had become good friends during our marriage, and stayed friends after it ended.”

“How much does Johan know?” I asked.

“Oh, he knows everything,” Dad said. “He was raised in a vampire family. His parents had to teach him to blend in from the time he could talk.”

“He knows everything about ME?” I asked.

“I’m sure he does. Otherwise, how could he help his parents protect you?”

Oh, goody. Everyone knows everything except me. I was steaming now.

“Dad, I know you think you were doing the right thing by keeping this from me,” I said, trying to keep my voice from shaking. “But you really put me in a lot of danger. And now I’m playing catch-up while the Velathri try to keep me from turning 17.”

He had the good grace to look ashamed.

“I’m sorry, Mia Bella,” he said, trying to placate me by using my childhood nickname. “But your mother insisted. We didn’t know if you would become Garda or vampire, and she wanted you to have a normal childhood. At the time, it seemed like a good idea.”

“So tell me. How do I protect myself?”

“You spend the next two weeks inside the city walls, learning about your heritage.”

“Does that include learning how to fight?”

“Yes, it does, although your mother won’t like it.”

“Well, I don’t like having black bags put over my head at the airport and not having any way to defend myself,” I said. “What if Claire and my mom hadn’t been there?”

“But they were,” my dad said. “And now you’re here.”

I opened my mouth to argue, but yawned in spite of myself. I had so many more questions.

“Go to bed now. Your training begins tomorrow.”

I stood up, stretching. I was really tired. I leaned over and kissed Dad on top of his head.

“I’m sorry I got so mad. It’s just frustrating – and scary – to know so little,” I said.

He smiled. “I know. But that’s changing. Good night, Mia Bella.”

I fell asleep quickly, but my dreams kept me tossing and turning. I saw dark men in black capes creeping through underground passages. I saw my mother, glowing like Claire had outside of our house. And I saw my father, bleeding and lifeless on the floor of the wine cellar.

I sat up with a start. The sun was streaming through the white lacy curtains, and the smell of eggs and bacon drifted down the hall. My suitcase was lying open on top of the chest at the foot of my bed. Wonderful. Clean clothes. I shook my head, banishing the bad dreams from my mind.

I got up, pulling on shorts and a t-shirt. I ran a comb through my hair, pulling it into a pony tail. I didn’t know what one wore for vampire school, but I figured I needed to be comfortable for the fighting part. I tied my running shoes and walked down the hall to the kitchen.

Dad was putting a plate on the table.

“Eat up,” he smiled. “Your tutor will be here soon.”

As I swallowed the last bite, there was a knock at the door. I heard voices as Dad let the visitor in. I turned from putting my glass and dish in the sink to see the most beautiful man I’d ever laid eyes on walk into the kitchen. He was just a few years older than me, maybe 21 or 22, with dark hair and eyes and tan skin like mine. His face was narrow, with chiseled features, severe even. His profile would have been at home on a Roman coin.

He smiled, transforming his face. I tried to breathe.

“Katie, meet Marc, your tutor,” Dad said.

What? My tutor was a male model, not some old gray-bearded guy from one of Dad’s digs?

“Ciao, Katie,” the male model said. “I’m so pleased to meet you.”

“Um, hi,” I said, brilliantly.

I looked down. Marc was holding out a package. As my hands appeared to be glued to my sides, Dad took it and handed it to me.

“What is it?” I asked Dad, certain Marc had already decided I was mentally deficient.

“Your fighting clothes. Go change,” Dad said.

Fighting clothes? There were fighting clothes? Whatever, I thought, shrugging. I took the package to the small bedroom, closing the door behind me. Inside was a pair of black pants and a black shirt in some kind of stretchy material. Underneath them was a pair of black shoes that looked like cross-country track shoes without the cleats. I pulled on the pants and shirt. How had they known my size? The shoes fit, too.

I looked in the mirror. I no longer looked like an American teenager on vacation. I looked older. Mysterious. Even dangerous. So not me! I laughed, rolling my eyes at how silly it all seemed. Now it was time to see if Marc could actually make me dangerous. I certainly hoped so, as I really did want to live to see my 17 th birthday.

I walked out, joining my dad and Marc in the kitchen. Dad looked at me silently, a touch of sadness on his face.

“You look grown up, Katie,” he said. “Okay, you two. Off you go. I’ll be at the dig all day. Just let yourself in if you get back before I do. The door’s always open.”

I followed Marc out of the front door. I looked around curiously. I hadn’t been here since the summer I was 10, but it didn’t look like anything had changed. We turned right onto a narrow winding street that paralleled the city wall. The street was cobblestone, and the houses were small.

As we walked, the cobblestones gave way to pavement and the houses grew larger, going from two-story to three-story, while the yards grew smaller. All of them had window boxes full of geraniums. Even the tiniest yards were full of colorful flowers. Mothers pushed strollers toward the park in the center of town, and businessmen hurried by on their way to work.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“We usually practice at a facility outside of the city walls,” Marc said. “But as you can’t safely leave, I’ve gotten permission to use the school gym. It’s summer vacation and there are no classes right now. We can also use the library to help you learn the history of your people.”

More history. What happened to MY summer vacation? I sighed. At least I wouldn’t be tested on it. I hoped. Was there a written test to become a vampire?

We walked up the Corso, the main street leading to the city center. We stopped at a limestone building across from the park. We were proud of our history in Charleston, but 300 years is just a drop in the bucket to Montepulciano. The earliest settlement on the site was believed to date back to the 3rd Century B.C., built by an Etruscan king.

The original portion of the school building was at least 500 years old, although more modern wings had been added about 100 years ago, and a thoroughly modern gym sat out of sight at the other end of the wings, enclosing a grass courtyard where students could sit on benches under the trees to eat their lunches. Native limestone had been used to construct both old and new parts of the building, so ancient merged with modern without too much jarring of the senses.

