فصل 17

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فصل 17

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Chapter 17

There was a powerful taste of cloves in my mouth, and I’d been mummified in my own duvet. When I stirred in my wrappings, the bed’s old springs gave slightly.

“Shh.” Matthew’s lips were at my ear, and his body formed a shell against my back. We lay there like spoons in a drawer, tight against each other.

“What time is it?” My voice was hoarse.

Matthew pulled away slightly and looked at his watch. “It’s after one.”

“How long have I been asleep?”

“Since around six last night.”

Last night.

My mind shattered into words and images: the alchemical manuscript, Peter Knox’s threat, my fingers turning blue with electricity, the photograph of my parents, my mother’s hand frozen in a never-ending reach.

“You gave me drugs.” I pushed against the duvet, trying to work my hands free. “I don’t like taking drugs, Matthew.”

“Next time you go into shock, I’ll let you suffer needlessly.” He gave a single twitch to the bed covering that was more effective than all my previous wrestling with it.

Matthew’s sharp tone shook the shards of memory, and new images rose to the surface. Gillian Chamberlain’s twisted face warned me about keeping secrets, and the piece of paper commanded me to remember. For a few moments, I was seven again, trying to understand how my bright, vital parents could be gone from my life.

In my rooms I reached toward Matthew, while in my mind’s eye my mother’s hand reached for my father across a chalk-inscribed circle. The lingering childhood desolation of their death collided with a new, adult empathy for my mother’s desperate attempt to touch my father. Abruptly pulling from Matthew’s arms, I lifted my knees to my chest in a tight, protective ball.

Matthew wanted to help—I could see that—but he was unsure of me, and the shadow of my own conflicted emotions fell over his face.

Knox’s voice sounded again in my mind, full of poison. Remember who you are.

“Remember?” the note asked.

Without warning, I turned back toward the vampire, closing the distance between me and him in a rush. My parents were gone, but Matthew was here. Tucking my head under his chin, I listened for several minutes for the next pump of blood through his system. The leisurely rhythms of his vampire heart soon put me to sleep.

My own heart was pounding when I awoke again in the dark, kicking at the loosened duvet and swimming to a seated position. Behind me, Matthew turned on the lamp, its shade still angled away from the bed.

“What is it?” he asked.

“The magic found me. The witches did, too. I’ll be killed for my magic, like my parents were killed.” The words rushed from my mouth, panic speeding their passage, and I stumbled to my feet.

“No.” Matthew rose and stood between me and the door. “We’re going to face this, Diana, whatever it is. Otherwise you’ll never stop running.”

Part of me knew that what he said was true. The rest wanted to flee into the darkness. But how could I, with a vampire standing in the way?

The air began to stir around me as if trying to drive off the feeling of being trapped. Chilly wisps edged up the legs of my trousers. The air crept up my body, lifting the hair around my face in a gentle breeze. Matthew swore and stepped toward me, his arm outstretched. The breeze increased into gusts of wind that ruffled the bedclothes and the curtains.

“It’s all right.” His voice was pitched deliberately to be heard above the whirlwind and to calm me at the same time.

But it wasn’t enough.

The force of the wind kept rising, and with it my arms rose, too, shaping the air into a column that enclosed me as protectively as the duvet. On the other side of the disturbance, Matthew stood, one hand still extended, eyes fixed on mine. When I opened my mouth to warn him to stay away, nothing came out but frigid air.

“It’s all right,” he said again, not breaking his gaze. “I won’t move.”

I hadn’t realized that was the problem until he said the words.

“I promise,” he said firmly.

The wind faltered. The cyclone surrounding me became a whirlwind, then a breeze, then disappeared entirely. I gasped and dropped to my knees.

“What is happening to me?” Every day I ran and rowed and did yoga, and my body did what I told it to. Now it was doing unimaginable things. I looked down to make sure my hands weren’t sparkling with electricity and my feet weren’t still being buffeted by winds.

