Eat, Prey, Blood

Chapter Nine

My mom had made sandwiches. There wasn’t time for much else. As I ate, Adam outlined the plan for tomorrow.

We would travel in three groups. Mom, Claire and I would fly out first, carrying the book I’d found today. Claire reasoned that if the spell protecting the book had let me find it, then the book would probably stay with me instead of disappearing again.

Adam and Ariel would go back to their house, get the book Claire had hidden in her closet, and travel together to Italy.

Edward and Juliana would leave the house first, then circle back to make sure none of us were followed as we left for the airport. They would fly out with Johan as a family, leaving last.

Our tickets had been purchased online, and our passports were all up to date. Good thing I’d already packed.

I finished my sandwich and started loading the dishwasher. That way, I could keep my back turned on everyone. Johan came over, carrying plates from the table. He began helping me, standing close but not speaking. As we worked side by side, I finally relaxed. At least one person in my world was who I had always thought he was. His presence comforted me more than any words could have.

“Our success depends on speed and surprise,” Adam said. “We must be quick in the morning. No hesitation. Now off to bed, everyone.”

Apparently, everyone was staying at my house. Johan was on the couch in the den. Adam and Ariel were in the guest room. Claire was with me again. Edward and Juliana took guard duty. I wondered when they planned to sleep, but I was too sad and exhausted to worry about it. Claire and I went upstairs, and only a few tears leaked out before I fell asleep.

The next thing I knew, my mom was shaking me awake. It was still dark outside. Claire’s bed was neatly made, and her suitcase was gone.

“Katie, wake up. We need to go,” Mom whispered.

I nodded, threw back the covers and stumbled to the bathroom. I threw on a t-shirt, jeans, and my running shoes. I pulled my hair into a pony tail and tossed my make-up case in the suitcase. I picked up my new espadrilles, shrugged, and added them. I tied the arms of a lightweight fleece jacket around my waist in case I got cold on the plane.

My phone, my wallet, and my passport were already in my backpack. I grabbed my suitcase and headed downstairs. As I entered the kitchen, I could smell bacon, eggs and grits. My mom was putting steaming platters of food on the table.

“Mom,” I said. “Cereal would have been fine.”

“It’s going to be a long day,” she replied. “And you know they don’t feed you much on the plane. Eat while you can.”

Claire and Johan were at the table, already eating. Edward and Juliana were unloading the dishwasher. I sat and served my plate.

We all froze at a knock on the front door.

Adam put his finger to his lips. He and Juliana headed for the back door while my mom headed for the front door. Once outside, Adam and Juliana split up – one going left and the other going right. My mom waited at the front door until Adam yelled, “Okay, Libby, open the door!”

Mom opened the door to find Adam and Juliana holding up the blonde guy in the black coat that I had seen on the last day of school. “Alex!” my mom cried, pushing Juliana out of the way to take his left arm and help him in to the house.

What? She knew this guy? And she also acted like she really cared that he was hurt. Okay. That was weird.

Adam and Mom gently helped the guy onto our couch. He was even paler than he’d been two days ago when I’d seen him on the way to school. Blood oozed from two small puncture marks on his neck.

“He bit me,” the guy rasped. “Sergio. He bit me.”

Adam nodded. “He wants to warn you, not kill you,” he said. “Here.”

As I watched in amazement, Adam held out his wrist, and the guy bit into the artery and began drinking. After a minute, he stopped and my mom took Adam’s place. After another minute, he stopped and leaned back, his eyes closed. Claire sat beside him, her face pale, holding the guy’s head in her lap.

“Mom! What’s going on here,” I hissed as she came out of the parlor into the hallway.

“Come to the kitchen,” she whispered. “I’ll explain.”

“Don’t you need a bandage?” I asked.

She held up her wrist, and I realized that the wound had already healed.

“Okay,” I said as we reached the kitchen. “Answers, mom. I need answers. I thought that guy was a Garda.”

“He is.”

“But he was drinking your blood.”

“He is also a vampire. He is the only other half-Garda, half-vampire that we know of,” she answered.

“Only other … besides me, you mean,” I said.

“Yes. He’s my half-brother, and your uncle. The blood from a vampire and a Garda will heal him. That’s why Adam and I both gave him our blood.”

Just then, my new-found uncle walked into the kitchen. Up close, I could see he looked a lot like my mother. He had a kind face, and twinkling blue eyes.

“Hello, Katie,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I just took his hand and shook it.

“I understand you have some questions,” he said.

I did know what to say to this.

“Yes. And the first one is why didn’t anyone tell me about any of this sooner?”

“Your parents thought it would help keep you safe if you didn’t know,” the man who was my Uncle Alex said. “But the time of your adulthood is nearing, and you need to know what is coming.”

“Why are you here now?”

“Because I, like you, am half-Garda and half-vampire. What happens to us is not like what happens to half-human/half-vampires. They get to choose. And many of them choose to remain human. We have no choice. We receive parts of both beings, becoming something entirely different.”

“Will I,” I swallowed. “I know this is silly, but will my hair turn blonde? Are my eyes going to turn blue?”

Finding out I wasn’t just an ordinary teenage girl looking forward to college was hard enough. I didn’t know if I could take a complete physical makeover.

Alex and my mother both laughed. “No,” he answered. “You’ll still look like you. I’m fair because my father and mother were both fair. You look like your father, and you always will.”

Well, that was a relief.

“So what about drinking blood?”

“You’ll be able to drink blood for sustenance and for healing,” Alex said. “But it’s not necessary to your survival, as it is for full vampires.”

“Will I live forever?”

“We don’t know that yet, now do we?” Alex said. “So far, so good, though. I’m 200 years old, and I show no signs of aging. You are fast, you are strong, and you heal quickly. You may manifest other gifts later, after your 17th birthday.”

Two hundred years old. Maybe that explained why he talked so weird. Manifest? Seriously?

Just then, Adam came in, looking tense.

“Libby, you and the girls have to leave now if you’re going to make it to the airport on time,” he said. “I’ve called a cab and it should be here in five minutes.”

My mom nodded. “Katie, Claire, get your suitcases. We’ll continue this conversation in Italy.”

She gave Alex a hug. “Be careful,” she whispered, kissing him on the cheek.

He looked at her fondly. “I always am, little sister,” he said, hugging her back.

Claire and I took our suitcases and stood by the front door. My new uncle stood beside her, his hand resting on her shoulder. So they knew each other, too. Adam went out to make sure that Sergio, our Velathri friend, wasn’t hiding in the bushes.

Juliana checked the back yard, and Johan joined us awkwardly in the hall. I looked at him. “This isn’t what I thought summer vacation would be like,” I said.

“Me, neither,” he said. “But at least I get to go with you now.”

As the taxi pulled up, Adam waved all clear to us. My mom went first, then Claire. Uncle Alex followed, helping the cab driver load the luggage in the trunk. As I took the handle of my suitcase, preparing to step off the porch, Johan leaned down swiftly and kissed me on the cheek. As I turned toward him in surprise, he stepped closer and wrapped his arms around me. I wrapped my arms around his waist and leaned my head on his chest, realizing he was tall enough for his chin to rest on the top of my head. Wow. When had that happened?

“Katie, come on!” Claire hissed, leaning out of the door of the cab. “This is dangerous!”

As I stood there, unwilling to let go, Johan said, “Katie, it’ll be okay. I’ll be there soon.”

I turned and ran down the steps, feeling confused but peaceful, too. Like the world had just righted itself. I folded myself into the back seat beside Claire, trying not to look at her. I was sure my face was bright red, and the last thing I needed was questions about why, when I wasn’t really sure myself what had just happened.

“We’re going to the airport,” my mom told the driver. “International terminal.”

We were silent on the ride to the airport. It was still dark outside, and traffic was light. I could see a sliver of light edging over the horizon, turning the sky pink. I concentrated on breathing slowly and getting my emotions under control. Hopefully my mom and Claire would think my confusion was due to fear.

Johan’s embrace had left a storm of emotions in its wake. He had always been there, a part of my life. Our mothers had been friends since before we were born. We’d been pushed down King Street side by side in strollers even before we would walk, as our moms went shopping and out for coffee together. Later, as toddlers, we’d played in either his kitchen or mine as our moms visited. We’d gone to school together since kindergarten. I’d always thought of him as, well, kind of as a brother.

I mean, please. We’d gone to our Junior Prom together, and he hadn’t even held my hand.

But his arms around me had felt like more than just friendship. And my reaction told me that somewhere deep inside, I felt the same way. I was glad I wouldn’t see him for a couple of days, because I needed some time to let this new knowledge sink in.

As we pulled up to the International Terminal of the Charleston airport, I realized that until now, to me, Claire had been my best friend. I’d shared everything with her. But she wasn’t really a 17-year-old girl. And she wasn’t just a protector. She was the perfect chaperone.

I stared at the back of my mom’s head. Super sneaky, there, mom, I thought, narrowing my eyes.