I looked over at Marc’s perfect profile as we walked. I wondered if he was a vampire, or just one of my dad’s students. Or both.

“How long have you been in Montepulciano?” I asked, trying to make small talk. And get the answers to my questions.

“A few years,” Marc answered briefly.

“So you’re not just here for the dig, then,” I said.

“No.”

“How long have you known my dad?”

“Since I was a teenager.”

Since he could be 20 and he could be 200, that didn’t tell me much. Jeez, it was like pulling teeth to get this guy to talk. I gave up and just concentrated on keeping up with his long strides.

It was a beautiful, sunny day. It wasn’t hot yet, but I could tell it would be. No one had looked twice at our black outfits – strange garb on a day like today, but maybe not in the home town of the Stregoni Benefici.

Marc led me toward the gym. He took out a key and unlocked a side door. Inside, it looked like any other school gym. There were locker rooms, bleachers, and basketball goals. To the side I could see a weight room, and another room with a padded floor and walls. Marc led me toward the room with the padding.

“Okay, now tell me what you know,” he said, turning toward me.

The guy really wasn’t much for small talk, it seemed. Or maybe he was just rude.

“About what?”

“About fighting.”

“Nothing. I run cross-country. I’m fast. But I don’t fight.”

“Okay,” he sighed. “So we start from the ground up.”

He went to a closet and pulled out masks, padded chest guards, and fencing swords.

“Oh!” I said. “I’ve taken fencing. My mother made me. I never thought of it as fighting, though. It was like ballet – something to keep me busy after school while she taught. I thought you meant karate or judo.”

“Good,” he said, looking relieved. “Because if you’re going to fight for your life, it’ll be easier if the basics are already in place. And just so you know, the Italian martial arts, or fencing, is much more ancient than karate or judo.”

I rolled my eyes. Another history lesson. And it appeared my mother hadn’t enrolled me in fencing classes just to keep me busy while she was teaching. I’d actually been learning “Italian martial arts.” Between the whole “Garda as best friend” thing and now this, I was seeing a side of her I hadn’t known existed. A secretive, calculating side.

Marc and I suited up and took our stances. I felt confident. I was good at fencing. Johan and I had taken lessons together, starting in first grade. And it was a good thing, because Mr. Hay, our instructor, had had to pair us because no one else was quick enough to spar with us.

Before I’d even finished bowing, my sword was flying across the room.

“Hey!” I said.

“Dispense with the niceties, Katie,” Marc said, handing me my weapon back. “We’re dealing in survival here, not a high school match.”

I stood on guard, watching him warily. Two seconds later, I was disarmed again. “Focus, Katie,” he said. “Stop thinking so much. Don’t analyze. Just move.”

Behind the mask and padded clothes, he looked just like Johan. That was it. I would pretend I was sparring with Johan, not male-model Marc. And I had never let Johan beat me.

I relaxed my shoulders and bent my knees slightly. When he came at me this time, I was ready for him.

“Better,” he said. “Keep going.”

An hour later, I had parried most of his lunges, made two of my own, and only been disarmed once more. I was sweating and panting when he called a halt to the lesson.

“Okay. I can work with this,” he said, pulling my ponytail playfully. “You may survive yet.”

“That’s not funny,” I said, giving him a worried look.

“I know,” he said, his face becoming serious. “But you’ve survived so far, just by using your brains. With a little more training, I think you’ll be okay. Now let’s get some lunch.”

We stashed the fencing gear in the closet, and walked to the town square. Marc led me to a café with outdoor tables, choosing one near the street.

“When’s the last time you were in Montepulciano?” he asked.

“The summer I was 10. Later that year my parents separated, so that was the last time we came to Italy as a family,” I said. “I didn’t realize how much I had missed it.”

“It’s your home,” Marc said. “It’s a part of you.”

“Charleston is my home. And Montepulciano isn’t the same without my grandparents.”

“Montepulciano has been your family’s home for centuries. And will remain so. Even with your grandparents gone, it is your true home.”

I looked at him. “I’m still having a hard time believing this,” I said.

“I know. But it is real. You are a vampire. Not just any vampire, but Stregoni Benefici.”

“But I don’t feel like it!” I said, frustration showing in my face.

“You will,” Marc replied, patting my hand.

“Who is this?” a woman’s voice said in Italian.

I looked up to see a beautiful woman with flowing red hair standing beside our table. She wore a green dress, impossibly high heels, and a haughty look on her face.

Marc stood up. “Natalia, this is Katie Fiero, Tony’s daughter,” he said in English. “Katie, Natalia.”

I smiled and nodded. She glanced at me with the same expression on her face that I had when I found a roach in my bedroom in Charleston, and turned back to Marc.

“Ah, the daughter of my dear Anthony. The mysterious Katherine.” She continued to speak in Italian. I narrowed my eyes. Now how did she know my full name? And why did she call Dad “my dear Anthony?”

“I’m training Katie,” Marc said, switching to Italian. “Join us for lunch?”

“No, dearest, I must watch my figure. Although I am dying to know Katherine better,” she said, turning cold eyes on me.

I smiled, replying in Italian, “I would love that. Come over some evening. I’d love to hear how you know my dad.”

“Oh, you speak Italian,” she said. “I didn’t expect that!”

“I am Italian,” I replied, my voice as artificially friendly as hers.

Marc snickered, hiding it with a cough. He sat back down and the woman in green waved good-bye as the waiter came over to take our orders. I wondered how she could navigate the cobblestones in those heels, much less make it look easy.

“Who was that?” I asked after we’d ordered. “What a witch.”

Marc laughed out loud this time.

“Wait. You mean she really IS a witch?” I said.

“Yes, she is,” he said, wiping his eyes.

Why was everything I said so humorous to the people around me? I was getting tired of this.

“And what, exactly, does that mean?” I said, glaring at Marc.