“That was a witchwind,” Matthew explained, not moving. “Do you know what that is?”

I’d heard of a witch in Albany who could summon storms, but no one had ever called it a “witchwind.”

“Not really,” I confessed, still sneaking glances at my hands and feet.

“Some witches have inherited the ability to control the element of air. You’re one of them,” he said.

“That wasn’t control.”

“It was your first time.” Matthew was matter-of-fact. He gestured around the small bedroom: the intact curtains and sheets, all the clothing strewn on the chest of drawers and floor exactly where they’d been left that morning. “We’re both still standing, and the room doesn’t look like a tornado went through it. That’s control—for now.”

“But I didn’t ask for it. Do these things just happen to witches—electrical fires and winds they didn’t summon?” I pushed the hair out of my eyes and swayed, exhausted. Too much had happened in the past twenty-four hours. Matthew’s body inclined toward me as if to catch me should I fall.

“Witchwinds and blue fingers are rare these days. There’s magic inside you, Diana, and it wants to get out, whether you ask for it or not.”

“I felt trapped.”

“I shouldn’t have cornered you last night.” Matthew looked ashamed. “Sometimes I don’t know what to do with you. You’re like a perpetual-motion machine. All I wanted was for you to stand still for a moment and listen.”

It must be even harder to cope with my incessant need to move if you were a vampire who seldom needed to breathe. Once again the space between Matthew and me was suddenly too large. I started to rise.

“Am I forgiven?” he asked sincerely. I nodded. “May I?” he asked, gesturing at his feet. I nodded again.

He took three fast steps in the time it took me to stand up. My body pitched into him just as it had in the Bodleian the first night I saw him, standing aristocratic and serene in Duke Humfrey’s Reading Room. This time, however, I didn’t pull away so quickly. Instead I rested against him willingly, his skin soothingly cool rather than frightening and cold.

We stood silent for a few moments, holding each other. My heart quieted, and his arms remained loose, although his shuddering breath suggested that this was not easy.

“I’m sorry, too.” My body softened into him, his sweater scratchy on my cheek. “I’ll try to keep my energy under control.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry about. And you shouldn’t try so hard to be something you’re not. Would you drink tea if I made you some?” he asked, his lips moving against the top of my head.

Outside, the night was unalleviated by any hint of sunrise. “What time is it now?”

Matthew’s hand swiveled between my shoulder blades so that he could see the face of his watch. “Just after three.”

I groaned. “I’m so tired, but tea sounds wonderful.”

“I’ll make it, then.” He gently loosened my arms from around his waist. “Be right back.”

Not wanting to let him out of my sight, I drifted along. He rummaged through the tins and bags of available teas.

“I told you I liked tea,” I said apologetically as he found yet another brown bag in the cupboard, tucked behind a coffee press I seldom used.

“Do you have a preference?” He gestured at the crowded shelf.

“The one in the black bag with the gold label, please.” Green tea seemed the most soothing option.

He busied himself with the kettle and pot. He poured hot water over the fragrant leaves and thrust a chipped old mug in my direction once it was ready. The aromas of green tea, vanilla, and citrus were so very different from Matthew, but comforting nevertheless.

He made himself a mug, too, his nostrils flaring in appreciation. “That actually doesn’t smell too bad,” he acknowledged, taking a small sip. It was the only time I’d seen him drink anything other than wine.

“Where shall we sit?” I asked, cradling the warm mug in my hands.

Matthew inclined his head toward the living room. “In there. We need to talk.”

He sat in one corner of the comfortable old sofa, and I arranged myself opposite. The steam from the tea rose around my face, a gentle reminder of the witchwind.

“I need to understand why Knox thinks you’ve broken the spell on Ashmole 782,” Matthew said when we were settled.

I replayed the conversation in the warden’s rooms. “He said that spells become volatile around the anniversaries of their casting. Other witches—ones who know witchcraft—have tried to break it, and they’ve failed. He figured I was just in the right place at the right time.”

