We took Anson Street back, avoiding the more crowded areas so Claire could watch for anyone who might be following us. The noises of the city receded into the distance as the neighborhood became less commercial and more residential. The streets were empty as it wasn’t quite time for people to begin coming home from work.
Claire stopped two houses from mine, stepping behind a six-foot tall hedge of camellia bushes and motioning for us to follow. “Ouch,” I whispered as Johan stepped on my foot. “Sorry,” he whispered back.
“Shhhh!” Claire hissed. I peered over her shoulder, trying to see what she was staring at. A man dressed like the guy who had followed us into the bookstore was walking back and forth in front of my house, his long dark coat flapping behind him each time he turned. Was it the same man? I tried to catch a glimpse of his face, but Claire was in the way.
“He’s not even trying to hide,” Claire said softly. “I wonder what that means.”
“My mom!” I said. “We’ve got to get in there!”
“Wait, Katie,” Claire said, blocking me with her arm. “She’s safe as long as she’s inside. Just hold on and let me think.”
I clutched Johan’s arm, standing on my toes as I strained to see what the dark man was doing. Just then, Johan’s parents turned the corner onto Elizabeth Street from the other end. I heard Johan suck in a breath. He took a step toward the street, but I was holding on to his arm so tightly he had to stop.
Claire motioned for us to stay where we were. She began to drift closer to the dark man, who had turned to watch Edward and Juliana approach. They didn’t hesitate as they walked toward him.
“Where is it?” the man hissed at them as they neared.
“Where is what?” Edward asked. He and Juliana stood calmly, arms held loosely at their sides. I noticed they were dressed oddly, in dark, close-fitting pants and shirts. I realized the stranger was wearing the same outfit under his long coat. What was with the black outfit? Some kind of vampire uniform?
Suddenly, a blonde woman who glowed so brightly I had to look away stepped between the stranger and Johan’s parents. “Leave this place,” she said. “We do not have what you seek.”
The dark man hissed, then turned on his heel and disappeared. I stared. He was just gone. How had he done that? And where was Claire? I’d been so focused on the dark man and Johan’s parents I’d lost sight of her. Wait. Claire was standing where the bright woman had been a second ago. CLAIRE was the glowing woman.
“You can let go any time now,” Johan said to me. I realized I had his arm in a death grip. “Oh, sorry,” I said, letting go. He rubbed where my hands had been.
“You’re stronger than you think, you know,” he said, grinning.
“Did you see that?” I asked. “Did you see Claire …”
“Yeah, that’s her real form,” Johan said, shrugging. “I’ve seen it before.”
“Wait. When?” I demanded.
“When she comes over to talk to my parents, she comes in her adult form. It took me a few years to figure it out, but I did,” Johan said.
“And you never told me.”
“Would you have believed me?” he asked.
He had a point. I would have thought he was mistaken, hallucinating, or teasing me. Now, however, I’d seen it for myself.
We stepped out from behind the camellia bushes and walked toward Johan’s parents and Claire, who was back in teenage girl form.
“What just happened?” I asked.
“The Velathri apparently think we have the book,” Edward said gravely. “It’s definitely in Charleston. There’s unusual movement in the supernatural world here. But we were unable to get a lock on it.”
“Let’s go in before Sergio returns with reinforcements,” Claire said.
Juliana nodded. “We should save our strength,” she said. “Fighting now will just deplete us.”
“Sergio? Who’s that?” I demanded.
“An old friend,” Edward said.
“Uh … weren’t you pretty rude to your friend?”
“Sometimes a friend, and sometimes an enemy,” Claire said. “I didn’t want to take any chances.”
I turned that over in my mind as we straggled in to the kitchen. My mom, Adam and Ariel were already there.
“What did you buy?” my mom asked, looking at the Half-Moon Outfitters bag in my hand.
“A dress for the trip,” I answered, pulling the dress out. “It’s perfect – comfortable, won’t wrinkle, and it looks grown-up.”
“Maybe a little too grown-up,” my mom said, examining it.
“Oh, Libby, it is time,” Ariel said. “You cannot keep her a child forever. I think it is lovely,” she added, turning to me. “But what else is in the bag?”
“Oh, a book my dad wrote,” I said, pulling it out and putting it on the table in front of me.
Adam stared. “Where did you get that?”
“At an old bookstore. I’ll go back and pay for it, I promise,” I said.
“Wait, you didn’t pay for it?” my mom said, raising her eyebrows at me.
“Well, we were being chased by some guy who looked like a Velathri …” my voice trailed off as her face paled.
“Let me tell the story,” Claire said, getting up and handing my mom a glass of ice water.
“We saw William,” she said. The others nodded. Apparently everyone knew who he was. “He owns a bookstore that Johan knew about.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t know the old guy was a werewolf,” Johan said. “I just thought maybe whoever stole the book might have tried to sell it there.”
“Not a bad theory,” Adam said.
“But while we were there, someone came in the store and asked about the book Johan lost,” Claire said. “We were in the back, so I led Katie and Johan out through the tunnels, and he never saw us. But I don’t think it was Sergio.”
“Sergio? When did you see Sergio?” My mom really looked upset now.
“Just now, in front of the house,” Juliana said. “Edward and I were prepared to fight, but Claire appeared in her light form, and he left.”
“I’m not happy they’ve found this house,” Adam said. “We’ll have to rethink our strategy.”
“So tell me about this book,” my mom said, pointing at the volume I’d placed on the kitchen table.
“I was holding it when the Vel … um, that guy came in the bookstore. I guess I panicked. I didn’t realize I had it in my hand when we ran,” I said. “It’s one of Dad’s.”
Mom looked closer. “Your father never wrote a book called Roman Ruins,” she said. “Let me hold it.”