And maybe, just maybe, that was why Johan had never let me know how he really felt about me. He’d known I’d tell Claire. But now I wouldn’t. Some things were private, and not meant for the ears of ancient beings who’d known my mom who knows how many centuries – and probably told her everything I had ever confided.

I thought through conversations we’d had about my parents’ divorce – how I’d told her how angry and hurt I was. How I’d complained about going to Italy this summer.

Okay, now that made me angry. Having a Garda as a best friend was turning out to be bad in lots of different ways. A super powerful nanny disguised as someone my own age was more like it. She had said she loved me like a daughter. Yeah, I was beginning to understand what that meant.

My mom paid the taxi driver, and we lined up at the Lufthansa counter. Flying the German airline to Italy would be unexpected, and we hoped that would throw off anyone who might be watching our movements. Claire looked around, on alert as my mom checked us in. All of our luggage could be carried on – nothing to check, nothing to slow us down at the airport in Rome.

My mom walked us toward security at double time. It was so early, there were only a few people in the airport. A young couple with a baby was going through security ahead of us. The security guard was going over the stroller and diaper bag as though the infant were hiding grenades between his diapers and wipes. An elderly couple came to stand in line behind us. Claire gave them a sharp look, then went back to scanning the area around us.

We took off our shoes and put them in the gray bins along with our cell phones, keys, and quart zip-lock bags of liquids and gels.

We walked through the metal detectors and collected our belongings. As I straightened up after tying my sneakers, I realized Claire and my mom had moved ahead of me. I grabbed my backpack and suitcase and hurried after them.

The only warning I had was a flash of movement on my left, and then everything went black. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t breathe. I realized something had been put over my head. I let go of my suitcase to pull at whatever was over my head, and I heard a clatter as my suitcase fell over.

Suddenly, the hands holding me down released me. I managed to pull the cloth sack off of my head, and saw Claire had pinned my attacker. He groaned as she twisted his arms.

“Who sent you?” she hissed.

“It’s not worth my life to tell you,” the man said, moaning as Claire twisted his arms again.

“Katie, get your bag and go. I’ll follow you.”

Stunned, I did what she said. My mother was waiting at the entrance to the walkway to the jet.

I turned, watching as three security guards surged toward Claire and the man, their guns pulled.

“I’ll handle it. Go,” my mom said, shoving me onto the walkway.

I entered, wobbling a little as I rubbed my neck where the man had clutched the sack closed after pulling it over my head.

I smiled at the stewardess, trying to look like I hadn’t almost been abducted on my way to board her plane. She looked at my ticket, and said brightly, “About halfway down on the left. If you need help putting your suitcase in the overhead bin, let me know!”

The man who was sitting in the seat behind me lifted my suitcase up for me. I didn’t really need the help, but I thought it might be better if I didn’t let anyone know that. I sat down in the window seat, fastened my seatbelt, and waited for my mom and Claire. The plane gradually filled. Passengers trickled in, found spots for their suitcases, settled in to their seats, held whispered conversations, pulled out books, sent last-minute text messages.

But the two seats beside me remained empty. Where were my mom and Claire? They were supposed to be right behind me. I saw the two stewardesses holding a whispered conversation at the front of the cabin. Then the one who had welcomed me onto the plane closed the door and locked it.

I started to stand, then realized my seat belt was fastened. “Wait,” I said, waving my hand to get their attention.

The other stewardess came toward me. “There are two passengers who aren’t on board,” I said. “My mom and my friend …”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “We paged the airport, and we’ve waited 10 minutes past the time we should have left the gate. We have to leave now.”

“Then let me off!” I said, struggling to unhook my seatbelt.

“We can’t. It’s too late,” she said. “I’m sorry. They’ll have to catch the next flight.”

I felt a jerk as the plane began to back away from the terminal.

“No!” I said. “I can’t go to Italy without them!”

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Eat, Prey, Blood

Chapter Eight

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.”

“What?”

“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.

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Eat, Prey, Blood

Chapter Seven

I woke up to find sunlight streaming through the window of my room, and the other bed empty. I took a quick shower and put on my favorite khaki shorts and a red t-shirt. I ran downstairs to find Johan and Claire sitting at the kitchen table. Willow was curled up in Johan’s lap, purring.

“I thought vampires had to be invited in,” I said, rubbing Willow’s ears.

“We do. And we were, years ago,” Johan said. “But everyone has to be invited in to your house, not just vampires.”

I stared at him. “What does that mean?”

Claire cleared her throat. “You know those Celtic knots your mother collects?”

“Yeah,” I said. “They’re kind of a hobby of hers.”

“More than a hobby,” Claire said. “They have protective power. Have you ever wondered why the doorways to your house have carvings on the stone stoops?”

“No,” I shrugged. “It’s just something old. But everything in Charleston is old.”

“Charleston is old for America, but it’s just a baby compared to cities in Europe,” Claire said. “The carved stones at your house came from Ireland, and are thousands of years old. The specific carving is a triskelion. It’s really important in Celtic legend. Ask your mother. She’s done a lot of research and even published a few articles on it.”

“Okay,” I said, thinking that Claire had been a lot more fun before I knew she was my protector.
“So what’s happening today?”

“Your mom and Johan’s parents have gone to work, because it would look suspicious if they didn’t show up,” Claire said, picking up her plate and putting it in the dishwasher. “Adam and Ariel are doing a little research to see if they can find out who might want to steal the book other than the Velathri.”

“It feels strange to hear you call your parents Adam and Ariel,” I said to Claire.

“Maybe to you, but they aren’t my parents. Ariel has had much too much fun bossing me around for the past seven years,” Claire said.

“What about us?” I asked.

“We’re supposed to do normal stuff. Not draw attention to ourselves,” Johan said. “But we have to stick together.”

“Okay. Claire and I were going to get pedicures,” I said, watching Johan’s face.

He groaned. “Like that’ll look normal for me.”

I laughed.

“We’ll skip it since you’re with us. What else can we do?” I asked as I pulled the Cheerios from the pantry.

I looked down at the yellow box in my hand. It was so normal, so reassuring. I remembered yesterday morning, eating Cheerios before I headed to school for the last day of my junior year … wow, was that really just yesterday? Maybe it had been a dream … but Johan and Claire were sitting in front of me. And Johan was drinking a can of tomato juice. I tried not to think about what that meant. Yuck.

I poured cereal and milk in a bowl, sliced a banana over the top, and began to eat, still staring at the can in Johan’s hand.

“So, Johan,” I said, clearing my throat. “You ate food last night. Do you need to?”

“No, blood is all I need,” Johan said. “But I can eat.”

“Yeah, I figured that out all on my own,” I said, just a little snippily.

“I think we should walk around downtown,” Claire interjected. “We can act like we’re helping you shop for your trip to Italy while we keep our eyes open for anything strange.”

“Great idea,” Johan nodded. “I had an idea about the book. Maybe we can follow up on it.”

“Nothing too dangerous. I may be a Garda, but there is only one of me,” Claire said.

“Nah, it’s not dangerous,” he said. “There’s a bookstore downtown. It sells used and antique books. What if someone stole the book out of my backpack, thinking it was just some old book they could sell for some extra money? I mean, I know it’s not likely, but it’s worth a try.”

He looked at Claire hopefully.

She thought for a minute, finally saying, “That sounds safe enough. And it fits with our cover of shopping.”

She turned to me. “Katie, when you’re ready, we’ll go.”

I finished my cereal and ran upstairs to brush my hair into a ponytail and put on my running shoes. I looked longingly at my new espadrilles. But a day walking around downtown Charleston, possibly being chased by mysterious guys in black coats? I decided comfort and speed were more important than style.

I grabbed a small purse out of my closet, and added a brush, lip gloss, and a change purse with some cash in it. I didn’t want to unpack my regular wallet, which was already stashed in my carry-on bag, ready for the trip to Italy. I looped the narrow strap over my head and across my right shoulder, and ran down the stairs.

“Okay, I’m ready,” I told Claire and Johan. The three of us headed out the front door. I locked it behind me, pushing aside the unwelcome thought that a lock wasn’t going to keep out the really dangerous creatures. I looked down at the three swirls carved into the stone stoop in front of the door … more powerful than a lock? Maybe Claire’s talk this morning hadn’t just been boring history stuff. But I wasn’t going to tell her that.

We walked toward King Street, taking the same route Claire and I had taken the day before.

“Let’s walk toward the school,” I said. “I’ll show you the house I saw black-coat guy going into yesterday.”

When we reached the intersection, I looked left. The “For Sale” sign was still out front, but there was no one on the front porch today.

Claire gave a worried look around. “We should keep walking. Something feels wrong.”

“No,” Johan said. “I think we should take a look inside.”

“Absolutely not,” Claire said. “It’s my job to protect the two of you. I’ll call one of the others and have them come search while we keep shopping.”