“A talented witch bound Ashmole 782, and I suspect this spell is nearly impossible to break. No one who’s tried to get the manuscript before met its conditions, no matter how much witchcraft they knew or what time of year they tried.” He stared into the depths of his tea. “You did. The question is how, and why.”

“The idea that I could fulfill the conditions of a spell cast before I was born is harder to believe than that it was just an anniversary aberration. And if I fulfilled the conditions once, why not again?” Matthew opened his mouth, and I shook my head. “No, it’s not because of you.”

“Knox knows witchcraft, and spells are complicated. I suppose it’s possible that time pulls them out of shape every now and again.” He looked unconvinced.

“I wish I could see the pattern in all this.” My white table rose into view, with pieces of the puzzle laid on it. Though I moved a few pieces around—Knox, the manuscript, my parents—they refused to form an image. Matthew’s voice broke through my reveries.

“Diana?”

“Hmm?”

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” I said, too quickly.

“You’re using magic,” he said, putting his tea down. “I can smell it. See it, too. You’re shimmering.”

“It’s what I do when I can’t solve a puzzle—like now.” My head was bowed to hide how difficult it was to talk about this. “I see a white table and imagine all the different pieces. They have shapes and colors, and they move around until they form a pattern. When the pattern forms, they stop moving to show I’m on the right track.”

Matthew waited a long time before he responded. “How often do you play this game?”

“All the time,” I said reluctantly. “While you were in Scotland, I realized that it was yet more magic, like knowing who’s looking at me without turning my head.”

“There is a pattern, you know,” he said. “You use your magic when you’re not thinking.”

“What do you mean?” The puzzle pieces started dancing on the white table.

“When you’re moving, you don’t think—not with the rational part of your mind, at least. You’re somewhere else entirely when you row, or run, or do yoga. Without your mind keeping your gifts in check, out they come.”

“But I was thinking before,” I said, “and the witchwind came anyway.”

“Ah, but then you were feeling a powerful emotion,” he explained, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees. “That always keeps the intellect at bay. It’s the same thing that happened when your fingers turned blue with Miriam and then with me. This white table of yours is an exception to the general rule.”

“Moods and movement are enough to trigger these forces? Who would want to be a witch if something so simple can make all hell break loose?”

“A great many people, I would imagine.” Matthew glanced away. “I want to ask you to do something for me,” he said. The sofa creaked as he faced me once more. “And I want you to think about it before you answer. Will you do that?”

“Of course.” I nodded.

“I want to take you home.”

“I’m not going back to America.” It had taken me five seconds to do exactly what he’d asked me not to.

Matthew shook his head. “Not your home. My home. You need to get out of Oxford.”

“I already told you I’d go to Woodstock.”

“The Old Lodge is my house, Diana,” Matthew explained patiently. “I want to take you to my home—to France.”

“France?” I pushed the hair out of my face to get a clearer view of him.

“The witches are intent on getting Ashmole 782 and keeping it from the other creatures. Their theory that you broke the spell and the prominence of your family are all that’s kept them at arm’s length. When Knox and the others find out that you used no witchcraft to obtain the manuscript—that the spell was set to open for you—they’ll want to know how and why.”

My eyes closed against the sudden, sharp image of my father and mother. “And they won’t ask nicely.”

“Probably not.” Matthew took a deep breath, and the vein in his forehead throbbed. “I saw the photo, Diana. I want you away from Peter Knox and the library. I want you under my roof for a while.”

“Gillian said it was witches.” When my eyes met his, I was struck by how tiny the pupils were. Usually they were black and enormous, but something was different about Matthew tonight. His skin was less ghostly, and there was a touch more color in his normally pale lips. “Was she right?”

“I can’t know for sure, Diana. The Nigerian Hausa believe that the source of a witch’s power is contained in stones in the stomach. Someone went looking for them in your father,” he said regretfully. “Another witch is the most likely scenario.”

There was a soft click, and the light on the answering machine began to blink. I groaned.