“Well, it means you can’t trust her,” He said. “Even if she helps you, the help will come with a price.”

“Like a book that disappears and reappears in a different place?”

“Yes, exactly like that,” he said, his smile disappearing. “What book?”

Uh-oh. Should I answer that? I barely knew him. What should I do? Make something up?

Marc sat silently while these thoughts ran through my mind. My face must have shown my indecision.

“Um, no book in particular. Just an example.”

He smiled.

Whoa. The smile turned handsome into stunning.

“You can trust me, you know,” he said.

“How do I know that?”

“For one, your dad trusts me.”

I nodded, giving him that.

“And for another, your grandparents raised me.”

I looked at him, my eyebrows raised.

“You aren’t some uncle or cousin I didn’t know about, are you?” I asked suspiciously.

“No, I’m not related to you. Your grandparents raised me after my parents were killed by the Velathri,” he said. “So I have two reasons to keep you safe. The debt I owe your grandparents, and the revenge I owe the Velathri.”

“I understand the debt part. But I don’t get the revenge part,” I said.

“There is a prediction. A prophecy if you will. That the child of a Stregoni Benefici and a Garda will end the Velathri’s rule. Why do you think only two of you survive?”

“My dad said only two of us were born,” I said.

Marc looked down, thinking. Speaking carefully, he said, “I’m going to tell you the truth. Your dad was trying to protect you. But the time of protection is past. It’s time for you to know everything. More have been born. But the Velathri have killed all except two – Alex and you.”

“Why?” I whispered.

“Alex, because your grandmother successfully kept him hidden in Ireland until he turned 17. But he became a Garda. He is not the one, and so they leave him alone. You? Because your parents were successful in keeping your full parentage a secret. Until yesterday, the Velathri thought your mother was human, and that you would remain human when you turned 17. But now, they know differently.”

“No. Why did they kill the other children?”

“Because they have ruled for millennia, and plan to continue. Power. Control. It’s that simple.”

I cleared my throat. “How?”

It seemed I could only speak in single words. But he understood what I meant.

“Your mother fought alongside Claire at the airport to contain the man who tried to abduct you. When she did that, she showed what she really is,” Marc said. “She did it to keep you safe, if that makes a difference. Everything your parents have done was to keep you safe.”

I took a deep breath. I was supposed to be the answer to a prophecy. About vampires. Really? Up until three days ago, I’d thought I was just a regular teenage girl, looking forward to summer break and a pedicure with her best friend.

“So, what book?” he said, leaning forward and taking my hand.

“Okay, you trusted me with the truth. I’ll trust you. My dad has found two books during his excavations over the years,” I said. “I have one of them with me. Rulers of Ireland.”

Marc drew in his breath. “And the other?”

“Adam and Ariel have it.”

“Garda,” he said.

“Yes. It was given to the Garda for safe-keeping. They’re bringing it to Montepulciano,” I said.

“You believe this.”

“Yes, of course. Why wouldn’t I?”

“Because the Garda don’t completely trust us. And we don’t completely trust them.”

Supernatural politics. I was finally beginning to understand what William, the book-selling werewolf, had been talking about.

“But Claire is my best friend!”

“No, she is an ancient being who protects others. And who does not trust vampires,” Marc said.

“So why did she protect me?” I asked, indignantly.

“Because you are half Garda. Because you are her niece. And because she was ordered to.”

“I don’t believe you,” I said, pulling my hand away and folding my arms across my chest. But I did believe him. I knew he was right. I just didn’t want to admit it.

We didn’t speak as the waiter arrived with our food. We ate in silence, not meeting each other’s eyes.

Finally, Marc spoke again.

“Katie, I know this is hard. Your parents have kept you wrapped in a soft cocoon, safe from unpleasantness. The truth is hard. And sometimes difficult. But it is the truth. I promised your grandparents I would keep you safe. And I don’t believe that keeping you ignorant keeps you safe.”

“So how did my grandparents die?”

At some point in the past few days, I’d realized that my father’s parents hadn’t died of old age. Not if they were vampires.

“The Velathri. They wanted to know where you were. That’s why your parents divorced. After your grandparents were killed, your dad realized he needed to distance himself from you and your mother to take the focus off of you. The Velathri were convinced. If he was willing to leave you, then you couldn’t possibly be important.”

I looked at him. Suddenly he was a lot more talkative, and I really didn’t like what he had to say.

“Don’t pull your punches,” I said.

“Katie, I need to know what you’re made of,” he said. “If you can’t take it, then you might as well just walk outside of the city walls and let the Velathri kill you right now.”

“That reminds me. Where are the city walls?”

“A portion of them are still there, but most of the original walls have been torn down. You need to know where the old walls were, and not cross that boundary.”

“Gee, thanks for telling me.”

“I thought your dad would have told you that,” Marc said.

“No, he’s told me very little.”

Marc sighed.

“I can tell. I’m afraid both of your parents still see you as a little girl. I’ll walk you around the boundary on our way back.”

“Growing up fast here,” I said.

“Good,” he replied. “Now let’s go to the library.”

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Eat, Prey, Blood

Chapter Ten

“Just wait in the Rome airport by baggage claim,” the stewardess, whose name was Heather, said. “The next flight is only 30 minutes behind. I tell you what. I’ll radio back and make sure they’re on it. What’re their names?”

“Elizabeth LeGare and Claire Corbett,” I told her, still stunned by the fact I was on the plane alone. I would land in Rome alone. And my mom and Claire might or might not be 30 minutes behind me.

Heather smiled brightly and nodded, turning toward the cockpit. I took a deep breath and tried to think. A guy had tried to kidnap me. Claire had stopped him, and my mom had gone to help her. That was two against one. They would be all right, especially since Claire had the guy on the ground the last time I’d seen them. They’d been delayed because they’d been questioning him, trying to find out what he knew. And security – they had to deal with the human security guards I’d seen running toward them.