“I just want to check for the book.” Johan had a familiar stubborn set to his mouth. “I lost it. It’s my responsibility to get it back.”

He started toward the house, ignoring Claire’s hissed, “Johan! No!”

Claire and I started after him, but he’d already reached the front door. He tried it, rattling the doorknob when he found it locked. Johan shrugged and started around the house toward the back door.

“Johan! Stop!”

Again, he ignored Claire and disappeared behind the house.

Claire looked at me. “Stay here.”

“No way,” I replied. “Do you really think I’m going to stand out here by myself? That’s asking for trouble.”

“I guess you’re right,” Claire sighed. “Come on.”

I followed Claire as she walked carefully around the side of the house. The back yard was empty, and the back door was open. Claire and I shared an exasperated glance, then tip-toed up the back steps. Claire motioned for silence with her hand. The back door opened into a kitchen that looked like it had never been used. It was spotless, the stainless steel sink and faucets gleaming as the morning sun streamed in the window.

Claire whipped around at the sound of footsteps, but it was just Johan coming down the stairs.

“There’s nobody here,” he said, disappointment in his voice.

“Well, that’s a good thing,” Claire said. “Any sign of the book?”

“No, this house is so clean it looks like no one has ever even lived here,” he answered, his shoulders slumping.

“Okay, then, let’s go,” Claire said. “And don’t go off by yourself like that again, Johan. The Velathri don’t mess around.”

We exited the back door, closing it behind us. We followed Claire up the side of the house. She looked around as we crossed the street, sniffing the air as she turned her head from side to side. Her movements were smooth, almost feline. How had I never noticed this about my best friend? Or was she just not hiding her true identity anymore?

We passed our school on Alexander Street, which already had that empty, lonely look schools have during summer vacation. As we walked, I decided to quiz Claire and Johan a little more about what I’d learned yesterday.

“If I’m so special, why don’t I feel special? Why don’t I have superpowers?” I asked, partly joking, but mostly not.

“Well,” Johan said. “You do. You just don’t know it.”

“Like what?”

“Think about how fast you can run.”

Ok-aaay. I was the fastest person on the track team except for Bryan Blalock, a senior who would be graduating on Saturday. “Bryan’s faster than me,” I said.

“I know,” Johan said, giving me a half-smile.

“You mean …”

“Yep. Bryan’s a vampire,” Johan smiled.

I thought that over. Bryan liked tomato juice, too.

“So … is everyone who drinks tomato juice …”

Johan laughed. “No. Some people just like tomato juice. And it is healthy. If you’re human. But no one at our school is human. At least, not completely.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “I’m human!”

“No, you’re half fairy and half vampire. You’ve just been raised to believe you’re human,” Claire said. “Everyone in your school – teachers and students – have at least one supernatural parent.”

“Why?” I sputtered.

“It’s just safer that way,” Claire said.

“So everyone knows about this? Except me?”

I was getting a little annoyed. Okay, very annoyed.

“ So what else should I know?”

“You heal as fast as I do,” Johan said.

“How do you know? I’ve never had a bad injury,” I said.

“But you should have, remember?” Johan said. “The time you fell off the monkey bars in first grade? When you ran your bicycle into the side of a car in third grade? A moving car? And the time you fell out of a tree in sixth grade? Don’t you think you should have broken a bone at least one of those times?”

I stopped walking, shocked by Johan’s statements.

“I guess I never thought about it. The school nurse was pretty freaked out, though.”

“Yeah, that’s because your leg was broken, but by the time she splinted it and got you into her office, it was healed. She thought she was going crazy,” Johan laughed.

“I remember my mom wasn’t too happy, either,” I said.

“Right,” Johan said, sobering. “She was afraid people would figure out you were different.”

“And the next year she transferred me to St. Pat’s …”

As I turned that over in my mind, we reached Ann Street and turned toward King Street. On King, we took a left, heading toward the market. Johan wasn’t sure exactly where the bookstore was, but he said he knew it was near the shopping district.

About two blocks down, Johan stopped. “That’s it,” he said, pointing at a narrow storefront beside a coffee shop.

“Where?” I said. “I don’t see a bookstore.”

The building he pointed to was brick, with a glass door in a wooden frame and a large front window. There were a few books in the window, but none of them were on the New York Times Bestseller List. Some of them were downright ragged looking. A hand-lettered sign encouraged us to “Seek Shade.” Not bad advice for June in Charleston, but still. This was the place we were looking for?

“Look at the door,” Johan said.

Inside a small square, the name “Blue Bicycle Books” was painted on the glass.

“Blue Bicycle? What kind of name is that for a bookstore?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I didn’t name it,” Johan said irritably. “Come on, let’s go in.”

“Wait,” Claire said. “Something still doesn’t feel right.”

She stood still, closing her eyes.

“What are you doing?” I hissed.

“Quiet,” she said. “I’m listening.”

Finally, she opened her eyes. “I can’t tell,” she said. “I think it’s safe, but I’m not sure. Stay near me.”

A bell chimed as we pushed open the door. A large orange cat napping on the counter raised its head, regarding us sleepily. It purred as I scratched its ears.

All three of us jumped when a voice addressed us: “Are you looking for anything in particular, or are you just browsing?”

A character from a Charles Dickens novel peered at us from the next room. He wore a pressed white shirt with suspenders holding up his black trousers, and his eyes twinkled above thick mutton-chop whiskers that would have made Wolverine jealous.

“William,” Claire said, sounding pleased. “I didn’t know you were in Charleston.”

As we walked toward him, I realized the store was much larger than it appeared from outside. It was long and narrow, a series of rooms, each holding a different genre of book. Wooden ladders that slid along metal tracks let you climb up to reach books on the shelves near the ceiling. I didn’t think I’d ever seen this many books crammed into such a small space in my life.

“Been here for decades, my dear,” William said, winking. “Incognito, you know. Who are your friends?”

Obviously, these two knew each other. My best friend was full of surprises today.

“This is Katie, my assignment,” she said. “And this is Johan, her friend.”

Huh? When did I go from being a best friend to being an assignment?

“I am pleased to meet you both,” William said, bowing gravely. “Now what brings you to my shop?”

“Johan has lost a book, and we were wondering if someone might have tried to sell it here,” Claire said.

“When did you lose this book?” William said, turning to Johan.

“Yesterday,” Johan said. “I had it Tuesday evening, but when I looked in my backpack Wednesday morning, it was gone.”

“And what is the title?”

Johan looked uncomfortable.

“It’s okay,” Claire said. “William is a friend.”

“All right,” Johan said. “Rulers of Ireland.”

William went very still, his eyes the only movement as he looked at each of our faces in turn. Finally, he spoke.

“Yes, I have seen this book. But not here, and not in this century,” he said cautiously.

“Wait, what do you mean by ‘not in this century?’ ”I asked.

“The last time I saw this book, it was in Rome in the year 1012. I owned a bookshop there, and someone sold it to me. If I saw it again, I would not buy it.”

“Wait. Did you really just say 1012?” I stared at the man, trying to calculate how old that made him.

“Yes, of course,” William replied, raising his eyebrows at my question.

Claire nudged me. Right, I was supposed to know this stuff.

“So, um, why wouldn’t you buy the book again,” I finally managed to say.

“Because it nearly cost me my life, my dear. My bookshop was burned by those seeking the book, and I spent centuries in hiding. Eventually, I made my way to the New World, and opened another bookshop here in Charles Towne. Now tell me. How did you come by this book?”

“My father found it excavating an archaeological site, and he hid it in our school library,” I said. “But Johan checked it out, and now it’s gone.”

“Best that it is lost again, my dear. That book is dangerous, and those who seek it even more so.”

“No, William, we need to find it,” Claire said gently. “We can’t let it fall into the wrong hands.”

“I’m just a merchant,” William said. “I avoid politics. I just want to live in peace, and sell books.”

“But if this book falls into the wrong hands, your peaceful life won’t be allowed to continue,” Claire said. “Those who seek this book would wipe out werewolves along with the rest of us.”

My eyes widened. Werewolves? Guess that explained the sideburns. Wolverine was probably his cousin or something.

“I’m sorry, my dear,” William said to Claire. “I cannot be involved. But feel free to browse. There are many interesting books in my shop. Books not so dangerous.”

I shrugged, and moved into the third room of the shop. A small hand-lettered sign told me I was in the room of Myths and Legends. The titles ranged from serious research to recent fiction: Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, City of Bones, Twilight …

I turned to Claire. “So why are these books here?” I asked. “They’re not old or rare.”

“Because they give us insight into what humans are thinking about the supernatural world. Some humans are gifted – they see beyond the mundane. Not everything in each book is true, but certain elements are.”

“So …” I said nervously, looking over my shoulder. “Do werewolves and vampires really hate each other?”

“Well, not really hate,” Claire said. “But they’re not inclined to go out of their way for each other, as you’ve just seen.”