“That’s the fifth time your aunts have called,” Matthew observed.

No matter how low the volume, the vampire was going to be able to hear the message. I walked to the table near him and picked up the receiver.

“I’m here, I’m here,” I began, talking over my aunt’s agitated voice.

“We thought you were dead,” Sarah said. The realization that she and I were the last remaining Bishops struck me forcefully. I could picture her sitting in the kitchen, phone to her ear and hair wild around her face. She was getting older, and despite her feistiness, the fact that I was far away and in danger had rocked her.

“I’m not dead. I’m in my rooms, and Matthew is with me.” I smiled at him weakly. He didn’t smile back.

“What’s going on?” Em asked from another extension. After my parents died, Em’s hair had turned silver in the space of a few months. At the time she was still a young woman—not yet thirty—but Em had always seemed more fragile after that, as if she might blow away in the next puff of wind. Like my aunt, she was clearly upset at what her sixth sense told her was happening in Oxford.

“I tried to recall the manuscript, that’s all,” I said lightly, making an effort not to worry them further. Matthew stared at me disapprovingly, and I turned away. It didn’t help. His glacial eyes bored into my shoulder instead. “But this time it didn’t come up from the stacks.”

“You think we’re calling because of that book?” demanded Sarah.

Long, cold fingers grasped the phone and drew it away from my ear.

“Ms. Bishop, this is Matthew Clairmont,” he said crisply. When I reached to take the receiver from him, Matthew gripped my wrist and shook his head, once, in warning. “Diana’s been threatened. By other witches. One of them is Peter Knox.”

I didn’t need to be a vampire to hear the outburst on the other end of the line. He dropped my wrist and handed me the phone.

“Peter Knox!” Sarah cried. Matthew’s eyes closed as if the sound hurt his eardrums. “How long has he been hanging around?”

“Since the beginning,” I said, my voice wavering. “He was the brown wizard who tried to push his way into my head.”

“You didn’t let him get very far, did you?” Sarah sounded frightened.

“I did what I could, Sarah. I don’t exactly know what I’m doing, magic-wise.”

Em intervened. “Honey, a lot of us have problems with Peter Knox. More important, your father didn’t trust him—not at all.”

“My father?” The floor shifted under my feet, and Matthew’s arm circled my waist, keeping me steady. I wiped at my eyes but couldn’t remove the sight of my father’s misshapen head and gashed torso.

“Diana, what else happened?” Sarah said softly. “Peter Knox should scare the socks off you, but there’s more to it than that.”

My free hand clutched at Matthew’s arm. “Somebody sent me a picture of Mom and Dad.”

The silence stretched on the other end of the line. “Oh, Diana,” Em murmured.

“That picture?” Sarah asked grimly.

“Yes,” I whispered.

Sarah swore. “Put him back on the phone.”

“He can hear you perfectly from where he’s standing,” I remarked. “Besides, anything you have to say to him you can say to me, too.”

Matthew’s hand moved from my waist to the small of my back. He began to rub it with the heel of his hand, pressing into the rigid muscles until they started to relax.

“Both of you listen to me, then. Get far, far away from Peter Knox. And that vampire had better see that you do, or I’m holding him responsible. Stephen Proctor was the most easygoing man alive. It took a lot to make him dislike someone—and he detested that wizard. Diana, you will come home immediately.”

“I will not, Sarah! I’m going to France with Matthew.” Sarah’s far less attractive option had just convinced me.

There was silence.

“France?” Em said faintly.

Matthew held out his hand.

“Matthew would like to speak to you.” I handed him the phone before Sarah could protest.

“Ms. Bishop? Do you have caller ID?”

I snorted. The brown phone hanging on the kitchen wall in Madison had a rotary dial and a cord a mile long so that Sarah could wander around while she talked. It took forever to simply dial a local number. Caller ID? Not likely.