That had to be it. I took a deep breath. There was nothing to be afraid of, I told myself sternly. When I landed in Rome, I would go to baggage claim and wait there for them. But wait. None of us had any baggage to claim. We all had carry-ons. So why would they come to baggage claim to look for me?

I shot a look at Heather. She didn’t look dangerous. Maybe I was being paranoid. I’d become too suspicious. But I wasn’t taking any drinks from her, and I wasn’t going to baggage claim when I got to Rome. Because if that was the expected thing to do, then I was going to do the unexpected.

I thought about pulling out the Rulers of Ireland book and trying to find out what made it important enough to kill over, but then I figured if Heather was on the dark side, there was no need letting her know I had what she wanted. I tried to watch the in-flight movie, but I must have been more tired than I realized.

I woke up as Heather and Emma, the other stewardess, started through the cabin offering warm washcloths. I accepted gratefully, scrubbing at the hours of grit. I had slept through the airline breakfast, and was starving. The lunch they served was half a sandwich, some chips, and three apple slices. That was it. Seriously. I’d been in the air for seven hours, and that’s what they fed us.

It’s a good thing I had my debit card. When I hit the Rome airport, the first thing I was looking for was food.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we will be landing in Rome in about 30 minutes,” the captain informed us. “It is 5 p.m. local time. The temperature is 81 degrees Fahrenheit, or 27 degrees Centigrade. The skies are clear.”

He repeated the information in German, French, and Italian.

It sounded perfect. Except I didn’t know where Claire and my mother were.

The next time Heather came my way, I flagged her down.

“Were you able to find out if my mom is on the next flight?” I asked.

“I put in the call, but I didn’t get an answer right away,” she said. “Let me finish what I’m doing, and I’ll check again.”

As we would be landing in 25 minutes or less, I didn’t put much faith in Heather’s promise. I steeled myself. I was going to be alone in the Rome airport.

I needed a plan. First, I needed to eat. I had no way to tell if Heather was lying, or if she really hadn’t been able to find out if my mom and Claire were on the next flight. So it made sense to go to a restaurant in the airport, eat, and wait to see if my mom and Claire showed up. If they didn’t, then I would need a Plan B.

Okay. Plan B. I would need a place to stay in Rome. I had no idea where my mom had made reservations. Besides, if people (or Velathri or werewolves or possibly something even worse – I didn’t want to think about that, but there it was) were following us, they’d probably be watching the hotel where we were supposed to go. I had my debit card, and a credit card my mom had given me. I could charge a night or two at a hotel. Just not an expensive one.

Wait. What about a bed and breakfast? I would find a small bed and breakfast off the beaten path in Rome. I needed to get to my dad, but first, I needed to sleep. Trying to make travel plans and watch out for evil vampires while jet-lagged would be nearly impossible. Food, then sleep. That was my immediate plan. When I woke up, I would figure out how to get to Montepulciano, and my dad.

I felt the jolt of the landing gear opening. I heard the whine of the engines as they slowed our descent into Rome. I heard the thunk as we touched down, and held my breath as the pilot braked the huge aircraft, slowing us to a crawl and turning us toward the airport.

This was it. I was on my own. And I was carrying a book that I needed to guard with my life. Not to mention guarding my life. And all I’d really wanted out of my summer vacation was a tan and a pedicure.

I pulled my suitcase out of the overhead bin and joined the line of people exiting the plane. Heather was waiting at the doorway.

“I hope you had a nice flight,” she said cheerily. “Do you need directions to baggage claim?”

“Why yes,” I said, even though I had no intention of going anywhere near baggage claim. “Can you help me?”

“Go to your left, then follow the signs. You’ll go down an escalator, and then just look for your flight number on the sign over the belts,” Heather said.

“Thanks!” I replied, smiling like she was my new best friend. “You’ve been so helpful!”

I never, ever wanted to see her insincere smile again. But my mother had brought me up to be polite. Plus, it was probably a good thing if she thought I was an idiot – maybe she wouldn’t check to see if I actually went to baggage claim. Because it certainly felt like she was herding me that way.

Obediently, I turned left when I reached the terminal. Oh. I had to go through customs first. Crap. But whatever. There were lots of people around, because it was afternoon in Rome. The airport was bustling, not deserted like the Charleston airport had been early this morning.

I tried to convince myself that this made me safer. At least I could blend in and hide behind students on summer trips to Rome. That was definitely a plus. I joined a group of kids from Boston who were in Rome to study architecture.

I listened to them chatter about Ionic and Doric and Corinthian arches while looking around me like an owl under attack. I even sniffed the air like Claire had done. I mean, technically, I was half Garda. Shouldn’t it work for me, too? Maybe later I could try to glow. Right. I snorted. Get real, Katie, I told myself sternly.

What had Claire been sniffing for? I didn’t smell anything out of the ordinary. Just students who’d been on a plane since five that morning (a few showers were in order), the industrial cleaners the airport custodians used, and something dark and musty.

Wait. What was that smell? I pretended to be reading a poster outlining what was and was not allowed through Customs while trying to figure out where the odor was coming from. How could something smell dark? I couldn’t explain it. That’s just the feeling I got when I smelled this odor – darkness.

As my group of chattering students moved slowly through the chute toward the passport check points, I pinpointed the source. A man in a black coat – which didn’t look so out of place here – was standing half-hidden behind a column. It wasn’t Sergio, but at first glance the man looked enough like him to be his brother – beefy, dark haired and dark eyed.

I examined him more closely. He was dressed the same, but he was scruffier than the man who had tailed us in Charleston. His hair was long and unkempt, and his long black coat looked like he had slept in it. Maybe Italian Velathri weren’t as big on hygiene as American ones. I shrugged. My job was to make sure he didn’t spot me, not worry about his bathing habits.