I peered over her shoulder as she opened the small leather volume. Inside was a second cover, green leather, with the words Rulers of Ireland embossed in gold.
There was silence in the room.
“That’s the book!” Johan exclaimed. “That’s it! Katie, how did you find it?”
“I … I don’t know,” I stuttered. “I just thought it was one of my dad’s.”
“Hmmm,” Ariel said. “It must have a spell on it. When enemies get close, it reappears in another place. I have heard of such spells. That is very powerful magic. I wonder how your father managed it?”
“But why did I pick it up? Why could I carry it out of the bookstore?” I asked.
“Someone or something obviously wanted you to find it. That may be part of the spell. But if we are to keep it in our possession, we must keep it safe. Otherwise, it will disappear again,” Ariel said.
“Oh, and a tourist stole my purse, too,” I said, suddenly remembering the guy in the Hawaiian shirt.
Everyone stared at me. I was really getting tired of this.
“Claire?” Adam said, a question in his voice.
“I was getting to that part,” Claire said. “We were in the Market, eating fudge.”
“You went to the Market?”Adam said, raising his eyebrows.
Claire shrugged. “We were doing what normal teenagers do when they’re out of school. And while we were there, a man dressed like a tourist bumped into Katie and cut the strap on her purse. We decided he probably wasn’t a real tourist. But there was nothing to identify her in the purse – just some money.”
“That decides it. We cannot stay here in Charleston. We must leave for Italy immediately,” Adam said.
“But what about graduation? Claire and I are junior marshalls!” I protested.
“We are talking about not only your life, but the life of millions of supernatural beings and humans, too, if a war breaks out over these books,” Edward said. “We must get this book to Montepulciano, and reunite it with its companion volume.”
Claire cleared her throat. “I have the other book,” she said. “I had no idea Tony would hide this one in Charleston.”
There was silence as her news sank in. “Where is it?” Adam said, looking angry. “It is far too dangerous to have them this close to each other outside Montepulciano.”
Hmmm. Supernatural beings who protect others also keep secrets from each other.
“Under dirty clothes in the back of my closet.”
“Where better to hide something valuable than in a teenager’s bedroom?” she shrugged. “I make sure to keep it a mess.”
“Well, that explains a lot,” Ariel said. “I was beginning to worry you really thought you were an American teenager.”
“This is bad,” Adam said. “We have to travel separately, each group with one of the books. The Velathri getting one would be bad, but the Velathri getting both would be disaster. We must leave as soon as we can – tomorrow morning if possible.”
Well, this just sucked. I hadn’t been thrilled about the summer in Italy to begin with, but adding in evil vampires who wanted to kill me just made it so much better. And missing graduation was the last straw.
“Mom!” I said. “Graduation! You promised!”
I knew I was acting like a whiny brat, but I couldn’t help myself. I had never asked to be some kind of vampire hero. I’d been kept in the dark about who I really was, and now everyone was acting like I should feel honored to have my entire life, everything I’d ever believed about myself and my family, ripped to shreds.
“I know, honey,” she said gently. “But this is more important. I’ll call Principal Puckett and let him know you and Claire won’t be there. I’ll tell him there was a death in the family.”
I felt tears prick the back of my eyelids. I so did not want to cry in front of these people. I turned and ran up the stairs, slamming my door and throwing myself on my bed. I let the tears come, crying over graduation, but also crying over my lost future, letting go of the fantasy that I was a normal human girl who would grow up to do normal human things.
Eventually, I sat up and wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. I went in the bathroom and splashed my face with cold water. My eyes and nose were red, my face swollen from crying. Great, I looked like a clown. Not that it mattered. I’m sure the Velathri wouldn’t care what I looked like when they came to kill me.
Claire knocked softly, then opened the door and came in, closing the door behind her. “Are you okay?” she said. “I know this is hard. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. You were supposed to be told about your heritage by your parents, you were supposed to go to classes …”
“Classes? What kind of classes? There are classes on how to be a vampire?”
“History classes. Classes where you’d learn all the stuff that I’ve tried to tell you yesterday and today. There’s a lot more you need to know, but it can wait. Right now, you need to come downstairs and eat. We’ll tell you the plan for tomorrow, then we all need to get some sleep.”
I looked at Claire. “First, I have a few questions.”
Claire looked at the serious expression on my face. “Okay,” she said, sitting down. “Ask me.”
“You’ve been my friend – my best friend – since fourth grade,” I said. “And now I find out you’re, you’re …” my voice trailed off.
“Something else?” Claire prompted.
“Yes. Something else. Maybe not my friend at all,” I said. “What’s real and what’s not? I’m upset not just because I might become a vampire, although I find that incredibly gross, but it seems that none of my relationships are what I thought they were, either.”
“Katie, I know this is hard,” Claire began …
“You think?” I snorted, then realized that was a really bad idea right after a crying jag. I stood up and went into the bathroom to blow my nose.
“Listen,” Claire said. “I didn’t decide to keep you in the dark. That was your parents.”
“Yes, but that wasn’t my question,” I said, turning to stand in the door of the bathroom. “How much of our friendship is real, and how much was just you playing a part?”
“Katie, I love you like a daughter,” Claire said.
I snorted again. “That’s not exactly the same as a best friend,” I said.
“No, it’s not,” Claire said. “And I’m sorry you feel betrayed. But this deception was necessary for me to be close to you on a daily basis. It was my assignment to keep you safe.”
I had my answer. We weren’t and had never been best friends. I was her assignment. She loved me like a daughter. Maybe she should just go ahead and drop the teen look, too. But now it was time to go downstairs.
I took a deep breath, blew my nose again, and followed Claire to the kitchen.