“No? Take down these numbers, then.” Matthew slowly doled out the number to his mobile and another that presumably belonged to the house, along with detailed instructions on international dialing codes. “Call at any time.”

Sarah then said something pointed, based on Matthew’s startled expression.

“I’ll make sure she’s safe.” He handed me the phone.

“I’m getting off now. I love you both. Don’t worry.”

“Stop telling us not to worry,” Sarah scolded. “You’re our niece. We’re good and worried, Diana, and likely to stay that way.”

I sighed. “What can I do to convince you that I’m all right?”

“Pick up the phone more often, for starters,” she said grimly.

When we’d said our good-byes, I stood next to Matthew, unwilling to meet his eyes. “All this is my fault, just like Sarah said. I’ve been behaving like a clueless human.”

He turned away and walked to the end of the sofa, as far from me as he could get in the small room, and sank into the cushions. “This bargain you made about magic and its place in your life—you made it when you were a lonely, frightened child. Now, every time you take a step, it’s as though your future hinges on whether you manage to put your foot down in the right place.”

Matthew looked startled when I sat next to him and silently took his hands in mine, resisting the urge to tell him it was going to be all right.

“In France maybe you can just be for a few days—not trying, not worrying about making a mistake,” he continued. “Maybe you could rest—although I’ve never seen you stop moving long enough. You even move in your sleep, you know.”

“I don’t have time to rest, Matthew.” I was already having second thoughts about leaving Oxford. “The alchemy conference is less than six weeks away. They’re expecting me to deliver the opening lecture. I’ve barely started it, and without access to the Bodleian there’s no chance of finishing it in time.”

Matthew’s eyes narrowed speculatively. “Your paper is on alchemical illustrations, I assume?”

“Yes, on the allegorical image tradition in England.”

“Then I don’t suppose you would be interested in seeing my fourteenth-century copy of Aurora Consurgens. It’s French, regrettably.”

My eyes widened. Aurora Consurgens was a baffling manuscript about the opposing forces of alchemical transformation—silver and gold, female and male, dark and light. Its illustrations were equally complex and puzzling.

“The earliest known copy of the Aurora is from the 1420s.”

“Mine is from 1356.”

“But a manuscript from such an early date won’t be illustrated,” I pointed out. Finding an illuminated alchemical manuscript from before 1400 was as unlikely as discovering a Model-T Ford parked on the battlefield at Gettysburg.

“This one is.”

“Does it contain all thirty-eight images?”

“No. It has forty.” He smiled. “It would seem that previous historians have been wrong about several particulars.”

Discoveries on this scale were rare. To get first crack at an unknown, fourteenth-century illustrated copy of Aurora Consurgens represented the opportunity of a lifetime for a historian of alchemy.

“What do the extra illustrations show? Is the text the same?”

“You’ll have to come to France to find out.”

“Let’s go, then,” I said promptly. After weeks of frustration, writing my keynote address suddenly seemed possible.

“You won’t go for your own safety, but if there’s a manuscript involved?” He shook his head ruefully. “So much for common sense.”

“I’ve never been known for my common sense,” I confessed. “When do we leave?”

“An hour?”

“An hour.” This was no spur-of-the-moment decision. He’d been planning it since I’d fallen asleep the night before.

He nodded. “There’s a plane waiting at the airstrip by the old American air force base. How long will it take you to get your things together?”

“That depends on what I need to bring with me,” I said, my head spinning.

“Nothing much. We won’t be going anywhere. Pack warm clothes, and I don’t imagine you’ll consider leaving without your running shoes. It will be just the two of us, along with my mother and her housekeeper.”

His. Mother.

“Matthew,” I said faintly, “I didn’t know you had a mother.”

“Everybody has a mother, Diana,” he said, turning his clear gray eyes to mine. “I’ve had two. The woman who gave birth to me and Ysabeau—the woman who made me a vampire.”

Matthew was one thing. A houseful of unfamiliar vampires was quite another. Caution about taking such a dangerous step pushed aside some of my eagerness to see the manuscript. My hesitation must have shown.