My group was being herded through customs, and I was swept along with them. The customs guy barely glanced at my passport, just stamped it, handed it back and nodded me through. The students I was tagging along with stopped under an information board while they waited on the rest of their group.

I checked to see what gate the next plane from Charleston was scheduled for. Five gates from where I was. And it was on time. I looked around. There was a little restaurant across from the gate. As the students headed for baggage claim, I peeled off and went through the line, choosing a sandwich, chips, and water. I paid and sat at a table in the rear of the restaurant, my back against the wall.

I watched the big guy watching the gate I’d exited. Once he was sure no one else was getting off the plane, he moved closer to the gate where the next plane from Charleston would arrive. I went from hoping my mom and Claire were on the plane to hoping they weren’t.

I sent a text warning them about our welcoming committee, just in case they were on board. Crap, my cell phone was dying. I needed to charge it. I realized my best chance to leave the airport without being spotted would be now … while he was waiting for the next plane.

I finished my food, put my backpack on, grabbed my suitcase and headed for the information kiosk. I found one out of sight of scruffy black-coat guy, and grabbed a subway map and a flyer on hotels and motels. I took the next tunnel downstairs. In Twilight, Alice might have been able to hotwire a cool yellow sports car and drive it at top speeds through the winding Italian countryside, but me? I would have to take a train.

The tunnel forked in front of me. Express or local? The express train was faster, but more expensive. And maybe more predictable? I took the tunnel toward the local trains. At the touch-screen kiosk, I bought a ticket that would take me to the end of the line. As I waited on the platform, I scanned the people around me. I took a few deep breaths. If I couldn’t smell the dark, musty smell, maybe that meant I wasn’t being followed.

All I smelled were common subway odors – garbage, urine, unwashed bodies, and that weird oil and electricity smell that subways have, no matter what city or country you’re in. I heard the roar of the approaching train and the squeal of brakes as the cars came to a stop in front of me. I entered a car in the middle of the train, finding a seat in the corner.

As the doors closed and the train pulled off, I relaxed and pulled the hotel and motel flyer from my backpack. I needed something small, on the north side of Rome. Why had my mom had us fly in to Rome? I was so far from Florence. It would take me all day to get there tomorrow, and then I still had to get to Montepulciano.

I was familiar with the rail routes from Florence to Montepulciano after all the summers we’d spent there. But I’d never been to Rome before, and traveling on my own was confusing, even if I could speak basic Italian.

I looked up to see an old woman dressed all in black staring at me. “What are you looking for, dear?” she asked in Italian.

“A place to stay,” I replied in Italian. “A safe place.”

“Yes, a young girl on her own needs to be careful,” she answered. “I rent rooms. You can stay with me.”

I studied her face. She laughed. “Oh, I am quite harmless, dear one. You will be very safe with Nonna Maria.”

I didn’t have a lot of choices. The sun was starting to set, and wandering the streets of Rome after dark looking for a room was not an appealing option.

I made a decision. “Okay. It’s a deal.”

Worst case scenario, I was pretty sure I could outrun her. Being a track star did have its benefits. If her house looked sketchy, I’d just keep moving. Fast.

We rode the train to the last stop, then got off and walked through winding, narrow streets to a residential neighborhood about five blocks from the train station. Nonna Maria’s house was tall and narrow, like our house in Charleston. But instead of wood siding, it was white-washed stucco, with geraniums blooming a riotous red from the window boxes that hung below every window. Wooden shutters painted green completed the picture. A small sign over the front door read, “Si Affitano Camere.” Rooms for Rent.

Okay, so the old lady hadn’t been lying. She really did rent rooms.

“Breakfast comes with the room. Have you eaten dinner?” Nonna Maria asked.

“No, I haven’t.” I counted the sandwich in the airport as lunch, considering what they’d fed me on the plane.

“Then come on. Cooking for two is no more trouble than cooking for one.”

She led me to the kitchen at the back of the house. A large stone fireplace, big enough for me to walk into, was the focal point. No fire burned in it right now, but it was obviously still in use.

“Sit,” she commanded. I sat at the wide plank table and looked around the room while Nonna Maria busied herself at the gas stove. The wooden floor gleamed and white lace curtains fluttered in the breeze blowing through the open window. It felt incredibly homey.

“Breakfast for dinner,” she said as she put a plate filled with sausage omelette, pan-fried potatoes, and Italian bread in front of me. She pulled a platter of sliced tomatoes from the refrigerator and poured me a glass of milk before sitting down across from me.

I ate in silence for a few minutes, looking up only when she asked, “Why is a young girl like you traveling alone in Italy?”

“My mom missed the plane,” I said. “I don’t know when she’ll get here, so I decided to go on to where my dad is.”

“Why didn’t your father meet your plane?” she asked.

“He doesn’t know we’re here. We were supposed to arrive next week, but decided to leave early.”

“You need to let him know. If your mother has called him, then he will be worried.”

Nonna Maria took my plate to the sink and washed it, putting it on a drying rack. There was no dishwasher. She disappeared into the next room and returned with a cordless phone. So some technology was available, at least.

“Here,” she said. “Call him.”

Why hadn’t I thought of this? Now that she said it, it made perfect sense. I dialed my dad’s cell number. He answered on the second ring.

“Pronto?”

“Dad, it’s me, Katie,” I said in English, eying Nonna Maria. She was busy cleaning up, so I figured she couldn’t understand.

“Katie! Where are you?” he answered.

“I’m in Rome. At a bed and breakfast …”

“Are you safe?” he interrupted me. “Trust no one.”

“I think I am. It’s a small place on the northern side of Rome. Someone named Nonna Maria owns it.”

“Let me talk to her,” Dad said.

I handed the phone to Nonna Maria. She nodded a couple of times, answering in Italian spoken so quickly I only caught a few words, then handed the phone back to me.