We continued to browse, moving slowly toward the back of the store. I had just picked up a book on Roman ruins written by my father when the bell chimed softly, signaling that someone had entered the store.

Claire stiffened. She jerked her head toward the back of the store. I looked toward the front, and saw a tall man in a black coat talking to William. He was dressed like the blond man, but he looked nothing like him. This man had dark hair, dark eyes, and a dark look on his face. Velathri? I didn’t know, and I really didn’t want to find out.

The cat on the counter arched its back and hissed at the newcomer. The man glanced at the cat, then with a flick of his hand knocked it across the room.

“How dare you!” William said. “Who do you think you are?”

I stood frozen as the man leaned toward William, menace in every movement. “You know who I am,” the man said. His voice was low and gravely. Chills ran up my spine as he spoke.

“Now where is it?”

“Where is what?” William asked, standing straight before the dark figure.

“The book. You had it once before, and I know it has found its way back to you,” the man growled.

“Not this time. Even if someone brought it to me, I would refuse it,” William said. “I don’t want trouble.”

The cat was crouched in the corner, ears back and tail twitching. His eyes didn’t leave the man.

“I’ll take a look around to make sure,” the man said. “And if I find it …”

“Fine,” William said. “Go ahead.”

I knew we couldn’t let the man see us. I began to edge toward the back room of the store, a messy office with stacks of unshelved books stacked head-high. Maybe we could hide in there. Claire and Johan slipped through the door just ahead of me.

Suddenly, the dark man turned toward the back of the store. “Who’s there?” he asked William.

“Just the cat,” William said.

I looked, and saw the cat in the next room, jumping from a stack of books to a nearby chair.

“Come on,” Claire hissed. “The cat’s giving us time to get away.”

I tore myself from the scene in front of me, and looked at what Claire was doing. She’d opened a trapdoor hidden under a throw rug, and Johan was already halfway down the stairs. I followed him, and Claire hooked the throw rug to the handle of the trapdoor with a loop that must have been put there for that purpose, and pulled both down over our heads.

I looked around. We were in a cellar. I realized I could see because Claire was glowing.

“Claire, what’s wrong? Are you okay?”

“Fine. Just follow me,” she said, leading the way toward the back of the underground room. Behind a bookshelf, there was a door that led to a tunnel. I wanted to know more, but considering the possibility of mortal danger, I decided to just roll with it for now.

“What’s that?” Johan said, pointing at the book I was holding. I looked down. I’d forgotten I even had it in my hand. I held it up.

“My dad wrote it. I didn’t mean to take it – I had it in my hand when the man came in the store.”

“It’s okay. William will understand. If it makes you feel better, you can return it or pay him for it later,” Claire said. “And if we go back right now, we put him in danger as well, not just us. Come on, we’ve got to get out of here.”

“And how are we going to do that?” I asked my glowing friend.

“These tunnels lead to safe houses all over the city,” she replied.

“How do you know this?” I hissed.

“Garda must know all the escape routes of a city where they live. We’re quite capable of fighting, but the results are hard to explain to human investigators. And the memories of any humans who happen to witness an altercation must be erased. It causes an incredible amount of work. So we prefer stealth,” Claire said. “Now come.”

We followed her gentle glow down a maze of tunnels. I could see palmetto bugs, which are Charleston’s very own version of giant scary roaches, fleeing the light Claire emitted. I shuddered. I was glad when we finally reached a ladder that led to another trapdoor. I tucked the book into the waistband of my shorts, and climbed up behind Johan. He pushed on the trapdoor, lifting it cautiously.

“No one around,” he whispered.

We quickly climbed out, shutting the trapdoor behind us. I stood up and looked around. We were in what appeared to be the storage room of a restaurant. I sniffed. A pizza restaurant. I looked at the boxes stacked on shelves around me. The Mellow Mushroom.

Claire cracked the storeroom door, peeked out, and waved us through. We were standing beside the restroom doors. To the right was the kitchen, and to the left was the dining room.

It was lunchtime. We could hear the clink of glasses and the hum of conversation from the dining room. A waiter stopped, staring at us. “Can I help you?” he asked. He was young, probably a college student waiting tables as a summer job. His nametag said Robbie.

“Yes, I think we got lost,” Claire said, giving him her brightest smile. “Is there a table free? We’d like to eat.”

“Sure. I just cleaned one right here,” he said, pointing to a table just inside the dining room, well away from the front windows. Most people would consider it the worst seat in the house, but then most people weren’t hiding from vampires who wanted to kill them.

“Perfect,” Claire said. “Thank you, Robbie.” She led us toward the table, grabbing three menus from the waiter’s station as she walked by. As we settled ourselves into the chairs, I asked, “So what are we doing now?”

“We’re eating lunch,” Claire said. “And then we’ll go shopping in the market. We have to look normal, remember?”

“But what about the book …”

“Put it in your purse,” she said. “We’ll return it another time. We can’t go back to the bookstore today. They may be watching it. And besides, we have bigger problems to deal with.”

“Come on, Katie,” Johan said. “A dangerous vampire in a black coat is chasing us and you’re worried about a book?”

I rolled my eyes and shoved it into my small purse. It fit, but barely.

Suddenly, I remembered Claire glowing in the tunnels underneath our feet.

“Hey, Claire,” I hissed. “What’s with the glowworm routine?”

“What, you mean shining?” she said, looking surprised. “All Garda can do that. It’s part of who we are.”

“You mean my mother can do that?”

“Sure,” Claire said.

“And you didn’t mention this earlier? Why haven’t I seen it before? Do you turn it on and off?”

“You haven’t seen it before because I didn’t want you to. Yes, I turn it on and off …”

We fell silent as Robbie came to take our order. He soon returned with three Cokes and a large pepperoni and mushroom pizza. Looking at the pizza, I realized I was starving. That bowl of Cheerios hadn’t lasted very long.

Johan and I made small talk, discussing music and books and college choices while we ate. Claire kept her eyes on the front window, joining in our conversation occasionally without looking at us. Soon, the pizza was gone.

“You guys stay here,” she said. “I’m going to go up front and pay. I’ll look around while I’m there to make sure we’re clear to leave.”

She was smiling when she came back. “All clear,” she said. “Let’s head for the Market.”

We continued down King Street, stopping to look in shop windows and even going in a couple.

“Katie, you need to buy something,” Claire said. “We’re shopping for your trip to Italy, remember?”

I stopped in front of Half-Moon Outfitters. A mannequin in the window was wearing a sleeveless black dress made of some kind of knit, wrinkle-free fabric. It had a scoop neck and was snug through the bodice, flaring slightly at the hem, which looked like it would hit about six inches above my knees.

“My mom wants me to take a dress, and that one’s perfect. It doesn’t look little-girly, and it won’t wrinkle in my suitcase.”

“Let’s go in, then,” Claire said.

We entered the cool dimness of the store, Johan heading over to the men’s section while Claire and I found the dress in my size.

“Go on,” she said. “Try it on.”

I found an empty dressing room slid the dress over my head. I loved it. It fit perfectly, and I’d been right about the mature factor. I looked 25, not almost 17.

Hmmm. Except for the pony tail and running shoes. I pulled the elastic out of my hair and fluffed my curls with my fingers. I slipped off my shoes and stepped out into the store barefooted, twirling to show off the dress to Claire.

“Oh.” Johan sounded like he’d been punched in the stomach. He’d rejoined Claire while I was in the dressing room. Now he was standing there with a blank look on his face. I narrowed my eyes at him.

“I think it looks good,” I said.

“It looks great,” Claire said. “I’d say it’s a definite yes. What do you think, Johan?”

Johan swallowed, then croaked out, “Sure. It’s fine.”

Fine? Really? That’s all he could say? I looked at him, my eyebrows raised.

“I like it! Buy it,” he said, sounding more normal. “I’ll wait outside.”

I watched him walk toward the door, wondering what was wrong. I shrugged and decided not to let Johan’s reaction bother me. What do guys know about dresses, anyway?

I changed back into my t-shirt and shorts, pulling my hair up into its habitual ponytail. I took the dress to the counter, and had to dig around the book to get to my money.

I paid, then on impulse put the book into the shopping bag that held the dress. That was better. It made my purse lighter, too, so the strap didn’t cut into my shoulder so much.

We exited the store and turned onto Market Street. The crowds of tourists were thickest here. Restaurants, shops, and of course the Market itself drew them like moths to flame.

We maneuvered our way down the crowded sidewalks, admiring the nimble fingers of women weaving sea grass into baskets. We swerved around a kid who’d stopped in the middle of the sidewalk while he tried to catch the drips from a rapidly melting ice cream cone. The narrow one-way streets were clogged with more pedestrians, bicyclists, horse-drawn carriages, and of course the few brave (or foolish) souls in cars attempting to find parking.

June is my favorite month in Charleston. School is out, it’s not too hot and humid (yet), and the biting insects have not had time to multiply. I took a deep breath, breathing in the scents around me – waffle cones, the stables the carriage horses lived in, the briny smell of the marsh that was just a couple of blocks away.