“I hadn’t thought,” he said, his voice tinged with hurt. “Of course you have no reason to trust Ysabeau. But she did assure me that you would be safe with her and Marthe.”

“If you trust them, then I do, too.” To my surprise, I meant it—in spite of the niggling worry that he’d had to ask them if they planned on taking a piece out of my neck.

“Thank you,” he said simply. Matthew’s eyes drifted to my mouth, and my blood tingled in response. “You pack, and I’ll wash up and make a few phone calls.”

When I passed by his end of the sofa, he caught my hand in his. Once again the shock of his cold skin was counteracted by an answering warmth in my own.

“You’re doing the right thing,” he murmured before he released me.

It was almost laundry day, and my bedroom was draped with dirty clothes. A rummage through the wardrobe yielded several nearly identical pairs of black pants that were clean, a few pairs of leggings, and half a dozen long-sleeved T-shirts and turtlenecks. There was a beat-up Yale duffel bag on top of it, and I jumped up and snagged the strap with one hand. The clothes all went into the old blue-and-white canvas bag, along with a few sweaters and a fleece pullover. I also chucked in sneakers, socks, and underwear, along with some old yoga clothes. I didn’t own decent pajamas and could sleep in those. Remembering Matthew’s French mother, I slipped in one presentable shirt and pair of trousers.

Matthew’s low voice floated down the hall. He talked first to Fred, then to Marcus, and then to a cab company. With the bag’s strap over my shoulder, I maneuvered myself awkwardly into the bathroom. Toothbrush, soap, shampoo, and a hairbrush all went inside, along with a hair dryer and a tube of mascara. I hardly ever wore the stuff, but on this occasion a cosmetic aid seemed a good idea.

When I was finished, I rejoined Matthew in the living room. He was thumbing through the messages on his phone, my computer case at his feet. “Is that it?” he asked, eyeing the duffel bag with surprise.

“You told me I didn’t need much.”

“Yes, but I’m not used to women listening to me when it comes to luggage. When Miriam goes away for the weekend, she packs enough to outfit the French Foreign Legion, and my mother requires multiple steamer trunks. Louisa wouldn’t have crossed the street with what you’re carrying, never mind leave the country.”

“Along with having no common sense, I’m not known for being high maintenance either.”

Matthew nodded appreciatively. “Do you have your passport?”

I pointed. “It’s in my computer bag.”

“We can go, then,” Matthew said, his eyes sweeping the rooms one last time.

“Where’s the photo?” It seemed wrong to just leave it.

“Marcus has it,” he said quickly.

“When was Marcus here?” I asked with a frown.

“While you were sleeping. Do you want me to get it back for you?” His finger hovered over a key on his phone.

“No.” I shook my head. There was no reason for me to look at it again.

Matthew took my bags and managed to get them and me down the stairs with no mishaps. A cab was waiting outside the college gates. Matthew stopped for a brief conversation with Fred. The vampire handed the porter a card, and the two men shook hands. Some deal had been struck, the particulars of which would never be disclosed to me. Matthew tucked me into the cab, and we drove for about thirty minutes, leaving the lights of Oxford behind us.

“Why didn’t we take your car?” I asked as we headed into the countryside.

“This is better,” he explained. “There’s no need to have Marcus fetch it later.”

The sway of the cab was rocking me to sleep. Leaning against Matthew’s shoulder, I dozed.

At the airport we were airborne soon after we’d had our passports checked and the pilot filed the paperwork. We sat opposite each other on couches arranged around a low table during the takeoff. I yawned every few moments, ears popping as we climbed. Once we reached cruising altitude, Matthew unsnapped his seat belt and gathered up some pillows and a blanket from a cabinet under the windows.

“We’ll be in France soon.” He propped the pillows at the end of my sofa, which was about as deep as a twin bed, and held the blanket open to cover me. “Meanwhile you should get some sleep.”