“Where are Mom and Claire? Have you heard from them? Why didn’t they get on the plane?”

I would have kept asking questions, but Dad stopped me. “Whoa,” he said. “One question at a time. Your mom and Claire are fine. They missed the plane because of the guy who tried to grab you. They took him to the Garda headquarters in Charleston, and he’s being questioned there.

“They’ll fly in tomorrow, but don’t wait for them. Catch the morning train to Florence, and I’ll meet you there. I’ll drive you back to Montepulciano.”

“Is it safe to take the Express?”

“Yes, it should be. But keep your eyes open. Enemies are everywhere. You’re safe where you are tonight, so sleep well.”

“But, Dad, I have so many questions …”

“I’ll try to anwer them on the drive back tomorrow,” he promised. “Ciao, Mia Bella,” he said, using his childhood nickname for me.

“Ciao, Papa,” I replied, hanging up the phone.

I was glad to know Mom and Claire were safe, but it had been a very unsatisfactory conversation.

“So, was I right?” Nonna Maria asked in Italian.

“Yes, he was worried. And he’ll meet me at the train station in Florence tomorrow,” I answered.

“Good. I knew a lovely girl like you must have family around to take care of her. Now, let me show you to your room.”

Apparently, there were no other guests. Nonna Maria took me upstairs and opened the door to a large room with a huge bed covered with the thickest down coverlet I’d ever seen. Four down pillows were propped against the headboard, and the bathroom off the bedroom was floored in marble. It was beautiful, and all I could do to keep my eyes open long enough to brush my teeth and fall into the bed.

“Good night, Mia Bella,” Nonna Maria said softly as she left, closing the door behind her. I was so tired I barely noticed she’d used my dad’s pet name for me.

The next morning, Nonna Maria had made two breakfast sandwiches – a fried egg, provolone cheese, and prosciutto on toasted Italian bread. One she put on a plate on the table, and the other she wrapped up and put in my backpack.

“Eat up,” she said in Italian. “We must leave in 20 minutes to get to the train station on time.”

Wow. The sandwich was wonderful. That beat Cheerios every time. I could have eaten both sandwiches right then. But instead, I ran upstairs and grabbed my suitcase. As I closed the door to the room behind me, I looked up. The familiar three circles of the triskelion were carved into the wooden lintel above the door.

I sucked in my breath. This was a safe house. I hadn’t ended up here by chance. I slowly walked down the stairs, trying to figure out who Nonna Maria really was. At least now I knew there were helpful creatures as well as murderous vampires watching me.

“Hurry,” Nonna Maria said, looking pointedly at the clock. “We must go now.”

I could see more of the neighborhood this time as we retraced our steps to the train station. The early morning sun lit up the front of the bakery, which was doing a brisk business. The butcher was just unlocking his door, and the bistro was quiet. A few people sat at sidewalk tables outside a coffee shop, and the bells of the cathedral chimed 7 o’clock.

What a beautiful day. I wanted to stay and explore Rome. I wanted to be a normal girl on a normal trip. But that wasn’t going to happen, and right now I needed to get to Florence. I was worried about my mom and Claire, even though my dad had said they were fine. I’d had no answer to my text messages of the day before.

I sighed and picked up the pace. Nonna Maria might be old, but she sure wasn’t slow.

In a few minutes, the train station came into view. I bought myself a ticket to Florence, and Nonna Maria and I settled onto a bench to wait.

“So tell me about yourself,” Nonna Maria said.

“Um, I’m American. I live in Charleston, South Carolina,” I said.

“You speak Italian beautifully.”

“My dad is Italian. I’ve spent many summers here,” I answered.

My dad had said I was safe with her, and the triskelion told me she operated a safe house, but I still didn’t want to reveal too much. I was becoming suspicious of everyone I encountered. I still suspected Heather the flight attendant of trying to herd me into the arms of the Velathri.

This question thing could go both ways, though. “What about you? Have you always lived in Italy?”

“No,” she said. “But I have lived here for many years now, and I consider it my home.”

Well, that wasn’t very informative. I tried to examine Nonna Maria out of the corner of my eye. Vampire? Garda? She looked old, but she moved like a much younger person. Her hair was silver and her eyes were green. Hmmm. That was different.

Nonna Maria nodded and smiled, like she knew what I was thinking.

I head a whistle in the distance, and I felt then heard the rumble of the train. We stood up. Nonna Maria took my face in both of her hands, looking deep into my eyes.

“Be safe, Mia Bella,” she said, kissing me on each cheek.

“Thank you, Nonna,” I replied, kissing her cheeks in return.

I turned and boarded the car that had stopped in front of me.

Florence, here I come, I thought.

I found an empty window seat and settled myself in. Early on a Saturday morning, the cars were nearly empty.

A young couple with a toddler took seats at one end of the car. An elderly man read a newspaper at the other end. No one else entered, and in a few minutes, a whistle blew and the train jerked into motion. I looked out of the window for awhile, watching the outskirts of Rome give way to countryside. Eventually, I pulled out Rulers of Ireland. Maybe I could figure out what I was doing here.

The list of rulers and their heirs seemed endless. There was someone named Fergus the Fierce who seemed important. And Dagda. And something about a cauldron that was never empty. I yawned. Reading on a moving train had made me sleepy. I dozed fitfully, noticing when the train stopped and people got on and off but not really waking up. Eventually, I realized I was hungry. I sat up and unwrapped the second sandwich, washing it down with a bottle of water I’d bought at the airport the day before.

A group of middle school kids on a field trip entered at the next stop. The laughing, talking students filled the seats around me. A teacher sat down beside me, which was a good thing, because when the scruffy looking man in the dark coat came in, the car was full.