The trees were bright green and the sky was turquoise, washed clean by spring rains. The clouds were so fluffy and white they looked Photoshopped.

We stopped at the fudge shop and took the salesgirl up on her offer of a free sample. I sighed. This was how I had planned to spend my summer. All of it, not just this afternoon.

“Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” I told myself sternly. Someone bumped into me as I licked the last of the fudge off of my fingertips.

“Oh, excuse me,” a man in a Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts said. “I apologize.”

“No problem,” I said, stepping back. The man was short and round. The top of his bald head was turning pink in the Charleston sun, and sweat poured off of him like he’d just run a 10K. His smile didn’t quite reach his eyes, which were small and close-set.

I wondered why visitors to Charleston felt it necessary to wear Hawaiian shirts. Hello! We’re on the East Coast! Atlantic Ocean! Original thirteen states here! We are not anywhere near those Polynesian islands in the Pacific Ocean that make up the state of Hawaii, which was, by the way, the last state to join the Union.

Okay, so we’re proud of our history in Charleston. But I get tired of people thinking a beach is a beach is a beach. As I finished my little internal rant, Hawaiian shirt guy turned and disappeared into the crowd.

“Let’s buy some fudge,” I said to Claire and Johan. “My mom makes great dinners, but we can bring dessert.”

I reached for my purse, but it wasn’t there. Hawaiian shirt guy – he must have cut the strap and taken it!

“Claire! Johan! That guy took my purse!’

They both looked at me like I was nuts. “What guy?” Claire said.

“The one who bumped into me! The guy wearing the Hawaiian shirt!”

“Almost every guy here is wearing a Hawaiian shirt,” Johan said.

“Wait. Your purse is gone?” Claire said, turning even paler than she was normally. “What was in it?”

“Just a hairbrush, lip gloss, and a change purse with some cash. I left my real wallet at the house.”

“Nothing with your name and address on it?”

“No, I don’t usually carry that purse. I just used it this morning because I already had everything else ready for Italy.”

“Good, because if someone took your purse, I’m afraid they may have been looking for information about who you are or where you live.”

“At least I still have William’s book,” I said. “I put it in the bag with my dress. I would feel so bad if it got stolen before I could return it! But my money is gone. And I liked that purse!”

Claire smiled. “I’ll buy the fudge. Money is replaceable, and so are purses. But you are not.”

“What did the guy look like?” Johan asked. “I didn’t see anyone who looked suspicious.”

“He looked like a tourist – you know, Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts, old man shoes. He was sunburnt and sweating – I don’t think he’s used to our weather.”

“So not from here … but probably not a real tourist,” Claire said. “Tourists don’t steal teenage girls’ purses. They’re too busy making sure their own pockets don’t get picked.”

“Yeah. And his outfit was almost too perfect – like he was trying to look like a tourist,” I said thoughtfully. “All he was missing was a straw hat.”

“And the wife and kids,” Johan said, grinning. “How many middle-aged men come to Charleston and wander around the market in Hawaiian shirts by themselves?”

“We need to head back to your house and let the others know what’s happened,” Claire said. “I didn’t think we were being followed, but between that guy in William’s shop and the ‘tourist’ stealing your purse, I’m starting to get a little nervous.”

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Eat, Prey, Blood

Chapter Six

When I opened them again, I was lying on the floor. My mom held a cold washcloth on my forehead while Claire fanned me with a magazine.

“Ariel, you should have let Libby tell her,” Claire hissed.

Claire had called her mother Ariel. Wait. I knew this. Ariel wasn’t really her mother.

“I thought you told her this afternoon,” Mrs. Corbett – Ariel – said, unconcerned. “Isn’t that what you were supposed to be doing?”

“I only got to the vampire part. I was going to let her mother tell her the other part,” Claire said.

I pushed myself into a sitting position. “Let’s just get on with it,” I said, unsteadily getting to my feet. “I’d like to know everything. Now.”

“See? She is tougher than you think,” Mrs. Corbett said, winking at me.

I wasn’t sure I agreed with her methods, but at least I was finally getting the truth. I nodded at her and took my seat at the table, folding my hands in front of me while I waited for the others to sit back down. Johan sat beside me, looking as shocked as I felt. It occurred to me that he hadn’t known everything, either.

“I think it would be more efficient if we let Katherine ask us questions as we don’t know exactly what knowledge Claire was able to impart this afternoon,” Mr. Meyer said, looking around the group. At their nods, he turned to me.

“But to begin with, you should call us by our first names,” he said.

I raised my eyebrows and looked at my mom. I’d been raised in the South, taught from birth that you call adults “Mr.” and “Mrs.” and definitely not by their first names.

“He’s right, Katie,” Mom said. “It’s time. I’ve raised you to fit into this culture, the culture of the South, but in our culture, where people live for centuries, we go by first names.”

“So that’s settled. Now, what would you like to know?” Mr. Meyer – Edward – said.

I tried to gather my thoughts. I had so many questions, I didn’t know where to start. I looked around the table and took a deep breath.

“Okay. Let’s start with all of you. How old is everyone?”

“We’re all older than we look,” Edward answered. “Vampires age, but very slowly. I am close to 400 years old. Juliana is 300 this year.”

“What about Johan? We were babies together!”

“Babies are very rare among vampires. But Johan is really 16 years old. Which is why he thought he could handle finding the book by himself,” Edward said.

I looked at Johan, who had gone to nursery school with me. At least that part of my life had been real. Well, if you ignored the whole “he’s a vampire” part, anyway.

“So what about the book?” I asked.

“I’m sorry,” Johan said, looking at his dad. “I heard you and mom talking about the book, and how to get it from the library, and I thought I could help. Miss Bell likes me.”

“But now the book is lost. And we don’t know who has it,” Adam said gravely.

“Wait a minute,” I said slowly. “Is it possible that black-coat guy is a Garda, not a Velathri?” I asked.

“Ah,” Adam said. “What makes you think that?”

I looked from Adam to Ariel to Claire to my mom. Every single one of them was fair-skinned, blonde and blue-eyed. “He had blonde hair and blue eyes,” I said. “He looked like all of you.”

“Oh, she’s quick, this one,” Ariel said. “Yes, it is possible.”

I looked down at my tanned arm, and thought of my brown eyes and dark hair. If I became a Garda when I turned 17, would I suddenly become blonde and blue-eyed? But I had more pressing questions to ask.

“Why would he want the book? And why would he tear the door off of Johan’s locker?”

“If he is Garda, then I don’t think he tore the door off the locker,” my mom said. “That sounds much more like the Velathri — violent, with a warning contained within the violence.”

“Then why would he break Johan’s arm?” I asked indignantly.

“Um, that wasn’t him,” Johan said.

“But I saw him leaving your backyard through the gate in the back corner,” I said.

“Yeah, he was there. But he’s the one who saved me. The other guy would have killed me if he hadn’t shown up.”

“What other guy?” I asked. I looked around. Apparently this wasn’t news to anyone else.

“There was another guy at the house when I got there,” Johan said. “Not a vampire. Something else, but still really strong. He was … I don’t know, ruthless. He picked me up and threw me out of my bedroom window like it was nothing. He was coming after me when the other guy showed up, and they both took off.”

“So who has the book?” I asked. “The Garda or the Velathri? Or someone else?”

There was a long silence. Finally, my mother spoke.

“We don’t know,” she said slowly. “It appears the Velathri are searching for it, which means they don’t have it. Yet. As for where it is …”

“That, we will attempt to find out tomorrow,” Adam said. “We should rest. It’s almost midnight, and tomorrow will be a busy day.”

There went my two days of leisure between the last day of school on Wednesday and graduation on Saturday. Claire and I had never gotten pedicures. I had more shopping to do to get ready for a summer in Italy … but it appeared those plans were on hold. Maybe forever.

“No, Adam,” my mother said, looking at me. “She’s too young.”

“She’s the same age as Johan,” Juliana said.

“It’s time to stop protecting her, Libby,” Ariel said. “I know you wanted to wait, but events have been set in motion earlier than we expected.”

“I need to let Anthony know what’s happening,” my mom said. Anthony is my dad.

“No, it’s too dangerous,” Adam replied. “Phones, email, texts can all be intercepted.”

“I have already sent him a message through other channels,” Edward said. “It’s slower than modern technology, but safer. He should get it by tomorrow.”

My mom sighed, but I could see she agreed.

“So why are we going to Italy if it’s so dangerous?” I asked the question Claire had voiced earlier in the day.

“Because we don’t know how your gifts will manifest themselves, your father thinks you should be in Montepulciano, where you will be safe,” my mother said. “The books both contain information about vampire-Garda children, so we need them there as well.”

“Somehow, the Velathri have been alerted,” Adam said. “At least to the existence of the book Johan had. We hope they remain unaware of the other book, and of you.”

