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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