I slumped down in my seat, pretending to look out the window and trying to look like I fit in with the younger kids. Had he followed me from the airport? He glanced around, not noticing me in the group of school children, and headed to the next car. The dark, musty smell I recognized from the airport left with him.

Sheesh. What good was it to be a vampire (or half-vampire) if your parents had kept you in the dark (or in this case, the light) about it and you didn’t know how to protect yourself? Especially when you were something the Velathri feared and despised?

I appreciated my parents giving me a “normal” childhood, but right now, a few mad ninja skills would be really helpful. I sighed. At least in Italy, I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb like I did in Charleston among all those blue-eyed, fair-haired descendants of British immigrants. The kids around me had tan skin, dark eyes and dark hair, too. And they were dressed in jeans and t-shirts, just like me, with backpacks slung over their shoulders.

I looked at my map. There was one more stop before the main Florence train station, Santa Maria Novella. With luck, the school group was headed there, too. The students were rowdy. Someone had brought a soccer ball, and several boys were throwing it the length of the train. Girls giggled and squealed, and a paper airplane soared over my head. I smiled. Vampire or not, I didn’t think the guy would come into this car again.

My luck held. As the train pulled into the station in Florence, the teachers began corralling their charges. Students gathered their iPods, cell phones, books and papers, shoving them in backpacks. “Clean up your trash! Don’t leave a mess,” the teacher beside me instructed.

I ducked down and picked up a paper airplane as the scruffy, dark man in the next car peered into mine one more time. I waited, watching as he exited the train. He took up a position inside a coffee shop, picking up a newspaper and pretending to read it.

I looked around for my dad. He was at a newsstand across from the coffee shop where the dark man was waiting. My dad watched the passengers exit the train with a worried expression on his face.

I stayed with the school group as we got off the train. Because I was taller than most of them, I kept pace with the teacher who had sat beside me. She was too distracted by her energetic, excited charges to notice me. As we drew level with my father, I peeled off into the newsstand.

“Katie,” he said with relief. “I didn’t see you get off the train.”

“Hopefully, that guy didn’t either,” I said, nodding toward the coffee shop.

My dad drew in a sharp breath. “Let’s get out of here. Now,” he said, grabbing my elbow and steering me toward an exit. “My car is parked out front.”

Dad didn’t drive a shiny new sports car like members of the Cullen family, the vampires in Twilight. No, he drove an old Range Rover covered in dust. What kind of vampire was he, anyway? Oh, wait. The college professor kind. I sighed. Sporty yellow convertibles didn’t automatically come with being a vampire, apparently.

We were both quiet as Dad maneuvered through Florence’s afternoon traffic. Soon we were outside the city, winding our way through the narrow country roads that would take us to Montepulciano. I had so many questions, I didn’t know where to start. I hadn’t seen my dad in nearly a year – it felt rude to start right in with, “So, I hear you’re a vampire.”

I studied him out of the corner of my eye. He was handsome, with curly black hair, dark eyes, and smile lines at the corners of his eyes. He wore khaki pants, work boots, a lightweight cotton shirt, and a khaki vest. There was a beat-up khaki field hat between us on the seat of the Range Rover. It was what he always wore when he was on a dig. He looked the same as ever.

He glanced over at me.

“What are you thinking?”

“Um. That you don’t look much like a vampire.”

He laughed. “Well, vampires are just like other creatures. We all look different to some extent.”

“And I don’t feel much like a vampire.”

“That’s because you haven’t reached your 17th birthday yet.”

“It’s in two weeks,” I reminded him.

“I know. That’s why I wanted you in Montepulciano this summer.”

“Okay. I guess that’ll be question number one. Explain why that’s so important.”

Dad’s face suddenly went from smiling to serious. “Because we suspect your gifts will be greater due to your Garda heritage.”

“But how do you know I’ll become a vampire and not a Garda?”

“We don’t. You could be like your Uncle Alex, and become a Garda with vampiric tendencies, or you could become a vampire with Garda tendencies. But as you look more like me than like your mother, I suspect you will become a vampire.”

“But don’t I get to choose?”

“No. Only vampire-human children get a choice, and they must choose between magic and no magic. As both of your parents are magical, you will become either a vampire or a Garda. And you need to be here, surrounded by your family, when it happens.”

“Wouldn’t Charleston be safer?”

“No, Montepulciano is the only city on Earth that the Velathri cannot enter. Just as we cannot enter Volterra.”

Okay. Now that was new.

“What do you mean?”

“We have an agreement. Volterra belongs to the Velathri, and Montepulciano belongs to the Stregoni Benefici. If we enter each Volterra without permission, they can kill us.”

I thought that over. “So I’m safe in Montepulciano?”

“As long as you stay inside the city walls, yes.”

“That’s good, because I’m getting really tired of having to run from these guys. They’ve been trailing me since Charleston.”

Dad looked stunned.

“They shouldn’t know you exist,” he said.

“Maybe it’s not me they’re after,” I said flatly. “Maybe it’s the book.”

“What book?”

“The one in my backpack. Rulers of Ireland,” I said.

“How did you get that book? Edward and Juliana were supposed to carry it from Charleston. Not you,” he said angrily.

“It picked me. The others were afraid it would disappear again if one of them carried it, so I have it,” I explained.

“That damn witch,” he said under his breath.

“What?” I asked, not sure I’d heard him correctly.

“Nothing,” he said, looking in his rear-view mirror. “If the Velathri are after the book, they’ll try to intercept us before we reach Montepulciano. We’ll have to change our plans.”

“Um, what does that mean?”

“It means we’re taking a detour,” he said, turning suddenly onto a narrow lane that barely looked wide enough for a horse, much less a car. He maneuvered the Range Rover down the uneven, winding track, stopping about two miles in. He left it running, jumping out to stand beside a large rock in front of a hill.

“You can drive, right?” he asked.

“Of course, Dad,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I am almost 17.”