“They don’t know about me?” I asked. That made me feel a little better.

“More to the point, they don’t know about your mother. They believe she is simply human, not Garda. So they think you are half-human, half-vampire, and that she intends to keep you in the dark about your heritage, so you will remain human. They’re simply watching to be sure this is what happens.

“If they knew you were half Garda, you would be in much more danger.”

I sat in silence, absorbing what he had said. So my parents had kept this huge secret from me to keep me safe. But now, my dad wanted me in Italy.

“So why does Dad think I’ll be safer in Italy?” I said.

“Because Montepulciano is the base of Stregoni Benifici power,” Edward said. “Velathri can’t enter, just as we can’t enter Volterra.”

Well, that was interesting. And of course it was Montepulciano, not San Francisco or Hawaii or someplace else I’d never been before and would really like to visit. I sighed.

“Claire can stay here tonight as extra protection for Katherine,” Edward said. “The rest of us should keep to our regular schedules so that whoever is searching for the book thinks we aren’t concerned.”

Claire and I went upstairs and everyone else headed for their homes. We got ready for bed, not speaking.
Claire took the other twin bed in my room, like she had so many times before. I turned off the light, and looked over at the lump in the other bed that was Claire.

It felt so normal – so much a part of my old life – to have her there. But everything was different. She wasn’t really my age. Her parents weren’t really her parents. My brain was so stuffed with new information, I was sure I’d never get to sleep. I had so many more questions for Claire. I yawned. I’d just close my eyes for a minute …

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Eat, Prey, Blood

Chapter Five

We walked out 30 minutes later with shoeboxes swinging from our hands. We’d each bought a pair of strappy sandals, perfect to offset summer tans. We’d also bought espadrilles — very retro, but very cool, too. And perfect for Italy. Which reminded me.

“So how much does my mom know?” I asked Claire.

“You’ll need to talk to her about that. But Johan and I thought you should know the truth before she takes you to Italy.”

“What do you mean? What’s wrong with Italy?”

“It’s too dangerous. While Montepulciano is where the Stregonis live, only a few meters away is Volterra, home of the Velathri.”

I stared at her.

“So … the Vel, um, Velathri, are evil?”

“Well …” Claire hesitated. “Let’s just say they’re traditionalists. There’s some history you need to know. And then we need to go talk to your mom.”

“My mom? I’m not ready to discuss this with her! I’m not sure I believe it myself!”

“I know. But by insisting on taking you to Italy, she’s set something in motion, and we have to figure out what.”

“Set something in motion … you mean black-coat guy?”

Claire stared at me.

“You saw him?” she asked.

“Yes, of course I saw him,” I said. “Three times already today.”

“Three times? When? Where?”

“This morning on the way to school, at school right before the door was ripped off of Johan’s locker, and then at Johan’s house,” I said. “Is he the one who hurt Johan?”

“Uh, you’ll, um, have to ask Johan that,” Claire said, not meeting my eyes. “Let’s go to my house. I have something to show you.”

I could tell Claire wasn’t going to answer me. I shrugged, deciding I’d ask Johan when I saw him.

Claire led the way to her house, around the corner from mine on Chapel Street. Her parents weren’t home from work yet, so we went straight to her room. I looked around, wondering how an ancient being’s room could look so much like a teenage girl’s. Clean clothes were stacked in the two arm chairs grouped by the window seat. Her bed was rumpled and unmade, and dirty clothes filled the hamper, trailing onto the floor.

“So why are those other vampires called Velathri?” I asked.

Claire was digging in the back of her closet. In a muffled voice she said, “Because that’s the original name of Volterra – the name the Etruscans gave the city when they founded it.”

Those stupid Etruscans again, I thought. It was their fault my summer had been ruined. How could a civilization that had ended thousands of years ago be causing so much trouble? It was all very annoying.

Claire backed out of her closet, clutching what looked like an old leather-bound guide book in her hand. She opened it to a map of Italy, and handed it to me.

“What’s this?” I asked, examining the map.

“Look closely. The names aren’t place names — they’re family names. Different vampire families control different areas of the world. The oldest families are in Italy. For centuries, the Velathri have pretty much overseen the entire vampire world. Nobody voted — it just kind of evolved that way. They had the power; they used it. But about 100 years ago, technology began changing the way humans — and other beings — interact with each other. The automobile, the airplane, the internet, cell phones, Skype — it’s much easier to visit and stay in touch with other areas of the world than it used to be.”

I nodded, understanding the technology part, but wondering how it affected vampire politics.

“There have always been half-vampires, and the Velathri have always disapproved. But families used to simply leave Italy. They’d move to another part of Europe, or take a ship to the U.S. or Canada. Some even settled in Australia and New Zealand. And the Velathri were fine with that, as long as they controlled Italy.

“But now, their influence is wider. And they’re purists. They don’t like half-vampires — children who may or may not know about the hidden vampire side of the world, children who may or may not grow up to be vampires themselves. How much these children know, how much they’ll reveal to the rest of the world, and what they’ll do when they reach 17 is unpredictable. And the Velathri don’t like unpredictability. They like certainty. They like control.”

I suddenly remembered the man in the black coat. “So who’s the guy in the black coat? Is he a Velathri?” I asked.

“Maybe. I didn’t get a close enough look at him,” Claire said.

Her voice sounded odd, but she was looking down at the book, and I couldn’t read her expression. My mind skipped back to the book in my hand.

“So this book is what, exactly?” I asked.

“It’s a history of vampires,” Claire said.

“And what about the book Johan had?”

“It’s a history of the Tuatha de Dannan.”

“The Two-who?”

“Our cousins who, I guess you could say, are traditionalists like the Velathri,” Claire said. “They live hidden, in caves and underground, avoiding contact with humans as much as possible.”

“How is that even possible?” I stared at her.

“It’s becoming more and more difficult,” Claire replied.

“So … what was the book doing in our school library?”

“Your dad put it there. The librarian thinks it’s an old book on Irish history, and it is, I guess. Your dad didn’t think it would be safe in Europe, and he wanted you to be able to read it when you were old enough. And he thought the reference section of a high school library would be a safe hiding place,” Claire said.

“Ireland? Irish history? I thought we were talking about Italy and vampires,” I said, confused.

She closed her eyes and sighed. “The seat of vampire power is in Italy – Volterra. The seat of fairy power is in Ireland …”

“FAIRY power? When did we start talking about fairies?” I yelled, startling Claire into opening her eyes.

“Garda and Tuatha are fairies,” she said. “I thought you understood that.”

“NO!” I shouted. “How was I supposed to know that?”

Claire sighed. “I’m trying to explain, but your parents have made it hard by letting you think you were human all these years.”

“Well, I’m really sorry to inconvenience you,” I said through gritted teeth. “But we are talking about my ENTIRE LIFE here.”

“I think I’ll let your mother take it from here,” Claire said. “Let’s go back to the book Johan lost. It’s the companion book to this one.” She pointed to the book I held. “Your dad found them on one of his digs. There’s supposed to be a third one, but your dad hasn’t been able to find it.”

“Why do the Velathri want the books? Don’t they know their own history?”

“Yes, but as I said, they like control. And having both books, or all three if the third one can be found, gives them power.”

I thought about the implications of what she’d just said. “Control over …”

“Well, vampires they don’t like. Garda, like me. And all the other creatures listed in the books — witches, wizards, werewolves, trolls, giants …”

I held up my hand. “Stop,” I said. “You mean …”

But of course. If vampires really existed, then the other creatures had to as well. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I’d written my English paper on Celtic myths, and that’s exactly what I’d thought those creatures were – myths, stories, an ancient culture’s attempt to explain natural phenomena that modern science had demystified.

I felt like the earth was crumbling under my feet — the world as I had thought it existed was a lie. Instead, a world of danger and legend had been going on around me while I naively worried about what color nail polish would look best.

I decided to worry about what else was out there later.

“So does black-coat guy have the other book?”

“We don’t think so, because why tear up Johan’s locker and search Johan’s house if he’s already found the book? But Johan doesn’t know what happened to it, and that’s bad.”

“Why did Johan take it out of the library anyway?” I asked.

Claire sighed. “He wasn’t supposed to. Your dad had a witch place a spell around your school, to protect both you and the book.”

“A witch? A spell?”

“Yes, Katie,” Claire said patiently. “The books were lost for a long time. Everyone thought all three of them were destroyed when Mt. Vesuvius buried Pompeii. But apparently some enterprising vampires snuck them out, at least the two your dad has found, before the lava reached the town’s library, and hid them in separate areas of Europe.

“Your dad found the first one, the one you’re holding, about 20 years ago. It was hidden in a Catholic monastery outside of Rome. He found the other one a year ago, in a grotto in Ireland. Remember when he came to visit at the beginning of junior year? He brought the book and hid it in the school library then.”

“How did you get this one?”