I didn’t want to sleep. The truth was, I was afraid to. That photograph was etched on the inside of my eyelids.

He crouched next to me, the blanket hanging lightly from his fingers. “What is it?”

“I don’t want to close my eyes.”

Matthew tossed all the pillows except one onto the floor. “Come here,” he said, sitting beside me and patting the fluffy white rectangle invitingly. I swung around, shimmied down the leather-covered surface, and put my head on his lap, stretching out my legs. He tossed the edge of the blanket from his right hand to his left so that it covered me in soft folds.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

“You’re welcome.” He took his fingers and touched them to his lips, then to mine. I tasted salt. “Sleep. I’ll be right here.”

I did sleep, heavy and deep with no dreams, waking only when Matthew’s cool fingers touched my face and he told me we were about to land.

“What time is it?” I asked, now thoroughly disoriented.

“It’s about eight,” he said, looking at his watch.

“Where are we?” I swung to a seated position and rooted for my seat belt.

“Outside Lyon, in the Auvergne.”

“In the center of the country?” I asked, imagining the map of France. He nodded. “Is that where you’re from?”

“I was born and reborn nearby. My home—my family’s home—is an hour or two away. We should arrive by midmorning.”

We landed in the private area of the busy regional airport and had our passports and travel documents checked by a bored-looking civil servant who snapped to attention the moment he saw Matthew’s name.

“Do you always travel this way?” It was far easier than flying a commercial airline through London’s Heathrow or Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport.

“Yes,” he said without apology or self-consciousness. “The one time I’m entirely glad that I’m a vampire and have money to burn is when I travel.”

Matthew stopped behind a Range Rover the size of Connecticut and fished a set of keys out of his pocket. He opened the back door, stowing my bags inside. The Range Rover was slightly less deluxe than his Jaguar, but what it lacked in elegance it more than made up for in heft. It was like traveling in an armored personnel carrier.

“Do you really need this much car to drive in France?” I eyed the smooth roads.

Matthew laughed. “You haven’t seen my mother’s house yet.”

We drove west through beautiful countryside, studded here and there with grand châteaus and steep mountains. Fields and vineyards stretched in all directions, and even under the steely sky the land seemed to blaze with the color of turning leaves. A sign indicated the direction of Clermont-Ferrand. That couldn’t be a coincidence, in spite of the different spelling.

Matthew kept heading west. He slowed, turned down a narrow road, and pulled to the side. He pointed off to the distance. “There,” he said. “Sept-Tours.”

In the center of rolling hills was a flattened peak dominated by a crenellated hulk of buff and rose stone. Seven smaller towers surrounded it, and a turreted gatehouse stood guard in front. This was not a pretty, fairy-tale castle made for moonlit balls. Sept-Tours was a fortress.

“That’s home?” I gasped.

“That’s home.” Matthew took his phone out of his pocket and dialed a number. “Maman? We’re almost there.”

Something was said on the other end, and the line went dead. Matthew smiled tightly and pulled back onto the road.

“She’s expecting us?” I asked, just managing to keep the tremor out of my voice.

“She is.”

“And this is all right with her?” I didn’t ask the real question—Are you sure it’s okay that you’re bringing a witch home?—but didn’t need to.

Matthew’s eyes remained fixed on the road. “Ysabeau doesn’t like surprises as much as I do,” he said lightly, turning on to something that looked like a goat track.

We drove between rows of chestnut trees, climbing until we reached Sept-Tours. Matthew steered the car between two of the seven towers and through to a paved courtyard in front of the entrance to the central structure. Parterres and gardens peeked out to the right and left, before the forest took over. The vampire parked the car.

“Ready?” he asked with a bright smile.

“As I’ll ever be,” I replied warily.

Matthew opened my car door and helped me down. Pulling at my black jacket, I looked up at the château’s imposing stone façade. The forbidding lines of the castle were nothing compared to what awaited me inside. The door swung open.

“Courage,” Matthew said, kissing me gently on the cheek.

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