“When I move the rock, drive into the cave behind it.”

What? He slammed the driver’s side door before I could answer.

Move the rock? Was he crazy? I began to wonder if being tired affected your hearing. I shrugged and moved over into the driver’s seat. When I looked up from fastening my seat belt, the rock had been pushed aside and a narrow opening revealed.

How had he done that? Oh, right. Vampire super strength. It was so weird to think about my dad like that. I put the Range Rover in gear and drove slowly into the cavern in front of me. As I entered, I heard the sound of the rock scraping back into place.

I cut the engine and turned around in time to see my dad dusting off his hands and rolling down his shirtsleeves. Would I be super strong, too? In just two weeks? I smiled. Being a vampire might not be too bad, after all.

“Okay, Katie, let’s run,” Dad said.

“What about my suitcase?”

“Leave it for now. We’ll get it later. Put anything you’ll need immediately into your backpack.”

Clean underwear, socks, jeans, and a t-shirt. Make-up case. The book that had caused all the trouble. That was all that would fit.

Whew. It was heavy. That super vampire strength would be welcome right about now.

“Give me the backpack,” Dad said. “And follow me.”

He headed toward the back of the cave. What? I took off after him, jogging to catch up.

“We need to move fast,” Dad said. “Can you see?”

I realized that I could, even though the only light came from a small penlight dad was carrying.

“Yeah, no problem,” I answered. Being able to glow would come in handy right about now. Could I do it? I concentrated, willing light to pour out of my skin, but I was still just boring old me. Guess the penlight would have to do.

Dad started off at a jog, and I followed, glad he had my backpack. He led me through winding passages connecting a series of caverns. Eventually, the passages and caves began to look manmade rather than natural. Dirt floors and stone walls became tile, with wooden beams criss-crossing the ceiling.

Finally, we entered what looked like a wine cellar. We’d been jogging for 30 minutes, or about 5 miles, I estimated.

“Where are we?” I asked, looking around.

“In my wine cellar,” Dad said, smiling. “You did a good job of keeping up.”

“I run cross-country, remember?” I answered.

“I’m glad,” he said. “And now, we’re inside the city walls. Come upstairs. I’ll show you your room.”

“Mom’s rented a house,” I said. “I thought I’d be staying with her.”

“Maybe once she gets here. But for now, you’re with me, and I have a room for you,” Dad replied. “Your old room.”

We went up narrow wooden stairs that opened into a walk-in pantry off of a large, airy kitchen. I looked around. The floors were wooden and the counters were tile. Brightly colored flowers wound their way across a painted tile backsplash that covered two walls. To the side, there was an old wooden table with benches down either side instead of chairs.

I was in my grandparents’ house – the house I’d spent my summers in before my parents divorced. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. It smelled the same. If I listened closely, I could almost hear my grandmother’s quick, light footsteps coming down the hallway.

I opened my eyes. No grandmother. Just me and Dad.

The stairs came up into the pantry. To my right, one door led outside, and to the left, another door led to a hallway. The dark wooden floors continued down the hall and into a sitting room. There were two rooms on the right side of the hallway – bedrooms. On the left side of the hallway, one bathroom. The biggest room in the house was the kitchen. The wine cellar was bigger than the bedroom Dad led me to.

The white ruffled bedspread on the narrow single bed and white eyelet curtains told me he’d gone shopping before I arrived. I realized I was dirty and sweaty and tired. And really, really hungry.

“I’ll make you some dinner while you get cleaned up,” Dad said.

I looked at him sharply. “Can you read my mind?”

I mean, maybe vampires could do that. It’s not like I’d been given a lot of information so far.

“Not so much your mind as your body language,” he answered, smiling. “You’ve had a pretty stressful journey. Take a hot shower and you’ll feel better.”

He was right. The shower did help. So did putting on clean clothes. I hoped there was a washing machine somewhere that I’d missed on my first look around. Yes – there it was, in a closet beside the bathroom. I knew someone who dug in the dirt all day had to have a way to wash clothes.

The smell of tomato sauce drifted down the hall from the kitchen. I headed that way, stopping in the doorway to breathe deeply. “That’s grandma’s recipe, isn’t it?” I asked.

“It is,” Dad said, smiling. He set a plate of spaghetti with meat balls on the table, adding a green salad and loaf of Italian bread. “Eat up.”

He sat down across from me, a bottle of tomato juice in his hand. I looked at it. “In two weeks, will I still want to eat food?” I asked, hoping the answer was yes as I took a bite of the steaming pasta.

Dad smiled. “Vampires can eat food. We just don’t get nutrition from it. Or at least, not enough,” he said.

“So … do you ever hunt?” I asked hesitantly.

“Of course.”

“People?” I squeaked.

“No, of course not, Katie,” my dad said patiently. “That’s the point of Stregoni Benefici – to protect humans against the vampires who would use them as prey. But I do hunt animals from time to time.”

I must have looked a little sick, because he continued, putting his hand over mine, “Katie, it’s a part of who I am. Who WE are. We are predators, just like the lion, or even Willow, your cat. She hunts squirrels and moles and mice. You don’t think less of her for that, do you?”

I thought it over. “I guess it makes more sense if you put it that way,” I said.

“I know you’ve been raised thinking you’re a human. And I suppose you are, to a certain extent. But you are also a vampire. And vampires hunt.”

I looked down at the plate of pasta in front of me. “What about garlic?”

“What about it?” Dad looked puzzled.

“I thought vampires didn’t like garlic – or that it harmed them.”

Dad started to laugh. He laughed so hard I was afraid he was going to choke. Finally, when he could speak again, he said, “Katie, we may be vampires, but we are also Italian. If garlic bothered us, there would be no vampires!”

Then he started to laugh again.

I guess that answered that question. At least I wouldn’t have to change Grandma Fiero’s recipe after my birthday.

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