“It was given to the Garda for safe-keeping. And where better to hide something than in the back of a teenage girl’s closet, under clothes and shoes and pocketbooks?”

I laughed.

“Yeah, even my mother the neat freak would probably leave that alone,” I said.

I sobered at the thought of my mother. “We need to talk to her, don’t we?” I asked.

“Yep,” Claire said. “Maybe we can find out why she’s so determined to take you to Italy this summer.”

“Oh, I forgot! She invited you for supper.”

“Perfect,” Claire said. “Let’s get moving.”

Claire buried the book in the back of her closet again, artfully arranging clothing so the floor of her closet looked like a perfectly random mess.

I grabbed my Bob Ellis shopping bag, and we headed for my house. As we walked, another thought occurred to me. “Do the Velathri know you have one of the books?” I asked.

“No, and neither does Johan. So don’t say anything,” Claire said. “If the Velathri knew they were both in Charleston, they would do anything to get them. They might even start a full-scale war among supernatural beings. And if there’s a supernatural war, humans get hurt, too.”

So this was a lot bigger than just me. I felt like I’d aged about 10 years in the past 10 hours. Not only was there a whole other world out there, but it was on the verge of a war, over two books my dad had unearthed.

“Um … I get the feeling my dad’s pretty important in all of this,” I said.

“Yes, he is,” Claire said with a grin. “It’s not every half-vampire who gets her own personal Garda.”

I shook my head. “This feels really … unreal.”

“I know,” Claire agreed. “And I’m sorry you had to find out like this. Usually, children are taught these things little by little as they grow up, and have years to absorb what you’ve just learned today. I don’t know why your parents decided to keep you in the dark.”

As we walked up the front steps, my mom threw open the front door. “Katie, Claire!” She exclaimed. “You’re okay!” As my mother threw her arms around me, I saw Johan and his parents, Edward and Juliana Meyer, standing in our parlor.

Johan looked like his dad — light brown hair, green eyes, a dusting of freckles across his nose. His dad’s hair was shorter than Johan’s, and he wore a pair of wire-rim glasses, but that was about the only difference. He was the image of a forgetful college professor, but I guess that, like everything else, was a lie – or just partly true.

Mrs. Meyer was beautiful. Her smooth dark hair was pulled into an elegant chignon. She wore a red dress that showed off her tan skin and brown eyes, and matching red lipstick. I looked at them with new eyes, trying to fit together my years of knowing them as simply my friend’s parents with what I had learned earlier that day.

“Of course we’re okay,” Claire said. Then she saw the Meyers. “What happened?” she said, squeezing past me and my mom, who was still standing in the doorway refusing to let go of me.

“Johan told us the book is missing,” Mr. Meyer said. “This is serious, and we need to talk about it. Your parents are on the way over, Claire.”

I looked at my mom. She didn’t seem surprised at all.

Mom let go of me and turned toward Mr. and Mrs. Meyer.

“Let’s go into the kitchen,” she said. “I’ve got supper ready, and there’s enough for everyone.”

Mom had prepared a huge pot of spaghetti, salad, and a platter full of garlic bread. Had she known there would be more than three of us? It certainly looked like it. I shot her a look, but she was busy setting the table and I couldn’t catch her eye.

“Let’s go ahead and start,” Mom said. “The Corbetts can join us when they get here.”

We sat down and filled our plates. The room was quiet for a few minutes as we all ate. Every person at the table seemed familiar with the European custom of twirling noodles with spoon and fork.

Huh. I’d never noticed that before. I was pretty sure my other American friends didn’t know how to do that. In fact, my friend Bethany’s mom didn’t even put out spoons when she served pasta. I’d always assumed my mom had picked up the custom from my dad.

I snuck another look at my mom, but she kept her eyes on her plate. Suddenly, she jumped up and headed for the front door. “I hear the Corbetts,” she said over her shoulder. “I’ll get the door.”

I hadn’t heard anything. What was she talking about? But sure enough, when she opened the door, Claire’s parents were standing there. She must really be on edge, I thought.

Claire’s parents, Adam and Ariel, came into the kitchen, talking and laughing with my mom. As they ate, the rest of us began to clean up the kitchen.

“This is wonderful, Libby,” Adam said. “I really miss authentic Italian cooking. Ariel has never mastered it, despite our years in Montepulciano.”

“No, I am French,” Ariel said. “The cooking I do is much superior.” Funny. I’d never noticed the slight accent that colored her words.

So these guys all knew each other. And they’d apparently been in Italy together at some point in their lives. I narrowed my eyes at my mother. She looked the other way, pretending she didn’t notice me trying to imitate the death stare she’d used on me when I was younger.

Claire and I washed pots. Johan rinsed the dishes and put them in the dishwasher. I fidgeted, wondering what other surprises I was in for.

When we were all seated at the table again, Mr. Corbett cleared his throat and looked a question at Claire, who began describing our day. When she got to the part about black-coat guy at Johan’s house, she stopped for a second, then said, “Katie saw the guy three times today.”

“Where, Katie?” Mr. Corbett said. “What was he doing?”

“I saw that guy this morning, on my way to school,” I said. I described seeing him enter the house near the school, while I waited for the light to change. “And I thought I saw him in the school while we were on the way to the gym,” I added.

Everyone at the table stared at me.

“What?” I asked. I looked down at the front of my shirt, checking for spaghetti splotches.

“You shouldn’t be able to see this man,” Mr. Meyer said, wrinkling his forehead. “Supernatural creatures are able to hide their movements from humans.”

“Actually, Katherine is unique,” Mrs. Corbett said, studying me as though I were a bug under a microscope. “Vampire-Garda children are rare. We do not know what will happen when she turns 17.”

O-kaaaay. She’d said vampire-Garda, not vampire-human. I looked around the table. The Meyers — Edward, Juliana, and Johan — were vampires. The Corbetts — Adam, Ariel and Claire — were Garda. And if I was half vampire, half Garda, and I knew my dad was a vampire, then that made my mom … I looked at her. Her face was serious as she returned my gaze. Garda. My mom was an ancient being who protected others. An Irish fairy, if I believed Claire. I closed my eyes, feeling faint.

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Eat, Prey, Blood

Chapter Four

I sat on my bed and took a deep breath. Pulling out my phone, I sent Claire a text: “Sorry I freaked. Come over?”

In a second, my phone rang. It was Claire.

“Katie, are you okay?” she asked.

“As okay as anyone could expect me to be,” I said. “But I have some questions, and I’m not ready to talk to my mom about this.”

“Right. And we still need to go shopping for shoes,” Claire said. “I’ll be right over.”

Really? How could she think about shoes when I’d just found out I was a half-vampire and some crazy guy in a black cloak was loose in the city tearing the doors off lockers and breaking people’s arms? Okay, one locker and one arm. Still, shoes?

“Katie?”

It was my mom. I checked myself in the mirror. Amazing. I still looked like the same girl who’d left for school this morning.  I ran a comb through my hair, surprised that I looked so normal, and answered, “Yeah, Mom?”

“Did you get your shoes yet?” she asked, opening the door to my bedroom. She came in and sat down on the edge of my bed. Wow. She was thinking about shoes, too. I shook my head.

“Uh, no. Claire forgot something and had to go home first. She’s on her way over now,” I said.

“Okay. I’m going to take a shower and grade some papers, then,” She said, getting up and heading for her room. “We’ll eat supper when you get back. Claire’s welcome to stay if she wants.”

I pasted a smile on my face, trying to look and sound normal.

“Thanks, mom. I’ll tell her.”

I waited for my mom to leave the room, then walked downstairs. Shoot. I realized I’d left my backpack at Johan’s. My cell phone had been in my pocket, but my wallet was in the backpack. Just then, the doorbell rang. Claire stood there with my backpack in her hand. She thought of everything. I guess that was part of her job, though, as a protector. Huh. No wonder she was always so organized.

I opened the door and stepped out. I pulled my wallet out of the backpack, tucking it into the purse I’d slung over my shoulder. I tossed the backpack inside, locking the door behind me.

“First, is my mom safe?” I asked.

“Not so loud,” Claire said in a low voice, looking around. “But don’t worry. My parents take turns keeping watch over her. She’s as safe as you are.”

“Well, that answers one of my questions,” I said. “So your parents are, um, protectors, too?”

“Garda,” she said. “Yes, they are. And they’re not really my parents. In reality, we’re all about the same age.”

“Okaaay.”

I took a minute to think about that. So Claire hadn’t just appeared in some unsuspecting couple’s house at age 10 and made herself at home.

“And exactly why do we need protection? You haven’t explained that part.”

“You did run off a little abruptly.”

“Yeah, well, I needed to think.”

“I understand. You’ve absorbed a lot today. But to answer your question. Your dad is not just a vampire. He’s a Stregoni Benefici.”

“A what?” I asked, wondering how many more surprises I could take today before my head just exploded, leaving a huge mess for Charleston city employees to clean up.

“Stregoni Benefici,” Claire repeated slowly. “Literally translated, it means beneficent wizard. What that means to you is that he’s a member of a vampire branch that works to protect humans from creatures that would harm them, including other vampires. Not all vampires want to live among humans, feeding from animals and adjusting their schedules away from the nocturnal. There are some who wish to return to the days of monsters ruling the world, when humans were afraid to set foot outside from dusk to daybreak, and people who traveled at night often disappeared.”

“Well,” I said hesitantly, “that’s good, right? I mean, good that my dad wants to keep people safe.”

“It is,” Claire said. “But some of the other vampires have decided to focus their efforts on removing the Stregoni Benefici, or at least limiting their numbers. And you have the capability to turn into one.”

Not for the first time that day, I felt the gears in my head lock up. I slowed my steps as we neared our destination, the Bob Ellis shoe store on King Street. I cleared my throat, trying to get my brain to work again.

“You mean … I’m supposed to grow up to fight bad vampires?” I said. “And by ‘removing’ the Strego whatever, you mean ‘kill,’ right?”

It sounded so ridiculous said out loud like that. I was supposed to grow up to be a professor, like my mom and dad. They were both passionate about the subjects they taught, and loved bringing the past alive for their students. I’d always planned on following in their footsteps. I couldn’t possibly fight vampires and teach, could I?

But then I realized that my dad, if he really was a vampire warrior, was a professor as well. Apparently it was possible to do both. As if teaching classes and doing research weren’t enough to keep you busy.

Claire nodded calmly, opening the door to the shoe store. “Come on, Katie, let’s find some sandals,” she said. “We’ll talk more later.”

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Eat, Prey, Blood

Chapter Three

“Wait. What’s happening?” I said, looking from Johan’s face to Claire’s, my eyes wide. “Johan’s arm was broken. I saw it.”

My two best friends exchanged a look.

“I think it’s time to tell her,” Claire said. “She needs to know before she goes to Italy.”

Great. Now my two best friends were keeping secrets from me. Between my dad’s strange email and Johan’s vague answers about the book, I was fed up.

“Come on, guys,” I said. “This isn’t funny.”

Johan grunted. “Yeah, I guess so. You go ahead,” he said to Claire as he pushed himself into a sitting position.

I gave Claire a hard look. “Tell me what?” I asked.

Claire smiled. “Katie, I’m not a 17-year-old girl,” she said.

I sat there for a minute, trying to make sense of her statement.

“Then what are you?” I asked, wondering what kind of joke they were trying to pull. “I mean, I’ve known you since you were 10.”

“I’m a Garda,” Claire said.

I stared at her. “And what does that mean?”

“Literally?” she said. “Protector, guard. But I am specifically your protector. And that’s why I showed up when your dad moved out.”

I took a deep breath.

“So my dad knows who — what you are. He asked a 10-year-old girl to protect me?”

She nodded.

Maybe this is what the cryptic email I’d gotten last night was referring to. But what did Claire’s being a protector have to do with my own heritage? Unless, maybe, my heritage was why I needed a protector?

But I had more questions for Claire and Johan.

“And you were supposed to protect me? From what?” I asked, my voice rising.

“I told you, I’m not really a 17-year-old girl. And I wasn’t a 10-year-old girl seven years ago. I am hundreds of years old, and can take any form necessary to protect you.”

“You didn’t answer the second part of the question. What are you protecting me from?”

Claire sighed. “That’s a little more complicated.”

“I’ll try to explain,” Johan chimed in. “To begin with, let’s start with me. I’m a vampire.”

Now I knew for sure that I was either dreaming, or missing some kind of joke.

“Okaaaay. So how are you sitting here in daylight? And why aren’t you attacking me? And why don’t you have pale skin and red eyes?” I could have kept going, but Johan held up his hand.

“Some of the things you’ve heard about vampires are true, and some were made up by the movie industry to sell horror movies,” he said.

“For instance?”

“For instance, vampires are nocturnal, like owls. We see better in the dark. We prefer to hunt at night and sleep by day. However, like owls, we can change our routines if we need to. The sun won’t hurt us.

“We can survive on animal blood – although human blood tastes better. In medieval Europe, the first sign a vampire was around was usually dead sheep carcasses outside the city walls. And as you can tell, we look no different from you. We do, however, heal faster than the average person,” he said, flexing his arm.

“I’ve never seen you drinking blood.”

I mean, yeah, it’s not like I paid close attention to Johan’s diet, but surely I would have noticed something like that.

“Katie,” Johan said patiently. “Do you really think I drink tomato juice all the time?”

I thought about it. Johan didn’t drink sodas. He drank tomato juice, and said he did it because it was healthy and part of his training for the track team.

“You mean …”

“Yeah. It’s not tomato juice.”

Yuck.

“But … what about your parents?”

“They’re vampires, too. Duh. How do you think I got here?”

“I thought that couldn’t happen. I thought vampires made other vampires by biting them.”

“That’s the most common way. But every so often, say every 500 years or so, a vampire couple has a child.”

“Really?”

I think of more questions, but decide I don’t want to know that much about Johan’s parents’ sex life.

“What about the biting part?”

“Sometimes a vampire wants a companion, and sometimes a vampire and a human fall in love. A lot of times, the vampire will change the human so they’re both vampires.”

“So what happens if the human doesn’t want to be a vampire?”

“That can cause a problem. Usually, they eventually break up,” he said, pausing and looking over at Claire.

She gave a slight nod. Johan took a deep breath, and then continued, “Like your parents.”

Okay, this was getting way too weird.

“What do you mean, like my parents? Yes, my parents broke up. But one of them isn’t …”

I stopped speaking as the expressions on their faces sank in. They were serious. They meant it. Oh, yeah. Dad and I were REALLY going to have a talk when I got to Italy.

My voice wouldn’t work. I cleared my throat, then whispered, “Which one?”

But I already knew. My mom was a morning person. She hopped out of bed at the break of dawn, singing and opening curtains to let in as much light as possible. My dad stayed up late reading, writing, studying. He always taught afternoon classes, and worked through the night at excavation sites.

“So … my mom didn’t want to become a vampire?” I croaked out.

“No. And she didn’t want you to become one, either,” Johan said gravely.

I looked at him in horror. “Me? What does this have to do with me?”

“Katie,” he said gently. “You’re half-vampire.”

“But — I don’t have fangs. I don’t stay up all night — at least not more than every other teenager I know. I don’t drink blood! I don’t even want to drink blood! What are you talking about?”

Johan sighed. “Okay, here it is. As the child of a human and a vampire, you have to make a choice. Once you reach 17, you can choose to stay human, or become a vampire.”

That was too much. I’d reached my limit. I didn’t say a word. I stood up, turned my back on Claire and Johan, and headed for home, moving quickly from a jog into a flat-out run, as though I could outrun the things that Johan and Claire had just told me. My track coach would have been proud of me. When I reached my front door, I looked back. Claire and Johan hadn’t followed. At least that I could tell. I didn’t see the man in the black coat, either.

Uh-oh. What they’d told me had been so startling, I hadn’t even asked about him. I didn’t know why he’d been in Johan’s house, or how Johan had ended up in the bushes with a broken arm. Was the man a vampire? Something else? What else was there?

My thoughts  ran in circles as I unlocked the front door and let myself in. It was 2:30. My mom would be home in an hour. I locked the door behind me, wishing we had a dog. A big, loud dog, with sharp teeth. One that would let me know if a stranger were within a block of our house. Instead, Willow, my cat, wound herself around my ankles, meowing for me to put some food in her bowl.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, then walked to the kitchen and filled her dish. She twitched her gray tail as she settled down to crunch on the dry cat food. If black-coat guy showed up, maybe she could purr him to death.

I flopped down in a kitchen chair, trying not to think about what Claire and Johan had told me. I just wanted to go back to this morning, when I was a normal teenage girl with normal teenage friends, looking forward to a (somewhat) normal teenage summer.

But no. My not-so-normal friends had to spoil everything. Gradually, as I sat there trying to figure out what I should ask my mom first, I realized I was hungry. I remembered I’d never eaten lunch, so I got up and rummaged through the refrigerator, looking for something that didn’t take too much preparation. I finally settled on a cheese sandwich, stuck in the toaster oven for a minute or two so it kind of tasted like grilled cheese. Close enough, anyway.

As I ate, I tried to organize my thoughts. What about Claire’s parents? Hadn’t they noticed when Claire just suddenly showed up as a 10-year-old? Or were they, possibly, part of this, too? How much did my mom know? Why didn’t Johan think I should go to Italy this summer? And I still didn’t know why I needed protection, or from what.

I heard my mom’s key turn in the front door. I wasn’t ready to talk about this yet. I needed more time to process it. I headed up the narrow back stairs, which took me straight from the kitchen to the hallway right outside of my room.

Once inside, I closed the door and took out my cell phone. Now that I had calmed down, I needed to talk to Claire.

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